Word count 29,225
Three days on a stagecoach, Scott mused, and he would be tired, sore and dirty. Three days on one and Johnny would be climbing the walls. His brother had celebrated his thirty-third birthday just two weeks before, yet he was still restless, especially when away from his son.
Scott studied his brother, who was heaving their bags onto the roof of the vehicle. He looked sick. Hangovers were no fun at the best of times, so why Johnny had chosen to take those three extra drinks the night before their journey was beyond Scott’s understanding. As elder brother, he had taken some pleasure in the “I told you so’s” at breakfast, when even the hair of the dog hadn’t restored Johnny’s colour or temper. Well, his brother was a grown man and the hangover was entirely his responsibility.
Scott had passed the last half hour before the arrival of the stage with an uncommunicative brother who had sat, hat in hands, staring at the dust on the floor of the tiny, airless stage office. The silence had given Scott time to mull over the happy news his wife, Charlotte, had given him just before he had come away. Three boisterous children in the house already, and a baby – his own child – soon to join them.
Scott was beginning to understand why, despite everything they had tried to do to make Johnny’s life comfortable and happy, he still mourned for his wife. Even if he laughed with the children, he worked a great deal on his own and it took him a while each day to come back to his family. Scott glanced across and recognized Johnny’s thinly veiled impatience. It had been a long trip, hadn’t really needed both of them, and they were still three days from home.
There was just time to assess his fellow travellers. The first to join them was a woman, a pretty one, who had smiled at Scott, glanced at his wedding ring and then had sat herself delicately on one of the narrow benches. She was wearing a costume hardly practical for a road trip, her feathered bonnet perched on blonde curls and a waistline cinched stranglehold tight. But it certainly showed off her assets very nicely. Scott nudged his brother, who looked up, followed his gaze then looked back, eyebrows raised.
“Charlotte’s going to like the hat I bought her,” Scott said pointedly, frowning. He could look, couldn’t he?
“Yeah. You spent long enough choosin’ it. You want the window seat?” Johnny asked, rubbing at his forehead.
“No. You take it.” He looked at the young woman, who was smoothing down her dress, and wondered if teasing his brother was a good idea, “You’ll need something to look at while I talk to this delightful young lady. Miss. . . ?”
“Eula, Eula May McCall, sir. You have the advantage of me,” the delightful young lady replied, smiling coyly.
“Scott Lancer at your service, ma’am. And that rather jaded-looking young man there is my brother, Johnny,” Scott said, ignoring Johnny’s glare.
“My, my – you don’t look at bit like brothers, do you? Are you travelling all the way to San Francisco?”
“No, ma’am. Just to Morro Coyo. We have a ranch near there.”
“Well, that is a relief. I was rather worried I might be subjected to the company of some rough men. I am forced to travel in this way because the family coach is in use, sir. Otherwise I would never venture out on my own. But my dear Papa is most dreadfully ill and I must hurry home to be at his side.” Miss McCall’s eyes filled with tears, which she dabbed at with her lace handkerchief.
Scott looked again at the model of polite womanhood who sat opposite him, shedding delicate tears into the lace. He did not quite believe she was as upset as she appeared, yet she brought out his instinctive good manners and the appeal to his sympathy was not wasted on him.
“We’ll do our best to make your trip as pleasant as it can be, under the circumstances,” he volunteered, smiling.
“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny offered, looking at her once more. “But you’ll need to undo those corset strings a ways if you want to be comfortable.”
The simultaneous, “Johnny!” and “Sir!” were too much for Johnny’s sore head, apparently, and he stood up.
“I’ll get a little fresh air. Stage won’t be long.”
Scott apologized for his brother while a large man, already sweating even in the mild morning heat, stepped into the office, secured his ticket and sat next to him, forcing him to move to the end of the bench.
“Good morning,” Scott said politely.
“What? Oh, good morning.” The response was gruff. The man immediately dug in a briefcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He began to read them, ignoring both Scott and Eula May McCall.
Then the stage had arrived, and the flurry of movement distracted Scott as he rounded up his brother, helped Eula sit in the middle of a seat, where she might be protected from the sun and dust, sat himself opposite her. Then he had to shift to one side as the large gentleman sat down next to him. He had not introduced himself. Johnny stood on the step, waiting for them all to find their seats.
Then a shout from across the street made all of them turn to see woman halted in the roadway, holding her bag as if she had been heading for the coach but was changing her mind. A wagon was barrelling down the street and it was her immediate danger that had drawn the shout from a bystander.
Johnny was running towards her before Scott could move, and he grabbed and dragged the woman out of the way. Then he took her hand luggage and handed her up into the stage, throwing the bag onto the top with the rest of the smaller gear. Scott saw her expression and had expected shock but instead, she was annoyed. There was barely time for Johnny to jump back in and shut the door before the stage lurched, sending everyone inside into confusion as they tried to sort out the seating arrangements.
“Damn fool thing to do,” Scott heard Johnny mutter to the woman.
She did not reply, but the irritation in her face was easy to read.
After several awkward moments, muffled curses and crushed toes, Scott found himself by the window, with his brother opposite him. The large man sat by his side, with Eula opposite him and next to Johnny.
The cause of the confusion, a dark-haired, small woman, sat next to Eula. Scott judged her to be in her late twenties. Her small hands shook as she tried to pull her short jacket straight and, when she caught Scott’s eye she immediately looked away. Johnny said nothing – indeed, nothing but that moment of rescue and Johnny’s admonishment had passed between the two, yet Scott’s good instincts about people were telling him something more had happened. No word of thanks from her; no word of reassurance from him.
“Johnny?” Scott asked, puzzled by the whole incident. There should have been gratitude – instead, there seemed to be a silent feud. “Is everything all right? Are you all right?”
For a moment, Johnny’s annoyance was as plain in his face as it was in the woman’s but it melted away, to be replaced by a grin.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Rescue women from death every day.”
“I didn’t ask to be rescued,” the woman said firmly, looking at her saviour. “I could’ve made it on my own.”
“Oh, that’s all right, honey.” Johnny’s tone was mocking but his expression was troubled. “You got the canteen, Scott? I think the lady could do with a drink.”
“Yes, yes, I certainly could,” Eula said, though Johnny had clearly meant the new passenger. “That was exceptionally brave of you, Mr. Lancer. My heart’s fluttering – I feel quite faint.”
Scott waited for another comment about her corsets from Johnny, but his brother resisted the temptation. He had gone back to staring morosely out of the window, his hat pulled further down over his eyes, a sure sign of a search for privacy.
“Here, allow me,” Scott said as he reached for the canteen he had stowed in the luggage rack above his seat. He gallantly wiped the mouthpiece with his handkerchief and handed it to her. Eula attempted to drink gracefully but the heaving and swaying of the coach thwarted her and some water fell onto the bodice of her dress. There was much consternation at this, much dabbing with the already damp handkerchief and reassurances from Scott that all was well. And by the end of the performance, Scott was sure this was one little filly who, for all her professed good breeding, wouldn’t mind in the least if he offered a closer relationship. He cursed himself for letting such a thought enter his head.
In Boston, or even in the days before Charlotte came into his life, he would have thought nothing of taking a risk with her. He felt a sudden chill of shame when he thought how he treated some of his lady friends in the past. And when he turned his new wedding ring on his finger, he felt even more ashamed of himself. Maybe that was what kept him talking to Eula for a good hour, even though his suspicions about her increased with each mile. He continued to be the gallant gentleman while the stage swayed and his brother stared out of the window.
All that time, Scott noticed that the little woman who sat on the other end of the seat, stared out of the window with much the same tenacity as his brother. She was so quiet, so withdrawn, so – pulled in on herself, that a name came to mind. The Mouse. Neat, small, sharp-eyed. Quiet. But angry about something. Now what could she have to be angry about?
So they drove on, changing horses every hour until they reached a way station at noon and ate something which might or might not have been beef stew, drinking something which was definitely not coffee, stretched, washed then found a place to sit in the tiny, stifling dining room, each aware of the other passengers but in search of privacy. Scott, after washing his face and drying it with a scrap of towel, lost sight of his brother for a while. The Mouse sat in the corner on a stool, reading a book.
Eula had smartened herself up again, had pushed her curls back into place and, possibly, loosened her stays a little. Scott studied her intensely, unhappy with himself for doing so, yet drawn to her. Her story of her reason for travelling did not ring true. She tried to be delicate, sweeping dust from the chairs, eating her food daintily but it was a ruse. Little things gave her away, the open glances at Scott, and the contempt she plainly felt for The Mouse, which expressed itself in preenings and coy smiles.
Then The Mouse went outside and Scott looked away from Eula, tired of her suddenly, knowing too well where such thoughts as he had been having would get him.
It was time to go back in the stage but there was a problem. The man riding shotgun, along to guard a small box of valuables, was busy shaking and sweating with fever, lying down on a cot in the back room and assuring everyone that the agues were on him and he’d be out of action for a couple of hours. The driver shrugged, said he thought it’d be more like a couple of days and maybe they’d better wait for a replacement, which would only be a few hours.
“I’ll do it.” Johnny stood, leaning against the fence, looking no happier than he had earlier. “Bit of fresh air, something to do.”
“You done this sort of thing before, mister?”
“Nope. But I can do it.”
“I’ll vouch for my brother, driver. Especially if it means we can get away from this place.” Scott grinned at Johnny but got no response.
“Okay. All aboard then, folks. We’ll rest up for a while around six tonight. Old Joe’s place. The place is usually pretty clean and the grub’s good. Cheer you all up after the rough road.”
Scott heard the large man behind him groan quietly.
The final problem was a missing Mouse. Eula found her in the end and escorted her, like an errant child, back to the coach. The Mouse looked tired and pale, and, to Scott’s perceptive mind, as if she had been crying. But she settled into her place and stared out of the window again, until Scott gave up trying to catch her eye.
The stage travelled on, its steady motion lulling Scott to sleep in snatches. The countryside was parched and monotonous. Each time he woke, his fellow travellers seemed hardly to have moved, Eula dozing, the fat man reading endless pages of tightly-written papers and The Mouse looking out of the window. She was not what Scott would have called beautiful. Her hair was a light brown, braided in a thick plait pinned round her head. She had been wearing a neat little brown hat but had removed it, pushing some stray hairs back from her forehead. Scott approved. Like his Charlotte, she put practicality above fashion. Although Charlotte also managed to look cool and beautiful whatever the circumstances.
He put thoughts of Charlotte aside and studied his travelling companion more closely. She was pale, although perhaps that was the effect of whatever troubled her, and her eyes were brown, large and penetrating. A mind was working behind those eyes. So, maybe not beautiful. But attractive. Oh yes, definitely attractive, in a subtle way that took time to appreciate.
Johnny sat on the high seat, appreciating the driver’s skill and silence. He had a great many things to think over. Had meeting her been a coincidence? She’d said, three times now, that they’d met up again purely by chance chance. He didn’t believe it but he couldn’t work out whether it was his heart or his head making the call. But then, how could she possibly have known he would be travelling that way at that time? Hour after hour, stop after stop, all through the long afternoon, he puzzled away at his problem until he was sick of his brain giving him the same tired arguments. On the one hand – on the other hand. There was no answer. One moment he would resolve to wait and talk to her again, the next he would try to avoid her completely, and then his thoughts would simply return to the puzzle.
Another stop coming up. He could see the untidy scatter of buildings ahead, and horses being readied. Working as guard meant he had duties to attend to, so Francie could be easily avoided in the short time they’d be there.
Johnny Lancer, he told himself, I never took you for a coward where women was concerned. It ain’t been that hard to talk to Francie, now has it? And she’s still easy on the eye, worth a hundred of them Eula women, all feathers and bows. No substance to Eula May at all, and his brother would realise it too, probably already had, with his Charlotte waiting for him at home. Instead of all the polite stuff he’d been doing until then, he’d be ignoring her like she didn’t exist.
And it was kinda good, sneaking off to meet Francie when Scott had his back turned, even if they hadn’t had much good to say to one another and she had cried some, from anger, like she’d always done. Never was any good at being angry with him. Sworn she’d not come this way on purpose to meet him, then said she was willing to wait for the next stage to prove she was telling the truth. Until he’d pointed out that waiting even overnight in one of the way stations, with five men and no other woman was not practical. She’d shrugged, said mebbe, just the way she always had done, and that made him mad with her. So they were back where they’d ended up before, angry at each other, wanting each other . . . He stamped on that idea, hard.
He had been right to leave her, when they had been so young. But now, perhaps it was right to go on this journey with her now, maybe talk to her, get her to see why he’d left and maybe … Or maybe he could just leave her alone, because if, as she had said, them meeting again was just a chance, she’d go her way, he’d go his and he wouldn’t think of her ever again. Johnny snorted at that idea, making the driver glance across at him.
“You all right, boy?” the driver asked. The driver was king on the stagecoach, and Johnny bore with the name stoically. The driver was not a man to be impressed by Johnny Madrid.
“Yeah. I’m fine. We stopping here long?” Johnny said, hoping to confirm he wouldn’t have time to embarrass himself with Francie, not before he’d thought things through at any rate. Even though, if he was honest with himself, he knew his mind was already made up.
“Usual. Ten minutes if they get the horses hitched up right. Had to make ’em undo half of it last time. Durn fools. Don’t understand why the company keeps them on.” He was slowing the horses, guiding them to exactly the right place with the pride and skill of the true professional. He’d soon be throwing his weight around, making sure they knew who was top dog.
Ten minutes wasn’t too bad. No time for any more talk. But there she was, walking away from him to get some of the dark, mysterious brew they called coffee, or tea, or some such preposterous name. She stopped, looked back and smiled, that slow, sad little smile which had always made him forget his good sense, and he found himself immediately jumping down and joining her for a few moments, until he saw Scott coming back from the outhouse.
“Later, Francie?” he whispered, trying to appear he was not interested in the fact that they were standing right next to one another. He checked his shotgun ostentatiously.
“Maybe. It’s good to see you again.” She co-operated with his ruse by pausing to do up her bootlace.
“Yeah. Even if we do fight all the time.” Johnny confirmed, walking on. A hundred memories crowded in on him. He pushed them aside and went back to his duties.
The miles rolled by the window. Scott responded less and less to Eula until she finally took the hint and fell somewhat reluctantly quiet. The Mouse was practically not there, staring out of the window as if willing herself out there in the desert rather than in the stifling, oppressive atmosphere of the swaying stagecoach. Scott wished he could help her. She clearly needed help from someone and his heart was touched by her stoic resistance to her troubles. Such a contrast with Eula, who had complained to each of them in turn about how hard fate had been with her. And the well-built gentleman, who had said barely three words in a hundred miles, read and read, each document taking his interest as if hundreds of lives depended on his understanding of its contents.
Scott shifted his seat, wishing for the next stop but aware of the etiquette which said he must not continually comment on the time it took to get there. Then the stage began to swing and sway more violently for a moment, there were shouted orders, the horses were changed and they were on their way again, barely five minutes later, with no time to stretch his legs because he knew well enough no-one would thank him for holding them up. No time to catch up with his brother, either.
Now there was another puzzle. Just why had Johnny offered to take on such a thankless job? Scott had considered the idea that maybe Johnny had not wanted to talk to him for some reason, and had escaped when the chance offered itself. He rejected that idea on the grounds that they had not fallen out over anything. No, his brother had just wanted to keep them rolling. Two more days and they’d be back in Morro Coyo, after a long week in Sacramento chasing down Murdoch’s list of indispensable items, to be bought at the best possible prices. They had done well and the goods would be following in a couple of days. They had had time in the evenings to discuss the future and their plans for the ranch, a rare time when they could be together away from other responsibilities. Except that last night, when Johnny had disappeared for a couple of hours and had returned, sullen and taciturn, and would only say he had not found what he had been looking for.
In the end, Scott succumbed to sleep once more, his head lolling against the back of the seat, unaware that as he slept, the woman he called The Mouse was watching him closely, an intense gaze that would have tempted him to speak to her, had he been awake.
Two more changes of horses later and it was early evening. As promised, they stopped at Old Joe’s, and Old Joe, who turned out to be a whiskery old man in a faded suit of some elegance, clearly knew a thing or two about cooking. He kept a clean table, too, and a clean washroom, so Scott took his turn after the ladies and, feeling more respectable and well-fed at last, went out onto the porch to admire the sunset and wonder when the air might cool a little.
