San Francisco 1915
Clay Martin returned to his dorm room. He hated being so far from Virginia City, but his mother insisted if he wanted to become a doctor, the best place to study was in San Francisco.
With the long winter over and his final exams finished, he would soon be able to return home. He missed his mother and father to say nothing of his sister, Ellie.
A banging on the door drew his attention from all thoughts of home. “Are you Dr. Clay Martin?” the messenger boy from the telegraph office questioned.
The only people who called him doctor were his family from Virginia City. He kept telling them he had to finish this year of school and pass all his exams before he could use the word in connection with his name. Hearing this stranger call him doctor told Clay something had to be wrong at home.
“Yes,” he replied, apprehension growing.
“This wire is for you.” The boy held out a yellow envelope and waited as if in anticipation of a tip for his service.
Clay dug in his pocket for the coins to give the boy so he could have privacy to read whatever was so important to send a wire rather than a letter. As soon as he was alone, he ripped open the yellow envelope. The neatly printed words were like a slap in the face.
PAPA SHOT—NOT EXPECTED TO LIVE—MAMA HAS TAKEN TO HER BED—YOUR RETURN IMPERATIVE
It seemed as though his heart stopped for several seconds, even though it hadn’t. Breathing deeply, he focused on the message from his sister. At times like these, he wished he’d been able to have a telephone installed in his dorm room. Even if he had, he knew his sister wouldn’t have been able to make such a call. It was entirely possible Jason was the one to prompt Ellie to send a wire instead.
“Hey Martin, are you just going to stand there by the door?” His roommate Jackson Palmer called as he barged into the room. “They’ve posted the results of our finals. We’re going to go down to the commons and see how we did before we go out and celebrate.”
“You go ahead,” Clay finally managed to say. “I have to send a wire, talk to the dean, and get a train back home.”
“Home? I thought you weren’t going until the term ends next week.”
“My pa’s been shot. If I leave tonight I might be able to get there before he dies.”
“Is your ma strong enough to handle something like this?”
Clay didn’t have to answer Jackson’s inquiry. It was no secret Clay’s mother wasn’t a strong person.
“That’s why I’m going to talk to the dean and go home early. With Pa shot and Ma sick, Ellie will need all the help she can get.”
* * * *
The train pulled into Virginia City. Clay picked up his traveling bag and made his way down the aisle toward the door.
As soon as he stepped onto the platform, he breathed deeply, enjoying the crisp mountain air. Before him was the panorama he’d loved all his life. It was a normal homecoming. Normal, except for the fact his parents weren’t there to meet him. As he looked around, he saw his sister wasn’t among the people waiting for the train. In her stead, Jason Bellinger, his family’s longtime friend stepped forward to greet him. Clay wondered if it was his imagination or if Jason had aged since Clay left for school last fall.
“Clay, my boy, it’s good to see you,” Jason said as he pumped Clay’s hand in greeting.
“How are they?” Clay did not really want to hear the answer.
Jason’s expression said more than any words. It was as though the man had lost everything that gave his life meaning. “You mother passed away this morning. It was peaceful. I don’t think she could have gone on without your father.”
Clay felt as though the strength suddenly left his legs. Before he lost control, Jason’s bodyguard, Sam, was at Clay’s side.
“Come along, son,” Sam said. “You pa has been hangin’ on ‘til you could get here. We’re to bring you back to the house.”
Clay nodded and allowed the big black man to lead him to the waiting carriage. He’d known Sam and his wife, Sally, all his life. The two of them along with Jason were as close as any family could ever be. Even though Jason ran the elegant gaming club, The Mother Lode, Clay’s mother cherished Jason’s friendship.
The trip from the train station to the mansion where Clay grew up was made in silence. Clay relished the quiet as his thoughts centered on his father. How could anyone callously shoot down a U.S. Marshal? It was something the family always knew could happen. Clay also knew this was hardly the Wild West he read about in the dime novels his mother never wanted him to read. In 1915, people were more civilized. The modern world was no longer as lawless as the area had once been.
A glance at Jason left no doubt as to the thoughts crowding the man’s mind. Whatever the connection with the wealthy gambler and Clay’s deeply religious mother, Clay never knew. What he could tell was Jason was devastated by what he considered a personal loss.
The mansion, which usually bustled with activity, was strangely quiet. As though one with the house, Clay’s sister, Ellie, appeared before him. Her normally sun darkened skin was a translucent white, making her green eyes and red hair even more striking than usual.
“Mama’s gone,” she managed to say before allowing him to take her in his arms.
“I know. Jason told me.”
“Sally and I were with her. I thought Sally’s heart would break the way she cried. She told Mama she was like her own child and she never loved anyone the way she did her.”
“What about Pa?”
Ellie began to shake, while tears ran down her cheeks. “It’s bad, Clay. He keeps telling me he’s going to be all right, but he’s not. He’s going to die. I know he is. He’s only waiting for you to get here. It’s best if you go up to see him, so he can stop struggling. This game of pretense is draining him.”
Clay kissed the top of his sister’s head and then took the stairs two at a time until he reached the second floor of the house. At the top of the stairs, the door to his parents’ room stood ajar.
Clay’s father, Russ, lay in the big bed. All his life Clay looked up to his father. Russ Martin was always larger than life. Although Clay was as tall as his father he knew he could never measure up to the man he loved and respected.
The man Clay saw lying in the bed was suddenly old, suddenly frail. If it weren’t for the slight rise and fall of the sheet, Clay would have thought his father already dead.
“It’s me, Pa,” Clay said, his voice hardly more than a whisper.
Russ’ eyes opened and then focused on Clay. “Jesse’s dead. Your ma is gone. I felt her spirit leave.”
“I know, Pa.”
“I don’t have much longer.” A fit of coughing cut off his words. It took several moments before he had enough breath to continue. “You and Ellie have to know the truth. The secret must be told.”
“What truth, Pa?” Clay was bewildered by his father’s words.
“Your mother’s Bible. Promise me you and Ellie will read the papers it holds once I’m gone. If you have any questions, Gary will answer them.”
“Gary?” Clay frowned.
Russ nodded and then closed his eyes. Clay listened as his father drew his last breath. Unwilling to release Russ’ hand, Clay sat by the bed for nearly an hour.
“What were you talking about, Pa? Who is Gary? What’s hidden in Ma’s Bible?”
“Just the truth about who your mother was.” Clay turned to see Jason standing in the doorway. “Is your father gone?”
Clay nodded. “He died just after I got here. I—I ...” Unmanly tears kept the rest of the words from passing his lips.
He was barely aware of Jason helping him to his feet and guiding him down the stairs to the parlor where Ellie waited for him.