Despair, Chapter One
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.
~T.S. Eliot, 1942
It wasn’t the freezing cold that bothered Johnny the most, nor was it the gloom of night or the snow that was now falling heavily. It wasn’t even the slapping of the waves on the hull of the large sailboat as it scurried across the choppy waters, even if it made him queasy and longing to plant his feet firmly back on land. No, what worried him right down to the pit of his unsettled stomach was Scott’s silence. His brother had been at the till for hours, looking progressively more worried as they wended their way down the coast of Maine, and now he refused to reply to Johnny’s questions.
“Scott, you sure you know how to use that compass?” Johnny knew Scott couldn’t see the face of the small navigational tool now that darkness had settled on them, isolating them from any sight of land. He just wanted assurance that Scott knew what he was doing.
Boats were not Johnny’s favorite mode of transportation and he’d only agreed to join his brother on this trip because it was supposed to cut a day off their travel time. They were due to meet Murdoch that night in Old Orchardport, and the next morning they would all take the train the rest of the way south to Boston, and eventually back to sunny California.
It had been fine and sunny when they’d started out, skimming along, close enough to the shore to see gray clapboard houses perched up on the rocks, passing some lobster boats with slickered men hard at work. Johnny liked looking at the little islands that dotted the coast, some so near to the mainland that at low tide it’d be an easy swim. In good weather, anyway, he thought. He couldn’t imagine who would want to live on them, as isolated as they were, having to row to town instead of riding like a civilized person.
Johnny had discovered the deck of the sailboat, covered with snow, had proven slick and dangerous when he’d followed Scott’s instructions to tie down a line that had come free in the gusty wind. Earlier in the journey he’d had fun pulling on the ropes, scrambling around the deck and calling out boaty words - until the snow started falling and the wind kicked up the salty water, making him feel queasy.
He pulled his collar up around his ears and commented sourly, “We should have stuck with Murdoch in Portland even if all that talk of shipping cattle was boring our socks off. Driving down by stage is starting to look a whole lot better than being surrounded by all this water.”
Scott hadn’t been interested in the business talk, either, though he’d done a pretty good job of covering it up. When he had suggested that he’d rent a two-man sailboat and take the scenic route down the coast, past lighthouses and small islands, Johnny had jumped at the chance. Johnny had bought a rough and well-worn sheepskin coat at a second-hand store, pulled his hat down low and a wool scarf up high and put his trust in his brother’s hands.
“When I think of all the times I’ve almost died from being shot at,” Johnny complained, “if I end up meeting Davy Jones I’d say someone upstairs has a sense of humor. This is supposed to be springtime, not the middle of winter. We should have stuck with Murdoch up north.”
Scott pulled the blue and white-striped muffler that covered his mouth down. “It’s called Down East, not ‘up north’,” he pointed out. “Light that lantern, Johnny, so I can check our bearings.” Snow settled on the brim of his Stetson and over the shoulders of his bulky plaid wool coat. “And stop worrying about Davy Jones. I told you I’ve sailed before, many times. I know how to navigate, as well at sea as on land.”
Johnny’s cold fingers fumbled with a match. “I don’t know how you can tell which way is west, but right now all I want is a nice hot bath and some hot rum. Lots of rum.”
A lantern was lit with difficulty, and the two hunched over the chart, even though Johnny couldn’t make head or tail of what all the little numbers and swirling lines meant. Scott looked up, the brim of his hat hitting Johnny’s, and asked, “Don’t you trust me, brother?”
“Sure I do, Scott, only I think you got that map upside down.”
Scott gave him sour look. He started to say something then abruptly raised a hand to stop Johnny from talking. “Shush! You hear that, Johnny?”
The sail flapped a little and Johnny prepared to duck if the boom came around. He’d learned that much since a close call earlier in the day, soon after they’d set out along the coast. “I don’t hear nothing, which is the trouble, Scott. We’re out in the middle of the ocean with no idea which way is up and it’s snowing, for cripes sake!”
“Johnny, look out!” Scott cried. His arm reached out and swept Johnny down as the small craft hit something solid. There was a tremendous crash with wood splintering as the bow went up in the air, tossing the two men into the icy sea.
The water struck Johnny like a blow. The intensely frigid water pierced deep into his body, robbing him of the ability to think. He surfaced quickly, but waves rushed over him and he swallowed a gulp of salt water. Coughing and struggling to stay afloat, his immediate thought was to keep his head above the water and to find something to grab onto. There was no sign of the sailboat, so it had either drifted away into the darkness or had sunk.
The sea surged over his head and he could no longer keep afloat. As the freezing waters closed over Johnny’s head, he realized he was in deep trouble. He was sinking like a lead weight, and no amount of struggling earned him any gain towards the surface. Johnny fought on, his lungs bursting with the need for air as he divested himself of the heavy winter coat.
Struggling with his gun belt proved to be futile. Johnny couldn’t undo the buckle of the leather rig that had secured the gun to his hips for most of his life. The gun that had saved his and others’ lives so many times would now be the death of him as he drowned because of its weight. The pulse of the ocean beat rhythmically around him. Like a mistress, the cold watery grave beckoned him seductively. Swallowing seawater, gagging, his lungs bursting, Johnny made a valiant last attempt to reach the surface.
Miraculously, a swell of the sea lifted him up, and as he broke the surface and was tossed onto sharp rocks, Johnny spluttered, finally able to draw a ragged breath. The ebbing wave pulled at his legs, threatening to drag him back into the swirling sea, but he clung to the rock and hauled himself out of its reach with a desperate burst of energy. He choked back bile, gasping as he came to his senses and a thought pierced his numbed mind. Scott! Where was Scott?
Chest heaving, coughing up seawater, Johnny searched for Scott, his arms flailing out around him. He had lost sight of his brother when the boat had crashed and tipped over. Unable to see anything in the darkness except for the swirling snow as it settled thickly around him, Johnny realized with horror that Scott had not surfaced. He yelled, “Scott!” But only silence answered him, his voice bouncing across the open water as if mocking him.
Johnny struggled to his knees, his sodden clothes clinging icily to his body as he shuddered with the agonizing cold. “Scott!” he screamed hoarsely into the stormy night.
There was a faint groan not far away. Johnny quickly stumbled in the direction of the noise, calling his brother’s name repeatedly. "Scott," he called again, stronger this time. He searched for his brother, arms outstretched in the murky darkness, feeling his way across the rough and slippery ground. He followed another call from his brother, no more than a weak cry, until he saw a figure clinging to the rocks a few feet out in the swirling sea.
Scott’s grasp looked frighteningly tenuous, his arms wrapped around an outcrop of rock, his body bobbing up and down with each crest of the ocean. He raised his head and called, “Johnny…”
Determinedly, Johnny reached out, seeking his brother's hand, arm, anything, then finally, with strength born of desperation he grasped Scott by the collar and hauled him out of the icy sea. They fell to the ground, gripping each other, with Scott landing on his back.
"I gotcha brother, hang on now," Johnny murmured, relief warming his heart when he heard an answering growl. “You okay, Scott? Anything broken?”
“Stop mothering and help me up,” demanded Scott, his hoarse voice turning into a series of hacking coughs. “I swallowed half the ocean.” He raised a hand to his head and flinched.
“Oh God, I thought you were gone, Scott! Drowned! Don’t ever do that to me again or I’ll kill you,” Johnny threatened as he gripped the sodden Scott under his arms and lifted him to his feet.
Scott leaned heavily on him and cried out in pain, “Argh! My leg!”
Johnny ran his hands over Scott’s legs until he discovered the warm wetness of blood gushing from a wound above the knee. He used Scott’s soaking muffler to bind it, knowing they had to find shelter and get out of their wet clothes within minutes or they would die of exposure. They were both shuddering, teeth chattering so much it was hard to talk.
“We’ll be fine, Scott. I’ll figure something out.”
“Light…up there…” Scott was slipping, his head lolling back against Johnny’s shoulder, but he was trying to lift his hand to point at something.
Johnny turned and saw a pinpoint of light emanating from some distance, at a higher elevation, almost obliterated by the heavily falling snow. He felt a flicker of hope.
Despair, Chapter Two
Now, God be praised, that to believing souls
Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair!