He also had a look for his brother but the elusive Johnny was nowhere in sight. He had been offered a meal but had grabbed a couple of biscuits, an apple and a cup of coffee and had gone outside, muttering something about cleaning his shotgun just in case. Scott had shrugged. His brother didn’t have to stay and talk with him if he didn’t want to. Presently, Eula joined him, her chatter a light distraction from his aching limbs. She was mildly amusing and he indulged her, finding that nods, smiles and an occasional word were enough to keep her happy.
So it was with a sigh that he noticed they were placing the next set of horses in position and the driver was pulling on his gloves as he walked over to the stage. Scott escorted Eula over to their coach, helping her to climb the steps and settle herself as comfortably as possible. He glanced around for the banker, or lawyer, or whatever he was, and stood back to allow him to board next. The horses were all in place, the driver taking up the lines, and no sign of the replacement guard or The Mouse.
Scott looked up at the driver.
“Where’s your brother, son? We gotta schedule to keep that don’t wait for no man. Or woman, come to that.”
“I don’t know,” Scott replied. “I’ll go and look for him.”
“Make it quick or you’ll be catching tomorrow’s stage.”
“Hold up there!” Johnny’s shout out of the gathering darkness made Scott turn. His brother was half running, half stumbling towards him, dragging The Mouse along behind him. Scott felt embarrassed for them both, as he had concluded that they had been together. But that conclusion proved immediately wrong, as she pulled his hand from her arm, hissed, “Leave me be!” at him and walked quickly and with considerable dignity to the coach. She climbed the step without a backward glance and tried to slam the door behind her. When it would not latch she sat down and folded her arms, her expression defying any of them to say anything. Eula giggled but fell silent after a look from the girl.
Scott was about to demand an explanation from his brother when Johnny paused, one foot on the step, glanced at Scott and, in the same fierce tone as The Mouse, repeated her words. “Leave me be, brother. This ain’t none of your business.” He swung himself back into his high seat, put the shotgun across his knee, nodded to the driver and Scott had to jump for the door.
He just managed to avoid falling on Eula, forcing her to grab his arm and steady him as he sat down. He settled his hat and dusted down his coat and pants.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said politely, smiling at her, trying to regain his good humour. “Wouldn’t want my family to hold up the stage.”
“I’m not part of your family, sir,” said The Mouse, looking at him. Her dark eyes were clouded with tears but her expression was all anger.
Puzzled at her odd words, Scott replied, “No, indeed, I’m sorry, ma’am. I meant my brother. But it seems you know Johnny.”
She didn’t rise to his bait. “Your brother doesn’t have your polished manners, sir.”
By which Scott understood her to mean that because of his polished manners, she expected him to let his questions drop. He could not resist one further comment. “No, maybe not. But he knows how to behave himself.”
“No, Mr. Lancer, he does not,” she said, suddenly breaking eye contact and looking down at her hands. She had laced her fingers together and was gripping her knuckles convulsively.
It seemed she was not going to say more. He thought he saw that in her brown eyes as she stared at him, daring him to make the last comment. He held her gaze for a moment then looked away, out into the darkness, and let the sounds of the horses and the coach smother the chilly silence inside.
— Well, that went just fine, Madrid. After hours of thinkin’, you still get it all wrong. Pushin’ your luck with her – And what you callin’ yourself Madrid for? Because that was your name when – before you were a Lancer, so long ago, when – – . Well, it ain’t back then now. No, it surely ain’t.
Johnny was glad the driver was silent and had not questioned his lateness. He was no nearer making up his mind about Francie, and there was still five miles of the ten miles of travel before the next stop. Before his next chance to try to put things right. He wriggled his toes in his boot. She had stamped hard and they hurt. But his pride was hurt more and he had trouble setting that hurt aside and trying to think what to do next. If anything. As soon as he faced the possibility that he might not speak to her again, the look in her eyes, that fierce, sorrowful look came into his mind. He would sort things out between them. He was no coward. As for trying to kiss her, well, yeah, that had been a damn fool thing to do. He tried to think why he had taken such a chance.
He thought back to the last stop, where he had avoided his brother, grabbed coffee, biscuits and apple and taken them down to the corral, half-hoping that Francie would join him. He had wanted to talk to her, find out how she had been, watch her face, her expression again. It had been more than ten years, ten long years yet he remembered so many moments from that time, long ago, when they had been together, so many glances, and touches, and . . . suddenly it was too much for him. He sighed and shifted, unaware that he had nudged the driver’s arm.
“What you doin’, boy? What’re you so antsy about? That woman turn you down, did she? Don’t suppose too many women do that, if you ask ’em nice.”
The crudity of the driver’s words angered him. It had not been – was not like that. Not with her. He masked his annoyance with a grin into the dark. “Nah. Nothin’ like that. And I get turned down flat plenty of times, mister. Women, well, they take one look these days and they make up their minds, and then they walk away.”
“Sad story, son. What d’you think they see?”
“I ain’t sure.” Which wasn’t the truth. Maybe they saw his Sarah.
“Maybe you just ain’t the marrying kind.”
“Ain’t that. No.” Johnny didn’t feel like sharing his life with the driver. He didn’t feel any longer like looking back. He had new thoughts to occupy his mind now, of a woman sitting a few feet from him. She travelled with him. So near, so far.
“Had a wife,then? Died, did she? I lost two wives. Ain’t an easy place for women here but I sure hit bad luck with mine. Wasn’t sorry ’bout the second one, though, she was as silly as that woman we’re carryin’, the one with more complaints in her than there are holes in the roadbed. My no-good second wife ran off with a man sillier than she was.”
Johnny hardly heard the driver speak. He was thinking — maybe his sadness was what Francie had seen, that first evening. He had almost forgotten Francie’s existence. Had hardly known her when he had met her in the stage depot office the evening before he and Scott had caught the stage. As soon as he did recognise her, he had been seized with a kind of panic and had almost turned on his boot heel to leave.
He had left Francie more than a decade before, and he had not done it well. He had been too young to know any better. He had ridden away, keeping up his dignity and his pride, having explained to her in his note that he needed to move on, she would be fine with the money he had left, he would be dead in a few years anyway and if she wanted a little house with a white picket fence, then she must look for a man able to give it to her. Yet he had wanted her to come searching for him. He had wanted her to, many and many a night, when the cold ground was no comfort. Then, years later, but only a day ago, she had stood there, in front of him, and he had not known what to say.
“Hello, Johnny.” It had been so simple. Last night — was it only last night? They had met in the main street and, once his panic had subsided, he had quickly guided her into a quieter side alley, away from — well, away from a chance of being seen by Scott. There she stood, in her dark skirt and short, tight leather jacket, reminding him of the clothes she had always worn. Her face was more angular than it had been, but her eyes were the same.
“Francie? How’ve you been?” he asked, knowing he betrayed his fear in every word.
“I’ve done all right, Johnny. You?” The breathlessness he had not managed to control in his voice was echoed in her words. Her voice. The warm memories flooded back.
What had he said in reply? He couldn’t remember. The next few minutes had passed in a kind of daze, none of the information reaching his brain as he tried to think how to end the conversation and get back to his brother. At least, one half of him had longed to get away, while he tried not to make too much of a fool of himself. The other half – well, reaching for her, grabbing her round the waist and swinging her round in delight had seemed a good idea, so he had done just that.
When he realized she had stopped speaking and was looking at him, he set her back on her feet. He tried to sidle away, touching his hat and saying something about it being good to see her again, with a ma’am thrown in somewhere for good measure. At that, some emotion he read as anger had surfaced and she had left quickly, without a backward glance. He looked at her retreating form and felt such a mixture of emotions he had to go immediately to have a stiff drink. And then two more.
He had said nothing to Scott. So when it seemed she was travelling on the same coach, and had nearly got herself run over as she ran to catch it, he had kept quiet about knowing her. Then he couldn’t say anything without seeming foolish. He missed his brother’s counsel, which would have helped him settle his mind even if he’d disagreed with whatever judgement Scott had pronounced.
When they had stopped at the way station, his feelings had been all unresolved and tender. He had tried to disguise his nervousness when he had spoken to her down by the corral where the horses milled restlessly, kicking up the dust. He had bitten into his apple and waited for her to say something.
The conversation had not gone quite as he had planned – or maybe it was his lack of planning that was the problem. In the pink light of the sunset her dark hair had glowed. Once they began, his mind had been filled with the realisation that she was everything she had been before, full of life and energy, even some of the fun left in her. They had leaned on the corral fence together, talking and talking about everything and nothing, neither treading on the other’s toes – now, why had that come into his mind? He grimaced. A new hope had begun to grow in him, that they would slip back into their old way of being together, only now he and she were old enough for it, and he had so much to offer her. Maybe – maybe – but experience with women who knew what he had to offer and had still gone their own ways made him hesitate, and draw back from saying who he had become.
So their talk had died, and he was left in silence, and she had looked at him again.
“What do you want from me, Johnny?” she had asked. Always direct. “Because I have my own life now. I’m going to San Francisco. I’m going to work in a big store there and take care of myself. Until I find that right man you wrote about, you remember? When you walked away? I’m still looking.” The bitterness in her tone caught him out. He had been lulled by their small talk. She had faced him, but he had missed the signs of her anger.
He had suddenly had a vision of the future, of her standing by the side of another man, making those vows to honour and obey, which she had not made with him. Though she might as well have done, the way they had been. He could not bear it and he had reached for her, possessively, wanting to hold her and kiss her, and tell her he could be that right man for her.
She was a bundle of fury in his arms. She had started to say no, had pushed him hard away and, though he was gentle with her and would never have hurt her, she had stamped on his foot and tried to run. Startled, he had taken her arm and tried to lead her back to the light, with no intention other than try to apologize to her and put her on the stage. She was angry with him and he could not think clearly enough to know why she was so furious, like a bee in a bottle, furious enough to pull herself away from him.
Now, in the rushing darkness, it dawned on him that he had, perhaps, moved a little too quickly for her. He shook his head, trying to reassure himself. She had always been hasty in her temper and yet cautious of him. It had taken him the best part of a month to get her to agree to leave her parents and come live the high life with him, or at least share the highs and the lows. She had done that for a long while.
The driver broke into his thoughts again. “Get ready, there. Don’t go dozin’ off on me. Another change comin’ up.”
They drove on, making a couple more stops, journeying nearer Morro Coyo and the moment of decision he knew was near for Francie and him. They had not said all there was to say. He could not leave her angry with him. He could not leave her like that. It was a prospect that he could not face, having her walk away from him. He deserved it, though. He had done that to her, when she had needed him.
At midnight, everything changed. A shot, two, three and the driver was fighting to hold the horses on the road. Johnny searched for targets, heard his brother firing back and then tried to hit something himself with the shotgun. Someone yelled, close by, maybe the driver. Then the horses were out of control and he was hanging on, desperate not to be thrown as the driver fought to hold them. The horses went one way, the stage another, there was a cracking, tearing jumble of noise and the coach tilted one way, then righted itself again, shaking him until he lost his hold on the seat. But he grabbed something and hung on until the world stopped moving.
Scott knew he was in trouble with his bad leg the moment he tried to move. With shots still being fired and the banker apparently out cold, he had to protect the two women. But he couldn’t move, his foot caught under something. Then The Mouse was there, pulling at the handles of the bag the banker had had with him, which had fallen into the footwell and onto Scott’s weakened lower leg.
“If I try to move this, can you pull your foot free?” she asked, hauling at the bag, which looked extremely heavy considering it simply had papers in it.
“Yes,” Scott groaned, helping her as best he could to move the bag away.
“Everyone all right?” said Johnny, standing on the step and holding the door open. “Scott?” He had a lantern in his hand and shone the light quickly round each individual face.
“Yes. Just my leg. It’s all right,” Scott said quickly, noting Johnny’s look of concern. “It’s just sore. Have you got a plan?”
His brother nodded. “Francie – you got a gun?” he asked, and at last Scott had a name for The Mouse.
“No. Give me yours.”
Scott watched, surprised, as Johnny handed her his own treasured handgun and passed over shells for her to reload. The handle was too big for her hand but she knew how it worked and she loaded it deftly.
Scott was puzzled by preparation which did not seem to include him. “I can still fire my handgun,” he said, rubbing his leg, which he had finally worked free.
“I’m counting on it, brother,” Johnny said. He looked back at Francie. “We have work to do outside. Ready?”
“Yes. You got some shells for that shotgun?” The Mouse, no, Francie, was speaking to Johnny as if she’d known him all her life.
Johnny patted his coat pocket. “Yes, mother.”
The glance that passed between them contained no humour. Johnny looked down – Scott realized Francie had admonished his brother without saying a word.
“Are you going to leave us here?” That was Eula’s contribution. She was, in her own way, trying to help Scott by pulling at him, perhaps to help him sit down again.
“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny replied. “Ask my brother – best form of defence is attack, huh? Learned that from him. Come on, Francie, jump down here.” Johnny stepped back onto the ground and held his hand out to Francie. She hesitated; that did not escape Scott’s attention. But she did take Johnny’s hand as she stepped out of the coach. Then they were both away, running off into the dark, rocky landscape, leaving Scott to check his handgun and wonder if he understood what was going on between his brother and The Mouse. Whatever her name, she was still The Mouse to him, with her bright eyes and quick movements.
He was dragged back to his own situation, left with responsibility for the four of them, the driver, Eula, the banker and himself. Someone was firing at the coach again, and he aimed and fired back at the sounds until there was a lull. Now it was up to Johnny and The Mouse.
The two old friends – lovers – stood side by side, whispering a plan between them in the shadowy light of a full moon. Johnny could feel Francie’s body trembling as she leaned against him, looking around her and deciding which way to run. She was not trembling from fear but from the anticipation of a fight. He shared that anticipation with her.
“Drive them off – is that the idea?” She urged him to make a decision.
“Yeah. Then we have to get the others away. How’s Scott?”
“I don’t know. Didn’t have time – Johnny?”
“Where are they?”
“There – three of them, I reckon. Two over there.”
And that was all that was needed. She went left, he ran right, stooped, fast, through deceptive half-lit country, all angled rock. He trusted her judgement completely. It was like falling in love with her all over again. He paused, thrust that thought away from his mind as hard as he could and concentrated. If he didn’t do his job properly he could get her killed.
No time for more thought. The speed of his attack took two men by surprise. They were both aiming at the stage. One was dead before he knew it, the other, one terrified look later. He had no time for finesse, no time to take prisoners. He heard the crack of his own revolver from a way off to his left, and ran again, almost soundlessly over the shadowy land. He stopped for a moment to reload, working fast, desperate to get where he needed to be. There was answering fire but when he got there, she was in good cover and one man already was sprawled by a camp fire. Why were they attacking their stage? Six of them, two holding down the people in the stage, four still back at camp – why? Why hadn’t all six attacked?
Johnny searched for cover for himself, skidding behind a rock as their attackers were scattering, trying to find cover themselves. Between his shotgun and her handgun, and one of them injured, he could see them make the decision to retreat. He could not prevent it, not even with the advantages he and Francie had. He aimed the shotgun once more but had to drop it with a startled hiss as a rock shard cut his hand, a sudden and intense pain.
He heard then saw her come to him and waited until she was by his side, looking up at him. He pulled her close and hugged her, feeling angry they had gone and glad she was there, a giddy clash of feelings.
“Let me bind that,” she said, pulling away and taking his cut and steadily dripping hand in her own. She put down his handgun, which she had been holding in both hands, and untied the bandana round his neck, pulling it loose.
He wanted her to do this for him but not then, not right then, with Scott and the others still to protect. The attackers would be back. He wished they could have finished them all, right then. He began to step away from her, to tell her he had to do others things first, then she could bind his hand. She stepped back and the threads which had begun to hold them together pulled and broke.
“Johnny?” A world of questions in his name and it was confusing him, the pain in his hand and the hurt in her eyes.
“Later, honey – not now. Come on, we gotta go back.”
“Can’t I even do this for you?” she said. She was brushing angrily at her cheek, and he knew he had hurt her in the rejection, and in that hurt recognised her re-awakening love. But he couldn’t seem to make it right. The rush of feeling baffled him.
“No – come on,” he said, taking the bandana himself and wrapping it round his hand. He pulled it tight with his right hand and his teeth. He checked the camp carefully for danger, taking his eyes off Francie for a moment. When he looked round, she had gone.
Scott watched his brother walk quickly back to them.
“Well?” Scott asked, anxious to be of some help and annoyed he was still in too much pain to move around much.
“Three got away. Two dead up there in the rocks, one at the camp. I guess they’ll be back. How’re you?” Johnny looked at his brother anxiously.
