A/N Thank you to everyone who commented, and to those to whom I can't respond directly ; JML, Joe, Lancerfan and Johnnyfan

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Tamales and Beans Part 6

Toledano straightened his back, holding the bawling calf firmly by the head to stop its struggles. This was an indisputable Lancer calf, its anxious mother branded with the distinctive circled L (a florid and grandiose letter, Cipriano thought, privately) that marked all the Lancer stock. Toledano had spotted the calf the previous day, limping slowly along behind the herd. And while they wouldn't brand the calf to match its mother until the following week's Spring Round-up with the neighbouring estancias—there was an etiquette to these things that Cipriano found quite satisfying and wouldn't break—they were going to take it into the corrals near the ranch to treat the gash on its left hind leg and allow it to heal.

"Is that Señor Johnny?" asked Toledano, with a jerk of his head to the left of them.

Cipriano followed the direction of Toledano's gaze, seeing the Patrón's son dashing across the far hillside on a golden horse. He nodded as the distant horseman put the palomino at a fence, watching the tiny figures sail over the obstacle as if winged.

Cipriano knew very well that while the Patrón's youngest son had finally been given a measure of freedom from the doctor's restrictions, that measure was intended to be a small and carefully regulated one. Talking nearby with the Patrón and Señor Scott, Cipriano had heard the doctor give his instructions: You can ride a little, Sam Jenkins had said, but not that half-wild palomino you've been talking my ear off about and if I hear of you going faster than a sedate trot before I tell you that you can, then you and I shall have words, young man. The Patrón had stopped speaking to listen anxiously, and had been gruffly defensive when he caught Cipriano's knowing glance.

"Si," he said, mildly enough. "Juanito's idea of a gentle ride does not seem to match exactly with Doctor Jenkins'. "

"He rides fast, that one," said Toledano, always one to state the obvious. "Ai, but remember that morning!"

Cipriano was unlikely to forget it. His finger had been squeezing the trigger of his rifle when the Patrón recognised his errant younger son as the lead horseman in the mad dash to the hacienda. Cipriano had been within a hair's breadth of shooting the prodigal off the horse and he had had to exercise great control to slowly release the tension on the trigger so the gun didn't fire. A few seconds later and Johnny had tumbled hard from the saddle with Day Pardee's bullet in his back. Cipriano had thanked the good Dios that it hadn't been his bullet that had brought the boy to the ground. It had been too close.

Cipriano glanced over to Scott. The young man was sitting in the saddle, as rigidly as he had that first day when he'd started work on the estancia, back straight as a ramrod. Cipriano touched his heels to Amaranthe's sides, and the mare stepped lightly over to join him. Scott's face was set as rigidly as his back as he watched his hermano take another fence before disappearing over the hill and out of sight. Scott continued staring for a few moments, but Johnny and the palomino didn't return.

"Tell me, Cipriano, do you have brothers?"

"Si," said Cipriano. "Two. Both younger than me."

"Are they still alive? And if they are, would you mind telling me how you managed not to strangle them?"

"I am a man of very even temperament, Scott."

Scott turned and stared at him.

"Although," admitted Cipriano, keeping his face straight, "it's true that my brother Eduardo still has a scar from the time when my temperament was tried to the point when it became a little less even and, I remember, we ended up in the creek. We started the fight in the barn and to this day neither of us know how we got to the creek. Still, it was effective. Whatever it was that Eduardo did to annoy me never happened again."

"That's very helpful, Cip. Thank you." Scott sighed. "No creek near the house, though. That's a drawback."

"I think the well may be too deep, but we have a horse trough," remarked Cipriano.

Scott nodded. "Very true. You know, Cip, I may find a use for that horse trough later."

Cipriano smiled. Scott was an apt pupil.

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Johnny was lying at full stretch on the long seat on the loggia, when Cipriano and Scott arrived to discuss with the Patrón the final arrangements for the Spring round-up. They thought he was asleep but just as Scott, who was still tense with whatever emotion had wracked him when he saw Johnny and the palomino, stepped onto the loggia, Johnny spoke without opening his eyes.

"You might want to wait a couple of minutes, Boston. Frank just brought the post in and Murdoch's got something there he ain't too happy about. I'd reckon it was a bill, only it's too thick for that. Maybe it's a love letter. I hightailed it outa there before he could work hisself up over it and look around for someone to blame. I was too handy."

