FROM HIGHLANDS

TO

HOMECOMING

By Margaret P.

 

Acknowledgements

This story took the best part of a year to write and I could not have done it without my betas, Terri Derr and Anna Orr. Their patience and guidance were indispensable. Thank you falls short of what I would like to say to these two incredible ladies, but typically words fail me when I need them most. I will have to make do with saying that I am now very proud and pleased to call them my friends.

The book pictured on the title page was a gift from Terri when we met for the first time at the Spirit of the Cowboy event in McKinney, Texas in 2014. The cover was designed specifically for From Highlands to Homecoming by a very talented young graphic designer, Molly Gates.  

I posted the final chapter of From Highlands to Homecoming on 13 September, 2014 from McKinney. The timing was a happy coincidence. Not only did I meet Terri and a number of other Lancer ladies connected with Lancer Writers (Yahoo) and Lancer FanFiction (Facebook), but I also had the great pleasure of meeting actor James Stacy, who portrayed Johnny Lancer (Madrid) in the television series. I owe thanks to everyone involved with the show’s creation, but in particular I owe it to the scriptwriters and to the three actors: James Stacy, Andrew Duggan and Wayne Maunder, who brought Lancer to life. Johnny Lancer has been my fantasy man since the age of twelve and Murdoch and Scott Lancer will always have a soft spot in my heart. They were my inspiration for this and other stories, and I thank them for many, many hours of enjoyment. 

Contents

Page

Chapter

 

Title

 

 

 

 

5

1

 

From Highlands

9

2

 

All at Sea

13

3

 

Bonnie Prince Charlie

17

4

 

In America Now

21

5

 

The Business of Land

27

6

 

A Series of Meetings

35

7

 

A Novel Encounter

39

8

 

Common Ground

43

9

 

Boston Times

47

10

 

Letters to Catherine

53

11

 

Early Days

59

12

 

The Season of Goodwill

67

13

 

Luck Runs Out

73

14

 

The Tide Turns

79

15

 

The Great Escape

83

16

 

Love and Honour

87

17

 

Good to be Home

93

18

 

Catherine

101

19

 

Jud Haney

109

20

 

God Giveth and…

117

21

 

Grief and Anger

123

22

 

Revival

131

23

 

Reunion                               

139

24

 

Matamoros

145

25

 

New Beginning

149

26

 

Discovery

155

27

 

December 23rd

159

28

 

Surprising Developments

165

29

 

The Boom

171

30

 

Ups and Downs

181

31

 

One Down

191

32

 

Two to Go

199

33

 

Gone but Not Forgotten

205

34

 

Searching

211

35

 

Old Friends and New

217

36

 

Women Troubles

223

37

 

New Orleans

231

38

 

The Chase

237

39

 

Life Goes On

243

40

 

Changing Times

249

41

 

Staying Silent

255

42

 

Abilene

263

43

 

The Grand Finale

267

44

 

Robbery and Reports

275

45

 

Human and Mother Nature

279

46

 

Loss

287

47

 

Longwei

293

48

 

1865

299

49

 

Coming of Age

305

50

 

Worsening Times

313

51

 

Highriders

325

52

 

To Homecoming

341

 

 

Notes

354

 

 

Bibliography

355

 

 

Timeline

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: From Highlands 

“Here laddie, take this.” Unfastening the gold fob watch the old clockmaker pressed the apprentice piece he had worn for over fifty years into his grandson’s hands. “It’s auld but it still keeps good time. It would please me to think you carried something of me in a strange land.” 

Looking down, the young man accepted the treasured timepiece. “Aw Granda, are you sure? Thank you. I will think of you whenever I use it.” 

The two men hugged awkwardly. Ancient hands, aged-spotted and wrinkled, then pushed his grandson towards the door.  Murdoch MacKinnon, ‘Maker of Fine Clocks and Watches,’ would not see his namesake again. “Away with you. I’ve work to be doing.” 

The shop bell jangled as Murdoch Lancer stepped out onto the grey cobbled street slick from the drizzle that had blanketed the town most of the morning. Funny, as much as he longed to leave, he would miss Inverness with its dour stone buildings and narrow rows of houses, its damp mists, green-black hillsides and dark mysterious waters. And oh, how he would miss that wizened, old man, who had been father and grandfather combined since his Da had fallen to his death all those years ago.  

Rubbing the smooth gold between his fingers Murdoch looked up to the parting clouds, blinking rapidly, before putting the watch safely away in the top pocket of his jacket. His eyes then searched the far end of the street to find his mother and sister waiting with his trunk outside the coach house. Where was Jock? 

“Behind you.”  Come straight from the byre, having helped birth a new calf, Jock Lancer was still rolling down his sleeves as he strode towards his younger brother. “A bull. An easy delivery, thank God. I thought when she started, it would make me late.” 

Jock threw his arm around his brother’s shoulders and they continued on together.  “One down, two to go. Sure you won’t change your mind and keep working for the laird? You know he’ll have you back. Best cattle man for miles, he says—next to me of course. We share our father’s knack with them bonnie beasts, laddie.” 

“No Jock, you know that wouldn’t work. The laird is changing to sheep like the rest, and besides I’ve got the hunger for adventure. It’s America for me now I’ve saved enough. It’s different for you.”

Coming to a halt, the younger man turned towards the brother he admired so much. At fourteen, Jock had taken on the roles of man of the house and bonnet laird with stolid determination, refusing Murdoch’s help beyond a few chores and insisting that he stay at school. Their Da would have wanted it that way. Supported partly by their grandfather’s generosity, Jock had barely kept the farm going that first year, but thereafter he had found his stride. He was soon teaching grown men a thing or two about raising cattle and managing a farm. As a result Glenbeath was one of the few Highland farms still able to make ends meet while continuing largely with the cattle that he and Murdoch both loved.   

In his second year of farming Jock had employed another labourer to help with the heavier work. At the time his holding was not large, and he would have had to let this man go if Murdoch had come to work there. Neither he nor Murdoch wanted that, and besides Jock had better things in mind for his brother. When he had finally allowed Murdoch to abandon his books, it had been to take up a position with the local laird as assistant to the factor. Murdoch had a natural affinity with animals of any sort and coupled with the best education Jock and his grandfather could afford, the laird took little persuasion to employ him.  Already knowledgeable about cattle, Murdoch would work as a stockman when needed, but would learn all aspects of estate management and eventually become an estate manager himself.   

Naturally Murdoch had contributed regularly to his family’s income, but from an early age he had a dream, and he had saved most of his earnings to finance it. “I dinnae begrudge you the farm, Jock. It’s yours by right, but I want land of my own, freedom and space. Scotland can’t offer that.” 

“Aye, with the clearances, folk are leaving in their droves, but there is always a place for skilled and educated men. The laird has been hard pushed to find a replacement for you as factor. He has asked Robertson to come out of retirement while he advertises further afield.” 

“I didna know that, but it makes no difference.” 

“No? Well, you can’t blame me for trying one last time.” Laughing with resignation, Jock gave his brother a playful shove. “Come on. Now you must pay the price for your stubbornness and bid farewell to our mother and Maggie. The coach will be for Greenock soon.”

Fresh horses were being harnessed to the mail coach by the ostler as they approached the front entrance of the inn. Smartly dressed in black and scarlet livery, the driver and guard loaded the luggage and the mail box.  Jock lent a hand with Murdoch’s black leather and timber trunk, heavy with everything he was taking with him to the New World, as his brother went to bid farewell to his mother and sister.

Taking his leave of his womenfolk was tearful. Murdoch knew it would be, but there was no help for it. A youthful nonchalance and excitement to be finally on his way helped him through the worst.

Maggie tried to hide her feelings behind pragmatisms but her blue eyes watered all the same. “You’ll write at least once a month, and mind you eat properly.”

“Yes Maggie, I promise.” He smiled and nodded towards her rounded midriff. “And you look after yourself and the bairn.”

“Rob is sorry he couldn’t be here to see you off, but auld man Macpherson wouldn’t hear of him taking the time. I’m sure he’s the reason the Sassenachs say we Scots are tight-fisted.”

“No matter, Maggie. We said all there was to say last night.”

“Remember you have kin in America, but they likely spell the name differently,” his mother reminded him. “You should try to find them.”

“America is a big place, Ma, but I will let you know if our paths cross.”

Murdoch knew he was just humouring his mother. The chances of him meeting his American kin were very slim after so many years with no contact and no knowledge of where they had settled. His uncle had left Scotland well before Murdoch was born. If it helped her to believe that he would have family nearby to support him there however, he would not dampen her hope entirely, and he would look out for the name or any similar spelling.

“You’ll always be my bairn,” wept Ellen Lancer forcing her youngest to stoop to hug her for the umpteenth time. Ellen was dwarfed by her sons. In terms of height, they favoured their father, as she did hers, but courage and determination came from both parents. “You’ll be a success, son. I ken that. Oh but it’s hard to have you go so far away. You stay safe. You hear me?”

Gently Murdoch prised her arms away from his neck and kissed her tear-washed cheek as the coachman gave the final call.  Turning to his brother he offered his hand. Like two towering pines, the brothers stood facing each other, drinking in the other’s image; each etching a picture in his mind that must likely last a lifetime.

“Take care of them, Jock—and yourself.”

“Good luck, brother.”

Firmly shaking hands and embracing one last time, the Lancer men parted. Murdoch hauled himself up into the carriage. The coachman cracked his whip and four strong horses headed south, hooves clattering over the cobbles and splashing through puddles. Holding back the leather curtain Murdoch leaned out waving until all sight of his loved ones was lost, and then he settled back in his seat next to a rotund scrivener. Moving his legs politely to one side to make more room for the seamstress sitting opposite, he swallowed the lump in his throat and looked to the future.

Two days later after an uneventful journey he arrived in Greenock as dusk enveloped the port.  He took a room at an inn near the dockyard, so he would not have far to walk the next morning. Boarding was to be early. Ordering a good breakfast in advance, he made his way upstairs long before the singing and laughter ceased and the other patrons meandered homeward. As he drifted off to sleep on a lumpy straw mattress, images of rolling hills, wide valleys and free ranging cattle filled his mind. What would it be like to live in such a place, to own such land? If it pleased God, he would soon find out.

The distant Highlands were haloed by a rising sun as the Duchess of Argyle slipped her moorings the next morning. The breeze caught the mainsail and the emigrant ship glided towards open seas. Standing on the main deck, elbow to elbow with others making the voyage, dreams of the New World and adventure were temporarily laid aside. Picturing each loved face, one by one, Murdoch bid a silent final farewell to his family and homeland.

 

 

Chapter 2: All at Sea

For the fourth time in as many minutes Murdoch heaved. Gulls circling overhead dived with great expectations but came up short as they realised that source of nourishment had dried up. There was nothing left of the good breakfast of porridge and milk followed by eggs and bacon that he had treated himself to at the tavern before boarding the Duchess of Argyle. He had felt fine as the vessel eased itself away from the wharf. Caught up in thoughts of family and home, he had barely noticed the swell increasing. When the ship reached the Tail of the Bank all the passengers had been called to the quarter deck to undergo medical inspection and to hand over their tickets, and he had happily agreed to be one of the ship’s constables. The responsibility for supervising the allocation of rations and liaising between the passengers and ship’s officers would add interest to the journey. When the barque truly broke free into open water, however, and the mainsail embraced a lively breeze, it was a different story. He began to wonder whether he would be able to stay on his feet long enough to fulfil his duties.

He was not alone. Draped over the rails nearby or collapsed in misery around the deck and below decks were many of his fellow passengers. As the ship rose and fell on the waves so did the contents of their stomachs.

“Land lubbers,” chuckled a grey-whiskered seaman behind Murdoch as he hauled on a rope to secure the rigging. Chewing tobacco he spat with precision over the side and hailed the cabin boy just about to disappear down a ladder. “Here Tom, get some fresh water for these folk.”

Water was rationed but the old sailor knew the captain made allowances for the first day or two when his passengers had particular need. The boy soon returned with a pail of fresh water and a ladle. Murdoch took a small amount to swill his mouth out and then swallowed a mouthful. His innards felt a little more settled as he nodded his thanks, and the cabin boy moved to another man further along the rail.

By late afternoon a squall got up.

“Passengers below decks,” ordered the captain as sailors ran backwards and forwards and climbed like monkeys up into the rigging to bring in the excess sails.

The single men were in the bow, about as far away from the single women in the rear of the vessel as the god-fearing owners could arrange. Murdoch was amused by a precaution so clearly unnecessary at the present moment. Male or female, many could hardly raise themselves to stand and were far from fit for anything more energetic.

Although Murdoch was no longer vomiting, others were still severely indisposed. The passengers were confined below decks in an area known as steerage, which was partitioned by heavy canvas walls with sections designated for single men, families or single women. Each section was divided by a narrow corridor between two-tier bunks with belongings and rations stacked precariously in the centre. With the slop buckets in regular use positioned at either end of each ‘cabin’, the atmosphere was highly unpleasant.

Murdoch had the extra difficulty of being taller than average. At six feet five inches he was a giant compared to most of his companions. There was little more than seven feet of head room in steerage, and it took him some time to find a position that was comfortable enough for him to fall asleep on the six foot square bunk, which he shared with three other men. In his slumber his legs sought release by extending out into the gangway. Another passenger, dashing madly in the dark for the slop bucket, tripped over them. Murdoch awoke suddenly, in time to witness the contents of the poor man’s stomach exploding forth as he hit the floor.

“I won’t get in the way, sir, but I’d be grateful if you would let me sleep on deck where there is more room,” Murdoch petitioned the captain the next morning. “I could spread out by the life boats or anywhere else you’d prefer.”

“Note in the log, Mr Adams, permission granted to Mr Lancer to sleep on deck during fine weather due to his exceptional size.” Captain Livingston’s voice was stern, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes. “You will go below decks with the rest at other times, sir, and if you do get in the way, you will stay down there.”

“Yes sir, thank you.” Murdoch made a swift retreat before the captain could change his mind. Sleeping under stars in fresh air instead of under creaking timbers in a miasma of body odour and vomit was a concession, for which he was very grateful. He would take no risks of getting that permission revoked.

Over the following six weeks he got to know many of his fellow passengers well. He still spent about half his days and nights in steerage due to the weather conditions and routine of the ship; passengers were only allowed on deck at certain times of day when they would not get in the way of the crew.  Despite the segregation of their quarters and on deck, some intermixing of the sexes still took place. As constable, Murdoch had to collect the daily rations from the galley for his part of steerage, and in doing so came in passing contact with his female counterparts. Everyone was officially allowed to mix together for church services on a Sunday, and there was the occasional dance when the weather was fine.

One day when a young shepherd was feeling unwell, Murdoch offered to feed his dogs and discovered how his bedfellow had become so friendly with a young woman from Dumfries. To get to where the dogs were kennelled, he had permission to cross over the poop deck, which was reserved for the single women. In addition, the kennels were very conveniently out of sight of the quarterdeck. 

“You jammy beggar,” Murdoch ribbed the man upon his return.

“Ah well, it’s amazing how long it takes to feed three dogs,” sighed the shepherd with mock gravity as he roused himself from his sick bed to accept a smuggled gift from his Mary.

“How thoughtful,” he said, shaking out the neatly stitched handkerchief and blowing his nose vigorously. “I only sneezed a couple of times yesterday. Or do you think she objected to me using me sleeve?”

Although no particular girl caught Murdoch’s eye, with his tall good-looks he was the focus for more than his fair share of flirting. It would have been rude not to respond in kind. His mother had always taught him to be polite, had she not?

Most steerage passengers were penniless crofters evicted from their livelihoods by landlords enclosing land for sheep. Some had their passage paid for by those same landlords. It depended how you looked on it whether that was generosity or simply an attempt to assuage their consciences and get rid of a problem. The remaining passengers were those who deliberately sought greater opportunities in a new land, mainly artisans, domestic servants or skilled agricultural workers. Some a social degree higher, like Murdoch, could have afforded a cabin, but preferred to save their funds for their new lives.

When they were not allowed on deck, they were confined below in cramped conditions. Apart from carrying out basic housekeeping chores as directed by the constables, the men passed the time by playing cards or games like shove penny, carving small trinkets, talking or telling stories. Some artisans earned money during the voyage by plying their trade. Only a few like Murdoch could read and write much beyond their name.  That was one reason why he had been chosen as a constable.

Many of those who were literate kept a journal, read or wrote poetry to pass the time. The ship boasted a small library for the use of its constables, and besides that the men readily shared what books they had brought with them. An avid reader with eclectic tastes, Murdoch had enjoyed Charles Dickens’ earlier works, so he had brought Nicholas Nickleby with him to help pass the time. He was not disappointed. Another passenger lent him Frankenstein in exchange when he was finished. He started to read a translation of Homer’s Iliad, but unfortunately the ship’s copy had pages missing. He put it aside in favour of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with every intention of reading the Iliad another time when he could spare the money to buy his own copy.

Sometimes a man would read aloud, usually poetry. A book of poems by Robbie Burns naturally proved popular. Though it may not have been the best choice psychologically during a sea voyage, Murdoch’s passionate rendition of The Wreck of the Hesperus by a new American writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was also a favourite.

A special friendship developed between Murdoch and a young cordwainer from Hexham. Ben Telford was one of the few Englishmen aboard ship. By his way of it, he was not only escaping his father’s workshops, but also his domination. Like Murdoch, Ben was emigrating to seek his own fortune and adventure. When he was not adding to his savings by mending his fellow passengers’ boots and Murdoch had fulfilled his daily tasks as constable, they shared their enthusiasm for all they had heard and read about America. Many otherwise empty hours were filled discussing their hopes and dreams.

“I’ll get work with a Boston manufacturer for the first year, maybe two. Once I’ve earned more money, I’ll head west to a town without a bootmaker and set up my own business. I’ll prove to the old codger I can make it on my own, if it kills me.” Ben jumped his black checker piece over several of Murdoch’s red ones. If Ben thanked his father for anything, it was his insistence that the boss’s son must learn his trade like any other man before being allowed a say in how the workshops were run; the fact that his old man would not listen to any of his suggestions even when his was qualified was his main complaint. Inadvertently, however, his father had given him the key to his freedom; he had a trade as well as business experience, and he had been fairly paid for both activities while living under his father’s roof. Now he aimed to put his skills, knowledge and savings to good use in America.  “I have a cousin near Boston, who will put me up for a while. That’s why I paid passage on the Duchess.” 

“I’m for California eventually, but I need the help of land agents based in Boston to arrange things,” Murdoch replied. He had researched America and its neighbours for several years. Originally he had envisaged settling within the existing territories of the United States, but when he read Two Years before the Mast he knew California was where he wanted to be. It was currently part of Mexico, but from what he had read it would soon become part of the United States. It was only a matter of time. There was something exciting about being a pioneer in a new territory or state. “See here, land in the north is expected to become available soon and sell cheaply. I have a letter of introduction from my old employer to a man of influence in Boston. With luck he will be able to put me in touch with the right people. I need to borrow a little more capital to help with set up costs.”

“A little more capital? You’ll need more than a little capital to finance what you’ve written here! I know you said you’d been saving, but even in your lofty position as estate manager, you can’t have been earning that much surely? You may have to lower your sights, my friend.”

“Ah well, my brother and grandfather insisted on giving me what they said was my inheritance before I left, and it was nae just my wages that I was saving,” Murdoch admitted. “I had other income from a deal I made with the laird some years back.”

“Go on with you! The likes of us don’t make deals with lords,” Ben retorted. “Seriously?”

Murdoch shrugged and smiled. He remembered clearly the event that had proven so profitable. It could have easily gone the other way. It could have seen him dead.

 

Chapter 3: Bonnie Prince Charlie

“I’d been working for the local laird about a year when his prize bull calf strayed through a broken wall and fell into a ghyll,” Murdoch recalled. Moving his checker piece out of danger, he stood up from the bunk where he and Ben were playing. To relieve the cramp beginning in his legs, he reached up to touch the timbers above his head and bent at the knees up and down a few times before settling back to the game.

“A what?”

“A glen with verra steep sides.”

“You mean a ravine,” corrected Ben running his fingers back through tangled, unwashed hair. “You need to learn to speak English—well, American at any rate—if you want to do business with the moneymen of Boston. I’m told they’re a snooty lot.”

Murdoch continued unperturbed by his friend’s insult—the pot calling the kettle black after all. “The poor beast was unhurt but marooned on a ledge about half way down. The burn was deep at the bottom and there were no rocks to climb up from. It was cliff either side for several yards so there was no hope of rescue that way. The only chance was with ropes and straight down from the top.”

“And your lord ordered you down?” Ben asked incredulously. “You could have been killed.”

“Aye, I could have been. It was how my father died, trying to rescue one of his own cattle, but nay, the laird didna order me down. I volunteered.”

The memory of that day filled his mind as he retold the story. The laird had been called to assess the situation. Murdoch and three other men had stood by waiting for instruction, including the stockman whose job it had been to repair the broken wall the day before the calves were released into that paddock. Murdoch had watched the laird ride southward and look back to see what Murdoch and the others already knew.

The animal had survived the fall. It must have wandered too close to the edge where the ground had jutted out with nothing to support it. The weight had caused the soil to give way and a slide of scree could be seen to the south end of the ledge where the calf now stood. A solitary clump of gorse clung to the rocks at that point. It must have been the only thing between the calf and certain death as the rock face fell almost straight down from there to the burn below.  A miracle the beast had not broken something, but it was on all fours and apart from a few scratches apparently unscathed. There was no way of reaching it however. No man could navigate the slip itself even with ropes.  The cliff extended too far either side of the outcrop to make a sideways approach feasible. Straight down with ropes from the place where the men now waited for him seemed the only option, with few footholds and only a couple of hardy gorse bushes to hold onto. The last few yards to the ledge were a sheer drop and any man attempting the task would be relying solely on the rope and the strength of those at the top manning it.

Murdoch knew the laird was considering whether to send one of them down. By rights Grant, the shirker responsible for mending the wall, should be the rescuer, but he was the heaviest and he had a wife and bairns. Murdoch was the lightest and most agile despite his height, but he doubted the laird would ask him to do it. Allowing for the difference in social standing, the laird had called his father ‘friend’. He would not want to be responsible for putting Murdoch in danger of being killed in the same manner.  

“Shoot it,” the laird ordered having ridden back to the waiting group. “We cannot bring the beast up safely. Better it have a quick death than starve slowly.”

Macleod, the headman, retrieved the flintlock rifle strapped to his horse. He had come prepared, guessing the laird’s decision.  Valuable as the calf was, the laird held fast to the traditions of Clan Chief. To put any of his men in harm’s way for the sake of an animal would have been out of character.

“Wait.” Murdoch stepped forward and held his arm out to prevent Macleod going to the cliff edge. “Let me try to bring him up.”

“I will not ask you to risk your life to save a beast,” responded the laird.

“You’re not asking, milord, I’m offering—if the others will manage the ropes and if you will make it worth my while.”

“I’m listening.” The laird looked down at his assistant factor with interest. The bay hunter beneath him snorted and shook its head restlessly.

“If I save him, I get half the value of his off-spring.”

“Half the value of …. Ha, you’re your father’s son, all right—as canny as your brother an’ all.” The laird threw back his head and laughed out loud. “Well, if you’re sure, I have nothing to lose by the attempt.”

Murdoch grinned with youthful confidence and faced the other men. “Will you help me? Man the ropes and I’ll stand you all a drink whether I’m successful or no.”

“Aye, we’ll help,” nodded Macleod. “But leave your purse up here, laddie—just in case.”

Ropes were fetched and the three stockmen stripped off their jackets and took their positions. The laird and horse at the rear would act as final anchor as there was nothing else to do the job. Murdoch took off his coat and tied the rope securely around his waist. With smaller ropes slung over his head and shoulder he stepped back over the edge and inched his way slowly down the steep stony slope until he reached sheer drop. Finding firm footing against two lichen-covered rocks, he adjusted his grip and tested the rope once more before lowering himself over the edge as the men at the top paid out the slack to his shouted instruction. It seemed like a lifetime before his feet touched solid ground again, yet looking up there was only about thirty feet of cliff above him. The stranded calf bellowed pitifully and nudged against him almost sending him over the edge.

“Get back, you damn fool!” Shaken, Murdoch looped one of the smaller ropes around the animal’s neck and looked for something to fasten it to. Nothing—he gave up and just used the rope to hold the calf steady while he forced it down on its side and bound its legs. As the young bull struggled, however, Murdoch realised there was no way he would be able to carry the beast and climb to safety at the same time.

“You need to make a harness for the calf. Attach it to a separate rope. I think I can guide the calf over the edge, but I cannae carry it over.” Standing on the narrow ledge high above white water with hundreds of pounds of squirming, terrified beef, Murdoch cursed his own stupidity. Everything had seemed so simple when he had been safely up top. He had gotten carried away with his own cleverness for making money. He had minimised the difficulties and dangers of the task. Murdoch knew he had proved his grandda right; he was a young fool. So what that he had been correct in believing the laird’s love of ingenuity and daring would outweigh his caution, and his fondness for the late John Lancer would cause him to accept a deal more financially beneficial to his friend’s son than to himself. Murdoch should have realised from the outset that the calf would be too big and heavy to carry.

His da had descended only with ropes, but there had been a narrow path to navigate not a sheer drop. John Lancer would have succeeded except that the panicked steer had knocked him onto an outcrop, which gave way. His brother-in-law Alex Fraser and old Fergus Ross, who had manned the ropes above, had been able to slow his descent, but a minute later the steer had toppled over the edge after him. John had been crushed between the beast and the jagged rocks of the burn below. Why had Murdoch been so cocksure he could achieve such a rescue when a similar attempt by his father had gone so horribly wrong? “If I get out of here alive, Ma will kill me.”

More men were brought from a nearby field. A harness was made and lowered, and Murdoch secured it to the calf.

“Haul away!” Murdoch helped the animal avoid injury as the ropes lifted it upright. The calf rose into the air bellowing in terror. When it reached the top of the vertical rock face and could go no further without his help, Murdoch called for the men to start hauling him up. Reaching the same point he let go of the rope and grappled desperately for leverage, his legs swimming in thin air. With every muscle protesting, he dragged his body up and over the edge of the overhang onto the steeply sloping upper ground. A few minutes rest face down on the rocky incline, the plaintive sounds of the calf ringing in his ears, and then he carefully repositioned himself sideways. As the men pulled from above, he used one foot and arm to prevent himself falling and the other leg and arm to push the animal wide of the edge. On the fourth attempt he managed to manoeuvre the calf over and onto the slope beside him.

“I must be mad.” Gasping for air, he adjusted the ropes around the struggling calf. Then he cut its legs loose and helped it upright. Now the young bull could climb the remaining distance as the ropes dragged it upwards. “Stark, staring mad!”

Mad or not, Murdoch and the calf had finally reached safety and over the following years his agreement with the laird had been highly profitable. Bonnie Prince Charlie, as Murdoch christened the bull, proved no worse for wear due to his ordeal; in fact it rather seemed to have increased his appreciation of life, particularly when it came to the opposite sex. Once the animal was of age to begin breeding, his libido seemed to have no bounds and his progeny was soon to be found the length and breadth of the Highlands. Each one sold reaped Murdoch half the sale price and when he finally left the laird’s employ and the value of the stock still held was calculated, he came away with a tidy sum. Added to that was also what he and the laird agreed would be fair compensation for any future progeny. Murdoch was not prepared to relinquish his rights just because he was emigrating. He had intended to ask the laird to pay his brother instead of sending payment to America, but the laird suggested a lump sum to buy out his share. That suited them both and an agreement was soon reached.

“So how much is a cow worth and how many did Bonnie Prince Charlie sire?” enquired Ben so engrossed in the tale that he had inadvertently allowed Murdoch to nearly clear the board of his checkers.

“Enough,” replied Murdoch, “Just enough.”

 

Chapter 4: In America Now 

Before the Duchess of Argyle docked its passengers were ready on deck with their belongings, eager to see their new homeland and to feel its solid ground beneath their feet. The ship would return to Britain within a few days, the hull filled to capacity with cargo. The crew started dismantling the bunks in steerage to allow for this even as Murdoch and Ben made their way to disembark. Behind the docks they could see the bustling city of Boston spreading out before them.

“Not as big as Glasgow, I think, but bigger than Inverness.” Murdoch gazed about with interest.

Ben stopped at the end of gangplank and grinned over his shoulder at Murdoch. “Next step American soil. Dare I do it?”

Murdoch laughed.  Shoving Ben forward, he stepped onto the wharf after him; his sense of achievement exhilarating. He had made it. The first hurdle of crossing the Atlantic was behind him, and the next stage of his great adventure was about to begin.

Heaving his heavy trunk up onto his shoulder, Murdoch followed Ben through the throng of families and seamen. He was now wishing he had travelled lighter.  Ben had just brought a haversack—much easier to carry on your own. The Northumbrian was no fool. The friends manoeuvred their way off the crowded pier and headed into the city as far as Dock Square.

“I’m going down Washington Street.” Ben pointed to the signpost just past a fishmonger’s stall as Murdoch lowered his trunk to the ground and rubbed his shoulder. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me? My cousin won’t mind putting you up for a night or two.”

“That is kind of you, but I have affairs to attend to here in town. I’ll find a room near the business district so I can make an early start. I have your cousin’s address. I’ll be in touch.”

Ben was for Roxbury, a town on the outskirts of Boston. Murdoch watched him as he crossed the square. Doffing his cap in a polite negative to the invitations of a couple of early rising strumpets, who were gossiping beneath a lamppost on the corner, Ben raised an arm in final farewell to Murdoch and disappeared into the hustle and bustle of the main road going south.

Before the ladies could transfer their attentions to him, Murdoch hoisted his trunk onto his shoulder again and headed west. He wended his way through unfamiliar streets towards the business district, seeking directions along the way. Boston was much larger than Inverness. The strange sound of American accents mingled with the normal hubbub of carts and horses. He stopped occasionally just to listen and watch. There were an incredible variety of people and commercial activities, and one extremely vocal puritan on his soap box preaching hellfire and damnation. Stepping quickly back to avoid a bar brawl that spilled onto the street, Murdoch bumped into a customer exiting an apothecary’s shop. Apologising profusely he stopped mid-sentence and just gaped for several seconds—the fellow was black. Murdoch had never seen a negro before. The man was in a hurry and did not seem to notice Murdoch’s astonishment. Mercifully he was able to close his mouth and pull himself together without drawing too much attention. Still he felt incredibly foolish.

His first business was to locate the bank to deposit his gold and acquire some American currency. His laird had given him a letter of introduction to the manager of one of Boston’s leading banks. He was a relative and the laird was confident there could be none better to advise a new immigrant of means. Murdoch found the bank without mishap, a large red brick building with marble portico. Inside he was asked his business by a smartly dressed young man not much older than himself. This fellow stood near the door, and his sole purpose seemed to be to greet customers and usher them to the appropriate bank official. He escorted Murdoch to an imposing oak door and bid him wait as he knocked and went inside. Through the doorway Murdoch could see a middle-aged man in a dark suit seated behind a large mahogany desk, engrossed in the contents of a leather-bound ledger. His escort hurriedly whispered something in the other man’s ear. The manager nodded and closed the ledger. The younger man beckoned Murdoch forward as he departed.

“Mr Lancer, welcome. I am Douglas Muir.” The bank manager stood and stretched out his hand, giving Murdoch’s a hearty shake before waving him to a seat. “Young Evans tells me you wish to open an account with us and that you bring word from my cousin in Inverness.”

“That is correct, sir.” Murdoch put his trunk down on the floor and settled into one of two polished-wood chairs in front of the desk. “I’ve just arrived from Scotland and I have gold I wish to deposit for safe keeping until I can purchase land in California. I worked for your cousin for some years. He was kind enough to give me this letter of introduction.”

Douglas Muir unsealed the letter and quickly surveyed its contents. “My cousin speaks very highly of you, Mr Lancer. A man well-suited to the challenges of the west I should imagine. I’ll be pleased to help you in any way I can.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Muir referred back to the letter and then looked enquiringly up at Murdoch. “He says here you may have no small sum to deposit with us today.”

Murdoch nodded and bent to retrieve the gold from his trunk. He had stored the money bag in the strongbox in the captain’s cabin during the voyage. Since recovering it shortly before leaving the ship that morning, he had been careful not to let his trunk out of his sight.

The bank manager counted Murdoch’s worldly wealth and opened an account for his new customer without further delay, eventually dispatching the gold away in the care of a punctilious clerk with orders to return with some American currency of various denominations. While Muir talked and wrote, Murdoch noted he sounded remarkably American for a man who claimed to have only left Scotland six years earlier. “You have lost your Scottish accent, sir.”

Douglas Muir looked up from his writing, taking a moment to appraise the man in front of him. “I will speak frankly, Lancer. In America, as a rule, money speaks louder than background or name. Here in Boston, however, it’s a little different. There is an elite. The moneymen you may need to do business with take pride in being among the first Americans. They could look down on you, because of your background. Your speech draws attention to the fact that you are a new immigrant. I would suggest you do what you can to alter it.”

Recognising the bank manager was genuinely trying to help him, Murdoch was not offended. Ben had after all offered similar advice. “Useful to know, sir. I will try my best to do that.”

His business done Murdoch asked Muir where he might find comfortable, inexpensive accommodation close to the centre. He was referred to a boarding house for single gentlemen a few blocks away, owned and run by a respectable widowed lady.

Mrs Matilda Merriweather, Tilly to her friends, was a very round, very pretentious and very talkative woman of indeterminate age. Her fisherman husband had come to an untimely end when he had jumped from his fishing boat to the jetty and missed.

“Oh, it was awful. Crushed he was, crushed between the boat and the pier. My poor William never stood a chance. God rest his soul.”

Mrs Merriweather had bought her boarding house with the proceeds from the sale of her husband’s fishing boat. She only accepted men of good character into her establishment. A referral from Mr Muir at the bank was considered very satisfactory evidence of such character. The bank manager would never send her a gentleman who could not pay his way.

“A storm was coming in, you see. But they had a problem at sea and were late returning. The wind had got up. Young Obadiah was trying to secure the rope at the bow, but he saw the whole thing. Poor, dear, dear William—he tossed the mooring rope, but missed the bollard, so he tried to jump ashore. Such a brave man, but foolish, foolish thing to do in such weather. A wave took the boat up. Knocked him off balance, and he fell between the schooner and the wharf as the wave dropped.” Mrs Merriweather drew in a great breath and exhaled audibly, shaking her head and dabbing at the corner of her eyes with a lace hanky.

“It must have been very distressing for you. Did you say you had a spare room, ma’am?”

“Oh yes—the room. Please excuse me, young man. It’s the emotion of it all, you see. It still affects me. Poor widowed woman that I am.”

Murdoch endeavoured to look sympathetic, but really he was still not absolutely certain that the lady had a room available.

“There will be no spirits, smoking or women upstairs, Mr Lancer. I lock the front door at 10 o’clock. Breakfast is between 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock in the dining room, and I insist that you present yourself shaved and fully dressed.  The evening meal is at 6 o’clock sharp. I don’t provide luncheon. You will do me the courtesy of informing me in the morning if you will not be in for your dinner.”

“Yes ma’am, that sounds fine. May I see the room?”

The widow led the way up two flights of stairs. “You may have one bath per week. Water is precious here in Boston, so do not waste it. We are fortunate to have our own well, but who knows how long that will last. You must carry the water up to your room yourself and empty the bath once you are done. The tin bath is kept in the cupboard under the stairs. Rent is payable weekly in advance on Fridays.”

She opened the door into a tidy but basic bedroom that overlooked the street. A multi-coloured patchwork quilt covered an iron bedstead, and a commode could be seen under one end. There was a doily-covered washstand with china jug and basin in the far corner by the casement window, and a serviceable chest of drawers with a small mirror above it to its right. The only other things in the room were an upholstered hard-backed chair next to the bed and a rather worn Persian carpet on the polished floor.

“Seeing you are such a tall young man, I’m not sure the bed will accommodate you fully, but you’ll just have to bend some. I assure you it is the standard length. You won’t find longer.” Mrs Merriweather bustled into the room and ran a finger over the dresser top. “That girl,” she huffed, taking a rag from her pocket and dusting everything within reach.

“I’ll take it,” said Murdoch. “I’ll pay up to Friday week now, shall I?” His new landlady accepted his money with a nod of approval and handed him the key before closing the door behind her. He heard her calling out for the housemaid as she descended the stairs.

Dropping his trunk Murdoch pulled his boots off and bounced up and down to test the bed springs. Folding the pillow double he leaned back on his new bed. Oh, the luxury of having it all to himself! Stretching out he found lying diagonally he could just fit within its confines. The day had been long. There was just over an hour until tea. He would rest his eyes for a few minutes before unpacking. He would just …

Sadly the good impression Murdoch had made on his landlady lasted less than two hours. He arrived late for his dinner. Mrs Merriweather made her displeasure known, much to Murdoch’s chagrin and the guarded amusement of the other guests. “You may join us for your dinner, sir—this once—but I will not stand for you to be late again. Boston is not some Highland farmyard. Timeliness is the foundation of good manners, sir, and in Boston, good manners matter. Leave your foreign ways at the door, Mr Lancer. You are in America now.”

 

Chapter 5: The Business of Land

Murdoch went down to breakfast in good time the following morning, eager to recover some ground with his landlady, but she was not there. He soon learned that Matilda Merriweather rarely appeared before mid-morning. Breakfast was prepared and served by the housemaid, Rose, a cheerful girl, who was a great favourite with the boarders.

“Pull up a chair—Lancer isn’t it? I’m Jim Harper, one of the longer serving inmates.” A dapper young man stood up from the table and offered his hand. “This is Charlie Beckinsale and the body behind the newspaper is Henry Thompson.” A toast-filled hand rose up from behind the Boston Post in casual greeting. “Help yourself to coffee and toast, and just let Rose know whether you want eggs and how you like them—sausage or bacon depending on the day. Today is a sausage day.”

An hour later after a well-cooked breakfast, Murdoch and Harper left the boarding house together heading in the same direction. Murdoch had an appointment with land agents in the centre of town. They were about halfway there when they stopped outside New England Enterprises.

“Wholesalers and General Importers,” Murdoch read the inscription above the entrance. “Is this where you work?”

“It is. The owner, Mr Kirby, is an excellent employer, old Boston family, very respectable. He’s grooming me to take over as manager—introducing me to all the right people. No sons you see. I, Lancer, am going places.”

Murdoch followed Harper’s directions and soon located the land agents’ office. As promised, Douglas Muir had notified G.W. Burke and Son to expect him, and he spent a very productive morning discussing potential land purchases with Mr George Washington Burke and his son, Alfred.

In addition to other types of property, ex-mission land was slowly becoming available. Vast areas held by Franciscan missions had been repossessed by the Mexican government a few years earlier and divided up into large land grants, most of which went to existing landowners. The grants were provisional for five years. Increasingly the Californio ranchos, who acquired land in this way, were legally able to sell.

“Burke and Son have been active in California for five or six years now,” explained Alfred Burke. “My father foresaw there would be an increase in the number of land transactions when the Mexican government started repossessing mission land. Once I joined the firm, I began to visit the area regularly. We have established extensive contacts and have now visited most of the estates north of Santa Barbara.”

“Some landowners with close affiliation to Spain were always likely to be unhappy under Mexican governance,” George Burke elaborated as he searched his waist coat pockets. Not finding what he wanted, the land agent paused and went over to the coat stand near the door. With a grunt of satisfaction, he retrieved a vesta case and tobacco pouch from the side pocket of his jacket and began to fill his pipe. “Many landowners of pure Spanish blood think too highly of themselves and resent being told what to do by Mexican riff-raff.”

“Father, watch where you throw your matches. You’ll start a fire.” Mr Burke Junior hastily picked up a blackened match from some browning parchment and transferred it to the ash tray on the mantelpiece. “It stands to reason too that more and more of those who acquired grant land early will want to sell now their ownership is confirmed.”

“For the past two years we have paid a resident surveyor a stipend to relay information back to us. He acts as our agent. More and more Californios are approaching us to sell land on their behalf. We currently have two substantial tracts on our books that might suit. The Estancia Diaz is here on the coast some distance north of the San Francisco Bay.” Mr Burke Senior pointed to a large map on the office wall. “It’s about the size you had in mind.”

“No, Father, that land is more suited to horticultural use. Mr Lancer is a cattleman. Now the San Joaquin estate on the other hand would be perfect.” Unrolling a large map, the younger Mr Burke pointed out both estates, but his enthusiasm for the land in the San Joaquin Valley was clear. “We have only just been contracted to sell the Estancia Talavera, and it is an excellent property. It will not last long on our books, even though it has been neglected by its owner for the past year. The estate comes with established cattle herds and a workforce. More land will become available, Mr Lancer, but I visited this estancia two years ago before Señor Talavera returned to Spain, and frankly I do not believe you could do better.”

Unfurling another large chart, Alfred Burke showed Murdoch a more detailed view of the ranch’s boundaries while his father enjoyed his pipe and went to the window to investigate the source of a commotion outside. “As you can see, it is more centrally located than the other estate, with a variety of land, but mostly suitable for cattle. It’s within two days ride of Yerba Buena where ships regularly stop for hides and tallow.”

“Get that muck out of here!” The immaculate Mr Burke Senior hollered like navvy through the open sash. Murdoch and Alfred Burke moved quickly to the other window to see what was happening.  A pure-finder’s barrow had been clipped and overturned by a brewery dray as they passed each other.  Now the contents of the barrow were spread over the street outside the land agents’ office, and the pungent aroma of dog faeces was beginning to fill the air. The pure-finder was screaming insults at the drayman, whose Anglo-Saxon response was clearly heard by all three men. George Burke slammed the window shut and straightened his vest. “Now where were we?”

Grinning at the gentleman’s sudden change in demeanour, Murdoch went back to the desk and turned his attention once again to the maps. He recognised the potential of the property immediately. He had researched California as far as possible before leaving Scotland. He knew this area had land suited to cattle, but he also knew water was a fundamental consideration. The map in front of him showed a significant river as well as a small lake and some smaller streams. Upon request, Mr Burke provided more maps, geographic reports, sketches and a written description of the land; its climate and population; and what towns, resources and transport links were nearby.

The land comprised secularised mission land and other land adjoining. By the terms of the original grant the mission land could not be rented or subdivided and no public roads could be closed.  The profits from hides and tallow were modest, and the Mexican government currently restricted trade through high customs duties. These considerations limited the value of land, but Murdoch was still surprised the asking price per acre was so low.

“This is not Scotland, Mr Lancer. There are very few people and even fewer, who know how to develop the land or who have the inclination to do so. You have read Two Years Before the Mast? Yes, I thought so. Dana does not exaggerate. Many existing landowners are not driven to enterprise.”

Mr Burke Senior sat down at his desk and surveyed Murdoch through pince-nez spectacles. “We have been contracted to sell this land, and we have encouraged the owner to offer it at a very reasonable price as he wishes to liquidate his investment quickly in one transaction. We do not wish to waste your time or ours by misleading you. The price per acre reflects the emptiness of the country, the current income and legal limitations, and the vendor’s eagerness to sell. It also reflects the undeveloped and variable nature of the land. Within this parcel there are some very fertile areas, some excellent pasture, a little cultivated land and much more yet to be developed. Horses roam wild and are free for the taking. There is, however, also some rough hill country and barren wasteland. Some of these more difficult areas could be brought to life with investment and hard work, but other parts are unlikely to ever be productive for agricultural use. Cattle are raised on the estate for a modest profit and have been for several years. We believe there is potential for higher profits through cattle and other enterprises, but there is no denying that it will take foresight and a lot of effort.”

Murdoch knew he would be buying potential income after a lot of hard work rather than immediate comfort. He would be gambling on a growing population and increasing demand for cattle products over time.  Like the Burkes, he believed strongly that the expansion west of the United States, new technology like railways and steamships and possibly even new trade between Pacific nations would increase the market for beef and other cattle products.  His research had told him that land prices were low. He had expected to buy more land than was common in Scotland, and he knew that was needed to make a Californian ranch viable. He had not expected an estate of this size however, and he was somewhat daunted by the prospect. There were no land taxes under the Mexican regime though, and in every respect other than size the estate was exactly what he was looking for. Unbelievably the asking price for the estate in its entirety, including cattle and chattels, fell just within the bounds of what Douglas Muir had indicated the bank would lend based on the deposit he proposed, the money he would have left and the knowledge, expertise and reputation he brought to the enterprise.

Murdoch’s gut told him this was an opportunity too good to pass up. Only viewing the property would confirm his choice, but he was optimistic. “Sirs, I can hardly believe I am saying this, having only just arrived in America, but I am very interested.”

“Excellent! The land grant was provisional on certain conditions. We have confirmed that all were met by the current owner, at least to minimum standards. To be secure of your purchase, we would recommend you do more comprehensive surveying and marking, and that you endeavour to meet every other condition as well.” Mr Burke Senior peered over his long nose and spectacles, making sure he had Murdoch’s full attention. “It is important that you abide by the rules, Mr Lancer. You must leave no doubt to your legal title. We have it on good authority that land title would be rigorously scrutinised if California became part of America. You would be safeguarding your interests under both governments if you were meticulous in this respect.”

“Understood. Is there anything else I should know?”

“You must apply for Mexican citizenship as soon as you commit to the purchase,” Alfred Burke advised. “The original grants were only made to Mexican citizens and California is still part of Mexico.”

“Are you a religious man, Mr Lancer?” enquired Mr Burke Senior.

“I believe in God, if that is what you mean? But wait, I know what you are going to say: to be a Mexican citizen one must be Catholic. I am.”

“You surprise me. I somehow thought you would be Church of Scotland.”

“I’m both,” replied Murdoch, enjoying the puzzled looks. “My father’s family is still papist. It’s not uncommon in the Highlands, though increasingly the Kirk is taking over. My mother’s family is Protestant. I was brought up in that Church, but my father never converted. His sister persuaded him to have all his children baptised when I was just a babe—done in secret, behind my mother’s back. There was hell to pay when she found out. The two women haven’t spoken since, though I understand they had plenty to say to each other at the time.” Murdoch chuckled.

“Fiery?”

“That would be putting it mildly—or so my brother told me. Neither woman is known to back down from an argument, and while I’ve only seen my mother really angry once, I can tell you the sparks fairly flew.”

“I take it you were the target of her displeasure?”

“Aye, a small matter of a calf and a ravine. Perhaps I’ll tell you about it one day, but after that my sympathies lay squarely with my Auntie Morag. Besides, unwittingly she did me a great service. I have a parchment that confirms the baptism amongst my papers.”

“Well, it certainly makes things easier in the first instance. We predict California will eventually transfer to American control, and then it will likely not matter.” Mr Burke Senior started to rummage around his desk. Stacks of files teetered along one edge and scrolled maps of varying sizes were scattered among a jumble of other documents. Murdoch had never seen such apparent disorganisation. It was in stark contrast to the son’s orderly desk, upon which they now worked. “Where have you put my pipe, Alfred?”

Ignoring his father, Alfred Burke continued, “If and when California does join the Union, we recommend you apply for American naturalisation promptly. It would be an advantage to be an American citizen when confirming your claim to the land under the United States government.”

“I’ve always hoped to become American eventually.”

“A clipper, the Mary Ann, is scheduled to leave for South America in just under four weeks. I have already booked passage to Chagres for my own purposes. The river and mule journey across the Isthmus of Panama and then on by ship is by far the fastest way to get to California. We would disembark at Monterey, the centre of government and about three days ride from the Estancia Talavera. If you wish to proceed, I will arrange for you to accompany me.”

Finally finding his pipe where he had left it on the window sill, Mr Burke Senior reminded Murdoch he would need more than just the purchase price. “You need to cover set up costs and have access to enough capital to cover your expenses until your ranch begins to make money. The hide market in particular is profitable and several Boston businesses are involved so you should not have too much difficulty in finding a backer with your credentials, though it will depend on what you are prepared to put up as collateral. I doubt the bank will lend beyond the mortgage on the land until you demonstrate your ability to make a go of it.”

“Aye, Mr Muir, the bank manager, has already warned me that would be the case and has given me the names of some potential investors,” Murdoch agreed, pulling a list from his pocket. “I had not envisaged finding suitable land so soon, but now that I know what it will cost me and have evidence to support my application, I’ll visit these gentlemen and see what can be arranged.”

“Who has he suggested?”

“Edgar Harraway, George Muller—and Harlan Garret as a last resort, though he didn’t say why. Do you know anything of them?”

“All are men able and willing to invest in more risky ventures for a decent return. I would avoid doing business with Garrett if you can, but it will not hurt to sound him out. The knowledge that you are talking with him might stir one of the others to support you. There is a degree of competition between such men.”

“And why should I be wary of Mr Garrett?”

“On your voyage from Scotland, sir, did you happen to see any sharks?” replied Mr Burke Senior, blowing a large smoke ring into the air and watching its progress before looking enquiringly at Murdoch.

“No, sir, but I hear they are most unpleasant beasts.”

“Once a shark bites, Mr Lancer, it does not let go. Its jaws are made that way. Once Harlan Garrett invests money in an enterprise, he has a tendency to behave in a similar manner. His contracts have been known to make grown men cry when they realise there is no getting rid of his interest in their businesses. If you are forced to deal with Harlan Garrett, Mr Lancer, make very sure you employ a good lawyer and read the fine print before you sign.”

 

Chapter 6: A Series of Meetings

Murdoch had every intention of employing a good lawyer regardless of any dealings he may have with the infamous Mr Garrett. Douglas Muir had set up an appointment for him with a personal friend, James McIntyre, who had offices conveniently situated between the bank and the land agents. After another meeting with Muir the next morning, Murdoch headed to the lawyer’s office eager to make his acquaintance and to familiarise him with his plans.

As he approached McIntyre and Associates he saw two young women leave the building. They were clearly friends as they were chatting and laughing and paying too little attention to the steps they were descending.  The more animated of the two stumbled, and Murdoch ran forward to prevent her falling to the pavement.

“Are you all right, Miss? He supported her as she hopped back to sit down upon a lower step.

“Oh yes, thank you. Silly of me, I should have been looking where I was going.”

“You’ve hurt yourself, Catherine. I’ll get help from inside.” Her friend made to go back up the steps.

“Don’t fuss, Beth. You’re acting like father. I’m not a porcelain doll. I’ve just twisted my ankle a little. It will be fine in a moment.” Raising her skirt slightly the injured girl rubbed her ankle and Murdoch enjoyed a quick glimpse of her neatly booted foot and white stocking before he remembered his manners and looked away.  

“I am obliged to you, Mr…?” She raised grey-blue eyes to take in her gallant rescuer properly. Murdoch turned back to face her.

“Lancer, Miss—Murdoch Lancer.”

“I cannot thank you enough for your quick thinking, Mr Lancer.” She smiled shyly and blushed. “I believe with your assistance, I could stand now.” Murdoch was entranced. Ash-blond ringlets framed the young woman’s face and the soft blueness gazing up from behind long ashes was mesmerising. She stretched out an elegant, well-manicure hand, and he helped her to her feet. Still holding on to his arm, she tentatively put weight on her injured ankle. “You see—good as gold.”

“In that case, we should be going,” declared the other young woman, checking the small watch on her chatelaine. “You must excuse us, Mr Lancer, but we are late for an engagement.”

The two friends hurried away, arm in arm. Murdoch watched their progress down the street, their heads together in deep discussion. Reaching the corner, they looked back, but seeing his eyes still upon them, they turned quickly away. A moment later they were gone.

His thoughts were still on Catherine with the grey-blue eyes as he entered the lawyer’s office.

“May I help you, sir?”

Murdoch stated his business and was invited to take a seat opposite the secretary’s desk. “Mr McIntyre is finishing preparations for his court case this afternoon. He won’t be long.”

Picking up a copy of The Liberator from the pile of newspapers and magazines next to him, Murdoch scanned the first article before pretending casual conversation. “I passed two young ladies as I came in. They seemed in a great hurry.”

“Miss McIntyre and her friend, do you mean?” The secretary dipped his pen into an ink pot and continued to transcribe the many-page document on his desk. From Murdoch’s vantage point, it looked like some kind of contract.

“I suppose I do,” answered Murdoch, casually crossing his legs. “Is Miss McIntyre called Catherine?”

“No, no, that is her friend, Miss Garrett. Miss McIntyre is Elizabeth, the darker of the two.” Pausing, the man looked over at Murdoch, taking him in properly for the first time. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason. Well, actually that isn’t true. Miss Garrett took a fall on the front steps, and I was thinking I should make inquiries later to be sure she is all right.” Murdoch folded the newspaper and glanced up at the secretary. “You don’t by chance know her address?”

A small bell tinkled in the background.

The older man’s eyes twinkled. Murdoch tried to hide his embarrassment; his attempt to maintain an air of innocent enquiry had failed miserably. The secretary got to his feet. “She is not a client, but I know her father’s name and I have an idea where she resides. I can look the address up for you in the directory while you are talking to Mr McIntyre. He is ready for you now. This way.”

His meeting with the lawyer took little more than half an hour. James McIntyre seemed an efficient and intelligent gentleman. He promised to get the legal documents from Burke and Son, and review them thoroughly.

“I have dealt with George and Alfred Burke before and don’t foresee any difficulty. Theirs is an established and reputable firm. It’s always wise to examine sale and purchase agreements with a fine-toothed comb though, especially when foreign laws are involved. One of my associates specialises in Mexican law so I will get him to examine the documents as well.”

Murdoch commended the lawyer for his thoroughness and then broached the subject of his potential backers. McIntyre did not represent any of the three men recommended by Douglas Muir.

"Conflict of interest. Besides there’s too much profit to be made in arguing against them and dissecting their contracts.” The attorney smiled as he rose from his chair to escort Murdoch out. “Joke, Mr Lancer. I’m joking.”

Murdoch laughed along with him but suspected McIntyre was only half joking. Nevertheless, Murdoch left the office of James McIntyre and Associates in good humour; he had Catherine Garrett’s address tucked safely away in his coat pocket.

He had not gone far when he bumped into Jim Harper. “Hold up, Lancer and I’ll introduce you to the gastronomic delights of Boston’s eating houses. I’m on my way to lunch. Just dropping these papers into our lawyers first.”

“Your company uses McIntyre and Associates? I’ve just hired Mr McIntyre as my legal adviser. He came highly recommended by my bank manager.”

“Yes, very efficient and reliable. New England Enterprises has used James McIntyre for several years, and he has built up a good team of associates. McIntyre is an abolitionist of course, so some don’t like him, but I can assure you he is not a fanatic, and he is very good at the law.” Jim hurried off and true to his word was back within a few minutes.

He took Murdoch to the Oyster House in Union Street. Seated around the semi-circular bar, they tucked into generous bowls of clam chowder and fresh baked bread. Not satisfied, Jim then ordered a dozen oysters to share.

“My treat,” he declared toasting Murdoch’s beer with his brandy and water.

Murdoch accompanied Jim as far as his office and then headed off to locate and make appointments with the three potential investors. Their businesses were all in the same general area, and it did not take him long. After that he went to collect the letters of introduction promised by the bank and the portfolios of documents from the land agents that were to be ready for him by 4 o’clock. He now had everything he needed to make his case for backing, and little more than three weeks to wait before sailing to California.

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

His first appointment was the following morning with George Muller at 10 o’clock. An outwardly amiable gentleman, George Muller had the unnerving ability to make men divulge more than they intended.

“Welcome, Lancer. Take a seat.” Accepting the papers Murdoch offered him, Muller tossed them unceremoniously onto his desk. Pouring two large glasses of brandy from a crystal decanter on the side cabinet, he handed one to Murdoch with a friendly smile. “Imported from France—the only vice I admit to.” Muller winked and swirled his brandy around the glass a few times before quaffing a healthy mouthful. With eyes closed, he savoured the flavour and then addressed Murdoch with mock consternation. “Drink up, young man. First class Cognac is for drinking not looking at.”

Returning to his desk he read quickly through Muir’s letter of introduction and skimmed the contents of the land agents’ portfolio. “Tell me about yourself.”

“What would you like to know, sir?”

“Everything. Start with your successes and your plans for California. What challenges do you expect to face there?”

Murdoch outlined his background and his plans for the future with enthusiasm. Muller spoke very little, preferring to let Murdoch fill any silences that arose. Every so often the businessman would egg Murdoch along by praising him for a decision or course of action taken, congratulating him on the gambles that came off. Murdoch relaxed into friendly conversation and shared stories that he never imagined would form part of this meeting, including the tale of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The bank was prepared to lend Murdoch a substantial amount of money, and Muller made no secret of the fact that he was impressed.  “I knew if that wily old Scot was willing to part with his bank’s money to a man of your age, there must be something to you.” He topped Murdoch’s glass up and settled back into his chair. “No doubt made a few mistakes as well though, eh Lancer?  Lord knows I’ve made plenty. Tell me about some of them—always good for a laugh in hindsight, don’t you think? What have you learned?”

The topic was introduced so casually, with such bonhomie, that Murdoch very nearly disclosed one of his more serious gaffes. Just at the point when he felt the urge to let words run away with him however, a crucial piece of brotherly advice sprang to mind. Jock had always warned him never to say more than was necessary when negotiating. Information was power.  “Keep as much power as you can in your own hands. The principle holds true whether you are negotiating a loan or buying a heifer.”

Aware that he may have already said more than was wise, Murdoch reined in his words. This time he answered more cautiously with the hope of making light of youthful acts. He now realised some could be seen in an adverse light by a potential investor. “I believe my adventure with the calf was my most impetuous act, Mr Muller, and that was a calculated risk. I wouldn’t have attempted it if I hadn’t known the men well and trusted them. I was in no real danger with them supporting me, and fortunately my exploits paid off. Even so, I believe I have matured from that time. Business will always involve certain risks, but I intend to take a little more care of my life and your investment in future.”

George Muller continued to encourage Murdoch to talk, never asking any question that could be answered simply yes or no, and always appearing to be in sympathy with Murdoch’s actions and decisions. He flattered and laughed, but Murdoch stopped drinking his brandy and took more care with his answers. Upon reflection he had revealed a lot more about himself and his plans than he had intended, but he would not make it any worse. The gregarious Mr Muller eventually gave up his delving. Murdoch departed unsure whether the meeting had been a success or not.

Harraway was easier to deal with. Again he took little notice of the paperwork, saying he would read it later. He said he wanted to find out about Murdoch the man, but in fact, during the first half hour, he talked much more about himself. “Harvard educated, Mr Lancer. Studied the law but went directly into the family business.  The Harraways came out on the Mayflower you know. Now not even my good friend Sam Cabot can claim that!”

Edgar Harraway was a frightful snob. Recognising this, Murdoch made a real effort to tone down his Scottish brogue. It pricked his conscience a little, but he exaggerated his brother’s wealth and the closeness of his relationship with his former employer. Without actually lying, he allowed Harraway to believe that the money he had in the bank was a truer reflection of his background than it actually was.  

“So you are related to the Earl?”

“Yes sir. My father and the Earl were cousins. They hunted together in their youth and remained good friends until my father’s death. The Earl has always taken an interest in my affairs.”

It was all true up to a point. There are cousins and there are cousins; the kinship was very distant. Similarly, ‘friends’ may have been too strong a word to describe men, who as adults moved within different levels of society. Certainly, the laird had always taken a pleasing interest in Murdoch, but how much that was due to the deal they had struck and the fact that he worked for the man, Murdoch was not entirely sure himself. All things being equal, however, Murdoch departed reasonably confident of Edgar Harraway’s interest.

That left Harlan Garrett. Murdoch approached this meeting the following day with more trepidation—the disadvantage of listening to others. The plushness of the businessman’s premises did nothing to put him at ease. Thick Persian carpets lay over highly polished floors. Leather upholstered furniture and the very best mahogany and inlaid desks and cabinetry combined to make the office almost as daunting as the man himself. The other two men had not displayed their wealth at their place of work so blatantly, unless he counted the brandy.

Harlan Garrett was clearly well-to-do and not embarrassed to show it. A greying man around fifty of average height richly dressed and well-groomed, he was not handsome but exuded that aura of power and influence that cannot help but intimidate and attract. Social standing was obviously important to him, and Murdoch’s youth and newness to America were immediately commented on with disdain.

“Why should I risk my money or reputation backing a young man who only just stepped off an immigrant ship?”

“Why do you ever risk investment, sir? The rate of return on your investment is negotiable. With the help of Mr Muir from the bank, I have prepared a proposal that I believe is fair to both parties, but nothing is set in stone.” Murdoch looked Garrett directly in the eye. He needed a backer, but he did not want Garrett to get the idea he could be easily intimidated.

The businessman leaned back in his chair and was silent for several minutes. Murdoch felt uncomfortable under his gaze, and was almost relieved when the interrogation began. What were his plans and what evidence could he provide to prove his ability to fulfil them? No pretence of affability in this interview. Murdoch felt like he was being appraised like a diamond in the rough. Was the gem worth the polishing or would cracks appear? What would its ultimate value be and can I own it? No, Mr Garrett, you cannot.

“The particulars about the land are here, sir. With the bank’s help, I can finance the purchase myself, but that will leave me with less capital for initial running costs than I should wish. The bank will not lend to me in my own right for that purpose until I have established a credit history in this country. What I am looking for is an investor to guarantee me a line of credit either directly or through the bank for up to five years.”

“By which time, if successful, the bank will lend to you in the normal way, but in the mean time you are a risk.” Garrett wrote a calculation on the blotter in front of him, contemplated the numbers for a moment and then crossed them out. “What you propose is a very great risk. California is a long way off and currently part Mexico. While there is some talk of it eventually coming under American control, that is not likely for several years. All manner of catastrophes could befall you or your enterprise. I know nothing of you as a man, or, perhaps more importantly, as a cattleman and businessman, than what is contained in these letters and what you tell me of yourself. You are very young and you have no social or financial connections of any worth in this country. I am thinking, if I make you an offer of investment, it would require more substantial collateral than you have indicated here.”

Murdoch considered his words carefully before he answered. “The terms are negotiable up to a point, but there should be no misunderstanding, sir, I am not willing to offer shares in my ranch. Edgar Harraway and George Muller are also considering my proposal. I am expecting a decision from those gentlemen within the next week.”

“I will examine the documents you have provided, Mr Lancer. I will be in touch.”

Murdoch knew he was dismissed. He debated if he should ask Mr Garrett whether he was related to Miss Catherine Garrett, but decided against it. He had intended to ask McIntyre’s secretary, but the man was busy with another client when Murdoch departed. He only briefly interrupted his conversation to pass over the promised address. As for asking Harlan Garrett, Murdoch decided it would only complicate matters. If he was a close relative, and now he sincerely hoped he was not, it could remove any reason for calling upon her. Her uncle, or—God forbid— her father, would certainly be able to give the assurances of well-being that Murdoch would supposedly be seeking. He did not want to lose the only excuse he had for contacting her.

That was something he hoped to do very soon. Checking his grandfather’s watch as he reached the pavement, he was surprised to find it still only 11 o’clock. The inquisition had seemed much longer. Miss Garrett lived in what Murdoch already knew from Jim to be the best part of town, within ten minutes’ walk of where he now stood.  There was no time like the present. Murdoch headed for Beacon Hill.

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

Catherine Garrett’s home was an imposing four-storied brick and stone residence in Louisburg Square, one of the most fashionable addresses in Boston. Its grand oak door, black shutters, wrought-iron balustrades and white stone portico were daunting, but Murdoch bravely lifted the iron door knocker and rapped loudly. A uniformed butler answered and Murdoch stepped into a spacious, tiled reception area.

“Would Miss Garrett— Miss Catherine Garrett— be at home?” Murdoch hoped he did not appear as nervous as he felt.

“Who shall I say is calling, sir?” The butler’s gaze was inscrutable.

Murdoch gave his name and waited while the manservant went to enquire whether Miss Garrett was at home to visitors that morning. Murdoch could hear someone playing the piano and tried to catch the tune as the butler ascended a sweeping staircase to the first landing. After tapping on the door at the top of the stairs, the man entered the room and the music ceased.

A minute later, without warning, the front door opened and Harlan Garrett strode across the threshold. Murdoch stood up immediately. Garrett stopped dead in his tracks. “Mr Lancer! What are you doing in my house?”

“I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t realise it was your house,” Murdoch replied with as much composure as he could muster. “I came to enquire after the health of Miss Catherine Garrett. We met briefly the day before yesterday—she tripped.”

“Miss Garrett is pleased to receive the young gentleman, sir.” The butler approached from the stairs.

Murdoch looked towards the door at the top of the landing, but he could only see a servant girl dusting an ornate picture frame. Harlan Garrett followed his gaze and recalled his attention abruptly.

“My daughter did not mention such an incident, and I can assure you she is in perfect health. She is not, I am afraid, receiving visitors.”  Garrett glared at his butler. Putting his arm out, he ushered Murdoch towards the door. “I trust you will understand me, Mr Lancer, when I say my daughter will not be accepting visits from any young man, of whom I have not first approved. Also, I have considered your business proposal, and I shall not be investing. I do not expect there will be any need for you to call at my house again. Good day, Mr Lancer.”

Evicted and despondent, Murdoch made his way out of Louisburg Square and back down Mount Vernon Street. How could he get to see Miss Garrett again now? He was about to turn into Walnut Street when he heard the sound of running behind him.

The housemaid from the Garrett mansion arrived at his side panting and holding a stitch. “Begging your pardon, sir, I have a message from my mistress.” The girl gasped to catch her breath. “The Athenaeum, sir, on Pearl Street—Miss McIntyre and my mistress always exchange their books there on a Monday afternoon.”

Bobbing a curtsy, the maid scurried away before Murdoch could utter a word.

 

Chapter 7: A Novel Encounter

There never was a longer weekend. Not even visiting his shipboard friend, Ben Telford, in Roxbury could divert Murdoch’s thoughts entirely from Catherine Garrett and the memory of her grey-blue eyes.

“Oh, you’ve got it bad!” Ben chortled after Murdoch had unconsciously brought the conversation back to Miss Garrett for the third time. “I’d be more worried about losing her father as an investor if I were you.”

“Och, he was always a last resort, just from what others had told me, but you’re right, I need to keep my mind on other things. Tell me about your first week in America.”

“Not nearly as exciting as yours, but I’ve got myself a job as overseer in a boot factory about a mile from here. Convinced them that with my experience in my father’s workshops, I could handle a bit more responsibility despite my age. Pays a dollar a day more than working the tools alone.”

“Good for you. You’ll have that nest egg in no time. Maybe I’ll see you in California one day.”

Murdoch enjoyed the walk to and from Roxbury. After a week of paved streets and city buildings, it was refreshing to see and smell countryside again. His thoughts were never far from Monday afternoon however.

On Monday morning Murdoch attended to a few business matters, and then made his way to the Athenaeum. Although his head told him he was far too early, he entered the building soon after 12 o’clock.

Murdoch occupied himself in the reading room looking through The Liberator and Boston Post. Every twenty minutes or so, he rose from the comfort of his turned-wood chair and wandered through the other areas, hoping to find the two young ladies. He was surprised to discover that there was an art gallery and lecture hall as well as the library, and he spent some time examining a fine painting of two war ships battling in open seas. Returning downstairs he finally spotted Miss Garrett and Miss McIntyre perusing the recent-returns shelf.

“Miss Garrett, Miss McIntyre, how fortunate to meet you here.” Murdoch bowed, raising his hat.

“Why, Mr Lancer, what a surprise.” Miss Garrett inclined her head gracefully. Responding more loudly than was strictly necessary for the benefit of the patrons nearby, she smiled mischievously up at Murdoch.

The threesome moved towards shelves where there were fewer people to overhear them.

“I must apologise for the other day, sir.” Miss Garrett kept her voice low voice and she glanced briefly away to be sure that they were not drawing attention. “I love my father, but he does tend to be rather over-protective of me.”

“You mean he treats you like one of his commodities.” Miss McIntyre selected a book from the shelf and opened it to the first page. With mock seriousness, she met Murdoch’s eye. “You may as well know, Mr Lancer, that Miss Garrett is destined to marry high. Nothing short of a Lowell will satisfy her father’s aspirations. What Catherine herself thinks, doesn’t appear to matter.”

“Oh Beth, that’s not fair. He just wants the best for me. I admit I would like more freedom, but since mother died, I’m all he’s got. I think he’s afraid of losing me.”

To Murdoch’s amusement, Miss McIntyre shook her head, sighing dramatically. “Perhaps, but I think he’s more afraid of losing money and high connections should you become attached to a young man of lesser financial and social worth. Still, you know him best.” She returned the first book to the shelf and selected another. Then she looked Murdoch up and down with same good-humoured rudeness, she had just demonstrated towards her friend. “You are Scottish, I believe, Mr Lancer—newly arrived?”

“I am, Miss McIntyre. From Inverness.”

“Indeed? My father’s family came from the Highlands—a little further south.” She considered for a moment. “I am puzzled. Lancer is not a name I associate with Scotland—or anywhere for that matter.”

“No, it’s not common. It’s from a French name, ‘Lancret’. My great grandfather, Jean Lancret, came to Scotland in support of Charles Stuart in ’45. He was killed at Culloden. My great grandmother was already with child. She returned to her family in Inverness after the battle.”

“Oh, how sad!” exclaimed Miss Garrett, bringing a gloved hand to her lips. “How-ever did she manage?”

“I don’t expect it was easy, but her father was reasonably well-off, a tacksman—that’s a landholder related to the laird who doesn’t farm himself but lives off his rents. Lancret left some gold too. That was used to buy land for their son when he came of age.”

“But the name, Mr Lancer. Why has it changed?” Miss McIntyre was both inquisitive and persistent.

“My father wrote in our family bible that my great grandmother dropped the t in the aftermath of the Rising. Jacobite sympathisers were hunted down by the English, and a French name would have drawn attention. My father changed to the L-A-N-C-E-R spelling and pronunciation when he married. I think he simply got tired of people misspelling his name and pronouncing it in different ways. His older brother came here to America before then though. Likely his branch still goes by L-A-N-C-R-E.”

“So you have family here, Mr Lancer. Where do they live?” Miss Garrett enquired with interest.

“I don’t actually know. Uncle Willie wasn’t the best at keeping in touch. We know he married the daughter of a German farmer somewhere near New York and moved west, but no one ever heard where they settled.”

The conversation continued on the subject of family for a little while longer, and then turned to books. Murdoch responded with good humour to all the ladies’ questions, giving a full account of his varied tastes. Then remembering she had promised to bring back a particular book for her mother, Miss McIntyre excused herself and went in search of it. Murdoch and Miss Garrett were left alone, smiling self-consciously at each other.

“And what do you like to read, Miss Garrett?” Murdoch asked.

“Oh, you will find me very shallow, Mr Lancer. I admit I am not one for histories or essays. I enjoy novels, short stories and poetry most. I share your liking for Charles Dickens and I am not averse to Shakespeare, but you are welcome to the Classics with all their wars and monsters, and I prefer to avoid any writer who lectures me on my behaviour or morals.”

Murdoch laughed at this. “I can’t imagine you need lessons on morals, Miss Garrett. I agree there are some rather tedious preachers writing at the moment. I have a book of poems by your Mr Longfellow, however, that is much more entertaining. It proved very popular on my voyage over.  Do you enjoy his verse?”

“I do—very much.” Miss Garrett answered with enthusiasm, her eyes shone and her cheeks were the prettiest shade of pink. “I also have an interest in women writers. I am particularly fond of the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Cynthia Taggart.”

“I expect there are a number of American writers I am unfamiliar with. Cynthia Taggart is American?”

“Yes,” Miss Garrett agreed. “I suspect, though, you would enjoy short stories like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving more than Miss Taggart’s poetry.”

By the time Miss McIntyre returned carrying several books, their conversation had moved on to California and Murdoch’s aspirations for the future. Murdoch had the pleasure of noting a flicker of disappointment on Miss Garrett’s face when he revealed he would be sailing for California in a few weeks’ time and then a look of relief when he disclosed the need to return to Boston some months later to finalise business.

