The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb A

 

 

FFirst Born(s)

Rain. Buckets of it. He tipped his head upwards to look at the darkening sky then immediately regretted it when the accumulated liquid on the brim of his hat sluiced down his already-sodden back. He swallowed an epithet aimed first at the weather then at himself. He should have made camp back at the line shack but Teresa had been set on preparing a special dinner in honor of his birthday. As it stood now, he wouldn’t make it back to the house before nightfall. With any luck, they had gone ahead without him. It’s not like he hadn’t missed birthdays before, a few here and there, especially during the war, and then after--when he hadn’t felt much like celebrating anything.

This birthday held all the promise of being a first rate debacle since he and Murdoch had argued bitterly the day before. Admittedly, it was usually his brother in this particular position and not him. He and Johnny had both experienced growing pains since coming to Lancer, albeit of different sorts. But lately, it seemed that he and Murdoch were more and more at odds with one another. This thing between him and his father had been simmering for some time. He was his own man, quite capable of taking on the responsibility of making decisions that impacted the ranch. He’d been tested before and he had always managed. Why couldn’t Murdoch see that or relinquish just a bit of control? Arm, legs and guts--is that all he ever wanted of him?  

The angry words he had spewed at his father the night before came back, unbidden, to his mind. Shame nipped at him and a bit of warmth crawled under his collar with the remembrance of it.     

Stuffing his work gloves inside his hat, he stepped into the foyer outside the great room just in time to hear Murdoch and Johnny arguing back and forth.

“I wanted that crew to round up the herd from Rincon Ridge, not go off on a half-cocked scheme to provide water for the northern valley.”

Johnny answered in turn, “Look Murdoch, I know we’re kind of tight on time and men since the fire and all, but that crew was almost done with finding the last of those steers on the ridge, at least that’s what Scott said. What could it hurt if they got pulled away for a little bit on another job?”

“Almost done isn’t good enough and you know it,” Murdoch snapped. “We’ll be running at a loss anyway since the fire. The cattle were supposed to be moved to the eastern pasture starting tomorrow and that means all of them.  Now we’ll have to wait another day, maybe more, while your brother takes time to do what he thinks is more important.”

He’d heard enough and, while thankful for Johnny’s backing, it was time to take matters into his own hands. He stalked into the room. Throwing his hat and gloves on the chair, he nodded to Johnny then moved to stand in front of Murdoch’s massive desk. Folding his arms defiantly, he waited.

Johnny, looking at Scott then back to Murdoch and edged his way slowly around the desk. “Well, now that Scott’s here…I guess I’ll be on my way to see about those repairs to the barn window before dinner.”

Johnny brushed past him, sending a look of sympathy his way. He leaned over and uttered one quiet yet distinct word into his brother’s ear as he passed by. He knew Johnny had heard the lone word--coward--when his brother flashed a wide grin on his way out of the room.

Murdoch’s temper was in full rein and questions peppered from his lips. “Do you realize how far you’ve put us behind by moving that crew away from the job that they were assigned to? What was going through your head? Were you even thinking of the consequences?”

Scott inclined his head towards the floor. He’d let his mind drift a bit during his father’s tirade and a mental image of the outraged bull being castrated the day before suddenly popped into his head. Catching the word “consequences”, he refocused on what Murdoch was saying. “If by consequences, you mean water for the range which means grass for the cattle, then, yes, I do understand the consequences of my actions. And I think you would understand them as well.” He groaned inwardly, it must be the harsh work pace that was affecting him; he would never be that disrespectful to Murdoch under normal circumstances. 

Scott raised his hands. “Murdoch, I’m sorry, but if you’ll only take a few minutes to look over the plan, you’ll see how good it is. We could have quality water to that pasture by the end of the month, and then it would be able to support even larger herds next year.”

Murdoch sent him a withering look, placed his large hands on the desk and leaned forward. “Have you started the surveying job yet?” he asked softly.

Another silent groan bubbled up, it was on Scott’s list to do but he hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet.

“And when were you thinking about getting around to that job? After the season is over?” Murdoch’s voice had risen in octave. “You’ll do the surveying tomorrow and then help Johnny and his crew move the cattle to the eastern site like planned. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Sir. It’s quite clear…it’s clear that you want to keep Lancer in the dark ages when we could spend a little extra time and money to think of the future and modernize the ranch. I was thinking that the next time we have a fire that takes out a thousand acres we could be prepared with a ready source of water, but I guess I was wrong.”