"You're joining us for this meeting, aren't you?" asked Scott, all affability.

"Sure. Afternoon, Cip." Johnny sat up slowly. His eyes showed no sign of sleepiness that Cipriano could see, although he thought that Johnny looked stiff and he certainly eased his back and shoulders carefully. Johnny added, sadly, "Mind you, I don't think the Doc is gonna let me ride the round-up much."

Scott snorted. "Well, you just keep up with those sedate trots on the gentle fully-broken non-palomino horse that Doctor Jenkins ordered to build up your strength, and we'll have to see, won't we?"

Johnny looked down at his boots, his mouth turning up. "Sure."

"You might want to take your sedate trots over on the west pastures for the next few days, away from where we're working," said Scott, still affable. "That way no-one will see you not jumping your gentle, fully-broken non-palomino horse over fences that aren't there."

Johnny glanced up quickly. His eyes were bright with amusement. "Good advice, Boston. I'll take it."

"I don't know why you should. You don't take other people's good advice."

"Well," said Johnny in a reasonable tone, "If I knew what a sedate trot was, I'd be sure to take it."

"I'm sure you would." Scott put out a hand and pulled to help as Johnny got to his feet. "In fact, you'd better, because I'm damned serious about not hauling you around California on my back if something happens to you."

"That so?" said Johnny, softly.

Cipriano smiled, and stroked his moustache. "You may have to use the horse trough, Scott."

"I'm tempted. No more, little brother. I'm not happy about you not listening to what Sam Jenkins tells you."

Johnny looked bewildered. "Why?"

"Are you serious? You almost died!"

"I'm fine."

"You're pushing yourself too hard, Johnny, and it's worrying us. For heaven's sake, take it a little easier and let yourself heal. Do what the doctor wants."

"I've had worse, Boston, and I know what I can handle and how far I can push." Johnny looked from one to the other, and shook his head, exasperated. "You don't get it, do you? Look, I gotta keep pushin'. It's takin' too long for me to get back and it isn't safe. Most times I don't get to sit around getting fattened up by the likes of Teresa and Maria. Most times I just gotta get myself picked up, real fast. I can't be laid up. I just can't. There's too many would like a chance at me."

"Here? On Lancer? You're safe here, surely?"

"You think they gonna stop at that arch out there and think, nope, won't try and take ol' Johnny today, he's on Lancer land? It'll be anywhere and anytime. It's never safe."

Cipriano sighed. The nino meant it. It was sad, and enlightening. He remembered the conversation he'd had with Bella when Johnny was still sick, and he still wondered what it was the nino wanted. He thought that what Johnny was then and was now, what Johnny did then and wanted to do now (they all hoped) were still in conflict.

Scott put out his hand again to grasp Johnny by the forearm, but this time his voice was gentler. "I asked you once why you chose that life, Johnny. If this is what it's really like, why did you?"

"Oh, Boston," said Johnny, and sighed. "You really want to know?"

"I wouldn't ask if I didn't. Tell me, Johnny."

Johnny looked at him intently before turning his head to stare out over Teresa's flower garden to the wide land beyond. His mouth twisted. "Because I've got blue eyes."

"What?"

"Because I've got them blue eyes that damned dime novel was usin' language about, that you thought was so funny. They're blue, Boston! Not soulful brown puppy dog eyes. They're god-damned blue."

Scott raised both hands in bewilderment. "I don't understand."

"I know you don't." Johnny stood for a minute, his right hand tapping patterns against his gun holster, and again Cipriano thought the patterns were of anger and bitterness and distress. He took in a deep breath, and said, visibly calmer, "And you know, I'm glad you don't." He turned to walk away.

"Johnny—"

"Just give me a minute, okay? Just a minute." He walked to the other end of the loggia and leant up against one of the pillars, looking out across the wide, fertile valley land to the mountains, to where they reached up into sky as pale and translucent as distant ghosts. Cipriano noticed that he leant on his left shoulder, even though that couldn't be comfortable, and kept his gun hand free. He sighed, wondering if the nino would ever feel safe in his own home; in what he hoped and prayed would be the nino's home.

Scott turned to Cipriano. "Wha—?"

