The pains had started two days before, just small pains that had gone away when Francie had paused in her work to lean on anything handy. Johnny was all for her staying in bed but Maria had said no, it was best to let the mother decide for herself and in any case, she did not want to be the one to tell the señora to stay in bed. So Francie had done some work in the kitchen, stopping every now to pull faces before pacing moodily from one room to another, unable to settle.
He had dozed on and off all night, waiting for her to begin labour in earnest, but she had slept better than he.
On the second day, around noon, she had finally sent a hovering, nervous Johnny out to work. He mooched around the barn, the corral – anywhere that was near the house. He wished it was cooler for her but the temperature climbed all through the afternoon until it passed the hundred mark and it was more humid than he had ever known it to be.
When her waters broke, unspectacularly, Maria came to the portico and shouted for him. When he found Francie, she was making her way upstairs, hand under her belly, grumbling about the steepness of the steps. She paused half way up to wait out another pain, and explained the situation to him. Just a rest, that’s all she needed. Then something about getting the show on the road before she went completely mad. Finally, at the top of the stairs she groaned, swayed and swore. Johnny guided her firmly into the bedroom before going to the top of the back stairs and yelling for Maria. When he heard the reassuring, “Sí, John, I will be there in a moment,” he went back into the bedroom. He nearly broke down when he saw her sitting forlornly on the bed.
“It all started right here!” she said mournfully. “Remind me to move out soon as this is over. Ow.” She had stopped speaking and was concentrating inwardly, for a long count of twenty by Johnny’s reckoning. As soon as she was back with him, he helped her get out of her blouse and skirt. Then Maria came in, a large jug of water in one hand and a pile of cloths in the other. She told him to go find himself something to do for a while. So he squeezed Francie’s hand, said he would come running if there was anything he could do, and left the room.
He tried waiting in the Great Room. It was half past six. He had waited so long with her, through the months of her pregnancy; now there were just a few hours left. He checked the time again, re-settled himself on the couch and tried hard to keep still. It was cooler in the house than it had been outside, but it was still uncomfortably warm. He picked up a book and read but the words didn’t make any sense at all. Another set of papers he had signed drifted into his consciousness, ones he had signed with a shaking hand.
They never had been legally married, not completely. He had realised that pretty soon, but had not known what to do about it. Then finally, when she had begun to show he was so eager for everyone to know he was going to be a father again, that he had wanted everything set straight. He had talked to Scott, out by the corral, both watching the horses stand quietly in the heat. Scott’s advice had been simple: invite the Judge to dinner, sign the documents and say nothing to anyone else. Unfortunately they had been overheard. Someone had, in confidence, told someone else. The news had spread. Next thing they knew, a delegation of women from town had arrived when he had been out of the range. They had wanted to see Murdoch but he had been unwell. So they found Francie instead.
Well, she could have weathered that storm if she had known what they were talking about. And it was pure stupidity on Johnny’s part not to make sure she remembered beforehand about those papers. Fortunately for them all Charlotte had been there, and as soon as she heard what the women were saying to Francie she politely asked them to leave. Francie’s words were burned on his mind.
“Charlotte took me into the kitchen and gave me what you should have given me – a straight explanation. I don’t care about them. They can say and think what they like. You should have told me.”
He shifted uneasily in his chair and looked at the clock again. They had had their first really all out fight over that. And he didn’t even know why. He had become stubborn, thinking only that she shouldn’t have been upset by a few old biddies who thought names on pieces of paper were so important. He looked down at the worn carpet and let himself be filled with regrets for a moment.
But he had straightened it out, followed Scott’s advice to the letter, and it had all been settled in no time. But it was the first hito, the first milepost, their first bad fight, and it had not been settled easily.
At a quarter to seven his brother came into the room, carrying a small, fractious girl, dressed ready for bed but wide eyed and fidgety.
“Lily – it’s time for you to hush up now. You know mama’s busy,” Scott said. He sat down, settled Lily on his knee and tried to soothe her by smoothing her long hair. He left his hand for a moment on her forehead then brushed his fingers down her cheek.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Johnny asked, reaching across to take Lily’s hand.
“Francie’s sick,” Lily stated seriously.
“She’s having a baby, Lily – you know that. Like Mama did when she had your brother.” Scott smiled at her, and wiped the tears from her face.
“I forgot. Papa?”
