Word Count 4,981
Scott held the white-bundled baby boy in his arms and looked with deep affection at his tiny, still somewhat pink face. Moments before, eyelids had at last closed slowly over brilliant blue eyes. Scott looked across the Great Room at Teresa, who sat at the dining room table, propping her chin on one hand, and grinned broadly.
“I guess I just have the touch,” he mouthed at her.
She nodded at him, grinning back, and yawned.
He didn’t dare move. He was comfortable enough sitting in the leather chair, supporting the newest addition to the Lancer family as he had been shown. How long had baby been crying? Probably just a few minutes, until they had sorted out his diaper and made sure he was wrapped up tight again. Now he was doing his best to be a cherub and Scott could not resist gently smoothing baby’s unruly blond hair. The baby pulled a face, opened his mouth and, for a moment, his eyes too. The glance was startling; there seemed such knowledge in the glance, an old wisdom in a brand new face, and it struck Scott to the core. A miracle that he had survived. A miracle. A costly miracle. And now seven days already through his life, making a very special contribution to the family.
Murdoch walked through from the kitchen. Teresa put her finger to her lips immediately.
“Sleeping?” Murdoch whispered, then stood by the side of the chair where Scott was sitting, his hand on the baby’s round stomach. Scott nodded.
“At last,” said Scott, satisfied he would not wake baby by speaking. “Taken us the last quarter hour to get him quiet. Noisy boy.” He addressed baby. “Keeping us up half the night too.”
Murdoch raised his eyebrows, but did not ask the question which was foremost in his mind. Scott noticed.
“I don’t know, Murdoch. Maybe. If he could just sleep a while. But we left him sorting things out. Clothes. I told him it didn’t need doing yet but he insisted. Said it did need doing and he had better do it. I don’t know when he ate last.”
“He had the soup. I stood over him while he had that.” Teresa smiled but the strain showed in her eyes.
“He didn’t argue?”
“He hasn’t argued with any of us for a whole day.”
“I’ve seen him angry – so angry, remember, we had to carry him out of the room; he fought us every step. But not this kind of angry. He’s been so quiet.”
The family fell silent. The last seven days had had only one bright outcome, and he lay quietly in Scott’s arms, as if his family’s world had not fallen apart. The events had pushed Scott, Teresa and Murdoch closer together. They had tried to support Johnny, done everything they could for him but he had slammed round in his world, hurting himself and everyone around him until Murdoch had had to speak to him about it. That had been a terrible day but at last, Johnny had consented to start to think beyond his own pain. Then his silence had set in.
“Has he seen baby yet today?”
“Yes, he’s seen him. He’s been with him every minute he could stay awake. But I think there’s something wrong.” Scott paused, unable to say what it was that troubled him.
The little boy stirred. He needed a name but his father had not given him one yet. Blissfully unaware of the disruption he was causing to everyone’s life at Lancer, he was dreaming of suckling, his mouth moving, his hands kneading the air. Scott gave him his little finger to grasp and the child settled again, apparently content at last, hanging on with great strength to the security of the adult.
Teresa at last ventured to say that perhaps baby was ready to be put down properly for his nap, since he’d been to his wet nurse, had his diaper changed and been fussed over enough for six babies.
“Very precious, this one. Very precious,” was all Murdoch could say as he took him from Scott for a moment. Both Scott and Teresa saw the young man in Murdoch, holding two sons he was destined to lose for a long while. This little boy was not going to be lost, not if any of them could prevent it.
“Shall I take him up?” Teresa offered.
“No. You go to your room and get some sleep, Teresa. I think Johnny and I need to have a talk about his highness here.”
Scott took baby back from his father and settled him again securely. Baby lay fatly contented and was immediately forgiven for his crying. He was not to know.
Scott took baby upstairs, thinking first of putting him straight into his crib. Then he saw Johnny, sprawled across the bed, seemingly buried in the bedclothes, as if he had burrowed into them. Scott knew why he was like that, too, and sympathy grabbed his stomach and made him wince. Seven days. It was not long enough, not nearly long enough. But the boy had to have a name and Johnny had to give more than just his time to the child – it would not do, however much he secretly wanted it, for baby to bond with Scott. He had to be with his father.
Scott sat on a chair by his brother’s bed and tried to estimate just how deeply asleep he was. He knew Johnny had slept only fitfully; for two days he had not slept at all. But it had been mercifully brief and calm, the letting go of a life, and she had not suffered too much. It was the living who suffered. He had not expected Johnny’s anger and did not quite understand it. He seemed to blame the whole world for his wife’s death.