~ W. Shakespeare, 1591
Half carrying, half dragging his brother, Johnny struggled toward the source of the light, praying it was not merely the figment of a desperate mind. The painful cold and the numbness in his arms and legs almost overpowered his will to go on. If it hadn’t been for his brother, Johnny would have lain down and gratefully allowed the darkness and its comforting warmth to take him. But Scott was injured. He needed Johnny to be strong. It was only for the love of his brother that he resolutely trudged onward.
He was following a path not entirely obliterated by snow that wound through a heavy set of pines and up an incline. If there was one light, there may be others, he thought. Luck may have cast them close to a town perched up on the rocky coast. They would find somewhere to get warm and recover, then ride the rest of the way on horses, just like they should have done. He’d had a bad feeling about that boat right from the start.
They stumbled along with Johnny bearing most of his brother’s weight. Numbly, mindlessly, moving on sheer will alone, Johnny paused briefly to gain his bearings. For a moment the light disappeared and fear grabbed his heart. He moved a few steps forward and there, there was the light, just ahead, twinkling enticingly between the shifting boughs of the snow-laden pines that covered the landscape.
"Hang on, brother, we are almost there. Just a little further," he whispered in encouragement. Had he spoken out loud? Time and distance took on the ethereal quality of a dream. Trudging through the snow felt like walking through quicksand, forcing Johnny to concentrate on every step. Scott was barely walking, his legs occasionally dragging. Every time Johnny thought he’d have to carry his brother over his shoulder, Scott managed to find some inner source of energy and put one foot in front of the other again.
Just as exhaustion overtook Johnny’s body and his legs refused to take him any further, he realized with deep relief that they were on the threshold of a small, shingled cabin. Reality struck him, rejuvenating deadened limbs, and hope returned once more. Turning his head to tell Scott they had made it, Johnny found his brother nearly unconscious, supported only by his arm around his body.
Johnny shifted Scott's dead weight and raised his fist to bang on the rough wooden door. After a moment's pause he knocked again, harder this time, with still no response. Carefully, he lowered Scott’s limp body to the snow-covered porch. As he grasped the doorknob the door was abruptly opened from the inside. Johnny blinked rapidly as the glaring light temporarily blinded him.
A woman stood framed in the light that spilled out onto the snow. Her features were indistinguishable, but the rifle in her hands was easily recognized.
"What do you want?" she demanded sharply.
"My brother is hu..hurt and needs he..help.” Johnny’s teeth were chattering so hard he could barely get out his plea for aide.
She looked past the snow-covered figure looming on her threshold and eyed Scott leaning against her log pile, his eyes closed, his wet hair matted over his forehead. “I don’t want any trouble. Go back where you came from and tell your boss to leave me alone.” She shook her head, her mass of frizzy hair tumbling about her face, as she raised the rifle to point it at Johnny’s midsection.
“Our shi..ship sank. We need help."
"You've come to the wrong place mister. There’s no help here," the woman insisted. “Just git before I–”
"Look, ma’am, I am bringing my brother in out of the cold. Now, I don't want to hurt you, but he comes first. Either let me in or get outta my way!"
Suddenly, Johnny grabbed for the rifle, struggling briefly with the woman before succeeding in tearing it out of her hands. She made a last lunge at him, which he easily avoided. She lost her balance and went flying. With a cry, she sprawled on the ground at his feet.
Johnny hardly ever manhandled a woman and remorse flooded through him. "I'm sorry, ma’am, but we’ll die out there and there’s no place else to go." Johnny grasped Scott under the arms, hauled him to his feet and stumbled into the beckoning warmth, swirling snow following them into the cabin.
The woman eyed him fearfully for a moment before scrambling to her feet and hurriedly shutting the door.
Johnny spotted a bed in a curtained alcove and gently deposited his brother on the large mattress. "You have something I can use as bandages?" he asked over his shoulder. There was no reply so he cast a glance her way.
The rifle was propped up near the doorway, but she didn’t look at it. She stood stiffly as if ready for flight, her hands grasping her woven shawl around her shoulders. She was younger than he had at first thought. A head shorter than him, slender, with an ample bosom and curves in all the right places. She wore a combination of women’s and men’s clothing, an oversized plaid jacket over a much-mended dress, topped by her shawl. It seemed such garb was necessary to ward off the chill seeping into the main room of the small house, despite a pot-bellied stove that was fired up.
Her hair was long and unkempt but when cared for would have glowed with a rich copper sheen. It was her eyes that drew him - green eyes- the greenest he had ever seen, ringed by a fringe of thick, black lashes. Fine lines were etched around her eyes, speaking of hard times and worry, leaving her haggard and drawn.
With a shake Johnny drew his thoughts back to his brother. "Bandages," he repeated.
She stared at him before nodding silently and heading for a dresser.
“How close is a doctor, if we need one?”
“Maybe ten miles. But no sane man is
going to come out in this storm.”
“Then we’ll do what has to be done.” Without even glancing over his shoulder, Johnny barked out commands to the woman, demanding hot water, warm blankets, and heated bricks to place around his brother’s still figure on the bed. Johnny leaned over his inert brother and started to remove his gunbelt and damp clothing with fingers made clumsy from being frozen.
A second pair of hands appeared to assist him, not needing to be told what to do. The woman helped Johnny drag Scott’s pants off, tossing them in a heap along with other his other wet clothing. She climbed on the bed and raised Scott’s shoulders in order to finish undressing him, peeling off his soggy sweater and shirt.
Her action startled Johnny, and the image of someone shearing a sheep came unbidden to his mind. He helped her position his unconscious brother comfortably and took a folded blanket she offered him.
He draped it across Scott’s chest and groin, leaving the injured leg exposed. The wound on Scott’s leg extended up his thigh, a ragged gouge with the reddened flesh that precedes bruising. Johnny took a soft cloth and wiped the blood away to inspect it. It appeared as if the leg had been caught on some wood as the boat had crashed into the shore. There were large splinters in the wound, and although it looked a mess, it wasn’t bleeding too heavily. “Got something like tweezers, ma’am? Maybe a small knife?”
“Here in this basket. I got all sorts of tools for sewing up and such. He doesn’t look too good, fainting like that. Is he always that pale?”
Johnny turned Scott’s head gently to one side, then the other to find a bruise and some drying blood above his brother’s ear. “He must’ve hit his head on the boat, or the rocks. No matter–” He hesitated, not looking forward to poking around at the splinters embedded in his brother’s flesh.
“No matter, I’ll start tending his injuries. You’ll need to get out of your wet things now,” she directed. Seeing his reluctance, she added, “Pull the bricks out of the fire with those tongs and put them in that bucket for me, then sit and warm yourself by the hearth. My nursing hasn’t killed anyone yet.” Pushing her hair away from her face, the woman donned an apron and started tearing strips of cloth for a bandage. She wrapped the bricks that Johnny handed over in pillowcases and placed them alongside Scott’s body. “I’ll set up some ointment for his leg. The sooner I get these bits of wood out the better.”
Johnny helped himself to some soup, drinking greedily from a bowl. He removed his boots, water pouring out of them, then divested himself of his clothes, removing the clinging, wet garments from his body. His gunbelt dropped with a thud into the salt water that had pooled around his feet. His Levi’s pants were almost impossible to remove, and as he sat down to peel them off his freezing cold legs, the woman came to his side.
She grabbed the cuffs, hauling at the wet pants until they gave up their grip on Johnny’s muscular legs. “Better strip off those drawers, too, mister.”
Johnny slowly stood up, conscious of how they wetly clung to his every curve. “Well, don’t watch me.”
She put a hand on one hip. “For such a big man you sure act shy. But if you want to freeze it’s your choice. You got a name?”
“Johnny Lancer. That there’s my older brother Scott. I appreciate your tending to him, Ma’am.”
“I’d do as much for an animal. I guess I wasn’t too welcoming before and for that I’m sorry.” She went back to cleaning Scott’s leg wound and Johnny finished undressing while her back was turned.
By the time Johnny had wrapped himself in a blanket and joined her at his unconscious brother’s bedside, she had removed most of the wood embedded in Scott’s leg. It lay on a bloodied rag beside the tools she had used.
