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Post by Ladybug on Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:02 am

Ora Lunata's bordering forest was famous in the region for two things - its foliage and its bandits. The latter were at present of no concern. Foot traffic was too high during harvest for them to find the usual easy targets they managed to pick off from the main road to the coastal trading settlement.

Philip nudged Incitatus along the path, taking in the brilliantly-colored leaves as they clung to and burst forth from their branches, creating a sky full of and raining flame. It was one of the greatest perks of keeping so far from the town. One didn't see this kind of sight that close to the coast. No, he liked it fine out here where he could enjoy the bounty of the ranch in his own way. Whatever the owner said.

That, in fact, was why he was out here. Words had again been exchanged, and Philip had opted to excuse himself rather than say something he'd regret. Far from finding the man incompetent, he agreed wholeheartedly with his declarations. Philip had disappointed him. Carl Stabler indeed knew his business very well, but everyone knew he was reluctant to pass it on. For Philip Carson, his sole legal heir, had not yet produced an heir of his own, nor did he show any sign of wanting to remedy that. It was widely known - and talked of - throughout Ora Lunata that Philip hadn't courted in years. Given the wealth brought in from the ranch's dealings with the equestrian sports association, he had but to hold out a hand to find a line of willing women. But despite his father's urgings, Philip would have none of it. In this latest row, Carl had gone so far as to blame Philip's stubbornness on his current stretch of poor health. He doubted this, but rather than anger the old man further, Philip now rode toward town.

He hated going to town. Everything here was amplified. The ranch at its loudest could not rival the city, and the streets were so crowded, he felt somewhat claustrophobic. It was only on direct errands from his father that he would go, and even then, only those he deemed too important to delegate to another. This was one such.

He weaved Incitatus through the crowd as best he could, eventually coming to a stop outside the medical clinic. He dismounted and tied his dapple mount to the hitching post, gently patting his muzzle.

"You be good, hear?"

Incitatus nickered softly in reply.

Philip went inside. The place was no more crowded than usual and with nothing more serious than usual. A few injuries from harvest, the most major of which seemed to be the result of a few teenaged boys showing off and going horribly awry. Nothing they'd not live through. Though, he had to admit, there were some who'd disagree that simply being alive qualified as truly living. He dismissed the thought and leaned on the reception counter.

"Good morning, Mr. Carson," said the young woman seated at the desk.

"Mornin', Ruth," he replied. "Avner busy?"

Ruth ran her finger down a page. "Mr. Magus? He shouldn't be. I'll check." She rose and went to a speaking tube based on the wall. She lifted it. "Mr. Magus? ...You have a visitor. Shall I send him up?" She closed the tube and turned back to Philip. "Go on upstairs. First door on the left."

Philip tipped his hat to her. "Thanks." He pushed off from the counter and strode off, taking the stairs perhaps more quickly than necessary. Once there, he knocked twice on the door and waited for Avner's reply. He pushed it open and walked inside.

"Hello, Philip," said Avner, his voice somewhat strained. "What brings you here?"

"My father," he said simply. He frowned. "Somethin' botherin' you?"

Avner shrugged, rubbing at his beard. "No more than usual. Were you aware that some young fools still hold duels?"

"Don't surprise me none."

"Just had to clean up after one. Even better, it was over one of your star jockeys. Bit out of their reach," Avner mused.

Philip shrugged. "Ain't mine. But you're right, any of those girls has her pick of the litter."

"And there's nothing wrong with having high hopes. I just wish these lads were smart enough to stop before it comes to blows and broken bones." Avner shook his head. "If we didn't need all available hands for the harvest, I'd have simply set it and let him be."

That explained the tired look on his face. Petitioning took care, particularly Avner's usual domain of healing. If he'd been fixing broken bones all morning, it had to have taken a lot out of him. Philip was beginning to wonder if he should ask his favor. "How's Dan?"

"Doing well," said Avner. "Same as always, but what can you do?" He spread his hands. "I honestly think he is improving, but I don't think he'll ever be back to how he was." He sighed.

Philip looked away. "Sorry t'hear it."

Avner jerked upright and met his eyes. "No. You are not still blaming yourself." When Philip didn't respond, he continued. "It was an accident."

"Happened on my watch."

"You did not hurt my son!"

Philip's voice was quiet. "May as well have."

"Seven years, Philip," said Avner. "You've been blaming yourself for seven years because a horse spooked." He stood. "I'll not hear it again."

Philip nodded curtly. "If you say so."

Avner looked irritated at this but shrugged. "I'll take it. So! What did you come to see me about?"

"My father," he said simply.

Avner looked up. "Is he well?"