Miss McIntyre reminded Miss Garrett that she needed to choose some books of her own. All too quickly their time at the Athenaeum had come to a close. It had been so enjoyable, however, that neither young person wanted to part without making arrangements to meet again. Murdoch could tell Miss Garrett regretted deeply the need to deceive her father, but as she was certain Mr Garrett would not approve her seeing him, he was pleased she was not above a little subterfuge. Her friend seemed wholly in support of him, and with her help arranging to see each other again would be so much easier.

“I believe, if the weather is fine, Miss McIntyre and I will be taking the air on the Common tomorrow afternoon,” Miss Garrett remarked quietly as Murdoch escorted them from the Athenaeum. “I do so love watching the tadpoles at this time of year.”

In full view of Boston society the three conspirators parted company formally with polite bows. If word got back to Harlan Garrett that they had met, Miss Garrett could pretend it was a casual meeting and Murdoch had merely enquired after her health. The only thing that could belie the claim was the sparkle in two sets of blue eyes.

 

Chapter 8: Common Ground

“Frog Pond, of course.” Jim Harper put down his coffee and began to butter another slice of toast. “How do you think it got its name? It’s full of tadpoles in the spring. Why do you ask?”

Helping himself to strawberry jam, Murdoch made light of meeting ‘someone’ on the Common that afternoon. “I didn’t realise at the time how big the Common was, but I recall they said they wanted to see the tadpoles.”

Jim looked at him suspiciously, but Rose picked that moment to lay scrambled eggs and bacon before them both so he said no more.

Frog Pond was more like a small lake than a pond, and sure enough Murdoch spied tadpoles wiggling their way through the reeds at the water’s edge. He was peering at one in particular that was half way to transforming into a frog, when Miss Garrett and Miss McIntyre joined him carrying a rug and a picnic basket.

“There is a pleasant, private spot further along.” Miss Garrett pointed towards a grove of wild cherry trees a short distance away. “We often spread out the rug and read or draw on a sunny day.” Murdoch noticed that both girls had brought sketchpads with them as well as novels.

Arranging the rug so they could enjoy sun and shade, they sat down to savour the contents of the small hamper. 

“What has Mrs Pearson given us?” Miss McIntyre rooted about in the basket. “Ooh, her homemade lemonade, yum—devilled eggs, tongue sandwiches and apple pie. What can I tempt you with, Mr Lancer?”

Murdoch accepted a sandwich and a glass of lemonade. It really was delicious.

“My compliments to Mrs Pearson. This is the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted.”

“Yes, the Garrett’s are very fortunate with their cook.” Miss McIntyre wrapped the cloth back around the sandwiches and selected an egg. “I’ve suggested she might like to jump ship and come to work for the McIntyre family instead, but she won’t abandon Mr Garrett.  She must be the only person who really likes your father, Catherine. I can’t understand it.”

“Take no notice of her, Mr Lancer.” Miss Garrett’s eyes sparkled behind long lashes as she laughed. Wiping her fingers on a napkin, she took a sip of lemonade. Her gaze stayed fixed on Murdoch. “It is true my father is very fond of a good meal. He frequently praises Mrs Pearson, and thankfully I’m sure she would never dream of leaving us.”

“I hope, Miss Garrett, I am not putting you in an awkward position with your father meeting like this?” Murdoch held his breath for her answer.

“Unfortunately, I would do very little I truly enjoy if I confined myself to what Father wants.” Miss Garrett sighed and brushed a blossom petal from her dress. Looking pensive, she fiddled with the pretty butterfly brooch she wore on her bodice. “He would have me always the lady, taking tea in the best parlours and discussing only dresses and balls with the sisters and mothers of Boston’s most eligible bachelors.” A gentle breeze played with the ringlets framing her face. Her ash blond hair appeared like strands of gold in the mottled sunlight as it filtered through the branches above. “It’s not that I do not enjoy society, Mr Lancer, but sometimes I feel trapped, and Boston’s most eligible bachelors seem mostly arrogant or insipid.” Murdoch tried to look sympathetic, though he was in fact rather pleased with this news. Having relieved her conscience with reasons for deceiving her father, Miss Garrett perked up. She glanced teasingly at Miss McIntyre. “Besides I have this outrageous friend who persists in leading me astray.”

The lady in question shook her head sorrowfully, her face penitent. “Well, of course I forced her to attend my aunt’s luncheon for Miss Ward last week to hear her thoughts on slavery—that is where we were going when we first met you; and without doubt, I compelled her to be less than forthright with her father today. I am a very bad friend.”

“I think perhaps you are a very good friend, Miss McIntyre. I for one am very grateful to you.” Murdoch grinned and accepted a slice of apple pie.

For a few minutes they fell silent as they ate. Miss Garrett nibbled half-heartedly at a small piece of pie. When she spoke again it was in an attempt to justify her father’s unfriendly behaviour. “Father changed when Mama died. He doted on her, and when he buried her, he buried himself in his work. I was only fifteen. I didn’t know how to console him when I was so forlorn myself. Now I fear it is too late. He blames God for taking her from him, I think, and now selfishly guards what is his, including me. He was never a demonstrative man, always prone to seeing things in terms of profit and loss, but I think my mother instilled a balance in his life. I don’t know how to explain it, but the laughter reached his eyes when Mama was alive.”

Miss Garrett looked sad and bemused. Murdoch said the first thing to enter his head to distract her. “Your father would not have approved you attending a talk about slavery. He is not an abolitionist then?”

“Like many, Father does not approve of women speaking in public and Miss Ward is known to do so. She would be considered a bad influence. My father is anti-slavery, but more from an economic standpoint than a moral one. He believes slavery gives the South unfair economic advantage.”

“And that is one point upon which our fathers would agree, but I do not want to talk about them.” Miss McIntyre started putting the leftovers back into the hamper. “I’m going to read my book. Why don’t you two go down to the water and feed the last of these sandwiches to the ducks?”

Murdoch helped Miss Garrett to her feet and they strolled down to the water’s edge. Standing in the shade of a blossom tree they threw pieces of bread to a family of mallards.

“You must be tired of water after so long at sea, Mr Lancer.” Breaking a sandwich up, Miss Garrett tossed a morsel to each of the ducklings squabbling to be fed. “I can’t imagine spending so long confined. What on earth did you do to pass the time?”

“As you might imagine, we read and talked, played games and made music.”

“I love music and games as well. What kind of games did you play—card games?”

“Yes, and board games like chess, and we told or read each other stories. Sometimes we posed riddles—whatever came to mind really.”

“Oh riddles! I do so enjoy riddles, though I am not very good at them.” Filled with merriment, grey-blues eyes looked up at Murdoch. “Tell me a riddle, Mr Lancer—one that you shared with your fellow passengers on the voyage to Boston.”

Casting his thoughts back, Murdoch smiled as the breeze brought a shower of blossom down upon them. He picked a petal from Miss Garrett’s hair. “I think I know the very one, but it’s designed to be sung. You must make allowances for me, Miss Garrett. I am not an experienced singer.”

“I am sure you sing beautifully, Mr Lancer. I am eager to hear you.”

Grinning Murdoch began to sing in a rich baritone voice:

Come a riddle, come a riddle, come a rote, tote, tote,

A wee, wee man in a red, red coat.

A stick in his hand,

And a stone in his throat,

Come a riddle, come a riddle, come a rote, tote, tote. 

“Oh, how marvellous.” Miss Garrett clapped her hands with glee. “You were teasing me, Mr Lancer. You sing very well. Now let me see, the riddle. Can I make it out. ‘Come a riddle’ and so on is just an introduction, I think.” She looked at Murdoch for confirmation and then went on. “After that we have a wee man in a red coat, so something small and red?”

“You’re doing well.” Murdoch was amused by the look of intense concentration on her face.

“A stick in his hand and a stone in his throat. What is small and red with a stick and a stone? This is harder than I thought. Oh, what can it be?”

“Can’t you guess?” Murdoch raised his eyes to the tree above.

“A cherry! That’s it, isn’t it, Mr Lancer?” Miss Garrett exclaimed, grabbing his arm in her excitement. “The answer is a cherry; it’s small and red and has both a stick and a stone. I am right, aren’t I?”

“You most certainly are, Miss Garrett,” Murdoch laughed, relishing her delight.

“I think it is time you called me Catherine, Mr Lancer. I really do. We can’t go on being so formal when we are alone in each other’s company.”

“I am honoured—Catherine. And you must call me Murdoch.”

“I suspect—Murdoch—that we are behaving very indecorously, but I do so want to know you better before you leave for California. I would have you stay in Boston much longer, but I know you are eager to go. You will definitely be coming back, won’t you?”

“I will need to return briefly at some point, but I will also need to stay several months before doing so, if things go as planned.” California was his dream, but at this moment, Murdoch wished he and Burke would not be sailing so soon. Offering his arm to Catherine he helped her up the grassy slope. “We must make the most of the few weeks we have left and see where they take us.”

They walked lazily along the banks of the pond, hatching a plan whereby they might meet almost every week day. Weekends alas would be too difficult. Harlan Garrett generally spent time with his daughter then. Evenings too were usually taken up with engagements or the theatre. The mornings were reserved for visiting or waiting at home to be visited by other society ladies, but Catherine’s afternoons were largely her own now she was of age. Murdoch would schedule any business he had in the mornings, and the afternoons would be theirs to do with as they pleased. Garrett was so used to his daughter spending time with Miss McIntyre that, as long as Catherine was in her company, he would have no cause for alarm or suspicion. The Athenaeum, its art gallery or library, would be wet-weather retreats, and when the sun shone the Common was the perfect meeting place. Miss McIntyre—Beth—happily agreed to act as chaperone and look out as circumstances required, and the two young people parted with high hopes for the weeks ahead.

 

Chapter 9: Boston Times

As the week progressed, Murdoch began to worry that he had not heard anything from the other potential investors. A message finally arrived on Friday morning inviting him to meet with James McIntyre at 11 o’clock on Monday. The arrangement had been that Edgar Harraway and George Muller would respond to the lawyer so that he could review any conditions they made before Murdoch considered them. Murdoch had told McIntyre not to expect anything from Harlan Garrett, but he had not explained why.

“I actually heard from Harraway last Monday. He declined to back you.” McIntyre pushed Harraway’s missive across the desk.

“But he seemed interested. Why did he change his mind—and so quickly?”

“I’ll get to that. I heard from Muller on Wednesday. He’s willing to accept your proposal without any extra conditions at all.”

“Really? Well, that’s excellent.”

“Yes, but equally strange. I didn’t get in touch with you earlier, because I wanted to dig a little.” The lawyer stood up from his desk and went to the sideboard where he kept a decanter and glasses. “Whisky, Mr Lancer?”

“Yes, thank you.  I think I need one at the moment. What did you find out?”

“You’re seeing rather a lot of my daughter and her friend, Miss Garrett.”

Murdoch, taken by surprise, looked at his feet in embarrassment. “Well, yes sir, but I assure you it’s all very respectable. I wouldn’t dream of compromising either lady’s reputation.” He looked Beth’s father in the eye and hoped he appeared sincere.

“Beth is perfectly capable of raising eyebrows without your help. My fault entirely. I’ve allowed her too much independence.” James McIntyre’s exasperation and pride were plain. Clearly he was a more tolerant parent than Harlan Garrett. Taking a sip of whisky, the lawyer perched on the corner of his desk and gazed down at Murdoch, sitting in the chair in front of him. “Miss Garrett is a different story however, and my sources tell me, it is Miss Garrett you are interested in.”

“Yes sir.” Murdoch felt like a school boy in trouble with the headmaster. “But what has this got to do with Edgar Harraway and George Muller?”

“Their spies tell them the same thing, or at least George Muller’s spies do. Edgar Harraway was scared off by Harlan Garrett. After some incident at his house between you, Garrett sought out both gentlemen and talked you down as only Harlan Garrett can do. Harraway listened. Muller asked himself why Garrett was so bothered and investigated. There is no love lost between Garrett and Muller. Once George Muller determined it was a personal matter that had set you at odds with old Harlan, he was even more interested in backing you than before.”

“Dear God, does Harlan Garrett know I am seeing his daughter?” Murdoch was now worried for Catherine. The fact that Muller was willing to finance his plan was a secondary consideration.

“No, I don’t think so, but you are right to be worried. Harlan Garrett is a dangerous man to have as an enemy, Mr Lancer. More importantly, though, I like Miss Garrett. She is a frequent guest in my house and I would not want to see her hurt by you or her father. Unless you are very serious in your intentions, I would ask you to break it off now, before he finds out.”

“We have only known each other a week, sir, but I can’t. She is the most wonderful, beautiful … I just can’t imagine …” Murdoch bowed his head in confusion. How could he explain, how he felt? How she felt too—because she did feel the same way. He knew it. To feel that strongly about each other when they had only recently met was not reasonable, and yet the only thing stopping him asking her to marry him immediately was his planned expedition to California. If all went well, he knew he would ask her upon his return.

“I see. Well, we will deal with whatever we have to deal with, when the time comes. You have the promise of backing on your own terms so I suggest we accept, subject to the land purchase proceeding. I will send a letter of acceptance and draw up the contracts ready for your signatures upon your return from California. You’d best be on your way and get something for your lunch. Beth mentioned at breakfast that she and Miss Garrett were going to Dock Square today. You’ll need all your strength if you are escorting them on a shopping expedition.”

Three weeks passed far too quickly. Murdoch’s mornings were filled with finalising paperwork and arrangements, preparations to stay in California if all went as planned. With Beth McIntyre’s help, his afternoons were devoted to Catherine.

He wrote letters to his family telling them of his experiences so far, his good fortune in finding land and an investor and his up-coming voyage. And he wrote of Catherine: She is about the same height as Maggie with bonnie ash-blond hair and grey-blue eyes. I know you would like her.

On the Sunday before he left, Murdoch dined with his friend Ben in Roxbury and bade him farewell.  “I probably won’t see you again until early next year, if all goes to plan. If you abandon Boston before then, leave a forwarding address at my bank.”

Murdoch was already receiving letters care of the bank. Douglas Muir had promised to forward any arriving for him in his absence. He would dispatch them whenever a vessel left intending a reasonably direct passage to Monterey or Yerba Buena. With luck Murdoch would receive mail every few months during his initial sojourn in California.

Standing under the wild cherry tree once again Murdoch and Catherine said very little at their final rendezvous, but there was by then no need for words. The strength of their feelings was conveyed by look and touch. Catherine took a small package from her pocket. “It was taken on my twenty-first birthday.”

The daguerreotype was exceptionally detailed, though it made her hair look darker than it really was. Murdoch could not see the colour of her eyes nor appreciate the full beauty of her low-cut gown, but she posed tall and slender against a plain backdrop. Her long, luxuriant hair tumbled down her back and across her bare shoulders. There was the hint of a smile on her lips, and he could tell she had been happy on that day. He wished he had arrived a few weeks sooner so he could have shared it with her, so that they could have had more time together before being forced to part.

In exchange he handed her a similar package. She undid the brown paper to find the sketch Beth had made of Murdoch three days earlier. Catherine had exclaimed over her friend’s ability to take his likeness so precisely. Murdoch had begged the sketch from Beth, who had agreed but only after she had added some colour. It really was very well done. He had had it framed in bird’s eye maple. “Our minds think alike.”

“I’ll miss you so much,” Catherine whispered, finally giving way to her tears.  “I’ll write every week.”

Murdoch took Catherine in his arms and wiped away her tears—then he kissed her. It was a long, slow, gentle kiss and the young lovers melted into each other as though they were one. “I must go now, but I will be back. Wait for me. If all goes well, you know what I will ask.” Kissing her gently on the forehead, he turned and walked away, not daring to look back.

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

That night Murdoch drowned his sorrows with Jim Harper and the other gentlemen of Mrs Merriweather’s boarding establishment. Murdoch knew he had an early start in the morning and should not be out late, but his friends were persistent and he needed something to take his mind off Catherine. Until that night, he had revealed very little to his fellow boarders about the young woman, who had captured his attention. By the end of the evening, however, he had told Jim almost everything.

After pouring Murdoch through the back entrance of the boarding house, Jim helped him to his room. Rose bolted the scullery door behind them and stole back to her bedroom off the kitchen. Beckinsale and Thompson stood guard on the landings in case the lady of the house should wake.

“Come on now, Murdo, quietly does it.” Harper panted as he staggered under the weight of his friend. “Don’t want to wake Mrs M.”

“Shush! Must not wake Tilly.” Murdoch brought a finger to his lips as he slurred. Not watching where he was going, he stumbled on the top step to the first landing and Thompson only just reached him and Jim in time to stop them falling back down the stairs. Oblivious to his near miss, Murdoch turned solemnly towards his rescuer and prodded him in the chest. “Verra nice woman is Mrs Merri…Merri…feather. I like her.”

“Well, she won’t like you—or let you back here—if she sees you in this state. Keep it down.” Jim grabbed Murdoch by the arm and dragged him up the second flight.

Eventually with the help of the others Jim got Murdoch onto his bed just after midnight. He was asleep within seconds.

The Mary Ann weighed anchor and sailed out of Boston harbour on the morning tide. A very hung-over Murdoch Lancer and the land agent, Alfred Burke, stood by the rail watching the city of Boston fade into the distance. They would share a cabin for the journey. The clipper would dock again briefly in New York that evening, and then it would be non-stop to their destination on the Isthmus of Panama. All being well they would reach Chagres within ten days. The next stage of Murdoch’s great adventure had begun.

 


Chapter 10: Letters to Catherine

 

My Dearest Catherine,

We arrived safely in New York last night. 

The Mary Ann manoeuvred into a mooring between a frigate and a barque at dusk. The voyage from Boston had been uneventful except for the splitting headache, which reminded Murdoch relentlessly of the night before. 

“I will never drink that much again!” he assured an amused Alfred Burke as they retired to their cabin.

 

Our accommodation on the ‘Mary Ann’ is definitely a step up from steerage on the ‘Duchess of Argyle’, but it still took some ingenuity to sleep comfortably in my bunk. I felt a bit like a concertina. Unfortunately Burke snores—loudly, but I did eventually fall asleep.

We have no time to go any further afield than the dockyards this morning, but we will stretch our legs ashore while more passengers board. Burke wants to find a boy to deliver some business letters.

 

The clipper was devoted mainly to cargo, but there were a small number of cabins for passengers. When the Mary Ann set sail shortly after 10 o’clock, all twelve berths were occupied. Passengers could socialise in a communal area below decks, and Murdoch soon got to know most of his companions. The majority were heading for South America, but Spaniards, Señor and Señora Alvarez, were returning to Los Angeles in California. Although Murdoch’s Spanish was limited, he tried hard to converse with them.

 

Señor Alvarez is some sort of government official. I had hoped he and his wife would tell me more about California, but they are not very friendly. Burke speaks Spanish well, and he says they do not like Americans or Scotsmen. I can only hope that is not the prevailing attitude in my new homeland.  

The clipper made fast passage, but still ocean-weary from his trans-Atlantic trip, the voyage held little attraction for Murdoch. He practised his Spanish, wrote to Catherine and his family, and read. Catherine had lent him the book of short stories, she had recommended at their first meeting at the Athenaeum.

 

You were right; I did enjoy ‘Rip Van Winkle’.  

Burke proved to be something of an artist. He set up an easel on the main deck and painted with water colours. “I’ll give you one of my seascapes if you proceed with the purchase.”

“Muchas gracias,” replied Murdoch.  “Quiero pintar mi pared.”

“You want to paint your wall?” Burke lowered his brush from the canvas and thought for a moment. “I think you mean ‘Me gustaria una pintura de la pared’. You want a painting for your wall.”

Murdoch shook his head and laughed. “Well, I got one word right.”

He checked the index of A Compendium of the Spanish Language and began to study the pages related to mealtime conversation.

 

This evening we dined with the captain and three other passengers, Mr and Mrs Ballantyne and their daughter, Lavinia. The Ballantynes are sailing to Rio de Janeiro. Mr Ballantyne is an engineer, and he is going to help with the construction of a new bridge. I found him very interesting, but unfortunately I did not enjoy Miss Ballantyne quite so much. She is a rather tiresome girl of fifteen, and she interrupted my conversation with her father several times for no apparent reason. 

“The iron has been hot blasted in Shropshire and shipped out for the purpose.” Richard Ballantyne explained his latest project to Murdoch with enthusiasm. He was in his mid-forties with long sideburns that joined to his moustache. A Scotsman like Murdoch, he had not lived in Britain for many years. Instead he travelled the world building the bridges that were his passion.  

Murdoch found the details of bridge building fascinating. “Indeed, sir, and it will be the first bridge of its kind in Brazil?”

Ballantyne was about to answer when his daughter addressed him from the opposite side of the table. “If I am to endure such an uncivilised city as Rio for your benefit, Papa, you should buy me a lapdog to keep me company. Mama agrees.  A little pug would be divine. Mr Lancer, you must have seen pugs on your travels. Don’t you just adore their little squashed faces?”

Murdoch kept his reply to Miss Ballantyne as short as politeness allowed. He tried to steer the conversation back to bridges and other things of more interest to him than pampered pets, but Miss Ballantyne persisted. She seemed determined to be the centre of attention throughout the entire evening.

A few days later, the Mary Ann experienced rough seas. The passengers were confined below decks as the vessel rolled with the waves.

 

For all the misery of steerage on the ‘Duchess’, I never had to hold the bowl while a spoilt young lady emptied her last meal into it. How I got into such a predicament, I still do not know. One minute I was walking past the family and the next, Ballantyne was thrusting the bowl into my arms, declaring he had to attend to an urgent matter. Her mother held her hair back and I was obliged to hold the bowl—for over an hour. At first I naively expected her father to return, but the truth eventually dawned. I only escaped when Miss Ballantyne ran dry. It was not funny, so don’t you dare laugh! 

Worse was yet to come, though Murdoch chose not to write about it to Catherine. After the bowl experience, Miss Ballantyne latched onto Murdoch like he was her own personal knight in shining armour. Wherever he went, she would appear. Whatever he said, she would sigh and gaze at him doe-eyed. Burke and her father thought it was hilarious. Murdoch could not wait to reach Chagres and be rid of her.

 

A small pod of dolphins joined the ‘Mary Ann’ as we approached the Isthmus of Panama. They dived below the hull, appearing starboard and aft, racing each other and us into harbour. One animal rose up on its tail above the water, bidding the ship farewell in a high-pitched bark. I have read stories about dolphins rescuing shipwrecked seamen. Now I have witnessed their antics, I believe those tales. They really are the most amazing creatures. 

Chagres was a small port on the Isthmus of Panama comprising only a few buildings of a purely serviceable nature. Bidding farewell to the Ballantynes and most of their fellow passengers, Murdoch and Burke took a room for the night at the tavern. Their journey by river boat and mule the next day would begin from outside its doors. Before turning in for the night, Murdoch delivered his first letters into the care of the captain of the Liberty. The barque had followed the Mary Ann into the bay, and it would be sailing northward to Boston on the morning tide.

Six travellers began the four day crossing of the isthmus with their guides soon after dawn: the Castilians from California, two Peruvian gentlemen, Burke and Murdoch. 

 

How wonderful and how terrible the journey turned out to be.  Mosquitoes plagued us from the start. No matter how hard I tried to cover up, they still found their way to my skin. Strangely, though, our guides didn’t seem to get bitten at all. 

“Fresh blood,” declared Burke knowledgably, slapping an insect that dared to dine on his cheek. A smear of blood marked the spot. “I’ve made this crossing several times, and it’s always the same. They go for the visitors and leave the locals largely alone.” 

The group took cayucas as far as Cruces, and then mounted mules to follow the old Spanish trail to Panama. They made slow progress as the road had fallen into disrepair.

 

Clay once covered the river stones, but that has long since worn away leaving them exposed. Even the most sure-footed of our mules found them difficult to navigate. Mules also proved inconveniently low to the ground for a man of my stature. I walked whenever practical.   

The heat was oppressive.  Even when they were being poled up river, there was no respite. The waterway was too full of dangers to risk dangling feet or hands into its coolness. Alligators and snakes slithered through the murky shallows and disappeared to suddenly reappear in deep water, often with lethal results for some poor fish or bird.

Murdoch wrote less about the dangers, however, than the beauty in his letters to Catherine.

 

Despite the discomfort there was much to enjoy. I have never seen such jungle, the lushness of the trees and flowers, the variety of insects and birds. Our trail traversed ravines and waterways. I saw beasts that I have only ever seen in books before.  

Within a few days of their arrival in Panama, the Artemis gave Murdoch and Burke direct passage to Monterey. Señor and Señora Alvarez remained behind as the brig’s captain refused to put in at Los Angeles just for their benefit. Though for different reasons, Murdoch was as pleased to part with their company as he had been to say goodbye to Miss Ballantyne.

 

The Señora walked about as though she had a permanent bad smell beneath her nose. I think it was me. For some reason she seemed to despise me even more than Burke. I am certain she understood a little English, but she never deigned to speak it. Her husband would occasionally say something to us in Spanish, but she would only ever whisper to him from behind her fan. No doubt Los Angeles is a pleasant place, but she has made me glad that I am heading further north. 

Murdoch discovered the Artemis’s captain had sailed the Pacific coast for more than ten years, and he knew a lot about Californian ports and commerce. He confirmed what Murdoch had learned from his research; vessels still had to pay duties at Monterey before plying their trade along the coast of California. 

“I have read as much as I can about this part of the world, Captain, and Mexico seems determined to limit trade through high tariffs.”

“There are ways around the rules,” Captain Jessop assured him as he watched a sailor trim the mainsail. “Don’t you worry, Mr Lancer, the likes of the Hudson Bay Company and several Boston-based firms make healthy profits. There is a definite market for cattle.”

The Artemis was scheduled to stay four days in Monterey to sell goods brought from America and pay its duties. Then the brig would continue north to Yerba Buena in the San Francisco Bay to fill its hull with hides and tallow.

 

Burke sketches and paints his way up the Pacific coast, and patiently teaches me Spanish at the same time. His conversational Spanish is excellent due to his many visits to California. My Spanish improves slowly. I can tell you it is a lot easier learning from Burke than from some dry texts with only my schoolboy Latin to help me. Still, I worry I will struggle to make myself understood after we part company. I must take every opportunity to practise when we make shore. 

The Artemis finally dropped anchor in Monterey harbour mid-afternoon on June 11, 1842. Within the hour Murdoch stepped onto the wooded shore.

 

California at last! I will forever celebrate this day as the beginning of my new life.

Burke took me directly to the home of Herman Richter, a surveyor, who acts as agent for G.W. Burke and Sons.  His house is like others in the town, a neat whitewashed adobe cottage with a red-tiled roof. It lies within sight of the Presidio.

The Presidio is a small square fort with the Mexican flag flying from a pole at its heart. It is the centre of activity for the town. Soldiers and officials regularly come and go, and thanks to their convenient location, the Richters are among the first to learn of any new arrival.

Herman Richter was not at home when the travellers knocked on the door, but his Mexican wife, made them welcome. She greeted Burke like a long lost brother and showed her guests to a comfortable room overlooking the bay. She sent one of the children to find her husband. By the time the two men had freshened up, Richter was settling himself into a chair under a nearby tree and pouring out drinks.

Richter had passed through the Estancia Talavera only five weeks before on his way to an on-going job further north.

 

A new settler, John Sutter, is establishing a trading post, and he has employed Richter to survey land recently granted by the Mexican government. That is interesting as Sutter has apparently only resided in California for two years and he has only been a citizen for one. What Richter tells me of the Estancia Talavera, however, is of more immediate concern. He says there are about a dozen vaqueros remaining with their families, and they take basic care of the hacienda and surrounding fields and cattle.  

The Mexican and Indian workforce, however, did not in Richter’s estimation exert themselves to any high degree of effort. “It would not surprise me if most were not being paid. They probably do a little work in exchange for being allowed to remain in their homes, but a new owner will need to attend to a lot of deferred maintenance.” 

 While even a big ranch could survive during winter with a small workforce, Murdoch knew it needed many more workers and effective leadership to run efficiently between spring and fall.  The Estancia Talavera had been rudderless for over eighteen months. 

“The headman speaks only a little English, but he has been at the ranch for many years. He is loyal and hardworking, I am sure he will cooperate with a new owner.”

Although there was no guarantee Murdoch would ultimately buy the San Joaquin estate, he had decided during the voyage that he was committed to remaining in California, and it would make sense for him to apply for Mexican citizenship while still in Monterey. Two days after his arrival therefore, he swore allegiance to the Mexican flag.

 

Once I produced my certificate of Catholic baptism, I was welcomed. The governor-general took my oath without hesitation. Citizenship is a means to an end, but I will abide by the laws of this land and defend its shores while this government defends the rights of those it governs. My citizenship still needs to be endorsed by central government to be absolute and that will not happen overnight, but what I have done today permits me to buy land in California.

That afternoon Burke and Richter had other business, so Murdoch ventured out on his own to complete the preparations they had begun together the day before. Richter had acquired horses for them, but they still needed supplies. Following the surveyor’s directions those were soon purchased, and Murdoch spent the rest of his time exploring the town. Shouting, screeching and the flapping of wings drew his attention to a small crowd.

 

I had heard cockfighting was a popular pastime in California. Two roosters tearing each other apart is not really my idea of entertainment, but to be sociable I pretended more enthusiasm than I felt. Betting was fierce and the battles bloody. I lost a few real to the locals but was rewarded after the fighting with an invitation to join them at the cantina. I was able to practise my Spanish, and my new amigos introduced me to the local drink, tequila. Powerful stuff and not unpleasant, but I’ll stick with beer and whisky if given the choice.

Soon after dawn the next day, Murdoch and Burke rode towards the San Joaquin Valley. The journey to the Estancia Talavera was expected to take about three days. Trying hard to keep his excitement and hope under control, he left behind letters, which Richter promised to deliver into the hands of the next captain sailing for Boston.  Murdoch concluded his epistle to Catherine minutes before he and Burke mounted their horses.

 

Si Dios quiere el viaje me llevará a casa.

All my love

Murdoch
 

Chapter 11: Early Days

The deal was done. Various documents were signed by Murdoch and witnessed by the Estancia Talavera’s foreman and Alfred Burke on the kitchen table. There was one copy of the sale and purchase agreement each for Murdoch, the land agents, Talavera, his lawyer, Murdoch’s lawyer and his bank. Also among the papers was the release authorising the bank to transfer the money as soon as his lawyer confirmed everything was in order. Murdoch had seen Alfred Burke on his way north with the precious documents tucked safely away in his saddle bag. Burke would carry out the final legalities with the Mexican authorities upon his return to Monterey, and then seek passage back to Boston. Those last technicalities were still several weeks away as Burke had other business to attend to in Alta California, but for all intents and purposes the Estancia Talavera was no more. The ranch that spread out before Murdoch as he stood on the high road from Morro Coyo was now called Lancer.

Home! Murdoch had gazed over this land in silent certainty when Burke had stopped at the same place nearly two weeks earlier to point out various landmarks and extol their virtues. 

“The ranch extends to those hills in the east, some of the hill country you can see north and south, all that grassland and beyond.”

Early morning mist had clung to the gullies, not yet burnt off by the heat of the day. A river snaked its way across the vast valley of rolling fields backed by dark tree-covered hills. The river swelled to a small lake and then drained out of sight.

“The lake and river have never dried up. Some of the streams will do so during a hot summer, but you should always have water. You could even consider charging your neighbours in time of drought.”

“Not something I’m likely to do. I would rather foster a relationship with my neighbours of mutual goodwill and assistance when needed—no strings.”

To that end, Murdoch had insisted on visiting some of the neighbouring ranchos while Burke was still there to introduce him. He met Don Domingo Allende Rivera to his north, Don Frederigo Caldera Palmero to the south and Don Jorge Marques Diego to the west. He found all three to be well-educated, intelligent men, but Californios and all that the term implied. They were privileged, owners of estates rather than cattlemen per se and naturally a little suspicious of him. They warmed slightly when Burke made it known that Murdoch was baptised Catholic as an infant in Scotland, and he was not just taking on the religion for convenience; and a little more when they ascertained that not only was he a cattleman, but also reasonably well-educated and gentleman-like. Murdoch had some experience dining and conversing with their British equivalents thanks to his laird’s affable nature. He was reasonably confident he could maintain productive neighbourly relations.

Murdoch made a mental note to attend the occasional church service and to show some goodwill toward the local mission. Although the mission no longer controlled much land, the priests still wielded influence. The ranch would give him an excuse not to attend mass too often, but he had taken the precaution before leaving Scotland of accompanying his Auntie Morag to her church occasionally. Consequently he understood the format and meaning of the Catholic service. He suspected he actually understood a great deal more than his aunt given Father MacTavish had spoken entirely in Latin. It eased his conscience somewhat to learn that the essence of the religious message was not that much different from that of the Kirk.  

“Did you know, Burke, that before Catholics take communion, they must first confess their sins? I was surprised to find that it is acceptable not to go to confession with any regularity. My Uncle Alex declared he hadn’t taken communion for a whole year for that reason, and the worst he got was a scowl or three from my aunt and the occasional polite reminder from the priest.”

Murdoch reasoned that this interesting fact would enable him to avoid taking communion without undue comment. With luck he would never need to divulge that he had not been confirmed. As transubstantiation was the most contentious difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches, he argued his Protestant God would not look too critically upon him for crossing the threshold if he did not take communion—and what his mother did not know would not hurt her.

Murdoch and Burke had ridden widely over the Estancia Talavera during the previous ten days, escorted by José Ramos, the foreman. Ramos had more English than Richter had believed. Recent contact with Americans had increased his vocabulary, so that he and Murdoch were usually able to understand each other without Burke’s help. Ramos had acted as general caretaker for the estate since the owner had returned to Spain to claim an unexpected inheritance. When faced with a choice, Don Talavera had abandoned the challenges of a rancho in the New World in favour of the wealth and comfort of a centuries-old estate in central Spain.

Before Don Talavera had left, however, he had constructed a substantial multi-storied hacienda, which now nestled at the end of a well-formed road in the southern foothills. 

“It was a condition of the government grant to construct a residential dwelling on the land within the first year,” Burke had explained, dismounting after a day in the saddle. He had stamped the stiffness out of his legs. “It didn’t have to be as grand, but Don Talavera has always been wealthy and he was not going to be outdone by his neighbours.”

Upon closer inspection Murdoch had discovered most of the main house fully completed with timber or terracotta tiled floors in the living and bedrooms and flagstones in the kitchen, but some rooms upstairs, the two wings and out-buildings were just shells. Outwardly they were part of an impressive adobe mansion with balconies, graceful arches, glazed lattice windows and clay tiles on the sloping rooftops. Inside some rooms still had dirt floors, and most had little decoration and no furniture or window dressings. The interior walls of several out-buildings, intended for offices and servant or guest accommodation, had still to be plastered. Like the rest of the ranch, they were a work in progress, and in a way Murdoch was pleased about that. He had comfortable living quarters in the main part of the house, and he would be able to clearly stamp his mark on the rest.

An alert was shouted from a roof top balcony as he neared the hacienda. Murdoch raised an arm in greeting as the wagons were pulled back from the entrance to let him through. “Hola! Ramos, quiero que.”

The foreman followed Murdoch into the house and in a mixture of slow Spanish and English Murdoch gave his first instructions as owner. “I want those calves moved to an enclosure with some shade, and then I would like you to gather the men and their wives out by the corral. I want a few words and then we will divide the men into work crews and make a start.”

“Si, Señor Lancer.”

“I will need someone to cook and clean for me. Can you arrange that?” Murdoch lifted a dust cloth to reveal an ornate sofa. The owner and land agents had agreed that any prospective buyer should be accommodated at the hacienda while they were being shown the estate. Consequently, Murdoch and Burke had stayed in the main house, but they had not bothered too much with the furniture. They had only uncovered what they needed to use and they had been out on the ranch so much that they had needed very little. Most of the furniture in what was referred to as the ‘gran sala’, or ‘great room’, was still draped with cotton sheets. “She could start by straightening up in here.”

“Estella, who cooked while Señor Burke was here, would be willing to continue, if you were happy with her work.”

Si, that will be fine, but I thought she had niños to look after?”

“Si, but they are old enough that she can leave them to play nearby and she would welcome the extra money.”

“In that case, please tell Estella I would like breakfast at about 8 o’clock, after I’ve got everyone organised for the day. If she makes dinner for 6 o’clock, she can leave it in the oven to keep warm if I’m late in, and go home to her family. I’ll fend for myself during the day, and she can do the other housework as suits her. Is there no school for the older children?”

“Father Ruben runs a school at the mission, but that is three miles. They do not always attend.”

“They do now.” Murdoch looked up from exploring the desk he had just uncovered at the far end of the room near the picture window.  “I am a great believer in education. I would like the children of this ranch to have the opportunities that education brings. Please get someone to take them in a wagon each morning. It can pick them up as well if there is a man free, otherwise they will have to walk back.” 

An hour later, about twenty men and a dozen women, some with children, gathered by the corral.

“Buenos dias.” With Ramos translating Murdoch continued. “I am the new owner. My name is Murdoch Lancer and this ranch is now the Estancia Lancer. I hope you will all stay and continue to call this place home. I am grateful to you for keeping the ranch going for the past year without an owner in residence. Your efforts and loyalty have impressed me greatly, and I would be proud to employ any one of you. With your help, my aim is to make Lancer the finest ranch in California. If you are willing, we start today. Gracias.”

Ramos dismissed the women and called the men to come closer. At Murdoch’s request he named the vaqueros one by one, and identified their skills. Murdoch acknowledged each man.

“Do you think you could make this brand?” Murdoch handed a drawing to a man said to have some skill at blacksmithing. Murdoch had designed the brand with Burke’s help and the application to register it was among the documents Alfred Burke now carried in his saddle bag back to Monterey.

“Si, Patrón. The circle is easy. The ‘L’ is trickier, but I think I can make it.”

Together Murdoch and Ramos divided the other men into crews and set them to their tasks. Murdoch had noted down the work that needed to be done as they had toured the ranch. In the evenings he had prioritised and planned.

“This crew is to go here,” he ordered pointing at a map. “The stream is blocked with branches. I want it cleared today.”

Two more crews were set to gathering strays out of the hills. He wanted to know how many cattle he was starting with and in what condition. He needed to get them branded.

“Those remaining can make a start on this list of repairs around here. Who can read?”

A lad of about seventeen stepped forward, holding his sombrero respectfully in front of him.

“Cipriano, is that right?” If first impressions were anything to go by, Murdoch thought Cipriano had great potential. He was tall and sturdy, and looked like he could handle himself in most situations, but more than that, Murdoch had noticed him working on the ranch. Like most of the other vaqueros he was an excellent rider, but Murdoch had been particularly impressed by the young man’s understanding of cattle. He had a way with the animals that only another cattleman could truly appreciate. Murdoch was pleased he could read. Cipriano might make a good foreman in a year or two. “Well, you take the list and share the jobs out. Let Ramos know who is doing what. I expect them all finished by the end of the week.”

Over the next few days, between checking on the crews, Murdoch and Ramos rode out in search of more vaqueros. The men who had stayed were mostly older men with families or disabled in some way, which meant it had been more difficult for them to up-root. Murdoch and Ramos visited Morro Coyo, a small, mainly Mexican town in the south and Green River, an even smaller but mainly American town to the northwest. They included the mission in their visit to Morro Coyo and returned with four Paiute Indians with cattle experience. In total they employed a dozen new men that first week, some of them the older sons of the hands who had stayed, but more importantly the word was out that Lancer ranch was hiring. Thereafter the men came to them.

The wranglers and gunhawks who found their way to Lancer over the next few months were a mixed bag of Indians, Mexicans and Americans. Most had some experience with cattle, and some were hired more for their abilities with a gun. Murdoch soon learned that there was no law in this part of California, except the unofficial law wielded by large landholders and he was now a large landholder. He needed to learn how to use firearms himself and he needed to employ at least a few men primarily for their skill with a gun.

During this time he also became aware that Ramos was less than the man he needed as a second in command. As a foreman Ramos was willing enough, but he was not a man to show initiative or leadership. Murdoch was not comfortable with the idea of leaving him in charge of the ranch when he returned to Boston, which he would need to do in the New Year. He did not want the ranch to regress to what it had been when he arrived.

Murdoch was giving serious thought to how he could solve this problem, when a stocky American wrangler called Paul O’Brien rode up to the hacienda.

“I heard you were hiring, Mr Lancer. I have experience.” O’Brien was Kansas born, only a year or two older than Murdoch. He had been wrangling from Nevada to Texas. “I was trail boss for a couple of years and foreman for a ranch north of Denver for about eighteen months until earlier this year.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Curiosity. Wanted to see California. Wagon train headed for Utah needed a guide, so thought I may as well get paid for part of the journey. Got references.” O’Brien handed Murdoch a battered leather wallet.

“Can you read and write?”

“Well enough.”

“Know any Spanish?”

“No problem. Spent five years around the borders.  Speak some Indian too—Apache mostly but a little Paiute.”

Murdoch took O’Brien on as another foreman, dividing the responsibilities between him and Ramos. O’Brien’s references were good. He had held down two foreman’s jobs and had testimonials from his time as trail boss as well. He soon proved himself good with the men, and he worked in well with Ramos too. Surprisingly the older man did not seem to resent his presence. Murdoch got the impression that Ramos may have even been relieved to have O’Brien around. The new foreman was not a highly educated man, but he and Murdoch had shared interests in cattle, far off places and human nature.  They got on well together, and a friendship soon developed. Within a few weeks Murdoch stopped worrying about who he would leave in charge when he went back east.


 

Chapter 12: The Season of Goodwill

By December the Lancer ranch was into a new routine. Murdoch had learned how to use a lariat and a gun, and his ranch hands had learned there was a new order. In his letters to Catherine and his family in Scotland he described his experiences with an increasing sense of belonging.

The men from Lancer took part in two general round ups on neighbouring estancias during this time, gathering the cattle and horses, sorting them and branding the beasts with the mark of the ranch, to which they belonged.

 

The locals call these events ‘rodeos’. They usually last three days. I’ve not experienced anything like them before, but they have given me new respect for my neighbours as cattlemen and horsemen.  

“Your ways are certainly different from what I’m used to, but I see they work well here. I’d be grateful if you’d teach me more. ” Murdoch and Don Frederigo watched as vaqueros culled the cattle belonging to their own estates from the milling crowd of strays, driven down from the hills that marked the boundary between the two ranches.

Appreciating his interest, Don Frederigo and other local dons grew to like and respect the young Scot. He was not like some foreigners, too arrogant or ignorant to ask advice. They began to offer suggestions unasked and listened to his ideas as well. The real cattlemen among them soon recognised his knowledge and abilities. As Murdoch had hoped, a relationship of mutual cooperation and benefit started to grow.

Two hundred bulls were slaughtered in Murdoch’s first month as owner.

 

We are processing their hides and tallow here on the ranch. The air buzzes with flies, and some days the stench of rendering fat is enough to turn your stomach. Drying racks cover the yard behind the hacienda. Some of the meat is hung or salted for the estate’s own use, some is given away, but most we burn. There is currently no market for beef, but the ratio of bulls to cows has been allowed to get too high. I have no choice but to take drastic measures if I am to bring the stock under control.  

Wild horses were brought down from the hills and broken for use by his growing workforce. He was impressed by the horsemanship of the Mexicans. He could ride well enough, but his skill was nothing to the skill of several vaqueros he employed. Occasionally, usually on some kind of religious feast day, there would be races and betting, which Murdoch allowed to foster goodwill. As long as they worked hard when required he was wise enough not to begrudge his hands their leisure. He joined in too where his dignity as boss was not compromised.

“You can take bets, Diego, but it stops if there is any trouble. Do you understand me?”

“Si, Patrón. There will be no trouble.”

Thankfully feed crops had been planted in the spring. All the women and children helped with the harvesting, which took on a festive air after the hard work was done. Murdoch was introduced to the delights of Mexican food and fandango, and his letters were filled with colour and excitement as well as labour and heat.

 

I have developed a taste for morisqueta, a sausage and rice dish, but most Mexican dishes are still a little spicy for me. 

The first and second batch of letters from back east arrived together via Don Allende, who had been to Monterey on business. Murdoch dismissed Estella early and took his meal on a tray to the fireside so he could read and eat at the same time. There were letters from Catherine, his sister and mother, as well as business letters. Tempting as it was to start with the former, he forced himself to deal with business first. He had received copies of the officially endorsed legal papers and deeds from Alfred Burke a few months earlier. The letters from his bank and lawyer merely confirmed that everything was in order and the land was now his. Some final bank documents needed to be signed in the spring when he returned to confirm arrangements with George Muller.

Untying the ribbons holding Catherine’s letters, he sorted them into date order. The first had been written only a week after his departure from Boston and the most recent two months before.

 

I miss you already.

 

Beth and I visited Frog Pond today. The blossom has all fallen and the ground was a carpet of petals. It looked quite beautiful.

 

Dearest Murdoch, I received your letter from Chagres today. … The dolphins sound delightful, but I do not think I would have liked the Castilians.

 

You will laugh, but I have persuaded Mrs Pearson to teach me how to cook. I have told a small white lie and begged her to keep our lessons secret from my father. So far I have learned how to soft and hard boil an egg and how to make biscuits. Beth says coming from Scotland you may call these scones, but I assure you in America they are called biscuits. Mine are at present edible. Jemima, my maid, declares that they are delicious, but I am determined not to be blinded by false compliments. Tomorrow Mrs Pearson says she will teach me how to make a white sauce.

 

I think of you every day.

 

I met your friend, Mr Harper, yesterday. He came to dine with his employer, Mr Kirby, and several other gentlemen, who do business with my father. I was greatly alarmed when Mr Harper mentioned your name, though it was discreetly done. He approached me as I poured out the coffee, and told me he knew of our connection. He has kindly offered his services should I ever have the need.

 

Today I received your first letter as owner. The Estancia Lancer—it sounds very romantic in Spanish. You describe it so vividly and I long to see it.

 

I lie in bed at night thinking of you and imagining the adventures you must be having. I expect you have little time during the day to think of me, but how lonely you must be at night when all is quiet and you are alone. Think of me then and know that I love you.

 

Mr Burke has just arrived back from California. He called on Beth’s father yesterday with the legal papers related to your purchase. I am so glad everything went well. Beth says I must get this letter to the bank by tomorrow morning as a gentleman of Mr Burke’s acquaintance is returning to California via Panama on the evening tide. He has agreed to deliver documents and letters to Mr Burke’s agent, who will forward any directed to you and their other Californian clients. 

Setting the last letter down atop the pile beside him, Murdoch stood up and moved to the mantelpiece. A small sad smile played on his lips. He gazed at Catherine’s image in the silver-framed daguerreotype, and brought her laughter and gentleness to mind. 

Several minutes later, shaking himself out of reverie, he picked up his dinner tray and returned it to the kitchen. Then pouring himself a wee dram from the decanter on the sideboard, he sat back down in the faded brocade armchair and opened the letter from his sister, Maggie.

 

Congratulations, you are an uncle. Our bonnie wee girl, the apple of her father’s eye from the very moment he saw her, was born in the early hours of Tuesday morning. We have named her Ellen Euphemia. Granny McInnes declares she takes after Rob, but who can really tell at this stage? The bairn is bald as an egg. 

The letter from his mother was much thicker, more like a parcel than a letter. It turned out to contain a copy of the local weekly newspaper. When he went to put the Inverness Gazette next to Catherine’s letters, intending to read it later, a smaller package fell to the floor. Unwrapping the brown paper and string he found a neat calico bag with draw-string and a note: For the First Footing, in case there is none about. Peeking inside the bag, Murdoch smiled. His mother thought of everything. 

Placing the bag on the newspaper Murdoch began to read his mother’s letter, a single sheet of close writing, and was greeted with another surprise.

 

Your brother is to be married on Sunday. The laird finally found a replacement for you as factor, a widower from Aberdeen, Angus Cameron. He arrived about a month after you left, bringing with him his grown daughter, Elspeth, to keep house. To say it was love at first sight for Jock would be something of an understatement. I’ve never known him behave so soppy over a lass and her all of twenty-six and past her prime. She is an intelligent and useful sort however, and respectful of my place in the household, so I think we shall get on fine.  

Murdoch chuckled at his mother’s way of putting things. Sipping his whisky, he closed his eyes and pictured her bustling about her kitchen, ordering him and his brother to take their boots off so not to dirty her freshly mopped floor.  He said a wee prayer for his new sister-in-law. He hoped she was a patient woman. He had a feeling she was going to need to be sharing a house with his mother. 

With a sigh he folded his letters and carefully stored them away to read again another day. Pouring himself a second dram he then began to plan the day ahead.

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

As it neared Christmas, he thought more and more of the family and friends he had left behind. This would be his first Christmas and Hogmanay away from home, and he could not help but feel a little homesick.

When O’Brien and Ramos came to talk to him about the holiday festivities, he readily agreed to everything they asked. Among other things, they explained about the posadas that would take place over the nine nights leading up to Christmas, and he was touched when Ramos invited him to join in with the celebrations.

“Thank you. I would like that very much. If you and the others would do me the honour of your company again, I would like to throw a party to see in the New Year. In Scotland we call it Hogmanay and it is a special time. I would like to share its customs with you.”

The holiday season began the following evening with the first candle lit procession. 

 

Two young people were selected from the Mexican families to play the parts of Joseph and Mary. Dressed in costume, Joseph led Mary past the workers cottages on the back of a donkey. I walked with the American and Indian hands at the back of the crowd. Each person held a candle. About half way down the row of adobe cottages the procession stopped and Joseph sang out his request for shelter. Pedro, the worker who lives there, sang his response that there was no room, and so the procession moved on. This was repeated at the next house and then at the third the would-be innkeeper, Carlos, finally opened the door wide and invited us all in.  There were too many people for everyone to go inside, but those left outside gathered around the doorway and we all sang:

Entren santos peregrinos, peregrinos,
reciban este rincón
no de esta pobre morada
sino de mi corazón.
Esta noche es de alegría
de gusto y de regocijo
porque hospedaremos aquí
a la Madre de Dios Hijo.

In English that means:

Enter holy pilgrims, pilgrims
receive this corner 
not this poor dwelling
but my heart.
Tonight is for joy,
for pleasure and rejoicing
for tonight we will give lodging
to the Mother of God the Son.

 

The children were then let loose to beat the seven-pointed star piñata that hung from the tree in the middle of the yard. There was great excitement as you can imagine. We adults laughed and cheered them on. When the sweet treats finally showered down upon them, Carlos’s family served tamales and a hot drink called ‘ponche’ to everyone.

Murdoch accepted his glass and sniffed at it with interest.

“It’s made from various fruits that are in season. Every Mexican family seems to have its own special recipe. I’ve tasted several that are quite different. Sometimes they add a little tequila for the adults.” O’Brien toasted his boss and sipped the warm beverage with obvious enjoyment. “Nope, not this time.”

After they had eaten and talked for a while, the host family distributed small gifts of dried fruit and baking, and carols were sung. Murdoch joined in as best he could, humming when he could not make out the words. Eventually everyone said goodnight and went to their beds. Tomorrow they would do a full day’s work before holding the next posada.

There is one posada for every month that the Virgin Mary carried Jesus in her womb.

On Christmas Eve, the final posada ended at José Ramos’s house further down the dirt road away from the main ranch buildings.  Padre Benedicto came from the mission to hold a special midnight mass for the families at Lancer, and then the feasting began in earnest until the early hours. As dawn began to break all but a few hands, who had volunteered to carry out the essential morning chores, drifted off to their beds and a day of rest. Murdoch too spent a quiet Christmas day reflecting on the events of the past year, writing letters and reading.

The following week was work as usual but at a slower pace. Three days after Christmas, Cipriano asked to borrow Murdoch’s carved bone-handled knife to cut some rope, his own being too blunt for the job. Murdoch had bought the knife in Panama, and it had proved particularly useful for all sorts of tasks.

“Get away, you young devil!” Paul O’Brien came on the scene just in time. “Trying to take advantage of the boss like that.”

“I don’t understand. Why shouldn’t I lend him the knife?”

“Because today is Los Santos Inocentes, Mr Lancer. It’s a bit like April Fool’s Day, but the main thing to remember is that if you lend anything, the borrower doesn’t have to give it back. That young whelp was trying to fleece you of your good knife.”

Cipriano grinned back at them and gave his boss a cheery wave before disappearing into the barn.

On New Year’s Eve all the ranch hands and their families gathered in the courtyard to one side of the hacienda for a party hosted by Murdoch.

 

Cipriano and I spent most of the afternoon hanging lanterns. Estella enlisted the help of the other women and the tables were heavy with food by the time everyone started to gather in the early evening.

The men brought their guitars and other instruments, and the dancing and singing never stopped until the chimes of an old clock, which had been given pride of place atop a wall, warned them that midnight was approaching.

Murdoch took a handful of grapes and swallowed one for luck with each chime of the clock as Estella had instructed, and then on the stroke of midnight he began to sing:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

For the sake of auld lang syne?

 

For auld lang syne, my jo

For auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.

Some of the Americans joined with Murdoch’s baritone immediately and by the end most of his guests were humming or singing along.

“Happy New Year! Now Cipriano, if you would do the honours?”

Murdoch slipped inside the hacienda and closed the kitchen door. Cipriano took a small calico bag from his pocket. Murdoch had given it to him earlier in the evening. Emptying the contents into his hand, he held up a shiny black stone for all to see.

“It’s coal—all the way from Scotland,” Paul O’Brien told the guests in both Spanish and English. “Where Mr Lancer comes from, it’s seen as good luck for the first visitor of the new year to be a tall dark-haired man, who brings a gift of coal or food to the household.”

Everyone followed Cipriano round to the front of the hacienda and watched as he knocked on the heavy timber door, carrying the coal and a plate of his mother’s bunuelos. Murdoch opened the door and welcomed him in. He accepted the gifts and presented Cipriano with a dram of whisky in exchange. Inviting everyone else inside Murdoch made a short speech. “In Scotland we call this night ‘Hogmanay’ and the tradition you’ve just witnessed is the First Footing. I’d like to thank you for sharing your customs over the past few weeks, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this evening with me.” He then offered all the adults a glass of whisky. “A toast, my friends, to your good health and the prosperity of the Estancia Lancer.”

Later, when his guests had departed, Murdoch stood alone in the deserted courtyard gazing up at the stars. Funny how his family in Scotland could see those same stars, and Catherine and his friends in Boston. It was somehow comforting. Saying a prayer of thanks for his good fortune during the past year, he raised his glass to the sky. “Happy New Year everyone. God bless.”

 

Chapter 13:  Luck Runs Out

Ten months three weeks and two days after Murdoch disembarked in Boston from the Duchess of Argyle, he strode down the gangplank of the clipper Sea Witch onto the Boston wharf once again.

He said farewell to California mid-January, leaving Paul O’Brien in charge of the ranch. Another clipper gave him passage from Yerba Buena.  The Trinity dropped anchor briefly at San Diego, where it off-loaded tallow to the warehouses there and filled its hull with more hides, before continuing on to Panama and beyond. Murdoch again crossed the isthmus by mule and river transport, and stepped aboard the Sea Witch for the homeward stretch after only one night in Chagres.

His luck held when he knocked on the door of Mrs Merriweather’s boarding house.

“Hello Rose. Does Mrs M. have a spare room?”

“Mr Lancer! She does, sir. Wait here. I’ll get her for you. Welcome back.” Rose scuttled along the hall to the small sitting room near the back of the house that doubled as the landlady’s office. Soon Mrs Merriweather was showing Murdoch into a bedroom off the first floor landing, very similar to the one he had rented the previous year except that it had a wardrobe.

“Now you will note, Mr Lancer, this room is more commodious than your previous one, hence the rent is one dollar per week more. Now that you are a landowner yourself, you will of course have a better understanding of the costs involved in running a household such as this. Not that there is any comparison between a respectable establishment in a civilised city like Boston and a farm located in the middle of nowhere, but we all have to start somewhere, and I’m very pleased to hear you’re on the upward ladder.” Mrs Merriweather drew breath to pull back the curtains and opened the window to air the room. “I was telling my friend, Mrs Prendergast, only the other day, I’m like a mother to my gentlemen, and give them the very best start in life by providing a secure and happy home. So many of my young men do well for themselves. Mr Thompson left only to take up a promotion in New York, you know. So sad to leave here he was—quite forlorn. But lucky for you as I would not have had a room otherwise.”

Familiar with his landlady’s ways, Murdoch was amused by her prattle. He managed to keep a straight face however, and after showing polite interest in Thompson’s good fortune, he dropped his bag by the bed and took out his pocketbook. He paid Mrs Merriweather up to the following Friday, and she smiled her approval.

“Will you be in for dinner, Mr Lancer? Excellent. We are having pickled pork this evening. I’ll expect you in the dining room at six. But what am I thinking. You know the rules.” Surveying the room with a critical eye she finally took her leave.

Business had to be Murdoch’s first consideration, but once he had secured the necessary appointments for the following day, he made his way directly to a fine brick house on Chestnut Street.

“Is Miss McIntyre at home?”

Murdoch waited in the entrance hall while the maid went to inquire if her young mistress was at home to visitors. She returned within moments and showed him into to a comfortable sitting room overlooking the rear garden. Beth turned from the window as he entered. Dismissing the maid, she greeted him warmly. “You cannot imagine how good it is to see you.”

She led him over towards the fireplace. “Mother, I’d like you to meet, Mr Lancer.”

An attractive middle-aged woman rose from an armchair and offered her hand. “Welcome, Mr Lancer. I am so pleased to finally meet the cause of all the furore.”

“Furore?”

“Ah, you have not heard. In that case, I think I will leave my daughter to explain the situation. You will excuse me, Mr Lancer, but I have some letters to write.” Mrs McIntyre tidied her embroidery away and went to a desk at the far end of the adjoining room, leaving one of the French doors open behind her.

As soon as Mrs McIntyre was out of hearing, Beth began. “Oh Murdoch, I’m so glad you’re here at last. The most awful thing has happened. Mr Garrett knows about you and Catherine.”

“Well, I would have preferred to meet as gentlemen to explain how Catherine and I feel about each other, but it was inevitable. He had to know sometime.”

“But you don’t understand. He is furious! I am banned from the house. He wanted to send Catherine to Worcester to stay with her aunt, but she refused to go. Her aunt, however, has now come here, and chaperones her everywhere.” Beth paced the room, wringing her hands. “Oh, it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t been so eager to know what was in your last letter, he would never have seen her trying to hide it away.”

“Can we get a message to her? That was why I came, to ask you to tell her I was back and arrange to meet.”

“I don’t know how. I get a little information via our servants, but the Garretts’ servants are too afraid of losing their jobs to help us. Mr Garrett now checks all the mail going in and out of the house. Catherine is a virtual prisoner.”

Worried and not knowing what else to do, Murdoch went from Chestnut Street to the Garrett residence in Louisburg Square. He was refused entry. Stepping back into the road he searched the windows for some sign of Catherine, but there was nothing. All he could see of the interior were the heavy drapes that stood sentry on either side of each window.  

With growing anxiety he then visited Harlan Garrett’s place of business, but he did not get past the secretary.

“Leave now, Mr Lancer, or I will call for the day police. Mr Garrett has given express orders. You are not to be allowed on these premises.” The secretary planted himself between Murdoch and the doorway leading to Harlan Garrett’s office.

Murdoch hesitated. Should he force his way through?  Thinking better of it, he retreated to the street, but for several minutes he stood staring daggers at the black painted door.

“Out of the way, man!”

Startled, Murdoch stumbled hurriedly back out of the path of a horse and cab, travelling much too fast along the cobbled street. Its driver shook a fist in his direction, and then urged the blinkered animal on. Murdoch picked up his hat and wended his way slowly back to Mrs Merriweather’s boarding house.

Later, after dinner, Murdoch sat on the edge of Jim Harper’s bed as his friend shaved and dressed for an evening out with business associates.

“What am I going to do? We were going to be married. I’ve already booked us passage to California.”

“When does the ship sail?” Jim held the skin of his neck taut and scraped the razor up its right side. Knocking the foam into a dish on the dresser, he repositioned the razor for a second sweep.

“Three weeks. I was going to see Catherine first. If she still felt the same way, as I believe she does, we were going to speak with her father together.”

Rinsing the remains of soap from his face, Jim grabbed a towel and patted his skin dry. “I’ve taken great care not to let my connection with you be known to Garrett. He is the leading investor in a syndicate my firm set up to finance imports from South America. Mr Kirby and I dine at his house with the other syndicate members every Thursday.” Shaking down his sleeves, he inserted gold cufflinks and selected a dinner jacket from a compactum wardrobe in the corner of the room. “I believe I could get a message to Miss Garrett.”

“You would do that? Garrett is a powerful man in the business world, Jim. If he found out you helped us, there could be repercussions.”

“Best not let him find out then.” Jim turned from side to side in front of the half-length mirror fixed to the wardrobe door. Satisfied his attire was in order he closed the cabinet and opened the main door to the hall. “Now, if you don’t mind, I can’t afford to be late.” Ushering Murdoch out, he exited the room himself and disappeared down the stairs.

The following day, still worried but no longer desperate, Murdoch visited Douglas Muir at the bank to finalise the paperwork for the mortgage. He then made his way to James McIntyre and Associates. Beth was waiting for him outside, eager to know what had happened after he had left her.

“I thought I could stand outside Catherine’s house or the Athenaeum or theatre until she saw me. Even if I couldn’t get close enough to speak to her, she would at least know I was in town.”

“She knows already,” Beth replied. “I told you our servants talk to each other. The Garrett servants will not actively help, but that doesn’t stop them gossiping.”

“Then I need to decide what to write in the message Harper has offered to deliver. We need a time and place to meet, where she can elude her father and aunt.”

“Saturday—at the Eliots’. The Garretts are bound to attend. Mrs Eliot holds her soirees so infrequently, and the Eliots are such a prestigious family that Mr Garrett would never dream of not going. Besides, rumour has it that Senator and Mrs Eliot’s nephew will be there.”

“Why should that matter?”

“Ah well, he was quite taken with Catherine on his last visit, and she didn’t absolutely hate him. Mr Garrett entertained great hopes, I think, but Mr Eliot was obliged to return to West Point before it came to anything.”

This news was not to Murdoch’s liking. He had heard of West Point. The idea that Catherine ‘did not absolutely hate’ a young military cadet, of whom her father approved, was not to his liking at all.

“Our family has been invited too,” Beth added, oblivious to Murdoch’s change of mood. “As long as I stay in Mr Garrett’s sight while Catherine is out of it, he shouldn’t become suspicious. He couldn’t possibly expect you to be there.”

“No, I suppose not.” Feeling suddenly bad-tempered, Murdoch stuffed his hands into his pockets and stared at his feet. He kicked a pebble into the street with unusual force.

Beth paused, looking at him intently. She smiled.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing.” Beth bent to retie her boot lace and then, face composed, continued. “Mrs Eliot always uses the rooms upstairs for such events. The breakfast room downstairs opens to the garden, and it should be empty. Catherine knows that house well—we were both very friendly with Dorothea Eliot before she married and moved to Philadelphia. I’m sure Catherine could easily make some excuse to leave the party for a short while and meet you by the gate in the wall. It opens to a back alley. You could wait there for her, and I could create some kind of diversion if her father noticed her absence.”

“Thank you, Beth. I don’t know what we would do without you.”

Beth blushed. She headed off to visit her milliner as Murdoch entered the building to meet with her father. James McIntyre was speaking with his secretary in the outer office as Murdoch came in the door.

“Welcome back, Mr Lancer. I’m glad you’re on time. We have serious matters to discuss.”

Following McIntyre into his inner sanctum, Murdoch wondered if he was going to get an ‘I told you so’ lecture, but his lawyer had more pressing concerns on his mind than his client’s love life.

“Muller is abroad. He was due back last month in good time to sign the final agreement, but his passage was delayed by the death of his father-in-law in Germany. He won’t be back for another month, maybe more.” McIntyre sat down behind his desk and indicated that Murdoch should also take a seat.

“But surely that doesn’t matter. Most of the papers have already been signed. His lawyers must have the authority to act on his behalf and finalise the financial arrangements in his absence.”

“They have, but they won’t.” McIntyre almost spat his disgust. “One of Muller’s ships went down off Africa before Christmas. It was a heavy financial loss, but Muller would have been well insured. His lawyer declares now, however, as a result he will finalise no new business until Muller returns. Not a word of the kind until last week. I’d lay money Harlan Garrett has had a hand in his decision. They were seen dining together at a private club earlier in the week.”

“Muller will sign when he returns?”

“I am certain of it, but that doesn’t help you in the short term. I take it you cannot delay your return?”

“No, coming here at all is not ideal, but I need his guarantee for the loan with the bank. I have just made the first mortgage payment from my remaining funds. It leaves me very little. I need that money for wages and expenses until I can sell some cattle late spring. What on earth am I going to do?”

“I don’t know. I am working on it, but Garrett is an influential man. It appears he now knows about you and his daughter, and is waging a personal vendetta. It is going to be extremely difficult to find a new backer, even on a purely interim basis.”

For some time after leaving the lawyer’s office, Murdoch wandered the streets thinking. There was nothing he could do about his financial situation until McIntyre identified another potential investor. The lawyer had warned him not to advertise the problem to his bank manager. Douglas Muir was first and foremost required to act in the best interests of the bank. Losing Muller’s backing, albeit temporarily, could undermine the bank’s faith in Murdoch’s ability to finance his mortgage.

Murdoch decided to write to Catherine and her father. He would pay for the letters to be delivered, so that they should at least make it over the threshold. If Beth was right, Catherine’s would make it no further, and in case Garrett read it, he was careful what he wrote. He thought long and hard how to word his letter to Harlan Garrett. In the end it was courteous and brief.

 

Dear Mr Garrett,

 

I write to apologise unreservedly for any offence I may have given. I was wrong to see your daughter without your approval. I am ashamed that I forgot what was due to you as her father, and I humbly beg the opportunity to make amends.

I assure you, sir, my feelings for Miss Garrett are genuine and my intentions are honourable. I hereby request your permission to court her in a proper manner.

As a caring father, you will naturally wish to know my background before granting such permission. You know something of my financial situation and plans already, but I believe I can further demonstrate my good prospects. I would be grateful for an interview at your earliest convenience, so I can answer any questions you may have.

 

With greatest respect,

 

Murdoch Lancer

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

“Let me guess, no response to either letter?” Jim accepted the note Murdoch had written to Catherine and tucked it away in the inside pocket of his dinner jacket. “Wish me luck.”

When Jim finally returned later in the evening, Murdoch unbolted the door to let him in. Mrs Merriweather made an exception to her ‘no admission after 10 o’clock’ policy for Mr Harper, because he was a long term boarder, clearly advancing in the world and because he bribed her with imported Belgian chocolates. She was certainly not going to turn down Mr Lancer’s offer to wait up for the gentleman and went happily off to her bedroom to enjoy the latest box of truffles.

“Mission accomplished,” announced Jim, enjoying the last few puffs of his cigar on the door step before entering the house. Mrs M. did not approve of smoking except in the guest’s sitting room within normal hours. “You have the etiquette of coffee to thank. As lady of the house, Miss Garrett always serves it before retiring for the evening and leaving us to our business. It was no problem at all to slip her your note.”

“Thank you, Jim. My sons and their sons thank you. Bit hard to start a dynasty without the mother of your children.” Murdoch sank to the step beside Jim and accepted a cigar from his friend, who now appeared to be getting quite comfortable, sitting there surveying the dark, deserted street. “Now if only McIntyre can find another moneyman to back me in the short term until Muller returns, life will not look so bleak.”

“Nil desperandum, my friend. You never know what tomorrow may bring.”

 

Chapter 14: The Tide Turns

Murdoch stepped back into the shadows as the night cart rumbled by. Hugging himself to keep warm, he once again listened hard at the solid wooden gate, but all he could hear were the distant strains of Mozart. Something had gone wrong. Catherine could not get away. He slid down on his haunches with his back to the gate, and his face upturned to the sky, black clouds gathering overhead. What was he to do now? Then he heard it, a click, the rustle of silk, a gentle tap and finally, thankfully, her urgent whisper. “Murdoch, are you there?”

“Catherine!” The heavy iron bolt grated as it drew back and the gate creaked open. A quick glance in both directions and he slipped through the gate into her arms.

They remained locked in an embrace for several minutes. Murdoch buried his face in Catherine’s hair, and breathed in her scent. It seemed to give him strength. Pulling back to look at her, he said, “I’ve missed you so much. Are you all right?”

“I’ve missed you too. And I am well, but unhappy. I do not have much time. I’ve tried and tried to convince Father to let me see you, but he will not budge.”

“Oh, it’s all such a mess. I should have spoken to him like a man before I left Boston last year. It’s the secrecy that has upset him most. I am sure of it.”

“Maybe, but I’m not convinced it would have made any difference. He has this great plan in his head for me. Marrying a Californian rancher with potential but no current wealth, who is less than a year off the boat from Inverness, doesn’t fit with that plan.” Catherine seemed strangely calm. For a single woman at odds with her family, having a clandestine meeting with a young man in the darkness of someone else’s garden, she was remarkably composed.

“You still want to marry me? No wait, I must tell you something before you answer. George Muller is abroad and his lawyers will not sign over the money in his absence. I am virtually penniless, Catherine. Unless some miracle occurs and another investor is found quickly, I will have to return to Lancer and survive on a shoe-string and the goodwill of my workers. If they abandon me, because I cannot pay them, I do not know how I will get my cattle to Yerba Buena to sell. If I can’t sell my cattle when the time is right, the Estancia Lancer will not survive. I can’t ask you to marry me in such circumstances.”

“Do you love me, Murdoch?”

“You know I do, but that isn’t ….”

Catherine raised her fingers to his lips. “Now you listen to me, Murdoch Lancer. I’ve had ten long months to think about this. I’m of age, I love you and I am going to marry you. There is nothing that my father—or you— can do or say to change my mind. Arrange a minister, send a message with Mr Harper to tell me when you are ready and I will leave my father’s house. That is an order.”

Murdoch smiled at the memory of Catherine’s speech all the way home as the first drops of rain began to fall. She was a feisty lass for all that good breeding and training in genteel ways. He and Jim were to walk to Roxbury in the morning. He wanted to catch up with his friend, Ben Telford, and had invited Harper to come with him. He would talk it over with the two of them and devise a plan. He was sure Beth would help. The tide had turned. Some things at least were looking up.

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

“I told you it wouldn’t be a problem.” Ben’s minister had been quite happy to make a time and date to marry Murdoch and Catherine in the whitewashed church off the square. The three friends ambled back towards the house where Ben still lived with his cousin. The sun burst through the clouds, and the gardens around them were verdant and colourful. Murdoch smiled to himself, more than his surroundings looked brighter.

“You can stay with me the night before. Henry and Alice won’t mind. I’ll book a room for the wedding night at the local hotel. Mr Garrett will never think of looking for his daughter out here.”

“I’ll get a message to Miss Garrett this Thursday, so that she is ready to leave the following Thursday,” added Jim. “With Miss McIntyre’s help, she will meet you here in Roxbury on Friday morning and you will be Mr and Mrs Murdoch Lancer by sundown.”

“I don’t deserve such good friends. I owe you both.” Murdoch clapped his companions on the shoulders. With renewed hope, he bound up the front steps towards the smell of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

“Oh, don’t be too grateful.  I’m a businessman, remember,” laughed Jim, wiping his feet on the door mat.  “I’ll no doubt call in the favour someday.”

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

The week that followed was one of frustration with small pin-pricks of hope. 

Murdoch visited G.W. Burke and Son to catch up with Alfred Burke and to let him and his father know how things were going at the Estancia Lancer. Their business was done, but he and young Burke had got on well. They were now free to develop their acquaintance into friendship. Before Murdoch left the agents’ office, he confided in an understated way his financial dilemma. He was buoyed when they suggested a gentleman who could be interested in such an investment. James McIntyre also contacted him with a name.

