A Feather on the Wind
Jarrod Barkley realized that his secretary had been trying to get his attention for some moments. "I'm sorry, Annie," he said, looking up from the pile of law books he had been studying, "I'm too engrossed in this railroad case. Did you need something?"
"There's a lady here to see you, Mr. Barkley," she said, holding out a scrap of white pasteboard.
"Annie," Jarrod said, "you know that I don't have time to see anyone right now. We've got those negotiations starting on Monday and I need all that time to prepare."
"Please, Jarrod," Annie said. Jarrod sat back, surprised. Annie never called him "Jarrod" at the office.
He took the card and read the fine, Copperplate script. "'Mary K. Holt.' Molly Holt? What interest do you have in Molly Holt?"
"We were in the same sewing circle, until she was forced out by all the acid tongues," Annie said. "She's in a difficult position, Jarrod. I don't know if you can help her, but please talk to her."
Jarrod pushed himself away from his desk, closed the law book and stood up, stretching. "All right, Annie, if it's that important to you, show her in."
"Thank you," Annie said. She opened the outer office door and ushered in Jarrod's client.
The woman was of average height, solidly built, darkly dressed with her black hair pulled back in a severe bun. Her eyes were hidden behind smoked spectacles, and her back was stiff as she walked to the chair that Jarrod offered. "How may I help you, Miss Holt?" Jarrod asked.
"Do you know who I am, Mr. Barkley?" Miss Holt asked, pulling off her gloves and laying them in her lap.
"Why yes, Miss Holt, my mother has spoken well of you on more than one occasion."
Her face froze. "Recently?" she asked.
"I'll be frank with you, Miss Holt," Jarrod said, perching on the edge of his desk, "I have heard the rumors about you, but I am far too busy a man to listen to malicious gossip. Nor to believe it. Now, why don't you tell me your story in your own way?"
Miss Holt looked down at her hands, folded them neatly on her lap. "Well. You know, then, that I was a governess for the Nagle family."
"Yes, my mother's known Cora Nagle for years. She was very impressed with the way you turned those boys around - they were once the terror of the county."
A ghost of a smile crept across Miss Holt's face, then vanished. "They aren't bad boys, really. They've just had the misfortune to be raised by parents who don't know the difference between discipline and punishment."
"Too many of those, unfortunately," Jarrod said.
"All I did was show Jim and Aaron how to use their energies constructively."
"That can't have been as easy as you make it sound."
Miss Holt shrugged. "It wasn't bad. I've certainly had worse jobs." She looked up at Jarrod. "I really miss them. I'm sorry I had to leave them as I did."
"Tell me about that," Jarrod said, knowing here was the crux of the matter.
"Well, it wasn't as you've heard."
"I'm sure it wasn't."
Miss Holt looked down at her hands again. Fidgeted. Clasped her hands together. "One evening a month ago, Mr. Nagle came home drunk. The boys were asleep, Mrs. Nagle was at a Ladies Guild meeting - and Mr. Nagle tried to get into bed with me."
"Did he assault you, Miss Holt?" Jarrod asked gently.
Miss Holt smiled grimly. "I said tried, Mr. Barkley. I know how to take care of myself. I made sure he wouldn't try anything like that again, and it should have ended there, but the next thing I know Mrs. Nagle is giving me the sack."
Jarrod shook his head. "I can't believe you would have stayed there after that."
Miss Holt shrugged. "I would have stayed for the boys. My problem is now that I find that it's my name that's being dragged through the mud. I can't find another position because my reputation has been tainted. So I ask you, Mr. Barkley, do I have any legal recourse?"
"Do you wish to press charges against Mr. Nagle?"
"It's too late now, isn't it? I might have been able to prove something if I'd done it when it happened, but he's had time to heal, now. . ."
Jarrod covered his mouth and coughed.
". . .But I understand the burden of proof is much less in civil court."
Jarrod raised an eyebrow. An informed client, evidently. "Well, yes, but the burden of proof is still on the plaintiff, the accuser. There are two possible briefs we could file. 'Wrongful dismissal' is one - but I have to tell you that the law comes down pretty heavily on the side of the employer. We'd have to prove gross misconduct, and as you've just pointed out, that would be difficult to do. Or we could sue for slander, but that's even more difficult - we'd have to prove both that it was one or other of the Nagles who are spreading these rumors, and that the rumors are untrue."
"And in your opinion, you believe that to be impossible."
Jarrod sighed. "Not impossible, but very difficult. Another lawyer might take it on, but if you're seeking my advice. . ."
". . . Then my advice is to let it drop. Not only do you have a very poor chance of a positive judgment, but filing a suit would keep the scandal alive."
Miss Holt sat thoughtful for a long moment. "Very well, since I have asked your advice, I should not be such a fool as not to take it." She stood. "How much do I owe you?"
"Nothing, Miss Holt. I cannot help you."
"You do charge a consulting fee, do you not?"
Jarrod walked behind the desk. "Generally, yes, but I often waive it."
"I pay my debts, Mr. Barkley," Miss Holt said severely.
"I'm sure you do, but you haven't incurred one here."
"I've sought your professional advice, and I have taken it. In what way have I not incurred a debt?”
"I can't help you. I won't charge you," Jarrod repeated.
Miss Holt removed her spectacles and rubbed her eyes, which were green and surprisingly soft. "Mr. Barkley. Please. I have very little in the way of dignity left. Please don't take away what little I do have."
Jarrod leaned forward, placing his hands on the desk. "Miss Holt. Molly. How much money do you have? I know it can't be much."
Molly replaced her spectacles. "That's none of your concern."
"Do you have any family, anyone who can help you?"
"That's also not your concern."
"I take that to mean 'no,'" Jarrod said. "What kind of man do you think I am, to think that I'd take money from you now?"
Molly glanced down. "Because if you don't, I'll be a debtor, and I've never been a debtor."
Jarrod sighed. "Very well, I'll suggest a compromise. I'll send you a bill, but you have to promise not to even think about paying it until you've found decent work. Fair?"
"Fair," Molly said, extending her hand. Jarrod took it. "You may send it to Mrs. Ephraim's Boarding House." She turned to go, then turned back. "I've always heard you were an honorable man, Mr. Barkley."
"Jarrod," Jarrod said. "For what it's worth, Molly, I believe you to be an honorable woman."
"Thank you," Molly said quietly. "That is worth something to me."
Jarrod walked her to the door, saw her out. He walked to his desk, sat, feet on top of the law books, unheeding. Lit a cigar. He was pensively smoking when Annie came back in. "You couldn't help her, could you?" she said.
"The law can't correct every injustice, Annie. I wish it could."
Annie slumped against the desk. "I don't know what will become of her, I really don't. She deserves so much better."
"Yes, she does," Jarrod said. He searched for more words, but could find none that seemed worth saying. "Go on home, Annie. I'll have to come into the office tomorrow, but I won't need you. I'll see you on Monday."
"Good night, Mr. Barkley," Annie said. Jarrod smoked his cigar until it was gone, locked up and went home.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Jarrod lit an after-dinner cigar and stared into the fire in the Barkley parlor. His brothers, Nick and Heath, played a game of checkers while his sister Audra knitted some unidentifiable charity garment. His mother Victoria put a hand on his shoulder and asked, "Is something wrong, Jarrod? You've hardly spoken a word all evening."
Jarrod kissed her cheek. "No, nothing wrong, Mother. At least, not with me."
"You've been working hard on the railroad negotiations - I'm sure you'll find an equitable agreement."
"No, it's not that, either, although I am going to have to work a little harder on it tomorrow. I. . .well, once again I seem to have hit the limits of legal justice."
"Do you want to tell me about it?"
"Just. . .someone whose only possession was her good name and who's had it stolen from her. There's no restitution for that," Jarrod said, bitterly.
"Someone like Molly Holt," Victoria said.
Jarrod raised an eyebrow. "Now why do you mention her?"
"Because she's been on my conscience. I'd like to do something for her, but for the life of me I can't think what."
"Who's Molly Holt?" Nick asked.
"You know, Nick," Heath said. "She's that governess the Nagles got after their boys got kicked out of the school."
"Ohhhh, that Molly Holt," Nick said. "Woman should get a medal for taking on that lot."
"How can you say that, Nick?" Audra asked. "After what she did?"
