A Wayne Maunder birthday (19 Dec) story. Salutations and Happy B-Day, Mr. M!
‘The time has come,' the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.'
The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll
Odd. The old sailing ship had somehow weighed anchor and left its rather perilous harbor in the Great Room for safer voyages into Murdoch’s study. It was now berthed in a protective corner, beneath an old painting of the San Joaquin Valley. No doubt, Scott thought, it was after the vicious game of cribbage the other night, when he’d backed into it trying to avoid Johnny’s victory shuffle. He had caught a fleeting glimpse of what could only be described as surprised horror on Murdoch’s face.
Yes, the game must have decided the move.
He stepped closer, drawn to the largest mast, now damaged. Intricately made, it had snapped in two, fragile as a twig. His fingertip found a second crack in the wood, but he hadn’t caused this one—it had been done much earlier in the model ship’s life. Had Maria taken too vigorous a swipe with her duster? Or had it met an untimely fate from Murdoch’s errant elbow?
Voices came from the hallway and he jerked his hand away from the broken mast like a schoolboy caught with a passed note.
Thad Lawson was in a pickle: his son was coming home. Meggie had suggested a welcoming party at the new dance hall in Green River, but he, echoing Will, had said it was silly to go to unnecessary expense, especially with the poor harvest last year. Then Meggie had smiled at him, and she was eighteen years old again, and he was smitten.
After all, it wasn’t every day that a son of his went back east and off to college.
He had so much to do before Will came home and the fancy shin-dig in town. Thinking of his boy’s accomplishments, Thad’s eyes began to smart. He paused for a while and allowed his gaze to roam the faces of the patrons in the mercantile, to fix a moment on Scott Lancer, who was smiling and talking with his brother. A beat of hope thumped in his chest, but was Scott a betting man, like his father?
He caught the barest of conversations around the jars of green beans and packs of buttons.
“It’s been a week already and the old man hasn’t got the boat fixed. What’s he waitin’ on?”
“It’s not a boat, Johnny, it’s a ship. Maybe you were a little too celebratory.”
“Maybe you were a little clumsy, fallin’ into it like that.”
“To paraphrase, ‘it is one of the blessings of brothers that you can afford to be stupid with them.’”
“I like that one. Emerson?”
“Uh-huh. But I did win. Best three out of five.”
“So you’ve said, several times. I was there, remember? One thing is certain, he won’t let us near the thing now.”
“I wouldn’t even wanna try.”
“That makes two of us. So…cribbage, best five out of seven?”
Thad stepped around the corner and the conversation stopped.
Scott nodded to him. “Mr. Lawson.”
“Hello, boys. Nice to see you in town. How’s Murdoch?”
“Doing well, or as well as one can be trying to figure out the maneuverings of the spring round-up.”
He chuckled at Scott’s words, knew something of what it took to make a spread run right. Being the king wasn’t all gravy and he expected Murdoch still bore the brunt of it despite having his two sons back with him. The thought gave him pause. Maybe he shouldn’t ask, but he had deadlines of his own. It wasn’t an easy question in any sense of the word, but the worst thing that could happen was the boy would turn him down.
“Say, Scott, can I speak with you for a moment?” He tipped in to whisper, “Outside?”
Scott’s eyebrows quirked upward and he threw a puzzled glance to Johnny. “All right.”
Once on the boardwalk, Thad motioned to his livery, they could talk in private there. Scott had other ideas, and he stopped midway.
“Whatever you need to say can be done here.” He swung his head towards the store. “Or in the mercantile, actually.”
The thumping in his chest beat faster. If he wasn’t careful, he’d overplay his hand before he even started.
“When Murdoch found you, he said you’d finished college—Harvard, isn’t that right?”
“I was always in Boston, so never really lost, but yes, I graduated from there.”
He’d hit some sort of nerve, but Murdoch was always close-lipped when it came to his family, especially after those dark years when Haney was raiding the countryside. “Then, please. There’s something I need to ask. At the livery.”
