A Different Paradise
Amelia Lawson gazed around the nursery of her new home. She laid a hand on her belly - her child was not due for months, yet she had made ready for it. Cradle, table, rocking chair. Gowns and diapers. What would he be like? She hoped for a son, who she could name after his father. She shrugged - it would be what it would be. She only hoped she could be half the mother it would need.
There was a knock on the door and she hurried to answer it. One of her new neighbors come to call? Would they still come when her condition became apparent, or would she be a pariah to these Berkeley elite? She found she had no care for their opinion for herself, she only hoped her child would not suffer for it.
She opened the door and stood back, shocked. "Pierce! Whatever are you doing here? How did you find me and, more to the point, what do you want?" Her lips pursed in a hard line as she stood gazing at her ex-husband.
Pierce Lawson took off his hat and fiddled with it. "Now, Amelia, is that anyway to greet your long-lost?" he said airily. He sobered. "I heard about Ethan. I'm sorry - he was a good man. Do you need anything?"
Amelia found herself tearing up, still on her guard, but she stood back and let Pierce enter. She turned away for a moment, so she didn't see the tender look that Pierce allowed himself. "How did you hear?" she murmured.
"I was in the vicinity of Paradise a few days ago - I thought I'd drop in on you, for old time's sake. I figured you'd be married by now."
Amelia shook her head, still turned away. "No, I was a coward. I ran away, Pierce. You have no idea how ashamed I am."
"I've never known you to be afraid of anything, Amelia," Pierce said. "Never run away from anything, never showed the white feather. What got you spooked?"
She looked up at him then. "Ethan. . .you know how he was. Never ran from a fight."
"That makes two of you, then."
"No," she said, eyes downcast. "I couldn't stand by and watch him get killed, Pierce. I couldn't bear it. So I ran, and he got killed anyway, and all I have left is my fear."
"What about the children? Ethan's children?" Pierce asked. "I thought they were with you."
"No, with friends in Stockton," Amelia said. "They'll be living nearby when the summer's over. It's why I bought a house in Berkeley, to be near them. I. . ." she trailed off. Took a deep breath. "You might as well sit down. May I get you a drink?"
"Whiskey," Pierce said, following her into the parlor. He took her hand as she gave him the glass. "I know I'm not good for much, Amelia, but I really did come to help you if I could."
She looked down at him, then sat beside him. "I'm sorry. I'm nine kinds of hypocrite to accuse you of being irresponsible after what I've done."
He set down the glass. "Tell me."
So she told him. The sun had gone down and she got up to light the lamps by the time her tale was done.
"That doesn't sound like the Amelia I know," Pierce said. "Ethan must have really gotten under your skin to spook you that way."
She shrugged. "It's not the Amelia I thought I was, either," she said, "but I have to be honest enough to face up to myself. And to try to do better." She touched her belly and took a deep breath. "I have to, for the child."
"Child?" Pierce gulped. "Ethan's child? You're going to have a baby?"
Amelia nodded. "In about six months. Can you imagine me a mother?"
"Very well," Pierce said. He got down on one knee. "Marry me, Amelia. Again, I mean."
She laughed in surprise. "No! Pierce, get up. Whatever do you think you're doing?"
"Think of the child, Amelia," he said, still kneeling. "Think of Ethan. Would he want his child to be called a bastard? You know how hard the world can be."
"Not this way," she said, tugging him to his feet. She had to admit she was touched by his boyish impetuosity. "It won't do, Pierce. We already tried."
"If you say so," Pierce said, putting on his hat. "But I want you to know the offer's still open should you change your mind."
"And where would I find you should that occur?" she said tersely.
"All right, I guess I deserved that," Pierce said. "I haven't exactly been the most reliable husband. I know I put you through hell. But there were some good times, weren't there? In twelve years, some good times?"
He was making those puppy dog eyes that so used to charm her before they came to annoy her. "Yes, Pierce, of course there were. But not enough. It's just not enough."
Claire Carroll answered the knock on the door and took the telegram from the messenger. She carried it into the kitchen where her brothers were clearing away after dinner. "What is it, Claire?" Joseph asked.
"I don't know, I'm afraid to open it," she replied. "Who would be sending us a telegram?"
Joseph rolled his eyes. "We won't find out standing here. Let me see it."
"What is it?" Ben asked.
"Yeah, what is it?" George echoed as Joseph read.
"Just a minute," Joseph said. "It's from Charlie."
"Deputy Charlie?" Ben asked. "What does he want?"
"They've caught them," Claire said, heart pounding. "They've caught the robbers who killed Uncle Ethan, haven't they?"
"Yes," Joseph said. "And they need you to testify at the trial." He looked at her. "How did you know?"
"I've been more than half expecting it," Claire said.
"Good," Ben said. "They should hang."
Joseph looked at Claire's pale face. "That's enough, Ben. You and George go finish your homework."
Ben shrugged and he and George went into the parlor. "What's wrong, Claire?" Joseph asked. "You look like a ghost."
"Nothing. I'm fine."
"No you're not," Joseph said. "We've never really talked about it, have we? That day, what you saw."
"Yes, we have. I've told you everything."
"What happened, yes. Not how you feel about it."
"How do you think I feel about it!" Claire half-whispered, half-shouted. "It was the worst day of my life! They shot him in the back, Joseph. It's like they were laying a trap for him. I'm never going to forget it."
"Are you going to be all right, testifying?" Joseph asked. "Going over it again?"
"I have to be," Claire said, raising her chin. "It has to be done. I have to do it, I have no choice." She took the telegram, hand trembling. "I'd better go talk to Mrs. Barkley."
"Why?" Joseph asked.
"She said she'd help us sell the ranch. Might as well get everything done in one trip. If she can go with me."
"Us," Joseph corrected. "Go with us."
Claire smiled and kissed his cheek. "Thank you, Brother. I was hoping you'd say that."
"I hope Ben and George will be all right while we're gone," Claire worried as the train pulled out of the station.
"Of course they will," Victoria assured her. "My sons will make sure of that - they'll be fine." She looked over at her grandson. "I'm still not sure why you're coming, Lucas."
"To prove something to myself," Lucas said, looking up from the book he was studying.
"And what is that?" Joseph asked.
"That I'm not too scared to go back," Lucas said. "I don't like to think there's anything I'm too frightened to do if I need to."
"What are you afraid of?" Joseph asked curiously.
"Memories. Nightmares," Lucas said.
Claire took his hand. "Was it as bad as all that?"
"Yes," Lucas said. "The mine, the beatings." He paused. "The dark."
"I didn't think you were afraid of anything," Joseph said. "I remember how you went into the collapsed mine shaft after your father."
"Father says everyone's afraid," Lucas said, "It's not letting your fears get the better of you that's the problem." He looked over at Victoria. "Although I don't think my grandmother is afraid of anything."
Victoria snorted. "And you can go on thinking it, too."
Lucas smiled as Claire squeezed his hand. "Thank you for coming, whatever the reason. I feel braver with you along."
Lucas squeezed back. "Glad to oblige, my lady."
Claire giggled and looked out the window. "I'm so glad they got the northern rail line finished. It certainly makes the trip to Paradise a lot quicker, and more pleasant."
"I am, too," Victoria said. "I've taken enough stages in my life not to complain, but I know which mode of travel I prefer."
"Remember when we came West, Joseph?" Claire said. "We'd never been west of St. Louis and we were scared of everything. We thought Indians would scalp us."
"And now our best friend is an Indian," Joseph said.
"I'm looking forward to meeting Mr. Taylor," Victoria said. "He sounds like a most interesting person."
"He is," Claire agreed. "He's the one thing I miss about Paradise."
"Well, you'll see him soon," Victoria said.
"I suppose you've seen a lot of changes out here, Mrs. Barkley," Claire said. "I mean, the West hardly seems wild anymore."
"Indeed I have," Victoria said, and she proceeded to tell them about it all the way to Paradise.
Joseph pulled up the buggy in front of the cabin at the Carroll's ranch. He assisted Victoria to alight while Lucas aided Claire. "It's smaller than I remember," Claire said.
"It's a lovely cabin," Victoria said. "And what a view! Quite charming."
They went inside, Joseph carrying the groceries. "It's awfully dusty," Claire said.
"We'll have it cleaned up in no time," Victoria said. "Why don't you boys ready the bedrooms while Claire and I clean up out here."
Joseph and Lucas went to do as they were told. "You don't have to help," Claire protested. "I can manage."
"Nonsense," Victoria said. "I've kept house for forty years. This won't take long."
"I'm sorry," Claire said. "Maybe you'd rather stay at the hotel. This is hardly what you're used to."
"I've had worse," Victoria said, picking up a rag and setting to. "Weren't you listening? When my husband and I came west, we lived in a tent with apple crates for furniture. Our first real home was a cabin, much like this, only not as nice."
"Uncle Ethan put a lot of work into it," Claire said. "When we first moved in, it was barely two rooms and quite run down. He turned it into a home."
"Are you sorry to sell it?" Victoria asked. "Because you could wait. No need to rush into it."
"No," Claire said. "It was home when Uncle Ethan was here. Without him - well, it's just a house and some land. We'll still have the memories, that's what's important. And we need the money. There's nothing to hold on to here anymore."
The four of them finished readying the cabin, then Claire and Victoria cooked dinner while the boys tended to the horses. "I'm surprised John Taylor hasn't shown up," Joseph said as they cleared the plates. "He usually knows everything that goes on. Surely he knows we're here by now."
"We'll go see him in the morning," Claire said, stirring the fire. "After I have my talk with the prosecutor." She shivered.
Joseph looked at her with concern, but did not speak of what he knew worried her. "All right. Do you want me to ride into town with you?"
"I'll be all right," Claire said. "There're some things need fixing up around here if we're going to sell the ranch. If you wouldn't mind, Joseph?"
"I'll help," Lucas offered. "I rather enjoy ranch work."
"If you like," Claire agreed. "Thank you."
Victoria drove Claire into town, dropping her off at the hotel to meet with the prosecutor. The girl refused to have Victoria accompany her. Victoria respected that, for all she wished to offer aid and comfort. Still, she admired the girl's fragile strength. She thought her grandson had well chosen where to place his affections.
They met Joseph back at the ranch for the visit to John Taylor. "Coming, Lucas?" Claire asked.
"You go on," Lucas said. "Let me finish up around here, and I'll have dinner waiting for you when you get back."
"Perhaps you should go without me," Victoria said. "Since it's been so long since you've seen him."
"Please come," Claire said. "You said you were looking forward to it, and I know he'd love to meet you."
"All right," Victoria agreed. A trek through the woods soon brought them to John Taylor's cabin, half buried into the hillside.
"John Taylor?" Claire knocked at the door. "It's Claire and Joseph." There was no answer. "The door's open," Claire said. "Perhaps we should go inside and wait for him." She opened the door as she spoke, then stood in shock as saw the man seated inside.
"What's wrong, Claire?" Joseph asked, trying to peer over her shoulder.
Claire came unfrozen and threw herself down at the man's feet. "Uncle Ethan!" she cried, burying her face in his lap. "You're alive!" Tears coursed down her cheeks. "You're alive!"
Ethan Cord put his hand on her hair. "You were never supposed to find me, Claire. Go. Pretend you never saw me. To you I'm dead, understand? Just let me stay dead."
Claire looked up into her uncle's face. "What do you mean? Why are you here? Why didn't you let us know you were all right? How did you get here?"
"Enough, Claire," Ethan said sternly. "You ask too many questions. Just go and forget you ever saw me."
"How do you expect us to do that?" Joseph said vehemently. "Here we thought you were dead. . . ."
"Joseph!" Ethan snapped. "You gotta believe I know what's best. Now go."
"Not until you tell us why!" Joseph yelled.
Claire pulled back, staring at Ethan's legs. "Joseph. Wait." She looked up at Ethan. "You can't walk, can you? You were shot in the back, and you can't walk."
Ethan didn't reply, refused to meet her eyes.
"Do you think we'd care?" she shouted. "You're alive, that's all that matters."
"No, it isn't, Claire," Ethan said softly. "That hardly matters at all."
"I'll wait outside while you discuss this," Victoria said, opening the door.
"And who might you be?" Ethan said, noticing her for the first time.
"This is Mrs. Barkley," Claire said. "She's been giving us a place to live. She's helped us a lot."
"I thought Amelia was taking care of you," Ethan said worriedly.
Claire shook her head. "No, but that's a long story."
"I thank you, then, Mrs. Barkley," Ethan said. "I never meant my kids to be a burden to anybody."
"They're not a burden at all," Victoria said. "Quite the opposite."
"You any relation to Judge Barkley?" Ethan asked.
"His mother," Victoria replied.
"Good people," Ethan said.
"We try," Victoria said. She opened the door. "Call me when you're done." She stepped outside, and a few moments later she spied an aged Indian approaching with a brace of rabbits slung over his shoulder. "You must be Mr. Taylor," she said. "I'm Victoria Barkley."
"I figured as much," John Taylor said, sitting down on a stool by the door. He took out a knife and began skinning the rabbits. "Claire and Joseph inside?"
Victoria nodded. "You knew we were here?"
"And you knew that if you didn't come see them, they'd come see you?"
"I sure did," John Taylor said breezily.
"Then why?" Victoria asked. "Why not tell them and lessen the shock?"
"Ethan made me promise not to."
Victoria studied him a moment. "Then why not keep them away, if that's what he wanted?"
"Sometimes Life is like a great wave," John Taylor said. "If you give into it, it'll carry you out to calmer waters and you can swim to shore. If you try to swim against it, you'll drown." John Taylor set aside one skinned rabbit and took up another. "I'm merely giving in to the tide."
Victoria looked toward the cabin and back at the old man. "You didn't do this by yourself."
John Taylor shook his head. "A couple of Ethan's friends, that's all."
"Them and not his family?"
"It's the way Ethan wanted it," John Taylor shrugged.
"You might as well tell us everything," Joseph insisted, glaring down at his uncle. "We're not leaving until you do."
Ethan looked at his nephew's stubborn face, then down at his niece, her eyes soft but equally stubborn. He sighed. "All right." He leaned back in the chair, then looked down at his legs. "I woke up in the hotel. . ."
"They carried you there after you were shot," Claire said. "John Taylor told us you had died."
"It's what I told him to tell you. I woke up and couldn't feel my legs. John Taylor said the bullet was too near the spine for him to take out."
"It's still in there?" Joseph said.
"You should see a doctor, then," Claire said.
Ethan shook his head. "Can't you see, Claire? Joseph? The gun is all I know. Even if they can take it out, I ain't never gonna be the same. This is the end of the line for me. I ain't gonna be a burden to you. I can't take care of you any longer."
"You don't need to," Joseph said. "We've been taking care of ourselves just fine."
Ethan looked up at him. "I thought you said Mrs. Barkley. . ."
"We're living at her ranch," Claire said, "but Joseph and I have both been working - Ben and George, too. We even went to court and had me made guardian."
Ethan looked down at her thoughtfully. "I'm sorry about that, Claire. I didn't know you'd have to take on so much. Where's Amelia?"
"In Berkeley," Claire said.
"She's gonna. . . ," Joseph began.
"Stop, Joseph," Claire said. "That's something for her to tell, not us."
"You ain't telling her about this," Ethan said sternly.
"We have to, Uncle Ethan," Claire said. "We can't keep this a secret. I have to testify at the trial - you can't expect me to send those men to the gallows for murder if you're not dead."
"They got it coming," Ethan said.
Claire shook her head. "Not for this. Don't ask me, because I can't. And how do you expect me to keep this from Ben and George, or Mrs. Lawson? You're asking too much."
"And you're wrong, anyway," Joseph said. "You shouldn't have tried to keep it from us in the first place."
Ethan looked from one to the other, outrage and frustration in his face. "What do you expect me to do then?" he raged. "I ain't worth nothing no more."
"That's not so, Uncle Ethan." Claire touched his face. "You're still you, and we still love you. All of us. You're our family - we'll take care of you."
Ethan slammed his fist against the arm of his chair. "That's what I've been trying to keep from happening!"
"You let John Taylor take care of you," Joseph said accusingly, "and he's old. We're young - we can do it better."
"That's the point," Ethan said. "You are young. You got your whole lives ahead of you. You shouldn't be wasting your best years on a cripple."
"Stop that!" Claire said. "It doesn't matter, Uncle Ethan." She stood. "We'll get you a doctor, and we will take care of you. That's the way things are."
Trusting John Taylor to look after Claire and Joseph, and feeling like an interloper in any case, Victoria made her way back to the Cord ranch. Lucas looked up from cooking dinner as she came in the door. "What's wrong, Grandmother?" he asked, looking at her face. "Where are Claire and Joseph?"
"Still at John Taylor's cabin," she said, sitting down.
"Has something happened to him?" Lucas asked. "Is he all right?"
"No, he's all right," Victoria said. "But their uncle is still alive. He's been hiding there."
Lucas sat down, stunned. "Why?"
Victoria told him all she knew. "I don't know what to say," Lucas said. "This must be quite a shock."
"It was. It is. I don't know what they're going to do now, but whatever it is, we'll support them."
Claire and Joseph came home hours later, well past suppertime, looking worn and bedraggled. Victoria made them sit down and eat, but asked no questions. Lucas offered Claire his hand when she had finished eating. "Would you care for a walk?" he asked. "It will clear your head."
Claire nodded and followed him out into the cool night air. They walked a little ways, past the barn and under the trees. She looked up. "Here's the boys' treehouse. I know they've missed it."
"Are you all right, Claire?" Lucas asked. "I know this is a big shock to you."
She turned toward him, and even in the darkness he could tell she was crying. He tried to put his arms around her, but she pushed him away. "Don't, Lucas," she said. "You're making this harder."
"Making what harder?" he asked, heart pounding.
"I have to break it off with you," she said. "My uncle's going to need me - I don't have time for a beau. I'm sorry."
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I can help."
"It does matter," she said. "It's not fair to you. I'm not going to have anything to give you, don't you see?"
"I don't need anything from you, Claire," he said.
"Don't, Lucas. I can't lead you on if there's no place to go. I do care for you, but don't make this harder than it has to be."
"What will you do?" he asked.
"We're still discussing that," she said. "Nothing's settled yet." She turned back toward the house. "I hope I haven't hurt you."
She had, but he would not tell her that. "Let me walk you back," was all he would say.
Victoria awoke that night to the sound of Claire's sobs. She rolled over in what had been Ethan's bed toward the girl. "Claire?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Barkley," Claire said. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"It's all right. Do you wish to talk about it?"
"I don't know," Claire said. "I don't know what we're going to do. Just when we had everything settled, this happens. I'm not sorry he's alive, I'm not even sorry he's crippled. Well, I am, but I mean. . ."
"That you'll take him any way at all," Victoria said.
"Yes," Claire agreed. "But I feel like I did when he died, or seemed to. Why is that?"
"Because this changes your life as much as that did," Victoria said. "It's more responsibility, and more questions."
"And more confusion," Claire said. "Well, some things are clear. I'll have to go to the prosecutor in the morning."
"Yes," Victoria said. "And your uncle?"
"I've persuaded him it's the right thing to do. He's not happy about it though."
"Will he testify? I got the feeling he's not ready to come out of hiding."
Claire sighed. "I'll know more after I talk to the prosecutor. And we have to find him a doctor, and we have to tell Mrs. Lawson. And the boys."
"Let me take care of the doctor," Victoria said. "Does your uncle know about the baby yet?"
Claire shook her head. "No, I thought she should tell him. And I should tell her in person - that's not something I want to telegraph, but I don't think I should leave, either."
"Let me tell her," Victoria said. "I can go to San Francisco tomorrow and be back the next day. I take it you're not going to sell the ranch."
"Not yet, anyway," Claire said. "Not until we know more. Can you bring back a doctor? I don't think Uncle Ethan should be moved until a doctor says it's all right. That's why we didn't bring him back to the ranch."
"Yes, Claire." Victoria patted her shoulder. "You've got a good head on your shoulders. You're thinking clearly - but if you need any help, please know that you can call on me. On all of us."
"Thank you," Claire said. "It's going to be hard, but you've made me feel better. With all I've had to handle lately - I hope I can handle this, too."
"I'm sure you can," Victoria said. "I have every confidence in you." She rolled over to go back to sleep. So young, she thought. So much responsibility. She sighed. And she thinks so little of herself. She thought she would need to keep a sharp eye out that Claire did not wear herself out completely.
Victoria was surprised that Lucas chose to accompany her the next day. "I'll go on to Stockton and tell the boys," he said, "while you see Mrs. Lawson. We can meet you tomorrow."
"I'll need to tell Henry, too," Victoria said. "This will be a big disappointment to him. I know how much he wanted those children." She sighed. "Will you ask Owen to come, too?"
"Of course," Lucas said, staring out the window.
"What's wrong, Lucas? You've been glum since last night."
Lucas sighed. "Claire broke it off. Said she was going to be too busy with her uncle to have any time for me."
"I'm sorry," Victoria said. "I know how much you care for her."
Lucas waved a hand. "I do, but that doesn't matter. What do I do, Grandmother? I want to help her, but I'm afraid she'll think I'm trying to push her. But I don't want to give her up, either."
Victoria put her hand on his. "It sounds as though you need to wait for her."
Lucas thought a moment. "Yes, I do. But if I tell her that, will she see it as pressure? Because I want to respect her. She does need to tend to her uncle, but I want her to know I'll be there for her, whether she's my girl or not."
"You know her better than I do, but I think you should tell her just as you've told me. It can be a great comfort knowing someone cares enough for you to wait for you."
"Thank you, Grandmother," Lucas smiled. "I knew I could count on you to know the right thing to do."
Victoria got off the train in Berkeley and took a cab to Amelia's home. She knocked firmly at the door and awaited an answer. "Mrs. Barkley," Amelia said, surprised. "How kind of you to call." She peered into Victoria's face. "Is something wrong with the children?" she said worriedly.
"Who is it, Amelia?" a masculine voice called.
Amelia frowned. "Won't you come in?" she said standing aside. She led Victoria into the parlor. "Victoria Barkley, please meet Pierce Lawson. My ex-husband."
Victoria was startled, but tried not to show it as Pierce bowed over her hand, flashing a charming smile. "My pleasure, Mrs. Barkley," he said.
"I'm sorry if I'm interrupting," Victoria said with a frown, "but I have something important to discuss with Amelia."
"You're not interrupting," Pierce said. "I was just leaving." He bowed to the ladies as he made his exit.
"It's not how it looks," Amelia said, sitting down. "He heard about Ethan."
"He knew him?" Victoria sat down across from Amelia.
Amelia nodded. "Rather liked him, too. Although, prankster as he is, it didn't stop him from stealing my divorce papers so I couldn't remarry."
"Did you get them back?" Victoria asked curiously.
"I did," Amelia said. "Not that it matters now. I'll never remarry."
"Well, that's more or less what I came to speak to you about," Victoria said, seizing an opening.
Amelia frowned. "I don't understand."
Victoria took a deep breath. "I don't know how to tell you this except to say it right out. Ethan's alive."
Amelia gasped and turned pale. "You're sure? Have you seen him?"
Amelia leapt to her feet. "Where? In Paradise? I must go to him."
Victoria took her hand. "Not yet. There's more." She proceeded to tell her all she knew.
Amelia was weeping when she finished. "Paralyzed? Not Ethan." She squared her shoulders. "He'll have the best care - the best doctors, the best nurses. I'll see to that."
"I'm taking my son-in-law back with me tomorrow, to see whether it's safe to move him. Lucas is fetching the boys. Will you go with us?"
"Of course," Amelia said. "It's a second chance - one I don't deserve and never thought to have. I'm grabbing it while I can."
Victoria looked at her with respect. "Good," she nodded. She stood. "Pardon me for rushing off, but I need to go tell Henry. I'll send a cab for you tomorrow."
Amelia hugged her quickly. "Thank you, Mrs. Barkley. I don't know what to say, except thank you."
Victoria nodded and left, making her way the few blocks to Henry's cottage on foot. She knocked at the door hesitantly.
"Victoria?" Henry said, answering it. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd gone with Claire to Paradise."
"I did," she stepped in, "but something's happened."
"Claire? Is she all right?"
"She's all right." Victoria took his hand and followed him into the sitting room. "But we discovered her uncle is still alive."
Henry froze for a moment. "Alive? That is good news."
"Henry," Victoria said, pulling him down onto the sofa, "you don't have to pretend with me. I know how you must feel."
"Do you, dearest?" He squeezed her hand. "How could you possibly?"
"I know how it feels to have your heart set on something and lose it."
Henry sighed. "But for such a good reason. How can you think I'd be so churlish as to care more for my feelings than those children's welfare?"
"It's not so simple." She told him of Ethan's injuries. "So this puts more of a burden on those children," she sighed, "just when things were beginning to go well for them."
"I'm sorry for that," Henry said. "But I know how they love their uncle. They'll be delighted to have him back, no matter what the circumstances. And they have you to aid them."
"And you," Victoria said.
"I don’t see what further use I can be," Henry said.
"I think you can be of great use to their uncle," Victoria said, looking into his blind eyes. "He's not taking this well at all. He would rather have been dead than crippled, that's obvious. You may be the only one of us who knows exactly how he feels. And can help him through it."
"Hm," Henry said. "You may be right, Victoria. Whatever aid I can render, I will surely be glad to."
"I knew you would," Victoria said, putting her arms around him. She was concerned for his feelings - she suspected he was more hurt than he cared to reveal, but she felt it would be wrong to press him on the matter. Still, she could offer him comfort, at least. She took his face between her hands and kissed him. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her back, and that kiss lasted a good long while.
Amelia met Victoria and Henry at the station. "Are you coming with us, Mr. Johnson?" she asked.
"Merely seeing Victoria off," Henry said, "although I plan to go up in a few days. I have too much work to leave at present."
"We'll probably be back before then," Amelia said.
"Oh?" Henry raised his eyebrows.
"If he can be moved at all, I'm bringing him back to San Francisco to see the best doctors," Amelia said. "No slander on Dr. Grigsby, of course, but Ethan should have the best."
Henry frowned at that, but said nothing as the train pulled in. Victoria tugged him aside as Amelia climbed aboard. "What, Henry?" Victoria asked. "What's bothering you?"
"Don't let them railroad him, Victoria," Henry said. "The man has a difficult enough road ahead of him without his loved ones treating him like a child."
Victoria laid a hand on his cheek and nodded. "Yes, I see. I'll see what I can do."
Henry kissed her hand and she climbed aboard, finding her way to the Barkleys' private car, where she found Amelia being embraced by Ben and George. She turned to Lucas. "Where's Owen? I thought he'd be with you."
"He set out last night, as soon as I told him," Lucas said. "He's probably there by now."
Victoria smiled. "I don't suppose I should be surprised."
Victoria and Lucas sat down across from Amelia and the boys. "Will Uncle Ethan be all right, Mrs. Lawson?" George asked.
"I hope so, George," Amelia said. "But I haven't seen him yet either."
"John Taylor lied to us," Ben said. "Why does everyone keep l-lying to us?"
Victoria realized that it had been several weeks since she had heard Ben stutter - the boy - all the children - had made such advances in the past two months, she hoped this strain would not set them all back.
"He was obeying your uncle's wishes, Ben," Victoria said. "Your uncle didn't wish to be a burden to all of you."
"Like we're a b-burden to him?" Ben said bitterly.
"Ben!" Amelia scolded. "Don't say such things!"
"It's all right, Mrs. Lawson," Victoria said. She reached across and laid a hand on Ben's knee. "You're not a burden, Ben, but when people suffer great hurts, sometimes they can't think clearly. All sorts of strange and dark thoughts flow through their minds. It's up to the rest of us to see that those thoughts don't take root and destroy the rest of their lives. Can you understand that?"
Ben sat a long moment, thinking. Finally he nodded. "I think so. Like I had dark thoughts when Uncle Ethan - when we thought he died. They really scared me."
"Uncle Ethan's not scared," George said. "He's never scared."
"Everyone's scared sometimes," Lucas said, echoing that earlier conversation. "And your uncle's a strong man - he's probably afraid of weakness. Most strong men are. He needs all of you - you have to make sure he knows he's still wanted, that he still means the same to you."
"Well, of course he does," George said. "Why wouldn't he?"
Victoria smiled. "That's exactly what he needs, George."
George chattered with excitement most of the rest of the journey, not seeming to notice how his brother sat almost entirely silent. Not sullen silence, Victoria thought, but a thoughtful silence, as though he was wrestling with his own dark thoughts. Ben had idolized his uncle, the strong, brave marshal. How would Ben feel about him should he be forced to remain a cripple? The boy had grown a lot - she hoped that the coming trials would not be too much for him.
They caught the stage from Chino and it was late afternoon by the time they got to Paradise. Claire and Owen were waiting for them at that stagecoach stop. Claire's worried look made Victoria's heart sink. "How is he?"
"It's hard to say at this point," Owen said. "Mr. Taylor was wise not to attempt to remove the bullet - it's lodged very close to the spine."
"Can you remove it?" Amelia asked.
Owen shook his head. "Not here, and probably not at all. He needs to see a specialist. We've left him at Mr. Taylor's cabin for now, but he should go to San Francisco as soon as possible."
"So it's safe to move him?"
"Yes, I think so, as long as we take precautions. The trek through the woods will be the chanciest part," Owen said.
"What about the trial?" Victoria asked Claire.
