by  Kit


Disclaimer: Haven’t got one. This is a follow-up to Big Brothers and a prequel to Bein’ Legal. (Heather’s been bugging me… ;) and SF certainly is no innocent. Huge thanks to Grace for help with Spanish!!




Johnny Lancer stood with his ear pressed against the door leading to the hallway; holding his breath as he listened for any noise indicating anyone was still awake. There was nothing beyond the usual late night sounds magnified by the quiet; the skittering of mice in the attic, and the soft distant squeal of the nocturnal bats in search of insects. At times there was so much quiet in the big house he actually thought he could hear the whisper of the moths drawn by the reflection of the moon against his bedroom windows; could hear their wings fluttering against the glass.

He had remained in his room following the major ass-chewing he had received after his Old Man caught him eating supper with the unmarried ranch hands in the cook shack; something his father considered a carnal sin. Yet another of the five hundred one rules Murdoch was always trying to cram down his throat: right up there with ‘watch your mouth’, ‘do as you’re told’, and ‘I call the tune’. Yeah, the Old Man had reamed him a new one, alright; and he was getting tired of it. He wasn’t any god-damned tin soldier -- he’d leave that to Scott -- and he was fed up with all the orders.

It didn’t help -- because of his fight with Lee Maxwell -- he was one week into a ten day confinement to the house and the ranch. The whole thing had started out kinda funny; what with Maria bossin’ him around the house in the mornings (with free run of her kitchen), and Scott tryin’ to ride herd on him outside during the afternoon. Still, it was bein’ on a leash, no matter how long the rope; and it had gotten old pretty damned fast.

Going back to his bed just long enough to mess it up so it would look like he’d slept in it; he picked up his boots and retraced his path back to the door. He scowled as he turned the ornate knob, the noise of metal against metal coming as the latch opened; hesitating before slowly swinging the door open just wide enough to allow him to slip through. Another pause as he considered leaving the door ajar; and he shook his head. Like Scott, he never failed to close his door when he went to bed; something his brother and father would notice if they were to get up during the night.

Grimacing, he pulled the heavy oak door shut. Then, still carrying his boots, he headed for the stairway. The farther down the stairwell he got, the cockier he was feeling; so much so he almost forgot to skip the third step from the bottom -- the one that creaked. Catching himself, he pounced cat-like to the tiled floor, snagging the balustrade when his stockinged feet slipped out from beneath him and he almost landed on his ass. He recovered quickly.

The wide front door seemed to be beckoning him; daring him almost to pass across the threshold, and he wondered if that single piece of wood -- hand-planed, carved, stained and hung by his father -- didn’t represent something more than a mere passage in and out of the great hacienda. Like everything about the Old Man, the door was massive. Big man, big ranch…

Big list of rules.

The slow grin came then, tugging at the corners of his mouth as he remembered something Scott had said to him when they had witnessed their father as he felled a large pine tree in the mountains north of the ranch: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. It was, he reckoned with his usual skewed logic, the same thing with a long list of rules. The more there were, the more fun it was to break them.

He reached the barn without incident, slipping inside the big building with no fear of discovery. Barranca was in the far stall at the end of the corridor and whickered only the quietest of greetings; more simply a puffing out of air above an empty feed box. Johnny paused just long enough to run his fingers through the tangle of white forelock, and then he set about the business of saddling up.

The ride into town was liberating, the light of a full moon bathing the hills in a soft glow that seemed to form a path leading the way. It was a quick trip, and he didn’t ease up until he entered the alleyway leading to de la Rosa’s; the cantina Murdoch Lancer had declared off limits not only to his sons, but the entire Lancer crew. Barranca knew the way, the big palomino picking its footing through the littered back streets before finally coming to a halt at the hitching rail.

Johnny threw his right leg over the saddle horn and slid down to the ground. He wrapped the reins around the railing; debating which direction he was going to take. Right -- into the bordello -- or straight ahead into the bar.

He decided on the cantina. There was music there; and the pleasant sound of cheap glass rattling against the even cheaper bottles of tequila, and besides -- after a dry week -- he was thirsty. Anyway, the real fun was out back. Yep, that’s what he was goin’ to do; a couple or three straight shots with a little lime and salt, and then outside to where the animals were.

Lounging against the bar, he stared into the dust-covered mirror hanging behind the bartender’s head. It was his contribution to the place; a piece of -- what was the word Scott used when he was poking fun at his surroundings? -- ambiance -- he had pilfered from the abandoned hotel before the fire. He’d told Castillo the mirror would add class to the place, which wasn’t too far of a stretch or a lie, but it was really there to compensate for the way the room was set up. The looking-glass was his own personal window to this rather dissolute part of his world where everything was dirty and distorted; the flaws somehow magnified. It also gave him a clear view of the side door; like having eyes in the back of his head.

“Thought your Daddy was supposed to be keeping you close to home, Lancer.” Lee Maxwell elbowed his way in between Johnny and the pig-tailed chica (girl) who had just attempted to snuggle beneath the brunet’s arm. Maxwell was holding a half-empty mug of beer in his right hand; the foam evident in the glass and on his upper lip. Without thinking, he reached up with his left hand, fingering the week-old bruise beneath his eye.

Johnny had seen the move and didn’t even bother to hide the smile. His own marks from their fight were already healed. “And I thought your Mama told you she didn’t want you playin’ with the big boys no more,” Johnny drawled. He helped himself to a swig of tequila from the glass Señora Castillo had just set in front of him. Making a fist, he lifted his hand to his mouth, moistening the skin with a swipe of his tongue. He dipped the hand into the saucer of coarse-ground salt and touched it to his lips.

Maxwell dropped a pinch of the same salt into his beer and watched the warm brew fizz; a new head forming on the amber liquid. “At least I got a Momma,” he sniped, not giving a damned who heard.

Johnny was holding his drink with both hands now; working the tumbler back and forth between his palms. He sat the glass down. Using his fist, he backhanded the man. He followed the first blow with a wicked, left-handed uppercut. Maxwell was bigger; older and more robust, but Johnny had the advantage of speed and an intimate knowledge of back-street brawling. It didn’t hurt that Maxwell was also half-way into a good drunk. The next blow, a vicious double-handed rabbit punch to the back of Maxwell’s neck, ended the fight. Maxwell heaved a great sigh and landed face-first on to the hard packed dirt floor. It didn’t take long for two of De La Rosa’s maleantes (thugs) to drag the unconscious man across the room and to toss him out the front door.

Johnny flexed his hands, shaking off the soreness, and then tapped a single finger against the bar as he ordered another drink. The tequila went down easy, and was quickly followed by another. Then, rolling a cigarette, he headed out back. He took his time, approaching the fighting ring nonchalantly. He was no fan of the cockfighting; the cruel sport where men purposely pitted the multi-colored, spurred roosters against each other in a fight to the death. It was the other game he lusted after.

Hola, Juanito!” Diego Castillo greeted. He was leaning against the low barrier encircling the fighters, and turned to nod at the younger man.

Johnny joined the man, resting his elbows on the adobe bricks that formed the fighting ring. He was sizing up the two combatientes (combatants) currently inside the bloodied and feather-littered arena. They stood, a blood red bandana separating them, each man clenching a corner of the brightly colored rag between their teeth; the cloth stretched taut between them. Both of them were armed, the blades of their unsheathed Bowie knives flashing silver white beneath the lamperas that hung above the waist-high enclosure. The men were bare-chested, circling each other now, occasionally moving forward to jab at one another. Johnny tapped the older man on the shoulder, producing a silver dollar. “En Francisco, (on Francisco)” he said softly. “¿Dos a uno? (Two to one?)” He took a long drag on the cigarette, trapping the smoke against his tongue before exhaling a thin stream of smoke from his nose; the air around his head turning blue and filling with the distinct smell of marijuana.

Diego turned slightly, his lips parting in a wide grin that displayed a row of gold-capped teeth. The old man took a great deal of pleasure in the fact that Murdoch Lancer’s younger son defied his father’s orders regarding the cantina; that, in fact, the youth was a regular late night visitor. "¿Y usted toma al ganador, Juanito?" (And you take on the winner, Johnny?) he bargained.

Johnny’s eyes danced, the smile firing his blue eyes. ¿Por qué no?” (Why not?)

“Because,” Val Crawford answered the younger man’s question, his voice coming softly across Johnny’s right shoulder, “you aren’t going to be here when this is over, boy.” He reached out with his right hand, slipping Johnny’s pistol from its holster.

Johnny’s eyes closed and just as quickly reopened, the blue orbs showing considerable surprise. De la Rosa’s was well outside Green River’s official city limits, off the beaten path; part of the squalid little settlement called Greaser Town by both the Anglo and Hispanic citizens who looked down on the predominantly mestizo population. The place was similar to the kind of aldeas pequeñas (small villages) where Johnny had grown up and where he had often hid out, somewhere -- in spite of the danger -- familiar and strangely comfortable. “Hey, Val,” he drawled. “Can we talk?” He turned his head, surprised to see not only the sheriff, but Ty Underwood as well.

Val reached over, pulling the cigarette from the younger man’s mouth; taking a whiff and then flicking it to the ground and grinding it out beneath his heel. “I talked to you a week ago,” Val murmured, “after your fight with Lee Maxwell. You didn’t listen.”