“I got the bits out of his leg easy enough,” she said. “They were big splinters, in deep. One was bigger than a pencil but I got it out with this.” She held up a tool whose true purpose was unknown to Johnny. “Funny,” she added, “He never made a peep and it sure must have hurt something dreadful.”
Johnny swallowed hard. “Looks like you got a couple of uninvited guests for the night, then. Your name, Ma’am?” He helped her run a bandage around Scott’s leg and raise it on a pillow.
Scott hadn’t shown any sign of regaining his senses. His face was white in the lamplight, and even his lips were an unnatural pale hue. One arm was hanging limply over the side of the bed, and Johnny took it gently and laid it over Scott’s stomach, then covered him carefully with the blanket.
“Around here they call me Sheepscot Meggie. Used to be known as Mrs. Maguire.” She eyed him from under her wavy hair, which was partly obscuring her face. “You don’t know who I am? My man Ramsey didn’t send you, then?” She watched him with narrowed eyes.
Johnny looked at her blankly.
“No,” she said, relaxing. “I can see you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“My brother and me, we’re just traveling down the coast, met up with an accident, like I told you. We’re supposed to join up with our father. I never met your husband as far as I know.”
She opened a trunk and pulled out some clothes for Johnny to put on. “Just as well,” she replied bitterly. “Ramsey’s a liar and a no-good thief and he’s not welcome here. You eat some more soup and stoke up the fire. There’s plenty of wood in the shed off the kitchen. We’ll need it. You’re welcome to a bed for the night. I only got the one, but it’s big and I suspect you’ll sleep like a babe tonight. Storm will let up come morning if I read the signs right.”
She turned back to Scott, tucking in the ends of the bandages, covering him up with a wedding ring quilt, and running a hand over the blond hair in a gesture of comfort.
Johnny eyed the bed as he dressed in worn corduroy pants and two flannel shirts. Still cold, he longed to lie down and pull the covers over his head.
Even though all his energy had sapped right out of him, Johnny knew he should try to get his brother to drink something warm - if he could rouse him. He sat on the edge of the comfortable bed. "Scott, can you hear me?" The flickering of Scott’s eyelids and a pained groan was the only answer Johnny received.
Hearing a floorboard creak behind him, he whirled around to find Meggie studying him, her face a mixture of pity and sorrow. She offered him a hot-water bottle. Taking it and tucking it next to Scott’s waist, Johnny asked impatiently, "Look lady, you got a horse? A mule? Anything, I don't care what."
Meggie shook her head. "No, no horse, or anything. Around here we mostly walk."
"Have you got a neighbor who’ll loan me a horse? Or maybe I can hire us a wagon tomorrow."
"There aren’t any neighbors. Nobody to help. We’re on our own," she explained, as if to an idiot. “And a horse won’t do you no good anyway.”
Johnny shook his head in annoyance, wondering if she was a bit thick in the head. “When is your husband due back? You said his name is Ramsey? Surely he can help us.”
With a bleak look on her face, Meggie Maguire retorted, “Ramsey Maguire don’t help nobody. He burned his bridges all on his own, never listening to what little sense the Lord gave him. Pay heed to anyone else’s advice? No, not my Ramsey! My man won’t be coming home, Mr. Lancer. I’m alone.”
"Look, ma’am, I’m real sorry for your problems, but my brother needs a doctor. So tell me, how do I get hold of one?” he demanded, standing to face her. In frustration he grabbed her slender shoulders, his fingers pressing without mercy into her tender flesh. “Just point the way and I’ll hike there.”
"Mister, the only way out of here is by boat and mine is in the shed waiting for me to repair its hull.” She wrenched free of his grasp. “You want to swim to town, go right ahead.”
Johnny stood frozen, as her words whirled around him. Anger hid his confusion as he snarled at her. "What the hell are you talking about? Why would we need another damn boat? I’ve had enough of this runaround, lady!"
"You don't know? You really don't know? In that case, welcome to my home, Johnny Lancer,” she spat bitterly. “Welcome to the Island of Despair, population of one!"
As her words sank in, Johnny heard the wind intensify, its scream matching the despair in his own heart.
Despair, Chapter Three
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
~John Milton, 1631
Before retiring, Johnny checked Scott’s leg once more. It was wrapped in torn strips of sheeting over cotton wool. He saw the bleeding had stopped so re-tied the bandage securely so it wouldn’t slip in the night, then dabbed some ointment on the bruise on his brother’s head.
The gray-blue eyes opened and blinked several times. “Johnny…”
“Scott, how’re you doing there? I thought you were going to sleep ‘til spring.” Johnny was relieved to see Scott awake, and although he tried to suppress it, the emotion showed in his voice.
“I’m all right.” Scott’s eyes wandered, taking in the lamp-lit cabin, the woman, then looked questioningly at Johnny. “It’s spring?”
“We landed on some rocky shore, brother. There’s a hell of a storm goin’ on out there, you’ve got some damage to your leg, and we’re miles from anywhere. Other than that, we’re fine,” he said with a smile. “You take in some nourishment first, then we’ll talk some.” Meggie brought over a bowl of steaming soup and Johnny introduced them to each other.
With a curt nod, she offered up some clothing. “Here’s a nightshirt he can wear.”
“Ma’am,” said Scott weakly. His hand went to his head and he winced. “Sorry for landing on your doorstep like this. Just give me a short breather and I’ll be ready to go.”
“We ain’t going nowhere,” Johnny warned, “until you’re steady on your feet again, and with your leg messed up, it don’t look like it’ll be tonight.”
Meggie added, “You men can sleep next to each other, and I’ll set myself up on the far side of the bed. At Johnny’s raised eyebrow, she added, “Don’t you go gettin’ any idea I’m a loose woman, just cause I’m offering to share my bed. It’s big enough for all of us and this aims to be a cold night. If that leg pains you any, Mr. Scott, you let me know.”
Scott touched his leg, exploring the damage until Johnny guided his hand away, saying, “Best leave that alone. We pulled the splinters out when you weren’t in a position to complain.”
“Think we can travel tomorrow?” Scott accepted some spoonfuls of the thick soup being guided to his mouth, then took the spoon from Johnny’s fingers and sat up straighter.
“We’ll find a way,” Johnny assured him as he held the bowl close for Scott to feed himself. “For tonight, we stay here, with Mrs. Maguire.”
Scott asked, “Mrs.? She living alone in this place?” Pushing the bowl away, his eyes drifted around the cabin, then his eyelids descended as if the effort to take it all in was just too much.
The house consisted only one room, filled with cozy furniture, knickknacks and all the comforts of a loving home. There was an open hearth as well as a pot-bellied stove, with both coal and wood piled neatly beside a back door. The walls were papered, the windows draped with curtains, the furniture well made. None of it suggested wealth, but more like possessions carefully made or chosen over a period of time.
The woman was stoking the fire and doing small chores before bedtime. Normally, Johnny would have been taken aback at a stranger suggesting he sleep in her bed, but what with the temperature outside dropping, he figured it would be the smart thing to do. They would pull the heavy curtain around the big bed to stop the drafts and be able to sleep comfortably on this wintry night.
So much for it being spring, Johnny thought. He touched Scott’s shoulder to rouse him. “You drink up some water, Scott, then we can get you in this nightshirt and settled in. I’m ready for bed. Seems like we should thank Mrs. Maguire for the accommodations.”
Scott murmured polite thanks, even though his eyes were closed.
Meggie came over to the bed, stationed a bolster on the mattress and indicated that Johnny should sleep next to his brother, in the middle. “I’ll sleep against the wall,” she said, climbing over Scott to get to the far side. Pull the curtain over to stop the drafts.” She had removed her shoes but still had all her clothing on. “You wake me if you need help with your brother. Good night.”
Johnny awoke, his stomach growling as the tantalizing smell of bacon and coffee wafted through the air. Yawning, he lay still for a moment more, luxuriating in the comfort and warmth of the bed. Soft voices drew his attention and he turned his head on the pillow to see Meggie leaning over his brother, who sat up in bed next to him.
She was carefully, tenderly, examining Scott's wounds, plying him with whispered questions. Scott spoke to her in low tones, an occasional grimace crossing his face as she touched a particularly sore place.
