She longed for a bath. A real bath. A fragrant, sudsy bath in a tub so
deep she could immerse herself up to her ears if she wanted. Soak away the
grit and soot that had clogged her nose, stung her eyes, and soiled her
clothing over the past two days. The incessant clacking of the train wheels
against the rails had already set her teeth on edge, and she still had at
least a week and a few thousand miles to go.
Her cousin, Sarah, had tried to talk her out of leaving Baltimore -- on more than one occasion and with more than a little poorly concealed irritation. Laura could hear the young woman's toe tapping on the hardwood floor of the Pratt Street brownstone with each rhythmic bump of the track.
"You need to reconsider your decision, Laura," Sarah had demanded a few days earlier, her arms tightly crossed against her chest.
"I have considered it, several times in fact, and I'm going to California. I thought we'd already had this discussion." Laura glanced up, pausing as she sorted through her dresses, choosing what she would take with her and what she would leave for Sarah to dispose of as she wished. All but one of the elaborate Charles Worth gowns she had gleefully, and rather spitefully, purchased in Paris with her father's money would stay behind. She couldn't, however, bring herself to part with the blue silk evening dress that matched her late mother's sapphires to perfection. Inappropriate as it might be for the wilds of Morro Coyo, California and the village's newly hired schoolmistress, it would line the bottom of her trunk, a vivid memory of the life she had left behind.
Sarah sighed and shifted her weight to her other foot, resuming her impatient toe tapping. "Why do you absolutely refuse to listen to reason? You don’t need to be so stubborn. I would think you could make peace with your father, and perhaps you could go back to Bos...."
"No!" Laura’s voice was shrill and loud even to her own ears; her fingers were clenched in the skirt she held, before she managed to exert some self-control, catching her trembling upper lip between her teeth. She took a deep breath and continued more softly, but with a determined edge to her voice. "I will never go back to Boston. Not now. Not ever. I thought I'd made that perfectly clear to everyone -- Father included."
"He's dead, Laura." Sarah's words cut Laura to the bone, just as Robert MacNeill's pronouncement had done a little more than four years earlier, and thousands of miles removed. She felt a visceral, gnawing pain in her chest, almost as though she was hearing those words from her father for the first time. "Scott Lancer is dead." Sarah waved her hand in the air as though she was batting at a fly or dismissing a servant. "Dead and gone. And the sooner you accept that and move on with your life, the better off you'll be. I'm not trying to be cruel, but...."
Laura's reply was little more than a bitter whisper as the tears welled up behind her eyelids. "But can't you see, Sarah? That's precisely what I'm trying to do -- 'move on' with my life. I just can't do it here. Not where every sound and smell reminds me of Boston. Of him. Where every time I hear a violin playing our waltz, or I hear the name 'Harvard' spoken, I look for... him." Even after so many years, she still choked when she tried to say his name. "Besides, you and David have a nurse now for little David, and for the new baby." Laura looked pointedly at her cousin's pregnancy-swollen belly, the babies a constant, soul-destroying reminder of the children she and Scott would never have. "I'm simply in the way here."
"That's not true...." Sarah said weakly.
"It's absolutely true, and it's time for me to go. Really. I do hope you'll see me to the train on Wednesday." Laura managed what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
"Of course we will." Her cousin's smile, in return, lacked the assurance intended by the words. "But you're determined to travel all that way alone? To a place you've never been? To associate with people who are complete strangers? Surely you should wait a few more days and hire a companion to travel with you."
"Sarah, we've been over this a dozen times. I have my ticket, and I'm nearly packed. I don't have time to engage a companion now, and I need to be in Morro Coyo as soon as possible. The children need a school, and they‘re expecting me." Laura gestured at the clothing and books scattered across the bed. "I'm sure I'll be safe on the train. It'll be quite the adventure...."
Smiling inwardly at the thought, Laura mused that the trip thus far had proven her completely wrong. Far from being an "adventure," it had been noisy, exhausting, and abysmally dirty. Once the excitement of hugging Sarah, David and their little one goodbye was past and the locomotive pulled away from Camden Station with a great belching of steam, its bell clanging a tinny warning, there didn't seem to be anything remotely adventurous about it.
"And what may I serve you this morning, Miss MacNeill?" The young waiter, dressed impeccably in his Baltimore & Ohio Railroad livery, smiled down at Laura. He couldn't have been more than sixteen, she thought, his cheeks and forehead dappled with adolescent pimples in various stages of healing.
"I think I'd like coffee this morning, thank you, Ben." She smiled back, as she arranged the starched linen napkin in her lap. "And perhaps some melon, if possible." Somehow, the server, with his lanky body and quiet demeanor, reminded her of Scott; his reserve and casually confident posture far more mature than one would expect from his age.
"Very well." Ben inclined his head as he laid a carefully rolled newspaper next to her plate. "Your morning paper, Miss."
"Thank you." Laura unrolled the paper as the steward turned with nearly military precision and marched to the next table.
I have to stop doing that. Laura almost spoke the words out-loud, and she quickly glanced around to see if anyone in the dining car had noticed her sharp intake of breath. I have to stop comparing every man I see to Scott. It’s not fair to them -- not that I will ever consider anyone else -- but I have to stop looking for him in their faces.
She glanced out the window, the landscape a blur as it slipped past. He’d have been twenty-five this December. Laura couldn’t keep the memories at bay, often finding the most trivial sights or sounds reminded her of Scott and their life together in Boston. Twenty-five. It doesn’t seem possible. And the last time I saw him, he was only eighteen. She squeezed her eyes shut, remembering that night, Scott’s face vivid in her memory as though it had been only yesterday.
“I think I should walk you home now, Laura. It’s late.” Scott’s voice echoed distinctly in her head.
“But I don’t want to go home yet,” she had protested with a small pout, fingering the lapels of his black evening jacket. She had to tilt her head back to look into his face. “I want to keep dancing. I could dance all night with you.”
His gentle, lazy smile never failed to make Laura catch her breath. Scott whispered back, “And I’d like nothing better than to dance all night with you. But, as it is, someone will likely tell your father you were here tonight, and, if you stay much longer, it’ll only make things worse.” The party, celebrating Scott’s graduation from Harvard College, had been hosted by his grandfather, Harlan Garrett, eager to show off his accomplished grandson to the cream of Boston society.
She had sulked and insisted she didn’t care, that her father wouldn‘t be home for days. Finally, reluctantly agreeing, Laura had retrieved her lacy shawl, bid Mr. Garrett goodnight, and the young couple had slipped out into the fragrant, moonlit May night. A brief stroll down the brick sidewalk had brought them to her house, the gaslights dancing inside their ornate globes and through the fanlight over the mansion’s massive front door. Scott had taken her face in his hands and kissed her softly, his fingers tracing a line from her eyebrows down her cheeks. He pulled away and held her at arm's length, his voice calm and reassuring. “You know someday, Laura, we’ll convince your father to give up his vendetta against Grandfather. Someday, we won’t have to sneak around to be together.”
Oh, Scott….You were so wrong….So completely wrong….But you couldn’t have imagined what would happen. Neither of us could….Despite blinking hard to clear the moisture from her eyes, and trying to focus on her newspaper, the unbidden memories continued to stream through Laura’s mind. She and Scott had kissed again that night, loathe to leave each other.
“It’ll be all right,” he had said, his voice soft and soothing. He pulled her close in his arms, his lips brushing her cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she had replied. “So very much.”
“I’ll see you this week. I’ll send a note with Katie.” Katie was Laura's
Irish maid and a very willing conspirator in Scott and Laura’s covert
With one last kiss, she had turned away and quietly tiptoed through the front door. She had started up the curving main staircase, her full-hooped skirt gathered in her hands, when her father‘s voice reached her from the darkness of the first-floor library.
“Good evening, my dear.” Robert MacNeill stood in the doorway, a glass of his choice cognac in his hand, his face creased with anger.
Laura almost tripped on the stairs as she turned, caught as she was by surprise. “Father! You’re back! I didn’t expect….”
“I suspect you didn’t ‘expect’ me to be back home tonight, Laura. In fact, I know you didn’t. Otherwise you might have exercised a little more discretion and not flagrantly disobeyed my wishes.”
“I’m not sure what you mean….” She tried to hedge.
“You know precisely what I mean. Katie rather unwillingly admitted to me that you had stepped out with Scott Lancer again. You seem incapable of doing as you’re told, so….” MacNeill left his drink on the hall table and joined her. He took her by the elbow and pushed her up the steps. “So, I’m going to see to it once and for all that you learn to obey me. I‘ve grown tired of coming home from business trips, only to be informed you‘ve been slipping out to see Harlan Garrett‘s grandson. No matter how indulgent I've tried to be with you, even I have my limits.”
“Father, I still don’t understand why you won’t let me see Scott. You and Mr. Garrett used to be business partners, friends even. Scott has always been my best friend. Can’t you see how happy he makes me?” Laura glanced up at her father as he directed her along the upstairs hallway, shaken by the determined set of his jaw.
Katie closed the lid of the trunk, blotting with her apron at the tears streaking her cheeks, her eyes meeting Laura’s as the father and daughter entered the bedroom. She shook her head slightly as though in defeat, refusing to believe what was happening.
“What’s Katie doing? Why is she…?” Laura turned to her father with a sense of foreboding, her fingers twisting in the lace of her shawl.
“What is Katie doing, my darling? Well, I should say it seems blatantly apparent,“ MacNeill had coldly explained. “Katie has packed your trunks. You’ll be leaving tonight.”
“Leaving?” The shawl dropped from her shoulders, catching in the ruffles of her skirt. “Leaving for where?” She looked back at Katie, devastated by the desperation she saw in her maid’s eyes.
“I’ve decided you need a woman’s guidance.” He glanced at Katie and corrected himself. “An older and wiser woman’s supervision. I’ve tolerated your rebellious behavior for as long as I’m able. That Lancer boy has been a terrible influence on you, and I’ve come to realize I need to separate the two of you permanently if I’m to reestablish any credibility as your father. You’ll be sailing for London tonight. I've arranged for you to live with your Aunt Louise. She has kindly agreed to take you in.”
Laura barely noticed Ben had placed a china cup in front of her, filling it with fragrant, steaming coffee. The lines on the newspaper she held blurred into black streaks. If the steward sensed something was amiss with his passenger, his flawless training ensured he carried on without hesitation. He quietly retreated, leaving her to her memories.
“Please don’t do this, Father,” she had begged as panic set in. “Please don’t do this. Please don’t send me away. Scott and I are in love. We need each other.” She backed away, her skirt swaying with the violence of her movement.
“You’re too young to know what love is, Laura. Someday you’ll thank me.”
“No…please,” she pleaded. “Why? Why won’t you tell me what happened? Why do you hate Mr. Garrett and Scott so much now?”
“That’s my business…and Garrett’s,” her father snapped back. “It’s not something I care to discuss.” He glared at his daughter, before turning his gaze to Katie. “And now, Katie will help you change into something more suitable for travel before it gets any later.”
“At least let me say goodbye to Scott, send him a note, something….” Laura tried to delay, frantic to stave off what seemed to be increasingly inevitable. She noticed Katie wouldn’t look at her anymore. “He won’t understand. He’ll look for me…. I know he’ll look for me.” She tried without success to reassert her usual sense of defiance.
“He can look all he wants,” her father shot back. “If anyone tries to help him…” he looked pointedly at Katie, “…including your maid or any of her family, I’ll see to it they are never gainfully employed in this city, or anywhere else, ever again. Don’t underestimate the scope of my influence, my dear.”
“But Mr. Garrett will help him,” she whispered, trying to sound confident, attempting without success to convince herself. “He’ll help Scott find me.”
“Garrett won’t help him, either, Laura. You’re not important enough to Harlan Garrett to warrant his intervention. Oh, yes, he might have tolerated your little dalliance with his grandson, but, once you’re gone, he’ll encourage Scott to find someone else. A pretty little thing he can control, someone like that Dennison girl. Your reputation for being rather unruly is well known in Boston. Garrett will be only too content to be rid of you.”
With that, her father had left the room. Sobbing, her hands shaking uncontrollably, she changed from her evening gown into a broadcloth skirt and jacket. Katie hugged her goodbye, speechless in her own grief, and stumbled from the room. Laura, bundled away to one of her father’s ships anchored in Boston Harbor, had never seen her friend, or Scott, again.
“May I join you?” The stranger’s deep baritone startled Laura from her
reverie, and she fumbled with her newspaper, nearly upsetting her cup of
Tell him ‘no,’ Laura. Scott’s voice growled a warning in her head.
So you are with me. She smiled, her cheeks dimpling. Just like always. Even when she was in England, she had found she could hear Scott’s voice, often at times when she knew she was being reckless -- riding a horse she shouldn’t ride, jumping fences that were too high, leaping ditches that seemed bottomless or hedges that were too trappy.
The man apparently mistook her smile for acquiescence, and he pulled out a chair and sat down. “I couldn’t help but notice you were alone, Miss.” He was dark-haired and swarthy, the sort of man who would always look as though he needed to shave. His voice held a drawl, different from what Laura had become accustomed to in Baltimore. Something from further south, she speculated. Maybe somewhere in Virginia.
“Please allow me to introduce myself,” he continued. “My name is Nicholas. Nicholas Pruitt. And to whom do I have the pleasure…?” He hesitated, awaiting her response.
Tell him to leave, Laura. Scott’s voice was insistent, imploring.
“Laura,” she responded with an almost imperceptible shake of her head, trying to clear her thoughts. “Laura MacNeill.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Pruitt was a little too smooth, Laura reflected, as she acknowledged his polite greeting. His silk cravat was just a trifle too flashy; his suit jacket and pants a bit too tightly fitted to be appropriate in the social circles to which she was accustomed. He had an air about him she couldn’t quite define; an unpredictability simmering below the surface that made him seem somehow dangerous.
Settling back in his chair, he played with the silver utensils neatly laid out on the table in front of him. “It’s rather unusual to see a lady of your obvious…refinement…traveling alone, Miss MacNeill.” Pruitt seemed to choose his words very carefully. “May I be so bold as to ask you why?”
Laura took a sip of coffee as she considered Pruitt’s question. “No, you may not be so ‘bold,’ Mr. Pruitt."
“My apologies, ma’am.” The man’s drawl lent a gentleness and a sincerity to his words. “I couldn’t help but notice when we all left Baltimore that you were traveling alone. My curiosity got the better of my manners. Please forgive me for being too forward.”
“All right.” Laura conceded as she refolded her newspaper. “You’re not from Baltimore, are you?”
“No, ma’am, I’m not.” Pruitt hesitated before he admitted, “I’m from Virginia. Near Richmond.” He glanced around the train car. “Given the present state of the nation, that might not make me too popular with my fellow passengers.”
“The War’s over, Mr. Pruitt,” Laura pointed out. “It has been for several years now.”
“Not in some circles, Miss MacNeill.” He grimaced slightly. “In some places, the War will never be over. I've learned that only too well.”
“Is that why you’re traveling to St. Louis, Mr. Pruitt? Trying to escape something in your past?”
He grinned at her, his teeth bright against his olive skin. “And now who’s being too bold?”
Laura blushed, but remained quiet as she toyed with her coffee cup.
Pruitt continued, “Perhaps I am. But I’m not just going to St. Louis. I’m on my way to California.”
“Is that so?” She couldn’t help being curious herself, even if, in the society she had been raised in, it would be considered highly inappropriate and more than a little frowned upon. “You have business in California, Mr. Pruitt?”
“You might say so,” he replied with a crooked smile. “I have an investment I need to protect.”
“How interesting.” Laura poured herself another cup of coffee. “I suppose California is full of opportunities for businessmen.”
“Yes, it is, and I plan to take full advantage of those opportunities.”
“Then you’ll be going to Sacramento, perhaps?”
“Actually, I’m traveling all the way to San Francisco.”
“Ah….then we part in Sacramento. I’m told I need to take a stagecoach the final leg of my journey from there to a little town called Morro Coyo. Do you perhaps know of it?”
“Only as a small spot on the map. I believe it’s cattle country. A fair number of large ranches.”
“Well, I’m sure it’ll be quite exciting once I finally arrive and get settled. I’m going there to start a new school," she said. “And what did you say your business was?” She glanced up as the young steward approached the table.
“Excuse me, Miss MacNeill, Mr. Pruitt.” Ben waited patiently to be acknowledged before he continued. “We’ll be stopping in St. Louis in a few hours for some minor repairs to the locomotive and to switch cars with the Union Pacific Railroad. Unfortunately, it will require an overnight stay we did not anticipate. The Railroad Hotel is quite acceptable, I think, and it’s just down the street from the station. We can arrange for porters to assist you with your luggage. We expect to have you underway again in the morning.”
“Thank you, Ben,” Laura responded, hoping on one hand she might actually get that bath she so desperately yearned for and yet frustrated they couldn’t keep moving and get her to California more quickly. “Will you be continuing to California with us?” In those two short days, she had grown fond of the young man.
“No, ma’am. I go back to Baltimore. But the new crew will take good care of you.”
“It’s been a pleasure meeting you, then. Thank you for your excellent service.”
With a smile and a nod, Ben moved to the next table.
“Well, then,” Nicholas started. “If we’re to stay over in St. Louis, perhaps you’d do me the great honor of dining with me this evening.”
Laura…enough is enough….Get rid of him now….Scott’s voice once again admonished her.
