I'm coming up only to hold you under
I'm coming up only to show you wrong
And to know you is hard and we wonder
To know you all wrong, we were ~ Band of Horses
Sometimes he had this thought that things had gone wrong rather than right. It was as if his life had followed some sort of sordid plan, up to this point. Then, he'd been saved. Now, that was a very good thing if you took it at face value. It's hard to imagine not being saved, after all. But, when a person is "that" close … when he's only a few heartbeats away from feeling the final bullet enter, well, that has a few life changing implications of its own. And there were times when he didn't do so well with that. Those times, he didn't want to be around much of anyone. And it was then that he'd disappear and oh Lord did they rant and rave. Every damned one of them. And he'd only come back to show them. To show them he could.
Last week had been one of the worst. It was an unseasonably hot day and he'd been at the hacienda minding his own business. Going over the books to be followed by a shot or two of tequila. Then, of course, he had given all he could and couldn't stand it anymore. The books were an abomination and only to be tolerated for so long. He'd wandered over to work on a broken harness out in the barn when some of the Mexican vaqueros had started up over near the corrals, yelling in joyful Spanish and laughing. The edginess hit him like a damned 200 pound boulder. He had broken out in a cold sweat and his heart was beating so fast it was like some runaway train. He'd jumped up, leaving the harness in a tangled heap on the floor. His intent was to get the hell away from there before anyone saw him. But this time, he'd been too slow. It didn't happen often, that slow thing, but when it did there was hell to pay.
Murdoch came up from the side yard, his eyes blazing and loaded for bear. Johnny had ducked back into the barn, hoping the old man hadn't seen him. His luck wasn’t with him on this day. Now, of course, Murdoch wasn't mad at him. No, not at all. But Johnny was there and the culprit wasn't so that's how it was played. So many stupid miscues and stumbles. Where he'd once been saved from a firing squad in spite of those miscues, he'd almost lost it all because of them, too. Funny the way life can work when you aren't paying proper attention.
His old man's voice boomed across the expanse of the yard and into the barn. "Johnny! I thought you were going to actually finish the books today. I've got too many problems hitting me right now to have you taking off and leaving your responsibilities behind."
Yep, he'd been spied sure enough. He wandered back over to the hay bale where he'd been sitting and gathered the harness again. He didn't want this fight, but something told him it was not going to be easy to avoid. Actually, if the truth were to be known, he was in no shape for any kind of altercation, physical or otherwise. He was still in the midst of his panic and rather embarrassed about the whole thing. The last person he wanted to see at the moment was his father. The man didn't even know he had nightmares, much less sometimes became almost physically ill with a case of nerves that would hit him so suddenly and inexplicably that it left him wondering about his sanity. Murdoch didn't know and he sure as hell wouldn't understand. After all, it wasn't about the shit that most would think. No. Those nightmares and such weren't about what he had done in the past. They were about what he hadn't done. And then, he'd left.
So his father blundered his way right into the midst of all that. Of course, Murdoch wasn't having the best of days either, so what went down next was really nothing more than a series of unfortunate events. Johnny told himself later that his father's ill temper was understandable. In fact, Johnny had let his own temper, brought on by the events of a bad day, lead him into many such confrontations. It was just plain bad luck that father and son were having simultaneous catastrophes, or at least what seemed like catastrophes when emotions made small things loom larger.
Ultimately, Johnny made a very huge mistake and talked when he should've kept silent. That wasn't a frequent problem of his, but it sure as hell was a fucked up mess this time. Having a smart-ass mouth when his father was on a tirade was about as stupid as anyone could get. But, then again, having a tirade when Johnny Madrid was in the middle of what was basically a case of the heebie jeebies wasn't a particularly wise thing either. And that is how it came to pass that Johnny Madrid Lancer took a leave of absence from the place that he'd come to think of as his home.
He'd only thought to defend himself. It was his first instinct and most likely would be his last. The old man probably even knew it, but that didn't make the fracas any less hard to take. As Murdoch had walked further into the barn he'd confronted Johnny directly, demanding to know what was so all-fired important about that particular harness at that particular time. Of course, Johnny didn't have a clue. It was just something to do that wasn’t the books. He said so and that wasn't what Murdoch Lancer, patron of the biggest ranch in the area, wanted to hear from his younger son.
"Are you trying to tell me that you're too good to do the books … that Scott or I should do them because they bore you?"
Johnny hadn't looked directly at his father, because he was still worrying over that edgy thing about the firing squad and loudly spoken Spanish and hot days making it all come back and afraid the old man would see it. Then he'd have a whole lot more explaining to do other than about the fuckin' books. "I didn't try to say nothin', if you hadn't noticed. You're the one with all the ideas. You know I hate those damned books and I was takin' a break with somethin' that needed doin', that's all."
Murdoch took on a patient look that was all pretend. "John. Last night I told you that you needed to go over the books and be done by the time Scott was back with the crew from the south pasture. We don't need to be stretching out the task longer than it takes because you don't happen to like sitting in one spot long enough to see it to completion. This is as important as the physical labor on the ranch. How many times do I need to remind you?"
Johnny knew that his own expression was far from patient, and damn it, if he didn't feel Madrid waiting to take over. No way was he going to let his father know what had really been going on in his cabeza, so hell, here comes Madrid to the rescue. It wasn't even anything he thought about anymore. If he needed him, there he was. That was okay for some situations, but this was most likely not one of them, although there wasn't anything he could really do about that. "I'm not thinkin' you need to do much yammerin' at me at all, truth be told. Most times you just talk to hear yourself anyway, right? I'm not fuckin' stupid, Murdoch. I don't much appreciate you implying that I am." He shot the old man that look that showed him Madrid was there with them.
Of course, it just pissed Murdoch off, because although he was a little nervous about that aspect of his son, he wasn't scared of it. So the stand-off began. "Language, John. And you know damned good and well I'm not implying anything of the sort, young man!"
It would've actually been funny if they both hadn't been so wrapped up in their own private dramas. Most times, Johnny would've laughed at the old man right about then, and his laughter would've gotten the old man going too, because Murdoch couldn't resist his younger son's sense of humor. It was something they shared, and the elder brother would testify to it with a roll of the eyeballs and a quick departure from the premises. Scott wasn’t there at this juncture and this was definitely not one of those instances. Scott sometimes chose the most inopportune times to be absent.
So instead of laughing, Johnny had thrown down the harness and stood and stared at his father with eyes that he knew were as cold as his heart at the moment. And instead of laughing Murdoch had stared back. Then the old man told him to hurry and get back to the books and quit slacking off and as Murdoch turned and left the barn, he murmured some sarcastic comment under his breath. Well, that did it. Johnny Madrid didn't need anything more than that to turn right around and saddle Barranca and light out for somewhere far away. It had been that spontaneous on both their parts. At one point, as he was headed toward the white arch that told everyone that they were entering or leaving the land of one of the biggest assholes in the area, Johnny had looked back. He'd seen him standing there and for that instant, he hadn't really looked like an asshole at all. No. He looked like a father staring off into the distance, watching a well-loved son leave. Johnny had pushed down the sorrow and kept on riding. They'd find him if they needed him. They always did.
He rode a very long time. His purpose was to get as far away from the heat and the Spanish and the memories as he could possibly manage. It was stupid, he knew. No one would understand, and he really couldn't blame them. He barely understood himself. All he knew was that when shit like this came crashing in on him, he had the need to hotfoot it away from there. It wasn't a logical kind of thing and Scott sure as hell would be the first to tell him to calm down and think. And of course, Scott would be right, that's exactly what he should do. But damn it all, that's not what he "needed" to do. He wasn't fit to be around anyone when he was going through this, so he'd cause some sort of ruckus and leave. It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last. He'd managed to pull off a trip to Sacramento once, but it was damned hard to time one of his spells, as he thought of them, with a planned trip for Murdoch. Besides, it had gotten so much better lately, he'd thought these spells had finally left him for good. This one had caught him unaware and he really had hoped things wouldn't lead to this end.
He suspected part of his uneasiness had been spurred on by Murdoch's bad mood over something going on with the ranch. Johnny had simply picked a bad time to have flashes of memory of Mexico, tragic endings, Pinkerton men and Spanish speaking assassins. So now he was riding as far up as he could go. There was a cabin there. He'd found it one time when he was out exploring not long after Pardee. He had spent hours roaming his new land, and one day he'd set out with no particular place to go and found himself riding well into the mountains. He'd ended up a lot further from the hacienda than he'd ever meant to be and then had run straight into the little shack. It had the look of a place that hadn't been used for a very long time. It had served its purpose well, though, and he'd been able to spend a warm night indoors rather than camp out in the cold mountain air.
Of course, Murdoch and Scott had been madder than hell when he made it home late the next day, apparently worrying that something horrible had happened to him. He had barely managed to deflect that one with some story about getting lost or some such shit and then he'd pretended that his wound from the Pardee incident had caused him so much pain he'd been forced to bed down when it had been light enough to make camp. They'd been so relieved to get him back that he'd made it through their rants relatively unscathed. He had eventually told Scott about the little cabin, but as far as Johnny knew, his brother had never felt the need to look for it. Now it was a blessing, providing a private place to get back under control and even lick his wounds a bit. If Scott really wanted to locate him, he would. Johnny had perfect faith in that. But maybe they'd realize all he really wanted was to be left alone until the memories and the nerves left him alone too.
When the little shack came into view, Johnny was just about beat. He was so tired that he barely managed to bed down Barranca and gather wood for a fire before collapsing on the little cot. He slept for hours but woke up stiff and achy. He blamed it on the wind he could hear outside whipping around chilling the land and his fire burning low. He stumbled about in the dark and managed to get the place warm again after some effort. Sitting hunched over on the cot he realized that he was feeling all jumbly inside again and it finally occurred to him that perhaps he'd been wrong. Now, wasn't that the way of idiots? Committing to a course of action that would only ensure that they would later be determined to be the dumb asses that they were … usually after someone found them in some situation that was worse than the one they had left.
Yes, he'd totally missed this one and yet he could see how he'd misled himself. He almost never got sick and it was easy to miss the signs. If it happened a little more frequently, he might've remembered that the feeling of restlessness and edginess was something he'd usually get before he was laid low with fever. He'd have known not to blame his inability to focus on nerves and bad memories. He'd have realized he had to let Murdoch know why sitting around doing books was too hard to bear. He would've said that the light was too bright and his skin was being accosted by a strange chill that ran deep and his thoughts were skittering around like a wild colt. All this while his energy was ebbing so fast he had to get up and move to keep from falling asleep in that big leather chair. If he'd only remembered when it mattered, before he had taken an action that he would come to regret. So he was stuck in a little cabin in the middle of nowhere, shivering his butt off and wishing like hell he hadn't been quite as big an asshole to those he loved.
