Always Buy The Best (by Rosalind)

Summary: A lighter- hearted Lancer adventure.
Category:  Lancer
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  4000


Part One:  The Shopping Spree.

Johnny Lancer was bored. Just HOW any man could take so long to buy a couple of pairs of pants was beyond him–but Scott seemed to be prepared to take all DAY over it. He had purchased a pair a couple of months ago which had, so he claimed, ‘just disintegrated’ (which, so Murdoch had translated, meant that they had fallen apart) and Scott had been very annoyed about it. So THIS time, he was picking and pawing over Beldemaro’s selection of work pants, wittering on about the quality of the drill cotton and what the stitching was — and seemed no nearer to finding whatever it was he wanted in a pair of pants now than half an hour ago.

Johnny had long ago exhausted the possibilities of the ‘Emporium’ (another of Scott’s words) as Baldermero now called his store. He had examined a case of fancy-handled knives minutely before deciding that the knife he had already was much better than any of them. He had flicked through a selection of very dull shirts (now Scott would just LOVE every one of them–if the stitching was up to his high standards, of course) and amused himself for a while by trying on some hats. He had even flicked through the pages of the soft covered dime novels that Scott said weren’t worth the reading (now how did he know THAT if he had never read any himself?) and called “penny dreadfuls” — and still Scott and Baldermero were nattering on about the advantages of machine stitching over hand stitching and whether the newly invented ‘denim’ material was likely to be tougher and more hard-wearing than the well-proven cotton drill.

Johnny was now reduced to sitting on the lid of an apple barrel, enjoying one (apples were still a comparatively rare treat and he intended buying some to take back to the ranch if Scott could ever finish buying his damn pants and let someone else get a word in edgewise). He had been paring it neatly (to make the treat last longer), paying great attention to getting the paring dead even all the way round and in one single piece, and considering his possibilities.

They had done the saloon when they first arrived — hot and dusty — in town and he didn’t fancy going back there–but he could simply just GO. Load the wagon — and go. Leave Scott behind.

That would definitely do the trick, but it would also annoy Scott — and Murdoch. The former didn’t really worry him — “annoying Scott” had become something of a game the pair of them played — but the latter was now a “sport” that he was definitely beginning to tire of. He had told himself, at first, that he didn’t give a damn for the “old man’s” opinion of him, but over the months he had come to realize that this simply wasn’t true and he was trying his damnedest now to gain the formidable ranchers respect and good opinion — and even affection. Doing things just to rile him no longer appealed.

Worst still, though, he would have to load AND off-load the wagon single-handed at either end of the journey if he didn’t wait for his brother.

He gave a quiet “whoop” of triumph as the apple skin finally fell away from the fruit in one long single curly strand; Scott turned his head and gave him a smile and nod of acknowledgement before turning back to his infernal pants. Johnny sighed and began to chew his way through the peel he had just so carefully pared, pulling it into his mouth through his teeth and now aiming to get it all in there without breaking it and without touching it with his fingers. (Such were the straits he was reduced too, he thought glumly).

He hooked the last of the dangling apple peel into his mouth with his tongue, chewed doggedly and swallowed.

“Are you gonna be much longer?” Johnny asked plaintively into a short lull in the “sales talk”.

Pleased at this display of interest, Scott turned and beamed at him. “Which do you think would be the most practical — the brown or the dark blue?” he asked, picking up a pair of each color in either hand.

“Have a pair of each — a man can always use a spare pair of pants,” Johnny said cunningly, seeing a way to put an end to all this, before taking a bite out of the apple. “If the stitching is OK, of course,” he mumbled sarcastically, as an afterthought.

Johnny had come to admire this newly acquired brother of his. He was brave, resolute, honest and resourceful — but he was also something of a puzzle. He had changed his entire lifestyle on nothing much more than a whim, it seemed, and sometimes reacted to situations with an impetuosity that got him into some trouble. Yet he could spend half an hour (or more) buying something as boring as a pair of workpants.

Johnny sighed again and took another bite of his apple.

He could not know then, of course, that very soon he was to have very good reason to be grateful for his brothers insistence on quality –- and for his resourcefulness.

*****

Part Two:  Quality Tells 

It was late afternoon, a few days after the purchase of Scott’s new pants, and the Lancer brothers were feeling faintly virtuous after a day’s hard but successful work. On the way back to the hacienda, they had sidetracked a little to visit one of Johnny’s favorite places — a little ridge that offered a view of the rolling green meadows that led down to the white adobe house which was nestled in a light belt of trees.  There were several odd rounded boulders — each about the size and shape of a chuck wagon cover — that littered the very lip of the ridge, as if they were trying to roll themselves over the edge. Johnny liked to lie on one of these and survey his territory. HIS territory!

