Word Count 7,530
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
A harvest moon rose over a sprawling ranch house as two old friends sat together smoking cigars and watching the stars come out.
“Murdoch, it’s been good to meet your boys finally,” Jebediah Winslow said quietly. The men were relaxing on the ranch house’s side porch, celebrating the sale of one of the Twin Creek Ranch’s prize bulls to Lancer with cigars Winslow had shipped from back East.
“It’s good to be able to introduce them to you, Jeb,” Murdoch said with a wide smile. “Took a lot of years to get them home…”
Winslow nodded. He and his wife, Miriam had come west on the Oregon Trail with the same wagon train as Murdoch and his new wife more than a quarter century earlier. The Winslows had bought land in the northern part of California while Murdoch and Catherine continued south, and fell in love with the hills of the San Joaquin Valley. Contact between the two families since then had been limited to an occasional letter and making good on their agreement to cross-breed their stock every few years, a deal made when Catherine and Murdoch parted from the Winslows more than a quarter century earlier.
“I know,” Jeb said. “I know how much you missed having them with you, old friend.”
Murdoch stood at the railing and looked out at an expanse of land that rivaled his own holdings. There were two smaller homes situated within a half-mile or so. “I don’t know if it’s possible to know… what it’s like to not to have your children grow up in your home, Jeb. To not know how they are or if they’re growing up right …. You and Miriam, you had Daniel and the girls with you. And even now, you can see their homes from your porch—“
Winslow laughed. “And hear their kids making a racket at all hours of the night and day! And next month Rebecca will get married, then we’ll have to start building again….”
Murdoch chuckled. “He seems like a nice young man she’s marrying.”
“He is. Miriam would have liked to see one of our girls marry one of your boys, o’ course but…. Timin’ just didn’t work out.. If either one of ‘em got a look at Scott- or Johnny—first, who knows what woulda happened?”
That made Murdoch smile again. “I’m trying not to get anxious to have them settle down and start families but… Well, having my grandchildren grow up at Lancer, that’s my fondest wish, now that the boys are home. … Don’t tell them I said that, of course!”
“You don’t think they’d be glad to know it?”
“I don’t know, Jeb. I—I try not to interfere too much in their lives, not that way. They’re both—they were both grown men when they arrived. I don’t want them to think I don’t respect their privacy—“
Jeb Winslow guffawed. “You’re their father, Murdoch! Of course you’re gonna care ‘bout whether they find good girls to marry, and when… and havin’ those grandkids to grow up on Lancer. That’s what fathers do!”
Murdoch shook his head. “It’s different with my boys. With the way they grew up, away from me and each other, then finally bringing them home and making them partners….”
Winslow laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder and leaned in conspiratorially. “You’re not the senior partner, Murdoch. You’re the father of those two boys. Fact is, at some point, you’re just gonna have to le them see how you feel…..:
The two men chatted some more about business while finishing their cigars, and then headed back into the parlor. Miriam and her daughters had been taking turns playing the piano, and now the oldest daughter was singing an old lullaby Murdoch remembered from somewhere as she rocked her younger son to sleep. Johnny sat listening with his eyes half-closed and Scott stood near the mantle listening and sipping from a glass of whiskey. Murdoch took a seat near Johnny as the younger Winslow daughter joined her sister on the final chorus.
Murdoch watched Scott out of the corner of his eye as his older son studied the property map above the fireplace once again. He’d returned to it several times this evening, and Murdoch thought he knew why. His suspicion was proven out a little while later after the household retired for the night. There was a knock on his bedroom door and then Scott stuck his head in a moment later.
“May I come in, sir?”
“Yes, son, of course,” Murdoch answered, undoing the string tie he’d worn to dinner and unbuttoning the top button of his shirt. “What’s on your mind?”
“I was wondering if you and Johnny can get that bull started home tomorrow without me. I’d—I’d like to take a little detour.”
Murdoch nodded. “I’m sure we can. It really didn’t require three of us to get our stock here – or get the bull back to Lancer. I just wanted you boys to meet the Winslows.”
Scott smiled. “I was glad to meet them. Mrs. Winslow told me some stories, about when she and her husband came west with you and my mother….”
“Yes. We became fast friends. Daniel was about five at the time, and it took all four of us to keep him out of trouble as I recall. His boy Joshua is a lot like him, full of mischief.”
Scott didn’t answer at first, and looked as though he were waiting for more from his father. But when Murdoch said nothing further, Scott thanked him for agreeing to his request and bade him good night. Sleep did not come quickly to the older man that night as he thought about his elder son, and the advice he’d received from his old friend.
