Word Count 9,678
Originally posted in the 2005 Homecoming Lancer Souvenir Fanzine
He rode in alone. Again.
Johnny Lancer covertly studied the lone horseman. The young man seated on the top rail of the corral appeared completely absorbed in accustoming the handsome palomino standing alongside him to a reata. His ever restless fingers manipulated the rope effortlessly as he swung small loops near the horse’s haunches and head, gently demonstrating that the gelding had no reason to fear the humming lariat. He never skipped a beat in his task, yet his intense eyes raked the incoming rider, missing not a single detail.
The slightly slumped shoulders and downcast eyes told their own tale. As did the vaqueros trotting behind the easterner in distinctly companionable groups. High-spirited joking and laughter emphasized the stark contrast between their easy camaraderie and the solitary rider.
Johnny slowly coiled the lariat as he studied his boots, mulling over his observations. Today marked the third day since Dr. Jenkins had judged him recovered enough to leave the house. Each evening for those three days, he’d sat on the corral fence and watched the men ride in from their day’s work with the herd. Each evening, his brother had ridden in alone, the vaqueros studiously ignoring him. Each evening, Scott had disappeared upstairs to his room until supper.
The young gunfighter didn’t know much about his newly discovered brother, but he had a wealth of experience in how established groups of men initiated newcomers into their ranks. No question about it, Lancer’s cow hands were hell bent on givin’ ol’ Boston the royal treatment. He could easily imagine the various trials the men devised daily to test the proud easterner. And the Old Man wouldn’t lift a finger to help Scott figure out how to stop it.
Johnny sighed when he thought about the gruff stranger who was their father. His father. Lancer. He’d never experienced such a bewildering morass of feelings toward anyone in his life. Murdoch Lancer seemed to wield some mysterious power to virtually bring him to his knees in confusion. His head ached with the effort making sense of his thoughts about the Old Man.
//How is it possible to hate a man with every fiber of your being – despise him so much that you’ve dreamed of killing him – actually picturing that fatal scene in your mind thousands of times, planning every last detail – and yet long for the same man’s acceptance and respect so badly that your insides freeze solid and shatter into a million jagged shards that rip you apart every time you look at him?
How can your worth as a human being turn on whether or not Murdoch Lancer approves of you? Why does it matter if he calls you “son” – and says it like he means it? What is it about that man that strips away every shred of control and confidence and leaves you feeling like a child?//
Johnny couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t felt a gaping hole inside him. The terrible emptiness terrified him – threatening to swallow him from the inside out and leave nothing of him but a bitter shell of hate. The hate fueled an anger that drove him to the peak of his profession and defined the legend of Johnny Madrid.
Teresa’s passionate explanation of the truth about Murdoch and Johnny’s mother had turned his life upside down. His mother had lied to him all those years – his father hadn’t thrown them out, had never said he didn’t want Johnny. On the contrary, the Old Man had searched for his stolen son for eighteen years, investing thousands of dollars in the effort. With a handful of fateful sentences, the girl had crumbled the foundation of the hate that had sustained Johnny for so long.
//My father don’t want me. Ain’t a day gone by that I haven’t heard that echoin’ in my head. Nuthin’ in my life ever hurt as bad as knowin’ that. And I learned to live with it. … But I been livin’ a lie. He did want me then. … But what if he don’t want me now? He loved his little boy, but how does Murdoch Lancer feel about the man that little boy grew into?//
His memories of that time when he lay in the throes of fever from the ugly bullet wound in his back were still hazy, but Johnny knew Murdoch Lancer had scarcely left his side. And he’d wanted the Old Man there!
Yet when his fever broke and he could think clearly again, Murdoch pulled away. Instead of his father’s massive paw holding his water glass or changing the dressing on the wound, Johnny found his brother, Teresa, or Maria attending him. Oh, Murdoch stuck his head in the door each evening to check on him, and he sure as hell popped in when it was time for Johnny to take his medicine. The Old Man seemed to relish forcing the vile stuff down his throat! But his constant vigil at Johnny’s bedside was a thing of the past.
Honed steel now laced Murdoch’s tone and words, replacing the concern. The Old Man’s disapproval hung as a vicious, living thing between them. Yes, his father seemed to be pulling away, but Johnny admitted that he was pushing Murdoch away from him with equal intensity. The unfortunate result was an ever-widening rift between them, ensuring that their time together remained tense. The pair of them circled each other like wary dogs – stiff-legged with hackles bristling.
//I don’t like the way things are between us. But I don’t know how to change it. He just don’t know what to think of me… and maybe I ain’t good enough to be a Lancer. I got a black soul and I killed a lot of men. The Old Man don’t see much in me to be proud of. Not like Scott…//
His father’s behavior contrasted sharply with that of his brother. Scott had spent hours sitting with his injured sibling. Johnny remembered how that low-pitched, pleasant voice soothed him, holding out a lifeline against the pain and confusion raging through his battered body. And as Murdoch pulled away, Scott stepped closer, carefully laying a foundation of trust between them.
He’d never forget Scott’s whispered words when he thought Johnny was unconscious – all about how Scott had always wanted a brother and how glad he was to discover that he had one; how he looked forward to getting to know Johnny. And how he was determined to give Johnny a reason to call him brother – more than the fact that they shared Murdoch Lancer’s blood.
Ol’ Boston sure had a way with words. Johnny felt the same way, but he didn’t know how to express it. He’d often wished for a brother. And he looked forward to getting to know Scott Lancer. The quiet easterner intrigued him. Underneath the veneer of society manners and polish lurked the soul of someone he had a hunch he’d be happy to call “friend.” And Johnny had badly underestimated that man he first saw on the stage to Morro Coyo.
It wasn’t an easy thing to admit, but it was a stone cold fact. Accomplished reader of men he might be, but Scott was far from the tenderfoot greenhorn Johnny had originally dismissed. Ol’ Boston might’ve been raised in high society and dress like an eastern dandy, but he could sure ride – and shoot – and use his fists. Those three abilities alone made him a man worthy of respect in Johnny’s eyes.
