An episode tag for Prodigal
November 1848 – March 1850
To Tom Dane,
California was a field of gold just waiting to be harvested. It was strewn
with gold, every rock and pebble gleaming in the sun. Every step a man took
he'd be walking amongst riches. All he had to do, he said, was stoop down
and grasp it. He'd have his fortune in his hands. And as he spoke, he closed
his hand into a loose fist and held it out to Marcy before opening his
fingers so she could look, as if his palm already held a dozen glittering
Marcy sat side-on at the table. She had Emmie on her knee, coaxing oatmeal into her. Emmie didn't like oatmeal, and Marcy mopped up the overspill with the corner of her apron, wiping the corners of Emmie's sulky, downturned mouth. Emmie wriggled like a fish on a hook.
Marcy glanced at Tom's empty hand. "Leave the farm, you mean?"
Tom closed his hand and nodded. He smiled, the brilliant smile that three years before had turned her bones to water. Oh he was a charmer, was Tom Dane.
Marcy straightened. She set Emmie onto her feet. "There. If you will be down, there you go." Appeased, Emmie flashed her the child of Tom's own smile. Bracketed between the pair of them, something in Marcy's chest tightened and ached. She let her apron drop and pressed her hands against her bosom, pressing down the ache. Emmie gave her another look, solemn and measuring her somehow, before catching up her rag doll, Sukey, and running off to chase the cat.
"Well, what do you think? California, Marcy!"
Her mouth was dry. "Leave the farm? Tom. Do you mean it?"
"I hate farming! I've always hated farming." Tom dropped to his knees in front of her. His arms snaked around her waist. "Think of it, Marcy. We'll be rich. I'll buy you a carriage, silk dresses, diamonds! I'll get you anything and everything you want. I'll pour the wealth of California through these pretty hands of yours."
Her hands had been pretty once, soft and white and untested. The only work they'd done had been to sew dresses, embroider a scarf or stitch the intricately appliquéd wedding quilt for her hope chest. They were harder now, callused with hard work. Her nails were a disgrace.
But it was honest work. Hard, maybe, but at the end of each day she'd done something for Tom and Emmie, something to make their little family stronger and better. Maybe nothing more than a good meal in a clean house, or sleeping under fresh laundered quilts that smelled of lavender. But still, it was better. She bore the little calluses, the redness from lye soap and the cracked nails with pride.
She wondered if Tom had ever noticed her hands had changed. That she had changed.
Tom had a copy of the New York Herald, an old one from the summer. He'd probably picked it up in Larsson's Dry Goods when he was in town selling the eggs her hens laid and buying a few supplies. It was smoothed out and folded to keep the Sutter’s Mill story centre stage. It looked as though Tom had read it often, smoothed it often.
Her breath caught in her chest. It hurt. He’d been planning this for a long time.
She could see the headline in bold black capitals. The letters blurred.
She touched the paper, swivelling it around so she could read the story. It was illustrated. A man strode down a street holding something aloft. The artist had drawn little rays coming from his upraised hand, to show that what he carried sparkled and glittered, as if he'd caught a piece of the sun between his fingers. "Gold!" ran the caption. "Gold! Gold from the American River!"
Tom still smiled, resting his chin on her knees. His hands squeezed her gently. "California, Marcy! Just think!"
She was thinking. It was clear, though, that Tom and she were thinking different things. She shook her head.
"Jim Peters will buy the farm, I know. He's looking for a place for that second boy of his, the one who just got engaged to the Sorensen girl. This place would suit. It would more than suit! We'd get a good price too, enough for me to get to California and give me a stake to start out with."
Marcy stiffened, straightening a back that ached already from a day hauling water to heat on the stove or stooping over a basin, washing Tom's work clothes and little Emmie's dresses. Her fingers throbbed, remembering the day's labour and the sting of the lye. "You want to go alone?"
He wouldn't meet her eyes. Oh, Tom! That was always how she could tell. Oh, Tom.
"It's a rough place and a hard journey. We're too far from the coast to go by sea, so it'll be months overland, Marcy. Too hard for you and little Emmie, and too dangerous. I thought that I would go and make our fortune and then come back for you."
He really had been thinking about this, then. This wasn't just one of his sudden enthusiasms, quick to come and quick to go. The way she'd—she bit off that thought before it could be born fully-formed. He wasn't just being Tom, dreaming. This was real. And long ago she'd learned that the only way to hold Tom Dane was to let him go. Clip his wings, and he'd flap around breaking everything in sight. Maybe she could stop him going to California, but oh, the consequences of that didn't bear thinking about.
She looked around the little room, sick to her stomach. Tom would go to California. He was set on it. "Where would Emmie and I live, if you sell the farm? What would we live on?"
He might have been thinking about California, but he hadn't thought of that. She knew by the frown. He never could bear it when she was all odious practicality, as he called it. He never could abide that. His expression brightened. "My mother—"
"No." Firm, not allowing argument. She wouldn't do that. She'd live in a sod house in the woods and eat roots she'd grubbed up with her bare hands before she'd live with old Mrs Dane. She breathed out a long, silent breath. It steadied her. What can't be cured, must be endured. She couldn't cure this. "If you want to go to California, we all go, Tom."
He blinked. But she gave him a decisive nod, and turned to pick up her sewing. She was making a new dress for Emmie, made from the remnants of one of her own. At almost two, Emmie was growing so fast that Marcy could barely keep up. She set a sleeve in the arm's eye and stitched it into place, the sharp jabs of the needle flashing in the lamplight. She stitched all through Tom's arguments, through the cajoling, the charm, the coaxing. She stitched on, keeping her mouth closed tight against the words that would tumble out of it if she allowed them. And then she stitched for hours into the sulky silence.
Tom was the visionary in the family, the dreamer. Marcy didn't dream any more. There was no time for it.
Jim Peters bought the farm before the month was out. Top dollar, Tom said, his eyes shining, and Jim wouldn’t take possession until late February, when they’d leave for the West. "Oh, and Marcy? He wants to know if we'll take his youngest boy with us, to look after the stock on the way. Walt, the boy's called. He's risin' twenty and a hard worker, Jim says. Jim can't provide a farm for this one too and the boy's decided to make his own way. We'll need someone to help, so I said yes. Jim'll outfit him. We'll only have to give him a place and cook for him."
We? Marcy smiled, despite her weariness and her misgivings. Tom's bachelor attempts at cooking had been disasters. He could barely cook a pan of beans. It would be Marcy doing the work for two men, not him. But still, she was relieved. Having someone there to help would be a boon. She didn't know young Walt Peters, but his father was well respected and was known to have brought up his boys with a strong hand. Walt would be reliable, at least. Probably wouldn't have much in the way of conversation beyond a grunt, but he'd know oxen and he'd know sheep and cows. He'd look after the small herd they were taking, that they'd held back from the sale to Jim Peters. Tom had taken it into his head that the little herd would be just as much a gold mine as anything in California. And if all else failed, they'd have something to eat on the way.
Everything else was in Marcy's hands. Over the winter, she went through what was needed to outfit them for the trail, consulting with the Larssons. She made list after painstaking list, estimating so many pounds of flour or cornmeal or bacon, how much saleratus, how much coffee and tea, salt and pepper. She dried vegetables and the apples from her garden, packing them into short fat barrels and sealing them with butter to keep the air from them. She went over their clothes, had all their boots repaired, spent precious dollars on new flannels and thick coats for the mountains. She tore old, worn shirts into long, soft bandages and made salves and ointments, spending a few more dollars on laudanum, ipecac and cascara for the small medicine chest that would be stored under the wagon seat. Most precious of all, she stowed away the little bag of seeds: carrots, turnips, onions. She'd need those for her garden when they settled.
While Tom sat in Larsson's back room talking out his vision to a batch of admiring cronies, Marcy and Walt took the two light farm wagons to Eli Walls, the carpenter. Walls made curving, springy bows for them and his wife helped Marcy attach the canvas she'd bought to stretch over them. It took a week. They sewed the canvas with sailing needles, curved and sharp and so big Marcy's hands ached by the time she'd finished. Eli's brother, Jed, was a middling-good blacksmith. He re-rimmed the wheels, and between them, the Walls brothers made her a complete set of spares, and Jed contrived some cunning hooks that stored the spare wheels on the underside of each wagon bed.
Marcy agreed on the list of supplies with Mrs Larsson, enough for more than half a year. Mrs Larsson's eyes had gleamed at Marcy's list, and a fair amount of the farm's sale money went from Marcy's hand to hers. But at the end, as Walt loaded the last of the supplies into the wagons, Mrs Larsson had patted Marcy's arm. She didn't say anything as she glanced at the backroom where Tom held sway, but she pressed a cool, lightly-powdered cheek against Marcy's and held both of Marcy's hands in hers.
"Write. Write when you can." Her eyes were wet.
Marcy nodded and promised. She would miss Johanna Larsson.
Outfitting them for the trail West put a big hole in the money Tom had got for the farm. Tom didn't like it but even he had to see there was no alternative, not for a trip that long. Marcy sewed the rest of the money securely into her stays, sliding the gold coins to lie flat along the whalebone where they wouldn't show through the seams of her dresses. She left some of the smaller coins for Tom to jingle in his pocket.
On the morning of March 2, 1849, they headed west and south toward Kansas City, to the Missouri River to find an emigrant wagon train to California. Tom and Walt Peters walked beside the oxen pulling the larger of their wagons. Marcy sat on the seat of the second with Emmie, already fretful about not being let down to run, squirming beside her. She drove the team of mules herself.
She didn't look back. There was no point.
In Kansas City, Marcy had to slit the seams and push a few of their precious gold coins free as payment to join an emigrant company led by Joseph Chiles, who'd made the trip three times already. The Chiles company had hired a grizzled old trapper as a guide and yet another coin or two went to Joe Walker in fee. It was worth the expense, to rely on that experience, Tom said. Marcy looked at Emmie running around the campsite with half a dozen other children and went, uncomplaining, to find her scissors. Emmie's safety was worth it.
Walker came to inspect their wagons and animals before the emigrant wagons set out. Tom smirked when the old man agreed it was a good idea to take the cattle with them; only a dozen head, but beef was a precious commodity in the goldfields. He pursed his lips when he saw the four horses, and allowed, doubtfully, that "horses is mighty contrary critters but they might make it through." He showed them where to nick the stock's ears and he registered their mark with Chiles. All the animals would be driven in one large herd, he said, and Tom and Walt would take their turns as drovers and as night watchmen. Tom's smirk faded at that news.
Walker approved Marcy's arrangements but told them to buy even more stores, as much as the wagons would hold, another span of oxen and another pair of mules. "You'll need 'em," he said, eyeing Emmie where she was hiding behind Marcy's skirts pretending to be shy. "Buy as many water barrels as you can fit along the wagon sides. You'll need 'em too. When you get 'em, Dane, come and find me. I'll show you how to secure 'em to the wagon bed."
He waggled his bristly, bearded chin at Emmie to make her laugh. Emmie giggled, taking a couple of steps forward at the old man's beckoning. Marcy told Tom later that she saw the lice peeking out between the hairs of Walker's beard, and she edged Emmie back. She'd have enough to do to keep Emmie well and happy without having to delouse her every inch of the way west. Just in case, though, she added packets of red precipity and white arsenic to her shopping list, and a fine toothed comb.
"She's a purty one, Miz Dane," said Walker, touching his fingers to his hat brim. "Seems to me she favours her ma, there." But he looked troubled, and shook his head as he walked away.
Marcy hesitated, then darted after him. "Mister Walker!" When he stopped and turned, she couldn't put it into words.
He knew, anyway. "It's a hard road and long, Miz Dane. I've taken women and chillen along with me afore. I ain't the man to lie. Sickly little 'uns will find it hard. Too hard, mebbe, but that girl-child o' yourn looks strong and healthy. We'll take care of her, and we'll get her through."
He touched his hat again and was gone, leaving Marcy staring after him. She turned back to the wagons when Tom called her to go with him into town to get the extra supplies Walker had advised. She picked up Emmie and held her so tight the child squirmed and complained, feeling the fragility of flesh and young bone. She put her face in Emmie's hair. Emmie's head was bent, and the nape of her neck was soft and white, and something in Marcy flared with a fierce jolt of love. Walker was right. Emmie was strong and healthy and she would reach California. Marcy would see to it. She'd die herself before allowing harm to come to her child.
"And, Marcy, Walt says there's a portraitist come to town, advertising a new type of daguerreotype. He'll take our likenesses for five dollars. Only five dollars, Marcy! That's not too much to have something to mark the beginning of our new lives."
The portraitist had set up shop in the backroom of a store. They were stiff and still in their best clothes, Emmie on Marcy's lap and Tom standing behind her, his hand heavy on her shoulder. Marcy had the portraitist take an extra likeness of Emmie in her best frock, standing straight on a chair, her head and waist held by near-invisible clamps to keep her still. Poor Emmie was too tired by then to smile. But Marcy insisted. If five dollars wasn't much to pay to mark their new lives, then another five dollars certainly wasn't too much to pay for something that might mark the ending of one.
The emigrant wagons worked their way slowly across the plains, like ants crawling over the vastness of the world. Along the winding valleys of the Platte and the Sweetwater, then striking west to Rocky Ridge. From there they went on into Oregon Territory, heading west for the Big Sandy River, the land around them as flat as a stove-top and the sky above so big and vast that Marcy would pull her sunbonnet around her face to hide it. She tried never to look up, always looking ahead, looking for the mountains to put some edges on the world.
Mostly, she and Emmie rode on the second wagon, long day after long day. Emmie grew used to the wagon seat, chattering and talking for much of the morning, sleeping with Sukey tucked under her arm and her head pillowed on Marcy's lap for most of the afternoon. Once or twice a day Marcy would hand the mules' reins to Tom or Walt, and she and Emmie walked alongside the wagon for a mile or so. Emmie darted constantly into the grasses to chase butterflies or crickets, or to gather the wild spring flowers, yellow and pink and blue, that threaded their way through the harsh prairie grass like jewels on a gold chain. She slept wreathed in diadems of flowers.
The stores lasted well, augmented by what the men hunted along the way. Game was plentiful and unwary, and one afternoon, the wagons halted for hours while a herd of bison crossed the plain in front of them. The plains were black with buffalo, as far as Marcy's eyes could see. The men of the wagon train brought down dozens of them. The meat was good, and Marcy had four buffalo skins stretched over the wagon canvasses, curing them in the strengthening early summer sun. They'd sleep warm under those skins when they got to the mountains. When the game grew shy and scarce, they had their stock to fall back on. And they did. Some they ate themselves, some they shared, some they sold to Chiles to be divided amongst the have-nots. Marcy learned that, in privation, she could be thrifty and ingenious.
And if the water of the Plains rivers was silty and full of fine grit, Marcy learned that the silt sifted to the bottom of a bucket left overnight leaving potable water at the top. And if a little of the fine silt was left, well the Good Book said a man had to eat a peck of dirt before he died. It wouldn't harm them. She learned to cook over a fire in a pit, feeding the little flames with buffalo chips, as Walker called them. She had never thought she'd cook over a fire of dried cow muck, and at first it robbed her of her appetite. Only at first. Hunger cured her of being too dainty.
She learned to live with never being quite clean and she learned to live with constant motion, with never being in one place more than a day or two. She learned to endure thirst when they found the sour, alkaline Humboldt River at last and walked across the alkali plains, saving most of the water for the stock and for Emmie. Bless Joe Walker for telling her to get more water barrels! No one died, but many in the train suffered on that long trek across the blinding white flats and more than one was sick before they reached the other side. She learned there to temper neighbourliness and Christian charity with good sense and a selfish desire to spare Emmie. She learned to walk behind the wagon to save on the load the labouring mules were pulling, learned to jettison what she truly did not need when they were struggling up the rocky slopes of the Sierras at last. She learned what it was like to suffer bitter cold, and snow, when the thinness of the air stung her eyes and throat. She learned to thank heaven on her knees when at last, in the late summer of '49, the tattered, dirty, stinking train of people came down out of the mountains into the wide Sacramento Valley and the gold fields beyond.
Most of all, she learned to marvel at the world she lived in, its vastness and the feeling it gave her of permanence. It would still be there long after she had sunk into the earth to enrich what came after, and she learned to find in that a kind of comfort that surprised her. She liked the thought that her bones would become the bones of the earth. She liked the thought that she, too, would endure.
Mining was a bitter disappointment.
Tom's airy dreams of walking across the land, stooping now and again to fill his pockets with gold, boiled down to long days with pick and shovel, digging into the clay of the streams north of Sacramento. They couldn't afford more than a basic outfit. If Tom wanted to pan for gold, he riddled the gravel by hand, using a metal dish punched with holes. They'd heard tales of contrivances that meant men could prospect for gold by having entire streams flow through their machines, but Tom had neither the money to buy such a thing nor the skill to make one from lumber. Their claim was small, hemmed in on all sides by stretches of muddy ground owned by other men, each claim delved into pits and holes where the owner dug for his fortune.
It was not a friendly place. They didn't even know the name of their nearest neighbour. He was no more than a stocky, thickset figure shambling along on the other side of the creek that bordered their tiny parcel of land. He never looked up. As a breed, the miners were grubbers in the earth, their eyes turned always downwards looking for the gleam of gold.
Marcy's great expansive world contracted to a one-room hut, and dirt and mud and flies. She had hated the squalor of the trail. This was twice, three times as bad. Every night when Tom came in, she'd spend an hour scraping the thick clay from his pants and jacket with a dulled knife, while he ate and complained that all he'd found were a few measly nuggets. The little glinting pieces of gravel were barely worth the time it took to pick them up, he said. They barely filled one of the skin pouches that had once held medicine. They needed to make a strike. They needed it desperately. They had very little left, only a few coins. Tom had sold what was left of the stock, but that money had gone to buy their claim and equip Tom to be a miner. They'd hoped to find enough gold to provision them for the winter.
Walt gave up on it early. He wasn't truly interested in mining. He'd found his greatest joy in driving the emigrant train's stock and had spent many a happy hour on horseback, circling the animals and keeping them in the train's wake. Two of their horses had survived the journey. Walt took the skewbald gelding as payment for his labour on the journey and headed south toward the big ranches in the San Joaquin after a bare month trying his hand at mining. He wanted to work with stock and not even Tom's talent for cajoling and charm could make him stay. He promised to write.
Summer died away and autumn aged toward a cold winter. Marcy thanked God for the buffalo hides while she and Emmie shivered under them and Tom sat by their small fire, face dark with discontent. The days were short, and Tom's temper shorter. He didn't deal well when his dreams faded. Marcy herself was tired. She was tired of being hungry. And dirty! She hated being dirty. The mud was ground so far into her hands they'd never be clean.
She put her arms around Tom's shoulders, one dark night. "The gold's there, Tom. You'll find it."
But he shook his head, staring at the little flames.
She hesitated, but Emmie was getting thin and pale, too quiet now compared to the bright little girl who'd once slept wreathed in wildflowers. There weren't enough of the right things to eat. They had arrived too late to plant a garden, and even if they had, Marcy suspected it would have been withered by the harsh summer sun or flooded by the constant winter rain. The dried vegetables were long gone, and the bacon. She was down to the last dustings of flour and cornmeal, barely enough to keep her sourdough alive.
"We need to go to town, Tom. We need food. Emmie's not well, she's not getting enough good food—"
He shrugged her arm away and glowered and glared, but she stood her ground. She'd endure what she couldn't cure for herself, but Emmie was too young to be sacrificed on that altar. Marcy had a few dollars left where Tom hadn't found them. They had to re-provision. Spring was still weeks away, and even if she tried then to make a garden in the mud, there'd be no harvest for months.
Hangtown was the closest place that passed for civilisation. It took them two days in the wagon. Tom sulked all the way. Each day he was away from the claim would be the day he'd strike it rich. If he hadn't had to bring her and Emmie, if Marcy had only been sensible and waited for him back east... well, this was down to her and while he hated to say it, she and Emmie were a drag on him.
