The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb A

 

 

FEn Plein Aire
A/N: This story was originally conceived after a trip to the Grand Canyon (Arizona) where I met several ‘plein aire' artists capturing the true face of the canyon. I thought if brush and paint could do that why not a camera? Originally posted in 2012 under my Mags penname.

She approached from the north, saw the sign when she was still a good distance away. How could she have missed it? “Lancer, 5 miles,” she read softly, like she had children's stories when her nephew was still a baby. In the middle of the road were clusters of short-legged red cows with white faces. Herefords, if she recalled correctly. Chunky little fellows. She tapped her toe against the plates, firmly held by twine and plywood frames, and found herself looking at the horizon, mentally adjusting her schedule to compensate for the light she would lose. She tightened her grip on the reins and slapped Gert into a walk.

Pulling the telegram from under her thigh where it was anchored against the breeze, she folded it and tucked it back inside her shirtwaist pocket. Her fingers were darkly stained and calloused, had been for many years now. Braided hair was threaded with silver as if the solutions she used had seeped from her fingertips into her blood, slowly painting her head with shimmering strands of color among the brown. An old woman, driving an older horse in an ancient war wagon bought from Brady himself, she garnered more than a few looks.

But she didn't notice the attention paid to her by city folk or, as it so happened, by the funny-looking cows in the field.

It was May and spring had nudged winter across the valley and out to sea. Her eyes were busy squinting then opening wider, much like the apertures on the lenses she carried in her wagon, filtering the afternoon sun. A quarter acre or so of scorched earth was juxtaposed with grass seedlings pushing their way through burnt soil. Artistic vision stimulated her mind, and she searched for a way to capture the uncommon green with her cameras.

At last she looked back to the road.

A young man approached: tall in the saddle, less than half her age with sharp, angular features. A neckerchief of dark red waved gaily from his neck—the only note of whimsy on his dusty countenance and form.  

“So,” the man said, although he wasn't looking at her, she could hear the smile in his voice. “Are you lost?”

The eastern ring to his words puzzled her only briefly and she was, once again, aware that time was slipping away. Her jaw clenched and she took out the telegram, shook it in the air. “I'm expected, Murdoch Lancer has inquired about my services.”

His lips hadn't moved, but he made a strangled sound all the same. Then, “Are you Mrs . Wilkins?”  

“It's Miss Wilkins.”

He tipped his hat back to reveal a sweat stained face and hair of summer wheat poking out at jaunty angles. “We were expecting a gentleman by the name of Ted Wilkins.”

“I am Ted Wilkins. Theodosia Wilkins, actually. Professionally, I'm known as Ted. And if I was a gentleman, I would be the only one here.” She emphasized her last sentence, revealing her own eastern accent that only showed itself when she was excited or irritated. She pulled out her calling card.

He blushed about the tips of his ears as he read. “My apologies Madam, we had no idea you were—are—a woman.” Flustered, he pulled at his yellow glove, drawing it snug and tight. “I'm Scott Lancer and I'll escort you to the house.” He turned his horse about and started down the road.  

He looked subdued, not like a beaten dog, but deep in thought. “Mr. Lancer?” she prompted, and he jerked a bit. “Is there a problem with my gender?”

“No. Although I will admit to wondering what my father is going to say.” His shoulders fell forward. “I'm not sure if he'll be, shall we say, open to such things.”

“You're not sure?”

“The situation has never come up. I've known him a grand total of two months, Miss Wilkins. I'm hardly one to judge.”

They passed by a large white arch, the ranch house looming in the distance before they spoke again. “From Boston, are you?”

His head dipped and a smile curved. “What gave it away? My sunburn or my witty repartee?”

“None of that, Mr. Lancer. It's your voice; the sound is not one I equivocate with California.”

“That makes two of us.” He turned in the saddle, gave more than a sidling glance. “And you as well?”

“I studied in Boston with Albert Southworth at his studio in Scollay Square.”

“The daguerreotypist?”

She nodded. “I use other techniques now, but the principles remain the same. You're familiar with his work?”

“My grandfather commissioned a portrait of my mother, back in the forties, I believe, before she moved with my father to California. He treasured it. However, the portrait didn't have the same hold on me.” He shook his head. “People remember things in different ways, despite evidence to the contrary. Don't we hold on to what we want from the past?”

The silence was lengthy and she wondered if he had drifted off, but then she heard a squeak of leather and glanced over to see him shift in his seat. “Forgive me. The sun has addled my brain.”

