The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb

 

 

FRose's Fandango

A/N: You'll find a few references to Scott's cavalry horse called Mortimer, from a story called "Contritus". In that story, Scott found his horse again after the war and left him with his Great-Aunt Elizabeth for continuing care.

Chapter 1

My Dearest Scott,

It will be a match against time to get this finished respectably before you arrive for your visit. However you will wonder why I have commenced so late but I have been busy till now and have scarcely allowed myself time to digest my breakfast. I wish to inform you of a new habit your dear Mortimer has recently formed. He has included Minuet, the donkey, in his conspiracy, I’m afraid. Boone has found them twice this week amongst the yarrow, happily eating. Yet their gate is always firmly closed. While I do enjoy the tableau—his black coat is simply delicious against all that pink—I am soon to be out of plants for the Garden Club Meeting on the 27th.

I look forward to your visit at Zephyr Fields on Friday so we may solve this mystery together.

Yours fondly

Great-Aunt Elizabeth
____________________

 

Rose was having none of it. The mare balked at being ridden so close to the fence line for some reason. It was a fairly new behavior, but only one in a long line of unruliness. She apparently liked to keep her rider on his toes, so to speak. Scott had been on his toes for a few weeks now. He always enjoyed a challenge, but she was quite the mystery. He guided her away from the wooden fence and immediately felt her relax.

Yes, quite the mystery. But he had a larger problem at hand. They halted near Sam Logan’s wagon and he swung down from the saddle. Sam was a surveyor from Green River and had been called in to do just that—survey this small acreage and see if it was fit to irrigate.  

The free-swinging stride that had carried him from Boston was still there, but the land was uneven and he walked unsteadily, acutely aware of two things: his decision regarding the pasture would seal the Cipriano’s fate and Maria Elena—Mrs. Cipriano—was at the window watching his every move.

Scott was pulled in two very different directions. If the land area was deemed sufficient, it would be irrigated and planted, but the Cipriano’s would lose their rather large vegetable garden. Murdoch had already set aside another parcel of land that could be of use to them, albeit terribly inconvenient, from their current house.  

The path writhed among rocks, emerged then fell away before him to a lower level, almost beckoning him with green. Cipriano had come up from the house with his youngest son, Diego, to stand by the horses in that vast greenery. Always steadfast, the vaquero was nonetheless nervous about the outcome. He knew the lines of ancient beaches where lakes and seas had been. It was a matter of pride that he knew the plants of the valley, the flowers, the herbs, and grasses. Scott had clapped onto the man like a leech when he first arrived, to siphon off his knowledge of the west in general, Lancer in particular.

Indeed, it was that knowledge that had brought them to this point. So it felt, in part, like a betrayal.

He walked with Sam, from corner to corner, circling back to the horses. Only small talk until that point, catching up on who was running for office in Green River, who’d met the wrong end of a gun barrel, who was serving time in jail. Surveyors liked to talk it seemed. Scott’s eyes flicked to the side as Diego walked haltingly over to Rose. He reached out to her and she put her nose in his hand. His bright smile lit up the entire pasture.

“As I was saying, Scott, there are water points underneath the soil. Potentially large bodies of groundwater which would make the effort of irrigation negligible if they could be drilled and tapped. You can tell how fertile this area is by how well that garden is growing. The pasture is almost lush here.”

“So you would recommend drilling until the water is found then proceed from there?”

Sam nodded.

He felt eyes on him and turned. Cipriano was watching him, and Scott straightened, dropped his gaze, and looked around for more direction from Sam.

Maria Elena called out for Diego. Still keeping his furious gaze on Scott, Cipriano pulled his son away from Rose and sent him back to the house.

“How long until the drilling can commence?” he asked. “If we should decide this is the route Lancer wants to go.”

Sam reared back and put his hand on his chin, stroking it through his beard. Negotiations, if only hinted at, had a way of bringing out the “good ole boy” in Sam as Scott had learned. Paint the beard black, extend the mustache and he’d be a proper villain in any dime novel.  

“A few weeks to a couple of months. The outfit will need to come out of Modesto.” Sam looked at him. “If we were to make some sort of decision now, it would save a whole lot of time on both ends. Summer’s coming and they’ll start to get busy.”

He’d been raised by Harlan Garrett, knew a pitch when he heard one. And this was a pitch. He smiled and slapped Logan on the shoulder. “Now you know this is a family affair. I need to discuss it with my father and brother before any decisions are made.”

Sam’s shoulders deflated. “If you were to wait too much longer the team may not be available at all.”  

Scott steered him to his wagon and saw him up to the seat. “It’s a chance we’ll have to take.”

“Yes, but…”

“We will be in touch. One way or another.”

Sam nodded, a grim set to his mouth that wasn’t there before, and flicked his reins.

He and Cipriano watched until the wagon disappeared from view under the white arch.

“Maria Elena had hopes of putting in a larger garden this year.” Not a question. A deflection, a way of not embracing what was so easily at hand. But not vindictive. Cipriano was a lot of things, but not that, not even when it came to this.

Scott nodded, but said nothing.

“It’s been a hard few months with the new baby. And with Diego as he’s gotten older,” Cipriano admitted, after a long moment taken like a breath to blow out a candle. “Thank you for waiting on the decision.”

Scott took that and tucked it away for later. Because he realized that when the decision was made, Cipriano might not be so thankful.

#####

“Diego?” Scott called. “Why are you so far from the house?” Perhaps more to the point, why was he in the river?

The boy stood lightly on the rocks, noticeably quiet and scrawny in a family of vivid children. Scott felt a tug of sympathy for him. “I can give you a ride back, if you’d like.”