//But I know lotsa men who can shoot, fight, and ride. Scott… well, he’s a man of honor, too – a rare breed. … But what will that honorable man think when he finds out the truth about me, about what I’ve done?//
His brother didn’t shy away from hard work, either. He’d proven that by the savage intensity with which he fought Pardee’s fire that first day at Lancer. A slight smile quirked the corner of Johnny’s mouth as he remembered Scott’s soot-streaked, determined face. His brother stood beside his shovel with military erectness, seemingly unconcerned that his carefully tailored, ruffled shirt hung in grimy tatters. Or that his Boston barber would most likely have fainted in shock at the sight of his mussed, sweat- matted hair and skinned, dirty hands.
Scott accorded the condition of his hands and nails the same rapt attention as Madrid paid to his revolver. So Johnny had noticed Scott’s rope-burned palms and bruised wrists and arms in spite of his fever and the laudanum-induced fog. His brother wouldn’t talk about how he got the marks, but they were worse the next time Johnny saw him. Scott skillfully parried any attempt to discuss it and Johnny finally swallowed his uneasiness and questioned Murdoch.
The Old Man told him not to worry, that such marks were natural when a man’s hands were “unused” to hard work. In time, Scott’s skin would toughen and build up calluses. Then Murdoch looked pointedly at Johnny’s hands, his smirk declaring that the gunfighter would have to go through the same conditioning process. Johnny bit back the burning retort he wanted to utter, content to anticipate the surprise – and pleasure – on the Old Man’s face when he learned that his son could ride and rope better than most of his vaqueros.
But Johnny worried about more than abraded hands. He pressed Murdoch to learn how he planned to teach Scott the skills required by a rancher. Turns out their father’s plan amounted to tossing his older son into a flooding river and standing back to see if he could swim. The gruff Scotsman had definite ideas about building character – and posing tests. After all, the man had made it clear to Johnny that he’d have to prove himself “man enough to hold it” before he received his share of the ranch. And he’d aimed those words directly at Johnny.
“You know how men test each other – there’s nothing unusual in that. Scott’s a big boy. He’ll handle it. He must if he hopes to wield any authority with these men. They’ll test you, too, when you’re well enough to get around.” Then Murdoch fixed his younger son with the look Johnny thought of as ‘I don’t know what to think of you’. “No son of mine will back down from learning whatever is necessary. Gaining the respect of Cipriano and the other men is part of earning your share of this ranch. Your brother understands that.”
//I understand it, too, Old Man, more than you’ll ever know. I know all about winnin’ respect. And I know that it ain’t power or authority unless you take it – by force or by the earnin’ of respect. … But you didn’t give Scott advice or nuthin’. Just sent him out to work with a bunch of top California vaqueros. That group’s been together a long time and their standards are real high. Boston might be the patron’s son – but they won’t respect him until he shows them what he’s made of. He won’t have no trouble with that. But they won’t accept him at all until he asks for help. And ol’ Boston is too proud and he don’t know that’s what they want him to do. Hell, he was probably brought up bein’ told that a gentleman don’t ask for help. You oughta give him some tips on what to expect, Murdoch – maybe a couple hints on how to pass the tests they’ll throw at him. But you’re too damned hard-headed.//
Johnny swore that he’d find a way to help his brother. Hell, Scott had risked his life to pull Johnny to safety. He owed him for that, if nothing else. But Scott evaded Johnny’s every probe into what was happening during his time with the vaqueros. Johnny finally admitted that makin’ Boston into a top hand would have to wait until he was back on his feet. Meanwhile, he turned his attention to the visible effects of Scott’s struggles – those damaged hands.
Johnny urged Scott to wear gloves. When Scott confessed that he owned only kidskin dress gloves – and those had shredded the first day he wore them to work in – Johnny offered up his own favorite deerskin work gloves. Something about those gloves appealed to Scott and he’d worn them religiously since, treating them with great care.
Even now, as he reined in his horse at the corral gate, Scott performed what Johnny thought of as his “glove ritual.” He meticulously tugged on the tip of each finger to loosen the gloves before slipping them off, folding them neatly lengthwise, slapping them against his palm, and nestling them across the butt of his holstered gun.
Johnny slid to the ground inside the corral and patted the palomino’s broad forehead. Well, he was back on his feet now, the Old Man was safely out of the way, and it was time to come up with a way to help Boston in spite of his stubborn pride. He hung the reata on a fence post and followed Tomas through the gate as the wrangler hastened to take Scott’s horse.
“Johnny,” Scott looked his brother up and down, assessing whether Johnny had pushed himself too hard during the day. He didn’t miss the lines of pain around the boy’s eyes and mouth or the hint of fatigue in Johnny’s movements.
He nodded toward the palomino. “I trust you haven’t tried riding.”
Johnny rolled his eyes, uneasy with Scott’s obvious concern. He wasn’t used to having anyone worry about him and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it. “Nope. I been a real good boy. Just rode this fence,” his face darkened with an unwelcome memory and he hung his head, “Rode a desk most of the afternoon.”
Scott rewarded him with a sympathetic smile. “So Murdoch assigned you some of the bookwork before he left.”
“Yeah.” Johnny scuffed his toe in the dirt, wishing he could ask Scott to help him understand the bewildering scrawl of figures filling the pages of the ledgers Murdoch had stacked on the massive desk. The Old Man barked a quick explanation of the columns of numbers and ordered Johnny to familiarize himself with the ranch’s books, speaking to him as though he were a school boy. The young gunfighter dreaded the question and answer session his father would insist upon when he returned from his unplanned trip to Merced.
//Murdoch’s treated me like a kid from the first, callin’ me ‘boy’ an all. Hell, he even makes me feel like a kid! …But he’s always seen Scott as a man. //
“Good luck, brother.” Scott shook his head in amusement.
“I think you’ll need it. Murdoch will certainly expect to discuss what you’ve learned when he returns.” He strolled toward the hacienda. “Coming?”