“Can I at least get Barranca?”

Val shook his head. “Why? He ain’t the one goin’ to jail.”

Underwood laughed, softly. “And you thought I had a set of brass cajones,” he joshed, needling his boss.

It was a good long walk from the cantina to the jail. As soon as they crossed the threshold, Val placed Johnny’s pistol in the bottom drawer of the gun rack. “I’ll take the holster now,” he said, pointing to the young man’s waist.

Johnny did as he was told, taking off the belt and doubling it over as he handed it to the man. “I promise I’ll listen this time,” he grinned, the same little boy smirk he always used when he was in trouble; hoping he could con the man into changing his mind.

The smile wasn’t working. Underwood was unlocking the door of the holding cell. He opened it, bowing slightly. “Private room,” he observed. “Not much of a view this time of night,” he said the words as if he really cared; which he didn’t.

Val gave Johnny a slight push, pointing him in the right direction.

Johnny marched forward. He stopped suddenly, wheeling around to face his main tormentor. “What’s the charge?”

“For starters, public intoxication,” Val answered.

The younger man was shaking his head. “I ain’t drunk!” He tried to jerk away when Val took his arm and escorted him to the doorway of the cell.

“Sure you are,” Val breathed. “If you were sober, you’d never have punched out Lee Maxwell again,” the words came between clenched teeth, “and I’d never have gotten behind you to take your pistol.” He shut the cell door and locked it.

“You said ‘for starters’,” Johnny was facing the two lawmen, his fingers locked around the bars. “And I don’t know nothin’ about Lee Maxwell.” He knew at once from the look on Val’s face the man was fully aware he was telling a lie. Chin dipping against his chest, he tried a different tact. “De la Rosa’s ain’t even in your jurisdiction,” he challenged. “Since when do you give a damned about what happens there?”

Underwood glanced across at Val. “No charges for being stupid?” he deadpanned. The county board, of which Murdoch Lancer was an influential member, had just succeeded in helping Green River annex Grease Town and was rapidly moving forward with their plans to eliminate the cantina. He had assumed the younger Lancer son knew.

Johnny made an obscene gesture. He wasn’t aware of the political wrangling that was going on; didn’t care enough to be aware. “You wanna come in here and talk about bein’ stupid, chamaco?” he hissed, crooking his finger at the man.

Underwood shook his head, heading for the door. “Not me.” He shrugged. “I’m off duty ‘til mornin’, and I’m goin’ home and goin’ to bed.” He turned to the sheriff. “What about you, Boss?”

Val was already removing his vest. “I’ll bunk here tonight,” he answered. He was quiet a moment. “Before you turn in, pick up the kid’s horse from De la Rosa’s and take him to the livery.”

Trey acknowledged the order with a curt nod. He started to say something and changed his mind when Johnny kicked out against the cell door; the clatter of steel against steel resonating throughout the office. The deputy opened the front door and disappeared into the darkness beyond.

Johnny was leaning against the cell door now, his head rocking back and forth against the topmost crossbar; both hands locked around the cross piece, kneading the steel. “You gonna tell me why you were hasslin’ me at the cantina,” he asked quietly.

Val had just peeled off his shirt; the pale white of his long-sleeved undershirt stark against his tanned face. “You gonna tell me what the hell you were doin’ at the cantina?” he shot back. He raked his fingers through his dark hair. “Jesus Christ, boy. Ten days,” he declared, holding up both hands and spreading his fingers to display the numbers, “all you had to do was stay outta town for ten days.” Disgusted, he let his hands drop and headed for the pot-bellied stove.

“Just turn me loose,” Johnny murmured. “I’ll go back to Lancer.” Hell, if he could sneak out, he could sneak back in. “I’ll stay out of trouble.”

The lawman slammed the blue-speckled coffee pot down on the grid; the lid rattling. He was still harping about the amount of time Johnny had been told to stay away from Green River. “Three fuckin’ days,” he cursed; “just three more fuckin’ days and it would have been over. All you had to do was show up in court; pay a fine, maybe get a little ass-chewin’ from the judge...”

Johnny’s head snapped up. “I’ve been getting’ my ass chewed,” he shot back. “Every damned time I turn around at Lancer, the Old Man’s on my ass for somethin’…”

“Like maybe for not doin’ what you’ve been told?” Val interrupted rudely, making no attempt at all to hide the sarcasm. He poured himself a cup of piss-warm coffee, taking a long drink and then saluting the younger man with the mug. “You may as well get comfortable, buddy.” He nodded to the darkness beyond the barred window. “Come mornin’…” He didn’t finish. Johnny kicked at the slop bucket for a second time.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Scott Lancer stood at the closed door to his younger brother’s bedroom door. He had already knocked twice on his way down the hallway; stopping dead in his tracks when his rapping hadn’t produced the sound of a pillow hitting the door. While Johnny was usually spontaneous and many of his actions and reactions were spur of the moment, the thump of a well stuffed down pillow against his bedroom door when he was roused had become a tradition. Johnny hated morning; especially when it came during a time he still considered the middle of the night.

Cautiously, the blond opened the door and poked his head inside the room. Nothing. He opened the door wider. Stepping across the threshold, he headed for the bed. Johnny’s quilt had been thrown back and appeared rumpled but there was something, Scott realized, too orderly about the disorder. Johnny -- in spite of his early claim I always sleep well -- spent far too many nights battling old demons; and on those occasions when he fought with his father, some new ones as well. In the morning, his bed always looked as if he had been to war with the blankets and the sheeting.

Reaching out, Scott’s long fingers brushed across the top most pillow. There was no warmth; no indentation that would indicate his brother’s head had rested even momentarily against the plump cushion. Shaking his head, he absently smoothed the pillowslip and rearranged the quilt.

He strode out the door and down the hallway to the back staircase leading to the kitchen; silently praying and hoping God wasn’t too busy to be listening. Right now, he’d just be happy with whatever guardian angel that might be willing to -- once again -- watch over his kid brother; at least until he could find out what the boy was up to. And he was dead certain Johnny was up to something.

Apparently, God was having an easy morning. Not only was Teresa no where to be seen, but Maria was just in the process of scrambling eggs. He came up behind the woman, giving her a quick hug before snatching a piece of frying bacon. She frowned and smacked his hand; relenting when he smiled. “I can’t find Johnny,” he murmured.

The woman’s frown returned. Quickly, she grabbed a warm flour tortilla, filled it with eggs and bacon; folding the ends and flipping it into a compact flat bread sandwich. “Necessitas encontrarlo antes que su Papa baje para el desayuno," (You must find him before his Papa comes down for breakfast,) she warned, whispering.

Scott had just downed a slug of hot coffee. Gratefully, he took the proffered tortilla wrap. “I’ll try,” he promised. Hearing the thud of his father’s bedroom door and the older man’s heavy tread as he headed for the water closet, he quickly took off.

Cipriano’s son, Mateo, was waiting when Scott reached the barn. Already, the vaquero had saddled Cheval; the bay gelding pawing impatiently at the ground. “Barranca’s gone,” he said. “No fresh droppings.”

The blond swore. Gathering the bay’s reins, he hoisted himself up into the saddle; nodding at the back door to the barn which had already been opened. “Tell my father,” he hesitated, adjusting the Stetson, “I’ve -- we’ve -- decided to make an early start on the day.” Mateo, he knew, would not lie if he was asked a direct question; but neither would he expand on the truth.

Mateo nodded. He and Scott had become friends early on; both of them grown men saddled with fathers who still considered them boys, and would, until they were married with sons of their own. “Vaya con Dios, amigo,” (Go with God) he said softly; slapping the bay’s rump. It was their usual parting when they had to go looking for their younger brothers.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny had slept fitfully. There was no pillow and the straw pallet that covered the narrow, drop down bunk smelled musty; foul with the odor of urine, regurgitated booze and stale smoke. He was lying on his belly, his right arm hanging off the cot. His entire body felt as though it was crawling with full grown mites and an army of their chigger offspring, and he began squirming. Everything about him itched; his head, his ears, his crotch. Cursing, he rolled off the cot to the floor, landing on his knees; and then bolted upright, both hands scratching at his body.

"Pretty interestin’ dance, boy,” Val drawled. He was holding two tin mugs of steaming chicory, his right forefinger crooked around the handles. The lawman was already fully dressed.

The brunet was scratching at his left elbow with the fingers of his right hand. “This fuckin’ place is lousy,” he complained. He was scratching his ear now. “Stinks, too.”

Val shrugged. “Yeah. I can see where it would make you all lonesome for that nice clean bed and those fluffy pillows you got in your room at Lancer.” He took one of the cups in his hand and shoved it between the bars. “Makes me kinda wonder why you’d be so dumb as to leave it.”

The smell of the strong chicory -- Val’s choice of morning after brew -- proved too much for the youth. He snatched the steaming mug from the other man’s fingers and took a quick drink. “All that fuckin’ clean can get pretty borin’,” he groused. “So you lettin’ me out, or what?”

A soft chuckle came as the lawman shook his head. There wasn’t much humor in the sound. “I was stretchin’ things when I took you back to Lancer after that first fight with Lee,” he said. He blew into his coffee mug. “Can’t do it this time, Johnny.”

