Her trembling, sweating fingers fumbled her command to fold the paper and insert it under the pasteboard. There was no time – no time – to waste precious seconds. Already she had been so sick, and the heat of the dark, cramped wagon was suffocating her further. Please, please, she silently implored to the One waiting patiently for her. Thy will be done – but just a few more… Tears streamed. My bonny love, where are you? How I wish… Her throat closed, hot and tight, and she worked to swallow. Then she forced some calm through her wracked being and found the last particle of logic left to her. There was no time for wishes…
The fragile bundle at her side stirred and swelled her heart with sweet love. She painfully turned and managed a smile. “Dear one,” she whispered, touching a fingertip to the soft, new skin. A son – she’d borne him a son... “Your papa will be so proud…” And perhaps proud of her, too, for seeing it through, for fighting as hard as she could. Yes, he would be proud. Her husband so dearly loved her…
Her father’s voice, muffled by the hum in her ears. She held out the object to him, the silver warm and heavy in her grasp. “Murdoch…see that he gets this,” she ordered, and saw the surprise on his face at her directive tone. “There’s a letter inside – tell him to look inside…”
“More?” He frowned severely. “I’ve already sent the other one.”
“Katherine, now is not the time--”
“Don’t argue,” she rebuked before a pain cut her off. “Give it to him,” she said, weaker now. “Please, Father. He’ll need it – a remembrance – for them both…”
“No such talk,” he admonished with audible anguish. “You mustn’t think--”
“Take it,” she insisted over a shimmer of light that glowed and then began to dim.
She felt him pull the item from her hand, knew that despite his disapproval of her marriage, he would not deny her in her last hours. He would deliver it to her husband, and it would be her last gift to her espoused, and to her son – their son.
She turned again as the babe mewed and squirmed. Katherine smiled at him, then closed her eyes.
II. QUOD SUM ERIS – I Am What You Will Be
“Scott? Come inside, son – storm’s coming.”
Storm…Scott looked up from the blur of writing that was a contract. Yes, a good one was brewing right in front of him. Dark clouds, flickering with lightning, were rushing up over the house, chasing a last shaft of sunlight and blotting out the incoming twilight. The wind quickly reached him, damp with the metallic scent of rain, and cool with change. It tunneled swiftly down the length of the portico, pushing and clawing at him, grabbing him with long fingers that stirred harder at his memories. He wasn’t sure which ones disturbed him more – those years-old ones of battle and captivity that were almost friendly in their familiarity, or the fresher ones that had recently torn at his heart and vivisected his past. He moved slowly in response, leaden in his legs. The ague – an unwelcome trinket of the War – had been fighting for attention, for the third time in two years. He’d started the quinine at the first shivers but the illness had only abated to a point. Tonight the fever was threatening to break out in full. He’d hoped to avoid his father while it took over, let the hours overnight allow some healing. But he’d been too buried in his reverie to take note of the time. He couldn’t hardly ignore Murdoch now.
“Scott,” Murdoch called to him again.
Giving in, Scott turned and headed into the great room. A gust of turbulent air pushed past him, ripped the contract from his hand. It flapped to the floor and the pages writhed in inexplicable agony. Before he could get a shoulder to the latch the hearth flared, the flames jumping up in bright but brief defense against the darkness that sailed in behind, threatening the room with portent. For a torturous moment he felt caught between the memory and illness, one foot in each and both vying for attention. It made him drop his forehead to a door pane, reeling against their heft.
“Jelly’s told me for a week his knee was predicting it.”
Murdoch’s chuckled declaration startled him back to the present. Scott turned carefully, wondering if his weakness had been detected, but his father was casually placing the weighted elk figurine atop a stack of papers on his desk. The old man’s long legs brought him to Scott’s side, and together they peered out at the first fast drops of rain dancing in the rapidly fading light. Silence dropped between them, friendly at first, then it thickened; Scott felt the past suck at him again, hovering somewhere just beyond the gauzy veil of rain, waiting to break through and pummel him… Memories, he thought again, or maybe it was only his waning strength.
