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This Land We Have Chosen

Chapter Text

"Watson! Jakes is down!"

"Here! They're coming out here!"

"Form ranks!"

"Watson! Hurry!"

"To your left!"

"John!"

John Watson sat up. The brilliant blue sky and hot, fragrant air of Agra faded to the diffuse, chill light of a Canadian April, but Mary's face, half-obscured as it had been then, still floated before his eyes.

He scrubbed his face with his hands and stared blankly, head pounding. He was half a world away, but even with the whiskey, dreams haunted him and made the long winter nights a thing to be feared.

Thirty years old, he thought to himself. He would surely live another thirty years. If he spent nearly every night like this, the years would be long ones.

Harry's plaintive call broke into his reverie, and he shoved the thick wool blankets aside and got out of bed. The air in the small cabin was icy, and outside the wind whistled forbiddingly. He shrugged into his heavy coat and poked up the fire before shoving the door open. Another blizzard, dammit--he leaned into it and pushed. He'd have to shovel the front later, but for now he needed to get to Harry before she started destroying things.

Wading through the fresh snow, he crossed the short distance to the barn. Harry's cries were more frantic now, and Clara had begun to add her voice. Pretty soon the geese would start up, and then he'd be deafened.

"I'm here, I'm here," he called, pushing the door open. The barn was warmer than the house--a little riper, to be sure, with the accumulated scent of a dozen animals, but warm. He shrugged off his coat and hung it on its nail, then picked up the hay fork and started to fill the mangers, Harry's and Clara's first, because he could see that Harry had gnawed another notch out of the bars while she was waiting to be fed. At least if she escaped she couldn't lay waste to his kitchen garden or his clothesline this time-there was still at least two feet of snow on the ground.

"Get goats, they said," he muttered, pulling Harry's silky brown ear. "More milk for less feed, they said. Trouble, they didn't say."

Harry allowed the caress, then nudged Clara towards the full manger. They were both soon eating, absorbed in their food. The geese, Philemon and Pierrette, honked companionably at him until he tipped corn into their trough, then turned their attention to pushing the chickens away. John scattered more corn on the side to defuse a fight, then hopped over the bar to check for eggs. Only a couple now; feed was getting meagre this late in the winter.

John turned his attention to his horse, Arthur, and the oxen, Jack and Hamish. At least they didn't cause trouble, he thought grouchily as he fed and watered them. Isadora, the Shorthorn cow, was more of a mix; John never knew whether she was going to kick him or lick him at milking time. Today it was lick, though she was dry at the moment, and John rewarded her with the first turnips from the bucket.

"Old bag. Bet you'll feel better when that calf has come," he said, eyeing her enormous belly; she was due any second. Isadora chewed her turnips and did not answer. He'd often wondered, when he was a child, why his father talked to the animals, but now he knew--they were better than people (or, if they weren't, at least you didn't know what they were saying). Also, he didn't have much choice; if he wanted to talk to another person, his nearest neighbours were four miles out.

It had been his choice. He'd never wanted to see another person again, after Agra, and seven years of self-imposed exile hadn’t changed his mind. The goats and the geese were usually enough for him, though they were poor company in the house and their conversation did leave a little to be desired.

Still, visits with his neighbours were sometimes unavoidable, given the barter system that had evolved between them. It began as a matter of necessity:  neither he nor Greg Lestrade had wives, and Mrs. Hudson and the widow Donovan shared a fairly unreliable hired man. John and Lestrade cut wood and helped harvest the women’s crops, and in return, Mrs. Hudson made their clothes and the widow Donovan provided them with butter, cheese, and preserves. It wasn’t that John disliked any of them, exactly, but he rarely felt inclined to seek out their company outside of their fairly regular business transactions.

John shoveled out the stalls quickly, starting to feel his own stomach growl, then donned his coat and went to the pond for water. One day, he would have a pump in the barn, he thought, as the icy water soaked into his gloves.

By the time he had carried enough water for the smaller animals and led the larger ones out to drink, he was shivering. He carried a bucket into the house for himself and filled the kettle. At least the fire was warm. He set the spider down by the fire to heat. He had one egg, and there was enough salt pork to grease the pan, at least.

His day stretched before him. There would be no woodcutting, and so unless Isadora calved, there were only his meals to look after. He could look over his planting forecast for the spring, but his lack of ready money made him shy away from it; it had been a poor harvest last year and he'd had to eat some of his seed potatoes and grain.

