First released in “The Lancer Great Room Bookshelf, Vol 1,” from Yucca Flower Press, March 2005
I like to think I’m actually learning something about how to tell stories while writing fanfiction, so, since the original release, this story has been tweaked significantly for format and form – although the tale itself really has stayed the same.
Thanks to AJ, for MAKING me submit something to her zine.
And thanks to Karen, for the beta and website venue.
What would any Lancer fan do without these two grand publishing fools . . . ?
L L L L L L L L
“Scott . . . wagon’s comin’ in.” Jelly’s voice echoed through the barn.
“It’s about time,” Scott mumbled as he haphazardly tossed one last fork of fresh hay onto the floor of Charlemagne’s stall. The straw flew wide and sprayed across his horse’s legs. Charley snorted indignantly as he shifted aside. Scott settled the animal with a quick pat to its neck. “Sorry, boy. Don’t mean to take it out on you.”
Scott’s impatience had been building slowly, fuelled not by the mindless busy work that had occupied his entire morning, but rather by the unexpected wait he’d been obliged to endure. He glanced over to the newly cleaned but empty stall that should have held his brother Johnny’s horse, Barranca. Therein lay the source of his annoyance. By now the brothers should have been well on their way to finishing repairs to the bridge over Black Creek. But they had underestimated the supplies on hand at the ranch. Johnny and the Lancer segundo, Cipriano, had set off for Morro Coyo first thing that morning, and the pair had been expected back over an hour ago. Almost noon, if they hoped to make any progress on the bridge before nightfall the brothers would now have to eat lunch on the ride out to the worksite. Scott hated having to eat on the move, especially in a rocking, rickety wagon. It reminded him too much of his military days . . . days best forgotten . . . when the troops had been forced to eat while on endless march.
The pitchfork was set safely aside near the entrance to the barn. Scott pulled off his work gloves and looped them through his belt. He grabbed his hat off the makeshift hat tree of a stall post, and seated it on his head while on the way out, into the bright sunlight.
A cleverly thought out witty comment about the punctuality of little brothers died on Scott’s lips as he exited the stable to find that only Cipriano had returned, Johnny and Barranca nowhere in sight. As the man set the brake on the loaded wagon, Scott peered up at him anxiously. “Where’s Johnny? Is anything wrong?”
Cipriano quickly held out a hand and waved it back and forth. “No, nothing is wrong. Juanito has stayed in town. I will help with the bridge today.”
Scott was relieved that his brother hadn’t apparently run into any oft-found trouble. But then his emotions doubled back on him, and he found himself once more aggravated by the thought that Johnny had so easily abandoned his duties – and him – for the day. Hopeful that he wouldn’t come off sounding like his ever-critical father, Scott nevertheless felt compelled to ask, “Please tell me he has a good reason, Cip?”
The older man’s twinkling eyes and slight smile told Scott that he’d failed miserably, the familial resemblance indeed recognized. But then Cip frowned and looked away, giving the question a moment of serious consideration. “I am sorry, Señor Scott. It is not my place to say.”
Cipriano was respectful to Scott – but he was Johnny’s friend. Scott knew it would be futile to push for more information. Resigned to the fact that his younger brother had deserted him, Scott only hoped that Johnny would offer some kind of explanation on his return. “I understand, Cip. Let’s grab lunch and get going.”
L L L L L L L L
Despite the late start the pair made a significant dent on the bridge project. They left the worksite feeling satisfied by a job well done, glad to be headed back in time for supper.
The wagon rumbled to a stop in front of the barn. “I’ll get Jelly to take care of the horses, Cip. Thanks for your help today.”
“You will let me know if I am needed again in the morning, sí?”
“Johnny better not make you do his work again tomorrow.”
“It was no trouble. I am proud to help.”
“Have a good night, Cip.”
The segundo went on his way as Scott went to search for Jelly. He found him bedding down Barranca. Another horse standing nearby wore Johnny’s saddle.
“Johnny’s home, Jelly?”
“Not fer long,” the old handyman answered gruffly as he ran a brush over Barranca’s coat. “Said he was headin’ back out soon as he fetched somethin’ ‘portant.”
Scott felt his annoyance once again flare. “Do you know where he’s going?”
“Didn’t tell, an’ I didn’t ask,” the old man said. “Can’t imagine where he’d be off to . . . gonna be dark in ‘n hour.”
Scott took a slow, moderating breath. “Wagon’s just outside. Can you take care of it?”
“Don’t see why not. Take care a’ everthin’ else ‘round here. Unsaddle a horse . . . saddle another horse. Put up the wagon . . . take care of some other horses . . .”