Briefly wondering who the coward was now, he turned on his heel and had left Murdoch alone at his desk, mouth slightly gaping.

He had gotten the surveying done, although it had taken him all day to do it. So caught up in finishing the activity that he hadn’t sensed the impending storm until it was on top of him.

He pulled his wet coat tighter about his chest and shook a raindrop from the tip of his nose. With a wry smile, he remembered another time and another dressing down. Grandfather’s reaction when he and a playmate had run off to sail around the world to the exotic lands of India had been less than ebullient. They had gotten as far as the harbor when the old man had caught up with them. Even so, the heated blistering from that time couldn’t hold a candle to what he had experienced yesterday. A different time and a different man, but both hard-headed and not particularly open to differing opinions.

He conceded, after having spent a restless night pondering on it, that his father was probably right. He needed to get his work done on time and not worry about the extraneous things. Deep inside, a persistent voice still muttered that water access was never irrelevant and Murdoch knew it as well as he did. Tamping down that stray bit of rebellious thought, he sent his horse forward.   

A blinding flash of lightning arched across the sky and illuminated the copse of trees he was riding through. Rolling thunder came swiftly behind it, sounding like distant cannons. His horse stumbled with the unexpected light and sound then shied violently away from the downed figure on the trail. Barely maintaining his seat, he looked ahead and saw a horse lying before him, turned to its side.

He dismounted and slowly approached the fallen animal. It was the pregnant mare that had gone missing. She had slipped away from the herd and with the fire taking utmost priority, had been forgotten. He gazed down at the still form; she had been a maiden mare and a young one at that, barely three years old. He sighed into the rain; there was nothing to do for her now. Turning to mount up, a speck of color in the underbrush caught his eye. He pulled back the dripping branches and uncovered a small hoof, its white fetlock shining in the darkness. Hastily, he dragged the scrub away to reveal a small foal--the mare’s foal--still alive. 

*****

Murdoch pulled back the curtain and looked out at the storm. An arm of yellow lightning jiggered sideways through the rain and a resounding boom a few seconds later caused the window panes to rattle. His mind wasn’t on the storm but rather on the argument that he and Scott had had last night. Simply put, he’d lost his temper. Ever since the fire had eaten away most of their hard-earned profits overnight, the work had been relentless. He’d felt the strain and he knew that his two sons had borne the brunt of it, Scott in particular.

Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he held Scott up to a different standard than Johnny. He expected certain things of his eldest; after all, Scott had the schooling and upbringing that Johnny wasn’t privy to. Even if that schooling didn’t have anything to do with ranching, he thought belatedly.

There had been disagreements before, but still…he’d crossed an unforeseen line last night with Scott. He’d known the exact moment his son had shut down, unwilling to go any further. His pale blue eyes--Catherine’s eyes--had shuttered and cut him off without a single word being volleyed.

He swiped a hand over his chin. When did things change between them?

A soft drawl came from behind him. “He’s all right, Murdoch. Scott knows when to come in out of the rain. Probably holed up somewhere ridin’ it out.”

Murdoch turned around to find Johnny staring at him pensively. “What? No, that’s not it. I’m sure he’s all right. It’s just that…” He smiled sheepishly. “I wasn’t quite sure if Scott wanted to come home tonight anyway.”

“You mean after that loud ‘discussion’ you two had?”

Murdoch looked sharply at his younger son.

“Well, you rode him pretty hard yesterday. I ‘spect the folks in Morro Coyo heard all the yelling that was going on.” He hitched his side against the desk top and turned to the lamp, fingering the base. “It’s not Scott’s nature to run away from a fight, he’ll be along.”

Murdoch gave a frustrated wave of his hand. “It’s more than that, Johnny.” He once again lifted up the curtain and peered out through the rain beating against the window. “He’s not…happy. He seems restless.”

Johnny had been fiddling with the fringe on Murdoch’s lamp; he abruptly dropped his hand and raised his head. “Restless? Like ‘leaving’ restless?”

Murdoch nodded; words had finally been put to his fears.

Johnny shook his head adamantly, “No. I would’ve known, Murdoch. He’d have told me.”

A skitter of hope lanced through him. Johnny was his gauge with Scott. The two of them had grown closer than he dared hope over the last year. If Scott hadn’t said anything to his brother then maybe, just maybe, he was wrong about what his son was thinking.

A scuff of boots sounded over the threshold. “Hey Boss, I just wanted to let you know that Scott’s back.” Jelly stood just inside the entryway, dripping water on the tiled floor. His thumbs were hooked under his coat and caught in the belt loops around his waist. Smiling, the handyman tipped back on his heels then rocked forward.

