The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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BarbA

 

 

Crow

 

 

 

 

This was a response to the Lancer Writers June 2012 Challenge: write an outsider point of view, which takes place off the ranch.

He didn't like birds, never had. But there was Cal's crow, tapping on the window. The boy opened it and the bird dropped right onto his shoulder, as if it weighed nothing. It gripped Cal's checked shirt, gave a quick skritch of contentment clicked from its black beak. The boy answered back, murmuring low in his throat.

Joseph swallowed and looked away because it wouldn't do to have Cal know. The scent of crow pulsed in waves: cannon fire, blood, carrion. Death. The last smell landed like a punch, caused him to grab the side of the workbench.

He tapped his chisel against its pock-marked top. “Calvin, get that thing out of here. It'll make a mess and dirty up the shop.”

Cal's mouth twitched, but he went to the window and shoo'ed the thing outside. It squawked once, then flapped away, and Joseph could breathe again.

It was bad enough having the bird in the shop, but Cal had made the mortise too small on the dish keeper, it would have to be drilled out again. He sighed and swept his eyes to the Gilbert regulator on the wall. Nine-thirty already. She was late.

“I'm going out back to see what's keeping her.” Dipping his hand into the deep lunch pail, he felt around until he came up with his noon sandwich, broke off a piece.

“She probably found somebody better, Uncle.” Cal waggled his eyebrows like it was funny. Maybe he was mad about having to send the crow outside.

He let the door slam behind him. It was a childish thing for a grown man to do, but it made him feel better just the same.

There she was, trotting with a big dog-grin, already halfway down the alley. He let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. “Where have you been? I've brought you breakfast.” Her tail thumped twice and she sat, expectant but not demanding. Never that.

By the time he got back, Murdoch Lancer had joined Calvin at their table, dirt-seamed hat tossed carelessly on plans for new cabinets, his shoulders hunched over a cup of coffee. Big, hard hands split with dirty cuts. There was something about hands, maybe it was the carpenter coming out in him, but he always remembered what they looked like even if he couldn't pull the name. He'd know Murdoch's blindfolded.   

Cal's gentle Midwestern twang lulled with its crow-talk, Joseph could hardly stand it. His gaze darted outside, tracked a cloud moving through the sky. Maybe he'd put two sandwiches in his pail, starting tomorrow. She'd be tickled to get a whole one.    

“I need another one made. How much will it cost?” It took him a good few seconds to tear his eyes away from the blue and focus on the rancher beside the work table. Murdoch was trying to get his attention. “How much?” he repeated and Joseph stepped closer, smiling in that bland way he'd perfected over the last seven years since Culp's Hill, and the way that Calvin always said made him look like a Methodist preacher about to render sermon.

But he was shaking his head before Murdoch's words were fully out. “I can't do it.”

Murdoch Lancer had the reputation of being an emotionless man, which had probably kept him in good stead as a rancher. But he hadn't shaved in a while, and looked like he'd been drinking too much coffee over too many sleepless nights. “Can't or won't?”

Murdoch scoured him with a stare, Joseph dropped his eyes first. Feeling color spike to his cheeks, he crooked his head to the door. “Cal, give us some time.”

Calvin drew his eyebrows together, though the hair in his eyes disguised most of his puzzlement. 

He waited until the door shut behind his nephew. “Lots of places around here could build you one,” he said, not committing himself to anything, definitely not Lancer. “Try Ed Walker, or Manny Tate at the stables.”

“Did Pardee put you up to this?”

“One of his boys paid a visit. Warned me they'd lean hard, if I was to help you.”

“I'll pay.”

“I know you will.”

“You're the best.” Looked meaningful at Joseph as the carpenter stuffed his hammer and chisel into a leather bag.

Ah hell. Not that there was an obligation, but Joseph Pittman had a hard time refusing a man in need, even if it was Lancer and his temper. But Murdoch should just find another carpenter. Because if he didn't stop making coffins, Joseph was going to go crazy, was going to lose more than he already had. There had been too much death already.

So he let it lie, tried another trail. “What happened?”

Staring at his coffee like he'd just realized it was there, Murdoch pushed it away. “Raul Valdez was shot.”  

He started. “That was Valdez who got shot?” The gossip about a killing had spread across town. Valdez was one of a handful who had stayed with Lancer. Stuck hard and close. Loyalty didn't pay much these days.

Lancer stared, looked lost for a second. Joseph motioned with his hand, wanting to know the story more than he wanted to see that look. It was out of place on the man.   

“Pardee was there, in the tree line. Waited until I was riding the other way. Then he broke out of the green, firing—I yelled for Raul to follow—when ...” and he stopped, snagged on disbelief and horror. “They shot him in the back right in front of me. Like it was a damn lesson.” He looked up, caught Joseph's eyes. “He's dying.”

Christ, he was tired all of a sudden. “I'm in the middle of…” he was going to use the word “something”, but that wouldn't be good enough. “I'm working, Murdoch. Got the dish keeper for the Andersons and three other orders I'm behind on.”

“Don't want to put you out any.” Lancer didn't give a good damn whether he put Joseph out or not.  

Was halfway to the big bellied stove and coffee, when Murdoch asked, “What's the real reason, Joe?” Point blank, didn't know if Lancer was trying to hurt him. Shrugging, he kept his eyes on the pot. Three more steps. Picked the reason Murdoch would understand best. “Promised my brother I'd look after Calvin, keep him safe.”