It wasn’t the answer the boy wanted. “So, you got Lee locked up out back?” The scratching had subsided, but not the itch.

“Now, why would I have Maxwell locked up?” Val watched the younger man’s face.

Johnny shrugged. “He started it.” He said the words as if they should make a difference.

The corner of Val’s mouth quirked up in a slight smile; memories of Johnny as a child bringing back the bittersweet melancholy that always accompanied those thoughts. All the would haves, could haves. “Hell, boy. You haven’t used that ‘he hit me back first’ line since I busted your ass in Tularosa. It didn’t work then, either.” He took another sip of bitter brew.

Unbidden, the smile crawled across the younger man’s face. It quickly faded. “C’mon, Val,” he nodded at the barred window and the pre-dawn pink beyond. “You let me outta here now, I can get back to Lancer and con the old man into thinkin’ I just got an early start on things…” the corners of his mouth twitched as he recalled the first time he’d gotten Murdoch to buy the same story after an all night tear in Morro Coyo. It had made for a hell of a long work day that had left him dead tired and sprawled out asleep across the Old Man’s ottoman, but…

“And Lee Maxwell?” Val’s voice cut into the younger man’s reveries. “How’d’ya figure on explainin’ Lee Maxwell to your old man? Or you bein’ at De La Rosa’s?” It never failed to surprise him how Johnny couldn’t think beyond the moment as to what could come with the next breath; but deep inside he knew. Sometimes the moment was all there was.

Bright shafts of sunlight had begun their slow crawl through the barred window of the cell, streaks of gold penetrating the gloom with the promise of a hot spring day. Johnny could feel the heat across his back and shoulders and the sensation was uncomfortable enough to make him move into the shadows. The lawman didn’t miss the move; or the fact that the younger man was rubbing at his left shoulder. He was about to say something when the door to the street swung open and Scott Lancer stepped into the office.

Johnny’s expression and demeanor immediately changed. “Hey, Scott,” he greeted cheerfully. He moved closer to the bars, pressing his face against the steel uprights, one hand wrapped around each rod, just at his cheeks. Putting on his lost waif grin, he smiled up at his sibling. “Come to bail me out, big brother?” He kept his tone light; teasing.

Scott wasn’t buying the innocent act. He leaned back against the door, shutting it. “Is that coffee hot?” he asked, nodding at the speckled enamel pot on the stove. When Val nodded, he crossed the room. He snagged a cup from the row of hooks on the far wall, swiping at the interior with his fingers before pouring the dark brew. It seemed to take him forever to fill the cup; his gaze fastened on his brother’s face the entire time.

The brunet didn’t like his brother’s scrutiny any better than he liked the look on Val’s countenance. They were waiting for him to say something, but he was damned sure they wouldn’t like the words that were dancing at the back of his throat. He swallowed the smart ass wisecracks, deciding to eat crow. “Okay. I’m in deep shit.” His gaze turned first to the lawman and then swung to his brother. “I shouldn’t ‘a left…” he saw his brother’s right eyebrow arch, “… shouldn’t ’a snuck off…”

Scott didn’t say anything a first; just stood sipping his coffee. And then, sarcastically, “Well, that’s a start.” Expectant, he turned to Val. “So, what has he done this time?”

Shit! Johnny thought. Shit, shit, shit. “Just did some drinkin’,” he answered quickly; before Val had a chance to reply. He closed his eyes, hoping the lawman wouldn’t volunteer anymore.

Val had put his cup down on the desk. “You gonna tell him what happened, Johnny, or just where you were when you were doin’ that drinkin’?” If looks could have killed, Val Crawford would have been a dead man. He read the look on the younger man’s face, and laughed.

“Johnny,” Scott prompted. Silence. When his brother didn’t respond, he turned to face the lawman. “So what is it he doesn’t want me to know?” His gaze went back to his brother. “That he doesn’t want Murdoch to know?”

“He was at De La Rosa’s,” Val answered, the fingers of his left hand tapping against the top of his desk.

The blond’s eyes began to smolder; the blue becoming a gun-metal gray. He knew the place by reputation; that De La Rosa’s was a squalid establishment one narrow alleyway just outside of Green River’s current city limits. In addition to the abhorrent practice of cock-fighting, the gaming tables were rigged, the drinks watered, and the clientele…the clientele tended toward the dangerous and dissolute. After the near fatal knifing of a ranch hand, Murdoch had adamantly declared the place off limits to his sons and the entire Lancer work crew, and was now spear-heading the drive to get the place closed down. “Johnny knows what Murdoch’s opinions are regarding the cantina,” he breathed.

Val nodded. “And that ain’t even the best part,” he announced; frowning when Johnny kicked the slop bucket in the corner of the cell. He called out to the kid. “You keep that up, you’re gonna be buyin’ a new pail.” His voice lowered as he addressed the elder brother. “Lee Maxwell was there, and your brother knocked him on his ass.”

Scott’s face betrayed no emotion. Without looking at his brother, he dug into his inside jacket pocket and withdrew his wallet. “Last time, I believe his bail was a hundred dollars?”

“This ain’t the ‘last time’, Boston.” Val was back at the stove pouring another cup of coffee. “That complaint Maxwell filed is on record; the hearin’ is on Wednesday, and your baby brother there…” he gestured towards Johnny with his cup, “…broke the terms of the bond by leavin’ Lancer.” He was quiet a moment. “And you know that, college boy,” he chided.

The blond’s head dipped slightly, a slow smile coming. He put the wallet away. “I had to try, Val.” This time, he looked directly at the older man. “So what is it going to take to get you to let me take him home?”

Val ignored the question. There was a sudden intake of air as he inhaled. “Do you know anything about what really goes on at night at De La Rosa’s? Besides the whorin’.” He saw from the expression on the other man’s face that he didn’t, so he charged on. “Knife fights; after the cock-fighting, when everyone is still high from the blood letting. Not vendettas, but two jackasses dueling…”

“Like fencing,” Scott surmised. “Touché!” Hoping to lighten the mood, he lifted his arm and thrust it forward, remembering the competitive fencing he had indulged in while he was at Harvard.

Crawford was shaking his head. “No, Boston,” he drawled, unable to hide the cynicism, “not two gentlemen playing with rapiers with little nubs on the end.” He saw the man’s head come up. “We’re talking about a couple of drunks strung together with a pañuelo in a Mexican standoff, using Bowie knives or skinning blades. Drawing blood; taking coup.”

Scott stared at the man. “Johnny?” he asked. And yet, somehow, he wasn’t really surprised. His gaze swung quickly to his brother. “Why?” The question was as much for his sibling as it was for the lawman.

That, Crawford had to think about, and he wasn’t sure he knew the real answer. “It’s been goin’ on for awhile,” he said finally. “Since before the thing with Maxwell.” He shifted his gaze to the young man in the cell, who was looking anything but contrite. “This isn’t the first time he’s snuck into town in the middle of the week, Scott. Hell, if I busted him every time someone said they saw him…” He hesitated, thinking about the younger man’s proclivity for doing a thing full out: riding a horse, bluffing at the poker tables; playing with the whores in the upstairs rooms at the Silver Dollar. No half measures. He raked his long fingers through his dark hair. “I don’t know what the Hell he’s…”

“…he’s gettin’ fuckin’ sick and tired of everybody talkin’ like he’s not here,” Johnny interrupted rudely. His fingers were strumming across the uprights.

Val ignored the outburst, continuing instead to speak to the older brother. “When’s the last time you’ve seen the kid without his shirt?” he asked.

The question came from out of nowhere; and made absolutely no sense. It was, Scott thought, totally absurd. “Unlike some people at Lancer,” he began, his right eyebrow arching as he directed a look of mock consternation at his younger brother, “I don’t make a habit of barging into people’s rooms and catching them in various stages of undress.” He smiled when he heard his brother snicker.

Val’s frown deepened. He was in no mood for brotherly banter. “Take your shirt off, Johnny,” he ordered.

Johnny stopped the flat-handed run across the uprights; a fist forming as his fingers closed around the steel bar. “No!” He shook his head. “Fuck, no!”

The lawman had opened the desk drawer and taken out the keys. “You take it off, Johnny, or I will,” he threatened.

Scott’s face mirrored the confusion he was feeling. “Val…”

The lawman was already inside the cell. He had Johnny backed into the corner right next to the door and when the younger man tried to buck away, he reached out; his fingers closing around the youth’s left shoulder. Squeezing, he applied pressure, closely watching the boy’s face.

Johnny almost went to his knees; an involuntary gasp coming. His eyes watered, widening, and then focusing on his tormentor’s face. “Why,” he croaked, angry at the betrayal.

Val’s lips were right next to Johnny’s left ear. “Because you got a family now, and a home, and I’m not gonna let you screw it up; not this time,” he whispered. He withdrew his right hand, turning to face Scott as he displayed his fingers. They were smudged with fresh blood.

Scott’s jaws tensed. “I’ll get Sam,” he said. He shot a harsh look at his sibling. “And you take off that damned shirt.”

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Inside the cell, Sam Jenkins set about tending his patient. He had pulled a stool from the corner and was sitting in front of the younger man. Johnny was shirtless, reluctantly allowing the physician to do his usual poking and prodding. He knew, as the probing became more intense, the doctor was not a happy man. “Barbed wire,” he lied softly, aware that his brother and Val were watching from outside the cell. “Scott and me. We’ve been stringin’ wire.”

