The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Mary Whimsey

 

 

The Condor

 

 

This story is purely for fun and intends no copyright infringement.
My deep thanks to Carmela for her careful editing and Mary O for her early reading and encouragement.
Should you have time, feedback is always greatly appreciated. 
The line of poetry is from Sir Walter Scott's Marmion  (Canto VI line 52 to 55)

 

Scott was startled when the heavy shadow passed over him. The sky had been cloudless for days.  He reined his horse to a stop.  Narrowing his blue-grey eyes against the glare of the afternoon sun, he looked up at the endless sky.

“What the hell,” he said softly.

He had expected to see a bird.  What else but a bird could be casting a shadow in a clear sky?

It was a bird all right.  The biggest damn bird he'd ever seen.

Keeping his gaze fastened on the huge creature circling above him, Scott reached for his saddlebag. He fumbled the flap open and pulled his field glasses from the pouch.  Absentmindedly, he calmed his fidgeting horse as he raised the glasses to his eyes.

It was black with white feathers on the underside of its wings. Scott tried to estimate the wingspan. He thought it was wider than he was tall - by a lot.  Patiently, he tracked the flight of the bird until it turned back towards him. He got a good look at its head -featherless, reddish with a strong looking beak. The bird was so grotesque that it had a sort of beauty, or perhaps that was majesty given its size.

“A vulture,” he said softly, turning his attention to his prancing mount as the black shadow passed over them again.

A veteran of battlefields, Scott was all too familiar with vultures.

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

 

The hot, dry days of August passed slowly for Murdoch. His sons were in the summer camps in the hills. He was surprised by how much he missed them; how he had become used to their presence in the house in a few short months. 

Johnny got back first. He rode in with a small group of vaqueros near dark one evening.   He walked in with his spurs jangling proclaiming he would eat anything, anything at all as long as it wasn't beans from a can. 

Teresa laughed and ran to the kitchen to fix him his favorite spicy beef wrapped in a tortilla.

Murdoch realized how long it had been since he'd heard her laugh. 

“I can haul that box up to Scott's room for you,” said Johnny gesturing towards the packing crate that sat on the corner of Murdoch's desk.

Laying his hand on the box Murdoch said, “Don't bother.”

He noticed the puzzled look that crossed his younger son's face. Murdoch knew Johnny was surprised that he refused his offer when so often he was growling about hats, boots and other items belonging to his sons cluttering the great room.

He didn't explain that he needed the box to stay on his desk. 

There was a conversation that was long overdue between him and Scott. Murdoch had never known how to broach the subject of Scott's mother with him.  No, that wasn't exactly true. He had never wanted to broach the subject.  It hurt him to talk about Catherine, to think about her, about losing her.

Murdoch had always dealt with pain by shutting his mind to it; the past was over and done.

But it wasn't. A few words, the name of the bookstore in Boston that the box had come from, had opened a closed place in Murdoch's mind. Scott would have no way of knowing the importance of that bookstore in the life of his parents.  It was a story that Murdoch wanted to share with him. Perhaps finally, they would talk about something besides the ranch.

He needed the box to stay on his desk until Scott saw it. He needed to use the name, Broden's Booksellers, to spur him to tell Scott the story. He needed his memory of the moment he met Catherine to give him the courage to really talk to their son.

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

 

In the distance, Scott saw the back of the hacienda, the walled garden and the small cluster of adobe houses where the vaqueros and their families lived. It all shimmered in the heated air like a mirage.

Scott had enjoyed his three weeks in the relative cool of the higher elevation. The work was fairly easy compared to much of the labor on the ranch. He and the others rode out each day  to check on the cattle and look for trouble. At night they gathered around a fire. Some of the men played cards or dominoes. Scott practiced his Spanish by talking with Cipriano or reading in the flickering light of the fire. It was a faint reminder of his army life - sleeping rough, eating beans and cornbread.

When the next crew of men arrived to relieve them, Scott briefly considered staying on.  It had been peaceful in the rugged beauty of the hill country. But the lure of his feather bed and a meal that included fresh vegetables and a glass of good wine was too much to resist. And although the thought surprised him a little, he missed his brother.  Somehow against the odds, he and Johnny had developed a good working relationship, perhaps the beginning of a friendship.

