Shepherd’s Delight, an excerpt

While the ladies had been promenading the stalls in the exhibitors’ area, the gentlemen had spent some time being shown the horses that John Douglass had brought over for the races. Edmund was fascinated by the tall, strong beasts straining at their ropes, their shining coats steaming with the exertion of their practice runs. Neither James nor Job Nicol were too comfortable in the presence of such animal strength and did not share the same fascination for horseflesh. Out of politeness they were happy to be shown around the makeshift stables, but it was not long before John Douglass could sense that they had seen enough. Leaving Edmund with Maurice, his best jockey, John guided the other two away from the dust and noise. He was keen to speak to James alone, but in the circumstances, it could do no harm to be accompanied by a man of the cloth.

The three men climbed a slight rise before seating themselves in the shade of a huge tree. From this higher vantage point they could see across the whole site, and onwards to the sea. Leaning back against the smooth trunk, James thought he could see his wife and her friends as small dots amongst the stalls and shops. He hoped they were enjoying themselves. For a minute or two there was no need for speech as all three took in the splendid sight around them.

Eventually, John broached the subject that had been on his mind all day. “James,” he said gently, “there is something I need to tell you. I was going to write it in my letter, but it is something best said in person. It has been perplexing me for some time as to how I might say it kindly, but in the end it is best just told. There is someone looking for you.”

With a sudden mental screech, James’ mind was pulled away from thoughts of his wife. The past was catching up with him. It was what he had always been concerned about. “What do you mean?” he replied. “Who? What do they want?”

Job Nicol, fully aware of James’ past and the deception he had set up with John Douglass to ensure he got back to his wife, held a hand up in warning and said, “Wait, James. Let’s hear what John has to tell us.”

“A month or so before I wrote that first letter to you I received a letter myself, but addressed to James Mackenzie,” began John. “The address was right, however, so I opened it though it was, in fact, for you to read. In the early days I sometimes used your name, so there have been a few letters over the years like that. Mostly asking for my business. But it had been a while, and I was taken a little by surprise to find it came from a lawyer’s office in Brisbane.”

John paused to reach into his jacket pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper covered in fine copperplate writing, of the kind used in legal offices. He handed it to James.

James unfolded the paper but found he could not hold it still enough to see the words clearly. Job, knowing that James found reading a difficult task at the best of times, gently took the paper from him and began to read out loud. The letter came from Granger, Young and Crow, Lawyers, William Street, Brisbane and was dated January 7th, 1861. It read :

Dear Sir,

I write on behalf of a client who seeks your acquaintance forthwith. 

If it pleases you to meet, I can give an explanation of his requirements. To that end I intend to travel to Ipswich next week where I will take a room at the Queen’s Arms. 

I look forward to your company there at your earliest convenience.

Your servant

Emery Granger Esq.

Job handed the letter back to John, who continued, “I was inclined to ignore it, but Eunice persuaded me that I should indeed meet this Mr Granger. So I rode into Ipswich and took a room there myself. I enquired of this gentleman and was informed that he would meet me for supper that evening. I can tell you I was anxious to the core and almost grabbed my horse and took off for home. If our deception was discovered then we are both at fault, and I have no desire to return to a prison life, that’s for sure.”

John stood up, staring for a moment out to sea, as if to decide what to say next. “But Eunice had persuaded me that it was better to meet this gentleman rather than to wonder forever what he had wanted to say, so I joined him at a small table in a quiet corner of the bar. At first he greeted me as Mr Mackenzie, but I had no choice but to put him right on this matter. I pointed out that, as a legal man, he should respect the privacy of my words, and then I told him our story, sparing no details. I am not convinced that I was right to do so, but had no choice other than to pretend to be you, and that, my wife tells me, would have been a further act of crime.”

“Oh John, I am so sorry to have put you in the position of being a criminal,” said James.

“I was already a convict, I believe. As were you,” replied John, with a wry smile. “Once Mr Granger realised I was not the man he sought, his demeanour changed somewhat. I felt that he was about to tell me something in confidence, but he would not do so once he realised that Mr James Mackenzie truly lived elsewhere. He was polite, but limited in what he was prepared to say. I had told him, quite truthfully, that I did not know exactly where you lived. And, to be honest, time has passed and I saw no wrong in being honest. The man gave me assurances that he was not accusing you of any criminal act.”

John could tell by the look on James’ face that he was not so sure. In truth, James could feel himself sliding back into the dark days that had followed the death of his firstborn son. A time when he feared every visitor, looking over his shoulder to avoid his deception with John being discovered. He had been so happy lately, he had no desire to go back to those times, nor to end up in jail again. It was his greatest fear.

“I could not tell him any more than you were probably living in the south of New Zealand and that I thought your wife’s name was Sophia. I did not know at that time whether you had stayed in the same area, although I suspected so,” John went on. “Of course, your response to my letter proved it to be true. All that Mr Granger knows is that we spent time together in Lyttelton jail, for crimes which neither of us were guilty of, and used a small deception on our release to make our lives a little easier. He seemed satisfied by that, thanked me for my honesty and wished me well. I have heard no more from him since then.”

It was a lot for James to take in, and there was a silence between the men, which seemed to last for an agonisingly long time. John wondered, not for the first time, if he had done the right thing. It was Job Nicol who broke the awkward gap in their conversation.

“Well, in my view you have done no wrong, John, and told no lies,” he said. “If this gentleman Granger told you he had no desire to catch James out, then we can do no more than believe him. Some months have passed now and nobody has come looking in Marytown, or at Applecross. So I say, let’s forget it altogether.”

“Hmmm,” was all that James felt able to reply. He had no intention of falling out with his friend John, but he wished he could be left alone to live his life with Sophia and the children. Now he had to live with the idea that a stranger could turn up at any moment. And for what, he wondered? He doubted it would be for any good.

In the distance they could see the coloured blobs that were their families coming closer and turning into real people as they climbed the slope to join their men. James stood up, clapped a firm hand on John’s shoulder and said, “No matter, John. You have done no harm, but I am glad you have told me of it.”

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