She had only been in bed an hour, and it was already five in the morning. It was a comfortable, large, safe place, with two pillows for her, one for him and a blanket she perpetually rescued from his side, even though he was usually too warm and threw it down to the foot. Beside her, her husband slept, his slow, steady breaths helping her doze in the warm security of his presence. More than a year now, it had been like this.
First light, gray and cold, began to turn darkness into shadows. She could just make out the huge chest of drawers which had stood as a memorial to Sarah until one day she had dared to pull the drawers open and start, with Johnny’s help, to sort through what needed to be given away, what could still be used, and what he must keep. Now it was their piece of furniture, and Sarah’s presence lingered only in a good way.
Jessie’s cradle, made specially for her on the ranch, stood within reach of Francie’s hand and she turned to her side, stretched across the gap and began to rock her. Jessie had been going through her repertoire of soft sounds but fell quiet as she moved gently back and forth. Soon her little breaths mingled with Johnny’s, and Francie felt sleep at last begin to take her, too. But she could not allow that. Today was too important for sleep. They would be needed and she would do her best. Her blood ran hot and her heart thumped as she thought of the tasks facing them.
This morning, when the gray light had become milky, then clear, she would be allowed back into the sick room, and they would begin to put things away. She knew Charlotte was already quietly removing the medicines, the bowls and cloths, the detritus of long illness. The room would be cleaned, fresh flowers placed and the doctor would visit, sign the papers and leave. She went through her list again, as she had been doing for an hour, while she waited for the hard-working love of her life to wake to yet more cares.
For Lily had died an hour ago and Johnny did not know it yet. She would be the one to tell him. Then they would both tell Murdoch and the three of them would work to make sure Scott and Charlotte were free to mourn.
Life would change. Francie did not know how just yet, but she knew it would change. After more than a year’s increasing stability, her life would change again. She sat up, put her face in her hands and wept.
“Hold up there, honey.”
She twisted round to look at Johnny, who was just awake. She gathered herself and wiped her eyes on the bedsheet. “It’s over. She looks so calm now, like – like she’s never had a care in the world.”
“How are they?” He reached out and pushed on her shoulder, turning her away from him. He began to plait her hair, quickly, just as he did every morning.
“Charlotte is too quiet – she’s hardly said anything all night. Scott – well, you saw. If he’s not throwing something he’s angry with Murdoch, or the men, or …”
“Me. Yeah. He’s angry with everyone for taking Lily. I guess I felt the same when Sarah died.” He reached behind her for a blue ribbon and tied a neat bow. “I have to just be around, I guess. Or keep out of his way.”
She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and checked that Jessie was still asleep. Then she washed quickly and went on a search for a decent dress. She glanced at Johnny, who was watching her.
“You going into black?”
“I don’t have anything in black. I’ll have to go to town, get something decent. I can tell the ladies’ circle too, and get the preacher organised.”
“You don’t have to do all that.”
“I know it. I just want to. All I can do. You have to look after the boys. And watch out for Jamie – he’s been feeling miserable about this, finding it harder to take than Jack.”
“I’ll take them out, fishin’ maybe. We can talk some, make a start on getting things straight.” He pushed back the covers and reached for his clothes. “Don’t you go wearing yourself out over this. How much sleep you get?” He stood, pulling on his pants and then going to the washbasin.
“Not much. I will tonight, really I will. How’s …” She hesitated. They had health worries of their own, kept quiet for more than a month, and she didn’t want to think about them just them. She caught Johnny’s eye for a moment, then he looked away. He wet the washcloth and began to wash himself. “Should I go tell Murdoch? You know you’re his favourite.”
“I don’t think I can, Johnny.” She busied herself with the buttons down the front of her blue print dress.
“I’ll do it.” He paused and she knew what he was thinking. This was just about going to break Murdoch’s heart. She heard him sigh but he did not voice any protest, just his usual, “You nearly ready?”
“Yeah.” She tried hard to keep from crying but the tears got past her guard. He stepped up close and held her for a few moments without speaking, so that she could hear his heart beat. They fit together so well, hardly arguing at all since Jessie arrived, not more than anyone else put together the way they had been. He eased back and held her face in his hands, looking into her eyes as if to reassure himself she could cope. She nodded in answer to his unspoken question. She was ready to stand on her own two feet again.
Jessie was sleeping quietly so she left the door open and, pausing for only a moment by the door, she lowered her head and stepped quickly down the wide, light corridor.
Charlotte was so still as she sat in the chair, Francie at first thought she was sleeping. But her sister-in-law was watching the bed with a blank expression. A bowl of water stood on the nightstand and Charlotte had a cloth in her hand. Francie faltered, the words of greeting and thanks for her rest dying in her throat.
“I thought Maria was helping you?”
“I told her to go. I wanted to do this myself. But she’s so quiet there, I didn’t want to disturb her.”
Francie could not look at the bed, only at her true friend. “We don’t have to do it just now. Let her be a while longer. Have you fed Garrett?”
Charlotte looked up, her face white, her eyes circled with darkness, like bruises. “Have I? I don’t know. I think – I think maybe not.”
Francie could hear him complaining in the next room and wondered why Scott was not tending to him.
“I’ll fetch him. Jessie needs feeding, too. We can sit here and do that, and then we can see to all three of them.”
“Yes. Yes, all right.” There was a tired acceptance in Charlotte’s voice. “But I can get Garrett. You look tired. Did you sleep?” Charlotte stood, grasping the arm of the chair and still holding the cloth.
“Let’s do this, then we can both sleep. You’ve been awake all night.”
Charlotte nodded and made her way to the door. Francie watched her go, then glanced at the form of the child, unmoving as she had never been in her life, and knew then that she had finally gone, leaving her pain behind.
Soon the sisters-in-law were together, silent, feeding their babies, their quiet sounds soothing. Companionable and, for a little while, safe from the cares of the world.
Maria helped, in the end, murmuring in Spanish to the little girl who had been the favourite with everyone on the ranch. They washed her, and dressed her in a starched white nightdress, and then Charlotte brushed her golden hair, arranging it on the pillow.
“She is an angel, Señora,” Maria said quietly. It did not seem far from the truth.
Francie glanced at the clock. “Is Scott going into town? I can make all the arrangements, if you want. Or go in with him.”
“He said he was going to make sure all the work was organised. I think – I wish he was here. Maybe Johnny could …”
“Yes – don’t worry. I’ll find Scott and then I’ll go into town. Johnny’ll take Jamie out with him and Jack too, if you want. We thought it might be best if they were out of the way today.”
Charlotte gripped Francie’s arm. “I don’t know if – how – I am going to bear this.”
There was nothing Francie could say. She knew Charlotte would find a way, with them all there, all helping each other. But to contradict her was to make light of Charlotte’s feelings, and she was not going to do that. She could only do all the practical things, everything she could to make it easy for Charlotte to bear what she must.
Francie went out, her brain busy with a list of everything she needed to do and everything she could delegate to others. Find Johnny – or Scott – whoever she could more easily locate. Then the boys, get them dressed and fed and ready to go out. Jelly could drive her into town, and Cipriano could perfectly well run the ranch for a couple of days. She understood Scott’s need to be doing, to be working, but he was in the wrong place. He had work to do with his wife.
She stepped quickly down the back stairs, carrying Jessie and thinking hard, and almost missed her step, stumbling down two steps and grabbing the banister, her ankle twisted beneath her.
“Francie!” She glanced up, overwhelmed by a trembling in her muscles and a pounding heart. She had nearly dropped Jessie. Scott was coming to help her. “Be careful!” His tone was angry, his face agonised. Francie, knowing the source of his concern hurriedly righted herself and tried to make light of it, but Jessie was taken from her and she was guided to a chair before she could get over her embarrassment. Scott held Jessie, who looked surprised enough not to cry just yet.
“Take your boot off – have you hurt your ankle?”
Grumbling, Francie pulled off her boot and then rolled down her stocking. Her ankle was already reddened and beginning to swell.
“I’ll fill the bowl – get that soaking right away.”
“It’ll be fine!” Her temper was fraying rapidly. There was so much to do. This was just too bad. She pulled her stocking back up and tried to force her boot back on.
“Don’t be stubborn. You’re as bad as Johnny. Here, take Jessie.”
So she was organised and fussed over, and she let Scott do this for her because she knew he was stalling, unable to face his own daughter upstairs, and his wife, grieving, beyond his power to comfort her.
She did get her boot back on, and set Jessie on the table before she tried to put weight on her foot but the pain made her wince and grab Scott’s hand. She was just sitting back down when Johnny herded the two boys in.
“Grab some breakfast, boys. I saw Murdoch – he’s with Charlotte and – and Lily now. I guess it’s okay to leave them a little while? He didn’t look so good. Francie? What’s Jessie doin’ there?”
Scott came to her rescue, gallantry deeply engrained.
“She’s hurt her foot,” he offered, taking up the pitcher of milk and pouring two glasses.
“Jessie’s hurt her foot? How’d she do that?” Johnny was cutting bread, his back turned. Francie desperately tried to keep Scott quiet but her face gave her away.
“No, brother, Francie has. Look.”
“What? Where?” Johnny cut some cheese and handed bread, cheese and an apple to Jack.
“It’s all right. My foot’s fine.” Which it was. It was her ankle that hurt. She felt Johnny’s quizzical stare and immediately diverted his attention to the boys. Jack was sharing the bread with Jamie. Both boys were very pale and quiet, and watched the adults with bright eyes. “Jamie – you got everything? You got your fair share of breakfast?” The distraction worked. Johnny sorted the boys out, took some food himself and she picked up Jessie, who was crying amidst the whirl of activity.
“Fetch me her basket, would you, Scott? She’s coming to town too. And can Jelly drive us?”
Scott managed to look less grim for a moment, and nodded his acceptance of her need to keep to herself the near-fall and her injury. There was enough going wrong in the house, enough to be done, and she would cope. Then the room was empty of people again, Johnny gone with the boys to saddle up, Scott to speak to Jelly, and she held Jessie close, the little red face turned to hers.
“Well now, Jess. You and me, we got a job on, to keep this quiet. Can’t let your Pa know – he needs time with the boys. But he’ll expect us to be outside, to wave him goodbye, and I don’t think I can carry you just yet.” It was a puzzle, enough to make her tap her fingers on the table in uneasy thought. Then Scott returned, Jessie’s basket in hand, and was her saviour once more. With his help she was soon trying to look as if she was casually leaning on the wall outside the kitchen, Jessie at her feet. Johnny led the two boys near to them and came to kiss her goodbye.
“You all right?” He took a step back and she bit her lip, unsure what had given her away.
It came hard to lie to him but she judged it necessary. “Yeah. We’re fine, Johnny. You take care of the boys – they need you now.”
“Francie – you need me too.” He was a little unsure, but it wasn’t quite a question.
“Go on. Yeah – I need you but Jamie needs you more. Look – he and Jack, they ain’t hardly speakin’.”
Something had come between the two cousins. Although Jamie was giving Jack a hand up onto his black pony, the sturdy filly he called Star, there was no excited chatter, not a single word, passing between them. Jamie mounted his own new bay pony, so new he was as yet unnamed and still not quite settled to his new master. Jamie sat astride him confidently but couldn’t quite settle him.
“I’m taking ‘em up three mile pass,” Johnny called as he mounted Barranca. “Maybe to those ponds there? Be back for supper. You sure you’re all right?” There - the same fluid motion onto his horse that pleased Francie each time he did it.
“Yeah. You keep safe, you hear? Jamie, watch that pony. He’s a might naughty.”
“All right, Francie. I got him. See ya later.”
“Take care!” she shouted, as the three horses trotted away. She saw Johnny glance back, his worry clear in his face but she waved, and then they were gone up the road. The dust swirled in circles, clouding the air and then settling slowly.
On the way to town, Jelly was quiet and Francie was glad of it. Jessie fussed and fussed, would not stop grizzling, until Francie was trembling with frustration at her.
