Word Count 3,144
I wrote this in response to the March 2009 list of holidays and observances. It was posted March 9, 2009 to the Lancer_Writers and LancerFanFiction groups on Yahoo. I gave it a thorough going over in March of 2014 in preparation for adding to the files at the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook. The story is the same, but hopefully the impact will be greater.
This story takes place after the final Lancer episode and makes reference to the Beef to Bowie script that was never filmed.
March 9, 1873:
With the heel of his hand, Murdoch Lancer slammed the bottom drawer closed. He slumped back in his chair and rubbed his jaw with the forefinger and thumb of one hand. When that hand stopped moving and cupped his chin, the rigid fingers of his other hand tapped a rhythm on the top of the desk. Where could that paper have gone? Before going to bed the previous night, hadn’t he laid it on top of everything else in the drawer?
Murdoch’s hand on the desk quieted for a few ‘tics’ of the grandfather clock. Then it started tapping again.
Footsteps announced someone in the foyer. Murdoch looked up just as his younger son, Johnny, walked through the arched doorway on the far side of the room.
Johnny passed by the end of the dining table and strode in front of the pair of blue chairs that faced the center of the room. His spurs jingled amongst the sound of his steps, some muffled by the braided rugs on the floor.” You ’bout ready to go?” he asked as he drew nearer.
Murdoch moved his hand away from his chin and rested in on his other arm. “Almost.” His other hand never missed a beat on the desk.
Johnny stopped a short ways in front of the desk. He propped his left elbow on the back of his other hand and ran the tip of his finger up and down the side of his nose–a sure sign that something had him puzzled. “You all right?”
“I’m fine.” Murdoch spoke abruptly to cover his rising panic. Without a signed copy of the contract with Davis, the trip to Green River would be a waste of time. He wouldn’t be able to prove the railroad had defaulted on their agreement.
More footsteps. These came from the direction of the fireplace alcove to Murdoch’s right.
Teresa O’Brien, who was Murdoch’s ward, and Scott, his elder son, entered the room side by side.
Murdoch quit tapping and let out a drawn-out sigh. Now his entire family would be asking questions.
“Murdoch, we’re ready to leave whenever you are,” Scott Lancer said as he approached.
Even after three years of ranch life, Scott walked with his back straight and head up–like the Lieutenant he had been during the war or from habits instilled in him from childhood. Murdoch supposed that would never change.
Scott and Teresa stopped beside Johnny, and the girl smiled at Murdoch. “You’ll win,” she said, voicing the encouragement in her eyes.
Murdoch scooted his chair back and rose to his feet. “Of course we will.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “Uh, you all go on out to the surrey. I’ll be out in just a minute.”
“Sure,” Johnny said.
Teresa and Scott spoke in unison, neither one’s words quite distinguishable.
Soon the middle French door closed behind the younger members of the Lancer family, and Murdoch blew out a long breath through slightly-parted lips. Now to find that paper!
First he pulled out the drawer he had closed earlier and riffled through its contents. Bud and Aggie Addison’s order for twenty head of prime breeding heifers. A contract with the army for the delivery of beef to Fort Bowie in two months. The agenda for the next cattlemen’s meeting and various other announcements: one for a wedding in Spanish Wells and another for the annual horse sale in Green River.
No railroad contract. Where was it?
The clock chimed the half hour.
Murdoch shuffled the papers one more time. If he didn’t hurry, one of his sons was sure to come looking for him and want to know what was taking him so long.
Still, no contract. It simply wasn’t there and further searching would be futile.
Another breath blasted from Murdoch’s mouth. Where did he look next?
He knelt beside the desk, pulled the drawer all the way out, and set it on the floor. Maybe the paper was stuck behind it . . . or caught by the drawer above. He checked out each possibility that came to mind, but the contract wasn’t in any of those places, either.
Where? Where else could it be. It couldn’t have sprouted legs and walked off. It had to be there someplace just out of his sight. Think!
Still kneeling, Murdoch slumped against his chair and rested an elbow on the seat. His heart was demanding to escape from his chest and sweat pooled in the palms of his hand. Time was running out.
Slowly, he got up. For a moment, he stood and looked around the room before heading to the safe, which was the most likely place to look next.
He fumbled with the dial, overshot the second number, and had to start again. This time he forced himself to slow down and take his time. Twenty-five to the left. Good. Now five to the right. He let his breath out slow. So far so good. One more number to go.
Murdoch’s fingers felt stiff. Again they slipped. The dial turned a little to the left. That was okay. It had to go that way.
Murdoch eased the dial past zero. Careful now. Not too far. Just a few more notches. Got it.
He grasped the handle and turned.
The door swung open.
Quickly, Murdoch sorted through the items in the safe. His heart, seemingly, sank to his knees and set them to trembling. The contract wasn’t there, either.
He tossed an envelope of money to one side, picked up the small stack of loose papers, and whipped through them again. So what if they got wrinkled, the important thing was to find the railroad contract.
His search failed.
