Disclaimer: Can’t think of one right now, other than I’m just in the mood.
Mere inches separated the brothers’ bedrolls. They lay on their backs beneath a rising full moon, neither one of them asleep. The adrenalin was still pumping, the flush of excitement still prickling just beneath their skin, their hearts still beating a bit faster than normal.
Johnny was the first to speak. Aware their father was sprawled out on his own blankets less than a yard away, he was whispering. “You asleep, Boston?” he asked. The air had cooled considerably at the higher elevations above the hacienda, and his words came with a puff of white vapor against the night air.
Scott’s hands were behind his head, his fingers entwined. “No,” he answered, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Johnny, he sensed, was still tightly wound, like an alarm clock poised to go off. Knowing his brother was far too restless to sleep and there was going to be more conversation, he was content to wait.
There was a subtle sound as Johnny shifted on his pallet. He had hoped Scott would take the bait when he called out using the label his brother found so annoying. Elbow cocked, he rested his right cheek against his right palm and tried again. “I thought we were goners for sure,” he murmured. “Them stupid, damned cows took off like a pack of wolves was after ‘em.” A prolonged sigh came as his voice lowered even more. “I could feel that ground shakin’ like…”
“…like the world was coming to an end, and we were about to be swallowed up in some great dark hole?” Scott interrupted, the words coming softly. There was something pensive in the young man’s voice, memories of the hell he had survived during a Confederate shelling a vivid picture in his mind. The battlefield had been cratered by the heavy canon fire, holes deep enough to devour a mounted man.
Johnny’s face was bathed in the soft, pale moonlight. He nodded. “When Barranca stumbled. If he’d a gone down…”
Scott turned to face his brother. “Did you see Murdoch?” he whispered. “And Cip?” The awe was in his voice. “Both of them, out there right in the middle of it, sitting astride their horses like they were glued to their saddles, dodging the horns as easily as if they were simply hazing a single calf across the corral …”
Johnny levered himself up. When he finally settled, he was sitting Indian-style with his legs folded, his elbows resting on his knees. He could feel the excitement again, the stirring within his heart that heightened his senses and swept away all the fatigue. “We didn’t do so bad either, brother,” he bragged. “Kept right up with those old coots, pushin’ through all that beef, turnin’ that old Mexican mossback and the rest of ‘em away from the rim, back to the water!”
The exhilaration was catching, and Scott was now sitting up too, knee to knee with his sibling. “Did you feel it, Johnny?” he whispered, leaning in closer, “the fear your luck had finally run out, and this time the Devil was going to collect his due?”
The younger man laughed, softly. “Shit, yes,” he answered honestly. “I could feel old Nick breathin’ down my neck like he was figurin’ on shovin’ me right through the gates of Hell himself!” His smile told the story, he had enjoyed the chaos, the breath-taking thrill of once more living on the edge. His chin dipped against his chest. “It was like bein’ on the job again, brother,” he breathed. “In the middle of a fire fight, not knowin’ what the Hell was goin’ to happen next, who was tryin’ to take you down…” the words drifted off, the thought interrupted. Then, feeling a need to change the subject, “So why the Hell did you join the army, Scott?”
Scott’s back straightened as he suddenly tensed. Where did that come from? he wondered. Sensing the question could be turned around on the asker, he decided to play the game. “If you’re looking for a simple answer, Johnny, there isn’t one.” He was silent a moment, his long fingers interlaced as he rested his elbows on his knees. “Belief in a cause,” he continued. “The need to find a friend everyone else thought was dead.” He took a deep breath. “An even greater need to be my own man, to make my own way in a world of my choosing, not one dictated by the desires of another.”
In the darkness, the brother’s posture and position mirrored one another’s. If they had been sitting back to back, Scott mused, they would have made an intriguing set of bookends. He resumed speaking, his tone softening. “From the time I was a small boy, Grandfather surrounded me with stories about how America began. He read histories to me, biographies of men like Washington, Lafayette, and John Paul Jones. All the great military heroes, all the important battles.”
He stifled a laugh. “I spent hours playing with my soldiers,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “My lead – not tin – soldiers, brother.”
Recognizing the gentle rebuke, Johnny snorted and averted his eyes, his cheeks coloring. Between the snide remarks he’d made about his brother’s apparel and his plan to defeat Pardee, he reckoned he deserved a portion of humble pie. Not that he was going to apologize or anything. “Playin’ what?” he prodded, looking up.
“War,” Scott answered. “I’d set them all out – the infantry, the artillery and the cavalry – and then recreate everything I had heard or read.” Reaching out, he smacked his brother’s knee with the back of his hand. “Which, brother, is where I honed my extremely impressive skills for strategizing, and for carrying out my equally remarkable and successful plans.”
Another indignant snort from the younger brother. “Yeah. Well, you had your plan, and I had mine.”
Leaning in closer, Scott did an excellent job of feigning disdain. “May I remind you, little brother, your plan ended up with you getting shot and almost dying?” He punctuated the remark with a solid thump of his rigid forefinger against his sibling’s chest.
Johnny knocked his brother’s hand aside. “We were talkin’ about you and why you joined the army,” he groused, piqued at being reminded of his near-death experience. “Get ‘er said.”
“I wanted adventure,” Scott responded. He canted his head towards his brother. “I wanted to be part of all those things I had read about, the battles, the cavalry charges. To be the one who routed the enemy, who led my men to victory and vanquished the powers of darkness.” He chuckled, softly. “I wanted to be a hero.”
