"Wake up, Laura!" Teresa reached out to steady Scott's wife as she swayed sideways, dangerously close to toppling. She leaned against the kitchen worktable, a butcher knife still gripped in her hand, its razor-sharp blade pressed into the thick bread of the sandwich she had been preparing to cut in half. "You're going to hurt yourself if you're not careful! Here, let me take that.” Teresa cautiously pried the knife out of Laura’s hand and moved the plate and sandwich away from their precarious position on the edge of the table.
Sensing Teresa’s hands on hers, Laura startled, her eyelids popping wide open even as her eyes refused to focus. She was having an inordinately difficult time forcing herself to remain upright, the worktable and Teresa’s grip the only supports between her body and the hard tile floor. She rubbed her eyes briskly with her hands and then slapped her cheeks until they turned pink, a rueful smile flitting across her face. “Thank you, Teresa! I think that’s the first time I’ve ever fallen asleep on my feet. I guess I’m more tired than I thought.”
“Well, it’s no wonder,” Teresa gently said, her own smile reflected in her voice, “the way you’ve been working lately. I don’t know who’s been pushing themselves harder – you or that husband of yours. I think you two must be competing to see who can wear themselves out the fastest!” Teresa was only partially joking. The young couple had maintained a punishing schedule in recent days. Laura was determinedly trying to make up for the weeks she had spent feeling completely useless as she recuperated from injuries sustained in a nearly fatal riding accident in January. Scott carried the burden of running the ranch alone while Johnny and Murdoch were away buying new breeding stock. “Why don’t you go on up to bed, Laura? I can take Scott his sandwich.”
“That’s all right.” Laura yawned and shook her head, struggling to refocus her eyes again. “I’ll take it to him. I want to say goodnight anyway. As much as I’d like to, I doubt if I’ll be able to persuade him to put that ledger away quite yet.” She smiled at her adopted sister as she placed the plate holding the roasted beef sandwich she had prepared on a tray with a napkin, picked up her load and turned away towards the door. “But do you mind taking the coffee to him when it’s ready?”
“No, I don’t mind.” Teresa checked the coffee brewing on the stove. “Tell him I’ll bring it out in a few minutes.”
“Goodnight, then. Sleep well!” Laura padded out the door, concentrating on holding the tray firmly, not completely trusting herself to make it out of the kitchen and down the hallway with Scott’s repast intact. She paused in the doorway to the Great Room, quietly watching her beloved husband as he studied the ranch ledger resting in his lap, the familiar furrow creasing his brow as he flipped the pages back and forth. He most certainly had not been able to balance the columns yet, Laura mused, if the frustration etched on his face was any clue.
Scott looked up from his work, a smile lighting his eyes as he tossed the ledger aside and rose from the sofa to help Laura with her burden. “Here, let me take that.” He carefully took hold of the silver tray, mindful of how unsteady on her feet his wife appeared. Setting the tray on the sideboard, he took her in his arms, his hands tenderly smoothing the hair from her forehead as he relished the feel of the loose, silky strands in his fingers. “You didn’t need to bring that to me. I could’ve eaten it in the kitchen. Why aren’t you upstairs asleep, Laura? It’s very late.” He kissed her softly, his lips caressing hers before they traced across her cheek, and he buried his face in her neck.
“It is late – so late that you can consider that sandwich your breakfast!” She laughed as she ran her fingers through his hair, her hands coming to rest on the back of his neck. “I thought I might convince you to put your ledger away for the night.” And perhaps I can tell you my news…while I hold you in my arms….
“And just how did you plan to ‘convince’ me to do that?” Scott teased, a wicked grin on his face.
“I can’t tell you, Scott.” Laura shrugged in feigned innocence as she played with the buttons on his shirt. “I’ll have to show you…upstairs…” she whispered in his ear as she slowly stretched up, leaned into him, and kissed his neck. “You know, you are working too…” she started.
“I know…I know…” he moaned as he interrupted her protest with a gentle kiss. “You’ve already told me multiple times…. I’m working too hard.” He pulled her even closer to him, inhaling the sweet lavender fragrance of her hair, craving the comfort of her body against his. “So are you, Laura. Just look at you…you can barely put one foot in front of the other.” He cupped her chin in his hand as her head drooped, and she struggled to keep her eyes open, despite her eagerness to persuade him to put his work away. “Why don’t you go on to bed,” he insisted, as his thumb stroked her cheek. “I’ll be up in a few minutes. I promise.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she sighed, as she kissed the palm of his hand. “Otherwise…” She reached up and drew his face to hers, his lips soft and warm, and his touch tying her stomach in familiar knots. “You’ll have to carry me upstairs…just like last night….”
“I love you,” Scott whispered, his lips lingering as he kissed her forehead.
She swept her fingers through his bangs and nuzzled his neck with her lips, responding with a soft, “I love you more. Don’t stay up too much later, all right?”
“I won’t. Warm the sheets for me, okay?” He gently brushed his fingers across her cheek.
Laura reluctantly backed away, her feet dragging, her body nearly limp with exhaustion. As she passed through the doorway into the back hallway, she glanced over her shoulder at Scott, already picking up his ledger, a marked lack of enthusiasm on his face as he yawned and sagged backwards onto the sofa. “Oh, Scott, Teresa’s brewing your coffee. She’ll bring it to you when it’s ready.”
He stretched his long legs out in front of him and settled his book in his lap, rubbing his fatigue-clouded eyes. “She doesn’t need to do that. I can get it myself if I still want some in a little while.” As he picked up his pencil, he glanced up at Laura. “But…you go on to bed – now.”
Smiling, his head bent over the ledger, Scott missed the pensive expression on Laura’s face as she turned away, her hand briefly resting on her stomach.
Laura made a valiant effort to keep her eyes open, wanting to be awake when Scott came upstairs to bed. She contemplated how she would tell him about what she had learned that day. The time and the place had to be perfect, she had decided -- as perfect as the news itself. We could ride up to my favorite hill overlooking the ranch where Scott proposed….Or we could take a picnic up to the high meadow….Or I could wait right here and tell him while I’m wrapped in his arms….
Her mind drifted away, recalling how Scott had dropped to one knee up on “her” hillside, his formal marriage proposal catching her completely off-guard. They had already decided they would be wed, their official engagement only delayed by Laura’s determination to seek her father’s blessing; Scott’s heart-rending proposal to her up in the high meadow during her first visit to Lancer had been all she had really needed or wanted from him. And then, there was the lovely memory of their December wedding at the ranch. It had seemed like a fairy tale, the air of unreality still vibrantly clear in her mind six months later. There were times even now when she was afraid their life together was nothing more than an enchanting dream. Scott had patiently reassured her on numerous occasions he was “real” and they would “never again be apart.” Rather than becoming annoyed at her need for assurance, he was infinitely patient. He made love to her, laughing that he needed to prove to her “just how real” he was. She smiled to herself as she recalled the orchestra concert they had attended during their honeymoon in San Francisco. She had sat next to Scott in their box above the stage, the haunting melodies seeming to echo from deep within her as she twisted the wedding ring that would never leave her hand around and around, needing to feel it beneath her fingers to convince herself she wasn’t dreaming. Scott had perceptively read her thoughts, kissed her gently, and promised her, “I’m really here, Laura. I’ll always be here.”
Laura pulled the bedcovers up to her chin and chuckled softly as she recalled Johnny’s recent comment that he thought she and his brother shared “the same mind.” They did read each other’s thoughts so well, communicating without the need for words and often finishing sentences for each other. She stretched, wiggled her toes, and massaged her eyes, willing them to stay open. She admitted to herself she was a little surprised Scott hadn’t already guessed she was expecting their first child. But then, she had been so near death in January even she had thought her chronic fatigue and nausea were the residual effects of her illness; several missed monthly cycles she merely assumed to be her body’s way of coping with the insult it had endured. Furthermore, the past few months had been unrelentingly busy for them both. Spring roundup, calving, and branding for Scott, and learning to cook, following Teresa’s patient instructions about how to plant and care for the kitchen garden, and keeping up with the constant mending, for her. Had he not been completely distracted by the unyielding needs of the ranch, and so often away from the hacienda from dawn until, nearly dropping with exhaustion, he returned to halfheartedly eat his dinner and collapse into bed, Laura had no doubt her exceptionally attentive husband would have noticed her behavior had changed in several not so subtle ways. She found herself falling asleep at the oddest times, often in the middle of the morning or during lunch. Sometimes she’d eat ravenously; at other times, she couldn’t bear the sight or even the smell of food.
As she battled to stay awake, Laura cast her mind back to earlier that day when an unexpected visit from the doctor had left her in a whirl. Lunch had been an unusually quiet affair. With Murdoch and Johnny away and Scott out surveying fence lines, Teresa, Maria, and Laura had had the kitchen to themselves.
“We need to water and weed the garden,” Teresa commented as she finished her last bit of bread. “It’s been so warm and dry I’m afraid we’ll end up with nothing but a crop of weeds.” She glanced up at Laura, amused that the young wife was once again fighting to keep her eyes open.
Maria rose from the table and picked up Laura’s plate and silverware, whispering in her ear, “Despierta, mi niña. El almuerzo se ha terminado.” Wake up, my little one. Lunch is finished.
Laura jerked awake, grinning sheepishly when she saw the two women staring at her, laughter in their eyes. “How long was I asleep that time?”
“Oh, not long,” Teresa replied with a smile. “Not as long as you were after breakfast this morning. Honestly, Laura, you need to slow down.”
“I’m fine…just a little tired,” Laura countered. “I’ll make a deal with you. If the two of you can weed and water the garden, I’ll clean up the kitchen. I’ll fix myself some tea – that usually wakes me up.” She started stacking the dishes in the sink as the other two women left the kitchen, and she put the kettle on the stove to make her tea.
Settling down to her cup of tea after washing, drying and storing away the lunch dishes, Laura felt the drowsiness engulf her again. It was almost as though she had been drugged. No matter how determined she was to stay awake, her eyes rolled up in her head as she sat at the kitchen table.
She awakened to a touch on her shoulder and Sam Jenkins’ face drifting in and out of focus. “Sam?” She rubbed her eyes and blinked.
“Well, you are breathing! I thought I’d better be sure, you were so quiet. How are you, Laura?” The kindly old doctor was very fond of Scott’s bride.
“I’m all right…I guess….” Laura responded, still massaging her eyelids with her fingers. Lunch didn’t seem to be sitting too well on her stomach, either. She paused before continuing, “What brings you out here?”
“Pete gashed his arm pretty badly loading a wagon with rolls of barbed wire. Had to stitch him up. While I was out here, I checked on several of the children as well. Thought I’d see if there was any coffee on before I drive back to town. Murdoch and Johnny back yet?”
“No, they’ll be back sometime tomorrow. How’s Pete’s arm?” She rose somewhat unsteadily from the table. “There’s coffee on the stove. I’ll fix you a cup.”
“Oh, Pete’ll be fine – nothing a few days off won’t cure.” The doctor motioned for Laura to sit back down. “I can help myself. You rest.” After pouring a cup of coffee, Sam took a seat at the table next to Laura.
“Actually, Sam,” she started, “I was thinking about coming into town to see you sometime this week or next.”
“Is that so?” Sam took a sip of his coffee. “You’re not feeling well?”
“It’s not that I’m feeling badly,” she said quickly. “It’s that I just don’t seem to be recovering from the pneumonia as well as I had expected. It’s been almost five months, but I’m still tired a great deal of the time, and my appetite isn’t very good. Some mornings when I wake up I’m so nauseated, I almost have to dash for the wash basin.”
“Hmmm…” Sam turned his coffee cup in his fingers. “Laura, as your physician, can I ask you a very personal question?”
All she could think at that moment was that he might as well ask her a “personal question.” He had seen her unclothed in January when she was so deathly ill. That was pretty damn “personal” as far as she was concerned. “Certainly.”
“I’ll try to be delicate,” he promised. “When was your last monthly cycle?”
Laura’s face colored slightly, and her voice trembled. “The last I remember was in early March, I think. I don’t remember February too well since I was so sick and trying to recover. We’ve been so busy this spring that I haven’t given it much thought. I assumed my illness had thrown my cycles into disarray. That’s never happened before, but….” She shrugged and took a sip of her tea.
“So you haven’t had any cycles since at least early March – roughly three months now.” Sam continued when she nodded in confirmation, “And…ummm…have you had any tenderness in your…chest?”
Again she blushed. “Yes,” she whispered.
“The fatigue, the nausea, the missed cycles….” Sam took her hand in his. “Laura you’re not feeling any residual effects of your illness – you’re with child.”
Her face must have held a totally blank expression, Laura later realized, as Sam seemed to feel it necessary to rephrase his pronouncement.
“You’re going to have a baby, Laura. I would expect your confinement to be sometime in mid-December.”
“A baby?” She still wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly. “But, how…?”
Sam chuckled as her face turned a deep shade of red. “My dear, I’m not sure you really need me to answer that question. I will, however, need to see you in my office as soon as you're able to come to town.”
After the doctor had taken his leave, Laura had dropped into her kitchen chair, still reeling from his news. She knew Sam must think her very naïve not to have recognized the changes in her body. But she had lost her mother at the age of two, and there was simply no one else with whom she could discuss “female” matters. Her maid, Katie, had been her primary source of information regarding such issues, but Katie was no older than she was and had been proven wrong on a number of occasions. Laura’s cousins, Lily and Sarah, had both had babies, but neither had thought it proper to discuss their experience with their younger relative. And, then, she had to admit to herself she hadn’t dared to hope she might be pregnant. Just like her marriage to Scott, it was all too good to be true, too much to expect from her life.
A warm breeze gusted through the open window and snatched at the curtains, interrupting Laura’s reverie. Her thoughts still filled with how she would tell her husband the amazing news, she rolled over to Scott’s side of the bed, turned on her side, and tucked his pillow under her arm. That way, she knew he’d have to wake her up when he finally retired for the night. Laura anticipated what he would do – he’d tiptoe into their room, gently roll her over, crawl in beside her, and take her in his arms, his body warm and comfortable against hers. Despite her stubborn determination to stay awake, though, her eyelids grew impossibly heavy as dreamless sleep gathered her up and overwhelmed her best intentions with its own soothing touch.
Laura awakened the next morning, still in the same position and still lying on her husband’s side of the bed. Rubbing her eyes, she remembered with a wry smile how Scott had sent her on to bed, protesting about how fatigued she looked when he was beyond exhaustion himself. He must’ve fallen asleep on the sofa with that ledger, she decided, as she turned onto her back and stretched, resting her hands on her belly. “Good morning, little Lancer,” she whispered, thinking she would thrill Scott with her news that very day. Somehow, she’d have to arrange a special time alone with him, manage to lure him away from his work for even a few precious minutes. As much as she wanted to steal him away from his duties for the whole day, imagining the night before all the perfect places she might tell him about the baby, she realized, in the light of day, the most important thing was that she not delay any further. He needed to know as surely as she needed to tell him.
She was grateful to wake up feeling hungry; so many mornings recently she had opened her eyes to her stomach roiling, the morning sickness nearly taking on a life of its own. Lingering in bed, she listened to the cows lowing in the pasture and the horses pacing in the paddock, nickering in anticipation of their own morning feed. It didn’t seem possible to her to feel such unrestrained happiness. Her reunion with Scott after six agonizing years apart was nothing short of miraculous, each of them only too aware of how entirely unlikely it had been that they would find their way back to each other after so much time and distance had separated them.
Her father’s blatant refusal to offer his blessing on their marriage, coupled with Harlan Garrett’s conspicuous silence in response to his grandson’s letter inviting him to the wedding, was incomprehensible. But Scott and Laura had refused to allow the longstanding feud between the two bitter old men to mar the infinite bliss they had rediscovered in each other, and they were determined nothing would ever come between them again.
Stretching and yawning, Laura pushed her hair from her face and crawled out of bed. She washed up and dressed slowly, donning a dark green skirt Scott particularly favored, and a lace-trimmed blouse she usually reserved for special occasions. Telling her husband she was expecting their child certainly qualified as a “special occasion,” she mused, the excitement she felt growing by the minute. Laura could picture his face as she told him, the look in his beloved eyes changing from wonder, to joy, to passion as he pulled her into his arms.
She hurried down the back stairs and through the hallway to the kitchen, the tempting smell of bacon and eggs wafting through the air, reminding her how exceptionally hungry she felt. Teresa was standing at the stove, a long fork in her hand, the bacon popping and sizzling in the skillet as she turned it, deftly avoiding the grease as it sputtered. Maria, the Lancer housekeeper, wielded a biscuit cutter, the dough rolled out on the worktable in front of her.
“Good morning, Teresa!” Laura greeted the young woman with a smile and a quick peck to her cheek. “Buenos dias, Maria!” The housekeeper nodded in approval, her broad face creased with a generous smile. Fluent in French, Laura had spent a good portion of her time, while she recuperated from her broken ankle, in the kitchen learning Spanish under Maria’s gentle tutelage. “Have you seen Scott this morning?” She asked Teresa as she busied herself setting the table for breakfast, carefully arranging Teresa’s favorite blue and pink teacups on the table and selecting silverware from the cupboard drawer.
“No, I haven’t,” Teresa replied as she removed the skillet from the stove and flipped the bacon onto a platter. Unable to stifle a grin, she added, “Don’t tell me he stayed up all night working?”
never came to bed,” Laura remarked with a shy smile as she poured coffee for
each of them and took her seat at the table. “I think he probably fell
asleep on the sofa with that ledger. I imagine he’s out in the barn now,
checking on Celeste. He’s been so worried about her.” Laura referred to
her chestnut mare, a gift from Scott just prior to their wedding. After she
and the horse had fallen during a violent storm in January when the mountain
road washed out from beneath them, Johnny had bred the mare to a new
palomino stallion he had purchased.
“How’s she doing?” Teresa set the platters of bacon and eggs on the table, and took a sip of her coffee. She winked at Laura, a devilish glint in her eyes. “The way Scott’s worried over that mare, I can’t imagine how he’ll behave with his own child someday!”
“He certainly has been worried about her.” Laura smiled at the irony of Teresa’s words, thinking how very soon they would all find out how Scott would “behave with his own child.” “But colic definitely isn’t something to take lightly. I don’t know who’d be more upset if Celeste loses her foal, Scott or Johnny. They already have such high expectations for that horse, and it isn’t even due for at least eight more months!” She stood up, took another quick sip of her coffee, and patted her mouth with her napkin. “I think I’ll walk out to the barn and see how they’re doing. I’ll let Scott know that breakfast’s ready.”
Laura peeked around the partially open barn door, her eyes taking a minute to adjust from the bright light outside to the dim shadows of the barn. Celeste was standing alone in her stall, resting contentedly, her left hind hoof tilted onto her toe as she dozed. “Scott?” Laura called out, crossing through the main barn and into the tack room. She noticed that his saddle still rested on its rack, and his horse’s bridle hung undisturbed from its hook on the wall. Turning around, she walked purposefully back out of the barn and around to the side paddock. Several of the hands had saddled their own horses and were preparing to ride out. They politely tipped their hats to her as they mounted up. Scott’s bay gelding, Quincy, paced up and down the fence line, tossing his head about, clearly eager to join the others; he nickered softly to her in greeting and threw his head over the fence. She ran her hand down his face and rubbed his nose, feeling his whiskers tickle her palm, his breath warm on her arm. “Where’s Scott, Quince? Huh, boy? Have you seen him this morning?” The horse responded by trying to nibble on her fingers.
he have gone?
back towards the house, thinking
He tipped his hat respectfully, “Miz Lancer.” His horse sidestepped, impatient to move on with the other cowponies as they headed down the road towards the north range.
“Good morning, Walt.” She shielded her eyes from the glare of the early morning sun with her hand as she looked up at the young cowboy. “Have you by any chance seen Scott this morning? Teresa and I thought he might like some breakfast.”
“No, ma’am. I haven’t seen ‘im this mornin’. When he didn’t show up for mornin’ orders, Cipriano took over and did ‘em.”
“He didn’t come out this morning?” Laura’s concern deepened, as she contemplated why Scott, so habitually organized and punctual, had not met with the hands to assign the daily tasks.
“No, ma’am.” Walt tipped his hat again as his horse danced beneath him. “Ma’am, if you’ll excuse me, I…” He looked off anxiously at the hands leaving without him.
“Thank you, Walt. I won’t keep you.” Laura watched him ride away, and she turned back to the house, her heart and mind troubled, a growing sense of unease churning in the pit of her stomach.
Entering through the courtyard gate, Laura glanced in the open door to the bathhouse, finding it as empty as the barn had been. She hurried into the house through the door leading into the back hallway, and ran up the stairs to their bedroom. There was still no sign of her husband there. Increasingly baffled as to where he might be, and more than a little apprehensive, she descended the main staircase into the front hallway. Finding Scott’s hat hanging neatly on the hall tree next to the front door, along with his gun belt, Laura walked into the Great Room, half expecting to still see signs of his night spent on the sofa, the impression of where his body had rested, the cushions tossed about and disheveled; but everything was pristine, and there was no visible sign he had been there at all. She rushed back to the kitchen, fighting to control the rising tide of panic that had bile clogging the back of her throat. “Teresa!”
Hearing the urgency in her sister’s voice, Teresa wiped her hands, wet from washing cookware, on her apron and met Laura at the kitchen door. “What’s wrong, Laura?”
“It’s Scott…I can’t find him anywhere, and Walt said he didn’t come out for morning orders, and Quincy’s still in the paddock. His hat and gun belt are in the front hall. He’s just disappeared, Teresa! It’s not like him…something’s terribly wrong! I can feel it…. he’s hurt or in trouble or …” The words came out in short bursts as Laura struggled to breathe through the fear that gripped her.
“Calm down, Laura. Take a deep breath. Let’s think about this.” Teresa took Laura’s hands in hers and held onto them firmly, her voice more confident than she felt. “There has to be an explanation.”
Laura closed her eyes briefly and slowed her breathing, trying to settle herself. “Did he say anything when you took his coffee to him last night? When I went to bed, he was still working on the ledger.” She held tightly onto Teresa’s hands, struggling to maintain some sense of composure.
“He wasn’t there when I took the coffee out.” Teresa gently urged Laura over to the table, pulled out a chair for her, and took a seat herself. She worried that all the color had drained from Laura’s face, and she looked disturbingly close to collapsing. “Come to think of it, the ledger was laying on one of the chairs, and the sandwich you had made him was gone. The empty plate was sitting on the side table.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?” Laura snapped, barely able to conceal her frustration. “Do you remember anything else, Teresa, even something small? It might be important.” Laura twisted her wedding band on her finger, hoping she was overreacting, praying Scott would walk in the door any minute and take her in his arms, laughing as he gently kissed away her worries.
“Well…” Teresa’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “One of the French doors was open. I pulled it closed, and I put the ledger back on Murdoch’s desk. Then I went on up to bed. I thought maybe Scott had opened the door to get some cool air on his face to help keep him awake, but then he’d gone on to bed and forgotten he’d left it open.”
“Did you hear anything unusual during the night? I have to admit I was so exhausted I fell asleep very quickly. I didn’t wake up at all until I heard the rooster crow at dawn.”
“No,” Teresa replied, her brow creased. “I didn’t hear anything beyond the usual night noises.” She paused, choosing her words carefully, clearly not wanting to alarm Laura further with her own concerns. “Murdoch and Johnny’ll be back sometime today, but I don’t know when. Maybe we should have some of the hands look for Scott in the meantime?”
Laura stood up and smoothed the front of her skirt. “You do that, Teresa. It might be hours before Johnny and Murdoch get home.” Her voice more determined, she added, “I can start looking for him myself. I’m going to go change and ride out.”
“Laura, you can’t ride out alone!” Teresa grabbed for Laura’s hand in an attempt to restrain her. “Scott wouldn’t want you to. He’ll be furious! Remember what happened to you the last time you did that?”
“Of course I remember!” Laura retorted. “I almost died. I don’t need to be reminded of that. But I can’t just do nothing, Teresa. I won’t sit here while my husband is out there somewhere…maybe hurt…maybe….” Refusing to verbalize the possibilities running through her imagination, Laura pulled away and spun on her heel, practically running for the door. “I’m going out to look for him, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.”
Laura descended, a determined set to her jaw, on Dave, one of the newer ranch hands, as he was cleaning stalls in the barn. “Good morning, Dave.” Barely noticing his courteous nod, she continued. “I would very much appreciate it if you would saddle Quincy for me.” She couldn’t explain it, even to herself, but she needed, at that moment, to ride Scott’s horse, to feel that connection with him, hoping somehow the horse might intuitively lead her to its master.
“But, Mrs. Lancer…” the young man started to protest.
“Dave, I really don’t have time to explain right now,” she interrupted him sharply. Seeing the startled look on his face, she continued softly, pleading with him, “Please just help me…please hurry...”
“Yes, ma’am,” he stuttered, obviously thinking maybe it wouldn’t be an especially good idea to refuse a request from the boss’s wife. He leaned the pitchfork against the wall and hurried to the tack room to retrieve her saddle, assuring her, “It’ll just take me a minute.”
It seemed to take him an eternity. Laura paced back and forth, wringing her hands and again turning her wedding band on her finger as she waited for him to groom and saddle the gelding. She climbed into her saddle, gathered the reins and trotted out of the paddock. The horse was at a full gallop by the time they passed under the Lancer arch, heading towards the mountains and Morro Coyo.
Laura rode instinctively to the only place she could think to head for, hoping against hope, praying she would either find her husband along the way or she would catch some glimpse of him from the top of the hill where he had proposed. She reined his horse in, Quincy snorting and dancing in place, exhilarated by his morning run. Despite the coolness of the early morning air, his coat glistened with sweat, the reins rubbing the moisture on his neck into rivulets of foam. Laura patted his neck distractedly, trying to calm the excited animal as she looked out over the roads and pastures that stretched beyond the hacienda to the mountains that marked the far borders of the ranch. From her vantage point she could see the riders as they left the barnyard – the cowhands riding out towards Oak Ridge on orders from Teresa to look for Scott. She scanned the vista for any other movement, any sign, anything, her heart pounding and her breath coming in ragged gasps. Quincy reared slightly, and yanked at the reins, tossing his head in eagerness to resume his run, droplets of his saliva leaving moist flecks on Laura’s skirt.
“Where are you, Scott?” Laura sobbed, giving in to the panic she had tried so hard to stifle. Where are you? You wouldn’t just leave…someone or something had to have taken you away…. But why? What if you’re hurt? What if….no…don’t think that, Laura...we just found each other again...it’s not fair…we’re so happy now…I love you so much…I need you…our baby needs you….Her thoughts raced, tears blurring her vision as she fought to hang onto Scott’s horse as he spun in circles, his hooves beating up clouds of dust. Baby…our baby…Oh, God, what am I doing out here? The reality of how vulnerable she was, isolated from the hacienda on a desolate hillside, clinging to a horse who was difficult to control under the best of circumstances, sank into her distraught mind. Her stomach churned, and she leaned over and vomited the remnants of her morning coffee and the previous night’s dinner. Startled, Quincy tried to bolt. Laura sawed at his mouth, abandoning her attempts to calm him with gentleness, relieved when he finally stopped and backed up in his determination to ease the pressure in his mouth. This is crazy…what was I thinking? I need to go home…I can’t put our baby in danger like this…Teresa’s right…Scott will be livid when he finds out.... She could see her husband, his eyes flinty gray and his jaw clenched as he took her to task for yet again endangering her life, and worse still, putting their baby’s life in jeopardy. His voice echoed in her mind, his words as clear as they had been back in January when she had recovered sufficiently from her injuries and the pneumonia for him to forbid her to ride out again by herself. “Have I made myself perfectly clear, Laura? You are not to ride so much as out of the paddock by yourself. This is not Boston. I will not risk losing you like that again….” Giving the horse his head, she dejectedly rode back towards the house, her tears leaving jagged streaks through the dust on her face.
A little more than an hour after she had headed out, Laura rode slowly into the barnyard, her shoulders aching from her efforts to keep Quincy under control. Murdoch, his back to the gate as he stood talking to a group of cowhands, glanced over his shoulder as she rode in, his craggy face pinched with apprehension. Barranca stood at the hitching post, stamping his hooves, pitching his head around, and twitching his tail in his impatience to move on. Johnny slung a canteen over the horn of his saddle and strode over to meet Laura, his handsome features registering momentary relief before his eyes darkened with worry-induced anger towards her.
“What do you think you’re doing, Laura?” Johnny grabbed Quincy’s reins and held the gelding still as his sister-in-law wearily dismounted.
“Scott’s missing,” she sobbed as she wiped her face with her gloved hands, smearing the dust on her cheeks into reddened tracks of mud. “I can’t find him, Johnny….I had to try….But he’s just gone....”
“I know….Teresa told Murdoch and me what happened. We’re goin’ out to look for him now. But you shouldn’t‘ve ridden out alone. I thought you’d learned your lesson the last time….”
“I’ve already had this conversation with Teresa.” Laura lifted her chin in defiance. “And I’m going back out with you.” She determinedly turned back to the horse and attempted to climb into her saddle as Quincy side-stepped and swung his hindquarters away from her.
“No, you’re not. You’re gonna stay here and wait with Teresa.” Johnny held firmly onto Quincy’s reins with his left hand and took Laura’s arm with his right.
“Johnny, I’ll tell you the same thing I told Teresa. I will not sit here while Scott is out there somewhere. He needs me. I will go with you, and I dare you to try to stop me!” She tried to pull her arm away, refusing to loosen her grip on the reins. She glared at him, demanding, “I’ll thank you to let go of my arm.”
The barnyard became deathly quiet, and the hands and Murdoch all looked up in astonishment as Johnny’s angry voice echoed loudly, his words unmistakable in the still morning air. “Will you be quiet and listen to me for once, Laura? Can’t you ever just listen and do as you’re told?”
Laura bit her lip and glanced away, embarrassed by the unwanted attention they had attracted.
“Look at me.” Johnny touched her cheek gently, his voice and eyes softening.
She shook her head back and forth slightly, blinking hard to try to clear the tears from her eyes. Feeling the vomit again rise in the back of her throat, she gagged, her hand instinctively pressing against her stomach.
“Look at me, Laura,” he implored again. “Please. I didn’t mean to yell at you. He’s my brother. I’m worried sick about him too.” He wiped some of the dirt from her cheek with his thumb.
She managed to meet his eyes, noting that Murdoch and the hands had discretely turned their attention back to packing their saddlebags in preparation for their search.
“I know you want to help us find Scott. I understand. But you’re in no shape to be riding around out there. It might be hours before we find him.” Johnny took her hand and held it tightly. “Teresa’s frantic right now, too. Think about her. She needs you to stay with her.”
“Please let me go! I’m fine, Johnny…really…my ankle barely hurts any more. I know Teresa will understand….Maria’ll stay with her. I have to do something.” Laura clung to his hand, begging, desperate to make him change his mind and let her ride out.
Johnny’s intense gaze seemed to look right through her. “I wasn’t talking about your ankle, Laura.” He paused, his eyes quickly assessing her from head to toe. “Does Scott know?
“Know what?” Laura could feel the color rising in her cheeks, and she pulled her hand from his.
His voice was barely above a whisper, so soft Laura had to lean towards him to hear his words. “About his baby?”
“How…?” Laura prayed that Murdoch and the other men hadn’t noticed the shock as it registered across her face. They, mercifully, kept on working, methodically saddling their horses and checking and packing their gear.
“I didn’t get to be as old as I am without being real observant, Laura. You’ve been falling asleep everywhere, you can barely look at food half the time without turnin’ green, your eyes have that special kind of glow to them….Scott’s either half-blind or he’s just too busy and tired to notice. I’ll go with tired and distracted – he’s too sharp not to have figured it out otherwise. So, I’ll ask you again. Does he know?”
“No,” she whispered back, her voice catching in her throat. “No, Johnny, he doesn’t know. I was going to tell him today. I wanted to tell him last night – I just saw Dr. Jenkins when he was out here yesterday stitching up Pete’s arm. But Scott was so preoccupied with the ledgers and everything he needed to do with Murdoch and you away. I wanted to find a special time to tell him…a special place…and now he’s gone.” Her voice broke as the tears streamed down her face, and she threw herself into her brother-in-law’s arms. “You’ve got to find him for me…. You found me before, you can find him now…. Please, Johnny…you’ve got to bring him home to me.”
Johnny held Laura tightly, rocking her back and forth, his own eyes filling with tears as he stroked her back and hair. He held her away and wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs. “If he’s out there, we’ll find him, Laura. He can’t have gotten far since last night.” He kissed her on the cheek and gently pulled the reins from her clenched fingers. “Now, you go back in the house and stay with Teresa. She needs you.” He gave her a soft nudge on her back and motioned with his head towards the hacienda. “Go on. I’ll get Quince taken care of.”
She stumbled away towards the house, her eyes still blurred with tears, her feet finding their way more from habit than from purpose. Murdoch intercepted her before she got to the paddock gate, and he folded her in his arms, nearly picking her up off her feet.
“Laura, darling, we’re going to find him and bring him home. He’ll be all right. You have to believe that.”
Nodding mutely, Laura pressed her face into her father-in-law’s chest. In the short time she had been married to Scott, Murdoch Lancer had become more of a father to her than her own had ever been. “Do you have any idea what could have happened to him, Murdoch?” She clung to his vest, not wanting to let go, thinking somehow she might gain strength from the man who had given her the only thing in life she had ever truly needed – his son.
“Not really. Pete said he thought he heard riders late last night. But he’d had a little too much whiskey to numb the pain in his arm…he couldn’t be sure. All I can guess is that, for some unknown reason, someone came in here and took Scott by surprise.” Murdoch gently touched her face with his huge hand. “But wherever he is, we’ll find him. And we will bring him back to you.”
“Please,” she managed to choke out before she turned away to the house.
Teresa met her at the kitchen door, distraught, her huge blue eyes filled with despair. “Laura, you’re back…you’re safe! I was so worried about you! Here, let me fix you a cup of tea. You haven’t even had your breakfast yet. You must be starved….”
“Stop, Teresa….Please….” Laura took her by the hands. “Slow down a little. I can’t think that fast right now.”
“Well…” Teresa pulled out a chair at the kitchen table. “Why don’t you sit right here and I’ll make you that tea.”
“I will, but I need to go upstairs and wash up and change. I don’t want Scott to see me so dirty and disheveled. I won’t be a minute. Tea would be good, but don’t worry about breakfast…I don’t think I could eat anything anyway.”
As she checked her reflection in her dressing table mirror, her eyes were drawn to the photograph taken on their wedding day. She picked it up from the table and sank down on the edge of their bed, holding the picture gently in her lap. Tracing Scott’s face in the portrait with her finger, she closed her eyes. She could almost feel the arch of his eyebrows, the curve of his cheeks, and the deep dimples that creased his face when he smiled. Their wedding portrait had been the source of a great deal of banter between them over the last six months. Laura allowed herself a tiny smile through her tears as she remembered how flustered the photographer had become with them. He had wanted to set up his bulky equipment outside, and he was irritated when Scott had insisted that he would not have his bride shivering in the cold. So, the photographer had lugged his heavy cases into the hacienda, and Scott directed him to the massive front hallway where the chandeliers burned brightly and there was room for the large camera. After the wedding, when they were ready to have their portrait taken, the photographer had produced a chair for Scott to sit in. He motioned for the groom to take his place in the chair, with the bride standing behind him, her hand on his shoulder. Scott shook his head in disagreement and simply said, “No.”
The photographer had responded testily, “What do you mean, ‘no’, Mr. Lancer? This is the way I believe all proper wedding portraits should be taken.”
“And I said ‘no’, Mr. Hawkins. We will stand over here by the main staircase, just so.” And Scott led Laura over to the foot of the stairs and put his arms around her waist.
“But, Mr. Lancer, that simply won’t do….it’s not…..”
“Proper, Mr. Hawkins?” Scott’s eyes twinkled in barely-suppressed humor.
“No, Mr. Lancer it is not a proper arrangement for a portrait. You should stand here…” He directed Scott to stand separate from Laura. “Mrs. Lancer…there you are…you can stand right next to your new husband.” The man pushed and pulled Laura into position next to Scott.
“No, Mr. Hawkins,” Scott interrupted him again. “She will not stand next to me; she will stand in front of me just as I demonstrated.”
“Scott, maybe we should do what he….” Laura could sense her husband was up to something, and she was beginning to feel like a marionette on a string pulled back and forth between the two men.
“Just stand in front of me, Laura. Here, I’ll put my arms around you and hold your hands under your bouquet. It’ll be a lovely portrait.”
“Well, it’s really not a proper wedding portrait in my opinion, but if that’s what you want….” The photographer was obviously running out of patience with his clients.
“It’s what we want,” Scott quickly assured the man. Laura backed up against him, his arms encircling her waist, and his hands wrapped around hers underneath the enormous rose and baby’s breath bouquet she held.
The photographer inserted the plate into his camera and ordered them to hold still until he told them otherwise. It was then that Scott started rubbing circles on her stomach with his thumb. She sucked in a breath and turned to look up at him, ruining the potential image on the photographic plate. Mr. Hawkins glared at her as he yanked the plate from the camera and loaded a second one.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hawkins, I’m not used to standing still. I’ll try harder. I promise.” She whispered firmly to Scott, “Stop doing that!”
“Doing what?” He questioned, a boyish grin on his face.
The photographer’s eyebrows rose several inches.
“You know precisely what you’re doing to me,” she whispered again.
“Laura, I’m simply holding your hands…I have no idea why you’re unable to stand still. But I’m sure the photographer would love to move on. Right, Mr. Hawkins?”
“Just so, Mr. Lancer. I’m ready now. Would you two please, please hold still!”
Scott’s fingers danced a slow tango across her knuckles and stomach again, once more causing Laura to draw a deep breath, and she delicately, but purposefully, elbowed her husband in the ribs, amused when he grunted softly in protest. Hawkins threw his hands in the air and walked away from his camera for a minute, annoyed and clearly trying to decide just how much he really needed that bank draft.