Scott took a breath and in doing so made a noise: a query. But he nodded.
Thad waved Scott to a chair when they reached his small office to the side of the stalls, and looked him long and hard in the eye before he began. “My son will graduate from college this spring.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Gripping Thad’s hand, he shook it firmly. “Congratulations! But you could have told me and Johnny back at the store.”
“I couldn’t. You see I have a favor to ask. All that time at school, surely you’re up to date on your reading and letters, right?”
“Well yes.” The boy’s eyes wondered from the bridles hung on the wall to the small toy rocking horse sitting in the corner to the collection of painted wood tiles on his desk. It was a system Thad had worked out for the livery. If a man wanted to take out a certain horse, he took the colored tile from the nail by the stall and dropped it into the basket on the desk.
Scott’s face dipped to the slats of the flooring, then up again, light from the window catching his eyes at an angle so they shone like seaglass. Shone with understanding. “You can’t read, can you?” he murmured.
Thad let the question sit, feeling bites of shame wash over him. “Or write, well enough to satisfy me.”
“And you run your livery with those bits of wood and the like.”
“Them and handshakes. I find most men are still honest when they take my horses. The payment is easy enough, I can recognize the coins and paper money, it’s the reading and writing that I can’t do.” He stared at some vague point across the room. “My parents never set much stock in proper schooling and then my Pa died and I took to farming and horses like a duck to water. Oh, my Meggie knows, but no one else does. As a father, I wanted more for my son than I had, so I put him off to college. But it makes things different, his learning. He shouldn’t have to suffer for my lack of it.”
Thad sighed and sagged back in his chair. “So will you do it? Will you teach me how? I’ll pay for your time.”
“I’m no teacher, Mr. Lawson. And besides Lancer has the spring round-up in another month. The ranch is busy and I’m needed to work. Surely someone else in Green River can help you.”
He sat up so straight he could hear his spine click into place. A refusal was coming, knew it would be a killing blow to his plans.
Speaking softly because Scott seemed to need it, he prodded. “Meggie doesn’t hold with betting, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I’ll wager one hundred dollars that I could learn to read and write over the next month. Before the round-up.”
“If I was to do this—if—what are your terms?”
The boy was canny, willing to listen, and he liked that—a lot. “Five nights a week, here at the livery.”
“Three, plus two Sunday mornings. Unless you need time for church.”
Those eyebrows shot upward again. It was time to play his trump card. “Did I happen to mention that college my boy’s graduating from is Harvard?”
A slow grin started across Scott’s face, one that made him look a little like Murdoch, from back in the day. “No. No, you never mentioned that. How does he like it?”
Thad saw a glimmer of defeat and it made his heart swell. “He’s studying to be an engineer.”
“Is he now?” Scott wagged his head back and forth. “Three nights a week, plus the Sundays.” He held up one finger. “And don’t forget about the hundred dollars.”
Yep, canny. He liked that a lot.
Lawson was a cagey man who knew exactly what he doing. Scott groaned. Harvard. He’d already decided to try and help when the man dropped that little bit of information. Of course, it was all over then—anything for a fellow alumnus. It was going to be a bit stickier with Murdoch as he’d given his word he wouldn’t tell anyone.
Scott’s smile dropped when he turned around the corner and saw Johnny in a slouch against the mercantile wall, looking bored.
Bored was a dangerous look, for however few people understood that about his brother. Squaring his shoulders, he approached.
“Glad you waited. How about a beer? I’ll buy.”
“So what’d the old man want?”
He shrugged. “Nothing much.”
“You were in there long enough to make it something.”
Scott feigned confusion. “It didn’t seem that long.”
A modicum of truth was always helpful. “He told me his son is going to graduate from Harvard this spring.”
“He could have told you back at the mercantile.”
“That’s what I said. Are you ready to go home?”
Johnny looked thoughtful of all things. “What about the beer you’re buying?”
Leave it to his brother to remember the minutest detail. And who’s paying.