Diego took a step backward and shook his head. Maybe the offer shouldn’t have been made. Rose was something of a puzzle these last few days. Even now, he could sense the mare’s nervousness coming through the saddle.

Diego stayed where he was, balanced on a low rock, alert and motionless, giving off a chilling silence. Scott called, “Diego? Are you coming?”

Again, he shook his head.

Scott dismounted and tied the skittish mare to a tree limb. He pressed forward through long grasses. A cloud of startled white butterflies fluttered around his knees. He reached the first rock took a giant step up, and leapt to the next rock just beyond, teetering for a  second before finding his balance on the slick, mossy surface. So far he was still on dry land, but most of the other rocks—including Diego’s—were partially submerged in river water. The children at the ranch were warned to stay away from the river because it was unpredictably deep in some areas, not to mention cold so early in the season.

Diego kept as still as a cornered deer. Scott took his eyes off the boy and looked at the water. The river seemed to gather itself up as it travelled toward a sharp bend. It swelled in loose tangles then smoothed and flowed on, nearly opaque at its center. Water always seemed to sooth him. He tore his gaze away and turned to the boy. “I’ve almost got you.”

Diego took another step backward, and disappeared.

For a brief moment, Scott couldn’t believe what had happened. He looked down and saw a turmoil in the water. A small, pale, big-eyed face gulping for air and choking. A frantic thrash of thin, flailing limbs.

Scott jumped onto the rock Diego had been standing on, skidding slightly, and twisted his ankle. He plunged in waist-deep and gasped with the iciness. He grabbed the boy’s wrist, but lost it. Then he clutched white cotton ticking. He hitched him up by the back of his shirt, plucking him from the river like a bag of laundry.

Scott hoisted the boy aloft for a split second until Diego’s thrashing overbalanced them both and he went under. But he still had a grip on him. He fought to pull the boy above the surface even while he was half sitting on the bottom. Then he was up and struggling shoreward, stumbling and falling, hauling Diego by his armpits. Between the boy’s coughs came huge rough, scraping breaths. Scott dragged him over to the shore and up to the grass where he dropped him. He bent double to clear his head and shake the wet from his hair.

“What…what were you doing?” Scott huffed out.  Diego didn’t answer. He was shaking and chattering, huddling into himself on the ground. Scott staggered to his horse and grabbed his tied jacket from behind the saddle. He bundled it around the boy.

Scott squatted down next to him. “Are you all right?” and Diego nodded, wiping his nose with a sleeve of the jacket.

“You’re breathing better,” Scott said, but he kept watching the boy. In a softer tone, “Can you tell me what you were doing out on the rocks?”

Scott tensed, but Diego kept silent. He couldn’t tell anything from the boy’s expression: eyes lowered, mouth pursed in in a stubborn bunch. Even before his dunking, he had the appearance of a skinned wet cat, and now Scott could make out the white of his scalp beneath the dark hair. The boy swiped at his nose in an irritated way, as if a gnat were bothering him.

“Well,” Scott said finally, and he sighed and rose to his feet. “I guess the fun is over for the day. Let’s get you back home.”

Scott said a prayer the fractious mare would accept riding double, if not it was going to be a long walk home leading her with Diego in the saddle. But it would give him time to think how Cipriano and his wife would react to the admission: the boy never would have fallen in if not for him.

 

 

Chapter 2

March 21st

My Dear Great-Nephew,

Is it a peculiar habit of every cavalry horse that he or she enjoys a cup of coffee, or did you teach him that? Indeed, I found Mortimer’s muzzle deep in my own cup this very morning. Alas, I will take credit for his shortcomings this time as I had left it unattended atop the gate post. He appears to like it best with cream and sugar.

Another peculiarity, if I may? Boone fired his old pistol the other day and Mortimer stood like a statue, unperturbed. Yet when a piece of laundry blew off the line and into the pasture, he (and Minuet, for they are the very best of friends now) launched themselves into the air and galloped to the very far end. What a capricious horse! I couldn’t love him any more for it.

You may stop and pick up the peppermints at Feldman’s he so loves on your way up, if you desire.

Fondly,

Great-Aunt Elizabeth
___________________

 

Scott sent the blood bay mare out again to circle, at a walk. The full sun picked up on her coat and brought out a sheen that fairly made him catch his breath. Rose. What an apt name for her. She stretched and lengthened out in the round pen, with all the grace of a barn cat waking up from a nap in the hay. He clucked once and Rose picked up an easy trot, muscles flexing with the effort. She seemed perfect, no lameness, and no hesitancy.

A bright bit of blue in deep contrast to the green of the bushes in the corner of the corral told Scott he had a visitor. He had to think. Yes, there were five children who made up the Cipriano brood: Jaime the eldest, Isabella, Tomas, Diego, and Luciana, the most recent addition. Three of the five were ensconced in the school room attending to their studies. Then there was Diego. A shiver crept across his spine when he remembered yesterday at the river. And the incredulous look Cipriano gave him after delivering the boy back home.   

He slowed Rose back to a walk and eventually stopped her altogether. She immediately angled in to him and waited patiently. He walked up to her and stoked her neck.

A low whistle brought his attention to the opposite side of the fence. Johnny lurched up from his lean on the railing.  

“She sure is a beauty, Scott. I’ll give you that—you got an eye.”

Johnny made his way into the pen. “She moved off real good in that circle from what I could see. No soreness. So I’m guessing you still don’t know why she’s acting up.”

“Still a mystery. But one worth investigating.”

“I guess.” Johnny shrugged and moved to Rose’s opposite side. He ran his hand down her neck, then let it rest on her withers. He tipped his head over his shoulder and leaned in to whisper, “Is that Diego in the corner?”

Scott gave a quick nod. “It is. I don’t know if he’s been there the entire time, or managed to sneak in without me seeing him.”