Scott had arrived back home tired, dusty, and hungry. He was not in the best of moods either, for that matter. The creek that had needed clearing was much more difficult than they had anticipated and had taken most of their time. Then, not far downstream, a couple of stupid cows had bogged themselves down in the mud. One of them had recently calved, so while they worked, the little fellow had bawled his ass off the entire time. Scott had been the last to curse him, but he'd finally joined in when his nerves simply couldn't take it anymore. It actually felt good to yell at the poor thing, and he'd managed to laugh along with the vaqueros when he used his new Spanish phrases correctly.
He had been more than ready to have a chance to sit on something besides a horse and drink just about anything that wasn't tepid water from a canteen. However, as soon as he crossed into the great room, he'd known something was very wrong. Of course, the look on Murdoch's face was pretty easy to read and the fact that Johnny was nowhere in sight was telling, so he hadn't needed good detective skills to deduce the nature of the crime. Details were soon forthcoming without a single prompt.
Scott kept his sigh to himself. It had been a while since the old man and his little brother had gone at it. Scott thought the words "old man" to himself with an inward snicker. Johnny's influence was horrible, but he wasn't about to let either one of them know just how far-reaching it was. It was a private joke and a rather good one, he thought. Besides, there were some occasions that the irreverent term fit better than anything else. This was one of them.
He allowed Murdoch the customary time a soliloquy normally took, standing in the background much as a captive audience would. As that act began to wind down, Scott ventured a question, hoping dialogue could now progress.
"Did you ask Johnny why he seemed to need a break from doing the books, sir? Maybe something's wrong. You know how he gets when there are things of some sort bothering him. His nature tends to make him act rather than sit still, and to be honest, that's stood him in pretty good stead."
Murdoch seemed contrite which told him more than his answers would. "No son, our conversation never went that far."
"Murdoch. Was there really anything you could call an actual conversation going on?"
His father sighed and briefly looked away. "You're right. There wasn't." Then he shot Scott a look. "But that was on both of our sides. You know how it gets sometimes."
For a moment, Scott could've sworn he was talking to his brother rather than Murdoch. The two of them could be laughable, and sometimes they did laugh over their mutual folly. Not in this instance, apparently. Johnny and Murdoch were certainly cut from the same cloth; he'd thought it dozens of times.
"Don't you think you could help break the pattern? I mean a simple question can go a long way toward clearing up misunderstandings. In the history of so many conflicts, if one person had just … "Scott inwardly grimaced and stopped himself. Sometimes it was a little too obvious he and his father were cut from the same cloth, too.
At least Murdoch had the good grace to agree with him. "I should have pursued it differently. I was out of sorts about some other business and I took it out on your brother. And you know, I think he was struggling with something, too. He didn't seem to want to go at it with me any more than I did with him. It's probably why he took off so quickly."
"You know where he went, sir?"
There was another deep sigh. "I saw him ride out, but I don't have a clue where he went. He may have gone into town to cut loose, but something tells me that wasn't where he was headed. He seemed different somehow, more withdrawn. In fact, I almost got the feeling he was merely waiting for an excuse to take off. I admit I'm worried about him, son. I watched him leave and I think he saw me standing there. For some reason, I think he really didn't want to go, but felt he had to."
So what in the name of all that was good was Scott supposed to say to that? He said the only thing he could, of course. "I'll give him a while to cool down, or ride it off, or outdraw some tin cans, or whatever activity he's chosen this time. If he isn't back by tomorrow evening, I'll go look for him. That'll give me some time to catch up on my jobs and cover his. I imagine he'll be around before we need to worry about it. He generally is."
Murdoch nodded. "Yes, we don't want to jump to conclusions. I guess I'm just a little more worried about his leaving this time. It really did seem different. We were put out with each other Scott, but seriously, he didn't need to take off like that. Like I said a minute ago, it seemed as if he was itching to get away before I even started talking to him." Shaking his head, Murdoch walked over to get a drink for himself and Scott. "Maybe I'm reading way too much into all this. Johnny can be high-strung and needs his space from time to time."
Scott took the cue and the drink and sat in one of the chairs to finally relax. Murdoch changed the subject to the status of the work crews and it was admittedly a welcome respite from worrying about Johnny. Ranch work went on no matter the emotional upsets of those running it and now it was almost a welcome distraction for both father and elder son.
The next hours passed quickly, as they do when people are busy. But as the evening of the following day loomed, both Murdoch and Scott became anxious. There had been no word from Johnny and no sightings of him from hands that rode over the ranch. Men who had been to town and back hadn't seen him or his golden horse. It was as if he'd purposely vanished and Scott began to think perhaps he had.
That night Scott came upon Murdoch looking out over the land toward the arch again. The man was truly worried when normally he would've been verging on anger. This reconfirmed to Scott that there had indeed been something different going on with Johnny's departure. It was time to make the commitment to find his little brother, whether his brother wanted to be found or not.
He walked over to his father and said, "I think I need to go ahead and ride out and look for our boy, Murdoch. I hate to assume he's okay and find out he had an accident of some sort or met up with something dangerous. I know he's probably just lying low, but you seem more worried than normal and I hate to ignore your hunches."
Murdoch looked at him with a grateful expression in his eyes. "Don't go until morning, son. Odds are he's fine and simply needing some time alone. I sure would hate for you to go out at dark and end up in danger and he was merely somewhere getting his head on straight. He'd hate it too and I doubt if he'd ever forgive himself if something were to happen to you while you were out there traipsing about at night."
Scott smiled and nodded. "I wasn't going to leave until dawn. I might even pass him as he's coming back in. I'll be sure to give him a piece of my mind if I do." Scott waited for the response and smiled to himself when it came immediately.
"No, no. Let him be for a while, Scott. We'll have our chance at him soon enough. I really would like to know what's going on before we light into him and make it worse." Then he caught the small grin that escaped his son's lips and stopped and shook his head. "I know. I know. It would've been better if I'd taken that approach from the beginning."
Scott couldn't help it and laughed outright. Murdoch clapped him on the shoulder and they went back into the warmth of the indoors. Scott knew that both of them still carried their concerns, but a new conviction to find the younger man gave them purpose and that always did help keep anxiety at bay.
Scott rode out early the next morning, fully aware that his father was watching from his big window. He felt a surge of affection for the man, and knew it was because it was becoming easier to see how much the usually stoic rancher really cared about his sons. It had taken a while, and there had been setbacks, but now the emotion Murdoch felt for them both was undeniable and often readily apparent. That was touching, in a way, and made Scott feel more settled and happy than he ever thought it would. Having a brother that he cared about and who cared about him was also a part of that sentiment, and Scott was determined to find the whereabouts of the young scamp before he made his way home. There was a cabin in the lower elevations of the nearby mountains and Johnny would sometimes seek sanctuary there. He was more aware of it than Johnny realized and Scott could well imagine that he might have ended up there. It was a gamble, but a strong hunch told Scott that's where he'd find his brother.
It was nearly dusk and the wind had taken on a definite chill before the little cabin came into sight. Although skies had cleared for the moment, a recent rain had left the surrounding trees dripping, and judging by the sound of thunder in the distance, another storm could be expected by nightfall. The cabin was so quiet and barren-looking that Scott wondered if he'd been mistaken and come to the wrong place, after all. But as he rode into the slight clearing that served as a small yard, his horse nickered and an answer came from the small pole barn situated behind the shack. Scott smiled. So he had been right. He dismounted and was about to give a shout in greeting when he heard the distinct sound of a gun being cocked from the shadows of the trees. Scott's breath caught for a moment before he forced out the name in a hesitant question. "Johnny?"
There was no answer and no reassuring sound of the gun being uncocked. Scott's hand slowly went to his side and he made a move to draw his own pistol. The familiar soft drawl was rougher than usual, but it still served to chill Scott's blood.
"I wouldn't do that unless you plan on it being the last move you ever make."
Scott peered through the gathering shadows and finally saw the dark form of a man. His pistol glinted in the remaining light and Scott could tell the weapon was aimed directly at his chest. Swallowing hard and forcing his voice to sound strong and confident as normal, Scott said, "Johnny. Is that you, brother? What's going on?"
At first there was only silence and then, the figure slowly moved. The gun, however, remained disturbingly aimed straight at Scott's heart. As Johnny warily approached, Scott could finally distinguish that his brother was not just mentally off, he looked about as pale as he'd ever seen him and the normally deep blue eyes were red-rimmed and glazed. Scott suddenly realized that his brother was a very sick man, and definitely not in his right mind.
The drawl became even more menacing, if possible, and Johnny continued his slow advance. "You need to get on your horse and ride. I'll not be sayin' it again. Leave now or you'll never leave at all."
"Johnny. It's me, Scott. I've come to check on you, brother. Are you sick?" It was as stupid a question as he could ask, but Scott was feeling a bit desperate. His choices were slim to none, as Johnny was fond of saying. There was the very real possibility that Scott would be forced to ride out of there without his brother, who was obviously extremely ill, or become buzzard vittles. That was one of Jelly's favorite terms and it did sum up the danger pretty well. None of it was anything Scott felt happy contemplating.
Scott slowly shifted until his body was in what was left of the late afternoon sun. He knew his only chance was that Johnny would recognize him. Watching Johnny's advance into the clearing, Scott couldn't help a small shudder. He'd never thought he'd be this side of Johnny Madrid's deadly aim and it was as intimidating and fearsome as he could ever imagine. Knowing that his brother might as well be pointing that Colt at himself was also a quick thought that occurred. Johnny would never be able to go on if this situation did not end well. That pulled trigger would be a death knell for them both.
As soon as he thought them, the words sprang from his lips. "Johnny, Murdoch sent me to get you. He needs you. He wants you to get Barranca and come home." And then something took over and he uttered words that seemed to simply leave his mouth without his thinking them. "He said to tell you that you weren't getting out of doing the books this easy. They're still waiting for you. But if you come back now, Johnny, I'll help you. Between the two of us, we can get through them in a matter of minutes, an hour tops."
God, he felt stupid. Wasn't that about the lamest thing he could have ever done to get out of a very bad predicament with the infamous Johnny Madrid? His skills were deteriorating. That was all it could be. Being isolated from educated people who talked through problems rather than gunned them down was taking a toll. Damn it all, he'd blown his one chance to save both of them and he'd resorted to idiocy. He just about fainted when Johnny abruptly stopped his advance and lowered his gun to his side. "I don't want to do the damned books, Scott. I hate those fuckin' things. You're going to have to do better 'n that. Tell Murdoch …" A sudden awareness finally flickered in those fever-glazed eyes. "Oh, shit."