"What did she do?" Nick asked.
"Really, Nick," Audra said. "Everyone knows what she did."
"'Everyone,' Little Sister?" Heath asked. "How could 'everyone' know? Was 'everyone' there?"
"'Where there's smoke, there's fire,'" Audra said.
"Out on the range, yes," Nick said, "but you'll find, Audra, that what 'everyone' knows is almost never so."
"It's vile," Heath said. "You soil a poor man's name, that's bad enough, but soil a poor woman's, and you might as well rob her and leave her in a ditch."
"Oh, really, Heath," Audra said. "No one ever died from a bad reputation."
"I've seen it, Sis," Heath said. "I've seen women pushed to starvation, or worse. All for the sake of a little 'harmless gossip.'"
"What's worse than starving?" Audra asked.
"Think about it, Sister. If a woman who needs to work can't get decent work, she'll either starve or take indecent work."
"That's. . .horrible," Audra said. "You mean Molly could end up. . .like that?"
"The world can be a very cruel place, Sis, especially for a woman alone," Heath said.
"Can't we help her, Mother?" Audra asked.
"Boy howdy," Heath said, "You sure change your tune in a hurry."
"Well, even if she did do. . .what everyone says she did, she doesn't deserve that. No one does."
"Don't offer her money, whatever you do," Heath said.
"Amen to that," Jarrod muttered.
"I wouldn't dream of it," Victoria said. "I should pay her a call, though. That's the least I can do."
"Actually, Mother," Jarrod said, "that in itself might go a long way toward solving her problem, if you make sure you're seen doing it."
"Do you think so?" Victoria thought for a moment, then smiled. "You may be right at that."
"You've thought of something, haven't you?" Jarrod said.
"Maybe. Let me talk to Molly first."
"See, Jarrod," Nick said, "you helped your client after all."
"Now, Brother Nick, I never said Molly Holt was my client. I can't say that I've ever met Molly Holt."
"You can't say it, Brother, but we can think it."
"Think whatever you like," Jarrod said. "Now, I've had a tiring day, so I think I shall retire with a good book, and not a law book, either. Good night, Mother," he said, kissing her.
"Just one thing," Victoria said. "If I'm to pay a call on Molly Holt, do any of you know where she went after she left the Nagles?"
There was a long pause. "Well," Jarrod said, "I do believe I have heard that she was staying at Mrs. Ephraim's Boarding House."
"Thank you, Jarrod. Good night, dear."
Jarrod fairly bounded up the stairs.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Molly Holt struggled with the pump in front of the boarding house. The pump was rusty, and sweat stained her back. Her wiry black hair had escaped its ribbon, and long tendrils straggled along her cheeks and forehead. She looked up at the sound of a buggy approaching, and with some surprise recognized Victoria Barkley. She shoved her hair back from her face and wiped her hands on her apron.
"Good morning, Mrs. Barkley," she said. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"Good morning, Molly," Victoria said. "I'm sorry it's so early, but I wanted to be sure to catch you at home."
"You did?" Molly frowned slightly. "Whatever for?"
"Is there someplace private we could talk?" Victoria asked, descending lightly from the buggy.
"Just my room," Molly said, "but there's nothing to sit on except the bed and a couple of trunks."
"I can sit on a trunk. When my husband and I first came to the Valley, we lived in a tent with nothing but a couple of apple crates and a straw tick full of bedbugs."
"Well, I can't offer you any bedbugs, but if you want to come up, you may. Just let me take this water to the kitchen."
"I'll help," Victoria said, putting a hand to the bucket.
"I can manage it," Molly said, pulling the bucket away.
"I'm sure you can, but why should you when I'm here to help you?"
Molly gave Victoria a hard stare from behind her spectacles. "Come on, then," she said.
There was barely space in Molly's room for the narrow bed, bureau and the two trunks pushed up against the wall. Victoria ran her hand over the spines of Molly's books arranged on the bureau before perching herself on a trunk, entirely at ease.
"Do you mind if I arrange myself a little first?" Molly asked. "I know it's bad manners to do so in front of company, but I wasn't expecting any visitors."
"Not at all," Victoria said.
Molly brushed out her wiry curls in front of the misty mirror, then re-tied her ribbon. She splashed some water on her face, dried it on her apron. She removed the apron, brushed down her skirt, and hung the apron on the bedrail to dry. She sat down on the bed and said, "I suppose Mr. Jarrod Barkley sent you to talk to me?"
"No, he didn't. Should he have?"
"Well, if he didn't tell you I'd consulted him yesterday, then why are you here?"
"Jarrod did mention that he'd had a client he wished he could have helped, but he didn't mention names or particulars. It was my own bad conscience that brought you to mind."
"Bad conscience? Why? You don't owe me anything. Cora Nagle is your friend - it's only natural for you to take her side."
"Is it? If you think that I'm against you, then why did you consult my son?"
Molly bit her lip. "I know his secretary. Generally, when people discuss their employment, it's to complain, but Annie never did. She only spoke of his kindness, and his integrity. I thought I could trust him."
"You can. I do, better than anyone in the world."
Molly clasped her hands around her knee. "Then why did you come?"
"I've known Cora Nagle for years. I know her follies as well as her strengths, but this is far beyond folly. Let me ask you, if a friend of yours had done someone a grievous injury, and was either unable or unwilling to put it right, what would you do?"
Molly thought. "I would. . .try to put it right myself."
"So we do understand each other," Victoria said.
"But, Mrs. Barkley, most people just don't think that way."
"If you do, and I do, what does that matter? And please call me Victoria."
Molly hesitated. "I don't think I'm ready to do that yet."
"Very well. When you're ready. Now, as to your situation, I think I may know how to help you, if you'll let me."
"I'm proud, Mrs. Barkley, but I'm no fool. The only recourse I have left is to run away, and I'm loathe to do that. I've done nothing wrong. I like Stockton, or I did. I was hoping this was the place I could finally put down some roots. So, if you can help me, I won't argue."
"Then it's my pleasure to invite you to accompany myself and my family to Church tomorrow."
Molly gasped, shocked, then threw back her head and laughed. "Mrs. Barkley! You are brilliant! What a bold person you are!"
"I've invited Rev. and Mrs. Stacy to the ranch for Sunday dinner, and I'd like you to come as well."
Molly strode two steps across the room and clasped Victoria's hands in hers. "Thank you. All I need is a chance to redeem myself, and you're giving it to me. I don't know how I'll ever repay such kindness. Victoria."
Victoria smiled. "By passing it on, of course. I'm only repaying the many kindnesses I've received myself."
"I will. Thank you, you won't be sorry."
"No, I won't. One of my sons will call for you tomorrow. I believe that Jarrod is the only one you've been properly introduced to?"
"Then he'll call for you around 10:30."
"Everything all 'right and proper,' Victoria?"
"Of course. Well then," Victoria stood, "I shall see you tomorrow at worship."
"I'll walk you down." As Molly watched Victoria drive away, she realized that the Barkley buggy, clearly marked, had been parked in front of her lodgings for half of Stockton to see for the better part of an hour.
She ran back up to her room, threw herself on the bed and laughed until she cried.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Audra pulled on her gloves as she descended the staircase. "Really, Mother, I don't know why you had to invite her to Church with us."
"Now, Audra," Victoria said, "we all agreed to help her."
"But this, Mother! I don't know how I'll ever raise my head again."
Victoria turned at the bottom of the staircase and glared up at her daughter. "Then stay home, Audra!"
"Mother, you don't mean that."
Jarrod emerged from the study at the sound of raised voices. "I do," Victoria said. "I won't have you taking such unchristian thoughts into the Lord's house. Perhaps you'd do better to stay at home and contemplate what company Our Lord kept."
Audra hid her face in her hands. Jarrod moved to comfort her, but Victoria held his arm. Audra dropped her hands and wiped her eyes. "All right, Mother. I'm sorry. I'll go."
"Will you be kind to Molly? Because that's what I'm asking you to do."
"I will try. I'll not be unkind to her, at least. I promise."
"Very well," Victoria said, kissing Audra's cheek. "Please go tell Nick and Heath that we're ready." Audra fled back up the stairs.
"Don't you think you were a little hard on her, Mother?" Jarrod asked.
"My only daughter," Victoria sighed. "I'm afraid I've overindulged her. She's become altogether too spoiled and selfish."
