The Promise of Things To Come
by  Jo Butler

               The last of the sun’s rays shone through the kitchen window, striping the hard-packed dirt floor with light and shadow, catching dust mites in their late afternoon dance.  She turned to retrieve a dirty dish from the rough hewn table, and he stared at her profile, his breath catching in his throat.  Almost eight months gone with child.  His child.  It hit him once again, the dream-like quality his life had assumed in the last almost year and a half.   Never in his wildest dreams would he have thought he could be this happy, this blessed.  Never would he have thought that this delicate Boston rose would agree to marry a rough Scottish thistle.  But she had, against the advice of all her friends, against the wishes of her father, against the better judgment of her own mind, he was sure.  She had chosen him, a lonely immigrant, so far away from hearth and home, the love of family, all that was comfortable and familiar and dear to him.  He’d determined to make a new life for himself in this strange country, had worked hard from sun up to sun down.  But it hadn’t taken away the sometimes overwhelming loneliness, the deep longing for home, the temptation to give up the dream and return to the land that bred him.  Nothing had taken it away.  Not until that wonderful sunny Sunday afternoon by the Charles River when he’d first laid eyes on her.  She’d turned, caught him staring at her.  But instead of turning away in an insulted huff, she’d smiled at him.  And he’d been lost.  Six weeks in this new land, and all thought of home had swirled away on that soft spring breeze.  He’d been smitten.  He remembered wanting to follow her home that afternoon, but his good Scottish common sense had stopped him from making a fool of himself.  But it hadn’t stopped him from going to the riverside the next Sunday, hoping she would be there again.  He’d chided himself all the way to the river, called himself every kind of fool he could think of.  What was he thinking, a lovely, finely bred young woman even remembering the rough, gangly dock worker caught staring at her?  He’d sat by the riverside, glancing around at all the people strolling by, and suddenly, there she was.  And this time, she was staring at him.  He’d smiled, and she’d smiled in return.  And so it had gone for a month until she had finally gained the courage to simply walk up to him and strike up a conversation.  Where would he be now, if his Boston rose had not had the courage of her convictions?

               The sudden slamming of a tin cup against the side of the wash tub quickly brought him out of his thoughts.  His lovely Boston rose had turned and was staring at him, her convictions etched across her face, thorny anger in her eyes. 

               “You know we’re going to discuss this further, don’t you?” she asked.

               “Catherine, there is nothing more to discuss,” Murdoch replied.

               “Oh, there most certainly is more to discuss.  I won’t be sent away from my home simply because you fear for my safety.”

               “Not just your safety, my darling girl,” Murdoch said, getting up from the table and walking over to his wife of barely more than a year.  “The safety of our wee one, also.”

               Murdoch reached down and laid his massive hand across her belly, and held it there for a moment.  His patience was rewarded when his son, for he was certain it would be a son, kicked against the palm of his hand.  A smile spread across his face and he stared down into her pearl blue eyes.  She smiled at him, laid her hand on top of his, laced her fingers through his.  She laid her head against his chest and listened to his heart beat.  She loved him fiercely, had traveled around two continents to wed his dream to hers, had survived five months of seasickness, lived a rough and uncivilized life here in this desolate valley, cut herself off from her father, her family and her friends to be with him.  And she would do it all again.  But what he was asking of her now, she would not do.

               “Dearest, our child will be safe here in our home.  He is going to be born here on this ranch, this ranch that bears his name.  I won’t allow you to send me away,” Catherine said, looking up at her husband, her eyes pleading with him.  “Murdoch, darling, you’ve just let Father’s letters worry you.  And there’s no need.”

               “There is need, Catherine.  As much as I hate to admit it, Harlan’s right.  The political goings on here in California right now are too unstable.  There’s war between Mexico and the United States, and we could be caught right in the middle of it.  You know as well as I do that there have been raids across the border, more than skirmishes.  There’ve been pitched battles between Mexican and American soldiers.  That alone is enough to make any man cautious when it comes to the safety of his family.  And all this war fever, and the raids and battles, it’s just given some men free rein to lawlessness.  The raids against the ranch have started, and Catherine, darling, you know they’re only going to get worse.  I won’t give in to Haney’s blackmail.  I won’t pay for the protection he swore to give when he became the only law around here.  He’s abusing his position and his power, and I won’t give in to him.  But I also won’t place you in danger because of it.  I can’t bear the thought of something happening to you, nor to our child, should the raids come closer to the house.  I want you to be safe.”

               “I’m safe as long as I’m with you,” she said, tears gathering in her eyes.  Tears were her trump card, and she hated to play it.

               “But that’s the point, my darling.  I can’t be with you all the time.  I have to be out on the range.  And I can’t leave enough men here to protect you should something come up.”

               “I won’t go, Murdoch,” she said.

               “You have to darling.  For your safety, for the baby’s safety.  For my peace of mind.”

               “I wish the letters had never arrived,” she said, moving away from her husband and sitting heavily at the table.  Her father’s letters, a packet of them, had arrived two weeks ago, full of dire warnings and East Coast hysteria over the, at the time the letters were written, impending war with Mexico.  Well, the war had come to pass, and her father’s letters had only added fuel to the fire.  She and her husband had been at odds ever since those letters had arrived.  “I wish they’d gotten lost, or stolen, or thrown overboard, or that the rider’s horse had thrown a shoe.  Anything to keep those letters away from here.”

               “Darling,” Murdoch said, squatting next to his wife and taking her small slender hands in his own, “your father’s letters came at the best time, and you know it.  Now, you know I have no great love for Harlan Garrett, but he is your father and he’s coming to help.  We’ve known for two weeks now that your father set off around the Cape to come to California.  His letters were written over five months ago, just before war was declared, and just before he set sail for California.  You knew that sooner or later, a rider would be coming in letting us know of Harlan’s arrival in San Francisco.  You can’t have been surprised when the rider showed up five days ago.”

               “Murdoch,” she said, suddenly turning to him, her eyes frantic, her grasp on his hands urgent, “don’t make me go.  Please.  I want our son to be born here on the ranch.  Darling, surely you don’t want our son to be born on the trail,” she said, playing her last hand.

               “Catherine, you have at least six more weeks before your confinement.  That’s more than enough time to get to San Francisco and get settled in.”

               “Darling, please,” she said, her voice cracking with unchecked emotion, “I don’t want to go.”

               “I don’t want you to go.  But you must.  Our son must have a safe birth.”

               “Murdoch, please,” she said, leaning into his body and wrapping her arms around his neck.  She felt his arms glide around her middle and pull her close.  She rested her head on his chest and stopped trying to fight the tears. 

               “Darling, you know I sent your father’s messenger back the day after he arrived.  He should reach San Francisco today or tomorrow with the letter I wrote to your father, telling him I’ll be sending you north tomorrow with my best men, that he should plan on meeting up with you on the trail.  And I told him about the baby.  We have to assume that your letter informing him he’s going to be a grandfather hadn’t reached him before he left Boston,” Murdoch said with a grin.  But then the grin faded and he was serious once more.  “And I’ve also made clear to him that under no circumstances is he to attempt to take you back to Boston.  You and the baby can wait in San Francisco with your father until I can come for you.  It shouldn’t be more than a few weeks, Darling.  The war with Mexico can’t last long, and once that’s settled, then these land pirates are going to move on, find another place where they think they can get away with their thievery.  Catherine, I know you want the baby to be born here, but does that really matter all that much.  Isn’t what really matters that he’ll be raised here?”   

               “Is there no way I can make you understand?  No way I can persuade you to leave me here to have our child?”

               “I want you to be safe, Darling,” Murdoch repeated.

               “I know you do,” Catherine said.

               “And there is one other thing, my Darling.”

               “What?” Catherine asked, sniffling and trying to speak around the tears in her throat.

               “I love you, my bonnie lassie.  With all my heart and soul,” Murdoch said, taking her face between his hands and kissing her.

               “I love you too, my dearest husband,” Catherine said.  She stared into his eyes for a moment, felt his hand slip away from her face and come to rest on her belly.  He looked down at his hand for a moment, and when he looked up, there were tears in his eyes.

               “And I love this child you carry inside you.  You know I would never do anything to place either of you in danger.  I love you both too much.  You are my life, and he is our future.”



*     *     *


               The sun was barely over the eastern mountains, but the fledgling ranch was alive with activity.  The 30 or so vaqueros were saddled up and ready to start their day on the range.  The ranch had been in operation less than a year now, but these men, these seasoned hands, knew.  This tall Scotsman, with his soft-spoken Norte Americana wife, was going to build something special here, would make this ranch a thing to be reckoned with.  It had long been a wasted thing, squandered by the last owner, a cousin of the Vallejo family, a man who did not have the heart…or the courage…to fight the land and make it into a paradise.  But the Scotsman, Senor Lancer, he had the heart and the courage.  And in a few weeks, he would have an heir to whom the ranch would someday be passed.  A few of the hands waited patiently by the corral for their instructions for the day, surreptitiously watching the small adobe building where the patron and his wife made their home.  They all knew that today the Senora would be leaving the ranch, and they all knew that she was not leaving of her own choice, that the patron was sending her away north to San Francisco to give birth to their child.  The men had discussed it among themselves, and some had nodded their heads seriously, thinking it a sensible thing for the patron to do; others, with knowing grins on their faces, thought it was the nerves of a first time father forcing the decision.  But all agreed none of them wanted to be responsible if something should happen to the Senora.  The raids were becoming serious, and there was the nonsense of the war between Mexico and America.  Yes, they all knew now was not the best of times to be living in California, so perhaps sending her away was the best thing to do, after all.  But they knew the patron would be a very lonely man while she was away.  He was a hard man to work for, but fair.  It was the Senora who worked magic on the tall foreigner.  In the same way that a skilled caballero could gentle a horse, Senora Lancer had a way about her that could gentle Murdoch Lancer.  And the men were all glad for her presence, and they would all hate to see her go.  But when she returned, they all assured themselves, it would be with the patron’s son.  As they stood there by the corral, the wagon pulled up in front of the old guardhouse and stopped.  The men knew it was time to be on their way.  The Senora would be leaving in a few minutes, and they knew instinctively that the patron and his wife would not want others watching their parting.



*     *     *


               Catherine sat on the edge of the bed and tried to control her emotions.  But she was having little success.  Across the large room, she heard the ticking of the clock above the mantle and wanted to reach out and snap the hands of that clock from its face.  Stop time.  Delay the inevitable.  Force her stubborn husband to see reason.  Her reason.  Her need.  Last night, after they had made love, after he had fallen into a fitful sleep, she had lain there in the crook of his arm and prayed again that she had somehow miscalculated, that the baby would come now, not six weeks from now.  But except for a vague tightness around her belly and an ache in her back, she felt fine.  The baby would not rescue her from its father’s stubbornness.  She tried to take a deep breath, but found her lungs would not cooperate.  The clock over on the mantle suddenly chimed the half-hour, and startled her.   Six-thirty.  Oh God, she cried to herself.  Only another 30 minutes.  She looked down at her lap, saw her hands knotted together, a lace handkerchief gripped like a lifeline.  She slowly relaxed her hands, stretched them out flat and ran them down her skirt.  Her palms were sweaty.  She looked over and watched as Murdoch carried another carpetbag to the door.  Please, she silently pleaded with her husband, relent.  Let me stay.  I need to be here, I need to bring our son into the world here, in this sad little adobe house, our first home together.  Please.  But her pleas went unheeded.  She felt her emotions surge again, the fear and the anger and the trepidation.  She didn’t want to make this trip, but she knew it was no use arguing.  Murdoch Lancer was the most stubborn human being she had ever met, and she knew there would be no changing his mind.  She had been his match in stubbornness in almost every way, but not in this.  She had really thought she would be able to sway him to her thinking.  She had, after all, held her ground with the only other person she knew who came close to matching the stubbornness of her husband, her father.

               When Harlan Garrett had at first refused to give permission for her to marry Murdoch, she had drawn on her stubbornness to win the struggle with her father.  Reason, logic, romantic arguments, pleading.  None of it had worked.  Not until she had threatened to turn Catholic…as his sister had in order to marry the man of her choice…and enter a convent, never marrying, never presenting him with the long awaited grandchildren, had her father finally relented and given his consent to the marriage.  Still, at nearly the last moment, he had tried to change her mind, had held back on signing the papers giving her her freedom to marry.  But she had stood her ground with her father, and she had won her heart’s desire.  A sob escaped her throat, and she felt an overwhelming grief.  She looked up and found her husband watching her, and the tears rolled down her cheeks.  He walked over and sat next to her on the bed, taking her hand in his. 

               “It’s almost time, darling,” he said, his voice stiff and forced with the effort to hide his emotions.

               “I know,” she said, laying her head against his shoulder.

               “I know you don’t…”

               “Please, Murdoch, I can’t go over that again.  You’ve made your decision, and I abide by it.  I don’t want us to argue here in these last moments.”

               “I don’t want to argue either,” he said, lifting her face to his. 

               They sat there looking into each others’ eyes for several moments, neither wanting to break the silence.  Talking made the time go, and neither wanted that, either.  He reached up and gently caressed her cheek, then looked around the room.

               “I was thinking last night that while you’re away, I’ll make some changes here in the place.”

               “What kind of changes?” Catherine asked, recognizing his tactic.  Talk about something else, ease the pain, look to the future when the present was too painful.  He did that with the past as well, seldom talking about the family he’d left behind. 

               “Well, I thought I’d have a couple of the hands help me knock out some of the adobe in that cell, put a door in it, and turn it into a nursery,” Murdoch said, smiling down at his wife.

               “You want our son’s nursery to be a jail cell?” Catherine asked, feigning shock at her husband’s suggestion.  The truth was, the thought had already occurred to her.

               “We can’t think of it like that, Catherine.  But think how convenient it will be.  With our bedroom here on this side of the cell, all you’ll have to do is get up and take a couple of steps and you’ll be in the nursery whenever our son needs you.”