Marcy knew she was clipping his wings. She knew he would flap around and strike out, like a child hitting out at what plagued him. She knew that. She didn't care.
The clerk at the store didn't laugh in her face, at least. He was a kindly man, likely with a wife and children of his own somewhere. He looked sorrowfully at Emmie's pale face and too thin arms, and suggested that if Marcy didn't mind sifting out the weevils, he had a sack of flour he could sell her for a couple of dollars and he'd throw in a small piece of bacon that would be good enough for a king to eat once she'd trimmed the green mould from the rind.
Tom had stormed out of the store, leaving her there to pick up the pieces. She was dazed. She just couldn't quite make herself understand it. Her head buzzed.
"It's the gold," said the clerk. "Them that's struck it toss it about like water and the prices have gone up according."
Marcy raised her hands, her trembling, dirty hands, and let them fall again. She shook her head. More than a hundred dollars for a barrel of flour, the clerk had said. Twice that for butter. She didn't dare ask what she'd have to pay for cheese, or bacon, or beans. Not that she could pay. She and Tom had nothing left.
The clerk parcelled up the mouldy bacon and brought her the sack of flour. He slipped something else in. A small packet of beans, she thought.
"This ain't a good place, ma'am, for you and the little girl. There's a deal of sin and wickedness here. There's stealing and swearing and worse down in those houses where the women are. They ain't good women, ma'am. Ladies of the line, every one of 'em. The men do nothin' but drink and gamble, and when they've drunk and gambled away all they have, they go back out to their claims and dig up more gold." The clerk lowered his voice. "A man was killed last month. Shot down in one of the drinkin' houses like the mad dog he was. This ain't a good place."
"No," agreed Marcy.
"They're mostly fools, ma'am. It ain't the miners getting rich."
"Not at these prices, no." Marcy picked over her meagre stock of coins, and the clerk shook his head, reached out and closed her fingers back over them. Her sight blurred.
"It'll be all right, ma'am." The clerk nodded at her, kindly. His expression changed. "Say, you wouldn't be Miz Dane, would you? I don't recall many ladies around here and seems likely." At her nod, he smiled. "Then I have a letter here for you. To be left 'til called for."
He scrabbled about in a drawer in the counter and handed her a thin envelope. She didn't know the handwriting. She took it and allowed him to carry the stores out to the wagon, while she held the letter in a grip so tight she crushed the paper. It took everything she had to hold up her head and thank the man for his kindness, his true and Christian kindness.
Tom was nowhere to be seen. In one of the drinking houses, maybe, where she couldn't follow him. She boosted Emmie up onto the wagon seat and moved the wagon a little down the street, out of the worst of the wind and dust, prepared to wait. She smoothed out the crumpled paper and groped in her hair to find a hairpin to slit open the envelope.
She had to read it twice before she fully understood it. The letter was from Walt Peters. He'd found work on a big ranch in the San Joaquin valley, near the towns of Green River and Morro Coyo. He'd found work. The ranches were planning for the spring roundup, he said. She read on, her breath coming in little gasps.
Marcy took a deep breath, calming herself. She took Emmie by the hand and started up the street. She didn't know which drinking house Tom had gone into, but she'd look in every single one of them. She'd go to the doors of houses a lady like herself should pretend never even existed, and she'd ask for Tom until she found him and, if she had to, she'd shame him into coming out to read Walt's letter. She'd shame him into agreeing to it, into accepting what Walt was offering.
She'd shame him into accepting their salvation.
Murdoch Lancer was one of the biggest men Marcy had ever seen.
She was used to living among Swedes and Hollanders—tall, broad shouldered men who brought with them something of the massive coldness of the north countries, with their big strong bodies and their pale colouring. The storekeeper back home, Nils Larssen, had towered over every other man in town. Tom had always resented it, making sour jokes about man-mountains and maypoles.
Murdoch Lancer was bigger yet, Walt told them when he met them in the little town of Green River. "Came here from Scotland about seven or eight years ago. He talks funny, but he's learning to speak 'Merican. 'Course, most of the hands talk Mex, and that takes some gettin' used to. He's a fair boss."
Tom flicked the reins over the mules' backs and clucked at them. "Walk on."
Walt still had the skewbald gelding. He brought it alongside Marcy, keeping the big horse to a slow walk. He glanced at Tom, grimacing at Marcy. She was sorry to appear disloyal… no. No, that wasn't true and she shouldn't lie to a friend—or to herself—even with a gesture or silence. She was sorry she was forced to dissimulate in the first place. So she allowed her mouth to turn down a little at the corners and she allowed Walt to see it. The corner of his mouth twitched in answer.
Marcy drew Emmie in closer. "Does Mr Lancer have any family, Walt?"
"Buried one wife five or so years ago and moved on to the second. The new 'un's a Mexican lady. He has one boy back East somewhere—Boston, I heard, bein' raised by the first wife's folks—and one here with the new wife."
"Oh? How old?"
Walt scratched at his chin. "I dunno. A mite younger than Emmie, I guess. Two, maybe."
"I'm three now," Emmie told him, gravely, in her most grown up voice.
Walt didn't laugh at her. He tipped his hat, the way he had when he'd greeted Marcy in town. "Then I'd best be calling you Miss Dane, I reckon. The shaver's a mite younger. You have to watch for him around the place. He's into everything when he gets away from his ma. He's not bad for small fry. "
"What a thing to say, Walt! Just not bad? I don't expect Mrs Lancer would like to hear that about her boy."
"I don't hold much with kids," apologised Walt. He leaned out of the saddle to chuck Emmie's chin. "All exceptin' this'n. She's prime, is Miss Emmaline Dane. Ain't you, my chickabiddy?"
Emmie's smile had grown so rare and uncertain over the winter that it was a delight to see it tremble on her mouth in answer to Walt's gallantry. Emmie was fond of Walt, who'd often carried her on his shoulders on their long trek and told her stories. She'd missed him when he left. Marcy had to close her own mouth hard. It wouldn't do to let either Tom or Walt see how much it moved her, to see Emmie's little smile.
Walt nodded, and bless him, he touched his hand to his hat and changed to Tom's side of the wagon, talking men's things and giving Marcy time to set her face straight again and stiffen up her spine before she faced whatever lay ahead at the Lancer ranch. Walt was cheery, and by the time they got to the bluff above the big house, Tom was talking again. Marcy had had nothing but grunts for days. She'd be glad if Walt was able to talk Tom out of his huffy temper.
The road wound through the lower foothills of the mountains, every slope the pale, burgeoning green of new grass. It was a sweet country, even in early spring with the ghosts of winter fogs and rains still clinging to the land and the sunshine thin and cool. Walt said that later in the year the hills would be thick with wildflowers, every colour a man could think of. It was early yet for flowers, but the winter jasmine still bloomed with lemon-yellow blossoms sharp against the long, slender, dark green branches. Walt stopped at one big shrub and, leaning down out of his saddle with a short-bladed knife in one hand, gathered a dozen stems. He put them into Emmie's lap, making her a queer little bow to win a laugh from her. Tom glanced at them sidelong as Emmie squealed and Marcy exclaimed, and clucked to the mules to pick up their pace. Not even Walt could jolly along Tom that day, but Marcy and Emmie were happy weaving the whippy stems into a crown, braiding them into a wreath of tiny green leaves starred with yellow flowers. Emmie arrived at Lancer with it set around her dark head.
The Lancer house sat in wide, shallow bowl in the foothills, with mountains around three sides. The house was one of the biggest Marcy had ever seen. It wasn't pretty, exactly, but a great block of a house with a tall square tower, set in courtyards and gardens. The barns and other buildings stood behind it. The house shone white in the faint spring sunlight, looking solid and as though it belonged, as if it had rooted in the meadows. A long lake lay over to one side, a field or two away from it, and beyond that was a collection of small white houses with their own little gardens. It was a pretty scene. It looked peaceful.
"Made from what the Mex hands call adobe," remarked Walt. "Most every building around here is."
Marcy shaded her eyes with one hand to see better. "It's quite grand."
Walt shrugged. "It's old and near-on fallin' down in parts. Mr Lancer, he bought the ranch from one of them dons before the war, before California joined the Union. He's been buildin' up the place ever since, throwing up barns and buyin' cattle. I don't reckon he gave much thought to the house 'till he married the present Mrs Lancer. He's had us workin' on it this last few months, over winter when there weren't much to do with the cattle. Fixin' the roof and such to make it all weather tight."
Tom gave the house a disinterested glance. It wasn't a muddy hole in the ground he could call a gold mine. He wouldn't pretend an interest he didn't feel.
Walt rode on ahead, telling them to follow the dirt road under the adobe arch—decorated with an ornate letter L that Walt said was the ranch's brand—and around the house to the front, where a series of wide glass doors gave out onto a green meadow. The rooms of the house must be light and airy, said Marcy, finding more to admire now they were close up.
"Barn's around the back," said Tom. "Leastwise, we're goin' in the front door."
And that was the longest speech that she'd had from him in more than a week. He'd sulked ever since she'd shown him Walt's letter and told him that if he wouldn't go south to look into it, she'd take Emmie and go herself. She'd find work somewhere. And if she felt a stab of guilt at what she'd threatened him with, she quelled it. She'd heard of women left behind when their menfolk came west—California widows, they were calling them. She was one herself, she thought. Tom may have brought her with him, but in every way that mattered he was determined to leave her behind.
"It's a fine big house," she said, giving Tom a small smile to encourage him. It felt false, even to her, but she couldn't make it better. Her stomach was tight and aching, she could only hide the trembling in her fingers by twisting them in the calico of Emmie's dress. So much rode on this. So very much. They had to make a good impression.
Tom grunted, and brought the wagon to a halt before the main door. Walt waited there with Murdoch Lancer. It couldn't be anyone else, not from what Walt had said. Walt was quite right. Mr Lancer was taller even than Nils Larsson, and was broader across the shoulders.
Mr Lancer nodded to them as Tom drew up. He smiled, but his eyes were sharp, looking over the wagon and them. Thank heavens that she'd managed to freshen up in town. Her dress was shabby and creased, and it hung from her since she'd thinned down over the winter, but it was clean. Emmie, too, was thin and peaked, but her clothes were as neat as Marcy could get them. And Tom, whatever else he did or didn’t do, was a good man with stock. The mules were well-cared for and, though the paint was faded, the wagon was in good order. There was nothing there for Murdoch Lancer to fault.
"Mr Lancer, this is Tom Dane, that I told you about, and Miz Dane." Walt smiled at Emmie. "And Queen Emmaline Charlotte Dane sitting on her mama's knee."
"Dane." Mr Lancer nodded. "Walt's told me about you and I may have a proposition to suit the both of us. Won't you step inside to talk this over?"
Tom dropped down out of the wagon seat. He didn't come much higher than Murdoch Lancer's chin, but he straightened himself, facing up to Lancer and looking him in the eye. "I don't know what Walt Peters has said—"
"That you are a fine farmer," said Mr Lancer, his voice calm. "And I need a fine farmer."
Tom didn't bend an inch. He nodded, regal-like, accepting this as his due. Oh Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus. Tom wasn't going to make this easy. If there was going to be a favour conferred, Tom would be the one to confer it.
Marcy said nothing. She rested her chin on the top of Emmie’s head, not caring about scratchy jasmine twigs, and pulled the warm little body in closer.
"You’re squeezing me!" protested Emmie, giggling.
"I'm not a farmer any longer," said Tom, prideful-like. "I have land of my own, a claim up north. I don't want to be tied back into farming for long, Lancer."
Lancer. Not even Mr Lancer. Tom wouldn't even bend enough to acknowledge they were here as suppliants. He was treating Mr Lancer as he'd treat an equal, one of his cronies, defying Mr Lancer to dare to condescend to him.
Tom was going to throw it all away. He'd throw it away and then he'd turn to Marcy, all injured pride. It wouldn't be his fault, of course. It would be because Lancer thought himself so high and mighty, the rich man tossing scraps to the poor man at his gate, and not even Marcy could expect him to put up with that sort of disrespect. No man who called himself a man could tolerate some la-di-dah rancher lording it over him. This was America, where all men were equal. Marcy couldn't want Tom to abase himself for a farming job. It wouldn't be fair. It wasn't fair. She wasn't fair.
Oh, she knew. She knew exactly what Tom would say.
"Are you cold, Ma?" Emmie twisted in Marcy's lap.
"No," said Marcy, slowly. "I’m not cold. Hush."
Murdoch Lancer looked hard and a little angry at Tom's tone. He turned that sharp gaze on her and after a moment it changed and softened. He looked from her to Emmie, and she shook her head, trying to clear it. Something was buzzing and buzzing, like a wasp trapped in a jar.
"You're all shakey-shivery." Emmie laughed her shrill little girl's laugh.
"I’m not cold," said Marcy. She had to close her eyes. All the colour was leaching out of the world, turning it pale brown and sepia, and everything she saw ran together and blurred. The buzzing wasp droned on, making it hard for Marcy to hear what Tom was saying now. Something about taking Lancer's proposals under consideration. Marcy's hold on Emmie slackened.
The voices cut off abruptly, drowned in the fretful, spiteful buzzing. The weight on her knees vanished, and a hand clamped onto her arm, another pressing on the back of her shoulders, pushing her head down. The breath fluttered in her throat. The hand on her back was big and warm. She let out a little moan and rested her forehead on her knees. She didn't want to throw up what little breakfast she'd had, but everything was roiling and aching.
Tom said something sharp and frightened, and Walt's startled "Hey!" was loud in Marcy's ear. A deep voice rumbled in answer. The hand on Marcy's back was heavy, holding her down.
"No. No. Please…" Marcy forced her head up again struggling to sit upright. The hand on her back lifted. Her hands slid to the wagon seat on each side of her and she closed them over the hard wooden edge, gripping until they hurt. The little pain brought her to herself. She shook her head.
Tom stood a couple of feet away, holding Emmie. He looked… something she couldn't quite put her finger on. Surprised, maybe, but there was more than that. Resentful. Tom looked resentful. Emmie had her lips jutting out in a pout, her face reddening as she got ready to scream. She’d dropped Sukey, and one hand was stretched toward Marcy, the other toward the doll.
"Take a moment." It was Murdoch Lancer with the hand on her arm and the deep voice. Walt was right. There was a burr underneath everything he said to show he hadn't been born in America.
Her face burned. She looked away, only to see Walt regarding her with the same compassionate gaze that Mr Lancer was giving her. She swallowed, trying to find moisture, any moisture, in her mouth. Everything tasted of mud and dirt, but her shoulders stiffened with the memory of the backboard her mother had made her wear to cure her slouching. How dare they! How dare they pity her!
She swallowed again, lifted up her head to meet Murdoch Lancer's gaze. "Thank you," she said. "I was a little faint."
The burn in her cheeks grew hotter. Those sharp eyes of his were measuring her, gauging her. He nodded and took his hand away. Emmie struggled in Tom's arms, reaching for her and whimpering.
"I'm fine." Marcy tightened her hands one more time on the wagon seat before lifting them into her lap. She curled her fingers into her skirts. The palms hurt and a red line throbbed across each of them. The little pain was welcome. It anchored her in the here and now, kept her there. "Thank you. Give me Emmie, Tom. She'll fret, otherwise."
"Well, now." Mr Lancer held up a hand to signal Tom to stay back. "I was thinking, ma'am, that it's likely your husband and I'll need to talk a wee while to get this settled and consider the terms. I would be pleased if you and the bairn would visit with Mrs Lancer while we discuss the proposition. Mrs Lancer's used to town life, you ken, so she always welcomes the chance of a visitor." He smiled. Marcy couldn't see the pity in it now, and laughter rumbled under his deep voice. "Emmaline here's about the size of my boy, John. He's always looking for a new playmate."
"Well, I don't know…" Marcy hesitated, but he took that for consent, and before she could move or protest, he had lifted her out of the wagon seat and set her on her feet. He steadied her, careful to make sure her dizziness had passed. Tom glared, his face as red as Emmie's and his mouth in the same pout. But encumbered as he was with Emmie, he couldn't do anything. Marcy prayed he wouldn't say anything either. Mr Lancer meant it all as kindness, she was sure.
"Thank you, Mrs Dane." Mr Lancer stepped back to a respectful distance and nodded at Tom. Tom glowered, but gave him a short nod back. Giving his permission, Marcy supposed, too tired to argue. Instead, she took Emmie's hand when Tom put her down, and followed Mr Lancer indoors.
It was cool and dim in the big entryway. A hall led to the back of the house and a wide staircase mounted up to the upper storey. Mr Lancer guided her to the right, throwing open a wide double door. The room beyond was larger than many a hotel parlour. The row of window-doors down the right hand side flooded the room with light. On the opposite wall to where Marcy stood at the door was a big fireplace; a plaster plaque had been let into the wall above it with the same ornate letter L as stood over the archway. Mr Lancer liked to put his brand on everything then, not just his cattle.
Only a small fire burned, but a big upholstered sofa and chairs were grouped around the hearth in a way that looked friendly and welcoming despite the size of the room. Two women sat in the chairs, sewing. She couldn't tell which was Mrs Lancer. Both were olive skinned with dark hair and eyes and both were striking, bright and vivid. And pretty. They were both so pretty. Marcy felt faded and worn, older than her years, wizened as an old apple left forgotten in the barrel in the garret. They stared at her for a moment, surprised, and she raised her free hand to straighten her bonnet before letting it drop to her side to smooth uselessly down her skirts. If only Mr Lancer hadn't half-crushed her bonnet when he pushed her head down like that. If only she'd had time to iron her dress. If only her dress wasn't so… so dowdy.
The children there, a girl older than Emmie and two little boys who looked as like as peas, stood gawking, until one of the boys threw up his arms at the sight of them, squealed, and pelted full at Mr Lancer. He scooped the child up without blinking. He was used to being run at, then. This must be his son. He tucked the boy under one arm, little arms and legs dangling and kicking while their owner squealed and giggled. Mr Lancer didn't pay much heed to the squealing, but Marcy thought he may have helped the giggles along with a squeeze and some tickling from those big, gentle hands.
"Maria, Señora Roldàn… this is Mrs Marcy Dane. She and her husband will be helping us with the farm, I hope. I thought she might visit here while I discuss things with her husband. Mrs Dane, this is Mrs Lancer and the Señora is the wife of one of my top hands."
The older of the two women rose gracefully to her feet while the other still stared, her eyebrow rising in a way that had Marcy's backbone stiffening.
Marcy nodded. "I am pleased to meet you, Mrs Lancer."
She spoke to the older lady, but it was the younger one who got up, putting her embroidery aside, and who now nodded back to her. "It is an honour," she said, in a pretty, accented voice. Her gaze flickered over Marcy from head to foot. "You have been travelling, yes?"
Marcy swallowed, chilled. "Yes."
Mrs Lancer seemed very young. Marcy would be surprised if she were twenty. But she was sure of herself, the grand lady greeting a suppliant. She gave Marcy a cool smile and glanced at Emmie, her eyebrow rising again at Emmie's crown.
"I'd better get back to Dane," said Mr Lancer. He turned his son upside down and right side up, grinning, before setting him on unsteady little feet. "Stay with Mama, John. I'll be back presently, Maria. Mrs Dane, Señora…" He smiled at them, and vanished back out into the hallway behind Marcy. She heard him call to someone at the back of the house but couldn’t understand the words, though they sounded musical. "Maria! Café para tres, por favor, y leche para los más … darn it, what is the word I'm looking for?... para los más pequeños. ¡Gracias!"
The Señora something-or-other smiled at Marcy. Her accent was thicker than Mrs Lancer's, her voice deep and slow and sweet as molasses. She couldn't be very much older than Marcy. The late twenties, perhaps. Maybe thirty. She was the prettier of the two and graceful. "The Patrón has sent for coffee, Señora Dane, and milk for the little ones." She joined Marcy and laid a hand on Emmie's head. "Una hermosa corona… a pretty crown for a pretty girl." The glance she gave Marcy was sharp but not unsympathetic. "Your journey has been long?"
