The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Cristy

 

 

New Beginnings

A big thank-you to my beta, Suzanne, and to Clementine, Raian, and Adriana for the helpful suggestions and advice. You’re the best!

“For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.” T.S. Eliot

It came as no surprise to Murdoch that Scott was absent from the breakfast table.

Last night his boys had come home after spending three long days driving the cattle to Lancer’s winter pastures. It had been a rain-soaked day, but as the sun went down, the rain had slowed to a misty drizzle. On the portico, Johnny had peeled off his dripping rain slicker, kicked off his boots, and made a beeline for the kitchen. Scott stayed on the porch looking like he’d just been pulled out of a river.

‘I don’t know why I’m freezing, Murdoch. This weather is nothing compared to Boston at this time of year.’

‘What you need is a hot meal and some good, strong coffee. Come on inside. Maria left you some dinner, and there are blankets warming by the fire.’ He extended a welcoming arm to his son.

‘No, I think I just want a hot bath and a warm bed.’

‘It’s a river of mud to the bathhouse.’

‘I’ll take my chances. Besides, I can’t get any wetter or muddier than I am right now,’ Scott grinned.  He tugged his slicker close and stepped off the porch.

In the pale light that spilled from the windows, he watched his son trudge his way through the courtyard and disappear beyond the wall. Murdoch closed the front door with a soft snap, and went to join Johnny in the kitchen. The boy had grabbed a kitchen towel and opened the oven door. ‘What’s Maria left for me?’

‘I’m not sure, but it smells good.’

‘Smells great! Where’s Scott? A plate of this will fix him right up.’

‘He’s gone to the bathhouse.’

Johnny gave a low chuckle. ‘Leave it to him to choose a bath over Maria’s good chow.’ He brought his plate to the table while Murdoch poured them some coffee.

‘How’d it go out there?’ He handed Johnny his cup, and sat opposite him.

‘Pretty good. We moved those beeves quicker than I thought we would.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yeah. That’s some rough country up there, but the hands kept them moving.’

Murdoch relaxed with his son for almost an hour as Johnny filled him in on the drive while eating sliced beef and roasted potatoes. He treasured these talks about the ranch with Johnny; they were conversations he’d longed for and thought would never happen.

‘So Murdoch, I figure if things go right, those cattle should get through the winter easy. You’ve got some fine stock there.’ He scooped up the last of his second helping of pie and popped it in his mouth.

‘We, Johnny. We have some fine stock.’

Johnny dipped his head, then looked up at him with that half-smile he was beginning see more frequently. 

‘It sounds like all of you did a fine job. Good work, Son.’ He reached out to give Johnny a sound pat on his arm. The half-smile expanded to full-on grin.

He left him rinsing off his dishes and went to check on Scott before turning in.

Scott was curled up under his covers sound asleep, his bedside lamp still lit and casting a dusky glow about the room. A light touch to his son’s forehead assured him there was no fever, but he did look pale. So pale that he now noticed the dark circles under his eyes. The sight of Scott’s saddlebags and sodden boots flung into a dim corner of his bedroom caused Murdoch to raise his eyebrows.

‘Is he all right, Murdoch?’ came a hushed voice from the doorway.

Murdoch congratulated himself on not jumping out of his skin. The boy could certainly be soft-footed when he wanted to. ‘Well, there’s no fever.’ He kept his voice low. ‘I think he’s just tired. C’mon, Johnny. Let’s let him sleep.’

**********************

The next morning, as Murdoch had expected, it was just him and Johnny sitting down to a breakfast of Luisa’s specialty: steak and eggs served with a salsa that Jelly swore was a flea’s foot away from bursting into flames. Teresa was in the storehouse finalising a list of needed supplies. As he ate, he noticed Johnny’s gaze wander towards the stairs once or twice. Murdoch took a sip of coffee to hide his smile.

But what really caught his attention was the way Johnny hunched over his plate, like he was guarding it from predators. Back in Scotland, his own father had eaten his meals the same way, the man’s arms practically embracing the crockery. He’d never noticed the similarity before now.

Johnny nodded towards Scott’s empty chair. ‘Looks like we’re a man down today, huh Murdoch.’

‘It would seem so.’

Johnny pushed his plate away, and then fished under his chair for the napkin that always managed to fly off his lap before he’d finished a meal. ‘I’ll go see how he is.’