“My leg’ll be fine. The Banker here, he’s been out cold all along. And Eula – well, you’re fine, aren’t you?”
Eula was reaching for the canteen. She looked over and opened her mouth but Scott knew what she would say and tried to forestall her. Johnny’s anxiety was growing. A complaining female would get no sympathy. He tried to distract both of them.
“Where’s The Mouse?” he asked, the name still slipping through his guard.
“Who?” Johnny said, taking one step up. Then he frowned. “You mean Francie? She’s no mouse, Scott. I don’t know where she is. Around. I’ll have to find her, I guess.”
“I don’t need finding. I’m right here,” said Francie, standing a little way off and carrying both Johnny’s revolver and the shotgun.
Scott studied Johnny’s face but he knew he was being watched and showed little expression. Scott was becoming a practised Johnny-reader and even in the cold moonlight saw relief and something else, maybe tenderness. It was gone. Johnny was all business again.
“We got six horses and six people. We go back the way we came or we go on. Driver?”
No reply. Scott hobbled to look for him while Francie bound up Johnny’s hand again. Scott had noticed the bandana was soaked. It took Scott a moment only to find the driver, lying in the dust. He checked the man’s pulse at his neck, seeing blood only when he moved the man’s body. His pulse flickered and ceased even as Scott felt the artery.
The driver had been trying to unhitch the horses. He had got as far as leading away one pair when he had been shot. The unhitched horses were gone; the other two stood, trembling and snorting, about to take off with the stage behind them.
“Johnny! We have to get these horses unhitched right now,” Scott shouted, making a grab for a dangling piece of harness. The two worked together, wrestling with buckles and leather and horses that skittered and pulled away from them. Both men were hampered by injury and it took a while to get the scared horses under control and tied up securely. By the time they walked back, The Mouse had persuaded Eula to step down from the rocking, dangerous stage and was searching in the boot for something. The women had had to leave the Banker, who was still only half-conscious.
“Johnny – there’s a couple of blankets here – and two canteens,” Francie said as she struggled to carry the unwieldy load over to where Eula was standing. “Can you move that man? We need to get out of here and into somewhere defensible.”
Scott watched as the two of them worked together to organise the group. He was in no position to help much, his leg now so sore he could hardly bear to put it to the ground. But he helped Johnny pull a groggy, bad-tempered man from the stage and somehow up onto the back of one of the horses.
“I need to ride,” said Eula, “I can’t walk in these shoes.”
“Take them off, then,” said Francie, walking over to Scott. “This man can’t walk at all. Isn’t that right, Mr.Lancer?” She stood, offering him a shoulder to lean on. She was right. He barely made it to the horse and was grateful when his brother shoved him onto the horse’s back, where he gripped its mane and tried to settle himself. Bareback, with harness still on the horse, was not the easiest way to travel but he had no choice. Johnny gave him his rifle. It was clear they needed all the firepower they could muster.
“My case – I need that case!” said the Banker, recovering a little more. “Bring it to me!”
Scott heard his brother sigh. But he was sure Johnny would do as the man asked because he knew what they all knew. There must be gold in the large leather case and the man would not leave without it. As he handed the heavy bag up to the man on the horse, Johnny looked at his brother.
“We’re all set. You all right?” Scott felt his brother’s hand on his leg, a steadying hand to keep him focused on the task.
“Yes. Where are we going?”
“There. Right – there,” Johnny said, pointing ahead and high up, onto the side of the hills. “We gotta be high up.”
Johnny moved away, to help the Banker mount the other horse. Then he grabbed a leading rein and took it back to Scott. “You can handle your horse and his?” he asked, holding out the rein.
“Yes.” Scott took it and stirred the horse into movement. “Are you going on ahead?” Scott asked, trying to ignore the pain in his leg long enough to think clearly.
“Yeah. Francie – The Mouse, you called her? Yeah – The Mouse, she’ll come along behind us. Keep the other woman with you.”
So the group set out, traveling slowly in the silvery dark, no lantern, just the moon to show them the way. Johnny was ahead, scouting then returning, guiding Scott whenever he was unsure, or trusting him to know the way for minutes together. Whenever Scott looked back, Eula was there, trailing along in her unsuitable shoes, grumbling that there was no horse for her. Further behind, The Mouse was just distinguishable, walking with easy steps as if she were used to situations in which she was in danger of losing her life if three men decided it was time to come after her. His respect for her grew, but she was still The Mouse.
Fifteen minutes later they were settling for the last few hours of the night on a piece of flat ground surrounded by boulders. Johnny helped Scott to sit down.
“Thanks,” Scott said. “I think it’ll be all right. It doesn’t feel so painful now.”
“Rest,” said Johnny firmly, squatting by his brother and handing him a canteen. He watched while Scott had a drink then took back the canteen. “We’ll take first watch. Only five hours till daylight.”
“Yeah – me and The Mouse. ’Less you want Eula to do her share?”
Scott looked across to where Eula was standing as if she was waiting for someone to bring her a comfortable chair and a cup of coffee. “No – I think I trust you to do it. But call me in a couple of hours. I’d like it if you had a chance of thinking clearly tomorrow.”
“You would?” Johnny said, relaxing for a moment. “We get rescued tomorrow, go right on to the next way station and on home. Nothin’ to it.”
“Yes, brother. Nothing to it. I think your mouse needs you.” The Mouse was standing, holding her own small bag and a pile of kindling she seemed to have picked up on the way.
“We need a fire – a small one. I have to clean this needle and I have to be able to see. If they don’t know we’re here by now, they’re deaf and blind,” Francie stated, quietly but with an air of determination.
“She thinks she needs to do some sewing, Scott. What do you think?” Johnny asked, on the edge of insolence.
“Since you’ve been leaving bloody handprints on my good coat, I have to say she has a point, brother,” Scott said, settling himself back against a rough stone face. “You won’t be much good if you don’t stop that bleeding.”
Scott watched The Mouse put down her bunch of sticks and fished for a match in her pocket. She had the fire going in no time, then opened her bag, took out needle and thread and set the needle as near the flames as she could.
“What are you doing?” Eula’s shrill tone grated on Scott, making his leg hurt in some unaccountable way. “You’ll let those men know where we are!”
“Ma’am,” Johnny drawled, in his best imitation of a charming gentleman. “If you’d been listening, you’d know this lady already said it don’t matter. They know where we are. Three of them, and three of us got guns. They know better than to try to rush us.”
Eula had been watching carefully as The Mouse took Johnny’s hand and poured some of their water over the long cut. “You’re not going to – are you?” Apparently Eula couldn’t bring herself to refer more directly to the operation which was about to take place.
“I’m going to sew up the cut on his hand before he loses more blood. You want to be some help and hold his hand steady?” Francie’s tone was subdued, as if she was guarding her feelings. She had retrieved the hot needle and was cooling it, prior to threading it.
To her credit, Eula moved closer and then took hold of Johnny’s wrist. “I hope, Mr.Lancer, that this will not be too painful.” She gripped his wrist sympathetically and Johnny grinned. Scott’s heart sank. Johnny in teasing mood would deal all too effectively with Eula’s sympathy and then the woman would be in an even worse temper.
“Thanks, ma’am. That’s kind of you. I guess it will be a mite painful.” He looked at her slyly, smiling a half-smile. Scott watched his act, puzzled until he saw The Mouse’s expression. She was trying to hide a mischievous grin but in the light from the fire, Scott saw her look unsmilingly at Eula.
“Might sting a bit,” Francie said, her voice betraying her amusement. “You hang onto his arm really tight now otherwise he’s liable to hurt you.” She smiled, threaded the needle and set to. Johnny drew in a sharp breath, his eyes fixed on her quick movements. Three neat stitches were all that he needed but Scott sympathised; a cut on the back of the hand could be sore.
“Thanks, Francie,” Johnny said, rubbing at his new stitches.
“I need something to wrap it with. What’re you doing?” She reached to push his hand away from the wound. “Here, wash it off now.” He took the hint, grabbed the canteen she offered him and poured some water onto his hand. The Mouse turned her back, reached under her skirt and took off a petticoat, stepping out of it quickly.
“Damn stupid things these anyway. I can get along better without it,” she said as she energetically set to and tore it up. Eula seemed shocked by The Mouse’s improprieties. She hadn’t let go Johnny’s arm.
“Well, really!” Eula exclaimed. “I don’t care if we are out in the wilderness, you wouldn’t catch me undressing in front of a gentleman.”
“Him?” said The Mouse, grinning broadly for the first time. Scott began to see why Johnny has disagreed with his nickname for her. “Believe me, he ain’t no gentleman.” She wrapped Johnny’s hand in a strip of cloth, tied it off and turned away to pack up her things. Johnny laughed but there was an edge to the laughter and he didn’t keep the smile long.
“How d’you know?” Eula asked, clearly not having put two and two together as Scott had already done. He stood and watched the three people eye one another.
“I met his type before,” Francie said, stowing her bag. “Johnny, you comin’?”
“Yeah. Scott, you keep off that leg. Two hours, then come and fetch me. Take Scott’s rifle, honey, and lead on.”
Eula stood open-mouthed, realisation at last beginning to dawn. She turned to Scott. “He knows her?”
“Maybe.” Scott still didn’t know for sure whether this was an old attraction or a new one, but that they were attracted to one another, he could not longer doubt.
Eula moved away, muttering something that sounded distinctly like “tramp,” but then again, Scott couldn’t be sure. His leg hurt, he was tired and he was annoyed Johnny seemed to be playing games instead of concentrating on the job that needed doing. But that hand had needed stitching and they hadn’t been attacked, and if Eula’s feathers were a little ruffled, well, at least she had stopped complaining. A rather silly grown woman, but pitiable in her silliness. He had known a good few like her in his time and had a soft spot for the type.
He sat down, glad they had lit a fire. It was a little point of warmth and security. He would try to sleep and be ready to spell his brother later.
Scott slept quite well and woke refreshed, his leg aching but not as tender as it had been. He stood and made a cursory tour of the camp. The banker was still out of it, lying like a corpse except for slow, regular breaths. Scott pulled the man’s blanket up higher. Eula lay on her back, one hand flung out like a child. She was asleep and did not open her eyes as Scott stepped by. She had been given the other blanket. It was cold in the hills.
Scott listened for Johnny and The Mouse, on guard somewhere. A chilly breeze was stirring up the dust intermittently. When it died for a moment, Scott heard quiet voices, a conversation back and forth, or maybe an argument. It was the darkest hour and Scott felt his way carefully towards the sound, wondering for a moment if the voices were their attackers discussing what to do with them. The absurdity of the idea made him smile. He knew who it was, and they should be on guard, not talking to each other.
So it was with a certain amount of older-brotherly indignation that Scott hobbled to the high vantage point he identified as the source of the quiet sound of voices. He could hear them, but just barely see them. As he moved closer the murmured words continued to ebb and flow but he still could not make sense of what was being said. Johnny was clearly aware of his presence, however.
“You wanna eavesdrop some more, or come up here and join in?” Johnny spoke up loudly, doing nothing to hide the annoyance in his voice but Scott did not know whether it was with him for interrupting or because he had been arguing with Francie.
“I’m not eavesdropping,” Scott said as he climbed up over the dark rocks, using his hands to keep the weight off his leg. “I’m concerned about guard duty. Is it time for me to take over?”
“Come on up, Scott,” said The Mouse. “It’s my turn to make the rounds.”
“Sit still, honey,” said Johnny quietly. “I ain’t finished braiding yet. You got that piece of ribbon?”
Scott climbed out onto their platform. He found them sitting together, she between his legs with her back to him, her knees drawn up. He was trying to braid her hair but with his bound left hand it was not easy. The simple image of them together made Scott catch his breath. He had seen Johnny with a few women, always affectionate and thoughtful of them, but this was more than that. This was trust of the highest degree. He felt as if he was intruding despite Johnny’s deliberate invitation. He was meant to see their relationship.
Johnny took a ribbon from Francie’s hand and tied it round her plait. Then he laid his right hand on her shoulder. When she tried to stand he moved closer and put his arm round her, resting it on her collarbones. The possessiveness of the action was not lost on Scott but The Mouse did not resist him. Instead she sat quiet, her head a little bowed.
Scott knew she was crying even before Johnny did.
“Don’t cry, Francie,” he heard a moment later. “What are you cryin’ for?”
“You know why, Johnny. I told you why. Now let me go. I’ll be around if you need me.” She waited till Johnny let her go, stood, and stepped away, the darkness quickly taking her.
When she had gone, Scott stood, picked up the shotgun Francie had left for Johnny, and waited for his brother to join him. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.
“Nope. Call me before first light.” And his brother was gone.
Johnny turned restlessly on his side, trying to sleep. His hands remembered the feel of her hair, the warmth of her skin, the life pulsing in her. He knew what it was like to hold her as he had, arm around her, sometimes in comfort, sometimes to keep her with him. Always, she had returned his love with smiles and endearments. So why, exactly, had he one day left their bed, pushed a note into her hand and ridden away from her? He didn’t know why, though it had seemed the only possible decision at the time.
If he thought hard enough, he could remember long ago, being with her – but that was too troubling, when she had only just walked away from him again. As she had just done, in front of his brother. She didn’t want him. Whatever she had said about beginning to have feelings for him, and being sorry for fighting him, he found it hard to believe she meant it.
He tried to shrug off his feelings but his arms still remembered her, his body remembered her. He ached for her. They had talked, argued round and round, and he had offered her – well, he had offered her the chance to say yes or no to him. She hadn’t said anything, just cried about it.
He rolled onto his side with a groan at his youthful foolishness. Yet she hadn’t turned him down, just now, up on that rock. He had known she had been crying, on and off, but nothing he had tried to say had persuaded her to give him a straight answer – just that muttered, “I could love you,” and then nothing more.
He had to sleep. To keep them all safe, he had to sleep, even for an hour, so that he could think clearly. But sleep would not come to him. He lay, all his senses absorbed in memories.
At first light, Scott listened and then shouted to his brother. They were under attack from three points and the suddenness of it made Scott scramble to his feet, and for his revolver. Shots were fired and hit so close he was deafened by the sound of the ricochets. Little moments of death, so close he felt their hot movement through the air – yet nothing connected. He climbed down, cursing himself that he had seen nothing. When he reached the camp, something was badly wrong. Johnny was standing there with no weapon to fight back, while one man held Eula round the throat, gun to her head and shouted orders at them. Eula screamed until the man put his hand over her mouth. She stood still, but Scott was worried she was too scared to keep herself under control.
“You too! Throw that shotgun down, cowboy,” came a voice from behind him. Scott glanced behind him and saw a rifle pointing at his gut. Reluctantly, he threw the shotgun to one side and stepped nearer to his brother. He had his handgun in his belt – maybe they hadn’t noticed it yet.
“Nice of the little lady to come searchin fer us, weren’t it, Karl?”
Scott wondered for a moment which little lady the man meant.
“Yeah! Purty thing, too. Ain’t ya, darlin’?” The tall man holding Eula tightened his grip round her waist. “And I don’t suppose any of these gentlemen want your death on their conscience, now do they?” Eula began to wilt in her captor’s arms, her weight suddenly falling against him.
“Johnny!” That one shout was all the warning they had. Scott’s gaze was wrenched away from Eula and up, to where a figure stood silhouetted against the lightening sky. Johnny was all attention and had mysteriously snatched a rifle from the air. Scott realised The Mouse had thrown it to him and then that she was herself firing. Johnny did not waste a shell, bringing down the man holding Eula by the simple remedy of aiming for his head. There were more shots, and Scott dragged out his handgun, aware of the bullets ringing around him. He took out the man behind him who was trying to shoot The Mouse, not him. He ended up in the dirt, listening to the silence. It had taken fifteen seconds.
Then Eula sobbed. “My leg! I’m hurt! Help me!” She sank to her knees, away from the corpse of her captor.
“Is that all of them? Was there anyone else? Johnny!” Scott said, scrambling to his feet.
“There,” Johnny said, pointing to a man lying slumped against a rock. “Francie shoots clean as ever. Reckon they underestimated us, Scott.”
“Yes. Fortunately for us.” Scott went to see if any of the men had a pulse. They were all dead. “Come on, ma’am, show me the trouble,” Scott said, trying to get Eula to move so that he could check her.
“I’m shot, Mr.Lancer. Look!” She hitched up her skirt a little and revealed a calf that was distinctly bloody.
“You’ll have to pull down your stocking, ma’am. Johnny, where’s The – where’s Francie? Eula May won’t be happy with me binding her.”
