What is this? Two historical fiction stories in a row? Indeed, and hopefully this will be my last one for at least a couple of weeks, although I have certainly learned a lot this past week!
The below picture was sent to me by my incredible dad, and I have to say– I think I spent more time than usual figuring this one out. There were just so many different ways it could go, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of it. Below is what I settled on 🙂
Also, I only have about two more weeks worth of photos to base stories off of, so please send me pics if you haven’t already! I have a bunch of ways you can send them listed on my about page, but the easiest is probably emailing them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is, ‘For the Want of a Family Photo’:
Fifteen years, and still he was anxious. John Ford tried to keep his head fixed forward as he rode his bay mare into the town of Canton, but he was always scanning for lawmen out of the corners of his eyes. He brought his elbows in close to his hips, pressing them against the revolvers he had on either side of his body. He had sworn never to use violence against another person, but it was still comforting to know they were there.
Living the life of a wanted man was getting old. Really old. As he had done often over the years, John felt the urge to simply ride up to the nearest jail and turn himself in. Spending time behind bars and then facing an execution was a bleak future, but at least he wouldn’t have to deal with the inner turmoil of what had happened anymore. He could stop looking over his shoulder and spend his last few moments of life in relative peace. It wasn’t like he was living much of a life anyway, wandering through the wilds. A man without a home.
The whistle of the noon train pierced the air, causing his mount to sidestep. The horse was used to the quiet life of the Dakota plains, not the bustle of a town. Murmuring reassuring words to her, he guided the mare to the side of the dirt road.
John stopped in front of the post office and tied his horse to the hitching post, then walked up the two steps to the building’s door.
As he entered the post office, a small bell jangled above the door.
“Can I help you?” the postmaster asked.
“Yes. My name is Matthew Fischer,” answered John, giving the alias he had used for years. “I was checking to see if I had any mail.”
“Matthew Fischer. Hmmm, let me check.”
The postmaster drummed his fingers along the blue-gray material of his uniform pants as he studied the lines of mail slots in the wall behind him.
“Ah, yes, Matthew Fischer,” he said as he pulled out two letters from one of the slots. “They’re a little dusty. Must have been awhile since you last fetched your mail.”
“I’ve been away for a while,” John said as he received the envelopes. He motioned to a bench in the corner of the room. “You mind if I sit for a spell?”
“Go right ahead.”
On the front of the envelopes, ‘Care of Matthew Fischer’ was scrawled out in the familiar handwriting of his mother, Hannah, who lived back in Illinois. She thought Fischer was the man who gathered John’s mail and brought it out to him. It was a lie John had told her, but it at least ensured he continued to receive news from home.
He first opened the one that had been sent eight months before, scanning the news from Springfield that his mother found important enough to share. He also learned that his sister, Abigail, had a new baby girl. That brought a smile to his face. It would be nice if he could go back home one day and meet his niece.
Opening the second envelope, dated from four months before, he was surprised to pull out three dollars along with a letter. Reading through the second missive, he felt a pit of dread form in his stomach.
My health is ever failing. I know I will probably never get the chance to meet your wife and children, but I dearly wish to see them. I am enclosing three dollars to be spent on a photographer. Please send me a picture as soon as possible. It is the desire of an ailing mother.
Sighing, John folded the letter and pushed it back into its envelope. He should have never lied about having a family, but he knew his mother had been worried those first few years after he had moved west. She thought he would be stuck out on his 162 acres all alone. Telling her he had married, and then periodically informing her of a fake child’s birth had seemed like a good idea. Especially after the incident fifteen years prior. Better that she thought he was happy and settled than that he was a wanted man on the run. The thing he hadn’t counted on was eventually having to provide proof of the fake family.
How many kids had he told her he had? Four? No, five. It had been five. Four girls and a boy.
He was a smart man. That was how he had gone so long without being apprehended. He’d come up with a way to make everything work out. He just needed to think.
After five or so minutes, he stood and walked back to the postmaster.
“Excuse me, but do you know of any widows that might be living in or around Canton?” he asked. “Preferably with children.”
Half an hour later, he was heading for a small house on the outskirts of town.