“Thanks, Jelly.” Scott left the handyman to mutter contentedly to no one in particular. He turned his own concern toward the house and the irksome task of finding his maddeningly elusive brother.
Scott pushed open the front door just in time to literally catch Johnny as he flew down the staircase, absentmindedly counting an assortment of currency.
“Whoa there, boy. Watch what you’re doing.”
Blissfully oblivious that he’d almost knocked them both over, Johnny smiled from ear to ear as he asked, “You got any money, brother?”
He didn’t bother to wait for an answer. Johnny headed over to Murdoch’s large desk. Scott was left to trail behind, shaking his head in utter disbelief at his brother’s impudence. “I might have about twenty dollars or so. Why?”
“Need to borrow it. Can I?” Johnny continued to grin excitedly – either unaware of his brother’s rising exasperation, or unconcerned. “I’ll pay you back . . . promise.”
“I’m sure you will,” Scott agreed evenly. “Can I ask what it’s for?”
The grin instantly left Johnny’s face. “If you have to know for me to get it, then I don’t want it.”
Scott didn’t detect anger in the straightforward statement, more a sense of apprehension. The reaction left him puzzled.
“I just need it, brother,” Johnny said – looking hopeful that he wouldn’t be pressed for further details.
His frustration lingered, but Scott only hesitated a second, his younger brother’s simple appeal too earnest to question further. “I’ll get it.”
Scott returned to the great room to find Johnny counting out the ranch’s petty cash, Murdoch’s small metal cashbox open atop the desk. Neither brother made it a habit to ever touch that money, as their father staunchly preferred that he alone track and distribute the funds the ranch had on hand at any time. Scott had no desire to know where Johnny had managed to find the key. He reflexively glanced toward the other doorways, dreading an untimely entrance by their father.
Johnny slapped the money down on the side of the desk like he was laying a hot bet. “I figure that for thirty-four dollars. Verify the count for me, would ya, Scott?” Johnny’s grin was once again firmly in place. He left his brother to the appointed task as he placed the cashbox back into its drawer, then picked up the ledger where Murdoch noted the men’s wages.
With the book open to the appropriate page, Johnny grabbed a pencil and began to write. “I got three weeks pay comin’, and the rest I’ll write down for three weeks in advance.” Johnny looked up and graced Scott with an even bigger but decidedly more playful smile as he declared, “Won’t even bill Murdoch for the two dollars he’s short!”
Johnny spotted the money still untouched on the edge of the desk, and waved a hand at the cash. “Come on, Scott. Count it.”
Scott hesitated another moment, but then did as requested. “Yes, it’s thirty-four dollars.” He handed the bills to Johnny, then pulled some more out of his shirt pocket and gave those over as well. “I had twenty-six.”
Johnny added his own cash, stood, and held up the whole stack of money. He waved it in Scott’s face as he joyfully announced, “And what I got here is a man’s fortune. See ya later.” Johnny pulled his hat off his back and onto his head by the stampede strings while on the move. “Don’t hold dinner for me,” he threw back over his shoulder as he bounced out the door.
The whirlwind gone, Scott looked down onto the desk where Johnny had left the ledger sitting glaringly wide open. ‘Lord help us when Murdoch sees that.’ He promptly retreated to his room to clean up for dinner.
L L L L L L L L
The whole ranch knew the exact moment when Murdoch noticed the ledger. “Johnny!” The bellow resounded from the great room, followed quickly by the order, “Johnny, get in here!”
Scott entered the room in time to spot a swish of skirts as Teresa quickly exited – no doubt trying to avoid Murdoch’s wrath and to find and warn Johnny if she could. Everyone knew how hard Murdoch could be on his younger son, and the shouting matches that usually followed the father’s castigations were notorious. Choosing to be anywhere near the pair during these times was to be carefully considered. Scott wasn’t sure if Johnny deserved reproach for what he’d done or not, but to let Murdoch continue shouting in vain would only make things worse for them all in the long run.
“He’s not here,” Scott said as he lingered in the doorway.
“Do you know what your brother did?” Murdoch pointed a stiff finger at the ledger, the empty cashbox again sitting beside it atop the desk, lid open.
“And you didn’t stop him?” Murdoch’s voice began an expected assent.
“He had no right to take that money!” Murdoch roared.
Scott hated being pulled into the middle of another dispute between his father and brother. But the way Murdoch was fuming, he knew he had to do something to try to defuse the situation. “He’s third owner of this ranch, Murdoch. I think he did have the right.”
That was definitely the wrong thing to say. Murdoch slammed the cashbox shut and menacingly declared, “Not without my permission. Where is he, Scott?”
