(The Guardian – Part 3)
I don’t, of course, own the characters or any rights beyond the pleasure of sharing this story with other Lancer fans.
Late morning sunlight streamed in cascades of multi-colored glory through the rose window above the altar, casting bright rainbows over the whitewashed walls and dancing amidst the banks of fragrant flowers and greenery adorning the adobe church. Soft music swelled from the organ – a gift of the bride’s parents to the church in years past.
Scott Lancer looked out over what seemed, to his whirling mind, like a veritable multitude of smiling faces. Friends, family, and townsfolk packed the church, while every available inch of shade beneath the live oaks in the churchyard was filled with wagons and carriages, horses and mules; the latter drowsing in the summer heat.
In the front row, Jelly was seated next to Murdoch. The old handyman sat ramrod straight, trimmed, brushed, and primped within an inch of his life and peacock proud in his new suit. His discomfort at being part of such a ‘fancy’ occasion was evident to both the groom and the father of the groom in the surreptitious glances cast around the crowded church and the drumming of his fingers on his leg. Fortunately for the tetchy old man’s pride, both men managed to maintain a suitable gravity despite knowing how ill-at-ease Jelly was.
Now and again, Jelly’s fleeting glimpses lit on Scott. Boy’s as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full o’ rockin’ chairs. Hidin’ it pretty good though. Another discreet scan of the guests accompanied a nervous tug at his stiff collar. Just folks, he told himself sternly. Ain’t no call for bein’ nervous.
Jelly’s eyes slid sidelong, taking in his employer’s profile. Proud as all-get-out and with good cause. That’s a fine boy ya got there, Boss. An’ he’s marrying a good woman. Just with Johnny was here to see him . . . The aging man’s eyes fixed on his hands, thumbs now twiddling in his lap. Best not to be thinkin’ bout that right now. This is Scott’s day. Only . . . dang it! Johnny should be here; standing up there with his brother.
Scott caught his father’s eye and his somewhat tremulous smile brought heartfelt reassurance from Murdoch. The big Scots rancher loved his soon-to-be daughter-in-law dearly and his heart was, as his mother would have said, fair to breaking with his own joy at his son’s happiness and the promise of another generation of Lancers; of grandchildren to brighten his life, inherit his legacy, and carry on the ancient name of Lancer.
Scott looked away and Murdoch’s own eyes dropped, lest their sudden shadowing mar this day for his son. If only . . . if only Catherine could be here to see their son . . . if only . . . Johnny should be here, supporting his brother, sharing in this happy day. A grimace flitted across Murdoch’s lowered face and his eyes closed in an unconscious attempt to shut out the inevasible pain. The faintest hint of perfume crept into his consciousness and he accepted it as part of the beautiful memories . . . the imagining. The barest pressure of a small, soft hand settled on his arm and that, too, seemed right. He could see her face clearly; her eyes so like Scott’s, her blonde hair swept softly back from her face. Perfectly still, head bowed, eyes closed, he silently clung to the so-real presence. Isn’t he handsome, my love? Remember how we dreamed and planned for our future together? We made a fine son, Catherine – a son worthy of his mother and his heritage. The gentle essence of his first wife did not fade when Murdoch raised his head. He sat staring straight ahead, not daring to turn around or look down. He was only marginally aware of Jelly fidgeting beside him as he settled further back in the pew and concentrated on shutting out everything but the wonder of Catherine beside him, watching their son marry. The pragmatic rancher and the fey Gael could battle it out later over whether this particular son of Scotland was blessed or senile. It doesn’t matter, he told himself firmly. All that matters right now is that she’s here.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
Like an echo of his father’s, another smile flashed brilliantly in Scott’s mind, vivid and exuberant and reflected in sparkling eyes of sapphire blue. Turning slightly away from the watching eyes, appearing to fix his gaze on a blank space somewhere in front of him, Scott closed his eyes momentarily and found the face floating before him, filled with love and mirth, and felt himself relaxing. Not realizing he had spoken until the whisper reached ears straining unconsciously for that other voice, he murmured “Where are you, brother? Why aren’t you here? Today of all days, why aren’t you here beside me?”