Optimistic, Murdoch visited both men, armed with as much information as he could muster, but neither gentleman was willing to back him. One came right out and acknowledged Harlan Garrett’s influence. “Unfortunately, Mr Lancer, I do a lot of business with Mr Garrett, with whom I believe you are currently at odds. It would not be wise for me to invest.”

Thankfully, Jim returned Thursday evening with good news to cheer him up. He had successfully conveyed a second note to Catherine. “Not such an easy job this time. That damned aunt of hers kept hovering. I think she thought I had intentions. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m no more acceptable as a prospective husband for Miss Garrett than you.”

“How did you manage it then?” asked Murdoch, grinning at Jim’s indignation. Catherine had told him that her Aunt Winifred was a sanctimonious dowager with no children of her own. She was Harlan Garrett’s half-sister and some years older. She had jumped at the chance to play turnkey when Garrett had asked her help to keep Catherine away from Murdoch and any other undesirable young man.

“I’m very clumsy.” Jim shook his head in mock despair. “I accidentally spilled my coffee over the old crone. In the resulting mayhem, Miss Garrett pocketed the message.”

Murdoch visited Beth the following day to confirm Harper’s success. He had seen her earlier in the week at the Athenaeum. As expected she had been more than ready to help. Murdoch had explained the scheme as far as he and his friends had already devised, and Beth filled in the gaps.

“My father can’t know. I will ask my mother on Thursday if I can borrow the carriage to visit a new friend in Roxbury on Friday morning.  It won’t be a lie. Father also has a regular meeting on Thursday nights, so there should be no time for them to discuss my request. I will not be able to leave too early or it would look suspicious, but I should be able to collect Catherine by 10 o’clock, if Mr Harper can spare the time to wait with her until then.”

“I seem to be the cause of a lot of deception,” Murdoch said glumly. “I wish there was some other way.” Beth touched his arm in sympathy, but as neither of them could think of another way, there seemed no choice but to continue with the plan.

Ben and Jim tried to shake him out of his reservations when they went fishing together on Sunday. Murdoch was not the happy future bridegroom of novels. His financial affairs seemed hopeless and here he was plotting an elopement, which went against everything he had ever believed to be right.

“If I had more time, I would find another way,” he bemoaned as he put a fresh worm on his hook. “I feel like this wee worm, desperately trying to escape, but skewered to the one spot.”

“You’d never make a Boston businessman.” Jim cast his line into the water. “Far too much conscience for your own good.”

“Have a sandwich and another beer.” Ben pushed what was left of the cheese and pickle sandwiches towards Murdoch, and began rummaging in his knapsack for the bottle opener. “Focus on the prize and forget the rest. Now me, I’m quite looking forward to it: a day off, a slap up meal at your expense after the nuptials. Not to mention a chance to make a speech and to meet Miss McIntyre—you did say she’s pretty, didn’t you? What could be better?”

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

Late Monday morning, just as he was about to leave the boarding house to meet Jim for lunch, Murdoch received a message from James McIntyre.

I have news. Be at my office at 1 o’clock.

Puzzled but daring to hope that something good might finally be about to happen, he skipped lunch and went straight to the lawyer’s office. He had to wait, because McIntyre was in court, but with ten minutes to spare the advocate appeared.

“This morning I received an unexpected visit from Edward Kirby of New England Enterprises. He has made a very surprising and very generous offer. He proposes to advance you half the value of the hides and tallow from five hundred steers on the condition that you deliver the cattle to his agent in Yerba Buena by May 29th. The balance will be paid to you in Mexican currency upon delivery.”

Murdoch was dumbfounded. This had to be Jim’s doing, but he had not said a word about it. “I don’t know what to say. That’s wonderful!”

“Say you accept, and we can sign the agreement now and the money will be in your bank account tomorrow.”

“Accept, of course I accept. My God, I don’t even know the man. How can I ever repay him?”

“The only repayment he asked for was for you to keep the arrangement confidential, and for you to fulfil your contract on time.” McIntyre called his secretary in to act as witness, and then he presented the documents for Murdoch’s signature. “I would say, Mr Lancer, you have a guardian angel lurking somewhere. The timing of this could not be better.”

Murdoch’s guardian angel came through the boarding house door soon after 5 o’clock. Following Jim up to his room, Murdoch thanked him profusely.

“Why have you done so much for me, Jim? We have not known each other long and yet you have been my saviour several times over now.”

“Mr Kirby has taught me there are two types of businessman, the ones who achieve wealth through investing in things and the ones who invest in people. Mr Kirby is the latter. He has done very well for himself and he is a happy man, with friends and business associates, whom he trusts and who trust him. Harlan Garrett is the former. He has perhaps more money, but he is poor in all other respects. I choose to be like my mentor.” Jim threw his jacket over the end of the bed and rolled up his sleeves ready to wash off the day’s dust and grime.  “It wasn’t difficult to persuade Mr Kirby. He did take somewhat longer to think about my proposal than I had hoped, but I believe he wanted to talk with Miss Garrett. He apparently had that opportunity last Thursday and then took the weekend to come up with the simple idea of an advance payment. Will it be enough to tide you over until Muller gets back?”

“It should be. Please thank him for me. I wish I could do it in person, but he has asked that I do not contact him or make our relationship known.”

“Yes, it wouldn’t help our Thursday syndicate meetings to have the two main players not speaking to each other. Mr Kirby is sufficiently powerful himself not to be afraid of Harlan Garrett, but he doesn’t look for unnecessary confrontation.”

After dinner the two friends went out for a celebratory drink. It was not exactly a stag night and they did not stay out late, but a huge worry had been lifted from Murdoch’s shoulders. He was able to really enjoy himself for the first time since returning to Boston. A full moon shone down upon them as he and Jim strolled back from the bar in mellow mood, only four more days until the main event.

 

Chapter 15: The Great Escape

Murdoch packed his bag and left for Roxbury on Thursday afternoon. Henry and Alice Telford made him welcome, and he spent the evening playing cards with Henry and Ben while Alice chivvied the children to bed and darned socks by the fireside. In the morning Ben had a lie in, but Murdoch was too anxious and walked the length and breadth of Roxbury until the time he could reasonably expect Catherine and Beth to arrive.

Jim would not be with them. His business interests lay in being a silent partner in crime. He had wished Murdoch well the day before and declined to be at the wedding. “I’ll see Miss Garrett safely away, and then go into work. I’ll be as surprised as the next man when Miss Garrett’s absence is discovered. Not that I expect old Harlan to advertise it.”

Murdoch helped Alice up the stairs with her washing basket as Ben emerged onto the front porch and settled himself into a rocking chair. His cousin’s springer spaniel lifted its head and padded over with a hopeful woof.

“Sorry, not today, Jasper.” Ben chucked the dog under its chin. Reaching for the morning newspaper, he watched his friend, restlessly searching of the horizon from the porch steps. “No sign of them yet?”

Murdoch shook his head. Returning to the front gate, he stood with his hands in his pockets, gazing down the dirt road. Half an hour later he was still waiting, pacing and muttering to himself.

“We may as well go inside and have something to eat.” Ben strolled down the white-pebbled path and leaned on the gate. “Alice has prepared some cold cuts and salad. She makes the best bread. The others can have theirs when they get here.”

Again Murdoch shook his head. He had no appetite. Where were they? Perhaps he should walk towards Boston. He stared at the old oak on the rise and willed something to happen. Crows roosting on the lower branches obliged him by rising into the air. Seconds later a landau came into view. “At last!”

It was them. Within minutes the two young women, flushed with excitement, tumbled out of the carriage. Murdoch scooped Catherine up and swung her round full circle in his pleasure and relief. Leaving Ben to introduce himself to Beth, Murdoch escorted Catherine up the path. Ben shouldered her bag and gave the coachman a dollar. “The inn is about half a mile that way. Get yourself a beer and something to eat. Miss McIntyre won’t be ready to go back until later this afternoon. She’ll meet you there.”

Alice was putting on her bonnet when they entered the house. She paused briefly to welcome the young ladies to her home and then picked up her gloves and wicker shopping basket. “Lunch is laid out in the dining room. I’ll leave you to enjoy it. I have some errands to do.”

Settling into chairs at the table, the friends eagerly helped themselves to cold ham, bacon and egg pie, salad greens, and Alice’s fresh baked bread and homemade pickles. They were all famished.

“What took you so long?” Murdoch asked between mouthfuls.

Bit by bit the story unfolded.

As arranged Catherine had retired to her room after serving coffee to her father’s business associates. Her aunt had said good night to her on the landing and after helping Catherine undress, Jemima had gone to her bed in the servant’s quarters.

“I sat brushing my hair for some time to be sure neither of them would come back, and then I retrieved the carpet bag I had hidden at the back of the wardrobe and finished packing.” Catherine poured herself some more water. “It was about half past ten when I finally mustered the courage to leave my bedroom. I carried my boots as well as my bag. I didn’t want to be heard crossing the tiles. Jordan, our butler, was just entering the drawing room with a fresh decanter of brandy when I reached the lower landing. I waited until he closed the door behind him and then made my escape down the stairs and across the entrance hall to the green baize door. The grandfather clock in the hall chimed as I passed. I got such a fright, I nearly dropped a boot.”

Murdoch took hold of her hand and smiled. “You went out through the servant’s stairway then?”

“Yes. I knew that Jordan would be the only one up at that time, and he would likely be serving Father’s guests. It was the safest way. There is a door for deliveries in the basement, along the hall from the butler’s pantry and storeroom. I have often heard Mrs Pearson scold the kitchen maid for leaving it unlocked. I took the risk that Jordan would not find it particularly suspicious if he found it unbolted when he did his final rounds.”

“And what of Harper, did he meet you as planned?” Ben sawed another slice of bread from the loaf, and Beth passed him the butter.

“I waited in a corner of the yard until I heard him whistling, and then joined him in the back lane. I was terrified we would meet someone on the way to the boarding house, but we were lucky. Rose let us in through the scullery door, and I shared her bed for the night. Fortunately neither of us is very big.”

The following morning Catherine had drunk tea in the kitchen as Rose prepared and served breakfast to the boarders. Her stomach had been churning too much to eat. Jim Harper had come in to keep her company once the last of the other gentlemen had gone to work. It must have been just after 9 o’clock when the doorbell rang and someone banged loudly on the front door.

“Rose went to answer it, and Mr Harper and I eavesdropped from the dining room. The door was only open a little, but we had a clear view of the front entrance. I nearly fainted when I saw my father.”

Rose had rushed to the door as fast as she could, afraid that the noise would bring her mistress downstairs an hour before her normal time. It would not do at all for Mrs Merriweather to discover a strange young woman in her kitchen. The maid had called for patience as she struggled with the lock.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“I want Lancer. Where is Lancer? Get him for me immediately!” Harlan Garrett spat his orders at the surprised maid as he pushed his way past her into the hall. Two menservants hovered on the threshold.

“I am sorry, sir.” Rose bobbed a haphazard curtsey as she repositioned herself between Mr Garrett and the stairs and dining room. “But Mr Lancer left yesterday. He is not here.”

“Liar! He must be here. Let me by woman, I intend to search this house from top to bottom until I find him and my daughter.”

“How dare you, sir!” Matilda Merriweather appeared on the landing. She descended like a galleon in full sail, encased in a pink candlewick dressing gown, her slippers slapping on the polished timber stairs. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I am looking for my daughter, Madam. I believe Murdoch Lancer has abducted her, and I wish to search this house.”

“What nonsense! As my maid has already informed you, Mr Lancer left yesterday afternoon. He is not here and neither is your daughter. Leave my house immediately!”

“Ma’am, do you know who I am?”

“No, sir, I do not. You haven’t had the courtesy to tell me. At this point, however, I do not care. Remove yourself from my hall or I will send my maid for the day police, and you can introduce yourself to them.”

Faced with forcing his way passed the indomitable Matilda Merriweather, Catherine’s father had only blustered a little longer. When the lady’s patience finally wore out, and she told Rose to fetch a policeman, Harlan Garrett accepted defeat. He marched back to his carriage, slammed the door and ordered his driver on.

Catherine and Harper had retreated into the kitchen. Rose had eventually managed to placate her mistress, and had persuaded her to go back upstairs to her bedroom. The maid had then joined the others in the kitchen and they had all breathed a great sigh of relief. Their eagerness for Beth to arrive and whisk Catherine away had increased in proportion.

“But she was late.” Catherine smiled at her friend, encouraging her to take up the story.

“Everything had gone as planned my end, until the last. Mother was indisposed so she had breakfast in bed. I was putting on my bonnet and gloves when my father popped back home unexpectedly to check on her health. He asked where I was going. When I told him I was visiting a friend, Mrs Telford in Roxbury, he became suspicious. You must have mentioned Roxbury or Mr Telford to him in passing, Murdoch.”

“I don’t remember doing so, but I suppose it is possible. He employs an investigator though, so maybe he found out that way. What did he say?”

“He asked me what was going on. I couldn’t lie to him.” Beth stared shamefaced at the table.

“No, of course you couldn’t,” Catherine commiserated, reaching across and patting her hand. “I would have told Father everything if he had asked me outright like that.”

James McIntyre had not been happy with the news that his daughter was assisting her friend to elope with his client. He had paced the floor and attempted to speak several times before finally doing so.

“I do not defend Harlan Garrett, but the dishonesty of an elopement cannot be the answer, Beth. It could leave Catherine and her father estranged forever.”

“But he has left her no other choice, Father. I’m Catherine’s friend and I’m going to help her. Will you let me take the landau or must I hail a horse and cab?”

Preferring to have his daughter escorted by his own coachman, McIntyre had allowed her to take the family carriage. She had collected Catherine from the rear entrance of Mrs Merriweather’s boarding house and from that point they had made good time to Roxbury.

Story and lunch over, the friends cleared the leftovers and crockery away, and prepared to walk to the church. Ben left a note asking Alice to send the bags on to the hotel later. They gave Jasper some fresh water and then strolled towards the town square.

White clouds dotted a blue sky and the slightest of breezes teased the ladies’ hair from their bonnets. It was the perfect day for a wedding. Arm supporting the woman he loved and their two best friends about to share their wedding day, Murdoch gazed up to the heavens and said a silent thank you.

The foursome arrived at the wooden church shortly before the appointed time. The minister stood in welcome at the entrance as they walked up the wide gravel path side by side. They had almost reached the doorway, when they heard the crack of a whip. Turning, they saw a horse and buggy approaching at speed.  As it was reined sharply to a stop, two men jumped down.

“Father!”

 

Chapter 16:  Love and Honour

Catherine and Beth cried out together. Both their fathers were running towards the church, black frock coats flapping and hands clutching at their hats to stop them falling off. Catherine released Murdoch’s arm and moved quickly to meet Harlan Garrett part way down the path. Beth just stared in open-mouthed horror.

Grabbing his daughter’s hand, Garrett breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness, I got here in time.”

“Father, we need to talk.”

“There is nothing to talk about. I am taking you home.” Garrett attempted to pull Catherine towards the buggy, but she stood her ground.

Murdoch came up beside her and put his arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t let you do that. Catherine has agreed to marry me. I love her and she loves me. We would rather marry with your blessing, but if you refuse to give it we will still go ahead.”

Garrett looked fit to explode. Catherine took hold of her father’s hand. Her grey-blue eyes met his with the same extraordinary calmness they had shown in the Eliots’ garden two weeks earlier. “Father, I want to talk to you in private.”

Waving Murdoch away, she led her father across the lawn to the shade of a large chestnut tree. Murdoch could no longer hear what they were saying so he returned to the others. He stood in silence with the McIntyres and Ben watching the tête-à-tête for some time. Eventually they began to talk amongst themselves.

“Father, how could you!” Beth looked reproachfully at James McIntyre.

“How could I not? I am a father. It would kill me if you ran off like that, Beth. How could I not tell him where his daughter was?”

“It’s not the same. Mr Garrett is so strict and unbending and … “

“Harlan Garrett may need to learn that to keep the love of his child and to have her come back willingly when she needs him, he has to let her go, but he has a right to know of his daughter’s wedding. If he decides not to be part of the ceremony, so be it. He will have no one to blame then but himself. Catherine and Mr Lancer are of age and can make it happen regardless if they love each other well enough, but to marry behind her father’s back is dishonest. It is no way to start a marriage.”

“But Father ….”

“No, Beth. Your father is right.” Murdoch turned to McIntyre and offered his hand. “Thank you, sir. I am in your debt. I will marry Catherine as long as she will still have me, but we will do it honestly and honourably. I will not be the one to deny her contact with her father.”

Their conversation declined into polite murmurs as they waited for Catherine and Garrett. The minister, recognising that time and further discussion would be needed before any ceremony took place, had already retreated into his church to work on his sermon for Sunday. After about twenty minutes, Catherine kissed her father on the cheek and crossed the lawn alone. With the barest shake of her head, she indicated she did not wish to talk. The little group was plunged into total silence. The black figure of Harlan Garrett stood under the chestnut tree with his back to them, gazing into nothingness.

Finally he came towards them, his face grim. Catherine slipped her arm through Murdoch’s and met her father face on. “Well, Father, what is your decision? Will you give me away?”

Garrett looked bewildered and defeated. Murdoch almost pitied the man. With a curt nod, Garrett held out his arm to his daughter. Exchanging Murdoch for her father for the last time, Catherine entered the Roxbury Unitarian Church with a calm grace. The bridegroom and witnesses followed in their wake.

The ceremony was probably a little shorter than the elaborate event Harlan Garrett had envisaged for his only daughter, but it was perhaps more beautiful and meaningful as a result. He played his part with reserved dignity, passing Catherine’s hand into Murdoch’s at the required time with no further protest. Grey-blue met darker blue as Catherine and Murdoch gave their vows, and it was not long before Mr and Mrs Murdoch Lancer and their wedding party were again gathered outside the church.

“Will you come with us for a bite to eat at the hotel, sir?”

“No, thank you. I think I need to return to Boston.” First kissing his daughter, Garrett offered Murdoch his hand. “Take care of her, Lancer. She is the most precious treasure in my life.”

The wedding party watched the buggy disappear around the corner and then walked together to the hotel where the young couple would spend their first night as husband and wife. James McIntyre remained with them. He would return to Boston with his daughter after the meal. When the time came to pay, Murdoch removed his wallet, but McIntyre reached out to stop him opening it.

“No, Mr Garrett knows his duty. He left me money to pay for this and it is his right as father of the bride to do so. I’m sure you would agree?”

Bill paid, their friends departed soon after, and Murdoch and Catherine retired to their room early. Their wedding night was everything they could have hoped for and everything it deserved to be after a marriage in the presence of family and friends. The intrigue and tumultuous events of the previous few days were forgotten. They fell into each other’s arms behind closed doors with all the love and passion a good romance novelist could desire. On Saturday no one saw them before noon, and then they enjoyed rambling about the countryside together until joining the Telfords for dinner in the evening.  Their ship was due to sail late Sunday morning. They would hire a horse and cab to Boston’s waterfront, and from there begin their journey to California.

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

“Father, I’m so glad you came to see us off.” Catherine hugged her father and he hugged her back.

“I thought you would want your things.” Garrett nodded at the two servants who had accompanied him to Mrs Merriweather’s, and they began unloading trunks and hatboxes from a wagon that had followed Garrett’s carriage into the dockyard.  “I had Jemima pack everything she thought you might want. She said you had already taken your jewellery. You should ask the captain to lock that away in his cabin.”

“I’ll speak to a ship’s officer about getting the luggage taken aboard.” Murdoch left Catherine and her father to say their goodbyes in private. He was pleased Garrett had come, but he was equally pleased to have something to do, which enabled him to avoid polite conversation. He still felt rather awkward around his father-in-law.

By the time he came back, Beth had also arrived on the wharf to say her goodbyes, escorted by one of her brothers. Sharing the conversation, the McIntyres took the pressure off Murdoch and made it easier for him to talk with Harlan Garrett normally.

“How long will the journey take to California?” Garrett gazed out over the busy harbour. A forest of masts stretched towards the islands that dotted its waters.

“About six weeks.” Murdoch spied the pilot heading their way—not long now. Catherine drew Beth and her brother away to admire the vessel’s figurehead, a fearless Indian princess. The two men in her life were left temporarily and uncomfortably alone together. “We’re taking the shortest route, crossing the Isthmus of Panama, not going around the Horn.  We’ll disembark at Monterey or Yerba Buena, depending on the ship we catch on the Pacific side. If you want to write to Catherine, just send your letters care of my bank. They send my mail on when a ship leaves Boston for either destination.”

“I’ll do that. By the way, I’ve paid a thousand dollars into your account.”

“That’s very generous, sir, but—“

Garrett raised his hand. “Don’t say you won’t accept. It is my wedding present. A man has a right to give his daughter a wedding present. Let Catherine use some of it to furnish her new home. God knows, she’ll want a few comforts.” He and Murdoch walked along the pier towards the clipper’s stern. Turning back, they could see Catherine standing near the bow, laughing with her friends. “She’s just a girl, Lancer. She doesn’t realise what she’s going to.”

“I think Catherine is more mature than you give her credit for, sir, but thank you. The money will be hers to spend as she chooses.”

“Take care of her, Lancer. I’ll not apologise for trying to stop the marriage. I still believe I was right, but it’s done, so now I challenge you to prove me wrong. Prove to me that Catherine marrying you was not a mistake.”

A high-pitched whistle sounded and the final call to board came at last. After a flurry of hugs, handshakes and best wishes, Murdoch and Catherine made their way up the gangplank. The Amazonian cast off and glided out into the bay. As sailors hauled on ropes and the first mate yelled orders, the young couple stood side by side at the rail and watched family and friends recede into the distance. A tear trickled down Catherine’s cheek. “I’m being silly.”

Murdoch smiled and kissed his wife. “Mmm, salty.”

“Oh, you!” Catherine hit him playfully. He drew her into his arms, her face upturned. Skin like silk and eyes the colour of a winter sky, she had given him her heart—he was a lucky man.

Suddenly serious, Murdoch brushed a ringlet back from Catherine’s cheek. “You know your father still thinks we were wrong to marry?”

“I know.” Catherine moved to the rail again and gazed towards Boston.

Murdoch came up behind, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the top of her head. “You never told me how you convinced him to give you away. What did you say to your father under that chestnut tree?”

“Oh, I told him I loved you. I told him that even though I loved him too, if he made me choose, I would follow my heart.”

“But hadn’t you said that before?”

“Perhaps I said it with greater conviction. Or perhaps...” Catherine looked impishly up at her husband. “Perhaps it was because I said I take after my father. When I want something badly enough I get it.”

Murdoch chuckled. “I begin to see you in a whole new light, Mrs Lancer. You do know, though, you and your father are not the only ones who get what they want?”

“Really, Mr Lancer, and what is it that you want?”

“Well, Mrs Lancer.” Murdoch glanced in both directions and lowered his voice to be sure no one could hear him. “If you will allow me to escort you to our cabin, I’ll show you.”


 

Chapter 17: Good to be home.

“Bienvenido a casa, Señor Lancer.”  José Ramos was the first to greet Murdoch and Catherine when they arrived at the Estancia Lancer.

“It’s good to be home, José.” Murdoch jumped down from the wagon. He grinned broadly at his foreman. He was back at Lancer and about to surprise everyone. Helping Catherine down, he introduced her. “I’d like you to meet my wife. Catherine, this is José Ramos, one of my most valued men.”

“Me siento honrado, Señora Lancer. Welcome.”

The news of their arrival spread like wildfire. A message was sent to Paul O’Brien, who was culling cattle on the range. He was not yet aware of the deal Murdoch had struck with New England Enterprises, but it had always been the plan to drive a herd through to Yerba Buena in the late spring.

“We’ve been preparing for the cattle drive as you instructed, Patrón.” José helped Murdoch lower the largest trunk from the wagon so they could get at the luggage immediately needed. Two ranch hands would deal with the rest. “We thought you’d make it back about now.”

The wives and children of the ranch gathered in the yard from every direction. They hovered in small groups, shyly smiling at their new mistress. Murdoch took Catherine by the hand and introduced them one at a time. The new Mrs Lancer’s eyes sparkled with pleasure as she greeted each person.

“And this is Estella, who has kept me fed and watered so well these past months.” Murdoch nodded encouragement to his housekeeper.

Estella curtseyed to Catherine. “Welcome, Señora. “These are my younger niños: Maria, Ramón, Pablo, Magdalena and Vittoria. Mi marido, Eduardo, and my two older boys, Diego and Alberto, work as vaqueros here.”

“Hola, Estella—children. I hope you will keep helping in the house, Estella. This is a new life for me and I will need all the help I can get.” The two women smiled uncertainly at each. “Perhaps Maria would like to be my maid? I could teach her what is required of a lady’s maid, and I can see she is interested in clothing.”

Maria, who at sixteen took great care over her own appearance, had been surreptitiously appraising what Catherine was wearing and how she did her hair. She withdrew her eyes quickly from the cartridge pleats, which created the bell shape of Catherine’s gown. Her cheeks reddened slightly with embarrassment as she looked hopefully between her mother and the new mistress of the estancia. “Oh si, por favour, Señora. Mama?”

Estella nodded her permission, and Murdoch took the opportunity to conclude the greetings. “I think I am going to stop there and let the rest of you introduce yourselves another day. We’ve had a long journey and Señora Lancer is tired.”

The voyage from Boston to California had taken a little over six weeks. As newly-weds, they had found entertainment in their own company and for Murdoch the time at sea had gone faster than ever before. Catherine had not complained once, despite the discomforts of travelling through mosquito-infested Panamanian jungle and weeks at sea. She had even taken it upon herself to help care for the crew when a broken spinnaker caused several sailors to be injured. Murdoch had been more proud of her than he could express and his doubts about her adapting to her new life had lessened.

After a few days with Herman and Consuelo Richter in Monterey, Murdoch had purchased a wagon and horses to carry them and Catherine’s belongings to the Estancia Lancer. Murdoch hoped Garrett had sent something more useful than fine silk dresses and fripperies. His father-in-law had not gone into detail about what had been packed, implying that he had left it mostly up to the maid.  During their journey Catherine had made do with the few things she had packed herself in her carpet bag so the contents of the chests and boxes had remained a mystery.

“It will be like Christmas when we finally open the crates and luggage. I didn’t know I had so many possessions,” Catherine had laughed as Murdoch and a sailor hauled the final crate up onto the wagon. “I can’t help thinking Father has sent more than my personal belongings.”

Harlan Garrett had indeed dispatched more than a few personal belongings. The crate, which had needed two men to lift onto the wagon, turned out to be full of books. On the evening after their arrival home, Murdoch picked up a few on top of the now open packing case and read their spines. “Emerson, Dickens and this one is a history of Boston. We will have to make a bigger bookshelf to house them all.”

“Well actually, I was thinking we could fit shelves all along here.” With a wide sweep of her arm Catherine indicated the end wall between the archway to the kitchen and the front entrance. “With the dining table here, there is not a lot this wall can be used for, but it would be perfect for a bookcase. We both enjoy reading so I’m sure we’ll get more books. And I could display our photographs and have vases of flowers. What do you think? Is there a carpenter at the ranch?”

Murdoch laughed at the glee in his wife’s eyes. “I’ll get José to send someone to you tomorrow and you can show him what you want. Perhaps now is a good time to do something about the rest of the house too. Would you like to take on the task?”

“Oh yes. I would love that!” Grabbing Murdoch by the hand, Catherine tugged him through to one of the guest rooms. “I would need someone to do the plastering and painting, but Maria and I could make curtains and other furnishings.”

Pulling him back to the great room she lifted the lid of a black leather trunk. “Look in here. This is the linen I was saving in my bottom drawer. I can use some of it in here and the rest in the bedrooms.”

“Jemima seems to have packed everything.” Murdoch went back to the books.  Now here was a surprise—Edgar Allan Poe. He doubted the book belonged to Catherine. Jemima must have packed it by accident. “I think I’ll keep this out to read tonight.”

“I think the books and my sheet music must have been Father’s idea. He may have opposed our marriage, but he’s been very thoughtful. My sewing box is here, some silverware and these miniatures of Father and Mother. He knew I was fond of those little portraits. Jemima may have thought of my clothes and linen, but she would never have packed the rest unless Father told her to.” Delving into another box just opened, Catherine extracted a small white and gold china tea cup and the last vestiges of child-like excitement gave way to a wistful sigh. “Oh my, this was my mother’s favourite tea set.”

While Catherine and Maria unpacked and planned the refurbishments, Murdoch met with his foremen and was brought fully up-to-date with how everything was going. He paid the wages and bills owing from the previous months, and then inspected the ranch. Paul O’Brien had proved to be a reliable and efficient segundo. When Murdoch told him of the need to drive at least five hundred head to Yerba Buena by May 29th, he was unfazed. “I was working on one thousand, as we discussed before you left. We have been rounding them up for about ten days. Six hundred are now grazing on the south mesa. Another day or two we will have the rest, and it will likely take us a week to drive them to port.”

“Good man. In that case we leave Monday. José, you remain here to look after the ranch and Mrs Lancer. Don’t let her ride out alone. It’s not safe.” Murdoch had been concerned to learn of an increase in small raids on his herds. O’Brien and his men had thwarted at least two attempts to steal cattle in the past month, but he was fairly sure they had lost a few head to the gangs of marauders that hid in the neighbouring hills.

The cattle drive to Yerba Buena began at sunrise with Murdoch, O’Brien, a cook, two gunhawks and eight vaqueros. The chuck wagon and another ox-drawn cart laden with the tallow and the two hundred hides rendered and cured at Lancer the previous year. Travelling at a steady pace they covered ten to fifteen miles a day, allowing the cattle time to rest and graze along the way

“Not a good idea to drive them faster.” O’Brien fell back to ride beside Murdoch, but never took his eyes off the herd and vaqueros travelling ahead of them. “What you’d save in time, you’d lose in the sale price. Probably not as important for hides and tallow as it is when they’re being sold for their meat, but even so. If you want them at a healthy weight, it’s better to take it slow.”

On the third day, rustlers attempted to cut some steers from the herd, but Murdoch’s hired guns had seen their approach and were ready for them. One rustler was injured and the rest scared off. It took time to settle the herd, but the drive continued without further incident.

The cook had been hired by O’Brien in Murdoch’s absence. Archibald McGillicuddy was a Kerry man, fresh off a whaler that had docked in the San Francisco Bay soon after Murdoch had left for Boston. Cuddy, as he was known, was aged about forty with an Irish accent as broad as a leprechaun’s. He was only five feet four, could barely sit a horse let alone wrangle a cow, and walked with a limp—the story of which varied with every telling. As unsuited as he appeared to be for ranch work, he had argued that with a name like O’Brien, Kansas-born Paul could not refuse to employ him.

“Sure us Irish have to stick together. I’m a jack-of-all trades and I make a fair stew, though I do say so meself.”

Paul had given Cuddy chores around the yard and house on a trial basis. He had proved a good worker, mending tack, forking hay, feeding the hogs and digging over the land out back of the kitchen in preparation for a vegetable patch.

“He’s a bit of a rascal, but his first efforts as cook were edible. He knows how to splint a man’s leg, and he can spin a tale from here to Ireland so I put him in charge of the chuck wagon. I hope that’s all right, boss?”

Murdoch dug into his plate of stew before answering. “He’ll do.”

The Lancer cattle arrived at their destination with two days to spare. Some animals were penned in the corrals constructed near the shore and the rest were herded onto grassland a little further north to wait their turn. A brig called the Providence was at anchor in the harbour. Several crewmen were busy in the slaughter yards: killing, stripping the skins and rendering the fat into tallow. Just as it had been at Lancer when they had processed their own cattle, the air was rank and humming with flies. Hides staked out to dry in the sun stood nearby like an army on parade.

Other sailors were working in relay to carry already dry hides to the boats, which would in turn deliver them to the Providence. Dried hides were folded in half and stacked on the beach. Balancing one or two at a time on their heads to keep them out of the water, seamen waded through the surf to where the rowboats were moored. Those on board stood ready to stow the hides away, and when the boat could hold no more, the sailors manned the oars and rowed out to the brig. 

Murdoch made his way to the trading post on the hill and greeted the proprietor cheerfully. “What company owns the Providence?”

“New England Enterprises—I’m its agent.” A balding man got up from a table in the corner. “Josiah Brown’s the name. Would you by chance be Lancer?”

“I am, sir. You know then that I contracted with Edward Kirby in Boston to supply five hundred steers? There are five hundred more if you want them. I also have two hundred hides and several bags of tallow.”

Eager to fill the Providence’s hull, Brown accompanied Murdoch back down the hill to inspect the herd. The agent appeared pleased with what he saw. He purchased all the hides and tallow, and two hundred more bullocks. They had just concluded the transaction when the cry was heard announcing the arrival of another vessel, and a clipper sailed around the point into view.

“That will be the Monique. We’ve been playing cat and mouse up and down the coast for the past month.” Brown wiped beads of sweat from his pate with a large red handkerchief. The midday sun shone from a cloudless sky and the air hung heavy with dust and the lowing of cattle. “She’s owned by the Hudson Bay Company. Their agent is certain to purchase your remaining cattle. I will be back here with the Providence late July and September if you have more to sell.”

The men from Lancer stayed in Yerba Buena to control the herd until there was enough room in the holding pens. Murdoch paid them their wages and bought the first round of drinks at the cantina before heading back to the ranch. O’Brien and two vaqueros rode with him, leaving Cuddy and the others to follow in their own time after cutting the wolf loose for a few days.

“Welcome home!” Catherine threw herself into his arms as Murdoch dismounted. He wrapped his arms around her, savouring this new kind of homecoming. After allowing herself to be soundly kissed, Catherine led Murdoch by the hand into the hacienda. “Come and see what we’ve done.”

The first thing to catch his eye was the fireplace. It had been re-plastered with the Lancer brand worked into its centre. The plaster was still slightly damp.

“We only thought of it yesterday. We weren’t sure when you would make it home, but Pedro worked on it until late in the evening just in case.”

Turning towards his wife, Murdoch then saw the dining end wall of the great room now boasted an impressive bookcase. The books from Catherine’s father took up only a quarter of the space available, but on the other shelves Catherine had placed ornaments, vases or pictures, including the two she and Murdoch had exchanged back in Boston. There were now several cushions on the sofa and chairs, embroidered cloths on the tables and drawers, and some paintings and a mirror on the other hitherto bare walls.

“We visited Morro Coyo and bought fabric. We’ve made new curtains for our bedroom, and we are making more for the guest rooms in the west wing. Pedro has been working hard plastering and painting. Two of those rooms will soon be habitable. He says he can build some beds and chairs to use until we can buy something more crafted.”

Murdoch smiled at his wife’s enthusiasm. She had achieved a lot in a short time, and the great room, in particular, had a much more comfortable feel to it. He collapsed into an armchair and pulled her down into his lap. “It all looks wonderful. It’s good to be home.”


 

Chapter 18: Catherine

“Oh, let me sit down.” Breathless and laughing, Catherine led Murdoch from the dance floor. “I haven’t danced this much since my twenty-first. I’m out of practice.”

“Señor and Señora Lancer put on a fine display.” Don Frederigo Caldera Palmero bowed to the couple as they approached the tables laden with food and drink.

“Thank you, sir. You put on an excellent fiesta.” Murdoch helped Catherine to a glass of punch and then served himself more turkey with mole poblano. He had built up an appetite.

The festivities following the marriage of Angela Caldera Martinez to Capitán Diego Perez Rodrigues were being held in the vast courtyard in front of the Hacienda Caldera and under the equally large tent, which adjoined it. Several hundred guests, most with no formal invitation, were in attendance. The local townsfolk mixed with visitors like the Lancers from further afield, and the lowliest servant shared the dance floor with the wealthiest landowners. The older women sat in rows gossiping and applauding the young people as they danced the evening away to the music of guitars and violins.

As invited guests, Murdoch and Catherine were staying at the hacienda. They had been made very welcome by Doña Mercedes and the bride Angela Caldera Martinez. Neither woman spoke much English, but goodwill, hand signals and facial expression had allowed them to communicate with their new American neighbour in the early days of their acquaintance, and now a year after her arrival in California Catherine was counted as a friend. Murdoch took great pleasure in seeing his wife being accepted as part of their world. He had worried that Catherine would be lonely, isolated as she was by language as well as distance from the kind of society she had been used to in Boston.

That Catherine had found it difficult in the first few months had been evident. She had her sheet music, but no instrument upon which to play. There were no theatres, libraries or art galleries to visit, and the shopping available in Morro Coyo and Green River did not compare to Boston. Although the neighbouring Californios spoke some English, their women-folk spoke virtually none and unlike the Calderas, many were not inclined to make an effort to be welcoming. Catherine made good progress with her Spanish, and could manage reasonably well one on one, but she soon lost track of conversation in a group situation with several different people talking at once. Besides, most of these wealthier neighbours were at least half a day’s ride away and the dangers of travelling had not diminished.

Of the American and other English-speaking women within an easy reach of Lancer, none were from the same social class. On one level that did not matter. They were in the main friendly, and Catherine enjoyed their company. They were not only ranchers’ wives, but mostly, ranchers’ or farmers’ daughters. They knew about churning butter, making preserves and plain dressmaking; things that Catherine knew little about. They shared their knowledge generously, and she was eager to learn. Murdoch sensed, however, that Catherine yearned for something more, a ‘Beth’, to whom she could talk about less practical interests like literature, music and the little dramas of life. She had him of course, but he acknowledged, and was not offended by the idea, that he was not enough. She needed someone, a woman, who shared her background and understood the challenges she faced. No one was more pleased than Murdoch, when shortly before Christmas that someone arrived in the form of a mail order bride.

Sarah Johnson was in her late twenties, a gentleman’s daughter from Rhode Island. She was educated and shared Catherine’s love of music. She also came equipped with an up-right piano, the one luxury she had allowed herself from her former life. Unlike Catherine, she had married purely for practical reasons, to gain a home of her own after her father’s death and independence from her supercilious brother. She had corresponded with Daniel Johnson, the owner of Green River’s mercantile, for over a year before finally agreeing to be his wife. Fortunately there had been honesty and pragmatism on both sides so that when they finally met and married in Monterey three days after her arrival, there were no inconvenient revelations. Sarah and Daniel Johnson respected and liked each other, and hoped with time genuine affection would grow. For Catherine, Sarah was a lifeline to a world she had left behind.

“Even though I’ll never fully understand how she could marry a man she’d never met, I value Sarah’s friendship greatly.” Catherine snuggled into Murdoch and rested her head on his shoulder as they drove back to Lancer. As the days had lengthened, dining with the Johnsons had become a regular event. Sunset’s glow was still visible as the buggy crossed the bridge into the Lancer valley and they travelled the final mile to the hacienda.

“Daniel is a good man. I agree mail order is not an ideal way of obtaining a wife, but it seems to be working for them. Not everyone can be as fortunate as us.” Murdoch kissed his wife, and once again told himself he was a lucky man.

Murdoch had observed time and familiarity ease the difficulties Catherine faced. An eagerness to learn and adapt had helped her settle into her role as mistress of the Estancia Lancer. She had continued to refurbish the hacienda. An extra wardrobe had been constructed to hold her gowns and Maria cared for them with reverence.

“Señora Lancer says you are doing a wonderful job, Maria. I am grateful to you for helping her to settle in.” Murdoch gave the coat hanger back to the young maid and put on his best jacket. Since Catherine’s arrival, he had tidied up for dinner. A quick sluice under the pump was no longer sufficient. He might not always change his clothes completely, but he was expected to come to the table in a jacket and tie.

“Oh Patrón, the Señora is bueno. She has such beautiful things. I am so glad she has come to live here.”

Catherine’s gowns were usually only worn in the evening. Silk taffeta and French lace were not well suited to ranch work, and Catherine was determined to be useful as well as decorative. She bought cotton fabric and serge and with Maria’s help sewed herself more serviceable daywear.

Murdoch was also proud to see her making a great effort to get to know all the families on the estate, especially the women. Catherine was used to having servants and conscious of her own lack of skill when it came to basic household chores. She was not tempted to do without Estella or Maria’s help in the house, but she worked with them. She instructed Maria on the care of her dresses and hair, and taught her the ways of polite society. In addition, she encouraged Estella and Maria to teach her what she did not know.  She listened to the concerns of the vaqueros’ wives, working beside them and helping when they had difficulties. She acted as the women’s representative to her husband to achieve little improvements to their lives, and in doing so won their respect and affection.

“It would make life so much easier if there was a well by the workers’ cottages, Murdoch. At the moment the women have to fetch water from the stream.”

“I think we could manage that. I wonder why they never asked before.”

“They’re not used to asking for things for themselves. It is their custom not to complain.”

Murdoch knew that it was Catherine’s custom not to complain too so he tried to be alert to her moods. It was not always easy, because the ranch frequently demanded his full attention. One thing he could do for his wife was to ensure she received news from her family and friends as often as possible. Whenever he heard of a neighbour visiting Monterey or Yerba Buena, he would ask them to enquire about letters for Lancer. Richter in Monterey and Richardson in Yerba Buena knew he would pay for the delivery of letters rather than have mail wait any length of time. There were always trappers and vaqueros willing to divert slightly from their direct route for a small fee.  The pleasure Catherine got when letters arrived was its own reward.

“Murdoch, you’ll never guess, this big bear-like man came knocking on the kitchen door. He gave us such a fright. All we could see of him through the hair and the furs were his eyes and the most enormous hands. And the smell! It was all right though. He was just bringing us some letters. He wouldn’t take any money, but he ate two platefuls of Estella’s chilli and drank an entire jug of beer.”

“So what news?” Murdoch followed Catherine into the great room.

“Your business letters are on your desk, but there are letters here from your mother and Ben, and finally I have received one from Beth. I was beginning to worry. The delay is all explained however. She is in love!”

“Well, that would explain why she hasn’t put pen to paper.” Removing his gun belt and putting it on the high shelf by the entrance, Murdoch strolled over to the decanters and poured them both a drink. “Who is the lucky man?”

“A surgeon called Robert Eliot.”

“Eliot. Any relation to your would-be admirer?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. He is a cousin; Dorothea Buchanan’s older brother recently moved back to Boston from New York. Listen to this.”

I am appalled at my own weakness. To be attracted to a man from one of the best families in Boston, goes against all my principles. My parents are surprised and delighted. I shall be respectable at last. Dottie is overjoyed of course, because we shall be sisters. You will not remember Robert. Somehow we never met while Dottie was in Boston. He was at university when we first became friends with her at school, and he was not able to be at her wedding. He is handsome, intelligent and in every way the man for me. Wish me well, dear Catherine, because by the time this letter reaches you I may already be Mrs Robert Eliot and every bit as happy as Mrs Murdoch Lancer.

“I am glad for her.” Murdoch hugged Catherine. “Beth deserves to be happy. I’ll always be grateful to her. What has Ben to say for himself.”

“I didn’t open his letter. I was waiting for you, though it is addressed to us both.”

Settling down in his favourite armchair with Catherine on his lap, Murdoch opened the letter from Ben Telford, and began to read. “He leaves Roxbury at last. I was beginning to think he’d got stuck.”

I have invested in a covered wagon and kitted it out with the tools of my trade. I will travel west until I find my Utopia. Who knows maybe I’ll get as far as California.

“Do you think he will come as far as California?”

“Not unless there is a population explosion. Ben has aspirations to be more than just a self-employed bootmaker. He will likely settle in a growing town where there are already a fair few people.”

Setting Ben’s letter aside, Murdoch opened his mother’s letter. His sister Maggie was expecting again, the laird’s daughter had become engaged to a Sassanach, old Mrs McLeod from Invermay had died in her ninety-fifth year, and a fox had got into the hen house. His grandfather was going to retire.

 

His eyes are failing so the offer to buy the business could not have come at a better time. Do you remember Jamie Robertson? He was apprenticed to Da about ten years ago. Da strung the poor lad along for a day or two, but the sale is now agreed.

 

At the end of her letter there was a post-script in a different scrawl.

 

John Cameron Lancer was born 16 February, 1844 at Glenbeath. The bairn and my bonnie lass are both well, thanks be to God. We shall call him ‘Cam’, because Elspeth says it is too confusing to have two Johns in one house. Even if we call the wee one ‘John’ instead of ‘Jock, she will not have it. She grew up with ‘Big Angus’ and ‘Little Angus’ and the experience has made her stubborn. I should put my foot down as man of the house, but I am as proud as a father can be and I have not the heart to argue with her.

My best to Catherine and yourself.

 

Jock. 

It was lucky the letters arrived when they did, because Murdoch and Catherine were to leave for the Caldera-Perez wedding a few days later.

Maria was overjoyed when Catherine asked her to make ready the pale blue gown pictured in the photograph on the bookshelf. Even Murdoch knew Maria loved that gown. Her mistress had not worn it since arriving at Lancer, because there had been no occasion special enough to require it. Maria was carefully hanging the dress up to air when Catherine and Murdoch entered the bedroom soon after breakfast the next morning to find a tie that Murdoch declared was not in his drawer—someone must have moved it.

“And what will you wear, Maria?” Catherine extracted the missing tie from under a handkerchief and presented it to her husband.

“Señora?”

“What will you wear at the fandango?”

“You want me to come too, Señora?”

“But of course. Did you think I trained you to be a lady’s maid only to leave you behind when I most needed you? You will do my hair and help me dress, and then you will be free to join the fun yourself. So what will you wear, Maria?”

Catherine and Murdoch shared a smile to see the young maid’s excitement, but then suddenly Maria’s face dropped and she turned back to her duties. “Gracias, Señora, but I have nothing good enough to wear. I would not want to embarrass you and Señor Lancer.”

Moving to the wardrobe, Catherine reached past Maria and lifted a gown from its depths. “I have always thought this gold dress would suit you better than me. I am sure we could alter it to fit. What do you think?”

With Estella’s help, they added lace to the bodice and shortened the sleeves. Murdoch was shooed out of his own bedroom by his housekeeper two days later as with a mouth full of pins, Catherine knelt at her maid’s feet and adjusted the length of the hem.

“You should take a servant to help you dress too, Murdoch.” Catherine passed the cheeseboard to him as they neared the end of their evening meal. “What about Cipriano?”

Murdoch nearly choked on his wine. “Cipriano is a vaquero not a valet! Besides I am perfectly capable of dressing myself, thank you.” Catherine frowned. Afraid he had upset her, Murdoch tried to make amends. “Cipriano can come with us to help with the horses. Will that do?”

Actually he had always intended to take someone with them. The roads were not safe, and one man with two women would be a target for bandits. Cipriano was as good as anyone. He was not bad with a gun and more so he looked the part. Besides there were going to be many guests at the wedding, and Caldera’s vaqueros would have more work than they could cope with. It would give Murdoch peace of mind to know he had his own man to call upon if needed.

Cipriano had been happy to come, and from the little Murdoch had seen of him since the wedding ceremony, he seemed to be enjoying himself. That said he was standing now on the far side of the courtyard with a less than happy look on his face. He seemed to be watching one of Don Allende’s younger sons waltz around the dance floor with Maria.  She was clearly having a wonderful time. Murdoch much preferred the Californian custom where servants and their employers all mixed together at celebrations. There was something of a family feel about it that reminded him of the Scottish clans.

Suddenly Cipriano stopped hovering in the back ground and stepped forward. Somewhat awkwardly he cut in on the young don, who bowed politely to Maria and took his leave. Maria did not seem to object to the change. Her eyes sparkled as she resumed the dance with her new partner.

“Finally! I was beginning to think he would never get up the courage.” Catherine opened her fan and smiled broadly behind it.

“What do you mean? What?”

Catherine looked at him with amused exasperation. “For an intelligent man, Murdoch Lancer, you can be woefully unobservant.”

Murdoch was saved further teasing by his wife as Don and Doña Caldera came to seek them out. Doña Mercedes took Catherine away to socialise with the other principal ladies while Murdoch and Don Frederigo went to discuss business.

All the landowners in the San Joaquin had gathered, ostensibly for the wedding, but big and small, they had serious matters to discuss. Leaving the festivities behind, Murdoch entered the gran sala with Don Frederigo. They joined about twenty other men. The owners of the larger estates were mostly Californios, but among the owners of the medium to small ranches there were Americans and other more recent settlers as well.

“I am losing cattle every week.” With his back to the unlit fireplace, Don Frederigo opened proceedings without ceremony. “Some of my best vaqueros have been injured, and my foreman tells me one or two of my hands are talking of leaving.”

“The stream that runs through my land was dammed. I had to divert men to clear the debris, and twenty head were stolen while they were away.” A ranchero called Lopez threw his arms in the air with frustration and anger. Murdoch had not met him before, but he knew Lopez owned a ranch further south bordering Caldera and Vallejo land. “The bandidos are getting out of control. We need soldiers to deal with them.”

A rumble of agreement followed this statement. Several men called out other grievances to emphasize the need. The rustlers or land-grabbers or whatever they ultimately hoped to be had got beyond all reasonable control, at least in some areas.

“If we were part of the United States, we would have lawmen here.” A short, squat American looked to his countrymen for support.

“Let’s not start that sort of talk, Señor.” Don Allende calmly stroked his moustache, and with the air of a man used to being listened to, he stared down his more volatile neighbour. “We haven’t yet asked the Mexican government for help. I suggest we do that now. I will write a letter to the governor requesting support, and we will all sign it. Once the government is made aware of our problem and knows that its citizens are united, I am confident that it will send us assistance.”

The petition was written and signed by all present, and in addition the ranch owners agreed to cooperate with each other. No ranchero would knowingly allow rustlers to take refuge on their land, and any cattle straying from neighbouring properties would be returned. Vaqueros in pursuit of rustlers would be permitted to pass through unimpeded and given whatever assistance the other ranch could spare. While it would be impossible to stop men leaving if they chose to do so, no ranchero would actively seek to poach workers from their less fortunate neighbours.

“And so we will struggle on and hope for some government assistance.” The sun had been setting when Murdoch and the others had arrived back from the wedding celebrations, but he had sought out O’Brien and Ramos immediately. He had found his foremen sharing a pipe on Ramos’s porch. Refusing to let either man give up a chair Murdoch had sat down on an upturned crate. “I want guards posted with every herd. When we hold the next cattle drive, we will bring the main herd as close to the hacienda as we can so that it is easier for those remaining to protect them.”

Four months passed but no help was offered by the governor. The ranchers of the San Joaquin Valley met again and a delegation was elected to visit him in Monterey. It was to no avail. The governor declared his hands were tied. Central government would not release funds or soldiers to protect the interests of Californian ranch owners.

“Señor Lancer, there is a price to be paid for the generosity shown to you and many other rancheros, who have been granted more land. You must establish law and order yourselves.”

“That was never one of the conditions. Mexico makes good money from the duties it levies on the foreign vessels that purchase hides and tallow from us. All we’re asking for is a show of support, for some government-backed law enforcement to make arrests, to make the culprits face justice.” Murdoch spoke with feeling. His eyes flashed as he leaned forward over the governor’s desk, and the governor drew back in his chair. Realising he appear threatening, Murdoch straightened up again and moved to the fireplace. Looking around at the supportive faces of the delegation, he turned again to the governor and spoke in a calmer voice. “At the moment they steal our cattle, destroy crops and property at will. We are ranchers, Señor. We do not want to become vigilantes, but if the government will not help us, that is where we are heading. It is that or relinquish our property to thieves and land-grabbers.”

The other rancheros vigorously agreed, but the governor appeared unsympathetic. Disheartened and angry, the men returned to their land.

“We will manage somehow.” Catherine massaged her husband’s shoulders, feeling the tension in his muscles.

“I am afraid some will do so by going to bed with the devil.” Murdoch gazed out the picture window at the south end of the great room. “A man called Haney has been approaching the worst affected offering them protection. He says he is a lawman—freelance—but I am afraid he is a ringmaster.”

“You mean he is the ringleader; he controls the bandits?”

“No. Control is too strong a word—there are many bands with their own leaders and Haney has only appeared on the scene recently— but I fear he has found a way to manipulate the bandits to serve his own ends. They operate independently for the most part, but now they also dance to the direction of his whip. I hope I am wrong, because now there is no hope of government help, some landowners will undoubtedly pay Haney for his protection.”

It went without saying that he would not join them, but if Murdoch was right, he feared Lancer would face more problems in future. Was he worrying unnecessarily? He had already faced several challenges and overcome them. What was one more? Murdoch Lancer would not be beaten by any man and certainly not by a cur like Jud Haney, even if he was cunning. After all what was the worst he could do?

 

Chapter 19: Jud Haney

“He’s a rustler. We chased him from the Mendoza spread.” Jud Haney did not dismount. Preserving the advantage of height, he looked down on Murdoch with a calm arrogance. The six men with him moved menacingly in their saddles, but remained silent. Their quarry knelt in the dust some distance behind Murdoch, clutching a wounded shoulder, anxiously awaiting his fate.

Murdoch was not intimidated by the self-proclaimed lawmen. He had watched the chase from a first floor balcony. The ranch was prepared to receive both the fox and the hounds. Lancer men sat or stood casually about the yard, rifles resting across their laps or cradled in their arms. Murdoch glanced back at the trembling Mexican and then looked Haney straight in the eye. “If that’s true, he can face justice in Monterey. I have men going there on business in a few days. Write your statements and they can take them and this man with them.”

“Why go to all that trouble, Lancer, when we can take care of the matter.”

“I’ve seen how you take care of such matters, Haney. There’ll be no shooting in the back or lynching on Lancer land. Now take your men, and ride out.”

Haney scanned the yard. Perched of the corral leaning against the barn wall, Eduardo Hernandez lifted his rifle from his lap and rested the butt on the top rail next to him. His eldest son, Diego, touched his sombrero and Cipriano moved out of the shadows. There were Lancer men on the roof of the hacienda, by the old guardhouse, resting nonchalantly in doorways or against wagons.  “The other ranchers won’t like it when I tell them you’re harbouring bandits, Lancer. They employ me to keep the law around here. I do a pretty good job too. You just ask Joe Anderson. He was losing stock every week until he finally accepted my services last month. You‘d be wise to follow his example.”

“Or what? Will the raids on this place increase? That sounds like you might have something to do with the banditos, Haney.”

“You have a nasty mind. All I’m saying is that if my men are protecting other ranches, it stands to reason the bandits will look for easier pickings and here is this vast estancia just sitting here with only a few vaqueros and women to protect it. Wouldn’t want any harm to come to your womenfolk, now would you, Lancer?” Jud Haney urged his horse forward. Passing within a hair’s breadth of Murdoch he swung the animal round, and he and his companions rode away from the Hacienda Lancer.

“Gracias, Señor. You are not wrong about Señor Haney. I have seen money change hands between Garcia and that hombre.” The rustler staggered up from the ground, keeping a cautious eye on the rifle Paul O’Brien had pointed at his chest. Murdoch stared at the outlaw, his mind elsewhere.

“Lock him in the old guardhouse until you are ready to go.” O’Brien nodded and Murdoch headed towards the hacienda. The guardhouse was built by the Spaniards long before even Talavera owned the land. It was the only lock-up in the county, but in Murdoch’s time it had only ever been used for storage. He would have preferred to keep it that way, but circumstances had changed and this bandit would probably not be its last houseguest. Murdoch paused before entering the courtyard and looked back. O’Brien and his prisoner were nearly at the door. “Make sure anything he could use to escape is removed.”

 

Later, in the evening after Catherine read aloud a letter just received from her father, Murdoch broached a subject that had been on his mind for some weeks.

“I was thinking, perhaps it's time you went to visit your father. He must be lonely in Boston all by himself. Burke should be passing through soon. You could go back with him. You could take Maria with you.”

“I don’t want to leave you, Murdoch. My father will be buried in his business. He would make a fuss of me for a few days, and then I would have nothing to do. California has spoilt me for sitting in drawing rooms and making polite conversation.”

“But you would like to see Beth and her new husband, and you haven’t been too well lately. I think the heat is affecting your health, and the summer hasn’t even begun.”

Catherine smiled and looked up from her embroidery with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “I don’t think it’s the heat making me ill in the mornings, Murdoch. I was waiting to be sure, but Estella thinks I’m right. She should know. She’s had seven.”

Her meaning took a moment to sink in. Looking at his wife uncertainly, Murdoch just blurted out words like he was punch-drunk. “You’re expecting a baby?”

“I think so.” Catherine put aside her sewing and joined Murdoch by the fireplace. “Are you pleased?”

Recovering, Murdoch took Catherine in his arms. He wanted to laugh out loud and cry all at the same time. He had so wanted this moment. His heart was too full of emotion to speak. He kissed Catherine and let the smile on his face say it all.

Later there was time for reflection and the problem of Haney had not gone away. Murdoch knew he would have to fight Catherine and make her leave him. He did not want to do that. He did not really want her to go, but he took Haney’s threat seriously. The raids on Lancer had already increased. With every landowner persuaded by coercion or desperation to pay Haney his protection money, the harassment of the ranches that held out intensified. Soon most of the smaller rancheros would have paid up or moved on, and Haney could concentrate on bringing the larger estates to heel. Catherine did not know how bad it was getting. He did.

“You must write to your father and tell him of the bairn.”

“Soon, in another week or two when I’m absolutely sure.”

Murdoch would wait until she wrote. If Catherine would not agree to return to Boston with Alfred Burke, he knew the land agent would at least deliver her letter—and his. Murdoch would write to his father-in-law and ask him to come and fetch her. There was time, and much as he hated the idea of being apart from his wife, it would be safer for her to have the baby in Boston.

Catherine did not deny this, but she still refused to escape the dangers of the ranch. Burke called in a week later and offered to come back for her at the beginning of June. “I’ll have you safe in Boston by August.”

“You’re very kind, Alfred, but I am not leaving Lancer. My place is with my husband, no matter what he may say. Besides, I’m determined our son or daughter will be born here in California.”

Catherine was very angry with Murdoch when she found out about his letter to her father. After escorting Burke to Lancer’s western boundary, Murdoch returned to the hacienda and admitted what he had done. “It’s for your own good, Catherine.”

“Well, I shan’t go, and you’ll have to share a house with my father until the baby is born, because if he comes, he will not leave before the birth. You can be sure of that.” She had thrown a cushion at him and flounced out of the room, but by nightfall she had thawed. By morning she was talking of all the attractions she would show Garrett when he arrived.

After the first three months, Catherine appeared the picture of health once again, and from that point of view Murdoch became less concerned, but the situation with rustlers and marauders was worsening. There were several groups. Garcia’s band took virtual control of the main road to Monterey from August, harassing travellers for whatever they had on them. Those that resisted paid the price. Gomez, Vega and Castro were all well-known bandit chiefs, who seemed to range freely despite the presence of Jud Haney and his gang of ‘lawmen’. Not surprisingly, the bandits had a definite preference for the ranches not under Haney’s protection, but why would bandits burn buildings and feed crops to the ground? What profit was there in that? And why did such vandalism regularly target a rancher, who had only recently refused Haney’s advances?

Haney’s band of thugs did pursue and catch some alleged bandits. Occasionally Murdoch believed they were guilty. He objected strongly, however, to Haney’s form of justice. Very few captives made it to Monterey to stand before a court. Most were ‘taught a lesson’ and let go, but by November at least two men had been shot ‘by accident’ trying to escape and three more had ended their days dangling from a noose within an hour of being apprehended by Haney’s deputies. Then there were the unexplained accidents and deaths, attributable to persons unknown.

When they were not ‘on duty’, Haney and his men lounged around Morro Coyo, Green River and other small communities further afield drinking and tormenting the townsfolk. Several families moved away. Daniel Johnson would not let Sarah go out in the street alone when the gang was in town, and he sent her into the back room whenever they entered the store. Once in early fall, however, when her Lancer escort had been busy at the blacksmith’s and Daniel had slipped across the road to the barber, Catherine was in the shop talking with Sarah, when they were surprised by the unexpected arrival of Haney and two of his men.

“Good afternoon, Mrs Lancer, Mrs Johnson. It’s always a pleasure to meet such fine, up-standing ladies as yourselves.” Haney leaned on the counter uncomfortably close to where Catherine stood while his men leered from the doorway. Catherine could smell the stale tobacco smoke on his breath. “Rumour has it something stampeded one of the Lancer herds up by Dry Gully this morning. Some of them poor dogies ran straight over the bluff. Done broke their necks—I hear tell. Now if your husband employed the services of me and my deputies, ma’am, I’m sure such accidents could be avoided. It’s a dang shame those poor animals had to die so needlessly.”

“Can I help you, Mr Haney?” Reaching for the ‘Back Soon’ sign resting against the open cash drawer beneath the counter, Sarah glared at Jud Haney, making no effort to disguise her dislike. She lay the sign down in front of him. “I was just about to shut the shop for half an hour, so I would appreciate it if we could deal with what you want to buy quickly.”

Haney straightened. Brushing against Catherine as he passed, he wandered aimlessly around the store picking things up and then putting them down again. Finally he picked up a tin of tobacco and tossed a coin in front of Sarah. “That should cover it. Good day to you, ladies.” He tipped his hat and smirked as he headed for the doorway. “Come on boys, I think we’re making these respectable ladies nervous.”

Murdoch was furious when he heard. Catherine did not seem too upset by the encounter, but the incident further reinforced his fears for her safety. In addition, he and several vaqueros had spent all afternoon in Dry Gully rescuing what was left of his cattle, shooting those with broken legs and burning the dead.

Attacks on Lancer were increasing. There had been a cattle drive in May and the ranch had lost nearly eighty steers in small raids while it was short-handed. Soon after that the outhouse of one of the worker’s houses and a field of corn were mysteriously burnt to the ground. No less than three streams had since been affected by unexplained landslips. Rustlers attempted to steal from the south mesa in August and although they were scared off, two of his vaqueros were injured. When the news came that Don Jorge Marques Diego to the west of the Estancia Lancer had given up the battle and abandoned his land, four Lancer hands asked for their wages.

When Cuddy was found strung up from a tree outside a line shack, a dozen more followed.

“Sorry, Mr Lancer, but we didn’t sign up to get ourselves killed.”

“If you’ll stay, I’ll double your wages. We have another drive before the end of the season. I need you men.”

“An extra dollar a day ain’t no good to a dead man, sir.”

By September Murdoch was impatient for news from Boston. Would his father-in-law come? It would need to be soon or it would be too late to go to Boston. Garrett could escort Catherine to Monterey though, and stay with her there until the baby was born. Between them they would persuade her, and there was a doctor at Monterey. Murdoch had taken Catherine there in July. The doctor had pronounced her well, thank God, but he would not be persuaded to visit her at Lancer.  Too far away he said. “If when the time draws near you think your wife needs medical assistance, Señor, take her to Sutter’s Fort. It is closer to your ranch, and there is an excellent midwife, Frau Grüber. What that woman doesn’t know about birthing babies is not worth knowing. Otherwise, the Mexican women at your own estancia are experienced and will take good care of her. Believe me they are used to helping each other in childbirth.”

In October, Murdoch suggested to Catherine they rent a house in Monterey. She could move there with Maria and a manservant, and Murdoch would visit when he could. “Once the baby is born and the doctor says you are both well enough, you could come back. I’m sure things will have settled down here by then.”

Catherine rejected the idea.

By November, there was still no sign or word from Garrett and Catherine was still determined to remain. The last of the American ranchers bowed down to Haney’s harassment. Unwilling to pass over what remained of his money for protection, Eli Tucker packed the covered wagon he had used to get his family to California and headed north, stopping at Lancer on the way to say goodbye. “I’ve not got a herd left worth selling, Lancer, and Mary and the children are scared to death. When the bastards set light to the chicken coop, it was the last straw. In June Burke reckoned Sutter was looking for workers. Hopefully he still is, otherwise we’ll move further north into Oregon. Maybe we’ll come back later if things calm down.”

In December, Lancer’s barn mysteriously caught fire. The flames rampaged through the hayloft and the hands barely got the last of the horses out when the ceiling collapsed. Men and women fought the blaze with sacks and relayed buckets of water. They eventually reduced the building to a smouldering tower of charred timber, and stopped the fire from spreading. Exhausted Murdoch turned in horror to see his wife ashen-faced and soot-covered with one hand to her expanding waistline and the other steadying herself against the water trough.

“Catherine! My God woman, what were you thinking? Are you all right?”

“I wanted to help, but I think I’ve strained something. I don’t feel so …” Murdoch caught her as she fainted and carried her into the hacienda. Estella rushed to get water and a cloth. Maria pulled the covers back and he lay Catherine down on their bed. He sat on the edge rubbing her hand while Maria applied a cold compress to her mistress’s forehead.

Gradually Catherine came round. She smiled at the worried faces surrounding her. “I must have fainted. But I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine and you shouldn’t be here. I’m sending you to Sutter’s Fort. I should’ve made you go months ago.”

“Don’t fuss, Murdoch. I’m—”

“Not another word, Catherine. You promised to honour and obey me, and for once in your life you’re going to do just that.”

“And for once, I agree with your husband.” Harlan Garrett stood in the doorway, dusty from travelling, hat in hand. “I came as quickly as I could. What has happened? I could see the smoke from several miles away. Are you injured?”

Coming round the bed, he sat down in the place Murdoch vacated for him and took hold of his daughter’s hand. Catherine was overjoyed to see her father, but with both the men in her life united against her, she finally gave way. She agreed to be transported to Sutter’s Fort, away from the raids and into some level of medical care.

A wagon was soon covered and equipped with a straw mattress and blankets. Catherine was ordered to lie on it. Under no circumstances was she to sit up front, no matter how well she claimed to feel. Maria was going with her in the wagon for company and to nurse her if necessary, but in truth Catherine did appear fully recovered. It was not a good time for Murdoch to leave Lancer, but he intended to accompany them all the same.

“Nonsense! You can’t leave at the moment. You’re needed here. I’ll be perfectly all right with father and his men to escort us.” Murdoch hesitated. Catherine took his hand and fixed her eyes on his. “The baby is not due until the New Year, Murdoch. You are worrying unnecessarily. I will be fine.”

In the end, he agreed, but only on the condition that Paul O’Brien went with them. Murdoch would join her at Sutter’s Fort later as soon as things at the ranch improved or closer to the date the baby was due, whichever came first.

“I would have preferred Monterey and the doctor too, Harlan, but the roads in that direction are too dangerous at the moment. Dr Ruiz assured us Frau Grüber is an excellent midwife, so take her to Sutter’s Fort. Paul will show you the way. Even taking the longer route to dodge the bandits, it’s not as far and there are settlements in between where you can stay overnight. You shouldn’t camp in the open if you can avoid it.”

“Don’t worry, Boss. I’ll look after them.” Paul tied his horse behind the wagon and helped Maria up beside Catherine.

Murdoch kissed his wife farewell and held her close. He breathed in the smell of rosewater, and savoured the softness of her skin against his own.

“I love you.” Laughing at their timing, they reluctantly broke apart and the wagon rolled forward.

Grim-faced Murdoch stood in the middle of the yard watching their slow progress along the road until the wagon disappeared out of sight. Harlan Garrett in his Boston suit and hat sat incongruously up front next to the burly foreman. The two gunmen hired by Garrett in Monterey rode point. Turning back towards the blackened ruin of his barn, Murdoch took a deep breath and strode towards the next job.


 

Chapter 20: God Giveth and …

Murdoch was on the south mesa when he spotted Paul O’Brien riding towards him. It was mid-morning and the winter sun hung low in the sky. He left his four wranglers to round up the frightened cattle they had just rescued from rustlers and rode to meet him.

“What’s happened? Where’s Catherine? Is she all right?”

Weary from riding all the previous day and most of the night, Paul’s face belied the more optimistic tone of his first words. “Congratulations Murdoch. You have a son.” Surprise, joy and then concern vied for control of Murdoch’s mind as Paul continued. “We were only three miles from Carterville when the contractions started. We got Mrs Lancer to a farmhouse and the child was born in the early hours. He is well I think, but you need to go there quickly.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The farmer’s wife did her best, but Mrs Lancer was still losing blood when I left at daybreak yesterday. The farmer rode to Sutter’s to fetch the midwife and I came to get you.”

Returning immediately to the hacienda, Murdoch called for a fresh horse and threw some supplies into his saddle bags. “You stay here. Get José to fill you in.”

“Take the longer route out of here. Haney’s lot are watching the main road. I risked it coming in, but I was lucky to make it through. They will be on the lookout now. You can make up some time further on by cutting through Devil’s Canyon.”

Murdoch mounted his horse and galloped north, only slowing to a more sustainable pace when he reach the rising ground of the hill track. Unable to see the trail clearly by the light of a quarter-moon he was forced to make camp for the night, but he was away again at dawn.

About ten miles from Carterville he took the shortcut through Devil’s Canyon. He was halfway through the rugged gorge when a rifle shot rang out. The bullet grazed his shoulder, knocking him from his horse. More bullets peppered the ground, but he rolled to safety behind a tree and returned fire. The gunman was hiding in the rocks high above.

Spying a larger clump of trees to his right on the other side of open ground, Murdoch chose his moment and ran for a boulder part way across. No shots dogged him; the gunman must have been on the move too. Bracing himself Murdoch made a final dash to the grove, this time dodging rifle fire coming from half way down the slope. Shooting back once, he threw himself the final few yards into the undergrowth. Scrambling in behind the trees, he tried to catch his breath. Blast the man. Who was he? More importantly, where was he?

Falling rubble caused Murdoch to look up to the right where the gunman had originally been. Two small boys were peering over the top of a rock. There was no time to think about what they were doing there however, because the gunman was clambering down the bank on his left.

The bushwhacker must have thought he had killed Murdoch, because with little hesitation he came right up to where he had lost sight of his prey. Hoping simply to disarm him, Murdoch drew his gun and stepped out from the behind the tree. Startled, the man turned and fired. Murdoch automatically shot back. It was all over in a heartbeat, but a full minute elapsed before Murdoch took his next breath. The stranger lay motionless where he fell. Realisation made Murdoch retch—he had never killed a man before. He turned away. Bending forward with his hands on his knees, he breathed deeply until he brought his insides under control. Then he faced the man again.

Kneeling beside the body, Murdoch went through the stranger’s pockets. His battered billfold contained nothing but a scrap of paper with the name ‘Joel Deegan’ written on it. Murdoch had seen such papers many times before. Wranglers and farmworkers carried them. When they were required to sign for their wages, they would pull out the paper and copy their signatures.  There was no money. Robbery then; it was the only motive that made sense.

Remembering the two boys, Murdoch shouted up towards the rocks. “Come out. I won’t hurt you.”

There was no reply. His eyes searched the high ground for any sign of them or another adult, but he saw and heard no one.  Exploring the canyon floor, he discovered a wagon attached to a mule and a crow-bait horse concealed amongst some trees and boulders nearby. He yelled again—still no response.

Returning to the dead man, Murdoch dragged the corpse to the wagon and hauled it up between the few supplies on board. He rearranged the canvas tarpaulin and weighted it down with rocks to prevent animals getting to the body. It was the best he could do for now. As soon as he could, he would come back, but he needed to get moving again. Catherine needed him. The burying would have to wait.

But the burying did not wait; only it was not the bushwhacker who was buried that day.

Murdoch reached Carterville just after dusk. A lantern drew him to a shack on the main road.

“Hello the house.” He approached with his hands visible so anyone watching would know he meant no harm.

A weather-worn farmer appeared on the porch, shotgun in hand. “You Lancer?”

“Yes, is my wife here?”

“You’d best come in, man.”

Dismounting, Murdoch tied his horse to the hitch-rail and hurried into the dimly lit cabin. A single candle on the table flickered. No one else was there. The stranger followed him inside and closed the door against the night.

“Where is she?” Murdoch peered through the gloom as the farmer placed his gun back on its rack and hung the lantern from a hook in the ceiling.

Joe Carter turned to face Murdoch with pity in his eyes. “I’m sorry mister, but you’re too late. We buried your wife this morning.”

Murdoch stood motionless, staring but not really seeing. The farmer’s words hung in a void between hearing and understanding. Murdoch blinked. Grey-blue eyes looked up at him from a Boston doorstep; sunlight reflected off ash-blond curls; Catherine smiled as she told him she was expecting their child; and then—blackness. He began to tremble. Carter put his hand out to steady him, but Murdoch shook him off. With one sweep of his arm he cleared the table. The candleholder, tin plate and mug clattered across the timber floor. A single sob broke ranks, and he gripped the back of a chair as though it was the only thing keeping him standing. Emotions and thoughts bombarded him. When eventually he found a way through them, he wanted to go for his son, to see Garrett, to find out what had gone so terribly wrong, but Carter held him back.