The doctor snorted. “Don’t you lie to me, John Lancer!” He gestured for the kid to lean forward; wanting a closer look at the cut on the younger man’s left shoulder. The wound was reasonably fresh, wider than some of the already healing cuts and scrapes that marred the boy’s lean torso. “You’ve been participating in those perverse …” he struggled for an appropriate word “… fandangos that have been going on over in shanty town!” He was shaking his head.

“Sweet Jesus,” Johnny swore. He leaned back against the wall, his head rolling back and forth against the cool red brick. “You sound just like Val! It’s a game, Doc! A fucking game!!”

Jenkins’s back went rigid, his face coloring at the obscenity. “Try telling that to your friend, Francisco Estevez.” His voice trembled. “They brought him to my place at two o’clock this morning.”

Johnny came forward. “He hurt?” He asked the question as if it had never occurred to him that the sparring he and his friends participated in could be anything more than the simple taking of a minor blood coup for a twenty dollar prize.

“With ten inches of steel penetrating his stomach?” Jenkins was busy searching his bag for the small kit containing his supply of gauze and salves. “Why, no, Johnny; he’s not hurt. He’s dead.”

The youth felt his gut clenching; a bitter taste clawing at his throat as the bile began in sudden climb up his gullet. He’d seen men die after a gut wound, and it was not a pretty thing. It was, in fact, a long and excruciating death; prompting pleas for mercy and a quick end. Many men chose to die by their own hand.

He’d seen it happen once; after an ambush in Juárez.

“Sorry,” he murmured to no one in particular.

Sam was shaking his head. “That sorry and five dollars will buy him a pine box and a plot of ground south of town,” he muttered. “It won’t take care of the wife and baby he’s leaving behind.” He patted the bandage in place on the shoulder wound and applied a plaster. “No point in stitches,” he said.

“You’ll need to keep it clean.” He began gathering up his supplies.

It was obvious from the old man’s face, though, he wasn’t finished. At least, not with talking. Removing his glasses, he polished them with the front of his white shirt. And then the lecture began.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Val Crawford and Scott Lancer were on the opposite side of the room; content to let Sam deal with Johnny. They knew from the physician’s posture, his rigid spine and the squaring of his shoulders, that the old man was having a few choice words with his patient. Sam’s back was to the two men, and his voice was nothing more than a quiet whisper; but it was clear from the expression on Johnny’s face the man was not mincing words.

“You didn’t answer me when I asked you earlier,” Scott said, keeping the words private. “What’s it going to cost me for you to let me take him home?”

The lawman snorted. “You aren’t takin’ him anywhere, Boston. Not this time.”

The blond’s eyes narrowed. “Are you telling me you’re going to keep him locked up?” he asked. Scott’s disposition was strikingly different from Johnny’s in many ways, and he was slower to anger, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a temper. And he was close to losing it.

“Clean your ears,” Val ground out, keeping a lid on his own volatile temper, “I’ll be takin’ him back to Lancer. How long he stays there is goin’ to depend on your Old Man.

“Don’t get me pissed off, Scott. I’ve been doin’ this a long time, and I know what I’m doin’.”

There was a sound as the younger man inhaled. He nodded. Two things in this world he didn’t need right now: an irate father and an even angrier lawman. “Let ‘er buck,” he sighed, using one of Johnny’s favorite phrases as he flashed the older man a smile.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Murdoch Lancer sat at his desk, the big leather chair turned to face the large, arched window. He watched as the three specks on the horizon took on more form and clarity, the heat of the mid-morning sun rising in shimmering waves off the dew-laden spring grass. There was something surreal in what he was seeing, the vision not unlike mirages he had seen the first time he had crossed the Mexican desert; as if the horses were wading through water.

Johnny’s palomino was sandwiched in between the two darker horses, the golden animal tossing its head with a raw energy befitting its young rider. Murdoch knew the animal was fighting the bit, wanting to run. Johnny -- in spite of a standing order that no horses were to be run once they passed through the arch and onto the roadway leading to the hacienda -- was forever bringing the horse into the yard at a full gallop. It had been -- and still was -- a source of contention between father and son; something Johnny had done right from the very beginning and the patriarch knew it was intentional. Johnny was always testing him; testing the limits.

The older man fought the urge to leave the Great Room and remained where he was sitting. The confrontation, he knew, would be coming soon enough, and he was determined not to lose his temper. No small chore since Johnny, he knew, would be both sullen and defiant; the boy’s usual response to being in trouble.

And he was in trouble.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny remained mounted. Val had ridden past the barn directly to hitching rail in front of the main door. As soon as the lawman’s feet hit the ground, the boy started. He extended his hands. “C’mon, Val,” he cajoled, rattling the handcuffs, his mouth quirking up in the familiar little boy grin. “The Old Man’s gonna be pissed off enough without seein’ these…”

Val laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “You should’a thought about that before you came into town,” he snorted. “Get down.”

The brunet stayed where he was. “Need to take these off so I can take care of Barranca,” he argued.

Scott had already dismounted. He was tying Cheval off. “Why?” he asked softly. “Val already told you that you might be going right back into town.”

Johnny shot his elder brother the look. “Fuck you, Scott,” he snapped. “You couldn’t say one fuckin’ thing to me on the way home, and now you got your mouth goin’ like a horse takin’ a piss!”

Val stepped up closer to Barranca. Reaching up, he grabbed the younger man by his belt and shirt collar and pulled him to the ground; holding on to keep the youth on his feet. Looking over Johnny’s shoulder to where Scott was standing, he addressed the blond. “Just loosen up their cinches; give ‘em a breather, Boston,” he nodded at the palomino, and then to his own gelding. His gaze shifted to the younger Lancer boy and he smiled. “No point in unsaddlin’ the kid’s horse; not until I know if I’m takin’ him back to town or not.” He gave Johnny’s arm a tug, and pointed him towards the front door.

Scott began unlacing Barranca’s cinch, his fingers working the leather automatically; still not sure if Val Crawford was just toying with him, or if the man was serious. He looked up as he heard the soft jingle of spurs approaching from the barn. “Cip,” he greeted.

The segundo nodded in greeting. “Your hermano is in big trouble, no?” The big man smiled; the laugh lines at the corners of his mouth widening.

The blond laughed. “When isn’t he in trouble, Cip?” He was still smiling when he looked deeply into the older man’s sympathetic eyes. “When I was a child,” he breathed, appreciating the fact he was speaking to Johnny’s maternal uncle; a man who had understood from the beginning his unexpected affection for a sibling he had never known had existed, “I used to pray for a younger brother.”

Cip’s laughter was deep; filled with humor. It was a good sound. “As I prayed the Patrón would find him and bring him home.” He laid a broad hand on Scott’s shoulder. “I only wish that God had…”

“…worked faster?” Scott smiled. Although he really didn’t believe a two-year-old Johnny would have been much different than the nineteen-year-old hellion that was now being dragged into the house.

As a very young man, Scott Lancer had learned God often had a wicked sense of humor.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Murdoch watched as Val Crawford guided his youngest son through the large double doorway, the frown deepening as he realized Johnny was handcuffed. Unbidden, a sudden brief vision flashed before the older man’s eyes: his son manacled and being led before a firing squad. Another memory came to him then; the tombstone his parent’s had raised in memory of his only sibling, a boy who had died almost immediately after birth without as much as a first cry: Not yet begun; and so soon done… That had almost been Johnny’s fate; to die before he had a chance to really live.

He swept the memories of the past away as efficiently as if he were simply sweeping ashes from a cold hearth. “And those are necessary why?” he asked, nodding at the wrist bracelets. Behind Val and Johnny he saw Scott entering the room; watching as his elder son perched himself on the back of the couch. They shared a silent greeting, Scott saying nothing before dropping his eyes to study his boots.

Val didn’t even look around; although he was aware Scott had joined them. He removed his Stetson and draped the hat across the butt of his revolver. “I’m goin’ to give you the short version, Murdoch,” he intoned. “Johnny, La Rosa’s, and Lee Maxwell’s sportin’ another black eye.”

There was the grinding sound of metal against metal as Murdoch turned his chair around to face the lawman fully. He leaned forward, elbows on his desk, his face grim. “There was another fight?”

Without waiting to be invited -- and leaving Johnny still cuffed in front of Murdoch’s desk -- Val crossed the few feet to the drink table behind the couch and helped himself to a tumbler full of the good whisky. “Wasn’t much of a fight,” he answered. “Lee was drunk.” He took a long drink, savoring the feel of the liquor against his tongue.

Scott pushed himself up from the back of the couch and joined the lawman, pouring himself a drink; a second one for his father. Cupping the tumbler expertly in the palm of his left hand, he carried the glass over to the desk, and then turned to face his younger brother. “The handcuffs, Val?”

The sheriff finished the last of his drink, hesitating as he gazed over the rim of the glass at both Lancer men and the youth standing in front of the desk. Turning his glass upside down, he put it back on the silver tray. “We had a deal, Murdoch, when I brought the kid home after that first fight with Lee. You were to keep him here at the ranch until the hearing. You can’t do that, I’m goin’ to have to take Johnny to Morro Coyo; have Gabe hold him until the judge gets here on Wednesday. You understand what I’m sayin’?”

