Green River, Thursday, December 24, 1863
Murdoch dismounted outside the post office, then wrapped the reins around the hitching post.
He looked up and down the main street. There was no sign of the usual bustle along the boardwalk, nor the cheery call of greetings between all who met.
Perhaps it was the greyness of the day?
No. He shook his head. Murdoch had felt it as well; that bullets and canon balls fired thousands of miles away, in a war that was anything but civil, had managed to penetrate, even this far, into the quiet of the San Joaquin Valley. Distance was no antidote for the turmoil in people’s hearts. The friendly words of Merry Christmas had become more like a prayer, or a desperate plea, with so much uncertainty surrounding them all.
He ran a hand along the roan’s neck before eyeing his saddlebag. How many times had he pulled up at the post office, only to return home and lock the envelope away in his desk drawer, yet again? ‘Don’t you be dilly dallying,’ his mother would be saying to him, if she were here now. “I’m pondering,” he’d tell her. His favourite reply, even at eight years old.
Well, it turned out he hadn’t changed. He was still pondering. Pondering if he’d said enough—or maybe too little? Were his words warm but not overly effusive? Offering, but not commanding? Hopeful but not desperate?
“Argh, Murdoch, be done with all that!”
The roan’s ear twitched and he ran his hand along its neck again. “Sorry, old boy,” he muttered.
Maybe he was a coward? He couldn’t deny there was a certain comfort to be found in ignorance. While he had no definitive answer, he could dwell in that land of make-believe; his two sons alive and well, working by his side at Lancer, coming home together after a long day in the saddle to warm themselves at the Lancer hearth.
Johnny. Dear God, he still had no idea what had become of his wee darling boy.
And here he was, yet again, standing outside the post office, staring at it as if he was about to walk the steps towards the hangman’s noose. How could the smallest building in town, with its crooked roof and peeling paint and a sign so faded it was almost illegible, cause him to stand here like a trembling idiot.
“You’re a fool, Murdoch Lancer,” he muttered. “You let Harlan trick you out of your firstborn all those years ago.”
Dammit it all.
He undid the tie of his saddlebag and lifted up the flap. There it was, inside, cocooned between the leather. Waiting for him.
Stop thinking about it, Murdoch. Now is the time.
He stuck his hand in, grabbed hold of the envelope, and pulled it out.
There. He did it.
With both hands full, he hardly noticed trudging up the two steps to the boardwalk but when he got there, he turned and looked around. That was odd—the church bell was ringing. They didn’t usually ring it at midday. Perhaps the bell ringer was practicing for tonight? There was certainly nothing going on in Green River right now.
In Morro Coyo, the festivities would be well under way, but a bell ringing in Green River only sounded mournful in such a sober town. Too many families had sons gone off to war, joining the Californian Volunteers. Then there were those who’d left their families in the still of the night, to head eastward, to do their part for the Cause or southward, as the case may be.
A sudden urgency shot through him. What on earth was he doing? All the more reason for him to send his letter. Today was going to be the day.
The post office was dingy inside. The small room reeked with the smell of Charlie’s pipe. Charlie was inside, feet up on the pot belly, pipe in his mouth. The mail bags lay by the door, ready for the afternoon stage.
“Eh, Murdoch Lancer. T’is a sight ye are for sore eyes. You be jest the man I’m wanting to see.”
Charlie swung his feet down and shuffled over to his counter. He eyed the stiff white envelope in Murdoch’s hand with an almost greedy smile. “And you’ve got me some work to do. Bless you, Murdoch. Bless you.”
“I’m sending this to…” Why was it so damned hard to say the word? “To Boston.”
“Boston, eh?” Charlie eyed him with one of his piercing stares from under the white, scraggly eyebrows.
“Don’t start, Charlie. Just stamp it.”
“And so I will if you’ll hold onto yer fine britches, me lad.”
Murdoch grinned. Charlie could always raise a smile out of him. No doubt he was hoping for this: Murdoch held out the bottle he carried in his other hand. “Here, Merry Christmas to you, Charlie.”
Charlie’s eyes lit up as he put Murdoch’s envelope on the counter so that he could take the bottle in both hands. “Eh, Murdoch, I knew you’d come through for me. T’is a wonder, that’s what you are.”
