The Lady in White
By Cadillac Red
Summary: Sitting beside Scott’s sickbed, Murdoch has a strange dream.
Disclaimer: I don’t own the characters, borrow them with great respect, and get no compensation from their use.
Murdoch Lancer stood at the window and stared unseeing into the dark, nearly moonless night. Moments earlier he’d insisted Theresa and Johnny go to bed, quietly reminding them that the ranch that bore the family name was a demanding mistress and dawn would arrive in a matter of hours. He sighed heavily. It would come, no matter what this night brought. Life had drilled this lesson into Murdoch’s heart too many times over the years. When Catherine died giving life to his first child, and his son was taken back East by her father, the mundane chores of ranch life had never ceased their call on him. Cattle had to be watered, fence posts set. Day after day, he had pushed himself on, past the point of exhaustion, feeling barely alive and performing the routines as in a trance.
When his second wife Maria left Lancer and took his second son away with her, it had been the same. The inner turmoil, the pain, the fear for his child, was buried once again as he repaired fences, and bailed hay, and herded cattle from the south pasture to the north and back again, one season rolling into another. Grief had been his closest companion too many times over the years, until at last, barely a year ago, his sons had come home as full-grown men.
In many ways, it had been a difficult year; three strangers with only a last name tying them together, trying to sort out a lifetime of alienation and misunderstanding. Yet somehow, they’d formed a tenuous bond and the beginning of a sense of family. At least Murdoch had begun to hope that was the case. But fate had other plans. Again tonight, in the ink-black gloom when his elder son lay dying from a gunshot wound, he feared grief would return, but still the mistress named Lancer would not relent.
His gaze left the window and fell on his golden-haired first-born. Scott’s breathing was labored, and he had not wakened since Sam Jenkins had removed a bullet lodged next to his heart two days earlier. Murdoch had feared the young man would not survive the surgery but his son was strong and had held on, somehow. But Scott had been unconscious now for almost forty-eight hours and tonight, when Sam had returned for the second time that day, he’d shaken his head in answer to Murdoch’s unspoken question. “It… doesn’t look too good,” he’d murmured. “If he makes it through the night, it will be God’s work, not mine.”
Sam had offered to stay but the Wainright couple over in Spanish Wells had a baby coming and life would always trump…. No! His brain instantly rejected the thought that kept pushing at the edges of his mind. Murdoch shook his head, swallowing down the lump that formed in his throat at the thought of losing Scott. He paced restlessly back to the window and stared as a dark cloud finally guttered the weak sliver of moon.
“He is a beautiful boy, isn’t he?”
Murdoch nodded to himself. Through more than twenty-five years of memories, it was as though he could hear Catherine’s voice again. “Yes,” he whispered, not certain why he spoke aloud in answer to a snippet of recollection. “And a good man….”
“I hoped he’d be like you,” the voice continued. “That he’d have your strength, your character.”
Murdoch whirled around to face the bed, his eyes widening. “C-Catherine?”
She reached up and pushed a lock of silky hair behind her ear, a gesture that was achingly familiar even after twenty-five years, and met his gaze. “Yes, dear?” Her voice was soft and sweet, just as he remembered.
Murdoch’s own deep, strong voice failed him. He stared at what had to be an apparition yet it was his long-dead wife. She appeared as he remembered, too young to be the mother of the grown man in the bed.
“I—is it really you?” he whispered. “Or am I …. Have I gone mad?”
She smiled. She was dressed in a white night-dress and her hair hung loose, as she always wore it to bed. He’d loved her hair, golden like ripe wheat in the summer sun. Once she learned he liked it falling around her shoulders, his young wife had never put it up at night again. Scott had her hair color, and her eyes. Scott! His gaze flew to the inert form on the bed.
“Have you—Have you come for him?” he choked out. And his heart pleaded silently: Please. Please say no.
Catherine’s smile dimmed a little and she glanced at their son also. “I am so glad you brought him home, at last, Murdoch. This was where he always belonged.”
“Yes,” he replied gruffly. “He should have been here all along.”
Catherine moved closer to the bed and gazed down at the face of their son. “I know you tried to bring him home earlier. I know you thought of him all the time, wondering how he was, if he was happy. He was, you know. Happy. But… alone. My father gave him much, but he could never take your place. Deep down, Scott knew that, even when he was angry with you. That’s why he came when you called, you know. Not for the money.”
Murdoch blinked. She knew of his offer to Scott last year. Was he dreaming? Was this a figment of his own mind, dredging up the details of his and Scott’s turbulent history in what might be his son’s final hours?
“No, you’re not dreaming, or imagining me,” she said softly. “I am here. I’ve been here often, with you, with our son, but….”
“But tonight I can see you. Hear you.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Tonight the door between life and what lies beyond is open…..”
Murdoch caught his breath. “Please, Catherine. Please don’t take him. I—I only just got him back…” He hated the sound of himself pleading but the idea of losing Scott was so much worse.
Catherine’s eyes softened. “I’m glad you were able to bring the boys together at last. Scott always wanted a brother, has he told you that?”
“No, no he never told me that. I’d say he got his wish and more,” Murdoch replied with a half smile. “Johnny is…
“A handful,” Catherine laughed, a soft, sweet sound that had always gladdened his heart. “I know. And Scott knows too. Deep down, he has been happier this year than ever before….”
Murdoch smiled now. “He’s a good son. We—we have much reason to be proud of him. And it didn’t take him long to turn into an older brother. Sometimes to Johnny’s consternation….”