Scott saw the bounce in Johnny’s step as he entered the deep darkness of the saloon. Happy enough for now, but would be itching for the whole truth later. Funny how his brother seemed to have so much patience for waiting things out sometimes. He would have to stay out of Johnny’s trajectory for the next few days if he was going to keep Lawson’s secret...well, secret.
When Scott returned to Green River a few days later and it wasn’t lost on him that Murdoch had yet to fix the ship in his office. Like Johnny, he wondered why his father hesitated. The first crack had been fixed, why not this one?
The livery smelled of hay and horse, of manure, of compost and leather. Mr. Lawson was ready and waiting in his office.
He had one book, two dime novels and a newspaper. It turned out he had learned all his reading from the Sacramento Bee. A particularly argumentative paper whose views were slanted against cattle practices, it resonated with farmers from the San Joaquin to Truckee. If Mr. Lawson saw the irony in having a Lancer, thereby a cattleman, instruct him using the Bee, he didn’t let it be known.
Scott flipped through the dog-eared pages of a lurid novel about Red Roman, The Prince of the Gold Hunters. According to the author, Mr. Roman was the man who discovered gold in California. While on horseback holding a beautiful, scandalously-clad woman in one arm.
Scott squinted at the man on the cover with the armful of woman. Hm. He looked like George Armstrong Custer with the sharp nose and yellow hair flowing out from under his hat. Unfortuntely, the nubile young lady didn’t bring forth any such recollections.
“You can borrow that if you want,” said Mr. Lawson. “Makes for some good reading during a long night. My favorite though is that second book where Red corners the outlaw trying to kill his best friend. His ‘hold on, pard’ gets me every time.”
Scott let the pages flutter to a close. “Perhaps we can get around to them later. Much later.”
“Say this word for me, Scott.”
He leaned over the man’s shoulder. “The word is country. Like ‘taking a ride in the country’ or ‘America is a country’.
“Then what’s this one?”
The Bee was running an article about a society social held a week ago. “That’s ‘youth’, as in someone young.”
“I’ve been saying it wrong in my head all this time. Why isn’t said like country?”
“Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know why, it just is and there are more words like that, too. Tell you what, let’s go over the letters first, then we’ll get to them.”
They put the books to the side and spread out paper and pencils, drank weak coffee from chipped ceramic mugs from a pot on the banked forge outside the barn. Scott kept trying to push the worry—ergo he irreparably damaged the ship that had been in Murdoch’s care for a lengthy amount of time—to the back of his mind, which was relatively difficult. More coffee. And Mr. Lawson face down in the alphabet, taking an interest in the letter ‘K’. Was ‘corral’ spelled with it, or a ‘c’?
Several hours later, he was yawning. But Mr. Lawson was lit from within. Once he seemingly got the letters and sounds down, the few words he was familiar with came easier. And every new one he came across went into a little book to study. Writing was the hard part, though.
“Farmer’s hands” he said by way of apology, “good for using a plow and steering horses, not much else.”
Scott had to concede that the letters were sloppy, some unreadable. But there was still time to get them right.
Finally, Lawson sighed and pushed back from the desk. “I think that’ll be all for tonight, Scott. My eyes are wore out. I didn’t know it’s be such hard work.”
As Scott gathered their equipment together, the man got up to pace, eventually settling by the nearest stall, one hand tucked under the other elbow. Afraid, he thought reading the posture.
“I’ll be here tomorrow evening and we can keep going.”
Almost a flinch, a skittish horse shying from his shadow. “It’s not one of our agreed to days.”
He grinned widely. “With a hundred dollars in the mix, I don’t want you to say I didn’t give you my best.”
Lawson broke a smile and nodded.
Murdoch’s chuckles petered out into silence, just the thump of horses in the corral providing night noise. The old model ship had weathered a number of years before coming in contact with the two forces of nature that were his sons. At least one anyway.