Thinking John was on the hunt for a wife, the postmaster had given him two options for widows that met his criteria. One was a woman named Myrtle Calahan, but she was said to be a little crazy and rarely ever came into Canton. The second was a woman named Hannah Miller. Quiet. Respectable. A good mother by all accounts. Her husband had been the town doctor before he had died.
It hadn’t taken John more than a second to decide the second choice was the better one.
Hannah Miller’s house was quaint and well kept. The boards that made up the siding were white-washed and clean. There was a garden in the front yard, full of ripe vegetables. The windows glinted at him in the sun, a testament to how clean they were kept.
A small boy, maybe five or six, with blonde hair was playing with a little wooden horse in the yard.
“Your mama home,” John asked him as he approached the house.
The little boy looked up at him with wide eyes, then slowly nodded. John patted his head and moved around him to the front door.
He knocked, and just a few seconds later, a beautiful woman with brown doe eyes and slicked back hair to match opened the door.
“Yes? Can I help you?” she asked as she dried her hands on a white towel.
Temporarily at a loss for words as any man was when faced with a pretty face such as hers, John opened his mouth then closed it again.
Swallowing hard, he placed a hand to the brim of his hat and asked, “Are you Hannah Miller?”
“Nice to meet you, ma’am. I’m Matthew Fischer. I was wondering if I could talk to you for a few minutes about a job opportunity. A respectable job,” he threw in when he saw the doubt cross her face.
“What kind of job?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.
“A family photograph.”
“A family photograph?”
“I know it sounds unconventional, but I have family back home that thinks I have a wife and children. I don’t, but they are asking for a photograph of that family.”
“So you are being punished for your dishonesty.”
Clearing his throat uncomfortably, John said, “Yes, I suppose. I would gladly take the punishment of having to tell the truth if it weren’t for my sick mother. She may not have much time left and would dearly love to know her son is settled and happy. I’ll give you five dollars if you and your children would sit for a photograph with me.”
“Five dollars?” Hannah’s voice raised a little as she said it.
She licked her lips and clutched the towel tighter in her hands. Her eyes dropped to the ground as she thought the offer through.
Looking back up at him, she said, “You better take a seat on the porch, Mr. Fischer. I’ll bring out some lemonade, and we can discuss this further.”
It wasn’t hard to talk Hannah into the photograph. She said she was in need of money, and had been looking for a solution to her worries.
“How many children do you have?” John asked as he set his glass, drained of lemonade, on the porch next to his rocking chair.
“Three. My eldest is a girl. Myra. Then my two boys. That’s Ephraim out in the yard. Joshua is asleep.”
“How old is Joshua?”
“Two and a half.”
“Almost perfect. Any chance he could wear a dress for the photo? My family thinks my youngest is a girl.”
“I have something left over of Myra’s that would do well, I think. How many children did you tell your family that you had?”
“Five. I need to find two more girls. Older ones.”
“There are always a few of them near Larson’s Mercantile in the evening. Usually they’re jumping rope in the alley next to his store.”
“I will start there, then.” John stood from his chair and stretched his arms over his head. “Any suggestions for a photographer?”
“There’s only one in town. Mr. Oliver. I hear he’s not very good, but he’ll get the job done.”
“Good enough. I’ll try to schedule him for noon tomorrow. Does that work for you?”
“Noon it is.”
“Until then.” John touched the brim of his hat again.
As he walked back down the porch and across the yard, John once again surveyed the perfect example of a well-managed house. With the setting and how pretty Hannah Miller was, the woman would not remain unmarried for long. Maybe he should court her himself.
He shook his head at the notion. Being a wanted man meant he’d most likely never get the chance to settle down.
As he turned down Main Street, he pulled his horse to an abrupt stop. Right down the road, talking to a group of men in front of Larson’s, was U.S. Marshal Bill Seldon. John had never met the man personally, but he had heard plenty of rumors about the marshal’s dogged determination when it came to chasing wanted criminals down.
Keeping his expression neutral and his body relaxed, John nudged his horse forward again. He was confident he’d go unrecognized, and the odd thing was, that nagged at him. If he was being honest with himself, he almost hoped Seldon would know him.
