Sequel to “Long Way Home” and “Time After Time”
“Put your hand underneath…”
“I got it.”
“Johnny, there’s a way to do that…”
“Yeah, I got it.” He spared Darcy only a quick glance and then concentrated again on the awkward bundle squirming in his hands. One palm cradled a very small head and the other slid down to the roundish, well-swaddled and also impossibly tiny other end, and he lifted, as gently and as evenly as he could manage.
“She’s beautiful. Isn’t she, Johnny? There’s nothing wrong with her, is there?” Darcy’s voice was fading and Johnny glanced up again, only half finding her through the damp edges of his gaze. Her hair was glossy with sweat and it lay flat against the wrinkled pillow, her braid long lost in the hours that had stretched out behind them—the lamp-lit labors of the night before, and then the dawn, and now this moment, an hour of bright midday sun and August heat.
“No…there’s nothing wrong,” he said, surprised at the strength of his own voice. It must have surprised the bundle, too, because she twitched and settled again. Quieter, with his face tilted toward Darcy this time, he answered once more, “There’s nothin’ wrong.”
“She’s beautiful.” Darcy’s words barely made it the short distance from her bed to the cradle, weighted as they were with exhaustion.
There was a proper way about this, he knew it, just like Darcy had said. The arm—you tuck their head inside your elbow and hold them on the flat of your arm—he’d done it before, long ago maybe, but he’d done it. He just couldn’t figure out how, now with this fragile thing filling his two hands, so he didn’t and he sat instead, lowering himself very carefully into the rocker, the one Murdoch had pulled from the attic months before, and setting his hands and her against his legs. The bundle squirmed again and scrunched her face.
“Darcy,” Johnny said very quietly. He leaned forward and stilled the rocker when it creaked at the movement, watching for any sign that the sound had broken through the bundle’s dreams. It hadn’t, and she lay still. “I’m not so sure ‘bout that name…”
Noises moved through the house, odd clatters and voices, muffled by the thick walls and the heavy door, and a sparrow chirped outside the window, just as if this was any ordinary day. Johnny had missed the rhythm of Darcy’s breathing at first, but that sound crept in with the others, the sweet repeated sigh that lapped against his thoughts. He didn’t even look up, sure that Darcy was asleep and knowing that he was alone. No—they were alone, this pink-faced stranger and him.
“Hey,” he whispered and her eyelids trembled. “You wanta open those eyes and take a look at your daddy?”
She didn’t, and Johnny took her in instead. Her little hand was balled up into a fist, and it pressed a splotch into one fat cheek. He’d seen newborns before, foals mainly, and calves. They were gangly and struggling, but you could stand them on their feet and they’d be all right, but this one—she looked like one of those porcelain dolls he’d seen in Baldemero’s window, and she wasn’t any bigger than his holster. And she wasn’t perfect, not the way he’d always been told. Babies were supposed to look like someone, but this one didn’t—this one was almost bald and what little hair she did have was whisper fine and wild and pale. And she had more than just that one splotch, there were several of them, faint purplish shadows against her pink skin. Angel kisses, Teresa had called them, making them sound prettier than they were, making her sound beautiful. And she was.
“Hey,” Johnny whispered again, and she answered this time, shifting slightly against his palms and stretching as much as the swaddling blanket would allow and making a sound, nothing he’d heard before, not that he remembered anyway. It was like mourning doves calling, only nicer than that. He could feel a smile tugging against his lips and he blinked hard, wishing he had a hand free to wipe away that one tear that kept nagging at him. “Open those eyes, chica, and let me see what they look like.”
She paid no attention.
Scott’s voice made him jerk, but Johnny held tight to his bundle. Turning, he saw that the door was slightly opened and his brother’s head was half through it.
“I knocked,” Scott said. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“Sure,” Johnny said softly, wondering why he hadn’t. “Darcy’s asleep, so you might want to keep your voice down…You got cleaned up.”
“Just a clean shirt.” Scott walked quietly through the room and moved to the window, leaning back against the table there. Johnny had to squint against the sunlight framing his brother and he looked down again, glad of the chance of it anyway. There was still that one tear.