It had reminded him of the first time the ship had been damaged. But that crack, done so many years ago—
We shall keep together what share of trouble
and sorrow our lives may lay upon us.
That’s what she’d said. All blonde hair and
shimmering eyes and silk. He’d always wanted her in silk. And she’d been so
mad at him for scaring her that he thought he was going to break a rib
He wondered sometimes, more so before Scott arrived, but it still haunted him. His fingers were up to his mouth, tapping.
Scott’s—never Scotty’s—voice was so full of childish excitement about the wonder of his birthday party that Murdoch actually smiled for the first time in he didn’t know how long. There was nothing forced about it, nothing feigned. It felt good, and wrong, and guilty. It felt like betrayal. But it was a smile, and Scott looked up at him like meeting a giant stranger might just be about the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.
By God, he should have forced Harlan’s hand right there and then. But the boy looked so happy. Safe. He couldn’t live with losing him again. Confused, contradictory words. Truth, or close to it.
He stared out the window, heard distant hoof beats. It must be Scott since he was the only one not accounted for yet.
His son was in the habit of keeping late hours this past week or so, burning the candle at both ends. He understood the ramblings of young men, although he had to squint to remember his own. But he wished the boy would slow down, spend more time at home.
Scott was waiting for Mr. Lawson to finish with his last customer of the day. He wandered back to the office where they’d spent so many evenings already and stood by the window near the old rocking horse toy. It was almost buried—forgotten—in a nest of bridles and halters and had a few spider webs entangled about the tail, but that didn’t diminish its handsomeness. Handmade of pine or some other light wood, with tufts of rope for a mane. He sent it swaying.
From the doorway, came Mr. Lawson’s voice. “That was Joe’s.”
“Meggie and I had Joe, but lost him when he was almost three.”
Scott laid his hand on the horse’s head and stilled its rocking.
“Ran into a corral full of horses and was, well…. Meggie got rid of all the other things afterwards, couldn’t stand to have them around. Reminded her of what had happened.” He stooped to pick up his leather bag of books and papers. “That’s Billy, Joe called him that. See the nick by the left ear? Joe had gotten hold of my old penknife and decided that Billy needed a haircut.”
Scott bent to examine the wood and found the damage.
“Nearly cut off his finger by the time I got to him.”
He rubbed his own finger across the dent.
“Joe cried and cried, not because he’d cut himself, but because he’d hurt Billy.” He opened up his satchel and withdrew paper and pencils, his little writing book. “We lost him in the fall right when the leaves were turning. That fall. Buried him underneath a pine that grew big and full.”
The office was quiet.
“I keep that rocking horse here to remind me. A father needs to remember what he’s lost.”
Scott knew that Mr. Lawson was seeing again what had happened in another lifetime. Finding sorrow like a penny dropped to the ground. He didn’t budge, felt like he had disappeared—maybe he had.
“I carried him up to the house.” The next few words were whisper-soft and difficult to hear. “Didn’t keep him safe, though, did I?” He looked up. “Maybe that’s why I try so hard now for Will.”
Scott lowered his head and felt his chest tighten.
“I’m sorry to bring all that up. It’s in the past and what happened should stay there. How about if we get started?”
Mr. Lawson read through the exploits of Red Roman, sounding out each unknown word, scribbling down one or two in his writing book. He’d worked so very hard to get this far.
Looking at the rocking horse again, regret tinged Scott’s thoughts. Regret for a son who never really knew his father.
His brother was acting strange.
In Johnny’s limited experience with other, regular people—cattle bosses, store owners—for example, who were as close to regular as Johnny had met—acting strange usually meant gettin’ blamed for the cows in the wrong pasture or being bounced from the granary or mercantile because he was a certain kind.
Scott acting strange was a completely different thing.
This morning, the twelfth straight, his brother was up before dawn (not in itself out of the ordinary), looking as though he hadn’t put together five minutes of sleep in a row, and was muttering to himself as he rifled through the two chore lists on the table, a cup of coffee in one hand and one of Maria’s biscuits in the other, scattering crumbs.
