by  S.

*Another sequel to "Masks" -  follows "The Key"




The tiny flame in the darkness beckoned the man standing at the French door.  The day had been hot with clouds overhead that had not brought rain nor had they provided much shade for those who lived and worked at the great ranch.  Even the opened door allowed only a wafting breeze into the overheated hacienda.

The door squeaked slightly as the blue-shirted man slipped his slender frame out into the night.  Following the light and the tangy fragrance, Scott Lancer took a deep breath of the night time coolness which filled his lungs.  For the first time that day, he couldn't feel a trickle of sweat down his spine.  Even at daybreak the sun had glowed on the horizon, sending out rays that had pierced eyeballs with the promise of searing heat and excruciating light.  The promise had been fulfilled.

As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Scott easily perceived the figure of the man he was seeking despite the fact that his brother was dressed in dark clothes.  Moving closer, he hesitated for only a moment.  Something had to be said.  There had been enough silence.

"Johnny, may I join you?" he called out softly.

The younger man didn't even turn around.  "Suit yourself.  Just tryin' to cool off before goin' to bed."

"I know what you mean," Scott assured him, "my room is like an oven."

"Too bad Teresa did all that cookin'.  Didn't even feel like eatin'."

Scott started to make a joke about Johnny and his stomach, but then thought better of it.  The few words spoken at dinner among the four of them had twanged with anger and frustration.  In fact, even the silence had chaffed at the nerves of the three Lancers and Teresa.  In the end, Teresa had left the table in tears before heading to her room, leaving the dishes and leftover food still on the table.

In her wake Murdoch had also stormed out of the room, carrying the decanter of scotch with him.  Scott and Johnny had been left on their own at the table.  Two sets of blue eyes focused on each other and then Scott had taken to his feet.  "Suppose we should clear this up for Teresa?"

The dark head nodded.  "S'pose so.  Why don't you get started?" Johnny asked.  "I've got to take a look at Barranca.  Think he's got a strain in one leg.  Be right in."

Scott started to open his mouth and then closed it.  Since there weren't that many dishes, he would most likely finish them before Johnny put in an appearance, but somehow that didn't bother him very much.  Right then the solitude was worth more than the help.

Carefully stacking up the plates and utensils, Scott carried them into the kitchen area where he found Señora Maria filling a pan with hot, soapy water.  "Señor Scott, I would be happy to wash the dishes for you."

The blond's mouth dropped open in surprise.  "No, that's alright.  I don't mind doing them.  You should be with your family."

"Gracías, Señor, but I heard Señorita Teresa crying.  Perhaps it would be better if you talk with her.  Anyone can do the dishes."

Scott handed over the pile of plates to the waiting woman.  "It's not me she needs to talk with."

Maria's dark eyes flashed.  "Ah Señor, you do not need to tell me that.  I have worked for this family since Señorita Teresa was a niña.  She adores Señor Lancer.  It is difficult for both of them to live with anger."

"And all because of an attic!"  Scott started to chuckle.

"Señor, you are most intelligent.  You understand it is more than just un espacio polvoriento."

"A great deal more I'm afraid."

"Sí, it is not easy for Señor Lancer to realize that a young woman does not remain a child. He sees her as his responsibility because of her papa."

"I wish. . .I wish I could help them, but Murdoch is not too happy with me right now and I did try to talk to Teresa.  She told me to mind my own business."

Maria grinned.  "She is not afraid to speak her mind when she believes herself to be right."

"That's for sure."  Scott scratched behind one ear.  "She's almost as stubborn as Murdoch!"

"Or you and Señor Johnny," she suggested.

"I guess we get it honestly," the middle Lancer admitted.

"Sí, you and Señor Johnny have brought much to this ranch, including some unhappy memories."

Scott's breath caught in his throat.  "I know."

Maria watched the young man as the conflicting emotions crossed his face.  "Señor, I will take care of these dishes.  Why do you stay inside on this hot evening?  Go out and talk with your brother.  Perhaps the two of you together might be able to discover how to help those you care about."

"You think so?"

"Señor, I have watched you carefully.  You are a man of determination and compassion.  With Señor Johnny at your side, Señor Lancer and Señorita Teresa will listen.  This I believe."

