It was ironic that both times she'd been with a man, willing or unwilling, she'd fallen pregnant. Just goes to show, Jessamie thought, sitting back on her heels in the outhouse and wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand. Although, come to think on it, she wasn’t sure what it was that it showed—or what would be showing, except herself in a couple more months. She ran a hand down over her stomach, feeling its soft roundness beneath her full skirts and sighed. The skirts wouldn't conceal her for long.
She pulled herself to her feet and went slowly back to the house, blinking against the bright sunlight. This new house of theirs faced east; the sun, still low, still seemed to be in the wrong place after so many years on the land north of Cavitt Springs where she and Grady had lived for so long. Squatters, really, taking land that wasn't theirs, but they'd needed a haven from the Hobarts' relentless search for revenge. They'd been safe for a long time there, on the land where Johnny Madrid had found them.
And where Johnny Madrid had saved her. And maybe, even if just a little, had loved her.
"Are you sick?" asked Grady, eyes wide above the rim of the enamel mug of milk.
"I'm fine," she said. "Drink up. It's almost time for school." She forced her mouth to turn up in a smile. "You don't want to be tardy."
"It doesn't taste as good as our milk," said Grady.
She nodded. She'd sold up the land within weeks of Johnny selling it to her and moved to Moses Crossing, fifty miles west, leaving the stock to the neighbour who had been so delighted that she'd sold to him at last. This little, rented house didn't have space enough for her to keep a cow of her own, and she'd agreed to buy milk from the Widow Tansy instead. The Tansy cow was a thin creature, fed on the meagre grass of town lots. The milk was thin, too, but she couldn't get any better, not here in town. She had to content herself with watching Grady carefully to make sure he wasn't suffering any ill effects. Given his restless energy, she didn't think he was.
She stooped to drop a kiss on Grady's head when he came to put his arms around her waist. "Be good and learn well," she said, as she said every day when he went to school. She was glad that he'd taken to school so well and made friends his own age. It made up a little for the seven years of isolation they'd had before.
"It's mail day, today," he said. "Maybe—"
"Maybe," she said, something in her contracting into a little knot of dull pain.
Grady had started it, sending the first note only a few days after Johnny had left the old Lancer place that was now hers. The letter had to have reached Lancer, the real Lancer, before Johnny did himself. And while she'd wondered what he'd think, that he'd think she was pining and hankering after him and was using Grady to trap him, she'd been delighted when a letter had come back, ostensibly for Grady but full of messages for her. He'd been gone a month before she started writing on her own account; gone two before she suspected that there was something she could never write to tell him; gone three when she was certain she would have to keep silence.
There hadn't been anything from Johnny for more than two weeks now.
She turned away so Grady wouldn't see her face and kept her tone light. "Off you go."
His slate and the tin pail with his lunch were waiting for him on the shelf beside the kitchen door. He was gone in an instant, running down the back street to the Johanssen house to collect his best friend Ben on his way. She watched him go. She didn't know how to tell him. She didn't know what to tell him.
She decided, as she decided every day, that she wouldn't tell him yet.
The kitchen table was so well-scrubbed that it was almost as white as the dough she was kneading. She watched her strong, brown, work-rough hands push into the dough and turn it, and push into it again. Turn it and push, turn it and push; brown melding into white and the dough smoothing under her fingers.
Johnny had liked her biscuits. One dollar and some home-baked biscuits, that was all he'd taken for the land she'd usurped. He'd asked for nothing more; nothing as recompense for her mistrust and folly, nothing for saving her life and Grady's, nothing for the bullet she'd had to dig out of his left arm with his own knife, nothing for the two miserable days of fever and discomfort that followed.
Even that last night, the one before he returned south to be Johnny Lancer again, he'd asked for nothing. She had been the one to offer, to stand mutely in front of him and lift up her mouth for his kiss, to slowly unbutton the calico blouse she wore to let his hands in to cup her warm breasts, to shiver as his broad thumbs had brushed across her nipples, to loosen the band of her skirt so it pooled on the floor at her feet… she had been the one to do all that. Knowing the story of Jessamie Kellehan, he'd asked for nothing. And when he'd taken what she offered, when he was sure she meant it and that she understood what she was doing, he had been so gentle and caring of her that even now, four months later, her eyes stung with gratitude and amazement. She hadn't expected any man to touch her ever again and not with such kindness. She was glad that he had been the one to do it, to use his hands to map out her body, long fingers smoothing down her sides to slide over her belly, flat and taut then, and slip between her legs to rub at her gently until she had moaned and writhed and opened her legs wide for him. When he'd pushed inside her, she'd hooked her legs around his waist and tried to pull him in tighter and harder, only half-hearing her own breath hitch in her throat with every thrust he made.
