Word Count 3,500
“Have you given any thought to Murdoch’s birthday, Johnny?” Scott Lancer asked his younger brother as the two men rode across the dusty landscape. “It’s only a couple of weeks away, and we haven’t really talked about it.”
Johnny Lancer, riding astride his palomino, squinted into the distance, looking at the distant herd of cattle which was the point of this hot, dusty ride with his brother. “Nope,” he responded blandly. “I haven’t had time to think about anything much, the last couple of weeks, what with rounding up all these strays and trying to get the herd ready for market. Why? You got something in mind?” Johnny smiled casually at his brother.
Scott smiled back at the dark haired man. When Johnny Lancer smiled you couldn’t help but smile back at him. He had a sweet, boyish grin that had broken more than one heart. “Not really,” he replied. “I thought maybe we should talk to Theresa, and see what she had in mind. She’s usually pretty good at planning parties.”
“That’s a good idea,” Johnny drawled. “Theresa will know what to do. I’ll bet she’s already got the whole thing organized and ready to go.”
The two men continued their ride in silence, each thinking about the past several years of their lives. Lives which had been radically changed by coming to Lancer, agreeing to stay with their father and take a share in his ranch. Neither man had known their father while growing up, and so hadn’t celebrated birthdays, or any special holidays with him. Establishing new traditions with every holiday season had helped turn them into a real family. Celebrating birthdays was becoming one of their favorite activities.
A flash of sunlight dazzled Scott’s eyes for a moment, causing him to raise a hand up as a shield. “Did you see that, Johnny?” he asked curiously. “What do you think’s up there.” The flash of light had gone as quickly as it had come.
Johnny scanned the distant hills. “I can’t see anything now, brother.” he replied quietly. “But I think maybe we should ride up there, and check it out.” Out of instinct, Johnny briefly checked his gun, making sure it was ready to fire at a moment’s notice. The habit of his years as a gunslinger had never left him.
Scott noticed the his brother’s actions, but allowed them to pass without comment. He knew that Johnny was troubled by his past, and Scott tried hard not to talk about it unless Johnny initiated the conversation. He had told Johnny that he was always ready to listen when Johnny needed to talk, and there had been many times in the past several years when the younger brother had used the older as a sounding board, and a vent for the turmoil he felt. Scott was grateful for those times, and treasured them, because they brought the brothers closer together. The two men spurred their horses to a faster gait, and headed toward the distant hills.
Hidden in the shadows created by a huge boulder, a man chuckled softly. “They’re coming, boss.” he called back over his shoulder.
A large man stepped into view. He stood about 6 feet 4 inches tall, and had a thickset build to match. His craggy faced was marked by a jagged scar that ran from his temple down his left cheek to the edge of his lips. The scar made the smile on his face turn into a menacing leer. “Both of them?” he asked curtly, directing his query to the other man.
The second man, much smaller than the first one, but with the cold eyes of a professional killer, nodded affirmatively. “Yep, they’re both coming.” he answered briefly.
“Is everything ready?” asked the first man. He waited for the response, a brief flicker of annoyance crossing his face, when the reply was slow in coming.
Finally, the second man responded. “Yeah, Boss. Everything’s set. It’s all ready, just like you said.”
A nasty laugh emerged from the big man, no mirth in the sound at all. “Good….good…..now, get back in position. We’ve got work to do.”
Scott and Johnny carefully guided their horses through the rough outcroppings of rock, making sure that the horses didn’t slip on any loose stones, or hidden obstacles. Their eyes kept a constant scan of their surroundings looking for whatever had made that brief flash of sunlight on metal. A huge boulder stood off to the left of the trail, obscuring their view. Johnny pulled his horse, Barranca, into the lead position, while Scott followed closely behind him. Single file they made the turn around the boulder, and into a world that exploded into chaos.
A shot rang out, Barranca reared and let out a shrill neigh, causing Scott’s horse to rear as well. Johnny fought for control of his horse, while trying to pull his gun from it’s holster. Scott, also trying to rein in his mount, felt himself slipping out of the saddle. Another shot echoed through the air, adding to the din. Scott fell to the ground under the churning hooves of the two horses, while his brother frantically tried to avoid riding on top of him. With all the commotion neither man noticed the two men who now showed themselves at the top of the rock.