“That how you came to be a Lieutenant, and servin’ with Sheridan?” Johnny asked.
Scott shook his head, not in denial, but in amusement. “No,” he drug out. “That was Grandfather’s plan, not mine.” He was quiet for a brief moment. “Grandfather fought my enlistment,” he resumed, “and I had to resort to a little deception, brother, to accomplish the deed.”
Now Johnny was interested, very interested. His brother could be pretty damned sneaky at times. “How little?” he prodded.
The blond hung his head. Thinking back, he’d actually been extremely deceptive in going against his Grandfather’s wishes. “It wasn’t uncommon, Johnny, for people of means to hire people to fight in their place. In fact, Grandfather paid a considerable sum of money for a surrogate to serve in my stead.
“I thought it was wrong, paying someone to take my place, perhaps to even die. So…” the hesitation was there again. “Grandfather was having me followed. He used his influence to make sure all the recruitment centers in or near Boston were aware of the fact his under-aged grandson was attempting to enlist, and offered a generous cash incentive to stop that from happening.”
Johnny leaned in even closer to his brother. This was gettin’ interestin’, damned interestin’. “So?” he encouraged, “and don’t leave nothin’ out!” The idea of his brother defying Harlan Garrett – of actually pulling the old bastard up short – was something he really wanted to hear. Especially after the fiasco that had occurred when Garrett had visited and attempted to entice Scott back to Boston using Julie; and when that failed, bringing the Degans into the mess.
Nope, the boy thought. If he ever saw Ol’ Harlan standin’ in the middle of street on fire, he’d toss kerosene on him before he’d go lookin’ for any water. Murdoch and Scott may have forgiven the old bastardo for his down and dirty dealings, but the pain Johnny still felt at the memory of his brother’s departure was still too fresh for any similar charity.
Scott knew what Johnny was thinking and wasn’t about to go there. He continued. “Anyway, one morning, instead of going to class, I slipped the agent who was tailing me. I headed for the nearest railroad station, bought a ticket, and headed for Baltimore, Maryland. I enlisted, was assigned to a regiment, and told to report to Boston for orders.” He smiled. “Once I got back to Boston, it was a done deal. I made a point of showing up in uniform at a formal dinner Grandfather was attending – a political gathering in support of the Union effort – making my way through the receiving line until I got to where Grandfather was standing.” The smile grew. “He was with Mayor Lincoln – no relation to the President – Congressman Thomas, a junior officer representing General Hooker, and another officer whose name I don’t remember.
“I saluted the officers, and then shook hands with Grandfather.” His eyes were dancing now at the memory.
“No shit!” Johnny snorted. He jammed his fisted right hand against his mouth to stifle the sound and then cast a wary look in their father’s direction. Relieved Murdoch was still sleeping, he turned back to his brother, his voice lowering. “What happened?” He could see it so clearly in his head, his immaculately turned out brother towering above the shorter men, standing out in the crowd.
Scott stretched both arms above head and shifted position, straightening his legs before drawing his knees up to his chest. “Grandfather recovered very nicely,” he replied. “Everyone was congratulating him on my enlistment, heaping praise on the Garrett name.”
Behind them, Murdoch Lancer shifted slightly on his pallet, attentively listening to what was being said. He had been awake for some time, had, in fact, been listening intently to his boys. Scott’s distinctive voice carried well in the night-time quiet, but Johnny’s soft drawl made it difficult to hear everything his younger boy was saying.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he focused on his brother’s face. “Garrett name?” he echoed.
Scott nodded. “I’ll make a long story short, Johnny.” There was something cautionary in his voice, his tone. “I grew up using the Garrett name. It’s just how it was. And it didn’t change, at least not until I enlisted.” He smiled across at his brother. “One more way of circumventing Grandfather’s interference in my plans.”
A low whistle escaped the younger man’s lips. “Bet the old bast… coot wasn’t too happy findin’ that out,” he snickered.
Scott laughed. “You, brother, are – as always – a master of understatement. Grandfather was livid and determined to make me pay.” He shrugged. “He used his influence to assure I was assigned to a non-combat position, first training cavalry recruits, most of whom had never ridden, and then the assignment as Sheridan’s aide.”
Johnny’s expression was thoughtful. He didn’t know much about the conflict, other than the fact the French in Mexico had been sympathetic to the South. What he was aware of, though, was that the bitterness that still remained between the Yankees and the Rebels sometimes erupted into violence. He shook the thought away. “Don’t seem that it was all that safe, you bein’ with Sheridan and then endin’ up in prison,” he ventured.
There was a long silence between the brothers, marked only by the sound of their breathing. The full moon was beginning to wane on the distant horizon, but neither young man was ready to surrender to the darkness or to sleep. The memory of the stampede that had occurred the previous afternoon was still too vivid, too fresh in their minds to allow them to fully relax.
Scott was the first to break the silence. “I wasn’t with Sheridan when I was captured,” he said finally, his voice changing.
Johnny’s head came up. Something in Scott’s demeanor, a coldness in his tone so unlike his usual calm put the younger man on alert. “But the picture,” he began, a slow smile quirking the corners of his mouth, “you all suited up and lookin’ pretty…”
The blond reached out, cuffing his brother’s left ear. “Sheridan had the picture taken at Grandfather’s bidding, right after he agreed to accept my request for transfer.”
