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“Eleven,” Scott answered.
“Nine,” came from Johnny, promptly followed by another conditional, “...I think.”
“Stop doing that!” Scott scolded. “I told you, I don’t care if you knew your exact age. However old you thought you were at the time is good enough.
“Chess?” Scott asked, instantly back on task.
“Around thirteen,” Johnny answered lightly. However, seeing a look of exasperation once again appear on his older brother’s face, the younger Lancer realized that he had once again unconsciously hedged his answer, and quickly corrected his reply. “All right, all right! I was thirteen.”
“Better,” Scott acknowledged the amended response.
Relaxing back against the tree the brothers had eaten their lunch under, Scott gave his own answer. “Seven.”
“Smarty pants,” Johnny teased as he lay back fully onto the ground, enjoying the shade.
“Grandfather expected no less, that’s all,” Scott clarified. “I didn’t like it at first, being forced to learn. However, just recently the game has started to grow on me... competition being what it is.”
Johnny knew he was being complimented, and turned his head slightly to offer his brother a small, appreciative smile. He had been wary when Scott had asked the first question earlier that morning while they performed the boring job of repairing fence line. But he had to admit, the siblings had learned more about each other in two hours than they had in the eight months since they had first met.
There was an unspoken rule they had established for this game of questions, which allowed that they could expound on an answer if they wanted, but explanation wasn’t required. While both brothers were being at once incredibly inquisitive as to what they had missed about each other growing up, each was cautiously sensitive to the circumstances that had forced them to mature in separate worlds. For the most part the banter had therefore successfully remained unthreatening.
Despite the fact that Scott and Johnny both had a tendency to closely guard their privacy, they were actually finding it increasingly easy to share moments from their lives. And considering the fact that they had over twenty years of catching up to do, the brothers were running through an interesting array of questions.
“Shot of liquor?” Johnny asked, keeping the long string of queries going.
“My first glass of a very fine sherry was sipped at the tender age of fourteen,” Scott answered with an exaggerated haughtiness, eliciting a scoffing sound from Johnny.
“Let me guess...” Scott prompted, “...your first taste was of tequila?”
Johnny nodded his affirmation for the presumption, then turned his face away before he answered the original question. “Six,” he stated plainly.
For not the first time, Scott was left stunned at how insensitive his young brother’s life had been as a child. He’d found out a couple of months back that Johnny’s mother had actually deemed it appropriate to teach him to dance as she worked in cantinas along the border. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that she might have allowed her young son to learn to drink while watching her “work” as well. But revelations like this couldn’t help but sadden Scott, as he considered the fact that Johnny never really had a childhood at all.
Knowing that excessive reaction was not encouraged under the unspoken rules of the brothers’ game, Scott kept his feelings to himself and thought up another question. “Owned your first horse?”
“Fourteen. He was gettin’ old, but the price was right... and he was all mine,” Johnny declared with obvious pride in the accomplishment.
“Twenty-one,” Scott offered. “Grandfather always had horses available at the stables for use, but I bought the first one on my own and just for myself after the war. Hated leaving him behind in Boston.”
Johnny gave a short nod of understanding, then asked the next question. “Kept a critter for a pet?”
“Never had one,” Scott answered simply.
Now it was Johnny’s turn to consider the fact that his older brother never really had much of a childhood at all either. Because of how his mother had forced him to live, Johnny’s early years had lacked nurturing guidance and material belongings. But under his grandfather’s influence, Scott’s young life had been filled with strict management and a stifling of his youthful exuberance. “The grass is always greener on the other side” seemed quite an apt metaphor for the Lancer brothers.
As Scott had done, Johnny reined in his reaction. But he mentally stored away a great idea for what he would get his older brother for his next birthday.
“Four. A dog,” Johnny supplied as his own answer.
“Music lesson?” from Scott.
“Seven. Guitar. I ain’t much good,” Johnny offered.
“Six. Piano. Haven’t played in years,” Scott countered.
“First hunting trip?” Johnny asked.
“Next question,” Scott said evenly, surprisingly refusing to respond to the seemingly innocent query.
There hadn’t been many denied answers between them, but this wasn’t the first. ‘There’s a story there for sure,’ Johnny thought – but obeyed the “rules” and moved on. “Okay. Learned to swim?”
“Five. Servant taught me during a picnic.”
Johnny raised himself up on an elbow, and stared at his brother in astonishment. “Five,” he answered as well – and Scott found himself similarly amazed. After hours at this “game” they had finally found something they had in common as children.
“Mama showed me,” Johnny finished – then shared a huge, meaningful smile with his older brother.
Though mostly kept minor in nature, both brothers now offered details more readily, as a steady stream of questions commenced.
“Slice of cake?” Scott asked.
“Fifteen,” Johnny answered, “from some old doctor’s wife, after he’d patched me up.”
“Two. Birthday,” came Scott’s reply.
“Climbed a tree?” Johnny threw out as he lay back down and stretched out comfortably.