"Not going to be one," Claire said. "When the prosecutor told them that Uncle Ethan was alive and willing to testify against them, they made a deal. They pled guilty to robbery and assault and a took a twenty year sentence."
Victoria frowned. "It seems too light, but I can't say I'm sorry."
"Can we go see Uncle Ethan now?" George asked.
"Mrs. Lawson should check into the hotel," Claire said, looking at Amelia's luggage. "And have a chance to freshen up."
"I'll freshen up later," Amelia said. "Please, let's go now."
"I'll check you in," Victoria offered.
"That's kind of you, Mrs. Barkley," Amelia said. The rest of the party departed while Victoria made her way up the steps of the hotel.
"I'd like a room, please," she asked the man behind the desk.
"Of course, ma'am," the man said, offering her the register.
"Actually, I need two rooms, one for me and one for Amelia Lawson. Her luggage is outside at the stage stop." She looked up to see the man frozen and pale.
"Amelia? Why is she here?" the man choked. "And who might you be?"
"I'm Victoria Barkley," she said, answering the last question first. "Mrs. Lawson is paying a visit to John Taylor."
"She mustn't do that!" the man said. "You've got to stop her!"
"It's all right, Mr. . . ?"
"McBride, Scotty McBride. But it's not all right."
"We know about Mr. Cord, Mr. McBride. Claire and Joseph have already seen him, as have I. I take it you're one of the conspirators?"
Scotty leaned on the desk. "That's a strong word, but I guess it'll do. I wasn't happy about it - I thought he should tell them - but it's what Ethan wanted. Can't say I'm sorry the cat's out of the bag. Amelia'll see to him."
"Yes, I daresay she will."
"Better let the boys go in first," John Taylor said at the door to his cabin. He looked into Amelia's anxious face. "Best not to overwhelm him all at once."
Amelia frowned but consented, beginning to pace up and down the path.
"Now, boys, be gentle with him," Owen warned. "You may hug him, but gently. Don't get rough."
"We won't," Ben said quietly as Claire ushered them into the cabin, where Joseph and Ethan awaited them.
George rushed and hugged Ethan around the knees. "Uncle Ethan! Uncle Ethan!"
Ethan stroked his hair. "Hello, George." He looked up where Ben was standing quietly. "Ben."
"It r-really is you," Ben said. "I wasn't sure I believed it."
"It's hard, Ben," Ethan said. "I'm sorry."
Ben turned his head away, determined not to cry.
Ethan gazed at him a moment, uncertain what to say. He looked down at George. "How've you been getting along, boys?"
"Claire and Joseph d-didn't tell you?" Ben asked.
"No, they ain't been telling me much," Ethan said.
"I'm learning to read!" George said. "And Ben's learning to shoot."
"Is he?" Ethan asked.
"And Joseph's studying to be a doctor, and Claire has a beau!" George finished.
"Hush, George," Claire chided.
Ethan looked up at her. "You holding out on me, Claire? Who's he talking about?"
"No one," Claire said. "It doesn't matter. He's not my beau anymore."
"He isn't?" George asked. "Why not?"
"We'll discuss it later," Claire said, turning red. "You'd be proud of George, Uncle Ethan. He's doing much better in school, and he's working really hard to learn to read."
"Uncle Henry's teaching me," George said.
"Now who is Uncle Henry?" Ethan asked, puzzled.
"Mrs. Barkley's beau," George said. "He teaches blind people. He's been teaching me - we were going to live with him, but I guess we're not now."
Ethan shook his head at this rush of information. "Why isn't Amelia, Mrs. Lawson, taking care of you? Why are you living with strangers?"
"She's outside," Claire said. "Perhaps it's better she tell you."
Ethan took a deep breath, looking stunned. "If you're ready for her?" Claire said questioningly.
"Bring her in," Ethan said. "Might as well get this over with."
"Come on, boys," Joseph said. "Let's give them some privacy. You can talk more later."
The children filed out, and Amelia came in, closing the door behind her and leaning against it. "Ethan," she said quietly.
"Amelia." They stood staring at each other for a long moment before Amelia threw herself at his feet, burying her face in his lap.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she sobbed. "Sorry for everything."
His hand hesitated over her hair, not daring to touch her. "You done what you thought was right."
"But I was wrong," she said, looking up at him. His hand wiped a tear from her cheek, and then they were kissing, hard and passionately. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his lap. "Marry me, Ethan," she murmured against his lips.
He pulled back. "So you can take care of me?" he said bitterly.
"Partly," she admitted. "But mostly because I've realized how wrong I was. The entire time we thought you were dead, I've been repenting."
"You made it clear you had no stomach for what I was," he said. "Now that there's no danger of me getting gunned down, you'll have me. No, thank you, Amelia. I ain't of no use to you. I'm not burdening you with no cripple."
Her lips formed a hard line and she stood up. "Isn't it for me to decide what I'm willing to take on?" she said, fists on hips.
"You didn't take on the children. Now, why is that?" he said accusingly.
She sighed, dropping her fists. "It's all part of the same thing, Ethan. I'm a coward. I didn't see how I could raise them alone. But together, Ethan. We can raise them together."
Ethan shook his head. "It ain't no use, Amelia, can't you see that? I love you - I don't think I've ever loved anyone so much as you, but we can't be together. Not like this."
"There's something you should know," she said.
"There's apparently a lot I should know," Ethan said. "What now?"
She laid a hand on her belly. "I'm with child. Your child."
Ethan stared at her belly a long moment, shocked. "You ain't making that up, are you?"
"No," she said quietly. "I've already bought the cradle and everything."
He took her hand and pulled her back down into his lap. "Why didn't you say that before? Of course I'll marry you now. Child needs a name."
"Is that the only reason?"
"Course," he said, nuzzling her ear. "You don't think I'd burden you with a cripple if it wasn't necessary."
She stood, reluctantly. "Then, no, Ethan, I won't marry you."
"Not ten seconds ago. . . ."
"I know." She put her hands on the arms of his chair and leaned forward, peering into his eyes. "I won't marry you out of pity, yours or mine. I love you, I've always loved you, but until you can see that, there's no marriage." She turned to go, then turned back. She opened her mouth to speak, but found nothing more to say. Sighing, she opened the door and stumbled out into the sunlight.
Victoria arrived at the Cord ranch to find the Carrolls and Amelia deep in discussion. "Don't worry about the cost, Claire," Amelia said. "I'll pay for the surgery."
"We appreciate that, Mrs. Lawson," Claire said, "but afterward, we should come back here."
"To Paradise?" Amelia frowned. "Why? There's nothing for you here."
"It's his home," Claire said. "I think he'll feel more comfortable."
"If we sell the ranch, we could afford a sanitarium," Joseph pointed out. "Then Claire wouldn't have to wear herself out."
"Why can't we go back to Stockton?" George said. "It's nicer than here, and we can all take care of him."
"I booked your room, Mrs. Lawson," Victoria said. "Do any of you need anything else?"
"No, thank you, Mrs. Barkley. I suppose I should start supper now. Will you join us?" Claire said. "Lucas and Dr. Grigsby have already gone back to town."
"No, I won't disturb you," Victoria said. "I know you have a lot to discuss. Will the four of you be all right here all by yourselves?"
"We've been alone here before," Joseph said, "when Uncle Ethan was working. Quite a lot actually. We'll be fine."
"All right, then, I'll see you tomorrow." Victoria stepped outside, hesitating. She paused a moment, then squared her shoulders and marched off into the woods.
John Taylor answered the door at her knock, a flash of surprise crossing his face. "Mrs. Barkley. How may I assist you?"
"I'd like to speak to Mr. Cord, please."
John Taylor shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea. He's been through an awful lot the past few days. He needs his rest."
"Please, it's for his good," Victoria said.
John Taylor examined her a moment, the opened the door wide and ushered her in. "You have a visitor, Ethan."
"Mrs. Barkley? To what do I owe the pleasure?" The man was on the edge of surly, if not quite over that line.
"Your children and Mrs. Lawson are down at your cabin planning out your future."
"Are they? Well, maybe they'll be better at it than I am," Ethan said.
"Mr. Cord. Before I came back here, someone I trust very much told me not to let them railroad you, that you weren't a child. Please don't act like one."
John Taylor chuckled and Ethan threw him a dirty look. "Look at me, Mrs. Barkley," Ethan fumed. "I may as well be a child for all the good I can do anyone."
"That isn't true," Victoria said.
"What would you know about it?" Ethan said. "What does anyone know about it?"
"I don't, but I know someone who does," Victoria said. "My beau, the man who told me that. He was blinded during the War. He knows all about loss and helplessness."
Ethan was taken aback. "You? You have a blind beau?"
"Yes, I do. Do you think you're the only one this has ever happened to?"
"I suppose not," Ethan said. "But it's not something I've ever given much thought to. Never had to."
"And now you do," Victoria said. "So think. You have some serious decisions to make - and you'd better be the one to make them. Now, first - do you go to San Francisco to see a doctor and probable surgery?"
Ethan thought a moment. "If I have to live, I guess I better. I sure can't go on like this."
Victoria frowned. "Do I have to worry about you taking your own life, Mr. Cord? Because I surely do not want to subject those children to that."
Ethan sighed. "No, Mrs. Barkley. It's too late for that, isn't it? I can't subject them to that, either." He looked up at her. "Why aren't you shocked?"
"Because I think it's normal to think of it at times like this. I know Henry did."
"Henry? Is he the one George calls 'Uncle Henry'?"
Victoria nodded. "They told you about him?"
"Not enough, apparently," Ethan said.
"You'll meet him," Victoria said. "All right, so you have the surgery, then what? Even if you are able to walk again, you're in for a long convalescence. Claire wants to bring you back here, but I don't think that's a good idea, unless you can afford a nurse. She's a good girl, very responsible, but I think she tends to take on too much."
"She does," Ethan agreed. "No, I don't think that's a good idea, but what choice do I have?"
"You could go to a sanitarium," Victoria said, "at either mine or Mrs. Lawson's expense."
"Not Amelia's," Ethan said tersely, "and I don't wish to be any more beholden to you."
"Or you could come to Stockton," Victoria said. "The children have their own cottage, and I have strong sons, who could help with your care and make sure the cottage can accommodate you and a wheelchair."
"Is that what you advise?"
"I have to be honest, Mr. Cord. I have a personal stake in your choice - Claire was seeing my grandson, but she broke it off in order to care for you. So I want to present your options, and let you decide."
"Your grandson? Who might that be?" Ethan frowned.
"Lucas. I believe you knew him even before I did."
"Ah," Ethan sighed. "That one. He ain't rightly your grandson, though."
"As much as the others," Victoria said stoutly. "Maybe more, because he earned it."
Ethan harrumphed. "Well, he's a good lad. But Claire's too young to get married."
"She is. And Lucas has to go to college first, so you don't have anything to worry about. Now, will you stand up for yourself, and make your wishes known to your family?"
"All right, Mrs. Barkley. I got a passel of thinking to do, it seems."
"As long as you do it," Victoria said.
"I will," Ethan said. "And thank you."
They carried Ethan down the mountain the next morning. Owen provided a stretcher complete with straps - the contraption reminded Victoria of the one Heath had devised to carry Nick when he had injured his back, but more professional. Owen explained each step to Ethan as he and Joseph placed him on it and strapped him down, and Victoria was impressed with the quiet dignity with which Owen treated his patient. Then Owen, Lucas, Joseph and Claire carried Ethan down to the ranch, where the carriage that Owen had also arranged for was waiting. They would be traveling slower than the stage, as that would be easier on Ethan's injury. Amelia and the two younger boys were waiting at the ranch, all their belongings packed for the return to San Francisco.
They unstrapped Ethan and lifted him carefully into the carriage. He put his hand out the window. "Goodbye, John Taylor. You know there aren't words enough to thank you."
John Taylor grasped his hand. "Take care of yourself, Ethan. That's all I ask."
"It seems we're always saying goodbye to you, John Taylor," Claire said, wrapping her arms around him.
"This is the last time for that," John Taylor said.
"We'll be back," Claire nodded.
"No, dear, I don't believe you will be," John Taylor said. He tilted her chin up and gazed at her tears. "Be good to each other."
George burst into tears and threw his arms around John Taylor's waist. "Come with us, John Taylor. We miss you."
John Taylor gently removed George's arms from his waist. "You know I can't do that, George." He knelt down to George's level. "I won't forget you, though. And as long as you remember me, I'll be there with you."
"I'll remember you," Ben said, clasping John Taylor's hand.
"So will I," Joseph said.
George nodded, and climbed into the carriage, trying to hide his tears. Lucas and Joseph climbed aboard the driver's seat, and Ben soon joined them.
Claire wiped her eyes and climbed in, too. Amelia hugged John Taylor wordlessly and climbed in, seating herself across from Ethan.
"Can I do anything for you, Mr. Taylor?" Victoria asked as he turned to go. "Anything you need or want? You've done so much, for them, for my family as well. Isn't there any way I can try to repay you?"
"I thank you for the thought, Mrs. Barkley, but I'm fine," John Taylor said, turning and walking off into the trees.
Victoria and Owen climbed aboard, and Lucas whipped up the horses to a slow trot, going easy over the rough road. "Mrs. Barkley," Claire said, "I can think of something you could do for him, if you want to."
"And what is that, Claire?"
"He has a collection of old medical journals. He'd probably appreciate some newer ones."
Victoria nodded. "Sensible, too. One day we'll have to get a proper doctor up here, but until then, anything we can do to help would be good. Thank you, Claire."
Claire nodded and leaned back, looking out the window. Amelia and Ethan were both studiously admiring the scenery, although it ought to be more than familiar to both of them. There was a tenseness about their posture, as though an invisible wall held them apart. Victoria sighed. She wondered what had happened between them, but sat tight on her curiosity. She hoped that, for everyone's sake, they could work out whatever problem had raised its head to spoil their reunion.
They reached Chino as evening approached, and Owen insisted on resting for the night before taking the train in the morning. Ethan protested that he was able to continue on, but Owen overruled him. There were only three rooms available at the hotel, so Owen and Ethan took one, the ladies took the second, and the four boys crowded into the third. After a hasty washing up, the party assembled in the dining room for dinner. As Owen wished Ethan to avoid the strain of being carried up and down the stairs, the two men took dinner in their room.
"I could use a walk," Lucas announced as he arose from the table. "Claire, would you like to join me?"
Claire frowned but, looking around the table, nodded. She followed Lucas out to the verandah. "I know what you're going to say, Lucas," she began, "but don't. It's useless."
Lucas turned to her. "No, I don't believe you do." He started to take her hand, but did not. "I respect your choice, Claire. Your uncle took you in when you had no place, the same as my parents did me and my sister. Do you think I wouldn't do the same for them if it came to it?"
Claire heaved a sigh. "Then why did you ask me out here?"
"To tell you that. And to tell you I'm still your friend. Will you call on me if you need me?"
Claire nodded, overwhelmed. "I think I will need you," she whispered.
Lucas wrapped his arms around her then. "I intend to wait for you, you know."
She pulled back. "Lucas. . . ,"
"Sh. It's my choice, what my heart tells me is right." He took her hand, then. "I ask only one thing."
"And that is?"
"Be honest with me. If you find that your affection for me cools, or lies elsewhere, tell me, please?"
"I don't see how that's possible," she said, stepping into the circle of his arms again. "It hardly seems fair, though. You doing all the giving and me all the taking."
Lucas smiled. "Not fair, maybe, but right. For now."
Owen came down the stairs to the dining room. Looking around he asked, "Where's Claire? Mr. Cord wants to talk to all of you."
"Outside," Joseph said. "I'll go get her."
Amelia stood and Owen leaned down and spoke in a low voice. "Not you, Mrs. Lawson, I'm sorry. He specifically said."
Amelia turned pale and Victoria put her arm through Amelia's elbow. "Why don't we go get some rest? It's been a long day."
Amelia nodded gratefully and followed her up the stairs to their room. "Do you want to talk about it?" Victoria asked, closing the door.
"Yes. No. I wish there was nothing to talk about," Amelia sighed.
"But there is."
"Yes, there is. I asked him to marry me, and he turned me down." Amelia sat down on the bed.
Victoria sat in the chair across from her. "Because?"
"Because he's crippled. As though I care about that."
Victoria felt her assessment of Amelia rising. "Did you tell him about the baby?"
"I did. And then he asked me to marry him. And then I turned him down."
Victoria frowned. "I don't understand."
"Of course I want my baby to be born in wedlock, if at all possible," Amelia explained, "but I already had one travesty of a marriage. Getting married for the wrong reasons is a bad way to start."
"Many people do," Victoria observed.
"I know," Amelia said. "And if worse comes to worst, I'll marry him for the child's sake, but I want better. For all three of us."
"You need to convince him he's still worth it," Victoria said.
"If I might make a suggestion?" Victoria said.
"This wall of silence between you won't solve your problem. Maybe both of you are hurting right now, but you need to talk. And kiss him as much as possible."
Amelia dimpled at that. "You may have a point there."
"Thank you, Doctor," Ethan said as Owen ushered the children into the room. "If you wouldn’t mind leaving us alone for a time."
"Not at all," Owen said graciously.
"What did you want to see us about, Uncle Ethan?" Joseph asked.
"Mrs. Barkley came to see me last night," Ethan began.
"She did?" Claire asked. "She didn't tell us that."
"She did," Ethan said, "and I understand you all have been making plans without my say-so."
The children looked at each other confusedly. "We didn't mean any harm," George said. "We were just looking out for you, Uncle Ethan."
Ethan glanced at him. "I know that, George. But you don't have to. I can make my own decisions."
"Of course you can," Claire said. "You're right - we didn't think. We're sorry."
"That's all right, Claire," Ethan said. "Mrs. Barkley said we were welcome to go to her ranch after the surgery, and that's what I think we should do."
"I thought we should go back to Paradise," Claire said. "It's our home. Wouldn't you be more comfortable there?"
"And who'd help us?" Ethan asked. "I hate to say it, but we're gonna need help."
"We have friends there," Claire said.
"Most of 'em miles away, in town or on their own ranches," Ethan said. "It ain't the same as having people to hand."
"Mrs. Lawson would pay for a sanitarium, she said so," Joseph said. "Or we could sell the ranch."
"Bank owns the ranch by now," Ethan said. "I doubt you been keeping up the payments."
"Mrs. Lawson paid off the mortgage," Ben said.
"Did she?" Ethan said tersely. "Well, that's another thing to reckon with, but anyways, I don't aim to spend that money on me. That's for you children."
"We can discuss that later," Claire said. "Uncle Ethan needs his rest." She kissed his cheek.
"You boys go on, I want to talk to Claire alone a minute," Ethan said.
Joseph raised his eyebrows but did not protest, ushering the younger boys out of the room.
"What about, Uncle Ethan?" Claire asked.
"Mrs. Barkley told me you'd been seeing her grandson, that Lucas," Ethan began.
"You don't have to worry about that," Claire said. "I broke it off."
"On account of me," Ethan said. "You oughtn't to have done that, Claire."
Claire stammered in surprise. "I thought you'd be glad - you always said I was too young."
"You were. Then. But I ain't blind, Claire. I see how you've grown up - you're a young woman now. If you've got feelings for this young man, I ain't holding you back. Just be careful."
Claire sighed. "I can't - there's only so much of me to go around, Uncle Ethan."
"You ain't responsible for me, Claire," Ethan said.
"I am," Claire asserted. "We're responsible for each other. Me, you, the boys. We're family. That's how it is."
"Then don't carry the whole weight yourself, girl."
Claire smiled. "I've been hearing that a lot."
"Then it's time you listened."
Claire kissed his cheek again. "I'll think about it." She turned to open the door, to find Amelia about to knock.
"I'm sorry, Claire," Amelia said. "I thought you'd gone."
"I was just leaving." Amelia walked in and Claire closed the door behind her, leaving them alone.
"I got nothing to say to you," Ethan said.
Amelia said nothing, merely strode across the room, took his face in her hands and kissed him soundly.
"What was that for?" Ethan demanded.
"That was me, taking some very good advice," Amelia said, kissing him again.
Ethan found himself kissing her back, and pulled away before he could melt entirely. "This don't solve nothing," he said.
"Shut up," Amelia said, sliding into his lap and kissing him again. His arms went around her, and they were still kissing when Owen returned.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's all right, Doctor," Amelia said, sliding out of Ethan's lap. "I was just going."
"I doubt that," Owen said, "but my patient does need his rest." He looked at Ethan. "Although I might have prescribed that if I'd thought of it."
Amelia laughed and turned to Ethan. "Better?" she asked.
"It still doesn't change anything," Ethan asserted, more mildly this time.
"I see I have my work cut out for me," Amelia said, striding toward the door, but she was smiling as she left.
Amelia's good spirits continued as the party boarded the train the next morning, Victoria noted. Amelia sat next to Ethan, her hand clasping his. Ethan seemed awkward - neither resisting her affections nor giving in to them. Claire sat by Lucas, seeming as awkward as her uncle. Victoria hoped that both couples would lose no time in working out their troubles, especially Amelia and Ethan, as in their case time was of the essence.
Ethan cleared his throat. "So tell me, Claire, boys, what you've been doing while I've been, uh - "
"Lying to us," Ben supplied, bitterly.
"Ben!" Claire scolded. "Forgive him, Uncle Ethan. This has been hard on him."
Ben crossed his arms and sat back, scowling.
"I'm sorry," Ethan said, scowling himself at how his question had been turned against him. "I did what I thought was best. I don't expect you to understand."
"Good," Ben said, "'cause I don't."
"Ben," Claire shook her head, "can't you see that now's not the time?" She looked at her uncle. "Joseph's been working for Dr. Grigsby, as his assistant, and I've been helping take care of Mrs. Barkley's grandbabies." She smiled.
"Twins," Victoria said.
"And Lizzie, who's two," Claire said. "They're all darling."
"You both been going to school, I hope," Ethan grumped.
"They all have," Victoria said. "It's a requirement of their tenancy."
"Well, that's good," Ethan said. "One good thing to come out of this, anyway."
"I'm learning Braille," George piped up.
"What is that?" Ethan asked.
"It's how blind people read, with their fingers. I'll show you when, when I can. That's what Uncle Henry is teaching me."
"And he's doing much better in school," Claire supplied. "We all really like our teacher."
"And don't forget Claire's music lessons," Joseph said.
"Music lessons?" Ethan asked. "Can you afford that?"
"Miss Molly's paying for it," Claire said. "Because of Mama."
"Lucy?" Ethan asked. "What's she got to do with it?"
"She and Miss Molly were friends, a long time ago," Claire said. "Before I was born. They were in the theater together."
"I didn't know that," Ethan said, thoughtfully.
"And she knew Papa," Ben said angrily. "You lied to us about that, too."
Ethan regarded him sternly, then sighed. "You know about that, then."
Claire nodded. "It's why we had me made guardian, so he couldn't come and take us away. So we could make our own choices."
"Well, I'm back, and I'm your guardian, now," Ethan said. "Not that it's worth much," he mumbled.
Amelia squeezed his hand. "It's worth a lot," she insisted.
"Morally, you are," Victoria said. "You might want to consult a lawyer on the legal aspects."
Claire pressed her lips together. Victoria wondered if the girl was not quite willing to give up the authority she had fought so hard for. Well, that was a matter for them to work out.
"I want you to keep on with it," Ethan said, looking around at all the children. "Joseph and Claire, go on with your jobs, if you're enjoying them, all of you go on with school, and Claire, go on with your music, and. . .that other thing we talked about."
Claire blushed, turning her face away from Lucas. "Uncle Ethan," she protested weakly.
Victoria raised her eyebrows as Ethan continued, "I mean it. I don't want your lives to stop because of me. It's why I done what I done." He looked at Ben. "Although I don't expect you to understand that."
"We're coming into Sacramento," Owen said, gazing out the window. "I’d like Mr. Cord to be lying down in the bed when we change trains. It will cushion the shock."
Lucas and Joseph gently picked Ethan up and carried him into the sleeping compartment, laying him out on the feather bed. "This is traveling in comfort," Ethan remarked.
As the train came to a stop in the station, Victoria disembarked to speak with the station agent about having the rail car switched to the San Francisco bound train. "It'll be an hour before we leave," Owen said. "Perhaps the rest of you should go stretch your legs, get something to eat. I'll stay with Mr. Cord."
"I'll stay, Doctor," Amelia said. "If you don't mind."
Owen nodded. "Of course, Mrs. Lawson." He ushered the young people out onto the platform. The train backed up, pushing the private car onto the siding, and a slight jolt as it was uncoupled.
Amelia shrugged out of her jacket and climbed onto the other side of the bed. She stretched out next to Ethan and proceeded to kiss him soundly. "Amelia," he protested weakly.
"Hush," she said, kissing him some more. "Marry me, Ethan. Please."
"I already said I would."
"No." She shook her head. "Not a marriage of convenience, Ethan. A real marriage. Because we love each other. Because we want to be together."
"Ah, you know I love you. Ain't that enough for you?"
She rested her head on his shoulder and he curled an arm around her. "It's not enough for you. Why not?"
"Well, look at me, Amelia." He swept an arm down over his paralyzed form. "I weren't much to start with. I never was good enough for you - "
"That's not true," she protested.
He laid a finger on her lips. "You're richer'n me," he said, touching her cheek, "smarter'n me," touching her temple.
She laid her hand on his chest. "Your heart's bigger," she said.
"Heh," he laughed. "No, it ain't."
"It is," she said. "If you'd open your eyes at all, you'd see."
"Yeah, well, if it is, it's cause it was forced on me. I ain't done nothing to deserve it."
"And I don't believe I'm smarter than you, either," she said. "I've had better opportunities, is all. Look at how quickly you learned to read, Ethan. That takes intelligence."
"Not that I've done much with it," Ethan said.
"So I have more money," Amelia said. "If that's all that's standing in the way, I'll get rid of it. None of it matters without you - I learned that the hard way."
Ethan looked down at her, at a loss for words. "Naw, don't do that, Amelia," he said at last. "That ain't the problem, no how."
"I don't care about the paralysis," Amelia said. "I'd take you armless, legless. As long as you love me."
"I have to give you the best of me," Ethan said. "Can't I make you understand?"
She looked up into his face. "I'm trying to."
"It's why I'm going through with the surgery," Ethan said.
She stroked his cheek. "Well, that's a good reason," she smiled. "Come home with me, after, Ethan. Let me take care of you."
He shook his head. "You still don't understand. I don't want you taking care of me. I want to take care of you," he put his hand on her belly, "and our little one. I gotta be strong, Amelia. I gotta be the man."
"There's more to being a man than physical strength, Ethan," Amelia said.
"If there is, I don't know nothing about it."
She frowned up at him now. "I'm beginning to see the problem. So, unless you can make a full recovery, all you're willing to give me is your name? Can you wonder why I'm not satisfied with that?"
He looked down at her, unwilling to hold on, unwilling to let go. "I'll make you a deal," he offered.
"I'll marry you the day I can stand on my own two feet - "
"Ethan," she chided.
He raised a finger. "Or the day the doc tells me that'll never happen."
She sighed over this small victory. "But if you'll marry me either way, why not now?"
"Cause I gotta try, Amelia. I gotta give you the best I got. It ain't much, but it's all I can do."
There was a larger jolt as the car was coupled to the new train, and began to move out onto the main track. Amelia kissed him and climbed out of the bed, reluctantly. "It'll have to do, I suppose." She knelt by the bed and kissed him again. "But you know I'd take you either way, right now, don't you?"
He took her hand and kissed it. "I know."
"So, what's the verdict, Doc?" Ethan lay still on the examining table. Dr. Hodgson, the spinal surgeon, threw the door open and beckoned to an orderly to help Ethan into the waiting wheelchair.
"Now then, Mr. Cord," Dr. Hodgson asked when he was settled, "I have to ask you, why didn't you come before? It's been, what, two months since your injury?"
"About that," Ethan conceded. "If I'd known I was gonna live this long, I mighta come sooner."
"I see," Dr. Hodgson frowned, making a note. "Fearing death, or hoping for it?"
Ethan clasped his hands, then met the doctor's gaze defiantly. "What do you think?"
"Mr. Cord, most of my patients at some point or other think their lives are worthless. Most of them find out otherwise. Suicidal thoughts are part of the package." He regarded Ethan over his glasses. "You're more spirited than most - that should be a help."
"You ain't answered my question," Ethan said. "Am I gonna walk again?"
"Hard to say at this point," Dr. Hodgson said. "The bullet grazed your vertebrae - the bone in your back - and may have chipped some of it off. I don't think the spine itself is severed, but there's a good deal of swelling impinging on the spinal nerve, and if there are bone fragments lodged in your spine, well, the answer is probably no."
Ethan shivered. "When will you know?"
"About the bone fragments, when we get you on the operating table tomorrow. But your spine has been under stress for months - it will take weeks to heal under the best scenario. Compose your mind a good long stay in that wheelchair, even if you do ultimately recover."
"I was hoping for better news," Ethan said.
"Be glad there's no infection," Dr. Hodgson chided. "That's pretty close to a miracle, under the circumstances."
"I had good care," Ethan said.
"Not good enough," Dr. Hodgson said. "Sooner would have been better."
"Understood," Ethan said. "Do what you can."
"I will," the surgeon said. To the orderly, "You can take him out now."
The orderly wheeled Ethan out to where the rest of their party waited, along with Mr. Johnson, who had met them at the station. Amelia sprang to her feet. "Well?" she breathed.