It took two more attempts before the portrait resting in Laura’s lap was successfully taken. If she looked closely, she was sure she saw the devilment in Scott’s eyes as he tried to determine how far she’d let his fingers rove under the bouquet before she’d move, ruining the exposure. She knew her face displayed the effort to suppress her own mirth, while wanting desperately to respond to his touch. He most definitely had known exactly what he was doing to her. When the photographer had gratefully dragged his equipment back into the cases and left in a huff, Laura drew Scott aside to confront him over his antics. Before she could say a word, he had pulled her into his arms and kissed her, stifling all her protests with his lips.
“Oh, Scott….” Laura wiped her eyes with the back of her hand as she stared at the image of the man she had loved with a tenacity that had defied time and reason. She fingered the quilt that covered their bed, remembering the cold winter nights they had spent wrapped up in its warmth and in each other. Will I ever hold you here again? She couldn’t help but recall their wedding night, celebrated in this bed at her insistence, rather than at a cold and impersonal hotel. Scott had been unfailingly tender and careful with her, as she had trusted he would be. Are we just not meant to be together? Is it all simply over before we’ve even had a chance to be happy? And our baby…is he destined to grow up without his own father as well? The sound of the riders leaving the barnyard interrupted her thoughts. Carefully replacing her wedding portrait on the dressing table, Laura slowly made her way down the back stairs to the kitchen, her body aching and exhausted, and her mind clouded with an overwhelming sense of foreboding.
“I owe you an apology, Teresa.” Laura touched the young woman on the shoulder as she drooped wearily into the chair next to her at the kitchen table. “I’m so sorry I snapped at you this morning. Please forgive me.”
Teresa’s face was creased with the same strain they all were feeling. “You don’t need to apologize, Laura. I know how worried you are about Scott. We all are. If it was my husband missing, I’d have done the same thing.”
“That may be true, but you didn’t deserve to be treated so badly, and I do know how worried you are too,” Laura replied as she took a sip of her tea. She fingered the delicate heart-shaped pendant, its outline set with emeralds, she had chosen to wear on a day that was proving to be more memorable than she could ever have imagined, and not for the reasons she had anticipated when she had risen that morning.
“Was that your mother’s necklace too?” Teresa subtly changed the subject, noticing that Laura was not wearing her silver Lancer ‘L’, a Christmas gift from Scott that usually adorned her neck. “I know you have that lovely sapphire necklace that belonged to her.” Teresa could see Laura needed a distraction; dwelling on all the possibilities that were obviously running through her head was not going to do her any good, either mentally or physically. And truth be told, Teresa needed the same distraction. It wasn’t like Scott to abruptly disappear, and the same dark thoughts were running through her own mind. Their worry dragged both women into the depths of despair. They somehow needed to try to remain positive.
“No, it didn’t belong to my mother.” Laura stared at the worn, scratched surface of the old kitchen table thinking how closely her life seemed to resemble it…a fine patina, gouged and scarred by events far beyond its control. “It was a gift from Scott for my sixteenth birthday.”
Her pale features took on a wistful expression as Laura recalled the day her relationship with Scott had changed forever. She had wanted to spend that birthday out at the country house in Waltham. Her father had presented her with the gift of a new mare, and Laura was eager to see how well she could jump. It was only April, and foxhunting season wouldn’t begin again until the fall, but, if she had her way, Scott and his buddy, Andrew Prescott, would visit and the three friends would tear around the countryside west of Boston, launching their horses at everything in their path. Father, however, had insisted they remain at the Beacon Hill house where he organized an extravagant dinner party and formal ball in her honor. Unfortunately, the elaborately planned soiree had nothing to do with a father indulging his only daughter on her sixteenth birthday, surrounded by the few friends he allowed her to associate with; no, it was merely a façade to advance his own social status by inviting a veritable who’s who of the Boston business community and their wives. Scott had only been allowed to attend as her escort because he was the grandson of Harlan Garrett, one of the most influential businessmen in Boston and one Robert MacNeill was determined to retain as a powerful ally.
“It’s terribly warm in here,” Scott commented as they finished their waltz together. He motioned towards the open French doors that led into the rear garden. “Would you care for some fresh air?”
Laura surveyed the room, noting her father and Scott’s grandfather were deep in conversation, sipping their drinks by the fireplace, no doubt plotting yet another corporate takeover or some complicated business venture. “It is warm in here…stuffy, in fact. I’d love some fresh air.” She grinned at Scott as she took his arm. “Why don’t we take a walk?” They slipped out into the cool night air, strolling along the brick path behind the mansion. “I wish I could’ve spent the week at the farm,” she remarked, glancing up at the young man whom she had considered to be her best friend since the day she could walk. “But, maybe it’s better this way. You and Drew have school, so I would’ve been out there alone.”
“True,” Scott sighed, “but this is hardly the birthday party you would’ve wanted. Your father’s outdone himself yet again.” He smiled ruefully at her as he stopped and took her by the hand. “But, then, he’s always done what’s ‘best’ for you, hasn’t he?”
Laura giggled as she held onto his hand tightly. “Oh, Scott, don’t be so cynical. Father really does try to do what he thinks best for me. He’s just not very good at it, is he?”
“No, I don’t think he is. But…on a more pleasant note….” Scott reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small package, wrapped in silvery tissue paper. “It is your special day, and I have a little gift for you.”
She let go of his hand and hesitantly accepted the gift from him. “You didn’t need to give me anything, Scott. Just tolerating this spectacle with me is enough.”
“But I wanted to give you this. Go ahead…open it.” Scott waited expectantly as she carefully pulled the ribbon loose and tore away the paper.
The small polished wooden jewelry box held a heart-shaped pendant encrusted with emeralds. “Oh, Scott…it’s beautiful! You really shouldn’t have….” Laura carefully removed the delicate necklace from its case, admiring the way it sparkled as it caught the reflection of the lights streaming from the house. “Here, help me put it on.” She felt Scott’s hands tremble slightly as he hooked the tiny chain around her neck, and his fingers lingered on her shoulders.
“The emeralds reminded me of your beautiful eyes.” Scott gently traced her eyebrow with his fingertip. He took her face in his hands and kissed her lips softly in a way he had never done before, going far beyond the affectionate pecks on the cheek he had given her in the past. “Mac….” His voice was barely audible.
She was certain he could hear her heart racing; he must surely have noticed she had stopped breathing. “You haven’t called me that in a very long time,” she whispered as she responded to him, wrapping her arms around his neck, loving the feel of his lips against her face and hair.
“It didn’t seem right to use a child’s nickname for the woman I’ve fallen so completely and hopelessly in love with….”
“Am I dreaming?” Laura touched his cheek softly with tips of her fingers. She wondered if he had really said the words she had desperately longed to hear. He had declared his love for her in her own imagination so many times. But had he really just stood there in front of her and echoed her thoughts so perfectly?
“No, Laura, you’re not dreaming,” Scott smiled indulgently at her as he touched his fingers to her lips. “I thought that kiss was rather convincing.”
“I think I’ll require a great deal of ‘convincing,’” she laughingly replied as she leaned into him. Her face took on a more pensive expression as she admitted, “I love you so much, Scott Lancer. I’ve always loved you….”
He pulled her closely against him, the feel of his body and his lips against hers making her feel strangely weak in the knees. “I suppose I’ll need to speak with your father, then,” Scott commented softly, “and formally ask his permission to call on you.”
“Yes, I suppose you should,” Laura breathed. “He would think it proper. You should also talk to Drew.”
“Why?” Scott lifted an eyebrow as he briefly held her away from him and teased, “Is he in love with you too?”
Laura swatted him on the chest. “Of course not! But he should know. He’s your best friend.”
“And you don’t think he’s already noticed what was happening between us, Laura?”
That had been April of 1862, and they remembered those days as among the happiest of their lives. It was before her father’s business relationship with Garrett deteriorated, prompting him to forbid her to have any contact with Scott. Thereafter, the two young lovers had been forced to see each other surreptitiously, catching stolen moments here and there with the help of Laura’s maid, Katie. Or they had made good use of her father’s extended business trips, savoring the unfettered time it gave them to spend together. Those were the carefree months before Drew dropped out of Harvard, enlisted in the Army in a fit of patriotic fervor, and managed to get himself blown to pieces at Fredericksburg, Virginia just before Christmas.
“They’ll find him….It’ll be….Laura, have you heard a word I’ve said?” Teresa’s voice interrupted her thoughts, returning Laura to the stark reality that the only man she had ever loved, had ever kissed, and whose child she now carried, had disappeared without explanation and, seemingly, without a trace.
“I’m sorry, Teresa. Please excuse me. I drifted away there for a moment.”
“Well, from the look on your face, it must’ve been a very happy memory.” There was the hint of a question in Teresa’s voice.
“Oh, it was.” Laura drew her finger around the rim of her teacup. “It was the happiest of times…despite the War.” She could sense Teresa was waiting expectantly, anticipating she would continue. “My birthday that year, in ’62, was so very different from my birthday here this year. There was dancing and food, of course, just like my wonderful party here, but, except for Scott, all the guests were hand-picked by my father. It was a chance for him to put me on display, exhibit his only child to his business acquaintances. But Scott and I were deeply in love, and that was all that mattered to either of us.” She paused to take a sip of her tea.
Teresa seemed to be hanging onto her every word.
“Scott and I spent every possible moment with each other and with his best friend, Drew Prescott,” Laura smiled, almost to herself. "You’d have liked Drew, Teresa. He was so much like Johnny – quick to smile, easygoing, extremely fond of practical jokes. Drew was a year older than Scott, but he was in the same class at Harvard. And he always seemed to be in trouble. Mostly boyish pranks. He’d get called in front of the disciplinary board, Scott would go with him, and he’d talk the board into such circles that they’d let Drew off until the next time. I used to tease Scott that he should read law – he’d had enough experience defending Drew that it should count for something.”
Teresa giggled and shook her head. “That sounds just like Scott.”
“Those two were like brothers.” Laura was struck once again by the close similarities between Johnny and Drew and how Scott had loved and tried to protect both. “And the three of us did our best together to enliven a very stuffy Boston society. We were never completely improper…we just pushed the boundaries as far as we could. A young lady keeping company with two handsome young men was often all it took to set the tongues to wagging as it was. We’d wait until my father left town on business, and Scott and Drew would come out to Waltham to our country home. We’d ride the countryside for hours, jumping every fence in our way.”
“From what little you’ve said about your father, I’m surprised that he’d let you spend so much time with Scott and Drew.” Teresa paused to take a sip of her own tea.
Laura shrugged and continued. “Father spent so little time at home. After my mother died, he became nearly obsessed with his shipping company. He had already built MacNeill Shipping into a very successful business, but it became all-consuming. I think his determination to build his empire was his way of dealing with his grief. He was away for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. He’d come home, decide I was ‘out of control’ and dismiss my governess. Sometimes he’d threaten to send me away to boarding school. Scott would defend me just as he always defended Drew, I’d promise to behave better, and my father would be pacified until the next time. I have to admit, I wasn’t the most compliant child.” Laura couldn’t help but chuckle at the memory. And hope and pray her own child wouldn’t be as challenging as she had been.
She stretched, her shoulders still sore from her morning ride. “One time, when I was about five, Father arrived home earlier than expected and found me in a tree in the back garden. My stockings and petticoats were shredded, but I was munching happily on an apple from the tree. I had slipped out while my governess was napping. Other times he’d catch me sliding down the banisters or trying to lead my pony into the parlor. I had at least six governesses before I turned thirteen.”
Laura paused, her fingers straying once again to her necklace. “Scott and Drew were really the only family I ever had -- before I came to Lancer, that is.” Laura glanced up at Teresa, touched by the overwhelming love and acceptance she had found in her new family. “I think Father allowed me to keep company with them primarily because of his business dealings with Scott’s grandfather. Mr. Garrett was one of his most important clients, so he encouraged my relationship with Scott, at least at first. Drew also belonged to one of Boston’s oldest and most influential families, and Father was careful to cultivate them as well. The three of us were nearly inseparable as children. Because I was ‘just a girl,’ the boys found it necessary to give me a nickname, something to make me seem more like one of them. They called me ‘Mac, just like Johnny started doing when I first came to Lancer. Scott eventually stopped calling me that when we realized we had fallen in love. To Drew, I was always ‘Mac’, even when we were older. I was the one girl who could outride the boys all day and dance away half the night at the formal balls.”
“Well, why don’t you and Scott write to Drew and invite him to come out here? I’m sure you miss him, and we’d all love to meet him!” Teresa’s eyes danced with merriment, no doubt imagining what trouble the two Lancer brothers and Drew might get in together.
“We can’t, Teresa.” Laura whispered as she toyed with her teaspoon, finally forcing herself to meet Teresa’s eyes. “He died.”
She hesitated, uncertain as to whether she should continue or not. But Teresa, her eyes filled with questions and more than a little sadness, deserved an explanation.
“Drew knew he was perilously close to being expelled from Harvard for his antics. So, he decided he needed to support the Cause…fight for the Union. He left school, despite Scott’s protests for him to reconsider, and he joined the Army. He was killed on December 13 of ’62 -- not a week before Scott’s eighteenth birthday -- in the fighting at Fredericksburg, Virginia. There wasn’t enough….” Laura checked herself, not wanting the details to be too graphic for Teresa. “They weren’t able to send his body home, so his family held a memorial service for him two days before Christmas. My father and Mr. Garrett weren’t on speaking terms by then, so Father wouldn’t let me sit with Scott. I sat two pews behind him and cried while we mourned our best friend.” Laura pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers as she felt the tears well up in her eyes, remembering the agony on Scott’s face and her father’s angry restraint that kept her from her place at his side. “Forgive me, Teresa. I didn't mean to dredge up such an unhappy memory.”
“Laura, don’t you think it’s about time that you and Scott talked about your past? We love you…and we’re your family. It might help....”
“I suppose you’re right.” Laura took a deep breath before continuing. “It’s just not something that comes easily to either Scott or me. When I first came to Lancer last fall, Scott and I were trying to find our way forward with each other…trying to overcome six years of lies and deceit and pain. We didn’t intend to be secretive or shut all of you out. We just needed time to get to know each other again, and we thought if we tried to put our past completely behind us, we could make a fresh start. The truth is, the past is always with us, no matter how determined we are not to discuss it or how hard we try to pretend it didn’t happen.”
“And have you ever stopped to think, Laura, that without your past we wouldn’t have either Scott or you as a part of our family now?” Teresa laid her hand gently on her new sister's hand. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Laura stared into her teacup. “I don’t know, Teresa. That may be so. It’s just that the price we paid during those years apart was so high. Especially for Scott.”
“What do you mean?”
“He suffered so much….He lost Drew and me both within less than six months.” Laura traced a circle on the table with her finger. “Scott told me he joined the Army, despite having strongly cautioned Drew against it, because he felt like he had nothing left to lose. I had everything my father’s money could buy, and yet I had nothing without Scott.” She sighed, lifted her chin and looked into Teresa’s eyes. “Oh, Teresa…I’m so sorry…I’m becoming maudlin. And maybe someday, when this nightmare’s over, Scott and I’ll be able to share more of our past with you. But right now, I really need to do something. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll walk out to the barn and check on Celeste again. I’m sure Jelly’s taking good care of her, but….”
“But you need some ‘horse time’,” Teresa finished her sentence for her. “You go ahead, Laura. Hopefully, Murdoch and Johnny’ll be home soon – with Scott.”
Laura nodded mutely as she rose from the table, unable to speak past the lump in her throat.
The chestnut mare rubbed her nose against Laura’s cheek, blowing and snuffling as the young woman scratched the velvety softness behind her floppy ears. To Laura, the horse brought more comfort to her than she was able to offer in return. It’s always been this way, she thought. I've always turned to my horses for solace when life becomes more than I think I can bear. Celeste pressed her head against Laura’s shoulder, slowly massaging her own face and leaving tiny strands of red hair embedded in the fabric of her owner’s blouse. But that was before I had a family. She turned away from her mare and sat down on a bale of hay next to the stall. Her fingers plucked distractedly at loose stalks, pulling one free, twisting it around and around. Before Scott…before our baby…. She leaned her head back against the stall bars, wrapped her arms around her chest, and sobbed. I see you everywhere here, Scott. Feel you everywhere. How can I stay here if you’re gone forever? How can I leave? Your child should grow up here, surrounded by all the love his family will give him….Oh, Laura, stop it! She chided herself. You’re jumping to conclusions. You’ve already decided you’ve lost him again. That it really was all too good to be true. Enough already… Standing up, she dusted off her sleeves and skirt, squared her shoulders, and walked out of the barn into the bright sunlight.
Laura strode purposefully towards the house, determined to try to eat a little, maybe do some housework to make the time go by more quickly. It was nearly lunchtime, and she realized she had eaten nothing since dinner the night before – a dinner she had joyfully shared with Scott, Teresa, and Jelly. They had laughed together at Jelly’s unabashed efforts to wolf down as much food as he could, determined not to “let anything go to waste” in Murdoch and Johnny’s absence. Hard to believe how things can change so drastically in such a short time, she mused. She was halfway across the courtyard when the sound of hoofbeats echoed off the adobe walls. Her heart pounding, she turned and ran back out through the gate.
Murdoch and Johnny reined up, their shoulders sagging dejectedly. Laura looked expectantly, first at Johnny and then at her father-in-law, devastated when she saw the frustration and apprehension reflected in their eyes. She was barely aware of Teresa standing behind her, her steadying hand placed gently on her arm.
“Laura.” Johnny dismounted and tied Barranca to the rail. He pushed his hat back on his head and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. Murdoch leaned against his horse, exhaustion and pain etched into his face.
“You didn’t find him.” Laura whispered, her peripheral vision fading into shades of gray.
Johnny strode over and took her firmly by the shoulders. “Hold on, Laura. Let’s go in the house. We’re gonna go back out in a little while. All of us just need to take a deep breath and rest up for a minute.” His hand on her back, he glanced briefly back at his father before he guided her through the front door and into the Great Room.
Laura quickly realized her brother-in-law was trying, just as Scott would, to protect her from disturbing news. Despite his efforts to usher her swiftly into the house, she overheard Murdoch’s quiet voice behind her as he instructed Teresa, “Why don’t you make sure we have plenty of bandages, get the carbolic out…he might be wounded. We found blood….I don’t know….”
“Blood?” Laura turned on Johnny. “You found blood?”
“Take it easy, Laura.” He gently pushed her towards the armchair. “Here, sit down.”
She sat on the edge of the chair as Johnny perched on the back of the couch.
“I found what looked like some fresh tracks up near Wolf Creek. Yes, there was some blood smeared on a rock. But we don’t know that it was Scott’s,” he hastily qualified. “It could be animal blood. We just can’t be sure. After we rest and get some fresh horses, I’ll go back up there and take another look. The ground’s so hard I couldn’t find a trail past the creek.”
Laura gripped the arm of the chair and stared at the floor, Johnny’s words only barely sinking in. “He might be hurt, then….If you can’t find him, Johnny, then no one can….There’s nothing….” Despite her earlier best intentions to remain positive and keep the dark thoughts at bay, she couldn’t hold back the feelings of hopelessness and desolation that flooded through her.
Johnny pulled her out of the chair, and folded her in his arms, unsettled by the resignation in his normally plucky sister-in-law’s voice.
The sound of raised voices lifted Laura out of her reverie, and she and Johnny both turned towards the source of the commotion. Murdoch escorted a young blonde woman into the Great Room; Teresa followed them, her face filled with concern.
“He’s dead, don’t you understand that? If you don’t find him….” The woman practically shouted at Murdoch as she backed into the room.
“Laura…” Murdoch interrupted their guest, “This is Sarah Cassidy. She apparently has information about what may have happened to Scott.”
Laura nodded slightly in acknowledgement before she hurriedly asked, “What do you mean, ‘he’s dead’? Do you know where my husband is?” She resisted the overwhelming urge to throw her tiny frame against the much taller woman’s form, wanting to pound the information out of her, if necessary.
Sarah ignored her, directing her words to Murdoch. “Do I have to say it again? You have to find him. If you don’t, he’s as good as dead.”
Murdoch glanced worriedly at Laura. Her green eyes burned with wrath at being slighted, but she bit her tongue and inclined her head to him, tacitly agreeing to allow him to direct the conversation. “You’ve made that very clear, Mrs. Cassidy,” he asserted. "I want to know why. What’s your husband got against him?”
“Scott never mentioned him? The name ‘Cassidy’?”
Murdoch shook his head. “It means nothing to me. Of course…my son…there’re a lot of things about him I don’t know. Has he mentioned anything to you about this Cassidy, Laura?”
Laura refused to take her eyes off the other woman. “No, Murdoch. That name means nothing to me either. I don’t know…”
“Well, how much do any of you have to know to go out there and find him?” Mrs. Cassidy paced back and forth, her boots resonating on the hardwood floor.
“Ma’am, we’re lookin’ for him. Just tell us why…” Johnny shot a warning look at Laura who appeared dangerously close to exploding in anger. If she did so, Sarah Cassidy would likely leave without answering any of their questions.
Laura wanted nothing more than to wipe the arrogance off the woman’s face, but she was sensible enough to know that doing so wouldn’t bring the answers she so desperately needed.
Sarah signed impatiently. “My husband and Scott spent nearly a year together in a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia.”
Murdoch looked at Laura for confirmation. She bit her lip and slowly dipped her head in agreement. She momentarily felt guilty for being party to information that, clearly, the rest of her husband’s family had no knowledge of. The pain reflected in Murdoch’s face cut her to the core. This was not, she knew, the way he should have learned of his son’s incarceration.
“My husband, Dan, planned an escape,” Sarah continued, bitterness evident in her voice. “Scott was to be his second in command. The night before they were to go, Dan fell sick, and Scott led the escape. My husband could hear the shots from his bed in the infirmary. An hour later, the camp commandant brought him the report. Sixteen men – every last man except your son....” She glanced at Laura. “…your husband…had been killed before they made it to the first street corner. It wasn’t until several weeks later that Dan knew for sure that Scott had survived. Dan was still in the hospital in Washington, more dead than alive, and he saw Scott. He warned him then that he’d come after him.”
“And he believed that Scott sold out the escape?” Murdoch responded grimly.
Laura took a step towards Sarah, vocalizing what the assembled family was all thinking. “That’s simply not possible. The man I grew up with and married is just not capable of doing such a thing. I could never believe it of him. Your husband was mistaken.”
Sarah barely acknowledged her, continuing to address Murdoch. “Whether you believe it or not, Dan has believed it every minute of his life for the last five years. I think that’s the only thing that kept him alive during those first few months when the doctors said he wouldn’t make it. He means it when he says he’s going to make Scott pay for every one of those lives.”
Johnny reached out and quietly restrained Laura as she started to take another step forward. His voice was deathly calm, “So he’s got help?”
Sarah turned towards him. “There’s one man that I know of – Jed Lewis. His brother was in Scott's company when they were captured, and he was one of the men killed in the escape. After the War, Lewis looked my husband up. I don’t know…there may be others. I know Dan wrote some letters before we came out here.” She started pacing again. “Don’t you see, you’ve got to find Scott! You’ve got to find him before they do. Get him out of here. Send him anywhere!”
Laura had heard enough. “And exactly where would you suggest we go where your husband won’t find us, Mrs. Cassidy?”
“I don’t care where you go or what you do,” Sarah retorted, her eyes flashing. “I came here for Dan. I didn’t come here to save Scott.” The venom in her voice raised Murdoch’s eyebrows several notches. “I don’t want to see Dan end up at the end of a rope.”
“You don’t want to see your husband at the ‘end of a rope,’ but it’s all right for my husband and me to spend our lives on the run?” cried Laura, unable to stifle the rising tide of anger within her. “You’re perfectly agreeable to our being forced to leave our home and family to save your husband? What’s to stop him from coming after us wherever we go? Forcing us to live our lives constantly looking over our shoulders because of this ridiculous notion he has that Scott betrayed the escape? I know my husband, and it’s not something he would ever do. You honestly expect me to simply take your word for this? How can you live with yourself?” Johnny again took her arm as she clenched her fists, practically screaming in her frustration.
“I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect my husband. I won’t see him hang.”
“Or face our guns?” Johnny interrupted, his voice chillingly measured. His tone ensured Sarah Cassidy was left with no doubt as to what the outcome would be if her husband and his cohorts were caught on Lancer land or if any harm had come to Scott.
“Or face your guns.” Sarah replied defiantly. “I don’t know where Dan is, and, if I did, I wouldn’t tell any of you. I won’t trade his life for anyone’s…including all of yours….” She turned her back, throwing her words over her shoulder as she walked towards the door. “I’m going now.”
Johnny moved to open the door for her. She turned around, glaring at each of the Lancers in turn. “Mr. Lancer. Mrs. Lancer. Take my advice. You obviously have money. Use it and get Scott out of here, anywhere. Across the world if you have to. I truly don’t care. Maybe someday Dan will forget.”
Laura sank into the armchair opposite the one occupied by Teresa, incredulous someone could be so completely cavalier with Scott’s life -- and hers.
Murdoch’s deep voice rang out in the huge room. “Someday is a long time, Mrs. Cassidy. Too long. And I won’t allow my son and daughter-in-law to live their lives as fugitives. If you want to do something for your husband, tell him to get out of this territory before it’s too late.”
Johnny shut the door quietly behind Sarah Cassidy as she swept out with barely a backwards glance.
Sucking in a deep breath, Murdoch turned to his daughter-in-law, and gently asked, “Do you know anything more about this, Laura? You were aware Scott had spent time in a Confederate prison camp?”
“Yes.” She replied, almost inaudibly as Teresa’s question, “Don’t you think it’s about time you and Scott talked about your past?” echoed in her mind. “Yes, I knew he had been a prisoner during the last year of the War. It’s not something he’s been willing to talk about, mostly, I think, because he always tries to shelter me from anything remotely unpleasant. I also knew he had tried to escape. My father informed me of that when he came to London in ’65 to notify me that Scott was dead.”
Murdoch walked over to his desk, gingerly eased his enormous frame into his desk chair, and steepled his fingers under his chin. “Perhaps you’d better tell us everything you do know then.”
Laura hesitated, unsure of how much of Scott’s past she should divulge. He obviously hadn’t been completely forthcoming with his family about a time in his life that had been devastatingly dark and painful, and she wasn’t certain what he would want them to know. In reality, even she hadn’t been privy to many of the details. “I really don’t know a great deal about Scott’s time in the Army, Murdoch. I do know he volunteered in ’63 after my father sent me away to London to live with my aunt and uncle. As you’re already aware, he was a lieutenant in General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry. He would only tell me he was captured by rebels the following spring. Father told me he was shot and killed in March of ’65 while trying to escape from Libby Prison in Richmond. Initially, Scott was mistakenly listed as being one of the prisoners who died.” She physically shivered at the memory of her father’s pronouncement; his words, ‘He’s dead, Laura,’ had torn her world apart.
Johnny laid his hand on her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze of encouragement.
She stared at her hands folded in her lap and added with a trembling voice, “If I had only known he was still alive, nothing would have kept me from coming back to him. Nothing.” The excruciating sense of loss she felt had the familiar bile rising up her throat. “Excuse me, please.” She jumped up and bolted for the kitchen.
“Laura!” Teresa leapt up and started to follow her out of the Great Room, but Johnny motioned for her to stay behind.
“It’s okay. I’ll go….” Johnny knew, in her fragile condition, the last thing Laura needed was Teresa fussing over her.
Maria stood at the stove preparing a lunch no one would likely have any interest in eating. She looked up in surprise as Scott’s wife tore through the kitchen, her face a peculiar shade of green, and stopped at the back kitchen door to bend over the slop bucket. The housekeeper started to go to the young woman she had grown to love as a daughter, but she hesitated when she saw Johnny stride in the door in pursuit.
“Esta bien, Maria.” Johnny spoke quietly to her. “Yo me cuidado de ella. Gracias.” It’s alright, Maria. I’ll take care of her. Thank you.
Resting her face against the cool adobe wall, Laura felt Johnny’s gentle touch on her arm. “It’s all my fault, Johnny.” She gagged again. “It’s all my fault….All I ever did was hurt him.”
“Shhhh… Laura.” He turned her around to face him. “That’s just crazy talk. You’re not making any sense. That’s the baby talking. We both know you’re the best thing that ever happened to Scott. Well, except for finding out he had me for a brother.” Johnny shrugged apologetically when it became clear his attempt at a joke had fallen flat.
“Don’t you see? I’ve only caused him pain,” Laura moaned miserably. “I abandoned him. If I hadn’t left him, he wouldn’t have joined the Army. He wouldn’t have been captured. There would have been no attempted escape, no Dan Cassidy….”
“But you just said your father ‘sent’ you away,” reasoned Johnny. “From what little Scott’s told me, it doesn’t sound like you had any choice.”
“I never thought I did, Johnny. But what if I had found some way to come home? Tried harder, fought back? What if I had listened to my instincts later and not stayed away? What if I had listened to the voice inside me that always refused to accept that he was dead? What if I had just gone back to Boston instead of trying to avoid facing all the memories? We could’ve been together, and he might have been safe there. He wouldn’t be out there now, maybe bleeding, maybe dying…maybe already dead.” Laura couldn’t hold back the tide of self-recrimination that had suddenly overwhelmed her.
“You can’t blame yourself, Laura. It doesn’t do any good to dwell on ‘what if’s’,” Johnny insisted. “What happened, happened. What’s important now is that you’re both here, and we’re all together. And we’re gonna find Scott.” He pulled her into his arms. “And at least now I have a starting point to look for him. I’m gonna go into Morro Coyo and look for this Dan Cassidy. When I find him, I’ll get some answers…if I have to take him apart piece by piece.”
Despite Johnny’s attempts at reassurance, Laura found herself sinking further into a morass of despair. It had become an altogether too familiar feeling over the past few years, but it was one she thought had been banished by her reunion with Scott and the life they had started to build together at Lancer. She apologized to Maria for her rather unusual behavior in the kitchen and wandered back towards the Great Room, thinking perhaps she could do some mending, dust, rearrange the bookshelves – do anything to occupy her hands and mind so she didn’t have to think quite so much.
“Somebody had to stay here in case Scott showed up.” Teresa’s voice reached Laura as she walked through the breakfast room.
Murdoch stood behind the sofa, a drink in his hand. He glanced up at his daughter-in-law as she stood in the doorway, noting how exhausted and lost she appeared, like the ghost of the young lady he had come to love so completely. The light was gone from her eyes, replaced by a dull gaze that looked, but didn’t engage.
Teresa, her back to Laura, continued, “Well, he couldn’t have done it, not what that woman said.”
Murdoch stared into his glass of whiskey and distractedly took another sip. Laura knew he wanted to offer Teresa some hope or reassurance Scott would come home safely, but he simply wasn't able to do so.
“Well, we both know that. I mean, they’ll find him. Everything will be all right,” Teresa persisted. “Everything’s going to work out.”
Laura slipped into the room and paused next to the dinner table, holding onto the chair in which Scott usually sat. She abstractedly ran her finger over the pattern embroidered in the chair back.
Murdoch nodded to her in understanding before he drained his glass and set it down on the sideboard. “I’m going back out.” He retrieved his gun belt from the rack behind his desk. “If Scott shows up, tell him to stay out of sight. I’ll send a hand back. You can use him to get in touch with me.” He buckled his gun belt, fixing Laura with a compassionate, albeit steely, regard. “And you, young lady, need to get some rest. And try to eat something.”
“I’ll try,” she replied softly. “Please be careful, Murdoch. We don’t know who is out there.”
Again nodding, he moved towards the front door, hesitating when Teresa laid her hand on his arm. She bit her lip before declaring, “Whatever you believe, Scott didn’t do it.”
That’s never been in doubt. How can she even consider it? Laura thought, seeing the certainty in Murdoch’s eyes.
He replied, “I’ve never questioned Scott’s innocence, Teresa. No, I have no doubt. There's no way that what Mrs. Cassidy told us is true.” Murdoch grabbed his hat off the back of the dining chair, settled it squarely on his head and strode out the door.
Teresa turned back to her adopted sister. “Johnny’s gone into town to look for Dan Cassidy. I was just trying to get Murdoch to stay here and take it easy, but I know the waiting’s too hard on him.” She took Laura by the hands. “But you do need to rest and eat like Murdoch said. Why don’t we go in the kitchen and eat some lunch?"
Laura shook her head tiredly. “I really don’t think I could eat anything right now, Teresa. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go up and lie down for awhile.” She hesitated as she walked through the doorway to the back hall, pressing her hand against the wall for support. She looked back over her shoulder. “If…anything happens, you’ll let me know?” Seeing the tears slip down Teresa’s cheeks, she was nearly overcome by a huge burden of guilt at leaving the young woman there alone, but Laura felt like she imagined a wounded animal might. She needed to retreat, to be alone to try to regroup and gather her thoughts. The chaos of the morning, as she had ridden out and then later watched as the hands, Murdoch, and Johnny methodically searched for Scott, combined with the everyday noise and business of the ranch, had sapped what little energy she had. Not bothering to turn back the covers, Laura stretched out on top of the quilt, Scott’s pillow tucked under her face, the residual smell of his shaving soap familiar and comforting.
A loud knock on the front door reverberated through the hallway, rattling the glass in the French doors. Drifting down the main staircase, Laura pulled the wooden door open, surprised at how immensely heavy it seemed. Her eyes opened wide in shock at the sight of her father and Harlan Garrett standing together on the porch. “What are you doing here?” she exclaimed, feeling as though the very breath had been sucked out of her.
“Is that any way to greet your father? Aren’t you going to invite us inside?” Robert MacNeill chided his daughter, disapproval creasing his face.
“Please…come in,” Laura managed to croak, motioning for the two men to enter. She closed the door and followed them into the Great Room. Time seemed to stand still.
Garrett gazed around the room, taking in his surroundings, appearing to calculate the value of the furnishings. “I expect you are wondering why we are here, Laura. As neither your father nor I was willing to celebrate your marriage to my grandson, it must appear odd for you to see us here together.”
She nodded mutely, wondering how much more of a nightmare this day could possibly become.
“We’ll get right to the point, my darling,” her father interrupted. “This is not a social call.” He glanced at Scott’s grandfather before continuing, “We’ve come to take you back to Boston.”
“You’ve what?” Laura choked, certain she had not heard him correctly.
“Your father is correct. We’re here to escort you back to the gentle society to which you and your baby belong.” Garrett paused for effect. “Your child has two significant legacies waiting for him in Boston, and your father and I will see to it that he is prepared to assume his proper place.”
“But…how did you know…” Laura’s eyes narrowed in confused concentration as she studied the faces of the two men. “Scott doesn’t even know about the baby.…”
“And he never will,” her father retorted sharply. “He’s dead, Laura.”
She sat bolt upright on the bed, the pillow clutched to her chest as she struggled to breathe. Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God…Laura’s eyes spun wildly around the bedroom, and she didn’t recognize the familiar surroundings at first. It’s London all over again…it’s all happening again...the nightmares…the agony…. Slowly regaining her breath, if not her composure, she swung her legs over the side of the bed. She still clung to Scott’s pillow, her face buried in it, desperately needing it to somehow transform into her husband. Scott please come home…please be alive…please be alive…please….She lifted her head as the sound of approaching riders floated through the open window. Somehow managing to pull herself to her feet, Laura staggered out of the bedroom and dragged herself down the stairs, her father’s words, ‘He’s dead,’ ringing in her ears.
Murdoch trudged into the hacienda, rolling his shoulders and stretching his back, the pain of spending hours in the saddle evident in his face. Slapping the dust from his hat, he tossed it onto the back of a dining chair. He shook his head slowly as Laura entered from the back hall, his eyes meeting hers across the room.
Teresa rushed into the room, stopping short when she saw the despondent look on both Laura’s and Murdoch’s faces.
Laura sank into an armchair, remorse at having slept for several hours while Teresa fretted alone surging through her, along with a searing feeling of desperation. She almost couldn’t bear at that moment to be in the Great Room, even though it was her favorite room in the hacienda, the place her beloved family shared time together. She couldn’t erase the vision of Garrett and her father standing on the Turkish rug in front of Murdoch’s desk. The dream had been too vivid and realistic to fade away quickly. She only hoped her father’s words wouldn’t prove to be prophetic. He had been wrong before. God willing, he was wrong this time.
The two women and Murdoch sat in silence as the grandfather clock ticked the minutes away. Laura felt the old familiar numbness settle over her, and she almost welcomed it. Over the six years she and Scott had been separated, she had learned to detach herself from people and events. She had discovered if she simply stopped feeling and built a protective wall around her mind and heart, and she could breathe and put one foot in front of the other, life wouldn’t hurt quite so badly. With the eventual birth of her child, if Scott really was gone, she knew she’d have to somehow function and connect; but for now, she would simply exist.
Johnny pushed the front door closed with his heel and leaned back against it briefly before he lurched into the Great Room, rubbing the back of his head. “Murdoch,” he addressed his father his eyes drifting from Teresa to Laura.
“Johnny!” Murdoch launched himself from his chair, reaching out to steady his son.
Teresa and Laura both stood up and rushed to his side.
“I’m okay…I’m okay.” He raised his hand in reassurance even as he took a step backwards and shook his head, obviously dizzy and trying to clear his vision. “I need to talk to you,” he added, his eyes meeting those of his father, “in private.”
“What’s wrong, Johnny? Did you find Dan Cassidy? Please tell me you found Scott!” Laura reached for her brother-in-law’s hand, pulling her own hand back abruptly when she realized his fingers were covered in dried blood. “You’re hurt!”
“Laura, just give me a minute. Let me get cleaned up.” He motioned with his head to Murdoch. “In the kitchen?” The men left the Great Room, heads bent together. Laura, her stomach rebelling in protest, knew they were once again trying to shield her from what could only be distressing news. She caught a few words as they walked away, “Cassidy…Doc Hilldenbrand…headache….”
She paced back and forth, wanting to confront Johnny and Murdoch in the kitchen, feeling excluded by the men, but reluctant to hear what she was certain could only be bad news. From what Laura could surmise, Johnny had likely found Cassidy, and he was somehow responsible for her brother-in-law’s head wound. But what did the veterinarian have to do with anything? His services hadn’t been required at the ranch in recent months, and the last time she had seen him was at church several weeks before.