Johnny dropped to the ground and sat there with his head on his bent knees. Scott could faintly hear him repeating something over and over. As he approached his brother, he could see the gun lying uselessly at his side. Drawing nearer, Scott could make out the words. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." Johnny repeated the one word over and over. If Scott hadn't been so damned scared for them both only a moment before, he might have laughed. The logical part of his brain, the one he'd accused of abandoning him and opting for stupid, told him that there would come a time when both of them would laugh. It would mean getting his brother well and letting some time pass, but he was sure it was a story they'd share over beers, or most likely something stronger. First he had to get Johnny off the damp ground and into the cabin. A particularly loud rumble of thunder from distant clouds reminded him that they'd soon be faced with a storm and they definitely needed to get indoors.
Carefully, Scott lowered himself to sit on his haunches by Johnny's side. He reached over and grasped the Colt to move it out of harm's way and was met with stark blue eyes that blinked up at him in momentary confusion and then closed again. The murmuring finally ended and Scott was able to hear his brother's labored breathing. Heat seemed to be radiating off Johnny's body in waves. The younger man was as sick as Scott had ever seen him, and that was counting the fever produced by Pardee's bullet. This time, however, it was fever born by illness and neglect. It meant that Scott needed to act quickly and decisively.
Scott gave Johnny's back a gentle pat. "What have you done to yourself, boy? Looks like you feel pretty bad here, am I right?" Scott moved his hand to Johnny's neck and gently squeezed, hoping to get a response other than the repeated curse. The younger man raised his head and looked at him directly for the first time since the whole ordeal began.
"Oh God, Scott. I really fucked up this time, didn't I? You must hate me and I can't blame you. Not at all. I'm sorry, I'm just so sorry. I was asleep and I heard somethin' and I've been feelin' so damned edgy and then you were out there, but I didn't know who you were. Oh God. I fucked up bad."
Scott's grip on his brother became more firm and then he slowly moved his hand and began to rub his back, trying to impart some reassurance to the obviously distraught man. "I didn't know you were sick, Johnny, or I'd been more careful about riding straight in. It's okay, brother. I won't hold this one against you. But I hope to God Madrid and I don't meet under such circumstances again." Scott purposefully met his brother's eyes and tried giving him a grin to help ease his worry, although in truth he meant the words he said. "That's one scary son of a bitch you've got hidden in there, my brother."
Johnny looked around at him and shook his head. "Shit, Scott, I never meant for you to ever see that at all. You know I never would …" Johnny swallowed and then something of his old self finally re-emerged. "So he's still pretty scary?" Scott thought he could even see a slight twinkle in those sad eyes.
"Oh, he hasn't lost the touch in spite of all the recent soft living. No worries there."
Johnny's mouth curled in an answering small smile, and Scott began to relax. "Johnny, let's get you off this wet ground and into the cabin and see about getting this fever down. Did you know you were getting sick when you set out?"
Johnny coughed a bit and made to regain his legs. Scott quickly moved to help him. "Hell, no, Scott. I thought … well, I'll tell you later, I promise. But it wasn't getting sick that I was worried about. I came up here tryin' to get away and before I knew it, I was sick as a dog and worried y'all would never get up here to find me."
Johnny paused a moment and turned to gaze at him intently. Scott was struck again by just how ill his brother seemed. "I thought I'd really messed up this time. How'd you know I was here, Boston?"
Scott shook his head and then grabbed Johnny's arm and began to move him toward the cabin. "We'll talk about that later. Right now we need to work at getting you inside and on your way toward well. I was going to ask you why you didn't just come on home, but you're barely able to make it across the yard, much less get up on a horse and ride for a day. I might have to agree with your assessment of your predicament, little brother."
"Aw, don't lecture, Scott." Johnny staggered against him and Scott firmed up his grip. "I know I fucked up and now the old man's mad at me and you can't be nothin' but pissed."
As he pulled Johnny up onto the small porch, Scott said, "No one is mad, Johnny. Worried? Well, that's another matter."
They finally made it into the shack and Scott quickly maneuvered his brother over to one of the small beds. Sitting him down, he said, "Stay there before you fall on your face. I'm going to get some cool water and see if we can get that fever down. Your stomach hurt? You sound terrible, so I'm betting your throat is sore. Your breathing doesn't sound so good either."
As Scott took a pan outside to collect cool water from the small rusty pump, he shot a look back at his brother. Johnny was listing to the side. It wouldn't be long before he was completely out, Scott thought. It was a wonder he'd stayed upright as long as he had.
Although Scott didn't linger, Johnny was asleep by the time he made it back to his side. After removing his brother's boots and gun belt, Scott placed cool compresses on the too-hot forehead and swabbed Johnny's face and neck with the cold mountain water. Gradually the fever seemed to subside some and Scott began to hope that perhaps they'd manage to make it through this thing. It would be a while before all was well, but at least they were on the right track.
After covering his brother with a couple of blankets he found crumpled at the foot of the bed, Scott searched through his saddlebags. He collected the quickly gathered supplies he'd brought that he deemed suitable to begin a small supper. He knew it was unlikely Johnny had eaten anything at all since being laid low, so getting something nourishing in his brother was imperative. He kept busy peeling potatoes and chopping onions. Potato soup wasn't a favorite, but it was good for sickness and easy to prepare. A pan of biscuits would make up for the lack of meat, he hoped. Johnny usually had a weakness for homemade biscuits.
As Scott was finishing up their small meal, Johnny startled awake. Scott hurriedly left the stove and carefully approached his brother. He was looking confused again, and Scott had the impression he didn't recall being put to bed or even Scott's arrival. Upon glimpsing Scott, his hand was at his side, searching frantically for the Colt.
"Hey, hey there, brother. Take it easy. It's just me. You're okay." Scott continued his advance, but with great caution, as if his brother was some injured wild thing. At the moment, with those blue eyes looking so distressed, Scott could easily picture him as one. Hurt and anguished and only wanting to escape, but quite capable of becoming deadly if cornered.
The dazed eyes suddenly grew steely cold. "Where's my fucking gun?" The words were spoken in a rough and deep voice, so unlike his brother's usual soft drawl. The whole scene was once again becoming bizarre.
Scott kept his voice even and calm. "I took it off so you could rest, brother. To tell you the truth, I really didn't want to repeat the happenings of this afternoon. I do have some ideas of self-preservation left, believe it or not."
Johnny looked at him as if he'd just let out a barrage of Greek. Finally he shook his head and shivered. "Oh yeah. I forgot where I was. Fuck." Johnny turned over to face the wall and became very quiet.
Walking the remaining few steps to the chair by the bed, Scott pulled it closer to Johnny and sat down. He reached out to Johnny and gently placed a careful hand on his brother's head. "Johnny, it's okay. You were asleep and I startled you. It wasn't like before. And even if it was, I understand. You're as sick as I have ever seen you, except maybe when you were shot. You're allowed some indiscretions, my brother."
Scott heard a rattling sigh and gently rubbed his brother's head. The fever was up again, although not as bad as before. No wonder the younger man had been nervous when he'd suddenly awakened. Johnny was hurting and on unfamiliar territory. Scott realized every pore of his brother's being was channeled into old survival habits. Most likely they were both dealing with Johnny Madrid as he covered for the incapacitated Johnny Lancer.
They stayed like that for long minutes, when Johnny abruptly turned over onto his back and shot a hard glance at Scott. He coughed for a moment and Scott moved his hand to his brother's forehead. Johnny asked, "Where'd you put my gun, Scott? You might be right taking it away from me so I didn't peg you if you woke me up, but you need to tell me where it is. I don't like not knowing the whereabouts of my weapon. Never know when somethin', or someone, might come up."
Scott shook his head and smiled. Some things never changed much, and in this case, Scott found himself grateful. "It's right over there on the table. If you need it for anything but me, that's where it'll be."
Johnny squinted over at the table and then gave him a harsh look. "I ain't gonna shoot ya, Scott. I do admit I was a bit startled just then, but when I couldn't find my gun I got pissed. I was sleepin' too heavy. Don't usually let myself do such as that in a strange place."
Scott gave his brother's warm cheek a quick pat and went over to fetch the cool compress. Placing it on his brother's brow, he said, "You're sick, Johnny. You might forgive yourself a few slips."
The hoarse voice was quick to answer. "Those are the kind of slips that make you dead, Boston." When Scott glanced at his brother, he was surprised to see his expression soften and even a look of affection cross it. "I'm grateful you found me and I'm sorry you have to put up with my bullshit. I never would choose to do this to you, but damn if I ain't happy you're here."
Scott removed the compress from his brother's head, dampened it in the pan he held and wrung it out. He gently wiped Johnny's forehead before placing it right above his eyes. He smiled into the familiar direct gaze that was watching his every move. "I'm glad I'm here, too. Don't worry about all the other. I don't blame you for wanting to stay alive. It's good to see you've still got a strong survival instinct. But the plain fact is I do too. That's why the pistol stays over there."
Johnny huffed a small chuckle that set him to coughing. Catching his breath, he finally managed to speak. "I understand. Just make sure I can see it and we'll both be fine."
Scott took the pan of cool water and stood. "It's a deal, brother. Now, your fever is going down again, I think. Why don't I warm some of these biscuits and let you try to get some of this soup in you. Something tells me you haven't eaten much at all. That might very well be part of your problem."
The crust of the biscuits was too hard on his sore throat, but Johnny hollowed out the soft fluffy insides and seemed to be content with this for a small meal. Scott insisted that his brother eat some of the soup which Johnny made a great show of pretending to gag on. In truth, Scott could tell his brother did feel better after eating it. The warm bland nature of the soup went down a scratchy throat fairly easy.
Scott retrieved the plate and noticed that Johnny's eyes were already growing heavy again. He fetched the tangled blankets from the end of the bed and gently wrapped them around his brother. "Why don't you lay down for a while and see if you can sleep some more. It's getting late and I'll tend to the horses. The thunder sounds like it's getting closer and it's lightning pretty good now. It might get a little harder to sleep later on, so take advantage of the quiet while you can."
Johnny blinked up at him and then blearily nodded. He simply leaned over until he lay on the bed, not even bothering to hit the pillow. Scott smiled as he raised his brother's head and placed it on the small pillow, noting with satisfaction that the fever didn't seem to be any higher. Considering it was now fairly late, Scott had hopes that his brother may have gotten through the worst of it, and his temperature, although raised, would not get to worrisome levels.
Scott spent some time outside with their horses, making sure they had enough food and water that he'd possibly be spared a trip back out until later in the morning. The storm looked like it would be a good one, and Scott had no desire to puddle jump through a downpour to check on horses when he could see to them now. He stopped and collected some more water to be used for coffee and other needs before finally heading back inside.