"Morning," Johnny greeted the pair as he propped himself up on one elbow. "How is he?" He took in his brother’s flushed face and Meggie’s smiling reply. She had taken some care with her appearance this morning. Her hair had been brushed and pulled back in a bow, the auburn curls flowing down her back. Some wisps had escaped, defiantly. She had discarded her men’s clothing for a woolen dress of sky blue that showed off her figure, the lacy trim bringing attention to the low neckline.
Meggie covered Scott again with the warm quilt. "He’s much better. Another day or two and he should be able to get around, if he's careful. Have to wait for the storm to break.” She glanced up at the window, where the day was gray and snow swirled and stuck to the glass panes. “It's not snowing as hard, though."
"Hey, don't talk about me like I'm not even here," Scott protested with a smile.
"I have some breakfast on. Won't take a minute to dish it up." With that she returned to the stove and set about filling three plates with eggs and bacon. She hummed as she cut the food on one plate into smaller pieces, then spiked slices of bread on the end of a very long fork and toasted them over the open fire.
Johnny rose, pulling on his borrowed clothes hurriedly. “Ma’am, my boots?”
“They’re still damp,” she said, nodding at the two pairs of cowboy boots upended on metal brackets drying near the stove.
“I need some boots,” Johnny said tersely.
She turned from her task with a frown, then as she realized what he was getting at, she quickly rose and retrieved a pair of lace-up work boots from a closet. Johnny pulled them on in haste and she pointed to a door in the far corner. “It’s out there, beyond the wood shed.”
When he returned, he brought a bucket, pulled the bed curtain over and helped Scott sit up, his long legs dangling over the side of the mattress.
“You okay on your own, or will you keel over if I let go?” asked Johnny. Scott said he was capable of taking care of his own business, so Johnny left him alone.
Picking up his discarded gunbelt, Johnny laid it out on the kitchen table, pushing plates and mugs aside to give himself room to work in. “You got any saddle soap, ma’am? This salt water’ll ruin my gear if I don’t get to it right now. I shoulda seen to it last night.”
“Eat first, Mr. Lancer. That can wait. I’ll get you men a razor for a shave after breakfast.”
Johnny brushed his hair off his forehead and took a deep breath. “My gun comes first. You got a cleaning kit handy?” He stretched Scott’s gun belt out next to his and started disassembling his revolver.
Meggie unceremoniously dumped a gun cleaning kit on the table. “You’re the first man I’ve ever known who preferred his gun over a hearty meal.”
He looked up at her face as his fingers continued to work, deftly cleaning his gun. “I’m just glad my fingers didn’t freeze right off.”
“You seem to know your gun pretty well, there,” she said, eyeing him as if sizing him up anew. “You men are Westerners, are you? I hear they shoot first out there. Don’t sound civilized to me.”
Taking up her challenge, Johnny grinned. “Being civil has nothing to do with geography, ma’am. My brother was bred in Boston by some stuck-up city fellow, but he sure took to our shoot-first ways easy enough.”
She looked over at Scott, who was now dozing with one leg hanging off the bed, his nightshirt rucked up, exposing him right up to the bandaged thigh, and doubt crossed her features.
Johnny added, “I know he looks right innocent, but he’s one mean hombre if he gets crossed. Once he arrived at Lancer and changed out of those fancy Eastern duds, well, it was like he shucked his old ways, too. Never seen a dude take to our ways so fast.” Johnny concentrated on rubbing oil into the leather gun belt as he spoke.
“Of course, they say an apple don’t fall far from the tree, and our old man is one mean bear of a rancher,” Johnny continued seriously. “Our Pa’s got no give to him, if you take my meaning. Guess you have to be hard as whipcord to handle all those cattle rustlers, the droughts, Comancheros, Indian attacks and the like. Of course my gunfighter skills came in real handy, cause I’ve been known to shoot the eye out of a pea at five hundred yards. Taught my big brother everything he knows about shooting. Scott can shoot the petals off a daisy like he was born to it. When he was reunited with us, he learned real quick, and, well, he just bloomed.”
Meggie’s face changed before his eyes. Her look of suspicion that bordered on revulsion drained away and was replaced with a slow grin and a blush. “You’re awful,” she said, slapping Johnny’s shoulder lightly. “Pulling my leg like that, Johnny Lancer, and you almost had me, too.”
Johnny grinned back. “Only your leg, Miz Meggie?”
Despair, Chapter Four
A brave man struggling in the storms of fate,
And greatly falling with a falling state.
~Alexander Pope, 1713
The storm was not abating. In fact, if anything, the snow was coming down harder. The wind drove the snow against the small cabin, icy fingers poking the window, searching for a way inside. Johnny sighed, leaned his head against the cold pane, listening to the rhythmic tapping as the snowflakes hit the glass.
He removed his gun from the holster in his hands and rolled the cylinder, checking its action again. It didn’t seem to have been harmed from its immersion in the briny water. Putting the gun back in the holster, Johnny returned his rig to the kitchen table, poured a fresh cup of coffee and sat down by himself to eat a freshly baked muffin.
Soft murmurs from behind him drew Johnny's attention. He turned and observed as Meggie tended his brother’s wound, her hands caressing Scott's thigh as she spread a thin layer of ointment on the bruised flesh. She was laughing at something Scott had said to her, her hair hanging seductively across her cheek. She attempted to move the copper strands out of her eyes with her forearm, unwilling to touch her hair with her greasy fingers.
Slowly, Scott reached up and brushed the unruly lock away, his eyes holding hers. She stood back quickly and turned to fumble with tearing strips of linen for more bandages.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I meant no disrespect,” Scott said. “I know we must seem sort of rough, barging in on you as we did–”
“None taken, Mr. Lancer. And it was your brother that knocked me down, not you.” Meggie softened her words with a smile then returned to bandaging his leg. She stretched when finished, her hands on the small of her arched back. Scott eyed the womanly figure only inches from his eyes.
Johnny noted that his brother, wounded or not, didn’t miss a thing.
"So, Mr. Lancer,” she asked Scott, as she picked up her basket of medicines, “would you care for something to eat?”
Scott smiled to himself as he looked down at his leg and ran a hand carefully over it. "Sure, Meggie. I can eat. Whatever you’re cooking smells wonderful. Maybe I can get out of bed? I think this’ll be fine so long as I don’t put too much weight on it.”
“Considering you were out like a light only last night, don’t blame me if you fall on your face,” she replied, motioning for Johnny to come and help his brother into a chair.
As she passed Johnny on the way to the kitchen, she commented sourly, “I see you’ve finished playing with your gun. That mean you’ll be wanting breakfast, no doubt.”
Johnny just smiled. “Thanks, Miz Meggie. I could eat a horse.”
Johnny settled at Scott's side on the edge of the bed. “You know Scott, I never expected it of you.” Johnny shook his head. “Especially with you being under the weather and all.”
Scott raised his eyebrows. “Why? What did I do?”
Crossing one leg over the other, Johnny casually held onto his ankle and turned his head, bending forward so he could peer around the heavy bed curtain at Meggie. Her back was to them as she clattered pans around, muttering under her breath.
Shaking his head, Johnny looked at his brother in disgust. “I saw you. I saw the way you were looking at her. I ain’t blind you know. Okay, I was once but I’m not now.”
Scott’s glance flew over to where Meggie was stirring something that smelled wonderful even from the other side of the room. In a terse whisper he demanded, “What’re you talking about?”
Jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the woman, Johnny said seriously, “I never thought I’d see it, brother, not with your upbringing.”
Scott spurted, “What?”
“I never thought I’d see the day when you turned your back on your family and become a sheepman.”
Despite himself, Scott let out a loud laugh, shaking his head. “I had a hard enough time getting used to cattle. Besides, you’re the one who’s had experience with sheep.”
“True, true, but just think,” Johnny said in a near whisper, “You might get yourself a shepherdess along with those sheep. Think of the long winter nights all cozied up with the flock. You can take up knitting or something.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Come on, Johnny, just get me up.”
They ate at a small table that Meggie and Johnny pulled near the bed. Scott was able to feed himself, once he was propped up, but soon after he finished most of the breakfast and had wiped his face with a wet cloth, his energy seemed to sap right out of him. He looked out the window then smiled. “Still snowing. I always loved the snow in Boston. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it. Won’t last much longer, though.”
