Johnny knew there was something wrong with Scott the minute he walked into the kitchen. Stepping over the smashed crockery with a grimace of distaste, and pausing in the doorway as he regarded his brother carefully for a moment.
Although battered and bruised, Scott was not seriously injured, but he sat slumped at the breakfast table as though the whole world weighed heavy on his soul. Johnny hesitated, feeling absurdly like an intruder. Ever since he'd got home he'd felt unwelcome somehow. Almost as though Scott were angrier with him than he was with Drago.
He had a gut feeling it 'was' something more to do with him rather than the ordeal his brother had just been through, or perhaps the two were connected, indivisible in their nature. He sighed and forced a quizzical smile to his lips.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Help yourself," Scott replied perfunctorily, but he didn't look round from his seat at the table and his voice was the opposite of welcoming.
Johnny's foot crunched on some broken china. "They sure messed the place up. Teresa's gonna be madder than hell."
No answer. The silence stretched between them like a widening stream, as Scott placed his head in his hands and bent his shoulders even lower. Johnny stared perplexedly at his brother's implacable back, unsure what to do and how to do it. Of whether or not he'd be better off just walking away.
But it wasn't in his nature to turn his own back on someone else's pain, especially not his brothers, and hell, if Scott needed to yell at him, better to get it over and done with now. He knew from old and bitter experience that anger had a habit of festering. It was like a poisoned wound, the longer you neglected it, the worse it got. Time wasn't always the healer it was supposed to be. Time sometimes made things worse.
He walked across to the range, licked his fingertip, and ran it down the side of the metal coffee-pot. A satisfying sizzle and he knew the coffee was good and hot. Unhitching two of Teresa's pretty blue and white cups - two that had somehow escaped the destructive carnage, and placing one down on the table in front of Scott.
He poured Scott's first. Breathing in the sharp aroma appreciatively before he poured his own, and waiting for it to steady his nerves before he bit the bullet.
"You wanna tell me what went on?"
Scott didn't move and for a moment Johnny wasn't sure if he'd even heard. Then; "it's a long story."
Johnny exhaled in relief. "Well, I got time."
He turned and placed the coffee-pot back on the range, figuring it might encourage Scott to open up some more if he was unconfrontational about things. It seemed to work. Scott began talking even though he still refused to meet Johnny's eyes.
"It's about a man and a shadow from his past. The shadow got so big the man never thought he could match it . . ." His voice tailed off and he became morose again.
Johnny hesitated, still standing behind him as battled his own confusion and wondered what had hurt his brother so badly. He tried again.
"How do you figure a man like er . . . that Drago character?"
Scott took a big gulp of his coffee and lifted his head at last. "It's hard to figure him . . ." He paused and the silence became profound. Just as Johnny was racking his brains for another way to broach the subject, Scott called out his name.
He looked up in surprise at the peremptory tone, and received an even greater shock when Scott held up his arm and placed his elbow down on the table in the arm-wrestling position. Johnny stood still for a moment, a half-smile lacing his lips as he regarded his brother.
Scott was tense and taut as a bow-string. An air of desperation almost, about him, as he waited expectantly and flicked his cupped fingers back at him.
Johnny took a step or two closer. Sensing the importance of this to Scott, but still not understanding why. "How come?"
"Come on." Scott smiled for the first time but there was a wealth of sorrow behind it, and for a moment, Johnny was almost afraid. Scott beckoned him again, and after the briefest of hesitations, Johnny undid his cuff and began to roll up his shirt sleeve.
"No." Scott was adamant. "Now."
Johnny hid his apprehension with a soft smile. "Okay, now."
And for the first time, Scott seemed to realise the oddity of his unusual behaviour, the lines around his mouth relaxing slightly as he looked into Johnny's bright blue eyes.
Johnny laughed with quiet relief and sat down at the table so he was facing Scott diagonally. He looked hard at his brother, but Scott was still closed off to him. The pain and distress locked tightly inside behind the fine-boned thorough-bred face.
"Johnny, Scott - where are you?"
'Damn,' thought Johnny. It was Murdoch. Just when he'd thought there was a chance of breaching that impenetrable wall. Of breaking down the barricades of hurt and anger. He looked up at Scott regretfully.