Just as at Lancer, the Twin Creek ranch came back to life as soon as the first rays of sun began to peek over the horizon the next morning. After a hearty breakfast and the extracting of a promise to visit Lancer the following year, Murdoch said farewell to his old friends and strode out to the corral where Scott and Johnny had saddled the Lancer horses and were waiting for him.
“I was just telling Johnny I’ll catch up with you both no later than tomorrow night,” Scott said.
“But ya didn’t say where you’re goin’,” Johnny grumbled. “Or why.”
“I just want to check out something I noticed on the map in the parlor, Johnny. I’ll—I’ll tell you about it when I catch up with you, if it’s anything worth talking about.”
They parted ways just outside the ranch’s entrance and Scott spurred his horse into a gallop and headed west through the valley. Murdoch and Johnny rode on together quietly for about fifteen minutes, pulling the reluctant bull behind them, then the older man reined his horse to a stop.
“Yeah?” Johnny’s eyes were narrow with suspicion about what his father was about to say.
“You can move this bull along on your own for a day, can’t you?””
Johnny snorted in derision. “’Course I can. But why would I be doin’ that?”
“Because I’m going to accompany your brother.”
The younger son exhaled forcefully. “Okay. And exactly where might ya be accompanyin’ him to…?”
Murdoch smiled at the boy affectionately. “I’ll leave it up to Scott to share that with you, son. If he wants to. See you tomorrow night!” With that, he kicked his own horse into a gallop and left Johnny shaking his head.
Scott was riding along at a good pace but taking the time to drink in the sights and sounds of the landscape. He’d been here before but didn’t remember any of it. His mind drank in the details of the scenery trying to imagine what it would have been like….
Suddenly his senses picked up the sound of a rider approaching too quickly. Without conscious thought, his right hand went to the gun in his holster and pulled it out, but he kept it at his side as he brought his horse around to see who was following him.
“Murdoch!” he yelled as soon as he caught sight of his father. “What’s wrong? Where’s Johnny? Is Johnny all right?”
Murdoch rode his horse up beside Scott and came to to a halt. “He’s fine, son,” he said, noticing Scott slip his gun back into his holster. The older man bit back a smile at another clear indication that Scott had adapted well to his new life in the West. The young man learned fast. “Nothing’s wrong, and Johnny is fine.”
Scott visibly relaxed and Murdoch noted that his older son had just as quickly grown into being Johnny’s big brother. That thought brought a smile he could not contain.
“Then what brings you here, sir?” Scott asked, curiosity evident on his lightly-tanned face.
“I realized I’d like to accompany you, son,” Murdoch said. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
Scott was silent a moment. “I guess you figured out where I’m headed,” he finally said, his voice soft and low.
“Yes. I saw you looking at the map. And… I often made the same side-trip leaving the Winslow place over the years.”
Scott nodded. “Of course … I should have guessed that,” he said quietly.
Murdoch reached out and touched his arm. “I don’t have to come if you don’t want…..”
“No, it’s fine. I mean, it’s more than fine, sir. I would appreciate the company.”
They talked about the scenery and several business opportunities they’d discussed with Jeb Winslow and his son Daniel during their visit. Scott didn’t ask any questions related to their destination, and Murdoch couldn’t find the words to start the discussion. So after exhausting the usual topics, they rode on together in silence that was not easy but neither was it uncomfortable. In a couple of hours, they approached a town.
Scott cleared his throat as they passed a sign that he read out loud. “Welcome to Carterville, California. It probably should say ‘Welcome back’ in my case,” he said. He regretted the attempted joke immediately.
“It wasn’t much of a town twenty-five years ago,” Murdoch said quietly. “Still not…..”
“Was there a doctor’s office, or….”
“No, son. Just a small general store and a livery. A saloon. And a boarding house. And a few family farms in the vicinity.”
Scott nodded, pressing his lips together, hesitating at first to ask the question at the tip of his tongue. “Where…?”
Murdoch pointed at a house at the edge of town and turned his horse in that direction knowing Scott would do the same. “Your grandfather found someone in that house there to… help.”
“He never told me anything about…. any of it.”
Murdoch only nodded in response. He wasn’t surprised Harlan hadn’t spoken of it. It was hardly his finest hour.
The two men approached the small farmhouse. It showed signs of being kept up a little better than the rest of the buildings Scott had seen in town, but only barely. There was a vegetable garden to the side of the house and a planted field out back. A middle-aged woman came out of the house, drying her hands on her apron. She looked wary to see strangers at first, but then she smiled.
“Mr. Lancer!” she called. “It is good to see you again.”
