Word Count 2,460
WHN Juniper Camp
It was near midnight before Johnny pulled his father’s chair out from the desk, then carefully sat down. The old chair tended to creak if you treated it too roughly, and he wanted some time to himself. He was too far from the desk to do anything but stare at the softly-illuminated, orderly arrangement of papers: local, state and even national newspapers – well read, judging by the creases; bills and receipts; the open ledger with a page of his brother’s neat figuring on the right hand page, and his father’s bolder hand on the left; and, finally, the tightly-bound package of the family’s letters, ready for delivery to town in the morning.
Perhaps he’d add a letter of his own to the bundle.
He dragged the chair in closer, turned up the oil lamp and moved the writing slope into place in front of him. He put one sheet of the smooth paper in place, took up a dipping pen, put the nib carefully into the ink and wrote, recent penmanship lessons from his father coming to his aid, “Dear Melissa”.
Well, that was easy enough. It was what to write next that had been wearing at him all week, ever since her letter had arrived. He’d received three letters in all from her, and he had them now to hand. They were all well-thumbed, a little dirty from the number of times he’d taken them out when he had a minute to himself out on the range. He sighed. The steady tick of the longcase clock was soothing, but letting it kill his thoughts for a while wasn’t going to get his letter written.
He unfolded the first letter and reviewed its contents. It was been full of the excitements of the new world she had reached after her little detour. He pictured again each of the places she described in great detail and remembered laughing along with her responses to the freedom that had been won for her by Murdoch. And by Scott. But maybe not by him, though perhaps he was not being fair on himself. It wasn’t his fault she’d been blinded by a handsome face and the lure of an adventure, and that neither of them had seen the danger the brothers represented. Tonight, he was no longer laughing with her.
He’d read the letter aloud to his family, stumbling over the editing it needed to cut out references to any matters related to a certain barn, until Scott teased him with, “I was there too, you know. I know she saved your life by waking up a sleeping guard!”
Which of course led to the retort, “You were sleeping too!”
And so they’d bantered until Murdoch had called a halt. Somehow, the banter had an edge Johnny hadn’t enjoyed, and when Scott later quietly offered to make up for it by assisting him to write a reply, he couldn’t stop himself from angrily refusing help and taking Scott’s offer as a personal insult. When he’d thought about it afterwards, he’d known that hadn’t been Scott’s intention at all. But he’d still refused, which was stupid, but there it was. He knew Scott had a much clearer head where Melissa was concerned.
In the end he’d written a letter in his very best handwriting, and the most impersonal account of ranch life was the result of him trying to sound like Scott writing a business letter. He’d failed in places, too, with his feelings for her breaking through until he thought he’d stamped it out with a final “Yours sincerely”. He couldn’t even figure out why he did it, but it was sent with his signature, and he’d tried not to think of long dark hair, eyes full of mischief and a spirit of adventure to match his own.
Johnny carefully folded her first letter, and put it away from him. He bowed his head in frustration at his actions. His brother had no more deserved his annoyance than she did his indecision
The fire had burnt down to a deep red glow, throwing less and less heat into the room. The clock struck midnight, moving the world on to the next day. It was time to get this letter written, but he still had no clear idea of what to say.
He took up her second letter. It was more sober, as she started attending various kinds of meetings and lectures, “extending my education”, she had written, “beyond needlework and how to run a Senator’s household”. Yet at the end of the letter she had invited him to come to San Francisco, to spend time with her at these lectures. It had puzzled him to begin with, that she would think he might be interested in such matters as electing whichever person to whichever government job. Most people who wanted such roles didn’t deserve to have them, in his somewhat limited experience. Scott had said the same thing in longer words once. “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”
He could see, as clearly as he had seen through her game in the barn, that she wanted to mould him into someone else, someone she could persuade her father to let her marry. It came as a very uncomfortable truth about her nature – that the independence and strength of spirit, which had attracted him to her, was somehow hollow. He had no better word for it.
He’d worried that he’d provoked her by writing as he had. So he had sent another letter, still in a style not quite his own, which he told himself matched her expectations of him. A small voice in his head had said what he wanted to write wasn’t fancy enough for her. That she’d gone her way because she’d never been his, could never be his. If he had not had enough hold over her to keep her at the ranch, why did he feel he had a chance to – to marry her? And now he was pushing her away but had no real idea why, and without talking his feelings through with anyone, the second letter went off to San Francisco with more than a few worries that he’d wrestled until he was sick of the whole conundrum. Love her? Did he, truly?
He put her second letter with the first. The darkness in the room was only held away by the lamp and the fire, and they were not enough.
Her third letter, which now lay on the desk, was a straightforward invitation, giving date, train times and that she would meet him at the station. She’d signed it, “Yours,”, too, which could be taken in any number of ways, from a formal greeting to an acceptance of marriage. Well, almost that.
As he paused yet again, his pen now held loosely, he heard footsteps.
“I hope you’re not reading my private papers, son.”
Johnny glanced up as his father came to stand on the other side of the desk, a looming presence in the lamplight.
“Never thought you’d see me sitting here, is that right?” Johnny returned, unsure of his father’s tone. Was he being criticised or laughed at?
“Well, it’s true your brother spends a good deal more time there than you do.”
“Only because you give him all the paperwork to do and detail me off to hauling logs out of creeks.”
