Just for fun, a crossover with characters from The Big Valley, Paradise, Maverick, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and whatever else I can think up, with as many clichés as I can muster. Have fun!
The Amazing Colossal Mash-up
Fun With Clichés
Chapter one: A Shot Rang Out
It was a pleasantly warm June afternoon as Jarrod Barkley accompanied his wife and children, as well as his mother and sister, to the carnival at the Stockton fairgrounds. They worked their way down the midway, trying out the games of skill, and Jarrod was pleased to note how accurate a shot and how strong an arm his son Lucas had developed, winning prizes for his sisters and his mother. "Would anyone like an ice?" Jarrod asked as they came upon a booth selling sweets.
"Oh, yes," his wife Molly agreed, holding their baby Georgie on her hip. "That sounds wonderful."
Victoria and Audra agreed, and the three women found a handy bench to sit on while the menfolk fetched their refreshments. "Cotton candy, Mommy, please?" Vicky asked.
"I'll take them," Victoria volunteered. "Would you like some, too, Emma?" she asked the elder daughter.
Emma nodded. "Yes, please, Grandmother," she said, taking Victoria's hand. Victoria took Vicky's hand as well and led the girls to the sweet shop.
"Here, let me take Georgie," Audra said, taking her nephew into her lap. Georgie looked up at her and laughed, chewing on one finger and drooling. "I don't think I've ever seen a happier baby," Audra said.
"Nothing seems to bother him," Molly said, "even teething."
"I really miss you, Molly," Audra said. "I wish you and Jarrod hadn't bought a house in town."
"It's not so far," Molly said. "It was getting awfully crowded at the ranch, and it's easier for Jarrod, not having to drive into town every day. Not to mention the probability that Nick will be getting married in the near future.”
"I wondered if you hadn't moved out to avoid That Woman," Audra said.
"Samantha? Hardly. Why? Don't you like her?"
Audra shook her head. "An admitted con woman? I'm shocked that Nick took up with her in the first place, much less kept it up all these months. After the way he treated you, it's positively scandalous."
Molly sighed. "I do wish people would stop bringing that up. It's over and done with, and if Nick learned something about not judging people so harshly, then that's good. I'm surprised at you, though, Audra. You're usually much kinder." She searched her sister-in-law's face. "Something else is bothering you, isn't it?"
Audra bowed her head. "It's Darren. He's wanting to get married."
Molly thought about her former defense attorney. "He's a nice enough fellow, but do you love him?"
"It's not that - I didn't just spend four years at college to be a housewife, Molly."
"So what do you want to do?"
"I'm thinking about it - it's why I'm spending the summer at home, to clear my head. There's an expedition to the Amazon in the fall I've been invited to go on - I'd be the first woman to study there. Is there something wrong with me, Molly, that I'm not jumping at the chance to get married? Darren's a wonderful, decent man - he'd make a good husband."
"It sounds to me like you already know what you want," Molly said. "Here comes Jarrod - we'll talk more later if you want to." She smiled up at her husband as he handed her a cup of flavored ice.
Lucas handed one to Audra, and took his baby brother so that the women could enjoy their treats out of reach of Georgie's grasping hands. "Dad," Lucas said, glancing up at the large cigar-shaped object floating in the sky at the far end of the fairgrounds, "can we take a ride in the balloon?"
Jarrod looked up. "I don't know, Son, it looks dangerous to me."
Lucas grinned. "Sure does."
Jarrod grinned back. "Well, we'll take a look at it, anyway." He looked down to see a pretty blonde woman making her way through the crowd towards them. "Why, here's Samantha. I didn't think you were back in town, Sam."
Samantha looked up at him, flushed and panting. "I just got in - I stopped by your house and they said you were here. I need to talk to you, Jarrod."
"Why, of course. Sit down." He took her arm and sat her on the bench next to Molly. Victoria walked up with the two girls in tow and Jarrod handed her an ice. "Catch your breath, Sam. Would you like some refreshment?"
Samantha shook her head, but before she could speak, John - once Molly's pupil and now Dr. Merar's student - came rushing up. He skidded to a halt, looking from Molly to Jarrod with a confused expression. "Miss Molly, I mean, Mrs. Barkley, Dr. Merar sent me, but it seems there's been some mistake."
"What kind of mistake, John?" Molly asked.
"He sent me to tell you your husband had been shot, but I see he's right here."
Samantha covered her face with her hands. "Oh, no," she said.
Jarrod looked down at her. "Do you know something about this, Sam?"
She nodded. "The man who robbed you last year. I saw him get off the train - I don't know why he's here, but I thought I'd better warn you." She stood up. "I'd better go to him."
"I'll go with you," Jarrod said. He took out his wallet and handed Molly a wad of bills. "You and the children should go ahead and enjoy the carnival. I'll meet you back at the house." He kissed Molly's cheek, took Samantha by the arm and followed John to Dr. Merar's office.
"Aunt Samantha's upset," Lucas observed as the Barkleys continued down the midway.
"It looks as though she knows the man who was shot," Molly replied. "That would upset anyone. I hope he'll be all right."
"I hope he's not going to tempt Samantha back into her old ways," Victoria said.
"I don't think so," Molly said. "She's given us no cause to doubt her reformation, and she's had ample opportunity to backslide if she were going to."
Audra harrumphed, but said nothing.
They came to the end of the midway, where the balloon was tethered. A short old man, with a mustache and twinkling eyes was haranguing the crowd in front of a small tent. "Step this way, ladies and gentleman, and learn the mysteries of powered flight. . ."
"Doc!" Lucas cried, interrupting and flinging his arms around the man as
"Albert!" Victoria said, as
"Bertie!" Mollie said, as
"Professor Wickwire!" Audra said.
"Hold on, one at a time," Professor Albert Wickwire said. He held Lucas out at arm's length. "I do believe I know this young man. Lucas, is that you? My, how you've grown, boy." He looked at Victoria. "Victoria? Victoria Barkley? Dear me, you haven't changed a bit. What has it been, twenty five years?"
"At least, Albert," Victoria said. "Still up to your old pipe dreams?"
"It's no dream, Victoria," Wickwire said. "Powered flight is the coming thing, the wave of the future."
"Indeed," Victoria said skeptically. "It seems you know everyone, or I'd introduce you to my daughter-in-law. . . ."
"Molly Holt, as I live and breath," Wickwire said. "How are you doing, girl?"
"Wonderful, Bertie," Molly said, "only it's Molly Barkley now. And I'm wondering how you know my son."
"Doc Wickwire was my teacher before I was sent to the mine," Lucas said.
"Were you, boy?" Wickwire said. "What a waste of a brilliant mind. They told me you'd been adopted, but they wouldn't tell me where. I'd like to wring a few necks over that, let me tell you."
"Well, I've been adopted now," Lucas said, "but I'm wondering how you know my mom. And my grandmother."
"Your grandmother and I were at school together, and I did special effects with a theater troupe for awhile, where your mother worked." He turned to Audra. "But although this beautiful young thing seems to recognize me, I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
"I'm Audra Barkley. You gave a lecture at the San Diego Natural History Society on underwater exploration. I must admit I was fascinated."
"Ah, my dear, are you a Natural Historian?" Wickwire kissed Audra's hand gallantly.
"Well, I just graduated, I'm not anything yet."
Wickwire held Audra's hand and gazed studiously into her eyes for a long moment. "Ah, well I can see that you're capable of great things. Let me know if you need a recommendation. I always like to help young minds along." He turned to Molly. "Now which one of Victoria's handsome sons did you marry? Ah, it must be Jarrod. You would like the intellectual type."
Molly laughed. "Yes, you're right, Bertie. Allow me to introduce our children. You know Lucas, this is Emma, Vicky, and the youngest here is Georgie." Georgie giggled and drooled happily.
Wickwire knelt and shook hands with Emma and Vicky in turn, and was rewarded with smiles from each of them. "You will attend the little talk I'm giving, won't you?" he asked.
"We were hoping we could ride in the balloon," Lucas said.
"I'd love to accommodate you," Wickwire said, "but it's not operational at the moment. I'm having a little trouble with the engine."
"What sort of trouble?" Audra asked.
"It keeps exploding," Wickwire said. "I still haven't worked out the proper fuel combination."
Victoria snickered. "Same old Albert," she said.
"Just you wait, Victoria," Wickwire said. "One day airships will fill the skies. You'll see."
"I believe you, Professor," Audra said.
"So do I," said Lucas.
"Well, the future belongs to the young, doesn't it?" Wickwire said. He looked at his watch. "I'm late for my talk. You will come in, won't you?"
"Wouldn't miss it, Bertie," Molly said affectionately, and the Barkleys filed into the tent.
Sheriff Fred Madden was coming out of Dr. Merar's office as Jarrod and Samantha arrived. He stared at Jarrod, startled. "My goodness, Jarrod," he said. "You've about given me a heart attack." He opened the door and ushered them into the office. "I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes." He tipped his hat. "Miss Crawford."
"Any idea what's going on, Fred?" Jarrod asked.
"He was shot in an alley behind the livery," Fred said. "Several people heard the shot, but no one seems to have seen anything. We thought he was you until we went through his pockets. Seems he has several aliases: John Stratford-Avon," he snorted, "Jack Darby, Bart Maverick. . ."
"His name's Jack Darby," Samantha said, "And will Bart ever be furious if he finds out Jack's been impersonating him."
"So you know the victim, Miss Crawford?" Fred asked.
"I did," Samantha said. "I haven't heard from him in months. I saw him get off the train today, but I have no idea why he was here."
Fred looked at Jarrod. "The question is, was he shot because he looks like you, or on his own recognizance?"
"Does he really look that much like me?" Jarrod asked.
"So much it's uncanny," Fred said.
"Can I see him?" Samantha asked.
"The doc's still working on him, ma'am," Fred said. "But quite frankly, the doc doubts he'll make it."
Samantha collapsed into a chair and covered her face. "I should have spoken to him at the station, but I lost him in the crowd. At least we might have an idea why this happened."
Jarrod put a hand on her shoulder. "We'll get to the bottom of it, Samantha, don't worry."
"I should stay here," she said. "In case he does wake up - at least he'll have a familiar face by him."
"You should go home and rest, get cleaned up," Jarrod said. "You’ve been working for days, you must be exhausted."
Samantha shook her head. "Not until I know."
"All right, Sam," Jarrod said. "We'll both stay. Fred, would you stop by my house and leave a message for Molly? She and the children are at the carnival, but I want her to know what's happened when she gets back."
"Of course, Jarrod. Be sure to send for me if he regains consciousness. And just to be on the safe side, better take to wearing your gun until we know why he was shot."
"Will do, Fred. Believe me, I want to know what's going on here more than anyone."
Chapter Two: Love Conquers All
Molly and the children arrived home just in time to see the beautiful chestnut haired woman and a pretty blonde girl turning away from their door. "Amelia?" Molly said, running up to her. "Amelia!" She gave the woman a hug. "What are you doing in Stockton?" She turned to the girl with her. "Lucy?" Then, "Pardon me, you look like an old friend of mine."
"This is Ethan Cord's niece, Claire Carroll. Remember, I wrote you that she and her brothers had come to live with him. Claire, this is Molly Barkley."
"My mama's name was Lucy," Claire said. "People say I look like her. Did you know her, ma'am?"
Molly opened the door and ushered her children and her guests into the front room. "Lucy Carroll? Was she in the theater?"
"Yes, she was, ma'am," Claire said.
"Then, why yes, I did," Molly said. "I knew both your parents - they left the theater when Lucy became with child, with you, it must have been." Molly's eyes grew sad. "I'm sorry to hear that she's gone. She was a wonderful woman. I didn't know she was Ethan's sister."
Molly introduced the other children to Claire. Lucas stopped staring at her long enough to take her hand with a gentlemanly bow. Molly handed Georgie to the housemaid and asked her to take him and the little girls upstairs to the nursery. "Would you like some tea?" she asked her guests.
"I would love some," Amelia said.
"I'll go put on some water," Molly said. "Lucas, could you entertain our guests until I return?"
"My, Lucas," Amelia said, "how you've grown. You're quite the young gentleman. How old are you now?"
"Thirteen, Mrs. Lawson," Lucas said, "and thank you."
"Claire is thirteen, too," Amelia said. "I'm certain you two will be great friends."
Lucas blushed and nodded. "I hope so, Miss Carroll," he said to Claire.
Claire laughed, a warm, bubbling laugh. "Please, call me Claire."
"Claire, then," Lucas said, feeling tongue tied, and grateful for his mother's timely return.
"So, what brings you to Stockton, Amelia?" Molly asked, arranging the tea things on the table.
"I had some bank business in Sacramento, and since it's such a short train ride from there to Stockton, I thought I'd come see you. I brought Claire along to do some shopping - she doesn't have much chance to get out of Paradise. I know I should have wired first, but I did want to surprise you."
"You know you're always welcome here, Amelia." Molly said. "I do hope you'll stay with us. How long will you be in Stockton?"
"Just a day or two - I need to be getting back to the bank. We've already checked into the hotel - although it's very kind of you to ask us."
"Nonsense," Molly said. "We'll send for your things. You must stay, Amelia. It's been over a year - we have so much to catch up on."
"All right," Amelia smiled. "We'd be happy to, Molly."
Dr. Merar finally came out of the surgery. "Jarrod," he said, surprised. "Why are you here?"
"It seems your injured man was once a friend of Samantha's," Jarrod said, indicating his sister-in-law. "How is he, Tom?"
"Not good," Dr. Merar said, shaking his head. "I got the bullet out and stopped the bleeding, but he's lost a lot of blood and punctured a lung. He might live, but it's touch and go."
Samantha wiped a tear. "Can I see him?"
Dr. Merar nodded. "But he's not going to wake up anytime soon. Don't get your hopes up, Miss Crawford."
Dr. Merar opened the door to the infirmary and ushered Samantha and Jarrod in. Samantha knelt down by the bedside and took the injured man's hand. "Jack?" she said. "Jack, can you hear me? It's Samantha. I'm here, Jack."
Jarrod sucked in breath when he saw the man's face. "My word, he really does look like me, doesn't he? I didn't really believe it until now."
Dr. Merar shook his head. "It gave us all quite a fright. Any idea what this is all about?"
"None, Tom. I just hope he wakes up so we can find out."
"Well, it won't be before morning, if he makes it that long," Dr. Merar said. "I can guarantee you that."
Jarrod touched Samantha's shoulder. "Come on, Sam," he said. "There's nothing you can do for him. You should go home and take care of yourself, and I'm sure you'll want to see Nick."
Samantha stood and sighed. "You're sure he won't wake before morning?"
Dr. Merar shook his head. "If then. I'm sorry I don't have better news. Jarrod's right. There's nothing you can do - you should be with your fiancé, not here."
"Nick's not my fiancé," Samantha said.
"I'm sorry, my mistake," Dr. Merar apologized.
"Come along, Sam," Jarrod said. "I'll see you to your rooms."
"Do you mind if I ask you something?" Jarrod said, escorting Samantha down the street. "I hope I'm not prying."
"Nothing you could ask me would be prying, Jarrod," Samantha said. "You should know that by now."
Jarrod looked down on her, grateful for her trust. "Well, then. Why isn't Nick your fiancé? I know he's asked you."
Samantha sighed. "Because I'm not good enough for him, is why. I'm not sure I ever will be, quite frankly. I probably should let him go, but I can't seem to bring myself to do that."
"I don't think that's true, Sam, not anymore. You've proved yourself over the past few months - I know the railroad thinks so, since they returned my bond early. I certainly think so. Nick thinks so. I know you love each other; don't break my brother's heart trying to meet some unreachable standard."
"That's easy for you to say," Samantha replied. "You and Molly are so perfectly suited - you can't possibly understand what it's like to be afraid of disappointing someone."
"That's not true at all," Jarrod said. "We've had our rough spots, things we've had to work out - we haven't always agreed on everything. Still don't, as a matter of fact. That's part of marriage - working through the disappointments together."
Samantha looked up at him. "So you wouldn't object?"
"I think it would be the best thing for both of you," Jarrod said.
Samantha blinked back tears. "Thank you," she said. "That means a lot to me."
Jarrod gave her a hug and kissed her cheek. "You're better than you think you are, Sam." He left her at the door and walked home.
"Why, hello Amelia," Jarrod said upon arriving home. He kissed his wife fondly before adding, "What a pleasant surprise."
"Jarrod," Molly said, "I'd like you to meet Claire Carroll, Ethan Cord's niece. It turns out her mother was an old friend of mine."
Claire stood and bobbed a curtsey to Jarrod. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Barkley," she said.
Jarrod took her hand. "The pleasure is mine, Miss Carroll," he said.
"What happened at the doctor's?" Molly asked, handing Jarrod a cup of tea.
Jarrod shook his head. "It was the strangest thing, Feather. There lay a man who looked just like me - not just a passing resemblance; he could be my twin."
"Will he recover?" Molly asked.
"Not likely - the doctor thinks he'll probably be gone by morning. Too bad, he may be the only one who knows why he was shot. Except for the person who shot him."
"How's Samantha taking it?"
"She's upset, of course. I walked her home to rest, but I expect she'll head out to the ranch instead."
"You said this man looks just like you?" Amelia said.
"Yes. Why?" Jarrod asked.
"Because I was in Yuba City a couple of weeks ago on business, and I could have sworn I saw you riding in a carriage with Richard Carter. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me."
Lucas stiffened and looked at his father. "The owner of the Paradise Mine?" he asked.