“You’re father-in-law and the others left early. They took the baby with them. My sister-in-law helped with the birth—and with the laying out. Esther’ll tell you what you need to know, but not now. Nothin’ can be done ‘til morning. She’ll show you where we buried her and tell you what she knows in the morning.”

Worn out by the journey and in shock from the news, Murdoch had no energy to argue. He stood like a soldier defeated in battle with the corpses of his friends lying all around him. The worst had happened and there was nothing he could do to change it. The farmer guided him to the far corner of the room and Murdoch slumped down onto a narrow bed. Leaning back against the wall, he focused blindly on the ceiling, a strange ringing in his head. Joe Carter picked up the candle and its holder from the floor. There was a gentle hiss as he relit the wick. He put the candle back on the table and took the lantern outside with him to settle Murdoch’s horse for the night; even when he returned he kept the lantern light low. Under cover of darkness Murdoch wept until exhaustion deadened his mind and he slept fitfully.

In the morning he saddled his horse before the farmer rose and found his way to the cemetery alone. It was not far from the hamlet on a grassy knoll bordering the road going west. There were only a few graves and only one where the soil was still moist and bare. Esther Carter found him, still and staring, by the graveside after she had milked her cow and fed the chickens. She could not know what he was staring at. Only Murdoch knew he was watching Catherine sleep, as he had done many times before; waiting for the gentle rise and fall of her chest—waiting. He was willing her to wake up. He was waiting—willing that he would wake up.

Mrs Carter handed him a photograph. Murdoch gazed at the portrait dumbly. He recognised it. Catherine had had it taken in Monterey on their last visit, intending to give it to her father. Everything had been so rushed when they had left Lancer. She must have remembered the photograph at the last minute and packed it along with her clothes.

“This is all, mister. Said he was her father and took everything else, her belongings, everything.”

“Did she suffer?”

“Wasn’t there. He wouldn’t let me take care of her.”

Within a few hours of her husband riding for the midwife and O’Brien for Lancer, Harlan Garrett had decided Catherine could not wait for medical help or Murdoch to arrive. They would be better, he said, to travel onward to Sutter’s Fort. If it was going to take Carter most of the day to get to the fort, the midwife would be unlikely to reach Carterville before the following day. Garrett reasoned that if they left immediately, with luck they would meet up with Carter and Frau Grüber before nightfall on the return trip. It would mean a night in the open, but with the medical assistance Catherine desperately needed. They could then travel together the next morning to Sutter’s Fort where hopefully there would be better facilities than in Carterville. Evidently Garrett had made no effort to disguise his contempt for the level of care an uneducated woman in an unfinished clapboard farmhouse could offer his daughter.

“She wanted to wait for you, but he wouldn’t listen.” Mrs Carter stood hands folded in front of her, a good woman; the kind some would value as the salt of the earth and Harlan Garrett would deride as a servant.  “Ordered his men to put her back in the wagon. Only the girl to look after her and the baby.”

Catherine had died in the wagon only five miles out of town. The dirt road was uneven and pot-holed. The constant bumping and jarring of the wagon had been too much for her and they had been forced to stop. They could neither go forward nor back, and spent a desolate night under the early winter sky. Carter, the midwife and her son had found them on the side of the road soon after daybreak, but Catherine had breathed her last two hours before.

Mrs Carter had not been present of course, but her husband had told her the sad tale. The midwife had assessed the situation quickly and given her attention first to the child. She had declared the baby healthy, and then passing him into the arms of a tearful Maria, she had examined the mother. She had promised to record the birth and death when she returned to the fort, but there was nothing more she could do. Frau Grüber returned home with her son.

Garrett and the others had followed Carter in slow procession back to Carterville with the body. Unasked, Esther Carter had undertaken the laying out while her brother-in-law made the coffin. Garrett had visited the small cemetery on the hill with her husband to decide where Catherine should be laid to rest.

“He come back and paid me for my trouble, arranged for everything. Then left with the boy. That’s all I know mister, s’all I know.”

Murdoch knelt at the foot of the grave, hat in hand. The soil was fresh dug and mounded high. He had been too late to save her. His dear, sweet Catherine now lay beneath the ground, cold and lifeless. He felt numb inside, empty. If only Garrett had waited. If only Haney had not forced Murdoch to send her away from Lancer in the first place. If only he had got there in time to hold her and be there at the end. If only…

“Going to be real showy when they get finished. Heard tell the old man paid a pretty penny to plant some grass and carve up a fine granite headstone. Still, if he’d cared that much, I think he’d stay for the burying.”

Garrett had not even stayed long enough to bury her. Murdoch could not believe what he was hearing.

“Jed came back from Yerba Buena while your man was giving out his orders for the burial.” A man standing nearby twisting a battered hat in calloused hands stepped forward. Matthew Carter had walked up from the settlement, arriving some minutes before. He had been patiently waiting to escort his wife home. “Said a clipper was in port. Due to sail day after tomorrow. Think that’s why he left so sudden-like.”

A whole new idea flooded Murdoch’s mind. His father-in-law could not get what he wanted now. He could not get Catherine, but he could get the next best thing. He could get her son—Murdoch’s son. Fear overtook grief. “I have to go.”

Carterville was at a crossroads. The road coming up from the San Joaquin heading towards Sutter’s Fort joined the road coming from the San Francisco Bay. Harlan Garrett was riding towards Yerba Buena and a ship that would take him and his grandson back to Boston. Murdoch rode steadily all day and the next. When he reach the port the sun sat low on the horizon and a lone clipper flying an American flag was anchored in the harbour.

The season was nearly over, but Richardson was always to be found at the trading post. He soon confirmed that a city gent, another man and two women with infants had boarded the vessel a few hours before. “That’s the Charleston. Late in and likely the last vessel we’ll see here this year. Hear tell, she’s done her stint too. Returning to her home port back east for a fresh crew and maintenance when she leaves here. This is her final pick up before San Diego. Mark me she’ll be non-stop round the Horn after that. Them jack tar’s can smell the beer halls of New York already.” He served Murdoch with ale and nodded towards a man snoozing outside under a tree. “Now him over there came in with that city slicker. Might be worth you having a word before you row out. Captain won’t be weighing anchor ‘til morning. They finished slaughtering two days ago, but the winter sun ain’t good drying. They’re only stowing the last of the hides now, and they’re waiting on timber from up river.”

Murdoch nudged the sleeping man with his foot. He was one of the gunmen, who had escorted the wagon from the ranch. Opening one eye, he scowled. “Now you just interrupted a real nice dream, Lancer. There was me and two of the prettiest little ladies you …”

“I haven’t time for dreams, man. What can you tell me?”

The man yawned. “Mr Garrett said if you got here in time to tell you he and the boy are aboard the Charleston. That little Mex maid too, though he’s sending her back to shore when they sail, now that he has the other.”

“Other?”

“Wet nurse. Found a woman still feeding her own brat, who was willing to sail as far as San Diego for a small fee.” The man sniggered and spat on the ground. “Ain’t as pretty as the señorita, but she has the right equipment, if you know what I mean?”

Murdoch went down to the beach and signalled to the clipper. A sailor rowed him out and he hauled himself up the ropes that hung over the side. The captain greeted him as he clambered aboard and the cabin boy showed him the way to Garrett.

“You made it.” His father-in-law held out his hand, relief unmistakable in his voice. He looked old and lacking sleep, oddly dishevelled. Murdoch hesitated. Garrett eyed him scornfully. “You thought I was trying to run off with the boy, didn’t you?”

“Where’s my son?”

Hands behind his back, Harlan Garrett led the way into the adjacent cabin. Maria jumped up as Murdoch entered. “Oh, Patrón. Señora Lancer … mi pobre señora.” Burying her face in her hands, she burst into tears.

At the far end of the room a woman in her twenties sat nursing a baby. On the floor at her feet an older child played on a blanket. Glancing at Garrett for confirmation Murdoch moved towards his son. Swaddled in the shawl Catherine had crocheted for him, the baby was barely visible as he fed, but the woman smiled up at Murdoch encouragingly. “Eres su padre?”

“Si. May I?”

Detaching the infant from her breast, the wet nurse gently passed him into Murdoch’s outstretched arms. The baby emitted a small belch and yawned. A soft, fair down covered his head and his nose was slightly squashed from his recent arrival. Staring up at Murdoch with solemn blue eyes, the child reached out and gripped his father’s finger with surprising strength. “Is he well?”

“The midwife said so and I’ve seen nothing to alarm me.” Garrett came up beside Murdoch and smiled sorrowfully down at his grandson. “The Swiss woman instructed your maid how to feed him with goat’s milk, but I was able to employ the services of this woman as far as San Diego. I hope to find another wet nurse willing to travel, otherwise I will employ a woman, who can care for him and feed him with goat’s milk again.”

“And what makes you think I will let you take him?”

“What choice do you have, Murdoch? I don’t want to fight with you when we’ve both lost so much, but what choice do you have? We must act in the best interest of the child, Catherine’s son.”

“My son too!”

“And my grandson! I was too late to be of any real service to my daughter. I am determined to help her son. I can offer Scotty the best of everything, Murdoch, but most of all I can offer him safety.”

“Scotty?”

“Catherine named him before she died. Scott Garrett Lancer. Do you object?”

Murdoch walked with his son towards the window and gazed out at the calm waters of the bay. Scott Garrett Lancer—it had a certain ring to it. They had talked of names. He had assumed that they would follow Scottish tradition, but like his sister-in-law in Inverness, Catherine had thought differently. She wanted her son, if it was a son, to have a name of his own. A name that spoke of his roots, she said, but did not chain him to the past. They had not seen eye to eye, but she had gotten her way once again.  Aye, she could be a feisty lass when she had a mind.

“No, I don’t object.” Folding back the shawl he smiled sadly at his son. The small hand, perfection in miniature, having lost contact with Murdoch’s finger reached higher and took hold of his nose. Murdoch chuckled. “You like to grab things, wee man.”

Garrett and the women left Murdoch alone after that. Maria and the nurse found other places to sleep, and Murdoch sat alone cradling his son throughout the night. When he could he talked to him about Catherine. “You would have loved your mother, Scott; and she would have loved you so very much. …I remember picking blossom from her hair. She had beautiful hair. And her smile, it would light up her face—and my life. …I will miss her—the music of her voice, even the way she teased me. …I would have liked you to know her. …I’m glad she got to hold you.”

Emotion and tiredness took its toll. When Maria slipped into the cabin early the next morning, her knock unanswered, she found Murdoch curled up asleep on a bunk. His arm loosely corralled his son as the infant snuggled by his side. “Señor Lancer, it is time to wake up.”

Rousing himself, Murdoch let Maria take Scott from him. Amazingly the bairn had not cried once during the night, but he was hungry now. As soon as Maria took him from the warmth of his father’s arms, little Scott started crying to be fed. She changed his diaper first, and then beckoned the wet nurse inside. The woman fed the baby while Murdoch washed his face and hands from a ewer and bowl in the corner of the room. Garrett joined them for breakfast, and all too soon it was time to say goodbye.

“We will likely stay with the Charleston and take the longer route around the Horn. I would not take the boy across Panama with those infernal insects eating him alive.”

“You’re right to avoid Panama, but you may not have to endure the Horn. There is another route via Nicaragua. I’m told there are no mosquitos, and it’s only a week or two longer than the Panama route. Ask the captain. Make enquiries at San Diego. You may be able to shorten your journey by a month.”

“I’ll do that—and I’ll take good care of him, Murdoch. You can be sure of that.”

“This is only temporary, Harlan. He’s my son. I’ll come for him as soon as I can. I hope that’s understood?”

Harlan Garrett nodded. “I understand, Murdoch. I understand.”

The clipper set sail mid-morning. A fine drizzle fell as Murdoch and Maria stood on the beach and watched the Charleston’s slow progress out of the bay. Murdoch was reminded of the day he had said goodbye to his family in Inverness. Just as he had been on that day, he was glad of the rain.

 


Chapter 21: Grief and Anger

Murdoch and Maria reached home for New Year’s Eve, but neither felt much like celebrating.

After a bleak and damp Christmas at Richardson’s trading post they had returned to Carterville. Leaving Maria with Esther and Matthew Carter, Murdoch and Joe Carter had ridden back to Devil’s Canyon to retrieve the bushwhacker’s body. All they had found was his grave. A roughly made cross with ‘DEEGAN’ burned into the wood had been erected at one end. The boys and the wagon were gone.

Sleeping the night at the Carters’ farmhouse, Murdoch and Maria made an early start on horseback for Sutter’s Fort. Murdoch suggested Maria wait for him in Carterville, but she was attracting the unwanted attention of a farm labourer there. “I would rather come with you, Señor.”

They reached the fort mid-afternoon, and a message was sent to the Grüber farmhouse with news of their arrival. John Sutter offered his condolences and schnapps to toast the departed. The midwife joined them as Murdoch drained his glass.  She greeted Maria warmly. “Willkommen, mein liebes Kind.”

“Gracias, Frau Grüber. This is Señor Lancer.”

Murdoch took off his hat and nodded politely. He tried to thank the midwife for attending Catherine, but she stopped him. “Herr Lancer, you must not thank me. I did nothing. Maria did all.”

“I know how much I owe, Maria.” Murdoch glanced meaningfully at the young maid.  “But you rode a long way to help my wife, Frau Grüber. I’m grateful—even if it was too late.” He hesitated. One question preyed on his mind. “Could you have saved her?”

“Ich weiß nicht, Herr Lancer.” The midwife sounded sympathetic, but Murdoch did not understand her. His confusion must have shown on his face, because Frau Grüber thought for a moment and then added, “I do not know.”

Frau Grüber took out the heavy register of Births, Death and Marriages from where it was kept under the trading post counter. She asked Murdoch to check the details she had recorded. Then she left him to make his declaration about the incident at Devil’s Canyon. The man who acted for the government in such official matters foresaw no problem. He would forward the information to Monterey in due course, but on the face of it, Murdoch had acted in self-defence. No further action by the authorities was likely.

Murdoch and Maria collected the wagon as they passed through Carterville the next day. Returning the borrowed mare to its stable, they accepted some bread and cheese and a mug of coffee but stayed less than an hour. Murdoch tied his horse to the back of the wagon, and they travelled as quickly as four wheels over dirt roads would allow. Approaching a settlement soon after dusk on the first day, Murdoch suggested they stop, but Maria urged him on. “Let’s keep going a little longer, Señor. I don’t mind another night under the stars, if tomorrow we reach home.”

The next night they were so close to Lancer that the idea of stopping while they could still see the road was not an option for either of them. Murdoch decided to risk the main road in. It was New Year’s Eve and Haney’s men would be celebrating in the cantinas. The moon was much brighter than it had been when he had left and on the better road he was sure they could make it home that night. Maria crawled back into the wagon and slept as Murdoch drove on.

As the wagon drew near to the hacienda, a figure ran down the road towards them. It was Cipriano. Murdoch slowed long enough for him to climb onto the back of the wagon, and then continued on. Paul waved them through the barricade and after ensuring the carts were pulled back in position and secure, he followed them to the hacienda. The clocks had just struck twelve. Murdoch could hear the distant sound of revelry from the bunkhouse and workers cottages, but he also saw the shadow of guards on the roof tops and around the fences. Paul had not taken any chances.

Cipriano helped Maria from the wagon. With a nod, Murdoch acknowledged the look of shocked sympathy he saw in the young vaquero’s face. He trusted the tears in Maria’s eyes would tell O’Brien all he needed to know. The three of them followed him to the front door. Cipriano pushed forward and made sure he was first after Murdoch into the house. Earlier that day he had retrieved the small lump of coal he used for the First Footing from its place on the bookcase. Maria and Paul watched from the archway as he placed it beside the candle Murdoch was lighting on the table.

“Aye, Cipriano. Thank you. That was thoughtful. Do you want a dram?”

“No, gracias, Patrón. I will see Maria home now.” Taking her by the hand, he led Maria back outside.

Paul paused. He watched Murdoch as he stood motionless, gazing into nothingness. “I’ll have a drink, Boss. It’s been a long night.”

Murdoch poured two whiskies from the decanter on the sideboard, and settled himself in a chair. Paul sat opposite, silently sipping his drink while a clock ticked the minutes away. Eventually Murdoch put down his empty glass. “I think I’ll sleep in the guest room.”

Paul nodded. They rose from their seats. Placing his glass on the table, Paul headed towards the door to check on the guard. As he reached the arch to the entrance hall, he looked back. “I’m sorry, Boss. I truly am.”

The days that followed were subdued. News travelled quickly. Before the end of the week, Sarah and Daniel Johnson drove out to offer their condolences.

“Would you like me to sort Catherine’s things?” Sarah placed a gloved hand on Murdoch’s arm and pressed gently.

He put his hand over hers and with effort managed to answer. “Aye, I suppose that would be best.”

Murdoch was still in a daze most of the time. Outside on the ranch he was forced to focus on the work, but inside the house he felt swamped by the enormity of his loss. At every turn there was something to remind him of Catherine. He could not break free of his grief. Estella fed him and did the household chores, but she was not confident enough to broach the subject of Catherine’s belongings. She did move Murdoch’s things into the guest room when he made no attempt to move back into their bedroom, but nothing was said. Sarah was more pragmatic. “I’ll come again on Tuesday then. Think about what you would like to keep and if you would like anything in particular done with the rest.”

“You decide, only give Maria the blue dress. Catherine would’ve wanted her to have the blue dress. Let her and Estella choose whatever else they’d like. You too—just…. I don’t want to be involved.”

In the end, Maria chose to keep her mistress’s dressing table set. “I brushed and arranged her hair every evening before dinner. We would laugh and talk. She was more like a friend than a mistress.”

Estella asked if she could have Catherine’s sewing box. It held similar memories for her. After some encouragement from Sarah, she also accepted gowns that she could alter into dresses for her younger daughters.

“I’ve taken Catherine’s sheet music, and a dress I particularly like. I’ve put letters and some personal items I think you will want to keep in a small chest. It’s in the cupboard under the stairs. The rest has been shared between the other women on the estate. If there is anything you want back, just tell Estella and it will be returned.”

Murdoch entered his old bedroom. Stripped of everything but the furniture it no longer smelled of Catherine’s perfume, and it was just a room once more. Empty like the way his chest felt inside, but the burden of grief weighed less heavily.

He was more at ease in the great room too. Catherine’s unfinished knitting no longer lay by the side of the sofa and Pride and Prejudice was back amongst the other novels on the bookcase. Pictures, the Lancer brand above the fireplace and various decorative touches Catherine had made to the room and its furnishings still remained to remind him, but he was surprised at how much relief he felt that her clothing and personal belongings were gone. It gave him the strength for the other tasks he had been putting off—the letter writing and the bible.

His messages to his family and Beth Eliot were short. Harlan Garrett and Scott would arrive in Boston long before his letters, but all the same he made the effort to break the news gently to Beth and to ask for her help.

 

I know you and Catherine’s father still do not get on, Beth, but if you would make an effort to see Scott and watch out for him, I would be grateful.  

Sealing the last letter, Murdoch went to the bookshelf and took down the bible Alfred Burke had given him and Catherine for a wedding present. It was not large, but it was beautiful and Catherine had adored it.

“Sorry it’s late, but you didn’t invite me to the wedding.” Burke’s eyes had twinkled. For respectability’s sake, Harlan Garrett had placed a marriage notice in The Boston Post. The gossips had speculated about who Murdoch Lancer was and the speed of the match, but Garrett had ensured there was insufficient information to feed discussion. The ladies’ circles had soon found juicier topics of conversation, and Burke had sought out an old school friend to satisfy his curiosity. Will McIntyre had not known every detail, but as one of Beth’s brothers he had known enough. Burke had sailed to California only a month after Murdoch and Catherine determined to give the young couple a gift of special significance. “The cover was made at the San Francisco Bay mission from local timbers and carved by Padre Felipe. I have often admired his work. Thank you for giving me such a joyous reason to commission his services.”

The newly-weds had marvelled at the intricacy of the carving. It depicted Saint Francis of Assisi amid the animals and woodland of California. The bible itself came from Spain and was written in Latin with red, green and gold lettering at the start of each gospel. Between the Old and New Testaments, there were several blank pages set aside for recording family events. Murdoch had started by recording his marriage to Catherine in Roxbury. Now in a slow and less-than-steady hand, he recorded her death and the birth of his son.

 

Scott Garrett Lancer born Carterville, California December 19th, 1845.

Catherine Jane Lancer died near Carterville, California December 20th, 1845. 

The clearing of Catherine’s belongings, the letter-writing and recording were like a cleansing, which enabled Murdoch to move forward at last. Yet the sadness seemed increasingly to be replaced with anger. At first guilt consumed him, and briefly he even blamed Catherine, but gradually he settled his ire on others. He cursed his father-in-law, but he was also grateful to him. Even when resentment dominated, there was no outlet for his frustration; Harlan Garrett was not there to attack. Finally Murdoch’s anger focused in on the one person, who was there; the man who had caused him to write to Garrett, who had forced him to send Catherine away and whose activities had prevented him bringing his son home.

His feelings came to a head one morning in early February. Pedro rode in fast with Diego close behind. They had been checking the outlying herds. ”The line shack above Calf Creek has been burnt to the ground, Patrón.”

“Enough!” The volcano that had been rumbling inside Murdoch since Catherine’s death finally erupted. Shaking with fury and cursing loudly, he marched to the stable. Slinging his saddle onto a startled horse, he wrenched the girth tight. Alarmed, Pedro ran to find O’Brien.  The two men rounded the corner of the hacienda just as Murdoch galloped out of the yard. Paul shouted, but Murdoch was in no mood for talk. He went looking for the man he now blamed for everything. He went looking to make that man pay. He went looking for Jud Haney.

Murdoch found him in a cantina in Morro Coyo. “Haney, you bastard, I’m going to kill you.” His fist smashed into the surprised man’s jaw and sent him sprawling. Haney’s two companions just gaped as Murdoch hauled their boss up from the sawdust and sent him crashing into the street. Catching their wits at last, they jumped Murdoch from behind as he followed Haney outside, but in his fury Murdoch flung them off with ease. Haney scrambled to his feet and fought back. He ducked as Murdoch swung again and connected with a right hook of his own. It had little impact. Realising he was no match for the raging bull in front of him, Haney went for his gun.

“I don’t think so, Haney.” Paul O’Brien, still astride his horse, held a rifle pointed at Haney’s head. Three Lancer hands grabbed Haney’s men. Three more took a firm hold of Murdoch and tried to force him to come away.

“Let me go, damn you!”

Paul handed his rifle to one of the ranch hands and dismounted. He confronted Murdoch, trying to calm him down. “This is not the answer, Boss. Killing him won’t bring her back.”

At that moment, one of Haney’s men broke free. Flinging himself onto a horse, he grabbed the reins of Haney’s mare and rode directly at the man with the rifle. The Lancer man dived out of the way. The horses swerved, and Haney clinging to the horn and with only one foot in a stirrup rode to freedom. Once out of bullet range he seated himself properly and reined the horse in. He jeered back at Murdoch. “You’ll pay for that, Lancer. When your bodyguards ain’t around. Watch your back.”

“You’d best be sure of your aim, Haney. If I see you again, I won’t waste time hitting you. I’ll shoot you on sight.”

The two men glared at each other. Then Haney broke eye contact and galloped away. Murdoch shook off his men. “You should’ve let me murder the son of a bitch!”

Paul picked Murdoch’s hat up from the ground and dusted it off. He handed it back. “I would’ve, Boss, but he might’ve killed you instead. Crazy, but we’ve kinda got used to having you around.”

 

Chapter 22: Revival

Despite his bravado, Jud Haney did not cross Murdoch’s path again. Some weeks after their confrontation, he moved his activities further south. This probably had more to do with the presence of soldiers in the area than anything else, but for the first time in months, life at the ranch returned to normal.

There were not a lot of soldiers, but they were there, camping on the Estancia Caldera’s land and making forays into the surrounding countryside. Tension between the United States and Mexico was increasing, resulting in unrest amongst the settler and native-born population alike. Although he knew the problems experienced in the San Joaquin Valley were unrelated, Don Frederigo Caldera Palmero used the political situation to their advantage and finally persuaded the governor that it was in the government’s interest to bring some law and order to the area. The Mexican authorities clearly feared former American citizens would rise up against them. It was not a huge leap to jump to the conclusion that Haney was a revolutionary and the bandits, if not in league with him, were fostering discontent amongst the settlers, which could turn to revolt.

Government fears were not unjustified, but it was in Sonoma and not the San Joaquin where revolt finally occurred in June. Scared the Californio authorities were about to take military action against them, American settlers mounted a bloodless coup against the small Mexican garrison. Word of this and other events throughout California trickled through to Murdoch often weeks after they happened.

“What news?” Murdoch held Alfred Burke’s horse steady as the land agent dismounted. Burke had arrived in California in April as usual and was passing through the valley on his way south to San Diego and then back to Boston. “I heard Sutter supported a revolt in Sonoma.”

“A republic was declared, but Sonoma is now under American control. Congress apparently declared war on Mexico in May. The United States government now controls Monterey, Yerba Buena and Los Angeles as well. There are rumours of Californio resurgence, however, so who knows how it will end.”

Minor skirmishes and territorial exchanges continued throughout the year. Murdoch and most of his neighbours chose to stay neutral. They concentrated on picking up the pieces of their lives and their ranches now that they were enjoying a welcome respite from the ravages of bandits and Jud Haney’s so-called lawmen.

“Honestly, I would welcome American government.” Murdoch leaned over to light Don Frederigo’s cigar and then settled back to enjoy his own. “In the time I’ve been here, the Mexican government has been poorly organised and ineffective. California may as well be the moon for all they seem to care about us. Yet they are happy enough to tax our trade.” Don Frederigo said nothing, but raised eyebrows asked a question. “Don’t worry I will not take up arms against Mexico. Frankly, I’ve too much else to do. Besides, thanks to you, the authorities are finally giving us some support, even if it is for the wrong reasons.”

His guest nodded as he sipped his wine. Their private dinners once a month began after Catherine’s death. Both men valued these evenings together, and they felt relaxed in each other’s company. Murdoch knew the don shared his views, but the time had not quite arrived for his friend to say so publicly.

Soon after this conversation Murdoch received a letter from Beth Eliot. Some of the ink was smudged and he knew she had been crying as she wrote. He was surprised to learn why she had not written sooner; she had been giving birth to her own baby boy.

            Robert McIntyre Eliot (Bobby) was born on February 10th, 1846.  

Her husband and father had initially kept the news of Catherine’s death from Beth. Garrett had returned to Boston with Scott at the time of her lying in, and they were afraid for her health. After the birth, when she had been eager to send Catherine word that she had a son and write of her hopes that their two children would be friends, Robert Eliot had broken the news as gently as he could. Still emotional from the birth, Beth had been distraught. She had only steeled herself to what she saw to be her duty when she received Murdoch’s letter.

 

I visited Scott today. I gave my condolences to Mr Garrett, and begged to be allowed to see Catherine’s son. Mr Garrett and I will never be friends, but we have made our peace. I now feel it must have been God’s plan for me to marry Robert so that I could be sure of remaining in contact with Scott. Mr Garrett will not prevent his grandson associating with an Eliot, even if she was once someone less grand and complicit in the elopement of his daughter.

You did not tell me Scott has Catherine’s eyes. He is such a happy babe. He gurgles and smiles and grabs hold of everything in reach. He is well cared for. His nanny knows her business and I have encouraged her to spend time with our nanny and little Bobby. Our sons shall be friends, Murdoch, and I am confident for the moment that I will be able to watch over Scott and send you reports. 

A word of warning, however, I have not mentioned to Mr Garrett that we correspond. I believe I must still tread carefully with him, and I suggest you do the same.

 

Murdoch read Beth’s description of Scott three times before he folded her letter and returned it to its envelope. He had always liked Beth. She had been the best of friends to Catherine, and now she was a godsend to him. The frustration and guilt from being apart from his son never seemed to go away entirely, but his heart felt lighter than it had done in weeks just knowing Scott was safe and well.  He put the letter carefully away with the ones from Catherine in the strongbox behind his desk. He never kept money in the strongbox, just items of value.

As autumn approached winter, the demands of the ranch lessened. With no bandits or Haney to harass the herds or wreak havoc across his land, Murdoch had time to feel restless and lonely. Outside he was irritable with the men. Inside he spent empty evenings with a bottle of whisky and paperwork for company. It was after one of the hands threatened to leave complaining that the boss had turned into a miserable bastard that O’Brien came up with an idea. Murdoch should use the quiet time during the cooler months to see more of America.

“Saw Jay McKillen last night in town. Heading to the Colorados for the trapping. Says he would be happy to have you along, if you have a mind.”

With only a little persuasion, Murdoch agreed he could be spared. He and Paul had often exchanged stories of their travels. Murdoch may have sailed down one side of North America and up the other, but Paul had seen much more of what lay in between. Murdoch’s desire to see the vast open spaces on the other side of the Sierra Nevada was strong. When McKillen rode through Lancer two days later, therefore, Murdoch’s saddle bags were packed and ready.

“Hope you got something warmer than that coat, Lancer.” Wearing a bulky jacket made from furs, McKillen shifted his weight in his saddle and continued to chew his tobacco as he spoke. “You’ll need gloves as well.”

“Thought I could get what I need at Sutter’s Fort.”

The small Swiss community of Sutter’s Fort marked the western end of the California Trail, and was a regular stop for trappers travelling to the coast laden with pelts, or returning to the mountains after summering in warmer climes. Murdoch had no trouble acquiring the equipment and clothing required.

He and McKillen made good progress across the Sierra Nevada. Moving more slowly was a wagon train, struggling through the corridor in the opposite direction.

“Should make it before the snows come, but they’ve left it late.” McKillen reined in his horse and mule beside Murdoch to let an ox drawn cart pass by. He hailed the guide and they exchanged information about the trails ahead.

Murdoch revelled in the beauty of the scenery and the physical exertion. They moved at a steady pace. He was so tired from each day’s ride that by the time they spread out their bedrolls he fell asleep almost instantly. The worries and grief that plagued his dreams at Lancer were deprived their regular playground. By the time he breathed in the crisp winter air of Utah, Murdoch was beginning to feel like the young man who had left Scotland once again.

His companion was a big man—nearly as tall as Murdoch. He had little education and was a man of few words. They travelled in silence much of the time, crossing Nevada and Utah into Colorado. When they entered the southern end of the Rockies, the majesty of the mountains and the pristine lakes left Murdoch in awe, but it was then that Jay McKillen came alive. Even though he was Texan by birth, he belonged to the mountains. Murdoch could sense the energy increase in the trapper as they ascended into the wilderness. McKillen could find a trail where Murdoch saw nothing but trees and rocks. He read spoor and animal tracks like an Indian and sensed danger long before it approached. His enthusiasm for his environment stirred him to talk, and Murdoch learned more about the wildlife of North America and tracking in those few weeks than he had done from all the books he had read and all his time in California put together.

They hunted mink, beaver, fox, raccoon, muskrat and pine marten—any animal with fur. McKillen taught Murdoch how to set traps and how to mark his way so he knew how to find them again. He showed him how to skin the animals and how to construct a bivouac from fir trees to protect them from the snow that soon began to fall. He instructed him on how to read the signs that not only showed animals were near, but told an experienced trapper what kind of animals, how many and when they had passed by.

“Bin trappin’ these mountains since I was a nipper.” McKillen nursed a steaming mug of coffee. They sat by the campfire, relishing the warmth after a tiring day setting traps along the river. “For Ma’s sake, Pa run a few head on land in north Texas, but every winter he’d come up to the mountains. Brung me with him soon as I could hold a gun. When she died, we came here permanent like.”

“Where’s your pa now?”

“Buried ‘im in ‘43 on t’other side of that mountain.” McKillen pointed with his knife across the valley. “Bobcat.” He cut another slice of meat from the raccoon roasting over the fire and chewed it thoughtfully.

By late-January the mule was heavily loaded with pelts and they were talking of heading west again. Murdoch needed to start the return journey to Lancer soon. They decided Jay would see him on his way with as many of the pelts as his horse could carry, and then go back into the mountains to do more trapping.

“May as well make the most of the season since I’ve you to play pack horse for me. I’ll—”

“What is it?”

Jay held up one hand, signalling silence as he reached for his rifle with the other. Rising slowly, the trapper’s eyes searched the forest. Murdoch followed his lead. They stood back to back, rifles at the ready, straining to hear or see what was out there. The horses jostled restlessly. A dark cloud shrouded the moon, but all Murdoch could hear was the muffled thud of snow falling from the tree branches. The night was still and unnaturally silent. Their breath hung in the air and they waited.

Darkness exploded. Demons screeched. Knives flashed in the firelight. Both rifles fired.

The weight of a man smacked into him. Murdoch crashed down through the trees, branches tearing at his skin, hands slipping on sweat, struggling to keep a blade from his throat. Over and over they rolled, his face bombarded by spittle and stale breath. Crack! Bone hit rock. Murdoch jerked the man up and smashed him down hard with a deadly scrunch. The Shoshone brave lay still beneath him and a gritty stickiness oozed over his left hand.

Another fiend, dark face streaked with white, hurtled out of nowhere. Murdoch dodged as he rose. A sharp pain slashed him, but he turned to face his attacker. Circling now, eyes locked, both panting. Knives clenched. A stitch in his side made it hard to breathe. He dodged as the dagger thrust forward.  Using his shoulder Murdoch slammed his enemy into a tree trunk. A sickening squelch and a broken branch skewered its victim. Wide-eyed the Indian’s head flopped to one side and rested amongst pine cones.

Spitting blood, Panama knife in one hand and gripping his side with the other, Murdoch grunted as he staggered back up the slope towards the remains of the fire. The stench of gore mixed with the smoke. Hot embers sizzled in the snow. Jay was pinned down by three Shoshone warriors, his back to a Limber Pine. Murdoch lurched forward into the maelstrom as Jay rammed his knife up, under and out and turned to the next assailant. Fast losing strength, Murdoch threw his weight into the third Indian. They hit the ground together, the world spun and everything went black.

Somewhere a rifle fired. A horse passed him at speed, and Murdoch fell into the void once again.

When he next awoke, someone was dragging him. He heard himself groan as he was propped half sitting-half lying against the smooth leather of a saddle. His world was still black, and the pain in his side cut him in half. “I can’t see.”

“Try opening your eyes.” Jay McKillen knelt beside him cutting Murdoch’s blood soaked shirt away from his skin. “Tarnation, they’ve done you good and proper.” Removing the cork with his teeth, Jay sloshed whisky over the wound and Murdoch jerked in agony. “Hold still and I’ll bind you. God damn Shoshone. What the hell they doing so far south?”

Murdoch and Jay endured an uncomfortable and sleepless night, but the Shoshone war party did not come back. A new day dawned, crisp and clear.

“Got away with a rifle, but won’t do them much good without bullets. That don’t help us none mind,” Jay growled, surveying the damage. The pelts were strewn across the ground, but none had been stolen. The pile must have been knocked over in the fight. He found the mule a few yards away, grazing a small island of mountain grass amid the snow. No sign of the horses.

Jay bundled half the pelts and tied them high into a tree along with one of the saddles. He saddled the mule and bound the remaining pelts up front. “Need to get you to a doctor. Think you can stand?”

Murdoch rose with difficulty. His head spun and he gasped with the pain. Jay helped him up onto the mule. Fighting the dizziness, Murdoch gripped the pommel as Jay re-arranged the pelts around him. Two braves lay dead near the fire, arms and legs splayed at odd angles. Angry squeals drew his attention. Rats were fighting on a blood-stained mound part way down the slope. His stomach lurched. It was the remains of his assailant’s skull, and the rats were fighting over its contents. Averting his eyes from the grisly scene, he spied a fourth body, still pinned to a fir tree with a look of astonishment on its face. A dried trickle of blood trailed from the gaping mouth.

Jay shouldered his rifle and a backpack of bedrolls, cookware and pelts. Taking the mule’s reins, he began the slow trudge towards help. There was no identifiable trail, and Murdoch swayed dangerously as they navigated the uneven terrain. The sun was high in the sky when he rolled from the mule. The fall brought him round.

“Damn mules. Never did like them.” He pushed himself up to sitting and drank from the canteen Jay put to his lips.

“Wound’s opened up again.” Jay made Murdoch lean to one side so he could examine the laceration more closely. Murdoch bit down hard on a stick while Jay used cloth ripped from his shirt as wadding and then retied the blood soaked bandage. “I’m going to pack more pelts up front and tie you to the pile. Mite uncomfortable I expect, but you can’t keep falling off. Long way to go.”

By the third day Murdoch was struggling to stay conscious. Not even the severe cramp from being forced to half-lie and half-sit could keep him from falling into a murky haze. When they camped for the night he was sweating, but his breath still hung white in the air. Jay’s voice seemed to fade in and out. The Texan drawl dwindled to an echo from the end of a very long tunnel and then slammed into Murdoch like a train at full throttle. Dreams overtook him.

His sister Maggie was playing knuckle bones by the hearth as his ma bent to tend the porridge on the fire.

“Let’s be having it, my bonnie lass.” His da, fresh from his morning chores, came through the door. Jock dawdled in his wake as he played with Jess, their border collie.

Murdoch stepped towards them, but he stumbled. When he looked up from the flagstones he saw numbers, enamel and gold encased in mahogany and glass. Clocks of all sizes ticked around him. Sun streamed through a lattice window. He was in his grandfather’s workshop. The old man hunched low over his bench examining a pocket watch with his eyeglass. “Stop your girning, lad. I agree with your brother. You’re staying in school.”

Murdoch protested his fate, but his grandfather did not seem to hear him. The watchmaker and the shop merged with the shadows.

For a long time Murdoch did not know where he was. Light and dark battled for control. He felt jarring as though he was on the move. This is what it must have been like for Catherine, he thought. My poor, bonnie lass, where are you?

The soft light of dawn pushed back the edge of darkness. She lay beside him, sleeping peacefully. He could feel the warmth of her breath against his skin and his body relaxed.

“I’ve missed you, lass. Come back to me.” Murdoch reached out to touch her hair. It was soft and silky and smelled of rosewater.

He blinked.

Grey-blue eyes gazed curiously back at him. A small hand stretched out and Murdoch felt tiny fingers brush his cheek. Tears obscured his son from view as his mind swirled once more.

“Come back! Come back.” But the people he loved most were gone. All that remained was the darkness and the pain, and the determination to live.

It took six days for Jay McKillen to pack Murdoch over the Colorados to Taos in New Mexico. Six days to traverse seventy miles of steep, snow-covered mountain-range with only instinct to guide him. He near collapsed when he reached the small ranch house in the high country just north of town.

The fever that consumed Murdoch on the third night was raging when the rancher and his son unstrapped him from the mule and carried him inside. The man’s wife nursed him while their son fetched the doctor and for two days there was some doubt whether Murdoch would live or die; or so they told him after the fever broke and he began to recover.

“You’re a lucky man.” The doctor put his stethoscope away and peered at Murdoch through round, wire-rimmed spectacles. “You’ll likely make a full recovery.”

“I’ll be leaving you then, Lancer.” McKillen paid the doctor and the rancher for their trouble, and stuffed money under Murdoch’s pillow. With the hides they had brought with them, he had purchased a horse and supplies. Most of what was left over now lay beneath Murdoch’s head. “I’m going back to the mountains. Get the other saddle and the rest of them hides. Maybe do some more trapping. See you back in California in a month or so.”

“I owe you, Jay.” Murdoch leaned over from his sickbed and shook the trapper’s hand. “I’ll not forget.”

 


Chapter 23: Reunion

Murdoch was dumbfounded. Still bandaged around his middle, he sat in Don Juan Contanado Caldera’s gran sala, recuperating after a tiring journey from Taos to Sonora, just south of Alta California. “When did it happen? I’ve heard nothing.”

“Sometime in January at a place called Campo de Cahuenga near Los Angeles. Governor Pico and the American Frémont signed the agreement. It is not absolute, but you know how these things work, my friend. Alta California is now part of the United States.” Don Juan sipped at his wine, amused by Murdoch’s astonishment. “You knew it was coming. We talked of the possibility when we first met at my cousin’s wedding.”

“Aye, I suppose it isn’t totally unexpected. It’s just I’ve been out of contact with the world for some weeks. I must hurry home.”

“You must indeed, but not before you have seen my herds. Not before you have admired the finest bulls in Mexico.”

The Estancia Contanado truly did boast some of the best cattle Murdoch had seen since arriving in California. Improving the herds and turning the estate into one of the best in Mexico had been a Contanado family passion over several generations. Murdoch’s neighbour, Don Frederigo Caldera Palmero, had not been exaggerating. His daughter’s wedding nearly two years before had provided an opportunity to introduce Murdoch to his young cousin, and there had been an instant affinity between the two cattlemen. They were of similar age and shared many interests besides cattle. Don Juan had invited Murdoch to visit him in Sonora. With Catherine’s death and the unrest in the San Joaquin such a visit had not been immediately possible. After his adventures with Jay McKillen, however, as he prepared to return to California from Taos, Murdoch realised the Estancia Contanado was not too far out of his way.

“My bloodstock definitely needs improving. I can’t afford the time or the money this year, but will you sell me a hundred head when I can?”

Don Juan was happy to oblige at any time, and Murdoch crossed the border from Sonora into Alta California the following day with great plans in mind. By early April he was back at Lancer and eager to start work.

“I thought you’d got lost.” Paul helped with the saddle bags as Murdoch arched his back and exercised the cramp from his legs.

“Nearly didn’t come back at all.” Murdoch grinned broadly. “It’s good to be home, and that’s a fact.”

Murdoch felt like a new man and he threw himself into re-building the ranch’s fortunes. In a surge of enthusiasm he erected an arch with ‘Lancer’ upon it over the main road as it approached the hacienda. He had admired a similar arch at the Estancia Contanado, and he was in a mood to do something to mark a fresh start.

“Bit ostentatious for a frugal Scot, isn’t it?” Alfred Burke teased as he passed through. “I like it.”

The Mexican soldiers had pulled out of the San Joaquin with the signing of the treaty transferring Alta California into American control. The bandits stayed away throughout the summer, and the ranch had a good season. Some bands began to return in the fall. Rumours suggested Haney was among them, but this time abandoning all pretence of being a lawman. The rustling showed no signs of turning into land piracy however—no one had been killed and no buildings or fields burnt—so Murdoch and his neighbours took precautions, but were not unduly worried. Murdoch continued to concentrate on improving his herds, planting feed crops, surveying land and driving cattle to market.

In September, Cipriano Ramirez Cruz married Maria Hernandez Moreno at the mission chapel just outside Morro Coyo. The fandango was held at the Hacienda Lancer and almost the entire population of Morro Coyo and a large number of people from Green River and elsewhere attended. Both families had lived in the San Joaquin a long time and the young people were well thought of throughout the neighbourhood.

“To many happy years together.” Murdoch toasted the bride and groom privately as they stood together in the shade of the portico. “Señora Lancer would have loved to have seen this day.”

“I too wish the Señora could have been here, Patrón.” Maria touched his arm and smiled sadly.

“No tears, Maria. I didn’t mean to make you unhappy on such a special day. The Señora will always be here in our hearts. I simply meant that she recognised you were made for each other long before the rest of us.” Murdoch hugged Maria and gently pushed her towards her new husband. “Dance with your wife, Cipriano. You’re a lucky man.”

The festivities went on long into the night, although the bride and groom did not stay until the end. Murdoch retired to his room to recall his own wedding night and to write to his father-in-law.

 

The situation here is improving. Although it is still too soon to talk of bringing Scott home to Lancer, I want to see my son. I plan to visit, and hope to reach Boston in time for Scott’s birthday. Leave word with my bank whether you are able to put me up. 

“Thank you for taking this letter for me, Señor. The Providence should be in harbour when you get back to Yerba Buena—I mean San Francisco.” Murdoch laughed at his poor memory as he handed his letter to a wedding guest returning home to the growing town. It had been renamed in the January of that year by the new American alcalde.

Murdoch aimed to follow his letter in late October, but before he could do so tragedy struck the small ranch community. Eduardo Hernandez had been born and raised on Lancer land. Less than a month after he proudly walked his eldest daughter down the aisle, a snake spooked his horse and the cattle he was driving to new pasture. His foot caught in the stirrup and he was dragged through the stampeding steers. Estella nursed him for three days, but he died of his injuries. The great joy of the preceding month turned to grief. Murdoch delayed his departure for Boston by a week, and missed the brig that was to take him south.

But all was not lost. At the Trading Post Richardson told Murdoch of a whaler in port making direct passage to Peru. “It may even be faster than the brig you missed.”

Maybe, but the captain just scowled when Murdoch asked for a berth. The weather-worn mariner was more interested in the direction of the wind and the condition of his ropes. He hawked a wad of chewing tobacco over the side and stalked passed Murdoch towards the bow. “I don’t take passengers.”

Murdoch dodged a seaman swabbing the deck and caught up. “I could work my passage.”

The whaling captain paused and scratched the stubble on his chin. Then he circled Murdoch like a cattleman appraising a bull at auction. Murdoch would not have been surprised if the man had attempted to check his teeth or feel his muscles. “All right then. If you’ve a mind to work. A berth to Panama it is.”

Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief. He could still make Boston now before Christmas and the saving of his fare along the Pacific coast was an added bonus. A trip to Boston did not come cheap. The money and the time should arguably be spent on the ranch, but for once Murdoch was going to allow emotion to outweigh practical considerations. He needed to see his son. Harlan’s brief reports told him facts. He knew the boy was walking, how tall he was and how much he weighed, but he thirsted for less tangible information.

To some extent Beth provided this, but he wanted to experience it for himself. True to her word, Beth had visited Scott regularly and through the servants had learned even more. She wrote of the boy teething, of a temporary fascination with clocks and of the day that he crawled away from his nanny in the garden and she found him playing in a freshly dug flowerbed covered in dirt and chewing on nasturtiums. On his first birthday, Harlan had planned a formal adult dinner with his sister, Winifred, and a number of business associates and their wives. Beth and Robert Eliot had been invited, but Beth had also visited in the afternoon before Mr Garrett came home. Nanny Richards had organised an unofficial birthday party in the nursery. Scott, Bobby and two other infants of similar age were sat by their nannies on the floor to eat birthday cake—Beth was the only mother present by special invitation.

 

Instead of eating their cake, they had the most glorious food fight. I thought I would die laughing. The children had frosting from head to foot, all over their clothes, faces, hands, in their ears and hair, even up their noses. The adults did not escape either. 

Murdoch reread Beth’s letters often during his journey. The stories about his son always made him smile, even when he had trouble getting passage from Chagres and there was little else to smile about. Thankfully a ship did come in time, and he arrived in Boston the day before Scott’s birthday. Going straight to his bank, Murdoch found a message from his father-in-law waiting for him.

“Good news?” Douglas Muir clapped him on the shoulder. “My underlings told me you were out here. I’ve time now if you want a chat.”

Murdoch shook hands cheerfully with his bank manager and friend. “Thank you, Douglas, but I’ll come back in a few days. I’m eager to see Scott, and this is the message I was hoping for. My father-in-law has invited me to stay at Louisburg Square. He’s not going to cause any difficulty.”

Relieved of an anxiety that had dogged him throughout the trip, Murdoch hastened to the Garrett mansion. As Jordan, the butler, showed him to his room, Murdoch grimly recalled his previous visits to the house. It was interesting to see beyond the front door and foyer. Everything was on a grand scale with ornate plaster ceilings, highly polished woodwork, and plush carpets. Portraits and exquisite landscape paintings or tapestries hung on every wall. There was a portrait of Catherine with her mother on the first landing. He paused to look at it on his way up the stairs—she was beautiful even then.

“Mr Lancer?” The butler looked back down the stairs. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Murdoch took the stairs two at a time to join Jordan outside the guest bedroom.

“Mr Garrett is not due home until after 5 o’clock, sir. Master Scott is in the nursery on the third floor, if you would like to see him before then.” Jordan bowed and returned downstairs.

Murdoch tossed his bag on the bed, and headed upstairs, not wanting to wait a minute longer. The sound of a young woman singing ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ led him to the nursery.

“May I come in?” Murdoch stuck his head around the door as the maid was ‘hanging out the clothes’. He looked hopefully at the nanny, who, as it happened, was folding laundry and putting it away in drawers. A child with ash-blond curls played happily with wooden blocks on the floor.

“Oh yes, sir. Please. Mr Garrett said to expect you. I’m Hannah, sir—Nanny Richards.” She curtsied and stood nervously as Murdoch entered.

“Perhaps you could organise some afternoon tea, Hannah, while I become reacquainted with Scott.” He settled down opposite his son and passed a green block into a chubby outstretched hand.

“Hello, Scott. I’m your Papa.”

The little boy looked up from the tower he was building. He did have Catherine’s eyes—Beth was right. But in other ways Scott resembled him—or at least his side of the family. “You remind me of your Great Grandda MacKinnon, laddie.”

Pride and pleasure warmed Murdoch from the inside. The bairn showed no fear. Murdoch remembered their first meeting when Scott had subjected him to the same solemn stare. Getting up from the floor, the toddler came over and took Murdoch’s face between his hands. He cocked his head to one side. “Papa?”

“Yes. I’m your Papa.” Murdoch hugged Scott, taking care not to frighten him. He smelled of two-year-old. “You won’t remember me, but I remember you.”

They held hands beaming at each other. “My goodness; how you’ve grown.”

Scott let go of his father and started searching through the blocks on the floor.

“Which one do you want? This red one?” Murdoch handed Scott a triangular block. With great concentration the child balanced it on top of his tower.

They constructed another tower together, and then with booms and bangs they pretended to be cannon balls and knocked them both down, sending blocks flying in all directions. By the time Hannah returned with a tray of tea and cakes Murdoch was on his back holding the toddler high and chatting nonsense as Scott squealed with delight.

Scott’s birthday party the next day was a lavish event not entirely to Murdoch’s taste, but he acknowledged that Harlan had gone to a lot of trouble. There were balloons, puppets and masses of food to entertain about a dozen children, their nannies and parents. Harlan was called away to attend to business as guests were arriving, so Murdoch and Scott’s Great Aunt Winifred were left to welcome them. This haughty dowager was staying for the holidays. It was clear by the ungracious way she introduced Murdoch to guests, she had a very low opinion of his worth. Fortunately the puppet show began. His son demanded his company and Murdoch was able to escape hers.

He met little Bobby Eliot soon after Punch and Judy gave their final bows. Murdoch had picked Scott up and put him on his shoulders, ignoring Great Aunt Winifred’s look of disapproval from the other side of the room. Gripping his father’s hair with one hand, the toddler had reached for the chandelier with the other. It was well out of reach, but Murdoch was so busy concentrating on what his son was doing, he nearly stood on a sturdy dark-haired boy, who had planted himself at Murdoch’s feet. Looking down, Murdoch met Bobby’s upward gaze, his head so far back that he was in danger of falling over.

“Up!” Robert McIntyre Eliot was his mother’s son and not at all afraid of strangers, even giant ones.

“Allow me.” Robert Eliot swung his son up onto his own shoulders, and greeted Murdoch warmly. The two little boys wrestled from their perches while their fathers got to know each other.

“Where’s Beth? I’m looking forward to seeing her.” Murdoch scanned the room.

Robert chuckled and raised his eyes to his son. “Where’s Mama, Bobby?”

“With my sister,” replied Bobby, proudly and clearly rehearsed. “I’m a big brother.”

“Me too!” piped Scott. “I want to be big brother too.”

The two fathers lowered their squirming sons to the ground and let them toddle off to examine the presents piled high on a nearby table. Their nannies appeared as if by magic to supervise.

“Congratulations! How is she? Is she ready for visitors?” Murdoch had known Beth was expecting another child, but perhaps because it took so long for letters to reach him, he had not realised the baby was due at this time. Chiding himself for being so inattentive, he arranged to call on Beth the following day.

The baby had been born the week before and all had gone well. Beth was already up and about, just not up to a two-year-old’s birthday party. When Murdoch and Scott were shown into the sitting room, she was knitting by the fire, her new born daughter asleep in a bassinet beside her.

“Hello, Murdoch. How lovely to see you at last.” Beth put her knitting aside and rose to greet him. “Janet, would you be so kind as to take Scott to the nursery to play with Bobby.”

Releasing his son to the care of the maid, Murdoch settled down for a long chat with a dear friend. Beth shed a few tears as they talked of Catherine. It was the anniversary of her death, and their reunion was all the more poignant because of it. Time had soothed the pain however, and they both now looked to the future.

“I haven’t introduced you to my daughter.” Beth smiled as the little girl woke and made her presence known. Beth picked the baby up out of her cradle. “Katie this is your Uncle Murdoch…We were wondering, Murdoch, if you would like to be her godfather?”

The christening was to take place early in the New Year and Murdoch accepted the honour with pleasure. Lifting little Katie out of her mother’s arms, he cuddled her happily until it was time to go. Returning to Louisburg Square, he sat with Scott as he had his tea and then retired to his room to freshen up before pre-dinner drinks with Harlan.

Bathed and powdered Scott was presented to his father and grandfather before being whisked away to bed. Garrett was not a demonstrative man, but he feigned genuine interest in the toy horse his grandson showed him and read the boy some nursery rhymes from a large picture book that seemed to live on the library table. Murdoch pushed aside niggling jealousy. He was glad Scott loved his grandfather. He was. It was just…well, for the time being there was no other choice. Harlan closed the book. Scott hugged them both goodnight and Nanny Richards carried him away.

“He is happy and well cared for, Harlan. Thank you.”

“He is my grandson, Murdoch. The greatest treasure of my life now that Catherine is gone.” He trimmed a corona and offered it to Murdoch. They sat in companionable silence, each with his own thoughts, until Jordan announced dinner was ready.

Harlan had a business to run even during the holiday season and he did not interrupt his routine to spend time with his sister, son-in-law or grandson except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Murdoch was left largely to his own devices. He had business too, but that did not take long. He looked up Jim Harper, who now had a house of his own, and Alfred Burke, who had recently married. He dined with the Eliots twice and visited with them several times during the day.

He soon discovered it was not the norm for fathers in Boston’s high society to spend much time with their infant children. There were some exceptions—Robert Eliot was one. At any rate, this was Boston, a society ruled by etiquette and clocks. Even Hannah, the nanny, had her routines, and she clearly did not want them upset. Consequently his time alone with Scott was largely restricted to the afternoons after nap time and he made the most of them.

The first fine day after Christmas Murdoch took his son to Frog Pond to try out his birthday present. With instruction from the ship’s carpenter Murdoch had begun the wooden boat the day he sailed from San Francisco. By the time he arrived in Boston, it had been shaped and polished to perfection. To an adult eye it was perhaps not as impressive as the galleon he had bought from a retired mariner for the great room at Lancer, but as a toy for a two year old, it was perfect. The centre was hollowed out so it could carry other toys, including the rubber ball Murdoch had given Scott for Christmas. Its single mast boasted a sail cut from a real main sail, and the name ‘Lancer’ was carved into its bow. Scott’s excitement as he pushed the little boat out into the pond was well worth the effort of wading in the cold water to push it back to him again—and again—and again. Father and son had a wonderful, soggy time.

On the fourth Sunday of 1848 after the regular service Murdoch played his part at the christening of little Catherine Elizabeth Eliot, thinking the child had a good start in life being named after two such strong and beautiful women. He said goodbye to her parents and brother on the same day. “My ship sails tomorrow evening. I’ll tuck Scott in and then make my way to the pier.”

“We’ll keep an eye on him.” Beth hugged Murdoch farewell. “It’s easier now. The older the boys get, the more parties and outings they have together.”

Murdoch read his son The Three Little Pigs as a bedtime story on his last night. He huffed and puffed and blew the house down, and assured Scott that as he lived in a brick house he was in no danger at all from wandering wolves. Then he tucked him in and waited for him to fall asleep.

Rocking in Nanny Richards’ chair, Murdoch gazed at the small fair-head resting on crisp starched linen and watched the gentle rise and fall of the boy’s chest. He tried to etch Scott’s image in his mind. How Catherine would have adored their son. In his imagination Murdoch pictured her with Scott greeting him in the great room when he came in from work, how he would lose himself in their embrace, the softness of their hair, the joy of their laughter. If only things had been different.

Scott snuffled in his sleep. Rising Murdoch kissed his son’s forehead and tiptoed from the nursery.  For several minutes he stood in the passage, eyes shut and his back against the nursery door. Once he had brought his emotions under control, he descended the stairs, grabbing his bag as he passed the guest room on the second landing. Harlan Garrett shook hands with him in the reception hall and once again escorted Murdoch to the door. “Look after him, Harlan. The next time I come, I will take Scott home.”


 

Chapter 24: Matamoros

The rain lashed the deck and the wind ripped at the sails. Murdoch and three others hauled at the mainsail as men braver than he felt he could ever be, climbed into the rigging. The storm had hit soon after the Cassandra lost sight of Florida. God only knows where they were now, but if they came out alive it would be a miracle.

Crack!

The main mast came crashing onto the deck narrowly missing Murdoch and the sailors pulling on the rope. The cabin boy exiting the forecastle yelped as he was thrown back down the ladder. Seamen ran, the captain screamed orders and Murdoch could only stand out of the way, holding onto the rail for grim death, until the captain hailed him again to help men at the stern. Gigantic waves crashed over the side. The deck was awash with salt water and broken timbers. Another crack and the mizzen mast shuddered. Then a lethal snap; the bowline broke on the spanker and whiplashed back. Murdoch was saved from certain death by the roll of a wave. The ship pitched violently and he was flung hard against the mast.

Armageddon lasted the rest of the day and most of the night. When Murdoch regained consciousness shortly before the storm reached its peak, his body was racked with pain. A jolt to his left side made him scream in agony. He lay whimpering, dreading the next sudden lurch, half-buried beneath sea-drenched rope and sail. Shattered timbers weighed heavy across his left leg and waist.  Waves washed over him through a gaping hole in the bulwark. All he could see were rolling black clouds, illuminated by terrifying flashes of lightening. Thunder rumbled. Blood pounded in his ears, muffling yells and screams, but the wind could not be drowned out. It howled like banshees marauding over the ocean. The Cassandra was a bucking bronco in the tempest, and Murdoch prayed.

When it was over, the ship lay becalmed on a mirror-glass ocean under blue skies in the Gulf of Mexico. Her sails were destroyed, the main mast was snapped in two and the mizzen leaned at a dangerous angle. Five sailors and Murdoch were seriously injured, one seaman was lost overboard and mariners and passengers alike looked like they should apply to the poorhouse.

“Man the boats.” The captain stood dishevelled but erect on the quarterdeck as the only rowboat to survive the storm was lowered over the side. Sailors took turns at the oars and slowly the ruined ship was dragged to safe harbour.

If he could have rolled over, Murdoch would have kissed the ground when he was finally carried ashore and laid down on a wide sandy beach. He was bruised and battered, and his leg was thought to be broken in two places. The ship’s carpenter had constructed a splint that stretched from ankle to groin. It was extremely uncomfortable, but preferable to the acute agony he had suffered when he had first regained consciousness. Once the slow job of ferrying passengers and their luggage from the stricken brig was complete, the chief officer organised carts to be brought from a nearby town. Matamoros lay on the southern banks of the Rio Grande. They were in Mexico.

“It will take us weeks to repair the Cassandra.” The chief officer addressed the weary passengers from the steps of a monument in the centre of the town square. To angry protest, he broke the news that there could be no refunds from the captain’s purse. The passengers would have to write to the owners, though it was unlikely they would reimburse anyone.  “I’m sorry, but there is nothing I can do. You’d best try for passage on another vessel or go by land.”

“And how am I to do that without the fare?” A young man in a thread-bare tweed suit shook his fist at the hapless officer. Grabbing his bag from the cart, he stomped away down a side street. Others followed.

Murdoch was not penniless, but his ready cash was low. He had enough under normal circumstances to get him home, but he had not bargained on spending much time ashore or paying twice to reach Panama. As he was stretchered to a taberna just off the square, he worried how he would make his money last.

With the help of a seaman who spoke fluent Spanish, the chief officer arranged for a room and a doctor. It turned out there was an exception to the rule, and the captain’s purse was to be opened to pay for Murdoch’s accommodation and care. He had been injured attempting to help the crew, and the captain was a fair man.

“I will bring the money each week while we repair the Cassandra, and if we are ready before you are well, more will be left.” The chief officer paid the owner of taberna for the first week, and left money for the doctor’s services. Then he returned to the ship.

The doctor arrived soon after. He gave little attention to the many small lacerations and bruises that made Murdoch’s skin look like a grotesque mosaic, but he investigated with care the large angry bruise extending from front to back over Murdoch’s abdomen. He insisted Murdoch use the commode in his presence, and studied the resulting liquid closely.

Finally, the doctor examined Murdoch’s leg. He confirmed two fractures, but the upper one he diagnosed as merely a crack. He was pleased with the splint, and credited it with preventing more serious damage. Even so after removing the remains of Murdoch’s trouser leg and cleaning the limb, he called for the tabernero’s assistance and put Murdoch through further pain to straighten the broken sections of bone before applying a starch bandage and refitting the splint. “You will thank me in the end, Señor. Your urine is clear. If you do as I say, you will walk again and be as you were.”

“How long?”

“You should be fit to travel in about six weeks, but for now you must stay in bed.”

Murdoch closed his eyes, and let his head fall back against the adobe wall. Six weeks!

The doctor ordered two weeks of complete bed rest. He would re-assess his patient at the end of that time. As soon as he left, two women entered carrying fresh water and clean linen. One was middle-aged, the owner’s wife. The other was a girl of about twenty, Mexican but with a hint of Spanish in her features and extraordinarily beautiful. She said very little as they stripped him of the remains of his shirt. It had dried to his skin laden with salt, sand and blood, and did not come away easily.

“Oh that feels so good.” Murdoch closed his eyes as the younger woman washed the grit from his skin. She smiled shyly and continued her work. “What is your name, Señorita?”

“Maria, Señor.”

The owner’s wife emptied the dirty water out the window as Maria unbuckled Murdoch’s belt and pulled it free. She began to remove his trousers from his body. Cutting up the side of the unbroken leg with shearers, she pulled the fabric clear. The older woman stopped her from going too high. Shooing Maria from the room, the Señora finished the job herself, preserving Murdoch’s modesty with a towel. She bathed his leg and feet, but turned her back and allowed him to wash the rest of his body himself. Eventually she handed him a clean nightshirt, and helped him under the covers before leaving the room.

Maria brought his meals and took care of all but his most personal needs; for those, she would fetch the tabernero or Raul, the stable hand, for help. A bell was provided so that he could ring when someone was needed, but increasingly Maria stayed longer than the occasion actually required.

She was the step-daughter of the owner, but the owner’s wife was not her mother.

“Mama died over a year ago. My step-father has recently remarried.” Maria opened the window to let fresh air into the room and laughed when she saw the confused look on Murdoch’s face. “My father was a capitán in the Mexican army. We came to Matamoros in 1835, and he was killed in the war with America the following year. The army does not support its widows or their children. My mother came here first to work, and later she married Señor Rodriguez. It was a marriage of convenience, but he is not unkind. I stay and sing and dance for his customers as did my mother before me. It pays for my keep and earns me a few pesos. One day I will leave.”

“To marry?”

“Perhaps, but I will not marry for convenience.”

They talked of many things those weeks of confinement. Murdoch told Maria about his ranch in California, his family in Scotland and eventually, hesitantly, he talked about Catherine and Scott. She listened to him and told her own stories of family and life. Never did she seek sympathy or overtly give it. Maria would not allow despondency. She lived for the moment and for the future. She was pragmatic and did not believe in dwelling on mistakes or past sorrows. She loved life, laughter and pretty things.

“I bought this in the market. Do you like it?” She twirled to show off her new dress.

“Beautiful, but not as beautiful as the señorita wearing it.”

Maria enjoyed being the centre of his world. She laughed away his fears, and entered into his plans with enthusiasm. Attracted immediately by her outer beauty, Murdoch was soon entranced by the inner woman as well. She was vibrant and volatile—bewitching. She was different to Catherine in many ways, but as with Catherine he was in love before he recognised he was falling. Her feelings were less clear.

Throughout his period of complete bed-rest, Murdoch asked Maria to bring him things to read, books, newspapers, anything; in English from preference, but with her help, he would struggle through Spanish to get news of the outside world. She could not read, but as long as he could pronounce the words, she could tell him what they meant. It was in this way that he learned about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Mexican-American War had ended while he was being tossed about like a cork in the Cassandra. Without knowing it, he had been an American citizen for nearly three weeks.

Murdoch prayed silently as the doctor examined his leg the second time, and his prayers were answered. The doctor did not replace the splint. Instead he re-applied a starched bandage to Murdoch’s lower leg only, and provided him with crutches.

“Don’t move until sundown. It’ll take that long for the bandage to dry hard. Go carefully for another couple of weeks and I’ll check your leg again. The bruising round your waist and on your leg may look alarming, but you are healing well.”

That evening Murdoch ate his dinner in the taberna. With Raul’s help he negotiated the stairs to take a seat by the entrance to the kitchen where Maria could smile at him regularly as she went to and fro. He watched her as she took food to tables and cleared away plates. Vivacious and captivating, she held the attention of more than just him, and Murdoch realised he was not only jealous but anxious. She was laughing and chatting with men she was serving when a vaquero grabbed at her dress and pulled her into his lap. Murdoch reached for his crutches, but he was half-afraid to see what she would do. Would she flirt with the man like a common saloon girl? He need not have worried, nor was his assistance needed. Instead of cosying up to the amorous wrangler, she caused him to double over in pain, and with a stream of invectives she stormed off. Murdoch settled back in his chair with a huge grin on his face.

“Foolish man.” A greying gentleman at the next table lit a panatela and sent a perfect smoke ring floating into the air. “This is a taberna not a cantina. The women here are not for sale, and Señorita Maria has a very high opinion of her worth. She has the blood of Peninsulares in her veins. She would not waste herself on the likes of him. She seems to like you however, Señor.”

Murdoch spent the next hour playing chess and talking to the observant Señor Acosta, the town lawyer, until the guitars started to play. The sound of the music lured men in from the street. More drinks were ordered and when the tables were filled, Maria reappeared dressed like a Spanish dancer.  And how she could dance! Murdoch watched in awe as she moved around the room, and he was not alone. Some men joined her on the dance floor, but the audience’s eyes were all for Maria, and she thrived on the attention. The greater the applause the more extravagantly she performed, and when she needed to rest, she sat on a high stool and sang so sweetly that there were tears in the eyes of her listeners.

For the first few days Murdoch remained confined to the taberna, hobbling only short distances with his crutches. To pass the time he helped Raul mend tack in the stable or sat in the taberna, chatting with Maria as she worked. The doctor instructed him how to build up his muscles after their long confinement, and impatience made him do the exercises frequently.

By the following week he felt ready to escort Maria to the market. Barrows and stands with food, pottery, clothing and almost anything imaginable covered most of the town square. Stallholders cried out to customers to buy their wares, poultry squawked and goats strained at their leashes to reach tasty morsels nearby. The air was intoxicating with the heat and the smell of spices and flowers. Maria set out to buy fruit and vegetables, but she kept getting distracted by clothing, jewellery and lace. She tried on several items, parading them for Murdoch’s entertainment and then returning them to the vendor’s table.

Lifting a sombrero from its peg, she tiptoed to place it on his head. It was too big and flopped over his eyes. Murdoch played along and struck a pose while Maria stood back with a twinkle in her eye, pretending to judge his appearance. Shaking her head, she replaced it with another, and then with a montera. Resting his crutches against the side of the stall, Murdoch whipped a shawl up from a neighbouring table and pretended it was a matador’s cape. Using her hands to make horns, Maria lowered her head and ran towards it.

“Olé!” Murdoch nearly toppled over as she passed. Laughing they returned everything to their stalls, and moved on before the vendors had time to scold them.

Murdoch had some experience of markets, but this one was full of unfamiliar sights and sounds, especially the food. In addition to the tacos, bocoles and quesadillas Maria cajoled from hucksters to feed to him, Murdoch tried cactus and even chapulines—grasshoppers. He was wary of the wide variety of chillies she encouraged him to taste, but it was when he discovered the tortilla he had just consumed contained mosquito eggs that he nearly choked.

When Maria came to an exquisite tortoise shell hair comb, she did not pick it up. It was expensive as well as finely made. She touched it with longing in her eyes, but then move on.

“Would you like it?” Maria looked back at Murdoch. Raising her eyes to his, she did not seem sure of his meaning. He nodded towards the comb. She hesitated, but then gleefully took up the ornament and arranged her hair before a looking glass. Fixing her jet-black tresses back with the comb, she turned left and right to see how well it looked and posed for his approval. Murdoch took out his pocketbook. “Cuanto?”

After some negotiation the purchase was made. He would need to be careful with the remains of his money, but Maria’s joy made the sacrifice worthwhile. She hugged him awkwardly through the crutches and kissed him on the cheek. “Me ecanta. Gracias!”

They walked on together. Maria put her arm through his whenever they stopped until the sun and his aching muscles forced him to rest. Taking a seat on the low wall surrounding the town well, Murdoch put the crutches to one side and waited while Maria purchased the food she had promised to buy for the taberna.

He was half-dozing when the wrangler from his first night downstairs in the taberna swaggered into the town square with three companions. They caroused down the outer row of stalls until the wrangler spotted Maria and moved to block her path. She went to pass him, but he grabbed hold of her wrist.

“Suéltame, cerdo!” Maria wrestled to get free as he tried to steal a kiss. Her basket fell to the ground spilling its contents into the dust.

The next minute the vaquero was also on the ground, spitting dirt from his mouth. He rolled over and squinted up at Murdoch, towering above him. Murdoch pressed one of his crutches into the man’s chest and held him down. The vaquero’s companions circled.

“Largarse!” Murdoch glared at the men and clenched his free hand into a fist.

They hesitated, weighing up their chances against the giant but crippled gringo until Raul emerged from the gathering crowd and stood by Murdoch’s side. The biggest of the three men raised his hands in submission. “No estamos en busca de problemas, señor.”

Murdoch nodded and lifted his crutch. The vaqueros helped their amigo up and drag him away.

Later, after the taberna had closed for the evening, Murdoch lay in bed thinking of the day’s events and the way he felt about Maria. A gentle breeze from the open window lapped at his bare chest and moonlight drew a path across the floor. Was it right to feel this way about another woman so soon after Catherine’s death? He did not love Catherine any less, but he was lonely. Maria made him laugh. She brought sunlight back into his life. Was it too soon? Scott was two years old now. Catherine would have wanted him to move on, to find someone else. Murdoch knew that and yet part of him still felt guilty for having thoughts and feelings, which had long since lain dormant.

The click of the door latch disturbed his thoughts. A sylph stood in the moonlight, bare-foot; the outline of her body clearly visible through her nightdress.

“Maria….”

Stepping forward, she pressed her fingers to his lips. Murdoch gazed into her eyes and felt like he was sinking into dark, seductive pools. When she kissed him on the lips, he shuddered, and the passion and love he had for her overcame the guilt. Drawing her down between the sheets, he surrendered himself to the softness of her touch and urgency of his hunger.
 

 

Chapter 25: New Beginning

Six weeks to the day the doctor removed the cast from Murdoch’s leg and did not replace it.

“The muscles are weak, and will need building up gradually, but in a few more weeks you will be as good as new.” The doctor put the scissors he used to cut through the starched bandage back in his bag. Reclaiming the crutches, he offered Murdoch a walking stick instead.

The multi-coloured bruising around Murdoch’s middle had virtually disappeared. He was stiff, but the pain from his leg and abdomen had diminished to a dull ache and the occasional twinge. He accepted the cane with a sense achievement and relief.

