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Barb A



FBlood on the Range
A response to the Lancer Writer's Loyalty challenge. This was previously titled The Incident, but has since been expanded a bit .

Murdoch was trapped in the stuffy room, penned in by four walls. No Johnny to distract and deflect with his rage about the incident, there was only the jostle against his son's door. A hand came around, followed by a white cuff and a flash of silver, pushing it open. The droopy-jowled doctor looked like the ranch hound dog, with sadder eyes if that was possible.

Johnny had left to talk to the poachers. Interrogate was a better word for what his son would do. He felt for those men—until he saw the dried blood under his fingernails. Johnny was willing to do his father's bidding, at least for now: talk to them, assemble the hands, set the perimeter, if need be.

Murdoch had pushed him out the door, sending him on the mission. Johnny, for all his youth, was experienced enough to handle it, and he needed the diversion. Though there was a reason for it, he hated to send him. A thought niggled: he just sent the bear to the picnic.   

The poachers were an easy target, squatting beside the ravaged carcasses of Lancer steers. Johnny had placed his hand on the butt of his Colt, Murdoch ordered him to stay the weapon. Usually when given a direct order, John would follow. Unless he didn't. But you always knew which way he'd go, declaring his position with bold, colorful outbursts, like a politician's speech at a whistle stop.

Not like Scott. His elder son was more refined in his resistance. A subtle rebelliousness. His wait, Johnny, seemed louder than simply ordering. Johnny hesitated, listening to his brother above the worried lowing of cows, the rustle of leaves, and the angry protestations.

Perhaps sending him out to talk to the poachers was a bad move, but he needed to keep Johnny busy, Murdoch thought, trying to understand what the doctor was saying. Maybe he'd taken one too many falls from horses in the years past; the words weren't coming too clearly. Not enough to process anyway.

Amazingly, Johnny was the most pragmatic of them all. Able to peel away the layers until only the black and white remained. Johnny had possessed a fierce self-confidence since he was a baby. He suspected that his son's sense of self-worth had saved him many times and it would be the one thing to help carry him through his life at Lancer. Self-confidence…and his brother.  

But this outcome was undeniably tenuous. Like the Appaloosa stallion recently caught under a ridge of cinnabar near Tawny Lake. He thought the horse would prove true. Hopes pinned somewhat on experience, but faith more than anything. Faith in skill, of training and the sturdy horse itself. In his sons, when it came right down to it.

Faith was not in the doctor's vocabulary at the moment. The doctor didn't know Scott very well, outside of minor church outings and the few times when one of the hands needed his schooled medical care—Lancer took care of its own after all. He should be talking about Scott's recovery, not this litany of a bullet going deep, lost blood, being too weak.  

Besides, Johnny, in his own way, had given the same news, his jaw set. Bleedin' too much, Murdoch . He'd stayed long enough for the surgery and the lie— Scott's color is better —then got sent on an errand. Not a fool's errand. A tactical measure. The only leverage Lancer had if there were more foxes in the hen house.

“Do you understand, Mr. Lancer?” The hound dog was speaking again. “Your son's injury is very severe. The bullet…”

Murdoch nodded. “You're telling me he may not survive.”

The doctor sighed heavily, placed the cleaned scalpel back into his medical bag. “When Johnny came to fetch me, I was at the Simpson's.”

Uneasy with Murdoch's stare, he filled the silence. “I wasn't sure if I would get here in time with the right instruments.” The implication being that if Scott died, it wouldn't be the doctor's fault. This was a true statement, to a point. The two men in his guardhouse and a third—the shooter—somewhere out in the range, had a decisive part in all this.

Not paying attention earned him a scowl. The doctor thought he already knew what Scott's outcome would be. “He appears comfortable now.” So much pabulum, preparing the father for the inevitable.  

“That's good,” Murdoch murmured, looking at the small painting above the bed. Thick whorls of paint depicted a seascape with tumbling ocean waves. A token from Boston, it always made him feel unsettled.   

“No, it's not good.” Giving the bag one final pat, the doctor clicked it closed and leaned against the dresser. Their eyes met. “He hasn't shown any signs of waking up and that's not good.”

The doctor was a nice man. He liked a nip of Scotch in his coffee on a late night call, had a wife to go home to and a house at the end of town. Probably had marigolds in his window boxes. Murdoch sat back in his chair and looked away. It was too much to take in right now.   

“Johnny will be back soon…”

“In all honesty, I'd be surprised if he makes it through to morning. You should prepare his brother and Teresa.”                 

The doctor should have known not to interrupt. “No.”

He pinned Murdoch with a look, trying to will him into agreement. Or some sort of sanity.

Murdoch knew that life in the West was difficult under the best of circumstances, he knew the decisions he'd made, the things he'd done. All his experience added up to strength in conviction when he set his mind to something, steel to his backbone when things were at their darkest. “Scott will make it through.” He surprised himself with a loud timbre, reeling off the phrase like it was a sure thing.

He was godawful tired of the loss. First Catherine and Scott, then Maria and Johnny. Losing Lancer to Pardee was a close thing, leaving enough damage in men and land and beef that it still stung.