He could write, he supposed. His commanding officer had suggested it when he'd left the force, but John felt stifled by the cyclical mundanity of his life. What was there to write about? Since coming to Canada, he ploughed and planted in the spring, cleared in the summer, harvested in the fall, and cut wood in the winter--when it wasn't blizzarding, that is--and when it was, he sat inside. He knew his journals, such as they were, were useful for future reference, but sometimes he missed practicing medicine, for both the challenge and the money.

And yet he would never go back, not beyond occasionally helping Stamford, the local doctor--that was a line he could not cross. So he farmed, and he spent his evenings with a bottle of whiskey and the fire, hoping he would sleep without dreams. It was a life, though a hard and uncertain one.

He fried his scrap of salt pork and then put in the one egg and a hunk of his own hard bread into the grease. Tea and breakfast, such as it was, would make him feel better, he supposed, though it would do nothing fatten his purse.

Washing the dishes not thirty minutes later, he was surprised to hear a knock at the door. He swung it open to reveal Lestrade's boy, Dimmock, shivering in the wind and cold.

"Letter, Dr. Watson."

"Dimmock! Come in right away, lad! Is your horse in?" Dimmock shook his head, numb; John sent him inside.

Dimmock was huddled by the fire when John came back in; John shook the snow out of his boots and gave the boy a blanket and some warmed-over tea.

"A letter?" he asked, when Dimmock's teeth finally stopped chattering. "Why in heaven's name would you come out today? I'm surprised Lestrade allowed you to come."

"He didn't really want to, Dr. Watson. But the man insisted, and he paid so much that Lestrade said we were honour-bound to deliver it on time, as long as I promised to follow the line all the way. It wasn't so bad, you know, on our side, but your line road was real snowy."

"Well, you'll have to stay here until it stops blowing, anyhow. Get that tea inside you while I read it, and then we'll have a game of checkers."

The letter was heavy, written on the kind of paper John had only seen once or twice in his life. It unfolded with a rich crackle.


River House, Carleton

April 2, 1866

Dear Dr. Watson,

I hope you will forgive my presumption in writing to you without an introduction.

You have been highly recommended to me for assistance in a delicate matter. My brother, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, desires to write a monograph on the medicinal plants of Ontario. Wishing to encourage him in his scientific pursuits, I am in search of a place for him to board whilst he does his research. However, since he also suffers from an excess of humours which render him morbid and snappish, not to mention deeply uncivil, I wish him to be in the care of a medical man.

I am offering ten Canadian dollars per month, for the months of May-August, with a bonus of $50 should he not only stay the full growing season, but also accept whatever treatment you, in your medical opinion, deem necessary. I will arrange for him to come to you.

If you accept my proposal, no response is necessary. I will deposit the money at the Dominion Bank in Bonne Chere on April 20th, and you may expect my brother as soon as the snow melts.

Sincerely,

Mycroft Holmes

 

John folded the letter quickly. Just the heavy, confident stroke of the writing made him angry, and the contents themselves were beyond the pale. No reply needed, indeed. He went to the kitchen bureau for paper.

 

Scotch Bush Farm

Bonne Chere

April 4, 1866

 

Mr. Holmes,

I am afraid I no longer practice medicine. In addition, I do not accept boarders.

Sincerely,

John Watson

 

He sanded it, sealed it with his seal and tucked it into Dimmock's drying coat.

"You'll take this back for me, yeah?" he said, and reached for the checkerboard.

 

Isadora didn't calve that day, nor the next, nor the next. It was a week later, on one of those warm April days when it's easy to believe that spring is really coming, that she finally did: beautiful twin heifers, quickly and in the middle of the day. This unlooked-for bonus made John feel that perhaps this would be the year he would finally have enough money to eat all winter, and perhaps even hire a man to clear more land. He raised two fingers towards Mycroft Holmes--undoubtedly an overfed city man who felt he could do what he liked in the world.

That night he recorded the calves' names in his journal: Alice and Louise. He'd go to Bonne Chere tomorrow, if the crust was good for sleighing; he needed tea, sugar, thread, ink and flour. It would deplete his purse a good bit for now, but the sale of the extra calf would fill it up again, and he’d been living on a lean supply of food for too long.