“And why you drink that dish-water you call whisky is a mystery to me.”
“Bite yer tongue, Murdoch. Irish Whisky is as fine a drink as a man can pour down his throat. But Murdoch, my wits have gone a’begging. T’wasn’t the whisky I was wanting to see you for. Here.”
Murdoch stared at the envelope Charlie held out to him. It bore all the evidence of having travelled many miles with its dog-eared corners and black smudges where the ink had run.
“Well, take it, lad. Take it. It won’t bite.”
He still remembered the sting from the icy gale that blew in the highlands. Surely it was blowing inside the post office, wrapping itself about his limbs?
Charlie prodded him in the chest with the end of his pipe. “Murdoch, he’d not be sending you evil tidings in a letter. If t’was urgent, he’d be after sending you a wire.”
The grip on his heart eased somewhat. “You’re right, Charlie. As always. Thank you.”
He stared down at the envelope some more. The sloping hand, the flourish on the L. He didn’t even need to turn it over to know who the sender was. It had been thirteen long years since he’d seen him. Thirteen long years of clenching his fists every time he so much as thought of Harlan Garrett.
“…I’m saying yer most welcome to use the back room, should you want some privacy.”
He looked up. He hadn’t heard a thing Charlie had been saying, until now—but dear Lord, this letter in his hand possibly changed everything. “No…I…I…” He looked at the envelope he’d given to Charlie, lying on the counter. “I’d best take that back.”
“Are ye sure, Murdoch? Why, t’is only—.”
“Charlie, I’m sure.” He hadn’t meant to snap. He should apologise. He could see the quick hurt in the old man’s eyes. But he just couldn’t drum up any feelings right then. Not for Charlie, at any rate.
Charlie held his letter out to him. “Thanks for the whisky, Murdoch. And Merry Christmas to ye—to you and yer boys, wherever they may be. And may the Good Lord be ever watching over them.”
“Thank you, Charlie.” His words were stiff. Right now he wondered if there was a Good Lord—and if there was, what in blazes was he doing?
The sky was gloomier still when he got outside. Was there ever a more dreich December day? And what was he supposed to do, now? Should he let the letter from Harlan burn his breast inside his coat on the long ride back to Lancer?
He couldn’t remember how he got there but he found himself standing outside the swing doors of the saloon.
“Have you come for a haircut, Murdoch?” Zeke called to him in that wheedling voice he used to drum up business. “I’ve got a special Christmas rate.”
Murdoch almost stepped away but he could see it wasn’t overly busy and regardless of whether he read the letter or not, he doubted he’d make it home without a drink to dull whatever it was running through his veins this moment. He had to get his wits about him. Right now, he was hardly fit to sit a horse, let alone ride one.
“For you, Murdoch, the price would be…”
He walked to the bar, ordered a whisky—a Scotch whisky—then took it over to one of the tables at the back of the room.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt a dread like this. But surely Charlie was right—even Harlan wouldn’t send bad news in a letter that would take weeks to arrive?
He swallowed hard, looked around to see that no-one was watching him, then slipped a finger beneath the seal.
I’m writing this letter to inform you…
A vice gripped his chest.
To inform you your son…
Your son Scott has enlisted…
No…no…no. Dear God, not that. Not that.
The rest of the words made hardly any sense. His eyes saw the letters but it all merged into one awful word.
Scott had enlisted. With the Union Army.
Only last week, he’d struggled to find a comforting word for Eleanor Dawes. Not one, but both her boys, would never return to Green River. Had his sleepless night after talking to her, been some sort of omen? Her haggard drawn face had haunted him for days. He knew that look. He’d lived with that grief. And now, was that same pain going to be his lot again?
“Murdoch, come and have a drink. Some well-wishing for the season.”
He managed to drag himself to his feet, almost knocking his chair to the floor. His legs and arms felt feeble, his movement ungainly. His eyes rested on the untouched glass on the table. At least he was wise enough to know even whisky wouldn’t heal what ailed him now.
“Murdoch,” the voice called again.
He put out his hand. All he could see was a blurred room of faces and men whose smiles were too wide. “I have to get home. Maybe another time.” He didn’t even know where to look or who called to him. Talbot, Jenkins, Freedman? He hated all of them right now. What right did they have to be so damned happy when his world was falling apart?
