“Mary, what a pleasure to see you. I’d hoped to have the opportunity to offer my congratulations.”
“Thank you for inviting me to your home, Chancellor. I’m pleased to be here.”
“Please,” he gestured to an ornate armchair across from a loveseat.
“Mary!” Chancellor Smythe’s wife exclaimed as she bustled into the sitting room, meeting the young woman with a polite hug. “Please tell me you’ve decided to stay.”
Mary’s crestfallen look matched her heart. “I wish I could, but I’m needed at home,Mrs. Smythe.”
“Daniel told me as much, but I didn’t want to believe it. We’ve so enjoyed having you here.”
“So, what are your plans?” The chancellor asked.
“I’ve written ahead to several schools Daniel recommended around Idaho Falls. I’m hopeful I’ll be accepted.”
Mrs. Smythe smiled warmly. “Of course you will. Any school would be lucky to have an instructor of your caliber.”
They sat quietly for several minutes before Mary said, “I want to thank you both for the kindness you’ve shown me while I’ve been here. I realize you might not have taken to me the way you have if it hadn’t been for my uncle.”
“Mary, Daniel may have helped to get you in the door, but you have certainly kept yourself here. What you’ve accomplished here at Berkeley and in life itself, you’ve most certainly done on your own. You have a fire inside of you that I’ve frankly never seen in all of the young women who come through these doors. Please promise me you’ll never let anyone quench that flame.”
Mrs. Smythe had tears in her eyes, “And write to us. Please.”
Calvin hadn’t really come to California for construction, but he didn’t mind it. His father had taught him woodworking, which he hadn’t thought of as particularly useful before now. It was, however, keeping him eating wieners and beans while enjoying the occasional chance to explore. He still wrote home once or twice a week, but he had no intentions of heading home so far. He’d found a place to stay where he swapped working cattle now and again for a place to camp.
Things were working out.
He turned away from the rail he’d been working on when he heard the now familiar sound of luggage falling from a cart. A tall man in driver’s livery was struggling with one bag too many while a stuffy looking young woman stood looking on. When the tower of bags fell the second time, Cal couldn’t stand by watching anymore. He moved in to help the older man by carrying two of the larger bags.
“Thank you for your assistance, Sir.” The woman had just a trace of an Irish accent.
She was pretty.
“I’m happy to help, Ma’am. Where are you heading?”
“Home to my family in Idaho. I just graduated from Berkeley.”
“What part of Idaho?”
“Idaho Falls. It’s in the southeast.”
“I know it. My family calls Antelope home.”
She smiled a great smile. “I’ve applied for a teaching position there.”
“My father is on the school board,” Cal said. “May I ask your name?”
“I’m Mary Catherine Sweeney. And you are?”
“My friends call me Cal. Cal McMurtrey.”
She gave him a firm handshake once he sat her bags down. “Pleased to meet you, Calvin.”
“Cal,” he said with what he hoped was a disarming smile.
And it very much was.
Mary’s Uncle Dan was waiting for her at the train station in Idaho Falls. Dapper as always, he looked like he’d stepped out of a workday of high business. Of course, that had been the case off and on since his brother had died, leaving behind three children and a wife that wasn’t up to caring for them on her own.
Whatever the case, his arms were as welcoming as ever.
“How was your trip?”
“Pleasant enough,” Mary said as she fell into step beside him. “Thank you for coming for me.”
He took her hand, the same way he had ever since she was a little girl. Only this time, he pulled her to a stop and forced her to look at him. “I might have sent you away, but of course I’m glad to see you back. You have grown into an impressive, educated woman, Mary. I won’t make apologies for guiding you into what you’ve become.”
The tear in her eye told him that somewhere inside, she understood. He may have only been her uncle, but he was also the only person that had spoken crossly to her when she needed it since his brother’s death. It was a sad truth that Mary Ellen hadn’t been up to the job.
“How is Mother?” Mary asked.
“As well as ever. You’ll see the boys at dinner tonight.”
“Is David taking to business?”
Dan smiled. “That’s for him to tell us, I think, but he has a great opportunity. The business climate is favorable for him.”
“And how are you, Uncle?”
“Busy,” he said easily. “Very, very busy.”
It was wonderful to be back with Red.
Mary loved her horse, and she might have loved Dan a little more for taking such care of him while she was away. Automobiles might be the new thing, but as far as she was concerned, a horse was and would be the only proper way to get around. Truly, the road to Heise favored a horse. Maybe tomorrow she’d have to worry about a car, but today, it was all about her very best friend.