"Surgery tomorrow," Ethan said. "Won't know much until after."
They followed the orderly as he wheeled Ethan to a ward, six beds on either side of a long aisle, and moved him into a high bed surrounded by curtains. "I thought I asked for a private room," Amelia frowned.
"I told 'em different," Ethan said. "This is fine - no need for you to be wasting your money."
"It's not a waste," Amelia argued.
"This is fine," Ethan said, stubbornly.
"All right," Amelia capitulated. "No need to argue about it."
"I'll be going now," Owen said. "It's time I got back to Stockton."
"You not staying for the surgery, Doc?" Ethan asked.
"You're in good hands, Mr. Cord," Owen said. "I will, of course, attend you when you come to Stockton. In the meantime, I have other patients who need me."
Ethan stuck out his hand. "Thanks for all you done, then, Doc."
Owen shook it. "No thanks necessary." He turned to go.
"I'll go with you, Uncle," Lucas said.
Claire raised her head questioningly. "For school," Lucas explained. "Would you like me to send you your lessons?"
"Yes, please," Claire said. "That would be sweet of you." Her eyes were full of questions as she shook his hand, but she did not beg him to stay.
Owen and Lucas left, and a white-aproned nurse walked down the aisle, hurrying visitors out. "Might I stay awhile longer?" Amelia asked. "I'm Mr. Cord's fiancée."
"I'm sorry, Miss," the nurse said. "The patients need their rest. You're welcome to come back tomorrow."
"The children are tired and hungry," Victoria pointed out, holding Henry's arm. "Let us all get a good night's sleep."
Amelia nodded and kissed Ethan warmly before herding the children out of the ward.
Ethan pulled up the covers when they had gone, the nurse closing his curtain to give him an illusion of privacy. He could clearly hear the other patients breathing or talking to themselves. Dinnertime came and went with nothing for him - not that he was expecting anything as the doctor had explained the need for an empty stomach during surgery - but his belly rumbled all the same. He wished he had thought to ask for a book or something to occupy his time. Early as it was, he found himself drifting off from sheer boredom when he heard the peal of a familiar voice chatting with the nurse.
"Hello, Pierce," he said dryly as Pierce Lawson ducked through the curtain. "How'd you get in here?"
"Oh, charm," Pierce lilted. He stood over Ethan's bed. "So it's true then. You are alive."
"Yup," Ethan said. "Disappointed?"
"A little," Pierce admitted, pulling up a chair. "I thought, with you out of the picture, Amelia might. . . ."
"Take you back?" Ethan snorted. "Fat chance."
Pierce ducked his head, blushing. "Yeah. Even with a baby on the way, she wouldn't have me."
Ethan started. "You know about that?"
Pierce nodded. "I stopped off in Paradise, heard you were dead, went to pay my respects to Amelia. She told me then. For what it's worth to you, Ethan, she laughed in my face when I proposed."
"I don't doubt it," Ethan said. "So what are you doing here, Pierce? How'd you know I was even alive?"
"I was paying a call on Amelia when Victoria Barkley came with the news."
"I doubt she'd have told Amelia in front of you," Ethan observed. "Listening at keyholes again?"
"One never knows when one might hear something to one's advantage," Pierce said. "Not in this case."
"Not that it matters as far as you and Amelia are concerned."
Pierce grew serious. "Is there anything I can do for you, Ethan?"
Ethan was taken aback. "Can’t think of a thing."
"Really," Pierce said. "You know I've always kind of liked you. If I can do anything for you now, I'd like to try."
Ethan frowned thoughtfully. "I guess there's one thing you can do. Go away. Leave Amelia alone. You ain't no threat, but you're a complication - one we don't need right now."
Pierce nodded. "That's pretty much what I expected." He stood. "Are you going to be all right? Physically, I mean?"
"That. . .remains to be seen."
"I'm sorry," Pierce said. "Life's not very fair, is it?"
"Never expected it to be," Ethan said.
"I'm sorry anyway," Pierce said. "Good luck, Ethan." He stuck out his hand.
Ethan took it. "You, too, Pierce."
"Always have been," Pierce said brightly. "Mostly, anyway. Take good care of Amelia."
"If I can," Ethan said.
"You will," Pierce said, closing the curtain behind him.
Amelia and the children showed up at the hospital bright and early, in time to see Ethan being wheeled away to the operating room. He awoke hours later, groggy, lying face down with Amelia holding his hand. "Ethan?" she asked. "How do you feel?"
Ethan tried to move his legs. "Nothing," he said, trying to hold down his panic. "I still can't feel a thing."
"I'm telling you, Nick, it needs to be longer," Heath said, wiping the sweat from his brow.
"It's long enough," Nick declared, hammering a nail into one end of the long board laid along the steps leading up to the foreman's cottage.
A cowhand, walking around the house to the barn paused to consider their work, hands on hips. "If that's a wheelchair ramp, Heath's right. It needs to be longer. It's too steep."
"What do you know about it, Tucker?" Nick snapped.
"My pa was in a wheelchair for about six years," Tucker replied easily. "Fell off a horse the wrong way. I looked after him - leastways, the things my ma wasn't strong enough to handle."
Heath raised an eyebrow. "See, I told ya, Nick."
"Well, all right," Nick conceded, throwing down his hammer. "I better go get more wood."
"You mind helping out, Tucker?" Heath asked. "Maybe look the cottage over, see what else might need doing?"
"Something didn't happen to one of those kids, did it?" Tucker asked. "I'd hate to see that."
"No," Heath said. "Their uncle. He's in the hospital in San Francisco right now, but he'll be coming here to recover. Mother wanted us to get things ready for him."
"All right." Tucker drew a line in the dirt with his boot heel. "Ramp should be at least this long." He strode up the stairs and into the cottage. He returned a few minutes later as Nick brought a wheelbarrow full of planks. "Front door's wide enough, barely, and the arch into the kitchen, but none of the inside doors are. Where were you reckoning on putting him?"
"Mother thought Miss Claire's room," Nick said, "and a bed for her in the garret."
Tucker shook his head. "Not unless you mean to tear out part of the wall and make a new door. Easier to put a bed in the parlor, I reckon."
"We'll telegraph Mother," Heath said. "She's in San Francisco - she can ask Mr. Cord what he wants to do."
Tucker started. "Cord? Not Ethan Allen Cord?"
"Yeah," Nick said. "You know him?"
Tucker shrugged. "Heard of him. He's kind of famous. I didn't know he was Miss Claire's uncle, though." He frowned. "What happened to him?"
"Shot in the back trying to stop a robbery," Heath explained. "Paralyzed from the waist down. He's having surgery now - don't know if he'll be able to walk again, though."
Tucker winced. "Hard, that, for a strong man. Like my pa - he'd never sat still in his life." He looked down at the unfinished ramp. "Let's get this ramp done, anyhow. I can show you the finer points, things you might not think of."
Nick handed him a hammer. "Have at it," he said.
Ethan was bored. He wasn't sure which was like to kill him first - the boredom or the uncertainty. There'd been no bone chips in his spine, which was good news, but time would tell whether the neglect of his wound would ultimately doom him to life in a wheelchair. It had been four days since the operation, and he was still forced to lie face down, unable to sit up, turn over, or anything else.
Amelia and the children were bored, too, he could tell, although none of them complained. At least Amelia and Claire were whiling away the time knitting clothes for the baby. Joseph had found some old medical journals somewhere, but the younger boys were finding the time hard to bear. Ethan finally banished the lot of them for the afternoon. "Go to the park, or something," he said irritably. "It's too nice a day for all of you to loiter around here."
"It's foggy," Claire pointed out.
"Well, still. Let Ben and George go someplace to play. It ain't good to stay cooped up this long."
"I'll stay with him," Victoria said. "He's right - all of you need a break."
"Well, all right," Amelia said, reluctantly, but seeing the sense of it. "We'll be back later." She leaned down and kissed Ethan before ushering the children out.
"You don't need to baby-sit," Ethan said when they had gone. "Ain't nothing I can do anyway."
"I'm not," Victoria said. "But I had a telegram from my sons, about fixing up the cottage, and I need to ask for your decision on a couple of things."
"Oh," Ethan said. "What things?"
She pulled out the telegram. "There are only two bedrooms, and we had thought to put you in the smaller one, which Claire now occupies, and put her in the garret, but we find that the doorway is too small for a wheelchair. Now, we could tear out the door and part of the wall for you, or we could make a bed for you in the parlor, with some sort of curtain or screen for privacy. Which do you think would be better?"
Ethan was mollified by her businesslike tone. Did this woman ever get sentimental? Not that he wanted sentiment from her. He considered her question. "Parlor, I guess," he said. "No need to tear up the house - we're not staying there permanent."
"You're sure?" Victoria said. "Because we'll willingly make the changes, if you want."
Ethan shrugged. "No, leave it like it is."
"All right," Victoria said, "if you wish. My son thinks he may have found you a nurse. One of our hands had a father who was wheelchair-bound. He's had experience, and you'd probably be more comfortable with a man taking on that chore."
"And how would we pay for that?" Ethan asked.
"He's already on our payroll," Victoria said. "It'd be no loss to us to lend him to you."
"You'd lose the good of his work," Ethan said. "And we're already taking enough from you."
"Mrs. Lawson could pay him, then."
Ethan shook his head. "I ain't taking nothing from her, either."
"What do you plan, then?" Victoria said sternly. "Have Claire and Joseph do it? Drop out of school, quit their jobs? Because it would take both of them."
"No, I don't want that, either," Ethan said. "I don't aim to jeopardize their futures."
"That's what will happen, though," Victoria said bluntly. "You can't take care of yourself, Mr. Cord. Someone has to do it. Either hire someone, or let your children or your pregnant fiancée. Which would not be good for either them or your unborn child."
Ethan winced, then considered. He sighed. "I'd be much obliged, ma'am," he said at last, "if you'd lend me your hired hand."
Victoria smiled. "I'd be very happy to, Mr. Cord."
Henry appeared at the opening in the curtain. "Hello, dear," Victoria said warmly.
Maybe she does get sentimental after all, Ethan thought.
"Hello, Victoria, Mr. Cord," Henry said. "Where is everyone?"
"I sent them away," Ethan said. "The boys needed to get out of here for awhile."
Henry nodded. "Yes, I see."
"And I had a few matters to discuss with Mr. Cord," Victoria said. She took his hand and sat him down beside her.
"Am I interrupting?" Henry asked.
"No, we had just finished," Ethan said. He eyed Henry curiously. "Now's your chance, I guess."
Henry raised his eyebrows. "Chance for what, Mr. Cord?"
"That sermon I know you been dying to preach ever since I got here."
"Heavens, no," Henry said. "I had plenty of sermons preached to me when I was blinded. None of them did me any good whatsoever."
Now Ethan was startled. "Why you been hanging around, then?"
"Perhaps I should leave you two alone?" Victoria asked, beginning to rise.
"No," Henry and Ethan said together. "I ain't got nothing I can't say in front of you," Ethan continued. "You done know the worst already."
"All right." Victoria sat back down and took Henry's hand.
"I've been 'hanging around'," Henry said, "because of the children, mostly. You do know they were planning to come live with me at the end of the summer? But, of course, any service I might render you would be welcome, as well. I may not know exactly how you feel, but I probably come closer than anyone here."
"It's the uncertainty that's killing me," Ethan confided.
"I doubt that," Henry said. "Would you feel better right now if you knew you'd never walk again?"
"No!" Ethan exclaimed.
"So it's not the uncertainty, it's the doubt," Henry said. "At least you have some hope. It was clear from the beginning that I'd never see again."
"You seem to be doing all right," Ethan conceded.
"Now," Henry said, smiling and clasping Victoria's hand. "But I've been blind more than twenty years. It was surviving the first few months was questionable."
Ethan released a sigh he had not known he was holding. "Yeah." He shook his head. "Not that I have much choice now that the children know."
"Mrs. Lawson told the nurse she was your fiancée," Henry said. "Not to pry, but is that true?"
"More or less," Ethan said. "We'll be getting married when we know more about what the future holds."
"Good. At least you're avoiding my gravest mistake," Henry said. Victoria clasped his hand tighter.
"What was that?" Ethan asked.
Henry sighed, hesitated. "Don't you know?" Victoria asked. "I'm sure Lucas wrote Claire about it some time ago."
"I never enquired about Claire's private correspondence," Ethan said. "There were few enough friends for her in Paradise, I didn't want to pry."
Henry patted Victoria's hand. "It's all right, dear. I don't mind telling it again." He turned to Ethan. "You can surely understand what a dark place I was in."
"I failed - I failed to let my wife know what had happened."
Ethan raised his eyebrows. "You was married?"
"I was. I couldn't write myself, and I couldn't think what to tell someone else to write. And what I didn't know until recently was that the Army had informed my wife that I was - that I had died."
Ethan gave a whistle. "What happened?"
"She left," Henry said. "All her brothers had been killed, her parents were long dead - she left home awandering, and I didn't see her again until several months ago."
"Wait," Ethan said. "You found her?" He looked at Victoria questioningly.
"It's Molly," Victoria said quietly.
"Molly?" Ethan said incredulously. "The judge's wife?"
"I was legally dead," Henry explained. "She was free to marry - there's no blame to be placed." He put his other hand over Victoria's. "I had met Victoria in the meantime, neither of us knowing the relationship. But can you blame me for loving her? Especially once I knew I was free?"
Ethan shook his head. "She's a fine woman. But that must have been hard. For all concerned."
"It was," Henry agreed. "But things - things are working themselves out. Molly's children call me 'Uncle', which is where yours picked up the habit. I hope you don't mind."
Ethan shook his head again, as though to clear it. "Naw, I don't mind. But I do wonder why you wanted to take them on when Amelia didn't."
"Well, by the time it came to that, she did want them - she came to deeply regret her earlier mistake - but she felt that the trust she had breached needed to be re-earned. And I had never had children and wanted them badly."
"We had some difficulty with Joseph," Victoria said. "It's obvious that he wants to be and should be a doctor, but he had this idea that he couldn't take care of his family and go to school at the same time. Henry lives in Berkeley, which is near the university and a solution to that problem."
"Money's a bigger one," Ethan pointed out.
"Don't worry about that," Victoria said. "I'm already sending one young man to medical school. The West desperately needs doctors - I'm not going to sit idly by and let that boy waste his abilities."
"And I've been teaching George Braille," Henry said, "in hopes of solving his reading problem."
"Yes, he told me about that," Ethan said, "although I don't rightly understand it."
"We'll go over all that with you," Victoria said, "when you're better."
"And what was Claire going to get out of living with you?" Ethan asked. "Or Ben?"
"I'm not sure what Ben's reasons were," Henry said, "but he did wish it. As to Claire. . ." He tilted his head toward Victoria.
"Lucas is attending Berkeley in the fall," Victoria supplied.
"Ah, I see," Ethan said.
"And Mrs. Lawson has bought a house nearby, so the children could be near their cousin when it's born," Henry finished.
"Sounds right cozy," Ethan said bitterly.
Henry tilted his head again at his tone. "You were presumed dead, by your own wish, Mr. Cord. Don't fault your children for trying to put their lives back together."
Ethan sighed. "I'm not. I'm grateful, really." He looked up at Henry. "So, you haven't told me how you learned to get around - 'cause anyone who acts less like a blind man I ain't never seen."
Henry chuckled. "Thank you. All I can say is - the Good Lord sent me help. One of the young men in my unit was familiar with the skills I would need, as his father was a teacher of the blind. He taught me, and now I teach others."
"Hm," Ethan said. "Don't reckon no one can teach me how to be crippled."
Victoria fingered the telegram she still held. "I. . .wouldn't be too sure about that."
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Tucker," Victoria said several days later, opening the door and ushering Tucker into the Barkley parlor.
"Nick said you wanted to see me about something?" Tucker took off his hat, looking around the parlor and shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"Please sit down," Victoria said, motioning him to a chair. Tucker sat down awkwardly. "Would you like some tea?"
"Uh, no, ma'am." Tucker bobbed his head.
"Something stronger?" Victoria enquired, moving to the decanter.
"That's all right, ma'am," Tucker said. "I'm not thirsty. What did you want to see me about?"
"I wanted to thank you for all the help you've given readying the cottage and the house for Mr. Cord's arrival. . ."
"'It was nothing, ma'am," Tucker said. "I'm happy to help."
"It is something," Victoria said, sitting down. "We're lucky to have someone with your expertise at this time."
Tucker bobbed his head again, but said nothing.
"I understand you have experience in caring for someone in a wheelchair - your father?"
"Yes, ma'am," Tucker said hesitantly, but with a light dawning in his eyes.
"You see where I'm going with this," Victoria noted. "Mr. Cord will need nursing, for several weeks at least, and I'm sure he'd be more comfortable with a man than with one of the women from the town. Not to mention the amount of strength required."
"You're right there, I'm sure, ma'am," Tucker said. "But I'm not sure I'm your man."
"I'm sure you're up to the task," Victoria said. "We would continue to pay you your wages, of course."
"With a bonus?" Victoria asked, puzzled.
"Oh, no, ma'am, it isn't the money," Tucker said. "I have no complaints about that, for sure."
Tucker pressed his lips together. "It's personal, ma'am."
Victoria regarded him - a strong young man, perhaps twenty-four or twenty-five. "You're not sweet on Miss Claire, are you?" she hazarded a guess.
Tucker started. "No, ma'am! Nothing like that! I mean, Miss Claire's a nice young girl and all, but she is young, and besides, she's spoken for, isn't she?"
"Not exactly." Victoria studied him closely. His startlement at her suggestion seemed genuine. "Very well," she said at last. "We shall have to make other provision, if we must, but I don't know where else we can find someone like you."
Tucker tapped his heel against the floor, not rising when she did. "I tell you what, ma'am," he said, "I want to do the right thing here. Why don't I talk it over with Cord when he gets here, and we'll see what we can work out?"
"Very well," Victoria said, offering him her hand. "Thank you for your consideration."
"It's nothing, ma'am. I'd be happy to oblige you, if I can."
Victoria showed him out, then leaned against the door. He seemed a reasonable, sensible young man - what could Tucker's obstacle be? She wrinkled her brow in thought as she went to the kitchen to prepare dinner for her family.
It was a warm, sunny Spring day when they finally brought Ethan home to the cottage on the Barkley ranch. Molly, who had been busy readying the cottage for Ethan's arrival, flung herself down the ramp and warmly kissed him on the cheek. "Ethan! I'm glad you're here! Although I should probably shake you for what you've put us all through."
Ethan turned red and rubbed his cheek where she had kissed him. "I'm glad to see you, too, Mrs. Barkley."
"We've been friends long enough you can call me Molly, Ethan," she chided. She put her arm around Amelia's waist. "And how are you, dear?"
"All right," Amelia nodded. "Glad to be away from that hospital."
Molly hugged her. "I'm sure. Come inside, everyone. Come see what we've done with the place."
Victoria introduced Ethan to Tucker, who was standing quietly by. "Ethan Cord, this is Mr. Joshua Tucker."
"Glad to meet you," Ethan nodded.
Tucker shrugged and pushed Ethan's wheelchair up the ramp into the cottage. "What happened to the parlor?" George asked. A wall had been erected, fencing off a third of the room, and the sofa and chairs pushed into the remainder.
Tucker rapped on the wall. "It's just planking, but at least this way he'll have some privacy." He opened the wide plank door, revealing a narrow bed and small bedside table.
Ethan nodded. "It'll do me nicely. Thank you." He looked at Tucker and Victoria as he spoke.
"Let me show you the rest of the place," Victoria said, "if you're not too tired from your journey, Mr. Cord."
"No, I ain't tired," Ethan said. "There's more?"
Tucker wheeled him down the ramp as Victoria led. "Of course."
"Boys, why don't you unpack and get settled in?" Claire said as she followed. Joseph shrugged and he and the younger boys carried in the luggage as the rest of the party followed Victoria to the ranch house.
A ramp had been built leading up the verandah, and Tucker pushed Ethan up it as Victoria flung open the parlor doors. "The front door is too narrow," Victoria explained, "but these should accommodate you."
"I ain't going to have no need to make free of your house, Mrs. Barkley," Ethan said. "I'm sorry you've gone to so much trouble."
"Nonsense," Victoria said. "Your children take their breakfasts and Sunday dinner with us. I hope you would, too." She led the way into the dining room, where they found Audra setting the table. "This is my daughter, Audra Grigsby."
"The doc's wife?" Ethan said, taking Audra's offered hand.
Audra nodded. "He was sorry he couldn't be here to greet you, but he got called out. He said he'll call on you later and make sure you're doing all right."
"Much obliged," Ethan said, unable to avoid gazing at her swelling belly.
Audra took note of where his eyes rested, laughed and placed a hand on her belly. "Yes, we are in the midst of a bout of fecundity. Babies everywhere about here, I'm afraid."
Ethan's eyes sought Amelia's, sending a wordless message.
"Here's where we dine," Victoria said. "I do hope you will join us - we've grown accustomed to having your children with us."
Ethan looked at Claire, standing tight-lipped beside Amelia. "We'll discuss it," Ethan said.
"Very well," Victoria said, leading the party down the hall and throwing open the double doors. "Here is the library. Please make yourself free of it." That Ethan would need to find ways to occupy his time was so obvious as not to bear stating. Ethan gazed at the many full shelves with interest, and Tucker, Victoria noted, with what could only be described as hunger. "You, too, Mr. Tucker," she said. "Now, I know you two gentleman have matters to discuss, so we shall leave you to discuss them. Mr. Tucker, if you wouldn't mind seeing Mr. Cord back to the cottage when you are finished? No matter what you decide?"
Tucker nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
Molly tucked her arm through Amelia's, barely repressing a grin. "Come, Amelia. Come see what I've prepared for you."
Amelia raised her eyebrows, but followed Molly out.
Claire followed Victoria and, as the older woman closed the doors behind her, said, "Mrs. Barkley?"
"Yes, Claire? I could see that something was disturbing you. You wish to discuss it?"
Claire wrung her hands, then tucked them behind her back. "I don't wish to seem ungrateful," she began.
"You could never do that," Victoria assured her, leading her into the parlor. "Come, sit down and tell me what is bothering you."
"I can't believe you would hire a nurse for my uncle without consulting me!" Claire burst out.
"I consulted him," Victoria said calmly.
"I should be doing it," Claire said, blinking back frustrated tears. "He's my uncle - he's my responsibility."
"No, Claire," Victoria said gently, "you're his responsibility. This is what he thought was best, for all of you."
"Don't I have a say in it?" Claire insisted. "I've been taking care of things for months. You, all of you, have gone out of your way to convince me I could, that I'm grown up now. Am I to go back to being treated like a child?"
"You're not a child, Claire. None of us think you are, and we're all proud of you for the way you've risen to the needs of your family. I'm sure if you think, for just a few minutes, you'll see why this is best for your uncle as well as yourself."
Claire clasped her hands and bowed her head. Victoria did not disturb her thoughts, glad that the girl was serious enough to take the time for them. After awhile, Claire raised her head. "It's about him - about not treating him like a child, isn't it?"
"Yes, Claire, it is. I'm glad you can see that. He's in a very difficult way right now. He needs to be the head of the family - are you woman enough to relinquish that place, for his good?"
"I can try," Claire said. "I can't say it's going to be easy."
"No," Victoria agreed. "None of this is going to be easy. We're here to help you, if you need it - I hope you know by now that you can call on us."
Claire smiled. "Of course. But. . .how much help is too much help? For him, I mean?"
"We'll have to feel that out as we go," Victoria said. "But you're right that too much help could undermine his recovery - or his adjustment to what might become necessary."
"Where are we going?" Amelia asked as Molly led her through the garden.
"Here," Molly said as they arrived in a secluded corner. Before them was a tiny cottage, freshly whitewashed. Molly opened the door. "I know you were planning to stay with us in town until Ethan recovers, but I thought this might be better." She opened a curtain letting in the daylight to reveal a large featherbed, a small table and chairs, and a couple of armchairs in front of the fireplace. "It's only one room, but Mother said you could take your meals with the family, and I thought you might prefer to be close by."
"It's lovely," Amelia said. "Thank you."
"It was my wedding present from Jarrod," Molly explained. "A place I could be alone, think, paint. I haven't had any use for it since we moved into town, but I thought it would be perfect for you."
"It is," Amelia assured her, hugging her.
"Here," Molly said, noting the tears in her eyes. "No need for that."
"I'm sorry," Amelia said, wiping her eyes. "It's been such a strain - all of it."
"I don't doubt it." Molly led Amelia to the armchairs and sat down. "What is happening? Will Ethan be all right? What are your plans?"
"No one knows if he'll recover fully," Amelia said. "The doctor said that time will tell. It's nerve-wracking."
"I'm sure it is," Molly said. "I can't imagine - if it were Jarrod." She shuddered.
"He's. . .I don't know how to say this. He's not right. . .in his head." She shook her head. "I don't mean he's insane, I mean. . .I don't know if he'll be able to cope if he doesn't get better. He's always been such a strong man, Molly. I don't think he can deal with it if he doesn't walk again."
"What about you?" Molly asked. "Can you deal with it?"
"As long as he's here, as long as he's alive - it's nough for me." She put her hand on her belly. "I'm more than ever grateful now about this child. It may be the only thing that can keep him going. If the worst happens."
"Children do change one's outlook, for certain," Molly agreed. She raised her eyebrows questioningly.
"Yes, we are getting married," Amelia said, answering the unspoken question. "But not until we know one way or the other whether he'll recover. Not my choice."
Molly nodded. "It's hard, not knowing. And waiting. And all the while - "
" - our child is growing inside me," Amelia finished.
"Any idea how long? You can't wait indefinitely."
"The doctor said if he hasn't regained feeling within two months, he never will."
Molly winced. "Well, I hope he recovers long before that." She reached out and took Amelia's hand. "May I offer some advice, Amelia?"
"Don't hover. I know being close by might make that difficult, but he shouldn't be coddled or fussed over. Strong as that temptation would be."
Amelia nodded. "I know. I've seen that already." She sighed. "My problem - my problem is that I'm supremely selfish, Molly."
"You aren't," Molly protested.
"I am," Amelia corrected her. "I want what I want when I want it. I've learned a lot about myself the past few months, and it hasn't been an uplifting experience. I'm trying to learn better - will you help me?"
"Of course, dear," Molly assured her. "Whatever I can do, I shall."
Tucker turned his back on Ethan, gazing at the bookshelves, beating his hat against his thigh. Ethan waited a moment, but when Tucker did not turn back, he cleared his throat. "Well? You got something to say to me?"
Tucker turned around reluctantly. "I'm not so sure. Until a few minutes ago, you were just a name to me. Now I see you. . ."
Ethan gestured, taking in the wheelchair, his paralyzed body. "I ain't asking for your pity. I might need your help, I can't deny it, but don't do anything you don't want to."
Tucker sighed. "No, no one knows better than I do that pity's not practical. Still, I don't know how to say this - "
"Seeing as you know my name, it follows that you know what I do - did - for a living," Ethan said. "Since I ain't never laid eyes on you before, it seems to follow that if you've got something against me, it's because of that. Well? What is it?"
"All right," Tucker said, sitting down across from Ethan and putting his elbows on his knees. "Ethan Allen Cord," he rubbed his hand across his chin, "you're the man who killed my brother."
"When? And where?" Ethan asked. Was I gunfighter, or marshal?
"A couple, three years ago," Tucker replied. "He was working for a rancher named Jennings. . ."
Ethan's breath hissed involuntarily through his teeth and Tucker looked up. "Let me tell you about Jennings," Ethan said tersely. "He wanted to lock up the water rights for the whole area, and he didn't care how he went about it - he and his men threatened the other ranchers, terrorized our families, wrecked our homes. They accused a friend of mine of cattle rustling and strung him up then and there - didn't even send for the law, much less have a trial."
Tucker winced. "So the other ranchers hired you."
Ethan shook his head. "No - my ranch, my family was just as much in danger as anyone's. Jennings hired a gunfighter to kill me, though."
"I see you won," Tucker said dryly.
"Not exactly," Ethan said. "Jennings had some of his men lie in wait to kill me if Gideon was the loser. Unfortunately for them, Gideon took offense and ended up siding with me to bring them down. Is that when I killed your brother?"
Tucker ran his hand through his hair. "I don't know. All they told me was he'd been killed in a gunfight with Ethan Allen Cord."
"And my reputation was enough to color that tale against me."
"I have no delusions about my brother, Cord," Tucker said. "Micah always was a mean one - used to beat me up regularly when we were boys. It was when he got big and struck my ma once that our pa threw him out."
"There was no love lost between you, then," Ethan said.
"To the contrary, there was lots of love lost," Tucker said distantly.
"There were several bouts of shooting during that range war," Ethan said. "I can't say for certain which gun-battle your brother might have been killed in, but I can promise you, I didn't shoot anyone except in defense of my home, my family and my friends." At least this time, he thought, but kept that thought to himself.
"Then I can't have a quarrel with you, can I?"
Ethan shrugged. "You could. Even if you understand it, that's a hard thing to put behind you."
Tucker leaned forward intently. "But your gun's still for hire. Or was, wasn't it?"
Ethan shook his head. "No. Once those kids came, I hung up my guns. Or tried to. Bought a ranch, tried to be respectable. Problem is, when you're good at something, people keep trying to get you to do it. So I became the marshal instead."