“No, Johnny, you’re not going back out there.” Murdoch’s voice was adamant as he stalked back into the Great Room a few minutes later, following his younger son. “You’ve got a nasty knot on your head, and you’re still dizzy. I won’t have you wandering around out there injured when I’ve already got one son missing.” He bit his tongue, obviously unwilling to discuss in front of Laura what Johnny had told him of his confrontation with Dan Cassidy and his subsequent visit to Dr. Hilldenbrand.
“After what I just told you, you can’t expect me to sit around here and wait – not while Scott’s still out there,” Johnny waved his arm and snapped at his father.
“What is it you’re not telling me, Johnny?” Laura faced her brother-in-law as he stood in front of the fireplace. “You know something about Scott, don’t you? Why do all of you think you have to protect me from everything?”
“Because that’s what Scott wants!” Johnny retorted, unconsciously running his hand through his hair.
Murdoch laid his hand on his son’s shoulder, “Johnny….”
“Look, I’m sorry, Laura.” Johnny exchanged a worried look with his father and reached out for his sister-in-law. “That was uncalled for….I’m tired, and I’m not thinking too straight. But…you do need to know…I…found Cassidy….”
“You found Cassidy?” Laura could feel her heart pounding in her ears. “What did he say? Where is Scott?”
“He didn’t find Scott.” Johnny rubbed the back of his head. “Laura, why don’t we sit down? You look like you’re about to drop, and me and Murdoch have been in the saddle on and off since before daybreak.”
When Laura didn’t move, Murdoch took her by the elbow and gently pushed her towards the sofa. As exhausted as he was, his daughter-in-law appeared to be so physically and emotionally drained she was, at that moment, incapable of responding even to Johnny’s simple request. Johnny sank down onto the hassock next to the fireplace.
“I found Cassidy in town,” Johnny started. “He admitted he hadn’t found Scott yet. I was gonna take him to Cross Creek and put him on a train out of here, but I got ambushed by his two henchmen.”
“And no one in town had seen Scott?” Laura rubbed her face with her hands, the beginning of a pounding headache forming above her left eye.
“No one at the cantina or the hotel had seen him,” Johnny skirted around her question. “But that could be a good sign – means he’s probably somewhere on Lancer. I’ll take some men back out in a little while and search some more. I won’t give up ‘til I find him, Laura.”
Murdoch put his arm around Laura’s shoulders and drew her close. She knew he was hiding something from her, but she knew he was doing what Scott would demand he do -- protect her from any news that might be upsetting.
The creaking of wagon wheels in the drive captured their attention. The jingle of harness was matched by the sound of Murdoch’s dog barking excitedly. Her master detached himself from his daughter-in-law, rose wearily from the sofa and made his way over to the French doors. “It’s Scott!” He had barely opened the door when Laura charged past him, followed closely by Johnny and Teresa.
He was filthy, and he reeked of sweat and blood, but Laura threw herself at her husband, crying in relief, not caring that they were surrounded by cowhands attracted by the wagon and the howling dog.
“Shhh…” Scott cupped her face in his right hand, leaving smudges of dirt on her cheek, and kissed her tear-moistened lips. “I’m all right. And you might not want to get so close to me right now. You’ll soil that pretty blouse.” He was alarmed at how pale and haggard his beautiful wife had become in less than twenty-four hours. She had lost the soft glow that marked her features when he kissed her and sent her off to bed before he was taken by Jed Lewis.
“I don’t care. You’re alive,” she whispered, praying she wasn’t dreaming again.
“That’s the third time you’ve said that in less than a year,” Scott gently teased her as he rubbed the dirt from her cheek with his thumb. “It’s becoming a habit.”
“Then you need to stop giving me reason to wonder.” Laura managed a smile as she fingered the sling that held his left arm. “How bad is it this time?”
Scott winced, and looked over her head at his father and brother. “There’s a bullet in my shoulder. Maybe someone could go for Doc Jenkins?” Fresh beads of sweat popped out on his forehead, and he swayed on his feet as his knees nearly buckled.
Laura grabbed for him, barely able to prop up his bulk, before Johnny and Walt were at Scott’s side, supporting him between them.
“Let’s get him into the house,” Murdoch barked. “Frank,” he turned to the long-time Lancer hand. “Take some men with you. Go into town and get Sam Jenkins. Hog-tie him if you have to, but get him out here.”
“You’d better set up some look-outs. Some men may be coming for him.” Scott ducked his head at Dan Cassidy who still stood next to the buckboard.
Laura, focused on Scott, hadn’t even noticed the Cassidys were there. As she followed him into the house, she passed Sarah Cassidy standing on the porch. In the brief glance they exchanged, Laura was struck by the fear in the woman’s eyes. The arrogance she remembered from their earlier exchange had evaporated. Why did he bring them here? They were the ones trying to kill him…Laura wondered as she clambered up the stairs. She quickly pushed those thoughts from her mind as the men carefully assisted her husband into bed.
“Could you bring me some hot water, Johnny?” Laura started to untie the sling from around Scott’s neck as his brother nodded his assent and turned on his heel to do her bidding.
He gently pushed her hand away. “I can do that, Laura. I’m so dirty.” His hands shaking from exhaustion and shock, Scott pulled off the sling and started to unbutton his shirt. He moaned and lay back against the pillows, the effort of trying to undress more than he could manage.
“Don’t be so stubborn.” She finished unbuttoning his shirt and helped him to lean forward so she could pull it off. She paled when she saw the amount of blood that saturated the back of the shirt and the bandage. “Oh dear God,” she breathed, her eyes widening.
“I’ve had worse,” Scott grimaced as she started to unwind the strips of cloth. “I’ll be fine.” Despite his attempt at bravado, his face was covered with a fine sheen of perspiration, and it was all he could manage not to scream in pain.
“Worse when?” Laura tried to keep the frustration from her voice. She usually admired his inherent Lancer toughness, but for some reason this time it grated on her nerves. She continued to remove the soiled dressing, her mind spinning with questions. “Scott, when are you going to stop sheltering me and tell me what really happened to you during the War? Like how you got that scar on your ribs? Why did you never tell me about Dan Cassidy?”
“Now is hardly the time to discuss that.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, effectively shutting her out. He didn’t intend to be curt with her, but he knew this whole situation with Dan Cassidy was going to raise disturbing issues regarding his time in prison that he wanted to shield Laura from. He had managed in their few months together to avoid discussing his time in the Army with her; he intended to keep it that way.
Annoyed, she replied, “Have it your way, then. But some day, you’re going to have talk to me. I’m not some sort of porcelain doll you can put on a shelf and take down occasionally to admire. I’m your wife, and I….”
“Mac…” Johnny stood in the doorway, a pitcher of steaming water in his hands. He shook his head. “Let him alone right now. He’s right – now’s not the time.”
She couldn’t help feeling the brothers were closing ranks on her, but she did realize taking care of Scott was more important than any of her questions or emotions at that moment. Biting back a sharp retort, she responded softly, “I’m sorry, Scott. Why don’t we get you washed up, and you can rest until Sam gets here.”
Sam Jenkins bustled into the bedroom several hours later, his medical bag clutched in his hand. “Laura.” He nodded in greeting to her as she uncurled her body from the chair in which she had been dozing, stretched, and stood slowly. “It seems I need to open a new office out here. Feel like I spend most of my time patching up one Lancer or another.” He smiled wryly at her. “And how’re you feeling, young lady?”
She put her finger to her lips, willing him not to say any more.
“Well, then.” Sam nodded in understanding. “Let’s wake my patient so I can see what damage he’s done to himself.” The doctor laid his hand gently on Scott’s shoulder.
Moaning, Scott opened his eyes, pain and fatigue clouding their normally vibrant blue hue. “Sam,” he murmured.
“So, Scott, your father tells me there’s still a bullet in your shoulder.” He pulled the cover back, not seeing an obvious wound. “You were shot in the back?”
“Mmmmm,” Scott groaned and rubbed the sweat from his face with his right hand.
Jenkins turned to Laura. “I think you might want to excuse yourself, my dear. This isn’t going to be easy. Send Johnny in to help me.” Addressing his patient, he added, “You’re going to need some morphine if I’m going to dig that slug out.”
“No, no drugs,” Scott insisted. “Don’t want any morphine. Can’t stand how it makes me feel. Just get the bullet out.”
She ran her fingers over her husband’s cheek. “Scott, maybe you should listen to Sam. There’s no reason for you to be in so much pain.” Taking in a deep breath, Laura tried to sound convincing as she turned to the doctor, “I’ll stay and help you, Sam. I’ll be all right.”
Scott gritted his teeth, his voice stronger than he obviously felt, “No, Laura…out…now...get Johnny….”
“I need to stay with you. I won’t leave you.” Laura picked up Scott’s hand and sat back down in her chair next to the bed.
His eyes, darkened with pain, searched hers as he implored, “Please…listen to me….Please just get Johnny.”
Laura looked helplessly at Sam for support. The doctor, however, laid his hand on her shoulder and gently cautioned her, “The sooner I can get that bullet out, the quicker Scott can start to heal. You go on, Laura. It’s all right. I’ll take good care of him. I promise.”
Fighting back tears, she pushed Scott’s bangs from his forehead and kissed him before she swept from the room and down the stairs. Murdoch sat on the sofa nursing a drink while Johnny paced in front of him. Dan and Sarah Cassidy were nowhere to be seen. “He wants you.” She tried to keep the hint of accusation out of her voice. While she realized her husband was trying to shelter her and protect her from the sight of Sam digging a bullet out of his shoulder, it didn’t make being banished from his side any easier to accept.
Following Johnny up the stairs, she stopped in the hallway outside the bedroom door and leaned against the wall as he shut the door firmly behind him. Laura could still hear bits and pieces of conversation. Sam’s voice, “Turn over…there…a lot of bleeding….” Johnny’s soft drawl, “Here, brother….Hang on….” No sound from her husband until she heard him cry out in pain. That was more than she could bear. She turned the doorknob, intending to go to Scott whether he wanted her there or not. When the door wouldn’t budge, she realized Johnny had quietly locked it from the inside.
When he finally opened the door after what seemed like hours, Laura was again leaning against the wall, her face and hands pressed against the adobe as though it would give her some connection to her husband. Johnny raised his hand in admonition. “He’s fine, Laura. Sam convinced him to take some laudanum for the pain. He’s gone back to sleep for now. You need to go get some rest, too. I’ll sit with him.”
“No, Johnny.” She pushed her way past him. “I’ll rest in the chair, but I won’t leave him this time.”
The doctor bent over the table, cleaning and repacking his surgical instruments in their wooden case.
“You were able to extract the bullet, Sam?” She couldn’t take her eyes off her husband, his skin almost waxen in the late afternoon light.
“I was, Laura. Fortunately, it missed his lung and the vital blood vessels. Half an inch either way, the outcome would’ve been significantly different, and he would have been beyond my services. The bullet was lodged up against the top of his shoulder blade, so he must’ve been some distance away when it struck him. My biggest concern now is to get the bleeding stopped and keep him from becoming infected. I’m a little worried that the bullet was in there for as long as it was, and despite Doc Hilldenbrand’s fine efforts, the wound was still a bit dirty. Keep a close eye on him, keep him in bed, and I’ll be out to see him in the next few days.”
“Thank you, Sam. I’ll do my best.” Laura returned her armchair to its position next to the bed, gathered her skirts, and sat down. She picked up Scott’s hand as the doctor excused himself and exited the room, acknowledging Johnny as he hovered in the doorway.
“You know you’re not doing yourself any good sittin’ there,” Johnny observed as he leaned against the doorframe, his arms crossed on his chest. “When was the last time you ate or slept? Last night?”
“I napped a little this afternoon,” Laura said defensively. She avoided telling him what a literal nightmare her nap had been. Swiftly changing the subject, she questioned, “Why did Sam say that about Doctor Hilldenbrand? I heard you mention his name to Murdoch earlier.”
Johnny shifted his position against the wall. “Because after Scott was shot, he figured the first place Cassidy would look for him was at Doc Jenkins’ office. He went to Hilldenbrand instead, but the doc didn’t want to try to dig the bullet out. Said he didn’t know enough to fiddle around that close to Scott’s lung. So, he cleaned him up and bandaged his shoulder.” He hesitated before continuing. “Look, Laura…I think Scott should be the one to tell you all this himself when he’s awake. And you do need to take care of yourself. I know that’s not what you want to hear right now, but if Scott knew about….”
Laura shook her head frantically, worried Scott might be just awake enough to overhear his brother’s reproach.
“All right,” Johnny conceded. “Have it your way. But sooner or later, you’re gonna have to give in. I just hope it’s before you make yourself sick.” With a pointed look at her, he turned and left.
It was nearly dusk when Laura startled awake, her fingers still wrapped in Scott’s hand and her head resting on the quilt next to him. The sound of voices raised in excitement wafted through the window. She couldn’t quite make out what the men were saying, but her attention was drawn away when Scott stirred. He stretched, and his eyes fluttered open.
“Hi.” She rose from her chair and leaned over to kiss him. “How’re you feeling?” She sat down carefully on the edge of the bed, needing to be close to him.
“Not too bad.” With some effort he reached up and caressed her cheek. “You don’t look so well yourself, Laura.”
“Well, thank you for that, Mr. Lancer.” She laughed as she adjusted the covers around him. “I wear my prettiest blouse and your favorite skirt, and that’s all you have to say?” She rose to light the lamp on the table next to the window.
“Speaking of which, is there any particular reason you’re dressed so nicely today?” Scott tilted his head, studying his wife’s face carefully. “I did notice you’re wearing your emeralds.”
She responded a little too quickly, “No, no special reason. Can’t I dress up occasionally?” Laura bustled across the room and lit the lamp on the bedside table. “I’ll go make us a pot of tea and bring you some fresh water. You stay right there.” She hurried out of the room before he could ask any more questions.
Scott stared after her, sensing she wasn’t being completely forthright with him. It wasn’t like her to hide anything from him, and, truthfully, she had never been any good at it. But, knowing her as he did, he knew if he waited her out, she’d tell him what was on her mind. He closed his eyes and drifted away again.
When she returned with their tea, Murdoch stood by the window.
“I heard some riders before, some talk. What was that all about?” Scott shifted in bed.
“Nothing for you to concern yourself with. You go back to sleep.” Murdoch tapped his fingers against the table.
“I asked you a question,” Scott persisted, again seeking a more comfortable position in the bed.
Laura set the tea tray on the table, her eyes meeting Murdoch’s, worried whatever he had to say would upset Scott.
“Well, a hand came back and said he saw a couple of riders over at the south range.” Murdoch looked almost apologetic.
“Jed Lewis?” Scott questioned, continuing when Murdoch nodded his assent. “I had to bring Cassidy here. You understand that, don’t you? I couldn’t just….”
“Let him be slaughtered?” His father finished the sentence for him. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of there, Scott. As a matter of fact, I feel kind of proud.” Something caught Murdoch’s attention as he stared out the window. “Excuse me.” He nodded to Scott and Laura as he strode out of the room.
Pouring two cups of tea, Laura bit her lip and restrained herself from responding to Murdoch’s comments.
“Go ahead and say it, Laura.” Scott sighed as she handed him his tea.
“Say what, Scott? That I disagree with you and your father? That I wish you hadn’t brought those people here?” She crossed back to the table and picked up her own teacup. “Exactly how long do you expect them to stay with us? Are they to be our permanent houseguests?” She was unable to disguise the acidity in her voice.
“Be reasonable, Laura.” Scott’s eyes narrowed as he took a sip of the hot tea. “We’ll sort all this out. In the meantime, perhaps you could attempt to be hospitable?”
Laura was incredulous. The man they were now protecting was the very one responsible for her husband looking as pale and wretched as he did. She attempted to control herself, not wanting to upset Scott any further. “I’ll try,” she retorted, rattling the saucer as she slammed her teacup into it. The hot liquid splattered onto the table. She turned and stalked out of the room, tossing the words back at him. “But I think you’re asking an awful lot of me.”
Scott stared after her, knowing she was acting out of her worry and love for him, but certain there was something more behind her uncharacteristic behavior. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It wasn’t like his normally gracious and compassionate wife to be so testy. Still too exhausted to think clearly, he set his tea on the bedside table, settled uncomfortably against his pillows, and fell back asleep.
Laura stormed down the back stairs to the kitchen, pausing in the doorway to catch her breath and restore some sense of decorum. Why did I do that? He’s home, he’s safe, and I’m behaving like a petulant child.
Their heads bent together over the stove, Johnny and Teresa looked up as she walked in. “I fixed Scott some of my willow bark tea, Laura.” Teresa beamed with pride while Johnny’s face held a peculiar mixture of disgust and mirth. “You remember drinking it when you were sick, don’t you?”
Unable to look her brother-in-law in the eye for fear she’d burst out laughing, Laura smiled back, “I remember it well, Teresa. It’s…ummm…unforgettable.” She joined the two of them at the stove, peering into the boiling kettle. “I just took him some tea a few minutes ago, but I’m sure he would benefit from drinking your special recipe.”
Teresa lifted the kettle from the stove and poured her willow bark tea into a large soup bowl which she placed on a tray. Laura started to pick it up, but Johnny gently inserted himself between her and the tray and picked it up.
“I’ll take it up to Scott. I’d like to check on him myself. Besides, you need to take a break and get something to eat. You’ve been up there all afternoon.”
As Laura started to protest, Teresa laid her hand on her arm. “Johnny’s right, Laura. You haven’t eaten anything all day.” She pushed her sister towards the kitchen table, moving to pull out a chair for her. “You sit right here, and I’ll warm up the stew for you. I put some aside since you didn’t come down for dinner. I even managed to save you a few biscuits – I hid them from Johnny,” she grinned.
“I thought there shoulda been more,” Johnny quipped, turning for the door. “’Specially since we had company at dinner….”
“Johnny....” Laura stood up, appealing to her brother-in-law as he exited, “Please tell Scott I’ll be right there. I’ll only be a moment.”
“I’ll tell him.” Johnny’s gaze met hers, the look in his eyes and the meaning of his words very clear to her. “But you know he’ll want you to take care of yourself.”
Sitting back down, Laura picked up her spoon and tentatively took a bite of her dinner. I suppose I’d better eat slowly….No sense in having it come right back up again. Especially not with Teresa watching over me….
Johnny’s voice carried through the open bedroom door as Laura hurried down the upstairs hallway. “Well, if Lewis and Hardy are still around by mornin’, we’ll find ‘em.”
She tiptoed into the bedroom. Scott lay propped up on several pillows, his brother seated on the bed at his feet.
“Think that’ll solve all the problems they've caused?” Scott questioned. He took a sip of Teresa’s willow bark tea, the furrow in his forehead deepening as he choked down the bile-colored liquid.
“No, but it’s good for a start.” Johnny took the bowl from Scott, sniffed at its contents, and took a small sip.
Laura wondered if her brother-in-law thought he somehow needed to share in his brother’s suffering, drinking the vile concoction.
“Laura, my love…” Scott reached out for her with his right hand, worry casting shadows on his face. She folded herself into her armchair at his side and took his hand. “I didn’t think you looked too well earlier. Johnny tells me you’ve hardly rested or eaten today. You’re going to make yourself sick again sitting here watching over me. You haven’t completely recovered….I want you to go get some sleep. I’ll be fine without you.” Seeing the fleeting hurt in her eyes, he quickly amended his last comment. “I’ll be all right without you for a few minutes.”
“I’m fine, Scott…really….” Laura fixed Johnny with a baleful glare. "Now that you’re home safely, I’m sure I’ll be able to sleep. I just ate dinner. And at least I slept last night…you’ve been up for what? Almost thirty-six hours?”
Drawing her hand to his lips, Scott murmured, “You just look so exhausted….I’m worried about you….You’re still so frail….I just don't want you to get sick again.”
She was about to counter that he was in a lot worse shape than she when Murdoch peered in the doorway. “I thought Dan Cassidy might be in here. Have you seen him?”
Johnny shrugged, “Not for the last half hour or so.” From the look on his face and the lift of his shoulders, it was obvious he couldn’t have cared less where Cassidy was at that point.
“Johnny, could I see you for a moment?”
Somehow, Murdoch’s request was issued as more of a command, Laura thought.
Johnny handed the tea bowl to Laura before he gracefully stood up, stretched, and joined Murdoch in the doorway.
“What’s the matter?” Scott asked, intently studying his father’s face.
Murdoch’s rejoinder, “Nothing…nothing…” didn’t sound very convincing as far as Laura was concerned. She suspected Scott wouldn’t find him terribly persuasive either.
The two men left the room together as she carried the empty dish back to the tray on the table. She had just deposited it on the tray when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Scott had thrown the bedcovers back and was climbing out of bed.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, hurrying back to his side.
“You heard Murdoch. One of the hands thought they saw riders in the south range a little while ago. I suspect he and Johnny are going out to find Hardy and Lewis. I’m going with them.” Scott dragged himself across the room and pulled a shirt and a pair of pants from the wardrobe.
“No, you’re not. You’re going to get back in bed and rest.” She attempted to take the shirt from him, but he held tightly to it, grimacing as he forced his wounded arm through the sleeve.
“Laura, you need to move and let me get dressed. It’s because of me that those men are on Lancer land. I’m going to see to it that they leave.”
Scott towered over her, even as she stretched up as tall as she could and refused to budge. Her face held the same determined look he remembered from their days on the hunt field when she galloped toward what seemed like impossibly large fences.
“No. I won’t ‘move’,” she insisted. “Murdoch and Johnny can take care of them. You’re still too weak. You can barely stand up without help. It’s hard to button your shirt with your hands shaking so badly, isn’t it?” Laura watched in frustration as he ignored her pleas and continued to dress. “You get back in that bed right now." Her finger jabbed toward the bed, and her mouth set into a firm line.”
“Any other day, Laura, I’d tell you how incredibly beautiful you are when you’re angry.” Scott reached down and pulled on his right boot. “I’d be more than willing to give in to your demand to get back into bed – and I’d take you with me.” He straightened up and leaned over to kiss her. “But not this time. This is something I have to do.”
Laura, her hands on her hips, avoided his lips. “Don’t you dare try to charm me, Scott Lancer! Dan Cassidy doesn’t deserve your help. Why do you have to be so damned noble all the time?”
His eyebrows raised in astonishment, Scott retrieved his left boot from the floor, nearly falling as he pushed his foot into it.
“It’s not very lady-like of me to swear, is it? I really don’t care,” Laura continued. “Johnny told me that Cassidy was the one who betrayed the escape. He’s spent the past five years plotting to kill you for something he did, and you’re willing to risk your own life for him? You’re determined to risk everything for a man who’s responsible for that bullet wound in your shoulder? It’s a miracle he didn’t have Johnny shot as well. You’ll forgive me if I fail to muster any sympathy for him or his wife.”
“I can’t let them murder him, Laura, and I won’t leave it up to Murdoch and Johnny to fix this mess. It’s not their responsibility. It’s mine.”
“So, the ‘Lancer takes care of its own’ axiom only counts if the problem doesn’t involve you. It only applies to Murdoch, Johnny, and everyone else on this ranch.” She stared him down as he faced her, the resolve in his eyes matching her own.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course that applies to me, too. But, as I said, it’s my problem, and I need to be at least part of the solution. I’ll be fine, Laura. Now you need to move out of my way and let me go.”
“So much for your vow to obey me,” Scott retorted.
“You knew when you married me how unlikely it was I’d keep that particular vow,” she snapped in defiance.
“Then I suppose you leave me no choice.” He took a deep breath and fingered the quilt he had tossed aside on the bed. His body relaxed as he appeared to give in, ready to lie back down.
Laura sighed in relief. ”Good! Finally, you’re being reasonable. Here, I’ll help you back….”
Scott picked her up with his right arm, carried her across the room, and gently deposited her next to the window, unable to stifle a grunt of pain the effort caused him. He softly caressed her face, his fingers tracing the outline of her jaw.
“That wasn’t fair,” she protested.
Scott kissed her below her ear, his breath warm on her neck. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to be ‘fair.’ Johnny and Murdoch’ll be leaving soon, and I will be with them. You need to stop arguing with me and let me do what I have to do.” He held her face in his hand and kissed her deeply on the lips before he turned to walk towards the door. Hesitating after a few steps, he turned back to her. "And Laura, the next time I tell you to move, you move.” As he pivoted on his heel towards the door, her voice stopped him cold.
“Yes, sir…and shall I stand at attention and salute as well?”
Scott glanced over his shoulder at his wife, replying through gritted teeth. “No, that won’t be necessary.” The sight of her standing there, her back rigidly straight and her hands clenched at her sides nearly caused him to reconsider his decision to leave.
“And what do you expect me to do while you’re all out there stumbling around in the dark, blowing each other’s heads off, Scott? Play the perfect rancher’s wife and sit down to tea with Mrs. Cassidy? Wait for you to come home so I can hold your hand and watch you bleed?” She gripped the back of the chair and refused to look at him, the bitterness in her voice unmistakable.
Scott yanked the door open, his own temper getting the best of him. “That’s exactly what I expect of you, Laura.” He stalked out the door without a backwards glance.
Laura resisted the urge to throw the vase from the table at his retreating back. Instead, she kicked at the chair leg, feeling childish but needing to release her pent-up frustration. Sinking into the chair, her face in her hands, the tears burned against the back of her eyelids. “I should’ve told you about our baby,” Laura whispered to herself. “You would’ve stayed.” Even as the words left her lips, she knew she would never have used their baby as leverage against him. But their angry exchange was just so disheartening since they rarely argued. The few disagreements they had had in her months at the ranch typically centered on Scott’s opposition to her penchant for riding young, unbroken horses. She and Johnny had laughed together when the young stock bucked her off into the paddock dust. Scott, however, was not so impressed; he had finally put his foot down after their wedding and forbidden her to ride any horse that wasn’t already well-trained.
Out in the hall, Scott leaned his head against the wall before he stumbled down the stairs to find his father and brother. He hated the look that had briefly flitted across his wife’s face – the look of total desolation before she had put the ‘mask’ in place, the blank expression she had learned to use to cover her emotions. He had seen it so many times before when her father had disappointed her. He had only seen that mask twice in more recent months, though, and he had been responsible for the initial instance when he walked out on her that first day in Morro Coyo. The other time was when she had received the letter from her father refusing to offer his blessing on their marriage. Scott realized with a pang of regret that she had only challenged him as her way of protecting him, and he had responded by hurting her. I’ll make it up to her…when we get back…when this nightmare is over, he vowed as he struggled to buckle his gun belt, and he walked out the front door.
Well, that was ugly, Laura thought as she rose from her chair, and reluctantly trudged through the upstairs hallway and down the main stairs, steeling herself to wait with Teresa and Sarah for the men’s return. Shoulders back, head up, deep breath. She’s a guest in your home. Do what Scott expects of you. Sarah Cassidy glanced up from her seat on the sofa as Laura entered the Great Room. Laura thought the woman strongly resembled the startled deer she had encountered while out foxhunting in the past. Eyes wide with terror, they stood stock still until, turning with a flick of their tails, they scrambled for cover in the underbrush. Mrs. Cassidy appeared to be very close to ducking and running for cover.
“Mrs. Lancer,” the young blonde breathed tremulously.
“Mrs. Cassidy,” Laura acknowledged quietly as she folded herself into Murdoch’s armchair next to the fire. She smiled at Teresa who sat on the other couch, apprehension marking her features, the unspoken gesture offered to reassure the younger woman she intended to remain composed with the woman she held responsible for her husband’s injury. “Is there any coffee left, Teresa?” Laura gestured to the silver service sitting on the coffee table. “I’ll be happy to make more if there isn’t.”
“I just made a fresh pot,” Teresa responded as she jumped up from her seat, grabbed the silver server from the tray and bolted for the kitchen. “I’ll go get it.”
Sarah stared into the fire, avoiding meeting Laura’s eyes, her hands gripped in her lap. “This is somewhat awkward.”
“Yes, it is,” Laura responded, literally biting her tongue, her eyes fixed on her blond guest. While she had decided she would honor Scott’s wishes and ‘attempt to be hospitable,’ she didn’t feel the situation required her to be anything more than courteous. “Let me be honest with you, Mrs. Cassidy,” she began. “I do not agree with my husband’s decision to bring you and your husband to Lancer. While I respect his choice, I find it difficult to play hostess to the people who are responsible for very nearly ending his life.”
“I can understand that,” Sarah replied, lifting her chin, “and I didn’t want to come here. But Dan and your husband didn’t feel we had any other option. Hardy and Lewis will shoot Dan on sight if they find him.”
“So your husband has now become the hunted,” Laura commented grimly, the irony not lost on either concerned wife.
Her chin quivering, Sarah dipped her head briefly in agreement.
Teresa tiptoed back into the room, poured three cups of coffee, and passed a cup to each of the other women before settling herself back on the sofa.
“Thank you, Teresa.” Laura sipped the hot coffee carefully. “It occurs to me, Mrs. Cassidy…”
“Please call me Sarah….”
“Sarah.” Inclining her head in agreement, she reflected, “It occurs to me that this entire dreadful affair might have been avoided had you simply been honest with your husband from the very beginning. I can only imagine what your silence has cost you both over the past five years.”
“What do you mean?”
Laura ran her finger around the rim of her coffee cup before continuing, “What was it like to live with such a lie? With a husband who was obsessed with tracking down and killing a man he wrongly believed responsible for a devastating betrayal? You must have cringed every time he mentioned the War, each time he said Scott’s name. I simply cannot fathom hiding anything from my husband, particularly something of such grave importance.” And I know firsthand how utterly destructive lies can be,” Laura reflected. Lies cost Scott and me six years together….
A log hissed and spluttered in the fireplace, shooting sparks out onto the hearth as if to punctuate Laura’s thoughts.
“There were good times,” Sarah whispered. “Times when I thought Dan had given up his vendetta against Scott. When we came to Morro Coyo, I believed we were going to buy a farm and start a new life. I had no idea Dan had found Scott and intended to carry out his plan to kill him. As far as I was concerned, Scott was still back East, and Dan and I had moved west, well away from the memories. I truly thought Dan had finally moved on.”
“You truly believed that someone so obsessed would simply ‘give up’ that easily?” Laura did realize Scott would want her to be more circumspect, not needle their guest with questions. But, Scott was out there in the dark somewhere, barely strong enough to stand on his own, and she needed to understand why. “After five years, you honestly thought your husband had changed so drastically?”
“I wanted to believe it. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for me not to tell Dan the truth. I didn’t think there was any reason to hurt him like that.” Sarah’s eyes appeared even bluer as tears welled up in them. “I love him, and I wanted to protect him.”
“But in trying to ‘protect him’, Sarah, you ultimately caused him, and yourself, even more pain. If you had told him the truth right from the start, he could have healed and ‘moved on’. The consequences of your silence may very well prove deadly, for both my husband and yours. I understand you love your husband. I love my own more than life itself.” Laura paused, her voice soft, but determined, “But let me be clear about one thing -- if anything untoward happens to Scott, I will hold you personally responsible.”
Twisting her hands in the folds of her skirt, Sarah nodded. “I know now that I was wrong, but I believed I could control everything. I never really thought it would come to this. I really thought we were finally making a new start.” The tears spilled down her cheeks as she added, “I am so sorry.”
The women settled into an uncomfortable silence. Laura was so worn down that every breath was an effort. Her hands shook as she sipped at her coffee, grown cold as the cup rested in her lap. As tired as she was, though, she recognized she had at least dozed for a few hours during the day. Teresa had been on her feet since before dawn. “Teresa, you look so weary. Why don’t you go up and lie down for a little while? I’ll wake you up when the men get home.”
“I can’t, Laura,” Teresa replied, her voice breaking. “I won’t be able to sleep any more than you could. Maybe I’ll go bake a pie or something. Scott would love a cherry pie, and Johnny’s about finished off the last of the chocolate cake.”
“That sounds like a good idea, Teresa. Maybe one of these days I’ll manage to bake a pie as wonderful as yours. The last one I tried to make when you were away was inedible – even Scott couldn’t choke it down out of sympathy for me. I’m not entirely sure the pigs ate it.”
Teresa managed a smile before she gathered up the empty coffee cups and tray, straightened her shoulders and headed for the kitchen.
Laura stretched and stood up. “I apologize for leaving you here alone, Sarah, but, if you’ll excuse me, I have a mare out in the barn I need to check on. I shouldn’t be too long. Please make yourself at home.” She knew proper etiquette required her to stay with her guest, but even Scott couldn’t expect her to sit quietly for hours with Sarah Cassidy, no matter what he had angrily demanded as he left. Summoning all the energy she could muster, Laura slipped quietly from the room.
Celeste nickered softly, turning in her stall to greet her owner as Laura lit the lantern inside the barn door. “Hello yourself,” the young woman murmured, stroking the chestnut’s neck. “I hope you’re feeling better than I am.” The mare snuffled in her ear, tickling her face with her chin whiskers. “I wish you could talk to me…maybe the two of us could make some sense of all this,” Laura sighed as she grasped Celeste’s halter and leaned her face against the horse’s nose. “I should have told Scott about the baby before he left tonight,” she sniffed. “I probably should have told him last night. But no…I wanted everything to be perfect.” The mare butted her with her head and wandered off to nibble from her hay in the corner manger. “Oh, so now I’m boring you? You go ahead and eat your hay. At least you have an appetite.” Laura rested her head against the wooden post that supported the stall door. “Where will all this end, Celeste?” The horse munched contentedly in response. “I wish I could believe we’d both have our babies and live happily ever after…but real life doesn’t work that way, does it? I just hope I haven’t found Scott again only to lose him so quickly….”
Her musings were interrupted by the sound of hoof beats in the still night air. The horses she heard coming down the drive seemed to be moving more cautiously than usual. Murdoch was forever admonishing Johnny to slow down when he rode into the yard; her impetuous brother-in-law had a habit of charging in on Barranca, sometimes sliding to a stop in front of the hitching post. Scott was typically more decorous in his arrivals and departures, but even he had been known to race his brother from the arch to the hacienda. As the riders drew closer, she could make out Murdoch’s voice, soft and troubled, “How is he, Johnny?”
Laura could only hear part of Johnny’s muffled reply, “…hangin’ on….” She picked up her skirts and hurried out of the barn and across the yard. By the time she neared the house, Murdoch was standing next to Barranca, reaching up, and then sagging under the weight of a body. Johnny briefly leaned forward against his horse’s neck and stretched his back before he wearily climbed down. Out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed Dan Cassidy dismounting, his face twisted in distress.
“Murdoch… Johnny?” She didn’t want to accept what she was seeing. “Scott?” Her stomach lurched, and the world turned sideways when she realized the body Murdoch carefully balanced over his shoulder was that of her much-loved husband. “What happened? Is he…?”
Johnny grabbed for her as Murdoch wordlessly turned for the front door. The front of her brother-in-law’s shirt was saturated with blood. “He’s alive, Laura. His shoulder’s bleedin’ again, and he passed out a ways back. I gotta get Frank or somebody to ride for Doc Jenkins.”
She groaned, pulled away, and ran for the door. Murdoch was already halfway up the main stairs, straining under the dead weight of Scott’s limp form, his sweat-dampened blond head bumping against his father’s back.
Murdoch carefully laid his son on the bed and adjusted the pillow underneath his head before moving to unbuckle and remove his gun belt.
Laura hesitated in the doorway, suddenly feeling incapable of purposeful movement. In one glance, the desperation in Murdoch’s eyes nearly brought her to her knees. Murdoch’s usual calm confidence was gone.
Scott moaned, snapping them both out of their near trance-like states. With shaking hands, Laura hurried to pour water into the basin, gathering fresh towels from under the washstand. Murdoch pulled Scott’s dusty boots off, kicking them under the bed as he moved to unbutton his son’s shirt. Laura pushed the books on the bedside table aside, knocking some to the floor in order to make room for the washbasin as Murdoch shifted Scott back and forth to remove his shirt. Her mouth went dry when she saw the amount of blood that had already soaked into the sheet under her husband’s back.
Dashing into the room, Teresa halted abruptly, her breath coming in ragged gasps as she braced herself against the chest of drawers. “Johnny’s sent Walt to get Dr. Jenkins....He went to change clothes. How can I help?”
“Get a pitcher of hot water, some fresh bandages.” Murdoch pulled himself together, seeming to take some comfort in issuing orders. “Laura, help me turn him over so I can get a better look at it.”
Together they pushed Scott onto his stomach, repositioning his head on the pillow. The bandage packed against his shoulder wound was soaked in blood, and blood tracked in rivulets down his back. Murdoch gingerly pulled off the soiled bandage as Laura packed the clean towels against Scott’s back.
“He’s pulled the stitches out,” Murdoch muttered, almost to himself. “That’s why he’s bleeding again.” He glanced up as Johnny rushed in the door. “It’ll be hours before Sam can get here. We need to hold pressure against the wound. That’ll at least slow the bleeding.”
Laura reached out to press another clean towel against Scott’s shoulder. It was then she realized her hands were covered in blood. Scott’s blood. Caked under her fingernails. Drying in sticky splotches on her fingers, the pungent coppery smell assaulting her nostrils. She vaguely heard Murdoch call her name before her vision tunneled into pinpricks and then faded out entirely as she lost consciousness.
She was so bone-weary, and the bed she was lying on was so soft and inviting. It would have been beyond easy to ignore him. Still, her father-in-law’s voice, though filled with worry, was insistent.
“Laura,” Murdoch repeated. “Can you open your eyes?”
“I...what…? She mumbled, squinting against the light from the oil lamp, groggy and only half-conscious. In a heartbeat, her mind cleared, and it all came flooding back. She tried unsuccessfully to sit up. “Scott! Where is…?”
“Shhhh…sweetheart….” Murdoch gently pushed her back against the pillows. "Lie back down. Johnny and Teresa are with him. You rest now. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“No. I need to get up. I need to be with him.” Laura fought back against the wave of dizziness and nausea that overwhelmed her. “Please….”
Murdoch was adamant. “Absolutely not. You’ll stay right there and rest. And when Sam gets here, he can see to you as well.” He smiled tenderly. “It looks like he’ll have two patients.”
She grudgingly closed her eyes and tried to relax, stubbornly insisting, “I’m fine, Murdoch. How long have I been…asleep?” She hated to admit she had fainted, even though she knew she wasn’t fooling herself or her father-in-law.
“Not long,” he replied. “Maybe about an hour.”
“Scott – is his shoulder still bleeding?” She stretched and burrowed a little deeper under the quilt, trying to ease the cramps in her legs.