“The portico will stay dry,” Murdoch nodded in satisfaction. He paused, gave Scott a sidelong glance. “Might make for some fine storm viewing, though, if you’re of a mind...”
A throaty rumble of thunder had Scott turning his back to it all. “Not tonight,” he allowed quietly, moving slowly away to pick up the fallen contract. He carefully smoothed the pages and crossed the room to place it on the desk, feeling his father’s weighty gaze follow him. “This contract seems fair,” he said over his shoulder, hoping that his voice would dispel the shroud that seemed to have made its way into the room. “We should sign.”
“We’ll call on Harry tomorrow morning then,” he heard Murdoch say as a sharp flare of lightning lit up the sky outside the massive window behind the desk. Scott turned away from that, too, and resisted the urge to throw up a hand and shield his hurting eyes from the brilliant flash. “As long as the roads are clear and the cattle haven’t been scattered to the back pasture,” Murdoch continued as the thunder rolled again. “Looks like we’re really going to get it tonight.”
His voice was over-loud, trying to dispel the awkwardness that was threatening to penetrate the air around them. Only a few days ago he’d unburdened decades of guilt, digging into a past that he’d once fled in abject terror, wrenching it up out of himself to give his son the answers so desperately needed. The remnants of that conversation still hung between them, patched but not fully healed. Scott sensed his father’s dread that it might be re-opened tonight, felt it intensify when he picked up the silver-framed photograph of his mother from the side table. The metal was cool in his hands and held him secure against the rapid gloam filling the room, fended off the heat of the fever, held back the pervading dampness and errant whispers of stray wind playing in the hearth. Yet the past, and all its mysteries, lingered about the room…
Katherine’s calm, watchful gaze emanated from the flat image held in his grasp. She’d be forever blissfully unaware of the day, bare weeks after he and Johnny’s arrival at the ranch, when he’d discovered this picture shoved deep in Murdoch’s desk drawer, tarnished and forgotten. The find had shocked him and horrified Murdoch. It’d taken days for either of them to speak about it, and in the end it’d been Scott who’d let the opportunity pass by. Just having this, here on display, was enough, he’d thought at the time. He had this minute part of his mother, the whole being that was his father, and it’d seemed enough. And even then, so early in their relationship, he’d trusted Murdoch; his father would come around to the discussion of his past – and Scott’s – when the time was right. Yet the months had marched on and nothing was ever spoken. Even that business with Judd Haney only made Murdoch clamp his lips and shake his head in refusal to fully discuss it. Then Harlan had arrived and…
And upended everything, poking and prodding at the past until Scott knew it had to be confronted or forever lost. The facts, stark and savage, were nonetheless now finally free of their decades-old silence. The truths, though, hadn’t yet settled all those years of pain. Not for him, anyway. And, he suspected, not for Murdoch either. Though there was that point of surprise when he’d realized that Murdoch’s sacrifice for the good of his son was not unlike that he’d chosen for the good of his father. Decisions made twenty years apart, but so similar that he couldn’t help but think that he might well indeed be his father’s son, even if their relationship needed years to thread back together. He couldn’t let his father be ripped apart by Harlan’s greed. His father had made the same exact decision for him, and for the same reason, all those years ago.
All those years…Scott ran his hand over his mother’s image and the tiny thought, long-held, flickered in him again. If only…
“Not too late for a cup of coffee,” Murdoch suggested as Scott carefully replaced the photograph on the table. “Want some?”
Scott’s gaze swung to the persistent tap of rain against the great room’s big window behind the desk, fully aware that his father knew he didn’t use the all the hours of sleep allotted to him, especially on nights when a storm sang too close to the house. Yet he should try to get some sleep; his head was aching from the combination of the oncoming fever and the lingering effects of the concussion, and could use a little loosening. Maybe he should choose something stronger than coffee to aid in the effort. His work duties were still light – Murdoch was treating him a little too carefully, and Scott couldn’t really blame him after the events of the last ten days. So sleeping in tomorrow morning would not be questioned, if he chose to take advantage. But for now he knew he would not – and could not – rest. Not while the memories were still niggling him and the storm was literally breaking over his head. And there was this photograph – things he didn’t know about it and wanted to…
“Scott?” Murdoch prompted over another grumble of thunder.