The next day was fine as well, and John was on the road early. He stopped at Lestrade's, who needed tea and paper, then went to Mrs. Hudson's and the Widow Donovan's; they had no requests but all were quite happy to see him--including Higgins the billy goat, Harry's nemesis. So effusive were their welcomes, particularly Mrs. Hudson's, that he barely escaped being fed scones and kept late. At the bridge, he passed by Stamford's, but Stamford was out on a call. John watered the horse and continued.

The river was frozen solid, and so he was able to cut five miles from his journey. He was still glad to see Bonne Chere appear on the horizon, and Arthur trotted into the livery stable gladly. John left him there, happily eating a warm mash, and walked down to Angelo's grocery, in good humour and hungry himself.

"John!" Angelo shouted the moment he came in. "You are not dead! Come and have some stew, my friend, and I have a whiskey you will adore!"

"Righto, Angelo," John said, taking his coat off. "I'm famished."

"Excuse me," said a woman's voice, John turned and saw a tall, statuesque woman, beautifully dressed.

"Hello," he said, licking his lips. She was not someone he knew, and all for the best, he supposed.

"Of course!" Angelo exclaimed, "So sorry, Miss, I was not thinking of the right thing. John, this lady would like to speak with you; then you come back for food and drink, yes?"

"If the lady insists," John said. She was the most beautiful woman he'd seen in a long time.

They walked back towards the hotel, and, without a word to Sam at the front desk, the woman led him up the stairs to a front-facing sitting room.

"What's this, then?" John asked awkwardly at the door, but she did not answer. Instead, she opened the door without knocking and led John in.

"Good afternoon, Dr. Watson," came an unfamiliar voice.

John moved through the doorway to see a tall, slim man--not overfed, damn it all--in an impeccable suit leaning against the wall as though he had every right to be there. If this wasn’t Mycroft Holmes, John was a Dutchman.

"I am Mycroft Holmes."

"And why are you in Bonne Chere? I sent you a refusal." John raised his chin.

"I am here--at some great inconvenience to myself--because I do require your assistance."

"My refusal stands."

"It's a great shame," said Mycroft Holmes, sighing, "My brother is, shall we say, somewhat of a burden."

"Well, find someone else to bear it."

"You are uniquely qualified."

"I'm really not. And why have you come so far? Surely there are city doctors that would do a better job." Mycroft's eyebrows rose at the word 'city'.

"Carleton is barely a city, but, yes. And Sherlock knows all the local doctors on sight; he won't stand to be examined by them. But he lives for science, and since I know you have several unusual botanical specimens in this area, I thought perhaps he might be convinced to travel."

"I know next to nothing about botany."

"But you do about medicine, and no doubt you have numerous contacts amongst the local Ojibway tribe who are familiar with the plants. In any case, Sherlock is rather solitary."

"I've no room."

"The loft is good enough, and I will provide his bedding and a small allowance of food."

"The lo….. No. I don't want to, and that's reason enough. Good day." John nodded to the young woman and turned on his heel.

"I regret, Dr. Watson, that I do want you to, above all things. It would be a shame if I had to persuade you."

John wheeled back towards Holmes.

"Persuade me?"

"Regretfully, yes. I hold a number of your debts, now, and I would hate to demand payment immediately."

"You utter bastard!" John thought of the few coins that he had drawn from the worn leather bag that served him as purse and bank both. Mycroft Holmes' shoes cost more than his home, he'd wager.

"Needs must."

John examined his face. There was no breath of fear, no bluff; this was a man who would stop at nothing.

"This is against the law," he tried.

"You will find, Dr. Watson, that the sheriff is willing to oblige me as well."

"Of course."

"It really is not such an onerous task for a man like you, Dr. Watson."

"You don't know me."

"I know enough."

"I doubt that very much."

"Do you have any questions about my brother?"

"I haven't agreed to take him."

"Ah, bravery. It is the kindest term for foolishness I know."

"If he comes to harm, I won't be responsible. I don't have time to nursemaid anyone but my livestock and my land."

"Sherlock is very resourceful, when he chooses to be. If he does not choose to be, you have my full permission to leave him to suffer the consequences of his actions."

"I will."

"Here is an advance of $10, to stock your larder."

John took it, the weight of it in his hand more damning than any prison sentence. He couldn't afford to tell this man to go fuck himself, but he had rarely wanted to do anything more.

"Furthermore," Holmes added, "His excess of humours may be hysteria, though it will be up to you to diagnose it. If you treat him for hysteria--I believe the accepted method is manual stimulation to paroxysm, but of course you are the expert--and it is effective, I will pay off your land."