‘No, I’ll do that. You go find Jelly, let him know we’ll need him to come to town with us and help get supplies in. I just hope the wagon doesn’t get bogged down.’

‘The road’s fine. It drains off quick, and rain was light to the south. But about Jelly, I have to warn you, Murdoch, he ain’t gonna like it.’

‘Why?’
 
‘I heard him tell Maria he had his mind set on fixing the chicken coop this morning. Supposed to be a freeze tonight.’ He pitched the errant napkin on the table.

‘A freeze? This early?’

‘Said his thumb was twitching worse than a cow’s tail in a fly swarm, and, well…according to Jelly, that means we’re in for a freeze.’ The corners of Johnny’s mouth turned upwards.

Murdoch couldn’t help but laugh. ‘That man has some peculiar ways of predicting weather. Well, tell him it can’t be helped. Somehow I don’t think your brother is going to feel up to doing much of anything today, and everyone else is busy. He can fix the coop later. And ask Cipriano to have Miguel’s crew get some extra feed out to the south pasture this afternoon.’

Johnny tilted his head as he looked at his father, his amused smile now questioning.

‘It won’t hurt to be prepared. I’ll have you know young man, I learned long ago not to discount things like twitching thumbs.’

Johnny’s amused smile was back in place.

Murdoch pushed himself up using both hands. He’d finally been able to stop using the cane, but these dreich*, cave-damp mornings had his back feeling as flexible as a seasoned two-by-four. A few more days like this and the cane might have to come out of storage.

Johnny’s eyebrows came together. ‘You all right?’

‘Perfectly fine. I’ll see how Scott is, then we can ride.’

Johnny snatched a tortilla from the basket and scooted his chair back. ‘Okay. See you outside.’

**************************

Murdoch knocked on his son’s door, but when there was no response he invited himself in. Scott was lying on his back, his long johns a dull grey against pale sheets. Light, rhythmic snoring was the only sound in the dimly-lit room.

Murdoch almost stepped on quilts that had tumbled off the bed in a colourful heap. Strange—usually Scott’s blankets stayed in place, unlike his brother’s, which more often than not ended up in a tangled mess on the floor. A grunt escaped as he reached down to gather up the quilts; the snoring stopped.

He straightened to find Scott staring at him through puffy slits. Murdoch thought he still looked pale, the dark circles more pronounced.

‘I’m sorry to wake you Scott, but we missed you at breakfast.’ He tucked the quilts round his drowsy son.

‘Breakfast?! What time is it?’ He sounded like a frog trying to sing.

Murdoch lowered himself onto the edge of the bed. ‘A little after eight.’

Scott made to get up, muttering apologies, but Murdoch eased him back using no more strength than he would on an exhausted child. ‘Take it easy. I think it would be a good idea if you stayed put today. You don’t sound too good.’ He briefly laid a palm on Scott’s forehead. It was cool. ‘How do you feel?’

‘Tired, but it’ll pass. I’ll be down in a few minutes.’

He gave Scott’s thigh a light pat. ‘I’d rather you do the smart thing and stay right where you are.’

Scott scrubbed at his eyes. ‘But I thought we were going to get supplies this morning, get those salt-licks from—’

‘Jelly’s going with us, so don’t worry about all that. Just stay where you are and get some rest. Do you need anything? Something to eat? I can have a tray sent up.’

Scott’s hand went to his stomach and he shook his head. ‘No, thank you.’

‘Then go back to sleep. I’ll ask Teresa to check on you in a couple of hours. Sound good?’

Scott nodded and seemed to sink into the mattress, his eyes drifting shut. Within minutes his breathing was deep and even, his face relaxed. He looked so young that Murdoch couldn’t resist reaching out and brushing a few wayward strands of hair from his forehead. Golden hair, so like Catherine’s.

Catherine.

And there she was: young, beautiful, sitting beside him in their weathered, splintery wagon. Her sunbonnet hanging down her back, her hair shining like newly-minted gold. He reached out to brush some of the strands from her face, but she captured his hand and laid it against her cheek. She was laughing, her grey-blue eyes finding his…

And then she was gone.

He was back in the dim shadows that filled Scott’s room. The same shadows that had plagued him for so many years.

It left him with an emptiness that ploughed into him with the force of a rock slide. Needing a tangible connection to her, he laid a hand on Scott’s arm. Her child.