His nephew was just five when Joseph and Evan left for the cause. Near six, by the time they were heartsick from battle and eight when Evan died in a Rebel fusillade in Pennsylvania. Only one state away from home, they may as well been across the ocean. Evan had lingered on the battlefield, no coffin, no ceremony to mark his passing, just crows pecking at the dead, a shallow hole dug by Joseph. It made his stomach hurt.    

“But he's almost a man, helps you make caskets in the back room. He has to know why he's making them.” Murdoch had his own weapons, not all of them steel and bullets.

“He's still young, doesn't need to know everything. Evil will find him soon enough, I don't need to give it to him.”

But Murdoch was a million miles away, and Joseph had no idea what he was thinking. Given a bullet in the back, town talk about fires and a resident gunfighter in the saloon, he could guess.

Wrong as it turned out, because Murdoch's hand drifted over the onion skin of the cabinet plans, picked at a torn edge. Not looking at Joseph, but concentrating on him all the same. “Michael. Your son. He's dead, isn't he?”

Not a question, not really. He'd taken his time asking about it. Joseph nodded and only then did Murdoch look up, sensing the movement maybe.

“An accident. Back in Clarksville, with his mother.”

Murdoch licked his lips, swallowed. “I'm sorry.” Two sons of his own, experienced enough to know what sorry really meant.  

He smiled, though it hurt in a peculiar, unfamiliar way. “Michael was a good boy. On his way to becoming a fine man. Like Calvin.”

Foregoing the stove, he picked up his sash planer, felt along the edge of the piney dish keeper, sent a few curls of shaved wood to the workbench. Murdoch's sons were both living. It was none of his business, and Lancer would not thank him for wading in. That's what Joseph told himself. But he spoke anyway, “Why not those boys of yours?”

And Murdoch knew right away, what he was talking about.

“Because—” and his voice drifted, drawing Joseph's attention. Murdoch's bruised hand was across his mouth, and he rubbed his stubble once, dropped it to his cup. “Because.”

Reason enough, always had been before now. “I know it's hard to track down south, but the one east is easy enough. Maybe you should send a letter to him, with the ranch at stake, losing men.”  It was a lot of land, always assumed it was important to Lancer from the way he talked. But it was puzzling why he never sent for the boy in the first place. And then with the second one taken away—rumors ran rampant in the mercantile and granary.    

Murdoch flinched and something passed across his face. “Maybe,” he said softly, but it was no agreement.

Joseph knew something about that sort of fear, a father's fear, and was getting worked up himself. A lump lodged in him somewhere, begging for release. He heard the chair scrape out and looked up from the cabinet to see Murdoch standing not five feet from him. A terrible expression on his streaked face, every painful thing written there so clearly that Joseph's breath stopped in his chest.

He lowered his planer, set it carefully on the counter. Drew his fingers through the pile of shavings, watched them flutter to the floor. “Okay. Okay. Six dollars for the pine and I've got oak boards, already dried, for ten.” He knew which one Lancer would choose. It'd be two days of planing and sanding the oak, one day for the hardware. “I'll need three days.”  

Murdoch blinked, nodded a couple of times before looking away. “Make it the oak. I'll get word if he doesn't last that long.” Then turned and walked stiff-legged to the door. He shuffled a little, looked like he came to some kind of decision. “I need to send a telegram before the office closes for dinner, I'll be back to settle the bill.” 

By the time Joseph turned towards the table, Murdoch was ready to fight. He had a particular way about him, the lowered shoulders, open stance, almost asking to be hit. He kept his chin down, as though he was being deferential, but that wasn't it. Defensive, so he didn't take one on the chin. Protecting his land, like it was the only thing worth fighting for.    

It only served to make Joseph madder. He looked at his worn, calloused hands—complicit in the crime. “Murdoch, this is the last one, the last coffin I'll ever make. Don't ask anymore.”

Murdoch turned; his mouth pressed shut like a granny's purse. Broad hands and bland stare, scared of the future, scared enough to do something dumb.  

Caught in the breeze from the door, sawdust swirled, painting Joseph's boot tips. This would be the last one. The very last.  

 

~o~O~o~

 

Calvin was sent home while he stayed behind to finish. He ran his hand down the full length of board—smooth, almost satiny, to his fingertips. The dovetails he'd mitered were just right, the joints would hold for a long, long time. It was good. Tomorrow, he'd start on the hardware. He hadn't heard from Murdoch so he guessed he'd have the time to make them shine against the red grain of the wood. Maybe make some moldings, if Valdez could hold on that long.    

Their sharp laughter was spiked with sharper yips, reaching all the way inside the shop. Pulled him away from the Lancer casket, and made him step outside. Two revelers from the saloon burst through the doorway in that peculiar hitch-step that bespoke of too much alcohol and too little brains.

“Well, well. Look what we got,” said one of the drunks, the same one who had come into the shop to deliver the warning. “Kind of a loud-mouthed little bitch ain't she? Go on Day, bet ya a five spot.”

His gut tightened when he saw her across the street by the mercantile. The gunfighter's hand drifted toward the six-shooter on his hip. Joseph was running before the last echo of shot bounced off the plate glass window.

He stood in front of her for a long time, long enough for their crowing laughter to fade away. When the eastbound stage passed, heavy on the whip, he couldn't help but feel the pull of the wheels—saw himself on that same coach, making good time for the green fields of Indiana.

He crossed over the ruts to an old cottonwood. “How about over here?” he murmured to no one. It would be hard going, the ground was still a little frozen with the spring thaw, but the hole didn't have to be deep.

It's just a dog, he told himself over and over. Not like burying a human at all. 



~ end ~
June 2012

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