The doctor, battered by words, bowed his head and worried the bright clasp of his bag while outside the window hoof beats of a lone horse leaving the courtyard sounded hollow in the twilight.

It didn't take much to figure out who the rider was.

Appalled at himself, he hoped Johnny would find the third man. And then it wasn't anger but something hot rising at the back of his throat, behind his eyes. He blinked it away, swallowed it down. The feeling was so damn useless.


A waning moon slanted ribbons of shadows across the bureau and if he listened closely enough he could hear the tones of the grandfather clock from the hallway, chiming out the early morning hour.    

Murdoch looked dispassionately at the open Bible on the table, unwilling to read any more. He always prided himself on being a God-fearing man. A regular church-goer since Teresa came of age, and when the ranch schedule permitted. Because, like God, he worked on Sundays. And like God, he was a father.

I love this land more than anything. Not one of the finer endorsements of his parenting skills, yet he felt an inordinate amount of pleasure at the lawyer's office when all three signatures were dry.

Scott knew how Murdoch felt about him, didn't he? Wasn't it clear enough? Only yesterday afternoon, Murdoch would have bet money on it, but things had been turned inside out, the lines blurred.

He shoved the Bible behind the lamp. Of course Scott knew.

Murdoch wanted to be there when his son woke up. He didn't want to think about Scott waking up to an empty room. He knew what it was like, to wake up alone. Almost twenty-five years ago and it still hurt: Catherine dead, Scott taken by Harlan. And a second nightmare two years later. He pushed away his fears. Scott wouldn't be alone.

The three of them had come together at Lancer and he knew what it was like. It was better. Johnny and Scott formed a close, somewhat noisy, fidelity. Too much time had passed for his sons to really need him. But they needed each other. Where would that be if one of them died?

Scott had once said that he and Johnny were alike, all pride and not an inch of give. Murdoch could only imagine what just him and Johnny would be like. Suspicions ran high that he would be the tinder to Johnny's match. Too hot and too much, the constant that held them together—and apart sometimes—would be missing.

Scott was stubborn back then, when Johnny took off with Wes, and tempers on all sides flared. He wasn't willing to let go.

He let his shoulders slump forward and rubbed at his face with dirty hands. The frank butchery of the cows clouded his vision and he squeezed his eyes shut. If they hadn't happened across the poachers that evening. If Scott hadn't said anything, if Johnny hadn't stopped….  

The sound of footsteps came from the hallway.

Johnny hadn't changed, his blue shirt was smeared with spots of dulled red. He slipped between the bed and bureau, started to press a splay of fingers on Scott's forehead then hesitated. “How bad, Murdoch? How bad?”

Murdoch licked his lips. “I don't know.”

Johnny slowly lowered himself to a corner of the mattress, careful not to jiggle his brother. “You're not askin' what happened tonight?”

“The doctor left for the Simpson ranch again, does he need to come back before the morning?”


Murdoch chewed on his barely contained frustration when Johnny avoided his stare. “What happened, then?”

He blinked hard. “That third poacher? He's Tommy Harwood. Me and Scott talked to him in town a few weeks ago. Can't be more'n fifteen.”

His eyes lifted and found Murdoch's. “But there wasn't any killin' tonight.”

Unexpected relief made him sag in his chair. Curious now, not angry, he'd seen Johnny's face when Scott took the bullet. “What stopped you?”

Shadowed, John's eyes were dark. Pitiless. But he nodded to the head of the bed. “You heard what he said.”

For one moment Murdoch sat very still, the lantern's flame dancing within its glass. Johnny held his right hand across his lap, palm up, almost an invitation. Then, other memories: the yelling, the boom of guns anyway, Scott's words choked out in the dust. 

Johnny shifted, canted his foot sideways so Murdoch could see the worn sole, pocked with scuffs. “Woulda  been easy to pick him off in that culvert.” He scratched at his eyebrow, half-hiding behind his hand. “Nearly rode right on top of him and I had my gun ready.”

“Scott's going to be…”

“Fine?” Johnny snapped his fingers. “Just like that? It's that easy?”

“Of course it's not that easy.”

“That thievin' boy's life for Scott's? It's not a fair trade. Not when I could've done something about it.”

“Like what Johnny, shoot that youngster?”

“I don't know, but something.”

Scott's wait, Johnny , louder than shouting, louder than everything. Murdoch shied away from the thought of that plea, what Scott had been trying to prevent. What he had prevented and what had come of it. 

Like being in the depths of a cavern, hearing the voices of his sons over the crumble of rocks and stones, feeling their hurt, but not being able to do a damn thing about it. 

A series of tentative breaths, one after the other, signified life. His son, reduced to a few recent memories and one long-ago birthday party in Boston. A ragged hole in the body that Catherine had worked so hard on for the last nine months of her life.

Murdoch looked at Scott and wondered if his elder son was letting go now.

He shook his head. Stubborn then, and now. Not dying. Murdoch knew this. Scott had made it this far, didn't he?



To: Timestamp - Blood on the Range

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