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To the Farthest Shores


U.S. Army Base at the Presidio
San Francisco, 1898

Jenny Bennett woke as pebbles clattered against her window. She sat bolt upright, trying to get her bearings. As a hospital nurse, she was often called upon in the middle of the night, but always by a knock on her door.

Even as she scrambled from beneath the bedsheets, another spray of pebbles hit the glass. She dashed to the window, wincing at the cold tile on her bare feet. Standing by the lamppost below was the distinctive figure of Lieutenant Ryan Gallagher, his sandy blond hair glinting in the circle of gaslight. Ryan was the most straight-laced man she knew, hardly the type to be flinging pebbles against her window in the dead of night.

She tugged up the window sash. “What’s going on?”

“Can you come down?” Ryan called up in a hoarse whisper, trying to avoid waking others in the building. Over two hundred people slept in this army barracks, but only a handful were women. As a civilian nurse, she was fortunate the army let her lodge here. Otherwise she’d have to make the long cable car journey from the city each day.

“I’ll be right down.”

 “I almost didn’t recognize you in those civilian clothes,” she said once her feet were on solid ground. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he assured her, drawing back to gaze into her face. He seemed unusually somber—sad, even. He was usually in such good spirits, and his mood worried her. “Let’s go somewhere private,” he whispered.

The Presidio sprawled over three square miles on the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. Most of it was wilderness, but the western side contained an army base, the hospital, and training facilities. The army used only a fraction of the land. The rest of it was blanketed with towering pines, eucalyptus groves, and sycamore trees, making the Presidio feel like a primeval wilderness. The forest also provided plenty of seclusion from the chaos on base.

Jenny followed Ryan on a meandering path through the tents, still confused by his strange behavior. Was he ill again? It had been three months since the USSBaltimore hobbled into port with half its crew suffering from typhoid. Ryan had been among the stricken, his case bad enough to hospitalize him for two weeks. He finally recovered but was still rail-thin.

During his stay in the hospital, Ryan had been consistently polite, managing a weak smile of gratitude each time she tended him. His warm brown eyes always softened the instant she came into view, and he was the kindest man she’d ever met. He read the Bible before breakfast and murmured a prayer of thanks before each meal.

She couldn’t imagine why he’d come to see her at such an unseemly hour. He wasn’t in uniform either, which was out of character. The Presidio was an army base, but since the declaration of war, the navy had anchored their fleets in the harbor and their officers had moved into Presidio quarters. Ryan had been one of those naval officers, looking wickedly handsome in his crisp, white dress uniform. It wouldn’t be long before the ships set sail for the Philippines, and already she ached at the thought of Ryan going to some tropical jungle to fight a war no one understood.

It got darker as they moved into the cool sycamore forest, a carpet of damp leaves cushioning her footsteps and giving off a loamy scent. She startled at a sudden cascade of birdcall, odd at this time of night. She glanced at Ryan with a question in her eyes.

“Night herons,” he whispered. “They forage in the hours before dawn, always in groups. They’re very social creatures. We must have surprised them.”

Ryan knew everything about animal and marine life. It was one of the things she found so attractive about him. Jenny had spent her entire life in the city, but Ryan courted her with walks along the seashore that rimmed the Presidio. During those walks he taught her to see the world with new eyes. He would hunker down on the beach to show her the underside of a starfish. Ryan could explain the difference between a fungus and an alga. Sometimes they simply walked in silence, but even then she felt like singing and laughing at the same time. Ryan touched a part of her soul she hadn’t even known existed. It had been easy to ignore the war during those golden afternoons, but it was suddenly all too real.

Ryan pulled her a few feet off the path behind a tree and drew her into an embrace. “I’ve come to say good-bye,” he said, and it felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. None of the ships were leaving until next month, and Ryan wasn’t well enough to be sent into combat yet. This didn’t make sense.

She pulled back to peer into his face. “Where are you going?”

“I can’t tell you. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I couldn’t leave without saying good-bye.”

She was speechless. They’d just found each other, and now he was leaving ahead of all the other troops? It seemed impossible for a man as gentle as Ryan Gallagher to be going to war. He belonged in a college classroom or a church pulpit, not a battlefield. They had already begun planning a life together. They were going to buy a saltbox cottage on one of the bluffs north of the city, a place where they could bask in the purity of the sunlight and clean ocean breezes.

“Will you write?” she managed to ask.

“I’ll try.”

That seemed odd, too. Above all, the military took extraordinary measures to ensure mail was delivered to and from their soldiers. It was one of the few things they could offer to make remote postings more bearable. Writing should be an easy thing to promise, but Jenny knew Ryan wouldn’t lie to her.

