Johnny was dog tired. The storms over the past three days had washed out a section of the east line fence and quite a few head of cattle escaped. He had spent all day searching for strays. He was coated in trail dust. His shirt was plastered to his chest and back by sweat. All he had eaten since sunup was a few pieces of jerky from his vest pocket. His head ached and all he wanted to do was go home, take a hot bath, put on clean clothes and eat a decent meal before collapsing into bed only to do it all over again tomorrow. Johnny had found about two-thirds of the strays and, together with several other hands, had managed to rope them and gather them back into a drove. The other men had started driving them back into fenced pasture about an hour past. Johnny stayed behind to make temporary repairs to the fence.
Mounting his horse, he reined the animal to the road on his right. He had been down this road a few times before but it was definitely the road less traveled. It would add about five miles to his journey but it ran parallel to the river. The sound of rushing water had always been relaxing to Johnny and he could take his time meandering along at his own pace. Besides, if he took the more direct route, he would soon catch up to the other men and he was done eating cattle dust for the day.
About two miles up the road, Johnny reined Barranca to the riverbank and let him drink. Jumping down, he took off his vest and peeled off his shirt. Tossing them over the saddle, Johnny knelt by the river’s edge and scooped up the cool, clean water with both hands to toss over his head and splash over his face and chest. Sitting back on his heels, he closed his eyes and reveled in the moment. Rising, he put his hat back on his head, pulled on his damp shirt and shrugged into his vest. He left both unbuttoned, however, so the breeze coming from the north – the direction in which he would be riding – could keep him cool.
Almost half-way home, he began to fantasize about a cold beer and a hot supper. Tuesday night was beef stew and biscuits night – his favorite – and he vowed to himself not to be shy about dishing up a health portion when the kettle came his way. Tuesday was also baking day so there would be fresh pie. He crossed his fingers and wished for blueberry but, really, any flavor would do.
As Johnny rounded the next bend, he could see something blocking the road up ahead but was still too far away to make out what it was. As he rode closer, he saw it was a buggy and that it was leaning at an odd angle. Johnny reined up his mount next to the horse still hitched to the vehicle. He looked around but saw no one. Whoever had broken down surely wouldn’t have just walked away, leaving a valuable animal behind, would they? Make more sense to unhitch the horse and ride it for help.
Dismounting, he tethered Barranca to a nearby tree. Perhaps they had gone down to the river for a drink or maybe water for their animal. Starting that direction, he began buttoning his shirt. Stopping on a small rise, he looked upstream and downstream but saw nothing. He just couldn’t figure out the whole situation. Turning to make his way back to the buggy, he suddenly heard what he thought was a low moaning sound. Maybe the driver was hurt? He thought. Following the sound, he soon saw a woman leaning against a large oak a few yards downstream. Her back was to him and she appeared to be partially bent over with one hand braced against the tree.
He came to a standstill. He didn’t want to come up behind her and scare her. “Ma’am” he called out. “Is that your rig up on the road? Are you hurt?”
Without turning but rising to stand upright, she answered. “Yes. Something with the hitch I think.” Suddenly, she again braced herself, bent forward and let out a low moan.
“Ma’am, are you hurt?” He repeated, taking a couple steps toward her.
The woman shook her head. “No.” She said before turning to face him. When she did, Johnny could see that she was in the family way. Very much in the family way. Her belly was huge. “I’m . . . I’m in labor.” She huffed.
Johnny froze and swallowed hard before continuing. “Labor? You mean you’re going . . .” Before he could finish his question, the woman bent forward, holding her belly. Another moan escaped between clenched teeth. “I’ll go for help.”
She was furiously shaking her head from side to side. “No time,” she said. “No time. The baby . . . it’s coming . . . right now. You’ll have to help me.”
“Me?” Johnny responded, turning suddenly pale. “You need a doctor or. . . or . . .or at least another woman.”
“No time,” the woman repeated in the middle of another contraction.
“But surely there is a neighbor or . . . or . . . or someone . . .” Johnny stammered.
The woman just shook her head. “No time.” She repeated.
“But ma’am, I have a real fast horse. I could go for help . . .” Johnny swallowed hard and took in a deep breath.
The woman merely continued to shake her head. She raised her left arm and extended her hand to him. “Help me, please.”
Johnny stepped forward and took her hand. He placed his free arm around her back at the waist and slowly lowered her onto the ground. She leaned back against the tree, rubbed her belly with both hands and started to pant. Johnny, kneeling next to her, sat back on his heels and lightly clenched his thighs with his fingers to control the shaking in his hands. “Ma’am, I don’t think you understand. I have a really, really fast horse. Just like a streak of lightning, he is. I could ride into town and bring someone back just like that!” He declared, snapping his fingers.
“The bridge is out about a half mile this side of town. You’d have to find . . .”Another contraction over took her. Beads of sweat broke out on Johnny’s forehead. “You’re not afraid, are you? You must have seen animals giving birth.”
“Well, no ma’am, not really. I mean, a mare is in foal and you come back later and the foal is standing right next to her. They pretty much do everything themselves unless there’s a problem and then my father calls the veterinarian. I’m a gunfighter, ma’am. I’ve only been on the ranch a couple months. I’ve never had to actually . . .” He gushed.
“Human babies pretty much just come too. They just need a little guidance. Sometimes help to breathe . . .” Wincing, she reached out and grabbed his arm.
“Help to breath? I don’t know how . . . I mean I’m not sure . . . Oh, Lord help me!”
“I need to lie down. We have to get things ready. It won’t be long now. A few minutes.” She panted.
“Now? You mean right now?” Johnny croaked.
“Do you have a knife?”
“A what? What do I need a knife for? You don’t expect me to cut . . .” Standing, he backed away a few steps.
“To cut the cord. After the baby comes, you need to cut the cord. We need some string or something.”
“I’ve got rope. Will that work?”
The woman shook her head. “To thick. String.” She gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. “I need to push.” Johnny reached into his pocket and pulled out his prized pocket knife. Opening the blade, he wiped both sides on his pants. “Your hat. The leather lacing on your hat. That will work.” He took off his hat and cut the lacing loose. “Something to wrap the baby in. Need to keep it warm.”
“My shirt?” He offered. The woman turned her head to look up at him.
“Too thin,” she said, not wanting to offend him by telling him it actually was just too dirty. “My petticoat. We can use my petticoat. Just reach up under my skirt and pull it down.”
“Ma’am, I . . .” Johnny stammered.
“Just do it!”
Johnny knelt at her feet and gingerly grasped just the very hem of the white cotton slip. He tugged just a little.
“Just pull it!”
Swallowing hard, trying to hold her skirt down with one hand, he gave the petticoat a good yank and was relieved when it slid down her legs and off her feet without revealing anything else. The woman bent her knees and placed her feet flat on the ground a good distance apart. “I need to push.” She panted. “Fold my skirt up out of the way so you can see what you’re doing.”
“See what I’m doing? Ma’am, it’s not proper . . .I mean, I shouldn’t look . . .” Johnny shook his head and turned to find something – anything – else to focus on.
“A handsome man like you? You must have seen a woman . . . I mean you must be familiar with a woman’s anatomy.”
A furious blush swept over Johnny’s face. “No ma’am. I never . . .”
Johnny looked at the ground. “Well, I mean I have . . . I have been with a woman before but only the kind you pay for and even then it wasn’t anything up close and personal. I mean, we did our thing in a darkened room, I paid her and I left. I never looked . . .”
“Then it’s time you learned.” Reaching out during an especially strong contraction, she grabbed Johnny’s hand and squeezed. When the contraction was over, she released it. Johnny shook out his fingers.
“Ma’am, if you break my hand I won’t be much help.”
The woman grabbed her knees, clenched her jaw, clamped her eyes tightly shut and grunted.
“What are you doing?”
As the woman relaxed, she took a couple quick breaths. “Pushing.”
“Pushing?” Johnny echoed.
“Yes, pushing. The baby isn’t just going to slide out on its own.” The woman repeated her last action again. “Can you see the head?”
Johnny swallowed hard. He looked around from side to side and prayed that, somehow, there would be someone else nearby who could take over. He at least wanted to reassure himself that no one was watching.
“Can you see the head?” The woman screamed.
Johnny lifted her dress the very least that he could. He wasn’t sure. He didn’t quite know what he was looking for. As the woman pushed again, Johnny’s eyes widen as something seemed to be coming out of her. When she relaxed, however, whatever it was went back in. Thank God!
“Can you see the head?” The woman was getting quite frustrated with her aide.
“I don’t know. Something . . . moved.”
She took his hand and put it between her legs as she pushed again. Johnny tried not to look but, even though he found focus on a nearby tree, he could still feel something wet and slimy against his fingers. “That’s the head,” she barked. “Put your other hand here, on the other side,” she instructed, leading his free hand downward. “Pay attention! You have to look! The cord might be wrapped around the baby’s neck.”
Johnny finally turned his full attention to the task at hand. “I’m going to push really hard. The head should come out. You have to put a little gentle pressure on it so I don’t tear.”
‘Tear?’, Johnny thought. ‘Was the baby going to split her in two?’
The woman bore down with all her might and Johnny watched in amazement as this perfect little head popped out. He smiled up at the woman before returning his attention to the baby. She bore down one more time and the baby’s body just kind of gushed out.
“Gee!” He exclaimed. “It’s a baby. A real live baby.” The infant began to cry loudly startling Johnny. “Did I do something wrong?”
The woman shook her head. “No. Supposed to happen. Good sign.” Johnny relaxed a little. “Take the lacing. Tie it tightly around the cord about three inches from the baby’s belly.” She waited until he completed the task. “Now tie another piece tightly around the cord about three inches up from the first.” He did as he was told. “Now take your knife and cut between the two ties.” Johnny glanced sideways at her holding the knife in mid-air. “Cut it. It’s okay.” Johnny clenched his jaw and moved the knife in a sawing motion until the cord was severed. “Wrap the baby in the petticoat.” The newborn was slippery and Johnny was afraid he might drop it. Once wrapped in the yards of white cotton, however, the infant was much easier to hold. “Is it a boy or girl?”
He carefully laid the baby in its mother’s arm. “Gosh, I didn’t look!” He said, blushing again.
The woman unwrapped the baby just enough to determine its gender. “A girl.” She announced.
“A girl,” Johnny echoed. “A girl. I delivered a girl. Well, you actually . . .”
“We delivered her,” the woman said.
“There’s a lot of blood and . . . stuff.” Johnny said, wiping his hands on his thighs.
“Yes, there usually is. The sac should deliver itself. Then we can clean up.”
‘The sack?’ Thought Johnny. ‘What sack?’ Even as he said the words, the woman ejected a large clump of tissue. “Is that it? Is there any more . . .”
“No, that’s it. You can pick it up and throw it over there under those bushes. The animals will probably eat it.”
This task intimidated Johnny more than the birth. He tried to convince himself it was like disposing of a deer’s innards but fought a wave of nausea nonetheless. By the time he returned, the woman had unbuttoned her bodice exposing her breast which the infant hungrily sought and began to nurse. He didn’t realize he was staring until the woman pulled the fabric up over the part of her breast still exposed. Johnny cleared his throat and partially turned his back.
“I better check on that buggy.” He stated flatly, pulling his hat onto his head and walking back to the road. He found that a part of the tack had pulled apart. Unhitching the horse, he took the matching piece of tack off his own horse and replaced the torn one. Re-hitching the horse, the buggy righted itself and seemed to be just fine. Returning to the mother and babe, he announced that the buggy was fixed. “I did what I could. I think it will last until I get you both home.” The woman smiled. Johnny bent down and scooped the woman and the nursing infant into his arms. He carried them to the buggy, lifting them as one unit into the seat. Running over to his horse, he tethered it to the back of the vehicle, jumped up on the seat and checked on his passengers.
“We’ll go slow.” He said. He followed the woman’s directions and arrived at her homestead within a short time. Drawing up the horses in front of the entrance, he got out and came around to the passenger side. Looking around, the place seemed to be deserted. He wondered where the woman’s husband was or, on second thought, if she even had one. He put one arm around the woman’s waist and the other under her knees in order to carry her into the house. She reached out and turned the latch as Johnny gently kicked open the door.
The house was exceptionally small. The main part of the abode held the kitchen, living space and dining room. There was a narrow room separated by a thin wall against the far end. He could see a bed inside so carried the pair through the door and laid them down upon it. Looking around, he saw there was a small table with a pitcher and bowl on it, an old dresser and some clothes hanging on hooks. Nothing else. Not even curtains on the window. A picture on the wall above the bed showed the woman standing next to a seated male figure who held a small child. She noticed him studying the portrait.
“My husband and my daughter,” she stated. “They’re both dead now.”
Johnny reached up to remove his hat. “I’m sorry to hear that ma’am. Do you have family or friends around here? Someone to help?”
The woman shook her head, tears rimming her eyes. “My husband died of the fever three months ago. I’m all alone now.” She turned her head away so he wouldn’t see her cry.
Johnny twisted his hat in his hands. He couldn’t hardly leave her here all alone. Glancing back into the main part of the house, he noted a dry sink, a table with four chairs, a rocker, and an overstuffed sofa all centered around a blackened fireplace. There were only a couple tins of food on the shelf above the window. As the sun was now setting, a chill filled the tiny space. Johnny reached down and pulled the faded patchwork quilt over the now sleeping woman and baby.
Returning to the main room, he checked the tinderbox. Empty. Striking a match to the lantern, he took it from the table and made his way outside. He unhitched the buggy before crossing over to Barranca. Unbuckling his saddle, he tossed it to the ground then picked up the reins of both animals. Lantern in his free hand, he led them to what was left of a barn. Johnny wondered if it was even safe to enter the structure, which leaned badly to the west, and, instead, put the horses in the corral. One of the barn doors was missing so if need be they could go inside at any time. He spied what was left of a woodpile and gathered the few remaining pieces under his arm. Returning to the house, he put down the lantern, quietly dropped the wood near the fireplace then went back outdoors and brought in his saddle, placing it on the floor in the far corner. Kneeling before the hearth, he started a fire. He hoped the tinder would be enough to last through the night. He would chop more in the morning.
Johnny’s stomach growled. He had forgotten all about his empty belly what with everything else that had happened. He looked up at the tins of beans. Dare he help himself to one? There was so little food. No, he decided. He could wait. He pulled the last piece of jerky from his vest pocket and began gnawing at the tough, salty venison. He peeked into the bedroom and found mother and child still fast asleep. Yawning, he grabbed a worn rain poncho off its hook on the back of the front door and, using his saddle as a pillow, pulled it over his shoulder. He had slept in worse conditions. At least the room was warm and dry.
Sometime in the wee morning hours, Johnny awoke to the sound of loud crying – no, more like screeching – coming from the bedroom. Leaping up, he ran to the door and braced his weight on his outstretched hands gripping the molding. “What’s wrong?” He asked. The woman turned to look at him, an expression of complete surprise overtaking her face.
“You’re still here!”
“Yes, ma’am. Couldn’t hardly leave you all alone and all. Is something wrong with the baby?”
“Light the lamp please, will you . . .?” Stopping in midsentence, she suddenly realized she didn’t even know the man’s name. “Why I don’t even know your name!”
“Johnny ma’am. Johnny Lancer.”
“Mr. Lancer, I’m so sorry. I just realized that in all the commotion we never introduced ourselves! My name is Amanda . . . Amanda Matthese.”
“You can just call me Johnny, ma’am. My father is Mr. Lancer.” He corrected as he carefully lit the bedside lamp and turned the wick low. The baby was still crying loudly.
“Go in the bottom drawer of the dresser please. There are some clean rags there I made up into diapers.” Johnny did as instructed, returning to the bedside and extending his arm to hand them to Mrs. Matthese. “Would you mind?” She asked, lifting the baby up to him.
“Me, ma’am? I’ve never . . .”
“There’s a lot of things you’ve never,” she teased. “Think of all the new skills you’ll have when you leave. Just make sure to support her head,” she added as Johnny tucked the rags under one arm before extending both hands straight out in front of him to pull the infant close. He was scared to death he was going to either break her or drop her. “Take her out to the table. It will be easier. There are pins in the little tin on the mantle.”
Johnny kept his eyes fixed on the baby’s face. He walked extremely slowly and carefully out to the table and gently laid the infant down. Glancing back toward the bedroom, he found Mrs. Matthese smiling at him. Turning his attention back to the baby, he unwrapped the soaking wet petticoat and, holding the infant’s head up just a little, slid it free and dropped it to the floor. He folded one rag with his free hand, placed it under the little one’s head, and carefully lowered the baby back down. Shaking out one of the other rags, he found it way too big for its purpose.
