Invitation to Dance - Expanded Version
(Missing scenes from “Lawman”)
“You’re sure about this? About Evans?” Scott asked.
Johnny scuffed the rug one more time. “Something’s not right,” he replied, glancing out the window to where the guardhouse was located just across the yard, where Al Evans was held in the cell within.
His brother’s appearance in Scott’s bedroom was not unexpected; that first conversation on the morning after their arrival at Lancer had started it. Here they were far enough away to engage in quiet discussions between themselves about a myriad of things – the operations of the ranch, the feelings of their father, some of their own pasts. Scott liked the comfortableness growing between them, the easy beginnings of friendship – and trust. So when the knock came at his door, he welcomed it again, for he knew that the lawman Barker and his prisoner Evans – a man from Johnny’s gunfighter past – had unsettled his brother.
“Do you think Evans is telling the truth?” Scott asked quietly, watching the shift of his brother’s posture and not liking the set to the shoulders and the firm weight upon the heels. It reminded him too much of Madrid, of that day when Stryker gave hell to the ranch. The day he’d almost lost the brother he’d barely begin to know.
“I don’t trust Barker, or his deputies,” Johnny responded.
Scott let off a half-smile. “That’s not what I asked,” he pointed out.
Johnny fidgeted, sliding one finger across the edge of Scott’s bureau and touching each item in turn – the carved wooden case, the silver inlaid brush and comb, the photograph, the rearing horse figurine. This last he picked up and examined, tanned hands caressing the smooth china. He turned to pace about the room, the figure secure in his grasp, seemingly needing to hold onto, something that would ground him. “Me and Evans…”
Scott held back his quick sigh of consternation. His brother was going to use old loyalty as a reason to side with the outlaw now residing in the Lancer guardhouse. “Maybe he’s changed,” Scott offered to his sibling.
Johnny looked quickly up, his jaw tensing. “What if he was someone you knew?” he countered in that low voice of challenge. “One of your cavalry troopers, or one of your Boston friends?”
Now Scott glanced down. True enough – he’d probably be willing to believe some of those men before asking any questions. But not all of them. “How well did you know the man?” he asked, bringing his gaze back up.
Too non-committal, Scott thought. But he was oddly heartened by Johnny’s conflict; his brother was trying to reconcile his past with his present. But he wasn’t ready for his older brother’s advice. And as hard as it was to watch him struggle with himself, Scott knew he could not step in, as he wanted to do. Not yet, not this time. “Be careful, Brother,” he only said, moving to his dresser to retrieve a fresh shirt.
“It’s just a ride to Sacramento,” Johnny shrugged. Scott watched as he carefully returned the figurine to its proper place and position on the bureau and then turned back to the doorway.
“Maybe,” Scott said, removing a shirt and laying it, still folded, on the bed. He straightened, not quite sure of the reaction he was next going to receive. “But who’s going to Sacramento, Johnny Lancer or Johnny Madrid?”
Immediate silence washed across the room, hovered and held.
“Scott…” Johnny tucked his hands into the back of his waistband and dropped his gaze to the floor. His voice, when it returned, was strained. “What sort of question is that?”
Scott crossed the room and captured the struggling blue gaze with his own concerned one. “You can still change your mind…”
Johnny pressed his lips together; a muscle flickered in his cheek. “Evans might be guilty,” he allowed. “But he deserves to get to Sacramento and see it through.” He lightly punched Scott on the arm and grinned, though it was stiff. “Don’t be so worried – I know what I’m doing. You just take care of things here, take care of the old man and Teresa while I’m gone.”
“I could go with you…” It came out quickly, easily, and heartfelt.
“Nah. Murdoch would never let you do that – he’s already steamed because he’ll be down a man. Besides, if you go he won’t have anyone to bark at.”
Still Scott hesitated, the thoughts ready on his lips, the arguments all in place, just waiting for an invitation to speak them.
Johnny frowned at him. “I have to do this, Scott.” Determination returned to his features. “You know…”
Yes, Scott knew. Evans – and the lawman Barker – was bringing out the Madrid side of his brother, as much as he was trying to hold it back. Just like he’d struggled with Stryker, and Wes. Trying to keep his past from running off with his future.
Trying to make himself more Lancer than Madrid.
Scott’s hand went to Johnny’s arm and issued a touch of concern. “Just be careful, then,” he counseled, knowing he could not say any more about it. But he did not let go until Johnny nodded back. “Going to change for the social?” he then asked.
Johnny’s lips remained down; the turn of subject didn’t please his brother any more than the initial conversation had. “Don’t feel much like dancing,” he replied.