“I think he likes your horse.”

“I can’t argue with young Master Diego about that, she is stunning.”

Johnny shook his head. “That boy is gonna be a in a passel of trouble if his mother finds out. You know she doesn’t like him to be out of shouting range.”

“Hey!” Scott called, imagining his voice like a lasso, something he could rope round the boy to drag him away from the bushes. “Diego!”

Diego stood up, mouthed something, and straightened his shoulders.  Fighting hard. He kicked away a blown piece of newspaper that tangled around his feet. It was like watching someone move through molasses, as the boy crossed the courtyard leaving a trail of dragged boot heels.

Why was no one looking after him? The thought came to him, so angry and hard it was actually painful.

Because Diego was a special boy, so unlike the rest of his brothers and sisters.

A small tug on his wrist and Johnny was motioning to Murdoch coming out of the hacienda in the particular long-legged stride of his. His back must be acting up again—the length was there, but the usual speed wasn’t.

Murdoch jabbed a finger in the air when he reached the corral. “Was that Diego?”

Johnny spoke up, “Scott sent him back home.”

“I’ll need to speak with Cipriano about him. We can’t afford to have him near the horses or cattle, he could get trampled.”

“Keepin’ that boy tied to the house isn’t the answer either,” Johnny said softly.

“Perhaps, but we need to do whatever is necessary to keep him safe.” Murdoch sighed. “How is the mare doing, Scott?”

“She seems to be fine. I’ve checked her over, nothing seems amiss.”

Murdoch nodded. “Good. We’ll need her come the round-up in a few weeks.”

Scott coiled the lead rope in his left hand and gave Rose a final pat. He fervently hoped she would stay the course because the mare was rapidly becoming a favorite.  

He looked across the courtyard. Diego was peering at them from around a corner and when he met Scott’s eyes, disappeared in a flash of blue.  

#####

It was still February for a day or two yet, was a good month before the seasons turned no matter what calendar you consulted, but Scott could feel something stirring. Something climatic in a way, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Perhaps it was just the cloudy day. Or maybe it was the argument he had with Johnny the evening before about the mare. Not civilized enough to bait each other over drinks of fine whiskey and cigars as would happen at the Union Club in Boston, they had it out over steaming piles of dung and sawdust in the barn. Not a whisky or cigar in sight.

Johnny was simply wrong about Rose.   

As if in answer to his scattered thoughts, she jigged a sidestep. Scott shifted his weight in the saddle and she calmed, stepping forward. Something was wrong with her, but it wasn’t her reticence. She’d always been a very giving mare. He had refitted the saddle and changed out the pad for a less-used one, made sure the bit fit her correctly, and groomed her meticulously.

A few hours at the worry post was his brother’s recommendation. His method, and that of the other vaqueros and indeed, Scott’s own cavalry sergeant, was to tie a horse to a post and let them stand for hours on end. In Scott’s estimation, it was not only a waste of time for him, but the horse as well.

No, something else was going on with the mare.

From time to time he paused to rise in his stirrups and look carefully around. Aware that he was supposed to meet Johnny and the rest of the crew in the eastern pasture, he pushed on.

A deep metallic toc came out of the far woods, a black jumping hop in the pine. Crows. Three of them, wheeling and huge, finding small rodents. They hopped and fought each other for something bloody and furry. Rose snorted once, then twice. She swung her head viciously to the side in panic. Scott felt himself vibrate like a tuning fork, struck but not yet pressed to a hard surface where he’d make a noise, before she exploded.

He was suddenly a jangled mess of arms, legs, reins and stirrups.

Once, twice, they were airborne. Overbalanced, Scott toppled from the saddle on the third flight and landed flat on his back, he saw tumbling hooves and flying loose reins take a small bounce into the woods. He didn’t bounce, not even once. The sky darkened and blood pounded in his skull.

The blackness brightened to pearl grey above him, cleared with his sudden intake of breath. He let out a thin hiss of air as he raised his head to look at what he’d done to himself.

He groaned, rolled over and came to a sit, his elbow hitting something hard. He tried to pretend that he didn’t care, but he did. It was all so wrong. Rose was supposed to be all right. Scott blinked his eyes open, and everything spun. He closed them quickly, and waited for the spinning to stop. Cautiously, he tried again. Everything was blurry at first, he couldn’t focus on anything, just buried himself in the sound of brush and bramble being torn apart.

He shivered so hard it hurt and wished he could stop because he could barely say anything. He wanted to yell for her to come back, to quit her nonsensical thrash through the woods, but could only sit and try to catch his breath.

It took several long minutes before he heard voices. And s few more before Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and flew from the saddle.

Scott eased himself up to unsteady feet.

Johnny looked at him closely, eyes made smaller from worry. “What happened?”

Scott would have shrugged, but it hurt.

“Frank’s bringing up your mare.”

“Is she hurt?”

“She’s got some scratches. Took a piece of hide off at the shoulder and I expect she banged her knee on something, it’s got some swelling.”

He looked at Johnny and found something more there than worry. “Go on. You have something else to say.”

Johnny shrugged noncommittedly. “Rose isn’t getting any better. And you’re still using her. She’s not right in the head.” Johnny slapped Barranca’s reins against his thigh. “You could’ve been killed today. She’s too dangerous and I don’t know why a smart man like you can’t see it.”

Scott wobbled to a tree stump and sat down too hard, feeling the tremors shoot all the way to the top of his pounding head. “Birds. It was just a few birds we flushed out of the brush. Any horse would have spooked at them.” 

“Not like what I saw. That horse was beyond scared.”

Terrified, he thought. Rose had been terrified and that was certainly suspect in a seasoned ranch horse.