“Just keep folding it until it fits her,” Amanda called from the bedroom. “Make it into a triangle. It will be easier.” The baby was quieter now and began sucking on her fingers. It took Johnny a minute to figure out this triangle-folding business but finally succeeded. He lifted up the little body and held it tight against his chest with one hand while spreading the diaper out on the table. Suddenly a funny look appeared on his face and when he moved the baby away from himself, there was a large wet spot on his shirt. Flustered, he kept holding the infant straight out in front of himself. Amanda began to laugh. “Happens all the time! Just be glad it’s not a boy. It would have been your face.” She said. “Better get that dry diaper on her before she does it again.”
Johnny laid the baby down. Looking directly into her eyes and shaking his index finger at her, he warned. “Don’t you dare.”
“Fold in the two corners at her waist, then fold up the bottom corner between her legs and pin the three pieces together.” She watched Johnny as he verbally repeated her instructions while performing each step. When he thought he had it correct, he paused. He had forgotten to grab the tin of pins.
He tried to judge the distance between the table and the mantle. The tin would be just out of his reach. He stretched his arm out as far as possible but it was no use. Holding the baby down with his widely spread right hand, he told her, “Don’t you move!” Keeping his eyes on her, he slowly removed his hand before reaching behind himself to quickly grab the tin. He hadn’t realized that he had been holding his breath until his lungs began to ache. Exhaling almost in a sigh, he used extreme care to fasten the pin. The baby seemed content. Johnny placed one hand on the table on either side of her, leaned his weight forward, dropped his head and closed his eyes. ‘I did it.’ He thought. ‘I actually did it.’ Picking up the child, he cradled her in both arms being careful to keep her away from the wet spot on his shirt, and laid her back in her mother’s arm. Amanda quickly pulled the quilt up over the infant and smiled up at him.
“You did fine.” She said with a gentle smile. “Well, almost fine.” She added looking at the dark patch on his shirt. My husband was a little larger than you but sometimes a person just has to make do. Over there, on the hook, there should be a shirt or two of his. Help yourself.” Johnny felt uncomfortable helping himself to a dead man’s clothing, especially right in front of the man’s wife. Amanda noted his hesitation. “Go on. They won’t do him any good anymore.” She whispered.
Johnny found a plaid flannel shirt and pulled it free. Clutching it in his hand, he nodded at Mrs. Matthese. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll change in the other room and wash my shirt out tomorrow.”
As he walked to the door to leave, Amanda called out.
“Johnny, I know you must be bone tired but could do one more thing for me?”
Johnny turned. “Anything, ma’am. Just name it.”
“I’m so thirsty. Could you please go out to the pump and fill a pitcher with cold water? I would wait until morning except I need to drink a lot to keep my milk up.”
Johnny blushed slightly remembering that afternoon when he had watched the baby nurse. “Yes, ma’am. No problem.”
“Stop calling me ma’am. Call me Amanda.”
Johnny shook his head. “No, ma’am. I can’t do that. I’ll call you Mrs. Matthese.”
“After everything we’ve been through, I think we can address each other by first names.”
Johnny shook his head again. “I’m sorry. My father would have my hide if I called a woman – especially a married woman – by her first name. Wouldn’t show respect. It’s either ma’am or Mrs. Matthese – your choice.” When she didn’t immediately respond he continued, “I’ll go get that water now.”
He grabbed the pitcher off the bedside table, picked up the lantern and disappeared out into the darkness. He returned in only moments, put the lantern back on the table, grabbed a glass off the shelf and carried both the glass and pitcher into the bedroom. He poured a small amount of water into the glass, returned the pitcher to the table and held the glass up to her lips as she drank.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for everything. You better go back and get some sleep. It will be morning soon.” Johnny placed the glass on the table and cupped the lamp chimney with his hand to blow out the flame. Back in the main room, he did the same to the lantern on the table. The moon was full and just enough of it shone through the front window so that he could find his way around. He quickly unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it on top of the petticoat. Pulling on the flannel one, he found it was about two sizes too big. The cuffs covered his hands to their fingertips. Rolling them up a couple turns, he finished buttoning it and tucked the bottom into his waistband. The shirt, although faded and frayed, was warm and soft against his skin as he lay back down, exhausted.
Rising with the sun, Johnny rubbed the sleep from his eyes, stretched lazily and hopped up to get an early start on the many chores that needed to be done. He sure would have liked some coffee but the tin was almost empty. He opened the bread box and found one slice of dried, moldy bread inside. It appeared he would be going without breakfast. Well, he had done it before, he could do it now. Practically tiptoeing to the bedroom door, he found Amanda and the child still asleep. Crossing the room, he quietly opened the door and exited, closing it just as quietly behind himself.
Johnny crossed to the pump and gave the handle a couple good thrusts. He splashed a handful of water on his face then cupped his hand and took a drink. Glancing around, he had his first really good look at the place. The roof of the barn had more holes in it than he could count, the boards were rotting, one door hung crookedly off its top rusty hinge, and the corral hadn’t been mucked out in months. A couple small bales of hay half-hung out of the hayloft and he wondered if it was even safe for him to climb up there to get them. Putting his hands on his hips, he turned toward the house which wasn’t in much better shape. The paint was peeling, the porch railing broken, a few bricks lay on the roof where they had fallen out of the chimney and two panes of glass in the bedroom window were cracked. He didn’t know where to start.
Johnny walked over to the barn and looked inside. He pounded on the door frame with one fist. It seemed to hold. Cautiously he advanced, ever listening for creaks or cracks. He tested the bottom rung of the ladder to the loft with his foot while pulling down on the second rung with his hand. Repeating these actions, he slowly climbed upward and onto the hayloft floor. There were holes in the wood everywhere. Gingerly, he made his way to the opening and, working quickly, tossed all the bales of hay out into the farmyard. There weren’t that many. Not taking the chance of descending the ladder, he grabbed the rope from the pulley, gave it a hard yank to make sure it was secure, and slid down its length to the ground. Pushing his hat back on his head, he thanked the good Lord he had survived and vowed to never go back inside that death trap again!
Johnny fed the horses and filled their metal tub with clean water. Grabbing a pitchfork, he began raking together the dirty, smelly hay. There was a lot of it, along with a lot of waste, and took considerably longer than he anticipated. He gathered it all into one corner of the corral and told himself he would remove it later. At least the animals had some clean space in which to move around. A strange noise echoed across the yard from a small outbuilding a few yards behind the house. Approaching cautiously, Johnny opened the door which fell off in his hand. Two goats starred at him from within, bleating loudly at the thought of being fed. A pen attached to the building was just large enough to hold them so Johnny moved them into it before getting some clean hay and water for the pair.
From a small rise, he saw a clump of dead trees just down the hill. He remembered seeing an axe sticking out of a stump near the back of the house and retrieved it before heading down to chop wood. As he got closer, he saw that several trees had already fallen over and lay on the ground. He would chop those first. They should yield enough firewood for at least a couple of weeks. As the excess fabric of his shirt impeded his swing, he pulled it off over his head and tossed it aside. He had cut about half the kindling before deciding to carry what he could back to the woodpile and check on the Mrs. Matthese and the baby. Tossing the shirt back over his head, he loaded both arms with wood.
Amanda was awake but remained in bed. Almost all the water he had brought her during the night was gone. She looked slightly flushed but perhaps that was normal after giving birth, Johnny thought. The baby was lying on her opposite side and was sleeping peacefully. “Good morning,” she whispered.
Johnny smiled. He refrained from speaking so as not to wake the infant. Picking up the pitcher he went out to the pump, tossed the remaining water on the ground, and refilled it. Placing it back on the table, he acted out his question by rubbing his stomach and pretending to lift a fork to his lips. Amanda shook her head, no – she wasn’t hungry. Suddenly, though, she raised her fingers to her lips and cast her eyes downward. After a moment she looked up into Johnny’s eyes and reenacted his last charade. Not wanting her to feel guilty, he too shook his head although his belly ached with emptiness. He made a motion of chopping wood before leaving.
Johnny made many trips up and down that hill with his armloads of wood. He had looked around the property for a cart of some kind but found nothing. Reasoning it might be in the barn, he decided to opt on the side of safety rather than go back into it to look. He paused at the pump on his way back to the house and wiped his forehead with cold water before taking a long drink. He could hear the baby crying way out here and so quickened his steps.
“She needs changing again,” Amanda said. She was struggling to sit up as she tossed back the quilt.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Johnny asked from the doorway.
“I’ll get up and do it this time.” The exertion of simply moving about brought a sudden pallor to Amanda’s face.
“Get back in bed.” Johnny said, advancing to stand in front of her.
“But . . .”
“But nothing!” He said flatly. Amanda conceded and pulled the quilt back over her lap. She scooped up the baby and handed her to Johnny. Johnny’s previous fears had diminished to the point where he could actually say he felt comfortable handling the child. Well, almost. He did, however, hold her slightly away from his shirt. He was learning quickly! Johnny did much better folding the cloth and changing the infant. Much faster too. Smiling, he felt quite proud of himself as he laid the little girl back in her mother’s arms. “Do you think you’ll be okay if I leave?”
A look of alarm crossed Amanda’s face. Was he really leaving? Would he come back? Swallowing hard, she murmured, “Why?”
“We need supplies. Food, lantern oil, feed for the animals, things for the baby . . .” Tears formed in Amanda’s eyes. She averted her gaze. She felt very guilty. “Hey, it’s okay. I mean, you’re alone here and were in no condition . . .” He paused as the first few tears rolled down her cheeks.
Johnny knelt down by the side of the bed and laid his hand over hers. “Don’t be ashamed. We all need help at one time or another. I can hitch up the buggy, go into town . . . I’ll be back in no time. I just want to make sure that you’ll be okay until I get back.”
Amanda shook her head. “No. You don’t understand.” She croaked. “I have no money . . .”
Johnny squeezed her hand. “I’ll put it on the Lancer account.”
“No,” she murmured, crying even harder. “I don’t want charity.”
Johnny felt so helpless. He had had to except charity a time or two and knew how she must be feeling, but needs were needs, especially with an infant to care for. “I’ll put it on the Lancer account. Think of it as a baby present. All new babies get presents!” He bent down and looked up into her face. His grin was contagious and Amanda couldn’t help but smile back. “Any special requests?”
“Oh, heavens no. I’m grateful for whatever you decide on.” Amanda lowered her eyes.
“And you’re sure you’re okay to stay alone a little while?” She nodded her head and turned away to look at the wall. “And no more crying. Promise me!”
“I’ll try.” She whispered turning her head to look up into Johnny’s sparkling blue eyes.
Johnny pulled his hat down a bit as he exited the dwelling. The sun was bright; it was about noon. As he hitched up the horse, he made a mental note of what to purchase in town. One thing for sure, he was going to buy himself a couple shirts that actually fit. Yes, he had a drawer full at home but he was always either tearing them or staining them or something so he knew his father wouldn’t mind. Not sure if the bridge had been repaired yet or not, he headed north about two miles to the junction and then turned south to take the main road into town. The horse seemed to know the way and so Johnny, leaning his weight on his arms which rested on his thighs, relaxed his grip on the reins.
Johnny was over half way to town when he suddenly realized that he had been smiling to himself for most of the journey. It felt good to help someone who needed him so much. It was almost like having his own family to care for. He thought about all the chores at the homestead and decided, although a lot of hard work, it would be kinda fun to fix it all up. Just able to make out the outlines of buildings, he broke into a cheerful whistle.
Entering town, he called friendly “hellos” to those he knew and even some he didn’t. He tipped his hat to all the ladies and waved at the children playing near the livery. He drew up the horse in front of the general store and hopped down. The door stood open and as he entered he saw a couple women in the far corner looking at dry goods. He tipped his hat to them and smiled. They blushed from his attention and began to giggle. The clerk stood behind the counter with an armload of tins.
“Help you Johnny?” He said, turning to set the cans in perfect alignment on the shelf behind him.
Johnny motioned for Frank to follow him to the far end of the counter. Pulling his hat low over his eyes, he leaned across the narrow expanse and, almost in a whisper, said, “Frank, I need quite a few things.” Frank nodded and reached for a piece of paper and a pencil. Johnny looked around before speaking again. “And I need baby things.”
A look of surprised showed in the arch of the older fellow’s eyebrows. “Baby things?” He said, almost shouting. “What kind of baby things?”
Johnny closed his eyes and let out a quiet sigh. He heard the ladies giggling again and could only suppose they had heard Frank’s questions. Glancing over his shoulder, Johnny saw them quickly put down the cloth they had been looking at and scurry out the door. It wouldn’t take long and everybody in town would know about Johnny Lancer’s odd request. Turning back to Frank, he stood straight and pushed his hat back a little. “Thanks Frank,” he muttered.
“What kind of baby things?” The man repeated just as loudly as before.
“I don’t know. Diapers, clothes, blankets, powder. Whatever a new baby needs. A little girl.”
Frank studied Johnny over the rim of his glasses. “Hmm,” he muttered while writing things on his list. “Johnny Lancer. Baby things. Do you want to tell me . . .”
“No, I don’t. Just pack them up for me, will yah?” Johnny huffed. “And I need horse feed, goat feed, lamp oil, matches, a bunch of tins of food, coffee, flour, sugar . . . whatever a woman needs for a complete kitchen for about two weeks.” Frank arched his brows again. “Just do it, will yah Frank? And put it on the Lancer account.”
Frank slowly shook his head, muttering, “Johnny Lancer. Baby things.”
Johnny sighed again and started toward the door. “Oh, yah, and a couple shirts in my size. Work shirts. And better add a pair of work pants too, some socks and a set of long johns. My buggy is right outside. I can load up when I get back. I’m going over at the saloon.
Frank nodded. He was already busy gathering a large pile of items on the counter.
As Johnny walked the short distance to the saloon, several ladies huddled on the opposite side of the street pointed at him while whispering to each other. The women previously in the general store were among them. He could only imagine. Johnny hoped he would have the chance to explain the whole situation to his father before the rumors reached him but gossip in this town spread like wildfire across a dry prairie. “Thanks again, Frank,” he muttered, pushing his way in through the swinging doors.
“Hey Ed.” He said, sauntering up to lean on the bar. “Whisky. Bottle.” The bartender stopped wiping glasses, reached under the counter and produced a bottle of their better stock. After all it was for a Lancer. Sliding a clean glass to Johnny, he picked up his towel and resumed his work. Johnny poured himself a double portion of the liquor and tossed it down his throat. He poured a smaller measure into the empty glass and toyed with it while looking in the giant mirror behind the bar that ran the length of the building. A few fellows he had seen around town. Nobody he really knew. He supposed they were all working at this time of day. He drank down the portion of whisky, put the cork back in the bottle and slid the glass toward the opposite end of the bar where Ed stood. “A beer, Ed, thanks.” Ed opened a metal box, took out a bottle of beer and shook the chips of ice off its sides. Uncapping it, he slid it back toward Johnny who tipped his head in thanks before taking the first sip. Ice cold. Just the way he liked it. Raising it to his lips, he drained the bottle in only a couple swallows. Placing the empty bottle back on the bar, he pulled his hat a little lower. He could hold his liquor with no problem but he did feel a little dizzy from drinking so fast and on an empty stomach. “Thanks, Ed. On the account, hmm?” Ed nodded. Johnny picked up his bottle of whisky and left. Standing for a moment on the front boardwalk, he looked to his right and saw Frank putting items in the buggy. Nothing heavy, mind you, he would leave those things for a younger man.
Walking east, he paused a minute to tuck the bottle of whisky in the corner under the front seat of the buggy where it would be unlikely to be seen by passersby or to break on the way home. He walked up the street a little further than trotted across to the opposite bank of buildings. Opening one of the doors, he took off his hat while entering. “Hey, doc. Got a minute?”
The doctor sat behind a desk full of papers, bottles of medicine, and rolls of bandages. An excellent physician, he was not known for tidiness. The man glanced up at Johnny over his half-glasses. “Ailin’ are yah?”
Johnny smiled at the old man. “Me? No, I’m fine. You know I never get sick!”
The doctor laid down his pen and tossed his glasses on the desk. “No, not sick, I reckon. Shot. Now there’s another story. Needin’ mendin’ after a fight . . .”
Johnny grinned. “Okay, doc. So I get in a little trouble now and again. But I never get sick.”
The doc nodded his head. “That’s true enough. What are you doin’ here then?”
Johnny took a seat in the chair opposite the man’s desk. “Do you know the Matthese woman? Amanda? She lives out on the old Baker homestead.”
The doctor leaned back in his chair and began rubbing his bristly chin with one hand. “Did her husband die not too long ago? A tall, kinda stocky fellow. Had the fever as I recall.”
“I didn’t know the man but, yes, she did lose her husband to the fever about three months back.” The doctor nodded. “Mrs. Matthese gave birth yesterday. To a girl. Seems to be fine but I was wonderin’ if next time you’re out that way, if you could stop in and check. Make sure everything’s alright with the baby and such.”
