“Johnny, what are you doing?”
The words, spoken close to the distracted man’s right ear, made Johnny jump and whirl around to face his father, his Colt filling his right hand so fast that both men were shocked into speechlessness. And though the weapon was swiftly lowered and slipped back into the holster almost as quickly as it had been drawn, the fact that Murdoch Lancer had looked into the eyes and down the business end of Johnny Madrid’s gun and lived to tell about it didn’t set very well with the angry man.
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?” Murdoch, the first to regain his senses, shouted furiously. Balling his trembling hands into fists, he quickly propped them upon his hips and glared at his youngest son as Johnny took a defensive stance and then dropped his chin to his chest. With the ever present hat keeping Murdoch from seeing his son’s face, the older man’s anger only worsened. “LOOK AT ME WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU, YOUNG MAN!”
Stumbling back a step when Johnny’s head raised up, Murdoch felt a frisson of fear skitter up his spine as those ice-cold blue eyes seemed to stare right through him.
“You ain’t talkin’, ol’ man,” Johnny stated in a deadly soft voice as his eyes seemed to pin his father firmly in place. “You’re yellin’ and I don’t havta stand here and listen to ya.” With that, Johnny pivoted on his booted heel and strode away without another word spoken.
Still shocked that his son had drawn down on him, Murdoch could only stand and watch Johnny walk away.
“What’s going on?” Jerking around at his eldest son’s concerned query, Murdoch’s hand strayed, for some odd reason, toward his own holstered gun on his right hip. Stopping inches short of its destination, Murdoch looked down in surprise to see the hand hovering over the butt of the weapon. When he raised tortured eyes to look at Scott, he was further surprised to see the young man striding purposefully across the yard toward the barn. His intent was obvious to Murdoch.
“Scott!” Murdoch called after Scott as his own legs finally decided that they would work after all and he hurried in his sons’ wake.
Ignoring his father’s worried call, Scott strode resolutely toward the barn where he’d seen his little brother disappear minutes earlier. Scott had come out of the house in time to see Johnny draw his weapon on their father, and though he’d only known his little brother for such a short period of time, he was just as shocked as Murdoch that Johnny had done so. Now he was determined to find out what was going on.
Striding up to the stall that contained Johnny’s new horse, strangely named Barranca, Scott found his brother studiously running a brush along the horse’s golden back.
“What was that all about, Johnny?” Scott demanded as soon as he skidded to a stop in front of the stall, his hands going to the gate latch in order to move inside with his brother.
“I wouldn’t do that, were I you,” Johnny drawled softly, even as he continued to smooth the brush over the horse’s rump. Keeping his eyes on the palomino standing quietly before him, Johnny refused to look at Scott.
Disregarding the warning, Scott slipped the latch and pulled the gate open, only to have Barranca snake his head toward Scott, the lethal-looking teeth bared. Jumping back, Scott quickly slammed the gate closed once more, keeping it between the man-eater and himself.
Glaring at the horse, Scott shuffled to the side and looked across Barranca’s back to see that Johnny had finished grooming the animal and was lifting a saddle onto his back.
“Where are you going? You can’t leave until we discuss this!” Scott ordered, his hands wrapped tightly around the top bar of the stall gate. His voice, though moderately lower than Murdoch’s angry shout earlier, was still loud and confrontational, to which both Johnny and his horse took exception.
“Ya know, you and that ol’ man are just alike,” Johnny observed as he finished tightening the cinch and then slipped Barranca’s halter off in order to slide the bridle on. “Ya both think ya gotta yammer at a man by shoutin’ to get your point across.” All this was said in a soft tone by Johnny, however he never looked at Scott in the process.
“Well…” Scott was at a loss for words. Then, the fury at what he’d seen brought all the words back in a flood and he stammered a bit before he could get his furious brain to sort them out in order to make sense of what he was trying to say. “YOU PULLED A GUN ON OUR FATHER, JOHNNY!”
“He shouldn’t have walked up on me like that,” Johnny said quietly as he looped the reins over Barranca’s head and crossed then over the pommel in preparation to leading the horse out of the stall. Taking the reins near the bit he looked up for the first time at Scott, staring at him expectantly.
“What?” Scott couldn’t help but ask when he saw that look, completely puzzled by the expression as he’d been expecting to see something closer to mortification or shame, anything but what was clearly on his brother’s face.