“My apologies, Mr. Pruitt, but I’d prefer to dine in private. I’m really quite tired already from our travel, and we have a very long journey ahead. I fear I’d be exceedingly poor company. Thank you, though, for your kind offer.”
“Well, we’ll see.” He stood and offered her a small, formal bow. “Until later, ma’am.”
Scott awakened with a start, his head throbbing in cadence with each pounding beat of his heart. He tossed the bedcovers aside, sat up, and ran his hands through his hair trying to scrub the pain from his head. He’d been dreaming of her yet again. He rubbed his eyes vigorously, only half awake, and forced himself to his feet. The bedroom window was open, bright moonlight spilling in as if pulled along by the breeze that ruffled the curtains. The young man dragged himself to the window and gazed out across the pasture, the shadowy mountains looming like sentinels in the distance.
“Damn it, Laura,” he muttered softly. You’re gone. You’ve been gone for years. Why can’t I let you go?
She was in danger. He knew it with a familiar certainty that sent shivers coursing down his spine and left him feeling helpless and uncommonly frustrated. He’d had the same premonition on multiple occasions through the years, always with good reason. Scott had realized, somewhat belatedly, that Laura took chances, behaved a trifle recklessly, particularly with her horses, as a way of trying to attract her father’s attention. That, with her inherent curiosity and enthusiasm for life in general, was a recipe for trouble. Most of the time, he was able to reason with her; she would laugh and tell him not to be “so Boston,” but she would listen. After she had disappeared in ‘63, he had continued to have times when he sensed she was in trouble, but he was powerless to intervene.
Drew had been the first to notice the bond when they were no more than boys and had nicknamed Laura “Mac” in a juvenile attempt to overlook and play down the fact the third member of their threesome was a girl; even if that girl could outride both of them and most of the residents of Boston.
“How do you always do that, Scott?” He had asked in frustration one day when Scott had insisted they interrupt a fine lunch in the Garrett dining room to “check on Mac.”
“Do what?” Scott had thrown the words over his shoulder as they ran down the sidewalk.
“Figure out Mac’s doing something she shouldn’t be when you’re not even there.”
“I don’t know. I just do.”
He hadn’t been able to answer his friend’s question, and Scott wasn’t even sure he understood it himself. He only knew the bond he shared with Laura went far beyond their love for each other. But now Drew was long dead, a casualty of the carnage at Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862, and only God and her father knew where Laura was. He had lost them both within a short six months that had blown their lives apart in ways none of the three could ever have predicted.
Uttering an oath under his breath, Scott turned back to his bed, stretched out with his hands behind his head, and waited for the dawn.
“You look like hell, brother,” Johnny greeted him at the breakfast table, a grin deepening the dimples in his cheeks. “That steer musta done more damage to you yesterday than I thought.”
Scott rolled his shoulders and slumped into his chair. “I’m fine,” he lied. Truth was, he was hurting, but he knew it had little to do with the bruises and strained muscles the rambunctious steer had inflicted upon him the day before. The face that looked back at him from the mirror as he shaved was pale and haggard, his blue eyes lost in purple smudges.
“Are you sure, Scott?” Murdoch scrutinized his elder son, his forehead creased with concern. He gestured with his fork. “That‘s a pretty nasty bruise you‘ve got there,” he indicated the blue-black discoloration that marked Scott‘s right cheek. "You were nearly trampled yesterday. If you need to take the day off….”
“I said I‘m fine,” Scott huffed back, scattering his silverware as he yanked his napkin from the table. He nearly upset the platter of eggs as he reached for the silver coffee server.
Johnny exhaled audibly, and returned to picking at his eggs, pausing imperceptibly during his meal to search his brother’s face. The three men sat in uncomfortable silence until Scott took one final mouthful of his coffee, pushed himself away from the table, and stood up. “If you’ll excuse me….” He carefully folded his napkin and laid it next to his empty plate. “…I’m actually not very hungry this morning.” He nodded at his father, and then turned his gaze to Johnny. “I’ll be in the barn when you’re ready to ride out.” Turning on his heel, he stalked from the room.
“Wonder what crawled up his ass?” Johnny spit out, momentarily forgetting that his father was sitting next to him and was not looking terribly pleased at his choice of words.
“Johnny,” Murdoch admonished as he leaned back in his chair, his own breakfast forgotten.
“C’mon, Murdoch. You saw how he acted. It’s just not like Scott to be so….”
“Irritable?” The older man offered.
“Yeah, ‘irritable.’ Even when he’s tired or hurt, he’s always polite, but he doesn‘t let people in. Sometimes I wanna poke at him like I did this morning just to see if I can get a reaction. I’d almost rather have him get piss…mad at me than to have him go all quiet and get no response at all.”
“Well, you certainly got a response just now.“ Murdoch smiled and reached for his coffee cup. “Give him time, Johnny. The two of you have only known each other for six months. You may be brothers, but there’s a lot you don’t know about each other -- and even more I don’t know about either of you. When Scott‘s ready to talk, he‘ll talk.”
Johnny stood and tossed his napkin on the table. “That may be good enough for you, Murdoch. But it’s not for me. Somethin’s eatin’ at him, and I’m gonna find out what it is.”
The blood bay gelding pinned its ears back as Scott touched a sensitive spot on its belly with the stiff brush. The young man worked methodically, pausing with the brush here and there while he used his fingers to loosen small bits of crusted sweat and dirt, until the horse’s coat gleamed. Laura had hair like that, he mused -- rich warm brown with burnished copper highlights. Silky strands she kept pinned tightly back except for the tendrils that escaped to frame her face; tendrils he had loved to play with, pushing them gently back with his fingers right before he kissed her. He remembered when she had first started wearing her hair up and how much she resented the fact that, in Boston society, proper young ladies were expected to contain their hair in the same way they subdued their emotions and behavior.
“It’s not fair, Scott,” she had complained loudly to him one day when she
was no more than fourteen. Mademoiselle Devoucoux, the latest and last in a
long succession of governesses, had chastised her in a tirade of French for
pulling the pins from her tightly braided hair, allowing her locks the
freedom the young girl craved for herself. “It’s just not fair. You and
Drew get to go to Harvard, and your grandfather even lets you ride across
the river by yourself now. Katie can go home and dance all she wants while
her brothers play the bodhran. I have to stay here alone with old
Devoucoux. And I only get to ride if Seamus or one of the other grooms comes
along, or if we go out to Waltham. It’s always the same -- read, write,
and play the piano. And there’re so many rules about what I can’t do, that
I can hardly remember what I am allowed to do anymore.” He hadn’t been able
to suppress a grin when Laura admitted Mademoiselle had called her “une
petite paienne." “Can you believe that? She called me ’a little
heathen!’” Scott had watched Laura pace back and forth in the front parlor,
her belled skirt pitching in rhythm, and he halfway expected her to start
stomping her feet. She had finally calmed down when he informed her that
her father had given his permission for her to attend the theater with Drew
and him that evening -- with his grandfather and Mademoiselle accompanying
them as chaperones, of course. Even back then, before he was old enough to
realize he was in love with her, she had delighted him completely.
The horse shifted, batting Scott with its head as Johnny sauntered into the barn and casually draped himself over a stack of hay bales. “You plannin’ to wear a hole in that horse, Boston?”
“Very funny, Johnny.” Scott paused, rubbed his nose with the back of his hand and glared at his brother.
“The way you’re goin’ at it, you’re bound to take the hide off it before long. ‘Somethin’ botherin’ you?”
Scott gestured with the brush. “What would make you think that? Just because I didn’t care to eat breakfast? And I thought my horse could use a little extra grooming this morning?“
“No, brother. It’s more that you’ve barely strung two words together over the past two days or so." Seems more like a week. "You’re actin’ like a man who’s got somethin' churnin' him up inside.”
Heaving his heavy saddle from the rack next to him, Scott chose to sidestep his brother’s question. He had come to realize over the course of the summer that Johnny was inordinately observant. At times, it made him acutely uncomfortable, feeling like the young man could get inside his head and read his thoughts. Laura had been the only person he’d ever known who’d possessed that same ability. Since he’d lost her, he’d learned to keep his innermost thoughts to himself. He rarely let anyone affect him deeply anymore, and he wasn’t nearly ready to allow this new brother of his to get under his skin.
“Don’t you need to get Barranca saddled? Or are you planning to watch me saddle my horse first?” Scott turned back and tossed the pads and saddle across his gelding’s back, earning another set of pinned-back ears from the bay.
“Nope. I’m not plannin’ to watch you. No need to get all hot ‘n bothered. But you didn’t answer my question. Me and the old man figure you’ve got somethin’ needs sayin’. So, why don’t you just get it said, brother?”
"At the risk of being, rude, brother...." Scott pulled the cinch up tightly and glanced over his shoulder at Johnny. "....When I feel I have something to say, I'll say it. Until then, I'd prefer not to be the topic of discussion at breakfast...or at any other meal." Gathering his reins in his hand, Scott strode out of the barn.
"Drop the gun, son."
Scott hesitated and tightened his grip on the pistol, his hand wavering only slightly as he took in the sight of the multiple rifles and pistols leveled at him.
"I said drop it boy." The officer's voice sounded tired, but the look in his eyes made it clear disregarding his order was not an option. Scott bit his lip and slowly lowered the pistol, finally tossing it a few feet in front of him.
"Well lookee here." A filthy soldier mounted on an equally rangy, dirty horse next to the captain, squinted at Scott and spat out his wad of tobacco. The mess landed on the toe of Scott's left boot, trickling slowly off in rivulets of golden-brown slime, but the young man didn't flinch. "Looks like we got us some fuckin' bluebellies."
"Sorry lookin' lot, ain't they." The grizzled old man's sunken cheeks spoke of poor nutrition and few remaining teeth. "Whaddya wanna do with 'em, Cap'n? Kin we just shoot 'em and git it over with?"
The captain shifted in his saddle. "No. We're not going to shoot them -- not yet at least. And not without provocation." He jerked his chin in Scott's direction, indicating the loaded supply wagons at his back. "These Yankees have done us a favor in guarding our supplies while we were otherwise engaged with their troops. General Lee'll be happy to relieve them of their duty and recover our wagons. And the good citizens of Richmond will be more than glad to play host to a few more Yanks. Let's get them moving along, shall we?" With that, he and his men dismounted.
"Ten-chut." Scott barked the order and the thirty or so Union solders on either side of him snapped to attention.
"Whatcha doin', Lieutenant?" The young sergeant standing next to Scott whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
"If we're going to prison, Mr. Lewis, we can at least maintain some semblance of dignity, don't you think?" Scott whispered back. "Show them how real soldiers behave."
Remaining at attention, Scott returned the rebel captain's stare, refusing to blink. The man looked him up and down before asking, "May I presume you're the commanding officer, son?"
"Awfully young, aren't you, boy?"
Not as young as I was a year ago when I signed up to spend time in hell. "Yes, sir."
"Well, son, General Fitzhugh Lee sends his regards and thanks you for keeping his supplies intact. May I inquire as to your commander? I see from your insignia...." The captain gestured towards the crossed sabers decorating the front of Scott's feathered Hardee hat. "...that you're a cavalry detachment."
"Yes, sir. General Phillip Sheridan commanding, sir."
“Well, I am sure General Sheridan will regret the loss of so fine a company, Lieutenant. If you will kindly order your men to stand down, we can arrange your transfer to your new quarters in Libby Prison."
The Confederate captain turned slightly away from Scott in response to the rebel's query. Scott didn't think he'd ever seen quite as filthy or tattered a soldier as the one who stood before them, or one quite so young. As young as he was himself, this soldier couldn't have been more than fifteen.
"Cap'n, sir, I was jest thinkin'," he started. "Them bluebellies has got some mighty fine lookin' boots and jackets. They won't be needin' 'em whur they're agoin' and me 'n' the boys could sure use 'em." The boy shuffled his feet, his bare toes protruding through the cracked and rotting leather of his boots.
The Captain pulled a well-used cigar from his jacket pocket and stuck it, unlit, into the corner of his mouth. He sucked on it for a short time before removing it and turning back to Scott. "Lieutenant, I think the boy makes a strong point. Have your men remove their boots and tunics and put them in a pile over there." He gestured with his cigar to a spot several feet removed.
"Lieutenant. Sir. That's outrageous."
"Sir, tell the damn rebels we won't do it."
"That's fucking ridiculous, Lieutenant. Sir. No way I'm giving those bastards my boots."
The protests rang down the line of Union soldiers until Scott raised his hand. "Gentlemen, you will do as the Captain requested. Boots and tunics off. Now."
"Thank you, Lieutenant." The rebel captain smiled and replaced his cigar in his mouth, watching as the captive soldiers grudgingly complied with Scott's order.
"Did we really have any choice?" Scott drew himself up to his full height which gave him a slight size advantage over the captain. He started to unbutton his own tunic slowly, one button at a time, while he stared down the other officer.
"No...but it does make things more...pleasant. And it will go easier for your boys if they cooperate." The captain's mouth crooked up in a small smile. "It means my men will let y'all live."
As the officer stalked away, issuing orders to his soldiers, Scott sank down in the wet Virginia clay and pulled his own boots off. He retrieved several small papers from his jacket pocket and, after a brief glance to assure himself they were intact, he tucked them into his pants pocket. He didn't bother with the small amount of cash in the tunic pocket; some rebel would find it a welcome and useful surprise. After a nearly imperceptible pause, he forced himself to his feet and threw the boots and his jacket onto the growing pile.
The Confederates marched their captives to a tiny flag stop on the Virginia Central Railroad, a challenging hike for Scott's men, limping along in their stockinged feet. Scott found it ironic that the railroad the Union troops had been sent to destroy had become their own means of transportation. He found it less than amusing, however, that their accommodations aboard the train weren’t fit for humans. Hadn‘t even been built for the transport of humans. He and his men were loaded onto cattle cars, clear evidence of the previous occupants still fouling the wooden floors and staining the slatted sides. He sat with his back to the wall as the train rocked southward toward Richmond, replaying the capture in his mind over and over again, trying to figure out how he might have kept his men safe until, overcome by exhaustion, he braced his head against the wooden slats and the rocking of the train lulled him to sleep.
"Watch out, Scott!"
Johnny's voice, raised in near panic aroused Scott from his reverie just in time for him to see the huge steer bearing down on him, Johnny and Barranca hot on its heels. Johnny's rope arced through the air and fell neatly around the steer's neck. Barranca sat down on his hocks, throwing his weight backward and raising a choking cloud of dust when his hooves dug in. The steer, checked by the taut rope, stopped a scant few yards from the spot where Scott stood with his own rope clenched in his hands, in the process of pulling a frantic cow from the limbs of a fallen tree. Johnny had already dismounted by the time Barranca stopped. He pulled his rope from around the steer's neck and gave the animal a shove, sending it in retreat back to the main herd. Grabbing Barranca’s reins, he gave the horse a quick pat on the neck before turning to face Scott.
"What the hell's wrong with you, brother?"
With one final heave, Scott pulled the cow to freedom, nearly falling backward with the effort. He sent the bawling beast on its way, and stalling for time, trying to avoid answering Johnny’s question, he shook his rope out and began recoiling it.
“I asked you a question, Scott.”
“And I heard you. Thank you for stopping that steer.”
“That’s it? 'Thank you?' You almost get yourself killed out here twice in the past two days 'cause you’re not paying attention, and the best you can say is ‘thank you?’”
Scott remained silent as he retrieved his own horse and swung into the saddle. Quincy danced under him, ready to run. Settling his hat firmly on his head, Scott touched his fingers to the brim in a silent salute. Pivoting the horse on its haunches, he touched his spurs to its side and galloped away.
Stepping off the train that afternoon for the first time since leaving Baltimore, Laura was nearly overcome by the stifling heat and humidity and the stench that rose up from the muddy Mississippi River. She clenched her handkerchief to her nose and looked around for a porter who she might engage to carry her trunks to the hotel, across the street and several buildings removed from the station. She wandered through the waiting room and out to the cobbled street bordering the train yard, looking toward the Railroad Hotel, wondering if she‘d need to inquire for a porter at the hotel itself. A young soldier leaning against a nearby post caught her eye, and she found herself staring. Scott would’ve looked so dashing in that plumed hat and blue uniform. How could he possibly have enlisted, though, after what happened to Drew? Laura had pleaded with Scott after Drew died, earning his assurances he would never join the Army -- if not out of respect for his grandfather‘s wishes, then out of his love for her. Why did you join, Scott? You promised me you wouldn’t. And now you’re dead, just like Drew and so many others.
If Scott had been her heart and soul, then Drew was the brother she’d never had. Laura would never forget the day in June, 1862 when he had come to tell her he’d enlisted in the Army. He was practically quivering with excitement, eager to be a part of the push that would drive the rebels back and end the War once and for all. She had been horrified by his news.
“But Drew…don’t you need to finish school? You just can’t join the Army. What if you were….What if something happened to you?” She couldn’t bring herself to say “killed.” Her mind didn’t even want to entertain the possibility. “Your mother must be frantic with worry! And what has Scott had to say about this? I’m sure he advised you against it.”
“Oh, come on, Mac. It’ll be a huge adventure.” Drew gave her a lop-sided grin, his eyes shining with excitement. He took her hands and gave them a squeeze. “There’s no point in me going back to Harvard. Scott’s the bright one -- the darling of the professors. He has been since the very first day. I’ve just been hanging on by a thread the last year or so. You know that. And if it hadn’t been for Scott, they’d have expelled me already.”