The doctor tucked his left hand into his waistband. “Yes. Happens I’m headin’ that way in a day or two. How do know all this? The Lancer ranch isn’t anywhere near her place. I wonder who helped her deliver?”
Johnny glanced down at the floor for a moment before meeting the man’s gaze. “I did.”
The doctor’s eyebrows shot up just like Frank’s had. “You? Johnny Lancer? Deliver a baby? I would have liked to seen that!” The man slapped his knee and laughed heartily.
Johnny subconsciously clenched his jaw. “Yes, me. Did a fine job too. At least that’s what Mrs. Matthese says.” He stated, standing. “I guess she would know.”
The doctor fought hard to contain his mirth. “I’m sure you did son. I’m sure you did.”
“I’m staying at the homestead for a couple days to help her out until I can find someone else to stay with her. That place sure needs a lot of work.”
“Yes, Paul Matthese was a good man. A good Christian man. But lazier than a fat cat on a hot day. Never did a lick of fixin’ on the place. I think he was always kinda sickly. Should have recovered from that fever but it just took him right down. I remember the day he was buried. Up on the hill behind the barn, as I recall. Think there was a little daughter already buried there.”
Johnny nodded. “Yah. She said she had lost another child.”
“Well, hopefully this one will make it. You never know when one of the parents is weakly. I’ll stop by tomorrow or maybe the day after.”
Johnny put his hat back on his head. “I’d sure be obliged, doc. Just put your fee on the Lancer account. Pa will pay for it.” Johnny shook the man’s hand before leaving. After he had gone, the doctor began laughing again at the thought of a known gunfighter delivering a strange woman’s baby. Good story for around the poker table that night at the saloon.
Johnny returned to the store. There was a pile of feed bags and a couple wooden crates stacked just inside the door. “These mine, Frank?” The clerk nodded while he helped another customer. Johnny busied himself loading the remaining freight into the buggy. There was just enough room for him to slide into the seat. ‘Pa’s goin’ to have a conniption,’ he thought, slapping the horse with the reins. He found that the bridge had been temporarily fixed so he could take the direct route back to the homestead.
Before long, Johnny found himself back in Mrs. Matthese yard. He drew the buggy up in front of the house and began carrying things inside. “Ma’am, I’m back. Got lots of good stuff here too. Baby things, food, cloth.” Receiving no reply, he turned around to see Amanda standing in the bedroom doorway. He quickly hurried over to her. “Ma’am. Should you be up and about like this?” Her face was very pale and she trembled slightly. Taking her by one arm, he slid his other around behind her waist and led her over to the sofa where he eased her down gently. She looked at the large pile of crates, boxes and bags. Tears rimmed her eyes. “Ma’am, you promised me not to cry. I don’t take kindly to anybody that breaks their promise, especially a lady.”
Mrs. Matthese leaned back against the cushions and smiled meekly. “Thank you,” she whispered. Johnny simple grinned and gave her a wink.
“This is all for the house. Got some stuff for the barn. I’ll unload it, unhitch the buggy and feed the animals as long as I’m out there. When I come back in, I’ll cleanup and start supper. We could both use a good meal. Now, can I trust you to stay put? Will you promise?”
Amanda nodded. “Yes, I’ll stay put. ” Sensing she had something more to say, Johnny waited. “Johnny,” she whispered, chewing on her bottom lip. “Could you bring a couple buckets of water in when you come back?”
“Why sure, ma’am. No trouble at all.” Johnny bent down to pick up the two wooden pails under the dry sink then tipped his hat to her before going out the door. Setting the buckets down by the pump, Johnny jumped back in the buggy and turned the rig around toward the barn. He shuddered remembering his own promise of never to go back inside. Unloading the sacks of grain, he decided to place them just inside the door frame and throw a tarp over them in case of rain. That way he’d have access without really entering. He got the horses fed and watered and then did the same for the goats. He filled both buckets and carried them inside. “Here’s your water ma’am.”
“Could you set it by the fire please.” After doing so, Johnny removed his hat and tossed it on a nearby chair. When he looked at her, Amanda dropped her eyes and toyed with one of the buttons on her dress.
“Just ask me Mrs. Matthese. You know I won’t say no.”
“I was hoping . . .” Amanda stuttered. “I was hoping for a bath and I was hoping you’d help me.”
Johnny swallowed hard and noticeably paled. “A bath? You mean like in a tub?” Johnny felt like crossing his fingers . . . and his toes! “Ma’am, I don’t think . . . I mean . . .”
Amanda smiled. “If you just help get things set up, I think I can manage the rest. I’m still wearing this blood-stained dress. It’s beginning to smell.”
Johnny looked around the small room as if planning an escape. “Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled practically under his breath.
“Maybe you’d be so kind as to wash the baby up for me, though.”
“She’s asleep right now. I had just finished nursing her when I heard you drive up.” An awkward silence filled the room. “There are some towels in a basket by the washstand and a nightgown on the hook in the bedroom. Would you mind laying them on the bed?”
Johnny entered the bedroom as quietly as possible. The infant lay in the center of the mattress with a pillow on each side of her. He grabbed the towels first and then dug through the clothing until he found a white cotton gown. “Is this it?” He asked, holding it up with both hands. He noticed how sheer the fabric appeared when the light of the fire shown through it. As Amanda nodded, he quickly tossed it on the foot end of the bed. He laid the towels there, too, then moved one of the chairs away from the table and next to the bed. “Do you have a blanket or something?”
Johnny cleared his throat. “Well, I thought I could nail it up over the door. . . to give you privacy.”
“I don’t have an extra one. Just the quilt.”
Johnny looked around. His saddle blanket would only cover the doorway half-way down and that was definitely not far enough! Maybe if he turned the poncho sideways . . . “Do you have any nails? A hammer?” Amanda pointed to a drawer in the dry sink. In no time, he had patched the blanket and poncho together, hammering as quietly as he could. “There,” he said, standing back to survey his work. “That should do it.”
Amanda turned to look over her shoulder. “Johnny, aren’t you forgetting something? I need to get into the bedroom and the baby needs to come out here.”
“Oh yah. Guess I better take out a few of these nails.” He pried out the ones holding the coverings to the left molding. He then checked the water and found it had warmed nicely. He picked up one bucket, carried it into the bedroom and poured it into the bedside bowl. When he returned, he held the baby and a couple towels in his arms. Amanda struggled to stand. “Are you sure . . .”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll call you if I need you.” She began unbuttoning the cuffs of her dress as she crossed the room. Pushing back the open side of the makeshift curtain, she let it drop back into place. A couple moments later, Johnny heard the bedsprings creak as she sat down and a moment later, he heard her wring out a cloth in the water. Everything seemed to be okay. Looking down at the infant, he reckoned the best approach for giving her a bath. He grabbed the other bucket in his free hand and placed it on the table. Shaking out a towel, he gently laid the baby upon it and was just about to unpin her diaper when his fingers seemed to freeze. He thought better of it and left the diaper in place. He dipped a clean cloth into the water and squeezed it almost dry. He carefully wiped the baby’s face and the small patches of dried blood from her hair. He rinsed the rag and gently wiped it down the length of both arms and across her chest. Rinsing the rag again, he wiped down the length of her legs and washed between the toes of both feet. Again he dipped the cloth into the water. He draped it over the side of the bucket while he unfastened her diaper. Shaking a finger at her, he scolded “Don’t you dare!” before pulling the diaper away. He quickly wiped off her nether regions, tossed the rag aside and folded the towel over her, making sure to cover the top of her head.
“How’s it going out there?” Amanda called.
“I think we did alright.” Johnny answered. “She seems to be all cleaned up. How are you doing in there? I mean . . . are you alright?” He added quickly.
“Yes, I’m just getting dressed. Did you bring any powder for her?”
Johnny held the baby against his chest, walked over to the various crates and shuffled through the contents until he found a small blue and pink tin. “Found it.” He called.
“Rub some all over her. Not her head or face, mind you. And be careful not to get any in her eyes.” Johnny laid the infant back down on the table, opened the towel and shook some of the talc into the palm of his hand before tenderly massaging it on her skin. When he had finished, he put on a clean diaper and threw the damp towel on the floor.
“It’s okay to come in now,” Amanda called. Johnny cradled the infant in the crook of one arm and pushed the blanket aside. He found Mrs. Matthese sitting up against propped pillows, wearing her clean nightgown. She had brushed out her hair which was long and thick. The quilt folded neatly across her lap, she reached up to take the baby from him. Holding the infant against her shoulder, she pulled up the quilt around the tiny body.
Johnny bent down to pick up the discarded dress and the damp towels. Draping them over his arm, he was about to pick up the bowl of dirty water when Amanda asked, “How old are you, Johnny?”
“No mother or sisters as you were growing up?”
“No ma’am. No siblings. My mother died when I was real young.”
“You’re going to make some lucky girl an ideal husband someday and you’ll be an amazing father. ”
“Me, married? Oh, I don’t think so ma’am. I’m kind of a loner, a free spirit. I don’t think any woman could rope me and tie me down for very long.”
“Nonsense! You’re a handsome, kind-hearted man. Any woman worth two cents would be blessed to have you.” Johnny cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders just a little bit.
“I’ll get rid of this bath water.” He muttered, embarrassed by her kind words. He wanted to think that perhaps she was right. He opened the front door, walked to the end of the porch and tossed the water into the grass. Crossing over to the pump, he rinsed the bowl, carried it back inside and wiped it with one of the damp towels. Returning it to the bedside table he asked, “What do you want for supper?”
“I don’t care. Pick what you’re hungry for.” He busied himself at the counter, unpacking the tins of food. Johnny chose a couple tins of stew. He rummaged around the shelf under the sink until he found a kettle. He then busied himself opening the tin of coffee. It had been three days with no coffee. He could taste it already!
“Johnny? I think the baby needs a clean diaper.” What, so soon? He returned to the bedroom and accepted the infant from Amanda’s hands. He carried the baby over to the counter where he grabbed one of the diapers he had bought that day. Laying her gently on the sofa, he unpinned her wet diaper to find it wasn’t just wet. ‘Oh boy’, he thought. ‘Another new experience’. Luckily he was able to reach the damp cloth he had used earlier. Cleaning the child as best he knew how, and trying not to gag in the process, he pinned on the clean diaper. Rising, he used the toe of his boot to kick the soiled one out of the way – at least for now. Returning to the counter, he held her with one arm while searching through one of the boxes with the other. He found what he assumed to be a baby’s nightdress and carried it, along with the infant, back into her mother.
Amanda clasped her hands in delight at the sight of the new clothing. “It’s so pretty!” She exclaimed. She accepted the baby from Johnny’s hands and began to immediately fasten the tiny garment over the infant’s body. “Doesn’t she look darling?” Amanda was beaming.
Johnny smiled. “Indeed. I like the little pink ribbons. Have you thought of a name for this child yet?”
“Emma Rose,” he repeated. “It’s a beautiful name. I’ll bring in your supper.” As he returned to the counter he kept repeating the baby’s name in his head. ‘Emma Rose, Emma Rose.’ It was indeed the perfect name and he liked it very much. Johnny dumped the stew into the kettle and prepared the coffee. Setting both on the iron grid over the fire, he gathered up the towels, his discarded shirt, Amanda’s dress and the petticoat. Looks like laundry might be on tomorrow’s chore list. He looked down at the dirty diaper. He really didn’t want to pick it up but . . . Finally, holding his breath, he reached down and grasped it between a thumb and index finger. He dropped it in one of the empty buckets and then carried the bucket well out in front of him with a fully extended arm and set it outside. He could smell the coffee and the stew and his mouth began to water as his stomach let out a loud growl. Wiping his hands with a damp towel, he folded a clean towel into a thick pad and picked up the pot and kettle, setting them on the table. He took a tin plate off the shelf and spooned what he thought an appropriate portion for a lady onto it. Grabbing a spoon, he carefully carried it into Amanda. “Coffee?” He asked.
“Water please. I think the pitcher is almost empty again. Sorry.” Indeed it was so Johnny quickly trotted out to the pump, filled it and returned it to her bedside. “Anything else?” He said as his stomach growled again. Amanda shook her head, her mouth being full of stew.
Johnny silently thanked God that he could finally eat. He helped himself to most of the remaining mixture and poured the first of many cups of coffee. He drank down almost all of it in one swallow then refilled the cup before starting to eat. Only tinned stew, but he never tasted better. Quickly finishing his meal, he leaned back and rubbed his belly before having yet another cup of coffee. He glanced over to the counter and the mess he had left behind. Begrudgingly, he forced himself out of the chair. Johnny finished unpacking all the crates, bags and boxes. He shelved the food, cleared the table and threw the empty tins into the other bucket. He held up each little garment to examine it. He had never really been a sentimental man, but had to admit to himself that, indeed, they were adorable. He was smiling. Was I ever that small? He wondered. Folding the items into a neat pile, he carried them into the bedroom and laid them on top of the dresser. He found Amanda and the baby asleep. Johnny quietly picked up the dirty plate from the floor and pulled the corner of the quilt up and over Mrs. Matthese shoulder. He blew out the lamp and left. Setting the plate with the rest of the dishes, he decided to wait until tomorrow to wash them and put them away.
Johnny, although tired, wasn’t really sleepy. He turned the lamp low so as not to shine into the bedroom and quietly opened the door, closing it just as quietly behind himself. Dropping down on the top porch step, he hugged his knees and dropped his head forward, rolling the stiffness out of his neck. Looking up, he found the sky crystal clear with thousands of stars twinkling in its inky blackness. He could hear the horses softly nickering to each other and the chirp of crickets. “Emma Rose,” he whispered. ‘A life like this could be good,’ he thought. ‘A pretty wife, a new baby, his own house, his own ranch.’ He realized that perhaps he was more ready to settle down than he thought. The wind was coming up from the north and Johnny shivered. Time to go in and get some sleep.
It seemed as though his head had just hit the pillow when he was awakened by the squealing of the infant. She seemed especially upset. Johnny jumped up and hurried to the bedroom. Amanda was awake but something was wrong. “I’m sorry Johnny. To wake you. I thought . . .” Mrs. Matthese swallowed hard and rubbed her head. “Could you please tend to her?”
Johnny reached down and scooped Emma Rose into his arms. The baby quieted slightly but was still fussing. “What’s wrong?” He asked Mrs. Matthese, concern wrinkling his forehead.
Amanda closed her eyes. “I have such a headache,” she answered while continuing to rub her forehead. “And my stomach hurts. Maybe I just ate too fast.”
Johnny grabbed a dry diaper off the dresser, took Emma Rose into the other room and quickly changed her. She stopped crying immediately. Tucking her back into the crook of his arm, he raised his free hand to stroke her cheek at which time Emma Rose raised her hand and folded her tiny fingers around one of his. She seemed to be looking right at him. Johnny felt a sudden closeness to her and smiled down at the infant who was trying to pull the tip of his finger into her mouth. Walking back to the bedroom, he found Amanda curled on her side away from him, clutching her stomach and moaning. He laid the baby down and turned to light the lamp. Keeping one eye on the child, he crossed to the dresser and pulled out the largest drawer. Placing it on the floor and scooping out its contents, he grabbed a clean towel and folded it so as to line the inside. Laying Emma Rose down in the makeshift crib, he covered her with another clean towel, tucking the edges in around her.
Turning his attention back to Mrs. Matthese, he wiped his palms on his pants. He noted that the pitcher was almost empty again. She had been drinking an awful lot of water these past two days. “I’ll get you some more water.” He said, picking up the pitcher.
“I think . . . I think I’m going to be sick,” she whispered. Johnny looked around for some type of vessel. As she suddenly rolled toward him, he grabbed the bowl from the table and held it under her chin. Vomiting violently, her entire supper soon filled the shallow bowl and Johnny started to worry that if she didn’t stop soon, the bowl would overflow. Thankfully, she finally rested back on the pillows, panting slightly. Johnny fought to keep his own supper down. Carefully carrying the vessel to the door, he took it outside and tossed its contents under some bushes well away from the house. He stopped at the pump and rinsed the dish and was just walking back inside when Amanda called out. “Johnny, hurry, bring something.” Johnny grabbed the buckets holding the empty tins, dumped them on the floor and made it in to Amanda just in time, but, since there was nothing left in her stomach, she merely retched not bringing anything else up. After what seemed like hours instead of minutes, Amanda was finally able to relax back against the pillow. Her forehead was wet with perspiration and when Johnny reached up to brush back her hair, his fingers and then his palm lingered.
“You’re burning up.” He announced, touching her cheek with the back of his hand. “I better get that water.” Johnny ran out to the pump, filled the pitcher, than poured her a glass of it. He held it to her lips but Mrs. Matthese wrinkled up her nose and turned away.
“I don’t think I can keep it down,” she murmured, trying to push Johnny’s hand away.
“You have to try. Just a sip.” Mrs. Matthese slowly took a small amount of the cold water, forcing herself to swallow. “Are you having trouble swallowing?” Johnny asked.