“No, Laura. We managed to get the bleeding under control. He’s asleep right now.” Murdoch settled back in the armchair next to the bed. “I’ll sit with you while we wait for Sam.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
She knew they both truly needed and wanted to be with Scott. But Laura was too shaky and weak at that moment to do more than breathe, and the man who had grown to love her as his daughter was torn between his desire to look after his first-born and his certainty that his son would want him to watch over the woman he adored.
He thought she had fallen asleep until she spoke, her voice faint and quavering. “Murdoch?”
“Can I ask you a rather personal question?”
“Why, sure….” He sat up, his attention piqued. “What is it?”
Laura hesitated, unsure about how to broach the subject and, indeed, whether she even should. “I was wondering….Did you and Scott’s mother ever argue?” She blushed, stammering, “I mean, I know I probably shouldn’t ask you that. I’m sorry, I….”
“No…no…it’s all right, Laura,” he reassured her. “And to answer your question…yes, of course we argued. Sometimes loudly.” A smile played about Murdoch’s lips. “Catherine was a very strong, passionate woman. There were times her stubbornness and independence drove me to distraction.” He sniffed and cleared his throat. “In fact, you remind me of her a great deal.”
Laura considered his words for a moment. “I remind you of Catherine?” She shook her head in disbelief. “But she was so….” The right word just wouldn’t come. Laura tried again. “She was so…perfect.”
Murdoch chuckled. “Perfect? No, Laura. She was beautiful and gentle, and I loved her with all my heart. But she wasn’t ‘perfect.’ Wherever would you get that idea?”
“Hanging over the mantel in the front parlor of …Mr. Garrett’s…home in Boston there was a portrait of Catherine.” Laura glanced up at her father-in-law. She almost couldn’t bring herself to refer to the Garrett mansion on Beacon Hill as Scott’s home anymore.
“I remember it well.” He nodded, his lips curving into a small smile. “It was painted when she was about sixteen.” Murdoch shifted in his chair and crossed his legs. “I still have a miniature of her that was painted at the same time.”
Laura continued tentatively, her own mouth curved in a shy smile. “I grew up with that portrait. I knew every line, every shadow, as well as I knew my own mother’s likeness. The more time I spent as a child in Scott’s home, listening to Mr. Garrett’s memories of Catherine, with her portrait dominating the parlor and her spirit overshadowing our lives, the more I was convinced she was an angel.” She plucked at the bedcover, remembering how awed she had been by her husband’s mother. “When Scott and I realized we had fallen in love, I wanted nothing more than to live up to what I imagined were Catherine’s standards and expectations.”
“But,” Murdoch interrupted her. “Scott fell in love with you, Laura, not with some image he had of his mother. And, as special as she was, Catherine was certainly not an ‘angel.’ She was wonderfully temperamental and self-assured, and she challenged me constantly. Like you, she didn’t see the danger in riding out alone, and she was fiercely independent to a fault. When we argued, it was usually over my fears for her safety. On the positive side, she pushed me to be less pig-headed and more compassionate and thoughtful. And she never allowed me to let go of the dream that became Lancer.” He paused a minute. “Catherine would be very proud of her son. Scott is her living legacy to all of us.”
“And I disappointed him,” Laura whispered. “The last words we spoke were in anger, Murdoch. I didn’t want him to leave with you and Johnny to search for Dan Cassidy. I tried to stop him, but he was determined to go, even if he knew he wasn’t strong enough. I shouldn’t have argued with him. I’ll never forgive myself if he doesn’t make….”
“He’s going to make it, Laura. I refuse to accept any other possibility, and so do you.” Murdoch’s jaw was locked in grim determination, his countenance achingly reminiscent of his elder son. “And don’t you worry about that disagreement.” A smile flickered across his stern features as he patted her arm. “It wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last one you two have.”
It was dawn before Sam Jenkins hurried up the stairs to Scott’s room, his joints protesting with each step. He found Teresa curled up in the armchair sleeping; Johnny sat slumped against the bed frame, his head on his chest. The young man startled awake when the doctor set his bag on the table and popped it open.
“Sam?” Johnny scrubbed his hands over his face and stood up.
“Walt tells me that Scott started bleeding again.” The doctor pulled back the sheet, exposing Scott’s back and the gaping wound that marked his left shoulder. Bending over, he carefully examined the site. “He’s pulled the stitches out that I put in yesterday. I’m not even going to ask how he did that,” Sam commented in apparent exasperation. “None of you Lancers ever seem to follow my instructions.”
Johnny dropped his head and shrugged, his thumbs hooked in his pockets. “Murdoch’s across the hall sittin’ with Laura. She’s not feeling too well either….”
Sam’s head snapped up. “She’s ill?”
“Nah…I think just tired from….” Johnny chose his words carefully, acutely aware that Teresa was present. “She’s worn out from…stayin’ with Scott." His eyes met those of the doctor who nodded his silent understanding. "I’ll go get them.”
Sam watched the perceptive young man as he turned towards the door before directing his attention to his patient.
Teresa stirred as Johnny exited the room. “Sam….” She rose shakily to her feet, holding onto the chair for support. “I’m glad you’re here….What do you think?” She gestured at her brother, lying face down on the bed. “What do you need me to do?”
“I don’t have much choice now,” Sam responded, troubled at how pale and deathly quiet Scott appeared. “I need you to lay a fire in here.” He turned back to his medical bag, pulling out instruments, methodically choosing the tools he needed. He looked up as Murdoch strode in the door, followed by his very pale and trembling daughter-in-law and his younger son. He acknowledged his old friend with a curt nod.
“Murdoch, Laura.” Sam selected what appeared to Laura to be a miniature branding iron. “I just asked Teresa to set a fire. There’s no point in me trying to restitch Scott’s shoulder. He did too much damage to the wound when he pulled those first stitches out. I’m going to need to cauterize it to keep him from bleeding again.”
“No…wait.” Laura reached out and grasped her father-in-law’s arm in order to steady herself. She could feel the blood drain from her head. The horror of what the doctor was about to do to Scott was unspeakable. “Wait.”
Teresa struck a match, igniting the kindling in the fireplace, the crackle reverberating through the silent room like a gunshot.
“I don’t think I can ‘wait’.” Sam’s reply was direct and gruff, but not unkind. “He’s already lost a great deal of blood. I have to cauterize that wound if I’m going to have any chance of permanently stopping the bleeding.” He motioned towards the door with his head. “Now, both of you ladies need to be excused.”
Rubbing her hands down the front of her skirt, Teresa headed for the door. “I’ll go help Maria with breakfast. I know none of us feels like eating, but the Cassidys will need something.”
“No.” Laura brushed by Johnny and Murdoch and around the end of the bed. She dropped to her knees by her husband’s side, taking his face in her hands. “No, Sam. I won’t leave him this time.” She traced Scott’s eyebrows with her fingertips, feeling the heat radiating from his skin. “He’s burning up….” Her stomach rolled over at the implication. The fact that he didn’t respond to either her touch or the commotion in the room only heightened her anxiety.
Strong hands pulled her to her feet and away from the bedside. “Laura.” The determination in Johnny’s eyes was tempered with compassion. “You need to go…come on….” He propelled her across the room and out the door. Closing the door softly behind him, he pulled his sister-in-law down the hallway.
“Johnny, stop,” she begged, dragging her feet and resisting his efforts to direct her down the back stairs. “Stop! Scott needs me. I will not leave him this time! I’m going to stay with him.”
“No, you’re not.” He grasped her by the shoulders, almost shaking her to get her attention. “You’re going to stay with Teresa downstairs and let Sam do what he needs to do. It’ll be quick, but it won’t be pretty, and Scott wouldn’t want you there. You know that as well as I do.”
“But…” she started to protest.
“Listen to me….” Johnny squeezed her shoulders. “What he would want you to do is what you haven’t been doing at all. He would want you to take care of yourself and his baby.” He pushed her towards the stairs. “You go downstairs – now. Stay with Teresa. She does need you. This is hard on her too. I’ll come get you when Sam’s done.” With that, he turned and strode away from her down the hall and back to his brother’s side.
She sank down on the top step, leaning against the wall for support. In all the turmoil since the men had returned, Laura had forgotten Dan and Sarah Cassidy were still guests at the ranch. The last thing she wanted to do at that moment was to serve as hostess to the man who had quite possibly succeeded in killing her husband. But, Johnny was right. Teresa needed her. She shouldn’t have to deal with the couple, or her own fears, by herself. Laura pushed herself to her feet, still bracing herself against the wall, and slid down the stairs to the kitchen.
Dan and Sarah were seated at the kitchen table when she silently swayed into the room. Dan jumped to his feet, his napkin sliding from his lap to the floor as he nearly upset his cup of coffee. “Mrs. Lancer,” he said, his voice cracking. His wife fumbled her own coffee cup back into its saucer, the china rattling noisily as her hands trembled.
“Mr. Cassidy, Sarah.” Laura glanced at Teresa who had busied herself adding more wood to the fire burning in the stove. The flames were such an unsettling reminder to her of what was happening upstairs she had to look away. By now, Sam would be using that brutal cauterizing iron on her husband’s back. If he survived, he would carry the scar for the rest of his life, and these people in front of her, enjoying Lancer hospitality, were responsible. Drawing on every ounce of strength she had left and the social propriety her father and Boston society had drummed into her, Laura took a seat at the table.
Sitting back down, Dan took a quick sip of his coffee. “Mrs. Lancer,” he stammered, “Sarah and I want you to know how deeply we regret this whole situation.” He continued hesitantly, seemingly unsure of what to say, “Scott was like a brother to me. I should have known he could never have betrayed his men.”
Laura stared at the table top, her jaw clenched so hard her teeth ached. What does he expect me to say? She wondered. That it’s all right? That I understand? That I forgive him? Fearing her own response, she chose to remain silent.
“I don’t know how much Scott told you about our time in General Sheridan’s cavalry. We knew each other prior to our capture since we were both on Sheridan's staff, but we became close during our time in Libby.” Dan rushed through the words.
“Actually, Mr. Cassidy….” Laura looked him straight in the eyes, her own eyes unblinking. “My husband has never mentioned you. His time in the Army and in Libby is not something he cares to discuss.” The ensuing silence in the room was almost physically painful.
“Well, I can understand why he would feel that way,” Dan eventually responded. “Libby was a dark, horrible hole, and we were both fortunate to survive.” His voice softened. “But Scott did talk about you.”
Laura blinked, caught off-guard by his confession. “He talked about me? To you?”
“You have to understand, Mrs. Lancer. We faced death on a daily basis. And when men are herded together in prison like animals, with no prospect of release and no guarantee they’ll see the sunrise the next day, they talk about whatever it is that keeps them going, whatever gives them hope. It was clear to me that what gave Scott hope was you. He never lost faith he would find you again.”
Dan had captured her full attention. Part of Laura wanted to ask him the questions Scott so skillfully avoided when she tried to broach the subject of his service during the War and his incarceration. But her inherent reticence and sense of decorum was too ingrained to allow her to discuss anything so deeply personal with a total stranger. She pressed a finger into her forehead, trying to massage away the headache that refused to abate. “And having ‘found’ me again, Mr. Cassidy, was all that faith and hope misplaced? Was it all for nothing? Did Scott survive Libby only to die for something you did?” She looked up at Sarah, unable to disguise the venom in her voice. “The two of you can leave Lancer. You can move on with your lives. But you may very well have left a path of destruction in your wake from which the rest of us will never recover.”
“I do realize that, Mrs. Lancer,” Dan replied, a bitter edge to his voice. “And I wish there was some way I could take it all back, make it up to you and Scott for all the pain I’ve caused you.” He took his wife’s hand. “But I think, right now, the best thing we can do for all of you is to leave. Perhaps it would be better if you all weren’t forced to have Sarah and me as your guests. We’ll be leaving later this morning.”
“I think that would be best,” Laura agreed, thinking Scott might protest, but he was in no position to make those decisions right now. She stood up and smoothed her skirt. “I’ll tell Murdoch. Perhaps he can send a hand with you for protection. It’s quite possible that Lewis and Hardy are still out there.”
“Thank you.” Dan stood up as well as she turned to leave. “And Mrs. Lancer…maybe someday, when all this is behind us, Scott and I can tell you about the good times. I have a picture of General Sheridan with his staff officers, including Scott and myself, that I’d like to send him when Sarah and I get home.”
“I’m sure he’d like that, Mr. Cassidy.” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. She felt certain her husband would prove to be more forgiving than she was. He’d likely even chide her for her less-than-gracious attitude. However, at that moment, she simply wanted the Cassidys to disappear. If Jed Lewis was hovering somewhere out there, and he did succeed in attacking the couple, perhaps, she thought uncharitably, it was the retribution they justly deserved.
She hadn’t realized her brother-in-law was slouched in the kitchen doorway, quietly listening to the exchange between her and Dan. She had noticed before Johnny seemed to have the ability to sneak into a room with the stealth of a cat. He would observe silently and have everyone sized up before it ever registered with them he was there. Laura hesitated, searching his eyes for some hint of reassurance, a sense that Scott had not suffered too horribly.
“Sam’s done.” Johnny spoke only to her, ignoring the couple lingering in the background. His eyes were unreadable except for the total exhaustion reflected in their depths. “You can go on back up now. Murdoch’s with him. I’ll be out in the barn if you need me.”
Laura could only think how little time it had taken the doctor to inflict so much agony. She wondered if Sam ever considered how badly he had to hurt his patients in order to try to heal them. She, thankfully, had little memory of him setting her broken ankle and dislocated shoulder in January. She prayed that Scott, too, would have no recollection of the doctor’s barbaric ministrations that would, nonetheless, undoubtedly have saved his life.
Sam was sitting in the armchair next to the bed when Laura entered. Murdoch perched on the corner of the blanket chest at the foot of the bed, his huge frame dwarfing the substantial trunk. Scott appeared to be resting quietly on his back, the bed pillows carefully arranged to keep pressure off his wound.
“Ahhh…there you are,” Sam greeted her with a warm, knowing smile. “You’re my next patient from what your father-in-law tells me.”
Waving her hand dismissively, Laura countered staunchly, “I’m fine, Sam…truly….Murdoch worries too much. Scott…how is he?” She sat down on the edge of the bed, tucked her skirts around her, and picked up her husband’s hand, trying to ignore the overpowering, nauseating stench of burned flesh that permeated the room. Laura would never forget that odor. One day earlier in the spring, she and Teresa had ridden out to visit the men as they branded the calves. The smell had been seared into her memory, but she had never expected to encounter it in her own bedroom with her beloved husband on the receiving end of such a crude instrument.
Sam stood up and stretched, his hand pressing into the small of his back. “I gave him a rather large dose of laudanum before I cauterized his wound. He’ll sleep now for quite a while, I would guess. I’d suggest you both do the same.” The doctor looked from his oldest friend to the fragile looking young woman, matching expressions of worry and fatigue etched on their faces.
“I can’t, Sam.” Laura traced her finger over Scott’s knuckles. “I need to be here with him. In case he wakes up. When he wakes up."
Murdoch rose from his seat, frowning at his daughter-in-law as he addressed the physician. “I’ll see what I can do with her. But not all of her stubbornness comes from marrying my son.”
“What do I need to do to take care of his shoulder?” Laura couldn’t resist a small smile at Murdoch’s gibe. He was right – she was stubborn, and her tendency in that direction hadn’t diminished when she became a Lancer. If anything, close association with her new family had exacerbated it.
“Keep the wound clean, change the dressing, and put some of Teresa’s aloe salve on it so the dressing doesn’t stick. But I’ll most likely be out to check on him sometime tomorrow anyway. He does have a fever, but I’m hopeful it’s nothing serious…that he just has a mild, local infection.” Sam glanced at Murdoch. “If you don’t mind, I’ll see if there’s any breakfast left. I can see myself out. It’s not like I’m not here all the time tending to you hardheaded Lancers.” He gathered his bag and his coat and left.
Murdoch drooped into the armchair the doctor had vacated. “Laura…” he started.
“The Cassidys are leaving this morning.” She interrupted what she was certain would be a stern, fatherly lecture about taking care of herself. “Mr. Cassidy feels we’d all be better off without them here. I thought perhaps you might want to send someone with them to Cross Creek to make sure they arrive there safely.”
“I’ll do that.” Crossing his legs, Murdoch settled back in the chair. “And you, young lady, will go and get some sleep.” The look in his eyes brooked no refusal. “I’ll sit here with Scott. As Sam said, he’s not likely to wake up for quite some time.”
“Well, I suppose I could go clean up and take a short nap.” She leaned over and kissed Scott on the forehead before standing up. “My skirt and blouse certainly looked a lot better yesterday morning than they do now.” She paused in the doorway and looked back, studying her husband’s face for any sign that he was stirring. Satisfied that he was deeply asleep, she said to her father-in-law, “Thank you, Murdoch…I’ll ask Maria to bring you some coffee.”
Laura sank into the tub of warm water in the bath house, luxuriating in the fragrance of the oils Juanita had added. She closed her eyes, praying he pounding headache that had plagued her since Scott’s disappearance would dissipate with a little rest and the chance to relax for a few short minutes. Dan and Sarah Cassidy would be leaving soon, and Laura had no intention of seeing them off. Her father, always ready to reprimand her for the minutest of lapses in her behavior, would definitely not approve of her deliberate slight. For that matter, her husband would not likely be pleased either. Frankly, I’m just too tired to care. Father’s not here to berate me, and Scott will just have to get over it. When he wakes up….With that thought, her head drooped back against the edge of the tub, and she fell asleep.
“Senora.” A soft, musical voice coaxed her back to consciousness. “Senora. Despierta! El agua del bano se ha enfriado.” Wake up! Your bathwater has grown cold.
“Maria?” She felt so limp it was difficult simply to force her eyes open. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to crawl out of the bath.
“Yes, Senora.” The housekeeper switched effortlessly to English, recognizing, in her exhausted state, the young woman would find it easier to follow. “Here.” She picked up a thick bath towel. “I’ll help you.”
Normally quite modest, Laura didn’t protest as Maria dried her off and assisted her into clean undergarments and a fresh dress.
“Now, you will eat.” Maria took her by the elbow and practically dragged her through the door into the back hallway and beyond to the kitchen. Teresa stood at the stove, stirring what smelled suspiciously like her willow bark tea. A plate of biscuits and eggs, along with a cup of tea, was already waiting at Laura’s place at the table.
“There you are! I was afraid you’d drowned out there!” Teresa laid her spoon down and reached out to give her sister a hug. “Now you sit down right here and eat. Then, Murdoch’s given strict instructions that you’re to go upstairs and lie down.”
The tea seemed terribly sweet to Laura, but she was too weary and hungry not to drink it. She could hardly stomach the food, but she forced each bite down slowly, knowing her body, and her baby, desperately needed the nourishment. “Have Dan and Sarah left yet?” She picked at the eggs with her fork, hoping Teresa’s response would be positive.
“Yes, they left about an hour ago. Murdoch sent Dave, that new hand, with them. He doesn’t seem to think Hardy and Lewis would still be around, but he didn’t want to take any chances that the Cassidys wouldn’t get to Cross Creek safely.” Teresa sat down next to Laura, intently watching her sister’s every move. “How’re you feeling?”
“Sleepy still,” Laura responded, wondering why the hot tea wasn’t proving to be as refreshing as it usually was. “I will lie down for awhile, but I want to check on Scott first,” she stubbornly insisted. Finishing her last biscuit, she drained her cup of tea and tried to stand up. “Is Johnny upstairs with Scott?” Something wasn’t quite right. Her eyes wouldn’t focus. She thought she heard Teresa say something like, “No, he’s actually right behind you,” but she couldn’t be sure….
As consciousness gradually returned, Laura discovered she was lying on her side on the same bed in the guest bedroom where she had rested after fainting earlier. Someone had pulled the quilt over her. It was pitch black outside, the darkness of the room diminished only by the soft glow of the oil lamp turned down low. She sat up slowly, her mind feeling foggy and her body weak and sluggish. Trying to reorient herself, she took in her surroundings, her eyes finally coming to rest on the small clock sitting on the chest of drawers. Unable to clearly see the clock face, she pushed herself to her feet and wobbled her way to the chest. Laura was horrified when she realized it was nearly nine-thirty. Nine-thirty and it was dark outside. That meant she had slept for…she counted off the hours in her head…almost twelve hours. It can’t be, she thought. I’d never sleep that long…especially not with Scott so ill…It can only mean one thing….
Making her way across the hall to her bedroom, Laura momentarily leaned against the doorframe, hoping the dizziness would subside. Scott was still asleep, although he looked as though he had moved or been moved in the bed. Johnny was dozing in her armchair, his bootless feet resting on the bed next to his brother. She had the uncanny urge to walk over and kick his legs out from under him.
“So, Johnny,” she started, intentionally speaking loudly to wake him up.
Her brother-in-law startled awake, his eyes initially bleary and unfocused.
She took some small satisfaction in having caught Johnny Madrid off-guard. Probably a good thing, she considered, that he didn’t have his gun in his hand.
“Sleep well?” He pressed his knuckles into his eyes and rubbed furiously.
“You know very well I did, Johnny.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. “What did you and Teresa put in my tea? One of Murdoch’s sleeping powders?”
“No.” He pushed his hair from his forehead, sniffled and cleared his throat. “No, we just did what Sam suggested and added a couple of drops of laudanum to your tea. The doc agreed you needed to sleep, and since you weren’t willing to cooperate, we made you sleep.”
“So what you’re saying is you drugged me without my permission.”
“Well, yeah, I guess that is what I’m saying.” Johnny stood up and stretched his back, his hands on his hips, before he turned his intense gaze back to her. “You’re not helping things by being so pig-headed, Laura. Scott would agree with what we did, and you know it.”
She was still too disoriented to come up with an argument for that. Scott would undoubtedly have sided with his brother and Teresa in forcing her to rest. Laura hadn’t really considered she was creating more worry for her family by inadvertently neglecting her own health in her frantic need to care for her husband. “You’re probably right, Johnny,” she sighed, managing a small smile. “I have to admit I feel somewhat better.” She tiptoed over to the bed, bent over and kissed her husband on the cheek, cuddling his face in her hands. “He’s still very warm…Has he awakened at all?”
Johnny hesitated to tell her the truth – Scott had woken up several times over the past few hours, moaning in pain and mumbling in a fever-induced frenzy. “He’s opened his eyes a couple of times and moved around a little. Since he looked like he was hurting, I gave him some more of the laudanum. Doc Jenkins said he’d need it over the next few days until that wound starts healing.”
“That’s probably good. I don’t want him to be in pain.” She motioned towards her chair. “Do you mind if I sit there for awhile? I don’t want to make you move, but…”
“But it is the most comfortable chair in the room….” Johnny grinned at her as he picked his boots up off the floor and slipped them on. “No, you go ahead and sit down. I’ll go down and see if there’s any food left from dinner, and I’ll bring us up something to eat. I don’t feel like sleeping any more right now, and I know you’re not gonna go back to sleep. I’ll sit with you, if that’s okay.”
“That would be fine. I’d appreciate your company.”
Alone with Scott for the first time since his father lugged him up the stairs, Laura desperately needed to hold him, to feel his body next to hers. Sitting there in her chair and watching him sleep she was reminded of the “game” they had played since their honeymoon. He would pretend to sleep while she teased his lips, cheeks, and nose with her fingers or hair. When he decided he had fooled her into believing he was truly asleep, he’d “wake up”, take her in his arms, and make love to her. Laura moved from her chair and sat down on the edge of the bed. She leaned over and laid her head against her husband’s chest, wrapping her arms carefully around his neck. The heat from his skin burned into her face, and she could feel his heart racing under her cheek. “Scott?" she whispered, tears seeping from her eyes despite her determination not to cry. It felt for just a moment as though he shifted his head closer to hers. “Scott…I love you so much…I need you…our baby needs you…that’s right, our baby…I’m pregnant, Scott… can you believe that? Please hold on ….You promised me you’d always be here. Remember?” Laura choked up, unable to say more. She rested against Scott’s chest, listening to him breathe, until Johnny silently entered the room carrying a dinner tray.
He set the tray on the round table near the window, and moved the desk chair and the stool from Laura’s dressing table to provide them with seats.
Laura sat up and wiped the tears from her face with the sleeve of her dress. Her other hand still rested on Scott’s chest.
“He’s gonna be all right, Laura.” Johnny spoke softly, his voice low and determined. “He’s strong…it’s just gonna take time.”
She sniffed and rubbed at her nose with the back of her hand. “Scott told me you were badly wounded when you first came here – in the fight with the land pirates.”
“I was,” Johnny replied, matter-of-factly. “Shot in the back. I was as sick as Scott for about a week or so.” He smiled reassuringly, “And look at me now. As good as new.”
As miserable as she felt, Laura couldn’t avoid smiling back. “Thank you for trying to cheer me up, Johnny.”
“You’re welcome....Now come and eat something. Teresa fixed you a pot of tea.” He saw a look of suspicion cross her face. “It’s just tea – nothing special in it.” He paused for a second. “And it’s not her willow bark tea, either.”
“Thank goodness.” Laura got up from the bed and crossed the room to take a seat at the table. “I’m not sure I could force myself to drink that nasty brew right now. I know Teresa means well, but….”
“Yeah, she’s real proud of that stuff. Me and Scott just drink it to make her happy.” Johnny passed his sister-in-law a plate with a thick sandwich. “It’s ham – Teresa thought you might be tired of beef.”
“Has she finally gone to bed?” Laura tentatively took a bite of her sandwich and wiped her mouth with a napkin from the tray.
Johnny nodded, his mouth full of his own sandwich. “She wanted to stay up with you, but I told her to go on to sleep. She could barely keep her eyes open. Murdoch gave in and went on to bed too.”
They ate in silence, each only too aware of the unfortunate reason for their shared meal.
Finishing the last sip of milk in his glass, Johnny stretched and settled against the hard seat of the desk chair, tilting it on its back legs. “You know, Laura, it seems like yesterday it was you layin’ in that bed all beat up, and I was sittin’ here with Scott.”
“Part of me wishes it was me lying there now.” She placed her napkin carefully back on the table next to her unfinished sandwich, unable to stomach any more food.
“That may be…I’ve felt the same way…wishing it was me.” Johnny stared at his brother’s limp form on the bed, his sapphire eyes filled with a mixture of pain, regret, and, most of all, deep sadness. “And when it was you hurt, Scott would’ve taken your place.”
“I should never have ridden out by myself that day,” Laura murmured, regretting the decision that had almost taken her life and had cost her family immeasurable anguish.
Johnny scratched his cheek, and sighed. “No, you probably shouldn’t have. But you were just doing what you thought you needed to do. Just like Scott was doing when he rode out with us to find Cassidy.”
“I suppose.” Laura stood up and moved back to sit in her armchair at Scott’s side, taking her teacup with her. “I just hope his sense of duty hasn’t cost him his life.” She paused. “Do you find it as ironic as I do that the event, this escape, that my father told me had taken Scott’s life may very well kill him in the end? Five years later? It just doesn’t even seem possible.”
“You did say something when Sarah Cassidy first showed up here about your father telling you Scott was killed trying to escape from prison. Mind if I ask what that was all about?”
“No…I don’t mind….” She reached out and adjusted the sheet covering her husband. “Scott and I haven’t been as open with you all as perhaps we should be.” She smiled, almost to herself. “But, then, before we came here, all we ever really had was each other. At least until my father separated us by sending me away in the middle of the night.”
“Yes. I lived there with my aunt and uncle from May of ’63 until I came back to live with my cousin in Baltimore two years ago. Father came to London in the spring of ’65 to escort me back home to Boston, but I was able to convince him to let me stay in England. Scott was initially listed as one of the soldiers killed in the attempted escape from Libby Prison in March of that year. I think now Father mostly wanted to tell me personally that Scott was dead. He really could’ve just had one of his ship captains bring me home.”
“That’s pretty cold.” Johnny shifted in his chair and crossed his legs. “Why would he do that?”
“You haven’t met my father.” Laura shrugged. “I suppose he had his plans for my life, and I had my own. His agenda didn’t include me marrying Scott. He was angry when I defied him and continued to see Scott even after he had forbidden me to do so. Once he shipped me off to England, he was outraged that I refused to consider any other man. I think he thought I’d forget Scott and marry someone else if he could just separate us permanently.”
“Scott did tell me your father and old man Garrett had a falling out.”
“They did, and until Scott and I were reunited last fall, I never knew why.” Laura tapped the side of her teacup with her fingers and smiled wanly. “Apparently, Scott and I were torn apart by a business deal that soured. We were caught in the middle of something that neither of us had anything to do with and over which we had no control.”
“Watching the two of you together now, it must’ve been really hard for you to be apart for so long.” Johnny picked at a rough spot on the leather of his boot.
“It was…” Laura hesitated, unsure of how much intimately personal information she was willing to share with her brother-in-law. But Johnny had become the brother she had never had, and his remarkable resemblance to Drew made her feel as though she had known him forever. “It was the darkest time in my life, Johnny,” she admitted. “I was so lost. I felt as though all the joy and happiness had been drained out of me. Like the world had lost its color. I was torn away from the only life I had ever known and the man I had loved for as long as I could remember.” She stared into her teacup. “I became nothing more than a numb, empty shell that felt nothing and gave even less to those around me. Frankly, there wasn’t a single day during those six years that I wouldn’t have been more than willing to go to sleep and never wake up.”
The room was still as Johnny considered her words. He shifted again in his chair. “So what did keep you going?”
“Scott’s voice,” she whispered. Laura looked up, hoping that, given the horrors of his own past, her brother-in-law might somehow understand and not think her totally unbalanced. “I heard Scott’s voice, and it gave me enough hope to hold on.” She could feel the familiar sense of depression sweep over her, and she crossed her arms over her chest, abandoning her teacup in her lap, suddenly chilled and desolate. “Maybe that’s why I’ve felt so guilty about not going back to Boston. I never wanted to believe he was actually gone because I could always hear his voice. Somehow I thought if he was truly dead, I wouldn’t be able to hear him anymore. I should’ve listened to my own instincts.”
“Maybe it was those ‘instincts’ that brought you out here. Back to Scott.”
“Perhaps.” She paused, considering his words. “But mostly I think I was just trying to run away. Baltimore reminded me too much of Boston, and my cousin was tired, like her mother, of trying to foist me off on any eligible bachelor who happened to show a little interest.” Laura managed to smile. “Maybe being stubborn has its benefits….I had long since decided that, if I couldn’t marry Scott, I simply wouldn’t marry.” She could hear her aunt’s shrill voice as though it was yesterday. “But Phillip is the son of an Earl! And he’s quite taken with you. You will attend the Hunt Ball with him!” Her own reply had been equally vehement. “I don’t care if he’s the heir to the throne! I will not ‘attend’ anything with him!” She had slammed the door in her Aunt Louise’s face. Thereafter, her aunt and uncle had avoided her…and jumped at the opportunity to take her to live in Baltimore under the guise of visiting their new grandchild.
“Well, he felt the same way about you.” Johnny leaned back in his chair again and tucked his hands behind his head. “Did he ever tell you what a mess he was the week you showed up?”
Laura tilted her head, intrigued. “A mess? Scott? That doesn’t sound like him at all. He told me it was a ‘difficult week.’”
“A ‘difficult week?’” Johnny snorted with laughter. “That sounds like something Boston would say. And he never really told me everything. I just put two-and-two together.”
She raised her eyebrows, questioning.
“You came out here in early September, right?” Encouraged by her nod, Johnny continued. “Scott came home from town one day all put-out. Wouldn’t talk to anybody, wouldn’t eat anything, barely came out of this room for two days. When he finally did come out, he started shoein’ horses. Put new shoes on everything in the barn, whether they needed ‘em or not. I think some of ‘em got shod twice.” Grinning, Johnny added, “Murdoch was close to sending him back to Boston.” He shifted in his chair again. “The next day -- I think it was a Friday -- he went back to town. Came home a little more agreeable. He did admit to me later he had talked to you, and the two of you were trying to figure things out.”
“Did he tell you what happened in my schoolroom that first day?” Laura picked her teacup back up and took a sip, the sweet drink warm and soothing.
“No, he never said anything about that.”
“I fainted,” Laura stated simply, and then she waited, anticipating what Johnny’s reaction would be.
“You? Fainted?” Disbelief mixed with laughter in his eyes. “I mean, I know you passed out last night, but you were exhausted, and you’re…well…the baby and all.”
She laughed, feeling relaxed for the first time in days, even while knowing how fleeting the moment would be. Laura leaned her head against the wing-back of the chair. “I did. And, no, I’m not typically given to female vapors. The train ride from Baltimore to Sacramento was extremely tiring, though, and we had to keep stopping for track and locomotive repairs. I was supposed to arrive in Morro Coyo by mid-week, but it was Sunday afternoon before I got there.” Her eyes studying her sleeping husband’s face, she continued, remembering the events of the prior fall. “By the time school started on Tuesday, I was completely exhausted, mentally and physically. I was cleaning up my classroom when the door opened, and there Scott stood. In that instant, I was convinced he was a ghost. And I fainted.” Laura’s natural reticence prevailed at that point, and she didn’t continue. She couldn’t tell Johnny how cold Scott had been that day. How he had turned his back on her and walked out, leaving her dazed and in tears. They had talked at length about his behavior in the months that followed. He had been apologetic and remorseful, confessing to her how he taken her in his arms and rocked her while she laid unconscious on the floor, his lips buried in her hair. When she regained consciousness, he had tried to push her away, not wanting to admit even to himself how much he still loved her. Over the years, he had managed to convince himself that she had abandoned him; it made it easier for him to cope with the agony of her disappearance.
Laura could tell from Johnny’s expression he knew there was a lot she wasn’t telling him, but he didn’t press for more. For which she was immensely grateful. “That must’ve caught Scott off-guard. Bet he didn’t expect you to pass out.”
“No, I’m sure he didn’t.” Laura snickered. “It’s not something they covered in his studies at Harvard – or that he learned to deal with in his grandfather’s house. And it’s definitely not something he was accustomed to me doing.”
The light mood was suddenly broken by a muffled gasp as Scott shifted and groaned on the bed and struggled to open his eyes.
“Scott?” She grabbed for his hand as he attempted to sit up. “Darling…how are…?”
His voice was hoarse and raspy. “Form fours…sabers at the ready….” He pulled his hand from hers and waved it, weakly pushing her away. Normally vibrantly blue, his eyes were dull and hazed with fever.
“What’s he saying, Johnny?” She turned frantically to her brother-in-law. “What’s he doing?” As Scott tried to roll off the bed, Johnny leapt to his side and pushed him back against the pillows.
“Come on, brother. Calm down….Lay back down….” Holding his brother back with one hand planted on his chest, Johnny reached for the bottle of laudanum from the bedside table with the other. He poured a small amount into a glass of water, and held it to Scott’s lips, unceremoniously pouring it into his mouth. Some of the liquid dribbled down his chin, but the wounded man gulped most of it down before he sank back against the pillows. “It’s okay. You’re gonna be all right.” Johnny’s voice was low and soothing, and Scott settled and closed his eyes.
“What was he talking about? I don’t understand….” Laura was frightened by her husband’s fevered ranting.
“He was giving orders…cavalry orders. He must’ve been dreaming he was back in the War.” Johnny gently laid his hands on her shoulders. “He’ll sleep now. I gave him a pretty good dose of the medicine. Why don’t you go on across the hall and get some more rest. I’ll sit with him.”
“No, I can’t. I won’t….” She sank back into her chair, the sense of peace she had felt in the brief respite she shared with Johnny evaporating. “You go sleep….After all, I slept all day.”
Assuring himself that Scott was once again asleep, Johnny ran his hand through his hair and stretched. “Nah…if you don’t mind, I’ll sit over there and close my eyes.” He gestured towards the corner. “That way, if he wakes up, I’ll be here to help you. I don’t think you could handle him by yourself if he gets like that again.”
“He wouldn’t hurt me,” she protested.
“I know that. He wouldn’t hurt you on purpose, but right now he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’ll just sit over in the corner, and you won’t even know I’m here.”
Knowing it was senseless to argue with him, Laura drew her knees up under her and curled up in the chair. Scott Lancer, she thought watching him sleep, when you get well, we’re going to have a very long talk. You’re going to tell me all about the cavalry and Libby Prison – and what happened to you after that before you came to California. Enough is enough….
Laura opened her eyes the next morning to her father-in-law’s persistent voice in her ear. She uncurled her legs, stood up, and stretched. “Murdoch?” Her headache was back with a vengeance, no doubt precipitated by the awkward position she had slept in. She rubbed her face and glanced at the corner of the room. It was empty. Johnny had apparently awakened earlier and slipped out. “What time is it?”
“It’s after six o’clock, sweetheart. You need to go down and eat some breakfast. I’ll stay with Scott.” He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a hug. “He’ll be all right. I expect Sam’ll be out to see to him sometime today.”
“I hope so….I’m so worried about him, Murdoch. This fever…he’s just so hot….His heart’s beating so fast. Last night he woke up barking orders. He didn’t know where he was, and he didn’t recognize me.”
“Johnny told me.” Murdoch kissed the top of her head. “But don’t you worry too much. He’ll pull through this. That fever’ll burn itself out in time.” He held her away and tipped her chin up with his finger. “Now you go down and eat.” Despite the kindly smile he gave her, his firm tone indicated he would tolerate no argument.
“All right. I’ll try.” Laura said. While she might challenge her husband, his father was an entirely different matter. “I can at least go and wash up.” She paused a moment and bent over the bed, tracing her finger over Scott’s eyebrow and down the side of his face. “I love you,” she murmured softly in his ear before, stifling a sob, she turned away. Discretely retrieving a clean dress from the wardrobe and fresh undergarments from the dresser, she slipped out of the room, leaving Murdoch to his vigil.
In the bath house, Laura wearily pulled her crumpled dress, petticoats, and chemise off. She glanced longingly at the tub thinking how wonderful it would feel to be submerged up to her chin in a hot sudsy bath. But she didn’t want to take the time away from Scott. Nor did she want to distract any of the women away from their chores just to help her draw the water. She thought she’d just sponge off and let it go at that. Running her hands over her gently rounded belly, she wondered how long it would be before she was noticeably pregnant to everyone else. A month or two most likely, she mused. Plenty of time for Scott to get well, and then they could celebrate together. As she kicked off her pantalettes, she was horrified to notice a brownish-red stain in them. That can’t be good….Dear God, please tell me this isn’t happening….
