"We should go to the hotel, first," Molly said.
"Molly, no," Jarrod said, blowing out his breath exasperated. "How many times do we have to argue about this?" He flicked the reins of the wagon, as they wended their way down the road to Stockton.
"You know how Emma is with men," Molly argued. "I can't see bringing her out to the ranch like that."
"She's made a lot of progress just in the last two weeks," Jarrod said, glancing down to where his adopted daughter's hand rested on his arm. "The family is certainly aware of the problem - we've sent enough letters. And if she's taking her cues from Vicky, she'll be fine. Vicky adores her uncles."
"It's a bit much to thrust her into all at once. I think we should ease her into it."
"I'm not going to insult my brothers by insinuating that either of them would be less than gentle with a damaged child, Molly," Jarrod said firmly. "Remember the scarlet fever outbreak at the orphanage? You couldn't sing Nick's praises loudly enough."
Molly sat quietly in thought.
"You really need to trust us - to trust me - on this, Feather," Jarrod said.
"All right," Molly said after a long while. "You're right, I'm being too protective."
Jarrod wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kissed her head. "It's all right, love, as long as you're amenable to reason."
Molly sighed. "It will be good to be home."
Jarrod smiled. "That it will, love. That it will."
Jarrod opened the front door and ushered his newly enlarged family into the front hall. His sister Audra flew into his arms and hugged him and Molly in turn. "What are you doing home, Sis?" Jarrod asked. "Aren't you supposed to be at college?"
"Mother wrote that you were coming home and I just had to be here," Audra said, as the rest of the family coalesced around them.
"Nuncle Nick!" Vicky said, practically leaping into Nick's arms.
Nick laughed and gave her a kiss. "Well, well, Little Missy, aren't you all grown up!"
Vicky was handed from Barkley to Barkley as Jarrod introduced the other children to their new family. "Lucas, these are my brothers, Nick and Heath."
"Welcome, Lucas," Heath said, he and Nick shaking Lucas's hand in turn.
"My sister Audra."
Audra kissed Lucas on the cheek and smiled, dimpling prettily. "Welcome, Lucas. I know you'll love it here."
"And my mother," Jarrod said.
Victoria hugged Lucas warmly. "Welcome, Lucas," she said. "We've heard so much about you - we're very proud that you're joining our family."
Lucas blushed. "Thank you," he said, shyly.
"And this is Emma," Jarrod finished, looking down to where Emma clung to his knee.
Nick knelt down in front of Emma and held out his hand. "Welcome, Emma," he said. Emma regarded him solemnly for long moments, while Nick waited patiently, smiling, hand outstretched. Finally, Emma placed her hand in his. Nick gave it a gentle squeeze, then let it go.
There was an audible sigh as the family released its collective breath. "Well," Audra said as Nick stood, "why don't I take the children upstairs and get them cleaned up? I'm sure everyone would enjoy a little rest, too."
"I'll come," Molly said.
"No, Molly," Jarrod and Audra said in unison, then laughed. "You're exhausted," Jarrod finished. "Come sit down and let Audra take care of things for awhile." Jarrod led his wife into the parlor and the rest of the family joined them there.
"So, about Emma," Victoria said, "just how bad is she?"
"Getting better, little by little," Molly said. "When Jarrod first found her, she was practically feral. We had help from a friend of ours in Paradise getting her calmed down - since then it's just been a gradual adjustment. She spends a lot of time watching Vicky. She seems to trust whomever Vicky trusts, which has been a big help. She still doesn't speak, though. Or smile or laugh. Or cry, either, for that matter."
"Has she seen a doctor?" Heath asked.
"Yes," Jarrod said, "we found a woman doctor on the way through Sacramento whom we took all the children to. Physically, they'll all recover in time. Emotionally, well, that's still something we'll have to see about."
"Boy, would I like to get my hands on the man who did this to her," Nick said. "I'd make him suffer."
"He's dead," Jarrod said.
"Shot down like a dog in the street," Molly said with satisfaction.
"Good," Nick said.
There was no adequate reply to that, so the family sat in silence for awhile, thinking. Finally, Jarrod stood. "Well, love," he said to Molly, "let's go look in on the children, then have a little rest ourselves. It's been a long road home." He took his wife by the hand and led her up the stairs.
