Scott pulled hard on the log that was snagged in the creek. It was stuck fast in the drying mud and held down at one end by debris washed down by rain last month.
He was stronger than his wiry frame looked, and he knew it, but he had the feeling that that brother of his didn’t.
Johnny was sitting on that palomino he’d picked out, watching Scott hard at it with a smirk on his face that Scott would have liked to wipe off. Hell, even the horse seemed to be enjoying himself!
He tried digging his hands further under his end of the log to try to get a grip on it, but the mud was still damp enough to be slippery and his hands slid off again when he attempted to lift it. To make matters worse, he almost lost his balance. His arms flailed in the air and he swayed like a drunk. His feet were firmly stuck in the thick mud around him so he couldn’t even change his stance to help himself.
But he managed to stay on his feet just the same, and wiped his slimy mud-caked hands on his jeans.
“Looks like you’re gettin' all dirty there, Boston,’ Johnny laughed.
“Instead of enjoying the show, why don’t you come down here and lend a hand,” Scott answered with a frown of annoyance. “This log is one third your’s, you know.”
Johnny dismounted slowly and made his way down the embankment. “All right. Let’s get to it,” he said with a grin.
“Before you get into this mud, go to the other end and get rid of some of that debris.”
Johnny pulled the snags away until the end of the log was visible. He slid his hands under to get some purchase on it, and then looked up.
“Ready?” Scott asked him.
“Whenever you are Boston,” Johnny told him, still grinning.
Scott found the use of the nickname irritating. Johnny had a way of saying it that made it sound condescending, like he wouldn’t be able to cut it out here ‘where men were men’.
In the week since the doctor had okayed Johnny to go to work, Murdoch had made a point of sending them out together, and Scott felt that he had to keep proving himself. And here he was again, having to call on his brother once more to get the job done – a job that Johnny probably thought he should have been able to do on his own.
“Just lift the damned thing,” Scott snapped at him, evoking yet another of those annoying grins.
They lifted together, and this time the log began to give. It came up an inch, then another, and from under it came the sound of air being sucked in as the cloying mud lifted with it and created a vacuum that held it like a vice.
Scott gritted his teeth and kept lifting. A quick glance at Johnny told him that he was faring no better. Both of them persevered. Neither of them was going to be the one to give up first, but that log was beating them. It held fast.
Suddenly, it gave. With a final gasp, the mud let go and the log was clear and in the air, but it still won the war. Scott lost his balance, and this time there was no chance of recovery. He swung his arms in vain hope of staying on his feet, but nothing was going to save his dignity this time.
He fell back and found himself sitting in inches of mud, reddening with embarrassment, but he was surprised that Johnny hadn’t already seen the fun in it.
Looking over in his brother’s direction, he spotted him trying to lift himself out of the mud as well. He’d landed on his side, and those bright shining conches on his pants were covered in the stuff.
Johnny leaned on one elbow, ignoring the muck, and he smiled. His eyes twinkled with glee and Scott found himself grinning back at him.
“Looks like I’m not the only one getting dirty now, brother,” he smirked, still sitting in the mud while his brother lay where he had landed.
“Yeah, well, I told you I’d find you layin’ in a ditch some day,” Johnny grinned.
“I’m sitting. You’re the one laying in the ditch, brother.”
Johnny laughed and got to his feet. “You need a hand to get up, old man?”
Scott grinned back at him. “No, thank you,” he replied, getting up out of the mud. “Let’s get this log out of here and get home for a bath.”
The log was easy to lift between them, and they swung it up onto the bank and then climbed the embankment to where their horses waited.
Scott wiped his hands on his pants, trying to get rid of the drying mud that was caked on them.
“You’d better get used to that, Boston,” Johnny said and grinned at him.
Scott declined to answer. The use of ‘Boston’ again irritated him. He wondered how his brother would react if he called him ‘Gunhawk’!
But he let it slide, again, mounting his horse instead and turning him for home.
They rode side by side in silence most of the way. Light conversation was hard to come by between them – neither of them sure of the other. Scott wondered if he would ever feel comfortable around Johnny Madrid Lancer. He was moody, even sullen, a lot of the time. He’d been a difficult patient for them while he was recovering from that wound in his back, and even worse once he started to feel better.
He hadn’t taken the inactivity well and his moods had swung from grumpy to depressed most of the time. It had not made for getting to know him better.
Lost in his own thoughts, Scott was surprised when Johnny reined up suddenly. He was a couple of paces ahead when he stopped and looked back over his shoulder at him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Johnny eyes twinkled with mischief and he turned his head towards the river beside them.
“Just thinking how nice it would be to wash off some of this mud,” he answered lightly.
Scott eyed the inviting water himself. “Not a bad idea, boy,” he told him and dismounted.
Johnny did the same and led his horse over to the shade of a massive willow tree on the edge of the river. He took off his hat, and his gunbelt, piling them together close to the river’s edge, then sat down and pulled off his boots and added them to the pile.
Scott sat beside him and did the same, taking off the belt to his trousers as well, as Johnny stood up and walked closer to the water.
“Aren’t you stripping off?” he asked.
Johnny just shrugged and looked down at his clothes. “They’re muddier than I am,” he said casually. “Don’t see why I should take ‘em back for Teresa an’ Maria to wash, when I can do it now. That’d be puttin’ ‘em to extra work is all.”
Johnny held his hand out to him. “Come on, I’ll give you a hand up.”
Scott looked at it and then decided, ‘what the hell’ and gave his brother his hand. Before he knew where he was at, Johnny had heaved him not just to his feet, but clear into the water. He landed with a splash and sank under for a moment. He clawed his way to the top, just in time to see Johnny disappear under the water at his side.
He treaded water and wiped his face, waiting for Johnny to reappear. When he did, he had that half-smile that Scott had seen on a few occasions already.
“Forgot to ask if you can swim, Boston,” Johnny laughed as he tossed his head and shook the excess water out of his hair.
This time, there was no ring of condescension in the nickname. It was more like familiarity, even affection.
“Since before you could walk, little brother,” Scott told him with a grin, and dunked him under.
Johnny came up laughing, and the mood was set for the next half hour or so.
They wrestled and played in the water like boys, splashing and racing each other until they both tired of it and climbed out to sit in the sun and dry off.
Lying on the grass in the sun, Scott felt good. He felt freer than he had in years.
Looking over at Johnny, he realized that he had spent the last thirty minutes, with his ‘brother’. For the first time, he saw Johnny not as a sullen gunfighter, but as a free spirited youth. For the first time, he felt completely at ease with him.
Scott sighed contentedly. “You know something, Johnny. I’m glad I stayed at Lancer.”
Johnny looked over at him curiously, and then smiled. “I’m kinda glad I did too.”