"But she always ends up doing the right thing."
Victoria smiled and kissed Jarrod's cheek. "I'm glad you have faith in her. Now go call for Molly - we'll meet you at the Church."
Molly watched from the window of her room. Will he come? Am I dreaming? As soon as she saw the Barkley buggy turn the corner, she grabbed her shawl and dashed down the stairs. She was standing, breathless, on the porch as Jarrod pulled up the horse. "Good morning, Molly," Jarrod said, climbing down and assisting Molly into the buggy. He climbed in beside her. "Are you ready for this?"
Molly nodded. "I have to be, don't I?"
"It may be difficult," Jarrod said, "but keep your head high. You've nothing to be ashamed of."
Molly smiled and squared her shoulders. "Is that better?"
Jarrod gave her chin a little nudge upward. "Now it is."
Molly chuckled. Jarrod flicked the reins.
Jarrod pulled the buggy up in front of the church and helped Molly to alight. Offering her his arm and an encouraging smile, he led her into the church and to a small group of people standing in the foyer. "Miss Molly Holt, I'd like to introduce you to my sister Audra. . ."
"I'm very pleased to meet you," Audra said, subdued.
"My brother Nick. . ."
"The pleasure's all mine," Nick said, making a sweeping bow.
"And my brother Heath."
"And the pleasure is all mine," Heath said, doing Nick one better and kissing Molly's hand.
"Where's Mother?" Jarrod asked.
"Here she comes, now," Heath said.
Victoria hurried up the aisle. "Molly, how good to see you," she said, kissing Molly's cheek. "Marjory is ill today, so I have to play the organ, but I'll rejoin you before the sermon." She took in all her children in one glance. "You know what to do," she said and hurried up to the choir loft.
"What are we doing?" Molly asked.
"We're supposed to stand here and look conspicuous. . . ," Nick said.
"Which is not hard for Nick," Heath said.
"And make sure that anyone who wants to talk to us has to talk to you, too," Nick finished.
"I feel like a prize cow at the fair," Molly said.
"Now that's not so bad," said Nick, "if you saw the way we pampered our prize cattle, you'd be glad to be one."
"Nick," said Audra, "don't be talking about cattle in Church."
"Why not? If God made cattle, I don't see why He'd mind us talking about them."
"Well, it's not very uplifting is all."
Molly smiled inwardly. How nice it would be to have brothers again. Suddenly, she felt small arms thrown around her from behind.
"Miss Molly! Look Aaron! It's Miss Molly!" Jim Nagle buried his face in Molly's waist. Molly looked up to see his parents swooping down on her - she gave Jim a quick hug.
"It's good to see you, Jim, Aaron." She reached out and touched Aaron on the shoulder.
"Git away from her, boys," Fred Nagle hissed, barely controlled. Cora tugged at his arm, futilely.
Fred glared up at Jarrod, around at all the Barkley brothers. "I don't know what the likes of you are doing with the likes of her!"
"My mother invited Miss Holt to worship with us," Jarrod said calmly.
"And if the likes of you doesn't like it, you can come talk to the likes of me!" Nick said.
"Come along, boys, Fred," Cora pleaded. "Let's find our pew. The service is about to start." As the Nagles traipsed up the aisle, each one looked back at Molly: Fred glaring, Jim longingly, Aaron wistfully, Cora with such a look of pain and mortification that Molly found herself longing to run and comfort her.
"That's one unhappy woman," she whispered. She did not realize that she was weeping until Jarrod handed her his handkerchief. She wiped her eyes. "That was hard."
"That's enough of that," Jarrod said. "Let's find our pew." He escorted Molly into the sanctuary, the others following.
Molly enjoyed the hymns, as she always did, but she barely heard the sermon. She assumed it was about Love and Forgiveness - Rev. Stacy's sermons generally were. She was grateful for Victoria's presence - she found the older woman's strength and fierceness comforting. One final hymn and she was filing out of the church, shaking hands with the minister, climbing into the surrey with Nick, Heath, and Victoria, while Jarrod and Audra went ahead in the buggy to see to dinner. "Are you all right, Molly?" Victoria asked.
"We had a run-in with Fred Nagle," Nick said. "It really shook her up."
Molly took a deep breath - she could finally feel her heart beating again. "No, it wasn't that. It was Cora and the boys. It's hard to see people you care about so miserable."
"I see why you might care about the boys, but Cora?" Victoria said.
"Apparently so," Molly said. "I didn't think I did, but seeing her face today. . .well, I just can't be angry with her anymore."
"Good, Molly, good," Victoria said, patting Molly's hand.
"Maybe so," Nick said, "but if Fred Nagle ever bothers you again, you come tell me, Molly, you hear?"
"Or me," Heath said.
"He doesn't bother me," Molly said, leaning back and staring at the passing scenery. Brothers. It would be so nice to have brothers again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Molly wondered by what social dictate she took precedence over Victoria Barkley, as she and Nick followed Jarrod and Mrs. Stacy into the dining room. Victoria and Rev. Stacy followed her, with Heath and Audra bringing up the rear. The seating order seemed to follow some other rule as Molly found herself seated between Jarrod, at the foot of the table, and Rev. Stacy to her left. Mrs. Stacy was to Jarrod's right, across from Molly and next to Nick. At least Victoria was at the head of the table, as Molly expected. Molly was relieved that the food was served family-style, so she wouldn't have to spend the entire meal wondering which fork to use.
"So, Molly," Nick asked, passing the food around, "how did you manage to tame those Nagle boys? Because if those two weren't headed for jail, I'm not Nick Barkley. You must have plumb run out of birch boughs."
"No, Nick, I never hit them - their problem is that they've been hit far too much. There's a big difference between discipline and punishment."
"Would you care to elaborate on that, Miss Holt?" Rev. Stacy asked.
"Punishment only instills fear of getting caught. Discipline instills conscience, a desire for good. Punishment is certainly a lot easier to administer - discipline takes time and a lot of patience."
"Don't tell me you were never tempted," Nick said.
"Not really. I admit I've had to use force a few times, especially at the beginning, to keep them from hurting themselves or each other, but never violence. How can you trust someone who hurts you?"
"But what did you do? That's what I want to know."
"I helped them find ways to put their energies to constructive use. Aaron, for instance, likes to take things apart. . . "
"Destructive little menace," Nick muttered.
". . . But I showed him that putting things together is far more interesting. Whatever money he came by ended up buying tools and parts. He's built some amazing contraptions - all perfectly useless, of course - but he can take them apart and put them back together in quite creative ways."
Rev. Stacy nodded. "Admirable. But what about Jim? His mother is always despairing that she cannot get him to stop lying, to save her soul. How do you make a seeming natural-born liar stop lying?"
"I didn't. I made him write them down and embellish them."
"I don't get it," said Nick. "You get him to stop lying by encouraging him to tell better lies?"
"Jim has a very active imagination. If he can learn to use that constructively, and learn the distinction between fiction and lies, then that is a good thing. Didn't Our Lord make up stories to show the truth? Jim's real problem right now is that lying is very useful to him as a way of avoiding his father's violent punishments. I wasn't able to do anything about that, unfortunately. Once Jim learned to trust me, he never lied to me. But that's the best I was able to accomplish in the time I had."
"Yes," Rev. Stacy said. "I've tried to curb that violent temper of Mr. Nagle's, and his drinking. Many a time, to no good purpose."
"You seem very wise about children, Miss Holt," Mrs. Stacy said. "I suppose you've had a lot of experience with them?"
"Not as much as I would like. I raised my four brothers after my father died, and was studying at a ladies seminary to be a teacher when the War intervened. I was never able to achieve my certificate."
"Because the Union Army burned the seminary down."
"Oh," Mrs. Stacy said. She paused. "But after the War? Couldn't your brothers have helped you to find a way to finish?"
"They might have. If any of them had come home."
Audra gasped. Molly stared down at her plate. I will. Not. Cry. She could not bear sympathetic stares.
"Perhaps we should stop plaguing Molly with questions and let her eat her dinner," Victoria said.
"No," Molly looked up. "I'd like to finish answering the question, if I may."
"Of course," Victoria said.
"After the War, I just drifted. I worked my way downriver and westward in whatever employment I could find. I tried to always be honest, though I admit I was not always respectable."