“Scott?” Johnny asked, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
He looked up. Scott’s mouth twitched, but didn’t say anything. Johnny didn’t need a thermometer to know the temperature of the room had just slid down a few degrees. Scott’s expression was frosty. An hour before daylight, facing another morning full of cows and fencing and his brother had something to say, had been on the verge of saying something for the last couple of weeks. Johnny didn’t know what it might be, but whatever was going on, it had to do with town.
Scott finally asked, “Why didn’t the fence line around Tio Creek get done yesterday?”
Johnny scratched his back with a groan. “The creek needs dragged first, that last storm blew a few trees into it. You woulda known if you stuck around longer yesterday afternoon.” He would have gone on, but he understood what it probably cost Scott to ask, seeing as how it was his project to finish. “You look like shit. What’s goin’ on?”
Not sparing him a glance, Scott kept looking at the chore list like it’d fix itself.
They made quick work of breakfast and got outside before Murdoch even came down.
Scott let him handle the reins of the wagon. Again, in itself not strange, but almost as soon as Johnny had pulled out of Lancer courtyard onto the rough trail that led to the creek, pink daybreak all around them, Scott dropped into unconsciousness, his chest falling easily up and down in deepest sleep. Johnny’s amusement turned to worry over the miles. Scott really did look like shit, and he’d seen his brother look plenty bad before.
He pulled Ace and Betsey to a halt at the creek bank. Scott didn’t stir; he’d been asleep the whole way and would have a crick in his neck when he woke up. Johnny slapped the reins together and shouldered back the brake with a squeal of wood meeting steel. The two big bays danced in their harnesses at the sound, jiggling the wagon. He glanced at his brother: no reaction.
“Scott?” he asked. His brother didn’t move. Johnny cleared his throat. And shoved him with one hand.
Scott’s arm flew across the space between them, connecting with Johnny’s nose at an awkward angle, as he struggled towards wakefulness, seemed to be pushing layers of invisible blankets from him. His brother, according to the information Johnny compiled in the very short time he’d known there was a brother, woke up immediately and fully alert, ready for action. Not like this.
Definitely not shouting, “Hold on, pard, I've got you covered. He's a dead man who moves."
Johnny rubbed his nose until the stars went away. “You mind tellin’ me exactly what’s goin’ on?”
Scott sat forward and dropped his head into hands.
“What? I didn’t get that.”
“That’s because I didn’t say anything.” Scott raised his head. “Have you ever been in the position of having to keep someone’s secret?”
“It’s like that?”
“It’s like that.”
Johnny kept his eyes on the far horizon, the dusty blue mountains fading as the sun broke over them. “This secret…it’s not gonna involve Lancer?”
He held up his hands to ward off Scott’s pointed ‘are you crazy’ look. “All right, just askin’. I guess we better get this job done quick, so you can get into town and get done whatever you need to get done.”
He wasn’t going to give Scott hell; he knew what it was like to be stuck between a rock and a hard place with someone. Dios.
“Did you like living in Boston?”
Scott looked up from correcting Mr. Lawson’s paper.
“Fact is, I sort of pushed Will to go back east. Felt like I was sending him off down into a big prickly arroyo.”
A furrow dug its way to the middle of his forehead and Scott angled away, his right hand resting on his chin, elbow on the desk. “It’s a wonderful city. Has everything you could imagine: theater, parks, the harbor, modern conveniences.”
Thad shuffled the papers before him, blinking at the long string of words before him. “But did you like it?”
Improbably, he felt the weight of the world on him, like he was walking around in soaking wet clothes. Scott hadn’t been asked that question before, no one had ever really wanted to know what he had thought about Boston. He licked his lips.
“I was raised there, of course.” The hand came off the chin, gestured, returned. “And yes, I liked it very much. It was all I knew when I was a child.”
The road to California and the San Joaquin valley might as well have been a breadcrumb trail to follow for all the good it did back then.
