Blood's thicker than water, and when one's in trouble

Best to seek out a relative's open arms. ~ Author Unknown.

The Lancer brothers had not been in town long, running errands for their father, Murdoch, before the inevitable happened. Madrid.

It was no secret the younger Lancer, Johnny, had been a gun for hire on the border towns of Mexico and the United States, things had been quiet for months. The citizens' of Green River accepted the young man. Some liked him, some tolerated his past and respected his desire to be his father's son and just a few kept their distance; almost all of them would defend the young man.

Scott the eldest son would lay down his very life for his young brother. The brothers not having grown up together on the ranch known as Lancer, and a five year age difference; and the fact Scott grew up in Boston, raised by his mother's father into wealth and prominence after the death of his mother giving Lancer the first son. Johnny being born on Lancer but being taken by his mother, their father's second wife, at the age of two. Lived a life of poverty and a fight for survival. To that end, the younger Lancer turned to the gun. Despite the differences, they each had always wanted an older brother or a younger one.

Neither knew the other existed until several months ago... their father having sent for them in his time of need... and the need to bring his sons home, where they belonged to claim their legacy.

Young Tommy Bolton ran up to the brothers, "Johnny, Johnny! Ya gotta go home..."

Johnny held onto the young boy who couldn't stand still, "Hold on a minute, what's gotcha in a twist?"

Tommy turned his eyes up to the older Lancer, "Scott, ya gotta get Johnny outta here."

The brothers looked at each other; Scott bent down and asked the boy, "Why don't you tell us what this is all about. Slowly."

"Ben Master's in town, an he's got about four other gunfighters with 'em, an I heard him ask at the livery, ask Mr. George if'n he heard tell of Johnny Madrid bein' in town. So I was gonna go tell Sheriff Val ta go and tell ya not ta come ta town...but I seedya and I had ta warn ya. Those other gun slicks is bad news."

Scott stood up and put his hand on Tommy's shoulder, his younger brother had turned away... "Tommy you go on and tell Sheriff Val. Then you go home, let your mother and father know what's happening." The boy turned to go, "Straight to the sheriff."

Tommy ran as fast as his legs could go, he liked Johnny Lancer and didn't want those varmints gunn'in his friend.

Johnny had moved away from his brother, the ends of his hats storm straps beings worried in his mouth. "Johnny?" His brother's voice made him turn around and drop the strings... "May mean nuthin Scott...could just be passin thru." Johnny knew Ben Masters, and he was good, just how good Johnny really didn't want to know. He wasn't afraid of Masters, and he could do the dance and come out on top, but with his brother here, he couldn't risk Scott getting hurt. "Masters knows my reputation, I know his... our caliber of skill, we usually just walk away... no need to prove ourselves."

Scott looked at his brother, "Another code of the West?" Johnny smiled up at his older brother, "Yeah, sumthin like that."

"Let's wait for Val." Scott hoped the Sheriff and Johnny's friend would come along soon, he could see the mask of Johnny Madrid begin to invade his brother's eyes.

"You wait for Val, I'm gonna check these gun slicks out." Johnny turned to the saloon, his boot hills sounding on the boardwalk, the spurs keeping rhythm with each step. Johnny pulled his Colt from the holster and checked the chamber, all six bullets waiting. He reholstered the gun, not missing a step as he stood in front of the batwing doors. Pushing open the door he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, and looked at each and every person in the room, it didn't take him long to see the gunhawks, all at the same table in the back, he walked through the doors and made his way to the bar.

"Bill, Tequila." The barkeep placed a glass and bottle in front of Johnny. He gave the young gunman a look and said in a low voice, "Got a sawed off under the counter, you let me know."

Johnny smiled, "Don't think I'll need it Bill; but thanks. You just stay clear if anything goes down." Bill nodded at the look in the young Lancers eyes.

Standing at the bar, Johnny could see the table with the gun hawks, clear view, nothing in the way. The bar patrons had kept their talking to a low mumble they knew Johnny and they knew to keep out of the way, but they would make sure it was all a fair fight, there would be no ambush of the younger Lancer.