“Sounds good,” he nodded with a start, realizing he’d been silent to too long – again…
He felt the touch on his sleeve too late; Murdoch had already detected the heat there, and was frowning with open concern. “You’re warm, son…”
Hot to the point of cold, Scott corrected him silently, repressing a lingering shiver. “It’ll pass,” he said in a tone that invited no further discussion, though he hoped it didn’t sound curt to the point of disrespect.
Murdoch’s hand held. “Maybe you should get some rest instead…”
Scott shrugged with what he hoped was nonchalance and gestured to the window behind the desk, now reflecting a shiny collection of raindrops that skittered down the glass in the lamplight. “The weather…” Blame that, if nothing else…
His father’s gaze swung toward the darkened window and he scowled. Still he held onto Scott’s arm, the long fingers wrapped securely around the quivering muscle.“If you’d like to talk about it…” Murdoch began haltingly. “Or if – something else…” The set of his jaw bespoke of the difficulty of the offer. So much had been said already, so much sliced open. There were things Scott himself wanted to tell him, about this ague, about the thunder of battle, about the oft-silence of Chestnut Street in Boston. About Harvard and St. Louis and Julie and Garrett Enterprises… about life with a grandfather and not a father – or a mother. And there was still this ragged curiosity regarding his mother….but not tonight. It was all too much and he was hurting.
“Maybe later,” Scott told him, once more giving him the reprieve. “Coffee still sounds good, though.”
“I’ll get it,” Murdoch told him softly and finally let go of his sleeve; the loss of contact was keen.
The room seemed to swell with loneliness. The brightness of the hearth flames had faded, subdued by dark and thickened air in the room that muffled even the reverberating beat of rain against the window. Scott sighed, hoping to dismiss the lingering thoughts clustering into a headache over one eye. More wishes than thoughts, he thought to himself, glancing back over to her photograph. He was a practical man, and wishes held no weight with him – except where she was concerned.
Her still gaze, forever lovely, arrested him Something whispered, echoing off the solid walls of the room what if, what if…? One step had him reaching for the frame, and then he was again holding it and her, tracing her likeness with a fingertip over the smooth glass. So young – younger than he was now. Perhaps he did look like her, around the eyes; her gaze appeared familiar, though he’d handled the photograph several times in the last weeks. It might be no more than a constant study that rendered tonight’s feeling of familiarity.
Scott gave her a smile and absently turned the frame over, knowing there was only solitary view of her, but some part of him imagining otherwise, mentally feeling the weight of bone and flesh beneath the soft velvet sleeves of the gown she wore – green, Murdoch told him – hearing her soft breaths, inhaling the freshness of her…
It needed repair; the pasteboard backing had loosened at a lower corner. Scott examined the roughened edge. Nothing significant, easy enough to—
A tiny sliver of paper suddenly peeped out at him; he frowned over a quick rise of worry. If it had begun to fall apart…he tried to push the bit back into place back underneath the backing but more slid out toward him. He withdrew it with half-interest. Probably just a scrap, a receipt, or the photographer’s information, nothing of importance…
It was thin, carelessly folded, slightly discolored. Scott laid the picture aside so that the gentle gaze remained on him and opened it. Scrawled writing greeted him. Softened by time and a blunt pencil, yet a distinctive feminine hand – whose…? Her stare seemingly bored into him as he read the salutation. Then his breath squeezed to a stop and a cold tremor shook him. His gaze shot back to hers---
Katherine Garrett Lancer.