“Will the new baby look like Bug?”
Johnny laughed, and earned a look from her that caused him to smother his smile as best he could.
“When will the new baby be here, Uncle Johnny? Will he be here in the morning?”
“It might be a she,” Johnny said. “And I guess she’ll come when she’s ready.”
“Mama had Bug in the night and he was here for breakfast.”
“Your mama had two babies before she had Bug. I guess she got quicker at having them,” Johnny said, glancing at the clock. Three hours had passed. Charlotte had given birth in just under two hours.
“I hear first babies are more difficult,” Scott said, moving to stand up then looking across at his brother.
Johnny was aware of Scott’s anxious glance, with a bad outcome for a first birth unspoken between them, and tried to smile reassurance.
Scott lifted Lily high in the air, making her smile. “I’ll be back when I have this little princess all tucked up safely.” And as he settled Lily comfortably in his arms, he asked her, “Are you going to sleep, like you promised your mother?”
“Yes, Papa. If Uncle Johnny reads me a story first.”
Johnny sighed. “I can’t tonight, sweetheart. Francie might need me and you know you hate it when I have to stop half way through a story. I’ll tell you two tomorrow. And you can come see the new baby, if you’re good tonight.”
Lily put her head on Scott’s shoulder. Her eyelids were beginning to droop as he carried her away but she managed to nod her acceptance of the compromise. Her cheeks were red, her hair , her eyes too bright. Too many times, he had seen Lily like this,
“I’ll be back down in a few minutes. Right after this one goes to sleep.” Johnny heard the catch in Scott’s voice and knew he was worried about his adopted daughter, too.
Another twenty minutes passed before Johnny heard his brother’s slow step on the stairs.
“She’ll be all right in the morning,” Scott said more loudly than he needed to. “She’s asleep already. I gave her some of Maria’s tea – that always settles her down.”
“The doctor’ll be here in the morning, just to check on Francie’s progress. He can take a look at Lily, too.”
“You think it might be that long?” Scott carefully side-stepped the idea that Lily might need the doctor again.
“Sarah was – Sarah took that long,” Johnny said, remembering.
“Yes, I suppose she did. Francie’s not Sarah.”
“I know it.”
Silence fell between them for a few minutes.
Charlotte stepped quickly down the stairs making Johnny shift to the front of the couch in anticipation. But it was Scott she wanted.
“Was Lily asleep when you left her?”
“Yes. Isn’t she now?”
“She’s – she’s fine. But look in on her later.” She leaned forward and put her hand on Scott’s shoulder.
“Francie’s doing very well, Johnny. She’s a little tired but she’s strong. I’ll call you when the baby’s come. It’ll be a while yet.” As if to avoid any further questioning she stepped away from the couch, smiled at Scott and went through to the kitchen.
Johnny sank back into the comfort of the sofa and sighed. “When Garrett was born, why didn’t you tell me right away?” he asked, as his thoughts turned restlessly from the present to the past.
“Didn’t want to wake you. You and Francie – well, we thought we’d best let you – get settled again.”
Johnny sighed. His marriage to Francie had been made in the most difficult of circumstances and since then it had been a noisy, difficult passage. She had a way of slamming a door that spoke volumes. Then he would go to Jamie’s room and have a little heart to heart about Jamie’s latest escapade, or he would go and talk to Maria about the mood Francie had been in all day. Maria had time and again reassured him that he was not the cause of Francie’s anger. But he thought he was. He remembered all too clearly the morning more than more than ten years ago when he had thrown a spare shirt and some food into his saddlebags and ridden away from the hut they had been sharing. He had thought he was being strong and doing what was best for her. No looking back. Ashamed, he studied the play of the flames in the fireplace.
“Just how do you find so many things to fight over?”
Only his brother could have said that to him without provoking him to walk out. “We always did. Fight. Right from the first days together.” It was the first time he had confessed that to his brother. “Don’t seem to stop us loving each other like crazy most of the time. I don’t know why we argue.” Which was not entirely true. He knew his brother would forgive him the lie.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Charlotte angry. She can be firm but she never even raises her voice,” Scott said.
“I noticed. It’s good Francie gets on so well with her. They ain’t a bit alike.”
Scott eased his long legs. “Been a long day.”
“You goin’ to settle Jack down, then?”
“Thought I might.”