“You want me to keep an eye on her while you go wash up?” Scott asked.
“Have you eaten anything?”
“Maria has a stew on. And some fresh bread.”
“Did Sam get off all right?” Carefully, Johnny lowered the thicker part of his bundle to his lap and slid his one hand free. “Or did Teresa talk him into staying for dinner?”
“I bet she did.” Johnny chanced another squint at his brother. “Sam’s gettin’ too old to be up all night like that.”
“So’s Murdoch.” Scott tipped forward, balancing with a hand on the back of the rocker and hovering above them, looking straight down at the silent infant. “Is that a rash on her face?”
“You think it’s a rash?” Johnny stroked a finger over one of the marks and she turned a little, searching for his touch. “Sam says it’s just how they come out sometimes. Maybe she wasn’t done cookin’ yet.”
“Darcy might argue that point.”
“You ever seen a woman get that big?” Johnny lowered his voice, even though he was already just about whispering and even though Darcy was falling into a very endearing, very quiet snore. “If she didn’t have this baby right quick I was thinking of puttin’ her in the circus. Figured she could be one of those side shows…maybe some sort of amazing elephant woman.”
Scott grinned. “You didn’t tell her that, did you?”
“What do you think?” Johnny couldn’t help but grin back, and he shot a guilty look at his sleeping wife. “You’re not gonna tell her either.”
“I’ll tell her that you said it.”
His smile softening, Scott reached down and tugged the blanket tighter around the baby. “Elizabeth,” he said.
“Yeah.” Johnny’s gaze settled on his child, following the chubby line of her cheeks and finding her fat bottom lip. Elizabeth. He rolled the name through his mind, testing it. “Think she looks like one?”
“I’ve never seen a baby that looked more like an Elizabeth.” Scott’s hand dropped from the rocker to land lightly on Johnny’s shoulder. “But I have to tell you, I’ve spent most of my life trying to stay away from these creatures. I think I like this one, though.”
“She ain’t yours, huh?”
The grin flickered again across Scott’s face. “That could have something to do with it.”
“Murdoch’s going to be working on you to make one of these.”
“Teresa already is. She has a friend with a friend.”
“The one from Green River?”
Scott nodded and stood straight again, smoothing his hair back with one hand. “She swears that the lady has an excellent sense of humor.”
“Bet she’s big as a cow.”
Shaking his head, Scott grimaced. “I’m not taking that bet.”
“I know how to distract Teresa.”
Johnny nodded, feeling the rocker start to sway with the motion. He held it still.
“You’d sacrifice Elizabeth to save me from Teresa’s matchmaking?”
“If you don’t tell Darcy about that circus thing.”
Scott leaned back, perching again against the table, clenching its edge in both hands, and simply staring down at Elizabeth. Maybe he should have said something, Johnny figured a long moment later, but he didn’t and neither did Scott, and it was fine. It was good. He could hear those sounds again, Darcy and the bird and his own breath, coming slower as his lids grew heavier and they slid, narrowing his world and leaving her, the only thing small enough to fit within his sleepy gaze. He could have slept and knew he’d have to soon, but there were things he might miss and so he didn’t.
“What?” he asked, blinking the world back into focus.
“I asked Darcy about the name, the full name.”
“Yeah?” Johnny lifted his knuckle to his eyebrow and rubbed.
“So what did you decide?”
“She tell you what we were thinkin’ about?”
“Do you mind?”
“No…” Johnny shifted in the rocker, moving his spine away from a suddenly uncomfortable slat. “No…I don’t mind…” He gestured and left his hand hanging in mid-air. “Look, Scott, we haven’t decided on anything and I don’t know…” Dropping his hand to Elizabeth and caressing his finger against her little fist, he sighed and his tone softened. “It’s her name…maybe I’ll just let her tell me what she wants. What do you say, nina, you need more than one name tagging onto ya? Do ya?”
Her eyes stayed firmly shut.
There was a reassuring firmness to Scott’s words. “He’ll approve,” he said.
“You don’t know that.”
“If it’s what you want, then he’ll approve.”