Scott had positioned himself so that he could watch his father’s face as well as the lawman’s.

Peripherally, he could also see his brother; catching the younger man’s expression as the mask momentarily dropped and he saw the look of a caged animal. He knew it wasn’t going to take much, shackles or not, for Johnny to bolt. “Sir?”

Murdoch’s jaws were tensing. It was clear from his expression he understood perfectly what the lawman was asking. His gaze shifted to his younger son. “I can keep him here,” he said finally, the words coming softly but with great resolve. “We’ll keep him here.” The Scot’s gaze went to his eldest boy; smiling as his son nodded a single time in agreement.

Satisfied, Val dug into his shirt pocket and produced the key to the handcuffs, crossing the room to hold it up in front of Johnny’s nose, but speaking to his brother. “Scott, I’ve got the kid’s rig in my saddle bags. Before I unlock the cuffs, I want you to get his pistol and give it to your old man.”

Scott hid the smile behind his upraised hand as he nodded his head. He had always held Val in high regard, and that respect was growing. The lawman was in all likelihood the only man in the entire San Joaquin Valley -- other than his father -- that wasn’t intimidated by Johnny Madrid Lancer. He took his leave; his left hand brushing lightly across Johnny’s shoulder as he passed him and headed for the door.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

They were still in the Great Room. Val and Murdoch were at the desk and in deep conversation. Scott and Johnny were across the room; the blond relaxing on the couch, Johnny sitting perched on the edge of Murdoch’s large leather ottoman.

Scott stole a look at his younger brother. Johnny was staring hard at the two older men; both of whom were now dark silhouettes haloed by the high noon sun that was streaming through the large, arched window. The handcuffs had been removed; and Johnny’s pistol and holster were now locked in the bottom right hand drawer of Murdoch Lancer’s desk.

It was impossible to read the younger man’s face; the Madrid mask firmly in place, his eyes like two, cold sapphire marbles. Sighing, Scott shook his head and returned to his reading. He chuckled softly; realizing that his random choice from the bookshelves that dominated the far wall was none other than a revised copy of An American Dictionary and Thesaurus of the English Language, by Noah Webster. On a whim, he turned to the “S” pages, leafing through them until he found the word he was looking for: sullen.

His finger skimming the page, he read the annotated text; deciding that the word Cimmerian was the best synonym for what he was observing in his younger brother: the reference to the mythological people Homer had described as inhabiting a land of perpetual darkness. Because that’s how Johnny looked now; dark and gloomy.

Finally, the two older men stood up from the desk; Murdoch extending his hand. The tall Scot and the lawman shook hands. Val was the first to speak. “Wednesday,” he said. “Ten o’clock.”

Murdoch nodded. “We’ll be there, Val.”

Val scratched his nose. “You keep him close, Murdoch. He wanders off again…” He left the rest unsaid. Finger combing his hair, he replaced the Stetson; tapping the brim with his forefinger in farewell. When he turned away from the big Scot, he allowed his gaze to settle briefly on the younger Lancer son; a wry smile coming as the youth gave him a one-fingered salute.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Wednesday came and went. Jonathan Randolph had arrived at the ranch the day before the anticipated court date to meet, behind closed doors, with Murdoch in the Great Room. The discussion had lasted well into the afternoon and when it was over, both sons were summoned to appear before their father and the announcement was made: the trial was being delayed for another week. No explanations, no reasons; just the declaration there was going to be a delay. End of discussion.

But not an end to a considerable amount of activity. If Jonathan Randolph wasn’t showing up at Lancer, Murdoch was making a trip into town to the attorney’s office. There had been two visits to Val Crawford’s office as well.

It had been, for Scott, the longest seven days of his life. In retrospect, even the Hell that had been Libby paled in comparison to spending a full week keeping his younger brother corralled and his father from committing the sin of belated infanticide. Not the easiest thing to accomplish when he, himself -- in order to get through an entire day -- had considered fratricide as an option.

Johnny had been in rare form. No longer content to slam doors shut in an expression of his displeasure at being confined to the house, had taken to slamming them open; enough that the walls in the kitchen, Murdoch’s bedroom, the upstairs bath room and his own bedroom -- as well as his brother’s -- were pock marked, and in some instances devoid of plaster.

Hearing the thump-bump of his brother’s boots in the hallway, Scott moved quickly to his bedroom door; his right arm going out in anticipation of what was coming. As usual, Johnny didn’t bother to knock. No, he simply turned the knob and planted the toe of his boot against the lower door panel and kicked. The blond winced as he caught the swinging door before it impacted the wall.

“The Old Man says I need a tie.” Johnny crossed the threshold like a charging bull.

Scott eased the door wide open. “It is customary, Johnny, to wear a tie when you’re wearing a suit. And I gave you a tie; two weeks ago when Aggie Conway invited us to dinner.”

Already, Johnny was rooting through his brother’s drawers. “Yeah. Well, I lost it. I need another one.” He picked up a monogrammed handkerchief, snorted his disdain, crumpling it up, and tossed it back into the compartment. Giving up, he slammed the drawer shut. “How the Hell am I ‘sposed to ride in this damned thing?” He swept his hand across his jacket and pants; the dark suit -- patiently tailored by Maria to his slim frame -- was a stark contrast to his usual attire. There was no embroidery anywhere, and not one hint of red.

“You are not riding.” Murdoch Lancer entered the room; his countenance grim. “I will be driving the surrey, and you and your brother will be riding with me.”

Scott watched in amazement as his usually proper and polite father followed in Johnny’s wake, foraging the drawers the younger man had just searched. Giving up, the blond went to his armoire, opening the door and selecting a tie from the wooden rack. He chose a black cravat and hoisted it for his brother to inspect. When he saw the glare, he put it back, and picked out another: a string tie.

Murdoch and Johnny both grabbed for the piece of fabric; which Scott successfully kept from being snagged and turned into a thin rope in a tug of war. “I’ll do the honors,” he volunteered. Murdoch actually looked disappointed at not having something to tie around his younger son’s neck; but he relented.

Nimble fingered, Scott made short work of the tie. He smoothed it into place, patting it against his brother’s chest. “Very nice,” he smiled; stepping back to take a good look at his sibling.

Johnny mouthed a silent fuck you. Murdoch saw his jaws working, and popped him on the back of the head.

It was, Scott grimaced, going to be a very…long…day.

~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~

Johnny was no stranger to a courtroom. The first time he had a brush with authorities that had actually put him in front of a judge, he’d been maybe twelve. Like always, he looked a hell of a lot younger, and he had used that to his advantage with the old magistrate; one of those bible-thumping do-gooders who refused to believe that such an innocent looking kid could ever really want to thief and a vagrant. The old man had taken one look at him, hustled him away to his wife, home and hearth, and immediately pointed him down the road to salvation. Johnny listened to the sermon over a big plate of fried chicken, agreeing with everything the man said; then beat it out a rear window when old coot and his Mrs. finally went to bed. He had never looked back.

After that it had just been a case of charming his way out of trouble, paying a fine; or simply snaking his way out between the bars. Once, just for fun, he had actually fucked the sheriff’s daughter to get the key. Had to move hard and fast after that one!

This time, however, something different was going on. He got an inkling of just how different when he realized Randolph was the only lawyer present and that there was no prosecutor. It didn’t help when, at the back of the room, he heard Val Crawford pointedly announce to someone who had knocked on the outer doors that no one was being allowed inside, as what was going on was a closed hearing.

At precisely ten o’clock, the Judge entered from a small door at the rear of the room. He was a tall man, Lincolnesque in countenance and stature, with a full beard generously sprinkled with salt and pepper grey. Apprehensive, Johnny watched as the man took his seat, actually surprised to see someone other than old man Turner, who functioned as circuit judge for the entire county.

“Mr. Randolph,” the man nodded in greeting. His tone was officious, the kind of voice used to giving orders and expecting to be obeyed.

Jonathan Randolph stood up. “Judge Taylor,” he intoned, returning the welcome. “Your honor.” He watched as the man put on his glasses.

The magistrate was shuffling through a stack of papers the clerk had just handed him. “It is my understanding, Mr. Randolph, according to what I see in the documents I have before me, that a plea of guilty to all charges has been entered on behalf of your client. Is that true?”

Randolph nodded. “Yes, your Honor.”

Surprised, Johnny came forward in his seat. “I didn’t plead guilty to nothin!’” Hell, he didn’t even know what all the charges were.

Both the Judge and the attorney ignored the younger man. Taylor spoke again. “I further understand, in addition to the fines for the violations of city ordinances and compensation for medical bills there is also an issue of personal damages?”

Again, Randolph nodded. “Two thousand five hundred dollars in fines and damages, your Honor.” He was quiet a moment, and it appeared he was reviewing his notes. “As of nine o’clock this morning, bank drafts were issued in the appropriate amounts to the individuals and entities involved,” he reached down, picking up an envelope, “and we are prepared -- at the court’s direction -- to disperse those payments accordingly.”