"Former owner," Amelia said. "He's been forced out. The Indian Wells Mine pushed a prior claim through court and stripped the company of ownership."
Jarrod tapped his chin thoughtfully. "That's very interesting, Amelia, but I don't see what that would have to do with me. Or why Carter would be meeting with Jack Darby, if that is what you saw."
"Carter is probably still angry because we won the fight over child labor in the mine," Amelia said, looking at Lucas, "and your lobbying efforts in that regard have made the papers, not just your paper. Which I read, by the way. It certainly has the people in Paradise talking, and I'm sure that's true elsewhere, as well. Perhaps he was planning to discredit you?"
"Hm. I'm certainly not the only person in California trying to outlaw child labor - I'm not sure what he would have to gain."
"Set you back, perhaps?" Amelia said. "Or perhaps just personal revenge. It's hard to know how someone like him would think."
"Well, if that's the case," Molly said, "why was the shooting? It doesn't make sense."
"We don't have enough information," Jarrod said. "It would be well if he would recover, then he could tell us." He sighed.
"Oh, Jarrod," Molly said. "Your mother invited us all out to the ranch for dinner - we ran into an old friend at the carnival and we're having a little dinner party. Do you think she'd mind if we bring Amelia and Claire as well?"
"No, I'm sure she wouldn't. She'd be delighted, in fact. Who's the old friend?"
"Professor Albert Wickwire," Molly said, grinning.
"Uncle Albert?" Jarrod said. "My, I haven't seen him since I was about Lucas's age. What was he doing in Stockton?"
"Demonstrating his airship," Lucas said, excitedly. "He wouldn't let me ride in it, though."
"It turns out that he was Lucas's teacher, and he worked for my theater troupe, and he lectured for Audra's Natural History Society. A day full of coincidences," Molly said.
"I know him, too," Amelia said, smiling. "He was in Paradise a couple of years ago, selling a - what was it? - hydraulic drill to the mine. He used to sit in the hotel and pontificate about "the coming thing" and "the wave of the future." Quite amusing, actually. Except I don't think the mine ever got the drill to work."
"Mother used to talk about him," Claire said, "but I never met him. I'd really like to - it would be an honor."
"Well, of course," Jarrod said smiling. "Why should you be the only person on earth who apparently doesn't know Albert Wickwire?"
"Lucas," Molly said, clearing away the tea things, "Why don't you show Claire to her room?"
Lucas led Claire upstairs to a small room just off the nursery. "I don't think the baby will keep you awake," he said, "Georgie doesn't cry much."
"May I see him?" Claire asked. "And I didn't really get a chance to meet your sisters."
"Sure," Lucas said, leading her into the nursery. "It's all right, Mary," he said to the housemaid, taking Georgie out of her arms. Vicky and Emma were having their tea at a little table by the window. "I'll take care of them now. You may go."
"All right, Lucas," she said with a cheery smile.
"May I hold him?" Claire asked.
"If you like," Lucas said, "but he drools."
"I don't mind," Claire said. Lucas handed her a spare diaper to put over her dress. "I used to help care for my brothers when they were little - the youngest is named George, too. I don't know too many boys who would offer to take care of a baby, though."
Lucas shrugged. "I didn't have any family at all until about a year ago. I like having a brother, even if it's a baby. And sisters. Vicky, Emma, come say hello to Claire."
Both girls stood and bobbed curtseys to Claire, then went and played with the dollhouse that stood in the corner.
"Mrs. Lawson told me how you used to work in the mine," Claire said to Lucas, "and how you kept running away to find help even though they beat you. You must be very brave."
Lucas blushed. "I just did what I had to. Someone had to do it, for Emma's sake, if nothing else."
Claire looked over to where the little girl sat playing with her sister. "It's hard to believe anyone would have made her work in a mine. She's so little. It must have been horrible."
"It was," Lucas said, "but it's over now, and we've got good parents and a home now. We don't really talk about the past much."
"I'm sorry, it's just that it's such an interesting story," Claire said.
"It's all right," Lucas said.
There was a commotion as Claire's things were brought upstairs to her room. "Do you mind?" Claire asked, handing Georgie back to Lucas. "I need to go check on something." Claire went to her room and came back carrying a violin. She sat down and checked it over, tuning the strings and plucking them. "I always worry about this when I travel, because I couldn't replace it if it got broken."
"Do you play?" Lucas asked.
"Not all that well," Claire replied. "My mother taught me. It makes me feel close to her - almost like she's still here." She ducked her head as her eyes filled with tears.
Lucas looked down at her sympathetically. "I never knew my mother - my real mother - I was a foundling. But I know how I'd feel if something happened to my mom or dad."
Claire sighed. "I suppose I should feel lucky that I had her as long as I did, but it's hard to, you know?"
"You miss her. Why don't you play something now? We'd all enjoy it."
"All right," Claire said, picking up the violin and bow and launching into Pachabel's 'Canon.' Lucas and the girls stood transfixed - even Georgie stared at her from Lucas's arms. When she finished, she put down the bow and looked up to find Jarrod, Molly and Amelia standing in the doorway. Claire blushed. "I didn't know anyone else was listening."
"That was lovely, Claire," Jarrod said. "You've certainly nothing to be embarrassed about."
"You play with a lot of feeling," Molly said. "You have the makings of a very good violinist. Do you have a teacher?"
Claire shook her head.
"No teachers of any kind in Paradise," Amelia said ruefully.
"Well," Molly said. "Perhaps we could at least see that you have sheet music. Please let me know what you'd like, and I'll be sure to send it to you."
"You're very kind," Claire said.
"Not at all," Molly said. "It would be a shame to let such talent go to waste. And it's a privilege to help out Lucy's daughter."
"Why don't you go get washed up?" Jarrod said. "You, too, Lucas. We'll be leaving for the ranch in just a little while. And Claire, please bring your violin - I'm sure the rest of the family would love to hear you play. We usually entertain ourselves after dinner - if you wouldn't mind?"
"All right, Mr. Barkley," Claire said, taking up her violin and going to her room.
Samantha reined her horse to a halt in front of the Barkley ranch house. She slid down from the saddle as Nick came around the corner of the barn. He grinned with delight on seeing her, and vaulted over the fence. She threw her arms around his neck and graced him with a warm and tender kiss. She thought how all her joints melted whenever she saw him, and realized that Jarrod was right. She kissed Nick all the harder.
"Sam," Nick said warmly, stroking her back. "So good to have you home." He took her horse's reins and led it into the barn.
Samantha pulled him into a stall and kissed him again, passionately. "Nick," she whispered. "Nick, do you really want to marry me?"
"You know I do," he said, nuzzling her cheek. "I keep asking you."
"Then, yes," she said, closing her eyes and breathing him in.
Nick scooped her up in his arms and whirled her around. "Whee- hoo!" he yelled. "You really mean it, Sam?"
Samantha nodded, smiling, and let herself be enveloped in his embrace, in his kiss. This was it, she thought, this was right. This was where she belonged, now and forever. She heaved a blissful sigh and wondered what had taken her so long. Nick broke off kissing her long enough to yell to Ciego to take care of her horse, then resumed until she was breathless.
"Mother!" Nick yelled, escorting Samantha into the house, his arm around her waist.
Victoria came out from the kitchen. "What is it, Nick?" she asked, "I'm trying to cook dinner." She took in their happy faces and then smiled. She went to Samantha and kissed her cheek. "Congratulations," she said. "I've been expecting this for some time now."
Samantha rested her head on Nick's shoulder. "It was time," she said, smiling.
"It was about time!" Nick shouted, grinning.
Samantha giggled, much to her surprise - she had never been a giggler before.
"Well," Victoria said, "it looks like tonight's dinner party is turning into an engagement party."
"Are we having a party?" Samantha said, looking down at her riding clothes. "No one told me."
"Mother ran into an old family friend at the carnival," Nick said. "Don't worry, it's just family - Jarrod and Molly and the kids."
Heath came in with Professor Wickwire as Victoria returned to the kitchen to finish dinner. Wickwire looked at Samantha and squinted. "Samantha?"
"Al?" Samantha said. "Are you the old family friend Nick was telling me about?"
"Am I the only one who didn't already know the Professor?" Heath asked, as Samantha kissed Wickwire's cheek.
"You only know all the bad people in California," Nick retorted. "So how do you know him?" he asked Samantha.
"Oh, he broke my heart once," Samantha said.
Nick looked down at the odd-looking little old man and said, "You're joking."
"No, really, young fellow," Wickwire said. "She had quite a thing for me at one time, but my heart was elsewhere. What was it, my second wife? Or my third?"
"If you don't remember, how do you expect me to?" Samantha said.
"Well, she just got engaged to me, so don't think about getting a second chance," Nick said, uncertain if they were putting him on.
"Well, congratulations, Big Brother," Heath said, slapping Nick on the back and kissing Samantha. "This calls for a celebration. I'll go check the cellar for some champagne."
"I'll help," Wickwire said. "I'm certain the two lovebirds would like to be alone for awhile, and you can never have enough champagne on a night like this."
Nick led Samantha into the study and proceeded to kiss her thoroughly. "Wait, Nick," Samantha said, "I have something I need to tell you."
"If it's about your past, I don't care," Nick said, kissing her face, her hair. "You know I don't care."
"No," Samantha said, putting her hand to his lips. She told him about Jack. "He may not live until morning."
"I'd say 'good riddance,' except it seems you wouldn't agree with that," Nick said.
Samantha shook her head. "No, I wouldn't. He was my friend once. Besides, Nick, think about it. What reason could he have for being in Stockton? It must concern either Jarrod or me. And why was he shot? Even the sheriff thinks it might have something to do with the resemblance."
Nick sighed. "All right. What do you want me to do about it?"
"Just be aware. And be wary. It probably wouldn't hurt to stick close to Jarrod for awhile."
Nick held her tightly and grinned. "I'd rather stick close to you, Sam."
Samantha smiled back, then sobered. "Me, too, Cowboy, but something tells me Jarrod might be the one in danger."
Chapter Three: Tabula Rasa [A Clean Slate]
Jarrod took one look at Nick and Samantha and did not have to be told, either. He broke into a broad grin and hugged his brother and kissed his sister-in-law. "Thank you," Samantha murmured as he kissed her.
"What are you thanking him for?" Nick asked.
"Words of wisdom," Samantha smiled.
"Did he now? Do I have you to thank, Big Brother?"
"Thank for what?" Molly asked, although with a knowing smile.
Nick put an arm around Samantha's waist. "Sam has just consented to be my wife."
"Wonderful!" Molly said, kissing Samantha and throwing her arms around Nick. "I won't say 'welcome to the family,' Samantha, because you already are, but I'm so happy for you both."
"Should we be here?" Claire whispered to Lucas, as Amelia looked on bemusedly. "It seems that we're intruding on a family celebration."
"It's fine," Lucas said. "They've been seeing each other for a while - it's not a big surprise. Besides, we're really supposed to be dining with the Professor."
Victoria entered the parlor, accompanied by Wickwire and the rest of the family. After introductions were made and a round of drinks served - tea for the younger children and champagne for the adults, with small glasses of that beverage for Lucas and Claire - the party adjourned to the dining room.
"So, Professor," Heath asked, "what's all this hooey about some powered airship?"
"It's not hooey, young man," Wickwire retorted. "One day everyone will be flying."
"If God had meant us to fly. . ."
"He'd have given us wings, I know. I was waiting for someone to say that. God didn't give us wheels, either, but I see you don't hesitate to use them."
"That's different," Nick said. "At least wheels stay on the ground. Flying's not natural."
"It's the most natural thing in the world," Wickwire said. "Birds do it every day."
"But birds don't need engines, and I understand you're having trouble with yours," Heath said.
"Well, I admit I'm good on theory, but I might need a little help with the technical aspects," Wickwire admitted.
"I know who could help you, Doc," Lucas said.
"Who might that be?" Wickwire enquired.
"Aaron Nagle. He's a whiz with anything mechanical."
"Good idea, Son," Jarrod said. "Give Aaron some practical experience before he goes off to college."
"And where might I find this paragon?" Wickwire asked.
"Well, right now, he's probably in the chow hall. He and his brother have been working summers at the ranch for the last few years."
"Is he?" Wickwire said, standing up and folding his napkin. "I'll go find him," and he left the house without another word.
Molly burst out laughing. "Same old Bertie. He never let the social niceties get in the way of a good idea."
"Well, then," Jarrod said, "let us change tracks." He lifted his champagne glass. "A toast to my brother Nick and my sister-in-law Samantha, who is about to become my double sister-in-law, and I, for one, couldn't be happier."
"Hear, hear," Heath seconded, and everyone drank, although Audra had a thoughtful look on her face as she contemplated the obviously happy couple.
After dinner the party adjourned to the parlor for conversation and entertainment. Claire played her violin, both solo and in duets with Audra at the piano. Emma and Vicky sang together, which was sweet if not entirely tuneful. Lucas, whose voice was beginning to change, refrained from singing this evening, even under Nick's cajolery.
Professor Wickwire finally returned, just before the party broke up. "That boy is brilliant!" he enthused. "Thanks for telling me about him. What he doesn't know about internal combustion! Now I just need to find myself a workshop so we can finish my engine."
"I thought you were traveling with the carnival," Audra said.
"Not after tomorrow - the owner and I have had words. He's far more interested in money than in science."
"Why don't you stay here, Albert?" Victoria said. "You're more than welcome. I'm sure we can find someplace for you to work."
"What about my cottage?" Molly said. "I'm not using it anymore, and it's away from the house and the barn, so any, um, disturbances should be less. . . disturbing."
"Could work, could work," Wickwire said. "Let's go look it over."
"Not now, Uncle Albert," Jarrod said. "It's late and I need to get the children home. Mother can show it to you in the morning." He gathered up Vicky, who had fallen asleep in his lap, and shepherded his family toward the door.
"I'll go saddle up and Sam and I can ride back with you," Nick said.
"Are you spending the night in town, Brother?" Jarrod asked.
"Thought I might. Sam thought you might need some backup." He headed toward the barn.
Jarrod took Samantha aside, shifting Vicky to the other shoulder. "You're that concerned, Sam?"
"I'd feel better with Nick watching out for you, yes."
"I can take care of myself, Sam," Jarrod said.
"I know, but I don't want to take the chance. I can't do this without you."
"Nick makes me want to be a good woman, but you make me believe I can be."
Jarrod smiled down at her. "All right, Sam. But you are a good woman - you'll make my brother a fine wife."
Nick came back leading two horses, and helped Samantha mount her filly. He mounted up and rode beside her.
"Are you planning on staying with us, Brother Nick?" Jarrod asked, handing Vicky to Molly and climbing into the carriage, "because we're full up right now."
"He can bunk with me," Lucas said. "He snores, but I don't mind."
"I do not snore!" Nick bellowed. Samantha stifled a laugh.
"Yes, you do, Brother," Jarrod said, "I've heard you. But if Lucas is a glutton for punishment, I'm not going to gainsay him." Jarrod flicked the reins and headed for home.
Jarrod and Nick met Samantha at Dr. Merar's office early the next morning. "How's he doing, Doctor?" Samantha asked, anxiously.
"Much better, to my surprise," Dr. Merar said. "He's not awake yet, but he's hanging on, and there's no sign of infection. He's breathing easier, too. He's not out of the woods yet, but I'm almost hopeful."
Samantha breathed a sigh of relief. "May I see him?"
"Of course, Miss Crawford. Go on in. Call me if you get any response from the patient."
"When can he be moved, Tom?" Jarrod asked.
"What are you thinking, Big Brother?" Nick asked.
"Of taking him home," Jarrod said. "He's obviously going to need round-the-clock care if he's to pull through. The doctor has other patients to attend to."
"You'd better discuss that with Molly first, hadn't you?" Nick said.
"It was Molly's idea - she's a great one for thinking ahead. She talked to Audra last night about helping out if it came to that. So what do you say, Tom?"
"He should probably stay here today at least. Maybe tomorrow he can be moved if he continues to improve. That's very generous of Molly, Jarrod - taking on a patient when she already has her hands full with the children."
"That's my wife," Jarrod smiled. "Besides, it's probably best to keep him close at hand until we know what we're dealing with." He motioned to his brother and the two men went into the infirmary.
"He looks much better," Samantha said, looking up from where she sat by the bedside.
"The doctor said he might be able to be moved tomorrow," Jarrod told her. "We'll take care of him, Sam, don't worry."
"I want to help," Samantha said.
"I'd rather you stayed away from him, Sam," Nick frowned.
"He can't hurt me," Samantha said, looking down at Jack. "Not anymore."
"That's not the point," Nick said.
"What is the point?" Samantha asked tersely.
"I'll leave you two to work this out," Jarrod said, heading for the door.
"Don't leave without me," Nick said.
"Wouldn't dream of it, Brother Nick. I'll just go make arrangements with the doctor."
"What's the problem, Nick?" Samantha asked as the door closed behind Jarrod.
"I don't want you spending so much time - well, any time - with another man, Sam. Especially one who seems to have some kind of hold over you. Just forget the past, that's what I want."
"He's injured, Nick, and he's all alone. How would you feel if you woke up in a house full of strangers, without a familiar face?"
"Tell me he doesn't mean anything to you, and I won't argue," Nick said, putting his hands on her shoulders and looking into her eyes.
"He was my friend - that's all he ever meant to me. I can't say he means nothing to me, but he never meant what you seem to think." Samantha met his gaze and shook her head.
Nick put his arms around her. "I'm sorry, Sam. You're my girl - of course I'm jealous. I want you all to myself."