He was stirring and waking before Scott had time to ponder on the reasons for his brother’s anger. He had suffered great losses himself and he had seen men angry, furious even, at the way they had been treated by life; but this cold, intense anger was unusual for his brother, whose emotions were usually more volatile.
There was only one way Scott could think of to make the first move. He laid baby on the bed, close to Johnny face, and the child obligingly made a small, sad sound, woke again and reached to touch the face so temptingly close. Long, dark eyelashes lifted and then Johnny was fully awake, scrambling away from baby, who reached after him then began to wail as his plaything was taken away.
“Now you’ve gone and startled him. We only got him to sleep a few minutes ago.”
“What you want to do a fool thing like that for? I coulda – I coulda done anything, hurt him, mebbe.”
“Oh – so you do care then, brother. Seemed to me as if you were just going through the motions here, letting us do the work, while your son goes nameless. What name did Sarah want for him, Johnny? Did you and she have one picked out?”
Johnny did not care to answer but stood by the bed, staring at the child. Then he moved away and began to fold some item of clothing with great care before he laid it into a chest which was already half-full.
Scott, astonished, immediately began to remonstrate with his brother. “What are you doing? You don’t have to do that now? Sarah wouldn’t want – wouldn’t have wanted you to do that instead of look after your son. Johnny! Would she?”
Johnny laid the clothing down as if it were thin glass, about to shatter. He picked up a shawl, folded it meticulously then suddenly held it to his face. Scott held his breath, hoping this might signal the beginning of the tears his brother had not yet begun to shed; but when Johnny laid it down he was as dry-eyed as ever. He did not speak; he did not look at Scott; he did not look at the child. Johnny stopped what he was doing, apparently held by something, some memory, some vision of what had been. The stillness of the room was oppressive. Even baby was quiet, although now fully awake again, looking around him restlessly. What could he see? Scott could not imagine. He should be seeing human faces, a mother’s face… Pity spurred Scott to try to move his brother on from the grief which was holding his emotions so strongly he had none to spare for his son.
“Johnny! Your son needs you!”
Johnny’s voice was quiet, utterly controlled. “So? What he could he get from me that he cannot get from his nurse, or from you, or from Pa? He’d get whatever it is pounding away in my head, I dunno what to call it. It would infect him. I would give him that emotion – d’you think that’s fair? I think it’d be better if you adopted him as your own, as if he had no father. Cos you’re kinda freer to love him.”
Scott was holding his breath again, listening intently to the reasons for behaviour he did not understand. But he was no wiser even after the quiet, halting explanation finished. Something about bitterness, and an unnamed feeling, and infection? What did his brother mean?
Johnny returned to putting all Sarah’s clothes away, apparently anxious to get rid of her memory from the room. She had not been there very long – just over a year – but her influence was everywhere, in the choice of pictures, in the furniture, even in the choice of the crib which stood by her side of the bed; where she would have been lying, had she lived. So Johnny was not trying to remove her from the room; he was trying to preserve her memory, and the reverence with which he treated the garments made that suddenly plain to Scott. He would preserve the memory of her, the scent of her body, and the hints of lavender and vanilla she had always had about her. If he had lost a wife, that is what he would have wanted to do. He understood that, then. But when baby started to grizzle, quietly, clearly needing human love again, and Johnny ignored him, Scott felt his own anger rise
“I think,” he said, aware of the biting tone he could not control, “I think you should take care of the needs of the living before you tend to those of the dead.”
Scott watched as the thin veneer of control cracked and the anger which had been just barely contained broke out. His brother threw down the mirror he had in his hand and took a stride towards the bed, where the boy lay.
“What do you want me to do with him now? I washed him, I dressed him, I made sure the wet nurse was kind to him and he was feeding all right, I slept only when he slept; I only gave him to you when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.”
“I want you to give him a name. Johnny – what name? Just tell me. Then we can have him baptised and he can be a Lancer. Johnny – what was his name meant to be? You can’t keep wallowing in your feelings like this…”
Scott hardly saw the punch coming and could not avoid it. He went down, riding the pain, trying to see what Johnny was doing. He watched as his brother grabbed a small blanket, picked up his son and wrapped him in it then left the room, his body language betraying his fury. Scott caught at the chair, groaned, and then slumped back, his head singing and his breath short. As he slipped into insensibility he tried to call his father but his voice failed him and he fell across the bed.