“Mrs. Cole, hello. It’s nice to see you again too.” He brought his horse to a stop and dismounted. “This is my son, Scott.”
Scott had dismounted as well and now he came forward, holding his horse’s reins in his left hand, and tipped his hat politely. “Ma’am.”
Mrs. Cole looked from the son to the father and then back to Scott. “You must be….”
“Yes, Scott is Catherine’s boy,” Murdoch responded immediately. “My first-born.”
Something in those words made Scott glance at his father briefly, then he looked down at the ground, swallowing hard.
“Well, I’m pleased to know you,” the woman said, looking at the young man. “And my Ma will be tickled. She helped bring you into the world. I was just a young girl in those days, not much able to help. But she remembers.”
Scott nodded. “Please… thank her for me then,” he said, not knowing what else to say.
Murdoch said, “We’ll come in to say hello to Mrs. Davis after—“
“Of course,” Mrs. Cole interrupted. “You want to visit. I shouldn’t be keepin’ you. Please….” She gestured toward the vegetable garden.
“Thank you,” Murdoch said. He began to walk then stopped and waited for Scott to move beside him. “It’s this way.”
They walked past the vegetable patch to a small flower garden partly shaded by two medium-sized trees. There were flowering bushes around a smaller area marked off by a low white fence. Inside stood a single headstone surrounded by a riot of colorful wildflowers and lilies. The grass inside the fence was green and stood out from the dry brown earth surrounding it.
“I’ve sent Mrs. Davis money to keep it tended,” he said. “I came back and planted the trees on her first birthday after….. It was… our birthday present to her, from you and me.”
Scott’s eyes misted over but he found he couldn’t speak. It moved him in a way he couldn’t have anticipated that his father had given her birthday a birthday present from both of them. With Murdoch, he approached the grave and then he watched as his father went down onto one knee, taking off his hat. “Hello, my darling,” he said. “This is Scott, all grown up. I told you I’d bring him….. eventually.”
Scott removed his own hat and dropped down onto his knee in the soft grass on the other side of his mother’s grave. He reached out and touched the top of the headstone. “Catherine Lancer, Beloved wife of Murdoch, loving mother of Scott,” he read, his voice trailing off at the end. Unconsciously, he ran his index finger over the word ‘mother’ before reading the quote inscribed below:
“Her blue eyes sought the west afar,
For lovers love the western star.”
Scott paused a moment, collecting himself. “Sir Walter Scott,” he said, recognizing the quote. “One of my favorite authors.”
“Hers too,” Murdoch said. “You were named for him, you know.”
Scott’s eyes opened wide and his gaze rose to meet Murdoch’s. “No,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
Murdoch smiled sadly, remembering. “Catherine was very well-read, it was one of the things that brought us together.” He cleared his throat and continued. “When I got some money together, I ordered the headstone from San Francisco,” Murdoch said quietly. “I put it here on your second birthday. Mrs. Davis helped me figure out what flowers would grow well here, and she tended the garden all this time. She’s old and blind now so her daughter took over a few years ago.”
Scott took a breath, hoping he’d be able to speak without betraying all the emotions that were running through him. “She… was never real to me,” he said. “Before now. I- I knew I didn’t have a mother, of course. And Grandfather talked about her but… she never seemed like a real, flesh and blood person…. just a pretty portrait in the library. Grandfather made her seem like a perfect little flower, too delicate to live outside the hothouse….
Murdoch laughed. “Perfect? Oh, she was many things, Scott. Many wonderful things. But perfect wasn’t one of them.”
Scott looked up in surprise once again.
“Please don’t get me wrong, son,” Murdoch said quickly, biting back a smile. “I—I loved your mother with all of my heart. I still do. But… well, let’s see. You know how you and Johnny kid me about eating my toast nearly-burned black? Well, I didn’t always like it that way. I just got used to it because it was the only way Catherine could make it.”
Scott’s brows rose in surprise, and he smiled incredulously. “She couldn’t make toast?”
“She was a wealthy young lady from Boston when I met her, never made a meal in her life. She learned to be a fair cook but for some reason, she never got the toast out of the fire before it was black. She used to get so worked up about it, I started telling her I liked it that way. Eventually… I guess I convinced myself.”
Scott shook his head. He hesitated a moment, then decided to go ahead and ask something that had always puzzled him. “To be honest, I always wondered how you two met.”
Murdoch touched the headstone once more, and smiled fleetingly, then he rose and walked to a small bench in the corner of the fenced in area. “These old legs of mine don’t hold up the way they used to so I put this here a couple of years ago,” he said as he sat down. Then he looked at his older son and smiled. “How did we meet? Now that’s a story…..”