Amanda nodded. “My throat is so sore I could hardly eat my supper but I was so hungry.” Placing one hand on her chest, she winced. “The bucket Johnny. I need the bucket.” She vomited up the water and then wretched for several seconds. Exhausted, she fell back against the pillow. Johnny felt her forehead again. It was just as hot to his touch as before. He remembered when he was a small child having had “the fever”. His mother had put cold clothes on his head and against the back of his neck. Setting the bucket down within easy reach, he dug through the basket holding the towels until he found a couple washrags. Pouring some water into the bowl, he rung them out, folded them and placed one across her forehead and gently lifted her head to place the other against the nape of her neck. Glancing over at the baby, he found her sleeping peacefully.
Perching on the edge of the mattress, Johnny changed the cloths frequently throughout the night. Amanda was restless, tossing and turning, often grasping her belly and pulling her knees up toward her chest. Johnny tried talking to her but she simply moaned or whimpered in reply. When he tried comforting her by holding her hand, he felt her pulse racing. He didn’t know what to do. He hoped the doctor wouldn’t forget his promise to stop and that he would come sooner than later.
When the first pink and orange glow of sunrise shown through the front window, Johnny rose and stretched the stiffness out of his muscles. Although resting more comfortably now, Mrs. Matthese was still burning up with fever. He had used up almost all the water and quickly made the trip to the pump once again. Emma Rose was starting to stir so Johnny picked her up and held her against his shoulder before she began crying, waking her mother.
Johnny reasoned the child was hungry. As Amanda was in no condition to nurse, he tried to think of another way. Frank had packed a couple glass bottles and rubber nipples in with the baby things and Johnny suddenly recalled putting away a tin of powdered milk with a picture of an infant on the label. Shuffling tins from side to side, he found the one he was after and began to read the directions. Mix with water, heat, fill bottle, feed. Well, that certainly sounded simple enough. He quickly discovered, however, that he would need both hands to complete this process. Returning to the bedroom, he tiptoed over to the empty drawer and carefully bent down to pick it up with his free hand. Emma Rose was fussing louder. Johnny had seen ladies with tiny babies in church. They often bounced up and down with them, which seemed to work. He tried it. Emma Rose quieted immediately.
Johnny placed the drawer on the braided rug before the hearth. It would be warmer there. As soon as he laid her down, however, Emma Rose scrunched up her face. Johnny placed one open hand on her belly and placed the first finger of his other hand to his lips. “Shhh,” he whispered. “Don’t you cry. Johnny’s goin’ to fix you something to eat.” She settled down a little and, pulling one corner of the towel into her mouth, began sucking on it. Johnny hurried over to the counter, measured the powder and water into a pan, tucked an empty bottle under his arm and grabbed one of the rubber nipples. Returning to the fire, he sat down on the floor cross-legged and put the pan on the grate. He wasn’t sure at what temperature the mixture was supposed to be, but reasoned room temperature was probably good enough. It only took seconds for the liquid to heat. Johnny sat the empty bottle on the floor and carefully poured the formula into it. Picking up the bottle in his left hand, he tried to affix the nipple with the other but his fingers where too large and clumsy to finish the task. In frustration, he put the bottle back on the floor and used both hands. Finally it snapped into place. But now what?
He cradled Emma Rose in his left arm and attempted to get the nipple into her mouth with his right hand. The baby, whimpering, turned her head back and forth refusing to take it. Milk was dripping over her face and gown. This wasn’t working. Johnny put the bottle down, rearranged his arm to hold the infant more upright and tried again. No, this wasn’t going to work either. The bottle was now lower than the nipple and she couldn’t get any. Trying one more time, holding her half-way between the first position and the second, Emma Rose finally took the nipple in her mouth and began to suck. Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s right little one,” he murmured. A few minutes passed. “Boy, you must have been starving. The bottle is almost empty.” Milk began running out of the corners of the baby’s mouth. Maybe she was full. Johnny pulled the bottle away. Her lips still made sucking movements but when he offered the bottle again, she turned away. Thinking himself successful, he stood to place her back into her little bed. When he did so, however, Emma Rose drew her legs up toward her chest and began fussing. Johnny immediately picked her up and held her before him. “What’s wrong?” He asked. As he raised her head she let out a large burp. “So that was the problem. Feel better?” He asked as he leaned forward to touch the tip of his nose to hers, she burped again only this time it wasn’t just air and Johnny got a face full of excess formula. “Oh, Emma Rose,” he said, wrinkling up his nose. “Did you have to do that?” The baby’s was fighting to keep her eyes open. Johnny laid her back in the drawer and used the bottom corner of the towel to wipe her mouth. She immediately fell asleep.
Johnny wiped off his face with both hands and then shook them in the air. Little droplets of formula flew everywhere. Not his best move. ‘But I did it!’ He thought. ‘I fed a baby!’ Spying the empty bottle and last night’s dirty dishes, he rolled up his sleeves. ‘Time to get workin’. He thought. Gathering everything together, he took the small metal tub off the kitchen wall and piled everything into it. He glanced at the baby, found her sound asleep, and grabbed the bucket to get more water from the pump. While it heated by the fire, he picked up the clothing and diapers strewn around the floor and piled them in the corner of the kitchen. As soon as the dishes were done, he planned to do a little laundry.
Johnny hummed softly as he worked. He didn’t mind doing house chores. He had often helped his mother with them. He could pretend he was doing them for his own little family, which made him feel rather proud. Dishes done, dried and put back on the shelf, he opened the door and tossed the dirty water off the end of the porch. Filling another bucket with water and placing it by the fire, he put the tub back into the sink and stuffed in the laundry. All the laundry. As he poured the steaming bucket over it, the water took on a bluish tinge. Johnny wondered about this but reasoned that when he used the washboard and lye soap, it would take the color away. Rinsing at least four times, he discovered it didn’t and now Amanda’s petticoat, the baby’s diapers and his worn pair of long johns were no longer white but rather a light baby blue. Maybe when they were dry no one would notice. He wrung out as much water as he could and draped them over the backs of the chairs which he had placed near the hearth.
Poking his head through the bedroom door, he found Mrs. Matthese awake – her eyes barely open. “How you feelin’?” He asked. She simply shook her head. As she did so, she began scratching her arm. Johnny advanced to the bedside and touched her cheek. The fever had not come down at all. “Itchy?”
“All over,” she replied, moving her hand to her chest where she began scratching again.
Johnny pulled up the sleeve of her gown. A nasty looking flaming red rash had spread up the entire length of her right arm. Looking up to meet her gaze, he tried not to show his alarm. Grinning, he said, “Probably the soap. Probably didn’t rinse off good enough.” Amanda smiled weakly, turned her face away and closed her eyes.
When Johnny returned to the kitchen, he immediately washed his hands, scrubbing them with the lye soap he had used to wash clothes. He had never seen a rash like that before and didn’t want to risk catching it or, God forbid, pass it on to the baby. He knew he should go out and feed the animals but didn’t want to leave his little “family” alone. The stock could wait a little while longer. Dragging the rocking chair closer to the fire, he gently picked up the snoozing infant, seated himself, brought one foot up to rest on the opposite knee, and began to slowly rock back and forth. Even in sleep the infant grabbed onto his little finger when he offered it.
Before long, Johnny heard the rattle of a buggy and hoped that it was the doctor. Carrying the infant with him, he glanced out the window to see that it was. He hurried to the door and flung it open wide. “Doc,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank God you’re here. She burning up.”
The doctor noted the small bundle in Johnny’s arm and mistook his urgency as to the health of the baby. Reaching the top step, he folded down the towel and touched the infant’s head. “Seems fine to me,” he said.
“No, I mean Mrs. Matthese. She got sick real early this morning. Fever, stomach cramps, throwing up. I was in there a little while ago and she’s got this rash all over. Doc, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Johnny stepped aside to let the older man pass. “In there,” he directed, nodding his head in the direction of the bedroom. Johnny began to follow the doctor.
“You stay out here. And keep that baby away from her until I know what’s going on.” The doctor barked. Taking off his hat and tossing it on a nearby chair, he entered the room and stood near the bed. His bulk made it impossible for Johnny to see around him.
Johnny returned to the rocking chair. He moved Emma Rose up to his shoulder and she immediately snuggled into his neck. He turned his face toward her and laid his cheek against her head. She was so soft and smelled so good. Johnny closed his eyes. This was such a peaceful moment. He began to rock and soon found himself drowsy. After all, he had had very little sleep the night before.
The doctor shook his arm to wake him. Johnny startled which woke Emma Rose. She began to cry. Johnny rubbed her back until she settled down. “I must have fallen asleep.” He said, looking up into the other man’s face. He noted the concerned expression on his features and the deep furrow in his brow. “What’s wrong with her, doc?”
“Let me see the baby, Johnny,” he stated flatly, holding out his arms. Johnny’s face dropped. Could something be wrong with Emma Rose too? Swallowing hard and searching the doctor’s eyes, he carefully handed the infant to him. “Got coffee?”
Johnny nodded. “I can make some.”
“Make a big pot, Johnny. A big pot. It’s gonna be a long night.” The doctor carried the baby over to the table, laid her down and unwrapped her. He looked over every inch of Emma Rose, listened to her heart, checked her reflexes, studied her eyes, opened her mouth and peered into each ear. Johnny watched them out of the corner of his eye as he measured out the coffee and added water. Placing the pot on the iron grid over the fire, he wiped his hands on his pants.
“Is she alright?” His voice was almost a whisper. “The baby. Is she alright?”
The doctor nodded. “Could use a dry diaper.”
“I’ll change her. Here, sit down,” Johnny said, swinging the rocking chair around to face the sofa. Johnny quickly replaced Emma Rose’s diaper and settled her back into her makeshift crib. She yawned broadly, her eye lids heavy.
Johnny grabbed two tin cups off the shelf, poured one for the doctor and about half a cup for himself. Johnny sat on the very edge of the sofa, feet broad apart. He rested his forearms on his thighs as he leaned forward, holding the cup in both hands. “Well, doc?” His voice was almost a whisper.
The doctor was rocking gently and took a deep swallow of coffee before answering. “It’s childbed fever, Johnny.”
“I . . . I don’t know what that is,” he answered.
“A lot of women get it right after giving birth. It’s a bad infection . . . an infection in the blood. Spreads quickly over the entire body. High fever, sore throat, belly ache, vomiting . . .” He took another sip of coffee.
“I put cold cloths on her forehead and the back of her neck all night. I didn’t know what else . . .” Johnny offered.
The doctor shook his head. “Didn’t hurt, won’t help.”
Johnny took a small sip of coffee from his own cup. “So what do we do, doc?”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. “Keep her as comfortable as possible. Keep the baby away from her. It won’t be long.”
“You mean she’ll recover quickly?” Johnny asked relaxing a bit.
The doctor shook his head. He drained his cup before looking Johnny directly in the eyes. “I mean she won’t recover, son. There’s nothing I can do for her. Death usually occurs in a couple days.”
“Death?” Johnny echoed. “She can’t die! She has a brand new baby and . . .”
The doctor swallowed hard, took out his handkerchief and blew his nose. He quickly dabbed at his eyes, hoping his final action went unnoticed. It hadn’t.
Johnny slumped back against the cushions. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut he used two fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Did I do something . . .”
“Don’t blame yourself, Johnny. This happens more often than you’d think. A lot of times the baby will get it too. I don’t see any signs in this little one. We have to keep her away from her mother though. She could still catch it, especially through Mrs. Matthese’s milk.”
Johnny’s throat burned from the lump forming there. He stood up, placed his cup on the mantle and began to pace. Rubbing his forehead, he said, “There’s gotta be something . . . I mean, I can’t just let her . . . She was so happy yesterday when I brought Emma Rose all those new clothes.”
The doctor stood, walked over to the younger man and placed one heavily veined, wrinkled hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “There’s nothing. I’ve seen it a dozen times, tried everything I know, telegraphed all the experts . . . the woman always died.” He let his words sink in for a moment. “It’s a peaceful death Johnny. She will simply go into a coma. It will be just like she’s sleeping. The worst of it is over. There will be no pain.”
Johnny blinked back tears and looked up toward the ceiling. He roughly pulled his shoulder away from the man’s grasp and turned his back to the doctor. “I need some air,” he stated, picking up his hat and pushing it firmly down on his head. The sun was just setting. The air was cool, blowing in from the west over the mountains. When the horses saw him, they began whinnying, wanting food. Johnny walked to the barn, poured feed into the wooden trough then picked up a couple buckets, pumped them full of water, and poured them into the metal tub. He picked up another bag of feed and refilled the buckets. He marched the short distance to the goats’ pen and attended to them as well. When he had finished, he let the sack and the buckets fall from his hands. There was a huge hickory tree a few feet away. Johnny walked over to it and around behind it so as not to be seen from the house. Gritting his teeth and kicking the roots, he punched the bark over and over until his knuckles bled. Out of breath, he turned and rested his back against it. “Why, God, why?” He cried, shaking his bloodied fist in the air. “Why?” He croaked. Slowly Johnny slid down the trunk until he was sitting on the ground. Then. Only then, did he let the tears come. They felt hot against his cheeks and dripped off his chin onto his shirt. He didn’t care. He buried his face in his hands and wept. Actually wept. His dream had vanished in an instant. His heart felt like it was about to burst. He vowed right then and there to never, never let himself get into this kind of situation ever again. Finally his emotions, as well as his tears, were spent. He was exhausted. He considered just laying down beneath that tree to welcome a deep, dreamless sleep, but he couldn’t. The doctor would need help. And then there was Emma Rose. He was all she had.
Johnny pushed himself to his feet. He wiped his eyes with the back of both hands until he was positive that no moisture showed on his face. Slowly, he walked back toward the house. He paused for a moment to pump some water over his hand. The water stung the open cuts. He put his hand in his pocket so the doctor wouldn’t notice. Entering the house, he tossed his hat on the table. “Hungry doc?” He asked.
The doctor shook his head. Johnny really wasn’t hungry either. He glanced at Emma Rose as he walked by. “Where are you goin, son?” Without turning Johnny said he was going to see to Mrs. Matthese. Sit with her for a while. “No, Johnny. Not a good idea. You could transmit the fever to the child. Best let me do it.” Pushing himself out of the chair, the doctor filled his coffee cup. Johnny reluctantly stepped aside to let the man pass. The doctor sank heavily onto the bottom corner of the mattress and took a sip of coffee.
Johnny stood there for a moment. He was staring at Mrs. Matthese. In the low glow of the lantern, her hair shone almost auburn; her features softened by the golden light. She appeared to be sleeping, breathing gently. There was no struggling like the night before. The lump returned to Johnny’s throat. He turned away quickly and busied himself with the fire. The pot was nearly empty, so he carried it over to the counter to add more water and grounds. Indeed it would be a long night. Setting the coffee pot on the grid, he turned to the table. Emma Rose was sleeping. She had a slight blush on her cheeks and, for a moment, Johnny worried that perhaps, she too, had a fever. When he gently laid the back of his hand against her head, however, it felt cool.
Johnny was so tired he didn’t know if he even had enough energy to go to bed. He picked up the drawer and carried it over to the corner. Dropping down, not even removing his boots, he rested his head on his saddle, pulled the drawer up against his chest, extended his arm across it and closed his eyes. He did fall into a deep sleep but, unfortunately, not a dreamless one.
The baby woke Johnny twice during the night. Each time he changed her diaper and prepared a bottle for her. The doctor was dozing in the rocking chair before the fire, his empty tin cup dangling by one finger. Pausing to stop before the bedroom door, he found Amanda just as before – sleeping, or so it seemed.
When morning came, Johnny woke the doctor. While the man checked on Mrs. Matthese, he cut some bacon and tossed it in an iron skillet. Opening a tin of beans, he sat the pan next to the skillet on the grid then prepared fresh coffee. The doctor returned from the bedroom, smoothing back his thinning gray hair. He held his pocket watch in his free hand.
“No breakfast for me son.” He stated, picking up his hat and bag. “I promised the Jenkins I would stop by already yesterday. They’re probably wondering what happened to me.”
Johnny stood from his crouch in front of the fire and stepped over to the doctor. “You’re leaving?” He asked, looking over the man’s shoulder to where Amanda lay.
“I’ll be back. Should only be gone a couple hours. Mr. Jenkins, well, he’s an old man now. He ain’t in a poorly way but the Missus likes me to come by and check him over anyway.”
Johnny followed the doctor to the door, reaching in front of him to open it. “But . . . but what if . . .”
The doctor met the younger man’s gaze and slowly shook his head. “She won’t wake, Johnny. She’s in a coma. It won’t be long now. There is nothing you can do.” The doctor walked out onto the porch but paused and turned on the top step. “And Johnny, keep that baby away from her. You stay away too, you hear me?”