               “Well, I think while you’re at it, you should put a door in the other side, too,” she said, staring at her husband with a very serious expression on her face.

               “And why is that?”

               “So that sitting in your study on the other side of the cell, you’ll only be a couple of steps away from the nursery when our son needs you.”

               They grinned at each other, then Catherine laid her head back against his shoulder.  The old adobe guardhouse had been the last place she’d thought she would be living in when they had purchased the ranch, but it had been the only building inhabitable.  Dismayed at first, she’d worked very hard to turn the old guardhouse into simply a house, and then a home.  She’d partitioned off rooms, a bedroom on the far side of the cell, a study for Murdoch on the side nearest the front door, a sitting room across from the study and a kitchen across from the bedroom.  Rummaging through one of the storage sheds early on, she’d uncovered a couple of lovely hinged screens, Spanish in style and look, cleaned them, and set them in the house, one at the opening to their bedroom, which was almost always unfolded across the makeshift doorway, and the other at the opening of the study, which was almost always folded closed.  Still, with all the work and effort, it wasn’t exactly what she’d been used to.  But it would have to do until later.  The grand “hacienda” was little more than a skeleton, still in need of a great deal of work, despite the fact that Murdoch and several of the hands spent at least two hours each evening and all afternoon on Sundays working on the place. With luck, it would be ready to live in when their next child arrived, Catherine thought with a grin.

               “What are you grinning about?” Murdoch asked, tilting her face up.

               “The future,” she said.

               “We have a good future ahead of us, darling.  Don’t forget that,” Murdoch said, suddenly serious.  He watched her face for a moment, then laid his hand across her belly, waiting for a word from his son.  The baby gave a vigorous kick, and its parents shared a laugh.  At the sound of wagon wheels outside the house, their laughter died away.

               “It’s time, darling,” he said.

               “It can’t be,” she whispered, gripping his hand. 

               “Better not to linger,” Murdoch said, turning away from her penetrating eyes, afraid she would see the tears that had suddenly gathered in his.  “Come, darling.”

               Murdoch stood up and reached out a hand to his wife.  She stood up, barely reaching his shoulder, her once lithe, petite body now heavy with his child.  He wrapped her in a fierce embrace, holding tight to the woman who meant the world to him.  He gently brushed his hand across her pale yellow hair, then kissed the top of her head.  In the last few weeks, he’d often wondered what their child would look like.  That it would have blue eyes was a given.  But would he favor his mother or his father?  Would he be tall and full-built like his father, or fine-boned and delicate like his mother; would he favor the Lancers or the Garretts?  Golden blond hair like his mother, or muddy brown like his father?  It was a guessing game he’d taken great pleasure in, what will my son be like?  And when, in the still of a late night full of promise, he’d told her about his little game, she had turned to him and asked him why he was so sure it would be a son?  With a gleam in her eyes, she’d asked him what if it were a girl, a daughter?  That question had left him speechless, so much so, that she had laughed at him.  That wonderful laugh of hers, the laugh that filled his heart with so much joy.  If only he could hear that laugh one more time before she left.  But he knew that would probably not happen.  She was too upset, too distraught over her imminent departure to present him with the gift of her laughter.  But that was alright.  It would only be a few more weeks, and he would hear that laughter again.  Along with the wonderful cry of his newborn son. 

               Murdoch loosened his embrace and pulled away from Catherine.  She looked up at him with tears in her eyes, and this time he didn’t turn away.  There was no shame in showing her how he felt.

               “Catherine,” he whispered.

               She took a long breath, calmed her heart, wiped away her tears, and let him lead her to the doorway.  She paused and looked around the room.  It was such a sad little building, but they had made it a home.  They had dreamed their dreams here, made their plans here, conceived their child here.  It wasn’t a mansion, but she knew it would always be the home that meant the most to her.  She heard Murdoch pull the door open, straightened her shoulders and stepped out into the early morning sunlight.

               The wagon sat in front of the house.  Catherine looked around, saw the vaqueros riding off to their daily jobs, saw the few head of cattle out in the near pasture grazing.  She inhaled deeply, and smiled to herself as she remembered how offensive she’d at first found the “fragrance” of a cattle ranch.  But now, it was like the sweetest perfume.  Well, perhaps, that was an exaggeration.  But it was fresh and earthy and it was home.  Tears began again, and she wrapped her arm around her husband’s waist.  They walked to the wagon, taking their time, savoring these last few moments.  As they walked past the wagon bed, Catherine glanced inside.  It seemed her husband had thought of everything.  A feather tick, pillows, a stack of books, jugs of water, a basket with her knitting, food enough for two months on the trail, not just two weeks, she was sure.  There was a canvas of some sort.  That, she’d been told, was to cover the wagon at night to give her some privacy.  They continued up to the front of the wagon.  Catherine looked ahead and saw her escort standing by the horses.  Murdoch pulled them to a stop next to the front wheel.

               “Darling, Luis will be going along with you,” he began.

               “Murdoch, you can’t send your foreman with us.  You need him here,” Catherine protested.

               “No, I need him with you.  He will see to it that you get to San Francisco with your father.  O’Brien and Cipriano will go along with him.  As soon you’re settled in with Harlan, they’ll make the trip back.”       

               Catherine looked up at her husband, and knew there was no use arguing with him.  He was sending the ranch foreman, and his two best hands.  It was unnecessary.  This whole trip was unnecessary, she thought with a sudden resurgence of irritation.  She fought it down, and made herself relax.  She wouldn’t mar this farewell with an un-winnable argument.  She sighed and looked around one more time. 

               “I’m ready,” she said finally.

               Murdoch wrapped his hands around her arms and held her for a moment, then conscious of others watching, he leaned over and kissed her, a long, desperate kiss.  They held each other for several moments, then he backed away and motioned to his men.  Luis and Cipriano made their way to their horses while O’Brien walked around to the other side of the wagon.  Murdoch absently ran his hands up and down her arms, wishing this could have been otherwise, but knowing it couldn’t.  Once O’Brien was settled, Murdoch took Catherine’s hand and steadied her as she placed her foot on the wagon wheel.  He wrapped his hands around her thickened waist and lifted her up as O’Brien reached over the side and took her hands, pulling her up to the seat.  O’Brien moved over to his seat, then Murdoch reached up and took Catherine’s hand, gently squeezing it.  She leaned down and he kissed her once more, held her face against his for another moment, then stepped away from the wagon. 

               “Okay, Paul.  Move out.”

               O’Brien slapped the reins across the team’s backs, and the wagon jerked forward, pulling away from the house, the ranch.  Catherine turned in her seat and watched her husband, smiled, then felt the smile waver and disappear.  She raised her hand and waved to him, saw him wave in return.  Her heart was breaking, but she knew it was only a temporary thing.  She would be back home in a few weeks, caring for her husband, helping him build his ranch, realize his dream and raising their child.  The heartbreak would go away, and the joy would return.  Of that she was certain.  She watched her husband continue to wave at her, and she knew in her heart she would be back before the fall.

               From the corner of the house, Murdoch watched as the wagon carrying his wife, his child, his future, wended its way down the long dusty road that led away from the ranch.  He stood there and watched as the wagon grew smaller and smaller, watched as the figure of his wife faded and blended into the light and shadow that played across the early morning landscape.  He watched as the wagon began the climb up toward the ridge that overlooked the valley where the house sat.  And he watched as the wagon disappeared from sight.  His breath caught in his chest, and he felt a loneliness stab at him that he hadn’t felt since that first night off the boat.  That first terrible, all alone night in Boston.  In that instant, with that loneliness stabbing at him, he knew she was his life.  And he knew he would bring her…and their child…back as soon as he could.



*     *     *


               The trail was rough, much more so than he had expected.  And it was testing his riding skills to the extreme.  He had always considered himself an excellent horseman, but he admitted to himself that he had never ridden trails like this.  But then, he’d never found himself in such a damnable wilderness before, either.  Once again, he shook his head at Catherine’s obstinacy.  How could she have given up so much for so little?  He’d made that argument to her the day before she had married Murdoch Lancer, and her rebuttal had stunned him, had left him questioning his own marriage.  She’d looked up at him with those soft blue eyes of hers, eyes so like her mother’s, and asked him how he could think he had so much when he had no one to share it with?  That question had cut him deeply, had actually taken his breath away.  They’d stood there in his study, staring at each other, and he’d known there was no way of preventing her from following her heart.  She had pinned him with his one weakness, a weakness he had assumed she had never been aware of for they had tried so hard to make it all seem so…not loving, he knew, but at least affectionate.  Catherine had been so young when her mother died, but somehow, she had seen through the façade that was her parents’ marriage.

               His marriage had been an arranged marriage, one that his father had planned, insisted upon.  He had been fond of Abigail, but she had not aroused in him any great passion.  No, only one woman had managed to do that, and he had walked away from her in order to fulfill his father’s plans for his future.  Abigail Marlowe had been the belle of Boston, the most sought after catch in that rigid society, and she had agreed to marry him.  But fondness and respect were simply not enough upon which to build a marriage.  Oh, he knew they were as happy as most couples, but it had always seemed lacking in…something.  His fondness for her had grown to something akin to love over the first three years of their marriage, those terrible years that saw two miscarriages and one stillborn son.  His heart had broken for her, and for himself.

               And then Catherine had been born.  His daughter.  Strong and healthy, her very existence the promise of more children to come, perhaps even the longed for son.  He had devoted himself to his small family, telling himself over and over that he had made the right marriage, had chosen the right wife.  He pushed away the images of what his life might have been had he followed his heart, and focused on the woman who had endured so much to be the wife he expected.  And there was Catherine.  She had brought a joy to his life that he had not expected when he had taken his marriage vows.  She made the difference.  With his beautiful, tiny daughter in his life, he could accept that his marriage was not everything it could have been.  His heart, while not as full as it might have been, was certainly not empty.  He loved his daughter deeply, held his wife in high esteem, even a degree of love.  And Abigail had done her best to make him happy.  She had worked hard to make their marriage a haven for him, a place he could come to for peace and quiet.  And she had tried, desperately, to give him the son he wanted.  Another stillborn child, a girl that time, two more miscarriages, the last one eventually fatal.  At the age of 27, he had found himself a widower with a four-year old daughter.  And his wonderful blue-eyed girl, with her long blond curls had kept his heart from shriveling up and dying on him.  He had devoted his life to making sure his daughter would have a good life, an easy life, one that would not know the disappointment and heartache his had known.  And in the process of that devotion, he had closed his heart off to everything but his daughter.  He had never again allowed himself to become fond of someone, let alone make the mistake of falling in love with someone.  That had caused too much pain in his life.  Yes, it had left him with his greatest joy, but he’d decided the morning after Abigail had been laid to rest that Catherine would be enough.  He would not risk his heart again for the chance of duplicating the joy she gave him.  His one daughter, his only child, would give him all the happiness he needed.

               And she had.  Until the day that damnable immigrant had walked into her life.  Murdoch Lancer, a penniless dreamer, a Scottish rogue with nothing to offer but a glib tongue and a handsome face.  He had never thought his daughter would be susceptible to such a man.  But she had fallen in love with the man, and there had been no convincing her that she was mistaken.  Harlan Garrett was a man who could read people very well, and he had known from the moment he had seen them together, that it was truly a love match.  And that was what had made it all so hard for him.  His daughter had found someone she truly loved, and who loved her in return.  He had seen it in their eyes when they looked at each other, had heard it in their voices, had seen it in the way their hands touched.  There had been no deception, no subterfuge on Murdoch’s part, no willfulness, no stubborn rebellion on Catherine’s part.  They loved each other.  It was just so unfair that the man of her dreams had turned out to be Murdoch Lancer.  With every young man in New England to choose from, Catherine Garrett had chosen to marry a Scottish immigrant barely a year in America.

               Harlan thought back to the first time he’d met the man.  Standing in the foyer of the Garrett mansion, his hat in one hand, his other hand wrapped securely around Catherine’s hand, his brogue slipping through despite his best efforts to disguise it.  The man had been nervous, but he had stood there tall and proud.  Harlan clearly remembered his feelings at that moment.  He had been appalled.  And when he had learned of Murdoch’s plans, his dreams, he had been alarmed.  California.  On the other side of the continent, three thousand miles separating him from the one person in this life he loved.  His only hope had been to keep them apart.  Catherine had been underage, only 19 when they met.  Refusing permission for them to marry would gain him two years.  Two years in which she would see the error of her ways.  But he had not counted on his daughter’s stubbornness, her determination to have the man she loved.  The battle between them had been waged for nearly six months, and then he had capitulated, surrendered.  He had given his permission.  Married to Murdoch Lancer was better than married to the Catholic Church.  He had not been sure her threat was real, but he had been unable to take the chance.  He could not stand the thought of his lovely daughter dressed in the black robes of a nun, the rest of her life spent at the beck and call of a foreign church.  So instead, he watched as she stood in the front parlor of his home, dressed in her mother’s white wedding gown, pledging her life to a man who did not deserve it.  And then, with a swiftness that had left him breathless, he had stood on the dock in Boston Harbor and watched as his only child had sailed out of his life. 

               Harlan glanced around, realized that they would be stopping soon for the night.  Making camp in this wilderness.  The letter had reached him a week ago, and he had wasted no time in arranging this expedition.  He’d hired a troop of men to accompany him, men who were paid enough to ensure their loyalty.  He had hired a wagon for his daughter’s comfort.  And he had sent a messenger to inform Murdoch that he was on the trail, would meet his daughter and take her to San Francisco to await her confinement.

