An episode tag for Prodigal, in which Murdoch Lancer meets old flame Marcy Dane, now widowed, and brings her back to Lancer where they make an attempt to rekindle their romance. But Marcy's wastrel son, Jeff, deserts the cavalry, escapes the stockade and kills a guard on the way. When he arrives at Lancer, Marcy must choose whether to do right, or whether to stick with Jeff.

This is Marcy's story, recounting how she arrived in California with her husband and daughter, and why she indulged Jeff so fatally later. It's properly an AU, since it ignores the contradictory information we're given in canon about her relationship with Murdoch. One day, it will slot into the Hackamore series.

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

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 nuggets.

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.

GOLD!

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.

 

To Chapter Two ----->