That was not to be the case. Other than returning his nods, the men, including Seldon, barely gave John a glance as he dismounted and then walked toward the edge of the mercantile to where the entrance to the alley was.
As he drew closer, he began to hear voices.
Peering down the alley, he saw a group of five girls, two at either end of a long rope, and three jumping over it.
“Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seven—“
One of the girls caught her foot on the rope and the whole group started giggling.
“Sixteen?” said a girl with bright red pigtails, a wide smile on her face. “When was the last time we stopped so low?”
“Sorry!” said the one who had messed up. “I lost my rhythm!”
A girl in the group who looked to be one of the oldest noticed John watching them. The smile fell slowly from her face.
“Who are you?” she asked, and the rest of the girls followed her line of sight.
“I’m Matthew Fischer,” John answered.
“I’ve never seen you before.”
“I used to live outside of Canton a long time ago. Before the train was even here.”
“What do you want?”
“Two girls interested in making a quarter each.”
The older girl’s nose screwed up, and she crossed her arms as she asked, “How?”
“By pretending to be my daughters in a family photograph.”
“That’s sure an odd request, mister.”
“I know, but there’s a good reason for it.” John then went on to explain about his ailing mother and her desire for a picture of her son’s family. “If you know who Hannah Miller is,” he said after his explanation, “she’s already agreed to be in it. Her three kids will be as well. I’m just looking for two more girls to pose as my daughters.”
The entire group looked back and forth between each other, none of them eager to step forward and offer to partake in the venture.
“A quarter?” the older girl, whom John was beginning to see was the ringleader, finally said.
“Paid up front,” he answered.
“My family could sure use that. When are you taking the photograph?”
“Tomorrow. Noon. At Mrs. Miller’s house.”
The girl sighed and gave a small nod.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll grab my younger sister, and we’ll do it.”
On his way to meet the town’s regular photographer, John saw a sign on a notice board that advertised a new one had just moved to town. The man’s credentials were admirable. He had even taken a picture of President Chester Arthur and the first lady. The prices were a little higher than Oliver’s, but it would be worth it to send a good picture back to Illinois.
After learning the new photographer was staying at the Blue Bell Hotel, John went to pay him a visit.
“I’m not available until two tomorrow,” the man, Fred Lloyd, said as he straightened his bowtie in the mirror above his room’s dresser. “You’re lucky I can even do that. If there hadn’t been a cancellation, you would have had to wait three more days.”
“Two o’clock will be fine. I appreciate you fitting us in.”
Upon leaving the hotel, John almost barreled into an old man with a very familiar face. Elijah Barringer. Elijah had been hanging around Canton even before John had arrived at the then still small town twenty years earlier. Although the two of them hadn’t been close, they had shared a couple of short interactions in the past.
Instinctually, John turned his head to the side and tried to move past the older gentleman.
“Say, don’t I know you?” Elijah said, grabbing his arm.
Still trying to keep his face turned, John said, “I don’t think so. I just rode into town yesterday.
“Really? Because you look awful familiar.”
“Sorry, but as I said, we’ve never met.”
John shook his arm free and moved for his horse, grateful when he didn’t hear Elijah following after him.
The next day, John went back to Hannah Miller’s house just before noon and found her working in her garden. She straightened when she saw him ride up and placed a hand to her eyes to shield them from the bright, mid-summer sun.
“Mr. Fischer,” she said after he had gotten off his horse.
“Mrs. Miller. I met with a photographer yesterday. A new one who only recently arrived in Canton. He is the one that will be taking our family picture, but he won’t make it out until two.”
“Very well. Did you find two more girls?”
“I did. They’ll be here shortly.”
Right as the sun hit its high point in the sky, the older girl from the jump rope group arrived, followed close behind by another girl that could have been her twin. They both had identical, oval faces, wide-set blue eyes, and the exact same shade of dark brown hair.
“Those are the two girls you picked?” There was something in Mrs. Miller’s tone that John couldn’t quite place.
“Yes,” he replied. “They were the only ones who volunteered.”
“Fine,” she said, placing her hands on her hips and looking dour.
“Mr. Fischer,” said the girl from the day before. “This is my younger sister Cora. Oh, and I’m Edith.”