Murdoch’s head tipped forward until his chin rested against his chest. Five thousand dollars. They were going to be out five thousand dollars and all because he had lost the contract. How was he going to explain that to his sons? They had both seen the paper in his hands the night before. Scott had told him to keep it safe, and he had proclaimed that it would be. But apparently it hadn’t been. It was gone . . . along with the money they could ill afford to lose.
“Think,” Murdoch again told himself. If the paper wasn’t in the desk and it wasn’t in the safe, where could it be?
His room. Where else? He had had the contract just before he had gone to bed. He must have taken it with him, not wanting to chance having it out of his sight.
Time continued to tick by. The clock made this quite clear as Murdoch hurried past on his way to his bedroom off the hallway at the end of the entry hall.
Murdoch pushed his door open and headed straight to his bedside table.
The contract was not on the table. Nor was it in the single drawer. It wasn’t on the bureau. It wasn’t in any of those drawers. It wasn’t in the wardrobe.
Desperation set in. The paper had to be someplace. It couldn’t have just disappeared . . . but where was it?
For a few moments, Murdoch stood at the end of the bed and shook his head. He had no idea of where else to look.
“Murdoch?” The voice was unmistakably Scott’s.
Murdoch turned toward the open door. Now what?
“I thought you were only going to be a minute, Sir.” Scott’s concern showed in his eyes as well in the mix of formality and politeness with which he spoke.
“I, uh.” Murdoch racked his upper lip with his teeth. “I, uh . . . forgot something.”
Scott arched his brows. “I see.”
Did he? Or did he see too much? Murdoch shoved the thoughts aside. “I’ll be right out,” he said and tried a reassuring smile. Apparently it had failed. Otherwise, Scott wouldn’t still be looking at him so intently.
Again Murdoch said that he would be out shortly.
Scott failed to move–his expression still questioning.
“Scott, I’m a grown man. I said I’ll be right out, and I will.” Murdoch’s tone increased in harshness.
“What’s wrong?” Scott asked, taking a step closer to his father.
“With all due respect, Sir, you’re as jittery as a new recruit at his first inspection.”
Murdoch turned away from his son. “I am not jittery,”
“Sir, if I can help in any way.” Scott sounded closer.
A hand touched Murdoch’s shoulder. He shrugged it off and walked over to his wardrobe once more. “I told you I forgot something. As soon as I get it, I’ll be out.”
Silence was the only answer.
Murdoch rummaged through his clothes, the metal hangers making a tune as they tinkled together and scraped across the wooden dowel. What did he do if Scott insisted on waiting for him?
Time was passing. Murdoch knew that sooner or later the charade would have to end. He hated the thought. He hated that he had lost the contract. He hated facing his sons. Why had he not been more careful? Why had he not made certain he knew exactly where that paper was when he had gone to bed the night before? Why had he not put it in his coat pocket the very first thing that morning?
Coat pocket? Could it be? He didn’t remember having put it there. It had to be, though. Where else could he have put it?
Murdoch closed the wardrobe door and turned around.
Scott hadn’t moved. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I just remembered that I put it in my coat pocket. You go on out to the surrey. I’ll meet you there. My coat is on the hook next to the gun case.”
The two left the room. However, instead of going out the entry door, Scott followed Murdoch into the parlor.
Murdoch stalked to the coat rack. One would think he was a child who would get lost if not closely watched.
Sun streamed through the French doors. Murdoch felt his hopes plunge. He really hadn’t planned to wear a coat. The weather had warmed up considerably two days ago. Still, he had to look.
Murdoch reached into the nearest pocket. Empty.
He glanced back at Scott. The young man stood watching, the picture of a soldier at ease with hands behind his back and shoulders relaxed,
Murdoch again pulled his upper lip between his teeth. He reached into the other pocket of the coat. Please, God, let it be there.
Down went his hand. He felt something. Ah, ha! A folded paper. He had put it in his coat, after all.
Murdoch relaxed, shoulders slumping as he breathed out long and slow. He took down the coat and threaded his arms into the sleeves. So what if he would be roasting. He wasn’t about to take that paper out of the pocket and chance it getting lost. No. He was going to keep it right where it was within grasp of his fingers, which would be keeping a close watch all the way to Green River. Scott or Johnny could do the driving.
The heat was every bit as bad as Murdoch had expected. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead and into his eyes. Whenever he moved he could feel his shirt clinging to his back.
By the time Green River came into sight, Teresa had commented more than once on how hot he looked. Johnny and Scott had both asked Murdoch if he wanted to take off his coat. Both had shown their surprise when he had refused.
They passed the school on the outskirts of town, and Teresa looked at Murdoch with a concerned pinch to her brows.
Murdoch patted her arm. “I’m fine, Honey.” He wasn’t, but he would be soon.
She continued to frown. “Are you sure you aren’t coming down with something?”
He gave her what he hoped would be a reassuring smile. “Stop worrying. I’m fine.”