Scott just stood there for a moment before he replied, "We won't let you down."

"Vaya con Díos and if that does not help, you may use the skillet I keep in the cupboard on both of them!"  Maria promised.




"You finished with the dishes, brother?"  Johnny whipped out another lucifer to relight his cheroot.  "Was just comin' in and decided to have a quick smoke first."

Scott said nothing for a moment.  He knew that Johnny didn't smoke often, usually only when troubled about something and wanted to think.  His brother had fidgety hands. "Maria's doing the dishes.  She suggested I come out here to talk to you."

"Me?  What about?"

"Murdoch and Teresa."

In the slight glow of the cheroot end, Scott could barely see the reaction in Johnny's face, but he could hear the snort from the younger man.  "Can't believe that's still goin' on.  Figured Teresa'd give in by now."

"She believes she's in the right."

"Murdoch just can't take off and drive her all the way to the Hendersons whenever she wants," the sapphire-eyed man argued.

"Maybe not but there's more to it than that.  It started when she and I cleaned out the attic and then there was the incident of the hat.  You know Murdoch, he hates to be shown up by anyone.  Then she receives the invitation to the Henderson ranch and he says she can't go because he's too busy."

"Man can't just ride off anytime he wants like I said."

"Not even to chase a wild horse?"

Johnny dropped the cheroot to the ground and stepped on it.  "We're talkin' 'bout Murdoch, not me."

"But you do think that you have the right to ride out anytime you want?"

"Not the same.   Murdoch runs things.  Needs to know he can be here to handle problems."

"Then why are we here?  Why did we sign those papers accepting two-thirds of the ranch between us?

Johnny took out another cheroot and a lucifer.  Striking it against his boot he held the flame to the end, waiting for it to come alive.  Taking a puff, he dropped the dying flame. "Been a fool to turn it down, why else?"

"To prove we belong maybe?"

Johnny roared with laughter.  "Piece of paper doesn't mean you belong.  Thought Harvard woulda taught you that."

Scott leaned back against the corral fence.  His back was still hurting from a tussle with a recalcitrant cow earlier in the day.  "Go on, I'm listening," he urged his brother.

"Go on?" Surprise filled his voice.  "You're the one who should know about belongin' bein' from Boston .  Bet you know the right clothes to wear 'n the right fork to use.   You could walk into any of them big houses 'n feel right at home."

"And where do you feel at home?"

"Home?"  Johnny paused.  "Not certain what that means.  Sure not that place where I lived with my mother before she died."

"What about Lancer?"

"What about it?  You waitin' for me to say it's the home I always wanted, what I kept lookin' for?"

"Only if it's the truth."

"Truth?  Hell, how do I know what's the truth?  It's good to have a soft bed at night, plenty of food and have some expectations of livin' 'til thirty.  I'll give you that."

"With the $1000 Murdoch gave you and your share of the ranch, you could find lots of places that had a bed, food and felt. . .safe, couldn't you?"

The dark-haired man shook his head.  "Maybe 'til the day some young punk came after Johnny Madrid."

"Then you walk away," Scott replied quietly.

"Did you ever walk away from a battle?"

"The War is over."

"Mine isn't."

"Will it ever be?" 

"What's that mean?  You think I like killin'?  You think I like bein' a target for anybody who wants to start a reputation?"

"Johnny, listen to me for a minute.  You took up the gun to survive.  You became good at it, maybe even the best.  Weren't you proud of that?"

"Sure. . . I guess in a way."  He stopped, tilting his head to one side.  "Sometimes hearin' my name would make a man back off.   Smart ones would.  Dumb ones just drew."

"But you never considered getting out?"

"Once or twice mebbe but I was good at it.  There's a real strange feelin' comes over a man when he's out on the street.  It's like those fancy painters you've got in that one book. It's almost an. . .art.  You look in a man's eyes and know either he's gonna be dead or you are.  You watch his hand for a faint twitch.  Everything comes down to him and you.  Gotta be cool when the blood is poundin' in your veins.  Nothin' can get in the way.  Must be like just before a battle, but it's just you and one other man.  Man 'ppreciates livin' when he's faced with dyin'.  Didn't even have to think 'bout what to do.  My hand just did what it had to."  Johnny stopped to take a deep breath.  "Never meant to say all that."