Ben Masters stood up and moved to the bar with his empty glass in his right hand, his gun hand, and came to stand beside Johnny. "Madrid." He said to the young gunhawk. Johnny nodded, "Masters."

"Been a while, Johnny. You still look too young to go 'round with that rig."

Well, ya know calendar age ain't got nuth'in ta do with it."

"Johnny, my young man, you are so very right on that score."

Johnny poured a drink into the empty glass in front of him, and then shifted the bottle towards the gunman. "Prefer whiskey, but I'll gladly take a shot of the Mexican rotgut." Holding his glass out Johnny poured the fiery drink. Putting the bottle back on the bar, Johnny picked his own glass up and saluted the older gunman. "What brings ya ta town?"

Masters sipped his drink, and then sat his glass on the bar. Looking at Johnny he smiled, "Just riding thru, got a job south of here, met up with my trail buddies a few miles back. Don't know much about 'em; but I'd watch my back."

Johnny looked directly into Masters Eyes, reading them, gauging the truth or lie, "We understand each other?"

Masters returned Johnny's stare, knowing what Johnny meant. They had nothing to prove to each other, both men very good at their trade; their reputations earned honestly and hard won. "Yeah, Johnny, we understand each other. I'm going to finish my drink, get me something to eat, a bath and maybe a bed for the night. My "trail buddies" can't rightly tell you their intentions; but they are hungry for the rep, keep an open eye."

Johnny nodded, "'preciate it. Good eat'n in the Cantina up the street, be wise ta go check it out."

Glancing over at the table he had just vacated, Masters turned back to Johnny, "Join me later?"

Johnny smiled, "Yeah, tell Rosa ta get me an estupendo fiesta. Be there in a bit."

Masters moved away from the bar and walked, out on to the boardwalk. Two men moved past him in a hurry, one tall and blond, the other with a badge on his shirt; before they even made it into the saloon, Masters heard the bark of a Colt 45, then another. Yeah. Madrid had not lost his touch. The Cantina was just what Masters expected, good spicy smells from the kitchen, a pretty senorita, and a guitar player who knew what he was doing with the stringed instrument.

He hoped Madrid made it. He had heard the gossip of Madrid hanging up his Colt for a ranch and family. Something he could never do, it was much too late for him.

Just as the last shot was, fired Val and Scott entered the saloon. They saw Johnny standing at the bar, Bill's shotgun pointed at the two remaining gunfighters; other cowhands with pistols drawn also pointed at the remaining men. Scott moved

To stand beside his brother, "Johnny?" The younger man kept his head down and nodded, "I'm ok Scott, lets let Val finish this up." Johnny looked at Bill and nodded, as he left the saloon with his older brother he nodded to the ranch hands.

Val, with the help of the patrons soon had the bodies removed and the other two men on their way to jail.

One of the gun hawks told Val "We ain't done nuthin."

Val growled back, "I'll get ya locked up then I'll sort ya out. Be lucky you ain't with those other two, then you'd have God doi'n the sort'n."

People in the street watched the brothers walk side by side, the younger man with his hat pulled down so you couldn't see his eyes the older man looking up and around as if to see any other danger to his brother. Scott caught the eyes of various towns folk, each person just nodded, some with sympathy, some with relief, some with distain; but that's how it was with Johnny, if you got to know him he would be the best friend anyone could have. He was caring, gentle and devoted; but he had a darker side, the side the few would only let themselves see, hard, cold, and dangerous. The Madrid persona that only came out to defend and protect.

Johnny stopped at the Cantina, looking in he saw Masters, food piled high on the table in front of him. The gunfighter pushed a chair out, and nodded to Scott to join them.

Rosa sat a bottle of Tequila in front of Johnny and a glass, and a second glass for Scott; she left to go back to the kitchen, her eyes looking over the younger man and saw no bullet holes.

"Madre De Dios, gracias." She made the sign of the cross.

Masters watched Johnny pour a full glass of the fiery liquid, throw it back, pour another, and let it sit. "So they wanted something of yours, hey?" Johnny rolled the glass around with his fingers, "Yeah, but they didn't want it bad enough."