“Transfer where,” Johnny prompted. “I mean, you servin’ with a big shot General, and bein’ a lieutenant and all…”
Scott’s face was awash with the pale glow from the full moon, his features softened by the muted light. He chuckled. “Let me tell you something about shave-tail lieutenants, little brother. In the grand scheme of things – in an army as vast as the Army of the Potomac – a junior grade lieutenant…” he sucked in a lungful of air, “…was about as significant as a nit, on a flea, on God’s ass.”
Johnny’s eye widened at his brother’s words. Scott, by nature, was prone to a more genteel manner of speaking. Well, unless he was pushed to the limits of his fraternal patience. And Johnny prided himself on his ability to push and push hard. “Meanin’?”
“Meaning I could remain with Sheridan and continue to function as a glorified clerk,” the remembered words brought a smile, “or I could do what I had intended all along. Grab life by the throat and live what I had dreamt, and do it without giving a damn about what I was leaving behind!” The smile grew, his tone intensifying. “I wanted adventure, Johnny, adventure and excitement.” He was quiet a moment, his voice lowering to a whisper. “I wanted to be like Clay Porter.”
The mention of Clay Porter’s name surprised Johnny. He knew Scott’s friend, knew that Porter had served in the Army, but beyond that… “Why Porter?” he inquired.
Scott leaned slightly to the left, reaching out to pick up the blue-speckled enamel coffee pot that had been setting on the grate above the banked campfire. It was still hot to the touch, and he helped himself to a cup of the potent brew. He took a drink and then passed the mug off to his brother. “Clay could have set out the war in Boston,” he answered. “He chose instead to enlist. And then, rather than become a part of the rank and file, he volunteered to work behind enemy lines.”
Johnny took a swig of the coffee, wincing a bit at the bitter taste of chicory. “You sayin’ he was a spy?” He had mixed emotions about the trade: he and his friends in Mexico had been betrayed by a man they had trusted, and it had almost cost him his life.
Scott nodded his head. “But not just a spy, Johnny. Clay’s family had built bridges all throughout the south, railroad bridges. Clay knew where they were, intimately knew every detail of their construction.” He tapped his brother’s hand and gestured for the cup.
“He blew up his family’s bridges?” Johnny guessed, grinning full out when his brother nodded a single time. “Jesus! That’d be right up there with takin’ a man’s money and then workin’ for the other side!” The thought made him laugh.
It was the opening Scott had been waiting for, and he jumped right in. “Are you telling me, brother, that you actually did something so ignoble? That you allowed some poor soul to hire you, only to have you align yourself with the enemy?”
Johnny grabbed the mug from his brother and drained the last of the coffee. “We were talkin’ about you and why you joined the army,” he groused.
“Cavalry,” Scott corrected. “And I’m all talked out, brother. It’s your turn.” He wrestled the tin cup away from his brother’s fingers, and refilled the container. The coffee was still reasonably hot but bottom-of-the-pot strong. “Why did you decide to become a gunfighter?”
Shit, Johnny cursed. He had expected the question, but he wasn’t sure if he was really ready to answer. “You gonna drink all that coffee yourself, or are you gonna share?”
Scott was familiar with his brother’s habit of creating diversions. “Of course, I’ll share.” He handed the cup off, stretched his arms above his head, and then lay back against his saddle, stifling a yawn. “You can have it all,” he mumbled. “If we’re done, I’m going to try and get some sleep.” He pulled his blanket up to his chin and closed his eyes, immediately aware of the sound of his brother’s fingers tapping restlessly against the sides of the tin cup.
The one-two-three thumping of fingertips against the still-full cup was soon accompanied by a long, quavering sigh. When there was no response, Johnny began to fidget. He crossed and uncrossed his legs, snuggled his compact butt deeper into his bedroll, began sweeping imaginary bits of litter from his blanket. And then he rearranged his saddle.
Nothing. Scott appeared to be oblivious to everything around him, his chest rising and falling, his breathing even, as if deep in sleep.
Johnny was wide awake. The sudden bleat of a calf and the weary snort of its mother put him on alert, and he tensed. Fuckin’ cows, he thought, remembering he still didn’t know what had caused the stampede. He stared off into the twilight, finally relaxing when he heard the calf suckling.
He choked back a sudden snort of laughter as visions of an impending stampede kaleidoscoped across his mind: the cow running full out with the calf still attached to her teat…
“Do you mind?” Scott grumbled, turning on his side with his back to his sibling. “I was just about to fall asleep.” It was a lie, but well told.
Johnny settled. “I hated the way people looked at me and Mama, hated the way were always movin’ around,” he sighed. “One day the same as the next, nothin’ changin’. Same tired towns, same people lookin’ at us like we were dirt, like we would always be dirt.” He reached out, giving his brother’s shoulder a shake. “I wanted things to change, to be better. I wanted adventure,” he grinned, teasing Scott with his own words. “I wanted to be a hero.”
Expectant, Scott turned over onto his back, and rose up on his elbows. “I guess I can assume you didn’t play with toy soldiers,” he surmised.
The younger man shook his head. “Naw,” he breathed, chuckling. “Didn’t have that many toys, Scott.” The right-hand corner of his mouth quirked up in a mischievous grin, his cheek dimpling, no bitterness in his expression or his tone. “Had a stick and a scorpion,” he continued, “and a Gila monster once.” He picked up a twig from the ground and made several jabs at an exposed rock. “Poke ‘em just right, they can really dance, but, boy, do they get pissed…” He tossed the small stick into the fire.