"His eyes mark him as a mestizo," said Cipriano, reluctantly. "A half-breed. The life of a mestizo child in the border towns with no-one to take care of him and protect him, no-one to stand between him and the people, both Mexican and gringo, who hate half-breeds… I can't tell you how hard that is, Señor Scott. Many do not survive it. And those that do, many are broken by it. All they know is hate and blows and hunger."

"Because his mother was Mexican?"

"And the Patrón is a gringo, si." Cipriano added, very softly, "He was very young, your hermano, when he was left to face this alone."

"How young?"

"Eleven."

Scott's mouth thinned right down until his lips were white. He nodded and blew out a noisy, sad breath. "Damn," he said, very quietly but with emphasis.

Cipriano nodded. "Si."

Scott nodded his thanks, although Cipriano knew he couldn't have any real understanding of the hell that had been the nino's childhood. But Scott, he thought, would try. Scott would always try.

Scott gave Johnny his minute or two and went to join him. "It was a stupid question," he said.

"No," said Johnny. "It was a stupid choice."

"You said that the life chose you, remember."

"About half and half, I'd say." Johnny turned his head, and the blue eyes that had been his curse and his damnation were sombre. "It's not.. it was a long time ago. What did Cip tell you?"

"That it was hellishly bad for you, as a child."

Johnny's gaze met Cipriano's. "Did the Old Man give you the Pinkerton reports to read?"

"Si, when I became Segundo. And because he knew that Bella and I wanted you back almost as much as he did. Every trip I have made to Mexico, I looked for you, Juanito. I saw how it was along the border, how it must have been for you."

"Yeah," said Johnny, and his eyes darkened. He looked back at Scott. "It hasn't been like that for me for a long time. Because you know what? When I realised I was good with this—" he tapped the grips of his pistol "—it stopped. They didn't like me any better, but they stopped. They stopped calling names. They stopped spittin'. They stopped beatin' up on me. They fuckin' walk small, Boston. They let me be, and they walk small and that's all I want. It's all I ever wanted."

"Nino," said Cipriano, softly, gently, feeling something in his chest lurch with pain.

"It's okay, Cip. It's done with. " He tapped his gun again. "This's just a trade, that's all, and I get along. I get along just fine. I'm good at my job."

"I'm glad you were good at your job, Johnny," said Scott. "And I'm glad you're here."

Johnny straightened up and turned to face them properly, everything behind the mask again. He nodded. "Yeah. I was thinkin' that this isn't anythin' like the border. It's real pretty here, isn't it?" He gestured towards the ghost mountains holding up the distant sky.

"Yes," said Scott. "It's nothing like Boston either. I'm only just coming to realise that I've been looking for a place that isn't anything like Boston, to start again."

Johnny looked surprised as if wondering what his hermano had to put behind him. "Is that what you want? To start over?"

"I'm tired of Boston, Johnny. I'm tired of having nothing to do. You'd think it would be a great life, wouldn't you, having so much money that you didn't have to do anything, didn't have to work or do anything but enjoy yourself. I hated it. It wears you down, in the end, so you don't even want to get out of bed in the morning. There's nothing to get out of bed for. So, yes, I want to start over. I want to do something different and build something new. This is going to be a good place to do that."

The French windows were flung open. "Johnny!" roared the Patrón.

"Of course," said Scott, without missing a beat. "It isn't going to be a quiet place."

It surprised a choke of laughter out of Johnny that sounded more real than anything Cipriano had heard so far. Scott grinned back, his eyes bright. The tension drained away.

"Reckon he has a tune he wants to call," drawled Johnny, his smile warm and open. They turned to watch the Patrón stamp towards them, every second step punctuated by the sharp stab of his cane on the tiled floor. The Patrón had a sheaf of paper in his cane-free hand.

"Hot damn," breathed Johnny. "That letter! Told you it was firin' him up. Wanna run for it? He'll never catch us."

"Do you know what this is?" demanded the Patrón, waving the papers at them. One detached itself from the sheaf and floated gently to the ground.

"I don't read other folks's letters, Murdoch," said Johnny, as virtuous as one of Padre Pietro's choirboys.

The Patrón glared. "It's the final Pinkerton report on their contacts with you two, that's what it is."