Jarrod woke in the middle of the night. Molly lay with her back to him. "What's wrong, Feather?" he asked.
Molly sniffled. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."
Jarrod touched her shoulder. "What's wrong?" he repeated.
"Soul-searching," Molly said. "Not much liking what I see."
"Tell me about it," Jarrod said quietly.
Molly rolled over to look him in the face. "Nick," she said. "Why didn't I trust him? I should know what to expect of him by now, shouldn't I?"
Jarrod sighed and put his hand on her cheek. "Things haven't been right between the two of you for a long time, Feather. Not since Denver."
"I forgave him for that, didn't I?" Molly said. "I said I did. I thought I had."
"You two used to strike such sparks off each other, Molly, do you remember? It was such a pleasure to watch you. I haven't said anything because I didn't think there was anything I could do about it, but I miss the way you two used to be."
Molly hid her face in Jarrod's chest. "He thought I was evil, Jarrod. It was so easy for him to think so. At the time, all I cared about was what you thought - I didn't realize how much his opinion mattered to me. Until now, I guess."
"You should talk to him, Feather."
"That would just reopen an old wound."
"Looks to me like that wound is festering, dearest."
Molly looked up at him and wiped her eyes. "Yes, you're right. It's been festering a long time and I never realized it."
Jarrod kissed her lips, then stroked her forehead. "Get some sleep, love. You've been neglecting yourself. Sleep in tomorrow - Mother and Audra will watch the girls, and I'm going to take Lucas fishing in the morning."
"You worked as hard on the way back as I did, Jarrod," Molly said. "Taking care of eight children is not easy."
"I'm not with child, love," Jarrod pointed out.
Molly chuckled. "Obviously," she said.
Jarrod smiled and lay a hand on her belly. "Obviously," he agreed. "Come now, rest. Sleep. We're home safe. All shall be well, love, all shall be well."
Jarrod and Lucas sat on the bank of Spencer's Creek, digging up worms. "Here's a nice fat one," Jarrod said.
"What do we do with them, sir?" Lucas asked.
"Have you never been fishing before?"
Jarrod began baiting the hooks. "You don't have to keep calling me 'sir,' Lucas. I'm your father now."
"Don't I have to be adopted, or something?"
"That's just the paperwork," Jarrod said. "In every way that matters, you're my son."
Lucas shook his head. "Can't hardly believe it - I keep expecting to wake up."
Jarrod smiled. "Yes, I understand. But you're not asleep, Son." He gave Lucas one of the baited poles and showed him how to drop the hook into the water.
"So what should I call you?" Lucas asked.
"Well, Vicky calls me 'Daddy.'"
"Too babyish," Lucas said.
"How about 'Dad' then?"
Lucas bit his lip. "I got something I got to tell you, first. You'll probably change your mind about wanting me to be your son."
"Of course I won't change my mind, Lucas. There's nothing you could tell me that would do that."
"I ain't always done what was right," Lucas said.
"Nor have I," Jarrod said.
Lucas looked up startled. "You ain't?"
"Nobody's perfect, son," Jarrod said. "Everyone's done things they're not proud of. That's why we need things like mercy and forgiveness.”
"That's not what that preacher said, the one who came to the orphanage."
Jarrod snorted. "I believe in a loving God, Lucas. Not a vengeful one."
"Well," Lucas said, "I've stolen things. Food, mostly. Money, once."
Jarrod looked at Lucas's undersized frame. "I've never been hungry, Lucas," he said. "I'm not going to judge you for that. The fault seems to lie with the people who should have taken better care of you."
Lucas looked up at him. "Then it's all right?"
"Whether it's all right or not is between you and your conscience," Jarrod said. "I'm saying I still love you, even knowing that. And God will forgive you, if you ask Him. You'll certainly never have to be hungry again."
"Thank you, Dad," Lucas said quietly.
"You're a strong, brave boy, Lucas," Jarrod said. "You were willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of the other children in the mine. I'm more than proud, I'm honored to have you for a son."
Lucas shrugged. "I had to," he said. "I had no other choice."
Jarrod laughed. "Spoken like a Barkley."
"That was funny?" Lucas said.
"You'll find out," Jarrod said.
"So what do I call all the rest of them? I used to imagine having parents, but not all the rest."
