“As he begins to raise his voice, you lower yours and grant him one last choice” ~ The Fray
As he let the bat wing doors swing shut behind him, Johnny Lancer stopped to survey the little saloon. Nothing about the place was remarkable, including the clientele. He moved over to the bar, his spurs ringing their familiar cadence as they announced his entrance. The sound made him smile as he became aware of the growing silence elsewhere in the room. His presence was dutifully and noticeably acknowledged.
After asking the barkeep for a beer, he requested a bottle of tequila to be sent to his table. His wait for the arrival of his father and brother wouldn’t be a long one, but it promised to be boring. Johnny didn’t do so well with boring. He tended to get cantankerous and fidgety under those conditions and he didn’t want to greet Murdoch and Scott in such a mood. Better to be hung over and bleary-eyed than an asshole. That was always a decent credo to hold to when it came to family.
Johnny had just finished his first shot of tequila and had grabbed a lime to ready a second one when he heard it: the sound of spurs ringing on the boardwalk in front of the saloon. He lowered the brim of his hat and slumped back in his chair to better observe the arriving newcomer without bringing unwanted attention to himself. The tequila shot was set aside and forgotten for more important endeavors.
They recognized each other as soon as the man shoved through the doors. There wasn’t much chance either would forget the other. Brisco Carson hadn’t changed. He still had a well-groomed handlebar mustache and shoulder length strawberry blond hair. His clothing was as flashy as Johnny’s tended to be, although Brisco usually chose to dress all in black with a red kerchief tied around his neck and turned to the side. This offset his pale skin and his deep brown eyes that often flashed in an apparent mixture of good humor and pure devilment. He wore his gun belt low on his hip, the ornate holster tied down with a leather strap. Brisco Carson was the embodiment of everything Johnny Madrid had chosen to leave behind.
Brisco sauntered up to Johnny’s table, paying no nevermind that he hadn’t even been acknowledged, much less invited. He seemed to take a moment to size Johnny up and then said in his twangy drawl, “If it ain’t ol’ Johnny Madrid! Damn, it’s been a month of Sundays since I laid eyes on you.”
Johnny lifted his hat and grinned at Brisco before replying. “Well now, what a fuckin’ surprise … ain’t seen no dog, so can’t be some perro needin’ shootin’ drug you in. Don’t just stand there gawkin’, Brisco. Set your ass down and tell me what’s going on.”
Brisco burst out in a hearty laugh and pulled up a chair while Johnny signaled the barkeep for another shot glass. As they waited, Johnny motioned with his head toward Brisco’s low-slung gun. “I see you’re still looking the part. I heard tell you’d left the game.”
The bartender brought the shot glass to Brisco who took it with a brief nod of thanks and poured himself some of the clear liquor. He knocked back the shot and then studied Johnny a moment before giving him a knowing wink. “As they say, Johnny my boy, appearances can be deceiving. I heard the same bullshit about you. O’ course, that’s after I heard you’d died and come back to life down in Mexico. The stories people tell can sure be interestin’ at times, can’t they?”
It was Johnny’s turn to laugh as he lowered his eyes and stared at his glass. He looked up through his lashes at Brisco and said in a drowsy tone, “I guess you got me on that one. Some people do tell the damndest things and that’s a fact. Truth is, I don’t imagine none of us can ever leave that life entirely.”
Brisco grew more somber as he threw back a second drink. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and pondered his own empty glass for a while before he looked back at Johnny. “Not if we want to stay on this side of the ground, anyway. Right?”
Sensing there was more to the story, Johnny nodded. He paused a second and then asked, “So what brings you to this neck of the woods? You’re a little far from your usual stomping grounds, aren’t you?”
The other man grinned again as he stroked his long mustache. “Well sir, don’t know that I have any usual stomping grounds these days. I’m just passing through on my way to elsewhere. Drifting around, I reckon you could say. You’re a long way from them border towns yourself. You live near here or just passing through?”
It didn’t escape Johnny’s notice that Brisco Carson’s answer hadn’t really been one. Something nagged at his instincts, making him a little cautious, no matter that Johnny Madrid had once ridden with the man. “I’m waiting on my father and brother. They’re due in early tomorrow, then we’re off to check out some stock we’ve been hearing about. Strengthening the blood lines and all that.”
Brisco took another shot and shook his head. “So them rumors are true. Johnny Madrid is a rancher now. Who’d fuckin’ believe it?”
“Well, if you’d asked me a while back, I wouldn’t have believed it either.” Johnny gave him a standoffish smile and looked off toward the bar, avoiding Brisco’s curious stare. “Oh … and the name’s Lancer now.” Johnny’s gaze swung back to the gunfighter as he looked him straight in the eyes. “Johnny Lancer.”
The small talk turned into stories. Some of them funny, some of them too harsh and unsettling to be anything other than recollections covering a passel of very hard times. Brisco laughed about them anyway and Johnny laughed along with him. Brisco had one of those contagious chuckles and even when something he said was downright irritating, Johnny would find himself grinning in spite of himself. He supposed that was one of the reasons he’d managed to ride with Brisco for so long, even when his rowdy ways would grate on Johnny’s nerves. The man could laugh when life was at its worst, and that took a certain kind of gift, after all.
Brisco was good at stories, too. He launched into the retelling of a time when he, Johnny, and Sol had been hanging out in a dusty little town right on the border of Texas and Mexico. Gunfighters had pretty well taken over the law enforcement of that particular shit hole and had consequently run off some unsavory characters who had been stealing the locals blind. For a while, it was as if they’d all become heroes. The townsfolk were so grateful to be out from under the unscrupulous assholes who had been calling the shots previously, they treated the gunslingers like kings. Food in the cantina was next to free, tequila shots were more often than not on the house, and the whores quite willing to offer their services for cut-rate prices. As every single one of the gunfighters was broke, it was a very good arrangement. For as long as it lasted anyway.
Sol had become crossways with Brisco over some trifling matter and they both had gotten rip-roaring drunk. They commenced to have a shooting contest to see which one would win the current argument. Now this would have been fine except for the fact that the bottles were set up inside the cantina, and everyone knows drunks are never very good shots in any kind of contest. Every glass item inside the place was destroyed and customers had run from the premises as fast as their legs could carry them. A gang of tetchy gunslingers collectively known as the Johnson Boys was summoned and they proceeded to throw both Sol and Brisco in jail. They then escorted Johnny to the jail, picked him up by the seat of the pants, and threw him in the hoosegow, too. Just for the principal of the matter they said.
Johnny hadn’t spent too many nights as miserable as that one. First one drunken gunhawk would puke until he passed out, then the other one would start. Johnny had cowered in the front corner of the cell, glaring at them both and cussing a blue streak. Finally, one of the whores talked Old Man Cletus Johnson into letting Johnny loose on the promise that he and the two assholes with him would leave town straight away in the morning. Johnny had never been so glad to get the hell out of a place as he had that town, although he did find himself missing all the free food and drinks later on when times got real rough.
He and Brisco must have laughed for five minutes over that particular misadventure, but the rather sad aspect of the story was not lost on Johnny. That had been a damned hard time in his life and after he finished chuckling, he went on to say so.
Brisco said, “Ah, Johnny-boy, those days weren’t that bad. We had food and tequila, even a woman now and again. Coulda been a helluva lot worse, huh?”
Johnny smiled, but shook his head at his old friend. “We had to fight for our lives near every damned day, Brisco. And some of us didn’t make it. Me, you and Sol, we were three lucky hijos de putas really. It’s a wonder none of us is buried in one of them Godforsaken border towns, you know?’
Brisco just laughed at him. “Those times were full of glory, Johnny. Some of the best damned days of my fuckin’ life. Sometimes I miss ‘em somethin’ fierce. You mean to say you don’t?”
Johnny looked at Brisco like the man had popped off with something stupid. Perhaps, in fact, he had. “Hell no. Brisco I don’t miss that shit at all. Now, some of the men we knew … I’ll admit that. I do miss ‘em from time to time. I see ol’ Sol around off and on and I’m glad to say we’re still good friends. But the gunfightin’ jobs and the game. Brisco, I can’t say I miss it one damned bit.”
Brisco took on a look of pity. “You don’t even think about the fun we had with the Dayton brothers in Mexico? Now those hombres were some badass fuckers there. No one, and I mean no one, dared cross us when we rode with them. It was like bein’ prince of a kingdom, Johnny. You don’t ever recall those times and miss ‘em?”
Johnny realized his impatience with Brisco was growing into something else. “Shit. Brisco, you’re talkin’ like you’re thinkin’ of returnin’ to that life as soon as you leave this joint. You going to sit there and admit to me that you’re thinkin’ about it? If you don’t, I might have to think you’re lyin’ and I know you ain’t one to do that … not too much, anyway.”