Marcy could only nod past the lump in her throat. So very long. And not over yet, not if she knew Tom.
The Señora smiled and drew her and Emmie toward the seats before the fire. Marcy went obediently, taking the chair the Señora offered her. Mrs Lancer glanced at her and away again, staring into the fire with an indifference that made Marcy's face hot. Emmie leaned against her knees, silent and watchful, her eyes too big in her peaked face. The little girl—the Señora's, Marcy supposed—sat quietly beside her mother while the two little boys came to stand before Marcy to stare some more. They weren't identical, close up. They had to be almost the same age and size, and both had a shock of black hair, but Mr Lancer's son was lighter skinned and had blue eyes.
The Señora resumed her own seat and picked up her embroidery. "Welcome to Lancer, Señora."
"Oh, si," said Mrs Lancer, a little late. She waved a careless hand, gave Marcy another glance that had Marcy's cheeks burning. "Welcome."
The little Lancer boy came to Emmie's side. His eyes were really very blue, glinting with energy and mischief, and he had a bright, unwavering smile. He reached up for her jasmine crown. "Want!"
The farmhouse was a couple of miles from the hacienda, beyond the adobe village where the married hands lived. It, too, was adobe. It was small and whitewashed, nestling in a narrow valley. They'd followed the stream all the way, a track running beside it as it tumbled down from the mountains and threw itself pell-mell over stones and little waterfalls on its way to feed the lake near the hacienda. The water was very clear, Marcy noticed, as Tom took the wagon over a shallow ford and into the farm yard. It would be sweet drinking water, and cold.
"Another adobe house," said Tom, drawing up before the farmhouse. He glanced at the small barn to one side. Like the house, it was sturdy and well built. "I reckon that's just Mex for mud."
"Not like a dugout though, Tom."
He shrugged, angry at being trapped back into farming. He'd already berated her for what he called her trick to get Lancer's sympathy and force him, Tom, back into a life that was beneath him.
"Trick?" Marcy had repeated, wonderingly.
"Pretending to faint like that." Tom had snorted, his face red with temper and his mouth drawn down. His eyes were cold, and he slapped the reins over the mules’ backs with more snap than was needed. The wagon had lurched forward, and Marcy had grasped Emmie to her with a low cry, frightened they'd be tumbled from the wagon seat. "Stop that," Tom had said. "Stop the play actin', Marcy. I won't have it. I won't."
Marcy gathered Emmie in close and said nothing, bowing her head over Emmie's and letting the coffee and cakes, such good coffee and lovely little cakes, roil around while she tried to keep them down and stop her heart hammering. Tom had never been so angry. Never.
Of course, she'd never crossed him so badly before. Never clipped his wings so hard.
Tom had stayed silent and glowering, silent until they reached the farm and even if he only spoke then to scorn the adobe it was made from, it was enough. He was talking again. She could work with him when he was talking, she was sure of it.
"It's in a pretty spot," she ventured. The remains of a garden stood to one side, the fence broken in places, but that could be mended. The fields were overgrown. Tom swung down from the wagon seat and took Emmie from her. He didn't offer to help her down. Still too mad for that, she supposed. She clambered down quickly. "It will be nice to have a garden again. Did Mr Lancer say why the farm wasn't being worked?"
"Some old man had it before. Went to live with his kids someplace when he got too old to work." Tom set Emmie down and told her to run around, but stay away from the stream. "Lancer said he didn't bother for a while but got all his supplies from town—not Green River. Some greaser town. But he said it was costing too much and it was better to have the farm back in use." Tom shook his head. "A couple of years of nothin' being done… it'll take some work to bring it back."
"You'll do it." Marcy made her voice warm, and she put a hand on Tom's arm to look up at him as a trusting wife should. He didn't throw it off, not straight away. That was a step forward.
"I told Lancer I'd stay until harvest, at least."
"And then we'll see. I'm not getting trapped back into farming forever, Marcy. And don't you forget it."
He did move away from her then so her hand fell away. She let him go. He unhitched the mules and led them toward the barn. Heaven only knew what he'd find in there and what he'd feed the mules on other than grass. They were starting with nothing.
She pulled off her bonnet and went to the house, answering Emmie's chatter absently. Emmie hadn't needed Tom's orders not to stray too far; she stayed close to Marcy's skirts. The steps to the stoop creaked under Marcy's weight but held firm. She had to force open a door that had warped with the winter rain.
The house wasn't very big. One big room for cooking and living, with windows on either side of the door and let into each of the outside walls to left and right. The other wall had a door through to a small room that would do for Emmie. There wasn't much in the house other than dust and cobwebs. An old cook stove stood to the left of a high chimneybreast on the north wall and a bedstead stood under the window in the south. A broken chair was jammed up against one wall of Emmie's room. No other furniture, and everything inches thick in dust.
"Ma?" Emmie's voice was quiet, tiny. Afraid.
Marcy let her hands drop from her face and blinked away the tears. She had to be cheerful. "Well, we've got some work to do here! Let's get the broom from the wagon." She bent down and hugged Emmie tight. "It'll be like camping, for a few days until we can get settled. It'll be fun."
Emmie's mouth trembled and her eyes were like Tom's: big, wounded, resentful. She didn't like this old, whispery house with the spiders running across the window panes and the way the webs hung down, thick and black with dust.
Everything they had left was in the wagon. At least they had the straw tick mattresses and their bedding, her pots and pans and the cleaning gear. Marcy tied on the biggest apron she owned, covered her hair with a cloth and set to. She had never seen so many spiders in her life, running this way and that on their long legs to escape her broom and duster. She was coughing and breathless by the time she'd brought down the last of the webs, cleaned the ashes from the hearth and swept the two rooms clear of the worst of the dirt, and she was grey from head to foot with dust. Tom came in from the barn about then, complaining about the state of the plough and harrow that he'd found there. He stopped muttering long enough to unload the wagon, stacking their things on the porch to one side of the door, while Emmie, happier to be out of the dirty house, ran about the yard chasing sun-shadows on the ground.
Tom brought her water when she needed it, and she was just starting on scrubbing the floors to be clean enough for the bedding when Walt splashed through the ford on his skewbald horse, hazing a cow along ahead of him. Behind him came a big ranch wagon with two women on the seat with the driver.
Marcy stared. A cow. Blessed Jesus, Mr Lancer had sent them a cow.
Walt herded it over toward the barn, before jumping down from his horse and coming to where Marcy stood on the stoop, staring. "The boss said to bring you a milk cow. And there's chickens on the wagon in a crate and other stuff you'll need to start up housekeeping." He glanced sidelong at Tom who was rigid with pride.
Tom's tone was ugly mean. "We don't need charity."
Marcy couldn't breathe. For Emmie, they did. She took a step toward Tom, ready to interfere, even though this was man's business and she had no right to shame him in front of Walt. She didn't care. She didn't care about herself and Tom, but Emmie needed the milk and…
Walt took the wind out of Tom's sails with a shrug. "Put down your hackles, man. It's no more than he does for all the married hands setting up housekeeping on the ranch. He said to tell you that the things were taken into safe keeping from the house when the old man left, and belong back here now. They've been in one of the storerooms back at the hacienda and he's glad to get the space back. And Tom, he said once we'd emptied the wagon, you and me are to go back and bring a load of hay for the barn. Like I said, he's a good man to work for."
Tom said something, subsiding into muttering, but Marcy stopped looking and listening to him. The wagon pulled to a halt in front of the stoop. It was piled with chairs and an upended table with its legs sticking up holding another bedstead between them. There were bags of beans and flour, she could see, and other stores in a box. The crate of chickens was lashed to one side, its occupants complaining and clucking to themselves. Marcy's sight blurred again. She blinked when her hands were taken in two warm ones. The Señora had come, along with a young girl of around sixteen and a tall, but stocky, Mexican man who turned out to be the Señora's husband, Cipriano.
"We have come to help, Elena and me," she said in her quaintly accented speech. "Old Tadeo has been gone from here these two years at least, and the house… ai!" She stood in the doorway and shook her head. "It is a good house, Señora Dane, and a sound one. It will not take long to clean it up." She rapped out something in Spanish to Elena, who ran to fetch another bucket of water. The Señora watched her go, her mouth curving up. "Elena is Cipriano's cousin and in our care until she marries. That may not be long now."
She glanced from Elena to Walt, who had given up all pretence at emptying the wagon. He hurried to take the bucket from Elena, touched a hat shading a face so brick red that Marcy could only smile, and ran off to the stream leaving Elena smirking and blushing and twisting a black curl between her fingers.
"Cipriano will help your husband and Walt with clearing out the barn," said the Señora, and her husband waved an airy hand and went back to unloading the Lancer wagon. She smiled, a charming smile that made Marcy feel hopeful for the first time that day. "But come. There is much to do. And the sooner we start it, the sooner it will be done and you will have your home again."
It was late when Marcy got to bed that night. Tom was already abed and snoring when she climbed onto the mattress, filled with warm-smelling clean hay by the Señora and Elena while she had scrubbed the bed frame almost white. Cipriano had strung rope from side to side of the frame and the Señora had made up the bed for them. If she saw Marcy's shame that the quilts were dingy and needed washing, she said nothing of it. But as she and Cipriano left that evening, she promised that Elena would be back the next day to help Marcy with a washing day.
"It will be good practice, no?" she'd said as Cipriano helped her into the wagon, and set lanterns at every corner of the wagon box to help light their way home. She'd smiled at Walt's blush and Elena's conscious glances, and leaned from the wagon to wave goodbye as Cipriano drove them away, leaving the family to have their first supper in their new, clean house.
Marcy slid into bed and lay back. Everything was quiet. Tom was sleeping and Emmie was in her own room. The Señora wasn't there to see it, nor Walt to pity her. And definitely no Mr or Mrs Lancer to look at her with eyes that were compassionate or coolly indifferent.
She could cry a little out of grief for all they'd endured, and thankfulness for the haven they'd found. She could cry a little now, and no one would ever know. There was no one to see her, no one to hear.
Because even with Tom there and Emmie sleeping in the room next door, Marcy Dane was all alone.
April – July 1850
The chickens Mr Lancer sent took only day or two to get over their sulks at being moved.
Elena found the first eggs, bringing them up to the little house in her cupped hands. Walt had arrived after breakfast to escort her back to the Roldàns, now that she and Marcy between them had scrubbed the farmhouse until every wall, floor and window gleamed in the late April sunshine. They’d washed every stitch of clothes and bedding the Danes possessed, too. The last of the quilts, Marcy’s wedding quilt, was spread over some low lavender bushes to dry in the sun and catch some of the sharp scent from the silvery-green spikes. Marcy kept an anxious eye on it. She didn’t want it to get bleached, and the Californian sun was hotter than anything she was used to back home.
“The Señora said to tell you she’ll come over around midmornin’,” Walt said after greeting Tom, sitting at a table scoured white as a bone. He could have eaten off it and taken no harm. He tipped his hat to Elena when she came in, Emmie at her heels, and his colour rose. He looked at Marcy, not Elena, the tips of his ears red. “She thought you might like to go with her into Morro Coyo. Baldomero’s store there is the biggest in the district.”
Four eggs. Marcy’s careful hands put them into a dish and set it on a high shelf, out of harm’s way. “That’s very kind of her, Walt.”
“She is. Kind, I mean. She was real nice to me when I got here last year.” Walt lifted the coffee cup to his lips to hide the sideways glance he gave Elena, and Marcy let herself smile to show him she’d noticed and approved. He flushed under his tan. “You should have seen her after you left the hacienda the other day. She was the one to remember that these things”—one hand made a lazy circle—“were in one of the storerooms and she had us all scurryin’ around to find them for you.”
“Even Mr Lancer?” Marcy couldn’t help but let her smile widen at the thought of that man-mountain scurrying along with everyone else.
Walt’s mouth twitched. “Well, she’s the Señora, ain’t she?”
“Roldàn is just a hand,” said Tom, dismissive, from his big chair by the stove.
“The best one on the ranch. Mr Lancer has him set over the rest of us.”
Tom was always stubborn. “She’s just a hand’s wife.”
Ah. Tom hadn’t taken to the Señora or to Cipriano, maybe because they were Mexican and Mr Lancer held them in some esteem. He’d resented Elena’s appearance to help Marcy get the house straight, but Marcy, tired and drooping, needed Elena’s strong young arms and back. In a month or two she might feel better, but right then she needed more help than Tom would give her. She had stood up against the sulks and won. It just made Tom sulk harder.
Walt swivelled around his chair and stared. “She’s the Señora.”
Tom scowled and kicked the stove.
Three little towns bordered the Lancer ranch. Green River was to the north, with Morro Coyo a few miles east of it. Spanish Wells was to the southeast, but the ranch had little to do with Spanish Wells. It was little more than a hamlet of half a dozen houses at most, Walt had explained, a saloon and houses of ill-repute. A man had been killed in the street there, shot in the back. His killer still roamed free.
Green River was new and American, but Morro Coyo was older, weighed down with more than a century of mission rule. Morro Coyo was Mexican, with yet more adobe houses and a church that bulked large over the town square, huge and white and, thought Marcy, a fitting place to hide God.
The Señora drove them to Morro Coyo in a light buggy. Emmie, the little Isabella and Jaime, the Señora's youngest son, sat in the back chattering to each other in English and Spanish. It didn't seem to matter to them that they couldn't understand each other. Marcy twisted in her seat every now and again to look at Emmie’s bright face. Emmie seemed more her child than Tom’s, that day.
Marcy had almost forgotten what it was like to put on her best clothes and visit a town for pure pleasure. Her dress still hung on her after the winter had thinned her down and she felt shabby compared to the Señora's neatness, as though she were scrambling along in the Señora’s wake. The clerks in Baldomero’s store scrambled too, eager to win a smile and a make a sale. Maybe the Lancer ranch was the most important customer in the district?
But maybe it was the Señora. Even Señora Baldomero had been deferential and willing to please. Respectful. Marcy hid smiles, because the Señora didn’t appear to notice the deference, but took it all as her due.
After Baldomero’s, they took the children into a small cantina and Marcy had her first taste of tamales, followed by the sweet fritters the Señora called buñuelos and a cup of chocolate caliente stirred with a cinnamon stick. Strange things to eat and drink with strange names, and the Señora had Marcy repeating the words until she had them right.
"Bueno," said the Señora, with a decisive little nod and her charming smile. "You will soon learn to belong here."
It felt like a blessing, almost. The Señora wasn't very old, not much older than Marcy, but she had such an air… Marcy couldn’t quite put her finger on it. For all the Señora was still young, and wasn’t very tall, and, being slender, not in the least imposing, she was someone to be reckoned with. Like Walt and, she suspected, everybody who lived and worked on the ranch, Marcy couldn't bring herself to call her anything other than the Señora. Marcy was pleased to be approved by her.
It must have annoyed Mrs Lancer to have the Señora there. Perhaps that explained her coldness and her distance. Perhaps that was it.
Four eggs, that first laying. Four eggs. One for Tom, one for Emmie and two more for luxury.
Marcy dug deep into her stores. The little spice box sat on a shelf at the back of the pantry, its tiny jars and tins carried across half the world, it seemed, riding safe and sound under the wagon seat. The ones she wanted had stood the journey well. Better than she had, maybe. Their colours still glowed with the warmth of a red earth, and when she unscrewed the lids, their fiery scent rose like the breath of a hot wind. They smelled of home, and baking day and everything she’d left behind. She let Emmie sniff, smiling when it made her sneeze.
Allspice, ginger and nutmeg. Flour and the thick, sweet molasses from the box of goods the Lancers had sent. The first churning of butter from the milk cow. Two of the precious eggs. Her grandmother’s receipt book from its place of honour in her trunk, the marbled paper covers crumbling with age and the recipes written in a thin, spidery script in ink that was fading to brown.
Her grandmother's gingerbread cake was always enough to put Tom into a better mood. Emmie, too, who had inherited his sweet tooth along with his smile. A platter of gingerbread brought more harmony with it than anything Marcy could have devised if she'd thought about it for a month. It made Tom more affectionate, once Emmie was in bed asleep, than he’d been for weeks.
Tom had repaired the field fences and ploughed two of the larger fields, but starting on the third brought disaster. The plough and harrow were old, the fields were freely seeded with stones, and a section of the harrow sheered clear off when stone chips worked their way between the teeth. It was beyond Tom's skill to repair, and brought him home from the fields just as Mr Lancer, with John on the saddle in front of him, rode up to visit.
Marcy had spent the time since breakfast working in the garden beside the little house. She'd dug and tilled the earth, raking it into long, shallow ridges and valleys and had put in the first planting from the precious hoard of seeds she'd carried clear across the continent. She carried bucket after bucket of clear creek water to water them in. Mr Lancer caught her making her way back from the creek, the yoke across her shoulders, clothes and hands dirty and muddy. She had to wipe her hands dry on her apron, shamed to offer hers to him to shake, but he was cheerful and friendly and didn't appear to notice. He did notice her work in the garden, though. He gave it an approving nod, and gave her a sharp glance she couldn’t interpret.
He'd come to see that they'd settled in, he said as Tom came up to join them. And he'd brought Johnny to visit with Emmie, if Mrs Dane was willing to have his wild boy play with her little girl. “I warn you, he’s a wee demon!” He laughed when he said it, an indulgent papa. He valued his small son’s spirits then.
There was gingerbread to offer and the coffee pot was hot on the stove, still, from breakfast. There was enough coffee left, and strong and black enough to suit most men. Mr Lancer was pleased to accept their hospitality. Marcy stood a little straighter up when he glanced around the little house and commended her work in making it clean and homely.
"It's a sight different to when Tadeo lived here," he said, taking the coffee she served him and Tom, smiling his thanks to her. "He wasn't a bad farmer but he was a terrible housekeeper. You've done wonders, Mrs Dane, both here and in the garden."
Marcy's face burned. She’d done a good job on making the house a home, and it was nice to be appreciated. "The Señora helped. And she sent Elena."
Mr Lancer's smile broadened. "But of course! There are days, you ken, when I think that this place would manage fine without me. But it would founder without Cip and the Señora."
Tom sniffed. Marcy turned her back on him, gave the children a piece each of the gingerbread and shooed them out into the garden. They went to stand in a corner to stare at each other, mouths mute with shyness and sticky with treacly cake.
Mr Lancer took a bite of gingerbread and his face lit up. “Now, that’s braw! I haven’t tasted parkin in years, Mrs Dane. Not since Cath—“ He broke off, his mouth set. It took a moment for him to take another bite, to nod and try to recapture his first carefree tone. “This is a taste of home, all right. It’s as good as my granny’s, and I can’t say better than that.”
Tom eyed him unsmiling, his eyes narrowing, but Marcy blushed and disclaimed. Mr Lancer seemed to mean it. He said that he only hoped she could make porridge as well. “I dare not hope for petticoat tails and tattie scones…” But the look he gave her belied him. He hoped for them a great deal.
“I had a Scots grandmother, Mr Lancer, who gifted me with her receipt book. I dare say I can find one for just about any dish you care to mention.”
“Then I hope I can persuade you to share them with Mrs Lancer.” Murdoch Lancer laughed at her nod and turned back to Tom.
Marcy took her coffee to a chair by the doorway and watched the children play while Mr Lancer and Tom talked farming and ranching. Johnny chased Emmie, both of them shrieking and laughing. She’d have to rake the ground over again later, though. Not that it mattered. There were no seedlings yet for them to trample.
Marcy tried to keep her smiles for the children and not for the men, thought it was hard. Mr Lancer knew as much about farming as Tom knew about ranching, but like all men, they could talk as if they knew the whole world. When the conversation got around to ploughing, Mr Lancer took the broken harrow section from Tom and shook his head. He'd taken up blacksmithing for himself when he came to the country, he said, and could deal with most things around the ranch but this was beyond him. He told Tom to take it into Green River.
