Word Count 2,500
Written for Veteran’s Day 2020. Thanks to Terri Derr (Doc) and Alice Marie for help with the beta.
‘The words we leave behind in stories or books, whether read or not, are our legacy. It may be the only one we leave, and we should make sure they’re there for everyone. Someday someone might stumble across this book, the words…well, they might mean something to them.’
Selected writings of Abraham Lincoln
Johnny ran his fingers over the flaking gold type of the leather-bound book. With a faint smile, he opened the cover and looked at the title page, then turned the few pages slowly and gingerly so as not to damage them.
The book wasn’t that old, but like its owner, had been through a lot. It was the only treasure he’d kept with him through the hell that had been his life before coming to Lancer.
Closing the cover, he clutched the thin volume to his chest, remembering the times he’d thought it lost – the times he’d had to leave town in a hurry and gone back for it. Then there was the Revolution, where he was close to losing more than the book. He’d gone back across the border to retrieve his rig and saddlebags. There hadn’t been much in the bags, one pair of pants and an extra shirt, but this book… this was worth the risk, at least it was to him.
Johnny remembered the man who’d given him the only book he’d ever owned. They’d been together in a Tucson jail back in ’65. Fifteen-year-old Johnny and … who knew how old Charlie Poston was at the time? They were only together the one night, but it was a night Johnny had never forgotten.
Charlie was a talker. It hadn’t taken long to find out he was from back east, born in Kentucky and traveled all over. The slightly graying man had come west to California to do some prospecting back in the ’50s and then moved to Arizona.
The last place he called home was Washington. He must have realized Johnny didn’t know what he was talking about as Charlie was quick to point out it counted as a state and a city. He didn’t particularly like it there, but that’s where his job was.
They’d talked all night, and it was close to morning when Charlie finally played out. It was then Johnny asked what he was doing in jail. Charlie laid back on his cot and sighed.
“I’m embarrassed to say I had little too much to drink and, well…. here I am.” It was Charlie’s turn to ask, “So, what did you do to get locked up?”
Johnny dipped his head and smiled. He hadn’t told Charlie Poston who he was and was afraid the man he’d taken a liking to would think less of him when he found out he’d spent the night in jail with a gunfighter.
“The Sheriff said he wanted to make sure I stayed out of trouble until he could run me out of town in the morning.”
“Run you out of town? Why would he do that?”
“I… well, I seem to find trouble where ever I go, or it finds me.”
“Young man, I can’t imagine anyone locking a person up to keep them out of trouble. Usually, they get locked away after they’ve caused trouble.”
“I know, but the Sheriff just wanted to head it off before it happened.”
“How’d he know it would happen?”
Johnny laughed, “It always does. But don’t worry, he’ll let me out when the sun comes up. He’ll have my gear and horse waiting for me. Won’t be the first time he’s run me out of town, and won’t be the last.”
“I take it you’ve been a guest of the Sheriff before?”
“You could say that. Him and me have met up a few times. Sometimes I can get in and out without him spotting me. Just my luck this time he saw me coming out of the saloon,” Johnny laughed. “At least I got a drink or two before he invited me to stay the night.”
Charlie shook his head. “Son, you’re too young to be in that much trouble and way too young to be drinking.”
They’d been silent for a few minutes when Charlie asked, “Do you like to read?”
Johnny looked at the man and took a deep breath. “I… I don’t do much reading. Haven’t had a lot of book learning. Why?”
Charlie nodded. “I have something for you. When the Sheriff lets us out, I want you to wait for me. Don’t leave town until I get back.”
“Back? Back from where?”
“My hotel room. The one I paid dearly for and didn’t get to use.”
“I don’t know, Charlie. The Sheriff is kinda’ insisting I get out of town….”
“No. First, I’ll go to my room and then I’ll buy you breakfast. Then you can ride out. Understood?”
“Yeah, I understand. Just hope the Sheriff does.”
Fate was on their side that morning. It was the deputy that let them out. Charlie hurried across the street to the hotel and came back a few minutes later, holding something. As they sat in the small café on Tucson’s main street, Charlie Poston handed Johnny his gift.