The family home with all of its comforts might have been in the falls, but Mary preferred it up here – out of town and away from all of the memories. Father had been gone since before she remembered, but yet everything she saw there managed to hold memories of all she had lost that cold April morning. Even after all these years, it was hard to live with a father who had given her so much and yet she couldn’t remember meeting. Excepting a photograph of him holding her that hung in the family home, he might never have existed.
The shallows in the river East of Ririe were the best place to cross the river, but she still took the time to plan the best path. She knew Red would take care of her, but it was only right to try to make it easy for him. In the end, he wouldn’t let a little cool water stop them from getting where they needed to be.
A lot kept her mother away from her, but Mary couldn’t help but be excited to see her again.
The pull of family was undeniable.
“Mary, it’s lovely to see you,” a tall, thin woman said from behind a wooden desk in the lodge. Maybe it was because she knew her lineage, but Mary thought she saw more than a hint of her German ancestry in her smile.
“You as well, Mrs. Gavin.”
“You’re home from school now, aren’t you?”
“I am. I’ve applied for a teaching position in Antelope.”
“Daniel told us. You’re interviewing with James Henry McMurtrey, aren’t you?”
“I am. He’s the Chairman of the school board.”
“I’m pleased to tell you that we’ve offered a recommendation on your behalf, Mary. We do trade with the McMurtreys – the occasional cow and such.” Mrs. Gavin’s look was wistful. “For Pete’s Sake, we grew up together. You’re almost a sister to me.”
Mary’s face flushed with the warmth of the sentiment. “Thank you. You know I feel the same.”
“I’m sure your mother is waiting to see you. Second door on the left upstairs. I’m sure we’ll get the chance to talk later.”
Mary wasn’t completely sure about how much she was missed as she made her way to Mother’s room. The accident that took a father that she had barely connected with from her also took a husband that was Mother’s connection to the whole world. It wasn’t that she ever wondered if Mother loved her, it was that she frequently wondered if she was remembered.
She knew that it was Uncle Dan that had taken care of her for most of her life. Mother might have wanted to, but she just wasn’t capable – she’d lost the capacity when she’d lost her husband. The thought of seeing her didn’t necessarily fill Mary with anticipation.
It made her very sad.
Mary led Red off of the ferry and slowly across the rocky shore. She took a breath as she looked up the canyon wall at the narrow dug road that went siddelin’ up between the rocks and pines. It was plenty wide for a wagon, so Red would do fine.
She just felt very small. The comfort of Heise suddenly felt a world away, to say nothing of the safety of Uncle Dan’s home. She wondered, not for the first time, if she could even survive here, to say nothing of making a life for herself here.
So she saddled up and gently spurred Red. After all, there was only one way to find out what she was capable of.
The pines gave way to a few more aspens as she made her way across the flats. Eventually, the aspens thinned to the occasional meadow, and once she crossed Antelope creek, there was even a farmstead.
“Good afternoon, Sir. Would you happen to know where the McMurtrey ranch is?”
The older man smiled warmly. “Right here. I’m James Henry McMurtrey.”
Mary dismounted. “My name is Mary Sweeney. I’m here to interview for the teaching position.”
He shook her hand. “Welcome. You’re in the right place. I’ve planned for you to stay with us, if you don’t mind. Ms. Lively is still in the cottage.”
“I’d be honored to share your home, Mr. McMurtrey.”
His smile was warm. “We have plenty of room. My daughter Sophie is the only one about these days. She’ll be good company.”
“I’d enjoy meeting her.”
“Your father died when you were two?” Sophie looked shocked.
“Um hmm,” Mary nodded. “He fell from the building he was working on. It’s the hotel at the end of Broadway down in the falls now. He broke his back.”
“So, you don’t have any family?”
“I have two brothers, Michael and David. My mother is still alive, and I have my Uncle Dan. He’s a brick builder in the falls.” Mary yawned. “How about you?”
“You’ve met Ma and Pa. I’m second oldest. My oldest brother’s away working. Horace lives not far from here up in some bottom land, and my baby sister Lena married a bit ago.”
“Do you like it up here?”
Sophie was thoughtful. “I’ve loved it here, but I’m ready to see what else is out in the world.”
Mary smiled and leaned back against the pillow in what used to be Lena’s bed. “Is there anyone courting you?”
“There’s always a man, Mary.”