“You horrid, nasty, spiteful, vile little boy!” the pretty young woman yelled as she charged toward fifteen year old boy who was the big Scotsman’s charge.
“Whoa, whoa now, ma’am,” the large man, “what exactly did young Oswald do?”
“What did he do?” The young lady turned to face him, her eyes flashing with righteous anger. She was taller than most women, with large blue-grey eyes and honey colored hair that was held up in some fancy hairstyle he’d never seen before, all except for the wisps that had fallen out and framed her heart-shaped face. “Ask him! Ask him what he put in Penelope’s perfume bottle!”
Murdoch Lancer looked to the young man he was holding firmly by the shoulder but he didn’t have to voice the question.
“N-n-nothing!” the boy stammered. “Nothing…! I—I—I don’t even know how that ink got in there!”
“I rest my case,” the blonde said, a triumphant look on her face. “I never said what it was, did I, Oswald? So how would you know?”
The young man rose up to his full height, which unfortunately was still half a head shorter than the girl.
The boy blinked furiously. “I guessed,” he blurted.
“You don’t have the sense to guess that next week Tuesday will follow Monday,” she responded.
“I’m telling my father what you… what you said,” the boy shouted before ducking out from under Murdoch’s hand and running for the stairs. He disappeared up them and Murdoch turned back to the young woman who now looked slightly embarrassed.
“Please forgive my ill manners,” she said before he had a chance to speak. “I just couldn’t let him get away without calling him on his behavior toward Penelope. God knows Pen won’t. Their father always takes Oswald’s side of things.”
Murdoch knew that to be the truth. It had taken no time after he joined this household to learn there were five daughters in the Peabody family but the bulk of the patricarch’s attention and resources were reserved for the single male heir. He had no doubt whatever disaster had befallen one of the daughters at Oswald’s hands, there would be little or no consequence for the boy.
“It’s hard to understand how a father can so blatantly favor one of his children over the others,” he said quietly.
“Not in this family,” she said. “It’s not thought that… any of the daughters will marry well. So Oswald is the family’s hope for the future.”
“God help them then,” the man murmured, having spent the past two months trying to force enough classical literuature into the boy’s thick head to get him past Harvard’s entrance exam.
The blonde smiled and put out a delicate hand. “My name is Catherine Garrett.”
“I’m Murdoch Lancer,” the man replied, taking her hand for a moment. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Garrett. It is no’ often I meet a young lady with your…. extensive and colorful vocabulary.”
The young woman blushed slightly but she did not drop her eyes from his. “I know it’s… unflattering but I could not help myself. He is so spoiled and unkind toward his sisters.”
Murdoch nodded. It was not politic to speak so of his young charge in his own home but there was little about the boy that was pleasing. “I hope he won’t make any trouble for you….”
Catherine smiled. “Not likely. My father wields much more influence in Boston than Mr. Peabody. And that’s the way of things here.” She glanced at the book in the Scotsman’s hands. “From the fact you are holding a volume of “The Iliad,” I shall assume that you are Oswald’s latest tutor. My sympathies, sir. There is little hope he will retain much of what you teach him.”
Murdoch sighed. “Ach, you are most likely correct,” he answered with a smile. “The space between Oswald’s ears gives new meaning to my desire to discover the wide open spaces of America.”
Catherine laughed and touched his arm lightly. “I think I like you, Mr. Lancer.”
“And I believe I like you, Miss Garrett,” he replied. “Is there anything I can do to help Miss Penelope? After all, I did let Oswald out of my sight and that gave him the opportunity to get up to… mischief.”
“I have a much harsher term for it,” she said, her indignation on the part of her friend evident. “Pen got her first new evening gown in a year for the Spring Ball tomorrow night. She put it on to show me today and while she was wearing it, she decided to put on some perfume. He had filled the bottle with ink and it splashed on her new white gown. Nothing will salvage it now. I am certain he thought she would do it tomorrow evening and have to miss the ball entirely.”
“That is quite a mean-spirited thing to do,” Murdoch said, understanding now what precipitated the shrieks he’d heard from upstairs a little while earlier. “I wish I’d kept a better eye on him….”
“It would have happened no matter what,” Catherine said. “It’s just…. as little as his sisters get, he still begrudges them every penny spent on them. He’s a—“
“Horrid, mean, spiteful little boy,” Murdoch finished for her. “I imagine you know the ‘little boy’ part of your tirade drew the most blood.”
Catherine blushed once again. “It’s not a good thing in this world, for a woman to be taller than many men. Or have a… colorful vocabulary.” She smiled slyly and looked him right in the eye. “But occasionally it comes in handy.”