“Okay, Johnny. I’ll tell ya this. I do consider it from time to time.” Brisco seemed to grow thoughtful. “I remember how good I was. I wonder which gunslingers I could beat at the game now, which of ‘em let themselves get a bad case of slow. But when I’m sober and I’ve had a while to ponder it, I know that a gunfighter’s life ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. It took me a while to get to the place where I could rely on other skills to get a real job, and it would be a damned shame to forget all that work now. I know you seem pretty happy with how things have turned out for you.”
Johnny poured a last shot of tequila and downed it before he answered. “My life, well Brisco … yeah, it’s better. I’ve got a family now. People to answer to. That part was hard at first, but now I’ve got the hang of it, it ain’t so bad. You could have it too, compadre. A nice life, I mean. Come to Lancer and work for a little while. Get your bearings. You might even take up with a nice girl from town or somethin’. Now that can make a real big difference in a man’s attitude, you know.”
Brisco met his smile with one of his own. “I might just have to take you up on that offer, Johnny Lancer. ‘specially if you can guarantee there’s a few girls worth lookin’ up out that way.”
Johnny chuckled. “Oh there’s girls all right, and some of ‘em might even lower themselves to talkin’ to the likes of you. You’d be surprised what a good job and motivation can gain you.”
That brought on one of Brisco’s famous laughs. “No bullshittin’, now. Let me know what it’s like being a big rancher, how all that’s goin’ for you. I might have to tag along so I can find out for myself how Johnny Madrid made himself into Johnny Lancer. How that notorious kid gunhawk finally got himself all happy by leaving his old life behind. Sounds like one of them fairy tales just beggin’ to be shared, Johnny-boy.”
So Johnny Lancer told it. He told his story, the good things, the difficult times, the stuff he counted as blessings. They laughed at old times and how they compared with the new ones and Brisco related some more tales of the past. And then, Johnny told it all again. He’d do what it took to keep Brisco from going back into a life of violence and death. Seemed the very least he could do for an old friend. The minutes turned to hours and they talked and then talked some more … and at last Brisco seemed to have made up his mind. Johnny felt an odd sense of relief, as if he and Brisco had reached a very important turning point that night. It was enough to give Johnny some hope, and these days Johnny had a significant regard for hope.
Johnny clapped Brisco on the back and turned toward the livery stable just down from the saloon. He’d check on Barranca then go see about his unused room. Perhaps he’d have a chance at a few hours of shut-eye before Murdoch and Scott arrived. The day was dawning cloudy with a light breeze from the northwest. There was a feel of rain in the air and Johnny wondered if his father and brother would arrive wet and pissed off. He’d offer to keep his room and another one for an extra night, that way he could get some sleep and they could rest up as well. Nothing worse than traveling with a couple of damp and ornery companions. Especially if those companions were considered family.
Lost in his plans, Johnny was surprised when he heard Brisco yell out his name over some distance. Problem was, that shouted name was Madrid, not Lancer. Without turning, Johnny felt, rather than saw, the threat. His reaction was long practiced instinct. He stood in place and relaxed his hands. He counted off a few breaths and then slowly, ever so slowly, he turned in one complete and shoulder-squared movement. He faced the man who had shouted his name.
He answered. Smooth and quiet, allowing his soft drawl to grow a bit in volume. Oh lord a man had to know the control was there, soft and lyrical, never loud, deadly as a rattlesnake releasing the first measured hints of danger.
“Now Brisco, I done told you that my name is Lancer. Why’d you wanna go shoutin’ that name on these streets? You tryin’ to start a ruckus or what?”
Brisco grinned at him behind that damned mustache. His teeth gleamed white and for the first time in a long while Johnny saw the man as a predator, a kind of lethal big cat or some such, hiding behind a mask of friendly banter. He said, “I don’t rightly care what ya go and call yourself. I know you as Madrid, so that’s who I’m callin’ out.”
Now, Scott would say it was time for another talk with what he called an intermediary, and Murdoch would say it was time to turn around and walk off. Good ideas, hell, probably even logical, but not something he’d ever do. Another man might follow the ways of Lancer, but this was Madrid being called out and no one but Madrid would, or could, answer.
His drawl grew more forceful. “So all that talk. It wasn’t worth a fuckin’ thing, was it? Not even worth the tequila I bought or the hangover I’ll have later, right?”
“Now wait a minute there … I wouldn’t say that. It was good talkin’ with you again, Madrid. I’m glad to know you got all happy with your life before I had to end it. But you see, I’ll never be satisfied as long as you’re out there breathin’ this air. I’ll always wonder and I’ll always know I can beat you.”
Johnny shook his head and pretended to look away. “Why don’t you just come over here and try to whip my ass instead. That’ll give these early mornin’ gawkers somethin’ to talk about and I won’t have to spill your blood on this dirt. Well, maybe a little, but not the kind of blood a bullet through your fuckin’ throat would cause.”
Brisco laughed again, and even from the distance of fifty or so feet Johnny could tell his expression had grown hard and cold. “I don’t think so, Madrid. Whipping your ass ain’t gonna give me no kind of pleasure. You know that. After all our yammerin’ inside the saloon, I know you’ve got to be realizin’ that fact.”
Johnny made a point to shrug his shoulders in an exaggerated sigh. It was time to get down to the nut cuttin’ because one of them wasn’t going to be living much longer. “I don’t want to kill you, Brisco. It’s as simple as that. I’ve seen a goodly number of friends die over the years, and I’d rather keep hold of the few I have left from those days, if I can. Let’s say we not go at this and walk away with our friendship … and our lives … in one piece.”
The man had always been a stubborn jackass and apparently that was never going to change. He’d die one too. Brisco brayed a big laugh. “Sounds like the rancher life’s made you soft, Madrid. There’s some that might say it’s even turned you yellow. Truth be told, I might even say that.”
At the same time Brisco blurted those fateful words, Johnny became aware of all that was around him. The breeze that fluttered his hair and the weight of the hat that hung by its strap down his back. The sounds of nearby horses stamping in their traces and the whispered voices of the few town folk who had gathered to watch a drama play out before their eyes. With that intricate perception came the knowledge that there was a time when a younger Madrid would’ve blown the man away in that immediate second. But Johnny had grown a bit over the years. Instead, he gave Brisco the tiniest of movements, a slight twitch of the hand. He narrowed his eyes and let his expression grow distant and impassive.
His challenger was in his own private world of focused awareness, this Johnny knew as well as he knew his name. Brisco would recognize the face of Madrid and carry it with him as his final memory on earth. He acknowledged that fact with the faintest of nods as he saw Brisco make his choice. Then, Johnny Madrid let the Colt have the last say.
The sting was the first reminder that Brisco had never been all that bad of a shot. A worrisome numbness in his upper arm followed that lightning fast observation. It occurred to Johnny that a few inches to the right and two supposedly former gunslingers would be lying in the dirt oozing blood rather than one. Except Brisco’s blood wasn’t exactly oozing. He was bleeding out pretty good from a shot that had been a mite higher placed than Brisco’s own and definitely a few inches more to the right. The man most likely never felt the pain, his spinal cord severed by that elegantly placed single bullet. Madrid had left his infamous calling card. Somewhere, perhaps, Brisco Carson was at peace.
He knew that many of the onlookers would expect him to go over and ogle Brisco’s body, if nothing more than to pay some kind of gruesome respect to a man who would’ve been quite content to see Johnny lying on the ground in his place. But one thing Madrid had learned over the years, too many years, was that the sort of thing gawkers might expect had little to do with the reality of the life. It didn’t make him feel better to do such a thing … didn’t even make him feel like he’d given some sort of silent eulogy. It just served to piss him off, because if a man was honest about it, this was one of the most senseless deaths of all. A result of nothing more honorable than the fights of those damned gladiators Scott liked to read about. That Roman shit would strike way too close to home for Johnny and he couldn’t read it no matter how much Scott would try to convince him he’d like it. Right here, right now … this was why no fuckin’ gladiator ever had nothing on Johnny Madrid.
So, much to the obvious disappointment of the curious bystanders, Johnny Madrid turned on his heel and stalked to the livery where he could collect his horse. Once in the sanctuary of the stable, he took out his bandana and tied it around the seeping graze on his arm. It hurt like the devil and was bleeding pretty good and sure as hell Murdoch and Scott would raise a fuss over it, but it was a small price to pay for the stupidity of one man and the forced hand of the other.
Besides, it wasn’t the worst wound he’d suffer from the encounter. Johnny had the foresight to know that he’d be pondering Brisco Carson and his betrayal of trust for a long time. When he thought he’d gained another brother in arms, a man who knew what it took to try and beat back the habits of a life that were so ingrained they were close to pure instinct, he’d encountered the deadliest of enemies. An enemy Johnny hadn’t even known he had. An enemy who came to him as a desperate friend.
He rode until his arm began to hurt so damned bad he had to stop. Barranca had grown annoyed with their slow and halting progress, which was obvious by the way he tossed his head and pretended to stumble over pebbles in their path. Johnny guided him to the little stream that meandered through the landscape along the main road. After he dismounted and left a much happier horse to stand in the damp morning air amid lush grass and a grove of sheltering trees, Johnny sat on his haunches by the slow-moving water. A fine drizzle was beginning and it wasn’t long before the mist caused the trees and the rocks and even his hat to drip in the trickling manner reminiscent of tears. Nothing but the elements would cry for Brisco Carson, but Johnny knew that for this man, it was enough. The real Brisco, the one he knew and called friend, must’ve died long ago.