"Not surprised.  How could anyone else be expected to understand?"

Johnny's face drained of blood.  Scott had never condemned him for his life as a gunfighter before.   "'S that mean you're. . .ashamed of what I was?"

"Are you?"

"Sometimes.  Times I look back and wonder why I didn't get out.  Change my name.  Buy some land.  Every time I thought it might work, somebody came lookin'."

"And now?"

"They'll still come lookin'.  Might take 'em longer to find me, but they'll come," Johnny reiterated.

"And if they don't?"  Will you be disappointed?"


"That Johnny Madrid is no longer the man to take down.  That someone else is the best?"

In the darkness Scott could not see his brother's face, except in the sudden flare of the lucifer as another cheroot was lit.  "Never. . .never thought about it much. Knew one day it would come.  Everybody slows down.  'Course it's different now.  Got somethin' to protect, 'sides my own hide.  Can't afford to let all of us down."

In the darkness Scott smiled at his brother.  "That's what I told Maria.  Murdoch counted on us to help protect Lancer when we first came here and we've continued to do it, but violence isn't the only thing that can destroy a family.  Two people we care about need us."

"You really think Murdoch might listen if we talk to him about Teresa?"

"I hope so.  He's as stubborn as an army mule, but in this case it's two against one and I'll bet my last two bits on Johnny Lancer in the stubbornness department."

"Hey, now wait a minute!  You're no whey-faced milquetoast!  I'll match your stubbornness against his any day of the week!" Johnny protested.

"Good.  We're agreed then.  First we'll go talk to Murdoch and then we'll talk to Teresa. I'm sure we'll get them to compromise." Slapping Johnny on the back, Scott demanded, "C'mon let's go!"

The blond turned to walk towards the house.  He was almost to the door when he realized no one was behind him.  Walking back to his brother's side with purposeful strides he stopped in front of the other young man.  "Well?"

"I may be stubborn, but I'm not stupid!  If he gets mad at us, we'll be brandin' cows 'til Christmas 1880!"

Scott's eyes flickered.  "There is that," he conceded, "but just remember we're doing this for their own good.  You can see how miserable they are."

"But just think how much more miserable they'll be if Murdoch kills his own sons!"

"Johnny. . . .!"

"Oh alright, I guess a man's gotta die sometime.  Now I know how those Frenchies felt in that story you told me about.  You know the ones where they had their heads chopped off."

"A Tale of Two Cities?"

"That's the one."

The two men could almost hear the funeral dirge in their minds as they slowly walked towards the hacienda.  Scott hesitantly looked in the French door.  To his surprise he could see two people sitting at the checkerboard.  "Psst, Johnny, look at this!"

Johnny stuck his head inside and started to gasp, but Scott quickly put his hand over his sibling's mouth.  "Quiet!"

For a long moment the two just stood there amazed to see Teresa and Murdoch laughing and talking together over the checkerboard.  "What the. . . .?"  Johnny started to exclaim when Murdoch glanced over and saw a blond and a dark head peeking in.

"C'mon in and join us. Teresa is already a game ahead, but I'm sure I can take you two."

Both men entered slowly.  "Uh, glad to see everything's going well," Johnny murmured. Scott punched him in the arm.  "I mean it's good you two are talking."  This time Scott glared at him.  "Uh, I'll play the winner!"

"Fine.  Fine.  Oh and you won't have to worry anymore," Murdoch assured them.

"Worry?"  Scott and Johnny chorused.

"Yes, Maria told Teresa and me about how concerned you were that we weren't speaking. I guess I need to remember that young ladies need some free time, especially since Teresa has been working so hard on the attic so I've arranged to take a few days off to take her over to the Hendersons .  You two will be in charge and I want no lollygagging!  There's work to be done!"

Teresa didn't bother to hide her snicker.

"Yes sir!"  The Lancer sons answered.

On that note both Scott and Johnny slunk off to the kitchen to devour the last of the cake that Maria had left out for them.




Submission Guidelines