Johnny hung his head. “Yes sir,” he mumbled. He watched the doctor climb into his wagon and rein the horse to the north. Johnny stood watching the trail of dust left by the wooden wheels until the wagon was well out of sight. The smell of burning bacon drew him quickly back to the hearth. Not really hungry, he ate a couple small pieces of the meat and a spoonful of beans. He did pour himself a full cup of coffee, drank it quickly then refilled the cup. Moving the skillet and pan away from the fire, he stood and pulled the rocking chair over in front of the bedroom door. Holding the tin cup in both hands, Johnny sat, crossed one foot onto his opposite knee and began rocking slowly. He stayed there simply watching Mrs. Matthese, until the baby’s fussing pulled him away.
Taking the last clean diaper off the table, he changed her and made a mental note that doing the laundry had now become a priority. Holding the baby with great care, he pulled the rocker back just a little before returning to it. He placed one hand behind the infant’s head and the other on her bottom, holding her against his chest. Tears rimmed his eyes. “Don’t you worry Emma Rose. Johnny’s going to take you home with him. I’ll take really, really good care of you. It’s a nice big house and you’ll have your own room someday. My Pa’s going to adore you. He’s always wanted a grandchild. And there’s Scott and Teresa . . . you’ll have lots of people to watch over you little one.” The baby nuzzled tighter against Johnny’s chest and sucked on one finger. The doctor found them just like this when he returned. Although no more tears fell, Johnny’s eyes were red and swollen. He cleared his throat and sat up a little straighter as the other man approached. “You going to be here a while doc?” He asked, his voice raspy.
“Yes, I’ll stay now until it’s over.” The doctor tossed his hat back on the table and set his bag on a chair.
“Can you keep an eye on Emma Rose? I have some chores to do.” The doctor nodded. Johnny rose, crossed the room and laid the slumbering infant back in her makeshift crib. Picking up a bucket, he walked out to the pump and filled it with clean water. Returning, he sat it over the fire and, while the water heated, gathered up all the used diapers and tossed them in the laundry tub. When the water was good and hot, he poured it over them and then tossed in the bar of soap. “I’m not a very good housewife I guess. Don’t always think ahead. I’ll let these soak a while. If she needs a change, there are some clean rags on the floor by the dresser.” The doctor simply nodded.
“We’ll get by.” He replied.
“There’s some dry milk stuff here,” he said, pointing to the tin. “Real simple to make.” The doctor nodded again. “I . . . I’m going to feed the stock. I’ll be up on the hill behind the barn if you need me. Just ring the bell hanging from the porch roof and I’ll come runnin’.”
The doctor’s heart ached. He could plainly see the hurt in Johnny’s eyes. Since he came to the ranch, Johnny had always portrayed the image of a tough gunfighter. Hard drinker, liked to fight, liked to win. Preferred to be a loner and always in complete control. It’s funny how people can judge a man just by the way he dresses, the way he walks, the cockiness in his voice.
After feeding and watering the animals, Johnny picked up the rusty shovel leaning against the corral. He made his way up the hill behind the barn and immediately saw two small crosses almost right next to each other. One still looked fairly new, the paint mostly intact. He reasoned this was Mr. Matthese’s. The other one, leaning slightly west, was almost bare of paint and had begun to rot at the bottom. He reasoned this must be the little girl. He took off his hat and paused a moment standing at the foot of the graves. He was not much for prayin’ but mumbled a couple words just the same. Putting his hat back on his head, he walked over to a spot close to the little girl’s. He began to dig. The sod here was thick with prairie grass and at first the going was tough but he found the soil underneath dry and crumbly making the going easier. Before long, Johnny jumped out of the rectangular hole, wiped his hands on his pants, and paused to catch his breath. The work had helped him come to terms with the inevitable. Soon Amanda would be with her husband and daughter again and would always be able to watch over little Emma Rose.
Johnny tossed the shovel on the pile of dirt next to the grave for later use. He trotted down the hill, stopped at the pump to wash his hands and face, stomped the soil from his boots, and entered the house. The doctor was feeding the baby. Before he could even hang his hat on the back of the door, the doctor announced, “It’s over Johnny. She’s gone.”
Johnny turned his back to the doctor and leaned his weight forward on his hands which were braced against the counter. He hung his head and took a deep breath. He heard stirring behind him and glanced over his left shoulder to see the doctor place the baby back in her bed before picking up his hat and bag. He crossed to stand just behind Johnny and put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, son. It was peaceful.”
Johnny turned his head away from the man. “Thanks doc. For stayin’. For doin’ what you could. Her grave is ready. I dug it on the other side of her little daughter so she could lie between her parents.”
Squeezing Johnny’s shoulder slightly, the doctor said, “You’re a good man, Johnny Lancer. Not a lot of men would have done what you have for this family. You’ll be rewarded someday.” The doctor paused to put his hat on his head. “I’ll send some men out with a coffin and to help you bury her. Should be out first thing in the morning.”
Johnny simply nodded and silently wished the man would just leave. He wanted to give his tears the freedom they were aching for, but not in front of the doctor. When he heard the door close, he bent over to place his elbows on the counter and cover his face with his hands. His sobs echoed throughout the small room. It took some time for him to regain control and when he did so, the first thing he did was pick up Emma Rose and hold her tight, his cheek against hers. He needed her and she needed him. Now, more than ever, they needed each other.
As promised, two men from town whom Johnny didn’t know arrived first thing in the morning. Johnny showed them to the body then purposely busied himself tending the fire. He didn’t want to watch. The doctor had covered Amanda’s face with the sheet and folded the blanket over her. The men carefully picked her up and carried her out to the back of their wagon where a new pine casket stood open. Johnny watched from the window as they gently laid her into it, slid the cover into place and began nailing it shut. Each tap of the hammers made Johnny shudder. When they had finished their task, they looked at one another and the taller man shrugged his shoulders.
It was a glorious morning. The sun shone brightly and a gentle, warm breeze came from the south. Johnny picked up the baby, wrapped her tightly and held her in the crock of his arm with his free hand supporting her back. Johnny walked outside. “I’ll show you the grave,” he mumbled, crossing the yard and around the barn. The hill, although not terribly steep, would still present a challenge.
“I know a back way,” said the driver. “If it’s still clear, we can take the wagon that way.” The other nodded. “We’ll meet you up there.” The man turned the wagon toward the road as Johnny climbed up to the graves. He could no longer see the wagon, but clouds of trail dust rose up above the surrounding foliage and soon the men reined the horses up just short of the little cemetery. Tying ropes around the top and bottom of the casket, the men slowly lowered it into the earth. Pulling the ropes free, they both removed their hats and looked over at Johnny. Finally one of them spoke.
“Did you want to say words or anything?” He asked quietly.
Johnny hadn’t really thought about it. He looked down at the baby’s face and tried to come up with something appropriate but his mind just drew a blank and so he shook his head. One man picked up the shovel and began tossing the loose soil onto the coffin. Before long, the grave was closed. Johnny thanked the men and they drove off. He stood there a while just staring down at the mound of bare earth. “Goodbye Amanda,” he finally whispered, thinking she would be pleased that he could finally call her by her given name. “I’ll take good care of Emma Rose.”
As he walked back down the hill, he studied the infant in his arms. She had been awake the entire time but totally silent, almost as if she knew what was going on. Johnny offered his finger and Emma Rose clutched it tightly, looking up into his face. Reaching the yard, Johnny stopped and stood with feet wide apart. He looked all around him. ‘What will become of this place?’ He thought. ‘Perhaps another family will have better luck here.’
Johnny entered the house and put the baby down. He thought she’d cry when he pulled his finger away but she remained quiet. Spying the diapers still soaking in the tub, he unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his shirt sleeves. As he scrubbed, rinsed and wrung out the cloth, he began making plans in his head. With the diapers washed, Johnny quickly strung up a length of rope outside and hung them there. They would dry quickly in this weather. He stood in the open doorway and put his hands on his hips. A few moments passed before he grabbed an empty crate off the floor, placing it on the table. His step faltered slightly as he entered the bedroom. He glanced at the empty bed before squaring his shoulders and turning away. He picked up the baby things from the top of the dresser. He felt uncomfortably intrusive as he opened the top drawer. There was a small bible, a pocket watch, some stray hair pins and a small gold locket. Leaving the hair pins behind, he gathered up the other items and carried his lot to the crate where he carefully packed the items inside. Returning to the bedroom, he searched through the other drawers but found nothing of real value. Turning to leave, he spied the family photo and tugged it off the bent nail holding it on the wall. He added this to his collection in the crate along with the bottles, nipples and the tin of formula.
Checking on the infant, finding her sound asleep, he chewed his bottom lip debating if it would be okay to leave her just long enough to hitch the buggy. He moved the drawer closer to the door so he could hear her if she cried. Leaving the door open, he ran to the corral and quickly hitched it up. He led the horse toward the house and tethered him to the railing. He grabbed his saddle in one hand and the crate in the other and carried them both out to load into the cramped space. Returning to the kitchen, he grabbed another empty crate. Cutting another length of rope, he secured the crate to the floor partially under the passenger seat. He ran over to retrieve Barranca and tied him to the back of the vehicle. Testing a couple diapers with his hands, they seemed to be dry so he pulled them off the line and arranged them in the empty crate.
Reentering the house, he stood in the middle of the floor and surveyed every inch of the place to ensure that nothing of value or importance was left behind. Satisfied, he crouched down and picked up Emma Rose. Tucking her into the crook of his arm, he pulled his hat on with his free hand, took one last look around and quietly closed the door. He laid the slumbering infant in the diaper-lined crate and made sure the blanket was tucked around her. Carefully climbing into the driver’s seat, he slapped the horse with the reins and the buggy moved slowly forward. He led the horse up to the outbuilding where the goats were and halted him there. Johnny jumped down and opened the gate. “You’re on your own.” He said to them while bending a piece of stray wire around the latch and anchoring it to a nail on the outside wall to ensure the gate would stay open.
Climbing back into the seat, he backed the vehicle up before turning it toward the road. As the buggy jostled its way toward the Lancer ranch, Johnny glanced at the baby. “We’re going home, Emma Rose. We’re going home.”
Murdoch was standing on the bunkhouse steps talking to the foreman when he looked up to see who was coming down the road. It was a rig he didn’t recognize. As it drew closer however, he saw that his son Johnny was driving it. He quickly finished his conversation then walked toward the corral, arriving there just as Johnny drew the horse to a halt. “Well, my gypsy son come home to roost.” He called, hands on hips. “And just where have you been?” Murdoch feigned anger but Johnny knew he was just teasing.
Hopping down and handing the reins to a ranch hand, he answered. “I got me into a sort of . . . situation.” Johnny was smiling that charming way he had when he wanted his way. He walked around the back of the buggy to the opposite side and scooped the baby into his arms. Walking over to his father, he reached up to stroke the slumbering infant’s cheek. “This is Miss Emma Rose.” He said, beaming.
Murdoch’s eyebrows shot almost up to his hairline. He studied his son’s face for a moment before looking down at the baby. “And who does this little darling belong to?”
Johnny broke into a wide smile. “She’s mine.” He proclaimed proudly.
Murdoch froze in mid-movement and caught his son’s gaze with narrowed eyes. “Yours?”
The infant began to fuss a little and Johnny repositioned her to hold her against his chest. She quieted immediately. “Well, yah, sort of.” Johnny boasted, looking proud as a peacock in full regalia.
“Sort of?” Murdoch questioned. Dropping one arm across Johnny’s shoulders, he continued. “You better come in the house. You have some explaining to do!” When father and son entered, Johnny noted the unusual quiet.
“Where’s Scott and Teresa? I want them to meet Emma Rose. Scott! Teresa! He called out loudly, startling the infant who simply curled up more tightly into Johnny’s arms.
“They’re not here. They went to town. They’ll be back for supper.” Murdoch reached up and snatched Johnny’s hat off his head, tossing it on the hall table. “Now,” he said quietly, placing his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “We need to talk.”
“Not now, Pa. I want to get her settled then take a good, hot bath.” Johnny pleaded.
Murdoch dropped his hand. “Yes, well you are a little . . . aromatic, should we say.”
Johnny moved the baby away from his chest. “I guess I didn’t notice. Been busy taking care of other things.” He felt bad that he had exposed the infant to his obviously unpleasant odor.
“Let me have her,” Murdoch offered, carefully taking the baby from Johnny’s hands.
“Now Pa, you have to support her head and she likes to be held up to a shoulder and . . .” Johnny fussed.
“Son remember, I’ve done this before. Twice.” A worried look made Johnny’s smile disappear. “Go up in the attic before you take your bath. It’s dusty up there. Look around in the south corner. There should be a wooden cradle on the floor. Bring it down and I’ll have it cleaned up. She’ll need a place to sleep.”
“Been sleepin’ in a drawer,” Johnny replied. “Liked it too!” He added defensively.
“A drawer? Oh, Johnny! Go get the cradle.” Murdoch turned and took the baby into the parlor. Emma Rose had awakened but didn’t seem to be afraid of him, rather looking up at him with a quizzical expression. Murdoch sat in an overstuffed chair and laid the baby in his arm. He began talking to her in hushed whispers.
Johnny bounded up the main staircase three steps at a time. He stopped at his room to shrug off his vest. Tossing it on the bed, he took a quick look in the mirror. “Egads!” He exclaimed. “It’s a wonder Emma Rose wasn’t scared of me clear through.” Johnny hadn’t shaved in several days, his hair was almost gray with trail dust and stuck out at odd angles, his forehead was smudged with dirt. He hurried back out into the corridor and to end of the hallway. He climbed the steep steps to the attic and opened the door. Sunlight streamed through the small window which made it easier to find what he was looking for. Sweeping cobwebs out of his path, he spied the cradle under a pile of old lampshades. Tossing them aside, he picked up the cradle and blew some of the dust off it. He hurried back downstairs with it. “Found it Pa.” He declared, entering the parlor.
“Don’t bring that filthy thing in here,” Murdoch hissed. Johnny froze. The cradle was heavy and his arms were beginning to ache. “Set it on the back porch and I’ll have one of the men wipe it down.” Johnny backed out of the room, head hung, feeling like a scolded child. Murdoch turned his attention back to Emma Rose.
Johnny passed Carl on the way to the back of the house. The man was carrying two large buckets of steaming water. “Mr. Lancer ordered a hot bath for you,” he said. “Have it ready in no time.” Johnny couldn’t help but notice that Carl wrinkled his nose when the men passed in the narrow hallway.
When Johnny got back to his room, the large copper tub was sitting before the hearth where a low fire burned. Carl was just coming in with more hot water and deftly poured it into the vessel. “I’ll be back with more.” He commented, closing the door on his way out by using the tip of his boot.
Johnny sat on the edge of the bed and tugged off his boots before literally peeling off his dirty clothes, kicking them into a pile on the floor. He tested the water with one foot and found the temperature perfect. Sinking down into the tub, he sighed out loud. His muscles began to relax immediately as he leaned back and closed his eyes. Carl returned carrying two more buckets of water, which he sat close to the fire. “For rinsing,” he clarified.
After the man left, Johnny reached out for the soap and rubbed it into a lather between his palms and washed his hair then every square inch of his body. Grabbing one bucket, he doused his head with it. Standing, he poured the remaining bucket of water over his chest, belly and legs. He grabbed a large thick towel from the chair and began drying off as he stepped out of the tub. The water was nearly black. Crossing to his dresser, he pulled out clean socks and underwear. Opening the wardrobe, he grabbed a pair of clean pants and a freshly pressed cotton shirt. He tossed the pants and shirt on the bed, then pulled on the underwear and socks. Crossing to the shaving stand, he discovered that Carl had filled the bowl with warm water. ‘Good man!’ Thought Johnny, shaving quickly. He brushed his thick dark hair into place. He was beginning to look like himself again. Anxious to get back downstairs to Emma Rose, he dressed quickly and finished buttoning his shirt on the stairway. Murdoch was still in the parlor but now the newly cleaned cradle was at his feet. He had placed the baby inside and was gently rocking her with the toe of his boot. She seemed to enjoy it.
“Well, now. That’s the Johnny I remember,” declared Murdoch. “Pour me a bourbon, will yah?” Johnny crossed the thick carpeting to the sideboard. “Oh, and son, pour yourself one too.” Johnny placed two crystal glasses next to each other and grabbed a bottle from the rack. He poured a small amount into one glass and a double portion into the other. Carrying one in each hand, he handed the fuller glass to his father. “Sit down, John. Tell me your story.”
Johnny inwardly cringed. His father only called him “John” when he was in trouble. Setting his glass on the mantle, he stalled for time. “I’m sure the baby needs changing. I’ll just . . .”
“All taken care of,” Murdoch answered before taking a large swallow of liquor. “Had Carl bring in the things from the buggy. Changed her myself. Still remember how.”