“Nice to meet you both. I appreciate you coming for the picture today.”
“Don’t forget we’re getting paid for this.”
“Right.” John reached into his pocket and pulled out two quarters, then handed them over.
Edith and Cora studied the coins closely before shoving them in the pockets of their dresses.
“The photographer won’t be here until two,” John told them, “so you can leave and come back later.”
“We’ll stay. If we go home, we’ll have to help out with the chores.”
“Just what will you do if you stay?” asked Mrs. Miller suspiciously.
Both girls shrugged simultaneously and plopped themselves on the ground to play patty cake, while Mrs. Miller was left shaking her head at them.
With a sigh, she turned to John and asked, “Would you like to sit on the porch, Mr. Fischer.”
After John had gotten himself settled in the chair he had used the day before, Mrs. Miller brought him another glass of lemonade.
“What brings you to Canton,” she asked to start their conversation.
“I suppose you could say I’m just passing through.”
It wasn’t too far from the truth. His only reason for stopping was to collect any mail that his family had sent. That and to see if he could glean any information about the man who had ruined his life fifteen years before. The moment he sent the family pictures to his mother and inquired about Decker Lane, he was planning on heading out again.
“How long have you lived in Canton?” John asked to shift the attention off himself.
“Six years. My late husband once had a successful practice in New York, yet for some reason decided to come out here. He died last year from pneumonia. I told him he needed to allow himself time to rest and get better, but he couldn’t bear the thought of letting his patients down. He went out in the middle of a snow storm to deliver Mrs. Law’s baby and, well, he was never able to recover.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Sounds like he was a right good doctor.”
“Are you planning on moving back to New York?”
“Eventually. I need to save up some money first.”
“Like my five dollars.”
“Yes. I don’t expect you to pay me ahead of time, though.”
“You mean like Cora and Edith,” John said, catching what she hadn’t said.
John studied the two girls and didn’t see anything about them that seemed to justify the caution Mrs. Miller had about them. Cora and Edith seemed like two normal, adolescent females, enjoying life. Enjoying their friendship with each other. His own years spent growing up alongside his siblings had been some of the best in his life, and it was nice to see others making those same kinds of memories.
Until the photographer showed up, John shared a pleasant conversation with Mrs. Miller. She was the epitome of quiet, demure pleasantness. The only time the polite expression left her face was when her daughter asked if she could play with Edith and Cora. Mrs. Miller had promptly sent her oldest back in the house.
John was mid-story in telling the woman across from him about where he was from when Mrs. Miller’s whole face changed. Her eyes took on interest, her breathing picking up a little as she looked toward the dirt road in front of the house.
“Who is that?” she murmured as she stood to her feet.
Looking toward the road, John replied, “Fred Lloyd. He’s our photographer.”
She took a step forward and ran a hand over the front of her dress and then her hair. As Mr. Lloyd stepped into the yard, he looked up, spotted Mrs. Miller, and paused in his steps.
The look they exchanged let John know that, even if he was at liberty to pursue Mrs. Miller, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Hello, Mr. Fischer,” Lloyd said with a kind of awe in his voice. “Is this your wife?”
“Only for the picture,” Mrs. Miller said quickly.
“Only for the picture?”
Sighing, John explained his situation to Lloyd, watching a smile grow larger and larger on the other man’s face as he did.
“So you see,” John said, “the situation is peculiar. The sooner you can take the picture, the sooner we can all move on.”
“Right, right. Of course! Let’s get everything set up just right.”
Lloyd set his bulky camera and tripod on the ground, and directed John as to how he wanted the furniture set up in the yard. After that, he went up on the porch to flirt with Mrs. Miller. John wisely let them be. He wasn’t fool enough to try and take a woman’s attention when it was diverted elsewhere.
“Do you need help, Mr. Fischer?” Edith asked as she and Cora walked toward the house.
“I can handle it, but thank you. Stay close here. We should be ready for the picture soon.”
“Alright,” said Lloyd ten minutes later. “Mrs. Miller, please scoot your chair about an inch closer to Mr. Fischer’s. Good, good. Now hold that little girl of yours sideways in your lap.”
“Boy,” said Mrs. Miller.