“It’s a book.”
“Yes,” Charlie smiled. “It’s one of my favorites and one I want you to have.”
Johnny pushed the book back across the table. “I can’t take that. Besides, I told you I don’t read that good.”
Charlie slid the small book back to Johnny.
“Where’d you get it?” Johnny ran his fingers over the gold lettering, making out only a few words of the title.
“A good friend gave me two copies. I want you to have this one. It’s not thick and it’s not long, but … well, the words have meaning.”
Johnny opened the book cover to see the writing on the first page.
“Someone wrote in it.”
The disappointment was evident in his voice because Charlie quickly added, “It’s an inscribed copy. That means the author signed his name to it. The book is worth a lot more when the author signs it.”
Johnny nodded. Turning the page, the picture of a bearded man wearing a bow tie stared back at him. “Who’s this fellow?”
Charlie was a little surprised Johnny didn’t recognize the man in the picture.
After a few moments, Johnny asked, “Is that the man who wrote it?”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“He the one who gave you the book?”
“I can’t take it. It needs to go to someone who deserves it. I sure don’t. You don’t even know who I am.”
Charlie laughed. “Young man, I know exactly who you are. You don’t think I’d spend the night in jail with you and not find out your name. The deputy told me.”
Johnny blushed slightly.
“And you still want me to have this?”
The smile on Charlie’s face was the only answer. Taking a piece of paper from his coat pocket, Charlie wrote a note on it and handed it to Johnny.
“I’m not going to write in it myself.” He handed over the piece of paper. “Tuck this inside the front pages.”
Johnny read the note aloud.
‘A gift to my young friend Johnny Madrid.’ Signed ‘Charles D. Poston.’
Holding the book in his hand the entire meal, Johnny quickly ate, knowing it was only a matter of time before the Sheriff showed up. They’d just finished when, outside the café window, the Sheriff tied off Johnny’s bay and walked inside.
“Time for me to go.”
Charlie looked around. Upon seeing the Sheriff, he nodded his understanding.
They walked past the Sheriff and out of the café together. The Sheriff followed them, wanting to make sure Johnny didn’t waste time before leaving town.
Tipping his hat at the lawman, Johnny drawled, “It’s been a pleasure, Sheriff. See you next time I come through this way.”
“Madrid, do us both a favor and stay out of Tucson.”
Johnny smiled. “Now, Sheriff, that wouldn’t be any fun. Besides, I like Tucson.”
Turning, Johnny paused a moment before reaching out and shaking the hand of the man he’d met only 12 hours earlier.
“Take care of yourself, Johnny.”
“I’ll do that and I’ll make sure I keep this safe.” Johnny held up the book before tucking it in his saddlebags. With one final wave, he said goodbye to Charlie Poston and rode south out of Tucson.
Peering over the top of the Sacramento Bee’s latest edition, Murdoch curiously watched his youngest son. Johnny had gone upstairs after dinner and returned with what looked like a small thin book.
He hadn’t known his son long, but in the short time he’d been home, Murdoch had never seen Johnny with a book in his hand. The fact the boy was showing interest now pleased him greatly.
“What have you got there, Son?”
Murdoch’s question brought Scott’s nose out of the book he was reading.
“Nothin’.” Johnny dipped his head. “Just a book.”
“A book?” Scott’s interest was piqued.
“Yeah, a book.” Johnny held the thin volume protectively to his chest. “Don’t look so surprised. I can read, you know.”
Scott chuckled, “I know you can read. It’s just that I’ve never seen you voluntarily pick up a book. May I see it?”
Johnny increased his hold on the leather-bound treasure before leaning forward and placing it in Scott’s hand.
“Be careful with it. I’ve had it a while, and it’s been through a lot.”
“I’ll be careful.”
Scott looked at the book and then at Johnny. The title surprised him. It wasn’t something he’d expected his brother to be interested in. Opening the cover, the first thing Scott saw was a piece of paper. Unfolding it, he read the message and the name of the man who signed it, Charles D. Poston.