“Like I said, we haven’t decided anything.” Wriggling again, Elizabeth opened her eyes a thin sliver and her fist unclenched to grasp Johnny’s little finger. “Will ya look at that?” Johnny said, his gaze finding his brother for only an instant before dropping back to that slender glimpse of her eyes. “She’s got a grip on her.”
“Just wait until she’s more than an hour old.”
“You figure we can teach her arm wrestlin’?”
Struggling to keep down a yawn, Scott took a second to answer. “It doesn’t sound like something you teach an Elizabeth,” he finally got out, just as the door creaked wide open.
It was Murdoch, a cup in each of his fists and his eyes cast downward at the steam rising from them. Johnny watched him walk carefully across the bedroom.
“That looks hot,” Johnny quietly called out.
“Just brewed.” Murdoch’s deeper voice rumbled through the room, even though he’d kept it as low as Johnny thought was possible. His father stopped next to the rocker and looked down at Elizabeth. “Has she been awake?”
“Not so’s you could notice. Are one of those for me?” Johnny eyed the cornflower mug in his father’s hand, the one Teresa had taken to bringing him nearly every morning he’d been laid up with Pardee’s bullet. It had a chip in the rim now, but he’d never had to ask Maria not to throw it out and it was always there, hanging on its peg every morning, no matter who else had been up for breakfast already.
Murdoch thrust the cup toward him. “I thought you could use it,” he said, and Johnny gingerly tugged his finger from the small fist and reached for his cup.
“Thank you.” Leaning over the curved arm of the rocker and cautiously avoiding any hot spills that might land on his daughter, Johnny blew the steam away. “I need about ten hours’ sleep, but this will do.” He slurped a small mouthful and savored the satisfying warmth as it went down.
“Is there any more of that?” Scott asked.
“Half a pot,” was Murdoch’s distracted answer. Johnny could feel him hovering over him, and he watched his father’s big boots move closer to the rocker, more into the line of sight between the cup in Johnny’s hand and the floor below. While there was still room, Johnny set the cup on the braided-rag rug.
There was motion off to his other side. “Here,” his brother said, and as Johnny straightened up against the hard rocker slats, he saw Scott swing the ladder-backed chair through the air and land it just behind their father. “Sit,” Scott said.
Murdoch did, and he scooted the chair that much closer to the rocker. “How’s Darcy doing?” he asked.
“Fine.” Johnny watched Darcy for a moment, wondering how she was sleeping through all of their noise. She was, though, soundly, and for just one twinge he missed her. “She did good, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did,” Murdoch said.
“I wasn’t so sure there when this one started comin’.” He caught himself, remembering Teresa’s thin smile as she gathered the linens, deftly folding the red stains inward and hiding them away, hiding them from him, and he wished that he could take his words back and conceal them like those blood-soiled sheets. There’d been another birthing, his brother’s lifetime ago, and that knowing rushed over him. Johnny leaned over and grabbed up his cup again, staring down into it before taking another sip.
“Do you think we’re disturbing her?”
All Johnny could find in his father’s voice was concern and he relaxed a little, even more so when Scott’s answer was tinged with humor. “Apparently Darcy could sleep through a moderately quiet tornado,” Scott said.
“Well, we’ll see about that.” Murdoch chuckled softly. “I imagine when my granddaughter starts testing her lungs then nobody’s going to get any sleep, least of all her mother.” He leaned closer. “What do you say, Elizabeth? Are you ready to run things around here for awhile?”
“Don’t give her any ideas.” Johnny put the cup down and gave his father a lazy, lopsided smile, then turned to watch Scott move behind him.
Scott kept walking toward the door. “That coffee smells good,” he said. “You two let me know if the baby does anything besides lie there; I’m going to go get a cup of that. Or I’m going to fall into my bed…I haven’t decided which.” He pulled the door almost shut behind him as he disappeared into the hall, a muffled yawn fading along with his footsteps.
“Well, he lasted longer than I thought he would.” Johnny shifted again in the rocker, settling deeper into it and resting his head back against its slats. He closed his eyes for a second. “You oughta get some sleep too, Murdoch.”