“I don’t know, Scott. I wish I did know. Damn stupid thing to do, throwing me that rifle. She could have been killed.”
“Fetch me the canteen, then. I think Eula’s fainted,” said Scott, suddenly aware of the dead weight leaning against him.
They were both busy reviving Eula for a good few minutes. Once brought round and settled, with the bullet graze on her leg bathed and bound, she kept quiet. She admitted she had gone a little way off on her own earlier. She had been scared. But she really hadn’t known it would be dangerous. And she had left some important things in the stage, which she had wanted to fetch. So she had walked a few minutes and then, well, then the man, Zeke, he had grabbed her and questioned her, and shoved her back the way she had come, and then she knew she was in trouble. They had rescued her and she was grateful. She didn’t look directly at either of them as she told her story.
“Don’t thank me, ma’am,” Johnny said, resting the butt of the rifle on the ground and using it as a prop. “Thank Francie.” Scott watched Johnny looking around, as if he expected Francie to appear and take a bow. When she didn’t, he looked at Scott, an expression of such loss in his eyes that Scott immediately wanted to do something to cheer his spirits. There was really only one way to do that.
“Go look for her, Johnny,” Scott said. “I can see to Eula. She can’t be far. Maybe she’s gone back down to the road to wait for that help you were talking about.”
Johnny reached across and squeezed his brother’s arm. “Thanks. I think I will just see if I can find her.” He stood. “You sure?”
“Yes. You need to get a rope round that little filly,” Scott said, grinning broadly at the idea of Johnny roping The Mouse.
“Can’t be done, brother. Can’t be done.” Johnny sloped the rifle over his shoulder, and set his hat on his head. “Be back in a few minutes. Then we can make for the road. Next relay station, coffee, ham and eggs and then home. Simple, just like I told ya.” His language slipped into laziness as he relaxed. “Now, just where’d my little lady go this time?” He grinned at his brother and then walked backwards a couple of steps.
“Now, don’t go forgettin’ you already got your own lady, will ya?” Before Scott could think of a smart reply, Johnny had gone.
In the first light, the shadows were a variety of deceptive greys. The color was only just returning to the world. Johnny’s momentary good humour slipped away like sand through an hourglass. He searched half-heartedly. She had turned up again when she was needed. Maybe Scott was right – maybe she had gone back to the road. Now that it was almost daylight he could move a little more freely, back down the way they had come.
He made it right back onto the road without finding her. He went over to the stage, searched inside for the strongbox which they had forgotten about the night before, took it by one handle and trekked back up the hill with it, sad that he had not found her.
He would have missed her altogether if he hadn’t paused to set down the heavy box for a moment, and sat on it, not anxious to get back to his brother’s teasing, and looked around. A faint sound caught his attention. He stood and turned slowly, scanning the faint landscape and saw something, cloth perhaps, spilling over a rock quite near him. He stepped across the space, heart beating faster, close to her again and so glad to have found her.
She was sitting, facing the sunrise, back against the stone. She didn’t look up when he stood in front of her.
“This where you been, then? Why didn’t you come back?”
She didn’t reply. Her eyes seemed fixed on some far point and she sighed. He knelt down and leaned in to kiss her, putting one hand round her back and pulling her closer.
He knew what was wrong as soon as he touched her, saw her flinch and felt the warm dampness under his hand. She fell against him, murmuring into his neck. “I wanted to get away. Then I knew I had to get back to you. I tried.” Then her weight came into his arms, making him brace himself against the slope.
“Francie! Honey…” The world around him blurred as he held her tightly, fervently wishing away the hurt that was stealing her from him.
Scott heard his brother’s shouts, then the discharge of a revolver. He gave the ends of the rough bandage he had been wrapping round Eula’s legs back to her, with the order, “Tie this off yourself, ma’am.” He rocked back awkwardly, pushed himself upright and set off as quickly as his leg would let him.
“Johnny? Where are you?” Scott called, searching down the hillside for his brother.
“Here! Here! Scott!” Johnny’s voice sounded wrong; there was a thickness about it Scott knew signaled deep distress.
Scott slipped through the rocks, his damaged leg a nuisance, but he found Johnny quickly enough. Johnny was on his knees. The Mouse lay flat on her back and his brother was pulling her shirt open.
“She’s been hit. I gotta see how bad she is.” He pulled her jacket and shirt aside. Then he sat back on his heels and looked skyward, his hat falling back. He swore.
Scott immediately came to see, and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder in support. The shirt was bright red and her corset the same, sodden with blood and torn.
“Johnny – I’ll get something – stay there,” said Scott, holding out a hand to stop him from, well, whatever he might plan to do with her. He hobbled back to the camp, the look on his brother’s face stamped on his mind’s eye. Grabbing the remains of the torn petticoat used to bind his brother’s injury, he reached out for Eula’s hand.
“Come with me. Have you any experience – no, I don’t suppose you have. You have to help, Eula.” Scott looked long and hard at the woman who had nearly got them all killed. He tried to convey some sense of the importance of what he was asking and Eula tried to respond, though her movements betrayed her reluctance and her fear.
He took her hand and led her back down the hillside. He could feel her pulling back slightly but he was determined to make her be some help.
Johnny had undone the waistband of Francie’s long skirt and had cut and pulled away her corset, leaving her in her chemise. Scott passed Francie’s torn petticoat over to him and it was immediately bundled up and pressed against the source of the blood, a darkened place in the skin just above her waist on the left side. The only hope that Scott could see was that the bullet had almost missed her. But it had cut her badly and Johnny’s frantic movements to stop the bleeding seemed suddenly futile. Eula had recoiled from the scene with a grimace but now took one step forward.
“I cannot help, I’m afraid, Mr.Lancer. I don’t know what to do. But perhaps if you could take her back down to the road, then when they send a rider you can arrange for something?”
Johnny took no notice of her words. “I need something clean to tie this round. You got anything?” he said, not looking up.
Eula hesitated, then offered to get something from her bag.
“Now, Eula.” Finally Johnny looked at her, barely contained rage in his voice.
Eula took a step back then put one hand to her mouth, realising what he was asking her to do. “No!” she exclaimed.
Scott took her arm and led her a few more steps away. “One of those petticoats would do, Eula. We won’t look. You think he’s interested in looking at you? Come on, this is not the time…”
Scott stood over her until she realised she had to do what was being asked of her. She turned her back and, in a few moments, took off her outer petticoat and handed it over, as if she were handing over something of great personal value. Scott took it to Johnny.
“Help me to lift her, Scott. If I hold her, can you – can you look, see…”
See how the wound was at the back. Yes, that would be the next step. So they lifted her until she was sitting, her head protected by Johnny’s hand and his arm around her shoulders. The wound was bad and Scott flinched.
“It’s bleeding. It’s bad,” Scott reported. “A doctor can put this right soon enough, though, Johnny – can’t he?”
“You been in a war, Scott,” Johnny said, taking the two ends of the material and reaching round awkwardly to tie them before carefully lowering The Mouse back to the ground. “You know some people will survive and some won’t. If we can find a doctor maybe – if he isn’t drunk, or incompetent or already busy with someone else. There. Now – Eula’s right. We have to get her down to the road.”
“Carry her?” Scott said. It was a steep slope, not far but very difficult to negotiate safely.
But Johnny was already tightening the loose knot he had made in the dressing then shifting himself round to pick her up. He put her over his shoulder, her right side by his face, leaving the wounded left side with no pressure on it. Johnny pushed his hair from his grey face and nodded. “We carry her. I have to leave the others, Scott. You have to see…”
“Take her, brother. I’ll get the Banker.”
Eula giggled, nervous tension finding its own inappropriate sound. “Banker? He’s no banker.”
But neither Lancer heard her.
Johnny’s vision had narrowed to one point, the path ahead of him. He tried to free himself from the whirl of emotions in his mind, and the way his brain placed before him the case for his guilt in not searching for her sooner. He knew it was no use and an unnecessary distraction but it gnawed at him, the way he had casually thought she could look after herself.
He found a patch of shade and carefully squatted, lowering Francie off his shoulder and laying her on the ground. “Should have brought you a blanket. Don’t like you lying in the dust like this. Scott’ll bring one down, and some water for you, honey, and we’ll get a wagon and have you at that way station in no time. Don’t you worry. I should have come after you. I wanted to let you be, but…” All the times he had had to comfort Jamie came to his mind, when the boy had been stilled just by being spoken to calmly.
“Shut up, Johnny,” he heard her murmur. “Just shut up, all right? I’m fine.”
Momentarily hurt by her words, he missed what she was trying to do, to help him leave her when he needed to. He tried to settle her more comfortably while he told her where Scott had gone, but she put her hand on his arm to stop his fussing.
“That’s – that’s better. You going to help your brother now? He can’t manage that man on his own.” She paused, looking up at him. “Or you going to stand there feeling sorry for me?” She smiled gently, the tension round her eyes the only sign she was in pain.
“Francie,” he said. He wanted very badly to ask her something but it was not the right moment. He attempted a joke. “You won’t run off while I’m gone, will you?”
“I’ll stay right here, Johnny. You make sure you come back to me.”
He grimaced. He deserved that from her and more. He nodded, stood another moment then left her sitting there, smiling at him. He knew that look, had seen it in Jamie’s eyes. She trusted him to come back.
Scott had packed up their camp, and was preparing to try to assist the big man to stand when Johnny jumped down next to him.
“You look happy,” Scott remarked, getting a shoulder into the man’s armpit and pushing upwards.
“Think so, Scott. I think she’s goin’ to be all right. Here. You can’t do that. You help Eula.” Johnny moved to help Scott then spoke directly to Farrell, who was at last coming more awake. “Mister, are you feelin’ any better?”
“Farrell, Mr. Lancer. My name’s Farrell. Yes, I do feel better. I haven’t been much use to you all.”
Scott let his brother take some of Mr. Farrell’s weight before grabbing Eula’s arm. “Come on. Can you lead one of the horses?”
She didn’t reply for a moment. Then, making some sort of decision, asked after The Mouse. Johnny, bowed into Farrell’s side, looked round.
“She’ll do just fine. Maybe you can learn somethin’ from her about standin’ on your own two feet.”
Scott smiled, knowing what that comment would provoke. Sure enough, as the party descended the hill, Eula gave her opinion of The Mouse’s manners, clothes and way of speaking, until Johnny gave his brother an apologetic glance.
“Shouldn’t have said anythin’,” Johnny said quietly, helping a rapidly recovering Mr.Farrell down the steepest part of the slope.
“That’s all right, brother. Maybe it’s the shock of having someone tell her some home truths.”
Eula continued her tirade all the way down the slope. When they reached the road, Johnny greeted The Mouse with more open affection than Scott had seen him use for anyone outside the family. A kind of hope lifted Scott’s spirits as he watched him tend to her, on his knees at her side, and she looking at him, just staring as if she’d never seen him before. He helped her to drink, leaving everyone else to cope as best they could and did not even turn when a rider approached and hailed them.
“Howdy, folks. Break a wheel, did you? Sorry I didn’t get here sooner – some guy’s bin holdin’ us at the station, not lettin’ anyone go. Still can’t figger out why. Bill, he saw to him this morning, hit him hard enough so he won’t be goin’ nowhere fer a while.”
Scott tried to break into the flood of explanation. “It’s more than a broken wheel – if you stopped talking for a moment you could see that.”
“What happened here?”
“Get back on that horse, and go and get a wagon,” Johnny said softly but quite clearly. “And make the wagon bed comfortable. And send someone for a doctor.”
The rider took one good look around him before turning his attention to Johnny. He seemed about to ask one more question then did as he was told and mounted his horse. “Take me a coupla hours, mister.”
“Go!” said Scott. “My brother will come hunt you down if you don’t. You heard of Johnny Madrid?”
The man’s eyebrows climbed. “Sure.”
“That’s him, right there. Now go!”
The rider at last tore himself away from the odd little band of passengers and rode off, looking back once before kicking his horse on.
“I think you impressed him with my reputation, even if it’s been a while since I was Madrid. Now I got a name to live up to,” Johnny said, giving Francie another drink. “Slow down, honey. You’ll make yourself sick. There now, rest, we’ll soon have you fixed up.” He helped her to lie down again then went to fetch something out of the back of the stagecoach.
The Mouse looked up at Scott, her brown eyes not quite centred on him. “This boy of his,” she said, her speech a little slurred. “Jamie? Changed Johnny, hasn’t he.”
Scott, glancing round to make sure the other two were comfortable, came to squat at The Mouse’s side. “Yes, ma’am. Changed him a lot. You rest now, don’t try to talk. It’ll only be a little while now.”
Johnny returned with a blanket and his duster, which he had rolled up. With Scott’s help, he lifted Francie again, smoothing out the blanket underneath her with one hand as he held her with the other. She rested her head against Johnny’s shoulder then slumped, passing out so suddenly she caught Johnny unawares and dragged him off balance. He swore, swiftly moving her until she was lying flat on the ground. He checked her wound.
“She’s still bleedin’.”
Scott heard the panic and stepped in quickly. “All right. It won’t be long. Here, get that dressing tied tighter. I’ll get another blanket. She’ll be fine, Johnny, she’ll be fine.”
“They said that – – when, when Sarah –” Johnny said, the panic still there. “They said she’d be fine. Then she was gone.”
Scott heard in the soft words the anger that had always been there, a misunderstood, buried anger which he had thought his brother had dealt with long ago. Johnny had only once let that anger surface, then he had taken his up responsibilities to Jamie and had buried his hurt and fury at everything that had happened; but Scott suddenly saw it was the spring from which Johnny’s sadness flowed. Shocked into silence, Scott stood by his brother and shielded him from the others for a moment. Then the brothers set to, one begging yet more dressings from Eula, the other binding The Mouse again, with tense movements betraying his desperation. Nothing more, apart from practical matters, was said for a long while.
It took the rider two hours and ten minutes to return with the buckboard. Johnny had been checking his old watch every few minutes, sighing with exasperation. Scott watched The Mouse slip in and out of consciousness and monitored his brother with steady sympathy but few words. It would not do to intrude. Johnny knew where he was if he needed him. When Johnny had to take a break, Scott sat by The Mouse, waiting to see if she would wake. They had been giving her water each time she was conscious. She did wake, suddenly, searching immediately for Johnny.
“It’s okay – he’ll be back soon. He just needed …”
“Sure,” she whispered. “I’m thirsty.”
Scott edged his hand behind her head and lifted her a little, then held the canteen to her lips. “Slowly,” he cautioned. He watched to make sure she didn’t choke, then, when she nodded, let her lie back again. He resealed the canteen.
“Has he been happy?”
“You rest, ma’am. Time for this later.”
But she was persistent. “Happy – has he been happy?” Bright eyes looked at him, waiting patiently for his answer.
“He had a year with Sarah. They were very happy. Now, with Jamie – he’s happy often when he’s with Jamie.”
“Oh.” The soft sound made him look down at her. She had closed her eyes and he thought for a moment that she slept again. “I’m sorry.” Then she did sleep, slipping away so suddenly Scott watched for her breaths before he could look up. Johnny stood there.
“What’s she sorry ‘bout?” he asked, eyes narrowed.
“She’s sorry about Sarah, Johnny.”
“You told her?”
“She asked whether you were happy. I told her.”
Johnny, expressionless, gestured for Scott to give up his place next to her and Scott stood, easing his sore leg. Johnny settled on the ground by Francie, drawing up one knee. “Do you think she’s been happy, Scott?”
Scott couldn’t answer. He watched his brother, who had moved to check the dressing covering Francie’s wounded side. Her clothes slipped aside and Scott looked away, suddenly embarrassed.
“Get a blanket, Scott. She needs some privacy. Get her bag and mine. Go on, I ain’t makin’ you do this and I am not lettin’ Eula anywhere near her.”
Suddenly understanding that Johnny was talking about changing The Mouse’s clothes, Scott picked up what was needed and held the blanket up, shielding the business of stripping Francie from the banker and Eula. He watched, fascinated, forgetting that the blanket was supposed to be keeping her private from him, too. But he had seen Johnny dress his boy often enough and there was the same delicacy, the same firm dexterity in performing the awkward, intimate task. When Johnny removed her last petticoat Scott glimpsed a sturdy, well-formed body, small, slim and yet strong. He caught himself looking and then saw Johnny had caught him too. He blushed and looked away quickly.