Mr. Lawson was watching him with dark eyes, arms folded across a barn jacket too warm for the day, serious as a bullet to the chest. “I was worried to death he wouldn’t come back, once he got there.”
He could well imagine what Will must have gone through leaving a sleepy hamlet like Green River and being thrust into the bustling city. The pull it may have had on the young man.
“I hope he’s fond of snow,” Scott said suddenly, moving the conversation like spilled quicksilver. “And of weather that changes daily, almost hourly.”
He took the latest edition of the Sacramento Bee and spread it out on the desk. A farm auction claimed the rest of the conversation, tension leaching into the uneven scarred floorboards of the office.
Scott looked like he needed a good sleep. There was a silence and they stared at each other, shocked maybe for what they had done in the last month. Red Roman, while still a favorite, sat unused and off to the side while a borrowed copy of Moby Dick sat before him. Murdoch’s book to be sure, but Scott assured him he’d never seen it off the shelf as long as he’d been at Lancer.
And that had been too short a time.
But he was no judge. He did, however, have some serious bouts with being judgmental, as Meggie liked to remind him. Now more than ever, because he knew something about Scott. And he was mighty proud of the way the boy conducted himself.
Imagined Murdoch felt the very same.
The sun dropped lower in the horizon and its rays were right in Thad’s eyes. “I never properly thanked you.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m glad to be of help.”
“About your pay…”
The sly grin was back. “Mr. Lawson, it ceased being about money a few weeks ago.”
They let that sit for a minute, and the sun smarted Thad’s eyes in the worst way, and he knew Scott would take it like he would, which prolonged the silence. The boy was giving him a few minutes to get himself together. It was funny, because he was fine, more than fine.
He reached into the desk drawer and pulled out an envelope. “This is for you. Payment for my lessons.”
Scott put up his hands to decline.
Thad winked. “It’s not what you think it is, but I wrote it all by myself. It’s a true story, too. Or as true as I remember anyway.” He gave a short laugh and watched as Scott opened the envelope and began to read:
Thad Lawson’s Story
Most towns are a mix of folks, some honest and God-fearing and some out and out sinners. Then there’s Green River, which has its fill of both. It’s an awful pretty name, isn’t it? Kind of reminds me of warm summer nights spent fishing.
A rodeo is what caused Green River to really be born there in the middle of Cross Creek and Morro Coyo. Cross Creek was nothing but a thought back then without the train and while Morro Coyo had the better riders—vaqueros mostly—it was decided by whoever was in charge at the time to hold the big rodeo in Green River, halfway in-between.
Now a rodeo, if it’s a good one, will bring in people for miles. Some as far as Stanislaus County came to have good time. Maybe to win a purse or two. The ladies would set to and make pies and coffee and some of the best barbeque you ever had to fill your belly. Even the kiddies would get in on it by chasing pigs. A couple of squealers would be let loose inside a fence and the kids would try to catch them. Everybody laughed at the goings on.
The cowboys strutted and preened (I found that word in one of those dime novels), with their girls on their arms.
Murdoch he had just bought Lancer in them days. Biggest ranch closest to town. He had his own strut, with his pretty little wife right beside him. I didn’t know him too well and had too much hard cider. It was the drink that started the whole thing.
They were over at a peddler’s wagon oohing and ahhing over something in the back.
Look here, I says, going right up to him. You’re not the King in these parts just because you got the biggest spread around.
What are you talking about says Murdoch.
The fancy ranch of yours and those fancy horses.
Lawson says he, my horses can outrun yours any day.
I turned to look at what brought him and the missus and found his pony tied up behind an old shoddy wagon. It was a rangy palomino, its summer coat shining like gold in the sunlight. Real quality.
That bag of bones? I says.
It seemed to get his dander up because his wife started pulling on his sleeve to calm him down. Later on, I found out he’d had his own share of cider by the corral, or else he would have walked away and we’d never have made the bet, knowing him as I do now. But I’m getting ahead here. A crowd, some drunk, gathered around and was laughing at us.