The rumbles of the thunder were growing still louder and the wind had begun to pick up quite a bit. The chill in the air was becoming more noticeable too. Scott sent a quiet prayer of thanks that he'd found his brother when he had. He hated to think either one of them would have been forced to spend any time out in this weather and there was no telling what Johnny would have done by now if he'd been alone. Scott stomped the mud off his boots and entered the cabin, ready for some of the soup and biscuits he'd fixed. With the cold and damp soaking into his bones, the soup actually sounded good.
Johnny slept on. The fire in the little stove was all that lit the small shack and shadows from the trees outside danced on the stark wooden walls. The storm moved closer and the high altitude magnified the lighting flashes and bursts of thunder. After eating, Scott pulled a chair over to his brother and was sitting with his feet propped up on the foot of the little bed. He'd just about drifted off when a brilliant flash of light momentarily lit the cabin and was followed by a huge crash of thunder. Without thinking, Scott was on his feet, searching for his rifle.
A surge of panic vibrated through him. Grabbing the rifle he went over to the small window and peered out. The cloudy smoke made it hard to distinguish anything. The sound of rain in the trees masked any noises that he desperately needed to hear. They were vulnerable. The powerful need to protect what was his instantly took over and he raised his rifle to crash through the window in case he might be granted a clear shot. Finally, just before the butt of the rifle hit the glass, the facts hit him. For a moment he'd been back in time. A time he never wanted to think about, much less revisit with such clarity. Scott took a big breath and turned to check on his brother only to find the brilliant blue eyes tracking his every movement by the light of the small fire.
"You ain't wherever you thought you were, Boston. Nothin' out there but rain right now. What's going on with you?"
"I thought you were asleep. How are you feeling?"
Johnny's voice was deep and rough and Scott was sure it had to hurt him to talk. "About as shitty as you can imagine. Quit tryin' to change the subject. Somethin's got you spooked and I don't think it's just the storm."
He had heard a noise and reacted. Johnny kept telling himself in those moments of lucidity that this was all it was. Those reactions had been what had kept Johnny Madrid alive, he knew this as well as he knew anything. But things had been so different then. He had no one in those days except for loose women who were fleeting fancies and men who had lives as bad as his or worse. They understood and were careful around him as he was them. Now, he had family and he'd drawn his gun on perhaps its most important member, or at least the one that meant the difference between salvation and a return to depravity. This was not good. Fuck. It was so bad he could think of doing nothing much worse other than actually shooting the man. Then, of course, he'd merely have shot himself. Nothing else would do.
He heard Scott rummaging around and putting together something for them to eat. He was sick enough that the events were starting to feel as if they were taking place in some sort of dream world and that was always painfully unsettling. He could remember a few times it had happened in his life and he knew he would become fairly prickly and mean as he tried to cover for his weakness. This was another thing that bothered him about Scott being witness to his situation. But fuck it all, deep down he was grateful and worried Scott would think less of him now. Johnny was appearing not much better than an out-of -control gun toting teenager and this was something that Johnny Madrid had worked very hard at never ever being. Even when he'd been too young to shave, he'd worked at being more than that. And everyone knew, everyone knew this, that Johnny Madrid was not one to lose control.
It was a mixed blessing having his brother find him like this. If he was feeling better he'd find it downright embarrassing, but with the chills grabbing him and his eyes slamming shut on their own accord if he was awake for more than a few minutes, Johnny had to admit he was glad the man was there. No telling what kind of trouble could start with him being so out of it, and something told him that this illness was not one to fuck around with. He'd rarely been taken down so completely or so quickly. He sure as hell didn't like feeling compromised around anyone, even Scott, but the facts had to be faced. Without his brother there, Johnny Madrid Lancer would be in a world of hurt.
Scott could be impressive. Johnny had learned that fairly early on in their cobbled together attempts at brotherhood. As time progressed, the whole brothers-thing was beginning to seem more real and not so much of a frill to try on to make himself seem more like other people. People with families and permanent homes and the trappings of a stable life. He was pretty sure Scott felt the same way, both about the initial awkwardness of it all, and then the discovery that being hermanos was a little easier to accomplish than it first appeared. Especially considering the man he'd been thrown in with was a rather infamous gunhawk. Johnny secretly marveled at Scott's ability to simply adapt. Something told him there must have been a frequent need for that in Scott's life … that ability to quickly figure how best to fit in. It was quite a gift and apparently a Lancer trait. All this and the guy could cook some damned good biscuits, too. Never mind the fucking potato soup tasted like pig slop. It wouldn't be good if the guy was too perfect.
After eating the softest parts of the biscuits and gagging down what he could of the soup, Johnny felt himself losing what was left of his energy. He hadn't wanted to sleep, because frankly, it scared him witless that he'd wake up discombobulated again and try to draw down on his brother or in some other way act an ass. But his weakness made fighting the urge to sleep impossible and he had soon found himself slithering away into that slack-muscled complete lack of consciousness that bothered him about as much as being hogtied and blindfolded. His last thoughts had been the silent prayer that he would wake up sensibly and without putting on any kind of dime novel shoot 'em up show. He knew Scott had experienced about all he could take of that for one day. He dimly heard thunder in the distance and experienced the oddly comforting feeling of his brother maneuvering his head onto a pillow, then he was gone.
He awoke suddenly with an uneasy awareness that something was very wrong. He could hear the wind outside thrashing the trees in what must have been a hell of a storm brewing. Intense flashes of light seemed to sear his brutalized eyeballs and the shadows cavorting along the walls of the shack dazzled his fever-ridden brain. But at least this time he knew where he was. And he knew who he was with, but as he sought out the figure of his brother, he was taken aback. Scott was sitting in a chair at the end of the bed staring at the window and he was as tense as Johnny had ever seen him. Seeing him like that put Johnny's own senses on high alert, so he kept quiet and covertly studied him a while. After no intruder made itself known, Johnny began to think something very different was going on. When a particularly bright flash of lightning and large crash of thunder brought Scott to his feet and grabbing for his rifle, Johnny had a pretty good idea just what was plaguing his brother. As Johnny watched, Scott raised his rifle in what appeared to be an attempt to break the glass of the front window so as to aim at something outside. Johnny was almost fooled by the abrupt action, but he had a hunch there wasn't any real danger lurking about. No more than there had been for him just a few short hours ago.
Scott stopped the path of the rifle and stared at the window a moment, then he turned and glanced at Johnny. Johnny met his eyes directly and watched as Scott sighed and hung his head. He simply stood there for a time, seeming unable to meet Johnny's gaze again.
Johnny said in a voice he barely recognized as his own, "You ain't wherever you thought you were, Boston. Nothin' out there but rain right now. What's going on with you?"
Of course his big brother tried to deflect the question by asking him how he felt. No way was Scott going to get away with that shit. Not after what Johnny had just put him through. What was good for one brother was equally good for the other.
Johnny kept staring at Scott, offering him no chance at retreat. He said in his new voice, "About as shitty as you can imagine. Quit tryin' to change the subject. Somethin's got you spooked and I don't think it's just the storm."
“Let it go, brother. After the afternoon's experiences, I'm just feeling a little nervous is all. I really don't feel like talking about me when we've just been through hell with you. You need to rest, Johnny, and stop worrying about me.”
He had to admit, that pissed him off some. He recognized the tactic for what it was, but that didn't take the sting out of it. Murdoch Lancer had passed down a sharp tongue to both his sons, and they each had no problem using it when they wanted to ward off unwanted attention. Fine, that was just fucking fine. It would work about as well on him as it did Scott … or Murdoch, for that matter. Johnny let his eyes grow cold and tried for a tone that would let his brother know he meant business. It was difficult with his throat feeling like someone had taken a blacksmith's rasp to it, but he knew that if he talked with that certain Madrid edge, his point would come across well enough. Getting up and making a move would do the trick, too. Especially considering he could play on Scott's sympathies since he was sure he moved around something like a drunken sailor. Johnny ungracefully stood from the bed and took a semi-staggering step toward his brother. Might as well play this shit up while he had it.
“Scott, don't bring my lack of judgment into this. Is that what you plan on doin' every time you and I have somethin' to settle between us? Shit, if that's how it's goin' to be played, then fuck it. I won't ask you no more about nothin', but you better keep your own fuckin' advice about my habits to yourself.”
Johnny watched the expressions slide across his brother's face with hidden amusement. Scott first looked shocked, then angry, and finally, a bit guilty and worried. Scott sighed again, scuffed a boot across the wooden floor, apparently willed himself to go ahead and meet Johnny's challenge, then grabbed up the rifle and walked over to his brother.
“Get your butt back on the bed, Johnny. I'm in no mood to pick you up off the floor … again. If you'll sit over there and eat some more soup, I'll tell you what's going on. If not, then all bets are off. I'll go over and watch the storm some more and we can keep our own business to ourselves like we should anyway.”
At this point, it occurred to him not for the first time that Boston could drive a damned hard bargain. Well, he might eat that soupy shit, but he sure as hell wasn't going to let Scott think he liked it. Apparently, a man had to put up with a whole load of mierda with this having a family thing. Sometimes it seemed hardly worth it. Problem was, sometimes it seemed like the only thing worth anything at all.
Johnny wobbled back over to the bed, secretly glad that he could get off his feet. Whatever had taken him down had gotten a good bite and he was still feeling bad. Food probably was a smart idea. That Scott was always so logical and reasonable, even when he was verging on pissed. He admired that in the man, but would refrain from saying so. Wouldn't want to appear to be kissing ass, and truthfully he was finding his hands full with trying to stay upright. He watched as his brother warmed the soup and what was left of the biscuits, neither of the men finding much to say. When the food was deemed warm enough, Scott brought over a portion for them both. Johnny figured Scott actually liked pig slop from time to time, the way he ate the soup without provoking a bout of gagging. Probably a recipe that old fart from Boston taught him.
They ate in silence for a while. Johnny held up pretty well until he took a rather large spoonful of the potato soup and almost had a fit when he tried to cough and gag at the same time. That finally elicited a response from his brother. “My God, Johnny! Would you stop pretending this soup is inedible? I know it isn't steak, but I'd take a good wager you couldn't eat steak right now if someone paid you to do it. Besides, I think the soup has some medicinal qualities that are saving you from yourself, if I was forced to put it bluntly. Seems to me you do get a bit better every time you eat some of it.”
Good Lord, it was as if Jelly had taken over his brother's body and started using Scott's college-educated ways to fuss at a man. Next, Scott would be going on about tonics and salves. Johnny managed to quit coughing and finally had enough breath to reply. “Oh, I'm sure it's because everything tastes pretty much like prison grub right now. Don't mind me, Boston. Say, your grandfather teach you how to make this sh … soup?”
Scott looked up with a suspicious gleam in his eye. “Yes, as a matter of fact he did.”
Johnny smiled. “Ah, I thought so.”
Scott smiled back, but his eyes held no humor.