“What’s goin’ on Jelly?” Johnny said.

The smile went broad. “Just thought you both should know that he ain’t alone is all.”

Murdoch and Johnny shared a look.

“Yup, Scott brought home a little fella, all wrapped up in his coat.”

“Well why hasn’t he brought this ‘little fella’ inside so he can get warmed up?” Murdoch said.

Jelly swayed back on his heels, a smug expression planted on his face. “Oh, I don’t reckon he’d do that.”

Johnny, barely suppressing a grin, shook his head. “Jelly? You been out in the locoweed again?”

The smile disappeared from the small man’s countenance and the rocking faltered, his thumbs popped out of their entrapment. “Now why do you always have to bring that up? It was only that one time and it weren’t even my own fault.”

“Because you’re actin’ all crazy, that’s why…now where’s Scott?”

Deflated, he jerked a hand towards the door. “He’s out in the barn.”

“Finally,” Murdoch muttered, his boot heels clicking across the floor as he left the room.    

Johnny followed at a more leisurely pace, stopping to nab the sleeve of Jelly’s coat and giving it a gentle tug. “You waitin’ for an engraved invitation? Come on; let’s go see who Scott brought home.”

Jelly’s beaming smile parted his whiskers as he turned to follow.

Sliding the last foot to the barn through the misting rain and muck, Murdoch caught himself by the door and stayed upright. He could barely make out his son in the shadowy, lantern-lit stall, kneeling beside something in the straw. The old planks past the doorway gave a soft hiss when Murdoch put his weight on them and Scott abruptly turned his head towards the noise, a deuce mixture of annoyance and despair fluttering across his bedraggled features. He was more than wet, Murdoch thought, his sopping shirt hugged his spare frame like a second skin and soaked tendrils of bangs half-covered his eyes. Putting on what felt like a forced smile even to him, Murdoch moved forward to the stall.

He bent over the railing. “What do you have there?”

Johnny and Jelly, bumping each other through the doorway, came to stand beside Murdoch. “Yeah, what’s the big secret?” said Johnny.

Scott came up on one knee and pivoted, revealing the quiet foal wrapped in his coat. Weariness tinged his voice, “He’s from the lost mare. I found her on the trail during the storm--she’s dead.”

Johnny let out a long puff of breath and leaned over the slats of the railing, looking at the small bundle. “No telling how long he’s been out there alone.”

“Looks like he’s pretty far gone to me,” Jelly said, craning his neck past Johnny. “Sometimes Mother Nature just needs to take her own course with things.”

“Not this time,” Scott muttered and turned back to the foal. “Jelly, I need a couple of blankets and another bale of straw. And another lantern, too.” 

The small man’s whiskers drooped into a frown when he rolled his eyes. “Sure, sure thing Scott.”

Johnny stepped inside the stall and bent down beside the foal. Lifting the coat, he felt the colt’s damp skin and ran his hand over the relaxed ears. “You know, Jelly might have a point there. Foals can die pretty easy--no matter how much time and care you give’em.”

“Thanks for the veterinary advice, brother, but he’s worth the time.”

“All I’m sayin’ is…”

“Johnny,” Murdoch interrupted. He tipped his head sideways and motioned towards the door. “Go help Jelly, son.”

Johnny opened his mouth to say something but snapped it shut instead. Slapping a hand against his thigh, he left the barn.

“You too, Murdoch?”  

The accusation was laid crisply at his feet. It was almost a dare, delivered in that resonant voice, and was highly unexpected. Whatever was bothering Scott, it sure didn’t get solved while he was out on the surveying job. He started to form an answer but was saved by Johnny and Jelly arriving with supplies. Taking the blankets and lantern, Murdoch waved them out of the barn.

“That was unfair, Scott,” Murdoch said, and watched the tightness curl around his son’s mouth. He lit the second lantern and placed the blankets on the straw.

“Sir, I can handle this.”

“No one said you couldn’t.” The words had come out a bit too fast and a bit too sharply, because Scott had turned his back to him, unfolding the blanket. It was that damnable “Sir”. His son’s unerring politeness sometimes irritated the hell out of him. Was it just a year ago that he had told both sons to call him anything they liked? It was a decision he regretted since Scott had retreated more than once behind a façade of politeness, effectively throwing up a barrier between them. Feeling shut out and ineffective, he turned on his heel and strode from the barn.