No, it fell apart eighteen years ago—and then again, in another five.
He didn’t remember walking back to his horse but he’d been standing by the roan, hand on the horn and staring at the saddle for so long that his fingers were beginning to go numb.
He still held the two letters in his other hand. One of them had been his hope. The other now his despair.
Somehow he pulled himself together and mounted up. Paul and little Teresa would be waiting for him at Lancer.
Lancer. What a damn lonely word that had turned out to be.
He really should have been looking where he was going—fortunately the roan was.
The animal reared, almost unseating him, as a woman wrapped up in a cloak screamed and put her arm up in defence. He swung down and rushed over to her.
“Mrs Dawes. Are you all right? Don’t move yet.”
But she was shaking her head as she gathered her skirts about her. “Mr Lancer. I’m quite all right. I’m dreadfully sorry to scare you so.”
“Here, let me help you off the street.” The basket she’d been carrying had spilled its contents into the dirt but thankfully there’d been no rain the last few days. “I hope I haven’t spoiled your Christmas.” She had some brown paper packages tied with red bows.
“No, they’re fine.” She picked one up and blew the dust off it as she spoke.
Murdoch studied her face. It was still haggard but there was a light in her eyes that hadn’t been there a few weeks ago. He wasn’t sure what it was but oh, how he envied her.
She checked the other gifts in her basket. “I was just dropping a few presents off to old Mrs Lancaster and her son. He’s been ill, with the grippe, you know.”
He couldn’t help but shake his head as he looked at her in some wonder. “I don’t know how you manage it.”
And she laughed. With two sons buried in a field somewhere in Virginia, she actually laughed. “I know. She’s a bit of a tyrant, isn’t she, but I do it for poor Arnold’s sake. You know he hasn’t been quite right in the head since that fall a few years ago—and I suspect poor Winifred won’t let anyone in because she’s embarrassed for the boy. But I just keep thinking, well, what if it was one of my sons, and no-one to bring him some Christmas cheer.” Her voice trembled a little on those last few words but she kept smiling, even when her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, mercy me, Murdoch. There, I don’t mean to be so silly.”
“Eleanor, there’s nothing silly about you. You’re a very fine woman and you have every reason to be tearful.”
But then her expression changed. “Murdoch. What is it? You don’t look quite yourself.” Her glance went to the letters in his hand. “Oh dear, not bad news I hope.”
His first inclination was to disavow the fact but there was such kind concern in her eyes. “It’s not the best. Not what I hoped for, at any rate.”
“Does it concern your eldest born? Oh, I’m sorry. I saw the post mark but I shouldn’t have asked.”
He rubbed his hand along his cheek. It all felt so raw right now. “Scott has enlisted.” He got that much out without a tremor at least. “Apparently he sat the examination to be an officer in the Union Army. It’s Christmas Eve and his grandfather has no idea where he is. At least, he didn’t when he wrote me some weeks back.”
“Murdoch, I’m so sorry.” She put a hand on his arm and gave it a squeeze. It was almost his undoing.
“I envy you, Eleanor.” Even to him, his voice sounded husky and strained but at least it didn’t tremble. “I envy your calm and your sweet nature—when…when right now, all I feel is anger at the world.”
She squeezed his arm again. “Don’t give up hope, Murdoch. My boys won’t come back—but there are many that will.”
First Catherine, then Maria, then Johnny. And now Scott. How much more was he meant to take?
“You have to have faith, Murdoch.”
If anyone had faith, it was this sweet woman—out in the cold, delivering gifts for people who wouldn’t appreciate them, or have the smallest inkling of what it cost her to smile when her heart was breaking.
“I don’t think I have your kind of faith, Eleanor. All I can see is darkness.” And if he was honest with himself, it had been that way for quite some time.
“But that’s when His light shines the brightest. You just need to look up.” He couldn’t help it. He didn’t want a lecture or platitudes and she must have seen it in his face. “I’m so sorry, Murdoch. It’s much easier said than done, isn’t it.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Life is very unfair at times, isn’t it.”
“And yet, you still manage to smile.”
