The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Contra Spem Spero
(Hope Against Hope)

Murdoch probably wouldn't have noticed if he wasn't looking for it. Scott favored his left side. He saw it as his son rounded the corner of the kitchen table. When Scott sat, he canted to the left, and Murdoch knew he was hurting more than he let on back at the meadow.

Good. It's what you get when you're brash enough to veer off and circle around a herd of bawling steers. Like Scott knew where they were going to bolt before the cows did.

A rolling split of thunder vibrated the windows, the lamp flickered, held. Pencil secured between teeth and lips, Scott scraped his mug to the side and unfolded the map, pressed it flat with the heel of his hand.  

Murdoch sniffed his coffee until the deep chicory scent overpowered the stale smell of damp clothes and cows. He thought back to the squelch of leather, the slap of wet cotton tic when Scott climbed out of the culvert. He'd checked his horse first, found it still suitable after the unexpected plunge through rain-softened ground, then turned with a wry smile. The boy was good at hiding things, keeping to himself. Thinking. Had developed a propensity for it over the last few weeks. It was a bad habit in a land that didn't care one way or the other. Murdoch had plenty to say about it, but that conversation was loaded with switchbacks and dead end trails. So he said nothing and took a gulp of steaming coffee.

But he knew a way or two around this young buck.

Halfway to a stand—barely—and pain whispered across his back. Nothing sharp or biting, or pervasive. Just there. Since the shooting he'd learned to ease his frame upwards and did so now, taking his time, masking the need for support by holding on to the chair, giving it a casual push. He didn't look across the table to see if Scott noticed. That one saw far too much half the time.       

He stretched the taut muscles on his way to the Great Room. Could find his way in the dark, blindfolded if need be the path was so familiar. The fire was banked, but red embers sent out a welcome hiss of heat. He ran his fingers along the smooth grain of the walnut cabinet, found the silver clasp, then caught his shadowed reflection in the mirror. An old man stared back at him. A full day without shaving and cheeks were prickly with grey stubble.      

There was dirt under his nails, creating dark half-moons. Remnants of swirling muddy water and urgency. He was unhurried when he reached into the cabinet, his hand bumping past glasses until he found the whiskey in the back. It had been rough since Pardee, one calamity after another, but he had to admit Scott was focused and attentive every step of the way.

He set the bottle on the cabinet top, fingered the unbroken gold and green seal. For a while Scott floundered, maybe the land was too vast to take in all at once. Too different from Boston. It seemed that his son, what was the word Scott used? Reconnoitered,   adapted. There were three of them now and it created a forced dependency on one another. One that chipped away at underlying resentments. But no trust yet, despite the signing in the lawyer's office. Trust called to mind a family, and that would take time. There had to be time.  

It felt like a plea to the reflection in the mirror.  


“What's the occasion?” Scott's eyes flicked to the bottle, wary.

The Lagavulin weighed heavy in his hand. “The herd—all in one piece. If not my son.” 

The corner of Scott's lip curled up in droll amusement, and—damn it—if he didn't look like his mother. It made Murdoch want to squeeze the air out of him, or throttle him. He did neither, only poured the whiskey into their coffee mugs, topping Scott's until it swirled to the brim.

They were both refilled after each took a hefty pull.

Murdoch watched his son's profile, face downward, shiny with sweat and leftover rain, pale like the walls of the kitchen. His left hand snaked around his cup in that particular full palm grip Harlan could never have approved, while the right worked the pencil lead against the table top. Tap, tap, tap.    

He tolerated the methodical rhythm until Scott glanced up. “What are you looking for?” It came out sharper than intended, almost a challenge. Maybe the tone was leftover from the   my god!   that shrieked through his mind at seeing his son pitch head over ass like a marionette whose strings were suddenly yanked tight.

“A way around. The trail we used today is obviously unstable. And will remain so long after the rain is gone. Yet we still have to move the rest of the cattle from meadow to meadow.” Scott hunched back in his chair. “Any more weight on that side,” he made an arc in the air with his hand, “and the cattle would have dropped into it.”