“He’s a boy, not a girl.”
“But the dress? Never mind, never mind. Yes. Perfect. Right there.” He then arranged the other four children around the rockers that had been moved to the center of the yard. “That looks wonderful. Everyone stay where you are. Don’t move!”
He ran around to the back of his camera and placed a long piece of fabric over his head.
“Hey!” said Cora. “It’s Marshal Seldon! Howdy do Marshal Seldon!”
John snapped his head toward the road, all thoughts of sitting still for the picture gone from his mind. As Cora had said, Seldon was coming down the road toward them, his intention obviously to stop at the Miller house. When he had reached the front gate, he turned his eyes on John.
“You John Ford?” he asked, his voice deep and rough.
John’s first reaction was to try and devise a way to escape, but he quickly shoved those ideas aside. He had been running for fifteen years. It was time to be done.
“You must be mistaken, Marshal,” said Mrs. Miller. “This is Matthew Fischer.”
“I am John Ford,” John said, lifting his chin a little higher. “I’ll come quietly if you’ll let me get this photograph done.”
“What?” Mrs. Miller looked at him with confusion. “What do you mean you’ll go quietly? Go where?”
“Mr. Ford, you clearly don’t know you were pardoned ten years ago,” said Seldon, leaning his arms across the saddle horn.
“Yes. Decker Lane was arrested, and the truth about the whole situation came out. The judge pardoned you.”
John could do nothing but stare at the marshal.
“But those two men I killed?” he asked when he recovered coherent thought. “What about them?”
Mrs. Miller shrieked as she flew up out of her chair.
“You killed two men?” she exclaimed.
“They attacked you first, right?” asked Seldon.
“Yes. Because I wouldn’t accept their offer.”
“Self-defense. It’s perfectly legal in the Dakota Territory for a man to protect his life with force, Mr. Ford. Decker Lane told the sheriff back then that his men came out to offer to buy your land, and you shot them for trespassing. Given his clout with both the sheriff and the judge at that time, they were ready enough to go along with his story. Right after that, though, both law men were replaced, and Lane was arrested for doing the same thing to another man that he had tried to do to you.”
“Get away from me and my children!” Mrs. Miller practically screamed as she took a step backward toward the house.
Mr. Lloyd went to her side and shot John a steely look.
“Yes, Mr. Fischer, it would be best if you left. You are scaring poor Mrs. Miller.”
Ignoring them both, John asked hopefully, “My land?”
“I’m afraid it was sold off when you didn’t come back,” Seldon answered.
“Marshal Seldon!” Mrs. Miller said. “Could you please make this man get off my property?”
“He’s a pardoned man, Mrs. Miller, not a criminal.”
“He killed two people!”
“In self-defense, as I already said.”
“I don’t care! Make him leave!”
“Yes, make him leave,” chimed in Lloyd.
Seldon sighed and looked back over at John.
“If she doesn’t want you on her property, you have to leave,” he said, his annoyance with the woman clear.
“Doesn’t bother me none.” John shrugged and began walking toward his mare, who was standing right next to Seldon’s.
“Take these two wild creatures with you,” Mrs. Miller said, motioning at Edith and Cora.
“Come along, girls,” John said. “I’ll walk you home.”
John untied his horse and looked up at Seldon.
“How did you know I was in town?” he asked.
“Elijah Barrington saw you yesterday. Once he remembered who you were, he came to find me. He wanted to make sure you knew you were a free man.”
“I think I owe Elijah Barrington a drink.” John held his hand up and said, “I appreciate you coming to tell me, Marshal.”
Seldon clasped his hand firmly, then nudged his horse in the sides, heading back into the center of town.
“Where are we going?” John asked Edith. “Where’s home?”
Edith pointed away from the town and said, “That way. We live about a mile out.”
John felt uneasy as he followed the girls away from the town. The direction Edith had pointed him in was painfully familiar, close to what had once been his own parcel of land.
Twenty years before, when the Homestead Act of 1862 had been signed by President Lincoln, John had been one of the first to jump on the offer. 162 acres of land that a man would get to keep if he worked it for five years. That man was supposed to be the head of a family, but John had been able to get around the system. Diligently, he had worked his land for those required five years. When his mother had taken ill the first time, he had gone back to Illinois for a month. Just a month. But when he got back, his land had been taken over by a rich man, Decker Lane, who had heard rumors that gold had been discovered there.
