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Begging

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Begging
by S

Scott and Johnny Lancer tripped their way out of Old Maude's Dancing Emporium and Saloon. Holding onto each other for support, their bellows of laughter nearly tipped them over, but at the last moment, the two brother swayed fortuituously towards one of the poles that held up the overhang.

Johnny looped his free arm around the pole, pulling his older brother along with him. "Uh, say there, Boston, I...I think yur drunk."

The bleary blue eyes took in the unfocused dark face in front of him. "I b'lieve yur right, Brother, but I sus...sus...I think you've had some yurself," the soft voice slurred.

"Yeah, but everbody knows us westners can hold our likker, not like you sissy eastners."

Struggling to right himself, the blond pushed away Johnny's hand. "Who's a eastner? I live here now. Say, Johnny, just where is here?"

This set off loud bellows of laughter again as the two men shuffled down the step in the general direction of the livery stable.

The two Lancers had been sent to Green River by their father to cash a rather large check in payment for some cattle. They had had strict orders to return home immediately, but when they stopped at Old Maude's for a quick beer before taking the dusty road back to Lancer, they had found themselves in the middle of Old Maude's birthday party. Every year the formidable Madame threw a gigantic party with free food and liquor. That was her justification for charging twice as much the rest of the year.

Of course, it wasn't just the food and liquor that made everyone anticipate Maude's party. The dance hall girls which Maude employed would perform special dances up on stage and then there would be a raffle to see which lucky patron would have a chance to dance with each girl.

Crossing the road at a slow pace, Scott slapped his sibling on the back. "How many times did you dance with Sindy?"

"Don't know. Guess stuffin' that raffle box was a good idee. Who'd you dance with?"

"Didn't think a stuffin' the box. Did have one dance with Sally."

"She's pretty."

"Yeah, but she's got a mean boyfriend."

Johnny nodded solemnly. "Know what ya mean, Brother, did I ever tell you about the time I danced with Billy the Kid's girl?"

Disbelieving, the blond whistled long and slow. "What'd he do to ya?"

"He shot me dead!" Another paroxysm of laughter hit the two as they reached the livery stable door which squeaked as they tried to stealthily enter. Moving over to Barranca's stall, Johnny leaned close to the palamino. He tried to mount the big horse, but could not manage.

From behind him, his older brother ventured, "Doncha need a saddle?"

"Got one."

"Don't see it on 'im."

Narrowing his eyes, Johnny Madrid looked at the golden coat, then he touched that shiny back. "'ppears yur right. Hey, Boston, whaddya say we bunk down here fer the resta the night. Don't think I can ride."

The only answer was a soft snore from one of the empty stalls that had a pile of hay and a sleeping Scott Lancer in it. Deciding that the other man had the right idea, Johnny grabbed his saddle roll from the nearby saddle and went to lay down next to his brother.

At dawn, Scott Lancer awoke to a full artillery barrage in his head. Moans filled the cool air. Looking around to see who was making the annoying sound, the blond realized that he was doing it himself.
Trying to stand so that he could find a privy, Scott toppled over on Johnny who in a flash of arms and legs pushed the slender man off of him. "Sorry, Johnny, I didn't mean to wake you up."

The sapphire-eyed Lancer groaned. "Why'd you let me drink so much?"

"Let you? You're the one who said westerners have hard heads. Well, yours is hard--hard as in stubborn!"

"Don't yell! I'm dying here!"

"Well, don't die until we get that money back to Lancer or Murdoch really will kill us!"

The dark-haired young man hissed. "The money! What did we do with it?"

"Relax. Remember Mr. Gregory over at the bank is keeping in his safe?"

"Oh yeah, we'll we'd better go get it and head for Lancer. Murdoch's gonna be mad enough at us for not going right back."

"Don't think Mr. Gregory will be at the bank at this time of the morning. What do you say we go over to the bath house and soak for an hour or so? Then we can get something to eat, pick up the money, and  go home."

"For an easterner, you do have some good ideas, Boston. I might arrange to keep you around after all."