Teresa and Maria were washing the breakfast dishes when she trudged into the kitchen.
“Good morning, Laura, how are….” Teresa stopped mid-sentence when she saw the stricken look on Laura’s face. “Ummmm....come sit down…I saved you a plate.”
Laura felt as though everyone and everything was moving slowly, as though they were in the middle of the thick Tule fog she had become accustomed to over the winter months. She pulled her chair out, sat down at the table and reached for her teacup, feeling like her movements were jerky and stiff, like those of a marionette. “Is Johnny upstairs with Scott?” She finally managed to choke out.
Seeming relieved Laura had at least spoken, Teresa glanced at the housekeeper as though trying to gauge if Maria was as concerned as she was. She responded quickly, “No…no, he’s out in the barn right now. I think he wanted to see to Barranca and check on Celeste again. Murdoch’s still up with Scott.”
Stuffing a large bite of her biscuit in her mouth, Laura washed it down with a draught of tea before she replaced her cup and napkin on the table and stood up. “I need…to get some fresh air. If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to see for myself how Celeste is doing.” She stumbled out of the kitchen, acutely aware her bizarre behavior was going to raise questions with her family.
Johnny stood in Barranca’s stall, a soft bristled brush in his right hand as he rested his left against the golden horse’s shoulder. The horse stretched his neck out as his owner methodically swept the brush across his back, occasionally pinning his ears when Johnny touched a sensitive spot.
Barranca looked up and whickered when Laura entered the barn. “I’m not sure who’s enjoying that more, Johnny.” She forced a smile. “He looks like he’s in heaven.” She motioned with her hand towards her own horse’s stall. “I wanted to see how you thought Celeste was doing.”
“She’s fine, I think.” Johnny kept brushing. “I thought I’d go ahead and turn her out later today. We can keep an eye on her, but she seems to be eating okay and doesn’t act like she’s in any pain.”
“I trust your judgment – whatever you think is best.” She slumped down on a hay bale, her mind and heart completely overwhelmed. I wish I could tell you how I feel inside, Johnny. How terrified I am of losing Scott. How scared I am that I’m losing our baby. How completely unreal all of this seems. You’re my brother, too. But I can’t – it wouldn’t be proper….
“You didn’t come out here just to tell me that, Mac.” Johnny stopped grooming Barranca and leaned against the horse’s side, fixing her with the familiar gaze that seemed to look right through her.
“No, I guess I didn’t.” She stood up and walked over to Celeste’s stall, rubbing the white face the horse offered over the stall door. “I needed to be with the horses for awhile.” She paused, her finger tracing the outline of the blaze on the mare’s face. “But I suspect that Barranca didn’t really need to be groomed this morning, either.”
Her brother-in-law didn’t move. He stood quietly, his arms folded on his chest, his back still resting against the horse.
“In the few months I’ve known you, Johnny, you always seem to turn to the horses when you need time away. When things are difficult.” She bit her lip, worried she was being improper, too personal. Taking a deep breath, she forged ahead. “I’ve noticed that because I do the same thing. I seek out the horses.”
As he considered her words, Johnny turned and scratched at a spot just below Barranca’s withers. The horse responded by blowing the air softly out of his nose and again stretched his neck out in utter contentment. “I suppose it was the horses that gave us something in common from the beginning. Well, other than that hardheaded brother of mine.” He grinned, teasing. “I didn’t expect a fancy Boston lady to be so good with them.”
Laura smiled weakly, realizing what he was trying to do and grateful for the distraction. “Horses have always been so much more than just ‘beasts of burden’ to me.” She wandered back to sit down on her hay bale. “Scott is one of the finest horsemen I’ve ever known. He has an instinct for horses that is nearly unmatched, except by you, of course,” she smiled softly earning a smile and nod in return. “His knowledge of breeding and conformation is amazing, but horses don’t…touch his heart really. Scott would never bare his soul to a horse.”
“And you would, Laura?”
“I would, and so would you, and you know it.” The tears welled up in her eyes as she added, “He’s up there possibly dying, and we’re talking about horses. But I think he’d understand.”
Johnny opened the stall door and slipped out, tossing the brush towards a nearby grooming bucket. It clattered off the edge of the bucket and thumped onto the floor, raising a small poof of dust. “He would understand…and he’s not dying.” The young man spoke with a fierce determination as though the words themselves had the power to heal his brother.
Laura looked up, her eyes meeting the piercing blue eyes of her brother. In that moment of understanding, more was expressed between them than spoken words could possibly achieve.
"He's my brother. I've just found him, and there’s no way I’ll let him go now."
"We've only just found each other again. I can't lose him now. I won't let that happen. Not ever again."
A silent pact was made and further cemented the bond between them, the wife and brother united in their concern for the perilously sick man they both loved so completely.
“Laura?” Teresa poked her head in the door, severing the connection. “Dr Jenkins is here to see Scott. I knew you’d want to talk with him.”
“Thank you, Teresa. I’ll be right there.” Laura dusted off her skirt and gave her brother-in-law a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “And thank you, Johnny. When this is over, we all need to have a talk. It has occurred to me that, since Lancer is famous for its beef, it should be famous for its horses as well. After all, we Lancers are a very talented family, are we not?” She winked audaciously. Even though she was only a Lancer by marriage, the sense of family and belonging she had gained since her first arrival at the hacienda was stronger than anything she had ever experienced.
“Yeah, we are,” he laughed. “And you can tell Scott I haven’t forgotten he bought that pretty mare of yours there out from under me. I still haven’t paid him back for that one.”
She backed her way out the barn door. “He did say that giving Aggie Conway twice what she was asking for Celeste was ‘sweet revenge’ for that poker game you won from him in November. Said it was worth every penny to see the look on your face when he waved the bill of sale in it….” Laura turned, not looking back to see if her teasing had provoked any reaction from him. She was certain he was already plotting his own reprisal against his brother, and she approved. Because it kept them both focused on the future. A future that included Scott's recovery. Any other outcome did not bear consideration.
Sam bent over the bed, his stethoscope pressed against Scott’s chest and a frown creased into his face. He listened intently for several minutes, moving the bell of the stethoscope around. He finally removed the earpieces from his ears and sighed.
Laura searched his face, looking for some sign of hope.
“Well,” the doctor addressed his patient's young wife and father. “His lungs are still clear. That’s a good sign. The fever’s making his heart beat faster than I’d like, but that’ll resolve as he recovers from the infection. Help me turn him so I can look at that wound.”
Murdoch gently rolled his son to the side. Scott stirred, feebly trying to push his father away, a low moan coming from his lips. Sam pulled back the bandage covering the hole in Scott’s back he had cauterized the previous morning. “That looks fine.” He nodded to Laura. “Just keep it clean and keep that salve on it. You’re doing a good job.”
“How long do you think he’s going to be like this, Sam?” Laura pulled the sheet back over her husband, tucking it carefully around his sides.
“It’s hard to say, Laura. He lost so much blood – that weakened him significantly. It could take anywhere from days to a week or more for him to recover from the infection. Keep giving him as much water, warm tea, and broth as you can get him to take – he needs the fluids to replace the blood he lost. You could add some rice to the broth for extra sustenance. Other than that, it’s just going to be a matter of time.”
Laura took a deep breath and nodded. It wasn't entirely what she wanted to hear, but at least Sam thought Scott would recover. That was something to hold on to.
“Meanwhile, young lady.” Sam fixed her with a stern stare. “I need to have a talk with you.” He replaced his stethoscope in his bag and snapped it shut. Taking the bag in his hand, he added, “Perhaps you could see me out.”
“I’ll be back in a minute, Murdoch,” she assured her father-in-law before following the doctor from the room.
Sam gently steered her into the bedroom across the hall, his hand in the small of her back.
“I chose not to say anything to you yesterday, Laura, because I knew you already had enough on your shoulders. But, as your physician and friend, it’s my responsibility to care for you just as I do the rest of this family. And I’m concerned about you right now. You were too thin before, and you’ve obviously not been eating.”
“Nothing seems to have any taste. Even when I’m not feeling nauseous, I just can’t seem to choke anything down. I know I need to eat, but….”
“No, ‘buts’, Laura,” the doctor cautioned. “You have to eat. The baby needs the nourishment, and so do you.”
“I know…I’ll try.” She hesitated before continuing. “I’m not sure how to say this, Sam.” She bit her lip and looked away as her cheeks flushed a deep pink. Taking a deep breath, she plunged ahead. “I noticed a brownish stain in my undergarments this morning. I was worried that….” She caught her breath, unable to finish her sentence.
“Worried you might be losing the baby?” Sam’s voice was soft and low, his face filled with compassion.
Laura nodded, still unable to talk. She found it easier to face the doctor if she focused on a spot just over his right shoulder.
“Have you had any pain in your stomach? Any cramping?”
“No, no pain.”
“And the ‘stain’ – was it bright red or dark? A small amount or large?”
Laura’s face turned an even deeper shade of red.
“Laura, I’m your doctor. I need to ask you these questions. I know it’s uncomfortable for you, but it is necessary.”
“It was a small amount and it was brownish in color.” Dear God, am I really discussing this with a man? “And it was only the one time so far.”
“All right.” Sam set his medical bag on floor and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Look at me, Laura.”
She hesitantly looked into his eyes, afraid of the answer she might find there.
“It’s good you haven’t had any pain and the bleeding was not bright red. Sometimes – and I don’t know why – a woman will bleed a little early in her pregnancy, and everything’s just fine. Other times, the woman will miscarry. There’s no way for me to predict which way it will be.”
“Sam, I rode out looking for Scott the other day. I was wondering if I maybe hurt our baby by doing that?”
“In my experience, the mother riding or working, even relatively strenuously, doesn’t have any effect on a baby. If you do miscarry, it’s not likely it has anything to do with you riding. It would happen regardless, and there’s nothing either of us could do to prevent it. What you do need to do is rest. The best way you can help Scott is to take care of yourself and his baby.”
Laura nodded again. “I know, Sam. But I can’t leave him. If I lose him, if he…dies…I….”
“Scott’s a strong man, Laura. I know everything looks pretty bleak right now, but I haven’t given up on him.” He gently took her by the hand. “And neither have you. Now, I’m going to go home and see to my office, but I’ll be back out in the next day or so. If you need me, you have Murdoch send a hand for me. You go rest. And make sure you eat, even if you don’t feel like it. All right?”
She nodded weakly. “All right. I promise. I’ll try.”
Sam guided her back out into the hallway. As he headed towards the stairs, he issued some final instructions. “You go and lie down now, my dear. I can see myself out.”
The doctor turned back to face her.
Sam acknowledged her with an encouraging smile and a nod before he briskly disappeared down the stairwell.
Laura wearily turned back to her bedroom, intending to take her place once again at her husband’s side, despite her reassurances to the doctor she would take some much needed rest herself.
He seemed more restless than he had previously, but Scott still lay with his eyes closed and his left arm resting across his chest. Murdoch had pulled another armchair into the room, leaving Laura’s chair next to the bed.
“Is everything all right, dear?” Murdoch rose from his chair as she entered, his index finger marking the page in the book he’d been reading. “Sam did say he was concerned about you.” He fixed his daughter-in-law with a scrutinizing stare.
In that moment she was certain she knew from whom Johnny had inherited his ability to look through people. Something in his gaze made her think, “He knows…he knows about the baby...he’s just waiting for us to tell him….” Laura wanted to offer her father-in-law some reassurance without telling him any specifics just yet. She felt strongly the father himself should know before everyone else was told…or figured it out on their own like Johnny had. “Sam just wanted to caution me to eat better, to take a little more rest. He warned me that I needed to take care of myself if I expected to be able to properly care for Scott.” She paused. “So, if you wouldn’t mind sitting here just a little while longer, I’ll go downstairs and try to eat something. I don’t want to leave him alone in case he tries to get up again.”
“I’ll be glad to sit with him for as long as necessary. You just go on and eat.”
Johnny was seated, his elbows on the kitchen table and his face buried in his hands, an empty glass that had previously contained milk and a partially eaten piece of chocolate cake in front of him. He straightened up as Laura slipped in the door, unsuccessfully trying to hide the exhaustion that marked his face.
“Did you save me any cake, Johnny?” She pulled her chair away from the table and wearily sat down.
He smiled sheepishly, “Yeah, there’s a little left. Want me to fix you a piece?” Johnny gestured to the pitcher of milk in front of him. “There’s fresh milk, too.”
“Thank you.” She accepted the slice of cake and the milk he carefully placed in front of her, wondering how she’d manage to keep it down. But she had eaten no breakfast, and lunch was still several hours away. “Are Maria and Teresa out in the garden?” She took a small bite of her cake.
“No…they’ve gone out to check on a couple of the sick kids. They should be back to start lunch soon.” He picked at his cake with his fork. “Murdoch still up with Scott?”
She nodded, her mouth full of chocolate frosting. “He said he’d stay with him while I eat.” Laura studied her brother-in-law’s face as he dissected his cake. “Johnny….” She hesitated, afraid again she might be crossing the boundaries of propriety. After all, she had never had a brother until now. “I’m worried about you.”
He glanced up at her and smiled thinly. “You’re worried about me? With all that’s happening to you, you’re worried about me?”
“I am. You’re not sleeping any better than I am, nor are you eating well. Scott’s illness is taking its toll on all of us. Besides, you’re Scott’s brother….And that makes you my brother, too.”
Johnny continued to pick at the crumbs on his plate. “You know, Mac…I don’t ever remember anyone telling me they were ‘worried’ about me.” He tried to smile. “It almost doesn’t seem real, does it?” He tossed his fork down and leaned back in his chair. “A little over a year ago, I didn’t even know I had a brother.” Staring straight ahead, he continued, “I caught that stage into Morro Coyo, just happy to be alive. I was planning to take Murdoch’s money and go back to hiring out my gun. And then, just like that….” He snapped his fingers. “Everything changed.”
“Scott told me about that stage ride into town.” Despite gritting her teeth to keep from crying, Laura couldn’t help but laugh softly. “He said it was the most uncomfortable ten miles of his life.”
“I bet it was,” Johnny snorted. “He was all dandied up, and I pretty much sat in his lap most of the way. Scott was all polite and proper, but I could tell he was riled. Then we got to town, and there Teresa was, waiting for us.”
“I wish I could’ve seen the look on your faces when you found out you were brothers. Teresa said it was priceless.”
He grinned and shrugged. “Well, yeah…I guess both of us were pretty much speechless. I don’t think Scott expected to find out he had a gun hawk for a brother any more than I imagined this fancy back-Easter was my brother. I thought he was soft. Even after he put Barranca over the fence, and took on Day Pardee’s men in Baldemarro’s store. I called him a ‘tin soldier’ when he hatched his plan to draw Pardee away from the hacienda.”
“You didn’t know, Johnny. You had no way of knowing what he’d been through in the War. None of us really knew.” She couldn’t stand to see the look of self-disgust on her brother-in-law’s face.
“But I should’ve known,” Johnny insisted. “I’d seen that picture of him in his cavalry uniform. I should’ve realized there was more to him than those pretty clothes I accused him of having. I don’t think I really realized how tough he was until Pardee and his men attacked. I was layin’ there with a bullet in my back, figuring I was done for, and there Scott came, blazing away with his carbine. When he shot Pardee….”
“Scott shot Pardee?” Laura interrupted him.
“He never told you that?” From the dismayed expression on Johnny's face, it was clear he felt he had overstepped the boundaries and betrayed his brother's confidence.
“No…he just said Pardee was killed.” Laura laid her fork on her plate next to the remnants of her cake. “I’m not terribly surprised, though. Both that he shot Pardee and that he didn’t tell me. He’s always been far too protective of me. Scott seems to believe I’m a great deal more fragile than I am.”
“No, Mac, I don’t think he sees you as ‘fragile’. He loves you, and he just doesn’t see any good reason to trouble that pretty head of yours with things that are done and over with and you really don’t need to know about.” Johnny stretched his back and shoulders.
Laura bit her upper lip in an attempt to stop it from trembling. Tears welled up in her eyes as she whispered, “He has to make it, Johnny. I can’t lose him again.” She stood up quickly, abandoning her milk and cake. “I need to go back upstairs.” She practically ran from the room, unable to bear the pain and uncertainty she had seen reflected in her brother’s eyes.
Despite the moment they had shared in the barn, it was clear both of them were running an emotional gauntlet. They wavered from fierce optimism they would bring Scott through this current crisis, to an abject despair the fever was tightening its grip and draining the life out of him before their very eyes. Had either of them been able to examine rationally how they were feeling, they might have realized their exhaustion was creating the bleak feelings that overwhelmed them both. What they both needed, more than anything, was to rest, regroup and rally their defenses. But that was something neither of them was capable of while Scott lay upstairs so desperately ill.
Gathering her skirts, she sank into her armchair. Her father-in-law still sat at his son’s side, but his head rested on the back of his chair, his book dangling loosely in his lap. Scott had shifted to his side, his face, thankfully, relaxed in the depths of sleep. If she didn’t know better, Laura could easily have believed him to be napping – not precariously close to death from blood loss and infection. Closing her own eyes, and despite her determination not to, she drifted off.
“Laura?” Scott’s voice startled her awake. He was sitting up in the bed, his eyes opened wide. Murdoch had apparently awakened and slipped out as she slept. His chair was vacant.
“Scott! Darling, I’m so glad….”
“Why did you leave me? I needed you. I loved you so much. How could you do that to me?” The agony in his voice ripped into her like a knife.
“I’m here, Scott.” She tried to take his face in her hands to soothe him, but he pushed her away and fell back against his pillows.
“Can’t do this….Can’t go on….Nothing left….” He closed his eyes and groaned, his breath coming in ragged gasps.
“Don’t do this, Scott.” The tears streamed down her face as Laura reached for his hand. “Please don’t do this.”
When he didn’t respond, she sat down on the edge of the bed and took his face firmly in her hands. “Listen to me, Scott Lancer. Don’t you dare give up! Look at me.”
His eyelids flickered.
“Look at me,” she repeated more firmly.
Scott opened his eyes, still glazed with fever. It seemed to Laura there was a glimmer of recognition in them, some suggestion he knew who she was.
“You have to hold on. I need you…and your son needs you. I will not lose you again. Not this time. Not ever. You remember who you are and where you are.” Despite her attempt to sound resolute, Laura struggled to keep the desperation, the pure unbridled panic out of her voice. Because even after so many years apart, it seemed like Scott had never been as far away from her as he was at that moment. And he was ready to give up.
Scott lay back against the pillows, his hazy eyes seeming to study her face while she gently traced circles on his cheeks with her fingertips.
“You’re not in that awful prison anymore, Scott. Let it go. Come back to me. Please.”
Whether or not her words sunk into his fevered brain, Laura felt her husband relax, and he closed his eyes. She sat back down in her chair physically and emotionally drained.
Teresa bustled in the door, a tray in her arms. “I brought you some lunch, and some rice and broth for Scott. I thought you might want to eat up here. The rice’ll need to cool before Scott can eat it.”
“Where’re Murdoch and Johnny?” Laura consciously made an effort to pull herself together as she rose to help the young woman with her heavy burden.
“Murdoch’s out with Cipriano. They had some sort of business they needed to deal with. I’m not….” Teresa hesitated, biting her lip. “I’m not sure where Johnny went. He rode out a little while ago without saying where he was going. I think maybe he just needed to get away.”
“I can’t say as I blame him,” Laura sighed. So many times over the years she had ridden off with no particular destination in mind. Just a need to escape, to think and sort things out. “This has been so hard on him.” She paused as she studied her sister’s face. “How are you doing, Teresa? In all of this, I haven’t really asked you how you’re bearing up. He’s your brother too.”
Teresa slumped into the chair next to the table, her chin trembling. “I don’t know, Laura. One minute I’m convinced he’s going to be fine, and the next….” The younger woman’s eyes widened, as she realized what she had implied. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“I know. It’s all right,” Laura reached out and squeezed Teresa’s hand. “We’re all feeling that way. But, somehow, we just have to keep our spirits up. It’s what Scott needs us to do. It’s what he would expect of us. After all, he didn’t give up on me when I was so sick. I won’t give up on him now.”
Teresa gazed at her brother, his face slack in the depths of fevered sleep. “It’s odd you’d mention your being so ill. I was thinking about that just now when I brought your tray up.”
“Really?” Laura chuckled. “It’s not something I like to think about. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment.”
“No – it really was awful. But I remember how frantic Scott was. I had thought he was always calm and composed. So cool and sure of himself. He rarely lost his temper, and he never really seemed to let anything rattle him. And then you almost died.” Teresa looked back at Laura. “He wouldn’t leave this room. I brought him tray after tray of food, and he wouldn’t eat anything. He wouldn’t talk. He just sat there and stared at you. Sometimes, I got the feeling he was almost angry with you – angry that you’d gotten hurt.”
“He was furious with me, Teresa. And he had every right to be. He had warned me time after time not to ride out alone. But I was just so sure of myself. And my arrogance almost got me killed.” Laura picked at the napkin Teresa had placed on the lunch tray and took a deep breath before she admitted, “It’s been hard for me not to feel angry at Scott this time.”
“Why is that? Because he brought the Cassidys here?”
“For that, yes. And for riding back out with Johnny and Murdoch when he was finally safely at home.” She couldn’t help the bitter edge that crept into her voice. “If he had just stayed home the other night, he might not be so sick now. At least he wouldn’t have reopened his wound and bled so badly.” Laura scrubbed her hand over her face, wishing her headache would at least settle to a dull roar. “But he thought he was doing the right thing by bringing Dan Cassidy here and by going back out after him. I don’t know – my mind is such a jumble right now. I can’t even think clearly.”
“You eat your lunch, Laura. And get some rest. Scott’s going to be just fine.” Teresa stood up and straightened her skirt. “I’ll be down in the kitchen if you need anything.”
“I’m sorry, Teresa.”
The young woman turned back in the doorway, confusion in her eyes. “About what?”
“Sorry I haven’t been much help to you lately. I’ll make it up to you when all this is over. I promise.”
“Laura, you don’t have anything to apologize for. We’re a family, and families take care of each other. That’s what families are supposed to do. You just take care of Scott…and yourself.” With a pointed look that Laura could’ve sworn was directed at her midsection, Teresa was gone.
Scott had at least taken a few mouthfuls of the rice and broth, and she had managed to pour some of the cooled sweet tea down his throat. He had taken several gulps before he weakly waved her hand away and settled back against his pillows. While he was by no means alert, he was at least responding to her touch and her whispers of encouragement. Laura tucked herself back into her armchair, thinking that, once this particular crisis was over, she might never choose to sit in that chair ever again. It would forever be a stark reminder of a horrible time in their lives. She considered asking Murdoch if they could consign it to the attic for storage.
Teresa’s comments about Scott’s behavior when she had been so ill left an enormous impression in Laura’s mind. She remembered very little from that dreadful time. There had been a heated discussion with Johnny about the danger of her riding into town alone and her general unwillingness to listen to him. There was the uneventful ride into Morro Coyo to her old schoolroom. She could recall the joy she felt at being back with the children she had grown to love so dearly. Laura searched her memories for what had followed. The storm she hadn’t anticipated. The sense of panic when Celeste rolled over her and down the hillside. The excruciating pain and the mind-numbing cold. And then Scott was there holding her close, whispering his love for her. His voice, yet again, had been the one thing she had held fast to – the only constant in an otherwise unbearable world. When the pneumonia that followed her accident threatened to pull her into the abyss, Laura listened for his voice, clinging to every word he spoke as he read to her from their beloved volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets or simply talked to her about his plans for their future together at Lancer. It struck her that, if she could hear his voice in the midst of her fevered agony, perhaps he could hear her voice as well.
But what should I say? Where do I start? She wondered. All I’ve done since Murdoch carried you upstairs is beg you not to leave me. Laura leaned over and traced her finger around her husband’s jaw line. “You need to shave, Scott.” She blinked back the tears from her eyes and forced a smile. “I don’t ever remember your face being so bristly. I’ll still kiss you, but I expect you to rid yourself of those whiskers. They’re rougher on my face than Celeste’s are.” Leaning over, she kissed him softly on his lips. Scott stirred, trying to open his eyes. “Speaking of which, she’s just fine. Johnny turned her out this morning. So, you can stop worrying about that horse. I think she’s going to have a beautiful foal.” And our baby will be born before hers. There’s so much I want to tell you, Scott, but not like this. Not when I can’t hold you and listen to you tell me how excited you are about our own baby. “Why don’t I read to you?” Laura glanced around the room, looking for something to read. She still hadn’t picked up the volumes from Scott’s bedside table that she had scattered in making room for the washbasin the other night. They lay wedged between the wall and the table, and she hadn’t the energy to retrieve them. Her own bedside table sat next to her, her journal and a copy of Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask resting there. “I know you’re not particularly fond of Dumas, but he will have to do,” she sighed. “Mr. Emerson or Mr. Thoreau would simply put me to sleep right now.” And so she started reading. “Chapter One. Since Aramis’ singular transformation into a confessor of the order, Baisemeaux was no longer the same man. Aramis had been for the worthy governor…”
Scott grimaced and rolled to his side away from her.
“Okay, so I know you don’t like Dumas. You don’t have to be quite so obvious about it, though,” Laura had to giggle, despite the circumstances. It seemed to her, even in the throes of fever, her husband was commenting in his own inimitable way on her choice of literature. “I could’ve chosen one of the Bronte sisters – I know exactly how much you’d like that!”
She looked up from her book as she heard the door creak open. Teresa slipped into the room, her face a study in carefully controlled dismay. “Laura, I hate to disturb you. But, we…ummmm…you have company.”
“’Company?’” Laura repeated. “But I’m not expecting anyone. And we’re not in a position to entertain guests right now.”
“They’re not exactly ‘guests’. It’s Reverend and Mrs. Granville. They’ve come to pay their respects. And Murdoch and Johnny aren't back yet. Besides, it’s really you they want to see anyway.” Teresa rested her hands on the back of Murdoch’s chair. “I can stay with Scott while you visit with them. I already set out a tea tray for you.” She smiled apologetically.
“Thank you.” Laura tiredly pushed herself to her feet and laid her book back on her table. “I suppose I haven’t much choice.”
The Granvilles had already seated themselves on the sofa in the Great Room, their faces carefully arranged into somber expressions. Laura couldn’t help but notice Mrs. Granville had chosen to wear black for their visit. Whether intentional or not, it created an unwelcome funereal atmosphere and made the preacher’s wife look like an overstuffed crow. The Reverend jumped to his feet. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Lancer.”
“Good afternoon, Reverend, Mrs. Granville.” Laura inclined her head in greeting and moved to seat herself in the armchair next to the fireplace. “It’s good of you to come.” She gestured towards the tea tray on the coffee table. “Would you care for tea? I’m sure there’s coffee as well.” Pouring the requested cups of tea and coffee, she leaned back, holding her own teacup in her lap. “Mary didn’t come with you? I’d have liked to have seen her.” The Granville’s daughter, Mary, had been one of Laura’s students.
“She wanted to come, but we thought it best for her to stay in town. She’s spending the afternoon with Anna. Miss Porter has certainly kept them busy with their schoolwork, but they’ll be taking a break for the summer beginning next week.” Mrs. Granville sipped at her tea before continuing. “We were so disturbed to hear of Mr. Lancer’s injury,” she murmured in a hushed tone. “Surely those terrible people are no longer a threat to our community?”
“They never really were a ‘threat to our community’,” Laura replied, hoping the conversation wasn’t going to turn into an opportunity for the preacher’s wife to interrogate her. “Scott was the only intended target.”
“Is that so? And, pray, why was that?” Mrs. Granville didn’t bother to mask her curiosity by being less direct.
“It’s a very long story, Mrs. Granville, and one I truly do not have the energy or inclination to discuss at this point.” Not to mention the fact that even I don’t know the whole story, Laura thought to herself. “Suffice it to say the men involved knew Scott when he was a soldier during the War.” Please don’t push me for anything more.
The pastor seemed to sense her discomfort. “And how is Scott? I trust he’s healing well?”
Laura was grateful for his intervention. “Aside from the fact he lost a great deal of blood and he’s been feverish from infection, he’s doing as well as we might expect. Doctor Jenkins believes he will make a full recovery given time.”
“Well, then, that is certainly something for which we shall give thanks,” Reverend Granville spoke in his most pious voice as he sipped his coffee. “Shall I expect to see you at church on Sunday?”
“Probably not this week,” Laura replied softly. “I don’t want to leave the ranch with Scott so ill.”
“Perhaps,” Mrs. Granville commented as she set her teacup back on the tray, “you would do well to attend services and spend more time in prayer. You and Mr. Lancer have not exactly been frequent attendees at church of late. The Bible does exhort us to….”
Incredulous, Laura interrupted, “Surely you don’t mean to imply that, if we had attended church more often, Scott wouldn’t be so sick?”
“Why…urrrr…no, not exactly,” the older woman hedged. “But the prayers of the faithful can accomplish much,” she finished staunchly.
“And our attendance at church, or lack thereof, has no bearing on the quality of our faith or our belief in the ‘prayers of the faithful,’” Laura shot back, realizing somewhat too late that in her exhausted state she had allowed the older woman to bait her.
“I’m sure Elsa didn’t mean to suggest that you and your husband have been unfaithful or that Scott’s injury is punishment from God in some way,” Reverend Granville hastened to intervene. “It is a long ride into town from here, and I’m certain you attend when you’re able.” He added with a nod to Laura, “We do miss hearing you sing, though. What was that song you thrilled us with at Christmas?”
Thankful that he had changed the subject, Laura replied, “I would love to be able to sing more often. And it was ‘O Holy Night’ that I sang at Christmas. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“Well, it was quite lovely…quite lovely.” The pastor glanced at his wife, seeming to hope that she’d pick up the conversation without continuing to question his parishioners’ faith.
Mrs. Granville plunged ahead regardless. “The Morro Coyo Ladies’ Society also sends their warmest regards.”
Laura tried not to visibly cringe. She couldn’t help but recall her first meeting with the Society, right after she had been reunited with Scott. The image of circling vultures flitted through her head. She realized they honestly meant well, and part of the problem was her own discomfort with large collections of women. She had grown up in near isolation with Scott, Drew, and the house staff as her closest companions, so she was unaccustomed to the pervasive gossiping when groups of three or more women congregated together in one place. Other than foxhunting and social events to which Scott escorted her, she rarely interacted with sizeable groups, particularly ones that consisted solely of females. In the months following that initial encounter, she had involved herself as much as she was able with the Society, recognizing that as a Lancer she would be expected to be active in the community. It didn’t keep her from calling the sewing circle the “stitch and bitch” group in her mind, however. Scott had roared with laughter when she inadvertently let the term slip. It didn’t help the situation at all that Scott himself was the subject of much of the ladies’ curiosity. It had become readily apparent to Laura that, having married one of the most eligible bachelors in the Valley – his brother being the other one – she was fair game for the gossipmongers. She carefully arranged her face into what she hoped was a mask of gratitude. “Please give the ladies my thanks and tell them I miss them, and I’ll be back as soon as I’m able. I’m still working on the quilt pieces.”
“Well, don’t you worry about those quilts,” Mrs. Granville replied gently. “We’ll just be glad to have you back among us.”
Laura had to bite her tongue to keep from replying “Where you can keep your beady eyes on me?” Probably not the best thing to say to the preacher’s wife, she thought. But, then, Scott would have quite a laugh at that.
The three looked up expectantly as the front door clicked and the sound of boot heels resonated on the tile floor of the main hall. Murdoch hesitated for a fraction of a second, tossing his hat onto the hall tree before he strode into the Great Room. The Granvilles hurriedly stood while Laura slowly forced herself to her feet. After shaking hands with the pastor and nodding a greeting to Mrs. Granville, Murdoch turned his attention to his daughter-in-law. Kissing her on the cheek, he whispered in her ear, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she quietly assured him. “Teresa’s upstairs with Scott right now.”
“Why don’t you go on back up with him?” Murdoch smiled at the Granvilles. “I’ll visit with George and Elsa here for awhile.”
Laura accepted a handshake from the Reverend and tolerated a hug from his wife before she, gratefully, took her leave.
Teresa was standing, staring out the window, her arms folded across her chest when Laura entered the room. The younger woman spun around and met her halfway to the door. “You’re back already? How was your visit? I hated to leave you alone with them…Isn’t Mrs. Granville just the most annoying…?”
Laura gave the young woman a hug, smiling at her chatter. “It’s okay, Teresa. They truly are concerned about Scott.” She couldn’t resist a jab, though. “Of course, I’m not sure why she felt it necessary to wear black today – he’s not dead yet.” Laura moved over the bed, tucked her skirts up and sat down on the edge of the bed, reaching out to caress her husband’s face. “Has he been quiet while I was gone?”
“Mostly. He did mumble something about bugles and boots and saddles. I’m not sure what that meant.”
“I think he’s somehow reliving his time in the War. Calling out cavalry commands." Laura sighed as she smoothed an errant lock of sweat-matted hair from her husband’s forehead." At least that’s what Johnny believes. He didn’t try to crawl out of bed, did he?”
“No – he just moaned a little. I wondered if I should give him some laudanum, but I thought I should ask you first,” Teresa replied tentatively.
“It’s all right," Laura said, grateful that Teresa had refrained from administering the potent medication. “I’ll give him some if he seems uncomfortable. I hate to drug him up unless he needs it – he’s never liked to take any kind of medicine.”
“Well, I’ll take the tray back downstairs.” Teresa retrieved the lunch tray from the table and turned for the door. “Did I hear Murdoch come in?”
“Yes, he’s home.” Laura stood up and stretched her back. “He rescued me from the Granvilles. I’m not sure if they’re planning to stay for dinner.” She added somewhat sarcastically, “I wasn’t about to ask.” More pensively, she remarked, “Johnny’s not back yet, though.”
“He’ll be all right, Laura. Don’t you worry about him, too. He’s done this before when he needed to pull himself together. Rides off to who knows where and then tiptoes back into the house in the middle of the night.” Teresa turned for the door. “I guess I’ll go see how much dinner Maria and I need to cook.” She winked at her sister. “Don’t trouble yourself – I’ll bring your dinner up to you. That way you can avoid all the questions.”
“Thank you! I really will have a lot to make up to you when this is all over.” Laura walked Teresa to the door, and briefly rested her face against the doorpost, as she watched her sister head back down the passageway towards the stairs, the wood cool against her aching head. As she turned to go back to her chair, she noticed the books that had fallen behind Scott’s bedside table. I might as well dig those out now. Scott wouldn’t appreciate having his precious books scattered on the floor. Pulling her skirts up, she dropped to her knees, reaching back to pull the books from behind the stand. His journal had settled spine down, so it was easy to reach. She had to pry the volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Conduct of Life” from under the table, noting with dismay that several of the pages were creased and curled. He won’t be pleased about that. I suppose I should just order him another copy as soon as I’m able. Laura replaced the two books on the table and was about to stand up when she caught sight of Scott’s wallet wedged between the nightstand and the bedpost. That’s odd. He usually leaves his billfold on his dresser. Oh well….As she dragged the wallet from its awkward position, a ragged sheet of paper and what appeared to be a photograph slipped out. Instinctively, she opened the billfold and started to return the displaced contents, but her curiosity was suddenly aroused. She settled back on her knees on the floor, fingering the stained and crumpled parchment, intrigued as to why her fastidious husband would keep a smudged and tattered paper and a frayed photograph in his billfold. She shook her head, reasoning with herself. I really should just put these back. If you had wanted me to see whatever they are, you would’ve shown them to me. It’s not proper for me to go through your personal belongings. I need to respect your privacy. She started to replace the items once more but she was overcome by the sense of emotional upheaval that had plagued her since Scott's disappearance and subsequent illness. Laura's need to restore a sense of connection with her unresponsive husband became overwhelming. But there’s got to be a reason you kept them, and you held them close to you all the time. With shaking hands, she slowly started to unfold the fragile paper. Proper or not, I need to feel you with me, she reasoned. I need to know why these papers were so important to you. Smoothing out the paper she realized it was a letter, written in her husband’s distinctive hand. Taking a tremulous breath, she began to read. Within two sentences, she was unable to stop the tears from streaming down her face, her chest so heavy with raw heartache she could barely draw a breath. She could distinctly hear Scott’s voice as she read what he clearly had considered to be his last letter to her, composed six years before.
June 9, 1864
Clayton’s Store, Virginia
My darling Laura,
It has been a little more than a year since I last held you in my arms as we danced the night away at my graduation party. Neither of us could have imagined then, when our future together seemed blissfully certain, that circumstances would be so altered that I would be sitting here next to a campfire writing this missive to you. As I write, my cavalry unit is encamped at a muddy backwoods crossroad in Virginia called Clayton’s Store. I expect we will see heavy action in the next day or so as we move south towards Richmond, and I must face the very real possibility that I will not survive.
Despite your father’s apparent unwillingness to forward my previous correspondence to you, it is my hope that he will, in this instance, show some compassion and allow you to read what may very well be my last letter. I may never again have the opportunity to tell you how much having you in my life has meant to me. I have always loved you, and this last year without you has left me bereft and empty.
I have had a great deal of time to reflect during these past months, and there is no doubt in my mind I have loved you my entire life. When we were children playing on the Common, you were my best friend, despite there being those who considered it to be an improper association. To me it was always the most natural thing in the world -- like eating or breathing. Even then, you were my ‘Mac.’ I remember our days on the hunt field when I rode always looking back to reassure myself that you were safe. You who threw caution to the wind, despite my pleas to the contrary, and jumped fences that even I hesitated to attempt. Before I knew what it was like for a man to love a woman with every fiber of his being, I had an intense need to watch over and protect you. And then, I hold onto the memory of your sixteenth birthday party and the first time I took you in my arms and kissed your lips. The love I felt for you at that moment, and still feel for you even now, could never be adequately expressed in words. Had you not so abruptly disappeared, presumably spirited away by your father with the intent of keeping us apart, we most assuredly would have been wed, and my life would have been forever complete.