Scott turned the team at a junction in the road. The houses became closer together and, shortly thereafter, the Lancer surrey passed the livery stable and a few more houses.
The main street of Green River was bustling with activity. It always was when the circuit judge was in town. Murdoch supposed people needed some form of entertainment and that court proceedings fulfilled that need for a good many, especially the men.
Murdoch hurried into the courtroom, which in actuality was a saloon on any other day, and glanced around for a seat. The place was already packed. Drat! He was going to have to stand, and his back was aching already. At least it might be cooler if he stood against the wall beside the batwing doors, and the stale smell of smoke wouldn’t be as strong.
“All rise,” called out the bailiff, who generally dealt cards at one of the tables that had been shoved off into a corner to make room for the rows of chairs and benches that filled most of the room.
A hand pushed aside the curtain at the far end of the bar and the familiar form of Judge Kitchner appeared. He walked behind the bar, stepped up onto the platform that Murdoch knew was there, and sat down in the chair provided especially for him. It was larger than the other chairs to accommodate his bulky frame, and its longer legs made his upper body visible once he was seated.
Judge Kitchner banged his gavel on the bar. “Court is now in session.” He motioned toward someone in the front row. “What is your first case?”
Murdoch leaned back against the wall and watched for his sons and Teresa to come inside. He doubted he would be up first, anyway.
“Lancer versus Davis.” That speaker could be none other than Sheriff Val Crawford. Murdoch would know his voice anywhere.
The bailiff handed a paper to the judge at the same time Johnny and Teresa joined Murdoch.
“Will the plaintiff present his case,” Judge Kitchner said.
“Go get ’em, Murdoch,” Johnny whispered with a light punch to his father’s arm.
Murdoch pushed his way forward and stopped in front of the judge.
“This says you are bringing suit against Walter Davis for breach of contract. Is that correct?” Judge Kitchner leaned slightly forward as he spoke.
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, your honor.”
“Do you have the contract with you?”
“I do.” Murdoch pulled the paper from his pocket, unfolded it without looking at it, and handed it to the judge.
Judge Kitchner’s mouth puckered. The furrow between his bushy brows deepened. “Is this some kind of joke?” He held the paper out toward Murdoch.
Murdoch’s insides contracted. “Joke?” he asked, taking hold of the paper with trembling fingers. He drew it close for a better look.
His knees buckled and he grabbed the edge of the bar to steady himself.. This couldn’t be happening. Instead of the contract, he had handed the judge a paper with a few numbers scribbled on it.
“Well . . . do you have the contract, or not?” Judge Kitchner’s tone said that he would abide no further nonsense.
“I . . . I, uh.” Murdoch glanced toward the back of the room. Why hadn’t he looked at that paper instead of making an assumption that might do more than cost him a few thousand dollars?
“You have one minute to produce your document,” Judge Kitchner said. “Otherwise, I shall be forced to rule in the defendant’s behalf . . . and no more delays, or I’ll fine you for contempt of court.”
One minute. Murdoch felt his world dropping out from under him. His sons were never going to let him live this down.
He dug into the coat pocket again. Maybe there had been more than one piece of paper in there. There wasn’t. The pocket was empty and so was the other one when he checked it.
Judge Kitchner raised his gavel. His hand paused and began to fall.
Murdoch watched, rooted in place. There was nothing he could do.
The gavel stopped short of announcing Murdoch’s doom.
Judge Kitchner lifted his chin and looked beyond Murdoch. “Do you have an interest in these proceedings?”
“I do. My name is Scott Lancer. I believe this is the document you are requesting.”
Murdoch turned and watched his son approach. One question after another tumbled through his mind. Scott had the contract? How? When? Why hadn’t he said so?
Scott handed the paper to the judge. Judge Kitchner looked it over and accepted it as evidence.
The rest of the proceeding went as Murdoch had projected. In the face of their signed agreement and the word of several witnesses, Davis was unable to provide sufficient evidence to support his claim that the cattle for feeding his crew had not been delivered within the timeframe allowed. Judge Kitchner ruled on behalf of the Lancers and ordered that the contract be paid in full.
Afterward, Murdoch pulled Scott aside while Johnny and Teresa went on across the street to Fitzgerald’s Diner. “Why didn’t you tell me you had the contract?” The words came out harsher than he intended.
Scott wrenched free of his father’s grip. “I thought you knew, Sir. You were pouring yourself a cup of coffee when I told Johnny this morning at the breakfast table that I had picked it up off of your desk last night. I’m sorry if I caused you any–“
“Forget it.” Murdoch gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “The important thing is that you had it.” He laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder again, but much more gently than before. “Just promise me one thing . . . next time, don’t assume I’ve heard you.”
Scott tipped his head to one side and arched his brows. “I promise.”
Murdoch slipped his hand behind his son’s neck and gave a light tug. “Let’s go eat. Fitz always makes chicken and dumplings on Thursdays, and I’m famished.” With that, he walked toward the diner while hoping that he never went through another day like the one he’d just gone through. He wasn’t sure he could survive that much panic again.
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