Scott and Murdoch would be angry. He knew he had given them no reason not to be, what with his abrupt departure after such a dangerous and tragic event. The only way they’d know where he was would be to talk to the witnesses to his latest affray. That really wasn’t much to give a family at all. They’d be worried as hell, and confused. He knew that in the back of their minds it would be concern over a mistaken intent that would motivate them to find him. Had he finally chosen to remain Madrid? Was he once and for all overtaken by the part of him that he’d been for so long? It weighed on his thoughts that his new family would not … and could not … understand. But he seemed powerless to move from this place. And something told him … they would find him. He didn’t know how, nor did he much care, but here he would wait for their arrival.
As he waited, his mind wandered from event to event, always slip sliding back to the gunfight and Brisco. Brisco. Damn, the man had always had the ability to piss the hell out of him. If Johnny was flamboyant and reckless at times, Brisco could easily out-perform him. The man was nothing if not a show for the fans of dime novels. And now, he was gone, courtesy of the bullet from Madrid’s own Colt.
There would be talk and Murdoch hated that. But Scott would understand and defend him. He knew that as sure as he knew the sun would come up in the morning. Then things would calm down in that regard. But the doubts would remain, and his father would wonder and look at him with the familiar expression that would speak of fear on other men. And it would be his fault. Or more specifically, it would be the fault of Johnny Madrid.
So sitting here with the breeze forgotten and no sound of bystanders or stamping horses, nothing was left from that jagged-edged morning but the emotions. The emotions that were never, ever, present at the actual event but came crashing down around a man after it was all over. Sometimes they’d strike him so hard he’d have to go off somewhere and throw up, as if to purge himself of the intense feelings a death caused by his own hand could bring.
Sometimes he’d go into a place that scared even him. He’d lost people over that one. He’d grow distant and hard, unable to carry on small talk for even a few minutes. A woman he’d known he loved had moved on over it. She’d been able to take the killing, but the slow death of his soul was more than she could handle. What she hadn’t known, nor had he at the time, was that the soul is much stronger than many a man can realize. It will come back and live again … given the right payment of penance and motivation. He knew that now, and would wait it out.
Yet, even knowing all that, it was better to feel vindicated by a gunfight and heave up his guts as a consequence of an ambush of released emotions. That wasn’t how this one would play out. No, not at all, thanks to his friend, Brisco. This one involved the worst aspects of the gunfighter’s life and he’d slammed right back into his instincts for the game too fucking easily. Madrid had been there so fast … he hadn’t even thought about it. This is what would prey on him for a long while now. Madrid wasn’t some other side of him, or a mask he could use for a few needed moments and put away. He was Madrid. And he always would be.
He remembered moving from the banks of the stream and that was about all. He was so lost in thought that the hand that grabbed his just about stopped his heart, and he knew he was as good as dead. Then a dry blanket from a bedroll was draped over his shoulders with gentle care. His torn and bloodied sleeve was moved and his bad arm lifted. He stared at the men as if he’d never seen them before and it was then he realized he was in a bad way. He’d never done this before, never let his guard down to this extent. Yes, this was something new, and not a good thing. His fluid gaze swept over to Murdoch and he blinked hard, trying to understand the words coming from the man’s mouth.
“Johnny! You’ve been bleeding too much, son, and you’re cold as ice. Let’s get you up and move you under these trees. At least the rain’s stopped for now. Maybe we can get a small fire going and thaw you out some.”
Murdoch’s grip was gentle, but firm, and before Johnny was aware of what was happening, he was being propelled to the protected area where he’d staked out Barranca earlier. That didn’t escape his father’s notice either.
“Dammit, son. You’ve got the sense to get Barranca into some shelter, but you’re sitting out in the damp. Thank God we didn’t get a downpour or you’d be soaked to the bone.” Murdoch lifted his hand and moved Johnny’s chin so he had to meet his father’s critical stare. Apparently satisfied that his son wasn’t completely loco and would live to see the next day, he dropped his hand to Johnny’s uninjured shoulder and gave it a soothing squeeze. The compassion Johnny saw in those blue eyes almost did him in. Never one much for crying, the sting of unfamiliar tears was making itself known. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes, forcing himself to regain control. At that moment, he thought of Scott and turned to look for him. The man he saw watching him with a stone cold glare was enough to dry up any embarrassing displays of weakness, that was for damned sure.
He had rarely seen Scott look so pissed. Maybe once or twice, but then he’d known to expect it. This caught him off guard and made the bleary-eyed condition he’d been allowing himself to sink into lift. The icicle-sharp awareness that took its place was not nearly so pleasant and he found himself wishing Murdoch had come looking for him alone. He wet his lips and took a breath, nodded his gratitude to his father and turned to meet Scott’s disapproving stare.
As Johnny opened his mouth to speak to his brother, Scott turned away. His voice sounded annoyed, almost harsh. “I think I know where I might find some wood that escaped most of the damp. I’ll get us a fire going so we can warm him up before we drag him back to town.”
He heard Murdoch agree and then Johnny let himself shut down once more, only dimly aware of his father’s presence as he cleaned and bandaged his arm. As he finished, Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s chin again and forced him to look into his eyes as he spoke. “Okay, son. Scott’s got a fire going and I’ve got this arm bandaged. You bled a lot for a while and I think between that and the cold and, judging by what we heard in town, drinking most of the night away, you’ve had a rough time of it. You’ll be okay now. We’ll get you back on Barranca and headed for civilization as soon as you think you can ride without falling over.”
Johnny nodded and then closed his eyes for a moment. Murdoch’s hand moved from Johnny’s chin to the back of his head and then he walked off toward the horses. From his vantage point by the small fire, Johnny became aware of a pair of long legs stalking his way. He had to admit he wasn’t too keen on facing his brother, with the last thing he remembered before blanking out being the judgmental glare that had greeted him. Johnny wasn’t up for that shit and Scott had to know it. It was also quite obvious that Scott was picking his time to confront him, out of sight and earshot of Murdoch. This was not boding well for a brotherly chat, and after the confrontation with Brisco, Johnny found his mood going from bewildered and confused to defensive.
“What happened in town, Johnny?” Scott’s tone was low and confidential, but his expression showed he would brook no avoidance tactics. Well, if nothing else, Scott could be considered direct.
Johnny felt as if his eyes were crossing as he tried to give Scott an irritated stare, so he backed off that and went for pure honesty. “Nothing but a shitload of pure hell, Scott, and to tell you the truth, I ain’t up for staking out the details for you right at the moment. Could we get back to town and warm and dry before I go into all of it? Even if you say no, I gotta tell ya, there ain’t goin’ to be much conversing from me at the moment. This story’s a little too important for me just to slide over it and right now, that’s about all I can manage.”
Thank God Scott was a man with a conscience, and his expression changed from pure frustration to one of mild disapproval as Johnny continued to gaze up squinty eyed at him. Scott shook his head. “We need to talk, Johnny. And I don’t see Murdoch letting much conversation transpire right now. He’s feeling pretty protective, I suppose. I can’t say I blame him, brother. You …” and sure enough, the distinct sounds of Murdoch’s approach could be heard before Scott could finish the thought.
Johnny was about as grateful to his father as he had ever been. But he couldn’t help wonder about Scott’s words. Murdoch, feeling protective? That was a new one for the books. And what the hell had happened to the brother who would come to his defense while his father tore him a new one? Johnny sighed and hung his head. Family matters were too difficult for him to understand in the best of times, and now, with his arm throbbing and his head pounding from loss of blood or la crudo, who knew for sure which … figuring out that shit was damned near impossible. Talking with Brisco had almost been easier. Almost.
He about dropped his teeth when he heard Murdoch speak to Scott. “Son, try to leave the questions for another time. We should get to some shelter before we all catch our death of a cold and your brother needs a doctor. I’ve done the best I can for him here. Let’s go get a couple of rooms in town and rest up a bit. Then you two can hash things out to your hearts’ content.”
Johnny watched as his father kicked dirt on the small fire and prepared to leave. Scott went over to the horses and brought them around to where Johnny was propped against one of the trees. Murdoch made a motion to ready Barranca for his rider when Scott stayed his hand.
“No sir, he isn’t in any shape to sit that horse right now. We’ll have to watch him like hawks and that’ll slow us down considerably. It’ll probably start raining again before we can even get to the outskirts of town. Help me get him up on my horse and we’ll ride double. It isn’t far and I think we’ll proceed a lot faster.”
For the second time in only a few minutes, Johnny was completely flummoxed. He attempted a protest, but knew his words weren’t worth a hill of beans. “Now hold on there, don’t I get a say? I can ride. I’m just feeling a little dizzy is all. Get me on my horse and I’ll be fine.”