She gasped at the memory, her body flushing with a heat that spiked between her legs. She shifted her weight uncomfortably at the sudden throbbing, her face burning, and she bent over the dough to hide it even though there was no-one there to see.
She wasn't ashamed. Even if she was to have another fatherless child, it was his and she wanted it and him so badly that her throat ached with holding back the need. She would be proud to have Johnny Lancer's child, even if he never wrote again and she never had the chance to tell him.
Two weeks now, and nothing.
Johnny's silence gnawed at Grady and her, both. She wondered, if Johnny ever found out, whether her silence would gnaw as badly at him.
"Mrs Lancer? Mrs Jessamie Lancer?"
The man at her door was tall and soft-spoken; his hair a dusty blond, she noticed, when he swept off his hat to greet her. Despite the 'Mrs' coming out as the Westernised 'Miz', his accent wasn't that of a man born west of the Mississippi.
Suddenly ill at ease, she stood holding the door open with one hand. She nodded.
He smiled at her, but it was a thin and wintry smile, something forced from him, and his eyes were sad. "I'm Scott Lancer, ma'am," he said.
She knew, then. The dull pain inside flared and died and flared again until she thought her chest would burst with it. Her hand tightened on the door handle until her fingers ached, her other hand clenched in her skirt.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
She swallowed to moisten a suddenly dry mouth. "When?" she said.
"Nearly three weeks ago," he said, and his voice was sombre and angry. "He was bushwhacked. They shot him in the back."
"Yes," she said, bitterness flooding her. "They wouldn't dare, not to his face…"
She turned abruptly and went to the kitchen table. She didn't remember sitting down, but she was in a chair when she raised her head again. Scott had closed the door and was standing on the opposite side of the table, watching her, turning his hat in his hands. His hands trembled, she noticed. She dropped her own hands into her lap where they could writhe over each other on her swelling belly without him seeing.
"He told me about you," said Scott, softly, when she looked up at him. "And I found your letters. He'd kept them all, the letters from you and Grady." He paused, and when she looked at him, she could see how much it was costing him to keep his voice so calm and controlled. "He was intending to come to see you, you know."
Her eyes burned. "He was?"
"I hope you know why. I hope you know what Johnny really felt…"
She choked and closed her eyes. The weight of the child beneath her heart anchored her; all the rest was swaying and buzzing around her. She heard Scott's exclamation and a moment later she swallowed obediently when he held a cup of water to her lips. It was Grady's enamel mug. Man-like, Scott hadn't rinsed it first and she could taste the faintness of milk on her tongue.
"All right?" he asked.
She managed a choked out word of assent.
"I'm so sorry, Jessamie," he said, and her name sounded natural when he said it, as if he was used to saying it. Maybe if Johnny had talked about her, Scott had come to think of her as Jessamie, not as the fake Mrs Lancer, or as Jessamie Kellehan who was damaged goods, or even as the woman who had stolen their land. But as Jessamie. As someone his brother had known, who was worthy of being known by her own name and who had maybe been loved a little.
"What did he tell you?"
"About the land and the gunman who was after you. About Grady. About how special you both were to him."
"Did he tell you why I use the Lancer name?" She leaned forward and rested her forehead on her hand, supporting her elbow on the kitchen table, tasting the 'special' as acid in her mouth.
He hesitated and nodded. "Yes. I promise you it went no further than me."
"He trusted you, I know," she said. "He talked about you, too, in his letters."
Scott sighed, and put a small leather satchel on the table. "I brought you the letters back. And a daguerreotype of Johnny. It's one with me, but the only one we have of him alone I couldn't take from Murdoch."
She stretched out a hand to touch the satchel. "Don't you want to—?"
"I have another. We had them done in San Francisco last year and—" His voice broke, and after a moment he said, strained now, "I have another." He looked at her and his mouth twisted. "It's all I have, now."
She nodded. At least, she thought, she had more than that. Under cover of the table she rested her hand on her skirt. She had much more than that.
Long after Scott had gone and she was alone again, she stood unsteadily and uncovered the dough from where she'd set it to rise under the damp cloth. Grady would be home soon, hungry and vital and alive and demanding supper.
She thought about how she would tell Grady. She would tell him Johnny Madrid was gone and that Johnny Lancer was no more; and she would tell him about the child. Grady would like to be a big brother, she thought. He'd like that. It would help him.
She took a deep breath. It would help her too. And she'd manage alone. Jessamie Kellehan Lancer had always managed alone. She and Grady and the child would go on.
She put her hand on her stomach again and wondered if Johnny's child would love her biscuits too.