               The thought once again jolted Harlan.  When he’d set off from Boston five months ago, he’d had no idea of his daughter’s condition.  He’d merely wanted to get her out of harm’s way.  Surely, he’d convinced himself, even a man as stubborn as Murdoch Lancer would see the danger of living in a war torn area such as California was sure to become.  War between the United States and Mexico, and his beloved daughter was in the center of it.  When Murdoch’s letter had come by exhausted messenger nearly two weeks ago, Harlan had been stunned by the information it had contained.  With child.  His cherished daughter was carrying his grandchild.  A part of him had swelled with anticipatory pride.  But that had only lasted a moment.  There were attacks on the ranch, there was the war with Mexico, and his only child was pregnant with his first grandchild.  All these things were bad enough, enough to cause a father’s nightmares.  But these were not the worst of his nightmares.  The moment he’d read those words in Murdoch’s letter, his thoughts had shifted back in time, to all the suffering his wife had endured, the pain and loss and grief.  Her death two weeks after that final miscarriage.  And she had been in Boston, where the best medical care was available to her.  What did his daughter have available to her out here in this godforsaken place?  San Francisco wasn’t Boston, but at least there were doctors there. 

               Harlan tried to stretch the muscles in his back.  Hopefully, tomorrow they would meet his daughter.  He and his escort had left San Francisco only two days after Catherine’s departure from their ranch.  Or so he assumed from Murdoch’s letter.  And they had made very good time on the trail.  Surely, he would see her on the morrow.  



*     *     *


               Catherine stood at the edge of the camp and slowly inhaled.  The day had been so long, and so hot.  And she was so tired.  She pulled the handkerchief from her sleeve and gently patted her face again.  She took another deep breath, and felt the fatigue drain away.  There was just something about this country that she loved.  When they had first arrived in the closing weeks of last year, she had felt nothing but relief.  Relief at being off that awful ship, relief at no longer having to live on the trail, sleep in campsites.  It had been such a relief to have solid ground under her feet again, a roof over her head, an actual bed to sleep in.  But the relief had quickly given way to dismay.  So much dirt and dust.  And people she couldn’t understand.  She spoke French beautifully, Latin as well.  But Spanish?  And the snakes.  She hated snakes, was horribly frightened of them.  And it was so primitive here.  In Boston, she had lived a life of luxury.  Her father had been a stern disciplinarian, but he had also been loving and generous with her.  She had lacked for nothing.  Out here, she lacked almost everything she was used to in Boston.  She had tried to hide her disappointment from Murdoch.  He had been so thrilled with their ranch.  He looked out across the pastures and fields and saw the grand ranch he would someday have.  She looked out and saw miles and miles of…miles and miles.  Those first few weeks she had been so lonely, so homesick.  She had struggled to keep it shuttered away, but she was sure Murdoch heard her crying in the night on occasion.  More than once, when she’d thought she was the only one awake on the whole ranch, he had reached out in the darkness and pulled her into his arms and held her while she cried.

               But then spring had come, and she began to notice things she never would have noticed in Boston.  Horses in the pasture with their foals, cows with their calves, wild flowers blooming all around her, the mountains turning lush and green, the whole valley coming alive.  She had fallen in love with this country, just as Murdoch had.  And then she had realized she was with child.  She had been thrilled at first, and then frightened.  She knew her mother’s history, knew the pain and suffering that poor woman had endured.  Knew that a miscarriage had taken her mother from her.  But as the weeks and then months had passed and the baby had grown and her belly had grown with it, and her health had stayed strong, she had realized how silly she had been.  She glanced up at the sprinkling of stars in the gathering darkness, and thanked God for the life He had given her.  A husband she loved to the depth of her soul, his child growing safe and strong in her body, a home that would nurture her and her family for the rest of their lives.  She had passed her 21st birthday in June, the first of years of birthdays she would celebrate on their ranch.  She and Murdoch would grow old together on that ranch, watch this child, and all the children to come grow up and have families of their own on their ranch.  A sob gathered in her throat, and she held it back.  She was so blessed.  Tears welled up in her eyes, and she let them fall.  The baby kicked and she laid her hand across her belly.

               “Only a few more weeks, my darling son,” she whispered.  “A few more weeks and I’ll hold you in my arms, present you to your father.”

               “Miz Lancer?”              

               Catherine jumped a little and turned around, quickly wiping the tears from her eyes.  “Paul, yes, what is it?”

               “Supper’s ready, ma’am.  Why don’t you come on back to the fire?”

               “Of course,” she replied, giving the man a small smile.

               O’Brien started to walk away, then stopped and turned back to the young woman.  “You alright, ma’am?”

               “Yes, I’m fine, Paul.  Just a little fatigued from the day’s journey.”

               “Well, you get some supper down you, and then you can turn in for the night.  Get yourself some sleep,” O’Brien said, a little embarrassed talking about such things with the boss’s wife. 

               “I wish you and the others would have allowed me to cook dinner,” Catherine said, reaching out and taking O’Brien’s arm.  “I should be helping out with the chores.”

               “Now, ma’am, you got enough work to do takin’ care of yourself and…uhh…well, you need to save your strength for...well, you know…for when…” O’Brien stammered.

               “I’m not helpless, Paul,” Catherine said, stifling a giggle.  O’Brien had been one of the first men her husband had hired, and he was a nice young man, but obviously not terribly used to the company of woman.  Whenever he spoke to her, and that wasn’t very often, he kept his eyes averted.  So shy.

               “Just the same, ma’am, ain’t no need you cookin’ over a campfire.  Cip there is a pretty fair cook.  ‘Sides, Boss’d have our hides if we didn’t take care of you proper.  Now you just get yourself settled and we’ll get supper dished up.”

               Catherine sat on a footstool that had been included in the things Murdoch had packed in the wagon and watched while her husband’s men fussed around the campfire.  They were good men, unlike any men she had met before.  Certainly unlike any men she had met in Boston.  Rough, unrefined, uneducated men.  But she trusted them with her life.  And the life of her child.  She reached down and rested her hand on her belly, waited a moment, and felt the baby kick again.  It was a boy.  She was sure of it.  She didn’t know why she was so sure, but she just had this…sense.  A boy, a son.  Her son.  Murdoch’s son.

               Lately, she had been dreaming of her child, a blond haired, blue-eyed baby boy.  Tall and strong like his father, fair and blond like her.  She had dreamed of him the night before she left the ranch, an odd, unsettling dream.  She saw him in the cradle that was stored in the attic of her father’s home in Boston, her father hovering over the cradle.  She’d tried to take him from the cradle, but her father had stopped her, held her away.  She called out to Murdoch, but he hadn’t been there.  She’d started awake, sweat soaking her hair and throat.  She’d looked next to her, saw Murdoch sleeping soundly, as he always did.  She’d sat up in bed and glanced across the room toward the kitchen.  It was sitting there on the other side of the table, the cradle Murdoch was making for their child.  It was nearly finished, and it was a beautiful thing.  And just sitting there in bed staring at it in the low lamp light eased the nightmare from her thoughts.  It was the cradle her child would sleep in, not the Garrett cradle back in her father’s house.  She’d slipped out of bed and quietly made her way over to the cradle, knelt next to it and lovingly ran her hand over the smooth edges.  It was being crafted with love, the love of a husband, the love of a father.  The dream had disturbed her, but she’d finally put it to rest, had finally convinced herself that it was simply the result of the imminent trip, the journey to meet up with her father, her father who hadn’t wanted her to leave Boston in the first place.  He would be even more unhappy with her choice now that he knew about the baby.  That was what had caused the dream.  Well, since then, there had been no more disturbing dreams, and she had slept soundly on the trail.  She hoped tonight would be no different.  She was too tired for dreams.  Too tired to do anything but rest her head on her pillow and let the fatigue take her.  She watched as Cipriano spooned out their dinner.  This solidly built Mexican, so strong and hard-working, taken away from his own pregnant Mercedes to make this journey.  They were due only a month apart.  Their sons would grow up together.  A smile played across Catherine’s face as she let her mind wonder to the future.  It was so full of promise.  And she knew again, she was so very blessed.



*     *     *


               Murdoch sat at the table and picked at his supper.  He’d thought about eating with the hands, but had decided against it.  They liked their time off, without the boss around.  It was one of the first lessons he’d learned.  Give the men time of their own.  He knew they liked and respected him, but he was, after all, the boss.  He sighed and pushed the plate away.  He just wasn’t interested in eating.  He missed her.  Gone barely more than a week now, and he missed her.  Would miss the birth of their child.  But it was the only choice open to him.  He couldn’t let her stay here at the ranch, not with the way things were going.  The raids.  He knew Haney was behind the raids.  The law.  What a joke that was.  Haney was a law unto himself.  But wasn’t it always this way?  Authority, what authority there was, was falling apart.  When they’d arrived last November, they were faced with a land that was reeling toward war.  Texas had voted for annexation into the United States, despite the fact that Mexico had yet to recognize the outcome of the war down there ten years ago.  Polk had sent a representative to Mexico to try to negotiate some kind of an understanding between the two countries, but the Mexican government had refused to see him.  And then in May, as he and Catherine were preparing to celebrate their first year together as husband and wife, the United States had declared war on Mexico.  Mariano Vallejo had been imprisoned by Bear Flaggers, a man who was in favor of annexation to the United States.  There was just no sense to what was happening.

               But wasn’t that always the way of war?  An American fleet had taken Monterey, and he’d heard just the day before the letters had arrived from Harlan, that American soldiers had taken Los Angeles.  But that wouldn’t hold.  The Mexicans would try to take it back.  They’d had this country too long to just let it go.  The war would catch up to them, even here in the San Joaquin.  And if it didn’t, there was still Haney to deal with.  The man was an opportunist.  Who could the ranchers and farmers turn to right now?  Mexican authorities?  No, there was no love lost between the Mexican authorities and the Anglo settlers, even if there wasn’t the small matter of war with the United States.  The American military?  Of course not.  They were too busy trying to throw the Mexicans out.  No, they had only themselves to depend on, only themselves to turn to.  Some, like himself, were determined to stand up to Haney.  It was a hard choice.  Almost all of them had families.  He knew as well as anyone just how hard a choice it was.  Sending Catherine away had been the hardest thing he’d ever had to do, harder even than leaving Scotland two and a half years ago.  Scotland was the past, Catherine was the future.  Catherine and their son. 

               Murdoch let out a weary sigh and stood up.  He picked up his plate and cup and walked them over to the wash tub.  He sat them inside and started to walk away, then forced himself to come back.  Gone a week, and already he was making a mess of her lovingly cared for home.  He filled the tub with enough hot water to cover the dishes from his supper…and his lunch and breakfast…and stood there and washed them up.  He hadn’t bothered to use her good china, just the tin plate and cup that his men used out on the range.  He looked over at the trunk that sat next to the back door.  Three months ago, two packing crates had arrived from San Francisco.  Harlan Garrett had sent his daughter her mother’s china service.  Catherine had cried like a baby when she had opened the crates.  Harlan Garrett was a man beyond Murdoch Lancer’s comprehension.  The older man had fought him tooth and nail over his proposed marriage to Catherine, had done everything he could to prevent it.  And in the end, he had given her away, stood with her in their front parlor and given her to him.  And then this last.  He didn’t think for a minute that Harlan was admitting defeat by sending that china.  Murdoch knew the old man fully expected his son-in-law to fail, to come back to Boston, his tail between his legs, Catherine in tow.  But that wasn’t going to happen.  He and Catherine were going to make a life for themselves here in this paradise.  Oh, he knew it wasn’t much yet, but someday, someday it would be.  Someday, the hacienda would be finished, and filled with their children.  Blue-eyed babies, sons and daughters.  Strong, healthy children who would see them through their old age. 

               He dried the dishes and set them aside, taking the towel and drying his work-roughened hands.  He looked around the small adobe structure and sighed again.  Was it really only a week ago that Catherine had been sitting in her rocker, knitting booties or some such thing for their baby?  He’d sat across from her and watched her silently, wished for all he was worth that he didn’t have to send her away.  But he knew she would be far safer in San Francisco than here at the ranch.  Murdoch walked across the room, rested his hand for a moment on the back of her rocker, then stepped outside. 

               The air was surprisingly fresh.  The heat of the day had been suffocating.  It had rained to the south late today, and that had cooled things off just a bit, left the air good.  He hoped the weather held.  He didn’t want to think about her traveling in bad weather.  The heat she could handle.  She was a strong woman, much stronger than her father gave her credit for.  Strong enough to withstand this country, strong enough to love him, with all his faults and failings.  And his temper.  From his youth, he had struggled with his temper.  But Catherine took it in stride.  He took a deep breath and looked up at the star-strewn heavens, then moved a few feet away from the door and leaned his long lean frame against the side of the house.

               “Catherine, my darling lassie,” he softly whispered, “I miss you.”

               Around him, he heard the sounds of his ranch settling in for the night.  The soft, musical sound of his Mexican vaqueros talking among themselves, cattle lowing in the near pasture, crickets and night birds.  God, he loved this place.  And it was his.  His and Catherine’s.  And their child’s.  A son.  He knew it would be a boy.  He’d even come up with a name for the child.  Scott.  In honor of his homeland.  Catherine had smiled and said she loved it when he’d told her.  And then with a twinkle in her eye, she’d asked about a middle name.  He hadn’t really given that any thought.  But she had.  Garrett.  He despised her father, knew they were too much alike to ever really get along, but he hadn’t really considered including the man’s name in his son’s name.  But he’d had to admit to her, it had a nice sound.  Scott Garrett Lancer.  Murdoch’s shoulders suddenly slumped with sadness.  He’d wanted to be with her when their child was born.  But he hadn’t planned on things getting so dangerous in the last few months.  He’d wanted to be the first to hold his son, to welcome him to the world, to introduce him to his mother, to settle him when he cried at so rudely being thrust into the world.  But that wouldn’t happen now.  Not with this son.  But the next child.  He wouldn’t send her away next time.  He knew he couldn’t.  This was proving too hard.  He missed her, missed her desperately.