Johnny cast his eyes downward. He wanted to take care of Emma Rose all by himself. He almost felt like he was losing a little bit of her. Picking up his drink, he finished it in one swallow. Sitting in the chair opposite his father, he waited but when Murdoch didn’t speak, merely stared at him, he began. He told his father everything. Well, almost everything. He left out some of the more intimate details of the delivery. When he had finished speaking, Murdoch took another long swallow of bourbon. He appeared to be deep in thought.
“I would have liked to have been there, to see Johnny Lancer delivering a baby.”
Johnny blushed slightly. “Wasn’t too hard.”
“Could a’ been. You were lucky.” Murdoch finished his drink and placed his glass on the table. Johnny watched his own glass as he rolled it back and forth between his palms. Surely there was more conversation to follow. His father was not known for short speeches. Murdoch leaned forward and rested his weight on his forearms and his forearms on his thighs. He narrowed his eyes and looked his son directly in the eyes. “I’m proud of you son.”
Johnny hadn’t expected to receive a compliment. He grinned just slightly.
“Not many men, especially young men your age, would have done as much to help Mrs. Matthese as you. You will make a good husband and an excellent father . . . someday.” Murdoch watched for some response from his last remark and was not disappointed.
Johnny looked surprised. “Someday?” He echoed. “But I told Emma Rose I would take of her always.”
“Commendable son, very commendable, and if you were a little older then maybe . . .”
Johnny stood and began pacing. “I’m old enough, ain’t I? Got this far, didn’t I?” He barked.
“Sit back down, son.” Murdoch stated calmly.
“No. I’d rather stand.” Johnny retorted. He slammed his glass down on the table, stopped pacing and crossed his arms over his chest. The way he glared at his father, it was almost as though he dared the older man to continue.
Murdoch took a deep breath. “Fine. Then stand. But hear me out. I’m not saying these things to hurt you, son. I love you. I want the best for you. Just listen to my thoughts, that’s all I ask.” Johnny dropped his arms but remained standing. “Johnny, we don’t know each other very well. After all, we’ve only been around each other a few months. I can’t pretend to have learned everything about you in such a short time; learned what really makes you tick.” Murdoch paused to assess his son. Johnny relaxed his shoulders and brought his hands up to rest on the back of the opposing chair. “But I do know one thing – from personal experience, from my male friends, from the men who’ve worked for me. A family, a child, is a big responsibility. At first you may feel like you’re playing house but after a while you’ll get tired of it. You’ll want to quit but you can’t Johnny. It’s forever once a child is involved.”
“Is that what you did? Stopped playing house?” Johnny smirked.
Murdoch sat back in his chair. “No, son. There were extenuating circumstances. I did what I could.” He paused to receive Johnny’s retort but none came.
“Johnny, you’re a young man. You like the ladies and, from what I’ve seen, they adore you. Why they practically fall over themselves to be the first to say hello when you go to town. You’ve got wild oats to sow. Why you don’t even know if you’re going to stay here, at the ranch, or if you’ll get tired of it and want back your nomadic lifestyle. I’m not blaming you, far from it. I just want you to think about what I’m saying. It won’t be easy to find a wife if you have a child. Especially when she learns the child is not even biologically yours. A family, children, might not even be in your plans.” Murdoch stood and walked over to his son. When Johnny turned to face him, Murdoch reached out and pulled him into a strong embrace. “Only you can know what’s inside here,” Murdoch said, leaning back and poking his finger gently into Johnny’s chest. He slapped his son on the back before turning to leave.
Johnny sank back into the chair and, resting his weight on his right elbow, raised his right hand to rub his thumb across his bottom lip. A few minutes later the baby’s demand for attention brought Johnny out of his trance. He bent down and picked up the infant. She was hungry. Carrying her to the kitchen, he rubbed her back and shushed her. Emma Rose quieted down some but still fussed. Johnny had gotten better at preparing a bottle with one hand and soon offered the fresh formula to his little charge. Smiling down at her, he returned to the parlor. A low fire had been started in the hearth and he sat before it, his elbow on the tufted leather armrest to support the baby’s head. He loved watching her. She was such a miracle. He only looked up when he heard the front door open and close and voices in the hallway. Scott and Teresa were involved in deep discussion about something that happened in town. “Hi you two.” Johnny remarked as they passed the open door.
Muttering a quick hello, they continued talking while walking toward the kitchen. Suddenly all became quiet. Simultaneously they looked at each other with questioning eyes. Had they just seen what they thought they had just seen? Retracing their steps, they appeared in the parlor doorway side-by-side. They stood silent, wide eyed, until Johnny spoke.
Gently pulling the bottle out of the baby mouth, he smiled broadly at his brother and sister. “Come here you two. I want you to meet someone.” They took hesitant steps forward, coming to a stop just behind the other chair. “Get over here,” Johnny scolded. “She’s not going to bite you!”
Teresa was the first to advance. She moved near the armrest and bent forward to take a good look at the child. “She’s simply adorable, Johnny. Scott, come see.” Scott walked over and stood on the other side of the chair. A thin smile stretched across his closed lips. His fear of babies was obvious.
“This is Emma Rose.” Johnny announced. Keeping his eyes on the infant, he continued. “Emma Rose, this is Teresa and Scott.” The baby scrunched up her nose and rubbed across it with one tiny fist. Johnny laughed. “Well, they’re not that bad. You’ll get used to them.”
“Whose baby is she?” Asked Teresa
“Mine,” Johnny announced with obvious pride in his voice. Teresa looked across at Scott with wide eyes. Had she heard him right?
“Yours?” She whispered.
“Yup, mine. Every inch of her.” Johnny stroked the baby’s cheek with his finger. “Isn’t that right, Emma Rose?”
“We . . . we better get cleaned up for supper,” Teresa said. “Right Scott?” Scott didn’t reply but rather followed her to the door and around the corner. Teresa paused and looked up into Scott’s face. “His?” She whispered. Scott merely shrugged his shoulders. The two immediately hurried down the corridor to the den where they found Murdoch behind his desk looking over paperwork. When he looked up, he immediately knew they had discovered their new houseguest, just by the look on their faces.
“His?” Teresa said quietly.
Murdoch put down his papers and looked back and forth between the two of them. Returning his eyes to the contract before him, he finally said, “His. See you all at supper.”
Scott and Teresa slowly climbed up the stairs, glancing into the parlor as they passed. In the upstairs hallway, each turned their separate ways to go to their rooms and change clothes before the evening meal. Almost on cue, they both stopped with one hand on their door knob and looked at each other. They both shrugged their shoulders before disappearing inside.
Entering the dining room, Scott and Teresa immediately noticed that Johnny had moved the cradle in from the parlor and placed it a few feet away from his chair. His shirt sleeves rolled up, he was already helping himself to a generous spoonful of mashed potatoes. Johnny may be shy about a lot of things but food was certainly not one of them.
When everyone had helped themselves, they bowed their heads while Murdoch said grace. They all ate in silence until Johnny spoke. “Boy this is good. Better than beans and bacon.” He said enthusiastically, helping himself to more potatoes. The other diners merely exchanged glances. Wasn’t anyone going to explain the presence of the baby? As the meal ended, each diner stood before tossing their napkin on their chair. Johnny took one last swallow of coffee then stooped down and picked up the cradle. He walked back toward the parlor. It was custom to gather there after supper, have a brandy, and talk about their day before each went their own way to finish chores.
They followed Johnny’s lead. He placed the cradle near the hearth and sat down in the chair he had occupied that afternoon. He laid his head back, closed his eyes and grinned. One hand rose to rub his belly. “Good grub,” he commented. “Good grub.”
Scott crossed to the sideboard and picked up the bottle of brandy. “Johnny, brandy?” He asked while pouring some into a snifter.
“No, not tonight.”
Scott poured another glass and, cupping a snifter in each hand, carried them over to where his father and brother sat. He handed one glass to Murdoch then stood leaning against the mantle. Teresa had taken her chair by the small corner table. She picked up her needlework and began stitching.
“Well, how was everyone’s day?” Murdoch asked, finally breaking the silence. “Scott?”
“Fine,” he said, taking a sip of brandy. “Town was sure abuzz.” He added, looking straight at his brother.
“Oh, big news?” Murdoch asked.
“Yes. It seems like a cowpoke from around here came into town a few day ago. To the general store,” he added with emphasis. “Wanted to buy some baby things.” Scott kept his eyes on his brother. Johnny blushed slightly but raised his gaze to look directly into Scott’s eyes.
Murdoch had already heard the gossip but wanted to make Scott squirm a little. “Oh? What’s so unusual about that?”
Scott swung his head around to look at his father. “What’s unusual, sir, is whom this cowpoke was.” Scott took a deep swallow of brandy.
“And who was this cowpoke?” Murdoch asked, winking at Johnny.
Everyone was looking at Scott and waiting for his answer. “Yes, brother, who was it?” Johnny teased.
Scott looked flustered. “Why it was you, dear brother!” He declared, draining his glass.
Johnny and Murdoch roared with laughter. Scott looked from one to the other. ‘A private joke?’ He wondered. Finally Johnny, fighting for control, answered.
“Well, she needed things.”
Scott looked toward his father for support but Murdoch simply echoed his son’s answer. “She needed things. Babies need things.”
Scott, feeling quite foolish, set his empty glass on the mantel. “I’ve got work to do.” He mumbled, quickly leaving.
“Teresa, you hear the rumors too?” Murdoch asked.
“Leave me out of this,” she answered, never looking up from her sewing.
Murdoch reached over and chose a thick cigar from a box on the table. Biting off the tip, he spit it into the fireplace. Reaching for matches, he noted the look on Johnny’s face which conveyed “not around the baby”. Murdoch dropped the matches, drained his glass and stood. “I’ll smoke this in the den. I’ve got a lot of paperwork to do.”
A few minutes after he left, Johnny slapped the arms of the chair and pushed himself upward. “Well, I’m going to bed. It’s been a long and trying day. It will feel good to sleep in a bed again, in my bed.” Picking up the cradle he called over his shoulder. “Good night sis.”
Everyone was up bright and early the next morning. Well, almost everyone. Johnny hadn’t come down yet. In his room, he rolled over in bed, pulled the quilt up beneath his chin and put the pillow over his head to block out the sun. He had gotten up four times with Emma Rose last night. He deserved an extra hour of sleep. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa gathered around the large kitchen table. Bacon and eggs were frying on the stove, fresh biscuits in the oven, and a jar of Mrs. Whitfield’s blue ribbon jam on the counter. The pair slid their chairs closer to Murdoch’s end of the table.
“Well, are you going to tell us?” Whispered Teresa.
Murdoch took a sip of coffee. “Tell you what?” He teased.
“Murdoch Lancer! You know about what.” Teresa scolded. “About that baby. Johnny’s baby.” She rose, crossed to the stove and filled three plates with food. Setting one in front of each man, she returned to pick up her own and the jar of jam. Once settled, they began to eat.
After a few bites of eggs, Murdoch took a deep breath and repeated most of the story Johnny had told him the day before. He left out the part about the delivery because he knew these two would tease Johnny unmercifully about it.
Upstairs, Emma Rose was fussing again. Johnny hung his head off the side of the bed and peered at her through half-opened eyes. “Child, you’re going to be the death of me.” He mumbled, throwing the quilt off and tossing the pillow on the floor, he sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What’s the matter?” He asked, reaching into the cradle. “You’re not wet. You can’t possibly be hungry again, can you?” Usually his voice calmed the baby, but this morning it had no effect. Tugging on his pants and socks, he left his boots where they lay. He decided to leave his shirt hanging over the back of the chair too. Once she was fed, maybe he could lie down and sleep a little more. Yawning, he ran his hand through his hair. Emma Rose was crying loudly. “Okay, okay, I’m going!” He said, hurrying out the door and down the hallway to the back stairs. He could hear voices in the kitchen but couldn’t make out quite what they were saying. Creeping down the stairs in stocking feet, he planned to play a joke on all of them by suddenly jumping around the corner. However, as he neared the bottom stair, their voices became clear. They were talking about him. He sat down behind the half-wall to listen.
“It was really a sad, sad situation. The mother was a widow, her husband only passing a few months before, and she had already lost a little daughter. The place was in shambles. There was no food, no firewood, no feed for the animals. Johnny felt he had to do something to help her. I’m very proud of him.” Murdoch paused to take a sip of coffee.
“Childbed fever?” It was Scott’s voice now. “I’ve never heard of it. What causes it?”
“It probably isn’t very common in Boston where they have modern hospitals and a sterile environment in which to deliver a child. It’s more common in rural areas or areas where medical care might be miles away or completely non-existent.”
“So what happened with Mrs. Matthese?” Teresa asked.
“It could have been a number of things; the person who helped her deliver might have had dirty hands; there might not have been clean sheets or blankets; a rusty or non-sterilized instrument might have been used to cut the cord. Could be any or all of these things.”
Johnny couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Why hadn’t the doctor told him these things. Spreading his fingers wide apart, he stared at his hands. It seemed he always had dirt under his fingernails no matter how much he scrubbed. Surely that day was no different being he was just coming off the trail. No, there were no sheets or blankets at all. Dirty or otherwise. Johnny had a sinking feeling and his head began to pound. Could he have caused this young mother’s death? He crept back upstairs. Emma Rose was fussing but had stopped screaming, at least for the moment. Johnny crossed to the dresser and picked up his pocket knife. He opened the blade, carrying it over to the window where the light was better, and examined it carefully on both sides. There was a little rust near the handle. He recalled using it the week before to gut some fish but he and the other men with him ate the fish and they didn’t get sick. He tried to come up with every reason he could think of to place the blame on anyone or anything but himself but deep inside he had the feeling that all fingers would eventually point to him.
He felt like running away. Getting on his horse and riding until the animal could go no further; where no one knew him; where no one would know the story and that he may be to blame. Only the infant’s cries stopped him from doing just that. He felt more responsible for her now than before. At this moment, her needs came before his. Shrugging on his shirt, he quickly buttoned it before proceeding to the front stairs. Entering the kitchen, he found Scott and Murdoch had already left and only Teresa was still there, washing dishes. She smiled brightly at him, now understanding how truly special Johnny Lancer was.
“Breakfast?” She asked cheerfully.
“No,” Johnny mumbled. He shoved her out of his way so he could make the baby’s bottle. Teresa had been around enough men to know when to stay out of their way and not ask questions. When the formula was ready, Johnny poured it into the bottle but struggled with the nipple. Finally throwing it half-way across the counter he barked, “Damn it!” Teresa had never heard Johnny swear, especially in the presence of a lady. She retrieved the nipple and slipped it on the rim of bottle. Johnny, always so polite, never uttered a thank you. In fact, he glared at her as though she had done something wrong.
After feeding the baby, he settled her back down then pulled a chair over in front of the window. Drawing the drapes aside, he sunk down in the seat, leaned the chair precariously backward and braced one foot on the windowsill. Last night’s toothpick still lay on the bedside table so he reached out and tucked it back into his mouth where he immediately began chewing on it.
Johnny stayed in his room all day except to come down the back stairs and prepare a bottle. He would place the used one on the counter and it was always washed and ready when he returned. He only had a couple clean diapers left. Tonight, well after everyone had gone to bed, he would have to sneak down to the back porch and wash them. He could hang them over a couple chairs in front of his fireplace to dry, he reasoned.
When Murdoch finished work for the day, he asked around if anyone had seen Johnny. Everyone shook their head. Finding Teresa in the kitchen, he asked her.
“Been up in his room all day, except to fetch a bottle for Emma Rose.” She answered as she rolled out pie crust. Sensing she wanted to say more, Murdoch gently put his hand on her shoulder. “He . . . he’s not himself. Something’s wrong.”
“What do you mean?” Genuine concern filled the man’s voice.
“He . . . he swore in front of me today. He’s never done that before. No please, no thank you. That’s not the Johnny I know.”
“I apologize for my son. I won’t stand for his lack of manners, especially to a lady.” Murdoch rubbed at his brow. “If he doesn’t come to supper – and act like a gentleman – I’ll go up after the meal and have a talk with him.
Teresa continued her chores. Murdoch tossed his hat and gloves on the chair in the den. He crossed the parlor and poured himself a hefty portion of bourbon and downed it all in one swallow. Practically slamming the glass down on the table, he bounded up the stairs and down the hall. Stopping in front of Johnny’s door, he raised his fist to knock but something in his gut told him not to. He was too angry. He would take it out on Johnny and he didn’t want to destroy what little relationship they had built over the past few months. Dropping his arm, he took a step backward, turned and walked down to his own room.