Even though Murdoch was on the mend, but he was still virtually stranded in Matamoros. The town had a harbour, but few vessels larger than a fishing barque ever visited. Travel overland to the nearest port of any size would take several days and it was not a journey Murdoch initially felt up to; besides there were other considerations. He decided in the end to wait for the final repairs to the Cassandra. By all reports they were nearly done. A mast was the chief hold up. The delay gave him time to think, not only about his ranch but about Maria too. Ultimately three more weeks passed before the captain of the damaged brig sent word. The message said the new main mast was expected to arrive on the following Monday. It would take a day or two to hoist into place and rig, and the ship would be ready to depart on Wednesday, Thursday at the latest. The Cassandra would continue its journey to the Isthmus of Panama and Rio. Did Murdoch want passage?

He did. The only question was for how many.

As soon as the messenger left, Murdoch went to find Maria. For several days now she had been behaving strangely, rising early and seemingly avoiding him for most of the morning.

Since their first night together, she had shared his bed. Her step-father did not seem to object. Murdoch suspected Señora Rodriguez had less sympathy with the arrangement, but Maria appeared unconcerned. Nor would she discuss Murdoch’s own reservations about their situation.

“This is Mexico, mi amor. Our customs are different.”

Murdoch’s conscience niggled at him, but the temptation to accept such intimacy with no responsibilities was too great. He was stranded in Matamoros by his injuries and lack of transport. If Maria refused to demand more of him, then he would not spoil what they had by trying to impose his cultural conventions.

Their lovemaking was very different from what he had known before. Her zest for life transferred to the bedroom. His leg muscles may have been kept inactive by the starch bandage, but she ensured that every other muscle was well-exercised. Working in the taberna during the evenings, she was his from closing time until the early hours. They stayed in bed until late in the mornings and then explored the environs of Matamoros in the afternoons. Or so it had been until this last week. For the past few days, he had awoken to find Maria already up and gone.

“I missed you this morning.”

“I had things to do. Shall we cross the bridge into Brownsville this afternoon? You haven’t seen the other side of the Rio Grande yet.”

“You mean the American side?” He ducked as Maria tossed a pillow at him. She continued to make the bed and came over to retrieve the pillow. Murdoch held it up high over her head, making her reach and jump for it. He then destroyed much of her hard work by falling with her onto the bedspread for a little midday canoodling.

She never did explain why she was rising early and Murdoch made more than one attempt to find out, but she appeared normal enough later so he let it ride. Now, however, the time had come to talk to her about something else, and he was not going to be put off. As he came downstairs he heard Maria and Señora Rodriguez arguing, their words too rapid for Murdoch to understand. They stopped abruptly when they saw him. With a look of exasperation in Maria’s direction, the Señora marched past Murdoch into the kitchen.

“What was all that about?”

“You are walking without your stick!” Totally ignoring Murdoch’s question, Maria threw herself into his arms and kissed him passionately.

Drawing her arms away from his neck, Murdoch chuckled and then attempted a more solemn face. “Much as I hate to interrupt you, I want to talk to you about something.” He led Maria to table and sat her down. “The Cassandra will be ready to sail next week. I intend to be on it, and I want you to come with me—as my wife. Maria, will you marry me?”

“No.” Maria stood up suddenly and headed towards the kitchen. Almost back to normal, Murdoch moved quickly. He planted himself in front of her, preventing her from going through the archway.

“Why not, Maria? Don’t you love me?”

“I will not marry for convenience. You only ask because you know. You do not really love me.”

“Of course I love you. I have loved you from almost the first moment I saw you. And what do you mean ‘I know’. Know what?”

By reflex Maria’s hands went to her midriff as her eyes lowered and she turned away from him. It took a few seconds for Murdoch to understand. “Maria, are you expecting a baby—our baby?” Turning her around to face him, he saw the truth in her eyes. He embraced her, laughing, his heart filled with joy and hope for the future, but Maria was still upset. He lifted her chin gently and gazed into her eyes, so unusually filled with tears. “Maria, that’s wonderful, but I didn’t know. I asked you to marry me, because I love you.”

“I do not believe you.” Maria broke away from him again. Removing a cloth from the waist band of her skirt, she began to vigorously polish a table. “You ask because you think you have to. Well, you don’t. I can look after myself and my child. I don’t need your gallantry.”

“When have I ever lied to you, Maria? You don’t always tell me the truth, but when have I ever lied to you?” Murdoch pulled her around by the shoulder, forcing her to stop what she was doing. He was getting angry now himself. They glared at each other. “I don’t deny I would have offered to marry you regardless of my feelings if I had known about the bairn. Where I come from that is the right thing to do. But I love you, Maria.  Knowing you carry our child makes me more determined to make you see sense, but I asked you because I love you. Are you saying that you don’t love me?”

Maria held herself, arms crossed over her chest, looking at the floor. He waited for her response. It came in a hesitant voice, little more than a whisper. “I am Mexican. You are el Gringo. How would that work?”

“It will work, if we want it to work. You weren’t worried before so why start now? If you love me, Maria, you can’t say you’re marrying me ‘for convenience’, and if I’m asking ‘for convenience’ it is only in terms of timing. I would have asked you sooner, but I wasn’t sure how you felt about me. I may have taken longer, but I’ve no more time. The Cassandra is sailing. I must return to my ranch. I love you Maria and I love that you bear my child. Marry me—please.” Murdoch took her in his arms once again. He sensed she was weakening. A flicker of a smile and a hopeful glance upwards into his eyes, and he knew that he had won.

Their marriage took place on the following Sunday. Señor and Señora Rodriguez witnessed their vows, and hosted a fandango at the taberna in their honour. The wedding night was no less special for being consummated some weeks earlier. The happy couple boarded the Cassandra as Mr and Mrs Murdoch Lancer, and by late May they were riding through the Lancer arch.

“Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes. We expected you back weeks ago.” Taking the reins from Murdoch, Paul O’Brien tied the mule with the luggage to the rail of the corral as Murdoch dismounted.

“I know, Paul. I’m sorry. By God, it’s good to see you.” Murdoch clapped his foreman on the shoulder and shook his hand. “I would have got a message to you if I could, but my ship was wrecked in a storm. I was injured and stranded in Matamoros in Mexico. There is no regular shipping through there.” Murdoch turned to hold the other horse steady as Maria got down. She had made no attempt to dismount before. She had just stared at the hacienda. “Paul, I know this will come as a bit of a surprise, but I’d like you to meet my wife. Maria, this is Paul O’Brien, my segundo.”

Slightly stunned, Paul looked between Murdoch and his bride. A huge grin spread across his face. “Well, how do you do, Mrs Lancer; I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance. Pardon me for thinking there were other incentives for staying in Matamoros.”

Maria acknowledged his words with a shy smile. Murdoch then led her inside, introducing her to more ranch hands and women along the way. They had materialised from nowhere, standing in groups between the corral where the couple dismounted and the entrance to the hacienda. Maria said very little. Murdoch recognised she was overwhelmed and did not linger. Estella was waiting for them inside, having directed the men with the luggage to Murdoch’s room. She curtsied politely to Maria as they were introduced. “Bienvenido, señora.”

“Gracias.” Maria nodded. She released Murdoch’s arm and walked over to the picture window behind the desk, her hand trailing over furniture. She turned full circle to survey the room, the expression on her face indecipherable.

Estella retired to the kitchen to organise some food and drink. Murdoch offered Maria his arm and led her to their bedroom to freshen up.

“You are very wealthy, Murdoch. I didn’t realise.” Taking off her hat and jacket, Maria laid them on a brocade chair.

“One day perhaps. At the moment I have a lot of land and a lot of debt to go with it. The hacienda was built and largely furnished by the previous owner. Do you like it?”

“Very much, but it’s so grand. I feel out of place.”

“Give it time. You’ll soon know everyone and be mistress of this house.” Murdoch wrapped his arms around his bride and kissed her forehead. Maria stared into his chest. He nuzzled her head and kissed her again and again until he extracted a small smile. “Come on, let’s get out of these dusty things and I’ll show you around.”

 

 

Chapter 26: Discovery

“Gold! But why do you look so unhappy, mi amor? Isn’t gold a good thing?” Maria could not understand Murdoch’s attitude. Paul had saved the news about the discovery of gold in the American River until Murdoch had enjoyed a good night’s sleep.

“I thought I’d let you settle in a bit first.” Paul tightened the girth on his horse as Murdoch watched José and a crew of men ride out to the east mesa. Three other crews had already received their orders and ridden away. Paul would join the men clearing the creek on the south side once he had finished reporting to Murdoch.

“How many men have we lost?”

“Three drifters and Alberto and Ramón Hernandez so far. Young blood. Alberto and Ramón tried panning around here for a week or two, but didn’t find anything so they headed north.”

“Well, I’m pleased they didn’t find any gold on Lancer land. I’m surprised Diego and Cip didn’t go too.”

“Diego is head of the household since his father’s death. He will not leave his mother and sisters. Cip probably would have gone for a while if the news had come a week or two earlier, but he won’t be going anywhere now—not until next year at any rate. Been strutting around like a rooster ever since Maria told him. Baby’s due November, I think.”

“Really? Well, I know how he feels. I’m going to be a father again in early December.”

“You sure have been busy, Boss.” Paul clapped Murdoch on the shoulder and grinned. “Congratulations. Well, I’m glad you and a few men who know how to handle cattle will be sticking around, because I’ve had a deuce of a job finding wranglers for the drive. I’ve persuaded some men to see out the season with us and try their luck in the fall. Might even join them for a while. Had to up the wages though. Sorry about that.”

Murdoch thanked Paul for all his hard work and returned to the hacienda for breakfast. There was a lot to think about.

“It could be worse. At least we do have enough for the cattle drive, and hopefully there will be more demand for beef if we get an influx of miners.” Murdoch mopped up his egg yolk with a fresh biscuit as Maria poured him more coffee.

“When will this cattle drive be?”

“Probably leave the end of next week.” Murdoch took a last gulp of coffee and stood up to go.

“Next week! We’ve only just arrived and you are planning to abandon me already. I don’t want you to go, Murdoch.”

“I’m sorry, lass, but I’ve got to. You’ll be fine. Estella and the others will look after you.” Murdoch grabbed his hat and headed out the door.

The first few days back were incredibly busy, catching up on everything that had happened on the ranch and further afield in California. Most of his neighbours seemed happy about becoming part of the United States. Don Domingo Allende Rivera was not, but Don Frederigo Caldera Palmero was sanguine.

“Now we shall see if the American government does more for California than Mexico, my friend. Though, a gold rush may do more to change our fortunes than any politician.”

“You do not think gold is a bad thing, Don Frederigo?” Maria smile at her host as he topped up her wine glass.

“No, my dear. It will cause us some problems certainly, and I’m glad gold has not been found on the Estancia Caldera, but gold will bring people and California needs more people to make it great. I look forward to being part of the transformation.”

On the long drive home Murdoch asked how Maria had enjoyed dining with one of the first families of the area. He was surprised by her response.

“Don Frederigo is an agreeable man, but I do not like Doña Mercedes. She is the worst kind of Peninsulares—all airs and graces, looking down on me when I am now her equal.”

“She and Catherine always got on. She was …”

“Well, of course if she got on with Catherine, she can do no wrong!”

“That’s not what I meant. If you make a little effort to...”

Maria exploded. “Why should I be the one to make an effort?”

Murdoch tried to make peace, but nothing he said after that was right. They went to bed angry. Maria turned her back on him. When he cuddled up to her, she wriggled away. With a sigh, he rolled over and settled down to sleep, hoping for a change of mood in the morning. Sure enough, the first rays of sunlight found Maria full of affection once again, and he arrived late to a meeting with his foremen.

The cattle drive began the following day. Murdoch left with José Ramos, five wranglers, two gunhawks and old Miguel driving the chuck wagon. Men were in short supply. Cipriano’s grandfather normally spent his days doing odd jobs and snoozing in the sun not feeding hungry vaqueros. In addition, two of the wranglers, Pablo Hernandez and Javier Ramos, were no more than boys.

“Beggars can’t be chooses, José, but your lad is doing well. Both the young’uns are.” Murdoch and his foreman watched as Javier drove a stray steer back to the herd, and then Murdoch rode ahead.

San Francisco in the summer of 1848 was not the San Francisco Murdoch visited late the previous year. Already the discovery of gold was making an difference. Murdoch estimated the population may have doubled, and while that would still put it at little more than one thousand, it was a noticeable increase. Once, the trading post had stood out on the hillside, a lone building overlooking the bay. Now it was surrounded by tents and hastily built cottages.  There was more construction in progress. A pier was being built and a livery. Where one, perhaps two ships would have been at anchor at the height of the season, now there were four, as well as one smaller vessel pulled up on the mudflats clearly acting as some kind of dwelling. A clipper weighed anchor and sailed towards open seas as Murdoch made his way to the trading post.

“The Aphrodite was delayed eight days trying to find crew to replace those that jumped ship.” New England Enterprises’ agent Josiah Brown handed Murdoch a beer, and stood wiping his brow with a chequered handkerchief before taking his seat. “The Providence is suffering the same problem. You’d have missed us otherwise. I’ll take two hundred head. That should fill the hull and keep the crew busy until another couple of seamen can be found. Moses Stein will likely take the rest. He’s just come in with the Hanover.”

“This is nothing.” Richardson, the trading post owner, stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat and rocked happily on his heels gazing out over the bay as Murdoch went down the porch steps. “Once the vessels that have sailed in the past few months reach their destinations, the whole world will know there is gold in California. The ships and men will come in their droves. I’ll do a roaring trade.”

Daniel Johnson felt the same way. He came to the campsite in the evening when he heard the Lancer men were in town. He had travelled to San Francisco on business two days before, leaving Sarah to look after the shop. A substantial order for pick axes, shovels and other mining equipment was now on its way to Boston.

“Walker next door is keeping an eye on Sarah for me.” Daniel accepted a mug of coffee and took a seat next to Murdoch by the fire. The day had been hot, but the sun had gone down and a cool breeze blew in off the bay. “Opportunities like this don’t come along too often so I had to get my order dispatched. With luck my stock and my customers will arrive at the same time. I hear congratulations are in order.”

“Likewise.” Murdoch added some more wood to the fire and leaned back against his saddle. “When is Sarah due?”

“August, and the heat’s getting to her already. You and that beautiful young wife best come to dinner before she gets too crotchety to entertain.” Daniel helped himself to some stew. “The rumour mill says you’re to become a father again in December?”

“News travels fast.”

“The matriarchs of Green River have had you in their sights ever since Catherine died, Murdoch. You must know that. They’ve just been waiting for the two years of mourning to be up. They’re none too happy with you now. Marrying before their daughters and sisters could lay their claims. I’m surprised at you man. Have you no sense of decency?” Daniel laughed at his own joke. Then he looked up at the night sky and spoke in a much quieter voice. “I should warn you, they‘ve done the math.”

“How does Sarah feel about it?”

“Sarah. My God, I won the prize when she answered my advertisement. Sarah loved Catherine, you know that, and I did wonder how she’d react, but she’s happy for you.”

“And …?”

“And she has already given Jemima Smith a lecture on Christian charity and casting stones. I wasn’t supposed to hear their conversation so don’t say anything, but my Sarah will give your new bride a fair shake, Murdoch. We’ll expect you both for Sunday lunch.”

Daniel accompanied Murdoch back to the San Joaquin. Half the men remained in San Francisco to cut the wolf loose after Murdoch paid them their wages. Time would tell whether any of them would return to the ranch or if they would equip themselves with the few tools Richardson and the new merchant, Samuel Brannan, still had for sale at extortionate prices and head for the goldfields to try their luck.

When Murdoch arrived home Maria threw her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly to whoops of approval from his men. She curtsied low to her audience and then led Murdoch by the hand into the house. She had been busy in his absence. The great room had taken on a much more Mexican feel.

“You’ve changed things.” Murdoch looked about, slightly stunned.

“Si, do you like it? I’ve discarded those fussy doilies and replaced the curtains with ones more in keeping with the hacienda’s Mexican style.”

“Very nice.” He spoke with more enthusiasm than he felt. His eyes travelled to the bookcase. “Where are the photographs and there was a wee bag with coal in it?”

“Estella explained about the coal. I’ve put that in your desk drawer. Do you like these candlesticks, mi amor. I discovered them in Morro Coyo. Aren’t they beautiful?”

“The photographs—where are the photographs?” Murdoch could not disguise a mounting panic.

Maria’s voice turned cold. “The photograph of your son is on your desk. I do not know where the rest are. Ask Estella. I told her to put them out of sight. I am Señora Lancer now.”

“No one denies that, Maria, but you should have talked to me first.” Although he was relieved that the photographs of Catherine were safe, Murdoch was confused and irritated. Tired from a long journey home, he had not expected anything like this. True he had not really thought about the photographs or what it would be like for Maria left alone at Lancer so soon after their arrival. He felt guilty about that, but he also felt annoyed. She had not thought about how her actions would affect him. She should have waited.

“You were not here to talk to, mi marido. When I discovered I was sharing my house with a ghost, I wanted her gone as soon as possible.” Maria stood defiantly in front of him, but then she smiled and put out her hand to take his. Murdoch made a growling sound in his throat and a futile attempt to turn away. Maria caressed his face and kissed him. Her melting brown eyes drew him in. “Come, mi amor, let us not fight as soon as you come home. I am sorry, I did not wait, but your photographs are safe and you do understand my feelings. I am your wife now. It is not right to have your first wife on display. Come, Murdoch, let me prove to you that your thoughts should be on the living.”

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX

 

Sunday lunch with the Johnson’s was a success. Murdoch was relieved. In all honesty, he had not been sure how Maria and Sarah would get on. Sarah and Daniel Johnson welcomed Maria with genuine goodwill however, and she seemed to recognise that. Sarah’s Spanish was still shaky, but Maria spoke English well. They obviously found no difficulty talking to each other; the living room was full of laughter when Murdoch and Daniel returned from smoking their cigars outside.

“I was telling Sarah how silly you looked in a sombrero.” Maria snuggled into Murdoch as he drove their buggy home. “She has offered to help me with my wardrobe to appease the upright ladies of Green River. I shall visit her on Thursday and she will introduce me to a few of them.”

“Hmm, that’s nice.” Murdoch was amazed that Maria had accepted any advice about the way she dressed. Sarah certainly was a diplomat beyond compare. Even so, he wished he felt more confident about the pleasantness of the pending introductions. He knew he should have made more effort himself to escort Maria around Green River. He had made a start with Morro Coyo, but he feared Daniel’s assessment of the Green River ladies was all too close to the truth. He was relieved that Sarah had volunteered her services.

“From Sarah’s description, I will not like many of them, but then as she says, at least I do not have to see them every day. I pity her tied to that shop, having to be polite to witches. I remember it was like that when I worked in the taberna, only it was mostly hombres groseros I had to deal with.”

“I don’t recall you being overly polite to them.” Murdoch gave Maria a sly look. “I do hope you are more restrained with the good ladies of Green River.”

“I will try, Murdoch. For your sake, I will try. I have warned Sarah to get me away quickly if my eyes start to flash.”

Murdoch chuckled. He was pleased Maria could laugh at herself. He reined the buggy to a halt outside the hacienda and helped her down. “Aye bonnie lass, you can be fiery. But at least you know it, and you know how important it is to be on good terms with our neighbours. I’ll trust you not to cause too much uproar then.”

“Oh, I might need a little encouragement to be good.” She placed her hands on his chest and peeped up at him. Her eyes reflected the light from the lantern over the portico.

Murdoch smiled. The siren he had fallen in love with was in residence.

Turning, Maria led him through the entrance hall to their bedroom. She discarded her travel wear and removed Murdoch’s hat and jacket, placing them on the hooks by the door. Her hips swayed in the candlelight as she walked across the room and back again. Murdoch swallowed.

He watched her undo the hooks on her dress and ease the cloth over her shoulders. The garment slipped to the floor. He undid the laces to her corset. As the whale bone fell away, he swallowed again.

Maria stretched like a cat. She rested one hand lightly on her breast and the other on her midriff. Murdoch could see a small bulge through the fine cotton shift. Wrapping his arms around her waist, he breathed in her scent.

“It could take a lot of patience to withstand the ladies of Green River.” Maria’s words were soft but clear as she undid his tie. “Even with Sarah’s help I’m not sure I will have the strength to stay calm.” With butterfly kisses to his chest, she released his shirt buttons one by one.

Maria locked her eyes to his and released her hair from its comb. Long, black tresses cascaded down her back. Without dropping her gaze, she unbuckled his belt and trouser buttons. Then reaching up with one hand, her fingers stroked the nape of his neck while her other hand remained occupied below. Murdoch’s body hardened and Maria smiled.

“Perhaps you should remind me what I would miss out on if I failed to control my temper— if I lost your affection.” She moistened her lips and Murdoch shuddered under her touch. On tiptoes, Maria teased his ear with her tongue. “Show me now, mi amor.”

 


Chapter 27: December 23rd

Murdoch escaped through the French doors. Cipriano followed. The vaquero leaned against a pillar. He withdrew a small pipe from his pocket and began to pack tobacco into the bowl. “It’s normal, Patrón. My Maria even swore. My Maria never swears. It means nothing. All will be well.”

Murdoch wanted to believe that. He was desperate to believe that. He blinked up at the moonless sky; the few stars were like lonely glow worms in a cave where the walls were closing in on him.

Two hours earlier, Estella had left the bedroom to fetch more water. “Do not worry, Patrón.”

An hour after that, Dr Owens had emerged, sleeves rolled up, to get his medical box. Murdoch had dogged him to the buggy, bombarding him with questions.

George Owens held up a hand to silence him. “Don’t you trust me, man?”

Murdoch blinked back like a stunned mullet. Before he could regain his voice, Owens threw back his head and laughed. Then he slapped Murdoch on the shoulder and disappeared along the hall.

Owens was too young. He had little or no experience. He was fresh out of medical school when Daniel met him at Sutter’s Fort in July and persuaded him to settle in Green River.  True he had safely delivered Catherine Beatrice Johnson, Murdoch’s second goddaughter, in August and his third in November. Cipriano and Maria’s daughter, Catarina Estella Ramirez Hernandez, had been a breech birth. Owens had earned the esteem of every woman on the ranch by saving both mother and child. But Murdoch was still not convinced the young physician knew what he was doing.

What if the baby was a boy? Male babies might be more difficult to bring into this world, and Owens had as yet only delivered girls. He was beginning to get a reputation for it; a good doctor with a magic touch. Only Maria herself was sure she was having a son. Murdoch did not care; he just prayed that the child and its mother remained safe.

He wanted to be joyous, for Maria’s sake as well as his own, but visions of what he imagined to be Catherine’s last hours plagued him. The ache of loss he felt whenever he thought of her or Scott seem to intensify as Maria’s due date drew closer. He fought against the very idea that tragedy could happen twice, but there were times when the panic rose up inside him, and all he could do was to escape company until he regained control.

The past few weeks had been stressful for everyone. Maria was due early December. Everyone had said so, but the baby thought otherwise. He or she was obviously comfortable in there and was in no hurry to experience the winter chill.

“Nothing to worry about.” Dr Owens let Murdoch into the bedroom, and then put his stethoscope away in his medical chest. They waited while Maria got dressed behind an oriental modesty screen. “Everything seems fine. Some babies just like to be well-cooked.”

It was a great pity that the child’s mother was not equally at ease. Life with Maria could be tempestuous at the best of times, but once the due date passed, she became irascible from morning to night.

“I look and feel like a beached whale!” Maria lowered her unusual bulk into the only chair she found remotely comfortable.  

Murdoch poured himself a whisky and stretched his aching back. He had been digging ditches all afternoon. “A very beautiful whale.”

“If that is supposed to be funny, you’d better stick to branding cattle. This is all your fault. Now I’m paying for it. Stop laughing at me!” Maria searched for something to throw at him. “Estella, where are you? Where have you put my cushion? Why are you always moving things?”

Maria and Estella had a stormy relationship. Over the months since Murdoch and Maria had arrived from Matamoros, Maria had complained about their housekeeper many times. “She idolised Catherine. How am I to compete with a ghost? She questions everything I ask her to do and undermines me with the other women.”

Estella’s version of events may have been different, but she did not voice her views to Murdoch. He knew Maria could sometimes be unreasonable and difficult to please. Even so, in this case, he suspected there could be truth in what she said. Estella had lost a lot during the past few years, however; he was not about to see her lose her job as well.

Oddly, as Maria got larger and less confident about the birth, she seemed to get on better with the older woman. Every chink in Maria’s armour appeared to make Estella more accommodating. Perhaps having seven babies of her own gave Estella patience and an understanding of the mother-to-be that was beyond Murdoch’s comprehension. Until two days before Christmas he had found it safest just to stay out of the way as much as possible.

Murdoch made a point of never being far away, but he kept out of the hacienda during the day except at mealtimes. He had come in for breakfast just after eight. There was no food on the table. He was about to go into the kitchen when he heard a loud moan. Dashing down the hall to the bedroom, he entered through the open door. His heart hammered in his chest as he approached his wife. “Is it time?”

Maria gripped the bed-end, leaning forward, eyes to the floor. As soon as the contraction passed, she turned to him and smiled. She placed his hand on her swollen belly so he could feel the new life moving inside her. “Your son has slept long enough. He has decided to join us in time for Navidad.”

Estella entered the room carrying towels and old linen. She bustled past them and started to prepare the bed for the birth. “You must go now, Patrón. This is women’s work. I have sent for the doctor. He is the only man now allowed in here. Go. I will look after Señora Lancer.”

That had been twelve hours ago. Twelve hours! Since that time Murdoch had chopped enough wood to last until next Christmas, straightened every bit of bent metal in the smithy and for the past three hours, since the doctor arrived, waited in the great room like a caged lion. He had counted the tiles on the floor and crossed from the sofa or desk or armchair or fireplace to the hall leading to the bedrooms so many times he thought he would go mad. God he hated waiting. He wanted to do something, but what could he do? He dared not leave the hacienda again to work, he could not concentrate of his accounts and Estella would not allow him into his bedroom even to see Maria for a moment. He knew. He had tried.

And always just below the surface of his mind, haunting him, were the nightmare images of blood, pallid greying skin and eyes filled with pity.

Paul and José had looked in after their day’s work. They had stayed for a while, but left for their dinners when new father, Cipriano, arrived. Cipriano had joined him in the great room after sharing an evening meal with his own family. “I’ve brought you some morisqueta.”

Murdoch waved the food away. He had no appetite.

The doctor had been in Morro Coyo resetting a dislocated shoulder. It had taken Diego hours to find him and even then, Owens had not hurried. Apparently Estella had told Diego to say there was no need to rush. Damned woman, she should have told him it was urgent.  When Murdoch had been in the hallway trying for the third time to persuade Estella to let him in, he had heard Maria groan with each contraction. They were coming more frequently. He was sure the doctor should have been told to come immediately.

When Dr Owens finally arrived Murdoch had greeted him with relief. By showing the way to the bedroom, he had got a glimpse of Maria when the door was opened, but Estella was firm. He could not go in. The doctor had only left Maria that one time since. That was good. Everyone said Dr Owens was a good doctor. Every new mother was well and singing his praises. He had delivered every baby safely—so far.

Murdoch paced the ground outside the French doors. He had stayed in the great room until the screaming. The hacienda’s walls were thick. Sound did not travel easily through adobe, and yet he had heard Maria scream, not once but again and again. He had tried to go to her, but Cipriano had stopped him saying he was not needed, that he would just be in the way. Murdoch had escaped outside.

For what seemed like an eternity, he focused on the brightest star in the sky. “Please God let them be all right. Please God.”

He did not hear the French doors open behind him. Estella touched his shoulder. “You can go in now, Patrón.”

Murdoch ran. He paused as his hand gripped the handle of the bedroom door, and then entered too full of emotion to know how he was feeling. Dr Owens was busy cleaning and putting away his equipment. Maria was in bed propped up on pillows and in her arms…

“Come and see your son, Murdoch.” Maria’s eyes had never looked so happy, or so soft. Tears glistened on her cheeks. Gently, she pulled the shawl she had knitted back to uncover the sleeping infant, damp black hair and perfect in every way.

Murdoch sat on the edge of the bed, and Maria passed him his son. Cradling the little boy as though he might break, Murdoch kissed Maria. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she hiccoughed, half laughing, half crying. She rested her head on Murdoch’s shoulder and stroked her son’s cheek. “I never imagined I could feel this way. Isn’t he wonderful?”

Murdoch smiled. His heart was full. Tragedy would not rob him of his son and wife this time, and he would keep them both safe from harm until the day he died. He closed his eyes. Thank you, God.

Kissing Maria again, he rose and walked his son to the window. Murdoch wiped the condensation from the glass and looked out at the stars twinkling brightly through the crisp, cold air. Strange, they now reminded him of diamonds against soft, black velvet. A log crumbled in the grate. Warmth enveloped him, but still he tucked the shawl snugly around the sleeping baby—just to be sure he was warm enough, just to be sure he felt safe. Murdoch brushed his son’s forehead with his lips, and breathed in his scent. The infant stirred. Staring up at his father with steady blue eyes, the child seemed to be asking a question.

“Well now, wee man. Your mama and I have discussed it. How does John Tomàs Lancer suit you?”

 


Chapter 28: Surprising Developments

Fatherhood suited Murdoch. He survived the first three months—the period when every new father learns a lot more about his wife’s anatomy than he ever wanted to know, and he discovers that sleepless nights are not just the province of the mother. Johnny suffered mild colic and wakefulness, but perseverance got them through it, and Murdoch was more than willing to take his turn pacing the floor in the early hours to soothe his crying son when hunger was not the issue. He even changed the occasional diaper, though he swore Maria to secrecy about that.

“The old guardhouse comes in handy if you’ve got a spare hour.” Cipriano climbed up into the front of the wagon. He laughed as Murdoch yawned for the third time. “I left a pillow and a blanket in there. The bunk isn’t too uncomfortable.”

“What a good idea.” Murdoch slapped the vaquero on the knee. “I was awake half the night.”

“I can’t take the credit.” Cipriano picked up the reins. “The guardhouse has been used by the new fathers of this estancia to catch up on sleep since the days of mi abuelo.” Cipriano released the brake and clicked his tongue. The wagon rolled forward.

When Murdoch finished sorting and stacking the sawn timber for the new bunkhouse, he checked his grandfather’s watch. Cipriano would not be back for at least an hour. Rolling the barrel of nails out from the barn, Murdoch stood it next to the timber ready for the carpenter. Then he headed towards the old guard house.

By April they were over the worst. Johnny and Maria settled into a routine, and the end of each day offered up the kind of homecoming Murdoch had always dreamed of. Johnny was a happy infant, very inquisitive. Once his eyes could focus they seemed to search the room for anything and everything of interest, and even without words the bairn could make his wishes known. Murdoch was forever carrying him closer to objects and animals that caught his attention. He adored horses, and they showed him unusual patience.

Johnny’s eyes stayed blue, but that seemed to be the only feature inherited from Murdoch. In every other respect he resembled his mother.

Like his brother before him, he loved to grab hold of things, most particularly his parents’ hair.

“Make him let go, Murdoch.” Maria was trying to get Johnny into his bath before bed. Murdoch peeled back the strong little fingers one by one until Maria could get her head free. The preserving pan on the kitchen table was half full. Murdoch tested the temperature with his elbow and lifted the squirming infant into the water.

“You little devil!” Still holding his son but with arms out stretched, Murdoch jumped back to dodge the wave that came at him as Johnny kicked vigorously and squealed with glee.

The joys and dangers of fatherhood aside, Murdoch still had a ranch to run. Preparations for the first cattle drive of the season were well underway by the beginning of May. They would leave a little earlier this time so they could take it slow. Murdoch had heard there was greater demand for beef and wanted to ensure the animals arrived in good condition. As he rode off, Maria held Johnny up to watch him go and helped the boy wave his father goodbye.

“I envy you, Boss.” Paul turned back to face the way they were headed. The herd and vaqueros spread out in front of them as they passed the chuck wagon. “Diego! Wake up—to your left.”

The daydreaming vaquero pulled back on his reins and chased after the heifer trying to escape the herd into the trees. Paul cantered up to take Diego’s place on the wing, and Murdoch urged his horse forward to catch up with Paul. “Your turn will come. One day you’ll meet some bonnie lass, and you’ll not know what hit you.” 

None of the men quite knew what hit them when they arrived in San Francisco. If Murdoch had been surprised by the progress he had witnessed when he drove his cattle to market in 1848, it was nothing to his amazement when he arrived at the end of May 1849. Richardson had been right. The ramshackle town had not just doubled its population this time; one thousand residents had become over twenty thousand, and new migrants arrived daily. More ships than he could count filled the harbour. Construction was in full swing and a more ethnically mixed population would be hard to imagine. In his time there had always been a few Sandwich Islanders and whites mixed with the local Mexican and Indian population, but now judging by the colours and accents he heard walking down only a few blocks of Montgomery Street, there were migrants from throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

“Lancer, hold up!” The rotund form of Josiah Brown came panting to a stop beside him as Murdoch returned to the stockyard. “I’ll buy them all.”

“Oh no you don’t, Brown. You’ll not do me out of my fair share of the best herd to come in this month.” Moses Stein took out his pocket watch and checked the time. “I think we should partake of some refreshments, gentlemen, and negotiate. You’re from the San Joaquin, aren't you, Lancer? A drive direct to Sacramento would not be out of the question, I suspect. I shall talk to you about that later.”

Murdoch allowed himself to be led away into a nearby saloon where he listened in awe as the two stock agents bid each other up for the honour of purchasing his cattle. When he returned to camp a short distance from the stockyards, Paul poured him a coffee from the jug on the fire.

“You look like you’ve just been run over by a stampede, Boss.”

“Aye, you could say that. Do you know how much I got per head at the end of last season?”

“Double the normal wasn’t it?”

“Aye, I got $10 per head. I thought Christmas had come early. My God, I never dreamed…!”

“Doubled again has it? Can’t say I’m surprised. Look at this place. I’ve never seen so many people in one spot before.”

Murdoch gulped at his coffee and handed Paul one of the two bills of sale he held in his hand. In the end Brown and Stein had bought half each for the same price. Paul scanned the page to find the figure. “Holy shit!”

Once he got over the shock, Murdoch decided he would use some of this extraordinary windfall to pay his foremen a bonus. He gave Paul his the following morning. “I don’t know what to say, Boss. It’s too much.”

“You’ve seen me safely through more troubles than I like to think about, Paul. It’s only fair I reward you and José for your efforts while I can. I doubt prices like this will last.”

Before heading back to the ranch, Murdoch had other business to attend to. First he visited Portsmouth Square near the town centre. A bank had opened there earlier in the year. As he did not like the idea of carrying so much gold, Murdoch decided to open an account and leave some of it behind.

“If you are interested, Mr Lancer, I can put you in the way of some good investment opportunities,” The bank manager blotted the ink on the document Murdoch had just signed, and passed him the next one. “Messrs Sweeny and Baugh are looking to construct an electric telegraph. Their station house has been a big success.”

Murdoch agreed the bank manager could say he was interested enough to look over their proposal as long as it was solely a financial investment on his part. He had no time to devote to the enterprise. He would write to James McIntyre in Boston and ask his advice. Perhaps he could recommend a lawyer in California. Or maybe Alfred could do that. He must be in California by now.

Alfred Burke, the land agent, was in California. Murdoch was heading back to camp when he bumped into him and his wife strolling down the street in the opposite direction. “Murdoch! I heard you were in town. We’ve just been down to the stockyards looking for you.”

G.W. Burke and Son Ltd had opened offices in San Francisco, and Alfred had moved his family to California so he could head the branch. “McIntyre and Associates are opening a branch here too. McIntyre asked me to let you know, so you didn’t tie yourself to another law firm. I think you’ve met his eldest son, Will? He and Jackson, one of the Associates, were scheduled to leave Boston in April. They can’t be far away now.”

Alfred showed Murdoch where his offices were located and invited him for dinner. The Burkes had purchased a newly built wooden house on California Hill a convenient distance from the centre of town. “The laws governing property are a bit of a mess at the moment, but this will be prime real estate in years to come as will the Estancia Lancer. You’ll be pleased you took our advice and continued with the surveying.”

“When I had the money to spare. Still a lot to do, especially for the land acquired later.”

“Believe me you are well prepared compared to many. Your ownership of the land we sold you will stand up to scrutiny under any of the systems I have heard talked of so far. Don’t go spending all the money you’re getting for your cattle at the moment though. These prices can’t last and you’ll need cash not credit when the bubble bursts. Some of your neighbours are already facing problems. Don Marques wants to sell his land, but he has to prove his ownership under American law first or persuade people to purchase with the risk that the government could later not recognise their title. I’m doing what I can for him, but that and the lack of surveyed boundaries will push the price down.”

“But he was granted much of his land under Spanish rule and the rest when the Mexican’s first broke up the missions in the ‘30s. He was well established when I arrived.”

“True, but like other Californios he didn’t bother to fulfil all the conditions of his grants; and then when Haney’s lot were running rampant, he walked away. There are more squatters on that land now than I can count and they all lay claim by right of occupancy. I’ll be lucky to find buyers at a quarter of its worth. Are you interested in the section between Lancer’s boundary and the river?”

Murdoch’s mind was still full of everything he’d seen and heard in San Francisco as he rode up to the hacienda, but the welcome he receive drove such trivialities from his mind. Maria had heard the guard cry out as he came through the arch. She was outside waiting with Johnny struggling in her arms to get free and greet him.

“Hello Johnny. Are you pleased to see me, wee man?” Kissing Maria as she released the boy to him, Murdoch let Johnny stroke his horse’s mane before untying his saddlebags one-handed.

Back in the great room he lowered his son to the floor, and greeted his wife properly. “I think I’ll have to go away more often if this is the welcome I get when I return.”

“Hmm, you only get welcomed back if I still remember you. Go away more often I might forget and find someone new.” Maria drew Murdoch’s head down for another kiss.

“You wanton hussy! I’ve a mind not to give you your present.” Murdoch picked up his saddlebags and pretended he was going to leave the room. Maria pulled him back laughing. “All right then. Now you’re not to expect this every trip, but the cattle sold for a particularly good price this time.”

Murdoch extracted a small rectangular parcel from one of the saddlebags. Maria accepted it with glee and tore at the paper in excitement. Glancing up, she bit her bottom lip and slowly lifted the lid of the green leather jewellery box. “Oh, Murdoch!”

“Do you like it?” Murdoch lifted the etched gold locket from its bed of satin and fastened it around Maria’s neck as she stood in front the mirror.

“It’s beautiful! Don’t you think Mama’s locket is beautiful, Johnny?” Maria and Murdoch turned to where they had left Johnny playing happily on his blanket, but he was gone.

There was a moment of alarm and then Murdoch looked down at his feet. “Well, what do you know, the bairn can crawl!”
 


Chapter 29: The Boom

Murdoch drove cattle direct to Sacramento in July. The deal offered by Moses Stein had been too good to turn down. He also committed to another Sacramento drive in late October, in addition to the regular one to San Francisco in September. At these prices he told himself, he would be silly to pass up the opportunity. By July he was beginning to have second thoughts. If he kept this up he would run his herds down to nothing and it would be a hard road to recovery. He would agree to nothing more until winter; when the season was over he would take a long hard look at everything and plan ahead.

At the very heart of the goldfields, Sacramento was booming. The new carefully-designed city on the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers looked likely to become more important than New Helvetia or any other previously established settlement in the area. The town’s development had been astutely handled by John Sutter Junior and colleagues, although interestingly it did not have the support of Sutter Senior. Apparently Sacramento was even being considered as a possible site for a state capital; or so Murdoch was told by several influential citizens when he arrived. After explaining the town’s many virtues, they pressed him to meet with the governor to discuss the possibility and promote their case.

“You are one of the largest landowners in the San Joaquin Valley, and may I say one of the most highly respected, sir. I would welcome your opinion on the subject.” The governor offered Murdoch a cigar from his own private supply and sat back to listen to what he had to say as though Murdoch was a man of importance. Murdoch was both flattered and concerned by this treatment.

Always in the past his Californio neighbours, Don Domingo Allende Rivera and Don Frederigo Caldera Palmero had enjoyed the ear of the governors. Now under American rule, politicians seemed to be by-passing them as they looked increasingly to more recent settlers. Murdoch was alarmed by some of the rhetoric and legislation that was fast making the Indian and California-born Mexican populations into second class citizens. He expressed as much to the governor, who listened politely, but asked that he confine himself to the topic under discussion. “California is headed towards statehood. A state needs a capital, and towns vie for the privilege. Which of those I have mentioned, would you consider most suitable, Lancer and why?”

Murdoch emerged from the meeting with mixed feelings. The governor had shown genuine interest in his views about the location of a new state capital and the economic development of the area, but he had clearly not wished to discuss social concerns. Was he a man, who would make decisions according to political expediency regardless of the rights and wrongs of the matter? Murdoch hoped not. He had expected joining the United States to bring California greater opportunities, not laws that gave some men more rights than others or worked against local traditions. Murdoch was worried by what he saw as political support for attitudes that would disadvantage his own wife and son.

The situation did not improve over the next few months, but summer was a busy time at the ranch and Murdoch had little time to think about anything else. In addition to the cattle drives there was the calving, weaning and branding, and the daily movement of the cattle to new pasture. The planting and harvesting of feed crops was also done at this time, along with a myriad of general maintenance activities, which continued throughout the year. Murdoch was on the go from daybreak to sundown, and had very little energy left by the end of each day.

“Murdoch, wake up.” Maria nudged him with her foot. He had got down on the floor with Johnny to read him his bedtime story, because the book was so large and the boy had wanted to look closely at every picture. It was easier on the floor. Once finished, however, Maria had taken their son off to bed, and Murdoch had relaxed a moment with his head resting on the sofa. He must have dozed off.

“Sarah has been telling me about a grand fiesta planned for September in San Francisco. She and Daniel are going, and I thought we could too.”

Murdoch made a few enquiries and discovered city merchants and other commercial interests had grouped together to host an open-air ball in Portsmouth Square. It was being held soon after he would be in town with the cattle drive. If Maria travelled with the Johnsons he could meet them there and spend a week in San Francisco with her before returning to Lancer. Like Murdoch, Daniel had made quite extraordinary profits during the past few months and as a result he had expanded his business from a simple mercantile into a more impressive emporium of general goods. He now also employed staff, who could be trusted to manage the business while he and Sarah were away. The two couples decided to take one of Estella’s younger daughters with them as nursemaid to help look after the children.

“Magdalena can help me dress.” Maria climbed into bed next to Murdoch and snuggled down. “And stay with the children while we attend the ball. If we take her with us, we will have so much more freedom to enjoy ourselves.” She reached out and Murdoch blew out the candle.

By September the opportunities for all kinds of enjoyment were clearly increasing in San Francisco on a daily basis; the city was abuzz with activity. After disposing of his cattle and paying his men, Murdoch crossed Portsmouth Square to reach the Grand Hotel. He could see men busily erecting stands and seating and putting up lanterns in readiness for the following night’s festivities.

Murdoch approached the hotel desk and asked if Mrs Lancer had checked in. Following the clerk’s directions, he found her with Magdalena, busily unpacking. Magdalena stood on a chair, hanging up her mistress’s gown from the top of the wardrobe to ensure the creases fell out before the ball. Johnny played on the floor with a hat box. Murdoch had booked two adjoining rooms as he had been too late to reserve a suite. He and Maria would be in one and Magdalena would stay with Johnny and little Catherine Johnson in the other. Sarah and Daniel were across the hall.

Grabbing Maria loosely from behind, he kissed her quick and then flopped down on the bed, bouncing a little to test out the springs. He snatched an extra pillow from the other side of the bed and stuffed it behind his head. Swinging his legs up off the floor, he stretched out enjoying the luxury of a soft mattress after two weeks sleeping on the ground. Maria tapped his boots as she passed, and he moved them obediently off the bedspread.

Johnny crawled to the brass bed-end and pulled himself upright. Edging his way around, he used his father’s overhanging feet and the side of the bed as support until he was level with Murdoch’s chest. Then he tried to scramble up. Murdoch helped him over the side and jiggled the little boy up and down with his tummy muscles. Johnny squealed with laughter.

“This is the life.” Murdoch ruffled his son’s hair as Johnny settled down to play with Murdoch’s shirt buttons.

Maria smiled at the scene in front of her. Then she leaned over Murdoch and removed his gun from its holster. He made a grab for her but she skittered away. She put the Colt out of reach on the dresser. Grinning, Murdoch transferred his hat to his son’s head and stuffed yet another pillow behind his own. “I’ve just seen Alfred. He has invited us all to stay with him and Charlotte, if this is not to your liking.”

“That is kind, but I would prefer to meet Charlotte before becoming her house guest. I’m sure Sarah would feel the same. Maybe next time.” Maria put her nightgown down at the head of the bed where her pillows used to be.

The Lancers dined with the Johnsons that evening and the next day Murdoch and Maria left Johnny with Magdalena and went to explore the town. Maria had never seen such a place before, and Murdoch was amazed at the progress since his last visit.

“Those buildings didn’t even exist in May. It was just vacant land.”

“Look there’s a jeweller’s. Shall we go inside?”

Murdoch bowed to the inevitable and opened the door for his wife. The shop sold more than just jewellery. There were clocks and watches and exquisite trinket and jewellery boxes made of china, inlaid wood or precious metals. While Maria monopolised the time of the shop girl, Murdoch examined the timepieces.

“A very nice clock that. Ebony case made locally by a cabinet maker recently arrived, highly skilled and contracted exclusively to this establishment, sir.” Mr Greenspan, the shop owner, opened the front of the case to show Murdoch the workings inside.

“The movement is English-made I see. I like the subsidiary dials for seconds and dates. I presume it’s an eight day movement?”

“Yes indeed, sir. Made by one of London’s most skilled craftsmen. Clearly you know your clocks.”

“I’ve had some experience. I’ve not seen a longcase as fine as this for some time. How much?”

Murdoch bought the grandfather clock. It would be delivered within the month. He also purchased sapphire and gold drop earrings with a matching pendant for his wife. Maria was ecstatic. “Thank you, mi amor. They will go with my gown perfectly.”

The sapphire blue gown with black Spanish lace had been made especially for the event from Chinese silk ordered by Sarah from one of the many catalogues now regularly received by the emporium. She had ordered a flattering patterned peach-coloured silk for herself. The women had been frantically trying to finish their gowns right up to the day before they left for San Francisco.

Both ladies looked beautiful as they were accompanied through the cordon to the main reception area. Several gentlemen turned their way, but thought better of it when they spotted their escorts. Alfred Burke hailed them from where he stood with others on the south side of the square.

“Over here.” Alfred raised his hat to be sure they could see him. “Now for the benefit of the ladies, I shall introduce everyone: Murdoch and Maria Lancer and Daniel and Sarah Johnson from the San Joaquin Valley; Will and Anne McIntyre and Harry and Clarissa Jackson, newly resident here in San Francisco, but originally from Boston; and of course my lovely wife, Charlotte.”

Leaving Maria and Sarah in the company of their friends, Murdoch and Daniel went to get drinks. Daniel was already on his way back with the wines when Murdoch, carrying the beers, was blocked by a group of prosperous-looking Americans.

A corpulent gentleman with mutton-chop whiskers stuck his fingers in his waist coat and rocked on his heels. “Well my dear, it looks like it will be an entertaining evening.”

“I would be happier if we didn’t have to mix with foreigners and riff raff.” His wife surveyed the crowds before her with obvious disdain.

“Don’t you worry, ma’am. Laws are already in the pipeline to ensure California stays American.” A thinner man bowed with an unctuous smile. “The Mexicans will be encouraged to move back to Mexico and the Indians will be kept to the areas of no use. I admit the influx of Orientals is somewhat out of hand at the moment, but given time the government will resolve that issue too.”

“And in the meantime my daughters and I must lower our standards and rub shoulders with women like that.”

Murdoch’s eyes followed the direction of her fan. Maria was introducing Don and Doña Caldera to the McIntyres. “If you will excuse me, ma’am, I would like to join my wife and our friends. Oh, and you needn’t worry about ‘rubbing shoulders’ with those particular ladies. They are not known for lowering their standards.”

Murdoch bowed as he passed. He caught a glimpse of the woman’s consternation when she grasped his meaning, but he was already out of ear shot before she or her companions could think of a response. He smiled with grim satisfaction and made light of the encounter when chatting casually with Alfred and Daniel later. He opted not to mention it to Maria. The orchestra, having warmed up their instruments with gentle background music, began to play tunes that invited its audience to dance. Maria, who loved to dance, could not be refused.

They were in the middle of their second waltz together when it happened. Murdoch’s back gave out. One minute he was fine and the next he was doubled over grabbing at Maria for support. She helped him off the dance floor as Will McIntyre went in search of medical assistance.

“And what have we here.” Dr Hector Campbell broke through the wall of concerned friends and curious by-standers to reach the patient.

Murdoch gazed at a pair of hairy knees and a hem of green and blue tartan. “It’s my back. It’s happened before, but not since I was a lad. At the time the doctor said it was due to my growing too rapidly and the muscles not keeping up.”

“Do I detect the burr of a fellow Scot—a Highlander no less?” Campbell pressed and prodded Murdoch’s back. “Well now, I think…Yes, I think I agree with my learned colleague, and I think I can put you to rights. Not here though. Best get you to my office.”

Maria made a move to follow.

“No, Madam, stay. You will be of no use to your husband and an event such as this has too few ladies to spare one so bonny. Stay and give your smiles to other men while I work my magic.”

Murdoch was not quite sure he agreed with that sentiment, but he waved Maria away and told her to remain at the ball. He would return as soon as he could.

Dr Campbell came from Argyllshire. He had not long arrived and was thoroughly enjoying himself, shocking the natives by wearing his kilt. He made Murdoch lie down on his examination table and proceeded to entertain him with his full history as he applied hot and cold compresses to Murdoch’s back. After about half an hour of this, he began to massage the affected area. Then he manipulated various limbs until quite unexpectedly Murdoch felt something click and his back was back to normal.

“I will provide you with some exercises to strengthen your muscles. Too much sitting on a horse I suspect, but a man of your height is always at risk of such problems.”

The two men returned to the ball and parted company. Murdoch scanned the crowd and eventually saw Jackson’s head sticking up above the rest.

“Where are the others?” he asked as he joined Jackson and Burke.

“Our wives are prettifying, yours is on the dance floor along with the McIntyres and Johnsons.” Alfred pointed to where Maria was dancing with a tall man, well-dressed in Western-style. He was about the same age as Murdoch and was clearly enjoying his partner’s company.

Jackson blew a smoke ring into the air and winked at Burke. “You should have seen the place once you’d gone, Lancer. Lining up to dance with her they were. I can tell you now I won’t be leaving Clarissa alone. In fact if she and Charlotte don’t come back soon, Burke, I think we should go looking for them.”

The dance came to an end and Murdoch expected the man to escort Maria back, but they stayed where they were, talking, and when the orchestra struck up again, the fellow raised his arms in readiness to continue. Maria was all smiles as she put her hand into his and they joined the throng circling the dance floor once again.

“Now that’s not on.” Murdoch frowned. “Who is he?”

“No idea.” Burke shrugged and exhaled a cloud of smoke from his cigar. “But that will be the third dance. I’d cut in if I—“

Murdoch did not hear the last part of what Burke said, because he was already striding across the dance floor, dodging couples as they swirled around him.

Murdoch tapped the man on the shoulder. “You will excuse me, sir. I am recovered, and I would like to dance with my wife.”

The stranger stopped dancing and released Maria. “Ah, you’ll be Lancer, then.”

With pleased surprise, Maria hugged Murdoch and slipped her arm through his. “Murdoch, I’d like you to meet Thurstan Cole, recently arrived here from New Orleans, originally from London.”

“Mr Cole.” Murdoch shook hands, appraising the man’s appearance and bearing. His grip was strong and he returned Murdoch’s gaze with a hint of arrogant amusement.

“Thank you, Lancer. I am grateful for the opportunity to dance with the most beautiful creature here.” Cole kissed Maria’s hand. His eyes never left hers and Maria glowed in response. The Englishman tipped his hat to Murdoch and exited the dance floor.

The ball continued until after midnight. The Lancers strolled back to the hotel with the Johnsons by the light of a half moon. They were almost there when Murdoch happened to glance through the open doors of a saloon. Cole was seated at a card table, playing poker with a number of other men. Murdoch’s eyes stayed on him until they passed. Cole examined his hand and threw chips into the centre of the table. He appeared in control of the game. A gambler—that would account for him being so smooth; such men often were. But Murdoch had encountered gamblers before; none bothered him like this man did. Why? He could not work it out, but some sixth sense told him Thurston Cole was not to be trusted. With luck their paths would not cross again.
 

Chapter 30: Ups and Downs

“Johnny, you have a lot to learn about women.” Murdoch helped his son up from the floor.

It was Johnny’s first birthday. In celebration Murdoch and Maria were holding a small party for him. They had invited the Johnson and Ramirez families to share in the fun. Encouraged by her mother, Catarina Ramirez gave Johnny his present. Johnny accepted the gift without mishap, but then imitating his parents when they exchanged gifts he leaned forward and kissed the little girl full on the lips. The adults were not half as astonished as Catarina, who seemed to take exception to such familiarity. She shoved her playmate away. “No!”

Still rather unsteady on his feet, having only just learned to walk a few weeks before, Johnny descended hard on his fortunately well-padded rump. To his credit, he did not cry. He just stared up at the indignant Catarina with a look of puzzlement that made the adults laugh even more.

“Oh, Catarina! That wasn’t very nice.” Maria Ramirez tried very hard to keep a straight face, but failed miserably. “Say sorry.”

Catarina was having none of it. As Johnny was helped up, she ran off with Murdoch’s other goddaughter, Catherine. Not to be left out, Johnny wriggled free of Murdoch’s grasp and an impromptu game of chase involving parents and children began. It lasted until Estella came in with a bowl of soapy water and quills and started to blow bubbles. The toddlers squealed with delight as they tried to catch the rainbow makers.

Christmas was equally entertaining. The house was full of colour, religious icons and singing. Maria put poinsettia plants everywhere, and delicious smells wafted from the kitchen for days. The final posada on Christmas Eve ended at the hacienda. With Murdoch’s help, Johnny took his turn trying to hit the piñata. He then scrambled with the rest of the children for the sweet treats, which sprayed forth when one of the older boys finally broke through. In wagonloads the families of the Estancia Lancer went together to the mission chapel to celebrate the Mass of the Rooster, and afterwards returned to the hacienda for a midnight feast.  The house was filled with happiness and laughter until the early hours.

Johnny and the other small children were put to bed soon after returning from the mass, but not before Murdoch read them A Visit from Saint Nicholas. With Johnny and goddaughter Catarina snuggled into him on each side and older children seated at his feet, Murdoch read the poem aloud. Even the adults stopped their chatter to listen:

 

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In the hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads, 

Despite his late night, Johnny must have had sugar plums dancing in his head, because he was up at daybreak. Murdoch awoke to a small hand patting him on the cheek. “Pa!”

Johnny led him out to the great room. Eyes like saucers, his son pointed at the stockings above the fireplace, now full to bursting. “Up.”

Still yawning, Murdoch lifted Johnny so he could ‘help’ untie his stocking, and then watched as the boy methodically extracted each small treat one at a time. Maria joined them, handing Murdoch a steaming mug of coffee before she nestled herself sleepily into a chair by the fire. When Johnny reached the orange in the toe of the stocking, he stood up and presented it to Maria to peel. He then proceeded to feed himself and his parents with segments as juice dribbled down his chin.

It was a wonderful season of goodwill filled with the laughter of his younger son, but the joy of the experience also caused Murdoch to think more about his elder boy. Murdoch now had a wife and a happy home. Money for another trip to Boston was no issue. His New Year’s resolution was to bring Scott to Lancer.

“I’ve decided, Maria. I’m going to write to my father-in-law in Boston. It’s time to bring Scott home.”

“Do you really think so, mi marido? The boy is settled in Boston. California will seem very strange to him. Wouldn’t it be kinder to leave him where he is?” Maria passed Murdoch more biscuits to soak up the gravy on his plate.

“He’s my son. He belongs here with me, with us. He’s young. I’m sure he’ll adapt.”

“But Johnny can be such a handful. Now he is walking he is into everything. I’m not sure I could cope with two.” Maria took her husband’s hand and traced her finger over his palm. Her voice was low and hesitant as she glanced up at Murdoch. “Scott might resent a step-mother. I can never be his real mother.”

Clapping his hand over hers, Murdoch leaned forward and kissed her. “He’ll adore you, mi amor. And you’ll love him, I’m sure of it. You can have extra help —anything you want. Perhaps Magdalena would like a permanent job.”

Murdoch poured them both another glass of wine. Eyes downcast, Maria returned her hands to her lap and fiddled with the chatelaine at her waist.

“It’ll be wonderful to have him here. Johnny will have a big brother to play with. They’ll be just like me and Jock.” Murdoch chuckled, remembering how he used to trail after his older brother while he finished his chores.

Being five years older, Jock always had more jobs to do. He used to pretend Murdoch was slowing him down. He would growl at his little brother to go away, but once the pigs were fed and the cow milked, he would hide round the corner of the old stone barn and jump out at him. They would chase each other around the farmyard until their mother called out that she needed the milk for the porridge. “If your nae both washed and sitting at the table by the time your Da comes in, you can starve, you wee rascals.”

Murdoch sipped his wine, and smiled, not really conscious of Maria at all. He reached for the cheeseboard. Cutting a thick slice of cheese, he picked some grapes from the bunch. “Jock must have had the patience of a saint. I used to follow him everywhere.”

“Pa.” Johnny stretched out his hand. Murdoch gave him the plumpest grape he could see, and Johnny stuffed it into his mouth, beaming.

“I can’t fetch Scott until the end of the year so he’ll be five by the time he comes. That means he will be at school most of the day. He’ll be very little trouble.”

Maria gulped at her wine. “And how will this older half-brother affect Johnny? How will he affect our son and the position he holds on this ranch? Do you really believe the fine people of Green River and Morro Coyo will treat them the same?”

Murdoch was taken aback by her tone and even more so by her meaning, which he could not fail to understand. “What others think doesn’t matter. You can’t believe I would treat Johnny any differently. When Scott comes here they will be brothers on equal terms, equal in all respects, including my affection. Including your affection, I hope.”

Maria would not meet his eyes. She did not argue with him any further, but it was clear she was still not convinced. Murdoch was unsettled by her attitude, but he told himself she would come around once she was more used to the idea. The daily concerns of the ranch soon pushed her discontent to the back of his mind.

He had given serious thought to the level and quality of his stock after the last drive. Though it was tempting to meet every request for his cattle at the current inflated prices, he knew it was not sustainable. In 1849 he had succumbed to the temptation of high profits and sold far more animals than planned. As a result his herds were depleted. They also still had bloodstock issues. If he continued on the same path, he would ruin the ranch for the long term, and Murdoch was in for the long term. Consequently, he made the decision to sell only the usual number of cattle this year. He would drive cattle to San Francisco in May as normal, and he would do a shorter pre-arranged drive to Sacramento in September. They would not attend the much anticipated second ball in San Francisco. Maria would be disappointed, but Murdoch wanted to build up his financial reserves. He needed cash to pay for his trip to Boston to get Scott. He needed cash to invest in the development of the ranch.

His first investment was the purchase of breeding stock and a prize bull from his friend, Don Contanado. He and Paul travelled south early in January. They had no trouble finding vaqueros in Sonora willing to drive the animals north as many wanted to try their luck on the goldfields. Murdoch had arranged with Daniel Johnson to keep aside mining equipment, so that he could offer it as an incentive for the men to stay with the herd until they reached the ranch. The demand for equipment was so great that the promise of it was worth far more to a would-be miner than its actual inflated price. Even with only one hundred head and covering fifteen miles a day the drive would take over a month. Three extra wranglers were all that were needed for such a small herd, but Murdoch could not afford for them to get impatient and leave him part way. He would never know for sure that the option of being paid with pans, cradles, shovels and picks was a wise precaution, but the vaqueros did chose that option and they did stay the distance. There was only one minor incident along the way.

They were travelling inland between San Diego and Los Angeles. Water was scarce in those parts. Having diverted the cattle from a fouled water hole, Paul rode ahead in search of a good one. He thought he had found it and was on his way back to the herd when without warning something happened, and he feared he had made a mistake. Murdoch found him on the trail standing by his horse.

“Paul, what’s the matter?”

“Thank God, it’s you. I can’t see. The water ahead must be poisoned. It smelled and tasted all right, but I can’t see.”

Murdoch hailed the vaqueros to control the herd. They would need to take the animals wide, so they did not smell the water. Thirst could drive them to stampede. They would graze them for an hour or so first however, and hope Paul recovered his vision.

“Are you sure it was the water, Señor?” Ignacio, the eldest of the three wranglers, stared at O’Brien doubtfully. “I will check. I do not think bad water causes blindness—death, si, but not blindness.”

“What else could it be? My canteen sprang a leak. By the time I noticed, the last of my water was gone. I tried a few cacti but none of them gave me anything drinkable. I just ended up all sticky. When I finally reached the water I was very thirsty and drank quite a lot.”

“Did you wash the dust from your eyes?”

“I suppose so. Why?”

Ignacio sighed and muttered “estúpido gringo” under his breath. “I will check the waterhole, Señor Lancer—and look out for broken cactus on my way. If I am right, we can let the cattle drink. And if I am right Señor O’Brien, you are ignorante but lucky. Your sight will come back.”

The vaquero spurred his horse on. He returned an hour later and tossed a piece of cactus down in front of Paul, who was already regaining blurred vision. “Not all cacti can be used to quench your thirst, Señor, and some like euphorbia you should avoid for other reasons. As you have learned, its sap is sticky. If you get it in your eyes it will cause blindness—fortunately temporary blindness. ”

The waterhole was good. If Paul had washed his hands before rinsing his eyes, he would have suffered no problems, but instead he had rubbed the damaging latex into them. By the time they reached the waterhole shortly before dusk, his sight was back to normal. That evening he and Murdoch examined the piece of cactus more closely, and then listened intently as Ignacio taught them the visible signs of a poisoned waterhole like animal bones and the absence of vegetation.

It was the absence of some of his cattle that alarmed Murdoch upon his return to Lancer. Rustling had increased. With the inflated price of cattle—‘gold on the hoof’ as some called them—he was not surprised, but steps needed to be taken to protect his herds. The Estancia Lancer seemed to be more of a target than many other ranches, probably due to its proximity to the goldfields. No gold had been found on his land, and he was quick to run any would-be gold prospectors or squatters away from it, but he could not stop mining companies running regular transports of gold along the public roads.

Even when not involved with the actual prospecting, these companies would visit gold mining camps. By doing so, they saved miners any need to leave their claims and that enabled the companies to set the price with less competition. The mining companies routinely transported gold from the Sierra Nevada fields to Green River, Morro Coyo or the new town, Spanish Wells, where it was stored overnight before being taken further on. There had been several attempts to rob these transports. Even with deliberately erratic schedules some attempts had been successful, and that encouraged more. When there was no gold shipment to pursue, the bandits turned their attention to nearby cattle and Lancer cattle were a prime target both because they grazed near the public roads and because they were quality beasts. They would fetch a good price from the unscrupulous buyers, who recognised the trade as dishonest but did not care.

Murdoch took extra precautions. He kept his breeding stock well away from the roads and devoted more of his own time to policing his herds. Maria complained bitterly that she and Johnny never saw him, but it could not be helped. What worried and angered him most was that the ringleader of the current bandit problem was said to be Jud Haney.

“Why are you so obsessed with this man that you have to spend so much time chasing him?” Maria raged as she came back through from the kitchen. “Let your vaqueros pursue him for days on end if they must, but you should be home with us.”

“You wouldn’t understand, Maria.”

“Oh, but I do. I am still living with a ghost!” She slammed the plate of food she was carrying down on the table in front of him and stormed from the room.

His happy home life was going through a temporary rough patch, or at least that was what Murdoch told himself. He had heard from others that Maria was facing growing bigotry in the local towns, in Green River in particular. She only ever mentioned it when it affected Johnny.

“I will not apologise for my actions, Murdoch. I will not! Do you know what that bruja called our son? A dirty half-breed!”

“So I understand, and of course I don’t expect you to apologise, but you must keep your temper in future, Maria. You cannot make a habit of slapping our neighbours. You certainly shouldn’t push them backwards into water troughs.” Murdoch sighed and attempted a smile, but Maria was in no mood to be mollified.

In an effort to alleviate the situation, Murdoch accompanied Maria on her next visit to Green River. He had some business to attend to in town. After completing it, they walked along the boardwalk together to the new dressmaker’s. A gentleman approached from the other side of the street.

“Mr and Mrs Lancer, good day to you.”

Murdoch automatically shook hands before he recalled who the man was. The English accent and slick appearance soon reminded him however. Maria was annoyingly pleased to see him. “Mr Cole, what a pleasant surprise. What brings you to Green River?”

“I have business in the area, ma’am. Meeting you is an incentive to stay longer.”

Maria simpered at the compliment. She played with her hair and dress in a way that reminded Murdoch of Matamoros. Cole’s admiration was unmistakeable. Irritated, Murdoch felt the need to break up the conversation. “You must excuse us, Cole. We have more purchases to make, and I need to get back to my ranch.”

Thurstan Cole tipped his hat and allowed them to continue on their way, but Murdoch did not miss the fact that the man’s eyes never left Maria, or the fact that hers glanced back before they turned into the shop.

“We should invite Mr Cole to dine, Murdoch.”

“No, and I would prefer you kept your distance. There is something about the man—I don’t like him.”

“But why, mi marido? He’s the perfect gentleman, and you would find him interesting to talk to. He has travelled widely. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation in San Francisco.”

“I said no, Maria. My mind is made up, and I expect you to respect my wishes.” Murdoch did not know why he disliked Cole so much. It was not only the way he looked at Maria—or the way she looked back, though that certainly was part of it. Murdoch just had a gut feeling about the man; he was bad news.

Maria gave Murdoch a penetrating look, but said no more. They barely spoke as they drove back to the ranch, and Maria went straight into the house. Sighing, Murdoch rode out to check on his vaqueros. They were bringing steers down from the high country in preparation for the drive to Sacramento.

Not long after his return from the goldfields, Murdoch received a more welcome visit. The rustling, raids on gold transports and businesses, and a general increase in crime due to the growing population had naturally resulted in calls for law enforcement. Within weeks of California officially being granted statehood a branch of the United States Marshals service was established.

“Joe Barker’s the name, deputy to the U.S. Marshal.” The burly American dismounted and put his hand out to Murdoch. “I hear you can tell me about Haney.”

Murdoch stiffened. “What about him?”

“Well, word has it Jud Haney is behind most of the trouble in these parts. My men and I have been sent to track him down. I’m hoping you can help me.”

Murdoch invited Barker to dinner. He agreed to let the lawmen use his line shacks, and he also invited Barker to dine with him monthly to exchange information. Lancer men would support any action Barker took and by being forewarned of the location of Murdoch’s herds, Barker hoped to find Haney’s whereabouts more quickly.

As autumn progressed, the time of Murdoch’s departure for Boston drew near and Maria again voiced her doubts. “This trip to Boston will surely cost a great deal of money. You tell me we cannot go to San Francisco even for week, and yet you waste ten times as much on travelling to Boston.”

“It’s hardly a waste Maria. I’m going to collect my son.”

“You have a son here, and you will miss his birthday if you go.” Arms crossed over her chest, Maria stood in front of her husband’s desk as he entered her latest expenses into a leather-bound ledger.

Murdoch removed the cash box from its drawer. He counted out the housekeeping and Maria’s pin money for the month. “Please let’s not start this argument again. I’m sorry I’ll miss Johnny’s birthday, but there’ll be others, made all the more special by having his brother here with us. Scott is no threat to Johnny. They’ll be the best of friends. I’m sure of it.”

“Even when our neighbours see Juanito and his mother as second class citizens, and his father does nothing to defend them?”

“Maria, that’s unfair.” Murdoch put down his pen and looked up at his wife with exasperation. “When have I ever failed to stand up for you?”

“Almost every time I go into Green River without you I am insulted. I do not see you holding these people to account.”

“What would you have me do, Maria? I cannot shoot a man, let alone a woman, for snide comments. I’ve told you, if the problem is so bad in Green River, do your shopping in Morro Coyo. Even Spanish Wells runs to more than just saloons now. Or if it must be Green River, wait until I can go with you.”

“I would be waiting a very long time, mi marido. Your ranch and your past seem more important to you these days than the wife and son you have here.”

Again they went to bed angry. The next morning Murdoch started to talk about his plans for the day.

“Deténgase! Por favour—stop talking about things that do not concern me. I have a headache.” Maria turned her back on Murdoch and began helping Johnny with his porridge and milk. Breakfast was eaten in resentful silence.

Murdoch brooded on their argument all morning. By noon he admitted to himself that he was partly to blame. Regardless, if peace was to return to his home, he knew he needed to make the first move to make things better. He returned to the hacienda for his midday meal.

“Maria. Johnny. Estella. Where is everyone?”

After some searching, Murdoch found Maria and Estella in the garden that bordered the kitchen courtyard.

“Oh Murdoch, thank goodness you’re here. We’ve lost Juanito.” Maria burst into tears.

Maria was not prone to weeping. Murdoch knew without being told the boy must have been missing for some time, but Estella confirmed it. “We have been looking for him for half an hour, Señor. He is not in the hacienda.”

Old Miguel hobbled up from the direction of the barn. “I have searched the yard and in the barn, Señora. He is not there.”

“We’ve looked everywhere.” Maria paced the ground, wringing her hands. “Someone must have taken him.”

“That doesn’t seem likely. He’s probably just wandered off.” Murdoch tried to stay calm. He put his hands on Maria’s shoulders and held her to one spot. “Where did you leave him?”

“We were doing laundry and he kept getting in the way.” Maria took a deep breath, and looked towards the hacienda. “I took him back to the kitchen to play with the pots and pans. I tied him to the table, so I could go back to the lines. I was only gone ten minutes.”

Since Johnny had started walking, he had been constantly on the move. This was not the first time he had gone missing, but always in the past he had been found quickly. To keep him safe when the women were too busy to keep a close eye on him, Miguel had devised a leather harness that could be attached to the boy and to some stationary object. It had been this that Maria had used to constrain her son when she left him alone. Johnny must have found a way to wriggle out of it as the harness lay on the kitchen floor still attached securely to the leg of the table.

“If someone had taken him, they would have undone the harness, Maria.” Murdoch crouched down to examine the tangle of straps on the flagstones. Abduction was not logical, but he was still worried. A ranch was not a safe place for a toddler. There were animals and water troughs, and all manner of sharp objects. Together the four of them checked the rooms of the house again and then gathered by the archway leading out of the kitchen courtyard to the area behind the hacienda. “If the kitchen door was the only one open and Miguel is sure that he isn’t in the yard or barn, he must have gone this way.”

“Oh no!” Estella brought her hand to her mouth as she stared into the distance. “That’s all we need. The clotheslines have come down.”

Washing day was hard work. Water had to be hauled from the well by the workers’ cottages or from the pump near the hacienda. The clothes and linen for the whole estate were washed in great copper tubs over open fires, scrubbed clean against wooden wash boards, rinsed in wooden tubs of cold water and then hung out on long lines strung out between poles and trees, braced midway by sturdy wooden props. All the women of the ranch worked together to get the job done. It took them a whole morning to get everything washed and pegged out drying in the breeze. Hoping that the fallen lines had something to do with the lost boy, Murdoch and the others went to investigate what had happened.

A long line, which had been propped in the middle, was sagging to the ground under the weight of still-damp washing. Something had dislodged the prop and it was lying at an angle half across the line, further forcing the sheets, diapers, shirts and underwear into the dust. In the midst of the devastation something moved.

Murdoch pulled back a dirt-stained sheet. “Johnny!”