"In here . . ."
Fully expecting his brother to shutter himself away again, to retreat behind the cool facade of silence and pain. But Scott held onto him with his eyes, the need inside him burning so intensely that Johnny was almost pierced by it. Engulfed by the vortex of tension that eddied and swirled around them.
Their fingers gripped tightly and held, as Johnny clung on for grim death. Filled with a sudden irrational fear that if he let go, his brother would be lost to him forever. That Scott would slip into that dark chasm of distance and anguish he'd hovered on the brink of, since Drago and the girl had left the hacienda.
He looked hard at his brother's hand. Noting the clenched white knuckles, the rigidity of the corded tendons. Knowing that Scott needed the warmth of human flesh, the strength and comfort of his touch just as much as he needed Scott's. That by the joining of their hands, he was somehow providing his brother with a safe harbour, a link to security and self.
"You two all right?" Murdoch's voice. Falsely jocular as he hid his all too evident concern behind the hearty tones. Striding quickly into the kitchen, Jelly following in his wake. Eyes searching the room and resting on his sons with patent relief.
Johnny smiled, glad to see both men, but afraid they'd ruin the tentative link he'd forged with Scott. Holding on even tighter, as he wound his long brown fingers round his brother's hand. Feeling the muscles clench, and concentrating on maintaining his own clasp as he stared down at the pattern on the tablecloth.
"Yeah, we're fine . . ." He grunted slightly with effort. "Scott's not quite himself though. Did you get 'em?"
He could feel Murdoch's concern, the bewilderment that made his normally confident father pause before he answered. "The leader and the girl got away, but I don't believe they'll have too much trouble finding them."
Johnny frowned. The violet eyes, the shining hair . . .
The girl's face, small and piquant came back to haunt him. A place long ago, a town far away. She'd been lost and he'd been lonely, so lonely . . .
Violet, like her eyes. He'd told her that, he recalled. Taking her hand as they'd walked by the river, glad of just the company - of somebody who didn't want something from him. His gun, his body, his blood . . .
She'd been a child who thought she was a woman. In need of a man to take her seriously, to treat her like the grown-up she thought she was. But most of the men he knew would have abused that trust. Used her and discarded her like all the women on the borders - two a penny, two a dime.
He looked slowly up at Scott, understanding growing inside him like a bitter root. "That girl, she . . . she sure looked familiar to me."
"Is that right?" Scott's voice shook with anger, swift and sudden as an arrow, and Johnny felt it strike his heart. Is this what Scott truly thought of him? That he'd used the women as thoughtlessly as he'd used his gun?
Well, maybe sometimes he had. There had certainly been no lack of them to warm his bed. By the time he was sixteen, he'd been as experienced with the senorita's as he had been with the Colt. And he knew he was good with the gun.
But not this girl, and none of the others like her, either. Shying clear of the needy ones, the ones he might have needed back. Knowing the road he'd chosen was a lonely one, that to fall in love made him vulnerable, to care left him open to pain.
He stared back hard at Scott and their eyes held, blue on blue. The look in Scott's unfathomable, as he tightened his grip on Johnny's hand, a small vein pulsing at the side of his temple. Johnny slid behind his own defences. The Madrid mask settling across his face as he schooled his features to obey him, and their glances locked like their hands.
"That wouldn't have anything to do with this, would it?" He asked softly, knowing the question was redundant even as the words left his mouth.
Scott pushed back harder, beads of sweat breaking out on his brow. "Seems to me she mentioned something about Johnny Madrid," he replied sardonically, and Johnny's heart stilled at the bitterness in his voice.
Madrid - the name, his nemesis. When would it ever let him be?
And now his past had hurt Scott. Reaching out to taunt him once again by impacting on those that he loved. "I wouldn't be that shadow , would I?"
He was suddenly terrified of the answer even though he already knew it. Watching Scott's face closely, the shades of doubt and turmoil as they darkened like an a winter's afternoon. Instinctively sensing that almost, Scott hated him at this moment - that his 'shadow' was a source of great pain.
But Scott didn't answer him. He didn't have to. The words echoed silently between them, words Johnny knew could never be spoken out loud.