In his attempt to bow, Scott swayed and had to grab onto a post. "Thank you, kind sir, I live to serve."

"Well, then help me up and be careful that my head doesn't fall off."

Two hours later Scott and Johnny Lancer, heads intact, rode slowly out of Green River. The baths and hot food had helped their conditions some, but neither man was prepared to face their father until they felt better.

Riding down the road, little was said between them until Scott broke the silence. "Are we going to tell him the truth about why we were delayed?"

"Hell, no! Let's just say that Gregory had to wait for a supply of money so that he could cash the check!""

Scott smiled even if it did feel like every muscle hurt, "Good idea, Brother. I'll just let you go in and tell him that. I'll go visit Jelly."

"Wait a minute! We're in this together. You're comin' with me!"

"Oh all right but since you're his favorite, I'd think it would behoove you to do this one little thing."

"I don't have hooves!" protested the gunfighter.

"That's not what I said."

"Well, then don't use those big words. You're just trying to show off that fancy education of yours."

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

The bickering went on for another mile or so until they came to a bend in the road which signaled the half-way point on the trip to Lancer. Since their heads were also beginning to unfog, the two young men began to talk of more pleasant things, mainly Sindy's physical charms.

To their misfortune, the red-haired Sindy's attributes were lost in the sight of a man with a gun pointed at them, sitting on a large black stallion in the road ahead of them.

"Ah, I was beginning to think you two would never arrive. I have been waiting sometime."

Coldly, Johnny replied, "Just what do you want, Mister? I don't believe I know you."

"But I know you, Mr. Madrid--you and your brother. I also know that you are carrying a large sum of money so if you'll just hand it over, you can go on your way."

"And be shot in the back, no doubt."

"Mr. Madrid, you're too young to be so cynical. Since you don't have a choice, I suggest you hand over the money, and take your chances. Who knows? I might be feeling merciful."

Before the last word was even out, Johnny had drawn his gun, but the stranger had seen the flicker in the sapphire eyes and knew what he was planning. The younger Lancer fell to the ground with a bullet graze on his head.

Scott immediately jumped from his own horse to hurry over to his brother's side. Although there was a great deal of blood, Johnny's pulse was strong and steady and he was still conscious.

In an arrogant voice, the stranger peered down at the two men. "I told you I could be merciful. I could have aimed for his heart. Now give me the money or I will do just that."

Knowing that he had little choice, Scott reached up to take Johnny's saddlebags off Barranca. "The money's in here." He tossed them to the bigger man.

"Now you're making sense." He paused to check out the money. "Now, just as soon as you throw your gun over in those bushes, I'll be on my way and you'll be free to take care of your brother."

Scott slowly removed the gun from its holster, but just as he started to sling it away, Johnny's gunhand reached up to grab the weapon and fire it at the gunman. The fury of the guns firing at the same time filled the morning air.

Johnny's bullet took the man in the left shoulder, but did not unseat the man, nor did he lose his grip on his gun.

The stranger's bullet had smashed into Johnny's gun, painfully leaving him at the gunman's mercy.

"Well, now, I see you are a hothead, Mr. Madrid. I've heard that before about you. It appears that I shall have to teach you a lesson." Taking deliberate aim at Johnny's midsection, the husky man pulled back the trigger slightly.

"No!"

Surpised at the single word from the blond Lancer, the man stopped to ease off the trigger. "He means something to you?"

"He's my brother."

"I know that, but none of my brothers ever cared if I lived or died. 'Sides, I hear tell you've got part of a big ranch. If he's dead, then you'll get more when your daddy dies."

"Please, don't kill him."

"Quiet, Scott, no sense talkin' to his kind."

"Shut up, Madrid. I'd just as soon put a bullet in you as not. Let your brother talk."

"I've got some extra money with me, money that's not my father's. You can have it all, just don't kill him."

Thinking it over for a second, the older man agreed. "Okay, give it to me and he lives. 'Course, I could kill you both and just take it, but, well, I was kinda fond a one of my brothers--even if he didn't have no use for me."