“”That’s not true,” she protested, clinging to his hands. “You just need to apply yourself a bit more. Besides, you and Scott have only one more year left. Surely you can manage a little while longer. Scott can always convince the disciplinary board to let you stay….” Laura winced at the pained look on Drew’s face, and she quickly apologized. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“It’s all right. He has always been there to bail me out. But I need to do this for me, Mac. Maybe in some small way prove I’m not the trifling rich boy everyone thinks I am.”
Despite her continued protests and attempts to reason with him, Drew had steadfastly refused to budge in his decision. The week before he left Boston, she and Scott had walked arm in arm on the Common, wandering down to the Frog Pond, their conversation yet again focused on their dear friend.
“Scott, you simply must tell him that he can’t do this. He’ll listen to you. He always has.”
“I’ve tried, Laura,” Scott sighed. “I’ve tried every argument I can think of to convince him how crazy his decision is. He won’t listen to me any more than he’s listened to you. He’s determined to go regardless of what anyone says. He’s convinced himself that it’s his ‘duty’ to go fight for his country. Besides, I don’t think he can rescind his enlistment now anyway. He’s signed the papers, and he has to report next Monday.”
“But what if he’s killed?” she whispered, stopping to look up into Scott‘s eyes. “What if he dies, Scott? I can‘t imagine him not being here with us. So far, the War for us has been headlines in the newspapers and discussions at dinner parties; arguments between the two of you over what strategies and which General might bring victory. Now the War’s taking our best friend away, and he may never come home.” She blotted at her eyes with her gloved hand.
She was crying again a week later when she and Scott stood on the platform at the train station to see Drew off on his "adventure." Laura gripped Scott’s hand so tightly he had to ask her to let go a little when his fingers started cramping. A little girl skipped by and shoved a small flag into Laura’s other hand. The whole event had such an air of unreality to Laura, her memory of the day would be forever vague. Bands playing, people cheering, women crying. Complete pandemonium made worse by the locomotive hissing and rumbling in the background.
“Drew, please don’t go,” Laura pleaded with her friend one last time. “Please stay home. We’ll find a way to get you out of your enlistment. Father has friends in Washington. Mr. Garrett will write letters. Your own father has a great deal of influence.”
“I can’t, Mac,” he responded, shaking his head. “I’m ready, and it’s time now. I have to go.” He kissed her gently on her cheek, and whispered in her ear. “Take care of Scott. He loves you so much. He always has." Drew looked back at her as he shook Scott’s hand. “I’ll write -- I promise. And I’m sure I’ll get home on leave by Christmas or so.”
The letters he sent home from his regiment, the 12th Massachusetts, were full of bravado, and made light of long marches, poor rations, and inept leaders. At the end of August, he was near Washington City, surviving the chaos of the second battle at Manassas, Virginia. By September, he had retreated into Maryland, and was one of the few who lived to testify to the complete butchery that was the Miller’s cornfield near Antietam Creek. Drew didn’t make it home for Christmas, however. His memorial service was held just prior to that holy day. There had been no body to return to his family and thus no funeral for the happy-go-lucky boy whose life had ended when a Confederate shell exploded directly on top of him as his regiment stormed Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 13.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
Laura blinked, her eyes slowly focusing on the young man standing in front of her, his mouth drawn in a small frown of concern. The soldier held his hat in his right hand, its black feather ruffling in the breeze; his left hand rested on the saber that hung by his side. The brass buttons and bars decorating his tunic flashed in the sunlight.
“I….Yes, thank you, I’m fine,” she replied, her face coloring as she realized she had been gaping at the cavalryman.
“May I assist you…? He started before a gruff voice interrupted him.
“That won’t be necessary, Lieutenant.” Nicholas strode over and took her by the elbow, nodding at the other man. “Miss MacNeill, if you’d be so kind as to accompany me, I’ve engaged a porter to deliver your trunks to the Railroad Hotel.” Without awaiting her response, he pulled her away and down the street. Out of the corner of her eye, Laura saw the lieutenant jam his hat back on his head, and he offered a half-hearted salute before he, too, turned away.
“Wait a minute, Mr. Pruitt.” Laura dug her heels in and pulled her arm from his grasp. “What do you think you're doing?"
“I don’t think the middle of the street is the appropriate place for us to discuss that, Miss MacNeill,” he responded.
“And I disagree. There’s no time like the present,” Laura said. She knew she was being confrontational, but she’d had enough of having others make her decisions for her. She had finally escaped her father's control, and she wasn’t about to allow this man, or anyone else, to take his place.
He puffed out his cheeks and rolled his eyes. “All right. I apologize if you feel I was too forward, but you shouldn’t be talking to complete strangers in the street. Not in this city. Actually, not in any city.”
“Who I choose to talk to is none of your business, Mr. Pruitt. And I never asked you to see to my trunks, either, did I? For your information, I am quite capable of taking care of myself. I don’t need you to watch over me.” Laura managed a thin smile. “Besides, you’re a complete stranger to me yourself. So, based on your logic, I shouldn’t be talking to you either.” With that, she stalked past him and down the sidewalk to the hotel. She heard him mutter an oath, and a rock skittered under the boardwalk next to her as he kicked at the cobblestones.
The hotel lobby provided a welcome relief to Laura from the dust and heat outside. The décor, while not as elegant as what she had been accustomed to in New York or Europe, was tastefully done. Most importantly, she thought, after several days of breathing air befouled by the wood-fired locomotive, the hotel was refreshingly clean.
“I will require a room for the night, please,” Laura addressed the young man who stood at the front desk, his eyeglasses perched precariously on the end of his nose.
“Certainly, Miss,” he replied. “I will be happy to assist you as soon as your father or another family member arrives. We can’t provide a room to a lady alone. It’s against hotel policy.” The clerk continued weakly, “I’m sorry, Miss, but those are the rules.”
“So where exactly does this hotel expect me to stay -- back on the train or out in the street? Or perhaps there’s another hotel nearby to which you could direct me? A hotel that won’t be so particular about accepting my money?”
The clerk looked around uncomfortably as though trying to bolster his courage in the face of this petite whirlwind. Hoping to stave off what he feared would be an unfortunate scene in his lobby, he replied, “Ma’am, I don’t think any of the hotels around here will rent a room to you. Perhaps you could find a family from the train who might chaperone you?”
A strong arm wrapped itself around her waist, and before she could react, Nicholas had pulled her against him. “What seems to be the problem here?” He challenged the desk clerk. “All my little cousin requested was a room where she can rest for the night. Surely you can accommodate her.”
The clerk looked back and forth between the two before stammering, “Uh…Sir…your ‘cousin’ didn’t mention you’d be coming along. I…uh…I do have a room right here for her, as it happens.”
“Excellent! I trust it will be adequate for her needs. She will, of course, require the services of a maid as well as a private water closet.”
“Yes, sir. Understood, sir.” The clerk made notations in his ledger, appearing to use the task as a means to stop his hands from shaking. He was accustomed to demanding customers, but something about this man seemed at least vaguely threatening.
“And, naturally, I will require the suite adjacent to my cousin‘s.”
“Yes, certainly. Of course, sir. That will not present a problem. Your luggage is….”
“Right over there.” Nicholas pointed to the three trunks he’d had delivered from the train station.
“Very good, sir.” Turning to Laura, the clerk attempted a nervous smile, “And, ma’am, the maid’s name is Esther. She’ll be up presently to assist you.” He handed each of them a key. “Your rooms are on the second floor. Turn left at the top of the stairs, all the way at the end.” He turned the ledger around and handed Laura his pen. “Sign here, if you would. That will be eight dollars each for the suites, and an additional dollar for the maid.” Laura signed her name in the ledger with a flourish and paid the clerk with cash from her reticule. It angered her that it had taken Pruitt’s intervention to obtain a room for the night. She had to concede, though, she suspected as a lady traveling alone she might be refused service or she would be perceived to be a woman of ill-repute simply because she lacked a companion. She had been so determined and eager to leave Baltimore that she hadn't made any effort to arrange for anyone to accompany her. She had counted on the train traveling non-stop to California as had been advertised except to take on wood and water; brief interludes that wouldn't require her to do more than stretch her legs and perhaps purchase a few necessities along the way.
An impish grin on his face, Nicholas offered her his arm. “My dear ‘cousin.‘ Shall we see to our lodgings?”
Laura had no option other than to reluctantly engage in his deception. She grudgingly took his arm and allowed him to lead her up the stairs, the hotel porter following with one of her trunks balanced on his back. The man would make two more trips up the wide staircase to bring the remaining baggage. The air in her suite was nearly as stifling as the air outside, but Laura hoped it might cool as the sun set. The light beyond the heavy curtains that framed the window was already turning rose-tinged as the afternoon light faded.
“You’re welcome.” Nicholas interrupted her thoughts. His hands tucked into his pockets, he leaned against the doorframe.
She turned back to him, suddenly very aware they were alone, even though the hall door had been left ajar when the porter retreated to retrieve the remaining trunks. “Mr. Pruitt…,” she started.
“Nicholas.” The crooked, boyish grin was back. “Remember…I’m your ‘cousin.’”
Catching her tongue between her teeth in an effort to calm herself, Laura closed her eyes briefly, unable to stifle a soft groan. The last thing she felt like was sparring verbally with a man who seemed disinclined to take “no“ for an answer. She wanted dinner, a bath, and sleep in a bed that wasn‘t moving -- in that order. “Mr. Pruitt, while I am sincerely grateful for your intervention just now in securing this room for me, nothing has changed. In the morning, you will go on your way, and I will, likewise, proceed on mine.”
“I beg to differ, Laura.” Nicholas emphasized her name almost as though he was challenging her to object to the familiarity. He hesitated and glanced down the hallway before continuing. “When you left Baltimore, did you pause to consider that any respectable establishment would refuse to rent a room to a woman alone regardless of how elegant she was or how much money she might offer? Do you have any remote idea of the danger you’ve placed yourself in?”
Laura stiffened as she felt the old sense of defiance well up in her. She would‘ve accepted the same words from Scott with perhaps only a token protest, but this man was definitely not Scott, and she was already quite testy. “No, Mr. Pruitt, I had, and still have, little trepidation about traveling by myself. And my welfare remains none of your concern.”
“You are either incredibly naïve, my dear ‘cousin,’” Nicholas shot back, “or you’ve developed an amazing ability to ignore the facts. St. Louis is a civilized, progressive city for the most part, and yet there isn’t a reputable hotel in this town that will allow you to stay without a chaperone. The further west we travel, the less civilized life will become. You’ll be fair game for any man who comes along, and you have no possible means of defending yourself.”
“I suppose you see yourself as my defender, Mr. Pruitt?” She could feel the sweat dripping down her spine, and it did nothing to improve her mood. “Why should I trust you?”
“You shouldn’t, Laura.” He whispered the words almost to himself before he lifted his chin and spoke more briskly, pointing his finger in emphasis. “But I’m the one available male on that train who has no ulterior motives and who -- you can blame it on my Southern upbringing -- has enough chivalry left in me to protect a woman who needs to be protected. Even if she’s not willing to admit it.”
“'scuse me, suh.” A quiet voice from the hallway caused Nicholas to turn. A young Negro woman in a maid’s uniform paused before entering the room. “Ma’am,” she addressed Laura with a small curtsey. “Ah'm Esther, one a th' hotel maids. I be heppin' you this evenin.'"
"Thank you, Esther," she acknowledged the greeting with a smile. "I would like...." Laura started before Nicholas interrupted.
"The first thing you might help her with, Esther, is to change into dinner clothing. My cousin and I will be dining together this evening."
Laura started to protest before she realized Nicholas was defying her to do just that. He had intentionally placed her in an awkward position, knowing she would not argue in front of a servant, nor would she risk exposing their charade. She glared at him before responding through clenched teeth, "Yes, I will need to change for dinner. If you'll excuse us, Nicholas, I'm sure I can be ready shortly."
With a knowing smile, Nicholas turned smoothly on his heel and left, pulling the door closed behind him.
I wonder if he's always this arrogant, she speculated. He couldn't be any less like Scott...in looks or behavior....Scott would never have put me on the spot like that or insisted I do something that I clearly don't feel like doing. Opening the door to Nicholas' soft tap some moments after Esther left, Laura was greeted with a brilliant smile and a courtly bow.
"You look lovely, little 'cousin.'" Nicholas ignored the obvious displeasure on her face and offered his arm for her to take.
"Mr. Pru...." She stared first at the proffered arm and then at his face as he interrupted her.
"'Nicholas,'" he insisted with another dazzling smile. "Cousin Nicholas."
She was certain he was exaggerating his Southern drawl. Whether it was an attempt to charm her or simply to be annoying, she wasn't sure, but it definitely had the latter effect. "Mr. Pruitt," she hissed, "shall we drop this impossible farce? I am in no mood to be patronized by you or anyone else. I will dine with you because I have no other choice at the moment, but make no mistake. I have no intention of continuing this game once dinner is over." Laura grudgingly took his arm, swept her skirts behind her and closed and locked the door to her suite. "Now, can we simply be done with this?"
He said nothing, but his carefully arched eyebrow might have signaled his silent reproach when Laura lifted her third glass of wine to her lips -- had she taken notice or even cared. Indeed, the entire meal so far had been accompanied by a total lack of conversation or interaction save what was necessary to obtain a table and request their particular choices of food. She had never been drunk in her life, but the possibility somehow seemed more attractive and less scandalous as dinner progressed.
You need to stop drinking now, Laura. Her conscience somehow seemed to have taken on Scott's voice. Shrugging off the admonition, she took another large mouthful of the excellent zinfandel. Really. You've had enough. Put the glass down. Now.
Placing his own wine glass back on the table, Nicholas blotted his lips with his napkin and leaned back in his chair. "Who was he, Laura?"
Laura nearly choked on her mouthful of wine before she was able to cough it down. Several diners at adjoining tables glanced at her with curiosity before returning their attention to their own meals. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she countered while frantically wondering if he somehow had read her mind. His pointed question had come out of nowhere.
"In my somewhat limited experience, my dear 'cousin,'" he continued, "a woman of your means and beauty does not leave a charming, urbane city such as Baltimore to become a schoolmistress in the backwoods of California without good reason."
"And you automatically assume my change of venue has something to do with a man?" She bristled, anger taking the place of her fatigue and apathy. "Isn't it possible I simply wish to offer the children of Morro Coyo the education that I myself was fortunate to receive?"
"Bluntly...no." He paused, stroked his chin distractedly, and scrutinized her face like a gambler trying to ascertain the cards in his opponent's hand. "You're running away from something -- or someone."
It was all she could manage to keep the tears from her eyes. "This conversation -- and dinner -- are over, Mr. Pruitt," she whispered. "If you'd be so kind as to see me back to my room...." Laura stood and blinked back the wave of dizziness that blurred her vision, steadying herself with one hand on the table.
Nicholas retrieved several coins from his pocket and placed them very deliberately next to his dinner plate. He offered Laura his arm and guided her carefully through the maze of tables and chairs and back into the hotel lobby. She paused briefly at the front desk to speak to the clerk.
"I would very much appreciate it if you would send Esther to assist me as soon as she is available."
"Yes, ma'am, Miss MacNeill. Right away." The clerk glanced at Nicholas, a worried expression on his face. Nicholas' own face remained an inscrutable mask, devoid of emotion.
"Thank you." Her jaw locked in an attempt to hide her own strong feelings, Laura refused to speak to Nicholas as they climbed the stairs to the second floor suites. He finally spoke as she inserted her room key into the lock.
"I'm very sorry, Laura," he said quietly. "Please forgive me for once again being too forward. It was completely improper of me."
"Mr. Pruitt." She glared up at him as she turned the doorknob. "Please just leave me alone. I did not seek your attention nor do I welcome it." Slipping into the room, she closed the door in his face, uttering a soft, "Good night."
Laura nearly moaned with pleasure as she sank down into the bath Esther had drawn for her. The water was delightfully hot and scented with rose oil. Closing her eyes, she felt herself completely relax for perhaps the first time since she'd left Baltimore. Not too many more days. I'll be in California soon. I can unpack, settle myself, and focus on teaching the children. Maybe I can eventually find myself a horse, buy a saddle, ride. Start a new life in a place about as far removed from Boston as I can go. She laughed softly. A new horse.... What a lovely thought! Maybe a nice little gelding. Just no more chestnut mares like Bucky. That would make Scott happy....The idea, combined with her over-consumption of alcohol at dinner, made her giggle.
They had ridden back to the farm in Waltham after an exhilarating morning spent foxhunting; a long chase followed by a sumptuous "breakfast" that ended in the early afternoon. Scott had, as usual, helped her down from her horse, a necessary task given her voluminous skirts and the awkward sidesaddle. He grinned at her as Seamus, the groom and Katie's elder brother, collected the reins and led their horses away.
"Well, at least you stayed on that mare and even managed to stay behind Master Davies this time," he teased. "But tell me, Laura -- do you always need to name your horses after their worst faults?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Laura responded with a sniff, her eyes twinkling with humor.
"Sure you do. First it was that pony, Dash, that constantly tried to run away with you. Then, there was Spitfire. He was practically unrideable. Now, you have Bucky. It seems pretty obvious to me. What exactly was it you did for the first hour of this morning's hunt -- while I was attempting to whip in and still keep an eye on you?"
"Ummm....Bucky bucked." Laura had failed to suppress a giggle.
"Precisely. I rest my case."