               It was late.  Murdoch knew he needed to get to bed, needed to get a good night’s sleep in order to work the ranch tomorrow.  But he couldn’t go inside.  Not just yet.  He didn’t want to think about going to sleep.  Not without her by his side.  Since their wedding night a year ago May, he had had her by his side as he’d let go of the day’s cares.  He was finding it difficult to sleep without her by his side now, difficult to settle his mind without her settled in his arms.  His beautiful, delicate Boston rose.  He needed her by his side.  In a few weeks.  Just a few weeks, and she would be back where she belonged.  They would be together.  He, and his Boston rose, and their son.  Just a few more weeks.



*     *     *


               Harlan shaded his eyes against the afternoon sun, and tried to stretch his back.  They’d been on the trail a week now, and there was still no sign of his daughter.  What had Murdoch been thinking, sending her out on the trail in her condition?  The man was a barbarian.  Well, once he found his daughter, they were going to have a long discussion.  This situation was intolerable.  His daughter, his pride and joy, the heir to all that he possessed, living in this godforsaken land, war at her very doorstep.  That the United States wanted this land was understandable.  This was their continent, their destiny.  President Polk was absolutely right in invoking the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny.  To Harlan Garrett, expansion was a sensible thing, whether it pertained to building a business or building a nation.  But his daughter did not have to be in the middle of it.  If Murdoch Lancer wanted to work the land, there was plenty of land in Massachusetts to be had.  For the right price, and Harlan would have been willing to pay any price to have his daughter close by.  But that damnable, stubborn to a fault Scotsman would have nothing but his dream of empire in California.  Grudgingly, Harlan admitted that Murdoch was a very intelligent man, one for whom he would have found a position in one of his businesses.  Once seeing that the die was cast, that there was no dissuading Catherine from her choice, he would have given him a job, something to build on, tested him, perhaps allowed him, eventually, some say in the running of his empire.  He would not have been completely opposed to that.  And it would have kept Catherine in Boston.  But no amount of persuasion had managed to convince his daughter of the sense of that plan.  Murdoch had a dream, and she planned to share that dream with him.  Well, it seemed to Harlan that that dream had taken on the quality of a nightmare now.  His beloved daughter, out here in the wilderness somewhere, trying to get to San Francisco before her confinement.

               Again, Harlan was stunned by that thought.  His little girl, his child, about to become a mother.  His daughter, his grandchild, so far away.  He didn’t think he could bear it.  The last 15 months had been so horribly lonely with her gone.  That big, cold mansion, bought 25 years ago for the family he intended to have, the children and grandchildren he intended to have.  And now it sat empty, save for the presence of one lonely old man.  His daughter had turned her back on every dream he had dreamed for not only himself, but for her, too.  And he had Murdoch Lancer to thank for that.  Well, once he had her safely in San Francisco, once her child was safely delivered, he was going to go to this mighty ranch Murdoch was building, stand toe to toe with his over-large son-in-law and make him see the error of his choices, make him see the wisdom of returning, if not to Boston, than at least to the Midwest somewhere.  There was plenty of good farm land in places like Ohio or Indiana, even still in Pennsylvania, perhaps Kentucky or Virginia.  These places were settled, civilized.  And certainly a good deal closer to Boston than some godforsaken valley in California.  He had failed to stand his ground with his daughter and her husband 15 months ago, but he would not fail this time.  Surely, with a newborn child to care for, they would see the wisdom of returning.  And he would make sure that Murdoch lost no money on his investment.  He had already found a buyer for this ranch, if Murdoch could be persuaded to sell it.  Surely, with a newborn babe, his daughter would want to return to Boston, would work with him to convince her husband.

               Harlan sighed, and knew that everything depended on Catherine, and his ability to still sway her opinions.  There had been a time when his word had been law with her, but as she had passed through her teen years, she had grown more independent, more prone to take her own counsel.  At the time he had been proud of her, had known that no man would ever be able to take advantage of his daughter, the heir to his fortune.  But that pride had turned to consternation when Murdoch Lancer had entered her life.  Her heart had settled on that gruff immigrant, and her independent spirit had refused to give him up.  Well, now she would have a child to consider.  Harlan was confident that he could persuade her to come home, and between the two of them, they could persuade Murdoch of the same.  A weary smile appeared on Harlan’s face.  She had had her run at independence.  Now it was time for her to come home. 

               Harlan glanced ahead, and realized that the lead guide was slowing the pace of their little expedition.  Harlan reined in his horse and watched as the man turned and walked his mount toward him.

               “Mr. Garrett, we got a wagon comin’ our way across that little valley to the east there.  Two outriders with it.”

               “It could be my daughter,” Harlan said, moving his horse around Donnelson’s position.  He walked his horse along the ridge of the slope and glanced out across the valley.  He could make out the wagon, the riders on either side, but that was all.

               “Mr. Garrett, I suggest you and me and one a the boys ride on down there and see who it might be.  Could be your gal, could be trouble.  Me and Wilson’ll ride ahead, you hold back a few yards.  You recognize your daughter in that wagon, then you come on out.”

               “That is an acceptable plan,” Harlan said, glancing over his shoulder at the man he had hired to guide him on this journey.

               “Another thing, Mr. Garrett.  You know how to handle that rifle there at your side, or is it just for show?  Just in case them riders ain’t the friendly sort.”

               “I assure you, Mr. Donnelson, I am more than adequate with a rifle.”

               “All right, then.  Let’s get movin’,” the bearded mountain man said.



*     *     *


               Catherine sat in the back of the wagon, trying to find some comfort.  The air was cool, but the sun was hot.  Her back hurt, she was tired of riding in the wagon, and…her back hurt.  She reached around and tried to rub the ache away, but it was no use.  The ache had been there off and on since leaving the ranch.  She was certain it was the ride.  The trail had been jolting and uneven and just…wearying.  She was tired, and would have given anything if she could have convinced these men to turn around and take her back to the ranch.  Or move on forward and get her to San Francisco.  Just get her off this trail.  The last couple of days had seen her turn irritable, and Catherine knew it.  She was trying very hard not to let it show.  These men didn’t deserve to be the targets of her ill temper.  They were only doing what Murdoch had asked them to do.  No, if she were going to be irritable with anyone, it was going to be that husband of hers.  The next time, she would not give way to him.  No matter what the circumstances, she would have their next child at home.  She shifted on the mattress that was spread out on the floor of the wagon and tried to ease the ache in her back.  She just didn’t understand why her back was bothering her so much.  And there was such a tightness across her belly.  She really wished she had Mercedes to talk to.  A smile spread across her face as she thought about Cipriano’s bride of ten months.  They had taken to each other right away.  Funny, how they had.  There couldn’t be two women anywhere with less in common than she and Mercedes.  And Catherine knew that anywhere but here, their differences would never have allowed them to become the good friends that they had become. 

               Mercedes was Mexican, Catholic, educated by nuns in a mission school.  She was the middle child in a family of nine, one of dozens of cousins, smoldering black eyes, hair the color of the night sky, a fiery temper but a tender heart.  And Catherine, with her founding father heritage, Congregationalist religion, private tutor education, and Beacon Hill upbringing, had been drawn to her immediately.  Mercedes with her stories of her brothers and sisters, her cousins.  For a lonely young wife who had grown up as an only child, Catherine had found her wonderfully refreshing, and endearing.  They had spent endless afternoons together, Catherine helping Mercedes with her English, Mercedes helping Catherine with her Spanish.  Of course, of the two of them, it had been Catherine who had needed the most help, she thought with a grin.

               And then the realization that they were both with child.  Catherine couldn’t count the hours they had spent together, talking about the future, about what their children would be like, how their husbands were reacting.  Interesting how it seemed that all men were alike, how they all fussed and worried, and tried hard to pretend that they weren’t fussing, that they weren’t worried.  And when Catherine had worried herself, or wondered about what to expect, Mercedes had been there to reassure her, explain things.  Even though this was Mercedes’s first child, she had sisters and cousins who were already mothers.  Mercedes had calmed her fears when she had told her about her mother’s troubles with childbearing, about how her mother had died.  In nine short months, Mercedes had become her best friend, and she looked forward to watching their children grow up together.  Catherine sighed, and knew it would be weeks before she saw Mercedes again.  But, she thought with a bright smile, when they next saw one another, it would be as mothers. 

               From the front of the wagon, Paul O’Brien suddenly called out a loud “whoa”, and the team brought the wagon to a jolting halt.  Catherine gracelessly crawled forward and pulled herself up on the back of the seat.

               “What is it, Paul?” she said, watching as Cipriano and Luis road forward and pulled their rifles free.

               “Riders up on the ridge, Miz Lancer,” he replied, grabbing his rifle from the floorboard.

               “Do you think it could be my father?” she asked, a small flash of fear running through her.  They were miles and days from the ranch, but that didn’t mean the trouble brewing there couldn’t have followed them.  It was one of Murdoch’s constant worries…that Haney and his men would come after the families of the men working his ranch.  Or come after her.  She had tried not to let that worry infect her, had tried to use her civilized Boston upbringing to reassure herself that that sort of lawlessness was simply not possible, would not be tolerated.  But then she would remember that Haney was supposed to be the law in this part of the country, and a chill would course through her body.  She quickly prayed that the men lingering above them on that ridge were somehow connected with her father.

               “Well, ma’am, it looks like we’re about to find out,” O’Brien said, giving his chin a thrust in the direction of the riders.

               “What should we do?” Catherine asked, watching as the two riders slowly maneuvered their mounts down the slope.

               “You just sit back and stay calm, ma’am.  We’ll find out what those hombres want,” O’Brien confidently said, turning and giving her a quick smile.

               Catherine positioned herself slightly behind and to the right of O’Brien and kept her eyes focused forward.  She noticed that Cipriano had moved his mount over to the right side of the wagon and sat with Luis, forming a line between the wagon and the approaching riders.  She noticed, too, the sudden change in the men with her, the way their bodies were now tense and straight in their saddles or up on the wagon seat.  She saw the way they held their rifles, seemingly loose across their laps, but gripped with both hands.  They presented a warning to the advancing riders.  Catherine found herself wishing she, too, had a rifle with her, not that she was sure she would have the presence of mind to use it.  But it would add to the warning. 

               Less than a week at the ranch, and Murdoch had taken her aside and taught her how to shoot.  A rabid dog had wandered up close to the house one bright morning, had staggered around the yard between the corral and area marked off for the new barn, frightened most all the women there.  None of the men had been about at the time.  It had been Mercedes who had taken a rifle and killed the animal.  One shot had brought the poor creature down.  But when the men had ridden in that evening and the story had been told, Murdoch had stared at her, with that stare that told her he was working something out in his mind.  And the next morning, he’d taken her out to the near pasture and he’d spent the day…and the next two…teaching her how to handle a rifle.  She wasn’t very good, had found it awkward and uncomfortable, but she’d managed to learn the basics of loading, aiming and firing.  And once a week since then, until she’d become ungainly with child, he’d taken her out to that same pasture and made her practice.  And now, she fervently wished she had a rifle with her.  Good or not, up close it was hard to miss what you were aiming for.

               As she watched the two men reach the bottom of the slope, she heard a quick intake of breath from Paul and saw his body tense even more.  She watched the two riders for a moment, couldn’t see what Paul had seen.

               “What?” she whispered without taking her eyes from the men making their way toward Cipriano and Luis.

               “Another man up on the ridge,” Paul said, adjusting his grip on his rifle.

               Catherine looked back toward the top of the ridge and saw the third rider emerging from the tree line.  The rider sat his mount there for a few moments, clearly studying the scene below him.  Catherine watched him intently, saw him urge his horse forward, saw the way he sat his horse, the way he held his head, the straightness of his back.  A smile split her face, and she awkwardly stood up and started waving.

               “Father!” she called, waving with all the exuberance she could muster now.  She turned and headed toward the end of the wagon.

               “Senora!” Luis called from the front of the wagon, “stay where you are, Senora.”

               Catherine hesitated just a moment, then continued down the wagon bed. 

               Luis started to rein his horse in her direction, stopped and turned back to the advancing danger.  He silently cursed the brain of a woman that made her unable to follow orders.  He turned and watched as the Senora reached the tailgate of the wagon and started to step over the edge.  He cursed again, and violently jerked his horse around. 

               He reached the tailgate and quickly dismounted, reaching up and grabbing the Senora’s hand, steadying her as she perched precariously on the back of the wagon, stretching out his other hand and grabbing her around her middle.  He eased her to the ground, was rewarded with a brilliant smile, then watched as she pulled away from him and raced toward the front of the wagon.

               Up on the slope, the third rider was rushing down toward them, waving his hat and calling out the Senora’s name.  Luis watched for a moment, retrieving his rifle, and held his breath.  He saw the other two riders rein in their horses and stand aside as an older man reached the bottom of the slope and dismounted.

               “Father!” Catherine called out, giggling like a schoolgirl as she hurried toward Harlan.

               Catherine reached her father, laughing and smiling as she threw herself in his arms.  She felt his body stiffen, start to pull back, then he relaxed and allowed her to embrace him.  A warm sense of comfort coursed through her, and she let herself enjoy her father’s arms around her for a few seconds more before pulling back and rescuing her father from the embarrassment of her enthusiasm. 

               “Father, it is so good to see you,” Catherine said, smiling broadly and wiping a tear from her cheek.

               “Indeed, my dear.  It is very good to see you again,” Harlan said in return.  He quickly looked his daughter over, shocked to see her in such a condition.  She was his child, his little girl, and here she was, weeks away from having a child of her own. 

               “I was beginning to despair of finding you out here on the trail.  I thought we would have to go all the way to San Francisco and send a search party out for you,” she joked, unknowingly warming her father’s heart with her musical laughter.

               “Well, as you can see, that is not going to be necessary,” Harlan said, as always both charmed and unbalanced by his daughter’s warmth and openness.  How was it that he had raised such a loving and open child?  Clearly, it was more God’s doing than his own.

               “Come, Father, and I’ll introduce you to my friends,” Catherine said, slipping her arm through her father’s. 