Scott levered himself into a sitting position. “Idiot,” he muttered. He had no trouble at all envisioning his baby brother annoying the hell out of a potential killer. “What kind of hero?”
Johnny was quiet for a moment. “I was five,” he began. “Mama was dancin’ in a cantina.” He shifted, drawing his legs up to his chest, his chin resting on his forearms. “She met this man…” his brow furrowed as he considered his next words, silently wondering if a half truth was the same as a half lie. He knew he had to be careful.
Scott’s expression was pensive. Johnny had only recently begun to share anything about his past, and then only because he was fishing, trying to find out what – if anything – he had disclosed during his fevered recovery from Pardee’s bullet. Reaching out, Scott touched his brother’s arm. “I’ve seen the picture Murdoch has of you and your mother,” he murmured. “She was an incredibly beautiful woman, brother.”
Embarrassed, the younger man averted his eyes. “Yeah,” he responded, appreciating the words. Scott wasn’t someone prone to idle conversation: when he said something, it was genuine, real. “She was a hell of a dancer, too.” When he looked up, he was smiling. “Anyway, she met this guy – a Texas gringo,” he trilled the r. “He wasn’t like the others…” His head dipped again, his eyes hidden by his hair. Swallowing, he continued.
“He took us home, Scott. Me and Mama.” He was leaving out a lot of the how and the why. And he sure in Hell wasn’t about to tell the ‘who’. “Jesus. He taught me so many things. How to work horses…” the words faded as he remembered the little black mare, Soledad, and how he had cried like a fucking baby when his mother sold her.
Scott could sense his brother was withdrawing into himself. “Like how you worked Barranca?” he prompted gently.
It was enough to bring the younger man back to the here and now. “Yeah, just like that,” he grinned. He took a deep breath. “He sent me to school, Scott. Read to me, told me I could have the best of two worlds if I learned to read and write in Spanish and English. He made me feel…important. Like I really counted for something.”
Carefully, Scott reached out to check the coffee pot, a sloshing sound coming as he shook the container. He emptied the remainder of the brew into the cup they had been sharing, taking a sip before passing it off. The jolt to his system was instant. “Go easy on that, brother,” he cautioned.
Johnny ignored the warning and chugged the contents of the mug. “Whoa,” he shuddered.
Grinning, Scott leaned in closer to his brother. “So, this… Texas gringo…” his pronunciation perfectly mimicked his sibling’s, “just exactly what did he have to do with you deciding to become a gunfighter?”
Damn, Johnny thought. He hesitated and then decided to go on. “He worked as a…” his eyes narrowed as he debated the next words. “Oh hell, Scott. He sold his gun, hired on to ramrod men when there was a problem, when someone needed somethin’ more than talk to take care of business.”
Scott took a deep breath. “You do know, brother, you could be describing Pardee?”
Johnny’s head jerked up. “He wasn’t nothin’ like Pardee!” he hissed vehemently. “Don’t you ever say he was like Pardee!!”
Shocked by his brother’s response, the intensity of the boy’s anger, Scott raised his right hand. “What made him different, Johnny,” he asked gently. “What made him a hero?”
The youth was breathing heavily and he had fisted his hands. He consciously fought for control. When his breathing calmed, he finally spoke. “He was good at whatever he did, not just the trade. People respected him,” he murmured, “stepped aside when he passed, listened to him when he talked.
“When he finished his last job, he put his money into the land, into livestock. He wanted to build something, planned on breedin’ horses, cattle.” His voice lowered, as did his head. “Planned on me and Mama bein’ part of it.”
“What happened, Johnny?” Scott’s hand was now resting on his brother’s shoulder.
Johnny laughed, the sound filled with bitter irony. A myriad of thoughts waterfalled through his mind, old memories coming to the fore. The house at San Luís, Señora Fuentes and her family, his full belly and the security of a good man’s arm around his shoulder, or a firm hand across his ass end when he got out of line.
His mother’s ultimate betrayal.
“She ran,” he whispered, choking back the familiar sting at the back of his throat and cursing himself for his weakness, angry that after all this time it still hurt, as if he was being repeatedly stabbed in his heart. He repeated the words, louder this time, the disappointment and pain evident. “She ran.” He looked up at his brother. “Doped me up with laudanum, packed me in the buggy, and took off.”
Scott studied his brother carefully, watching as the young man wrapped his arms around his knees and drew them even closer to his chest before burying his head against his crossed arms. “How long, Johnny? How long were you with this man?”
Johnny’s right shoulder hitched in a small shrug. “Not long enough,” he murmured. He was quiet for a long moment. “Couple of years later, he found me…” the smile came then as he remembered the meeting, “…well, we kinda found each other.”
Scott waited. Mentally, he neatly catalogued a long list of questions he wanted to ask. When Johnny remained quiet, he decided to risk asking the one that troubled him the most. “And then the three of you picked up where you left off?” he pressed quietly.
Johnny laughed. The sound was caustic, bitter. “No, not the three of us. Hell, Mama was long gone by then,” he snorted. “Shit,” he smiled across at his brother, no humor in the grimace, his tone sarcastic. “I was weaned. Quick enough to steal most of what I needed, find a place to sleep outta the weather.” He shrugged. “Wasn’t any big deal.”
