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Thomas sat by the hearth with the eldest of his new step-siblings curled up in his lap, the two of them listening intently to Sister reading aloud from Jules Vern’s Around the World in 80 Days. Catherine, seated comfortably on the settee, nursed her latest arrival, another girl. Emmett, now five, was playing with the second oldest of his new siblings, taking spools of yarn from Catherine’s basket and tying the ends to George Davenport’s giant bloodhound’s tail. The dog let out an occasional gentle woof, turning to his master with imploring eyes.
“Sorry,” George Davenport mouthed silently, but made no effort to stop the children’s play.
George was seated in a corner of the sitting room, reclining in an upholstered high back reading chair, smoking a pipe, and wearing the gratified smile of a contented man. He dreamed of this very scene: living out west, a large family companionably gathered around, enjoying a quiet evening around the hearth.
Philadelphia, six years earlier
After a long day as a law clerk in one of the city’s most reputable law firms, George Davenport would quickly made his way over the few blocks to various street-side newsstands. Whenever he had a few coins burning a hole in his pocket, he set out looking for any paper with stories or articles about the western territories. He’d buy whatever publication was available, sometimes as many as 10 papers, then rush to his boarding house just in time for dinner service. He’d race through his meal without more than a quick “good evening” to his fellow boarders before heading up to his room to read.
George read his papers late into the night, unconcerned with the pretty penny he spent on kerosene for his lamp. The fantastic stories of prospectors and pioneers ignited his imagination. Reports of the Indian wars he found engrossing; news of the railroads making further inroads to the coast intriguing; tales of the trials and tribulations of farmers, ranchers, Texas Rangers, cattlemen and notorious outlaws absolutely captivating. Some nights he’d read so late, he barely catch a couple hours’ sleep before rising for work in the morning. On Sundays he’d re-read all the papers he’d accumulated, breaking only for meals, and sometimes, not even then.
Apart from his fascination with the west, the law was George’s life. All he ever thought about doing from the age of 15, when his father took on occasional work as a handy-man for a colonial judge, was becoming an attorney. His father started bringing young George along to work, and young George was often found combing through the judge’s law library. The judge was impressed with the boy’s interest, thought him bright, and so offered him a job on Saturdays transcribing notes and other documents for various cases. George was hooked. He attended law school, and easily passed his exams.
He managed to land employment as a clerk in one of the most reputable firms in Pennsylvania right out of law school, but as one year rolled into the next, George began to feel increasingly frustrated with the drudgery of clerking. Competition among the other clerks for advancement was fierce, and for many reasons beyond George’s control—the lack of family influence and connections being primary among them—George was routinely passed over for promotion. His deep desire to be a full-fledged attorney; to catch a challenging case and advocate in court as lead council, was only exacerbating his dissatisfaction. He needed to make a change, but was at a loss to know how to go about it.
At first, George sought out the periodicals with stories of the western migration as an escape from anxieties over his vocation. But, the more he read about the western territories, the more his fantasies of living out west took hold as a real possibility. He imagined establishing a practice somewhere in Oklahoma, or Nebraska, or even as far west as the territories; somewhere where circumstances were unsettled and folks trying to manage the onslaught of people arriving literally by the wagontrain loads since the discovery of gold, silver and other minerals.
And, the more he thought on it, the more his idea felt something like destiny. These places needed law and order, and educated folk like him to negotiate treaties and hold back the unbridled greed of the eastern captains of industry. He could be his own sort of westward looking pioneer, he thought, bringing the rule of law and civilization to an untamed country.
So, the first time George read about the woman in the Idaho territory fighting the territorial government to maintain her missing and probably dead husband’s claim on a large parcel of land, George’s heart raced. He instantly knew this was the opportunity he was looking for.