"Didn't think so, it was a matter of time before they woulda turned on me. Glad you're still in one piece Madrid."

"Lancer, the name's Lancer. I'm gonna leave town now, but I'll be back tomorrow to make sure you're gone." He looked up with the Madrid eyes, "Be gone Masters." The brothers got up to leave, Masters stopped them, "You may change the name, but no one can really change who they are inside."

Scott turned around his own blue eyes cold and dark, "You are wrong Mr. Masters, with the love of family and good friends the good that was always there will find it's way out, and the pain of the past will lay hidden until the good out weighs the bad. Good day Mr. Masters."

"And you sir, who might you be?"

"I'm Johnny's brother, and right proud of it."

Masters watched the brothers walk away and drank back his whiskey.

Val watched the brother's ride out, nodding to Scott, he tried to see the face of his friend, but the boy never looked at him. Damn. Just when things were working out for the boy, something or someone had to step in and stir things up again. Well one thing Johnny had now that he didn't have was a family, a loyal brother that had his back and a grizzly of a father that would fight for his boy no matter the odds, and good friends. Looking around him, this town was good for the ex-gunfighter; it gave him a chance to be Lancer, son and brother.

The ride home was slow, just outside of town Johnny stopped, sliding off his horse he knelt by the side of the road and lost his lunch, Scott dismounted and handed his brother the canteen. Johnny opened the cap and took a swallow then spit it out, taking another drink he let the water sooth his throat. "Thanks brother." Taking the canteen back, Scott hung the canteen over the pommel of his saddle. "You going to be alright?"

Johnny stood, moving over to his horse he leaned with his head against the strong neck of the animal. "I'll be fine. Go on ahead, I gotta run this outta my system."

Scott watched his brother mount the golden palomino and take off at a gallop and head across the meadow. Mounting himself, he knew Johnny had to sort the death of two men in his mind. He hoped Johnny remembered he now had family to help. In his brothers past life as a gun for hire, he had no one to turn too, and kept a lot of his pain bottled up, there was no need for him to do this on his own...but Scott knew his younger brother had to come to terms with the taking of life, even though it was kill or be killed. Scott smiled, was that another code of the West? He remembered the first time he'd ask his brother about the amount of killing, Johnny had said, "Ya gotta do it to them, before they do it to you."

One day little brother, he thought, there will be an end to this part of Johnny Madrid Lancer, and just be Johnny Lancer. He hoped it would be soon.

The Lancer hacienda was not quiet; when Scott had ridden back from town without his brother and told their father about the incident, the bellow could have been heard all the way to Green River. Pacing in front of the fireplace in the great room Murdoch Lancer stopped and glared at his eldest son, "Well how is he?"

Scott finished pouring the whiskey into two glasses, recapping the bottle and picking up the glasses he turned and walked over to his father and shoved one into his hand, "He's just fine. Needed a few minutes to himself. This really upset him."

Murdoch drank down the drink in one swallow, looking up at his eldest son; his eyes mirrored those of his son. Pain, concern, anger. "The boy just doesn't get a break. Damn, two of them you say?"

"Yes sir, four actually, but only two were stupid enough to take him on. You should know sir, Bill had his shotgun out and some hands from the Conway ranch were backing Johnny to keep it honest. When Val and I arrived it was all over."

Murdoch walked over to the big window behind his desk; he turned around "You telling me Johnny was not alone?"

"That's right, they kept him from getting back shot, and they protected him."

"Then they were either drunk or loco. They could' a been hurt or killed."

Murdoch and Scott turned around to the voice. Johnny strode into the room and made his way to his father and brother. "They were nothing, just two bit wanna be's. I had the dance the way I wanted it. Someone coulda been hurt or killed. " He d bowed his head, "I couldn't have lived with that."

"They are your friends Johnny, Val and I would have been too late. I am sorry I wasn't there to back you up." Johnny looked up at his brother, "I sent you for Val, Dios! I didn't want you in the middle of that, you or Val coulda been killed. I'll not have that on my soul." Johnny made to walk away, but his father's strong, but gentle hands held him by his shoulders. "Son, when will you see we all care deeply for you, we are family, we are joined by blood. What hurts you hurts us all. We will always be here to put the pieces back together."