“Is Charlotte stayin’ up?”
“She’ll be up later, I think. Have you checked on Jamie yet? He knows something’s going on. I think they’re trying to guess whether it’s going to be a girl or a boy.”
“Not after I had a little word with them, no.”
Johnny grinned. Older brothers had their uses. “You go on. Tell Jamie I’ll be there in a little while.”
Scott stood, then paused. “She’ll do fine. By morning, there’ll be another Lancer to name.”
Johnny stared into the fire. Scott had done his part in settling him down and passing the anxious time with him. “Thanks, Scott.”
Scott nodded then walked away.
When Scott had left the room, Johnny put his feet up on the sofa. He could hear sounds from upstairs that made him itch to go and see what was happening. But he had promised faithfully to stay away, if that’s what Francie wanted. He knew Maria would fetch him if he was needed. He wasn’t sure if Francie was protecting him or was just following tradition. He knew he had a role and that was to wait patiently, keep from troubling her with his worries and make sure Jamie was all right. So he sighed, stood and went upstairs.
“Jamie? What you doin’ out of bed?” Johnny came to stand behind his son, who was looking out of the window into the dark. Jack was sound asleep in his own bed. They had settled the boys in together a couple of months before and it was working out fine – when both sets of parents could get them to stop talking. The move had been Francie’s suggestion but Johnny knew it had been the result of a long talk with Jamie. He had seen the two together, sitting in the shade on the patio, Francie listening intently, Jamie trying to explain why he didn’t sleep very well. It brought him an indefinable sense of security, that his wife and his son spent so much time together, laughing and playing and getting to know each other. They hardly ever fought.
Jamie brought him back to the moment.
“Come on, you got to be fresh in the morning. I’m breaking you in to babysitting right away.”
He picked up his small son, his much loved first child, and lifted him over to the bed. The boy was holding on tightly. Outside, a hand shouted something about horses to Cipriano. Both father and son would know his voice anywhere. It was so still – most sounds were clear. Johnny didn’t need to ask what was keeping his son awake. He could hear quiet sounds of protest from Francie at the work her body was doing.
“Slide down. You sure you need a blanket? It’s a hot night.” Johnny waited while Jamie scooted down the bed and lay there, full of questions but picking one of them carefully in hopes his father might answer it.
“Francie is going to be all right, isn’t she, Pa? I mean, we need her around now, with a new baby.” Jamie looked away as a flash of lightning caught his eye.
Johnny pulled off the blanket then tucked the sheets round him. Sometimes he seemed older than Murdoch. Well, he was right, they would need her to look after the new baby. But they would help too. He felt suddenly cautious, superstitious even, in the face of his son’s questions. No need to push his luck. “I hope so, Jamie. Never can tell what’s just around the corner though.”
“You worried, Pa?”
Johnny decided his son might see through the white lie, but he would say it anyway. “Nope. No, I ain’t worried. I just want a healthy brother or sister for you, so you can show him or her off, like Jack does with Bug. You want your light out or are you goin’ to read for a while?”
“Read. Tom’s at the trial and he has to speak out but Injun Joe might kill him if he does then Muff Potter, he’s in a whole heap of trouble.”
“You’ve just about worn that book out. How many times have you read it?” Johnny picked up Jamie’s book and tried to smooth out the well-thumbed pages. Then he reached across and pushed his son’s hair off his forehead, taking the chance to check for fever. When one child went down with it, the others were prone to do the same. The boy’s forehead was cool.
“I don’t mind giving it another go through. But I like it better when you read it to me.”
Jamie looked up at his father, not needing to plead with him.
“I told Lily I didn’t have time. But maybe I do. Now let me just get comfortable here.” He sat in the rocking chair next to his son’s bed. He had sat there many times, waiting for a childhood sickness to pass, or some trouble to be confessed to him, or waiting out a rush of tears. This time, he was aware of the way Jamie was watching him, listening to the words as Johnny read them, and to the sounds from down the corridor. Jack had woken and was silently waiting for the adventure to begin.
Half an hour passed, and Injun Joe escaped when Tom told the truth, the bad guy crashing through the window and Tom triumphant. The comforting familiarity soothed them both, as they both drew closer to the moment of change of everything they had known for a year, since Francie had become part of the family.