I don’t think I like what you’re saying says Murdoch.
Like it or not, it’s the truth to my way of seeing. But if you want to stock your big ranch with pancake-hoofed sway-backed horses, that’s none of my business.
Murdoch straightens right up and everyone was waiting to hear what he had to say.
All right, Lawson, care to put your money where your mouth is? We’ll see how good your horse is.
Well by now, I’m laughing. But Murdoch has got a steely look in his eyes.
What about a race, my horse against yours says he. We go through town to the river and back again. He holds out his hand. I shake it real hard, that was that.
Since you’re so sure you’ll win, how about a wager? I ask.
We both thought long and hard, it couldn’t be just anything. I wondered what the shiny palomino would look like in my stable. Murdoch must have done the same with my horse because I heard his wife cry out.
Right away, Catherine told Murdoch what she thought of him and how could they afford to lose their best horse in a silly game because my thoroughbred was known in the county for winning races. Murdoch kept his peace and never argued with her, just said he couldn’t go back on a handshake now.
Catherine kissed Murdoch on the cheek and said she had things to do and wouldn’t he make the right decision after all. She trotted off to the pie booth.
Hamstrung by a petticoat.
Stoked the fire is all that did. Neither of us wanted to lose our horse to the other, but a handshake is a handshake. Then I spied something big in the back of that peddler’s wagon.
What about that boat? I ask
It’s not a boat, it’s a ship, says Murdoch.
Hand carved, pipes up the peddler and he sweeps open the curtain so we could get a better look, sniffing a sale. I try not to look too interested but sure as daylight, I can see that boat on my rock mantle. Murdoch’s got that gleam in his eye again because wasn’t his missus oohing over it before everything got started?
How much? I ask.
Thirty says the peddler.
Twenty, calls out Murdoch.
Twenty-eight returns the peddler.
I nod to Murdoch. Twenty-five and that’s the last bid, you scamp. The peddler makes a big show of thinking it over then yells Sold!
Hold on a minute, I say. The winner buys it for the loser, deal? Murdoch wagged his head up and down and we leave the prize with the peddler to hold in his wagon for safekeeping.
Our little group grew by a few more people and we shoved off for the start. The route went through the river which is fine and dandy in regular times, but when you’re running a horse who doesn’t like water, it can be kind of dicey. My horse, Rory, didn’t like water. Not a bit. So I was trying to figure out a way around. Murdoch had such a grin on his big face that I wanted to kick him.
The peddler lined us up. A nice clean race, boys, he says. And to the winner, goes the great ship. Then he pulls out a colored handkerchief and I see Murdoch’s pony giving it the side-eye, rolling it so much the white is showing.
The handkerchief goes up and it comes down and we’re off! The crowd was whistling and cheering.
I have to say here I had the out and out advantage because I took off like a shot while Murdoch had to wrangle his pony to get it going. I was already a few lengths ahead when I heard their hoof beats. Rory held them off all the way to the river.
Oh, that river!
My horse hopped, skipped and jumped through that water like a powder keg had gone off under her tail. During all the fun, Murdoch caught up.
His horse went through the water slicker than anything.
Town was up ahead and it was sight for sore eyes. We were neck and neck until I see a flash of yellow color and motion to Murdoch with my elbow. He smiles wide.
She came after all, he yells.
There was Catherine hanging on to a hitching post, shouting with the best of them. Right then, I knew I’d lost. Murdoch kicked that pony and they spurted away.
He had won.
At the end of the race, I was so tired I could hardly stand. Rory was breathing hard, wobbly on her legs. She’d done her level best, but Murdoch got the upper hand.
To be fair, I walked over and shook his hand. You won the peddler’s boat fair and square I says. Catherine was right beside him, smile Christmas big.
I didn’t know what kind of spark got into Murdoch when we were coming around the bend back into town. Not until I met my Meggie a few months later.
Then I understood.