"Face it brother, you have Lancer blood in your veins. That counts for a lot of stubbornness and wrong headed actions, but it is the tie that binds us together."

"I just don't want anyone I care about to be hurt by Madrid's past." Johnny looked up at his father, "I don't want you to hate me for being Madrid." Murdoch's hands fell from his son's shoulders, "Is that what you think of me? That because you have to defend yourself to stay alive I could hate you? I could never hate you son. Let your brother and me take some of that pain."

"It's not only the Lancer blood that makes us family; it's also the heart that makes us brothers and fathers. Let us in brother." Scott stood watching the stiffness of his younger brothers shoulders begin to drop, the weariness take over and his brother begin to sag. "Let's set you down before you fall." He put his arms around his brother's shoulders and led him over to the couch. Murdoch poured a small amount of whiskey into a glass and held it out to his son, "A little something to brace you."

Johnny accepted the glass and sipped the liquor. "When it was just me and Momma, we had each other, then when...later as I got older... it seemed like she just gave up. Family that was just a kids dream." He drew in a breath and released it, "I just don't want to lose it now that I have it."

Murdoch stood in front of his youngest son, "That will never happen. It's taken me too long to finally have my family all under one roof, and if I have to I'll stand beside you."

"We both will little brother." Scott standing shoulder to shoulder with Murdoch reached down a hand, "Come on, I know Maria left some dinner for you." Johnny let his brother help him to stand. As they were on their way to the kitchen, the door received a booming knock. Scott opened the door to the sheriff of Green River, "Val!"

The scruffy sheriff walked in, hat in hand a smile lit his face when he saw Johnny, "Boy ya alright? God almighty ya give me a heart attack, takein' four on. Boy don't cha know any better. Seems the other two had warrants on 'em, the other dead ones too. You're lucky those Conway hands were there and ol' Bill had the scatter gun." Val stopped and drew in a breath, "Ain't got no holes in ya, do ya?"

Scott laughed, "Not a one Val. We were just going into to get something to eat. Join us?"

Val hung his hat on the peg by the door, "Wouldn't turn it down."

His voice got low, as he stood beside his young friend, "Johnny, glad you're ok, it woulda done my heart a great hurt if'n ya got hurt or worse." Johnny bowed his head, "Thanks Val."

Murdoch watched his sons continue onto the kitchen with Val following behind. Treat your friends like family, Johnny had that part of family right, now to open his heart and let them in. It may take a little time, but he was prepared to wait.

Morning saw Johnny up early; he was on the patio watching the sun come up, cup of coffee in his hand. He heard the sounds of an awaking ranch, horses, men the jingle of tack. He heard the soft footfall of his friend Val. "Up early amigo." He said turning to the sheriff.

Val ran a hand over his face and smoothed his mustache, "Figured you'd be ridin' inta town early like. Wanted ta be with ya." Johnny smiled, "Yeah I am, gonna make sure Masters pulls out today." Val took the coffee cup from Johnny's hand and took a good long drink. "He worry ya some?" In a low voice he answered his friend, "No; but why'd he even bring up ta ask if Madrid was in town. "

Putting down the cup on a table, Val hitched his gun belt to settle on his hip, "Think'n he was watchin' the play?" Johnny looked at his friend, "that's exactly what I'm thinkn."

Turning Johnny smiled at his friend, they had history together, each in turn watching their backs, digging bullets out of soft flesh and saving each other's backside. "Come on, Maria should have breakfast ready." Val slapped Johnny's arm, "Don't gotta ask me twice." Johnny bowed at the waist to let Val go thru the patio doors first; laughing as the grizzled lawman slapped at his young friend.

Murdoch and Scott were already sitting at the table drinking their first cups of coffee. Val sat and the youngest Lancer sat in the chair beside him. Looking up the Lancer patron nodded to the Sheriff, "Good morning Val, sleep well?" The man looked up from his plate of eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and onions and green peppers, and the best biscuits he'd had in a long time, "Yes sir, I always sleep good at Lancer." Johnny smiled at his friend as he dug into his own plate.