               She led Harlan forward, stopping as Luis approached them, his rifle still clasped in his hands.  Cipriano had dismounted and stood near the wagon team.  Paul had climbed down and joined him, both men, just as Luis, stilling clutching their weapons.

               “Father, I’d like to introduce you to our ranch foreman, Senor Luis Delgado de Lopez.  He is a very good man, Father.”

               The two men stood studying each other, Harlan with his hands clasped rigidly behind his back, Luis standing before him, his head high and his rifle across his chest.

               “Senor Garrett, it is an honor to meet the father of Senora Lancer,” Luis rather formally said.

               Harlan merely nodded at the short, wiry, dark complexioned Mexican standing in front of him.  Luis immediately took the measure of the man, and found him wanting.  He knew Senor Lancer did not like this man, and Luis could understand why.  It was in the man’s eyes, the coldness there, the…desden…the disdain.  Luis had seen that look before, from many gringos, but he was surprised to find it in this gringo, for he had never once seen it in the eyes of this man’s daughter. 

               Catherine moved Harlan closer to the wagon, where Cipriano and Paul were waiting.  She had sensed the change in her father’s attitude as she had introduced him to Luis, and knew there was nothing she could do about it.  Her father was the man he was, and she could not change him.  But she would also do her best to keep him from insulting her husband’s men.  She walked over to the other two.

               “Father, this is Cipriano Hernandez.  He is one of our most valued ranch hands, and also a very good man,” Catherine said.

               Again, Harlan simply stood with his hands behind his back, studying the stocky, barrel-chested Mexican, a man slightly shorter than himself, with dark hair and even darker eyes, a craggy face that gave very little hint about the man’s age.   

               “Senor,” Cipriano said, nodding his head toward the older man, wasting no more words on this man, as once again Harlan Garrett’s worth was assessed and found to be light.

               “And Father,” Catherine said, feeling the tension between the men, “this is Paul O’Brien, another of our most trusted hands.”

               “Mister Garrett,” Paul said, yanking his hat off and giving the older man an unsure smile.  “It’s good meetin’ you, sir.”

               “Indeed,” Harlan said, noting that at least this man appeared to be American, although most likely of Irish heritage.  Thin and muscular, he seemed to be nearly as tall as Murdoch, with hair almost as dark as his Mexican companions.  And these were the men to whom Murdoch had entrusted Catherine’s safety.  Harlan turned to his daughter, essentially dismissing the three men.  “My dear, I have a wagon and men waiting up above.  After a brief rest, and of course a farewell to your husband’s employees, we can transfer your luggage to the wagon, and begin our return to San Francisco.”


               “Senor, we are to travel to San Francisco with the Senora.  This is what Senor Lancer has instructed us to do,” Luis said, stepping up to the older man.

               “That won’t be necessary, my man,” Harlan said, giving the Mexican only a cursory glance.

               “It may not be necessary, Senor, but it is as we have been ordered to do,” Luis stubbornly replied, thrusting out his chest and using his diminutive stature to its fullest effect.

               The two men stared at each other, and standing between them, Catherine knew she would soon be called upon to settle their differences.



*     *     *


               Murdoch settled in for the evening, opening his ledger and making a couple of entries.  The balance when he was finished left him less than confident.  He had taken every dime he had saved, every dime he had carried across the ocean with him, even given in and allowed his wife to give every dime she could gather, in order to pursue his dream.  And still, that had not been enough to purchase this ranch.  It had required a loan from a shipping merchant in San Francisco, where he had had to swallow his pride and use the letter of introduction his father-in-law had given to Catherine before they’d left Boston.

               The letter had been their secret, Harlan and Catherine’s, and he had been furious when she had told him about it.  He’d accused her of having no faith in him, of not believing in his dream as he did.  He’d accused her of conniving behind his back with her father.  Oh, the tears and anger that had produced.  In less time than it had taken him to issue his accusations, she had put him in his place.  She loved him and she believed in his dream, or she would not have followed him all the way around two continents to work for his dream, would not have endured all the same hardships he had endured.  And she had no intention of allowing a lack of hard currency to come between them and their dream.  She had, she’d sworn to him, no intention of using that letter unless it was absolutely necessary.  And securing the last bit of money necessary to buy the ranch, to build their dream, well, that had been the absolutely necessary thing.  She had stood before him in that run-down room in that run-down boarding house only two streets away from the docks in San Francisco, her hands on her hips, her pale face sprinkled with angry red spots, and told him she was not about to let his stubborn Scottish pride steal their dream away from them before they even had a chance to make it come true. 

               And then the tears had come.  Tears of anger and frustration and fatigue.  And homesickness, he’d been sure.  He’d been unable to withstand the onslaught.  The next day, he had walked back down to the docks, gone into that merchant’s office, an old acquaintance of Harlan’s from their youth together in Boston, letter in hand, and walked out two hours later with the loan that would allow them to buy their ranch.  He’d hated having to do it, it had left a sour taste in his mouth, but in the end, he’d known he’d really had no other choice.  He’d simply not been able to come up with enough cash to purchase this ranch, and the land agent had steadfastly refused to divide it and hold the rest out as options.

               Oh, how he had wanted this ranch.  He simply had not been able to let it pass through his fingers, not once he’d seen it.  Thirty-five thousand acres of promising land.  That’s all the land was right now.  A promise.  He knew he could turn this land into one of the finest ranches in the West.  He knew he could.  He just needed time.  And hard work.  And luck.  He could make it as fine a place as any man would want to own.  He would stock it with the finest cattle.  He would add to it, acre upon acre until it was a power to be reckoned with.  There was no limit to his dream.

               Except the dismally small number at the bottom of the column of his ledger.  Murdoch sighed, stretched his back and pushed away from his makeshift desk.  Catherine chided him for worrying over his accounts, but he had to.  He had to watch every nickel, every penny.  Catherine didn’t realize just how close run this ranch was right now.  Or maybe she did.  She never asked him for anything extra, never complained about the lack of finery.  There was no luxury to their home, no lavishness to their table.  The fine silks and laces she was accustomed to back in Boston were nowhere in evidence here, and apparently, were not missed.  Her clothing was as simple and well-used as any of the other wives here on the ranch, and as the baby had grown inside her, she had made do with what she had, doing whatever it is that women do to their clothing to make it fit.  He knew very little about sewing, but could, if called upon, awkwardly take up a needle and thread and very clumsily mend a tear in his trousers or a shirt. 

               Murdoch absent-mindedly walked around the small house, stopping at one of the front windows and glancing outside.  It still astounded him, the difference Catherine had made in his life.  He knew as well as anyone that he was a hard, gruff man.  And he knew he came by it honestly, knew he came from a long line of hard, gruff men.  Life, as much as personality, had made them that way.  His father had been a hard, blunt man.  And that was the way he remembered his grandfather, too.  That bear of a man had died when Murdoch was six years old, and Murdoch had a few very clear memories of the old man.  Clear, but not all that pleasant.  His grandfather had been hard, just like all the other Lancer men, but he’d also been angry.  Angry at what fate, what history had handed to him.

               The Lancers had been Highland farmers, and supporters of the Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie.  Murdoch’s great-grandfather had fought at Culloden, and survived to see his lands taken, the Clans destroyed in the aftermath of that massacre, the English hold sway in Scotland.  Life had made him not only hard, but bitter, and he’d passed that bitterness on to his son, Murdoch’s grandfather.  Murdoch’s father had inherited the hardness, the gruffness, but not the bitterness.  By the time Murdoch’s father had been born, the bitterness of Culloden was almost 50 years gone.

               Murdoch’s father had been hard, rough and demanding.  But at the end of the day, Charles Edward Lancer, named for that ill-fated Prince, had gathered his children around him, his four sons and three daughters, and told them tales of the old days, the old ways.  And Murdoch, the third child and second born son, could remember sitting there in the warm glow of that fire, his brothers and sisters sitting on the floor with him, and listening to the deep, strong voice of their father lull them to sleep, their mother sitting in the corner, either her endless mending in her lap, or the baby, Margaret, snuggled up there.  A melancholy sigh escaped the big man’s throat.  Baby Maggie.  The last child born to his parents, and the first one lost.  But oh so sadly, not the only one lost.

               It had all happened so fast, that horrible wet spring when Murdoch had been a boy of ten.  First Maggie, then Malcolm, then Fiona.  The three youngest.  Maggie only two, Malcolm six, and Fiona four.  The pain was suddenly as breath-taking as if it had happened just yesterday.  Had it really been 16 years ago?  Had it really simply started with a case of the sniffles for Maggie?  Then it had turned to fever and coughing and then pneumonia, and then it had hit Malcolm and Fiona.  He could still see his mother, bending over their beds, trying everything that good woman knew how to do to hold onto her babies, to try to save them.  But nothing worked.  He could still see her face, white and drawn in grief, as she’d washed their little bodies and made them ready for burial.  She had taken care of the wee ones, had seen to her surviving children, had tried to comfort her husband in his unbearable grief, had tried to find comfort in her faith.  Murdoch’s family was Catholic because the Lancers had always been Catholic, but his father had fallen away from the Church…just as Murdoch would in the aftermath of their family tragedy…so there had been no comfort to be found there for the grieving father.  But Murdoch’s mother had needed the comfort of the Church, so the black-robed priest had been allowed into the tormented home, even though Charles Lancer had detested that priest, had stopped attending Mass years earlier, and in the end would refuse Last Rites at his own death.  God would take him as he was, not because some priest mumbled over his dying body.  He’d only allowed the priest into the house after his babies had died because it was a comfort to Murdoch’s mother.  Because he had been so overwhelmed by what had happened.  His three youngest, gone in only a week.  Murdoch knew his father had never really recovered from their deaths.  Not because his father had told him so.  No, that wasn’t Charles Edward Lancer’s way.  Murdoch could see it in the way the hardness set in his father, the way the stories around the fire ended that spring, never to come back to that once happy house, in the way the embarrassed gentleness he would on occasion show his children disappeared when those three small coffins slipped beneath the ground.  Murdoch’s father had hardened his heart against the dangers of life while his mother had grieved herself into an early grave.  Just two years after the babies died, she was gone.  After that, there had been no true happiness in that house.

               Murdoch and his brothers went to school, did their lessons, and waited.  None of them knew what they were waiting for, but there was always that heavy sense that something else would happen, had to happen.  Five years after the death of the three youngest Lancer children, three years after they lost their mother, the first-born Lancer child, Lorna, the only sister left to them, married and moved away.  And six months later, Murdoch, his brothers Gordon and Douglas were all alone in that house.  With the marriage of his daughter, Charles Lancer had put down his burden.  Murdoch had been 15 years old, and would spend only nine more years in his homeland.  He finished his schooling, then went to work on the docks, the docks where his father had spent his entire working life, the docks that his brothers Gordon and Douglas had refused.  They’d tried to talk Murdoch out of working down there, tried to convince him he could do better for himself.  He was a smart lad, could go on to university, together, they would find a way to make that happen, he could make something of himself.  But that was not what Murdoch had wanted.  He had wanted out of Inverness, out of Scotland, out of all the sadness and grief that had stolen away his family.  He couldn’t have stayed there one moment longer than he had.  Lorna had moved away to Edinburgh, Douglas was married and building a life and family of his own, Gordon in love with a sweet young girl and planning to marry.  There was nothing for him in Inverness…only sadness and loneliness.  He hadn’t been able to bear it.  So he’d taken the money he had saved over the previous five years, booked passage on a ship bound for America.  He’d left behind all that remained of his family, left behind the fading memories of a once happy family, left behind the grief that had devastated that family, left it all behind and set off to find a new life. 

               Murdoch suddenly found himself standing next to the cradle he was making for his child.  He stood there and studied it, realizing for the first time how much it resembled the cradle that had rocked every child born to Charles and Mary Lancer.  A smile crept across Murdoch’s features.  This cradle would rock his son, and his son’s brothers and sisters.  He knelt down next to it, lovingly ran his hand over its surface, down the legs and across the rockers.  It was nearly finished.  Tomorrow, he would stain it again, making the rich, deep walnut color shine.  And in a few weeks, when he brought his wife and baby back from San Francisco, he would place his son in this cradle and sit back and watch his wife rock him, listen to her sing a lullaby to their child.  Sudden, unexpected tears gathered in the big Scot’s eyes, and he wiped them away, then chuckled at his own silliness.  There was nothing to cry about.  He had braved the ocean, braved Harlan Garrett, braved a sea voyage around the Cape, brought his bride to this unforgiving land, watched her blossom with his child in her womb, and he was a happy man.  Happier than he ever thought he would be, happier than he had been at anytime in his life since he’d been a ten year old child.  Catherine brought him love, and a sense of ease and a feeling of belonging.  And his child brought him hope for the future.  Together, they gave him the freedom to open up his heart after so many years of keeping it closed.  All of his dark thoughts, all of his sad memories vanished, and he had but one thought, the future.  The bright, wonderful future his growing family would bring him.  The future with his wife beside him, their child, their children growing around them.  Murdoch let out a contented sigh, and thanked God for all the blessings he had been granted, all the blessings he hoped would still come his way.  He was a very happy man.



*     *     *


               Catherine Lancer was not a happy woman.  Nor was she a comfortable woman.  The backache that had been plaguing her since the beginning of this trip showed no signs of leaving her alone.  It had been with her all day, leaving her fatigued and at times irritable.  And it just seemed to be getting worse, as did the tightness across her belly.  She had briefly wondered if her wish of a week ago could be right.  Had she miscalculated her time?  But she had pushed that thought aside.  Such a miscalculation would have been welcome if it had kept her on the ranch, but now, it was the last thing she wanted.  She needed to get to San Francisco, and settled in.  A sense of panic had momentarily gripped her when she’d thought about the possibility of giving birth to her child on the trail.  But she’d fought it off.  No, she was certain of her time.  This discomfort was just the wagon and the fatigue and the heat.  And the difficulty of dealing with her father and her husband’s foreman.