“Mama won’t hate you like Mrs. Miller did,” said Edith.
“Don’t be so sure about that,” John muttered.
“She’ll be happy you killed those men.”
John looked over at her in surprise.
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
“Our papa was killed twelve years ago by some guys who wanted his land. They heard there was gold there and tried to pay him to leave. When he wouldn’t, they killed him.”
How familiar that sounded. Only John had fought back. And he’d won at the price of fifteen years on the run and the loss of his land.
“I’m sorry to hear about your papa,” he said.
“Cora and I were too young to remember much about it. Mama hid with us,” Edith continued. “The men didn’t even know she was there. After they left, she went to get help. With her testimony, that rich guy got put in jail.”
“Your mama’s the reason Decker Lane was arrested?”
“Yes, sir.” There was pride in her voice.
“Then your mama is also part of the reason I don’t have to run anymore.” He’d have to properly thank the woman. “Is she still on the land that your papa had?”
“Yes, and the town let her buy the land that bordered our property, too. Everyone says she’s crazy for staying out there and even crazier for buying more land. That’s why Mrs. Miller and the other women in the town don’t like Mama much. They say she’s being improper living out there with kids and no man. They say we’ll grow up to be heathens. But Mama’s great, so don’t listen to what anyone else says. You’ll like her Mr. Fischer. Oh, I mean Mr. Ford.”
John had a feeling Edith was right. What good was a woman like Mrs. Miller with her pretty face and tidy house if she couldn’t show a little care and compassion for others? He was almost ashamed that he had thought of courting her, however brief that thought had been.
“Is your last name Calahan?” John asked.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
John thought back on his conversation with the postmaster when the man had told him about the crazy widow who never came to town. Myrtle Calahan.
“I think someone might have told me,” John said instead of using the potentially hurtful words of his source.
When they were within a quarter mile of the Calahan house, John knew exactly what extra, nearby land it was the widow had purchased. The 162 acres that had once been his. The revelation was both painful and sweet.
The front of the Calahan home was exactly how he had once imagined his own place being. Dogs running up to greet them. Chickens roaming around, pecking constantly at the ground. A couple of horses grazing on hay in a coral near the large barn.
There was a boy and girl walking out of the barn as John, Edith, and Cora walked up. They both looked to be younger than the two girls at his side.
“How many siblings do you have?” he asked.
“There’s five of us. Four girls and a boy.”
John smiled at the answer.
“Mama!” Edith shouted. “We have a visitor!”
In moments, Myrtle Calahan walked out onto the porch. Her brown hair looked like it had been hastily thrown up, and the front of her dress was stained with grass and dirt. There was a wild look in her blue eyes as she observed John. Not a crazy wild, but more of a free spirit, untamable wild.
“This is Mr. Ford,” said Edith. “He used to be on the run for killing two of that Decker Lane’s men, but he just found out he’s been pardoned. Isn’t that great, Mama! And he said it was because you turned that bad man in.”
“I am mighty grateful, Mrs. Calahan,” said John as he touched the brim of his hat.
A slow smile began to spread across Mrs. Calahan’s face, making her wild eyes beam. It was the most stunning sight John could ever remember having seen. His heart about flew out of his chest.
“My pleasure, Mr. Ford.” Her voice was low and calm, but full of sure power. “Will you stay for dinner?”
John felt a grin splitting his own face as he gave a big nod.
“Don’t mind if I do, Mrs. Calahan. Don’t mind if I do.”
To: Mrs. Hannah Ford, Springfield, Illinois November 12, 1882
Enclosed is a photograph of my family, just as you requested. I’m also sending you one from the recent wedding ceremony between myself and one Myrtle Calahan, once widowed but now happily mine. I will confess that this is my first and only marriage. What I told you before about having a family was a lie. I didn’t want you to worry about me, so I was dishonest. Please know that I am beyond happy now. Your son has a real family of his own. I’m finally home.
Praying for your health every day.
With love from your son,