“Murdoch will be--”
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny interrupted. “He’ll be expecting me there. I’ll be around.”
Any of the ladies present, including Teresa, would be thrilled to take a turn in his brother’s arms, Scott knew. But he also knew that Johnny wasn’t yet fully comfortable outside this little family of theirs – and sometimes not even within. Still, it wasn’t an outright refusal to be there. And it was a decision made by Johnny Lancer, and not Johnny Madrid.
You’re a good man, Brother, Scott told him silently, turning again to the armoire. Dancing might not be so hard, if you give it a chance.
At least he hadn’t said I-told-you-so.
Johnny had half-expected it from his brother – or maybe he wanted to hear it since he knew he deserved it. But there’d been no skepticism in Scott’s eyes, only concern filling the deep blue gaze as he’d silently watched and listened to the conversation taking place between Murdoch and Barker. From behind the cell door of the guardhouse, Johnny had watched and listened, too. And he didn’t like what he’d seen or heard, so much so that his belly was knotted tight and the urge to flee was all but choking him. Murdoch was making assurances that he couldn’t hold himself to, and Barker – Barker was blustering loudly about Johnny’s innocence. But the facts remained; one deputy was dead, Evans was gone, and Johnny had been found at the scene. It was all so neatly presented – too neatly, it seemed to Johnny. And, he had hoped, to Scott as well. His brother had been firmly silent but acutely observant throughout the exchange, and that quietude had helped to soothe the jitters swarming through Johnny.
The question that had been lurking about his mind came out in the first seconds he and his brother were alone.
“Hey, Scott…you thinking what I’m thinking?”
It had been Madrid rather than Lancer speaking, although it was Johnny Lancer standing behind the door of the guardhouse cell with a murder allegation hanging over him. That sort of trouble would kick any man’s self-preservation into action. Yet as he’d watched Scott staring after Barker’s retreating form, his brother’s clear profile reflecting his consideration of Johnny’s thoughts, Madrid slid aside and left Johnny Lancer standing there feeling exposed and uncertain. Well, there wasn’t much Madrid could do here. Hell, there wasn’t much for Johnny Lancer to do either, except hope that his brother had arrived at the same conclusions about this incident. And there was a lot of calculating going on behind that composed face of Scott’s, Johnny knew. His gut had twisted again, waiting for his brother’s response.
It didn’t take long. Scott had straightened and uncrossed his long arms, his nod barely perceptible in the gloom of the guardhouse. “Don’t trust Barker,” he’d affirmed to Johnny as their eyes met.
Don’t trust Barker. Not for a second. But Johnny did trust his brother. Scott could do what Johnny could not – and had not – done: follow Barker. And Scott could trail Evans as well. The truth was somewhere between the two of them and Scott would find it; he had a knack for gaining information using that quiet, confident way of his. It was Scott, and no one else that Johnny would so intimately rely upon. Scott, who knew how he struggled with Madrid and his past, who wasn’t afraid to reach through Madrid to find Johnny Lancer, despite all the rebuffs. Murdoch, while trying to be helpful, was just too close to his old friend to see the truth. And Murdoch didn’t quite know how to handle Madrid, not yet. And so Johnny had stared off after Scott, that trust riding on his brother’s perfectly straight shoulders, and settled down to wait. Patience, however, was not an overly close friend of his, and as the hours wore on he had felt more and more trapped.
Johnny spit out the name as he now paced the cell again. Al Evans had been a lying snake, looking to save his neck from a noose and drawing Johnny in on platitudes of friendship. Johnny kicked the bunk, jumbling the blankets. He’d trusted Evans over Barker, using instinct too old to be reliable – he should have known better. He should have listened to the others, to Scott, especially. Instead, he’d reverted to past loyalties and welcomed the return of Madrid – and it had all gone wrong. He’d been right to distrust Barker, of that he was sure. But his feelings about Evans’ fate had been skewed by Madrid’s insistent voice. Evans likely had a gun now, and if he’d headed for the hills he would be able to hunker down and pick off any man coming after him. And Murdoch had said that Scott was out with that posse…
Twice now, Johnny thought, worrying the cramped space. Twice that Scott had willingly acted in his favor, without even being asked. The first time had been with that trouble with Stryker, and now with this mess over Evans and Barker. Three times if you counted that day when Pardee had overrun the ranch and plugged Johnny with a bullet. Scott was making a habit of coming through for his brother, stepping in to right all the things that had gone wrong because Johnny had let Madrid take over where Johnny Lancer should have been in control. And it was clear now to Johnny that he had to decide just when Madrid could appear, if at all. But when Scott had brought it up last night, what had made him cling to Madrid then?