“Get outta the way, would ya?” Johnny said with a sad shake of his head at Scott’s denseness. “Or else I’m gonna havta run right over ya with my horse.”
Scrambling quickly out of the way, Scott watched as Johnny reached over the gate and unlatched it. Pushing the gate aside, he quickly walked Barranca out of the stall and toward the barn entry. Scott saw Johnny falter when they both looked up to see Murdoch standing, almost expectantly, in the sunlight filtering into the barn.
Vaulting into the saddle, without touching the stirrup, Johnny leaned forward and Barranca took off out of the barn as if he’d been shot. The last either older man saw of the youngest Lancer was a trail of dust being kicked up along the road leading away from the house.
“Well, that went well,” Scott said sarcastically as he joined his father in the entryway to stare at the fast disappearing dust trail.
“What’s got into that boy?” Murdoch muttered in a low growl as his eyes continued to watch the road, though Scott wasn’t so sure that his father had intended on voicing the question aloud. Choosing to ignore the mumbled question, Scott laid a commiserating hand on Murdoch’s arm and was shocked to find that his father was trembling slightly.
“Sir, are you all right?” Scott asked hesitantly, as little as he knew his younger brother, he knew his father even less and was uncertain if his concern would be well-received. Having been raised apart from the man for 25 years, Scott wasn’t certain of a number of things when it came to addressing his father. He watched Murdoch calmly, though with some trepidation, when the older man turned to look at him.
Purposefully ignoring his oldest son’s question, Murdoch looked down at the ground and then back up at the road, where, by now, even the residual dust cloud had vanished. “It’s suppertime, Scott. Best go wash up,” Murdoch rumbled quietly as he slipped his arm out from beneath Scott’s hand and strode toward the French doors leading into his private study.
Watching his father walk away, Scott felt a moment of frustration at the level of stubbornness residing in the Lancer household. Dropping his own eyes to the dusty earth beneath his feet, Scott sighed heavily and headed across the yard to the house. He hadn’t bothered telling his father that he had already washed up and that, indeed, supper was already on the table, which was the reason for him to come outside in the first place. With one last glance down the road toward where Johnny had disappeared, Scott opened the heavy oak door and stepped inside, suddenly not so hungry anymore.
Riding as if the hounds of hell were on his heels, Johnny felt as if his heart was going to pound right out of his chest. Fear, instead of the hounds of hell, was what nipped at him, leaving painful teeth marks in his soul. Before he realized what was going on, Barranca had slowed and came to a stop at the edge of the lake Johnny had found few weeks after coming to Lancer, when he’d been recuperating from a bullet wound to his back and forbidden to ride. As was the case in his short life, Johnny had ignored the doctor’s orders and as soon as no one was around, and he could stand and walk without the world reeling around him, he had saddled his horse and had taken off. He had chanced upon the lake and had visited it several times when things had started to get rough at home.
Dismounting, Johnny took the time to remove the saddle and bridle from his horse, knowing that Barranca wouldn’t stray far. Placing the tack beneath a huge oak near the water’s edge, Johnny dropped down to the ground with the saddle at his back and stared, unseeing, across the smooth as glass water.
Raising his right hand into the air before him, Johnny clenched his eyes tightly closed at seeing the appendage shaking so hard that he couldn’t have drawn his gun and shot it with any accuracy if he’d had to. It didn’t do him any good to justify, to himself, that he had drawn that gun instinctively. It was this level of self-preservation that had allowed Johnny Madrid to reach the ripe old age of 22 years, but it still didn’t set well with him that he’d drawn his weapon on his father. It had only been sheer will that had kept him from pulling that trigger, too. Just the thought of what might have been made the nausea, that had been churning in his stomach since the incident, rise up his throat and erupt violently from his mouth. Shifting onto his hands and knees as his emptied stomach cramped in an attempt to turn itself inside out, Johnny moaned softly and held his arms banded around his abdomen.
Breathing harshly, Johnny was finally able to relax enough to sit back against the saddle, though his arms stayed pressed against his protesting stomach. Leaning his head against the tree trunk behind him, he felt a cool breeze waft across his sweat-slicked face and closed his eyes as his tense muscles began to relax. However, whenever he closed his eyes, all he could see was that look in his father’s eyes when he faced down the barrel of Johnny Madrid’s Colt.