Philip shrugged. He removed his hat and ran a hand through his very dark, though not much darker than his skin, hair. "Hard to say. I don't think he's in danger of dyin' quite yet."

"But you're worried."

"Course I'm worried." He sighed. "Avner, I'm not askin' you to promise you can heal him and make him as good as new. I know medicine ain't like that. I just want someone to take a look and see if there's anythin' I can do for him."

"Of course," said Avner. He stroked his chin in thought. "But why would you ask me? You know as well as I do what people would think."

Philip sighed. "Yeah. But I trust you, and you know what really happened that day. Good enough for me." He paused a moment. "That and you're the only healin' petitioner in town, and this might be beyond the other doctors."

"Petitioning can't fix everything, Philip."

"I know."

"I'll be out tomorrow," said Avner. "Too short notice today." He held out a hand.

Philip gripped it and shook. "Thanks, Avner. Means a lot."

Avner smiled warmly. "It's nothing," he said. "Tending to people's health is my job. Tomorrow, then?"

"Aye." Philip released his hand and tipped his hat. He left without another word, closing the door behind him before making his way down the stairs and back outside.

Incitatus nuzzled him as he approached the hitching post and freed him. "Steady, boy," he murmured, stroking the stallion's mane to calm him. He checked his pocketwatch. It was still quite early, and he had plenty of time to check in on the stadium before needing to head back. He climbed expertly into the saddle and nudged Incitatus on.

He inspected the stadium's stables with the ruthless efficiency born of years of experience. The horses were being treated well, something he made certain to check every season, ever since a rather infamous incident with a now-former jockey abusing her mount. He had taken it rather worse than his father had, being more invested in the ranching aspect where his father favored the business side. Still, Carl's ranch was the only one within twenty miles of Ora Lunata, and the equestrian association could hardly afford to anger either of them in this respect. He'd not seen a problem with their treatment in nearly a decade. He reported his satisfaction to Ryan Handler, the man in charge of the horses' well-being. He tried not to note the extreme relief on Handler's face, more than was entirely appropriate for the situation. Philip suppressed a sigh. Damn rumors.

Nothing left on his mental checklist, Philip departed. The sun's high position marked it as just shy of midday, and his watch confirmed it. He allowed Incitatus to take the road at a trot. He was in no hurry to return and speak with his father, though his head had long since cooled.

It hadn't even been that heated a debate. An opinion here, a disagreement there, a pointed jab and a spirited response. But things had been turning out like that more and more often of late, he was sad to say. It was getting to the point where father and son could scarcely populate the same room for longer than twenty minutes at a time. He had tried to work with this, spending more and more time on errands and daily chores, but there was only so much he could do to avoid these confrontations short of caving completely to his father's wishes. He didn't consider that a real option.

He drew nearer to the ranch. Philip took a breath and closed his eyes briefly, forcing himself to clear his thoughts and retain an aura of calm. He'd never been known for flying off the handle, and he didn't intend to change that reputation. Incitatus continued along the path, and Philip dismounted as they rode through the tall wooden gate.

He ignored Harold, one of their hired hands, as he passed by. Inci was the one horse whose care he trusted to no one else. Philip had personally trained him from a foal, a gift from his father upon completing his apprenticeship and being formally declared to inherit the ranch - Carl had been insistent that only someone who knew the ins and outs of the business would own the place. He'd had him for eighteen years now. Incitatus showed no signs of slowing, despite his age.

Philip stabled and brushed him and attached his feed bag. "Good boy," he murmured, closing the stall door as he left. Time consuming though it could be, caring for a horse was easy. People were the ones that made it hard. He walked to the house to talk to his father.

"About time!" called Carl as Philip entered. He looked up from his desk, the thick lenses of his glasses making his eyes appear far larger than they were. The effect made the skinny man rather resemble a walking-stick insect. "Where've you been, boy?"

"Town," said Philip. "Checked on the pro stables." He hung his hat on the rack by the door.

"And?" Carl adjusted his glasses, pushing them farther up the bridge of his nose. They promptly slid back down.

Philip shrugged. "Same. Good condition as always." He made his way into the kitchen, realizing how long it had been since his breakfast before sunrise.

"As they should be! Don't know why they can think throwin' money our way excuses that sort of behavior."

"Mm." They hadn't thought that way in years. "You eaten, Pa?"

"I have. Some stew on the range."

Philip checked. There was indeed a pot there. Pork, from the smell of it. He filled a bowl for himself and got some bread from the breadbox before returning to the main room. Carl was coughing; Philip winced at the sound. It was getting worse.

"Need to watch our expenses, Phil," Carl wheezed.

"Oh?" He scarcely looked up from his meal, dipping the bread into the broth in lieu of a spoon.