The thought was still new enough to send a genuine thrill down his spine — and still new enough for him to sometimes wonder if it really could be true.

“You could see right into the house from here with that telescope of yours,” Johnny commented contentedly. He was sprawled out atop one of his round rocks, apparently completely at ease with the idea that one false move could send him rolling over the edge of a thirty foot drop.

“Hmm-hmm!” Scott preferred to stay on the level. Balancing on boulders was not his idea of a relaxing time. He had taken up a position just to the right and slightly behind his brother’s chosen perch, and was, in fact, leaning his shoulders against the same boulder, looking the other way, towards the mountains that arose mighty and majestic on the extreme northern edge of the Lancer spread. If he had looked down rather than up, he could have checked their horses, cropping the sweet grass at the foot of the shallower climb of the ridge that they had traversed to get to their vantage point. “I don’t…” His words were broken off as a low rumbling sound seemed to issue forth from under his feet and the entire ridge shook. Johnny’s perch actually shifted.

“Come down from there!” Scott ordered in alarm, swinging around as well as he could with half a mountain jigging around under his very feet.

Johnny just laughed. “It’ just a ‘itty bitty trem…” he began dismissively when its bigger brother hit. The ridge actively rocked violently and the boulders began to jiggle around as if they were mere pebbles. Johnny had begun to slide himself to a safer spot when a third and even harder shock rocked the land. The round boulder slithered the wrong way and, because there was nothing to prevent him, sent him toppling off the top and over the edge. He had time to let out one sharp yelp of astonishment as he went sliding down the side of the smooth boulder and then lurching sideways down the ridge.

The land heaved and grumbled once more and then, as if satisfied with what it had achieved, settled down again to its customary age old slumber.

Agile as a cat, Johnny twisted neatly in mid-air so that he could land and roll on the soft green sward below him, but to his horror, as he DID land, he felt the ground give way beneath his weight. With a howl of alarm he found himself unexpectedly embroiled in a mass of wet, sticky, smelly MUD.

“Scott!” Johnny fought to free his arms from the unexpected morass and raised his head, scanning the ridge above for a sight of his brother, praying that the unexpectedly strong tremor that had dislodged HIM had not harmed Scott as well. Then he began to try to pull himself out of the morass that was gulping greedily around his knees and found that he could not move his legs easily in the thick goo.

“Scott–I need some help here!” he tried again–and this time, to his relief, he received a response. Scott’s blond head appeared over the edge of the ridge, peering down at him.

“Stop fooling around, Johnny,” Scott called crossly. Earthquakes–even so-say minor tremors– made him edgy. He hadn’t been out in these parts yet long enough to treat them with the casual unconcern of the more experienced locals. Also, he had been rather shaken to see his brother topple out of sight as he had and had briefly imagined Johnny lying at the bottom of the bluff with a broken leg or something worse.

Johnny, it seemed, could not even balance on a ROCK without apparently getting himself into a mess. Quite HOW he had survived in the decidedly hazardous “career” as a gunfighter was something of a mystery to the older Lancer brother sometimes.

“I am NOT fooling around,” Johnny snapped back. “Get down here with a rope, damn you, and haul me out of here. Its MUD and I’m stuck in it.”

“We don’t HAVE a rope.” Scott had seen both horses high-tailing it homewards as hard as they could go, and as both of them were remuda horses rather than their own personal mounts, the chances that they would return to even Johnny’s piercing “horse come back here NOW” whistle was remote indeed, even if they were still in earshot. “The horses have made off.”

“Mierda!” Johnny swore coarsely. “Well, find something.” He made another attempt to free himself and went suddenly white and quiet as he realized that he was more than just trapped. He was, in fact, getting in deeper.

The wet smelly goo that had been just above his knees was now up around his thighs and his attempt at pulling himself out had just caused him to be sucked him down a little deeper.

“Scott.” His voice had lost its sharp tone now, and it was the little quiver of fear in it  that he couldn’t quite suppress, that brought his brother’s full attention to the very real danger that his “little brother” was now in. ‘Scott, please–get down here and DO something. I’m sinking.”

“Keep STILL, Johnny–I’m coming,” Scott commanded. Even from above, it was obvious now that Johnny was certainly NOT fooling around. He was now almost crotch-deep in the sinkhole–and some of these death traps could be tens of feet deep. Johnny could vanish totally in minutes. “Don’t struggle. It will just make you sink faster.” Scott kept talking as he began the somewhat perilous descent down the rocky slope.

