The livery owner was taking his sweet time getting the horses so Johnny shifted lower in his seat. His head was frying pan big, a pulsing throb behind his left eye. Squinting at the horizon, it was no more than a blue brushstroke, pale as water, with a fat circle of sun coming up over the hills. Stretching out, he crossed his ankles, relaxed back against the stable door and wondered why he ever thought shooting pool was a good thing.
The town of Magenta had a good livery, an honest bank (as far as he could tell) and a passable hotel that was part and parcel of a hell-bent saloon. He should've known better but all it took was a long dusty day in the saddle and one look from Scott and they were both through the swinging doors. Right away, he noticed the pool table in a side room. Maybe it was the trail dust in his eyes that made him miss the cowboy in the corner.
By way of introductions, the cowboy was Joss Hardin. Bull-big, he'd come out of his corner with a coyote smile, a glass half full of beer and second pool cue when Johnny sidled up to the table.
Hardin took his time chalking his cue, picked up some sandy dirt from between his booted feet and dusted his broad hands with it. Offered Johnny the break. The two of them circled the table, and each other, for almost two hours. Things got complicated when Johnny leaned low over the felt to sink the shot he'd been trifling with all evening.
Hardin called him on the swindle, though it was the pot calling the kettle black. Johnny had just gotten there first.
He knew enough about fighting to fill one of those good sized books on Murdoch's shelves. But when the saloon quieted down and a friend of Hardin's slithered out of the shadows, he thought maybe his mouth would be the better weapon.
They weren't in a talkin' mood.
He almost enjoyed the quick punch to the belly of the friend, but Hardin's pool cue came down on the side of his head and the saloon whited out. Scott, more bleary-eyed than when they arrived, hustled between them. He took one right hook to the cheek then blocked the cowboy's fat fist and popped him on the jaw with a surprise left. Hardin didn't stand a chance, and a few minutes later he spat teeth onto the wooden floorboards of the saloon while Scott rubbed his bruised knuckles and watched him, making sure he'd stay down.
Yeah, playing pool might not have been the best the idea he had last night.
The livery owner walked out of the stable leading their horses, cracking a second wide yawn when he reached the hitching post. He cricked his neck to the side the same way a robin spies a fat worm left over from the rain and gave Johnny the eye.
"You boys had a rip roaring time, all right. Yessir, talk of the town. Wish I could've been there. It's not every day Joss Hardin gets a comeuppance."
Trying to avoid opening his eyes too wide, Johnny nodded.
"Nice to have a friend to help out though. A single man would've been hard pressed, because it's not like any of that bunch at the saloon would be of any use."
It cut through the haze in his head. "Friend?"
The man waggled the reins of Scott's horse.
"No, he's my brother."
He waited for the look of surprised confusion. It wasn't long. It had taken Johnny a lot longer to get used to the idea, especially one with plaid pants and ruffles.
"Oh, well. Sorry. Didn't make the connection."
Johnny shrugged and paid the man. Three months ago he didn't even know he had a brother. But how much did he know about Scott anyway? Sure, it was easy to fight for something big like Lancer, especially when you were part owner. But the quick and dirty ones? He'd had his ribs caved in more than once because his shooting compadres didn't step in to help. Those days where he had to rely on only himself—they could sure wear a man down. Something inside him wheeled around and pulled up, trying to make sense of what really happened last night when Scott jumped in. It felt like relief?
The morning sun heated the air and it felt like a charge through his shirt. He soaked it up.
Scott made his way down the boardwalk from the bank. "The transactions are all done. I see you have the horses, are we all set?"
"Did you pay the hotel clerk? I told her you'd be back."
"You have money, why didn't you pay her on the way over here?"
Johnny turned to face the street, trying to beat down the smile at the corners of his lips.
"Dammit, Johnny. I suppose you want me to get your saddlebags, too. I don't…"
"How is it?"
Scott changed tack in less than second. He gingerly felt his cheek, managing a crooked half smile that looked like it stung. "Scaring the locals."
Sometimes it was too easy to bait the bear. "I guess it'll be a while before the pretty girls in Green River wanna see your face, at that. So, you gonna go pay? I already got my saddlebags."
The look on Scott's face was worth it. He made a little noise of disgust and walked away.