“So what are you gonna do, Scott?”

He leaned over slowly, placing elbows to knees, thinking. Trying to find an answer. It was staring him in the face, but it was a decision he didn’t want to make. And he was a man used to making hard decisions.  

 

 

Chapter 3

June 5th

My Dearest Scott,

I have heard through the by and by that you have had another set of fevers. My Boone talked with the Steller’s Maisie who had talked with your Skimmerhorn. Thank God the servants talk, or I shouldn’t have found out anything being so far from the city. My choice, and one I usually relish, until it comes with poor news regarding my nephew.

There seems to be something in the air, for while Mortimer has been adequate these last few days, he’s perhaps off his feed a bit as Boone related to me yesterday. He has not been out to the yarrow once this week. Never fear, we will take good care of him. I must insist you stay home and recover.

Yours fondly,

Great-Aunt Elizabeth
___________________

 

Hearing wagon wheels, Scott hitched his way out of Rose’s stall. After the fall, his muscles had seized up into one ball of hurt.   

“Jelly did you get the salve I wanted?”

“Now why would you think I didn’t get it?”

“All right, all right. I didn’t mean to cast doubt upon your person. Where is it?”

Jelly gave him a scowl, then dug into his coat pocket for the jar. Thinking so hard Scott could almost see the captions.

“What is it?”

“Well, some of the boys were talkin’.”

“Yes, and just what were they talking about?”

“Sayin’ that your Rose cut the fandango in those woods yonder.”

 News traveled fast, he wondered where all this going. “She did kick up her hooves a bit.”

“I knew a horse out in Texas called Midnight Blue who did more’n kick up his hooves. Wildest, craziest,…”

Ah, there it was.

“…meanest critter I’d ever like to see.”

An odd rustling came from the back of the buckboard saving him from the long-winded story of the terrible Midnight Blue. “What is that noise?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all for you to see.”

Ignoring Jelly’s indignant look, Scott lifted up the well-used tarp. “It’s a goat. What’s a goat doing in the back of the wagon?”

“I found’ im.”

The edges of what he called his Jelly-headache were starting to form. “Where?”

“Alongside the road, if you must know, Mr. Inspector.”

“You found a random goat just standing beside the road.” It was a struggle to keep the incredulity from his voice.

Jelly was pretending like he didn’t know what Scott was getting at, but there’d been a twitch, his eyes had flicked to the side for one telling second. “That’s right.”  

“And you decided to take him.”

“It’s still a free country, huh? Look here, Scott. The poor thing doesn’t have any earmarks. Why her mother was probably killed, and she got lost. It was lucky I happened to come by and save her when I did.”

The pinch-y feeling in his frontal lobe was now threatening to assault the rest of his brain. “Just adding to your menagerie, Jelly?”

“My what?”

“Your menag…your goose. So now we have a goose and a goat. What’s next? A gorilla? Perhaps a guinea pig should be our next acquisition, less of a storage issue and all.”

“Oh, you’re just funnin’ me.”

“Regardless, Murdoch will have something to say about it.”

Jelly’s eyes lit up like a snake oil salesman on his first pitch of the day. “Look here, we could have milk for the table, and make cheese with what’s left over.”

The goat let out a bleat in affirmation and half-bounced around in a circle, head bobbing, tail held high, right on Teresa’s new bolt of fabric. “Jelly? There’s only one crucial flaw in your plan. That is a male goat.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Yes…never mind. You didn’t find him beside the road, did you?”

Jelly feigned confusion, then his beard drooped. “If you have to know, I might have traded a bag of grain for him.”

Murdoch would have a field day that little bit of information.

“Scott, I just couldn’t leave him there at the Baker’s farm. No, Sir. He came right up to me. ’Sides, the Mister said he was going to eat him before the week was done.”

He rubbed his temples. “You already have a name for him, don’t you?”

The old man preened. “I settled on Merlin during the ride back. Seemed fitting and all because of the way he enchanted me.”

Rose’s loud whinny came from the barn. It appeared they all had their peccadillos. He shook his head, knew he was beat. “I can’t argue with the why’s or the what’s, it’s the where that may be the real issue. As in where are you going to put said goat?”

Jelly scratched his beard so hard Scott could hear the bristles rub against his fingers. “Well now, I hadn’t rightly thought about that part. Maybe the corral?”

“Maybe one of the empty stalls in the barn. Until you can build some fencing for a bigger enclosure.” The thought of even this small goat bursting across the courtyard to butt an unsuspecting Murdoch made his eyes goggle.

Looking chagrined at the thought of more work, Jelly sighed.

“Oh, and Jelly, perhaps you should come up with a better story—and soon. Murdoch does go out to the barn occasionally.”

He looked at Merlin one last time and shook his head. Despite the outrageous story, he couldn’t stop his grin.  

Returning to the barn, Scott paused at the door hearing soft mutterings coming from Rose’s stall. Diego. His eyebrows pinched. He’d never heard the boy speak before.

He crept in and watched. Diego stroked Rose’s neck, carefully avoiding the scratches left by the bushes during her foray into the woods. The mare’s head was lowered, eyes at half-mast, looking for all the world like this was an ordinary thing. A thing she truly enjoyed.

Diego’s eyes rounded when he saw Scott in the doorway. A second later, his glance ricocheted around the barn, calculating escape routes. 

Scott held out his hands. “Easy. Just take it easy.”

Diego took two steps to the stall’s half-door.

He had a despairing thought about needing some of Merlin’s magic and strode into the barn’s interior, ignoring Diego’s distress, and collected the bucket of water he’d already drawn up plus a few rags from the shelf.

“Diego? I think I could use some help with Rose’s care. Would you mind?”