Scott reached into his own saddlebags and took out a pouch which he tossed to the badman. Taking a quick look, the face lit up with surprise, "Gold! Now that's what I like. Still don't trust that paper stuff. Okay, young feller, you've got yourself a deal--except there's one more condition."

The blond paled at those ominous words. "What?"

"I want you to prove just how important he is to you. I want you to beg me for his life. Do it good and you'll both be alive to go home. What do you say? Is he worth begging for?"

Without a hesitation, Scott Lancer began, "I beg...."

The big man on the horse held up one hand, motioning for the blond to drop to his knees.

A gasped, "No!" from the injured Lancer brother was the only sound as his older brother slowly sank to his knees.

With eyes of granite blue, Scott started over. "I...I don't know what you want to hear, but I am begging you not to kill my brother. I've just found him after twenty-five years. Johnny's my best friend and I don't want to lose him. Please, don't kill him."

The husky man looked down first at Scott, then at the younger Lancer almost as if weighing the words. Touching his wounded shoulder gently, he grimaced at the blood. Then he looked the blond man straight in the eye, "You've got a smooth way about you, but I think you mean them words so I'll keep mine. You're free to go, but if I ever come upon him again, don't expect me to spare him a second time." The man on the black stallion turned and rode off.

Watching until the man was out of sight, Scott moved over to Johnny's side. "Come on, Johnny, we've got to get you to Lancer."

The dark-haired man flinched as Scott tried to help him stand. "I can do it myself. Just hold Barranca still."

"I think we should ride double, in case you get dizzy, particularly with your hand hurting."

"I said I can do it and I can ride with one hand. Just hold the damned horse still."

Not wanting to provoke his brother further, Scott did just that. By the time, Johnny was up in the saddle, his face was pale and covered with sweat. Scott swiftly mounted his own horse and they started the still-long ride home.

The horses plodded on mile after mile. It was obvious to the easterner that Johnny was keeping himself upright through sheer willpower which finally gave way after another mile. Barranca stopped in the middle of the road as the gunfighter swayed. Fortunately, his brother had also halted next to him so that he was able to prevent the stubborn man from falling to the dusty ground.

In a tricky maneuver, Scott swung himself onto Barranca behind Johnny, so that he could prop the now- unconscious man up. Fortunately, Scott's horse seemed content to follow behind as there was no way that the blond could hold on to his brother, clasp the reins, and lead the other horse to safety.

Finally, after a long, exhausting ride the very-welcome gate of Lancer appeared in the distance. Riding up in front of the hacienda, the blond was happy to see several ranch hands as well as Murdoch approach. The hands carefullly lifted the younger man down to carry him into the house.

Murdoch and Scott followed, but before Scott could reach the bedroom door, the patriarch grabbed his arm. "Wait a minute. I want to know what happened to Johnny and where were the two of you last night. I told you to come straight back here from Green River!"

"Somebody should be looking after Johnny."

"Dont worry about him. I'll tell Luis to get a doctor. I want to know where you were."

Scott walked over to the decanter with the brandy in it. The fiery liquid hit his stomach like a bolt of lightning, but it did banish his exhaustion for the moment. Turning to face his father, he could see the barely-repressed anger in the lined face. For one instant, he considered telling the story that Johnny had thought of, but then decided that Murdoch deserved to hear the truth. "Johnny and I picked up the cash, but we stopped at Maude's. There was a party. We decided to spend the night there and we started home this morning."

"And? It doesn't take that long to get here from Green River!"

"No, Sir, it doesn't, but we had trouble on the way."

Murdoch stood there with his arms folded across his body. "What kind of trouble?"
Ice dripped off the simple words.

"We were robbed."

"You lost the entire $1,000?"

Scott nodded. "He caught us by surprise."

"How did Johnny get hurt?"

"Johnny drew on this fellow, wounding him, but the man had the upper hand"

"Well, at least, Johnny did something. I'd hate to think my sons would just hand over that kind of money without a fight."

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry doesn't cut it with me. I want you to ride to Spanish Wells and see if Val can get a posse up. If you move fast enough, maybe you can catch up to this thief, especially if he's wounded."