Keep still? Keep still! Johnny tried desperately hard to obey this eminently sensible advice whilst all his highly-honed survival instincts were screaming at him to fight like the devil against the sludge that was holding him prisoner. He knew Scott was quite right, so he fought instead for the self control that had kept him alive in the past, managing to get control of his heightened breathing and making sure that he kept his hands and arms out of the ooze.

He was still sinking however and was beginning to be more than a little scared. He had sometimes given a little thought to the circumstances of his own death, but not even in the dangerous days when Johnny Madrid held sway and any and every day could have been his last had drowning in mud EVER been even a consideration.

There was a small tumble of loose shale as Scott slithered down the last few feet of the ridge and landed safely on firm ground some ten feet away from the top half of his brother. Ridiculously, the words “half-brother” flicked through his brain as he landed, but already he was scanning the scene, looking for someway to affect a rescue. With a rope and a horse it would have been relatively easy–but there was no rope, or horse, or — that he could see — anything else. There were no trees, no branches, nothing.

“Scott,” Johnny pleaded. He was now waist deep in the smelly slime. “Don’t just stand there. DO something–please!”

“Just keep STILL!” Scott reiterated. “I’m thinking.”

“I AM keepin’ still,” Johnny howled. “And I am still sinkin’, damn you. Never mind thinkin’. Get me OUT of here.” The urge to struggle was too much and he made another attempt to free himself. The mud seemed to clutch at him even more urgently and he froze into immobility again, sweat beginning to trickle down his face as he felt the filthy stinking muck creep further up his body.

Scott was now face down in the dirt and edging cautiously forward, trying to find the border between firm ground and the dangerous ooze that was holding his brother prisoner. It would be of no use to anyone if he were to become ensnared in the stuff himself. He found the boundary and measured the distance speculatively. So near –about five feet — and yet so far. Scott scrambled back to his feet, nonplussed for a moment, but he’d be damned if he was just going to stand here and watch Johnny disappear into the mudhole.

“Scott?” Johnny said forlornly. He was now all but chest deep and seemed to be sinking rapidly, with his arms raised in almost a gesture of surrender, at shoulder level. “Please! D–do something.”

Scott dropped his head in despair. He needed something long enough and strong enough for his brother to grab hold of — and there was simply nothing. Even two belts would not reach, and neither of them was wearing a jacket. Shirts simply would not be…

“Hey!” The idea struck Scott like a thunderbolt. He scrabbled desperately to undo his gunbelt and tossed it aside, then tore his pants belt from the loops and wrenched of his boots so that he could scramble out of his trousers.

“Johnny–grab hold,” Scott instructed, getting as close as he could to the edge of the sinkhole. He wrapped one end of one leg around his hand and threw out the other end of the other leg — and prayed that Baldermero had been right in his assertion that these new and expensive pants of his could indeed “support the weight of a man”. Johnny’s life might just depend on that claim.

Normally the sight of Scott prancing about agitatedly in his underwear would have reduced Johnny to helpless laughter, but there was absolutely nothing funny about the current situation. Johnny flung out both arms — which action seemed to encourage the mud to take another haul at him — and grabbed at the length of material that was being hurled towards him. Sheer desperation seemed to aid his frantic clutch and he caught hold of the potential lifeline with something like a sob of relief. The very fact that he now HAD something that was connecting him to his brother brought his survival instincts crowding to the fore and his growing panic receded.  Like Scott, he wrapped a length of the pants leg around one hand and seized hold further up the material, with the other and began to try to “swim” his legs forward in the cold wet clinging mud.

Scott was not a man given to praying, but now he was desperately applying to the good God Almighty that his impromptu “rope” was going to hold — because if it gave now, then Johnny, now immersed up to his armpits, was probably doomed.

Scott pulled and Johnny fought, and, inch by agonizing inch, the clinging mud began to consider giving up its victim.

Bracing himself  determinedly,   and keeping his eyes fixed on the trousers as if glaring at them was enough to make them do the business,  Scott hauled with everything he had and Johnny doggedly tried to force his legs to move through the gripping ooze towards firm soil.

The cotton-drill was tried to its limit, as was the much vaunted machine stitching.

Scott could feel the trousers beginning to stretch — or was it the stitching that was beginning to fail? Or was it that his arms were beginning to be pulled from their sockets? The sweat was pouring down his face and stinging his eyes but giving in or giving up was not an option. By dint of some rapid blinking, he managed to clear his vision enough to take new stock of the situation.