"What do you mean?" Mrs. Stacy asked.
"For instance, I worked for a while as a costumer for a traveling Shakespeare troupe. I know that working in the theater is not considered 'respectable,' but I never did anything I'm ashamed of."
"So you could be a dressmaker," Audra said.
Molly touched her spectacles. "Not anymore. My eyes are too weak for anything but plain sewing. But one of the jobs I had, four or five years ago, was as cook at a lumber camp. Many of the lumbermen had also had their educations cut short, so I taught several of them to read and do arithmetic."
Nick slapped the table. "Dick Shalot!" he shouted.
"Nick, please," chided Victoria.
"Yes, Dick was one of my pupils," Molly said. "A quite good one, too. He went through all the Readers in about six months, and was almost ready for Algebra when winter closed in. How did you know?"
"Because it was our lumber camp! You might be pleased to know that we're sending Dick back East in a couple of weeks to study engineering."
"He's one of our best men, smart as a whip," Heath said.
"He told me once he'd learned to read from a cook," Nick said. "I'd never thought I'd meet her."
"It looks as though the Barkleys owe you a debt, Molly," Victoria said.
"Not really," Molly said. "Dick was very eager to learn. I don't think anyone could have stopped him."
"Never underestimate a good deed, Miss Holt," Rev. Stacy said. "It is possible that someone else might have come along to change that young man's life, but you were the one who actually did."
"Now, I really think it's time we let Molly eat, don't you?" Victoria said. "That was an interesting sermon today, Reverend. . . ."
Under the chatter of conversation which ensued, Jarrod leaned over and whispered, "Brava!"
"I hadn't intended to tell the entire life history," Molly said.
Jarrod smiled and ate his dinner.
Molly left the dining room on Jarrod's arm.
"I'm sorry we can't stay longer, Victoria," Rev. Stacy said, "but I need to stop by the orphanage and we have several ill parishioners to call on."
"Quite all right, Reverend," Victoria said. "I'm so glad you could come."
"Miss Holt," Rev Stacy said, "it's been a pleasure to deepen our acquaintance."
"Molly," Mrs. Stacy said, pressing her cheek against Molly's, "so good to get to know you."
"Perhaps I should go, too," Molly said as the Stacys made their departure.
"Nonsense," Jarrod said. "You've been working like a stevedore. It's time for you to relax and be a guest."
"Come sit down, Molly," Victoria said, taking her arm. "Why, you're trembling. Sit down, dear. Nick, fetch her a brandy."
"I'm sorry," Molly said. "I've been under such a strain the past month."
"Don't apologize," Victoria said. "Here, drink this. Slowly now. Perhaps you'd better lie down. Audra, could you please show Molly to the guest room?"
"No, I'm all right," Molly said, clutching her glass. "If I could just sit quietly for awhile."
"Would you like a book?" Victoria asked.
"Yes, that would be wonderful, if it isn't any trouble."
"Jarrod, would you run up to my room and get a book off my shelf? It's called 'Malcolm.' Bring it out to the garden, please."
Jarrod strode down the hallway, book in hand. As he passed Audra's door, he heard a sob. He rapped a knuckle on the door. "Audra?"
"Go away, Jarrod," Audra said through the door. "No. Wait. Come in."
Jarrod opened the door. Audra was sprawled across the bed, eyes red and streaming. "Honey, what's wrong?" Jarrod asked.
Audra sprang up and threw herself into her big brother's arms. "Oh, Jarrod. She's so nice! No, she's better than nice. She's good and she's kind and she's had such a hard life and I've made it worse!"
"Now, Honey, how could you have made her life worse?"
"I gossiped about her, Jarrod. All the trouble she's in, I helped to make. I'm so ashamed. I've been so mean."
Jarrod sat on the bed and pulled his sister into his lap. She buried her face in his shoulder and wept. "Yes, you've done wrong, dear, but you're deeply sorry for it, aren't you?" Audra nodded against his shoulder. "Then you're a better person today than you were yesterday. That's all any of us can do, is try to be better today than we were yesterday."
"Bless you, Jarrod," Audra sniffled. "You always know the right thing to say."
"If it's any comfort to you, Little Sister, I misjudged her myself when I first met her. I thought she was stern and prim and stiff. But what she really was, was frightened."
"She won't need to be frightened anymore, will she, Jarrod? Not with you and Mother looking after her."
"Not with all of us looking after her. When did you know the Barkleys to all agree on something and not be able to do it?"
"Never," Audra said.
Jarrod kissed her nose. "Don't worry, Honey. I have very good feelings about Molly Holt."
"So do I."
"There," Jarrod said. "Better?"
"Yes, but I think I'd like to stay here and think and pray for awhile."
"All right, Honey, but I'm here if you want me. Shall I send Mother up to you?"
Audra nodded. "Yes, please. She won't be angry with me anymore, will she?"
"No, dear, she won't."
Jarrod found Victoria and Molly sitting on a bench beneath an arbor. "Here's your book, Molly. Mother, would you please see to Audra? I'll sit with Molly."
"Of course," Victoria said, rising. "I'll be with you later, Molly."
"Is Audra ill?" Molly asked.
"My sister is a little indisposed," Jarrod said. "She'll be better soon - Mother will put her right." He sat down and pulled out a cigar. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all," Molly said. She opened the book. "Now how did your mother know I like George MacDonald?"
"She notices things. You probably dropped a hint and she picked up on it."
"Of course, she was in my room, she saw my books. I haven't read this one, though."
"Well, go on."
"It seems impolite to read with you sitting there."
"Not at all. I have a big meeting tomorrow that I am going to sit here and try not to think about. A little peace and quiet will do me good."
"I think I understood that," Molly said. Jarrod smiled and Molly turned to her book.
She had not read many pages when she pulled up with a jerk with Jarrod's hand on her cheek. "Come on, Molly," he said. "You'd better go lie down."
"Did I fall asleep?"
"You did. Come now, you're exhausted."
"It's true, I haven't slept much lately. Perhaps I should go home."
"Not in your condition. Come now, I insist."
Jarrod took Molly's hand and led her upstairs to the guest room.
"I'll just lie on the coverlet for a moment," Molly said.
"No," Jarrod said, turning back the bedclothes. "Make yourself comfortable, but get in that bed and go to sleep."
"Yes, sir!" Molly said.
Jarrod smiled. "Why is it, Molly, that you seem to try to get through life without making a mark?"
"I don't want to trouble anyone."
"It's no trouble." Jarrod kissed Molly on the forehead. "Now get some rest," he said, closing the door behind him.
Molly removed her hairpins and spectacles and loosened her clothing before climbing into bed. Brothers. It would be so nice to have brothers again.
Molly awoke feeling better than she had for weeks - rested, even hopeful. The weariness that had affected her for so long was not gone, but she had begun to believe that there might be light at the end of this long dark night.
Jarrod would be spending the night in town, so after supper - a pleasant evening all too brief for so long a day - he drove Molly back to Stockton in the buggy. The night was moonless, and Molly leaned back, looking up at the stars. "Wonder why the sky seems so much bigger here than it does back East? Look, there's Mars. And I think that's Jupiter. And over there are the Pleiades."
"That's the Seven Sisters, right?" Jarrod asked.
"Yes, except you can only see six stars with the naked eye. With a telescope you can see hundreds."
"May I ask you a personal question, Molly? You don't have to answer if you don't want to."
Molly stiffened, then forced herself to relax. "Of course. You've earned the right."
"Why did you stay in Stockton?"
"I'm not sure. Part stubbornness, I think, not to be run off when I'd done nothing wrong. But this is the third time I've been to Stockton, in a life where I've never been to the same place twice. I guess I wanted to find out why."
"Perhaps you're finally ready to settle down."
"I think so. I'm nearly forty - it would be nice to have a home of some sort. I've been a feather on the wind for so long."
"Or perhaps a feather on the breath of God."
Molly cocked her head. A lawyer who quotes Hildegard? "Would you be shocked if I told you I didn't believe in God?"
"Surprised, certainly, given your choice of reading material."
"I read MacDonald, and Hildegard, because they believe in God."
"I don't understand," Jarrod said.
"I'd like to believe. I could wish there was a loving Father who looked after us and guided our feet, but I just don't. If I have no fire of my own, I can at least warm myself at other's fires."