“It’s all right, Boston,” said Johnny, dragging up the old nickname. “It’s just a woman’s body. Don’t go gettin’ all embarrassed. You’ve seen what a woman looks like, even before you met your Charlotte. Some things just have to be done.” As he spoke, he pulled away the last of her clothes and wrapped her tight in the blanket, despite the heat.
“Are you going to leave her like that?” Scott asked, needled by Johnny’s choice of name.
“For all the world to see? No, I am not, but neither am I going to leave her as she was. Now, maybe this shift would do, except then I won’t be able to see if her side is all right. Women’s clothes ain’t no good for this. Get that shirt of yours, that white one.”
“That’s my best shirt, brother.”
“Yes. It’s just what I need. Now, throw it over.”
Scott had to ask Farrell to fetch him the shirt since he could not put down the blanket he was holding. He passed it on to his brother when he received it from the man.
“I suppose you want me to leave milady’s boudoir, too?” Scott said.
Johnny, busy moving Francie so that he could slip the shirt onto her, smiled slightly. “No, I think you already seen everything. I hope Charlotte will forgive you for lookin’ though.”
Scott tried to avert his eyes but once more, Johnny’s deft movements fascinated him. He had Francie dressed in the shirt and covered with a dry blanket without disturbing her at all.
“Doc’ll fix you up just fine,” Johnny was saying. So Francie was awake again. Scott saw her smile at Johnny, the first time he had seen her look truly happy. Johnny had said something else, too, but Scott had not caught what it was, and now his brother was shielding her even from him. Scott respected their privacy but still wanted to know what had made The Mouse smile so sweetly.
A shout distracted Scott and drew his attention to the road. “They’re here!” Eula was saying, standing and brushing down her skirts.
He limped a few steps along the road, greeting the incoming wagon with a wave of his hand. The driver pulled up, set the brake and jumped from the seat.
“Sorry I bin so long, folks. I was wantin’ to make sure you’d have a comfortable ride to the way station. I sent Bill for the doc, but there’s no tellin’ when he’ll be back. Now, you want some help with the little lady? I’m right sorry for yer troubles, ladies and gents. We ain’t had no trouble long this ways for months.”
“I’ll carry her,” said Johnny, immediately crouching down and lifting Francie over his shoulder.
He carried his burden slowly, setting her down on the wagon bed and calling to Scott to hold her while he jumped aboard. Between them they lifted her gently into the straw the man had obligingly piled into the wagon. Johnny settled next to her, stretching his legs out and then turning on his side, to take her head onto his arm. She settled herself into him and Scott had to look away, feeling, not for the first time, that he was an intruder. They had been bed partners, that much was as clear as it could be. Eula’s expression as she stood waiting to be helped up was a strange mixture of distaste and envy. When Scott had given her a hand up, she settled herself by Johnny’s feet, her legs drawn up as if to keep as far as she could from the couple. To Scott’s amazement she said nothing.
The banker – had Eula said something about him not being a banker? Well, Scott could no more stop thinking of him as a banker than he could forget he had nicknamed Francie, “The Mouse”. So he helped the banker up, too, and settled him into a space opposite Eula.
Then their luggage was stowed in the spaces between the people, while Scott watched his brother carefully. Johnny had been awake more than thirty hours, by his calculation, had lost blood and suffered the pain of stitching and now this new pain, this new worry.
“You comfortable there, Johnny?” he asked.
But his brother was already asleep, his work done for the moment, though Scott knew he would be awake again soon enough. Then it struck him, something he could do for Johnny.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said to Eula, reaching across her until she drew her feet up out of the way. It was awkward, but with a little difficulty he eased his brother’s boots off, a small attempt to help his brother rest easily. Eula looked distressed, but still said nothing. But when the wagon started to roll, with Scott sitting up by the driver, he glanced back and saw her delicately pick Johnny’s leg up by the material of his pants and move it off her skirts, where it had slipped as they had moved off. Scott sighed. She was never going to see beyond the end of her nose.
The hot, dusty road stretched out in one long, straight line to infinity. Scott resettled his hat on his head and asked, for the third time, if they couldn’t move a little faster. The driver grinned.
“Your brother, he gave strict orders, no bumps. Cain’t avoid bumps if’n I go quick, can I? Nope. Ain’t more’n a mile or so now. See those buildin’s there? That where we’re goin’.”
Scott peered ahead, saw what he was being directed to see and shifted round on the narrow bench seat to wake his brother.
Johnny lay on his side, his body moving slackly in time to the rhythm of the swaying wagon. The Mouse was still asleep, but had half-turned so that she was spooned into Johnny. The position seemed as utterly natural as all their movements together. Even with Sarah, Scott had never observed such strong physical understanding. Scott, unwillingly, reached back to touch his brother’s shoulder.
“We’ll be there in a few minutes,” he said quietly, waiting for his brother to come fully awake.
Johnny nodded and sat up, causing The Mouse to stir too. She came groggily awake, tried to look back at Johnny and her hand went immediately to her side to find the source of the pain.
“It’s all right, honey – it’s okay. We’ll have you in a bed in a few minutes, let the doc take a look at you. It’ll be fine.” So the optimistic, calming words continued, as Johnny arranged the blanket beneath her, Mr. Farrell helping out without being asked, earning him Johnny’s thanks as he tugged on his boots.
“Don’t mention it, sir,” Farrell replied. “I believe that without your assistance and hers, I would not be here.”
Scott knew Johnny had taken a rest while he could. Now he needed to be fully awake.
When the wagon pulled up outside the largest of several rundown wooden buildings, all baked silver in the heat, Johnny jumped down and shouted for help. In a few minutes, four men carried Francie inside, where a flurry of preparations was stirring up ancient dust.
“Where?” Johnny asked, holding his corner of the blanket and looking at Francie, who had wakened.
“Here, mister – you can bring her through here. There’s a bed. Cook’s got some hot water on.”
The men shuffled through into a back room, a narrow box barely seven feet by six, stiflingly hot and filthy. A few well-chosen words from Johnny and a sheet appeared, reasonably clean. It was thrown over a straw pallet.
“Something for her head?” Johnny asked, coldly furious that this was the best hospitality they were going to get. Another blanket appeared, and a square of material which might have been a tablecloth. Johnny folded and refolded the blanket but balked at the cloth. He raised Francie’s head and adjusted the makeshift pillow until she nodded to him that she was settled.
Johnny turned to Scott, impatience winning. “She gotta have something cleaner’n that, Scott.”
“All right. I’ll see what I can do.”
Johnny made sure she was laid with her head to the foot of the bed, to give the doctor – whenever he appeared – a chance to work on her without moving her again. She had returned to consciousness and pain and was trying to curl herself into some comfort.
“You gotta lie flat, Francie. I know it ain’t the best accommodation. You wait ‘til I get you back to the ranch. Biggest beds you’ve ever seen.” Johnny became suddenly aware of two men idly standing in the doorway, as if fascinated by the sight of a woman dressed in a man’s shirt and covered only in a blanket. “Get out,” he snapped. “This ain’t no peep show. Get the doc straight in here, soon as he comes.” His authority immediately cleared the room. Someone half-closed the door.
He pulled an old chair up to the bed.
He stood again and walked to the window, whose cloudy panes of glass obscured the view. With a certain amount of hard work he managed to force it open six inches and the air became fractionally cooler and fresher. He found a dog-eared catalogue and took it back with him. She watched him, her face both too white and too pink. As he began to fan her with the heat-curled pages of the catalogue, the damp wisps of hair round her face stirred.
“You want me to comfort you?” he asked, leaning in close and using one of their familiar ways of speaking.
She smiled. “Like the old times?”
“No, honey. This is now.”
Her brown eyes widened then she bit her lip against the pain. He laid his hand on her breast and rubbed, gently and slowly, until she sighed and relaxed.
“I know this ain’t a good time.”
“Good for what?”
“I got this place now. Share it with my brother and his wife and her two youngsters, and my father, and my boy, Jamie.” He looked up for a moment, unable to hold her gaze as he spoke.
“That’s good. I always dreamed you’d end up with something better than us.” She sighed again and her eyelids began to droop. Then she reached up and touched his cheek, a swift, slight movement like the lightest of kisses. He watched her slip away, before he could ask his question. It would have to wait. Last time, it had been too soon and she had cried. Now, even if she said yes, he’d have to wait until they got home and she had recovered. Maybe it would be better to see how Jamie liked her. If he could be coaxed out from behind grandpa’s legs to meet her. The boy was shyer than he had been at seven.
In soothing her, he soothed himself, so that when the doc arrived he was almost asleep.
Scott knocked then coughed as he stepped into the room. He watched his brother come awake slowly, his hand still on Francie’s breast but as he lifted his head he pulled away from her.
The doctor was friendly, calm and efficient. He had everyone organised within five minutes of his arrival and within fifteen minutes, his instruments were arranged on a hastily scrubbed side table and Francie on an unnaturally gleaming dining table, with everyone but Johnny told to wait outside.
Scott sat in the shade, listening to the quiet sounds inside and wondered how soon the replacement stagecoach would be out to pick them up. Eula was packed and ready to go, her hair brushed and pinned and her skirts smoothed. Mr Farrell sat, too, his papers at last put away.
It was an hour before Johnny opened the door. He was pale; his shirt was sweat-darkened.
“She’s sleepin’. I’m goin’ back right after I …” Johnny said, nodding to the outhouse.
“You all right?” Scott asked, regretting the question as soon as he had asked it.
“Sick to my stomach,” Johnny confessed, lowering his voice.
“Would you like me to go and see what I can do for her? We’re staying here until she’s well enough to travel.” Scott stood, calmly waiting for his brother to make a move.
Johnny glanced at him, grim-faced, nodded and headed off across the yard.
Scott went inside and found the doctor, washing his hands in the kitchen. “How is she?” Scott asked, knowing the answer as soon as he saw the man’s grim expression.
“Patient confidentiality, Mr.Lancer. Excuse me, but is your brother her only family?”
“What do you mean?”
“She may become – worse. If she has other family, perhaps they could be contacted.”
“Johnny isn’t related to her, as far as I know. I don’t know if she has any relatives.”
“I assumed – excuse me, Mr. Lancer, I assumed they were man and wife.”
“No. I know they know each other, from a long time ago. But Johnny lost his wife seven years ago now.”
“Well, that’ll teach me to ask questions before I let a stranger help me with a lady patient.”
“I think . . .” Scott said, wondering why he was discussing his brother’s life with a stranger but succumbing to the doctor’s gentle lead. “I think they were – close.”
“Of that, I have no doubt. Do you think we could find some clean linen here?”
Johnny took an extra moment to settle himself before he walked back into the dim, suffocating atmosphere of the building. He couldn’t look at the improvised operating table again, or at the floor, which had been newly mopped.
Back in the tiny room, the doctor was draping a sheet over Francie.
“Your brother found a chest – clean sheets, even a pillow and a pillowcase. Seems the men thought they were too fancy for them to use.”
“Thanks, doc. She looks better already.”
“Well, I have to be going now. I have another patient about five miles from here – came round this way first when I heard it was a woman. I’ll call back in three or four hours, see how she’s getting along. Keep an eye on the fever – she’s all right now but it may climb. Keeping her cool isn’t going to be easy.” The doctor picked up his bag and walked with Johnny into the main room, where Scott was pouring a cup of coffee. He raised another cup and lifted his eyebrows quizzically, but Johnny shook his head.
Johnny suddenly didn’t want the man to go. He had had to watch through half-closed eyes as the doctor worked on Francie but now, he needed him to stay. It was no use asking. He would have to rely on what he knew to keep her safe. And on his brother. Still, he was sorry to see the man flick the reins and urge his horse forward.
“You all right?” Scott asked, looking after the receding buggy and grimacing at the taste of the coffee.
“Yeah,” Johnny said, leaning against the doorframe wearily. Then, after a moment’s silence, sketched his feelings about the situation. “I can look after her. She done it for me, a coupla times. But I wish we had her back home. I’d give anything to be able to get her away from here.”
“Maybe tomorrow. I could ride home, first thing, bring back a wagon,” Scott offered, before he took another mouthful of coffee.
Johnny shook his head. “She has to be still, three days at least, Doc said. Then travel in something more comfortable than a wagon. You stayin’, or goin’ when that stagecoach gets here?”
“Staying. If you want me to.”
“I was kinda countin’ on it.” Johnny said, studying the toe of his boot.
“Okay then. I’ll get the men onto making sure she has more clean bed linen. Maybe we can fix up one of the other rooms for her – it’s got to be cooler somewhere. See what I can do.” And his brother, who, through the difficult years, had been his rock and guide and Understander-In-Chief, went to do just that.
Three long, hot hours later, there was no sign of a new stagecoach and everyone was on edge. Eula had long since retreated to a corner of the main room, her bag by her side. She was at last silent, although her expression seemed to blame everyone for her troubles. Mr. Farrell, perspiring heavily and still looking somewhat the worse for wear, sat slumped in a large armchair someone had found for him.
He talked quietly to Scott, who was taking a few moments to rest, and their hushed voice added to the impression of breaths being held – of endless waiting room suspension of time. They talked about stock prices, and the law. As Scott came to know the man better, his respect for him grew. He was a man who knew what he was talking about. Finally, Scott asked what he did for a living, wondering why he not asked before.
“Circuit Judge,” Farrell said, smiling. “I was wondering when you would ask. Newly appointed.”
Scott introduced himself more formally, and, by proxy, his brother.
“I believe,” Farrell continued, “I believe I might know the cause of our difficulties.” And, for ten minutes or so, Scott listened with increasing alarm to the story Farrell had to tell.
“So,” Scott concluded, leaning back in his chair. “So maybe we’re as much in danger here as we were last night. Why haven’t they just come and finished us?”
“I suspect he would rather I were alive, at least for a while. He has enough manpower to carry through his plan. He clearly thought it would be easy to stop the coach and take both myself and the documents. That you were my fellow passengers seems to have been most fortunate. From my point of view, that is. Don’t forget the men here also fought him off once.” Farrell looked apologetic.
“Not your fault, Judge.”
“No, it’s not.” Johnny’s tired drawl made everyone in the room look at him. “But it don’t change the facts. I’m going outside for a look around. Scott – you know what to do.”
“Johnny – maybe we should move her in here, for safety.”
“No. Put something over the window. I’ll be back.” Johnny crossed the room, head down, intent on the job he could still do better than most.
Dusk came, and with it a greater sense of urgency. Scott had done his best to organise his troops, barricading the windows, making sure they had water drawn, picking vantage points and pooling their meagre ammunition.
Johnny had been gone for the better part of an hour. When Scott checked The Mouse, Eula had been sitting with her, fanning her half-heartedly and under strict instructions to make Francie drink whenever she was awake. Eula looked bored rather than scared, but did the job she had been given well enough, as far as Scott could tell.
Scott did a fifth mental check of their resources and positions. Eula with The Mouse: window boarded over, light out, provisioned with water and a bowl with clean cloths ready. Johnny outside somewhere, on reconnaissance, with his handgun and their rifle. A nearly full belt of ammunition, probably – maybe just a few shells down. Probably had a few tucked away in his coat pocket. Did he have water with him? Scott tried to think whether he had seen Johnny take a canteen but drew a blank.
Farrell was posted by the main door, with a handgun he had produced from his capacious bag, and a box of shells. A useful man to have around, too – he had stayed alert and had made some useful suggestions about the enemy, from what little knowledge he had of them. He had a canteen by him, full.
Okay – now the three men who had been running the way station. One was still putting up boarding in the kitchen. He was an old man, a little crippled, and he was in charge of water, coffee and provisions.
“Mr.Lancer,” the old man said.
“Yes?” Scott was checking an ancient shotgun.
“You don’t hafta worry ‘bout the water runnin’ out.”
Scott recognised a note of pride in the old man’s voice. He limped across to hold a board while the old man nailed it in place. It was a flimsy barricade, unlikely to do more than delay a determined enemy but Scott felt more secure when it was finished. He went to wash his face in the pump water.
“It’s very cold,” Scott said.
“Yeah. Fresh too.”
Johnny came into the room, holding his canteen. “Need a fill up.”
“Just swing on that pump, son. As much cold, fresh water as you could want. Worth every hour I spent diggin’ the well. Built the house right round it. Figured it might come in handy.”
Johnny emptied the canteen and then held it out to be filled. Before he went back on watch he washed his face and hands. Scott recognised his brother’s nervous anticipation of trouble with a nod. To still his own nerves he continued his inventory.