Scott gave up, already mentally wearied by his interaction with Johnny, and unwilling to deal with his father in this ever-darkening mood. “I don’t know. He said not to hold dinner for him. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat mine in the kitchen this evening.” Scott turned and left.
L L L L L L L L
Murdoch refused to allow Scott’s impertinent dismissal to suppress his anger. He cornered Jelly and learned how Johnny had returned from town late, but had saddled up again and headed right back out. Murdoch then hunted Cipriano down to interrogate the man for what he knew. But, just as he had denied Scott any real answers, the segundo refused to reply to any questions regarding Johnny’s affairs.
“At least tell me if he’s in any trouble, Cip.”
The request held but a modicum of genuine concern, but apparently it was enough to allow the segundo to offer a morsel of reassurance. “No. There will be no trouble, patrón.”
Murdoch wasn’t appeased, but he was at least relieved that his younger, reckless son wasn’t apparently in any danger. Yet. He stomped back into the house to await Johnny’s return.
L L L L L L L L
It was very late when Johnny came home. Very late. His mood as he rode under the Lancer arch could only be described as euphoric – until he spotted light spilling out from the great room. At that hour the hacienda should have been darkened. Rather than being a warm, welcoming beacon, the brightness acted as a signal fire of warning that could only mean one thing: Murdoch had waited up for him. The younger Lancer son wasn’t exactly surprised, but he was incredibly disappointed. ‘Couldn’t even wait ‘til mornin’ to wrangle.’
Gaining courage from the thought that, given the circumstances, he’d tread the same trail again, Johnny prepared himself for the impending onslaught as he cared for his horse, then went inside to accept his fate.
Seeing Murdoch was expected. But Johnny was disquieted to find his brother present as well. Scott either sought answers, just like their father – or this row was going to be worse than usual.
“You had no right to take that money.” Murdoch railed dramatically from behind his desk as he jabbed a finger accusingly in the direction of the condemning ledger.
‘Worse than usual,’ Johnny quickly determined, spying the cashbox. He began his defense quietly, trying very hard to hold his temper. “I already earned half of it. I’ll work off the rest . . . and more.”
“That’s not the point!” Murdoch shouted, despite the late hour and anyone else who might be foolishly attempting to sleep. He stepped out from behind his desk and took a couple of imposing paces toward Johnny. “You should have waited for me to be here, and then asked.”
“I couldn’t wait!” Johnny exploded back, his patience shattered in an instant. His body tensed. His face radiated a frightening combination of anger, frustration, and abject despair. “I get tired of waitin’ for you, old man,” he spit acidly. “You ain’t never been anywhere I needed you, when I needed you, so why should you start now!”
Johnny didn’t stick around for a reaction. He turned on his heels and left the hacienda. The heavy front door slammed shut behind him.
L L L L L L L L
Scott had kept his place throughout the quarrel, but he stood now, his worry for Johnny marked. He’d been third party to a lot of arguments between the pair, but Scott had never heard his brother hurl an insult at Murdoch so vehemently.
“What the hell did he mean by that?” Murdoch looked totally confused.
Obviously Murdoch had missed the roiling mix of emotions that Johnny had laid bare during his outburst, or he’d have been more than concerned. Maybe it was because Scott had witnessed how joyful Johnny had been holding that stack of money that gave him perspective for how utterly devastated his brother had been made by their father’s reproach. Murdoch had somehow hit a nerve in Johnny that may have been buried deep, but had clearly been extremely tender.
“I don’t know,” Scott answered quietly as he walked toward the door. “But I need to find out.”
L L L L L L L L
Scott found his brother in the barn, prepared to saddle Barranca. “Don’t leave, Johnny.” The request was simple but sincere.
“Can’t stay.” Johnny kept to his task.
“Not for him . . . for me.”
That was probably the only thing Scott could have said that had a chance of stopping Johnny – and it worked. He let the saddle he had been ready to heft onto Barranca fall back against his chest, and then lowered it until an edge sat on the ground, balanced against his leg. He wouldn’t look at him, but in the light from a flickering lantern Scott could read Johnny’s body language enough to tell that he was trying to make up his mind whether to stay or go. Scott pressed his brotherly advantage.
“Johnny, I know how important gathering that money was to you. Can you please share with me why you needed it? I’d like to understand.”
The saddle was instantly in motion. “You’ll get your money back . . . same as Murdoch,” Johnny spat.
Scott moved forward with determined steps, yanked the heavy saddle from his brother’s hands, and threw it against a stall wall. Barranca reared back and stomped away. The other horses nickered and pawed nervously in their stalls at the commotion. Scott ignored them all and stood toe to toe with his brother. “I don’t care about the damn money, Johnny! I’d simply like to know why having it made you so happy.”
