A 'What Happened In Between' for the Homecoming/High Riders. The missing bit, after the big battle and before the signing of the famous 'deed'.
The battle for Lancer might have been over—but the fight for its' future was only just beginning. The place was close to ruin. Fences were downed, cattle were scattered, fields were in ruins and buildings had been razed to the ground. It had also been impossible to send work crews out to clear watercourses so that the rivers and streams were blocked. There was a rough ride ahead for all of them, thought Murdoch, as he limped from his desk to the window as a solitary horseman came trotting into the yard. Already he instantly recognised the rider. His horsemanship was unquestionable and the tall military bearing was unmistakeable. His son, Scott. His heart sang on the thought.
Scott looked exhausted. Murdoch, watching him from the window of Johnny's room, felt a pang of remorse and guilt as he watched the Easterner step down wearily from his horse and hand the animal off to a waiting wrangler, with an almost resigned air about him.
He had left the house that morning in an immaculate dark shirt which looked, now, as if it had done a hard days work. It was now miss-coloured with sweat and dust and with a tear down one sleeve. There was also a slight touch of a limp, blisters from those new boots of his, Murdoch guessed, to his gait as he made his way slowly towards the house. There had been no option really, for breaking him in gently. Scott had been thrown in hard.
There was a lot of essential work to be done--and not enough men to do it--and Johnny laid up, for several weeks, not only unable to do his share of what had to be done, but in need of almost constant care. He was recovering well, all things considered but the bullet that had torn into his back had done serious damage. If he was to avoid any permanent disability then he must be allowed time to rest and heal. Murdoch had cleansed and re-bandaged the savage wound in Johnny's back and the agonising business had sent the young man into an exhausted swoon. Now though he seemed to be sleeping more naturally. Another son Murdoch thought, with a sigh and he wasn't so sure about this one. He let his gaze linger for a moment, on the darkly handsome young face then he left the room and made his way carefully and gingerly down the stairs. Damn this leg!
Murdoch waited until he heard Scott’s footfalls on the porch, then he limped himself over to the drinks cabinet and pulled out the good whisky. He had the tumbler poured and ready by the time his weary son came into the big room.
'Hard day huh?' Murdoch offered liquor and sympathy simultaneously. Scott had impressed him, so far, with his capacity for sheer hard work. He cannot possibly have been used to it, but thus far the young man had not uttered a word of protest or of complaint and had ridden out with the vaqueros just after dawn, every morning, to replace fence, re-roof damaged buildings, clear burnt fields and anything else that needed to be done. He then ate his supper--and went to bed--to start it all again, the next day. It cannot have been easy or pleasant for him but he managed to remain even tempered and unfailingly polite.
Now he smiled tiredly and accepted the proffered drink with a murmured word of thanks, then he sank into a chair and dropped his head back with a tired sigh.
'How’s Johnny?' he asked, as he had, every evening for the past week.
'Much better—unfortunately.' Murdoch said with a touch of wry humour. A recovering Johnny, he had discovered, was even harder work than a very sick one. Scott raised an enquiring eyebrow.
'He's getting bored and restless.' Murdoch explained. 'Seems to think he ought to be up and doing already'
'Up and doing WHAT exactly?' There was an odd edge to Scott’s normally controlled and calm voice. 'Sir I –think-- there is something that you and he haven't been exactly straight about' he paused and rubbed his hands over his face as his father turned sharply to face him, his face suddenly stern and hard.
'And what do you think you mean by that? Murdoch said harshly.
Scott was not intimidated however.
'Johnny Madrid.' He ground out the name angrily 'When were you going to tell me about Johnny Madrid?' He almost shouted the name the second time.
'Aahh!’ The rancher let his breath go in a long loud sigh. 'The men have been talking'
'Of course they have.' Scott sounded truly annoyed 'and they seemed to think that I was already privy to this rather important piece of information. Don't you think that I ought to have heard it first from you-or at least from him'
'Yes.' Murdoch said bluntly 'you are quite right. You ought, but its --well—it’s not exactly the sort of thing to just slip into the conversation at dinner----'
'Does Theresa know?'
'Yes--she has known for a while now.'
'Then I don't see any problem with 'slipping it into the conversation'--as you put it.' Scott came to his feet, plainly agitated and paced the floor for a moment or so. 'Johnny said--he called that bastard Pardee a gunfighter--and now it turns out that he's one of the same kind'.
'No!' The one word protest came from above them and they both jerked around in alarm and astonishment to see the subject of their discussion clinging waveringly to the newel post at the head of the stairs. Johnny had heard the raised voices-he had particularly sensitive hearing--made the more so when it involved his own name. Gritting his teeth against the pain and the effort, he had struggled to pull a pair of pants and stagger out of his room, trying to stuff the voluminous nightshirt down the front of them as he went. The stairs however had blocked his progress. There was no way he was ready to tackle stairs.
'What are you doing out of bed?' Murdoch took half a dozen flying strides towards him whilst Scott moved, more slowly, after him, to the foot of the stairs. Whatever he might be, he thought, one had to admire the boy’s sheer grit in the face of what must have been considerable agony.