He wrote a letter to the woman, a Mrs. Victor Samuels, enumerating his credentials, and outlining an argument that might help her build her case. He then offered to be of further assistance, free of charge. He couldn’t believe his luck when he received a prompt reply, inviting him to journey to Idaho to meet her. The next day he put in his notice at the firm and the boarding house, and bought a passage out to the Idaho Territory, and the tiny town of Rocksberg.
And now, here he was. Everything he’d ever dreamed of actually come to pass: Living in the west, a thriving law practice, the love of a smart and attractive woman, and a large family. George took a long draw on his pipe and smiled.
“Alright,” Catherine announced as Eliza came to the end of a chapter, “that’s enough for tonight. Off to bed. All of you. Brother, you kids take the yarn off of Roscoe’s tail and put it back in my basket, and wind it up properly, mind you.”
The children obediently gathered around Catherine as she made her way to the stairs. Thomas helped with the yarn, but returned to the chair by the fire, intent on remaining downstairs with the adults. At 14, he was already taller than most grown men he knew, and besides, he felt more akin to an adult now, especially being surrounded by so many little ones.
“Thomas, to be with you as well, young man,” Catherine called back to him.
Reluctantly, Thomas started to rise, but George stopped him. “Let the boy set a bit. I want to have a word with him, anyway.”
Catherine continued up the stairs without argument. Since Victor’s disappearance, Catherine had changed, almost from the very moment George Davenport came into their lives.
George moved from his chair in the corner across to the hearth. He tapped out the spent tobacco in his pipe on the mantle, brushed the refuse into the fire, and took a seat in the chair across from Thomas.
“You like it here, Thomas, in our new home?”
“Yes sir, I like it just fine,” Thomas lied.
“I mean, you’ve got a room all to yourself now!” George prodded.
Thomas couldn’t deny a room of his own was something else. No longer forced to share a bed with Sister and Brother, he also had a desk, a chair and his own kerosene lamp set up under the large window, out of which he could gaze up at the foothills. George had helped him map the direction in which the homestead lay, and Thomas’ bedroom window afforded the best vantage point in the whole house. If he stood in the far left corner and pressed his cheek against the glass, he could practically see all the way to Parson’s Ridge.
“You understand, son, why we had to move into town, don’t you?” George continued.
“It was getting to be far too difficult running my law practice, living so far out.”
“So,” George continued, “Big day, tomorrow!”
Thomas shrugged. “Yes, sir. I suppose.”
“You suppose? Son, your mother and I are making you a land owner! At age fourteen!”
“Yes sir,” Thomas smiled a shy grin.
“That’a boy! There you go.” George grinned back.
“Now, as I said before, your mother and I will continue to manage affairs. I’m sure by year’s end the judge will settle this whole mess in our…” George paused, and playfully corrected himself, giving Thomas a nudge with his foot, “in your favor.”
“Yes sir,” Thomas said, smiling again. “But, sir? I have a question.”
“Of course, of course, but before you ask it,” George said, holding up a hand, “I am in earnest when I say I want you to stop calling me ‘sir.’ Now, we’ve discussed this before, you and I. It simply doesn’t make sense for you to keep calling me ‘sir,’ seeing as how I’ve been a part of the family going on six years now, and most especially since your mother and I married.” George paused. “I am, in fact, your step-father.”
“Yes…si” Thomas hesitated, “yes.”
“Eliza and Emmett seem to be just fine calling me ‘Pa’,” George continued.
Thomas assumed Sister and Brother’s ease calling George Davenport “Pa” was simply because they never knew their own Pa. Especially Emmett, seeing as how he was only a baby when Victor went missing, and was still such when George arrived. Sister had some memories of Pa, but hers were mostly limited to what Victor looked like, and that he played hide-n-seek with them, which was always a good laugh, given his enormous size. There were very few places a man of Victor’s stature could actually disappear. It occurred to Thomas his father had at last found the perfect hiding spot. A knot in his stomach gave a little twist.