He had said his piece, then shut all the doors. Loss and happiness were so keenly intertwined that she couldn't look his way anymore, had to focus instead on the bob of Gert's shaggy head. She had heard it in his voice, the deep weariness. Cornered. Not giving up, but close to it.

They rode apart, him leading, she following, the rest of the way to the house.

Murdoch Lancer turned out to be an uncommonly tall man. She could see where her escort got his height, his lanky build. It took the father a few minutes to collect himself, she watched him do it, watched him swallow surprise and ready himself to be nice to the eccentric old lady.  

It was evident he had seen his share of western life, and some of the intervening years were unkind. The lines in his face told an eloquent battle with the hardship, yet good times showed there as well. Scott gave him her card and Murdoch's eyes narrowed and swept over her, after reading. Hesitant acceptance. He called through the doorway and another man soon appeared. With black hair falling across his forehead, this one was as colorful as Scott was muted. The circumstances of her arrival were once again revealed, and he looked at her with a ready grin and devilish eyes, laughing at the joke.  

Scott introduced him as his brother, Johnny. But there was no visible familial link. Curiouser and curiouser. Indeed, she felt a bit like she had fallen down the rabbit's hole since treading over Lancer property lines.  

She removed her hat and jacket, placed them on the wagon seat. Dusk would come soon enough. She turned and eyed them. “I'll need help with my equipment. I'm losing the light for my work and I have several items that need unloading.”

Pausing, she glanced quickly at her surroundings then listened for the next couple of minutes as Scott—who seemed so brittle a few minutes ago—explained in halting yet animated Spanish to a vaquero about the wagon. He stopped, searched for a word and found it, much to the delight of the broad-faced cowboy. Scott laughed low in his throat, hard and soft all at the same time. A master of opposites, it seemed.

A bump at her elbow, and Johnny picked up the plates from under the box seat. She kept her silence as he absently watched his brother stride towards the barn. “He doesn't get it. Not at all,” and she didn't know if Johnny was talking about the vaquero, the language or Scott himself.

“What doesn't he get?” She asked finally, taking the plates from him and unwinding the twine that held them together.

“He's pickin' up things real fast. Just needs a little time.” Johnny glanced at her, who nodded in encouragement. “My brother is a hard man to figure out, Miss Wilkins.”  

“Do you want to figure him out?”

“Well, I'm right here,” he said softly to the space between his hands. “I'm not goin' anywhere.”

Scott arrived with an entourage of eager cow hands; even a smithy was rounded up—a veritable army of strong backs for her trunks and bottles.  

She'd fallen behind Johnny and Scott on their way to ready themselves for the sitting. Murdoch stepped forward and joined her as the boys went inside. He had a young woman with him, his arm around her shoulders. “Miss Wilkins, this is Teresa O'Brien, my ward. Is there something else you need before we get started?”

Finally, someone she could see eye to eye without craning her neck. She inclined her head and smiled, “Miss O'Brien.” Addressing Murdoch, “I'll need an assemblage of rooms, with easy access to water.”

“What about the hacienda? We can carry water wherever you need it,” Teresa said.

An option, but not one she cared to use. The cleared out wagon would serve in a pinch. She surveyed the courtyard. “That windowless building there. What is it?”

Teresa raised her eyebrows in a look to Murdoch. “The old guardhouse?”

There looked to be working well beside it. A bonus, at least they wouldn't have to haul the water so far. “Can the inhabitants be removed for the time being?”

Lifting a shoulder, Murdoch shrugged. “We have no one in there at the present.”

“So much the better. I shall use your jail for my darkroom then.”

She gestured behind her. “Come along, men.” She felt a bit like General Grant leading the troops. Albert had told her often enough in the beginning she should have been born a man, but that argument died after seeing her first portraits and stereographs. Her art spoke for itself, being male had nothing to do with capability. And so he encouraged her to go west, after his own foray in the gold mining fields of California. She had never looked back.

The building smelled of rot and cool, of burnt coffee and old things. She supervised the placement of trunks, saw a long table pushed against the wall, then dismissed the helpers and began the lengthy process of unpacking.

Murdoch lit the hanging lanterns and loitered about her tripod and lenses.

“This will be quite an experience for us. From the recommendation I received, I assume you're very good.”

In one hand she cradled the colloid. With the other she brushed away dirt and spider webs from the scarred table. “Obviously, the recommendation didn't include all the facts.”

He looked chagrined. “Ah, no, it didn't. I should have realized earlier that Aggie's sense of humor played a part.”