Johnny hurried to catch up with him, brushing some caked mud from the seat of Scott’s britches. “Hard day, huh?”
Scott slapped his hand away and ignored the question, so Johnny tried again. “The Old Man’s got you workin’ out at the herd, huh?” He laughed. “Reckon he’ll wanna discuss what you’ve learned when he gets back.”
“I’m sure he will.” Scott paused at the door, lips pressed tightly together in frustration. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to clean up before dinner.” He reached for the latch, but couldn’t suppress a wince when Johnny grasped his wrist.
Johnny searched his brother’s face. “Like I said before, looks like it was a hard day.”
Scott shook his arm free and grabbed the latch, but Johnny blocked the door with his arm. “You all right?”
“I’m fine.” Scott glared pointedly at the offending arm.
“Scott…“ “I don’t need your help, Johnny. I can take care of myself.” He shoved past his brother’s arm and stalked inside. “Just drop it.”
“You’re makin’ me feel left out, brother.” Johnny shouted after him. He leaned against the doorframe and watched Scott march toward the stairs. The determined easterner couldn’t quite hide a slight limp or his drooping shoulders.
//Stubborn. My brother is a stubborn man. Got too much pride to admit he might need some help. …Damn Murdoch anyhow for throwin’ him to the wolves. Well, I ain’t about to sit around and let Boston be wolf bait. With the Old Man outta the way for the next couple of days, I can pull it off.//
He stared after Scott as his brother disappeared up the stairway, then turned and headed for the barn. It was time to have a little parley with Cipriano.
Johnny returned to the hacienda in time for dinner, satisfied that he’d hatched a workable plan – with Cipriano’s help. The burly segundo was a true Californio with the vaunted skills of a charro. His capabilities – and not the title of segundo – won the total respect and outright devotion of the vaqueros he lead so proficiently. Yet he treated Johnny with a deference the young man didn’t understand.
It had nothing to do with his reputation as a pistolero, Johnny was certain of that. His abilities as a gunfighter wouldn’t earn him the kind of respect Cipriano offered. And it wasn’t that the older man had known Johnny as a baby. No, it was as though Cipriano acknowledged that Murdoch Lancer’s younger son was also a top hand, worthy of being called a vaquero. Yet Johnny hadn’t had the opportunity to demonstrate that he did, in fact, merit the title of top hand. So why had Cipriano accepted him so readily when he should have forced Johnny to pass the same sort of tests that Scott was struggling with?
//He saw me workin’ with Barranca. Could that be it? … Nope. Gotta be more to it than that. I’ll figure it out – sooner or later.//
He pushed the questions about Cipriano to the back of his mind as he lost no time in setting his plan into action. The moment Scott descended the stairs; Johnny positioned himself next to his shoulder, consciously invading his brother’s space. When Scott walked toward the fireplace, Johnny paced beside him, subtly crowding the taller man. When Scott paused at the sideboard, Johnny halted next to him. A smooth, sly shift of Johnny’s arm caused Scott to change his mind about pouring a drink and continue on his journey to the fireside, doggedly herded along by his brother.
Each time Scott moved away, seeking to establish a comfortable amount of space between them, Johnny closed the gap, seemingly unaware of what he was doing. By the time Teresa called them to the table, Scott’s frustration with his sibling’s unprecedented behavior was visible on his face.
Johnny, Scott, and Teresa enjoyed a peaceful, carefree dinner. A master of the art of small talk suitable for the dinner table, Scott kept the conversation brisk and interesting. He even convinced Teresa to regale them with several tales about the absent patriarch. Without Murdoch’s daunting presence and disapproving stares, Johnny relaxed and laughed along with them, even adding a couple of his own anecdotes to the mix. He had to catch himself several times – Teresa seemed so poised and older than her years that it was easy to forget she was really just an innocent girl.
The three young people spent a satisfying hour together, lingering over coffee and Maria’s apple pie. When Teresa finally rose to help Maria clear the table, the brothers moved to the fireplace. Johnny took up his station beside Scott’s shoulder, once again encroaching upon his brother’s space. Scott sidestepped the entire length of the mantel before throwing up his arms in frustration and taking a seat on the long couch.
He abandoned his claim to the couch after scooting the entire length, left to right, as his brother insisted on sitting nearly on top of him. Johnny seemed oblivious to his pointed looks and exaggerated sighs, nonchalantly matching each move Scott made. When the easterner moved to the armchair, Johnny casually followed and perched on the arm. They repeated their bizarre dance from the loveseat to the desk to the reading chairs in the middle of the room and finally back to the couch. When Johnny flopped down beside him, scooting so close that their shoulders brushed, Scott rounded on his brother in exasperation. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Johnny stared at him, all round-eyed innocence, “Me?”
“Nuthin’. I ain’t doin’ nuthin’.”
Scott leaped to his feet and leaned his shoulders against the mantle, holding Johnny at arm’s length when his brother followed. “This is exactly what I’m talking about. This,” he tapped Johnny on the shoulder, “is not ‘nothing’.”
Johnny gave Scott his most engaging grin. “Well, this is just to figure out how much work we gotta do tomorrow.”
“We? Work? Tomorrow?” Scott put his hands on his hips and fixed Johnny with his best ‘elder brother’ stare. “What the devil are you talking about?”
Johnny stretched out on the couch and glanced sideways at his brother. “It’s like this…” he traced a pattern in the leather of his pants with his left forefinger, “you’re a real expert on Boston high society, but that ain’t gonna help you much out here.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Oh? As I recall, you said something along those lines before. Now what was it…” he tapped his finger to his lips, looking like a man struggling to recall an elusive memory.
Johnny cocked his head and sighed, anticipating a scornful comment.
Scott didn’t disappoint him. “Oh, yes, I remember. You told me that being able to ride didn’t make me ready for Day Pardee. You predicted I would end up with a bullet in my back.” He shook his head. “Except – now correct me if I’m wrong,” he ticked the points off on his fingers, “Pardee shot you in the back, I dragged you to safety, I killed Pardee, and then I carried you back to the house when you collapsed.”