It would be good to see Teresa. He worried about the girl since her terrifying experience  late in the spring. She had been so quiet, so unlike the bright and lively girl who had met Johnny and him at the stage in March.

And he thought with a touch of grimness, he had to face his father. He had to tell his side of what happened. Really, it shouldn't be of much importance, a simple disagreement, but Scott had a bad feeling his father would not agree.

Gnawing on his lip, Scott glanced around at the men riding with him. There were six all together including Cipriano and Fernando. Scott liked the Segundo. He respected the man's knowledge of the ranch and cattle. Cip tried to always be fair. He would tell Murdoch exactly what had happened; he would probably blame Scott's lack of experience on the ranch. Scott knew that Cip wanted nothing more than his Patrón and sons to get along.

Scott shifted his gaze to the back of the man ahead of him. Fernando was another story altogether. There was no question that Fernando was an excellent cowhand but he was taciturn. Fernando had never liked him, not from the very beginning. Scott didn't know why - unless it was simply that he was from the east. It had been just bad luck that he had crossed Fernando.

As he watched, Fernando spurred his horse forward. Scott resisted the urge to do the same, to get to his father first. He wouldn't do that. He was in the right. He would state his case calmly to Murdoch, not run to him like a tattletale.

He caught sight of Johnny's palomino grazing by the river. He was glad Johnny was back. Maybe, just maybe, his brother would take his part in this nonsense.

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

 

Cipriano's younger son was shouting gleefully that there were riders coming in.  Murdoch hurried out of the barn and scanned the distance. Yes, it was Scott's crew.  Murdoch could recognize his son at a distance; he sat a horse differently than anyone else on the ranch. Years of riding in German and English saddles still shaping his seat.

A smile softened Murdoch's craggy features. He'd wait until Scott got cleaned up and they had supper before he tried to talk with him. Teresa had said that morning there were some peaches ripe in the orchard. He hoped there was time for her to make a pie before they ate. He was sure Scott would like peach pie. In the evening he would pour the boys glasses of his best Scotch. Then he would point out the box on his desk from Broden's Booksellers. His smile broadened.  He could do this; he could break the barrier that the natural reserve they shared had created between his elder son and him.

The smile faded as he listened to Fernando's terse Spanish.

“He knocked the shotgun from my hands, Patrón,” the man spit out. “To save the bird.  What now, are we supposed to let the birds kill the calves? Should we let the pumas kill them too?”

Cip's voice was soft, almost pleading, “Señor Scott does not know about the condors.  He will learn.”

“He ordered me, us, not to kill the great birds,” Fernando declared sharply. “Whose orders do I obey, Patrón? Yours or Señor Scott's?”

“Mine,” growled Murdoch. He turned and searched the barnyard for Scott. He saw him by the corral fence brushing the saddle marks off his horse. Murdoch jerked his head towards the house. Then he turned and walked to the hacienda.

Scott didn't bother to stifle his sigh. He glanced towards the walled garden. The maids would have buckets of hot water waiting for him by the shower now. He wanted nothing more than to peel his sweat-stiff clothes from his body and lather the soft soap all over himself. But he knew his father's temper would not improve if he kept him waiting. With  a final swipe at the horse's glossy coat, he slipped the bridle off and let the animal go.

As he opened the hacienda's heavy front door, he thought about the first time he'd passed through it. He remembered shooting his cuffs and straightening his shoulders.  Johnny had been with him. Johnny who had been an even greater surprise to him than the unknown father who waited beyond the door. 

His father was no longer an unknown. He was a man with a legendary temper who cared more for the land and the cattle on it than anything else in the world.  Scott wished that Johnny was with him now. Maybe he would deflect a little of that temper.

A stanza from Sir Walter Scott's epic poem Marmion ran through his mind. It seemed very apt when entering his Scottish father's great room.

 

And dar ' st thou then
To beard the lion in his den,
The Douglas in his hall?
And hop
' st thou hence unscathed to go?


  No, he had no hope he would go unscathed.

 Murdoch stood behind his splendid desk. He drew himself up to his full imposing height. His blue eyes were narrowed. His voice was low, almost menacing; evidence that his temper was being held in check with effort.

“What the hell were you thinking?”

“That there was no purpose in killing such a magnificent creature,” said Scott slowly, carefully. Unconsciously, he stood straighter, his hands clenched at his sides.