Murdoch turned a chair toward the desk and sat down. “You want to talk about that now or is there something else on your mind? You’ve tested even your brother’s patience today. No, don’t try to deny it – I watched you trying to work together. Most days you work as a well-matched team, but today nothing was getting done as it should be.”
Johnny grimaced, knowing the truth of his father’s observations. So he gave in. Perhaps his father would have some advice about the letter he was trying to compose.
“Writing to Melissa,” he said, though he laid the pen back on the desk. “Trying to.”
“I saw you received another letter from her last week. What did she say this time?”
“She said, well, it was more like she told. I have to go to San Francisco on this train, on that day, stay two weeks. She didn’t say what we’d be doing, not like last time. Maybe I should have written a different kind of letter to her.”
“Ah. You know, that sounds like her father’s letters. Straight to the point, with a dash of you will do this because I say so.”
“Is that what happened in Boston? Did Scott’s mother write to you like this?” Johnny took up Melissa’s letter and handed it to Murdoch, who spent a moment reading it, his expression darkening. Johnny worried for a moment that he’d pushed his father too far, talking about a private matter of no concern to him. It took a moment for Murdoch to answer.
“No. Catherine never wrote to me in that way. Jim did, though, and he wrote to Catherine in the same way. Worked, too. We met up under false pretences but we fell in love despite that. I never did quite understand why the man wanted me to marry her, but I still thanked him for the chance.”
Murdoch suddenly seemed reluctant to say more but it was enough to set Johnny wondering about his father’s marriage to the daughter of someone with Harlan’s position in society, who surely wouldn’t have accepted a man fresh off the boat from the old country as suitable material for his only daughter.
Murdoch sat back in his chair, clearly wanting the conversation to end. But Johnny needed more guidance and his father was right there, not giving orders, not sending him out onto the range like he did nearly every day, not even ordering him to bed. So he ploughed on.
“When I was with Ma,” Johnny ventured, unsure of his father’s likely response.
Murdoch looked up from the letter, his expression growing more stern.
“When I was with her, one time, she said she still loved you, even after what you’d done to her.”
“You know that’s not …”
“Yes, I know.” Johnny rubbed at one eye, not knowing where to go next with his story.
“If she told you she still loved me, well, I guess that was a difficult thing to hear.”
“Made me mad at her,” Johnny muttered, ashamed of himself as the memory of the words he’d used against her then came back to him. He was forever grateful Scott and Teresa hadn’t told Murdoch what he’d said when they were fighting to get the truth through to him. ‘What about Buster here?’ he’d said, repeating his mother’s description of leaving Murdoch. Lying to him, a child, who’d known no better but to burn with anger at his gringo father. And yet she loved his father.
“Why do women do that, Murdoch? Love and hate at the same time. Seems like they just, oh, I don’t know. I don’t seem to understand them at all.” Johnny looked over at the fire, the anxiety of the last few days overwhelming him.
When he looked back at his father, he saw Murdoch was smiling, as if he had settled something in his mind. “So what attracts you to Melissa, yet makes you hesitate to take off for San Francisco at her invitation?”
“If she’d turned round and crooked her little finger at me, the day she left the ranch, I’d have gone running and counted my blessings. If she’d written the next day, the next week, I’d have been packing my bags.”
“And now?” Murdoch prompted.
“Now? Now I don’t know how to get past ‘Dear Melissa’. And I don’t even know if I mean that.”
Murdoch didn’t say anything. Johnny realised all at once what he needed to write to Melissa.
“That’s my answer, isn’t it.”
“I think it is, son. The right person is out there for you. I’ll be surrounded by grandchildren before I know it.”
Johnny smiled, relaxing at last. “How many do you require, Grandfather-to-be?”
“It’s a big house. So – as many as you and Scott want. Just so long as you really love the women you choose. Deal?”
Johnny thought for a moment. In his mind’s eye he saw Murdoch with grandchildren. It would make up for all that he had lost, all that fate had taken from him. It was the easiest decision he’d ever made.
“Don’t stay up too late. You’ve got those supplies to pick up in town, and letters to take with you. I’m putting Scott with the crew mending fences this morning. You can have the afternoon at my desk. It’s high time I moved your lessons on from neat penmanship and showed you the paperwork needed for everything you now share with your brother and with me.”
Murdoch smiled broadly. “It has a ring to it. I think I’m still young and fit enough to keep up with grandchildren.” He strode away, head held high, probably knowing his grin was matched.
Johnny put aside Melissa’s third letter, picked up his pen and made an important decision. Penmanship was for business, for neatness when the writing had to be shared with lawyers, and the words had to be cold and unemotional.
He reverted to his own handwriting, which swooped across the page in energetic leaps, following the truth of his words.
He took up a new sheet of paper, and wrote, “Melissa.” The rest, the simple declaration of a love, not regretted but now gone in the light of day, the memories which were enough for both of them, and his wish that she do with her life what she had said she would love to do, but that he could not participate in that life – the words came easily and without indecision. When he’d written them, he felt clear-headed and free, and put the sealed envelope in with all the others, business and personal, which ran the life of the ranch. This was where his heart lay, he knew it more strongly in that moment than ever before, and he would search now for the woman who understood that, and who would share his life there.
And give Murdoch at least four grandchildren. Maybe five, he thought, as he turned down the lamp and blew it out. He checked the dying fire was safe. And as he went up the stairs to bed, his imagination gave him a house full of the noise of children, the next generation of people who would love and work their beautiful land.
All he had to do was find the right woman.
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