"'Aunt' and 'Uncle' for my sister and brothers. 'Grandmother' for my mother."
"Sure that's OK?" Lucas asked. "It's not like they chose to adopt me."
"Yes, it's OK," Jarrod said. "You're my son. They didn't exactly choose for us to have Vicky or the baby on the way, either. That's not how it works."
"It's all going to take some getting used to."
"You'll do fine," Jarrod said. "Don't worry about it. Just let us take care of you, OK?"
"OK," Lucas said, smiling. His pole suddenly bent and he almost dropped it. "What's that?"
"You've caught a fish," Jarrod said. "Hold on." He showed Lucas how to reel it in. "Oh, that's a nice one. We'll have it for dinner."
Lucas beamed. "Wow," he said.
"Wow, indeed," Jarrod said, mussing up Lucas's hair. He showed Lucas how to take the fish off, then re-bait his hook, and the two of them settled down together, enjoying the fresh air, sunshine, and each other.
Molly drove the buggy out to the north pasture where Nick was repairing fences. He was working shirtless, but he shrugged it back on as she approached. "Is something wrong, Molly?" he asked. "Should have sent one of the men for me instead of coming yourself."
Molly shook her head. "No, nothing like that," she said. "I just wanted to talk to you."
"I'm kind of busy here," Nick said. "Can't it wait until I get back to the house?"
"Too many people," Molly said. "This needs to be just between the two of us."
Nick scrutinized her, then huffed. "All right." He climbed into the buggy. "What's so all-fired important?"
Molly hesitated. "I don't quite know how to begin."
"Just spit it out," Nick said.
"All right." Molly turned to look Nick in the eye. "I was up half the night realizing that I haven't forgiven you, Nick."
"Yeah, I knew that," Nick said quietly.
Molly's eyes welled up, ran over. "You did? Why did you never say anything?"
"I already went down on my knees to you. Said I was sorry. What else could I do?"
Molly pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose. "It wasn't enough," she said.
"What would be?" Nick asked.
"I think, I think I need to understand why. Why it was so easy for you to think so ill of me. It's not like I was some stranger. You were like a brother to me, Nick, even before Jarrod and I were married. I absolutely hate losing all that."
Nick regarded her for a long moment. "All right, but if I tell you, you have to promise not to tell Jarrod."
"I don't keep secrets from him," Molly said.
"You'll keep this one, or I won't talk," Nick said. "I'd rather be on the outs with you than hurt my brother."
Molly thought. "All right," she said. "I won't betray your confidence."
"How much do you know about Beth?" Nick asked.
"Jarrod told me all about that soon after we met," Molly said.
Nick waved his hand. "Not about how she died, or what happened after. About her?"
Molly frowned. "Not much," she said. "Her death seems to loom larger for Jarrod than she does. Which is understandable - he doesn't talk about her much."
Nick tapped his fingers on his knee. "He probably doesn't talk about her much because there's not much to talk about."
"They weren't married very long."
"That's not what I meant. I mean, there wasn't much to her. She had no spirit. She was bland, insipid. She was nothing like Jarrod's equal. I'm not saying I'm glad she died, but I believe if she and Jarrod had stayed married, she'd have made him miserable. Not screaming and fighting miserable, just quietly miserable, which is worse to my way of thinking."
Molly was shocked. "You can't mean that, Nick."
"I do," Nick said grimly. "But Jarrod was besotted. He fell hard and fast, which I admit I have done myself, but it was more alarming being Jarrod - he's always been the reasonable one. And then he fell just as hard and fast for you."
"Which you found equally alarming?"
"Not at first," Nick shrugged. "Your spirit was right there for everyone to see from the beginning. You were definitely Jarrod's equal - in brains, too - which made you dangerous."
"I'm not dangerous," Molly said.
"Huh," Nick said. "I wouldn't want to get on your wrong side - especially after all those letters from Paradise. Those read like a dime novel. Facing down a gunslinger."
"It wasn't like that," Molly protested.
"You're tough and you're smart and everything you were accused of you were more than capable of doing, Molly. And I couldn't trust Jarrod's judgment of you because I know that he doesn't think clearly when it comes to the women he loves. And you did just come out of nowhere. For what it's worth, I believe you're the best thing to ever happen to him. I'm sorry I mistrusted you, and I'll say that as many times as you need to hear it, but I can't go back and change it. You'll have to find a way to forgive me, or not. I can't say anymore."