"Still living by the gun."
Ethan hitched his shoulders. "I'm not saying this right. You have a family?"
"Well, I didn't. Just my sister, and she weren't much older - I hadn't hardly seen her since she married. I wasn't attached to anything or anybody. Then she died and left me those kids, and then - then I was. Attached, I mean. Things started to matter. Nothing had before. I couldn't stay like I was. You understand?"
Tucker frowned. "I'm trying. I don't think I've ever known anyone like you, Cord."
"Then you're lucky. But even when I did live by the gun, I never killed anyone unless I had to - and there were some things I just wouldn't do."
"Someone offered me a good sum of money to kidnap a judge's wife and baby once - he was making waves."
Tucker hissed through his teeth. "Good to know where you drew the line. What happened?"
"Ask Judge Barkley's wife. That's how we met."
Tucker's eyes grew wide. "So that's why - I had wondered - "
" - why the Barkleys had anything to do with the likes of me?"
"Well, yeah." Tucker stood and contemplated the shelves again. After a long moment he said, "Better take some of these books - you're going to need to occupy yourself somehow. What do you like?"
"That mean you're taking the job?"
Tucker faced Ethan. "Yeah. I'm not sure I know how to judge a man like you, Cord. I'm not even sure it's my place to, but my ma was a great believer in the Bible, and she always swore everyone was redeemable."
"You believe that?" Ethan asked.
Tucker shrugged. "I guess. She set great store by it."
"And your brother?"
"Broke her heart." Tucker turned back to the shelves.
"That's not what I meant," Ethan said.
"I know," Tucker said, sighing. "He always was going to make a bad end, it seems. I don't guess I can blame you." He took a couple of slim volumes down from the shelf. "Wonder if Mrs. Barkley would mind if I borrowed these?"
"She said to take what you want," Ethan said. "Where are your folks now?"
"Pa died about a year ago, Ma went East to live with her sister. I thought I might like to see a bit of the country before I settle down. Which of these books do you want? You're going to have to find some way to occupy yourself, take my word for it."
"You pick," Ethan said, giving in to Tucker's change of subject. No point prodding the man in his sore places. "Can't say I've read enough to have a preference."
"Not much of a reader?"
Ethan shrugged. "Didn't know how until the children taught me."
Tucker raised his eyebrows. "That's. . .extraordinary. Not many adults would make the effort."
"It seemed the thing to do," Ethan said.
Tucker studied him a moment, then turned to the shelves again and perused a few volumes before choosing a couple more for Ethan. He hesitated a moment, then searched as though looking for something in particular. He smiled and took down a thick book. Dumping the load in Ethan's lap, he pushed the wheelchair out the door.
"The Tragedie of Hamlet?" Ethan asked, examining the books.
"That one's for me," Tucker said. "Shakespeare."
"My sister was an actress," Ethan said, "so I do know who Shakespeare was."
"Good," Tucker said. "I got 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Treasure Island' for you - neither one should be too difficult for you, and if they are, there's the dictionary."
"Just one thing," Ethan said, holding up his hand. Tucker stopped pushing the chair to listen. "No coddling. You're here to do what I can't do for myself, nothing more."
"Oh, don't worry about that," Tucker said, pushing the chair once again. "I'm not going easy on you."
"Good enough, then," Ethan agreed.
Claire was sitting on the porch swing when Molly and Amelia returned to the cottage. "Ethan not back yet?" Amelia asked. "And where are the boys?"
"Lena invited Ben and George to go riding, and Joseph's inside catching up on schoolwork," Claire said frowning.
"Something wrong?" Molly asked as Ethan and Tucker came around the corner of the house.
"No, not wrong," Claire said. "Is everything worked out, Uncle Ethan? Are you staying, Mr. Tucker?"
"Joshua," Tucker corrected. "I'm not your better, ma'am."
"Then hush with the 'ma'am'," Claire said. "My name is Claire."
"All right," Joshua said. "And yes, I'm staying." He pushed Ethan up the ramp to the porch.
"Where are you staying?" Claire said.
"I'll be sleeping in the bunkhouse," Joshua replied.
Claire shook her head. "That's ridiculous. What if Uncle Ethan needs you? You should take my room. Maybe Mrs. Barkley can find a place for me to sleep in the house?"
"I have a better idea," Amelia said. "Molly's prepared a nice little cottage for me in the garden. If you don't mind sharing a bed, I'd be happy for you to stay there with me."
Claire brightened up. "Yes, Mrs. Lawson, I'd like that very much."
"Then it's settled," Amelia said. "You can bring your things to my cottage, Mr. Tucker can bring his things here."
"I don't want to put anyone out," Joshua protested.
"You're not," Claire said. "You're being a great help."
"Ethan," Molly said, "We'd like you and the children to have Sunday dinner with us. And you, Mr. Tucker." She took Amelia's arm. "And you, of course."
"You discuss that with your husband first?" Ethan asked.
"Of course," Molly assured him. "It was his idea." She stooped and kissed Ethan's cheek again. "I must go now, but we'll see you soon."
"I'll go pack," Claire said as Molly left.
"Would you come with me, Ethan?" Amelia asked. "I'd like to show you the cottage."
"All right," Ethan agreed.
Amelia tried to take the handles of the wheelchair, but Joshua resisted. "I'll bring him, ma'am. It's too heavy for you."
Amelia acquiesced, and Joshua pushed Ethan back down the ramp and followed her through the garden. "Oh dear," Amelia said. "I forgot about the steps."
Joshua studied the cottage. "I'd build you a ramp, but the door's too narrow anyway."
"It's all right, I suppose," Amelia said. "It's a nice day in the garden. Would you mind leaving us alone for awhile, Mr. Tucker?"
"Mrs. Lawson is my fiancée," Ethan explained.
Joshua raised an eyebrow, then nodded. "I'll go move my things."
Amelia slid into Ethan's lap and kissed him. "What's this?" she asked, feeling through his shirt.
"A corset," Ethan blushed. "For my back, until it heals."
Amelia put her hand over her mouth, stifling a giggle.
"It ain't funny," Ethan protested. "I don't know how you ladies manage. It's damned uncomfortable."
"We get used to it," Amelia shrugged. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him again.
"You're putting on a little weight, aren't you?" Ethan observed.
"I'm almost four months along," Amelia noted. "I'll be showing any day now."
Ethan blinked. "You will? I didn't realize. . ."
"Hush," she said, "everyone whose opinion I care for already knows. The rest can go hang. I'm not rushing you into anything, Ethan. And I'm not going to hover over you, either. I'm here for your convenience - you come find me when you want me."
Ethan sighed. "I'm not - "
She put a finger to his lips. "It's all right, Ethan. You have enough to deal with - more than enough." She removed her finger and kissed him, and was still kissing him when she heard a voice behind her.
"Ah, the best medicine," Owen said. "Sorry to interrupt, but I need to examine my patient."
Claire had finished her packing by the time Joshua returned with his few belongings. He stood in the doorway, unwilling to interrupt the argument he could hear between the girl and her brother. "You can't go now, Claire," Joseph was saying, "you'll be in the way, and more importantly, you need to finish your schoolwork before tomorrow."
"I've done all but the math," Claire said. "You're right about going to the cottage right now, but maybe Miss Samantha needs me to help with the babies. . ."
"You can't keep putting it off, Claire," Joseph argued. "Not if you want to graduate this year."
"What seems to be the problem?" Joshua asked, stepping into the parlor.
"She's behind in her schoolwork," Joseph said, "and I can't get her to do it."
Joshua looked from one to the other, amusement playing about his face. "Maybe I can help?" he offered.
"It's Geometry," Claire said. "It doesn't make any sense."
"Show me," Joshua said, putting down his pack. He looked up at Claire's doubtful look. "My ma was a school teacher."
"Well, all right," Claire agreed. "It can't hurt." Joseph smirked and went back to his own books. "It's just that - how can I prove anything when I don't understand it to start with?"
"The thing about Geometry," Joshua said, sitting next to her, "is that everything you learn is based on what you already know. It's a logical progression."
"But - you have to start somewhere," Claire said. "These axioms, the things you have to assume are true - what if they aren't?"
"Well," Joshua said patiently, "if they're not true, then something else would be true."
"Oh," Claire said, frowning thoughtfully. "So within this system, you have to start with these assumptions, but if you didn't, you'd have some other system?"
"Now," Joshua smiled, "you're thinking like a mathematician."
"I am?" Claire said.
"Yes, indeed," Joshua said. "And you're right, there are other systems. But you need to learn Euclid first. And Geometry is practical - you'll use it in everyday life, trust me."
"All right, I'll try," Claire said, and she found, once she put her mind to it, and with Joshua's gentle instruction, she got on quite well.
Owen brought Ethan back to his room to examine him, then consulted with Joshua as to his care. Claire took her things to Amelia's cottage and invited her to dinner. Ben and George returned from their ride in time to wash up for dinner and finish their school work before going to bed. George was bright and happy after his ride, but Ben seem to put on the sulks as soon as he entered the house. Ethan sighed quietly, but put the matter aside for later.
"I've been thinking," Joshua said as he helped Ethan get ready for bed.
"You're good at that," Ethan said dryly. He wrapped his arms around Joshua's neck as the younger man lifted him into the bed.
"If you just learned to read, then you're probably behind in your schooling," Joshua continued.
"Behind?" Ethan snorted. "Never started."
"I could teach you," Joshua said shyly. "Basic things, that everyone should know. A little history, numbers, geography. You got the time, might as well make something of it."
If Joshua expected Ethan to reject the idea out of hand, he was mistaken. "I. . .like that idea," Ethan said slowly. "Beats sitting around brooding."
"When the doctor says you're strong enough, I want to start you exercising your arms," Joshua said. "Get you strong enough to push yourself around without tiring. Are you good with your hands at all? Better to stay useful, you understand?"
Ethan nodded. "I understand, but I never took up a hobby. Never had the time."
"We'll find something," Joshua said. He pointed to the bar installed over the bed. "You can pull yourself up on that if you need to, but don't strain yourself. Call me if you need me."
Ethan lay still a moment, regarding his hands in the lamplight. He'd never really taken to the ranching - most of the manual labor had fallen to the boys while Claire took care of the house. These hands had to be useful for something besides the gun. He turned down the lamp, but lay awake a long while, contemplating.
Neither Ethan nor Joshua appeared at breakfast the next morning. When Amelia asked Claire where they were, the girl shrugged. "Something about needing privacy in the mornings."
Amelia wrinkled her forehead. "Did he send a message for me?"
"He said he'd call on you later," Claire said. "He didn't say when."
"I'll be calling on him this morning," Victoria offered, "to see that he's settling in comfortably. Might I enquire?"
Amelia shook her head. "Thank you, but no. I'm not going to push him, I promised. He'll come when he's ready."
After the Carroll children and Heath's daughter Lena were off to school, Amelia touched Samantha on the elbow. "Might I ask you for a favor?"
"Why, of course," Samantha smiled. "It will give me a chance to repay all your kindness."
"What kindness?" Amelia asked, puzzled.
"When Nick and I were in Paradise - after the mine cave-in."
"I don't recall being particularly kind to you," Amelia said.
"Well, you were. So what can I do for you?" Samantha led the way out into the foyer and put a foot on the stairs. "If you don't mind waiting a minute - I need to go tend to my babies."
"That's what I wanted," Amelia said. She put a hand on her belly. "You know I have a baby on the way?"
"Well." Amelia paused, embarrassed. "I don't know anything about babies. I've held a few, but that's all. I didn't even play with dolls when I was a girl."
"You need some practice," Samantha said.
"Yes, if you don't mind."
Samantha tucked Amelia's hand under her arm and led her to the nursery. "Of course I don't mind." Heath's wife Alice was sitting in the rocking chair nursing her son, Tommy. Two-year-old Lizzie played with a doll in the corner while the twins, Grace and Hope slept in their cribs.
"Amelia would like to help take care of the babies," Samantha explained to Alice.
Alice put Tommy in her lap and buttoned her blouse. "That's sweet of you," she said.
"Not really," Amelia said. "I need knowledge."
"Oh, I see," Alice said, smiling. She held Tommy out to Amelia. "In that case, would you like to burp him?"
"All right," Amelia said hesitantly. Tommy held out his arms, grinning. "How do I do that?"
Samantha laughed and handed her a clean diaper. "Put this over your shoulder, then just hug him and pat him on the back." Amelia did as she was told, patting Tommy gently. "A little harder," Samantha instructed.
Amelia thumped him a little harder, and was rewarded by a loud burp and gift of curdled milk. She wrinkled her nose. "I see the purpose of the diaper. Why do we do that?"
"You've never burped a baby?" Alice said, taking Tommy back.
Amelia shook her head. "That's why I'm here. I have no idea what I'm doing. Samantha's been kind enough - "
Lizzie toddled over and thrust her doll at Amelia. "Burp!" she insisted. "So his tummy doesn't hurt!"
Amelia took the doll with a rueful grin that a toddler seemed to know more than she did.
Tommy held out his arms for his cousin. "Wizzie!" he shouted.
"I didn't think he was old enough to talk," Amelia said.
"Babbles, mostly, but he does have a few words already," Alice said, putting him down on the floor and letting him crawl to Lizzie. "He's only nine months old - I'm afraid he's going to be quite a chatterbox."
One of the babies in the cribs began crying and Samantha went to fetch her. "This is Grace." She handed her to Amelia but the baby only cried louder. "Now you get to practice soothing a fussy baby."
"What do I do?" Amelia asked, nonplused.
Alice stood up, vacating the rocker. "Rock her a little. Sing, baby talk - that kind of thing."
"Grace is fond of 'Camptown Races'," Samantha offered helpfully.
"All right," Amelia sat down, "but I'm not much of a singer." She began rocking and singing, "Doo dah, doo dah," but Grace only wailed louder. "See." She looked at Samantha beseechingly, who was visibly restraining herself from snatching the baby away from Amelia.
Samantha only shook her head. "You can do this," she encouraged. "A lot of it's instinct. Some trial and error."
Amelia took a longer look at the baby in her arms. Grace's forehead was wrinkled, and Amelia gently caressed it, then awkwardly kissed her. The wails reduced in volume, so she began gently rubbing the baby's tiny forehead, the other hand gently stroking her back until she began to quiet. The other baby began to wail and Amelia offered to trade.
Samantha strode to the crib, shaking her head. "You carry on, you're doing fine. Hope prefers walking," she said, bouncing Hope up and down as she paced the floor.
Amelia sat rocking Grace, beginning to feel a vague contentment until she noticed a noxious odor rising from Grace's diaper. "Um," she said.
Samantha swapped babies with her then. "Never changed a diaper, either?"
Amelia shook her head. "I know, it's terrible, isn't it?"
Samantha checked Grace's diaper. "Well, this one isn't going to be your first."
"I can - " Amelia began.
"Later," Samantha said, "no need to put you off your feed. You can start with one that's not so noisome." Amelia's nose wrinkled as she watched Samantha expertly change the diaper.
"I want you to know I’m grateful for this," Amelia said.
"Don't be silly," Alice said, sitting on a stool and folding a basket of clean diapers.
"It's what women do," Samantha said. "I can't imagine what I would have done without Victoria and Molly, and later Alice, to help me out. I didn't know what I was doing, either. At least you're getting a head start."
Amelia looked over in the corner where Lizzie was tickling Tommy, the little boy's laughter echoing through the nursery. "It's just that - well, a lot of people wouldn't think I was fit company for their children."
"Why?" Samantha asked, puzzled, then a light dawning in her eyes. She threw back her head and laughed. Alice was grinning, too, much to Amelia's bewilderment. "You don't know?" Samantha asked. "Honey, I've been in prison."
Amelia's eyes grew wide. "Falsely?"
"No, honestly," Samantha said. "I used to be a con woman. Reformed, now, of course."
"Of course," Amelia agreed, bemusedly.
"And I was never married to Lena's father," Alice offered, face turning pink.
"You were only sixteen," Samantha said. "Only a fool would blame you." She turned to Amelia. "Not that we blame you, either. I was in the same boat as you once. The boy I was engaged to was killed before I knew I was with child."
"What happened to the child?" Amelia asked before she could stop herself.
"Stillborn," Samantha said, with a reminiscence of sadness. "So, you see, we're the last people to cast stones at you."
"Even though Ethan's not dead?"
"We didn't like to pry," Alice said, "but since you bring it up, why haven't you gotten married yet?"
"Ethan's - as long as I've been involved with him, he's always been the one taking care of people. And though I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, and have been for quite some time - well, he doesn't want me to be the one taking care of him."
"Will he recover?" Alice asked.
Amelia shook her head. "We don't know," she whispered, and discovered to her horror that she was crying.
Samantha put a sympathetic hand to her shoulder. "He sounds like Nick. I can't imagine how he would cope with something like this." She reached into her pocket and gave Amelia her handkerchief. "You'll have to work it out, somehow."
Amelia nodded, blowing her nose. "We have an agreement - whatever happens, this baby will be born in wedlock. But it's hard being patient."
Victoria knocked on the door of the foreman's cottage later that morning. "Why, hello, Mrs. Barkley," Joshua greeted her.
"Is Mr. Cord receiving?" Victoria asked.
Ethan called from inside, sounding amused. "Of course, Mrs. Barkley."
Joshua opened the door wider and led Victoria into the kitchen, where Ethan sat at the table, paper and pencils strewn about. "You missed breakfast," Victoria said. "I wanted to make sure you were all right, and settling in comfortably."
"I'm fine," Ethan assured her. "My morning, um - "
"Hygiene," Joshua supplied.
Ethan nodded. " - is a bit complex. Better to attend to that after the children are gone."
"I understand," Victoria said. "Perhaps we should send your breakfast over."
"We made do with leftovers from dinner, ma'am," Joshua said. "And when there aren't any, I can whip up something."
"Very well," Victoria said. "What are your plans for today, Mr. Cord?"
Ethan hitched his shoulders. "Tucker here thought he could teach me a few things, since I never had any schooling."
"Really?" Victoria smiled, a smile so broad and dazzling it made Ethan dizzy. He had never known his mother, but in his dreams she smiled at him that way.
He blinked away the vision. "Yes, ma'am. It ain't nothing, really. Don't expect I can learn all that much."
"On the contrary," Victoria said, "it's quite something." She looked at the table. "No books? What are you teaching, Mr. Tucker?"
"American history today, ma'am," Joshua said. "What I can remember of it anyway. Later, geography and arithmetic."
"An admirable start, but you must have books. Will you allow me to supply them?"
"I have no objection if Cord doesn't," Joshua said.
Victoria nodded and enquired as to Ethan's needs, and on being assured that they were all well met, took her leave.
The men kept at the lessons until lunchtime, after which Joshua asked, "Have you found something to occupy yourself yet?"
Ethan shook his head. "I guess I could read for awhile?"
"Later, if you like," Joshua said. "Best not to cram your head too full all at once. I thought we might go clean the tack, if you've no objection."
"Not my favorite job," Ethan admitted, "but you're right - better to be useful than not."
Joshua pushed him down the ramp to the barn. "'Idle hands are the devil's workshop,' my ma used to always say."
"I guess," Ethan said skeptically. Joshua wheeled him up to the saddle stand and hoisted a saddle onto it, giving Ethan a tin of saddle soap and a rag. He took down several bridles and some tools and began cleaning and repairing them.
The two men worked for a good half hour before Joshua broke the silence. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"
"You can ask."
"You got four strong children, and a lady who obviously cares for you deeply. So what do you need me for?"
"I don't want them throwing their lives away on me," Ethan said tersely.
"Taking care of someone you love hardly counts as throwing your life away." Joshua punched a hole in the bridle with an awl, rather fiercely, Ethan thought.
"How old were you when your pa was - ," he hesitated over the word, " - crippled?"
"Sixteen," Joshua said.
Same age as Claire, only a year older than Joseph. "You finish school?"
"Had already. He fell in the summer."
"You're a smart fellow," Ethan observed. "Can't believe your only ambition was to be a cowhand."
"No, it was to be a nursemaid for a crippled gunslinger."
Ouch. "So what's eating you?"
Joshua stood and leaned against the saddle stand. "It was worth it, dammit. Maybe my life didn't go the way I planned it, but I wouldn't have traded that time with my pa, and my ma, for anything."
"Your pa a good man?" Ethan asked.
"The best," Joshua asserted.
"Well, I'm not," Ethan said, taking up the rag again. "Not even close. If I'd had my way, they'd still think I was dead."
Joshua froze for a moment. "They thought you were dead? And that's what you wanted?"
"Best all around."
"But - " Joshua was incredulous, " - they love you. How could you do that to them?"
Ethan threw his rag at the saddle, hard. "Because they don't need to be saddled with no cripple!" he shouted. "Now - " his voice went lower, " - now we have to make the best of it, but I won't be more of a burden than is absolutely necessary."
"You ever have anyone you love die on you?"
Ethan picked up the rag and rubbed the saddle with it. "My sister. But I hadn't seen her in years, not since Claire was a baby. I miss her, sure, but getting left with the children was the only change that made." He looked up. "I know what you're getting at, but it ain't like that with me and them. I live in fear, no, sheer stark terror, of anything happening to one of them, but that don't mean they feel the same way about me. And they shouldn't - I ain't worth it."
Joshua stood and stared at him a long moment. "I took this job, Cord, because I was curious. I wanted to see if I could understand a man like you, but I'm further away now than when I started. You're the strangest mixture of pride and humility I ever saw, and you've got it all backwards."
"What do you mean?"
"You're proud of things you should be ashamed of, and the very things you feel are worthless are the best things about you."
"I still don't know what you mean."
Joshua shrugged. "I don't reckon you do. Well, it's no part of my job to tell you how to run your life. I just wondered, is all. Forget I asked."
Not damn likely.
They finished their task, then Joshua wheeled Ethan back to the cottage, where they found the books that Victoria had left on the porch. Ethan spent the rest of the afternoon struggling to read a few chapters of 'Treasure Island.' He had not had much time for reading since he had become a marshal - he was not happy to find that he was out of practice.
Claire, Ben and George came home from school, Claire quickly kissing him on the cheek before going to her job caring for Samantha's children. The two boys dumped their school books on the table, then dashed out the door, only to return a few minutes later. "You cleaned the tack!" Ben accused. "That's our job!"
"Yeah, that's our job!" George echoed.
"Well, now it's my job," Ethan said. "You boys go run and play. Maybe with that girl you went riding with yesterday?"
"Lena," Ben said. "She always does her schoolwork when she gets home."
"Then do your schoolwork," Ethan said, "if you want. Or go play for awhile."
"Come on, Ben," George said.
Ben stood his ground, hands in pockets, face stern. "It's our job, Uncle Ethan. It's how we pay the rent. You don't have to treat us like babies."
"I'm not, Ben," Ethan said. "But I'm here, now. You don't need to work so hard."
"Claire and Joseph kept their jobs. If you take over our job, it's 'cause you think we're babies."
Ethan regarded him. He had never seen Ben this spiky. "All right," he conceded, "the tack's yours. I'll find something else to do."
Ben nodded tersely, sat at the table and flipped open a book with a sharp gesture. George joined him, and Ethan motioned to Joshua to push him outside. "Take me to Mrs. Lawson, please," he requested.
Joshua nodded and pushed the wheelchair out into the garden. He bounded up the steps of Amelia's cottage and knocked on the door. Amelia answered it, smiling, tripped down the steps and slid into Ethan's lap with a kiss. "I'll leave you two alone," Joshua muttered, slipping off.
"What's got into you?" Ethan asked.
"What do you mean?" Amelia wrapped her arms around his neck.
"You're practically glowing - your eyes are all sparkly."
"Am I?" Amelia put her hand to her face. "Well, I did have a good day - helping with the babies."
Ethan smiled. "That suits you, does it?"
"I guess so. At least, Samantha and Alice - maybe that's why I've had so few women friends, we had nothing to really talk about before."
"Ah, that's it, then." Ethan stroked her back. "You been lonely."
"I never thought I was, but I guess so," she said thoughtfully. She put her hand on her belly. "Well, that's all about to change."
Ethan put his hand over hers, and as he did so, her eyes flew wide. "Oh, oh, Ethan, did you feel that?"
"It just moved. The first time I felt it move!" Her eyes lit up, but there were tears in them, too.
"Teach me to knit," he blurted.
"What?" she asked, incredulous. "Ethan, what an odd thing to say at a time like this."
"I gotta do something, Amelia," he said. "For the little one. It's all I can think of. I ain't never learned to do anything with my hands afore."
She was oddly touched. "All right, but don't think you'll be doing baby clothes right away. Maybe a blanket? That's simple enough."
"Anything," Ethan said. He looked up at her. "You really felt it move?"
"Yes, I did." She hugged him. "Yes, I did, I did." And the joy nearly overwhelmed them both.
Their days began to fall into a pattern - Amelia spent her mornings learning from Samantha and Alice, while Ethan spent his learning from Joshua. After lunch, Ethan would read or, once Amelia had shown him how, knit. Or try to. He seemed to be all thumbs, six or seven to each hand. If little girls and ham-fisted sailors could do it, why not he? He reknit the same square so many times that the yarn was becoming tattered and soiled, but he persisted.
Once Claire and the younger boys were home, Amelia would join him at the cottage for companionship and knitting instruction. He suspected that she often hid an amused smile at his efforts, but he never caught her at it.
Once Joseph and Claire returned from their jobs, they would all have dinner together - Ethan, the children, Amelia and Joshua. The evenings were awkward - Ethan was beginning to realize how little time he had actually spent in the children's company, especially since he had become marshal. Quiet evenings around the hearth were almost a novelty, and he was discovering things about the children he never knew.
Their attitudes to him had undergone a subtle change. Except for Ben, who continued to be sullen whenever he had to spend any time in Ethan's presence. Ethan sighed inwardly - he had explained himself as best he could, he had no idea what else he could do to make Ben understand why he had done what he had.
George would often crawl into his lap, although he was getting much too big for this, and share what he was learning in school, as well as the Braille lessons that Henry set for him. These bewildered Ethan - all he could see were dots. Yet, he found that he trusted Henry and if the older man thought it would help George, Ethan was all for it. The boy certainly seemed happier and more confident than he had in Paradise.
Claire treated him with a new tenderness that he might have resented except that it seemed tinged with a respect which Ethan, to his surprise, found himself returning. Although she had long since been the mother to her brothers, Ethan realized he had never quite appreciated the value of her efforts in that regard, even while the family still lived in Paradise.
Joseph was the big surprise, though. The boy had always been the spiky one of the family - full of energy, often misdirected. Ethan had never been sure just what was going on in either Joseph's head or heart, but it seemed that the boy had figured it out himself, somehow. There was a maturity there now that Ethan rather envied, much to his own discomfort.
After dinner, the older children would help the younger ones with their schoolwork, if they needed it, while doing their own. Joshua sometimes helped Claire with her Geometry, and Ethan wasn't sure if that was something he needed to keep his eye on. Yet, aside from the considerable difference in their ages, he could find no real objection if things went down that road.
He enjoyed listening to Claire practice her violin, and even with his uneducated ear, he could hear the improvement in her playing. Had a mere two months made such a difference in all of them? Time seemed to move far too swiftly.
On Friday, Owen visited on his rounds and pronounced Ethan's back healed enough to dispense with the corset, a great relief - not only for the physical discomfort of the garment itself, but because now Ethan could push his wheelchair himself, at least for brief intervals. It amazed him how much better that made him feel.
Until Saturday, it all blew up on Saturday. Or at least Ben did.
The day began well enough. The children arose and the older children went to their jobs while the younger boys went about their chores. Ethan wheeled himself outside with a book and a basket of knitting, but he had not yet gotten engrossed in either one when he heard gunshots coming from behind the barn. Instinctively, he grabbed for his own gun, but of course he was not wearing it - had not worn it since he'd been shot. Then something Claire had told him, it seemed ages ago, Ben's been learning to shoot. Ethan swore, dumped both the book and the basket, and wheeled himself behind the barn.
He was panting from exertion when he arrived to find Heath instructing Lena and Ben, as he had feared. "Ben!" Ethan shouted. "You stop that right now!"
"Why?" Ben asked. "I'm old enough."
"I say when you're old enough!" Ethan said, "and I say you're not old enough!"
"I'm not a baby!" Ben shouted back. "Don't treat me like a baby!"
"Hold on, Ben," Heath said, soothingly, "I'm sure we can work this out."
"It doesn't matter what he says!" Ben said. "Claire's in charge of us, the judge said so!"
"Ben - " Heath began.
"I'm here now, and I'm in charge," Ethan said firmly.
"No, you're not!" Ben shouted. "Claire's in charge! Not you!" Ben ran off toward the ranch house, his face red with anger.
"He doesn't mean it," Heath said to Ethan. "It's been hard on him."
"Don't you go telling me about my own children!" Ethan said. "And don't you go interfering!"
"Of course not," Heath said calmly. "What you say goes. I had no idea you objected, is all."
"All right then," Ethan said, mollified. He tried to turn the wheelchair, but was caught in a rut and nearly capsized.
Heath straightened the chair and began to push it around the barn. "I will tell you that I think you're wrong, but I'll respect your word. No more shooting until you say so."
"What do you know about it?" Ethan said, wrenching the wheelchair away from him. "You ever killed anyone?"