               The standoff between Luis and her father had gotten beyond the point of civility last night.  Her father had turned rude, and Luis had turned obstinate.  Finally, she had had to step in and make the decision neither man had seemed capable of making.  She wasn’t sure it had been the right decision, but it had been made.  Luis had insisted that he and the others continue on to San Francisco with her and her father and the men he had hired as escort.  It was what Murdoch had instructed them to do, what they in all good conscious had expected to do.  Her father had wanted to be rid of them, for whatever reasons she did not care to dwell on.  However, his arguments had been persuasive.  With the men he had hired, there was no need for Murdoch’s men to stay with them, and with the trouble at the ranch, that was where they were really needed.  She had hated that Murdoch had had to send Luis with them.  He was the foreman, and he was needed at Murdoch’s side.  In her mind, and in her heart, she knew her father was right.  The men needed to go back to the ranch.  It had taken her intervention to convince them of that.  They hadn’t wanted to do it, but she had managed to make them see the wisdom of her words.  So, very early this morning, Luis and Cipriano had mounted their horses, Paul had climbed up on the wagon, and they had turned around and headed back to the ranch.  They had taken along with them a note she had written to her hard-headed husband, explaining that it was her decision, that the men were following her instructions, and he was not to unleash his formidable temper on them.  A smile ran across her face as she imagined her husband reading that note.  She could see his face turning red at having his natural reaction thwarted.  Oh, how she had learned to read that man in the last year.  Of course, this wasn’t something she could ever allow him to realize.  It would remain her secret.  A giggle escaped her lips and she glanced up. 

               “What do you find so entertaining, my dear?”

               “Oh, nothing, Father.  I’m simply happy,” Catherine said, fixing a brilliant smile on her father.

               “Yes, well, the young are so easily made that way,” Harlan said, staring at his daughter with a neutral face.

               “Father, please don’t,” Catherine said, shifting position to get a better look at her father.  She was sitting in the back of the wagon he had hired, staring up at him as he rode alongside on his horse.  “I don’t want to argue with you.  It’s a long way to San Francisco, and I really would like this to be a pleasant journey.”

               “Riding in the Berkshire Hills is a pleasant day, my dear.  This is a…chore,” Harlan said.

               “No one told you you had to make this journey, Father,” Catherine said.

               “Do you really think I could sit back and leave my only child out here in this wilderness with a war brewing around her?  Is that all you think of my affection, my dear?”

               “Of course not, Father.  But I am perfectly safe here.  But I don’t expect to make you believe that.  I certainly wasn’t able to make Murdoch believe it,” she said.

               “Catherine, you have your head in the clouds if you believe you were better off at that ranch of his.  You belong back in Boston, where you could receive the best care, where your child could be born in the home his mother was born in.  Where you could have all the fine things you are used to.  Tell me, my dear.  Is this really the life you want, the life you want for your child?” Harlan asked, still after all these months unable to believe this was what his daughter wanted.

               “Father, I love my husband, and I belong at his side, not in Boston.  This is an old argument, one that I thought we had settled between us.  It does no good to go over it again and again.  My life is by Murdoch’s side, helping him realize his dream, raising his child.  Father, I’m sorry that so much distance lies between us, but there is nothing I can do about that.  I love Murdoch, and I would follow him to the ends of the earth.  I wish I could make you understand,” Catherine said sadly.  She knew, had known for several years that her parents’ marriage had not been one of passion, but rather one of pragmatism.

               It had been a good match for both of them.  Not one based on love, but one based on things in common, respect and familiarity.  There would have been no surprises in her parents’ marriage.  And that was the sort of marriage Catherine had wanted to avoid at all costs.  How blessed she was to have fallen in love with Murdoch Lancer, and he with her.  From the moment he had shyly taken her hand, his gaze fixed steadily on the ground, and told her he thought he was falling in love with her, she had known she would never have to fear having only what her parents had had.  Murdoch’s shy confession had set her free, allowed her to give in to the yearning of her own heart for the man who had so tenderly held her hand that morning.  She had known she was in love with him before the words had ever crossed his lips, but she had held it a close secret, waiting for him.  He was shy with women, shy with his heart, and she hadn’t wanted to do anything to frighten him away.  So she had waited until he had found his courage, waited until he had been able to say the words for himself.  And that had given her the courage to stand up to her father.  And it would continue to give her that courage.

               “Catherine?” Harlan said, concerned by his daughter’s sudden withdrawal from the conversation.

               “I’m fine, Father.  Just lost in thought,” she said, reaching down and pressing her hand against her stomach.  The tightness was becoming uncomfortable. 

               “Catherine, I hadn’t planned to pursue this until we reached San Francisco, but I do think that it would be the wisest course of action for you…and Murdoch, of course…to return to Boston,” Harlan said.

               “How good of you to remember my husband,” Catherine remarked dryly.  “Father, it simply is not going to happen.  This is my future here.  With my husband, with our children.  I know you had thought it would be otherwise when I was growing up, but father, I had to follow my heart.  How else could I have lived with myself?  I do not wish to hurt you, but Father, would you have really wished for me what you and mother had?”

               “You overstep your rights, daughter,” Harlan stiffly said.  “I shall not discuss my marriage with you.”

               With that, Harlan kicked his horse and trotted away from the wagon.  Catherine watched him go, then leaned back against the side of the wagon.  She truly hadn’t meant to hurt him, but she had to make him understand that there was going to be no revisiting the arguments that had hurt them both so much prior to her marriage.  She was happy, she was settled, and she was about to have a child of her own.  She simply would not allow her father to drag her back into those old fights.  She looked up, shielding her eyes from the lowering sun, then wiped her handkerchief across the back of her neck.  She was hot and sticky from the day’s heat, and wished only to make camp.  She glanced over at the water jug, and decided a cool drink would be good right now.  Of course, how cool it would be would be a matter for debate.  She pulled herself slowly to her knees and started to reach across the wagon for the canteen.  A sudden, sharp pain took her by surprise and she was barely able to save herself from falling over on her side.  The pain held her in its grip for only a few seconds, than began to ease up.  She allowed herself to rest for a moment, her right hand pressed against her stomach, her left hand pressed against the floor of the wagon, supporting her weight.  She was about push herself back against the side of the wagon when another pain attacked her.  She cried out this time, losing her balance when the wagon hit a particularly harsh rut in the road.  She lay there on her side, waiting for the pain to release her, the late afternoon sun slanting across her face.  They were still a week away from San Francisco.  This couldn’t happen.  She couldn’t have her child along side the road, in the middle of nowhere.  The pain began to loosen its grip, and Catherine prayed this was not what she feared it was.



*     *     *


               Harlan paced the floor, fighting the fear and fatigue that threatened to overwhelm him.  They had been here nearly 24 hours now, and it seemed that it could be again that long before her ordeal was over.  After their disagreement yesterday, he’d ridden ahead to discuss with Donnelson stopping for the afternoon and making camp.  Upon returning to the wagon, he’d discovered her lying on her side, in pain.  Her time had come early.  He had sat there astride his horse, words refusing to come to him at that moment.  For one dizzying, heart-wrenching moment, all he could see in the back of that wagon was his long dead wife.  And all the pain and fear and anguish that poor, doomed woman had endured on his behalf.  But the illusion had not lasted long.  In the length of time it had taken him to silently curse Murdoch Lancer to hell and back, he had come back to his senses and managed with an agility that he had not known he still possessed to move from the saddle of his patient mount and over the side of the wagon.  He had taken Catherine’s hand in his and starred into her eyes.  The fear and surprise were clearly there.  He had tried to calm her, and she had merely looked up at him, and said over and over, “it isn’t time”.  His heart had clenched in fear for her, but he knew, even if she didn’t at that very moment, that there was no going back.  He’d calmed her as best he could, then he’d climbed from the wagon and sought out Donnelson.  They’d conferred for several moments, and their conversation had left Harlan with a pounding heart and a dry mouth.  The nearest town was four hours away, a godforsaken place called Carterville, and Donnelson had been unable to tell him whether there was a doctor there or not, but the man had doubted it.  It was a very small town, little more than a crossroads on the way to San Francisco.  Harlan had not been hopeful.  But it had been their only choice.  He could not allow his daughter to give birth in the back of a wagon, he could not allow his grandchild to be born alongside a wilderness road somewhere.  So, rather than making camp, they had continued until they had reached Carterville.

               And Harlan’s heart had clutched in his chest.  Crossroads was giving the town more credit than it deserved.  There was no doctor, no vet, although Harlan would never have allowed a horse doctor to attend to his daughter, but there was a midwife.  Unfortunately, she had been out in the countryside somewhere attending to another woman.  It had been late last night when the woman had finally returned to her small, two-room cabin, exhausted from her attendance on the other woman, saddened by the death of the baby only an hour after birth.  Her tale of woe had inspired no confidence in Harlan in the woman’s skills and abilities.  But by then, Catherine had been in labor for hours, and there had been no alternative.  Harlan had spoken with the midwife, but the woman had cut him off quickly, going instead into the bedroom where Catherine lay to speak with her.  The woman came out nearly 30 minutes later, a calm expression on her face.  According to her, Catherine had been in labor much longer than any of them had realized.  The backache was the beginning of the woman’s labor, the midwife had informed him.  But Harlan found that hard to believe.  Catherine had complained of a backache for days.  Surely, no woman could go days and not realize…Harlan paused outside the bedroom door.

               A low moan that gained strength and worked its way up to a cry held his attention.  As had happened back at the wagon, Harlan suddenly found himself drawn back in time, standing outside his own wife’s bedroom door, listening to her as she struggled to bring forth life.  He shook himself free of his memory, and unsteadily walked over to the table and sat in one of the ladder back chairs.  He absently shifted a plate around on the table, staring at the remains of his dinner.  Beans and cornbread.  He had been angry with the midwife…what was her name?  Maguire, Bridget Maguire.  He had been angry with her for leaving Catherine’s side to prepare him a meal, but she had breezily told him that Catherine had many more hours ahead of her, and it had been her experience that men left to wait would soon be complaining about their empty stomachs.  He had taken offense, but the woman was too simple to realize it.  He certainly hoped she was a better midwife than she was a cook.  Again, Harlan was torn by worry over his daughter’s circumstances.  Everything was so primitive here.  Harlan picked up the earthen mug, half full of tepid water, and tipped it toward him.  A sudden surge of anger possessed him, and he shoved the mug away, spilling the water over the rough table top.  He began pacing around the room again, his anger building.  The moment they realized she was with child, they should have sent her home.  No, Murdoch should have sent her home.  He stopped as Catherine cried out from behind the door, bowed his head and cursed his son-in-law again.  Murdoch should never have taken her from Boston.  A hard, determined look settled on Harlan’s features.  He had booked passage on the swiftest clipper available in Boston Harbor, and it had still taken him nearly five months to reach California.  Travel overland was out of the question, the trip from St. Louis to California alone taking six months.  His beloved daughter, his only child, was 3000 miles and at least five months away from him, and he would tolerate it no longer.  Murdoch Lancer’s dream be damned.  The man could spin other dreams, closer to Boston.  Catherine would have no more children under these circumstances, and he would not get to know his grandchildren by way of infrequent and long-delayed letters.

               Harlan turned and stared at the closed door for a moment, then crossed the small room and let himself out through the front door.  He stepped out on the porch, the worn boards creaking under his weight, and filled his lungs with the fresh air.  Once he had Catherine and his grandchild settled in San Francisco, he would send for Murdoch, and they would resolve this once and for all.  Harlan Garrett’s family would be returning to Boston, and Murdoch Lancer was not going to stand in the way of that happening.



*     *     *


               The pains left her gasping for breath.  There was no time between them to rest, to gather her strength, her courage.  It had all seemed so possible only a few hours ago.  She had controlled the pains, and now the pains controlled her.  Her throat was raw from her screams, screams she had lost her ability to stop hours ago.  Her hands were weak and sore from gripping Bridget’s hands, or the knotted sheets the woman had handed her last night…or this morning.  Catherine couldn’t remember.  It was all blending together. The pain, the fatigue, the fear.  Why was it taking so long?  Why wouldn’t the baby come?  She lay there in the bed, her sweat-soaked nightgown clinging to her body, and tried to fight the pain she felt gathering in her back, making its way around, causing her to pull her knees up.  She felt the scream begin to form against the raw edges of her throat, and she cried out.

               “Bridget,” she breathlessly screamed.

               “Shhh, darlin’,” the plain-featured woman said, taking Catherine’s hand.  With her free hand, she caressed the top of Catherine’s head, gently running her hand along the other woman’s sweaty hair.

               “Make it stop, please make it stop,” Catherine gasped, rolling to her side and trying to get away from the pain.

               “We don’t want it to stop now, darlin’,” Bridget said, a friendly smile on her face.  “Why, you’re almost done.  That babe of yours is gonna be here real soon now.”

               “I want Murdoch, I want my husband,” Catherine said as the pain approached its peak.  “I want Murdoch.”

               “I know, darlin’,” Bridget said, holding Catherine’s hand tight.  “But we already talked about that, don’t you remember?  As soon as the baby’s born, I’ll be sending him a letter, tellin’ him he’s a papa.  We coulda sent for him right away,” the midwife continued, hoping her endless stream of chatter would distract the suffering woman a little, “but, by the time the letter got to him, and he made it back here, why your baby would be almost two weeks old.  This way, at least he gets to know whether it’s a boy or a girl when he hits the trail to come to you.”

               “Oh, God,” Catherine whispered, the pain reaching its peak.  “Father, please, get my father.”

               “Now you don’t want your papa in here.  He wouldn’t know the first thing to do to help.  He’d just get in our way,” Bridget soothingly said.  “Try to breath, darlin’, try to breath.  This one’s almost over.”

               “I can’t do this,” Catherine cried as the pain began its downward spiral, “I can’t do this any more.  It’s taking too long.”