Another moan issued from Johnny’s throat as that mental picture replayed over and over in his mind. It was the same, frightened expression he’d seen countless times in the eyes of those who’d thought to call Johnny Madrid out, thinking they would be the one to finally bring the gunfighter down and only, at the last second, realized that they hadn’t been good enough after all.
Moving his arms to lay atop his drawn up knees, Johnny dropped his forehead down onto his arms and shook his head as his heart continued to pound hard in his chest.
Johnny knew fear, at 22 he was no stranger to the emotion. However, over the years the young man had learned, sometimes the hard way, that to show fear could be the beginning of his demise. He’d, unfortunately, learned that hard lesson at the tender age of five, when his mother’s “friend” had beaten the young boy soundly for daring to protest the man’s harsh treatment of his mother. Not a stupid child by any means, Johnny had recovered after his mother had spirited them away in the middle of the night, and had learned how to avoid the men his mother brought to the houses, or hovels, where they lived. He’d never known a true home, not that he could ever remember, and his coming to Lancer and falling in love with the lush green pastures and rolling hillsides had been the best thing to ever happen to him in his short life. Now, after what he had done, he wasn’t so sure that he would be welcome anymore.
Barranca stomped a hoof to ward off a horsefly and dipped his mouth into the water at the lake’s edge to take a drink, his white-blond tail swishing to brush away the annoying pests surrounding him. Johnny raised his head and watched the golden horse as he lifted a hoof and then dropped it down, spraying the water up into the air and around him. Feeling the coolness of the water against his heated skin, the horse waded another few feet into the shallow lake and began pawing at the cool water in earnest, his eyes closed in near ecstasy as the water splashed all over his heated body. Johnny couldn’t help but smile at his horse’s antics, though there was a definite sadness in his eyes that soon had the smile slipping from his lips as he realized that Murdoch would probably demand the horse back before telling Johnny to hit the road. For a brief moment Johnny actually considered taking off with Barranca, but he wasn’t so sure that his father wouldn’t send the law after him as a horse thief.
Tired of splashing in the water, Barranca sloshed his way out of the lake and then, like a huge dog, shook the remaining water from his body. Johnny could have sworn he heard the horse laugh as he ambled off to graze on a patch of lush, green grass on the other side of the oak tree where Johnny sat. Swiping a hand down his waterlogged face, Johnny shook the moisture from his hand and then wiped his hand dry on his shirt front.
The pounding of hooves gained Johnny’s attention and the dark-haired man slowly stood to his feet, shielding his eyes from the setting sun as he looked toward the west where the noise originated. He hadn’t lived on Lancer long, but was fairly certain who would be trailing him and again that sad smile crossed his lips before he settled back down on the ground to wait.
Pulling his horse to a halt near Johnny, Scott cautiously dismounted, keeping the large animal between himself and his brother.
“I ain’t gonna shoot ya, Boston,” Johnny muttered in irritation as he looked up to see what his brother was doing.
“I know,” Scott said quietly as he removed a flask of whisky from his saddlebags before tying his horse’s reins to a low bush near where Barranca was grazing. He walked over to settle on the ground beside Johnny, offering the bottle to him.
“Nah,” Johnny told him with a shake of his head. He knew that the last thing he needed on his upset stomach was alcohol, especially since the organ was still roiling and cramping. Leaning his head back against the tree and looking sideways at his disappointed brother, Johnny grinned softly. “Now, if you’d thought to bring me tequila…”
Scott grinned and jumped to his feet. He then hurried over to rummage through his saddlebags once more and, to Johnny’s shock, triumphantly held up an identical flask, presumably filled with Johnny’s preferred alcohol.
“I aim to please,” Scott informed his brother as he walked back over to sit on the ground beside Johnny with both bottles in his hand, holding the tequila out toward Johnny. “Here’s your poison.”
Taking the flask from his brother, Johnny smiled crookedly at Scott, and something in his racing heart gave a twinge at the idea that this veritable stranger knew him so well. Holding the bottle between his hands, Johnny simply stared at it for a long time as he contemplated this fact.
“Well, aren’t you going to join me?” Scott asked inquisitively as he twisted the cap off his flask and raised the bottle as if in toast.
“Scott?” Johnny’s soft voice sounded puzzled and Scott instantly dropped his pretense of jocularity as he recapped the flask and set it aside.