Cipriano bent to retrieve the loose sheet. The Pinkerton's unsleeping eye was printed prominently on the top. He saw the words invoice attached for your convenience and earliest attention and handed the sheet over. This was one Pinkerton invoice that he thought the Patrón would pay without complaint. Possibly.

"Indeed?" said Scott, raising an eyebrow.

His hermano was even more sardonic. "Good readin', Murdoch?"

"You were in a Mexican prison!" said the Patrón, and Cipriano could almost hear his teeth gritting.

"He must mean you, little brother."

"Guess so. Don't reckon an Eastern Fancy Dan would know about ending up in jail."

"Give me time to get to know my provoking little brother. I have a feeling you're going to lead me astray."

The Patrón's nostrils whitened with temper, and not just because he wasn't getting their full attention. "Stop being a fool, Johnny. The Pinkerton agent said he found you just as you were about to be shot by a firing squad! Literally just as you were going to be shot!"

"Yeah. Lucky that, eh?" Johnny sounded unmoved, but the expression in his eyes was wary.

Scott took a sharp breath. He looked intently at his hermano and put his hand, very briefly, on Johnny's arm. Cipriano wondered whether it was to comfort Johnny or himself, but whatever was meant, the fingers that Johnny was tapping restlessly on his holster again were stilled when Scott touched him, as if his hermano's touch gentled the wildness in him. Cipriano took a few steps to one side. This probably wasn't for him to hear and it was best to put on some semblance of discretion. He could watch from a little distance and he had sharp hearing.

"You were in prison because you were helping some Mexican peasants rebel? Why?"

"Because the Rurales caught us?" offered Johnny.

The Patrón's mouth worked and thinned down into the hard line that had become all too common an expression in the hard, lonely years. "I meant, why were you helping them?"

Johnny shrugged. "They asked me to and God knows they needed it. Don Castañeda was takin' every last thing they had and comin' back for the empty sack. They didn't have a hope. Their kids were skinny as fence rails."

The Patrón waved the papers some more. "How could they afford you? The way I heard it, you're... you were an awfully expensive gun to hire."

"Well now," said Johnny, softly, "You know how expensive I am, old man. Hirin' my gun this time's costin' you one-third of this place. Seems a high price. Best one I ever made, anyways."

The Patrón snorted. "I am not hiring your gun, Johnny! Having both of you home at last isn't costing me anything that I wouldn't pay ten times over."

Johnny stared, his expression for once revealing his surprise.

His father nodded at him, acknowledging everything that was unsaid. "Still, I'd be interested to know how those peons could possibly afford to pay you."

"I hired out for short money."

"How short, brother?" asked Scott.

"They had nothin' left. I hired out for tamales and beans." Johnny grinned suddenly, ruefully. "It turned out to be beans, mostly."

"You could have been killed, son! Dear God, but you were only a minute away from it! It wasn't even your fight."

"It never is my fight until I sign up," said Johnny.

"Why this one?" asked Scott. "Why did you help them?"

"They were nice people," said Johnny. "They didn't deserve what Castañeda did to them and they couldn't afford more." He shrugged. "There's worse things to die for, I guess, and plenty of the poor bastards died in our little revolution, especially after someone ratted out on us. The Rurales are the real bastards. They're more banditos than real law and they're in the pay of the landowners, to put down any of the peons who try to rebel. They don't care who they kill or stuff into one of the hellholes they call prison."

"Watch your language," said the Patrón, automatically. "You should have told us."

"You're the one who says that the past is past, sir," said Scott reasonably. before Johnny could do more than stiffen. "I don't see that either of us was under any obligation to explain our movements before we came here. After all, what difference does it make now that Johnny was in prison or I was in a lady's boudoir when the Pinkerton agents delivered your invitation? What's important is that we came, surely."

"A lady's what?" queried Johnny, grinning.

"Precisely," said Scott, and grinned back, but there was a strained expression around his eyes and the banter wasn't coming easily.

"I only hope she was pretty, Boston."

"Very pretty. Unfortunately, we were interrupted."

Johnny's smile broadened. "So were we. But I was damned pleased to see that Pink, I can tell you. I was next up."

"I don't know how you can joke about it," said Scott, shaking his head.