"But I..."

"I said, don't worry about Johnny. Teresa and I will take care of him until the doctor arrives. Now get going. Every minute you waste, he's going to get farther away."

Murdoch Lancer turned and headed towards his son's bedroom.

Scott stood there, trembling with the after-effects of the hangover and exhaustion. He wanted nothing more than to fall asleep for twelve hours, but knew that he had to ride into Spanish Wells. It would probably be a wasted effort, but Murdoch was already furious enough without outright defiance on Scott's part.

Moving to the stable, the blond picked up a fresh horse and headed to Spanish Wells where he found Val looking at some Wanted Posters. Succinctly informing him of the theft, Scott agreed to go along on the posse since he would be able to give an accurate identification if they were fortunate enough to catch up with the husky man.

Watching the slender man sway on his feet, Val suggested that the older Lancer might like to lie down for a spell while Val was rounding up the necessary men for a posse. Scott didn''t even bother to protest as he walked into one of the small cells, flopped on a bunk and was instantly asleep.

It seemed but a minute before the rough-hewn sheriff returned with five men.  Together, they decided to split up into two groups so that more ground could be covered. Scott gave all of them a description of the thief, then they set out hoping to pick up a trail near the spot where Scott and Johnny had been accosted. Although they did find some tracks leading away from the location, there was no way of knowing whether they were the right ones. Following them until they petered  out, Scott voiced the wish that Johnny could have been the one along since he was a much better tracker, but Val wisely remarked that even Johnny Lancer couldn't find tracks that weren't there.

Some hours later the two groups reunited in frustration. Except for the errant tracks, there had been nothing. Three members of the posse began to complain that their wives expected them home before it got too late. Another man started to moan about his lumbago so finally Val and Scott agreed that there was little point in continuing on, so all headed back to Spanish Wells.

As they rode into the small town, Scott decided to stop by the vet's. There was no real doctor in Spanish Wells, but the bad man might have stopped to get his shoulder taken care of by the vet. It wasn't surprising that the man hadn't seen anyone all day, but the enterprising animal doctor to try to sell Scott some horse liniment to cure his aches and pains.

Knowing that he was too tired to return to Lancer, Scott remained in town overnight. On the morrow, he would go out on his own to see if he locate the man with Murdoch's money. He took advantage of Val's hospitality and slept the night away in the same cell as before.

Waking early, he grabbed a quick cup of coffe with Val and then headed towards Green River where a real doctor was located. Maybe, the man would have taken a chance, knowing that Lancer was many miles in the opposite direction.

Riding into Green River, the blond Lancer stopped first at the doctor's office. Dr. Thomas was quite familiar with Scott and Johnny Lancer since their father did so much business in the area. In addition, the two had stopped by for his professional services from time to time since they continually seemed to be getting hurt. Sometimes, the good doctor wished that he was located closer to Lancer because there was a good living to be made as the personal physician to the Lancer ranch.

"Scott, good to see you. How can I help you?"

"Well, I just, well, have you seen any stangers in here with a bullet in their shoulders?"

"Which shoulder?"

"You mean you have?"

"Scott, in the last twenty-four hours I've dealt with three strangers, two of which had bullets in their shoulders, not to mention one man with a broken leg, a woman with an infected hand, two children with chicken pox and various other maladies. I do have a busy practice."

"Yes, sir, I can see you do. This man was husky with a wound in his left shoulder."

The physician's eyes narrowed. "Was he a friend of yours?"

"Not exactly."

"That's good because he's dead."

"What?"

"Follow me." The two men walked down the street to the undertaker's place of business. Ezekiel Wetherby, the undertaker, welcomed them both. When he found out that Scott was interested in the unknown dead man, his skeletal face broke into a smile. "Of course, Mr, Lancer, please come and view the departed. It is so sad when a man passes on without anyone to care."

Entering the small room, Scott and the other two men walked over to the table where a body lay covered. Pulling down the sheet from the face, the older Lancer immediately recognized the man on the black stallion. "It's him alright. How did he die?"