“Four. On a dare,” Scott chuckled at the memory. “Got sent to my room with no supper for tearing my pants.”
“Three,” Johnny answered directly, with absolutely no competition implied.
“Drove a wagon?” Scott queried.
“Eight,” Johnny responded.
“Fifteen,” Scott answered back.
“Learned to whistle?” Johnny asked.
“Seven,” offered Scott.
“Still ain’t got the hang of it – according to my supposedly good friend AJ,” Johnny answered with a hoot of laughter.
“AJ’s right!” Scott readily concurred, nodding his head in total agreement.
“Won a prize?” Scott asked next.
“Fourteen,” Johnny returned. “Shootin’ contest. Don’t enter ‘em no more,” he added.
“Six,” came Scott’s rejoinder. “Spelling contest in school. Don’t have to enter them any more.”
The brothers took a moment to watch the early afternoon clouds roll by, as they each assimilated the quick barrage of questions and answers that had just been bandied between them. The mood remained easy, relaxed, protected. But they knew their relationship had just been strengthened, deepened through the willing communication of nonjudgmental knowledge and understanding.
Instinctually, both brothers now silently wondered just how far they could go, trying to learn about each other in this manner. Or, actually, just how far they should go.
Johnny, perhaps the most guarded of the two, surprisingly pushed first. “First time with a woman?” he asked as he turned to face his older brother.
Scott couldn’t hide his shocked reaction, and Johnny couldn’t help but laugh as his brother turned an interesting shade of red and gawked at him in disbelief. “I bet you ‘think’ you know what my answer’s gonna be, so just thought I’d see if you was willin’ tah fess up as well.”
Watching Scott continue to look at him incredulously, Johnny added, “You don’t have to answer you know.”
Finally picking his jaw up off the ground, Scott slammed his mouth closed and then stammered out, “No. It’s just... well... just... give me a minute to think about it.”
His young brother lying beside him with a sly grin on his face, Scott wondered why Johnny had brought up that particular question. Was it to try to embarrass his prim and proper sibling? Or did Johnny actually feel like he wanted to answer the question himself, but was afraid his reserved brother wouldn’t ask?
Neither sibling had taken much time to dwell on a question or answer before now, so Scott chose to dismiss his suspicions. Instead, and much to his own astonishment, the older Lancer son bravely decided that he was indeed willing to answer the sensitive question posed by his younger brother, and would wait to see where the response would lead.
“Fifteen.” There. It was out. Scott actually puffed out a breath in relief that he’d been able to bring himself to utter the so very personal admission.
Now it was Johnny’s turn to gawk at his brother. “Dawg!” he said in obvious admiration, pleased beyond belief to find that somehow Scott had found a way to do something that would have totally shocked his grandfather had he known about it. And there was no doubt in Johnny’s mind that Harlan Garrett had never known about his grandson’s “dalliance”.
“She was the older sister of a girl my age I had attended a party with... and that’s all you’re getting out of me on the subject, Johnny Lancer!” The confession had come out in a rush of words, Scott bowing his head in absolute embarrassment once he’d forced them to be spoken.
“Whoowee, big brother. That’s more than I expected, for sure!” Johnny complimented, then smacked Scott on the leg in approval and support.
Catching Johnny’s beaming smile out of the corner of his eye, Scott couldn’t help but look up and smile back, actually roguishly proud for having shared something with his brother that was so totally against character for him.
“Okay. My big secret is out. Your turn,” Scott encouraged.
To Scott’s surprise, Johnny’s smile quickly disappeared, and a particularly sheepish expression came over his face. Perhaps Johnny had thought it was a safe question to ask, thinking his brother wouldn’t dare answer. But his bluff had been called, and he was now going to have to pay up.
Johnny sat up, and cradled his bent knees in his arms. He looked off into the distance, as if the answer lay somewhere past the fence they had been mending.
“Eighteen,” Johnny finally replied quietly.
Turning only his head so he would be able to judge Scott’s reaction, he asked, “That surprise you?”
Scott knew it was important to be honest. “A little. I guess most people... myself included, figure you had to mature a lot faster than most kids. It would go along with that to think that you’d... been with a woman at an earlier age as well. You certainly attract enough female attention when you walk into a bar,” Scott added somewhat lightly, and Johnny actually smiled a little.
“Can I ask who she was?” Scott gently pressed.
It took a moment, but Johnny did answer. “She wasn’t a barmaid, brother. She was the daughter of a rancher who hired my gun. We really liked each other a lot, and she come to me freely. But I knew I weren’t good for her... and she knew it too. So I went along my way.”
Johnny shook his head in obvious disappointment. “You’re right you know. People mostly expect that I been payin’ for company for a long time. But...
“My mother was a whore, Scott.” Johnny could have worded that easier, but instead specifically chose to state the fact bluntly, with no inherent apology. Scott somehow knew the confession was meant as an explanation, and that actually took the shocking edge off of it. The poignant regret clearly evident in Johnny’s eyes also helped to temper the admission.