He was aware that Murdoch was moving. The big man seemingly oblivious to it all as he got to his feet and leant in close to his sons. "Whenever you fella's feel like concluding this, I could remind you that there's a mighty big ranch around here we've got to take care of."
Johnny grunted, the half-formed decision clarifying in his mind as he watched his father and Jelly turn to go. "I'm trying to conclude it!"
Knowing the minute they left the room, as he raised his eyes to his brother's once more, and sought to reach in beyond the pain. Relaxing his muscles enough, just enough for it not to look too obvious, and feeling the surge of power that snapped through Scott's body as he forced his arm sideways and took Johnny's down to the table.
Silence - Johnny held his breath. Afraid to release Scott's hand as their fingers remained clasped for a couple more seconds. Holding on for grim life, grim death or affirmation. Johnny was no longer sure which was which.
He gave an expulsive sigh, looking candidly up into Scott's eyes as he let go of Madrid and became Lancer again. Feeling the mask slide off his face, but unaccountably afraid of the vulnerability he knew was left behind.
Scott smiled unexpectedly. A smile of tentative relief as the tension smoothed out magically from his brow, the taut white lines relaxing and vanishing, as the old familiar Scott re-inhabited his features once again. The hurt released, the anger flown. Looking younger and lighter and free of the pain.
Johnny smiled back at him. Gratitude bursting inside him like bud as for a moment the room blurred, and he swallowed back the lump that tightened his throat. Watching as his past receded backwards into its box of secrets. Knowing he would never be able to exorcise it forever, but holding the key safe - deep down in his heart.
He let go of Scott's hand. Reaching across the table-top to slap his brother gently on the cheek, a kingdom of questions in his eyes. Questions he knew would never be answered. Scott leaned forward and slapped him back on the shoulder. A clumsy gesture from his Boston born brother, but worth riches to Johnny for its comradely simplicity. Following Scott to his feet as his brother threw his arm round his shoulder and held onto him hard. He responded in kind, feeling the warmth of Scott's fingers as they gripped his shoulder tightly, almost painfully.
"Come on, little brother," said Scott softly. "We've got a lot of clearing up to do."
They moved across to the kitchen door still locked together, and Johnny laughed in relief. "We?"
"Oh yes," replied Scott, heartfeltedly, but the lightness was back in his voice. "You may not know it, but it's as much your mess as it is mine - maybe more so."
Johnny shrugged in mock resignation. "Well if you say so, brother . . ." He paused deliberately. "Don't suppose there's any chance of a drink before we get started, is there . . ."
Scott . . .
Scott sensed Johnny rather than saw him. Feeling his brother hesitate as he stood by the kitchen door and surveyed the damaged room. He wasn't sure if he even wanted to see Johnny now, let alone talk to him. Johnny's entrance into the hacienda, the lightening speed of his draw, it all served to reinforce the Madrid legend that hovered over his own head like a cloud.
That damned legend had been the root cause of all his torment during the last couple of days. Here in his own home, too. The place that was supposed to be a sanctuary - inviolate.
Scott struggled with his feelings, it was hard not to blame Johnny for any of it. What Johnny was - what Johnny had been, he'd learned the hard way that the two were indivisible. That the past was always the present as well.
"Mind if I join you?"
His brother's voice was soft, and Scott heard the questions that hid in it, but the pain and anger inside him was still too real to surmount. Too full of hurting to bury.
"Help yourself." Scott sounded surly and he knew it. Half-hoping Johnny might take the hint and be put off for now, that he might sense the demons hovering about him - vivid and sentient as they jabbed at him with their spiteful talons.
But Johnny didn't leave. Scott heard his foot crunching on broken china as he approached the range. Felt him watching - waiting for some sort of acknowledgment as he stood uneasily behind him.
Scott placed his head in his hands and hunched himself up smaller. The physical bruises ached, but the emotional ones burned more. And worse than that, the resentment, the questions that hid at the core of his soul.
Johnny was talking again. Inanities, banalities. Something about the mess. He didn't want to listen, didn't want to hear it. Wrestling with the feelings he knew were potentially devastating, looming and dangerous as they threatened to erode the closeness he shared with his brother. To destroy the precious sense of trust and equality between them.