"The poor unfortunate had two bullet wounds. The one in his shoulder was minor, but as Dr. Thomas can tell you, the other one knicked an artery. He bled to death."

"I see. Uh, did he have anything on him, I mean in the way of identification?"

"No. He had two sets of saddlebags for some reason, but both were empty. It looks like a robber caught him by surprise and took all of his possessions. Some ranch hands found him and brought him to my office, but of course it was too late so I turned him over to Mr. Weatherby here."

"Well. thanks, Doctor. I guess I don't have to keep looking now."

"Ahem! Mr. Lancer, uh, would you be interested in seeing that the...er...gentleman receives a Christian burial instead of being put in Potter's Field?"

Scott glanced over at the avaricious undertaker. His first inclination was to walk away, but changed his mind. "All right, Mr. Weatherby, give him your best $5.00 funeral. I'll be back to pay you as soon as I can, but right now, I need a cold beer to wash the dust out of my mouth."

"Excellent, Sir, I knew you were a true gentleman. What name shall I put on the marker?"

Hesitating for an instant, Scott replied, "Just put down Mr. Gold."

"Very well, I shall do as you say. You may return in an hour for the service if you desire."

"No thanks. I'll pay for it, but I don't need to be here."

"As you wish."

Scott Lancer headed to the bank. Since the now-dead Mr. Gold had cleaned him out, he had to withdraw money to even buy a beer.

It was early for drinking, even at Maude's, but Scott decided that he had earned a cold one or two. After standing at the bar for a few minutes, Scott noticed Sally approaching. He also bought a beer for the young woman who started to rub her hand over his shoulders. Shaking loose from the siren's talons, Scott departed out the swinging doors. Just entering as Scott was leaving, was the mean boyfriend. With a chuckle, the blond remarked, "She's all yours."

After stopping by the undertaker's to drop off the money, Scott Lancer mounted his horse for the return to Lancer. By the time he arrived at the quiet hacienda, all were asleep. He walked over to Murdoch's desk where he placed an envelope. After which, the older Lancer briefly stopped to look in on his brother who seemed to be peacefully sleeping.

Staring down at the man in the moonlight, Scott was thankful that once again his brother had survived another encounter with a gun. Moving to his own room, Scott took a minute to fill in his journal for the last few days, then exhaustion overtook the slender man as he sank back on the pillow fast asleep.

_____________

Murdoch Lancer walked into the great room of his white hacienda. The tall man had slept later than usual because the night before had been spent making sure that his son, Johnny, was awakened frequently in case he had a concussion. As he stretched, Murdoch saw how high the sun was in the sky. Chiding himself gently for getting old, the patriarch consoled himself with the fact that at least his younger son's injuries were not severe even if the recent antics of the two brothers were causing their father to grow grayer by the minute.

Debating whether to check on the patient or get a cup of coffee first, Murdoch walked over to his desk where he found the envelope with his name on it. Opening it, he found a sum of money and a note:
"Murdoch,
Here's the money that was stolen. The crook is dead. I've decided to get an early start on the fencing on the north range since I know Johnny won't feel up to helping. Will stay at the line shack overnight and return tomorrow sometime.
Scott"

A broad grin broke out on the lined face. Counting the money slowly, he let out a sigh of relief when the last bill was in place. Resealing the envelope and locking it in a desk drawer, Murdoch went to share the happy news with Johnny.

As he opened the door quietly, he could see that Johnny's eyes were still closed. The bruising around the bullet graze was obvious even in the subdued light. Murdoch had almost decided to leave when Johnny opened his sapphire eyes.

"Morning, Johnny, how are you feeling?"

"Better. My head doesn't feel like a drum anymore."

"Good. I've got some news that should make you feel even better. . . We got the money back!"

Speechless, the young man just lay there for a moment. "How?"

"I sent Scott into Spanish Wells to get Val and a posse. They must have caught up with the man. Scott left the money in an envelope on my desk for me to find this morning.

"Left?"

"He said he was going up to the north range to start on that fencing. He plans to spend the night. He'll be back sometime tomorrow."