'I heard all the yellin' Johnny gasped exhaustedly and looked as if he might fall over and down the stairs at any minute. Scott actually heaved a sigh of relief when their father reached him. He might be angry but he didn't want his half-brother to suffer any further injury. 'Heard my name mentioned' he accepted his fathers support, but he resisted the man’s efforts to actually move him as he glowered down the stairs at Scott. 'and there ain't no way that me and Pardee are the 'same kind.'
He seemed so genuinely upset at the idea that Scott had the absurd idea that he ought to apologise.
'You will be the same kind--the dead kind.' Murdoch said sharply 'if you don't rest up and let yourself heal. ‘No!' as Johnny started to protest 'stop it John.' The words were a command. 'You are going back to bed. If you feel strong enough you can carry on this conversation from there' and to his relief the young man actually did give in.
In truth, Johnny had to admit to himself, he had very little choice in the matter. If he had tried to stay on his feet any longer, even with support then he was going to pass out. He drooped exhaustedly into his fathers strong arms and allowed himself to be almost carried back to his bed and once there despite his best efforts; he fell back on the pillows and DID pass out.
Murdoch stood looking down at him, his heart thudding with the unexpected swirl of emotion he had experienced whilst all but carrying his injured boy in his arms. With his eyes closed and the long black lashes half-mooned against his colour drained skin, Johnny looked so very young and vulnerable. Murdoch felt a wash of great sadness, then almost at the same time, conflictingly, a rush of gratitude, for the circumstances that had led to this one, heart-shaking moment. It had been the best part of eighteen years since he had held this son in his arms.
He became aware of Scott, at his shoulder, also looking down at the unconscious boy on the bed and looking almost as drained.
'I'm sorry.' Scott said softly 'I didn't want for him to have to come dashing out to defend him-self. I wonder what he meant.'
'Well-I'm afraid you will have to wait until tomorrow to ask him now.' Murdoch said, rather wearily. 'I think he'll be alright for a while now. Lets go eat--and I'll fill you in on what I know of Johnny Madrid.'
It was well into the following morning before Johnny was fully restored to wakefulness--and gone noon before the half-brothers met again. Murdoch had sent Scott back to the house mid-morning.
'I can't cope with two of you laid up' he said brusquely, hiding his concern behind his stern demeanour and sending Scott back to the hacienda, after watching him all but fall out of the saddle with tiredness. 'Go talk to your brother. He'll be getting bored by now and I don't want him running around yet.' And Scott, not sure that he really had anything to say to his half-brother, had obeyed somewhat reluctantly.
However by the time he had completed the ride in he had had time to think things over.
He had been appalled and dismayed by his fathers description, the evening before, of the life of deprivation and hardship his strange half-Mexican brother had appeared to have led. He no idea of how any one could even consider killing for a living, but he was fair-minded enough to realise that he actually had no real knowledge of the realities of life out here in this strange lawless land-and even less about life beyond the border in Mexico. He had less still about the problems of being of mixed blood in a world of what seemed to be double prejudices.
He, Scott had always been the 'right kind' of person, in his own world. Johnny it seemed, had belonged nowhere, and had had to forge his own place in a rough tough dangerous world that had not seemed to want him. No wonder he was so cynical and defensive-and dangerous.
Scott was utterly bewildered at this acquisition of so unlikely a brother. Whatever else he had imagined might have happened to him, in this exciting quest for a new life, he had not even thought of a brother in the beginning--and certainly NOT a brother like this.
He doffed his hat and shed the hefty gun-belt his father had insisted that he now wore and then he went to the drinks cabinet and sideswiped a bottle of the good whisky and two glasses. He had a feeling that he might just need some fortification before this 'talk' with his half-brother was done.
His brother was half sitting up against his pillows, looking wan and drawn, as he closed the bedroom door behind him, and the blue eyes narrowed warily at the sight of the uninvited company
'Mind if I come in?' Scott held up the bottle enticingly. 'I bring gifts—if you're allowed to have any'
'Looks like y'are in, already.' Johnny grunted then, with a slight change of tone he added 'don't suppose there IS any tequila in this place'.
'I didn't look.' Scott set the bottle and the glasses down on the dresser. 'How are you feeling?'
'Not so bad.' came the rather untruthful answer. 'You come to ask after my health brother-or did you have something else on your mind?'
You are very perceptive.' Scott stood over him for a moment then glanced around for a chair. 'But if you aren't feeling up to it now, we can talk some other time'
'Talk about what?'
'Johnny Madrid' Scott had decided that the direct approach would probably work the best—but he was not prepared for what happened next. Almost before he had finished the words Johnny's right hand had flashed under the covers and re-appeared and Scott found himself looking down the dark glinting barrel of his brother's pistol. There was a short challenging silence.
Yep-that’s the fella.' Scott was quite pleased with his own cool calm response to the unexpected threat. 'I wouldn't fire if I was you though. The state you're in right now, the recoil will send you through the wall.'
Johnny's blue eyes crinkled into an appreciative smile.