The supper conversation that evening centered mostly around some new breed of cattle that Scott had been researching. Murdoch would occasionally miss one of his son’s questions which was beginning to aggravate Scott, who was not known for his patience. Murdoch kept looking at the empty place at the table. He had calmed down considerably and concern for his youngest son had crowded out his anger. He ate quickly but it was house rule that nobody left the table until everyone was finished. ‘If Scott would just shut up and eat,’ he thought. He and Teresa had finished their meal and sat waiting, both staring at Scott. Finally, Scott put down his fork and pushed his chair back, a signal he was finished as well. Practically pushing the other two down the hallway in front of him, Murdoch crossed to the sideboard, poured two brandies, handed one to Scott and downed the other in two swallows.
“Well, good night. Sleep sound.” He said, walking toward the stairs.
“But Murdoch,” Scott called. “What about the cattle?”
“We’ll discuss it some more tomorrow. I want to have a talk with your brother and don’t want to make it too late. It might disturb the baby.”
Murdoch paused in front of Johnny’s door. He had been silently practicing what to say all through dinner but without knowing the exact problem . . . He finally raised his hand and knocked softly. There was no reply. He knocked again, this time resting his other hand on the knob. Still no reply. He opened the door a crack and peered around its edge. The room was quiet and only the low lamp light provided any illumination. Johnny was still sitting in the chair, still gnawing on the toothpick, still braced with one foot against the windowsill.
“Johnny, you missed dinner. Teresa made an excellent roast with those little candied carrots you like so well. And pie. Blueberry, your favorite. I think there might be a piece or two left in the kitchen. Maybe later, hmm son?” Johnny reached up and removed the toothpick from his lips but didn’t say a word. Murdoch came fully into the room and softly closed the door behind him. He tucked his fingers into the front pockets of his pants and glanced around the spacious room. He saw the cradle on the other side of the bed and that the infant was sleeping. There wasn’t another chair, so Murdoch straightened out the rumpled sheets, laid the pillow back in place and sat down on the bed. He studied Johnny’s profile for a minute. His eyes were puffy and a muscle twitched in his cheek. “She’s a good baby. I think I only heard her cry once during the night.” Johnny stared straight ahead into the darkness. “Emma Rose, that’s a mighty pretty name.” Johnny remained quiet. Murdoch rested his hands on his knees and leaned slightly forward. “Teresa said you swore at her this morning.” Johnny dropped his head as if in shame but said nothing. “Said you had forgotten your manners too. That doesn’t sound like you, son. I think you owe her an apology.” Johnny righted his chair and dropped his foot to the floor. Standing, he turned his back to his father and walked over to the dresser. He placed one hand on either end as if bracing himself and finally looked into the mirror.
“Did I kill her, Pa? Was it my fault that Mrs. Matthese died. Is it my fault that Emma Rose will grow up without her mother?” Johnny’s voice cracked and he could longer hold Murdoch’s gaze in the mirror, dropping his chin to his chest.
“Where did you get these ideas, son?”
“I heard you talking at breakfast; heard you explaining childbed fever to Scott. It was my hands that were dirty, my knife that was rusty.” He murmured.
Murdoch came up behind his son and placed one hand on each of his shoulders. He caught Johnny’s gaze in the mirror. “A hundred things could have happened. The baby wasn’t exactly born in ideal conditions, out in the middle of nowhere.” Murdoch’s heart broke as a single tear slid down Johnny’s cheek. “Women die in childbirth son. It happens all the time, even in pristine conditions. Catherine died giving birth to Scott in a clean bed and with a doctor at her side. You did your best, Johnny. I’m sure of it.”
Johnny shrugged his father’s hands off his shoulders. He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. He seemed to be somewhere far away.
“What can I do to help, son?” Asked Murdoch quietly.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders again.
“Have you given any more thought to what we talked about. About the baby’s future? About your own?” Johnny shook his head. He had been thinking of nothing else all day. “Well, there’s time son. There’s time. You can come and talk to me at any time, about anything, you know that don’t you?” Johnny nodded his head. Murdoch felt so helpless. This was one of those times when a woman, a mother, would better understand how to comfort her son. “Try to get some sleep. You look worn out.”
Johnny watched in the mirror as his father left the room. He looked back in the mirror, deep into his own eyes. The usual twinkle was gone, replaced by a sort of sadness he was unfamiliar with. He was feeling very sorry for himself but he didn’t know how else to feel. The baby began whimpering. Johnny checked her, she was wet. He put on the last clean diaper then lifted her up to his chest. The top of her head rested just beneath his chin. “I’m sorry Emma Rose,” he whispered. “I guess I screwed up. I didn’t mean any harm. I thought I was doing the right thing, helping you into this world. I should have taken the other road. I shouldn’t have stopped. I should have just kept on going. Maybe then your mother would still be alive.” Johnny tried to swallow the lump in his throat which ached with unshed tears. He began walking around and around the room, gently bouncing the infant in his arms. She seemed so content, sucking on her fingers. What was he going to tell her when she got old enough to understand? He was beginning to regret playing house. It wasn’t all fun and games after all.
Settling the baby back in the cradle, he grabbed the pile of diapers. He left his door ajar just slightly in case Emma Rose began to cry. Creeping down the back stairs, he hoped to find a bucket of water setting near the kitchen fire as usual. The lamp from the kitchen cast shadows into the hallway but Johnny knew a lamp was always burning in the kitchen during the night. It was late. Surely everybody was in bed. Turning the corner, he stopped short. Teresa sat at the table holding a large mug in both hands. It’s unclear who startled whom the most.
“Johnny,” she said, placing one hand on her chest. “You near scared . . . What have you got there?” She asked, nodding her head at his bundle.
“I thought everybody would be asleep.” He said.
“I couldn’t sleep. Too many things to think about. Is that laundry?”
“Just a couple things I need to wash out.” He muttered, embarrassed. He crossed to the hearth and picked up the bucket of steaming water. He hurried out the back door to the laundry porch where he poured the hot water in the tub and tossed in the diapers. He didn’t hear Teresa come up behind him.
“Let me do that,” she said, pushing him to one side. “Go get me some cold water.” Johnny picked up the empty pail, returned to the kitchen and pumped the bucket about half-full. He carried it out to her.
“I can wash those,” he said. “It’s my job. It’s my responsibility.”
Teresa poured some cold water in with the hot. Turning, she placed one hand gently on Johnny’s arm. “I can help. You don’t have to do things all by yourself, you know. We’re family.”
Johnny dropped his gaze and took a step backward. Teresa put the scrub board in the tub and began washing the diapers. He shoved his hands in his front pockets. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. She hadn’t heard him clearly.
“I said I’m sorry. About this morning. Swearing and all. I’m sorry.”
Teresa stopped her washing for a moment and turned her face to look at him. She gave him a kind smile; one that said all was forgiven. “You have a lot on your plate right now.” Wiping her hands on a nearby towel, she placed one hand along his jawline and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. That sheepish smile of his crossed his lips. “There’s pie left. Blueberry. I knew it was your favorite.”
The twinkle came back in Johnny’s eyes. He placed a quick kiss on her forehead before going back in the house and helping himself to both portions. He wolfed down the delicious dessert, keeping one ear cocked toward the back stairway just in case Emma Rose began to fuss but all was quiet. In no time, Teresa came back in the kitchen, the freshly washed diapers draped over her arm. Johnny quickly set down his plate. “Here, let me take those.” He grabbed the freshly washed laundry from her. Teresa reached behind the cupboard and pulled out a small rack. Unfolding it, she sat it before the hearth. One by one, she took the diapers Johnny handed to her and draped them over the rack.
“Should be dry in no time.” She said. Turning to look at Johnny, she raised one hand to her lips to suppress a sudden burst of laughter. “You have blueberry pie all over your face!”
Johnny chuckled, grabbing a nearby napkin and wiping it across his lips. “Did I get it?”
“Well, most of it.” Teresa answered. Johnny raised his hand and wiped across his lips again with the back of it. “Better.” She said, still chuckling. “Go to bed Johnny. Get some sleep if you can. I’ll set out the formula, a clean bottle and a nipple. The pan is on the stove, washed and ready to go.”
“Thanks sis.” He placed another quick kiss on Teresa’s forehead. Reaching up, she wiped her hand over the spot.
“Blueberry!” She exclaimed, looking at the tips of her fingers.
Johnny bounded up the steps and slipped quietly into his bedroom. He felt a little better. Maybe Teresa . . . he would have to think some more. Laying on top of the quilt, fully clothed except for his boots, which he never had put on that day, he bent one arm up to support his head. He didn’t even remember falling asleep.
Emma Rose only woke him twice that night. Carrying her down to the kitchen, he quickly made her a bottle and while the formula was warming, grabbed a now-dried diaper off the rack. He got the nipple on the bottle his first try. Things were looking up. He walked into the parlor where a low fire still burned. Laying the baby on the carpet, he quickly changed her then took a familiar position in the chair to feed her. On his way back upstairs, he grabbed another diaper. He could usually get away with only one feeding but knew she would need to be changed again before too long. He desperately wanted to hold her against him as he slept; she was so warm and soft, but was too afraid he might roll over her in his sleep so settled her back in the cradle. Johnny laid on the very edge of the mattress and put his hand inside the cradle next to her. The infant immediately curled her fingers around his. This would have to do.
The next morning Johnny brought child and cradle downstairs with him. The family was already gathered around the kitchen table when he entered and set the cradle near the hearth. Murdoch and Scott watched his every move. Teresa smiled at him as she served the food. As Johnny began to eat, Scott turned his attention to Murdoch and began discussing cattle again. This time, however, Johnny joined in the conversation every now and then. Murdoch was pleased to see that his son was obviously feeling better. When the dishes had been cleared, all three men stood up. Scott said he had some letters to write and disappeared into the library. Murdoch picked up his hat and gloves from the counter but before he could get out the door Johnny walked over to him.
“Pa, can we talk?” He asked, searching the man’s face for last night’s compassion.
“Sure son. Come in the den.” Johnny glanced at Teresa. She nodded, indicating she would keep an eye on the baby for him. Johnny followed his father, sliding the room’s pocket doors shut behind himself.
Murdoch took his place behind the desk and Johnny pulled one of the leather chairs up to the opposite edge. “I think I have a solution.” He announced, grinning. Murdoch waited for him to continue. “See, you said that a baby, a girl baby, should have a woman to teach her things and such.” Murdoch nodded. “Well, what about Teresa? She likes babies. We . . . her and I . . . could be sort of a team. It would be just like having a mother and a father.”
Murdoch’s eyes clouded. He hated to always be the one to put a damper on Johnny’s ideas. “Son, you can’t push your responsibilities on Teresa. She isn’t even your blood sister.”
“I know, but what if I get her to agree?”
“No, Johnny. It’s not fair to her. She’s just becoming her own woman. She should go to dances and church picnics. She should be courted. She’s a very pretty girl, you know.” Johnny’s smile faded and his gaze faltered. Silence hung between the two men for several minutes. “Tell me what’s on your mind son. Maybe we can come up with an answer working together.”
Johnny sat back in the chair. “Pa, I don’t want the baby to go to an orphanage or a . . . a foundling home. They’re so awful. I can’t do that to her, Pa. Not to Emma Rose.”
Murdoch felt some relief. At least Johnny had been thinking about what the two had discussed earlier. This was just a first step, but a good one.
“If I gave her up . . . and I’m not saying I will!” Johnny quickly added. Murdoch nodded. “But if I did decide to give her up, where would she go?”
“I’m not sure son. I suppose someone would adopt her. Take her into their home.”
“But that could take a long time. Where would she go in the meantime?” Johnny’s genuine concern and the pleading in his eyes touched his father’s heart.
“I can’t say as I know how the whole adoption process works but I’m good friends with Governor Low. I could telegraph him, ask him what to do.”
“Could you do that for me, Pa? Could you really?”
Murdoch smiled. “Of course, son. I told you I’d do anything to help you. I’ll go into town this morning and send the message. Joe will bring out the reply.” The men stood and Murdoch extended his arm to shake hands with his son.
As Johnny reached the door, he paused. “You’ll tell him I’m only askin’. That I haven’t decided yet.”
“I’ll tell him. He’ll understand.”
Johnny went back to the kitchen. Teresa had just finished the dishes and was untying her apron. “I have a fitting in town. Do you need anything? Anything for the baby?”
“If you hurry, you can ride in with Murdoch. He’s going to the telegraph office. We need more formula. The tin is almost empty.” Teresa nodded and tossed her apron over the back of a chair. Johnny heard her call out to Murdoch as she hurried down the hall.
Johnny helped himself to another cup of coffee. Sitting back down at the table, he rolled the cup back and forth between his palms. He sat there well after the coffee had grown cold. He heard Murdoch and Teresa returning from town. When she came into the kitchen with the tins of formula, she exclaimed, “Have you been sitting there all this time?”
Johnny rose and reached around her to put his cup on the counter. He gave Teresa a slight grin. Murdoch was right. She was becoming a beautiful young woman. If he didn’t think of her as his sister . . . Johnny carried the cradle back upstairs. Maybe he could sneak in a nap. He fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Only a quiet knock on his door awoke him hours later. Even Emma Rose was giving him some time off. “Come in,” he called, swinging his legs off the bed in order to sit up. Murdoch entered. He held a small sheet of paper in his hand.
“The answer came a little while ago, son.” Johnny took a deep breath and clasped his hands between his knees. As Murdoch swung the chair around to face him, Johnny dropped his gaze to the floor. “Are you ready to hear it?”
Johnny shrugged. “No, not really.” He croaked. “But go ahead.”
Murdoch read directly from the message. “Governor Frederick Low of California to Murdoch Lancer, Lancer ranch. I received your inquiry as to the child. If she has no relation to claim her, she would be put in the state orphanage in Sacramento until a family chooses to adopt her. If no one makes application, she will be turned out at the age of fifteen.” Murdoch glanced over the top of the paper to gauge Johnny’s reaction. His son was staring out the window.
“I knew it. I just knew it,” he muttered. “I can’t do that to her, Pa. I just can’t.” Johnny turned to look at his father with pleading eyes.
“The note goes on, son. Let me finish.” Murdoch returned his attention to the paper as Johnny returned his attention to the window. “However, I personally am acquainted with a family in San Francisco who have adopted one child, a girl, some three years ago. They are excellent parents; he the president of a bank and she a former teacher. I personally processed the first adoption when I still had my law practice in that city. We have kept in contact and, many times, they have expressed their wish to adopt another child. With your son’s permission, I will contact them, explaining the circumstances, and forward their reply forthwith.”
Murdoch paused, lowering the telegram to his lap. “They sound like good people Johnny. Emma Rose would already have a sister to play with and a good home with lots of opportunities. She would have a good life, Johnny. I’ve known the Governor for a long, long time and I trust him implicitly.”
Johnny turned to look at his father’s face. It held a look of total reassurance. Johnny returned his attention back to the window. Murdoch rose and laid the telegram down on the bedside table.
“Think about it son. That’s all I ask.” Murdoch reached out and touched Johnny’s shoulder before leaving the room.
After he was gone, Johnny picked up the telegram and read it over and over. Suddenly he crumpled the paper in his fist and threw it with all his might across the room. He jumped off the bed, ran his hand through his hair and began to pace. In his head he knew it was the right thing to do but in his heart . . . in his breaking heart, or rather that hollow place in his chest where his heart should have been, he fought a silent tug-of-war. Johnny found himself in front of the mirror. He looked at the man reflected there. His eyes held sadness; his lips a frown. There seemed to be more wrinkles than the day before. He stood and looked at that man a long time. Was it really a man? Or was the reflection that of a boy wanting to become a man?
Johnny crossed to the cradle and lifted Emma Rose into his arms. She was just starting to awaken. She looked up into his face. He carried her over to the chair, sat down and held the infant to his chest. “Emma Rose,” he whispered. “There is a family in San Francisco with a little girl. They are a very nice family and San Francisco is a big city. There’s lots to do there. It’s not like this dusty old ranch. They have parks where you can play with your sister and stores that sell ice cream. You’d like it there. Old Johnny has been there, once. He didn’t stay long though. Too busy, too much noise. I missed the mountains and sitting around a camp fire on a chilly night. That’s no life for a little girl.” Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat and blinked away the moisture forming in the corners of his eyes. “You’d have a mama and a papa. A real papa, not just some old cowpoke like me.” Johnny softly kissed the top of the baby’s head. “I love you Emma Rose. I wish you were truly mine. I would lasso the moon for you.” Tears began to fall and he wiped them away before they could drip onto the infant. “I’ll miss you Emma Rose.” Johnny sat in that chair all night, just holding her. As he watched the sun rise the next morning, he knew what he had to do.
Johnny placed the baby in the cradle and carried them both down the back stairs. The family looked up at him from the kitchen table. Teresa began to rise. “Nothing for me sis. I’m not very hungry.” Johnny sat the cradle near the stove. “Can you watch her for me?” Teresa sat down, wiping her mouth with her napkin and nodded. The look on Johnny’s face and the resolution in his voice brought tears to her eyes. Johnny looked over at Murdoch. “Pa, please?” He said. As Murdoch rose, Johnny began walking toward the den. He dropped into the chair and leaned his weight forward on his thighs. Raising his hands, he sighed heavily before pushing his hair back. He didn’t even wait until his father was seated. “Make the arrangements.” He stated flatly.