“Oh, ye know that do ye?” There was always an echo of Scotland in Murdoch's voice but now it was a true brogue. “Ye know better than Cip, better than Fernando, men who've lived and worked here the whole of their lives. I suppose it's ye Harvard education that's taught ye so.”

The taunt stung Scott.  He was dirty and tired after spending three weeks in the saddle from sunup to sundown - from sleeping on rough ground. He was in no mood to have his education thrown in his face like it was something he had to live down.

“Yes,” Scott retorted, his gaze fastened on his father. “It taught me to properly identify a living thing before I let it be killed. There is no reason to kill a vulture.”

“It's a condor.  A dirty, ugly, great beast that kills my calves.”

“And have you witnessed a condor killing a calf?” asked Scott still keeping his tone low and even. He heard movement behind him. He glanced towards the passage to the back of the house. He saw Johnny stop in the doorway. He was barring Teresa's way. It looked almost as if he was protecting the girl.

“I've seen them picking the bones plenty of times,” said Murdoch as he placed his hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Every man on the ranch knows to shoot them on sight.”

Scott counted to five before he spoke.  He knew that he was being obstinate. He knew that cattle were almost a religion with his father; everything depended on the cattle.  Nothing that interfered with them could be tolerated. But Scott was sure of his argument. No one expected to have his way more than his grandfather, but it was Garrett who'd taught him to never back down when he was sure he was right. He wasn't going to start now.

“Picking the bones isn't killing the calves,” said Scott, his own accent becoming more pronounced. “It is a vulture. It eats carrion. It cleans up dead things. It would be wise to encourage more of them to keep disease down.”

In every syllable Scott spoke, Murdoch heard Harlan Garrett's voice.  A voice he had not heard in twenty years, but he remembered the measured speech of the man who denied him his son.  “Six months out here and already ye know everything.”

“No, sir,” answered Scott with a deliberate formality. “But I know vultures. The condor may be twice the size of most vultures, but it still has a naked head and a beak that evolved for tearing meat from a corpse.”

“Evolved is it?” Murdoch almost jeered. “I suppose it is that pagan Darwin you're quoting now.”

“You've read Darwin?” asked Scott in surprise. Maybe if he could hold his temper, he would be able to talk his father through his argument. Maybe if Murdoch would just think about the great bird's traits, he would realize that Scott was right.

“I've read my Bible,” snapped Murdoch.  And he had - years ago in his father's schoolroom. He had not read the controversial The Origin of Species,  but he knew about it from articles in magazines he took. At any other time he would have been interested in Scott's opinion of the book. Not now. Now all he was interested in was putting Scott and his snooty Boston ways in his place. “Darwin's theories are a bunch of nonsense. Modern claptrap. Ye want to belong here, boy, ye'll learn from those who know. Don't ye be giving orders about things ye know naught about.”

“If I want to belong,” repeated Scott. He thought of the hard labor of the past six months;  of how he'd worked himself half-way to illness trying to learn the ways of the vaqueros; of how he'd been laughed at as he practiced with the lariat and landed face-first in the mud. Scott let his temper go. “But what you mean is if I want you to believe I belong. What's the matter, Murdoch?  Am I not dancing to your tune fast enough?”

“Damn right it is my tune, boy!” thundered Murdoch slapping his palm against the smooth wood of his desk.

Teresa let out a startled cry. Johnny cleared his throat as if to interrupt.

Murdoch ignored them. He ignored the voice in his head that asked what the hell he was doing? Why was he pushing his son away over a bird?

“Anything that preys on my cattle is my prey, my men's prey.  This is the real world, boy, not some ivory tower looking over the river Charles. I built this ranch up from a ruin. I'm the one who gives the orders. That's part of our agreement. I know you were raised to abide by agreements,” sneered Murdoch.

Scott knew the last was a shot at his grandfather.  God knew Harlan Garrett wasn't perfect.  Although it would please neither of them, Scott felt his father and his grandfather were very much alike - maybe he was like them.  But it was Garrett who raised him, who taught him his letters, sat by his bed when he was ill, and prayed unceasingly for him to return from war alive. His grandfather had earned his loyalty long, long ago.

“Yes, sir,” said Scott with deadly calm. “I was raised to abide by the agreements I enter into.”  And with that, Scott turned on his heel with military precision and walked purposefully out of the room.