“I guess I’m just a stubborn woman. I don’t know what it is but I just refuse to give into those black thoughts. I know it’s not what my boys would want. And how can I be angry with them for going to a better place?”
“I’m angry.” He clenched both fists and locked his jaw tight. “I’m damned angry.”
She didn’t flinch at his cussing. “I was angry, too, Murdoch. I’m no saint.” Her lips trembled. “It’s very hard to make sense of it all but somehow something comes along to lighten the load.”
“It’s meant to be a time of ‘Peace on Earth,” he muttered.
For a moment, she looked as lost as he felt but if anyone knew what he was going through, it was her. And he had to know. He had to know how to deal with this…the uncertainty…the not knowing…living with the fear of it every second of the day. “How do you sleep at night?” He blurted the words out. Good Lord, he hadn’t slept the first time she’d told him about losing James then young Amos. Amos would have been close to Scott’s age. They might have grown up together if Scott had lived at Lancer.
Her smile was the saddest he’d ever seen. “I don’t.”
Of course she didn’t. What was he thinking. “Eleanor, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s all right, Murdoch. I don’t mind you asking. It almost feels good to be able to tell someone, even a little thing like that. But at least I know, when I’m not sleeping, nor does He.”
She looked skyward but honestly, he was totally lost. “You mean your late husband, Jerome?”
This time her laugh tinkled and her eyes lit up. “No Murdoch. I mean the Lord. You don’t know your scriptures very well, do you.”
He grinned but it wasn’t with any of her lightness. “I confess, it has been some time.”
“Behold, he that keepeth Israel, neither slumbers nor sleeps.”
He tried to look knowledgeable but it was clear she could see right through him. Her smile became wider. “Psalm 121, Murdoch. Look it up when you get home.”
He agreed but he wasn’t going to tell her his bible was most likely covered in dust and locked away in a cupboard somewhere. Well, no, not somewhere; he knew exactly where he’d shoved it after returning from yet another fruitless search for Johnny. The two names written on the page entitled ‘Births’ had done nothing but mock him. That night, were it not for the fact his mother had pressed the tooled-leather bound book into his hands as he stood on the dock, he would have ripped the entire damn bible into pieces and thrown it in the fire.
They said their goodbyes and he watched her go on her way but he kept his head down as he mounted up, just in case someone else caught his eye. He’d be damned before he talked to another cheery soul.
The roan needed little guidance, once its head was set for home and that was just as well because Murdoch had a lot to think about.
Eleanor Dawes seemed so much better than him. She hadn’t ruined a marriage or left her spouse to die alone on the road in the middle of nowhere. And at least her two sons knew they were loved and cared for. No mother could have done more for her sons than she had.
And what had he done? What would be the legacy of Murdoch Lancer? If only he’d seen Maria wasn’t happy…and he should have never sent Catherine on alone with only her father…and…
He closed his eyes. It was Christmas—and somehow he had to find some cheer inside himself for little Teresa’s sake.
Paul and Teresa were waiting for him when he got back. The child was excited about Christmas. She’d decorated the tree and had her stocking hanging on the mantle. And as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t walk in there with a sour face.
It was much later that evening that he finally walked outside and had a chance to be alone with his thoughts. Although it probably would have been better if he’d had the sense to leave his worries inside and walked out here by himself, instead of wrapping them about his shoulders. His father had had an old wool cloak he used to wrap himself in. It stank of sheep and tobacco and had an oily feel if you rubbed the material between your fingers.
He couldn’t help but think of his father tonight. A dour Scott if there ever was one. If a sky was blue he’d look for the wee speck that spoke of clouds coming and then dolefully predict rain. “You mark my words, Murdach. Aye, there’ll be nowt but rain for the picnic on the morro.”
Was he his father?
He’d wondered that lately.
But perhaps his father had been worn down by circumstances as well; three small wee bairn that hadn’t made it past their first birthday. Had his father felt the pain of that? All Murdoch had seen growing up was a man with a sour face.
Eleanor Dawes had hope. Even with her sons gone, she still somehow had a belief that life was good. No, that God was good. But it was damned hard to believe that in a world gone so horribly wrong.
Where was Scott now? It was cold in the East this time of year. Even if you were an officer, a tent in the snow was still a tent in the snow. And what if—.