Johnny sat in his chair and waited for the boys to fall asleep. The late hour and the heat made that a slow process but they did their best to co-operate. As he sat he saw in his mind’s eye his son’s expression, the second morning after he had brought Francie home. Almost a year ago.
It had been Jamie’s habit, every morning, to run into his pa’s room and jump on the bed to make sure his father was awake and ready for the new day. And it had been his pa’s habit, most mornings, to groan, sigh and grumble about being bounced on at such an hour, and pretend he was cross with Jamie. Johnny smiled slowly at the thought of their ritual. He had always tried, however he felt, to give Jamie a good start to the day. Maybe he couldn’t always do it but he had tried.
The first morning, Jamie had remembered that his father wasn’t on his own any more. He had been told, knock on the door and wait. So the first morning, Johnny had heard a quiet, hesitant knock. He had got up, disturbing Francie in the process and had taken his son back to his own bedroom. There, they had started the day with something like the usual routine. Then he had gone back to Francie. Well, that had worked out all right.
Next morning, Francie and he had waited for Jamie’s knock. She was resting in his arms and he was utterly content, slipping from dozing to dreaming as the sun began to rise. Then the door was flung open and a very familiar blond boy came leaping onto the bed, scattering the newlyweds to opposite sides of their bed.
“Pa!” Jamie had exclaimed. “It’s morning and you’re not even awake yet!” Then his son had taken in Francie, who was caught between laughter and embarrassment, and was holding her side. Jamie in the middle of the bed, speechless, and looked at them both. he crawled over to his father’s side of the bed and sat down, speechless.
Johnny remembered that moment well. Francie smiling at Jamie, telling him good morning then flashing her husband a look he knew meant he was to do something. But his nightshirt was on the floor. She had managed to pull the sheet up round herself.- He had grabbed his son and taken him outside into the corridor.
Looking at Jamie and Jack sleeping at last, he smiled as he thought of Jamie’s serious promises, the desire to do better which had shone through in the end. Then the smile broadened when he remembered how Francie had rewarded his own promise to her that his son would remember, every time he could, to knock on the door. She understood that Jamie couldn’t possibly be locked out. Then she had reminded him they needed privacy too. Those first few times – well, they had always been physically right for each other, but those times had made the first few days easier. It had struck him then that he had every right to see Francie, just whenever he wanted. He stood and made his way to the door that had been forbidden to him too.
Well, it had been a mistake, he realised that even while he was standing in the room asking why Francie wasn’t lying down on the bed. As he sat at the kitchen table, he watched Charlotte fetch the coffee pot and pour him a large cup. His hands were trembling slightly. His heart beat was a little fast.
“Johnny,” Charlotte started.
Johnny had very quickly come to respect his sister in law. She was sensible, kind and a good mother, and he saw just how much she loved Scott. That was good enough for him. So he gripped the cup, took a quick drink and looked up at her.
“I know. Don’t say it. I was stupid to barge in like that.”
“She’s very sensitive right now. She wants to do a good job – but she’s scared. Johnny, in all the time you’ve been together has she ever admitted she’s scared of being a mother?”
He was silenced by this revelation. Charlotte pressed on, coming to sit next to him with her own cup of coffee.
“No? I don’t suppose she has. Well, she is. I was, each time. She wants to be a good mother and she is worried she won’t be.”
“Why? She gets on real well with all the kids.”
“Yes – I think that’s part of the problem. They’re not her children, so if things go wrong it’s not her responsibility. This baby will be. I’m sorry, Johnny, I shouldn’t interfere. But coming into the room and then insisting that you stay – well, frankly, it was stupid. After all, you did promise.”
He stared into his coffee cup, feeling the tremors in his muscles gradually slip away. Then he nodded. “Sometimes, it just comes over me, this need to – I just can’t seem to help it – you know what I mean?”
Charlotte smiled. “You’re not usually so tongue-tied, Johnny. You say what you want to say.”
“Just can’t seem to say one right thing to Francie.”
“I don’t think there is a right thing to say to her just now. She’ll shout loud enough if she wants you.”
That brought a moment to mind, three weeks into their marriage. A yell from the window of their bedroom, just as he had been crossing to the barn. A few words of wisdom regarding the way he had left her to sleep when she had expressly told him she wanted to choose a riding horse early. She was barely well, just given a clean bill of health by the doc, and they had cleaved to one another with a will the night before. So he had reckoned on giving her a few extra minutes in bed, especially since she’d been warm and smiling in her sleep.