Scott snorted and shot another look at their father. “See. He even admits to being dizzy. Help me get him on my horse.”
Johnny blew out his breath in an exaggerated sigh, but neither of them would look at him. Stubborn ran a mile deep in the Lancer men and it seemed there would be no challenging it. He’d be riding double with his brother or he wouldn’t be riding at all. Besides that being fuckin’ humiliating, Johnny had a sneaky suspicion this was going to be one of the longest rides of his entire life.
In reality, he was wrong again. God knows he’d been more wrong in one fuckin’ day than he’d been for weeks at a time. He was sure as hell on a streak of very bad luck when it came to his powers of observation. That was in itself rather off-putting and would give him some worry later on. But instead of being an outright pendejo and making Johnny feel as uncomfortable and awkward as possible, Scott had played the big brother to its fullest. He positioned himself behind Johnny and rode with a gentle arm around his middle, helping him maintain balance and keep the nausea from movement away. Scott acted like he knew what it was like to ride while feeling like hell from a wound, and Johnny remembered that in truth, his brother did know. He found himself relaxing somewhat and then without warning, he was out.
The next thing he knew, Scott was reining in at a hitching post and Johnny was slumped back against his brother so deep in exhausted sleep, drool was practically running from his mouth. Fuck it to hell. It was a damned good thing he wasn’t in a stew about any aspect of his reputation because he sure as hell would’ve destroyed it with that performance. It was also a blessing that the streets were empty. Maybe his luck would turn a bit, or perhaps Brisco was tired of having his fun with him in the spirit world. Regardless, Johnny looked about him in relief and at least managed to dismount without falling on his face and looking like a complete ass.
The side trip to the doctor’s office was accomplished in almost dead silence. Johnny allowed the poking and prodding, and then stared hard at a framed drawing of a man’s innards while the old codger applied a few neat stitches to his arm. The whole thing hurt like a son of a bitch, but Johnny was determined not to show any pain or give any voice to his discomfort at all. Both Murdoch and Scott sat outside the little examining room, and seemed surprised when Johnny came out again so quickly. He gave them a look and a motion with his head and waited for them to join him as the doctor gave brief instructions that Johnny barely heard. The word “rest” was spoken a few times, as was something about eating and drinking plenty of water. Other than that, he didn’t have a clue what the man might have said, and realized it was fortunate he had witnesses to the whole ordeal or he wouldn’t recollect a damned thing by the next day.
As they made to leave the place, Johnny was surprised when he felt Murdoch’s hand on his back, guiding him out of the office and into the street. His father’s concern was obvious and Johnny felt another twinge of guilt for the worry he knew he was causing the old man. All feelings of remorse were displaced when he got a glimpse of his brother, who he caught peering at him like he was one of them peculiar dead bugs floating in a jar old man Taylor kept on a shelf in his barn. Scott had turned away and seemed intent on looking at everything but Johnny. Damn but he had been fooled by this turn of events. Just showed that no one could ever be real good at second guessing a man, especially an educated one who had the aggravating habit of purposefully keeping shit a little off kilter. That sort of man was the hardest of all to figure, and Johnny’s figuring was none too keen at the moment. It was a good thing ol’ Scott was catching him at a bad time, or Johnny would’ve given him a piece or two of his mind. Then again, Johnny realized as he allowed his father to steer him down the street, maybe it was a good thing for them both.
Murdoch got them another room in the same place Johnny had booked for his stay. Pity things hadn’t worked out the way Johnny had first planned, because the place was nice for a room in a small town. The sheets were clean and the beds weren’t too lumpy or hard. But of course, as was customary for them when all three were traveling together, Murdoch took the single room and gave Scott and Johnny the double. Johnny hadn’t thought far enough in advance to circumvent that little situation, consequently he found himself dreading the coming evening. Johnny avoided any opportunities for a set-to as long as he could by spending more time than usual cleaning up. Wouldn't make much difference. Looked like that so-called talk with Scott would be coming sooner than later.
Matters weren’t helped a bit by the events that took place at dinner. Murdoch persuaded Johnny to come with them to the small cantina just down the boardwalk from the saloon. The food was excellent and the proprietor was as good on the Spanish guitar as his wife was in the kitchen. Scott seemed to relax some and quit giving Johnny testy looks over his beer glass. Steaming tortillas and creamy queso were placed before them and the delicious smells were too much for even Johnny to ignore.
Johnny began to calm down from the gut-wrenching effects of the day when he noticed the stares. No one in the place said anything to them, in fact the silence became downright bothersome. Try as he might, Johnny found those curious gazes hard to ignore. Scott for damned sure didn’t miss any of it. He looked around the place and then back at Johnny, shaking his head and turning his attention to his food. Murdoch acted as if he was unaware, but Johnny knew better. He wondered how much the townspeople had told his father and brother when they’d first arrived. He was beginning to think they knew quite a lot, judging by the focused effort Murdoch had made to avoid the subject. Scott wasn’t so gracious. Not for long anyway, although why and how the switching of their usual roles occurred was as lost on Johnny here as it was back at the stream.
As he managed to eat some of the tortillas dipped in the queso, Johnny realized how hungry he was. Brisco had put them both through hell and although Johnny had come out of it alive, he was just now beginning to grasp the toll the encounter had demanded. He would have never talked to the man if he’d known this would be the result. He should have gathered up his bottle and gone straight to his room when the pendejo walked over. Brisco would be alive and he’d be … and then it hit him. Right there in that cantina it hit him like a hammer over the head. Brisco had been after him from the moment he had approached him. There never would’ve been another way out. As soon as Brisco Carson saw Johnny Madrid seated at that table in the saloon, he was imagining a notch on his gun and a fine story to tell. The gunfighter had been that consumed by the glory. For all the talk and swapping of tales of shared experiences, there never could have been a different outcome. The call of the game had been too strong and, in it’s own fashion, had ended up consuming them both.
Although he’d known the basic facts before, it was as if they were hitting him with an expanding new force. The reality of what had happened was pushing into him in waves. All of his hunger disappeared even though he’d eaten little, and for a moment he was so sick to his stomach he thought he was going to heave up his guts right in front of Scott, Murdoch, everybody. He’d already lost control too many times in one day, so Johnny stood and shoved back his chair. He looked over at Murdoch with what must have been a desperate appearance and said, “I gotta get outta here for a bit. Lo siento.”
Murdoch stared at him with a shocked expression that changed to one of unquestioning understanding in the brief time that Johnny focused on him. Then, Johnny left the place like his tail was on fire. Scott was another matter, of course. Johnny had barely enough time to clear the boardwalk and enter the street when he heard familiar footsteps. Damn it to hell, his brother had followed him out. There was a short list of people Johnny Madrid Lancer would rather avoid at the moment and Scott Lancer was at the top of it. It didn’t seem to make no difference to that man. He was there and wouldn’t be ignored.
Johnny glanced up at Scott and swore he could see a slight smirk on his face as he spoke in a sarcastic tone. “What’s wrong, Johnny? You act like something could be bothering you. Anything I can do?” Scott was going to call him on this and although Johnny knew he had good intentions, his brother didn’t have a clue about what was going on.
“Scott, get the hell back in there and finish your supper. I ain’t up for your snipin’ right now. Go on in there and eat and leave me the hell alone. Can you do that, brother, or am I gonna have to beat the shit out of you first?”
Scott’s eyes grew colder, but he still wore that know-it-all smile that was pissing Johnny off pretty good. Of course, just about anything would piss him off now, so that wasn’t saying much. To make the situation worse, Johnny’s stomach had commenced to rocking and kicking again. Finally, Scott broke down and said, “Judging by the look of you right now, that act might prove rather hard to accomplish. You have the appearance of a man who has a good deal weighing on his shoulders, brother. Perhaps you’re having some second thoughts about how you took care of matters in this street? Maybe your conscience wouldn’t be bothering you so much if you shared some of the weight of it.”
The red descended at the back of his eyes so fast that Johnny had little time to keep his head clear. The words that came from his mouth weren’t even considered. They were words he’d spoken to other men who had challenged him on other days. Words that he never thought of speaking to Scott Lancer before now. Madrid’s voice was low and tight with fury, and as was his custom, those words were spoken with a drawl that grew soft and measured, signaling to those that understood such matters the extent of his control.
“I told you to back off, Scott.” Johnny reached over and fisted his brother’s shirt in his hand and realized, as they stood there nose to nose, that in his present mood he would try to take Scott on, but most likely he’d end up lying in the dirt. Never one to be deterred by bad odds, Johnny plowed on with his threat. “If you want to do the smart thing, and I know you always do, you’ll fuckin’ back off right now.”
He was aware that Scott had wiped the hard look right from his face and was staring at him in wonder as he grabbed Johnny’s clenched fist in his own. The cold expression was replaced by bewildered concern, which was even harder to take. Johnny forced himself to glare at his brother and continued in his menacing drawl, “I’m telling you again, you need to leave me alone, Scott. I’ll talk to you later. I know you don’t have any idea what the hell is going on. Trust me on this. It would be best to get away from me for a while.”