She had laughed and taken Scott's arm, and he had escorted her into the house; the mansion outside Boston that Laura's father, in false modesty, referred to as "the farm." Their lavish home on four hundred acres away from the congestion of Beacon Hill. She had tossed her riding hat, gloves and whip onto the hall table, running her fingers through her windblown hair. "I wish you didn't have to go back to Boston today, Scott. Are you sure you can't stay a day longer?"
"No," he said with a grimace. "As much as I'd like to, I have lessons this week. Besides…as long as we're hunting, the gossips will curb their tongues. With no meets until next weekend...."
"I know," she interrupted, frowning. "We'd give them far too much to talk about. With Drew gone off to fight and his family's home here closed, you wouldn't have a legitimate reason -- at least in their minds -- to be out here. The hunt members will mostly turn their heads and pretend not to see us together, but everyone else...." She reached out for Scott's hands. "...will tell Father, and he'll make it even more difficult for us to be together. At least you can come out for the meets and stay with the Davies."
"Are you certain you don't want to return to town with me? You're out here alone, and it worries me." He gave her hands a comforting squeeze.
"I want to stay here a little longer. It's so much quieter. And, besides, I'm hardly alone. I have Katie and Seamus and the house staff with me. Christmas is only a few weeks away, and all the holiday parties and balls will begin. I'd like one last respite before all the chaos."
"True. But I can't watch out for you when we're separated like this. And, I won't be able to see you again until at least next weekend."
She had grinned and squeezed his hands back. "I’ll miss you terribly, but I’ll be fine. You don't have to protect me all the time, Scott. I know it's a full-time job, but...."
"But I will always love and protect you," Scott had finished her sentence, his voice and eyes suddenly intense. "You do know that, don't you? No matter what happens, regardless of what your father may say or do. I'll always be with you."
Leaning her head back against the rim of the tub, she drifted away, happy in her memories, until she dozed off. She wasn't sure how long she had been asleep when a soft, musical voice coaxed her back to consciousness.
"Miss MacNeill…ma'am? I think your water's gone cold." Esther stood holding a towel, her chocolate skin glowing in the candlelight. "I laid out yo' nightdress for you. If you needs me, I kin hep you brush out yo' hair."
"That's all right, Esther. Thank you." Laura yawned and wiped the moisture from her face with her hand. "If you'll leave the towel, I can dry and dress myself. I'm sure you need some rest yourself."
"Yes'm. Thank you. I see you in the mawnin'." Esther padded quietly away, noiselessly shutting the door to the suite behind her.
Crawling out of the tub, Laura wrapped her towel around her, luxuriating in finally being clean after what had seemed like infinitely more than three days. Buttoning her nightdress under her chin after drying off, she thought the room felt at least nominally cooler than it had earlier. After brushing her hair and twisting it into a long braid, she tucked herself into bed.
His fingers carefully pushed the stray strands of hair from her face, tucking them into place behind her ears before he pulled her close in his arms. Scott's lips on hers were soft and warm, and he kissed her slowly, as though they had all the time in the world. Laura finally pulled away slightly, her hands holding his face as she looked up into his eyes.
"Where have you been, Scott? I've missed you so much."
"What do you mean? I've always been here with you. I told you I'd never leave you, Laura. I love you."
"But Father told me you were...dead. That you were in the Army, and you were shot and killed."
"You should know better than to believe everything your father says." Scott grinned at her and tapped her on the tip of her nose with his finger. "Didn't that kiss convince you that I'm very much alive? Perhaps you need more convincing?"
Scott stifled her words by taking her face in his hands and kissing her again. She leaned against him, savoring the feel of his arms around her waist and the warmth of his breath on her face.
Suddenly, she was alone, her arms grasping only air. She spun on her heels, her heart pounding, panic-stricken as she searched for him in the darkened room. "Scott," she cried out, "where are you? Don't go! Please come back!"
"Why are you calling for him, Laura?" Her father leaned against the doorpost, his arms crossed on his chest. "Why do you insist on mourning that Lancer boy after all these years? He is dead."
"Nooooo!" Laura awakened shrieking. "Nooooo! Scott!"
"Laura?" A fist beating on the door to her suite caused her to sit up straight in bed, trembling, but now completely awake. "Laura? Are you all right?"
She pushed back the bedcovers and forced her feet to the floor. There was sufficient light reflected through the windows from the gaslights in the street for her to make her way to the door. She cracked it open slightly, enough to see Nicholas standing outside her door, his fist raised as he prepared to knock again.
"Are you all right?" He repeated his question. "You were screaming. I could hear...."
"I'm fine, Mr. Pruitt." Laura glanced past him down the hallway, embarrassed that several guests were peering out their doorways, craning their necks to see what was happening.
"It didn't sound like you were all right," he insisted. "Do you need me to stay with you for a little...."
"No. Please. This is very awkward. Please go away. I'm fine." Laura closed the door quietly, leaving Nicholas standing in the hallway. She slumped into a chair, still shaken by how real her dream had seemed. It had been the same for the past four years; she would dream of Scott holding her or walking with her on the Common, laughing, his head thrown back and his golden hair shimmering in the sunlight. Then she'd awaken, crying as she realized he now lived only in her dreams. Resigned to spending the remainder of the night awake, she leaned her head against the back of the chair and tried to focus on the tasks she'd need to accomplish when she finally arrived in Morro Coyo.
God….Does the pain ever go away? Scott sat alone on the sofa in the Great Room, the lamps extinguished, the only light provided by the flames in the fireplace hungrily consuming the dry logs. The clock chimed midnight as he sipped on an overly generous glass of tequila, needing something that would burn when it slid down his throat. Nothing smooth like his father’s Glenlivet or a select brandy would match his black mood. Coming to California was supposed to be the answer; the solution to so many problems whose origins could be traced back to Laura’s unexplained disappearance. Joining his father at Lancer had succeeded on two fronts -- it had gotten him out of Boston where the memories of Laura were impossible to avoid, and it had given him a new purpose in life. Living and working in a land of spectacular beauty, alongside the brother he'd always longed for, had slowly started to heal his shattered soul. Sometimes, however, he thought it had only complicated things. His father stubbornly skirted the issue of why he had abandoned him to his grandfather, and his brother, despite being engaging and charmingly unpredictable, had an uncanny ability to crawl under his skin that was somewhat disconcerting and occasionally downright irritating.
His graduation from Harvard in ‘63 had been well-celebrated, despite it being an expectation of his grandfather’s not open to discussion. Grandfather had also expected he would join the firm upon his graduation. Carry on the Garrett legacy of amassing obscene amounts of money that could never be spent and that lost any real meaning as the sums mounted; the dollars were reduced to numbers in a ledger, impressively mind-numbing.
Laura had looked ravishing the night of his graduation party, glossy curls cascading over her shoulder, wearing his favorite of her evening frocks with the emeralds he had given her for her sixteenth birthday glittering against her throat. They both knew she shouldn’t be there. Hell, Grandfather knew -- everyone in attendance had known -- that Robert MacNeill had forbidden his only daughter to see “that Lancer boy.” Since the previous autumn they had met at agreed-upon locations on the Common, or she had defiantly come to the Garrett mansion when her father was away, knowing he would eventually find out and at least temporarily put a stop to it.
He had returned home after kissing Laura good night in front of her house, too restless to sleep, his mind filled with what the future might hold for them now that he had finished his studies at Harvard. The household staff was still tidying the parlors, and his grandfather had retired for the night, so he had taken a glass of brandy into the study and settled himself in front of the banked fire. It would be a few years before they could marry, he knew, but it didn’t stop him from thinking about it or planning how he would love and care for her. Somehow, he’d convince her father he and Laura were deeply in love and they were meant to be together. In his mind, MacNeill would offer them his blessing, and they would live their lives in Boston, ecstatically happy, raising the house full of children they both longed for. Reality had reared its ugly head, however, making a mockery of his adolescent dreams.
“Good morning, Master Scott.” The MacNeill butler, Davis, might have been surprised to see the young man at the door that cool May morning six years earlier, but he disguised it well.
“Good morning, Davis. Is Mr. MacNeill available, please?” Scott had waited several days after the party to go to the MacNeill home, anticipating that Laura’s father would return by week’s end, and drawing on every ounce of courage he had and every reasonable entreaty he could make to convince MacNeill to allow him to court the woman he loved. He hadn’t seen or communicated with Laura since the party, but he hadn’t been particularly concerned. Quite often, when her father was expected home, they would be forced to be extremely discreet, relying on Katie to pass messages for them, or simply avoiding any contact at all for short periods.
The servant looked remarkably uncomfortable as he replied, “He is, sir. I’ll be happy to ask if he’ll see you, but….”
“Thank you,” Scott replied as he side-stepped the butler and crossed the threshold. “I’ll wait in the parlor.”
“Yes, sir.” Davis hesitated before he closed the front door and turned down the wide hallway. Scott slipped into the front parlor, as familiar to him as the Garrett sitting room. His hands clasped behind his back, he studied the portrait of Laura’s late mother that graced the wall above the fireplace mantel. A similar painting of his own mother held the same spot of honor at home. Two young women, both once beautiful and vibrantly alive, both long since dead in childbirth. Laura’s mother, Elizabeth, had been stunning, passing along to her daughter her reddish brown hair and green eyes, along with a rebellious streak, or so it was rumored.
“What are you doing here, Lancer?”
Laura’s father had never been one to mince words. “Good morning, sir,” he had responded politely. “I had hoped that perhaps we could talk. As you are, I am sure, aware, I have been graduated from Harvard this past week and will be taking a position with my grandfather’s firm."
“And you want to talk to me about my daughter, I presume,” MacNeill interrupted. “You’d like for me to agree to allow you to see her.”
“Well, yes, sir,” Scott conceded. “Laura and I are quite fond of each other, and….”
“It’s over, Lancer.” The older man again brushed him off. “Laura is gone. She will not be returning to Boston.”
“Gone?” Scott could feel the blood drain from his face, and he very nearly stumbled backward. “Gone where? I just saw her earlier this week,” he confessed. “She didn’t mention any plans for travel.”
“Nor would she tell you of her plans. She confided to me that she was frightened of you. Disturbed by your persistence and inappropriate advances. She asked to go away, and I have no intention of divulging her whereabouts to you or to anyone connected with you.”
Scott inhaled, forcing a calm he didn‘t feel. His voice resonated into the sudden quiet. “Forgive me, sir, but I don’t believe you. Laura would never willingly leave me.”
“Whether you believe me or not is immaterial. My daughter is gone, and she will not return. Particularly not to the likes of you.” With that, MacNeill had turned on his heel and left the room, leaving Scott in a tangled morass of anger, frustration and despair. All he had been able to focus on was his need to find Laura; to bring her back to him despite what her father had claimed. He’d gone first to his grandfather’s office, only to find him away on business for the day. From there he’d hired a Pinkerton agent, offering the detective twice the asking price to track Laura’s whereabouts. After two weeks of dead ends and doors closed in his face, the agent had given up and had bluntly suggested Scott do the same.
“Move on, Scotty,” his grandfather had admonished him at dinner not long after. “Move on. Give up this irrational obsession with MacNeill’s daughter. There are plenty of other women who’d be more than happy to be courted by you. The Dennison girl, for example. Julie, is it? Now there’s a woman who’d be a perfect wife for you. Perhaps not as lovely as the MacNeill girl,” he conceded, “but certainly more tractable.” Garrett raised his wine glass and offered his grandson a conspiratorial smile. “What do you say, Scotty? A toast to new beginnings?”
His dinner left untouched, Scott had morosely finished his own glass of wine -- and topped it off with another bottle of his grandfather’s choice vintage after the old man retired for the night. He had vowed to himself to do as his grandfather had suggested and “move on.” With his promise to Laura that he would not join the Army discarded along with his dreams for their future, Scott left the house on Beacon Hill the next morning and, still profoundly hung-over, volunteered to defend the Union against all foes, foreign and domestic.
“Have you lost your mind?” Grandfather had looked disturbingly close to an apoplectic fit when the young man calmly announced his news later that evening. Scott couldn’t remember ever seeing the old man so close to losing control. Somehow, it gave him a vague sense of satisfaction; his grandfather wasn’t the impenetrable bastion he’d always imagined him to be. He had felt himself spinning out of control, and it seemed appropriate for some reason that his grandfather do the same.
“Probably,” Scott admitted. He shrugged and drained his snifter of brandy in one smooth flick of his wrist before pouring himself a generous refill from the crystal decanter.
The gesture wasn’t lost on Garrett, and his mouth turned down at the corners in disapproval. “You are not going to throw your life away over that girl, Scotty. You will pull yourself together and move on. I’ll write to Senator Sumner first thing in the morning and have your enlistment revoked. Enough of this nonsense.”
“No, Grandfather.” Scott studied the contents of his glass before he slugged down another large mouthful of the liquor. “You will not write to the good Senator, and you will not attempt to have my commission rescinded. Should you interfere, I'll demand to be assigned to the infantry and sent to the front lines, into the heaviest of the fighting.”
“That would be tantamount to suicide.”
"So be it." Scott stood up and, exerting unusual control given the quantity
of alcohol he had imbibed, replaced his glass on the buffet. "You see,
Grandfather, Boston no longer holds any real attraction for me."
"In other words, you're going to let that MacNeill girl ruin your life."
"Correction, Grandfather. 'That MacNeill girl' was my life."
"How do you do that, brother?" Johnny muttered to himself the next morning when he found Scott asleep, sitting upright on the sofa, a glass of tequila still balanced in his hand. Carefully removing the glass from Scott's fingers, a task he accomplished without so much as a twitch from his brother, Johnny leaned over and set it on the table behind the sofa. "Okay, Scott. Time to get up." He gently slapped the sleeping man on the cheek, nearly caught in the face when Scott lashed out with his right fist.
"Leave me alone," Scott mumbled. "Go away."
"Nope. Breakfast's ready. You've got chores to do, big brother. Drunk or sober, duty calls. 'Least that's what you always tell me."
Opening eyes puffy from exhaustion and alcohol, Scott ran a hand over the stubble on his face. Johnny's face slowly came into focus. "Guess I fell asleep down here," he said. "What time is it exactly?"
"It's exactly five o'clock and past time for you to be up, Boston. Murdoch's not lookin' too pleased, and Teresa's gonna have a fit if you don't show up for breakfast. So go on upstairs and get washed up, and I'll tell them you'll be along in a minute."
Despite feeling as less like eating than he had in recent memory, Scott washed and shaved and changed his clothes. Trudging down the stairs and into the kitchen, he sagged into his chair, murmuring a soft "thank you" to Teresa as she filled his coffee cup. The plate set in front of him held scrambled eggs, a beefsteak, and a generous slice of bread. His stomach rolled over, but he managed to fork a small bite of eggs into his mouth.
Murdoch cleared his throat, the sound echoing through the spacious kitchen. "Scott, I need you to ride as much of the South Creek frontage as you can today. Check the bridge and take note of any places where we’ll need to clear debris from the stream. Once the rains start this fall, we won't have time to clear it, and it'll flood the south pasture. Johnny's going out to check on the east range line shack. He'll be back tomorrow."
"All right. Sounds good," Scott said without enthusiasm, continuing to slowly force his breakfast down.
"Son, I'd like a few minutes alone with you after breakfast."
Scott glanced up, his eyes narrowing as he took in the grim expression on his father's face. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed his brother was rearranging the food on his own plate with his fork, unusual for a man who typically wolfed his food down and reached for seconds.
"Yes, sir," Scott replied dully.
"I'm done." Johnny pushed back from the table and stood up. "I'll see you all tomorrow night."
"Be careful, son," Murdoch said. "Give my best to Lem."
"I will." Johnny turned to his brother. "Take it easy, Boston."
Reading all sorts of questions in his brother's eyes, Scott shuttered his own eyes, and nodded. "Sure. You too. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Scott, I know you've only been at Lancer for six months, but you've seemed generally happy here until this last week or so. Care to tell me what's going on?" Murdoch leaned against his desk in the great room while his son stood with his back to him, tracing a pattern in the rug with the toe of his boot.
"It's complicated, sir." Scott turned to face his father. "But the issues occupying my mind have nothing to do with Lancer. There're things I need to sort out for myself."
"I can accept that." The older man pursed his lips and nodded. "We all have 'issues' we can only work out in our own time and way. But when the things bothering you potentially endanger your life and that of your brother, I feel I need to intervene. In the past two days you've nearly been trampled twice. Johnny tells me you're distracted and, frankly, ill-tempered."
"With all due respect, sir, Johnny shouldn't have...." Scott locked his jaw, and his eyes changed color from their usual intense blue to a smoky gray -- the shade his family had learned indicated he was frustrated or angry.
Murdoch raised his hand. "Let me finish. Please." His voice softened as he continued, "Your brother wasn't trying to betray your privacy in any way. He's very worried about you, as am I."
Scott paused, his hands on his hips, before a soft smile brightened his face. "I suppose Johnny's right. I didn't realize I'd been all that difficult to live with. I haven't been sleeping well, and I've been 'distracted' as you say. I'll make every effort to do what's expected of me here at Lancer, sir, but you need to trust me as well. Trust me to do what I need to do for myself. Make the decisions I need to make."
"Son, I have no intention of invading your personal life. I want you to be happy at Lancer, build a full life here. But that has to be something you want for yourself."
"Again, Murdoch, I have no thoughts of leaving Lancer. I'm not inclined to tell either you or Johnny how I'm feeling at the moment. Perhaps that will change, or, perhaps with time, the feelings will fade away. But, for now, you'll just have to trust me. That's all I have to offer."