"Gus Guthrie's the real smith around here. Take the harrow in today, Dane, and charge the repairs to the ranch." Mr Lancer shook his head again, his big hands rubbing over the brittle metal. "If Gus says it's beyond saving, you'd better have a word with Elias Higgs at the store, and see about buying a new section. We have an account with Higgs, too. Come back and talk to me, though, if we need an entire new harrow."
Tom was nothing loath and as soon as Mr Lancer rode away again, little Johnny up before him and shouting to his father to go faster, he went to harness the wagon while Marcy rushed to clean herself and Emmie to go with him.
Tom wasn't so pleased to take them. He'd probably hoped to visit the saloon and squander some of their last cents on a beer. "Town again? You went with that greaser woman just two days ago. Well, Marcy, make the most of it. You're a farmer's wife again, and that means you'll have to take your turn to work. Your choice. You made your bed, my dear."
Marcy put one arm around Emmie and pulled her close as Tom clucked at the mules and they threw their strong shoulders against the harness. Her other hand touched her belly and the new life beating under her heart. How had she ever thought his smile was charming?
Yes. She'd made her bed and now she lay in it, just as the old saw said. Now there was no choice. No choice at all.
Gus Guthrie turned out to be Augusta Guthrie, and big enough to make two of Tom. Marcy pulled her mouth into a tight line to stop it curving up when Tom condescended to Gus about the harrow section, talking down to the mere woman who thought she could do a man's work. Gus took the broken section from him with a cool stare and a hand as big as Murdoch Lancer's. She let her hammer swing from her other hand, and the look that Tom gave it, sidelong and as white-eyed as a nervy horse, had Marcy catching up her skirts and gabbling out something about the heat from the forge and she'd wait for Tom at the store. Emmie, trotting along beside her, laughed along with her as they crossed Main Street, not knowing why.
If Morro Coyo was old and all whitewashed adobe and green shutters, Green River was young and pushy, a row of pine-boarded, false-fronted buildings pretending to be grander than they were. Green River was less than a year old but growing fast, a single boardwalk street with a few houses scattered around it. Main Street had two stores, the doctor’s office and the lawyer’s, a livery with Gus’s smithy behind it, and a saloon. The lumber mill stood at the south end by the riverside, its waterwheel turning, thrashing the water to white foam. To the north of Main Street the bones of new building rose up, hammers rang out and men called to each other as they worked. One of them started singing. It was a cheerful sound and had Marcy smiling. The buildings were of pine, still a clean, bright yellow, and as Marcy stepped up to the door of Higgs’ Dry Goods she took a deep breath. The spring sun was hot and the scent of pine was sharp in the air. Resin leaked down the boards in sticky golden trails, amber tear drops weeping their way out of the baking wood.
Higgs’ Dry Goods was the larger of the two stores but wasn’t very big yet, not as big as Baldomero’s over at Morro Coyo. It was more familiar. Less exotic. Here the clothing was like Tom’s—checked shirts and plain pants, not embroidered linen and those tight pants Cipriano wore with the silver discs down the legs. The dry goods were like home too. Wheat flour not the strange masa that the Señora had said was used for tortillas; barrels of salt pork and tinned oysters, not links of smoked spicy sausage. It reminded Marcy of the Larsson’s store back home and it was with a pang of guilt that she remembered she’d promised she’d write to Johanna Larsson.
Mrs Higgs was a small woman, round and red as one of those Dutch cheeses sheathed in wax. When she bustled forward to greet Marcy and Emmie her wide skirts hid her feet, and she wore slippers, maybe, because she moved so swiftly and so silently that she seemed to glide up to them. Maybe there were wheels under those skirts. Emmie didn't like it. She hid behind Marcy, her hands fisted into Marcy's dress. Mrs Higgs either didn't notice or was polite enough not to mention it. She was gracious, even when Marcy didn't buy anything. Very gracious indeed.
“Lancer?” The glance from her eyes was a sharp as needles. “You’re living at Lancer?”
Marcy kept the polite smile on her face and explained, and Mrs Higgs grew ever more affable and welcoming, pressing Marcy to join their church, to come to the Ladies Aid, to support the missionary service. “I know how difficult it can be, Mrs Dane, being the stranger in a strange land. But here in Green River we’re building our own America, making this alien land truly ours. You’ll find many a kindred soul here.”
“Church,” murmured Marcy. Her father had been a minister, the pastor in Philadelphia before his calling took him west and Marcy been brought up to be faithful in attendance. She was surprised to realize how much she’d missed church in her wanderings. “A real Protestant church?”
Mrs Higgs smiled and nodded. Marcy smiled back. Yes, they’d be there Sunday. Tom was indifferent to religion, but he’d indulge her in that, at least. And indeed he did. He took her there the following Sunday, even going to the trouble of wearing his only town suit.
For all the new church was still a pile of lumber in Mike Wilkins' lumberyard and every service was held in a large tent, Mrs Higgs had appointed herself as one of its pillars. She ran the Ladies Aid and managed the minister—a skinny creature with no chin and a long neck that rose out of his stiff collar like a turtle's head out of its shell—with the sort of firm hand that the young man had evidently been used to from his mother. It was Frances Higgs, and not the hapless Reverend Fletcher who glided to the tent door to greet and welcome Marcy and Tom to the service.
Marcy wasn’t surprised. Her father had a much stronger chin than the Reverend Fletcher, but even he found it hard to escape the sort of ladies who congregated around a church and its minister. Church hens, he called them. Holy fowl, always clucking and pecking at each other and ruffling their feathers.
Living out of town spared Marcy the worst of the Ladies Aid, at least. Not all of it, but most. No one was surprised that she didn’t come into town on the days they made shirts for the heathen, but along with all the other ladies she was expected to donate something to the short social that followed the Sunday service. She didn’t know that the first week, but she learned her lessons well. The chickens had settled into steady laying by the second Sunday, and she took another batch of spiced cake. The gentlemen and boys at the service made short work of the cakes and cookies, while Marcy sipped weak coffee and made the ladies’ acquaintance.
Lancer was a constant topic of conversation, and Marcy was looked upon as a prime source of information. Mr Lancer was one of the earliest white settlers apparently—“Not an American, of course,” mourned Mrs Higgs, but she acknowledged that a Scot was at least a white man and he’d had the sense to become a citizen as soon as he could—and, since Lancer was by far the largest ranch in this part of the valley, he was an important man.
“Mr Lancer must be so pleased to have another white man on the ranch he can talk to.” Mrs Samuel Jenkins was the local doctor's wife. She was a frail wisp of a woman who coughed a great deal and her smile was as thin and sickly as she was herself. She was not a sterling advertisement for her husband's skills. Her hands fluttered as she spoke, from her breast to touch her lips, back to her breast again. “An educated man is always an asset in the district. I know my husband is always welcome there. He and Mr Lancer talk for hours. About old books, I believe. The Greek ones."
The hacienda's great room was walled with books, Marcy recalled, and from her own meetings with him, she could believe Mr Lancer was educated and a reader. As for his recruiting Tom as a conversationalist, he and Tom had had one discussion about harrows and another about alfalfa. Neither had been in Greek.
Marcy murmured something that would reassure Elizabeth Jenkins that the doctor’s position as the provider of scholarly, intellectual conversation was unchallenged. Mrs Jenkins nodded in gracious acknowledgement and the conversation moved on to the gingerbread and Mrs Jenkins was moved to offer a receipt for a white sponge cake that her mother had brought from England. Marcy thanked her politely, but she couldn’t see her way to using a dozen eggs in a single cake even if her chickens proved to be the most prodigious layers in creation. Heavens! Twelve eggs.
Mrs Henry Conway was the wife of another local rancher, but with a smaller ranch and of less importance than Lancer. “How are you settling into your new home? The hacienda is beautiful, isn’t it? As Mrs Higgs said, the Lancers were almost the first American settlers here. They arrived years ago, and I remember Mrs Lancer—the first Mrs Lancer, that is—telling me of all the trouble they went to, to convince the Mexican government to allow them to buy the land. They’d been here some time when Mr Conway and I arrived, and I remember many a dinner party in a house that barely had a roof! It was in quite a state when Mr and Mrs Lancer bought the ranch.”
“It’s a very big house.”
“Yes. We came here six years ago for Mr Conway’s health—”
“Just after Dr Jenkins and I arrived,” said Mrs Jenkins, hands fluttering madly again. It was likely the doctor had brought his wife west for the same reason as the Conways. “We lived in Morro Coyo then. Green River was no more than a farm.”
Mrs Higgs sniffed. “We came a few months after you, Elizabeth, if you recall. I didn’t like Morro Coyo.” She caught the questioning glance Marcy gave her. “Have you been to Morro Coyo? Ah. Then you’ll have noticed it is more… more Mexican. Mr Higgs found it a challenge there, since most of the people around were used to going to Baldomero’s and looked for quite different merchandise than we provide. He has been the driving force behind founding Green River township, Mrs Dane, and I flatter myself that he’s building a lasting monument here.” She puffed out her not inconsiderable and well-corseted chest.
“Mr and Mrs Lancer were very good to all of us. Catherine was a gracious and kindly neighbour and very well liked in the neighbourhood.” Mrs Conway let out a soft laugh. “She was one of the Boston Garretts, Mrs Dane, and quite the society lady before she came west. You should have seen some of her clothes! She said she had no use for silks and furbelows and more than once I saw her come in from the hen house wearing a silk dress kilted up under a calico apron. She took to the life here in the true American spirit.”
“She died some time ago, I believe.” Marcy put her hand under her breast, riding out the sharp stab of fear. “In childbed.”
“Yes. Her son is back East with her family at the moment.”
“She is very much missed,” said another lady whose name Marcy hadn’t caught. “Very much missed. By everyone.”
The other ladies all murmured their agreement, with vigorous nodding and heavy sighs. Their regret appeared unfeigned.
Catherine Lancer was a ghost, then, and one with many allies, friends who remembered her with affection and gratitude. But Catherine’s greatest allies were likely to be in Murdoch Lancer’s set face and the way his mouth turned down when his first wife’s name had escaped him. Yes. Catherine Lancer was very much missed, still, and Marcy felt the first faint stirrings of pity for Catherine’s successor.
Maria Lancer was very young to be competing with the dead.
Murdoch Lancer visited two or three times a week, usually bringing Johnny over to play with Emmie while Marcy copied recipes for him to take back to Mrs Lancer. His visits became something to look forward to, something that broke the monotony of work in the house or garden. He sat with her while she wrote up the receipts and they talked.
Sometimes they talked about their experience of California or getting there—he and the first Mrs Lancer had travelled by boat down the east coast to Panama. His stories of their week-long walk through the jungles there fascinated Marcy until she sat listening to him, her pen poised in mid air and dripping ink spots. It fascinated the two children leaning on his knee, too; tales of monkeys, flocks of green and red parrots, and frogs as brightly hued as the birds living in the trees and plants. Marcy shuddered. She didn’t like frogs. Cold, slimy creatures!
“Ah, you’d like these, Mrs Dane. Every colour of the rainbow, and each one like a little jewel hop, hop, hopping about.” And he made his fingers hop up the children’s arms to tickle their necks until Emmie squealed and ran away laughing, and Johnny squealed and begged for more.
Sometimes they talked about Scotland. His voice was warm with the slight regret for the home he left behind there. She had only her grandmother’s tales and memories to relate, but they found common ground. She’d mention something Gramma McLeod had told her, and he’d laugh with surprised recognition.
“The Edinburgh Waits? Aye, I remember them well. So your grandmother saw them when she was a bairn, did she? So did I! I remember one Christmas, seeing them in Princes Street singing under a lantern while the snow fell.” Murdoch Lancer leaned forward, smiling, to accept a refill of his coffee cup. “I don’t know about your granny’s time, Mrs Dane, but when I saw them they were a ghost of what they’d once been. Still, I was but a lad and thought they were the eighth wonder of the world!” He shook his head. “I hope you and Dane will be here for Los Posadas. It’s the way we celebrate Christmas in these parts, and you’ll find it very different to anything you’ve seen before. Cath— the first Mrs Lancer and I were all at sea with it when we first came here but of course, it’s all the present Mrs Lancer has known. I miss the old sort of Christmas though, the ones I had as a lad.”
One day, while she and Mr Lancer talked and sampled shortbread, Johnny and Emmie got out of the garden and were lost.
Marcy stood still when she realised, her hands pressed under her breast to keep her heart from beating its way out. Emmie! There was so many things that would be a deadly danger to two small children. Cows, and bulls and horses… not to mention snakes or cougars…
Mr Lancer seemed almost resigned to Johnny’s antics. “The wee de’il,” was all he said, putting down his cake and striding out, calling for them. He went looking one way while Marcy ran for Tom and sent him another while she waited at the house. She lived through a thousand years of terror in one bare half hour until Murdoch found them in a nearby meadow. The sight of his tall frame coming across the meadow with a child perched on each shoulder had Marcy catching up her skirts and running to meet him.
“Murdoch! Murdoch! Are they safe? Oh Emmie!” She put her hands on his arm when she reached him, gasping for breath. She shouldn’t run in that heat. Not with the child… and her hair had been blown by the breeze and her face would be red as she looked up at him. Her hands squeezed as he smiled.
“They’re safe, Mar— Mrs Dane. Although your lassie seems to have my boy in thrall!”
Marcy dropped her hands. Johnny had flowers around his head, in his collar, tucked into every pocket and beneath the suspenders holding up his pants. Emmie just gave her Tom’s own smile, the one he used to get his own way.
Mr Lancer put the children down quickly, and touched his hat with his hand. “I’d best go tell Dane the bairns are found.”
Marcy’s face burned. Her ‘Of course’ was jerked out of her and she purposely didn’t turn to watch Mr Lancer walk away to find Tom. She swallowed, running her tongue over suddenly-dry lips.
A tug on her skirts, and Johnny beamed up at her from among his flowers. “Up!” he ordered, and held up his arms.
She was glad to obey and hide her face against him. With Emmie at her side, she went slowly back to the house.
Fool that she was. She’d ruin things if she weren’t careful.
She’d thought that maybe Murdoch Lancer wouldn’t come back, but two days later there he was with Johnny on the saddle in front of him. Tom was working in the barn that day and came out to greet him.
“I want to go to look at that windmill you said needs some work, Dane, and I’d be glad of your advice on it. If Mrs Dane is willing to care for this wee rascal for an hour or so“—And Mr Lancer picked up little Johnny and shook him, the way a terrier would shake a rat, turning him upside down while the child crowed and giggled—“we could go now.”
Tom maybe didn’t like being at the boss’s beck and call like that but he had no choice. He looked sulky, but he said Marcy would be very willing.
“Then I’m in her debt,” Mur—Mr Lancer smiled at her. “And I hope to be in it even further when we return if I can impose on her for a cup of coffee. Although I’m bound to say, Mrs Dane, that your arrival in the country is having a very bad effect on my waistline. You’re a braw one with the cakes and scones.”
Marcy had a happy afternoon with two sets of small arms winding around her neck and two voices asking for a ‘tory and some cake. It was a mark of trust, that he left Johnny with her. Johnny liked stories even better than he liked cake. He had a smile as bright as sunshine, that boy, and a curiosity no scolding could tame. He scrambled into little adventure after little adventure, nothing daunted. He was a dear child.
Mr Lancer’s visits resumed after that. Perfectly friendly, and perfectly respectable. Why, he even brought Mrs Lancer with him one day. He was determined to make his wife taste some of Marcy’s baking, he said, and Marcy made her as welcome as she knew how. Although really, for all the contribution Maria Lancer made to the conversation, he might as well have left her back at the hacienda. She nibbled on shortbread and said very little, her manner stiff and reserved. Heavens, what a distant, unfriendly creature she was!
By the end of July, summer scorched down upon the land, the sky a burnished copper at midday. On the last day of the month, the Lancers held a fiesta. It was Mrs Lancer’s birthday. She was twenty-one, her coming of age.
It was to be quite the occasion. Everyone in the district was invited. Mrs and Mrs Higgs, and the doctor and his wife, the lawyer and his, the local ranching families. They had all been bidden to Lancer, and they all came. All the hands and their families, too. Lancer was on its mettle with so many coming and had to put on its best show.
While Emmie and the other ranch children played inside one of the smaller courtyards, safely under Elena’s eye—and was that Walt leaning up against the courtyard gate, talking to Elena across the top of it?—Marcy joined the Señora and the other women on the ranch, helping to string coloured paper lanterns across the larger courtyard at the side of the hacienda, supervising the men bringing out tables and creating seats from bales of hay. She knew many of them now: Maria Morales, the Lancer housekeeper, Consuela Gomez, Pia Mendoza. None were as dear to her as the Señora, but they were welcoming and friendly, treating Marcy as one of themselves. They spread the tables with snowy white linen and set out their best efforts. She’d brought chiffon cakes and the dainty vanity cakes that she’d fried that morning, dropping spoonfuls of batter into a pan of hot oil and lifting out the puffed up fritters to shake cinnamon sugar over them. They’d be crisp and sweet on the tongue, melting away to nothing in the mouth. But while Lancer opened the doors of its storerooms wide, Mrs Lancer did not provide anything from the receipts Marcy had sent her.
Passing through the hacienda kitchen to fetch more plates, Marcy heard Murdoch Lancer’s deep voice from the formal dining room beyond. “That’s not right, Maria. It doesn’t taste right. What did you do to it?”
Maria Lancer’s reply was inaudible, but Murdoch’s voice grew louder as he came toward the kitchen.
“Well, I’m sorry, mo cridthe, but something went wrong. It didn’t taste like that when Catherine made it. Tell you what, why not get Marcy Dane to show you how? She gave me some when I took Johnny over there last week and hers was perfect, just the way it should be made.”
Marcy winced and darted into the pantry out of the way and to avoid listening to Mrs Lancer’s reply. When she peeped out a minute or two later, it was to see Murdoch’s back as he left by outside door for the courtyard beyond. Maria Lancer stood by the big kitchen table, her face quite composed but for the spots of red on her cheekbones. She had some of Marcy’s receipts in her hand. She crumpled them into a ball, lifted the lid on the stove and dropped them into the flames before following her husband outside, head held high.
Marcy wrote well and clearly. Long before Tom, before her father had moved the family west, she’d toyed with the idea of teaching school. She’d practiced her handwriting with painstaking care, all the better to teach good penmanship. She held the narrow gold nib of her pen at the exact right angle so that each letter was beautifully formed, every upstroke thin and precise, every downstroke a little thicker for contrast, and every letter at the right slant for clarity and elegance. A letter or a recipe written by Marcy Dane was a thing of beauty.
To see the pages she’d laboured over thrown into the flames had her blinking back tears. She’d taken such care with the receipts she’d copied. Flattered by Murdoch Lancer’s attention, wanting to be gracious and yes, wanting to repay his kindness in giving Tom a job and everything he’d sent them to start housekeeping, she’d made each sheet as beautiful as she knew how. It wasn’t her fault that Mur— Mr Lancer hadn’t liked whatever Maria had attempted to make for him. It wasn’t her fault that Mr Lancer was holding up her own baking as a model to follow. She was a good baker. She could teach Maria Lancer a lot.
She glared at the stove as she went past, feathers decidedly ruffled by what she’d heard, annoyed at having her gift thrown aside. It wasn’t her fault it hadn’t worked.
Outside she looked for the Lancers. She couldn’t see Maria, but Murdoch Lancer towered at least half a head over every man there. She caught a glimpse of his broad shoulders when the crowd parted. He stood with a group of men, Tom included, talking and laughing. He didn’t seem concerned about whatever it was Maria had made being such a failure. No point on dwelling on it… but it was very satisfying to be held up as a pattern card for whatever delicacy it was he liked. Very satisfying.