“It’s you, if you don’t mind me sayin’ it.” Jelly offered, his voice cutting through her anxiety. “You’re all on edge, and no surprise there for sure, and she’s picking it up. Why don’t you try driving and I take her for a while?”
Francie sighed and nodded. She was making it worse for her daughter. She handed her over to the old man and took up the reins, slapping Royal’s rump and getting the horse to move on faster.
“Well now, little lady. What’s got you all hot in the face like this? Just you settle down for your Uncle Jelly. There, let’s take your little coat off. You’re just way too hot now, aren’t you?” Gradually, the baby settled in Jelly’s arms, though she was intently watching everything around her, her dark brown eyes looking first at him then over at her mother. She reached up to pull at his beard. “Here, you tug on my finger. There now, that’s better, ain’t it.”
“Thanks, Jelly. I was just getting’ mad with her over nothin’.”
“Lot happened this mornin’. Not surprisin’ you should have a bit of trouble with your temper.”
“No – I guess not. I lied to Johnny. And I left Charlotte with Murdoch and Scott to cope with and ran away to town.”
“You didn’t run away, no more than Johnny ran away with the two boys. You think he knows you lied to him?”
“Oh yeah. He knows. Maybe not that I flat out lied but that I kept a secret. We know each other pretty well.”
Jelly played with Jessie, finding a button on his jacket for her to pull at, and soothing her with words and sounds, until she seemed a little sleepier. He tried to put her back in her basket but she protested immediately, a sharp sound of indignation which made him laugh.
“I reckon she’s inherited a lot more from you than just her looks, Miss Francie. You really known Johnny all that time ago? What was he like then? I been meaning to ask you that – if you’ll forgive me. I wish I’d a seen him then.”
Francie fell silent. She had locked away their few months together, for the memories of that time had been a hindrance and they had made a new relationship, away from the people they had been. Finally she answered. She watched the horse trot, its steady gait and balanced motion calming her. “He was – he was beautiful, and strong, and too young, and too sudden. Wild. He made me wild, and reckless, and I loved him with all my heart. Didn’t stop him ridin’ away.”
Jelly was quiet in his turn, and Francie knew he was wondering what to say. The old man had mellowed, was less fractious, less demanding of the world, even in the year she had known him. That was what had happened to Johnny, and she wondered for a moment if that was to the good. Suddenly she longed for him to be there. It was such a deep, compelling need that she wondered if he could hear it and whether he would come riding over the hill to her rescue, just as she had dreamed he would, over and over, as she had tried to find her life again the first time.
The hills around remained empty. No knight came galloping to her. Things had changed and could not be changed back. But her loss was small, and temporary.
“How’s that ankle?”
“Sore. Damn nuisance. I feel stupid, wearing these sandals.”
“Couldn’t get nothing else over the bandage, could you? Scott do that? Looks like his handiwork.”
“Yeah? Watch what you’re doin’, honey. We ain’t gettin’ to get to town goin’ that way.”
She pulled the old horse round. They had been about to head out along the old road, where the bridge had been washed out along with a mile of roadbed. She snorted. “Can’t get anythin’ right this mornin’. You reckon we got cursed or somethin’?”
Jelly looked hard at her, an odd expression on his face. “You don’t believe that any more than I do. Francie – it’ll come right, you see. That little girl, she’s happier now than she has been for months, she’s out of pain and gone, but we ain’t lost her. You know that.”
Francie brushed her sleeve over her eyes. They were silent all the rest of the way into town, and she remembered a happy girl, playing with the chickens, and delicately picking her way through the long grass, and laughing in Scott’s arms. She was still there, still fresh in her mind.
The town looked washed out in the bright sunlight, and the people already looked hot and tired. Jelly dropped Francie at the preacher’s house, and she took Jessie’s basket in one hand and the stick Scott had given her in the other, and set about her list.
On the way back, they stopped so she could feed Jessie and rest up from the endless round of condolences and sympathy from the kind people of the town. It had fair worn her out. Jelly went to sleep in the shade. He had had his own share of things to do, people to see, arrangements to make. Between them, they had done most of what needed to be done, and could take an hour.
The leaves moved a little, right at the top, rippled by a breeze which was hardly stirring the air where she sat. Jessie was usually easy to nurse, and the quiet sensations in her body made Francie forget her lists, her worries, her frustrations for a while. She sat, Jessie in her lap, turned towards her, and she watched her mouth working to take the milk. It was so quiet, so peaceful, she fell into thinking the moment would last forever. If only Johnny were there too.
She dozed, and the baby dozed, until she needed changing. Francie just had the job done when the longed-for hoof-beats dragged her eyes to the horizon. Too far to see who it was – but two riders, for sure. She had waved away three that morning.
The old man woke, rubbed his right eye, and stared at her. Francie pointed and Jelly shaded his eyes. “Two horses. Trouble fer sure.” Then he glanced across at her, anxious.
“It’s all right, I know it. Come on, Jess, let’s get you settled again.” The little face peered up at her. Jessie was absorbed in her own being, eating, sleeping, reacting. Francie longed to sleep the afternoon away but more trouble was rapidly approaching.
It was Jamie and Jack, riding hard and waving and shouting. Francie waved back, hobbling out across the dry, dusty ground and out beyond the trees to greet them. Jelly stood beside her, his hand supporting her under her elbow, muttering something she didn’t hear. She could not stop her mind imagining why they were alone, and chasing along so fast. She was shaking when Jack pulled up in a flurry of dust and ran to her.
“Auntie! Auntie!” He stood in front of her, breathless and white, but he seemed unable to get out another word.
“Hold on there, young ‘un,” Jelly said, taking Jack by the arm.
“Jamie!” Francie took in Jamie’s terror and grief immediately, but his fear only struck her when she saw him trying to control his pony. He was swearing at it, the few bad words he had, and pulling on the reins. “Jump down! Get off that pony!” She limped across to him to grab the bridle but Jelly beat her to it.
“Okay now, son, you just get off this pony nice and safely, like your Pa taught you.” When she saw Jelly’s soothing was doing more good than her agitation, Francie turned back to her nephew.
“What happened? Jack?” She tried to be calm but he was crying and pulling away from her so hard she could barely keep on her feet. “It’s all right, you’re all right now – settle down! Please – just tell me something!” She was gasping for breath. Her fingers tingled.
“He thinks I shouldn’ta left him but I don’t see how we coulda brought him along,” Jack finally said, rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes angrily.
“Well I come along, didn’t I? And now we gotta tell Francie.” Jamie was on his feet, trying to hold onto a pony which imitated Jack, pulling away from a restraining hand.
“Boys – you ain’t makin’ a whole heap of sense here. Who’d you need to bring along?” Jelly asked, grabbing the little black pony’s bridle and trying to help settle him down.
“Don’t make me ride him any more, Francie!” Jamie’s plea, with more of a little boy about it than she had heard for some time from him, cut through the haze that was beginning to fog her sight. Her heart was pounding and she could barely draw breath.
“You’d better tell her, Jamie. We’re in trouble right enough this time.”
“What prank did you two pull this time? Tie Johnny up and leave him in the sun?” Francie felt a wash of relief and, taking herself completely by surprise, yawned. They were frightened of the punishment for playing a trick, that’s all it was. “Let him sleep and hide Barranca?”
“We don’t know where Barranca went, honestly. We looked and looked, after we thought to come back to the ranch fer help. But Jamie and me, we had to just set out, in the end, you gotta see that.” Jack looked earnestly at her, Jamie now close by his side. It was Jamie’s turn to confuse her more.
“Yeah – we had to leave Pa. I didn’t want to – Jack made me, but I guess it ain’t come out so bad. You’ll help us find him again, won’t you?”
She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. She sweated and shook and felt each breath come harder. She barely heard Jelly shouting at her, then he disappeared from her sight and came back at the run, Jessie’s blanket in his hand and proceeded to smother her with it, the cloth hard against her face. She tried to fight him off, scared and furious, both at once, at his inexplicable behaviour. She heard Jamie and Jack shouting, too, but Jelly kept the blanket right where it was, even when she collapsed to her knees. Gradually, her breathing evened out and her sight began to clear. She at last heard him.
“Keep the blanket right there, girl! You overbreathed yourself, least that’s what I heard a doc call it. Breath steady now, that’s it. You’re gonna be just fine. Boys! Quit it! Your ma’s gonna be just fine, give her a chance. Look, she’s got some color back already!” He pulled the blanket away and the world re-appeared, its difficulties almost overwhelming her again. But she couldn’t give in.
“It’s all right – I’m – fine now – just let me catch my breath here.”
“Get the canteen, Jack. Jamie, you fetch your sister. She’ll help her ma get back on her feet in no time.”
Francie could barely think and her feet and hands still tingled but she was able to focus on Jessie when Jamie set her down in her basket, and she was glad of the water Jack brought. Both boys were completely silent. Slowly, Francie made her way back to being with them, and in control of herself.
“Right, I’m fine now. Jamie, come here.” Jelly had helped her sit on the ground and Jamie came quietly to kneel in front of her.
“Now, tell me, from the beginning, like you were reciting for school. What happened? From the start, mind.”
“We went fishin’. Up by the big pond, bout three miles out from the ranch.” Jamie took a deep breath and furrowed his brow. The need to tell the story seemed at last to be settling him down. “Nothin’ was bitin’ and it was real hot. Jack and me, we was talkin’ things out with Pa, and we all just kinda drifted down the track from the pond towards the river. You know where I mean?”
“Yeah, I know it.”
“Pa, he seemed tired, and, well, you know he’s had these bad headaches?”
“Yeah,” said Francie, sighing. “I didn’t know he’d told you.”
“He don’t need to tell me. I looked after him before you come to help. Anyways, he was on Barranca and we was trailin’ along behind, listenin’ to him talk. And then somethin’ spooked my pony, my stupid, knot-headed pony.” Jamie’s emotions threatened to spill over again.
“Jack, is that what happened?” Francie didn’t disbelieve Jamie – she was beginning to think clearly again and saw Jack becoming restless and agitated.
“Yeah. ‘Tweren’t anyone’s fault, now I come to see it right. Jamie did his best but that sorry animal took to shyin’ and then buckin’ until it looked like Jamie was gonna be throwed. Uncle Johnny he come runnin’ and tried to catch him and he got Jamie off his back but he was tryin’ to get Jamie outta the way, with that pony scootin’ every which way. He, well – he just stood there and then next thing he was on the ground.” Jack stopped, and Francie could see what he was seeing.
“You did right comin’ for help, boys.”
“Francie – can we go find him now – I want him home!” Jamie’s anguish burst out of him.
Francie held out her arms and Jamie flung himself at her, sobbing. Jelly put an arm round Jack’s shoulders.
As she comforted the boy, Francie calculated what to do. She would need to be firm, make sure they all knew what to do. She didn’t let Jamie cry for long before she set him back on his feet and began to wipe his face with her hand.
“Right. Now you men listen to me. Jamie, get ahold of Jessie – she’s your responsibility till you get back to the ranch. Jack, you keep Jamie’s spirits high – no, neither of you’s coming with me. Jelly – take them back in the rig – no – you’re no use to me following that trail. You can’t see well enough no more. I can do this on my own. I need you to take my baby and my boys safely back so I don’t have to worry about them.”
As she gave them their orders, she stood, worrying that she was neither dressed nor prepared to go on a search. The boys had canteens and there was one in the buggy, and she had thrown in her old brown jacket, thinking to change into it if she got a chance, but it had been too hot. Her dress wasn’t much good for riding but she would have to make do.
They were all three of them protesting but she took no notice, handing the boys up onto the seat then pushing Jelly to take his place in the driver’s seat. She was being driven herself by a great desire to see Johnny immediately, to make sure he was alive at least.
“You keep safe hold of your sister! And send Cipriano and the men out soon as you get to the ranch. But don’t tell Charlotte and Scott if you can help it. Jelly, you keep them with you till we get back. Boys, I’m reckoning on following your tracks north from here, hope I find Johnny just where you left him. I got a good idea where that is. Now go on with you!”