"I wish I could, Nick." Samantha rested her head on Nick's chest. "But he needs me, you do understand that, don't you? It has nothing to do with how I feel about you. How could it? I could never love anyone else the way I love you, don't you know that?"
Nick gritted his teeth and sighed. "All right, but I'm going to be right there every chance I get. Besides, we have to plan our wedding, don't we?" He tilted her chin up and kissed her. Samantha twined her arms around his neck and it was some time before they went back out into the doctor's office.
Jarrod, Molly, Nick and Lucas saw Amelia and Claire off at the train station later that afternoon. "Promise me you'll write," Claire called out the window as the train pulled out. Lucas nodded and waved. He lagged behind as the family walked back to the house.
"Come on into the study, Lucas," Jarrod said when they arrived home. He closed the door and took out a cigar. "Something bothering you, Son?" he asked, lighting the cigar and exhaling a puff of smoke.
"Not really," Lucas shrugged, seating himself in a leather chair.
Lucas looked up into his father's face. "How can you miss someone you just met and hardly know?"
"She's a nice girl - pretty, sweet, talented. Seems very capable - rather like your mother. I'd miss her, too, if I were thirteen."
"So I'm not being silly?"
"I remember my first sweetheart," Jarrod said. "Mattie Wellesley. Pretty, smart, could climb a tree like nobody's business. I met her one summer when she was here visiting her aunt and uncle. I never saw her again after that, but I never forgot her. No, Son, you're not being silly. I'd say you're showing excellent taste."
"I'd hate to think I might never see Claire again," Lucas said.
"You might, who can tell? I heard you promised to write, that's something."
"I did, but I wouldn't know what to say."
"Trust me, just write about yourself, what you do each day - it doesn't have to be anything fancy."
Lucas nodded. "All right, Dad." He stood up. "And thanks."
"Anytime, Son, you know that. You don't have to keep things to yourself - anything you feel, I've probably felt it myself."
Lucas hugged him. "I'm glad you're my dad."
"Me, too, Son," Jarrod said. "Me, too."
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, loud noises and clouds of smoke were being emitted from the building formerly known as Molly's cottage. Professor Wickwire lifted his goggles and waved his hand in front of his face. "Well, at least it didn't explode that time. We're making progress."
Aaron Nagle bent over the small internal combustion engine he had been laboring over. "I think the fuel mixture is still a bit too rich."
"How'd you get so knowledgeable so young?" Wickwire asked. "I wish I'd known a tenth of what you do when I was sixteen."
"Mrs. Jarrod Barkley, Miss Molly before she was married, was our governess - mine and my brother's. She's the one who got me interested in mechanics."
"Molly? The woman is handy with a needle, I know, but I didn't think she was at all mechanical."
"She's not," Aaron said, "but she's the one who recognized my ability and got me started. I owe her a lot - my brother and I used to run absolutely wild before she came. Ask Mr. Nick - he'll tell you. Not that he hasn't been good to us, too, especially since our father died." Aaron picked up a wrench and adjusted a bolt.
"I'm sorry to hear that - about your father, I mean," Wickwire said.
Aaron shrugged. "Don't be. He beat my brother and me and terrorized my mother. I think Miss Molly left us because he did something to her, but I don't know what. There weren't any tears shed over him when he fell underneath that stagecoach."
"That's probably the saddest thing I've ever heard," Wickwire said. "To die and have no one mourn you. Isn't your mother lonely with you and your brother here at the ranch?"
"I think she enjoys the quiet, to tell you the truth. We stop by and see her pretty often, but she was always so busy dealing with our father when we were boys that she never really had time to deal with us. We love her and all, don't get me wrong, but Miss Molly was the first person to really notice us. If either of us amount to anything, it will be because of her. There, I think that's got it. Let's work on that fuel formula and then try it again."
Wickwire lowered his goggles and went over to the lab bench. "Yes, Molly's a peach, all right. She was always the one who did the listening when I worked for her theater company. Seems everyone went to her with their problems, and she always lent an ear, even though she had plenty of troubles herself. I'm glad she's washed up here - I've known Victoria for ages. She's a good woman and has raised fine children."
"Everyone in the Valley looks up to Mrs. Barkley. Well, let's get to work on that formula. I think we may almost have it." Aaron joined Wickwire at the bench and got down to work.
They moved Gentleman Jack Darby into the guest room the next morning. Audra and Samantha agreed to take turns with Molly in nursing him. He was still unconscious, but Dr. Merar was much more sanguine about his chances of pulling through. Nick camped out in Lucas's room, refusing to budge until he knew that Jarrod was safe and that, in her own way, Samantha was safe as well.
So it was that late on the third night Gentleman Jack woke up. Audra looked up from her book when she heard him stir and went to stand by the bedside. Jack opened his eyes, looking up at the pretty blonde woman looking down at him. He looked around. "Where am I?" he said.
"In Stockton," she said, putting a cool hand to his forehead. "You were shot, don't you remember?"
"No," Jack said, trying to sit up, but Audra pushed him down. "Who are you?"
"Audra Barkley. This is my brother Jarrod's house - we've been taking care of you. Samantha is here - I'll go get her." She turned to go, but Jack grabbed her hand.
"Wait," he said, "who is Samantha?"
"Samantha Crawford. She's been helping to take care of you. Don't you want to see her?"
"I don't know any Samantha," Jack said confusedly.
"Sure you do," Audra said. "You've been friends with her for years."
Jack put a hand to his head. "I don't. . .seem to know anything." He furrowed his brow. "Who am I?"
"You remember your own name, surely," Audra said.
Jack shook his head. "No, I don't." The timbre of his voice rose. "Tell me, who am I?"
Audra sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand reassuringly. "Your name is Jack Darby. Does that help?"
Jack shook his head again, harder. "No." His voice rose in panic. "I can't remember. I can't remember anything. Please help me - I can't remember anything at all."
"Let me go get Samantha," Audra said. "It will just take a minute. A familiar face should help you remember. Please don't worry - you've had a serious injury, it's only natural it should take some time to heal." She smiled a comforting smile.
"All right," Jack said, "but hurry back, please."
Audra left the room and returned minutes later with Samantha, en dishabille in a robe and with tousled hair.
"Hello, Jack," Samantha said taking his hand. "Glad to see you're still with us."
Jack looked up at her. "I don't know you," he said, his face flushed and sweating. "I don't think I've ever seen you before in my life."
Chapter Four: Beginning To Sort It All Out
"Amnesia?" Molly said the next morning over breakfast. "You have to be joking." The girls were having their breakfast in the nursery to alleviate crowding at the breakfast table. "It's something out of a dime novel - like bad twins or missing heirs - it's what writer's write when they run out of ideas."
"That's not so, Feather," Jarrod said, helping himself to scrambled eggs, "I've had amnesia myself. So has Mother for that matter."
Molly shook her head. "Sometimes I think I've married into the strangest family. It seems like something happens to one of you almost every week."
"Well, I think it's awful," Audra said. "Poor man - he doesn't even know who he is. I never thought about how terrible that must have been for you, Jarrod."
"Even worse was not knowing Nick and Heath," Jarrod said. "I almost shot my own brothers. I could never have lived with myself if that had happened."
"Let's see what the doctor says when he comes down," Nick said, scowling. "If someone had something to hide, that's one way to do it."
Samantha shook her head. "I don't think so, Nick. There was no recognition in his eyes - he honestly didn't know me."
Dr. Merar came downstairs. "I've given him something to calm him, but someone should go stay with him," he said.
"I'll go," Molly said. "Audra and Samantha have been up half the night." She gave Jarrod a kiss. "Have a good day in court, love. I'll see you when you get home." She put Georgie on her hip and walked upstairs.
"There's no sign of brain damage," Dr. Merar said, "although I suppose he could have hit his head when he fell. Still, I don't think so. It looks like it might be a case of traumatic amnesia, which sometimes happens after a severe injury. Most usually, one forgets the events leading up to the trauma - complete amnesia is extremely rare. I can't say I really know too much about it, myself."
"So he should get his memory back, in time?" Audra asked.
"It's hard to say." Dr. Merar shook his head.
"Well, what would it take?" Nick asked.
"Familiar surroundings, familiar faces might jog his memory. But frankly, I wouldn't try to force it until he recovers from his wound. The memory loss may seem more worrisome, but I wouldn't expect a full recovery until he's physically well."
"And how long might that be?" Jarrod asked.
"Keep him in bed for a few more days," Dr. Merar said. "After that, he might be able to get up for short periods. He's making good progress, better than I could have expected."
"He's had excellent care," Jarrod smiled at Audra and Samantha.
"There's one more thing," Dr. Merar said. "It would probably be best if you avoid him for awhile, Jarrod. He's already extremely agitated by the memory loss - seeing his face on another man might be too much of a jolt for him at this time."
Jarrod nodded. "I understand. Thank you, Tom. I'll see you out - I have to leave for court myself."
The front door opened and Victoria came in, carrying a large basket.
"Why, good morning, Mother," Jarrod said. "What brings you out so early?"
Victoria kissed his cheek. "Oh, a chance to see my grandchildren, and I thought your nurses could use a respite."
Jarrod returned her kiss. "That's very thoughtful of you, Mother. And what is this? Dinner?" He began to lift the lid of the basket, but Victoria playfully slapped his hand away.
"Now, now," she said. "Later."
Jarrod kissed her on the head and smiled.
"Thank you, Mother, for helping out," Nick said. "Sam could certainly use a break." He looked at Samantha meaningfully. "Come along, Sam," he said. "Let's go riding. You haven't had a good gallop in days."
Samantha furrowed her brow. "You know, Cowboy, that does sound nice. Perhaps I do need to get away for awhile."
Nick grinned. "What? No argument?"
Samantha smiled. "No argument. Why don't you see Jarrod to the courthouse, and I'll stop by my rooms and put on some riding clothes. I'll meet you at the livery."
"All right, Sam," Nick said, standing and offering her his hand. Samantha took it and the two of them followed Jarrod and Dr. Merar out the door.
Victoria put the basket on the table, then hugged Lucas and kissed his cheek. "I do declare, Lucas, you're getting taller every day. Soon you'll be taller than I, and then what shall I do?"
"I'll bend down, Grandmother," Lucas said, smiling. Victoria patted his cheek.
"You should go out, too, Audra," Victoria said. "I'm sure you could do with some rest and recreation."
Audra frowned. "Perhaps I will, Mother, after I tell you about Jack." She proceeded to do so.
"Amnesia?" Victoria said. "Poor man, I know what that feels like. And to be amongst strangers, to boot. Was Samantha able to help?"
"He didn't know her either, Mother. It was the saddest thing. He seems so lost, in such distress. Dr. Merar gave him something to calm him, but it must be terrifying."
"It can be," Victoria said, "but let’s hope that Dr. Merar is right and he'll regain his memory when he regains his strength. Now go, Audra." She kissed Audra's cheek. "Go rest or play, but I forbid you to even think about this until this evening, understand?"
Audra dimpled. "All right, Mother. Perhaps I will go for a ride. Not wherever Nick and Samantha are going - I'm sure they want some time to themselves."
"I'm sure," Victoria agreed, and began walking upstairs. Lucas followed her up, but headed for the nursery while Victoria made her way to the guest room.
"Mother!" Molly said. "I didn't know you were here."
"I've come to give all of you a break," Victoria said. "Audra's already filled me in, so I want you to go. Go somewhere, just relax for awhile."
Molly sighed. "Thank you, Mother - I had no idea this was going to be so wearing, even with all the help I have."
Victoria looked over at the sleeping patient. "My goodness," she said. She put her hand to her heart. "I can see why. He really does look just like Jarrod."
"Yes," Molly said. "You understand. I keep thinking it could be Jarrod lying there. That whoever shot him might have missed his real target."
Victoria put her hand to Molly's cheek. "I won't tell you not to think about it, because I know that would be impossible, but go rest. Try to take your mind off of it. You're looking pale again, Molly, and you know how you get. Don't make yourself ill."
"It may sound silly, but what I'd really like to do is go play dolls with my daughters. I haven't had time for anything but the basics - it would be good just to play."
"No, that doesn't sound silly at all, dear. It sounds lovely." Victoria kissed her daughter-in-law. "I'll be fine here, and I'll call if we need anything."
Molly left, and Victoria stood staring down at Jack Darby, thinking about the obvious question that no one had dared ask. Why did this man look so much like her son? Who was he and where did he come from? Her heart clenched and she gave a little sigh, unsure if she really wished to know the answer. She picked out a book from the shelves and settled down to watch and wait.
Samantha and Nick cuddled under the chestnut tree on the north ridge, kissing passionately. The horses stood tethered to the tree, grazing. "So, when shall we get married?" Samantha paused to ask.
"Soon," Nick said. "Jarrod could marry us tonight if you wanted."
"Don't we have to get a license first?"
"I've got one," Nick said, reaching inside his vest and pulling out a slightly tattered piece of paper.
Samantha sat upright and opened the paper. "Why, you really do. And it's a couple of months old. Nicholas Barkley, were you planning to elope?"
Nick grinned. "Not really, but I thought it might pay to be prepared."
Samantha studied him. "I don't know whether you're completely impetuous or completely farsighted. I'm completely amazed."
"Are you sure you're ready for this, Sam? Ready to settle down and be an ordinary rancher's wife? That's all I can offer you."
Samantha laughed. "Ordinary? Life with you is just going to be one big surprise after another, I can tell."
"You know what I mean. The ranch is my life - I'm not offering to show you the world or some grand adventure."
"I've seen the world," Samantha scoffed. "Trust me, it's no great shakes. Yes, I'm ready to be your wife - we just have to decide when and how. I'm sure your mother would prefer us to have a church wedding."
Nick shrugged. "Yes, probably. But she got that with Jarrod - I don't think she'd be too upset if we didn't want all the folderol. But it's up to you, Sam. I certainly don't want to deny you if it's what you want."
"Well, I suppose every girl dreams of that, but now that it comes to it. . .no, I think I'd rather be your wife than your fiancée. I had thought about asking Jarrod to give me away, seeing as he's my only living male relative, even if it is by marriage. Do you think he could do both?"
"Anything's possible," Nick grinned. "Tonight then?"
"Let's not spring it on your family quite so suddenly. How about tomorrow? At least give your mother and sister a chance to change their clothes." Samantha smiled.
"Oh, all right," Nick said. "I won't grumble, since you're not making me wait for a church wedding. That I don't think I could have stood."
"Me, neither, Cowboy," Samantha said, kissing him warmly, "me, neither."
Ethan Cord and his three nephews were waiting for the noon stage when Claire and Amelia arrived back in Paradise. "Uncle Ethan!" Claire cried, throwing her arms around her uncle and then embracing her brothers. "How did you know what stage we'd be on? We tried to telegraph when we were coming, but they told us the line was down."
"We've met every stage for the past two days," her brother Joseph said. Joseph was a tall, dark eleven year old - taller than his older sister, almost as tall as his uncle.
"You didn't have to do that," Amelia said. "I'd have seen that she got home safely."
"We m-missed you, Claire," Claire's younger brother Ben exclaimed. Ben was nine, also dark, but small for his age. He stood hardly taller than George, who was only five.
"It's all right, Mrs. Lawson," Ethan said. "The boys could hardly wait to see their sister again." He took Claire's bag off the stage and put it in the wagon. He picked up Amelia's bag. "May I see you home?"
"That's all right, Mr. Cord," Amelia said. "It's hardly a block away." She took her suitcase and walked down the street, Ethan's eyes following her.
Claire climbed into the wagon and George climbed into her lap and snuggled there. She rested her chin atop his blonde head and sighed contentedly.
"Did you have a good time in Sacramento, Claire?" Ethan asked, climbing aboard the wagon and flicking the reins.
"Yes, Uncle Ethan, I did. But we also went to Stockton to visit some of Mrs. Lawson's friends - I believe you know them, too. They used to live in Paradise. The Barkleys?"
Ethan's face darkened. "Yes, I know the Barkleys. I could hardly forget those two. Created quite a ruckus when they were here."
"What kind of ruckus?" Joseph asked, pricking up his ears.
"Took on the mine. No one does that and gets away with it, you know that."
"Except they did get away with it," Claire said. "Mrs. Lawson told me."
"Told you what?" Joseph demanded. "What did they take the mine on for?"
"There were orphans working in the mine - children no older than me, some younger than you, Ben," Claire said. "I met two of them that the Barkleys adopted. Emma and Lucas."
Ethan looked over at her at the way she said, "Lucas."
"They had girls working in the mine?" Joseph said, incredulously. "I'd take them on over that, too."
"Well, according to Mrs. Lawson, it took the whole town to get the mine to stop it, but it was the Barkleys who first fought against it. There was shooting and they even tried to kidnap Mrs. Barkley and her baby."
"What s-stopped them?" Ben asked.
"Uncle Ethan," Claire said with a smile. "Lucas said you were quite heroic."
Ethan flicked the reins, frowning. "I was no hero, Claire. Boys. It was just a job." He flicked the reins harder and the horses sped up.
Claire looked up into his face and fell silent until they got home to the small cabin on their tiny ranch. "Go get washed up for supper, boys," she said. "I'll help Uncle Ethan tend to the horses."
"I can tend to the horses, Claire," Joseph said.
"I'd rather," Claire said. "I've been away and I missed them." She patted one of the horses on the nose as Ethan unhitched them.
"There's something you're not telling me," Claire said once the boys had gone into the house.
"Nothing to tell," Ethan said. He shrugged. "As I said, it was just a job, nothing to be proud of."
"Even though you took a bullet defending a woman and two children? Two and a half."