Because he couldn't resist, Johnny made an ill-advised move. He stood up, reached over and took Scott's empty bowl, and shakily made his way over to the little table where he placed the dishes out of the way. He then made a great show of inspecting his pistol and gun belt. The whole time he was aware of Scott's annoyed gaze on him. He could take it no longer and said, “See, Boston. You're right. I feel better already. I'm thinkin' about going outside and seeing if El Cucuy is still lurking around.”
Scott rose suddenly and was at his side in two long-legged strides. “Get back there and sit down before you fall over. What are you thinking? And who the heck is El Cucuy?”
Johnny allowed himself to be dragged unceremoniously back to the bed. In perfect seriousness he said, “Oh. Umm … wait. I think you may know him as the Bogeyman. Sorry about that.”
Scott glared down at Johnny for a moment. “Shut up, Johnny.”
Johnny chuckled hoarsely, but wilted a little when Scott continued to stare at him with narrowed eyes. Perhaps his plan for an opening into the needed conversation had been a bit lacking. He lay back in the bed and looked up at Scott, letting his eyes reveal what he really felt and said it again with a totally different tone. “Sorry about that.”
Scott shook his head and reached over and gathered the blankets and tucked them around Johnny. “It's okay. I guess we work best when we try to keep some humor about the situations we find ourselves in. Seems to be a strategy we both employ rather readily.”
Johnny didn't say anything, hoping Scott would initiate the promised talk. Scott sat down in the chair again and stared at the window for a long time. The thunder had grown distant and the rain had begun to lessen, but now a new squall seemed on its way. Flashes of lightning began to decorate the shack again accompanied by the sound of rain pattering on the roof. Johnny closed his eyes for just a second, savoring this moment of calm he shared with his brother. It was these spontaneous events that happened occasionally that made him realize he was now what he would consider to be a very fortunate man, in spite of all his challenges. Right now, with his brother hovering protectively nearby and his sickness receding somewhat, Johnny knew his luck couldn't get much better. He drowsily became aware that Scott was carefully straightening the blankets around his feet. He'd later remember thinking you just never know how things can work out before sleep's pull took him under.
Scott found himself having to fight off his amusement as he watched Johnny's drooping eyes fight to stay open. Sometimes his gunfighter brother seemed so young. Even Johnny's barb about Scott fighting off the bogeyman made him smile to himself, although he worked hard to hide it. Scott was sure that was exactly what he'd looked like. It was a pity his actions couldn't have been that innocent.
Johnny finally closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply in sleep. His congested breaths still concerned Scott, and he bent down to straighten the blankets around Johnny's feet. It would be best if his younger brother remained as warm as possible. When he next awoke, Scott resolved to force more fluids into him. He had the feeling they were winning this battle, but diligence would guarantee victory and hopefully speed the recovery.
Scott sat in the chair by the bed again and listened to the ebb and flow of the storm. He realized he was quite tired himself, and soon dropped off to the sound of Johnny's muffled snores and the wind blowing through the trees around them. When he finally awakened, the cloudy dawn had arrived. He went over and added new logs to the fire and stoked it a bit to bring up the flame. He would need to put together some kind of breakfast for the two of them. He had procured a bit of ham as he had left the hacienda and some of Maria's cornmeal which could make a kind of mush. Maybe Johnny's throat was feeling well enough to manage those things. He glanced over and found his brother staring very somberly at him. Something about his expression was so poignant that Scott soon found himself at Johnny's side. He reached over and felt his forehead and was relieved to find it much cooler, although not completely without fever.
“How's it going, boy? You seem kind of sad this morning. You okay?”
Johnny blinked up at him and gave him a small smile. “I'm better, thanks to you. I don't know how you manage to put up with me sometimes, Scott. No wonder Murdoch likes having you around more.”
Scott just about dropped the sack of cornmeal he was holding. He walked over and placed it on the table and then went back to Johnny's side. “What the hell are you talking about? That's not how I see things at all. I think you're just down because of the sickness, Johnny. Being ill can make a person like that sometimes. Don't take it too seriously, all right?”
Johnny continued to look at him with those shining blue eyes. Scott shook his head and patted his brother on his nearest foot. “I'm going to go outside and get some fresh water for coffee. Warm coffee might feel good on your sore throat. You need to be drinking more. Speaking of which, you need some help outside so you can see that man about a horse?”
Johnny finally chuffed a small laugh and reached for a hand up. Both men went outside for a few minutes, each taking care of their own matters. Johnny made his way back over to him eventually and Scott grabbed his elbow and walked with him back into the shack. Johnny insisted on watching him prepare their meal from the small table.
“I've laid in that bed about as long as I can stand it, Scott. I swear I'm not tryin' to be a pain in your ass. Just tired of being in bed's all.”
Scott smiled and said, “Sick and tired, right? I know how it is. Just take it easy and sit there. Don't be getting rambunctious on me now.”
Johnny weakly smirked. “Does this look like rambunctious to you? Just go about your chores there, big brother, and I'll give you moral support. I think that's about all I'm up for right now.”
“That's the truth, my brother.” Scott grabbed up the sack of cornmeal again and waved it slightly at Johnny. “You think you could handle cornmeal mush on that sore throat? I brought some ham too, if you're up to it.”
Johnny seemed grateful, probably thinking of their previous meal. “My throat's some better today. I don't think it will be too bad … better than … ummm, well, it sounds pretty good.” Scott now knew without doubt Johnny had been thinking about that soup. Scott turned away to hide his smile.
After the small breakfast, Johnny went over and managed a quick shave. He seemed determined to be back on his feet, and Scott knew that for Johnny, that was the best thing for him as long as he didn't overdo. He suspected his brother was still running a small fever, so he convinced him to sit down as soon as his morning ablutions were over. Presently, Scott went over to the small cot and sat beside his brother. He knew there was some unfinished business that needed attending and appreciated Johnny's patience in the matter. He did suspect, however, that his failure to broach the subject was partly responsible for Johnny's quiet mood. A promise was a promise and he wouldn't let his brother down.
Johnny surprised him by being the first to speak. “I come here when it gets to be too much, Scott. Sometimes I have a hard time dealing with certain aspects of my past. Don't know if you can agree with it, but maybe you can understand. This time, well, I kinda fucked up this time.”
Scott remained silent, allowing Johnny his time to put into words what he'd so obviously been pondering all morning. After a moment, Johnny continued. “I was feeling pretty nervous about the shit that happened right as Murdoch's Pinkerton man found me. You know some of that, right? The firing squad and all that?”
Scott swallowed. He hadn't been prepared for this. Johnny was confiding in him in a way that he hadn't experienced much, in spite of their growing bond. “I know of it, Johnny. If you don't want to talk about it, it's okay. I understand.”
“I don't know, Scott. I kinda feel like you need to know. Maybe not Murdoch, not now anyway. But you should know.” He paused for what seemed like a long time. “Sometimes, mostly when I'm just about to start feeling comfortable as a Lancer and a rancher and all that, I have these edgy spells. It's like all the smells and the sounds and everything from those days in Mexico, the people I knew and cared about … all that weighs on my mind. It gets me jittery, Scott, and I have to go. I have to get away before somebody sets me off and I say things or do shit I just don't mean. Those spells are happening less and less, and this time, well, I was gettin' all spooky and unsettled. Turns out I was getting sick. How about that for a dumb-ass move, huh?” Johnny shook his head in apparent irritation at himself.
Scott kept very quiet, lost in his own thoughts about his brother and … other things.
“I just wanted you to know why I acted the way I did when you first got here. I think me dwelling on the past while I was so sick made me believe I was back in the gun-fighting days … and then I heard you. Shit, I could've fucked everything, Scott.” For a moment, Scott thought he even saw Johnny's eyes grow moist. No, it couldn't be. Johnny Madrid would never show anyone that kind of weakness, not even to his brother. But still, for that split second, Scott was almost sure. This meant only one thing. He had to come clean, too.
Scott drew a deep breath and took the plunge. “I know what was going on with you better than you can realize, Johnny. And no, I'm not sitting here pandering to you. You need to listen well, because I doubt either one of us will feel compelled to speak of this much after today.” He glanced over and met Johnny's gaze. His brother merely nodded, seeming to immediately know what Scott was talking about. For a moment, Scott even wondered if his brother knew what Scott was going to say. There was often something rather startling and eerie about Johnny's instincts and Scott was finding this to be an example of that condition.
“I come up here too, sometimes.” He paused, mindful that Johnny had not been aware of that, at least. He'd always hidden his presence well, leaving things just as he'd found them.
He continued in a quiet voice, finding the admissions to be easier than he ever thought they'd be, but needing an almost reverent tone to make sure Johnny understood just how he felt about what he would reveal. “When things get a little too calm and some of the more rustic aspects of living here seem too quiet, I have flashes of memory. I think about the war, that prison and what went on there, the men, the horror. It scares the shit out of me, Johnny. It makes me worry and I know I'm not fit to be around. I usually say I'm going on some errand or volunteer for a job that I can complete and then sneak off for a while, then I come here. For the same reasons as you, John. For the exact same reasons.”
Johnny surprised him when he snorted rather derisively. “Hell no, Scott. Don't even think that about yourself. Your situation wasn't like mine. You were doing a duty and got caught in something horrible. You're a good man and you give as good as you get in everything you do. You can't say that about me. I'm not like you at all. Now, that's not to say I'm ashamed or anything, but you Scott … you give people … and Murdoch … you give of yourself all the time. Mostly, I pretty much give people a hard time these days and that's about it.”
No. This would never do. Scott would never let Johnny get away with those thoughts. Scott said, "You know what you give me? You give me faith in myself. You make me realize that I'm able to be more than I once was. It's true, there's a part of you that I don't think I can ever know. Sure, I only understand some aspects of Madrid. I know that you did some harsh things in order to survive under the name. But there are things about you and who you were that kept you alive … I may never know about that. It's okay. And the truth is, Johnny, the same thing is true of me."
Johnny's expression was as serious as Scott had ever seen it. His eyes were deeply blue and the understanding in them just about took Scott's breath away. Looking at the intensity of that gaze, how could he not go on? How could he not explain to this man more than he'd ever told any other human being?
Scott said, "Libby changed me in ways that I can't describe. You're right, Johnny. It was a nightmare experience. I do things now to live with who I am that I never had to do before. But I'm not afraid of that aspect of myself and I certainly don't feel any shame toward it. Not anymore. But there are days when things come back and I know without a doubt I shouldn't be around everyone else. I come here, or other places, and let it all go. Johnny, what happens to you happens to a lot of people. I'm sure of it. But for you and me, maybe because our lives were so isolated at times, I don't know, but … perhaps sometimes we just have to go back to being alone for a while. Until we can make a go of it again."