“May I ask you a question, Mr. Lancer?” He quirked an eyebrow in suspicion, but nodded. “Why did you contract my services?”

He grimaced, pulled a fan of crinkles across his broad cheeks. “Lancer has undergone its share of troubles, recently.”

“I saw the land on my way here.”

“Yes, that was part of it.” After a loaded minute, he sighed. “We need a new beginning, Miss Wilkins. If that's at all possible.” Made uneasy by his own admission, Murdoch blinked at her, lashes so dark they shadowed his eyes. “I'd like to do that for my sons.”

A father's voice and she understood a little more of what Scott had talked about on the ride to the house. To think about the future, sometimes the past must be forgiven. It would be a start. But could she capture it?

She changed into work smock and apron and followed Murdoch to the house. The great room was larger than the studio at Scollay. Although less sumptuously arrayed, it had intimacy, hominess. She'd taken photographs of wealthy men in the business district of Boston, society ladies dressed in their finery, and a state governor or two, but this was her favorite venue.

With some encouragement, the Lancers came together before the fireplace. The two brothers standing, Murdoch and Teresa sitting. She stopped fussing under the camera shroud, lifted it to the side. With a sigh, she braced both hands on her knees and straightened. Rooted to this one place, Murdoch wanted a new start for his fledging family. A disaster of some sort brought them all here together. God only knew what they were tied with: memories, love, loss, guilt. She adjusted the lens and dove back under the shroud. What would it take for them to stay?     

She tapped twice on the tripod leg for good luck and took the photograph. Unearthing from the camera covering, she caught sight of several faces bobbing for a view through the window. Cowboys, no doubt. Or other estancia workers. They would want their own pictures taken and she was more than happy to oblige.

But she had to process what she'd already taken before that could happen.   

In the converted darkroom, she unstacked trays for the chemical and water baths and placed them on the table. The developer smelled like apple vinegar with iron thrown in for good measure. The odor sent shivers up her arms in anticipation. Milky iodides were removed and the plate rinsed.

She looked at it with dismay. The fireside portrait was imperfect, but human after all. Murdoch's clenched jaw. Teresa's frank openness at odds with eyes that showed experiences beyond her age. Johnny looked plaintively young, almost vulnerable. And Scott…well, there was something in his face she couldn't quite fathom. It reminded her of sadness.  

Her doubts about filling Murdoch's request came back. She had higher hopes for the individual portraits she was about to take. Several glass plates lay near her hand. She chose carefully and prepared them one at a time. 

After she finished with the family, Murdoch came into her small space with a knock and scrape of boot over the threshold. He tilted his head a little and pushed around the plates, lingering on the fireside picture. He picked out Johnny's photograph, taken next to the corral, and smiled. It suited the boy, being outside near the horses. Teresa, sitting by a large pot of marigolds, was a spot of sunshine in black and white tones.

Then he found the one of Scott, standing in front of the bookcase. His smile waned.  

She felt herself responding to it as her vision swam suddenly, remembering the tone of Scott's voice. Not giving up, but close to it. A thin breath escaped her, “Sometimes the angle of light doesn't let the true picture show through.”

They both ignored her statement for the lie that it was. Murdoch set the photograph quietly on the table like he was folding his hand, being faced with a good bluff. She couldn't utter another word, but instead gathered her things to pour more plates for the job ahead.

From her perspective, cowboys liked nothing better than to get in front of the camera with all the accouterments of their trade. So she found herself mired in all manners of men with all manners of guns, ropes, hats and chaps, pushing one another aside, clamoring to have their pictures taken beside the bunkhouse, barn and, inexplicably, the guardhouse.   

She waved vaguely towards the next man in line when she turned and found Scott standing near the well. 

Really found him. Her trained artist's eye studied the light and shadows. A half-wall, with part of the smooth adobe torn away, revealing rugged, solid stone beneath. Scott had leaned a hip into it, arms loosely folded across his chest. He stared past the crowd of cowboys as though he'd find what he sought inside the house.

His face relaxed into a bemused smile, the lines around his eyes and mouth easing. There he was, open as one of Teresa's yellow marigolds.   

Ducking under the black cloth of the camera, she adjusted the height of the tripod. A quarter inch here, a half inch there, until she was satisfied. She looked one more time to engage the perfect frame. Two taps and with a flick of her wrist, she opened the lens to capture the image. He belonged here, to this land, to this family. She wondered when he would realize it. 



~end~
02/2012
Revised: 12/2013

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