"Johnny, are you going into town today?" Murdoch and Scott both waited for the younger mans answer. Johnny put his fork down and looked at his father, "I am. Gonna make sure Masters Leaves town." Val growled beside him, "And I'm gonna be right beside him." Scott wiped his mouth with the napkin and lay it on the table, "If you don't mind sir, I'd like to ride in with Johnny and Val."

Hiding a smile, Val dug his elbow into Johnny's side. Murdoch took a sip if his coffee, and sat it down on the table. "I think that would be alright... as long as you all wait till I get the crew their chores and talk to Cipriano. Go ahead and saddle my horse as well. Maria," he said as he stood, "Good breakfast, Gracias." The men around the table were quiet, stunned by Murdoch's order. Johnny looked at Scott, "Well, whatya think of that?" Scott stood, "Told you last night Johnny, family. Lancer takes care of their own. Thank you, Maria." He left out of the room leaving a stunned Val and Johnny.

Val stood, slapped his hand on Johnny's back, "Family: ain't it sumpn?" He hooted as he left the kitchen, "Gracias Maria muy bueno."

Maria came over to her Niño, "Juanito, I am happy for you, you must now forever stay at Lancer, you have famila that care much for you." She kissed his cheek and went back to her stove.

Johnny slowly got up from the table, "Gracias Maria." He stood beside her, "mi mamacita." He gave her a kiss on her cheek, and left the room. The older woman now was happy, her Niño had come home.

The ride into Green River was quiet, each man with their own thoughts. Johnny had a feeling that all would not be right when they got to town. He glanced at his brother then to his father, they knew what he had been, and accepted it, and gave him help to change the past. Days like yesterday, when his past reared its ugly head, he didn't know how they could still want him around. Looking at his friend Val. Val, there was a friend if ever there was one. Took him as he was, cried with him, rejoiced with him and was proud of him to have found his family and home. Friend, more like an uncle, family... just what had he gotten himself into.

After his mother died, he only had himself to worry about, now, Dios! He had a brother and father, friends as close to him as family and a reason to go on living, if only to protect those things he loved. Love. Now there's a word he had only used for his mother. Family was cutting the high fences he had built up around his heart one by one. In the short time he'd been home, he learned to laugh with them, worry with them and cry with them.

Yeah, he was home and safe within his family's arms. Now to keep them safe from Madrid's past.

Johnny pulled up his horse in the middle of the road, the others stopped and turned back. "Johnny?" Scott looked at his younger brother.

"Son?" Murdoch looked concerned. Val just waited, as he usually did, waiting until Johnny was ready.

Looking at his family the young man sighed. "When we get ta town, if anything happens, ya gotta promise me ta stay outta my way, don't distract me." He shifted in his saddle, "If I gotta worry 'bout ya, it could get me killed. Promise me, if I gotta dance with Masters, you don't try and cut in."

"Johnny..." Murdoch stopped as his son held up a hand, "No, Murdoch... Pa... I got too much reason ta live. He's gonna try me." Val pulled his horse around to point to town, "Johnny, I'll keep an eye on your family. You jess take care a business." With that, Val entered his town.

Scott sided up beside his brother, "Johnny, don't worry about us. But you just remember one thing brother; I want you to be around to dance at my wedding." Scott smiled, "Whenever that may be." Johnny grinned at his older brother, "I'll be there, brother, with bells on." Murdoch touched his young sons arm,

"Johnny...son... I love you. Come back to me in one piece."

Nodding, he smiled his breath-taking smile. "I..." he hesitated for just a second, "I love you both, I'm not ready ta cash it in." Turning to town the Lancers rode in as a united front, strong in the faith that love will win out over the specter of death.

Val Crawford, sheriff of Green River; today friend to Johnny Lancer. If Masters chose to arrange an ambush for Johnny, well he had Johnny's back. He had verified Masters was packed, ready to ride.

Across the street in the hotel restaurant, he was having his cup of coffee... waiting. Why didn't he just ride off, he knew Johnny was coming into town. Maybe Johnny was right, he wanted one last dance.