Smiling now, Marcy rejoined the little group of ladies she knew from church. They were in their best clothes, covered from foot to neck, prim and restrained, with nothing but a little lace at throat and wrists for prettiness. Even the fans they all carried against the heat were plain, stiff paper. Such a contrast to the bright clothes of the Mexican girls, who were like a flock of parrots in their colourful skirts, white blouses and fluttering feather or lace fans.
Maria appeared, crossed the courtyard to join her husband. She glanced at the table where Marcy sat, and her eyebrows rose in disdain. She ignored them, otherwise. So when the church hens proved themselves to be church cats, unsheathing their claws and raking them over Maria Lancer’s self-evident unsuitability to be the wife of a leading rancher, Marcy didn’t step away as she ought. She admired their skill. Not once did they mention names, but everyone understood that they were reviewing the current Mrs Lancer’s failure to grasp her responsibilities.
“I do think a rancher’s wife needs to be able to tell one end of a cow from the other,” said Mrs Conway. She added, with a self-conscious pride that she had herself worked at the spring roundup back in April. “I rode every day with the men.”
Lips twitched and mouths tightened as the ladies took this under consideration. The doctor’s wife looked pained and Mrs Higgs folded her arms across her bosom. Mrs Conway’s behaviour in that regard could hardly be held up as a model of refined ladylike behaviour, riding with the hands like that and chasing cows. But they said nothing. One or two unfurled fans and used them vigorously, as if wafting away the idea of cows altogether.
“That wouldn’t be easy, maybe, when there’s a small child,” Marcy murmured, and Mrs Conway flushed pink.
“That’s another thing altogether,” complained Mrs Jenkins. “It behoves us, I think, not to speak Spanish to our children or let the help teach them. It isn’t right. We are, after all, Americans. And of course, there are all too many of these mixed marriages. They should be discouraged, for many reasons. Not least, our leading citizens should be supporting our church, not bringing up their children as heathen papists. I do think, in such marriages, the fathers should put a foot down over that.”
“It’s wrong to mix the races.” Mrs Higgs nodded. “There are too many Mexicans around here as it is without marrying one of them and giving the rest of them ideas.”
Marcy had the inconvenient notion that the Mexicans had been there first. However, she thought of the fate of her carefully written papers and kept her own counsel.
“We won the war after all,” the lawyer’s wife, Carrie Randolph, pointed out. She did not add in which of the forces she had served in the recent conflict. “We mustn’t forget that.”
Mrs Higgs moved majestically on, turning the conversation to her own area of expertise. “I do feel that a lady, as it were, married to one of our leading citizens should remember that, Carrie, and dress as befits her rank and station. You remember how elegant some of our ladies were—and are!—because they dress the part. We carry the latest designs by the finest modistes in Stockton and Sacramento. Goodness, even the first Mrs Lancer commented favourably on the models we had on offer and she, you’ll remember, was one of the belles of Boston society. She was a very fashionable lady once.” She glanced at Maria Lancer who stood with her arm through Murdoch’s, dressed in an apple green skirt and a cream lace blouse with short puffed sleeves. “Some ladies, however, still affect the quaint dress of their southern origins.”
A Mrs Lloyd, a newcomer to the district, snorted. “Those low cut peasant blouses are a disgrace.”
“The men like them,” said Mrs Jenkins. “It’s the sort of thing those hussies in the saloon wear.”
Marcy had never been inside a saloon, but she had always assumed the ladies there wore something more alluring than a cotton blouse and full plain skirts, no matter how bright the hue.
Mrs Conway appeared to have repented her previous censure. “Really, Eliza, how can you say that? Every Mexican woman in California dresses that way.”
“But as we’ve noted, this is no longer Mexico.” Mrs Higgs sniffed. “As Carrie said, the war is over and we won.”
Maria Lancer turned toward them then. Had she heard? Oh lord, please don’t let her have heard… Marcy’s heart thumped. Tom might not want to be a farmer, but they needed this job.
Maria looked them up and down, and smiled. The ladies bristled, more than one hiding her indignation behind her fan.
Perhaps the war wasn’t over, after all.
August – September 1850
A fortnight after the fiesta, Tom surprised Marcy when he agreed to a proposition from Mr Lancer that Marcy teach Maria Lancer to cook her grandmother’s Scottish recipes.
“I said I didn’t see why not,” he said, giving her a sideways look that she couldn’t, at first, quite figure out. “He said he’d pay for your time, and the sooner we can get our stake together, the sooner we can get back to the claim.”
Oh. That was it, was it. Tom was determined to go back north to the goldfields. Marcy put a hand on her belly. The child was starting to show, rounding her midriff enough for her to loosen her stays an inch or two. She couldn’t take the little one back there, to the mud and the hut. She couldn’t take Emmie.
“No, Marcy. We need to earn money and this is as good a way as any for you to do some of it.” He glanced around. “There’s not enough here to keep you busy, surely?” Ignoring her gasp, he went on, sly and surly together, “You’re friendly enough with Lancer. If you had an ounce of sense you’d make that work for you. For us.”
She stared at him, heart thudding and her fingers trembling. Friendly enough? What did he mean? Of course she was polite and welcoming to their employer! She wanted Tom to do well on the farm, for his worth to be appreciated.
Tom just scowled when she stammered this out, cutting her short. “I don’t want to be a farmer for ever, Marcy. I left that behind. No, you’ll go to the big house and you’ll teach that greaser woman to bake cakes, and every penny you earn we’ll put toward our stake.”
Oh, but he was hard. Wrong headed and hard. Marcy dropped into a chair at the table. Emmie ran to hide behind her knees, clutching at Marcy’s skirts. She pushed her head into Marcy’s lap and whimpered. Tom wouldn’t look at them. Where had he gone, the old Tom? The Tom who’d kneel at her side and cajole and plead, who once charmed the heart right out of her, who she could manage? She didn’t know this Tom, the Tom who was cold and angry.
He did look at her then, just once. He jammed his hat on his head and went to the door. He’d planned to spend the day walking the fields to check on the crop, and weeding between the rows of corn and alfalfa. His face was hard.
Marcy’s hand went out in a wide arc, as if to gather in the little house and hold it. It was so different now. The stove was like new, the doors and grates black-leaded and polished until her hands ached, the brass shining so bright she could use it for a mirror. She’d begged beeswax from the gardener, Arturo, who kept his hives in the hacienda garden. A few drops of lavender oil from her own little patch of flowers added scent, and she polished the furniture from the Lancer storerooms until it glowed. The wood had been thirsty for it, coming to life under her polishing rags, the colours that had been hidden under the dust of years gleaming rich brown and dark red. The chairs and table scented the whole house now with the warm smell of wax and the peppery sharpness of the lavender. She’d cut the old sheets that had wrapped the furniture in the storeroom into curtains for the windows, trimming them with strips of pink gingham from an old dress of Emmie’s. Marcy had pieced that gingham strip so carefully, she’d defy anybody but the most skilled seamstress to see the joins. Her wedding quilt made the big bed in the corner bright. She’d even put a jug of flowers on the table that day. It was all so pretty now.
This was a home. It was a real home, their home. Why couldn’t Tom see that?
“Tom, please! Look! This is such a nice place, with good people, and this house is so well-built and comfortable. I’ve got it looking so nice now. And look at my garden—” She waved her hand to the door. Outside the new green of feathery carrot tops and potatoes speared the earth, and bean vines clutched at the fences, growing almost as she looked at them. “It’s a home, Tom. Our home. We could be so happy here—”
“Home! It’s not home!” Tom turned on her. His face was white with anger, eyes glinting. He curled his hand into fists and she shrank back, frightened. “It’s not mine, Marcy. It’s not our house or our chairs or our garden. It’s not ours. I’m nothing but a hand here, a hired hand just like Walt Peters. Me! Tom Dane, a hired man! I won’t stand for it!”
“You’re bound and determined to hold me back, Marcy Dane, and I won’t have it. I wish to God I hadn’t brought you. I wish to God I hadn’t brought you here just so you can drag me down. I won’t let you do it.” He stopped, his mouth working. He thrust his hands into his pants pockets. His fists strained against the thick denim. “But since you’re here, you will do as you’re bid. Go and teach her, and I want to see every cent Lancer pays for it. You hear me, Marcy? I won’t take any arguments. You get to the big house and you work, for once. Earn your damn keep.”
The door slammed shut behind him so hard, the little house rattled. Emmie squealed. Marcy stared at the door and dropped her hand onto Emmie’s head to soothe her. Her fingers trembled. Her eyes prickled too, but she blinked that back.
So. She’d always known that the only way to hold Tom Dane was to let him go. She’d always known that Tom with his wings clipped would flail and flail, and break whatever he could reach in his fury. He couldn’t bear being thwarted. If he thought she was trying to hold him back, to mould him, then he’d fight all the more to get his own way.
She would thwart him, though, as much as she was able. Because it wasn’t that she couldn’t go back north, but that she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t take the little one there, and she wouldn’t take Emmie.
Tom could go by himself and let the cards fall whichever way they will. It was what he wanted, anyway.
And maybe what she wanted, too.
She couldn’t say very much to Murdoch Lancer about her troubles, of course. She certainly wouldn’t open up the conversation. She showed a cheerful face when she hitched up the wagon and drove herself and Emmie to the hacienda.
Mr Lancer met her when she drew up at the loggia at the front of the house and helped her down. Emmie was still subdued and clinging to Marcy’s skirt. She wouldn’t look at Mr Lancer or answer when he greeted her, but pulled the plain brown twill of the skirt out straight to make a flap to hide behind and wrap herself in.
Flattening the fullness of the skirt like that made the rounding of Marcy’s stomach more obvious. Mr Lancer’s eyes widened and her face burned.
He was very gracious. “Thank you for coming.”
“It’s a pleasure. I’ll be pleased to give any aid I can to Mrs Lancer.”
Marcy wasn’t lying. She wasn’t. If she could make herself necessary at the hacienda, make herself indispensable, then maybe she could turn this to her own advantage. Tom might get the money, but she might earn something more valuable. She might earn sanctuary.
“Well, I’m grateful.” Murdoch Lancer hesitated, grimacing. “I’ll be frank with you, Marcy. I would like very much for you to be a friend to Maria. She doesn’t really know the ladies in town, you ken. We’re no’ members of their church to begin with—we had to convert to get the land, the first Mrs Lancer and me, and, well, that made it easier when I wed Maria so I haven’t gone back to the Protestants. Maybe I should have... but then, her church means a lot to her. Trouble is, it cuts her out of a lot of things.”
He’d called her by name. By her name. She hoped her face wasn’t red. “Like the Ladies’ Aid, you mean?”
“Aye. And anything else that’s happening in Green River. When she goes to town, she goes to Morro Coyo. Of course, she knows some of the wives through the Cattlegrowers—Aggie Conway, and Jane Reagh for two. I’d like her to know them better, to get on better.” Murdoch flushed. “For her sake, of course, but it will be better for John and any other bairns we have. I don’t fool myself there.”
She nodded. Tom wasn’t the only one to sneer about the Mexicans or call them greasers.
His smile looked forced. “I’m asking you to befriend Maria as long as you’re here yourself, Marcy. Dane tells me he hopes to have his stake by the end of the year. I’m sorry, because I can see he’s a good farmer and I could use someone like him, but I can’t hold a man to the land if he’s of the mind to be gone.”
Marcy swallowed. “Yes,” she said with careful emphasis. “Tom wants to try his luck again in the goldfields.”
He caught the hint at once. His gaze dropped briefly to where her belly was swelling under the concealing skirts. “Going north with young ones will be quite an undertaking.”
“Yes.” She allowed her mouth to turn down.
He nodded, with another grimace. “Well. We’ll have to see how things work out. In the meantime, I must get to the Conway ranch for a meeting to talk about water rights. Henry Reagh and Estoban Santee are almost at daggers drawn over it.” He offered her his hand, her own disappearing inside his large one. “We’ll see how things work out, Marcy.”
It was a promise and Marcy knew it. She went into the hacienda smiling, with a lighter heart. If she decided Tom would go alone, she thought she had a refuge here. Murdoch Lancer would find some way to help her, she knew it. And he’d called her by name. Three times now.
The housekeeper, a young girl also called Maria—some days it seemed to Marcy that every woman in Mexico was called Maria—showed her into the great room where Mrs Lancer sat in her chair at one side of a fireplace filled with red peonies in the place of flames, a sewing table pulled close while she embroidered. She glanced up as Marcy entered, and her expression grew cold.
“Murdoch?” she questioned, looking beyond Marcy for a moment.
“Gone to the Conway ranch, I believe. How are you, Mrs Lancer?”
Maria Lancer nodded then. “Well enough.” Her tone was stiff. She gestured to the chair opposite and put down her work, folding it with careful hands. A shirt for Johnny, made from fine white linen. Her fingers reshaped the collar and smoothed down the shirt front. She had worked the embroidery on the front placket, winding flowering vines around the buttonholes with dainty, exquisite stitches. “And you?”
“Very well, thank you.” Marcy looked around. “Johnny?”
“He’s with the Roldàns today.” Maria glanced at Emmie. “I thought he was better if he was not... how should I say this? Debajo de los pies. Under my feet so I trip over him.”
“Underfoot,” said Marcy. “We’d say ‘underfoot’.”
A queer sort of smile twisted Maria Lancer’s mouth. “Si. As you’d say.”
She sat back, her forearms resting along the padded upholstery and her hands grasping the polished walnut scrolls decorating the ends of the chair arms. The toes of her shoes, polished red leather, flickered into view and out again as they tap-tap-tapped on the wooden floor, making the hem of her skirt flounce. Brown eyes were normally thought to be soft and alluring, but hers, so dark a brown they were almost black, were hard and unfriendly.
“So.” Maria put her feet down flat, and her grip on the chair arms tightened. “So. You are here to teach me how to be what Murdoch wants. You’re here to teach me to be a gringa. To be like her, like the ghost that walks.”
Marcy blinked. Her? What ghost?
“She’s dead and gone, and still she has him.” Maria’s tone, cold until then, deepened. “He wants me to be like her.”
Marcy felt that her face must be draining of colour. Her heart gave a couple of uncomfortable thumps and her breath caught in her throat. She rubbed her damp palms down her skirts. Dear Lord. This was a mistake. Marcy should have defied Tom, refused Murdoch Lancer. This was such a mistake. She moistened dry lips with the tip of her tongue and wondered how she could bring this to an end. Maria Lancer wanted nothing of it, she was sure.
“Mr Lancer asked me to come and show you how to make shortbread. I know it can be difficult to—”
“Shortbread!” she said with such scorn that Marcy started. “What he wants you to teach me is to be a pale gringa like you, to be like those brujas in that gringa town, to be like one of you. To be like her.”
“What will you teach me, Señora Dane? What? Let me see...”
“Mrs Lancer... Maria...”
Her voice took on a mincing tone. “This is how you should speak, to be one of us. We won the war and it is all Inglés now. We’ve taken your land away from you and now we’ll steal your tongue. No more Spanish for you! This is how you should dress, to be one of us. Wear dark, dull dresses buttoned right up to the neck. No more pretty things for you! This is what you should cook, to be one of us. This is how you should run your house, to be one of us. This is how you should raise your child, to be one of us." Maria’s passionate voice rang out. “¡Yo no soy como usted! ¡Nunca, jamás será uno de ustedes!”
Marcy bit back tears. She raised a helpless hand, made some sort of gesture, while pulling Emmie closer with the other. Poor Emmie trembled. Too many raised voices today.
“I am not one of you. I am not like you. I will not become like you. ¿Entiendes?” Her foot started tapping again, setting the hem of her bright skirt bouncing. “Do you understand me?”
Marcy nodded, her cheeks flaming.
“I am no pale ghost. I will not stand in the shade of Catherine Lancer.” Maria straightened proudly. “I most certainly will not stand in the shade of Marcy Dane. ¿Entiendes?”
Marcy’s lips were dry again. She rose to her feet, taking Emmie’s hand. “Perfectly. My only thought was to oblige Mr Lancer—”
“Oh, si,” said Maria Lancer, and her mouth twisted again into a sneer. “Of that I am sure.”
Marcy tightened her mouth into a line so the words couldn’t escape them. “I don’t think there is anything I can teach you, Mrs Lancer.”
Maria Lancer released her hold on the walnut endcaps of her chair arms. She picked up the little shirt, turning it to the light and giving it all her critical attention. She spared Marcy a swift glance, her smile shot through with malice. “I am sure of that also, Señora.”
Marcy tried to walk away with head held high, but she was crushed by the weight of the day. Tom was going away from her, somewhere she couldn’t reach him if she wanted to, and the safety of Lancer, it appeared, was a mirage.
She didn’t see Murdoch Lancer for a few days, and when she did he shuffled his feet in sheepish fashion, and barely spoke of his wife and what he’d asked of Marcy in that regard. They talked of general things, but despite Maria Lancer’s sneers, Marcy did offer Murdoch some fruit slice with his coffee. She wouldn’t be frightened away from doing that much.
He brightened and poked at a raisin. “Flies cemetery! That’s what we called this when I was a lad.” Two bites and it was gone. “This is braw, Marcy.”
Marcy felt a little better. The power of sweet things to comfort the soul was proven, she supposed. But still, Marcy copied no more receipts for the Lancer kitchen.
The first child on the ranch to show signs of the sickness was the Señora’s eldest boy, Eduardo.
He went daily to the mission school in Morro Coyo to be taught by the nuns and priests attached to the big white church. It wasn’t a big school, but it was the only one in the district. Green River was still catching up in that regard. Green River might have the doctor, the blacksmith and the Anglo church, but its school was still an empty lot behind Main Street.
Eduardo was eight, a strong, sturdy boy who took after his strong, sturdy father. In early September he came home from school complaining that his head ached and his legs ached, his throat hurt and he was too hot. When Walt told Marcy about it, two days later, the little Isabella had already caught the sickness before the Señora could send her away somewhere safe, although Jaime was at the big house with Johnny and the Lancers and showed no sign of fever.
“We’ve no idea what it is yet,” said Walt. His gaze followed Marcy’s to where Emmie played in the corner with her rag doll.
“Has Doctor Jenkins seen them?”
Walt shook his head. “Eduardo is already better, and I don’t think the Señora and Cip will send for the doc just yet.”
Marcy understood that. People relied on the old remedies and only sought a doctor when there was something beyond their ken. She did herself. Her medicine box had been replenished as soon as Tom had a little money put aside from his wages. When Walt had gone again, she went to check it. Ipecac, spirits of ammonia, cascara, syrup of squills... all there. Even a little laudanum.
There was no reason to think she’d need it. Still, it was almost as much a comfort as the sweetest of sweet things to know it was there.
She went over to the Roldàn house the next morning. She left Emmie with Tom, just in case.
“I don’t know why you’re going running over there,” grumbled Tom. “Didn’t you get enough the last time you went sniffing around those greasers at the hacienda?”
The unfairness of this had Marcy gasping aloud, but Tom was very far away from her these days and he only grinned, as malicious as Maria Lancer.
“The Señora has been very good to me,” was all Marcy said in response to that jab. She went to the Roldàns, prepared to repay some of that, to offer comfort and work. She could help Elena clean floors, or cook, or wash dishes. Anything to lighten the Señora’s burden.
But the door was barred to her. Elena blocked the way, her young face drawn and wet, her voice choked with tears. Cipriano Roldàn stood inside the main room, at the fireplace, leaning his head on his hand, his elbow propped on the mantelpiece. He stared down at the empty grate, his very stillness shrieking of grief and shock. He didn’t know Marcy was there. From somewhere deeper in the house came a high, keening wail that couldn’t possibly be the dignified Señora.
The little Isabella had died in the night.
A dozen children lived on the ranch. With the exception of Emmie, Jaime and Johnny, who were too young, they all went to school in Morro Coyo. All of them played together on the ranch when school was done.
They got sick together, too.
Well, not all of them. Manuel Mendoza’s two stayed clear of the sickness altogether, and despite being in the house when Eduardo came home sick, so did Jaime Roldàn. Johnny had a slight fever and a sore throat, but threw it off in a day or two, Marcy heard, without anything more serious. Still, Maria Lancer wasn’t going to risk her son and sent Walt into Green River to get Sam Jenkins. Jenkins came at once and brought grim news.