Even as the thought crossed his mind, Scott felt a familiar hand on his shoulder and a soft, drawling voice whispered “Let her buck.” The startled groom whirled to confront his brother’s impish grin and mischievous eyes, a properly acerbic retort on his lips, and . . . his best man stood about two feet to his left and a foot or so behind him, turned slightly away, surveying the crowd. Just beyond Garth stood one of Scott’s oldest friends who had made the long trip from Boston to stand with Scott on this momentous day.
Scott stiffened, barely stifling a gasp, his mind racing to catch up . . . to grasp . . . With a profound effort, the young rancher regained his outward composure, quickly masking his bewilderment and the surge of anger and loss that tightened his chest. Pull yourself together, Scott. You’re letting your nerves get the better of you. Deep breath, now; focus. Oblivious to the internal admonishment, his eyes – seemingly with a will of their own - searched every corner of the church for someone he knew would not be there.
Garth Whitaker turned at the sudden motion, his easy smile fading to a frown of concern as he took in his brother-in-law’s rigid stance and shaken demeanor. The stunned look on Scott’s face, Garth could easily put down to well-remembered last minute panic, but there was something else . . . Scott was looking – discreetly – but looking, nonetheless, for someone or something. As nonchalantly as possible, Garth surveyed the church, finding nothing out of the ordinary among the whispering, fan-wielding guests.
While his brother-by-marriage was pondering the possibilities for catastrophe – ranging (in order or magnitude) from robbers to extremely unwelcome relatives to a bolting or hurling groom - Scott’s thoughts were fragmenting like shattered crystal as he tried to sort it all out. Tangential ideas tumbled over each other in an attempt to simultaneously assert control over his turbulent emotions, find a logical explanation for something that couldn’t have happened, and hold on to his outward equanimity. Iron will, honed by the depredations of war and prison, brought the mental chaos to heel but it was obvious that the best man knew something was wrong. Thank God he doesn’t know what’s wrong! Scott muttered silently to himself, summoning a weak smile for the benefit of the onlookers.
Before Garth could edge closer to inquire about the cause of Scott’s disquietude, the music shifted from soft ambiance to a processional and the priest, preceded by the servers carrying the cross and Bible, made his way down the aisle. Both men straightened, assuming appropriately solemn expressions, but Garth continued to eye the groom, wondering what it was all about and hoping that – if it was eleventh-hour panic – it had passed. The young man sent a quick prayer heavenward before turning his attention to the ceremony.
In more than two decades of ministering to his parish, Father Jacobo had married many of those present, buried many of their loved ones, and had christened many of their children, including the bride and two of her four older brothers. He was a strikingly handsome man; tall, with eyes so dark they appeared almost black, his hair more silver now than black above his embroidered white vestments. The first thing people noticed about him – after the fact that he was a priest – was the inherent kindness in his face and the lively humor in those dark eyes. Today was a good day. Today, he would have the joyful privilege of wedding a young woman he had known all her life to a fine young man. It was a solemn occasion, yes, but life would visit far too many solemn occasions on this couple – too many sorrows and losses. That was for tomorrow. Today was for celebrating and, as he rose from his genuflection, the priest flashed a smile and a wink of encouragement at the rather flummoxed-looking young man waiting at the altar.
At first startled, then soothed by the gesture, the groom took a few more fortifying breaths and managed to more-or-less fasten his attention on the proceedings, sternly ordering his heart to slow down, his breathing to remain even, and – especially – commanding the immediate departure of the entire thundering flock of butterflies churning around in his stomach.
Down the aisle walked the bridesmaids, bright in dresses of soft blue, flowers crowning their hair, bouquets streaming silk ribbons. As they took their places opposite the men, Teresa’s eyes caught Scott’s. Her smile – both happy and reassuring – went a long way to calming her brother-of-the-heart.
And then it happened. The strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March resonated on the summer air. An aura of happy anticipation rippled through the crowd as all eyes turned toward the back of the church.