"I see. Well, that is good news. I'm surprised he didn't wait around to tell me himself--and to see how I was feeling."

"Oh, I told him I'd get the doctor for you. He probably assumed you were doing all right."

"I suppose."

"Now, what do you say I go into the kitchen and grab some coffee for the two of us--and maybe some of Teresa's cookies?"

"For breakfast?"

"A man's got to live dangerously once in awhile."

"Dangerous is right, if Teresa catches you snitching her cookies."

Murdoch straightened to his full dignity. "I am not afraid of Teresa."

A mocking grin crossed Johnny's handsome face. "Of course, you're not. My mistake."

"Your apology is accepted. Now, I will go get the coffee and cookies."

Johnny chuckled silently as he watched his tall father tip toe out of the room towards the kitchen area.

Five minutes later, the oldest Lancer returned with a full tray and a sheepish look on his face. "Uh, Teresa said that she thought we both needed a good breakfast so she loaded two plates with flapjacks and bacon." Looking around, he also added in a whisper, "I managed to sneak in a couple of cookies too."

The two Lancers certainly enjoyed their hardy repast, especially the cookies, before Murdoch conceded that he needed to get some work done. Urging Johnny to remain in bed for the rest of the day if he desired, Murdoch headed out to the corral area.

The dark-haired Lancer wanted to get up also, but when he tried to do so the room swirled slightly so he gratefully sank back down on the bed. The full breakfast that he had just consumed flip-flopped in his belly for an agonizing second, but by closing his eyes, he successfully willed it to remain where it was. Reluctantly, he had to admit that one more day off his feet might be the answer. Besides, his right hand was still swollen and painful so he would not be able to do much around the ranch. It was one thing to eat with his left hand, it was quite another to  be out on the range with his gun hand out of action.

Just then, Teresa breezed in to take the tray. "Well, you're looking better. It's a good thing you inherited Murdoch's hard head."

Johnny grinned at the girl. "Thanks for the breakfast, Teresa. Those flapjacks were shlurgy, just the way I like 'em."

"Yes, I know. So does Scott. And did you like the cookies too?"

"They were the best... What do you mean cookies?"

With a trilling laugh, the girl tossed her brown hair. "Oh come now, Johnny, do you think I don't know how the three of you are always sneaking into the pantry to get my cookies? I bake them for you three. I just don't want you to eat too many so that you won't eat your meals."

"Yes, Ma."

"That's enough of that, Sonny Boy," she rasped in a little old lady's voice, "or tonight you'll be having liver and spinach for dinner!"

Theatrically, the dark-haired man covered his mouth with both hands as he watched the young woman pick up the tray and return to the kitchen.

The rest of the day passed quietly as Johnny did spend quite a bit of the time in bed. He tried to read a book that Murdoch had recommended, but it gave him a headache so after finally getting his legs to stop wobbling, Johnny wandered out to the stable to see Barranca and talk to Jelly for awhile.

His friend suggested that the gunfighter might take advantage of his injury to indulge in a long soak in the tub. Generally, the young man was too busy for such things, but he soon decided that he would feel all the better for soaking away some of his aches and pains.

After the bath and dinner--which did not consist of liver and spinach--Johnny Lancer felt that after a good night's sleep, he would be able to return to work the next day. He was bored and a bored Johnny Lancer was not a happy man.

Early the next morning, Murdoch strode into his son's bedroom. Pleased to see that Johnny was up and dressed, the patriarch asked if the young man felt like joining him on a trip to the Henderson Ranch. "I'd be pleased if you want to go along, although I must tell you that Mary won't be there. She's gone over to her sister Martha's place to help out. You knew Martha was expecting again, didn't you?"

Johnny nodded. "Teresa told me. If you don't mind, I think I'll stay here. I'm not sure my head is up to that long ride."

Concerned, Murdoch walked over to the shorter man. "You are feeling better, aren't you? I know it would be kind of boring over there with Matthew and me jawing away, but Stephen might be there."

"Then, you should take Teresa with you. She's the one who's sweet on Steve."