Scott thought that he could see that Johnny was now probably within grabbing distance; there was certainly more of him visible above the slime line, although he was so filthy that it was hard to say exactly how much freer he might be. He hauled in hard one more time on the make-do rescue-line and lunged for his brother’s outstretched arms, grabbing for and making contact with tensed solid flesh as his fingers closed, miraculously, about Johnny’s outstretched left wrist.

He felt Johnny’s fingers dig savagely back into his forearm in return and he put the very last dregs of his failing strength into one last desperate yank. All but sobbing with both release and relief, he hauled Johnny free of the deadly mud and the pair of them fell exhaustedly at the extreme edge of the sinkhole. Scott, nearly spent, nevertheless  managed to roll the pair of them onto solid ground  where they lay  gasping and breathless, side by side,  both too exhausted to move.

“Whoa!” Johnny was the first to recover enough breath to make a sound other than deep rasping breaths “Th…that was…a nasty one. You OK?” He dragged himself to his knees and surveyed his still wheezing brother in some concern while trying, somewhat in vain, to scrape down the coating of stinking mud he was coated in. His hands met his gunbelt and gun, and with a soft groan of dismay, he tugged his mud-smothered Colt from its holster and gazed at it dismally. THAT was going to be some cleaning job. He rammed it back into the equally gooey holster and gave Scott his attention again as his brother rolled over onto his hands and knees and from there to his feet, still clutching his now ruined pants.

Scott shook the pants out and surveyed the misshapen garment with resignation and let out a disgusted sort of “cluck” before letting them fall to the ground. Then he let out a little chuckle and held out an arm to haul his muck-encrusted brother to his feet.

For a moment the two half-brothers stood there, almost toe to toe, clutching at each others arm and exchanged a long look which said more than any words.

“Thanks,” Johnny offered, at length, pulling a rather wry smile through the muck on his face.

“Don’t thank me.” Scott’s own grin was a trifle weak too. “Thank Baldermero’s extra tough pants.” He toed at them with his stockinged foot and then began to look about him for his boots. “We couldn’t have done it without them.” He sat down and had another look at his ruined nether garments.

The material was stretched and twisted almost beyond recognition–but it had held, and so too had the vital stitching holding the left and the right parts together. The extra dollar spent had been well worth it, he thought thankfully.

However, there was no way that they were now, in any way, a pair of wearable pants.

With a sigh, Scott began to pull his boots on over his long-johns. “Whew!” He raised his head as Johnny moved upwind of him. “You stink!”

“You ain’t so fresh and dainty yourself,” Johnny retorted. He was beginning to recover from the shock of the incident and his sense of humor was beginning to re-assert itself. “You could have just left me there to sink, of course — could have gotten yourself half a ranch — and kept your new pants all neat ‘n’ clean.”

“It was a tough decision,” Scott admitted, with a better attempt at a grin and nodding. He looked his brother over again and felt a bubble of laughter begin to boil within him.

Johnny was filthy — coated almost head to toe in the thick green/brown muck that had nearly killed him — and Scott didn’t think that HE looked a lot better, covered in sweat and grime and dust and dressed now only his shirt and underpants. Scott was a man of some imagination so he didn’t need a mirror to know how ludicrous he must appear — how they must appear. He began to chuckle, and at the sight of Johnny’s astonished face, the chuckle became a snigger; as Johnny, perforce, joined in the mirth, the snigger became a full throated, belly aching roar of laughter.

Uncontrollably, they both laughed out their release of the recent fear and tension and their shared relief that both of them had survived the short but terrifying ordeal. They both ended up sitting on the ground, with their backs to a nicely supportive rock, too weak once more to do much more than gulp and gasp.

Scott fought for self control and finally managed to find enough breath to voice a question. “D-do you think that there is any chance at all that we can get back to the ranch-house without being spotted?” he spluttered.

*****

Epilogue

Senor Baldermero was rather surprised–pleased, but surprised — when the Lancer brothers came back into his store just a couple of weeks later than their last visit,  and Scott asked for yet another pair of his best-quality pants.

Scott,  who really only had to decide whether to go for another brown pair to replace the “rescue-rope” pair or have another pair of the dark blue ones,  was also rather surprised  when Johnny joined him a the counter and picked up a pair of the brown ones,  deftly turning one leg inside out and peering knowledgeably at the seams.

Scott raised an enquiring eyebrow.

Johnny gave him a wink and a grin. He might not be a great reader and he might not be up to a debate on the advantages of “canvas drill” over traditionally woven cotton, but he DID have a very good memory, even for things that he heard when he might not seem to be paying very much attention.

“Just checkin’,” Johnny said cheerily. Scott’s eyebrow rose a little higher. “That you’ve got the ones with the…” Johnny paused for effect, “…double back machine stitchin’.”

***The End***

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