The blond’s jaws tensed. He’d seen children during the War who were homeless, some of whom had been separated from their families, others who had been simply thrown away. “How old were you, brother?”
Another one-shouldered shrug. “Eight, maybe nine,” Johnny answered. Had it only been ten years? There were times when it felt like a hundred.
Scott could tell from Johnny’s tone, the flatness in his voice, his brother was once again close to withdrawing. “Gunfighting,” he said, reaching out to smack his sibling’s knee with the back of his hand. “We were talking about why you became a gunfighter.” He smiled. “Enough of the detours,” he chided. “And don’t leave anything out!”
Reminded of his own admonition to Scott, Johnny laughed. “Wanted the same kind of respect,” he announced. “Wanted to know what it was like to walk down a street and have people step aside to let me pass without all the small talk.” He hesitated, his tone wistful. “Wanted the chance to make enough money to buy me a place of my own someday…”
Scott’s right eyebrow arched. Johnny wasn’t one to save money, and until recently, hadn’t displayed any real confidence in the fact he could have a future. “Like your gringo friend,” he asked. It occurred to him then, what Johnny had said about the man coming back into his life.
“Did he take you back to his ranch, Johnny?” he asked.
Johnny debated his answer. “He didn’t have the ranch no more,” he replied, the words whisper soft. “Sold the place so he had the money to track me and Mama. Not that it did him any good. Mama was as good at hidin’ as she was as runnin’.”
“But you said he found you again,” Scott reminded.
“Said we kinda found each other,” Johnny came back. “Southern Arizona,” he continued. “Durin’ that War of yours. He was in the army then, the Confederate Army, bringin’ gold up out of Mexico to help pay for the fightin’.” He ducked his head. “He caught me tryin’ to steal his horse.”
Scott laughed. “My brother, the horse thief,” he chuffed.
Johnny swung at his brother’s head. “It was a really good horse, pendejo (asshole). And I was kinda in a hurry. It wasn’t all that long after I…resigned… from the Army!”
The blond’s laughter increased. “Please,” he guffawed, “and you were how old?”
Johnny made a face. He would have stuck out his tongue, but it didn’t seem all that manly. “Hell, brother,” he made a sweeping gesture with his right hand, “French army would come tearin’ through a village, grab every man that was still breathin’, hand ‘em a rifle, and put ‘em in the front line. The next week, the Mexicans would sweep in from the other direction, latch on to any kid big enough to beat one of them damn marchin’ drums, put them right up front, too.”
Scott’s expression sobered. The memory of a young drummer – a shanty Irish boy from Boston’s tenement district – came to him like a blow to his chest. It was a heart rendering recollection, made all the more horrifying by the fact the youth had been dark-haired and blue-eyed just like his brother.
Shrapnel had severed the boy’s head as clean as a kitchen maid’s axe. The drumming had immediately ceased, but the youngster had taken several steps forward before collapsing to the ground.
“Mexican army or the French,” Scott asked, forcing the dark memory back into the same shadowy closet in his mind where so many other bitter memories were locked away.
“Mexican,” Johnny shrugged. “Three days after they marched us off, we met up with the French. They fired, took down the whole front line. I hit the ground with the rest of ‘em, and played dead.” Without realizing it, he rubbed his upper left arm, at the place where a bullet had grazed him. “That night, I took off and never looked back. No way in hell I was goin’ to face off some bastard and not be able to shoot back.” He laughed.
“Army deserter and horse thief,” Scott teased, shaking his head. “You do know those are both hanging offenses.”
Johnny snickered. “Only if they catch you.”
They sat for a time in companionable silence. Scott had picked up a piece of kindling, and was poking at the bright orange embers of the campfire, sighing a bit as he realized it wouldn’t be all that much longer before Murdoch would be up and fussing with the coffee pot. “The Texan,” he began. “Is he the one who taught you how to use a gun?”
Silence. And then Johnny shifted on his blanket, puffed out a deep breath. “Not at first,” he answered. “But later…” His brow furrowed as he struggled with the next, not wanting to lie, but not quite ready to tell the entire story. The cost had been far too high. “He taught me what I needed to know to stay alive,” he said finally. It was obvious from his tone the conversation was over.
Mentally, Scott was assessing what his brother had shared during their long talk. Like Murdoch, he had assumed Johnny’s mother was dead, but now he wasn’t sure. But what kind of woman could abandon a child, a child she had stolen away from his father? He dismissed the thought, concentrating on the other facts, of which there were damned few.
All he knew for certain was that during the boy’s fractured childhood, Johnny had been cared for, nurtured. That a man – a Texas gringo – had encouraged his brother to embrace his heritage and had offered the boy some guidance. A Texan, he ticked off. A man good at his trade who was guided by a sense of decency and integrity.
It came like a bolt of summer lightning. Val Crawford, Scott thought immediately. The chameleon-like lawman who put forth a blustery good-old-boy façade but who was compassionate enough to support the off-spring of a man he had killed in the line of duty and allowing them to maintain their dignity. And who, on occasion, could quote the classics and play a wicked game of chess.
Who was also the one man, other than Murdoch, who could – and would – call Johnny to task when necessary, get him to toe the line.
In Scott’s mind, it all began to make sense. Johnny’s connection to Crawford had been obvious from the very beginning. It was a closeness that had caused both he and Murdoch no small degree of frustration, and more than a measure of jealousy.
And now this. Val Crawford had known Johnny’s mother. Scott inhaled, considering the ramifications of what he was thinking, what he had deduced.