Catherine smiled again and sat down on the side of the bed. She gazed down at the face of their child, then reached out a hand and gently stroked the side of his face. “I missed this,” she said quietly. “We both missed so much. This house, it is almost exactly like the one you sketched for me that day, do you remember? The one where we would raise our sons and daughters….:
Murdoch’s memory took him back to that day. Catherine had begun to grow large with his child and they’d taken a short walk one evening to a hill near the two-room house he had first built on this property. Murdoch had told her his plan for the hacienda that would rise on the same site, a home where their children would live and grow, where he and Catherine would build the life of which they’d dreamed on the long trip west from Boston. He shook his head. So much hope, then so much grief and pain. He felt old, suddenly, and tired. He walked to the chair next to Scott’s bed and sat down wearily. Is this how it was meant to be? He finally brought Scott home, and a stray gunshot, an accident, would steal him away once more?
“But you did build it, Murdoch, just as you said you would,” Catherine said. “And it took time, and more pain perhaps, but you made a home for your sons, eventually. You did well, my love.”
“It’s more than I dared to hope, for so long,” he answered. “But it’s only been a year, Catherine. Not long enough to make up for all the lost time. Not long enough to show him…. To tell him… everything I haven’t gotten around to saying yet….” He was so tired now, from sitting by Scott’s sickbed for the two days and nights. He closed his eyes momentarily, just to rest them.
“We—we have so much still to learn about each other. Johnny needs him….,” Murdoch whispered, his voice trailing off. “I need him….”
Catherine reached back and laid a hand on her husband’s forearm. “You must tell him, Murdoch. Some time soon. I know it’s not your way but… tell them both. They need to know….”
Returning her gaze to Scott, she gently placed a hand on his forehead. “And you, my darling child. You must help your Papa—no, your Pa. We are Westerners now, you and I. It’s so little to give up, for all there is to gain here. But you, you understand that even better than I did. You do have his strength, you know. You are your father’s son.”
The window blew open and Murdoch startled awake. He rose quickly and went to the window, wanting to keep the night air out of the sick room. He closed and shuttered it with dispatch, wondering at the scent of orange blossom in the room. It was Catherine’s scent, he mused idly, then realized he’d been dreaming about his long gone wife. It had been a sweet dream. Just then, a stirring in the bed caught his attention and he hurried to Scott’s side.
“Pa?” the young man murmured, his eyes fluttering open.
“Scott, can you hear me, son?”
“I know you’re parched but I can only give you a sip,” Murdoch said, bringing a glass from the bed stand. He sat on the edge of Scott’s bed and helped him raise his head and take a little water. The effort exhausted the young man.
“Murdoch-- Wh-what happened?”
“You were shot. An accident. You’ve been out for several days, son. But you’re finally awake. That’s a good sign,”
Scott nodded and closed his eyes, falling back into a healing sleep.
Sam Jenkins shook his head in happy disbelief as he gathered up his stethoscope that afternoon. “I had just about given up on you,” he said to the young man in the bed. “When your Pa sent the message this morning that you were awake, well, let’s just say I must be a darn good doctor.”
“That you are,” Murdoch replied from the doorway. “How’s he doing?”
“It’ll be a while ‘fore he’s ready to get outa bed, but I predict a full recovery.” Sam picked up his medical bag and left with a promise to return in two days to check on his patient. Murdoch remained, content to simply watch his elder son. He noted with satisfaction that the color was returning to his face.
“What are you looking at?” Scott asked, curious.
Murdoch walked all the way into the room and sat down in the armchair next to the bed. “Just you,” he replied with a small smile.
A part of Scott thought it strange that his father could look so content over something so small yet the notion warmed him inside. He dropped his eyes, not quite able to meet the other man’s gaze head on.
Murdoch reached over and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I thought I’d lost you, son,” he said quietly. “That would have been—I don’t think I could have….” He cleared his throat. “What I’m trying to say, son, is—well, we can never tell what the future will bring and… I don’t want to waste another day. I’m so proud of you, Scott. And—“ he stopped, not sure he could spit out the words he needed to say. “And I love you, boy. I—I just want you to know that,” he finished gruffly.
Scott slowly lifted his gaze to his father’s face, nearly speechless with surprise over the declaration he’d never thought to hear in words. “I—I love you too, sir.”
Murdoch swallowed a lump of emotion that formed in his throat. “You know, you called me ‘Pa’ when you first woke up,” he told the young man.
“Yes, I heard it with my own ears,” Murdoch chuckled.
“Well… well, then. Pa,” he said, pronouncing it carefully, as someone learning a foreign language might do. “It may take a while but I guess I better get used to talking like a real Westerner, huh?”
Murdoch patted his hand. “In your time, son. In your own time.” He stood and made to leave but Scott called him suddenly.
“Who was that lady that was here?”
“The one who was here with you when I was sick. I wanted to thank her for taking care of me. I never saw her before, and she hasn’t come back.”
“You saw someone… here, with me?”
“Yes,” he replied, slightly exasperated. “A young blonde woman. She was wearing a white dress, I think. You know who I mean. I heard you talking with her but I couldn’t make it out. I guess I was just coming to. She smelled like—like orange blossoms. I remember that.”
Murdoch was stunned. He’d dreamed about Catherine last night, hadn’t he? But then, how would Scott have known that?
At that moment, the window blew open, and a gentle wind wafted in. Impossibly, the scent of orange blossoms seemed to float on the warm breeze.
Scott’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “I know I was out for a while but…. We don’t have any orange trees, do we?”