"I've taken lots of bullets, Claire, you know that. I've given it all up - I don't like to think about it anymore."
"Lucas said you were brave. Why don't you want to think about it?"
Ethan turned on her and yelled. "Brave? I wasn't brave. I let the judge go up to the mine alone, both of us knowing that he would probably die in a hail of bullets, and I did nothing! Is that what you want to hear?" Claire reeled back, tears in her eyes, but Ethan continued. "You want to know what else? I kissed his wife! And then I killed a man when he wasn't looking. He had it coming, yes, but I didn't give him a chance - I just gunned him down. I'm no hero, Claire, and you ought to know that by now."
Claire blinked back tears. "I didn't know," she whispered, then threw her arms around her uncle. "But you're not like that anymore, I know you're not. You are brave. And strong." She buried her face in his chest.
Ethan hesitantly wrapped his arms around her. "I'd like to be, for your sake, Claire, and the boys. I'd hate to have you ashamed of me. I'm trying."
Claire looked up at him. "I know you are." She wiped her tears. "Well, this isn't getting supper cooked. I'll see you at the house." She smiled and left the barn. Ethan looked after her until she was gone, then sighed and turned to tend to the horses.
Chapter Five: Something New, Something Blue
Victoria looked up as Gentleman Jack stirred. He opened one vivid blue eye and peered at her. "Another ministering angel," he said. "Am I supposed to know you, too?"
"I'm Victoria Barkley," she said, "and no, we've never met. Would you like some water?"
Jack nodded and Victoria poured him a glass and helped him drink it. "There. Feeling better?"
"I can't tell yet, not until whatever that doctor gave me wears off. Could you help me sit up? I'm getting awfully tired of lying flat on my back."
Victoria shook her head. "Better not until the doctor says it's all right. I wouldn't want to take the chance of you starting to bleed internally."
Jack looked up at her. "It sounds like you've nursed gunshot wounds before."
"I have. Many times. Both my husband and my sons."
"Sounds like quite a family," Jack said dryly. "Could I at least have another pillow, then? Please?"
"All right," Victoria said. She took the other pillow off the bed, plumped it up and slipped it carefully under Jack's head.
"Thank you," Jack said. "Sorry I was peevish - I don't like feeling helpless."
"Who does?" Victoria said. "Think nothing of it. It's a good sign - means you're feeling better."
"Things became a bit overwrought last night when I came to. Perhaps you would be so kind as to fill me in on the details? When was I shot, and why? And why am I in this house? What am I to the Barkleys, or they to me?"
Victoria settled herself in the chair by the bedside. "All right, what I can. You were shot five days ago behind the livery stable. There seem to be no witnesses, although the sheriff is still investigating, so we don't know why you were shot or who did it. We were hoping you could tell us."
Jack wrinkled his forehead and shook his head. "Sorry. I still don't remember anything before last night."
"The doctor said not to worry about that - your memory will most likely return as your body heals, or so he thinks. Just concentrate on getting well."
"I wish he had bothered to tell me that instead of doping me," Jack said. "That puts my mind at ease better than a drug could."
"I'm sure he did what he thought best. You were quite distraught, or so my daughter tells me."
"Your daughter? Is she that ravishing creature who was here when I woke up?" Jack smiled.
"She is, but be careful how you speak of her," Victoria said severely.
"I meant no disrespect, madam, I assure you. And the other woman, Samantha? Where does she fit in?”
"She's the sister of my son Jarrod's first wife, and has recently become engaged to be married to my son Nick. She's an old friend of yours - now that you're calmer I'm sure she can help you regain what memories you've lost."
"And it's on her behalf that you took me in?"
"Not entirely," Victoria said.
"What does that mean?" Jack said.
Victoria studied him - he seemed calm and rational. Perhaps it would be better to tell him the truth than risk disquieting him with uncertainty. If he was capable of asking the questions, then he deserved the answers, didn't he?
"All right," Victoria said. She went to the bureau and picked up a hand mirror and handed it to Jack.
"What's this for?" Jack asked.
"Do you remember what you look like? When I had amnesia, I didn't."
"You. . .too?" Jack asked.
"Yes, once. So I do know how it feels. Please, look at yourself."
"All right," Jack said, holding the mirror before him. He ran a hand through his tousled hair. "Handsome devil, aren't I?"
Victoria sputtered. "Yes, very handsome," she agreed. She took off the locket she wore and opened it. "Now, I want to show you something. These are my children. Here is Audra, whom you've met, my son Heath, and Nick who's engaged to Samantha, and Jarrod, whose house this is."
Jack took the locket and gazed at it carefully. "So. . .I'm. . .your son?"
"No," Victoria said. "You're not. But you look so much like him. . .it's a puzzle. Were you shot for yourself, or because you look like my son?"
Jack looked up into Victoria's face. "I'm sorry to cause you distress, dear lady, but I do not know the answer. Why would anyone want to shoot your son?"
"A lot of reasons," Victoria said. "Jarrod's a judge, and has been both a defense attorney and a prosecutor. He's also involved in lobbying for labor reform."
"Which makes him unpopular with the business interests. I see."
"And someone who looks like Jarrod was seen in the company of one of those business interests, a man named Richard Carter, who Jarrod has crossed swords with before."
Jack frowned, puzzled. "Richard Carter?"
Victoria perked up. "Does that name mean anything to you?"
Jack shook his head, still frowning. "I thought. . .but, no, it's gone again. I don't remember."
"Hm," Victoria said, but before she could say anything more she was interrupted by Nick's shout from the front hall. "Mother!"
"Excuse me, Mr. Darby," Victoria said and stepped out into the hallway. She leaned over the stair railing and said, "Nick! For the love of God - there's a sick man here. Will you please keep it down?"
"Sorry," Nick said sheepishly. "It's just - we're getting married!"
"I already know that, Nicholas," Victoria said.
"No, I mean we're getting married tomorrow! That is, if Jarrod will do the honors."
Victoria ran down the stairs. Molly came out of the nursery with Georgie over her shoulder and followed her down. Victoria threw her arms around Nick. "Why the hurry?" she asked.
Nick looked down at Samantha's smiling face. "Because we didn't want to wait one more day," he said tenderly.
"Oh, there's so much to do," Victoria said.
"Now Mother," Nick said, "the reason we're doing it this way is because we don't want a lot of folderol. Just the family, just a ceremony at the ranch. Nice and simple, you hear?"
"Not at the ranch," Molly said. "Someone has to stay with Mr. Darby. Which one of us were you planning to leave behind?"
"Let Mary stay with him for a few hours," Nick said. "She's capable."
"Mary has to watch the children," Molly said.
"Bring them with you," Nick said. "They're family, too."
Molly thought for a moment. "Samantha?"
"Yes, please," Samantha said. "We'd love for them to be there."
"All right then," Molly said. "You realize Jarrod will probably still be in the trial until evening, if you're wanting him to perform the ceremony."
"And don't forget Professor Wickwire," Victoria said. "We'll have to invite him since he's a guest at the ranch."
Nick slapped his head. "Yes, I'd forgotten him. All right, he can come. So it's settled then - tomorrow evening at the ranch I take Sam to be my wife." He bent down and kissed her warmly.
Audra came in the front door, riding crop in hand, and stopped short. "Am I interrupting something?" she asked.
"We're getting married tomorrow!" Nick said, glad for someone else to tell.
"Are you?" Audra said, thoughtfully. Then she smiled and said, "Samantha, would you come with me, please?" She opened the front door again.
"Where?" Samantha asked.
"Please," Audra said, "it's a surprise."
"All right," Samantha said quizzically and followed Audra out the door and down the street to a small shop. "The dressmaker?" she asked. "That's sweet, Audra, but no one can make a wedding dress in a day."
"Come on in," Audra smiled. "You'll see."
The bell rang over the door and a short middle-aged woman came bustling out of the back room. "Why, Miss Audra, what can I do for you? And Miss Crawford, too. What a pleasure."
"Is my dress almost done, Myrna?" Audra asked.
"All but the beadwork," Myrna said. "That will still take a few days."
"May we see it?" Audra said.
"Of course, if you like." Myrna went into the back room and emerged a few minutes later carrying a full-skirted dress of blue taffeta. Beadwork adorned the bodice, and as she held it up, Samantha thought she had never seen anything so lovely. Audra took the dress and held it up to Samantha.
"Yes," she said. "I think it may just about fit you. May we try it on, Myrna?"
"You know where the fitting room is, Miss Audra," Myrna said. "Am I to understand that the dress is now for Miss Crawford?"
"Yes," Audra dimpled. "She and Nick are getting married tomorrow, and I'd like this to be her wedding dress if she'll take it."
"How wonderful!" Myrna cried as Samantha's eyes filled with tears. "There's no way I can have all the beadwork done by then, though."
"It's beautiful as it is," Samantha said. "Thank you, Audra, although I don't see how you could bear to part with it."
Audra shrugged. "It was just for the Fireman's Ball - I'd rather you have it. Let's go get it fitted," Audra said, showing Samantha to the fitting room and helping her change into the dress.
"Good thing you're both nearly the same size," Myrna said. "It just needs to be let out a little here, and taken in a little there."
"Can you have it ready by noon tomorrow?" Audra asked.
"Of course, if you're happy with it as it is. This is so exciting! A dress for a Barkley wedding."
Samantha smiled and took off the dress and handed it to Myrna, who bustled out with it. As she put her own clothes back on, she said, "Thank you again, Audra. I'm touched - I didn't think you entirely approved of me."
"To be honest?" Audra said. "I didn't, or I didn't think I did. But I see how happy Nick is, and that's all that matters. As long as he stays happy."
"I intend to try," Samantha said. "For what it's worth, I know I'm not good enough for him, but I do love him. And I'm doing this at Jarrod's behest, so that has to be worth something."
"Well," Audra said, "Jarrod's always been a good judge of people, better than even he knows, sometimes. And he has a way of bringing out the best in them, so if he thinks this is right, then it must be."
"I'll do my best," Samantha said, "and hope it's good enough."
"I'm sure it will be," Audra said. She kissed Samantha's cheek, somewhat hesitantly. "Sister-in-law."
Jarrod was overjoyed at the news. "Of course I'd be honored to perform the ceremony," he said, slapping Nick on the back. "If you're sure that's what you want."
"Yes, we're sure," Nick said, "although, thanks to Audra, it looks like we're going to be more formal than I was planning on."
"You can't expect Samantha to get married in her old clothes," Victoria said.
"What, were you expecting to get married in chaps and spurs?" Jarrod asked.
"I wouldn't mind," Nick said. "Now I'll have to get into my monkey suit."
"It won't kill you, Brother Nick," Jarrod said, eyes twinkling. "You wore one for my wedding, you can certainly wear one for yours."
Nick made a face and Samantha laughed. Jarrod looked over at her and thought she had never looked more beautiful, and a satisfied expression rested on his face.
"Has anyone told Heath?" he asked.
"I will when I go home tonight," Victoria said, "after dinner. Jarrod, may I have a word with you?"
"Of course, Mother," Jarrod said. "In private?"
"If you would," Victoria said. Jarrod escorted her into the study and closed the door.
"What's up, Mother? Worried about the wedding?"
"No, not that, although they are being a bit hasty - but that's my Nick. I really wouldn't expect anything else. No, it's about our patient. He's awake and coherent and asking questions. I told him what I could - even though it was against doctor's orders."
Jarrod perched on the edge of the desk. "What sort of questions?"
"How he got here. Why you took him in."
"You told him about the resemblance?" Jarrod frowned.
"I thought it best. He's taken it well, but Jarrod - I mentioned Richard Carter and it rang a bell.”
"Did it now? He remembered something?"
"Not really, but there was a - I don't know what you'd call it - a flash of recognition? Nothing he could put his finger on, but definitely something."
"Interesting," Jarrod said, scratching his chin. "Maybe I should go to Yuba and have a little talk with Mr. Carter."
"Not alone, Jarrod," Victoria pleaded. "And I'd rather you wait - let's see if Mr. Darby can remember anything else. Don't walk in there blind, please."
"All right, Mother," Jarrod said, standing up and kissing her on the head. "I can't go anywhere until this trial is over, anyway, and that won't be for at least another week. Let's see what develops in the meantime. Should I go talk to Darby, since you've already spilled the beans?"
"You can try, but don't press him too hard. He's still very weak, although certainly improving."
"I can at least welcome him as a guest to my house - that's long overdue anyway." Jarrod ushered his mother out of the study and went upstairs.
Audra was reading aloud to the patient as Jarrod entered the room. Both of them looked up at him as he came in. "Ah," Jack said, "Mr. Barkley, I presume."
"Yes, Mr. Darby, I'm Jarrod Barkley. Welcome to my house. Audra, could you go ask Molly to come in here, please?"
Audra nodded and put down her book. "Have you met my wife?" Jarrod asked as Audra closed the door.
"No, just your mother and your sister. And Samantha - who's been the center of some commotion today, I overheard."
"She's marrying my brother Nick tomorrow, so we'll have to leave you with our housemaid for awhile tomorrow evening. I hope you don't mind."
"I can't complain about the care I've received," Jack said. "It's been most conscientious. Although if Samantha is a friend, as everyone tells me, I'm sorry I can't attend."
Jarrod studied him. "You really don't remember anything?"
"No, Mr. Barkley, I don't. Nothing before last night."
Molly entered with Georgie over her shoulder. Jarrod smiled at them and took his infant son into his arms, smiling down at him. "Mr. Darby, please meet my wife, and this is my younger son, Georgie. Molly has been caring for you, too."
"Thank you, Mrs. Barkley," Jack said. "I've certainly been well looked after."
"Our pleasure, Mr. Darby," Molly said.
"I doubt that," Jack said, "but thank you anyway."
"My mother tells me that you may have remembered something," Jarrod said.
"Ah. No, not remembered exactly. Just a name - do you know anything about it?" Jack asked.
"Not anymore than my mother told you," Jarrod said, "and I'd rather you remember on your own than try to recall whatever I might tell you. Your memories would be more reliable that way. But the doctor said not to worry about it, so I don't want you to, all right?"
"What name?" Molly asked.
"Richard Carter," Jarrod said.
Molly gasped. "Really? Well, all right, we won't press him." Still, Molly could not hide her anxiety.
Jack studied her. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Barkley - I would remember if I could."
Molly smiled shakily. "I'm sure you would, Mr. Darby, but please don't trouble yourself about it. Just get well."
"With your care, I'm sure I shall," Jack said.
Molly stood up and took Georgie from his father. "I'll go tend to dinner, love, and send Audra back in, shall I?" She closed the door behind her, then rested her head against it. Richard Carter was a ruthless man, but not violent as far as she knew. Still, her blood ran cold to consider the enmity between that man and her family, and what his involvement in all of this might portend.
Chapter Six: Something Old, Something Borrowed
Dawn was breaking as Samantha entered the churchyard and knelt down by her sister's grave. "Beth, dearest," she said, "I'm marrying Nick today - I'm sorry you can't be here to see it." She clutched Beth's locket which she wore around her neck. "I want you to know that you were right - right to marry Jarrod, right to join this family. You were wrong not to tell him the truth, though, Beth - he would have stood by you, he's that kind of man. This family changes people - you know that. It changed you, it's changed me. Thank you for leading me here, dearest, even though I came with hatred in my heart. I understand now. And strange to say, I seem to have brought Jarrod some peace. He still loves you, Beth, maybe even more now that he knows you. You still hold your place in his heart, never fear, Beth, and now it's a light place and not a dark one. I know you would wish him happy - you always were the generous one. Look down on us today, Beth, and wish us all happy."
She kissed the tombstone, then stood and brushed the dust from her knees. She closed the gate behind her and made her way back to Jarrod's house. Nick was standing on the porch looking up and down the street.
"Where in tarnation have you been!" he hollered.
"At the churchyard," she replied.
"On our wedding day! What did you want to go there for?"
"I wanted to see Beth," Samantha said, climbing the steps to the porch and putting her arm around him. "Why so upset?"
Nick looked down at her and frowned. "I wondered. . .well, I wondered if you hadn't run out on me."
Samantha laughed. "Don't be silly, Cowboy. If anyone should be having second thoughts, it should be you. You're the best thing that could ever possibly happen to me. I'm no fool." She smiled up at him.
Nick smiled foolishly back, and bent down and kissed her. "Ah, Sam, I can hardly wait for tonight." He whispered in her ear.
Samantha giggled. "Me, too, Cowboy. I think the study's empty if you want to grab a sample."
"Ack, no, Sam," Nick gurgled. "That would just make it worse. Let's try to make it through the rest of the day without driving me completely crazy."
"Oh, I don't know," Samantha said, "that just might make it better later on."
"You little minx," Nick said. "Get in the house." He smacked Samantha playfully on the rump. "Breakfast is ready."
"See, I told you, Nick," Jarrod said as Nick and Samantha came into the front hall. He kissed Samantha's cheek. "So where did you go?"
"To see Beth," Samantha said.
"Ah, of course, I should have thought of that." He got a far-off look in his eyes. "We'll both be thinking of her today, won't we?"
Samantha's eyes welled up and she threw her arms around Jarrod. "Thank you for everything, Jarrod," she said. "For taking me in, for being my brother."
Jarrod kissed the top of her head. "Of course, Sam. No need to thank me." He took her by the arm and led her into the dining room, where Molly was dishing up porridge for the children.
"Good morning, Samantha," she said. She took in Samantha's tear-stained face. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes," Samantha nodded. "Just wedding day jitters, I think."