It was quiet, save for the light rain tapping on the barn roof. Scott’s shoulders, hunched over the colt, started to protest their awkward position. The ache was only partially eased with few backward rolls. He peeled off his wet coat from the foal and noted with dismay that somewhere during the trip, the side had ripped open. Flinging it to the corner of the stall with more force than was needed, it landed in a wad with a loud thwack. The abrupt, close noise startled the colt. Its eyes flitted open in panic and a hoof jerked forward. He watched, with hesitant satisfaction, the movement in the straw. Just as suddenly, the deep brown eyes closed again. Grabbing the first blanket he rubbed the colt’s coat, vigorously drying it off. The second blanket was swaddled around the animal and carefully tucked under; straw was scraped together and mounded against the foal’s back and sides.

Scott finally fell back on his haunches, studying his handiwork. He swiped a grimy hand across his forehead, shoving errant, sticky bangs out of the way. He had effectively pushed Murdoch out of the barn with his words as if he had physically tossed him out. He knew that he could trust his father, so why was it so difficult to just give in? To accept his help? <I can handle this…and more.>

Setting the thoughts aside, Scott tugged the blanket up higher on the colt’s neck and stood to stretch the kinks out of his back. He needed to try and feed him, but the closest nursing mare was at the Anderson’s, an hour’s ride away. He’d seen Jelly with a nursing bottle the other day, for one of Teresa’s stray kittens. A bottle and some goat milk--another of Teresa’s projects, this time to make cheese--would set the colt up just fine. He fussed about the shelf in the barn, moving brushes and bits of wire, curry combs and a tattered stage schedule, in search of the flask.   

“Looking for this?” Murdoch, silhouetted by lantern light, stood in the doorway, holding the bottle and a small pail. He placed a larger sack beside the stall.

“How did you know?” Scott asked, eyebrows knitting together.

Murdoch smiled. “I’ve been around, son. This isn’t the first foal to come up without a mother.” Silence greeted him. Scott’s face was shadowed from the poor light in the barn so he couldn’t see his son’s reaction to the poorly worded statement. Gamely, he stumbled towards a safer topic of conversation. “It looks like you’ve made it home just in time for the storm to be over; the rain is starting to slow down.”

Scott came forward and took the bottle. Feeling the heft of it in his hand, he looked back at the swaddled bundle lying in the stall, and fingered the flask, turning it over and over. Looking warily at his father, he said quietly, “I could use some help.”

Murdoch hadn’t realized it, but he’d been holding his breath and let it out in one large whoosh.

They knelt down beside the foal with Murdoch at the head. Scott took the tin of milk, flipped off the top, and hesitated before plunging his finger into the liquid. “It would be better if we had some sweetening,” he murmured.  

Murdoch’s eyebrows rose.

Scott smiled faintly. “I’ve been around as well.”

The warmed-up foal squirmed encouragingly when Murdoch raised its head. “Let’s try to get some of this milk into him and if it doesn’t work then we can get honey from the kitchen.”

Murdoch watched Scott dip his fingers into the milk then into the foal’s mouth, over and over again. His hands are big, thought Murdoch. Large, competent hands made calloused by hard work on the ranch. Just like his own. Or maybe they had been marked before coming to Lancer. His son’s offhand comment about “being around” filled him with a sense of sorrow. Scott had learned many things, not by his hand but by others. Through his Grandfather, his schooling, and certainly during his time in the cavalry--and after. His thoughts strayed back to the night of the argument and picked it apart. Tempers aside, what didn’t his son say yesterday?

“I think it’s working,” Scott said. “Let’s try the bottle.”

Murdoch took the filled flask. “Here, let me, I have experience.”

“With Johnny?” Scott asked.

Murdoch fumbled the tip of the bottle into the foal’s mouth and half-sighed. “Yes, for a short time, anyway.” He pointed to the sack. “There’s some clothes in that bag, you’d better change. And I think if you look hard enough, there might be a sandwich or two at the bottom of it.”

Scott opened the sack and pulled out a smooth calfskin jacket. The softness of it had him turning the coat to the lantern, admiring the contrasting stitching on the sides.

Murdoch smiled. “It’s from Johnny and Teresa, they went in together to buy it. Johnny said that you needed something flashy in your wardrobe to attract the ladies in Morro Coyo.”

A cheeky grin was returned. “I don’t think I have any trouble with that regard, and I’ll have to tell little brother that the next time I see him. It’s a fine jacket, though.” He gave a disparaging glance to the balled up coat on the floor of the stall. “And it looks like it came in just the nick of time.”

 “It’s still your birthday for another hour or so. Why don’t you change and put it on?”