“Johnny?” Charlotte was putting a sandwich in front of him. He was suddenly ravenous, having forgotten to eat with the rest of them.
“Thanks. How’s Lily?” he asked, trying to displace the memory which clouded his vision for a moment.
Charlotte’s hand went to her forehead in unconscious imitation of an action she had performed just a few minutes earlier. “She’ll be all right. Don’t worry about her. She can have a fever one evening and be fine by morning. I think she just got over-excited. Now, do you want me to ask if Francie will see you? Maria’s with her and it might be a good moment. You think you can say the right words this time?” She smiled at him and he put down his cup of coffee and smoothed a hand through his hair.
“You ask first. If she says no I’ll just stay here, I reckon.”
Charlotte placed her hand on his forearm. Her eyes sparkled with humor. “Coward,” she said gently.
He smiled back half-heartedly. “Well?”
“All right. I’ll go ask.”
While he waited, he rinsed out his cup and began crunching through an apple, preparing himself to say something to placate Francie. It worried him a little that nothing immediately came to mind.
Charlotte returned, Bug in her arms, and she shook her head as soon as she walked through into the kitchen.
“Not just yet. We’ll let you know. When will Murdoch be home?”
He knew he was being distracted but it was a relief. “He said not to wait up. Those “meetings” go on late. It’s a good thing his new horse knows the way.”
Garrett stirred and joined noisily into the conversation. Johnny watched him reach upwards with starfish hands. He had seen a starfish once, in a pool at the beach, and had watched in wonder as the creature had moved each arm so delicately.
Charlotte let her son catch her finger. “He’s been pretty good – his routine’s been a little disrupted today.” She played with him for a few minutes while Johnny waited quietly but the little boy began to cry louder.
“You want to feed him?” Johnny asked, knowing the answer but well used to his sister in law’s reticence.
“I’d like to stay in here with him, if you don’t mind. I need a little time with him.”
“Sure, sure.” Johnny knew when a tactful withdrawal was in order. “I’ll go see if Jelly’s still awake. I swear he goes to bed earlier every night.”
He went to pass the time with Jelly, playing cards with the old man in his comfortable den, until Jelly had won all his nickels and dimes and told him to come back when he had his mind on cards not babies. He had run out of things to do, people to be with, and the crushing sense that he was helpless in the face of events drove him out into the night. But the horses were no more help than anyone else, circling the corral when he approached. There was no solace in their ignorance of his troubles.
He wandered back into the house and waited alone back in the Great Room. He found a corner away from the light and leaned against the wall, unwilling suddenly to reveal to anyone the nervousness which rose as the minutes went by.
In the small hours of the night he was outside, sitting for a few minutes then pacing back and forth, wishing it were cooler and watching the dry lightning up in the hills. But there he could hear the sounds from upstairs too well so he retreated, feeling useless, to wait in the cool of the great room.
Murdoch didn’t get back till 3.04 am. Johnny knew that because he had been watching the slow pulse of the clock. He had been on his own for more than an hour and knew, from the sounds upstairs, that it would soon be time. But no one had come to tell him anything and he was wearing out the rug, nerves jangling, as he waited.
“You didn’t have to wait up, John. I told you’d I’d be a little late,” Murdoch said, he voice a little blurred. He tried to settle his hat on the hatrack but just shrugged when it ended up on the floor.
“I ain’t waiting up for you, Murdoch.” He’d been about to tell his father why he was still awake when Murdoch took a misstep and had to stagger to right himself. Johnny walked across and guided his father to the couch with a hand on his elbow. “Did you stable that new sorrel of yours?” he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.
him away,” Murdoch said vaguely,
collapsing into the comfort of his favourite seat.
“Murdoch – he’s been in bed three hours. I’ll go do it. You get yourself some coffee.”
“No need, John. Cipriano was still awake – he took him from me. Now, I think I’ll just have a small brandy. What is that noise?” Murdoch tried to stand again but Johnny’s restraining hand was enough to keep him pinned where he was for a moment.
“You two have a fight?” Murdoch tried to swing round on the couch and reach back for the drinks tray.
“No.” Johnny folded his arms across his chest and dared Murdoch to say anything else. But a couple more glasses than usual of best Scotch had clouded Murdoch’s judgement.