Johnny shrugged, his smile unwavering. "Makes me glad that was one Pink I hadn't given the slip to. They've been chasin' after me for months."

"Did you know I was looking for you?" demanded the Patrón, astonished.

"I didn't know what it was about or who'd sent them, but I wasn't lettin' them close enough to ask. I knew it weren't to hire me. No-one would use Pinks for that. And no, I didn't think it might be you. Why would I?"

The Patrón looked weary, suddenly. "It really wasn't my choice she went, Johnny."

Johnny ducked his head to look at his boots with a fascination they didn't warrant. He let the Patrón's words lie there, unanswered. Instead he said, "Pinks aren't good for business but mostly they're real easy to dodge when you want to."

"Thank God this one found you, Johnny. I'd have hated to have missed the chance to know I had a little brother."

"Well, it was close."

"How long were you in there?"

"Three weeks or so, I reckon. Kinda lost track of the days, after a while. There's no light and no clocks." He rubbed at his chest, where the huge bruise had been. "I kinda measured time by other things. They was regular about that."

After a moment in which both the Patrón and his elder son looked almost murderous, the Patrón sighed. "Well, I suppose it explains the bruises and why you were—" He broke off.

"I guess it does," said Johnny, flatly. "The Rurales don't like half-breeds much either."

"I wish the damned Pinkertons had found you sooner," said the Patrón. He crumpled the invoice in his hand. "I wish you'd let them find you sooner."

"Yeah," said Johnny. "Can't change the past, Old Man. It's done with, you said."

"I was wrong," said the Patrón. "And even if we're done with the past, it's not done with us."

Johnny let out a little huff of laughter, but there was no mirth in it. "Yeah," he said again. "We just have to play out the hand, Murdoch."

The Patrón's smile was reluctant. "Yes."

Johnny nodded and looked away and Scott stepped in to fill the silence. "You know, Johnny, I'll admit that I thought the dime novels made unlikely heroes out of gunfighters, but that's really something, helping people like that. It would make a good plot for a novel, you know."

"You gonna write it?"

"If I ever understand you well enough," said Scott, rather dryly. "Capturing you in words is hard enough, little brother, without trying to work out why you do things."

"Me? It's simple." Johnny opened his eyes very wide. "Sometimes you strap your gun on for a third of a ranch and sometimes it's for beans. It's all work."

Scott shook his head, smiling and Johnny laughed. For the first time that Cipriano had seen, he reached out and touched his hermano. He got a hand around Scott's neck and pulled him briefly towards himself, ruffling Scott's hair. It wasn't a full hug, but it was something; a gesture and a promise, maybe.

"You write it and I'll tell you what you get wrong."

"That'll be a job of work, all right," said Scott, but he was smiling.

The Patrón sighed, very loudly, and stuffed the report into his shirt pocket. "We have a round-up to plan, boys, and that will be real work. Let's get to it." He paused, and added, "Now you're stronger, Johnny, we'll go into Green River tomorrow and get that deed signed at the lawyer's. You'll be fine in the wagon."

"I'll be even finer on Barranca," said Johnny. "I can ride, Murdoch. It's only an hour or so, and we'll only be going at that sedate trot the Doc's so keen on."

"Barranca?" Scott grinned. "I thought you wondered what sort of name that was for a horse?"

"Well," said Johnny, with a rueful smile. "It kinda fits him. I'm ridin' him tomorrow, Murdoch, okay? Me and Scott will both ride. Right, brother?"

Scott stared, then the smile broadened until all the Eastern reserve was gone. He looked delighted, as if Johnny had given him a present of something he'd always wanted. "Right."

The Patrón, surprisingly, didn't argue. The expression on his usually stern face softened and he nodded his agreement, giving his sons a smile that left both of them looking faintly surprised. Cipriano understood, though, and the tight feeling in his chest that he'd had since he'd explained the curse of blue eyes to Scott, eased and stopped aching; a warmth spread there instead, filling him until he had to turn aside and wipe his eyes. The dust must have blown into them.

He looked out across the land that was as much his home as the Patrón's and knew it was safe now and that the scars would heal at last. When he got home that night, he told himself, he would kiss both of his Bella's hands in homage. She had said, his clever and lovely wife, that what would matter wouldn't be just what Johnny said, but what he did to show what his intentions were, to show who he wanted to be. Bella was, as always, a perceptive and wise woman. She would understand, as he and the Patrón understood, that both the sons were home at last.