Scott’s entire being concentered on the vision in a cloud of cream silk and lace floating down the aisle on her father’s arm. Roses glowed golden against her shining brown hair, fixing the lace veil that drifted gently behind her. Green eyes bright, soft lips curved upward, everything about her radiated her boundless joy at the sight of her tall, handsome groom. No one looking into the young face could doubt for an instant that the man waiting at the altar held his bride’s heart in his hands; that their love was the wellspring of her very existence.
Meeting her eyes, confusion, anger, and anxiety vanished like nightmares in the morning light. Scott felt the strong, loving presences surrounding him; his father, Jelly, Teresa, Garth . . . and his brother; always, his brother was with him. Blessed with the love of family, buoyant, upheld on a rising spring of certainty and happiness, Scott Lancer stepped forward to stand beside his bride, his smile matching hers.
So lost was he in those green eyes, that he failed to hear the beginning of the service. Startled from his bemusement by a voice and motion nearby, Scott responded just in time to reach out, allowing Anson Beauchamp to place his daughter’s hand into the warm grasp of the man into whose keeping he was entrusting her.
No words were spoken but, as Anson rested his own hand briefly on those he had just joined, his eyes met Scott’s and a message passed between the two men; a message echoed down countless generations by fathers passing the matchless treasure of a daughter’s life and love into the keeping of another man – the man who would now be first in her heart. It was no small trust – no small sacrifice - and Scott returned his father-in-law’s direct gaze, accepting both the trust and the warning conveyed by the look and the pressure of the work-hardened hand.
Scott tightened his grip on his bride’s hand and they turned to face the priest. The young man told himself sternly that he needed to concentrate on the service – and took himself to task for needing to tell himself that – but his thoughts refused to be pinned down. Like the dancing flashes of sunlight through the rose window, his thoughts flickered from shadow to light, threaded through with the words of the priest . . . "Glory to God in the highest” . . . the moment he learned he had a brother . . . dark blue eyes filled with pain looking up at him and the scent of gunpowder heavy in the air . . . “thanks be to God” . . . a golden horse galloping away through the arch . . . “an honorable estate, instituted of God” . . . Teresa walking down the aisle on Murdoch’s arm . . . rocking tiny Daniela . . . “the Lord may seal and strengthen your love . . .” Margaret’s face when she said ‘yes’ . . . the feel of her hands in his . . . her hands in his . . .
Scott’s wandering mind thudded back to the present, scurrying to catch up with the moment and his grip on the small hands tightened. Repeat it, Scott . . . concentrate! . . . this is important, dammit!
“I, Scott Garrett, take thee, Margaret Lorraine, to be my lawfully wedded wife . . .”
Grins and a few choked chuckles rippled through the congregation at the groom’s apparent lapse of attention – evidenced by the noticeable pause between the priest’s words and Scott’s repetition. Considering that the young man had been staring at his bride, such a lapse was easily forgivable. Only Margaret, keenly perceptive where Scott was concerned, realized that, while her groom had been looking at her, there had been a somewhat vacant, almost haunted look in his eyes. She put it aside with a promise to herself to probe later when they were alone. Scott was altogether too prone to lock things inside and Margaret saw it as her wifely duty to help him banish his demons.
There was no hesitation at all in the soft, vibrant voice of the bride as green eyes shining with love and trust met Scott’s. “I, Margaret Lorraine, take thee Scott Garrett, to be my lawfully wedded husband . . .”
“You may kiss the bride.”
Scott heard that. Heart pounding as though it might burst right through his carefully tailored waistcoat, eyes shining with love, happiness, hope, and conviction, he kissed his bride as a tide of triumphal music swelled around them and the church bell pealed overhead.
The couple turned to face the gathered family and friends for one jubilant moment, then Scott led his new wife back down the aisle.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
As planned, they stopped just outside the church doors where they were quickly joined by immediate family.