“Is she having my next grandchild at last?”
Johnny grabbed the decanter Murdoch had been trying to lift and set it gently back in its place. His father grunted, and asked his question again. “Is Sarah having my grandchild?”
Johnny’s shock was given voice by Charlotte, who stepped into the room just as Murdoch began to realise what he had said. Her sharply drawn breath made both men look at her.
She was carrying Lily, draped across her like a rag doll. Scott joined her a moment later, with bedding in his arms.
“Murdoch! Come in the kitchen – I’ll get you some coffee,” Charlotte managed between tight lips.
“Yes – yes. I’ll be back in a minute, son…” Murdoch stood, steadied himself and took two steps. He noticed Scott’s load and offered to take something but Scott scowled at him and followed his wife into the kitchen. Murdoch coughed, took a step back and smiled at Johnny. “Just give me a minute…”
When his father left the room, Johnny was glad to be on his own for a few moments. A careless word, that’s all it had been, but it had hit him hard and he felt breathless and giddy with the sudden swirl of memories. He sat down and put his head in his hands, trying to ride the wave but he was drowned for a moment. Then the significance of Charlotte and Scott’s actions rescued him and he had to set aside his own feelings. Lily was sick, very sick, and they had brought her to the kitchen to look after her there, close to the medicines she would need. It was easier to keep her comfortable there. Johnny stood, straightened his back and put his forearm across his eyes. The past would have to go right back where it belonged, in the past. It was enough to deal with the present.
He strode through into the kitchen and immediately began to help set up Lily’s bed there. They had done this before; there was no need for words or thanks. When they had her settled, Johnny sat down opposite his father, who was nursing a large cup of coffee and couldn’t quite look him in the eye. A number of ways of breaking the ice went through Johnny’s head but in the end his father took on that responsibility.
“Son – you know I meant Francie, don’t you? I didn’t mean…”
“I know, I know.” He tried to think what else to say but the need to keep his irritation out of his voice stalled him. No good would come of making this night the seedbed of bad feeling between his father and himself.
“Are you hoping for
Johnny shrugged. “A healthy baby, that’s what I want. And a healthy mother.”
Charlotte put Lily in her bed and pulled up the covers. Lily kept throwing them back, complaining of being too hot and unable to settle with either parent. She was fed some tea and Scott sat by her side, cooling her forehead with a cloth. When he looked up at Johnny, there was fear in his eyes. Lily threw up, and started to cry in earnest and Johnny had to step away, detaching himself from this new crisis. He had too much to bear already.
Charlotte let him go.
She touched his hand and said, “Go on outside.
We’ll take care of her. If
Cipriano’s around maybe you can talk to him.
He was still watching the child but he nodded. “You call me if you need me,” he offered automatically.
“Of course. And I’ll be with Francie when she needs me. It’ll be soon now. You go on outside.”
Thunder made the air shudder. If only it would rain. It was still almost as hot as it had been in full daylight, though it was still a couple of hours until dawn. He wandered into the courtyard and saw Cipriano leaning against the wall. Johnny wandered over and leaned his back against the wall. They stood for a few moments in companionable silence.
“She still working on that baby, Señor?”
“Yup,” Johnny grinned but the ghosts of a previous birthing still haunted him.
“This weather –
it is too hot for such hard work. She
does not like this heaviness in the air.”
Johnny suddenly realised who Francie went to when she needed a voice outside her immediate family. He smiled to himself. He went to Maria. She went to Cipriano.
“She was not happy with me when Maria sent me out,” he confessed, hanging his head.
“They are like that. Do not take it to heart.” Cipriano seemed to be part of the conspiracy of silence regarding Sarah, but Johnny had to voice his thoughts.
“Sarah was quieter,” he said, looking up again and off into the distance. “Maybe it’s good Francie’s noisy?” He shifted his weight slightly and patted his hand restlessly against the wall.
Cipriano laughed, a deep, comforting sound, and countered, “Sí, she is in every way a different woman. I remember well, that day Señora Francie asked me to get the buggy ready. Then she was waiting by the front door, all her bags packed, belly as big as mine – I am sorry, señor.”
Johnny was blushing, remembering the day Francie had threatened to leave him. Seven months gone and she was all ready to leave him and run somewhere, anywhere, so long as she was not having to put up with him any longer.