"When I had to," Heath said, quietly. "It's still a rough country out here." He nodded toward Lena, sitting on the fence, slack jawed. "I'm teaching my daughter - I hope she never needs it, but if she does, I want to make sure she knows how."
"Well, Ben's different," Ethan said, turning the chair and pushing toward the cottage. He was flushed and sweaty with exertion, but Heath did not try to push him.
Instead, Heath walked alongside him, talking quietly. "How different?"
"He wants it too much," Ethan said. "I don't want him to end up like me."
"A marshal? What's so wrong with that?"
"Or he winds up a cripple, or worse, dead." Ethan hesitated. When had he decided that dead was worse than crippled? The thought jolted him - sometime in the last week he had crossed that line, and he wasn't sure just when. He would have to consider that, some other time.
Ben pounded up the stairs to the nursery. "Claire!"
"Don't shout, Ben," Claire said testily. "It disturbs the babies." Claire handed Grace to Amelia, who began to rock her.
"Uncle Ethan says I can't shoot!" Ben said, angrily, but lowering his voice. "I told him you were in charge of us. It's all right, isn't it, Claire? It was before he came back."
"Ben - " Amelia began, but Claire raised her hand. Now was the moment Victoria had predicted - would she defer to Ethan, or have her own way?
"Sit down, Ben," Claire said. "Cool off a minute."
"I don't want to sit down!" Ben said. "I don't want to cool off! I want to be a marshal, and I want to learn how to shoot, and if it was all right before, why isn't it all right now?"
Claire put a hand on his shoulder. "Give it time, Ben. Uncle Ethan's barely out of the hospital, and you know how he's always felt about you and guns."
"You're on his side!" Ben said, growing angrier. "I should have known better!" He dashed off again, angrier than before.
"Do you mind, Mrs. Lawson?" Claire said, distressed.
"Go on, Claire," Amelia said. "I'll summon help if necessary. Attend to your brother."
Claire dashed off after Ben, who ran back to the cottage to see Ethan wheeling himself, huffing, from behind the barn, accompanied by Heath. "Why'd you come back?" Ben shouted. "You were dead! I wish you'd stayed dead!" He ran into the house, slamming doors as he rushed to the bedroom and threw himself on the bed.
"Ben!" Ethan shouted, trying to wheel himself up the ramp, but sliding back down it, totally exhausted. Totally helpless.
Claire pushed him up to the porch. "Don’t go after him, Uncle Ethan," she pleaded. "You don't understand. And shouting at each other will only make it worse."
"You want my help, Miss Claire?" Heath asked.
"No, thank you, Mr. Barkley," Claire said. "We'll have to work this out for ourselves."
Heath tipped his hat and went behind the barn again.
"What don't I understand?" Ethan huffed. "I done what I thought was right, and Ben hates me for it."
"What was right?" Claire asked. "Not letting him shoot, or pretending to be dead?" Her mouth formed a firm line. "I didn't want to have to say this to you, but you were wrong to do that. It didn't matter how injured you were - you hurt us all badly, especially Ben. You know how he idolized you."
"Well," Ethan said uncomfortably, "he never ought to have done that."
"But he did," Claire said, hands on her hips. "We all loved you and losing you ripped our hearts out."
"You done all right without me," Ethan said defensively.
"Because we had to," Claire said. She sighed, "See? I said you didn't understand." She stooped and picked up the knitting basket, dumping it in Ethan's lap. "Stay out here," she commanded. "I'll go see to Ben."
The shouting brought Joshua out of the bathroom, shirtless and face flecked with foam. "Ben?" he said as the boy sped past him, slamming the bedroom door behind him. "You all right?"
"No!" Ben shouted through the door. "Go away! Leave me alone!"
Hearing Claire's voice on the porch, Joshua grabbed his shirt and put it on, unsure just what to do. He was relieved a few moments later when Claire came in and went straight to the boys' bedroom.
Joshua finished shaving and went out onto the porch. Ethan had picked up the knitting, but the yarn was tangled. He yanked on it, but that only made it tangle more. He threw the knitting, needles and all, against the railing.
Joshua bent to pick it up. "About time to throw this yarn out, anyway," he said calmly, handing it back to Ethan. "I see that storm cloud finally broke."
"Don't start," Ethan said, breaking the yarn and ripping it from the needles.
"All right," Joshua shrugged. "Want to go into town?"
"What for?" Ethan asked.
"Find a poker game, maybe. Or something."
"I ought to stay here," Ethan said, nodding toward the house.
"If I ever saw two people who need time apart, it's you two," Joshua observed.
Ethan slumped. "Well, maybe you're right. But not poker - I don't need to be gambling away what little money we have."
Joshua thought a moment. "Do you fish?"
"I have, yes." Ethan hesitated. "All right, fishing it is." He patted the chair. "How am I gonna get there?"
"Don't worry, I'll get you there. Give me a few minutes to round up some gear." Joshua strode off toward the ranch house. He returned several minutes later, fishing gear in hand, which he dumped on the porch and went to hitch up the buggy. He lifted Ethan in and drove him to the watering hole.
They stayed most of the afternoon, Ethan secretly pleased that he caught more fish than Joshua did. He certainly felt more relaxed by the time they got back to the ranch. Joshua put him back in the wheelchair, then went behind the house to clean the fish and give them to Silas to cook for supper.
Ethan hesitated before going into the house. Claire had gone back to her job, but would be returning soon, as would Joseph. He wasn't sure whether he should talk to Ben in their presence or not, but branded himself a coward for wanting backup from two children, and wheeled himself into the house.
Ben and George were lying on the hearthrug, perusing a book together, which Ethan noted was written in Braille. "George, do you mind going out for awhile?" Ethan asked. "I need to talk to Ben."
"All right," George said, glancing seriously back at Ben as he left, and Ethan wondered just what the younger boy knew. Ben sat up from the book, sitting cross-legged on the rug.
"I'm sorry things got out of hand," Ethan said. "I shouldn't have gone off like that."
"Are you going to let me shoot?" Ben asked tersely.
"Ben, it's not that simple," Ethan began.
"Just say 'no', Uncle Ethan," Ben said glumly. "It's what you're going to say in the end, anyway." He stood up and went into the bedroom, closing the door without slamming it this time.
Ethan sighed. Maybe this storm was over, but there was certainly another one on the horizon.
They went to Church on Sunday, to Ethan's discomfort - he was unused to religion and did not quite see the point of it, but it seemed to be expected so he went as not to seem churlish toward the Barkleys many favors. Afterward, they all went to Jarrod's house for dinner, as Molly had invited.
"Where's Amelia?" Molly asked after Joshua and Joseph had carried Ethan and his wheelchair up the steps. "She was invited, too."
"She sent a note," Ethan said, handing the note to Molly. "I didn't see her myself this morning - Claire gave it to me."
Molly ushered the party into the house and then into the parlor. "And Claire's gone to her violin lesson, I hope." Ethan nodded. Molly opened the note, frowning over it. "Not very informative. She merely offers her apologies for begging off. Well." Molly put the note on the mantle and smiled as Jarrod returned from taking care of the buggy. "We'll wait for Claire. The children can go play for an hour while we talk."
Although Ethan felt warmth towards Molly, and always had, Jarrod was a different matter altogether. Even though the judge was an admirable host, serving drinks and attempting to put his guests at ease, Ethan knew it was an act - Jarrod had never approved of him, and never would. Ethan gave monosyllabic answers to all the questions put to him, and Joshua wasn't much better. Molly and Jarrod finally resorted to chatting with each other until Claire returned, flushed and, while not quite disheveled, looking as though she should be.
"How was the lesson, Claire?" Molly asked her.
"Good," Claire said. "Hard. I haven't practiced enough. She was rather sharp with me."
"If she's too rough on you - " Ethan began.
"I want her to be rough on me," Claire said, "it's how I get better."
"Claire, if you'll freshen up, then call the others, we'll go right in to dinner," Jarrod said.
Claire did so, and the meal was certainly more pleasant than what had gone before. The younger children seemed quite comfortable with each other, comfortable enough to tease, and the older children, while not nearly so boisterous, also helped cover up any gaps in the conversation that ensued.
After dinner, the children scattered - the younger ones outside to play in the treehouse, the older ones upstairs to Lucas's sitting room. "Molly," Jarrod said, "if you would entertain Mr. Tucker, I'd like to have a word or two with Ethan. Do you mind, Ethan?"
Ethan froze, but then acquiesced. He was in the man's home - the judge could say what he liked, Ethan reckoned.
Jarrod ushered Ethan into the library and closed the double doors. "Would you like a cigar? A drink?"
"Never been much of a smoker," Ethan said, "but a whiskey might come in handy."
Jarrod poured drinks, handed one to Ethan, then lit a cigar for himself. "How are you, Ethan? How are you and Mr. Tucker getting along?"
"He's a deep one, that one is," Ethan said, gulping down his drink. "He ain't no cowhand, that's for sure."
"Isn't he?" Jarrod said. "I thought he was working for my brother."
"He was," Ethan said. "But he's too smart - he's been teaching me, history and things, and he knows more than he lets on."
"That's. . .interesting," Jarrod said. "I wonder why."
"Best I can figure it," Ethan said, "he's meant for a school teacher or something, except his education got held up when he had to take care of his pa. Which works out for me, but ain't all that fair to him. But it sure shows I was right not to let my own kids in for the same kinda life." Ethan held out his glass for another shot of whiskey. "But I'm sure you didn't bring me in here to talk about Tucker. You got something to say, say it."
"All right," Jarrod sighed, refilling Ethan's glass. "I think I owe you an apology, Ethan."
Ethan choked. That had certainly not been what he'd been expecting. "Whatever for?"
"I think I've judged you too harshly. When we met, I took you for a cold-blooded killer. Molly never believed that, but - "
"Odd, that, considering she's seen me in a gunfight and you haven't."
"But I have," Jarrod said. "I was there when you took out the Mervyn gang in Denver. I even gave a statement."
"Ah," Ethan said. "That one weren't my fault. I was ambushed."
"I know," Jarrod said, "and that's what I told the marshal, but you already had a reputation, and when I spotted you in Paradise, in the midst of the trouble we were having with the mine, well, I jumped to the wrong conclusion."
"You thought I was there gunning for you," Ethan finished. "It's beginning to make sense now. I wondered how your wife knew who I was and where to find me."
Jarrod shook his head. "I don't think I've ever forgiven her for confronting you that way - she swears she'd do it again if she had to, but it's not the sort of thing I want my wife doing."
"It's a powerful kind of love that woman has for you," Ethan said.
"Yes," Jarrod agreed, then fell silent.
"So what made you change your mind about me?" Ethan asked. "It's kind of late in the day for that sort of thing."
"Something Ben said to me a few weeks ago," Jarrod said. "That you'd taught him the difference between force and courage, and I thought - if you know that, then you're not the man I thought you were."
Ethan sat still for several moments. "Thank you, Judge," he said at last. "That means a lot to me."
"You're welcome, Ethan. And you can call me Jarrod."
"So Ben talks to you, does he?" Ethan asked.
"We have talked," Jarrod said. "He and George generally come home from school with Emma once or twice a week. Why? Doesn't he talk to you? I gathered he held you in quite high esteem."
"He used to," Ethan said uncomfortably. "Lately we just yell when we talk at all."
Jarrod frowned. "I know he took your death, your supposed death, quite hard. I would have thought he'd be overjoyed to have you back."
"Not like this," Ethan patted the chair.
"You think he looks down on you because you're crippled?" Jarrod asked. "That doesn't sound like Ben - I know he wasn't too keen on Henry at first, but he's come to look up to him. I don't think he'd hold your handicap against you."
"He's holding something against me," Ethan said. "I cut off the shooting lessons your brother was giving him and he blew up at me. Although, to be fair, I blew up at him first."
"Why?" Jarrod asked, turning his head to listen carefully.
"Because I don't want him to turn out like me," Ethan said. "You were right about me, Judge. I was a cold-blooded killer. I never shot anyone I didn't have to, I grant, but I never felt any remorse about it, either. Not until those children came."
"Children do change everything, that's true. But if you're afraid Ben will become a killer, put your mind at rest. He cares too much about others, Ethan."
Ethan raised his head. "You think so?"
"Yes, I do. And I think you need to talk to him - if he's angry with you, you need to find out why. Or better yet, don't talk - listen."
"I could certainly use some fresh air," Joseph said. "I don't want to be rude, Lucas - "
"Not at all," Lucas said. "Perhaps the three of us could take a walk."
"If you wouldn't mind," Joseph said, "but I barely have a moment to myself anymore. Would you think me awfully rude if I took a walk alone?"
"Joseph," Claire began to chide.
"It's all right, Claire," Joseph said, taking himself off.
Lucas smiled. "My, that was transparent. Did you want to talk to me, Claire?"
"I didn't put him up to it," Claire protested. "But - " she hesitated, then took a seat on the sofa across from the fireplace, " - you haven't called on me since we've been back."
"I see you every day at school." Lucas put his hands in his pockets and stared at the painting over the fireplace.
"It's not the same," Claire said.
"No, it's not the same," Lucas agreed. He shrugged. "I told you to be honest with me - I figured if you wanted me around, you'd ask. At least to help you with your schoolwork."
"Joshua's been doing that," Claire said.
"Joshua?" Lucas turned to face her.
"Mr. Tucker," Claire explained. "He's a very good teacher - he's teaching Uncle Ethan, too."
Lucas brushed this aside. "What is it you want, Claire? You're the one calling the shots here." He sat down next to her. "I'm at your bidding."
"I thought, I thought that with Uncle Ethan, with Uncle Ethan, well, crippled - " Claire looked at her hands in her lap, "that I'd have no time for anything else. But I find I'm doing even less than I was. I go make sure my brothers are ready for school, and I spend the evenings with them, but Joshua takes care of everything. He even makes the beds and sweeps. I feel quite useless."
"Hardly that, Claire," Lucas said. "I don't know anyone more useful. You're an odd girl to complain about not having too much to do."
Claire smiled ruefully. "I know. It's not what I was expecting. And I feel rather foolish - I sacrificed myself like a martyr and it was completely unnecessary. Sacrificed you, rather."
"I'm still here," Lucas said softly.
"Do I have to ask, Lucas?" Claire said.
"Yes," Lucas said. "You have to ask."
"All right," Claire sighed. "May I be your girl again?"
Lucas smiled and wrapped his arms around her. "I'll have to ask your uncle."
"You didn't before." She hugged him back.
"He wasn't here before." He kissed the top of her head. "Do you think he'll object?"
Claire shook her head. "I'm sure he won't. He scolded me about breaking off with you in the first place."
"Did he? He hardly knows me."
"He doesn't want us to change our lives for him - he's terrified of being a burden." She laid her head on his shoulder. "He won't let us do anything for him, Lucas. I don't know how to convince him he's not a burden, couldn't be. Even if he doesn't recover."
"It's hard for him, I'm sure," Lucas said. "All you can do is love him, I reckon."
Lucas rapped softly at the library door as Claire rejoined Molly and Joshua in the parlor. "I don't wish to interrupt, Father," he said when Jarrod bade him enter, "but I'd like to have a word with Mr. Cord before he goes."
"In private?" Jarrod asked, his eyes lighting up, Ethan noticed.
"If I may, Father," Lucas said. "Mr. Cord?"
"All right," Ethan agreed.
Jarrod held out his hand to Ethan. "I hope this sets things right between us, Ethan?"
Ethan shrugged. "I reckon so." He looked Lucas over as Jarrod left, and Lucas allowed his scrutiny. "So you're the one who's been courting my niece in my absence."
"Not courting," Lucas corrected. "Neither one of us felt we were in a position for making any serious promises, but we do care for each other."
"She tells me she broke it off."
"We've just been talking, sir," Lucas said, "and we'd like to pick up where we left off, with your permission."
It was the 'sir' that got him. "And where would that be?" he asked huskily.
"Walking out together. Attending dances with myself as her escort."
"Well," Ethan drawled, "she doesn't need my permission."
"I do," Lucas said quietly.
"Because you're her uncle - you're responsible for her."
"She was doing fine without me," Ethan said tersely. "They all were."
Lucas frowned. "With all due respect, you don't know what you're saying, sir. You don't know how lost and distressed they were when my grandmother found them at the train station, or how much it's taken to get them steady. It took all their efforts, and all of my family's, to accomplish what you could have done all by yourself."
Ethan looked up at his tone. "And what was that?"
"Keep them a family," Lucas said. "I think you don't know how important you are."
"Was," Ethan corrected.
Lucas leaned forward. "You've met my Uncle Henry?"
Ethan shrugged uncomfortably. "I have."
"And what did you think of him?"
"I thought he was a fine fellow," Ethan acknowledged.
"So he is," Lucas said, "and not any less so for being blind. Maybe more even, although I didn't know him before. You'd have to ask my mother about that. But I know that any man both she and my grandmother could love is more than a fine fellow. And so are you, Mr. Cord."
"Ain't you a trifle young to be lecturing me?" Ethan said dryly.
Lucas grinned. "Anyone will tell you I'm older than my years. You know why."
"So I do," Ethan said. "You've growed up more than a mite from that scrawny kid. Well, if you're what Claire wants, it's all right by me. I suppose it's pointless to insist that you act like a gentleman?"
"Not pointless, but unnecessary," Lucas said. "I respect her too much to do anything else."
"Fair enough," Ethan said.
Molly was putting on her gloves when they went out into the hall. "I thought I'd come with you and call on Amelia," she explained. "Just to set my mind at rest."
"She didn't seem ill, Miss Molly," Claire said, "but I don't know why she begged off - she'd been quite looking forward to it."
"I'm sure whatever's wrong, my mother can set right," Lucas said, helping Claire with her shawl. "I'll see you at school, and I'll be calling on you soon."
"All right," Claire blushed. "Tomorrow?"
"If you like," Lucas smiled.
Molly leapt down from the buggy as soon as it came to a stop and walked quickly, almost at a run, to Amelia's cottage. She knocked at the door and Amelia answered it wrapped in a very fashionable dressing gown. "Amelia, dear," Molly said, putting a hand to her cheek, "are you ill?"
Amelia shook her head and stepped back, allowing Molly to enter. "No, I - " she sighed and waved a hand downward, " - look at me, Molly. I couldn't go to Church like this."
"You're showing!" Molly said. "But, Amelia, you know none of us are ashamed of you. Quite the contrary."
Amelia sat in the armchair. "I know, and I told Ethan I didn't care what anyone else thinks, but I guess I do. I tried lacing tighter, but that felt wrong." She put her hand on her belly. "I know a lot of women do, but it can't be good for the baby - I don't want to do anything that might harm it."
"Quite right, too," Molly said. "I had my corsets specially made to allow room when I was pregnant." She looked Amelia over. "I still have the clothes I wore when I had Georgie - I'm a bit stouter than you, but I'm sure I can make them do for you. Come home with me, and we'll put you to rights."
"Thank you, Molly - that might solve the practical problem - "
"But not the social one," Molly said. She took Amelia's hand. "I don't think you should be ashamed to appear in public, but if you don't think you can face it, at least don't neglect your friends."
"I'm sorry - I feel all right here. Your sisters-in-law and Mrs. Barkley have been amazing and - " she stopped speaking with a peculiar look on her face.
"What is it?" Molly asked worriedly. "Are you ill?"
"No," Amelia said, smiling "but the baby just moved. I can't get used to it."
"It's moving?" Molly asked, brightening.
"Yes, the first time a few days ago. I was with Ethan when it happened - don't mind me, Molly. In some ways I've never been happier in my life, but it's complicated."
"I know," Molly said. She stood and pulled Amelia to her feet. "Get dressed, dear, and come with me. We'll get you taken care of."
"Ben," Ethan said, as soon as he was down from the buggy and back in his chair, "come with me, we need to talk."
Ben glared at him but followed as Ethan wheeled himself into the barn and into the tack room. Ben sat on a stool, leaning against the wall, tapping his boot heel in the dirt. "I'm sorry I said I wished you were dead," he said grudgingly. "I didn't mean it. But I'm still mad at you."
"I know," Ethan said, "and I ain't gonna talk at you. A lot of people been telling me I need to listen, and that's what I aim to do. So talk."
Ben shrugged. "You gonna let me shoot?"
"Why is that so important?"
"Because I need it," Ben said. "I want to be a marshal when I grow up. How am I going to do that if I can't handle a gun?"
Ethan felt his temper start to rise but, remembering Jarrod's words, tamped it back down. "I don't want you to turn out like me, Ben."
"It doesn't have anything to do with you," Ben said. "I think, once we came West, it's what I would have wanted to do anyway. It's about the law, and peace, and people not being afraid to have families and such."
Ethan considered that. "You was mad at me before that," he said. "There's more going on than you not getting your way. Didn't we used to be friends, Ben? What happened to make you hate me?"
"I don't hate you," Ben said. He hesitated. "It's the other way around." He didn't raise his voice, but his fists were tight balls.
"You think I hate you?" Ethan said, startled.
"Not hate, exactly," Ben said, gulping, "but you never wanted us. You even pretended to be dead to get rid of us."
"Oh, Ben," Ethan said, "that ain't it, that ain't it at all."
"You keep saying you did it for us, but you aren't that stupid, Uncle Ethan. We lost Mama, Papa never wanted us, and neither did you. How did you think we'd feel?" His voice was rising now. "Claire and George could cry about you being dead, but me? I got mad. And mean. I was even mean to people who were nice to me. I was scared of myself, and that's the worst kind of scared. You have no idea what you put me through. Put us through."
Ethan wheeled himself closer and took Ben by the arm. "Listen to me, Ben. I'm sorry you was hurt, but you got it wrong. I ain't gonna pretend I wanted you at first, there's no point lying about that - we both know better. But you can't believe, after all this time, that I - " he choked, "that I don't want - " He felt something hot and wet trickle down his cheek and wiped away the tear in alarm. "That you're not the most important thing in the world to me," he finally choked out.
Ben looked at him worriedly. "Are you all right, Uncle Ethan?"
Ethan's shoulders began to shake as he choked back a sob. He turned his face away, found that didn't answer, and wheeled the chair around. Ben came around to face him. "You're not all right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Ethan shook his head. "Not your fault," he choked out between sobs. He felt panicked - he couldn't remember the last time he had cried, not even over his sister's death, not since he'd been a very young boy, at least. He felt close to drowning, and he didn't understand it at all. He waved Ben away. "Leave me. Please."
Ben stood with bitten lip, uncertain whether to obey. "Go!" Ethan commanded.
Ben ran, stopping in the barn to think for a moment. Then he ran toward Amelia's cottage, finding her and Molly just leaving. "Mrs. Lawson!" he panted. "Uncle Ethan! Something's wrong with him!"
"Where?" Amelia demanded.
"The tack room," Ben said. "In the barn."
Amelia ran toward the barn, hiking up her skirt. She stopped in the doorway of the tack room. She half-expected to find Ethan on the floor, but his sobs were no less alarming for the fact he seemed uninjured. She knelt down next to him. "Ethan? What's wrong?"
Molly and Ben crowded into the doorway. "What happened, Ben?" Amelia asked.
"Nothing. We were talking, and all of a sudden he started crying," Ben answered.
"Go away, all of you," Ethan demanded. "Don't look at me like that."
"Come on, Ben," Molly said, putting a hand to his shoulder. "I think Amelia can handle this."
Ben looked back worriedly, but allowed Molly to lead him away. Amelia slid into Ethan's lap and wrapped her arms around him. He buried his head in her bosom and wept, fighting against it but unable to overcome it. Amelia stroked his head. "Sh, there, there, it's all right," she consoled him.
It seemed as though he cried forever, but it was in truth only a few minutes before he had cried himself out. He sat up, reaching for a bandanna and wiping his face. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know what came over me."
"Everyone cries, Ethan," Amelia assured him. "You've been through a lot lately."
"I don't," Ethan said. "At least, I never," he amended.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" Amelia asked. "I know you and Ben have been at odds, but I can't imagine what he could say that could hurt you like that."
"It ain't me," Ethan corrected. "It's them. Amelia, I thought I was doing right - " He stopped, unable to find the words.
"About what?" Amelia asked gently.
"You know how I love those children - "
"But I never - it never crossed my mind - " he hesitated.
"That they love you the same way?"
He nodded. "I been feeling my way along here, Amelia."
"We all do."
"Maybe. But most people have families to start out with, so they know what they're getting into. I never did. I had no idea how someone could worm their way into someone else's heart."
"Or you into theirs? Is that the problem?"
"Yes. I hurt them, Amelia. It's come over me all of a sudden how much, although people have tried to tell me - Joshua, Claire, even Judge Barkley. It didn't sink in until now, and I don't know how to fix what I broke."
She stroked his cheek. "Tell them you're sorry. They'll forgive you." She frowned. "This is my fault."
"How do you reckon that?" Ethan asked.
"Because I left you," she said. "You must have thought if I couldn't love you - "
"Then they couldn't?" Ethan shook his head. "This goes back way farther than you. It's like a piece of me's been missing all these years and I never knowed it."
"And now you do," Amelia said, "so we're all better off. Aren't we?"
"I haven't had time to figure it," Ethan said. "I don't know how all this is supposed to work."
"We'll figure it out together," Amelia said. "Now Ben's worried half to death - better go show him you're all right."
Ethan nodded and wheeled himself to the house, up the ramp and into the parlor. All four of the children, as well as Molly and Joshua were seated there, the children with worried looks on their faces. "I'm all right," Ethan assured them. "But I find I have to apologize."
"No, Uncle Ethan," Ben said, "I'm the one who's sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you - well, I did, but I'm sorry anyway."
"You didn't hurt me, Ben," Ethan said. "Do you know what remorse is?"
Ben nodded solemnly.
"Well, that's what happened. I was overwhelmed with remorse. You see, I really did think I was doing the right thing letting you think I was dead, but you made me see how wrong I was. I never figured it would hurt you like that. But I was wrong, and I'm sorry for it. Will you forgive me?" He looked around the room. "All of you?"
"Yes," Ben said, throwing his arms around him. Claire and Joseph put their hands on Ethan's shoulders, George hugging him from the other side.
"There's nothing to forgive," Claire said, "as long as you understand now."
Ethan nodded, blinking back the tears that threatened to overwhelm him again. He wrapped his arms around them all, all he could reach. Finally, he straightened. "Ben," he said, "go in my room and look under the bed. Look in the trunk there and fetch me my gun."
"You don't have to, Uncle Ethan," Ben said. "If you don't want me to shoot, it's OK."
"No, it's all right, Ben," Ethan said. "Time you learned. But I'd rather I was the one who showed you."
"Really?" Ben's face lit up. "Thanks, Uncle Ethan!" He ran into Ethan's room and returned a few moments later, gunbelt in hand.
Ethan took it, eyeing it critically. "Belt's too small for you. We'll have to get you one your size. But in the meantime, here."
"You're giving it to me?" Ben said, taking the gun, incredulous.
"One thing a lawman needs is a good gun," Ethan said, "and this is a good gun. Better it get used - for a good purpose, mind - than sit rusting. Come on." He wheeled himself out behind the barn to the target range, Ben following, happy and disbelieving.
"I been thinking," Ethan said to Joshua the next morning as the two men gathered at the table for Ethan's morning lesson.
"Always a good thing," Joshua said, writing out subtraction problems on a slate. He handed it to Ethan. "Better think about these problems for awhile."
"It ain't right, you working seven days a week," Ethan said.
Joshua shrugged. "I've worked harder in my day, that's for sure. It's hardly onerous."
"Well, I was thinking about what you said the other day, too, how taking care of someone you love ain't no burden, so I was thinking, if the children are willing to take it on, letting you out on Saturday night and Sunday."
"I've no objection," Joshua said, smiling.
"Now, I ain't agreeing with you wholeheartedly," Ethan continued. "Joseph's born to be a doctor, anyone can see that, and Claire deserves more than drudgery - you saw her when she came back from her music lesson yesterday; she's got a, a - I can't think of the word - "
"Passion," Joshua supplied, "talent."
"Thank you," Ethan said. "Both. Anyways, they need to stay in school, and Claire's taken up with Lucas Barkley again - I don't aim to be tripping them up."
"I've already had my say," Joshua said. "That you're conceding that much is all to the good. What about your lady? Mrs. Lawson?"
"She ain't in no condition," Ethan said, "as I'm sure you've noticed by now."
"Ah. I had wondered. So when are you getting married? Soon, I hope?"
"When I can stand on my own two feet," Ethan said firmly.
Joshua raised his eyebrows.
"Or when the doc says I won't," Ethan added. "I ain't that stupid - but I owe it to her to try, anyway."
"You're not stupid at all," Joshua said. "Although you do seem willing to try anything to get out of doing your arithmetic."
Ethan grinned ruefully. "Can we read history instead? That's interesting."
Joshua regarded him. "Do you think so?"
Ethan nodded. "It's about people - what they do, why they do it. Way more interesting than a bunch of numbers."
"Tell you what," Joshua offered, "you get all these problems right, and I'll reward you with another chapter. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough." Ethan took up the slate and set to with a will.
Jarrod found Molly painting in the garden while Georgie tore around the tree house. She put her face up to be kissed, in which he obliged her. "You're home early," she observed. "It's not even noon."
"The defense asked for an adjournment, so I granted it," Jarrod explained, sitting down next to her. "I thought you'd be tied up with Amelia all morning."
"She took a few things," Molly said, "and I need to alter a few more, but Georgie needed to blow off some steam, so here we are." She set down her brush and palette. "I've been thinking, Jarrod."