               “Now, Catherine,” Bridget said, helping the pretty blond woman roll over to her back, “haven’t I been tellin’ you, it’s almost over.  I’ve been doin’ this for a long time, and I can tell.  That baby of yours is gonna be here before dinner time.  You’ll see.  You just have to hang on a bit longer and then…what is it, darlin’?” the midwife asked, noticing the changed expression on the younger woman’s face.

               “I need…it feels…” Catherine gasped, trying to pull herself up into a sitting position.

               “Now just you hold on, darlin’, and let me have a look at you.”

               Catherine dropped back against the pillows and watched, beyond any embarrassment, beyond any false modesty, as Bridget pulled her nightgown back and gently pushed her knees apart.  Another pain hit her hard and she reached for the knotted sheet lying next to her.


               “Keep breathing, Catherine,” Bridget advised

               “Stop…what are you doing…stop…it hurts.”

               “Just a bit…just a bit,” Bridget said, finishing her examination.  “Well, darlin’, you’re about to be a mother,” she said, smiling at her patient.

               “What?” Catherine asked.

               “With the next pain, darlin’, I want you to grab both those sheets then bear down and push.  The baby’s head is just right there.”

               “Oh, God,” Catherine said, her voice heavy with relief. 

               “Do you have a name picked out for your baby?” Bridget asked, laying a fresh towel under Catherine’s hips and positioning herself at the foot of the bed.

               “Yes,” Catherine rasped, feeling another pain begin to build.  “Scott Garrett for a boy and…ohhhh…Mary Abigail…ohhh.”

               “Bear down,” Bridget instructed.  “Grab the sheets and bear down and push.”

               Bridget glanced up at the younger woman.  She was straining against the knotted sheets, her face scarlet, a determined look on her face.  Time seemed to hold, the only sound in the room now the building grunt as Catherine began to run out of air.

               Catherine suddenly gasped and dropped back against the pillows. 

               “You did fine, Catherine.  And you’ll do fine with the next one, too,” Bridget said.

               The midwife glanced up at her patient, and wondered about her.  Obviously, she was a finely bred lady…Bridget had seen that right away by the way she behaved, by the way she spoke.  A beautiful young girl, she couldn’t be more than 21 or 22.  Golden blonde hair, braided and hanging over her left shoulder, a fine thin face, filled out a little now with baby, clear blue eyes.  It was easy to see that Catherine was a lovely, fine-boned woman.  Delicate, that was the word that came to mind as Bridget sat there and waited for the next pain to begin.  She didn’t have to wait long.  Catherine leaned forward and grabbed the sheets, taking a deep breath in the process.

               “All right now, Catherine, here we go.  You bear down good and hard now.”

               Catherine wrapped the sheets around her hands and pulled them tight.  She held her breath, pushed for all she was worth.  Her head felt like it was going to explode, and there was a throbbing in her ears.  The pain was getting worse, and she felt the veins in her forehead, in her neck throb.  She kept pushing, straining against the sheets, felt the moan grow in her throat until it became a growl as she fell back and struggled to fill her lungs. 

               “Good girl, good girl.”

               “Almost?” Catherine rasped.

               “Almost.  You do your part, and the baby’s gonna do his…or hers,” Bridget said with a smile.

               “Almost,” Catherine repeated, closing her eyes and waiting for the next pain.



*     *     *


               An hour had slipped by, and then another.  Bridget watched Catherine carefully.  She was done.  The poor girl had almost no more to give.  Bridget had come across stubborn babies before, but this one seemed really in no hurry to meet his mother.  Bridget wrung out the towel, and gently wiped Catherine’s face.  The girl was exhausted, and she had every reason to be.  Nearly 36 hours in this bed trying to birth her baby.  And on top of that, Bridget didn’t doubt for a minute that the girl had been in labor, off and on, for at least a week.  That’s what those backaches had been all about.  Damn fool men.  Why hadn’t they seen that?  Under no circumstances should this sweet girl have been set on the road for San Francisco.  But that was men for you.  Catherine suddenly moaned and turned her head away.  Bridget helped her sit up and put the sheets in her hands. 

               “I can’t,” Catherine moaned.

               “Just a little bit longer,” Bridget said sympathetically.

               “I can’t,” Catherine repeated, tears running down her face.

               “Catherine, you give it one more good push, and the baby will come this time, I promise.”

               “I can’t,” Catherine said, already pulling on the sheets and bearing down.  There was no fighting nature.

               Bridget positioned herself again at the foot of the bed, watched as Catherine strained against the pain, watched as she dug her feet into the mattress.  Bridget checked her again, and saw with relief that the baby’s head was emerging.  Bridget reached in and gently placed her fingers on either side of the baby’s head, all the time encouraging Catherine to keep pushing. 

               “That’s it, darlin’, that’s it,” Bridget said, carefully adjusting her grip on the baby’s head.  She felt Catherine relax her grip on the sheets, started to tell her not to give up, when she felt the sheets grow taut again, heard Catherine suck in another deep breath.

               Bridget let her fingers inch around the baby’s head, very gently grasping it as Catherine pushed and she pulled.  A shoulder appeared, and then another, and before Bridget had a chance to smile, the baby slipped out of Catherine’s womb. She firmly gripped the slippery child in her hands, turned it up-side-down and slapped its bottom.  An angry, indignant cry erupted from the baby’s lungs.  Bridget laid the baby on Catherine’s stomach and smiled up at her.

               “You’ve got yourself a fine baby boy, Catherine.”



*     *     *


               The baby slept peacefully in the crook of his mother’s arm, serenely oblivious to the tension between his mother and grandfather.  Catherine looked down at her son, gently traced a finger across his cheek and smiled.  Oh, my darling son, she thought to herself, you certainly took your time.  She tried to find some sign of her husband in her son, but all she could see was the pink, wrinkled face of a newborn.  Her newborn son.  Scott Garrett Lancer.  She leaned down and placed a gentle, loving kiss on his forehead, and felt him squirm in her arms.  Catherine grinned.  He was wonderful, her baby, her beautiful baby boy.  She brought him up against her cheek, nuzzled her son. 

               “I love you, my darling,” she whispered, feeling her son snuggle into her neck.  She softly laughed and then sighed.

               “Did you say something, my dear?” Harlan asked, turning away from the window.

               “I was just telling my son that I loved him, Father,” Catherine said, beaming at her father. 

               “Well, he is a fine young man,” Harlan said, walking over to the bed and staring down at his brand new grandson.   “I do believe he has the look of the Garretts to him, my dear.”

               “Oh, Father.  He just looks like a baby.  He won’t look like either Murdoch or me for some time, I’m sure,” Catherine said, her smile softening.  “Besides, you just say that because you don’t want to think of your grandson looking like Murdoch,” she teased.

               “He reminds me of you when you were born, my dear.  But, if it should turn out that this fine young man looks like his father, well, I suppose I could accept that.”  

               “Would you like to hold him, Father?” Catherine asked.

               “Do you trust this old man to hold that precious gift?”

               “Of course,” Catherine said.

               Harlan leaned forward and took his grandson from his daughter’s arms.  The child squirmed in his arms, struggled to open his eyes, then settled down against his grandfather’s chest.  Harlan watched the child, so small and light, yet somehow so substantial in his arms.  He had longed for a son, had at times felt cheated that his prayer had not been answered.  But now, here was his prayer manifest.  Not a son, but a grandson.  He might not carry the Garrett name, but he carried the Garrett blood.  This child would have everything the Garrett name, money and position could obtain for him.  Surely, once Murdoch beheld his child, he would agree that the best place for the baby, for Catherine, was back home.  They could settle this between them.  Harlan was certain of that.  How could Murdoch gaze on this child, hold this child, and deny him what Harlan could offer?  No father could do that.  The baby began to stir in his swaddling, opened his eyes and stared up at the man holding him.  For an instant, Harlan was certain the baby was looking at him, taking his measure.  Yes, a Garrett.  Harlan smiled down at the boy, then glanced over at his daughter.  She looked exhausted, as well she should be.  But she was also flushed.  Harlan was concerned about her color.  She needed to rest.  The baby began to squirm in earnest, and then he cried that mewling cry of newborns, screwing up his face and turning red.

               “Give him back, Father,” Catherine said, watching as her father began to squirm right along with her son. 

               “Well, I do believe he has the look of his father right now,” Harlan said, giving his daughter a teasing glance. 

               “Shame on you, Father,” Catherine said, taking her son in her arms.  “Shush, my darling.  Mama has you,” she whispered.

               “Perhaps I should get Mrs. Maguire?” Harlan said.

               “No.  She isn’t needed.  He’s just hungry,” Catherine said.  She unlaced the front of her nightgown and brought her baby to her breast.  He immediately latched on and began to suckle.  Catherine lay back against her pillows, a momentary look of discomfort crossing her face, quickly replaced by a look of contentment.

               Mortified, Harlan quickly turned his back and returned to the window.  At a loss as to how to escape from this inappropriate situation, Harlan stood with his back to his daughter and grandson and stared out at the gathering darkness.  Behind him, he heard Catherine begin to hum a soft melody, and his eyes unexpectedly began to fill with tears.  He reached up and wiped his eyes, chiding himself for his loss of control.  He cleared his throat, and cast about for something to focus on.

               “When shall we get a message to your husband?” he asked.

               “Mrs. Maguire said her husband plans to leave at first light tomorrow to ride to Lancer and let Murdoch know.  I wish I could see his face when he learns he has a son.  It means the world to him, Father.  He left his family behind in Scotland.  He has no one here.  No one but me and now his son,” Catherine said, tears glistening in her blue eyes.

               “As do I, my dear, as do I.”


               “I am going to find Mrs. Maguire and inquire about something for you to eat.  You need to build up your strength again so that we may continue our journey.”

               “Continue?  Father, as soon as I’m able, we’ll be going back to Lancer,” Catherine said.

               “Our plan was to go to San Francisco.  Little Scotty’s birth does nothing to change those plans.  The danger at the ranch still exists.  No, my dear, we shall continue on to San Francisco as soon as you are able to travel.”

               Without a backward glance, Harlan walked across the room and left.  From her bed, Catherine watched him go, her heart aching for him.  She knew he was all alone now, but there was nothing she could do about that.  She had to follow her heart, had to make her own life.  She could do no other.  Wasn’t that the way he’d raised her?  Her father had never viewed her as an asset to be sold to the highest bidder.  She was his daughter, not a negotiating tool.  He had made it clear to her that she would be allowed to make a love match.  He had just never counted on her falling in love with someone of whom he wouldn’t approve.  She truly had not meant to hurt him, or leave him alone.  But her heart, her fate, demanded just that.  Someday, he would understand, she knew he would.  He would see, eventually, that she was building her own life, her own family now.  She glanced down at her son, watched, fascinated, as he nursed at her breast.  The last year and a half had bought many shocks and surprises for her.  The intimacy that she found on her wedding night was so…unexpected.  She had never known that she could feel so close to someone, so a part of someone else.  She had never known that she could be capable of feeling such…longing, such desire.  But Murdoch, with his patience and love had taken the love-struck young girl that she had been and awakened the passionately in love woman that she became.  And now they had a son together, and again, she was shocked and surprised at the emotions surging through her.  Utter and complete love for the small bundle suckling her breast, an overwhelming desire to protect her small child, to hold and cuddle and love him.  Her heart overflowed with love for her child, for her husband.  Tears filled her eyes, and ran down her flushed cheeks.  Never, at any other point in her life, had she experienced such happiness and contentment.  God had given her all that she could hope for, and she was grateful. 

               “Oh, my son,” she whispered, “we have so much ahead of us.  Such a good life.  I promise you, my darling.  I promise.”



*     *     *


               The rain began around three a.m., and continued all day and into the night.  Harlan paced the front room of the cabin, a sense of foreboding settling over him.  Mr. Maguire had been unable to leave for Lancer to relay the news of Scott’s birth, and during the afternoon, Catherine had seemed to sicken.  She was feverish and in pain.  He could tell at a single glance that the Maguire woman was concerned.  Whatever was happening with Catherine, he was certain it was beyond the skills of this backwoods midwife.  And the baby.  He had cried for almost two hours this afternoon before settling into a fitful sleep.  And only an hour ago, little more than 36 hours after his birth, he had refused his mother’s breast.  Catherine was distraught and ill and worried.  Like her son, what little sleep she had managed to get had been fitful.  Something was wrong, Harlan knew it.  Memories of his wife’s difficulties haunted him.  She needed a doctor, that was clear.  And the only doctors available were in San Francisco.  He had to make a decision.  They couldn’t remain here.  He knew Catherine would not recover under the dubious care of Bridget Maguire.  But San Francisco was still almost a week’s journey away.  Could she handle the trip?  Could the baby, especially if he continued to refuse his mother’s breast?  Harlan was uncertain, and that was a feeling he hated.  He was a man who always studied the situation, all alternatives, and then made a decision.  He seldom agonized over his decisions, seldom had to go back and re-think a decision.  But this was his daughter, his grandson.  He could not afford to make a mistake.  But he could not afford to let his daughter continue to languish under this woman’s care.  There was only one choice open to them.  He had to be strong enough to make the choice, and Catherine and Scott had to be strong enough to endure it.  As soon as it was light, Harlan determined he would confer with Donnelson about the best way to proceed.  He had to get Catherine to San Francisco and the care of a competent physician.  They could delay no longer.