Johnny took his son quickly from the room. He held him tight and his son lay quiet. He wished it could have been different but Scott had crossed some boundary and the only way Johnny, in his current mood, had been able to deal with the situation was to shut him up, in the simplest possible way. He would be fine. Johnny himself had never felt less fine. He was on shaky ground, rushing precipitately from one unbalanced step to the next, terrified. There was no other word for it. He was terrified of everything around him, helpless to cope yet filled with one idea. His son and he would go somewhere else for a while, away from the sharp memories of her death. Then perhaps he would be able to think.
“Jelly – saddle Barranca – por favor.”
“All right, Johnny – you takin’ baby fer a ride? He still grizzling?”
“I need to think of a name for him, Jelly. I can’t think here any more. Tell my father he needs to help Scott. I think I knocked him clean out. He tried to help me but it was like he was sticking me with knives and I don’t have the strength to answer all his questions.”
Jelly saddled Barranca quickly, chattering away and not attempting to divert Johnny from the track he was following. He held baby, too, as Johnny mounted.
“Keep him safe, Johnny. He’s precious.”
“You think he’s the cure for all my ills, Jelly?”
“Nope. Mebbe you’re the cure for his.”
He handed the baby up to Johnny, who settled his seven-day old in the crook of his left arm then guided Barranca forward, away from the house which had sheltered his wife but which now held only dark memories. He turned in the saddle; already Jelly was scurrying to the house. Scott would be fine. It was himself he had to worry about, and his son, who so badly needed to be a named member of the human race. It had not been his fault his mother had died giving birth to him. It was a commonplace event enough. But somehow, it had nearly killed Johnny too. The spark of life he held in his arms was all that was left of him.
The day was very hot but up in the trees, a cooling breeze soughed through the upper branches of the tallest of them, making Johnny look upward. His son was heavy in his arm now, and he was beginning to tire himself. He reined in Barranca and climbed carefully down then walked until he was in the shade, and there sat down. Barranca had followed him naturally; he held the reins loosely in one hand, then tied the horse to the log against which he sat down, using it to prop himself up. He drew up his knees and, remembering to support his son’s head, he settled him and straightened his blanket, making sure he was not too hot.
It was a high vantage point. He could see all the golden land spread out around him, hazy and rich. The wealth-giving land. Here and there cattle moved. He had been out herding when Sarah had gone into labour. There had been something different about her that morning, she had been less cheerful and less grumbling, both at once. He had tried to help her out, rubbing her back and bringing her breakfast in bed but she had shooed him away, told him to keep himself busy until she really needed him. He thought they had agreed he would be there at the birth, whatever the doctor said, so he had left her.
She had started pushing in earnest almost as soon as he had gone; they said she had been in the early stages of labour all night without saying anything. So why had she sent him away? Jelly had come chasing across the meadow and he had jumped on Barranca’s back and ridden straight to meet him, guessing why he was there. The baby was born in the early evening, with Sarah screaming and him holding onto her hand and crying, just crying with the joy of it. A fine, strong baby boy, who had exercised his lungs after one silent moment, when the doctor had held him up and he had hung there while his parents held their breaths. A slap and the boy had miraculously come to life. He stopped being a moving bump in his mother and started straight away to be an individual, blinking in the light, then later, eagerly clamped onto his mother’s breast, feeding there with an intense preoccupation which had made his heart clench with the joy of it. She had loved him so much, loved both of them so much. She had smiled and smiled, until the pains began again.
Then there were worried consultations, and talk of the afterbirth not coming away properly, and there was blood, more blood then he had believed possible, and his beautiful wife was slipping from him. He was utterly helpless to stop her. Nature, caring nothing at all for his simple feelings or her life, took its course, and she had passed out and beyond him on the second day after the birth. That was when the anger had started in him, a great wave of self-disgust and fury that he had not loved her enough to call her back to him. He had tried, God knew that; he had tried, until his father had called him away from her, so that they could lay the body out decently and fix the coffin for her, all the details of burial which for a short while had occupied his thoughts. All the while he had cared for his son, desperate that he should be fed, happy, safe, until he was too tired to do any more and had gone to try to sleep.
Now his son lay safely in his arms, sound asleep, yet still animated even in sleep, moving gently or snuffling, full of life. Johnny pulled off his hat and looked back at the scene. His breath was shortened but he could not find any relief from his burning, consuming anger. It eclipsed even his great sadness. But he was determined it would not reach into his son’s life and he fought to suppress it. Neither his anger or his tears would come near his son again. When at long last he felt able, he spoke to his son, quietly and hesitantly at first, then with more assurance.