But how our lives have changed beyond what we could ever have conceived. I have no idea where you are and under what circumstances you find yourself. My promise to love and protect you, which I made with the purest of intentions, is a vow I have been prevented from fulfilling as your father seems unwilling to relent and entrust you to my care. And as strongly as I opposed Drew joining the Army, I find myself fighting the same battles he did against the same foes, both the ones wearing gray and those that haunt the recesses of my soul. I am not afraid to give my life if, by some small means, my death will serve to preserve the great Union for which our ancestors fought. But, if by surviving the heat of battle, I am sentenced to a life without you, where I will never be able to see your beautiful face or hold you in my arms again, then perhaps death is the better fate. For to me, Laura, you are all there is. You are all there ever was. I cannot comprehend a life or a future that does not include you by my side forever. Without you, I can never be whole.
If I am killed in this senseless, horrific carnage, all I ask is that you remember me. Remember the love and laughter we shared together and the passion we felt for each other. Listen for my voice, for I will always be with you, on your brightest days and in your darkest nights. When you feel the warm spring breezes touch your face, it will be my fingers caressing your cheeks as I always loved to do. Don’t think me gone, Laura. I will simply be waiting patiently for you until we are united once more, never to be parted again.
My beautiful Laura, no matter what the future holds for either of us, for my sake, please be happy. I would never want you to spend your days in mourning for me. We both know only too well the kind of bitterness such grief creates, having watched it poison your father and my grandfather through the years. Just remember me and the happiness we shared for those briefest of times, as, no matter what befalls me, I will never forget you.
With all my love,
By the time she finished his final words, Laura was sobbing uncontrollably, gasping for air just as she had done on that fateful day in 1865 when her father had told her Scott was dead. Her hands still shaking, she managed to clear her vision enough to recognize that the photograph she held in her left hand was the one commissioned for her sixteenth birthday in 1862. It was creased and faded, but her eyes looked out of it in contentment, filled with an innocent happiness Laura knew now would be fleeting. The young girl in that picture was deeply in love and had no way of knowing within a little more than a year she would be wrenched away from her home and, more importantly, ripped away from the man she adored.
Why did you keep this letter, Scott? Why didn’t you ever mail it? Not that Father would have given it to me….But he might have – at least once he thought you were dead. Were you captured before you could send it? Why do you still have it even now? Laura sat slumped on the floor, her head resting against the frame of the bed until she could breathe more easily. Scott’s face was turned towards her, relaxed in the depths of sleep and mercifully unaware of the anguish his illness and his wife’s discovery had caused. She had no sense of the passing of time. Just a keen awareness of her intense sense of loss and heartbreak. She could easily have imagined herself back in her bedroom in the Beacon Hill house as she pleaded with her father not to send her away. Or in the cabin of the ship as she cried and vomited repeatedly as the vessel pitched and yawed on its way to London. She could still feel the visceral, gut-wrenching agony of her father’s cold pronouncement that Scott had been killed. Laura was certain the world had turned sideways in that moment.
Slowly, she regained awareness of where she was. Carefully inserting the letter and photograph back into Scott’s wallet, Laura pulled herself to her feet. She laid the billfold back on top of the books on her husband’s bedside table, rearranged her skirts, and folded herself onto the edge of the bed. You look so peaceful, Scott. Maybe it’s a good thing you don’t know how badly the rest of us are hurting. She traced her fingers over his lips and then leaned over and kissed him softly. Careful not to put any pressure on his injured shoulder, Laura laid down next to her husband and rested her head on his chest. Exhausted and emotionally drained, she was soon asleep.
Laura awakened to the sound of horses calling greetings to each other in the barnyard as the hands rode in from their day’s work. The early evening sun filtered in the window, the curtains floating on a soft breeze. Scott had shifted in bed, wrapping his arms around her as she slept, her body molded against his. He still hadn’t awakened sufficiently to say anything, but he had at least responded to her presence. And his skin didn’t seem to be as hot. For now, that would have to be enough. She reluctantly detached herself from his embrace and sat up stiffly, wiping the dried tears from her face with her hands. I suppose I should try to go eat some dinner. And try to get you to take some food. Hopefully, the Granvilles have had the decency to leave. Maybe Johnny’s come home. I’m so worried about him….She shuffled over to the washstand, poured fresh water from the pitcher into the basin and splashed her face with her hands. I’m afraid to look in the mirror. I might scare myself. Steeling herself against what she might see, she tottered over to her dressing table and glanced in the mirror. The face that looked back at her was drawn and pale, dark circles imprinted around her eyes. I look like a raccoon. Or worse….She ran her hairbrush hastily through her curls, trying to bring some semblance of decency to her disheveled appearance.
She turned, her hairbrush in mid-air, at the sound of a soft tap on the door. Murdoch stood there, a tray in his hands.
“I told Teresa I’d bring your dinner up to you,” he explained as he nudged the door completely open with his foot and cautiously moved to position the tray on the table. “She wondered if you might like to come down to the kitchen to eat, but I thought you might prefer to stay with Scott.”
Replacing her brush back on the dressing table, she admitted, “I’d rather eat up here where I can be with him.” Laura noted there was only one plate of food on the tray, along with more rice and beef broth for her husband. “Have you already eaten?”
“I have – and no, the Granville’s didn’t choose to accept my invitation to dinner.” Murdoch’s eyes twinkled with humor as he read the unasked question in her eyes. “They left shortly after I arrived. Perhaps they didn’t find me to be as charming a host as they did you.”
She couldn’t help a small, self-satisfied grin. She cleared her throat, trying to sound sincere as she sat down at the table and picked up her dinner napkin. “It was very thoughtful of them to drive all the way out here to pay their respects.”
“Or to see for themselves what was happening to the Lancer family and furnish the Ladies’ Society of Morro Coyo with their next topic for discussion?” Murdoch countered, his tongue caught between his teeth. It was a gesture that reminded her so much of Scott. He would do much the same when he was trying not to laugh.
“Probably.” She almost snorted as she agreed with her father-in-law. “It’s unfortunate our family seems to provide Morro Coyo with a nearly endless supply of conversation. And Spanish Wells, and Green River, and….” Laura snickered as she ticked off the nearby towns on her fingers.
“That’s true,” Murdoch sighed as he wearily collapsed into his chair. “It was a great deal quieter before Johnny and Scott came back. I think I’ve grown grayer over the last year.” He seemed to reflect on his words for a moment before he continued, “But I wouldn't trade any one of those gray hairs because it’s been the happiest year of my life.”
Laura nearly chewed a hole in her upper lip trying to keep from crying. Neither spoke for several minutes, each lost in their own personal torment.
Finally breaking the silence, Laura whispered, “I know the agony you felt in losing him, Murdoch. Losing your wife and your baby all at the same time. It had to be excruciating. And I’m very well aware that the only reason I was fortunate enough to have Scott with me all those years is because he was taken from you. I've thought about it so much lately -- how selfish I’ve been knowing he grew up without the father he so needed, but secretly feeling pleased. If you hadn’t lost him, I would never have had those happy years we spent growing up together."
Her father-in-law’s eyes focused on a spot on the rug just beyond the toes of his boots. “Laura,” he started as he folded his hands over his chest and settled back in the chair. “I wish I had the wisdom to explain why things happen the way they do. Why I lost both of my sons for so many years. Why you and Scott were separated as you were. But you need to stop feeling guilty over what is past and done. You’ve suffered enough.”
“But,” she started, quieting when he raised his hand.
“Let me finish,” he admonished her gently. “We’ve both experienced the pain of losing Scott, but he’s back with us now, and he’s going to get well. He has everything to live for. We need to focus on our future together – not waste time fretting over the past. Just think of what’s happened in this last year. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my sons return to me, and I’ve gained a lovely daughter.” He smiled, clearly pleased with the blush that crept up her cheeks. “I was never as proud as the day I escorted you down that aisle to marry Scott, and I have never seen him so completely happy. So don’t you feel guilty for the years you had with him, believing them to be at my expense. It’s made those lost years almost worthwhile knowing he had you in his life. It’s a joy to have you as part of my family now.” Murdoch paused for a minute, a smile playing about his lips. “There is one thing, though, my dear, that would make me even happier….”
“What’s that?” Laura sniffled, blotting at her moist eyes with her napkin.
“I’m not getting any younger….”
She tilted her head, curious at where the conversation was going.
“And I know you and Scott haven’t been married all that long….”
Could he drag this out just a little longer? Laura was bemused, now realizing precisely where her father-in-law was headed.
“But I’d truly love to be around to watch my grandchildren grow up,” he finished, laughing.
Laura pondered her response, still certain Murdoch had already recognized the signs of her pregnancy, just as his younger son had. She decided to toy with him a bit. “Scott will make a wonderful father.” She turned her gaze to her husband. And I need to tell him that myself, when I tell him I’m carrying our child....
Murdoch’s eyebrows rose expectantly.
“Someday.” She turned her eyes back to her father-in-law and smiled as he rearranged his features into a more bland expression. He seemed to her to be exhibiting uncharacteristic patience, perhaps recognizing she needed to inform her husband of her condition before, together, they announced their news to the rest of the family. Laura could only think at that moment how fortunate she was to belong to such a family. One where she was accepted and loved for who she was. One where Scott’s babies could grow up with unconditional acceptance, not with the constant, grinding fear she had experienced as a child that she was never quite “good” enough.
Forking a mouthful of mashed potatoes into her mouth, Laura could feel the unspoken words hanging in the air. Maybe it’s time. She debated with herself. Maybe it’s time for us to stop dancing around the issues. Time to try to find some sense of closure with the past. She laid her fork down, clenched her hands in her lap, and took a deep breath. “He was happy, Murdoch.”
A look of surprise mixed with curiosity flitted across her father-in-law’s face.. Laura wasn’t sure how he was able to raise one eyebrow as he did without contorting the rest of his features.
“Scott had a happy childhood,” she said with more conviction before Murdoch had time to respond. “That’s not to say he didn’t have questions. That he didn’t wonder what you were like and whether or not you would be proud of him. What it would’ve been like to grow up in California instead of Boston. But Mr. Garrett gave him every possible advantage and, in his own way, he loves Scott very much. It’s just terribly unfortunate both he and my father confuse love with control.”
“I would have given up everything had I thought I could get him back,” Murdoch’s voice was barely above a whisper, his eyes filled with long-remembered pain.
“But you wouldn’t have been able to, no matter what you did,” Laura insisted. “And deep down, Scott recognizes that, whether or not he will openly admit it to you. He worked for his grandfather when he left the Army. He knows how unyielding he is and how nearly unlimited his resources are. Scott was all Harlan Garrett had left of his only child, the daughter he idolized. He wasn’t about to let his grandson go.” And Scott said they had a horrific argument the night he told him he was leaving Boston for California. But that is something Scott will need to tell you, if he so chooses.
Murdoch pursed his lips as he considered her words. “No, you’re right – he would never have let him go. Harlan made that very clear to me.” He sighed as he shifted his bulk in the chair. “It does give me great peace of mind, though, to know that Scott had you.”
Smiling broadly as the blush again colored her pale features, Laura replied, “Yes, he had me. And, oh, how he had me.” She relaxed slightly as she considered her husband, his face tranquil in the depths of sleep. “I honestly don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love your son, Murdoch. He was always my best friend, my knight in shining armor, my protector.”
“You did say he likely saved your life during that 4th of July celebration when you were children.” Murdoch stretched his back and neck as he sought a more comfortable position in his chair. “Were there other times?” He teased her, chuckling softly.
“There was that near disaster, and so many other times he intervened to protect me from myself.” She shook her head, smiling, remembering how Scott had hovered over her. “It wasn’t that I intentionally tried to put myself in danger. I think I was simply an overly-curious, active child. And then there were the horses and ponies.” So many memories. So much happiness before all the pain. “I think I needed to prove to Scott and our friend, Drew, that I was as good a rider as they were, so I rode the most difficult animals, jumped the highest fences. Scott would beg me not to be foolhardy, to be more sensible and careful. I can still see him, so handsome in his ‘pink’ hunt coat and top hat when we were out foxhunting.” She laughed softly. “He perfected the art of riding forward with the hunt staff while still looking back to make sure I was all right. He was always there, watching over me.”
“And that made it even harder to lose him, didn’t it?” Murdoch spoke softly, impressing his daughter-in-law with the depth of his perception.
Stifling a sob, Laura rubbed her tear-moistened eyes and nodded. “I wondered sometimes during those years without him if I had simply taken him too much for granted. If I was somehow doomed to lose him because I loved him too much. I was so sure he would always be there. I needed him to be there. And then my father sent me away, and there was nothing.”
The two rested in silence, each acutely aware of the profound loss they had both suffered because of their love for the young man lying there.
Murdoch finally spoke, his voice uncharacteristically halting and tentative. “I know it’s really none of my business, Laura, but I do consider you to be my daughter now.”
She nodded again, sniffling.
“Have you heard anything from your father since your marriage? I suppose I find it difficult to understand how a father could willingly cut all ties to his only daughter.”
“No,” she sighed, fingering the thin gold band on her hand, “I haven’t had a letter from him since he wrote back in October to tell me he wouldn’t come to our wedding.” Realizing she needed to take her own advice about “dancing around the issues,” Laura continued. “It would be easy, I’m sure, for you to imagine my father as completely cold and uncaring, Murdoch. As some sort of monster. But it’s really not as simple as all that.”
“Things rarely are,” he said. “In my experience, very little is ever completely black or white, right or wrong.”
“For all the heartless things he did, Father did spoil me shamelessly. Horses, clothing, jewelry…anything his money could buy, he gave to me. The best tutors, books, the theater. He had originally purchased our country home outside Boston just before I was born, anticipating I would be the first of many children. After my mother died, he could’ve sold the estate – even the house in Beacon Hill was far larger than what we needed – but he kept the farm because he knew how much I loved it. It was the place I felt the happiest, with my horses and away from the noise and congestion of the city.” Laura paused to take a sip from her cup of tea. “There was a price to pay for all that indulgence, however.”
“And what was that?” Murdoch sat up straighter in his chair, stretching his back.
“The price was total obedience to my father. Don’t ask any questions. Don’t challenge his authority. Be the perfect, proper Boston lady. That’s why I said he confused love with control.”
Murdoch pondered her words before saying, “Perhaps Scott feels that’s what I expect of him now. I haven’t exactly encouraged him to ask me questions about his past, about why I never took him back from Garrett. In fact, I suppose I’ve actively avoided the topic. I’ve expected him to respect my authority while I’ve failed to respect his need to understand why I seemingly abandoned him.”
“I have to admit I’ve noticed that, whenever Scott mentions his grandfather’s name, you do change the subject.” Laura hesitated before she continued, her voice full of certainty. “But, Murdoch, you’re the only one who can answer Scott’s questions and clear the air between the two of you. He needs to hear from you what it was like for you to have him taken away. What all those years without him were like. It’s not something I can tell him for you.”
“No, my dear, it’s not.” Murdoch pressed his hands into the arms of the chair and pushed himself to his feet. “Once he’s well, my son and I need to have a very long talk.” He took a match from the box on Scott’s dresser and moved to light the lamp on the bedside table. “In the meantime, you will finish your dinner, young lady, and then you will go get some sleep. I’ll stay with Scott tonight.” Before she could protest, he winked and added gently, “And you will not question my authority.”
Laura rolled over in bed, stretching, feeling restless, the sounds from outside penetrating the fog in her head. Noises that were all somehow familiar and yet not. She listened for the cows bawling in the pasture, but heard what sounded like ships’ bells as they tolled the sailors’ duty watch; the distinct cacophony of horseshoes clanging against cobblestone and trace chains jingling as carriages moved down the street. The breeze wafting through the open window brought with it the odor of fish and salty sea air rather than the fetid smells of cattle and chickens. The young woman reached out, expecting to find the warm comfort of her husband’s body, only to feel cool and empty bed linens next to her.
“You need to get up, lazybones!” The heavy drapes at the windows were thrown back allowing intense beams of sunlight to pierce the darkness in the room.
Squinting against the glare, and feeling only half awake, Laura moaned, “What?”
“You heard me. You need to get up. Breakfast is already over.”
“Sarah?” Laura was sure she was imagining her cousin’s voice. She hadn’t seen or heard from Sarah since leaving for California nearly a year before.
“Who else would it be, silly goose?” Her cousin stood in the middle of the guest bedroom in Baltimore, tapping her well-heeled foot impatiently. “Seriously, Laura, it’s far past time for you to be awake. David and I are ready to leave for Boston. Since you refuse to accompany us, the least you could do is come and bid us farewell.”
“I don’t understand.” Laura sat up in bed and glanced around her, uneasy when she recognized the bedroom as the one she had used when she lived on Pratt Street near the Baltimore harbor with her cousin and her husband, David.
“What is there to understand? We’re going to Boston to visit your father, and you’ve stubbornly insisted you won’t go back there. Personally, I think you need to move on with your life. Go back to Boston and be the good daughter your father deserves.” Sarah stood on the rug, her hands on her hips and her nose in the air as she delivered her opinion.
“I can’t go back to Boston,” Laura whispered. “I just won’t…ever….”
“”Why? Because of Scott Lancer?” Sarah sniffed in derision. “Laura he’s been dead for over four years. Don’t you think it’s time you forget him and find someone else? I mean, I never met him, but he can’t have been so perfect that you couldn’t find some other man to suit you. Mother certainly tried to help you, but you didn’t appreciate her efforts at all.”
“I could never forget him, Sarah!” She spoke with such intensity that her cousin took a step backwards. “And I will never set foot in Boston again.” She lay back down and pulled the blanket over her face and head. “Please leave me alone,” she murmured, not certain the other woman even heard her. Laura’s mind raced, trying to make sense of where she was and what was happening to her. Was her marriage to Scott and her life at Lancer just a fantastic dream she had now awakened from? Was he really dead and gone like Sarah said? I can’t have just imagined it. It’s all too real – our wedding, Scott holding me, the baby, my family. Groaning, she turned over, seeking a more comfortable position.
“Laura?” Teresa’s voice infiltrated the haze of her uneasy sleep. “Laura, can you wake up? Dr. Jenkins is here to check on Scott. I know you’ll want to talk to him.”
Opening her eyes, Laura struggled to force down the bile that surged up the back of her throat. Teresa’s face floated in and out of focus, adding to the young wife’s confusion over what was a dream and what was reality. Blinking hard, she sat up and scrubbed at her face with her hands, thoroughly grateful to find she was at home at Lancer. “What time is it?”
“It’s after nine o’clock. Murdoch thought it was best to let you sleep instead of waking you for breakfast. I saved you a plate.”
“Thank you.” Laura crawled slowly off the bed and smoothed her skirts, once again having slept in her day dress. “I’ll eat after I talk to Sam. Is he already with Scott?”
Nodding, Teresa led the way from the room and across the hall, hesitating outside Scott and Laura’s room. “I’ll be downstairs – I need to help Maria in the kitchen.”
“Thank you again for waking me, Teresa.” Slipping into her bedroom, Laura was surprised to see her brother-in-law standing by the window, his arms folded on his chest. “Johnny!” She hurried over to embrace him, pausing briefly to squeeze Murdoch’s hand as she passed by him. She whispered in the young man’s ear, “I was so worried about you!”
Johnny had the good grace to look sheepish as he murmured an apology to her. “I’m sorry, Mac. I needed to get….”
Sam, standing next to the bed, had already removed his stethoscope from his bag. He cleared his throat loudly, interrupting the two young Lancers.
“Don’t you ever do that again.” Laura fixed Johnny with a steely gaze, adding in her most firm schoolteacher voice, “I’ll deal with you later.” As she turned away to join Sam at her husband’s side, Laura realized what she had said. Did I really just tell Johnny Madrid I’d ‘deal with him later’? I truly must be falling apart….
“Has he been lucid at all since I examined him last?” The doctor carefully lifted Scott’s eyelid with his fingertip, causing the sick man to feebly attempt to turn his head away. “Have you tried to wake him up?”
“No, I haven’t really tried to wake him. I thought he should rest, Sam.” Laura twisted her fingers in her skirt. “I didn’t think we should disturb him.” She glanced at her father-in-law for reassurance. “He seemed quieter yesterday, didn’t he?” Turning back to the doctor she added weakly, “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”
“He did seem more comfortable during the night,” Murdoch offered. “He didn’t appear to be in any significant pain. But, then, he didn’t say anything meaningful either.”
“Then let’s see if I can encourage him to wake up.” Sam placed his fist in the middle of Scott’s chest, pushed firmly and rubbed. The response was instantaneous. Scott lashed out with his own right fist, nearly catching the doctor in the face. “Well, well,” Sam chuckled. “You are in there. That’s good.”
“I don’t understand, Sam,” Laura implored, reaching for the physician’s arm. “I’ve never seen him behave that way. What did you do?”
“It’s called a sternal rub, Laura,” the doctor replied. “It’s used to elicit a reaction in a poorly responsive patient. Scott certainly responded appropriately. It’s time for you to stop letting him sleep and start pushing him. He needs to be awakened now.”
“But he’s so weak. I don’t want to hurt him,” she protested, reaching over to tuck the sheet back around her husband.
“You won’t. Trust me. You’ve got to get him moving, whether he wants to or not. Keep trying to wake him up, talk to him, make him take some deep breaths and cough. You might feel like you’re hurting him, but it’s for his own good. I’m still concerned he’ll develop pneumonia from the inactivity.” Sam repacked his bag and turned, nodding at Murdoch. “And now, Laura, if you’d be so kind as to see me out….I need to recheck Pete’s arm and see to several of the children.”
“I’ll stay with him,” Johnny volunteered, settling himself on the blanket chest at the foot of the bed while his father slowly eased himself into the armchair.
Trailing Sam down the hall and stairs, Laura was torn between her desire to remain with her husband and an awareness the doctor had asked her to show him to his buggy out of a need to talk privately with her.
After stowing his medical bag under the seat of the rig, Sam turned to the young woman and took her by the hands. “I’ve been concerned about you, Laura. You still don’t look well.” He squeezed her hands and added, “Quite frankly, my dear, you look dreadful.”
“I’m all right, Sam,” she responded somewhat defensively. “I slept a little last night. Murdoch insisted.” And even I wouldn’t dare defy him. “I’ve even managed to eat a bit more – and keep it down.”
“And have you noticed any more bleeding?”
Laura jerked her chin up, her eyes widening at the bluntness of the doctor’s question. “I…no…I haven’t,” she stuttered, wondering whether, as personal and intimate as their conversations had become, they would only worsen with the progression of her pregnancy. She could only imagine how undignified her confinement might be.
“Good.” Sam nodded in satisfaction. “And no cramping or pain?”
“No. None. Other than being tired, I feel fine. Even the morning nausea seems to be easing somewhat.” She was relieved by the look of encouragement in Sam’s eyes. “I just need Scott to get well, and I know everything will be all right.”
“I’ll see you in the next few days, then. It sounds as though you and your baby will be all right for the time being, at least.” Sam climbed into the buggy and picked up the lines. “But you have to rest,” he cautioned. “Let the others take care of Scott for awhile. Give Murdoch the chance to be a father. And, again…if you need me for anything, you send someone into town without delay. Like I said, though, I will need to see you in my office very soon. Make sure you have someone bring you into town."
“I’ll do that,” she smiled. “And thank you again…for everything.”
Leaning against the porch column as Sam drove away, the young wife took a deep breath of the clear, cool morning air. The sky was an intense blue – the same blue as her husband’s eyes, she mused – fair weather clouds lining up behind the mountains in the distance. She inhaled the scent of the cows and the distinct, fusty odor of the barnyard dust that wafted up from the stables and outhouse. But this time her nose didn’t protest; for the first time she realized she wouldn’t willingly trade the intense odors of the cattle ranch that had become her beloved home for the salty sea air of Boston or Baltimore or any place else. She would never again complain to Scott the smell of the cows was offensive or he and his brother needed to stop grinding the endless muck into their expensive Turkish rugs. This place really is paradise; it’s so much more than just the house and land. It’s a sanctuary with the power to heal us all – Johnny, Scott, Murdoch, Teresa, and me. And it will be our home and our children’s home forever. How could I have possibly been afraid to come here that first day? Scott had often reminded her, with more than a little amusement, of the first afternoon he brought her to Lancer. She had asked him to stop the buggy in the drive, white-faced and shaking, worried she would be “too Boston” for his new family. But, just as he had said they would, the Lancers had welcomed her with open arms, offering her the love and acceptance she had craved for years. And how could I have ever considered leaving? No, we will never leave Lancer. Our children will grow strong and thrive here – the most beautiful place on Earth. With those thoughts firmly entrenched, Laura turned away and strode purposefully back into the hacienda, shutting the heavy wooden door behind her.
Johnny glanced up as Laura tiptoed into the bedroom. “Everything all right?” He drawled softly. “Sam seemed kinda eager to talk to you alone.”
“Have you always been able to read people’s minds, Johnny, or is it a talent you’ve only recently discovered?” she laughingly replied.
“Oh, I don’t know…Sam’s pretty easy to read. So are you.”
“Everything’s fine. Sam just wanted to lecture me yet again about resting and eating. I suppose I’ll be hearing that same advice for the next few months.”
“Yes, you will. From all of us. Especially from Scott.” Johnny stood up and stretched. “Murdoch went to get some coffee and tend to some chores.”
Drifting down into her chair next to the bedside, Laura was aware of an uncomfortable silence that slowly seeped into the room. Finally, not wanting there to be any awkwardness between her and her brother in law, she spoke first. “Why did you leave, Johnny? Especially without telling any of us where you were going? We were so worried…I was so worried about you. Murdoch and Teresa were good at hiding it, but they were just as frantic. What if something awful had happened to you out there? Scott lying here desperately ill, and you out there God knows where riding around. Wasn’t it enough that Murdoch has one son struggling to live without worrying about something just as terrible happening to his other son?”
“I went to see Val, Mac,” Johnny said as he sat back down on the blanket chest. He continued with increasing frustration in his voice, “The walls were starting to close in on me. You of all people should understand that – isn’t that why you really left Baltimore?" He shrugged. "He’s my brother. I want to fix everything for him, make him better right away. But I can’t. And it’s just as hard for me to see him lying there and not be able to do a damned thing about it as it is for you. Guess I needed to get away for a little while. Try and clear my head."
“Johnny, I do understand the need to get away. Every time I do manage to go to sleep I wake up praying that Scott’s going to take me in his arms and tell me it was all a horrible dream. But this isn’t just a nightmare, and we need to be here together. All of us. That’s what makes us strong as a family – that we’re together. We support each other, and we take care of each other. When I left Baltimore, there was no one who cared I was gone or if I was ever coming back. Things are different here because we do love and worry about each other.” She paused for a minute, seeing the pain in her brother-in-law’s face. “So, I guess what I’m saying, Johnny, is…ride off if you need to for awhile. But tell us where you’re going and when you plan to be back. We’re not trying to tie you down -- we love you, and we don’t want to lose you. And that includes your father – whether you’re ready to believe that or not.”
“You done with the lecture, schoolteacher?” Johnny squinted at the sunlight streaming in the open window and pulled absently on his ear.
“Yes.” Laura smiled softly. “I’m done with the lecture.”
The young man cleared his throat and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Good. ‘Cause I think it’s about time to try to wake Scott up again. As much as we might not want to, I think Sam’s right. We need to get him moving before he ends up with pneumonia.” He shot his sister-in-law a lop-sided grin. “And thanks for the lecture.”
The tension between them gone, Laura smiled and nodded and then moved to take her place at her husband’s side. Johnny quickly intercepted her. “I think I’d better do it. Given Scott’s reaction to Sam, you’d be better off to stay back out of the way.”
“But…,” she protested.
“I know, I know – he wouldn’t hurt you. We already had this discussion. But he’s still not lucid, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I let something happen to you. And neither would Scott.” He pointed to a spot several feet away from the bed. “So you stay put right there. ‘kay?”
Seeing the sense in her brother-in-law’s reasoning, Laura reluctantly took up a position at the foot of the bed, her hands resting against the blanket chest. Johnny leaned over his brother and pinned Scott’s right arm against the bed, remembering what a strong reaction the doctor had elicited from the sick man. He also knew from personal experience how good his brother’s right hook was. It had taken his jaw several weeks to feel right after he had been on the receiving end of Scott’s haymaker down by the lake during their first week at Lancer. With his right hand, Johnny tapped his brother on the face. “Scott…c'mon...wake up…time to open your eyes.”
The only response from Scott was a weak movement of his head in protest and a low moan.
Johnny glanced back nervously at Laura and shrugged before turning his attention back to his brother. “Scott…brother…you’ve gotta wake up now. Doctor’s orders.” With that, he mimicked Sam’s sternal rub, pushing against Scott’s chest.
The reaction was again relatively impressive. Scott tried to sit up and push his brother away. His eyes, while not focused, were open. “Drew?” He rasped out the words. “What are you doing, Drew? Don’t tell me you’re in trouble again. I’m running out of excuses for you. Go away and let me sleep.”
“No, brother, try again. I’m not Drew,” Johnny said firmly as he held onto his brother’s arm and pushed Scott’s hair out of his face. “And I’m not going away. So you can just stay awake. You've slept long enough. C'mon. Up and at 'em.”
Unable to stay quiet while her brother-in-law struggled with her husband, Laura edged around the bed and took her place at Scott’s left side. “Scott.” She reached out to take his face in her hands. “Johnny’s right…you need to try to focus.”
Scott turned his face in the direction of the second annoying voice intruding on his sleep. As his eyes finally focused on her, Laura held her breath, seeing the recognition in her husband's eyes she had so longed for. But her relief was short-lived. “You.” Scott’s voice and eyes were full of venom. “What are you doing here?” He groaned as he tried to shove her away with his injured arm. “Haven’t you hurt me enough already?” Moaning, he sank back against the pillows and clamped his eyes firmly shut.
Sobbing, Laura jumped to her feet and stumbled blindly for the door, ignoring Johnny’s pleas for her to stop.
“Laura…wait! He doesn’t know what he’s saying….” Johnny was torn between staying with his agitated brother and following the distraught young woman as she fled from the room crying.
Nearly falling down the back stairs in her haste, Laura lurched through the courtyard and out to the horse barn, oblivious to the stares of the cowhands and the household help. She sank to her knees in the corner of Celeste’s empty stall, her breath coming in short gasps, her forehead pressed uncomfortably against the rough planks of the barn wall. She was grateful she hadn’t eaten breakfast – the dry heaves were painful enough without actually regurgitating anything. Dear God, is this never going to end? Is that what he really thinks of me? Does he truly look at me and remember nothing but the heartache? Does he actually believe deep-down that I deserted him?
A shadow fell across the doorway, and footsteps echoed through the empty barn. “Sweetheart.” Murdoch’s voice was soothing as he pulled her to her feet and into his embrace. “Shhhh….” He patted her back and pushed the stray wisps of hair from her face. “Shhhh….” He tipped her chin up with his finger, a wry smile curling the edges of his lips. “I wasn’t aware proper young Boston ladies could run quite so fast. All I saw was a blue blur tearing across the barnyard. Took me a minute to remember you were wearing a blue dress this morning.”
“I’m sorry, Murdoch,” she whispered, clinging to the front of his shirt. “I didn’t mean to cause you any worry.”
“I know that.” He pulled her over to a stack of hay bales. “Here, let’s sit down a minute until you can catch your breath.” Pausing for her to calm herself, he continued, “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
“He….Johnny woke Scott up just as Sam had told us to do. Scott was so…angry. He pushed both of us away. He accused me of….” Laura stopped, her innate sense of discretion taking hold.
Wisely, Murdoch didn’t probe. “You know how sick Scott is…how incoherent he’s been. He’s not rational. His mind isn't currently capable of sorting out the past from the present. If he was coherent, you know he would never say or do anything to hurt you.”
“He thought Johnny was Drew, Murdoch. He still thinks I left him on purpose.” Laura choked out the words, her throat tight from crying, her anguish overcoming her ingrained sense of propriety.
“No, dear, he really doesn’t,” Murdoch countered quietly as he tucked his arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. “You know that as well as I do.”
“Then why would he say what he did?” She wiped at her eyes with the palm of her hand. “He wouldn’t have said it if he wasn’t somehow thinking it.”
“My son is in a very dark place right now, reliving past traumas we can only imagine. I don’t know all that happened between the two of you or all that Scott suffered during the War or before he came here.” Murdoch sighed. “The more I think I know him, the more I realize how much I don’t know about him. What I do know, though, is he loves you far more than I’ve ever known any man to love a woman. You need to hold on to that, Laura. ”
Sniffling, the young woman managed a feeble nod, her body shaking from exhaustion and shock. “I need to go back to him. Johnny must think I’ve lost my mind.”
“Oh, I think Johnny’s wise enough to figure it out. Sometimes we all feel a need to run away.” Murdoch squeezed her shoulders. “Do you need more time, or do you want to try to go back inside now?”
“I’ll go now,” she whispered. “I shouldn’t have run away to begin with – especially when I just lectured Johnny about doing the very same thing.” She sniffled and smiled, the self-mockery evident in her voice. f “Perhaps I should learn to take my own advice.”
The remainder of the day was a blur. She forced food into her mouth under strict orders from her father-in-law, bathed and changed clothes with Maria’s kind, albeit firm, assistance, and napped with her head pressed into the winged back of her chair. Murdoch and Johnny had taken turns waking Scott up, firmly patting him on the back, forcing him, despite the pain, to take the deep breaths that would ward off a potentially deadly pneumonia.
Awakening from an all-too-brief respite, Laura opened her eyes to find Johnny once again sitting in the extra chair, his knees pulled up against his chest.
“Hey.” He was cast in shadow as the fading sunlight struggled to filter through the lace curtains, so she could not see his expression clearly, but that one word, softly spoken, was filled with warmth.
“Hey, yourself.” Laura tightened the combs in her hair, and ran her fingers through her locks. “I’m sorry….I couldn’t keep my eyes open. You’ve been there all afternoon, haven’t you?”
“Yup.” Johnny straightened his legs out and stretched his arms over his head, cracking his wrists with his fingers. “But I don’t mind.” He gestured at his brother. “Been waking him up every coupla hours. He hasn’t said much.” Johnny snickered. “Not that he ever says much. Not much of a gabber, that big brother of mine. What’s that word you two like? ‘Ret-i-cent?’”
“Yes, ‘reticent,’” she confirmed with a grin. “That’s always been one of the best words I know to describe Scott. He’s never been one to talk a great deal. I remember….” She stopped, the memories suddenly evoked by that one word almost overwhelming in their intensity. Scott and Drew had joked time and again about the many contrasts between them -- the one blond and the other dark-haired, one reserved and contemplative and the other boisterous and flamboyant. “Reticent” had become essentially a code word between the two young men. Scott would emphasize the word in often elaborately-constructed sentences as a means to tell Drew to “shut up” when he was on the verge of implicating himself in front of his rather stodgy family, or any number of Harvard’s professors, over yet another of his practical jokes.
As her eyes focused again, Laura realized Johnny was staring at her, a look of hopeful curiosity on his face. He needs to know about his brother….What he was like….It’s no more fair that Johnny and Scott grew up not knowing each other than it is that I lost Scott for six empty years. She began, haltingly at first, trying to offer Johnny something while not saying anything Scott might not want her to reveal. “I remember thinking as a child how odd it was that Scott and Drew were such close friends when Scott talked so little and Drew so much.” Laura realized, for the first time since his death, she could talk about Drew without crying. It almost felt good to think about him. “Quite often, when Drew got into trouble at school or with his parents, Scott would have to beg him to be quiet. Drew just couldn’t resist sharing his exploits with anyone who’d listen. He frustrated Scott to no end.” She laughingly added, “He might have spared himself and Scott quite a few visits with Harvard’s disciplinary council if he had just stopped talking.”
“This is the friend Drew that Scott thought he was seeing this afternoon?”
“Yes. Did he ever tell you anything about him?” Laura asked tentatively as she stood up and adjusted the sheet covering Scott, giving him a soft kiss on his cheek. A match flared with a soft hiss as she lit the lamp on the bedside table.
Shrugging, Johnny responded, “Not much, but I figure there’s a lot of things my brother hasn’t told me.”
“I guess I’ve told Teresa a little about Drew, but I just assumed Scott might have mentioned him to you.” She eased herself back into her chair and rearranged her skirts.
“All he ever said was he had a good friend named Drew who didn’t make it through the War. I guess he maybe had a lot of friends who didn’t make it.”
“I don’t know….” Laura stared at her husband, again dozing, seeming more relaxed and less feverish than before. “I’ve never asked Scott about that – about other friends who died. I guess I was afraid his answers would be too painful for both of us. He steadfastly refuses to discuss the War or anything about his Army service with me anyway.” She paused as she looked at her husband, wondering what horrors his expressive blue eyes had seen during their enforced separation. There was still so much she didn't know about those years. Perhaps would never know. She turned her gaze back to the expectant face of her brother-in-law. “Drew was our best friend all through childhood and Scott’s years at Harvard,” she explained. “As I told Teresa, he was killed in Virginia in December of ’62 after dropping out of school to join the Army. After he died, we were completely devastated for a very long time. We felt like our world was off-balance. Like a part of us both had died. Drew had always been such an important part of our lives, like a brother to us really, and then suddenly he was gone. Just like that.” Gone with his laughter, his love for us, and his love for life. She paused, the memories again playing in her mind…ice skating with Drew and Scott on the farm pond; riding to the hounds with Scott in front of her and Drew off to the side, both protecting her; the dances to which Scott escorted her with Drew’s teasing approval, always insisting she save one waltz for Scott’s dark-haired best friend; his insistence on calling her “Mac” while laughing openly at the looks of disapproval the nickname evoked in the faces of the properly humorless Boston matrons …. “Johnny….” She hesitated again. “Even though you don’t talk as much as he did, you are so much like Drew in so many ways….your laughter, your love for your family, your passion for life. It’s almost like having him back again.”
The silence in the room hung like a shroud as Johnny silently stared at the ceiling, not responding. Laura searched his face, desperately wondering if she had overstepped the limits of their fledgling relationship somehow, unable to read any reaction in the sapphire eyes Scott’s brother shuttered at will. His eyes were so dulled and devoid of emotion it sent shivers coursing down her spine.
“Johnny,” she finally whispered. “Please say something. I’m sorry…I’m not trying to turn you into Drew. It’s just that I can’t help but see the similarities. Please forgive me….I….” She fumbled, blinking back tears, her fingers gripping the arms of the chair so hard they hurt.