Murdoch nodded. “Well, if my opinion counts for anythin’, Miss Garrett…. I think it’s a wonderful thing for a woman to be tall, and smart… and have a backbone too!”
She graced him with another smile, one that lit her eyes in a new way. “Well… if my opinion counts, it’s nice to meet a man I can… look up to, Mr. Lancer.” She reached for her bonnet and gloves. “I was on my way home to get Penelope one of my gowns when I ran into Oswald. With the help of a good seamstress, I think we can shorten one of mine for her and she can still attend the ball tomorrow night.”
Murdoch glanced up the stairs and then made an instant decision. It was unlikely he’d make any progress with young Oswald this afternoon and Miss Garrett was the most interesting female he’d met since coming to this country. “Perhaps I could accompany you?” Murdoch asked. “Then I can carry the gown back to Miss Peabody.”
“I’d like that, Mr. Lancer,” she said.
The day was warm for April so they strolled along the tree-shaded walkway by the Charles River, then turned up another street leading to Louisburg Square, where the Garrett mansion was located.
“I detect a slight hint of the Highlands in your speech,” Catherine commented at one point.
Now it was Murdoch’s turn to color slightly. “Yes, Inverness to be exact. My family was from the Highlands but my father was a headmaster in Inverness. That’s where I was reared.”
“I hope you don’t mind my commenting on it,” Catherine said. “I—find it quite appealing actually. One of my favorite governesses was from the Highlands. She introduced me to the literature of her homeland. Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns….”
“I don’t mind a’tall,” he said, “except that I’ve been trying to reduce my accent. If I’m to be a real American, I need to sound like one.”
Catherine nodded, knowing the prejudice recent immigrants often faced. “I wish it weren’t so but… here in Boston, we tend not to be very accepting of anyone different.”
“Oh, I don’t plan to stay in Boston,” Murdoch said. “Or remain a tutor. Teaching Oswald… pays well because so many before me have failed, I’m afraid. I took the position because it will put me a year ahead on my real plan. I’m heading west as soon as I’ve earned enough to pay for the trip and purchase some land. I am going to be a cattle rancher.”
“Really? That sounds… exciting. I’ve always wanted to see more of the country. I’ve never been farther west than Philadelphia.”
“If you look at a map of this sprawling continent, you’ll see that’s practically next door,” he said, smiling down at her. “There’s a whole new world waiting in the West of this country with unlimited opportunity for those who are willing to take a chance, and work hard to build something there.”
His face grew softer as he spoke, making him appear truly handsome and the strength of his dream lit a fire behind his pale blue eyes. “I have no doubt you will build something there, Mr. Lancer. I—I hope perhaps I’ll be able to visit the West some day—“
“Catherine! Catherine, my dear! Whatever are you doing, walking the streets?” a man called out. They looked in his direction and he continued to walk toward them at a heightened pace, his irritation evident. “The carriage is always at your disposal,” the man stated firmly, grimacing at her companion.
“Father, it was only a few blocks from the Peabody house,” she laughed, “It’s a beautiful Spring day. And I had a big strong protector.”
“My dear, it’s not seemly for you to be walking about unaccompanied by your maid or a female friend. And I don’t know,” the gentleman looked at Murdoch and pointedly dismissed him, “your companion. It’s not proper—“
“Oh, Father, please,” she interrupted, seeming to know just how to derail his tirade, “let me introduce you to Murdoch Lancer. He has the unenviable task of tutoring Oswald Peabody to pass the entrance exam for Harvard.”
“A hopeless cause if there ever was one,” the man responded grimly.
“Yes, I believe Mr. Lancer would agree,” Catherine said. Then she turned to Murdoch. “Allow me to present my father, Harlan Garrett.”
Murdoch put out his hand and the other man gave it a quick, limp handed-shake, then turned back to his daughter. “Come inside now, my dear,” he said, pulling her toward the front steps of the Garrett home.
“But Father, Mr. Lancer is going to take something back to Penelope for me,” she said, looking toward Murdoch. “Please wait, Mr. Lancer. I’ll run up and get it now.” She skipped lightly up the front steps to the house, sending Murdoch a smile over her shoulder as she stepped through a door opened by a silent footman.
“Yes… well, come inside then,” Garrett said, somewhat reluctantly. He headed up the stairs, not waiting for Murdoch to follow.
Murdoch cooled his heels in the foyer, watched by the footman while Garret disappeared into a room just off the entryway. In a few minutes, Catherine glided down the stairs, a maid behind her carrying a long white cotton garment cover.