The two others – one was in the barn, with another rifle and a few shells. Exposed, out there but some form of early warning and maybe good for providing some crossfire. And the other, at the main window in the way station itself, looking out over the northern landscape. Scott himself stood in the centre of the room, with only his handgun and a half-full belt of ammunition. He wished he had his better rifle, but it was wall-mounted back at Lancer, out of reach of the children, and he hadn’t felt the need to take it on a business trip. He had only put his handgun on at Johnny’s insistence and always travelled with his second best rifle.
And still there was silence, the time ticked away by a busy little clock above the fireplace, as darkness smothered the landscape.
Around eight o’clock, the old man handed out plates of beans and biscuits, which everyone ate in silence. Scott took a second plate and stepped outside, careful not to make a silhouette in the moonlight. He looked around and saw his brother standing, not ten feet away, leaning over the hitching rail, hat back, rifle loose in his arms.
“You think we’re safe, then?” Scott asked, stepping off the stoop and handing over the plate.
“Yeah. For the time being. They’ll wait until we’re more tired than they are. They can sleep in shifts. You wanna sleep while I watch your back?” Johnny took the plate and began to eat.
“Can we move out and hit them before they expect us – take the fight to them?”
“With the women here, and the guns we got? I don’t think so. Scott?”
“Yes,” Scott said, more quietly, to match Johnny’s voice.
“You think Charlotte’s ready to be widow?” Johnny said, taking another mouthful of beans.
Scott was stunned, his stomach churning and anger quickly building. “You’ve never been so defeatist before. What do you mean?”
“I’m being practical. From what the Judge said, we can expect as many as fifteen or twenty men to attack this place sometime tonight. When the stage doesn’t get through again they’ll be organising a posse in Morro Coyo, maybe, or maybe Val can do something. But that help won’t be arriving tonight. Tomorrow morning at the earliest.”
“I won’t accept that, Johnny – ” But Scott could not think of a way out. Perhaps this time, it was just a matter of time. Maybe they had played out their luck. Well, he was glad he was going to see things through with his brother.
“We could give them what they want.” Johnny looked up at his brother and lifted his eyebrows.
Scott came to stand closer. He had considered that idea too, more than once, but it meant certain death for the Judge. But his death would not guarantee their safety. So there was little point in handing him and his papers over. Johnny was just trying out all their options.
“No. Couldn’t do it anyway, could we? No.” Johnny said, answering his own suggestion.
Scott listened hard, thinking he saw something at the back of the barn. But it was an owl, and it swung away on wide, silent wings.
“Wish we could do that. Fly away.” Johnny finished the beans, took a mouthful of coffee then gave the plate and cup back to Scott. Scott was about to go back inside when his brother cleared his throat.
“Yes?” Encouraging him to speak sometimes worked and Scott could wait patiently for an answer.
“I was thinking, well, when we get back, maybe Francie – maybe I could ask Francie. To stay. Until she goes to San Francisco.”
“There’s plenty of room. She could meet Jamie.” Scott smiled at his brother, who was walking all round the truth. But there was no point in pressing him. There was too much dangerous ground to cross when it came to Johnny and a new woman. Even if the new woman was an old love.
“You think I should ask her?”
“I think you already did. And more, brother? Is that why she’s been so angry?”
“Maybe.” Johnny passed his hand over his eyes. “I’m tired, Scott. I could use a few minutes’ sleep and a few minutes with Francie. You think you could arrange that?”
“You want to be with her while you sleep, or is that sleep and then a few minutes with her?”
Johnny stood slowly. Scott waited for the grin, which was a little slow in coming. “What are you sayin’, Scott – that my intentions ain’t honorable?”
Scott half-laughed, half-coughed his response. “You have fifteen minutes. I’ll cover for you, boy, but you’d better not be absent without my leave longer than that.”
“Thanks, General. You got Eula lookin’ after her?”
“Yes. On strict orders to keep good watch.”
“Well, I’d better make sure Francie hasn’t run off into the night again, huh?”
Johnny was still grinning as he stepped quickly through the main room and to the half-open door to the bedroom. He had been looking forward to this moment for an hour or more. He took off his hat and tried to comb back his hair with his fingers. If a bath had been available, and clean clothes, well, he’d have availed himself of those luxuries too.
He pushed open the door gently, not wanting to wake Francie. He felt like a man on his first visit to his new girl – just about as nervous, suddenly, and as aware of his faults. Eula looked at him. She looked tired, too, and trail weary. Johnny suddenly felt sorry for her.
“How is she?”
“She was awake, a few minutes ago. She had some water. Some got spilled but I did the best I could.”
“Thanks.” He smiled at her and she instantly blushed. “I’ll sit with her for a little while. You get some sleep.”
“I – I hope she’s all right, Mr.Lancer.” Eula stood, and would not catch his eye.
“What d’you mean? She is all right, isn’t she? Doc patched her up. She doesn’t look like she has a fever.”
But Eula had gone, the shiver of her skirts distracting him for a moment. Worried, he checked Francie over. No fever – head cool. Asleep, breathing, a bit shallow maybe but steady. Pulse, yeah, slow pulse but that was all right. Then he checked her dressing, pulling aside Scott’s bloodstained shirt. There was a patch of new blood, not too much of it, just more than he had been expecting. It had seeped out and stained the sheet, a slowly expanding ring of her life ebbing away.
Johnny threw his hat fiercely to the floor. “Eula!” he yelled, with scant regard for their situation. “Eula!”
Somewhat to his surprise, she reappeared.
“Did you move her to give her the drink?” He tried to control rising panic and anger.
“I propped her up a little, yes. She’s all right, isn’t she? She had a pretty good long drink.”
Johnny looked at the pool of blood, and heard Eula’s gasp. That noise was enough to save her from the worst of his anger. His fury was cold and measured. He looked at her and she bridled, trying to draw herself up to face him. Her dignity was pitiful, and any defence unjustifiable, but she tried nevertheless.
“It must have just started. She could have coughed or something. I wasn’t strong enough to hold her while she drank. You should have been here to help me.”
Without knowing it, Eula had hit the one vulnerable spot in Johnny’s anger with her. He had put the group’s needs above Francie’s – and, as it happened, his too. He could have checked back sooner. He could have been there to help.
Sensing a moment’s weakness, Eula pursued it mercilessly. “I was trying not to hurt her. She was too heavy for me. While you were away…” She hadn’t the sense to quit while she was ahead.
“Ma’am,” Johnny said quietly. “She saved your life. Was your life worth saving?” He grabbed her arm and pulled her across the room to a black-spotted, cracked mirror. He stood behind her, hands on both sides of her head and made her look at her own reflection. There, he knew she could see him too. He felt her fight melt away, watched her head go down.
But Eula had her own kind of stupid stubbornness and she hid her shame behind her own anger.
“I did the best I could!” she repeated, shaking off his hands and looking defiantly into the mirror.
Sickened by her, Johnny turned away, knowing that to press her was to push her further into stubborn denial. He could have forced her but he had neither the heart nor the time. She was trash, and his treasure was dying for lack of attention. Except that Scott was already there, cutting the bandaging. Francie was just awake, a little scared now. Johnny propelled Eula from the room and the brothers worked together, trying to find the problem and some solution to it. Both had medical experience but mainly on the receiving end. They found three pulled stitches.
“Do we stitch her up or leave it?” Johnny asked, knowing neither way was safe.
“Stitches. You go outside, check round, I’ll do it. Won’t take a minute.”
“I ain’t leavin’ her.” There was no conviction in his voice. He couldn’t bear the idea of watching her being stitched up again.
“Yes, you are. I need you outside, not watching my every move in here. Last time, you threw up, remember?”
Johnny, anger barely dissipated from his encounter with Eula, considered fighting back. But there wasn’t time and in any case, his brother was right. They couldn’t afford to have them both inside and Scott could put three stitches in a woman he barely knew, better than Johnny could put stitches into flesh he cared about passionately.
“I have to have a little light,” Scott said, reaching in Francie’s bag for the equipment he needed.
Francie was stirring under his touch, “Settle, Francie. Hush,” Johnny said softly. “My big brother will sort you out. I’ll be right outside.”
“I’m not dying,” Francie murmured. “You can stay if you want.”
Johnny groaned inwardly. She had a way of grabbing his thoughts and handing them back to him. He glanced at Scott.
“No, ma’am, he can’t stay. He has guard duty and he’s awol. I gave him fifteen minutes and I think it’s been more than that.” Scott continued his soothing chatter as he wiped the blood from her side. Johnny backed away. The last sight he took with him was his brother attempting to thread a needle, and his love, his foolishly discarded love, looking at him with an expression some might interpret as amusement.
Scott washed his hands then checked the house. Farrell was still on duty, eating an apple and drinking coffee the old man had brought from the kitchen. Scott exchanged a few words with him then did the rounds, without seeing Johnny. He’d have made a damn fine soldier, if he could have followed the rules.
The flow of blood from Francie’s side had slowed but she was noticeably weaker and Scott was worried for her. He kept severely away from the idea that she might die.
Then Johnny stepped quietly back into the house and sat in the near-dark for a few minutes by the bedside, stirring the air, fussing with blankets and pillows and, when she was awake, talking quietly to his Francie. Johnny left the door open and Scott, before he went out to scout for himself, drank in the sight of their happiness. It was there, in the air, whatever the circumstances. If there was anything he could do to keep them together, he would do it.
Two hours later, and the air of tension at the way station had increased tangibly, although not a thing had happened. Johnny had kept to his job, walking the boundaries, checking on unusual sights and sounds and returning whenever he could to be with Francie. She had no fever, but each time he saw her he knew she had lost ground and it was a hard task not to say anything. Finally it was the slowed but continuing flow of blood that removed his confidence. In the near-dark, for a few minutes at a time, he sat by her talking very quietly to her. They didn’t look back. There was no remembering of first meetings, or of hard nights on the trail, or of the love they had had then. But there were the beginnings of talk of a future, and for him, a realisation that he had a new kind of love, a passion tempered with a concern for her feelings, her needs.
At three in the morning, he slipped into bed alongside her, his arm under her head, and they gazed at one another. The door was open and the little light gave only hints of expressions. But they were close, and quiet, and it was almost enough.
She worsened suddenly, when Johnny was away from her. She lost track of time and herself for a while before Scott helped her to drink, and Eula furtively remade the bed. He spoke to her quietly until she was calm again and then seemed to be asleep.
Scott went to report to his brother, who was standing by the corral watching the dozing horses. Two more hours ‘til dawn. The moon had set and the landscape was only shapes and shadows. Scott felt very small measured against the intimidating open spaces surrounding their island of buildings.
“How is she?” Johnny asked. “How is she, really?”
Scott was quiet. Did his brother want his true opinion? When Sarah had been so ill, slipping away just as Francie seemed to be doing, he had reassured and dissimulated, and he had always worried that Johnny had been more hurt by Sarah’s death because he had not been properly prepared for it. So he paused, making important decisions.
“She’s worse again. I’m glad we didn’t move her further but I wish that doctor had come back.”
“Do you think I should marry her now, before she goes? Circuit Judge, Farrell, he could bend a few rules, fill in the forms.”
“She’s a match for you,” Scott said, voicing what was going through his head at Johnny’s blunt question. He couldn’t answer it directly.
“Yeah. But should I ask her?”
“Haven’t you already?”
“Yeah,” the snort of confirmation made Scott smile. “She didn’t exactly say yes.”
“It’s still quiet. I ain’t seen anyone or heard a thing. Maybe they’re waitin’ for first light.”
Scott hesitated again, wondering why his brother had chosen the wrong interpretation of his prompt. His brother edged away, walking backward a few steps then halting, clearly waiting for some last word of release or decision. Scott almost missed Johnny wiping his eyes. Johnny was close to a precipice.
“Should I see if the Judge has the paperwork in that bag of his?” Scott offered.
“No harm in signing my name to a few papers. He’ll probably come up with some legal reason why we can’t marry.” Johnny took another step back. “But yeah, ask him, would you, Scott? Then, if she wants to…”
“You can step up to – well, her bed – and marry her. You sure that’s what you want to do?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said over his shoulder as he walked away. “Bout time I had a woman to fuss over – to fuss over me,” he corrected. Then he walked away into the dark.
The Judge was surprisingly co-operative, which was just as well. Scott didn’t have time to argue. They talked of lives saved, and the impact of the attack on those lives. Unfortunately, he did not have the right papers with him, and Scott was unsure whether to be relieved or annoyed. However, he did have some official paper, a pen and some ink. Scott set him up with a candle at a small table, and Farrell began to create a suitable document. Scott had no idea of the legality of the document the Judge wrote, but it certainly looked official.
Farrell reassured him, partly. “I’ll try to make sure this holds up in court. May I enquire – is the lady agreeable to this? I have presided at a number of weddings but never under these circumstances. We will have to ensure she is lucid.”
Scott hesitated to voice his voice his fears, or confide too much in a man who was almost a stranger. “I believe it makes legal a prior relationship…”
“Ah. Perhaps they did not have the opportunity before.”
“Probably not, under the circumstances. They’ve been apart a long time, Judge. They were very young. Johnny lost his wife seven years ago now.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Most unfortunate.” The Judge paused, as if considering the sad facts of the case. “And, may I enquire, are you married?”
“Yes. Not long.” Scott smiled as an image of his wife drifted into his mind.
“I am willing to marry them, so long as both parties know exactly what they are doing.”
At three forty-five, Johnny asked his question again, of a Francie whose eyes shone. He even went down on one knee, although that was more of a concession to the cramped quarters than a romantic gesture. Francie smiled serenely – and lucidly – made her decision and asked a few practical questions like when, and where.
“It could be now, honey – here, now.” He squeezed her hand to persuade her of the truth of what he was saying.
Johnny saw a look of concern in her face and knew he was taking the risk of scaring her.
“I want to, Francie – I can’t wait no more. Day after I left you I regretted what I done. I’d have come back for you, if …”
“You were too young – we were both too young. I want to as well, Johnny. So long as you’re prepared for afterwards.”
“You won’t die!” he blurted, then looked away, angry with himself.
“I didn’t mean that.”
He glared for a moment then laughed, very quietly, more of a sigh than a laugh.
“Francie – I gotta say this. I loved Sarah all I could, and I nearly died when she – when she passed on. But you – it’s like I’ve bin away for a few days and learned a whole lot more and come back to you, and now maybe I’m a little closer to bein’ worthy of you.”
She smiled again, no shadow of pain or anger on her face any more. “Then I’ll try to be worthy of you, too. Mí pistolero. Ranchero,” she hastily amended.
His smile crinkled the skin round his eyes and the fear of loss receded for a while.
At four, Scott was standing at the head of the bed, hat in hand, hair neatly slicked back, feeling nervous and self-conscious. The Judge stood too, a couple of documents on the bed in front of him, beginning the legal part of the ceremony with a conscious Francie and a Johnny whose hand trembled with nervous anticipation. Their only light was one lone candle, placed in front of a mirror to shed a little more light.
At first, the scene seemed unreal to Scott, so sudden and practical as to be lacking the heart of the occasion – the binding of two lives in one. But it was all that could be managed.
However, the hushed voices of Johnny and Francie, responding to the prompts from the Judge, gradually set the atmosphere and, as the deep voice of the Judge alternated with the lighter, uncertain responses, Scott felt himself drawn into shadows of this wedding. It struck him with a sudden shock that he had attended another marriage, eight years before, and his memories of that were of light and the happiness of a couple standing up before the community to get married. That marriage had ended in the dark. Scott did not dare look to the future for this one but at this moment, though lit only by one candle there was as much light, as much hope as any wedding should have.
Then came the moment when tokens could be given. There was a moment’s pause. Scott had nothing with him to offer but his brother had the solution. He drew the ring off the middle finger of his left hand and fitted it onto Francie’s middle finger. It was far too big but he folded her hands round it, and grasped them in his own. The wound to the back of his hand stood out plainly, reddened and ugly. Such large hands, his brother had.
“I have something in my bag I kept, Johnny. Scott – maybe you could look? In that box. I kept it safe,” Francie said.
Scott had found the box after a few moments’ rummaging, and handed it straight to his brother. The box was opened. Inside, another ring, a gold ring set round with turquoises.
“I remember,” was all Johnny said, and he exchanged the rings again, placing the new one on her ring finger, where it fit perfectly and replacing his own. “There. I’ll tell you later, brother,” was all he would offer in explanation. That Johnny had always worn his ring, right through his marriage, was something Scott had never questioned before. Now it seemed he had some answer about its origin.