Johnny hushed Cipriano’s apology for referring to a moment which still caused him some pain. “No – no, that’s what happened and I guess I ain’t lived it down yet, huh? I went into that kitchen and they was all there, all of my family. I got so mad with them, then Charlotte told me to stop playing the fool and go and tell Francie - tell her what I was feelin’. So I did. We aired out a few problems that afternoon, for sure. Didn’t see no one near us for hours. In the end she told me she didn’t like it that I kept all Sarah’s clothes in that bottom drawer. I should’ve put them away like I planned to do. But she was wrong when she told me to put some other stuff away, too. She was plain wrong. We never did get that worked out right, but by then we was both too tired to argue any more.”
“She’s a woman who knows her own mind, for sure.”
A wail from Johnny’s bedroom reached their ears. Johnny looked anxiously up. “I’m not allowed in until someone tells me. But what if…”
“I have to go up there.”
“Wait a few minutes. Maria will not forget where you are. She knows, Juan – she knows.”
There was a pause, the world holding its breath, and then the window was opened and Charlotte leaned a little way out.
“Johnny? You can come up now. You want to see your new baby? She’s just about as beautiful as a baby can be.”
“Francie?” He had to ask his question twice before Charlotte could hear him. His throat was dry.
“She’s fine, Johnny, but if you don’t hurry up she’s liable to get quite angry with you.” Charlotte smiled at him.
Johnny ran, forgetting everything, sliding through the hall and jumping up the stairs to the room where his new baby was, a room full of homely and familiar smells and sights. Francie lay in bed in a nest of pillows, damp bangs curling on her forehead and such a look in her eyes.
“I’ll be back in a moment, Johnny,” said Charlotte. He noticed she cradled her own baby in her arms. Garrett Lancer. Scott’s firstborn. Charlotte took her six month old son and left them to be with each other for a moment.
“Francie.” He couldn’t say any more. He choked and coughed and wept.
“Look – here she is – isn’t she just – look!” The bundle of white that she had been holding moved a little, and turned out to be a tiny, pink human being, alert and searching with her mouth already.
“Hold her for a minute, Johnny. I need to just get sat up here. Maria’s going to help me to nurse her – Johnny we have to take real good care of her.”
Johnny had only once seen his wife weep. Now tears streamed down her face, tears of fulfilment and exhaustion and joy, every emotion written clearly on her face.
He took the weight of his child in his arms. Jessie. They had agreed on Jessie for a girl. Her fingers curled, her hands reached out for him and when he put his finger near, the baby grabbed him and held on. Just as Jamie had done.
Maria returned and helped Francie to sit up. Between them, father and mother put the child close to the breast that would be the source of all her life for the months to come. As he watched his child nurse, watched the two learn how to feed and be fed, Johnny sat on the bed and let his fears move away from him. As far as he was concerned, for that time, everyone else was forgotten. He was with his wife and his new daughter, and felt complete. She would not slip away from him, uncomplaining. She would fight him and love him, be with him and remind him always to be the best he could be for her.
Time slid by yet no one came into the room. He wanted badly to show his baby to Murdoch but Jessie was asleep, and Francie was holding her so close and he was afraid to disturb them. Maria, who had been quietly clearing the room of the cloths and bowls they had used, finally spoke up.
“Señor – you must take the baby to your father. It will be a good way to wake him, yes? The señora needs me for a little while. Bring your baby back in a few minutes.”
“She is all right, isn’t she? She’ll be all right?”
“The secundinas, they came away well, she is not bleeding too much – she is very strong, your wife. She will be sitting out of bed tomorrow, you will see.”
“Isn’t she supposed to stay in bed for a while?”
“The doctors, they keep women in bed too long, I think. It is better to trust your wife to know when she should rest and when she should be out of bed.”
Johnny nodded, looked down at his dozing wife and kissed her lightly on the cheek. He moved her arm gently and took up his baby daughter. Jessie was swaddled tightly and firmly asleep, as if being in a world of new sensations had exhausted her after only a few minutes. Francie shifted and then opened her eyes.
“You taking her to see her grandpa?”
“How’d you know that, darlin’?”
“Seemed a safe bet. Johnny, can we have a few more like her?.”
He smiled. “I thought…”
“Take her to see her grandpa. Won’t he be surprised?” She reached out to touch her baby’s face. “You turned out with black hair, baby girl, and brown eyes. Where’s the family’s blue eyes gone?”