“For what? Five minutes?”
“It was ten and don’t talk back to your father. It sets a bad example for my granddaughter.”
Johnny lolled his head to the side, eyeing Murdoch, and he wondered how he got to feeling so drunk. It was a good drunk, though, the kind that turned your body into mush. But warm mush. “You gonna use that against me now?”
“Every chance I get. Now let me hold that baby.”
“Sure you remember how?”
“Just give her to me.”
He didn’t though, not really—not with his arms as weary as they were and his body just sunk into that rocker, a part of it now, the whole of him only a satisfied heaviness. Mush. Murdoch took her instead, leaning again and reaching for her, the tiny bundle dwarfed in his big palms, and then he somehow managed what Johnny himself hadn’t been able to fathom before and he folded her into his arms.
Johnny used his suddenly freed hand to rub at his eyes. “Scott thinks she has a rash,” he said.
“You mean this?”
Following the trace of his father’s finger across one of her pale splotches, Johnny nodded. “Should we be doing anything about those? Maybe an ointment or somethin’?
“No, they’re fine.”
“But look at ’em.”
“Give her a little time, and you won’t even know they were there.”
“That’s what Sam said.”
“Sam knows what he’s talking about.”
Summoning up most of what little energy he had left, Johnny bent and grabbed hold of his cup again, taking it in both hands and downing a big slug. “Guess I got a lot to learn about this.”
“It gets easier.”
Johnny raised a brow at that. “Yeah?” he said, and he took another slow sip and watched a smile drag across his father’s lips.
“There’s degrees to that word, in case you didn’t notice. I didn’t say easy, just easier.” Murdoch’s gaze dropped to the face framed in the folds of the tiny blanket and after a long moment he added, “You and Darcy…and this one…you’re all going to do fine. Aren’t you, Elizabeth?” He kept smiling and his eyes wrinkled with it. “Elizabeth,” he said again, importantly this time.
“That was Darcy’s idea.” Johnny watched his father’s face for just that one second more and then found his coffee, staring down into its steaming darkness.
“Her mother’s name.”
“Yeah.” Johnny ran his finger against the rim of the cup. “She never really knew her mother, what with her dyin’ so young, and we figured it’d be good to call her that.” The smooth curve of the porcelain gave way, and he worried at that spot, the rough blemish cracked into his cup. “Darcy likes Lizzie, but me…well, I’m still getting used to it all.”
“Darcy asked me what I thought about the middle name.”
It was stupid. Johnny knew it was stupid and childish and he felt just about as big as that baby lying in his father’s arms, but he didn’t want to do this right now. Maybe he didn’t want to do it all. It was Darcy’s idea after all, one they’d argued over night after moonlit night, right there in that bed when they should’ve been sleeping or maybe doing other things. Definitely doing other things. Johnny looked up from his coffee and found Darcy’s face, half buried in her pillow. “She told you, did she?”
“She said that you were thinking about it.”
“You haven’t made up your mind?”
The damn moonlight. That’s all he could figure, thinking back on it now. He watched Darcy sleep, her few freckles dark in the midday brightness, and he remembered the moonlight. Like water, silvery water, washing over her shoulders and the curve of her neck and her hips and pouring down into the hollowed spaces. A man could drown in that kind of light. “I said we were thinkin’.”
He didn’t want to talk about it, and Murdoch let it lie. Those sounds crept into the silence again. There must have been some cattle in the near pasture because one was lowing. A mama calling for her calf most likely, and Johnny sipped at his coffee, listening to her complain, until the waiting got too much. He set his cup on the floor, straightened back against the slats of the rocker, and tipped his hand into the air. “Look, Murdoch…”
“You had one of these.”
“What?” He’d almost missed his father’s nod, but Murdoch did it again, caressing the gap between the baby’s pale brows and nodding down toward his finger.