“The ceremony is now concluded,” Judge Farrell said, “and it is my pleasure to announce that you are husband and wife in the eyes of the law. Now, you must both sign these few paper I have prepared.”
Scott intervened. “We can do that in a few minutes, Judge. I think – I think some privacy – just for a short while.” The latter comment was as much for Francie and Johnny as for Farrell, who nodded agreement, picked up his papers and walked through into the main room. Scott stopped to put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“I’ll be right outside,” he said.
Even in the dim light, Scott saw the flash of amusement in Johnny’s expression. Scott didn’t pursue the inappropriate teasing that was on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he left them alone and closed the door, as far as he could. The room he walked into was quiet, and dark, and the indescribable atmosphere he felt a moment before, evaporated into the night.
Johnny had rarely been so happy. He felt insulated from everything around him, secure in the world they created for one another. She had such warm, brown eyes and such a smile. He tried to relax, lying next to her. Their wedding night.
“Hmmmmm,” she breathed, the smile creating two small dimples in her cheeks. He began to smooth one of the dimples with one finger.
“I know we can’t, but I wish we could.”
“Yeah. Me too.” The smile broadened and, though she did not laugh, he knew she was close. Whatever the circumstances they were still just married.
“I guess – I guess there’s something I want to say to you.”
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat, now somewhat regretting the task he had set himself. But it might be now or never to say what he had in his heart. “Francie, you come back into my life like a whirlwind, spun me round, stepped on my toes and I have fallen in love with you so strong, it’s scarin’ me. In two days you’ve made me look at myself and then see what the future is goin’ to be. With you, I can look there and – and be content.”
“Are you content, then?”
He rested his hand on her breast again, feeling her raised heartbeat.
“Yeah. More than that. I can’t remember feelin’ like this since – for a long time. Jamie and me, we have some fun. And with Scott, when we’re in town, we have a good time, relax, have a beer. But, well, I think I like this contentment better.”
“I remember the first time – we were, you know, together. I remember it so well. I never thought you’d even look at me. Now – now, is something new. Like I took all the best feelings I had then and added a whole lot more, and threw away all my anger. It was so useless, feeling like that.”
“Yeah. And feeling sad for what can’t be. That wasn’t much use, either.”
“How long do we have, Johnny?”
He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, unable to bear the intensity of her gaze. The answer did not come immediately to mind.
“Until – I dunno.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say. He wanted her, and that want was clouding his mind.
He put his finger over her mouth. “No. Death, well, maybe that’s not an end. Not – not for us.”
She sighed, a deep, satisfied sigh, and tried to re-settle herself in the crook of his arm. He continued to touch her, gently, whatever he could reach of her. Then he stretched across, and pinched out the candle.
Scott heard his brother’s quiet voice, but not the words. He tried not to listen but the door to their room would not close completely. He felt if he stayed close, then the others would stay away, and he did not wish any of them to be there. He tried to imagine his own wedding night with an audience, and made himself so embarrassed he had to cough and shift position.
Then a shot so jangled his nerves, he almost dropped the rifle he had been carrying. Almost instantaneously, Johnny stood by his side, breathing heavily and doing up his shirt.
“They know Francie and me just got married?” Johnny asked, a sardonic edge to his voice.
“I doubt it, brother. And when you’re back at Lancer . . .”
“Yeah, I know – we’ll both laugh about this in the years to come. I got an idea what to do.”
Johnny moved silently away then called, “Old man! Where are you?”
“Here, mister – over here. Got myself a safe place and I am staying right here.”
“The well – you dig it by hand?”
“Through solid rock? I should say not. Dynamite. Nearly blowed mesself up with it a coupla times. But went straight through that bedrock and found water, clear and cool as …”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You use up every stick of that dynamite, did you?”
Scott hurried to his brother’s side. It was very quiet again outside, the quiet before an impending storm. “Johnny – you can’t blow them up!”
“Don’t intend to. Gonna draw them off, many as I can. It’s not much more’n hour off dawn. I reckon this judge, well, someone somewhere will be concerned he went missin’. I reckon there’s a good chance some help is on the way.”
A rapid volley of shots outside made Johnny move. He grabbed the old man by the arm and dragged him along to the door. “Where? Where’d you put the dynamite? You remember, you hear, or I’m takin’ you outside with me to find it.”
This encouragement was extremely effective in aiding the old man’s memory. “Over yonder – that last lean-to. In there somewheres. Not sure where – hey – now I remember! Top shelf, left side. I think I put it in a box. Fuse wire in there too, I reckon.”
Johnny was half out of the door by the time the old man had started speaking, and gone when he had finished. Scott thanked the old man, led him quickly back to his safe place then followed his brother out into the dark.
It was a hopeless chase, and Scott gave it up after a dozen limping steps. It was beginning to be light but not enough to see more than shapes and a breeze was lifting the dust into his eyes. Retreat, regroup and guard their base. He turned and stalked back to the dark way station house, calling out to the Judge, who opened the door for him.
“My brother has a plan. Whatever it is, he will execute it well and still nearly get his fool head blown off. Our job is to keep Francie and yourself as safe as we can, as long as we can.” He had been whispering to Farrell. He raised his voice to speak to the others. “Anyone got a sight of anything?”
They reported back – all quiet, nothing seen, nothing heard.
Scott tried to calculate the passage of time in his head. He could still hear the clock but it was too dark to check the time. He paced round the room, encouraging, checking, trying to think what he could do to help his brother. He had heard the plan, not believed for a moment it would work but had nothing better to suggest. There was a chance of some sort of rescue in the morning; meanwhile, holding their improvised fort was going to one of the toughest jobs of his career.
It was still dead quiet outside so he decided to check on Francie. He pushed open the door gently, taking a lit candle into the intense darkness. She appeared to be asleep so he settled himself quietly in the chair by the bed, and took a piece of cloth out of the pan of water that stood on the floor. The music of the water falling back into the pan as he wrung out the cloth woke her.
“Scott – it’s Scott. Shall I wash your face?”
She looked at him and for the first time Scott saw fear in her eyes. When she nodded, he passed the cloth over her pale skin and tried to think how to reassure her.
“When we get back to Lancer you’ll be able to meet Jamie. He’s a fine boy – doesn’t look like his father, though.”
“Blond. He told me Jamie was blond,” she whispered. “What’s he like?”
“Jamie? A fine, strong boy. Johnny made a good job of raising him. Did he tell you, he once knocked me out when I tried to tell him I thought he wasn’t treating Jamie right? When Jamie was first born, that was. Stupid thing to say – I didn’t understand what was going through his head.”
“I don’t – some of the time, I don’t. I thought I did.”
Scott wiped her hands, taking them one at a time into his own. “This is a fine ring.”
“It was my ring before – when – A token, between the two of us. We got the two rings together, wore them both. I took mine off when he left me. Now it means something again. Where is he, Scott?” She suddenly became restless, trying to sit up and clearly wanting to go and find him. Scott tried to hold her down but she simply worked harder to sit up. But she was too weak too weak to fight him long and fell back, panting. She didn’t cry about it, however. She smiled, suddenly and broadly. “Weak as a kitten – isn’t that what they say? They don’t look so weak, climbing all over their mother to get to the milk. Right now I couldn’t make it across the room.”
Scott laughed. “So you stay there and you yell if anyone comes to bother your sleep.”
“Yessir. Johnny said you were in the army, Colonel Lancer, sir.” She grimaced, and her hand went to her side. “Johnny left me a little insurance, anyway.” She turned her head and Scott looked. There, just peeping out from underneath the pillow, was his brother’s precious revolver.
He was just about to make a smart comment when he noticed her eyelids drooping again. He wet the cloth once more and put it over her eyes. She shifted, settled and was then still.
When the explosion came it was so sudden, Scott slopped water from the pan, which he had been carrying to the door.
“Scott?” Her urgent whisper drew him back.
“Your husband has some dynamite.” Another roar, further away, off to the left of the first, and Scott was throwing down the pan, scattering the water in great dark droplets across the floor. “I’ll be right back.”
He limped through into the main room and saw Farrell holding the door open a fraction. He moved to stand behind him.
“He’s gone around the back of the barn – there – can you see him?” Farrell pointed and Scott just barely saw a small figure running flat out, skimming across the ground then pausing, hunched over: a flash of fire, and the figure was throwing, ducking down and then running back the way he had come. The thump of the explosion was carried on the wind and Scott heard shouts and cries of pain. Then all was quiet again, except for the quiet, insistent tap of wood on metal, something stirring in the wind. The image of Johnny throwing the dynamite stayed in Scott’s mind, an exact image of the ease of his brother’s movements.
Scott searched for any sight of their enemy but he could still see nothing even in the growing dawn light. He paced restlessly, listening for anything that would give him a chance to contribute something to their defence, then moved back into the house. Moments later he cursed himself for tempting fate. They were under attack from two directions, shots puncturing the wooden walls and sending them all to the floor.
“Farrell!” Scott shouted.
“I’m fine,” came a deep voice from somewhere near the door. Then Scott’s troops began to fire back as they found targets and Scott supported where it was most needed, by the back wall, until the assault began to fall back and Scott ordered a cease fire to save their precious ammunition.
“Everyone all right?” he called out.
No one had been hit but there was a tremor in every voice except Farrell’s. Scott meted out praise, checked positions and finally glanced outside. Two men lay wounded, their guns tantalisingly close.
“Yo – you in the house! Let me speak to Farrell!” A tight, husky voice caught everyone’s attention. Someone was trying to sound as if they were in charge but there was a hesitancy Scott instantly recognised.
Scott located Farrell and went to stand behind the large man. “Do you want to talk to him?”
“I know what they’re going to say, Mr. Lancer. And I know you realise I have to protect the papers in my bag with my life.”
“And that I’m not asking you to give your life too.”
The hoarse voice from outside the house interrupted them. “Come on, Farrell. I know you’re in there. Hand over the papers and I’ll let everyone go free. You’re outnumbered ten to one.”
Then there was another voice, a familiar one, much closer than Scott had expected. It was quiet and carried a certainty Scott had not heard in any voice apart from the Judge’s for a while.
“No, you ain’t, Scott. There’s him and five more. Rest are licking their wounds or left a few minutes ago. That’s what comes of usin’ ranch hands to do a job needin’ professionals. Ain’t that right, Mister?”
“Johnny…” Scott looked for his brother, but could not immediately pick him out of the shadows.
“Anyhow, I don’t see how this can do you no good now. We all know what them papers have on them. Any one of us stays alive, we’ll tell the story. And I just don’t think you have the manpower any more to kill us all – or the guts,” Johnny said.
The grey light of dawn began to sharpen the scene at last. A man, tall, very thin, in dark clothes, stood about fifteen feet from the door, peering into the gloom. Scott looked for his brother and found him leaning nonchalantly against the front wall of the house, a straw in his mouth, his rifle in his right hand, the barrel resting across his left arm. It had been a while since Scott had seen his brother in that pose. But it had lost none of its power to intimidate, this ease in the face of death, and Scott saw the man who a moment ago had been demanding their surrender take a half pace back, as if to re-assess the situation.
“You made your play. Can’t say I blame you – a lot at stake. But mister, we all got a lot at stake here. Wives, families – the Law. I just got myself a new wife. Now why don’t you go on back to your ranch and think how lucky you were.”
“Lucky? You’re the one that’s lucky, that you’re not dead. Come on out here, Mr. Farrell – leave the paper with me and I’ll let you go free.” The tall man, middle-aged and worn-looking, now that Scott could see him properly, was glancing nervously at Johnny.
Scott sensed victory. Apparently Farrell did, too, and quietly replied, “I don’t think I will, if it’s all the same to you. I happen to think these papers need to reach their destination, whatever the cost to you. Because if they don’t, it’s going to create far too many problems to other people. Just set your gun down. I’m sure we can work something out.”
Johnny eased away from the wall, shifting his rifle and stood, making his presence felt just enough to make the man hesitate once more.
The splintering crash from Francie’s bedroom was so loud it startled them all. Johnny stiffened and shot his brother a glance. He couldn’t give up the advantage they had – it might be their only chance. Scott nodded, turned on his heel and felt his heart grip as he heard one shot fired, and the deathly silence that followed. He pushed open the door. With her back to him and pistol in hand, Francie sat on the floor. Sprawled right in front of her, life still in him but running out fast, lay a man, his own pistol still grasped in a convulsing hand.
“Wait there – I’ll get Johnny!” It was a stupid thing to say and it brought a glance from Francie that Scott would remember all his life. But he went anyway. He tried not to show his fear, either, but walked quietly over to Johnny, whispered his news and then took the rifle from his brother. He noticed Johnny stepping lighter on one foot, trying to disguise the injury, whatever it might be. His brother paled noticeably before he was gone into the dark interior without saying another word.
In the advancing dawn everything seemed to come right at once. A heavy thunder of horses’ hooves became a troop of cavalry, almost at full charge across the plain, sending the men who had seemed such a threat a few hours ago into full retreat. And so the sun rose, and Scott’s little troop cheered the arrival of the Lieutenant and his men, all looking fine and splendid in their uniforms. For a little while all Scott could do was think of how big the three children’s eyes would be when he told them the tale of their rescue. He busied himself filling the Lieutenant in on their situation, introducing him to Farrell and then warmly greeting the doctor.
Then he remembered Francie.
When Scott stepped quietly up to the door, he wasn’t sure what he would find. He didn’t want to disturb them but Francie had looked so in need of help. And if Johnny carried some injury, maybe he would need help too. So, with trepidation, Scott pushed the door open and prepared to withdraw quickly.
His brother sat on the floor, back to the door, one knee raised and head bowed. For a moment, Scott couldn’t see Francie. Then, looking again, he saw Johnny was holding her in his arms and that he was gently rocking. She had her head on his shoulder and her back against his updrawn leg. Her legs were drawn up too, and Johnny appeared to be trying to hold all of her at once. He stroked her hair and was talking to her, a gentle monotone Scott did not willingly interrupt. But he had to find out how she was. She was so still. And his brother had held Sarah like that, tight, long after – a vision of his brother, quietly pleading for more time – Scott had to work hard for a moment to put that image out of his mind.
He glanced at the attacker’s body on the floor. A blanket had been thrown over the corpse and Scott saw in his mind’s eye the anger that had gone into that action, in the way the cloth lay in ragged folds.
He stepped forward, knowing well enough that Johnny knew he was there. He squatted down and tried to ask how they were. Johnny looked up.
His brother was angry, as angry as Scott had ever seen him, a wild, barely controlled fury at everything in the whole world. In that instant, Scott judged Francie had gone. He steeled himself to get his brother to give her up.
“Johnny – come on, brother, let’s get her on the bed.”
“I tried to, but I couldn’t move her.”
“I know – come on, we’ll do it together.”
“No – I mean, she’ll bleed to death if I don’t hold her. Anyway, I did try but I can’t. Hurt my leg a bit.”
Scott reached over, laying one hand on Francie’s neck to feel for the artery there, and Johnny made no move to stop him. For a moment, Scott felt what he had expected – still skin with no thump of life. But then he pressed harder, and felt Johnny’s hand on his own, pressing there.
“She’s still alive. I don’t know how,” Johnny said, breathlessly. “I think she’s too mad with me and this guy here to die.” He bowed his head again, burying his face in her hair. Scott felt the beat of her heart in the blood flow under his fingers and smiled, careless suddenly about everything that had gone before. So long as she was alive, that was all that mattered. And if it meant that much to him, it would matter so much more to the man who sat, using his body to make a safe place for his new wife.
He pulled back a little then rested a hand lightly on his younger brother’s shoulder for a moment.
“The doctor’s here. Came with the cavalry. I’ll fetch him. Get you both patched up some, huh? You all right with her there for a minute or two?”
Johnny nodded mutely. Then he held up his hand. It was slick with her blood. “Hurry, yeah?”
Johnny eased his position slightly, taking pressure off his leg. Francie stirred in his arms and came to. He had been breathing in her scent, remembering her, feeling her hair against his face; her movement forced him to shift his position again so that he could see her face. His heart was beating painfully, and he was afraid of what he would see in her expression.
He saw confusion for a minute or so, as she woke up and realised where she was. Then she looked at him, a full, steady appraisal, as her senses returned. “You there – Johnny, ain’t it?” she murmured, her voice gently teasing. “I remember you.”
“You should, ma’am,” he whispered back, his view of her blurring suddenly. “You jumped on my foot not long back. My toes still hurt.” He pulled her a little closer and she sighed, and smiled. He could not match her smile yet. She reached up and touched his cheek, gently brushing away the dampness there.