"Everything will be fine, don't you worry," Molly said comfortably. She looked out the window. "It's a beautiful day - wait, what's that?" There was the sound of far-off droning coming rapidly closer. "Oh, my word, I think it's Bertie." She snatched up Georgie and dashed outside, followed by Jarrod, Nick, Samantha and the children.
They stood on the porch gazing up into the sky as the airship approached. The sound of the motor was nearly deafening, but Molly had to admit to herself that it was a fine sight. She could just make out Wickwire leaning over the edge of the basket and waving, and they all waved back. The airship made a wide circle and then headed back towards the ranch, the noise of the engine fading away into a low hum and then vanishing.
They all went back into the house. Audra was leaning over the railing. "What was that?" she said.
"The Professor's airship," Lucas said, enthused. "They've got it working."
"How marvelous!" Audra said. "I wish I could have seen it."
"I'm sure you'll get your chance," Nick said.
"Let me grab some breakfast," Samantha said, "and I'll come relieve you."
"Sam," Nick said, warningly.
"Nick. She's been up all night. Let me take my turn - you can't expect Molly to do everything."
Nick frowned, but could not refute her argument. "All right. But don't forget who it is you're marrying today."
Samantha dimpled. "You're still jealous! How charming! Don't worry, Cowboy, I wouldn't go home with anyone but you."
"Good morning, Miss Crawford," Jack said as Samantha brought up his breakfast tray.
"You can call me Samantha," she said. "Do you need help with this?"
"I think I can manage, and until I remember you, I think I'd prefer not to presume," Jack said. "I understand best wishes are in order."
Samantha dimpled. "Yes, the next time you see me I'll be Mrs. Nick Barkley."
"Not half so lucky as I am, believe you me," Samantha said. "I'm getting the better end of that bargain by far."
"I find that hard to believe," Jack said.
"You would if you remembered me."
Jack looked thoughtful. "I'm not a nice person, am I?"
"What makes you say that?" Samantha said warily.
"The way everyone tiptoes around it; the way everyone is oh so polite and kind and yet keeps their distance. What was I before I lost myself?"
"Jack, please. You'll remember in time, I'm sure. Don't upset yourself."
"Do I want to remember? Maybe I'd be better off just starting over. Tabula rasa."
"I didn't know you knew Latin," Samantha said.
"Well, I can't remember learning it," Jack said peevishly. He attacked his breakfast.
Samantha sat for awhile, unsure what to say. Finally, "Well, you're still my friend. And you have more - Bart Maverick for one. I wish I knew where he was so I could send for him. You've been friends with him longer than you have with me."
"Is Richard Carter a friend?" Jack asked.
"I don't know," Samantha said. "I've never heard of him. I don't think so. Why?"
Jack shook his head. "It's the only name anyone has mentioned that rang any bells, but I can't remember." He tapped his head in frustration. "It seemed to cause some consternation among the Barkleys, but they wouldn't tell me why."
"Well, we should stop talking about it," Samantha said. "The doctor wouldn't be happy with you getting upset. Just concentrate on getting better - it will come back to you."
Jack shoved his tray away sulkily. "I'm done." Samantha took the tray and set it outside the door. "I'm sorry," Jack said, "I'm afraid I'm not a very good patient."
"It's very trying," Samantha said. She plumped up his pillow. "Just rest and get well, Jack. Don't worry about anything, all right?"
Jack closed his eyes. Easy for you to say.
There was a long line of traffic on the road from Stockton to the ranch. Nick swore as he had to pull his horse up for yet another wagon full of children. "What's going on here? These people can't have heard about the wedding, can they? If I ever. . ."
"Nick," Samantha said. "They're going to see the airship."
"Oh," Nick said, "I forgot about that."
Samantha laughed. "I'm flattered, dear. Come on, we'll go cross-country. Bet I can beat you this time." She smiled coquettishly and kicked her filly into a gallop..
"Not in a million years," Nick said with a grin and took off after her.
Samantha leapt to the ground on reaching the ranch - behind Nick, as she had expected - and grabbed her pack off the back of the saddle. She felt like skipping as she and Nick entered the house. Victoria met them in the foyer and kissed Samantha on the cheek. She looked up at Nick, dusty from his ride. "Bath, Nick. And then refill the tub for Samantha."
Nick ran his fingers through his wind-blown hair. "All right, Mother. There's a lot of traffic on the road - I hope Jarrod can get the carriage through or there may not be a wedding."
"I'm sure he'll manage," Victoria said. "Albert would pick today to finish his flying machine. I've got Heath and some of the men up at the north pasture controlling the crowd."
"Heath better not stay up there too long," Nick said. "He's Best Man."
"He realizes that," Victoria said. "Now go." She hooked an arm through one of Samantha's. "Come, dear, I want to show you something." She led Samantha upstairs to one of the guest rooms.
Laid out on the bed was a mantilla of Spanish lace. Victoria picked it up and ran it through her hands. "I wore this when I got married - I'd like you to have it. For your something old."
Samantha took the mantilla, tears in her eyes. "It's beautiful," she said, "but why didn't you give it to Molly?"
"Molly didn't wear a veil - she was a widow."
"Audra then? Surely. . ."
Victoria put her hand over Samantha's. "I want you to have it. Please don't argue."
"All right, but. . ." Samantha hesitated.
"But you think I don't approve of you. I'm sorry - when you first came - but that's water under the bridge. Jarrod was right from the beginning - I should have trusted his judgment more. Please forgive me."
Samantha kissed the older woman's cheek. "There's nothing to forgive. But I do love Nick - I'll try to make him a good wife."
Victoria smiled. "I'm sure of it. Now here," she opened a small jewelry case to reveal a sapphire necklace and matching earrings, "is the something borrowed. They'll match both your eyes and your gown."
"They're lovely," Samantha said. She threw her arms around Victoria. "Thank you. I can't tell you how happy I am."
"A bride should be happy on her wedding day," Victoria said.
"And every day hereafter," Samantha smiled.
The scene at the north pasture was nearly chaotic, but Wickwire was in his element. He lectured on powered flight and internal combustion to whomever would listen. A reporter and photographer from the Evening Mail recorded everything in pen and photos. A cloud of flash powder nearly obscured the airship as the crowd gathered around.
"Tell me, Mr. Barkley," the reporter, a pretty young woman with a studious air, asked, "how it is that Professor Wickwire came to be working at your family's ranch?"
"If it's all the same to you, Miss. . .?"
"Dilly," she said. "Pikka Dilly. And this is my photographer, Miss Hester Hu." Miss Hu bobbed a curtsey.
Heath raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Miss Dilly. Miss Hu. If it's all the same to you, I'd just as soon not comment. I'm sure the Professor will be glad to tell you anything you wish to know."
"Ah, but your family is so prominent. A quote from a Barkley would make my story so much more interesting." She batted her eyes at him.
"I'm sure it would, but I'd just as soon not. Now if you ladies will excuse me, I have a wedding to get to."
Miss Dilly's ears pricked up. "A wedding? Is someone in your family getting married?"
Heath mentally cursed himself. "It's a private wedding, if you don't mind. I'm sure my mother will be sending a notice to the paper at the proper time." He tipped his hat. "Now, if you'll excuse me," he said and beat a hasty retreat.
Miss Dilly tapped her chin with her pencil. "Hm," she said to Miss Hu. "No banns have been posted - I wonder what the hurry is. I sense another story here, Hester. Let's wrap this up and get back to town and see what we can dig up." Hester Hu snapped one last photo, folded up her tripod and followed Miss Pikka Dilly out of the pasture.
Samantha met Jarrod - looking handsome in evening clothes - in the study. She took his arm and smiled up at him, and he indulgently smiled down at her. "Are you ready?' he asked. "Nick hasn't rushed you into this, has he, because we can still postpone it."
"Not on your life," she said vehemently.
Jarrod laughed and kissed her cheek. "You look lovely," he said.
"Audra did my hair, and your mother, well, she's wonderful."
"Ah, I know that. Well, Sister, shall we?" he said, and led her out into the garden where her groom awaited her.
Nick and Heath waited at a little bower, with the rest of the family - Victoria, Audra, Molly (holding Georgie, of course), and the other children. Victoria and Silas had strung paper lanterns and the evening air was scented with June roses. Nick took Samantha's hand with a boyish grin as Jarrod stepped before them and read the words that would make them man and wife. Nick placed the ring on her finger and kissed her heartily as Heath led the family in a quite undignified whooping cheer.
Afterward there was lobster and wine under the stars, and dancing with the piano pushed out onto the verandah. All those who could play took turns doing so. Samantha twined her arms around her husband's neck and sighed contentedly. Home at last, committed and belonging - it was all she ever could have wished for.
Molly looked into her husband's eyes, and remembered the first time she had danced in those arms. After four years of marriage, it still felt new. Jarrod gazed down at her and whispered, "What are you thinking, love?"
"About the first time we danced, and how I believed I could never have you."
"Silly Feather," Jarrod said, "I was already smitten with you then."
"And I with you, dearest." She rested her head against his chest. "Funny how things seem to work themselves out."
"Not funny at all, dearest. Just right."
Molly looked around. "We seem to have lost the bride and groom."
Jarrod laughed. "So we have. While Mother has Georgie, what say you and I sneak off for a few minutes ourselves?"
"How can I refuse?" Molly said. She looked up into his eyes. "You know I would do it all over again, don't you?"
"Of course," Jarrod said, kissing her and leading her off into the shrubbery.
While in the house, Nick and Samantha celebrated their love in the best way possible, with kisses and hugs and tender embraces. Home at last, committed and belonging.
Chapter Seven: Misty, Watercolor Memories
Two days later Samantha opened the front door of Jarrod's house and walked into the dining room. Jarrod looked up from the breakfast table. "Samantha! You're out early." He stood and kissed her. "I wouldn't have thought you'd have emerged for days yet," he whispered in her ear.
Samantha smiled naughtily. "Oh, you know Nick. It's impossible to keep him indoors for long. He's out being a cowboy, and it's lonely in that big house all alone. I do have to be home for dinner, though."
Molly and Victoria emerged from the kitchen and both ran to hug her. "Oh, Samantha, it's so good to see you," Molly said.
"Victoria was so thoughtful to offer a respite, I thought I might return the favor. Besides, I missed all of you."
"It shouldn't be too much longer before Heath, Audra and I can come home," Victoria said, "if that's what you want. Our patient is making terrific progress."
"Heath can go home now," Jarrod said. "I don't really need the watchdog."
Everyone ignored the comment. "Where is Audra?" Samantha asked.
"Upstairs with Mr. Darby," Molly said. "I was just about to go relieve her."
"Let me," Samantha said. "It's what I'm here for."
"That's hardly necessary," Molly said.
"Please," Samantha said. "I want to."
"All right," Molly conceded. "For awhile."
Samantha met Heath coming down the stairs. He greeted her with a kiss. "Good morning, Sister," he said. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
She repeated what she had said to Jarrod. "Jarrod wants to send you home. You won't go, will you?"
"Well, I don't seem to be doing much good around here," Heath said. "It's been over a week and nothing else has happened."
"I just. . .I don't feel like this is over yet."
Heath patted her shoulder. "I'll stick around a few more days anyway. Then we'll see, all right?"
Samantha smiled up at him. "Thank you, Heath. Now I'm going to relieve Audra."
"Oh, how is the Professor getting along?" Heath asked. "It's probably not the best time to have a houseguest."
"He's been sleeping in the workshop - he's afraid someone is going to steal his engine. Silas has been trying to make sure he eats properly, but that's a battle - when Al is in an inventive fugue, he barely notices anything else." Samantha smiled and continued up the stairs.
Jack was out of bed and sitting up in a chair. "My, Jack," Samantha said, "you're doing much better!"
"The doctor said he could get out of bed, and even walk around a little, as long as he doesn't tire himself," Audra smiled, one hand on Jack's shoulder.
"I'm going to take over for awhile, Audra," Samantha said. "Go get some rest."
Jack smiled and kissed Audra's hand, her hand lingering in his for a moment before she left. Samantha frowned. "You'd better not be toying with that girl, Jack," she said.
"She's hardly a girl, Miss - I'm sorry - Mrs. Barkley." A dark look crossed his face. "Can I trust you?"
Samantha started. "Yes, I suppose. Trust me with what?"
"Close the door," Jack said, "I don't want this overheard."
Samantha looked puzzled, but did as Jack requested. She sat down across from him. "What's this about?"
"Promise you'll keep this confidential," Jack insisted.
"All right, I promise. Now what is bothering you?"
"Have I. . .have I ever. . .killed anyone?"
"No, Jack, not that I know of. I'm fairly certain you haven't - you're not a violent person. Why? Did you remember something?"
"Just flashes." Jack shook his head. "Mostly boyhood things - climbing trees, that kind of thing. But there's one - a woman lying bloody at my feet, an overpowering feeling of guilt. I need to know and I can't remember any more."
"Ah," Samantha said. "I believe I know what that is. I'm the woman lying at your feet. No one was killed - it was a con."
"A con? Who was conning whom?"
So Samantha told him how she had asked Jack to help her get revenge on the Barkleys for Beth's death, about her change of heart, her attempts to recover the money that Jack had conned out of the bank - using his resemblance to Jarrod - and how she had faked her own death in order to do so.
Jack sat back in his chair. "And you say we're friends?"
Samantha shrugged. "I can't really hold it against you - I did put you up to it. And you helped me when I got out of prison. I was a wreck - you loaned me money and gave me a place to recover. How you feel about me I suppose we'll discover when you regain your memory. I did wonder when you showed up in Stockton if you hadn't come to take your revenge on me."
"And yet you took me in."
"You were hurt," Samantha said simply.
"Why aren't I in prison?" Jack asked.
"Because I'm the only one who could testify against you, and I've been to prison. I'm not sending anyone there. And the Barkleys won't prosecute because I asked them not to. Don't worry, you're not in any danger from that quarter."
"Thank you for relieving my mind," Jack said, "but every answer just seems to raise more questions. I'm glad I haven't killed anyone, but I must say I'm not liking the person I was."
Samantha smiled. "Time with the Barkleys will do that, even without amnesia. They get under your skin and change you."
"Do they know about you? About what you were?"
"Yes, they do. I couldn't have kept that secret and married Nick. I learned from my sister's mistake."
"Your sister?" Jack asked.
"That's a story for another time," Samantha said, getting up and opening the door. "Now, let's get you back to bed. You shouldn't get upset - it wears you out." She draped Jack's arm over her shoulder and assisted him back to the bed and pulled the covers up over him. "At least your memory is beginning to come back. That's a good sign."
"In dribs and drabs," Jack sighed. "It's almost worse than knowing nothing at all."
"Do you know that your sister-in-law spent almost six years in prison for fraud?"
Jarrod studied the young woman sitting across the desk from him. "What is it you want, Miss Dilly?" he asked sternly.
"I just. . .I'm sorry." Miss Dilly wrung her handkerchief. "Inquisitiveness is the basis of my profession. When I heard that your brother was getting married, and in such a hurry, it piqued my curiosity. So I did some digging, and was shocked at what I found. Miss Crawford seems such a respectable woman - but then con artists do, I guess, or they couldn't con anyone."
"If you think my brother Nick, or any of the rest of us, are victims of a con, you can set your mind at rest. We're not. Samantha served her time, she deserved a second chance, and she hasn't disappointed us. Far from it - we're very proud of her. She's proved worthy of our trust in every way."
"So you did know. That's a relief. But how can you be sure?"
Jarrod shrugged. "How can you be sure of anyone? Trust always raises the possibility of betrayal, but that's no reason not to trust. I'd be ashamed to be that sort of coward."
Miss Dilly nodded. "Point taken, Judge Barkley." She stood. "Thank you for your time."
"Are you planning on publishing this story?" Jarrod asked.
"I'm no scandal-monger, Judge Barkley," Miss Dilly said. "If it would serve the public interest, I wouldn't hesitate, but there's no need to drag a respectable woman's name through the mud. If you vouch for her, that's enough for me."
Jarrod stood and offered her his hand. "Very well, Miss Dilly. Thank you."
Miss Dilly shook it. "You're welcome, Judge Barkley. And if I can ever be of service to you or your family, you have only to ask."
"I appreciate that, Miss Dilly," he said, escorting her to the door. He shut it behind her, then leaned back against it, brow knitted. If Nick's o'er hasty marriage had aroused her curiosity, it had probably aroused others, not all of whom would be so circumspect. He would have to warn Samantha, and do what he could to protect her - and also trust that she was strong enough to handle whatever might happen. He smiled to himself - he was sure she was.
And so things began to gradually return to normal. As Jack's condition improved, he required less intensive care and so Victoria and Audra returned to the ranch. Heath also returned to the ranch and took up his duties there, and Samantha and Nick settled into their married life, surrounded by family. It was a new feeling for Samantha, but one she readily gave herself over to. Professor Wickwire and Aaron were at work on a larger, more powerful engine for the airship, and Lucas spent much time there, assisting and learning. Finally, Dr. Merar gave Jack a clean bill of health, and it was time to decide what to do next.
"How's your memory, Mr. Darby?" Jarrod asked, over brandy and cigars as Molly was preparing the children for bed.
"Please call me Jack. Of all people, you and your family have earned that right. I wouldn't be alive without all the care I've received here. I'll never be able to repay that."
Jarrod waved a hand. "Think nothing of it. Your memory?"
"Spotty," Jack said. "I remember my boyhood, but not my parents. That is, I remember having parents, but don't really remember them. I barely remember anything from my adulthood - and that mostly from Samantha filling in the gaps for me."