Jarrod turned and scrutinized her, but there was sympathy in his eyes. Tell him. No, don't. Tell him. You need to be honest with these people.
"Jarrod? There's something I left out of that life story I told at dinner. May I tell you?"
"If you like, of course."
Molly held her breath, closed her eyes. "I didn't just lose my brothers in the War. I also lost my husband."
"I'm so sorry, Molly." Jarrod calculated. "You must have been very young."
"I was twenty when the War began. Henry was a lot older than me - he'd been a friend of my father's, so I had known and loved him all my life. He insisted that I finish my education, even after we were married. He believed that the world would be a better place if everyone, man or woman, was educated to as high a level as they could achieve."
"He sounds like quite a man."
"He was a visionary. He saw the world as it could be, and he spent his life working for that. He'd been a long-time abolitionist, and although he was a peaceful, gentle man, and was old enough to be exempt, he felt that once the fight was begun, it would be wrong for him to hang back while others fought."
"I've had to make that same decision a time or two myself. At least he died fighting for what he believed in."
"He died, that's all I know," Molly said bitterly.
Jarrod pulled back on the reins. "Molly," he said fiercely, blues eyes snapping, "you're not the only one who's lost someone. . ."
"I know that."
"I was married once, too."
"Oh," Molly said, quietly.
"But that's not the worst of it, the worst of losing Beth was how near I came to losing myself."
"Oh, Lord, I understand that."
"You can't. You've never deliberately murdered someone."
Molly sat in stunned silence for a moment, no sound but the heaving of Jarrod's breath. "Something. . ." she said, "tells me that you haven't either."
"I would have. Nick and Heath stopped me. I had already overridden every scruple I ever had to get to the man that killed my wife. They kept me from the actual deed. . . ,"
". . . But there's a blackness on my soul, Molly. Some days I can hardly bear this knowledge of myself."
"Shh, Jarrod." Molly put a trembling hand to his cheek. "You're a good man. Everyone has black places. The good people are the ones who know it and try to do better. You've a strong sense of justice - it's no surprise that under such terrible circumstances you'd desire vengeance - primal justice, untempered by mercy."
Jarrod was silent a long moment, then straightened with a long, heaving sigh. "I don't know why I told you - I've never told anyone outside the family. I'm sorry I was angry with you. I just couldn't help thinking you should be glad your husband died for something. Beth's death was so completely senseless. We were married so briefly. The ink was barely dry on the marriage certificate."
"I touched your wound. I'm sorry, I wouldn't cause you pain for all the world." Molly slipped her arms around Jarrod's waist and hugged him tightly. "Oh, Jarrod. Use that remorse to make your conscience stronger, but don't let it undermine your other strengths. And cling to that family of yours. Any one of them is worth more than this whole Valley."
"Don't I know it. They're the only things keeping me sane some days."
"You are sane, Jarrod, don't doubt that." Molly untwined her arms. "You have a good life and people who love you."
"Yes, I do. No one has to tell me that." He flicked the reins.
Molly leaned back, gazing up at the sky, tried to still the pounding of her heart. She listened for the sound of Jarrod's breath, and when it had slowed to its normal pace, she said, "Jarrod, just because I told you this long, pathetic story, I don't want you to think that my life's been one unending sorrow. I've been content for the most part, and at times quite happy. The theater troupe was the closest I've come to family in a long while, and the lumber camp."
"I would have thought that was too rough and coarse for you."
"Not at all. Most of the men treated me like a sister, and the ones that didn’t soon learned to at the hands of the ones that did. Besides, I grew up in an all male household. I love the smell of sweat and tobacco, the high spirits. When all that strength and energy is poured into something beautiful or useful, it's one of the wonders of Creation."
"Why, Molly, that's almost a poem. You'll have to come out to the ranch again soon. I'll provide the tobacco, Nick and Heath can provide the sweat."
Molly smiled. "I take it you don't sweat, Counselor?"
"Not if I can help it."
Jarrod snorted. "I'm sorry I'm going to be tied up with these railroad negotiations all week. I have such a strong feeling that things are about to change for you, and I'm going to miss it."
"You'll be the first person I tell if it does, I promise."
"I'll be expecting it. Well, here we are." Jarrod helped Molly down from the buggy and walked her to the door. "Sleep well, Molly dear." He kissed her forehead. "You'll be much on my mind."
"And you on mine. Good night, Jarrod."
Molly sat before the mirror and brushed out her hair. If a burden shared is a burden halved, then what is two burdens shared?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The note arrived late the next morning.
Dear Miss Holt,
If you present yourself to Mrs. Gregson at the San Joaquin Home for Boys and Girls this afternoon between 2:00 and 3:00 o'clock, she wishes to speak to you regarding a possible position of employment.
Mrs. Roger Stacy
Molly read the note over and over, hardly believing. The orphanage. Her heart skipped. She would love to work at the orphanage, even as a cook. Where was it? Somewhere out of town, she thought, out towards the Barkley ranch. Jarrod would know how to get there. Jarrod was tied up for days. Jarrod had a buggy, perhaps he would let her borrow it. She could only ask.
Molly fairly ran through the streets of Stockton. There it was, "Jarrod Barkley, Attorney at Law." She paused to catch her breath, straighten her clothing, smooth her hair. Open the door and go in.
"Why, hello, Molly." Annie looked up from her typewriter. "How good to see you!"
"Hello, Annie. I know Jarrod is busy today, but would it be possible to get a message to him?"
"Certainly. I can take him a note if you like."
Molly took a moment to stop her hands from trembling. She opened Mrs. Stacy's note and carefully wrote across the bottom in her best hand, "Jarrod, may I please borrow your buggy? Molly."
Annie took the note into the inner office and returned a few minutes later. "He asks if you'll wait. It looks like they're breaking for lunch soon."
"Of course," Molly said.
"I heard you went to Church with the Barkleys yesterday. My mother was sick, or wouldn't I have loved to be there! I'll bet that stops all the vicious tongue-wagging."
"That was Mrs. Barkley's idea, but I think I have you and Jarrod to thank for it as well."
"It was because of you that I came to Jarrod in the first place."
"Well, I'm glad they're helping you. They're good people."
"So I've discovered," Molly said.
The inner office door opened, emitting five or six men, most of whom were bald and prosperously stout. "Sure you won't join us for luncheon, Mr. Barkley?" one of them asked.
"And rob you of the chance to talk about me behind my back? I wouldn't dream of it," Jarrod said. "Besides, I have a lady waiting for me."
"So you have. Well then, I’ll see you in Sacramento on Thursday."
"Thursday, Walt, it's a date." The last of the men filed out and Jarrod turned to Annie. "Annie, you can go home. In fact, take the rest of the week off."
"You're done? I thought it would take days!" Annie said.
"So did I, so did I. Who knew the railroad would have the gall to send reasonable men to negotiate? I have to go up to Sacramento to sign the papers, but in the meantime, I'm going fishing. So give my love to your mother, my respects to your young man, and I'll see you on Monday. If you would, stop by the livery on your way home and ask them to send my buggy around."
Annie gathered up her things and left as Jarrod turned to Molly. "Now, Molly, I'd be delighted to drive you anywhere you need to go," he said, handing her back her note.
"With all due respect, Counselor, this is something I really need to do for myself."
"And you think having a Barkley hovering in the background might be what? Undue influence?"
"Exactly, but I don't wish to offend you."
"Not at all, you are absolutely right, although my experience of Mrs. Gregson is that she's about as easily influenced as a bandersnatch. How about this? Mother sent down an enormous basket of food this morning, and Spencer's Creek, the prettiest little fishing spot you ever saw, is on the way to the orphanage, more or less."
"Why not? You can take the buggy on from there, and arrive relaxed, well-fed and, I hope, happy. I'll fish until you're done. We both get what we want, and a charming luncheon companion, to boot."
"Boy, I'm not surprised your negotiations went so quickly. You're really good at this."
"Today I seem to be. Let me get my gear together and we'll be off."
You've got to admire a lawyer who keeps fishing gear in his office. Molly smiled.
Jarrod pulled the buggy up alongside the cart track and helped Molly alight. "Let me tend to the horse, first," he said.
"Tell me where, and I'll go get the picnic set up while you're doing that."
"All right. Through those trees about thirty yards there's a grassy spot by the creek. Just follow the sound of water."