"That won't be necessary." John said shortly. "I am accepting money for his board because I must, but no more. I will neither treat him against his will, nor will I require him to remain. He may come and go as he pleases, for medical reasons as well as moral ones. You can stuff your other offer up your arse."

“I insist that you see to…that aspect of his health. Otherwise, I will—regrettably—be obliged to take action.”

“Fine. I’ll examine him. But you must abide by my decision.”

"Very well, Doctor Watson. I believe you are indeed the man for the job."

"Are we through?"

"Unless you wish to discuss additional payment for regular written updates."

"I do not."

"Then we are finished," Mycroft Holmes said, in a pleasant tone, and held out his hand. The corner of his mouth twitched, and John knew that Holmes expected a refusal.

Well, better give the gentleman what he wanted. He nodded curtly and left.

 

It took two whiskies and half a bowl of Angelo's delicious stew before he felt even a little himself again. Angelo, too, had been unusually silent. Suspiciously silent, even.

"What would have happened if I hadn't gone to speak with him?" John asked. Angelo's eyes cut down.

"Angelo."

"No credit, and an immediate demand on your note. He bought it from me for more than the full price, in hard cash. John, you must excuse me."

"Difficult to refuse," John said. In the colonies, even storekeepers were often cash poor. "No hard feelings."

"More whiskey?"

"Best not, thanks." He did want to buy a bottle, but even though Mycroft Holmes' money sat heavy in his pocket, he refused. The whiskey had become too much of a mainstay, perhaps, in the cold winter, and now, with an uninvited guest coming, he could not afford to have his judgement clouded. Instead, he selected the items from his list: flour, sugar, tea and side of bacon. On reflection, he added a barrel of dried apples, since his were long finished. Then, well provisioned but in a terrible temper, he set out.

The road home was not so pleasurable as the road out had been.The sun was setting, lighting up the snow before him and making it difficult to see, and the indignity he had suffered at Mycroft Holmes' hands irritated him. So he would have a guest, all summer, and a sick city-dweller at that. He could not imagine how a Holmes brother would look, or act; he could imagine how it would infringe on his privacy and his work.

He was in foul mood by the time he passed, Mrs. Hudson's. Higgins gave his usual loud welcome, both olfactory and auditory, but John didn't stop to greet him. He pressed on to Lestrade's. The moment he pulled up, the door swung open before he could knock.

"John!" Lestrade opened the door as soon as he pulled into the yard. "How late you are! I'd ask you to stop for a bite, but you'll be wanting to get home to the animals. If I'd known you'd be so late I'd have sent Dimmock over to do your animals."

"Thanks, Greg." John handed him the parcels and his change. "I've had a rum thing happen, though. Ever heard of a Mycroft Holmes?"

Lestrade's lips thinned.

"From Carleton?"

"Yes. What do you know?"

"Rich." Lestrade was curt and did not look at John. "Family money is from England; parents moved out when their heir disgraced the family. Middle brother has political ambitions. Younger brother is a scientist and the best of the bunch, although he's a temperamental devil."

"That letter was from the one with political ambitions."

Lestrade blanched. "Mycroft?"

"Slim arsehole, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth?"

"Right."

"He's decided that he's shipping his younger brother to me as a sort of glorified exploration expedition--and he got hold of all my credit notes to oblige me to board him."

"Sounds like him. Well, be prepared for considerable oversight and having your cabin turned upside down. Although," Lestrade looked at John assessingly, "you might enjoy the company."

"Fat chance of that," John said. "I can barely stand you."

They both laughed at that, and John left Lestrade's clearing feeling a little lighter.

The sun dropped out of the sky as he left Lestrade's, and he struggled to keep Arthur on the road. Thankfully it hadn't snowed, but by the time he got home he was chilled. The house was icy, too; he stoked up the fire and went to the warm barn. Harry was yelling her head off, of course, but food, water, and a chuck on her chin calmed her down, and him, too, really.  Maybe Harry would scare Sherlock off. Maybe, at the very least, she'd eat his undoubtedly extravagant clothes.

The house had warmed, though not much, and he drew the latch and closed the curtain over the entry. Setting a huge kettle of water to boil, he unpacked his provisions and sat down with a sigh. He'd wash, he'd eat, and he'd make a plan.