Molly stared down at her hands. "All right, I understand," she said, "but I think you're even more wrong than I knew."
"Jarrod has a great talent of seeing the good in people when others can't - you do know that, don't you?"
Nick shifted uncomfortably. "Well, yeah, he's done that more than once."
"And a talent for bringing that good out of them, too."
"So why can't you believe that there was more to Beth than you could see? That Jarrod could see things there that you couldn't?"
Nick was silent.
"I'm not the same person I was when I met Jarrod - I've grown so much, learned so much from him. Who knows what Beth might have become?"
Nick bowed his head. "Well," he said, "you certainly have given me something to think on." He got down from the buggy. "Are we square?"
Molly held out her hand and he took it. "I think so," she said. "Thanks for telling me the truth."
"Even if you don't believe it?" Nick said.
"I believe it's how you felt. I think your big mistake was underestimating Jarrod, rather than me. But families tend to do that, I think."
"Well, that fence won't mend itself," Nick said. "See you back at the house, Molly."
"Later, Nick," Molly said, flicking the reins. It was a good thing the horse knew the way, because she was so sunk in thought she barely noticed.
After dinner - Lucas's fish, of which he was immensely proud - Nick nudged Molly aside as the family made its way to the parlor. "He has been wrong, you know," he said, voice low.
"I know," Molly said. "But he's been right far more often, hasn't he?"
Nick nodded. "We'll never know for sure, but it's better to think your way than mine, isn't it?"
Molly smiled. "I think so."
Nick smiled back. He put his arm around Molly's shoulders and led her into the parlor. Jarrod looked at both of them as they came in, and smiled gladly himself.
"Now," Jarrod said, after the children were in bed, "I want to have a family council about how best to handle the situation we found in Paradise, both there and the larger picture." He glanced down at the legal pad he held. "Our friend, Amelia, is trying to lead a boycott by the merchants - I thought it might help if we pledged our financial support."
"Yes, absolutely," Victoria said.
"Everyone agree?" Jarrod said. Everyone nodded. "All right. I'll send her a wire in the morning. I also thought we might attack the problem at the other end, with the orphanage that sent Lucas and the others there in the first place."
"And Emma?" Nick asked grimly.
"Probably, but we're not absolutely sure where Emma came from," Jarrod said. "It's still hard for me to believe that anyone pledged to help orphans would send a five or six year old girl to work in a goldmine. Still, they shouldn't be sending any child."
"What are you thinking of doing, Jarrod?" Heath asked.
"Mother," Jarrod said, "I'd like you to write to the orphanage and ask for a donor list. Don't actually say that you're thinking about contributing, but if you make them believe it, well, that should make the task easier."
Victoria smiled. "I think I know exactly what you want. Then I start paying calls, don't I?"
"That's exactly what I had in mind," Jarrod said. "I can't believe that the contributors know what's going on there - let's open a few eyes."
"I can pay calls, too," Audra said.
"You, dear Sister," Jarrod said, "should go back to school. Believe me, you'll have plenty of opportunities to join in this fight, but you shouldn't interrupt your education."
Audra frowned. "This seems so much more important," she said.
"It is important, but so is your education," Jarrod said. "And what you want to do with it afterward. Don't give that up - use it to make better opportunities, Audra."
"Oh, all right," Audra said. "But you let me know what you're doing so I can help whenever possible, you hear me?"
"I hear you," Jarrod said. "Now as to the larger picture, Molly has suggested that the family buy up a newspaper."
"Just what 'larger picture' are you talking about, Big Brother?" Heath asked.
"Child labor, of course," Jarrod said.
"Doing away with it, you mean?"
"Of course, what else?" Jarrod asked.
"Might want to think that one through a little more," Heath said.
Jarrod put down his legal pad. "What are you getting at, Heath?"
"What happens to families that depend on their children's wages to keep food on the table? Do they starve?"
Jarrod focused all his attention on his younger brother. "Talk to us, Heath," he said.
Heath stood and paced in front of the fireplace. "I grew up in the mining camps. I worked - I worked hard - whatever was necessary to get by."