Jarrod frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that. Dr. Merar seemed certain it would come back to you. So you don't remember why you came to Stockton?"
Jack shook his head. "No, Judge Barkley, I don't, and it's very frustrating. And before you ask, no, I don't remember what, if anything, Richard Carter has to do with all this."
Molly entered the parlor but stopped short at the mention of Carter's name. She recovered quickly and poured herself a brandy. "Well, dearest, it seems obvious what you have to do next," she said to her husband.
"Go to Yuba and confront Carter," Jarrod said.
"Will I be going with you?" Jack asked.
"That's up to you, Jack. You're hardly my prisoner. It would probably be best if you did, but no one's going to force you."
"Would someone finally like to tell me who Carter is and why you all flinch whenever you hear his name?"
Molly looked at Jarrod. "All right, Mr. Darby," she said, "you've met our children."
"Yes," Jack said, puzzled. "A nice group. I have to say I especially like your eldest - he'll soon be a fine man. What do they have to do with it?"
"Last year Jarrod rescued Lucas and Emma from one of Mr. Carter's gold mines. They were child laborers."
"Wait, you mean they're adopted? I never would have guessed that." He looked at Jarrod with new respect. "So, that's what you have against him - what does he have against you?"
"Jarrod aroused the townspeople against him - they boycotted the mine until he stopped employing children. And Jarrod is lobbying for an end to the practice altogether."
"So both a personal and political grudge - that can well be dangerous," Jack agreed. He looked at Jarrod's face, so like his own. "And where do I fit in? Was I involved in some sort of political dirty tricks?" He shook his head. "All right then, I'll be coming with you. I need to know - if I can't remember, then I need to go find out."
"Can you handle a gun, Mr. Darby?" Molly asked.
"Do you think that will be necessary, ma'am?" Jack asked.
"Someone tried to kill you. Either they were after you, or after my husband - either way, yes, I think it's necessary."
"I don't know if I can," Jack said, shaking his head.
"We won't leave for a day or two," Jarrod said. "Time enough to find out. Molly, I want you and the children to stay at the ranch while we're gone. It'll be safer there."
Molly nodded. "If you take one of your brothers with you. Please, dearest." She looked up into his eyes.
"All right, love. You're probably right, although I'm getting rather tired of being looked after. I'll be glad when this is all over and we can get back to normal."
"Or what other people call normal," Molly smiled. "Normal for the Barkleys seems to be near-constant peril."
"I should go, too," Samantha said the next day when Jarrod told the rest of the family the plan.
"Now Sam," Nick said.
"We'll both go, Cowboy," Samantha said. "You for protection, me to continue working with Jack on his memory loss. Dr. Merar said he needed familiar faces." She smiled sweetly at her husband.
"Oh, all right, Sam," he said. "But you know I hate it when you talk sense."
Samantha laughed and Molly smiled. The two women exchanged knowing glances.
"Then it's settled," Jarrod said. "We'll leave tomorrow. Dress for comfort - there's no train north of Sacramento - it'll be three days by stagecoach to Yuba City."
"I wish I could go," Audra sighed. Samantha gave her a worried frown, but said nothing.
"So do I," Molly said. "I absolutely hate staying behind while Jarrod goes into danger."
"Don't worry, Molly," Nick said. "I'll look after him. Now, I'd better go see to some things on the ranch before we leave." He took his hat and headed out the door.
"I'd better go decide what to pack," Samantha said.
"I'll help you," Molly said. She put Georgie on her hip and stood up. "Mother, would you watch the girls for awhile?"
"I'd be happy to," Victoria said. "I'll take Georgie, too, if you like. He's such a pleasure."
"All right," Molly said, handing him over and following Samantha up the stairs.
"May I speak to you, Dad?" Lucas asked. "Alone?"
"Certainly, Son," Jarrod said, leading the way to the study and closing the door. "What's on your mind?"
"I want to go, too," Lucas said.
"Out of the question," Jarrod said.
"I'm a good shot, you know I am," Lucas said. "I can protect you and Aunt Samantha, too. Something tells me Mr. Darby is not going to be much use in that department."
"I'd rather you stayed here and protected your mother and sisters," Jarrod said.
"They'll have Uncle Heath and all the men to protect them if they need it. I wouldn't be much use here, but I could be with you."
Jarrod looked down at his son, not so far down as even a few weeks ago. He had to remember that Lucas had already faced more hardship than most people did in a lifetime - he was not a child, and had not been for some time.
Jarrod sighed. He strode over to the gun cabinet, opened it and took out a gunbelt and revolver. He turned and handed them to Lucas. "These were mine when I was your age. My father gave them to me, and now I'm giving them to you. Clean the gun and make sure it's in working order - then go down to the firing range and practice with it."
Lucas looked up at him. "Thank you, Dad," he said quietly.
Jarrod patted his shoulder. "You've earned the right to be treated like a man, Lucas, if anyone ever did. Now, I'd better go explain this to your mother and hope she doesn't kill me."
"It doesn't look like you really need my help," Molly said to Samantha.
"Oh, I've had years of packing light," Samantha said. "I'm an expert by now. But stay and talk to me - we haven't had much time just to talk."
"So how do you like being married?" Molly asked, smiling.
Samantha grinned broadly. "I revel in it. When I think that just a year ago - well, it almost makes me believe in miracles."
"I know the feeling," Molly said. "I didn't even believe in God before I met Jarrod. The Barkleys have such faith - they're almost not even aware of it, it's such a part of their natures. It's hard not to believe around them."
"Yes, you're right. That's it exactly. Molly, I've already thanked Jarrod, but I want to thank you, too. You should have resented me when I first came, a reminder that you're not Jarrod's first love, but you gave me nothing but warmth and respect and honesty. I can't tell you how much that means to me."
"Think nothing of it - Jarrod's not my first love either. I'm sure if some relative of Henry's turned up, Jarrod would be just as welcoming. Family means an awful lot to the Barkleys."
Jarrod came to the doorway and knocked on the jamb. "Molly, may I speak to you for a moment?"
"Certainly," she said. She followed Jarrod to what had been their bedroom and Jarrod closed the door.
"Lucas is going with me," Jarrod said without preamble.
"No, Jarrod, he can't," Molly said, turning white.
"He wants to," Jarrod said, "and he's earned the right to be treated like a man. Hasn't he?"
"Yes," Molly agreed reluctantly. "But so soon, Jarrod? He's only thirteen."
"I wasn't much older when my father first stood against the railroad. I stood by him then; I can't treat my own son with any less respect."
Molly fell into his arms, her head against his chest, weeping. After awhile, she straightened and dried her tears. "All right, Jarrod. I don't like it, but I won't stand against it. He's a Barkley, too, what else could I expect?"
"There's my Feather," Jarrod said, his arms wrapped around her. "I'll help him pack - I won't ask that of you. We'll leave in the morning." He kissed her then, warm and tenderly. Molly thought of all the good-byes she had endured, and how much she hated them. She kissed him ardently, and drew him down on the bed.
Chapter Eight: The Prodigal Son Returns
"So how shall we amuse ourselves for three days?" Jack Darby asked after the party had boarded the stagecoach in Sacramento. He pulled out a deck of cards. "Poker?"
Nick grinned. "Sure. It'll give me a chance to get even with Sam."
"You can dream, Cowboy," Samantha said, grinning also.
"Did I miss something?" Jack asked.
"It's how we met," Nick explained. "Samantha bested me at poker - completely cleaned me out."
"How interesting," Jack said, shuffling deftly. "So it's agreed?"
"I can play, too," Lucas said. "The miners taught me."
"Mr. Darby is a professional, Son," Jarrod pointed out. "He's liable to clean you out."
"Doesn't have to be poker," Jack said amiably. "Gin rummy? Whist?"
"Gin rummy, to start with," Jarrod said. "And for points, not money."
"As you wish, Judge," Jack said, dealing out the cards.
Samantha gathered them up and handed them back. "Off the top, Jack," she warned.
"Oh, dear," Jack said. "I didn't realize I was doing that. Am I a card sharp, too?"
Samantha took the cards and handed them to Lucas. "Better let someone else deal," she said.
Claire Carroll was sweeping off the porch when her uncle and brothers returned from town. Her two younger brothers jumped down from the wagon and dashed over to her. "You got a l-l-letter, Claire," Ben said.
George danced around her. "Claire got a letter, Claire got a letter," he sang.
"Stop being silly, boys," Claire said, "and give it to me."
Joseph walked over and handed her the letter as Ethan began to unhitch the horses. "It's from your boyfriend," Joseph teased.
George changed his song to, "Claire's got a boyfriend, Claire's got a boyfriend."
"You boys come unload the wagon," Ethan said. "Let your sister alone."
Joseph shrugged and turned to obey his uncle. The younger boys followed and Claire put away her broom and opened the letter from Lucas. She sat on the step and read it carefully.
"What's he say?" Ethan asked, walking up to the porch and putting one foot on the step. "If you don't mind me asking."
"Nothing much, Uncle Ethan," Claire said. "His uncle got married, the man who got shot while we were there is getting better, his baby brother's got a new tooth. Things like that. Nothing really important."
"It's good to have a friend your own age though, isn't it?"
Claire looked up into his face. "Yes, it is. Thank you for understanding."
Ethan straightened. "Just don't go getting any ideas yet, Claire."
"What sort of ideas?"
"You know. Ideas." Ethan blushed.
Claire laughed. "I'm only thirteen, Uncle Ethan. It'll be years and years before I get 'ideas,' trust me. Lucas is a nice boy, and I like him. That's all."
Ethan patted her shoulder. "That's what I thought." He went to take care of the horses, trying to remember when 'years and years' had seemed like a long time.
Emma Barkley sat glumly on the verandah, chin in both hands. Her mother came and sat down by her. "What's wrong, Sweetie?" she asked.
"I miss Daddy. And Lucas, and Uncle Nick," Emma said. "When are they coming back?"
"In about a week, Sugar," Molly said. She hugged her daughter. "Come now, you love being at the ranch. Why don't you ask Aunt Audra to go riding with you? No sense both of you moping around the house."
"I'm not moping. Mommy," Emma said, "but I will go ask her." She stood and went into the house.
Molly sighed. She felt like moping herself. Maybe she would go see what Professor Wickwire was up to. She stood and began to make her way through the garden to the workshop when she heard a horse galloping up the drive. She turned back to the house in time to see a young sandy-haired man dismount and dash into the house.
Curious, Molly returned to the house to find the young man being kissed and hugged by Victoria. "Welcome home, Eugene," Victoria said. "Oh, it's so good to see you!" She looked up when Molly entered. "Molly, you know Eugene."
"No, I don't believe I've had the pleasure," Molly smiled.
"Don't be silly, Molly," Victoria said. "Of course you know my youngest son."
Molly looked confused. "No one's even mentioned him," she protested.
"Of course we have," Victoria said. "He's been away at college is all. Come along, Gene, and I'll show you to your room."
Molly followed Victoria and Eugene upstairs. "I've known you for five years, Mother," she said. "Audra's gone to college and graduated in that time. What has Eugene been studying?"
"Oh, this and that," Eugene said. They walked to the end of the hall and Victoria began to open a door.
"That's the nursery," Molly said.
"No, it's Gene's room," Victoria said. "The nursery is across the hall." She opened the door to a well-appointed bedroom.
Molly opened the other door, expecting a broom closet, but found her housemaid and her two youngest children in the nursery. She put her hand to her head and went to her and Jarrod's bedroom, which was now somewhat smaller, with different furniture. She sat down on the bed, holding her head in her hands. What was going on here?
She got up and went down the hall, opening doors as she went. Nick's room had grown much larger, and Victoria's and Audra's rooms seemed to have switched places. Molly ran down the stairs and out the front door, panting.
She wondered if the cottage would still be there, and she was relieved to find that it was. "Bertie," she said as she dashed in, "am I insane?"
"Molly, dear," Wickwire said, raising his goggles and turning off his engine. "Whatever's the matter?"
"Am I insane?" Molly repeated.
"Sit down, dear," Wickwire said, indicating a stool. "Why you're as sane as I am."
Molly stared at him, aghast. "What? You think I'm insane?" Wickwire inquired.
"No," Molly conceded, "eccentric, perhaps, but only because you see the future where most people can only see the present.”
"So what's wrong?" he asked.
Molly looked around. "Where's Aaron?"
"Visiting the necessary. So what has you spooked, girl?"
Molly took a deep breath and told him.
"Hm," Wickwire said. "That's very interesting. I don't know about the son - I haven't been here since Nick was a boy - but I'm glad someone else has noticed the house changing."
"Not on this trip," Wickwire said, "but when I used to visit here the house was different every time I came. And the barn was at the back of the house, not the front like it is now."
"So what do you think is happening, Bertie?" Molly asked.
"Well, I have this theory that space is not fixed, that it can be bent by gravity. Have you ever noticed that usually you can get to Sacramento in an hour by train, but sometimes it takes as much as five hours? What's the reason for that?"
"Um, slow trains?" Molly said. "What does that have to do with the rooms moving around?"
"Well, when space gets bent, it can touch other universes, and sometimes there's leakage. That's my theory anyway."
"I know you were speaking English," Molly said, "but I don't think I understood a word of that."
"Well, don't worry about it. The point is, I've noticed it, too, so if you're insane, I'm insane, and in precisely the same way. Logic would dictate that such a thing would be virtually impossible, so you're not insane. Quod erat demonstrandum."
"If you say so, Bertie," Molly said. "I don't know that I feel any better, though."
Molly went back to the house and spent the next few hours in the company of her children. She opted for a tray in the nursery for dinner - she didn't think she could face the scene at the dinner table just yet. "Are you feeling all right, Molly?" Victoria asked her.
"Maybe a little feverish," Molly lied. "I think I'll just go to bed early."
The next morning Molly woke up with her arms around Jarrod's pillow. It smelled of his hair oil and his cigars and a darker scent that was purely Jarrod. Molly buried her face in it for several moments before she realized that she was back in her familiar bed - the one she had before all the changes yesterday. She looked around and, yes, the room was the same as she remembered it. She put on her robe and carefully opened the door into the corridor. She opened the door that had led to the nursery yesterday, and it was a broom closet now. Again. She carefully opened the door across the hall, to find her baby and her daughters sound asleep in their beds. She breathed a sigh of relief and went down the hall quietly opening doors. All was as it had been, and there was no sign of Eugene.
She went downstairs to the breakfast room. Victoria was sitting at the head of the table sipping a cup of coffee. "Molly," she said, "you're not dressed. Don't you feel well?"
"I'm much better," Molly said. "Where's Eugene?"
"Eugene?" Victoria said. "Who's Eugene?"
Molly brushed her hair back from her face. "No one," she said. "I must have been having a bad dream."
"Well, sit down and have some coffee," Victoria said. "You'll feel better. And stop worrying - I'm sure that's why you're having bad dreams."
"I wish I could, Mother," Molly said, pouring herself a cup of coffee, grateful that it had all been a dream. It had been a dream - hadn't it?
Chapter Nine: Meanwhile. . .
Jarrod disembarked from the stagecoach and assisted Samantha to alight. "Let's go check into the hotel and freshen up," he said as everyone else disembarked. He checked his watch. "It's a little before noon - after lunch Nick, Jack and I will go find our Mr. Carter."
"What about me?" Lucas asked.
"I want you to stay and guard Samantha," Jarrod said.
Lucas thought for a moment, but the request seemed reasonable, even if it did thrust him on the back burner. "All right, Dad," he said.
Jarrod patted his shoulder. "Thank you, Lucas. Are you all right, Jack?" he asked, peering at the other man, "You look a little pale."
"It's been a long time since I've traveled by stagecoach," Jack said. "I'm a bit queasy from all the jostling. It'll pass."
"Are you sure?" Jarrod asked, picking up the suitcases as the driver tossed them down. "Maybe you should see a doctor."
"I'm fine," Jack said. "Nothing a good meal and a night in a soft bed wouldn't cure. And a bath - I'm practically dying for a bath."
"If you're certain," Jarrod said, leading the way to the hotel. Nick offered his arm to Samantha and she smiled up at him, leaning on him.
Three rooms at the hotel, a quick wash up (Jack's bath would have to wait for later), and a hearty luncheon, and the three men went in search of their objective. "How do you know where Carter's office is?" Nick asked, one hand on his gun although even he doubted it was necessary at this point.
"I wired one of my brothers of the legal profession," Jarrod said, "and swore him to silence. No need to tip Carter off that we're coming."
Carter's office was manned (or womanned, Jarrod thought with a smile) by a bespectacled young woman in starched collar and cuffs. She had a highly capable air and rather reminded Jarrod of Molly. "Pardon me, Miss," he took off his hat and greeted her. "I'm Jarrod Barkley. This is my brother Nick and Mr. Jack Darby. We would like to see Mr. Carter if we may."
The secretary looked up at them with a skeptical glance. "He's your brother," she looked at Nick, "but he's not?" She indicated Jack.
"It's a long story, Miss. . . ?" Jarrod said.
"Knightly," she replied. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Carter is out of town at the moment. If you'd like to make an appointment?"
Jarrod frowned. "Out of town? Where?"
"He's gone up to Paradise for a stockholders' meeting. You only just missed him - he left on the one o'clock stage."
Jarrod swore inwardly. "I'd been told that he no longer owned the Paradise Mine - that he lost it in a legal dispute."
"He, or rather the company, won it back on appeal. Hence the stockholders' meeting. There are many decisions to be made."
"When is he due back, Miss Knightly?" Jarrod asked.