She tied Jack’s pony on the back of the buggy. It was tired, but Jamie’s ill-tempered pony still looked like it had some life in it. She took hold of him, lengthened the stirrup straps, jumped on his back and gave him no option but to obey. She was not in the mood to be disobeyed by some pony.
The tracks were clear enough even in the long grass and she’d been taught well how to look for broken and bent grasses. She hurried the pony along, keeping her gaze firmly on the ground, the spare canteens butting her knees and her feet already hurting in the stirrups. Her mind was fiercely at work, keeping her focused and shutting out what she was going to find. The little pony breathed hard even before he reached the long slope upwards. Up there, that’s where she would have to go. The soft ground at the base of the slope carried word of her boys, three quarter moon cut into the soil headed straight for the road. She glanced back. The buggy was just carrying the four away from her, disappearing around the hill. They would be home in a hour. Rounding up help would not take long. All she had to do was find Johnny, care for him, keep him – keep him safe until they came for them.
But it was an immense space to search. As she stopped at the top of the slope to let the pony breathe a little, she appreciated for the first time that it was vast. Beautiful, yes, but too big. One hundred thousand acres. She remembered Murdoch’s proud boast, and Johnny echoing it a couple of times ruefully, when he’d had to stay out a night or so tending to something far out on the north range, until she’d given in and gone too. Even when she was pregnant, even when they were fighting, she went with him and slept out on the ground, with the stars brilliant above them and smoke from the fire lazily twisting up into the great, open night.
She brushed the tear from her cheek and squeezed her knees to get the pony going again. It was stubborn for a moment, still breathing heavily but she had no time to waste.
“Pony, you have to do this. My Johnny, he’s out there somewhere, look, and he’s got me talking to a damn pony so I can go rescue him.” She shut her mouth, irritated by her burst of sentiment. No time for that. She kicked harder and coaxed and the pony took a couple of reluctant steps then began to walk forward. Finally it gave in and trotted forward, Francie now lying close by his neck trying to watch the hoofprints across the harder ground. They ran straight and true, as if the boys, once decided on their course of action, cut right across country. So straight and true she followed them, up into the foothills, until she came to the edge of the land she knew well.
She had been hoping to find Barranca. The horse would stay ground tied a good while and was easy to see. A signpost. Maybe the boys had just overlooked him. But as she looked out over the deeply-cut landscape, there was nothing moving. Pale greens and greys flowed together, pulling the distances about and hazing her eyes. Nothing. Not a movement, as far as she could see. The boys’ tracks went further, down onto the flat land of the valley. That was where she had been hoping she would see her husband, sitting up maybe, waiting for her.
Perhaps he had already started home. It was certainly possible. He might have taken a different route and be home now, turning right round, maybe, heading back out to find her and give her a piece of his mind for galavanting all over the countryside. Never go out on your own, that was the rule, when you’re off in the higher country. Here she was, the pony breathing hard beneath her and no idea where she was going. It was pure foolishness. She ought to head right back.
She couldn’t turn just yet. It might be another quarter mile but it was only sensible to check a little further, just in case she had missed something. She began to hope she would find nothing. Yeah, there Johnny would be, grinning at her and trying to pretend to be cross. And she would grin right back. Just a little way further.
So she urged the pony to one last effort, letting it find its own way quietly down into the shaded valley, through the trees, with the promise of fresh water in a tiny thread of sound. They made their ways through a rock field, the sound getting lost then bouncing in all directions until she almost lost her way trying to follow it. The great square-cut boulders, shaken from a bluff, cut her view to a few feet. The little pony made its way forward, over the sand between the rocks and Francie began to long for clear ground.
There – there was something, lying on the grass. She pulled up and swung a leg over the pommel, dropping to the ground then remembering her ankle too late. With a curse she grabbed the saddle and waited until the thrill of pain subsided. When she looked again, she nearly spooked the pony by stepping forward, one great step before falling to the ground.
It was Johnny’s hat. She grabbed it and pulled it to her, hugging it desperately, a great anger welling inside her.
“Johnny!” she screamed, “Johnny! Johnny! Where are you, damn you? Johnny!” Her voice cracked. The pony shied with each shout but she had a firm hold on the reins. Nothing. No answering shout. He wasn’t there. He had gone home. The great world scared her, an empty world, with her husband gone and a hard, long way home for her.
She sighed. She was being foolish again. Not thinking clear. Hat in her hand, she carefully stood and looked around for something to use as a crutch, but there was nothing. She came to stand right by the pony. How had she mounted him last time? Maybe her foot had somehow got worse because she couldn’t find a way to hop back into the saddle. So she grasped the pommel and pushed the pony forward. Confused, it meandered across the dry ground to the edge of the arroyo, kicking up little spurts of dust and shaking his head, nervously pulling at her hold on his reins.
“Johnny! Where are you, honey? Johnny! Where are you? Johnny!” She shouted and looked, finding no track until at last, in the soft creek sand was the sign she had praying wouldn’t tell her this story. Hand and knee marks. Someone who had been afraid to stand, or unable to stand, had come this way. Her terrified heart consumed her breath, and she could hardly call for him, but finally she heard a weak voice, up ahead.
“Here, honey – Francie – oh, Francie!”
She bit her lip hard, tried to steady her voice and give him all her strength. “I’m comin’, I’m right over here. You hang on now.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere, honey. How’d you get yourself all the way out here?”
She could hear terror in his voice, whatever the words said, and she looked up the sky for a moment, looking to its large stillness for the inner calm she needed to face what she would find.
He sat half in the stream, half out of it, as if he had crawled to it, fallen in then not had the strength to haul himself out further. He was cradling his head in his hands, still calling to her even as she came close. She slipped to her knees at his side, soaking her skirt as she reached to touch him, but he shrank from her, as awkward as a drunk, until she began to speak.
“It’s all right – it’s all right. What happened to you? Darling, what happened to you? Let me look.” She pulled his hand away from his face and cringed from the sight of the blood he had failed to wash away. There was a deep cut on his left temple and his eye was swollen and dark with bruises. Blood stained his face, his neck and on down to his chest. He had taken off his shirt and it lay next to him, bloodied and covered in fine particles of sand. He seemed to have used it then abandoned it.
He was shivering and moaning and she drew him to her and held him as best she could, smoothing his hair and hushing him. When he had quietened she made him sit up so she could wash more of the blood away and have a better look at the cut. Then he told her what she already knew.
“I can’t see you, honey. I can’t see nothin’ much. I can see more’n I could but I can’t see you clear. It is you, ain’t it – ain’t it?” He grabbed her arm hard.
“Yeah, it’s me. Haul back aways here, love, you’re gonna freeze in that stream. Come on, I got you. We got to get back to the ranch soon as we can. Where’s your horse?”
“I don’t know. I tried whistlin’ for him but he didn’t come.”
“I have Jamie’s pony and he’s about done.” She grabbed his upper arm and helped him move back out of the water. It dripped steadily from his pants and he shuddered.
“That’s all? Why’d you ride him?”
“Didn’t have much choice. Look, I’ll get a fire started, get you dried out some. How’d you get so wet?” She was beginning to find things to do, practical things that steadied her nerves and gave her some strength back. “Get your pants off – they’re not gonna dry that way.”
He fumbled even that simple task but she let him do that himself, trying to help him to find some little independence, because he was going to need every ounce of it to get home.
She hobbled around, found some dry wood and soon had a respectable fire going.
“Honey – what’s wrong with your foot? I can hear it.”
She had hoped he would miss that detail but he was too aware of her not to notice.
“Hurt my ankle. I got it bandaged up but it’s sore. Johnny. . .”
“I won’t be able to help you walk back.”
“We’ll be rescued – neither of us’ll have to walk.”
“It’s getting along for dark. I nearly missed you. There’s a hundred places like this.”
“Francie, come here.”
So she went, for comfort, for solace, and they consoled each other, as the sun began to sink behind the westerly mountains and a blue evening light closed around them like a great hand.
The smoke from their fire made a twisted rope up into the sky.
Darkness came quickly, swallowing up the countryside and pulling the two of them closer together. She ended up sitting as they had so often done, between his legs with her back against his chest, his arms around her, and they talked about anything, everything, until she was uncomfortable with being away from the baby. She slipped away, dealt with her problem as best she could then heard his shout.
She ran back, trying to do up her dress and stood in front of him. “What? What’s wrong?”
He looked up, his blue eyes dark in the firelight, one only a shining fragment, swollen nearly shut, the other betraying a deep disturbance. “I want to go back home. You think we can walk it? I don’t want to be out here. Don’t matter to me whether it’s dark or light. It was full moon last night – Francie – I don’t think I can stand to be out here.”
She understood him – but she could see no way they could do what he wanted. She had to be able to see, to guide them, or they’d soon be lost, however bright the moon. So she had to refuse him and she felt his tense anger as she tried to slip back into his arms. He was resisting her suddenly, reaching for his discarded pants and beginning to pull them on.
“You get the pony. I can walk. We’ll be home before you know it. No – we can both do this together, I know we can.”
Once his pants were on he was up on his feet, trying to find his way. She let him walk, and stepped back out of his way, keeping quiet till he ended on his knees again, thumping the ground in frustration. “You come here, you help me. I can hang on to the pony.”
She wanted to go home, too, very badly, though she was filled with apprehension for them both on that long dark journey.
“Francie – come on. Can’t be above a couple of hours, even walking. Maybe if we start out they’ll find us.”
She took a couple of steps towards him. “All right. Let me put the fire out – here, hold the reins.” She reached for his hand and put the pony into his keeping, then hobbled over to the one point of comfort there and carefully extinguished the hot flames. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness. She called out softly, “Johnny? Where are you?”
“Here, honey. Come on, let’s get you on this pony. Jamie still not named him?”
“Guess not.” The humor in his voice heartened her a little. “You got something appropriate?”
“How about Pequeñez?” His soft laughter floated across the still air and drew her in.
“Huh! You can’t call a pony Smallness! It isn’t even grammatical.” There he was, and her heart gripped as she saw him trying to find the stirrup, ready to help her to mount. His hands, running down the stirrup leather, found the metal. Such competent hands.
“I can call him what I damn well please. It’s a good name. Come on – put your foot in her. What you wearing on your feet?”
“House shoes. Couldn’t get nothin’ else on over this bandage your brother made me wear. Pure foolishness.” He bunked her up unceremoniously, one hand under her behind.
“Sure, sure. And I’ll be a great help to you bumpin’ into the furniture and spendin’ time with some doctor again.”
She caught his hand again and put it on the pommel. “Johnny.”
“Yeah?” He took a tentative step, then another.
She wanted to ask about Mattie, the woman he had mentioned once or twice. She knew the story but from Cipriano, never from him. She wanted to reassure him, too, but that was no good. He might have lost some of his sight for good, for all she knew. She usually knew her own mind but she had been pitched through too much that day and another decision was beyond her. She kept quiet too long and he was soon back to her.
“What is it? You got something to say, you come right out and say it. You thinkin’ I won’t be much use now?”
“No, that’s what you’re thinkin’, not me. We can make out, whatever happens – can’t we? You scared?”
“Yeah. Been scared before.” In his turn he fell silent.
They walked slowly on, Johnny hanging on and stepping now with more confidence. Francie was desperate to know what he was thinking about. She couldn’t wait long to ask.
“You thinkin’ that still, you know, bout you bein’ no use?”
“Why we playin’ this guessing game? I was thinkin’ I said something about bein’ scared, a long time ago. Before Sarah. What you said just tricked me into thinkin’. You know about Mattie?”
“Yeah. You told me, remember? When you were blind – ten or more years ago? Do you still think about her?”
“Not until this happened. And I said those words. You ain’t jealous?” The humor had crept back into his voice but the swing of his emotions was worrying.
“Settle down, honey. How long was it before you saw again?”
“I dunno. Three weeks, maybe. Near the first thing I saw was her riding off down the drive. Made a fool of myself, runnin’ after her. Family didn’t say so but I felt it, after, when I had a lot of time to think.”