Scott pulled the map closer towards him, rolled the pencil between three fingers, because he just couldn't leave it alone on the table. Mindless movements as regular as a metronome. He blinked and sent one finger on a hunt along the blue and red lines that marked the western parts of Lancer, shook his head and started again. Brought the mug to his lips blindly and swallowed, never taking his eyes off the map.

Murdoch wanted to lean over and see where Scott was tracking, but didn't. “What is it?”

Brows furrowed. “The bridge over Touching Creek is…”   

“…not fully repaired yet after Pardee's fire.” He tipped the bottle and poured.

Scott absorbed the information, nodded. The pencil tapped, while his finger pushed though more valleys and streams. He stilled, then scribbled out two crosses. Gave a lopsided triumphant grin. “Here. We need to travel this route next time. A little longer, but safer for man and beast.” The whiskey was making a dent. 

Murdoch looked at the path Scott had chosen. It was solid, circumvented most of the current disasters that befell the ranch. Twenty-four years old, a green boy from Boston, and things came to him intuitively. More so than they ever did to Murdoch at that age. He was confident, physically strong. And while sometimes a pretty face turned his head, Scott's instincts were on target. His son would do well at ranching. Murdoch felt a swell of pride. His mother would have been proud, too. He studied the half-moons under his nails, on weathered hands that Catherine would never hold.

Yes, she would be proud.


It took longer than Murdoch thought. The boy could hold his liquor. And expensive, the Lagavulin was almost empty. Scott was well and truly drunk, looked owlishly around the kitchen like it was the first time he'd seen it. Had to be physically persuaded to drop the pencil.

Murdoch captured Scott's ranging arm and slung it over his shoulder, heard a grunt as together they lifted up and away from the table. Thin as his son was, he was also tall and capable and weighed a ton. They staggered to the stairs.

Hellishly long, those stairs. Murdoch detoured into the Great Room.

Scott pushed away and made a single-minded beeline for the sofa. One shin barked against the coffee table, sent him on a trajectory to the right. Before Murdoch could grab an elbow, the heel of Scott's boot caught on the throw rug and he fell into the cushions. Mission accomplished.

Murdoch left him sprawled on the sofa, took the poker from the hearth and stirred the embers for more heat. He added a few pieces of kindling, built the fire, when Scott started to snore.

His fingers felt thick, working the buttons. He tilted his head to the side, lips pressed together, trying to see in the dim light. Damn tiny things. The baby dress Catherine had sewn—a bunting or some such other—had two long lines of pearl fasteners running up each side. Maybe it would have been easier then.  

It wasn't as bad as he thought. A blackened bruise rode from Scott's beltline to mid chest under a messy scrape. Bad enough to warrant stopping work, the crew. He glanced at the old clock beside the bookcase. Not too late for cleaning, however.     

Tomorrow he would talk to his son about injuries, the need to declare them. Better to have a man out for a short time, to heal. It wasn't correcting a wrong. It was about taking responsibility, doing your part to get the job done. A piece of the bigger whole. He needed to make sure Scott understood.

Somewhere on the way back from the kitchen, a feeling of resignation settled over him. He was going to mangle the conversation, he just knew it.

Scott hissed, jerked away from the wet pad pressed tight to his side. His fingers clutched air, found a home in Murdoch's shirt, twisted the blue wool.

“It's all right, son. It's all right,” Murdoch soothed, almost crooned. It was the best he could do.

A flutter of limbs and Scott settled, his snores loud and ragged. A few more hours and daylight would bring a headache as painful as his ribs.

There will be time, Murdoch silently told himself in the mirror. He inched a fingernail under the torn whiskey label, peeled it off. Pouring out the last drink, he stopped to examine the lines etched around his eyes.      

He'll stay, he told the old man.


~ end ~

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