"Then it'll have to be enough." Murdoch squeezed his son on the shoulder before the two men headed out to the barn to start yet another day in the saddle.
The suite was again stiflingly hot and the sun had barely risen above the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the hotel. Laura slowly opened her eyes, shifted in the chair, and reached up to rub the back of her neck. Falling asleep in the chair hadn't been a good idea, she realized. She was already stiff from days of inactivity aboard the train, and sleeping rigidly upright in the dainty parlor chair wasn't going to improve how she felt. At the sound of a knock at her door, she forced herself to her feet and shuffled to answer it.
"Mawning, miss." Esther stood in the doorway, bobbing a small curtsey when Laura opened the door.
"Good morning, Esther. Thank you for coming so early."
"You's welcome. The train be leavin' in 'bout an hour, and you needs to eat breakfas'. I kin hep you pack yo trunks and pin yo hair up. If'n you don't mind, I ast cook to bring yo food up here so's you could git ready quicker."
"That's fine, Esther. Thank you. I...it was so hot I didn't sleep particularly well last night. I hope you fared better."
"Yes'm. I slep' jes' fine. I 'spose I's mo' used to de heat. What you wants ta wear t'day?" Esther followed Laura into the bedroom.
"I laid out a traveling suit last night." Laura gestured toward the bed where a dark navy broadcloth skirt and jacket were arranged, along with a high-necked blouse. "I'll just change." She gathered the clothing and disappeared behind the privacy screen as Esther busied herself tidying Laura's trunk.
Once dressed, Laura emerged from behind the screen and folded her nightdress into the top of the trunk.
"If you come here 'n sit, I kin fix yo hair. I's very good at braidin' ladies' hair."
"Thank you. I'm sure you are." Laura sat down at the dressing table, watching Esther's reflection in the mirror as she gently brushed out the tangles in her hair. Finally, her curiosity overwhelmed her usual reticence.
"Esther, may I ask you a very personal question?"
Esther's fingers paused, the braid in Laura's hair only partially completed. She replied very quietly, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. "Yes'm. I s'pose so."
Laura watched as the maid's expression became guarded, aware the other woman might find her question offensive, and she was prepared to apologize. "Were you a slave before the War?"
Continuing to twist the strands of hair in her fingers, Esther relaxed. "Yes'm. I b'longed to a gempmum down Nawlins way. When de War was done, I started headin' Nawth. St. Louie was as far as I got."
"Are you happy here? Does the hotel treat you well?"
"I like it here jes' fine. Dey don't work me too hard, and I got a fine little room down de way. It ain't nuthin' like bein' a slave. Nobody owns me no mo'. I git paid for de work I does." Esther paused as she wrapped one long braid around the back of Laura's head and pinned it in place. "You ever know any slaves, Miss?"
"No, Esther, I haven't. I guess that's why I've been so curious about you. I ... my family always had servants, but they were mostly Irish. Not Negroes. And they were free to come and go as they pleased."
Esther finished pinning Laura's hair up and turned to pack the silver-backed hairbrush and its matching handheld mirror into the open trunk across the room. She didn't seem satisfied with the state of the trunk, and she fussed about, folding and repacking the few items of clothing Laura had worn.
Retrieving her journal from the bedside table, Laura ran her finger over the cover before she tucked it into the trunk herself. "Did you ever learn to read or write?"
"Well, de massa, he didn't take to teachin' slaves to read. It was agin de law anyhow. But the missy, she teached us chillun when Massa was away. He'd git mad at her somethin' fierce, but she keep on teachin'. I kin read a little and I kin sign my name." Esther paused, her hands full of the nightdress she was refolding. "Since you ast me a question, kin I ast you one, miss?"
"You from the Nawth, aint' you? I kin tell from how you talk you not from the South."
"Yes, I'm from the North. From Boston in Massachusetts."
"Oh, missy, I hear'd all about Boston. How de folks dere was apreachin' 'bout stoppin' slav'ry. We all dreamt of seein' Boston an' New Yawk and Philadelphia. All dem places de Yankee sojers what freed us tole us 'bout. You know any sojers what fought in the War?"
"I did." Laura fought to keep her voice even. "My two dearest friends were soldiers in the Union Army."
Her eyes fixed on the ceiling, the nightdress held tight to her chest and a look of rapture on her face, Esther missed the desolation in Laura's eyes. "Well, missy, when you see 'em agin, will you please tell 'em thank you from me? I never in all de worl' thought I'd live free."
Laura swallowed hard against the knot in her throat, unable to admit to Esther that both Drew and Scott had died. "I'll do that Esther. I know both of them would very much appreciate your kind words."
"Well, that does it for your packin', ma'am. With a nod, Esther closed and latched the trunk. "I git a porter to hep you with yo' trunks."
"Thank you, Esther. It's been a pleasure meeting you."
After the maid left the room, Laura slumped against her trunk, nearly giving in to the tears welling up in her eyes. How could I tell you they both died? Dampen the joy you feel in being free by telling you what it cost me personally? I can't even imagine how you lived, knowing you were nothing but an expendable piece of property. I might have been controlled and manipulated by Father, but I lived in luxury, not in a filthy, disease-laden cabin unfit even for animals. And both Scott and Drew knew the price they might -- and did -- pay.
As wrapped up in each other as she and Scott had been, they were acutely aware of the contrast between their luxurious homes in Beacon Hill and the tenements of the less fortunate only a few short miles away. Laura often slipped away to Katie's crowded home, both girls forgetting for those brief moments that one was a common servant and the other a privileged member of Boston's high society. They would laugh and dance while the Meagher brothers played the fiddle and bodhran and Katie's parents and grandparents clapped and tapped their toes in rhythm. It was the closest to belonging to a real family Laura had ever known. It had been Katie and her family who'd made it possible for her to be reunited with Scott after Drew's devastating death and the excruciating pain of his memorial service.
Her father had broken the news to her after returning from his office late on the afternoon of December 17th. She had been sitting with Katie in her private sitting room, the girls plotting how Laura might slip away to spend time with Scott and give him his birthday present on the 19th.
“I saw him today when I went to his house to leave your note with Mrs. McGinty. He asked that you meet him at the ice pond on the Common on Friday around two o’clock. You could even take your ice skates and spend the afternoon there,” Katie had suggested.
“That might work well. Father will surely be away at his office, and Scott and I’ll have a little time together. Is Mrs. McGinty planning a special dinner for Scott’s birthday?”
“She is that. And Mr. Garrett has invited just about everyone in Boston, it seems. They’ve already cleared the front parlor for the dancin’.”
“Everyone but me will be there.” Laura stared at her hands, her face darkening. “Including, I’m sure, Julie Dennison. Mr. Garrett’s always exceedingly polite to me, but he insists on pushing her at Sc….”
“Now, missy,” Katie interrupted, taking Laura’s hands in hers. “You just keep your chin up. Master Scott loves you, to be sure. He’ll not even notice that Julie girl’s there.”
“He’ll not notice,” Katie said with a firm nod of her head. “Now what gift is it you have for Master Scott’s birthday?”
Laura’s face brightened, and she replied, “A new hunt whip. Oh, it’s so beautiful, Katie! Rosewood with a polished staghorn handle. That old whip he’s been using is falling to pieces.”
“Ahhh….” Katie sighed in approval. “And every time he carries it, he’ll be thinkin’ of you.”
The girls looked up in unison as a shadow fell across the room. "Laura, my dear, I need to speak with you alone." Her father stood in the doorway.
"What's wrong, Father?" The look in his eyes and the grim set of his mouth unnerved her. She immediately thought of Scott, worried something terrible had happened to him. Katie reached out and squeezed Laura's hands before standing. The rustle of her skirts as she left the parlor was the only sound save that of the incessant ticking of the mantel clock.
Taking Katie's place next to her on the sofa, her father took her hands in his. "It's Drew, Laura. I fear I bear some horrible news. His parents were notified early this afternoon that he was killed...."
"No!" Laura pulled her hands free, stood up, and backed away, her hands held in front of her as though she was pushing the awful news away. "No. I don't believe you. It's a mistake. He can't be dead. He's coming home soon, and he and Scott and I will be together again just like before....He promised me...."
Standing up, MacNeill took his daughter in his arms, even as she stiffened, not willing to accept his embrace or his message. "Laura. Look at me."
She hesitantly looked up into his eyes, her own blurring with tears.
"The casualty list from Fredericksburg, Virginia arrived this morning at the local Army headquarters. I've seen it myself. There is no mistake. Andrew Prescott's name was on it." He pulled her close. "I'm so sorry, my child. I know what dear friends you were."
Her chest hurt so badly she could barely breathe. She managed to choke out the words. "Scott. I need to go to Scott. Please, Father. Please let me see Scott." She pulled herself from her father's arms.
"You know how I feel about him, Laura." He laid his hands on her shoulders. "Nothing has changed where he is concerned. Drew's parents are planning a service in his memory for next week. We will attend that, of course, but I forbid you to see Lancer. We will grieve together -- without him."
"Memorial service? Why did you say 'a service in his memory' and not a funeral, Father?"
MacNeill bowed his head, staring at the toes of his shoes before replying quietly. "Drew was....The Army was unable to send his body home." He pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. There were shells, explosions...."
"Oh, God." Laura covered her mouth with her trembling hands and rocked back and forth on her feet. "Oh my God." She felt very close to vomiting, and her knees nearly buckled.
She had retreated to her bedroom, dinner forgotten in her grief. That night she sat in her nightdress staring into the fire, wrapped in a lap robe. A cold wind rattled the windowpanes and sent sparks from the fire crackling across the hearth. Her eyes swollen and sore, Laura felt as though she couldn't even cry any more. She had moved beyond tears to dry heaves, the occasional uncontrollable sob wracking her from head to toe. She looked up when Katie slipped into the room.
"Miss Laura?" she whispered.
"You don't need to call me 'Miss', Katie," Laura said dully.
Katie glanced over her shoulder before replying, "I know. But if Davis or Mrs. Garrity overheard me being too familiar, they'd not approve."
"Things like using 'Miss' or not hardly seem to matter now." Laura looked up at the mantel clock, noting it was nearly midnight. "It's late, Katie. You need to go to bed."
Tiptoeing to sit on the stool at Laura's feet, Katie replied, "As do you."
"I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight." She sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I can't believe it. I simply can't believe Drew's gone. I had that letter from him the other week. He said he couldn’t get leave for Christmas, but he hoped to be home by spring. Now he’s not coming home at all. If only Father would let me see Scott….”
“We’ll find a way for you to be with Master Scott. You must believe me….We’ll….”
“It won’t work, Katie.” Laura stiffened, and she shook her head emphatically. “It won’t work. Father will stay home from his office now until after the holidays, and he’ll watch me like a hawk. He knows the only person I need to be with is Scott, and he’s not about to let me.”
Less than a week later, on December 23rd, Laura sat in the same chair, dressed entirely in black, the only ornament an onyx broach pinned at her throat. A heavy crepe veil draped over her bonnet hid her face; a face still puffy from lack of sleep and tears that refused to dry.
“Miss Laura?” Katie slipped into the room, holding her skirts close to keep them from rustling. She was dressed in her usual black gown, but without the snowy cap, collar, and apron that normally provided a striking contrast. The house staff had followed their employer into mourning clothing, the mansion even more subdued than usual. “Miss Laura, your father is ready and waitin’ for you in the front parlor. He says it’s time to be leavin’ for the church.”
Laura hesitated so long before responding that it seemed at first she hadn’t heard her maid. “How do I do this….How do I….?” She gulped in a deep breath, her voice husky from crying. “Tell me how I do this, Katie,” she begged. She tilted her face up and tucked the veil back over the top of her bonnet. “Tell me how I go to that church with Father, knowing he won’t let me talk to Scott or even acknowledge he’s there? How can I face him, knowing the agony he’s suffering and not be able to comfort him?”
Katie sighed, and dropped to her knees next to the young woman. “Oh, Miss Laura….Don’t you be worryin’ yourself about that. Master Scott will understand. To be sure, he’ll be wantin’ to comfort you. You go to that church now with your father, and you remember how much Master Scott loves you. We’ll find a way for you to be with him.” Katie smiled at Laura before continuing, “Me mother is always sayin’ how lovely it is when you and Mr. Lancer come for a bit of supper and dancin’. No disrespect meant to Master Andrew, but once this day is over, it’ll be time for you and Master Scott to honor the Meagher family by a visit to our home.”
The carriage ride to the church had been mercifully short. Even if it hadn’t been the prelude to Drew’s memorial service, Laura found she had little to say to her father. As he handed her down from the carriage, she uttered a soft, “thank you,” already searching for Scott in the procession of mourners ascending the stone steps. Her father took her by the elbow, carefully directing her up the stairs, through the double doors and narthex and into the old sanctuary. The interior was cold, the candle flames flickering in the drafty air; the dark wood of the pews and the soaring gray stone arches only deepened the shadows despite the jewel tones reflected off the floor from the stained glass windows. Laura slipped from her cape and slid into a seat at her father’s urging, arranging her voluminous hooped skirt around her.
“Not a word,” MacNeill hissed at her as Harlan Garrett and his grandson followed the Prescott family down the aisle to their seats. “You will not create a scene.”
Beneath her veil, Laura bit her upper lip so hard she was convinced she’d punctured a hole in it. As Scott filed into the pew two rows in front of her, he turned to look at her. The exhaustion and grief etched on his face would be engraved in her memory for as long as she lived. With an almost imperceptible nod of his head, he turned and sat down.
A firm tap on her door caused Laura to startle.
“Ma’am?” A Negro porter stood at the door to her suite. “I can take yo trunks over to de train now, Ma’am. If you’s ready….”
Laura realized her eyes were wet with tears. She quickly wiped them away with her fingers and smiled. “Thank you. They’re all ready.”
Following the porter from the room, she closed the door quietly behind her.
"Laura?" Nicholas tapped softly on the door to her berth.
"Go away." She rolled onto her side on the narrow bunk, holding her place in her book with her finger wedged between the pages. She had almost lost herself in the novel, transported away from the constant rocking of the cars as they clattered westward.
"You can't stay in there indefinitely." Nicholas spoke in hushed tones, his face near the crack between the door and its frame.
"Yes, I can. I have everything I need right here."
"We're still a few hours out of Omaha, Laura. Sacramento's probably four days from there. Are you prepared to continue hiding in your berth for that long? You can't be comfortable in there. Be reasonable."
"Maybe I'll come out when we arrive in Omaha. Until then, would you please just go away, Mr. Pruitt?" She turned onto her back and propped her book on her stomach.
"No, I won't. I can be every bit as stubborn as you. I said I was sorry. I was wrong to be so forward the other evening." He paused, leaning against the door frame. "Please come out. You can have a cup of tea and we can talk...about the weather or the scenery...or about anything you want."
Crawling from the tiny bed, she cracked the door open just enough to see his face. She was satisfied he at least looked repentant. "You promise? No pressing personal questions?" She hesitated before adding tentatively, "I really would like a cup of tea."
"Then come out and sit with me." He offered her another of his crooked grins, and she couldn't help but smile back. Glancing down the passageway over his shoulder, he shrugged. "I miss your company. You have to admit -- our fellow passengers are not all that interesting." He added with another smile, "...But I'm sure they'd find the sight of me hovering near your door extremely intriguing."
"All right, you've convinced me. I'll join you. But perhaps just for a little while. The last thing I need is to endure more of the other ladies' curious stares -- or those of their husbands. " Laura slipped out, sliding the door closed behind her. She followed him down the narrow hall and through the connecting passageway into the dining car. At least, she thought, navigating through a moving train had become easier over the past few days. And the further west they traveled, the fewer passengers remained on the train. She had grown tired of feeling as though she was the prime target of their curiosity and gossip.
Nicholas took a sip of his steaming coffee and leaned back in his chair, crossing his long legs in front of him. "So, Laura, tell me about this school you're planning to start in... where was it...Morro Coyo?"
Laura fidgeted with her napkin and shifted in her own chair before she said, "Honestly, Nicholas, I'm not sure what I can tell you about it. Regrettably, I don't know many details myself. I applied to the California Educational Society for a teaching position, and I was offered the opportunity to start a new school in Morro Coyo. I was told the local Reverend and his wife would meet me at the stage on Wednesday. Given it's now Monday, and we're not even in Omaha yet, it's becoming very apparent I won't be in Morro Coyo by mid-week." She twisted her napkin in her lap again. "I suppose I can wire the Reverend from Omaha and let him know of my predicament."
"That would seem prudent," Nicholas said. "I can show you to the telegraph office when the train stops."
"I'd appreciate that." She smiled weakly and paused to stir her tea. "I know you think I made a hasty, ill-advised decision in choosing to go to California. I didn't take the time to hire a traveling companion, and I know very little about my destination."
"I have to admit the thought had occurred to me." Nicholas sucked in a breath and fiddled with his spoon before continuing, "It would seem you might have been more cautious, but, ultimately, you have to do what you feel is best for yourself. Do you at least know what arrangements have been made for your lodging in Morro Coyo?"
"I was told a room had been prepared for me above my school, and I'd have a small kitchen. Beyond that...." She shrugged and bit the inside of her lip. "...I don't really know what to expect."
"What about the children...the children you'll be teaching."