It gnawed at Thomas where Victor had gone. His dreams were filled with images of his father at the bottom of some ravine, his body broken and twisted, calling out for help and not being heard. He blamed himself for not taking Parson’s Ridge that day his mother sent him to go fetch his Pa at Apple Alice’s. After school he’d take that way home, each time exploring another path, peering over ridges and drop-offs, believing that head eventually find Victor. But nothing ever turned up other than a broken bottle of whiskey, which could have been dropped, or thrown away by any number of men coming and going along that ridge. Folks tried to reassure Thomas it wasn’t his fault that no one ever found Victor, but he couldn’t let it go.
As much as he wished his father back, Thomas had to face facts that George Davenport was now the man of the house. Thomas wanted to hate George, ever since he came to Rocksberg and put a smile on Catherine’s face. He was so different from Victor. Educated, sharp as a tack, he preferred a quiet evening by the fire reading a book and smoking his pipe to nights out brawling at Apple Alice’s. He was well spoken, handsome with a slight build, and was short. Thomas was already an inch taller than he. George wasn’t much with his hands like most of the men Thomas knew, but what he lacked in physicality he far than made up for in wit and wisdom. And he had a kind, gentle soul.
Clearly Thomas’ mother thought the world of George Davenport. Whenever she got worked up, like she did, George would just smile and kiss her on the cheek, or give her a quick hug about the shoulder. She was still short tempered and strict with all of them kids, but in a different way than before; almost a kindly way, like their teacher, Mrs. Schmidt. And, almost any time George walked in the room, she smiled at him. Something she rarely, if ever did to Victor. Truth was George Davenport had done right by all of them. Even Apple Alice was impressed with George Davenport, and that was sayin’ something.
Thomas knew he ought to be grateful, but George Davenport wasn’t, and never could be, “Pa” to him. And seein’ as how everybody seemed to have given Victor up for dead and gone, Thomas made a promise to himself to keep the memory of his father present and alive.
“I’ll do better to remember to call you ‘father,’ sir, and I will keep to my word on that account,” Thomas said to George.
George laughed. “Alright, I’ll take ‘father,’ if that suits you. It’s a deal! Now, what was your question?”
Thomas had almost forgotten. “Oh, ummm…well, starting tomorrow, after we sign the papers and such, like you said,” Thomas paused.
“Well, after we sign the papers, si…father…and I am the owner of the homestead, I figure I’ll have to quit school, won’t I?”
George looked at Thomas, obviously confused. “Why do you figure that?”
“Well, I cain’t be still goin’ to school when I gots to manage the land and such, don’t I?”
“As I said before, your mother and I will continue to manage affairs in your stead. In time, I’ll teach you all the things you need to know, so that when the time comes, and you are old enough, you can manage on your own.”
George continued, “We wouldn’t expect a boy of your age to have to fend for himself! No, no! You see, by making you the owner, we’re only putting forward special circumstances, so that you, Eliza and Emmett can claim that which is rightfully yours when all of you are of age. Do you see? We don’t expect you to manage things now. That’s not what we’re doing here.
“The law is a complicated thing, Thomas, and a lot of times it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It doesn’t allow Catherine to own what was, is, your father’s property as his wife or widow, most especially now that she’s married to me, but even though you are not of age yet, it allows ownership to pass to you, the eldest son. I hope to change the law about that sort of thing someday, and so many other things as well, but in the meantime, we get to keep ownership of the homestead. That’s very valuable property we got there, and you and your brother and sisters have a right to maintain a claim on it.”
George concluded with a satisfied nod, stood up, tussled Thomas hair and took out his tobacco to refill his pipe.
Thomas lay awake that night, thinking long and hard on what George had said. If there was one thing Thomas was quite clear on, it was that the land belonged to only him, his mother, Eliza and Emmett, and no others. George Davenport may be many things, and he may have afforded the family many benefits in this life, and all the women folk may think him the best thing since kingdom come, but in the same way George Davenport would never be his Pa, George Davenport, or anyone bearing the name of Davenport, would never be able to lay claim in any way on Victor Samuels’ land.