Val Crawford had slept with Murdoch’s wife.
It was a sobering thought. He understood now Johnny’s reluctance to discuss his relationship with Val, or the circumstances of their meeting.
“Hey, Scott?” Johnny was lying back against his saddle.
Johnny yawned. He had picked up his Stetson, and it was now covering his eyes. “You still got them tin soldiers?”
Scott turned to glare in mock disdain at his sibling. “Lead soldiers,” he corrected. “All of them,” he continued, “including some pieces I purchased after the War. I have them in that trunk you helped me take up to the tower room, you know, the one you tried to jimmy the lock on.”
Not one bit embarrassed over his annoying cat-like curiosity, Johnny perked up a bit. He lifted his hat away from his eyes to peer up at his brother. “Yankees and Johnny Rebs?”
“Winners and losers,” Scott sniped, grinning, his next words filled with bravado. “Someday, when I have a son of my own, I’ll take them out and show him just exactly what it was his father did to preserve the Union.”
The brunet guffawed. “I’d like to be around for that little fandango,” he teased. The corners of his mouth were twitching. “Might not be a bad idea to practice some before that kid gets here,” he challenged. “Hell, if I’d been fighting for the Rebs, it might have turned out different.”
It was Scott’s turn to laugh. “Johnny Madrid as Johnny Reb,” he scoffed. “After only three days in the Mexican army?”
“Well, I sure in Hell wouldn’t have fought for the North,” Johnny shot back. “I mean, you can’t get much more south than Mexico, ya know.” He grinned widely, shaking a finger at his brother. “Just sayin’.” He leaned back against the saddle and pulled the hat back over his eyes.
Scott launched himself in his brother’s direction, effectively pinning the younger man to the ground. Johnny bucked against his brother, and the wrestling commenced. The horseplay was reasonably subdued as both young men made a commendable effort to keep their good-natured battle private.
Groaning softly, Murdoch Lancer threw his blanket aside. Noiselessly, he levered himself up from the ground, stretching to work the kinks out his back. Beyond him, closer to the fire, he could clearly make out his sons, the muted sounds of their scuffle causing him to smile. He pulled on his boots.
If the Patrón felt any guilt about his eavesdropping, it wasn’t obvious. Inwardly, the older man was pleased he wasn’t as deaf as his sons’ assumed, and grateful for the bits and pieces he had managed to overhear. Both of his boys were less than forthcoming about their past lives, not that he had encouraged them during their first meeting. Confrontation, he mused, correcting himself. He took a deep breath, wishing he had handled the situation – his sons – better than he had.
Regrets, however, were becoming fewer now. By the grace of God, he and his sons were managing to navigate the troubled waters of what had been a stormy beginning. He was resolute in his desire to move into more pacific waters.
Quietly, he strode across the clearing. “Boys!”
The noise of the brawling immediately ceased. Murdoch stood, hands on his hips, smiling as two heads – one blond, one brunet – peeked up from behind the pile of now scattered tack. The terrain was littered with two upturned saddles, blankets, and bedrolls.
Scott was the first one to stand up, his right hand extended to his brother. “Sir,” he greeted. Even in the early morning twilight, it was obvious his cheeks were flushed.
“Hey, Murdoch,” Johnny piped up. He busied himself swiping at his leather pants and avoided looking at his father. “We were discussin’ whose turn it is to get water for the coffee,” he fibbed. Reasonably composed, he lifted his gaze to his father’s face and smiled full out.
“I’ll get the water,” Murdoch announced, fighting to suppress the smile. “You,” he pointed to Scott, “can stoke up that fire,” his finger swung toward Johnny, “while you slice up the last of that bacon.”
Johnny made a face. He hated messing with the side meat, found it repugnant to scrape off the green mold that randomly sprouted on the abundant fat that covered the cured pork, and his Old Man knew it. Punishment for the blatant lie about the scuffle, he reckoned. “Aw, c’mon, Murdoch,” he begged. His face displayed his best little-boy-lost look. It wasn’t working.
“Just do it,” Murdoch ordered. “And that’s bacon you’ll be slicing, not steaks.”
“Sweet Jesus,” Johnny muttered, something prayerful in his tone, “help me out here.” He kicked at a dried horse apple.
“No sense talking to strangers,” Scott murmured, knuckle punching his brother’s arm. He headed towards the fire pit, grinning when he heard Johnny’s boots scuff across the turf behind him.
They set about the business of preparing for breakfast, Murdoch efficiently adding extra flour to the sourdough and using his palms to flatten the drop biscuits he had prepared. He was aware Johnny was observing him closely, the boy’s interest increasing as he heated up a generous amount bacon grease flecked with cracklings, careful to keep the deep cast iron frying pan a proper distant from the flames.
“Fry bread,” Johnny breathed, watching as his father patted the biscuits a final time and dropped them into the hot grease.
Murdoch nodded. He was smiling. “A little trick I learned a long time ago, from Cipriano,” he said, using his fork to flip one piece and then another. He fished out a golden brown slab and placed it on Johnny’s plate. “Wrap that around some of your eggs and bacon.”
Entranced, Scott watched as Johnny followed their father’s instructions. He felt Murdoch’s eyes on him. “You do plan on sharing, sir,” he grinned.
The older man nodded. “The bacon is good with the bread, but it’s even better wrapped around some refried beans mixed with chorizo and a slice of cheese,” he intoned.