My Dearest Son,
I welcome your arrival even as our dearest God reaches for my hand. Dear Little One, knew that you are ever loved by both your mother and your father. May your blessings be abundant, your joys rich and your sorrows few. May you stand strong in the path of trouble. I love you so, my wee one. The most precious piece of my heart I give to you. Carry it within you always. I regret that I have only been granted this little time with you, but even a mere touch has been enough. Your father will be so proud of you. God willing, he will teach you the ways of right from wrong. Grow strong for him, for the name you now own. Love him for what he offers you. Know that his love for you is genuine. Forgive him any failures he might endure, for this is a wild and harsh land that tests the very will of a man in so many ways—
“No more contracts.”
Murdoch’s voice grated in the thick silence. Scott flinched hard, felt slapped. He tore his gaze away from the page, the loving warmth of her still embracing him. Murdoch’s image swam somewhere before him.
“It’s not a contract,” he got out around the emotion wrapping him. He blinked but his vision wouldn’t completely clear.
Murdoch set the two cups of coffee down on his desk. “Then what is it?”
“It’s…” Scott’s tongue was hard and rough in his suddenly raw throat. He swallowed – it hurt. “It’s a letter,” he managed hoarsely. But it was so much more – so much that he couldn’t even begin to form a way to explain what it really was…
Through his still fuzzy eyesight he saw Murdoch’s slight frown of confusion, then the tinge of embarrassment that swept across his features. “I’m sorry, son. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Here, I’ll--”
“No, it’s all right.” Scott looked over to the photograph, his vision settling, a new question arising quickly in his mind. The picture had been hidden once, known but neglected, discovered by chance. And what if this letter had, too…? “You should read it.”
He slowly straightened and held the letter out to his father; his hand trembled slightly and the delicate paper quivered, alive in his grasp. He refrained from clutching it any tighter, lest he ruin it. Much as it was rightfully his, it was also his father’s. And as much as he wanted to savor it, hold it, contemplate it and her, he knew he could not keep it from his father. Not after all that had recently happened between them.
“Please,” he said to Murdoch over a hitch in his heart, as if she had just hugged him. “Read it.”
Murdoch hesitated, sensing the unease. “From your grandfather?” he asked through stiff lips.
“No,” Scott shook his head. He gestured to the frame. “It’s from – her.” But she deserved more than that. He had to give her the identify she deserved from him. And now he could, he finally could. He cleared his throat, tried again. “From my mother.”
He saw Murdoch frown with a mixture of confusion and disbelief. “I’m sorry son, what did you say…?”
Scott let go, sat down hard on the edge of the desk, folded his arms, then uncrossed them to clutch at the desktop instead. He felt hot, so hot, clogged with fever and feeling. But he watched as Murdoch turned the paper toward the light to better see, heard the barest whisper of her own words from his voice... “My dearest son…”
His father’s hand on the paper froze and the look on his face followed. He paled as his gaze went to her picture. Scott heard his quavering breath. “Scott…son…” Murdoch’s gaze shimmered. “Where did you get this?”
“Is it her?” Scott demanded softly. He pointed to the photograph. “Is that my mother’s hand?”
“Katherine,” Murdoch said faintly, closed his eyes, sunk a little. He went still. A tear slid unashamed over one cheek. “Katherine…”
“Is it her hand?” Scott asked roughly.
“Yes, yes…” Murdoch nodded tightly then got his eyes open, stared hard at the page. “This – this is her writing. But I don’t…where …?”
“Here – behind the picture.” Scott waited a bit, choosing his words carefully. The heat of the fever suffused him but he fought it. He had to know… “Murdoch, did you know it was here?”
“I – I…” Murdoch wiped a hand over his mouth, then pressed it, fisted, to his forehead. “My God, Scott, I’ve never seen this – I swear to you.” He carefully handed the letter back, groped for the leather chair nearby. Sat then hunched, elbows on knees, planted his face in his hands and shuddered. His voice came muffled. “She must’ve thought…If he’d only waited – told me…dammit. Dammit!” He raised his head, his face now completely bruised with the raw emotion of the past, from that awful day when the photograph had been thrust into their midst, to a time gone and yet still so painful, wrung back to life by Harlan Garrett’s visit...