"About what, dear?"
"When I was talking to Joshua yesterday, while you were with Ethan - "
"Did you get him to talk? I don't think he said two words while I was there."
"Not at first, but I asked him if the books Mother borrowed from me were to his liking - you know he's been tutoring Ethan?"
Jarrod brushed back a lock of her hair that had fallen over her forehead. "Ethan mentioned it - he said he didn't think Mr. Tucker was any sort of a cowhand, that he was meant to be a teacher."
"And Joshua said that Ethan was surprisingly quick for someone who only learned to read a short while ago. Jarrod, do you remember how I tutored the lumberjacks at your camp, before we met?"
"I remember - it was one of the things that endeared you to me."
Molly smiled. "You know we've talked about me going back to teaching when Georgie's old enough for school - "
Jarrod gazed at her thoughtfully. "What's on your mind, Feather?"
"There are a lot of men out here like Ethan, like my lumberjacks, Jarrod. Women, too. People who had their education interrupted, or who never had the chance at one to begin with." Jarrod could see her blood rise to her cheeks as she spoke. "I was wondering if we could do something for them?"
"A school for adults?" Jarrod looked at the ground, thoughtfully. "Well, why not? It sounds like a marvelous idea, and one that suits you, Feather."
Molly shook her head. "Not now, of course. In a couple of years, maybe."
"Why not now?" Jarrod said. "Classes would have to be in the evening, or on weekends, right? I can take care of Georgie - or someone else in the family can, when I'm not able to. I think you should pursue it."
Molly's face lit up. "You think so?"
"I do," Jarrod said, giving her a kiss. He stood and pulled her to her feet. "Let's make plans over lunch. Come here, Georgie." Georgie climbed down the tree and leaped into Jarrod's arms. Jarrod carried him into the house, one arm wrapped around his wife's shoulders.
Victoria looked up from her work as Ethan wheeled himself into the library. "Oh, Mrs. Barkley," he said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bother you - I'll come back some other time."
"You're not bothering me at all, Mr. Cord," Victoria said. "You came for more books?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ethan said. "I was hoping you might have a book about General Washington, or some such."
"Why yes, we do," Victoria said, getting up from the desk. She walked over to the bookshelves and took down a slim volume. "The Life of George Washington. One of my husband's favorites."
"I don't want to take anything you might be partial to," Ethan protested. "It being your husband's and all."
"Nonsense," Victoria said firmly, "books should be read. Tom would be only too happy to lend it to you, if he were here. So you're studying history?"
"Yes, ma'am, I find it very interesting."
"Please, call me Victoria," she said. "I hate being called 'ma'am'."
Ethan hesitated. "That - might - be a mite difficult. How about I call you Mrs. Barkley?"
Victoria tossed her head. "If you must, but I'd like to think we've become friends enough. But I won't press you." She took down another book. "Now this is one of my favorites, if you don't mind me recommending it."
"The Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, During the Revolution. Let's see - John Adams was the second president, wasn't he?" Ethan said proudly.
Victoria nodded. "And a prime mover for American independence - without him, and others like him, Washington would have only been fighting to defend our rights as English colonists." She regarded him shrewdly. "But you prefer the 'man of action', don't you?"
Ethan felt uncomfortable, he wasn't sure why. "Well, yes. It's what I know. Anyhow," he said defensively, "thinking without acting ain't worth a whole lot."
"And acting without thinking is - what?"
Ethan winced. "All right, you made your point. I guess both are necessary if you want to get anywhere." He put both books in his lap and turned toward the door. "I thank you kindly."
"Mr. Cord," Victoria said, before he had made his escape. "I do wish you would take your meals with us. You spend all your day in your cottage - I'm afraid you don't like us."
Ethan wheeled around again. "Of course not, ma - Mrs. Barkley. But I don't want to impose more than I already am."
"You're not imposing at all," Victoria assured him, "and I'm sure Mr. Tucker is an excellent companion, but I wonder if you don't need more masculine company than you're getting. My sons are usually home for the noon meal - I'm sure they would do you good."
Ethan considered. "All right, if it will please you."
"It will please me very much," Victoria smiled at him. "Lunch is in half an hour."
Ethan wheeled himself into the dining room, feeling some trepidation - Joshua had decided to take his meal in the chow hall with the hands, the traitor. The dining room was full of women and babies - Amelia smiled to see him and greeted him with a quick kiss, while she cuddled a baby with one hand.
Victoria placed him at the foot of the table, to accommodate the wheelchair, with her at the head and Amelia to his right. He breathed a sigh of relief when Heath and Nick appeared, dusty from the ranch, and after a quick grace, dug in.
There was much passing of babies around the table - Nick and Heath took their turns holding their heirs while their wives finished their meals. Ethan followed suit and took a turn with one of the twins while Amelia ate her meal. "I better get used to it," he offered by way of explanation. The baby fell asleep in his arms, which was gratifying in its way. He looked over at Amelia, who seemed to share his thoughts. Just wait until we have our own.
Audra blew in, disheveled from her ride out to the ranch. "We weren't expecting you, dear," Victoria said. "Would you like some lunch?"
"I already ate," Audra said, pulling up a chair and nibbling from the serving dish. "But I do seem to be always hungry these days. Oh, Mother, I've found the perfect house!"
"You're moving?" Amelia asked.
Audra nodded, patting her belly. "It's not so much that our house is too small, but Owen's practice takes up so much space. The old house might do for a normal family, but we'll probably hold on to it until another doctor can take it." She turned to her mother. "The new house is right behind Jarrod - we can put in a gate and visit whenever we want. I do hope you'll come look at it with me."
"Of course, dear," Victoria said. "Whenever you like."
"Now?" Audra looked up from under her eyelashes.
Victoria laughed. "May I finish lunch first?"
"Yes, but hurry, please!" Audra said, bouncing like a young girl.
They scattered soon after - the ladies to take the children out to the garden for an airing, Audra and Victoria to look over the prospective house. "Glad you could join us, Cord," Heath said as the men meandered out to the foyer.
"Your mother pretty much insisted," Ethan said. "She thinks I'm spending too much time by myself."
"I got an idea," Heath said. He leaned over and whispered in Nick's ear.
"Sure," Nick said. He turned to Ethan. "My brothers and our brother-in-law have a friendly little poker game on Wednesday nights. You care to join us?"
"I - " Ethan hesitated, "I'm afraid I ain't got any money I can gamble away."
Heath laughed, and Nick snickered.
"What's funny?" Ethan asked.
Nick looked around to make sure no one was listening. "It ain't exactly an honest game. See, Owen, our brother-in-law, refuses to touch any of Audra's money, so we take the opportunity to slip him a few dollars every week. Subtle-like, you know?"
"Can't have the doc running around with holes in his shoes or patches on his elbows," Heath agreed.
"Otherwise, we're just being sociable," Nick said. "We can see to it you don't lose. Much."
Ethan found himself snickering, too. "All right, but you better make sure I don't come out ahead, or I'll know what you're up to and blow your whole scheme. I don't want no charity." No more than I already have, that is.
"Not unless you're a better poker player than Nick," Heath said. "And he's been taking lessons."
"You gotta promise me," Ethan said. "No funny stuff, not where I'm concerned."
"Cross my heart, hope to die," Heath said. He elbowed his brother. "Nick?"
"All right," Nick said. "Just don't tell Owen. Or Audra. She'd tan our hides."
Heath and Nick put on their hats and went back to work. Ethan wheeled himself out to the garden. From a distance, he watched Tommy and Lizzie romping on the grass, while the women rocked the two infants. Amelia caught his eye, handed the baby she was holding to Alice, and walked over to him.
"Don't let me interrupt you," Ethan said. "You look like you're enjoying yourself."
"It grows on you," Amelia said. "You could join us."
"Actually, if you have some time, we need to talk," Ethan said. "Now or later."
Amelia waved to Samantha and Alice, indicating she was going with Ethan. "Of course we can talk now."
Ethan wheeled himself to the cottage, Amelia following. "Can you leave us alone for a bit, Tucker?" Ethan asked Joshua. "We got some matters to discuss."
"All right," Joshua said, marking his place in the book he was reading. He sauntered out and Ethan took Amelia's hand.
"Sit here by me," he said, indicating the armchair.
"All right," Amelia said, doing as he wished. "What do you wish to talk about?"
"About getting married," Ethan said, "or rather, about after. Where we're going to live. And how."
"I've bought a house in Berkeley," Amelia said, "I thought we'd live there, it's big enough. I bought it to be near the children."
"If you done that, I still don't understand why you weren't gonna have them live with you," Ethan said.
Amelia lowered her head. "I don't deserve them, Ethan. After what I did - how can they ever fully trust me again? And Mr. Johnson's been so good for them, and he wanted them so much - it seemed the best thing all around."
He took her chin in his hand and raised her face up. "Why not take the advice you gave me? Ask for their pardon - they forgave me readily enough."
Amelia shook her head. "It's different, Ethan. You were wrong, but your intentions were good. Mine were selfish. I was so cold-hearted - it makes me shudder even now to think what I did to them. If you hadn't come back, we might never have made it right."
"If he wanted them so much, why were they still here, then?"
"He needed to enlarge his house first - it's barely a cottage. When the weather cleared - I suppose he would have started by now if you hadn't come back. You don't wish to go back to Paradise, do you?"
Ethan shook his head. "I think we both know I ain't cut out to be a rancher. Lord knows I tried." He slapped the arms of the wheelchair. "And I ain't no marshal no more, either."
"I saw you give your gun away," Amelia said. "If that was for my benefit, it wasn't necessary. I've come to terms with what you are."
"Was," Ethan corrected. "Even if I do get out of this chair, I ain't fooling myself that I'll be spry enough for that. And even if I was - " he stopped, then started again, "- I know I've just started this education business, but I - " he stopped again.
"Are you saying you want an education, Ethan?" Amelia brightened.
"I reckon I do," Ethan said, "although I got no idea what I'd do with it."
"Who does, when they first start learning? I know I didn't want to be a banker when I was a girl."
"What did you want to be?" Ethan asked, curious.
"I won't. I promise," Ethan assured her.
"I wanted to be - " now she hesitated, " - a boxer!"
Ethan broke his promise.
Amelia rapped him on the arm. "See? I said you'd laugh!" She laughed herself then. She slid onto his lap, hugging him around the neck. "I can't think of a better investment than an education, Ethan," she said seriously. "I'm glad that's what you want. You don't know how glad." She nuzzled his ear enticingly.
"Ah, Amelia," he said, pulling away. "What kind of husband am I going to make you? I have nothing, I know nothing, I can't even - " he sighed. "Well, it's a good thing you're already pregnant."
"That doesn't matter," Amelia said. "Don't you understand? It's you I love - not what you have or don't have, what you can or can't do. Just you. Besides, you're hardly worthless, Ethan. I think you're only now beginning to find out what you really can do." She slid back into the armchair. "What did you want to be when you were a boy?"
"I never thought on it," Ethan said. "Making it through a day was hard enough - I had no time to think about what being grown up would be like. Guess that's why I kinda fell into gun fighting. I survived - that was a way to."
Amelia blinked back tears. "Well, then, it's a good thing you have an opportunity to explore the possibilities now. I have enough money for all of us - we can afford you that chance."
"I don't want to live off of you, Amelia," he said.
"I know, but that's the reality," she said. "I have money, you don't. It doesn't matter does it? Where the money comes from? When we're married, it will all be yours anyway."
"It's not fair," he argued. "You earned it, I didn't."
"It's not fair you grew up without parents, either," Amelia said, "that you never went to school or learned to read. Life isn't fair, Ethan, we both know that. Let's accept what is, and go on from there."
"Well, you got a point," he said after awhile. "You really wouldn't mind?"
"Why would I? Education is important, Ethan. If I can arrange for yours, then I'm delighted. But we should discuss all of this with the children. They've worked out what they want - we should take their wishes into consideration."
"I intend to," Ethan said, "but I wanted to discuss it with you first." He patted his lap. "Now, come on over here." He grinned.
She grinned back and obliged him.
"We were going to stay through the summer," Claire said that evening as they discussed it. "Mrs. Jensen said she could graduate me then, if I keep on with my schooling. If we go to Berkeley before then, it'll take almost another year. And Madame Minska said she could help me find another teacher, but I really wanted to continue with her until then." She ducked her head. "Well, you did ask."
"Of course," Ethan said, "and I'm glad you told me the truth. I can't make good decisions for us all if I don't know what you need. And don't forget that young man who just left."
Claire blushed. "He's going to Berkeley in the fall. So that's all right."
Ethan turned to Joseph. "And you?"
"Dr. Grigsby was going to take me on full time once school was out," Joseph said. "I suppose I can find another doctor to work for in Berkeley, but it feels like starting over. I'd have to prove myself all over again."
"So you'd rather stay here, I take it?" Ethan asked.
"Yes, sir, at least through the summer. Dr. Grigsby's taught me a lot - I can't imagine how much I could learn if we stay longer."
"All right," Ethan nodded. "Duly noted. Ben?"
Ben shrugged. "I don't care. I can't do what I want until I grow up, anyway." He turned to Amelia. "Is there someplace I can shoot? In Berkeley?"
"There's a woodlot nearby - I think you could set up a target," she replied.
"Then I'm OK wherever we are," Ben said. "As long as we're all together."
"I don't know," George said. "If we were in Berkeley, we'd be near Uncle Henry, and I could see him all the time, but I like Mrs. Jensen. I don't know if I'd have as good a teacher there."
Amelia glanced at Ethan with concern. "That is something to think about." She stroked George's hair. "Don't worry, George. We'll never let you have another teacher like the one you had in Paradise. I'd teach you myself first, all right?"
George nodded. "I like school, here. But if I can learn to read, I'd like school anywhere."
"All right, you all go get ready for bed," Ethan said. The children scattered.
Claire turned back in the doorway. "Uncle Ethan? Ben's right - anything is good as long as we're together."
Ethan nodded. Claire left for Amelia's cottage and Ethan wheeled himself out to the porch, with Amelia close behind him.
She sat down in the porch swing. "I could sell the house and we could take one here," she suggested. "It might be best for the children - they don't seem to want to be uprooted again."
"Can't blame them," Ethan said. "Didn't you say you'd already set up the nursery?"
She shrugged. "I have, but it doesn't matter." She put her hand on her belly. "He'll be happy wherever we are. We'll see to that."
Ethan enjoyed the poker game on Wednesday far more than he expected. Although he felt closer to the cowboy end of the spectrum than the doctor-lawyer end, both Jarrod and Owen treated him with warmth and geniality. At the end of the evening, he found himself a dollar and a quarter ahead, while Owen was the winner by seventeen dollars. Ethan hoped his winnings were not due to the Barkleys' artifice, but it was too small a sum to make noise about. He drank slightly too much, ate slightly too much, and altogether had a fine night.
The rest of the week went along quietly. He studied, read, worked on his knitting. By the end of the week he was beginning to knit an evenly tensioned row, and thought he might be almost getting the hang of it.
Henry came to visit on Saturday, first working with George on his Braille. The boy had progressed to the point of reading short words and simple sentences, and Ethan had to admit he was impressed.
"And how are you, Mr. Cord?" Henry asked when the lesson was finished and George had scampered off.
"Pretty fair," Ethan said. "No pain, and I'm keeping busy."
"The better to ward off the terrors," Henry said.
Ethan let out a breath, releasing tension he had not known he had been holding in. "Yes," he agreed. "But I guess you would know about that."
"It's worse at night, when I'm lying in bed," Ethan said. "It 'bout washes me away then. What if I never get out of this chair?"
"What have you been doing? To keep busy?"
"Tucker's been teaching me - I never had no schooling, and this seemed like a good time to make up for it. And Mrs. Barkley has been kind enough to give me the run of the library, so I've been doing a lot of reading. And I'm learning to knit, so's I can do something for the little one we got coming."
Henry smiled. "There's your answer, Mr. Cord. If you never get out of that chair, you'll find other ways to be useful. As you are doing. And the more you find you can do, in your changed circumstances, the more you'll find that terror receding, I promise. I can hear a difference in your voice already."
"What kind of difference?" Ethan asked.
"You want to live now."
Ethan started. "You knew?"
"We all knew, Mr. Cord," Henry said. "There was nothing more obvious than that the only thing keeping you alive was the thought of what your death would do to your children. May I ask what changed for you?"
Ethan had been turning that same question over in his own mind. "Our baby moved," he said. "That's what done it. I want to see what my child is gonna be like."
Henry smiled somewhat sadly. "Yes, I see."
"Why'd you want my kids so bad?" Ethan asked. "I mean, shouldn't you be past all that sort of thing by now?"
"How does one get past wanting children except by having them?" Henry said quietly. "And there were four strong, lovely children that no one wanted but me." He shook himself. "Not but that I'm glad you're alive - it's far better for them to be with you than with me."
"They're a blessing, and no mistake," Ethan said. "Don't hardly deserve them myself."
"I find that, more often than not, what we deserve has no bearing - the good Lord gives us what we need, instead."
"Do you think so?" Ethan said. "I'll have to give some thought on that - I never been one much for religion - I'm not sure how that works."
"Nor am I," Henry said, "I merely share with you what I observe."
They were interrupted by Jarrod and Molly coming to call on Ethan, so Henry excused himself and made his way back to the ranch house. Victoria was waiting for him - she took his arm and led him into the study, where she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him heartily.
Henry sighed. "I've missed you, my dear. Missed this."
"So have I," Victoria said, sitting down on the sofa and pulling him down beside her. "Did you and Mr. Cord have a good talk? How do you find him?"
"Much improved, in spirit, at least," Henry said. "I think we no longer need to worry about him. Whatever his final outcome is, I believe he will find what he needs to handle it."
"That's what I thought," Victoria said, "but I'm glad you think so, too. You have much more experience in these matters than I. Was Mrs. Lawson there?"
Henry could hear the way her voice tightened, and he responded to that instead of her words. "Is there some problem? Something you disapprove of?"
"I don't understand this shilly-shallying that they're doing, Henry," Victoria said. "I know they've had problems - Mr. Cord's injury and Mrs. Lawson's earlier abandonment, but they need to get married. I know they intend to - I don't understand the waiting."
"And we probably won't, unless they confide in us," Henry said. "It's not really our business, Victoria."
"No, you're right," she sighed. "Besides, it's given me cause to think, and I'm afraid I'm being a terrible hypocrite."
Henry raised his eyebrows. "Impossible. What makes you say so?"
She leaned her head on his shoulder. "Well, look at us. Our obstacles are nothing compared to theirs, and we're waiting."
"Time is hardly of the essence in our case, dearest."
"Isn't it?" she said quietly. "Neither of us is young anymore, Henry. I don't think we should be wasting this time."
"What are you saying, Victoria?" Henry's heart was pounding so loudly he could hear it.
"That I've been thinking it over. Would it be so unconventional to get married, even if we can't live together at first?" She raised her head to look at him.
He wished he could see her. Her voice, her warmth was making his blood race, but he wished he could read her face. "It would be unconventional, surely, but that would be hardly reason enough to stop us, if that's what we want. Is that what you want, Victoria?"
"Yes," she said quietly, although the word echoed in his heart. "I want to be your wife, Henry. My bed has been awfully cold and empty since I've met you. Something is better than nothing, don't you think?"
"Yes, I do." He bent down and kissed her. "I'll need to ask Jarrod."
"Why?" Victoria asked, startled. "I thought you two had come to terms."
"Things have improved between us," Henry said, "but this affects him closely. If I'm to join the family, officially, he must approve."
"I'll talk to him, then," Victoria said.
Henry shook his head. "No, dearest, you have a way of getting what you want, especially from your family. I'll talk to him - this must come from his heart, dear, not because he wishes to please you, as we all do."
"It affects Molly, too, just as closely," Victoria pointed out. "Closer."
"Molly has moved on, long ago," Henry said, "as had I, more or less. Jarrod's had far less time, and this affects him as a man, both husband and son."
"Very well," Victoria said. "I hope he can satisfy you, because I don't want to live without you."
"Neither do I wish to live without you, dearest," he said tenderly.
They heard Jarrod and Molly come in not long after. They went into the foyer to greet them. "May I have a word with you, Jarrod?" Henry asked.
"Of course," Jarrod said, following him into the study as Victoria ushered Molly into the parlor. "What has happened?"
His face must have given it away, or Victoria's had, Henry thought. He sat on the sofa, resting his chin on his cane. "Well, it's the damnedest thing, but your mother just asked me to marry her."
"Oh?" Jarrod said coolly. Henry heard the striking of a match and smelled the odor of cigar.
"I told her I needed your consent, of course."
"Why 'of course'?" Jarrod said. "I'm not her father."
"No. You're her son. And Molly's husband."
"As though I'd stand in the way of my mother's happiness." Henry had difficulty reading Jarrod's tone - the man should be more emotional, one way or the other. Or did that alone tell Henry what he needed to know?
"You should stand in the way of it," Henry said firmly, "if you believe I'm using her to get close to Molly. If you think I'm so Machiavellian."
"I never said that!" Jarrod said, sounding shocked.
Good, Henry thought. "Give us your blessing only if you believe I love her, that I'll do my best to make her happy. Poor as my best might be."
There was a long silence, filled with the odor of cigar. Henry sat still, listening. Jarrod paced a moment, then sat down next to Henry. "Why is it that everyone can trust you except me, Henry?" he said ruefully.
"You have the most to lose, Jarrod," Henry replied. "I lost her once, so I know. And she's more of a woman now than she was then. I can't blame you for not wanting to risk her. I wouldn't."
Jarrod sighed. "No, it's not a risk, that's the point. I have no doubt of Molly - our marriage wouldn't be worth much if I did. But still, there's this nagging fear."
"We shall wait then," Henry said, standing. His heart cracked, but he dared not show it.
"No, stop." Jarrod took his arm. "I've never let fear dictate to me yet, I'm not going to start now. Everyone I love and trust tells me you're a good man, even a great man. I've seen it myself - I know you love my mother and would rather die than hurt her. My best judgment tells me to give you my blessing."
"And your heart?" Henry choked out, giving way against his will.
"Is - not a hundred percent sure. Ninety nine. Is that enough?"
"The question is, is it enough for you?" Henry held his breath.
"I - " Jarrod paused a long moment. "Yes," he said finally, firmly. "Yes. I know you're a good man. I know you love my mother. I'm as certain as it's possible to be in this uncertain world that you'd never harm her or Molly or me. So, yes, it's enough. Welcome to the family, Henry."
"Thank you, Jarrod," Henry said, unable to hold back the tears that crowded in unbidden. He took a moment to compose himself. "There's that matter we spoke of a while ago - the power of attorney? Will you see to that?"
"I'd be happy to," Jarrod said. "When will you need it?"
"Soon. We haven't discussed a date yet, but soon." The two men adjourned to the parlor.
". . .And I spoke to Joshua," Molly was saying excitedly. "He's offered to help prepare lessons and talk to the men to see if any of them want to take part. . ." Molly looked up. "Oh, I was telling Mother about the school."
"Victoria?" Henry said.
"Here, Henry." Her voice shone. Henry could almost see her shining as he followed her voice, holding out his hand. She took it and he sank to his knees.
"I love you, Victoria," he said in a choked voice. "Will you marry me?"
"You know I will," she said, pulling him to his feet and kissing him.
Molly gasped and her hands flew to her mouth. "Mother? Henry? Oh, my Lord!" She threw her arms around them both, crying. "Oh, this is wonderful!" She looked at Jarrod. "Is this what you were talking about?"
Jarrod nodded, pulling her into the circle of his arms. "Does this meet with your approval, Feather?" he whispered in her ear.
"Indeed it does!" Molly said. "It's what I've been hoping for, for ever so long!"
"Then it is well," Jarrod said quietly.
Alice came to the top of the stairs. "What's all the commotion?" She stopped, taking in the scene before her. "Oh my!" She disappeared, to reappear a few moments later, followed by all who had been upstairs - Samantha, Amelia, Lucas and Claire, all carrying babies. Samantha and Alice raced down the stairs, embracing Victoria and Henry. "Is it true? Is it true?"
Victoria nodded and wept, and embraced everyone freely.
"Where are your brother and sisters, Lucas?" Molly asked. "And Lena. They should be here."
"In the garden playing with Ben and George," Lucas said, setting Lizzie down. "I'll go get them."
Claire looked at Amelia. "We should go. This is a family affair."
"No need, Claire," Molly protested. "You're all welcome."
Amelia shook her head. "That may be, but Claire's right. Perhaps we should take the babies back upstairs."
"It's all right," Molly said. "If you must go, leave them with us."
Jarrod took Tommy and Molly took Grace, and Amelia and Claire left together. Lucas returned shortly with the other Barkley children, who were ecstatic at the news. "See, I told you he was a grandpa!" Vicky chimed, dancing with excitement.
Emma ran to Henry and hugged him. "I'm so glad, I'm so glad," was all she could say.
"Nick and Heath will be home soon," Victoria said. "I wish Audra and Owen were here, too."
"I'll go fetch them, Grandmother," Lucas offered.
"If you would, dear, that would be grand," Victoria said.
No sooner had she finished speaking than Lucas was out the door. Silas emerged from the kitchen to see what all the noise was about, and stood transfixed in the foyer. "Is what I'm thinking true?" he asked. "Mrs. Barkley, are you and Mr. Henry gonna tie the knot?"
"Yes, we are, Silas," Victoria said.
"Well, don't that beat all!" Silas said, grinning broadly, at the same time brushing back a tear. "And me with nothing more than a roast cooking for dinner!"
"A roast is fine," Victoria laughed. "Although you might want to throw in some extra vegetables. It looks like the whole family will be here."
"They'd better be," Silas said. He shook Henry's hand. "Congratulations to you, Mr. Henry."
"Thank you, Silas," Henry said.
"Well, I better get back to the kitchen," Silas said. "I'm gonna whip up something special for this here dinner!"
Audra and Owen arrived a while later, with Lucas. Audra whooped and Owen grinned at the news, Audra embracing her mother in a joyful hug. Nick and Heath arrived soon after, joining in the merrymaking. Nick was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the evening, although he made no objections and even broke out the champagne in celebration.
It was much later - after a long dinner, complete with the chocolate cake Silas had whipped up 'for special' and a long evening of song, poetry and dance, when all had retired to their beds - that Victoria heard a rap at her bedroom door. "Come in, Nick," she said.
"How'd you know it was me?" Nick said, grinning. He closed the door behind him.
"It's how you used to knock when you were a boy and had some problem you could only share with your father, remember?" Victoria put on a robe and sat down on the sofa, patting the place next to her. "I could tell you needed to talk, Nick. I was expecting you."
He sat down by her. "Are you sure this is what you want, Mother? He's not hurrying you into anything?"
"With all my heart," she replied. "And I'm hurrying him, if anyone is. I love him, Nick. You told me yourself to grab him."
"If you were getting more than you were giving. It's easy to see he's getting the better end of this bargain."
Victoria shrugged. "So what if he is? Here's a man who's done nothing but give of himself for others, and who's had everything he loves stripped away. Isn't it time he got the better end of something?"
Nick frowned. "You're not the prize he gets for suffering, Mother. Fair don't matter in something like this."
Victoria smiled and took his hand. "As I said, Nick, I love him. I want to marry him, to be his wife. But the rub is - for you, I think - that he's not Tom. Isn't it?"
"I keep telling myself what everyone else is saying - Father's long gone, Henry's a good man, etc., etc., etc. Which is all true, I reckon. But it still doesn't feel right to me."
"I've given a lot of thought to what your father would want, Nick. And although I've hardly pined away since he's been gone, I can't help thinking he would want me to live as fully as possible. I'm sure he would have married again by now if it had been me who had died. Don't you think so?"
Nick visibly struggled with himself before replying. "Yeah, I guess he would have. And he never denied you anything that would make you happy while he lived, I reckon he'd want the same now he's gone." Nick kissed her cheek. "Best wishes then, Mother."
"We have your blessing?"
Nick nodded. "Be happy, that's all I ask."
Victoria smiled. "I intend to be."
The next day, Victoria and Henry walked in the garden, holding hands, flanked by Emma and Vicky. The two girls had insisted on spending the night at the ranch, hardly letting their 'new grandpa' out of their sight. "He's not your grandpa yet, girls," Victoria said in exasperation, "and if you don't let us plan our wedding, he never will be. Please run along and play."
The two looked at each other in horror at this threat, and scampered off. "Finally," Victoria sighed. "The Lord knows I love my grandchildren, but sometimes - "
Henry laughed and embraced her. "I am embarrassed by the gifts you bring me, dearest. Not only your dear self, but all your family. It's more than I could have possibly wished for."
"It's my pleasure to gift them to you - please take a few with you when you go," she joked.
He kissed her. "So, what plans shall we make? When shall we wed?"
"I'd marry you today if we had a license," Victoria said. "Next Saturday, then?"
Henry started. "So soon?"
"Am I rushing you, Henry?" Victoria asked. "Please tell me if I am."
"Not at all - I would have proposed to you months ago if circumstances had allowed. I, too, would gladly marry you today if possible. But what will your family say? Can you even plan a wedding so soon? Aren't there dresses and dinners and such to be arranged?"
"I don't intend to make it a grand affair, Henry," Victoria said. "Just family, a few friends - do you have anyone to stand up with you?"