Johnny placed a coffee cup down in front of him and he stared moodily at it for a moment. It was a miracle any of them had survived intact. Had he?
Maybe, just maybe. He only hoped he could say the same of his relationship with Johnny.
The coffee smelt so good, rich and dark as he liked it. The familiar aroma comforting somehow, and he wondered if Johnny had known that and was using it as a ploy.
"You wanna tell me what went on?"
So this was it, then. The ten million dollar question. He froze and almost smiled; 'what do you want to know, Johnny? What do you want to hear? That your past came crawling out of the woodwork once again - your ghosts came back a-haunting with a vengeance. That one random thoughtless act was responsible for all this destruction, for the potential ruin of several lives?'
He said; "it's a long story."
He heard Johnny's sigh of relief. "Well I got time." But instead of sitting down, his brother turned to place the coffee pot back on the range, and Scott was glad. It was easier somehow, not having to meet those eyes.
"It's about a man and a shadow from his past. The shadow got so big the man never thought he could match it . . ." The bitterness transcended again, washing over Scott in a black cloud as he wondered just who he was talking about. Was it Drago or himself, now?
"How d'you figure a man like that er . . . Drago character?" Johnny's voice was soft and hesitant.
Scott took a swallow of his coffee, the bitter liquid settling in his stomach. "It's hard to figure him . . ." he paused, knowing the words were a lie. Drago was easy to figure. A man in love with a woman but dogged by a legend. By a phantom who was bigger, bolder and better-looking. Smarter, faster and more heroic . . .
So bright and shiny, he was dazzled by
him. Crouching forever in his shadow as he grew in anger and resentment,
the resentment freezing slowly
into hate. The feeling surged inside Scott and burst out through his lungs.
Placing his elbow on the table in an absurd gesture of machismo, the sort of insecure statement he hadn't felt the need to make since his teenage years. Their eyes met properly for the first time and he saw the stillness and surprise that settled through Johnny, the tiny worried smile that played about his lips.
"Come on," he forced a smile to cross his own face, but it didn't quite work out. Flicking his fingers at his brother, suddenly desperate to get this thing done. Breathing slightly easier as he saw Johnny begin to undo the cuff of his shirt.
"No," he said finally. "Now." He was acting oddly and he knew it, the acid humour of the situation striking him as he stared back into Johnny's eyes. "Humour me."
Johnny laughed uncertainly and sat down at the opposite corner of the breakfast table. Scott could sense his worry, but he forced his mind to focus. To push Johnny's anxiety away.
Dammit, Murdoch's voice, calling to them stridently as he entered the hacienda. There was a second's regret and hesitation in Johnny's eyes before he answered. "In here . . ."
But Scott wasn't about to let this thing go now. The need inside him flowered into something all encompassing, and he gripped hold of Johnny's fingers even tighter. The warmth and life in them throbbed in his clasp, and he hung on for all he was worth. Trying hard to forget that this was Johnny's gun hand, the damned hand that had forged the legend. Resisting the urge to render it useless, the need to incapacitate it forever before it could ruin anyone else's life again . . .
He took a breath and remembered it was Johnny in front of him. Johnny the man, not Johnny the legend. Hearing his brother talking to Murdoch as the background buzzed around him and he couldn't even hear what they said. Irrevocably linked to this man whether he liked it or not, through so much more than a handclasp, or the fact that they shared the same father. He drew on the strength and reassurance he sensed the other man was sending him, even as their muscles tightened with strain, and the room swung into focus again.
"Yeah we're fine . . ." Johnny was saying. "Scott's not quite himself, though. Did you get 'em?"
"The leader and the girl got away, but I don't believe they'll have too much trouble finding them."
Scott felt the surge of elation give him a boost of power. They'd gotten away - and suddenly he knew they'd make it. That they 'would' elude the posse despite what Murdoch said. Well good for them, he wished them well. Johnny was regarding him enigmatically now, and Scott wondered if the penny had dropped.
"That girl, she . . . she sure looked familiar to me."
A sudden flare of anger, and he couldn't help his aggressive response. "Is that right?"