He didn’t give the boy time to think just pushed a rag into his hand and placed the bucket on the stall floor. “Her knee is swollen because she hurt it the other day. Soaking it in cold water is a way to make it better. Like this, see?”

He mimicked the action and waited.  

Diego released a soft sigh and dropped the rag into the bucket, pulling it out laden and dripping with water. He let the water slosh over the mare’s knee. It trickled down her leg, pooling in the hay.

Scott watched him dip the rag in the water and apply it to the leg over and over. The whole time the boy’s lips were set, thin and tight with determination. He only paused when Rose shuffled a bit on her feet. Each time the mare became too anxious, he’d stop and murmur, whispering wordless encouragement. Despite the mare’s state, she calmed when the boy’s soothing hands caressed her shoulder.

They worked together until the cuts and scratches had been covered with salve and her knee was adequately cooled. Then Scott showed a bug-eyed Diego how to prepare her mash.

“Go ahead and give it to her. I think she deserves a hearty meal after all the work she’s done today.” He grinned at Diego and was rewarded by a hesitant one in return.

He watched the boy place the feed pan on the stall floor and a curious thing happened. Rose shoved her nose into the straw, snuffling alongside the edge of the wall. 

Diego went to push the feed pan under her muzzle.

“Wait a minute.”

Scott bent down and lifted the pan up to Rose. She dipped in to get a mouthful. Then he placed it back on the floor. Pushing her nose into the straw again, she found the pan when she bumped up against it. How could he have not seen it before? A sickening feeling hit his stomach.

“Diego!” It was Cipriano, looking for his errant son. Scott winced at the tone, he’d heard Grandfather use the very same more than once when he was younger.

He stepped out of the barn. “He’s here.” Scott waited until the vaquero crossed the courtyard. “He’s been with me all this time. I apologize for not sending word.”

Cipriano looked like he’d rather be clapping on leg irons than collecting his son from the barn again.

“It’s all right, you know—having Diego here. He helped me out tremendously this afternoon.”

The boy’s spine stiffened so quickly it was in danger of snapping off. He peered up at his father and nodded.

A smile ghosted Cipriano’s mouth. “I’m pleased, but he knows not to run off, eh mi hijo?”

They turned to leave.

“Cipriano? May he come again?”

The vaquero looked away for a second, all of the fear and love for this odd boy passing across his face. The question had apparently caught him unawares. Finally, he nodded. 

#####

Dinner that evening was subdued with both Murdoch and Johnny offering their opinions on what to do with Rose. Not surprisingly, they were approximately the same: a horse that couldn’t move cattle was of no use. Eventually, as he knew he would, Scott approached the barn, hoping in some way a miracle had occurred. What he found instead was humbling.

Diego was on his knees before a small figurine. As Scott got closer, he could see it was a crudely-carved Virgin Mary and had been carefully placed on a piece of burlap cloth over the back end of a rickety bench Jelly had been meaning to repair.

Hands clasped, head bowed, the boy was deep in prayer.

Scott opened his mouth, unsure. The idea of giving Diego some time, well that was the last thing Rose actually had. Still, the only other option was to pray with him, and hadn’t he done that before, in his own fashion, with Mortimer so many years ago?

Rubbing his mouth with one hand, he sighed and knew the boy would need company. The truth was, he needed company, too. Scott could only hope he told his parents where he was going.

He stepped outside the barn and caught Frank. “Could you please tell Cipriano that Diego is here at the barn with me? I’ll see to him tonight, they shouldn’t worry. Thank-you.”

Diego was still on his knees when he went back in, and Merlin had stuck his head out from between the slats in his stall, offering a plaintive goat-y smile.  

 

 

Chapter 4

June 7th

Scott,

Please come post haste. Mortimer is down in pasture, unable to get up. Have sent Boone to bring the doctor. 

~ E
___________________

Scott adjusted the lamplight then dropped a few flakes of hay into Rose’s stall and took his place on the barn floor with Diego. The boy had gone to sleep an hour after Johnny had arrived with milk and cookies. Diego turned shy around Johnny, but not shy enough to turn down Maria’s baked goods.

On Johnny’s second visit, he came loaded with a pot of coffee, two cups, a book under his right arm, and questioning eyes. When asked point blank—albeit in a whisper—about Diego, Scott merely shrugged and pointed to Rose. His brother made the connection quite quickly.

“Did you know Diego can talk?”

Johnny’s eyes widened. “Huh, I’ve never heard him. He sees me and starts running.”

“You don’t have a horse he likes. He’s actually quite good with her. There’s more to that boy then meets the eye.”

Scott took a sip of coffee and felt the burn all the way down his throat. He angled his head to the stall across from their sitting place. “Have you met Merlin yet?”

“No, but I heard Jelly talk about him plenty enough. Pretty proud of himself for saving it.”

Scott’s eyebrow quirked. “Is that what he said?”

“Not really the truth?”

“In a roundabout way, I suppose. Apparently, Merlin was to be someone’s dinner. He traded a bag of grain for him at the Baker’s.”

Johnny grinned. “Murdoch’s gonna have something to say about that, if he finds out.”

“If he finds out? Even if he never comes into the barn again, he’ll be able to hear it. Merlin, as it happens, is quite chatty. As for the bag of grain, there’s an old saying that discretion is the better part of valor. I’ve already forgotten about it. As far as I know the damned goat flew itself here on golden wings under the full moon.”

“Maybe he heard about the good Lancer grub.”

Scott lifted his cup in a salute. “Quite possible, brother.”

An earnest bleat brought their attention to the goat at hand. They watched in fascination as Merlin shimmied himself under the last slat of his stall, momentarily getting a shoulder caught then freeing himself.