Molly took the rug and the basket from the back of the buggy. "My goodness. What did your mother pack in here? Books? Don't worry, I can manage it."
Jarrod smiled and unhitched the horse.
Molly found the grassy spot easily enough, although the grass was waist high and she had to trample it down before she could spread out the rug. She gazed raptly around her as Jarrod walked up, carrying his fishing gear. "What a lovely spot," she said. "I'm quite breathless."
Jarrod pointed. "There's a beaver dam about ten yards down, hear it? And the lodge is right over there. If you're quiet enough, you can see beaver and sometimes otter. There's a bald eagle's nest right up there - see? At dawn or dusk, you can see them hunt."
"I can see you love it here."
"It's my not-thinking spot," Jarrod said.
"Not many people need a not-thinking spot."
Jarrod laughed. "Well, let's relax. That's what we came for." He took off his jacket and then sat down and removed his boots and socks. He rolled up his trousers and dipped his bare feet in the stream. "Oh, that's good. Come on, Molly, it'll do you good."
Molly hesitated. But why not, really? She kicked off her shoes and turned her back to remove her stockings. She hiked her skirt above her knees and sat down. The water was cool and soothing. Jarrod untied his tie, unbuttoned his waistcoat and began to unbutton his shirt. Two buttons, three. In for a penny, in for a pound. Molly unbuttoned her top button.
"One more," Jarrod encouraged. Molly grinned, and complied. "There," Jarrod said, rolling up his sleeves, "you look more relaxed already."
Molly splashed her feet. "Thank you, this was inspired. Don't think you're going to catch any fish this time of day, though.”
"Ah," Jarrod said. "Don't tell me you fish."
"I have fished, yes."
"Well, you've caught me out. Fishing is only the excuse. Sometimes I just need to be alone. I'm very glad you're here, though. I'd certainly rather be having lunch with you than that pack of bald men."
"Why, Mr. Barkley, you certainly know how to flatter a girl," Molly said dryly.
"If it's flattery you want, I could lay it on with a trowel. . . ,"
"I'm sure you could."
". . .But I had the impression you were more the straight-forward, honest type."
"Not if I'm left with 'more appealing than a bald man.'"
Jarrod laughed. "So what if I said that right here, right now, there's no one I'd rather be lunching with."
"I'd say that's a very nice trowel you have there."
"It happens to be true. I said I wanted to be there when your life changed, and here I am. God bless the railroad, and I never thought I'd say that."
"Not after what happened to your father."
"You can't stop Progress, Molly. You can only try to see that the benefits are fairly distributed and the harm minimized."
"And that's why you're a lawyer."
"In a nutshell. And speaking of nuts, let's see what's in this basket." Jarrod opened the basket and pulled out a couple of Mason jars. "Lemonade, warm. No glasses, but we can drink from the jars. Sandwiches. Let's see. . . roast beef, chicken, ham and," sniffing, "sausage. Which would you like?"
"Roast beef, please."
"Here you are. Mustard?"
"Better not. It'll drip."
Jarrod tossed her a couple of napkins. "So tuck one under your chin."
"Isn't that impolite?" Molly asked.
"In a dining room, yes, but we're on a picnic, Molly."
"I'm sorry. I don't know all the rules. I'm not used to being around rich people."
"We pick our noses and get the vapors just like everyone else."
Molly snorted, then threw back her head and laughed.
"Oh, do that again," Jarrod said.
"Make me," Molly challenged.
"I shall certainly try. Oh, there's pie for dessert, but only one fork."
"No pie, thanks, but I will have some mustard, if you please."
They ate in companionable silence. Jarrod packed away the picnic basket and removed a cigar and pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket. He opened the watch and set it on the rug between them. He rolled up his jacket and handed it to Molly. "Here. Use this for a pillow and rest awhile. I'll keep an eye on the time."
"Thank you." Molly lay back on the jacket. It smelled of tobacco and Jarrod. She resisted an urge to bury her face in it. Jarrod lit his cigar and Molly took off her spectacles and gazed up into the sky.
Falling into blue, falling into sky. She closed her eyes. Water, rumbling, rippling down the dam to the sea. Falling into water, falling into blue. An eagle’s cry, a whippoorwill, a bee. Flick. No, a fly. Thump-thump. Her heart beating. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Thump-thump. THUMP. Thump. Two hearts? Tick, tick, tick, tick. Thump-thump. THUMP. Thump. Two hearts. She turned her head and met Jarrod's gaze. Falling into blue, falling into sky, falling into water, falling into vivid blue eyes. Tick, tick. "Time to go." Who spoke?
Jarrod picked up the watch and put on his socks and boots. "I’ll go hitch up the buggy." He walked off through the trees.
Molly sat up and put her head on her knees. What had just happened? It felt like a dream, but she had been awake, hadn't she? Ah, but awake or asleep, it came to the same thing, didn't it? Molly put on her stockings and shoes, buttoned her buttons, put on her spectacles and walked to the buggy.
"All ready," Jarrod said.
"I don't have a mirror," Molly said. "You'll have to help me look presentable."
"Glad to," Jarrod said, looking at her critically. A few wisps of hair had escaped her bun and he laid them carefully down her cheek, along her forehead.
"I should tuck that back in," she said.
"No, it makes you look too stern. You look much more approachable this way. Unbutton that top button, too."
"I'm trying to look respectable," Molly said.
"Anyone who knows you will respect you, Molly. Now turn around, you're a bit dusty." Jarrod brushed the dust off of Molly's dress. Warm hands. "There, now you're presentable. You should take your spectacles off at some point, take my advice. Let Mrs. Gregson see your eyes." He helped Molly into the buggy. "Go back down this track and take the left fork. Go about a half mile and the orphanage is just off the road on the right. Got that?"
"Yes, thank you. Wish me luck."
"I can do better than that." Jarrod stepped up on the buggy wheel and kissed her, quickly and softly, on the mouth. "For luck," he said, and gave the horse a slap. Molly looked back, but he was already disappearing into the trees.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It was a full two hours before Molly returned. Jarrod heard the buggy pull up, and Molly running through the trees to the Creek. "Jarrod! You'll never guess!" Molly cried.
"You got the job," Jarrod said, smiling.
"But what job? I thought they'd want a cook, or a housekeeper, but oh! Jarrod, they want me to teach!" She grabbed both Jarrod's hands and swung around him in a circle. "There's a brand-new school room and a library, but we need more books and an encyclopedia, and I'm to have seventeen students and Mrs. Gregson said they'd been looking for someone for ever so long and Reverend Stacy thought I might be the right one because of what I said at dinner yesterday and once she, Mrs. Gregson I mean, met me she was sure and she showed me all over the place - that's why I've been so long and I start next Monday week!"
"Why, Molly, I think you've dropped about twenty years."
"Twenty years, thirty years, fifty years! Well, not fifty because then I'd be negative, but yes, yes, yes, I'm so happy!"
"I couldn't tell," Jarrod said. He put his arms around her shoulders and hugged her fiercely. "I told you so, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did. Thank you for having faith in me. Thank you for everything."
He held her out at arm's length. "This certainly calls for celebration. Come back to the ranch tonight for dinner."
"Jarrod, I was there all day yesterday! I can't impose on you again so soon."
"Now, you wouldn't want to deprive Mother of the pleasure of hearing about this from your own lips? After all she's done?"
Molly put her hands on her hips. "Jarrod Barkley, I do believe you could talk the stars out of the sky."
"If the stars were reasonable and knew that I was right."
Molly laughed. "Oh, all right. But I want to go back to town and change first."
"That's not necessary. We're seldom formal on weeknights."
"But if we're celebrating, I want something more festive. And, yes, I can be festive."
"I didn't say you couldn't."
"You looked it. Please. It won't take me half an hour to change."
"In that case, you are a rare woman," Jarrod grinned.
Molly laughed and started gathering up the picnic.
Jarrod arrived at Molly's boarding house a half hour after dropping her off, as agreed, but was prepared to wait. Molly, however, stepped through the door promptly, to Jarrod's amazed stare. Her still-damp curls swung loose, held away from her face by a single green ribbon. The skirt of her dress was of varied colored panels of silk - green, blue and pink in various shades. The bodice was green with a pink yoke, draped in an intricate lace, a riot of leaves, flowers and vines. Short ruffled sleeves exposed her strong brown arms.