He folded his arms across his chest and shot a smug smile at his unabashed younger brother.
“Not a bad performance for an ‘expert on Boston high society’.” Johnny nodded. “You’re right, Boston. You’re right. You did real good.” He turned on his side and stared up at Scott. “But don’t let it make you cocky. See, none of that makes you ready for cow society.”
“Cow society?” Scott had discovered early on that his cynical younger brother was an accomplished prankster. Something in the boy’s voice warned him that this might be a prelude to a joke at his expense. Yet the way Johnny strung those two words together fascinated Scott. He subconsciously leaned toward his brother.
“Yep.” Johnny was hard put not to react to the suspicion so obvious in Scott’s face and voice.
“Okay, I’ll bite. What, exactly, is cow society?”
Johnny sat up and wiped the humor from his face. “Cow society is all the stuff you gotta know to pull your weight with the vaqueros when they’re workin’ in the herd.”
Scott clenched his fists. “I told you to drop it.”
Johnny leaned toward him. “Listen, Scott. I know you like to do things for yourself, but this,” he gestured toward the view out of the big windows, “is different than anything else you’ve ever done.” He stared down at his feet. “Goin’ by the look on your face the last few days, well, you ain’t doin’ so good on your own.”
Johnny stood up and walked to the desk, idly flipping through one of the stacked ledgers. “I was really hopin’ you and me could make a deal.” His gaze lingered on the page of numbers before slowly lifting to meet that of his brother.
Scott strolled to the desk and settled himself in the chair in front of it. “What, exactly, did you have in mind?”
“I was thinkin’ that I could give you some tips on herdin’ cows and you could give me some tips on herdin’ the numbers in these ledgers.”
//Well, well. I do believe Mr. Madrid is asking for my help. In a roundabout way, of course. … Okay, Johnny. I’ll play your game.//
A slow smile spread over Scott’s face and he inclined his head toward Johnny. “That sounds like a fair deal.”
“Yeah?” Johnny plopped down into Murdoch’s chair and spun it around. When it stopped, he leaned his forearms on the edge of the desk and stared at his brother. “Thanks, Scott. I can really use your help on these things.” He ruffled the pages of one of the ledgers. “I reckon the Old Man told me as much about these numbers as he told you about what to do when you ride out with them vaqueros.”
Scott sighed. “He didn’t tell me anything, really. He just said to watch and learn.”
“Yep. That’s pretty much what he told me – read ‘em and learn.” Johnny chuckled. “Might as well have said read ‘em and weep.”
The brothers shared a laugh, but Johnny sobered abruptly, leaning forward to stare at Scott.
“You know, that old man don’t know if he wants us to succeed or not. Seems like he’s makin’ it as hard for us as he can.”
“He is making it hard,” Scott tapped his finger on the desk, “but he does want us to succeed.”
“Well, it don’t feel like it.”
“No, I don’t suppose it does. Yet in his own way, Murdoch wants us to live up to his expectations.” He glanced at the doubt on Johnny’s face. “I know it doesn’t make sense.”
“Nope.” Johnny fiddled with the pen on the desk. “But the way I see it is that we help each other and both succeed. The Old Man don’t need to know nuthin’ about it.” He looked at Scott and smiled. “Then all three of us’ll be happy, huh?”
“Agreed.” Scott leaned back in his chair and crossed his left leg over his right.
//Don’t think for a minute that Murdoch won’t realize we’ve collaborated, little brother. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if our helping each other wasn’t part of his plan all along…//
“Now explain to me how your little performance earlier is going to teach me about cow society.”
Johnny’s eyes gleamed and he hurried around the desk to stand next to Scott, crowding past brother’s comfort zone. Scott reflexively slid the chair away and Johnny grinned triumphantly. “See what you just did? That’s what you gotta know about makin’ cows move.
“What? Just crowd up against them until they step aside? I tried that and it didn’t work.”
Johnny shook his head. “Scattered ‘em all over the place, huh? Mamas and calves separated from each other and runnin’ and bawlin’?” He chuckled, “Oh, boy, I bet them vaqueros were real happy with you.”
Scott stared at his hands. “Happy is not the word I would use to describe their reaction.”
“Scatterin’ a herd is a big sin to a drover.”
“So I saw. More than once.” Scott studied his white knuckles, still unable to understand how his actions had caused the herd to react as it had. He’d watched the vaqueros closely and copied their movements exactly. At least he thought he had – but the cows obviously didn’t if their reactions to his clumsy efforts were any indication.
“Well,” Johnny sat on the edge of the desk, correctly interpreting the disheartened expression on his brother’s face, “I’m gonna show you how to move a cow without spookin’ it – or the herd.”
“Johnny,” Scott’s head snapped up and he folded his arms across his chest, “do you know how to herd cattle?”
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, I do.” He fingered one of the ledgers. “I helped drive a herd of longhorns from Texas to California when I was ten.”
Scott started to laugh at such a blatant boast, but the expression on Johnny’s face proved that his brother was deadly serious. It reminded him just how much of an enigma Johnny was. How could he have so easily forgotten his shock at learning that this boy was the legendary gunman, Johnny Madrid? Most people might be stretching the bounds of truth when making an outlandish claim such a driving a trail herd from Texas to California at the ripe old age of ten. But Johnny wasn’t most people. And he wasn’t prone to exaggeration or bragging.
Scott mentally filed this new piece of the “Johnny puzzle” away and turned his laugh into a warm smile. “Well then, I imagine you do know how to herd cattle.”
“Yeah, so shut up and listen.” Johnny subconsciously rubbed his side, his fingers tracing an old scar he carried – a souvenir of that memorable cattle drive.
“Lead on, brother.”
“Okay.” Johnny’s eyes brimmed with mischief. “Pretend you’re a cow.”
“You can be a bull if you want.” Scott rolled his eyes and sighed. “All right. I’m a bull.”