'You're really somethin' ain't yer' he drawled dryly and gently lowered the hammer so he could take his finger from the trigger. He then set the gun in his lap and sat there for a long moment, fingering it idly, seemingly waiting for the next question. Scott however remained silent. He knew the value of staying quiet. He did not want to interrogate this unlikely new relative of his—he wanted the boy to talk to him, willingly.
'I suppose you have a right ta ask'. Johnny spoke again at length. 'Not so sure I need to answer to you though.' He replaced the gun under the covers and cocked his dark tousled head enquiringly. 'The old man say anything yet to ya?
'Some' Scott dragged the high backed chair from one side of the room to the bedside and straddled it like horse, resting his arms on the backrest. 'But it’s the ranch crew that have been doing most of the talking.'
'That figures.' Johnny sighed.
'Seems you have quite a reputation.'
'Earned and deserved,' Johnny said succinctly and Scott smiled.
He liked that: a good honest answer. No blathering or excuses.
'You're that good are you?
'Which means what exactly?' Scott asked, with quite genuine interest.
'What do you mean?' Johnny asked, suspiciously.
'I don't know anything about gunfighters.' Scott said bluntly and truthfully 'what is that a gunfighter does exactly that he can be so good at it?
Johnny gave him a puzzled glance. Surely Scott was kidding him. However, he sounded and looked earnest enough. How to explain it though was a bit of a stickler.
'Someone pays you to do their dirty work for 'em.' He mumbled at last.
'A sort of mercenary?' Scott mused 'that’s--------'
'I know what it means.' Johnny flashed him a glint of a smile. 'I can read and write too.' He added with another little grin. 'Yeah—' he lifted his eyes for a moment and met his brothers searching gaze squarely. 'A sorta mercenary.' He nodded firmly as if the conversation was closed as far as he was concerned and lay back against the pillows, his eyes closing dismissively.
Scott reached behind him for the whiskey and made a bit of unnecessary fuss and noise about pouring some into the glasses. When he had finished he was aware of the intelligent blue eyes in that wan, tired face, watching him once again.
'Look.' Johnny accepted the tumbler he was offered and sniffed the contents almost suspiciously. 'Look—'he said again, after taking a dubious sip 'you fought your war—I fought mine. Will that do for you?'
Scott too took a drink. It was good stuff. The spirits had become more raw and less palatable the further west he had travelled—but it seemed that Murdoch Lancer enjoyed good wine, good brandy and good whiskey, here in his California stronghold.
'Pardee?' Scott persisted. Pardee bothered him. 'You said you knew him. Did you ride with him?'
Johnny's face became hard and his fingers twitched on the bedcover.
'I ain't nothing like Pardee.' He said coldly.
'You said something like that last night.' Scott observed. 'I'm afraid I don't know enough about it to be able to tell the difference though. Can you explain?'
'I don't have to explain anything to you.' Suddenly Johnny was sullen and hard –eyed. 'What's it to you anyhow?
'Well--I didn't like what I saw of him—of what he was trying to do and how he was doing it. You told us that he was a 'gunfighter' and that he was 'good'. Now I learn that you too, are a gunfighter—and by your own admission—you too are 'good'. What am I supposed to make out of that—brother! If we are going to be—partners-- in this place I think I'm entitled to know a little bit about who I am getting in with—don't you?'
There was another little silence. Johnny was plainly thinking that one over and Scott—who was quite genuinely interested in what the response might be—was perfectly content to wait. He had actually expected a display of temper at such a probing question—would not in fact have been terribly surprised to have seen that damned Colt waving under his nose again. The fact that his question had gotten to his half-brother in the way it had was encouraging to say the least.
'He asked me to join him.' Johnny spoke at last, his head down, 'and I didn't. That good enough for you?
'And if it had been someone else's land he was trying to steal—not yours—and he had asked the same question—would you have joined him?' Scott asked coolly.
Johnny's head came up slowly.
'Suppose I said yes—I would?' He challenged. The tired blue eyes met the near-grey ones squarely and for a moment they both stared each other out.
'I think I'd call you a liar.' Scott said at last—and he saw the relief in his brother's face at being understood.
'I ain't nothing like Pardee.' Johnny reiterated. 'I can't tell you why I didn't turn out that way because I don't know. I ain't no saint Scott—I done things I ain't so proud of—but I never did any of that burnin' and killin' and rapin'. You don't have to believe me—but I never did.'
'I believe you.' Scott drained his glass and came to his feet. He didn't think now was the time to tell Johnny that the reports their father had been receiving from the Pinkerton Agency backed up his claim. He collected the second tumbler—Johnny had left a mouthful or two at the bottom of the glass and he drained that too, and picked up the whiskey bottle. 'You look like you need to rest now—but I will be back-and I do have more questions.'
'I'll be here' Johnny said wearily.
Scott stepped over to the door.
'There is just ONE more thing I'd like to say now'. He said—and the new, harder edge to the smooth deep voice brought the dark head on the white pillows up sharply.
'Don't pull that gun on me again, ' Scott said, in commanding tones 'unless you truly intend to use it' and he was gone, pulling the door shut after him with a snap.