Masters had seen the sheriff ride back into town; he smiled at the waitress as she refilled his coffee cup. He had told Madrid he had no worries from him, but he lied. His job was to kill Johnny Madrid, been paid half upfront, it was a contract and he was good as his trade, never failed yet. The other gun hawks were his backups; with Madrid, you could never have too many backups. He sipped his coffee. Yeah always, have a backup, especially when you were going up against someone of Madrid's caliber.

Throwing some coin on the table for good service and paying his bill, Masters left the restaurant. He was still on the top of his trade, but Madrid's show yesterday made him glad he had his aces up his sleeve. He didn't want it to be this way, but a contract was binding and he would accomplish it any way he had to. Stepping out on the boardwalk, he saw the Lancer men ride into town. Too bad it had to end this way, just as Madrid had what he'd always wanted, a family. Well at least he would die with someone to morn his passing.

Riding his palomino horse into Green River the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. Swinging down he lightly touched his booted feet to the dusty street, spurs making a slight jingle. Tying off his horse to the post outside the Sheriff's office, he turned. He had seen Masters step out onto the boardwalk. They nodded to each other, and Masters stepped into the street.

Val met Scott and Murdoch as they stopped in front of his office; they dismounted and tied their horses beside Johnny's.

"Scott, Mr. Lancer." The two men greeted the sheriff. Seeing the fear in their eyes, he spoke softly, "Masters ain't below making sure he comes out on top." Scott noticed the rifle in the sheriff's hand. "You mean backup if he fails?" Scott asked. Murdoch's lips drew a straight line. "I don't like this." Val looked at the older man, "Scott 'n me'll guarantee a fair outcome."

"Sir," Val touched the older ranchers arm, "You be here for Johnny. He's gonna need his father."

Murdoch nodded, looked at his eldest son, "You be careful. I can't lose both of you." Scott drew his rifle from its scabbard,

"You know I will. We'll both be here for Johnny." With a glance at Val, the two left Murdoch standing alone watching his younger son prepare to defend his, life.

Johnny stood apart from Masters, facing the older man he stared into the eyes of the gunfighter. "Johnny, sorry 'bout this it's only a job, nothing personal. However the reputation is nothing I'd turn down."

"I'd tell ya ta just walk away, we don't need the climb anymore, but if'n your on a job nuthi'n I'm gonna say will change that." Masters smiled, "Yeah business is business. Might say it'd bother me to have to kill you, but your death will put me higher than any gunfighter I know least you'd know you were gunned by the best."

Johnny kept his eyes on that of the gunfighter, " My brother asked me about the code, you remember the one about, do it to them before they do it to you, so if we're gonna dance, lets bow and curtsy and get it done." Masters grinned, "You never were one to stretch out the inevitable, I think I hear the fiddler warming up."

Murdoch couldn't tell who drew first both men were fast, equal, both stood looking at each other, then the older man slowly knelt in the street, a smile on his face, " Dios Madrid, you're fast."

Johnny came over to the man, "Via con Dios, Masters." With a final breath, he fell into the street, a crimson stain spreading over his chest.

A shot sounded from his left, Johnny crouched down, then another shot off to his right. Minutes later, he saw Val come from behind a building and his brother Scott from an alley. Both had rifles leaning on their shoulder. Murdoch stepped into the street.

Joining his son he looked him over, couldn't believe he found no new holes in his youngest son. "Johnny, you ok son?"

"I'm fine Papi, looks to be Val and Scott got my back."

Val went over to check Masters, Scott stood beside his brother and father, "I'm ready to go home, how about you two." Murdoch smiled, "I've had about as much excitement as I can handle."

Johnny nodded to Val, "We good here Sheriff?" Val waved to the Lancer men, "You're good Johnny, see you later at Lancer."

Moving off to retrieve his horse Johnny turned back, "You two coming?" Father and son fell in behind the younger man. Val looked up, as his friend and his family left town. Yeah everything was good.

A non descript man went to the telegraph office, after a few minutes he returned to the street and watched some men carry the dead gunfighter to the undertakers. Madrid still lived. The man adjusted his bowler hat and went to the stage office, his job was done.

The End