“Hola, Señor Toro,” Johnny’s grin glinted in the lamplight. “Ah, that means ‘Hello, Mr. Bull’.”
Scott bit back a snort.
Johnny leaned forward and gestured at the distance between his knees and Scott’s. “Now picture a big circle around yourself.” He waited until his brother indicated compliance with his order. “Right now, I’m inside that circle in what I call the ‘See Ya zone.”
“Yep. You see me, but I’m not a threat and you don’t feel like you gotta move away. If you really were a bull, you’d probably pick up your head and watch me, maybe flick your ears. As a drover, it’s part of my job to notice those signs.” He stood and took a step toward Scott, leaning forward until he sensed his brother’s discomfort.
“Now I’ve moved into another zone inside the circle. I call it the ‘Adios’ zone.”
“Yep. Means ‘goodbye’ in Spanish.” He tapped the fingers of his left hand against his thigh. “You ain’t comfortable with me bein’ this close and you feel the need to move away – Adios, Señor Vaquero.”
Johnny put his hands on his hips. “Now if I’m a good drover, I’ll put just enough pressure on you to make you move and I’ll apply it at just the right spot.”
He nibbled his lower lip. “I’ll show you how to find the right spot tomorrow. Right now the important thing is to know that there are three zones inside the circle and that the way the cow – or a bull – reacts changes with each zone. Knowin’ the zones and usin’ ’em is how a drover controls the herd.”
“I understand. What’s the third zone?”
“That’s one a drover don’t wanna be in. I call it ‘On the Prod’.”
“On the prod?”
“Yep. Lookin’ for a fight.” Johnny leaned forward deliberately, moving steadily closer to Scott’s face until his brother held up a restraining hand. He stopped. “See, now instead of just movin’ away, you feel like you gotta defend yourself. And if I kept movin’ closer, you’d try to stop me.” He moved back and propped a hip against the desk.
“If you were a bull, you might turn and face me, shake your head, paw or stomp, or even back up a few steps. If I didn’t back off, you’d probably get pretty wild and try to push under my horse’s neck or between me and another drover, or hook at me with your horns. Maybe even charge me and my horse.” He cocked his head and a crooked smile ran up the side of his face. “And if you were part of a herd, you’d cause ‘em to scatter in all directions.”
Scott nodded, closing his eyes to visualize what Johnny had just told him. He suddenly understood why his earnest attempts at copying the vaqueros as they moved quietly around and through the herd had ended in failure.
Johnny smiled to himself as he studied his brother’s face. He could see the light dawning. “Now all them zones apply to a herd of cattle just like they do to a single cow – or bull. Just remember that the spookiest member of the herd decides where each zone begins and ends. As a drover, it’s your job to figure out who that cow is and where it draws the line for each zone.”
“I understand. When I’m working with the herd, I need to know when I’ve entered the ‘See Ya’ zone. Once I know that, I can test until I find the ‘Adios’ zone. I force the herd to move by the way I apply pressure within this zone and I direct and control the movement by where I apply the pressure. And I make sure to stay out of the ‘On the Prod’ zone.”
“I’ll say one thing, Boston. You sure are a quick study.” Johnny stretched, wincing as the motion pulled on his still tender wound.
“It helps when you have a good teacher.” Scott stood and put his newly learned techniques to use, herding his younger brother toward the stairs.
“Now, why don’t you pretend to be an obedient little brother and get up to bed. I don’t want you overdoing it on my watch.”
“Hey, Boston? You’re about to get into my ‘On the Prod’ zone.”
Scott caught Johnny in a headlock and marched him inexorably toward the stairs. “Am I? Well, as you’re already in my ‘Big Brother Calls the Tune’ zone, I’m not too worried. Of course, if you aren’t ready to go to sleep just yet, I can give you a lesson in ledger society.”
Johnny gave an earsplitting yawn. “Guess I didn’t realize just how sleepy I was. Buenas noches, Señor Toro. See ya mañana.”
Scott found Teresa impatiently tapping her fingers on the breakfast table the next morning. Maria stood beside her, the picture of smoldering wrath. The formidable housekeeper thrust a cup of coffee at him, causing Scott to leap backward to avoid the liquid sloshing over the rim. The scalding brew splashed on his hand and he slammed the cup on the table, patting the reddened area with a napkin and blowing on it.
Teresa turned her back to him, indignation in every line of her body. Maria executed an about-face with military precision and marched back toward the kitchen with the coffee pot.
Scott stared from one to the other in bewilderment. He’d done something to set them off, but he couldn’t imagine what it might be. He was fully clothed in his ‘California style outfit’ as his brother called it. He’d washed his face and hands and combed his hair. He wasn’t late. His fly was buttoned…
//Looks as though I’m in their ‘On the Prod’ zone.//
“Ah, good morning, Teresa.”
The girl sniffed and tossed her hair over her shoulder.
Scott tried again. “Johnny still asleep?”
Teresa whirled on him, hands on her hips. “You know good and well that he’s already outside, just itching to ride out with you.” She gestured dramatically with both arms. “How could you, Scott? You know the doctor said he needed to take it easy for another week. He isn’t supposed to be on a horse.” She brushed an angry tear away. “Your father is trusting you take care of Johnny.”
Scott choked on the gulp of coffee he’d just swallowed. “Now wait a minute,” he spluttered. “Nobody said anything about Johnny riding out with me. I’m not about to let him disregard the doctor’s orders.”
“Then why is he outside waiting for you?”
“I don’t know,” Scott stood, pocketing a biscuit, “but I will find out.”
He took a huge bite of another biscuit before snatching his hat from the rack and striding outside.
The rising sun painted an incredible portrait across the sky, but Scott had no time to admire the view. His gaze fixed on the empty corral as he noted with dismay that the vaqueros had already left for the day’s work at the herd.