Violet, young and beautiful. Absurdly vulnerable and forced to walk a path no woman should have to take. Johnny had drifted through her life like smoke, and now he thought she 'looked familiar'. For a moment, Scott saw Johnny through a haze of red mist as their eyes locked like horns - bones crunching in his fingers as his knuckles shone white with effort. Watching with a sense of irony as his brother began to retreat from him, as Johnny pulled on his 'Madrid mask'.
"That wouldn't have anything to do with this, would it?" Johnny's voice was whisper soft, a trace of hopelessness behind it that tugged at Scott's conscience a little. He felt the sweat break out on his brow.
"Seems to me she mentioned something about Johnny Madrid," he replied, hearing the bitterness but unable to prevent it.
She'd touched him, that girl. Their spirit's overlapping for a while with a sense of understanding and sympathy. Maybe she'd touched him a little more than he'd realised . . .
"I wouldn't be that shadow, would I?"
Scott heard the fear in Johnny's voice, the desolation that hollowed it out and left it empty instead, as he remembered all the things he'd just thought about Violet. Young, absurdly vulnerable - forced to walk a path no person should have to take . . .
Wasn't that also true of Johnny? How young had his brother been when he'd become Madrid?
For a moment, Scott hated Madrid. Unable even, to see him as a part of the brother he loved. Dividing them up into two separate entities in his head in an effort to push the one away - to hold on to the other.
Murdoch was on his feet again, bending in low across the table as he looked between his two sons, seemingly oblivious to the maelstrom of emotion that swirled around them as he gestured across to the door.
"Whenever you fellas feel like concluding this, I could remind you that there's a mighty big ranch around here we gotta take care of . . ."
Scott almost laughed. Murdoch was nothing if not single-minded. Trust him to think of Lancer first - but then didn't he always? Lancer, the land; every blade of grass and every grain of soil. Scott wondered if Murdoch could even begin to realise how he and Johnny felt about that, about the empathy and understanding the big man had for something as non-sentient as this country, for anything that wasn't one of his living breathing sons.
"I'm trying to conclude it!" Johnny's voice, wry and to all intents and purposes, filled with amusement. But as he raised his eyes, Scott saw the questions behind the mask, sensed the uncertainty in the apparent nonchalance.
The mask was Madrid, but not the man who hid behind it. That man was Johnny, a man that he knew and unexpectedly, loved. Scott's sense of self resurfaced and the world began to right itself again. Gripping tightly onto Johnny's hand and feeling all his sinews beginning to burst with physical strain, even as the mental tension started to drain from his body, and groping, he pulled himself out of the shadows again.
He wrenched his wrist to one side as he felt the smallest softening of Johnny's muscles, forcing his brother's arm down onto the table top with a quick jerk.
Their fingers held for a second or two - almost as if Johnny was afraid to let him go, and as he watched, the mask was lowered to expose Johnny's face in all its naked vulnerability. Scott saw the youth, the cynicism and confusion mixed, the hurt. He saw Violet and a hundred like her. The lost, the abandoned, the alone . . .
He took a deep breath as compassion flooded through his body and his face broke into a smile. Watching as Johnny exhaled with a quick rush of air, grin spreading as something was re-established between them in a second or two. Something that had weathered the most testing of storms.
Their fingers fell apart as Johnny reached across to tap him lightly on the cheek. A gesture of affirmation, to acknowledge their link as brothers, as compadres, despite all the words Scott knew would never be spoken.
And maybe there was no longer a need to say them. As Scott looked at Johnny, he saw the shadow had gone. The past was a fact, it could never be erased, but it was over and done with for good or for ill. The shadows only lingered if you let them, if you were afraid to let in the light.
He stretched across and slapped Johnny on the back. Getting to his feet and wrapping his arm around his brother's shoulders as he held onto him for all he was worth. He felt the warmth of Johnny's response, the quiet sense of relief beneath his fingers as Johnny's body softened and they headed for the door.
He made some crack about clearing up the
mess. Hearing the lightening in Johnny's voice as he laughed and made a
fuss about it, aware that they'd both come close to losing something
very precious. Something which had been salvaged in the blink of an eye,
an expulsion of breath. The merest relaxation of a muscle . . .
Lisa Paris - 2003.