Without waiting for an answer, Johnny shook off Scott’s hand as he released his brother’s shirt, turned, and strode down the street. He didn’t have a single idea where he was heading, he just knew he had to get away from Scott and let his head clear. It would be a while before he dealt with everything, but he sure as hell wouldn’t be able to manage a damned thing with Scott eyeballing him while he gave it a good try.
Johnny took a left down a nearby alleyway and slowed his pace. He walked blindly through the dim light and on out to the back of the storefronts. Beyond the buildings, he saw a small corral attached to the livery stable. Inside the enclosure, a long-legged blood bay gelding trotted up and down the length of the fence. Johnny recognized him immediately and walked over, holding out his hand in a gesture that he hoped would entice the horse over to him. Sure enough, the big gelding tossed his head and edged over to the fence.
“You’re still a beauty, aren’t you Concho? I think you could even give ol’ Barranca a run for his money in looks. Now, don’t you go tellin’ him I said that, you hear? He’ll be gettin’ jealous and toss me in the briar patch next time he spies one.”
Concho nickered to him and shoved Johnny’s arm with his head, waiting for the snack he thought would be coming. Johnny sighed and regarded the beautiful horse with sadness. “I’m sorry ol’ boy. I didn’t know you’d be out here or I’d have brought you a treat. I promise I’ll get one for you next time. How about I scratch your chin for now?”
Johnny chuckled as the horse leaned over to him as he gave him a good scratch. He grew somber as he thought about Concho and wondered if the horse would miss his master. Johnny felt sure Barranca would know something was wrong if Johnny were to disappear from his life and he couldn’t help thinking Concho was realizing things were different, too. The horse seemed to be soaking up the attention, as if he was lonely and missed his owner and friend. Brisco had always taken good care of his mounts and this one had become a favorite. Johnny would be sure that Concho got a good home, even if he had to sell the gelding himself. As kindhearted as his intentions, he knew he couldn’t keep him. The reminder would be too harsh.
Just as Johnny was deciding to head back over to his room, he heard sounds from the stable. A man came out with a bucket and Concho gave Johnny a last look before he trotted over to be led into the barn for his evening feed. Presently, the man returned and approached Johnny with a questioning look on his face.
“Hey there. Name’s Brown. Thomas Brown. You interested in that horse? He’s for sale you know. His owner came to a bad …” The man stopped his words as he apparently realized to whom he was speaking. He coughed a second, glanced away as he appeared to gather his wits, and then looked back over at Johnny. “You wantin’ to buy yourself a horse?”
Johnny shook his head, but smiled. “Not for myself. I owe that horse a good life and I want to make sure he gets it. If you don’t know anyone interested, I’ll buy him from you and sell him later. He deserves a decent owner, one that’ll see him through to his old age.”
Brown squinted over at him and seemed to weigh something in his mind. He took a long time to ponder whatever it was before he began to talk. “As a matter of fact, there is someone who admires this horse. He’s naught but a kid, though. Maybe fifteen, sixteen years old. He surely can’t afford a horse as fine as this. Besides, the undertaker told me I got to get a fair price on him. It’s gotta cover that burial, you know.” The man stopped and looked uncomfortable for a moment before continuing. “And the food and board I been givin’ him.”
Johnny nodded, impatient with the particulars. Truth was he could hardly stand to hear them. “This boy. What do you know about him?”
Thomas Brown’s face brightened. “He’s a good ‘un, mister. Bradley’s the son of Widow Tompkins. Those two have struggled since his pa died, with the boy managin’ to go to school and workin’ around town doin’ odd jobs whenever he could. He’s worked for me some. In fact, I bet he took your horse in … that good lookin’ palomino, right?” At Johnny’s brief nod, Brown shifted the empty feed bucket to his other hand and gazed at him a moment before continuing. “He’s been lookin’ to buy a horse so he can start wranglin’ full time, but he can’t afford much. Food and board will be hard enough for him to manage, but I promised I’d help him ‘til he could get on with a ranch hereabouts.”
Johnny dug in his pocket for his folding money. “How much?”
Brown looked at him with a baffled expression. “Huh? How much for what?”
“For the horse.” Johnny began to grow impatient. “Look. You know who I am, so let’s just cut to the chase. I knew this horse’s owner. One time I even called him friend, before he tried to put out my lights. Things didn’t happen according to his plan and now his horse needs an owner. I want this horse to have someone decent take him. I’m willin’ to pay if you think that kid will be good to him.”
Johnny watched as Brown swallowed hard. “Ummm … yes sir, Mr. Madrid. Bradley will be good to him. Better than anyone you can find anywhere, I expect.”
Johnny had to work to keep from rolling his eyes. “I go by Lancer now, Mr. Brown. Tell me the cost of the horse and I’ll pay for him. But there’s one thing you need to promise me first.”
Brown grew fidgety and looked everywhere but at Johnny before turning back to him and agreeing. “Sure, Mr. M … I mean Mr. Lancer. What do I need to promise?”
“I need you to swear you’ll never tell that boy who bought this horse for him. He don’t need to know that story. Just tell him some stranger knew about the horse and offered to pay for him to have a good home. Comprende?”
Brown stared at him for a second before he said, “Sure … sure thing, Mr. Lancer. I can manage that with no problem.”
“So how much?”
The older man looked as if he was about to quote one price and then changed his mind. Johnny would’ve been willing to bet anyone the new price he gave was a lower one.
“Two hundred fifty dollars should cover it. He is a fine animal and he comes with some real nice tack.”
Johnny shook his head and hid a smile as he handed over three hundred. Good thing he’d been passing through on business or he’d been havin’ to play the fool and go beg Murdoch for money. “Take three. You deserve a little for yourself, too.”
Brown stared at him and Johnny had the distinct feeling his reputation had just grown another notch. Better that type of notch than the kind Brisco was after. Funny how life took strange twists and turns.
Thomas Brown stuck out his hand to shake Johnny’s. “You’re a good man, son. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.”
Johnny felt an embarrassing mistiness pass over his eyes, so he put his hat on his head and lowered the brim as he turned to leave. He had a sudden thought just as he began to walk away and he shot a glance over his shoulder at Brown. Johnny said, “Concho.”
Brown looked at him like he’d grown another head. Johnny motioned toward the barn. “The horse. His name is Concho. And he likes an apple or a carrot for a treat at night.”
Brown laughed. “Sure thing. I’ll tell Bradley. G’bye, Mr. Lancer. Oh, and …”
Johnny turned back at the pause. “Yeah?”
“Good luck to you, son.” Brown grinned over at him before waving and heading into the barn.
Johnny took his time walking to the little hotel. His mind was eased some now, if only with the knowledge he’d done a good turn for a horse that brought him fond memories of a man. A man who’d changed into someone he barely recognized. The friend he’d known would’ve been thankful Johnny had found Concho a new owner, would’ve been grateful that his beloved horse wouldn’t be abused. It was hard to settle this knowledge with what Brisco had become, and Johnny couldn’t help but wonder if he’d tried a little harder, said something better, offered the man a permanent job at the ranch, given him another choice … something. Maybe Johnny Lancer could’ve made a difference as an example, if he’d spent only a few more hours …
He was lost in these thoughts as he entered his room. Scott was still out, probably enjoying a drink in the saloon with their father. A pang of regret hit Johnny. If it hadn’t been for Brisco and his fucked up notions of gaining happiness through fame, Johnny would be with them too. They might’ve stayed in town anyway, due to the rain, and had a good time sharing a few beers. As it was now, Johnny would be hard pressed to ever enter that particular saloon again. Not for reasons of enjoying himself, anyway.
Right now, all Johnny wanted to do was escape through sleep. He was wiped out from staying up too many hours and fighting the sort of battles that were guaranteed to add to his collection of hidden scars. That particular collection was becoming much too large to ignore these days. He pulled off his boots, checked the bandage on his arm, removed his gun belt, looped it, and placed it on a nearby chair, and then lay down on his bed. He figured there would be a lot of time spent contemplating the ceiling with Brisco’s final words bouncing around inside his head, but it was no time at all before he fell into an exhausted sleep.
Morning came too quickly. He rose from the bed, put on his boots and hat and strapped on his gun. He’d slept straight through the night, surprisingly enough. In spite of this, he was tired, dead tired. The walk out the door and through the hotel seemed to sap him of his energy so fast that by the time he entered the street he was exhausted again. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t remember. As he was trying to make heads or tails of his situation, a shout rang out. The voice was familiar, but out of place. He never expected to hear that voice in a challenge, or even calling him by that name. He blinked as if to clear his head, thinking he must be mistaken.
This time, he turned. He kept his stance open, letting his arms fall loosely to his sides. His hands were relaxed and ready. He casually reached with one of those hands and shoved his hat off his head to hang down his back. The sun was to his left and would be no distraction. He remained silent, letting a confidant smile speak for him. He could feel his expression close and his eyes narrow. All this was instinct. No more thought was given to his actions than those of a wild stallion regarding a challenger. He focused in on his enemy and almost lost it all. It had never happened before, and he had no experience to help keep him in the moment. He was, for the first time in his gunfighter life, at the disadvantage.