Carl nodded. "Profit margins are down a ways. We're still in the clear, but we need to watch it."

Philip craned his neck to look at the figure. "That's more than fine, Pa."

"We didn't make near as much as previous years on the races."

"They'd bought 'em before or are just leasin'. Still payin' for 'em." Philip shrugged. "Every year ain't goin' to break the bank, and we're set for that."

Carl scowled at his son. "Your lazy attitude toward the numbers is what's goin' to ruin this business."

"It ain't lazy. 'S common sense."

"Same attitude you've got toward a family. Disregard for the future."

Philip sighed. He did not want to go over this again. "Disregardin' nothin'. Don't want a wife. Don't want kids. I'm lookin' out for my future just fine."

"Not the future of the ranch," snapped Carl.

"That don't depend on my havin' a kid." Philip stood, towering over his father. "I can raise horses just as well single as I can tied down. Prob'ly better."

Carl banged his fist on the desk. "And who will inherit if somethin' happens to you?"

"Won't be my concern, will it?" Carl stared at him, and Philip lowered his head and his voice, surprised at himself for yelling. "I'll figure it out," he continued quietly. He turned to leave the room.

"Where're you goin'?" snapped Carl?

"Checkin' traps," said Philip. He left his bowl in the kitchen and made his way out the back door without another word.

Philip counted his paces as he walked through the underbrush of the forest surrounding the ranch. It was a pointless exercise, but it kept his mind busy until he actually needed to spot a snare. It was a surprise to him that he needed to check the traps this often, but enough would either catch a would-be predator or prey to distract a predator or simply be chewed through and frayed that he knew the chicken coop they kept was still a frequent target. Today alone, he'd found two sabotaged snares with the telltale footprints of a foxopher. This had been a near daily occurrence, and he was convinced it was the same one. He'd already destroyed an attempted nest out near the now-abandoned cabin on the edge of the property. If his father's concerns about money were right, now he thought of it, he might have to consider spreading word in town about leasing it.

He found a pure fox, rare in these parts, in one snare. It looked scared, more than anything. Philip looked at it sadly. He always hated when the trapped creatures were still alive and helpless. He hated to kill a defenseless beast, even one that was such a clear threat to his animals.

Philip sighed and squatted beside the fox, going down on one knee for balance. "Al right, beastie," he said, taking out his pocket knife. The fox bared its teeth and tried to squirm away. Feeling a bit foolish, Philip reached out his free hand and patted its fur. "Calm down, 'sall right. Goin' to be fine." It hesitated and looked at him oddly.

The blade flicked out. Philip sighed as he severed through the twine binding its leg. "Won't do it again, beastie," he said, his low voice a gentle rumbling. "Now git." The fox backed away before turning and darting off into the forest. Philip shook his head. He was going soft.

He took his time finishing the rest of his route, taking nearly two hours in total to check the perimeter of the ranch. There had been a few unfortunate rabbits that strangled themselves in the snares, and he collected them to take back. They'd make a decent stew in a few days' time once the pork ran low. He hoped it would last longer. His father had been harder and harder to convince to buy outside resources rather than just hunting their own. And a man could quickly tire of rabbit.

He left the rabbits in the storage cellar and made the rounds of the ranch itself, checking in on all of the hired hands to make certain all was well. The horses were on the proper exercise rotation in the primary pasture, and a few lessons and practice rides were in progress in the secondary. He lingered there a moment to watch, checking that safety procedures were being followed for both horse and rider. One satisfied, he pushed away from the fence and returned to the house.

Carl was no longer seated at the desk when he returned. Philip hesitated a moment before sliding into the chair and poking about. What struck him most about the papers was not the financial figures for the ranch but the hand in which they were written. Carl had always had impeccable penmanship and a steady hand, but the pen strokes here were frail and wispy and, in more cases than he really wanted to notice, shaky. Philip closed his eyes.

This put much into perspective: his hesitance to let Philip see the ledgers, his worry over money, his vehement urging for Philip to tend to business matters and take care of business in town, his dismissal of Philip's concern for his health. He was all too aware of his condition and wanted to make sure the business was in order while he still could. Philip pinched the bridge of his nose. He was not going to take Avner's house call well at all.

As promised, Avner arrived early the next morning, though earlier than Philip would have expected as the man came on foot. Philip however was not at all surprised to find him armed with two light swords. It was common knowledge that the healer was also a volunteer member of the local militia and well-versed in the use of a dual-sword combat style. He inclined his head politely to Philip.

"Good morning."

"Mornin', Avner." Philip, leaning against the gate, tipped his hat. "Pa's at the house."