“I'm not finished with you!” bellowed Murdoch.

Johnny came fully into the great room and paused for a moment in front of his father.  “I reckon Scott might be finished with you.”  He spoke softly, with a note of disgust. Then he followed his brother out of the house.

Murdoch, still leaning on his hands, glanced at Teresa.

She stood in the doorway with her hand at her mouth, tears glistened in her dark eyes but she didn't shed them. Teresa took a step towards him and let her hand fall to her side. She looked him directly in the eye as she said, “How many calves can the condors take, Patrón?  So many you are willing to lose Scott?”

To Murdoch's surprise there was no anger in her voice or in her eyes. Just sorrow, so much sorrow for one so young.

She turned and silently walked back to the kitchen.

Murdoch sat down awkwardly in his leather chair. He closed his eyes. A memory came over him.  A memory of another well-appointed room with a massive oak desk. In that room, he had stood on the other side of the desk and Harlan Garrett had been behind it.  How Garrett must have hated that his beloved daughter had her heart set on a poor Scottish immigrant. Ever the negotiator, Garrett had offered him a position in his business. It might have assured him a brilliant future and Catherine could have stayed close to her family. But Murdoch had had to go his own way. He pursued his dream of California and took Catherine with him. 

Of course Garrett had hated him. Nearly a decade later he took his revenge when he refused to give Scott up. It was true that Murdoch might have fought him, fought him in the courts, but he would have put Scott through the ordeal for nothing.  Already in those days Murdoch was an important man in California, but in Massachusetts he was a nobody and Garrett knew everyone.

Now Scott was finally on the ranch. Murdoch had the chance he had barely the courage to hope for - to know his and Catherine's son.

Teresa was right. He had thousands of calves. The condors were rare; they couldn't take that many. Certainly not enough to justify how angry he'd been with Scott. Was it simply because his order had been overridden? That out of habit, he had defended his right to rule his ranch? Or was it something else; something in Scott's slate grey eyes, eyes so much like his mother's, so much like his grandfather's. 

Murdoch opened his eyes and stared at the packing box. It had been a good plan.  But he had bollixed it. And now the distance between Scott and him was greater than ever.

Perhaps it was just too late.

 

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

 

Scott left the house with no destination.  A few minutes later, he found himself in the walled garden. He stopped by a table in the shade of a pergola covered with grape vines. Unaware that he was mirroring his father's stance, he placed his hands on the table and leaned heavily against them. He took several deep breaths of the hot, dry air.

What the hell was he still doing here? Whatever curiosity had been sparked by the odd offer of a $1000 for an hour of his time had surely been satisfied by now. It was his plan that had saved the ranch from the land pirates. He'd made it through the round up and could now at least be more help than hindrance with the cattle. Murdoch was back in the saddle and obviously more than capable of running his ranch. Scott had nothing to prove here.

He didn't belong here where he wasn't wanted.  He belonged in Boston with his family and friends.  Where he didn't have to ride three hours to sit at a bar with a schooner of beer. Where there were concerts and libraries and conversations about art and politics.

He could go back where he was wanted. Back to the life he'd planned: working with Daniel in the family business, watching his godchildren grow up, and supporting his grandfather as he aged.

Hell, if Boston became too confining he could go anywhere. He had his education, his decent war record and family connections that would get him financial backing if he wanted it. Small railroads were popping up all over the country. He could find a place and build his own.

He didn't have to stay here killing himself with work to please a man who would never be pleased with him.

“I guess this ain't the only good thing that's ever happened to you in your whole life.”

Scott straightened and turned around. 

Johnny stood in the gateway. His thick dark hair hung over his forehead. His bright blue eyes were focused on Scott; a slight, crooked smile on his lips.  His thumbs were tucked in his gun belt.

“What?” said Scott uncertainly.

Johnny shrugged.  “Remember a while back, you told me if I left here I'd be throwing away the one good thing that'd happened to me.  But that ain't true for you.”

Scott did remember.  He wasn't surprised how close Johnny had come to reading his thoughts.  When he'd first met him, Scott had almost made the mistake of thinking that Johnny was a hothead, charging his way through life like a bull in a china shop. Pretty quickly he'd realized if that were true, Johnny would have gotten himself killed before now. Johnny was observant and thoughtful - and at times a hothead.