Tom was there when the doctor arrived, getting something or other from the Lancer storerooms. He was there to hear what Jenkins had to say, and brought the news to Marcy.
It was scarlatina.
Tom said Jenkins wasn’t sure where it started. There were cases throughout the district and he’d quarantined three ranches and two entire towns by the time he got to Lancer. The little Isabella was not the first to succumb to the ravages of the fever. One of the Reaghs’ sons was dead too, and their daughter likely not to last the day.
Jenkins had Murdoch bring him bowls and hot water right out to the Lancer arch where he washed his hands with lye and carbolic before he’d set foot on the ranch. Tom told Marcy that Jenkins had Emilio, one of the vaqueros, follow him from house to house in the vaqueros’ village with more water and he scrubbed his hands between every house to keep the contagion from spreading.
Tom doubted that this would be enough. “Dunno that it’ll do much good. It’s a terrible fierce thing, the scarlet fever.”
“Scarlatina,” said Marcy, slowly.
For the first time in weeks, Tom put his arms around her. It felt awkward. “It’ll be all right, Marcy.”
Marcy bit her lip and looked at Emmie’s door. Emmie had been fractious all day. She’d refused to eat and hadn’t even cried when Marcy put her down for her nap. Instead of the usual complaints that she was too big for naps, Emmie had climbed willingly into bed and snuggled down with Sukey in her arms. “She’s slept too long. I don’t like for her to sleep so late in the afternoon.”
Tom wouldn’t let her get up. “I’ll wake her.”
Marcy settled back. She listened to Emmie’s fretful voice and Tom’s rumble of an answer. She wound her hands together in her lap and watched them writhe over each other, over and over. If she gripped tightly, she could make her fingers ache with it.
Scarlatina. God have mercy on them.
“Marcy?” Tom stood in the doorway. He was very stiff and still and his voice cracked when he spoke her name. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Marcy, she’s awful hot.”
Just for a second, only a second, everything in the house stopped. Marcy’s heart stopped beating, the clock stopped ticking, she and Tom stopped breathing and just stared at each other. Then Marcy surged to her feet and ran, positively ran, for Emmie’s room.
Emmie lay on her side, all curled up like an armadillo, eyes closed. Marcy shook her awake gently. “Wake up, sweetheart. Emmie, wake up.”
Emmie muttered and grumbled, forcing up heavy eyelids and turning onto her back, obedient to the pressure of Marcy’s hands. Her small body was hot through the thinness of the calico dress she wore. Marcy put the back of her hand against Emmie’s brow and bit her lip, giving Tom a look where he stood by the door. He tightened his mouth.
“She is hot.” Marcy felt Emmie’s forehead again and around her neck. Emmie’s face was flushed a hectic red. “She’s very hot. Help me, Tom.”
“Drink.” Emmie tried to push Marcy’s hand away from her throat and neck. “Hurts.”
“I’ll get some water,” Tom said. He was back within a minute, holding the water dipper. Marcy raised Emmie up and supported her neck while Tom held the dipper to Emmie’s mouth, tipping it to let the water dribble into her.
Emmie drank a little, but every swallow was an effort. She cried, a little whimpering sound that tore at Marcy’s heart.
“Help me, Tom. Hold her up.”
Marcy stripped the child of her dress. No rash marred the pale little body, and Marcy drooped with relief. She’d always heard that the scarlet fever threw out a rash. Emmie had no spots. It couldn’t be the scarlatina.
“She can’t swallow well.” Tom dropped a kiss on Emmie’s head. “What do you think, Marcy?”
“I don’t know.” Marcy tilted Emmie’s head toward the window and gently prised her jaw open. Emmie’s tongue was very red, but she couldn’t see anything else amiss.
Tom stood, irresolute. “I’m going to see if Jenkins is still at the hacienda.”
They stared at each other.
“Just in case,” Tom added. His smile was false. “Probably nothing, but best be certain.”
Marcy nodded. He had to pass her to get to the door. He put his hand on her shoulder as he passed. Quick as a flash, she put up her hand to cover his.
“Be quick, Tom. Oh please be quick.”
Emmie squirmed in Marcy’s hold. Her eyes closed again and when Marcy let her go, she burrowed down into the bed. Every breath whimpered in and out of her. Marcy could hardly bear to watch, couldn’t stand to take her eyes from Emmie for more than a second or two. She had to force herself to get up. She ran back to the main room, snatching up the pail of water from beside the stove, an armful of cloths from the store cupboard and the towel from beside the tub that did duty as a sink. Maybe a sponge bath would help. It couldn’t hurt, anyway.
She slid the towel under Emmie while the largest of the cloths soaked in the clear, cool water from the creek. She wrung it out with trembling hands. Little rivulets of water ran between her fingers, splashed back into the bucket. She ran the wet cloth over Emmie’s chest, arms and legs, but Emmie was so hot that the water almost dried before it had the chance to cool her.
“That’s better, isn’t it, sweetheart? That’s better, Emmie.” Marcy soaked the rag again, ran it over Emmie’s hot, dry skin. “That’s better. Mama promises it’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”
Emmie stirred and murmured, her eyes closed.
Marcy talked on, repeating it over and over. Everything will be all right, Emmie. She dropped the cloth back into the pail, wrung it out and bathed Emmie again. And again. And again and again, until Sam Jenkins loomed over her shoulder and his kind, deep voice broke into the litany.
“Let me at her, Mrs Dane.”
And Tom’s hands, strong and brown from his work, took Marcy by the arms and lifted her out of the way. He held her close to him. He smelled of earth and sweat, and his arm around her was heavy against her thickening waist. He trembled.
Jenkins was a gentle man. He moved Emmie so carefully, straightening her curving body and laying his hand on her brow and the back of her neck. “Did you give her anything, Mrs Dane?”
Marcy opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She shook her head when Jenkins turned his head to look at her. He gave her a faint smile, encouraging her.
“Some water, earlier,” Tom said. “She couldn’t swallow it very well.”
Jenkins scooped Emmie up and settled her in the crook of his left arm. Her arms and legs dangled like those of Sukey the rag doll, as if there was nothing in them but straw and cotton waste. He took her to the window. “Give me a hand, Dane. Hold her head for me.”
Just as Marcy had earlier, he prised open Emmie’s jaw. She cried weakly, but Tom held her head still, so all she could do was move her arms and legs. Her feet kicked weakly. Jenkins got Tom to turn her head toward the light and he peered into her throat, holding down her tongue with a broad flat sliver of wood. He nodded, thanked Tom and took her back to the bed.
“Her throat’s badly ulcerated and she has strawberry tongue. No rash yet… but that’ll likely come before morning.”
Marcy’s legs gave way. She sat down hard on the side of Emmie’s bed. “Scarlatina.”
“Yes.” Jenkins laid Emmie down. He rubbed a hand over his face. He stood looking down at Emmie for a few minutes, studying her. “We need to get the fever down, Mrs Dane. Carry on with sponge baths… I wish I had some ice.”
“I can get some from Lancer,” said Tom eagerly. “They’ll have some in the ice house. I’ll go right—”
“In a moment. I talked to Murdoch earlier and whatever ice there is, he’ll make available for whoever needs it. Listen to me first. For now the sponge baths are the best thing to do. You can try hanging wet sheets around her bed, too. In this heat—” Jenkins glanced toward the window and shook his head. “What do you have in your medicine chest? Let me see.”
Tom ran to get it. He brought one of the hard kitchen chairs in with him, and pushed Marcy into it while Jenkins poked through the bottles and vials in the chest. Jenkins nodded approval. “Good, Mrs Dane. You’ve got some of what you need here and I have the rest. Listen to me now.” He took a box of grey powder from his bag and carefully shook some of it into an empty bottle. “Now, then. I want you to give Emmie toast water every three hours. The first time you give it, add five grains of this nitre. The second time, half a teaspoonful of the acetate of ammonia you have here. The next time, go back to the nitre, then the ammonia – alternate them. Do you understand?”
Marcy had to work her mouth for a moment to get enough saliva in it to speak. “Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse even to her own ears.
“Good.” Jenkins shook another powder into a large bottle and sent Tom for fresh water. He measured it all carefully, mixing it while Marcy held Emmie’s hot hands in hers, stroking the soft, baby skin with her own work-worn fingers. “This is nitrate of silver, and what you’ll need to do is paint it on the inside of her throat, night and morning. I’ll leave you a camel hair brush.”
Tom said something, but what it was Marcy couldn’t tell. Her ears buzzed.
“Let me show you.” Jenkins had Tom hold Emmie’s head again. He loaded the brush with the nitrate solution, pushing it gently into Emmie’s mouth. She gagged and cried some more. “You’ll have to be careful, but this will help her poor throat. Do you see? Here. You try.”
It was hard to hurt her baby. Marcy could tell herself as much as she liked that it would help, but she had to hurt Emmie to do it. She was so tense at the end of it, stiff with terror and self-blame, that she ached with it.
“Go and talk to Murdoch about the ice, Dane. It’ll help to cool her, and if you crack it into small pieces, put a drop of brandy on one and let it melt in her mouth. Get the brandy from Murdoch too, if you don’t have any. Tell him I told you to get it. Only once every three hours, mind you, with the brandy. You don’t want to set her drunk.” Jenkins leaned down to run his hand over Emmie’s dark hair. It was plastered to the top of her head. Sweat beaded along her hairline and her eyebrows. The doctor ran his finger down Emmie’s cheek. “Poor little mite. I hope we’ll make her more comfortable, Mrs Dane.” He straightened up. “I’d best be off back to the Reagh place. Send for me there if you need me in the night, but their girl is worse than Emmie right now. I’ll come back tomorrow. Don’t forget my instructions!”
Tom saw him out. When he came back, his legs were unsteady. He ended up on the floor beside Marcy, resting his head against her knees. His gaze met hers, eyes wide and dark, shocked.
“Oh, Tom,” said Marcy. “Oh, Tom.”
Doctor Jenkins came back the next afternoon just after Tom fetched another big bucket of ice. Jenkins looked grizzled and his hair needed brushing. Well, so did Tom’s. Probably none of them had slept that night. Marcy knew she hadn’t closed her eyes. She had sat in the hard kitchen chair all night, bathing Emmie until her hands were wrinkled and white from being in so much water.
Murdoch had sent ice and brandy the night before when Tom asked for it, too, but the September nights were warm and the ice hadn’t lasted long. They’d managed to get two doses of brandy down Emmie before the pail held lukewarm water instead of ice. Walt had brought more at sunup when he came to do the chores, but there wasn’t much of it left at Lancer this late in the year and it had to be shared with all the afflicted families. The ice house was almost empty. Murdoch was talking about sending a couple of hands up into the mountains to the snowline, said Walt, to see if they could bring back new ice. But that would take days.
Jenkins pulled down the sheet covering Emmie and lifted her nightgown. Marcy was shocked. Emmie’s ribs stood out already and her belly had fallen in. The rash had set in, first on Emmie’s cheeks, leaving her mouth pale and white, and throughout the morning it had spread slowly down her neck and back. Jenkins pressed the palm of his hand against it to show Marcy how it paled under the pressure.
“I was in no doubt yesterday, but this confirms it.” He rubbed at the back of his neck and stretched. Marcy heard his spine pop. “Her fever’s still pretty high.”
“I can’t bring it down,” Marcy said, dull and stupid with tiredness. “I’ve tried. Nothing works.”
The doctor’s glance was sharp. “You need some rest. You’re with child, aren’t you? You have the babe to think of.”
She shook her head. She couldn’t leave Emmie.
Jenkins shrugged but didn’t argue. His fingers felt Emmie’s throat. “The glands are swollen and her head is very hot.” He stood for a moment with his eyes closed. He looked so very tired. But he shook it off, half squatting beside Marcy and taking both her hands, casting off all formality. “Listen to me. The fever’s dangerously high, and settling in her head. This is dangerous, Marcy. We must cool her head as much as we can. I’ll need to cut off her hair and we need to cool her, or there could be damage to the brain. Do you understand me?”
Marcy nodded. She moistened her lips. “Yes.”
Behind her, Tom choked. When she looked at him, he dashed his sleeve against his eyes. Poor Tom. He wasn’t always the most reliable of men, but he loved Emmie. Marcy didn’t doubt but that he loved Emmie.
Jenkins used Marcy’s sewing scissors first. They were sharp and keen. She’d used them only the other day to cut out a new dress for Sukey. Emmie had declared her doll’s old dress was shameful and Marcy’s eyes stung at the memory of Emmie’s short fingers painstakingly stitching a seam. The stitches had been big and crooked, but very good for someone who wasn’t quite four. Marcy had unpicked it all while Emmie slept that night and re-sewn it for morning. Emmie had pretended not to notice.
Tom’s razor came then, and when it was done, and Emmie’s shaven head, small and almost comical, was wrapped in a cloth. Marcy clutched a long dark curl in one hand and listened to Tom hammer ice into pieces. Jenkins packed the ice into a length of oiled silk that he’d brought with him, pressing this against Emmie’s head to cool her. They managed to get another dose of ice and brandy into her. Emmie’s poor head turned this way and that on the pillow, looking for relief that never came. And Marcy’s voice was hoarse after hours of repeating it over and over: It will be all right, Emmie. Everything will be all right. You’ll see. Mama’s here, Emmie, and everything will be all right. And all the time she passed the wet cloths over limbs that were wasting away before her eyes and across a face that once had been sweet and round, and was now all harsh, sharp angles.
Walt came at sundown and did all the evening chores. He saw to the stock in the barn and fed Marcy’s chickens. He made three or four journeys to the creek for water to fill all the tubs and buckets, even the big wash tub. Maria Morales, the Lancer housekeeper, came with food that no one could eat. Doctor Jenkins stayed there, sitting beside Marcy and Tom.
Just before midnight, Emmie gave a little sigh and breathed out. Her head stopped moving, and her taut body relaxed. Between that breath and the one that never came, no matter how much Marcy listened for it and longed for it, Emmaline Charlotte Dane slipped away and left her.
September - October 1850
The house was full of people.
Whenever Marcy looked up, another of the vaquero’s wives would be there. Compassionate hands patted hers or her arm or even her hair, as if the touch could bring comfort. The women cried easily, wiping at their eyes with their aprons, and they offered each other comfort just as easily. They talked in whispers, walked on tiptoe; brought food and, quietly and gently, cleaned the house around Marcy where she sat at the table or lay on the bed in corner staring up at the ceiling. Maria Morales was there all day, her young face heavy with sympathy. It would normally fall to the Señora, Maria Morales said, but ai! the Señora had her own troubles, poor lady.
“You should cry,” said Maria Morales. Tears brimmed up in her own eyes and ran down her face to drip from her chin. She wiped her face fiercely. “If you’d only just cry.”
Marcy’s eyes burned but there were no tears in her.
They hadn’t let her see Emmie since it happened. It had taken Tom and Doctor Jenkins a long time to make her let Emmie go. Emmie had left her, maybe, but Marcy couldn’t see her way clear to leaving Emmie. It made her arms ache to hold on so fiercely, but it was nothing like the ache in the hollow place under her breastbone. But after Tom had held her and Doctor Jenkins, gentle and sorrowful, had pried Emmie from her arms, Marcy hadn’t been let back into Emmie’s room.
Doctor Jenkins must have taken laudanum from her medicine chest and put it in the tea that he made her drink. She thought she’d heard Murdoch Lancer’s voice somewhere far away, and vaguely felt someone lift her away from Emmie’s bedside. She had the sensation of being wafted through the air, before she fell into to a place where Emmie waited for her in her dreams.
She thought about not seeing Emmie since, and thought about seeing her again, when they’d allow it. She twisted the curl of Emmie’s hair in her fingers and pretended Maria Morales wasn’t there.
“You should eat,” said Maria Morales. “If you’d only just eat.”
Marcy pushed the plate to one side, put both her elbows on the table and hid her face in her hands. At least that way, no one would try to push food between her lips.
“Marcy. Oh, Marcy.” Tom stooped over her, brushing her hair from her forehead. It was half down, tangled as a bird’s nest. She hadn’t changed her dress or brushed her hair for three days now. His hand felt hot and his fingers trembled. “Marcy.” He leaned his head against hers, wetting her hair. He cried more easily than she did.
Pia Mendoza smoothed her hair for her, brushing it with the whalebone brush and dressing it simply at the back of Marcy’s head. Consuela Gomez brought water with a little lavender oil in it and bathed Marcy’s hands and face. Maria Morales fussed around her dress to neaten it, chivvying Marcy out of her work calico and into the one she used for church.
Marcy let them do what they wanted. She didn’t care. She did raise a hand and almost protested when Maria gently took the lock of hair and folded it into a square of silk, stitching it with the finest of stitches to keep it secure. But Maria told her what she intended, talked throughout as she folded and stitched, and Marcy let her do it. But she watched Maria’s every move, not breathing again until Maria pinned the silk envelope to Marcy’s dress, over her heart.
“You should talk,” said Maria Morales. “If you’d only just talk to us.”
Both town and ranch were in quarantine. Reverend Fletcher couldn’t come to bury Emmie. Someone would have to read the service over her, but it wouldn’t be Marcy. Emmie had taken Marcy’s voice with her.
Marcy tilted her head to one side. Walt, his eyes red and his face wet with the tears he couldn’t hold back, worked out in the barn with one of the other hands. If Marcy listened hard, she could hear the tap of the hammer.
It wouldn’t be a very big box. Emmie was such a very little girl.
The box was of walnut, smooth sided and wax polished to a dull sheen. Murdoch Lancer had given the wood, but Walt had done a wonderful job with it. He was good with his hands.
Elena came, subdued and unhappy, a black lace mantilla over her hair. She brought a gift from the Señora, a length of white linen edged with lace. When Marcy saw the linen and reached out to touch its fine softness, it was the closest she came to tears. Such kindness, coming from a home as forlorn as her own. Such kindness. Her eyes burned, but still the tears wouldn’t come, but she kissed Elena’s cheek. The girl’s hands clutched at her for an instant before Elena drew away to retreat into her own sorrow.
Elena and Maria Morales lined the box with the linen while Marcy, finally let into the quiet room where Emmie slept, dressed her baby in her best sprigged-lawn dress. Walt brought a wreath of flowers for Marcy to put around the poor shorn head. Emmie had so loved flowers. Tom stood with his hand on her shoulder throughout, weeping, but they had no words for each other. There were no words to say.
Tom lifted Emmie up and carried her into the main room, the way he used to carry her to bed. Most of the ranch was there. The room was full of shapes that Marcy knew were people, but she couldn’t tell who was there and who wasn’t. She heard the low murmurs and soft choked sobbing when Tom appeared with his sad burden, but she had eyes only for the quiet sleeper in Tom’s arms. Tom was almost blind with tears when he laid Emmie in the box. Marcy had to guide him to where it lay on the table.
The next part was for her to do. She put Sukey into the box, nestling the doll into Emmie’s side. Her hands shook. They couldn’t shake more if she had the palsy. Twice her fingers closed around the linen. Twice the weave impressed itself on her fingers as they closed over it. And twice she let her hand drop away. On the third try she managed to grip the edge of the sheet. Her stomach roiled and bile rose in her throat and she could feel her mouth trembling. Her sight blurred. She lifted the sheet folded it up and over Emmie, covering her lightly.
Oh Lord, she was such a little thing. Such a little girl.
She reached out to whisk away the linen and take her baby back, but Tom caught her hand and took her outside before Walt fixed on the lid.
She remembered very little of what happened then. She remembered little of the wagon ride to the little graveyard on the hill that had been there longer than any Anglo had ever been in California. She remembered little of how Murdoch Lancer’s usually strong voice wavered as he read the service over the tiny hole in the ground that would swallow Emmie up. She remembered little of Tom turning her away, taking her back to the wagon before the first thud sounded as earth landed on the coffin.