Johnny finally managed to bring his horse under control, while Scott’s mount took off down the trail toward home and stable. Slipping from Barranca’s saddle, Johnny knelt next to his brother, who lay face down in the dirt. “Scott,” he cried frantically, reaching to gently turn his brother onto his back. “Scott, are you okay?” Johnny quickly felt for a pulse, and heaved a sigh of relief as he found one.
Scott was bleeding heavily from a gash on the back of his head, while a huge lump was quickly rising on his temple. It was obvious that he had been kicked by at least one of the horses. In spite of his injuries, Scott opened his eyes, and blinked, as if trying to focus on his brother’s face.
A smile lit Johnny’s face, and he reached to embrace his brother. “Scott, thank God you’re all right” he breathed, but stopped as Scott stared up at him uncomprehendingly. “Scott,” he faltered. “Are you okay?” Scott continued to stare at Johnny blankly, his mouth working as if he were trying to say something, but no sound emerged.
Behind them came the sound of a bullet being levered into the chamber of a rifle. Johnny whirled, and went for his gun, pulling it from his holster with blinding speed. A bullet pinged off the rocks next to Scott’s head, and Johnny went pale. He glanced at his fallen brother, and then up at the big man with the rifle who had appeared at the top of the rock. Slowly he dropped his gun, and raised his hands in the air. “What do you want with us, mister” he called out, casting another anxious look at his brother.
“Keep your hands where I can see them, Madrid.” called back the man on the rock. He motioned towards another part of the trail, and added, “I have a man right over there, and he’s got your brother dead in his sights, so make sure you don’t make any sudden moves.”
Johnny flinched at the use of the name “Madrid”, but he complied with the man’s orders. He watched through narrowed eyes as the man carefully maneuvered himself down the rocky slope.
Finally the man reached the trail, and motioned for Johnny to back away from Scott. “Back up now, Madrid, or your brother is a dead man.” he ordered in a neutral voice.
Johnny followed the man’s orders, not wanting to take any chances with Scott’s life hanging in the balance. He maintained a calm stare into the big man’s eyes as he backed away from his brother. “I asked you a question, mister.” he drawled softly. “What do you want with us?”
The big man laughed, no mirth in the sound. “I want revenge, Madrid, and I’m here to get it.”
Johnny eyed the second man who was approaching, while still maintaining his perusal of the big man. “I don’t know you.” he said, a hint of belligerence creeping into his tone. “Now, I want to check on my brother, if you don’t mind.” he added.
“I know you, and that’s all that matters,” the big man replied. “You and your brother are coming with me and Peters. We’re going to go for a little ride, and then you are going to give me that revenge that I came looking for.”
He gestured towards Johnny’s palomino. “Put your brother up on that horse. Then you mount behind him. If you try anything funny we’ll kill you both.”
Johnny considered the man through narrowed eyes. Finally, seeing no alternative, he shrugged, and moved towards Scott, who had been trying to maintain his hold on consciousness throughout the exchange between Johnny and their adversary. Scott’s head was ringing, and waves of dizziness kept assaulting his senses. He wanted desperately to be sick, but was determined not to show weakness in front of the two cold-blooded killers they were dealing with. As Johnny knelt beside him, Scott tried to smile reassuringly. He failed miserably.
Johnny’s eyes were deep pools of worry and compassion as he looked at the blood coming from his brother’s head wounds. “Hang on, brother, you’re going to be just fine.” he murmured quietly. “I’m going to help you get onto Barranca, okay?”
Scott tried to answer his brother, but when he opened his mouth no sound emerged. He tried again, same result. A flash of panic swept across his face, and he reached out and grabbed his brother’s arm.
Johnny had been watching Scott carefully, and realized that something was terribly wrong with his brother. “What’s the matter, Scott.” he asked, his voice reflecting his concern.
Again Scott tried to respond, but couldn’t make a sound come out of his mouth. Seeing his brother’s increasing agitation, Johnny soothed him. “Sshhhh, brother. Take it easy. You’re going to be okay. Here, let me help you up on Barranca. Easy, easy.” He kept up a continuous soft murmur, as he placed his arm under his brother’s shoulder and eased him into a sitting position.