“I am sending two dresses,” Catherine said. “Please tell Penelope to keep whichever she likes best. And I’m sending Daphne also. She’s a marvelous seamstress and can make the alterations in plenty of time.” As she spoke, she smiled at the young girl carrying the dresses.
“I’ll do my b-best, ma’am,” the girl stammered. “I won’t let yer down.”
Murdoch took the bag from the maid. “I’ll be happy to escort Miss Daphne back to the Peabody’s and ensure the dresses arrive without incident.”
“I thank you,” Catherine said. “It—it has been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Lancer.”
At that moment Harlan Garrett stepped into the foyer. “Yes, well, goodbye, Mr. Lancer,” he said as he waved for the footman to open the door and nearly shooed Murdoch and the maid out. “Oh, and should you have occasion to visit again…. Please remember the service entrance is in the rear of the house.”
Murdoch smiled, shaking his head as he finished recounting the story of his first meeting with Catherine. He looked over and saw that Scott had settled down on the grass next to his mother’s grave, his hands clasped around his bended knees.
Scott shook his head too. “That sounds exactly like Grandfather,” he admitted.
“It wasn’t the first time I’d run into that kind of prejudice, son,” his father said. “Nor the last.”
“How did you and my… mother get to know each other then?”
Murdoch smiled. “I saw her often in the Peabody house. When she visited her friend, she would stop in to the study to see what Oswald and I were reading… and silently commiserate over my nearly hopeless task.”
“He did get into Harvard, you know,” Scott said. “His son, Oswald , Jr. was in the class two years behind me. I always assumed he got in on the strength of his father’s scholarship….”
Murdoch chuckled. “Perhaps on the strength of his grandfather’s donations…. I did my best but that boy retained virtually nothing I taught him.” He gazed out into the distance and started to speak again about the past.
“Mr. Lancer! How lovely to see you again,” Catherine Garret greeted him. He had been standing awkwardly to the side of the room, dressed in his best suit brought from Scotland. He knew he looked hopelessly out of date among the fashionable assembly in the Peabody drawing room.
“Miss Garrett! It’s very nice to see you also. I… have been pressed into service to even out the number of guests this evening.”
“Oh, you must know it is a cardinal sin for a Boston hostess to have an uneven number of people to dinner,” she laughed. “Or to have one more woman than man at table!”
“So I was told when I was required—or rather, invited– to attend,” he said, smiling down at her. She was wearing a pale blue dress that made her look more elegant for its simplicity than the other ladies in the room who were dressed up to the nines. A necklace of sapphires circled her slender throat and matching drop earrings hung from her earlobes and made her eyes appear a matching deep blue. “You look… even more lovely than usual, Miss Garrett.”
She gave him a glorious smile. “Why, thank you, Mr. Lancer,” she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed another man hurriedly crossing the room toward them, and she hooked a slender arm through his. “I am hoping you will escort me into dinner?”
They sat across the table from each other during the long formal meal and he watched her more than he spoke to anyone else. She had an easy manner, and made everyone around here feel comfortable, even himself. Smiling, she drew him and a shy young woman on his right into her conversation with the rather haughty man sitting on her left, the very one who’d been trying to reach her in the drawing room earlier. She introduced him as Foster Sterling and Murdoch could tell she did not care for him from the way she held herself. He put himself out to enter into the discussion despite the man’s apparent disinterest in him or anything he had to say.
“Mr. Sterling has traveled to the West,” Catherine said at one point, again trying to extend the conversation to Murdoch and the young lady at his side. “Perhaps you tell us about your experiences?”
The man at her elbow turned up his lip. “A horrid place,” he said, “populated by savages for the most part. And the refuse of real civilization….”
A look of irritation rose in Catherine’s eyes momentarily, then a tight smile came to her lips. “Surely you can tell us more, Mr. Sterling. Mr. Lancer intends to go there….”
The pasty-faced gentleman sent him a disinterested look. “I’m sure you’ll find it quite… interesting. You should fit right in.”
The shy girl next to him gasped slightly at the blatant insult and Catherine opened her mouth to speak but Murdoch sent her an amused glance. “Well, thank you. I certainly hope so. My interest in coming to America was sparked by everything I heard about this country, most especially the opportunity to help settle the rest of the continent. I have little interest in the mean observances of paltry decorum….”
The man looked confused, and the girl next to him mirrored his expression. But Catherine’s eyes lit with amusement.
“I so love that quote,” she said. “I hope to live my life in accordance with the sentiment. ‘One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action, and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of those mean observances of paltry decorum.’ Thank you for reminding me, Mr. Lancer.”