Cramped and aching, Scott slowly stood. The fever was strong; he stumbled a little, sank into a dining chair away from the fireplace. He rested his hands on the tabletop, absorbed some of the coolness into one palm and then pressed it, trembling, to his pounding forehead. His eyes burned when he closed them, and his breaths beat in his ears. A letter – from her. To him; she’d written to him…
The chair next to him creaked slightly as Murdoch sat down. In a moment his father’s large hand was on his shoulder, cool but comforting, the grasp steady upon him. Scott opened his eyes – the photograph and the letter were before him.
“Drink this,” Murdoch urged softly, wrapping his hand around a glass. He swallowed the liquor, reviving a little as it scraped down his throat and flooded his insides. His heart turned a little; old longing rose up in him, mingled with the fresh emotion tearing through him. But he didn’t know what to say, didn’t know if he could even articulate anything, even though he so wanted to know…
“It was taken in St. Louis,” Murdoch told him in a voice of hushed remembrance, putting a hand on him once more. Scott’s let his fingers touch the letter, rest on it; his other hand held to the silver frame, securing himself to it – and her. “She called it her wedding photograph, though we’d already been married back in Boston. Put on her best dress and surprised me with it…me, a big and stupid lout of a Scotsman, ignorant to the ways of this land…”
“What happened?” Scott asked softly, turning to face his father’s profile. The thunder grumbled, low and far away now. “This picture – how did it…?”
Murdoch gave his head a half-shake. “Haney’s raids – in the confusion of packing she must’ve taken it. I didn’t know it was gone until…until you found it.” He paused, took a settling breath. “The woman – the midwife – took me to her resting place, handed it to me there. It was the only thing left of hers…but I never knew she’d written…She – your mother…Katherine…” The words tumbled crazily now over his lips. His grip tightened. “She must’ve given it to Harlan to give to me. She would’ve told him – she would’ve insisted on it. And he never…he didn’t remember this picture when he saw it last week. Never said a word. Never, never…”
“It would be like her,” he continued quietly. “It would be so like her, even as she…She loved you from the first knowing, talked of nothing else but bringing you into the world, and being your mother. Told me it had to be a boy – picked out your name special to honor me…I know it’s been too long in coming, son, but I am honored. Deeply honored, and proud of you. And she would be proud of you, too.”
Scott read the words again. There, in her own hand, was her voice, her spirit, her compassion. Such a precious gift – a legacy far beyond that willed to him in Boston, more than that given him here. He was her legacy – Scott looked at Murdoch – and his father’s future. Here was the living thread that bound them together.
Her burial place sprang into his mind, so many miles away, altogether unknown, that lone monument on that desolate piece of land. Despite the harshness of the War he still held reverence for the dead. Those who had fallen beside him had once been fathers, brothers, sons. They deserved remembrance. And so, too, his mother. She was far from Boston, and beyond the home she’d been creating with Murdoch. No one knew of her in Cartersville but for the impressive headstone adorning the roadway just outside of town. She was a stranger, seemingly lost, even to him for a time. But her memory, hidden and buried by the two men who’d most mattered in her life, was now filtering back, confusing and yet wonderful in its own right. And she deserved more than the single visit he’d made to the place while on his way here. She deserved to be honored here, on Lancer land, where she had first made her home with her husband, where her dreams had begun…
“With your permission,” Scott started quietly. “I’d like to bring her home, sir. Here, to Lancer. I know there won’t be – after all this time, but – I believe…” The words stuck and he could not the rest out.
Murdoch’s hand went to the back of his neck, squeezed, then slid over to his shoulder and drew him in. “It’s a fine idea, son,” he heard him say. The long fingers wiped at some of the wetness that had somehow slipped onto Scott’s cheek. “A fine idea.”
As you read these words, my dearest husband, my sweetest son, know that I will watch over you in all blessed ways. Remember not the pain, but reflect on the moments that shine bright. And remember always, always, that I love you both unto eternity.
Your Loving Wife and Humbled Mother,