All she remembered, then and after, was the strange shape in the box, that white linen sheet peaking over face and nose… the shape that was Emmie hiding under the sheet.
She didn’t want to remember anything else. She’d fly to pieces if she did.
Tom moved slowly the next day. He was stooped and smaller, somehow. Diminished. His hands shook and more than once he stopped short and frowned down at his hands, or the tea kettle, or the kindling. Maybe he’d forgotten what he was doing and was wondering what the kettle was doing there or why he had picked up the handful of thin sticks. The face he turned to Marcy was pinched and mostly white, but for the spots of red on his cheekbones. His eyes were bright and glassy. It didn’t look as if Tom were really there, behind them. He looked far away.
Marcy stirred herself. It took her a few moments. She had to fight the bone-deep ache in her heart, the ache that would have her lying there, mute and still, a statue of a woman, and never move again. It was hard to fight against that.
Tom sat down hard on a chair at the table. He looked puzzled. He cleared his throat. “I don’t feel so good, Marcy.”
It turned out he had the scarlatina, too. Jenkins, so weary looking and dragged that he staggered when he walked, said it was unusual for a grown man to get it, but not unknown.
When Marcy stood to let Jenkins in at Tom’s bedside, she staggered as much as the doctor had. Jenkins caught her arm to steady her, his gaze sharpening.
She swallowed a couple of times before her lost voice came back to her. “I’m tired, that’s all.”
She moved back a step or two to give Jenkins room. Walt was there. He’d gone rushing to find the doctor after getting to the farm that morning to help with the chores. He’d found Marcy struggling to get Tom up from the floor and Tom raving with fever. Now he put his arm around her and drew her away to the table, putting her into a chair. She shook her head when he asked if she wanted anything. Tea? Water?
No. She just wanted Emmie.
Maybe she said that out loud. Walt curved his young back to bend over her and rested his face on Marcy’s hair for a moment. Then he said something she didn’t quite catch, something about Lancer, and left. She supposed he had to get back to work. Like farming, ranching was a hard taskmistress, giving no quarter even when the land was laid waste by pestilence.
Marcy waited while Jenkins worked. He talked to Tom, his voice a low rumble. Tom didn’t say much in return. Marcy leaned on the table, propping her head on her hand. She let her eyes close.
She woke with a start when a big hand closed over her shoulder, just as it had that very first day, when she almost disgraced herself by fainting in the wagon. Somehow she’d slid down until she had her head on the table, cushioned on her crossed arms. She struggled up. Murdoch Lancer knelt beside her.
She stared at him. Where had he come from?
“Marcy, listen to me. Are you awake?” His smile was faint but encouraging.
“Good. Listen. Sam tells me that Dane… Tom has the scarlatina. Tom’s very sick, Marcy.”
She nodded again. She knew. She looked around, looking for Tom. Walt stood at the doorway, and, to her astonishment, Maria Lancer stood there with him. They stared at each other, she and Maria, but Marcy looked away first.
Jenkins loomed over her. “This is dangerous for the child, Marcy. If you get sick… well, I’ve seen it before. There’s a danger the child could be affected, even in the womb. I didn’t want you nursing Em—“ He broke off, and went on more gently. “It was dangerous enough before, but the Lord knows I couldn’t find it in me to try and stop you then. But you shouldn’t be here now. Murdoch’s brought Consuela Gomez with him. She had the fever when she was ten so she isn’t likely to take it again, she has no children to put at risk and she’s willing to nurse Tom.“
Marcy looked about her. Consuela was by the bedstead. “I can’t ask her—”
Sam Jenkins snorted. “You aren’t asking her. Murdoch did, and I did. I want you out of harm’s way and where you can rest and be looked after.”
“Oh, I couldn’t—”
“You can and will.” Murdoch Lancer was a masterful man. “I promise that you can visit Tom every day, Marcy, but you must see that it’s better this way. You’re worn down already. If you stay to nurse Tom, you’ll break down yourself and endanger the bairn.” There was a faint flush on his cheekbones. “I know it isn’t seemly for me to even mention that, but Sam and I are only thinking of what’s best for you.”
Marcy rested her hand on her midriff, just beneath her heart. She was almost six months along now. The thought that the child could be harmed frightened her.
She looked at Tom, but he was no help. He was asleep, maybe. Consuela fussed with changing the bed linen and plumping pillows. She gave Marcy a small smile and came to her, the pillow still in her hands. She stooped to kiss Marcy’s cheek. “You must think of the bebé. And of yourself. I will care for Señor Dane. Go with the patrón and be safe.”
Marcy hesitated. “But Mrs Lancer?” She turned her head. “You won’t want Johnny put at risk—”
Maria Lancer said nothing, but the flash of fear in her eyes was enough.
“We asked Maria Morales to get one of the rooms in the south wing ready for you.” Murdoch smiled. “Since we repaired the roof last winter, one or two of them are habitable now. We’ll keep Johnny safe in our part of the house.”
Marcy wanted to smile at how absurd that was, but her mouth had forgotten what shape it had to take. Did he really think he’d be able to keep little Johnny, his wee de’il, away? She started to shake her head. Johnny. She would have to see Johnny if she went to the hacienda. The Johnny who had loved Emmie. The Johnny who, every time he saw Marcy, demanded Emmie and wanted to play. The Johnny who had been Emmie’s willing slave and follower and whose small arms had crept around Marcy’s neck at the same time as... as… The Johnny who was still here when her Emmie had been torn away from her. No. No. She couldn’t bear to see him. She couldn’t bear it. Not yet.
“No. I’ll be glad of Consuela’s help, but I won’t come to the hacienda. Thank you. I appreciate the offer, but I won’t.”
“No.” She cast around for something she could say. Despite Maria Lancer being there, she pressed Murdoch’s hand with hers. “I made a promise to Tom. In sickness and in health, I said, and I won’t break that. And Johnny... No. No.” She took a deep breath, fighting down the panic and nausea. Her hands rose and fell helplessly and came together pressed over the hole in her chest that ached and ached, where once her heart had been. “I wouldn’t want for you and Mrs Lancer to feel like this.”
Murdoch flushed, and spoke with all the heat of an inarticulate man surprised by emotion. “I don’t know how you endure it, Marcy. I couldn’t bear to lose Johnny! I just couldn’t bear it.”
It stabbed. It stabbed like a knife. “Oh I can’t!” she wailed. “I can’t bear it either! Oh Emmie! Emmie!”
She drew in a long, wavering breath and put out a hand, groping for Emmie, for Emmie’s hand. The burning in her eyes was unbearable. And finally, at last, as Murdoch Lancer’s arms went around her and gathered her in, she let out a wailing cry.
For more than a week, Tom was very sick.
Doctor Jenkins came every other day—the outbreak was at its peak and he was the only doctor for miles. He couldn’t come more often when he still had children sick and dying. He warned Marcy that brain fever threatened, and just as with Emmie, he shaved Tom’s head to cool it.
“His hair would likely have thinned and fallen out anyway,” he said. “Better we take it off and give us the chance to save him.”
The doctor had shaken his head over Marcy’s obstinacy but nothing he or Murdoch Lancer said could change her mind. Maria Lancer had extended cold support to her husband’s entreaties, but Marcy put no trust in that. Marcy let Sam Jenkins have his say, let Murdoch’s begging wash over her unheard. She couldn’t have gone. She couldn’t have seen Johnny and not hate Murdoch for having what had been torn from her.
Besides, she was needed here and Tom’s helplessness gave her a reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other. At the end of that week there were two nights in a row and the day in between where Marcy didn’t so much as lie down. Instead, she and Consuela battled Death to bring Tom’s fever down. Walt hauled in barrels of water from the creek. Marcy and Consuela soaked sheet after sheet in the water to wrap around Tom, wringing them out together, twisting the sheets hard. Once their hands met in the middle and Consuela gripped Marcy’s fingers in silence, just for a moment. It felt like praying. Marcy loved Consuela right then, the thankfulness and gratitude welling up in her, and her sight blurred. Then their hands parted and they were back into the rhythm of soak and twist, wrap Tom, soak and twist, wrap Tom... The nights were hot and still, and thirsty for the moisture in the sheets. They dried out almost as fast as Marcy and Consuela could wet them.
Soak and twist. Soak and twist. Paint Tom’s throat with silver nitrate. Tip a little brandy down his poor, swollen throat; force a little cracked ice—so little of that left now—between his teeth. Soak and twist. Get him to drink toast water with more nitrate, or the ammonia. Soak and twist. Soak and twist.
The second such night, Jenkins came and stayed as the crisis loomed. Murdoch Lancer took Walt’s place as water carrier, letting Walt curl up beside the fireplace wrapped in his blankets. Jenkins administered the medicines and brandy with a defter hand than Marcy could manage, despite his fatigue. Marcy and Consuela soaked sheets.
Soak and twist.
Dawn was cool and tinted with rose pink that day, light stealing in through the curtains Marcy had made with such care. Tom had tossed and turned all night, muttering and scolding by turns. When he called for Emmie, Marcy wanted her heart to stop.
She was tired. Oh, so tired. She could barely stand when Jenkins signalled to Murdoch. It was Murdoch who lifted her away, and stood with her at the foot of the bed, holding her up. Consuela, who had been dozing in the big chair by the fireplace, stirred and sat up, came to join them, knuckling her eyes. Walt had slept through a lot of commotion but this sudden silence had him rolling over and pushing himself to his feet.
Jenkins had had his hand on the tumultuous pulse in Tom’s left wrist for the last hour. He opened up his heavy gold watch and stared at it, his lips moving as he counted. The watch lid closed down with a snap that sounded loud as shot. Tom was lying on his back, quiet for once, not moving even when Jenkins pulled down the sheet and lifted his nightshirt. The doctor took the queer little wooden rod with a flat, flared out head that he used to sound chests, put the head onto Tom’s chest and leaned down to listen.
Marcy forgot to breathe.
When Sam turned to her—dear, patient, dedicated Sam Jenkins who was wearing himself to a thread—the smile on his face told her all she needed to know. She gulped out a sob, closed her eyes and let herself go at last. The dark was warm and comfortable, and it had arms that felt like Murdoch, cushioning her and holding her safe.
She slept for hours.
He would never be the same Tom Dane.
He would never again have the strength to plough a field, guiding the oxen with strong arms and a strong back. He wouldn’t walk behind them, swinging the harrow. He wouldn’t take his axe to trees that seeded themselves where fields needed to be. He wouldn’t ever dig out the stumps and smooth the turned earth where once a forest grew.
The old Tom Dane was gone. Not quite as far as Emmie had travelled, but close.
“It was a bad case, Marcy.” Doctor Jenkins looked more rested now. Marcy had heard the fever was waning, as fast as it had waxed. Jenkins had lifted the quarantine and slept in his own bed for the first time in a month. “It turned to rheumatic fever at the end, and his heart is affected. You’ll have to be careful with him. The pneumonia has left him with weak lungs too. And, of course…” He stopped and grimaced.
Marcy just nodded. Tom’s brain had been affected, a little. He looked at her now from bewildered eyes that, vague and unfocused, veiled the Tom who used to live behind them. His words stammered out, and often he had to stop and think and start again. He got out what he wanted eventually and he could still read, though he sat with his book open at the same page for an hour, puzzling out the words. He wasn’t an imbecile, just a little slowed. He would give her a sweet smile though, every time he looked up and saw her.
He wasn’t himself. He never would be again.
What she and Tom and the coming baby would do… well, it was beyond Marcy to think of anything. She’d have to find work, she supposed, and support them somehow. She didn’t know how. She just didn’t know how.
Jenkins took his listening rod from Marcy’s belly and straightened, bringing her thoughts abruptly back. She pulled her clothes straight. She had no false modesty with him now. She trusted him.
“The child’s heartbeat is strong, Marcy. Nothing to worry about there.” He smiled down at her and patted her shoulder. “One blessing.”
It was a blessing. The only one she had left.
Murdoch or Walt took her for an hour’s drive every day.
“Sam Jenkins’ orders,” Murdoch had said the first time, when she’d demurred and worried about leaving Tom. He’d driven her across the ranch. Not to the graveyard—she couldn’t go there—but the other way, up into the foothills and the road to Morro Coyo. “He says fresh air is what you need, so fresh air you will get.”
Murdoch took it slowly, driving carefully and mindful of her condition. When they turned onto the road toward Morro Coyo, another buggy was ahead of them, setting a cracking pace.
“Who’s that?” Marcy asked, pointing.
Murdoch frowned. “Maria. Now the quarantine’s lifted, she’s gone to town every other day. She’s probably left Johnny with the Roldàns. The Señora seems to welcome the distraction of two little boys fighting over a wooden horse.” He shook his head. “There’s no accounting for it.”
Marcy leaned back against the buggy seat and turned her face up to the sun. In a day or two, she might like to go and see the Señora.
In a day or two.
One day, Murdoch took her to the hacienda. He had some business to talk over with her, he said, and James Randolph, the lawyer, would be joining them. He must have seen the terror on her face, because he smiled and said it was good, not bad. Marcy didn’t want to know. As long as he didn’t want her to leave the farm just yet. As long as it wasn’t that.
Maria greeted her civilly enough. Cool, but perfectly correct. She took Marcy into the great room and offered coffee and cakes. It was a kind of fruitcake, but when Marcy tasted it, it wasn’t quite like the recipe she’d once given Murdoch.
She offered a compliment. The cake was rich and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. “This is very nice, but I don’t quite recognise it.”
Maria sipped her coffee, watching Marcy over the rim of the cup. “But good?”
“Yes. Very good.”
Maria inclined her head. “I am pleased you like it. It is Pan de Datil Molege, Señora Dane. We have such things of our own, you see.”
Marcy’s face felt hot, but before she could speak, Murdoch came in to announce that Jim Randolph’s buggy had just come through the arch.
Maria drew Murdoch to one side. But she made no real effort to be discreet. Her voice was low and passionate, and Marcy knew she was intended to hear every word. “You insist on going through with this? You will take the bread from our son’s mouth, rob his birthright, to do this?”
“Maria…” Murdoch dropped his tone too. “We talked about it. It’s little enough to do.”
Maria pursed her lips and gave Marcy a cold look. “You wouldn’t do it for anyone else.” She threw her hands up in the air. “But what is it to me? I am just your wife and the mother of your son. What have I to do with it?” She turned, gave Marcy an icy bow, and stalked out of the room.
Open-mouthed, Marcy stared after her, then looked to Murdoch. He was red faced, even to the tips of his ears.
“Don’t worry about it, Marcy. Please don’t take any notice of that. Maria gets a little…” He hesitated, waved a hand while he sought the word he wanted. “A little overwrought sometimes, and doesn’t always understand. This is just business.”
Marcy lifted one shoulder. She really had more to worry about than Maria Lancer’s temper. She let it go, the way she let so much go these days. Instead she greeted James Randolph and waited to be told what they wanted with her.
Murdoch looked self-conscious and embarrassed. “Marcy, you know that you can stay at the farm with Tom as long as you need to, don’t you?” He waited for her nod and his brogue deepened. “I wouldn’t dream of evicting you, lass, so dinna fash yersel’ about that. But we all know that Tom isn’t ever likely to be well enough to go back to farming and at some point I’ll need to get someone in to take over the land. So I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help settle you and Tom somewhere.”
Marcy nodded again. Her stomach cramped with tension.
“Tom has a claim up in the gold fields. Yes?”
“Yes.” She tried to smile but her mouth dragged down instead. “It’s just mud. Nothing but mud.”
“I understand that Tom hadn’t struck gold before you came here, but, having taken Randolph’s advice and thinking that later, as new ways of mining and panning are developed, the claim may yet pay out, I wanted to make you an offer. A real one. I want to take a mortgage on the claim. I dinna expect you to make any interest payments, or to provide anything other than a quitclaim deed that will turn over your interest in the claim to me. In exchange, I will give you five hundred dollars, cash, and Randolph here has drawn up an agreement that if gold is found there, then you and I will have an equal claim on it, and any monies accruing from it will be split between us.”
“Now, normally, of course, I’d deal with Dane direct. But…” he stopped and grimaced.
Marcy folded her hands in her lap and clasped them tight. So tight, her fingers whitened. “But,” she agreed. “Doctor Jenkins doesn’t think he’ll improve.”
“It will be worth going to court and getting an order made, giving you the right to manage things for your family, Mrs Dane. I don’t suppose that Dane will ever be in a position to challenge it.” The lawyer had none of their embarrassment. His tone was clipped and precise.
“No.” Marcy shook her head, tightening her mouth to stop it trembling. “No. I don’t think he even really remembers the claim.”
Randolph nodded, looking sympathetic. “It’s a hard thing to do, Mrs Dane. But I’ve no doubt Sam Jenkins will testify in support.”
“I’m sure of it,” said Murdoch. “We’ll be here to help and support you, Marcy.”
It was a big step. Tom was as sweet and tractable as a child, and it was a big thing to take away the rest of his manhood like that, to make him dependent. And it was a burden. It was such a burden. If she’d had to lose one of them, why couldn’t it have been T—
She bit that thought right back. She looked into Murdoch Lancer’s kind, honest blue eyes and wished she were a better woman than she was, a kindlier, more Christian woman. She let her eyes fill with tears.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Thank you. Oh, thank you, Murdoch. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Thank you.”
“Then we shake hands, to seal the bargain.”
She held out her hand and Murdoch took it in both of his, giving it a hearty shake. When he let go, she used both her hands to grasp his, smiling at him. He smiled back and nodded, twisting his hands to hold hers better. For a long moment she looked at what she really wanted.
A noise at the door made her turn her head. Maria Lancer stood there, in her bright skirt and lacy blouse, her black hair tumbling down over one shoulder. She glanced at their clasped hands and lifted her head proudly.
“I see,” she said. “It is done then. Well, I have nothing more to say about it.”
Marcy’s face grew hot and she pulled her hands away, meeting Maria Lancer’s sardonic gaze.
“I will leave you to your business discussions.” And Maria’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “I am going to town. I have business of my own there.”
Murdoch frowned. “What of Johnny? Are you leaving him with the Señora again?”
Oh,” said Maria Lancer. “Don’t concern yourself about Johnny, Murdoch. I am, of course, taking him with me.”
"Murdoch! Murdoch Lancer! I don't believe it!" Marcy recovered her breath from being caught up in a whirlwind, one hand on her breast, the other fanning her face. She felt warmth spread through her, a fluttering in her chest that she had better not dwell on, respectable middle-aged woman that she was. "Good lord, Murdoch!"
She'd have known him anywhere. His great height helped there, of course, but he hadn't changed that much in twenty years. He stood as straight as ever and his hair was still thick and plentiful; greyer now, of course, and there were fine lines around his eyes that hadn't been there twenty years before. He didn't sound quite the same, either. The burr beneath his words had faded and he spoke with the slow ease of the men of the southwest. He looked very prosperous. That was an expensive town suit he wore and it would have had to be custom-made for him; not many tailors would carry stock in his size. The ranch must have done very well. She would have known if she'd kept an interest in what happened at Lancer, but there had been Tom and Jeff to consider, and by the time she could have turned and looked back, too many years had passed. She hadn't known if she'd be welcome, if Murdoch—
Well, she'd long ago known she was too timid to grasp her chances and that memories were cold comfort.
It was so good to see him. He looked pleased to see her too, smiling and genial, rocking back on his heels. That was a change in him, too. She had never seen him look so contented. He looked at ease with himself, confident and assured. Like a ship come to harbour. It would be nice to think the sight of her had something to do with it. So nice.
But Murdoch Lancer, as she lived and breathed!
"Marcy." He took her hand in both of his and held it. He'd done that once before. Long ago. His tone was warm with pleasure and maybe even affection. "Marcy Dane."
She blinked the sudden tears away. If only... well, everyone always said those were the saddest words in Webster's dictionary! She'd be a fool to repine. But still, she felt a pang of something like regret under her delight at seeing him again.