Johnny stood up and wandered over to the window, his eyes still veiled. When he finally spoke, his words were measured, but not unkind. “No, Laura, I am not Drew.”
“I’m so sorry….” Laura’s apology was barely audible. “I never meant to imply you’re simply a replacement for him. Not even a substitute….”
“No, I know that. I’m the one who’s sorry. Sorry Drew died. Sorry I wasn’t here to keep Scott from taking that bullet in his back….” He paused and shook his head. “Hell, I’m sorry I wasn’t there like Drew was. Sorry I couldn’t grow up with my brother."
"And he's equally sorry, Johnny, that he wasn’t given the chance to grow up with you. I know how much finding out he had a brother meant to Scott. How much you mean to him now. He may not tell you, but…." Laura stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly acutely aware no matter how much it frustrated her, the staunch Lancer men would never openly verbalize their strong feelings for each other. She bit her lip before murmuring, “I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t really intend to start talking about Drew. I truly wanted to tell you about Scott. What he was like back then. I guess I rather digressed. I got sidetracked, and I hurt you. Can we please start over?”
Again shaking his head, this time with a smile dimpling his cheeks, Johnny threw himself back into the chair. “Yeah, we can ‘start over’. How Scott can ever say ‘no’ to those green eyes, I’ll never understand.”
“Maybe because he knows me too well?” She laughed, feeling the tension in the room dissipate. “I’ve never been able to manipulate him at all. Maybe it’s his Lancer obstinacy or maybe he was just never overly impressed by my feminine wiles.”
Snickering as he stretched his legs out, Johnny commented, “Oh…I don’t know about that. I still think it’s ‘cause you two share the same mind. He pretty much knows what you’re going to say and do before it ever happens.”
“I think you may be right,” Laura chuckled tilting her head back against the chair. “Scott and I always seemed to be able to read each other’s thoughts, for the most part.” She paused, the memories bringing a soft smile to her lips. “The first real recollection I have of Scott was when I was about four years old. I know he had always been there – he and his grandfather lived just down the street – but I don’t actually clearly recall anything earlier. My father had given me yet another new pony. I named him ‘Dash’ because that’s what he seemed to like to do – ‘dash’ here and there without warning.” She grinned at her brother-in-law, his soft laughter a welcome relief from the earlier strain. “I was riding Dash on Boston Common when I came upon Scott. He was walking with his tutor, no doubt on another ‘educational’ outing. Neither of us was allowed to simply play very much. Anyway, my groom stopped to talk to the tutor, and Scott came over to me. I looked down into those beautiful sky-blue eyes – and fell in love. I recall Scott said something to the effect of, ‘I like your new pony. Can I ride him?’”
“Leave it to my brother to come up with something original like that,” Johnny replied sardonically, attempting without success to keep a straight face. “I’ll have to remember that line – maybe it’ll work for me.”
“Well,” Laura tittered, “it certainly worked for me. We were inseparable after that. I was either at his home or he was at mine on a daily basis.” Staring at her husband’s face, relaxed in the throes of sleep, she continued. “As we grew older, Scott would help me with my lessons or practice his violin while I accompanied him on the piano.” She paused, lost in thought. “I wish he had brought his violin out here with him. I miss it.”
Johnny slapped his thigh and snorted with laughter, “Yeah, then ole Boston could entertain the steers. I can see it now…my brother tuckin’ the beeves in at night, playin’ their favorite tunes.”
“Well,” she laughed back, “at least they’d be happy, spoiled beeves….But….” Her face again took on a somber expression. “Getting back to Scott’s childhood….Given our privileged upbringing, I’m sure it would be easy for you to imagine Scott as a spoiled, self-centered child. A child accustomed to having his own way.”
“That thought had crossed my mind,” Johnny admitted, shifting in his chair. “Boston there ain’t one to give up too easy when he feels he’s right. He’s like a dog with a bone sometimes. I kinda figured he was used to gettin’ his own way.”
“No, he’s not one to back off,” she concurred, thinking perhaps the brothers shared that trait equally. “But he’s always been that way. Quiet and self-assured.” She glanced knowingly back at her brother-in-law. “With more than a touch of that inherited Lancer ‘pigheadedness’ as you call it.” Clearing her throat, Laura carried on, “Yes, Mr. Garrett was able to give him the best of everything – books, teachers, travel – anything he needed or wanted. Yet Scott never took it for granted. If anything, it seemed to make him more aware of what others didn’t have. And Mr. Garrett was a strict disciplinarian. He expected perfection in everything – dress, studies, behavior – everything.”
Johnny contemplated her words, the furrow in his brow reminding Laura of his brother’s when he was worried or deep in thought. “So Scott didn’t have the easy childhood I figured he had?”
“It depends on how you wish to define ‘easy,’ Johnny. Immense wealth is not a guarantee of happiness; it’s simply a guarantee of a roof over your head and food on the table. And I am painfully aware you had neither.” Laura stretched and settled more deeply into her chair. “But, then, neither Scott, nor I, for that matter, was ever allowed to really be a child any more than you were. The rules of Boston society are extremely rigid and strictly enforced. Children are very much expected to be seen and not heard. Scott was an inherently quiet boy, but I think living in Mr. Garrett’s household made him even more reserved. It was almost as though he was an object to be possessed and admired. Something to be paraded out for inspection -- not a child to be loved and encouraged.”
“But then there was you.”
“Yes, there was me. I tried very hard to give Scott the love we both needed while trying to fulfill what was demanded of me by Boston society – a society that frowned on any obvious displays of affection and stifled any remote suggestion of behavior that wasn’t considered ‘proper.’ I attended the dinner parties, the charitable balls, the birthday celebrations as I was expected to do. Until late in ‘62, Scott was allowed to escort me with my father’s approval. After he and Mr. Garrett parted company, though, we had to sneak out to see each other. That certainly had the appearance of being improper, and it was likely all the gossip that ultimately caused my father to have me shipped off to England. I’m sure he was applauded by all his business associates as a father who firmly disciplined his rebellious daughter and put me in my proper place. In reality, he tried to destroy the one thing that gave my life meaning.”
“Your love for Scott?”
“And his love for me.” She stretched again and shifted in the chair, tucking her foot underneath her, her neck and back stiff and sore from sitting too much over the past days. "I do sometimes think, Johnny," she ventured, “that you and Scott are much more alike than anyone would imagine – despite the fact you grew up under drastically different circumstances.”
“I don’t know if I can really explain it. It’s more of a feeling I have….” Laura stared at the ceiling, trying to arrange her thoughts. “Scott grew up with nothing but strict boundaries – rigid expectations of how he would behave and who he would become – while I get the impression that you had few restraints. Yet you both became men with a strong sense of integrity and decency.”
Johnny sniffed and crossed his legs, his fingers picking at a spot on the knee of his pants. He glanced back up at his sister-in-law, his eyes dark and his mouth set in a grim line. “I wasn’t always so ‘decent,’ Laura. You know what I was. I was good at what I did, and I worked hard at it, but it doesn’t mean it’s something I’m all that proud of.”
“But you did what you had to do to survive, didn’t you? Despite his silence on the matter, or maybe because of his silence, I imagine there were things Scott was forced to do as a soldier in order to survive as well. Things he’s not likely ‘proud of’ either. That’s something else I think you and your brother share in common – the ability to keep going even when the odds are stacked against you. But I do think, Johnny, it’s time for all of us to focus on who we are now, not on what we were or what we did in the past. It’s time to banish all the ghosts once and for all.”
Johnny didn’t respond, his face an unreadable mask. Eventually, and despite her best efforts to remain awake, Laura’s head drifted back and she dozed off. Her brother-in-law covered her with a quilt before he slipped out to the barn, saddled his golden horse, and was gone.
“I’m not sure how I can make it any clearer to you, Laura.” Sam Jenkins fixed his most intimidating stare on the young woman as they sat alone together at the kitchen table the following morning. He had taken yet another long ride out to Lancer to check on his patient, despite it being Saturday and his usual day to go fishing. “Scott is getting better. It’s past time for you to start taking care of yourself.”
“It’s not that I’m not trying, Sam,” she protested. “I think we’re all just completely numb. Murdoch’s exhausted from trying to run the ranch and still spend time with Scott. Johnny’s not really slept in at least five days, and he’s disappeared again – probably off to visit Val. Teresa can barely put one foot in front of the other. We’re all just sort of falling apart. At least I’ve been eating a little better, and I’ve managed to sleep here and there.”
“But none of the others is expecting a child, my dear. You are. And that puts an extra strain on your body.” The old doctor rose from his chair and poured himself a second cup of coffee from the pot on the stove. “I expect Scott will start waking up more in the next few days. You’re doing a good job getting that rice and broth into him. I want to see you do as well for yourself.”
Laura sighed as she sipped her tea. “I know you’re right, and I appreciate your concern. I’ll just be so glad when this nightmare’s over.”
“I agree. And I think it’ll be over before long. Scott’s fever’s gone, and he’s starting to respond more appropriately despite the fact he’s not totally lucid and he’s still very weak. Give him another day or two, and I’d wager the two of you can start preparing to be parents.” He shook his head, adding dryly, “If that doesn’t prove to be enough of a challenge for you, I don’t know what would be.” Finishing his coffee, Sam squared his hat on his head and picked up his bag. “I don’t think I’ll need to make any more trips out here any time soon. But I will expect you in my office next week, young lady. Murdoch or Johnny can bring you in.” He smiled wryly before commenting, “After, of course, you tell everyone your news.”
“You mean tell them what they already suspect?” Laura grinned.
“Precisely,” he responded with a conspiratorial grin. With that, the doctor nodded and strode out the door, leaving the young wife to ponder how long it might be before life returned to some sense of normality. Sadly, she thought, the past few days had taken on a predictable routine of their own – try to sleep, eat a little, encourage Scott to eat and take deep breaths, and then do it all over again. Taking a last sip of tea, Laura wearily forced herself to her feet and stumbled back up the stairs to her husband’s side.
Sunday morning dawned warm and clear. Breakfast finished, Johnny hitched the team to the buggy at his father’s request. The young man had crept back into the hacienda in the still hours before sunrise. Murdoch, despite his exhaustion, had given in to Teresa’s insistent pleading that they all needed to go to church. As much as he hadn’t wanted to leave his son’s side, he couldn’t help but think perhaps a few extra prayers couldn’t hurt. It pained him to see how completely exhausted and numb his daughter-in-law was, and Murdoch assured her that he would personally deliver her regards to the preacher and his wife. With a stern admonition to Laura to “go get some rest,” he sent her back upstairs.
She turned Scott’s hand over and tucked her face into his palm as she sat by their bed. Despite the fact he frequently wore gloves while doing his chores, his fingers were dry and callused. Still, she found comfort in the feel of his hand against her cheek. Her own fingers wrapped around his arm, she drifted off to sleep.
It was their honeymoon, and San Francisco was filled with the smells and sounds of Christmas. Laura held onto the bedpost as the hotel maid, Emma, engaged to help her dress for the evening, yanked and pulled on the laces of her corset. “Ugghhh…” she complained, trying to take a deep breath, “now I know why I stopped wearing stays.”
“That may be so, madam,” the older woman replied with a smile, “but if you’re to wear that dress this evening….” She pointed to the deep sapphire blue silk formal gown laying on the bed. “You will need to wear the corset.”
“I’d like to wear the dress,” Laura conceded. “You’re Irish, are you not?” The maid’s lilting voice was an echo from the past. “I once had a…friend…who was Irish. Her name was Katie…Katie Meagher.” Laura was struck by a sudden pang of sadness. Her father had dismissed her maid the night he sent her away to London, and she had never seen Katie again.
“Yes, madam.” The woman bustled over and pulled the gown from the tissue in which it was wrapped. “Most of my family is still in County Meath. This Katie – she was your maid?”
“She was…but more than that…she was my friend.” Laura reached up and helped Emma pull the dress over her head, adjusting the voluminous skirt over the masses of petticoats. Katie had been her confidante and her mainstay, particularly in the aftermath of her father’s fallout with Harlan Garrett and his determination to separate her from Scott.
A few minutes later, her hair piled on her head, Laura thanked Emma and escorted her to the bedroom door. Returning to the dressing table, she donned her mother’s sapphire and diamond necklace, pinning the matching earrings into her ears. Pausing in the doorway, she quietly watched her new husband, resplendent in his tie and tails, as he stood at the sideboard in the sitting room, sipping on a glass of whiskey. The highlights in his blond hair glowed in the gaslights.
He looked up, and the glass stopped halfway to his lips. “My God….” He set his drink down on the table and reached out for her.
“I hope that means you approve of my dress?” Laura tiptoed across the room and into Scott’s beckoning arms.
“Just look at you…you’re perfect....” He whispered, his fingers tracing her eyebrows as he bent to kiss her. “Do you have any idea what you do to me?”
Laura leaned into his fingers, savoring the feel of his touch on her face.
“Laura?” His thumb slipped across her cheek. “Laura….”
Emerging slowly from her fitful sleep, she realized Scott’s fingers really were caressing her face. She lifted her head and looked into his eyes, clear and focused for the first time in nearly a week.
“Scott?” She blinked and sat up, her own eyes bleary from exhaustion, not certain she wasn’t dreaming yet again. Over the past few days she had dreamed of this moment only to awaken and find her husband still feverish and confused. She reached out and touched the side of his face needing to assure herself his skin was still cool, and he was actually talking to her.
“What happened?” He croaked, his voice cracking from a combination of dryness and disuse, and his breath coming in irregular gasps. He shifted in the bed, his face contorting with the effort. “What day is it?”
Hesitating, she had to think back to remember the sequence of the days and where the rest of the family had gone. In her mind-numbing exhaustion, she was losing track of time. “It’s Sunday. Sunday, June 19th.”
“Sunday?” He shook his head in disbelief, trying to make sense of what she had told him.
“That’s right.” Laura stood up and went to pour him a glass of water from the pitcher on the table. “Sunday,” she reaffirmed with more confidence.
“What night was I taken?” He rubbed his face with his hand as though trying to erase the confusion and force his mind to function clearly.
“Monday night. It was Monday night that Jed Lewis kidnapped you.” She wasn’t sure her mind was all that much more functional than her husband’s. The entire week had been one very long and torturous blur. “And late Tuesday night that you rode back out with Murdoch and Johnny to find Dan Cassidy.
“Tuesday? It's been five days?"
“Do you remember anything after you left with your father and brother?” She returned to the bedside and held the much-needed drink to his lips.
He drank noisily from the glass, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand before again resting his head back against the pillows. “Not a lot. I remember the three of us were able to track down Dan. We were riding back, and everything went black.”
“You started bleeding again.” Settling back down in her chair, she added, “You almost bled to death, Scott. I’ve never seen that much blood….Sam had to cauterize your wound.” Laura could feel the blood drain from her own face, and her stomach rolled over at the memory of the saturated bed linens and the ghastly aftermath of the doctor’s visit. The soiled mattress and linens had been burned, the mattress temporarily replaced with one from a guest bedroom. “Then, despite Sam’s meticulous care, you developed an infection.” She bit her lip, her voice hoarse with emotion. “We weren’t sure you would survive.”
Quiet as he considered her words, Scott finally spoke, his voice low and intense. “I’m sorry, Laura.”
Tilting her head, she questioned, “Sorry for what?”
“Sorry I argued with you before I left. I realized too late that you challenged me as a way of trying to protect me. Still, there was no excuse for my behavior. I was in such a hurry to go that I ran roughshod over you in the process.”
Leaning forward she took his hand in hers. Tracing his knuckles with the fingers of her other hand, she replied, “It’s me who really should apologize. I was angry at the whole situation – that Cassidy had plotted to kill you, that you had brought him here, and you were so willing to risk your life by going back out after him. You were so weak, I was afraid you wouldn’t come home at all. But you’ve always been a man to do what you believe to be right, and I shouldn’t have thrown that back in your face.”
Shifting his body slightly, Scott took his hand from hers and patted the bed, silently motioning for her to sit next to him. He pulled her face to his, and kissed her, his lips lingering. When they finally drew apart, Laura could see the humor dancing in his eyes.
“What’s so funny?” She couldn’t help but laugh herself. God knows we’ve had very little to laugh about this week. “Do I taste odd or something?”
“No, Laura….” He brushed her cheek with his fingers. “You ‘taste’ wonderful. I was just remembering the look on your face when you stood up to me. If the Union Army had had one regiment with half your determination, we could’ve defeated the rebels in a month.”
“That is not true!” Laura grinned, lightly tapping her husband on the chest. “You make me sound like some sort of…mad woman.” She was about to kiss him again, savoring the feel of his lips on hers, when she was cut short by the sound of footsteps in the hallway and a brisk tap on the door. “Come in,” she called, forcing back the frustration she felt at being interrupted. I guess that’s the downside of living with my in-laws….
“Laura? We’re home.” Murdoch stuck his head in the doorway. It took him a moment to realize his son was awake and alert, and the abject relief was instantly reflected across his haggard features. “Scott? Thank God…. How’re you feeling, son?”
“Weak,” Scott admitted, “but glad to be alive. I’m told I’ve been barely conscious for the last four days.”
Murdoch was about to respond when he was interrupted by a shrill shriek from the hallway, and Teresa shot past him and into the bedroom. “You’re awake! You’re all right!” She was bouncing with excitement, the ribbons on her bonnet flapping wildly.
Startled as she was herself, and yet understanding from personal experience how much her husband needed to be eased back into reality after his brush with death, Laura caught his eyes with a look that urged caution. She’s been so worried about you. Be patient. She’s very young. Let her show you how much she loves you.
Scott nodded imperceptibly at his wife before turning his eyes to his sister. “Yes, Teresa, I’m ‘all right,’” he grinned. “And extremely grateful, I might add, to be back with my family.” He shifted again slightly, grimacing with the effort, his eyes focused expectantly on the doorway. “Where’s Johnny?”
“He’s putting the horses up,” Murdoch answered. “He’ll be up in a minute.”
“Don’t tell me he went to church with you,” Scott commented dryly seeing his father and sister were wearing their Sunday best.
“He did indeed,” his father confirmed. “Shows just how desperate he was for you to get well.”
“Well, either that or he’s still trying to impress Cassie Wilson,” Scott countered sardonically.
“What about Cassie?” Johnny casually strolled into the room, his silent grace a sharp contrast to his sister’s frenetic entrance.
“Hello to you, too, brother. Good of you to join us.”
Laura didn’t miss the all the nuances hidden in those few words -- the slight emphasis on “brother,” the closeness of the bond the two men had developed that showed most clearly in the way they communicated without talking. The way Johnny glanced almost imperceptibly at the floor as if to compose himself, veiling the relief in his blue eyes before he took in every detail of his brother. The way Scott’s own eyes searched his brother's face, the furrow between his brows deepening. Watching the unspoken exchange between the men, she realized there was a part of Scott reserved for his brother, completely inaccessible to her, and vice-versa. The two brothers had a relationship beyond words and perhaps even beyond conscious thought. She would accept it not only with good grace but with gratitude that her husband and his brother shared a connection few ever experienced.
The rest of the afternoon tested the limits of the young couple’s resilience. Wanting little more than a few minutes of privacy to reconnect, to hold each other, and to assure themselves they were both still in one piece, they played host to a constant parade of well-wishers. Despite it being Sunday, a relatively restful day even for the hands, word spread rapidly around the ranch that Scott had “come to.” A veritable stream of cowhands came by, hats in hand, to pay their respects, and even though they didn’t come upstairs, Laura felt obliged to trek downstairs repeatedly to thank them personally for their kindness. Teresa popped in and out of their bedroom, not always remembering to knock first, and Murdoch apologetically rapped on the door periodically and stuck his head in “just to check on Scott.” Johnny was more blatant; he parked himself in the armchair next to the window for hours at a time, his brother’s self-appointed sentinel. Laura wasn’t sure he hadn’t become so used to sitting in the room over the past week that it hadn’t quite occurred to him it was all right to do something different. Finally, after a dinner interrupted by Maria hovering and trying to push huge mounds of food at Scott he wasn’t quite ready to eat, but was too polite to refuse, Laura put her foot down and shooed them all away. She turned down Scott’s bedside lamp, and tucked herself into her chair with her journal, too restless to sleep, as her husband contentedly nodded off.
It was nearly midnight when Laura tiptoed towards the door, her hands pressed against her skirts to keep her petticoats from rustling and awakening her husband. She had almost reached the threshold when his soft voice startled her.
“Where’re you going?”
Turning back to him, she realized he hadn’t even opened his eyes. As quiet as she had been, believing him to be asleep, he had sensed her leaving. “I was going to go rest across the hall so I didn’t disturb you. I’ve been sleeping in the guest room this week."
“Don’t leave…please,” he whispered. “I want you here…I need you next to me.” Scott opened his eyes, his lips curling up in a wan smile, “It’ll ‘disturb’ me more if you’re not with me.” With a wink, he added, “And I know you want to do all you can to help me heal.”
Tilting her head, a smile dimpling her cheeks, Laura conceded, “That I do…. I'll do anything and everything I can to make you well.” Quickly changing into her nightdress, she slipped into bed next to Scott, careful not to jostle him.
He eased his arm around her and kissed her softly. “That’s better. This is where you belong.”
Both completely exhausted, they were soon deeply asleep, wrapped in each other’s arms.
The sun reached over the mountains at dawn and lit up the room with a warm, yellow glow. Laura yawned and stretched, reluctant to open her eyes, wanting to luxuriate in the moment, feeling Scott breathing softly beside her. She turned to her side and forced her eyelids open, startled to see his clear blue eyes staring back at her from a scant six inches away. Her heart missed a few beats, and she gasped, “Is something wrong? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” He smiled, twisting a strand of her hair in his fingers. “There’s nothing wrong. In fact, I was thinking everything’s never been so right. I just wanted to look at you.”
“I love you,” she said simply, breathing a silent prayer of thanks fate had been kind, and he had not been taken from her again.
“I love you more,” he replied, his response one they teasingly used with each other. He kissed her, hesitating before he said, “There is one thing I did want to ask you.”
“What’s that?” Laura snuggled closely against his bare chest.
“There were several times over the past week when I was sure I could hear your voice. I couldn’t respond, but I could hear you talking to me. I had no way of knowing whether I was imagining you or if you were really there, but I could definitely hear your voice.”
“I know what you mean,” she agreed, tracing her finger over his chest. “When I was so ill, I could hear you talking to me. It’s probably the one thing that pulled me through.”
“There was a moment I heard you begging me not to leave you.” Scott continued, his face a mask of concentration as he tried to recall the jumbled and fragmented events of the past few days.
“I did that on multiple occasions this last week,” Laura admitted, her face paling at the memory of the uncertainty she had felt, not knowing whether Scott had either the strength or the will to pull through the infection that had wracked his body.
“But this particular time, you begged me not to leave…and you told me….” He paused as if struggling for the courage to continue. “You told me our baby needed me.” He searched her eyes, his own filled with a combination of hope and doubt. “I know I was likely only hearing something I wanted to hear, but….”
Laura took his face in her hands, her heart feeling as though it had skipped yet another beat. “You weren’t imagining it, Scott.”
His eyes widened, a look of wonder replacing the doubt.
“I didn’t want to tell you like this. I wanted it to be the perfect time and the perfect place.” She paused, unable to keep the inevitable tears from her eyes. “But, yes, we are going to have a baby.”
Scott didn’t seem to be able to force his thoughts into a coherent sentence. He managed to cough out one word, “When?”
“Sam told me to expect our baby sometime in December. Maybe around the 19th?” She laughed, enthralled by the vision of her normally calm and collected husband completely flummoxed.
“That’s…perfect.” Scott took a deep breath. “But what I really meant to ask was when you found out about the baby.”
“Last Monday. Sam was out here to stitch up Pete’s arm. He stopped in for coffee, and we had a little talk about how I had been feeling.” Laura laid her finger against his lips, anticipating what her husband would say next. She could see the reproach in his eyes. “I know – I should have told you when you came home that evening. But you were so tired and completely engrossed in those ledgers. It just didn’t seem like the right time to tell you about something so special to both of us. And then I almost didn’t get to tell you at all.” She paused before continuing, “I considered telling you yesterday, but we never seemed to have even a minute alone until we came to bed. Then you couldn’t keep your eyes open, and I was too frazzled to think clearly.”
“And I can’t believe I missed it – that I didn’t realize it sooner. It all makes sense now – why you’ve been so exhausted and sick at your stomach. I just thought you weren’t recovering well from your illness. I was so focused on getting you well I dismissed all the other possibilities.”
“And exactly how many expectant mothers have you known all that well, Scott Lancer?” She poked him in the chest with her finger, grinning at the sheepish expression on his face. “After all, it’s my body, and I didn’t even grasp what was happening.”
Wrapping her tightly in his arms, he whispered, “Does anyone else know yet?”
“Well….” She hesitated. “I do think the father should be the first to know, but….”
“But Johnny figured it out.” Scott finished her sentence for her.
“How did you guess?” She pulled away from him slightly so she could look into his eyes.
Scott shrugged slightly. “There isn’t much my brother misses. He’s the most observant man I know. Does anyone else…?”
“I’m not sure. Sometimes the way Murdoch and Teresa look at me…well, and Maria, too….”
“In other words, pretty much everyone knew except for me….” He sighed, his lips edged up in a crooked smile and a twinkle in his eyes. “Next time….”
“Next time, I’ll tell you first, regardless -- even if I have to shout it from the tower windows to get your attention.”
“That could be interesting….” Scott grinned and tucked her against him again. “Shall we go down to breakfast now and tell everyone what they already know?”
“No…I want to stay right here for now. You’re too weak anyway. Maybe, if you feel up to it, we can go downstairs for dinner this evening and tell them then.”
Another three days passed before Scott was strong enough to do more than sit on the edge of the bed or shuffle with assistance to the chair next to the window. Even then, he leaned heavily on his brother’s arm as he made his way down the stairs to dinner. The meal took on a celebratory air despite Scott’s protests that he “really didn’t need all the fuss.” Laura suspected he was already tired of having them all watch every move he made, the constant scrutiny for any sign of relapse on his part frustrating for a man who intensely disliked being the center of attention.
Murdoch laid his napkin on the table and pushed back in his chair, crossing his legs. “I did have a suggestion for the two of you, Scott,” he started, looking first at his son and then at Laura.
“What’s that?” Scott laid his own napkin down and stretched his back, still aching and sore -- as much from being bedridden for a prolonged period as from his injury. He rested his right arm on the back of his wife’s chair, his fingers playing in the hair that cascaded down her back.
“You’re not going to be in any shape to do any chores for quite awhile,” his father remarked. “So….”
“I’ll be fine,” Scott interrupted brusquely. “Just give me a day or two….”
“I didn’t intend to imply you’re shirking your duties, Scott,” Murdoch snapped back. “Just do me the courtesy of letting me finish what I was going to say.”
Laura froze in place, feeling her husband’s body tense up. He hadn’t been in the best of moods for the last day or so since he had awakened, despite his obvious excitement about their baby. She knew his sense of responsibility, of duty, was so strong he chafed at the inactivity and at his own perception he was somehow letting his brother, and his family, down.
“I’m sorry, sir” Scott mumbled, his face coloring. “I didn’t intend to be disrespectful.”
“I understand you want to get back to work as soon as possible,” the older man acknowledged. “But the reality is, you’re going to be relegated to those ledgers and correspondence for quite awhile until that shoulder’s completely healed.”
Johnny caught his brother’s eye, a combination of sympathy and abject relief he himself wouldn’t be subjected to that particular task reflected in his expression.
Picking up her glass of water, Laura choked down a sip in an effort not to laugh at her brother-in-law’s obvious feeling of having been pardoned. Neither of the boys was fond of dealing with the incessant paperwork running the ranch required, but Johnny was notorious for finding ever more inventive ways to avoid it at every given opportunity. He’d gladly shovel stalls before he’d sit at the desk with the benumbing ledger books in front of him. His brother only took on the task under duress and out of a feeling of obligation. Scott absently patted her on the back, nearly causing her to spray her father-in-law with a mouthful of liquid.
“What I was going to suggest is that you and Laura go away together for awhile.” Murdoch’s eyebrows, raised in concern at his daughter-in-law’s reddened face, relaxed, and he crossed his arms on his chest. “Finish that honeymoon in San Francisco.” He fixed his stern gaze on his younger son causing Johnny to sit up a little straighter and stop fiddling with his silverware. “Johnny, I’m sure, can pick up some of your chores, and we can reassign the remainder to several of the hands. Glancing back at Scott, he raised one hand. “I’m not saying you’re expendable, son…you’re obviously not. I just feel strongly that you and Laura need time to regroup.” Murdoch pushed his chair back and stood up. “Just think about it.”
After a short pause that allowed the tension in the room to dissipate, Scott responded with a quiet, “We will. Thank you.” He looked at Laura for confirmation, smiling as she nodded in agreement. “It sounds like a good idea.” He squeezed her hand, reading the question in her eyes, and grinned before he pushed himself to his feet and pulled Laura from her seat. “But before anyone goes anywhere….”
Teresa, already standing with a stack of dirty dishes in her hands, quietly replaced them on the table and wiped her hands on her apron. With her eyes focused on the candelabra centerpiece, she seemed remarkably incapable of making eye contact with anyone in the room.
Murdoch paused in the process of pouring the customary after-dinner brandies, and turned back expectantly towards the table.
Laura noticed Johnny, now leaning against the back of the couch, was scratching the bridge of his nose, his hand covering what she could only describe as a knowing smirk.
“We have some good news we’d like to share with all of you,” Scott finished, as he pulled Laura close to his side and kissed the top of her head. “My beautiful wife has informed me we can expect our first child in December.”
The quick glances exchanged between Murdoch, Johnny, and Teresa spoke volumes, Laura would later reflect. It was as though they were all trying to figure out exactly how to respond to the “news.”
Breaking the silence, Murdoch responded with a blundering, “Well…what a surprise…that’s wonderful news…ummm….Isn’t it, Johnny, Teresa?”
Johnny and Teresa both wore broad grins pasted across their faces.
giggle, Laura looked up at her husband, noting
the bemused expression
in his eyes quickly changed to one of resignation. He squeezed her
shoulders again, cleared his throat and said, “I guess there’s not much that
gets past my family, is there? It would appear, my dear, you were right –
our impending parenthood is already common knowledge.”
Everyone burst out laughing and started moving at once, the chaos in the room worse than it had been, Laura contemplated, when the couple had announced their engagement the previous November. Teresa threw herself at Scott, bouncing on her toes in excitement. Johnny nearly had to peel her off before he could shake his brother’s hand.
As Murdoch wrapped his daughter-in-law in his arms and kissed her on the cheek, he whispered in her ear. “It was just so obvious. You don’t know how hard it was for me to wait to say anything, particularly given your reluctance to slow down and take care of yourself.”
Laura hugged her father-in-law back, the realization dawning that, in their own way, her family had been trying to protect her all along without smothering her. Unlike her own father, they were willing to give her room to breathe, not try to control her every move under the guise of loving her.
As he shook his father’s hand, with his brother’s arm tossed carelessly around his shoulder, Scott riposted with a grin, “I guess the father’s always the last one to know….”
The young couple sat in the courtyard a week later, arms entwined around each other after dinner, enjoying the solitude and the cool evening breeze that ruffled through the gate. Scott could manage the stairs now without assistance, but his strength and stamina had been sorely sapped by the blood loss and infection. His face was pale and drawn, as much from illness as from lack of exposure to the sun.
“I think we’ve been out here long enough, darling,” Laura implored. You’re looking extremely tired, and I’m feeling a bit chilled. Why don’t we go on upstairs, and I’ll bring you some tea while you rest. It’s almost dark anyway.”
“Not Teresa’s willow bark tea?” He questioned, his lips curling downward and his eyes squinting in obvious alarm. “Real tea?”
“Real tea,” she affirmed with a snicker as she stood up and pulled on his arm. “Come on. I’ll tuck you in first.”
“Promise?” He teasingly asked, earning a grin and a wink from his wife in return.
“Always.” Laura held onto her husband as they made their way through the side door and up the main stairway. She still worried about how weak he was, despite his stubborn protests he was “fine” and she “should stop hovering.”
They walked arm in arm into their bedroom, and Laura quietly paused in the doorway as Scott wandered over to the window. “You go ahead and get ready for bed,” she suggested. “I’ll bring us up that tea.”
Appearing lost in thought as he stared out toward the mountains, the last vestiges of the setting sun’s rays highlighted Scott’s face emphasizing the dark circles beneath his eyes. “That’s all right,” he shrugged, “I honestly don’t think I want any right now.”
Disturbed by his seemingly sudden change of mood, Laura bustled to light the lamps before she made her way over to him, nestled into his arms, and silently willed him to talk to her. He held her close as together they watched the stunning pageantry of the sunset over Lancer.
As the sky darkened beyond the window, she helped him undress, and she tucked him into their bed, extra pillows carefully arranged behind his sore shoulder. Scott still had spoken few words, his fatigue appearing to be as much emotional as physical. Changing into a nightdress herself, Laura settled into her now-familiar chair next to the bed, retrieved her journal off of her bedside table and contemplated writing her daily entry. She knew from long experience there was no point in prompting her husband to talk; when he was ready, he would talk. It was as simple as that. As she picked up her pen, Scott finally broke the silence.
“Laura,” he began haltingly, “I think maybe it’s time for us to discuss what happened.”
“I agree,” she said quietly. “I haven’t wanted to nag you about it, but this incident with Dan has certainly raised a lot of questions – and not just on my part. Everyone else is completely bewildered, for lack of a better word, over what happened to you during those years that caused him to want to kill you.”
“I know,” he replied, grimacing as he settled back into his pillows. “And I haven’t been willing to talk to you about the War and my imprisonment for a number of reasons. Mostly, there is no point in me telling you things that will only disturb and upset you needlessly. I take my vow to protect you very seriously, and that includes shielding you from the horrors of what I did – what I had to do - and what was done to me during that time.”
“But what you don’t seem to understand, Scott,” she countered firmly, placing her journal back on the table, “is that in trying ‘to protect’ me you effectively build a wall between us. You shut me out and essentially treat me no better than a fragile doll – something to be cosseted and wrapped in cotton wool to keep it from breaking. It’s what my father did, and I always hated it. Surely, after everything we’ve been through, you know me better than that. If I truly mean to you what you say I do, then you need to talk to me. Let me in, Scott. I won’t break.”
Scott leaned his head back against the pillows and closed his eyes. He finally spoke, his breath escaping in a long drawn-out sigh. “You mean infinitely more to me than a ‘fragile doll’, Laura. You mean everything. You and our baby.”
“Then start talking. You can begin with what happened after I left in ‘63. I know you tried to look for me, but whatever possessed you to join the Army? Especially after what happened to Drew? You did say once you felt like you had nothing else to lose, but I find it hard to believe your grandfather would let you do such a thing. And I know you told me you threatened him with enlisting in the infantry if he tried to stop you, but still. He must’ve been furious that you defied him.”
His lips twitched in a soft smile as Scott responded, “He was not at all pleased, to put it mildly.” He unconsciously played with her wedding rings. “As I’ve told you before, I was completely lost when you disappeared. Your father refused to be truthful with me, and everyone connected to him, and you, closed ranks to create this impenetrable wall of silence. Grandfather urged me to ‘move on’, but I couldn’t imagine what it was I was supposed to ‘move on’ to without you. After several weeks, when it became clear you had vanished without a trace, and your father was adamant you were not coming back, I was desperate to get out of Boston. I didn’t care where I went, or, truthfully, what happened to me, as long as I didn’t have to pass by your house knowing you weren’t there. Or look for you in the face of every woman who walked by, hoping and praying it would somehow be you.”
“So you joined the cavalry.”
“There were recruitment posters everywhere. You remember all the political grandstanding. The War was not going particularly well for the Union – we had just suffered that huge defeat at Chancellorsville, Virginia in May -- and there was always talk that it was a ‘rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.’ So, I took what seemed to me to be the only way out.” He added very quietly, “The rich boy signed up.”
Laura didn’t miss the faraway look in her husband’s eyes as she waited in silence for him to continue.
“I was sent to Louisiana and assigned to the cavalry of the Nineteenth Corps under the command of Colonel Benjamin Grierson. It didn’t seem to matter that I had no military experience. The Army was trying to build up the size and scope of the cavalry, and they needed men with equestrian experience. I had that along with my Harvard degree, so, after an extremely brief introduction to military protocol and tactics, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant. By the time I arrived at Port Hudson on the Mississippi River in July, the siege of the Confederate fort there was over. General Grant had already taken Vicksburg several weeks before, so we were mostly in clean-up mode…rounding up stray rebels and solidifying our defenses.”
“But I thought you served in General Sheridan’s cavalry,” she interjected. “And you ended up in Libby Prison – in Richmond.”
“I did – on both counts.” He could see the confusion in the tilt of her head. “And yes, since you’re already thinking it, Louisiana and Mississippi are a very long way from Virginia. It’ll make sense in a minute.”
“I’m sorry.” Laura had to smile at her husband’s perceptiveness. She had been thinking precisely that. “I won’t interrupt you anymore.”
“It’s all right.” Motioning for his glass of water, Scott took a few sips before he continued. “One day in late July, Colonel Grierson sent me with a small detachment to deliver several dispatches to General Grant in Vicksburg. It was there I ran into Jed Lewis. Lewis was a sergeant – a non-commissioned officer. Several of my men and I had eaten dinner and were resting around the campfire. Jed had clearly been drinking, and he took issue with the fact that I outranked him. I was his superior officer despite the fact I was significantly younger. No doubt he was egged on by someone else who knew I had no experience and had filled his mind with the idea that I was one of those ‘rich boys.’”
“And he came after you.” Her whispered words were issued as a statement. She really didn’t need to hear his confirmation.
“He did. When the fight was over, Jed had a broken nose, courtesy of my right fist, and I had him sent to the brig. He swore then he’d never forget me. I shrugged it off as the ravings of a drunken, resentful brawler. But he obviously never forgot what he considered to be a major humiliation.”
“When Sarah Cassidy came here the other week, she did say that Lewis sought out Dan after the War, looking for you, and his brother was in your company.”