He stared out into the night. It looked like a rider was coming in. He couldn’t imagine for the life of him who’d be turning up this time of night—but they were coming in fast.
Who would be visiting Lancer late—and on Christmas Eve? The vaqueros were in Morro Coyo or had gone home to their families. It was very strange. Not to mention troubling. He’d best get his rifle…
“Hello the house!”
Just then, the rider came into the dim light. Murdoch peered at him. And that dread clutched his chest again. No. Surely not. There could be no good reason that he could think of that would have Robert Dobbs riding all the way out here from the telegraph office in Green River. Robert Dobbs, with his battered hat, who was said to have never smiled under that straggly red, moustache of his.
“Murdoch. I’m sure sorry to be…comin’ out this late at night…” Dobbs had to stop to gather his breath. “But I had that fool, Jed Franklin workin’ for me and he just plum up and ran off at midday and I haven’t seen ’im since, wouldn’tcha know.”
Murdoch watched him swing his legs over the saddle and clamber down with the agility of a consumptive eighty year old. It was a wonder Dobbs managed to stay on a horse at all. Any other day he’d be trying to hide his smile but the very fact of Dodds riding out here was another reason to feel sick with worry. “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble, Robert.” He didn’t tell him he’d been in Green River today. That would only prolong receiving whatever news Dobbs was carrying.
“Why, I surely know that but with it bein’ Christmas and all, well, I jest couldn’t let this wait until Saturday, when the telegraph office opens again. I thought you might be all apiece.”
Murdoch nodded like he understood but he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand at all. And now his mouth was so dry he could barely speak.
“Here.” Dobbs shoved the envelope into his hands, almost as if he was glad to be done with it, then he took his hat off and stood there, twisting it like a wet shirt.
“Let me walk over to the light.” His hands didn’t shake the last time but they were damn well shaking now. He put a finger under the flap. It wasn’t sealed and lifted with ease to allow him to slide the paper out.
He had to hold the flimsy sheet of paper next to the lantern burning by the front door. The light was yellow and not very bright—but bright enough for him to make out the words Dobbs had written.
Scott safe and well
He almost sagged against the wall. Just to be sure, he read the words over again. Thank God. Yes, it was true. Wherever Scott was this Christmas Eve, he was safe. And he was well. A double blessing.
“I…I…thought you’all ought to know, Mr Lancer. That’s surely the kind of news that jest can’t wait.”
Murdoch was ready to hug the man. “Robert. What can I say? How can I thank you?” He was ready to dance a jig.
“Well, I’m a mite thirsty after my ride. I reckon I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee a’fore I head on back to town.”
“Paul, put the coffee on,” he yelled out. Then he rubbed his hands and threw an arm about Dobbs. “Robert, I think some eggnog would go down well, right now. Don’t you? And you’ll stay the night of course.”
Dobbs looked almost scared at the thought. “Mr Lancer, I can’t do that. You’ll have plans.”
It was then he felt like a feckless fool. He softened his voice. “And what were your plans after your wild ride, Robbie?”
“Well, there’s church in the morning, Mr Lancer, sir. And old Maggie and me allus light a candle for my dear Ma. She’s been gone five years long now and well, old Maggie and me, we miss her somethin’ awful fierce.”
Murdoch stared at the man. How had he never realised what a kind heart Robbie had, for all his odd ways. “Robert Dodds, it would be my honour if you would stay the night at Lancer. You know Paul O’Brien, my foreman.” Then he frowned. “Old Maggie is your…?” She couldn’t be his mother, as she was dead.
Dodds lips had twisted into a toothy smile now. “Aw, you don’t have to worry none ‘bout Old Maggie. She’s ma cat! She’ll be jest fine until the morrow.”
“Good, then the three of us will celebrate Christmas Eve together.What’s left of it. Come on inside.” He started walking Dodds towards the door but—. “Wait a minute…”
Murdoch turned and walked across the paving to stare out into the night. The sky was gloriously bright, sparkling with millions of stars. It all made him feel very small. And to think, he’d never even noticed them this night, until now.
“What is it, Mr Lancer?”
Murdoch turned to him and pointed upwards. “I think Eleanor was right. He doesn’t sleep.” Then he added, “And I have a very important book to unearth.”
I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
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