"Do you like my motley?" Molly asked, grinning.
Jarrod recovered enough to leap down from the buggy and to help her into it. "I'm stunned," he said. "Wherever did you pull that from?"
"It's leftovers from several theatrical costumes, and some homemade lace. I've had it for years, but I haven't had a reason to wear it for awhile."
"It's a work of art. I feel like I'm sitting next to the Mona Lisa."
"That's a very nice trowel you have there."
Jarrod flicked the reins. "Maybe a little. You don't mind a little flattery, do you?"
"Today?" Molly waved a hand. "Flatter away."
"You know, if you took off your spectacles, I'd wager none of the family would recognize you."
"I'd take that wager, if I had anything to gamble. I don't think anything could fool your mother."
"How about this - if you're right and Mother recognizes you, you don't pay me the fee you owe me."
"You're not serious."
"It's up to you. Just a little friendly wager."
"And if I lose?" Molly asked.
"How about. . .you embroider a silk handkerchief for my mother's birthday?"
Molly touched her spectacles. "I can't do that sort of work anymore."
"I'd bet you can still make something beautiful, even if it's not as fine as you once did."
Molly thought a moment. "OK. Why not? I can't lose."
"Shake on it," Jarrod said, so Molly shook his hand. "Now, how about the rest of the family?"
"Well, I'm not wagering on Nick or Audra. I don't really have an inkling about her, and I think it's possible Nick might not. But I'd wager on Heath - he sees things."
"Very well, Heath. What shall we wager?"
"How about. . .a kiss?" Jarrod said, nonchalantly, but with a twinkle in his eye.
"That's not a wager, that's an excuse. I'm no ingénue, Jarrod Barkley. I'm not going to swoon just because a handsome man kisses me."
"So you won't take the wager."
"No, I'll take it. Should be quite enjoyable." Molly grinned.
Jarrod tapped the end of her nose. "Minx."
It's just a game. We're both feeling frivolous. Don't make it mean more than it does. "But if I have to walk around without my lenses," Molly said, "you're going to have to guide me. I can't see more than two feet without them."
"Don't worry, I won't let you fall."
"Mother!" Jarrod shouted, ushering Molly into the Barkley foyer.
"Why, Jarrod," Victoria said, descending the stairs, "We weren't expecting you home for days. And you've brought Molly with you." She kissed Jarrod's cheek. "Don't tell me you've settled with the railroad already. Of course, you have, you'd never have gone fishing otherwise."
"Now, Mother," Jarrod said, returning her kiss, "how did you know I'd been fishing? I didn't catch anything, so I know I don't smell of fish."
"You've mud on your boots, and on your shirt. You didn't get that sitting in your office."
"Mother, you astound me. And you are absolutely right about the railroad. I believe I've set some sort of speed record."
"I won't ask if it went well - you're grinning from ear to ear. And Molly, dear," Victoria took both Molly's hands in hers, "this is quite a transformation."
"It seems our little crow was actually a peacock," Jarrod said.
"Although right now I feel more like the Phoenix," Molly said.
"You got a job!" Victoria said. "Oh, Molly, I'm so glad. Come sit and tell me all about it."
Molly said to Jarrod, "I really wonder what possessed you to wager against her."
Jarrod led Molly to the parlor. "I wonder myself. Now, ladies, share your news while I go change for dinner."
"What's this about a wager?" Victoria asked.
"Jarrod had some strange notion that none of you would recognize me all dressed up and without my spectacles. He lost the first wager."
"And well he should. Now tell me all about your new job."
Molly excitedly told Victoria the details, until Jarrod returned, coming slowly into Molly's focus. "Oh, my," Molly said, admiring his silk waistcoat, white tie, ruffled shirt and tailcoat. "Is that for me?"
"You're not the only one feeling festive," Jarrod said. "You don't mind if I ask everyone to dress for dinner, do you, Mother?"
"Not at all. We certainly have plenty to celebrate."
"Mother!" Audra shouted, striding into the foyer, riding crop in hand.
"We're in the parlor, Audra," Victoria said.
"Why, Jarrod," Audra said, running up and kissing his cheek, "you're back so soon? And who have you brought with you?"
"Good evening, Audra," Molly said.
"Molly? My goodness, you're beautiful! But where are your spectacles?"
"It's some sort of game she and Jarrod are playing," Victoria said.
"Are we dressing for dinner?" Audra asked.
"If you would," Jarrod said. "We're celebrating my success at the negotiating table, and Molly's new job."
"Come help me dress, Molly, and tell me all about it," Audra said.
"Something else happened today, didn't it, Jarrod?" Victoria asked when Molly and Audra had gone upstairs.
"Mother, you are just too perceptive." Jarrod sat down next to her on the sofa.
"I'm surprised you wagered against me then."
Jarrod laughed. "Well, since the wager was for the legal fee that Molly insists she owes me, you might say I actually wagered on you."
"Jarrod Thomas Barkley. I've never known you to be devious before."
"What would you, Mother? I'm not taking money from her under any circumstances. This saves both her pride and her purse."
"Very well. So, what has happened? Your manner with each other is markedly different from yesterday."
"I don't know how to describe it, Mother. Like I've come home. Like I've found a safe place to lay my head."
"Jarrod," Victoria said, concerned, "you met her, what? Three days ago?"
"Don't worry, Mother. This is not another Beth. Even if I wanted to go so quickly again, which I don't, I doubt very much that the lady would comply."
"Was this before or after you discovered she was pretty?"
"Mother, really. Before, of course. But she's not really pretty, is she? Her hair's too coarse, her skin's too brown, and those spectacles! And yet, when she smiles, she's beautiful. I mean to make her smile as much as possible."
"She's drifted all her life, Jarrod. Do you think she'll stay put for you?"
"No, I think she'll stay put for herself. But if I'm wrong. . . Mother, there are no guarantees. I can but try."
"Since you bring it up, are you going to tell her about Beth?" Victoria asked.
"I already have. And about what I did after."
Victoria raised her eyebrows. "My, I have missed a lot. What did she say to that?"
"She hugged me and told me that remorse could strengthen my conscience, but not to let it undermine my other virtues."
Victoria folded her hands and sat thoughtful for several moments. "Well, my eldest son, I think Molly's a good woman, and I think if you can manage the difficulties, you ought to get on very well together. You seem so much closer to yourself than you have for some time, and if she can do that for you, you certainly have my blessing."
"Thank you, Mother," Jarrod said, kissing her hand. "Mother, would you do something for her? Her husband died for what he believed, much as Father did, and she's still angry about it. If I send her to you, will you talk to her?"
"Of course I will, Jarrod," Victoria said. "Now I'd better go get dressed myself. Since we have so much to celebrate."
Audra had washed up and was pulling dresses out of the wardrobe. "You think the pink damask, or the blue brocade? Maybe this green silk? No, you're wearing green, Molly."
Molly looked down at her skirt. "And blue. And pink. I think you should wear the blue - it brings out your eyes."
"Oh, I always wear blue to bring out my eyes. Pink?" Audra held both dresses up against her robe and looked at herself in the mirror. "That's such a beautiful dress, Molly. Not at all stylish, but it suits you. Where did you get it?”
"I made it up out of odds and ends."
"You have so many talents, Molly. I'm quite envious."
"I guess there are advantages to having to live by one's wits. One has to learn to be creative."
"I'm so glad you're going to be teaching at the orphanage. As it is now, the children have to travel so far into town, and the town school is so crowded. And Mr. Terwilliger treats the orphans just awful. He thinks that orphans can never amount to much, so why should he bother with them? You'll be good to them, I know, Molly."
"Well, I was an orphan myself, so I understand how they feel. How do you know so much about it?"
"Oh, the orphanage has been one of my great projects since before it was built. I helped design the building and raise the money for it. I'm over there pretty often. I think you're right, I'll wear the blue."
Molly narrowed her eyes. "You didn't. . .none of you pulled any strings to get me this job, did you?"
Audra took off her robe and stepped into her dress. "Oh, no. Not that we could even if we wanted to. Mrs. Gregson is fierce. The only thing she cares about is those children's well-being. She'd let us know what she thought of us in a hurry if we did anything like that. Could you button me up, please?"
"I'm sorry, Audra. I just wanted to be sure that some of this was my own doing."