"Teresa is much too young to be serious about any young man. I want her to see something of the world before she settles down. Lancer is not the whole world!"

"Oh ho!" chortled the dark-haired man. "Isn't that blas...blasfem...you know what I mean!"

Scowling, the patriarch remonstrated, "The word is blasphemy, although since neither you or your brother attends church, I guess I cannot expect you to know the word." Then the scowl softened, "Seriously,  Johnny, I worry that Teresa has led too sheltered a life here. I think she deserves the chance to see what life has to offer. I owe that to her father."

Johnny nodded. "You're right. Sometimes the world's not a pretty place, but she's got a right to see it for herself."

"Well, then I believe I'll head out. It is a long ride and I want to be back in a few days. The money to pay the hands is locked in the drawer of my desk. Will you see that it's taken care of?"

Surprise flickered in the sapphire eyes.

"What's the matter? Don't you think I trust you to handle it?"

"Well, uh, we did lose the money."

"You also almost died trying to protect it. Johnny, I...I know you did what thought best and I can't argue that I wouldn't have done the same, but I can always make another $1,000. I can't get another son like you." The tall man turned and headed out the door.

A warm feeling flooded the lean body of Johnny Madrid. His relationship with his father had had many ups and downs, but at moments like these, he knew he had made the right decision to stay at Lancer.

Heading out to the corral, Johnny watched the vaqueros breaking some of the horses which his father had just acquired. Normally, the young man would have taken his place on top of the wild ones, but with his hand's condition, he knew that he was in no shape to help out.

An hour later with the last horse finally broken for riding and work, Johnny looked up to see the familiar figure of Scott Lancer approaching on horseback.

The slender man carefully dismounted, ignoring the men surrounding the corral. Walking slowly into the hacienda, the blond headed for his room where he started to strip off his dusty, sweat-stained shirt. "So you've decided to return, have you?"

Scott looked up to see his brother standing in the doorway. "I was up on the north range."

"I know. Murdoch told me. You're really trying to impress him, aren't you?"

"I...I don't know what you mean. I knew you wouldn't feel up to working on fences so I thought..."

"Oh of course. You're so concerned about me. I keep forgetting how devoted you are."

"Johnny, I'm dirty and tired and I'd like to..."

"Sorry. I'm sure a hero like you has many things that need to be done."

"A puzzled line formed between the cerulean eyes. "Hero?"

"What else do you call a man who goes after a would-be killer and gets the money back?"

"I wasn't alone. Val and a posse were with me."

"So I've heard, but you were the one who  made them keep going, weren't you? But then why should I be surprised, you're so good at so many things."

"Johnny...."

"Like talking. You're an expert at talking, aren't you? What did you do? Beg him to give the money back or your daddy would be furious?"

"If there's a point to this, I wish you'd make it. I want to take a bath and lie down."

"Point? No point, Brother, except that I  wasn't too thrilled with you humiliating yourself on my account."

Sighing painfully, the blond stared his brother straight in the face. "I did what I had to do just as you did. I've seen too many men die to let some bastard shoot you dead when I could stop it, and I'd do it again, under the same circumstances. If that embarrasses you, I'm sorry. Now, perhaps you shoud leave."

Without another word, the younger man did just that as he headed into his own room, slamming the door.

The older Lancer son stood in the middle of his room for a moment, then walked  to the door of Teresa's room. Knocking, he waited for the young woman to answer.

When she opened it, Scott could see the pleased surprise on her face. "Scott, you're back. Is anything the matter? You look rather flushed."

"It's just from the sun. Is Murdoch around? I wanted to let him know that I've decided to go up and finish the work at the old Tate place. I'll just stay up there until it's done."

"Murdoch went over to the Hendersons. Why don't you wait until he returns? You look...tired."

"I'm fine. I might as well get this done now. I'll see you in a couple of days."

"Why don't you ask Johnny to go with you? I think he's bored out of his mind."

"I don't think that's a very good idea. Bye, Teresa."

Scott Lancer walked out of the white hacienda and rode off towards the ramshackle Tate ranch.

 

end