Murdoch took his chair. He clasped his hands together on the top of the desk. “Are you sure?” Johnny turned his head away for a moment and then back to meet his father’s gaze. Johnny tried to speak but just couldn’t say the words and so merely nodded. After doing so, he dropped his head into his hands and began to weep. Murdoch came around the desk. Pulling Johnny to his feet, he pulled his son into a strong embrace. He hadn’t been around to comfort his son when he was a little boy. Perhaps he could make up for it now. “I’ll make a special trip to town tomorrow.” Johnny pulled away and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Son,” Murdoch said, putting an arm across Johnny’s shoulders. “You’re doing the right thing.”
Johnny turned to look at his father. “Pa, if this is the right thing why do I feel so bad?”
Murdoch could tell by the look in Johnny’s eyes that this wasn’t simply an arbitrary question. He was waiting for an answer. “I don’t know but sometimes we need to hurt in order to make someone else happy. To make sacrifices so that the ones we love, the ones we truly love, will have a better life.” Johnny nodded. “Come on. We could both use a cup of good strong coffee.” Murdoch kept his arm around his son’s shoulder all the way to the kitchen. When he entered, Johnny avoided Scott and Teresa’s gaze. As he did so, Murdoch signaled with the tilt of his head that the two of them should find somewhere else to be. They rose and quickly left. “Here, son,” Murdoch said, pulling out a chair. “Sit down. I’ll get the pot.”
Johnny and Murdoch sat there until all the coffee was gone. There was no need for talk. Each man knew what the other was thinking. When Emma Rose began to fuss, Johnny pushed back his chair but Murdoch reached out and placed his hand over his son’s. “Let me.” He said, rising. “Why don’t you take some time for yourself. Take Barranca for a ride in the country, go fishing, sleep. Do whatever you want.”
“Are you sure Pa?” Johnny silently prayed that his father would not change his mind. He desperately needed a break.
Murdoch moved the baby up to his shoulder and turned his head toward her. “We’ll be just fine, won’t we little one. Old Johnny isn’t the only man who knows how to take care of a baby.” Looking back toward his son, Murdoch continued. “Go on. Get out of here. Just be back for supper. Okay?”
Johnny nodded. Standing he pushed in the chair. “Thanks Pa.” He murmured. Murdoch simply smiled.
Johnny climbed the back stairs. Sitting on the rumpled bed, he glanced out the window. It was a beautiful late summer day. He couldn’t make up his mind how to spend it. He dropped down on the pillow and pulled the corner of the quilt over his arm. Closing his eyes, he decided that a little nap would suffice for now and that maybe later he would indeed go fishing.
Johnny was awakened by someone shaking his arm. “Johnny? Johnny, wake up.” It was Scott.
“Go away.” Johnny mumbled, trying to roll away from his brother’s grasp.
“Come on Johnny. It’s almost time for supper. Pa is expecting both of us.”
“Supper?” Johnny rolled onto his back and half-rose to support his weight on his bent elbows. “What time is it?”
“Almost six.” Scott answered. “You’ve got ten minutes.” With that, Scott left.
Johnny struggled off the bed. He looked down at his rumpled clothes. If he showed up at the table looking like this, Murdoch would only send him back upstairs to change. Tossing his worn clothing on the bed, Johnny pulled on a clean pair of pants and an ironed shirt. He crossed to the dresser while tucking, buttoning and fastening. He picked up his brush and did what he could to his thick mane of hair. He needed a shave but maybe he could get by, just this once. Hopping on one foot he pulled on first one boot than the other. He heard the parlor clock begin to chime and hurried down the front staircase. The others were just taking their seats when he came around the corner of the dining room. His first concern was Emma Rose but was relieved to see the cradle near his father’s chair and the baby in comfortable slumber.
As they ate, Scott began his dissertation on that new cattle breed again. Murdoch caught Johnny’s attention while Scott turned to talk to Teresa and rolled his eyes. Johnny had all he could do to keep from bursting out in laughter. This evening, after dinner when they were all gathered in the parlor, Johnny told his brother to pour one extra brandy. Scott looked surprised. Was his little brother actually trying to become civilized? He handed Johnny the snifter and Johnny immediately took a deep swallow. So much for sophistication, Scott thought. The man hadn’t even swirled the glass to warm it.
As the others left one-by-one, Johnny remained before the fire. Emma Rose was dozing. Murdoch had taken his cigar into the den and shut the door, and both Scott and Teresa had gone to bed. The house was quiet except for the hypnotizing tick-tock of the clock in the corner. Johnny rose and crossed to the sideboard. He pulled out a clean glass and checked the gold engraved plates on the decanters until he found one marked “Scotch”. He poured some in the glass and took a swallow. It was awful! Johnny was tempted to spit it out. He looked at the decanter again. Had he misread the label? No, it said “scotch”. He took another sip and winced. Forcing it down his throat he decided he’d had enough and left his glass on the tray. He had heard that real men drank scotch. Johnny felt like a real man tonight. He had had a tough decision to make and he had made it. A boy would never have been able to, but this scotch drinking thing – well, that was something he wasn’t quite ready for, yet.
He rode into town with Murdoch the next day. Teresa had agreed to watch Emma Rose. Johnny felt it was his responsibility to accompany his father to the telegraph office. He was trying to act more and more like a responsible adult. When they got to town, however, he hesitated. Suddenly his shoulders didn’t seem so broad. While Murdoch entered the office to wire the Governor, Johnny headed toward the saloon. Tossing a couple coins on the bar, he ordered a whisky and a beer. The saloon didn’t cater to fancy drinkers and didn’t even have scotch. Tossing the shot glass of whisky down his throat, he took a long draw of the icy cold brew. He was about to order a second round when Murdoch walked in to join him.
“Whatever he’s having,” he told the bartender. When the drinks had been delivered, Murdoch rose his shot glass and waited for Johnny to do the same. “To you, son.” He said with a smile. The two clinked their glasses together before tossing the liquor down in one swallow. Standing side-by-side in silence, they finished their beer. Johnny was about to order another round but Murdoch said it was time to go. Pausing outside the door, Johnny scuffed his boot along the edge of the wooden walkway. “Yes son?” Murdoch said. He had the feeling Johnny wanted to ask him something.
Johnny continued to stare down at the toe of his boot. “I know . . . well, you probably haven’t gotten the bill yet, but I spent quite a bit of money at the general store last week. I’ll pay it back,” he added quickly. “You take some out of each week’s pay.”
“I’ll do that,” Murdoch stated.
“Well, I was wonderin’ if I could pick up just a couple more things. I’m kinda low on cash right now . . .”
“Go ahead.” Johnny looked up and grinned. As he turned to walk away, Murdoch called after him. “Just remember. You’re going to pay it back.” Murdoch waited in the wagon and, before long, Johnny came trotting up the street with a brown paper-wrapped, string tied box in his hand. Jumping into the opposite seat, Johnny held the box across his lap with both hands. “Are you going to tell me what you bought with my money?” Murdoch teased.
Johnny stared straight ahead. “Nope.” He answered.
The next three days passed without incident. On the fourth day, a telegram was delivered to Murdoch. Johnny had answered the door and carried the message into the den where Murdoch was working on the books. Johnny’s heart was racing and his mouth went dry. “This just came, Pa.” He whispered, handing the envelope to his father. He took a couple steps back as Murdoch tore open the message and began to read. When he was finished, he looked up into Johnny’s eyes. “They’re coming ain’t they. To get Emma Rose, I mean.” Murdoch nodded. “When?” Johnny’s voice broke with emotion.
“Sunday. On the eleven o’clock train. They are catching the next train back to San Francisco. It leaves at two seventeen.”
“Sunday,” Johnny echoed. That was two days from today. He hadn’t expected them to come so soon. “This Sunday?”
“Yes, son. This Sunday.”
Johnny shoved his hands in his front pants pockets. “Okay then,” he murmured. Turning on his heel, he strode to the kitchen, picked up the cradle and carried cradle and baby up to his room. He had discovered that by gritting his teeth and clamping his jaw tightly, he could control his tears. Well, at least most of the time. He sat the cradle near the bed and dropped down on the edge of the mattress. Emma Rose was awake. He picked her up and laid her on the bed next to him. Turning to face her, he placed one hand on either side of her tiny body and bent slightly forward. “Well, Emma Rose, your new mama and papa are coming for you.” The baby stared up into his face while clasping her hands together. “It won’t be long now,” he choked. He forced his teeth tightly together. Picking up the child, he held her tightly to his chest. ‘How on earth am I ever going to give you away?’ He thought. His technique wasn’t working. A tear slid down his cheek.
The next two days passed too quickly. Johnny remained in his room. He spent every waking moment with the baby, talking to her, watching her sleep. He had brought up the rocking chair from the porch and rocked gently back and forth while holding her to his chest all of Saturday night. The sun rose especially early that Sunday morning, Johnny thought. He only had a few more hours with his sweet Emma Rose.
A couple hours later, there was a knock on his door. “It’s me, son.” Murdoch called. “Can I come in?” Johnny answered with his permission. Murdoch had on his best suit. He walked over to the bed and sat down. “Have you been up all night?” He asked, noting the dark circles under Johnny’s puffy redden eyes. Johnny simply nodded. Murdoch reached out with both hands. “Why don’t you let me tend to her for a while. Give you a chance to clean up, shave.”
Johnny clutched Emma Rose tightly and turned his shoulder away from his father. “No, Pa.” Murdoch’s heart ached. He was at a loss on how to comfort his son at a moment such as this. Silence hung between them for many minutes. Finally Murdoch spoke.
“Scott and Teresa have already left for town.” Murdoch paused. “Do you want me to take her to the train? Maybe it would be easier . . .”
“No, Pa.” Johnny murmured. “It’s my responsibility. You can pack her things and take them if you want.” Murdoch turned to look at the small collection of items on the bed. He picked up the framed picture and studied it. “That was her ma and pa and their first child. I thought maybe when she was older . . .”
“I’ll put a note of explanation on the back. Is this everything?” He asked. Johnny nodded. Murdoch tucked some of the smaller items into his pockets and scooped the remainder into one arm. “Are you sure . . .”
Johnny nodded. “Just go, Pa. Please. I’ll meet you at the depot.”
Murdoch hesitated just a moment. “Remember, Johnny. The train leaves at two seventeen.”
After Murdoch left, Johnny put the baby back in her cradle. He quickly shaved, brushed his hair and put on his sueded leather pants. He pulled the matching embroidered jacket out of the wardrobe and draped it over the chair. He chose a white shirt and a black bolo tie with a shiny silver and turquoise slide he had purchased in Mexico. Using the back stairs, he went down to the kitchen and prepared a bottle. Staring down at the shiny glass vessel filled with warm formula, it suddenly occurred to him this was the last time he would be feeding her. Emma Rose drank down the liquid without incident. She stared up into Johnny’s face the entire time. Johnny finally had to look away. When she had finished, he quickly changed her. Leaving her lying in the middle of the bed, he kept one eye on her as he pulled a box out from underneath. He broke the string and ripped off the paper. It was his latest purchase and it was just for her.
Tossing the lid aside, he carefully picked up the long white embroidered dress by the shoulders and shook the wrinkles out of it with gentle care. He laid it next to her before reaching down to unpack the remaining contents - a long slip with a wide lace hem, a matching bonnet and little white satin shoes. He knelt next to the bed and struggled with all the tiny buttons and ribbons. Finally he was successful. Straightening the slip and dress, he stood to look down at her. She looked just like a doll he had seen in the store’s window one Christmas. He couldn’t help but smile. Gently he lifted her head and placed the bonnet around it. His large fingers fumbled with the ribbon but he finally got it tied into a fairly decent bow. He had lost track of time but knew he needed to leave for town before long. He shrugged into the short, bolero style jacket and took his best hat out of the box, ducking down to adjust it in the mirror. He looked very much the vaquero but a gentleman vaquero. This outfit was for special occasions only. He pulled on his dress boots, which shown from many hours of polishing. Opening the top drawer of the dresser, he rummaged around until he found what he was looking for. Tucking the treasure into his pocket, he picked up the baby, straightened the dress over his arm so as not to wrinkle it, and carried her down the front staircase.
Once outside, he found the Lancer’s best carriage was waiting. His father had even arranged to have Dan drive him into town. Johnny stepped up into the rear seat and laid the baby in his arm. Once settled, he nodded to Dan and they started toward town. Johnny asked that they come into town from the south; the furthest road from the depot. As they approached, Johnny told Dan to stop the carriage. He would walk the rest of the way. Dan complied and Johnny carefully climbed out with Emma Rose. Being Sunday, the town was pretty much deserted which suited him just fine. He didn’t want a lot of attention. Not today.
The clock on the town hall showed ten past two. Only a few minutes remained for the two of them to be together. Johnny found a quiet bench on the far end of town. Sitting down, he held Emma Rose against his chest for the last time. He could see the black smoke from the train rising in great clouds above the livery. He imagined the depot platform. He pictured his father, Scott and Teresa. He waited for tears to fall but none came.
“Emma Rose, promise me you’ll remember old Johnny because I’ll never forget you. Someday I hope I have a little girl just as sweet and precious. Promise me you’ll be good. Just as good a baby as you’ve been for me. Who knows? Maybe someday I will come to San Francisco just to see you. I’ll take you to that ice cream store I told you about and you and me, well, we’ll share.” Johnny looked up at the town clock. Two fifteen. He laid the baby in his arm so he could look down into her face. “I love you Emma Rose. More than anyone I’ve ever known. I’d lasso you the moon.” He bent down and placed a gentle lingering kiss on her forehead. It was time to go. He stood and began walking slowly toward the station.
“Where is he?” Teresa asked. The conductor had already made the first boarding call.
Scott pulled out his pocket watch. “He’s got one minute.” He looked up and down the platform. Turning to his father he continued. “You don’t suppose he’s done something stupid, do you?” Murdoch gave Scott a look of disbelief. “Well,” Scott defended. “Like run away with her or something.”
Murdoch looked past Scott’s shoulder to see Johnny walking toward the train. He shoved Scott aside and started down the platform to meet him. When they were within arm’s reach, however, Johnny stared straight ahead. He was holding the baby up to his shoulder and brushed by his father without a word. A couple stood alone on the platform. The man was tall with a neat mustache. The woman was stylishly dressed, some shorter and very pretty. When she spied the baby, she raised both gloved hands to her lips.
Johnny squared his shoulders as he approached them. The wife held out her arms as he laid Emma Rose gently into them. She immediately kissed the baby’s cheek. Her face radiated happiness. The conductor was waiting for them to board. He glanced at his watch then glared at Johnny. It was his job to keep the train on time and this Lancer fellow wasn’t making it any easier.
Johnny reached into his pocket and pulled out a lacy handkerchief. Holding in the palm of one hand, he unfolded it with the other. Inside laid two beautiful silver filigree earrings. Carefully picking them up, he laid them in the woman’s gloved hand. “These were my mother’s.” He said. “When she’s old enough, please give them to Emma Rose.”
The woman closed her fingers around the jewelry. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer.” She whispered. Glancing down into the baby’s face she added, “for everything”. Her husband held her elbow, saying they must now get on the train. It was time to go. The conductor helped them board then picked up the wooden step stool and jumped up on the car. He waved his cap to the engineer who released the brake in a hiss of steam. The couple had chosen a seat near the window where Johnny stood. As the train began to move away, Johnny clicked his heels and tipped his hat. He turned to watch the train disappear down the tracks. “Dios de mayo estar con usted mi pequeña amor. Recuerde mi.” He whispered. (May God be with you my little sweetheart. Remember me.)
Teresa had been crying and even Scott fought to hold back tears. As they walked up behind Johnny, Murdoch waved them off with the back of his hand. Walking toward his son, he stopped a few feet from his side. Johnny stood as stiffly as a statue. He was using all the strength he could muster to keep from falling to his knees and weeping. He gritted his teeth so tightly they were beginning to hurt and had clamped his jaws so tightly the muscles in his cheeks quivered. He had a reputation as a gunfighter. Tough. Callous. Not afraid of anything or anybody. He was not about to show any other side of himself, at least not to the folks in town. He would lose their respect.
When the platform was empty, Murdoch moved so close to Johnny that his suit coat actually brushed against his arm. “I can’t tell you how proud you made me today.” Johnny continued to stare down the track. “There’s a good lesson in all this, son.” Johnny turned to look Murdoch straight in the eyes. Murdoch put one hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Now you know a little bit of what it’s like to be a father.” A single tear escaped Johnny’s eye and slid down his cheek. Murdoch wiped it away with his thumb and put his arm around his shoulder. “Come on son. Let’s go home.”