“Johnny, you know Charles Poston?”
“Charles Poston?” Murdoch asked. “The Charles Poston… of Arizona?”
“Yeah. I suppose so. That’s where I met him, but he was just Charlie to me.”
“How in the world did you meet Charles Poston?”
Johnny laughed at the expressions on both their faces. He spent the next few minutes telling them about his time in a Tucson jail and meeting Charlie Poston. By the time he finished, they were all laughing.
“I didn’t know who he was then. Found out later he was some important hombre from back east.”
“Did you ever go back to Tucson?”
“Yeah, I did. Every time I was there, I thought of Charlie and wondered what he was doing.”
“The last I heard Poston was in Europe. England, I believe,” Scott replied. “I met him once at a party in Boston. He’s a very impressive man with a great many talents.”
Scott glanced back at the book. His eyes widened when he saw the inscribed message on the dedication page with the author’s signature and the date ‘10 April 1865’.
“And Poston gave you this book?”
“Murdoch, look at this.” Scott handed the book to his father.
Murdoch read both the note from Charles Poston and the inscription in the book.
“Johnny, do you know how valuable this is?”
“You mean in money? No, but to me, it’s worth its weight in gold. It’s the first book I ever owned. I learned how to read so I’d know what the words in here meant. Still don’t understand some of them, but … well, the fellow that wrote it could say a lot in just a few words. I like that about him. See, that’s his picture in the front there.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Murdoch glanced at the picture in the front of the book and smiled. “And yes, I’d say he had a way with words.”
“I always thought he had such sad eyes. It’s like he was carrying around a lot of worries.”
“Yes, I expect he felt that way much of the time. He carried a great burden.”
“Sir, did you note the date on the inscription? It was signed on April 10, 1865. That was just five days before….”
“I know, Scott. I know.”
Murdoch closed the book and handed it back to Johnny.
Johnny ran his hand over the book cover and looked at his brother.
“The first part’s not long, but I like the words. If you want to borrow it sometime, Scott, I’ll let you.”
“Thank you. I’d like that very much.”
Looking at the cover again, Johnny smiled down at his old friend.
Leaning back, Johnny opened the book and read the inscription.
‘To my dear friend, Charles Poston. Best regards, – Abraham Lincoln.’
Turning the page, he silently read his favorite part:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
November 19, 1863
Finishing the passage, Johnny sighed contently. He always enjoyed reading those few words and thinking about their meaning.
Scott laid aside the book he was reading.
“You said you didn’t understand all the words in the book. If you ever need help with them, I’d be glad to help. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was required reading when I was in college after the war.”
Johnny smiled. “Thanks.” Then looking at Lincoln’s speech he said, “There are one or two words I’ve always wondered about. If you have time, could you……?”
“Sure.” Scott moved to sit beside Johnny. “Now, which words don’t you understand?”
Johnny pointed to the second word of the speech. “What’s a score? He says here ‘Four Score and seven years.’ What’s that mean?”
“A score is 20 years. In this case Mr. Lincoln is referring to 87 years ago. That was 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed.”
Watching his sons with their heads together, going over the text of the speech, Murdoch remembered one of Lincoln’s quotes. He’d said ‘the words we leave behind in books and stories are our legacy’. He couldn’t remember it all but the part that stuck with him was, ‘Someday someone might stumble across this book, the words…well, they might mean something to them.’
Murdoch was thankful to a man named Charles Poston for giving Lincoln’s legacy to his younger son. The words had brought his sons closer just as Lincoln had hoped they would a nation.
One man’s legacy had far reaching effects and for that Murdoch would be eternally grateful.
November 19, 2020
Charles Debrille Poston
(April 20, 1825 – June 24, 1902)
An American explorer, prospector, author, politician, and civil servant. He is referred to as the “Father of Arizona” due to his efforts lobbying for creation of the territory. On March 12 1863 Poston was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for Arizona. Poston was also Arizona Territory’s first Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 18 1864.
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