"Not for several weeks. After the meeting he's going to Washington on a lobbying trip. There's a labor reform bill before Congress that he is campaigning against."
Jarrod smiled narrowly. "I might have guessed."
Miss Knightly smiled up at him. "Yes, you might have, Mr. Barkley."
"Ah, so you do know who I am."
"I've heard Mr. Carter speak of you and your reforms on many occasions," she said impishly.
Jarrod leaned closer. "And if I may ask, where do you stand on the issue, Miss Knightly?" he asked conspiratorially.
"I do have to work for a living, Mr. Barkley," she said.
Jarrod smiled. "Then perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me just how long Mr. Carter is going to be in Paradise?"
"Three or four days, depending on how the meeting goes. But the telegraph line to Paradise is out - if you want to send him a message, I'm afraid it will have to be by mail."
Jarrod straightened. "Thank you for your help, Miss Knightly. I won't take up any more of your time."
"Just one thing," Jack said. "Have you ever seen me before?"
Miss Knightly gave him a puzzled look. She looked from him to Jarrod and back again. "No, Mr. Darby, I've never seen either of you before. Why do you ask?"
"Mr. Darby is suffering from amnesia, Miss Knightly," Jarrod said. "One of the purposes of our trip is to try to help him regain his memory."
Miss Knightly's eyes grew sympathetic. "I'm so sorry that I can't help you."
"Quite all right, Miss," Jack said with a bow. "I didn't really expect you to."
Jarrod took leave of Miss Knightly and the three men strode out of the office.
"Well, what now, Big Brother?" Nick asked. "Don't tell me we came all this way for nothing."
Jarrod heaved a sigh. "There's only one thing we can do, Brother Nick. Be on tomorrow's stage for Paradise."
Jack shuddered. "More jostling," he said.
"You can wait here for us to come back," Nick pointed out. "We don't need you."
"Nick," Jarrod chided.
"No, Mr. Barkley," Jack said to Nick, "you don't need me. But I need to confront Carter as much as you do. Maybe more."
"Are you up to it, Jack?" Jarrod asked concerned.
"Yes, don't worry about me," Jack said. "Just let me go back to the hotel and take that bath."
"I need to stop by the telegraph office first," Jarrod said.
"Why?" Nick said. "There's no line to Paradise, the secretary said."
"Well, let's check to be sure - it would be good to let Amelia know we're coming if that's possible, but mostly I need to send a wire to Molly."
Molly sat up in bed, drenched in sweat. She brushed her damp hair out of her eyes and rested her head on her knees. She sighed wearily and climbed out of bed. She opened the window and peered out into the darkness. About an hour before dawn, she guessed. The air was heavy, and the scent of roses drifted up from the garden. She put on her robe and went downstairs and outside. She sat underneath a bower and tried to think, but she was too exhausted. She realized that there was more light in the garden than there should be, and looked over toward the cottage to find light streaming out the windows.
She walked over and peered in to find the Professor sitting up and reading. She tapped on the window and he looked up and motioned her inside. "What's wrong, Molly girl? Still having bad dreams?"
"How did you know about that?" Molly asked.
"You were out here the other night babbling about the rooms moving around - you were obviously sleepwalking so I just got you quietly back to the house."
Molly put her head in her hand. "I don't know what to do, Bertie. I can't get to sleep, and when I do I have nightmares. I've never been this way before. I'm at the end of my rope."
"It sounds like you're trying to tell yourself something."
"What does that mean? Don't I already know what I know?" Molly waved her hand. "You know what I mean."
"But you're apparently not acknowledging it. What was the nightmare about?"
"The rooms moving around again, only this time I'm climbing up a long staircase to the attic, but when I get there it's the cellar. And my first husband and my brothers are all there, but when I try to talk to them, they disappear."
"Well, doesn't that seem obvious to you?" Wickwire asked.
Molly shook her head. "It doesn't make any sense."
Wickwire huffed. "Come now, Molly, you're an intelligent woman. Think about it. All your life you've been left behind by men who never came back. So you feel lost and no longer safe in your own home. Am I right?"
Molly closed her eyes for long moments. "I'm not a child, Bertie - I ought to be able to deal with things like this. When we were in Paradise, Jarrod was in far more immediate danger, yet I handled it. I didn't like it, but I handled it."
"So maybe it's not the danger, per se, that frightens you."
Molly buried her face in her hands. "It's the being left behind, isn't it? And worrying about my son as well as my husband. But what can I do, Bertie? My place is with my children - I can't be two places at once."
Wickwire patted her shoulder. "When I knew you before, you never seemed to worry about your place."
"Because I didn't have one," Molly said. "I didn't until I came here."
"We all have a place," Wickwire said, tapping his head, "in here. You always seemed to know yours, but now you're torn. Time to figure it out, Molly. You'll never rest until you do."
Molly sighed. "Thank you, Bertie. I think." She looked out the window. "The sun's coming up. I'd better get back." She kissed his cheek. "Thank you for listening, anyway."
"If I can help you in any way, Molly, you know you only have to ask."
"I will," Molly said, opening the door and making her way back to the house.
She was startled to see Sheriff Fred Madden ride up just as she got to the verandah. Fred leapt off his horse. "Molly!" he said, "I'm glad you're up."
Molly looked down at her disheveled form and wrapped her robe more tightly around herself. "What's the problem, Fred?" she asked.
"I don't quite know how to say this, Molly," Fred said. "It's a terrible thing."
"What, Fred?" Molly said, blanching.
"There's this telegram," Fred said. "All I can guess is that the delivery boy stuck it under the mat instead of delivering it properly. Believe me, I'm going to have words with the telegraph company."
"Give me that," Molly said, snatching the telegram out of his hand. She opened it up and began to read. She turned even whiter. "No," she said, the telegram falling from her limp fingers. "It's impossible. . . ."
". . .that there's not a spare room in the entire hotel, Scotty?" Jarrod asked the innkeeper of the Paradise Hotel.
"It's the stockholders' meeting, Judge Barkley," Scotty McBride said. "I'm completely full up."
"So what do we do now?" Samantha asked, crouched down by Jack's chair in the hotel lobby. Jack's face was pale and he was drenched with sweat. "He's obviously not well - we should at least send for a doctor."
"Does Paradise have a doctor yet?" Jarrod asked Scotty.
"No, sir, I'm sorry to say. The town is growing, we could sure use one," Scotty said.
Jarrod tapped his fingers impatiently on the counter, thinking. "We can't go to Amelia's, she wouldn't have room for us all. We still own the house here, but it's unfurnished. All we left behind were a few pots and pans." He straightened and sighed. "It'll have to be the house, we don't have any choice. Lucas, would you run over to the bank and ask Mrs. Lawson for the key? I'll go over to the dry goods store and get some cots from Mr. Lee, and whatever supplies we'll need. It'll almost be camping out, but it's the best we can do."
Lucas nodded and ran to the yellow house across the street.
"I'm sure sorry, Judge," Scotty said. "I wish I could accommodate you."
"It's not your fault, Scotty," Jarrod said. He looked worriedly at Jack. "Have you seen John Taylor around?"
"That Indian?" Scotty said. "Sometimes. Not today. Ethan Cord might know where he is, except I think Ethan's up at the mine working security for the meeting."
"Is Richard Carter staying here?"
"He is," Scotty nodded, "but he's up at the mine, of course."
"Let me leave a message for him," Jarrod said, taking a pen and paper and writing. "All right. Nick, you and Samantha stay here with Jack while I go to the store."
"Not on your life, Brother," Nick said. "You're not walking down the street alone, especially not here."
Jarrod frowned. Scotty glanced at the gunbelts Nick and Jarrod were wearing and said, "You folks expecting trouble?"
"Maybe," Jarrod said.
"I'll stay here with Jack," Samantha said. "I'm sure we'll be all right with Mr. McBride looking after us." She flashed Scotty a winning smile.
Nick frowned and thought, conflicted. "All right," he said at last. "I don't suppose anything's going to happen to you here." He bent down and kissed her warmly before departing with his brother.
They had only been gone a few minutes when an aged Indian walked into the hotel. "Ah, John Taylor," Scotty said. "These people were asking for you."
"Were they?" John Taylor said. He looked at Samantha. "How may I be of service, ma'am?"
"Are you a doctor?" Samantha asked.
"A healer," John Taylor said. He looked at Jack. "Odd, this man looks just like Judge Barkley."
Samantha scrutinized him. "But he's not Jarrod. How could you tell?"
John Taylor shrugged. "I just could." He put a hand to Jack's head. "He has a fever."
"He was shot and nearly died a few weeks ago. The doctor gave him a clean bill of health, but the stagecoach ride up here hasn't helped him any."
"I do wish you'd stop talking about me as though I weren't here," Jack said peevishly.
"May I see the wound, Mr. . . ?" John Taylor said.
"Darby. Jack Darby." Jack began to unbutton his shirt.
John Taylor gently probed the scar with his fingers. "Doesn't appear to be infected, that's good," he said. Jack rebuttoned his shirt as John Taylor pulled a pouch from his pocket. "Could I trouble you for some hot water?" he asked Scotty. Scotty nodded and went into the back room.
"What are you giving him?" Samantha asked.
"Willow bark, for fever," he said.
Samantha nodded. "I know that one."
"You know herbs?" John Taylor asked.
"A little," Samantha said.
"But you don't like Indians," John Taylor said in a conversational tone.
Samantha sat back on her heels. "I thought I was hiding it better than that," she said. "I'm sorry."
John Taylor shrugged. "I'm used to it."
"It's just that. . . ," Samantha hesitated, ". . .my parents were killed by Indians."
"My family was killed by the Army," John Taylor said.
Samantha gazed down at her hands. "I see." She sat thoughtfully for a while. "I'm trying to learn not to hold on to old grudges," she said at last.
"It can take a lifetime to learn that, sometimes," John Taylor agreed, as Scotty returned with a cup of hot water. John Taylor poured some herbs into the cup and helped Jack to drink it. He gave the pouch to Samantha just as Jarrod returned, accompanied by Nick and Lucas.
"I should have known you'd show up just where you're most wanted, John Taylor," Jarrod said. He introduced the old man to his brother and his son. "I see you've already met Jack, and Samantha, Nick's wife."
John Taylor tipped his hat. "My pleasure." He looked at Lucas, "You've grown more than a mite, haven't you?" he said.
Lucas grinned up at him, "Yes, sir," he said.
"Well, I'll be off," John Taylor said. He turned to Samantha. "Give him some of that every few hours. That and rest should bring him back in no time." He smiled broadly and left.
The message from Richard Carter came during dinner - Nick's stew eaten in the kitchen. Jarrod read, "He says he'll be busy most of tomorrow, but can squeeze us in around noon, if we can come up to the mine."
"Lot of nerve. . . ," Nick began.
"Now Nick, we are dropping in unexpectedly," Jarrod said. "Let's not go up there with a chip on our shoulders. After all, all we really have to go on is Jack's vague recognition. We're here to ask questions, not to start a fight."
"All right," Nick grumped, "but if he is behind all this, so help me!"
"We'll have to send our regrets to Mrs. Lawson," Samantha said. "If we're going to the mine at noon, we won't be able to have lunch with her."
"You and Lucas can go," Jarrod said. "No need for you to come up with us. How about you, Jack?"
"I'm feeling much better," Jack said. "A good night's sleep should do it."
"We'll see," Jarrod said.
"No way are you going up there without me," Jack insisted.
The men had left for the mine some time before, and Samantha and Lucas walked back to the house after their luncheon at Amelia's. "I like your Mrs. Lawson," Samantha said.
"Yes, she's nice," Lucas agreed. "She helped take care of us after Dad rescued us from the mine. The whole town did, actually."
"It's not a bad little town," Samantha said, opening the front door. A hand grabbed her around the neck and pulled her inside.
"Drop the gunbelt, boy," a harsh voice said. Lucas looked into a pair of wild eyes and raised his hands. The man held a gun to Samantha's head.
"All right," Lucas said shakily. "Don't hurt her." He slowly unbuckled the belt and let it drop.
"Where's that lawyer of yours?" the man asked.
"Jarrod?" Samantha gasped. "He's up at the mine. They'll be back soon. What do you want?"
"I want the lawyer. I aim to kill him." Samantha gasped. "I thought I already had," the wild man said.
"You shot Jack?" Samantha asked.
"If that's who it was," the man said. "By the time I found out different. . .well, he'd already left town. I been trailing you all the way up here, but I ain't been able to catch him alone."
"And you won't," Lucas said.
The man tugged at Samantha. "I might. You know where mine shaft number five is, boy?"
Lucas gasped, but nodded.
"You tell that lawyer if he wants to see her alive again, to come alone, you hear me? You tell him. . . ."
". . .that Cass Hyatt's escaped from prison." Molly stumbled into Fred, as Fred reached down and caught the falling telegram. Molly leaned into him. "What am I going to do now?" she wailed.
Chapter Ten: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
"Mr. Barkley," Richard Carter greeted Jarrod tersely. "And Mr. Darby, I see. Then there's no reason to ask what you wanted to see me about."
"So you do know me?" Jack asked.
Carter frowned. "What kind of question is that?"
"Mr. Darby has amnesia," Jarrod began.
Carter laughed. "Pull the other one," he said.
"No, it's true," Jack said. "I can't remember anything. But your name raised a reaction, so that's why we're here."
"Mr. Darby was shot a few weeks ago, nearly fatally. He doesn't remember who shot him, either," Jarrod said.
Carter looked from one to the other, took in how heavily armed the three men were. “You think I had something to do with it? I don't like you, Mr. Barkley, and the feeling's mutual, but I certainly wouldn't stoop to that. I prefer to beat you on your own ground."
"So what did you have to do with Jack?" Jarrod asked.
"Jack, is it?" Carter said. "Such friendly terms."
"The Barkleys took me in, nursed me back to health," Jack said. "I wouldn't be here now."
"Why should I tell you?" Carter said. "If I've got an ace in the hole, why would I reveal it?"
"Because Jack is suffering," Jarrod said. "He only knows his own name because we told him what it was. If you have the key that can unlock his memory, it's your duty as a human being to give it to him."
Carter frowned and looked down at this desk. "You do have a way with words, Mr. Barkley. It's what makes you so formidable. All right, I'll tell you, but you won't like it."
"I didn't expect to," Jarrod said.
"Mr. Darby came to me a few weeks ago and offered to help me, for a price. He said he could dig up some useful dirt on your family. Your sister-in-law in particular."
"Samantha!" Nick bellowed. He grabbed Jack by the shirtfront and hoisted him in the air. "You lily-livered, yellow-bellied, lowdown worm!"
"Who's Samantha?" Carter inquired.
"My wife!" Nick bellowed.
Jack was shaking his head. "I don't remember," he protested, but a light was dawning in his eyes.
"Nick," Jarrod ordered, "put him down! Now!"
Nick dropped Jack unceremoniously. "This isn't over!" he shouted.
Lucas burst into the room. "Dad! Uncle Nick!" he panted. "He's got Aunt Samantha!"
"Calm down, Son," Jarrod said. "Who's got Samantha?"
"Cass Hyatt. He said, if you ever want to see her alive, to go to the number five mine shaft. Alone." Lucas's eyes teared up. "He got the drop on me, Dad. I was supposed to protect her, and I couldn't."
"It's all right, Son," Jarrod said. "We'll get her back."
"He said he aims to kill you," Lucas said.
"I'm sure he does," Jarrod said, grimly. "But he won't. Do you know where this place is where he took her?"
Lucas nodded. "I can show you. Be careful, Dad."
"The number five shaft is unstable," Carter said. "It's why we closed it. You can't go in there."
Jarrod ignored him. "Come on, Son, let's go."
"We'll be back for you!" Nick said to Jack as he followed his brother out.
"I don't believe I'll be waiting around," Jack muttered.
This man killed my sister. This man killed Beth. The thoughts swirled through Samantha's head. Her hands weren't bound - this man seemed to think that pacing back and forth and waving a gun at her was enough to keep her quiet. Maybe it was - with no gun, no weapon, what could she do? But if she did nothing, this man would kill Jarrod. She took stock of her surroundings: a lantern, some fallen rocks and timbers, nothing immediately useful. Words, words were all she had - up until now, they had always been enough.
"Why do you want to kill Jarrod?" she asked. She knew, but she needed to get him talking.
"He tried to kill me, did you know that? Held my head under water and tried to drown me."
"Why would he do that?" Samantha asked. "He must have had a reason."
Cass waved the gun around. "I never meant to do it - I never meant to kill no woman. It was the lawyer I was gunning for - you gotta believe that. He sent me to prison for something I didn't do. Seven years I spent in prison for something I didn't do!"
"It must have been terrible," she said.
"No one on the outside knows what it's like. No one would send a dog there if they knew what it was like."
Samantha bit her lip. Should she play that card? It was like a verbal poker game - a dance of truth, chance and bluff. "I know what it's like," she said. "I've been in prison."
Cass snorted. "You're a liar. That lawyer ain't marrying no ex-con."
He thinks I'm Jarrod's wife. Keep that card or discard it? "I'm not Jarrod's wife - I'm his sister-in-law." Samantha held her breath.
"You're telling the truth, ain't you?" Cass swore. "I shoulda taken the boy."
"If you're thinking Jarrod won't come after me, you're wrong. And I have been to prison. I spent six years for fraud."
"Barkley know that?" Cass sneered.
Time to bluff. "No," Samantha said. "I hope none of them ever find out."