Scott’s face paled, and the world swooped and whirled in front of his eyes. Finally Johnny was able to get Scott up and onto the horse, but it had taken a lot out of both men. Holding his brother firmly onto the saddle, Johnny vaulted gracefully up behind him. Their attackers had watched stoically throughout the whole procedure, never once letting down their guard, and giving Johnny no chance to overpower them. Once the Lancer men were mounted the two outlaws got onto their own horses, and motioned for Johnny to move on up the trail. The small group set off at a slow pace.
Finally, after several hours of riding, the big man ordered the group to a halt. Johnny gratefully helped Scott off the horse, and laid him under the shelter of a nearby tree. Scott, who had been unconscious for most of the ride, woke up and tried to convey his gratitude to his little brother with his eyes.
Johnny turned and looked at the big man, who once again was holding his rifle at the ready. “My brother needs some water.” he said, “and I’m going to get it for him.” Johnny moved towards the canteen hanging off Barranca’s saddle.
“Hold it right there, Madrid.” the man barked, making a sharp motion with his rifle. “You ain’t getting nothing for him.”
Johnny felt a sudden surge of anger. “My brother needs help!” he shouted angrily. “What do you want from me? If you want to take revenge on me for something you think I did, fine. But Scott hasn’t done anything to you. He’s innocent. I’m going to get him some water.” Johnny again moved towards his horse.
The big man levered a bullet into the rifle’s chamber and fired into the dirt at Johnny’s feet. “I said you weren’t going to move, Madrid, and I meant it.” he sneered, a smile briefly touching his lips as Johnny stopped moving abruptly. “Yes, I want revenge. You killed my son, and I’m going to make you pay for that.”
Johnny stared at the man. “Your son….” It was a question. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, mister. Give me a clue.” He glanced back at Scott, who had propped himself up on one arm. Scott had been trying to call out to Johnny, but still couldn’t make a sound. Seeing Scott’s distress, Johnny stepped back, and again knelt at his brother’s side. He gently touched Scott’s forehead, feeling the heat of a fever starting.
“That’s right, Madrid. In Sonora, a few years back. They told me you shot him in a gunfight. He was only 17 years old at the time. He didn’t have a chance against the likes of you.” The man was practically foaming, he was so enraged now. Spittle flew from his lips as he snarled, “And now you are going to watch your brother die, just like I had to watch my son die. It took him days, Madrid! Days of agony. Now watch your brother go through the same thing.”
Without any warning the man pulled the trigger of the rifle again, and a bullet plowed into Scott’s upper thigh. His mouth opened in a soundless scream of agony, and he collapsed into Johnny’s arms.
“Scott!” Johnny yelled. Clutching his brother to him, he turned to face their attacker, watching the man like he would have watched a rattler poised to strike. “Leave him alone,” Johnny begged. “He’s done nothing to you, nothing! It’s me you want. So take it out on me.”
Peters and the big man just stared back at Johnny silently. Seeing that they weren’t going to harm Scott again at that moment, Johnny laid his brother back gently on the ground, and moved to look at his leg. The bullet had passed clean through the leg, but the wound was bleeding profusely, and it was obvious that it had done a lot of damage on it’s way through. Scott was in obvious pain, but still could not make a sound come from his mouth. The wound to his head appeared to have damaged his ability to speak.
Johnny looked at the big man. “Let me help him.” he said again. “This isn’t his fault.”
Johnny watched as the man turned and walked to his horse. He was surprised to see him take a canteen from his saddle, and bring it back with him. With a thud the canteen hit the ground next to the Lancer brothers. “You can have water to care for him, nothing else.” said the big man. “Use it sparingly. It’s all your going to get.” He turned and sat on the ground, his back to a tree, his rifle at the ready. Motioning to Peters, he indicated that the other man should also stand guard over their prisoners.
After a moment, Johnny turned his attention back to his brother. Quiet descended on the four men. Johnny focused on his brother, pulling Scott’s kerchief from his neck and wetting it to dab at the wounds on his brother’s head. He bandaged the bullet wound on Scott’s thigh with strips torn from his own shirt. Scott lay passively through his brother’s ministrations. He desperately wanted to talk to Johnny, to tell him to leave and take his chances against the two men holding them prisoner, but he couldn’t form the words. Scott cursed his inability to talk. He tried to convey his messages to his brother with his eyes, but Johnny was deliberately avoiding his gaze. Scott knew this was a bad sign. Once again Johnny was feeling guilty that his past life was endangering someone he loved. Darkness settled on the impromptu camp.