//Now why are they already gone? We aren’t due to ride out of here for another half hour or so…//
A team of horses harnessed to a buckboard stood beside the hitch rail. His brother slouched on the seat of that buckboard, hat over his eyes and feet propped on the dash, crossed at the ankle. Johnny’s handcrafted spurs glistened on his heels. He was wearing his gun. The bay horse Scott had been riding was saddled and tethered to the back of the buckboard.
//So this is why I got the royal treatment from the “Johnny Protective Society”…//
Scott planted his hands on his hips and cleared his throat. He had to clear it three times before Johnny rolled his head back in order to see beneath his hat brim.
“Thought you might sleep all day, Boston,” he drawled.
“What do you think you’re doing?
Johnny stretched languidly and sat up in the seat. “I’m waitin’ on you so we can get on with your lessons in cow society.”
“And just where do you think you’re going?”
Johnny gestured toward the hacienda. “To the big round corral in that pasture behind the house.”
Scott moved next to the buckboard.
“Oh, no. The doctor was very specific. He said you were to take it easy.” He gestured open-handed at the buckboard. “Driving around in this doesn’t qualify as taking it easy.”
Johnny stared directly at Scott, eyes huge and luminous. His lips quivered and his lugubrious expression caused Scott to bite the inside of his cheek.
//He looks like a little lost puppy. How could anyone resist that look?//
“Now just how am I supposed to show you how to make a cow move where you want it to if we don’t use real cows?” Johnny crossed his arms across his chest and hung his head. “You’ll be doin’ the drivin’ and the ridin’. C’mon, Scott. It’s just behind the house.”
Scott struggled to resist that hangdog expression and the wheedling tone. “Now, Johnny…”
“Look, I been shot before. I know when I’m ready to start livin’ again and when to take it easy.”
//Don’t you start treatin’ me like a kid, Boston. I can take care of myself and I don’t need coddlin’.//
He held up his left arm, as though swearing on a bible. “I swear I won’t do nuthin’ to get you in trouble with the Old Man.”
Scott slapped Johnny’s thigh. “Actually, I’m not worried about Murdoch.” He gestured toward the hacienda. “It’s your palace guards who concern me.”
“Maria and Teresa. They seem to think I’m going to drag you out and put you to work on a chain gang. With your consent, of course.”
Johnny grinned delightedly. “You tellin’ me you ain’t afraid of the Old Man, but a bunch of women has got you spooked?” He cuffed Scott’s chin. “I thought you said you served in the cavalry!”
“Damn right, little brother.” Scott pushed his hat back on his head. “And one thing I learned in the cavalry is ‘know your real opposition.’” He rested his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and bent his head close to his brother’s. “Now, the real power in that house is not Murdoch Lancer.”
“Not the Old Man?” Johnny matched Scott’s conspiratorial tone.
“Oh, no,” Scott pointed toward the kitchen. “It’s that tiny housekeeper.”
“That’s the one.”
Johnny cocked his head and studied Scott’s face. “That’s good thinkin’, Boston.”
“And if I were you,” Johnny continued as though Scott hadn’t spoken, “I’d stay on her good side.”
“I plan to.”
Johnny put his hands behind his head. “Well, you see, that’s why you need to drive me out to that round corral.”
Scott pursed his lips and let his expression ask the question. “
‘Cause if you don’t, I’m gonna be real disappointed. I’ll mope around all mornin’, sighin’ and moanin’, maybe even fret myself into a fever,” he glanced sideways at his brother. “And I’ll be sure Maria and Teresa know it’s all your fault.”
“That’s blackmail!” Scott had to struggle to project a sense of disappointment and disbelief in his tone.
Johnny’s threat didn’t surprise him in the least. Not that his brother would actually carry it out – but the dire warning was entirely predictable. Johnny gave him a reproachful stare. “No it ain’t. It’s just what you cavalry types call positionin’ the troops for maximum effectiveness.”
Scott couldn’t contain his laughter at Johnny’s audacity. “All right. I’ll retreat – for now.” He climbed across Johnny, settled himself on the seat, and picked up the reins. “You can ride this buckboard and the fence this morning while you teach me about cows. But this afternoon, you’re going to ride that desk again while I teach you about bookkeeping. Agreed?”
Johnny pushed his hat further down over his eyes and slung one arm across Scott’s shoulders. “Sounds like a good plan to me. You got a deal.”
With an exasperated shake of his head, Scott slapped the reins and set the team in motion. The grin on his face delighted his younger brother.
Scott dashed the sweat from his eyes and caught his tongue between his teeth as he concentrated on keeping the group of heifers moving around the pen. The deep sand of the corral made each step a struggle as his feet sank nearly to the ankle with every stride. He focused his entire attention on the small herd as he struggled to apply the knowledge Johnny had shared with him.
//No, no. Not behind them. They’re turning to face me because I’m directly behind them and they can’t see me when I’m right behind them. They’ve turned around to keep me in sight. … So I need to approach slightly to the side and at a right angle to the hip. … Maybe a bit farther to the side… Yes! It’s working! They’re moving forward again.//
“Hey, that was real good, Scott. You figured out why they stopped and turned and moved right back into position and got ’em goin’ again.”
Johnny’s words of encouragement didn’t come from the spot on the fence where he’d been perched earlier. Scott felt a moment of total disorientation as he tried to comprehend how Johnny’s voice could be above and behind him. A sudden sinking suspicion assailed him and he whirled. Sure enough, Johnny sat astride the bay horse beaming down at him.
Johnny’s eyes widened. “Hey, pay attention to your herd. I’m just givin’ my voice a rest here. It’s hard hollerin’ all the way across this big pen.”
//I’ve never met anyone as talented as you at devising a justification for anything, no matter how outrageous. Resting your voice! It’s hard to ‘holler’ across this big pen, but it’s fine for your brother to trudge across and around it trying to drive a bunch of cows. ‘Trust me, Scott. You’ll learn to move ’em better and faster if you try it on foot first.’ Just wait until we hit the books, little brother. … And I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t ride more than the buckboard and the fence. Yet here you sit, bold as brass, on my horse.//
“Uh, Scott?” Johnny looked away from his brother’s accusing glare and gestured toward the cattle. “The herd has stopped.”