The brothers stared at each other for what seemed like minutes – Lancer stubbornness challenging Lancer stubbornness. Johnny uncharacteristically broke first, and moved off to settle Barranca with gentle pats to the still agitated animal’s neck. The contact apparently worked both ways, for Johnny seemed to calm as well. “You won’t tell Murdoch?” he asked quietly.
“No. I won’t tell anyone,” Scott said. He crossed over and sat on a hay bale nearer the lantern to await his brother’s decision.
It took Johnny another minute of petting his horse before he spoke. “It went to repay a debt.”
“Did you collect enough to cover it?” Scott asked seriously – but the response was not what he would have expected.
Johnny laughed. Heartily. He walked away from Barranca, shaking his head over his private little joke. He pulled his hat off and tossed it down onto his abused saddle, then ran a hand through his hair. Scott waited patiently for Johnny to offer elucidation.
The laughter slowed, then stopped completely as Johnny once more sobered. “I could sell all of Lancer and it wouldn’t have been enough,” he said decisively. “It was a debt of kindness.”
“What did this person do for you?” Scott asked tentatively, not sure how far he could push his skittish brother.
Johnny lowered his head and paused a moment, then answered with all sincerity. “He helped save my soul.”
The admission left Scott speechless. He didn’t quite know what to make of it, but Johnny had been too serious for Scott not to believe the declaration.
“When Cip an’ me was in town, I saw a man who owns a big hacienda near a small town where my mama an’ me lived for a bit.” Johnny started to pace as he told his story. “I never knew him so much, but I did know his segundo . . . recognized him right off, ‘though he didn’t know it was me ‘til I reminded ‘im. They were just passin’ through, but stuck ‘round so we could visit a piece.
“Señor Valez didn’t have no job when I knew him, but he’s got a good one now . . . and a good boss. Him an’ his wife Rosita used to give me stuff when I was a kid. Nothin’ much . . . hell nobody ‘round there had much. But they’d at least spend time with me when . . .”
The pacing stopped. Johnny got that look he normally contained so well but which sometimes broke through his barriers and cascaded over his face like a waterfall. Most often it appeared when Johnny thought about his mother – and to Scott it reminded him of what anguish would look like if it had a face of its own . . .
The “look” was gone, as quickly as it had come, but the pacing was back. “They was just the nicest folks. I never will forget how good they always made me feel . . . like I was worth somethin’ . . .” That look threatened again, but Johnny shook it off.
“Anyway. We was talkin’, and Señor Valez said he an’ Rosita was savin’ up to buy them a piece of property from his boss. Only needed ‘bout ninety dollars more.” Johnny’s cynicism flared as he faced Scott and repeated, “Only ninety dollars!” Johnny’s hands were thrown wide, and he staggered backward, as if it were to God he asked, “Do you know how damn long it would take them to save that kind of money? Even as segundo, it would be forever.”
Johnny once again drew closer. He leaned into Scott as he marveled, “But you shoulda seen ‘im. He was so happy just holdin’ on to the idea that he could own his own piece a’ land for a change. I couldn’t stand it. I knew if I walked away he’d never get that land, so I asked his patrón to get somethin’ together to be signed, and I gathered up that money, and . . .”
Scott had never seen Johnny so affected His younger brother stood there, his body trembling, ready to burst . . . his eyes glistened with tears so very close to falling . . . but then he turned away, headed back over to Barranca to work out his feelings through the calming comfort of that horse.
Quietly the end of the story was told. “Now they got somethin’ they can call theirs . . . an’ they deserve it. They earned it.”
Scott didn’t know what to say – so he said what he felt. “Thank you for sharing that story with me, Johnny. You need to tell it to Murdoch. Once he knows how the man helped you . . .”
“No, no, no!” Johnny took a couple of steps toward him, then crouched down and briefly sat back on his haunches. His hands moved up to cover his head in an act of such utter frustration that Scott was perplexed. Johnny stood and started pacing again. “The old man don’t care ‘bout my past, Scott! Neither do I . . . for the most part . . .”
“But he should know . . .”
“What? What should he know? How bad I had it sometimes? Scott, it don’t matter. What happened happened, and ain’t none of it gonna change by me talkin’ about it. You’d all just think you had to pity me or somethin’. I don’t want or expect that.