Scott smiled hard and bright after he finished. It hit Thad in a soft place, knowing it looked to be payment enough.
His son must have heard him coming—sensed him perhaps—for Scott turned when Murdoch drew close.
“It makes me think about Boston and the harbor, “ he said as Murdoch reached his side, “I wonder if this model ship might be one I’ve seen in person. When I was younger.”
Murdoch could’ve wept when he said it. Damned if he didn’t have to bring Boston into it right now. Made him aware that Scott was so very observant. Was Catherine watching, too, from whatever star she had alighted? He could hear her voice, all the old arguments about leaving Lancer for Carterville.
“Your mother seemed to like it quite a bit. I had a devil of a time getting it home from town.”
“Is that how it was broken the first time?” Scott pointed to the mast, and the old crack.
“Not quite. It made the voyage home safely in the back of our wagon, but not more than a year later, I heard a noise one night and went to investigate. Your mother couldn’t sleep and had gone downstairs to get a book to read. I surprised her and she spun around.”
Puzzlement flashed across his son’s face.
“She was big then,” Murdoch pantomimed an extended belly, “with you. It knocked the ship and the mast snapped in two.”
A pause. Then a quiet grin. “Are you’re saying I broke the ship—twice?
Murdoch’s eyebrows rose and he tipped his head to the side. “Ah, in a way. Yes.”
“I suppose it’s a lucky thing I never went into the Navy. You should probably keep me away from any future sailing vessels.”
“I will, although there aren’t that many to be found in the valley. And this is one of a kind. I kept it in the other room as a remembrance, but I’d been meaning to move it out of the way for some time.”
“Remembrance of her?”
“No.” He shuffled a little in place. “Of you. You’re here now.”
“Oh.” Scott made an odd noise, like a cough. He cleared his throat. “I could have been here a lot sooner.”
Ouch. Murdoch’s eyebrows lifted, altering his stance just a little, so that Scott knew he was listening, knew he meant business. “Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind, son?”
Scott turned away, hands on his hips, walking a slow circle. Buying time, trying to polite it out.
It was Murdoch’s decision to make, leaving Scott in Boston, and he’d made it. It was he after all, who’d started the whole thing. Unwitting, perhaps afraid, he’d taken the only step that set them both on this path and he was responsible for putting things right. The past had a way of making itself known, and it was better surely, that Scott learned the truth from him.
That, indeed, he had been wanted.
Murdoch flinched, looking at the ship. A few times—more than a few—he had taken a bad situation and made it worse. He hoped this wouldn’t be the case.
“There was no money. No stability. When Haney started to raid the valley, the most likely outcome was death.”
“So you sent my mother away—I understand that, Murdoch.”
“It was no life for a baby.”
“Made it easier for you, I guess,” Scott murmured. “I want you know, I’m grateful. For Grandfather, schooling, my upbringing. I also hated you for leaving me there. I wanted to, anyway. And for my grandiose talk back then, it seemed like I did. Hate is too strong a word, however. Disappointment may be better.”
Murdoch was stumbling around a dark abyss, putting his foot out to tap the way. One wrong step—whoosh!—down he’d go. “You deserved better than what I could offer.”
Scott shrugged, but it was impossible to read his face. “And later?”
Couldn’t read his face, but there in his voice, Murdoch heard everything his son had been holding back. “I tried…and failed. Time passed and you became a young man, able to make your own decisions.” He fingered the broken mast. “You need to know that you were never forgotten.”
Scott’s breath stopped, caught, strangled as it had over the revelation about the ship. He nodded, almost to himself it seemed. Something wistful played about his eyes. Not Catherine’s eyes, but his.
“Enough, Murdoch. These last few weeks have opened my mind about fathers.” He patted his pocket where a hint of white envelope peeked out. “But it makes a difference. Knowing.”
He didn’t know what had transpired, but he knew the start of forgiveness when he saw it. Murdoch placed his hand on Scott’s shoulder and squeezed.
Scott smiled at him.
He smiled back.
His son. His first.