He guided her to a table in the corner of the hotel dining room, out of the way and private, ordering coffee for them on the way. "You're as pretty as ever, Marcy Dane. Whatever are you doing here in San Francisco?"
Well, she couldn't tell him that, could she? That wasn't the way to begin, by heaping all her troubles on him. "Oh, business. Just business. I live in Sacramento now, Murdoch. I have a boarding house there. I bought it with the money you gave me for the claim. I still feel guilty about that. You paid a lot of money for worthless mud.”
He waved a hand. “Well, you never know. One day we might strike gold there!” They laughed together at that fantasy, and he went on. “A boarding house? I hope it’s been a snug little business for you, Marcy.”
“It's not a large one, but it's enough for us. And of course, with the railroad and more and more travellers coming to California, we do very well." She laughed, pleased when it sounded trouble-free. "It's a lot easier to travel here now than when you did it, or Tom and I."
He smiled and nodded. “It is that! Where is Dane... Tom? Is he with you?"
There was no pain now about Tom. "No. Tom never recovered from the scarlatina. Doctor Jenkins warned that that would be the case, you’ll recall. His heart was weakened. He died, oh, sixteen years ago now. Jeff was about Emmie's age at the time. Only a little older."
"My son. Jeff, after Tom's father. He's almost twenty now."
“Ah. Of course. He was born on the farm at Lancer, wasn’t he? I was in Mexico at the time.”
Marcy nodded. He had rushed south to try and find Maria and Johnny when they vanished. He’d been gone for months and before he’d returned, Paul O’Brien had arrived to take over the farm and she had taken Tom and the baby away to make a new life. This was the first time she’d seen him since. “Yes.”
“I was sorry that you and Dane had left Lancer before I got back, but there was so much happening…. Still, I’m glad everything went well for you then and later. Is Jeff here with you, Marcy?”
“No.” She looked down and grimaced at the delicate china plate the waiter was placing in front of her. "He's... er, he's in the army. The cavalry."
"You must be very proud." Still in that warm voice, that kind voice.
The pastry chef at the hotel was an inspired genius. The tiny chiffon cakes were decorated with coloured frosting in the shapes of flowers. How pretty they were! They looked too good to eat.
When Marcy could trust her face and voice, she looked up at Murdoch and smiled. "Of course. What of you, Murdoch? What's your news? You look very well."
She wondered who had sewn on his shirt buttons. It must have been a good seamstress, because she would swear that he puffed up his chest with so much pride and delight that any ordinary thread would have snapped under the strain. What if he'd married again? She had to look away, quickly, lest what she felt about that showed in her face.
He had always been married. And so had she.
"I have my boys back, Marcy. Both of them! After all these years, I have both my sons with me." Murdoch beamed. He positively beamed. "I can't tell you what that means to me."
Marcy stared. "They're home? Oh Murdoch, how lovely!" She lowered her voice, an ache in her throat that came out of nowhere. She hoped she wasn't sickening for something. "You found Maria and Johnny, then? I knew it would be all some misunderstanding, and as soon as she cooled down a little..."
He sobered. Shook his head. "No. No, Marcy. I never found them. Johnny didn't come home until earlier this year. The same time Scott did, in fact."
"Oh." Marcy hesitated, then patted the large hand that lay nearest to her. "Maria?"
"From what the Pinkertons have been able to find, she died a good ten years ago. Johnny was on his own soon after, I know, but he doesn't talk about that or about his mother. I'd hoped to get some inkling... some reason... anything to understand what went wrong and why she went. But Johnny maybe doesn't know. He was very young."
"Have you asked him?"
He looked so horrified at the notion that she almost laughed. Men. They were all the same. Some had more charm than others, some were more dependable. But none of them ever liked talking about anything important.
She patted his hand again. Maria was gone, and Tom was gone. What did that mean? What could she make it mean? "I'm sorry, Murdoch. Still, Johnny home at last! That's the important thing. He was such a handsome little boy. And that smile! I've never forgotten that smile of his. So much charm. He and Emmie... ah well. He won't remember it, I dare say."
"No. He was too young." Murdoch drew a deep breath, and perked up, chest swelling out again with contented pride. "The smile's still there. He's been through a lot, has my boy, but the smile's still there."
"I was very fond of him." And indeed, she felt the ghost of small arms around her neck and they weren't Emmie's. The ghost of a voice asking for a ’tory, or an imperious "Up!" and it wasn't Emmie's voice. She had Emmie with her always, of course, with an old photograph and a curl of hair in the locket around her neck. But this little memory had bright blue eyes, not brown, and a shock of hair of true black. She was glad that Johnny had found his way home. So glad. She said so.
Murdoch nodded, seemingly too full for words. It was a moment before he could speak, and it was with more pride and satisfaction. "And Scott, my elder boy Scott. Catherine’s son, and her image! You'll like him too, Marcy. He's a fine gentleman. A bit of a dandy when he got here, but he's settled into cattle ranching well. He went to Harvard."
"I've made them full partners." Voice indistinct now. The chiffon cakes made no more than a single bite for a man of Murdoch's size. "We're running the ranch together." Another little cake vanished. "So, Marcy. What else has happened to you since we last met? Have you... have you married again? I can't imagine you not being beset with suitors!"
Was that anxiety in his voice under the awkward gallantry? He appeared to be watching her intently, waiting for an answer. She dropped her gaze to his hands. They were flexing and curling. Maybe he was anxious, at that. She let the warmth of that spread through her, reaching all the places that had been cold and chill for the last twenty years, and she smiled.
"No. I never married again, Murdoch. There was only ever... no. No. There was no one else. I'm not married."
"Ah." There was no mistaking that smile of satisfaction.
He shook his head, and she let the smile through. The look they gave each other... well.
He leaned forward and touched her hand. "You don't have to go back to Sacramento just yet, do you? Come back with me to Lancer instead. I'd love to show you the ranch again. I've made a lot of changes."
After twenty years, the thought still gave her a pang, like the jab of a needle. She'd never gone back. Not once. She'd never been able to close the door on that heartache and she didn’t think she could bear to see the little stone in the grass on the hill above the ranch house. One hand closed on her reticule, and the daguerreotype she carried with her everywhere; the other on her locket.
Murdoch was still talking. "Walt Peters is still with me, did you know? His eldest boy started working as a hand this last year, too."
She moistened dry lips. "Walt? Good grief. He’s still at Lancer? Did he marry… I don’t remember her name. The pretty girl who was related to the Señora? Elena! That was it.”
"He did indeed marry Elena, who is Cipriano's cousin. They have three boys, all getting well up now. Young Walt’s rising eighteen and the other two aren’t far behind. Cipriano’s my foreman now, with his eldest boy as his segundo. You obviously remember the Señora, Marcy. She’s very well and I’m sure she would be delighted to see you. You were good friends, I think."
She nodded. Walt had been a stalwart in time of trouble and could never be thanked enough. She remembered Cipriano too, of course, and all these years she’d thought of Cipriano’s stately wife with gratitude and affection. But just the mention of the names brought a stab of pain and the memory of the lace-edged linen covering Emmie in the walnut coffin. "I don't know, Murdoch. I... It will be hard. I haven't..."
He closed his great hand over hers, engulfing it. "I know, Marcy. I know. But the Señora’s cared for Emmie's resting place all these years. She lost the little Isabella, you remember, at the same time. It seems to comfort her to care for your Emmie."
He had changed. This Murdoch wasn't as bluff as the one she'd known. He'd learned something, if he understood what she couldn't say.
It was hard to speak. "She was always very kind."
"She was. She is.” Murdoch smiled. “She is much loved and respected. Both her boys are married now, and she must be the most graceful grandmother in the district!"
Marcy looked away, uncertain.
"I'd like you to come back with me, and meet my boys. You'd like to see Johnny again, wouldn't you? You always said you wanted a boy just like him. Is your Jeff just like him, I wonder? And Scott... I'd like you to meet Scott at last. Fact is, I'd just like you to come back to Lancer, Marcy. I was sorry you left."
Oh. She felt the smile tug at the corners of her mouth. She looked up at him, through her lashes, and nodded. She mouthed her assent to him, letting her lips shape the word.
He sat back, slapping his hand on his thigh and looking delighted. "Wonderful! Well, then, Marcy Dane, you and I are going to have dinner this evening and start getting reacquainted. What do you say to that proposition?"
This time she said it aloud. "Yes. Yes, please, Murdoch."
The journey to Lancer was a sweet time, something to put away in her memory and cherish.
Murdoch was as correct and upright as she remembered, very considerate of her and very much the gentleman. He acted as if she were made of spun sugar, and just as delicate. He lifted her into and out of buggies, steered her around puddles and obstacles. He tucked her hand under his arm when they went walking, and if he sometimes held it in his, her small hand lost in his big one, still he didn't take advantage. He did kiss her goodnight though, the last night before they left San Francisco and started the journey south to Green River.
They talked a lot on the way, mostly of the past they'd shared rather than the years they didn't. Marcy didn't want to dwell on separation and Murdoch told her that he'd had twenty years of son-less purgatory he would rather forget.
“I wouldn't admit that to just anyone, Marcy, but I know you'll understand.”
Marcy did. She didn't want to talk of the lost years any more than he did. She told him enough so he understood that the first years after Tom died had been a struggle and she'd seen lean and difficult times since. But she didn't want to seem too pathetic to him, and she hadn't dwelt on it. It struck her that she had said very little about Jeff. But what could she say? She couldn't say what she really felt, that Jeff was so much Tom's son that she despaired. If only she hadn't had to leave Lancer all those years ago; Jeff might have had one good man to look up to. He might have turned out to be more reliable with that example before him. He might have turned out less like Tom.
She'd managed one last visit to Jeff before they left. She didn't tell him where she was going, just that it would be a little time before she could visit again. She hid the visit from Murdoch under the pretence of business, unspecified. Murdoch was too much the gentleman to pry and she pushed away the feeling of guilt. It was too late for him to mould Jeff, but he might still have helped her. Well, perhaps he might have done if she'd told him straight away about her problems with Jeff, the way that she should have. But how could she tell a man rejoicing in the return of his long lost sons, that the one she'd had all the years he’d been so bereft, was so unsatisfactory?
Of course, the longer she was silent, the more impossible it was to speak. She couldn't think of any way to tell Murdoch now that Jeff in trouble without it seeming fraudulent, somehow; that she'd been lying to him and cheating him, trying to fool him by pretending to be a respectable widow when really Jeff had shamed her and… no, that was disloyal. Poor Jeff. He just needed to be given another chance, and people did misunderstand him so. He wasn’t a bad boy, really. He was just so very like Tom, and heavens but she'd loved Tom once, loved him beyond endurance. She’d do whatever she could for Jeff. Of course she would. It wasn’t Jeff’s fault things went so badly with him. People were so unfair and judgemental.
And so she kept silent about it. She didn't want Murdoch to be disappointed in her. She feared he'd be more disappointed in her silence than he would be by Jeff's difficulties, and she'd left it too late for remedy.
She didn’t brood for long. Murdoch diverted her with reminders about the time that Johnny and Emmie had been playmates. Johnny had loved Emmie, Marcy recalled. Emmie repaid the compliment by using all of the superiority of her three years against Johnny's bare two, and ruled her young admirer with a ruthless hand.
"Possibly Johnny’s first love, but most assuredly not the last," said Murdoch, shaking his head. "He’s too susceptible by half!"
Marcy laughed. "I suspect he came by that honestly, at least."
"I'll admit to having eyes and admiring a lovely lady when I see one." And Murdoch bowed over her hand, his eyes shining.
She blushed and he looked self-conscious and they both drew back. It wasn't time. It was too soon. A moment of confusion, of embarrassment, and she carried on reminiscing instead. She knew how to hide in the past, in diversion, as well as Murdoch did. Better. "Do your remember the time they wandered off and you found them in the meadow?"
Murdoch snorted out a laugh. "Do I! That wasn’t the first time that boy scared me witless! Or the last.” Murdoch stopped suddenly and his mouth tightened, and Marcy wondered if he was thinking of all the empty years where all he could do was be scared for his missing sons. But Murdoch’s mouth curved into a smile. “I wish I’d had a photographer handy that day. I'd be able to keep Johnny in check for life with a picture of that. All I'd ever have to do would be to threaten to show Scott, and the boy would come to heel fast enough."
The expression in his eyes softened with the memory and Marcy let her mouth smile with his at the memory of Johnny bedecked from head to foot in flowers. Johnny had even had them in his hair. Even while she laughed at the bittersweet memory, Marcy wondered if Emmie missed the wildflowers. If it were one tenth as much as Marcy missed Emmie, it would be unendurable.
They didn't talk of the future, not really. But it lay there, between them. It was in every glance, every talk, every smile. It was too soon to put it into words. Some things were best left unsaid. Especially, thought Marcy whenever the spectre of Jeff rose up, when some things were impossible to say.
On the day that Murdoch was expected home, one of the Lancer hands brought a buggy into Green River and left it at the livery for him to collect. Marcy exclaimed over how much the town had grown, and admired the wide main street with all its stores and shops and the Grand Hotel on the corner.
Higgs’s store was still there, though larger and more prosperous, and the doctor’s sign still swung outside his office. The saloon had been painted and joined by a couple more.
“Mrs Higgs is well, I think,” said Murdoch, on being prompted for news of the people Marcy had known. “She’s very stout these days. Elizabeth Jenkins died from the consumption the year after Mari— not long after I got back from Mexico. Sam Jenkins is still here though. He never remarried. I don’t remember Reverend Fletcher, I’m afraid. I went with Maria to the church in Morro Coyo, you’ll remember, but I went back to the Protestants a few years ago and Fletcher had already left. We’ve had about five ministers since.” Murdoch’s mouth twitched at her next question. “No, Marcy. Not one of them has had much in the way of a chin.”
Some things never changed then. But what change there had been made her feel old.
She didn't dwell on it. Murdoch handed her up into the buggy and drove her out of town. He didn't boast about the ranch on the way. Not exactly. But he did take pains to tell her when they crossed Lancer's borders, and point to the cattle and the meadows or, once, a small herd of mustangs kicking up their heels and galloping off up the hill before them with flashes of dun and sorrel amongst the dust they raised. The country was taking on the hues of autumn—russet brown, crimson and burnt orange—and they passed more than one wild crab apple heavy with rosy fruit. It had the feel of her old spice box about it, all warm earthy colour and rich scent. Marcy admired and exclaimed, and Murdoch was cheerful and complacent.
They paused on the hill top above the bowl in the mountains where the hacienda stood, almost the same spot where she, Tom and Emmie had stopped for their first sight of the ranch all those years ago. Marcy leaned forward, taking it all in. It was so familiar, and yet it too had changed.
"Why, you finished repairing both wings of the house!"
"The hacienda's really too big and the south wing isn't in use at all. I hope that one day one of the boys will want it, whichever one is first to bring his bride home to Lancer. Then we can really settle down to making this the family place it was always meant to be."
She half turned in the seat and put both of her hands on his forearm. The muscles were firm and hard. "But not quite yet? You'll want some time with them yet."
He stared straight ahead, looking down to the house. His face was half in shadow under the brim of his Stetson, but she saw the smile. "You're right. Not quite yet. I don't want to change things yet. I've a lot of catching up to do before I want to share either of them."
Oh. She squeezed his arm and let her hands drop. Oh. How much did that apply to the boys marrying and how much did it apply to himself? She sat demure and quiet beside him as he took the buggy down the winding mountain road, nodding and agreeing with everything he said. The hollow place under her breastbone ached and complained. There was nothing she could do. She would just have to wait and see.
"The boys are home!" The unfeigned pleasure in Murdoch's voice made her look up.
The house was only a few yards away now and two young men were lounging on the loggia. They had been intent on a chessboard set on a small table between them, but as soon as they looked up and saw the buggy, they jumped to their feet and came to meet them. One tall and blond, who had to be Scott, and the other... the other had to be little Johnny. Little no longer, and heavens to Betsy!
"Murdoch! Johnny... why, he's so like Maria!"
Murdoch stiffened. "There's no real likeness." He pulled up the buggy before she could respond to his curt tone. "Boys." He looked up at the sun, pushing back his hat. "Early to stop work for the day, isn't it?"
Johnny smiled, a slow smile that wrenched so hard at Marcy's memory that she gasped. "That's what I told Boston here, but he reckons he's still on whatever time it is back East, and that's quittin' time. 'Sides, we reckoned you'd be put out if we quit early to greet you back, and you'd be put out if we didn't and either way you’d bellow—"
"And this way, we get a shorter day out of it." Scott touched his hat brim. "Ma'am. Murdoch didn't tell us he was bringing a guest."
"A very welcome one, too." Murdoch made to get down but Johnny was at the side of the buggy before Murdoch could get out to help Marcy.
Johnny tipped his hat to her and held out both hands. That familiar smile was dazzling. "Help you down, ma'am?"
Marcy put out her hands and grasped his arms. "Good lord! I'd know that smile anywhere! How wonderful that you're home at last, Johnny."
He looked only slightly puzzled as he swung her down. "Ma'am?"
"Marcy knew you years ago, Johnny. When you were a child." Murdoch jumped down from the buggy and came to take Marcy's arm. Johnny let her go and stepped back. Murdoch took her to the loggia just as a girl ran out to join them calling Murdoch’s name. "Teresa, honey! Come on in, Marcy. Come on in and meet everyone properly. Marcy, this is my eldest son, Scott. Catherine's boy, home from Boston. Johnny, you know, of course although he’s grown a mite since you saw him last. And this is my ward, Teresa O'Brien. I think you may have met her daddy? Paul became my foreman later—after your time, of course. Boys, Teresa, this is an old friend of mine, Mrs Marcy Dane."
Marcy laughed and shook Scott's hand, and nodded at Teresa who beamed a welcome. Murdoch stood back, looking on and smiling.
"I think there may be a story or two there," said Scott, bowing over Marcy's hand with more grace than his father. "We'd love to know more about Murdoch, Mrs Dane. I hope you have plenty of good tales to tell us."
"Well, I may have one or two—"
"Have you been travelling long?" demanded Teresa. "You must be tired! The road from Green River’s dirty this time of year, isn't it? Would you like something? Some lemonade? Come in and rest—"
"And you knew my graceless little brother, ma'am? Well, I wouldn't mind hearing more about that. He's very close mouthed about the past, so any snippets there are gold nuggets to be treasured."
"He was very young," said Marcy, laughing. "Only a baby."
"Don't tell us you changed his diapers! We've been looking for tales like that to take down his crest a bit." Scott laughed and turned his head sideways to grin at Johnny. "Murdoch never says much about those days, but maybe he'll have tales of his own that will make you blush, ma'am!"
"I know better than to tell any," snorted Murdoch.
Still laughing, Marcy turned to look for Johnny, where he was standing to one side, watching them.
The smile was gone. He looked back at her, his face expressionless. He was both there and a great distance away, locked away from her as if behind a window, a sheet of clear ice between them. The bright blue eyes were cold. Just as Murdoch's had, his hands flexed and curled, flexed and curled. But not from anxiety. More, she thought, from a readiness to action, to do something. He was as taut as an arrow on the nock of the bow.
Marcy's laughter faltered.
"Do you remember Mrs Dane, Johnny?" Smiling, Scott turned. His smile faded. "Johnny?"
"No," said Johnny. "I can't say that I do."
He smiled then, but it wasn't the smile of before. It wasn’t the open hearted smile of the child or the conscious charm of the young man. This was older and colder. It had something of the grave in it.
He came close and his eyes were hard, looking into hers. "But that don't matter, does it, ma'am? Because I might not remember, but I know all about you. You’re a real fine cook, I hear. A real fine cook." He glanced from her to his father's reddening face. His mouth twisted again into that smile that was no smile at all and Marcy, her heart thudding, saw the ghost of Maria Lancer’s sneer and realised that coming back had been a mistake. It was a terrible mistake. "Oh yeah. I've heard a lot about you."