“One of these marks. You had one of these when you were born.” Elizabeth was swaddled too tightly to move much, but she jerked at Murdoch’s touch, her little fist flailing out, and he laid his hand across her instead, settling her and nearly concealing the whole of her bundle. “Hush there, sweetheart,” he said, as gently as Johnny had ever heard him, something like those mourning doves but deeper and weary. “Your mother,” he went on a moment later, “she cried when she saw you for the first time. You were so small, even smaller than this little girl. It wasn’t time yet, but she’d had you and we were both scared to death. The woman we had tending to Maria….Mercedes, I think her name was…that’s right, Mercedes…she got you washed and wrapped you up in a blue blanket. Did you see a blue blanket in the trunk?”
“No…maybe.” Johnny watched as Murdoch’s eyes sought out the tiny trunk under Darcy’s bed and then gazed down again, finding Elizabeth. “There were some blankets,” Johnny said.
“I’ll look later.” Murdoch smoothed one of Elizabeth’s wispy hairs into place. “It was night…you were born at night…and Mercedes handed you to me and I counted all your toes, and then Maria saw that mark on your face. And she started crying. She said it was the curse of some spirit…one of her ghost stories; I didn’t pay any attention to it, but it had her upset for weeks. She wouldn’t let you out of her sight. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and she’d be over by your cradle, just sitting there and watching over you. And crying.”
“Women cry a lot,” Johnny said hesitantly, not knowing what else to say.
“Yes, they do.” At first that seemed to satisfy his father, and Murdoch was quiet, they all were quiet, but then Murdoch sighed. “It disappeared. One morning I looked at you and that mark was gone, I’m not even sure when it happened. I didn’t know when a lot of things happened.”
Johnny had to strain to hear those last words, as near as he sat to his father.
“She loved you, Johnny,” Murdoch said. “I never had any doubts about that. And she’d love this little one.” He grunted then and Johnny watched him struggle to his feet, keeping Elizabeth balanced evenly in his arms and stretching to his full height. Johnny’s rocker was built for a nursery and it sat low, making his father tower over him, as big as he’d ever remembered him. “It’s a good name, son.” Murdoch bent, bringing his armful of blanket and baby lower and settling her into Johnny’s arms. “Teresa gave me strict orders not to wake Darcy, and I better not push my luck any longer. Women know best about these things.”
He should have said something. Johnny thought of that a few seconds later, after Murdoch had set his hand on Johnny’s shoulder for a brief moment and then moved away. He could hear his footsteps, heavy ones, he could always tell his father’s footsteps by their thick thud, but they were gone before he’d remembered to speak. And there were things he needed to say, but Elizabeth was squirming again. The dark crescent of her lashes disappeared into her scrunched up cheeks and her smooth brow furrowed.
Cradling her deeper in his arms, Johnny held her tight against his chest. “Whoa, chica. It’s just your daddy…I got you now.” She stilled, listening. “What’ll you say? You want to open those eyes for me?”
She didn’t look like anybody. There weren’t any freckles across her cheeks, only those three small splotches, and her nose was just a roundish nub, delicate and perfect. Johnny swept his finger across the mark on her brow, gently, as quietly caressing as his words. “Where’d you get this kiss, little girl?”
Her eyelids flickered.
“Come on, Elizabeth, you’re all right. Your mama gave you two angels to watch over you and you got me. I know how you feel, you know; sometimes this world don’t seem like nothin’ worth seeing, but you’re safe. I got ya, and you’re safe.”
Her little arms stretched against the blanket.
“Elizabeth Maria Lancer, you open those eyes.”
And she did. They were bright, so bright that they glistened, and his next breath wouldn’t come. “Hey,” he said when he found his voice again. Her eyes were impossibly blue, a deep blue, like the ocean just those minutes past the dawn, and they studied him somberly. He studied her back. “So what do you think, Lizzie…that the last time you ever going to listen to your old man?”
Her watchful eyes didn’t waver.
“Don’t tell her I said so, but your mama was right.” The words scratched past the thickness in his throat. “You’re beautiful.”
She made that sound and he couldn’t see her anymore, not the way he wanted to. There was a damp haze getting in his way and he had to blink hard.
“Don’t tell anyone ‘bout this neither, all right, Lizzie?”
And finally, alone with only
Lizzie to see, he reached up and wiped that one tear away.