"Not working in the mine," Victoria said.
"Sometimes. When they would let me." Heath slapped the mantelpiece. "I was proud to do it. I could provide for my mama - I could be the man of the house."
"But you weren't a man, Heath," Jarrod said gently. "You were a child. Wouldn't it have been better not to have to do it?"
"But I did have to, that's the point," Heath said. "So do a lot of other people have to."
"I worked in a woolen mill for awhile, Heath," Molly said. "I saw whole families chained to the machines."
"So you know what I'm talking about," Heath said.
"I know it was horrible," Molly said. "It shouldn't happen. We want to stop it happening."
"All right," Jarrod said, interrupting, "so the problem is not simple. What possible solutions are there - that's what we're here to discuss."
"Rescue your orphans, since that's what you seem to have your heart set on," Heath said, "and I got no truck with those that prey on the helpless - but leave honest working folk alone."
"So we take care of orphans, but leave poor kids to their fate?" Nick said. "Don't hardly seem fair. Seems like it's up to the parents to provide for their kids, not the other way around."
"Comprehensive labor reform," Jarrod said, "not just child labor reform."
"What does that mean?" Nick asked.
"A minimum wage, among other things. Making sure that parents can provide for their children."
"It'll never fly," Heath said. "Business runs the government - you'd never get a bill through."
"It'll be a fight," Jarrod said, "I grant you. But don't underestimate the power of public opinion. Which is where a newspaper comes in."
"With the right person running it," Molly said.
"Agreed," Jarrod said. "Any objections?"
"No," Heath said. "I think it's a losing battle, but that's no reason not to fight it." He grinned a lopsided grin.
"You should run for the legislature, Jarrod," Audra said.
"Molly and I have discussed that," Jarrod said, "but we just acquired two new children and have another arriving shortly. I can't see taking on a job that would take me away six months out of the year at this point - my first responsibility is to my family. I have some political capital built up from managing the Senator's campaign a few years ago - lobbying might be more productive anyway."
"So you're going to restart your private practice?" Victoria asked.
"Well, actually," Jarrod said, "when I went into town this afternoon to begin the adoption process, I ran into Judge Parker. It seems he's retiring this year - he asked if I'd be interested."
"Can you get another appointment after what happened in Paradise?" Nick asked.
"It's an elected position," Jarrod said, "I'd serve at the will of the people, not the Governor."
Victoria smiled. "Perfect."
Jarrod looked over at Molly. "Well, the hour grows late and my wife grows pale. Time to call it a night." He stood and took Molly by the hand. "Good night, all. We certainly have enough to be going on with." He assisted her to her feet and took her upstairs and to bed.
Molly found Jarrod the next morning in the study. "Jarrod," she said, "it's nearly nine o'clock. Why didn't you wake me?"
Jarrod stood and put his hand on her cheek. "I was hoping you'd sleep even later, Feather." He peered into her eyes. "You still look tired, love."
"Maybe a little," she conceded. "But I think fresh air and sunshine would do me more good than hanging about in bed. Where is everyone? The house is practically empty."
"Nick is teaching Lucas how to ride, and the girls are out with Mother and Audra. Why don't you and I slip off by ourselves for awhile? Spencer's Creek?" he asked, eyes twinkling.
"Tempting," Molly said, "but the children are going to wonder if they even have a mother."
"Because you take a day or two to rest? Really, Feather, if you don't take care of yourself, how do you expect to take care of them? I won't have you overburdened. So which is it, bed or Spencer's Creek?"
"Spencer's Creek, of course."
"Good," Jarrod said, kissing her. "Go get dressed and eat breakfast - I'll ask Silas to pack a lunch."
The sun was warm on Molly's face as she leaned back on her hands and threw back her head, eyes closed. She sighed delightedly. "Thank you, love," she said to Jarrod. "This is just what I needed."
Jarrod pulled her feet into his lap and removed her shoes. He reached up and began to peel off her stockings. "Why, Mr. Barkley," Molly said coquettishly, "whatever can you be thinking?"
Jarrod laughed. "Remember our first time here, Molly?"
"Of course, how could I forget it? The third happiest day of my life."
Jarrod laughed again. "You keep track? What's the twenty-third happiest day of your life?"