Francie lifted her chin higher. She wasn’t going to let him get away with that. “So, you followed your heart, right? Ain’t nothin’ foolish in that, not to my way of thinkin’.”
“Better than leavin’ you?”
There had to be something in the air, or in the night, or the moonlight. They had never, ever talked about that since they’d been married. It was a subject to be left untouched, in case it should become a weapon between them. Yet here, Johnny had picked it up.
“Yeah. Better than that.” She couldn’t go any further, not just then, not with all the other things that had happened to her once he had gone, things he must never know. She put a hand to her mouth.
“Somethin’ you’re not tellin’ me?”
She was saved when he tripped, fell to one knee, cursed and scrambled to his feet once more.
“Where are you?” he hissed, having lost his handhold on the pommel.
She kneed Pequeñez forward and reached out, touching his shoulder then guiding him back to her. “You okay?” she asked, knowing what the answer would be.
“Yeah. I’m okay. How’re you doing?”
“I’m fine. What’re we gonna say when we get back? That we needed some time alone together? Leaving poor Charlotte with her girl. Johnny, it ain’t fair.”
“No. It ain’t. You done your best, Francie – she has Scott to look after her and I got you to look after me. That seems about as fair as goin’ to get.”
Moonlight shadows flickered in a rising wind, and the huge land was an alien place to Francie. The pony paced forward, quiet now, and Johnny paced carefully alongside it, squinting into the dark ahead of his feet. She tried to guide the pony away from obvious obstacles but he was caught out more than once, falling forward and catching himself, and once onto his knees. But he was born of stubborn stock and got up without complaint, rubbed his knees a moment then looked over to her.
“You all right? Your ankle painin’ you?”
“Yeah. Your knees sore?”
“Yeah, and my head. Fine pair we make.”
Ahead, a small light moved, joggling across the land at a crawl. Search party, most likely. She changed direction and told Johnny what she saw. It was firefly small, maybe more than a half mile away, but heading in their direction.
“You tellin’ Scott what happened?” Johnny asked.
“You think we should keep quiet?” She put a hand on her husband’s shoulder and he laid his own hand over hers.
“See what they know. I don’t want to add to their troubles. We can go to bed right off, and maybe I’ll be fine in the morning. I can already see a little more’n I could when we started out.”
“All right – if you want it that way, and we can do it, I reckon that’s for the best. So much to do tomorrow, maybe you can keep out of everyone’s way a while longer.”
Long grass began to replace the rocky slopes they had been descending, and it swished in the wind, and at last Francie began to breathe a little freer. She would get him to bed and he would sleep and be fine in the morning, though he would have a black eye to show off. By the morning there’d be a story they could tell. Small lies, in the family, keeping the whole complicated business of sharing a house on an even keel, just as they’d been doing for a whole year.
She began to shout as soon as the wagon came close enough, and answering shouts told her Cipriano had come to fetch them. For a moment, she regretted an intrusion. It had been a time for them alone, travelling across the dark land, time they rarely had on their own. That closeness was dispelled as the noisy wagon and two outriders came to a stop by them, and there were shouts and greetings and explanations, before she was lifted from her horse and taken to the wagon, despite her protests that she could walk if she wanted to. She had wanted to help Johnny, unobtrusively, but he was managing, saying he just had a sore head and was feeling dizzy, until one of the men put his arm round Johnny’s back and led him to the wagon too.
“Don’t forget Pequenez!” he was saying, and, “Leave me be – I’m all right. Francie?”
Francie settled herself on the hay in the back of the wagon. She wanted to shout her relief, and cry, and stamp her foot and berate Johnny for – for anything that could possibly be his fault, and she wanted to be held by him forever, until the whole damn world went away and left them there, a little island sanctuary. But that would mean leaving behind Jamie and Jack, and Scott and Charlotte and Bug and Jessie. She sobbed, giving in suddenly to the demands of the day, and Johnny was right with her, gathering her up and not letting her deal with anything more. The wagon swayed, and they were off home.
“Honey – wake up!”
Francie had been dreaming but the images faded quickly. She woke so suddenly she was shaking, physically torn from a safe world in Johnny’s arms. For the first time in weeks she had felt secure from upset. And now here was the world crashing in on her again, lights and voices and people needing her. Especially Johnny. She glanced up at his face. He was peering out, eyes squinted, and the knot in her stomach tightened. She felt him hug her once, then pull away from her, steadying her with one hand. He gripped her tightly, each finger a separate impression on her forearm.
She had to go over their plan once, so she knew she understood it. “We’ll go upstairs right away. Jelly can fetch the doc in the morning. No-one’ll know,” she whispered, as much to herself as him. The wagon jerked to a halt by the front door. The house was full of light though it was late by her reckoning, past midnight, maybe.
“Okay – if we can do it. But they both seen me blind before, and I ain’t sure I can hide it, even I can see somethin’ this time.”
By the door stood Murdoch and Scott, and Scott was already calling to them, something strange in his voice, something she had been hearing too much lately.
“Where have you been? A simple trip to town and the boys come back on their own? Where did you get to?” Scott was stepping forward already, reaching up to help her down as Johnny pushed her away and up into his brother’s arms.
“So much for sneakin’ in,” she heard Johnny whisper. He was stirring, getting ready to find his way off the wagon himself, trying to look like he was busy helping her and didn’t know he was feeling around for the side of the wagon. He needed some help with that.
“Wait here a minute. I’m – I’m …” But she couldn’t think of any satisfactory reason for him to stay in the wagon while she did anything. She let Scott lift her out and ease her to the ground. At least he knew about her foot. Maybe – maybe that was the distraction she needed. She put weight on her ankle and it obligingly buckled beneath her. She didn’t have to fake the groan of pain.
Next thing she knew, Scott had picked her up again and carried her indoors, with Murdoch on his heels, and she was desperately looking behind her for Johnny. She saw him reach out, grab the side of the wagon and swing himself to the ground. He waited, orientated himself and set off after her, nearly coming to grief on the steps. But he knew his way around, and Scott and Murdoch were pre-occupied with her.
She was set down on the huge couch, and felt lost on it. She wanted to be back in charge. It felt safer to be in charge rather than fussed over but she had to endure it. She watched Johnny take up a position by the dining room table, clinging to the back of one of the chairs.
“I’m all right, Scott,” she said, looking up into Scott’s face. He looked wild, somehow, ruffled and out of sorts and angry with something. She wanted to shake him and send him back to Charlotte but all she could do was plough on with their plan. “We’ll just get on up to bed now – sort things out in the morning. You should be getting some rest, too. And Murdoch – please, everyone, let’s try to get some sleep.” She pushed herself off the couch and limped over to Johnny, grasping his forearm as she stood alongside him and spoke softly to him. “You’ve been far enough today. Come on, let’s go on up.”
“Okay, honey,” he said, looking at her with eyes that were not quite focused on her face. “Lead the way.”
But Scott was having none of that. “Wait just a minute, you too. Jelly’s gone to fetch the doc – I want you both to stay here until he sees Francie and says she can walk on that ankle. And that eye looks as though it could do with some attention.” Scott was walking purposely towards them and Francie felt Johnny’s arm muscles harden as he gripped the chair back harder. He knew the tone of voice too and was readying himself for an argument.
“I’m going upstairs, Scott,” Johnny said, his voice low and quiet. Threatening. “She’ll be fine if we take it slow. I ain’t having my business conducted in front of an audience.”
With that he let go of the chair and began to walk purposefully in more or less the right direction. She became his guide, unobtrusively, and kept a firm grip on his arm. But there was a problem, a chair drawn out too far and he caught one back leg with his foot and threatened to fall. He dragged her down, causing her to yelp in pain.
“You okay?” he said, righting himself, expression darkening. She knew he was embarrassed and angry, and tried to redirect his attention.
“No. My foot hurts, I’m worn out and I haven’t been looking after Jessie or the boys hardly at all. C’mon, you broken-down old cowboy, let’s get upstairs and put things right.” She hoped he knew she was trying to grin.
Scott wouldn’t leave well enough alone. She knew he wasn’t thinking clearly – wasn’t thinking at all, just hurting, but she was, for the first time, afraid of what he might say.
“Scott…” she warned, as he stepped up and put a hand on Johnny’s arm.
“I’ll carry her upstairs,” Scott said, “since you don’t seem to see she needs help.”
Charlotte stood in the doorway, Garrett in her arms. There was a determination, a strength in her that silenced everyone.
“You’ll come to bed, Scott Lancer, and in the morning, we’ll say our goodbyes to Lily. I won’t have you arguing here and disturbing her rest.”
Francie saw Scott’s eyes fill with tears and wanted to comfort him. She felt Johnny’s tension and knew he couldn’t see what was going on, so she tightened her grip on him. The family could be broken on the wheel of this argument over her.
Charlotte’s tone softened. “Scott. Come upstairs. Jack and Garrett need you. Come on.” She held her hand out to her husband and he went to her. Francie’s eyes were streaming and she had to let go of Johnny to wipe her face. He instinctively reached for her, trying to find her and it was a movement Murdoch did not miss. Scott and Charlotte were already out of the room when he spoke firmly to them both.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?”
Johnny closed his eyes. There would be no lying to his father – Francie knew and respected that.
“You want me to go on up, too, Murdoch?” She loved the old man. He would take some of the problem on his broad shoulders and come up with a solution.
“Can you manage, my dear? I think I need a few words with Johnny – I’m sure you know what it’s about.”
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Johnny asked with little conviction in his voice or stance.
Francie put her hand round the back of her husband’s head and felt the soft, damp hair there. She reached up to kiss him on the cheek.
“If I’m asleep, just creep in real quiet,” she said, trying to see how he was. His eye was darkly bruised and bloodshot. He could not meet her gaze.
“Okay, honey. You get some sleep. I’ll be up in a while.”
She was content to leave him with his father. She had done enough for the day. As she slipped between the sheets, clean, rested and with Jessie asleep in her crib within reach of her hand, she knew they had survived the day, they had all survived the day. All but one little girl, whose death had changed them all, one way and another. Her daughter’s small noises soothed her to sleep.
She woke when the bed moved, as her husband sat on it.
“Well?” she said, rolling onto her side and reaching for his shoulder.
He was pulling off his boots and she felt the play of his muscles under his shirt.
“He’s right. What I need to do, he spelled it out and he’s right. But …”
She didn’t press him. This was something he needed time to say. He stood again, moving away in the dark room to undress. He didn’t need light to do that but she wanted to see him. She struck a match, ready to reach over to the oil lamp but he stopped her.
“I need to stay in the dark now, for a while. I’ll be in this bed a while. You want …” he drew a sudden breath, as if suddenly short of oxygen. “You want to move into the guest room?”
She blew out the match. He came to the bed once more, testing where it was then turning to sit down. Bare skin met her hand this time, before he pulled a nightshirt over his head.and drove her away. She didn’t know what to say for the best. She felt unsafe, out in a place with him that she did not know, where none of the old responses would do.
A long time ago, when they were both barely more than children, he had come to her like this, shot up, worn out, having to admit a kind of defeat. The moment came back to her so strongly, like a vision, and she remembered how she had taken him in hand then, soothed him, healed him, and he had let her do it.
“You remember,” she started, lying back while he settled himself alongside her, “when you got shot in the leg, and you made it back to camp, and I looked after you. I don’t remember where it was.”
“Yeah, I remember.” She felt him turn to her, reach for her hair and begin to pull out her braid.
“You think I’d sleep somewhere else? You think – you think I could sleep somewhere else? That was the first night we – lay side by side …” She couldn’t go on. This was already more than they had said about those early days.
She knew then he had had to make the offer. As soon as she had refused to leave him he gently tugged out the last of her braid then pulled her to him, moulding his body to her back.
“What else did he say, then? Darkened room, stay in bed …”
“He’s sending for a specialist. I can’t risk moving about too much now. Can’t go to the doctor – he’s gotta come here. What if he says it’s for good this time, Francie?”