Well, he’d already made one decision with Johnny Lancer in mind. When Murdoch had offered him a chance to run he had flat out refused, and said it without a heartbeat of Madrid’s presence. Because Madrid did not have a father – or a brother. He did not have a home, a place to work and live, a place to call his. Madrid was a loner, and alone. It had been right to refuse that invitation, and judging by the look on his father’s face, Murdoch had agreed as well.
He looked about the four solidly built walls that had hemmed him in for hours now, and sighed deeply. The enclosed space had the same effect on him that it always did. It forced him to think – hard. And this time his thinking had been about Madrid, and where he belonged.
“Should’ve danced,” he said ruefully to himself, whirling to sit back on the rumpled bunk. Or at least watched. He could have kept an eye on Barker if he’d been in the courtyard during that social. Instead he’d ambled about the yard, feeling half Lancer and half Madrid, while someone had shot the deputy, Briggs, dead. That allowed Evans, already desperate, to escape by some means and Johnny to blunder right into the scene. Tomkins, the other deputy, had supposedly appeared just as he’d regained consciousness. Any of the three lawmen could have thrown in with Evans, Johnny supposed, if there was reason enough. Johnny figured Barker had a big enough reason, especially since the old sheriff no longer had an invitation to own part of Lancer. And that made Barker as desperate as Evans. And two desperate men often smelled – and acted – the same. Guilty.
He looked about the small space again, then hung his head at his helplessness. “Should’ve danced,” he said again, closing his eyes.
Brightness blazed through him, concentrated and narrowed a beam of energy toward that lump on the side of his head. The accompanying pain from the assault pulsed back up behind his eyes while a runner squirreled down to his gut and made it clench. He thought he was going to explode in all directions.
“Come now, Mister Scott,” called a distantly familiar voice. “Stay awake. You all right now?”
Scott tried to reach up and push the pain away, but fire erupted high on the underside of his arm and streaked down past the elbow, pinning him into place. So he lay there and tried to breathe normally while cool hands worked over him, easing something under his shirt to press against the wound, parting his hair and cradling that tender spot, pressing – he yelped and got his eyes fully open.
Frank’s dark face peered down at him. “Not too fast, now,” the vaquero counseled as Scott shifted and tried to bring himself upright.
His memory snapped back into place. “Evans…” Scott rammed his left fist over one eye. But he was too late; his vision rippled and his gut lurched. “Dammit…”
“Mr. Lancer and Mr. Barker are looking for him now,” Frank told him.
“No.” Scott heaved himself forward and slipped. The pain bit hard; he found himself in Frank’s arms. “Barker…”
The gunshot jerked him to his knees. He crawled up over Frank and scrabbled past a collection of rocks he’d been nestled against. His hand reached for his Colt, injured muscles burning, while other fingers wiped at eyes smarting from the instant sunlight. But the weapon was gone, likely lost in his fall. Frank had already drawn his gun, ready to defend both his bosses against trouble. Even unarmed, Scott launched himself forward again.
“Careful,” Frank grunted behind him, catching his elbow as he wavered.
The vaquero stepped ahead, presenting himself as a necessary target, while Scott rocked to a halt in the small clearing, trying to ascertain what was happening. But it was quiet – and over. Murdoch, some yards above them on the rock-strewn incline, was holstering his gun. Below him stood Barker with a rifle, but the tip was already drooping toward the ground. Scott’s gaze swung to the heap of clothing on the ground beyond – Evans, or what was left of him.
“Damn,” he sighed. Without Evans, there was only Barker’s side of the story to tell.
Murdoch made his way to level ground. “Take his guns,” he called to Frank, gesturing toward Barker. He hurried to Scott, his face grim. “Son, are you all right?” His large hands reached for Scott’s good arm, steadied him.
Scott allowed a single nod in acceptance of the support. “Did Barker confess?”
“Not exactly.” Murdoch’s eyes roved over him, settled on Scott’s head. “You’re bleeding here,” he softly declared, fingers sweeping a space above Scott’s ear.
Scott eased away, but the touch had set off a new maelstrom of nausea that threatened to cut him in half. “What did Barker say, then?” he got out, grateful for Murdoch’s continued grasp on his arm.
“He said a lot of things.” Murdoch’s lips tightened into a line. “Johnny was right about him…”
Scott glanced at Barker, but the lawman was standing slumped, staring at the ground. “Did he shoot Evans?”
Scott swore and looked over at the body sprawled in the dust. “We needed Evans to clear Johnny.”