Everyone started to laugh. Sat in mud surrounded by wet laundry with his arms through the legs of his mother’s split drawers and his head stuck up through the opening at the bottom was the lost boy. Johnny beamed up at his parents as if this was the most wonderful moment of his life.

“Juanito, niño travieso.” Maria swept him up, scolding and kissing him all at the same time. She attempted to remove the undergarment, but he struggled to stop her. He liked his new outfit, and she eventually gave up until she could get him back to the house.

“You want to watch that niño, Señor.” Miguel spat on the ground as they returned to the hacienda, and looked over at Murdoch with a toothless grin. He checked to make sure the women could not hear him. “I was always good with las señoritas, but even I did not make it into their unmentionables that young.”


 

 

Chapter 31: One Down

The tale of the boy and the lady’s drawers was still causing hilarity in the bunkhouse when Murdoch departed for Boston. There was no need to check on shipping in advance. Hundreds of vessels now filled San Francisco’s harbour and if they could muster sufficient crew to sail, they had plenty of berths for passengers wanting to leave. Getting passage for the return trip would be the challenge. Murdoch sailed with a clipper on the same day he arrived in San Francisco, and he reached Chagres in record time.  There his fortunes changed and once again he had a long wait for a ship travelling north. When it finally came, the vessel only took him as far as New York, and he was obliged to board a steamship from there to Boston. He eventually disembarked in Boston two days before his son’s birthday.

From the pier Murdoch went directly to his bank expecting to find an invitation to stay with his father-in-law and son. There were in fact two letters, one from Garrett and one from Beth Eliot. The message from his father-in-law was brief and to the point:

 

Unfortunately we cannot accommodate you on this occasion, but please come to the house at 3 o’clock on December 19th. 

The note from Beth urged him to make contact as soon as he arrived and fortunately solved the problem of where to stay:

 

I expect you will be staying with Scott, but if that is not the case, please come to us. 

It was early afternoon. Murdoch pondered what he should do as he drew some cash from his account. Garrett had been perfectly affable last time he came. It was disappointing not to be staying at Louisburg Square with Scott, but he was sure there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why it was not convenient. Harlan was a businessman, who needed to garner favour by entertaining the right people. He probably already had house guests, whom he did not want to offend or to whom he did not want to display his less than grand son-in-law. Murdoch was resigned to the fact that Harlan would never hold him in high esteem almost on principle. He may have been more courteous last time than his sister, but Murdoch was under no illusions; he was not Harlan Garrett’s choice of son-in-law and he would likely only ever be tolerated even now as the father of his grandson. With that thought another idea flickered across his mind, but he stamped it firmly out. There were no grounds for thinking his father-in-law would try to stop him taking Scott. All the same he would visit Louisburg Square before going to Beth and Robert. He could not force Harlan to put him up, but he could at least find out whether there was a problem.

“Hello, Jordan. Do you remember me—Scott’s father? May I come in?”

“I remember you, Mr Lancer. Of course I do.” The butler was courteous, but he did not move aside. “Unfortunately there is no point to your coming in. Master Scott and Mr Garrett are in Worcester. They do not return until late tomorrow.”

So that was it. Harlan had taken Scott to visit his great aunt in Worcester. Murdoch had been worrying unnecessarily. They would return in time for Scott’s birthday on the 19th and all would be well. What a pity Harlan had not explained more fully. Feeling relieved and a little bit foolish for having such wild thoughts, Murdoch swung his bag over his shoulder and headed for the Eliots’ residence a few blocks away.

Beth greeted him warmly. The room was already made up in the hope they would have the pleasure of his company. His friend was all smiles, but there was something in her manner that was not wholly at ease. Murdoch could not quite put his finger on it. After he had freshened up, he joined Beth in the sitting room where he admired the latest addition to the family. James Andrew was a gurgling six month old tot, who happily played on his rug on the floor as his mother chatted to Murdoch.

“Another one who looks like you, Beth. Robert will be getting jealous.”

“They may all have my colouring, but I see plenty of Robert in each one of them.” Beth finished tying off the pom pom she had made and sewn to a string of others. She held up her creation, and Murdoch saw it was a little black-eyed caterpillar. She gave the new toy to her son. “Jamie has Robert’s placid nature, which is a blessing when there are the two older ones to contend with, I can assure you.”

At that moment, the cry of “Papa” and a stampede of elephants descending the stairs could be heard from the hall. Dr Robert Eliot entered carrying three-year old Katie. Her big brother, Bobby, hastened backwards before them holding up a large sheet of paper for his father to see.

“It’s the Constitution, Papa. See I’ve drawn Captain Conover on the quarterdeck.”

“Yes, I see.” Robert bent down to take better look at the drawing. “You’ve captured him perfectly, son, but we’re being rude. We have a guest. Good to see you, Murdoch.”

Putting his daughter down, Robert shook Murdoch’s hand.

“May I see your drawing, Bobby?” Murdoch smiled at the youngster, goodness he had grown since Murdoch had last seen him. Bobby looked uncertainly between the visitor and his father. Clearly the boy did not remember Murdoch from his last sojourn in Boston.

“Go ahead, Bob. Show your Uncle Murdoch your picture.” Robert gently nudged his son forward. “Bobby accompanied his Grandfather Eliot to see over the USS Constitution while it was in harbour last week. It’s been nothing but ships and the navy ever since.”

Murdoch was looking forward to spending the next few hours in the comfortable chaos that distinguished the Eliot household from that of the Garrett mansion, becoming reacquainted with his goddaughter and her brothers and enjoying a family meal, but Beth and Robert seemed to have other ideas. Beth called the nanny to take the children away to the nursery and feed them there. She and Robert would come up later to say good night.

The adults retired for pre-dinner drinks to the drawing room. A blazing fire in the grate crackled and danced adding more light to a room already well lit by gas lamps. Murdoch stood by the hearth enjoying the warmth of the fire and the sound of rain pattering against the window panes.

“You have come to take Scott back to Lancer?” Beth opened the conversation with an unusual hesitancy in her voice.

“Yes. It’s time. Johnny is over the most difficult stage now, and Maria should have no problem looking after two. Financially it’s never been better and at last there’s some law and order as well. It’s completely different from when Scott was born.” Murdoch swirled his brandy in its glass, savouring the smell of a fine Cognac. One day he would treat himself to this quality at Lancer. “I was a little concerned when I wasn’t invited to stay at Louisburg Square, but it appears Garrett is visiting his sister and my fears were unwarranted.”

Beth and Robert said nothing; a look of indecision past between them. Murdoch raised his eyebrows. “You don’t think so?”

Beth placed her glass on the side table and began to play with her bracelet. “I didn’t mention it in my letters. There was nothing you could have done, so it seemed best to say nothing.”

“It was my idea not to say anything.” Robert took his wife’s hand. “We discovered soon after your last visit that Mr Garrett had instructed his staff not to talk to Scott about you. Supposedly it was for his own good—so he would miss you less.”

“As you may have realised from my letters, we don’t see as much of Scott as we expected.” Beth looked distressed. Robert squeezed her hand and she squeezed back with a brave smile. “We invite him to play with Bobby, but there is always some reason he can’t come. We see him on special occasions when others are present, but never when there is just us. We’ve not actually had a chance to talk to him about you.”

Beth stood up and walked to the fireplace where Murdoch still stood. “This summer, sometime after we received your letter telling us your intentions, a man ran a riding school on the Common for small children. We took Bobby. Mr Garrett was there with Scott and I happened to comment that Scott would soon ride as well as his father. Mr Garrett did not appreciate my remark. He took me aside and warned me not to mention you again in front of Scott. Eliot or no Eliot, he said, if I did he would ensure we would not have contact with Scott again.”

“Since then my father has had words with me on the subject.” Robert leaned forward in his chair, shaking his head as if he could not quite believe it.

“Your father—the senator?” Worried as he was by what he had just heard, Murdoch did not see how any of it could concern Senator Eliot.

Robert took a deep breath and looked up. “My father has ordered me and Beth to stay out of any custody battles between you and Harlan Garrett. He demands that we are seen to be neutral on the subject—should it arise.”

“But what makes him think that such a battle is about to take place and why should it concern him if it does?” Murdoch looked between his friends in alarm. What was going on?

“He would not tell me how he knew that custody was about to become an issue, but my father is a politician campaigning for re-election. It does not take much to put two and two together. We have not spoken since. I was too angry. That said Beth and I have not attempted any kind of communication with Scott or Garrett on your behalf either. It seemed premature.” Robert rose and went to the window, fixing his gaze on the street lamp opposite the house as he swallowed a mouthful of brandy. He turned and looked Murdoch straight in the eye. “Despite my father’s orders, we will support you if the need arises.”

“If the need arises.” Murdoch placed his glass on the mantelpiece. Suddenly his brandy tasted sour. “At this point, we cannot be sure there will be a need. My father-in-law has invited me to the house for Scott’s birthday.”

“At 3 o’clock but the party starts at 2 o’clock.” Beth’s discomfort was clear; she twisted her handkerchief in her fingers and could barely look at Murdoch. “It’s for children only. Our nanny will take Bobby and collect him. I dare not risk unpleasantness by doing anything unusual like going myself.”

Murdoch retired early. There was a lot to think about and none of it was good. The idea that Harlan would try to prevent him taking Scott back to Lancer had occasionally entered his mind, but he had always rebuked himself with the memory of when Scott was born. Murdoch had thought the worst of Garrett then and had been proved wrong. He was determined not to see conspiracy where there was none. He had pushed such ideas firmly away. He was having more difficulty doing so now however, and he spent an unsettled night.

The next day he visited Jim Harper at New England Enterprises and arranged to have lunch at the Oyster House.

“How is married life treating you?” Murdoch sprinkled his fish with vinegar as his friend tucked into some fresh caught cod. Jim had been married in the spring to the niece of his employer, Edward Kirby. They had met for the first time the year before, when Mr Kirby’s widowed sister and her daughter had come to live with him. Jim declared it was love, but Murdoch suspected that it did not hurt that Caroline Manning was heir to her uncle’s fortune.

Murdoch and Jim exchanged pleasantries about each other’s family lives and business, but Murdoch felt something of their old camaraderie was lost. He asked Jim whether he had heard anything about Garrett recently, particularly with reference to his grandson, but Jim declared not. As Murdoch walked off to his next appointment, however, he had the nagging feeling that his old friend knew more than he admitted.

Three o’clock, Thursday afternoon came around eventually and Murdoch returned to Louisburg Square. Jordan escorted him across the reception hall to the library. Sounds of a party well-underway emanated from the rooms further along the hall.

“Murdoch, you’re looking well.” Harlan Garrett got up from his desk and put out his hand. “Can I offer you a brandy or whisky perhaps?”

Murdoch shook hands, but politely declined a drink. A whisky may have settled his churning stomach, but he wanted to stay clear headed.  Garrett had not changed; a little thinner on top but still the same sophisticated, sly businessman who had shown him the door all those years ago. He exuded wealth from the top of his well-oiled head to his black highly-polished leather shoes. Murdoch had never bothered too much about clothing, but with his string tie and checked shirt he felt rustic in comparison. He suddenly wished he had invested in a suit for the occasion—how absurd.

Garrett eyed Murdoch thoughtfully, and then drew back the doors dividing the library from the adjoining rooms. Scott’s birthday party was in full-swing. There were clowns and balloons, servants and children—all dressed in their best attire and apparently enjoying themselves. Carnival music played in the background. Murdoch spied Scott examining a clown’s magic bag—something had just disappeared.

“As you can see Murdoch, Scotty is happy and well adjusted. I’ve tried to give him everything a little boy should have, every advantage. He has a private tutor, a nurse—the best of everything.”

Murdoch turned away from the party to face Garrett. “Have you told Scott about me?”

“Well, that would be a bit premature, wouldn’t it? The boy is only five years old.”

“He’s old enough to know his own father.”

“But I’m his father, Murdoch. At least he accepts me as such.” Murdoch flinched at the words as Catherine’s father continued. “But that’s beside the point. I assume you’ve brought lawyers with you?”

The look on Garrett’s face asked the question that Murdoch instantly realised was uppermost in the businessman’s mind. Had his son-in-law foreseen resistance? Had he come prepared as any astute Boston businessman would have done, or was he as Garrett hoped just a naïve cowboy?

Murdoch felt ill. “I’ve come prepared to take Scott if that’s what you mean?”

“Are you prepared, as prepared as I am? Have your lawyers told you how many years it would take to fight my legal guardianship? With Scotty endlessly dragged into court as a key witness.” Garrett nodded towards the next room.

As the older man continued to talk, Murdoch watched the clown’s monkey climb over the boy’s shoulder. Scott started to play with balloons. He was enjoying himself. He was at home in his surroundings. Did Murdoch have the right to disrupt his life by taking him away from what was familiar to him? Was Maria right? Was Garrett? Much as he hated his father-in-law at this moment, much as he felt betrayed and angered by what the man was now trying to do, was he right? Was Scott better off here in Boston? Better off without his father? No, Murdoch could not believe that.

“Take a good look at your son, Murdoch. This is the happiest time of his life, his childhood. He’s with his friends, secure in his home. The only home he’s ever known. Now what can you give him to replace all this? Years of court battles and if you’re lucky, a desolate strip of sand and rock to play on instead of grass—a mud hut to live in, instead of a comfortable home.”  Garrett closed the sliding door between the two rooms. “Is that what you want for your son? Make up your mind, Murdoch. Do you want Scotty torn apart?”

Before Murdoch could put his thoughts into words, there was a knock at the sliding doors. Garrett opened them. Scott stood there with his nurse—not Nanny Richards. Was she disposed of along with any other reminders of Murdoch’s last visit? How far had Garrett gone in erasing Murdoch from Scott’s memory?

“Oh, Scotty what is it?” Garrett looked down at his grandson.

“We’re ready to cut the cake, Grandfather.”

“Good. I’ll be right out.”

The boy and his nurse turned away.

His son had been standing right in front of him. Scott had seen Murdoch. It was clear he did not recognise him. Murdoch did not know what he should do. Before he could decide and as if to emphasize the fact that Scott did not know him, Garrett called his grandson back and went to stand by his side. “Oh, Scotty, I want you to meet a friend of mine. His name’s Murdoch.”

“How do you do, sir?”

A soft, warm sensation filled Murdoch’s chest as his eyes drank in the small boy in front of him. For a moment Murdoch smiled. Leaning forward, he shook his son’s outstretched hand. “Hello, Scott—Glad to meet you.”

The nurse led the child away and his grandfather again closed the doors between the two rooms. “You may call that decision my one moment of weakness. Now it’s your decision. If you truly love the boy, I know what you’ll do.”

“I’m not just going to let you take my son.” Murdoch’s voice trembled; he was trying hard to hide his growing desperation, but even to his own ears he did not fully succeed.

“I was not just going to let you take my daughter, but you did it anyway. You won that battle, Lancer, and look what happened.” Garrett’s tone was suddenly cold—bitter. He opened the door to the hall. “I think it is time you left.”

Murdoch did not move, but the butler came to the door.

“Jordan, please show Mr Lancer out. He is not to be re-admitted under any circumstances.”

“You can’t steal my son.”

“I think you will find that under the laws of Massachusetts, you would be the one seen as a potential kidnapper. In this state I am Scotty’s legal guardian. My lawyers will be in touch. Make no mistake, Murdoch, I am better prepared this time. If a war is to be waged, I will win it—but at what cost to Scotty? You decide.”

Murdoch left. A hundred yards down the street, he started to run. Passers-by stared at him in astonishment, but he did not stop until he reached Frog Pond in Boston Common. Leaning forward, gripping the wild cherry tree with both hands, he panted out his frustration. “Bastard! Catherine, your father is a bastard! Mierda! Maldita sea!

Murdoch turned and slumped to the ground. With his back to the tree he looked up beseechingly to the sky. “Help me—please!”

It was well after dark by the time he returned to the Eliots’. Beth and Robert had already eaten, but Beth brought him something on a tray from the kitchen.

“I don’t want it, Beth. Sorry.” Murdoch looked hopelessly at his friend. “What am I to do?”

“Talk to my father. Maybe he can help. At least he will be able to tell you where you stand.”

Murdoch already had an appointment with James McIntyre for the following afternoon. He had not known exactly what Garrett would say, but there was enough evidence to suggest he would need the lawyer’s services.

“I received papers from your father-in-law’s attorney this morning. It doesn’t look good.” McIntyre indicated that Murdoch should take a seat. “If you wish, I will ask a colleague, who specialises in custody law, to look into the matter. He may be able to suggest something, but from what I can see ….”

“It doesn’t look good. I understand, but I would like to know for sure what my options are.” Murdoch felt defeated, but still he refused to give up all hope. If he had to spend every penny of the money left in his Boston account and more, he would do it if there was any hope at all of getting custody of Scott without dragging the boy through the courts.

“Put simply there is not.” Adam Reece leaned forward, resting his chin on entwined fingers as he studied Murdoch across his desk. “Harlan Garrett has employed some of the best lawyers in this state. He has the ear of most of the judges and holds the purse strings for many of the politicians. In Massachusetts he’s Scott’s legal guardian, and while the boy remains in this state you have no chance of fighting him. If Garrett was ever foolish enough to take Scott elsewhere while he was still a child, then maybe, but your son would have to remain out of state. Regardless, Garrett’s legal team have made it very clear they would put the boy on the stand if this matter is ever brought to court anywhere. Litigation could take years and you would be required to be present in court on most occasions. The likelihood is that you would still lose.”

“But it was only ever to be a temporary arrangement. I have a wife now. I can offer Scott a safe and secure home. I am his father. Surely all that counts for something?”

Reece pushed back in his chair and walked to the window, hands in his pockets. He gazed out at hustle and bustle of Christmas Eve shoppers before sitting down on the broad sill and facing Murdoch and McIntyre. “I do not say it is right, but you cannot win. The documents received show very clearly that your father-in-law’s lawyers have been planning this for years. They have taken all possible steps to ensure custody remains with Garrett and they have investigated your circumstances thoroughly. In addition to making the child testify to confirm his current home is to his liking and that you are unknown to him, they would argue that five years is more than temporary. They would contend a home in a newly formed state with little law and filled with gold miners and foreigners cannot compare with what Boston can offer. Make no mistake, they will portray you as a man devoid of any right sense of morality, who changes religion for convenience, whose second child was conceived out of wedlock and whose wife is a Mexican Catholic. To our white Protestant judiciary that alone could lose you the case.”

“I’m sorry, Lancer, but you need to face facts,” McIntyre said more kindly. “You do not want to mar the boy’s childhood by dragging him through the courts. Best accept the inevitable now, and let us work to ensure you are at least kept informed of Scott’s well-being. We can try to get the court to support free communication between you and your son, though we think Garrett will fight it. We are, however, reasonably confident that a judge would rule in your favour and insist that you receive regular reports about his welfare. To attempt anything more would be throwing your money away.”

“I don’t care about the money, and if I’m seen by this state as a potential kidnapper, perhaps that’s what I should become.”

“And terrorise your son? No, that’s frustration talking. I know you too well. You will not do that.” James McIntyre stood up. “Come on, Lancer. Thank you for your advice, Reece. I will be in touch once my client has had time to consider.”

What was there to consider? McIntyre wisely told Murdoch to think about the situation over the holidays and give his final instruction in the New Year, but there were no viable options that would allow him to bring Scott home. Christmas day was spent mostly wandering the streets of Boston. The Eliot house was too full of laughter and seasonal cheer. Murdoch had to escape. Robert found him hunched against the wild cherry tree late in the afternoon. “I proposed to Beth under this tree. I can’t let you spoil all the happy memories by freezing to death here. Come back to the house, man. The children will be in bed soon and we can talk—or not—whatever you want.”

“Could you give up your son, Robert? Could you leave Bobby or Jamie in a city thousands of miles from where you live and get on with your life?” Murdoch buried his face in his hands. “He doesn’t know me now. What kind of relationship can I ever hope to have with him? How could I possibly explain later—always assuming he would want anything to do with me? I’ve been such a fool—a gullible fool. I should never have let Garrett take him. I knew the kind of man he was. I knew…”

Robert sighed and sat down on the damp ground next to Murdoch. “Budge up and give me some trunk to lean against.” He drew a silver tobacco case and some papers out of his jacket pocket and offered them to Murdoch. Together they rolled their cigarettes, taking inexplicable solace from the action. Robert cupped his hand to protect the vesta flame from the cool breeze rippling across the Common; the thin paper caught alight and the dried fibre glowed. The two fathers sat watching the weak winter sun sink on the horizon. Robert hugged his jacket round him to keep warm, but Murdoch seemed oblivious to the cold. He talked and Robert listened; and when he was all talked out they sat in silence until the harsher chill of dusk drove them homeward.

In the New Year Murdoch authorised his lawyers to pursue the limited forms of contact outlined at their pre-Christmas meeting, but to desist if it looked like Scott would be forced into court. If anything good was to come of all this it had to be the well-being of his son. Left with no alternative, Murdoch packed up his grief with his bag, and began the long journey back to Lancer.

 


Chapter 32: Two to Go

“Maria! Estella!” Murdoch returned to an empty house. Where was everyone? It was mid-afternoon and the hacienda was silent. He strode outside again to where he had tied his horse to the hitching post and spotted a young woman crossing the yard. He did not recognise her.

“Ma’am, I’m looking for Señora Lancer or Estella, do you know where they are?”

“Señora Lancer will be out riding. She goes most afternoons. Estella will have taken Johnny to her daughter’s to play with little Catarina. Are you Mr Lancer?” A light breeze flicked strands of fair hair across the girl’s face. She pushed them back as she squinted up at Murdoch, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand.

“I am. I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ve met?”

“My name’s Angel. Angel O’Brien. Paul and I were married last month. I live here now.”

“Well, I’ll be. That’s wonderful. I wish you every happiness together.” Murdoch grinned down at the slip of a girl. Where had Paul met her? He had not seen her around here. “I suppose Paul is out working somewhere? I’ll catch up with him later. Welcome to Lancer.”

Murdoch walked with Angel to the worker’s accommodation built around a small square a short distance from the main yard. She veered off into one of the adobe cottages, but he continued on up the track to the farmhouse where Cipriano and Maria Ramirez now lived. Sure enough Johnny and Catarina were making mud pies and farmyards by the water trough as Estella helped her daughter drag mats and mattresses out onto the porch. Evidently today was spring-cleaning day and every item was getting a thorough beating. Johnny looked up from constructing his corral wall. He stared at Murdoch. Getting to his feet, he twisted sideways, head almost upside down, scrunching up his eyes as Murdoch drew nearer. Then he straightened and stared some more. Just as a knot of disappointment was beginning to form in his chest, Murdoch saw the spark of recognition in his son’s eyes.

“Papa!” The sturdy two-year old hurtled towards Murdoch and flung himself into his father’s waiting arms. Muddy hand prints were added to the dust on Murdoch’s shirt. This was the reception he needed. “Papa, come look.”

Not to be left out, Catarina toddled over for a hug and to show off her latest creation, carefully presented on a tree-bark platter with sticks and flowers as decoration. Murdoch spent the next few minutes admiring walls and houses, birthday cakes and pies. By the time the children released him, the women had tidied away the mattress they had been airing and had brought out some refreshments.

“You’re starting spring cleaning a bit early aren’t you, Maria.” Murdoch accepted a glass of ginger beer and gazed out over the yard, still littered with pieces of furniture.

“I thought I would get it out of the way before I got too big.” Maria patted her rounded abdomen. “Mama is helping me while Señora Lancer is out riding.”

“Yes, so Mrs O’Brien told me. A few things have changed while I was away.”

Murdoch took Johnny back to the hacienda with him. Estella followed later and started on the evening meal. Murdoch was supervising Johnny washing his hands for dinner when his wife finally returned from her ride.

“Murdoch! We weren’t expecting you back so soon.” Maria hugged and kissed him warmly. “Is Scott here? I have not quite finished organising his … What’s wrong?”

The joy of being reunited with his younger son was abruptly overshadowed. Leaving Johnny with Maria, Murdoch went through to the great room and sat down on the sofa. He picked up a catalogue from the coffee table and then threw it down again with force. He was gazing at the floor when Maria sat down beside him.

“His grandfather wouldn’t part with him. He has tied the boy up with so many legal chains that I have no hope of bringing him to California.”

“Oh, I am sorry, Murdoch.” Maria took his hand between hers. “But maybe it’s for the best.”

Murdoch snatched his fist away, glaring at his wife. “It’s not for the best! How can it be for the best? You never wanted him to come in the first place.”

He got up and went to the fireplace, trying to calm himself down. When he looked back, ashamed of his outburst, she was staring at him.

He returned to the sofa and placed his hand on hers, but she withdrew it. “I …”

Maria rose and went to the table. She poured two glasses of wine, and drank deeply before giving Murdoch his without saying a word. Where was the fire? Murdoch wished she would scream and curse him; he deserved it—he knew that. Instead her face was blank, her eyes, normally so expressive, so beautiful, were unfathomable.

“I’m sorry.” His eyes plead for her to understand; and yet he still felt resentful, unable to shake the idea that Maria was really glad that he had not been able to bring Scott back to Lancer.

“You will feel better when you have eaten, mi marido.”

Maria refilled her glass when they sat down to their dinner, but Murdoch’s was still untouched. He tried to rally, to make his first meal back at Lancer a happy occasion, but somehow he did not have the heart for it. Apart from Johnny’s chatter, they ate in silence.

Breakfast was no better, but the concerns of the ranch soon overrode everything else. Murdoch met with his foremen and caught up on what had happened in his absence, including the story of Paul O’Brien’s unexpected marriage.

“I went to a theatre in Sacramento after I lodged those survey reports for you.” Paul tested the strength of the bridle he had just mended. Satisfied he got up from the stool in the tack room and led the way back into the barn. “Angel was performing, singing and dancing. She was the prettiest thing I ever saw. Now I know how you fell so quick for Mrs Lancer. It’s like being hit with a sledge hammer.” He grinned over at Murdoch as he fastened the bridle to his horse. “Anyways I waited outside the stage door, and she let me walk her home. I knew José had everything under control here so I stayed on a couple of weeks. Well, to cut a long story short I asked her to marry me, she said yes and we came back to Lancer together. I couldn’t be happier.”

“I’m glad for you, Paul.”

 

Three weeks later there was more good news. Murdoch was out on the south mesa when Joe Barker rode up with some of his men.

“I heard you were back, Lancer.” Barker lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Thought I’d let you know we’re not far off catching Haney. He’s hiding somewhere up in those hills. I’ve got men stationed all along the foothills, so we’ll spot him if he tries to run for it. If we can’t catch the wily bastard out in the open, we’ll starve him out.”

“Well, I’ve certainly noticed the drop in raids on my cattle. You men have done a good job, thank you.” Murdoch nodded towards Barker’s companions.

That evening Murdoch mentioned the conversation with Barker to Maria. “It makes a difference having lawmen around. I wouldn’t let you ride about as you do if it was the way it was a few years ago. Where do you go anyway—I never see you?”

“Oh, as the mood takes me, but usually towards one of the towns. Never too far out of the way,” Maria responded casually as she sipped her wine. “Do not worry, mi marido. I enjoy the exercise and the time on my own, but I am sensible.”

“I hear that man, Cole, is still about. Do you see much of him?”

“As you instructed, I have not invited him to this house.” Maria’s voice was cold.  “I cannot avoid him entirely without being rude. He is one of the few men in Green River, who is polite to me after all. The rest either ogle me or despise me, though it is the women I really cannot stand.” She refilled her wine glass and glared accusingly at Murdoch, daring him to make something of her comments. He changed the subject.

In early May Murdoch drove cattle to San Francisco. José and eight men rode with him. They remained together until the cattle were sold, and then went their separate ways. Murdoch stayed the next few days with the Burke family. He wanted to discuss the implications of the Land Act with Alfred and lawyer, Will McIntyre. Murdoch needed to renew his claim to his land under American law now that the rules had been defined, and he wanted to make sure the documents he submitted would satisfy the authorities in every respect.

“I’m having increasing problems with squatters. The quicker I can get a patent for the land under U.S. law the better.”

“You’re right to get your claim in early.” Alfred filled his pipe and offered Murdoch his tobacco pouch so he could do the same. “I’d suggest you submit one claim for the land you have good evidence for and others for the areas where title is less certain. That way the bulk will not be delayed by the rest.”

Will opened the window to release some of the smoke from his office. He was not a smoker. The other two grinned at him, but did not offer to desist. “I’ll get copies made of these documents and arrange them in the order required by the Land Commission. I’ll have the submissions themselves drafted by tomorrow. If you can remain here until the end of the week, you can take everything with you. Why don’t you lodge the claim in San José in person before returning to Lancer?”

“Do you remember Cleve Harper—I introduced you at the ball?” Alfred sent a perfect smoke ring floating across the room. “His ranch is just outside San José. He’ll put you up and show you where to go. Since the Governor took up residence there the town has changed a lot.”

The trip south meant Murdoch was away a little longer than he originally intended, but it made sense to get his claim lodged with the Land Commission early and in person. Cleve Harper was like him, a man who had bought land under Mexican governance, and Murdoch was glad of the opportunity to get to know him better. Harper had arrived in the late 1830s. He had married his housekeeper and had a large family. His land was mainly grant land, but he was not as far forward as Murdoch with his surveying.

“I got lazy after the first couple of years, so now I’ve got my work cut out getting all the paperwork in order.”

“You’ve a good herd.” Murdoch dismounted from his horse after a tour of Harper’s ranch. They strolled together to a nearby corral and watched as vaqueros branded calves. “Perhaps we can exchange some bloodstock down the track?” Harper nodded.

Murdoch was in a good mood when he returned to Lancer. His business had gone well. The Land Commissioner, who accepted his submission, was complimentary about his promptness and the apparent thoroughness of his documentation, and Murdoch and Harper had got on like a house on fire. The two cattlemen would keep in touch. With his mind still very much on business, Murdoch barely noticed Maria’s lukewarm welcome. Their brief embrace was interrupted by Johnny wrapping his arms around his father’s legs. Murdoch swung his son up onto his shoulders and took the boy with him to talk to the foremen. The evening meal centred around Johnny as well, and after reading him a bedtime story, Murdoch retired to his desk and his bookwork. Maria went to bed early, but the grandfather clock chimed eleven before Murdoch finally called it a night. He crawled into bed next to the still form of his wife and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

In the morning Maria and Johnny were gone.

At first Murdoch did not realise. He was surprised to see the empty space beside him in bed, but what immediately sprung to mind was the last time Maria had risen so early. He went looking for her with a warm seed of hope nestled somewhere deep inside. The seed turned to stone when he entered Johnny’s room and found his son gone too.

“Maria! Johnny! Where are you?” Murdoch ran between the two rooms and out into the great room and kitchen. There was no sign of them anywhere. Returning to his bedroom he opened Maria’s wardrobe. There were gowns facing the door, but when he pushed the hangers back, he found many of Maria’s dresses, blouses and skirts were gone. Her drawers too were half empty. Her jewellery box was no longer on the dressing table.  A single sock remained in Johnny’s drawers, and when Murdoch looked properly he noticed some of his son’s toys were missing—his favourites.

Panicking now Murdoch headed through the hall towards the front door. Suddenly he had a thought and diverted towards his desk. If Maria had left him, she would need money. He withdrew the cashbox from the middle drawer. It was unlocked and empty except for the key.

Murdoch stood gripping the end of the desk, staring at the bottom of the box. It was then he saw the key in the lock of the strong box behind his desk. Why? The cashbox had all the money for wages and general running expenses. He only kept important documents in the strongbox; that and… No, it was not possible. Whatever was wrong between him and Maria, she would never take what was left of Catherine’s jewellery.

Maria knew he had saved some more valuable pieces to give to Scott on his wedding day. The brooch and ring were heirlooms, the necklace and earrings, a present from Harlan Garrett to his daughter on her twenty-first birthday. Murdoch had given the rest of his first wife’s jewellery away, the costume jewellery to Catherine’s friends and one each of the lesser value pieces to her namesakes, his goddaughters. Maria never showed any interest, but she knew the jewellery was in the strongbox. She knew where Murdoch hid the key. With trembling fingers and a sinking heart he raised the lid. He could hardly bear to look. The documents appeared undisturbed—a moment of relief, but when he lifted the false bottom to the chest, the jewellery was gone. Maria had left him; she had taken his son and what valuables she could lay her hands on to pay her way. The money he understood, but the jewellery intended as keepsakes for his other son. Much as he knew Maria resented Catherine, Murdoch would never have believed it of her.

Before desperation could turn to despair and cripple him, Murdoch forced himself up and out of the hacienda. He met Paul in the yard. “Maria and Johnny have disappeared. Have you seen them?”

“No, but the buggy and the horse Mrs Lancer usually rides are missing.”

“Saddle up. She’s taken her things, but she can’t have gone far. On her own she’ll have to stick to the main roads.”

“If she’s on her own.” Paul looked embarrassed.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, I didn’t like to say, Boss.” Paul adjusted his hat and avoided Murdoch’s glare. “There’s been gossip about Mrs Lancer and that gambling man, Cole. Might be nothing. Green River folks have always been a bit against your missus as you know.”

“Cole!” Murdoch stormed across the yard to the stables, fist clenched. He wrenched his saddle off the stall rail and threw it roughly onto the back of his startled horse.

“I don’t want to make things worse… It might not have been them… Isidro admits he was a long way off…Sod it!”

Though his blood boiled, Murdoch paused from saddling his horse and waited for Paul to say what he had to say. His foreman kicked at the end of the stall, his voice low, resigned to inflicting further pain. “Isidro reckoned he saw the two of them coming away from the old Tucker place last week.”

Murdoch mounted the gelding, jerking the animal’s head round. “You go to Morro Coyo. I’ll ride to Green River. One of us will catch up with them.”

Daniel Johnson was opening his shop when Murdoch galloped up. “Have you seen Maria?”

“No, Murdoch. What’s wrong?”

“What about Cole—have you seen the gambler?”

The look on Daniel’s face told him all he needed to know about what Paul had said. There was no time for embarrassment or recriminations or anger if they would delay his search however. Between them they visited all the saloons, hotels and eating places but no one had seen Thurstan Cole or Maria that morning. The stable boy at the livery told them Mr Cole had come for his horse late the night before. He had ridden south towards Lancer and Morro Coyo. He had not returned.

Murdoch rode south. He met Paul three miles from Morro Coyo. “They were seen on one of the back roads to San Francisco. A trapper just arrived in town says he was forced off the road by a buggy travelling at speed. Driven by a woman with a boy strapped to the seat beside her. A well-dressed man on horseback riding along side. It has to be them.”

Murdoch sent Paul back to the ranch. He pursued the runaways to the outskirts of San Francisco. There he lost them. Eventually he found a livery where an Englishman had sold horses and a buggy. Several hours later he learned from a stevedore, transferring barrels of salt on the docks, that a couple with a child had boarded a clipper the night before.

“Sailed on the evenin’ tide, sir. Seen ‘im before—gambler. Tasty wench with ‘im—Spanish lady. Rowed out late, just before the ship weighed anchor.” The man took hold of one of the barrels stacked on the pier and lifted it onto his shoulder. Murdoch walked along side as he lumbered to a dray waiting nearby. “The woman was carrying a boy. Fast asleep he were. Looked plumb tuckered out. Never saw that gambler as a family man, but you never know. Mind out, sir.” The stevedore heaved the barrel onto the dray. “Mercury was bound for San Diego—or maybe it was Los Angeles. Can’t remember now.”

Murdoch made inquiries elsewhere but all he discovered was that the clipper was scheduled to put in at San Diego before continuing to Panama and back again. It made no difference. They had too much of a head start. He would never catch them now. He sought refuge at a saloon near the dockyard. He ordered whisky. The first glass broke—Murdoch gripped it too hard. He ordered another.

The barman sent a boy to fetch Alfred Burke in the morning after finding the land agent’s card in Murdoch’s wallet. Several cups of strong coffee later and Alfred learned the full story, or at least as much of it as Murdoch knew himself.

“Go home, Murdoch and wait for news. I will dispatch messages to all my contacts along the coast between San Diego and Santa Barbara. If they stay in that area we will hear about it. Write letters to your contacts in Mexico before you leave. There is no point in following them now. They’re too far in front of you. Who knows where they’re headed. You’re needed at the ranch. Go home.”

Alfred helped Murdoch up. He took his friend back to his house on California Hill where his wife managed to persuade Murdoch to eat. Alfred gave him pen and paper. Together they wrote their letters and Alfred arranged for the speediest possible delivery.

The next morning Murdoch visited the bank to replace the money taken, and then bid farewell to Alfred and Charlotte. Once again he began a long, slow journey back to Lancer debilitated by grief, remorse and anger. Leaving Boston he had felt robbed and hopeless. Now leaving San Francisco he felt all that and more. As he rode through the Lancer arch, Murdoch felt utterly and irreparably alone.

 

 

Chapter 33: Gone but Not Forgotten

Bleak—that was the only word to describe the month that followed for Murdoch. Not even the birth of Cip and Maria’s second child could bring the joy to his countenance that the little boy and his parents deserved.

The infant was named after his maternal grandfather and father, but it was clear from the outset that Eduardo Cipriano Ramirez Hernandez was to be the favourite of his grandmothers. Estella and Anita competed for control and time with the baby, until Maria recovered from her lying in and laid down the law. “Silencio! If you do not learn to share, neither of you will see my son—mi hijo! And what of Catarina—have you forgotten you have a granddaughter? No seas niños!”

Maria’s minor explosion in the kitchen of the hacienda brought them to their senses and brought the only small smile to Murdoch’s lips that anyone had seen in weeks. The slip of a girl, who had once blushed when caught admiring her new mistress’s clothes, was calling the tune. She was now as feisty as Catherine herself. Estella and Anita had ruled the roost amongst the women on the estate for as long as Murdoch could remember. He was witnessing the beginning of a new order, and he could not help but be amused.

Murdoch made a real effort to congratulate his foreman when Paul announced soon after that Angel was expecting, but Murdoch feared his enthusiasm did not reach his eyes. God forgive him, but he was jealous of Paul’s happiness.

Letters started arriving within a week or two of his return to the ranch, but most were just acknowledgements, only a couple contained any useful information. Murdoch’s contacts promised to make enquiries and expressed regret over the circumstances. Señor Acosta, the lawyer in Matamoros, was among the later replies. Maria had not returned there, but he would write if he saw her. Don Contanado promised to write diplomatically to his network of friends throughout Mexico and the border territories. He undertook to make personal enquiries closer to home. Towns like Nogales seemed probable destinations for a gambler. An early note from Alfred confirmed that Maria, Johnny and Cole had disembarked at San Diego. One of Burke’s contacts had spoken with the port watchman. For a few pesos the watchman recalled that a couple with a child had left the Mercury and taken lodgings at a nearby taberna. The proprietor of the taberna referred him to a livery.

 

The livery owner sold a buckboard and horses to a man answering Cole’s description. He asked about the road going south into Mexico, but he did not say exactly where he was headed. The man remembered the details of the transaction mainly because ‘el inglés’ did not pay with gold, but with a gemstone. He showed it to my friend. From his description it is an aquamarine from the necklace you told me was stolen. The livery owner intends to get it made into a brooch for his wife, but my friend could try to buy it back for you if you would like?

 

There was no point. Clearly Thurstan Cole had decided the necklace Harlan had given Catherine for her twenty-first birthday was too recognisable or bulky to carry with him long term, perhaps too valuable whole to be of practical use. The gambler was breaking the necklace up. The gold in it alone would keep them in comfort for a month or two, if he did not gamble it away. To recover just a part would not have the same sentimental value, and there was no guarantee the livery owner would sell.

 

Murdoch half wondered why with Maria’s love of finery she had not held onto the necklace longer. Then he remembered that to Maria, Catherine was a ghost that haunted her marriage. She likely wanted rid of the jewellery as soon as possible. She may have only taken it at Cole’s insistence. If she had happened to mention its existence, Murdoch could well believe a man like Cole would see the advantage of obtaining it, especially if Maria had no desire to keep it. Yes, that made more sense. He had been surprised to find the jewellery gone. The taking of it had seemed spiteful somehow. Maria was many things, but spiteful was not one of them. Cole had forced her to take the jewellery, Murdoch was sure of it.  She would have taken it only to please him. She would not want to wear it, so the gambler would be free to sell it on—the bastard. He will have a harder job getting her to part with her own jewellery, Murdoch thought with irrational satisfaction.

 

He had already made up his mind to head south as soon as things at the ranch slowed down. It would be better if he had some idea where to look, but regardless he would go. He would leave Paul in charge once again and search the borderlands between Mexico and America until he found his family. He was hurt and angry with Maria, but he still loved her. Being made a cuckold strangely saddened more than angered him. Deep down he acknowledged he was partly to blame, but he was not sure how he would ever forgive her for taking away his son. The desperation he felt at the thought of losing Johnny was more than he could bear, so he tried very hard not to think about it as a real possibility. For Johnny’s sake he would try to forgive—when he found them. There was no question that he would find them.

 

Late August, there was good news of sorts. Jud Haney was captured. He had been cornered up in the hills for so long now that most of the ranchers in the valley had almost forgotten him, but not Murdoch. He was more than pleased to know Haney was permanently out of the equation. Haney would now receive the punishment he deserved—a hanging with any luck. Leaving Lancer through the winter would be that much easier knowing the threat of a rustling revival was reduced.

“Took longer than expected, but we got him. Half-starved—still put up a fight though. My men have taken him to Sacramento, but I thought I’d come and tell you, and say goodbye. I’m heading east awhile.” Joe Barker leaned forward in his saddle and patted his horse. “Maisie here will take me back to Sacramento to collect my wages and give my report, and then we’re off over the Sierra Nevada to sort a little personal business.”

“You’ll be missed.” Murdoch reached up and shook Barker’s hand. They had become quite friendly over the months the lawman had been pursuing Jud Haney. With Paul now at home with his wife every evening, Barker had helped fill the void of sympathetic listener. During the long, lonely evenings since Maria left, Murdoch would nurse a glass of scotch and dwell on his anger, his hurt and his guilt. On the evenings when Barker could join him for a meal his misery at least took a more practical bent. With his greater knowledge of the territories east of California, Barker had given Murdoch some useful advice about where to look for the runaways and what questions to ask.

The other person Murdoch talked to was Sarah Johnson. He had a lot of time for Sarah. Patient, practical and wise, she had been friend to both Catherine and Maria. By her own account she had never been as close to Maria as she had been to Catherine. Maria had not confided in her about Thurstan Cole for example. Sarah had suspected a preference, which she had tried to discourage, but she was genuinely shocked when Maria ran off with him. Murdoch did not blame Sarah for failing to warn him. He understood that like Paul, she and Daniel had been afraid to draw attention to smoke where there may have been no fire. He credited her with understanding his situation better than most however, and consequently he sought her out whenever he felt a need to talk.

“I should have done more to help her settle at Lancer, but I just assumed because she was Mexican and spoke Spanish, she would get on with everyone at the ranch—and with the Californio families. I was wrong.” Murdoch twisted his hat around in his hands as he leaned forward in his chair.

“You were.”

“You’re supposed to say it wasn’t my fault.”  

“Am I? It wasn’t your fault.” Sarah placed the tea things down on her kitchen table and began to pour out.

“But you don’t believe that. You think it was my fault—all of it?”

“No, just some of it. You had the ranch to run. You had commitments. Maria knew that, but she was who she was. Maria needed to be the centre of your world and you simply could not give that to her all the time. It was no one’s fault really.” Sarah handed Murdoch a cup of tea and settled back to drink her own. “Hmm, tea. It was something I missed when I first came here from Rhode Island, a good cup of tea. It was all strong coffee and lukewarm water.”

“Catherine settled in all right. I thought she would find it harder what with the language and different customs, but everyone accepted her.”

“Well, not everyone.  And maybe those differences were easier to recognise and overcome than the social ones. Catherine was on the same rung of society as the likes of Doña Mercedes. She was educated and knew how to behave among them. Even if she didn’t know Spanish, she knew how to speak their language in other ways. She was used to being the lady of the house with servants and comparative wealth. I’m no expert, but I suspect it’s easier to be gracious from a great height than to step up and truly belong. Maria came from the same class as her new servants; she perhaps tried too hard to exert her authority and they resented it. They expected it from Catherine and accepted it as natural. When she wanted to be amongst them they were flattered. Whereas Maria, they initially saw as someone who had tricked you into marriage, who then tried to laud it over them and supplant the memory of the Señora Lancer they all loved. In hindsight, it is not so hard to understand. It was better after Johnny was born; everyone mellowed.”

“It got worse in Green River. I don’t know what I could have done, but I should have done something.”

“Now you are being too hard on yourself. You did not cause the gold rush and the great increase in the white population. If Green River and the other towns had remained small with larger Mexican than white populations, the good ladies of Green River would have been more inclined to hold their tongues as all good minorities do. I would guess that the term ‘greaser’ is seldom heard in the heart of Mexico, but people may not say ‘el gringo’ with the degree of friendliness that would make me feel comfortable. ”

“You are a cynic, Sarah.” Murdoch chuckled. He was not happy, but Sarah’s matter-of-factness disarmed him.

“I have learned to be philosophical about people. I choose to be practical and to set achievable goals for myself and my family. You cannot spend your life wallowing in past misery and mistakes, Murdoch. A lot of people depend upon you and Lancer for their livelihood. You must balance your needs and theirs. Learn from the past and decide what you want from the future. Set yourself some achievable goals.”

They finished their tea and Murdoch escorted Sarah to Johnson’s Emporium. Having left little Catherine playing at a friend’s house, Sarah had returned home to do some housework while she did not have the child underfoot. She had been about to leave there to do some bookkeeping at the shop when Murdoch surprised her in obvious need of someone to talk to. They had sat over their cups of tea for nearly an hour, but there was still time to do a little work on the ledgers before collecting her daughter.

They were walking along the boardwalk when Sarah was greeted by a middle-aged couple and their grown daughter exiting the bank.

“Oh Mrs Johnson, I declare you’re just the person I wanted to see. I must thank you for so kindly putting us in touch with Mr Simms. He fixed the problem in a jiffy, and we have quite settled in.”

“I’m glad to have been of help. Murdoch, you won’t have met Mr and Mrs Herbert Adams and their daughter, Marcy. They only arrived last month. Mr Adams is the new manager-clerk at the stagecoach office.”

Murdoch shook hands with Adams and tipped his hat to the ladies before moving on. Marcy Adams, an attractive young woman in her early twenties, met his eyes in a deliberately shy kind of way aimed to catch his attention—which it did. Sarah was halfway through warning him to beware when Mrs Adams called out to them. “Yoo-hoo, Mrs Johnson, Mr Lancer! I do declare I am a thoughtless woman. Mr Lancer, Mr and Mrs Johnson are coming to dinner with us on Thursday evening. Might I persuade you to join us too? We are so eager to meet all our new neighbours.”

“Especially the potentially eligible or influential ones,” Sarah observed as soon as the lady was out of ear shot. “That woman has invited every young man or businessman of any worth to dine. She will have us all obligated to her husband in some way, or set up as suitors for her daughter. She takes it hard that Marcy is not already well-married at the advanced age of twenty-four.”

“Well, I hope she is seeing me amongst the influential rather than the potentially eligible. I take it she does know I’m married?”

“Believe me she knows, but she also knows your wife is gone and you own the biggest ranch around here. My guess is she is keeping her options open, and from that point of view Murdoch—don’t take this the wrong way—you should too. Maria has found someone else. No one will blame you if you do too.” Murdoch glowered and Sarah held up her hand in surrender. “Peace—I’ll say no more. As for Gertrude Adams, she has her eyes on other potential husbands as well, Joe Anderson’s eldest and that young assistant bank manager, Charlie Dane. You need not be too concerned, if you are not interested.”

Murdoch was not interested when he left Sarah at the entrance of the emporium, but he was less sure after being plied with beef burgundy and lemon pie on Thursday evening. Marcy Adams was very attentive to his needs and seemed a pleasant kind of girl when separated from her Southern-belle mother. Her quiet, submissive nature seemed to soothe his weary spirit, allowing him respite from the reflection and speculation that possessed him whenever he had no ranch business to focus on.

Not even the charms of Miss Adams could divert Murdoch from his immediate goal however. Mid-October Murdoch started preparing for his search for Maria and Johnny. When he mentioned his plans to O’Brien though, the response was not as expected.

“Ah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you, Boss. I’m leaving Lancer.”

“What? Why, Paul, I thought you liked it here?”

“I do, but Angel doesn’t. She’s lonely and bored. She wants to be in town, a big town. She’d prefer San Francisco, but I couldn’t cope with all them people. Do you know they say there are over 30,000 people living there now?” Paul looked horrified. He was a country boy through and through. He could roam wilderness without a care, but the very idea of walking down a street with more than a dozen people on it brought him out in a cold sweat. “We’ve agreed to compromise. We’ll go to Sacramento. I’ll get a job on the outskirts and she can have her shops and theatres and all the socialising she says she needs to keep her happy.”

Paul did not look too keen, but Murdoch knew he would move heaven and earth for Angel. Damn woman. She was too much like Maria with her love of pretty clothes and excitement; and a lot more frivolous and immature, though she knew how to manipulate men well enough. Angel knew she was marrying a cattleman. It was unfair of her to make Paul give up the life he loved to suit her whims. Still, Murdoch could understand why Paul was willing to do it. Witnessing the situation between Murdoch and Maria would not encourage a man to stand his ground. Perhaps Paul feared Angel would take the same path as Maria if he did not make the compromise. Pfft—what compromise! It seemed to Murdoch that Angel was getting everything she wanted. Paul was the only one making concessions. Well, he needed a concession from her and even if Paul would not pursue one for himself, Murdoch was hopeful he would ask her to make one for Murdoch’s sake. “I need you here, Paul. At least until I get back. I must go, and there’s no one else I can trust. Please talk to Angel. She’s due in January. She likes Doctor Owens. Please ask her if you can stay until after your baby is born, for your own sakes as well as mine.”

Angel agreed to wait until the end of February, but no longer. It was enough, and both men were relieved. Now limited for time Murdoch hastened to make arrangements, and by the end of October he was riding southward along the Central Valley towards San Diego.

 

Chapter 34: Searching

Murdoch began at the beginning. He visited San Diego and sought out the port watchman and the owners of the taberna and livery. He heard first-hand what they knew about Cole, Maria and Johnny.

“That hombre was el jugador, Señor.” The taberna owner rolled a new keg of beer across the floor and lifted it up onto a stand at the end of the bar. “The señora and niño kept to their room, but the señor stayed up much of the night and left in the morning with more pesos than he arrived with.”

The proprietor of the livery repeated his story for Murdoch, but added that his wife was very pleased with the aquamarine brooch he had given her. If Murdoch had ideas of wanting to buy the gem he was too late. “El inglés wanted to stay in American territory, but the señora said they would be safer in Mexico.”

Murdoch travelled south into Mexico and then east to the Estancia Contanado. Two or three people along the way recalled seeing the runaways pass through, and Murdoch felt increasingly confident that he would track them down.

Juan Contanado greeted him with commiserations and then turned to the business at hand.

“They passed through Caborca, but there has been no sign of them in Nogales or Tucson.” Juan pointed out the towns on the map he laid out on the table in front of them. “With the man being a gambler and English-speaking, I thought they would go north again as soon as they could, but it seems they must have headed south or east instead. I have made some enquiries but discovered nothing.”

“Maria knew your rancho was in this vicinity. They likely avoided any of the towns nearby.” Murdoch pored over the map looking for clues. “She had a cousin. We never met. I think she was the only real family Maria had. Her name was Luisa, Flores or Torres— I’m not sure. I’ve been trying to remember where Maria said she lived—if she ever told me. All I’m sure of is that it was on or near the Rio Grande but inland and a long way from Matamoros. There was no way of inviting her to our wedding in time for her to get there. The town name could be something ‘Norte’.” Murdoch shrugged, frustrated by his own lack of knowledge. “I wish I had asked her more questions about her family, but Maria never liked to look back. What I remember is from our first conversations over three years ago. I was confined to one room, and it helped to pass the time to talk about our families. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but perhaps I did most of the talking.”

“Norte? My friend you might be in luck. El Paso del Norte in Chihuahua is on the Rio Grande. There are settlements on either side of the border. See here on the map. It is a week’s ride from here heading northeast.”

It was the only lead he had so the following day Murdoch rode toward El Paso del Norte. At each small community or ranch along the way he asked if the residents recalled a Mexican lady and child with a white man passing through a few months before. No one remembered them. No one, until he sought shelter for the night at a mission about two days ride from his destination. “Te acuerdas de una señora mexicana con un niño que viaja con un hombre blanco hace unos meses?”

“Si, Señor. The niño was very fond of milk—cow’s milk. He did not like goat’s milk so much. Did he, Josefina?” The priest chortled as he patted an old nanny goat’s head. She bleated and tried to nibble some radishes from his basket. “We had to beg some cow’s milk from Señora Lopez. It must have been July or August. Come. We can talk while we eat.”

Father Rafael could not remember much—a well-dressed couple going by the name Cole with a boy. They appeared to have travelled a long way. The child was grizzly from the journey and had clearly welcomed the chance to run about the mission garden. “I remember Juanito helped me collect the eggs from the chickens in the morning. He was a cheerful niño, but the family did not linger long after they had eaten breakfast.”

“Did they say where they were headed, Padre?”

“The parents were not very talkative, but I overheard the señora tell her husband he could buy everything he needed from her cousin before he left El Paso del Norte. I think her cousin must be a shopkeeper there.”

“That man is not her husband—I am!” Murdoch almost spat the words at the startled priest. “And the boy is my son!”

Murdoch was excited to learn he was on the right track, but... He slammed his fist down on the table and stomped to the window, leaving the padre gaping. Elbowing the wall, his left fist stopping the rage escaping his mouth and his right hand clenching the lintel, Murdoch watched another priest lead a mule to a small stable on the other side of the yard. The sun, setting on the horizon, threw shadows across the ground. The mission was settling down for the night, and the scent of acacia perfumed the air. Murdoch inhaled deeply, and realised as he did so that he had been holding his breath. “I am sorry, Father. That was rude of me. You said ‘before he left’—are you sure that was what was said—not ‘before we leave’?”

The padre dunked his bread into olive oil and chewed slowly, considering Murdoch and his question carefully. “I cannot be sure now, my son, but I think she said ‘before you leave’.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to ask where the gambler was going, but the priest held up his hand. “I can’t remember exactly what was said, but I got the impression that the señora and her son would remain with the cousin while the man dealt with some business elsewhere, precisely where I do not know.”

Murdoch’s horse was saddled and ready to leave at dawn. Whenever the terrain allowed, he urged the animal to a trot, and he reached the banks of the Rio Grande by noon the next day. El Paso del Norte was a dusty adobe town much like any other except that a bridge straddled the river and another such settlement spread out on the other side into the American territory of Texas. Murdoch allowed his weary horse to drink from a water trough before he tied the gelding to a hitch rail and stepped into the coolness of a cantina. Three vaqueros were playing cards in the corner and another stood talking with the tabernero across the bar.

“Beer.” Murdoch’s voice was raspy from dryness and dust. He tossed a coin on the bar and swigged from the bottle, holding the cool liquid in his mouth before swallowing.  “Te acuerdas de una señora mexicana con un niño que viaja con un hombre blanco hace unos meses?”

“There are many gringos with Mexican women here, Señor, and many niños—with or without fathers to claim them.”

“This couple would have arrived together a month or two back. The man is a gambler—slick with an accent. He may have played cards here. The woman is very beautiful.”

The barkeeper shook his head, but something in his manner made Murdoch mistrust his answer. Murdoch sat down at a table and put his feet up on a chair. With his hat balanced over his eyes as if he were dozing, he watched the barman. After about ten minutes a boy sauntered in from outside. The barman called him over and whispered in his ear. The boy accepted a coin and left. Murdoch lowered his feet, drained the last of his beer and strolled out into the street in time to see the ragamuffin disappear around a corner. Murdoch followed.

The road was long and dusty, running parallel to the river and straggling into desert at its end. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Murdoch strolled down its length, past adobe and timber buildings as if he was just idly exploring the town, raising his hat occasionally to passers-by. Most of the first buildings were commercial: a carpenter’s shop, a smithy, a saddler’s, a small taberna and a general store. Near the end the buildings became dwellings. Murdoch doubled back and spied the boy as he ambled out of the backyard of a whitewashed house next to the general store. As he reached the corner of the shop, the lad began kicking a rusted tin can. The clatter as it bounced across the stony street attracted other boys from alleys and the shadow of buildings. By the time they reached the corner with the main road, half a dozen children or more were chasing the makeshift ball, vying to be the next to kick it.

Murdoch chuckled and leant against one of the posts supporting a canvas canopy, which stretched the length of the general store frontage. He contemplated the store and the house beside it, wondering what he should do next. A woman appeared from the alley between the two buildings. She was carrying a crate of fresh-kilned crockery. When she saw Murdoch, she missed her footing on the low boardwalk step and stumbled forward. He caught the crate just in time and prevented her from falling.

“Gracias, Señor.” She escaped into the shop. Murdoch followed, lifting the heavy crate onto the counter. A man, Murdoch assumed must be her husband, emerged from the back carrying a large sack over his shoulder. Cutting the hessian open with a knife, he tipped onions into one of the wooden bins that lined the rear wall of the shop. The woman murmured something to him, and they both glanced in Murdoch’s direction.

Murdoch pretended to look around the shop. One half was devoted to food stuffs: flour, rice, fruit and vegetables. The other half displayed a variety of items, everything from brooms to bullets, bolts of cloth to shovels. He picked up a bow saw and examined it, straining as he did so to hear and understand the local dialect of their speech. Eventually the man shrugged.  “Do what you like, Luisa. I will be out back if you need me.”

As soon as the man disappeared, Murdoch selected an apple from the barrel and went to the counter to pay.

“They are not here, Señor Lancer.” The woman spoke in English. She stood behind the counter with defiance in her eyes. If Murdoch had been in any doubt that he had found Maria’s cousin, it would have been dashed by that single look. She was not as beautiful as his wife, but they clearly shared the same spitfire nature and the same mesmerising brown eyes, which turned black when angry—and Luisa was angry.

“You know who I am?”

Luisa gave him a look which clearly said ‘Do you think I’m stupid?’ Murdoch supposed Maria would have included his height in any description she gave, and that alone would have given him away. “Where are they?”

“A long way from here. You will not find them.” She rested her back against the shelving and eyed him with disdain. “Except when it comes to men, Maria is no fool and she is now among her own. She knows how to hide. In the border towns, no one can find those who do not wish to be found.”

Worried she could be right and that winning Luisa over would be his only hope, Murdoch hesitated, desperate for inspiration. He noted a sign—E & L Flores, Proprietarios—on the wall to her left. He had remembered the name. “Señora Flores I am not your enemy. I am not Maria’s enemy. I love her and I will have her back if she will come, but she has taken what is mine and...”

“Pfft, so it is the jewels you miss not your wife. I should have known—el carbón. I do not know what Maria sees in you gringos. The other one is no better—leaving her here weeks while he went off on his business. Pity he came back.” Luisa stood scowling with her hands on her hips. “If I had been in Matamoros at the time, she would never have married you. Her poor judgement would have ended with the creation of your son, the niño you both cursed through your thoughtlessness.”

“I do not care about the jewellery. They were my first wife’s and I was saving them for our son, but they are not important. I was talking about Johnny. Maria has taken my son—mi hijo as well as hers. Whether she will come or not, I want him back.”

“You want your mestizo son. Don’t make me laugh! Maria told me how you neglected her and Juanito. You were never there, and when you were you would not stand up for them. Always it was Maria who had to forgive and turn the other cheek. ‘Don’t upset our neighbours, Maria.’ How long did you expect her to act the polite and dutiful wife of the great Señor Lancer while brujas blancas looked down their noses at her and Juanito?” Luisa spat her disgust onto the floor. “You wanted to bring your first boy—the pureblood—to your ranch to be recognised by your neighbours as your heir. What is it you want Juanito for, to herd your cattle and play servant to his half-brother?”

“Is that what she told you? Is it? I don’t believe you. It’s not true!” Murdoch trembled with rage, his knuckles white as he gripped the edge of the counter and glared at Luisa. “Tell me where they are.”

Luisa Flores sneered, contempt dripping from every word. “I do not know where they have gone. Maria would not tell me, because she feared you would come. I would not tell you if I did know. Rot in hell, Señor Lancer!”

Maria’s cousin stalked towards the back of her shop. Murdoch made a move to follow, but Señor Flores blocked his path, a shotgun resting across his arms. “Make no mistake, Señor. I know how to use this. I was once a soldier and killed Americanos for a living. My wife has told you all she knows. Now you will leave and you will not come back.”

Murdoch stood with restrained fury, looking over the shopkeeper’s shoulder into the darkened room behind. He could not see Luisa but he knew she was still there. “When she contacts you, Señora, tell Maria I want them back, both of them. Tell her, if she does not want to come, I will respect her wishes, but she must let Johnny come back. Tell her, Señora. I will not stop searching until I get my son back!”

Turning, Murdoch exited the shop. Passers-by hastened out of his way as he marched back to the main street. He wrenched the reins from the hitch-rail outside the cantina, threw himself onto the horse’s back, and spurred the poor animal savagely towards the bridge.  He thundered out of El Paso del Norte, riding north until he was surrounded by chaparral and rocks and the only living creatures around slithered or scuttled from his approach. Then he stopped and dismounted. The horse stood snorting and sweating. Murdoch shook his head and kicked at the sandy dirt beneath his feet as he allowed the gelding time to settle. The horse was not to blame. Pouring water from his canteen, he let the beast drink from his cupped hand. The roughness of the horse’s tongue against his palm was somehow calming. He needed that. In his mind he was clinging to the edge of a chasm, struggling to drag himself back to safety. He staggered a few steps towards the distant hills and then slumped to his knees. His body shook as he bowed his head to the sun, setting pink on the horizon.

Murdoch travelled north to Albuquerque and then turned west. He had to be back at Lancer by February. At every town or rancho along the way he asked if anyone had seen his wife and son. “They may be with a man, a gambler called Cole. I don’t know what name they are using; it could be Lancer or Tomàs or Cole—maybe even Rodriguez or Flores. I cannot be sure, but her name is Maria and she is very beautiful. The boy’s name is Johnny—Juanito. He’s two years old—no, he is three now. He has had another birthday—él tiene tres años. He looks Mexican but with blue eyes. You would know him if you saw him. You would remember him if you met him…”

No one had seen them. No one admitted to seeing them. Murdoch was fairly sure they had not travelled south from El Paso del Norte. They probably went east, but it could have been north or west. They could have traversed the same trails he travelled, but Luisa was right; along the border between Mexico and the United States if you did not want to be found, the communities would keep your secret.

Disheartened and alone, Murdoch covered the hundreds of dusty miles back to his ranch, leaving descriptions and his address with every lawman he came across, though they were few and far between. As he rode through the Lancer arch, he was greeted with the news that Paul and Angel had a daughter, Teresa Grace O’Brien. Three weeks later he stood up as her godfather and then bid farewell to her parents. More particularly, he said goodbye to Paul, his foreman and friend, the man who knew him best and whom he had relied upon most. For a life so full, Murdoch cursed God that it now felt so empty.

 

Chapter 35: Old Friends and New

“They’re falling to bits, but they’ve been good. Do you have any more?” Murdoch sat on a crate in Morro Coyo’s general store. He pulled his boots off and tossed them on the floor. They were so comfortable, he had made them last as long as possible.

Don Baldermero examined the boots and grinned. “Si, Señor Lancer. These were the first of the boots from St Louis. I got them in specially, because so many of the miners asked for the maker by name. I ordered boots suitable for vaqueros as well as miners, and you bought one of the first pairs. I remember you were in a hurry then too. You always leave buying new boots to the last possible moment, Señor.”

The shopkeeper brought Murdoch a pair in his size. He stomped about a bit until he was sure he was satisfied, and then got out his pocketbook. “Who is the maker? I suppose I should know for next time.”

“They’re Telford’s, Señor Lancer. These are part of my first order from the new factory in San Francisco.”

“Telford—Ben Telford?” Murdoch had lost touch with his old friend during the past few years, but Ben had settled in St Louis. He had fallen for the daughter of a St Louis merchant, and his westward journey had come to an abrupt halt. When Murdoch and Catherine had visited Monterey to see the doctor, they had chosen some goblets to send Ben and Rachel as a wedding gift. The last time Murdoch had heard from him was soon after Johnny’s birth. Surely he could not have been walking round in boots manufactured by Ben Telford all this time? He had bought those boots two years ago.

Don Baldermero dug out the invoice from the box he kept beneath the counter, and copied down the address for Murdoch. “The company name is B. J. Telford.”

“Well, I’ll be… I’ll visit this address next time I’m in San Francisco. I think the owner and I may be old friends.”

It was a week for old acquaintances. On his next visit to Green River he was collared by Mrs Adams. “You must join us for dinner, Mr Lancer.  Our other guests were asking after you. So fortunate that you’re in town today.”

Mrs Adams other guests turned out to be the newest ranch owner in the area, Henry Conway, and his wife Agatha. Murdoch had met Henry Conway at the ball in San Francisco, one of land agent Alfred Burke’s many friends. He was a businessman, who had always had a fancy for owning a ranch. He had quizzed Murdoch on what was involved and what a man like him, with no background in ranching, would need to consider. According to Conway, he did not require personal knowledge of cattle just the ability to recognise a good ranch manager.

“Ranching is just like any other business, and I know business, my friend.” Conway passed the mashed potatoes. Murdoch was surprised how much he liked him.

Conway had purchased land from Don Allende, who had decided to retire to Mexico. Although land titles were still not confirmed under American law, the bulk of Don Allende’s land was like Lancer, well documented with grant conditions met. With cattle prices so high, Burke had organised legal subdivision of the land and encountered no great difficulty in finding buyers. Conway had bought a parcel adjoining Lancer. He had arranged for a house to be built in the months Murdoch had been away searching for Maria and Johnny, and in that time he claimed to have also wooed Aggie, the daughter of a fellow businessman. Conway had arrived with his bride, twenty years his junior, the week before last.

“Well, that’s a slight exaggeration.” Aggie Conway paused from eating, and put her hand out to squeeze her husband’s. “Much as I love and admire you, Henry, I won’t have you fool our new neighbours into believing I was so very eager to fall into your arms.”

Murdoch recognised the genuine affection between the couple, and despite the age difference they were well-matched in both wit and intelligence. He was confident he would like having them as neighbours.

This dinner also allowed him to enjoy the society of Marcy Adams again. She was quietly attentive to his needs, and interested in everything he had to say. While not obviously witty or accomplished, she was attractive and had a pleasant manner. There was no rush of blood when he looked at her, but Murdoch was not averse to the idea of spending more time in her company.

“Before you went away, you promised to show me around your ranch, Mr Lancer.” Miss Adams smiled demurely at Murdoch as she folded her napkin. She helped her mother gather up the now-empty plates.

“Name the day, Miss Adams.”

Saturday was chosen. Murdoch would collect Miss Adams at one o’clock and give her the grand tour, or as much as could be squeezed into an afternoon. The essentials confirmed Miss Adams seemed to relax and conversed with Murdoch with more animation. “I shall pack a picnic, Mr Lancer. When we have seen all the most beautiful sights, we can find a spot in the shade by the river and I will feed you before you drive me home.”

They spent a pleasant afternoon. They did not visit the hacienda, but they looked towards it from the bridge on their way to the waterfall above Calf Creek. Some of his vaqueros were mustering cattle along the western boundary of the ranch. Two of them rode away from the rest at speed in pursuit of some animals just visible amongst scraggy trees on the far side of the valley. One man slipped sideways to retrieve something from the ground as they raced; if the horse slowed at all it was not noticeable. Then as they reached the grove, the steers ran in different directions, and each vaquero pursued and lassoed his quarry.

“Oh my, Mr Lancer, how well they ride. Who are those men? They look so young.”

Murdoch shaded his eyes from the sun and tried to make out which of his vaqueros were now leading the steers down the slope to the rest. “That’s definitely Isidro Mendez on the grey, and I think the other is his cousin, Gaspar. Both are very fine horsemen. Most of the vaqueros are. They learn to ride almost as soon as they can walk.”

The vaqueros herded the cattle south as Murdoch drove the buggy towards a glade by the river. Helping Miss Adams down, they settled under a large willow to enjoy hard-boiled eggs and ginger beer.

“I believe there is a church social next weekend, Miss Adams. Would you do me the honour?” Murdoch was stretched out on his side on the rug, resting on one arm. He looked up hopefully.

“I would like that very much, Mr Lancer—on one condition.” Miss Adams simpered as she played with her hair. Murdoch waited to hear what he had to do. “You must call me Marcy from now on.”

It was prettily done; Miss Adams—Marcy —was very prepossessing and throughout April, Murdoch saw quite a lot of her, by his standards at any rate. The ranch still demanded most of his time and there was a cattle drive to prepare for. He was aware that she was also spending time with other young men, but as he was a married man, albeit estranged from his wife, and he had not as yet formed any serious intentions, he was not overly concerned. Perhaps there was a small niggle of jealousy but no more.

Mid-May he set out for San Francisco with the herd and Cipriano as his new foreman. José remained behind to look after the ranch. “I’ll leave you to manage the men and the herd, Cip, unless you ask for help. You’ll soon get the hang of it. The men like you, but remember you’re their boss now and not just their friend.”

“Si, Patrón. Paul warned me how it would be. One or two have already tried to take advantage, but it’s getting easier.” He spurred his horse forward and yelled orders to the new man, Walt Perkins, who was riding on the wing. The steers were beginning to straggle wide. They would lose some in the trees if the animals were not brought back to the bunch soon.

Stock agents had been to Lancer to place their orders in advance, so there was none of the negotiating that used to take time at the end of a long drive. When Murdoch returned from the bank having deposited the agents’ drafts, he paid his men and gave Cipriano enough cash to stand the first round. “Remember it’s not the cattle drive that separates the men from the boys, it’s the town at the end. Take care of each other and look out for all those grifters and cardsharps ready to relieve you of your hard earned wages. I’ll see you all back at the ranch by the end of the week. I’ve a little business to attend to in town. Now cut the wolf loose!”

Murdoch made his way to what was fast becoming the industrial area of San Francisco on the harbour side of the stockyards and slaughter houses. He could not get over how fast the city was growing. If Alfred was to be believed, and he usually was, the official population was now thirty six thousand; hard to believe that it had only been two hundred six years before.

Murdoch withdrew the piece of paper with the boot factory’s address on it from his pocket. Even if it was Ben’s business he probably would not be there. Don Baldermero understood the St Louis factory was still thriving; this was a second factory to meet the demands of California’s growing population.

The pungent smell of tanning leather was the first indication he was getting near. Murdoch supposed it was logical for a boot factory to be situated close to a tannery, but how anyone could stand the stench long term was beyond him. He strode as quickly as possible past a row of small tanneries, dodging a dray carrying fresh hides from the slaughterhouse down the road to a nearby curing shed.  Passing a clapboard warehouse, he rounded the corner to find himself facing the freshly painted sign of ‘B. J. Telford—Boot and Shoe Manufacturers’.

The factory was newly constructed. In fact, one wing was still a timber frame with carpenters and labourers busy at work, but he could hear the whirring of machines and the thud of hammers echoing from the cavernous interior of the main building directly in front of him. Huge double doors were firmly shut against the odour of sulphates and tannin, but a small side door proved to be unlocked and Murdoch stepped inside the general hubbub of a modern footwear workshop.

The factory was surprisingly bright and airy. Three tiers of large windows gave plenty of light for the bootmakers to see by, and several windows on the far side, the side furthest away from the tanneries, were open to what Murdoch guessed would be the harbour. Sure enough, a scraping noise caught his attention and a large door was rolled back to reveal the factory opened directly to its own section of wharf. The workshop was currently one large room with a mezzanine of offices looking down from above. A rolling machine, cutting benches and sewing machines were to his left on the side where he now stood. The space in front of him, covering two thirds of the factory floor, was devoted to benches and tradesmen, working elbow to elbow. Foremen patrolled each section, checking the quality of the completed work at every stage of the process.