“Garrett’s got green eyes. And red hair.”
“Go on with you. Maria?”
Johnny found himself being propelled very gently towards the door.
She was so small. He had to stop in the corridor and look at her again, utterly amazed that this tiny life had come under his protection. He wanted to make everything in the whole world right for her.
He knocked in his father’s door and, despite the lack of permission, took Jessie into the room. Even though it was now full daylight Murdoch was still breathing heavily, deeply asleep.
Johnny stood for a moment, looking at the mound of bedclothes that was all he could see of his father. But he couldn’t wait long. He stepped up close to the bed and pulled the bedclothes back a little.
“Murdoch?” he said, experimentally, then cleared his throat. “Murdoch?”
The mound’s breathing stopped for a moment, became lighter and then his father was struggling to wake.
“Son? Do you know what time it is?”
“No,” Johnny answered truthfully. “I don’t think Jessie knows either.”
“Well then, let me have my sleep out. I was awake half the night.”
“Jessie’s asleep. She wants to meet her Grandfather though, I reckon. She didn’t say it in so many words but we thought you might want to meet her, too.”
Murdoch was rapidly coming awake now, pulling himself up in the bed and trying to smooth his wild white hair. “Johnny? You have someone I should be meeting?”
“I do. Here she is. Jessie Lancer. We might give her another name too, but right now, she’s Jessie.”
“Francie?” Concern passed across Murdoch’s face. Johnny was not the only one to have gone through the ordeal of Sarah’s death.
“Francie is fine. Maria’s helping her clean up. She looked real well to me.”
Murdoch held out his arms and Johnny gave Jessie to him. She looked very small next to her grandfather. Associations of many kinds assaulted Johnny, and he looked at his father, who held Jessie safely. Jessie grabbed at something with her small hand but she was still sound asleep.
Murdoch laughed gently. “She looks a lot like her mother.”
“Yeah,” said Johnny happily.
There was a knock at the door. Johnny went to it and let Scott in.
“To John and Francie, a baby daughter, Jessie,” said Murdoch formally. “Another name for the Bible. So many riches, I have.”
Scott came to the other side of the bed and leaned over to have a closer look. “She’s a beauty, Johnny. You’ll be having to keep a close eye on the gentleman callers. Just one thing.”
“What’s that?” Johnny said, taking Jessie back from his father.
“She definitely has your nose,” Scott stated solemnly, looking Johnny in the eye.
One startled glance later, Johnny was glaring at Scott, who was smiling broadly. “Your nose doesn’t look too bad on you, Johnny, but I think it’s maybe too large for a girl.”
Johnny grimaced at being taken in so easily by his brother. He covered his confusion by talking quietly to Jessie. “Don’t you mind your uncle, Jessie. He’s just getting me back for saying his son looked like a bug.”
“I wouldn’t mind so much, but the name’s stuck!”
Jessie decided her world had become a little too noisy, and chose that moment to wake, yawn and then begin to scrunch up her face, crying to signal she was ready to go back to her mother.
“Whoa there, Jessie,” Johnny said, holding her firmly. “I’ll get you back to your ma now, don’t need to cry about it. C’mon, little’un, no need to cry.”
But Jessie did, all the way back to the bedroom, filling the air with her sweet song of life.
Maria was just leaving the room with a basket of linen for the wash. She smiled at the noise Jessie was making.
“She is a strong baby, Juan. The Señora is not asleep – I will be back in a little while.”
He pushed the door open with his foot then stopped, silently taking in the sight of his wife. She was sitting up, propped round with snow-white pillows. Her hair had been brushed and she was just tying a blue ribbon to the end of her braid. She was paler than usual but, when she looked at him, she was bright-eyed and smiling.
“Give her to me, my love. We can’t have her waking everyone.” And miraculously, as she took their daughter back in her arms, Jessie fell quiet. Johnny took his place by his wife’s side, sitting with his arm round her shoulders. They talked quietly, of this and that, and watched Jessie sleep. Before long, she would be introduced to the rest of the family, to her two step-cousins and to her half-brother.
But for that time, she was all theirs, the centre of the world and the completion of a long journey back to one another.
The rain fell, a brief shower, and in the kitchen, Lily finally cried herself to sleep.