“You going to blame me for that?” she said. The sly smile she gave him pulled at his emotions in the way Jamie’s grin did when he had been naughty and was trying to make up for it. She looked down at his foot. He was glad she couldn’t tell there was a bullet in his leg.
He snorted. “Yeah, I’m going to blame you. And for tearing my heart out and – and for stayin’ while I near blowed myself up a couple of times. Only I ain’t blamin’ you for that.”
She grinned wider, her eyes sparkling. “You did?”
“Sure did. Them fuses were unpredictable. Kept going off sooner’n I expected them to.” He was starting to copy her smile, feel it warming him and settling him down. He began to believe she was going to live.
There was a moment’s pause before she spoke again. “Johnny,” she said, with a solemn deliberation quite unlike anything he had seen in her before.
“Yeah, honey?” He suspected her solemnity was a set up.
Then she whispered something in his ear, a joke meant only for him and it took him a moment before he could respond. She was there, all of her, everything he remembered he had wanted in her, and could now have again: her wicked jokes, her passion and courage, her dark moods and her giggling. She was his. He laughed out loud and held onto her tightly, making her wince.
Three weeks and three days later, in the mid-afternoon heat, Johnny drove the buggy up the road to the Lancer hacienda. He was nervous. He joggled the reins and made the horses nervous too, so that they almost overshot the hitching post and he had to make an untidy and dusty stop. There was no one there to greet them but he was not surprised. They weren’t expected back for another week but – well, he had been persuaded, by a certain strong-willed young woman who had been forced to cling to his arm when he had stopped.
She didn’t say a word, just looked at him, the beloved grin still very much in evidence.
“Come on, honey – maybe we can sneak you in. Give everyone a surprise.”
“I can hardly move. We could have stopped longer in town. No – I know, I wanted to get here as much as you did. Come on, give me a hand. My backside is so sore.”
“I’ll carry you,” he offered gallantly, jumping down and landing awkwardly on one foot.
“You’ll open your leg up again. Anyway it’s my backside that hurts, not my feet.”
He grimaced. “Well, it ain’t far.”
She narrowed her eyes as she looked at him. “Just help me down, sweetheart. I can still walk, I guess. The doc said light exercise was all right.”
He looked at her, cautiously deciding she was teasing him with a new name rather than settling on calling him “sweetheart”. He decided to get some of his own back. “And you been walking slowly for a whole week now, haven’t you, honey. So it’ll be easy.”
“Yeah,” she said, reaching down for her purse, with only the slightest pause to stare at him for his impudence. “Johnny.”
“Yeah?” He limped around the back of the buggy and helped her to climb down, then stood still to hear whatever she wanted to say.
“Murdoch – is he very tall?” She tried to look worried but he knew she was gently teasing. He had spent some time explaining his father to her, and he knew she understood what he felt about bringing her home.
“Come on, honey, let’s go see if I was exaggeratin’.” He put one hand under her elbow and they started forward towards the house.
His heart was pounding. He glanced across at her. Dressed in ill-matched clothes, arm in a sling, hair in the tight plait he had done for her that morning, she was his for life, every last, beautiful inch of her. Yet she had so nearly died. He wasn’t happy when she was out of his sight, however often she reassured him.
They made it just fine, Francie with her arm through his and walking slowly, he doing better as soon as he got his leg muscles moving again. Nevertheless, bad leg or no bad leg, once he had the front door open he picked her up and carried her into the great room, right over to where Murdoch was just rising from the couch. Jamie had been napping next to him but was knuckling the sleep from his eyes as he woke up.
“Hi, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “Look who I brought with me.” He set Francie down. She blushed prettily, then turned to greet Murdoch.
Murdoch stood immediately, disturbing Jamie, who was slow to wake. His father’s pleasure was evident in smile and voice. “Johnny! Welcome home, son! And this must be Francie – my dear, I am so happy to welcome you. We weren’t expecting you for another week at least.”
They went through the formal introductions. Charlotte had come to the kitchen door, gave her welcomes cordially then disappeared back into the kitchen.
Scott had been home the better part of two weeks, leaving Johnny and Francie to recover a little more before they travelled. There had been several partings – the Judge, to take up his duties and deal with a man who had thought killing a Judge and stealing the plans for a railroad spur would solve his financial difficulties. And while Johnny set Francie on her feet he thought for one last moment of Eula, climbing aboard the replacement stagecoach with all the dignity she could muster and not a word of thanks to any of them.
Jamie’s face had lit up when he saw his Pa but when he saw the woman standing next to his father, he went to shelter behind his grandfather, one arm crooked round Murdoch’s thigh and the free hand suspiciously close to his mouth. Johnny knew his son had sworn off thumb-sucking a long time ago and he was almost, but not quite, succumbing to the old need.
Well, Francie must look odd, thin and worn and pale as a ghost. But Johnny had rehearsed this scene over and over in his mind.
“Hi, Jamie – sorry I was away so long, son. Come here and meet Francie. She’s the lady I wrote you about, remember?”
“Hello, Jamie,” Francie said, keeping still. Johnny knew she would be smiling at Jamie but neither of them had expected the boy to take to her straight away.
When Jamie didn’t speak immediately, they made light of the omission and Johnny helped Francie settle in the large and comfortable leather chair near the fireplace. Jamie, seeing his father now free of his burden, sidled up to him; then he studied Francie seriously before the first question escaped his guard.
“Howdy, ma’am. Are you staying here now?”
“I thought I would, yes. Your father told me it’s a beautiful place and I thought I’d see for myself.” Francie had hit on the right subject.
Jamie, still more than a little shy, nodded. “Maybe I can to show you one or two places?”
“Yes, I’d like that, Jamie.” She smiled confidently at him.
Suddenly regaining his confidence, questions which had been puzzling him and Jack for days came flooding out. “Which room is gonna be yours? There aren’t any more rooms down the corridor now, what with Jack and Lily and Uncle Scott and Aunt Charlotte.” Then he thought of a final question of his own. “And why was Pa carrying you?”
Perfectly composed, though Johnny knew how tired she was, Francie smiled again. “I brought you a present, Jamie. Here – see what you think of that.” She put a long, narrow package in his hand. Inside it was a kite. Johnny had picked it up in town before they had come up to the hacienda.
Jamie was quiet, opening his present, admiring it, clearly delighted, then beginning to puzzle out how to put it together. “Thanks – Aunt Francie.” But he was not entirely distracted and looked up his father quizzically.
Johnny hesitated. “How about we let Francie settle in, Jamie. Then I’ll answer all your questions.”
Jamie opened his mouth but closed it again, because Charlotte came back into the room while the present-giving had proceeded. She was carrying a tray of beers for the men, and lemonade for the ladies and Jamie. Johnny noticed how beautifully dressed she was, how neat and elegant, and he threw a glance at Francie, wishing he had thought to buy her a dress in Morro Coyo, as well as the kite for his son. He so wanted Francie to feel comfortable in her new home, yet she had refused to let them stop long enough in town to sort out new clothes for her. But Charlotte did not seem to notice how she was dressed.
“Have a drink, Francie. I am so pleased to meet you – Scott hasn’t stopped talking about you all week.” And so the awkward moments of Jamie’s questions were smoothed over.
After an hour or so, Scott came back to the house with Jack, who had been helping him clear out the tack room. Scott had been teaching him the names of all the pieces of leather that went into controlling horses and Jack was so full of information it kept bubbling out of him at every pause in the conversation. Lily had come in with her mother but when Johnny checked Francie, he found her quietly talking to the little girl, admiring her blue ribbons and her lace collar. Such a surge of feeling for her rose in his chest he had to cough, then she was asking if he was all right, and Jamie came to stand in front of him.
“You ain’t been well, Pa. You should go to bed.” Jamie looked seriously at his father as he echoed adult talk.
“I’m fine, Jamie. You wanna go fly that kite? Wind’s got up some, it’d be fine for flying kites down in the pasture.” Johnny looked at Francie, and she nodded. They had worked out this idea beforehand. “Scott, you wanna come too?”
“I believe I will, once I get Lily to take her nap and Jack up to his room for his study hour. Come on, son, let’s go see what you can read while we’re out.”
Jack made no protest, looking a little puzzled but well schooled in following his new father’s instructions and trusting him to know what he was doing.
“That’s all right, Scott – I’ll look after the children. I need a nap myself,” said Charlotte, in on the plan. She was seven months pregnant and, to Johnny’s eyes, as elegantly pregnant as anyone he had ever seen.
Scott went upstairs with her and Jamie, so Charlotte could rest and he and Jamie could change their clothes, and Johnny showed Francie a downstairs room she could use to freshen up. He changed his shirt then went back to the Great Room.
There sat with his father while he waited for Francie and the other two.
“Scott tells me it was close, son,” said Murdoch.
“It was. She’s been resting in bed for nearly two weeks. Trick was, to keep her there.”
“How did you do it?” Murdoch wasn’t smiling but his voice betrayed his amusement.
“How did she take to that?”
“She didn’t like it. She’s got a mind of her own.”
“Scott said that’s what he liked about her. You think you’ll get along with her all right?”
“Maybe. Might be a few doors slamming before we get settled in together.”
Murdoch smiled broadly. “That should liven things up around here.”
“With three children around? You want things livelier?”
“Son, you can slam as many doors as you like. Just hang on to her.”
Johnny nodded, knowing Murdoch was speaking from his heart. Their relationship remained volatile but when they understood each other, it was good.
It had been a confusing afternoon for Jamie. He had been excited to see his father again but Pa had changed somehow. His clothes seemed too big for him, like they did when he’d been poorly so that was easy to understand, but his expression told Jamie something new about his father. That he could be happy, like Jack had been happy at his birthday party a week ago, or Lily when she got to wear her new dress. Only it was a lot happier than that.
More changes in his life. Now he had to get used to someone else in the house, a new adult, and he’d had to pester his grandfather to read his father’s letter three times to him to be sure of who she was. Francie Delgado. He rolled the name round his mouth for a while. An old friend of Pa’s, coming to stay at the ranch. His pa said there was more to tell him and as he waited for the new lady to get ready for a walk to the riverside, he wondered what more he needed to know. She looked all right, she had a nice smile and hadn’t kissed him, like the old women in town always had, or said stupid things like how big he was or anything. What else did he need to discover about her?
But she had been right by his father and Jamie had felt the urge to go and stand between them, so that he would know for sure Pa liked him best. But Grandpa had spoken to him just that morning about being on his best behaviour when his Pa came home. He was always well-behaved, except when Jack had a really exciting plan that they just had to try out, or when he teased old Jelly too much. He loved Jelly with all his heart but sometimes the temptation was too great.
He fidgeted on his seat, wondering why Jack had given in so easily – although his cousin did love to read – then Uncle Scott came back into the Great Room, his Pa followed him and the new lady followed Pa. Suddenly Jamie giggled.
“What’re you laughing at, boy?” his father asked, pretending to be cross with him.
“Uncle Scott, he’s limping on one side and you’re limping on the other side,” Jamie said, trying to stifle his laughter. He thought he would be told off but then Uncle Scott’s serious face relaxed into a smile and his father’s laugh made him feel as if the world would come right after all.
“I can still beat you to the corral any day of the week, squirt,” his pa said, toeing an imaginary line as he always did when they raced each other. Jamie couldn’t match his father’s speed and agility, except maybe with a bad leg, he’d have a chance to beat him.
“You run anywhere,” came an unexpectedly firm voice, “and I’m not carrying you back to the house.” It was the lady and Jamie was startled by her tone. No one spoke to his father like that.
There was a flurry of movement then two screaming, shouting adults were moving out of the house, the lady over pa’s shoulder and Uncle Scott limping as quickly as he could to catch up.
Jamie ran out of the house after them then stopped as he saw the lady standing up with her hands on her hips and his father reaching for her, and their relationship suddenly struck home. He had seen his uncle with Aunt Charlotte and knew this was how married people behaved.
He looked at his uncle for guidance but he was standing back, roaring with laughter. Then Pa looked straight at Jamie, smiled and put out a hand for him too.
So they all walked slowly down to the pasture by the river, Jamie holding on to one hand and the lady – Francie – holding the other. He noticed Pa was holding on very tight to her hand, as if the lady was going to run away or something.
There was a fine breeze, and Jamie needed some help to get the kite launched into it in the right way. He had had a kite before but never one shaped like a bird, with a real eagle painted on the material and he waited patiently for Pa to put it together, the two sticks running through little tunnels in the material in a very cunning way. He wanted his father to show him how to attach the string, too but he had wandered off and was talking to Uncle Scott, something really serious and important, and that meant Francie was the only adult free to help him. But she was a female. What would she know about such things?
“Ma’am,” he said carefully, trying to think how the schoolmarm liked him to speak.
“Yes, Jamie?” She knelt down and looked at the kite, then tied the string on quickly, with a complicated-looking knot. Jamie was immediately fascinated.
“I need someone to hold the kite and throw it into the air, sorta, really throw it, and then I can run and get it up into the air.” He was proud of himself for remembering. He usually forgot stuff like that.
“Don’t you need a bit more tail? It’ll be hard to fly with only that short one.” The lady was talking to him and because he hadn’t quite heard her, she suggested again that the kite needed a tail.
Jamie looked the lady in the face. She knew things! She knew about tails on kites and how to knot the string and everything. He glanced across at his pa, wanting to tell him what he’d found out about her, but his father had turned away and was looking back at the house. He couldn’t let go the kite to run to pa and pester him to listen so he looked again at the lady. Francie. He had to remember her name.
She was already tying a kerchief on the kite, making a much longer tail, and it looked just fine. He nodded to her, accepting what she had done, then took the string and paid it out carefully. She held the kite and looked at him, concentrating on the task in hand. Jamie held up the string, she threw the kite upwards on his signal and he ran, feeling the kite tugging at his hand and knowing it was up from the weight of it. He turned round and there it was, high in the air, flying free and clear. He was one with the kite, flying above the world feeling the power of the wind which rushed through the trees and across the wings of his kite.
Francie moved slowly to stand next to him.
“It’s a fine kite, Jamie. Can you make it swing in the sky?” Francie said, not offering to take the strings but there in case of problems.
He could and did, pulling the string so it dived one way and then the other, its wing-edges fluttering and snapping as it moved.
“Can you make it dive on Jo – on your father?” She winked at him mischievously.
Jamie grinned and allowed the kite to pull him a few yards closer to his father and uncle. Then he let it swing some more, until it was nearly on top of his pa. Another swing would do it.
The kite didn’t hit his pa. It swung pretty close though, making him turn suddenly. Francie was laughing again, holding her side and laughing until Pa limped quickly over to her and put his arms round her waist.
“Excuse me a moment, son. Go and talk to your uncle. I have to give this young lady a serious talking to.” His father’s face was somehow glowing, it was the only word Jamie could think of. He knew to leave his uncle and aunt alone sometimes. He didn’t want to go, though. He was happy with his pa there. Then Francie was speaking up for him.
“You stay, Jamie. Fly your kite. Your pa can tell me off any time he pleases, but not right now. Fly it, Jamie.”
So he did, for longer than he had expected to, and on the way back to the house he held onto his father’s hand on one side, just to make sure he was really there, and onto Francie’s hand on the other side, and she carried his kite. They were late for supper but it didn’t matter, not that once.
Johnny fussed but Francie stayed up for dinner, with a resolution that surprised even him. Finally, in consideration of Murdoch’s back and the state of the next generation’s leg, Frank was called in from the bunkhouse and carried her upstairs, setting her down in Johnny’s room, with Johnny close behind. Francie, The Mouse, gave him a kiss on the cheek for his trouble. Johnny lingered by the door and wondered for a moment what the hands would say about his wife as they sat mulling over the day’s events in the bunkhouse.
And at last, as they lay side by side in the big, comfortable bed, talking softly of things past and their small plans for the future, Johnny felt he could learn to live with this ghost of long ago, who had become a warm, living human again. A warm human being who was suddenly, profoundly asleep.
He turned on his side and remembered her head next to his son’s, brown against blond, she kneeling, he leaning forward a little and rapt. She had tied the tail on the kite and it had flown beautifully. Then she had played with him, encouraging his son to the stunt with the kite. A sudden rush of gratitude that life was going to hold some good things, some – fun, comfort, companionship, all for him. He had waited so long to have that again. And mischief, too. And maybe some of those slammed doors he had already experienced in his relationship with her.
But he would have to marry this ghost from his past properly – because, as he lay beside her, he realised for the first time that not one of the marriage papers had their signatures upon it.
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