The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Suzanne

 

 

Water Rights

Jelly stood outside the front door and squinted down the road. A rider was burning the breeze in a cloud of dust. Jelly looked around. There were half a dozen horses tied at the rails, each one dozing in the sun with the occasional swish of a tail.

The way he saw it, every member of the Cattlemen's Association had already ridden in. Most of them arrived early for the meeting – doing nothing to lift the black cloud Murdoch had been buried in all morning. The boss was facing a fight. Water rights were nothing but the devil's own making. A man ought to be able to take what the good Lord provided without having to pay some skinflint like Harrigan just because a little bitty creek happened to run through a sliver of his land. Worst of all, word was Harrigan had been greasing some palms to sway the vote in his favour.

As the horse came nearer, Jelly had no trouble making out who the rider was – only now his insides squirmed worse than a man with the miseries.

Johnny jumped off before Barranca even came to a halt. Jelly ran a quick eye over the horse – he was blowing some but wasn't buzzard bait. Unlike the rider who looked to be in a regular pucker – and that was a sight you didn't see too often. “Johnny, what in tarnation?”

Johnny put a hand on Jelly's shoulder to steady himself and gulped for a breath of air. “Quick, get Murdoch for me. It's urgent.”

“Johnny, they'll be bang-smack in the middle of the vote right now. Your old man'll have my hide if I fetch him now.”

“I said this is urgent, didn't I? Now get in there.”

Jelly felt his whiskers bristle. “Something happen to Scott? I knowed you two shouldn't have - .”

Johnny pushed his hat back, put his other hand on Jelly's shoulder and looked him in the eye, just as serious as Jelly had ever seen him. “Jelly, just do it, huh. No questions. And hurry.” With that he twisted Jelly until he faced the door and gave him a shove.

Jelly pulled at his vest and stuck out his chin. “Okay, I'm goin'. I'm goin.” But his heart just about sank to his boots - only something dire as death would have Johnny talking like that when he knew how much Murdoch was fretting over this vote.

Jelly could hear the ruckus as soon as he opened the front door. The members were sitting at the dining table but they looked ready to chomp on each other instead of the cakes Teresa laid out.

Jelly took his cap off. The griping was so thick in the air it choked him. Or maybe that was the cigar Henry was puffing. He coughed - twice. “Ah, boss?” No-one looked around so he walked further into the room. “Boss?”

Elias Parsons was dickering with Murdoch. He wasn't getting too far by that set look on Murdoch's face but he was surely getting all Murdoch's attention. Jelly took a deep breath. It looked like he'd have to quit beating the devil about the stump and go all the way in. And even then Murdoch didn't look up until Jelly called his name another two times.

“Well, Jelly, what is it?”

Jelly held tight to his cap. The boss's frown almost hid his eyes, and when Murdoch was a'thundering, it was best to stay clear. How in blazes did he let Johnny bulldoze him into this? “S'cuse me for interrupting, Boss, but Johnny just rode in all to pieces and torn up about something. He wants to—”

That was as far as he got. For a man Murdoch's size he could sure move fast when he had to; Murdoch was already half-way to the door.

Elias jumped up and Henry just about dropped his cigar in his lap. After grabbing it he pointed the end in their direction. “Murdoch, you can't walk out now - we're about to cast our vote.”

Murdoch never even paused, just waved over his shoulder as he opened the front door. “Start without me.”

When they got back outside, Johnny was just coming up for air from the horse trough. Murdoch headed straight for him and gripped his arm. “Johnny, what is it?” Jelly had a pretty good idea who the boss was worrying over – Scott and Johnny had been riding shotgun along Lancer's border.

Johnny pressed his other sleeve against his forehead to stop the drips. “Murdoch, boy, am I glad to see you.”

“What's gone wrong?”

Johnny put his hands on his hips. “Well, just about everything so far – and if you can't help me, then I might as well cash in my chips right now.”

“Start at the beginning, John.”

Johnny wiped at his face some more. “No time Murdoch. I've got to get back to Scott. Just answer me this: there's this pear tree, you see, with pears on it. Then a wind blows up and after that there aren't any pears on the tree but there's none on the ground either. How come?”