“I know – I know.” Murdoch followed his gaze. “Joe asked me walk away…I’m not sure it’s enough to use against him…” He shook his head, still staring at Barker.
Scott straightened; he thought he saw... He squinted at the broken form again, then moved to it.
“He’s still alive. Murdoch.”
His father looked up, stared seemingly through him.
“Forget Barker,” Scott called sharply, reaching the outlaw. “Evans is still alive.”
Murdoch frowned, then approached, his gait stiff, his shoulders taut. But as he saw Evans shift, he lengthened his stride and quickly covered the distance.
Evans was somehow alive, but barely. The outlaw was breathing brokenly though blood that streamed from his nose and mouth. Scott set his jaw at the all too familiar sight from his past and knew there wasn’t much time for the man. Carefully he lowered one knee to the ground and leaned upon it, shading the smashed face from the lowering sun. Evans blinked slowly at him, eyes already glazed.
“Did you kill the deputy?” Scott asked him as a footfall sounded behind him – Murdoch, his large shadow looming over them.
“Y – yes.” The admission came out as a hiss. Murdoch’s hand came to rest onto Scott’s shoulder; the fingers were trembling.
“Who helped you get away?”
Evans’ eyes rolled; he spit blood but managed, “Lawman…Barker.” Murdoch’s grip tightened, fierce and painful.
Scott’s own fingers curled tight into the grass beside the dying man, loathing for Barker competing with the nausea already churning in him. But he had to hear it all, for Johnny’s sake – for Johnny’s life. “Why?”
“Money,” Evans pushed out on a gurgling breath. “Five – Five thous…I – I have. Barker – he needed.” He rattled. “Johnny,” he suddenly said clearly. His lips twisted; he got his head up off the ground. More blood streamed, dark and shiny, the coppery smell cloying in the heat. “Tell him – glad he found family. ‘S good…” He gasped hard, strained, shuddered – and let go.
Scott sighed and closed his eyes for a long moment, allowing himself to feel nothing but the pains in his arm and head, the heat from the sun upon his back. He absorbed the sensations for a minute more, shoring up his relief, then slowly pushed himself to his feet. He half-turned to Murdoch, saw the clenched jaw and the burning gaze.
“You heard?” Scott asked him.
Murdoch nodded once and eyed Barker standing silently in Frank’s custody. “He saved my life,” he said, gesturing to the man.
“Did he?” Scott demanded quietly. “Or was he trying to safe himself? He was willing to let Johnny hang, just to line his own pockets. With money from you or Evans – it didn’t matter to him,” Scott rebuked. “It was just about the money.”
Murdoch’s back stiffened and his shoulders went up. “Joe wanted…” he started then stopped. His gaze dropped to the dirt. “Johnny,” he murmured. “He – I…” He clamped his lips together.
Scott stepped up to him, the scrubby grass crackling under his boots, heightening a fresh little jiggling inside him. “Is Johnny all right?” he asked his father.
“Joe said…I offered him a chance to run,” Murdoch answered in a raw tone. He dropped his gaze. “I was afraid,” he whispered. “Of losing him, so soon…I thought--” He stopped speaking, turned away. “I didn’t want him to die.”
Scott took a breath over his furiously pounding head. Johnny, already struggling against his past, and Murdoch had all but given him the key to that door. Invitations coming on the heels of each other, one to leave Madrid behind, one to bring him back. A dance between the past and the present. Johnny’s face filtered into Scott’s mind, the blue eyes of last night so full of conflict as they warred between Madrid and Lancer, and of today so deep with trust. Johnny had been given his invitation – to run or stand firm…
“He didn’t go, did he?” Scott softly prodded.
Murdoch’s head lifted, confusion running across his face. “How did you know?”
Good choice, Brother.
Scott managed a smile, though his head and his arm were throbbing in unison, and the nausea was threatening again. “Let’s go home,” he said to his father.
He heard the urgent call again – Isidro. Johnny scrambled up off the bunk.
The older man appeared at the cell door. “They’re back,” he said breathlessly.
Johnny’s heart jolted inside his chest. “Everyone? Scott?”
“Sí.” Isidro tugged the bolt back and yanked the cell door open. “The patron said to let you out.”
“Gracias, amigo.” Johnny squeezed his arm.
He burst into the yard, squinting in the welcome glare of the afternoon sunlight. The posse was still dismounting, boots and hooves stirring up clouds of shimmering dust, murmured voices humming in the air above that. Johnny ran to them, fleetingly delighted by the fresh taste of freedom and the welcome nods of the men. His eyes roved over the group and spied the tall figure of his father. Murdoch, his face lined and weary looking, caught his eye, then turned back to a still mounted Barker. Johnny kept going, looking for his brother – and not finding him.