Sterling sputtered something about quotes from Shakespeare and Catherine’s smile widened as she and Murdoch exchanged a knowing glance. But neither of them bothered to correct his assumption.
Murdoch sighed, remembering, then his eyes fell on his eldest son. Scott was watching him, his face animated by curiosity and something more. “I love that quote from Sir Walter Scott also,” he said. “I… I thought about it, before I made my decision to come West.”
Murdoch’s eyes widened, then he smiled. “Perhaps it was your mother, urging you on,” he said. “I… I sometimes think I can feel her presence.”
“I never did…, before,” Scott said. “To me, she was just a portrait of a pretty young girl in the library.”
Murdoch smiled. “Yes, I remember it. She hated that portrait.”
“Yes. It was done the year she made her debut. I think that’s what it’s called…”
Scott nodded, and Murdoch continued.
“She was a seventeen-year old girl, wearing a white dress and holding a bouquet of spring flowers, as I recall. She said the artist made her appear shorter – at your grandfather’s request apparently—and showed her with a sweet, dreamy look on her face.” “
“Yes, when I was little, I thought she looked like an angel,” Scott said, nodding.
Murdoch chuckled. “Even at seventeen, I imagine she was the same clear-eyed, outspoken young woman I met. She was kind and caring but… not especially sweet-natured or angelic. Your mother had strong opinions, son. She didn’t particularly care what others thought about them. And she often acted on her beliefs….”
The Peabody daughters and a few other female guests entertained the party with less than stellar performances after dinner. Catherine and Murdoch sat together with Sterling on her other side. Murdoch noticed the other man taking her hand several times then watched in amusement as she found something to point toward, or gestured with her hands immediately afterward, an obvious excuse to remove her hand from his. When Sterling got up to speak with another guest, Catherine told Murdoch she needed some air and the two of them slipped out onto the garden terrace. It was a warmer than normal evening and they strolled to the marble balustrade and stopped to look over the formal gardens.
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer,” Catherine said. “I needed … a few minutes away from him.”
Murdoch nodded. “He seems to think… he has some call on your attentions….”
Catherine pressed her lips together and seemed to hesitate before answering. “Yes,” she finally said. “He and my father…. They think a marriage between us would be….fortuitous.”
“I must say that… surprises me,” he said, feeling a heaviness in his heart he could not explain. “You two seem to have little in common.”
“Actually, we have nothing in common. But Foster’s business interests would complement those of my father. And he… wishes for a wife with the right social contacts and upbringing.” She paused, then laughed. “While I’m ‘unfortunately tall, overeducated and much too outspoken,’ according to Mr. Sterling, he has decided it’s a good match nevertheless. And my father concurs.”
Murdoch felt something rise in his chest, something more than righteous indignation that someone would treat this woman as barter for the merger of business interests. “I hope your opinion counts for more than either of theirs in this case.”
Catherine looked down at her hands. “No. I’m afraid… that’s not the way of things here in Boston. I’m twenty-two, much too old to still be unmarried. I’ve had other offers but…. I kept hoping someone would want to marry me for me, not my connections or my social skills or my dowery. And now… it appears I’ve waited too long. My father told me last night that he plans to announce our engagement at a dinner party Tuesday next.”
Murdoch spent a sleepless night, tossing and turning in his third-floor room in the Peabody house. By dawn, he’d made a decision that surprised even him. He was a man given to thinking long before acting, who generally weighed the pros and cons of things before making a choice. But this one seemed… ordained by fate. He rose and dressed, informed Oswald they were taking the morning off from his studies, and went to wait in the park across from the Garrett mansion. A little while later, Catherine emerged, accompanied by her maid. Murdoch crossed the street and caught up with her. The maid, Daphne, wordlessly dropped back to let them speak privately.
“Mr. Lancer! I—how lovely to see you again so soon.”
“I—I have somethin’ to say to you,” he said, clearing his throat. Then somehow the words he’d composed in his head all night long did not come.
He cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking, Miss Garrett. You may think me daft, o’ course…“
“Please, call me Catherine,” she said.
“Catherine, yes,” he said. Just saying her name aloud gave him a warm feeling. “I have plans, Catherine, big plans. I will build something in this country, in the West.”
“Yes,” she answered. “I know you will, Murdoch.”
He couldn’t help the grin that came to his face at the sound of his own first name from her lips. He felt like a schoolboy again and fought to regain his composure and remember what he planned to say.
“I’m glad you believe in me,” he said. “I’m verra—very glad.”