Once they’d had breakfast at the family table, James Henry and his wife walked Mary into Antelope, down Main Street, and up to the school and Teacher’s Cottage. It wasn’t long before they were joined by Elder Long, Harold Jensen and his wife, and Eaton Carl. They were all warm and welcoming, making it clear that they’d be glad to have Mary fill the position if she wanted it.
They did not press her for an answer.
Sophie, Vlad and Lena, Ernest Carl, the Cliburns, the Jensens, and what felt like the entire town showed up with blankets, baskets, and jugs of water. The picnic was as wonderful as it was spontaneous, even if Mary didn’t quite know what to make of Ms. Cooner.
Cal opened the letter and read it in the firelight. His mother’s words filled the page, and had it not been so dark, one might have noticed that more than a few tears filled his eyes. The truth was that he could tell that she was sad, and knowing that made him sad. Nothing would ever make her anything other than his mother and that made her a treasure.
He settled back against his bedroll and looked up at stars that weren’t as different from those at home as they had been when he’d gotten here. He was in an odd place – while he hadn’t quite admitted that his time was over, he knew that he’d soon be looking at the stars over the flat. He wasn’t going quite yet, as he wouldn’t walk away from an unfinished job.
It wasn’t and would not be the last time that he thought about making a life for himself somewhere beyond the cattle and quaking aspens. It was then that he finally realized that sideways of Vlad, he’d never met another man who had strayed far from home and family. As much country as there was, not many people crossed even as much of it as he had.
Crossing the desert in Nevada had given him a taste of why. The sand, hours and hours of constant attention, and worrying more than a little that gas could be located before the bottom of the tank made him think the horseback trip to Swan Valley was more than enough to aspire to. He didn’t tell himself that the trip hadn’t been everything he’d hoped for.
He already knew that.
It was time to go home.
“Michael!” Mary squealed.
“How’s my sweet sister? You look…like you’ve been on a horse for a day.”
“Not all of us took to the city life, brother. It looks like business is treating you well.”
“He’s had a brilliant teacher,” Daniel said as he stepped into the parlor. “Speaking of teachers, are you one, officially?”
“Maybe we should talk about that later,” Mary said shyly.
“Mary will be a teacher here in the city, Daniel,” Mary Ellen said.
“Mary Ellen Sweeney, when my brother died, I promised I would look after his family, and that most certainly includes making certain his daughter lives the life that makes her happy. Whether she chooses to teach in a one-room school house or enjoy a life of leisure eating bonbons on a chaise, I couldn’t care less as long as she is safe and chooses to do so. Is that clear?”
Mother smiled. “Of course, Daniel.”
“So, will the children of Antelope be learning from the newest teacher in the state?” Daniel asked.
“Unless someone else graduated and came home within the last week,” Mary smiled. “I’ve accepted the position.”
“I had every confidence,” Uncle Dan wrapped her in the hug her father would have. “Congratulations, dear girl.”
“Thank you,” Mary couldn’t hold in a smile any longer. “I was told you endorsed my application.”
“You are my niece, and you are my charge. Never forget that I’d do anything to help you, always.”
“I would never think otherwise, and thank you.” Mary turned more toward Mother. “I’m going to go get cleaned up before dinner.”
“So, you’re going to live in the wilderness?” Michael asked skeptically.
“It’s not the wilderness, Mike. It’s a town no different than the Falls.”
“No different? They don’t even have power,” her brother snapped. “No telegraph, no library, probably not even automobiles.”
“Progress only for the sake of moving forward means little,” Daniel said from an armchair on the other side of the fire.
“You’ll freeze without heat.”
“I can chop wood, dear brother.”
“Yes, dammit! I’ve gone to school, learned how to teach, and I can even use an axe. Maybe tomorrow I’ll show you how I tie my shoes.”
Dan laughed. “Calm yourself, Mary. He’s just worried about you.”
“He doesn’t need to be, and neither do you! I can do it!”
“We never said you couldn’t.”
Mary pointed at her brother. “He did, or he might as well have. I can do anything I decide to.”
“Like sprout wings and fly back to Ireland,” Michael chided.
“I will see home some day,” Mary looked at her Uncle and saw more than the man. “Won’t I?”
“Our home is here, now, but it wasn’t always. County Kerry Ireland will always be the roots of our tree. Music and dancing, hard work and unmatched sunsets, lush and green without the bite of winter we endure here in Idaho. It was a wonderful home.”