Johnny rose half-way until Scott pulled on his sleeve. “Let’s see what he does.”

Merlin seemed to reject them both as responsible caretakers and wandered to Rose’s stall. One quick push under the railing and he was in, wobbling his way over to her. 

Scott held his breath.

Merlin and Rose bumped noses. She found her feed pan and tossed him some leftover brown bits. That was all it took. After a few circuits around the stall, Merlin settled down in a corner, evidently liking the real estate better.

“Would you look at that?” murmured Johnny.

“I believe Rose has stolen Jelly’s goat. Well, I always knew she was smart.”

“Speaking of Rose…”

“I’d rather not continue the dinner conversation here, Johnny.” He put his hand up to fend off his brother’s rebuttal. “I know what should be done, I’m just not sure if it needs to be done.”

“You know Murdoch’s take on the problem.”

Scott nodded. “And from what was said, you’re of the same mind.”

Johnny swirled his cup. “I’ve never had the occasion to think about it. Not really. Sure, I had horses pull up lame, but that was just a waiting game. This, well, this is a different type of thing.”

“How so? Beyond the obvious.”

“I’ve always used horses, never had more than one at a time. To keep one around that can’t pull its weight seems…”

“Frivolous?”

“Yeah.”

“When I was eighteen, I would have agreed with you. My opinion changed rather rapidly when I reached twenty.”

“What happened then?”

He swallowed, waited a beat. “A cavalry horse named Mortimer. He was mine, until I lost him in Virginia. Then he was mine again when I found him more than a year later. It sounds trite, but that horse saved my life.”

Johnny stared at him. “I guess you’re gonna have to change Murdoch’s mind then. Easier said than done, though.”

“Of that thing, we’re in complete agreement.”

Johnny stood and glanced into Rose’s stall. “See you in the morning.”

Scott called out, “Johnny? A favor? Would you ride into town tomorrow and ask Dr. Hildebrand to come out?”

A moment, then, thin and tight, “I can do that.”

As for Murdoch, he might as well try to change the course of a riptide. He nudged the book Johnny had brought out. It was Dickens’ Great Expectations. Ironic in a way Johnny never was, surely it had been merely grabbed off the shelf. Thought that, then settled back and drifted off into sleep.

He woke up a couple of times along the way, not able to go deep, until he stretched out like an invalid. Even then he couldn’t get comfortable sitting, and stretching his legs was a farce, because his back muscles felt as though they were made of heated wire courtesy of Rose’s fandango yesterday. He gave up halfway through the night and sat listening to boy and horse snores. It was oddly soothing.

His memories hopscotched their way back to Aunt Elizabeth’s stable and Mortimer, his touchstone.

I can't do this much longer. He knelt down and took the head on his knees again. He ran his hand over Mortimer's shoulder, patted his neck, and traced his sunken cheek and nose. Felt the soft tufts of ears. And raised the pistol. He thought it would be simple. A thing you do without thinking while you think instead about something else entirely. His hand was slippery with sweat, he grasped the pistol tighter.

None of it felt right.

Mortimer's one visible eye opened to a mere slit. Scott held the horse's gaze for a long, long while.

God help me, he thought. It was his only thought and it did him no good at all.

Dawn came in shifts. A bright beam through a crack in the barn wall. Then a splash of yellow against the stacked hay bales.

His head hurt from lack of sleep, a pounding desperate ache in no way alleviated by the fact that he knew, more or less, what was wrong with Rose. He pushed the cold cup of coffee dregs aside and watched the bundle beside him come awake.

Diego hugged himself as he surfaced from an unsettled sleep. Sitting up coltishly, he wobbled and burbled as he reoriented himself. Still lying on the bed of hay and under the warm blanket Scott had put over him, he wiped the sludge from one corner of his mouth. Blinking owlishly, he immediately focused on Rose.

Scott got his right hand underneath himself and pushed up to a stand. He worried open his pocket watch. Johnny should be back with the doctor at any time.

#####

For a veterinarian visit, there was a crowd. Diego held the lead rope while Johnny and Murdoch hovered.

Rose stood quietly for the doctor’s prodding, surely a testament to her patience and good nature. Scott had been prodded by the veterinarian once or twice himself. Even though the wound had completely healed, he grimaced in remembrance of being shot by Jed Lewis. He wondered if the doctor remembered, or if finding a two-legged patient in his clinic was not so out of the ordinary.

“Mm-hm.” Doctor Hildebrand tch-ed when he bent over and palmed the mare’s knee. Then the corners of his mouth drooped when he palpated the edges of her shoulder wound. 

The doctor looked up at him. “And how is that shoulder of yours, Scott?”

Was he seeing things, or did Murdoch flinch? “Fine, Sir. Just fine. Thank-you.”

“You’re welcome, but let’s not make it a habit. I prefer a more rustic clientele. And a decided lack of guns pointed in my general direction.” He straightened and looked at Murdoch. “I’m assuming Lancer is keeping the desperados to a minimum, eh?”

Murdoch’s smile looked frosty. “We’re doing our best, Gregor.”

But Hildebrand had already put the ends of his stethoscope into his ears and was listening to Rose’s side. After a few minutes he moved to her head. “I must say I usually don’t get this much of an audience. She must be very important.” He glanced down at Diego and squeezed his shoulder.

“All right, Miss. Just what is going with you? Her lungs are clear, her bowels active. Young man, can you take her out in a small circle?”

Diego looked to Scott and was begging him without knowing he was doing it, just had it in his eyes. Scott bent down, put his mouth near Diego’s ear and the boy went itchy, puffing up like one of those prickly fish he’d seen in a book once. “You can do it. She trusts you. Just lead her out and come back again.”

Diego started out hesitantly then gained confidence when Rose followed.