Johnny looked at the snow coming down thickly. The wind had died down, but there had to be a couple of feet of snow on the ground, with deeper drifts. “How’d you know it’ll end soon?” He could hear the waves crashing in the distance, and the thought of going out in a boat again in this lifetime made his stomach churn.
Meggie replied, “Flakes are big. Pass the pepper.”
Scott nodded. “Sure sign. I’ll bet we have sun by noon.”
Johnny checked Scott’s leg to make sure there was no bleeding, then helped him to sit in a comfortable, stuffed chair by the open hearth. Scott lost some color in his face on the short journey, but he appeared to be strong enough to sit up for a while.
"Brother, you look like you lost an argument with a steer,” Johnny said lightly. “But I think you’ll survive. You'll do anything to get in into a woman's bed, won't you?"
"Yes, well, you slept a sight closer to her than I did last night.” Scott retorted with an answering grin. “And she has a fine figure, in case you haven't you noticed. Lucky for her that bolster kept you at a distance."
At that, Johnny turned to study Meggie Maguire. Her sleeves were turned up as she worked with some pastry, her breasts moving in rhythm with each pass of the rolling pin. "Yeah, she is purty but she ain't my type." He tucked in the knit sweater that was a size too large, and wondered what the man who had previously owned it was like.
"I thought anything in a skirt was your type." Scott jabbed Johnny in the ribs, a soft chuckle escaping his lips.
"Not the married type. I know you’re my big brother but you sure take every chance to poke fun at me. Shoulda left you in the snow," Johnny groused but the twinkle in his eye belied his grim words.
Outside the wind howled fiercely and the snow swirled, blinding the inhabitants of the cabin to the world beyond their small circle of light. Meggie set about her daily chores, preparing the needed ingredients for the evening meal, then mending Scott's torn shirt. Johnny stalked restlessly back and forth in front of the fireplace, his right hand drumming a steady cadence along his thigh.
Agitated, Meggie turned to face him. "You’re stalking like some wild creature. You’d never last the winter out here, that’s for sure," she complained. “Cabin fever can weaken the strongest of men.”
"Yeah well, this storm and this little room is gettin' on my nerves, and it looks like we will be here at least one more night," Johnny retorted.
She peered over her stitchery at him. "Then why don't you make yourself useful?"
"Yeah, doing what," Johnny challenged. “Maybe I could clean my gun again.”
"You could cut some more firewood. We haven't enough to get us through the night. There’s some big pieces of driftwood out in the shed that I haven’t sawed down yet. You know how to use tools other than your sidearm, maybe?"
Abashed, Johnny replied, “Yeah, I know how to use a saw. But it’s not as much fun.”
Johnny buckled on his gunbelt and stood at the door, preparing himself. He made sure it was placed just right on his hips, that the gun slid smoothly out of the holster, and that his hand wasn’t too tense. He worked at slowing down his breathing and unclenching his stomach muscles. He knew that he only had to open the door and step out, like he was facing another gunfighter in the street.
Meggie came up behind him. “It won’t be that bad, Johnny,” she said with a suppressed laugh. “You’re only stepping outside to look around, aren’t you? You look like you’re going to take some bad-tasting medicine or something nasty.”
He clamped a buffalo plaid hat with earflaps on his head and pulled on sheepskin gloves. “It’s just that I’m used to warm places, not this icebox. Okay, so you’re sure I can’t get lost on this island, right?”
“This island’s only a couple of hundred acres, half of it open pasture. You’ll hit water soon enough in any direction. Just keep off the rocks. It’ll be easier going under the pines. You sure you want to go out? You don’t have to.” She looked amused.
Johnny was getting hot and sweaty in his layers of borrowed clothes, so he figured it was now or never. “I like to get the lay of the land. Besides, I’m going stir crazy. When will this mail boat turn up?”
“Hard to say. Mr. Des Paire might be late but he always comes by, about once a week. His boat runs on steam, so you can hear the engine as he comes around the bend. He’ll toot the horn, too.”
“Mr. Des Paire?” Johnny raised his eyebrows.
“The island is named after his family. They’ve been around forever. Now, the dock is straight ahead, down there at the bottom of the rocks, in a sheltered place. Boathouse is just above it. You can just about see it from here,” she said, pointing at a pale structure seen through the frosty window. “The mainland is straight across, not that you’ll see it until this lets up a bit. It’s not that far. When there’s a fog you can hear people talking over there if you listen real close. My brothers used to swim across in the summer, race each other. It seems a lot further away in the winter, though.”
“It’s supposed to be spring,” Johnny pointed out.
“We don’t take anything for granted hereabouts.” She took hold of Johnny’s elbow and pointed out the window. “Sheep pens to your right, northerly. No animals in there now, of course.” Meggie indicated somewhere behind the kitchen, and added, “My few are safe back in their shed. If you don’t get rescued soon, we’ll have to slaughter one. I took in enough supplies for myself, but wasn’t expecting visitors.”
“We’ll repay you, of course,” Johnny said quickly.
“Oh I didn’t mean that, Johnny. Having unexpected company keeps me on my toes. The mail boat will come when he can get through, so long as the harbor isn’t iced up. Now you go and don’t break a leg, for God’s sake.”
With a blast of cold air and a sweep of snowflakes, Johnny left the safety of the little cabin, waving goodbye to Scott.
Despair, Chapter Five
Nous coute bien des pleurs que vous ne voyez pas.
Il est temps que la paix a nos coeurs soit offerte.
The tears it cost us you never witness.
It’s time that peace were offered to our hearts.
~Constance-Marie de Salm-Dyck, 1797
Standing by the fireplace, Scott took the cup of tea in both hands, savoring the warmth. “You and your husband raise sheep, Mrs. Maguire?” His leg was bearing his weight well enough, though it pained him some.
Meggie pursed her lips as if tasting something sour. “Looks like the burden of that is on me now, sir.” She took a breath and changed her tone of voice. “This island can support a goodly number of sheep, so people bring their stock out here in the late spring. They leave them on Despair, where it’s safe, along with their dogs. We tend the animals until the leaves turn yellow. I keep some of my own as well. Like most folks hereabouts, I fish and do whatever it takes to survive.”
“Sounds a bit like Johnny.” At her raised eyebrows, he quickly added, “Not the fishing part. That’s one thing he’s not very skilled at. I meant the part about doing whatever it takes sounds like Johnny. My brother is tenacious. But about your husband - he doesn’t have a fondness for sheep?” Scott didn’t like to pry but he had a feeling she would talk with him, from loneliness if not out of a need to tell her side of the story.
She was silent for a long minute, then replied, “Ramsey never cared much for sheep. Maybe what I should say is, he cared more for quick money. He fell in with thieves, that’s what he did,” she cried with a raised voice. She took a breath and smoothed down her apron. “There has always been smuggling and trap-baiting around here with all the hiding places along this stretch of coastline, but I never thought Ramsey would take the easy way out. Well, he got himself locked up for his part in it, for near six months. I know he did his time and all, but he’d been lying to me, Mr. Lancer, just lying for months. I was a fool to believe him.”
She moved close, raising her face to Scott, pleading for understanding. Her eyes were luminous with unshed tears. “I know times get hard,” said Meggie, “but we always regain what we lose. Everyone has some bad years, don’t they? Even out west, you had those droughts, I read in a newspaper at the store.”
“Sure we’ve had some tough seasons. Things have sprung back for us, but because we’re a big spread we can take more of a hit.” Scott found it increasingly difficult to concentrate while looking down at the lovely woman’s face. “But it’s more than that. We’re a close family, and we lean on each other. It’s better than being alone, by far.”
“You’ve been alone? I thought you had family in Boston, and another one in California. Johnny was saying something about you going out there only recently. Or was he telling a tall tale? You sound like a Boston man.”
"Yes, I was raised in Boston. My mother died in childbirth and my grandfather took me in. He blamed my father for my mother's death, so there was no contact between them. I was a small boy when my grandmother died. I missed her very much and was badly behaved for some time. My Grandfather had to put his foot down, I’m afraid,” he chuckled. “Grandfather let it be known that he’d lost the two most important people in his life and he had little patience for a crying child. He never outwardly grieved for them - he just withdrew and was more aloof than ever.” Scott added inadequately, “He spent long hours working."