His opponent gave him an answering smile and a nod. His blond hair wafted in a slight breeze, and his hands shifted at his sides, flexing. Opening and closing, opening and closing. Johnny stared, trying to see the eyes, make some kind of contact before this play went too far. All he could see was darkness. The gray-blue eyes of his brother were shrouded in shadow, and try as he might he could not make out their expression or search for any recognition. He glanced to his right and saw their father. Murdoch was looking on with a patient expression, first smiling at Scott and then at Johnny.
Scott’s voice broke the silence. “I’m ready when you are, brother. Just make the move and the play begins. The decision is yours.”
Johnny shook his head. No. He wouldn’t do it. Scott’s sarcastic laugh cut through the still morning air. “I’m waiting for you, Johnny. Hurry up and make your move. Just like you did for Brisco. Show me how you can react faster than it takes a man to think about a friend. A brother.”
Bile rose up in Johnny’s throat and for a moment he thought he was going to be sick right there. He forced himself calm and he willed his hands steady again. “I’m not going to draw on you, Scott.”
Scott just continued to give him that smart-assed smile. Johnny stood there waiting, forcing himself to remain still, keeping back those instincts that had saved him so many times. He denied his own existence, denied Madrid this first and final time, and then Scott drew.
The sudden explosion of sound brought a reaction. Johnny bolted upright and a scream of defiance caught in his throat. He was dripping in sweat and his arm throbbed in time with his racing heart. He gasped a breath and looked around him.
Scott stood at his bed with a sheepish expression on his face, staring at the fallen boot that lay on the floor. He was holding the other in his hand. Slowly a look of comprehension came across that familiar face, no longer cold and hard, but animated and almost affectionate. “Are you okay, brother? You must’ve been having one hell of a dream. I would’ve been more careful if I’d known and I sure wouldn’t have been getting clumsy and dropping things. Good thing you took off your gun this time.” Scott’s chuckle seemed ill at ease, as if he was verging on being embarrassed by some small inconsiderate action. If he only knew.
The nausea that hit Johnny this time was real, not dreamed. He stood up and grabbed his gun belt and headed out the door. He flew down the stairs and out into the cool nighttime air. The little porch that surrounded the entirety of the place had a rail, thank God. He managed to make it to the back of the hotel, and there, clinging onto the rail like a lifeline, he retched violently over the side.
Footsteps sounded on the boards of the porch. A gentle hand grabbed his good arm and gave it a light squeeze and Scott turned him so to look into his eyes. “You’re okay, boy, but you look like you’ve been put through a wringer. Come sit over here in one of these chairs before you fall down.”
He should’ve been mad as hell at Scott calling him boy, but it felt right somehow, comforting in fact. He peered up at Scott and the kindness he saw in his brother's eyes was almost Johnny's undoing. For the first time in a while he realized that what he’d needed all his life, besides the love of a father, was the security of a hermano … a true brother. He allowed that emotion to sweep over him and could’ve cried with the relief it brought. Could’ve cried if he’d been anyone but who he was.
Johnny half-walked, half-staggered to a chair with Scott holding on in support. He sat there a moment, gazing off into the darkness, and was only vaguely aware of Scott pulling up one of the other chairs to sit beside him. They stayed like that for a long while, so quiet that the hushed sounds of the sleepy town could be heard. The muted light from the hotel’s curtained windows and the pale glow of a crescent moon struggled to overcome the nighttime shadows. Johnny turned to Scott and gave him a small smile.
“Thanks, brother. I didn’t mean to worry you when I took off like that. You can go back in and get some sleep. I’m fine now.”
Scott looked at him with a curious expression and shook his head. “Yeah. You look fine, Johnny. You want to tell me what’s going on? Are you running a fever from your arm?”
Without waiting for a reply, Scott put the back of his cool hand to Johnny’s forehead and kept it there a second. Johnny made himself grow still, and closed his eyes. Usually he’d have shrugged that hand away even before it touched him, but now that gesture was comforting and the small physical contact that it brought was somehow reassuring.
“I don’t feel any fever, thank goodness. Must be something else bothering you? I mean, this didn’t appear to be just one of those nightmares we all have occasionally. I’d say it was a good deal more potent than that.”
“Don’t know if I can talk about it, Scott. It’s some bad mierda. I ain’t been too good at talkin’ about shit like this ever in my life. Maybe with a gunfighter friend, one who’d know what was going on without me sayin’ much … nobody else, Scott.”
Scott’s expression grew annoyed. “As much as we’ve been through together, you don’t think you can trust me enough to tell me what’s going on here? I’m trying to understand, Johnny. But you have to let me in.”
“When you and Murdoch first found me, you didn’t act like you needed to hear much from me then. Seemed to me you’d already made up your mind about a few things.”
Scott sighed. “I was wrong. And I was out of line. I realize it. I listened to townspeople and their melodrama, or at least that was about how Murdoch put it at supper after you left. He’s right. I never gave you a chance and I’m sorry. I didn’t understand, but to be honest, I still don’t, brother. You’ve got to let someone in, Johnny. Whatever’s going on with you isn’t good to hold in. I do know something about that.”
Johnny shook his head. “It takes a while. And it takes a certain kind of friend. I’m not sure I’m up to it yet, Scott.”
Scott’s eyes grew colder. “I’m your brother and not that certain kind of friend. Okay. Maybe Murdoch would be a suitable enough stand-in for another gunfighter? Or is he incapable of hearing you out as well?” Scott glanced away with a hurt expression on his face, a look that Johnny was finding hard to bear.
“Scott. Why do you think I took off after that fracas? I knew you’d be lookin’ for me. I figured Murdoch would be the one after my hide, not you. I’ll admit that. Either way I knew I owed you both explanations. But after it happened … after I had to kill Brisco, well … I needed to take off for a bit and sort things out. Sorry to say, my fuckin’ arm pretty much put an end to what I needed to think about and then you and Murdoch were there. Maybe too soon, Scott. Maybe a little too soon.”
Johnny paused a moment and gathered his thoughts. “Remember how you first reacted to the news, brother? There was a reason for that, you know. You don’t react like that without cause. You had heard enough to give you an opinion. I know you well enough to know you normally go with your first thoughts on a matter. Can’t fault you for that. Seems to have worked for you so far.”
“Johnny.” Scott’s voice was beginning to lose that pissy edge it sometimes took when he was spurring for an argument. Good thing. Johnny wasn’t much up for arguing.
“Johnny.” Scott said his name again, but this time continued his thought. “It's true. I don't comprehend everything that went on. But I can tell whatever happened took a lot out of you. You’ve fought men before. You were considered a professional. Is this how it was for you? If it was … how did you do it, Johnny? As good as you are at shooting, how did you handle the rest of it?”
“Most of the time there weren’t many chances for pondering, Scott. There was reaction and survival. No judgments, just actions. A man ain’t gonna sit around and ruminate over that kind of situation too long and manage to keep livin’, that’s for damned sure. This was different. I’m not saying it was harder or more justified or any shit like that. Just different.”
Scott was staring at him with a mixture of expressions and Johnny wasn’t sure how to read him. His brother could be a tricky one to figure and the events of this day had been hard on them all. Finally, Scott looked in his eyes as if seeking unspoken answers and asked, “He didn’t give you a choice, did he Johnny? You’re trying to say he called you out and didn’t give you any other alternative. He was the one with the choice, and he made it at your expense.”
Johnny blinked then stared out at nothing. He could feel the coldness descend as it did when the subject of Madrid was involved. He wasn’t open for this type of inspection … hell, he didn’t even appreciate examining that shit for himself very much. He sure as shootin’ wasn’t about to talk about it with someone else. Not even his brother. In some ways, especially not his brother. Scott was too good for the mierda that haunted Johnny’s past, and occasionally revisited his present. It was best if his brother didn’t know the particulars. It wasn’t a matter of keeping things from Scott. It was a matter of protecting him.
The only way out was explaining about Brisco Carson. It was the one thing he could do to try to make Scott understand, get him off his ass about it, and maybe manage to sleep at night in the next week or so. Maybe it would be good for both of them. It was what he was supposed to have been doing at the side of that stream. Sorting out the shit that Brisco had dealt him. Well, now he had a trespasser into his affairs, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
He met his brother’s somber gaze and the worry he saw there told its own story. One that Johnny was beginning to understand. “Okay, Scott. I’ll try to explain a thing or two, leastways about Brisco.”
Johnny shivered and wrapped his arms across himself the best he could, considering one arm hurt like a son of a bitch. “I don’t know about you, but I’m near to freezin’ my ass off out here. Let’s head on back to the room first. You think there might be some coffee on that stove up front? I sure as hell could use some, or I’ll have to resort to whiskey and in truth, big brother, I don’t think my belly is up to that right now.”