Or maybe he'd just wash and eat, he thought, as he felt the weariness sink into his bones. He hadn't felt this type of fatigue in a long time: the fatigue of being manipulated and directed. At least that was a novelty.

That night, without the whiskey, he dreamt of the days before Agra. Mary smiling at him through her fan, Commander Morstan urging them to dance, that first kiss the same night, almost shocking. Then, Captain Sholto was asking him, in Mycroft Holmes' voice, to take the rear and protect the men. He couldn't. He couldn't protect the men. He couldn't protect himself, he thought, as the rebels poured down upon them and Mary's dead face rose dancing in front of his eyes.  He woke with tears on his face this time, his chest heaving. He got out of bed as soon as he could, but several minutes had elapsed before he was able to do anything but hold his body together.

Damn these dreams, he thought, and reached for the whiskey bottle.

The next morning, his head was pounding, and he felt a wave of shame and anger. He could not show this weakness to anyone else, least of all to the brother of the man who held his livelihood in the balance. He would suffocate and die if he had to leave the woods and become a doctor in a small Canadian town--were he even able to buy a practice. He had to discharge this distasteful treatment—to give up one summer to preserve his home.

Resolutely, he rose. It was snowing again, and the wind swept his home quarter. He would do the barn work and then, he thought, he would give his mind over to thinking about his guest and possibilities for treatment. Hysteria. Manual stimulation. John tried to remember exactly what it was that he was forgetting. He'd seen the papers, when they came out, but he knew there were some cases in which it was contraindicated. But which? After his breakfast, he turned to his few books, but even they were outdated, and he found no answers.

Still, he thought, it was not a risky procedure, and if it did not work there would only be perhaps some small depletion in energy for the patient, easily remedied with fresh air and perhaps a balsam tonic.

He would, he thought, have to find some sort of slippery medium. Tallow, perhaps, though that was none too easy to come by. Gun oil? Seemed a shame to waste it. Perhaps he could concoct something; Mezenee might be able to help him too, he supposed.

That decided, he set it aside with a firm mental shake of his head, and set to assessing his home. It was at least another two weeks until any outdoor work could be done, and perhaps he could make some small repairs to the interior to make it more comfortable in that time.

The cabin was twenty feet by fifteen, with the long end, and thus the entrance, facing northeast. The fireplace was to the right upon entering, a large, open stone hearth with a kettle hook and a grate. His kitchen bench was a small "L" that began on the far side of the fireplace wall and ran to the middle of the facing wall; his canisters of tea and sugar were kept there, as was the basin, and his barrels of salt pork and flour were underneath. His few dishes and a bronze clock—his only decorative item, a relic of his late grandmother Watson—were on a shelf by the window. From the floor under the shelf, a ladder reached up to the loft, where John stored the tools that were not in use and where now he would store his unwelcome guest. He must see to a bed, he supposed.

His own bed was in the corner under the ladder, a low, homemade thing, roughly made up with spruce branches and wool blankets. A chest in the middle of the far wall held his clothing and sewing implements. The corner to the left of the door was reserved tools and a wide log carved into a chair that he used for working, the barn being big enough only for the animals. The only other piece of furniture in the house was the hard wooden settle, immediately to the right of the door, and the small square table in front of it. There were only two tiny windows, glass being both dear and scarce. One sat above his kitchen bench, while the other opposed the fireplace. 

That was all there was, but there had been much less when he had arrived. He shuddered as he remembered his first winter in the shanty—eight feet square, no windows, and a decomposing roof. He’d been cold for nine months, and he’d stepped on goat turds every day of it, as he’d had no barn.

Since then, he had managed to clear 15 more acres and build. Now he had a house, a barn, the old shanty, a cold cellar, and 25 acres cleared of one hundred and fifty was no small thing, and he looked back on his hard work with a sudden flash of pride.

He would not make a bed, he decided; he would not do a single thing to make his home something it was not. Let Holmes choose between spruce branches in the loft or the narrow settle, since it too was long enough for a man, though narrow, and it was closer to the fire. He would bear this intrusion, but he would do no more. He had three weeks at least before Holmes arrived, and he would make the most of his solitude until then. 

That decided, he took his rifle and snowshoes and headed to the northwest woods. Game would be mostly thin and stringy, but he was tired of salt pork, and he had a mind to look at the bear caves at the riverbend. The male bears would be coming out of their hibernation, thin and cranky and dangerous, and somehow that suited his mood.