“Lewis’ brother was in my company in Virginia. As large as the Army is, it’s still a very small world in its own way.” He paused to take another sip of water. “I stayed with Colonel Grierson until early ’64 when two divisions of the Nineteenth Corps were sent to Virginia to join General Sheridan’s cavalry. Dan Cassidy was already serving with Sheridan as a lieutenant, although in a different company from mine, and Jed’s brother, Emmett, was a corporal under my command . We were attached to General George Custer’s Wolverine Brigade. In early May, we were involved in some fairly heavy skirmishes near Richmond. The real fighting, though, came during the second week in June. We’d had almost no rest for weeks, and General Sheridan sent us to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Charlottesville. We were intercepted by rebels at a small crossroad called Trevilian Station. Somehow we managed to capture their supply wagons, and my company was left to guard them. Unfortunately, another Confederate division under General Lee’s nephew, Fitz Lee, arrived unexpectedly, recovered the wagons, and took us as prisoners. I suppose we were fortunate they didn’t shoot us on the spot. As fate would have it, Dan was captured in separate fighting that day, and he and a number of his men were shipped to Libby as well.”
Laura gripped his hand tightly, partly in an effort to hide her own shaking hands from him and partly to give him the reassurance and strength to continue what was clearly a painful recollection. "I remember reading newspaper accounts in London about the War. It all sounded so ghastly. Go on…please.”
"We were loaded on cattle cars and sent through the lines to Libby Prison in Richmond. A large number of the prisoners from Libby had been sent further south, but we were left there, I presume, because the rebels were too busy defending Richmond to bother with us. That almost made our captivity worse, if that’s possible. Conditions that were already inhumane became even more intolerable.” He stopped, his eyes narrowing as he searched her face. “Are you sure you want to hear this? Because, frankly, I don’t really want to tell you.”
“You have to tell me, Scott,” she replied with more conviction than she felt. “I need to know why you almost died last week. And why I spent four horrible years thinking you were already dead.”
“All right, then.” He gently ran his finger down the side of her cheek. “But you’ll tell me if you’ve heard enough?”
She nodded silently, steeling herself for what she knew would be excruciatingly painful for both of them.
“Libby was a tobacco warehouse the Confederates had converted into a prison. It was only a stone’s throw from the James River – sweltering when we arrived there in June and bitterly cold and dank during the winter. The river rats were…well, they were enormous.” He stopped short of telling her that, in desperation, the prisoners had trapped the rodents and cooked them over whatever small bits of wood they could gather. “The rebels had no food to spare, and, honestly, they ate no better than we did. We were occasionally given fish caught in the river, but we mostly existed on scraps of moldy bread and soup they made out of whatever odds and ends they could find. At first, we tried to pick out the bugs. Then we realized if we did that there was nothing left of the soup.”
Laura briefly laid her head down on the bed, perilously close to vomiting her dinner. Inhaling deeply through her nose in an attempt to settle her stomach, she sat up straight again and rubbed the tears from her eyes. “How did you ever survive under those conditions, Scott? How could anyone survive?”
Shaking his head, he answered, “I’m not honestly sure, Laura. The one thing I held on to was my memories of you. I’d go to sleep at night, huddled in a corner out of the wind if it was cold, planning how I was going to persuade your father to let me marry you when the War was over. I convinced myself you’d be back in Boston when I got home, waiting for me, all beautiful in that pretty green plaid dress you used to wear.”
“I would’ve been if it’d been up to me.” She fingered his wedding ring, abstractedly turning it around and around.
They sat in silence for a few minutes as she tried to digest what he had told her. She finally sniffed and started again. “You’ve never told me how you came by that scar on your side. Is it a souvenir from Libby?”
Scott smiled at her choice of words. “It is. We had been warned to stay away from the windows. But it was so unbearably hot that summer, and we felt so isolated, it was hard to resist a quick look outside. Some of the rebel guards took to using us to hone their sharpshooting skills. I risked a minute at a window and was rewarded with a bullet. Fortunately, it passed through my shirt between my arm and my chest and only grazed me. After that, I stayed away from the windows.” He grinned, and added, “Contrary to what you might believe, I learn quickly.”
Managing a small smile herself, she responded, “Maybe all that Lancer tenacity can be a good thing. It kept you alive.” Laura hesitated for a minute, her need to know finally outweighing her own reticence at admitting to Scott she had seen the contents of his billfold. “I haven’t known how to bring this up, Scott, but I suppose it’s best dealt with directly.”
“Most things generally are,” he agreed, “despite my own tendency to protect you and not tell you everything."
Laura sucked in a breath, still wary of acknowledging to her husband she had, in her own mind at least, breeched the limits of what was proper. As she spoke, she tried, without success, to avoid looking in his eyes. “When Murdoch carried you up here last week, I accidentally pushed your wallet off your bedside table along with the books. I didn’t think to pick it up for several days, but when I did, I found a letter you had written to me all those years ago.”
“I see.” The furrow in his brow deepened, but Scott didn’t blink.
Her voice shaking, Laura continued, “I would never have intentionally looked in your billfold, Scott, but the letter and my picture had fallen out.” She tried in vain not to sob. “Why? Why didn’t you ever mail it? Why have you never given it to me?”
He wiped the stray tear from her cheek with his thumb, the small gesture giving him time to gather his thoughts. “I wrote that letter two days before I was captured, Laura. I never had a chance to mail it, and I suppose they let me keep it in Libby because it had no value…no value to anyone but me. Eventually it, and your picture, became the only connection I had to you. I’d read and reread it and, somehow, I’d find enough courage to last another day. Even after the War when I was released from the hospital and went home, and you were still gone, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Doing that, in my mind, would have meant giving up on ever seeing you – ever holding you -- again.”
“But you never gave it to me,” she protested softly. “We’ve been back together again for nearly a year. I don’t understand. It took my breath away.” Despite her protest, she knew how hard it was for Scott to admit how hopeless everything had seemed to him at that time. It was equally hard for her to sit and listen to him confess all that had kept him going was his thoughts of her; he had survived a literal hell only to return home and have his dreams of her quickly die in the face of reality.
“What would be the point?” he softly responded. “I can tell you how I feel now. And that letter was written at one of the lowest times in my life. I’ve kept it even now as a reminder of what it was like for me without you. It keeps me grounded. I can’t imagine ever taking you or our life here together for granted, but that letter is a hedge against me forgetting how bleak my life was in those days.”
“And you honestly thought I could possibly be happy without you? That I could love someone else? How could you even suggest it?” Laura recalled the words of his letter only too clearly, her heart aching with the memory. My beautiful Laura, no matter what the future holds for either of us, for my sake, please be happy. I would never want you to spend your days in mourning for me.
“Because I was fighting a losing battle with myself. I was trying to think of what was best for you – even though the thought of you with someone else was unbearable. I didn’t want you to throw your life away mourning me if I was killed. I wanted you to know it was all right for you to go on, to be happy. Obviously I wanted you to remember me and the love we shared. But to remember me with joy – not with bitterness or regret over what we had lost.”
Laura went back to playing with his ring while she considered what he had said. “I obviously didn’t do very well without you, Scott. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t avoid the ‘regret over what we had lost’ – or feeling bitter, for that matter. It was all just too much…too sudden and too…final.” Laura squeezed his hand as she implored, “But you’re not angry at me for reading your letter?”
“No, I’m not angry with you.” He smiled as he leaned over and kissed her. “I would’ve done the same thing.”
Scott stretched and settled back against his pillows with a sigh of contentment, while Laura played with his fingers.
“You don’t think I’m going to let you off that easily, do you?” she finally commented, amused by the look of surprise that flitted across her husband’s face.
“What?” he questioned in pretended ignorance.
“You know exactly what I mean, Scott.” She tried unsuccessfully to fix him with her most stern schoolteacher stare. “I distracted you with my confession that I had read your letter, and you think you can use that to avoid telling me anything more about what happened to you in Libby. It won’t work.”
Raising his hands in mock surrender, he couldn’t help but chuckle. “It was that obvious? Well, you can’t fault me for trying.” A grim expression quickly replaced the amusement in his eyes. “There isn’t much more to say about my existence – I won’t call it ‘life’ – in Libby,” he reflected morosely. “Every day was essentially like the one before. Try to stay warm, stay out of the guard’s way, eat what little I was given, and try to hold onto my humanity.”
“Until the escape,” Laura prompted. She could feel Scott drifting away into his memories, and she feared he would shut down and refuse to tell her anything more.
“Until the escape,” he whispered in confirmation. He gripped her hand so tightly that her rings cut into her fingers. “I really didn’t think Dan’s plans for an escape were a very good idea, but we were all more than a little desperate. We were cold and starving, and we could hear what we thought were siege guns in the distance. We thought if we could just get out of Richmond, the Union lines couldn’t be too far away.”
“Sarah Cassidy said Dan became too ill to lead the escape.” Laura continued to carefully nudge him along, still concerned he would retreat once again into silence.
“He did. We were all weak and debilitated, but Dan developed a high fever the day before our planned breakout. He was taken to the prison infirmary…after he made me promise I’d carry out our plans without him. I tried to talk him into postponing the escape, but he was too feverish and too stubborn to listen. In retrospect, I should’ve trusted my own gut feeling and refused him.”
Laura waited for Scott to continue, almost afraid to breathe.
“It was a cold, clear night in mid-March we tried to bolt.” Scott continued, staring into space as though he had been physically transported back to that horrific time. "We had noticed as the sound of guns came closer, the guards became increasingly less attentive to us and there were fewer of them. At times, the only sentries seemed to be a single guard at the front and rear doors. That night, seventeen of us slipped down the stairs to the front entrance, overpowered the guard, and ran. Unfortunately, what we didn’t know was that Dan had, in his delirium, betrayed our plans. There were soldiers everywhere outside waiting for us. We didn’t stand a chance.” Scott laid his head back and squeezed his eyes tightly closed. “Every one of those men died, including Lewis’ brother. Everyone – except for me – died.”
The tears brimming from her eyes, Laura bit into the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. She sensed Scott would retreat into silence if he realized just how badly she hurt for him. “How did you…?”
“How did I survive?” He preempted her question. He sniffed, a look of self-derision shadowing his features. “I tripped.”
“You…tripped? I don’t under….”
“I don’t know how to make it any clearer, Laura,” Scott snapped. “I tripped and fell. And the bullets that should have killed me missed.”
“That’s hardly your fault – that you survived,” she tried to console him, hardly able to contain the shock she felt at finding out how close she had actually come to losing him forever; the grim realization the course of their lives had been determined by a simple, random accident.
“No, I suppose it’s not.” His voice took on a hard edge. “But that’s little solace when the sixteen men who trusted me to lead them were shot down in the street. None of us had boots at that point – the rebels had long since relieved us of them and our coats. I at least had the remnants of socks on my feet. Most of the men were barefoot. The street outside the prison was cobbled, and I caught my toe against one of the stones. It happened so fast I hit my head and almost knocked myself out. The next thing I knew, my men’s bodies were being tossed into wagons like so much firewood, and I was dragged back inside Libby.”
“Surely they took you to the infirmary…had a doctor examine you?” She was incredulous at how anyone could be so completely inhumane.
“No, they didn’t. I became the scapegoat -- the perfect officer to be made an example of. The commandant had me hog-tied and left outside on what had been a canal dock.”
“Exactly.” He fixed her with eyes filled with an overwhelming combination of deep sadness, guilt, and agonizing remorse. “It was a miracle I survived that, especially considering the poor condition I was in to begin with. I remember lying there, shivering in the cold and rain for what seemed like a week, unable to straighten my arms or legs – unable to do anything but pray...." He smiled sadly. "And think about you.”
“I….” Laura shivered herself, a chill settling over her despite the warmth of the room. “I …I think you need to rest now, Scott.” She tried to disguise how deeply disturbed she was by busying herself tucking the cover around him and fluffing his pillows. As hard as she knew she had pushed him to talk, and she knew she was cutting him off abruptly, she needed to absorb it all a bit at a time and before she became completely overwhelmed. “We can talk more tomorrow.” She turned down the table lamp and eased into bed next to him, seeking the warmth of his body to try to lessen the cold pall that had enveloped the room along with the bright moonlight that cast eerie shadows across the walls.
Scott showed no sign of hearing her, or seeing her for that matter, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. It was as though the flood gates had opened and he was either unwilling or unable to stop his narrative.
As painful as it was for Laura to listen, it occurred to her this was likely the first time he had ever told anyone about his experiences during those years. She had doggedly insisted he talk to her; her own discomfort was the price to be paid. Snuggling close to his side, she fought to control her breathing, to force down the nausea she knew had nothing to do with her pregnancy.
“The commandant finally had me dragged back inside,” Scott continued. “They grudgingly put me on a cot in the infirmary – just across the room from Dan. Sick as I was at that point, Dan seemed to be near death. I don’t remember him saying anything at that point. He just moaned.”
“That must’ve been sometime near the end of the War, then.”
“It was. And that brought a new horror with it. When they evacuated Richmond on April 2nd, the Confederates left demolition teams to blow up the ammunition stores and the river bridges. Had our troops not arrived in time, we might very well have burned along with most of the city. It was complete chaos.”
Laura swallowed the bile rising in her throat as she imagined the horrors Scott had seen and the fear he had lived with daily. “But then the soldiers made sure you were taken care of? They gave you food and medicine,” she insisted, still unable to bear the thought of Scott cold and sick, not to mention the possibility of him burning alive.
“Yes, they did,” he said gently, heeding the worry in her voice. “They took very good care of all of us. You might find it interesting that the troops who rescued us were a division of the U.S. Colored Troops.”
“Ex-slaves?” Laura was intrigued. She turned over in bed, propping herself on her elbows so she could look into his eyes.
“Former slaves and freedmen,” Scott confirmed. “And they couldn’t have been more attentive and careful with me,” he assured her, drawing her head onto his chest. “I spent about a week in a field hospital near Richmond, and then those of us too sick to return to our units were sent by train to Washington City to the Army hospital there.”
“Then you must’ve been in Washington when President Lincoln was killed,” Laura murmured. She remembered crying when she had read the headline in the London newspaper, not quite able to believe such an appalling thing had happened. Later, she realized the tears she had shed were for everything she had lost since she had been sent away – the home she had known, the people she had loved, the young men like Drew who had died in a ghastly conflict that had torn their nation apart. She hadn’t even known while she cried those somewhat selfish tears, Scott had been enduring unimaginable hardships; on that fateful April night he was laying sick and essentially alone close by the theater where a real-life tragedy was played out in front of a horror-stricken audience.
Laura’s reverie was interrupted by her husband’s quiet response.
“I was – and I remember that night well. I was still pretty much bedridden, but I could hear the shouting and uproar outside. The streets were filled with people crying and in near panic. That, combined with the shrieks of the wounded and the constant cries of the insane….”
“Insane?” She pulled away from him, searching his eyes in confusion. “What kind of hospital….”
“One of the hospitals the Army used in Washington for wounded soldiers was the Government Hospital for the Insane,” he explained, more matter-of-factly than Laura thought was warranted given the nature of the disclosure.
“They put you in an insane asylum?” Laura exclaimed, more loudly than she intended, shocked, and wondering what more horror Scott could possibly have been forced to endure.
“Well, yes, sort of.” He pulled her close again, needing to comfort her. “But it really was just the largest hospital in the City the Army could use. We started calling it ‘St. Elizabeth’s’ after the area of town it was in. It made it easier for all of us to write home without risking the stigma of admitting exactly where we were.”
“I would imagine so.” She rubbed her face against his chest, enjoying the smell and warmth of his body. “And that was where you saw Dan Cassidy again? Sarah said something about him warning you there that he’d come after you.”
Laura felt his sharp intake of breath before he continued, but she took comfort from the soft and steady beat of his heart.
“Yes….It took several weeks for me to recover well enough to start walking about on the wards and the hospital grounds. One day I came across Dan, still recovering in bed. He threatened to come after me, but I didn’t take him seriously. I wasn’t aware he had betrayed the escape himself, and I simply thought his threats were the empty ravings of a very sick, and possibly dying, man.”
She burrowed more closely against her husband, never wanting to be physically separated from him again. She was stunned by the mind-numbing terrors he had endured; horrors he had suffered, she contemplated with a pang of guilt, while she lived in the lap of luxury.
“I still can’t believe he spent so many years hating you like that. What a terrible waste.”
“It was a waste,” Scott agreed as he tenderly stroked her hair. "Perhaps more so because he had a wife and a whole different life to go home to. I was actually somewhat jealous of him during the time we served together.”
“Jealous? Why?” Laura lifted her head from Scott’s chest, and pushed her hair from her face, regarding him quizzically.
“Isn’t it obvious?” He traced his finger down her cheek. “Because he had Sarah waiting for him, and I had….”
“Your grandfather?” She snickered.
Scott chuckled. “Yes, I had Grandfather waiting for me. Rather impatiently, I might add. He came to Washington shortly after I arrived there, demanding that he be allowed to take me home, and insisting his private physician would provide better care for me than the Army doctors could.”
“That sounds like something he would do,” Laura sniffed. “So what did you do?”
“Well,” Scott sighed, "I wasn’t ready either physically or emotionally to return to Boston, so I sent him back home. He grumbled and complained, but he went. Eventually, however, I did go home on leave. It was three months of pure hell.”
"That was when you went to talk to my father," she replied sadly, leaning back into his chest.
"That was when I tried to talk to your father," he corrected. "As I've told you before, I somehow worked up the courage to actually go to your house."
"And he told you I had married someone else," she finished the thought, her heart aching for him. She knew after all he had endured by holding onto the dream of returning to Boston and asking for her hand in marriage, her father’s final lie must have seemed like a saber driven through his heart.
"He did. And despite the fact I didn't – couldn’t—really believe him, I had no choice but to try to put my life, such as it was, back together. The Army didn't leave me any options anyway, and that was likely a good thing. Once my leave was over, I was reassigned to a cavalry unit at Fort Riley, Kansas. Ironically, my old commander, George Custer, was appointed to command the Seventh Cavalry there late in '66. I served under Custer in Kansas until I finally resigned my commission and left the Army in '67."
“And you went back to Boston to work for your grandfather.”
“Yes. As much as I really didn’t want to go home, I didn’t care to stay in the cavalry either. The structure and routine of the Army were somewhat reassuring, but I had grown tired of killing – Confederates, Indians….I was just tired of all the killing.” Feeling Laura temporarily stop breathing, he added, “I’m sorry if that was too blunt, my darling. I’m not sure how else to explain how strongly I felt about it.”
“It’s all right.” She finally breathed. “I’m still having trouble even imagining you as a soldier, even though I see that picture of you with General Sheridan every day.” After a moment’s hesitation, she remarked, “I suppose your grandfather was delighted to have you home.”
“He was rather ecstatic actually.” Scott smiled into the darkness of the room. “He nearly exhausted me with all the homecoming parties during those first few weeks when all I really wanted was some peace and quiet. To him, I was the returning War hero; in his mind I had single-handedly defeated the Confederate Army despite spending roughly half of my War service in prison. Kansas was a safer place because I alone had eliminated the threat of Indian attacks.” Scott stopped talking all of a sudden, the darkness of the room covering his discomfort with the course the conversation had taken.
Laura could sense him withdrawing into himself. Despite her best efforts, though, she couldn’t hide the jealousy she felt, and she couldn’t resist the urge to snipe. “And I suppose you escorted Julie to those parties?”
“I haven’t tried to hide my relationship with Julie, such as it was, from you, Laura,” he retorted. The silence hung heavy between them for a few moments before he continued, his voice softening, “But there are aspects of my life in Boston during those two years that I absolutely will not discuss with you – or anyone. Suffice it to say I didn’t deal well with being home without you. I was well on my way to self-destructing when the Pinkerton agent showed up with Murdoch’s offer.” And I had just retreated from Barbara’s bedroom that night. But you definitely don’t need to know that particular detail. “My behavior was not something I’m proud of, nor was it something you would have expected from the man you knew.”
“I’m sorry, Scott,” she whispered. “You didn’t deserve that comment.” She added softly, “I’m just still jealous she had time with you that I didn't.”
“You might not be so jealous if you knew what utterly poor company I was,” he responded, nuzzling her cheek with his lips. “But we don't need to belabor that point,” he quickly added.
Yawning deeply, Laura huddled more closely into his embrace. “I suppose not…all that matters is I have you now.”
“That you do – completely and forever,” he agreed. “But now I’ve exhausted you,” he protested, turning slightly so he could look into her eyes. “You need to sleep – our baby needs you to sleep.” He softly kissed her, his hand instinctively moving to settle on her stomach.
“I think you’re right,” she yawned again. “But we can talk more tomorrow?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Promise?” She was still almost scared to go to sleep, afraid she’d wake up and find him missing again.
“I promise. Now go to sleep."
Laura couldn’t help but choke out a laughing, “Yes, sir!”
His quiet, but amused, response, “Let’s not start that again…” made her giggle again until her eyes closed, and she drifted away.
By the first Saturday in July, the young couple was on the morning train to San Francisco. Murdoch himself had driven them to Cross Creek, insistent they not return until both were well-rested. As the train steadily rocked its way northward, Scott pulled his wife against him. The train car was nearly empty, the only other passengers at that early hour an elderly couple who huddled to themselves in seats at the far end.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he commented, squeezing her shoulders. “Tired?”
“A little,” she admitted. “But mostly I was thinking about our conversation last week.”
“Which one?” Deep down he hoped she wasn’t going to pursue any discussion of his post-War years in Boston. He loved her far too much to risk hurting her unnecessarily with any talk of his regrettable behavior in the two years he had spent there prior to coming to Lancer. Scott knew he had been well on his way to drinking himself into an early grave, embarrassing his grandfather with his all-night carousing as he tried, without success, to obliterate Laura’s image from his conscious memory.
“The one about your time in the cavalry and in Libby.”
“Mmmm….” He sniffed. “I thought we had pretty much covered that.”
“We did…and I’m not going to beat the subject to death, I promise.” She turned in her seat so she could look into his eyes. “I know how hard it was for you to tell me all that, Scott. It was almost unbearable for me to hear it. I don’t think any of us will ever truly comprehend what you and the other soldiers suffered during those years; the complete horror of it all. But I think it was one of the first times you’ve ever trusted me enough to let me in – to let your guard down and stop protecting me from things you think I can’t handle.”
“It wasn’t easy for me,” he said. “But I can’t promise I won’t continue to try to protect you, Laura,” the young man cautioned. “It’s just too deeply ingrained in me. I’ve spent too many years protecting you to stop now.” He smiled and ran his finger down the length of her nose and over her lips.
“I know…and I guess a part of me will always expect you to do that – and even be grateful for it,” she sighed. “But the last few weeks – and almost losing you again -- made me realize something else as well.”
“That we can’t continue to live so frantically afraid of losing each other,” she replied softly. “I think after these past months – when both of us very nearly died – we’re clearly aware of how fragile and tenuous life is. But we can’t live at this level of intensity forever. It’s not fair to the rest of our family – and, in the end, it’s not really healthy for us either. I’m afraid it could ultimately drive a wedge between us.”
Scott hesitated before responding. “So what are you suggesting?”
“I’m suggesting we try to relax and enjoy simply being together. We need to stop….” She paused, searching for the right word. “Smothering…each other. Take time to breathe. Not assume because one of us is late for dinner or coughs or sneezes, the end is imminent.”
The snort that erupted from Scott’s mouth caused the old man at the end of the car to raise his head briefly. Scott ran his hand over his face to compose his features and allow time for the elderly couple to return to their own conversation before he responded. “You never cease to amaze me, my darling….And you’re absolutely right.”
“And don’t you ever forget it,” she teased, tugging on the lapel of his jacket. “I’m always right, and if you think otherwise….”
“God help me,” he finished for her. “I think I’d rather face the entire Confederate Army before I’d be foolish enough to challenge you.”
Laura grinned at him before her dimples disappeared and her face darkened. “There is yet one more thing, though, Scott. Something you aren’t going to want to discuss. Nevertheless, it needs to be discussed.”
She waited in silence for him to respond, the incessant clacking of the train’s wheels suddenly grating on her nerves, reminding her of her trip westward the year before; a journey filled with trepidation as to what her future might hold. When her husband did not respond, she continued.
“Whether you want to or not, you need to sit down with Murdoch and have a very long talk about your past.”
“Or lack thereof,” Scott corrected curtly as he turned his head away from her and stared out the window. His response only proved to his wife that there was still a wedge firmly in place between father and son. It was perhaps the wound that ran the deepest, and one Laura knew she alone couldn’t salve.
“Scott.” She reached out and touched his cheek with one gloved finger, tilting his face back towards her. “Don’t shut me out again,” she pleaded. “I know how conflicted you feel about your father not coming to claim you; why he didn’t challenge your grandfather, and you believe he abandoned you. I will not be put in the middle between the two of you -- but neither will I allow our children to grow up in a home where their father and grandfather refuse to address the issues that divide them.”
“But you’ll allow them to grow up with a mother who won’t ‘address the issues’ with her own father.” Scott’s response was perhaps more acidic than he had intended, but it was clear to Laura she had touched a very raw nerve. It only fueled her resolve even further, his reaction proving to her the divide between Scott and his father could not be left to fester.
“Don’t try to make this about me, Scott,” Laura responded angrily, frustrated at her husband’s ability to deflect the issues he didn’t want to talk about. “This is neither the time nor the place to discuss my relationship with my father. Besides, he’s three thousand miles away. We’re living with yours.”
“Oh, I see,” he hissed. “It’s not the time or place to address your relationship with your father, but it’s perfectly acceptable to discuss mine. Do I detect a double standard here?”
“Fine, then,” Laura snapped back. “It needed saying, and I’ve said it. I’ll let it go. For now.” Her voice softened as her eyes filled with tears, pleading, “So can we just stop swiping at each other and enjoy our trip?”
He gave her the only response she needed as he pulled her closely against him and buried his face in her hair.
Lunch was a peaceful affair, eaten at a small outdoor café overlooking the Bay. They had lingered over their meal and were the only remaining patrons. Scott stood, leaning back against the wooden railing, the breeze ruffling his hair, the highlights shimmering gold in the sunlight. Laura sat back in her chair, her face upturned and her eyes closed, sleepy and content.
“Laura, why do I get the distinct impression there’s something you’re not telling me?” He studied her face intently, searching for any small nuance that would confirm his suspicions.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” she hedged, reluctantly opening her eyes, not wanting to spoil the idyllic moment with any intense discussions. She wanted to hold on to the tranquility of the day, the recent maelstrom in their lives still too vividly painful.
“You know exactly what I mean,” Scott gently insisted. “I know you only too well. There’s a hesitancy about you…a wariness in your eyes I haven’t seen since that first week in Morro Coyo.
She bit her lip, staring beyond her husband at the calm waters of the harbor behind him. “Scott, I don’t know that it’s anything we need to talk about. You’re finally recovering, we’re here together, and everything’s fine. Can’t we just enjoy the short time we have here? Treat it as a second honeymoon as your father suggested?” She chuckled, patting her ever-expanding belly. “After all, once we go home, we won’t be going anywhere for quite awhile.”
“No…we can’t.” Scott insisted with his customary Lancer tenacity. “We can’t just gloss things over and conveniently bury any problems – despite my present unwillingness to discuss my relationship with Murdoch. Whatever’s bothering you needs to be dealt with. Now, rather than later. Before it creates any barriers between the two of us.” Scott eased himself into the chair next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. “So, out with it.”
Leaning into his embrace, Laura took a deep breath. “I suppose you’re right. I’ve just not wanted to risk opening an old wound. I thought with time it would resolve itself.”
“And I thought we had agreed a very long time ago we would always be honest with each other,” Scott gently chastised.
“We did.” Nodding, she started tentatively. “When we had dinner that first time in Morro Coyo, you said you had managed to convince yourself through those years we were apart that I had willingly stayed away…. That I could have come home had I wanted to.”
“Yes, I did tell you that. And I did try to tell myself, unsuccessfully I might add, that you had deserted me. I tried to stay angry so I didn’t have to deal with the pain of losing you. You know that.”
“And I believed the whole issue was resolved. Until the other week when you were so ill.” She paused while she gathered her thoughts, the memory of seeing her husband so incredibly sick painful to recall. “Johnny had woken you up as Sam directed, and you pushed me away. The expression on your face…. Well, I can’t get the disgust in your eyes out of my mind, Scott.” Laura lifted her chin, gazing into her husband’s eyes, almost afraid she’d see that same revulsion reflected in their depths instead of the love she needed and wanted. “You asked me if I hadn’t hurt you enough already.”
“So, you’re worried that somehow I still believe you stayed away on purpose. That in the middle of my fevered ranting, I admitted how I truly felt.”
“Yes, that’s the gist of it,” she said. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but it scared me, and, I suppose, in some ways I do harbor some feelings of guilt. And it made me realize how little I’ve actually told you about my life in London.”
He squeezed her shoulders with his arm and kissed the top of her head. “First of all, it’s not ‘ridiculous.’ Secondly, I think you know me well enough to trust me when I tell you that anything I might have said in the midst of a fever means nothing. It was exactly what I just said it was – fevered ranting. I think the past was all mixed up with the present in my mind, and I wasn’t able to separate the two.” Scott took her face in his hands and kissed her gently. “But, you are right about one thing, my love. You’ve been very restrained when it comes to telling me anything significant about those years you were gone.” He sat back and pulled her closely against his side again. “And there’s no time like the present to enlighten me.”
“I’m not even sure where to start, Scott.” She snuggled into his embrace. “It was such a dark, depressing time. I simply haven’t wanted to dwell on it. Or cause you any more pain than you’ve already endured. After what you suffered as a soldier and then as a prisoner of war, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you about my life during those years. I’m afraid I’ll sound like a poor little rich girl whining that her life was too difficult.”
He sniffed and rubbed his nose with his left hand, grimacing almost imperceptibly at the pain in his shoulder caused by the gesture. “What I might have endured doesn’t negate the horrors of your own experience, Laura. It’s not as though what happened to me somehow makes your own suffering any less real, nor is it something you need to feel guilty about.”
A ship, its sails billowing in the breeze, tacked its way across the broad harbor, the sight transporting Laura back to another time and another voyage. “I’ve already told you a little about the night Father sent me away. How sick I was on the trip to London.” She smiled ruefully up at her husband, again massaging her stomach. “As bad as the morning sickness has been, it’s nothing when compared to how seasick I was. How ironic the daughter of a shipping magnate can’t tolerate ships…. Anyway, suffice it to say I arrived in London several pounds lighter than when I left Boston. Aunt Louise and Uncle Henry promptly whisked me off the ship and into their protective custody.”
His eyebrows arched, Scott interrupted her. “’Protective custody’?”
She nodded. “That’s what it amounted to. They took me in to ‘protect’ me from myself – and from you. Oh, yes…I had my own room and even a maid.” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “A maid who followed me everywhere. Never let me out of her sight. She wasn’t at all like Katie. She was dour and cold, and she was fiercely loyal to my aunt. Obviously, they all believed what Father had told them – that I was ‘out of control’ and ‘ungrateful,’ and I had been sent to them for my ‘own good.’ They were convinced you were to blame for all my character faults. Cousins Lily and Sarah weren’t married at the time, and they clearly resented me being there. I was the unwanted relative they took in out of the goodness of their hearts, and they never let me forget it. I found it was simply easier to stay in my room or walk in the garden occasionally. And I wrote to you.” Laura leaned her face into Scott’s arm, struggling with the intensity of the painful memories. “I wrote to you nearly every day for those first two years, begging you to come and get me. I wrote to my father, pleading with him to let me come home. I tried to write to Katie, hoping she might help. You, I now realize, never received my letters, and I feel certain Katie didn’t either. Father would reply that I needed to forget you and learn to be more appreciative of the wisdom of his decisions.”
“I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive your father for that.” Scott kissed the top of her head again, his lips lingering in her hair. “I had no clue he had sent you to London, particularly considering how estranged I thought he was from his sister. You know I would have come for you, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do know that. I used to imagine you bursting in the front door, rescuing me like some medieval knight.” She sighed and wiped her moist eyes. “But the weeks and years went by with no word from you. Lily and Sarah both married, and Sarah moved to Baltimore. I was increasingly isolated even as Aunt Louise paraded me in front of all the eligible bachelors.” Laura sniffed, “I know precisely how the mares feel at auction, Scott. All those ‘gentlemen’ didn’t do was poke and prod at me – and I have a feeling they would’ve done that had they thought they could get away with it.”
Gritting his teeth, Scott replied, “Now I know I won’t forgive your father.”
“Oh, Scott, it’s all over and done with now. Holding onto the anger won’t change anything. It just eats away at your soul and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t serve any purpose.”
“That may be so – but humor me,” he replied with a soft laugh. “Right now I want to be angry.” He kissed her yet again, wishing that with such a simple gesture he could erase all the heartache. “So…go on…please….”
“There’s not much else to tell you really. I basically just gave up for the most part. I read. I slept. I walked in the park. I ate when I could stomach the food. When I went riding, my aunt substituted a groom for the maid as my keeper. Then, my father arrived to inform me you were dead. But I’ve already told you about that, too. It was then I was free to come and go as I pleased. They all knew I had no reason to want to leave, nor was there any reason to keep me against my will. What they didn’t realize was I also had no reason to want to go on at all. I discovered if I tried not to feel anything, I could at least go through the motions of living without it hurting too badly. And I listened for your voice. I think one reason I kept Crazy Eyes for as long as I did was because I could hear you begging me to get rid of him every time I rode. Pleading with me to not be so rash.” She ran her finger down his cheeks, tracing it across his lips. “It was your voice that gave me strength, Scott, just like you wrote in that letter. Ultimately, Aunt Louise tired of dealing with me and brought me to Baltimore to live with Sarah.”
“For which I will be forever grateful.” Gingerly, his wounded left arm still sore, Scott pulled his wife tightly against him, feeling her quiver as she started to cry. “Otherwise, you might never have come out here – and back to me.”
“That’s true,” she solemnly agreed. “But, in a way, Baltimore was just as much a prison as London had been. I thought you were dead, and so I couldn’t bring myself to go back to Boston. The memories would’ve been far too painful. I didn’t seem to belong anywhere. Sarah didn’t really want me in Baltimore any more than she had wanted me in London, and I was faced with living every day with a happily wed couple who had just given birth to their first child. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it should have been us together…it should have been us and our baby.”
He tilted her chin up and kissed the tears from her eyes. “But it is us now, Laura. And our baby.” He drew her close again, adding, “It does occur to me, my darling, we were both held captive – me by the Confederates and you by your own family. You in sumptuous surroundings, but imprisoned just the same. I’m not sure which was more cruel. At least my captors weren’t people who professed to care about me.” He smoothed the hair from her face. “And I wish I could change the past and make all the hurt go away.”
Laura leaned into his chest, recalling her conversation with Teresa at the kitchen table several weeks before; a discussion that seemed eons away now. “You know, Scott, for all her youth, our sister can be very wise.”
“Yes, she can. But what prompted that comment?” Scott questioned.
“Just that Teresa and I were talking in the kitchen one day – the day we realized you had disappeared. I had told her a little about Drew and how horrific a time it was when he was killed; how much you had been hurt by his death and then by our separation. She commented that ‘everything happens for a reason’ -- we wouldn’t be where we are now without our past.”
“She’s right. As miserable and painful as it all was for both of us, we wouldn’t be together at Lancer now had we not endured what we have.” Scott paused, his finger carefully pushing a flyaway strand of her hair back into place behind her ear. “And I wouldn’t trade our life here and now for anything, would you?”
Shaking her head, Laura looked into his beloved eyes, concerned over the fatigue she saw there. “No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else -- ever.” Stroking the lapel of his jacket, she suggested, “You look so tired, Scott. Why don’t we go back to the hotel now so you can rest?”
“We can go back to the hotel,” he agreed, gently kissing her. “But ‘rest’ wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.” He hesitated, “That is, if it’s….”
“Is that why you’ve barely touched me over the last few weeks? Why you’ve treated me like a fragile little china doll? I thought it was because you were still so weak.” She leaned her forehead against his chest and laughed, humored at the blush that crept up her husband’s still too pale face and his charmingly sheepish smile. “It’s perfectly fine,” she eventually replied, finally able to look him in the eyes without giggling. “I asked Sam.”
Scott’s left eyebrow arched. “You asked Sam?”
“I did,” she confirmed with a knowing smile. “It’s not as though I haven’t seen a great deal of him over the last few weeks. And he saw a good deal more of me in January than I care to think about.” She added under her breath, “I have a feeling he’s going to see even more of me in December….”
She lay in her husband’s embrace, his hand resting protectively on her stomach, thankful she could now watch him sleep without worrying his breathing was too shallow, his heart rate too elevated, or his temperature impossibly high. “Scott?” she whispered, hesitant to wake him from his much-needed nap.
“Hmmmm?” He snuggled closer to her, lazily opening one eye.
“I was just thinking.”
“Really?” He slowly propped himself up on his right elbow, the fingers of his left hand still resting tenderly on her belly. “And what exactly were you thinking?”
Laura’s chuckle came out more like a snort. She couldn’t help thinking at that point her husband sounded very hopeful as his fingers played across her skin. “I was thinking we should go home.” The fingers paused.
“We came to San Francisco on our honeymoon,” he sighed, “and you wanted to go home early. We came here this time to relax, to have a second honeymoon, and now you want to go home again. Am I the only one who sees a pattern here?”
She burst out laughing at the look of confusion on his face. “I know it seems odd, Scott. It’s a beautiful city, and I’ve had a wonderful time here – during both visits. I love the theater and the restaurants. The fireworks over the Bay on the 4th were spectacular. And I can’t wait to take the fabric for my new clothes to Mrs. Fowler. I’m going to need those new dresses very soon.” Laura laid her own hand over her husband’s. “I’ve let the seams out of my skirts about as much as I can. But…and you’d completely agree…our hearts are at Lancer. It’s the home we’ve both needed all these years, the place where both of us have begun to heal. There will never be another place as good for us as Lancer is or that we love as much, and I want to go home.” Pausing imperceptibly, trying to shake the sudden sense of uneasiness that darkened the deep recesses of her mind, she concluded, “Just promise me we will never, ever live anywhere else.”
Kissing his wife on her forehead, Scott whispered his reply with confidence. “I promise.”