Scott shook his head and turned back to the cattle. It was just too much effort to argue with the scamp. Besides, sitting on the horse really wasn’t all that different from sitting on the fence. And he wouldn’t let Johnny do anything more than sit while the animal stood still. With that comforting thought, he did a quick visual reconnaissance to be certain Maria or Teresa wasn’t watching. Then he began to walk steadily toward the cows, noting when they raised their heads to stare at him.
He planned his approach as Johnny had taught him and was gratified when the cows begin walking forward. Scott kept them moving, angling back and forth behind the group at a 90 degree angle to the direction of desired movement.
“I think you got it, Boston. Now, let me show you somethin’ else. Just stop right where you are.”
Before Scott could say a word, Johnny was riding toward the front of the group. He kept the horse in a slow walk, but moved parallel to the lead cow at a point just behind her shoulder. The herd slowed its pace to match that of the horse. Johnny rode beside them for a moment and then turned the bay into the bunch. He kept the horse moving forward with the cattle, yet picked his way through the group to the other side.
Once in position, he urged the horse up to the head of the lead cow. Within two strides, the leader moved away from the horse and the entire herd began to turn. As they reached an angle that would take them directly across the pen, Johnny repositioned his horse slightly behind and at an angle to the leader’s hip.
Scott just shook his head as the turning ceased and the herd headed straight across the corral.
//I see how you did it – now that I know what I’m looking for. You’re a good teacher, Johnny. Divide the cow into three parts – hip bone to tail, body between the hip and the head, and the head itself. Apply pressure to the rear third to move her forward, the middle section to slow or stop her, and at the head to turn her away from you. … I understand exactly what you’re talking about – and I’d have never figured it out just by watching. Thanks, brother. … Now get your shot-in-theback butt off of that horse!//
Johnny halted the bay next to Scott and dismounted.
“Now try it with the horse.”
Scott took the proffered reins and prepared to mount. Johnny patted the horse’s neck. “It ain’t so hard once you know what to look for, huh?”
“No.” Scott swung up on the bay and paused to smile down at his brother. “You’re a good teacher, Johnny.”
Johnny’s face colored and he ducked his head. “Thank you.” He looked up and slapped Scott’s knee. “There’s somethin’ else I gotta tell you.”
“That group of vaqueros?” Johnny fiddled with Scott’s pant leg. “They give a lotta respect to age and experience. They all learned from watchin’ and listenin’ – not from readin’ books. So they expect you to ask when you don’t know somethin’. If you don’t ask, if you just try it on your own, they think you’re…,” he looked up at Scott, “well, arrogant.”
“I see. The boss’ son thinks he’s too good to ask a vaquero for help?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
//You catch on real quick, Boston. You an me are gonna get along just fine.//
They shared a look of warm understanding. Johnny broke the gaze first and gestured toward the cows. “Well, go on. Your herd’s gettin’ all strung out and you’re sittin’ around wastin’ time talkin’. What would the Old Man say? Go on.” He slapped the bay’s rump.
Scott spent the next hour or so honing his ability to pick the correct pressure point to move the herd where he wished and learning to trust his horse’s reading of the cattle. He was delighted to discover that with Johnny’s expert tutelage; he seemed to have a real knack for herding cows. By the time Johnny called a halt, Scott was brimming with confidence in his new found abilities.
//Teresa said it. You’re really something, Johnny. I just hope I can explain bookkeeping as skillfully as you’ve taught me about bovine society…//
Murdoch Lancer leaned back in his chair at the head of the long dining table, savoring the warmth of the brandy while gazing proudly at his sons. His long fingers tapped against the stem of the crystal snifter as he remembered the pleasant surprises awaiting him when he arrived home from Merced that afternoon.
He’d purposefully ridden in through the pasture where the men were working at the herd. To his delight – and amazement – Scott was right in the thick of things, riding competently with the vaqueros and pulling more than his weight. His heart swelled when he recalled Cipriano’s praise of his older son, how his wise old segundo thought Scott had the makings of a true cattleman. Of course, he’d expected nothing less from Scott. The young man was a born leader and possessed the determination to succeed at anything he put his hand to.
His gaze traveled across the table to rest on the dark head bent over the dinner plate. Here was the real surprise. He’d dreaded another uncomfortable confrontation with the boy over a lack of progress with the books. But to his astonishment, Johnny had answered every question his father posed, demonstrating his understanding of the ledgers. The young man had actually updated the ranch’s books with two bills of sale and the collection of bills from the feed store and the mercantile. Murdoch had planned to use those items to show his younger son how to make entries in the ledger. But Johnny had figured it out by himself.
//I suppose he’s had to figure things out for himself for most of his life. I’d better remember that. I don’t always give him enough credit.//
He took another sip of brandy, congratulating himself on how well his plan had worked. Johnny must’ve made Scott realize that success with the vaqueros meant admitting what you don’t know and asking for help. Such a mindset would be totally alien to someone raised by Harlan Garrett and Scott was far more likely to accept an idea that went against everything he’d been taught if it came from Johnny. After all, Johnny must have a world of experience in winning his place in an established group. Not to mention that he was well-versed in the traditions and beliefs of the Mexican vaqueros. And Scott would have returned the favor by sharing some tips and techniques on bookkeeping with his brother.
Murdoch turned his head toward Scott. “Cipriano tells me you’re really helping out with the herd.”
Absorbed by the play of candlelight on the crystal and brandy, Murdoch missed the wink Scott shot his brother.
“Well, sir, it isn’t much of a step to go from mastery of Boston society to mastery of Bovine society.”
Johnny had just taken a gulp of milk that sprayed across the table when he whooped with laughter at Scott’s remark.
“Mind your manners, young man.” Murdoch bit back his own mirth and turned a look of stern disapproval on his younger son. “This isn’t a cantina.”