He was breathing on her hair and his body was warm, right up close to her, but for a moment, he was a million miles away, lost in speculation about the future. Any answer she could think of seemed trite.
“We tell Jamie first thing. No lying to him. He’ll pick it up in two minutes anyway. And I’ll be good, and lie still, and let all my chores go undone and let Scott and Murdoch carry all the responsibility until some doc comes and opens up my head and tells me it’s for good this time.”
She turned round in his arms and shut him up by kissing him, just touching her lips to his. “No, love, that’s not what’s going to happen. Hush.”
He fell asleep at last, and she waited in the dark for sleep to come to her too. She looked into their past once more, to that long night she had spent trying to keep him alive with the tiny bit of medical knowledge she had and all the hope of her young heart.
She finally slipped into sleep just as the morning sky was lightening.
Francie woke to the slamming of a door and the heavy tread of boots down the corridor. They stopped outside the door and there was a firm knock.
“Come on, you two. It’s late – the doctor’ll be here in an hour and there’s the work crews to detail off yet.”
“All right, Scott. We heard you,” she answered, moving Johnny’s arm from around her waist and swinging to the edge of the bed. He shifted, settled himself and, to her great relief, went back to sleep.
She set about the chores of the day, aware that it was half past seven and that feeding Jessie just could not be hurried. In the warm half-dark, the baby’s contented sounds shielded Francie from the coming hours. She sat back against the pillows and held her daughter close.
Just as she was putting Jessie on her shoulder, ready to wind her, Johnny came to.
“You want me to do that?”
“You can see what I’m doin’?” Francie asked breathlessly, hoping against hope.
“I know the routine, honey.”
She looked across at him. He looked worse in the morning light, a great bruise on the side of his head and his eyes bleary and unfocused.
“Sit up, then,” she said, determined to say nothing about his state. “Here, here’s the towel.”
She helped him put it across his shoulder, then carefully handed Jessie over to him. He placed her carefully and began to gently pat her back.
“Scott had no call knocking like that. You’re beat – can’t Maria help out?”
“Don’t be mad at him, Johnny. I reckon he’s got enough anger and hurt in him for the two of you. He don’t know any better right now, than to just do what he can.”
“I guess. You think Murdoch’s right about me stayin’ here? I could get up, do a few chores mebbe, something light.”
She didn’t know what to say. She busied herself with other jobs until he asked the question again.
“Francie? You think I can do somethin’ to help out?”
“No, you can’t, not downstairs, anyway. You can stay here and help out with Jessie, though. You can be her Daddy properly today, and keep her entertained. You’re well enough for that.”
“Sure. Hey, that was a good one, little ’un!” He rubbed Jessie’s back for a minute then handed her back to Francie, who had washed and dressed.
“Doctor’ll see you in a little while. At least wait until then, all right? Johnny?”
“Yeah, yeah. It was the right thing to do last time. Came out all right last time, too.”
It took another half an hour to get Jessie changed, Johnny comfortable and the room straightened for the doctor. She left the windows and curtains closed against the heat of the day. As she was putting away Johnny’s jacket, she heard him murmuring to Jessie.
“Don’t you go growing up too fast, you hear? I don’t want you changing too much, not before I can see you again properly. Won’t be long, honey. Won’t be long.”
Francie turned to see Johnny gazing down at his daughter, very gently rubbing her cheek with his fingers. She was reaching for him, stretching her fingers up to him, and kicking her legs but he had her tight. She was quite safe.
She wanted so badly just to go back to bed and share the time with him, but a tentative knock on the door, and the enquiry, “Pa? Francie? You okay?” told her they were about to face the next problem.
“Come in, son,” Johnny said, automatically looking up.
Francie walked to the door and opened it.
“I gotta go, Johnny. Charlotte’ll be wondering where I’ve got to.”
“No, honey – give me five more minutes. This is for the whole family.”
Jamie came in, peering into the dark. “Where are you? Why’s it so dark in here? You sick?”
“Pull up a chair, Jamie. We have something to tell you.”
Jamie glanced round, searching out Francie, then his father. As he watched his father’s expression he pulled a chair close to the bed.
“Everything’s okay, isn’t it?” he asked, reaching out to play with his half-sister’s foot.
“No, Jamie. But it will be again soon. I can’t see so good, not after that horse kicked me.”
“Pa!” Jamie was instantly unnerved. “It’s all my fault!”
“How did you work that one out, Jamie? I’ve been like this before, you know that. I told you all about it. It was fixed last time and that old doc, he’ll just get straight to fixin’ it again. You hear me?”
Jamie’s eyes were huge, his mouth open in shock. Francie came to stand behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. He managed a, “Yes, Pa,” before turning in the chair and burying his face in Francie’s skirts.
“It’ll be all right, Jamie – I promise it will.” Johnny reached out for his son but couldn’t stretch that far with Jessie in his lap.
Francie, helpless too with Jamie clinging to her, tried to be a rock for her family but time was sweeping past. She had to do something.
“Here, Jamie – you stay with Pa and Jessie for a little while. You look after them both. Okay?”
A muffled, “Okay,” let her start to loosen Jamie’s hold on her and move him over to his father.
“I have to go – I do have to,” she murmured, waiting for Johnny to tell her it was all right for her to leave them. She needed him to make that decision for her.
“You come right back with the doc, all right? We’ll be fine, won’t we, Jamie.”
“Yeah. You go now, Francie.”
It was meant kindly. It was an imitation of what his father was saying. But Francie heard only a kind of dismissal and it hurt. It hurt more that Johnny did not see what she might make of such a comment and she was too tired to do more than accept that, for the moment, she wasn’t needed.
Downstairs, she found Scott in the Great Room, talking to Murdoch about the plans for the day. Both greeted her warmly, Murdoch especially so, with a hug and a look, but no word about Johnny’s condition. That must be held back from Scott, for the day at least, and she could see why: the man looked as if he hadn’t slept at all, and it had robbed him of his calm, his orderliness and care, and Murdoch was having a hard time controlling his firstborn. He was trying to suggest that, for today, Cipriano could organise the work, leaving Scott free to look after Charlotte. As Francie went on through to the kitchen, she heard Scott’s reply.
“She doesn’t need my help, Murdoch. She tells me she’s doing just fine.”
And, as if to prove that point there was Charlotte in the kitchen, kneading bread dough as though it was an ordinary morning. She was wearing a clean black dress, her hair was carefully piled on her head and she was calm and collected.
“Good morning, Francie. How’s your ankle?”
Francie narrowed her eyes at her sister-in-law. Something about her manner was puzzling.
“Sore. Charlotte – what are you doing?”
“If the funeral’s the day after tomorrow, which Jelly said is what you’ve arranged, we’d better get ready for the wake. I’ve sent out some invitations already. I want to make these little sweet rolls from my mother’s favourite recipe. Scott’s going to get me the best ham from the store and I hope Murdoch will let us open the wine he’s been saving for Christmas.”
“Charlotte?” Francie was stunned. This wasn’t her sister in law, who was polite and well-bred, to be sure, but not … not this model housewife, not this strange creature who was smiling at her, then looking down to cover the bowl with a cloth. She put it in the time-honoured place in the kitchen to rise and went to wash her hands.
“Yes? How is Johnny? Murdoch hasn’t said anything yet – I do hope it’s not too serious.”
There was nothing else for it. The doctor was overdue now – but he could see to her. Maybe she needed a sedative, or sleep, or a damn good cry. Then she’d be back to normal – wouldn’t she?
Francie could barely speak. “Er – he’s looking after Jessie and Jamie. I think they all need some more rest. Doc’ll tell us soon enough if it’s anything to worry about.”
“Yes, yes – he will. Now, while that’s rising, I’ll make you some breakfast. You’ve got to eat, you know – keep up your strength. Was it terrible – when you found him? You were gone so long, we thought – well, I didn’t know what to think. But …”
Francie sat down, becoming more used to this Charlotte, so nearly the kind, practical, thoughtful woman who was her sister-in-law. So many times they had helped each other out in the past. Charlotte had helped to save her marriage more than once, finding the right words to say to both of them when they’d argued themselves to a standstill and needed an intermediary to bring them back together. Now it was time for Francie to pay her back.
It was a pity she had no idea how.
The doctor was late, hot and tired. Francie welcomed him with a cup of tea and then a warm handshake. He’d worked so hard for Lily and Francie saw how it wore at him, the guilt that he had not been able to save the little girl.
“A sad day, Mrs. Lancer – Francie. How are you all coping?”
She glanced round for any other family members. Charlotte was busy with Garrett, Johnny was upstairs with Jamie and Jessie and she had no idea where Jack was. Murdoch and Scott were probably outside. She could speak freely.
“I don’t think we’re coping so well, Doc.” She looked down, tears threatening, but thought of Johnny and gritted her teeth against her feelings of inadequacy. The doctor narrowed his eyes at her then checked what he was about to say as one of the kitchen girls came in.
“Shall we go upstairs? The paperwork shouldn’t take long. I’ll need to see Scott and Charlotte but – well, we should talk first, shouldn’t we.”
She knew he had plenty of experience of families coping with loss. Perhaps he would have some solutions for her. “Yes – yes. I’ll take you upstairs.”
“You’re favouring that ankle, young lady. What else aren’t you telling me?”
“That’s it for me, doc. It’s black and blue but it’s bound up. I’ll do well enough. The rest of the family, I don’t know. Well, come on up.”
When she showed the kindly old man into Lily’s room, she watched his face as he looked at the child who had been readied for her last journey. His expression softened and he allowed himself to smile for a moment.
“She’s – she’s at peace, isn’t she?” Francie said quietly. “In the end, seemed like she was quite content to go. She didn’t seem to suffer at all.”
“That’s good – that’s good. I wish we could have saved her but we don’t have the knowledge yet. Maybe one day they’ll look back and wonder how we couldn’t see the proper treatment. But I hear of wonders they are doing back East.”
He signed the papers as he spoke, and gave them into Francie’s care.
“Now, what about the rest of you? Report, Miss Francie, if you please. And you just say what you’ve observed and don’t try to spare anyone’s feelings. Scott first.”
She filled him as best she could, tentatively suggesting what she thought was wrong with first Scott, then Charlotte.
“Well, well – grief takes us all differently. Twenty years I’ve been doing this job and I still don’t know how it will take folk. But there are some patterns. Time – I know it seems like I’m telling you something you know already but in the end, time is the only thing that will put this straight. Meanwhile, we have to try to stop them pulling apart too far – you say they’ve not been talking to each other?”
“I dunno, doc. Maybe they are – I haven’t been with them all the time. You’ll have to ask them.”
“I don’t suppose they’ve even noticed it themselves. All right – well now, what about yourself? That little matter we were talking about last week?”
She looked at him. “I’m not thinking about that right now. No. Not right now.” She shook her head, warding off thoughts she could not bear to consider just then. Time enough for all that, when the funeral was over.
“Yes, well, take care of yourself. You can’t take on the whole family, you know. If they come to depend on you and you can’t do what needs to be done it’ll be worse for them and you. Do what you can and leave it at that. Now, what about that husband of yours?”
Suddenly, Francie found herself unable to say another word. She wanted to pass on her fears, let them go, let the man who looked at her with such understanding tell her everything was going to be just fine. But she couldn’t even take the first step and put into final, inescapable words just what had happened. She felt the man grip her forearm.
“It’s all right, Francie. I’ll go and examine him right away. You find Scott – he must read through these papers. Yes – you go search for him.”
She wanted to go very much, out into the sun and the sounds of the real world, but she had to tell him about the children. “Jamie and Jessie – he’s looking after them – I’d better fetch them.
“You go on out. I’ll send Jamie to you – he can bring the baby. Is she all right?”
“She fine, doc. She’s – she’s fine.” She sighed. “Tell Jamie I’ll be out by the barn. I expect that’s where they are, Scott and Murdoch. Maybe Murdoch’s been able to talk to him.”
“Go on, now. I’ll come and talk to you in a little while.”
She nodded, more grateful than she could say, her load lightened considerably.