"He sounds like a hard man."
"He might not have always been that way, but when I was growing up, it seemed to be a cold house I lived in. Don’t get me wrong, Grandfather paid attention to me, made sure I was brought up respectably, fed, clothed and schooled well. My grandfather takes pride in being a successful businessman and he expected me to be a success, to follow his footsteps, to be like him in every way. That just wasn’t like me, I’m afraid. His goal was for me to take over the family business. Family, yeah right," Scott said, trying not to sound bitter. "His servants were more my family than he ever was."
"What about friends? You must have been a nice boy," she said with a smile of assurance.
"Oh I had friends, acquaintances, and a lot of them. In school, in the military when I enlisted - against his wishes I might add- but they were not family. There was a sense of camaraderie in the military that, for a while, I thought was what I’d been missing. I believed that was what a family was like, with everyone pulling together in good and bad situations. My grandfather’s training paid off, though. I did well in the cavalry, especially for someone so young, but it wasn’t until the war was over and my absent father sent for me that I really understood what I’d been missing.” For a moment, he was silent, just sitting, looking at his hands in his lap, thinking of his early days at Lancer.
“What you’d been missing?” she prompted.
Scott looked down to find Meggie leaning forward as if to catch his every word, her green eyes trapping him. He found it hard to breathe. “Missing? Oh, yes. My father had some ill-placed desire to meet the sons he had spawned,” he laughed. “I’m sorry but I just can’t stand any longer.” He took a seat in an armchair and Meggie settled in its companion by the hearth.
Scott continued, “Johnny strutted in one door and me, the dude from Boston, sauntered in the other, so to speak. I only went out for a visit but ended up staying. I suspect it was the same for Johnny. It wasn’t until we settled down and got to know each other that it hit me that this was my family.” He gave a fond laugh. “I didn’t know what a real family was until I met Johnny. This was what I’d been missing and not really comprehending. Johnny has taught me more about family and love than anyone I have ever known."
Her smile slipped as she thought of her own plight. Slowly, Meggie said, "I have no family either, especially now that Ramsey is gone. Everyone’s married off and moved far away, or died on some remote island. Pa was the keeper out at Reivers Rock Lighthouse. Ended his years there, drowned. Now Ramsey’s gone, stolen our chance at happiness with his lyin’, treacherous ways. He used to be a good man, too. We were about to start our family of our own. Now there’s no chance." Meggie pulled out a hankie and blew her nose.
Scott reached over and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You should give him another chance, Meggie. Try to work things out. This is a lonely place for a woman, for anyone."
"No, Scott. Not when I can't trust him."
"If you both make an effort you can rebuild it. Trust is earned. You aren't talking a day, or a week, but it can be done. Otherwise you’re facing a lifetime of loneliness. Is that what you really want?"
"If he lied about the smuggling, he will lie about other things. When would it end? I just can't do it. Not now, not ever, even if I live here alone for the rest my life," she said, standing abruptly. “I know you mean well, but I can’t–”
Scott struggled to his feet, taking her hands, assuring the distraught woman, “It’s all right, Meggie. I didn’t mean to press you. I just…just don’t want you to…”
Meggie ran her palms down Scott’s chest, his hands still over hers. “You know, I knitted this sweater you’re wearing for Ramsey when we were first married. I sheared a brown ram, cleaned, carded and spun the yarn myself. Every stitch was knitted and purled with him in mind. I wonder if I did all that in vain.”
“Then when he comes to you, let him back in, Meggie,” Scott urged.
She slid her hands from his and quickly moved to the back door, donning a heavy coat she took off a hook. “I have to tend my sheep.” She stopped with one hand on the door latch. Without turning, she said, “You’d better sit down before you catch up with the floor, Mr. Lancer. I won’t be long.”
Johnny returned, pink-cheeked and smelling of fresh air and pine. “Still snowing!”
Scott was reclining on the bed, fully clothed, with his own tan shirt and sweater on. He was wearing a pair of Ramsey Maguire’s oversized pants tucked into his boots. “Got most of my own clothes back,” he said happily. “There are pine needles in your hair, brother,” he pointed out.
Johnny pulled off his woodsman’s cap and grinned. “Yeah, I took sort of a tumble. Hey, Meggie, this sure is a small island,” he called out to her. She sat by the fire, knitting and acknowledged him with a nod, then got up to pour some coffee and stir a large pot simmering on the stove.
“Learn anything?” Scott asked Johnny.
“Only that I don’t want to live on an island. Lots of snow and rocks and pines. Could hardly make out a thing with the snow blowing in my eyes but the other side looks like pasture land. They must be facing the open sea because it’s a lot windier over there. This place is sheltered, at least.”
Scott beckoned Johnny closer and said in a low voice, "You know, I talked to Meggie while you were out. She and her husband had an argument. He’s on the mainland and she won’t let him come back. I get the feeling he’s the type of man who isn’t going to let his wife tell him what he can and can’t do.”
"With that mouth of hers I wouldn't want to come back. She could drive a man to drink," Johnny complained.
"Meggie made it clear she doesn’t want him back. She told me she warned him off the island a few days back, at gunpoint." At the questioning look on Johnny's face, Scott continued, “From what I can get out of her, he got caught by the law and just got out after spending a month in the local jail.”
“What was he in for?”
“Smuggling goods to avoid import taxes, from what I gather. But I don’t think it’s the illegal activity that made her refuse to let him back.”
“What then? She mad he didn’t cut her in for a share of the booty?”
Scott frowned. He propped himself up, leaning on one elbow. “Johnny,” he admonished in a low voice. “I think it’s more because he lied to her about it. You know women, they forgive you for a lot, but not for lying.”
Johnny glanced at Meggie, who was working the kitchen area at the far side of the room. “Sounds to me like she’s got her principles mixed up. Lying comes lower on the scale of criminal activity than smuggling, doesn’t it? Maybe he didn’t tell her ‘cause he knew he’d get a tongue-lashing as soon as he got home.”
Scott lowered his voice. “Johnny, I think she will listen to you. She seems to like you.”
Johnny looked askance.
“You give it to her straight, maybe she respects that. You go talk to her,” Scott encouraged.
Johnny squawked, “About what?”
“Tell her she should give him a chance. Tell her how important family is, how being alone wears on your soul.”
“What do I know that I can give advice? And what makes you think she’ll listen to me?” He shook his dark head. “You seem to be all-fired bent on fixing something here that ain’t none of our business. We are out of here as soon as this weather lets up and as soon as you can walk or ride. Right now, I just want us to survive this infernally cold hell-hole and then move on. And if we don’t meet up with Murdoch real soon, he’ll be sending out a search party and we’ll never hear the end of it.”
Scott considered his brother for a minute then asked in a near-whisper, “Who better than you to tell this woman how bad it can be to be alone? This isn’t just for a week or even just for the winter. She may be alone for life. How can you let her do this when a few words from you might make her see the error of her choice?”
Johnny crossed his arms, hugging himself as he considered Meggie and their involvement in her situation. He liked her, even admired her looks and her spunk, but he didn’t want to get involved. “Right now all that’s on my mind is getting us off this island and back to the mainland and to safety.”
“You remember when you were alone,” Scott persuaded, “how it ate at you and nearly destroyed your soul.” Scott’s head dropped back on the pillows. He sighed and closed his eyes. “Go to her, Johnny. Tell her how good it can be.”
Relenting, Johnny approached Meggie, unsure that he could accomplish what Scott expected of him.
Despair, Chapter Six
There’s no vocabulary
For love within a family, love that’s lived in
But not looked at, love within the light of which
All else is seen, the love within which
All other love finds speech.
This love is silent.
~T.S. Eliot, 1958
She turned from cleaning a bowl and eyed him curiously. “Here’s some coffee. Sit,” she directed. They sat opposite each other at the table. Johnny fiddled with a spoon until she removed it from his grasp and placed it with a whack on the table, out of his reach. “You sure are a nervous type, Johnny. I can’t figure out how it is you haven’t blown off a toe with your twitchy finger.” She leaned sideways and peered at his booted feet, then shook her head. “Hmm.”