"Well, it mostly is, isn't it? I mean, all we did was invite you to Church and to dinner. You did all the rest." Audra turned to Molly and lowered her eyes. "Molly, I need to apologize to you."
Molly frowned. "Whatever for, Audra? You've been nothing but kind to me."
"No, I haven't." Audra looked up and met Molly's gaze. "I didn't want Mother to ask you to Church - I was ashamed to be seen with you, and I. . .I had gossiped about you. That was before I knew you, but that's no excuse. I've learned my lesson - I won't ever do anything like that again, and I want you to know it. I've been terribly ashamed of myself."
"I believe you, Audra. We can only learn from our errors and get better."
Audra smiled. "That's very much like what Jarrod said. You're a lot alike, I think. You both feel very steady."
"I'm not steady, Audra. I've been drifting my whole life."
"Well, you feel steady to me. Help me do my hair, then we can join the others for dinner."
"Mother!" Nick shouted from the foyer.
Molly burst out laughing.
"What’s funny?" Audra said.
"The way all of you shout for your mother the moment you come into the house."
"Do we? I never really thought about it."
"Jarrod, what are you doing home?" Nick asked. "And in your monkey suit, to boot."
"Why, Brother Nick, tonight we are celebrating the successful completion of negotiations. . . ."
"Already? So that's why you're home, but I'm not putting on a monkey suit for that." Nick poured himself a drink and gulped it down.
"I also brought home a special guest - ah, here she is now."
Audra came trippingly down the stairs, but Molly stood at the top, unable to start down without her spectacles. Jarrod hurried up and offered her his arm. "I told you I wouldn't let you fall," he whispered.
"Well, now," Nick said as Molly and Jarrod reached the bottom, "that might be worth dressing up for. Where has Big Brother been keeping you hidden away? I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
Heath came in, brushing the dust from his trousers. "Boy howdy, Miss Molly, don't you look pretty!" He glanced at Jarrod. "Are we dressing for dinner?"
"Molly?" Nick said. "That's not. . . It is Molly!"
"You need spectacles, Big Brother," Heath said. "Just 'cause a woman gussies herself up, you don't recognize her?"
"Spectacles! Yesterday she had spectacles!" Nick said.
Molly slipped hers gratefully back on. "Now do you recognize me, Nick?"
Nick looked at Heath. "You're not gonna let me live this down in a hurry, are you?"
"Nope," Heath said.
"It's all right, Nick," Audra said, "I didn't recognize her at first, either."
"What's the occasion, Molly?" Heath asked.
"I got a job, teaching the children at the orphanage."
"Yippee!" Nick shouted, lifting Molly up and swinging her around, much to her evident delight.
"Kindly unhand my guest, Brother Nick," Jarrod said.
"Your guest? I think she's our guest."
"Nevertheless, I doubt very much that the lady wishes to smell of cattle."
"Oh," Nick said. "I guess I'd better go clean up at that. Monkey suits, eh?"
"If you would be so kind," Jarrod said.
Jarrod lit his cigar as he, Molly and Audra returned to the parlor. "Here's the tobacco," he said, "and you've certainly had the sweat. Are you happy, now?"
"Whatever are you talking about, Jarrod?" Audra asked.
"Never mind, Little Sister," Jarrod said.
Molly merely grinned.
After dinner and drinks in the parlor, Jarrod whispered in Audra's ear. "Of course," she agreed and went to the piano.
Jarrod bowed to Molly, "Madam, may I have this waltz?"
"Oh, dear," Molly said. "I can polka, and country dances, but I never learned to waltz."
"Jarrod can teach you," Audra said. "He taught me. He's very good - you'll feel like you're floating."
I feel that way already. "Very well, Sir, I should be delighted."
"Mother?" said Nick.
"And that leaves me to turn the pages," Heath said.
"You'll get your turn, Brother," Jarrod said. "Now, Molly, don't look at your feet, look into my eyes," falling into blue, falling into sky, "I'll guide you. Listen to the music, it's a beat of three." Then they were off, whirling around the parlor and out into the foyer. Enjoy it while you can. This man is not for you. A laugh, a breath, then gone, no matter how he looks at you now.
She danced with all three brothers: with Nick, who danced with more energy than grace; with Heath, who surprisingly danced with both, although he lacked Jarrod's polish; then Jarrod again, and all three, and Jarrod for the last dance. Everyone except Heath and Molly took a turn at the piano, even Nick, who played surprisingly well.
Audra whispered to her mother. "You may ask her," Victoria said.
"Molly," Audra said, "we'd like you to come stay with us until you go to the orphanage. Why stay at that shabby old boarding house, when we'd love to have you here?"
Because I would see Jarrod every day. Because I'm too craven to play out this hand. "I've imposed on your kindness enough already."
"Don't be silly. If it were an imposition, we wouldn't ask you. Do stay. We can ride and swim and have lots of fun. Jarrod, you convince her."
Jarrod lit a cigar. "I say, let the lady do what she wants."
"You want to, don't you, Molly?" Audra said. "Don't be such a goose."
More than anything. After all, what do I have to lose but a broken old heart that's not doing any good, anyway? "All right, I will. Thank you, Audra, Victoria. But I would like to go back tonight so I can get out of this dress, and pack, if it's not too much trouble."
"I'll go change out of these fancy duds," Jarrod said. "My things are still at the hotel, so I'll stay over, Mother. How much do you have to bring back, Molly?"
"Just a couple of trunks and some books."
"I'll hitch up the buckboard then. I won't be a moment."
"How about one more dance, Molly?" Heath asked.
So she danced with Heath, and with Nick one more time, before Jarrod reappeared. He kissed Victoria and Audra goodnight, and assisted Molly into the buckboard.
Jarrod flicked the reins. "Did you have fun, Molly? You're rather quiet."
"Yes, Jarrod. This is the most fun I've had since, I can't remember." Ever. "But it's been a very full day."
"Or two. Well, the buckboard is not as comfortable as the buggy, but you may put your head on my shoulder if you're tired."
Either play the hand, or fold. Choose now. She tucked her spectacles into her bodice and laid her head gently on his shoulder, curled an arm around his waist. She breathed in the smoky masculine scent of him, felt his warmth, listened to his breath, his beating heart.
She waited, waited, until they were far from the house, still far from the town, far from anything but starlight and wind.
“I don't believe I've collected my winnings," she said lightly. Tread lightly, breathe softly.
"At your pleasure," Jarrod said.
"Now would be good, I think," Molly said. Jarrod reined in the horses, took Molly's face between his hands and kissed her, tenderly, sweetly, gently.
"Ah," Molly said, "I wasn't expecting that."
"Molly," Jarrod said, "may I have permission to court you?"
Molly gazed into Jarrod's starlit eyes. "Why, Jarrod? I have absolutely nothing to offer you."
"On the contrary, I think you have exactly what I need."
"What could that be?"
"A kind and understanding heart."
"It's a broken, badly battered heart," she said.
"So is mine."
"I'm older than you."
"I can add," Jarrod said, dryly.
"I've just made a very serious commitment, Jarrod."
"To the orphanage, yes."
"To the orphans. The last thing they need is another adult coming and going. If I'm to do this at all, I have to commit myself for the long run. For them. For me. To finally leave a mark."
"Do what you think is right, Molly. You'll never have to ask me for permission. Whatever you think is right, I'll support it."
"Then," Molly said, wiping the tear that trickled down her face, "you have my permission."
"Molly," Jarrod said, "you need to understand, I believe that words and ideas are stronger than guns, and I've dedicated myself to that, but if it does come to a fight, I won't back down. If you can't stomach that, we should stop this right now."
Molly hid her face in Jarrod's chest. "I don't think I could love a coward," she whispered. "I have to give you permission to follow your conscience, too."
"Will you talk to Mother? She's been through what you've been through - she can help you."
"For the record," Jarrod said, "I have no intention of ending up like my father. It's a different world now, but there's always the possibility."
"Right now, it seems that there's a possibility of everything."
"I believe we shall limp along very well together, Feather."
"Kiss me again," she said.
"With much pleasure." He kissed her for longer this time, fuller, deeper.
So this is what two burdens shared is. "I think I lied when I said I wouldn't swoon if you kissed me."
"Swoon away, dearest. I won't let you fall."