His gaze raked over the group, dull with dust, indiscernible from one another. Where…? Frantically Johnny tore into them, shoving them aside. His brother’s name bubbled out over his lips. A few men pointed, but still he couldn’t see. Dammit, where--?
There. A glimpse of fair hair, a slumped form dropping from the saddle, a pale face following…
“Scott!” He caught his brother, held him. “Hey,” he demanded softly, seeing the blood. “Scott, what happened?” His hands ran quickly over his sibling, felt the emerging fever, then gathered at the bloody tear in the shirt – bullet made…
“Got shot,” Frank confirmed, coming up to them. “Lump on his head needs tending.”
But Johnny’s fingers were already working into the bloodied section of his brother’s hair to find the contusion. “Who did this – Evans? Or Barker? Dammit, I’ll…”
“Evans is dead,” Scott wearily told him with a half-gesture to the body tied across the saddle beyond them. “Ouch, watch it…” He sagged a little and Johnny stumbled under the unexpected shift of weight.
“Easy – lean on me.” Johnny gave Evans a look, but felt nothing for the man. He resumed examining the large raw bump marring his brother’s scalp. “Who killed him?” he asked quietly.
“Barker. Evans confessed before he died – he had money and offered it to Joe.” Scott tried to straighten, almost made it, but this time Johnny was ready to catch him. “Get me inside, would you?” he asked Johnny. “Before Teresa…”
But Teresa was already there, pushing her way through men and horses, grabbing for Scott, commanding that he be led to his room, calling for someone to find Arturo to dig another bullet out of a Lancer.
Johnny followed her inside and steered his brother toward the stairs. Scott’s weight was heavy on his frame, and it settled with a stab of guilt. His brother, shot again because of trouble that had appeared in the name of Madrid. Shot, Johnny thought with painful gratitude, because he could see Johnny Lancer somewhere within Johnny Madrid’s shadow. Even now as he met his brother’s gaze he saw the ever-quiet confidence and belief there. Madrid had no brother, he reminded himself. Madrid had no family. Madrid had no one willing to fight for him.
“Evans told me to tell you…” Scott wobbled and Johnny tightened his hold.
“Not now,” he counseled. “Here’s the first step…”
Scott lifted his foot. “He said he was glad you found family.”
Family – yes. Madrid needed no family, but Johnny Lancer sure did. And maybe they needed him, too, not just to help run this ranch, but to be a son and a brother. To give back what they had already so generously given to him. Evans’ dusty, broken body flitted through his mind. He could have been like that, any number of times. Evans didn’t think he had changed, but he had in coming here, staying here. Or maybe Evans had just realized it too late. That was the difference, he thought, adjusting his grip as Scott seemed to weaken again. Evans had been desperate, but Johnny Lancer, even while jailed on his own ranch, had not.
“Murdoch – he didn’t understand what he was asking of you.” Scott closed his eyes and seemed to pale even more, but then let off a thin smile when Johnny eased in and propped him on a steady shoulder.
So he knew about the old man’s offer. “Guess I can’t blame him,” Johnny said. “I haven’t given him too many reasons for thinking I was staying.” <<Or you, either, Brother,>> he thought, remembering the conversation from only last night.
“But now you have.”
Johnny did not reply. He supposed Scott was right; he hadn’t run, hadn’t listened to Madrid. And Johnny Lancer’s voice was becoming more familiar to his ears – and his thoughts. That voice had been there last night, if he’d only listened to it. And it was here today, even now, stronger than before.
Two more stairs and they were turning down the hallway to Scott’s room. Teresa and Maria were already there, flinging back the coverlet and pouring water, taking charge in their efficient way.
“So tell me,” Scott murmured as Johnny eased him down onto the mattress and gently cradled his dirty, bloodied head to the pillow, “Next time someone asks you to a dance…”
Johnny sat beside him and worked at the buttons of the ruined shirt. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Arturo appear in the doorway, a little satchel clutched in his hands. A bullet was going to have to come out – again. But this invitation, first initiated last night, had to be finally answered. “I ain’t exactly one for dancing,” Johnny began slowly. “But…”
“But maybe you’ll at least watch.”
Scott squinted at him and Johnny saw it again, the look that shoved Madrid firmly aside and found Johnny Lancer instead. And sitting here with his brother, Johnny was hugely glad that someone knew him so well.
“Yeah,” Johnny nodded, a little grin working out over his lips. He patted Scott on the shoulder, kept his hand there. “I think I’ll at least watch.”