“I’m not twitchy,” he retorted, affronted. “Least not when it matters. I know how to bide my time. It’s just being cooped up here and worrying about my brother…”
“Your brother’s fine. He’s a nice man,” she said wistfully, looking over to where Scott was dozing on her bed.
“That mean you think I’m not nice?” he asked, then regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth.
She looked him straight in the eye, biding her time. Johnny couldn’t read what she was thinking, which surprised him.
“You’re … interesting,” she said slowly, as if rolling the words around in her mouth. “Hard to believe you two are cut from the same cloth. But you’ve got the same heart. Your Daddy’s proud of you two,” she concluded sagely.
She didn’t quite pose that as a question, but Johnny nodded. "So, how long do you think it will keep snowing?" he asked her, all too aware of the assessing looks from her green eyes. In turn, he looked her over, wondering what she would look like sitting at the dining table at Lancer. Meggie's bodice was snug across her chest, her full bosom straining against the material. Mesmerized, Johnny watched her breasts move with each breath she took. With a jerk, he realized he was staring, and shook his head as a flush colored his cheeks. He turned away with a cough.
Meggie laughed, a low, throaty sound. She gave him a knowing smile before answering his question. "Haven't you ever seen snow before, Mr. Lancer?"
Johnny cleared his throat, collected himself and gave her his best Madrid stare. "I saw some snow in Nevada once but it wasn't nothing like this. It was already on the ground and not falling. No storm or nothing. 'Course I was just traveling through and didn't stay long enough to see much."
"You don't look or sound anything like your brother," she observed unexpectedly. "You two make an odd pair."
"Odd pair? Oh, he's my brother all right. Same father, different mamas though. We were supposed to meet up with our father, but I guess he’s used to us being late. I think I’ve seen enough of this end of the country. I just want to get home to California where it’s sunny and warm. At least me and Scott are alive and together."
"Scott told me a little about his childhood. What about yours? I’ll bet you didn’t grow up in a city. There’s something telling about a country boy," she laughed.
"No, ma’am, I’m not a city boy. Not a country one either, exactly. I went to the school of had knocks, as they say. Murdoch, our father, married my mama after Scott's mother died, but she didn’t stay with him long. I guess my side of the family likes to keep moving along."
"You call your Pa - Murdoch?" she questioned.
"Oh yeah. Pa or Father just doesn't fit somehow. You’d understand if you met him.” Johnny wondered if Murdoch had missed them yet and if he was worried. He started to unravel some loose yarn at the edge of his sweater.
"I suppose so," she agreed, swatting at his hand to stop him from causing any more damage to her husband’s sweater. "So where did you grow up?" she finally asked when it became apparent Johnny was not going to volunteer anything more.
"I grew up in Mexico, just Mama and me. We went where there was work, up the baja to follow the shrimpers, around the mining circuit in the dry season. It wasn’t an easy living but we had some good times.” Johnny hung his head in thought, then added, “She died when I was ten."
"She died? Oh, I’m so sorry, Johnny. That’s hard for anyone, but for a child –. Who raised you?"
"I did. I can take care of myself." Johnny turned away for a moment and took a swallow of the warm coffee. Finally, with a sigh, he continued. "Anyway, a couple of years ago Murdoch sent for Scott and me. It was the first time I knew I had a brother when he and I met in Morro Coyo."
At her puzzled expression, he added, "That’s in California. Closest town to our ranch. It’s hot and usually real dry there, the opposite of this.” He waved his hand, indicating the snowy weather. “But beautiful. I bet you’d love Lancer.”
"I guess home is always beautiful,” she said. “We wintered on the mainland back when I was small, had friends and neighbors, and went to school. Then the whole family, aunts, uncles and cousins, came out here in the spring, like a flock of migrating ducks. I used to run around here all summer when I was a child, helping my three brothers tend the sheep. We’d have clambakes down in the cove, stay out late until the tide came in and forced us off the beach.
When I was about fourteen, my parents moved onto Despair year-round. My mother loved this place even when we lived in a ramshackle old fisherman’s hut, before this house was built. She called it Disrepair. But what about you and your brother? You seem so close yet you only met a couple of years ago?" Meggie leaned closer, asking for details.
"Yeah, but he is family, he and Murdoch and me. I can't imagine life without them. Family is the most important thing in the world. Maybe I didn’t know that ‘til recently, but I sure know it now," Johnny said with feeling.
He saw her knuckles go white as she gripped her cup, the emotions warring within her evident in her taunt expression. Concerned she would break the cup, he gently covered her hand with his and gave her a nod, attempting to convey he understood what she faced.
"Nothing is as important as family," Johnny urged. "Meggie, if Ramsey comes back, just promise me you’ll give him a chance.” She looked away, so he cajoled, “Half a chance, maybe?” She spared him a glance, so he added, “You never know what turn your life is going to lead, do you? When I was younger, I got into all sorts of trouble. Yes, I know that’s hard to believe….ah, there’s a smile.” He reached over and pulled her chin up so she faced him. “I got myself into a passel of trouble a couple of years back, and was only a minute away from being executed.”
She reached out to touch his arm in concern. “Oh, Johnny.”
He laughed. “It’s nothing to be concerned about. As you can see, I’ve got no holes in me. Whew, its hot in here.” As he stood and pulled his sweater over his head, his shirt got caught up, exposing a good amount of his belly and chest. Tossing the sweater aside, he pulled his shirt down and sat down again at the table. This time it was Meggie who was caught staring. “What?” he asked. “Something wrong?”
She shook her head mutely.
“Oh, you saw my scars,” Johnny guessed, slightly embarrassed. “I told you I got into trouble a lot.” He pulled up his shirt a few inches, exposing a round, puckered scar. “This is a reminder. Reminds me to duck faster.” Johnny grinned and pulled his shirt down. “But is also reminds me that I was able to leave my old life behind along with all the bad things that went with it. Sometimes something rears up to interfere with me and my family, but Meggie, I’m living proof that a person can change things around.”
Meggie hugged her arms around her body, then shrugged her shoulders slightly. “I can’t promise anything, Johnny….but I’ll think on your words. Seems to me like you’re not such a country boy after all.”
As the woman across the table regarded him with a soft and enticing smile, Johnny felt a flutter in his heart that was not entirely welcome. He reached out to touch her hair, admiring the auburn highlights in the late afternoon light, but she suddenly turned her head towards the window.
Meggie stood quickly, a bright smile lighting up her face. “The sun! I told you the snow would stop.” She reached out and grabbed Johnny’s hand, dragging him to the doorway. She flung open the door and they walked to the top of the path that led down past the boathouse to the dock. The dripping sounds of the melting snow mingled with the screeching of gulls swooping overhead. She looked up at Johnny as he stood close by her side. “I think they’re happy to be free,” she said.
One arm around her shoulders, looking down at her inviting lips, Johnny lowered his head to kiss her.
Despair, Chapter Seven
But pleasures are like poppies spread–
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river–
A moment white– then melts forever.
~R. Burns, 1793
As the sun heralded the end of the storm, brilliant shafts of light pierced the gloom of the cabin. Scott blinked rapidly, his eyes adjusting to the bright light streaming through the window. Suddenly aware he was alone in the cabin, he left the warmth of the bed, padding on stockinged feet to press his nose against the cold pane. A blanket of white covered the ground, but the sky was now a vivid blue. The pines, heavy with melting snow, were dripping all around the cabin.
Two figures a few feet from the front porch drew his attention and he grinned broadly. Johnny looked mighty close to Meggie Maguire and she wasn’t exactly shoving him away.
"Didn’t anyone think of waking me?" Scott called to them. The couple quickly moved apart, Meggie hiding her face from view for a moment before darting a glance at Scott.
“At least you’re standing on your own,” she called out.
“He’s swaying some though. Maybe he’s still got his sea legs,” Johnny said as he approached his brother. “Hey, you look just like a fisherman.”
"Very funny, brother." Scott kept a hand on the doorway for support. He wasn’t about to admit his leg was bothering him a lot. He retorted lightly, "Have you taken a look at yourself lately?"
Johnny looked down at his canvas jeans, several sizes too large and cinched around his waist with a rope belt. "I’d rather not, thank you. If any of the folks back home caught sight of us in these getups we’d be run out of town." Poking at Scott’s stomach, he added, “So who looks like a fisherman?” He looked back at Meggie, who was standing at the top of the path, peering up the coast with one hand shading her eyes. “Maybe we’d better get our gear together, Scott, in case that mail boat comes by.”