“I’ll go some day. I’ll see where we came from, walk where you walked, and hear the music.”
“And drink the whiskey?” Michael asked.
Mary smiled. “I will.”
It was done, or, as good as.
The heat of California, the cold of night in the middle of the desert, worrying about gas, and fighting to stay on the boards that made the road across the sand were all behind him. Home was another forty miles away – Cal would be back on the ranch in three hours.
He was also suddenly torn. Camping by the headgates outside of Ririe suddenly sounded appealing- one more night under the stars, on his own, before he had to look Pa in the eye. It wasn’t that he was scared he wouldn’t be welcomed home, it was…he left. He might be home, but he left, and that wasn’t something either of them was soon to forget.
The truth was, Cal had earned and saved some real money. When he looked ahead, he didn’t see himself in Pa’s house. He’d seen enough women in California to know that they looked to be good company but wasn’t sure how to court one. He did know that learning was about to become a priority- if he could keep Sophie out of his business.
Main Street in Idaho Falls had lots of things – a hardware store, more than one saloon, a hotel, a bank, county offices, and the Homestead Administration office. It wasn’t the first time it had gotten him to thinking that his future meant building a place of his own. Pa had taught him a lot – land and a little hard work held a good life if you could bind them together.
In the end, there was only way to find out. It was time to get on with living.
“It is a little small,” Mary said.
Uncle Dan was almost unrecognizable dressed in bogging pants, suspenders, and a checked shirt with a wide-brimmed hat. Gone was his three-piece suit, ever-present pocket watch, top-hat, and every other vestige of the businessman he truly was. “It’s cozy. Cozy means less wood to haul, Mary. You’ll find a smaller room is always easier to fill with warmth.“
She took a step back from the bed she’d just made with the brand-new mattress Dan had given her as a housewarming gift.
“Thank you for this,” Mary said genuinely.
He smiled down at her with fatherly affection. “Sweet dreams are the right of any schoolteacher, Mary. It’s my pleasure – always.”
“Can I still come to visit you?”
He smiled. “You can any time, but you won’t – not as often as I should like, anyway. You’re starting your own life now, Mary. You’ll find that once you start doing things for you, it is far more difficult to do them for someone else, no matter how much pleasure they may get from it. This is the way of things as you start to walk your own path.”
“I’ll always be here for you when you need me, Mary. You’ll just find that you don’t need me nearly as often as time goes on.”
“I can’t imagine that.”
“I find that very hard to believe. You started imagining a life of your own the day you agreed to go to Berkley and make something of yourself.” Dan smiled as he stepped through the door of the little teacher’s cottage to get the last of her possessions from the wagon.
Cal knew that he was back in Pa’s graces when he was sent to do Horace’s bidding. The reality was that running shine was still against the law – it wasn’t the type of thing you involved folks you didn’t trust in. Besides, the ride up to Horace’s still was a reminder of what he came back for. It took the better part of the morning, but he’d started for home right after a quick lunch with his brother.
He knew he’d miss supper without it even having happened, but spending the evening drinking with Old Lady Cooner wasn’t the worst punishment there was either. He had stories he could tell, and he knew she’d want to listen to them. It was an easy enough arrangement.
There hadn’t been a good opportunity to see Antelope itself since he’d been back. No harm was going to come from having a look, so he rode down Main Street and circled the schoolhouse. He didn’t recognize the young woman right off, but he could tell for sure that it wasn’t the old schoolmarm that had been there when he left for California.
If he didn’t know better, he’d say she acted like she recognized him when she turned and waved. It wasn’t possible – Cal didn’t put himself in places to be recognized by women – especially not pretty ones. He tipped his hat anyway and spurred Tiny toward the Cooner place.
He couldn’t help looking back, and when he did, he saw she seemed to be watching him as he rode away.
Careful to smile before he turned forward, Cal appreciated the warmth from the odd familiarity with the whole thing brought him.
It was good to be home.
🙂 Hello! My name is Eric McMurtrey. I’m the author of the series ‘Antelope’ as well as several other series that have been given away. I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed them, and frankly, there’s no question that I’m going to continue to give them away. However, with Christmas coming, I wanted to give you the option to support me and my work. Up on the drop down menu at the top of the screen, there’s a link called ‘Books Available for Sale.” I’ve listed my collection of Christmas stories in all formats on Amazon - I’d be very appreciative if you’d consider picking up a copy. If you like my work here, I’m sure you’ll find things you love in the book. Thank you for taking the time to come and visit!