Johnny swallowed and hung his head, concentrating on his plate. Murdoch immediately regretted his harshness as all traces of a smile vanished from Johnny’s face. He attempted to atone for his error. “I must say that you did well with the books, Johnny. I’m surprised at just how much you accomplished.”
Johnny’s head snapped up and his eyes glared daggers at his father. The defiance in his voice perfectly complemented the sneer on his handsome face. “Yeah? Well, even us stupid gunslingers hafta be able to count, Old Man. How else would we know how many notches to carve on our guns? And me? Well, let’s just say that I gotta count pretty high.”
He looked back down at his plate and stabbed at a piece of steak. Johnny’s furious response froze Murdoch in open-mouthed surprise for several seconds. The anger he constantly found in Johnny worried him. Not the young man’s hot temper – his mother had been the same way and that fieriness added a much relished spiciness to life. No, it was the cold fury he sometimes saw in those blue eyes – the kind of frozen rage that marks a killer.
Yes, Johnny was a killer, but surely there was something more to his son, some vestige of the laughing, blue-eyed rascal his mother had spirited away. For a moment, he swore he’d seen hurt on the young man’s face and that thought gave him hope. If he had the power to wound the boy, he also possessed the means to help him build a new life.
//I did it again. I just don’t know how to talk to that boy. He’s hell bent on taking everything I say the absolute wrong way.//
The all-too-familiar feeling of frustration sweep over Murdoch. His son obviously wished he was jabbing his father with that fork. The big hands itched to yank the young man out of his chair and shake some sense into him. But Murdoch acknowledged that a head-to-head confrontation would only serve to drive them farther apart.
//He doesn’t have an inch of “back up” in him. I don’t want to argue with my son. It seems like all we do is fight. What if he decides to leave? Lord, I don’t know how I’ll stand it if he does. Best to ignore his insolence for the moment.//
He stripped the defensiveness and disapproval from his voice, “I don’t think you’re stupid, Johnny.”
“Yeah? Coulda fooled me.” Johnny kept his eyes on the plate.
When Johnny got into this defiant mood there was no reasoning with him. He decided to let the incident go. A brief glance at his older son assured him that he’d made the right decision.
Scott had observed the venomous exchange in mounting dismay. The chagrin he read on Murdoch’s face convinced him that their father hadn’t meant his comments the way they sounded – the way Johnny interpreted them. Murdoch possessed a real way with words, yet he was remarkably inarticulate when communicating with Johnny. The proud, stubborn men just didn’t seem capable of conversing without an exchange of caustic comments. Scott’s diplomatic intervention had prevented a major explosion on several occasions and he worried that Johnny and Murdoch might never get beyond this confrontational stage.
Murdoch felt an odd tingling throughout his body when he glanced at Scott. His older son nodded encouragement when Murdoch decided not to press matters and sought to mollify Johnny. Approval glistened in Scott’s eyes – the same approval he’d seen when he looked into Catherine’s eyes. She understood him – knew full well that he liked to bark, but was loathe to bite. Her quiet encouragement and unconditional support had made him feel as though he had the world by the tail and she had the trick of expressing those feelings in a simple glance. And Scott had her eyes…
//Ah, Cat… I wish you could see our son. You’d be so damn proud of him. He’s a diplomat like you. He understands that my words and actions are often at odds with how I really feel. He’s figured out that when I really care about something, I bluster and growl. We think alike and I can feel our bond growing stronger every day. I’ve missed you so and having Scott at my side will be like having a small piece of you here again.
I need some of your sage advice, my love. Scott and I are building a wonderful relationship. But Johnny… I don’t know how to reach him, Cat. I bungle it every time. I searched for him for so long. I want him here. I really do – so I can’t understand why just looking at him makes me furious. But you know me, I’ll find a way. And I’ll have our son’s wisdom to help me.
The first step is keeping Johnny here so that he and I have a chance. That means getting his signature on the partnership agreement. It’s time to let my sons know that I think they have what it takes – that they’ve earned their shares of this ranch.//
He pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. “Well, gentlemen, Dr. Jenkins tells me that he’ll let Johnny ride come Monday. So Monday afternoon, I thought we’d drive to Green River and sign that partnership agreement.” He took a quick sip of brandy to cover his nervousness. “What do you say?”
Johnny shot his father a startled glance before looking to his brother. Scott gave him a reassuring smile and lifted his glass.
“I say, here’s to our partnership. May it be long and prosperous.”
Murdoch held his breath. Was it possible to experience a lifetime of agony in a handful of seconds? So much depended on Johnny’s answer. His sons seemed to be communicating silently and he prayed that Scott would succeed where he had failed.
//Come on, Johnny. Say it. Say you’re staying. Listen to your brother.//
At long last, Johnny moved. And even the brazen insolence so apparent in the languid movements didn’t bother Murdoch. For his younger son picked up his glass and cocked his head at his father. And the tiniest of smiles ghosted at the corner of his mouth. Then Johnny turned to his brother and the faint smile exploded into a broad grin. He raised the glass and nodded. Scott winked at Johnny.
“Looks as though we’re in the ‘Agreement zone’.”
AUTHORS’ NOTES: Our special thanks to Phil Guitar, Arlen Baize, Red McRory and the other great working cowboys of the Guitar, Grissom, and Tongue River ranches for sharing their insights into “bovine society” and tips on herding cattle. You can read about how Johnny got that scar on the trail drive from Texas to California in our story, The Ring-tailed Tooter.
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12 thoughts on “About Cows by Nancy and Karen”
Wow! This was wonderful
What a beautiful story! I really liked the way the brothers started to form a bond..
Great love it
I really enjoyed the relationship between Johnny and Scott in this – great stuff!
Terrific brother story!
Great story. I hope you both return to the site one day.
Good story on the developing relationship between the brothers.
Beautiful story. So nice to see the bond between the brothers is growing. Well done!
Marvelous story, in character, I can easily picture the actors
Loved this, wonderful characterisation.
I love the way you showed the budding “brothership” between Johnny and Scott and their alliance to help the other adjust to their new life and father.
Always love a brother story.