Scott replied, looking meaningfully at Johnny, “I think it would be best for us all if we left soon.”
Johnny lowered his eyes and nodded.
Meggie joined them, and threaded her arms through each of the Lancer men’s, a brilliant smile on her face. “You know something, boys? I think that’s the last of the snow and spring is finally coming. Not a moment too soon. I suspect we all had a bit of cabin fever. Maybe said some truths, but maybe thought some things we should best forget.”
Scott asked, “You going to forget us, are you, Mrs. Maguire?”
Meggie pulled the two men closer and hugged them. “Oh, Mr. Lancer, I won’t ever forget you. You neither, don’t you worry,” she said to Johnny. She retained her bright smile but the men could see her green eyes tearing up.
“Meggie…,” Johnny started. There was a sudden toot of a horn in the distance and the sound of an engine echoing off the rocks. He ran to the top of the path, looking over the trees to the sea beyond. In the distance he could see, for the first time, the distant shoreline of the mainland. Within a few minutes, the bow of a small steamer boat showed itself, coming around a tip of land, making for Despair Island at a steady pace.
Johnny took a last look around the cabin. He couldn't honestly say he was going to miss the island, or the cramped quarters, but he felt a small pang of regret knowing they were leaving Meggie. Awkwardly, he stood in the doorway and said to her, “We’ve gotta go.”
She just stood there, her lips parted as she drew a deep breath. “Then go.”
He glanced out to check on Scott. His brother was leaning against a tree, watching the boat as it came in. Johnny turned on his heel, back into the little house, and in two long strides stood at Meggie’s side. He looked down on the top of her head, noting that her auburn curls were escaping the plain bow she’d tied her hair back with that morning. “Meggie,” he whispered.
She seemed to be focusing on his chest. One hand tentatively reached out and grasped the sleeve of the cream fisherman’s knit sweater he wore. “Good thing you’re not about to meet Ramsey. He’d have a conniption if he saw you wearing his favorite sweater…” Her voice trailed off as Johnny raised her chin to make her meet his eyes. Her voice broke as she said, “Aw, Johnny, don’t look at me like that. It’s not proper.”
He threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Just don’t tell him when he returns - and he will return if he has any sense- about our sleeping arrangements. Hell, I’m going to miss you, Mrs. Maguire.”
She was holding back tears, but one escaped, running slowly down her cheek. “You and your brother keep safe, you hear?” She wiped the tear away with the back of her hand and quickly walked to the doorway, calling out, “Scott, you keep out of leaky boats, and keep off that leg, you hear?” Then she ran out to his side and gave him a quick hug. She looked back at Johnny and waved him over. “Hurry or you’ll miss the boat. Mr. Des Paire doesn’t dally. You have the sack of food I made up?”
The blast of the horn was closer, a welcome sound. Johnny fled the small home that had been their shelter from the storm. As he put out an arm to support Scott down the rough trail, his brother protested, "I can make it, Johnny. You’ve got all of our gear?”
Scott suddenly stopped, then turned around and limped back up the hill, towards the cabin. “I’ll catch you up in a minute. I’ve got some unfinished business to do.”
Johnny started down the path, raising his arm to wave at the boat, hailing the captain with a yell. He looked back to observe his brother saying something to Meggie, then grasping her about the waist and giving her a long kiss. Her body bent like a willow beneath his, her arms hanging limply at her sides. When Scott released her and limped jauntily back down the path, she stood there swaying, a bemused smile on her face.
Johnny was grinning as Scott came abreast of him on the path.
Scott smiled back. “I told you I didn’t need any help.”
Johnny raised both hands in mock protest. “Oh, I can see that clearly, brother. Maybe next time you can give me some pointers.” The brothers made their way down the rocky path with Johnny keeping a watchful eye on his independent brother. Below, the dark blue sea sparkled. The scent of seaweed mingled with the tangy aroma of the pines.
The craft was drawing up to the docks, her pilot skillfully guiding her into position. A passenger, a burly man with a full beard, moving with an agility his size belied, leaped over the bow of the boat and onto the dock and up the path. The brothers scrambled to get out of the way of the heavy sailor as he passed them, making for the Maguire’s cabin. As the man passed them, he looked the Lancer brothers up and down with a frown.
Johnny would have hesitated, to see who the irate-looking man was and what he was up to, but Scott pulled him along. “Don’t even think about it, Johnny. We need to catch that boat or we may never get off this island!”
“But, Scott, Meggie might need us,” he protested.
Scott gave him a sour look. “You’re talking about Sheepscot Meggie, Johnny. We both know by now that she can take care of herself.”
They looked back at Meggie Maguire one last time when they reached the dock. She was positioned at the top of the path, observing the brothers as they waved goodbye, waving a white handkerchief in reply.
She suddenly saw the large man climbing the path towards her and ran back to the cabin, reappearing in the doorway moments later with her rifle at the ready.
As the brothers stood on the dock watching, unsure of what to do, the skipper of the steamer yelled over the noise of the idling engine,“Hey Misters, you need a ride to the mainland?”
Meggie shouted something angrily at the man, then turned and retreated into the cabin, slamming the door forcefully behind her. The man stopped just short of the door, his face mere inches from the heavy wood. He raised his beefy fist and banged on the door.
Even over the chugging noise of the mailboat’s idling engine, Johnny could hear the man shouting, “- and why is that young man wearing my best sweater, Meggie Maguire?”
Scott, not taking his eyes off the cabin perched up on the top of the hill, called over his shoulder, “You wait a minute, Captain. We may be needed up there.” When Johnny made a move to go and help Meggie, Scott held onto his arm. “Hang on, brother, and see what he does before you go running off to help her.”
“That’s only Ramsey Maguire, boys,” explained the captain. “He and his missus have spats all the time. None of our nevermind. They’ll sort it out with no help from the likes of us. Our Meggie can flay the hide off a sheep with her words alone. Pity the man who’s at the wrong end of them words!” He gave a great guffaw.
Scott and Johnny exchanged looks but stood their ground. They watched the big man step back from Meggie’s door, his shoulders sagging with dejection, defeat settling on him like a cloak. Sorrowfully, he started back down the path toward the dock.
The captain called out, “The tide don’t wait for no-one and neither do I.”
The sound of waves slapping against the hull drew the brothers' attention. The mailboat was beginning to leave.
"Hold up!" Scott shouted. He limped forward, urging his brother to follow, " Come on Johnny. We're going to miss the boat. If we don’t make it, Murdoch’ll be the one to flay us alive."
Reluctantly, the master of the ship threw the engine in neutral and waited impatiently as Scott and Johnny boarded. Johnny found a place in the center of the boat and something sturdy to hang on to, his brother moving cautiously to join him. As they stood side by side, Johnny put one hand Scott's back, offering him support as he struggled to gain his sea legs.
As one they turned for a last look at the home that had been their shelter in the storm, the craft began to inch away from the dock, its captain masterfully steering her to sea.
The brothers kept their eyes on Meggie’s cabin as they pulled away. The door was suddenly thrown open and Meggie stepped onto the porch with no gun in hand, calling to the bearded man. As she ran to him, he opened his arms to receive her, lifting her off the ground and twirling her around, his lips claiming hers before he set her on his feet.
Together, the man and wife made their way into the cabin, his arm gently guiding her. The heavy oak door closed behind them without its previous fury.
The mailboat pulled out into the channel and changed course, heading down the coast. Johnny and Scott settled down on some large crates, out of the wind. Looking back at the island as it receded behind them, Johnny said wistfully, “You know, I wouldn’t mind going back some day.”
Scott looked at him sideways. “And you plan to share Meggie’s bed? Ah yes, I can see it now: Johnny here, Meggie lying next to him, and on her other side is Mr. Maguire. All three hundred pounds of him, tilting the bed.”
“That’s not what I meant, Scott. I just, well, I liked her. A lot.”
Clapping a hand on his brother’s shoulder, Scott agreed, “Me, too, Johnny. Me, too.”
The authors would like to thank you for reading this and hope you enjoy both our joint and our individual stories. Geraldine and Lacy 2006