Word Count 1,170
He rode through the thick brush, pushing away a branch that threatened to dislodge his hat. They had been riding since sun-up, and Scott Lancer could feel his brother’s gaze settle on him, a question in the blue eyes.
“Just another few miles, and we’ll stop for the day. All right, little brother?”
“That’s what you said last time, Scott. Where we going, anyway?”
Scott only smiled. He had been planning on making this trip alone, but for some reason Johnny had felt the need to tag along. Maybe it had been the pensive mood Scott had found himself in since his birthday three days before, which had caused his brother to insist on accompanying him. Whatever the reason, he was unexpectedly glad of the company.
“Come on, Scott. At least tell me when we’ll get there.” Johnny removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. “Damn, it’s hot.”
“We should get there sometime tomorrow afternoon…that is, if you can handle a little while longer in the saddle. There’s supposed to be a small stream up ahead a few miles. I figured we could camp there for the night, get an early start in the morning.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“Just trying to teach you a little patience,” Scott teased.
“Lost cause, Boston. In fact…” Johnny slapped his horse’s rump, sending the mount forward and leaving his brother with no choice but to give chase.
Scott could barely make out his brother through the dust kicked up by the pounding hooves. Johnny was a good rider. His years as a gunslinger had made that particular talent a necessity. But Scott, too, had been in a position where his skill as a horseman had often meant the difference between life and death. He slowly gained on the younger man, his lithe body straining forward over his horse. After a good two miles he passed him, and laughed for the sheer joy of it, for the freedom he had found in this wild land.
Finally, the stream came into view and he slowed to allow Johnny to catch up. Both men were panting, sweat running down their shirts as they walked their horses the last stretch.
“I don’t know who looks worse, us or the horses. But that was some ride, big brother.”
“Teach you to mind your better,” he said with a grin.
“It got us here, didn’t it?” Johnny laughed.
Scott shook his head. He should have known. “Remind to to tell you sometime about another ride I took. One with a far different outcome.”
Johnny looked at him, a questioning expression on his face.
Scott shook his head. “Not today. It’s too nice a day to ruin.”
Johnny seemed willing to let it go, and they continued on to the edge of the stream, picking out a stand of trees to tie the horses under. Dismounting, they unloaded and watered the horses before seeing to their own needs, each chore done with the easy grace both men had acquired over the months of their new lives. Ranching had turned out to be a more strenuous living than either had done before.
The sun was setting as Scott squatted down by the fire, poking at the wood as he worked at keeping the flames high. He looked over at his brother stretched out on his bedroll, his back propped up against his saddle. In his hands, he nursed a steaming cup of coffee, liberally laced with the brandy Scott had surprised him with.
Johnny glanced up and cocked his head to one side. “What?”
Scott stood up and, pouring himself some coffee, sat cross-legged on his own bedroll next to his brother. He reached out and took the flask, adding some of the brandy to his own cup. “I hope this lasts. We still have the trip back.”
“Yeah, but the big question is, back from where?”
“You’ll find out tomorrow.” Scott looked into his cup, staring at the dark liquid as if his answers could be found there.
“Scott? What’s the matter?”
He looked up from his musings. “Can I ask you something? Something personal?”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Guess it depends on what it is.”
Scott hesitated a moment, trying to find the right words. “Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had grown up on Lancer? If you had grown up with both your parents?”
The younger man didn’t answer right away, and Scott almost thought his brother wasn’t going to when Johnny finally spoke. “When I was a kid…well, you know what kind of stories I was fed about Murdoch. What a bastard he was, throwing out his own wife and kid. So, no, I never did. I always figured we were better off without him. It wasn’t until I got to Lancer that I found out what really happened, that it was my mother who wanted out. How ’bout you?”
“I wondered…a lot. My grandfather gave me the same story, that Murdoch had abandoned his wife and child, that the ranch had been more important to him than anything. But the problem was, he also told me all these stories about my mother, how beautiful and smart she was. That she could have had her pick of any man she wanted. It didn’t make sense. If she was so smart, how could she have been taken in so readily? And be willing to leave her home, start a new life out in the middle of nowhere, if Murdoch was the no-account drifter my grandfather made him out to be?”
He sighed, and lay down on his bedroll, gazing at the night sky. “I spent most of my life wondering about it. I still do.”
The younger man remained quiet. Finally he reached over and laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Does it matter so much? I’ve never had a lot of book learning. You know that.” He gave a lop-sided grin. “But I know that the man you are now, the way you were brought up had a lot to do with it. Maybe you should just go with that. Even if your grandfather did stretch the truth a bit, all right, a lot, he raised you to be a good, decent man. Maybe that’s all we can ask for, all we really should expect.”
Scott smiled, covering his brother’s hand for a moment. “You’re probably right. I think too much for my own good sometimes.”
“No argument there, big brother.” Johnny rolled back, and grabbed his jacket as a cover.
Scott watched his brother drift into sleep. What was it about Johnny that he could cut away the extraneous and see the essential core of things? Possibly the life he had led had left no other option. There had been few grays in Johnny Madrid’s life. But what of Scott Lancer? His own life had been complicated by rivalries he hadn’t been aware of, an unseen battle that had waged for his soul. He wearily closed his eyes. He hadn’t been able to work his way through it before. Tonight would be no different.
They woke early, and headed out as the sun peeked over the nearby hills. They made good time, neither talking much. Johnny seemed to pick up on Scott’s state of mind, and now both men rode in contemplative silence.
The sun was at its zenith when they entered a small valley. An abandoned road meandered through, skirting an empty field. About half way past it, Scott pulled to the side and stopped.
“Where are we?” Johnny’s concern shaded his words as he watched the play of emotions over his brother’s face.
“Here. She died right here.” Scott’s voice was soft, filled with an old sorrow.
“Who? Who died?”
Scott swallowed. “My mother. Twenty-five years ago today.”
“Scott…” The younger man leaned over, and grabbed his brother’s forearm.
“No, I’m okay. Her body’s not here anymore. Grandfather had it disinterred and moved to the family crypt years ago,” He looked around. “He couldn’t stand to think of her out here, all alone. I can’t say I blame him.”
He dismounted and began walking, his stride slow as he memorized the place. He had no intentions of coming back. It was just that this would have been the first year he hadn’t visited her, sought her out on the anniversary of her death, to pay homage to a mother he never knew.
It had become a ritual right after his fifth birthday. Five days after the celebration, a riot of balloons and laughing children, his grandfather had harnessed the buggy and the two of them made the trip to the cemetery. There, Scott sat and listened to the old man go on about his daughter, and about the man Scott only knew as the villain in Harlen Garrett’s melodrama of revenge and death. Every year, until Scott had left for college, it had been the same diatribe against Murdoch Lancer, the same litany of praise for his dead daughter.
It had seemed so different, the first time Scott had made the trip by himself. In the quiet of the churchyard, he had tried to find a peace of some sort with the woman who had given him birth, an understanding of who she had been. Somehow, it had never come.
He continued to walk, the swish of the tall grass and the songs of birds the only sounds breaking the silence. He thought she would have liked it here, the woman who had loved Murdoch Lancer, and the untamed country he had brought her to. A love she assuredly had passed on to her son. Suddenly, it occurred to him that, all along, he had been looking for her in all the wrong places. She was not in the dank mausoleum in Boston, nor in the empty field where her soul had taken flight.
He looked back and realized he had a shadow, his younger brother dogging his steps. He smiled, turned around to pull him forward, and threw his arm over the shorter man’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s go.”
They walked back to the horses and without a backwards glance, began the journey home.
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