"Now you're teasing," Molly said.
"Yes, I am," he agreed. "So what are numbers one and two, then?"
"The day we were married and the day Vicky was born, of course. But you've given me so many happy days, I could probably count into the hundreds if I really wanted to."
"I'm glad you've been happy, Molly."
Molly sat up and put her arms on her knees, looked into Jarrod's eyes. "Not 'have been' - 'am.' Do you doubt it?"
"It's been a difficult few months," Jarrod said.
Molly shrugged. "Not as difficult as Denver was, not to me. I'd rather face Paradise a hundred times over than go through that again. But we've come through it, and we've gained by it."
Jarrod was silent.
"You don't think so?" Molly asked.
"You crossed a line, Feather. I don't know whether I can trust you to stay out of trouble."
"As much as I can trust you to," she said.
"That's different," he argued.
"Remember the first day we were here?" Molly countered. "That same night we promised to respect each other's consciences. I'd already lost one idealistic husband, so I knew very well what I was promising. Didn't you?"
"I wasn't promising to let you walk into danger," Jarrod said.
Molly moved over next to him, put an arm around his waist, her head on his shoulder. "I had to let you go to the mine, expecting you to come back dead. I couldn't ask you to do less, be less than who you are. It's only by God's grace that I'm not a widow again, but I would still let you do it, because that's who you are, and that's who I love. Do you really want some pale little wife who hangs on your arm and begs you to be careful?"
Jarrod wrapped an arm around her, reached up and stroked her hair. He gazed at her thoughtfully for a long time. Finally, he said, "No, I don't want any other kind of wife but you, my brave, strong Molly. A feather no longer."
Molly put both arms around him, snuggled closer. "If I'm strong, if I'm brave, it's because of you. You made me a Barkley. But I'll always be your Feather, love. Never stop calling me that."
"All right, Feather." Jarrod smiled and kissed her nose. "My lovely, loving, difficult wife. Now let's get some roses back in those cheeks. How about a swim, lunch, and then a rest?"
Molly looked down at her belly. "I don't know how well I can swim in this condition."
"I'll hold you up," Jarrod said.
"Of course you will," Molly laughed. "Haven't you always?"
"And I always will, Feather. I always will."
When they got to the ranch, Nick was leading a horse around the paddock. "Oh, my lord," Molly said. "That's Emma up there." Jarrod helped her out of the buggy and they walked over to the paddock, where Victoria and Audra were looking on.
"Daddy!" Vicky said, from Victoria's arms. She pointed at Emma. "Ride, Daddy, ride."
Jarrod took her and put her on his shoulders. "No, you're too small, Baby," he said. "Nick, whatever are you thinking? That horse is too big for her."
"Don't blame Nick," Audra said, "she was insistent."
"Insistent, how?" Molly asked. "Did she speak?"
"No," Victoria said, "but she certainly made her wishes known. I'd recommend getting her a pony as soon as possible."
"Tomorrow," Jarrod said. "That's the first thing she's shown an interest in." He looked around. "Where's Lucas?"
"Out riding with Heath," Audra said. "Oh, here they come now."
Heath and Lucas rode into the paddock. Lucas dismounted with a wince. "Have you been in the saddle all day, Son?" Jarrod asked.
"Pretty much," Heath said as Lucas grinned. "He'll make a great rider, you take my word."
"You're not going to be able to move tomorrow," Jarrod said. "Better break out the liniment, Molly. Our boy's going to need it."
"Time to get everyone washed up for dinner," Molly said.
Nick started to lift Emma down from the horse, but she resisted and pointed at Jarrod. "You let me put you up," Nick said.
"It's all right, Nick," Jarrod said, handing Vicky to Molly and climbing into the paddock. He lifted Emma off the horse and held her as she patted its neck affectionately. Nick gave her a lump of sugar and showed her how to hold her hand flat for the horse to take it. She giggled as it lipped the sugar off her palm.
"Oh, my goodness," Jarrod said. Molly carried Vicky over to his side. "Did you hear that, Feather?" Molly nodded, tears in her eyes. "What was that you said once, about everything seeming possible?" Jarrod said. "I think she just proved it." He looked around the paddock at his family: wife, children, mother, brothers, sister. "Together, it seems we can do anything. Anything at all."