"I thought I might ask Roger Holden," Henry said. "He and Susan are the closest friends I have out here. There are a few friends still in Kentucky, but none of them would be able to come anyway. I don't know if Roger will be available, though."
"Ask him when you get home - if he's not, we'll postpone a week or two until he is. Send me a telegram, either way. We'll invite the Committee, of course, a few close friends from town. Mr. Cord and Mrs. Lawson and the children, of course."
"And your family makes it a rather large affair all by themselves," Henry pointed out. "Are you sure you're not taking on too much too soon?"
"Just watch me," Victoria said firmly.
Henry laughed again. "If anyone can pull it off, my dear, I have no doubt that you can."
"We'll have it here at the ranch - Jarrod can perform the ceremony. It's been quite handy having a judge in the family."
"I wish I didn't have to leave this evening," Henry said wistfully. "And we'll have no honeymoon. I can't think that this is good enough for you, Victoria."
She wrapped her arms around him. "It's more than good enough. I thought I might go home with you after the ceremony. I could stay with you a week or two - even if you have to work, I can be home waiting for you. Cook your meals, keep your house. Act like a real wife, at least for awhile."
"That is - " Henry choked, " - as close to Heaven as I can imagine the Good Lord would allow, here on this earth."
Roger Holden pulled up the buggy in front of the Barkley ranch house. He assisted his wife Susan as Henry alighted and the three of them entered. Victoria greeted them in the foyer, taking Henry's arm. "So glad you could come, Roger, Susan," she said. "Samantha will show you to your room where you can freshen up."
"This is so romantic!" Susan warbled. "It's like an elopement without the scandal."
Roger took his wife's arm. "I'm sure nothing Victoria does would ever be considered scandalous, dear."
"The ceremony will be here in the foyer at noon," Victoria said, ignoring these remarks. "Now, Henry," she led him off, "we've had to rearrange things a little - let me show you."
Samantha led Roger and Susan upstairs as Victoria took Henry into the parlor. As soon as they were gone, she put her arms around him and kissed him. He could feel her heart pounding against him. "Nervous?" he asked.
"A little," she admitted. "You?"
"Of course." He wrapped his arms around her. "You don't have to do this - we can still call it off if you're uncertain."
"Don't be silly," she chided him. "This was my idea, remember? Every bride has the jitters on her wedding day - there would be something wrong with me if I didn't." She looked up at him. "Unless you're having second thoughts?"
"Never," Henry assured her. "I've wanted nothing else since the day I met you. With a short detour," he added honestly.
"No need to go over old ground," Victoria said. "Molly's been helping with preparations all week, and it's been ages since I've seen her so happy."
"I'm glad," Henry said. "And Jarrod?"
"Seems content enough," Victoria said. "I would know if he was hiding his feelings. He's not as happy about it as Molly or Audra, but he's not unhappy with it, either."
"Good," Henry said. "It's a glorious day - at least the weather seems to smile upon us."
"The wedding breakfast will be in the garden, let me show you how we've arranged everything." She led him outside.
"Yes, please. It wouldn't do to have the groom stumbling over things," Henry smiled. "I'm amazed you've gotten everything arranged so quickly."
"It's not a lot - Silas insisted on making the cake, but we're having the hotel cater the breakfast. Around forty people, with the family. We've certainly thrown larger parties."
"What color is your dress, Victoria? I want to be able to picture you."
"Pink brocade," Victoria said. "It's not new, but I think it will do nicely."
Her voice was filled with warmth. "I wish I could see it, see you," Henry said wistfully.
She put his hand to her face. "Here I am." He explored her face with his fingers, gently, tenderly.
She kissed his finger tips, then took his hand. "We'd better go get dressed."
Henry had almost finished dressing, with Roger's help, when there came a rapping at his door. "Who is it?" he called.
"Nick. May I come in?"
Henry nodded and Roger opened the door. "What may I do for you, Nick?" Henry asked.
"Can you give us a minute?" Nick asked Roger. "I have a few words I need to say before the ceremony."
"He's not quite ready," Roger began.
"It's all right, Roger," Henry said.
Roger shrugged and left. "Could you help me with this tie, Nick?" Henry asked. "It's one of the few things I still have trouble with."
"Who doesn't?" Nick said. "I'll give it a try, but it's not my forte."
Nick put the tie around Henry's neck. Handy for strangling, Henry thought, if he has a mind to.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" Henry said, "as though I couldn't guess."
Nick snorted. "Yeah, I reckon you could at that. You will make her happy." It was a command, not a question.
"To the best of my ability," Henry said. "Not so tight."
Nick loosened his hold on the tie, and started over. Henry said, "I'm not trying to take your father's place, Nick. I'm trying to find my own place."
Nick wordlessly finished tying the tie and stepped back. "That'll do, I think." He looked Henry over. "He broke her heart, you know, my father. I never saw two people who loved each other more, and still he broke her heart. I'm counting on you to do better."
Henry raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I hope so - I intend to. But Nick, about your father - don't be too hard on him. He - "
Nick held up a hand, realized Henry could not see it and seized his arm. "I'm not - no one understands him better than I do, I think. All I'm saying is, I want Mother to be happy. I've never known her to be wrong about something like this, so if she thinks this is the thing for her, then you both have my blessing. As long as she's happy, I'm happy."
"Then I shall endeavor to keep all of you happy." Henry felt for his cane. "Should I expect a similar visit from Heath?"
"I shouldn't think so," Nick said, opening the door and handing Henry his hat. "He's taken your part with me more than once."
"Has he? That's good to know."
Roger was waiting in the hallway. "Victoria's at the top of the stairs waiting for you."
"Then, by all means, let's not keep the lady waiting," Henry said.
The wedding itself was mostly a blur to Henry - he could tell there were a number of people gathered at the foot of the stairs, he could tell when Roger took Audra, who was serving as her mother's matron of honor, by the arm, but after Victoria took his arm and they processed down the stairs, it was mere confusion. Who was there, where they were standing were mysteries to him. He spoke his vows with no problem, as did Victoria. Roger handed him the ring and Victoria helped him place it on her finger and, with a kiss, they were wed.
The confusion began to sort itself out during the receiving line - those whose voices he did not recognize were introduced to him by Victoria (my wife) and he began to feel less disoriented, though no less dizzy. This awe-inspiring woman is my wife. He clasped her arm tightly.
Ethan and Amelia were the last through the receiving line, due to Ethan's wheelchair. "Ethan," Jarrod said when the other guests had dispersed to the garden, "would you and Roger accompany us into the study? There's a legal document we need to have witnessed."
"Well, sure," Ethan said, surprised. "Although what I can do -"
"We need two people from outside the family," Jarrod said, "in case of disputes. It'll only take a few minutes."
"Shall I come, too?" Amelia asked.
"If you wish," Victoria said.
Jarrod and the two witnesses accompanied Victoria and Henry into the parlor. Amelia took a seat on the sofa to wait for Ethan, while Jarrod read aloud the power of attorney he had prepared. "Do you wish to make any changes, Henry?" he asked.
"No," Henry said. "If it allows Victoria to manage her affairs without hindrance, then it is as I wish." Victoria affixed a Braille slate in the proper place, and Henry signed his name to the document. Jarrod handed a pen and the paper to Roger. "Please, read it over, then sign the statement attesting that the document Henry signed is the same as what was read aloud here, and also that you've witnessed his signature."
"Of course," Roger said. He took a moment to read it over, then signed it and handed it to Ethan.
Ethan wheeled himself to the desk, then did the same. Jarrod took the document and handed it to Henry, who handed it to Victoria. "There, dear, now I've taken as little from you as the law allows."
Victoria opened the safe and put the document inside. She took Henry's arm and, smiling, led him out to the breakfast.
Amelia stood and began to follow the rest of them, but Ethan took her arm. "Maybe we should - "
"No," she said, cutting him off.
"You don't even know what I was going to say," he protested.
"I do. You were going to say maybe we should do the same thing. I don't want your power of attorney, Ethan. It's not necessary."
He looked her over. Her eyes were red and glaring. "Maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. But it seems sensible to me - you got property and I don't. You also got the head for business and I don't."
"You have property," she pointed out, flouncing into a chair next to him. "You have the ranch - it'll fetch a tidy sum when you sell it. We're not so unequal as you think. Besides, that's not the point."
"What is the point?" Ethan asked. "I'd think after the way Pierce done you, you'd be eager to protect yourself."
"Well, that is the point," she said. "If I did insist on a power of attorney, it would be because I didn't trust you. And I do - you're not Pierce, nothing like him. Why should I punish you for what he did?"
"You think she doesn't trust him?" Ethan asked.
"I'm sure she does," Amelia said, "but we're not them. Let's not apply solutions where there's no problem."
He took her hand. "Are you sure, Amelia? Because I don't want to take from you anymore than he does from her."
"Well, that is the problem," she said, creasing her forehead. "I want to give to you, and you won't take it."
"Looks like I'm gonna have to take it, when we get married," he pointed out defensively.
"That's not what I mean," she said. She knelt beside him and put her head in his lap. "I'd marry you right now, Ethan - wheelchair and all, damn the uncertainty. It breaks my heart that I can't make you see that."
There were tears in her voice, and he hesitated at her pain. "Can't right now," he choked out finally. "Don't have a license."
She reached into her pocket, pulled out a slip of paper and handed it to him. He looked at it, disbelieving. "How long have you had this?" he asked.
"A couple of weeks." She raised her head to look at him, frowned and took the license back. She stuffed it back into her pocket, rose and seated herself in the chair again. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm sorry, that was rather melodramatic, wasn't it?"
"Don't be sorry." He sat still for several seconds, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do.
She stood and began to push the wheelchair out the door. "No, I am sorry," she said. "I shouldn't push you."
He took the rims and stopped the chair. "No, I'm the one who should be sorry, but Amelia - " he looked up at her, pained. "I can't. Not yet - I don't know how to explain myself."
"No need," she said. "After what I did to you, it's no wonder you don't believe me when I say I'd love you know matter what. Because I didn't. Not enough, anyway."
He took her hand and pulled her into his lap. "That ain't it, that ain't it at all. I believe you, but Amelia, I can't - I gotta be a man, if I can. That's all I know."
"Do you think you're less a man now?" she said, amazed. "Ethan." She shook her head. "You're more. I've so admired the way you've borne all this without complaining once - the way you've worked to better yourself, to learn new things. I understand how hard that is, and I admire you for it. Love you for it. Will hold you up as an example to our child."
"Really?" Ethan said.
"Yes, really. Why is it so hard for you to believe that?"
Ethan bowed his head. "Because - because I always looked down on men like me - men who were weak, or crippled. Or blind," he said ashamedly.
She lifted his chin and looked into his eyes. "And you were wrong. Wrong then. Wrong now. Isn't it time you stopped it? Today of all days, after what we just witnessed."
He nodded. "I reckon so." She stood and he took her hand. "Promise me you ain't lying, ain't just trying to make me feel better about it all."
"I'm not lying," she said. "I think I respect you more now than I ever have."
"Then would you go fetch Mrs. Bark - I mean, Mrs. Johnson? I know it's her wedding day, but I got a favor I need to ask her."
"All right," Amelia said, puzzled. She left and returned a few minutes later with both Victoria and Henry.
"What did you wish to ask me, Mr. Cord?" Victoria asked.
"I don't want to steal your thunder, but I was hoping you wouldn't take it amiss if Amelia and I got married today, too."
Amelia squealed and Victoria smiled broadly. She bent down and kissed Ethan's cheek, much to his surprise. "I can't think of anything I'd wish more. Shall I go fetch Jarrod? Do you have a license?"
"We do," Ethan said. "But just send him - no need for you to leave your guests."
"As long as there's food, my guests will be just fine," Victoria said dryly. "I wouldn't miss this for the world. I'll bring the children, of course. Anyone else?"
"Molly," Amelia said, "and Samantha and Alice have been most kind to me. If it's not asking too much for them to leave the party."
"I'm sorry now I gave Tucker the day off," Ethan said, "but if Dr. Grigsby wouldn't mind - "
"I guess all your family," Amelia said. "After all you've done for us."
"Of course, we'd all be very happy," Victoria said. She kissed Amelia's cheek on the way out.
"Congratulations, Ethan," Henry said, grinning and holding out his hand. "You're a wise man today."
"Thank you," Ethan said. He looked up at Amelia. "I certainly hope so."
"And you, my dear," Henry held out his hand toward Amelia, "I wish you every happiness."
Amelia took his hand and kissed it. "Thank you, Henry. You've done so much for us, words fail me."
"I? I've done very little," Henry protested.
"Your example - " Amelia said. "You can't know - " she choked.
Henry clasped her hand. "If I have done you good, then I am gratified. I hope you have found your way at last."
Victoria returned then, accompanied by the Carroll boys and most of her family. Molly ran and hugged Amelia. "I'm so glad!"
"Where's Claire?" Ethan asked. "We can't start without her."
"She'll be along in a minute, she said," Joseph replied. "She had to go fetch something."
"May I see the license?" Jarrod asked. "I presume you want me to perform the ceremony?"
"Yes, please," Amelia said, handing it over.
"You may borrow my bouquet," Victoria offered. "Do you have a ring?"
"That's very kind of you," Amelia said. "We'll have to get a ring later - it's not essential, is it?"
"No," Victoria replied, "but in your case - "
Claire came in then, disheveled and red-faced from running. "Here, Uncle Ethan," she panted, holding out a small box. "It was Mama's - the sanitarium sent it to me. I know she'd want you to have it."
Ethan opened the box. "It looks like we have our ring, after all. Thank you, Claire."
"Don't you want to keep it, Claire?" Amelia asked. "It was your mother's."
"No, please, I can't imagine a better use for it. It'll be staying in the family." Claire smiled.
Amelia could hear the hubbub outside as the wedding guests began to question the absence of the bride and groom and their entire family. "All right," she agreed. She smiled down at Ethan. "Let's get married."
And so they did, quickly and simply in the Barkley study. Claire acted as bridesmaid, Joseph as Best Man, and there was not so much a receiving line after as one long hugging and backslapping session. "You'd better get back to your party," Ethan said at last. "Sounds like your guests are about to revolt."
Victoria grinned. "I suppose we'd better. Would you like to make an announcement?"
Amelia shook her head. "Everyone we would want to know is right here. We'll write to our friends in Paradise - we don't want to shanghai your wedding day."
"As you wish," Victoria said. "I am glad this happened - it's made our wedding doubly special."
"Indeed it has," Henry agreed, "but Ethan is right, we need to be getting back to our guests. With the addition of two very special ones."
"Where are you going to live?" Audra stayed behind the exodus. Owen tarried as well, to see what detained his wife.
"We discussed finding a house in town," Amelia said, "but until we do, I suppose we'll have to remain as we are."
"We're moving into our new house next week," Audra said. "You're welcome to use our old house until you can find something more permanent. The main bedroom is upstairs, unfortunately," she looked at Ethan, "but either the library or Owen's office downstairs could be turned into a bedroom. And the infirmary's large enough to accommodate the children."
"That sounds fine," Ethan said, looking at Amelia. "Perhaps we should look it over, first."
"Of course," Owen said. "Perhaps tomorrow, after Church?"
"All right," Ethan agreed, following them out into the garden where they rejoined the party.
"What should we call you, Mrs. - I mean - what should we call you?" George asked Amelia as they sat down at their places at the table.
"Aunt Amelia," Claire said. "Isn't that right?"
"Of course," Amelia said. "We're family now." She pressed her hand to her belly. "All of us."
"Can we still call Uncle Henry 'Uncle Henry' or do we have to call him 'Mr. Barkley' now?" George asked.
"Silly," Ben chided, "he's still Mr. Johnson. It's Mrs. Barkley that's become Mrs. Johnson."
"I'll never remember," George lamented.
"It'll take some getting used to," Ethan agreed.
Victoria and Henry left soon after, catching the last train for San Francisco. From there they took a carriage to Berkeley and Henry's cottage. After a quick freshening up, Victoria locked Henry out of the bedroom while she prepared herself for the night to come. Henry waited impatiently - it wasn't as though he could see her, and besides, she was beautiful enough for him already.
Finally, she opened the door and bade him enter. "It's dark," he said in surprise.
"How can you tell?" she asked curiously.
"No hiss of flame, no heat from the lamps," he explained.
"I wanted us to be equals," she said. "Besides, I was married for almost thirty years - I think I remember where everything is."
Henry laughed, then took her into his arms. Her gown was silk, warm from her body and soft to his touch. She wore a light perfume that enhanced her natural scent rather than overpowering it. He smiled - she had taken some thought as to how to please a blind man. He kissed her warmly. "Victoria," he murmured, "I hope you're not disappointed."
She pulled back, looking up at him. "How could I be? You're the man I love."
"But - I wasn't married very long, and it's been a long time since I - well, I'm not sure I remember where everything is."
"Well, if you don't, I'll just have to make you practice until you do," she said.
He laughed heartily. "May all your punishments be so pleasurable." He led her to the bed, and all the darkness became light between them.
"This is no kind of wedding night for you, Amelia," Ethan lamented as they made their way back to the cottage after the party. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Amelia said. She stopped the wheelchair and slid into his lap. "I'm so happy I could burst right now."
He kissed her warmly, then pulled back. "Even if I could - "
They were interrupted by Ben running into the garden. "Uncle Ethan!" he shouted. "Come quick! Claire's got a telegram!"
"What kind of telegram?" Ethan asked as Amelia slid from his lap and stood up.
"We don't know. She wanted you to be there when she opened it." Ben panted. "We're afraid it's about - it's about - "
"John Taylor," Amelia said, turning pale.
"Now we don't know what it is," Ethan cautioned. "Let's go see before we start to panic."
They rushed to the foreman's cottage. Claire, Joseph and George stood on the porch waiting for them. "Do you want me to open it, Claire?" Ethan asked as he saw her pale face.
"No," she shook her head. "It's addressed to me, but I did want you to be here."
"Don't open it," George said, tears streaming down his face. "It's bad news, I know it is."
"We have to open it, George," Claire said. "Not knowing won't make it any better." She slid a fingernail into the envelope and pulled out its contents. Her face turned paler than it was already.
"It is John Taylor!" George cried. "I knew it!"
"Hush, George," Claire said gently. "It's nothing of the kind." She handed the telegram to Ethan. "It's from Papa. He says he'll be here on the morning train."
Claire met Robert Carroll's train, accompanied by Jarrod and Molly. Robert stepped off and scanned the crowd until he saw his daughter. "Claire," he tried to put his arms around her. "I came as soon as I heard."
Claire stepped backwards, pushing him away. "Heard what?"
"Why, about Ethan," Robert said, confusedly. "This Pinkerton man found me, said he'd been killed and that you were looking for me."
"I'm sorry," Claire apologized. "He's not dead - we thought he was, but he was only injured. Things have been in such turmoil, I didn't think to have Mrs. Barkley call Pinkerton's off."
"Although I must say I'm better disposed toward you for coming under those circumstances, Robert," Molly said.
Robert looked at her. "Do I know you?"
"I'm Jarrod Barkley," Jarrod said. "This is my wife, Molly. She used to be Molly Holt."
"Molly Holt?" Robert wrinkled his forehead. "Forgive me, I'm drawing a blank."
"I worked for the Shakespeare troupe when you and Lucy were with it. The costumer?" Molly hinted.
"Oh, yes, Molly," Robert said. "Lucy always was fond of you, she used to speak of you often even after we left."
"And I, her. Oh, Robert, how could you?" Molly said, unable to maintain decorum any longer.
"Not now, Feather," Jarrod said. "There'll be time for that later. Ethan and the boys are at my house nearby, if you'd care to come discuss matters, Mr. Carroll."
"What's to discuss?" Robert asked. "If Ethan's all right, then you don't need me. I'm not accustomed to hanging around where I'm not wanted."
"You're wanted," Claire said, "if you want to be. But you were never needed."
Robert raised his eyebrows. "I don't understand."
"Claire's right," Jarrod said. "She is the legal guardian for her brothers - your parental rights have been terminated."
"Can you do that?" Robert asked, looking Claire over. "She's just a girl."
"She's more of an adult than you are," Molly said tersely.
Robert winced. "I guess I deserved that." He looked at Claire. "Then what am I wanted for?"
"You're family," Claire said. "What you want to make of that is up to you."
"Let's not harangue each other on a public platform," Molly said. "Come home with us, Robert, and we'll discuss what's to be done."
Claire slipped her hand through Robert's arm. "Please come, Papa." She looked up at him beseechingly.
Robert's eyes softened as he looked into her face. "You are so like your mama," he said softly.
Claire led him off the platform. "That's the way you looked at me, that first time, in Uncle Ethan's office. I think I started to realize who you were then, but it took a while to sink in."
Robert assisted his daughter into the rear seat of the buggy and climbed in after her. "I wouldn't think you would want me around after - " He paused.
"You shot Uncle Ethan?" Claire looked down at her hands in her lap as Jarrod and Molly climbed into the front seat and Jarrod took the reins. "Yes, Mrs. Lawson told us the truth about that - but even she said it was self-defense."
"I'm still sorry for that, you gotta believe me, Claire."
"She also told us why you were fighting," Claire said firmly.
Robert had the good grace to look chagrined. "Well, that was wrong of me, I know that now. You belong with Ethan - that's settled."
Jarrod pulled the buggy up in front of the house and helped Molly down. Robert helped Claire and the four of them went into the parlor where the boys, Ethan and Amelia were waiting for them.
Robert froze, stunned in the doorway. His eyes took in Ethan, seated in the wheelchair. "Good Lord, Ethan! I didn't do that, did I?"
Ethan shook his head. "Was shot during a robbery." He thumped the arm of the chair. "It's only temporary. Now what are you doing here?"
"It's my fault, Uncle Ethan," Claire said. "I had Pinkerton's looking for him, when we thought you were dead." She looked up at her father. "He came because we needed him."
"No, we didn't," Joseph said heatedly. "We were doing just fine without him!"
Robert gazed at Joseph, an ironic smile on his face. "Good to see you, too, Joseph." He frowned. "Maybe I should go."
George threw his arms around Robert's waist. "Don't go. Please, don't go."
Robert touched George's hair, then looked over at Ben. "How about you, Ben? You want me to stay, or go?"
Ben shrugged. "I don't care. You can't hurt us anymore - Judge Barkley saw to that."
Robert looked over at Jarrod. "You're a judge?"
Jarrod nodded. "My first judgeship was in Paradise, several years ago. It's how Molly and I met Ethan and Amelia. But let's not stand around - please, sit. Would you like a drink?"
"Yes, please," Robert said, sitting on the sofa. George and Claire sat on either side of him, Ben and Joseph across.
"I'll go make tea," Molly said, going to the kitchen.
Robert turned to Amelia. "I'm sorry for not acknowledging your presence earlier, Mrs. Lawson."
"Quite understandable, Mr. Carroll," Amelia said, "but it's Mrs. Cord now." She smiled at Ethan possessively.
"You got hitched?" Robert said, taking his glass from Jarrod and gulping it. "I thought you two were on the outs."
"We were," Amelia said. "I realized what a fool I was, and Ethan was man enough to take me back."
Ethan took her hand. "You weren't the only fool."
"I'm confused," Robert said. "Why did the children think you were dead, Ethan, if you were only wounded? And why was Claire made guardian if Mrs. Lawson, I mean - "
"Call me Amelia," Amelia said, "it'll be easier to keep straight."
"Amelia, then. Couldn't you have taken them on?"
"I failed them, I admit," Amelia said. "It was part of being a fool."
"We both did," Ethan said. "I let them think I was dead because I didn't want to saddle them with a cripple." He looked around at the children. "We've all had a thing or two to learn from this. I hope we have."
"We have," Claire said. "And now we're together, we can be a real family. You, too, Papa, if you want to be."
Robert looked at her longingly. "I've learned a thing or two in the past few months, too, Precious, and one of those is - I don't know how."
"You could try to learn," Claire said, equally longing. "Uncle Ethan did - you can, too."
"Don't you think I have tried?" Robert said, pained. "All those years with your mama - if she couldn't tame me, no one could. Don't set your heart on me, Claire, because I'll break it the same as I did hers."
Molly bustled in with the tea things. "I'm glad to hear you admit it, Robert."
"Don't try to make me feel worse than I already do about it, Mrs. Barkley," Robert said, "because I'm well aware of how I've messed things up." He looked at his children. "What I've lost because of it." He looked at Ethan. "And I don't mean my inheritance." He looked back at Molly. "Given what you know about me, I'm surprised you would bother to have Pinkerton's track me down."
"That was my mother-in-law," Molly said. "At Claire's behest." She handed tea around to the children and Amelia.
"The Barkleys helped us get on our feet, Papa," Claire said, "when we were all alone. Gave us a place to live, got jobs for Joseph and me. They've been most kind to us."
"Our pleasure, Claire," Molly said warmly. "It's always a joy to give a hand to those who make such good use of it."
George tugged Robert's sleeve. "If you can't stay and be our Papa, can you stay just a little while? I hardly know you at all, and even Claire says she barely remembers you."
Robert looked down at the son he had not known he had until a few months ago. "Is that what you want, George?" He looked at Ethan questioningly.
"It's up to the children," Ethan said cautiously.
"Yes," Claire said.
"I guess," Joseph said grudgingly. "If it's only for awhile, and if it's what everyone else wants."
"I already said I don't care," Ben said, "as long as you know you can't take us away from Uncle Ethan. And Aunt Amelia."
"I wouldn't try, Ben," Robert assured him. He sighed. "Well, then, I guess I'll stay. As long as all of you understand it's only for a little while."
Molly frowned, but said, "It's the children's Easter vacation, so it's a good time for it, I suppose."
The front door opened and Audra and Owen entered the parlor. "There you are," Audra said. "We missed you at Church and Nick said you were all here."
"Is Church over?" Claire said, scrambling to her feet. "I need to go to my music lesson."
"Run upstairs, dear, and ask Lucas to drive you," Molly said.
Claire nodded, kissed her father's cheek and scampered out. "Robert Carroll," Jarrod said, "I'd like to introduce my sister, Audra Grigsby, and her husband, Dr. Owen Grigsby. Joseph is working for Owen as his assistant."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am, Doctor," Robert said.
"Likewise," Audra returned. "Nick said the children's father had shown up."
"Not to cause harm, I assure you," Robert said.
"Of course not," Audra said sweetly. She turned to Ethan. "Do you still want to look at the house, or would you rather postpone?"
"No, we'll go look," Ethan said. "Tucker's supposed to meet us there so's he can look the place over, see what needs to be done to accommodate the chair."
"We certainly don't want to keep him waiting, then," Owen said. "Joseph, we could use your assistance. There is one short step up to the door that will have to be ramped, but we can lift you, Ethan, for today."
"All right," Ethan frowned.
"I'm expecting all of you back for Sunday dinner," Molly said.
"Thank you," Audra said. "I'm afraid with preparing for the move, I've hardly had time to think about cooking." She kissed her brother's cheek before departing with her husband, Ethan, Amelia and Joseph.
"Well, then," Jarrod said, "Ben and George, why don't you come with me? With Lucas gone, I better go keep an eye on the children."
Robert stood after Jarrod and the boys had gone. "I better go get my luggage at the station, then find a hotel."
"Robert - " Molly said.
"Don't, Molly," Robert said. "I know what you're going to say, and I know I got it coming, but just - don't." He strode toward the door, hesitated, then turned back. "Am I doing the right thing?"
Molly covered her face with her hands. "I don't know. I know that when the natural father of my brother-in-law's daughter showed up, Heath did everything in his power to see that she had the chance to get to know him. He grew up without his father, so that was important to him, you see. But whether you should stick around - well, I'm not the one to judge that." She lowered her hands and looked at him. "You haven't changed a bit, Robert, and yet - you have. I never saw you so humble before."
"I may not be any more honorable, but I think I've learned some honesty. It seemed called for." He sat down across from her. "I never meant to hurt them, hurt Lucy, but I did. She might even - " he choked, " - she might even still be alive if I hadn't run out on her."
"Robert - "
"That weighs heavy on my conscience - hard as she had to work to take care of the children, earn a living. She could have taken better care of herself, might not even have gotten sick if I'd lived up to my responsibilities. You know what the worst of it is?" He wiped his face. "I didn't even know she was dead until Ethan told me three months ago. That's how little thought I've had for my family all these years."
"Why think of them now? They've had some rough patches, but they'll be well cared-for from now on."
Robert waved a hand. "Well, look at them - did you ever see such fine children?"
"Other than my own, no," Molly said. "But you had no hand in that, Robert. It was all Lucy. And now Ethan and Amelia."
"I know," Robert said, "my reasons are selfish - but can you blame me for wanting to get to know my own children?"
"No, I can't," Molly said honestly, "but if you hurt them at all - "
"Not my intention," Robert said. "That's why I told the truth up front - so they don't expect too much."
"And I have to respect you for that," Molly said. She stood. "Go get your things - you can stay here, if you like. We have room."
Robert shook his head. "I thank you kindly, but I'd prefer not to subject myself to your disapproval every day." He held up his hand as she opened her mouth to speak. "And you would disapprove of me - you couldn't help it."
She shut her mouth. "All right, I guess I can see that. I'd better go see to my dinner - will you come for that? I promise not to glare at you."
"Thank you, I will," he said, putting on his hat. "Better not waste what little time I have."
Amelia snuggled up to Ethan. "Here we are at last - in our own home, our own bed, just like a real married couple."