Johnny nodded in agreement. Fry bread had been a staple on those rare occasions when his mama actually bothered to cook. Sometimes, there had been honey. He shook the thought away. “Not bad,” he said. He reached out for a second helping.
Around them, the cattle were beginning to rouse, snuffling noises coming as they began to graze. Compared to the pandemonium of the previous day, the scene around them now was completely bucolic.
Scott was enjoying his sandwich, fascinated by the way the texture of the biscuit dough was so different fried as compared to baked. Even the taste was distinctive, saltier to be sure, with an atypical crispness. He washed the last bite down with a cup of coffee.
Murdoch was using his last piece of fried bread to mop up the remainder of his scrambled eggs, a treasure he had pilfered from a duck’s nest the previous day. He’d taken a half dozen of the newly laid clutch of thirteen eggs, assuaging his guilt with the knowledge that other nests lay hidden among the cattails.
Johnny was on his feet. He patted his belly. “Liked those eggs, Murdoch. Kinda been missin’ Maria’s breakfasts.”
Scott squinted up at his brother. “I’ve been missing her desserts,” he said drolly, thinking of the treats that would be waiting for them when they got home. “Which, little brother, you will not abscond with before I get my fair share.”
“Wanna bet?” Johnny smirked. The last time they had been gone from the ranch moving the yearlings to greener pastures, he had – on their return home – snuck into the pantry and pilfered two apple pies, not leaving even a crumb. It had been worth the beating with the wooden spoon when Maria caught him. Murdoch’s lecture, however, had been an entirely different matter.
“Ow!” Surprised, Johnny fanned his rear end. “What the hell was that for?”
Murdoch was frowning as he came up behind his son. “A reminder of what’s going to happen if you trespass into Maria’s kitchen without her permission when we get home,” he warned, knowing full well what his younger son had been thinking. His attention shifted when he heard the approach of several horses. “Cip,” he called, moving out to meet the Segundo.
Johnny was rubbing his butt. He was also pouting. “Jesus,” he muttered. “Swipe one…”
“Two,” Scott interrupted. “You stole two,” he held up the appropriate number of fingers, “pies.” His tone was accusatory.
“That’s all there was,” Johnny shot back petulantly. “If there’d been more, I’d a taken them, too.”
Scott shook his head. “Horse thief, deserter, and pie thief,” he scolded. “You, boy, need a keeper if you’re ever to get full grown.”
“So she caught me,” Johnny shrugged. “Won’t be happenin’ again.”
Scott’s right eyebrow rose. “The stealing or the getting caught?”
Johnny was gathering up his gear. “That’s for me to know and you to find out, brother,” he grinned, hefting his saddle up across his shoulder. “You goin’ to stand there like a stump, Boston, or you goin’ to get your ass movin’ and earn your keep?”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch stood beside Cipriano’s horse, his right hand resting lightly on the man’s knee. The Segundo and his two sons had brought up the rear, picking up the strays that had separated from the main bunch during the stampede. “Any losses, Cip?” he asked.
Cipriano shook his head. “We were very lucky, Patrón. Some scrapes and tears, but nothing of consequence.” He shifted in his saddle. “And here?”
“All quiet,” Murdoch answered. Behind them, the night crew was drifting into the campsite. “I think they were run out and content to stay put.” He smiled. “One more day to summer pasture,” he said, nodding in the direction of the mountains, “and then home.”
Cip nodded, a broad grin creasing his eyes. “They did well,” he said, gesturing with his hand towards Scott and Johnny. “La manzana no cae lejos del árbol, (the apple does not fall far from the tree),” he smiled.
Murdoch’s chin dipped against his chest, his cheeks coloring slightly at the compliment. “So I’ve discovered,” he murmured. He smacked the man’s leg, lightly. “Let’s get those strays back to the main bunch, Cip, and get them ready to move.”
He watched as Cipriano turned his gelding about, standing for a time and taking in the view. And then, making an about face, he headed back to his sons.
His boys had been busy. The cast iron skillet and military style mess kits had been cleaned and stowed, and Scott had stoked the campfire and prepared a fresh pot of coffee for the night riders who were already cuing up for the brew.
Johnny had saddled his father’s gelding, and stood beside his brother, waiting.
Murdoch strode across the clearing and stepped up into the saddle, settling in and grimacing a bit as he felt the annoying pinch in his right hip.
“You all right, old man?” Johnny asked as he swung aboard his palomino. He urged Barranca forward, coming up on his father’s left, watching as Scott and Cheval assumed a similar position on Murdoch’s right.
“There are days,” Murdoch grunted, “when I wish Pardee was still alive so I could have the pleasure of killing him myself.”
Johnny laughed. He leaned forward to peer around his father’s considerable bulk at his brother. “Should’a just winged Pardee, brother,” he chided, grinning. “And then let the Old Man blow out his knee caps, make him crawl a little before he cashed in.” The smile was a bit predatory as he recalled an incident from his not so distant past.
Scott saluted his brother. “I’ll keep that in mind the next time a cadre of armed brigrands makes the foolish mistake of invading our home.”
Murdoch turned to his younger son, whose expression now wavered between frustration and curiosity. “Group of bandits,” he translated. Johnny, he knew, would store Scott’s words away to use another time, when it would be least expected but entirely appropriate.
Johnny frowned. “That won’t be happenin’ again,” he declared. “About used up all the arms, legs and guts the last time, and I ain’t plannin’ on another go-round.”