He worked quickly, feeling blissful relief when the dry clothes met his clammy skin. Finally slipping into the new jacket, he fingered a leather-trimmed cuff appreciatively. “It must have been expensive. They shouldn’t have spent so much.”

“It’s not every day a brother, and a new one at that, has a birthday. They wanted to mark the day--to do something special--for you.”

“I seemed to have spoiled things, then.”

“This is a working ranch, son, they understand. But God help you when Teresa wakes up. You did ruin her dinner plans.” A smile tugged at the corners of Murdoch’s mouth.

Stifling a contented moan, Scott sat back against the rails of the stall; stray crumbs from the sandwich dotting his jeans. He watched as Murdoch worked with the foal. It surprised him, this easy banter between them, given what went on the day before. It felt good--and right. His father’s overall size was a given but what fascinated him the most was seeing Murdoch lightly touch the foal, deftly moving those big fingers up and over the small ears and neck, time and time again. He surreptitiously looked down at his own hands, even with dirt crowding under the chipped nails and roughness from hard work they were the same hands as his father.

A muted grunt made him look up and he saw a quicksilver flash of pain cross his father’s face. He quickly got to his feet. “Here, Sir, let me help you.”

Murdoch looked at the hand in front of him. So it was back to “Sir”, but this time without the rancor. It was pleasing to his ears now, that simple word--and he knew it was just Scott’s way. He grasped the hand tightly then unfolded his legs and lifted off from the floor. He felt Scott’s left hand warm against his lower back as his son helped him from around the colt. <Damn injury.> But he was grateful for the closeness it forced.

“You’d better go to bed, Murdoch. I can handle it from here.”

He lingered for a few moments with his hand on Scott’s shoulder, feeling the curvature of it and the solid muscles underneath. <I know you can, son.>

 

****

 

Murdoch carried two cups of steaming coffee to the barn, studiously avoiding the large mud puddle he almost fell into last evening. He stopped just inside. Scott lay asleep against a straw bale, the new jacket wrapped around him like a blanket, long legs splaying out from underneath. A few rays of sunshine had made their way through the cracked window casting the top of his son’s head in bright hues of yellow and silver. He stole a few moments and stared, feeling foolish for the want but delighting in it just the same. A rustle in the straw to his left drew his attention away. A small hoof kicked out and Scott startled awake.

“Easy…,” Murdoch whispered.

They watched the struggle together. Nostrils flaring, the colt’s back legs wobbled and straightened, weight shifting to its front knees. Once then twice the foal tried to stand, its legs collapsing each time.

“Come on,” murmured Murdoch with Scott echoing in chorus.

One last burst of frenetic energy saw the colt standing on shaky legs, staring at his new surroundings.

Satisfied grins came from both father and son. In almost an after thought, Murdoch handed Scott a coffee. He saluted him with his remaining cup. “You did it, son.”

Scott returned the simple gesture. “I think we both did.”

A low whistle sounded from the doorway. “Who-wee, would you look at that.” A wide grin was plastered on Johnny’s face. “He made it after all. Good job, brother!”

Sobering, Johnny looked from Scott to Murdoch. “So, uh, is everything all right out here?”

A soft smile crossed Murdoch’s face as he glanced at his eldest son. “Things are just fine.”

“Well, okay then. Teresa has breakfast goin’. How about it?” Johnny said, rubbing his hands together.

Scott looked to the colt, standing more assuredly now, in the corner of the stall. Murdoch quietly spoke up, “Teresa missed out on a grand birthday dinner, son, don’t cheat her out of breakfast, too.”

“You’ll need it, brother. We have a big day ahead of us with the herd. If you’re nice to me, I’ll even move you up from ridin’ drag, bein’ that you missed your birthday and all.”

Scott clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Riding drag, hmm? I guess I’ll need to wear my old jacket for that. Wouldn’t want the ladies in Morro Coyo to miss out on my new one.” He grinned widely.

“Breakfast sounds good, but Scott has other plans for the day. You’ll need to find someone else.” Murdoch said. He looked pointedly at his first born. “The fact of the matter is that Lancer needs an irrigation system.”

His decision had been an easy one, after he had figured things out. Scott had ‘handled’ things ever since coming to the ranch. There had been arguments in the past and probably would be more in the future, but in that quiet, undemanding way of his, Scott had already made his mark. Why hadn’t he seen it before? He’d often wondered what would keep his city-bred son content at home on Lancer. But he didn’t need to worry any longer.  

 

~end~
Jul/’08

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