She grasped his forearms as she tried to memorize each feature of his handsome face. She didn’t even have a photograph of him. “Why are they sending you out so early? None of the other men are leaving until next month. I don’t want them sending you off when you’re still twenty pounds underweight and could suffer a relapse.”

He smiled gently. “Jenny, I’m fine.”

“You’re letting the navy take advantage of you.” Ryan was so instinctively generous that he let people exploit his good nature.

“I can’t say anything more, but I don’t want you worrying about me, alright? I’m going to be okay. I might even be home before Christmas.”

His words were meant to be comforting, but they had the opposite effect. Didn’t people always underestimate the enemy? Ever since Congress had declared war, soldiers had boasted it would take only a few weeks to trounce the Spanish, but Jenny wasn’t so sure.

“Ryan, it’s Spain,” she said, ashamed of the tremble in her voice. “Spain has been one of the greatest naval empires for centuries. How can you say it won’t be dangerous? Even crossing the ocean to the Philippines is dangerous.”

“I haven’t said I’m going to the Philippines.”

Jenny made no answer, but everyone knew the war would be fought in the Philippines, where Spanish soldiers had been entrenched for three hundred years. Even before the formal declaration of war, the navy began funneling men, munitions, and ships into the San Francisco harbor for the grand expedition that would leave next month. Jenny never would have met Ryan except for this war, but she dreaded the thought of his leaving.

“I’m still worried about you,” she said. “Something about this doesn’t seem right.”

He touched her cheek, his face radiating warm sympathy. “I don’t want you worrying over me. As I came to see you, I spotted a shooting star. Did you know it’s a sign of good luck?” He drew her into his embrace again, holding her tightly. “Don’t tell anyone I was here tonight,” he whispered into her ear. “It’s not something that can get leaked.”

“Of course.” Civilian employees were warned to keep quiet about all troop movements and activities on the base. It seemed impossible to believe the Spanish would have planted spies among them, but she would keep quiet. Suddenly the war felt very real, and she didn’t want it to. She wanted to go on meeting Ryan on the quadrangle, having picnics on the cliff overlooking the bay, and fooling herself into believing their magical interlude would never end. How long would it be before he held her like this again? It seemed so unfair. To have finally found someone, only to have him torn away so quickly.

“Before I go, I want you to know how much I love you,” he whispered against her cheek, and her heart squeezed. He withdrew a few inches to gaze down into her face. “As soon as I get back, we’ll get married and start the rest of our life together. I wish I’d had a chance to buy a ring, but everything is happening much faster than I thought.”

This might be the most wonderful and heartbreaking moment of her entire life. Her heart threatened to split wide open. “That sounds really good,” she managed to say.

He fumbled in his pocket, then pressed a heavy gold watch into her hands, the metal still warm from the heat of his body. “At least take my father’s watch. Something to remember me by.”

“No, Ryan, it’s too much.” She tried to give it back, but his hands were firm as they closed around hers.

“Keep it safe for me,” he said. “I’ll be back someday with a wedding ring, and then we can trade, okay?”

“I can do that,” she whispered.

“I wish things didn’t have to be this way, but it’s time for me to go. You won’t see me again until this is all over.”

“I’ll be waiting for you,” she said. “I don’t care how long you’re gone, I’ll wait forever.”

For some reason, her declaration seemed to make him sad. A shadow passed over his face as he pulled her into his arms, rocking her gently in the moonlight.

“Good-bye, Jenny. I’ll never forget you. No matter where I go, your heart and spirit will be with me always.”

Months went by with no news from Ryan. Each day Jenny held her breath as she approached the post office on the base. Other people received plenty of letters from the soldiers sent overseas, but Jenny’s box was always empty. She checked the casualty lists daily, saying a prayer of relief each time she failed to spot Ryan’s name.

It was impossible to sit by and do nothing, so she wrote to Washington to inquire about a sailor who seemed to have vanished. She wrote to the Secretary of the War Department and the captain of the USSBaltimore. She wrote to Admiral Dewey himself. It came to nothing, all of them claiming Ryan was deployed and in good health, but she could not believe it when months went by without a single letter from him.

It took over a year for the first and only letter she would ever receive from Ryan to arrive at the Presidio. Jenny stared at it with disbelieving eyes, but it was short and to the point.

Dear Jenny,

I fear I was too optimistic about our future prospects. I have been offered an important opportunity with the navy and have accepted the commission. I will not be returning to California, but I wish you the very best with whatever your future holds.

I am deeply sorry for any false expectations I may have created during my convalescence at the Presidio.

Lt. Ryan Gallagher

To the Farthest Shores
by by Elizabeth Camden