“Well now, young ‘un – what’s you and me goin’ to do? Your Ma couldn’t stay any longer but she gave you to me to look after and I am going to do that. Better than I done so far. I wish I could take some help from my family but it’s you and me, kid, in the end. Scott, he wants to know what you are called. I know your name and I’ll tell you soon, I will.”
He stopped talking, caught unawares by the way his son woke, stretched and then reached for his face, trying maybe to find the source of the interesting sounds. Johnny gently stroked the skin of his son’s cheek and his child quested for him, moving his head again and again to reach the source of the gentle feeling.
“You hungry again, then? I’ll be taking you home soon enough, I guess, and I’ll get that room aired out and all Sarah’s – all your Ma’s stuff safely packed up so that I can keep it for you. Mebbe when you’re old enough, I’ll give you something more of hers. You have her colouring – not mine. I guess since I’m just half Mexican you got some good Scots blood from me and the fair hair from her. Though I heard of kids starting out fair and getting dark. And they say your blue eyes might change too. I don’t care none. You’re beautiful to me.”
Baby chose that moment to cry, of course, and Johnny smiled ruefully as he carefully picked up his little son and held him against his chest, rubbing his back gently and hushing the boy until the quiet crying ceased, although he still grizzled to himself, and wriggled with a strength which surprised his father. As he became more absorbed in trying to understand what his son needed, Johnny hardly noticed that the anger had slipped away from him, just as his wife had done, quietly and without protest. And more startlingly, that she was nearby and that she had whispered to him, distinctly, “Don’t grieve too much. Keep my angel safe.” Nothing more, just those words. Johnny looked round, searching for her but the feeling of her presence had gone.
With his anger dissipated, the sadness could surface and it swamped him. He had resolved he would not cry in front of his son; that was like wishing the sun would not shine, or the landscape would suddenly lose its beauty. He sobbed like a child himself, staring into his son’s uncomprehending eyes or off to the horizon, where the colours were changed by his tears, and the folds of the hills were fragmented. Breaking his promises, to keep others safe from harm, that seemed to be his lot in life. He could not keep his tears from his son or his wife from passing away – from dying; he did not like the euphemisms he had heard all around him. Blessed relief – why? She had not been in pain, much. And had God really wanted her so much because she had been an angel in life? She had been a real, physical being and Johnny wanted her more than God could ever do. Surely, surely he needed her more than God did. And the tears still flowed, until his eyes were sore and his mouth was dry and he was dizzy and sick. There was to be no relief, then, no moment of waking from the nightmare to find that was all it was, and that she was lying next to him in their bed, grumbling about the lack of any way to be comfortable when his son was kicking and wriggling around inside her. There was the landscape, the reality of the daylight and his son. That was all.
Murdoch on his horse was an unmistakable figure, and Johnny climbed to his feet and waved, never so pleased to see his father. He brushed the tears from his lashes and cheeks, took a trembling breath in an attempt to steady himself, then resettled his son in his arms.
Murdoch jumped down and positively ran to him, then reached out and held him by the shoulders, half angry, half joyful.
“How are you? Are you all right, son? You had me worried for a while there.”
“Thought I’d run off again?” Johnny asked, his voice husky and soft with emotion.
“Not with the baby, no, of course not! I just didn’t want you to be alone – or…” He looked steadily at his son and grandson. “Have we been crowding you, Johnny? I can leave, if you want more time.”
“No, Pa – don’t leave. You’ve all been so patient. I don’t know what came over me.” Johnny looked up, hopeful, then quickly down again, unable to hold his father’s eye. Here was one man who, without trying, faced down Johnny Madrid.
“Sit down awhile, then. Let’s try and figure this out. You think my grandson can hold out for a few more minutes? Is he asleep?”
“He’s been kinda wakin’ and sleepin’ on and off. I think he’ll keep quiet for a while. He’s a good baby, Pa – he don’t make too much noise and he’s putting on weight already. I reckon he’ll be a fine, healthy boy, don’t you?”
“I hope so – God willing. But Johnny – perhaps you’re thinking He should have been willing to let you keep Sarah a while longer?”
Johnny looked up, startled, and saw the wisdom in his father, and the knowledge from bitter experience of just what he had felt. “That’s it, Pa! That’s it. I don’t understand what I did wrong this time.”