Because Johnny Madrid had never had or known about or wanted a horse called Barranca. But Johnny Lancer? Johnny Lancer had fought for one.

And because Johnny Madrid had no brothers, only an Eastern stranger called Boston. But Johnny Lancer? Johnny Lancer had a brother called Scott.

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"I've been thinking," said Bella, as Cipriano halted the wagon in the shade of the oak trees in the square outside the church.

"A dangerous pastime," remarked Cipriano, lifting her down and setting her on her feet.

She dusted down her Sunday-best silks; there had been no rain for a couple of weeks now and the roads were dry and dust-blown. "Juanito looked very handsome in his new white shirt, when he went with his hermano and papa to sign the agreement," she said. "He's going to turn the head of every girl in the Valley."

"Mmn," said Cipriano.

Bella unfurled her parasol and tilted it to shade herself, just so, slipping her left hand through Cipriano's proffered arm. "But it's too soon," she said. "He needs time to learn to be a son and a brother before he's distracted by learning to be a husband. Were you distracted, Cipriano?"

"I still am," said Cipriano, patting the little hand on his arm. "As you know."

She smiled her special, only-for-him smile. "Yes," she said. "So. I'll enjoy watching Juanito become a fine caballero and in a year or two perhaps, when he's settled and happy and Señor Lancer is less... less apprehensive, then I'll think again about who may make a suitable wife for him."

"I thought you had Maria-Cruz Baldomero in mind?"

Bella shrugged. "An owner of an estancia as fine and big as Lancer will look higher than a shopkeeper's niece."

Cipriano, one eye on the gaggle of women on the church steps, wondered if anyone had told Señora de Baldomero that. She had just seen them crossing the square and was bearing down on them, her capacious silk dress billowing around her equally capacious frame. He mentioned her approach to Bella. "She looks very excited," he commented.

"She must have heard about the partnership," said Bella. "It will be all over the Valley by now."

That, Cipriano did not doubt. He had seen the power of women when it came to communication and was in awe of it.

"My dear Señora de Roldán! My dear, dear Señora! How happy I am to see you again!"

Bella smiled her most Isabella-like smile. "Good day," she said primly, closing down her parasol in order to press briefly only one of the hands held out to her.

"My dear! What an exciting time!" Señora de Baldomero affected not to notice Bella's coolness. "Both Señor Lancer's sons home and joining him at the estancia! How pleased you must be."

"But of course," said Señora Isabella,

"I'm so looking forward to the fiesta… there is to be a fiesta, you said?"

"I believe so," said Bella. "Señorita Teresa calls it a 'social', but we will celebrate with all our friends."

"Maria-Cruz is so looking forward to it, I can't tell you! She can barely sleep, she's so excited about meeting Señor Lancer's sons." Señora de Baldomero laughed, and added, archly. "Both his fine sons."

Bella frowned, as if in bewilderment. "Maria-Cruz?"

This time the Señora faltered. "But…" She took a deep breath and capitulated completely. "But Señora Isabella, you know Maria-Cruz! Señor Baldomero's niece!"

"Maria-Cruz," said Bella, pensively. "Ah yes, of course. Your niece, Maria-Cruz. A pretty girl, I remember. I'm sure that if she comes to the fiesta, Señora, there will be no shortage of respectable young men to dance with her."

"Señora Isabella!" said the Baldomero woman, faintly.

"Do please excuse us, Señora, but the warning bells are sounding and Señor Roldán is eager to get to Mass—" (which piety was news to Cipriano) "—so perhaps we may speak later?"

And Bella smiled her cool smile again, dismissing Señora de Baldomero's repeated bleatings of "But Señora Isabella!" with a nod, and got Cipriano moving with the slightest of tugs on his arm.

Cipriano paused on the steps of the church and looked down into his wife's lovely face. Bella beamed up at him.

"I think she knows, now," she said, "that she's too late. That will teach her to think Juanito isn't respectable enough."

Cipriano laughed. "Ah, Isabella Muñoz de Roldán! You're quite magnificent!"

"I know," his Bella said, her mouth curving until he wanted to kiss it, right there on the church steps. "I know."

/End