She found Murdoch out by the corral, leaning on the fence and watching three horses circle nervously. He didn’t turn when she came to stand next to him.
“Lovely animals,” he commented. “Look at them – they’re worth every penny I paid for them.”
“They’re skittish,” Francie offered. She knew something of horses but was nervous in the face of Murdoch’s long experience and good eye. “What’s upset them?”
“Oh – new smells, new places – each other, maybe. They’ll settle down. I wish Johnny could work with them.”
The old man looked across at Francie and immediately reached for her, knowing he had said the right thing. He was strong and big and reminded her of her own father, dead so many long years. She cried her heart out and his shirt absorbed all her tears.
“Hush, Francie, my dear – Jamie’s coming this way,” he warned. She took a deep, sobbing breath and wiped her cheeks with the back of her hands.
“Don’t say anything, please, Murdoch. He has enough troubles on his shoulders.”
“You can’t hide this from him. You’ll see – he’s a strong boy.” Murdoch let her stand next to him. He distracted Jamie for a while, so that the boy held Jessie’s basket and told his grandpa that yes, school started again next week and yes, he had been doing his homework and no, Johnny didn’t need anything just then and finally, yes, the doctor was seeing to him and he reckoned his Pa would be down later, when his headache was better.
Francie had managed to master herself by the time Jamie handed Jessie to her, though she knew her face gave away her tears.
“You all right, Francie?” Jamie asked.
“I’m fine, Jamie – but have you seen Jack? I haven’t seen him all morning.”
The sun fell onto Jamie’s light blond hair, making him seem other-worldly. He had not been a blood-relation to Lily, but there was something about them that was startlingly alike. But when he looked down at the ground and toed the dust, he was all Johnny.
“I reckon,” he said slowly, as if pondering whether to tell what he knew, “I reckon he might be in the barn. I think he’s a mite upset about – about stuff.”
“Stuff?” said Murdoch, “what do you mean, stuff?”
Jamie blushed, under pressure now to reveal his secret. “Well – his Ma, and Scott, being so busy and all, and he – well, Grandpa, he said he wasn’t sure they really wanted him any more. Least, I think that’s what he said.”
Francie gasped, putting her hand to her mouth. “Oh, Jamie – oh …” She couldn’t manage anything more coherent.
Murdoch told them what to do, and like someone in a dream, she let him. He went to see the doctor and Johnny. She took Jamie’s hand and Jessie’s basket and led her small team to the barn, calling, “Jack! Jack! Come out here!” as she went. Why on earth was sensible, cheerful, practical Jack coming to such conclusions?
It was cooler in the barn but breathless. She set Jessie down.
“Go find him, Jamie. Maybe he’s just hiding here somewhere. Fetch him here.”
“Okay. I know where he is, anyways.” Jamie marched purposefully to the corner of the large barn, and knelt by a pile of straw. He pulled some of the straw aside until Jack appeared, sitting sullenly with his feet drawn up and his arms round his shins. He looked angry more than upset.
“Leave me alone!”
“Come on, you ninny. Francie’s here – she’ll help.”
Francie stood, listening to the two trying to communicate and waiting in case she was needed.
“Well – you can’t stay there all day. You’ll get hungry.”
Jamie knelt down and settled back onto his heels. “It ain’t so bad. I mean, I know what’s it’s like, losing people. I know Pa must’ve felt bad, ‘cos, some days, Ma’s birthday, things like that, he would get the miseries. But he don’t no more. Ya know?”
Francie saw Jack look up, fixing Jamie with a stare she had seen him use before, when he was trying to judge someone’s veracity. “Ya reckon?” he said quietly.
“Yeah. I mean, he ain’t hardly sad at all no more, not now he’s got me and Jessie. And Francie.”
A smile quirked the corner of Francie’s mouth involuntarily at Jamie’s afterthought.
“You there, Aunt Francie?” Jack called.
“Yes, Jack, I’m here.” She took a step forward out of the shaft of sunlight and saw Jack more clearly now. Red hair full of straw, eyes bright with grief. She was suddenly mad with her brother-in-law and his wife, who were so consumed with their own pain they could not see what they were doing to others. She pushed such feelings aside hastily. They could not help what they were doing, no more than Jack could.
“You reckon they’ll be all right again?”
“They have you and they have Bug, and they have all of us. I reckon they will be. You gotta be patient, Jack. It won’t happen right off.”
“I guess.” He rubbed his forehead, looking puzzled again. “I guess – maybe I could help out. We could both look after Jessie and Bug for a while. What d’you think, Jamie?”
“Okay. Yeah – Jessie ain’t no trouble. Can we do that, Francie? Look after them for you.”
In truth, Francie wanted Jessie with her, but then she knew she would have to be speaking to the doctor soon and maybe it was better to be unencumbered, just for a while.
“That would be helpful, boys. You go on in the house, see if you can find your ma. I don’t think she’ll object if you take Garrett out for a while. Take ‘em into the garden – it’s pretty cool in there. I have one or two things to do then I’ll find you – okay?”
“Okay,” Jack said, on his feet now, his grief forgotten in new and important tasks to be done. He trotted over to Jessie’s basket and knelt down.
“Right, baby,” he said loudly, looking at the baby girl, who looked back quietly then smiled. “You need to start learning ta crawl around. Jamie and me, we’re gonna teach ya.”
“Not too quickly, Jack! I like her just where she is right now. You’ll spend your life running round after her soon as she gets to crawling.”
Jack picked up her basket, scratched his nose and called impatiently to Jamie. “Come on, cuz, hurry up. We’ll carry her between us and fetch Bug.”
So the two boys marched out, swinging Jessie’s basket between them, much to the little girl’s amusement. The little scene had sparked an idea in Francie’s head. If reminding Jack that Jamie knew something of what he was feeling had helped Jack shake off his fears, then maybe it was time to tell Charlotte a secret that had been kept for too long. Maria knew – maybe Maria could even help tell Charlotte. Just maybe it might help to stir Charlotte enough to help her find her way back to the real world.
Once her mind was made up, she felt better. If she could just have a few words with Charlotte, give her some support, just a little nudge, like Murdoch had done with her, and Jamie with Jack. It made good sense. Maybe no one had just tried the right words yet. This was her sensible, caring sister-in-law.
As she limped across the hard ground to the kitchen door she waved to Jamie and Jack, who now had charge of one younger brother and one younger sister. Jack wasn’t smiling his usual broad grin, and Jamie wasn’t whistling, as he often did, but they seemed happy enough. It was another problem solved, temporarily at least. They headed off round the corner of the building to the garden.
Inside the kitchen Charlotte was standing at the table cutting up meat for a pie. Maria was working there too, but Maria knew Francie’s secret, so there was no difficulty there. Francie suddenly felt very young in the face of her tall, collected sister-in-law. She wondered for a moment whether she was doing the right thing. No way to find out except by asking.
“Charlotte – how are you this morning?” Francie said, unable to keep a slight tremor out of her voice.
“Well, the undertaker should be here soon, and Maria and I have done nearly all the baking, and I had two replies to the invitations already this morning.”
“Yes – but…” Francie went to stand by Charlotte and glanced across at Maria, who was watching the pair of them intently. “How do you feel?”
“I’m tired. But I feel all right. How are you? How’s your ankle?”
Francie grimaced. If Charlotte was going to avoid the subject then how was she to say what she had to say? He could see Maria watching her closely.
“Please,” she said, stepping closer to Charlotte and putting her hand on her arm. “Sit down.”
“What is it? I can’t stay to talk long. There’s so much to do. I haven’t even sent a wire to my mother yet.” A hint of anxiety in her voice gave Francie the opening she needed, though Charlotte did not sit, nor look her in the eye, nor stop cutting up the meat.
“I know how you feel,” she ventured. She felt somehow in the wrong as soon as she said it. She realised for the first time that, though they talked and shared confidences and fed their babies together, she and Charlotte had never spoken much about their feelings. She felt nervous in the face of Charlotte’s cool appraisal of her now, and Maria’s vigorous shaking of her head. She narrowed her eyes, puzzled, but ploughed on just the same.
“I lost a baby, a long time ago. When I was eighteen.”
Charlotte was looking at her expressionlessly.
“I was pregnant when Johnny left me. I lost the baby two weeks after that. I – I won’t ever forget it.” Tears welled in her eyes at the thought of those dreadful days after he had gone, when she had known she was pregnant then almost immediately miscarried. If not for her father she would not have survived.
So – there it was, her secret, something she had confessed only to Maria because Maria had guessed it. Even Johnny didn’t know. Charlotte’s silence was unnerving. Maria hurried over.
“Miss Charlotte, I think you have cut enough meat for now. Let me do this for you.” Maria took the knife from Charlotte’s hand and, with a gentle push on her shoulder, made her sit.
Francie waited for the axe to fall. She knew she had made a mistake, for good reasons or not, it hardly mattered. It was out now.
“Francie,” Charlotte began. “You can’t possibly believe that you know how I feel. You can’t know what it’s like, losing Lily like this. I’m sorry you lost your child, but perhaps it was for the best, with Johnny leaving you like that. A miscarriage is a terrible thing but it is not like this. Not like this.” Still Charlotte did not cry. The bitterness was all her words. It did not seem to reach her expression.
Francie glanced up at a shadow in the doorway. She was trying hard not to cry, not to compound her error. She had somehow knocked Charlotte sideways but it had made her worse, not better. The flow of words would not stop, the comparison of the loss of an unborn baby and the loss of Lily did not cease, as Charlotte became angrier and wilder, turning into someone Francie no longer knew.
She looked at Scott, the figure standing silently in the doorway, whose white face and hollow eyes betrayed feelings deeper than any she had ever seen in him, and she blessed his arrival. Perhaps her mistake could force them together, force him to take up his responsibilities again, make them whole again. He stepped forward and laid his hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. She turned to him, breathless and suddenly silent.
“Charlotte – it’s not Francie’s fault. She’s doing her best – you have to see, you can’t keep driving us all away. You can’t do this …”
Charlotte said nothing, just looked at him. Francie didn’t dare say anything else. The few words she had said had been the wrong ones and she wished she could take them back.
Scott tried again. “The undertaker will be here in a while. We have to sign the papers. Charlotte, leave this, come and help me.”
“Help you, Scott? You defend Francie and tell me to help you?” The anger in her voice, the pain was terrible. Francie wanted to hug her or run from her, one or the other, but not stand there silent.
Neither Scott nor Charlotte said a word. It was some kind of turning point, some moment they were sharing. Then Charlotte stood.
“I am leaving tomorrow. With Lily. On the train. I’ll arrange it with the undertaker.”
“You are doing what?”
Maria came to stand by Francie and took her elbow in her hand.
“Lily will be buried with her father. I shall visit my mother for a while. I’ll take Garrett but you must keep Jack here.”
“You sound as though it’s decided. Don’t I get a say in this? I’m coming with you.”
Maria was pulling Francie away, murmuring something to her. The last words she heard for sure were in Charlotte’s firm voice. “It is decided. You must stay. Johnny needs you here.”
Outside, the light was blinding, white and hot as metal in the forge. Francie was shocked to the core by the fight. They never fought, those two. Johnny and her, well, that was different, until Jessie they had fought each other too much, every week, every day. But these two quietly got along, made the best of things, took everything in their stride, until now.
“Oh, Maria – what have I done? I didn’t know what to do!”
The old woman led her gently towards the garden. “You did your best, Señora. Francie – you didn’t know. Perhaps it is for the best. I think Señora Charlotte was perhaps trying to find a way to tell her esposo what she wanted to do, and you gave her a chance to do that. Perhaps she could have chosen a better way to do it, though.”
“But she can’t take Lily away! She needs to be here, with all of us. Scott needs her to be here.”
Maria was steering her towards the garden, where she could hear Jack and Jamie playing.