Scott touched his heels to Cheval’s sides, urging the gelding forward. Grinning, he stood up in his stirrups for a brief moment. “Arms, legs, guts and posteriors,” he laughed, reaching up to smooth his hair before adjusting his Stetson. “It’s going to feel really good to get home.”
Murdoch chuckled. “You boys aren’t going all soft on me, are you?” he chuffed. “Because, if you are, I can think of a long list of chores that need doing that would require…”
Johnny moaned, loudly. “C’mon, Old Man,” he interrupted. “We’ve been sleepin’ on the ground for more’n a week now, eatin’ trail rations and swillin’ coffee strong enough to make a dead man dance…” His voice trailed off as he saw his father’s smile slip into an all too familiar frown. “Just sayin’,” he muttered.
It took considerable effort on Murdoch Lancer’s part to maintain his stern scowl, and he remembered reading somewhere in one of his father’s medical journals how it required seventy-two muscles to frown and only twelve to smile. The thought amused him, and he swiped the back of his hand across his mouth to hide the grin that was tugging at the corners.
Aware Cipriano was coming up beside him on his right, he pulled lightly on the reins and dropped back. The two older men shared a knowing smile, and Murdoch dipped his head once in the direction of his sons, who were now riding together and deep in conversation.
Cipriano’s grin widened. His relationship with the Patrón had become one where conversation was rarely needed, their mutual ability to read each other’s minds firmly entrenched. He nodded, turning in the saddle to gesture for his two sons.
Mateo and Paco urged their mounts into a trot and joined the two older men. Cipriano addressed them, keeping the words private. And then the three men separated, moving into position at the rear of the now slow-moving herd to ride drag.
Puzzled, Scott and Johnny pulled their horses to a stop, waiting until their father joined them. Johnny was the first to speak. “We’re kinda burnin’ daylight here, Murdoch,” he said, nodding in the direction of the others.
Murdoch wrapped the reins around his saddle horn, reaching into his pocket to withdraw a foil wrapped cigar. It took him a little time to get the smoke going to his satisfaction. “We’ll lay back a bit, watch for any strays or stragglers,” he said finally.
“Hell, old man,” Johnny started, “Cip and the boys already caught up all the strays, and the rest of ‘em are homin’ in on all that spring grass up ahead.” Beneath him, Barranca was beginning to dance.
Scott was studying his father’s profile, his eyes narrowing as he attempted to read the man’s expression. Murdoch had a genuine talent for hiding his thoughts and emotions when it suited him, and this appeared to be one of those times. He inhaled, deeply, and then took a tentative step into that place where angels fear to tread. “What’s wrong, Murdoch? Is it your back?”
Murdoch turned to look at his elder son, his eyes narrowing. He didn’t like being reminded a second time there were days – too many days – when the piece of lead that still remained in his hip kept him from doing things he was accustomed to doing on a daily basis, and it made him resentful. He made a conscious effort to tamp down the annoyance. “No, son,” he answered, managing a smile. “It’s just that sometimes I don’t feel the need to be in a hurry.” He gestured with his right arm, a broad, sweeping move that seemed to encompass the entire landscape. “No matter how often I’ve made this ride, no matter the time of year, somehow…” he hesitated, searching for the right words. “Somehow, it’s like seeing it again for the first time. Knowing that from here, as far as the eye can see, this is Lancer.” His voice lowered. “Every blade of grass,” he murmured.
Johnny laughed. “Hell of a lot more grass than grey hair,” he teased, remembering that first tense day in the Great Room.
Carpe diem, Scott thought suddenly, seize the day. He reached out, touching his father’s arm. “What was it like, Murdoch? Seeing it for the first time?”
It was the opening the older man had been hoping for. “It was like coming home, son. As if I had finally found the place I was destined to be.” He stopped speaking for a moment, formulating the next words in his mind before resuming. He lifted his right arm, pointing to a narrows in the distant foothills and the clearly visible road that lead through the mountain pass to the west. “Back then, those mountains were the western boundary of Lancer,” he said. “I came from the coast, through that pass, and saw a sea of green grass, and knew I had finally found what I had always been looking for, a home. My home.”
Scott drew in a deep breath and glanced at his younger brother. “Is that what you were looking for, sir, when you left Scotland? A home?”
Murdoch smiled full out. “I had a need,” he replied, “a need to be my own man, to make my own way in a world of my choosing, not one dictated by the desires of another.” He paused, once again repeating words spoken by his sons during their late night musings. “And I wanted adventure!” Beside him, to his right and his left, he was aware of a sudden and mutual sharp intake of breath.
Knowing his boys would follow, Murdoch urged his horse into gallop, heading in the direction of the mountains.
Johnny was working Barranca in a tight circle to keep the palomino from giving chase to its stable mate. When the horse settled, he guided the animal closer to his brother until they were stirrup to stirrup. “He heard us talkin’,” he breathed. His face paled. “Jesus, Boston. How much do you think he heard when we were …?”
Scott was staring hard at the horizon, at the rapidly diminishing horse and rider. “I don’t know, Johnny,” he interrupted. He turned to smile at his sibling. “But I intend to find out.” With that, he spurred Cheval forward.
“Not without me!” Johnny shouted. He kicked Barranca into a ground-eating run.
Together, the brothers turned away from following the herd of slow-moving cattle, guiding their horses through the sea of grass in pursuit of their father.