“I do, Murdoch,” she said. “I can’t really explain it but from the first, I knew you would do whatever you set out to do.”
He nodded, still smiling. “I’ve been thinking about your situation. About bein’ made to marry that—that—“
A laugh escaped that he could not constrain, hearing the word he’d been trying to avoid articulated by the well-bred young woman.
“Yes,” he chuckled. “That would be an apt description.”
They began to walk again, and she slipped her arm into his. “You were saying,” she prompted.
“Yes. I was saying that, well, that I—I mean, that we… seem to have a lot in common. And you deserve much better than that… that–”
“Jackass,” she said again.
“Exactly! And—not that I think I’m a great prize, o’ course. I have na’ much to give you now but—“
“You have a powerful dream, Murdoch,” she said. “And ideals. And …. You are a man of principle. Any woman would be… honored to have such a husband.”
He found himself speechless at her praise, then bowled over by her meaning. No one’s words had ever meant so much to him.
Catherine waited a moment more, but then her patience ran out. “I’ve been thinking too,” she said. I’ve been thinking that…. Well, I know your plans do not include a wife at this time but… well, I think we’d suit quite well, Murdoch. Perhaps you agree…..?
Scott snorted. “She asked you to marry her?”
Murdoch blushed furiously, but he laughed too. “Yes. I would not admit that to anyone other than you, son. But that was the way of it.”
They sat in silence for a minute or two, then Murdoch spoke again. “I don’t regret marrying her, son. She gave me a year and a half of the best time in my life. And she gave me you. But… I sometimes worry that she would have been better off—“
“No!” Scott cut him off. “She would not have been. I—I knew the Sterling family. Mrs. Foster Sterling was a quiet little mouse of a woman, who seemed… beaten down by her life. Everyone knew her husband… hurt her. And their children. I went to school with one of the sons. He was a bully, just like his father. Another of their sons….killed himself not long before I left Boston.”
Murdoch looked at his son, his shock apparent.
“My mother was much better off having married you,” Scott said with certainty. He looked at the grave beside him “One hour of life, crowded to the full with glorious action, and filled with noble risks, is worth whole years of ….” His voice broke and he grew silent.
“Yes. She believed that with all her heart,” Murdoch said quietly. “And she lived her life… in accordance with that ideal. She was… an amazing woman, son.”
Scott swallowed a lump in his throat and looked at the grave beside him once more. “I never knew any of that… before today. That quote always… spoke to me though. I read it often on my journey west….”
His father nodded and stood up, extending a hand to help Scott to his feet. “I’d like to think your presence at Lancer, the fact you came… and stayed… is due to her intervention.”
“Thank you,” Scott said quietly. “For telling me about her. I.. never wanted to ask…”
“I’m sorry you felt that way, son. I would very much like to tell you more about her. I’ve missed her for twenty-five years. Having you home… is like getting her back in a way….”
They walked back to the house together in an easy and natural silence, something that had long stood between them finally gone. Murdoch called into the house and they were immediately invited in. Mrs. Davis had grown old in the last years and she could not see them but she put out her hands and touched Scott’s.
“Oh, lad,” she said. “It is good to meet you, finally. Your Mama, she was a special lady. I only knew her a few hours but…. She loved your daddy, and she loved you. She held you until the end, and talked to you even as she was weakening….”
Scott blinked back tears.
“She kept sayin’ that she’d always be there, for you and your daddy. That when you needed her, she would always be with you, watchin’ over you.”
“Thank you for telling me,” Scott said. Then he looked at his father as he spoke the next words. “I do believed she has been. And continues to be.”
They caught up with Johnny late in the afternoon of the next day, just after he’d checked into a hotel in a town called San Jacinto. After checking in themselves, they met him in the cantina for dinner. Johnny had beers waiting for them.
“So?” he asked as soon as they’d settled in.
“So?” Scott replied, trying to maintain a look of innocence.
Murdoch looked from his older son to the younger boy and back again, then shook his head and picked up his beer.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed with annoyance. “So, what was it kept you two for the last two days?”
Scott took a big sip of his own beer, trying to hold back a smile at his brother’s obvious curiosity. “I—always wanted to meet someone,” he said finally. “And our father… finally introduced us.”
“Yeah? And who might that be?” Johnny pressed.
Scott smiled. “My mother,” he said
Johnny’s eyes widened in surprise and he looked at Murdoch, who was smiling at Scott. The younger son exhaled. “I think that’s a story I’d like to hear.”
“It’s a story I’d like to tell you, little brother,” Scott said, then he looked across the table at Murdoch who had cleared his throat in a wordless warning. “Well… some parts of the story any way…..”
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