For the most part, the patrons of the saloon in Green River had few complaints about the establishment. The beer was usually cold, the whiskey seldom watered and most of the “hostesses” still had all their teeth. So on a weekend, especially a weekend that included a payday, the bar was packed with discriminating ranch hands and townsfolk alike. It was less common to have this kind of a crowd on a week night, but word that a large ranch in the area was hiring for a cattle drive had attracted a fair number of drifters.
The dark-haired cowboy sat in a corner, quietly nursing a beer. He seemed oblivious to the raucous clamor in the crowded bar, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Johnny Madrid Lancer was always acutely aware of his surroundings, and in this case, one particular table had been under his scrutiny for some time.
The four men seated at this table didn’t really stand out any from the rest of the throng gathered in the saloon. Like many of their fellow customers they didn’t appear to give a high priority to bathing or shaving, but their behavior was no more coarse or boorish than the majority of the drunken clientele. Still, they had a quality that had attracted Johnny’s attention from the first. He didn’t fear gunplay from this group. Although they all wore six-guns, he couldn’t detect any of the signs he had come to recognize by instinct, denoting a member of his former profession. No, these fellows didn’t want a quick, clean kill; they would prefer, even enjoy, delivering the brutal punishment of a beating with their own fists.
He watched their demeanor as they surveyed the room. Yes, his instinct had been correct. They were predators in search of prey and wouldn’t be content until they’d found a victim to satisfy their desire for physical dominance. And, unfortunately, they seemed to have chosen their target.
Johnny shifted his gaze slightly, observing the tall, blond standing patiently at the bar, waiting for a refill on his beer. He could understand their reasons for singling Scott out. Even after six months here in California, his brother retained that distinctive Boston accent, and the practical western work clothes he now wore couldn’t disguise the air of sophistication and culture that was as much a part of him as breathing.
These strangers wouldn’t be the first to be misled by his brother’s outward appearance. Day Pardee’s men had made the same mistake. There was a grim smile on Johnny’s face as he remembered their attitude--it was going to be a piece of cake to go “lean on” Murdoch Lancer’s fancy dude of a son. But even Day himself had laughed at their condition when they returned, noting that the dude “leaned back.”
That battle had been one that Scott fought alone. Even as he maintained his surveillance over the group at the table, Johnny felt the slightest twinge of what he identified as regret. He told himself that things had been different back then, and knew it was true. He told himself he had reasons for refusing to come to his brother’s aid that day, and he did. First, it would have ruined his plan to defeat Pardee. And second, well, his second reason was that he rebelled against the belief that he had any ties to this stranger who shared his old man’s blood.
Catching a movement out of the corner of his eye, Johnny focused his attention on the scene before him. “Hell,” he silently berated himself, “I ain’t gonna do Boston no good if I’m too busy thinking on the past to watch his back here and now.” Two of the men had left their table and were sauntering across the room. As he watched them take up positions on either side of Scott at the bar, Johnny set his beer on the table and came to his feet in one swift, graceful motion.
Their little “set-up” was going so smoothly, it was obvious the two men had made use of it on more than one occasion. One burly lout pretended to lurch drunkenly against Scott, and the shoving match that resulted gave them an excuse to escalate to a full-out brawl. Pinned against the bar, Scott took a defensive stance. Suddenly, one of his attackers jerked sideways as a fist slammed into his jaw with a bone-crunching crack. And then, there was Johnny, standing by his brother’s side, wearing that lopsided grin. Scott flashed a grin in response. He couldn’t help but feel heartened by that unspoken message—when you mess with one Lancer brother, you answer to both. Unfortunately, the next thing he felt was a blow to his head that sent him staggering.
“Hey, Boston, ya gotta learn how to duck.”
Steadying himself, Scott once more joined in the fray, and together they proceeded to demonstrate just how formidable a team the two Lancer brothers could be.
With a sigh, Scott pulled his hand out of the icy-cold stream. The time he’d spent soaking it had helped reduce the throbbing to a dull ache. Wetting his bandana, he held it to his mouth while taking quick inventory: bruised knuckles, a split lip and a few facial cuts—a minimal amount of damage
He glanced at the younger man sitting next to him. The moonlight was bright enough to reveal the beginnings of a splendid black eye. “Say, little brother, what was that you were saying about learning to duck?”
Johnny fingered his eye with a slight wince. “So, ya think it’s something the ol’ man’s gonna notice?”
With a gleam of amusement, Scott answered, “I’m afraid it’s just the kind of thing that’s bound to catch his attention, and I’m pretty noticeable myself right now.”
After a few moments of silence, both men stood up, and Johnny offered hopefully, “It’s getting ta be pretty late; ya reckon maybe everybody’s in bed by now?”
“You know,” Scott shook his head, “doesn’t it strike you as pretty ridiculous? Here we are, two grown men, worrying about landing in trouble with our father over getting in a fight.”
Johnny directed a derisive look at his brother, not even bothering with a reply.
Both men were quiet for the several minutes it took them to reach their horses.
“I suppose,” Scott spoke in a thoughtful tone, “if we did manage to sneak in undetected tonight….we’re supposed to head up to the line shack tomorrow to get the crew started on that fencing job in the north range. We could always leave a note saying we wanted to get an early start.”
“And tomorrow, we could send one of the hands back with a message; say we needed a couple days ta finish up everything!” Johnny threw an arm around his brother’s shoulder. “Now, see there, Boston, I always said we make a good team.”
Scott thought back on some of the experiences of the past six months, on the events earlier that evening. With a smile lurking in his eyes, he replied, “I think you’re right about that, little brother. Now let’s go see about this plan for sneaking in. Do you think this time you can manage to get up the stairs without waking the whole household?”
“Now, Scott, that wasn’t my fault. It was just that…….” Johnny’s plaintive words continued as the two men headed home—together.