Avner nodded, frowning. "Something bothering you?"

"No more'n usual." He shook his head. "C'mon."

He led Avner through the grounds and to the house at the center. Neither spoke as they walked, though Avner looked from his expression as though he wanted to if he could find the right words.

He seemed to finally find them. "Is he still doing as poorly as you think?"

"Yeah," said Philip. "Think he knows it, too."

Avner sighed and patted Philip's shoulder. "I know how hard it is to watch family suffer. I promise I'll do what I can for him." Philip merely grunted in reply. Avner frowned. "This isn't just about his health, is it?"

"No," said Philip. "Been arguin'. How to run the place, how I should be livin'. Lots o' little things. Stupid things."

Avner nodded. "They don't seem stupid to you."

"Ain't worth fightin' over."

"Few things are, when it comes to that." Avner sighed, fingering his beard. "Yet we still do."

Philip put his hand on the doorknob and pushed. "I just want one civil talk with him. I know he don't got too long." He sighed. "Ain't right for family t' fight like this."

They entered, and Philip again, out of habit, hung his hat on the rack. Carl was, as usual tending to the ledgers. He looked up at the sound of the door. "Philip." He blinked. "Why, Mr. Magus, what brings you here?"

Avner smiled warmly. "Philip asked me to look in on you, Mr. Stabler. He's concerned."

Carl again blinked in surprise. He spoke slowly. "Is he now? Never mentioned it to me." Philip shrugged and said nothing. "I feel just fine, Mr. Magus-"

"Avner, please."

"Avner, then. Sorry to waste your time."

"It's no trouble," said Avner, still smiling. "But please. Your son has already paid, allow me to do my job." Philip started at this; he had done no such thing. Avner shot him a quick look, and he resumed his casual posture.

Carl hesitated a moment and nodded. "All right," he said. "Philip, mind givin' us some privacy?"

"Nope," said Philip. He donned his hat and walked outside.

He leaned against the side of the house and reached into his pocket for a cigarette and lighter, sliding the former into his mouth and lighting it. He played with the device as he smoked, frowning when it sputtered and died. He'd have to get another when he went to town, if he remembered. Matches would do in the meantime. He finished the cigarette and dropped the butt on the ground, grinding it under his heel into the dust.

His nerves calmed, he went to help with the chores, earning a few strange looks from some of the newer hires. He wasn't entirely sure why and wondered what sorts of bosses they'd had before if seeing an employer pitch in was such a strange sight. For his part, he'd never imagine stepping out of the work entirely unless he was physically unable.

Before too long, Avner found him. "Well?" asked Philip.

Avner shook his head sadly. "He refused any petitioning. There's very little I can do beyond that."

"What? Why?"

"He didn't say, and I don't like to pry," said Avner. He spread his hands. "Could be superstition or fear, could just be that he feels it's his time."

Philip looked at the ground. "Is it?"

"Not yet, but it won't be long. I can't get an exact reading on that," said Avner.

"Thank you," said Philip. "Oh, um. What did you mean, I'd paid?"

Avner smiled. "Would he have agreed to let me work had there not been money on the line?"

"No," said Philip instantly. "But-"

"There you are. If you're worried about it, we can work out a fee later. I'm not too concerned about it."

Philip sighed. "What can I do?"

"Keep him away from physical exertion, don't stress him, make sure he eats and sleeps well. The standard, but that's all the advice I have medically. As a friend? Clear the air."

"Yeah," Philip said with a nod. "That one goes without sayin'." He sighed. "Need a lift to town?"

"I'll manage," said Avner. "I'll see you next time you're in?"

"Yeah," said Philip. "I can do that."

Carl Stabler passed a few weeks later. Philip had been returning from town with additional supplies when a panicked Harold met him on the road. He'd pushed Inci into his first full gallop in years and left him in the care of the stablehands for the only time to date. Carl was slumped over his desk, his face strangely peaceful. His heart, Avner later said, coming at Philip's request to determine the cause as only a petitioner could.

Philip withdrew into himself after the memorial service, though few but the hired hands would have noticed. It was rare that he came to town as it was, so his remaining on the ranch came as no surprise. What did surprise them was his retention of the name Carson. As the sole remaining proprietor of the ranch, he had every right to take the name Rancher or Stabler. He refused and gave no explanation as to why.

Philip had always been a man of few regrets, but this meant only that those he had were felt all the more. He and Carl had never fully reconciled. They'd begun, certainly, and had been on nearly pleasant terms at the last. But it still hit Philip like a punch to the gut that so much had been left unsaid. But he knew, sad to say, that sometimes the air couldn't be fully cleared. Sometimes you had to learn to live with the smoke.

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