Scott gave him a sympathetic smile. “Don’t know until we look. If not, we might find some we could make.” He reached down and gave Johnny a careful hand up. “Johnny, your hand is cold as ice. You sure you’re doing all right?”
“I’m fine. Be better when I get off this damned porch. Already feelin’ some improved now that you quit lookin’ like you want to tear my stupid head off with your teeth.”
Scott clapped him on the back as they made their way to the front of the hotel. “Johnny-boy, you are far from stupid, and you know it. But I’m not either. We’ll be okay … and if you can’t talk about what went on, I guess I should follow Murdoch’s example and let you alone. You’ll come to me if you need to; I know that. I just let myself get caught up in …” Scott paused a moment and sighed. “I guess I got caught up in being a brother to someone who scares me sometimes.”
Johnny stopped and brought Scott to a halt next to him. “There ya go. I was only thinkin’ of me for a while, Scott, maybe even feelin’ a bit sorry for myself ‘cause of the way everything went down. But Boston, you have to realize some of the shit that’s happened, this time and others, I ain’t one for sharin’ all of it … but I’ll tell you what I can. And you’ll have to take that for what it’s worth.”
Scott nailed him with an intense gaze. “It’s worth more than you know, Johnny. I admit I was angry at first. Murdoch talked to me and said some things that helped. You have to understand something too. I’m not used to worrying about a little brother and I don’t always deal with those worries rationally. I thought you had made some kind of irreversible decision. One that would take you …” Rather than continue his thought, Scott reached over and grabbed Johnny by the elbow, forcing him to walk on into the hotel. “Now come on out of this damp before you really do get sick.”
As providence had it, they weren’t the only ones in the small hotel that had kept long hours, and a hot pot of coffee was sitting on the stove inside the kitchen. A woman cleaning up the place smiled and handed them two cups without them asking. Johnny grinned at her in the way he knew made his blue eyes flash, which caused her to blush. Scott deepened the blush when he said in his best honey-smooth tones, “Thank you so much, ma’am. You must truly be a mind reader, and we are certainly the beneficiaries of your talents.”
Both Lancers chuckled a bit at the woman’s shy giggle as she skedaddled out of the kitchen into the dining area. They helped themselves to the warm coffee and then climbed the stairs to the rooms.
Once inside the room, Johnny and Scott each sat on their beds contemplating the cups in their hands. It was awkward at first, trying to explain just what had happened. Speaking of Brisco made Johnny feel as if he was betraying the man, because what he would say about the end of his old friend’s life gave the majority of it little meaning. Brisco Carson had been a good riding buddy, and had even helped pull Johnny out of a scrape or two when Johnny had been young and reckless. They’d both ridden with Sol for a while. In fact, Sol had counted Brisco as a friend for a spell longer than Johnny had. He would be sad to hear what went down. Johnny realized that was as good a place to start as any.
“Well, Scott. You gotta know first that me, Sol, and Brisco rode together for a while, back in the days when we was carousing around them border towns. We were Tres Pendejos at times, I’ll admit it. But you have to understand we’d been on our own a lot of our lives, from a damned young age.” Scott looked like he wanted to ask a Madrid question, so Johnny plowed on. That wasn’t what this talk was about. “But we did some good, too. Or at least we liked to think so.”
Johnny watched the steam from his coffee swirl up into the air, his thoughts on the past and times that were so bad sometimes when a man looked back they actually seemed good. “Livin’ that kind of life, a dangerous one, makes you need a few friends to watch your back. And livin’ hard tends to lead to some dangerous good times, too. We had ourselves some real fun, and on another occasion when I’m more in a reminiscing mood, I might tell you some of it. But that ain’t why we’re here now.”
Scott nodded at him and took a sip of the coffee. After he swallowed, he looked up at Johnny. “Go ahead. Tell it however you like, brother, but I’m sure those stories are some good ones. Maybe one night when we have a bottle and Sol’s around to help with exaggerating the best parts, right?”
Johnny smiled and tried to appear cool and collected as he gazed at Scott through his eyelashes. “Yep. Probably then. But for now, let me just say that what I’m about to tell you is going to make it seem like Brisco was the biggest asshole this side of the border. He wasn’t most the time I knew him, but the last moments of his life … well, I guess there weren’t many worse, Scott. I’m doin’ my best not to linger on that, but it’s hard, you know.”
Scott got that look that meant he was feeling bad for him again and Johnny had to stare down at the floor, not wanting to seem emotional or somehow weak. The problem was, he hadn’t had time to wrap his own mind around it all. He’d be working through a lot of it as he told his tale, and that made Johnny more than a little nervous. Time to stick with the facts; the rest would fall as it may. “I came here just like we planned and holed up in the saloon. This place is dead, Scott, not that you’ve had an opportunity to notice. But it is, so a bottle and a chance to get some down time in the saloon seemed like the way to go. While I was there, Brisco appeared. Hadn’t seen that pendejo in ages. Years. We struck up a conversation and he told me he’d been in town on his way to nowhere. He seemed kind of lost. And me, lettin’ old times get in the way, well, I pretty much fell for his act.”
“What kind of act, Johnny?”
“He told me about how he was out of the game, Scott. Talked about how he was givin’ that a good try, but said it was hard. He’d heard about me somewhere, and he wanted to know particulars, how I managed to quit the game. Then he wanted to know about Lancer, how I was doin’ with bein’ a rancher. Shit like that.”
Scott shook his head. “I really don’t think that makes you gullible, Johnny. Your reaction seems reasonable to me. Can’t say I’d have done any differently.”
Johnny couldn’t help but laugh. “But we’re both a couple of soft touches, Scott. Must get it from the old man. We’re neither one to judge the other on shit like that, are we?”
Scott looked at him and grinned. “I think those are true words, brother. But I don’t think our wanting to believe the best of our fellow man is anything to feel ashamed about. Might as well not, seeing as none of us are likely to change our habits soon.”
“No. No, we aren’t. But this was a little different. Brisco started tellin’ me how he missed the life and was thinkin’ about goin’ back to it. I let myself be led by the ear into swappin’ stories about the past, laughin’ about one thing then another. Of course, we were both drinkin’ tequila and feelin’ un poquito achispado. Not drunk, mind you, but on our way to a little loose, I guess you could say.”
Johnny shot a quick look at his brother, but Scott just nodded his understanding. “I know you aren’t one to get inebriated in some strange saloon, Johnny. All of this sounds pretty normal to me.”
He sent Scott a faint smile of gratitude and continued his account. “Then he hits me again with wanting to go back into gunfightin’. Well, Scott, I can tell how far I am from that situation myself by how hard I tried to convince him it was a bad idea. My life is different than his … I’ve got you, Murdoch. I have Teresa and Jelly. I really can’t imagine going back to that game. But Brisco was determined and I felt like I had to convince him otherwise. We must’ve talked all night long, with me giving him reasons to stay away from a gunhawk’s life and him wantin’ to laugh it up about old times.” Johnny paused and a thought hit him again, almost as hard as it had the first time he realized it. “He wasn’t interested in a damn thing I had to say, Scott. All that talk was complete and total bullshit.”
Scott eyed him a moment over his coffee cup before draining it and setting it aside. “What was bullshit, Johnny? What did he do?”
“He began to look like he was listenin’ to what I had to say. He talked about visitin’ me at Lancer. Maybe becomin’ a wrangler and workin’ with horses. Brisco always had an eye for horses and a way with ‘em, too.” Johnny paused again in harsh remembrance and when he looked at Scott, he could tell the man was hurting for him. “I did everything I could, and finally, it seemed like it was catchin’ hold. He was becomin’ convinced. Then we both decided to call it a night, because it was mornin’, in fact. We parted ways. I went out into the street. Then it happened.”
Suddenly it seemed very important that Scott was clear on one certain thing. Johnny met his brother’s eyes. He made his voice soft and calm, easing into the silky drawl so many associated with Madrid. “I wasn’t a shootist, Scott. Not the kind the dime novels go on about anyway. But I’ve done enough so that certain things are pure reaction, no matter how long I’m out of that life. I think they’ll always be what you like to say is instinct. I grew up with all that and it ain’t likely to leave me. Calling my name out in the street, calling that name especially … some events are just going to happen as a matter of course. If a man stands a distance away and yells for Madrid, he better be ready to meet his maker. I kinda doubt ol’ Brisco really was. Not like he thought. He probably supposed I’d let myself get slow.” Johnny barked a humorless laugh as he contemplated his empty cup a moment and then deposited it on the floor with a loud clink. “Well, he was fucked from the get-go thinkin’ that. He wanted fame and instead he got eternity.”
Scott stared at him with wide eyes. He lowered his gaze and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I don’t know much of what else to say. Just know I truly am sorry.”
Johnny smiled at his brother and waited until he met his eyes again. “It ain’t your fault, Scott. There was a time when Murdoch thought it was his, but I think we’re both past that now. That’s why he’s in bed asleep and you’re sittin’ here jawin’ with me. Not to say I ain’t grateful, because I am. Wasn’t goin’ to be sleepin’ much this night.”