"Borrowed," Ethan pointed out. "Only temporary. But I must admit you done a fine job making the doc's old place comfortable. Although I would have expected Claire to help you out more than she done."
"She wants to spend time with her father," Amelia said, nuzzling his ear. "You can hardly blame her, or the boys, either - it may be their only chance to get to know him."
"I hope so," Ethan said fervently.
She drew back. "What do you mean? Surely you don't think he'd try to take them again? Anyway, he can't. Jarrod explained it, remember? He has no rights anymore."
"But supposing," he gulped, "supposing they want to go with him?"
She slapped him on the shoulder. "Don't be an idiot, Ethan. Of course they won't want to go with him. They want to be with you. You're blind if you can't see the way they love you."
"I dunno," Ethan said, "Robert's a charmer."
"He is," Amelia agreed, "but give the children some credit - they're bright enough to know who really loves them and who doesn't. Robert may not be a total loss after all, but he's not father material and everyone knows it. You are." She took his hand and placed it on her belly. "Good thing, too," she smiled.
Ethan caressed her belly. "I hope so. I want to do right by all of you."
She grinned impishly. "Well, you could do right by me right now by moving that hand either higher or lower."
Ethan blushed. "Amelia - you know I can't - "
"Your hands still work, don't they?"
He grinned back. "That they do." He sobered. "Is it enough? I want to be a good husband, but - "
She laid a finger across his lips. "So we'll have to improvise. I'm game, are you?"
"I am if you are," he consented.
She lay with her head on his chest, soft with sleep. He stroked her hair, her cheek, glad for the smile that played on her lips as she slept. He felt frustrated himself, but shrugged it off. Mine, all mine, he thought, looking at her. Mine at last, mine forever. For all the pain and fear of the last few months, he could not honestly wish for anything to be different - well, one thing. He looked down at his useless legs. But even that seemed unimportant next to this. He laid a hand softly on her belly, hoping to feel their child stirring, but all was quiet. All those things he had never let himself wish for all the seeming long years of his life were here, in his two hands, and he had no idea what he might have done to deserve them. He gives us what we need, not what we deserve. Maybe, just maybe, there was a God after all, although he had never given it much thought before. He felt grateful, he hoped there was Someone to be grateful to. His thoughts drifted off, and he did not know he had been asleep until he woke up screaming.
"Ethan?" Amelia struggled out of sleep. "Ethan! What's wrong!"
He could not speak, only scream. His legs, his entire lower body, felt as though they were being slashed with knives, burned with hot irons. Amelia ran to the door, threw it open. "Joshua! Mr. Tucker! Come quickly!" she yelled and dashed back to the bed. She took Ethan's hand, stroked his brow.
Joshua straggled in from the infirmary, where he had bedded down with the boys, who tagged along after him, disheveled, robeless. He strode to the bed, examining Ethan but not touching him. "What happened?"
Amelia shook her head, mindless of her appearance, that she was dressed only in a thin nightgown. "I don't know. He woke me up, screaming."
"Ethan," Joshua said sternly. "What's the matter? Tell us."
Ethan shook his head and thrashed about, throwing off the bedclothes. "He can move!" Amelia said. "But what's wrong? Why is he screaming?"
"Joseph," Joshua commanded, "go get the doctor."
Joseph nodded and ran out of the room, bumping into Claire who had made her way down from the upstairs bedroom. She put her arms around Ben and George, clutching them tightly. "What's wrong?"
"We don't know," Amelia said. She looked at Joshua, wincing against Ethan's screams. "What do we do?"
"Nothing," Joshua said. "Wait for the doctor. I'd hate to do the wrong thing."
"Come on, boys," Claire said to Ben and George. "You'd better go back to bed."
"No," Ben said firmly. "We're staying."
George had buried his face in Claire's nightgown, but he lifted it to say, "We can't leave Uncle Ethan now - he might need us."
"I'm sure Aunt Amelia will call us - " Claire began.
"Let them stay, Claire," Amelia said wearily. "None of us will sleep tonight."
"Where's his belt?" Joshua asked.
"In the wardrobe," Amelia said, confused. "I don't see how that - "
Joshua had already flung open the wardrobe and seized Ethan's belt. He folded it in half and turned to Ethan. "Here, bite down on this. It'll help the pain until the doctor comes."
Ethan bit down on it eagerly, clenching his jaw against the pain, still thrashing, but at least it hushed his screams. Amelia's fingers were white from where he clutched her hand, but she did not let go. Claire came to the other side of the bed and took his other hand, while Ben and George each touched an arm in sympathy. It seemed ages before Joseph came back with Owen, who was clad in an overcoat thrown over his pajamas and carrying his medical bag.
He looked Ethan over. "How long?" he asked.
Amelia looked at the clock. "About twenty minutes," she said wonderingly. It had seemed much longer. "He woke up screaming - he hasn't been able to tell us what's wrong."
Owen bent over the bed. "Ethan? Can you understand me?"
"If I take this belt, do you think you'll be able to talk to me?"
Ethan hesitated, then nodded again. Owen took the belt, and Ethan gritted his teeth against the pain, trying not to scream, moaning and thrashing.
"Can you describe what you feel?"
"Hurts," Ethan said through clenched teeth. "Burns."
"What hurts?" Owen asked.
Owen raised his eyebrows. "You can feel you legs?"
Owen put his hand on Ethan's knee. "Can you feel that?"
Ethan nodded again.
"Amazing," Owen said. He took his stethoscope out of his bag. "Can you control your movements, Ethan? I need to examine you and I need you to hold still."
Ethan shook his head. "All right," Owen said. "Joseph, Mr. Tucker, I'll need to you hold him down. Be gentle, but be firm." He turned to Amelia. "The women and the younger boys should leave until I finish."
"We're staying," Ben asserted.
"I shall have to disrobe him," Owen pointed out. "Please, Ben, Claire - for his dignity's sake."
Claire nodded and tugged her brothers out of the room. "I'm his wife," Amelia said quietly, not letting go his hand, "I'll stay."
"All right," Owen said, throwing aside the bedclothes. Joseph and Joshua each held down a leg and Owen lifted up Ethan's nightshirt. They could all see the muscles twitching and spasming under his skin. His toes were curled up painfully and it was difficult for the men to hold him down. Amelia bit her lip to see him so, but only held on the tighter.
"Did you feel this coming on at all, Ethan?" Owen asked. "Any change from your condition?"
Ethan shook his head. "Came on sudden," he squeezed out between clenched jaws. "Went to sleep - same as before."
Owen glanced at Amelia, who nodded. "No change," she said. "Not that I noticed, anyway. But he can move, Doctor - doesn't that mean he's recovering?"
"He can't control his movements," Owen pointed out.
"But he can feel his legs," Amelia said, grasping at straws. "That's good, isn't it?"
Owen shook his head. "I don't know - this isn't like anything I've seen before. Admittedly, it's not my specialty, but Dr. Hodgkins told me he'd only give Ethan a five percent chance of recovery, and if he expected something like this, I'm sure he'd have told me."
"What do we do then?" Amelia asked, despairing.
"Don't lose hope," Owen said. "Every case is different. I'll telegraph Dr. Hodgkins first thing in the morning. In the meantime," he bent down to speak to Ethan, "I don't usually like to do this, but I think laudanum is called for. No point in you suffering through this, Ethan."
"I can take it," Ethan answered.
Owen frowned sympathetically. "I'm sure you can, but I'm not sure your family can. Think, Ethan - what if it were Amelia suffering like this, or one of your children? Would you want to stand by and watch?"
Ethan looked over at her. "No," he whispered. "I wouldn't."
"Let the doctor do what he thinks best," Amelia urged. "It's your choice - I won't force you, but I hope you will."
Ethan frowned, but nodded. Owen pulled a bottle and a measuring glass out of his bag and measured out a portion of the laudanum. "Raise his head up, Amelia."
Amelia did as she was directed and Ethan swallowed the dose, grimacing in distaste. She laid him gently back down on the pillow. "Bring the children back in," Ethan said.
Amelia shook out her bruised hand as she walked to the door and threw it open. Claire and the two boys were hovering just outside. "Is he better?" Claire asked. "Could Dr. Grigsby do anything?"
"He's given him something for the pain," Amelia said, "so he'll be dropping off to sleep soon. He asked for you."
The children crowded around the bed. "Looks like things are going to be a mite difficult for awhile," Ethan said, "but I don't want none of you to worry, you hear?"
"Don't you worry, Uncle Ethan," George said, "we'll take care of you."
Ethan smiled. "I know that, George. All I'm saying is - we'll get through it. We been through a lot together - we'll get through this, too." His voice trailed off and his head slumped against the pillow.
"You can let him go now," Owen said to Joseph and Joshua. Ethan's legs continued to twitch and spasm after they did so, but without the violent thrashing that had gone before. Owen pulled the bedclothes up around him.
"Someone should sit with him, in case there's any change," Owen said. "The rest of you go back to bed. He'll sleep for several hours - when he awakens, if he's still like this, give him another dose. I'll come back after I've heard from Dr. Hodgkins, but if there's any change, don't hesitate to send for me."
Amelia nodded and took the bottle that Owen handed her. "I don't want to go to bed," Ben protested. "I want to stay here."
"Me, too," George agreed.
"We'll take turns watching," Amelia said. "It won't do him any good if we all wear ourselves out."
"I won't sleep," Ben said, not arguing, merely stating a fact.
"I doubt any of us will," Claire said, "but Aunt Amelia is right. We should try." She kissed Amelia's cheek. "Call me in a couple of hours for my turn."
"I will, dear," Amelia said. "Now, all of you, go back to bed."
The children left reluctantly but Joshua lingered behind. "Would you like me to watch with you, Mrs. Cord? I wouldn't want you to strain yourself should anything happen - because of the baby and all."
"You should be careful, Amelia," Owen agreed. "Don't overdo, much as you might be tempted to."
Amelia nodded. "I'll be careful. I'll call you, Joshua, if I need you, I promise. Go to bed - we may need all your strength before this is over."
Joshua nodded and went back to the infirmary.
"Amelia," Owen said, "now that I have you alone, I need to ask you something. Don't think I'm asking from any prurient interest, merely as a doctor - "
"No," Amelia said, "he hasn't been able to perform his husbandly duties. That is what you were going to ask, isn't it?"
"It was," Owen agreed. He frowned. "And there was no indication beforehand that anything had changed?"
Amelia shook her head. "I've wracked my brain, but no, there was nothing." She put a hand on his arm. "This does mean he's getting better, though, doesn't it? Please don't tell me he's getting worse."
"I honestly don't know, Amelia," Owen said. He patted her hand. "Let's hold on to hope, why don't we?"
"I have to," she said. "I've no other choice.
"I'll come by as soon as I know of anything, I promise." He squeezed her hand, then left. Amelia put on her robe and sat down by the bed, watching her husband's fitful sleep. She sighed. It was going to be a long night.
She was awakened at dawn by the changing light. Claire, fully dressed, sat across from her. "Good morning, Aunt Amelia."
"I must have dozed off," Amelia apologized. "How long have you been here?"
"Since two - I came down to see why you didn't call me. He's still asleep."
Amelia blushed. Some wife I am. She threw off the coverlet Claire had thrown over her. She looked at Ethan, still asleep as Claire had said, still twitching in his sleep. "No change?"
Claire shook her head. "And don't be embarrassed, Aunt Amelia. You're with child - I'm sure you and the baby needed the rest."
"That's no excuse," Amelia retorted. "I should have kept watch."
Claire shrugged, unwilling to argue the point. "Joshua's making breakfast. The boys are worried sick, but trying not to show it."
"As are we all," Amelia said.
"I know. He will be all right, won't he?"
"Yes," Amelia said firmly. "He has to be."
"Go eat, get cleaned up and dressed," Claire said. "I'll sit with him."
"You should get some sleep yourself."
"I will, later. If I can."
"You're a good girl, Claire. I'm glad you're here with me."
Claire hugged her. "I'm glad you're here, too. Now go eat breakfast."
Robert stopped by as they were washing up the dishes. "Why the long faces?" he asked. "Don't you remember I'm taking all of you fishing this morning?"
"We can't go," George said. "Uncle Ethan's not well."
"He's not?" Robert said, crouching down. He tapped George's nose. "Well, I'm sure Amelia can look after him. Bet I catch a bigger fish than you."
"We're not going," Ben said. "He might need us."
"Aw, I'm sure he'll be all right," Robert said cheerily. He looked around at all the somber faces. "Won't he?" he added uncertainly.
"We don't know," Joseph said.
"Our doctor's consulting a specialist," Amelia said. "We should know something later this morning."
"Can I see him?" Robert asked.
Amelia nodded. "All right. He's still sleeping, but I'll take you in."
Claire was standing by the door when they entered. "I was about to call you," she said. "He's waking up. Hello, Papa." She clasped Robert's hand briefly.
"Ethan?" Amelia asked, taking his hand. She caressed his brow. "How do you feel?"
"Hurts," Ethan murmured, half-awake. "Burns," he moaned. Amelia looked down at his legs, still spasming.
"Raise him up for me, would you, Robert?" Amelia said. "I'll get your medicine, Ethan, just a moment."
"Robert?" Ethan questioned.
"Yes, Ethan, I'm here," Robert said gently, raising Ethan's head.
"Don't take the children," Ethan said.
"I won't, Ethan, don't worry about that - don't worry about anything." Amelia poured out a dose of laudanum and helped Ethan drink it. Robert lowered his head back to the pillow as he drifted back to sleep. He gazed down at Ethan's twitching legs. "How long has he been like this?"
"Since late last night," Amelia said. "We had to summon the doctor in the middle of the night."
"He woke us all up screaming," Claire said, putting an arm around her father's waist. "It was horrible." She shuddered.
"I'm sorry, Precious," Robert said. "I can see why you're all worried. Anything I can do?"
Amelia shook her head. "Nothing any of us can do right now except watch and wait."
Joseph and Ben came into the room. "Go get some sleep, Claire. You, too, Aunt Amelia," Joseph said. "It's Ben's and my turn to watch."
"I am tired," Claire confessed. She led Robert out of the room into the parlor, Amelia following. Joshua and George were poring over a book together, but looked up when they entered.
"Well, I'd best be going," Robert said. "Send for me at the hotel if you need anything."
"Thank you, Robert," Amelia said, clasping his hand.
Claire followed him to the door, her lips pressed together in a thin line. She stepped out onto the porch after him. "I can't believe you're leaving him like this!" she said sharply.
Robert started. "But - Amelia said there was nothing to be done, Claire. Sitting around here won't help anything."
"He's Mama's brother - he's as much your family as he is ours! How can you just leave?"
Robert took off his hat and fiddled with it. "You want me to stay?"
"I want you to care!" She flounced back into the house, resisting the urge to slam the door only because it might disturb Ethan. She took a moment in the foyer to compose herself.
Robert stood on the porch, nonplused. He shrugged, then turned to go. He stopped on the step - paused, then turned back. Claire was still in the foyer when he opened the door. They stood looking at each other a long moment before he wrapped his arms around her. "I told you I wasn't any good at this, Precious. I'm going to need you to teach me - will you?"
Claire nodded against his shoulder. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "At least you're trying," she acknowledged.
"You make me want to try, Claire," Robert said. He tucked her arm under his and led her back into the parlor, to watch and wait.
"Your cleaning lady is coming today?" Victoria enquired at breakfast that morning.
Henry cocked his head at her tone. "Mrs. Evers? Yes, she is. Is something wrong?"
"Only the centers of the rooms are clean, Henry," Victoria said sternly. "It's not acceptable."
Henry laughed. "She probably realizes that I can't tell the difference."
"I'm sure she does, but that's no excuse."
"I'm sure you'll set her right," Henry said.
"That I will," Victoria agreed. "I wish I could stay and do for you altogether, dearest, but in the meantime, the least I can do is see you're well taken care of in my absence." She picked at her eggs. "You're very comfortable here, aren't you, Henry?" she said thoughtfully.
"It suits me, for now," Henry said.
"And that huge ranch house is so hard for you to navigate - "
"Don't worry about that," Henry said, "I can manage."
"Of course you can," Victoria said, "but you should be comfortable in your own home. I've been thinking - suppose you and I move out to the foreman's cottage when you come to Stockton to live?"
"I don't want you to leave your own home," Henry said.
"I'd hardly be doing that," Victoria said. "It's twenty feet from door to door. My family's growing. Large as the house is, it's going to become quite a squeeze at this rate." She took his hand. "And I think it would be quite romantic, just you and I in our own little cottage, don't you?"
"Maybe," Henry said doubtfully. "I still feel like you're giving up your home for me, and I don't want that."
Victoria pouted. "And here I am planning how I can fix it up for us. I've even pictured what curtains I want."
Henry kissed her fingers. "If it's what you want, then all right. But think about it, Victoria. Be sure it's what you really want. Now, I really must go to work. Don't be too hard on Mrs. Evers, please."
They stood and walked to the front door. Victoria kissed Henry as he started to leave, then grabbed his sleeve as he nearly collided with the messenger boy who was just about to knock at the door. "Just a moment, Henry," she said. "There's someone here. May I help you?"
"I have a telegram for Mrs. Victoria Johnson," the boy said.
"I'm Mrs. Johnson," Victoria said, taking the telegram. "Can you tip him, Henry? I don't have my purse handy."
Henry did so and, as the boy scurried off, Henry asked, "Something the matter?"
Victoria perused the telegram. She let out a slight gasp. "It's from Owen. Mr. Cord's taken a turn for the worse - perhaps. The good news is that he can feel his legs, but he's in extreme pain, Owen says. He had to administer laudanum, and you know how he hates to do that."
Henry listened more to her tone of voice than to her actual words, disturbing as those were. "You wish to go home, don't you?"
Victoria hesitated a moment, then sighed and shook her head. "No. There are plenty of people there to look after him. I need to resist my urges to swoop down and try to fix everything - you taught me that."
"I didn't mean - " he began.
She put a finger to his lips. "Yes. I want to be here with you, Henry. This is as near a honeymoon as we're going to have. What kind of wife would I be if I leave you at the first distraction?" She put the telegram back into its envelope. "I'm not needed there."
He took her hand. "But you are most sincerely wanted here, my dearest."
Molly and Lucas arrived at Ethan's house about an hour after breakfast. "Audra told us Ethan had taken a bad turn," Molly explained. "I brought a pot of stew, and some fresh bread - I thought you might not feel like cooking."
Amelia led them into the kitchen where they stowed the food they had brought. "Thank you," Amelia said. "Joshua cooked breakfast, but - " she gave Molly a hug, "well, it's good to have you here."
"Is there anything we can do, Mrs. Cord?" Lucas asked.
Amelia shook her head and led them into the parlor. "Not at the moment, Lucas, thank you."
Claire had fallen asleep on her father's arm, snoring softly. "Poor thing," Amelia said. "She was up most of the night. Claire, dear," she touched the girl's arm, "better go to bed."
Claire woke with a start. "Oh, hello Miss Molly, Lucas," her eyes lit up, as did Lucas's, "was I asleep?"
"Yes, dear," Amelia said. "Better go get some rest - you're all done in."
"I want to wait for the doctor," Claire said.
"We'll call you when he comes, I promise," Amelia said.
Lucas pulled Claire to her feet and kissed her forehead. Robert opened his mouth to speak, but Lucas shot him a hard look and he closed it again. Molly smiled grimly at this byplay, but said nothing.
Claire looked over at George, to whom Joshua had been quietly reading a book. The little boy looked pale and exhausted. "You're tired, too, George. Didn't you sleep at all last night?"
George shook his head. "But I'll wait for Ben - I can't sleep by myself."
"Come to bed with me then," Claire said. "There's room."
George hesitated a moment, then nodded and followed his sister out of the room.
"Where are Joseph and Ben?" Lucas asked.
"In our bedroom, watching," Amelia said. "It's where the library used to be."
"I'll go sit with them, if I may," Lucas said. "If I won't disturb Mr. Cord."
"Of course," Amelia said. "They'll be glad to see you."
The adults sat in the parlor, making some desultory conversation, but mostly sitting in silence until Owen returned. They all gathered in the bedroom, as Owen wished to speak to everyone together.
Ethan still slumbered, so Owen began quietly. "The nervous system is similar to a telegraph - the brain sends messages to the body, and the body sends messages to the brain. When the nerves are damaged, the messages cannot reach their destinations, resulting in paralysis, numbness, and so on."
"Does this mean that he's getting better?" Joseph interrupted.
"Well," Owen hesitated. "Some messages are undoubtedly getting through. He can feel and move his lower body now - so it's possible he might, in time, be completely restored."
"Might?" Amelia said, turning pale. "You also mean he might stay like this? What did Dr. Hodgson say?"
"He said this was unexpected, and he recommended a sanitarium."
"Nothing else?" Amelia said, chagrined. "What could they do for him at a sanitarium that we can't do here?"
"Round the clock care," Owen said. "Hydrotherapy, deep massage."
"We can do that," Joseph said. "He wouldn't want to be sent away - you could wait until he wakes up and ask him."
"Of course, we won't do anything without his consent, Joseph," Owen said. He began to speak more firmly. "It does seem to me that he's healing - if you want my advice, I would say to wait a few days and see how this progresses before we decide if a sanitarium is what is required. We can do rudimentary hydrotherapy here, and I can instruct you all in proper massage. Reducing the cramping of the muscles should reduce his pain as well - although since he hasn't used his legs in months, the spasming itself might actually be of benefit in strengthening those muscles."
He could see Amelia visibly brighten at his hopeful words. "Show us what to do, Doctor."
"I'll help," Robert offered, receiving a pleased glance from Claire.
"So will I," Lucas said, "if I may," casting a glance at Robert. Claire clasped his hand gratefully and he smiled in return.
"Claire, if you and the younger boys will leave the room again - " Owen began.
Claire shook her head. "I can help as well as Joseph can."
"So can we," Ben asserted. "At least a little."
"Amelia?" Owen asked.
"Perhaps he has some old trousers you could cut the legs off of?" Molly suggested. "That would expose his legs but preserve modesty?"
"Of course," Amelia said. "If all of you could leave for a few moments - except Mr. Tucker."
Amelia took her scissors from her sewing basket and an old pair of jeans from the wardrobe and in a few moments had made the necessary alteration. Joshua aided her in getting Ethan into his new short trousers, and then readmitted the rest for Owen's demonstration.
So for the next two days, whenever Ethan awakened, he was treated to hot swirling baths before being given another dose of laudanum. His legs and feet were massaged by his family and friends for thirty minutes every hour, the household sleeping in shifts. Although the work was exhausting, they all seemed refreshed for having a plan of action. The twitching in his limbs gradually subsided, and when he awakened on the morning of the third day, Owen examined him once again. "How do you feel, Ethan?"
"Better," Ethan said. "Doesn't hurt so much - aches more than a bit, that's all."
"That's good," Owen smiled. He pinched Ethan's toe. "Can you feel this?"
Ethan nodded. "Yeah," he grinned.
"Can you move? Try wiggling your toes."
The family waited with bated breath as Ethan grimaced, then gasped as his toes began to wiggle.
"Now, can you raise your feet? Just a little bit, to start."
Ethan raised both feet a couple of inches off the mattress. Claire and Amelia hugged each other and cried. "Excellent," Owen said. "I think it's only a matter of time before you're up and walking."
"How much time?" Ethan said impatiently.
"I have no idea," Owen said. "I've never seen anyone like you. Not now - " he said quickly as Ethan seemed about to try to spring from the bed, "your muscles are too weak from disuse." He turned to Amelia. "Keep up the massages - although you don't need to do them at night anymore - and the hydrotherapy. Loosening up the muscles is a necessary step to get him walking again. And you," he said firmly to Ethan, "wiggle your toes, your feet, try working whatever muscles you can, flex your joints, but don't even think about getting up for at least a week." Ethan started to protest but Owen stopped him. "I know you want to get up now, but if you do, all that will happen is you'll fall down, and I don't want my patients damaging themselves. Now promise me."
Ethan frowned, but said, "All right, Doc, I promise. In a week."
"We'll see," Owen said. "You've been paralyzed for months, Ethan. You can't expect to spring up all at once. You've got to rebuild."
Ethan pressed his lips together. "All right, then. We will see."
So he worked, every waking moment until he was sweaty with exhaustion, then a brief nap and begin again. Each day he could lift his legs a little further, bend a little more, do a little more. He ate like a Trojan, and Amelia was happy to feed him, to see him growing stronger day by day, hour by hour.
At the end of the week, Owen let him out of bed and, propped up by Joseph and Joshua, he took his first steps, to the bedroom door and back, then dropping into bed in exhaustion. "Excellent," Owen enthused. "I didn't expect such progress, Ethan."
"Not fast enough to suit me," Ethan said.
"I'm sure it's not," Owen laughed, "but believe me, you're doing quite well. Keep it up - you're on your way, Ethan."
Robert took Claire aside. "Take a walk with me, Daughter?"
Claire nodded and followed him outside, taking his hand. "Time for you to go, isn't it, Papa?"
Robert raised his eyebrows. "And here I thought you were going to give me an argument. Yes, it is. Ethan will be quite recovered soon."
"And he's not going to rest entirely easy until you leave," Claire said. "But if you go, then you can come back." She looked up at him. "Will you write? Let us know where you are and what you're doing?"
"Yes," he said, "I promise." He cupped her chin in his hand. "With all that's gone on, I don't feel like I got to know you as well as I wanted to, especially the boys."
She took his hand again. "But we got to know you." She hugged him. "Thanks for staying, for taking care of Uncle Ethan."
Robert smiled grimly. "I know I'll never be the father I should have been, Claire, but if someone else is going to reap where I've sown, then I guess it's right that man should be Ethan." He gave her a squeeze. "He's a good man. It's good you're with him. I don't think that young man of yours thinks much of me, though."
"Lucas is very protective," Claire said, "and he and his sister were both orphans - family's a bit complicated where he's concerned. You'll win him over, in time."
Robert shrugged. "Don't guess it much matters if I do - it's Ethan and Amelia who matter. I'm just a footnote."
Claire hugged him back, but had nothing to say in response to that. "Well," Robert said, "better go say good-bye to the boys, and Ethan. Perhaps I can come back for Christmas?"
"We'll be in Berkeley by then," Claire said, "but I'll give you the address." She stood on tiptoe and kissed him. "Good-bye, Papa."
In another week Ethan could totter to the door leaning on Joshua alone, and a week after that he was teetering around with a cane. The day he managed to climb the stairs by himself was the day that Joshua said good-bye. "I'm kind of sorry to go," Joshua said. "This has been one of the more interesting jobs I've had."
"I'm kind of sorry to see you go, too," Ethan said, "not that I'm sorry for the reason for it. I owe you, Tucker. You ever need anything, you come to me, will you?"
"I've been well paid," Joshua said. "You don't owe me anything."
"That ain't true," Ethan said. "What you taught me, and not just the book-learning, although that was important enough. I got more than I bargained for with you."
"Well, so did I," Joshua said. "I took this job because I wanted to understand a man like you, but I don't think you're that man anymore." He brushed his thumb along his nose shyly. "You know, I considered calling you out, when you were better."
Ethan started. "What? You're kidding, right?"
Joshua shrugged. "You killed my brother - I wasn't sure what I'm supposed to do with that."
"You could call all you want, I wouldn't go," Ethan said. "As you said, I ain't that man anymore."
"I know," Joshua said. "I don't think I ever seriously considered it. But still."
Ethan was silent a long moment. "Are we square? 'Cause I don't think I could stand it if you still hated me."
"We're square," Joshua said. "What are you going to do now?"
"Don't rightly know," Ethan said in relief. "We'll stay here through the summer so Claire can finish school, then we'll be moving to the house Amelia bought in Berkeley. I hope we can find George a good school, but if not, we'll hire him a tutor. One for each of us, I guess."
"You're continuing your schooling?" Joshua asked, pleased.
"Can't stop now," Ethan said. "I'm only now realizing how much I got to learn."
"Proper English, for one," Joshua said dryly.
Ethan grinned. "That, too."
Joshua squinted at him. "Mind if I make a prediction?"
"Naw, I don't mind. Go ahead."
"I think you're going to end up a lawyer, or some such. I don't see you going back to the gun, but I think the law is in your blood."
Ethan considered this. "Maybe - I don't know if I got it in me, but you may be right. How about you? Back to the ranch?"
Joshua shook his head. "No, I'm going to help Mrs. Jarrod get her school started, then I'm heading off to Berkeley in the fall, too. For college."
"Well, that's fine. If you need any help paying for that - " Ethan began.
Joshua laughed. "Oh, I have money. When my Pa died, Ma sold the ranch and we split the money between us. I got about ten thousand dollars tucked away."
Ethan raised his eyebrows. "And you were working as a cowhand?"
"Wasn't sure where I fitted into things," Joshua said. "So you helped me there, too, Ethan. Don't think Mrs. Jarrod's school is going to be the only one."
Ethan offered him his hand. "Well, I wish you all the best. Be sure to come see us, often, both here and in Berkeley. I hope we'll be friends from here on."
Joshua gripped his hand firmly. "I hope so, too."
Two months later Audra was delivered of a baby boy, whom she named Geoffrey, after Owen's father. A month after that, Amelia delivered a girl, who all agreed should be named Lucy.
Victoria had her way, and she and Henry moved into the foreman's cottage, where they lived happily to the end of their days.