*     *     *


               Bridget Maguire stood on her front porch, her arms wrapped around her waist, a frantic look on her features.  This was a terrible mistake, but she couldn’t make that man understand.  She stood there and watched the men prepare the wagon, and knew that this was wrong.  But Harlan Garrett refused to listen to her.  In fact, since late last night, he had refused to allow her to even talk to Catherine.  The woman was terribly ill, Bridget knew that now.  And she knew the reason.  She’d seen it before.  Childbed fever.  She needed to stay here, let the fever run its course, but Mr. Garrett had decided otherwise.  He was taking that poor girl to San Francisco.  Bridget had a terrible feeling about this.  But there was nothing she could do.  She couldn’t force Catherine to stay here, and she couldn’t force the girl’s father to change his mind.  All she’d been able to do was convince Mr. Garrett that he needed to hire a wet nurse to go along with them.  Catherine’s milk had turned sour, and the baby was refusing her breast.  Before first light this morning, she had sent her husband out into the country to ask Lucy Davis if she would come.  The poor girl, who’d been left a widow only three months ago, had lost her newborn baby only four days ago.  She was still grieving, both for the loss of her husband and her only child, but her milk had come in, and she could nurse Catherine’s infant.  When she had suggested it, she had held her breath, expecting Mr. Garrett to refuse.  But he had at least agreed to it.  At least the baby would have a chance to make it to San Francisco.  And that was something Bridget had no hope for for Catherine.  Lucy had arrived an hour ago, and she’d taken to the baby immediately.  Bridget knew it wasn’t fair, but there was nothing else to do.  The baby needed to nurse, and Lucy could do it.  Maybe it would help her over her grief, but Bridget doubted it.  More than likely, Lucy would become attached to baby Scott, and then once this was all settled, however that might be, she would be faced with losing another baby.  It wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t stand by and let that baby wither and die from lack of milk.  She shook her head and wondered how this was going to turn out.  Why wouldn’t Mr. Garrett let her see Catherine?  She could help the girl, if he’d just allow it. 

               She watched as the men loaded food supplies into the back of the wagon.  They’d already loaded it up with a couple of mattresses, pillows, blankets.  She watched the man Donnelson as he supervised his men, and she could tell he had no more liking for this adventure than she did.  There was only one hope that this could be stopped before it was too late.  She hadn’t told Garrett, and she didn’t plan to, but she’d sent her husband on his way to the Lancer ranch after he’d returned with Lucy.  He would ride hard and he would ride fast, and hopefully, he’d get there in four days.  Maybe in little more than a week, Catherine’s husband would be here, and he could go after them, make Mr. Garrett see sense.  But again, she just wasn’t sure Catherine could hang on that long.  The fever had taken her by surprise.  Catherine had seemed tired but fine after the delivery.  But it had just been the happiness of giving birth, it now seemed.  She’d begun to weaken and turn ill within a few hours of the birth.  And then the fever had appeared, and Bridget had known right away it was childbed fever.  She could survive this, if only her father would leave her be.  But Harlan Garrett was bound and determined that his daughter should be seen by a doctor.  Jesus, Mary and Joseph, please save that poor girl.    



*     *     *


               The sun heated the back of the wagon, despite the canopy the men had erected over it.  Catherine lay on the mattress, drifting in and out of awareness.  It was so hot, and she hurt.  And who was the woman sitting next to her, holding her baby?  Her hand drifted down across her belly.  It was her baby, wasn’t it?  Yes, she had given birth.  A boy.  Scott.  Her baby.  Why was this woman holding her baby?  She’d seen her nurse her baby.  Why?  Why was she doing this?  Catherine turned away, reached up to wipe her brow.  Thirsty.  She was dreadfully thirsty, and suddenly, a cup was pressed to her lips.  She drank, and glanced up.  It was the woman, the woman who was trying to take her baby.  Catherine tried to push the cup away, but she was too weak.

               “Here now, missy.  You’ve got to get some water into you,” the woman said.

               “Who are you?” Catherine asked, her voice sounding far away.

               “Name’s Lucy.  I’m helpin’ you get you and your baby to San Francisco.”

               “I want my baby.  Give me my baby,” Catherine said, trying to pull herself up.

               “You just wait there.  Drink some more of this water, and then I’ll get him for you.”

               “Scott…I want my baby,” she pleaded, feeling the cup pressed to her lips.  She let the cool liquid dribble into her mouth, swallowed and saw her vision fade out on her.  Panic rose in her throat, but her eyesight cleared and she stared up at the woman hovering over her.  “Please, give me my son.”

               “Oh, lordy, missy,” Lucy said, resting her hand on Catherine’s forehead.  “You’re on fire.  Let me wipe you down a bit.”

               “I want my baby.  Please, I want Murdoch,” she cried, rolling her head back and forth on her pillow.  “I want Murdoch.  Please, I want my husband.  I want my baby,” Catherine said, wrestling around on her mattress.

               “You lay still now.  I’ll get the baby, but you gotta lay still, missy.”

               Lucy Davis turned and leaned over the basket that held Scott as he slept.  She’d nursed him only an hour ago, and the sweet child had gone right to sleep.  She hated to stir him, but she knew it was the only way she was gonna calm his mama.  She picked the baby up and turned back around.  Catherine was staring at her with feverish eyes, her face flushed and sweaty.  She reached out for her son, and Lucy laid him in her arms. 

               “Oh, my darling,” Catherine whispered.  “I love you, my baby.  I love you.”

               Scott stirred in his blankets, and opened his eyes.  Catherine stared into his face, and knew that her son knew her.  She held him to her chest, and felt the tears stream down her face.  Her son.  Murdoch’s son.  She kissed his temple, and heard him make a soft mewing sound.  She lay back and closed her eyes, felt the weight of her tiny boy on her chest.  

               “Missy, you need to let me get some more water in you,” Lucy said, staring at the stricken woman. 

               “Not yet,” Catherine whispered, holding her son to her heart.

               Lucy poured more water in the mug, then sat it next to Catherine.  She started to straighten the blankets when she saw it, the spreading stain.  Her heart caught in her throat, and then she reached for the edge of the blanket.  Her hand shook as she hesitated, then she pulled it back.  From the waist down, Catherine was covered in blood. 

               “Oh, lordy, missy.  We need to get this wagon stopped now,” Lucy said, staring up at the other woman.  But she hadn’t heard her.

               Lucy crawled out from under the canopy and stood up, staggering as the wagon hit a rut in the road.  She looked around, trying to spot Mr. Garrett.  He was riding off to the side, just a few yards behind.

               “Mr. Garrett.  Mr. Garrett, come quick.”

               Harlan had seen the young girl emerge from under the canopy, and his heart had shot up to his throat.  He kicked his horse and trotted up to the rear of the wagon.

               “What is it, girl?”

               Oh, lordy, Mr. Garrett, she’s bleedin’ something fierce.  We gotta stop.  We gotta stop now.”

               Harlan dismounted and raced to the tailgate, pulling it down and climbing up, all the while calling Catherine’s name.

               But in the rear of the wagon, Catherine Lancer was resting in a world that held only her and her newborn son.  She held him gently to her chest, whispering his name, loving him, passing to him a lifetime of caring.  On the edges of her consciousness, she was aware of someone calling her name, but all she really heard was the soft, baby murmuring of her son, all she could see were his blues eyes as they locked gazes.  She smiled at him, kissed his forehead again, caressed the back of his head.  She suddenly heard Murdoch calling her name, but she couldn’t take her eyes off their son.  This was their time together, and she had to give him enough of her heart to last his lifetime. 

               “I love you, Scott,” she whispered.  “I love you my darling.”

               She held her child to her breast, felt his chest move up and down against her, felt his soft breath on her skin, and the world around her began to fade and float away.  She whispered his name again, and felt herself drift away, her last earthly awareness that of her son pressed to her heart.



*     *     *


               Murdoch rode hard, brutally urging his horse on.  The rider had come in four days ago, and he’d been out of the saddle only an hour since then.  And then that damned ambush.  Dear God, it had cost him an hour on top of the hour he’d already taken.  Catherine needed him.  Catherine and their son.  A son.  God, she’d given him a son.  Murdoch’s heart was in his throat as his horse galloped on toward Carterville.  Only another hour, and he would be there.  He would be with his Catherine, he would be with his son.  Scott.  His son, Scott Lancer.  But was she alright?  The rider, Sean Maguire, had told him Catherine was ill, seriously ill, his wife caring for her.  The birth had been long and hard, but the baby was fine.  But Catherine.  She was ill.  He shouldn’t have sent her away.  The trip had brought on labor.  This was his fault.  He would do whatever he could to make it up to her, but please, dear God, let her be alright.  Murdoch urged his horse on, knowing he was doing damage to the fine animal.  But it couldn’t be helped.  He had to get there.

               The sun burned against him as he kept his eyes focused on the road in front of him, and the hour crawled by.  But finally, with his heart still lodged firmly in his throat, he began to make out the outline of a town.  Carterville.  He slowed his horse to a walk, saw the lather on the poor animal’s neck, and knew he’d probably ruined him.  Please forgive me, God.  But I have to get to Catherine.  As he reached the edge of town, he stopped the first person he came to and asked about the home of Bridget Maguire.  With the directions he got, he kicked his abused horse to a run, barely restraining himself from forcing the winded animal into an all-out gallop as he made his way toward the eastern edge of town.  He spotted the house, sitting off the road, among a stand of shade trees.  He pulled his horse up and stiffly dismounted.  He dropped the reins to the ground, knowing the horse didn’t have the energy to go anywhere.  He turned and started up the steps to the front porch when the door came open.  A woman, maybe 30 or 35 stepped out, her hair pulled back in a bun, her clothes homespun and worn.  She stared at Murdoch, and he saw a world of grief in her face.

               “I’m Murdoch Lancer.  Your husband told me…” Murdoch said, his voice trailing off.  He couldn’t ask.  He didn’t want to hear the answer, couldn’t hear the answer. 

               “Mr. Lancer,” Bridget said, coming down the steps and gently placing a hand on Murdoch’s arm.  “I’m so sorry.”

               And the world suddenly stopped spinning and the ground went out from under Murdoch.



*     *     *


               Harlan Garrett stood on the docks, the life gone out of him.  His darling Catherine dead.  He should never have taken her away from that cabin.  He knew in his heart there was nothing that midwife could have done for his girl, but at least she would not have had to die in the back of a wagon, along a deserted country road.  He had been in shock, hadn’t known what to do.  And then Donnelson had stepped in, taken charge.  He had convinced Harlan they had to go back to Carterville.  At first, Harlan hadn’t understood the man’s reasoning.  But then it had dawned on him.  They couldn’t carry Catherine all the way to San Francisco, and Harlan could not permit his child to be buried alongside the road.  So, they had turned around after only a day and a half on the road and returned to Carterville.  Harlan had been unable to deal with the Maguire woman, had simply given his orders to Donnelson.  Donnelson had seen to the burial arrangements, and Harlan had left enough money to pay the Maguire woman for her efforts, cover the cost of a headstone, a proper gravesite.  Harlan had been unable to do it.  He was too overwhelmed with grief, with loss.  His dear girl, the one person he held in his heart, gone, dead.  He hadn’t been able to face her burial.  It was weak of him, he knew, knew that he’d left his girl to be buried by strangers.  But he’d been too heartbroken to do otherwise.  He’d gathered her meager belongings, packed them in the wagon with his grandson and the boy’s wet nurse.  Catherine was all he had in the world, and she was gone.  Harlan stood there on the docks, the sounds and noises swirling around him, numb to all of it.  And then he heard another sound, the sound of an infant, his daughter’s infant.  And he suddenly remembered that Catherine had not been all that he had in the world.  He had her son, his grandson.  He knew it was wrong, knew what he was doing was inexcusable, but he couldn’t allow his grandson, his dead daughter’s son, to live out here in this wilderness, with all its dangers.  When they’d reached San Francisco, they’d gone to the hotel where he’d first rested upon arriving in this territory, and there he’d composed a letter to send to Murdoch, telling him where he was, that he would wait for Murdoch to arrive to claim his son.  But as he’d sat there at his desk, the light fading, his heart growing weary, his grief overwhelming him, he’d taken out another piece of paper and wrote another letter.  It was wrong, but it was all he could do.  He looked up from his musings, and watched as Lucy Davis set foot on the gangplank, his grandson grasped tightly in her arms.  Harlan watched her ascend, then followed her up, knowing the choice he’d made, the decision he’d made, would haunt him for the rest of his life.



*     *     *


               Murdoch Lancer dismounted, and handed the reins off to one of his men.  He slowly walked toward the house, the house he had shared with his Catherine, and entered the dim building.  His shoulders sagged with the grief and weariness of a man who had been pushed as far as he could be pushed.  He’d been too late.  Too late to save Catherine, too late to see her laid to rest, too late to retrieve his son.  Harlan Garrett had taken his son, boarded a ship and sailed for Boston.  All Murdoch had was a hastily written note the man had left for him at his hotel.  Murdoch didn’t even have the energy to curse the man.  He was too grief-stricken, too lost, too heart-sore.  Six weeks ago, he had everything a man could want in this life.  Now there was nothing.  Nothing but this ranch, and that was a poor substitute for all that he had lost.  He wearily walked across the room and stopped at the table.  The plate was still there from the interrupted meal of three weeks ago.  He looked down at it, moved it around an inch or two, then swept his hand across the table, throwing everything there to the floor.  How could this have happened?  He stared around the room, wanting desperately to do something, anything, but there was nothing to do.  Catherine was dead, and Scott was out of reach.  He’d had a lot of time to think on the long, lonely journey home.  His first instinct had been to go after Garrett.  But he had no money.  He couldn’t go to the man who had lent them money to buy the ranch, he was a friend of Garrett’s.  Murdoch was sure Garrett would have cut off that route.  He’d had no choice but to return to the ranch.  He couldn’t just leave it, and all the people here.  He would have to bide his time, save his money, go after his son.  Murdoch glanced around, spotted the cradle over by their bed.  His son.  Harlan Garrett had taken his son.  He walked over to the cradle and stared at it.  His son should be sleeping there now, not on some damned clipper ship bound for Boston.  Tears suddenly sprang to his eyes, and he dropped to his knees, a low, deep keening sob working its way up his throat.  He had lost his wife, Harlan Garrett had taken his son, but this was not the end of things.  Murdoch reached out and grasped the cradle in both hands, tears rolling down his face, and promised himself that he would have his son back.  No matter how long it took, he would have his son.   



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