Hildebrand huffed out a sigh. “She’s not lame. Except for the knee, of course. Scott tell me some more about her behavior.”

So he told the doctor about the pasture ‘fandango’, an anxiousness where before there had been none, the feed pan incident.

“Have you formulated a diagnosis yet?”

Scott nodded.

Doctor Hildebrand was back at Rose’s head peering into her left eye. “I daresay it’s the same as mine. I was hoping it was something else entirely.”

“Rose is blind, isn’t she?”

Instead of answering him, Hildebrand motioned for him to come over. “See this cloudiness over the eye?” He couldn’t see it until Rose was turned to face the sun and the reflection was different.  

“Yes. It’s likely she is mostly blind. I say mostly because the other eye isn’t as bad—yet. But it will get there eventually. You say you still use her? She must trust you implicitly, young man.”

Doctor Hildebrand’s eyes were crinkled down at the corners. Kind.

“Scott, there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it, at some point she might have had some trauma to the eye, but in this case I’d wager it’s a natural occurrence. It’s unfortunate, she’s a beautiful mare.”

“Is she in pain?”

“Aside from the irritation of those scratches, I’d say no.” He stared up at Scott. “There isn’t any cure for this, no salve I can put on to make it better. No eye drops. She’ll be blind for the rest of her life.” He took in the looks from Johnny and Murdoch, but stared at Scott. “The kind thing would be euthanasia. Is this something you wanted to do, or should I do it?”

Diego had gone still, the lead rope lax in his hands. Scott knew he didn’t understand the word, but he was a savvy boy, after all, and had figured out its intent. He curled in on himself. Tears dripped off his chin and onto his blue shirt. Throwing the rope down, he twisted on his heels, heading for the corral fence at a dead run. He slipped between the railings and was gone.

Johnny started after him. “I’ll make sure he gets home.”

“Did I say something…?” Doctor Hildebrand asked, clearly puzzled.

Scott allowed his father to answer for him. He picked up the lead rope and gently led Rose back to her stall only half-aware that Murdoch was saying goodbye and that they would handle the situation, sending the doctor on his way back to town.

 

 

Chapter 5

June 29th

My Dearest Scott,

I understand now. Of course, I know why Mortimer chose you. How could he not? But seeing him that very first day when you brought him to Zephyr Fields, so ragged and utterly spent, I did wonder why you chose him. Perhaps it was the fickleness of the Fates that brought you together, and a shared call to duty that kept you both intertwined. I will be forever in his debt, you know. For you were ragged then, too, in both body and spirit.

I saw you sit with him that day and take his head onto your lap as he breathed his last. I wonder what you were telling him, for he looked so relaxed and at peace while your grief was frankly palpable.

Kindred souls. You were blessed with these many years together. Mortimer had a warrior’s heart, my dear, as do you. You will survive.   

Yours fondly,

Great-Aunt Elizabeth  
____________________

 

Scott heard the melodic thumps of boot heels, until they stopped in the barn doorway. Murdoch paused to stretch out his back.

Rose stood quietly in her stall next to Merlin who was curled in a heap, eyes closed. Was she aware of the turmoil surrounding her? He would like to think no, but she was always a discerning mare, to say the least. He put out his hand and saw her turn her head the smallest bit towards the sun coming in from the window, then let her nose do the rest. She came up and pushed into his hand, her whiskers feathery over hard callouses. How had he missed her blindness? He passed his hand under her soft cheek and murmured, “I’m so very sorry, my girl.”

Murdoch kept his silence as he walked to the stall and Scott moved through it like a bad winter. His father dropped onto two stacked bales of hay like a sack of russet potatoes and sighed mightily.

“Did Hildebrand say anything you didn’t know already, son?”

Scott shifted his weight from one leg to the other, knew Murdoch would take it the wrong way, but he was trying to find a more comfortable position rather than reacting to the question.

“No. I guess not. I had an inkling of the problem yesterday when Diego tried to feed her. Things started to add up after that. I wish I’d figured it out sooner, though.”

“She must have trusted you.” Murdoch looked up and caught his eye. “And you trusted her, of course. Saw things in her no one else did.”

“She’s a fine mare, Murdoch.”

“I know, son, but you heard what Hildebrand said about her. She won’t get better.”

“I understand.” Scott fished around in his pocket for the peppermint he knew she liked. Found it and offered it to her. The sound of her smacking lips was loud in the quiet barn.

“Do you want me—or Johnny—to…”

Euthanasia was such a quaint, almost poetic word for what the doctor recommended. No, something more savage was necessary. “To put her down? To shoot her? I can handle that quite well enough on my own. And I would, if she was suffering in pain.”

“She will never be useful.”

“As several people have seen fit to inform me these past few weeks, this is a working ranch. Funny, I could have sworn I’ve been here for a while, surely I would have noticed.” He thought of Diego and how bright the boy’s eyes were when he was around her. “With all due respect, there are different ways of being useful.”

They weren’t looking at each other, they were dancing around like boxers, eyes on a passing swarm of gnats, on the bench by the door, on their feet. The breeze curled up around Scott’s boots, dusted them with fine brown silt.  

Murdoch shook his head so slightly Scott could barely see it, let alone decipher what it meant.  “Well, yes. But what we need her for, she can’t do anymore.”

His father continued to stare at him, as though willing him to sanity.  

“It’s not just the mare.” Scott slapped the stall rails in frustration. “God help me, I would be very sorry to do it. I would. But it’s not only the mare I’m worried about. Rose is very special to Diego.” He rubbed his temple. “I don’t want him to see the bad part of life, there’s time enough for that. Did you know he prayed for her? Let him know that God is listening.” He turned to face his father. “I can’t take a world so black and white, Murdoch. There has to be some grey, where a blind mare can have a place.”