He was about to sit down again when a high-pitched shriek came from the alley and he whirled around, gun raised automatically. Two boys were tearing at each other, one wearing blue flannel and the other a hand-me-down brown. They had the same set of faces, the only difference was age and hair color. And right now the younger towhead was getting pummeled. Couldn't have been more than two years apart, and they were grappling like a pair of clumsy cubs.
Johnny eyed them from his lean against the stable door. The wrestling match was awkward—all headlocks and thrown elbows, misplaced knees. He caught and held on to a stray thought until it solidified: he and Scott would've done it better, if they'd had the chance.
As it was, by the time Johnny had turned ten, it was only the luckiest of punches thrown by Matias that got past his fists. They'd bare-knuckled each other like rodeo workers. If Mama's cry of dismay didn't stop them, one of her clips-and those rattled the skull-was the usual end to such things. It was always Johnny's collar that found its way into Mama's hand, too. Matias, standing off to the side with fingers pressed to his bruised cheek, would smile with the innocence of angels.
Blue Flannel had the younger one pinned in the dirt, and Johnny heard the words panted out, strained with the effort of holding down the wriggly towhead.
"Yer yellow! Say it," he growled, slapping at his brother's face.
"No! Get off!" The kid's voice came out in a wheeze when a knee was shoved into his chest.
"Only when you say it."
Johnny shook his head, knew what was coming.
"Okay, okay," came the shout. "Yer yellow!"
Blue Flannel started to punch his brother in earnest and the scene turned into a blur of arms and legs and grunts and yells. It was like a couple of wild pigs had been let loose in the alleyway.
The younger one finally broke free and scrambled for the safety of the street, but his brother caught him in a tackle that rolled them both near the hitching post. Johnny stood up straight and lowered his voice.
"Stay away from the horses."
They came up together, scowling at him. A female voice from the boardwalk stopped them in their tracks.
It didn't sound like it was the first time that name had been barked out in frustration. Maybe not even that morning. He smiled as he turned, pointing towards the boys.
"It's alright, Ma'am. They're alright."
She was a large woman, not so much fat as tall and sturdy, cheekbones all sharp angles. Same build of nose as the boys. But her mouth had thinned out to a single line. "Go to the house."
The protests were swift and sharp, in chorus. "No, Ma!"
"Now." The last word was like the crack of a gunshot, and brought a flush to the older boy's cheek.
The lines around the woman's eyes tightened. He remembered that look. After countless brawls with Matias, he'd done his mother the same way more than a few times. He doubted her punishment held a candle to the kind of disappointment that ran hand in hand with Mama's slaps, though.
Johnny saw her eyes narrow, sweep over him in assessment then dismiss him just as easy. She gathered up the towhead and marched off.
A few minutes later, Scott tapped him roughly in the shoulder with the money pouch from the bank, juggling saddlebags and his blood-stained jacket.
"We've just priced ourselves out of this town. Four more dollars to our tally after all the damages in the saloon. She added something called a ruffian tax, in honor of our little adventure." He looked back at the hotel, his face pinched with a genuine irritation. "I think she made it up on the spot. Are we ready to leave, or is there something else I have to pay for?"
"You think Murdoch'll notice?"
"About the thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents missing from the sale? I'm almost positive."
He pointed to Scott's face. "You know what I'm talking about."
He was beginning to know that grin well, the small one his brother wore the day when he unpacked his ruffles. He'd seen it often since then and was looking at it now.
"It would be a difficult thing to miss, Johnny. Amongst other things."
Scott's eyebrows pulled up and his head cocked to the side. "We can always take the long way home. I hear Mexico is nice this time of year."
Johnny shook his head and chuckled, swinging up on Barranca. He drifted into step beside his brother, stirrups almost touching. The sun felt like a warm hand on his back. It was the kind of feeling he got when he stepped inside after a long day in the pounding rain. Like he didn't know how deep the cold had sunk into his bones, until it left. And he knew—Dios—he just knew there'd be cold times ahead. But right now, on the trail for home and a beautiful morning on the way, he was warm.
"Where'd you learn to fight like that?"
Scott gave a throaty laugh. "You don't think being the grandson of Harlan Garrett has its share of disadvantages? It's a long story involving the cousin of a conductor's wife, a moderate amount of scotch and a misplaced bill of sale."
Johnny smiled slowly. "I got time."