Johnny sat very quietly. He turned away and stared out through the window and into the trees surrounding them. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse and painful sounding, and Scott found himself missing the musical drawl. "I guess we understand each other better than we realized and I'm happy to know that. It means the world to me, Scott, it really does. But …" Johnny paused for a very long time. "There's things I don't want you to know, Scott. No matter how much you may think we can relate, there's certain bad shit I'd never want you to know about me."
An image of a very young Johnny Madrid flashed in Scott's mind. The boy was pure danger wrapped in unbridled fury and wild as the desert wind. Johnny would never want Scott to know the essence of that child-man. And Scott was more than willing to let it go. "I can appreciate that, Johnny. I really can. If you ever need to talk, I'll be here. You know that, right?" Johnny gave him a minute nod. "But if you don't, that's okay too. I do want you to recognize one thing."
Johnny finally turned to him with eyebrows raised in a question. Scott continued, "I'm always going to be curious and I may ask questions. It's just my nature and a sign of how much you mean to me, my brother. I won't mean it in any other way. I promise you that. And if you can't explain for some reason, or don't feel like you have the words for it, just say so and I'll try to understand. I might need a reminder, but I have a pretty quick grasp of things." Scott sent Johnny a smile, hoping he would understand exactly what he meant by his words.
Johnny finally smiled and shrugged. “You know, believe it or not, the same might be said of me about you. I've always known you had hard times you thought about. Someday I might get nosy. You know you can tell me to fuck off and I might get pissed a bit, but deep down I'll understand.”
Scott laughed. “Well, I think you just said it better than I could. We'll try to keep these things in mind and give each other space, but there are never any guarantees. When it comes to family, sometimes cards have to be played.”
Johnny smiled back, but he seemed to be losing his strength. It was time to make his kid brother go to bed. Perhaps tomorrow they'd be able to go home and set things straight with Murdoch, but for now, Johnny needed rest. With a half stifled yawn, Johnny moved to lie down in the bed. Scott pushed over to allow him more room. As Johnny tugged the blankets over his body, he sent Scott a true grin that reached his eyes. “Well, if you decide to use “my” cabin, you need to let me know. Otherwise, you might not appreciate me barging in on your alone time.”
Scott laughed as he stood. He patted Johnny on one blanket-covered shoulder and said, “It's a deal. You might give me a head's up as well, no questions asked.”
Johnny closed his eyes and answered, “No questions asked. It's a deal.” It was only moments before his younger brother was again fast asleep.
The next morning dawned clear and free of the moisture laden clouds that had plagued the area for the last couple of days. Johnny's health seemed to brighten with the day. Scott felt a sense of relief when his brother actually got up first and could be heard putting together the makings for coffee. Scott watched surreptitiously for a moment and was rather fascinated as Johnny then took the remaining cornmeal and water and began to quickly and efficiently make patties that he fried in a seasoned cast iron skillet. He figured Johnny was too wrapped up in cooking to realize he was being observed when the still too-rough voice quietly broke the silence.
“You know, Scott, you could get your lazy ass up out of the bed and slice the last of that ham. I'll fry it up to go with these patties and we'll have us a pretty fair meal. I think I even have some of Murdoch's honey I sto … umm, brought with me the last time I came here. It's over there in that little cupboard.”
Scott laughed. “So that's where that last bit of honey went. Murdoch would skin you alive if he knew you procured some of his favorite honey.”
Johnny looked over at him and winked. “Nah, I found that honeybee hive out past the little creek in the south pasture, remember? That shit's even better. The bees get that sweet clover out there. You ain't had any of that yet?”
Scott smiled at his brother's sudden domestic turn. “No, I guess I haven't. I imagine Murdoch keeps it under lock and key since we have a honey thief lurking in the house.”
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, you're right. I haven't seen it sittin' around either. I think I only had some that one time when Maria's brother first brought it home. Had it on some of Teresa's fresh baked biscuits.” Johnny shook his head. “Well, this ain't gonna be nothin' like that, but it beats the hell outta that old fart's pig slop recipe.”
Scott jerked his head up just in time to catch the sparkling mischief in his brother's eyes before Johnny turned back to his task. It was definitely good to see Johnny back to himself. Even his doldrums from the day before seemed to have been left behind.
The meal was good and both of the brothers ate until they were full. Scott wasn't surprised when Johnny suggested it was time for big brother to leave and let Murdoch know his wayward son was okay.
“Just tell him you found me over at one of the cabins. He'll think you mean one of the line shacks. If he asks which one, you could tell him I said not to say, that I needed my privacy. It'll let you off the hook and he'll expect such shit from me anyway.”
Scott peered at his brother, trying to access his mood and was glad to see that Johnny's good humor remained. Apparently, he was referring to the edgy relationship that kept both Murdoch and his younger son on their toes. That was confirmed completely when Johnny said, “I kinda miss the old man and his cantankerous ways. I'll be right along, Scott. Tell him that. Well, leave out the part about missin' him, of course.”
Rolling his eyes, Scott said, “Of course.”
Johnny began collecting the various cooking utensils and plates and prepared to clean the mess made by the breakfast preparations. Scott watched him a moment and realized that this apparent dismissal was Johnny's signal that he was very serious about his brother taking his leave. Scott would go willingly enough, but there was a concern to air first.
“So, brother, when do you think you'll actually bless us with your presence at the hacienda?
First, Johnny just shrugged, so Scott sent him a big brother's glare. Then it seemed to take Johnny a while to ponder the question as if it was a difficult one. He finally said, “I'm comin' home, Scott. Don't you be worryin' about that on top of everything else. I know I piss off everybody sometimes with my disappearin', but I always come back. If nothin' else, I gotta show Murdoch that I will. Know what I mean?” Johnny gave him a wink and turned back to the dishes.
Scott packed up his saddlebags and rifle and then stopped after he passed Johnny who had begun cleaning the crumbs off the little table. Looking back over his shoulder, Scott said, “I'm going to saddle my horse and get him ready for the trip home. If you can leave your dish-washing and house cleaning chores behind for a minute, come see me off, okay dear?”
A dish towel quickly flicked out from Johnny's hand and popped Scott on the backside with an audible snap, making him take a mincing step to the side. As always, Johnny Madrid's aim was true.
Scott made his getaway through the door and outside to the pole barn and the small corral. He was laughing to himself as he gathered his horse and tied him to the fence, preparing to give him a thorough and much needed grooming before he began the rather grueling trip home. He set his saddlebags down on the ground and was just about to prop his rifle up on the nearby fence post when he heard an ominous sound. A rustling of the branches on the tall pine spreading directly over them was accompanied by a strange and low growl. Without moving anything but his eyes, Scott peered up into the tree. Crouched against the branch so that only the tip of his tail and a part of his head could be seen, was one of the largest cougars Scott had ever encountered.
It sped through Scott's mind that his horse and Barranca should be going crazy, and that would have alerted him to his predicament before he became a sitting duck. True enough, the very low growl had caused a bit of side stepping and head tossing, but the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. The horses surely had some sense that danger was nearby, they just didn't have the cues they needed to realize exactly how close the danger lurked. He had tied his horse close to the fence directly under the tree. Scott concluded it would be the last time he would ever do such a thing, but this thought did him little good now.
He supposed the smell of the fried ham and other food had lured the beast, but now his sights were on horseflesh. Scott was most likely a mere inconvenience the cat would normally avoid. But this one looked very serious about his wanted prey and Scott knew that the cat would go through him to get to the vulnerable horse. To make matters worse, the cat had maneuvered himself so a clear shot with his rifle was impossible and any sudden movement or noise would likely bring the predator down on their heads. Scott suddenly had a stark vision of Johnny bursting out of the house when he heard the coming melee and attempting an impossible and desperate shot. That scenario was almost as frightening as his own very bad predicament. It occurred to him in that moment that Johnny Madrid would say they were all well and truly fucked.
That descriptive thought had just entered Scott's mind when a subtle movement from the direction of the small house caught his attention. Johnny's voice came from around the front of the shack. “Hey Scott, don't forget your saddle blanket. That horse ain't gonna appreciate ...” As Johnny rounded the corner, his voice abruptly stopped.
Johnny began moving ever so slowly and almost silently, his eyes peeled on the surrounding area. Although Scott strongly suspected his brother hadn't spotted the cat yet, somehow, some way, Johnny had sensed danger and was fairly creeping up on the small corral.
Scott glanced at the cat, but it hadn't moved. He looked back over at Johnny and his heart came close to stopping. His usually well-armed brother wasn't wearing his gun. Scott flashed back to the night he had taken Johnny's gun from him. It had remained on the table, always within quick reach of his brother, but there it still lay. The thought crossed his mind that Johnny would rag on him for months, maybe even years, if they managed to survive this encounter. No, no. On second thought, Scott realized he would never live this one down.
Johnny approached the corral and his eyes froze on the tree over Scott and the horse. His brother's sharp eyes had spied the cougar. Johnny's words were spoken as softly as his hoarse voice would allow. “Boston. When we get out of this, I'm gonna whip your sorry ass over takin' my pistol. In the meanwhile, I want you to stay right where you are. Don't say nothin' and don't move 'til I say so.”
Scott let his eyes and a minute nod communicate to his brother that he'd heard. Johnny continued his instructions in a voice that served to remind Scott just who his brother became when real danger threatened. “If I leave to get my gun, that cat will most likely try his luck. We'll go with this instead. You need to wait there real quiet until I move up to the other side and make a ruckus. That cat'll start trackin' me. Shut up and do as I say.”
Scott hadn't said a damned thing, but Johnny was apparently aware of just what his brother was thinking. The quiet but rough voice went on. “Don't buck me on this, Scott. Not this time. I'm gonna edge my way over and then I'll make a bunch of noise. That oughta piss off this pendejo pretty good. You'll only have a split second to aim your rifle and make the shot.”
Scott let his expression show his alarm at Johnny's plan and he shook his head slightly. Johnny was moving closer and closer and his voice began to get louder. “Just shut the fuck up and do it. Remember what you said about faith? It's time to put your money where your mouth is, big brother.”
As soon as those last words left Johnny's lips, he jogged purposefully over to the other side of Scott's horse. He took a step or two back and began waving his arms, taunting the big cat with noise and movement. The cougar and Scott reacted simultaneously and instinctively. Before Scott really had an awareness of what he was doing, he raised his rifle and aimed it toward the branches above. There was a scramble of movement and a shrieking noise that set the horses to rearing and kicking. Scott's horse began to grow frantic as he fought to loosen himself from the restricting reins.
The frenzied actions grew to chaos as Johnny began cursing at the cougar. In the midst of the yelling and cussing he looked over at Scott, his eyes wide and shining with an excitement that would've taken Scott aback under less frightening circumstances. “Here he comes, Scott! Take your shot!”