Murdoch watched fascinated as a foreman inspected some finished boots, holding each boot up to the light, turning it to examine the stitching and testing each sole was firmly nailed and glued to its upper. With an obscenity Murdoch recognised even without hearing it, the overseer rejected one pair, but he signalled his satisfaction with the rest. A cordwainer reached over to fix his mistake, while a boy gathered up the approved product. The youth took the boots to one end of the benches where he polished the leather and attached the laces. Obtaining approval from the foreman once again, he then delivered the boots to the packing tables to Murdoch’s right. The packers—mainly women—sized and packed the finished footwear into boxes. Clerks behind them checked off pallets of boxes before warehousemen took them away for storage or dispatch. The factory was a hive of well-ordered activity such as Murdoch had never seen before.

“Mind out, mister.” A man carrying a load of leather pushed past him and headed to the end of one of the cutting benches. Murdoch was propelled forward into a main aisle. A boy hurrying with an armful of new boots collided with him. The foreman cursed and came storming down the gangway as the boy scrambled to pick up the footwear and match each boot with its mate.

“What the hell is going on here! Fletcher if you can’t do your job right I’ll find someone who can.”

“I’m sorry. It’s not the boy’s fault. I got in his way.”  Murdoch stooped to help.

“Leave him. He’ll sort it. What are you doing here, mister? What do you want?”

“I came to see if this factory belonged to Ben Telford, originally of Hexham in England and more recently of St Louis.”

“Aye, that’s the owner, right enough. Is he expecting you?”

“Is he here?” Excitedly, Murdoch scanned the offices above, but then he heard a familiar shout from behind.

“Murdoch Lancer, you canny Scot—if you’re not a sight for sore eyes!” His friend had emerged from the depths of a large machine. Sleeves rolled up, hands covered in grease and a spanner in his hand, Ben Telford gave Murdoch a hearty embrace. “Come on upstairs, man. I’ve been meaning to get in touch.”

Ben had been in town just over four months. He had never been a reliable correspondent, and what with overseeing the opening of the factory, he had not got round to contacting his old friend. He was using McIntyre and Associates as his lawyers however, and when the connection was discovered Will McIntyre had told him about Maria and Johnny and about the situation with Scott. “I’m that sorry, Murdoch. Are you all right?”

“Aye, I’ll live. Scott is growing up in the lap of luxury. I miss him, but he is safe and loved. He won’t miss me so I must learn to be content. It’s that or drag him through the courts and I can’t do that to the boy. As it has turned out, I don’t have the stable home life I intended for him here anyway.” Murdoch settled into a chair that looked out over the factory floor. “I don’t hold much hope of getting Maria back now, but I’m still looking for Johnny. I’ll be away down south again in the autumn. But enough of that. Tell me what you’ve been up to. This factory is incredible!”

“It will be bigger than the one in St Louis when we’re finished.” Ben washed his hands, and offered Murdoch a cigar from the box on his desk. “If I’m not mistaken, those are Telford boots you’re wearing.”

“So were my last pair, but I didn’t realise it. They were so comfortable I didn’t want to part with them. It was when I bought these that I found out you were here.”

“We use shaped lasts and have three widths. Most of our competitors are still using straights with only two widths for their work boots, but I’ve always believed that a working man’s footwear needs to be a better fit than the gentleman’s. He is after all on his feet instead of his backside most of the day. Here at Telford’s we take pride in producing durability and comfort for the common man—and woman. Rachel’s talked me into a line especially for women; the boots will be a smaller fit but still sturdy.”

The two friends spent the rest of the day together catching up on old times and more recent events. Ben had left his brother-in-law to run the St Louis factory, so he could personally superintend the establishment of the new factory in San Francisco. “I like it here. When I go back to St Louis in August, I’m hoping to persuade Rachel to move to California or at least come out for a visit. By that time I should have more time to spend with her and the children. Maybe we can come and visit you at Lancer. At the moment, though, I virtually live in the factory. We only started production ten weeks ago.”

Ben currently rented a room at a boarding house nearby. Consequently they went to a restaurant for their tea. As it happened, Will McIntyre was dining at the same eating house with a client. “Come to dinner tomorrow night. Anne would love to see you both. She mentioned to my sister you were here in her last letter, Telford. Beth’s reply has just arrived full of questions, so I warn you, Anne will want to interrogate you.”

“I’m happy to sing for my supper. I’ll be interested to learn what Beth has been doing as well.”

When they arrived at the McIntyre’s house on California Hill the next evening, Murdoch and Ben found Alfred and Charlotte Burke had also been invited. Ben had not met the Burkes before, but he and Alfred soon discovered a common interest in fishing, and Alfred undertook to introduce Ben to all the best angling spots around the bay. Charlotte and Anne both promised to take Rachel under their wing when she arrived later in the year, fully determined to make the Telfords the newest addition to their social circle. As expected Anne quizzed Ben on Beth’s behalf, and he caught up with everything she had been doing for the past few years. Some subtle enquiries were made about Murdoch’s well-being, but no one pressed him, and he was left largely in peace to enjoy the light-hearted repartee of his friends. If only for one evening, Murdoch was immersed in the company of people he truly cared about and who cared about him. None of his troubles disappeared, but he returned to Lancer with his mind more at ease than when he left.


 

Chapter 36: Women Troubles

“What are your intentions?” Sarah Johnson cut another slice from the loaf for Murdoch. Alarmed by his wife’s boldness, Daniel turned to help their daughter construct her sandwich. The friends were sharing lunch. It was the first day Murdoch had made it into town in weeks. “You’ve asked Marcy to go to Saturday’s dance, even though you must know she’s been seeing a lot of Charlie Dane.”

“I didn’t know she was seeing more of Charlie. She can’t be very serious about him. She agreed to go with me.” Murdoch buttered and spread pickle on his bread, then added some corned beef and lettuce. “It’s too soon for me to have intentions. Marcy must know that.”

“Catherine was right. You are clueless when it comes to women.” Sarah looked vexed. She bit forcefully into her own sandwich, but put it down after chewing only one mouthful. “Look, Murdoch, I’ve grown to quite like Marcy. Her mother is a fright, but Marcy is all right. At the moment I think she is torn between you and Charlie. If you haven’t any serious plans, I think you should make that clear.”

Murdoch thought Sarah was making a mountain out of a mole hill, but he agreed to talk with Marcy on Saturday evening at the town dance. He collected her as arranged at seven o’clock, and they walked to the barn at the edge of town where the dance was being held. Mr and Mrs Adams did not follow them. Mrs Adams had a bad cold and was confined to her bed. Her husband bowed out too.

“Of course Father says he is staying to take care of Mother, but I’ll guarantee you he’ll settle down at the table with his insects and pins and be so engrossed in mounting his latest finds that he won’t hear her if she does call out.” Mr Adams was a keen amateur entomologist. He would often be seen exploring the woods and fields just outside of town. Murdoch always suspected that the hobby offered him the one thing he could never get at home—peace and quiet.

Marcy and Murdoch danced almost non-stop for the first hour, but then he left her talking with friends while he went to get some punch. He was half way to the refreshments table when Charlie Dane stepped in front of him. “I want a word with you, Lancer. I don’t want you seeing Marcy. It’s not on. A man should be able to go away on business for a couple of weeks without having another fellow making a move on his girl.”

“I didn’t know she was your girl, Dane. Does she?” Murdoch tried to go past, but Dane was not finished with him.

“Stay away from her.” The assistant bank manager puffed out his chest, trying to look bigger and more important than he was. “I’m not afraid of you, Lancer.”

Murdoch listened to his bluster with mild amusement. “I never said you were. Look, I enjoy Marcy’s company, I asked her to the dance and she said yes. That’s all there is to it, so will you please let me pass.”

“I’ve a good job and I’m being promoted. What can you offer Marcy? You’re still married. Even if you do intend to get a divorce, it will take ages.”

“Divorce? Dane, I don’t know what you’re talking—”

“You bastard!” Charlie Dane took a swing for Murdoch and sent him staggering back. Murdoch was no longer feeling very friendly. He came back at Dane with a right hook of his own, and within seconds they were having a full blown fracas.

“Keep away from her.” Charlie took a swing and missed.

Murdoch socked Charlie in the stomach, winding him. “Why should I? It’s up to Marcy.”

Head already down, Charlie rammed Murdoch forcing him back into the bales of straw behind him. Marcy broke through the by-standers. “Stop it! What on earth are you doing?”

“I don’t want you seeing him. You’re my girl.” Charlie wiped his bleeding lip with the back of his hand. “I don’t know what you see in him. He’s married and has no intention of getting a divorce.”

Marcy looked from one to another, gaping but unable to speak, her face pink with embarrassment. If she gained any pleasure from having two men fight over her, she hid it well. Murdoch and Charlie stood panting and glaring at each other with Marcy, arms outstretched, between them. Daniel pulled Murdoch away and George Nicholls, the bank manager, dragged Charlie back. “Pull your head in, Dane. You’re bringing the bank into disrepute. Do you want to lose that promotion before you even start?”

Charlie Dane slouched off to the opposite side of the barn. Sarah consoled Marcy in private, but eventually they returned to where Daniel and Murdoch were waiting for them. The rest of the evening felt awkward as everyone skirted round the reason for the fight and what was said.

“Marcy, I enjoy your company, and I would like to keep seeing you, but for now it does have to be just as friends. I’m not ready for anything else yet.” Murdoch escorted Marcy to her front door. “I hope you understand.”

“I don’t know what to say, Murdoch. I’m very fond of you and Charlie. I need time to think.” Marcy opened the door. “Thank you for taking me to the dance. Good night.”

Murdoch rode home. He did not like the idea of Marcy seeing Dane, but how could he make a commitment to her when he was still married to Maria? How could he make promises to any woman when he was still in love with Maria? That was the truth of it, no matter how hard he tried to deny it. He was still in love with Maria and it was eating him up inside. He could not wait to get the next drive over with; then he could start preparing to search for Johnny—and Maria—again.

He had already organised a few things. With Paul in Sacramento, his biggest problem had been who to leave in charge. José and Cipriano were good foremen; for the day to day management of the ranch there were none better, but neither liked dealing with the financial side of things, and if anything unexpected came up he was not confident they would cope making the necessary decisions. Cip might be able to handle things in a year or two when he had more experience, but José could barely read and write and these days the person in charge needed to be literate. Besides José was slowing down generally; there was a good chance he would not want to be foreman much longer. Murdoch first thought that he would ask Don Frederigo to keep an eye on things, but Frederigo Caldera had a wedding to attend in Los Angeles in October. He offered to return in time for Murdoch to leave at the beginning of November, but Murdoch knew he would prefer to stay away longer and visit his family in Mexico. The problem was solved by Henry Conway.

After their re-introduction at the Adams’s, Murdoch and the Conways dined together regularly. Murdoch invited them to Lancer and then they invited him to their ranch. Soon their dinners became an accepted routine every couple of weeks. The threesome shared interests in ranching, literature and many other things. Murdoch taught Henry more about cattle and California, and Henry gave Murdoch interesting insights into American business and politics. Aggie was the real surprise; not only was she no shrinking violet, but she also proved to be a discerning judge of horse flesh. Murdoch had a lot of fun bidding against her at an auction in Morro Coyo in August. By that time, their friendship was so well-established that when Murdoch said he was worried about inconveniencing Don Frederigo, Henry immediately offered to step into the breach. “If you trust me, that is?”

“Of course I trust you. José and Cipriano would see to all the routine ranch work. Are you sure you wouldn’t mind? Thank you, Henry.”

That settled Murdoch headed to Sacramento on the final drive of the season in good spirits. A few legal arrangements to enable Henry to sign on his behalf, and he would be free to leave as soon as work at the ranch allowed. In addition, he could now visit Paul without fear of making him feel guilty about leaving.

Paul and Angel O’Brien were renting a house on the south side of Sacramento. Paul had found work at a nearby timber mill. Angel was at home with baby Teresa, but at least now she was within walking distance of her beloved shops and social amenities. No longer part of the small ranch community and with Paul gone all day, Angel was rather lonely for the first few weeks, but according to Paul’s last letter she was much more settled and happy again. In contrast, Paul was finding the noise at the mill a bit of a strain, and he was looking around for another decent-paying job.

After concluding his business, Murdoch followed the directions in Paul’s letter and approached a row of timber cottages late afternoon. He should not have too long to wait before his friend got home from work. Murdoch knocked on the door expecting to be greeted by Angel, but instead Paul answered the door, looking like death warmed up.

“My God, man, what’s wrong?” Murdoch followed Paul into a neat living room.

“She’s left us, Murdoch. Angel’s run off with some fancy pistol-shooting show-off.” Retrieving a crumpled letter from the dresser, Paul shoved it into Murdoch’s hands and went to lift his crying daughter from her cradle. 

Maria had not left a farewell note. She could not write. Murdoch had tried to teach her, but she was never interested enough to put in the effort needed to learn. He had always wished for a note, some explanation or statement of regret, something that showed she had thought of his feelings at all when she stole away with Johnny and the heirlooms he was saving for Scott. When he read Angel’s letter he changed his mind. Not knowing was better than the callous, thoughtless words Angel left for Paul.

 

Dear Paul

I am leaving you. Please do not follow me. I will not change my mind. I am in love with someone else. I am not cut out to be a housewife and mother. I am going to travel and live life again. Teresa is next door. Mrs G. thinks I am going to the market, but Carl and I will catch the steamer to San Francisco. It is better this way for all of us.

Angel 

“Mrs Graham was waiting for me when I came home from work last night. Angel said she would only be an hour and that was before lunch—if only Mrs Graham had sent for me when Angel didn’t come back.” Paul paced the floor, looking haunted. “Sshh, little one, it will be all right. She’s wet but I don’t know how to change her. I’ll have to take her next door.”

“Give her here. Have you got a clean diaper?” Murdoch took his goddaughter and the diaper from her distraught father and laid Teresa on the table. It was easier changing a girl, no sudden fountains to dodge. He was not surprised Paul did not know how. Most men left all aspects of child-rearing to their wives.

“I went looking right away. Mrs Graham wasn’t happy, but I had to try. They caught the midday riverboat, her and her fancy man. I’m going after them, Murdoch. I’m going to kill that bastard, Bolton, and bring Angel home. You could take Teresa to Lancer for me. Estella or one of the other women would look after her while I’m gone and I would be back as soon as I found them. It wouldn’t take long.”

“Even if they stayed in San Francisco it could take ages, Paul. You know how big the place is now. Anyway what good would it do? She says in her letter she loves him and won’t come back.”

“But I love her, Murdoch. And Teresa needs her.”

Murdoch settled Teresa back in her cot. “Paul, I don’t think it will do any good.”

“Why not? If I kill the mongrel, Angel will come back. It’s no different to Maria and Johnny. You’re still looking for them. Why should I give up so easily?”

“I love, Maria, but I don’t know if she still loves me. Killing Cole wouldn’t make her change her mind though, I know that. Sure, I’d enjoy shooting him or beating him to a pulp, but it wouldn’t make Maria love me.” Murdoch was stunned by his own words. He had gone over and over events and feelings during the past months, but somehow putting the whole situation into words for Paul seemed to make it real for the first time; more than that it explained why he still felt the way he did. “The only thing that might persuade her to come back would be Johnny. She might give us a second chance for his sake. Maria wouldn’t want to be parted from Johnny. She took him with her. I hate her for that, but I think it’s why I still love her too. Maria didn’t leave Johnny behind.”

“Angel left Teresa. How could she do that? How could she leave either of us when we love her so much?”

Murdoch did not know how to answer that question. He and Paul talked long into the night. For most of it Paul was still determined to chase the runaways and kill the man Angel had run off with. His name was Carl Bolton. Mrs Graham had described him as smooth with a fancy waistcoat, jacket and shoes that had never seen a hard day’s graft. Apparently he had come to the house on more than one occasion while Paul was at work. Mrs Graham recognised him too from the small theatre near the centre of town where Paul and Angel had first met.

That morning Paul had sent word to his employer he would not be at work. Leaving Teresa with Mrs Graham again, he had gone to the theatre and banged on the stage door until the manager had emerged from his office. Angel had been to visit some old friends about three months before. She had seen their act advertised on a billboard. While at the theatre, she had been introduced to the latest sensation, Carl Bolton and his Wild, Wild West show; suave pistoleer,  pretty swooning girls in skimpy costumes and a genuine Indian to be shot dead every evening—except Sunday—and matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays. The theatre manager was none too pleased to lose his best act. Bolton’s fellow performers were not too pleased either, because the handsome Carl had left without paying their wages.

“Selfish bastard stole my wife and hurt a lot of good people. Now you’re here and can take Teresa, I can go after them. I’ll kill him and bring Angel back to Lancer with me.”

“And how long would she stay, Paul? The woman who wrote that note would not be content to remain out on the ranch. She wasn’t even satisfied with being in town when family and household stopped her from doing the things she really enjoyed. If her affection for you and Teresa wasn’t strong enough to stop her running off this time, what makes you think she’ll stay if you murder the man she says she now loves and drag her back against her will?”

“I don’t know, Murdoch, but I’ve got to try. Don’t I? I owe it to Teresa to try.”

“You remember what you said to me the night after you stopped the fight between me and Haney? You said I owed it to my son to stay alive and out of jail. You were right, and that’s what you owe Teresa. You’re no good to her if you’re dead in a ditch, miles away searching or behind bars. Angel doesn’t want her. I’d take care of her for you, of course I would, but she needs her daddy, Paul. She needs you. Don’t sacrifice your daughter for the sake of revenge or for a woman who doesn’t love you anymore.”

Finally the message sank in. Paul grudgingly accepted chasing Angel and Bolton would be pointless and more importantly, harmful to his daughter. After that, it only took a little encouragement for him to agree to return to Lancer with Murdoch.

“Come and stay in the hacienda until you decide what to do. I’m leaving in a month. You could mind the house for me and take care of Teresa at the same time—learn how to change a diaper. I’ve arranged everything for the ranch, so you wouldn’t need to get involved with that unless you wanted to. You could concentrate entirely on your daughter for a while. It would do you both good.”

“I wouldn’t feel right staying in the hacienda. Maybe one of the cottages.”

“They’re all full, but what about the annexe? Those rooms are nearly finished. We could make a few alterations and turn some of them into a home for you and Teresa. You could do some of the work if you want or I’ll set Pedro onto it over the winter. You might need to use the kitchen in the hacienda until it’s done, but it’s ready now for just sleeping and living.”

It was agreed. Paul and Teresa would move into the annexe, a single story extension to the main hacienda, originally intended for offices and guest accommodation. Murdoch had been gradually finishing off the rooms, getting Pedro and others with building skills to do a bit each winter when the ranch was quiet. Until Murdoch returned in the spring, Paul would help with the renovations and do other odd jobs, but mainly he would take care of his daughter. Both men knew the women of the ranch would be eager to help, but Paul needed some time to heal. Being Teresa’s main caregiver would help him get over Angel. When Murdoch got back, they would talk about what else he could do. He was not interested in the responsibilities of foreman or Segundo now, but in time he might feel differently.

When they arrived back at Lancer Murdoch spent some time helping his friend and goddaughter settle in, but then he began preparations to renew his search for his wife and child. This time he intended to cross the Sierra Nevada before heading south to Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales and west as far as El Paso del Norte once again. Luisa Flores would become sick of the sight of him, if she did not cooperate and help him find his family. Don Acosta had reported Maria had been in Matamoros early in the year, but word from Don Contanado had come only a few weeks before; a gambler with a beautiful companion had spent some time in Nogales in June. It had to be them. Everything was ready. He would depart the next day. Nothing would change his plans.

Except, perhaps, an unexpected visitor.

 

Chapter 37: New Orleans

“Ben! What brings you here?”

Ben Telford dismounted as Murdoch strode across the yard. Shaking hands and embracing, the two friends grinned at it each other. From their first meeting, they had lifted each other’s spirits. Murdoch was always pleased to see Ben, although his timing on this occasion could have been better. Calling Walt over to lead the tired horse away to the stable, Murdoch threw an arm over Ben’s shoulder and guided him into the hacienda.

“I’m impressed.” Ben surveyed the great room and walked to the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk as Murdoch poured them some drinks. “You have some fine pasture land.”

“We do, though it’s looking lusher than usual thanks to a week of showery weather. I’d like to show you around, but I’m leaving to search for Johnny and Maria first thing in the morning. I wish you had given me some warning.”

“I’m not staying, but thank goodness I caught you. I literally grabbed a horse as soon as we disembarked. I knew you planned to set off about this time.” Ben’s face reinforced his words; he had come for a serious purpose and not just for a casual visit. “Rachel and the children are with Will and Anne. I’ll have a lot of explaining and grovelling to do when I get back.”

Taking a small package from his pocket, Ben placed it on Murdoch’s desk and indicated his friend should open it. “I could be wrong. If I am, I’ll keep it and give it to Rachel as a peace offering, but…”

“It’s Catherine’s brooch.” Murdoch picked up the gold and citrine butterfly brooch with its delicate antennae and the floral motifs on the wings. Caressing it between his fingers, he coughed to clear his throat and turned his back on his friend until the prickling at the corner of his eyes eased. “I never thought I would see this again.”

“I knew I was right. Catherine was wearing it when you came to dinner in Roxbury the day after your wedding, the night before you sailed. You remember. Alice admired it so much that Catherine took it off and we all examined it more closely.”

“Where did you find it?”

“In New Orleans.” Ben took his drink to a chair by the fireplace and Murdoch followed. “I returned to Missouri in August as planned and persuaded Rachel to give California a go. Packing everything up and saying our goodbyes to her family took a few weeks. The factory was no problem; Nathaniel, my brother-in-law, was happy to continue. The legal work to make the position permanent was straightforward, and by early October we were heading down the Mississippi on a steamboat.”

Travelling with children Ben had decided to book transport back to San Francisco with Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company. A steamship would take them to Nicaragua and they would cross the isthmus by river, train and stagecoach, avoiding the mosquitoes of Panama. He had left Rachel and his twin sons at a hotel near the dockyard while he went to collect the tickets reserved through an agent. He was on his way back when he spotted the brooch in a jewellery shop window.

“I asked its history and the jeweller was quite open about it. Apparently he often buys jewellery from gamblers. A lot ply their trade on the Mississippi and in the gambling houses of New Orleans, and plenty of saps stake the family jewels on the turn of a card. The jeweller bought it late September from an Englishman; he had done business with him before. I didn’t know what questions to ask, Murdoch, but here is his address. I’m pretty sure he would tell you anything you wanted to know as long as you didn’t talk of theft. He clearly saw his purchase as an honest transaction.”

Murdoch could not believe his luck. This was the lead he had been hoping for. “Thank you, Ben. I don’t know how I will ever repay you for the trouble you have gone to.”

The next day the two men rode towards San Francisco. Murdoch would visit his bank and pay Ben back for the brooch and then board the next vessel sailing for Panama. Ben explained everything to Rachel when they arrived. He had been unusually secretive before; partly because he had spent rather a lot of money on the brooch and he was a little afraid of what she would say.

“How long have we been married? Really Ben, the truth would have been far preferable to being left in ignorance of what was happening in a strange city with people I’d never met before.” Will and Anne McIntyre had made her and the twins very welcome, but even so Rachel was clearly relieved to have Ben back and to learn what was behind his odd behaviour.

Murdoch apologised for being the cause of her distress and welcomed Rachel warmly to California. “After I get back, you must bring your boys and visit Lancer.”

“I would like that very much. I’ll look forward to getting to know you better, and perhaps you can tell me some juicy tales about my husband?” With a gleam of conspiracy in her eyes, Rachel slipped her arm through Murdoch’s and they headed for the dining table. Ben sighed in resignation and followed.

 

XXLXXAXXNXXCXXEXXRXX 

Less than four weeks later Murdoch paused outside the jewellery shop in New Orleans where Ben had recovered Catherine’s brooch. What should he say? He had asked himself that question a thousand times during his journey; what story would get him most information, the truth or should that be avoided?

A bell like the one in his grandfather’s shop tinkled as he opened the door. The interior was not quite as expected; a skylight at the back added light and instead of the cramped, dark hideaway of a dealer in stolen goods, Murdoch found he was in a small but bright showroom with large, tasteful wall mirrors making it appear more spacious. Fine pieces of jewellery sparkled within glass and mahogany cabinets lining the walls.  Taking a few steps forward, his feet sank into a plush Persian carpet of red, blue, black and gold. It lay in the centre of the room over a highly polished timber floor. In front of him, chairs covered in red velvet were arranged around two small mahogany tables, both equipped with hand mirrors so customers could try on and consider the appearance of their potential purchases in comfort.

“Bonjour, Monsieur. How may I help you?”

Murdoch jumped. He had not seen the elfin jeweller, who now stood before him behind the counter-cum-display cabinet at the far end of the store. “Monsieur Lacroix? My name is Lancer.” Murdoch negotiated the furniture to where the jeweller waited.  “Less than two months ago you sold a brooch in the design of a butterfly to a friend of mine. You told him you did not make it yourself but bought it from a gambler.”

“Gold and citrine, beautifully made by a skilled craftsman—I remember. Monsieur Telford left his card and asked me to write to him if the gambler who sold it to me returned. I understand you are looking for the gamester, but I must tell you, Monsieur, I do not wish to get involved in any disagreement between you and this man. From time to time I do good business with him. Business of an honest nature, I might add. I do not knowingly deal in stolen items, Monsieur. I have a reputation to preserve. I only deal in the very highest quality merchandise and my customers are among the best families in Louisiana.”

“I understand and there is no question of theft. I am not really interested in the gambler or in the jewellery, but they are my only leads to those I want to find, my wife and son. I’ll be honest with you, Monsieur. My wife ran away with Thurstan Cole and along with certain family heirlooms, like that brooch, she took my son. I want my son back. Can you—will you—help me find them?”

After some deliberation Monsieur Lacroix came round to the customer-side of his counter and invited Murdoch to be seated. “What were the other items?”

“They don’t…”

“Humour me, Monsieur. Jewellery and gems are my trade. I learned my craft and studied the ways of men in the backstreets of Paris. I have mixed with rich and poor, honest men, the criminal fraternity and all levels in between. I believe you to be an honest man or I would not be helping you, but my recollections are tied in with the items that pass through my hands. What were the other items?”

“There were three pieces, four if you count the earrings as separate from the necklace, but they were a matching set—aquamarine and gold. I know already Cole has broken the necklace up and sold some of the gems separately. There was the brooch of course and the last item was a diamond and gold ring, very old and chunkier than modern rings, but I believe quite valuable.”

“I would say so, if it is similar in quality to the rest, but unfortunately I have not seen the ring. I have had dealings with Monsieur Cole on and off now for a number of years. He came here from New York, I think, and before that London. I spent some time in London in my youth on my journey to America. I remember talking to him about places there we both knew.” The jeweller perched on the edge of his chair and focused with a slightly glazed look on the bevelled shop windows. Eventually he spoke again. “Monsieur Cole is like most gamblers, cunning with a love for fine things but no patience for hard work. He is not the worst of his kind. He has a certain charm that appeals to the ladies and he can be generous to them, which is profitable for me. If I help you, I do not want him to know where your information came from.”

“I promise not to say who told me. Please, what do you know?”

“Is your wife a vivacious blond or a Mexican beauty?”

“Maria is Mexican and yes, she is very beautiful.”

“As I thought then. Monsieur Cole came here with the remains of a fine aquamarine and gold parure a little over a year ago. It is a pity he broke it up. He claimed he had won it in a poker game and the necklace had been damaged later accidentally. Thinking it could not be repaired, he had sold and gambled away some of the gems, but he brought me what was left. He wanted some of it remade into a necklace for his lady friend—a blond—to go with the earrings he had given her. She modelled the earbobs for me—quite fetching. The other gems he wanted to sell along with what remained of the gold once I had made him a ring and tie pin to his own design.”

“My wife is Mexican. That must have been only a few months after they ran away. Are you saying they are no longer together? But you mentioned a Mexican woman too.”

“Oui, when he came in September to sell the brooch, he came with a dark beauty. He bought her red garnet earrings in part exchange for the brooch. The quality of the brooch, you understand, is very high. The earrings less so, but she seemed happy with the transaction and of course Monsieur Cole was happy with the extra money he received.”

“Did you see a boy? Do you know where they went?”

“No on both counts, but I know where you might find the first young lady. She may be willing to tell you more.” Monsieur Lacroix eyed Murdoch speculatively. “I do a small line in high-class erotica, Monsieur Lancer. Monsieur Cole once purchased a silver match safe from that collection, so I know he is interested in such things. I recognised the fair-headed lady. Mademoiselle Jacqueline resides at an establishment that caters for gentlemen with more unconventional tastes. Her attentions and discretion would not come cheap. If I had to guess, I would say Monsieur Cole plays house with your wife and keeps a mistress on the side. Very clever, oui?”

The jeweller got up and retrieved a drawer of items from a nearby cabinet. He placed them in front of Murdoch to give him an idea of what he meant. Murdoch was horrified. “Maria would never… She would not involve herself or Johnny in anything so sordid.”

“She probably does not know, Monsieur. The gambler is sly like a fox. He would keep the two ladies well apart. Monsieur Cole’s New Orleans mistress may, however, have some idea where he is. If he is not with her, he is more than likely with your wife, oui?”

Following the directions Monsieur Lacroix provided, Murdoch soon found his way to a white-pillared house deep in the heart of the French Quarter. The area as a whole had seen better days, but the mansion before him retained the grandeur of days gone by. It stood out from its neighbours as well-maintained and prosperous. He pulled the bell rope and waited in the marble portico. The door was opened by a black butler, who ushered Murdoch ceremoniously into a sumptuous reception room. It was early in the afternoon, but already a few gentlemen were sharing glasses of wine with glamorous women in evening dress.

A Creole woman of regal appearance approached him from the window. She must have watched his progress up the path. Murdoch felt her appraisal as she crossed the room. “I am Madame Gisèle. May I help you, Monsieur?”

“I am looking for Mademoiselle Jacqueline.”

“Mademoiselle Jacqueline is indisposed, but I am sure we have other young ladies, who could entertain you. Perhaps you would care to join me for a glass of wine in my office; we should discuss your particular requirements.”

“No need. It must be Mademoiselle Jacqueline. I will only take up a few moments of her time, but I need to speak with her.”

With a slight inclination of her head, Madame Gisèle ushered him from the room into her office on the other side of the entrance hall. “May I ask what business you have with Mademoiselle Jacqueline, Monsieur, if it is not of the usual kind?”

“I wish to speak with her about a private matter.”

“Your name?”

“Lancer—Murdoch Lancer, but it is unlikely to mean anything to her.”

Madame Gisèle pulled a bell rope near the door and the butler promptly appeared. She murmured something to him, and he left again. “Please take a seat, Monsieur Lancer. I have sent a message to Mademoiselle Jacqueline. It will be her choice whether she sees you.”

Madame Gisèle poured red wine into two glasses. Giving one to Murdoch she sat at her desk and silently watched him as a carriage clock on the mantelpiece ticked the minutes away. The clock had just chimed the quarter hour for the second time when the door opened and an attractive blond in her mid-twenties entered. As he rose from his chair, he noticed something odd about one side of her face and neck.

“Yes, Monsieur Lancer, someone has hit me—to be more precise, your wife. Powder can only do so much to hide the damage she inflicted.” Mademoiselle Jacqueline swept across the room to the window as if checking to ensure no one was spying on them. When she turned Murdoch saw malice in her eyes. “What do you want from me?”

Shocked by the revelation and the venom in her voice, all Murdoch’s well-rehearsed speeches evaporated. “Where is she?”

“Gone to hell for all I care and taken that braggart, Cole, and her brat with her.” Mademoiselle Jacqueline stalked to the sideboard and poured herself a large brandy. Glaring at Murdoch, she snarled her story, aided by a more circumspect Madame Gisèle.

Thurstan Cole had indeed made permanent preferential arrangements with Mademoiselle Jacqueline without Maria’s knowledge. Before he went to San Francisco, Cole had been a regular customer of Mademoiselle Jacqueline. When he returned he had admitted that his domestic circumstances had changed, but the woman in question showed no inclination for his more exotic tastes. He would like to continue his relationship with Jacqueline, on the quiet so to speak, whenever the opportunity arose. Jacqueline liked this kind of arrangement. It was often more profitable for less exertion than the norm. Cole was generous with his gifts and there was soon an understanding between them. He had left New Orleans not long after, but he had returned alone six months later for a few days and then again this September with his ‘wife’, Maria. For several weeks he had maintained regular visitation between Maria in a rented house across town and Jacqueline at the bordello while making good money at the gaming tables, which lay in between. Everything was as he intended until the day Maria and Johnny secretly followed him.

They were thought to have entered the bordello through the servants’ entrance soon after Cole’s arrival. The mademoiselle and Cole were just getting down to business when Maria had burst into the room screaming like a mad woman. She had flown at Jacqueline, punching her in the eye and clawing her neck and arms. Cole had pulled Maria off and dragged her away as she kicked and hurled abuse at both Cole and his courtesan. Jacqueline had then tried to inflict some scars of her own, but a small ball of fury appeared from nowhere atop the bed and grabbed her hair. “Leave Mama alone!”

Maria had left Johnny hiding in the hall; Madame Gisèle saw him dive out from behind the grandfather clock as she ascended the stairs to investigate the commotion. Slapping docility back into Maria, Cole shoved her into a chair and then attempted to detach Johnny’s vice-like grip from Jacqueline’s coiffure. Clumps of hair came with him when the gambler finally gave up and yanked the struggling boy free. Thrusting Johnny into his mother’s arms, Cole dressed quickly. Madame Gisèle tried to calm Jacqueline. The gambler then hauled Maria and Johnny outside, Mademoiselle Jacqueline’s curses ringing in their ears as she dripped blood on the first floor landing.

Madame Gisèle sipped her wine before concluding the tale. “Monsieur Cole returned later to apologise and to pay for the damage to the room, but he felt it best to leave New Orleans for a while. We do not expect him back for some time.”

“When did this happen? Where did they go?”

“Only last week, Monsieur. They are headed west to Mexico. If you hurry you might catch them. Feel free to give your wife the same treatment she gave me—that is of course if Monsieur Cole has not already done so.” Mademoiselle Jacqueline laughed maliciously. She sashayed close up to Murdoch, flaunting her pink-white cleavage, forcing him to look or lock his eyes to hers.  Once she was so close he could taste the brandy on her breath, she snatched down the top of her sleeve and bodice to expose angry red marks that faded into her well-powdered throat. “See! See, what she has done to me! Tell that vixen if ever she dares enter this city again, I will make her pay. I will not be caught unawares twice.”

Murdoch made a bee-line for the stagecoach depot. If the clerk could not remember Cole and Maria after only one week, he would assume they were travelling by their own transport, but from what Madame Gisèle said stagecoach seemed more likely. The clerk confirmed it and Murdoch bought a ticket for the morning stage to San Antonio, praying that they had chosen to break the journey along the way. Cole and Maria did not know he was here. They would be in no hurry. There was a good chance he could catch up with them. He could have Johnny in his arms again before his son’s fourth birthday. Maybe he would not kill Cole—the advice he had given Paul made sense—but he would break every bone in the man’s body and enjoy doing it. Short of murder, he would repay every hurt, every insult, every indecency the gambler had inflicted on him and his family. He threw his bag up to the driver and mounted the step into the coach with vengeance and hope in his heart.

 


Chapter 38: The Chase

The journey was long and uncomfortable. His fellow passengers changed at almost every stop. The rancher’s wife and daughter were replaced by the farmer’s wife and son. Two cowboys and a padre boarded at the first station, but got off again before noon. He was squashed between a shopkeeper’s wife, Mrs Gibbons, and a stick-insect preacher for the final twenty miles before the coach stopped for the night. All the way his mind wandered back to the events in New Orleans. Why had Maria taken Johnny to such a place? Surely there was someone who could have taken care of him while she spied on the gambler. Why did she follow him at all? If she suspected him of infidelity, why not just leave? Maria was nothing if not resourceful. She could have found her way safely back to Mexico even if she had not wished to return to California, and she had her own jewellery to pawn if money was an issue. Did she really love Cole so much that she would fight for such a blackguard, even when she knew he was seeing a whore on the side? Murdoch could not understand it, but one thing he was absolutely certain of, it was not a life he wanted for his son. Whatever Maria may now tolerate for herself, she had no right to impose such an existence on Johnny. Murdoch became even more desperate to find him.

Enquiries at every stage confirmed it was definitely Maria, Johnny and Cole travelling ahead of him. Like Murdoch, they remained on the stagecoach for the entire day. Fresh horses at the end of every stage meant that they travelled faster than he would have been able to on one horse alone.

“Do you remember a white man with a Mexican woman and child on the stage last week?” Murdoch caught the frowsy hotel maid’s wrist before she turned away, ignoring the beer and generous plate of pork and beans in front of him.

“To be sure, sir. The missus was ailing, so they stayed a couple of days until the next stagecoach came through. The gentleman paid me to look after the boy. Are they friends of yours?”

“I have business. Was the lad sick too?”

“Oh, there was nothing wrong with the mother that he’d be catching unless it was the back of his father’s hand. If you ask me, sir, she’d seen both her man’s belt and the bottom of a bottle. The way she walked into the hotel—I has seen that kind of stiffness before and it ain’t nothing to do with the coach ride.” The maid cackled, displaying gaps between her browning teeth. “Took her up a little pick-me-up to dull the pain. Kept the little half-breed with me for most of the day after. Tried tasting the ale when I wasn’t looking—cheeky bugger; gave him a good clip over the ear. Behaved himself then, right enough.”

“He’s only small. He wouldn’t have known he was doing wrong.”

“Does now though, don’t he? Can’t mollycoddle them, mister. My pa would have tanned his hide— ‘sides greasers don’t hurt the same as us. Apart from his eyes, the brat definitely took after his ma.”

Murdoch stabbed the meat on his plate and tried to hide his annoyance. He needed information; he must not lose his temper. Fortunately, the maid was too interested in what she could see playing out over the other side of the room to pay much attention to his reaction. She headed over to rescue the dirty crockery and glasses from the tables, before the first punch was thrown. The two cowboys were too drunk to do any real damage to each other, but they kept falling into the furniture. The landlord grabbed one man by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his britches and evicted him through a side door, while the other wrangler swayed in the centre of the room for a minute or two before staggering to join his companion. Murdoch finished his meal and went to bed, cursing the abuse of his son and wife, but gratified by the news that he had already gained on the runaways by two whole days.

Murdoch boarded the coach the following morning, this time sitting opposite the ample Mrs Gibbons, who reminded him of Matilda Merriweather without that lady’s intelligence or sense of propriety. He tried to switch off from her constant prattle, but Mrs Gibbons’ impertinence knew no bounds and it took great self-restraint to keep his own mouth firmly shut.

“The maid, Sally, said you’re trying to catch up with a gambler, Mr Lancer. Now what would a fine up-standing rancher want with a cardsharp? No, don’t tell me, I’ve seen it all before; cheated you and you want your money back. Men of his ilk can be dangerous though; you be careful. Ain’t like he can have any sense of real decency—Sally done told me he was parading some greaser jezebel as his wife. Accommodating, they are. That’s why men like them, but never turn your back on a greaser, I say. Well, he paid for his pleasure when she whelped, now didn’t he?” Mrs Gibbons tittered as she extracted a skein of wool from her carpet bag. “I shock you, Mr Lancer. You didn’t think a respectable woman could say such a thing. I live in El Paso—on the American side of the border, but all the same I see it all the time. Not enough white women to go around, you see. Even good men satisfy their baser urges with… Most have more sense than to marry them though. Would you oblige me, sir, and hold my wool while I ball it?”

Two hours later when they pulled into the next way station, Murdoch arranged to sit up with the driver. Never before had he felt like hitting a woman, but he would not be responsible for his actions if he spent one more minute in Mrs Gibbons’ company.

By the time they arrived at San Antonio, Murdoch thought he had gained another day on his quarry. He allowed himself to imagine Johnny’s face when he saw his pa. He even fantasized that Maria would be pleased to see him. How could she not be after the treatment she had received from her would-be lover? He would not give credence to the suggestion that she now found solace in a bottle, or that she still doted on Cole. Reports from witnesses along the way suggested both ideas, but he would not accept them. Maria enjoyed the occasional wine. She may have even imbibed an extra glass or two in times of stress, but he had never seen her drunk. No, Maria had too much pride and common-sense for that. The Maria he knew—and still loved—could never sink so low. The Maria he knew would never allow her son to be neglected and abused. Maria had always fought for Johnny. She must truly be unwell for her to leave him in the care of slatterns or completely unsupervised as one disapproving matriarch had suggested; it was the only plausible explanation.

“Where to mister?” The bearded clerk at the stagecoach office interrupted Murdoch’s thoughts as the customer in front of him walked away from the counter.

“I’m trying to catch up with a family, who travelled through here about five days ago—a white man with a Mexican woman and a little boy. I’m not sure which direction they were heading. Do you remember them? Do remember which stage they took?”

“Gambling man, lady stunning and the boy with blue eyes. Never forget a face. Not sure which route they took though. South, I think—or was it north?”

“Please try to remember. They have connections in Matamoros and El Paso, but they could have gone anywhere.”

“Five days ago, you say? Bought the tickets early in the morning, remember that. Must have been the stage to Brownsville—it’s just across the river from Matamoros.”

Hoping the clerk was right, Murdoch bought his ticket, but by the third way station he was beginning to have doubts. One station manager thought he recalled a gambler, and several people remembered Mexican women, at least one with a child, but no one spoke of them as travelling together and most thought the child was a girl. Three days—one of them his elder son’s seventh birthday—over hot, dusty roads brought the coach to Brownsville. The stagecoach was due to start the return trip at eight the following morning. Murdoch set out immediately on foot to cross the river to Matamoros.

“Lancer!” As soon as Murdoch entered the taberna, Señor Rodriguez greeted him with what appeared to be genuine bonhomie and escorted him to a table.  “We were sorry to hear that Maria left you, Señor. We told her she had made a mistake.”

“Is she here? Have you seen her and Johnny?”

“Not since February, Señor, and then only briefly. We argued. As her stepfather, I felt it was my duty to tell her to go back to her husband.” Señor Rodriguez poured Murdoch some wine and ordered food from a passing waitress. “Carlotta is not as versatile as Maria, but the customer’s like her. I have to employ others now for the singing and dancing.”

Murdoch accepted the meal with thanks, but left the taberna soon after. Although he believed Señor Rodriguez was telling the truth, he had not come all this way to be totally trusting. When Murdoch exited the taberna he doubled back to the stables behind it to find Raul. The stable-hand was not there, but Murdoch located him soon enough in his favourite cantina a few blocks away. Raul corroborated Rodriguez’s story. So too, did the lawyer, Señor Acosta, when Murdoch shared a sherry with him later in the evening.

“As I wrote you, Maria and your son were here for a short time in February. I do not know where they went afterwards, but I know el jugador was with them. They did not stay at the taberna. They had a suite in the best hotel in town. I am sorry my friend, she did not look like a woman regretting her decision to leave her husband.”

Murdoch had a lot to think about on the journey back to San Antonio. Lacking sleep and frustrated by the time wasted, he was not yet desperate. Maria and Cole still did not know he was so close. They were most likely heading towards El Paso del Norte. He would be on the next stage out of San Antonio. With luck they would break the journey along the way. He would not. He would catch them up. As long as they went to El Paso del Norte, he was still confident of catching up with them. He bid farewell to San Antonio on the day Johnny turned four.

“Yes, I saw the family you speak of. They stayed a few days. There were cattle drovers in town—cash to burn.” The Brownsborough shinglemaker heaved the last shingles onto the back of his wagon and spread a tarpaulin over the load. Murdoch helped him tie it down. “They left about a week ago maybe on the stage to El Paso. The carriage was full, as I remember; some men had to sit up top. Mind you I’d have sat up top too with that Gibbons woman inside. Met her when she came through the other way—and I thought my wife could talk!”

Murdoch did not know whether to laugh or cry. He was not as far behind as he feared, but if only he had taken the stagecoach to El Paso when he first reached San Antonio, he would have caught up with them. How could fate be so cruel?

Impatiently he travelled the remaining miles to El Paso. He was forced to waste a day in Brownsborough; the coach driver was entitled to a day off on Christmas day. Later at Fort Stockton, he bit his tongue and pretended camaraderie as he listened to the lewd appreciation several soldiers had for his wife. Fort Stockton was the last place to report a definite sighting of her or Cole, but there could not be any doubt where they were headed. He marched up to the counter where Luisa Flores stood and demanded to see Maria. “I know she’s here. Get her for me or I’ll tear this shop apart!”

Although clearly surprised by his sudden appearance, Luisa did not yell for her husband. She stared at Murdoch for several seconds and then threw back her head and laughed.

Slamming his fist down on the counter, Murdoch again demanded to see his wife, but Luisa was overcome with mirth. Eventually with tears in her eyes, she calmed herself enough to respond. “You know nothing! I have not seen Maria for months. She has outwitted you, Señor Lancer. What a good joke that you were so certain she was here. What did she ever see in such a fool?”

“You will tell me where she is. I warn you, I’ll wreck the shop.”

“Go ahead. I cannot stop you. My husband will not kill you for my cousin’s sake, but he might for his own, so go ahead. Not that it will do you any good. She prefers the soft hands of her gambling man to yours, Señor, and I do not know where she is.”

Murdoch inwardly flinched at the coarse comparison between him and Cole and by reflex his thumbs rubbed the roughened leather of his fingers as his hands hung tense by his side. “But she must be here. They bought tickets for El Paso and were on the stage at least as far as Fort Stockton. Why would they go anywhere else?”

“Who knows? Perhaps they heard you were following them. But good luck finding them if they did.”

Luisa’s laughter resounded in his head all the way back to the stagecoach office where he questioned the staff more closely. He had been so sure that the runaways were on the stage and that Maria would go to Luisa, he had not asked any questions when he had arrived.

“No, Señor, the only passengers on that stage were vaqueros, an insurance salesman and the grain merchant’s wife back from visiting her sister. I was on duty when it arrived. There was definitely no kid or any woman worth looking at.”

“Do you know where Mrs Gibbons lives?” That frightful female was now Murdoch’s only hope of finding Maria and Johnny.

“Oh, you know the lady? It’s the grain store two blocks down. There’s a large sign over the door. You can’t miss it.”

Mrs Gibbons welcomed Murdoch as if he was a long lost brother when he entered the shop. “Well now, Mr Lancer wasn’t that just bad luck you caught the wrong stage and went all that way for nothing.  I said to that gambler he was lucky to evade you. Mr Cole, I said, I know that nice Mr Lancer has business with you, sir, and you would be wise to cooperate. He is a big man, I said, even bigger than you, Mr Cole. You’d best give him what he wants and spare yourself some trouble, because he seems determined to track you down.”

“You said all that? Why? What did he say?” Murdoch was appalled. All his hopes melted like snow in a Texas summer.

“Quite polite he was in a snide sort of way. Not a nice man, I can tell. He and his ‘wife’ weren’t on the stage the next morning. A farmer and his family joined the coach though, so it was just as well else we would’ve all been packed in like sardines.”

Murdoch did not bother with polite goodbyes. Mrs Gibbons was still in mid-flow as he stumbled from the grain store into the street like the lone survivor of a massacre. They had left the stage two days away at Fort Stockton over a week ago. They knew he was trailing them. There was not a hope in hell he would find them now.  

He knew it, but still he tried. He bought a horse and saddle, and for another few weeks, he searched the small settlements between and around El Paso and Fort Stockton. Only once did he suspect someone of lying when they declared they had not seen them. He searched every building from top to bottom, and travelled further south for some distance, but some truths never change, the border towns will always hide those that wish to stay hidden. Eventually he was forced to accept defeat. His time had run out. He turned his horse towards California and began the long trek home.
 


Chapter 39: Life Goes On

“It was a nice wedding. You should have come with us.” The Johnsons had not long returned from Sacramento and had invited Murdoch to Sunday lunch. Sarah handed him the platter of brisket and reached for the gravy.

“Too busy at the ranch.” Murdoch hid his confused feelings by digging into his roast potatoes and beef. He was not fooling anyone, but he did not want to talk about it. His disappointment about Marcy would pass. He had greater losses to keep him awake at night.

Murdoch had returned to Lancer late February to find Marcy Adams and her family gone from Green River. A new, younger man, Dolph Cramer, was now in charge of the stagecoach office. He had bought an abandoned ranch house about a mile from town for him and his bride, Elizabeth; spurning the Adams’ neat whitewashed house in town as not spacious enough for his tastes and all the children he expected to have. Mr and Mrs Adams had taken Marcy to Sacramento. The invitation amongst the pile of mail waiting for Murdoch when he returned from El Paso said it all.

 

Mr and Mrs Herbert Adams

Request the pleasure

of

Mr Murdoch Lancer’s

Company at the Marriage

Of their daughter Marcia and

Mr. Charles Dane

At the Grace Episcopal Church, Sacramento

26 March, 1853 at 11 am 

Marcy had made her decision; with some assistance from her parents, according to Sarah. Charlie Dane had asked Marcy to marry him on Christmas day. He would take up his position as manager at a new branch of the bank on the north side of Sacramento in the New Year.  Marcy accepted and after due consideration her parents decided it would be better if they as a family followed Dane to Sacramento. Herbert Adams’ transfer had come through at the beginning of February and the family had left Green River before Murdoch arrived back from his travels.

Also among the letters awaiting him was one Murdoch had made a point of opening alone in the evening after Estella had gone home. The brown paper envelope with the precise copper-plate handwriting seemed to whisper to him during the afternoon, but the appearance of being the strong, self-controlled owner of the largest ranch for miles around was all he had left. He would wait for the privacy of darkness before cutting open that letter rather than risk being exposed as a fraud.

His Boston lawyers had done their best, but his father-in-law refused to allow free correspondence between Murdoch and his son. Garrett’s legal team threatened to bring Scott into court if Murdoch pursued the issue. As instructed, James McIntyre backed off, and in exchange Garrett agreed to an annual report to be sent at the end of each calendar year. Scott’s life was to be outlined as though he was a business and Murdoch was a distant shareholder, with an interest but no actual say in what went on. The lawyers had still been wrangling last year and Murdoch had had to rely on the scant information Beth Eliot had been able to send. The letter he now held in his hand was Garrett’s first annual report. Murdoch could only hope there was more in it than bare statistics. He picked up the letter opener and sliced the envelope.

 

December 31, 1852

 

Scotty is now seven and under the supervision of a private tutor, covering all the essential subjects: reading and writing including the study of grammar, spelling, diction and composition, arithmetic, history, geography, Latin, the Classics and Sciences. He is being prepared to attend Boston Latin School following his eleventh birthday. It is the most prestigious school in Boston and its entrance criteria are rigorous. As I am an old boy Scotty will get automatic entry as long as he meets the basic standards required. He will study Greek and French as well as all of the above when he starts at the school. Currently Scotty also has riding lessons twice a week and instruction on the piano once a week. His tutor takes him on regular visits to the Athenaeum, museum and art gallery. My grandson does not want for anything and he is growing into a fine boy. He is now 3 feet 10 inches tall and weighs 51 pounds.

 

Your birthday and Christmas presents for Scotty were received and have been given to him along with the numerous others he received from Father Christmas. I must ask you to desist from enclosing cards and messages. It is my belief at this time that correspondence between you would only upset and unsettle the boy. He knows that his father lives on a ranch in California, but that you were unable to care for him after the death of his mother and for his safety and education he came to live with me. It is enough for the time being. Boston is his home and he is happy.

 

Harlan Garrett

 

Was it better or worse than he had expected? Murdoch could not make up his mind. What had he expected? Not chatty and heart-warming tales of what Scott had been doing during the past two years since he had last seen him. Certainly not a picture drawn or story written by his son dedicated to a father he dearly missed. Well, he could not say then that he was disappointed, could he?

Scotty—Murdoch was beginning to hate that pet name—probably never thought of his father at all. Why should he if his grandfather would not even allow him a few words of greeting in a card? How would Scott know that he had a father who thought of him if the presents Murdoch was still determined to send were put unlabelled amongst the anonymous pile from Father Christmas? Murdoch remembered the Christmas tree at Louisburg Square. It was nearly as high as the ceiling and covered with decorations. Two year old Scott had been mesmerised by the reflection of firelight in its glass baubles and tinsel. On the days leading up to Christmas, several presents had appeared beneath its branches from family and friends. Then on Christmas morning there had been an explosion of brightly wrapped gifts—more than Murdoch could count. In addition to filling his stocking with novelties and sweet treats, Father Christmas had brought Scott every toy and extravagance that money could buy. Murdoch had not really approved. It was too much. He had feared his son could become spoiled by the excess, but his murmured caution to Harlan had been brushed aside. At the time it had seemed churlish to pursue the matter. Now he had lost the legal right to express his opinions. Murdoch felt hollow inside, powerless and hollow.

He had hoped for a photograph. Would it have killed his father-in-law to have included a photograph? Maybe next year. He read the short report through once more, and stowed it away safely in the strongbox.

Although Murdoch felt gloomy, it seemed everyone around him had joyous news of one sort or another. Estella’s Magdalena was engaged to a young vaquero from the Caldera estate. Murdoch’s brother and sister both wrote to say they were expecting additions to their families, as were Cipriano and Maria, and finally after almost giving up hope of another child, Sarah and Daniel were looking forward to the birth of a second baby in July.

“I’m pleased for you. Are you looking forward to being a big sister, Catherine?” Murdoch’s goddaughter beamed at him and started chattering away about all the things she would do with her new sister. “What if it’s a boy?”

“I asked God for a girl baby.” As far as four-year-old Catherine Johnson was concerned having a baby was just like buying from a catalogue. If God did not send you what you ordered, you simply sent it back and got a replacement dispatched.

Paul was looking happier. Little Teresa was a sweetheart. By the time Murdoch returned she was walking and Paul was making good use of the first harness Miguel had designed for Johnny. Paul had made new reins. Maria had taken the original ones with her to use with the larger harness made when Johnny had grown too big to buckle the straps across his back comfortably. Murdoch wondered if a third harness had ever been made. From what he had learned on his travels, he doubted it. Johnny had not been secured at the bordello. He had just been expected to stay put. At least Scott would be kept safe by a never-ending stream of servants and tutors.

Murdoch shook himself back to the here and now. Pulling his accounts ledger towards him, he began to update his records. Constant reflection was doing him no good. Paul had started to become more involved in the ranch and less focused on the loss of his wife, and Murdoch needed to do the same. Paul still did not want the responsibility of foreman—he was working short hours as an ordinary hand—but in truth that was good, because Lancer did not need three foremen and Murdoch did not want to demote either José or Cipriano.

The ranch had run smoothly in his absence under their supervision and with Henry Conway managing the finances. From the odd comment, Murdoch understood all three had asked Paul for advice occasionally, but there had been no major dramas. The routine of the ranch continued largely uninterrupted for the rest of the year as well. Even so, there were a few memorable events.

 

Ben Telford brought his family to visit for two weeks early in May. Murdoch thoroughly enjoyed having Ben and Rachel’s five-year-old twins dash around the place.

“I’m so sorry, Murdoch. Their manners seem to have left them completely.” Rachel stood embarrassed but laughing in the kitchen doorway as with Murdoch’s help Ben sluiced her errant sons under the pump. The boys had been playing around the yard all morning. Somehow Jake had fallen into the pigpen. Andy had gone in to help his brother out. Meanwhile, the country air had given the boys an appetite. When Estella struck the old cow bell calling them in for their lunch, they had been so hungry that they had scampered to their seats at the table covered from head to foot in muck with no thought for the hacienda’s floor or upholstery. Rachel literally squawked when she saw them. Murdoch had never seen two boys move so fast.

The first drive of the season followed soon after the Telfords departed, and just over a month after he got back from San Francisco, the Johnson’s baby was born, a boy. Everyone except the baby’s sister was over the moon. Catherine refused to have anything to do with him. She was even less pleased when, after a week of fervent prayers, God still had not exchanged her infant brother for the girl she had ordered. “It’s not fair, Uncle Murdoch. I asked God for a girl baby. Mary Wilkins got a sister. Why doesn’t God like me as much as Mary?”

“I’m sure God loves you just as much as Mary, Catherine.” Murdoch looked at Sarah for help. With her normal good-humoured pragmatism, Sarah seemed much less concerned about her daughter’s attitude than Murdoch.

“Maybe, Catherine, God thinks our baby needs the very best of big sisters to look after him. I am going to need a lot of help. Daddy and I are even having trouble picking a name. Do you think you could choose a name for your little brother?” Sarah told Murdoch later that she and Daniel had come up with this idea the night before. They were having difficulty deciding on a name, and with luck if Catherine gave her brother his name, she would also give him her affection. The little girl was clearly considering the idea.

“Christopher! My little brother is Christopher.” Catherine looked at her parents and Murdoch as if she brooked no objection. Then she got down from her chair at the dining table and walked over to her brother’s bassinet. “You like Christopher, don’t you? Your name is Christopher and I am your big sister, Catherine.”

And that was that. The Johnson children were thereafter inseparable.

Sadly it was as if God deemed only one pair could be in this happy state at a time. As Paul O’Brien gradually returned to ranch work, everyone thought Teresa would be happy in the company of Estella or Maria. They certainly welcomed her warmly into their daily lives. Perhaps because Teresa had grown used to having a man around however, she did not gravitate to one of the women. Instead she latched onto Cipriano’s grandfather, Miguel. The little girl followed the old man everywhere, and his affection for her was clear. They would dig in the kitchen garden together, feed the chickens or just sit in the sun and exchange stories. Miguel declared he could understand Teresa’s prattle perfectly, and even when he had an audience of children—his own great grandchildren and others—at his feet for one of his stories, Teresa always had pride of place on his knee. Alas, however, along with changeable weather, autumn 1853 brought colds and influenza. At first Miguel complained his rheumatism was playing up, but soon it became clear he had caught a fever. Others caught it too, but they were younger and fitter; they recovered. Miguel did not. Ironic Murdoch thought that his goddaughter was not even aware of losing her mother, but for weeks after Miguel’s funeral, Teresa would still ask Paul and Murdoch where her abuelo had gone.

By late-November, Murdoch too had gone—again in search of his wife and child. His contacts had continued to let him know of occasional possible sightings. None had seen them first hand, but it appeared that Maria and the gambler were still together. By the time Murdoch received the news of their whereabouts, however, they were likely far, far away from where they had been seen. They never stayed in one place long. With little hope Murdoch rode the route at the end of 1853 that he had intended to take at the end of 1852, but returned the following February no more successful. He read the letters that awaited him, the report from Boston about Scott, which if it were possible was even more minimal than the year before, and then threw himself back into the demands of his ranch. In many ways it was still a fulfilling life. Slowly he was establishing one of the best ranches in all of California. By and large he was not unhappy. He had friends around him and family who cared about him, albeit at a distance. Those good people and Lancer should be enough for any man. He told himself he loved his land more than anything else in this world.

Trouble was he knew it was a lie.

 

 

Chapter 40: Changing Times

In October 1854, José Ramos stepped down as foreman. He left Lancer to help his son, Javier, who had bought a modest ranch west of Green River, part of what had been Marques land. Javier had saved while working at Lancer, but latterly he had made good money on the goldfields. José knew more about cattle and the vagaries of the San Joaquin than most men. He would be a real asset to the enthusiastic young rancher. “I will miss Lancer, but with Javier I can be of use without having to work when I do not feel like it. I am tired and ready for that change, Patrón.”

“Good luck and thank you for all your help over the years. If there is ever anything you and Javier need, don’t be afraid to ask. I’ll expect to see him at the Cattle Growers’ Association’s next meeting.” Murdoch shook Jose’s hand and waved his foreman and friend goodbye as he drove the wagon carrying his wife and worldly goods through the Lancer arch.

Paul agreed to take up the reins as foreman and Segundo once again. Cipriano was openly pleased. With his ever growing family he did not want the extra responsibility. He was happy to let his old foreman step in front of him once again. “We’ll mind Teresa whenever you’re away, Paul. Maria loves her as if she were her own daughter, you know that.”

With Paul holding the reins in his absence once again, Murdoch had no qualms about leaving the ranch during the cooler months in search of Johnny and Maria. It had become an accepted routine to work from dawn until dusk on the ranch and often long into the night at his books during spring, summer and early fall. Then as the leaves fell and the ranch settled into hibernation for the winter he would ride out through the border towns chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of hope.

The subsequent year followed a similar pattern. Work at the ranch was never-ending. Rustling was on the increase and cattle prices were dropping rapidly. More children were born to friends and family, there were more deaths and marriages—among them the union of Doctor George Owens to a lady school teacher in Stockton. The communities of Green River and Morro Coyo held their breath when the doctor’s engagement was announced, but were ultimately relieved when Doc Owens recognised the unspoken question on the face of one of his patients, and laughingly put everyone out of their misery. “I’m flattered you should be so concerned. Isabel will come to live with me here in Green River. You don’t get rid of me that easily.”

For Murdoch there were two significant happenings in 1855. The first began in his mind at the end of January on his journey back to the ranch. His grandfather’s watch started to lose time and eventually stopped working entirely. It was little wonder, he had kept the outside polished, but he had never cleaned its inside workings. He knew what to do. He had served an unofficial apprenticeship in his grandfather’s work shop since he was a small boy. Borrowing Catherine’s sewing box from Estella he used needles and pins instead of the specialist tools a watchmaker, and with only a little more difficulty, he managed to take the timepiece apart, clean and oil its parts and put it back together again. He reset the time from the grandfather clock in the great room and thought no more about it until a parcel and letter arrived for him from Scotland in late April.

 

Da died peacefully in his sleep on 28th of January. He was 87. We buried him next to your Grandma. Enclosed is a copy of his will and a statement from the solicitor outlining what you may expect in due course when his estate is settled. He was a canny auld Scot to the very end it seems. I am also sending you the portrait we convinced your Grandda to have taken on his last birthday. It is the new Ambrotype with the image set in glass and the colour added later. Each of his grandchildren now has a copy by which to remember him. Da liked the idea of his picture being hung where he could see what you all were getting up to. 

At that point the ink smudged. Emotion had clearly gotten the better of Murdoch’s mother as it was now with him. Sighing, he set the letter aside and untied the layers of brown paper and newsprint that protected the photograph. Dressed in his best suit and with the stern face required when posing for a photograph, Murdoch MacKinnon gazed out at his grandson as if to say, ‘Right then lad, you put me where I can keep an eye on you and see what is going on in the world.’ Smiling sadly, Murdoch hung the portrait on the wall by his desk; it would remind him of his grandfather and his Boston son.

The second thing of importance also came by post, in the form of a letter and parcel from Beth Eliot. After giving all her family news and apologising yet again for not having been able to provide much news of Scott for the past three years, she ended with some glad tidings.

 

Scott’s tutor got married and moved to Concord. His replacement, Jeremiah Kingsley, is not avoiding us like his predecessor. Either Mr Garrett has forgotten to declare us persona non grata or Mr Kingsley has chosen to ignore his instruction. We met first by chance at the Athenaeum last week when I accompanied the children to exchange their books. In the past, if our visits have coincided, Scott’s tutor has hurried Scott away before he and Bobby could say more than hello. This time, however, the new man was quite affable. He actually encouraged the boys to talk about their books, their likes and dislikes. He made it an educational experience joining in and directing their discussion. I was really quite interested myself.

 

Two days ago it was one of those warm spring days when all you want to do is go outside, so I gave the nanny, governess and tutor a day off—my goodness we have such a crowd these days—and took the family to Frog Pond for a picnic. Robert met us there for his lunch. He had just returned to the hospital, the children were catching tadpoles and I was sketching them from the shade of our favourite cherry tree, when Mr Kingsley and Scott came upon us. They too were equipped for catching tadpoles as part of a natural science lesson. I persuaded Mr Kingsley to join me on the rug and Scott was allowed to play with Bobby and the others. It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and I managed to make several very nice sketches of the children. I have enclosed the best ones of Scott with this letter. I hope you like them.

Carefully Murdoch undid the outer packaging to reveal a cardboard folder encased in tissue paper. Inside were three fine sketches, neatly coloured later just as Beth had done with the portrait he had given to Catherine. The first was of four dark haired children and one fair haired boy wading amongst the reeds at the edge of a pond with nets and jars at the ready, eyes down in search of wriggling tadpoles. The second showed Scott and Bobby proudly standing together showing off their catch; and the last was of the two boys again, lying on their tummies gazing mesmerised by a tadpole in a large glass jar. The sketches were beyond charming, and Murdoch blinked rapidly to disguise his emotion as Estella entered through the kitchen arch to bring him his evening meal.

“Oh, how wonderful, Patrón! Is that little Scott? He looks so much like his mother.” Overcome, Estella flapped her hands at Murdoch and excused herself. She went home to her family to share the news that Murdoch had been given such a wonderful gift. If he had wanted to keep the pictures to himself, he had no opportunity to do so. The next day several people came and asked if they might see them. He enjoyed sharing them with those that remembered Catherine, especially with Maria who also remembered Scott. After a flurry of interest he put the folder on the bookshelf next to Catherine’s photograph, now restored to what he considered to be its rightful place on the shelf along from the family bible. In quiet moments alone, he would open it and examine the drawings with a renewed sense of connection to his elder son.

If only he had something similar to remind him of his younger son, but on that front things were looking even bleaker. Johnny would be coming up to seven years old. He should be in school, but all attempts to find him through that means had drawn a blank. Not that this necessarily meant anything. Murdoch had not managed to extract any information from the Mexican schools. The education authorities responsible for the American border territories had agreed to send out letters to schools on his behalf, but after six months he had received official response from all of them, and no boy going by the name of Lancer, Tomàs or Cole had been reported to them.

There had been no sightings of Maria or Cole for the past year. Murdoch suspected his contacts had given up asking. They were moving on with their lives and many of them no doubt thought he should too. They were entitled to their opinions, but by mid-November 1855 he was heading south once again. Sadly in February 1856 he returned alone. He took back the reins of the ranch from Paul without a word from either of them about why he had been away.

In April Vallejo land near Spanish Wells and bordering the Estancia Caldera was confiscated for back taxes. It was not surprising. Don Vallejo senior had bequeathed his land to a frivolous, extravagant son, who had wasted the high earnings received from his cattle since the discovery of gold. He had also borrowed heavily to pay the land taxes imposed by the American government on his vast estates. He was now facing bankruptcy. Murdoch, Caldera and other more astute landowners had recognised back in 1853 cattle prices were on a downward spiral. Cattle drovers had started herding thousands of head across the Sierra Nevada to take advantage of the Californian market and there was increasing competition from sheep. By 1856 Vallejo had failed to pay taxes on two thirds of his land. He managed to sell some and a government unsympathetic to the Californio community was quick to move in on the rest.

In August, 1856 Murdoch was surprised to learn his old friend, Frederigo Caldera, was also giving up some of his grant land to the government.

“I would face the same end as Vallejo if I did not give up some land now.” Frederigo swirled the after-dinner brandy in his glass before savouring its taste. “The acreage around Spanish Wells was part of my last grant and I have not fulfilled every condition or surveyed many of its boundaries. It would be expensive to do all that now to confirm title, and in the meantime the government wants its taxes. I do not wish to borrow at the exorbitant rates I have been quoted. My lawyers recommend I give up that land and invest my money and energies into preserving the rest, where title should not be questioned—the Land Commission is certainly taking its time over the process.”

Murdoch could not agree more. His applications to the Land Commission in 1851 had not received answers either, and the documentation for the main estate had been impeccable. “But you have improved the land with bridges and roads, and the boundary with Lancer is surveyed. It seems unfair that you should walk away with nothing.”

“Life is not fair, my friend. I am at least old enough to accept that truth philosophically. American government has coincided with prosperity for California from gold. In some ways things have changed the way I hoped, but I was naïve. I am Mexican by birth, and the treaty, it seems, will not make me or my family accepted as American by other Americans. Our wealth safeguards us against the worst insults. The same cannot be said for those who are less well off, and I do not expect that to change soon. I still see a future for the Caldera family in California—pride and loyalty to my countrymen, those who cannot afford to leave, make me determined not to be driven out of my homeland—but henceforth Caldera wealth will be less in land and cattle and more in investments that are not so affected by ethnic origin. Once title to my remaining land is confirmed, I will contact Burke and sell most of it.”

Murdoch was saddened by the news he would lose such a valued neighbour, but he could not deny the truth of what Frederigo said.  Land taxes were not introduced to persecute the Californios, but they flew in the face of traditional ways of life. Whereas old Californian society relied heavily on barter, the new order dealt solely in cash. Most families had not understood the implications of the new taxes. When the gold rush caused cattle prices to skyrocket, they were blinded by their unexpected wealth and many had spent extravagantly, putting nothing aside. Land had never been taxed under Mexican rule. The taxes had been levied on imports and exports. Now under American law those taxes were more conducive to trade, and revenue was gathered from land taxes instead. The Californios owned hundreds and thousands of acres of land; the tax bills were horrendous.

Those landowners like Caldera and Murdoch, who had watched for new laws and regulation, had realised the implications in reasonable time. Reining in their spending, they had started to put aside some of their earnings from the goldrush-inflated cattle prices, but even the more astute could not foresee every consequence. Most were still at risk of losing some or all of their lifetime’s work. The incompetent and financially inept from the outset, like the younger Vallejo, were going under already, but even the good cattlemen and careful managers were facing hard choices: the prospect of selling their land for much less than it was worth due to unconfirmed title, or losing some or all of it to the government for unpaid taxes, or to the banks if they defaulted on loans. The drop in cattle prices meant many ranchers could not both pay their taxes and service the loans that they had taken out in haste to pay their first tax demands. In addition, anti-Mexican legislation was increasing. It was little wonder that many wealthier Californio families were reconsidering their future in the American state of California.

Murdoch as a rule was not afraid of change and welcomed progress, but during the past few years he had come to realise that not all change was good. If progress was good, then there was a difference of opinion about what was progress. As it happened, 1857 saw the issuing of the first small batch of patents, among them his patent for the larger part of Lancer and the patent that would free Don Caldera to sell his estate.

“I will get him a good price. We’re subdividing the property into smaller lots, and although the price per head of cattle has dropped there is still strong demand for land.” Alfred Burke leaned back in his chair and rubbed his stomach. This was his first visit to Lancer in some time and he was making the most of Estella’s cooking. “The Land Commission decisions have done wonders for G.W. Burke and Sons. We were facing a lot of competition from Johnny-come-latelies, but two thirds of the first patents are for land we sold during the Mexican era or in which we have had some other kind of involvement. You can be sure I’m making that well-known to prospective clients.”

“They have asked for more surveying to be done on my other claims.”

“They have asked for more surveying to be done on most claims—those that have not been rejected outright. It is not surprising. Two years was hardly long enough for most landowners to grasp what was needed, let alone actually organise it. How Indian tribes with multiple owners and a language barrier to boot were supposed to manage, I have no idea.”

“Henry Conway would say they weren’t supposed to manage. It was a means of taking Indian land without being seen to do so.” Both Murdoch and Alfred thought Henry was probably right.

Murdoch began organising the extra surveying needed for Lancer claims soon after the final drive for the year. He employed the new surveyor in Morro Coyo upon Burke’s recommendation and allocated him one of his ranch hands to help speed things alone. By November the survey reports were ready and Murdoch delivered them to Will McIntyre for final presentation work and submission to the Land Commission, hoping that the second round of consideration would not take as long as the first. He then boarded a stagecoach, which promised to deliver him to St Louis via Los Angeles, Tucson, and El Paso in a mere twenty-five days.

He could hardly believe that claim, but he would try anything once. At least as a passenger boredom and the odour or conversation of his fellow passengers would be his only concerns. He could sleep on the journey if necessary; to do it in twenty-five days he would have to. The Overland Mail Company ran a twice weekly express mail service between St Louis and San Francisco and back again. He could alight at any point and simply re-board the next stagecoach a few days later. He would make his usual enquiries along the way, and if he got wind of Maria and Johnny, he could always leave the coach, rent or buy a horse and pursue them.