It felt like the whole world stopped for a second. Murdoch let go of Johnny's arm. “What did you say?” His voice was sharp.

Johnny took a breath and repeated the same words.

Jelly risked a quick look at Murdoch. He was looking about as far out to sea as Jelly. Any further out and they'd both be needing a boat to get back to shore.

Johnny had his eyes on Murdoch. He was looking up at his old man like Murdoch was his last hope on earth. “So what do you think?”

Johnny had done some foolhardy things in his time, but this sure beat the Dutch. “You think he's got a touch of the sun, Boss?” Jelly got a little closer and took a whiff. “Or maybe he's full as a tick?”

Murdoch put up a hand. “Hush, Jelly. I'm thinking.”

Johnny was starting to look hopeful but Jelly was the one fretting as the minutes ticked by. What was going to happen when summer came and the old dam dried up? Then there wouldn't even be a creek to be up let alone worry about not having a paddle. “Boss, you'll miss the vote if you don't get in there.” But Murdoch just stared off into the distance like he hadn't heard. Jelly sidled up to Johnny. “Why don't you ask what happened to the apples and oranges while you're about it seeing as you're so smart-alecky set on wasting the boss's time.”

Johnny barely moved his lips. “Shut-up, Jelly,” he said, keeping his eyes glued on Murdoch. “This is important.”

“And so's that vote.”

A shot of breeze blew in and sprayed a pile of leaves every which-way but no-one probably noticed - except Jelly. He brushed at a few with his boot.

Then Murdoch snapped his fingers. “That's it.”

Johnny stood a little straighter. “You got it, Murdoch?”

“I think I have.” Murdoch started smiling. “It's all about the words, Johnny. “There were pears in the tree, p-e-a-r-s, but after the wind blew there were no pears, p-a-i-r-s, on the ground or on the tree because there'd only been two pears, p-e-a-r-s on the tree to begin with.”

Johnny grinned from ear to ear. “That sneaky son-of-a-gun.”

Jelly folded his arms across his chest. “You mind telling us what the dickens this is all about?”

Murdoch was looking smug. “Oh, I think I know. So what was the bet?”

“If I come up with the answer before sundown, I get first pick of the McPherson girls for the social Saturday night.”

Jelly rolled his eyes. “Why they got a whole brood of gals and all of them just as pretty as the next.”

“I think you'll find there's only one of them that interests my sons.”

Johnny's grin got even wider but Murdoch's frown came down again. “What's happening up at the creek? Should you have left Scott up there alone with Harrigan's boys?”

“Scott.” Johnny snorted. “He's got Harrigan's boys taking bets over which one of us takes Emily to the dance. When I took off they were all snoozing under a tree.”

Jelly jumped to his other foot. “Boss, if you don't go in right now, your vote won't count.”

Johnny slapped Murdoch on the arm then grabbed his hat from the pommel and swung up. “Thanks Murdoch. I owe you one. You'd better get inside and I've got to get back before Scott figures out I'm not checking for strays.”

Jelly took his cap off and started twisting it. Johnny couldn't get going fast enough for Jelly's liking.

Murdoch folded his arms and cleared his throat, fixing Johnny with a look. “You know I can't take sides of course. The same applies when Scott rides in wanting to know how to shoot a hole through a twenty dollar gold piece.”

Johnny leaned down towards Murdoch, just as sly as you please. “You got the answer to that old man?” He sat up and dropped his hat on his head. “Nope, I think I'll suggest ‘driving the nail' next time Scott wants a bet.” His grin was pure evil as he tugged his hat low over his eyes.

Murdoch's laugh was so loud Elias Parson's stuck his nose against the window then disappeared again.

Jelly twisted his cap some more – and heard stitching rip. “Boss.”

“I know. I'm coming.”

But the boss didn't come – didn't even turn until Johnny, a whooping and a hollering, was almost out of sight.

Jelly stuck his cap back on and shook his head. “Well if that don't beat all.”

Murdoch nodded, looking back along the road even though Johnny was well and truly out of sight. “It sure does, Jelly. It sure does.” He clapped a hand to Jelly's shoulder. “Now let's go in and see about that vote.”









~end~
December 2011


** Driving the nail: A sport consisting of attempts to drive a nail into a post with rifle or pistol fire.

 

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