The cat seemed to take flight, leaping from the branch in a single, graceful pounce. Scott would later realize his own movements were as fluid as the cougar's, nearly as seamless as that of Johnny Madrid. Without thought, he sighted the cougar in mid-air. The sound of the report was an explosion in his ears and time stopped.
Scott next was aware of a gurgling scream and more Spanish cussing than he had ever heard in his life. Not sure what to make of the noise, Scott ran around his trembling horse and straight to his brother. The huge cougar was draped over Johnny's body. All he could see was the monster cat and he was sure the animal must still be alive. One shot would never kill something as gigantic as that big cat. He only drew breath again to begin shouting for Johnny to keep still. Scott brought up his rifle to once and for all kill the beast when just exactly what his brother was yelling cut through the fog.
“Maldita sea! Get this fuckin' thing offa me, Scott! I can't breathe! This hijo de puta is heavy as hell and stinks like mierda.”
Johnny maneuvered his head so he could stare at Scott from underneath the apparently dead animal. His little brother abruptly grew quiet and sent Scott a look that said more than all the Spanish cussing could. Scott was sure he must've looked like an idiot, standing there staring at Johnny in disbelief. Shaking off his surprise, he finally sprung into action.
“Okay, okay. Take it easy. Let me drag him by the back end. This thing is huge, Johnny. I can't believe I took him down in a single shot. My God, where'd I get him?”
Johnny didn't seem to be impressed with what was surely world-class shooting. “Shut the fuck up and get this asshole off me! You shot him right through the damned skull and he's leaking blood all over me. Dios!”
It took several strong tugs to get the creature mostly off Johnny and even then his brother had to scoot forward to free his legs. Scott pulled the cat as far from his horse as he could manage, then he stood there and examined the cougar, amazed at its size. For a brief moment, he felt his knees go wobbly. His brother could've been killed by a single snap from those ferocious jaws. A movement at his side told him Johnny had arrived. This time, he was far more appreciative of the shot that had saved them.
Whistling low, Johnny said, “Woo-wee, brother. That was a shot from El Diablo himself. I don't think I coulda done better, truth told.”
Scott grinned. “Oh, I was that good, huh?” He turned and faced his brother and almost passed out all over again. Blood coated the side of Johnny's face and his red shirt was soaked with the stuff. It quickly occurred to him that some of the blood might belong to his brother.
Johnny looked up at him with a perfectly serious expression. “What?”
Scott grabbed him by the arm and propelled him over to the pump at the front of the shack. He pushed Johnny's head under the spout and sluiced the cold mountain water over him. Johnny commenced cussing again, but this time it was fully directed at his big brother.
“Damn it to hell, Scott, this shit is cold! Lay off me or I'm gonna beat your ass. I swear to you, I will. It's just fuckin' cougar blood.”
Scott pulled Johnny back toward him and examined his face. A small gash ran along the side of Johnny's head, just above his left ear. It didn't appear too deep, but as with most head wounds, it was bleeding profusely. Scott grabbed his bandana from his pocket and pressed it to the cut. He then pushed his brother back and examined him further. Upon seeing nothing but the remnants of cougar blood on Johnny's soaking wet shirt, Scott finally relaxed.
“You get in that house and clean up the rest of the way. Take off that shirt and put on dry clothes. I mean it, Johnny. You aren't even well yet and now you're soaking wet and standing out in this breeze. The cut isn't bad, but a bout of pneumonia will be.”
Johnny's response was predictable. “Well, I wonder why the hell I'm standing here soaking wet? Whose fault is that? I don't care if you're the best shot with a rifle in California, you sure as hell over-react over a little blood. Damn it, Scott, I'm startin' to freeze my ass off.”
With that, Johnny turned and jogged toward the house. Something told Scott that perhaps … maybe … the abrupt departure was due to more than being cold. The events were beginning to take their emotional toll on Scott too, and he purposefully went to his horse and spent a few moments calming him. He then went over to Barranca and as he patted the now quiet palomino, Scott allowed himself a couple of deep breaths. For a minute there, as he had stroked that creamy white mane, Scott had the startling feeling that he might even get a little teary-eyed. Thankfully, the deep breathing did the trick and he steeled himself for the trip back indoors and his waiting brother.
What Scott found in the shack was not what he was expecting. At all. Johnny had changed into one of Scott's extra shirts and was sitting on a chair with a blanket around his shoulders and draped across his head over his wet hair. He was facing the window and staring outside. His expression was as serious as Scott had ever seen it, and for a second, Scott was a little worried about which side of the man he was going to encounter. Luckily, Johnny took the guess work out and spoke first.
“I didn't mean what I said about you takin' my gun, Scott. I know why you had to take it and I ain't proud of that fact. I just want you to know that before you leave.”
Scott raised his eyebrows. This was a side of Johnny he hadn't thought he'd see right now. “I admit, brother, I was surprised to see you without it when you came outside. I guess I don't think about you dropping your guard and I feel guilty that I sort of forced that situation upon you.”
Johnny finally looked at him. “Well, it does pain me some, Scott. I understand when you and Murdoch get irritated with how I seem to hold onto the past. But it's when things happen and my guard is down …”
Scott hated the sense of shame he felt. He wanted his brother to become more comfortable in his rancher skin and leave some of the wild behind. Now he'd put Johnny in the spot where he felt that he'd let them both down. Murdoch too, if their father was to find out what happened. Johnny took all of their safety as his ultimate job and he'd almost failed simply because he had never retrieved his gun after Scott had taken it. If Scott hadn't been so unobservant, if he'd spotted the cat first, none of the repercussions would be happening. Scott would carry his own burden it seemed. As always, they both struggled with what the past made them and what their present lives demanded.
In spite of everything, Johnny's voice had regained some of the butter cream drawl it had been missing. “It ain't your fault, Scott. We just have to keep movin' forward. We're goin' to fuck up from time to time. Don't mean we gotta like it, though. That's what I love most about you.” Johnny's face lightened some. “You hate goin' through this shit as much as I do.”
Now, that was a lot to take in all at once. He hadn't ever heard Johnny express their brotherhood in those terms … everything from their mutual struggle right down to the thought that the two of them might actually love each other like they were truly family. Scott rather blindly reached for the other chair and sat down. He stared out at nothing, his thoughts in turmoil.
Johnny got up and walked over. His eyes were as intensely sapphire-blue as Scott had seen them, but the picture of the ex-gunfighter was somewhat destroyed by the incongruous appearance of the blanket draped around his head and the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. He looked directly at Scott and then resumed speaking in that soft voice.
“As different as we are, we are true brothers, aren't we, Scott? It's hard to believe, you once bein' that dandy from Boston and all, and me bein' … well … me. But I think we understand each other about as well as if we'd been raised together all our lives.”
Johnny stared straight at him, seeming to be intently lost in thought. Before those sparkling blue eyes moved away and stared off at the gun still lying on the table, Scott had a flash of insight that made him glad he was seated. All his years of searching were over. He finally had found someone who knew the hidden man that he was. When Johnny had looked so directly at him, he realized with shocking clarity that he'd found a brother of the heart as well as by blood. As he'd stared back at Johnny, he let his own eyes reflect everything he felt. He allowed this man to see who he really was. And yet, in spite of this he knew. The revelation of self could not be mirrored. Not now, maybe never. For a brief moment regret washed over him. Then Johnny turned back to him and offered him one of those candidly revealing smiles that seemed to brighten his entire face. What Scott recognized in that instant just about took his breath away. Acceptance. Total and complete acknowledgment without judgment. And Scott was humbled.
To know me as hardly golden
Is to know me all wrong, they were ~ Band of Horses
Johnny was relieved when Scott finally took off for home. He'd miss him like hell, but the strain of trying to pretend he was okay was starting to tell on him. Now as far as his illness went, he was much better. A lot of his improved condition, maybe even all of it, was due to Scott's presence and attention. Johnny felt as grateful to his brother for the recovery of his health as he was to any man he'd ever known. But that didn't stop him from feeling so damned guilty that whenever he looked at Scott he thought he might start confessing every fucking thing he'd ever done that he regretted. It was a frightening sort of thing, to want to confess all one's shortcomings in an effort to purge one's sins. Besides that, it was downright stupid.
It had to be the guilt making him feel that way. That was the only thing he could imagine. He should have known he was getting sick, he shouldn't have walked out of the shack unarmed, and he should never ever have drawn on his brother. That action alone was enough to send Johnny Madrid into a repeat performance of the heebie jeebies that would be so bad he'd never be shed of them. The only thing preventing that situation was Scott's pure acceptance of Johnny's illness as an understandable reason such an intolerable action had taken place. No other man ... granted the men he knew were not educated gentlemen, but still … every other man he'd ever hung around would never have let Johnny off so easy. Drawing on another man was unforgivable and no one much cared to hear excuses.
As Johnny stood in the gathering gloom and brushed down Barranca, he thought of the reasons Scott had so readily forgiven him for such an unmentionable act. He could understand why his brother might give him some slack over the first encounter, but Johnny had continued to act crazy even after that event. It was as if the sickness had released certain demons that were bound and determined to make themselves known. How could Scott forgive Johnny's continued gunfighter edginess repeatedly confronting him? The only answer Johnny could puzzle out was his brother had more than a few demons of his own. Hadn't that been what the little performance at the window was all about anyway? Johnny felt sure that it was. Scott had done exactly what Johnny had done, maybe not in such a loco manner and not nearly as blatantly dangerous, but there it was. Scott had briefly forgotten where he was and wasn't even real sure who all was with him, although if pressed, Johnny would say that his brother had been as protective of him at that moment as he had been all day. Johnny shook his head as he gave Barranca a final pat. It figured. Even when Scott had a bad case of nerves, they had an orderly and logical air to them.
Johnny told Barranca he'd keep an ear out for him and meant it. No cougar's mate was going to bother his horse. He was half inclined to sleep outdoors and guard him, but Scott had read his mind and made him promise he'd stay inside if he was going to remain at the cabin for a while. Scott was good at that mind reading shit. Probably too good. Johnny knew he wasn't a slouch at it himself, but it had been a surprise to find that perhaps such inclinations were passed from Murdoch to his sons. Dammit if Murdoch wasn't one of the best at guessing a man's intentions before he even knew he had them. In fact, some of all the so-called discussions that went on around the hacienda were because everybody was always second-guessing everyone else. That kind of hobby was never particularly good for one's mental health for very long. It did keep Teresa hopping, though, and all the arguing and posturing was enough to send her off on long trips to her cousins. That was never a bad thing all together, Johnny thought with some amusement. It definitely gave a man more time in the bath, that was for damned sure.