Johnny jerked awake from the doze that he had fallen into. He checked Scott and saw that he was awake, and in obvious pain. Sweat was beaded on his brother’s forehead, and his jaw was clenched. A quick glance around the camp showed that the big man had also fallen asleep, leaning against the tree. There was no sign of Peters, who had moved into the distance to maintain a watch on the trail in case of pursuit. Johnny quickly put the canteen to Scott’s lips, and then wiped his forehead with the damp kerchief. He signaled his intent with a quick nod of his head. Scott followed the direction of Johnny’s gaze, and nodded his understanding of what Johnny was going to do.
Moving silently as a cat, Johnny slipped toward the sleeping man. He reached him in three strides, and swiftly jerked the rifle from the man’s grasp. Before the startled man could react Johnny swung the butt of the rifle savagely. The man toppled to the ground, blood pouring from a wound in his scalp. A shout rang out into the darkness. “Johnny, watch out!”
Whirling, Johnny pulled the rifle into firing position, aimed and shot in one fluid motion. The bullet took Peters in the center of his chest, causing him to drop the gun he was aiming at Johnny. A startled look crossed his face, and then he fell over with a crash. Johnny hastily checked him, and realized that Peters would not be holding a gun on anyone ever again.
Crossing to where Scott lay, Johnny dropped to his knees. “Thanks brother,” he said gratefully. “He would have had me if you hadn’t warned me.” Suddenly, realization of what had just happened flooded through him. “Scott, you talked” he gasped.
“Yeah, I guess I did,” Scott replied, his voice raspy. “I saw him coming up behind you, and I knew that I had to warn you. I didn’t even think about it, I just yelled.” Suddenly all the remaining color drained out of Scott’s face, and he passed out.
“Come on, brother, it’s time I got you home.” Johnny murmured, putting a gentle hand on Scott’s hair.
Two weeks later, Scott Lancer walked through the dining room of the Lancer hacienda, his crutches making a thumping sound as he maneuvered past the table. Spotting the person he was looking for he made a beeline for Johnny, who was standing on the patio. Johnny turned as his brother awkwardly came toward him, and then hastily pulled up a chair. “Here, Scott,” Johnny cried. “Sit down, now. You know the doctor said you shouldn’t even be up yet. If Murdoch sees you, he’s going to have a fit.” Fussing over his brother, Johnny pulled up a stool and levered Scott’s leg up onto it. Then he turned to go. “Uhhh…see you Scott…. I’ve got to go…”
“Johnny wait.” Scott barked, using the tone of voice that the enlisted men in his command had heard. Johnny stopped moving and turned sheepishly back toward his brother.
“Really, Scott, I’ve got to go check on those horses. Murdoch asked me to do it two days ago, and I haven’t had time…” Again Johnny’s voice trailed off, and he glanced at Scott from limpid eyes.
“Johnny, it’s okay.” Scott said quietly. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m fine. You couldn’t have done anything to prevent what happened. It’s not your fault.” He reached out and gestured for Johnny to come closer. When his younger brother was in reach, Scott grabbed him in a quick embrace. “You saved my life, Johnny. I had two bad head wounds, I couldn’t speak, and I got shot, and it was you who got me home. I’ll always remember that, Johnny.”
Johnny’s eyes filled. “Yeah, but Scott, you wouldn’t have been in that position if it hadn’t been for me.” He clutched his brother’s arm, and dragged a shaky hand across his eyes. “You could have been killed because I shot somebody’s kid a few years ago. How many times is that going to happen, Scott? How many times is my family going to be threatened because of me?” He tried to turn away, but Scott held onto him.
“Johnny, we love you. You are a different person now, and that’s what counts. You no longer live that life, and if you keep trying to put it behind you then eventually that’s where it’s going to end up. Behind you, where it belongs. Right now, I’m just grateful that you are here, and that you’re my brother. Nothing is going to change that for me.” Scott finally released his hold on his younger brother. “Now, what I really want to know is, what are we going to do about Murdoch’s birthday?”
The two brothers looked deep into each other’s eyes, and once again the sound of laughter filled the Lancer ranch.
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