Murdoch settled back in his seat by the window, and told himself this trip he would find them. He had never gone as far as St Louis before and he would visit Luisa Flores on the way there and back. Some news of the runaways was certain, and he was newly hopeful of returning with his son. The Butterfield Line, as it was commonly known, was one of the better changes to come to California in the name of progress and Murdoch was among the first to make good use of it.
 

Chapter 41     Staying Silent

“Do you think Mama is happy in heaven, Uncle Murdoch?” Teresa knelt down and placed a posy of flowers in front of a small white cross: Angel O’Brien 1830-1852. Murdoch looked askance at Paul. He shrugged sheepishly.

“I’m sure God is looking after your mama.” It was the best Murdoch could manage. It seemed to satisfy the little girl, who now skipped merrily ahead of him and her father as they walked back to the hacienda.

Murdoch had just returned from another fruitless journey in search of his family. He had dismounted from the stagecoach in San Francisco so obviously disheartened that the liveryman, who had stabled his horse, had asked him what was wrong. During the two days ride back to Lancer, he had trained himself to appear more philosophical. He did not want pity or condolences to add to his misery. Soon the Lancer arch and hacienda would come into view. He was nearing the final bend, attempting to plaster an appropriately complacent expression on his face, when he happened to look up to his right. Surprised and somewhat concerned, he spotted Paul and Teresa standing by a grave in the ranch cemetery. No one close to them had died recently—he hoped. Tying his horse to the hitch post at the foot of the hill, he climbed up to where they stood. They did not see him coming until he was nearly up beside them, but Teresa turned at the last minute and greeted him with a flying hug. Her father just looked embarrassed.

Puzzled, Murdoch followed Paul and Teresa back down the grassy slope. He then chose to lead his horse so he could walk the rest of the way home with Paul. “Well?”

“She started asking about her mother. It’s being at school. Most of the other children have mothers. Those that don’t put flowers on their mother’s graves. I couldn’t tell Teresa that Angel had run off and left us. I said something like ‘your mama has gone some place where she can be happy’, and she took it to mean heaven.” Paul looked fixedly ahead refusing to meet Murdoch’s eyes. “Angel is dead to us, Murdoch, so what’s the harm?”

“Only that it’s a lie. Where did the grave come?”

“Like I said, the other children without mothers visit their graves. Teresa wanted to visit her mother’s grave, so I made one.”

“You made one.”

“Don’t say it like that. It’s done now and she’s happy. I want Teresa to have what is right and good in her life. She doesn’t need to know the truth about Angel. It is better she thinks her mama loved her until the day she died. Please don’t tell her, Murdoch. Just play along and let her be happy.”

What else could he do? Murdoch did not agree with what Paul had done, but he understood why he had done it. Paul was Teresa’s father. It was his choice.

As usual there were too many other things needing his attention to dwell on the problem for very long. Rustling was still a worry and there had also been a stagecoach robbery while he was away.

“I don’t think they’re the same gang.” Paul adjusted his stirrup. “We caught one of the rustlers last week and he didn’t seem to know anything about any stage. Dolph Cramer says them robbers got away with the wages for that new mine up Triple Creek Valley. The mine company manager was spitting tacks at him when I was in town the other day, but as he says, it’s not his fault.”

Paul and Murdoch mounted up and rode towards Cedar Canyon to check on cattle being brought down from the hills for next cattle drive. The canyon lay about ten miles east and they did not get home until after six o’clock. Cipriano rode out to meet them as they approached the arch. “The niños are sick. Maria has Teresa. Doc Owens says they likely all have it and they must be kept away from others.”

“Have what?” Paul steered his horse off the road to take a shortcut across pasture. The others spurred their horses to catch up.

“Chickenpox.” Cipriano sat stiff and grim in his saddle. Alarmed, Paul urged his horse on, and for several minutes the only sound was the thump of hooves on dry ground.

The three men pulled up outside the Ramirez farmhouse. Maria came out on the porch, looking frazzled. “Stay away. Unless you’ve had chickenpox, the doctor says you must stay away.”

Cipriano was relegated to barn. He had never had chickenpox, but he had been away several days checking on line shacks. He had only just returned to find his house in uproar. The wagon which took the children to school in Morro Coyo had returned with the youngsters and instructions to keep them all at home. They were to be kept apart from anyone who had not had close contact during the past two days. Those that had been in close contact were to be considered already infected and quarantined too.

The virus had been brought to Morro Coyo from Green River, or so Dr Owens thought. Children began to fall sick there about a week ago. Unfortunately a family with children had transferred between towns the day before it was discovered, and those children had started at the school in Morro Coyo the day after they moved. By the time Dr Owens discovered this it was already too late. He came to Morro Coyo to warn the teacher only to find the Green River children and two others were already sick in bed. Close examination of those who turned up for their lessons found three more with early signs, including Teresa, who was starting to itch.  Maria had kept Eduardo home with a slight fever that morning, but by late afternoon he had spots all over. Like Teresa, his sisters were beginning to complain of headaches and itching.

“I had chickenpox when I was a kid, so I’ll be all right.” Paul joined Maria on the porch. He took the bucket she was carrying and went to fill it from the well.

Murdoch could not remember. “I may have, but I’m not sure.”

“Then stay away, Patrón, and stay away from the other men for at least two days if you have been in close contact with Teresa.”  Maria looked with relief at Paul as he went past her into the house with the water. “Paul can remain here with us. I welcome the help, but the doctor says chickenpox is very contagious. Until you are sure you haven’t got it, keep away from us and everyone else. Two days the doctor says. After two days you should know one way or the other.”

Because they had caught it early and were so careful, no one outside the families with children went down with the virus at Lancer. Those families isolated themselves from the rest until Doc Owens gave the all clear. Poor Maria saw her children through the worst, only to succumb to the virus herself. The domestic skills Paul had acquired upon his return to Lancer were resurrected to cope with the younger children while Cipriano took those recovered back to his mother’s. There was little Murdoch could do except foot the bill for regular visits from Doc Owens, and organise practical assistance for the families affected; water and meals were delivered to the door, and once recovered, children were farmed out to other families to take the pressure off the parents still struggling with other crying, scratching off-spring.

Ultimately, no one at Lancer or Morro Coyo was worse off for the experience, but the same could not be said in Green River. Little Christopher Johnson had endured a particularly bad bout. The whole family came down with it, but he was by far the worst affected. Sarah had rocked him asleep holding his arms so that he could not scratch, tears rolling down his cheeks and hers. The fever damaged his ears. As the rash disappeared so did his hearing.

“My baby is broken, Murdoch.” Sarah dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, trying hard not to give way to tears again. Daniel held her close and kissed her head as she rested it on his shoulder.

They were down by the creek having a picnic. Sunshine glistened on the water as Catherine and Christopher splashed about looking for fresh water crayfish. It seemed like a normal day, but when Daniel yelled for the children to keep to the shallows, only Catherine turned around. She raised her hand to acknowledge her father’s words. Murdoch watched as she tapped Christopher on the shoulder and gently pulled him back from the darker water.

“Is there nothing that can be done?”

“Doc doesn’t think so, but he’s referred us to a specialist in San Francisco. We leave next week.” Daniel picked up a stone and tossed it with force at a nearby tree. It ricocheted off and the friends fell silent. “When your babies are born you thank God for making them so perfect. Why do things like this have to happen?”

There was no answer. The Johnsons visited the specialist and he explained the technical whys, but not the whys that mattered. He gave them no hope that Christopher would recover. Already the boy was beginning to slur. He could not hear the words he spoke and his memory of how to articulate them was fading.

“He can’t go to school and I don’t know how to teach him. The only one who seems to understand what he wants is Catherine, but she can’t be here all the time. He’s getting more and more frustrated and withdrawn. I don’t even like to play the piano anymore. My baby can’t hear the music. What is his life going to be like without music?” Sarah struggled to keep the sobs from escaping. Murdoch took her hand in sympathy. The children were in bed now. Catherine might hear her, but not Christopher. He would never hear his mother’s voice again.

Daniel gazed dully out the window into the warm summer’s evening. “The specialist recommended we send him to a school for the deaf back east as a long-term boarder, but we can’t face being apart from him like that.” Sighing, Daniel turned away from the window and took the chair opposite Murdoch. “We’ve been talking. We’ve decided to sell up. The whole family will move to Connecticut. Then Christopher can be just a weekly boarder and come home to us at weekends.”

Murdoch nodded. How he wished there was something he could say or do to console them. He would miss the Johnsons; they were like family. He understood their decision. He lived with being apart from his children every day; if there was any way of escaping that pain, he would take it in an instant. Murdoch had heard of the American School for the Deaf. It had an excellent reputation, and its graduates were said to live productive and happy lives. He wanted that for Christopher Johnson just as much as his parents did, and they would all be so much happier if they could stay together.

By moving, the Johnsons would not be separated, but Christopher would still be deaf; nothing would ever change that. Murdoch recalled when he first held his sons. How perfect, how awe-inspiring—wordlessly he had sworn to protect them forever. He remembered how devastated he had felt when his ability to do that had been stolen from him, in his case by other people and distance. At least those impediments could change over time. Daniel and Sarah had no control over the chickenpox, and they would never be able to cure their son’s deafness.

Maybe there were worse things than being parted from his sons. At least Murdoch knew Scott was healthy and well cared for. In Boston with Harlan, he would have the best medical attention if he ever did become ill, and Murdoch would not hear about it until after the danger was over. He did not know anything about Johnny, but perhaps ignorance was bliss. Whatever life Johnny was leading, at least Murdoch did not have to stand by helplessly and watch him suffer. Perhaps that was better than knowing your perfect child was now broken. He shook his head sadly but emphatically. No, maybe it should be, but it was not. Murdoch knew he wanted his sons with him even if they were not as he remembered them, even if they were broken. He wanted to be the one to make the hard decisions for their sake, to nurse them back to health or to help them deal with the challenges of being broken if that was what was needed. His heart went out to Daniel and Sarah, but he still envied them. At least they were able to hold their children in their arms and keep their family together.

It took three months for Daniel to find a buyer for his business and then the family were gone. Murdoch would keep in touch with letters, but he knew too well that letters were never the same as seeing and touching the ones you loved. He rode with the Johnsons to San Francisco and saw them onto the steam ship that would take them on the first leg of their journey. They would travel via Nicaragua to New York and then Hartford. He watched the vessel disappear on the horizon before returning to his hotel. Early the next morning, he boarded the overland mail stagecoach for his annual pilgrimage south.
 


 

Chapter 42: Abilene

The year 1859 began like its predecessors with Murdoch returning to Lancer without his son. He had managed to track Maria and Johnny for three weeks this time before the trail went dead. He had ridden out in several different directions from the town where they had last been seen, but it seemed the closer he came to the Mexican border the more silent townsfolk became. Even travelling deep into Sonora, he was unable to re-discover any sign of them.

News from Boston was only a little more encouraging. Harlan reported Scott, now thirteen, was doing well at his lessons in school. His son was apparently becoming an able rider and had plenty of friends. He had won a prize for a story he wrote. Needless to say, his grandfather did not think to include a copy with his report. Nor did he include a photograph. Fortunately Beth Eliot was more considerate.

Bobby Eliot also attended Boston Latin School. He and Scott were not best friends, but they were friendly and in the same year. They had most of their classes together. When the boys returned after the summer holidays, a photographer was setting up in the school courtyard. The board had decided annual class photographs should be taken. Guessing that Mr Garrett would not purchase one for Murdoch, Beth had bought an extra copy. She sent the photograph to Murdoch with her Christmas epistle, writing the names of the boys and the teacher on the back. Looking very smart in his school uniform, Scott was standing at the end of the middle row staring straight at the camera.

“You’re looking more like your great grandfather every time I see you, laddie.” Murdoch smiled as he sat at his desk. He glanced at the Ambrotype hanging on the wall to his right.

“Did you want something, Patrón?” Estella looked up from clearing the dishes from the dining table.

“No, Estella. I was just thinking out loud. I’ve received a school photograph of Scott. Would you like to see it?” As he proudly pointed out his son to Estella, he wondered who Scott resembled in personality. Harlan Garrett would have the greatest influence, but he hoped that some of Catherine and his side of the family would still come through. He hated the idea that he might find it difficult to talk to his own son; conversations with Garrett had never been easy.

Fortunately the daily business of the ranch prevented him from wallowing in the unknowable, and the year progressed much like any other until just after the September cattle drive. Out of the blue, Murdoch received a letter from an old acquaintance—Joe Barker.

 

Abilene (Mud Creek),

Kansas

September 2nd, 1859

 

Dear Murdoch

 

Today I saw Maria. She is here with Cole working the local saloons. Come as quick as you can. I will do my best to keep them here.

 

Joe Barker (Sheriff)

 

P.S. Your boy is here too. 

Murdoch boarded the overland mail stagecoach to Sherman, Texas two days later. While the stage carried on to St Louis, he bought a horse and saddle and rode north to Mud Creek. The town would not officially be known as Abilene until early the following year; the likes of Barker and the town’s business fraternity were pre-empting the designated day. Murdoch was getting used to towns changing their names. San Francisco had been the first to affect him, but he had heard of several others since. He could sympathise with the good citizens of Mud Creek; not exactly a name to attract new residents or business. According to the stagecoach driver the governor was going to hold a special ceremony to make the change official sometime in the New Year. With luck Murdoch would have found Johnny and Maria and be long gone by then. He rode into the cattle town late October and headed straight for the jailhouse.

“Joe, are they still here?” Murdoch was in too much of a hurry to waste time on greetings. He burst into the sheriff’s office and stood waiting impatiently for an answer.

Joe Barker looked up from his newspaper and lowered his feet to the floor. “Murdo, you got my message. Unfortunately no, but don’t give up hope. They may come back.”

Murdoch slumped into a chair in front of the sheriff’s desk, head in hands, frustrated and disappointed. Barker poured Murdoch a coffee and perched on the corner of the desk, surveying him sympathetically.

“I stayed out of their way as much as possible in case one of them recognised me. Let my deputies do anything that had be done anywhere near them. Saw quite a bit of the boy, scavenging about town, but I let him be too. Damn idiot cowpunchers were responsible for them high-tailing it less than two weeks ago. Shot one of my best deputies.”

“Who—Cole?”

“No, one of the cowboys. He was shooting at Cole as he rode off, but his buddy tried to stop him—afraid he’d hit the boy. The bullet hit my man instead.”

Barker had not been inside the saloon, but he had pieced together the details from what witnesses told him later. Thurstan Cole had been playing cards with two wranglers and some other men. He was winning. The cowboys were losing. Well-liquored up, they started to accuse Cole of cheating.

“The gambler must have recognised it was near time to call it quits, because he sent Maria back to the hotel. Nate Benedict, one of my deputies—the one that didn’t get shot—saw her drive a buckboard with luggage out of town half an hour before Cole made his getaway.”

Barker saw Cole backing out of the saloon entrance shortly after eleven o’clock. The gambler threw himself and his winnings up onto his horse, grabbed at his reins and yelled for the boy, who was still standing in the swing doors. Ten year old Johnny had held a gun on the irate cowboys as Cole swept the table of his winnings and exited. When called, Johnny made a run for it and was hauled up on the already moving horse behind Cole. The wranglers careered out the swing doors shooting. Thankfully the more sober of the two realised his friend was aiming straight for the boy’s back and shoved him aside. The bullet went wide and collected Barker’s only experienced deputy in the chest as he ran towards the saloon.

“He was using my son as a shield? I’ll kill him! Which direction did they go?”

Barker stepped between Murdoch and the door and pushed him back. “West, but calm down. There is good money to be had in this town for a gambler. He’ll be back. I gave him no reason to stay away. The cowboy who shot my deputy is on his way to Missouri State penitentiary and the other one skedaddled as soon as the circuit judge took pity on him. Cole knows the score. Sure he’ll stay clear for a few weeks and let the dust settle, but then there’s a good chance he’ll come back to relieve the next lot of drovers of their dollar a day.”

“When is that likely to be?”

“Well, there’s a never-ending stream really, what with the railhead being here, but the stock agent reckons the next big drive up from Texas will arrive in three or four weeks and there is an even bigger herd due early January. Old Mud Creek is jumping when the big Texas herds come in. Cole knows it too. Charlie Hawkins, the stock agent, likes his cards. Now I could be wrong, but I don’t think he shared a table with Cole and walked away up on the game just by chance. I’d say stick around Murdoch and they’ll come to you. In the meantime you could do me a bit of a favour.”

“What kind of favour?”

“I’m down to one wet-behind the ears Easterner as deputy for this hell hole. I could do with a man who knows how to handle a gun.”

“You want me to be your deputy? Joe, I haven’t time for that.”

“Like I said, I think they’ll come back if we don’t spook them, but even if I’m wrong Abilene is a good base to make enquiries from. Stay until you get a decent lead. Room and board and ten dollars a day. When it’s quiet you can ride out and check the neighbouring towns, talk to the local sheriffs.”

After giving Barker’s suggestion some thought, Murdoch agreed. He had tried chasing the runaways and had gotten nowhere. Perhaps Joe was right. Perhaps just staying put and waiting for them to come to him was the answer, and if so he did want something to do. He was not a man who could sit around waiting with nothing to occupy his time.  Abilene had plenty of work for three lawmen. Joe declared he could use twice as many, but the town council would not pay for more than a sheriff and two deputies. Besides the way they went through deputies, it was a hard position to fill. His introductory grand tour included the graveyard. “That section over there is reserved for deputies, Murdo.”

“Are you trying to scare me before I start?”

“Just want to keep you alive long enough to be some use. This town is full of drunks, idiots and villains, all of them with guns. Be careful.”

Murdoch was soon introduced to the other deputy, Nate Benedict, a lawyer-cum-government official from back east. He had come west for adventure and to help bring law and order to the frontier. Benedict had grand ideas, but he wanted to experience the challenges at a grass roots level first.

“That’s your bed, Lancer. Town stumps up for meals, but we have to share. Scotchmen don’t snore, do they?”

“Scotsmen—and no, I don’t snore. Do you?”

Despite tossing a few pillows at each other to reinforce weary demands to ‘shut the hell up’, Murdoch and Benedict became good friends. Over the few months Murdoch stayed, they spent many of their waking hours discussing politics and social reform. Murdoch shared some of his concerns for Johnny, and that set Benedict off on his hobby horse. His pet subject was prison reform. He had worked amongst youth offenders in Baltimore.

“I tell you, Murdoch, those boys weren’t bad. They just got a poor start in life. They needed a little support to get back on track. I see the same situation here. Instead of helping them into jobs and out of gangs, we throw them into jail with hardened criminals and they lose any chance of becoming decent citizens. When I leave here I want to get a job with the U.S. Corrections Department and initiate some changes to the way we do things.”

“I worry that Johnny is going to become one of those lost boys. Joe says he was running round town like an alley cat. I don’t know what Maria was thinking.”

“From what I saw, she was too busy sing, dancing and enticing chumps to the card table to worry too much about the lad. She’d help keep the punters at the table while they still had money and then herd them away safely once Cole had fleeced them of anything worth having. Late nights and long lie-ins in the morning. I never saw her much before noon. I doubt your boy did either.”

With every day that passed and with every new story recalled about Johnny and Maria by his friends and others, Murdoch became more fearful for his son. Abilene was a rough town. There were plenty of youths walking the boundary between right and wrong. Murdoch saw several get sent down the line to spend weeks or months being ‘taught a lesson’. He was in Abilene long enough to see a few come back as well. Long enough to know he agreed with Nate: the lessons they learned were not usually the ones the authorities intended. Johnny was too young yet to face a court for any crimes committed, but within a few weeks Murdoch was left with no illusions about what his son’s life must be like and where his future could lie. There were far too many children like Johnny in Abilene: jailbait of the future, neglected and feral.

“When I first arrived, Joe, you said you’d seen Johnny ‘scavenging’. It didn’t sink in at the time. What did you mean by that?”

Joe looked uncomfortable. “Well, mostly it was just sneaking leftovers off tables in the eating houses and saloons. Watched him relieve a drunk of some bullets once. Didn’t take his money so I let it go.”

“What would he want with bullets? He’s only ten. And why steal food? Surely Maria is feeding him. Did he look well?”

“Bit scrawny perhaps, but that’s nothing unusual. Grow like beanstalks at that age, don’t they? All look a bit scrawny. I expect when his ma and the gambler were occupied and he got hungry, he didn’t like to disturb them. Cole had a—.” Joe Barker thought better of what he was about to say. He escaped into the beer provided free to the sheriff by the town’s newest hole-in-the-wall saloon.

Murdoch waited until his friend had swallowed. “Cole had a what? What are you not telling me?”

“The gambler had bit of a temper is all. I saw him backhand the lad once—nothing too serious, Murdo. Honestly, I’d have intervened if it looked like it was getting out of hand, but I didn’t want Cole recognising me.”

Murdoch glowered, threw back his beer and stalked out of the saloon. He needed to work off his anger and frustration. He took it out on a group of drunken ranch hands having a bust up outside another saloon further down the street. He helped Nate knock their heads together, and then he locked them all in the jailhouse to sober up while Nate went off for his dinner.

Nate and Murdoch took turns on early and late shifts with a significant overlap throughout the evening when it was busiest. Joe by virtue of being sheriff generally worked longer but more civilised hours, though he did cover when they changed shifts so they both got a decent sleep. He could also be called out at any time. Murdoch started on the late shift. He discovered he could still be dealing with yahoos at three in the morning and often he would only crawl into his bed shortly before daybreak, by which time Nate’s snoring could have reached orchestral proportions.

After two weeks they changed shifts. Murdoch rose at dawn and strolled down the main street checking on businesses and moving along the occasional drunk, who was still sleeping it off down an alley. At eight he went for his breakfast. By nine he was back rousing a couple of wranglers from under the back stairs of the barber shop when he witnessed for the first time one of the stranger sights Abilene had to offer.

A pied piper strode down the main street. Instead of a flute, this plain-suited gentleman called out a throng of girls and boys by ringing a school bell as he marched with reading primer held against his chest. They appeared as if from nowhere and followed him to the schoolhouse on the edge of town. Every so often he brought the procession to a halt and handed the bell to one of his pupils. He then entered a building to extract a would-be truant and herded the unfortunate boy—it was always a boy—in front of him as the procession recommenced. Murdoch watched in awe as some of the scruffiest looking kids imaginable formed orderly lines before a flagpole and haphazardly sang ‘Rock of Ages’. The strong tenor voice of this remarkable man led the choir. When the last discordant note faded, the teacher opened the schoolhouse door and watched with an air of complete control as his students filed quietly inside.

Murdoch waited to talk to George Cameron after the children were released in the afternoon. “Do you remember my son?” Murdoch leaned against the teacher’s desk as Cameron wrote instructions for the next day’s lessons on the blackboard. “He looks Mexican but for his eyes. They’re blue like mine.”

“I remember him. Bright kid but struggling. Not here long—a couple of months maybe. From what I could gather, not anywhere much more than a month or two. Surprising he’s learned anything really, when you think about it.” Cameron put down his white chalk and continued writing in yellow, referring periodically to the contents of a text book held open in his other hand.  “Damn sure he gets no encouragement from home. I tried talking to your wife about giving him extra help. I don’t speak Spanish, but I got the gist. As for that gambler fellow … Well, to be honest I backed off—I was doing more harm than good.”

“What do you mean?”

Cameron did not answer. Having finished writing, he took a broom from a cupboard in the corner and began to sweep the schoolhouse floor, straightening the desks as he passed. Murdoch intercepted him part way along the second row. “What did you mean, you were doing harm?”

“The bastard made the kid do his homework in the bar with a load of drunks laughing at him. Then he threw him out in the street for the night without any supper. Your son’s life was made even more miserable, because I was too slow on the uptake.” Cameron sounded bitter. He avoided Murdoch’s eye as he pushed pass and continued to sweep along the row. His effort to help Johnny had backfired and clearly guilt still gnawed at his conscience. “I thought he was more sympathetic than your wife. He said he would help the boy learn. I’m sorry.”

“You weren’t to know. I appreciate what you tried to do.” Murdoch spoke quietly. He felt ten times as guilty as Cameron, and ten times as helpless.

“They left town a couple of weeks later. Damn shame. If I had Johnny longer, I could have taught him something. He was willing enough once I broke through his defences. As it was…well, he had a natural talent for numbers, could write enough to get by and could just about read that primer you’re holding. That’s about as much as can be said. Probably thinks the Declaration of Independence is what they give you when you get out of jail.”

Murdoch was aghast. “He’s ten. He must be able to read more than this.”

“It’s clearly a pity his mother didn’t leave him with you. I did my best, Lancer, but even I’m not that much of a miracle worker. I remember I taught him how to tell the time and how to use a dictionary. I figured they were skills that could come in handy later. There just wasn’t enough time for much else.”

“What name was he registered under?”

“Lancer, but he refused to answer to it. Any variation of his first name was acceptable to him, but he wouldn’t answer to anything else. Stubborn little beggar—it wasn’t worth the effort. I called him Johnny mostly.”

Murdoch left the schoolhouse in despair. Cameron had been helpful and sympathetic; he was separated from his own son by circumstance and he recognised Murdoch’s need as a father to know about his son’s life. Cameron’s wife had not run off, but she had refused to uproot to what she referred to as a heathen land. He had still not given up hope of persuading her to move west, but in the meantime he travelled back to Boston every summer to see her and his son. Murdoch wondered how he could bear being apart from them, but as he got to know the teacher, he learned Cameron’s passion for educating the lost boys and girls of this dusty cattle town was every bit as strong as Nate Benedict’s desire to save misguided youths from becoming criminals and his own desire to build his ranch into something to be proud of. They were three of a kind in that respect and naturally got on extremely well. Murdoch was soon on a first name basis with both Cameron and Benedict, discussing all sorts of things, not just Johnny.

“I like it here. I have the freedom to teach the way I want to teach, and I get results without beating my students black and blue, or turning them into automatons. Discipline and learning go hand in hand, but discipline doesn’t mean whacking a child every time he makes a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, every child I teach will tell you I’m a hard man, but it’s more by reputation. Not many have actual experience of my cane. Fundamental rule when handling people though, big or small, never threaten anything unless you’re willing to follow through.”

“I’ve seen you follow through once or twice.” Chuckling, Nate struck a match on the sole of his shoe and leaned back to light his pipe.

“Don’t deny it. There’s always some who’ll test the boundaries. I don’t like it, but all part of maintaining my reputation. It’s my reputation that keeps the lesser ruffians in order, and then it’s praise, encouragement and interest that gets them learning.”

Murdoch played devil’s advocate. “I thought it was supposed to be ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’.”

He stood with his back to his friends, surveying the main street from the boardwalk outside the sheriff’s office. Nate and George had commandeered the chairs while Joe did paperwork inside. Murdoch was every day now watching for the next group of drovers. Their arrival would herald the return of Maria, Johnny and Cole—he hoped.

“Well, if we’re doing adages: you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” George rose from his chair and stretched. Picking up his jacket he made a move to return to the schoolhouse to finish setting up for the next day. “The stick has its place, but I’m more of a carrot man myself.”

The carrot that promised to entice Thurstan Cole back to Abilene arrived two days later in the form of a fresh lot of Texas wranglers with money to burn and raring to cut the wolf loose. The comparatively quiet spell the town had enjoyed was given over to drunken brawls, dancing in the street and indiscriminate gunfire, fortunately mostly skyward. The high-spirited cowboys had impromptu horse races down the streets and the town’s few respectable women kept indoors. The less respectable paraded what they had to offer along the boardwalks and from the windows. Murdoch policed the streets and bars of Abilene with renewed interest and impatient anticipation.

 


Chapter 43: The Grand Finale

The drovers attracted more than just gambling men to Abilene. A troupe of players arrived all the way from St Louis. They came to entertain the townsfolk and visitors alike with singing, dancing and recitations. Murdoch met one of the star turns at the gaming table as he tried to glean information from some of Cole’s counterparts.

“Godfrey Evans, actor and raconteur, at your service.” The trouper looked at his cards and threw a few more dollars into the centre of the table. Others took their turn and Murdoch folded. The five men at the table played several more hands. Murdoch never played high. He knew he was not much good at cards; he was there for the information he could gather about Cole. Evans, however, did not always know when to stop. He shrugged as the pot crossed to the opposite side of the table. “I think I’ve met the gambler you’re after. Sat down with him only a week or two back in Jefferson City. He was talking of coming back here. In fact, it was what he said about cattlemen being expected in large numbers that encouraged us to come to Abilene. It sounded like there was going to be a month or two of good audiences.”

This was hopeful news. Murdoch played another couple of hands and then got up to go to his bed. Evans chaffed him as he left. “Hey, Lancer, come to our performance tomorrow night. Spend some of that money you’ve got stashed away in them high pockets.”

Murdoch waved his new friend away with a laugh, but he did turn up to watch the troupe perform the following night. He stood at the back of the saloon as a pretty Irish lass sang the Londonderry Air, and clapped loudly for the juggler when he managed to keep five balls revolving in the air while he lit and smoked a cigar. Then Evans did a mind reading act.

“Do I have a volunteer? High Pockets—yes, you deputy, come up on stage.” Murdoch shook his head, but the cowboys nearby pushed him forward and Evans pulled him up onto the raise platform that had been hurriedly constructed for their performance. “Pick a card, any card.” There was nothing very original, but Murdoch could not work out how Evans did it. He guessed the card Murdoch chose and then let Murdoch return to the back of the room as he enticed one of the wranglers up for his next trick.

A series of short acts continued for the next hour until all the performers came on stage for the grand finale. Every so often Evans, who also acted as master of ceremonies, would pause proceedings, supposedly to allow Miss Sadie time to adjust her corset or the knife thrower to sharpen his blades, and while they did so “gentlemen you may as well fill your glasses.” The Red Garter did a roaring trade, and when the performance was over the gamblers started dealing cards out to the merry, inebriated drovers, and the saloon girls confirmed their escorts for the evening. Everyone was happy. Godfrey Evans sat down to poker and Murdoch left to do his rounds.

The weeks passed. Fresh gangs of drovers came and went. Just before Christmas Evans left his companions to visit a lady friend in St Louis and Murdoch made forays out to nearby towns to glean news of his quarry. He blotted out thoughts of Scott on his birthday by giving custom to an out-of-town saloon where he was not recognised. After witnessing the sorry state of his friend afterwards, Joe Barker declared Johnny’s birthday a holiday and accompanied Murdoch as he cut the wolf loose. They left Nate in charge of the town and sampled the wares of over half the drinking houses in Abilene and a few of the extra attractions as well. They both had sore heads and a few pulled muscles in the morning, but Murdoch was in a more optimistic frame of mind than he had been when he had been drinking alone. He looked with hope to the New Year. Sure enough as the cowboys who had arrived before Christmas rode south with their pockets empty, twice as many arrived driving several massive herds to the railhead from Texas, and unobtrusively from the southeast came Thurstan Cole.

The already boisterous town exploded with cowboys eager to have a good time. Cardsharps, entertainers and service providers of all types converged on Abilene to entertain the rowdy wranglers and relieve them of their wages, Murdoch did not immediately realise Cole was in town. He was too busy helping Barker and Benedict cope with the influx of revellers.

Godfrey Evans returned the same day as the gambler arrived, and with him he brought his bride. Murdoch knew Godfrey was sweet on a St Louis girl, but from his description of the situation Murdoch did not expect his friend to bring back a wife. The young lady was apparently from a god-fearing, respectable family. While Godfrey may have charmed her with debonair gallantry, it had not sounded like her family saw him in a favourable light. Murdoch knew all too well the problems that could cause. Judging an actor ranked even lower than a rancher on any parental scale of potential husbands for a well-bred young lady, Murdoch had been preparing to pick up the pieces when Godfrey returned heartbroken. Trouper, as Murdoch was now in the habit of calling him, was cleverer than Murdoch gave him credit for however, and he came back the happiest of men.

“Ahoy, High Pockets. Allow me to introduce my beautiful wife, Annabel.” Godfrey swept a bow in the direction of his bride. A pretty, golden haired young woman with merriment in her eyes curtsied low before him. “Annabel has joined our troupe. She will be my assistant and do a few recitations. We are going to travel these United States together. Who knows we may even come to visit you in California.”

The couple shared a meal with Murdoch and Nate before heading away to perform at The Red Garter. The two deputies promised to look in later in the evening. Only one of them could actually get off that night to see the performance; there were too many carousers in town to spare both of them. Relieving Joe so he could have his supper, they vied for the privilege of being in the audience by telling riddles as they sorted out scuffles and mayhem together. Murdoch eventually won.

“What’s greater than God, more evil than Satan, the poor have it, the rich want it and if you eat it, you will die?”

After several guesses, Nate gave up. “Go on then, you win. What’s the answer?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? Oh, I see. Very clever. Well, I suppose that’s right. You’re a tricky Scotchman, Murdoch Lancer. You’d better head off and see the show while I hold the fort. Don’t be too long.”

“I’ll only watch a couple of acts. And it’s Scotsman.” Murdoch laughed as he headed across the street to The Red Garter.

Trouper was just concluding his mind reading act when Murdoch entered and settled himself against the back wall. Mary Maguire—the Nightingale of the West—followed, swanning her way from one side of the stage to the other, bending to show off a little cleavage or a well-rounded rump to her audience as she sang a ditty that would make the town goodwives blush. The Nightingale was nearing the end of her turn when a cow puncher yelled, “Show us your tits!” In the midst of raucous laughter Murdoch’s gaze fell upon Thurstan Cole, seated on the other side of the room, just as Cole saw Murdoch.

Time stood still for several seconds. Then Murdoch was ploughing through the throng of men and painted ladies towards the gambler. “Get out of my way, damn you!”

Cole tried to retreat in the other direction, but the makeshift stage and crowds blocked his exit. Murdoch reached out, grabbed him by the shoulder and wheeled him round. He sent his fist crashing into his enemy’s face. Cole fell back onto tables and wranglers and saloon girls went sprawling.  Murdoch went after him, but a harlot got in his way. Cole had time to get to his feet. What followed was an all-out brawl between two big men, neither gaining any ground, but Cole manoeuvring himself towards the exit. Proving just how much of a survivor he was, he landed a punch that sent Murdoch reeling, threw the man next to him forward, tossed the contents of a money bag in the air and escaped through the swing doors. Pandemonium ensued. Murdoch was buried under the wrangler who was thrown forward and a mass of bodies scrambling to recover the gold coins that rolled and bounced across the floor. Joe and Nate rushed through the swing doors only moments after Cole left, but by the time they had helped Murdoch to his feet the gambler was well gone. Murdoch wasted no further time.

“Search for Maria and Johnny, Joe. If they’re here, don’t let them leave.” Murdoch rammed his way out the doorway. A helpful drunk pointed him in the right direction. He grabbed the nearest horse and galloped after Cole.

When Murdoch finally returned four days later, Joe was in the process of mounting a search party for him. Murdoch had tracked Cole east as far as Topeka, but then the trail ran dry. He back tracked and went several miles in all possible directions, but the gambler had disappeared off the face of the earth. Murdoch returned to Abilene praying that Joe had Johnny and Maria safe and secure.

He knew as soon as he saw Joe’s face that his son was still lost. Maria and Johnny had not come back to Abilene with Cole. Where they were Murdoch could only guess, but utterly exhausted he handed the reins of the borrowed horse to Joe and went to his bed. There was no snoring that night. His head throbbed from lack of food and grief. He slept fitfully. The mocking laughter of Luisa Flores haunted his dreams. He saw Cole’s sneer and tasted the never-ending dust from miles and miles of desolate road. His mind made him witness his son being thrashed by the gambler, taunted by other children and left abandoned and hungry by his own mother—all the horror stories that Murdoch had ever heard, exaggerated and made real in his imagination.

In the morning, bags under his eyes and almost as weary as when he had gone to bed, Murdoch gave Joe back his deputy’s badge, retrieved his own horse from the livery and rode south to Sherman. He did not seek out his friends. George Cameron and Nate found him minutes before he left as he was tightening his saddle girth.

“Stay awhile longer, Murdoch. They might come back or we might get some news of them from drovers as they arrive in town.” Murdoch ignored him and Nate knew he was wasting his breath. “Stubborn Scotchman. Take care of yourself.”

Murdoch did not respond. He refused to look any of his three friends in the eye. He did not want to see the pity that he knew was there.  At Sherman he sold the horse and boarded the Butterfield Line stage to El Paso. Not really holding out much hope, he watched the general store and the house next door for over a week before making one more futile attempt to obtain information from Luisa Flores. He boarded the next westward stagecoach like a dead man walking. Thurstan Cole had outsmarted him once again. The gambler had been within his grasp, but Murdoch had let him escape. Johnny and Maria had once again been swallowed up by the border towns. Something broke inside Murdoch this time. He had come so close and failed. He could feel it; something deep inside was broken.

“Good to have you back, Boss.” Paul held the horse steady as Murdoch dismounted by the corral.

“Good to be back.” Murdoch looked steadily at Paul, his mind momentarily floating. He breathed in the Lancer air, the smell of grass and cattle and just a hint of Estella’s chilli on the breeze.  “You know, I love this land more than anything God ever created. I miss it when I’m not here. I don’t think I’ll be leaving it for any length of time again.”

 

Chapter 44: Robbery and Reports

The hurt diminished with time as hurt does, but Murdoch had lost heart. He no longer had the inner strength needed to leave Lancer to physically search. If hope had not died, it had been severely beaten. Despite this however, the determination to find his son refused to stay down. As Nate said, he was a stubborn Scotchman—Scotsman; though maybe given the amount of whisky Murdoch was drinking in the evenings, Nate’s version was not that far off. He would have to do something about that. He needed help, ideas how to search in a different way. He needed someone to talk to. Not Paul. He could not talk to Paul about this more than he had already—it was too close to Paul’s own situation with Angel. The Johnsons and Frederigo Caldera, Murdoch’s old confidantes, were gone. The Conways filled the void.

These days when Murdoch was not out of town on ranch business, he dined with the Conways every Tuesday. Aggie always cooked a roast with all the trimmings—sometimes pork, sometimes beef, always delicious and always followed by a proper pudding. Henry liked his puddings, especially puddings steamed in a cloth. When he and Aggie got married, the one thing Henry insisted Aggie learn how to cook was a plum pudding like his mother used to make. Murdoch always laughed and pretended to be in sympathy with Aggie when she complained tongue-in-cheek about this chore, but in truth he was rather fond of these puddings too. They reminded him of Scotland.

Henry Conway was a businessman in the larger sense, both before and after buying his ranch. He was now semi-retired, but he retained business and political contacts throughout the United States and further afield. Murdoch was confident that if anyone would know a way forward it would be Henry. He broached the subject just as his friend was preparing to travel east on a business trip.

“My attempts to find my wife and son have not been successful.” Murdoch hesitated, unsure how to continue. Not really certain what he wanted to say. “I can’t afford to leave Lancer again for so long. To be honest with you, I can’t face it.”

Aggie Conway put out a hand in sympathy as Murdoch stared at the carpet beneath his feet. “I need to find another way, a better way—some way of searching that allows me to stay on the ranch where I’m needed, where my efforts have some value.”

Henry pressed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe and struck a match. The tobacco fibre glowed as he sat back in the leather wing-back Aggie had given him for their third wedding anniversary. Henry always sat in his ‘judgement seat’ when decisions had to be made. He shook the vesta out before it scorched his fingers and tossed the charred remains into the crystal ashtray on the side table next to him. Being a cool spring evening, a fire crackled in the grate as the friends savoured their after-dinner drinks. “Have you thought of using a private investigator?”

“Are there such people here? I have no experience of them.”

“Doesn’t the Illinois Central Railroad employ an agency, Henry?” Aggie topped up her husband’s brandy and settled back down on the sofa to enjoy her own. Murdoch still held his glass untouched in both hands.

“They do.” Henry was a director of the Chicago-based railroad company. “The Pinkerton Agency—they started up in the mid-50s. We use them mostly for investigating employees and security. There is no better agency of its type, but they don’t have a branch this far west. I will be seeing a representative while I’m in Washington though. If you write a letter, I’ll deliver it to him. Provide as much information as you have and state clearly what you want from them. I’d suggest you enclose a bank draft for $100 as a deposit and indicate how much you wish to spend. I’ll vouch for you.”

“Would they deal with a search for a missing boy, do you think?” Murdoch looked up hopefully. Why had he never thought of consulting Henry before?

“Pinkerton has expanded his business to meet demand. I should imagine if you’re willing to pay for the service, he’ll happily provide it. They’re even acting as security for the President these days. There could be quite a market for finding people, now I come to think of it. I might suggest a little investment to Pinkerton. I haven’t invested in anything new for a while.”

“You’re supposed to be retired, Henry.” Aggie raised her eyebrows at her husband over her brandy glass.

“Semi—but money never retires. It should always be kept productively occupied.” Henry exhaled his pipe smoke. With one chesty cough he inadvertently changed the subject to the state of his health.

Henry took Murdoch’s letter with him and before his return, Murdoch received a response. The Pinkerton Agency accepted the commission and promised an initial report by the end of October or upon locating John Tomàs Lancer, whichever came first. There speaks the optimism of ignorance Murdoch thought. All the same he felt more hopeful than he had done in a long, long time. Murdoch turned his attention to the demands of his ranch with a more settled mind.

Rustling was still an issue, but what was becoming more of a worry for Murdoch and his neighbours was an increasing number of stagecoach robberies. Two gold shipments and a bank currency consignment were successfully held up within the first six months of 1860.

“What I can’t understand is how the rogues seem to know when there is something worth stealing.” Dr Owens put down the beers he was carrying. The men congregated round the table helped themselves. Don Baldermero brought over the rest and took his seat again.

Dr Owens had invited Doc Jenkins, leading townsfolk and ranchers in the vicinity of Morro Coyo to the saloon to meet a new doctor. Green River and Morro Coyo had both grown substantially since gold was discovered. Sam Jenkins had taken some of the strain off George Owens in the early fifties when he had set up in the new town of Spanish Wells. They helped each other out, making it possible for each of them to have the occasional week away, but Owens, based in Green River, had been finding it increasingly difficult to care for both Green River and Morro Coyo. He had put the word out through medical circles that another doctor was desperately needed and finally, Elijah Mort, a widower from Virginia had answered the call. Morro Coyo would now have a doctor actually residing in the town.

Dr Mort had sipped at his beer and happily answered all the impertinent questions his new neighbours considered necessary. “When Nellie died, I felt in need of a fresh start. My children are all grown and settled. They no longer need me. I want to feel needed again.”

“Well, you came to the right place.” Murdoch had clapped the physician on the shoulder and downed his beer ready to leave, but the others insisted on one more round and the conversation strayed to the recent stage robberies.

“The stage has only been held up on the routes in or out of Green River. Is that right?” Don Baldermero gazed around the assembled men and several nodded. “The transports between Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells have never been waylaid. The bandidos must be hiding near Green River.”

Dr Owens scratched his chin, thoughtfully. “Well, if they are, they’re doing it very well. The stagecoach company hired some men to track them down, but they could find neither hide nor hair of them. I heard a U.S. Marshal is being sent to investigate.”

Bert Otis burped loudly, and while he had everyone’s attention proffered the idea that the robbers probably high-tailed it elsewhere after each job.

“Well, they’re not spending their ill-gotten gains around here or Spanish Wells. Someone would have noticed.” Doc Jenkins pulled a fob watch from his vest pocket and checked the time. “And that idea would suggest someone is telling them which stagecoaches to rob.”

“What does Dolph Cramer say?” Carly Johnson, one of the newer ranchers on what was once Caldera land, looked towards Owens.

“He’s at a loss like the rest of us. He’s taking a lot of abuse from his bosses and their customers for the thefts. I feel sorry for the man.” Owens finished drinking his second beer and pushed back his chair to accompany Murdoch. He was going to visit the ranch on his way back to Green River to check on one of the women, whom he had delivered breach the week before. After this the Lancer families would probably use Dr Mort rather than travel the extra distance to see Owens in Green River. Murdoch knew Doc Owens was a little sad about that, having grown rather fond of the small ranch community. Still, you never could tell with the women, at least when it came to having babies. Murdoch suspected many of them would stick with the doctor they knew.

“Apart from Cramer who else knows what’s on each stagecoach?” Murdoch was beginning to have nasty thoughts. He had seen Dolph Cramer when he was in Stockton two weeks ago buying some fancy furniture for the big farmhouse he lived in. Dolph’s dream of a large family had not come to pass. He and his wife Elizabeth only had the one daughter, but they still resided in the farmhouse on the outskirts of town and seemed to be filling it with some very good pieces of furniture—surprisingly good pieces. Being manager of the stagecoach office at Green River was a responsible job, particularly these days, now that the banks and mines used their services, but even so that dining room suite was very fine. Even Murdoch during the boom would have thought twice before buying it. He certainly couldn’t afford such a luxury at the moment, and he had been surprised that Cramer could. But no, what was he thinking? His time as deputy had made him suspicious of everyone. Cramer was a good man, and Elizabeth Cramer was as respectable as they come.

There were several people who would have known what some of the stagecoaches were carrying, but few that would have known about all of those affected. The owners of each shipment would know about their particular consignment. The stagecoach guards would know shortly before, but were they always the same men? Murdoch did not think so. Undoubtedly some other stage company employees would know about all of the transports and well in advance; possibly one of them was feeding details to a band of outlaws. Everyone agreed Dolph would have the information, but they were talking about Dolph Cramer here, a respectable resident of the community for some years. No one seriously thought Dolph could be involved.

The appearance of a U.S. Marshal in Green River may have scared whoever was responsible. There were no more hold-ups while he was about. The marshal made enquiries in Green River and throughout the surrounding area. He recognised Murdoch was holding back and questioned him until he reluctantly told him about Stockton. “There is probably a perfectly logical explanation. I’ve no reason to suspect Cramer of dishonesty.”

The marshal sat back in his saddle and watched one of Murdoch’s vaqueros re-mount the palomino he was attempting to break. “There are all sorts of theories floating about, Lancer. Don’t worry, I won’t go accusing the man on the basis of this one oddity, but the more information I can gather the more chance I have of working out what’s really going on. Mind if I talk with your men?”

Murdoch left the marshal to do his job. By September when he caught the stage to San Francisco to attend a cattle sale however, no one had been arrested or even accused. As Murdoch watched guards load a substantial shipment of gold, he feared his stagecoach could be the next one attacked, but thankfully there was no trouble on the way.

Since the opening of the Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1852 Lancer cattle drives took only four or five days to the nearest rail stop. Murdoch no longer needed to go to San Francisco regularly, but the city was still the central point for any significant event in northern California. The Stock Agents Association intended their cattle sale to become a major annual occasion. They had sent out letters to the Cattle Growers Association and every large landowner in the state. They advertised the event widely in the newspapers. From the catalogue there would be a fine collection of bulls and other breeding stock. Murdoch had been persuaded to put some of his own young bulls up for sale, and he had his eyes on some Charolais heifers brought in from out of state.

Cleve Harper from San José and another old acquaintance, Donald Murphy from Millerton greeted him as he arrived at his hotel. They introduced him to three other ranchers: Harper’s newest neighbour, a Dutchman called Jan Willems; Tim Phillips from Elk Grove; and Clem Carven from Fairfield. The six men explored the sale together and shared a few drinks in the evening during the three day event.

On the first evening Murphy asked for a private word. Leaving the others to their cards, he and Murdoch stretched their legs with a stroll around Portsmouth Square.

“This is where they held the first San Francisco Ball in ‘49. I came with my wife and friends. It was quite an event. We’d never seen anything like it in California before. People came from all over the state.” Murdoch stopped and gazed out over the square picturing the tables and lanterns, the bandstand and crowds of excited people all dressed in their finery—happier times. Now the square was purely business, the financial hub of the ever-growing metropolis.

“I wish I’d been here, but at that stage I’d not even heard of California. I was buried in my father’s ironworks thinking I’d never smell fresh air again.” Murphy had come to California in 1851, finally escaping bookwork, tedium and the caustic air of his father’s factory after one glorious bust up with the industrialist sent him on adventure with an old school chum who had caught gold fever. Murphy never really did—catch gold fever that is. Instead he earned enough on the fields to buy a bit of land when titles were particularly uncertain and comparatively cheap, and had been making slow but steady progress building up a decent ranch ever since. Murdoch could not remember when they had first met, but as with many of his acquaintances he was sure Alfred Burke came into it somewhere. Murphy rested his back against the marble pillar outside one of the larger banks. “I need a favour, Murdoch. The Land Commission has rejected my claim and demands more surveying be done. I haven’t the cash to pay for it, and I can’t afford to support the ransom those thieves want for a loan.” Murphy thumbed his disgust at the impressive timber and metal double doors behind him. “What I do have is a quit claim separate from my main holding. It’s in a place called Cabot Springs. I won’t lie to you, it’s not brilliant land, but it’s leased to a farmer and the rent covers the taxes. It may come good in the long term. The Land Commission has settled your main holding. I thought perhaps you might have the ready cash to take it off my hands.”

“Why don’t you just get Burke to sell it for you on the open market? You’d get more for it than I could afford to pay.”

“Perhaps, though Burke would take his cut. The main problem is time. The commission has set a deadline for resubmission by the end of next month. The surveyors are very busy at the moment and from what I hear one or two have been burnt by non-payers as well. My local surveyor insists on cash up front before he’ll make a start.”

Murdoch did not really need or want the land, but his friend seemed desperate and he did have a little money he could spare. They talked some more and eventually came to an agreement. As long as the rent covered the taxes, the property need not be of any consequence to him. He had ridden through the area a couple of times on his way to Mexico; it was about two hundred miles south of Lancer. It might be good for something one day or the farmer who leased the land might eventually be in a position to buy it. If not the population of California was still growing even though the rush for gold was over. The land would likely be worth more in a few years’ time. He could sell it on then.

Murphy left San Francisco after the legal papers were signed and money transferred. He had nothing spare for buying bloodstock. He had only come with one purpose in mind. Harper and Willems rode back to San José on the last afternoon, preferring to get home rather than wait to see lots they had no interest in. The other three would set off in the morning after seeing their purchases loaded aboard the train.

“A few drinks and a hand or two of poker to celebrate a successful sale?” Carven rose from the dining table and rocked back on his heels, patting his stomach.

“This is getting to be a habit.” Murdoch was enjoying himself. Phillips and Carven were good company and good cattlemen. “We’ll have to meet up next year and do it all again.”

“I was thinking the same thing.” Phillips struck a match on his boot and lit the cigars he had just handed round. “By that time I’ll be able to demonstrate what a good buy that bull was.”

“You hope.” Murdoch led the way through to the bar and commandeered a card table near the entrance. “I still say you paid too much.”

When Murdoch returned to Lancer, he sent some of his vaqueros to the railhead to collect the dozen Charolais heifers he had purchased. He would put them with one of his best bulls and see what resulted. They were said to be fast growing and easy to calve as well as producing excellent meat. He hoped they would add real value to his bloodstock.

Something else added real value soon after, though nothing to do with the ranch. Murdoch received the Pinkerton Agency’s first report. Although the agency had not recovered Johnny for him, they had found out a lot more information than Murdoch dared dream was possible. Not all of it was information he enjoyed reading, but at least it was information.

 

October 4th, 1860

 

Dear Mr Lancer

 

I am pleased to report some progress, albeit not ultimate success. I am confident further investigation will locate your son and return him to you. A summary of results thus far:

1.       February, 1860 Amarillo, Texas: Confirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole. Anecdotal evidence that the boy and his mother may have been residing in one of the outlying villages.

2.       April, 1860 El Paso, Texas: Confirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole).

3.       April 4th-26th, 1860 Mission of Maria Magdalena, El Pas del Norte, Chihuahua, Mexico: John Lancer appears on school register. Further investigation of the records shows the name appearing at least once each year since 1856 for periods of four days to nine weeks. Mission priest unable or unwilling to provide further information.

4.       Mid-July, 1860 Santa Fe, New Mexico: Confirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole).

5.       July 11th-16th, 1860 Santa Fe, New Mexico John Lancer appears on school register.

6.       July 18th, 1860 Santa Fe, New Mexico: Unconfirmed sighting of John Lancer. Doctor Albert Holt reset a dislocated shoulder for a boy of mixed blood, aged about 10 years of age. No name given. Cause of injury unknown.

7.       Early September, 1860 Nogales, Sonora: Unconfirmed sighting of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole). A shootist, Rufus Bayne, told our operative in El Paso on September 23rd that he had played cards with a gambler possessing an erotically-etched match safe about three weeks before. The gambler’s wife entertained during the evening. The physical descriptions match that of Thurstan Cole and Maria Lancer (Cole).

 

Full details of each item above are attached. The Pinkerton Agency regrets it has been unable to locate the subject, John Lancer, at this time, but currently has operatives in New Mexico, Texas, New Orleans and St Louis.  As instructed they will continue to make enquiries in conjunction with other duties.

 

Yours sincerely

 

P.G. Baldwin

Murdoch sent more money and a promissory note with instructions to explore and pursue any sighting less than two weeks’ old. He wished there were operatives in all of the American territories, California, and the northern states of Mexico. He just could not afford to pay for a man solely designated to his search for more than a week or two. Until a definite recent sighting was made, he would have to be patient and be satisfied with the small snippets of out-dated information about Johnny that could be relayed back to him.

A similar situation existed with Scott. By not leaving Lancer in search of Johnny during the winter, Murdoch was able to read the 1860 annual report from Harlan as soon as it arrived, but what it offered up was if anything less informative than the Pinkerton report.

 

Scott is now fifteen.  

Yes, I knew that.

 

He has grown rapidly this last year. He is now 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 130 pounds.

I grew fast at that age too. Perhaps he has inherited my height.

 

He is doing well in all subjects, and continues to excel at horsemanship. He is receiving lessons in fencing from a master recently arrived from Europe and is making good progress.

Not sure what use fencing will be to him in this day and age, but if it interests him I suppose there is no harm in it.

 

Scott takes an active interest in the current economic and political situation.

What does that mean? Is he an abolitionist or just the opposite, or does he hold his grandfather’s view of things and see everything in terms of profit and loss? Damn you Garrett. How did you become so good at appearing to cooperate with the requirement to report when in fact you tell me virtually nothing of real importance?

Murdoch read the report through a couple of times and then added it to the pile in the strongbox. Picking up the newspaper he began to read about a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. A Pinkerton agent had saved him—well done. The agency was clearly good at what it did, and Murdoch was becoming more and more confident that it would eventually catch up with Johnny and bring him home. He sipped at the single dram he now allowed himself each evening. Here’s hoping the current political situation does not upset things. The last thing we need is a war between the states. Thank God Scott is too young to enlist if the worst does happen.

 

Chapter 45: Human and Mother Nature

On April 12, 1861 the American Civil War began and Dolph Cramer was arrested. In the lives of Murdoch and his neighbours, the latter was of more immediate importance. Stagecoach hold ups had begun again in November, 1860 soon after the marshal had been seen returning to Sacramento. He did go back to California’s capital briefly, but he did not stay there. Instead he visited Stockton and Modesto and San Francisco, all places Cramer had been sighted during the past year spending beyond his means. Murdoch had not been the only person to witness isolated oddities in Cramer’s behaviour and lifestyle. Cramer had free transport on any of the company’s stagecoaches and he oversaw a much larger area than just Green River. His job required him to check on way stations and audit the ticketing in the smaller towns. At a way station at Oak Flat about 20 miles south west of Green River on the Monterey line, the marshal had watched Cramer meet with a group of men. Money changed hands. The marshal observed the same men ride east the day before bank funds were transferred between Green River and Morro Coyo. The shipment was intercepted by road agents.

All this came out at Cramer’s trial in Sacramento. Murdoch was required to testify along with other witnesses to small pieces of the puzzle. Once the marshal was sure of his ground, he had spoken with the stagecoach company officials. They purposely set up Dolph Cramer and his gang of thieves. The next time road agents waylaid the stage and aimed their rifles at the terrified driver, they discovered the passengers were even better armed than they were and a posse of gun-toting deputies surrounded them. Following the arrest of the outlaws, the marshal returned to Green River and relieved Dolph Cramer of his duties.

Murdoch could not feel sorry for Cramer; he had brought it on himself. He did feel sorry for Cramer’s wife and child though. The good people of Green River proved once again their Christian kindness did not extend to anyone in genuine need of it. Isabel Owens took care of Jenny Cramer while her mother attended court, but apart from Murdoch no other neighbour offered assistance or a kind word, not even when the bailiffs arrived to recover the furniture.

“Can I give you a lift out to your house, Elizabeth?” Murdoch helped the pale but calm woman from the stagecoach that had brought them from the court in Sacramento.

“Thank you, Murdoch. I would appreciate it. I’ll leave Jenny at the Owens’s tonight. I need to think what to do.” Elizabeth Cramer gazed about her. Murdoch looked too. Curtains twitched. Eyes were watching, but not those out in the open where she could see them. The eyes of townsfolk in the street were turned to the ground or skyward or anywhere except where they would meet with hers. In a matter of seconds Murdoch and Mrs Elizabeth Cramer were left in no doubt where the good citizens of Green River stood with regards the family of a now convicted felon.

Retrieving his buckboard from the livery, Murdoch loaded their luggage and drove the short distance to the Cramer’s farmhouse. A large wagon was already out front half-filled with furniture. Two men were backing out the doorway carrying the dining table. Murdoch dismounted and blocked their path. “What’s going on here?”

Lowering the table to the ground, one of the men removed a paper from inside his waistcoat pocket and handed it to Murdoch. He read it and handed it to Elizabeth. It was a court order to confiscate anything and everything of value from the property so that it could be auctioned to recoup some of the stolen money.

The bailiff wiped his brow with his handkerchief until Elizabeth had finished reading. “We’ll leave you the bed, ma’am, until the morning. We can’t get everything on the wagon anyhow. The order excludes anything of yours of a personal nature that can be proven to pre-date the first robbery so I suggest you pack those items up tonight. Anything left in the house goes on the wagon tomorrow.”

“What about the house itself?” Murdoch asked. The order had made no mention of it.

“If it was purchased before the first robbery and is not just in her husband’s name, the lady might have a chance of keeping it. She’ll need to consult a lawyer, but it isn’t part of this order.” The bailiff picked up his end of the table once again and began loading it onto the wagon.

Murdoch stayed to help Elizabeth with the packing. He offered to take her out to Lancer or into Green River to the hotel, but she wanted to spend one last night in her own home. “I’ll be all right Murdoch. I have a few pieces of jewellery I can sell and a little cash left. Jenny and I will go to Stockton. I’ll find work and talk with a lawyer. We’ll be all right.”

Elizabeth Cramer was a strong and resilient woman. Murdoch had always liked her, now he admired her. He put aside any doubts about whether she knew of her husband’s dishonesty. She declared she did not and he would believe her; she had suffered enough. The following day he saw her and her eight-year-old daughter onto the stage to Stockton. He watched as they disappeared around the bend heading towards a new life.

Then Murdoch got on with his own life, cursing the disruptions to it caused by events beyond his control. The war between the states had some unexpected repercussions, among them the suspension of Land Commission activities. In June it was announced that everything would be on hold until the war was over and government funds and resources could be redirected to routine matters once again. Murdoch was better off than many, but he had heard that the patents for his remaining land had been only days from being issued. A delay when surety was so close was infuriating and he devoted a whole page of a letter to his brother expressing his frustration.

In contrast, the report Murdoch received from the Pinkerton Agency in November was excitingly hopeful. He had half-expected to hear from them before, but at least when it came the report left him feeling optimistic. In some respects, it read more like the life and loves of Thurstan Cole than a report about his son. The first entries dating from the previous October had sightings, confirmed and unconfirmed, of Maria and Johnny with Cole in and around the borderlands of Mexico, New Mexico Arizona and Texas, but then from May there had been nothing until mid-August. From then on, the sightings were all of Cole on his own in New Orleans—or at least, not on his own; he was apparently reunited with Mademoiselle Jacqueline. That made no sense to Murdoch unless there had finally been some kind of rift between the gambler and Maria, and they had parted company. The Pinkerton Agency had reached the same conclusion. They were making further enquiries and would pursue a more concentrated search for Johnny and Maria should it be confirmed that Cole and Maria were no longer a couple. Although Cole was by far the most recognisable of the three, separated from him Maria and Johnny were likely to remain in one place longer. In fact, there was an excellent chance that they would head for Maria’s cousin, Luisa Flores, in El Paso del Norte, or back to Matamoros—or even back to Lancer. No, he must not entertain that thought. They would be at the ranch already if that were the case, but the other locations were real possibilities.

Murdoch was buoyed by the idea. He allowed himself a mid-day dram to celebrate. His vaqueros had brought in a herd of wild horses the previous week, including a sorrel colt just perfect for a thirteen year old.  He would talk to Gaspar about training him up for Johnny; the horse could help break the ice between….

“Ahem.” Cipriano stood in the archway from the kitchen, sombrero clasped in front of him. “O’Brien and the men are moving the cattle by the river and lake to higher ground, Patrón. I’m ready to check the bridges, if you still want to come with me?”

Murdoch put the Pinkerton report away in the top drawer of his desk. He wanted to read it again before stowing it in the strongbox with the others. “I’m coming. We’re probably being over cautious, but I’ve never known such strange weather. First early snow in the hills, and now mild temperatures and more rain than we usually see all winter.”

Mother Nature was proving she was a woman. Since the beginning of November, the weather had changed tack every few days. Sunshine and showers dogged December causing the snows to melt. Murdoch had not long marked his sons’ sixteenth and thirteenth birthdays, when the heavens opened and it began to rain non-stop.

He and his foremen checked the bridges and the banks of the waterways every day from Christmas Eve. The rivers and streams were rising perilously high. The fords were impossible to cross. On January 10th Murdoch and Cipriano remounted their horses after inspecting the only bridge into the Lancer valley. They watched as a crew of vaqueros drove a herd across, taking the beasts to higher ground away from the saturated fields that surrounded the hacienda. If the bridge gave way the small ranch community would be cut off from the rest of the world.

“It’s holding, Patrón, but if this keeps up… not much longer.” Cipriano wiped the rain out of his eyes with the back of his hand. A steady drizzle fell and a brisk breeze gusted it into their faces. Still, that was better than the sheets of water that had descended the night before.

Soaked to the skin, Murdoch looked back across his land in dismay. Every low point was now a pond growing to a pool. The river was lapping at its banks in several places. The lake appeared to be twice its normal size. “We’d better get back and help with the sandbagging. If the—“

A high-pitched whistle broke through the drum of wind and rain. Looking towards the hillside, they spied one of the vaqueros who had crossed the bridge. He was standing up in his stirrups waving his arms vigorously, pointing further up the river. There was something odd—

“Maldita sea!”

“Ride!” Murdoch tore at the reins. The two men rode hell for leather away from the bridge.

They reached the rise in time to see a wall of mud, water, branches and dead animals slam into the bridge. The crash reverberated around the valley and the bridge splintered like kindling. One half swung loose still attached to the bank. Timbers groaned as the river swirled and surged around it. Then with an excruciating snap the section ripped free and was washed away with the rest.

The angry, boiling cauldron swelled over its banks obliterating the ground where Murdoch and Cipriano had been only minutes before. After the initial deluge, the water calmed a little, but it did not recede. The cottonwoods lining the submerged riverbanks were all that marked the channel. They stood bedraggled and windswept, only half their height visible above the waterline. The vaqueros on the opposite hillside could not return home.

Murdoch and Cipriano rode back to the hacienda to deliver the bad news. The vaqueros would have to beg shelter in Morro Coyo or elsewhere until the rain stopped. Other hands were transferring feed from the granary to the barn loft, sloshing through inch deep water and stepping awkwardly over sandbags as they hefted cumbersome sacks of grain. Dampness had permeated the adobe walls of the grain store, turning the floor to mud. Before anyone had realised, the bottom tier of grain sacks had been ruined. Closer to the hacienda on higher ground, a second crew was hauling and positioning sandbags as fast as the women and children could fill them.  The yard was awash.

Paul greeted Murdoch as he dismounted. “Come have a look at the worker’s cottages.”

Murdoch ducked as he entered Pedro’s cabaña. All the smaller furniture had been stacked up on the table and bed. Linen, clothing and bedding were piled high in the rafters. Muddy water leaked through the sandbags and dribbled over the threshold, making the recently boarded floors slippery. A wooden bowl rocked at Murdoch’s feet as the water began to reach floating depth. “They can’t stay here. Start moving the families into the hacienda.”

The rain fell continuously for forty-five days. Murdoch felt like Noah. The Lancer families crammed into the upper rooms of the hacienda. By the time the sun shone they were living on beef and animal feed. It took a month for the water to recede back to the natural water courses. Thanks to the culverts dug during the previous winters most roads drained clear quickly, but it was five weeks before a new bridge could be constructed. Supplies had to be poled across the river by raft until then. No human lives were lost, but dead cattle and wildlife littered the drying land. Murdoch and his men spent most of the following weeks clearing streams and burning carcasses to avoid disease from contaminated water supplies.

Eventually Lancer’s land and its people dried out. Full recovery would take years. The newspapers told Murdoch that the Great Flood of 1862 extended throughout California, Oregon, Nevada and well beyond. “Please God, we never see another like it.”


 

Chapter 46: Loss

 

We offer our sincere condolences…

“Patrón, are you all right?” Estella placed a plate of stew in front of Murdoch and stood back startled by his ashen face. He gazed blindly down the table. The letter crumpling in his hand was one of the first to reach him after the flood waters subsided.

Murdoch swallowed and turned mechanically towards his housekeeper. “Maria has … Señora Lancer … she’s dead.”

“Dios mio!” Estella crossed herself and collapsed down into the chair beside him. “How, Patrón? When? Where is Juanito?”

“I don’t know.” Murdoch choked on the words, his voice barely a whisper. “I don’t know.”

Cradling his right hand in hers, Estella murmured a prayer. Murdoch squeezed her fingers, grateful for the human contact. The letter in his left hand told him little about the circumstances of Maria’s death and nothing about his son. Even so, his eyes were drawn back to it. Escaping his housekeeper’s clasp, he rose unsteadily to his feet. “Go home, Estella. I don’t need you anymore tonight. Ve a casa.”

She left him to his thoughts. Murdoch knew Estella would spread the word. He settled against the mantelpiece and read the letter again. Maria was dead, categorically, absolutely no doubt. His beautiful, vibrant Maria had been lying cold and dead in the graveyard of a small mission in Sonora since May of the previous year.  That was why Thurstan Cole had returned to New Orleans and the attentions of Mademoiselle Jacqueline—not because he and Maria had broken up, but because Maria was no more.

Worse than Maria’s death with no details to explain it, was the fact that Johnny had disappeared. He was not with Cole. Thankfully he was not buried at the Misión San Andres. Johnny was alive as far as anyone knew, but the Pinkerton Agency had no idea where he was.

 

Using the information previously gathered, our New Orleans agent sat down to a game of cards with Thurstan Cole; pretending to have played with him once before some years ago. The agent asked Cole where his beautiful companion was that evening and by this simple means discovered she had died. Cole was less forthcoming about where and how she died, but after patient enquiry throughout the evening our agent determined it must have been in Sonora near the border with Arizona and that Cole had paid a priest called Padre Marcos to dispose of her body and the boy. This information was promptly relayed to our nearest agent, who was in New Mexico.

 

Agent Webster judged you would want us to pursue this lead as the only means of locating your son, and undertook a dedicated investigation on your behalf. On December 1st he identified the mission south east of Nogales. The parish register records the burial of Maria Lancer, aged 34, on May 30th, 1861. She is interred in the mission cemetery.

 

John Lancer could not be located, but his name appears on the school register from April 25th to May 28th. Padre Marcos was away from the mission on Church business. Padre Benito, the monk left in charge, recalled the boy had attended his mother’s funeral. He believed Padre Marcos had made arrangements of some kind for your son’s welfare, but he did not know any details. Padre Marcos is expected back in the latter half of 1862. Padre Benito, therefore, suggested our agent return later. 

But there could be no ‘later’. No immediate ‘later’, anyway. All the Pinkerton Agency operatives had been retained by the presidency for war reconnaissance. Webster was recalled east. No further private investigations could be undertaken for the foreseeable future. 

The Pinkerton account was enclosed. Even in his grief, Murdoch winced at the cost of a month’s concentrated search. He had already instructed his bank to sell most of his non-land investments to fund the flood recovery; now he would need to sacrifice the rest. Ironic that he would have to part with his shares in the telegraph companies so soon after the transcontinental link had been made, but there was no way around it. He desperately needed cash and they at least would sell for a good price. He would sell his smaller parcels of land as well, except he doubted anyone would pay a useful amount for them. 

Sure enough, even with the acceptance by government that no taxes could be paid that year, the land was almost worthless. In March the tenant on the quit claim near Cabot Springs notified him he could not pay his rent. Murdoch did not have the heart to evict the man. He would allow him to subsist on the farm. Not just out of kindness, but because it would cost Murdoch money he did not have to remove him. What would be the point anyway when he would only be left with land that no one else currently wanted? He knew he could never abandon Lancer as others were abandoning their land, but he also knew he was doomed to be indebted to the bank more heavily than he had ever been since first arriving in California. At least the banks were prepared to lend to him; a reputation built up over the past twenty years earned him that much. He would have to start again, and count himself lucky that he could.  

Mother Nature was not going to make it easy. Murdoch did not buy into the cant of the Bible bashers—God was not exercising his wrath against the sins of man—but Murdoch could see the resemblance to the plagues of Egypt. Never had he sympathised so much with Ramesses. Rich, luxuriant pasturage emerged from the flooded land to fatten and increase the remaining herds rapidly, but the demand for beef had diminished along with the easy access to gold and a glut of animals pushed prices down. The cash received was insufficient to cover expenses. Then two years of drought followed the flood and California’s cattle industry was shaken to its core. Prices plummeted to as little as $8 a head as ranchers tried to rid themselves of animals they could not feed. Half-starved cattle became easy prey to coyote, mountain lions and bears, and tension grew to boiling point over anything that threatened water supplies.

A mine, opened in the ‘50s on public land across the stream on Lancer’s eastern boundary, started blasting to extract the last of its gold. Murdoch was down on the owner like a ton of bricks. “The cliff, man! Can’t you see it’s unstable? If you want to kill yourself, do it in a way that doesn’t endanger my livelihood.”

Fortunately the mine owner was a reasonable man. He agreed to stop blasting and to use drill, pick axe or other means less likely to bring the hillside down upon them. Not every mine owner was as cooperative; pollution and landslips blocking streams added to the woes of cattlemen throughout California. Many ranchers faced bankruptcy and sold their land for a pittance or simply abandoned it to the banks or the government.

When the Cattle Grower’s Association met after the first decent rain in 1864 Murdoch was relieved to see Javier Ramos for the first time since the flood. His ranch had survived only because his father had never spent the bonus money Murdoch had paid him all those years ago. The old man’s injection of cash had proved as valuable as his experience.

“And that was a godsend.” Javier raised his beer in a silent toast to his father. “The rancho would never have survived after the flood without Papa. His savings and his efforts have made all the difference. I could not spare the time to attend meetings before now. Hopefully in future I will be able to give my father the easier life he hoped for when he left the Estancia Lancer, because he certainly hasn’t had it yet.”

In the midst of Lancer’s economic suffering, Murdoch received an unexpected letter from Harlan Garrett and was thrown into an anguish of a different kind. When the Civil War began Murdoch told himself it would be all over within a year and Scott would be in no danger. The longer it continued the more anxious he became. Officially the Union army would not take recruits before they turned eighteen, but there were frequent stories of younger men becoming soldiers. In his report dated December 31st, 1862 Harlan had admitted Scott was impatient to join up, but he had assured Murdoch he would not allow him to do so before eighteen. Murdoch and Garrett both assumed Scott would ask and obey his grandfather, but with the excitement of war surrounding him, apparently Scott was not inclined to do either. Clearly beside himself with worry and frustration, Harlan wrote in April, 1863 that Scott had lied about his age and enlisted.