Scott grimaced and shoved his hand through his dirty blond hair.

“Them condors are really something,” said Johnny.  His gaze followed Scott's out over the garden wall to the dry, brown hills beyond the river.

“Yes,” said Scott with a nod. “But I suppose you don't think a bird is worth all-out war with Murdoch.”

“Is that what the two of you was fussing about?  A bird?”

Scott laughed darkly. No, he supposed not.  But he couldn't put into words what he and his father were arguing about. He only knew that the confrontation had left him feeling demoralized.

“Do you believe that condors prey on calves?”

“I ain't never thought about it; I've only seen a couple of ‘em.  Course, before I came here, I never gave much thought to cattle.” Johnny chuckled, casting a sideways glance at his brother.

“I really thought I could explain why I pulled the shotgun out of Fernando's hands to save that bird. I thought Murdoch would listen to me if I presented a well-reasoned argument.” He'd had a point, a good point, but his father had dismissed him out of hand. Scott had been taught to debate, to make a case, from an early age.  Often over the years he'd lost - to his grandfather, to his friends, to his teachers.  Always, he'd been given the opportunity to be heard. When he made a good argument he often prevailed.  His father's refusal to look at the evidence was ignorance or arrogance.  Whichever, it was deeply disheartening to Scott.

“I don't think Murdoch's had much practice listening to contrary opinions. For what it's worth, I've seen lots of vultures; you got a point about them all having naked heads.”

Scott turned to him saying, “I don't suppose you'd like to make that point to the old man?”

Johnny smiled and shook his head. 

“I think the condors are vultures.  No danger to the calves at all,” said Scott firmly. “I've seen vultures picking over corpses. Watching them made my skin crawl but, like rats and maggots, what they do is necessary.  But that condor I watched,” he paused and looked up at the bright blue sky, “it was wondrous that something so large could fly.  To me it would be worth a hundred calves just to see it fly again. I suppose you find that foolish.”

“No,” answered Johnny shaking his head. “But I don't think you're ever gonna get Murdoch to agree with you.  Only thing worth a hundred calves to him is a whole lot of money.”

Scott snorted in agreement.  

“Are you gonna leave, Boston?”

Scott shook his head at Johnny's use of the nickname.  He still hadn't decided whether he liked it or not.  “Why? Do you want me to cede my third of the ranch to you?  You'd have a controlling interest then. You could call the tune.”

“Ain't nobody who could make Murdoch Lancer dance to their tune,” responded Johnny with a laugh. He sobered suddenly. “I don't think Teresa'd like it much if you left.”

Scott closed his eyes. He was fond of Teresa. Quietly he said, “She'd be all right as long as you were here.”

“Yeah, I reckon, but she's got this idea about us all being a family.  That'd be kind of hard with you on the other side of the country.”

“It's not easy with me here,” said Scott flatly.  His gaze fell on the rose bushes planted against the house. He remembered them back in May full of blossoms. To his surprise, in spite of the heat and dryness there were still a few pink flowers among the green leaves and thorns. Teresa must tend these bushes with great care, he thought.

“Did you know,” he said more to himself than to Johnny, “that they call these roses La Señora's for my mother?”

“Yeah, Teresa told me that.”

“It is good that there is something to show she once lived here,” said Scott softly.  He pressed his hands to his eyes.  He was tired, dirty and hungry.  He felt bruised after the clash with his father. And still the question of why he stayed buzzed in his mind.

“Scott?”

Scott turned back to his brother. Johnny rarely looked as young as he was. His natural confidence and his life experience gave him the swagger of an older man. But in that moment he looked pensive, uncertain and young.

“What is it?” asked Scott almost gently.  He forgot about Murdoch and the stupid disagreement. He gave his brother his full attention.

“I don't think I'd like it much if you left,” said Johnny simply.

Scott was very still for a moment. It was true many good things had happened to him in his life. It was true that he had a world of possibilities of which he could take advantage. It was possible that there would always be an unbridgeable distance between him and Murdoch. But maybe what was most true was, if they tended it as carefully as Teresa tended the rose bushes, Johnny and he could develop a genuine friendship, that they could give real meaning to the word brother.

“Then I guess I better stick around for a while,” said Scott with a shadow of a smile.



~ end ~

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