"Mrs. Granville, the preacher's wife, wrote that there are fifteen students ranging in age from about five to seventeen. It's quite a large range in age, so I'd expect to be teaching the younger children their letters and numbers, and the older students will need some tutoring in arithmetic and science, as well as history and literature."
"It sounds like a rather ambitious plan." He lifted his coffee cup in a small toast. "But I'm sure you'll do well." Nicholas took another sip of coffee before he carefully settled the cup back in its saucer. "Laura...." He hesitated as though unsure of whether to continue. "Have you considered going back to Baltimore -- particularly if you find life in Morro Coyo too crude and uncivilized? I gather money is not an issue."
"No," she said with a faint smile. "Money is, fortunately, not an issue. But...it's rather...complicated."
"Life usually is -- complicated. And while I admire your determination to go west and take on such a challenging task, you would be safer in Baltimore. The City would offer infinitely more possibilities for you. Don't you have friends there? Or perhaps relatives?"
"I do have a cousin in Baltimore. I lived with Sarah and her husband, David, for a time, but...." Laura's voice trailed off as she took the opportunity to refill her teacup from the server.
"So you could go back to live with them. That is, if life in Morro Coyo doesn't meet your expectations."
Laura had to smile at the irony of Nicholas' choice of words. "First of all, I'm not sure I have any expectations for Morro Coyo. It's difficult to have any expectations when I have no idea what to expect to begin with. And, no, I really don't think going back to Baltimore is a viable option. Sarah and David have a little boy, and they're looking forward to the birth of another child early next year. David has a promising career as a lawyer in Baltimore. I was somewhat in the way there -- the spinster cousin they pitied but sincerely wished would go away."
"But since money, by your own admission, is not a problem," Nicholas persisted, "why not stay in Baltimore...find your own lodgings...enjoy everything that lovely town has to offer?"
"I suppose, that at the root of it all, I feel a need to accomplish something with my life. Do something that requires me to do more than simply decorate a parlor."
"You would provide a lovely decoration in any parlor.”
She blushed and looked away briefly, unable to meet his eyes, uncomfortable with the admiration she saw in them. "That's very kind of you, but it's not enough. I need to do something. Be something more than the wealthy woman who spends her time and money on vapid, meaningless pursuits."
"You did mention you wanted to offer the children in Morro Coyo the same education you had received."
"Yes, I was extremely fortunate in that regard. My father believed in education, and he provided me with private tutors as well as the opportunity to travel."
"Your parents are still living?" Nicholas held up his hand. "I'm sorry, I'm asking too many personal questions again. I just find you...your situation...intriguing."
"It's all right," she said, smiling inwardly as he corrected his choice of words. "I'll tell you if I prefer not to answer any of your questions. I lost my mother years ago, but Father is still alive." Despite offering that detail, Laura felt the familiar sense of discomfort well up in her; the feeling of nauseous dread she suffered every time her father became the topic of discussion.
"But he doesn't live in Baltimore?" Nicholas uncrossed his legs, shifted in his chair, and crossed them again. "Please forgive me again for being intrusive, but I still find it fascinating you would be so adventurous as to embark on this trip by yourself."
"No, Father doesn't live in Baltimore. I didn't grow up there." The voices in her head urged caution, but Laura plunged ahead. "Father and I have been somewhat at odds for several years now."
"So I gather he either doesn't approve of your plans, or he knows nothing of them."
"The latter would be correct. Again, it's all very complicated, and I'm not comfortable discussing it."
"With a total stranger -- such as myself."
The awkward silence that ensued was broken only by the clatter of dishware as the steward served a couple seated several tables away.
"So....You didn't grow up in Baltimore?" Nicholas cleared his throat and leaned forward in his chair, resting his elbows against the table.
"I did say that so why do you ask again?" Laura sat on the edge of her chair, once again ill at ease with the direction their conversation had taken.
"Oh, as you've probably already realized, I'm very curious," Nicholas said. I travel a good deal, and I find it interesting to try to determine the origins of my fellow travelers by their accents. It's a fascinating exercise. There's something in your voice that hints of New England, but there’s a bit of something else there as well.” Nicholas stroked his chin as he studied her face. “Perhaps you spent some time in Britain. MacNeill is a distinctly Scots name, so it would be reasonable for you to travel there.”
Laura stared into her teacup, unsure of how to respond, and, indeed, if it might be wise not to respond at all. “You're right, I have spent considerable time in Britain," she said with a complete lack of enthusiasm. "London, in particular."
“Ahhh…then that explains why you don’t speak with the charmingly slow drawl of the native Marylander. You were raised elsewhere, and you spent time in London. Do you see now how interesting my little game can be?” Nicholas smiled and winked at her and picked up his own cup of coffee.
His audacious reply made her relax slightly. She smiled and said, "Yes, I can understand how your 'little game' could be like putting a puzzle together. And speaking of ‘slow drawls’, Nicholas, your own voice is distinctively Southern. More so than those 'native Marylanders.' I believe you said you lived near Richmond?”
Nicholas shifted back in his chair and recrossed his legs. He fiddled with his coffee spoon before he answered. “I did. My home was in Mechanicville, a small village northeast of the city. My family had a modest, but lovely, farm there.”
“You say ‘had’ a farm…as though it’s in the past.”
“Oh, the farm, as I knew it, is very much in the past,” Nicholas replied a little too quickly. He seemed suddenly edgy, and Laura sensed a smoldering anger he was working very hard to control. “The damn Yankees destroyed it in June of ‘62 during a battle along Beaver Dam Creek. My farm was right at the center of the Union line.”
Laura sucked in a deep breath. “You, of course, recognize that I’m one of those…damn Yankees.” She paused, struggling to rein in her own seething anger. "My childhood home was in that...what was it you rebels called it? That 'hotbed of abolitionism?' Boston." She stood up and tossed her napkin onto the table. As she turned to leave, Nicholas jumped to his feet and reached out, taking her gently by the arm.
"Laura, look, I'm sorry...again. I misspoke badly. Why don't you sit back down, and we can talk about it."
She stared pointedly at his arm before looking him in the eyes, not caring if her voice carried to the other passengers or that she and Nicholas had become the focus of attention in the dining car. "You will let go of my arm, Mr. Pruitt. Now." She hesitated briefly before she started to turn away. "And, in answer to your previous question the other evening....His name was Scott. He was one of those damn Yankees as well, a Union soldier. And, as far as I'm concerned, you might as well have put the bullet in him yourself."
Laura carefully opened the door to her sleeping berth and glanced down the hallway in both directions before creeping out and closing the door quietly behind her. She desperately needed to take a walk and breathe some fresh air while the train made a routine stop to take on water and wood. She greeted the few fellow travelers who milled around the passenger cars making pleasant conversation, all the while keeping an eye out for Nicholas. She had retreated once more to her berth for two days after their last argument, emerging only when she expected him to be occupied in card games with the other male passengers or otherwise distracted. It hadn't been particularly comfortable hiding in her tiny quarters, but she had managed to occupy her time by reading or writing in her daily journal. She stepped down from the train, feeling the dry heat of northern Utah sweep over her. The terrain was wild, but fascinating to her, in large part because it was so different from the environment she was accustomed to. A conductor snapped his watch shut, pocketed it, and strode over to her. He tipped his hat. "Ma'am, we're taking on wood and water, and we should be ready to leave in about two hours. If you're interested in finding something to eat, there's not much, but there is a little cafe over there." He pointed across the dusty street. "Pete runs a clean, decent place. Food's at least tolerable."
"Thank you. I'm sure it will be fine." The conductor tipped his hat again, and Laura made her way over to the tiny cafe, her skirts swishing through the swirling dust, curious as to the types of food it might offer for sale. She was pleasantly surprised to find it neat and generally tidy, despite its dilapidated exterior. The proprietor, Pete, met her at the door and made a great show of escorting her to a table. After requesting a small meal of beef stew and biscuits, Laura sat back and relaxed, sipping on a cup of tea. A shadow fell over the table, and she looked up, surprised to see a dirty and disheveled man leering at her. He folded himself over the back of the chair next to her, his face only inches from hers. The stale smell of whiskey on his breath, added to his rancid body odor, caused Laura instinctively to cover her mouth and nose with her napkin while she held her own breath to keep from gagging.
"Hey there, Missy. We don't see lookers like you out here too much. How 'bout I sit down here and we get acquainted. Real acquainted." He ran his finger down her arm and was about to sit next to Laura when a second man interrupted.
"Laura!" He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek before she had time to react. "I'm so sorry I'm late for dinner." He gestured at the other man. "This gentleman is...."
"Just leaving." Laura finished the sentence for him, gritting her teeth.
The vagrant clearly read the threat in Nicholas' eyes and stumbled backward, mumbling an apology. Nicholas pulled a chair out and sat down with Laura. Her teeth were still clenched in anger, and she gripped the folds of her skirt so tightly her knuckles were white. The two sat in silence for a few minutes while she regained her composure.
"You did warn me," she finally conceded quietly.
Pete had emerged from the kitchen, and Nicholas motioned to him, silently requesting the same dinner Laura had been served. He responded softly, "It won't get any easier, Laura. That man was easy to get rid of. How do you plan to deal with those men who are, quite frankly, attracted to you, and who are not so easily dissuaded?"
"I don't know. I suppose I'll need to stand my ground and say 'no' to them."
"All right." Nicholas squinted at his beer mug and appeared to give the matter serious thought. Finally looking up, he responded bluntly, "That might discourage most men, but what will you do when one won't take 'no' for an answer and he, perhaps, pulls a gun on you -- or otherwise attacks you?"
Her eyes widened at the possibilities his question implied. "I don't know," she replied weakly. "I guess I'll just try to stay to myself as much as possible."
"That might work for the remainder of the train trip and during the stage trip from Sacramento to Morro Coyo. There will likely even be other women on the stage. You should be relatively safe until you get to Morro Coyo. I can only hope the Reverend who meets you there will have a plan to protect you, if necessary."
"I'm sure he will." Laura stood up, removed a few coins from her reticule and laid them on the table. "I think it's about time for the train to leave. Thank you, again." She had started away from the table when Nicholas' voice drew her back.
"Laura, we do need to talk at some point, and we're running out of time. We'll be in Sacramento in two days or so. I'll go on to San Francisco, and you'll leave for Morro Coyo."
"And exactly what is it we need to talk about, Nicholas? Shall we discuss how the damn Yankees destroyed your home? Or perhaps we could talk about how the rebels killed the two men I loved most in this world?"
"Touche," Nicholas replied. "But you're the one who recently reminded me the War was over. Is it really, or have we simply stopped shooting at each other? If people like you and I can't sit down and discuss our differences, there really is no hope for this country."
"Goodbye, Nicholas." Laura turned on her heel and walked out the door.
Scott eased himself into the tub in the wash house, wincing as the hot water nearly scalded his back. Months on the ranch had bleached his hair until it was the color of the hay stacked in the barn, and his muscles were well-toned. Still, his body ached after an almost endless day in the saddle, and the bath was a welcome reward after eating dust all day. His clothes still reeked of cow, and the pungent odor assailed his nose despite the fact that his pants and shirt were laying in a heap at least ten feet away. After months on the ranch, he had discovered, much to his chagrin, that the very smell of cattle could bring back unwelcome memories.
The locomotive pulling the load of Union prisoners had limped into the train station in Richmond in the middle of the afternoon the day he was captured. Heat shimmered off the cobblestones, and the whitewashed Virginia state capitol building hovering on its hill looked almost tired in the humidity that made the air nearly unbreathable.
Filthy and stinking of cattle dung, Scott and his men stumbled from the train cars, shoved along at gunpoint by rebel soldiers. The Confederates pushing them into ragged ranks wore clothing pieced together from requisitioned Union uniforms and homespun dyed a butternut color in a futile attempt to create some semblance of uniformity in their own ranks.
"Kill them all! Give them what they deserve!"
Women drew their shawls tightly around their shoulders and turned their faces away as children hurled small stones and epithets at the enemy troops as they trudged past on their way down the hill from the train station to Cary Street. One rock caught Scott on his shoulder, and he bit his lip to keep from crying out, unwilling to offer any satisfaction to his captors.
Libby Prison loomed three stories over Tobacco Row at the corner of Cary and 20th Streets. The lower third was whitewashed leaving Scott to wonder whether lack of interest or lack of paint had caused the warehouse owners to abandon their efforts. He noticed the windows were barred, but glassless, leaving the interior open to the elements.
"Move along, bluebelly." The lanky Confederate wielding a Revolutionary War era musket prodded him along with his bayonet. Scott caught his toe on the doorsill, nearly pitching headlong. The soldier behind him, similarly clad in undershirt, uniform pants, and stocking feet reached out and steadied him.
"Thanks." Scott turned and nodded at the dark-haired man. He quickly studied his face, smiling as recognition dawned. "Cassidy? Dan Cassidy? You're on General Sheridan's staff."
"That's right," Cassidy whispered back. "You're Lieutenant Lancer. Custer's brigade. Last time I saw you was in April up near Spotsylvania when we all met with General Sheridan."
“You were captured at Trevilians, too? I didn’t see you on the train.”
“Yeah, it was a complete fiasco,” Cassidy responded with a grimace. Our captain tried to play hero and almost got all of us shot. The rebels had us surrounded, and we had no choice but to surrender.”
“It looks like we’re in good company.” Scott motioned with his head, indicating the crowd of prisoners packed in around them. “No wonder I didn’t notice you until you kept me from falling on my face.”
The prisoners were shoved into a rough line, shoulder to shoulder in the cavernous room. The officer facing them wore the insignia of a major, and he strutted back and forth, clearly savoring his authority over his captives.
"Welcome to Libby Prison, gentlemen," he said. "I trust you will find your accommodations acceptable." He strolled over to face Scott who had come to a halt in the middle of the front row of captives. "You will all begin by emptying your pockets. We'll start with you, boy. Turn them out now."
Scott reached into his pants pockets, pulling out the papers along with the gold pocket watch his grandfather had given him for Christmas the previous year. The rebel major admired the pocket watch, flipping it open and shut before he slipped it into his own pocket. He unfolded the papers, scanning them before he looked up. "This all you've got?" He asked. "No money?"
"I left the money in the pocket of my tunic," Scott replied with a little smile. "I donated both to your cause early this morning."
"Is that so? Then the Confederacy offers you its sincerest thanks." The major turned his attention back to the papers. "Looks like you forgot to mail your letter, Yankee. 'My darling Laura...." He glanced back up at Scott who stood rigidly, his hands clenched into fists and his tongue caught in his teeth as the man read the letter he had written to Laura two days before but had had no opportunity to post before he was captured. "It has been a little more than a year since I last held you in my arms as we danced the night away at my graduation party." The major smirked, and he said, "Now isn't that sweet. Has a real poetic ring to it." He shifted the letter to his right hand and studied the second bit of paper in his left, a photograph of Laura taken in 1862, commissioned for her sixteenth birthday. "Pretty girl. Let me guess." He tapped the picture with his finger as he looked back and forth between it and Scott. "She's not your sister."
Struggling to keep the expression on his face neutral, Scott knew his eyes had betrayed him.
"She a good fuck?" The words were barely out of the major's mouth when Scott lunged at him. His arms were pinned behind his back as the guards intervened. The officer backhanded him across the face, and Scott's head snapped sideways with the impact, blood spurting from his split lip.
"Back off, bluebelly," one of the guards hissed in his ear. "Or I'll shoot you right here and now. With pleasure."
Scott wiped the blood from his mouth and closed his eyes briefly, forcing himself to calm down. The guards, feeling him relax, let go and took tentative steps back toward their major.
"It's not worth dying for, Lancer," Dan whispered. "Let it go."
"No, she's probably not worth dying over," the rebel major agreed. "No Yankee bitch'd be worth that. But these...." He waved the photograph and letter in the air..."aren't worth anything either. I could burn them...." He looked speculatively at Scott. "....but I'll give them back to you. Consider it a moment of weakness on my part. I'm feeling particularly generous today."
“You ain’t really gonna give that Yankee scum his stuff back, are ya Major Turner?” The younger of the rebel guards, a scruffy kid of indeterminate age, challenged the officer. “After he jest tried to git at you? That don’t make no sense.”
His eyes narrowing, glinting with unmistakable disdain, Turner replied, “I am going to do precisely that, Private. A true Southern gentleman should be gracious in all circumstances. These Yankees are our prisoners, but there is no reason we can’t show them sincere Christian charity.” He added, almost as an afterthought, “Particularly when giving this Yankee his letter and picture back will make him miss what he’s lost all the more. Think of it as additional punishment.”
The major had moved on, relieving the other prisoners of what little money or trinkets they had hidden in their pockets or the waistbands of their trousers. Shoved into already over-crowded upstairs rooms, Scott and his cohorts were fed a meager, watery soup that was mostly notable for its abundance of vermin. After jockeying for a free spot on the floor to sleep, he curled up in a corner, the space not even large enough to stretch out his lanky body.
“Move over.” Dan Cassidy’s voice near his ear startled him awake. The soldier lying next to him shifted, obeying the order of the senior officer. “You awake, Lancer?”
“I am now,” Scott replied. He squinted in the dark, trying to make out Cassidy’s features.
“How’s your mouth?”
“Sore and swollen. But at least it stopped bleeding.”
“Good.” Cassidy shifted on the floor, grunting softly as he settled onto his back. “You’re lucky they didn’t shoot you.”
“I guess that major didn’t want to waste a bullet. From what I hear, they’re in short supply down here.”
Scott had almost dozed off again when Dan elbowed him. “We need to figure out how to get out of here.”