“You must see – it is her right. She will bury Lily with her first husband – he is Lily’s father. It is her right to do that. It may be better for her to be with her own mother right now. She is feeling very bad. Her husband left her with two children, now she has one. Do you not see? You must be calm, and you must talk to Juanito about it. I will ask the doctor to come and see you, and perhaps you would like to speak to the Patrón, too?
But Francie was looking behind her, wishing to take back the last few minutes, praying that Scott and Charlotte would see sense.
Maria took her hand.
“There is much that they need to talk about. You cannot help them do that, not just now. Maybe later. Señora – you cannot solve this for them. I think you should begin to think about Juanito, what he is facing.”
Francie looked down, seeing only hard-baked earth and her skirts, so fresh this morning, now shabby with dust and pieces of straw. She had not forgotten Johnny’s condition. She had wanted to, but she had not. Perhaps that was why she understood Scott and what he was trying to do.
“You’ll send the doctor here, then?”
“Sí. You need to take some time to rest. We will take care of everything, for a little while.”
Francie grasped the woman’s hand. “Gracias.”
Maria squeezed her hand then left her in the archway which led through to Teresa’s garden. It was part vegetable plot, part flower garden, and it was tended with loving care by an old man who had helped Teresa for years. He was sitting in the corner, watching the boys playing with Bug on a blanket spread on the ground. He looked up and smiled at Francie.
“Buenos días, Señora.”
“Buenos días, Carlos. Thanks for watching the boys.”
“They bring life with them. It is no trouble to watch them. They are good boys.”
She felt Murdoch’s presence behind her. He came to stand close and they spent a moment quietly watching.
“I’m going to make sure the boys understand what they doc’s said. I think he wants Johnny to tell you himself.”
She looked up into his face, saw the extra lines there, and the sadness in his eyes. But he was there and he knew what to say and do to make things seem better.
“Thanks, Murdoch. The boys’ll take it better coming from you. What are you going to say to them?”
“I’ll tell them the truth, my dear. You go sit over there – the doc’s coming right down.”
“I’m here already, Murdoch. I left Scott talking to Johnny. He seemed to have something very important that needed discussion.” The doctor was rolling down his sleeves and putting his jacket back on.
Francie’s heart skipped a beat. Would Scott tell Johnny what he knew? It didn’t make sense that he would but nothing about their current situation made sense to her.
She allowed herself to be guided again and sat down in the shade with the doctor. Murdoch moved over to the boys and joined in their play for a while, then stilled them and began to talk quietly to them.
The old man next to her sighed and sipped the lemonade Maria brought out for them all. She smiled at Francie, who had settled herself on the bench and was trying to sit still. “Maria’s a gem. She’s with Charlotte. I heard what she’s planning to do and I have to say I can’t disapprove. Charlotte needs a break. She’s nursed Lily for so long and I think if this will give her peace, then she must do it.”
Francie nodded. “But what about Scott? She won’t take Scott with her.”
“I know. I think Scott will need a good deal of care over the next few weeks. As will your husband. Now, take off your shoe and stocking, I want to examine your ankle.”
She did as she was told. And as he held her ankle, and manipulated it until she protested, he told her what she would need to do with Johnny, what he would be able to do, what he would not, and that a specialist would be summoned just as soon as doc got back to town.
“How long before he can get here?”
“Depends. Some of their practices are very busy – there’s been some huge steps forwards in ophthalmology in the last five years. There’s every hope a specialist can put the damage right this time, for good. You need to keep off this ankle for a couple of days. Elevation. Cold and hot compresses. Take care of yourself, Francie.”
“I will. I promise. Can I go and see Johnny now?”
“Sure. He’s waiting for you. He’ll tell you more. I think he understands his condition at least as well as I do.”
“Thanks, doc.” She waved to Murdoch. “I’m going up to see Johnny. Keep the boys here for a while longer, would you?”
“Take your time, Francie. I’ll take them in soon, give them something to eat.”
She hadn’t realised how the morning had slipped away. She saw the doc to his buggy. Another buggy stood by the hitching rail. The undertaker. Doc shook his head.
“I’ll be back in a couple of days. If Johnny has any more headaches, or – loses any more sight, just let me know. Don’t any of you do more than you absolutely have to do.”
She waved him away.
Upstairs it was a little cooler at last, with the windows tight shut and the curtains drawn all along the corridor. She walked slowly along the carpet, trying to give Scott a little more time with his brother but when she approached the room there were raised voices. Surely they weren’t arguing as well. She pushed a hand forlornly through her hair, trying to tidy it, trying to prepare herself for more battles.
A few minutes later, as she sat down on the old seat in the garden she had her breath back under control. Just. She wasn’t risking another brush with hyperventilation. Once was enough.
It was quiet, apart from a solitary goldfinch singing discordantly, in fits and starts. The plants were drooping in the heat. No point in watering them just yet. Morning and evening. But then she realised it was evening, the sky fading a little towards darkness, and Carlos had not yet done his work.
Her mind raced, running through the items on her list, avoiding at all costs what she had just heard. But it had to be faced, just like everything else in the last few days; it had to be faced.
Scott had told Johnny. He had come right out with it. Why was Johnny trying to advise him not to let Charlotte go on her own when he couldn’t even stay with a woman when she was pregnant with his child.
Well, there it was. She hadn’t even waited to hear Johnny’s reply. She had walked steadily and without speaking to anyone and found the garden empty of children, empty of anything. It was time to think. Should she pack her stuff and go with Charlotte? No, too melodramatic. Ridiculous. Johnny couldn’t possibly be mad enough with her to ask her to go. No.
But the demon that had suggested the idea to her wouldn’t let it drop, kept suggesting to her in different ways that she had managed to destroy the family and that Johnny would never see her in the same way again. How could she keep that secret from him, the demon suggested, putting words in Johnny’s mouth. How would he ever be able to trust her completely again. How could they go on the same way. It would be back to those arguments and fights and disagreements, the ones they had just managed to lay to rest.
She closed her eyes for a moment, leaning back, her heart still beating too fast, her brain gripped in the obsession. The end. She deserved it, too. Fool thing to do, telling her secret like that.
She woke with a start. “Murdoch?”
“Here you are. I brought you a cup of tea. You haven’t eaten all day.”
“No. Now, what are you doing out here? Johnny’s been asking for you.”
She sighed deeply. “Probably wants to tell me off.”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“What about, Francie?”
“About – about that secret I’ve been keeping from him and told Charlotte, and Scott overheard and went and told Johnny.”
“Oh. Yes, he told me. He’s not going to tell you off, you know.”
“He’s going to be mad with me. I – don’t think I want to deal with any more angry people just now.” She sat up and put her head in her hands.
“Johnny rarely gets mad with other people. Mostly he’s mad with himself. Francie – he needs you. Go on. I’ll look after the kids.”
“I seem to have done nothing today except shuffle my responsibilities onto other people.”
It was Murdoch’s turn to sigh. “If you don’t know by now that that is what families are for, young lady …”
She looked up, way up, and there was Murdoch’s serious face looking down on her, the still bright sky behind his head. She squinted.
“Don’t say it. You carried the whole family yesterday, me included, though I don’t think you realise that. Now Johnny’s the one who needs you most. And I think you need him, don’t you?”
“Yes.” She felt humble in the face of his truth-telling.
“Then get on up there. Right now.”
“I have to feed Jessie first.”
“Well, after you’ve done that.”
“And I need to make sure Jamie’s all right – for my peace of mind.”
“All right. Anything else you just have to do?”
Murdoch reached out a hand and helped her to stand.
“You love him very much, don’t you.”
“Yeah. Very much.”
“There were times there when I wasn’t sure.”
“I think I understand a little better now why you were having problems. Maybe you can stop thinking things have to be kept secret from him?”
They moved towards the archway, her arm linked through his. She nodded, saying nothing. Maybe, just maybe, things could turn out for the better after all.
She snuck quietly into the room, half-hoping Johnny was asleep. An oil lamp, turned nearly all the way down, was the only light. It smelt warm and cosy, and of them, and she sighed and moved Jessie from her basket to her crib before sitting in the rocking chair. Her nursing chair. Jelly had made it for her. She had fed and changed Jessie in the kitchen, and Maria had given her coffee and a sandwich, so she had been prepared to slip in next to Johnny without disturbing him. Without facing whatever mood he was in.
“Francie. Come to bed.” So he had heard her. “You must be dead on your feet.” There was no trace of anything in his voice except his love. He was who he was, unswayed by the events of the day, not angry with her, not disappointed. All those words from Murdoch that she hadn’t quite believed were true.
“I am tired. But I want to talk and I want to think before I say what I have to. I can’t do that anywhere but here, Johnny.”
She saw him sit up and reach for the oil lamp, feeling around for a moment before he turned up the wick.
“You can see the light, then?”
“Yeah. Can tell light from dark, moving shape from just a shape. Every time I sleep a while it seems better when I wake than it was before.”
“What did the doc say?” She leaned back in the chair and pushed herself back and forth with her toe, making the floor squeak. Then he’d know where she was.
“Didn’t Murdoch tell you? I need someone to come from San Francisco and operate. Seems getting kicked in the head loosened something in there and it needs screwing back in place. Simple bit of carpentry, really.”
“Ain’t you mad with me at all? About – about what Scott said?”
“Yeah, a little. A little mad with myself, too. I figured it out. I could ask you why you didn’t tell me, but then you’d say, well, you weren’t there to tell. Which I wasn’t. But we don’t need to go back there if you don’t want to. It’s your decision, Francie. Whatever you decide, if you wanna tell me off like Scott did, you go right ahead and do it.”
“Scott had no right to say those things. He had no right to tell you.”
“He didn’t know I didn’t know.”
“Oh.” Then she felt guilty for a moment. There should be no secrets between man and wife. But there were – hundreds and hundreds of them, from his life and hers. Things that needed to be left unsaid, or left buried in the past where they belonged. All that mattered was their honesty now. “Maybe I should have told you. Like you, with the marriage. How it wasn’t legal.” She smiled to herself. “But then, when I look back, those women’s faces … They were madder than wet hens.” She paused for breath, a little hysterical. “Do hens really get mad if they get wet?”
“Doc says there’s no reason I can’t get up and walk about some, tomorrow, or the next day, when I can see better. He says the kick in the head done the worst damage and that’s liable to clear pretty soon, on account of I’ve got such a thick skull. So maybe it isn’t permanent.”
She let the tears wash down her face. She loved him so much, for this show of bravado, like drawing down on an enemy and killing it with laughter. She couldn’t quite join him yet.
“And I can look after Jamie and Jack and the babies. While you go to with Charlotte to the train station. You are going with her, aren’t you? I can’t go out in the bright sun just yet, so I can’t come. But I’ll be here when you come back.”
“What did Scott say when you told him you were fine with her doing this?”
“He was mad with me. Course he was. But I can see her point of view. Francie – think about it.”
She did, but it still didn’t make the kind of sense to her that it clearly did to Johnny. “Well, I can see his point of view too. She doesn’t want him to go along. That’s why Scott’s acting like he is. She only told him today, after we planned the funeral and everything. She – she was mad with him for saying things in my favour.”
“So you reckon it’s all your fault then, don’t you?”
“Francie, if you don’t come to this bed soon I’m going to come and get ya. You know I can do it, too.”
“You can?” She began to undo the buttons on her dress.
“Yeah, I can.”
“And you think I can’t defend myself?”
“I know you can. I still walk lop-sided from when you broke all my toes a year or two back.”
The laugh caught her unawares, in the middle of a sob and came out as a hiccough. She shrugged off her dress and began on the fiddly buttons on her underclothes.
“I stamp good,” she said, nodding to herself. “Just be thankful I didn’t use my knee on you.”
“I am thankful, honey, I am. You got out of all them fancy things you wear these days yet?”
“Hold on. I’m going to invent a whole new set of underwear, something that’s easy to get in and out of.” She took off the last of her things and shook them out, putting them on the back of the rocking chair. Then she moved to be with Johnny, just for a while, and kept the lamp on. He had been lying in the middle of the bed and made a space for her by rolling onto his side. She slipped in next to him and he pushed her gently onto her side, too, her back to his chest. Then he put both arms round her and pulled her close.