He hoped that didn’t show, but he knew it did: he had trouble keeping what he was feeling off his face. It had been that way since he was a child.  

Murdoch was a study of shadow, planes and angles. Scott recognized the miniscule signs of give, though: a twitch, two fingers raised. “All right,” he said quietly. “You’re terribly determined, son.” Odd how it sounded like admiration rather than judgement.

“Do you have something in mind?”

“I have an idea, but it will take a consensus between you and Johnny. And perhaps a bit of capitulation and compromise.” He wasn’t above making his own pitch, if need be. He was, after all, Harlan Garret’s grandson.

“Then I guess we’d best round up your brother. Perhaps a family discussion over fortifications of brandy and tequila?”

Scott grinned.

He watched Murdoch heave himself up from the bales, then walked with him to the door. They made it just outside before his father pulled up and tilted his head. “When did we get a goat?”

#####

Fandango. Still an odd-sounding word to his ears, and still funny when spoken with a Boston accent, according to the Lancer vaqueros. It was the word that had brought them all to this point. Rose’s Fandango. Because it took an explosive dance in the woods to fully open his eyes and notice what was wrong with her.

The sun seemed to catch on her coat, bringing out its black points. The sheen of it was magnificent, almost like the horse herself.

Scott inhaled the fine California air slowly; it settled his nerves. “What about the land?” he asked. “It’s an expensive parcel and now it’s fairly worthless.”

His father broke into a measure of a smile. “Who are you kidding? I don’t think we need to go over that again.”

Johnny sidled up to the new fence line and placed one foot against the sturdy railing. “Go over what again?” 

“He mentioned that the land was worthless now,” Murdoch said.

His brother barely kept an eye roll in check. “After all that palaver the other day about Rose needing this and that, and bringing Diego into it to soften us up, you’re gonna talk about that?”

Scott looked at the green pasture before him. “I just wanted to make sure you knew all the ramifications of my proposal. That we were all still in agreement.”

“Murdoch? Isn’t it funny how he brings this up after we built this fine fence to keep in that fine mare of his?”

“Yes, it is, Johnny. It makes me think your brother might have had ulterior motives all along.” He smiled and pressed on. "When did you come up with the idea of using the land earmarked for irrigation?”  

“Well,” Scott said with a grin, “right about the time we walked out of the barn and you asked about the new goat. It clicked together.” Because there were no alternatives. At least not any alternatives he wanted to entertain.

“What’s the goat’s name again?” asked Murdoch.

“Merlin.”

“Of course, how could I forget?”

Johnny raised an eyebrow. “And here comes Merlin now. With Jelly grumping all the way.”

He wasn’t sure who was walking who, but Merlin appeared to have a few lengths on the old man despite the leash of twine tied to a bell collar around the goat’s neck. Merlin ambled one way and then another, practically dragging Jelly off his feet.

Jelly yelled out. “Scott? Are you sure this is gonna work? I don’t think Merlin’s up for it.”

Merlin bleated twice and ran for the corral. Jelly managed to get the twine off him—just—before the goat slid under the railing.

Merlin jogged over to Rose, and like before they bumped noses then both settled down to pull at the grass.

Jelly shook his head. “Of all the…well, I guess it’s true. Rose really did steal my goat.”

Johnny tapped the fence railing and breathed out a sigh they were all feeling. “I guess that’s that.” He hooked his arm around Jelly shoulders. “Come on, Jelly, let’s go back to the house. I’ve got something I need your opinion on.”

Jelly puffed up. “I don’t feel right, just leavin’ him in that big old pasture with that horse.”

Scott smiled widely. “If you look closely, you’ll see they’re not alone.”

“But I just don’t know.”

Johnny looked over Jelly’s head and winked. “I’m sure Rose will allow for some visiting privileges, right Scott?”

“Oh, by all means. Besides, look at them. They’re the best of friends. You wouldn’t want to break up a friendship would you?”

Jelly’s eyebrows came together in one long line. “No, I couldn’t do that.”

Johnny tapped on the old man’s shoulder. “Then come on. Let’s go back to the barn. I want you to take a look at the leather on my saddle.”

“Why didn’t you say so? We can’t stand here all day talkin’ when there’s work to be done.”

Johnny huffed out a laugh and pulled Jelly along.

Murdoch watched him with dark blue eyes, arms folded across a jacket too warm for the day, serious as an arrow to the chest. Scott’s breath stopped as it had that very first time, caught, strangled.

“I’m sorry. Sorry…that I doubted you, Scott. The mare seems to be doing well. And I know the Cipriano’s are more than grateful they can find Diego right by the house now—at any time of day.”

“It will take a lot of instruction to help him understand what to do.”

“Oh, I think you’re up to the challenge.” Murdoch nodded to the horse and boy in front of them. “As is Diego.” He turned to clap Scott on the shoulder. “I’m for town to pick up Maria’s kitchen list.”

Scott fished around in his back pocket. “Would you mind taking this letter to the mail room?”

“Writing to Boston?”

Scott nodded. Written to a maiden aunt who gave refuge to man and horse once upon a time.  Boston, or rather Zephyr Fields, would always make him think of Mortimer. His heart lurched. After more than a year, it was still tender in an area he kept hidden. He gave a short prayer of thanks he was able to be there at Mortimer’s passing. What did Aunt Elizabeth always say? Kindred souls. So true.

He thought she might want to hear about Rose.

He watched Diego lead Rose along the corral fence line, tapping a board every now and then to alert her, and Scott felt a weight lift, a door opening in him that had been nailed shut for some time, and everything felt like it might be all right.

 

~end~
12/31/2019

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