“Yes, Johnny?” He asked just as quietly, his blue-gray eyes watching Johnny as the younger man stared, unseeing, at the flask in his hands.
“I didn’t mean to draw on the old man,” came the whisper-soft answer. “H-He should know… He shouldn’t just walk up behind…” Johnny dropped his head and seemed to be hugging the flask to his chest, though he had actually wrapped his arms tightly around his quivering body. “I-I coulda killed him.” The last was said with such despair that Scott instinctively reached out and wrapped both arms around his devastated brother.
At first Johnny’s body tensed, as if he would fight the hold, and then he leaned into the embrace, his forehead pressing hard against Scott’s shoulder. Running soothing hands up and down Johnny’s back, Scott didn’t know what to say to the distraught man, he just knew that his brother needed him and he was going to be there for him, come hell or high water. It was what he’d always dreamed of doing, as a big brother. His arms tightened slightly when Johnny suddenly shifted as if just realizing that Scott was, in effect, hugging him to his chest.
“Hey, come on, Johnny,” Scott crooned softly. “Are you going to cheat me out of twenty-two years of coddling my baby brother?” Having known what his words would do, Scott was grinning broadly when Johnny managed to wrest himself out of his brother’s grasp to look up at him.
“Idiot,” Johnny growled as he dropped his eyes in awkwardness, though Scott had caught the twinkle in the blue depths before they were hooded by those ridiculously long, lush eyelashes.
“Takes one to know one,” Scott quipped right back as he shifted around a bit, trying to get comfortable, and then simply leaned a shoulder against Johnny’s chest as the dark-haired man settled back against the tree again. Crossing his arms over his chest, Scott studied the flask Johnny still held tightly in his hands. It got quiet for a moment, each man lost in his own thoughts, and then Scott sighed. “You know, it’s not always going to be this difficult. Maybe you should talk to Murdoch and explain things to him.”
“Yeah?” Johnny whispered as he relaxed enough to set the tequila aside. Drawing up his knees again, he propped his right arm atop them and gazed across the lake at a duck paddling lazily along the opposite shoreline. Something deep within him wanted desperately to lift his left arm and slip it casually around Scott’s chest where the older man was leaning against him, but he had never been this close to another man before without having to fight for his life, and he wasn’t sure what Scott would think. His heart set to beating rapidly within his chest and he was sure that Scott could feel it beneath his shoulder, but the blond man didn’t say a word.
“Sure is peaceful here,” Scott said much later as the sun settled behind a stand of trees to the west and the air turned chilly near the water.
“Yeah. Pretty, but cold,” Johnny agreed quietly as he reveled in the sudden understanding that he liked sharing this closeness with his brother and actually felt comfortable. Then Scott unexpectedly sat upright before getting to his feet, his right hand outstretched toward his brother.
“Cold, indeed.” Wiggling his fingers as if he were impatient, Scott grinned down at his confused brother. “Come on! Last one home has to muck out the stalls tomorrow!”
With that, Scott leaned down, grabbed hold of Johnny’s left wrist and hauled him unceremoniously to his feet. Standing before the shorter man only long enough to make sure he had his balance, the blond quickly turned on his heels and bolted for the horses, slowing down only when he saw that he’d spooked them at his fast-paced approach.
“HEY! That’s not fair!” Johnny called out as Scott managed to untie his horse’s reins from the bush and then leap into the saddle. “Barranca’s not even saddled!”
“Too bad!” Scott stated over his shoulder as he turned his mount around. He knew that with Barranca’s speed, if Johnny hadn’t had to saddle him, there was no way Scott and his horse would stand a chance. “See ya back at the barn!”
Scrambling toward Barranca with the heavy saddle slung over his shoulder, Johnny couldn’t help the face-splitting grin that bloomed there at his normally so stoic brother’s antics. Despite the need to hurry, Johnny wasn’t to be rushed as he carefully checked the underside of the saddle for any burrs or sticks before placing it upon the blanket he’d already set on Barranca’s back. Shaking his head as he tightened the cinch, Johnny flipped the stirrup back into place and vaulted into the saddle with a new, evil grin replacing the happy one there only moments earlier.
He knew a shortcut to the hacienda and though he was aware that Scott was right in that he had to have a long discussion with their father, Johnny also knew that Scott would be mucking stalls first thing in the morning.
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