“You wanna talk some more?” he asked, his whisper a breath in her hair.
He pulled her back against him firmly, so that she would know whether he wanted to talk or not. She moved until she was comfortable and he began to comfort her, warm her, make her forget everything. His hands were finding her again, and her eyes closed in bliss.
“You’re never going to stop doing this, are you, honey?”
“What? What am I never going to stop doing?” she murmured, letting him do what he wanted to do.
“Stop being here, just like you are now.”
“Nope. Never gonna stop. Johnny, hush. Let’s …”
But the rest of her words caught in her throat as he held her tight and made her forget everything but him.
Afterwards, she moved a little away from him and turned to look at his face in sleep. His bruises were fully out, black and blue and purple, and she knew the swelling was mainly what was wrong with him. That would go then he would be better again. But better or not, it didn’t matter to her, to them, while they were lying there.
She couldn’t stay away from him long. She straightened her pillow then slipped back next to him, waiting for him to wake enough to take her back into his arms.
“You all right?” he asked sleepily.
“Yeah. Well, you know. Sort of. You?”
“Feel better now I’m home. Glad you decided to stay.”
“Me too.” She reached up for a kiss then settled back to wait for sleep.
Much later, she woke for a few moments. He was holding her tight, even as he slept, and his warm bulk was enough reassurance for the hours they were together.
She woke out of a dream in which someone was trying to catch her attention. Every time she turned to try to see who it was they slipped away out of sight again. Then she heard something in her dream, some familiar sound, and she followed it to wakefulness. A thread of early morning light fell across the bed.
Johnny was sitting up in bed, his knees drawn up, his head in his hands, and it was he who was making the noise. Something between a cough and a sigh.
“Honey – what’s wrong?” She leaned into his shoulder, kissed the bare skin under his nightshirt and waited for some reply. She felt his muscles contract as his breath came irregularly. It took him a few moments to get himself under control and look up. He stared away into the distance.
“Came up on me sudden,” he said, taking deeper breaths. “Couldn’t seem to stop it.”
“No?” she said quietly.
She felt him lose his way again, and his gasps threatened to take her self-control. She waited him out. A few moments, that was all it took, but it seemed hours before he spoke again.
“We have to somehow make Scott go with Charlotte. And if we do that, I have to help Murdoch out. He’ll say he was running the ranch all those years on his own. But he wasn’t. He had Teresa’s father to help him. I ain’t sure how I can help him this time,” he said, and she wondered if that was what had unsettled him so much. But he took one more convulsive breath and began again. “I ain’t sure I can wait two hours to see again, let alone two weeks. And what if …”
“You’ve been playing what if?” she said, half-smiling, half crazy with her feelings for him.
“I ain’t been playin’ anythin’. You should know that.” There was a hint of something in his voice, an anger that made her change tactic immediately.
“I do, Johnny, I do. Really. But you’ve never been one for thinking ahead and spoiling the present with too many worries about the future,” she said, feeling that her words sounded empty. She reached for him, knowing that she could say better what she meant with her body than with words. He turned to gather her in.
“Yeah, I know. Not a good time to forget the habits of a lifetime, huh.”
He fell silent and she began to doze against his shoulder, until he lay back down, taking her with him and settled her against him, his arm round her back. She listened while the tightness in his breathing eased and he finally sighed deeply. She rested safely but she tried not to sleep, wanting to be there for him if he needed her. But she was too tired and sleep took her despite her best intentions.
She woke when she was aware that he was moving her to lie on her own. As he got up she instinctively reached for him but he was intent on getting to the window. There were noises outside, horses and voices and then a shaft of light as Johnny opened the curtains a little.
“What is it?” she asked, sleepily.
“Come and see what’s goin’ on, honey. Come and see for me.”
She glanced at his watch. Five minutes to eight o’clock. She’d nearly slept the clock round. “What is it?”
“Lot going on out here. Reckon I should be getting’ up and seein’ to things.”
She came to stand next to him and he put his arm round her waist. “What’s goin’ on?”
“They brought the town hearse all the way out here. Johnny – she’s all set to go already! We gotta stop her!”
Johnny turned and began to pull off his nightshirt as he moved across the room. “You see to Jessie – I’ll go do what I can. Maybe get Charlotte to hold back for an hour or so. See what I can do.”
She hurried to his side and passed him his clothes, helping him to get the shirt buttoned right.
“Shavin’ll have to wait, I reckon. You get your chores done then come down, see what sort of mess I’ve made of things this time.” He breathed out quickly, then orientated himself for a moment before reaching across for the door. Francie wondered for a moment how he would get downstairs on his own but then heard him shout for Jamie. They would do all right. And everything that could be said, he would say, if Scott gave him half a chance.
She settled to feeding Jessie, trying to hurry the baby, which wasn’t a good idea. Then she cleaned her, washed herself, dressed, and prepared to face whatever was happening downstairs. At least she hadn’t heard any shouting.
They were all in the Great Room, standing or sitting, with Charlotte in the middle, bags packed and Garrett in her arms. She was wearing her smart travelling clothes and looked solemn and cool, like a princess.
Scott was sitting by the cold fireplace, head in hands. Johnny leaned against the couch, Jamie imitating him next to him. Murdoch was on the couch with Jack. It was Johnny who was speaking.
“We wish you wouldn’t go. But, seein’ as you have to, well, I think maybe we could spare Scott for a few days. What d’you think, Murdoch?”
“We could. Yes, of course we can. Scott?” Murdoch said, smiling reassuringly at Jack, who was pale and bright-eyed.
Scott looked up. Exhaustion was pulling at his face, emphasising the lines and his heavy-lidded eyes. “It’s up to Charlotte,” he said.
“No!” Francie waded in without another thought. “I think it’s up to you. I think you have to tell her you have to go. Scott!” She went to stand in front of Charlotte. She had her hands on her hips and she meant business.
“I stood where you’re standing, remember? Belly out to here,” she demonstrated with her hands, “feeling fat and awkward and – and hurt. You all told Johnny what to do and bless him, he did it right. Never wanted to leave after that. You gonna ignore your own advice and leave your husband here?”
Charlotte looked at her, as surprised as if she’d been slapped. She opened her mouth but Francie hadn’t finished.
“Is this all we mean to you? You can just pack up and leave? I think it’d take more courage to – to stay. Or at least go with Scott. I don’t understand you. You’re not who I thought you were.”
“Francie,” Johnny warned her. “You said enough.”
“No, I ain’t – not if she’s still going to walk out on us all.”
Suddenly Scott stood. He had made a decision, that much was obvious in his stance.
“I’m going to pack. You want to come too, Jack?”
“If you’re down here in half an hour, ready to go, yes, you can come with me.”
Jack whooped, then clamped his hand over his mouth. Francie heard his muffled, “Sorry.” Then she heard Charlotte sigh.
“I suppose I’m going to have to wait too, then. We can still make the train. Francie, are you sure you’ll be all right?” She looked down from her queenly height and Francie winced, aware she looked as if she’d been dragged from her bed a bare half hour ago – which she had. Charlotte would never look like that. She wasn’t exactly unbending now, finding an upright chair while Scott and Jack went quickly upstairs. There was little trace of any emotion in her face. Francie knew they hadn’t made things any better for her but she hoped they had not made things worse. While Johnny talked quietly to Murdoch, Jamie had slipped round to the couch and was sitting patiently beside grandpa.
Francie sidled over to her sister-in-law. “Stubborn man, my brother-in-law,” Francie said, not able to look Charlotte in the eye.
“He is, yes.”
“Matched pair, your husband and mine.”
“Must have inherited a stubborn streak,” Charlotte said, her voice warming fractionally. “This isn’t the end of it, you know. We still have a lot to talk over, Scott and I.”
“Well – maybe it’s the end of the beginning.” Francie tried to smile but she had no heart for it, really. Charlotte looked more defeated than happy that Scott was going with her. Perhaps it would have been better not to interfere. But there was no stopping the train of events now. The small coffin was taken to the hearse. Scott arrived, carrying a bag in one hand, the other occupied holding on to Jack. There were words of farewell, and waves, and a flurry of dust, then it fell quiet.
At last Murdoch spoke. “I don’t think he suspected,” he said.
“Nah. Jamie did a good job, didn’t you, son. Walking ahead of me like that. You kept me on the right track.” He was holding Jamie by the shoulders, standing close to his son’s back.
“I’ll do it as much of the time as I can, Pa. You don’t need to worry ‘bout a thing. We can string a few lines, and then you can get around real easy.”
Johnny pulled Jamie a little closer. “You sound like you have it all planned, son.”
“Well, I could do it all the time if I didn’t have to go to school.”
Murdoch laughed, the first relaxed laugh from anyone in the family for days. “You’re going back next week. No excuses. We’ll help your pa until you come home.”
Jamie sighed, and Francie watched Johnny hold him. Her boy would miss Jack’s strength and ebullience. But it wouldn’t be for long. Soon, the family would begin to draw together again, pick up the pieces. She knew now what that expression truly meant.
So, that was it. A few hours’ respite, a few quiet hours, and Francie went quietly back to bed.
She woke several hours later when the bed dipped under Johnny’s weight.
“You awake, honey?”
“I am now. How’s Jamie doing?”
“He’s okay. Murdoch’s helping him find some rope. I reckon no-one else’ll be able to move round the place. He’s one helluva kid, Francie.”
She turned onto her back and stretched. Maybe now was the time for her news.
“Yeah?” He was pulling his boots off. He didn’t undress further, just lay on top of the bedclothes and waited until she was settled with her head on his shoulder.
“You think you’d be happy with some more children?”
“Yeah, I guess. You thinkin’ we ought to get started on some more?”
“I was thinking that, yes.” She smiled to herself. He hadn’t got her meaning yet.
“Let me get you straight. You think two kids ain’t enough?”
“You ain’t thinkin’ of startin’ in on one right now, are you? Francie, I’m too tired.”
She huffed impatiently at him. “No, I ain’t thinkin’ of taxin’ your strength, Johnny Lancer, and it’s the middle of the day so we shouldn’t even be here, let alone – let alone what you were thinking.”
“What do you mean, oh?” she said, beginning to realise he had the upper hand in the conversation, and was teasing her. “You know, don’t you.”
“Sure I know. I know you. But, well, with everything that’s gone on, I don’t blame you for keeping it to yourself. It is what I’m thinkin’, isn’t it? We goin’ to have another little one around the place?” His voice became suddenly tender and he turned his head until they were face to face.
She smiled. “Maybe a little girl?”
“Another little girl would be good.”
They lay in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then, just as Johnny seemed about to drop off he said, “Oh. I forgot. Maria said we have thirty guests due in half an hour and would we like her to put the food out now?”
Francie punched him playfully. “Thirty guests, huh?”
“Yeah – the wake. Did you forget? You did forget, didn’t you.”
For just a moment, she believed him, and threw back the covers. But his gentle snort alerted her and she turned back.
“You stink,” she said crossly, settling herself back.
“Yeah. I’m not sleeping another minute here with you when I should be up and – and doing something. Yeah. Something.”
“I bet Murdoch’s on the couch by now, asleep. And I bet he has Jamie with him, and Jamie’s asleep too. It’s siesta time, so come here and stop fussing, woman.”
She paused for a dramatic moment. She listened to him, just as he must be listening to her. Then she toppled back into bed. “I declare, Mr. Johnny Lancer, your silver tongue would charm birds from the trees.”
“Okay – wild horses to come eat out of your hand.”
“Did that just this last week.”
She settled herself next to him, feeling him shake with suppressed laughter.
“Beautiful women from their rich houses come to your arms, right under their daddies’ noses?”
“Dozens of ‘em. Glad I settled on you, though.”
“Sure thing. You reckon it might be twins this time?”
She giggled. It had been so long since they had felt able to laugh freely, with each other and for each other. So many dark miles together. And here they were, facing who knew what. But they were together. As she slipped once more into sleep, his breaths were warm on her back.