“Not sure that’s possible. You see how thick those walls are? And, even if we did manage to escape, we’d have to get out of Richmond as well. It’d be easier to hide in woods than in this city. Our uniform pants would be a dead – emphasis on ‘dead’ – giveaway.”
“Maybe not. One of the captains was talking at dinner. Said there was an escape in February. The men tunneled their way out through the kitchen in the basement. A lot of them made it back to our lines.”
“And a lot of them didn’t. I’ve already heard about about that escape from one of the men in my company. His brother was one of the lucky ones who made it to our lines. We wouldn’t be able to try that particular route again, anyway. I’m sure the basement’s been closed off.”
“Understood. But I, for one, refuse to die in this hellhole. There has to be a way out, and we’re going to find it.”
“Not tonight, we’re not.” Scott smiled into the darkness. “For tonight, let’s just try to get some sleep.”
Neither man could have comprehended then that they’d spend the next year debating when and how they might escape the confines of Richmond’s notorious warehouse prison. They vacillated between hope and total despair as the days took on a mind-destroying sameness. Worse than the verbal, and occasionally physical, abuse meted out by the guards was the sheer boredom of being locked away, seeing the same faces and having the same conversations day after endless day. From time to time they could hear the deep thunder of siege cannons, but the sounds never came closer, and, after a while, the soldiers didn’t notice them anymore
Christmas came and went and with the winter came cold more debilitating than the summer heat and humidity had been. The icy winds sweeping off the river swirled through the warehouse, leaving the inmates huddling in corners and organizing themselves into shifts, each man taking his turn on the perimeter. Their numbers dwindled as disease, near starvation, and exposure took their toll. Finally, in March, Scott and Dan had improvised an escape plan.
“Have you noticed the cannons sound closer, Scott?” Dan commented one evening as they picked through their meager supper.
Scott nodded as he pinched a particularly moldy spot off his crust of bread and pitched it aside. “I have. And the guards are getting careless. Last night there wasn’t but one at the front and the back that I could see.”
“Then this is what we do,” Dan said. “We wait until after midnight, when the guards’ve been drinking, and they’re dozing off. It should be fairly easy for a group of us to overwhelm them. After we get out into the street, we all split up. Everyone should head east or south – that’s the direction most of the cannon fire’s coming from. We’re bound to run into our lines before long.”
“Sounds too easy. But it could be done.”
“We have to try, Scott. I’d rather die trying than to live like this for much longer.”
In retrospect, Scott wondered if he’d been too eager to give in to the older man’s influence. Maybe it would’ve been better simply to continue holding out, praying for rescue from the Union troops they knew were out there. Dan had become violently ill just prior to the appointed day. “Pneumonia,” the prison doctor had pronounced. “Not going to survive, but….” He had shrugged. “We’ll transfer him to the infirmary.”
“Scott….” Dan had pulled him close to him with what feeble strength he had left. “Remember. You promised….”
The word was no more than a hiss escaping from his mouth. “Promise….”
Two nights later, Scott and sixteen other men had overtaken the guard at the front entrance and run. It was a clear, cold night in mid-March, and it seemed that nature itself had conspired against them. The bright full moon that would’ve illuminated their escape route made them easy targets for the sentries waiting for them on Cary Street. What they didn’t, couldn’t, have known was that Cassidy, in his fevered delirium, had reviewed their plan with a hospital orderly who dutifully reported his news to the prison commandant, Major Thomas Turner.
His breath coming in ragged gasps, Scott bolted down Cary, wincing as the cobbles paving the street cut through the scraps of socks on his feet. He tried to stay low as the first shots rang out, holding to the shadows of the buildings on either side. He could hear the grunts and screams of his men as they were hit by bullets, but he kept going, knowing that stopping would guarantee his own death. As a second volley rang out, he ducked, caught his toe on a dislodged cobblestone, and fell. His head slammed into the pavers, nearly knocking him cold.
“Hey, there’s one still ‘live.” The soldier booted him in the stomach, Scott’s groans verifying the truth in that statement. “Wanna just shoot ‘im?”
“Nah,” the other Confederate guard said. “Major Turner might wanna talk to ‘im. See if them bluebellies has got any more ideas ‘bout leavin’.”
They’d hauled Scott back into Libby where, only partially conscious, he’d faced Turner and his endless questions. When the commandant finally recognized he’d get no response from this particular Yankee, he had him hog-tied and thrown out on what had been a canal dock.
Scott would never fully remember how long he lay outside. The hours and days telescoped into time spent trying to shift his arms and legs sufficiently to relieve the excruciating cramps in his neck and back. To dampen his despair, he conjured up images of Laura – how she laughed, how her emerald eyes glowed when she was angry, how soft her lips and hair felt to his touch. He convinced himself he’d survive – that he had to survive because she’d expect it of him. She’d be waiting in Boston, back in the mansion on Mount Vernon Street, and no power in heaven or in hell would keep them apart. Not even her father. No, he wouldn’t be just another statistic; a number added to the appalling list of casualties of this obscene war. Unlike Drew, there would be no memorial service for him; no one telling Laura they were “deeply sorry, but Lieutenant Lancer died in Libby Prison….”
He had been standing by the fireplace in the Meagher’s tiny parlor when she arrived that day in 1862. Still dressed in black, she had at least abandoned the veil she had worn to the church the week before for Drew’s service. It had frustrated him that he hadn’t been able to see her eyes; unable to see for himself she was all right and she knew he understood why she hadn’t come to him before. She had stumbled into his arms, her body shaking with sobs that he wasn’t certain were from her grief for Drew, her relief at their finally being together again, or a combination of both.
“I wanted to come before,” she said finally.
“Shhhh….” He pushed the stray tendrils of hair from her face. “It’s all right. I know. How did you talk your father into letting you come this time?”
“Katie and I had more holiday food baskets to deliver. Even Father couldn’t argue with what he considers noblesse oblige. We did deliver our baskets, and, of course we were in this neighborhood, so, of course, we stopped by.” Somehow Laura managed a little smile.
“Of course.” Scott smiled back.
“How’re the Prescotts? How is Markie?” Her smile faded as Laura asked about Drew’s older sister, Martha “Markie” Stoddard, pregnant with her first child.
“About as well as can be expected. Like us, they’re in a state of shock right now. It’s going to take a long time for it all to sink in. Here….” Scott motioned to the sofa. “Take your cape off. Let’s sit down.”
She had settled herself close to him on the settee, nestling into the crook of his arm. “Why did he go, Scott? Why wouldn’t he listen to us? He didn’t have to go.”
“I don’t know, Laura. I’ve thought about that a great deal over the past few days. Part of me thinks he did have to go. That, as he told you, he needed somehow to prove his life meant something. He wasn’t just another rich Harvard boy who’d spend his life chasing after things and accomplishing nothing.”
She had gone rigid then, and turning to take his face in her hands, looked him in the eyes. “Promise me,” she had said.
“What’s that?” He was almost mesmerized by the intensity in her eyes.
“Promise me you’ll never join the Army.”
“Why would I do that?” He had tried to laugh to lighten the mood.
“I’m serious, Scott. Promise me.”
He ran his fingers across her cheek and kissed her lightly on the lips. “All right. I promise. I’ll never join the Army.” He laughed again. “Besides, Grandfather would never allow it, and I don’t particularly relish being shot at. And,” he added with another kiss, “I love you far too much to ever leave.”
He really hadn’t intended to break his promise to her. But after she disappeared, it had just been too…easy.
The locomotive groaned its way up the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas, its smokestack belching soot and cinders. At times Laura wondered if the train would make it up the slopes, watching through the window as the engine struggled through the switchbacks. She had given in to boredom and claustrophobia and traded her berth for a window seat in the parlor car.
Not too much further. We really are almost there. We should be in Sacramento by tomorrow evening. Waiting like this is so much harder than doing something. I'll have a lot to do, though, when I get to Morro Coyo. Maybe it's good I've had this time to rest. I'll have to learn to manage by myself soon. A maid'll be out of the question, I'm sure, in a little village like that. Too ostentatious and eventually too expensive. I’ll have to make Grandmother’s bequest last and try to manage on my salary. I'll be fine. It'll be a whole new start. Father could never imagine when he encouraged me to "move on" that I'd do so in such a bold way.
He had paused briefly in Baltimore in April to visit her on his way back to Boston from one of his interminable business trips. His gift for her birthday on the 26th had been lavish; dinner at an exclusive restaurant and a pair of combs set with sapphires and diamonds for her hair.
"Thank you, Father." She traced her fingers over the shimmering jewels. "They're lovely."
"They match your mother's necklace. Do you have many occasions to wear it?" He smiled and gestured at the jewels adorning her neck. "Other than while accompanying your father to dinner?" His question had held more than a hint of hopefulness.
"Not often," she had admitted. "But I do wear it on occasion, particularly when I attend the theater -- or a dinner such as this."
"Forgive me for asking, my dear, but have you had any special gentlemen callers of late?"
"No, Father, I haven't. I'm not particularly interested in ...."
"Please tell me you're not still mourning Scott Lancer. It's been over four years since he was killed, six since you last saw him. Don't throw your life away over something that will never be, Laura. As I've written to you several times, you need to move on with your life. Find someone new. Get married. Settle down -- here in Baltimore would be perfect."
"Father, I promise I am trying to 'move on' with my life. Sarah reminds me daily that I need to do so." Laura inhaled deeply and her voice took on a determined edge. "But you need to realize several things. First of all, I'm twenty-three years old today, and I'm capable of making my own decisions. Secondly, there will never be another man who would love me as Scott did or who I could love as I loved him."
He had shaken his head in an apparent mixture of anger and frustration. "That may be true, although I have my own doubts. You and Lancer were far too young to possibly entertain thoughts of love and marriage. But you, dearest child, need to realize something else as well. The world is not kind to a woman alone. I fear for your future should you continue to disdain the attention of any man who might protect and provide for you."
"So what you're suggesting is that I marry -- not for love -- but simply to have a man to care for me? Forgive me, Father, but I don't believe Mother married you for any reason other than she loved you deeply. I could never settle for less than that myself."
"You are so much your mother's child...." MacNeill bit his lip before he smiled at her and said, "I sincerely hope that doesn't prove to be your downfall. I know we've had our differences through the years, but if you need me...."
"I know, Father...."
After he had left for Boston, Laura had tucked the combs into a dresser drawer, regretting she'd likely have little or no opportunity to wear them. She had told her father nothing of her thoughts of leaving Baltimore, dreams of finding another place to live where she didn't feel like a permanent houseguest. If her daydreams came to nothing, she'd have nothing to explain. It was easier that way, and in some sense she took a perverse pleasure in trying to take control of her own life after feeling like a pawn on a chessboard for so many years. It had been little more than two weeks later she'd come across the newspaper advertisement for teachers in California.
"A penny for your thoughts...." Nicholas interrupted her reverie as he slipped into the seat next to her. He raised his hand at the look of protest on Laura's face. "I know you said 'goodbye,' but I can't leave you tomorrow without the chance to talk."
"Nicholas, I don't think we have...."
"Just hear me out, Laura. I meant what I said earlier. If this country is ever going to heal, it will be up to people like you and me to sort things out. The stakes are enormous, and I don't believe failure is an option."
She sniffed and fingered the cuff of her blouse. "You didn't sound so certain the other day when you referred to Northerners as "damned Yankees."
"I'm only human. Wouldn't you feel the same way if your home -- your entire way of life -- had been destroyed?"
"Perhaps if the South had chosen a wiser path at the start than shelling Fort Sumter, you'd still have your home. And, in a way, the War destroyed my world as well."
"Mistakes are always more easily recognized in hindsight, are they not?" Nicholas shifted in his seat and took her hand into his. "The only way we can move ahead is if we talk about what happened and try to make sense of it."
She stared out the window and shrugged before replying, "Some things simply make no sense, Nicholas."
"That's true, but I'm willing to try. To try to reach some understanding. Tell you a little about what my life was like before the War. And maybe you can tell me about what happened to you...and Scott."
She slipped her hand from his. "That is far too deeply personal for me to discuss with you, Nicholas."
“Perhaps. But can I ask you one more thing?” Without waiting for her reply, he plunged ahead. “Have you ever talked to anyone about what happened? About what has driven you to be on this train, completely alone, and traveling to a place where you don’t know a soul and actually don’t truly know what awaits you when you get there?”
Laura returned to gazing out the window, her tight-lipped silence providing her answer.
“Ahhh….I see. I didn’t think so.” He shifted his legs again and settled more deeply into his seat. “Then maybe it’s time. It seems to me we’re both struggling, pulling our pasts along with us, Laura. Just like that locomotive is fighting to pull the cars behind it. And those mountains are getting steeper and harder to climb, aren’t they?”
She could feel the tears burning against her eyelids, and she bit the inside of her lip; willing herself to wipe any emotion from her face. She had mastered the art of aloof detachment years before, wearing a “mask” that kept others at arm’s length. It was easier than dealing with the endless questions she didn’t have answers for, and it allowed her to keep living without giving in to the pain and lack of purpose that had come to define her life. But, now, what was it about this man that actually made her want to talk, to try to make some sense of where she had been and, perhaps, where she was going? Even though it seemed that every time they tried to talk, their conversation deteriorated into argument? Laura pulled out her handkerchief, dabbed at her eyes and rubbed her nose. She spoke hesitantly, still not certain she was ready or willing to open old wounds that she had carefully nurtured and tended. “Scott was….Scott was my best friend. Like me, he was an only child, and he and his grandfather lived down Mount Vernon Street from us in Boston. When we were children, we played on the Common together and with our friend, Drew.”
“Somewhat unconventional for a girl to have two boys for companions,” Nicholas commented. “Lucky boys.” He grinned, bringing a smile to her face as well. “’Scott’s a rather unusual name. A family name, I presume?”
“Yes. ‘Scott’ was his maternal grandmother’s maiden name, and his middle name was ‘Garrett,’ after his grandfather. So, he was named for his mother’s parents.” Laura chuckled before admitting, “And, you’re right. It was a rather unconventional friendship; one that frequently raised the eyebrows of the Boston matrons. But my father and Scott’s grandfather did considerable business with each other. Father owns a shipping company, and Scott’s grandfather became enormously wealthy as an entrepreneur and investor. I suppose Father allowed us to be companions because of his relationship with Mr. Garrett – and because he was gone for months at a time on business and left my care to a succession of nurses and governesses who mostly looked the other way.”
“And what of Scott’s parents? I presume, since his grandfather raised him, Scott was an orphan.”
Laura wrinkled her nose before answering, “No. Scott wasn’t an orphan. His mother died when he was born, but his father is alive as far as I know. He owns a cattle ranch in….” She couldn’t suppress a small grimace. “…California.”
“How…ironic.” Nicholas squinted and flicked a piece of lint from his pants’ leg. “And do you suppose you’ll eventually try to find this rancher?”
“No,” she answered quickly. She sucked in a deep breath before continuing; suddenly feeling as though she was trying to convince herself. “I have no plans to look for Murdoch Lancer. Mr. Garrett brought Scott back to Boston from California right after he was born because his father apparently wasn’t interested in keeping him. He was too busy raising cattle to raise his own son.”
“He’s likely anything but ’charming.’ At least from what Mr. Garrett had to say about him.” Laura shifted in her seat and rearranged the folds of her skirt. “I must admit it might be interesting to see if Mr. Garrett was correct in his assessment of Scott’s father, and….”
“And to see if Scott resembled him at all?” Nicholas suggested.
“I suppose. But I’m sure I’ll be extremely busy with the children in Morro Coyo, and California is an enormous state. I sincerely doubt I’ll have time to be chasing after some obscure cattle herder.”
“True. But it might be very intriguing.”
“Or a complete waste of time.” Laura frowned. “I really doubt Scott shared anything in common with his father, other than his last name.”
“Well,” Nicholas sighed, “you’ll likely never know. And perhaps that’s all right in the long run.” When Laura didn’t respond, he prompted her. “You also mentioned another boy – ‘Drew,’ I believe.”
“I did. Drew – Andrew Prescott – was like the real brother Scott and I never had. He lived in Beacon Hill as well, although his family had an estate near ours outside Boston. Drew and I were never more than dear friends, but as we grew older, Scott and I realized we had fallen deeply in love.”
“But Scott was killed in the War,” Nicholas said; a matter-of-fact statement, not a question.
“Yes, he was. He apparently tried to escape from Libby Prison and was shot. I found it rather ironic that he was killed only weeks before the War ended. If only he had known….” Laura fell quiet.
“He might still be alive, and you wouldn’t be on this train right now.” Nicholas finished her thought.
“That’s possible. But we were separated two years before he died. That’s why I was in London. My father disapproved of our relationship, and he chose to send me away to live with my aunt. When I came back from England, I decided to stay in Baltimore. By that time, my father had informed me of Scott’s death, and I couldn’t face going back to Boston, knowing he wouldn’t be there.”
“How very sad – for both of you.” Nicholas shifted, recrossing his legs. “And what of Drew? You implied he had been killed as well.”
“Drew died at Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862. He dropped out of Harvard and joined the Army against both Scott’s and my protests.” Laura’s mouth crooked up in a little smile. “He and Scott were such opposites that I found it amusing they were so close. Not just in looks – Scott was blond-haired and blue-eyed and Drew had dark hair and eyes. Drew was boisterous and playful where Scott was reflective, reticent. Drew was always laughing, no matter what trouble he managed to create for himself. I often wondered how he fared with Army discipline.”