As they had been doing, Scott reserved any judgment and just let his young brother talk.
“It’s not like I look down on them women any for what they do,” Johnny further explained. “I got no right to fault no one for how they make a livin’. It’s just... I can drink with ‘em, and laugh and carry on... call ‘em friend... even just give ‘em a coin or two when I got it. But it ain’t often I can bring myself to... bed ‘em.”
Johnny actually emitted a slight laugh in embarrassment, as he further acknowledged, “I get mighty tempted, don’t get me wrong.” The momentary lightness was quickly replaced, however, by a haunted expression, intensified as Johnny invoked dark memories. “But Scott, when I look into their eyes... it’s like... well... I just can’t help but think of who they might have waitin’ for ‘em back at home. I know what it’s like to be the one who has to... wait... or... watch.”
That halting admission was pinnacle for the brothers, but Johnny moved past it quickly. “Anyway, kind of ruins it for me, if you know what I mean,” Johnny added, then smiled sadly and once again looked off into the distance.
So that was it. Johnny had asked this last question so he could exorcise a demon. His mother’s behavior had played such a large part in shaping who Johnny Madrid Lancer was today. But Johnny had repeatedly taken her negative influence and turned it into positive behavior in himself, developing admirable traits that were so often overshadowed by the disreputable and often exaggerated image of Johnny Madrid.
And Scott somehow understood that the reflection of Johnny Madrid was not how his young brother wanted to be viewed. Madrid’s almost legendary notoriety brought him a fearful respect, but Scott knew that Johnny preferred the kind of cultivated admiration that his older brother was traditionally bestowed. It wasn’t fair to either brother that they be so compared, but together they were finding ways to deal with the undue bias.
For his part, Johnny never apologized for who he was, but he continually found subtle ways to justify to his older brother why Madrid existed, though anyone else – their father included – could be damned an explanation as far as the ex-gunfighter was concerned. Increasingly, Scott had observed that as long as he at least realized the truth, Johnny didn’t care what everybody else believed.
Scott was incredibly honored that Johnny thought so highly of him – that his opinion carried so much weight to the man he’d really only just met. He didn’t actually think he was in any way deserving of such elevated esteem – he had his own evils to purge. But Scott wasn’t about to cheapen Johnny’s confession by taking the time to debate his own merits as a human being.
Understanding the gravity of his response, Scott chose his words carefully. “Johnny, the woman who finally catches you is going to have the most caring husband who ever lived. And I don’t think there is a female in the world who wouldn’t appreciate that kind of love and devotion.”
Johnny couldn’t look at Scott. He hadn’t expected his admissions to elicit this kind of response from his brother. The unexpected praise left him speechless. Scott had said the most supportive words he had ever been offered – and he felt like the luckiest man on earth.
Finally facing his brother, Johnny stated unequivocally, “And, of course, she’ll have you for a brother-in-law, so that’ll help.”
Scott stared back at his brother, accepting the veiled compliment. “Of course,” he readily concurred.
An easy silence filled the space between them. Before the quiet could grow awkward, Johnny stood and, with perfect timing, suggested, “We better get back to work or Murdoch’ll make us come out here again tomorrow.”
Scott accepted Johnny’s extended hand, and levered himself up from the ground. Before he released his grip, however, he asked, “Would that be such a bad thing?”
Johnny felt the strength of his brother’s grasp, and returned his steady gaze. “Nope. Nope it wouldn’t,” he answered honestly.
As Scott bent down to retrieve their remains from lunch, he noticed Johnny already beginning to walk away. So it came as a surprise when his young brother tossed another question back over his shoulder. “Best pair of boots?”
Pleased that the “game” hadn’t ended for the day, Scott followed his brother toward the fence line, as he took a minute to think about that question. Finally he responded, “Nineteen.”
Johnny stopped abruptly and turned back to face Scott. “Nineteen too,” he echoed.
Another look of amazement passed between the brothers over this second commonality from their independent lives.
“Still got ‘em,” Johnny offered.
“Lost mine in the war,” Scott explained.
The emotional silence was back – for one brief, comfortable moment.
“Want to go swimming when we’re done here?” Scott asked, breaking into a now familiar huge and knowing smile – and Johnny roared with laughter.
The question was destined to become a private joke between Scott and Johnny. No one else was ever going to understand why the simple query would always prove to be so humorous to the pair – but the brothers would know. Because by some unknown means, despite many miles and years between them, Scott Garrett and Johnny Madrid had somehow managed to both – grow up Lancer.
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Thanks to Linda B. and her hubby (!) for their advice on when kids can do.
For insight into Johnny’s confusion about his proper age, read Storybook Christmas.
For insight on the “dance lessons” reference, read Time Step.
For insight on the “whistling” reference, please read AJ’s Tequila Dreams
and Tequila Dreams, Too (read those anyway, they’re fun!).