“Yes. I had it hard as a kid,” Johnny finally admitted as he paced. “And it got bad . . . real bad sometimes. But when you’re livin’ like that, you don’t really think ‘bout how hard it is.” Johnny turned abruptly and pointed at Scott. “Bet you learned that yourself when you was in that war prison. You just handle it – just like everyone else ‘round you is handlin’ it. It’s only later, if you dig your way out, that it makes a difference, when you actually know what you was missin’ . . . what was denied you.”
Johnny turned away, and with a weary sigh added, “That’s when it becomes hard. Comin’ back here to Lancer . . . seein’, touchin’, feelin’ everything I could’a had . . . that’s what’s been hardest.”
Once more Johnny stood before Scott, his confessor, as he honestly, passionately laid bare the sins suffered in his childhood. “Brother, you and I was both denied life here, but at least you was taken away and had someone who cared for you. I don’t know why my mama took me, ‘cause she didn’t take me to nothin’! She might have loved me, but she never cared for me. Kids don’t really know when they’re missin’ things, but they sure can tell when they’re missin’ people.
“Scott, for a long time the only people who ever cared for me was strangers like Señor Valez. They at least gave me a little piece of their nothin’ and a lot of themselves . . . and some days the only thing that still keeps me goin’ is knowin’ that there’s people like that in the world. People who’d be there when a little kid needed ‘em.
“I don’t know!” Johnny waved an indecisive hand in the general direction of the hacienda beyond the planked walls of the barn. “Maybe Murdoch didn’t deserve me roundin’ on him. But what good is Lancer to me if it ain’t here for me now? If I can’t claim any of it mine . . . free for the takin’ or givin’. If I still ain’t nothin’ more than a hired gun.”
Johnny finally walked away, but his head was held high. “No. Murdoch wants his ol’ thirty-four dollars back, he’ll get it . . . and more. But he’ll get it with no explanation, and no apology.”
Scott now understood why Johnny was always giving things away to those in need – even when he was in need himself. ‘Hardened gunfighter . . . no. Not Johnny Lancer.’ Scott shook his head in admiration over this new enlightening revelation, then stood and smiled as he went to stand beside his emotionally spent brother. “Johnny, I really do think I understand now. I still think you should, but I won’t tell Murdoch a word of what you’ve told me tonight.
“I’d like you to consider that twenty-six dollar loan paid in full.” Scott held up his hand to cut off Johnny’s protest. “Consider it my contribution to those people in the world who help children . . . one who helped my brother. I only wish I’d gotten a chance to meet the man.”
Johnny’s head dipped, and after a moment he had to clear his throat. But when he looked up, he was smiling back. “You’d like him. If we ever get down that way, Rosita makes the best corn tortillas I’ve ever eaten . . . and don’t you dare tell Teresa or Maria I said that.” The brother’s shared a comfortable moment, both content with how their relationship had deepened over the course of the evening – all because of kindnesses given and repaid.
“Let’s get inside,” Scott said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.”
“I’m done in for sure. But . . .” Johnny hesitated. He shot a glance toward the open barn door, into the darkness beyond.
“Don’t worry about the ‘old man.’ I’ll take care of him.”
The brothers made short work bedding down Barranca, then went to confront their father.
As the pair entered the front door, Johnny trailed his older brother. He remained by Scott’s side, his arms crossed guardedly over his chest.
The Lancer patriarch had lost none of his anger, and started right in. “I want you to explain yourself, Johnny.”
Scott no longer cared how upset Murdoch was, and with a smug smile calmly informed him, “He doesn’t have to.”
Johnny’s hands fell to his side as he looked at his brother like he had lost his mind. But Scott continued on unfalteringly. “I think he had a perfect right to the money, and you weren’t here to consult. So as far as I’m concerned it is two owners against one. The only thing Johnny owes you is three weeks work . . . and I happen to know he’s good for it. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to bed. Come on, Johnny.”
Murdoch’s jaw dropped as an expression of flabbergasted astonishment burgeoned over his face.
Johnny was so totally awed by his brother’s bold performance that he didn’t move until Scott inconspicuously pushed him out of the doorway toward the stairs.
Scott pulled up short and pivoted to address Murdoch with an afterthought. “By the way . . . If you’ll check your ledger more closely, you’ll actually find that you owe Johnny two dollars. Goodnight, sir.”
With a decided arrogance, Scott left Murdoch to stew in his own juices. But his carefully contrived reserve was nearly broken when he turned to see Johnny standing on the bottom stair, eyes wide and both hands clamped tightly over his mouth so his laughter would not be heard.
Scott had to bite his lip to keep his own chuckles at bay. He grabbed Johnny by the shoulder and spun him around. Scott left his arm comfortably draped over his brother as the pair made their way up the stairs, together.
MP – June ‘06