Having no desire to be part of the jabbering and hand-shaking, Jelly slipped out a side door and made his way around to the front of the church. The old handyman worked his way somewhat self-consciously through the maze of rigs and small groups of folk taking advantage of the opportunity to visit. He wouldn’t admit – especially to himself – that he was searching for someone in particular. Then he spotted her, chatting with several other women. The widowed – and most attractive – Amelia Warren had made a large impression on Jelly when they met at a small party hosted by friends of the bride’s family a few days earlier. Jelly licked his lips, ran nervous hands over his hair and beard, tugged his jacket straight, and strode purposefully toward the knot of women.
~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~
For the new-made husband, the next half hour passed in a whirl of handshakes and congratulations. It was fortunate that Scott’s rigid training in Boston society allowed him to keep his smile in place and murmur the correct words to each person because his mind was most certainly not on the moment. He was only vaguely aware of Murdoch’s rumbling voice, but some corner of his mind took note of his father’s happy tone and was glad of it. Eyes as well as thoughts wandered repeatedly to the young woman beside him – my wife – how strange and wonderful that sounded! He couldn’t concentrate on what Margaret was saying either, but her voice was there. She was there. Other wisps of thought wound unbidden through those moments; another beloved face and voice that should have been beside him . . . no, no, no! Not now, not today. Unable to take Margaret’s hand because his right hand was being enthusiastically shaken and her left hand still held her bouquet, Scott leaned ever so slightly into her shoulder; simply needing the reassurance that she was real and really his. The pressure was instantly and just as discreetly returned. It was enough. The shadows receded.
When the last of the crowd had finally passed down the receiving line, the families moved away to mingle with the guests, leaving the newlyweds alone for a precious few moments. In the churchyard, people sought the cool shade while they conversed with friends and neighbors.
Scott pulled Margaret back into the church where he gathered his treasure into his arms for a long, lingering kiss. “Do we really have to do this?” he murmured into her hair.
The question was answered with a soft chuckle. “You know very well we do. Everyone for fifty miles around is invited to this party and we are the guests of honor. Do you really want to start your married life by making your brand new mother-in-law angry enough to have you murdered . . . or at least run out of the state with a price on your head?”
Scott sighed dramatically. “She would actually do that?”
Margaret lifted dancing green eyes to meet the devilish blue ones of her new husband. “You know perfectly well how hard Mama and Granny and my sisters-in-law have worked to make this entire day wonderful for us.” The sparkling eyes filled with mischief to match those gazing down at her. “Well . . . being a man, maybe you don’t know, but take my word for it. They have worked and worried themselves half to death. And, my father and brothers would probably be after you like a posse on a bank robber after all the work and expense they have been persuaded, cajoled, nagged, and otherwise coerced into in the name of true love.”
Another dramatic sigh. “Alright. Social obligations first. But . . .” eyebrows wiggled up and down and a corner of his mouth twitched upward, “I expect to be paid back in full for my sacrifice, Wife.”
Eyes and smile boldly returned the challenge; “I look forward to it, Husband.”
Hand-in-hand, they headed out the church doors to cheers and a shower of flowers and wheat. Margaret’s youngest brother, Jesse, had the reins of the ribbon-decked carriage and waited only long enough to be certain his passengers were seated before sending the team into motion.
In the commotion of seeing the bridal party off and making their way to their own carriages, buckboards, and horses, no one noticed the lone man all but hidden under the low-hanging branches of a live oak. No one could have discerned the features hidden in the shadows of his hat. Sunlight slanting through the leaves picked out the silver trim on his bolero jacket; flashed from the silver conchos down the legs of matching black pants. In contrast to the rest of his clothing and the deep encompassing shade, an embroidered white shirt stood out starkly. His apparel, his proud stance, everything about him proclaimed hacendado . . . except for the gun worn low on his hip. Silently, he watched the wedding party leave. A wistful smile graced his handsome face as his eyes followed first one, then another; Scott and Margaret; Teresa, Garth, and Daniela; Murdoch and Jelly. His lips moved in a whispered prayer. As the last vehicles rolled out of the churchyard leaving him alone, the solitary figure faded deeper into the trees and vanished.
The Guardian is also posted at Fanfiction.com
This is the 3rd story in The Guardian Series
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org