Scott continued to observe him in that intense way he sometimes had, making Johnny feel a tad uncomfortable. He never did like being inspected real close and Scott was verging on becoming too personal. Finally his brother sighed and asked what had apparently been on his mind. “How did the gunfight take place, Johnny? I mean, what did he do … he just called you out without any cause?”
Johnny’s tone grew scornful. “He thought he had cause. If I’d been listenin’ the way I shoulda been instead of sitting there like a dumbass swappin’ yarns, I might have caught on sooner. But as I said earlier, I let myself be taken in.” Johnny became more reflective, pausing a long while to consider the story of his last gunfight and just what he could say without dwelling on things that were best left unsaid. As he began to tell the tale, Johnny found the words came easier and easier. Before long, the events started to unwind as if by themselves and he grew barely aware of Scott, who listened with rapt attention.
Johnny Madrid told it. He spoke of the morning air and the horses waiting at the hitching posts. He told of the things he’d had on his mind, momentarily distracting him from Brisco’s true purpose. Madrid began to describe the first reaction he had when his name was called. How it had been Madrid that was shouted, and it was Madrid that would give an answer. His voice dropped lower and Scott leaned closer, their heads almost touching, intent on the fateful moment when an old friend met his end. He spoke of the brief seconds of a single last chance, when Brisco Carson had one last decision to make. The choice was made … laughing as he made it. He was so sure, so hell-bent on glory, and so wrong about everything. And then, Brisco Carson died.
“Where did I go wrong, I lost a friend somewhere along in the bitterness …” ~ The Fray
He heard the quiet knock early in the morning, so early the roosters had yet to crow. Johnny got up, glanced at Scott, picked up the fallen blanket and threw it back over his brother and then staggered to the door. He was as tired as he’d been in a long time and his arm was beginning to hurt like hell again. He opened the door and motioned Murdoch in. They sat on the bed in silence a while and just before Johnny’s eyes began to droop closed, the old man spoke.
“Are you all right, son?”
Johnny started a bit and then grinned up at his father. “Um, oh yeah. I’m gettin’ there, Murdoch. Feelin’ better after sleepin’ some, but I gotta say this arm is painin’ me a little now.”
Murdoch turned and examined the wound, lifting the bandage and feeling Johnny’s arm for heat while staring at it intently. He replaced the wrapping and gave his shoulder a gentle pat. “I think it’s just healing. I don’t see signs of infection. But you do know, John, it wasn’t only your arm I was inquiring about.”
Johnny stared at his hands for a moment. “Yeah, well, I guess I did know that. I’ll be okay, Murdoch.” He looked up and met his father’s concerned gaze. “You know what bothers me most?”
Worry crept into Murdoch’s tone. “What’s that, Johnny?”
“How fast I went back. How quickly Madrid made an appearance. I’ll admit to you and precious few else, when that does happen, it worries me.”
His father gazed off and grew quiet. Long enough for Johnny to wonder if he’d been wrong to admit such a thing. Murdoch shook his head and then met his eyes. “It must be difficult for you. But there’s times I’m glad of your predicament.”
Johnny was confused as hell at this and squinted up at his father in puzzlement. “You’re glad? I don’t wanna appear stupid over my own situation, Murdoch, but I can’t imagine a damned thing about it that would make you happy.”
Murdoch reached over and tapped Johnny’s knee with his knuckles. “It’s what’s kept you alive, even during the time I’ve had you back, but especially before. If it wasn’t for the instincts you have, if it wasn’t for the part of you that so quickly answers when challenged, I might not have you here. I have to say son, the instincts you revert to, that part of Johnny Lancer that you become, well … I’ve been grateful for it more than once.”
Johnny knew he’d have to chew on that one for a while, so he just gave his father a brief nod. For whatever reason, Murdoch’s words did make him feel better, even if they really couldn’t change a damned thing.
“I appreciate it, you know.” Johnny hoped his expression showed how serious he was.
“What do you mean, son? What do you appreciate?”
“What you did earlier. You givin’ me my space. Lettin’ me take my time with things. For understanding.”
Murdoch smiled. “Oh, that. You really mean you’re grateful I got your brother off your ass, don’t you? He seemed to be wanting to take his turn with you pretty bad there for a while.”
Johnny huffed a quiet laugh, as not to disturb the brother being discussed. “Well, there’s that, too. And yep, I am grateful for it. More than I can say.”
Murdoch looked over at his eldest with obvious affection, before turning back to Johnny. “You two okay now? Did you talk?”
“We’ll be all right. It’s always some give and take you know. He tries and I try. We’ll make it.” Johnny paused. “I had to tell him about … how things went down. He needed to know about Brisco, why I did what I did. But the fact is, Murdoch, I shouldn’t have had to tell this story, ‘cause it never shoulda happened. It was all one stupid mess. I don’t like havin’ my hand forced … not in any way, but especially that one.”
His father nodded and watched him a moment, his eyes softening in apparent commiseration.
To break the intensity of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him, Johnny said, “To tell you the truth, I was surprised.”
“About?” Murdoch looked confused.
“I thought you’d be the one wanting explanations. I wasn’t expecting to have to explain shit to Scott. And there you were, keepin’ your thoughts to yourself. Lettin’ things play out on their own. That’s kinda new for you, ain’t it, old man?” Johnny grinned at his own irreverence.
Murdoch stood and tried to act all gruff, but couldn’t contain the smile that appeared or the affection that shone in his eyes. “You trying to say I’m too old to learn, my son? Well, you’re wrong. In fact, I think I’m getting this father job down now. Doing much better with it. Maybe by the time you’re thirty I’ll be an expert. Of course, I won’t have any hair left on my head … but I’ll know a lot about being a pa.” He laughed and gave Johnny a swat on the side of his head that suspiciously became gentle, almost a caress.
Murdoch’s voice softened. “I think we’re all getting there, son. But situations like these, they’d be hard for the best of men. I’m proud of you. You handled it the only way you could. No matter how hard it was, I don’t see anything else you could’ve done. I should tell you this … as I heard those townspeople talk about all that happened and when I figured out what went on … I was proud to tell them that you’re my son.”
Johnny blinked, not quite believing he was hearing those words. When he looked back up at Murdoch, the man had grown poker-faced again. Murdoch motioned toward the bed. “Now you lay back down and sleep some more. We’ll wait another day before riding out. I got a wire from Tucker and the rain has the roads in a mess on the way to his place. Might as well get some rest before heading over there.” Murdoch paused and seemed to consider something. “You going to be okay with that? Or do you need to get on out of here?”
Johnny thought a moment. “With you and Scott here, I think I’ll be fine. Might be nice to get some more sleep under my belt.”
Murdoch nodded and patted him on the shoulder before turning and easing the door shut behind him.
Sure enough, Johnny slept most of the day and didn’t wake up for anything except the essentials until the next dawn was upon them. Scott stayed close by, fetching food and drink as the mood would strike them. They talked some when they were awake, but never about Brisco. For a man who was so intent on making himself a name, it was inevitable that his would become one rarely spoken.
They left the town the next morning. It promised to be a beautiful day. The sun shone in a cloudless sky and a breeze rustled the leaves and bowed the heads of the blooming flowers. The Lancers rode down the street together with Scott and Murdoch flanking Johnny in outward support, but no one spoke. Johnny supposed each of them was lost in his thoughts of what might have been and what was.
As they passed the stable’s corral on the way out of town, Johnny spotted a grinning boy on a spirited blood bay horse. They were cantering round and round the enclosure, both horse and rider taking obvious pleasure in the early morning ride. The polished saddle gleamed and Concho’s dark mane and tail flew in the breeze. Johnny didn’t think he’d ever seen the horse look more beautiful.
Off to the side, Thomas Brown was watching the youngster. He glanced up as the three riders passed and gave a big wave. Scott looked over at the corral as Johnny waved back.
Scott said, “High-spirited animal. Seems to be a lot of horse for a kid. Do I sense a story there, little brother?”
Johnny shrugged and thought for a moment, mulling over his words before he spoke them. “There are no tricks in plain and simple faith," he paused, determined to get it right. " ... but hollow men, like horses hot at hand, make a gallant show of it.”
Scott’s eyes widened. “Ah, yes. Brutus does seem appropriate. You liked those lines, hmm? Enough to commit them to memory. I always do think you pay more attention when I read Shakespeare than you let on, Johnny.”
Johnny turned his head to hide his smile. “Only for you, brother. Only for you.”
Murdoch made a questioning sound as he raised his eyebrows. Johnny sent his father a wink and a mischievous grin before urging Barranca into a gallop, letting out a whoop as he heard the horses behind him being given their heads, too. They thundered up the road, leaving thoughts of an old friend’s betrayal resting in the turned earth of a lonely grave. It was a good day to be alive.
Trinidad de Guerreros
*** In the final scene, Johnny paraphrases Brutus from William Shakespeare’s play "Julius Caeser". (Act IV, Scene 2)
***Quotes are from “How to Save a Life” by The Fray