Taylor nodded to his clerk, and pointed to Randolph. Wordlessly, the old man retrieved the envelope and returned it to the judge. Taylor leafed through the drafts, taking time to compare the names to the list that was lying atop his desk. Satisfied, he handed the envelope to the clerk, who dutifully returned the packet to Randolph, who laid it atop the table.

At the judge’s desk, Taylor was neatly arranging the stack of papers he had just been reviewing. Methodically, he set the documents aside, and picked up yet another sheaf of papers. He took his own sweet time examining the files.

Johnny’s right leg was doing its usual dance; the one where, in his need to exorcise the demons that drove him to be constantly moving, he could not control. He understood none of what was going on, and the amount of money that had been bandied about was driving him nuts. Arithmetic wasn’t his strongest suit, unless it was figuring the odds in a hand of poker or at a game of faro; but he was sure of one thing: if his old man had laid out that kind of cash to cover his ass, he was going to expect it back with interest. At thirty dollars a month, he was looking at six years of drawing no wages. And then some. He leaned over, trying to get Randolph’s attention. “What the fuck’s goin’ on?” he demanded; loud enough that everyone heard him.

Randolph just smiled. Murdoch reached a long arm across the railing and cuffed his son’s ear.

Taylor finally finished his long perusal of the papers he now had spread out before him. “It seems, Mr. Randolph, that the only unresolved question remaining is the issue of passing sentence based on the guilty plea. Do you agree?”

Johnny’s temper flared and the dam burst. “I didn’t plead guilty to nothin’!!” he shouted again.

Taylor was rocking back and forth in his high backed chair; his hands folded across his abdomen. Looking over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses, he stared at the young man who was sitting in the chair next to Jonathan Randolph. “It wasn’t necessary for you to plead guilty, young man. As a minor, that decision was made by your father and the attorney he has retained to act on your behalf.”

Minor! Stunned, Johnny’s mouth dropped open. There it was again; that damned word his Old Man and Val tossed at him every chance they got. He immediately tried to stand up; his efforts impeded when Val reached out from behind him and slammed him back into his seat.

Unaffected by the younger man’s outburst, Taylor continued. “Mr. Randolph, I spent several hours last night reviewing the documents relating to this case.” In truth, the documents had been dispatched to his office a week before, when -- at Murdoch’s insistence -- Jonathan Randolph first contacted him. “The most disturbing aspects,” he began shuffling through the papers, “are the seriousness of several of the charges, as well as an obvious disregard by your client for not only existing laws regarding public safety, but for his own safety as well. The word irresponsible comes to mind; and it is that issue of recklessness I find most troubling.” He paused, tenting his fingers beneath his nose; deep in thought. “Based on the multiple charges faced by your client -- two of which under proposed California law will soon be considered felonies --” he paused, offering an explanation “…dueling in any form and unprovoked assault…” and then continued, “as well as information that has been provided regarding this young man’s troubling past, leave me with few choices.”

Randolph was still on his feet. He knew where this was all going. “Among those documents, your Honor, we’ve also provided information regarding the unfortunate circumstances that denied not only this boy, but his father, the opportunity to share what would be considered a normal family life; as well as Mr. Lancer’s continued attempt to find his son and bring him home. There are also sworn statements from individuals who know both parties who attest to the fact that John,” he gestured at the young man without looking at him, “has, since returning home, benefited from being a part of a family.” He turned and motioned towards Murdoch and Scott. “This family.”

Taylor raised his hand, stopping the man. “But has he changed, Mr. Randolph? Has there been any real success in turning him away from his previous life as Johnny Madrid, or his continuing propensity to get into further trouble?”

Johnny was slumped back in his chair, wishing the bullshit would just get over with; wishing to God he was anyplace but here. Listening to the judge and Randolph was like hearing Scott and Murdoch talking; using ten dollar words that gave him a headache.

Murdoch came forward slightly in his seat, his face showing a concern he could not conceal. This wasn’t going in the direction he had expected. What he had paid for.

Taylor again tented his fingers beneath his nose; this time hiding a smile. He shot a quick glance in Murdoch’s direction, nodding imperceptibly, seeing his friend finally relax. “Mr. Randolph, I have some questions about the information you’ve provided regarding Mr. Lancer’s efforts to locate his son and to return the young man to his rightful home. What I don’t understand, is that on at least one occasion according to these documents, it appears it was the boy himself that thwarted his father’s efforts. Is this true?”

Randolph was aware of the young man sitting at his side; the restlessness that was emanating from the boy’s body. “I have a witness that can attest to the fact that, yes, on at least one occasion, Johnny was aware that his father was seeking him, and that he made the conscious choice not to be found. Perhaps if that witness is permitted to testify, we’ll have some understanding of what happened.”

Taylor seemed to be considering the matter. “Is that witness present today, Mr. Randolph?”

The attorney was smiling. “Yes, your Honor.”

Johnny pulled himself erect and then turned in his chair; looking back at his father and brother, then to the other chairs within the room. He saw no-one. He did, however, see something in his father’s face he didn’t like.

Randolph turned, facing Val Crawford. “Sheriff Crawford,” he said, nodding toward the double doors at the front of the room.

Taylor watched as the lawman left his seat and headed toward the doorway. “And does your witness have a name, Mr. Randolph?” he asked, playing the game.

“Yes, your Honor.” Randolph heard the door open. “Mrs. Engels, Mrs. Frederick Engels.”

There was an abrupt, audible whoosh as Johnny suddenly inhaled. He was staring straight ahead. Murdoch watched as his youngest son slid down even farther in his chair; so far that the dark curls at the nape of his neck rested on the top cross piece. Johnny’s gaze was locked on the floor between his booted feet; as if he were counting each grain of wood in the planking.

Val Crawford was standing at the doors at the back of the room. He slid them open, disappearing briefly and reappearing again; his left hand gently cupping the woman’s right elbow as he led her into the room. He remained at her side, coming forward slightly to open the gate that separated the spectators section from the action; relinquishing his hold on her arm as Jonathan Randolph guided her to the witness chair.

Mrs. Engels was sworn in by the clerk, and the judge turned to smile at her. The woman was remarkably calm, the picture of ideal womanhood. Dressed in mourning, her fair skin almost alabaster against the dark, high necked dress. She was wearing a hat, the net veil ending just above her eyebrows. Her eyes -- pale blue, the color of cornflowers -- rested on the bowed head of the young man sitting at the table directly in front of her.

“Mrs. Engels,” Randolph began gently, “is there anything you need before we start? A glass of water, perhaps?”

She shook her head. “No, thank you.”

Johnny’s chin remained on his chest, his eyes lowered, but Scott noticed immediately his younger brother’s breathing had changed. He sensed something akin to panic in his brother, and -- unable to stop himself -- reached out to lay his hand on the boy’s right shoulder. Johnny shrugged his hand away, the ragged intake of breath coming again.

Randolph heard the sound, recognizing it for what it was, and smiled. My game now, Johnny, he mused; my rules. To the woman he said, “Mrs. Engels, do you recognize the young man seated behind me?”

“Yes.” The single word, whisper soft, but somehow filled with strength.

“Can you tell me the circumstances of where and when you first met?” Randolph turned slightly, standing so he could observe the young man as well as the woman.

“He was ill,” she started. “My husband found him hiding in our barn, at our farm just south of Jacumo,” the word came quietly, the pronunciation softly accented. “Frederick saw that he was sick, and brought him into our home so we could help him.”

“I see,” Randolph nodded. “How ill, Mrs. Engels?”

She thought for a moment, clearly deciding how she would answer the question. “There had been an outbreak of scarlet fever in our community. My own children -- my son and my two daughters -- were also ill. Johnny’s condition was, well … more precarious.”

Randolph nodded. “You said his condition was more precarious. Could you clarify that for me, please?”

“Johnny was much worse.” Her brow knotted briefly, and then smoothed. “It was clear that he hadn’t eaten in some time. His clothes were ill-fitting; he was…” She smiled slightly, remembering, “… not exactly fastidious in his appearance.” The last brought a low chuckle from Scott and Val Crawford; a chuckle that immediately ceased with a single withering look from the judge. Johnny shifted in his chair, swearing profusely in Spanish, rewarded for his effort by a sharp smack to the back of his head; cursing again when he couldn’t locate the source.

“Young man,” the judge cautioned.

Randolph hid his own smile with his hand, stroking his mustache. He cleared his throat and continued.

“Could you be more specific, Mrs. Engels?

“We had to bathe him,” she said. Then, seeing the youth’s discomfort, “My husband and son gave him a bath.”

“A bath,” Randolph repeated. He moved on. “He was sick a long time?”

Deborah Engels sighed. “For almost a month,” she breathed.

“And when he recovered?”

Johnny shifted in his chair again, his boots scraping against the floor. He had still not looked at the woman. It was clear from his posture, however, that he was in struggling to stay still.

The woman leaned forward slightly, her gaze still solidly locked on the young man’s dark hair. “He stayed with us,” she declared. “He became a part of our family.”

Randolph loved where this was going, and was fairly prancing as he paced in front of the table. “He was with you a long time, then?”

“Almost five months,” the woman answered.

Her answer -- the fact she had used the words ‘five months’ -- did not escape Murdoch’s notice. The Pinkerton reports on Johnny rarely recorded any extended stays anywhere; more often than not indicating the boy and his mother had constantly been on the move. In some cases, it was simply a matter of days.