His son.

This simple touch gave him a measure of relief that at one time could only be found at the bottom of a whisky bottle. 

It also gave him the strength he needed to drag himself up and make his way downstairs. He’d forgotten how much he missed the happiness Catherine and Maria had brought him. Forgotten how much it meant to him. How much it hurt to lose it. A heaviness settled in his gut like a stone.

Leave the past in the past. It was the only way he could survive.

Who was he fooling? He hadn’t forgotten. His boys were stirring up memories, breaking them out of the corral he’d carefully constructed only to have them parade right up to his doorstep and look him dead in the eye.

Well, it was the price to be paid—an unwelcome consequence of having his boys home. Maybe, in time, the memories would bring comfort.

Pulling himself together, he stopped by the kitchen to ask Teresa to look in on Scott while he was gone. ‘He’s sleeping now, but maybe you could offer him a light lunch later. He didn’t feel up to dinner last night, and he doesn’t want breakfast.’

‘Is he sick?’ She paused at the larder, a stone crock of lard in her hands. Maria stopped rolling out dough.

‘Nothing serious, probably just a cold. He’ll be fine.’

Her shoulders relaxed, and she put the crock away. ‘Maria and I will look after him, don’t worry. We’ll make him some chicken soup—save one of those poor chickens from the torture of freezing to death tonight,’ she said with a grin.

Maria resumed rolling out the dough, and assured him her grandson would repair the coop that afternoon. ‘That old man, he’s not the only one on this ranch who knows how to fix a chicken coop, patrón, even though he brags that he is.’ She smacked her rolling pin into the dough.

Teresa giggled, while Murdoch took the diplomatic route and beat a hasty retreat, keeping his comments to himself.

At the door, Murdoch strapped on his gun and shrugged into his coat. Grabbing his hat, he stepped out into the misty greyness.

*************************

Johnny had the wagon hitched and was now busy adjusting the cinch on Barranca. He smiled as Murdoch approached, but it slid away as he came nearer. ‘What’s wrong? Is it Scott?’

He quickly reassured his son and watched the smile return. Johnny lowered his head and went back to cinching Barranca.‘Teresa gave me her list, and Cip will see about the extra feed, so I guess we’re ready.’ 

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as his gaze turned to the saddle.

‘That saddle, is it the same one you brought with you from Mexico?’

Johnny nodded, his face unreadable.

‘Why don’t we stop by the saddler’s and order you a new one? It’s been my experience a rancher should always have a good, custom-made saddle.’

Johnny’s hands paused before resuming their work. To most it would have gone unnoticed, but not to Murdoch. The boy gave a final tug on the cinch strap and let the fender fall into place. ‘Yeah, I’d like that, Murdoch. Guess I should have thrown it out when I first got here, but…’ He shrugged his shoulders and looked away.

He reached out and gave Johnny’s arm an understanding squeeze; Johnny turned and gave him Maria’s smile.

Climbing into the wagon, he took the reins. ‘Now, where’s Jelly got to?’

‘He said he’d be right along.’ Johnny swung up on Barranca.

‘Jelly!’ Murdoch let his voice thunder through the courtyard.

Jelly emerged from the stables. ‘I’m right here, Boss. No need to shake the rafters loose.’ Jelly hauled himself up and plopped down beside Murdoch, his face as sour as Teresa’s fresh-churned buttermilk. ‘Always snapping your fingers and expecting a man to be ready faster’n a pig to the dinner trough,’ he groused. ‘Don’t know why we’re gallivanting off to town anyway with a freeze fixing to barrel down on us. I just hope you like your eggs froze, Boss, ‘cause that’s what’s gonna happen if that chicken coop—’

From the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny’s shoulders start to shake. Murdoch couldn’t help but laugh along with him as he snapped the reins. The heaviness within him seemed to lighten, daring him to believe that there was a fighting chance the pain of past memories would lessen as they were buffered and reshaped by the present. Yes, he would fight for that—God help him, he loved a good fight.

His sons had come home bringing a joy all their own—a cure for his emptiness, a love he had missed. They brought the promise of new beginnings.

And isn’t that what he’d always hoped for.

 

 

~end~
September 2017

*Dreich – a Scottish word meaning dark, bleak, dreary, misty, drizzly.

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