After packing up the grooming tools and running a quick reconnaissance mission around the shack, Johnny went inside and prepared for sleep. He told Scott he'd be back soon, but he was beginning to think soon meant a day or two. That wouldn't make his brother or Murdoch happy, but that was too bad. He was just now starting to feel like himself and a day or two's distance between the events at the shack and going back home sounded more and more like a good idea. By the time he got home, he'd be missing everyone pretty bad and they'd be pissed enough about the length of his stay that it would become the subject of conversation rather than … other things. And that is just how it went down.
He started out early on a morning that promised temperatures would once again be warmer than usual. He hoped that wasn't a bad sign, remembering vividly that the hot California sun had been one of the things that had made him believe he was having flashes of bad memories. Somehow, this time things felt different. Maybe it was the fact that now he knew why he had been feeling so bad. When situations were explainable and familiar it was not so difficult to rest easy with them. It could also have been his brother. Even though Scott's entrance had been one of the most horrifying experiences he'd ever lived through, the escapade with the cat seemed to have set something right between them. Their mutual folly had led to a greater understanding. He had seen a spark of it in Scott's eyes after Johnny had begun blabbering about that mushy family stuff. It had been out of character for Johnny Madrid Lancer, but there had been an intense need to share it. He felt better because of it and would always remember that look of gratitude in his brother's serious gaze.
Barranca fairly pranced along the trail and Johnny could tell the horse was eager to get back home to his place in the barn. Johnny had to admit his bed sounded appealing too, and he gave the palomino a gentle pat. A sudden image of the damage that cougar might've caused came to him. He shook his head again, remembering Scott's insistence that they drag its heavy body as far from the shack as they could. No way a horse would allow it topside to be carried, so they'd taken that huge creature by the paws and pulled it up and over to a rocky area far from the living quarters of both man and horse.
Both brothers had stood for a moment and gazed at the cat's giant body. Johnny experienced an intense twinge of regret that the incredible beast had forced their hand; it was magnificent, after all. When he looked up, he'd found Scott's slate-blue eyes calmly regarding him. Johnny quickly realized that his brother had been thinking the same thing. Johnny had given him an expressionless nod, and in true Johnny Madrid fashion turned on his heel and strode purposefully back to the house. Wasn't good for a man to let another man know his feelings too often. That set a very bad precedent and would make Scott cocky. Couldn't be having none of that kind of shit around the hacienda. He'd heard Scott's chuckle behind him, so Johnny lifted his shoulders in a tell-tale shrug. Nope, it wouldn't be good at all, but it still was kind of nice to know they were on the same page now and again. Of course, Scott just laughed a little louder and Johnny had smiled to himself and kept on walking.
As Johnny rode through the big white arch, he couldn't remember a time he'd been so happy to see the hacienda. He'd felt pretty good when he started the ride, but now his days of illness were showing up as weakness. By the time he entered the yard, he couldn't wait to dismount. It seemed every part of him was tired and aching. He briefly wondered if he could get somebody to warm a bath, he sure as hell didn't have the energy to prepare one for himself, but a warm soak in the tub sounded fairly close to paradise.
Lost in thought, Johnny led Barranca to the barn, but stopped as he heard familiar voices. Murdoch and Scott. Damn. He had an idea just why they might be in the barn and hoped he had arrived in time to prevent a rather embarrassing search party. Of course, his first thought was of self-preservation, so he remained very quiet and waited to hear any clues about just how pissed the two of them were. Walking in on some situations with those particular men was about as bad as stumbling into a nest of rattlesnakes. A man might get out of there alive, but for a few moments he'd be wishing the good Lord would just let the heavens swallow him up and relieve him from the coming torture. No way was he going to burst into that little scene unaware.
Murdoch's voice and attitude came through loud and clear. “Scott. I don't care. He told you he'd be along and it's been more than two days. He might be mad. That's fine. He can get mad. I'm feeling a little testy myself and he's surely realized by now that I would be.”
Scott's sigh was audible across the distance. “Sir, I simply think we should give him today. I can imagine he set off this morning and hasn't arrived home yet. If he doesn't show up by dark, we'll ride out at daybreak.”
There was a long silence and Johnny reached over to scratch Barranca's ears to prevent any give away snorts or nickers. What he heard next just about took his knees out from under him and made him wish he at least had a decent hay bale to sit on.
After his own long sigh, Murdoch said, “I know. I know. You're right. I guess this new job of being a caring father is harder than it seems. You'll understand one day, my boy. I worry … about you both. Maybe it's because for so long I didn't have a clue where either of you were or what you were doing, but now, well, I get concerned when it's only been a day and I haven't heard from you. Crazy, yes, I guess so. I realize you're both grown and Johnny especially is independent as hell. Doesn't keep me from missing him, though. It's too damned quiet when he's not here and then I find myself worrying.”
Scott's voice sounded confused. “Worrying about what, Murdoch? You think he's in danger when he doesn't get here at a certain time? You know if anyone can take care of himself, it's Johnny.”
Johnny had to strain to hear Murdoch's answer, it was spoken so softly. “I don't know, Scott. I really can't explain it very well. I guess there's times I think I don't even know him. Sometimes your brother is so distant and so impulsive. There's times I worry that he'll just decide to take off. He doesn't often let me close, Scott. When he's gone like this, I realize I may expect too much. I don't really know him at all.”
Scott asked, "How can we know him, Murdoch? He doesn't even know himself. How could he? He's been Johnny Madrid so much of his life and Johnny Lancer so little. How in the hell would he know who that man is … what he's capable of becoming? He needs time, sir. And we push him. He said he comes home because he has to show you he will. I think he really comes home to prove to himself he has one."
Johnny stood there in the shadows like he'd been hit by a two by four upside the head. He couldn't believe what he'd heard from Scott. He never had a clue that Scott understood him so well. Or at least understood what passed for Johnny Madrid logic. And their father was standing there saying he missed him. There was a lump in Johnny's throat as a big as an egg and he thought he would most likely choke on it as punishment for hiding if he didn't come clean. He fairly tiptoed back out of the barn, led Barranca out a ways and quietly remounted. He then made a big show of riding up again, only this time under a full head of steam, guaranteed to have Murdoch yelping about ingrate sons and riding a horse too damned hard into the barn.
Johnny dismounted and made sure he made plenty of noise as he entered the dim light of the barn. Murdoch and Scott came out of one of the stalls like their asses were on fire. Scott had a big smile on his face, but Murdoch was all business, ready to give his youngest a piece of his mind.
“Dammit, John. How many times do I have to tell you about galloping that horse in the yard? I could hear you storming up from in here. This isn't a saloon and you're not some wild trail hand looking for a night on the town. You're my son and partner in this ranch. You should conduct yourself accordingly.”
Johnny remembered the very different words he'd heard Murdoch say only a few minutes prior to this particular tirade and couldn't help the grin that appeared. “Hell, I'm sorry, old ma … Murdoch. I really am. I guess I was just so glad to get home, I forgot my proper manners.”
Murdoch looked a little taken aback by this response and shot a quick glance at Scott, who was still wearing a smile a mile wide. Scott stepped forward and held out his hand for Johnny to shake. “Thank God you're here, boy. Murdoch was about to organize a search party and we were going to have to find you and bring you home, ready or not.”
Johnny batted away Scott's hand and reached over to grab him around the neck, but Scott was expecting the move and sidestepped him and caught him with a lightning-fast slap to the stomach. Johnny laughed. He was definitely going to have to sharpen his little brother skills. Scott shouldn't be getting the better of him that easy.
Murdoch rolled his eyes and held out his own hand. Johnny was shocked. He finally reached over to grasp his father's hand and felt himself go all slack-jawed when Murdoch then grabbed that hand in both of his and shook it. “I'm glad you're home, son. It's good to see you back. Scott said you were pretty sick when he found you.”
Johnny's gaze immediately went to his brother, and Scott nodded and said, “I told him that you were a lot sicker than you realized and that's why you were so out of sorts when you rode out. I didn't want our father to think you were being that prickly without a good cause. Bad part of that was, he was ready to go find you as soon as I mentioned it. I had to swear you were better and in one piece or he was going to be snooping around all the shacks trying to sneak his way in to check up on you.”
Johnny hoped his eyes showed his brother his gratitude. “I was feelin' like shit there for a while, true enough. If it wasn't for Scott, I probably would still be out on my ass. Hey. Did you know that Scott has a damned good soup recipe, Murdoch? You need to have him fix it for you sometime. I think it's somethin' you'd really like.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows and looked over at Scott. “I didn't know you could cook, son. You holding out on us around here?”
Johnny tried very hard to hide his smirk, but had to look away fast when Scott gave him the evil eye. Scott said, “Sir, I think you'll find there's a lot to learn about both your sons.”
One of the hands came up and took Barranca's reins and looked a question at Johnny. Johnny said, “Thanks, Jorge. I appreciate it. Tell Barranca I'll be back later to give him his treat.” Jorge laughed and led the palomino to his stall. When Johnny looked back over toward Murdoch, he found the man staring at him with a peculiar expression on his face.
Murdoch looked almost … proud as he watched him. “Yes, Scott. I think you're right. There's a lot for us all to learn about each other, wouldn't you say?” Although he spoke to Scott, Murdoch's eyes never left Johnny's.
Reaching over to pat his old man on the back, Johnny said, “Yep. I believe old Scott is right again. He's smart like that, you know. In fact, if I ever were to have a real hero, I'd say it would have to be Scott.”
“Okay, let's not get carried away now.” Scott laughed outright and his gray-blue eyes fairly danced with merriment. “Besides, who would believe Johnny Madrid's hero was some dandy from Boston?”
Murdoch threw his arms around both sons' shoulders as they left the barn. “I don't know, Scott. Stranger things have happened. Look at me. I've got a son from Boston and another one from south of the border, they're as opposite as fire and ice. Months ago, anyone would've told me I was crazy to try to make this partnership, this family, work. But look at us now.”
Johnny stopped in his tracks and looked at his brother and father, forcing them to come to an abrupt halt too. “Hold on, hold on. All this talk is just about to scare me to death. Don't be tryin' to hogtie me and make me somethin' I ain't.”
Johnny watched as twin looks of bewilderment appeared on Murdoch's and Scott's faces. He let them off the hook with a big grin and laughed when he saw the expressions of relief that appeared at his words. “All this carryin' on is gonna have me headin' for the nearest damned line shack as fast as Barranca's legs can carry us. You know Johnny Fuckin' Madrid don't hold much store with all this sissified lovey-dovey family talk. Calm that shit down before somebody overhears it.”
Murdoch held Johnny while Scott hit him over the head with his hat a few times. For a moment there, with all of them laughing like a bunch of drunk amigos, in spite of everything that had happened and all that was surely yet to come, Johnny knew. Johnny Madrid Lancer was as happy as he had ever been in his life.
*Notes: The title and quotes are from “The Funeral” by Band of Horses. The title also refers to some aspects of Robert Frost's poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. Both of these artistic offerings are much more eloquent than I could ever be.