“So,” Randolph continued, “Johnny Madrid was living in your home for nearly half a year?”

Mrs. Engels suddenly became more erect in her seat. “That’s not the name we knew,” she declared; stunned.

Randolph feigned surprise. He hesitated briefly, but quickly resumed. Facing the woman, he asked, “And by what name did you know him, Mrs. Engel?”

The woman’s hands were resting in her lap, and she was toying with her handkerchief. “Garrett,” she answered. “John Garrett.”

If, at this particular moment, someone had plucked a feather from an angel’s wing and struck Murdoch across the face, it would have knocked him off his feet. Scott, on the other hand, simply wiped a long-fingered hand across his own face, his blue eyes dancing. You’ve got a set on you, little brother! he thought, seeing the humor in the situation. On second thought, however, he was left with a question that would need answering: just how much of a coincidence was it that his half-brother had chosen his maternal grandfather’s last name as an alias?

“John Garrett,” Randolph echoed. He turned, facing the young man who was sitting at the table; willing the youth to look at him. It didn’t work. Failing to get a rise from Johnny, he turned back to the woman. “And later, Mrs. Engels? Did you discover what the young man’s real…” he stressed the word, “…real name was?”

Mrs. Engels turned, facing the judge. “May I just tell you what happened?” she asked, her eyes lifting to the older man’s face. She was pleading with him; something obviously tugging at her heart that needed expressing.

The judge considered her request. “Yes,” he said finally.

Randolph started to object. When he saw the look on Judge Taylor’s face, he raised his hands in surrender, and returned to his seat.

The woman’s face was earnest; her voice soft. “When Johnny recovered, my husband and I decided we could not allow him to leave. He had been so ill, and during his sickness...” She paused, considering the next, and decided just to continue. “He had terrible nightmares when he was sick; dreams that seemed to terrify him beyond reason. My husband understands …” she corrected herself, remembering that Frederick was gone, “… understood Spanish.

“He told me later, after we decided Johnny should remain with us that the boy was running away from a terrible life.” More softly, “terrible people!” She raised her head, looking directly at Murdoch Lancer. “Not once, when he recovered, would he talk about what happened. Not to me, not to my husband; not even to our son, Nathan.

“So he just became our other child,” she saw Johnny’s head come up ever so slightly, but still could not see his eyes. “He and Nathan were inseparable, and the girls -- Abby and Corinne -- thought of him as their brother.

“He lived in our home, sharing a room with Nathan. He worked beside my husband and my son doing morning chores, and then, after breakfast…”

Randolph saw an opening and stood up. “Yes, Mrs. Engels. Please tell us about what his days were like after your family had breakfast?”

“I was a teacher before I married my husband, Mr. Randolph. And Frederick… Frederick was a graduate of West Point, and he put great store in education. My children were home-schooled.

All my children.”

The attorney was smiling. “Including Johnny.”

“He knew how to read and write. But Frederick insisted Johnny have the same opportunities as our other children. The schedule was the same for all of them. Chores in the morning, breakfast, and then their lessons.”

“Five days a week?” Randolph pressed.

“Yes,” she answered. “Just as if they were attending school in town.”

“And how was Johnny as a student?”

The woman’s reply was instant. “Bright, avaricious; competitive. He couldn’t get enough of new things.” She laughed, then, a particular memory warming her. “Although he didn’t care much for the tedium of arithmetic.”

Randolph inhaled. “This Johnny,” he said, indicating the young man who was now trying his best to make himself invisible. He saw the woman’s nod. “Now, back to when you found out his real name…”

Mrs. Engels did not hesitate this time. “Not until the detectives came,” she answered.

“Can you clarify a bit more, Mrs. Engels?”

“The Pinkertons,” she replied, with obvious distaste. “They came to our home saying they were looking for a boy named Lancer, Johnny Lancer.” She cast another look in Murdoch’s direction. “They weren’t very forthcoming; the Pinkertons.”

“And you discussed this with Johnny?”

Deborah Engels was silent for a moment. “Frederick and I,” she answered. “Later that night.”

“And the results of that conversation?”

This time when the woman spoke, the disappointment was obvious. “We thought we had him convinced he should at least talk to the men. Frederick had told him we would both be there; that we would provide him with an attorney and if he wasn’t … wasn’t comfortable … we would do everything we could to help him. He seemed to agree.”

“Seemed to agree,” Randolph repeated. “What happened?”

A sob escaped the woman’s calm reserve. It was very obvious to everyone in the room the memory was painful. “The next morning, he was gone.”

“He’d run away,” the attorney persisted. Behind him, he could hear Johnny pulling himself erect in his chair. “Just how did he accomplish that, Mrs. Engels; I mean, leaving your home in the dead of night.” More noise from the table at his back.

“He took a horse from the barn,” she answered. She bit her lip. “But it came back the next day!”

Randolph was in front of the woman now, his hands on the railing that separated him from the witness chair. “How did it come back?” he asked gently, smiling.

“It was returned by a neighbor.” The woman knew where this was going and she was not happy. But she was also not about to lie.

“And the neighbor. Did he have anything to say regarding how he came about having your horse?”

Mrs. Engels was not smiling. “Our neighbor was a horse rancher,” she said, trying to make a point and failing. “He had many horses.”

“But one less of his own, after Johnny left your horse in his corral?”

“Frederick and I paid for that animal,” she said, her voice trembling. It was clear that she was angry; not at Johnny, but at the implication regarding what he had done.

Randolph backed away, his smile growing. “Did Johnny leave anything behind when he left?” he asked.

The woman inhaled, sharply. “A note.”

Randolph went back to the table and made a big production of taking a single sheet of paper from his case. “This note?” he asked, waving the offensive sheet of paper in the air before handing it to the judge; who promptly handed it to the woman.

Jesus H. Christ! Johnny thought angrily. What the fuck was it about old women and old men that made them keep every goddamned scrap of paper, lock of hair and piece of string!? He couldn’t help but think of the journals, the family Bible, the first fucking scribbles he had made on the pages of Murdoch’s ledgers -- yeah, the Old Man still had ‘em -- when he was barely old enough to hold a pencil.

“Yes,” the woman answered.

“Would you please read the note, Mrs. Engels?”

She hesitated; and then, looking down she read, “I’m sorry. Thank you for everything. He’s been looking for me for a long time; he can keep on looking. Johnny.”

Scott’s face was a study in varying degrees of consternation. Murdoch’s was a dark mass of barely contained anger that had the large vein in his temple throbbing. The fingers of his right hand were giving his younger son’s right shoulder an unwelcome and obviously painful massage.

“Mrs. Engels,” Randolph continued. “How old was Johnny when he was with your family?”

The woman answered quickly; too quickly as far as Johnny was concerned. “He told us he was sixteen. Our son, Ethan was eighteen at the time, and Frederick and I both thought Johnny was younger; much younger.”

Then, as if he was telling the woman for the first time, Randolph announced, “According to our records, Mrs. Engels, and the records from Pinkerton corresponding with their visit, I think you should know your husband and you were accurate in your assessment. Johnny Lancer was fourteen at the time.” He repeated the word for effect. “Just fourteen.”

Mrs. Engels sighed, loudly. “Oh, Johnny…”

There it was again, he fumed. That fucking disappointment. He made the mistake of trying to brush his father’s hand away.

Murdoch understood now why Randolph had not let him speak with the woman in any great detail. Her testimony had been very effective. He could see it on the judge’s face, and could certainly sense it in his son.

Judge Taylor had also been markedly affected by the woman’s sad tale; as well as her generosity toward a young man who was, apparently, not only a very adept liar but a horse thief. He reached out, taking the note from a woman, reading the brief missive for himself before putting it down on his desk. “Is there anything else, Mr. Randolph?” he asked.

Randolph was sitting next to Johnny again. “No, your Honor.”

Taylor looked across at the woman, and then reached out to pat her arm. “Thank you, my dear,” he breathed. He watched as she stood up and crossed the room; watched as she reached out to touch the boy’s shoulder as she passed him and went to take her seat behind Murdoch Lancer.

The judge -- the entire room -- was very quiet. Too quiet. The magistrate spent what seemed to be an extremely prolonged period of time examining the stack of papers on his desk. “Sheriff Crawford,” he said finally. “I don’t seem to have your report here.”

Val stood up. Johnny stole a sidewise look at his old friend, his eyes widening when the man reached out to Randolph’s desk and picked up what appeared to be a handwritten manuscript. A long manuscript. I wonder how fucking big he had to write to fill that many pages, Johnny thought.

The lawman approached the judge, the two men putting their heads together in deep conversation. Val’s stack of papers disappeared behind the six inch ornately carved wooden facade at the front of the judge’s elevated desk as the discussion continued. Finally, the sheriff returned to his seat; the thick file firmly clenched in his hand. He passed Johnny without looking at him, a faint grin touching the corners of his mouth.

Johnny was sitting with his arms crossed in a tight self-hug. He hadn’t missed the smile, and it didn’t take a Harvard graduate to understand that the man had just screwed him without so much as a peck on his cheek. “Thanks a whole bunch, asshole,” he breathed. Val’s grin was now a smile; his teeth showing.