“He actually might have done quite well in the Army. It may have provided the structure he needed.”
“Scott seemed to think so. Or at least the War gave Drew a sense of purpose. I don’t know….It all seems completely senseless. So many lives lost, families destroyed. You indicated your own home was in the middle of a battle.”
“It was. Sadly, the house burned, and the farm itself was littered with….” Nicholas hesitated, choosing his words carefully. “…the mess left behind by large armies. Broken-down wagons, spent munitions, garbage, and….”
“Corpses.” Laura swallowed hard, her eyes filling with tears.
“Yes,” Nicholas said simply. “It’s taken years to clear the land and try to rebuild.”
“You surely haven’t been doing that alone.”
“No, I haven’t. My mother and sisters were able to move back home once the house was rebuilt. They’d gone to live in Richmond when the fighting came too near. I go back to Virginia when I can, but I feel I can be most useful working and sending money home. That way, my mother can pay the farm workers and live more comfortably herself.”
“Paid farm workers.” Laura frowned. “I suppose you owned slaves before the War?”
“We did – but only three.”
“It hardly seems to matter how many people you owned,” Laura sniffed.
“Laura, I’m not going to apologize for my way of life. Yes, I owned slaves. But I also worked alongside them in the fields and ate at the same table with them. I didn’t starve them, and I didn’t beat them. You might be interested to know that two of the three stayed when they could’ve run off to the Union lines. They now have land of their own, and I pay them to work my farm. You had servants didn’t you?”
“Yes, but there was a huge difference, Nicholas. We didn’t own them. Our servants could leave if they wanted.”
“Could they, now?” Nicholas shook his head slowly, a scowl darkening his features. “Could they really leave? And go where? To yet another back-breaking job that barely pays wages sufficient to survive? A hungry belly can be pretty strong motivation to stay. I’ve seen a bit of your New York and Boston, Laura. Some of those workers live under conditions that rival the worst suffered by our slaves; packed into filthy tenements, dying of consumption, cholera, measles, or any manner of disease.”
“It’s still not the same,” she insisted. “We don’t consider them to be property.”
“All right, Laura,” Nicholas said, relaxing more deeply into his seat. “Perhaps we can agree to disagree. The War settled that particular debate rather effectively anyway, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I think it did,” she agreed. Her voice softened as she added, “And I really don’t want to argue with you anymore. We’ve done enough of that.”
“That we have,” Nicholas agreed with a laugh. “Maybe there’s hope for reconciliation after all – for this country and for us.”
Laura glanced out the window, once again uncomfortable with the tenderness she saw in his eyes. She cleared her throat before continuing. “You said you had sisters? Do you have any brothers?”
“I have two sisters, Miranda and Alicia. My little brother died as a small child – pneumonia they said it was.”
“I’m sorry. How sad for all of you. Are your sisters married?”
“Yes. Miranda, the elder of the two, married her beau several years ago. He was fortunate to survive the War and came home to her. They live on the farm with Mother. Alicia moved back to Richmond with her new husband last year.”
“Richmond.” Saying the city’s name made Laura feel almost sick to her stomach. “Your farm was near Richmond, so you must’ve known all about Libby Prison.”
“I did,” Nicholas admitted quietly. “I remember it quite well.” His mouth settled into a grim line. “And I honestly don’t want to tell you anything about it.”
“You do realize your response is all the answer I need,” she said. “It must’ve been a horrific place if you’re not willing to talk about it.”
“No prison could possibly be even remotely tolerable, but I will say that Libby was not a credit to the Confederacy.”
Laura stared out the window, trying to compose herself. Finally turning to Nicholas, she forced a brittle smile. “I thought as much. I’ve tried very hard over the past few years not to imagine what life was like for Scott in Libby. In fact, I still find it difficult to believe he was even a soldier. Not that he wasn’t strong enough. Scott was a fabulous horseman, and, if Drew could be believed, an expert marksman when they hunted together.” She caught her upper lip between her teeth, blinking back tears. “But I never wanted to imagine him in danger on a battlefield – or dying trying to escape from a prison.”
Nicholas reached for her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. She had returned to staring out the window. “Laura…look at me.”
She shook her head back and forth, her eyes seeing a past long gone. “What purpose did it all serve, Nicholas? Scott and Drew both dead, our lives upended?”
“I think you know the answer to that already. At its most basic level, the War guaranteed that this country will remain united, and as one nation, it will grow strong. Even as a Southerner -- and as a thoroughly reconstructed Confederate officer….” Nicholas grinned. “I believe it, and I have no doubt you do as well.”
“No more ‘damn Yankees,’ then?” She rubbed her nose with her handkerchief again, and her dimples deepened as she grinned back.
“No more damn Yankees.” He held up his right hand. “I promise.”
Dinner had been an unusually silent affair. Arriving back at the ranch in the late afternoon, Johnny was visibly tired and distracted. Murdoch had abandoned attempts at conversation when both of his sons proved difficult to engage. Scott, as he had done during several meals that week, excused himself from the table early, slipping quietly from the house to walk alone in the twilight. He finally stopped at the paddock next to the main barn, pausing to check on the new mares his father had persuaded Aggie Conway to sell to him the day before. Laura would’ve loved these horses. The thought came unbidden to his mind. He leaned against the paddock fence, resting his left foot on the bottom fence board. Curious, one of the mares sauntered over to the fence to worry him with her nose and lips. He scratched at her forehead, running his hand over her eye and down her cheek. Growing bored, the horse wandered away again to nibble at a pile of hay. Someday, though, I need to be able to look at a new horse without wondering what she’d think of it.
“Nice horses, huh?”
Scott startled as his brother slipped up behind him. Even after the months they’d spent together, he was both impressed and somewhat disturbed by Johnny’s cat-like stealth. He shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “Yes, they are. I’m surprised Aggie was willing to let them go.”
“Yup. I ‘spose the old man sweet-talked her into it – or paid her more than she was asking.” Johnny held out one of the glasses he was holding. “Drink?”
“Thanks.” Scott unhooked his foot from the fence board and took a sip of the brandy, grimacing slightly as the potent liquor burned the back of his throat.
Resting against the fence, their backs turned to the paddock, neither man spoke for a while. The sun had nearly surrendered, the shadows darkening from deep lavender to purple as night approached. From the distant pastures came soft thumps and plaintive bawling as the cattle settled in.
“Been a long week,” Johnny said. “’Least tomorrow’s Saturday. Maybe we can go to town tomorrow night. Raise a little hell.”
“I don’t know, Johnny.” Scott’s smile wasn’t visible in the dim light. “I’m not sure I have any hell-raising in me this week.”
“You have been sorta unsociable the last coupla days.”
“Sorry.” Scott shifted his feet and turned, resting his elbows once more on the top fence rail.
“Me’n the old man were wondering if somethin’ happened that made you unhappy here.”
“No, nothing in particular’s happened, Johnny. I just have a lot on my mind right now. And you can tell Murdoch that, if you’d like.”
“Why don’t you tell him yourself, Boston,” Johnny retorted, before his voice softened. “Look, Scott….I’m sorry. It was a tough week without having to worry if you were going to get yourself killed.”
Scott stared at the distant mountains and slowly sipped on his brandy. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I have been distracted and ill-tempered as Murdoch said.”
Laughing, Johnny nudged his brother with his elbow. “You got some woman hidden away somewhere givin’ you problems? Or maybe one that won’t talk to you? You’re sure actin’ like a man who’s lost his best girl.”
“That’s closer to the truth than you could ever imagine, Johnny. When did you learn to read minds?”
“It’s not so hard, Scott. Not when you’ve spent years watching people like I have.” Johnny grinned and shifted his feet, pausing to take a sip of his drink. “Do I know her?”
“No.” Scott sighed. “You don’t know her. She’s someone I grew up with who’s been gone for a long time.”
“You still got feelings for this woman?”
“I don’t know…it’s been years since we were together. Probably time to let her go and move on.”
“But I can’t shake this feeling that she’s in danger. Or, oddly enough, that she’s somewhere nearby.” Scott shook his head. “I know…it sounds strange.”
“Nah….It’s not so strange. Not if you knew her that well. How come she’s not with you?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I got time.”
“She disappeared in May of ’63. I have every reason to believe her father sent her away to keep us apart, but….” Scott lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug.
“You try to find her?”
“I did, but her father was very thorough. I never could find anyone who’d admit to knowing where she was. I even hired a Pinkerton, but he couldn’t find her either.”
“And she never tried to come back?”
Scott stared at the toes of his boots before replying. “No. Not that I’m aware of. That’s another reason I’ve been thinking it’s time to move on.”
“Yup. Prob’ly is.” Johnny took a mouthful of liquor and elbowed his brother in the side. “And you can start with goin’ to town with me tomorrow night. All those girls just ready and waitin’. And you can bet they won’t desert you.”
“You know, brother.” Scott elbowed his brother back. “That actually does sound like an excellent idea. What do you think of that Cassie Wilson?”
“I saw her first….”
Laughing and comparing the virtues of the ladies of Morro Coyo, the brothers drifted back to the house.
Finally. I don’t think I ever want to get back on a train again. Laura followed Nicholas off the train in Sacramento late Saturday afternoon. It’ll be so nice not to be moving – or listening to that incessant clacking. She waited in the station as he directed the porters to their luggage.
“Shall we?” Nicholas offered her his arm, gesturing toward the door. “The trunks will be delivered to the Regency Hotel down the street. “I thought we might have dinner at a little restaurant I frequent when I’m here. Unless you’d like to freshen up first?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Supper sounds good.” She took his arm, smiling up at him. “Lead on.”
Settling into their seats, Laura thought Nicholas seemed distracted. He fiddled with his napkin and the silverware, rearranging his forks and spoons as though their positions weren’t quite up to his standards. When he shuffled them for the third time without speaking, she’d had enough.
“What’s wrong, Nicholas?”
“Nothing.” He glanced up at her. “Why do you ask?”
“Just that you’ve about worn the silver away fussing with it. You seem bothered.”
“All right.” Leaning forward in his chair, Nicholas very deliberately replaced his dinner fork next to his plate and sucked in a deep breath. “I wasn’t going to say anything, Laura. I told myself that it’s none of my business. But this is likely the last real opportunity we’ll have to talk, and I find I can’t let you get on that stage tomorrow without speaking my mind.”
“Is that so?” Laura stiffened, unsure if she was intrigued by his candor or offended by it.
“Are you really certain you want to do this? You can’t seriously want to spend the rest of your life in some dirty, god-forsaken cow town teaching reading and numbers to children who will likely never appreciate your efforts.”
“You sound just like my cousin, Sarah,” she retorted. “And I’ll give you the same answer I gave her – this is precisely what I want to do.” Laura’s face and voice softened as she added, “And while I do appreciate your concern, it is my life and my decision. I’ve needed to find a focus, and I have little doubt I’ll find it in Morro Coyo. Besides, Sacramento seems to be a lovely city, and San Francisco isn’t all that far away. Perhaps I’ll even make the train trip back East on occasion.”
Nicholas shook his head in resignation, but his voice was insistent. “You could just get back on that train in the morning and go back to Baltimore, you know. Get married. Build a full life there – where it’s civilized and your education will be of some value.”
“Now you sound like my father.” She lifted her chin in defiance. “Why do you all think I need a man to take care of me? As I told you before, I’m perfectly able to take care of myself.”
“Then you would never consider anyone else, and there’s no way I can convince you to return to Baltimore?”
“No. I will never marry. It wouldn’t be fair to another man to be constantly measured against Scott. And I absolutely will not return permanently to Baltimore. You cannot convince me otherwise.” Laura took a tentative bite of her roast beef, noting that Nicholas had so far left his own meal untouched. “Please let’s not argue again, Nicholas,” she implored. I’ll be fine. Can we simply enjoy our dinner now?”
She was dressed and waiting when Nicholas tapped on her door early the next morning. Laura opened it to find him leaning against the doorpost.
“The porters are on their way up to take your trunks to the stage office. The stage’ll be leaving in about an hour, so we should get some breakfast.” His tone was business-like, but not unkind. “They’ll stop along the way to switch horses and for a brief lunch break, but you won’t have any substantial meal until you arrive in Morro Coyo.”
After a breakfast marked by awkward and strained silence, Nicholas escorted Laura down the street to the stage depot. The stage was waiting next to the boardwalk, the horses already restless and straining at the traces.
“Wait here a moment,” Nicholas directed her, striding away to speak briefly with the driver. When he returned, he took her by the elbow, guiding her to stand under the lone tree in the square next to the depot.
“The driver told me he’d look after you and make sure you arrive safely in Morro Coyo,” he said.
“Thank you. That’s very kind.”
“Have you ever even been in a public coach, Laura?”
“No,” she admitted. “But I’m sure I’ll be just fine. Any idea who I’ll be traveling with?”
“The driver said he’d have six passengers to start – but only you and the priest are going as far as Morro Coyo. It’ll be a rough trip for you. That coach’ll rattle your teeth loose.”
“Thanks for the warning.” She smiled, and reached for his hands. “And thank you for making my trip across the country much more interesting than even I expected.”
“Laura.” Nicholas brushed a stray piece of hair from her cheek, the gesture much as Scott would’ve done. “I….
“Please don’t…say anything.” She took his hand again. “Let’s just say goodbye and….”
He leaned over to kiss her, his lips slipping across her cheek when she averted her face.
“Goodbye, Nicholas.” She turned and walked away, unconsciously touching her cheek with her fingers where his lips had rested. Without a backward glance, afraid and confused by the turmoil of her feelings, she climbed into the stagecoach, settling herself in the far corner. The other passengers seated, the driver whipped up the horses, bellowing at them to move out.
Five hours later, they were roughly halfway to Morro Coyo, and Laura had to admit Nicholas was right. The stage was hot and dusty, and the lack of any kind of springs, combined with the pitted road, had left her feeling stiff and bruised. Conversation with the other passengers had been discouraged by the noise and the need to hang on to their seats to keep from being pitched about. Stopped at a way station to switch horses, Laura climbed down from the coach and shook the dust from her skirts. The driver approached her as she was about to enter the station.
“Ma’am?” He tipped his hat. “They’ve got some lunch inside. You should get somethin’ to eat.”
“Thank you. I will.”
“I got somethin’ here for you, too.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a letter. “Mr. Pruitt told me to give you this when we stopped.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, taking the envelope. “Why didn’t he give it to me?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. He just said for me to wait until we were away from Sacramento.”
Slipping to the end of the porch, she eased the flap open and removed his letter. She could hear Nicholas’ voice echoing in her head and see his face, the crooked smile that had become so familiar over the past ten days. As she read, she felt as though her knees wouldn’t bear her weight, and she sank down onto a wooden bench.
My dear Laura,
I have chosen to write to you what I, cowardly, could not admit to you in person. When I first met you on the train, I already knew who you were and that you were traveling alone. Your cousin's husband, David, hired me to watch over you on your journey to California, fearful for your safety. My agreement with him was such that I promised I would not interact with you or in any way reveal to you my identity as a Pinkerton agent. I was to fade into the background as I have done so well on many assignments for the Agency. Do not be angry with David. He simply wished to protect you while respecting the sheer determination and pride that drove you to seek a new life for yourself. And, in a way, I did not lie to you. I did tell you I had business in California; you, however, were that business.
But, Laura, I was drawn to you from the first moment I saw you board the train in Baltimore. That I waited two days to approach you required more fortitude than I believed myself capable of. Yes, I admit I was first attracted by your beauty, but I found it combined with an intelligence and grace that made you all the more captivating. I only wish I had met you in a different time and place -- before the War and personal loss scarred both of us.
I have enclosed my calling card, detailing where and how you may contact me if you ever require my assistance. I truly hope you find the new life you seek in California.
With my fondest regards,
Finishing his letter, she folded it and tucked it back into the envelope. She held on to his calling card, staring at the engraved name, the Pinkerton Agency imprimatur, and the address in Baltimore without really seeing them. “How did I not see it?” She whispered to herself. There were so many clues. He was always just a step away. He never did really say what his job was. You were so focused on yourself and what you wanted, that you never put it together. How could you have been so blind and so naïve – in so many ways?
Laura sat on the bench until the driver, with another tip of his hat, requested she take her place back on the stage. When the stagecoach roared into Morro Coyo several hours later, she still clutched the calling card in her hand. Hurriedly tucking it into her reticule, she unfolded herself from the seat, pausing to gather her skirts. A large hand reached up to her, offering her assistance through the narrow door and down onto the boardwalk.
“Miss MacNeill?” The voice belonged to a rotund man with a broad smile on his face. “Welcome to Morro Coyo….”
Murdoch sat on the sofa alone, reading. The soft click of the front door closing caught his attention. Only his elder son was that careful when he came into the house.
“Everything all right, Scott?” He asked without looking up.
“Everything’s fine, sir.” The quiet response came from behind him, near the hallway door. “If it’s all right with you, I think I’ll retire early.”
The boy had a formality about him that his father hoped might relax with time. “That’s fine, son. It’s been a long, hard day.” He paused a minute, holding his place in the book with his finger. “By the way….I saw Reverend Granville when I was in town today. You might be interested to know that the new schoolteacher arrived on the late stage yesterday.”
“That’s good.” Scott’s voice sounded tired, disinterested.
“She’s from Boston and about your age. I thought you might have met her at some point. Her name’s MacNeill. Laura MacNeill….”
(Continued with Promises Kept)