“Wrong? What could you have done wrong? You did everything you could, and then you wore yourself right out trying to do some more. She died knowing that above everything you loved her – we all loved her – and that her son was safe with you. If she had to die, and Heaven alone knows why that had to be, then it couldn’t have been made any better by anything else you could have done.”
“When you lost Catherine, Scott’s Ma,” Johnny said, grasping quickly where Murdoch’s understanding of the situation came from, “did you feel angry? I mean, so angry you just wanted – to hurt everything and everyone around you?”
“Yes, I felt that. For me, I think all that anger must have been centered on Harlan all those years, because there was no-one else.”
“You sayin’ I’m lucky, Pa?”
“I’m saying I have a family now, son, and I will do everything in my power to help you – to make up to you for…”
Johnny looked down at his son. “How’d you bear it?”
“When Maria took me away. I’d kill anyone who tried to take him away from me.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Pa?” Johnny wanted his father to tell him what it was like when Maria had taken her baby son away with her. For so many years, he had thought he had the truth about that time from his mother’s account it. Learning the truth was different had shaken what little faith he had had left in his mother, although he’d never stopped loving her.
“I never felt more alone in my life, Johnny. Never. There was more than enough to do and people around but no-one to take your place, son. I never saw Scott as a baby. I helped birth you.”
Johnny at last knew what that meant. He looked up at the horizon, tears springing to his eyes. Neither of them could say out what he felt so they sat quietly, lost in memories until Johnny composed himself again.
“Time we was heading’ back, I reckon. My son’ll be getting’ hungry again before too long. I can just see that look in his eye when he’s feedin’, too. He knows what’s good for him!” Johnny smiled, a tender smile meant for his family alone, and moved to stand up but his legs failed him. “I reckon I been sittin’ too long!” he complained, trying to find a way to stand which didn’t mean putting his son on the ground.
“You’re tired out, Johnny. Let me take him for a while.”
Johnny did not hesitate. In giving his son to his father to hold he was giving himself back to Murdoch in a way he had not be able to do before. His baby son had taught him so much. Baby wriggled again and started to cry and Murdoch immediately settled to talking to him, the baby talk that passes from parent to child naturally.
“Reckon you still know how to do it then, Pa.”
“What’s that, son?”
“You know.” Johnny smiled again, and stood with his hand on his father’s arm, where the baby lay looking rather small in comparison to his grandfather.
“Yes, I know, son. Does he have a name yet?”
“He had one all along, Pa. Jamie – I didn’t think I could call him Murdoch, there just ain’t no livin’ up to you! Is it all right for us to borrow your middle name like that? It’s what Sarah and me both wanted.”
Clearly genuinely touched, Murdoch nodded. “Jamie.”
“And he’s going to have a second name, a Mexican name, because he mustn’t forget his heritage. Or what his mother called him before – before she went. Angel.” Johnny said it in the Mexican way, Anhel, with the accent on the end of the name.
“Jamie Angel Lancer. It’ll do, Johnny, it’ll do very well. Now, little boy, you are Jamie Angel, and you are my grandson. And we are going to keep you here, at Lancer, just as long as we can, and you can play with the toys my sons should have had. And we’ll all help you to grow straight and strong. Johnny – I am so proud of you. Do you know that? Despite everything that happened, you grew up a good man.”
“Thanks, Pa. You ain’t such a bad Pa yourself.” Johnny grinned, the first full smile he had managed in a while, an affirmation that, with his son’s first seven days milestone reached he too had reached a milestone, one of many on a long road.
“Rest up when we get back. I think Scott’s been hankering to play uncle, but he just didn’t understand what you were going through. I guess the black eye should teach him.”
“Yeah. Think he’ll want to give me one in return?” Johnny moved to Barranca and casually swung himself on board, a natural, unthinking movement.
“I guess not. Can I carry him home?”
Johnny hesitated. So many things could happen on the way home. He had to start trusting his luck again. “Sure, Pa, you take him. Just make sure you change him when we get back, all right?”
Murdoch laughed, a hearty laugh expressive of huge relief and pleasure.
“I’ll do it, too, and while you sleep, I’ll keep him myself. I don’t see after all why Scott should have all the fun.”
Grandfather, father, grandson all made their quiet way home, to try to begin to heal the great wound a death had caused. One day, a little boy would know his mother was in Heaven. He would know it from his name. Jamie Angel Lancer.
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