“Young Mr. Lancer,” the judge intoned; something ominous in his tone. He was peering over the top of his spectacles again, his face severe. “Stand up.”

Johnny remained seated. A sly grin pulled at the corner of his mouth, the blue eyes coming alive. He heard his father whisper in his ear. “He told you to stand up, John.” God, Johnny mused, his breath is on fucking fire! He wondered what color his father’s face was now, and was half way tempted to turn around to see. Deciding it would be wiser to keep staring straight ahead, he nonchalantly got to his feet. “I thought you was talkin’ to Scotty,” he cracked, jerking his thumb in the general direction of his older brother. “That ‘young Mr. Lancer’.”

The judge was not amused. His hands were tipied beneath his nose again, and it was obvious he was thinking. He certainly looked as if he was thinking. Finally, the hands came down. “Do you have any idea, young man, just what I have in front of me?” Johnny was considering an answer and was about to speak, but was effectively cut off by the jurist. “This is quite an impressive file.” Empty hand down; full hand up. “Between the current charges, the records here regarding your recent escapades …” Full hand down, full hand up. Again. “Your past records…

“Are you familiar with the term delinquent, young man?” he asked.

This time, Johnny knew, the man really did want an answer. He knew the definition of the word all right; he’d heard it often enough, and…

…and Frederick Engels had insisted all his children learn at least one new word each day, and be able to define it. ‘Use it in a sentence, Johnny,’ he directed. ‘It will mean nothing to you if you can’t use it properly in a sentence…’

Johnny decided to fib. “Nah,” he answered, shaking his head. “Don’t think I’m familiar with that one.”

Taylor wasn’t buying it. Besides, he had Randolph’s full report at his fingertips. Everything he needed to know about the boy; including the details of his time with the Engels. “Well,” he said softly, “you are about to become acquainted with the word. Specifically, just how it applies to you.” The man was all business now. “Mr. Lancer,” he began, his voice rising slightly, “exactly how old is your son?”

Murdoch was on his feet now. It had been a long wait. “Nineteen, your Honor,” he answered, “this past December.”

Taylor was shuffling papers again. “So he has not reached his majority?”

Murdoch again. “No, sir, he has not.”

Johnny was beginning to sweat. The perspiration had nothing to do with the temperature in the room. The young man was still on his feet, only his stance had changed. He wasn’t feeling quite so cocky anymore, and it showed in his posture.

Taylor had noticed the change in the younger man’s demeanor, and he was enjoying what he was seeing. Still, his old friend Murdoch Lancer deserved to have the agony prolonged. “Delinquent,” he repeated the word, enunciating it with the sublime dedication of a linguist pronouncing a difficult word for a recalcitrant (perhaps, slow) child. “‘A person who neglects or fails to do what law or duty requires.’” He stared down at the younger man, enjoying the view.

“Mr. Lancer.” He was addressing Murdoch again; yet another part of the plan. “Many of these infractions,” he waved the fist full of papers he was holding, “occurred while your son was in your care; is that not so?”

Properly aggrieved, Murdoch nodded his head. “It’s true,” he admitted. “My mistake.” He smiled.

Taylor had put the papers down, and now appeared to be writing something. “But many more of these infractions occurred when the young man was without your supervision?”

Again, Murdoch nodded his head. “Also true,” he confessed. “His mistake.” This time the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Johnny was beginning to feel like he was between that proverbial rock and a hard place. His hands were at his sides, his fingers busy, the forefinger of his right hand working against his right thumb.

Taylor scratched his chin. “So what we have here is a juvenile delinquent,” again pronouncing the word and dragging it out. “Hmmm.” The pause was nothing more than yet another overture designed to add drama to the play. “Does it not appear, Mr. Lancer, that standing before us is a young man in serious need of, shall we say, strong paternal guidance?”

Val Crawford, who hadn’t been this moved since the last time he had been saved at a tent meeting, let his voice be heard. “Amen!” Scott nearly fell to the floor in laughter.

Murdoch spoke again, his voice lowering. “Yes, your Honor. It certainly does appear that’s what he needs.”

Taylor was really getting into it; playing the part as if the matter hadn’t already been resolved. “Mr. Lancer, do you feel that you could now diligently provide that direction?”

The answer came instantly. “Yes, your Honor, I do.”

Taylor leaned back in his chair. He was all business now, and Johnny could tell it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Mr. Lancer, I am going to place your son on probation,” the man thought he could actually see Johnny’s ears perk up, and he decided to pin them back. “I am placing him in your custody. He will remain in your custodial care until such time as he reaches his majority. I believe you said he’s nineteen?”

“Nineteen,” Murdoch echoed. He cleared his throat. “In fact, he will not reach his majority for one year, nine months, three weeks and four days.”

Johnny was shaking his head. He had no doubt his Old Man, if he had a mind to, could state the time until his twenty-first birthday down to the minutes and the seconds. “Oh, no,” he started, suddenly aware of what was occurring, “Ain’t no fuckin’ way in hell that’s going to happen!!”

Taylor was already restacking the papers he had been fussing with; his face mirroring the same smile that was pasted on Murdoch Lancer’s face. “Your father, or the county jail, son.” When he saw the look on the younger man’s face, he continued. “That’s right, boy. You so much as spit on the sidewalk, walk through the front door of a saloon without your father’s permission or in the company of your elder brother,” the list was growing, “utter so much a single curse word -- in Spanish or English -- and Sheriff Crawford is going to…

Val finished for him, “…throw your sorry ass in jail. For whatever time’s left on your probation.” It was an empty threat considering the circumstances of the deal that had been cut, but he knew from the look on Johnny’s face the kid had no idea it wouldn’t happen.

Taylor simply nodded. Again, he was busy with his papers. “It’s customary, Mr. Randolph, that the court appoint an individual to supervise the terms of the probation,” he said without looking up; “to assure all requirements are met.” He was smiling when he raised his head. “No offense, Mr. Lancer.”

“None taken,” Murdoch responded. It was quite clear Taylor was going to make sure he got his money’s worth. “I believe Jonathan -- Mr. Randolph -- and Sheriff Crawford have conferred regarding those arrangements, and have reached an accord. With a third party; a neutral third party.”

Johnny snuck a look at his father. He had a feeling that his Old Man had another ace up his sleeve and was about to play it. The sound of someone clearing their throat at the back of the room caught the youth’s attention, and he turned his head to check out the source.

It was then that Reverend McIntyre, the new minister who had just accepted the post as pastor of Green River’s church, rose up from his seat. “Reverend McIntyre, your Honor,” he said by way of introduction, his voice carrying throughout the room. “Mr. Randolph and Sheriff Crawford have asked if I would be willing to accept the responsibility to see that,” he smiled, “young Mister Lancer complies with the court’s wishes.”

The judge was rocking back and forth in his chair again, like an old man enjoying his retirement on a front porch rocker. “And you’ve had some experience dealing with strong-willed young boys?” he asked.

McIntyre nodded. A dapper man, compactly built and in his prime, with only a hint of grey showing in his hair and neatly trimmed beard, he smiled broadly as he responded. “Before the War,” he began, “I was chaplain at Virginian Military Institute.” What he didn’t say was that he served with distinction as a Major for the Confederacy. “Strong-willed young men were a daily challenge.”

It was clear from Taylor’s expression he was impressed. “And you have formulated some plan -- a schedule -- for monitoring our young delinquent?” he asked.

The Reverend’s eyes were bright with humor and anticipation. “Yes, your Honor. I am proposing a weekly meeting with John Lancer.” His smile grew as he nodded in Murdoch’s direction. “Mr. Lancer, his son, Scott, and his ward, Teresa are members of my congregation, and attend services regularly. My plan -- with your approval, of course -- is to meet with John every Sunday, immediately following our morning service.”

Johnny closed his eyes and mouthed a series of very quiet curses. This was just getting fucking better and better.

There was a harsh crack as Taylor slammed his gavel against the top of his desk. “Done!” he said. He stood up. “I will review the case in thirty days. Court’s adjourned.” The fact that what had just transpired was only marginally legal mattered not one whit.

Jonathan Randolph was gathering up his papers when Murdoch opened the gate separating the spectators seating area from the attorney’s table and pulled his boy to him. He took the younger man by the arm, his grip firm; a broad smile gracing his countenance. “We’re going home, son. All together; just one big, happy family.” The man was actually gloating.

Johnny thoroughly understood his father was not issuing a polite invitation to a Lancer fiesta; and it was also clear his Old Man was feeling pretty damned smug. He wasn’t sure just how it had happened, but he knew deep in his gut the game he and his father had been playing since his return home had just changed; and the Old Man was the one who had managed to rewrite the rules. A smile touched his lips, bringing the warmth of pure mischief to his eyes. Code of the west, he thought. It was just a matter of doing it to them before they did it to you. Leave it to the Old Man to figure it out.

He was already making a plan.

Scott was with them now, and read the look. Taking his brother’s other arm; he joined his father as they led Johnny out of the building; neither one of them about to let go. Leaning in close to his brother’s ear, he whispered, “You aren’t going anywhere, little brother. At least not until you explain to me how John Garrett,” the word came through clenched teeth, “became Johnny Madrid.”

Johnny’s eyes closed briefly, and he shook his head. Oh, shit.







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