Cass snorted. "Yeah. Them shiny-shoed, neatly pressed Barkleys wouldn't cotton to having no ex-cons in the family. So what's your game - you marry him for the money?"
"Precisely," Samantha said, quietly gritting her teeth. Connection. "Could I have some water? I'm pretty thirsty."
Cass unslung the canteen he carried over his shoulder and handed it to her. "I ain't aiming to kill you, you understand," he said. "It's that Barkley I'm after."
"You don't think having his wife die in his arms was punishment enough?" Samantha said. Beth There was a pain in the pit of her stomach, but she fought through it.
"Death'll be punishment enough," Cass said.
"There are worse things."
"Losing everything you love."
"Prison," Cass said.
"Yes, prison," Samantha agreed.
"You know, he didn't even get arrested? Attempted murder, and he didn't even spend the night in jail," Cass said, aggrieved.
The law thought losing his wife was punishment enough. Why doesn't he? Why does Beth count for nothing to this man? All he can see is himself. "The Barkley luck," she said.
"The Barkley pull, you mean," Cass said. "Well, this is where the pull ends." He patted his gun.
And the game went on.
Fred helped Molly into the house. Victoria, Audra and Heath ran downstairs at the sound of Molly's wails. "Whatever is the matter?" Victoria said.
Fred handed her the telegram. "I'm sincerely sorry about this, Victoria," he said.
Victoria read it. "Cass Hyatt? But this telegram is weeks old - why are you just telling us this now?
"It was mislaid, that's all I can say," Fred said. "I only found it this morning. I rode over here as fast as I could."
Victoria grabbed Molly by the arm and shook her. "Pull yourself together!" she said. "Now is no time to be falling apart."
"Mother," Audra said, putting an arm around Molly's waist. "Look at her. She hasn't slept for days. Come, Molly, sit down." Audra led Molly into the parlor and poured her a brandy.
"I'm all right, Audra," Molly said, pushing the glass away. "It was just a shock. Not on an empty stomach, please."
"All right," Audra said, "let's get some breakfast - then we can talk about what to do."
"You'd better get word to Jarrod as soon as possible," Fred said. Wickwire came in and stood behind him.
"That's impossible, I'm afraid," Heath said. "He's in Paradise, and the telegraph is out. Or it was a couple of days ago when he sent a wire from Yuba."
"Well, I'll check on that when I get back to town." Fred tipped his hat. "If there's anything I can do, please let me know."
"We will, Fred," Victoria said. She saw Fred to the door and then the party adjourned to the breakfast room.
"Let's get some food into you, Molly," Audra said.
"I better head up to Paradise as soon as possible," Heath said.
"What good will that do?" Molly asked. "The fastest means possible will take five days - it may be too late then. It may be too late already."
"There's another way," Wickwire offered.
"What, Bertie?" Molly said eagerly.
"The airship. With the old engine, we could get up to fifteen miles an hour. The new one should be even faster."
Molly calculated in her head. "It's a hundred and thirty five miles to Paradise. You mean we could be there in nine hours?"
"More or less," Wickwire said. "It's not as fast as a train, not yet, but certainly faster than a stagecoach. And if I can find us a tailwind, we could be there even faster."
"You're not getting me up there in that contraption," Heath said.
"I'll go," Molly said.
"So will I," Audra said.
"You believe him?" Heath asked.
"Yes, I do," Molly said. "Bertie's no crackpot - if he says it can get us there in a matter of hours, it will."
Heath sighed. "All right, but it's against my better judgment."
"Now, there's a problem," Wickwire said. "It'll take four people to operate it - counting myself and Aaron - but with the larger engine, we can only carry so much weight. If we take you, the fourth person would have to be a child. Or a midget."
"Or Audra and I," Molly said.
"Now see here," Heath said.
"Heath," Victoria said, "it's the only solution."
"But, Mother," Heath protested, "what about Molly's children?"
"I'm perfectly capable of taking care of them until she gets back," Victoria said.
"If she gets back," Heath huffed.
"Don't worry," Molly said. "I'll be back." She smiled for the first time in days.
"Just up over that rise," Lucas pointed. "This path will take us to it."
"I want you to ride back to town and get the Marshal," Jarrod said.
"Darn," Lucas said, "I should have thought of that before I came up here, shouldn't I?"
"You're doing fine, Son," Jarrod assured him. "Don't worry. Now go."
Lucas spurred his horse downhill towards town.
"Now, Jarrod," Nick said, "you know Mr. Lee told us Marshal Walker had been killed. There's only a deputy, and him not much use."
"I know," Jarrod said, dismounting, "but I needed him out of harm's way. I'll deal with the consequences later." He tied his horse to a tree as Nick also dismounted. There was the sound of a horse galloping, and Jarrod looked up to see Ethan Cord riding up the road.
"What do you want here, Cord?" he asked.
"Saw you go tearing away from the mine - wondered if you might need some help." Cord leaned forward in the saddle.
"None we're willing to pay for," Jarrod retorted.
"Things have changed since you were here last," Cord said. "I'm a family man now, and I do occasionally help out without being paid."
"No, Cord, we don't need your help," Jarrod said.
Nick looked up at Cord. "Now, Jarrod," he said, "don't be so hasty. We probably could use another man."
There was a buzzing sound, and Ethan's horse reared, throwing him to the ground hard. Nick drew his gun and shot the head off a rattlesnake that was ready to strike. Jarrod knelt down by Cord. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm all right," Cord said, climbing slowly to his feet, but then collapsing to the ground. He swore. "It's my leg."
Jarrod gently felt down the length of the leg. "I don't think it's broken," he said. "Try to stand on it again."
Ethan did so, but collapsed again, wincing. He swore harder. He looked up to see John Taylor approaching through the trees. "How is it you always show up when you're wanted, John Taylor?" he asked.
"Just my knack," John Taylor replied. He knelt down and felt the leg. "No, it's not broken, but you've torn some ligaments. You won't be walking on it for awhile. Looks like it's not your day to be a hero."
"I'm sorry you're hurt, Cord," Jarrod said, "but it's just as well for us. I have to go up there alone."
"Not on your life, Big Brother," Nick said. "He'll kill you. That's exactly what he wants."
"If I don't he'll kill Samantha," Jarrod argued. "Is that what you want?"
Nick hung his head. "All right," he said. "But I'm giving you just five minutes head start - you got that, five minutes. Then I'm coming in after you." He turned away, then turned back suddenly, his right fist aiming for Jarrod's jaw. Jarrod caught his arm easily.
"Now, Nick, you ought to know better than to try that with me," Jarrod said.
"You're right," Nick said. His left came up under Jarrod's guard and caught him on the chin. Jarrod slumped forward into Nick's arms, unconscious. Nick laid Jarrod carefully on the ground. "Look after him, will you, Mr. Taylor?" He ran his fingers through his hair, adjusted his hat and straightened his gunbelt. "I got to go rescue my girl." He stalked off up the path, hand on his gun as he did so.
Chapter Eleven: Lost in the Dark
Lucas hammered on the door of the Marshal's office, but no answer came. He thought for a moment - who might know where he could find the Marshal? He ran down the street to Amelia's house and hammered on that door, too.
"What's wrong, Lucas?" Amelia asked as she opened the door, her eyes filled with concern. Claire and Joseph Carroll stood in the doorway behind her, their younger brothers crowded in behind them.
"I need the Marshal," Lucas panted. "My Aunt's been kidnapped, and my dad and uncle have gone after her. But I need the law."
Amelia shook her head. "There's no Marshal, Lucas. There's a deputy, but if he's not at the office, I don't know where he might be."
"Uncle Ethan could help," Claire offered. "He's up at the mine." She pushed forward. "I'll go get him. Where should I tell him to come?"
"Mine shaft number five," Lucas panted. Claire leapt down the steps and mounted her horse.
"Come in and rest, Lucas," Amelia said. "We were having tea, you're welcome to join us."
"No, thank you, Mrs. Lawson," Lucas said. "I'm just going to go fetch my gun, then go back and join my dad."
"Do you think that's wise?"
"I have to tell him Mr. Cord is coming, at least."
"I'll go with him, Mrs. Lawson," Joseph offered.
Amelia thought for a moment. "All right, Joseph. Don't let him do anything foolish."
Lucas ran down the street, bounded up the steps and picked up his gunbelt from where he had dropped it.
"You really do carry a gun," Joseph said, looking down on the shorter Lucas.
"My father gave it to me," Lucas said, strapping it on. "I'm a good shot."
"You're not really going to use it, are you?"
"If I have to," Lucas said, bounding down the steps and running back to his horse. He was out of breath before he got there, and Joseph easily passed him. The two boys mounted up and kicked their horses into a gallop
"Wait," Joseph yelled, "the mine is that way!" He pointed up the road.
"That's the long way around!" Lucas yelled back, heading off the road and into the trees. "This is a short-cut."
Joseph turned his horse and followed him.
Victoria sat on the bed, bouncing Georgie on her knee as Molly packed a small carpet bag. "Thank you for offering to watch the children until I get back, Mother," Molly said. "And thank you for not trying to stop me from going."
Victoria shrugged. "I've fought off bandits with a baby on one hip and shooting from the other. I'm certainly no one to tell you not to walk into danger."
"You think I should have gone in the first place, don't you?"
"It's not my place to tell you or Jarrod how to run your marriage - the two of you have to work that out for yourselves. I hate to see the way you've unraveled before my eyes, though."
Molly closed the carpet bag and sat on the bed, taking Georgie into her arms. "It's the children, Mother. How could we take them into danger, and how could I go and leave them behind? Conscience does make cowards of us all."
"You're no coward, Molly, far from it. But you do worry so."
"Because I've lost so many already." She stood, kissed Georgie and handed him back, then picked up the bag. "Time to go - after I say good-bye to the girls." She went into the nursery and knelt, arms outstretched. Both girls ran into them and she hugged them fiercely.
"Why do you have to go, Mommy?" Emma asked.
"I have to go find Daddy and Lucas, Sweetie," Molly explained. "I have to go make sure they're all right, and bring them home. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I miss Daddy," Vicky said. "And Lucas. I'll miss you, too, Mommy."
"Grandmother will take good care of all of you, and I'll be home soon, I promise," Molly said, and hoped she wasn't lying. She kissed both girls, then stood, picked up her bag and walked downstairs.
Audra was waiting for her and the two women rode up to the north pasture where the airship was waiting for them. Wickwire helped them aboard and cast off the rope that was tying them to the ground. The balloon ascended quietly into the morning sky.
"You ladies will want to stay at the front, away from the engine," Wickwire told them. "Aaron's rigged up some kind of air baffle that he thinks will muffle the noise, but you'll probably need these when we start it up anyway." He handed them several balls of cotton to stick in their ears.
"What do you want us to do?" Molly asked. "You said it would take four people to operate the ship."
"Oh, that. I lied," Wickwire said cheerfully.
"Why would you do that, Bertie?" Molly asked.
"Because you obviously needed to go, and I don't mind taking Audra along. I don't see why the men in the family should have all the fun." He grinned.
"We're not here for fun," Molly pointed out.
"No, but it will be," Wickwire assured her. He pulled out a map. "Now we can follow the rail line until we get to Sacramento, but it'll be landmarks after that. Fortunately, we can follow the Feather from the Sacramento River all the way to Paradise."
"What's that mean? Follow the Feather?" Audra asked.
"It's the river that runs by Paradise," Molly said.
"How appropriate," Audra said, smiling.
"Why appropriate?" Wickwire asked.
"'Feather' is Jarrod's pet name for Molly."
"Oh, an ironic nickname, like calling a big man 'Tiny.' Because anyone less like a feather I've never met." Wickwire looked down. "We're at altitude. Better put the cotton in your ears. I'm going to go start the engine."
The noise was still almost deafening, but not nearly so loud as the first engine had been. Aaron's air baffle must be working. Molly peered over the edge of the basket. The landscape passed slowly beneath her, looking like nothing else she'd ever seen. As Stockton receded slowly into the distance, she realized that she and Audra were pioneers of a sort, maybe the first - certainly among the first - women to ever see the earth from the air. Bertie was right, this was going to be fun.
"He has a family now, you know," Samantha said. "A wife and four children."
"Yeah, my brother told me he'd married again. Guess he forgot the first one pretty quick, huh?" Cass sat on a timber, gun in his lap.
Samantha felt her face flush and her heart pound. Never. He never forgot Beth. She forced herself to appear at ease, though she was seething. "Guess so." She shrugged. "His wife is nice, though. I like her. They have a little baby."
"If you're trying to convince me not to kill him, don't waste your breath," Cass said. "It's what I come for, and it's what I aim to do."
"Well, think about yourself then. They'll hang you. It's a horrible way to die."
"Beats wasting away in prison, though, don't it?"
At one time Samantha would have agreed with him, now she wasn't so sure. Life seemed more worthwhile now. She looked up and saw Nick standing quietly at the edge of the lamplight - she hadn't heard him approach. For such a big man, he could be quite stealthy. Their eyes met and Nick nodded at her. "Could I have another drink of water?" she asked.
As Cass got up to give it to her, Nick leapt at him from behind. Cass whirled at the noise and raised his gun. Nick grabbed at it, and there was a struggle for control. The gun discharged into the ceiling, and there was an alarming rumble as the roof caved in.
Lucas and Joseph arrived back at the path in a matter of minutes. "Wow, that was a shortcut," Joseph said. "My way would have taken forever." As they came through the trees he looked up and said, "Uncle Ethan?"
"Dad!" Lucas said and sprang down from the saddle. "What happened to him?" he asked John Taylor.
Joseph sprang down also, kneeling by his uncle. "What happened to you?" he asked.
"Your. . .uncle, was it?" John Taylor said to Lucas. Lucas nodded. "Your uncle knocked him out and went up alone. Didn't want him to get killed, I gather."
"A rattlesnake startled my horse and it threw me. Can't walk, or I'd have gone, too," Ethan said.
Lucas retrieved his canteen and poured some water on his neck cloth. He sponged his father's face with it. "Wake up, Dad. Come on, wake up."
Jarrod stirred and opened his eyes. "Lucas? You shouldn't be back yet - how long have I been out?"
"Just a few minutes," John Taylor said.
"I knew a shortcut," Lucas said.
Jarrod sat up. "Nick. I have to go after him." He scrambled to his feet, then clutched his head dizzily. "Damn that brother of mine." He straightened, then looked at Joseph.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Claire's brother," Lucas said. "Claire's gone to the mine find you," he said to Ethan. "To ask you to help us."
"I done volunteered," Ethan said, grimacing.
Jarrod straightened his gunbelt, then headed up the path. "You boys stay here," he said.
"You're not going in there, Dad," Lucas said.
"I have to, Son," Jarrod turned and said. He tried to smile reassuringly. "Don't worry, I'll fetch them out and then we'll go home." He headed up the path again.
"You the boy that's been writing my niece?" Ethan said.
"Yes," Lucas said, distractedly looking up the path until Jarrod had vanished from sight. "Don't you remember me? I remember you." He bit his lip, torn whether to obey or not.
"I wouldn't have recognized you," Ethan said. "You're almost a man."
"He's shorter than I am," Joseph scoffed.
"Being a man don't have nothing to do with height," Ethan said. "You'll find that out in a year or two."
"I have to go," Lucas said. "I can't just wait here." He headed up the path, but broke into a run when he heard the rumble as the roof caved in.
Molly wrapped her shawl around her against the damp and chill. Aaron cut the engine as Wickwire came forward. "What's all this fog, Bertie?" Molly asked, taking the cotton out of her ears..
"We're inside a cloud, Molly," Wickwire said. "Isn't it wonderful? Listen."
Molly listened. "I can't hear anything."
"That's what's so wonderful," Wickwire said. "Absolute silence. We'll have to go lower to get out of the cloud, but I thought you might enjoy this for a moment."
Molly and Audra put their elbows on the edge of the basket as Wickwire went back to release hot air from the balloon. "Why did you come, Audra?" Molly asked. "Is it Jack? Everyone's noticed how you two have been looking at each other."
"Not really," Audra said, "although he is very attractive."
"He looks like Jarrod," Molly pointed out. "That's just creepy."
Audra shrugged. "He was so lost and alone. He needed taking care of. I guess he was an experiment, in a way."
"So it was really about Darren, then?"
Audra nodded. "When this is all over, I'll have to go to Denver and break it off. That's not where my heart is, Molly. It wouldn't be fair to drag it out."
"So it's the Amazon, then."
"Yes. I need adventure. I've always been a bit wild - now I've found something useful to do with that. I can't just waste it. That's why I came - for the adventure."
"Well, it is that," Molly said, watching for the view of the ground to return. "We're a little off-course, Bertie," she shouted back. Wickwire waved acknowledgement and signaled them to plug their ears before restarting the engine.
Samantha opened her eyes and thought she'd gone blind. She'd never known such total darkness. She felt around her - nothing but fallen rock and timber. She crawled forward, feeling her way. "Nick!" she called.
"Samantha?" Nick's voice came out of the darkness. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I think so," she said with relief. "I'm probably going to have some lovely bruises, but otherwise I'm fine. Where are you?"
"I'm pinned down, Sam. There's a huge timber across my legs."
"Keep talking - I'll find you. Anything broken?"
"I don't think so, but I can't really tell," Nick said. "See if you can find the lantern."
Samantha felt her way forward until her hand found something cold and metallic. She picked it up. The gun. She pulled the hammer back until she heard it click.
"What was that, Sam?" Nick asked.
"I found the gun," she said. "Now I need to find Cass Hyatt."
"Sam, don't," Nick said. "It's no better for you to kill him than for Jarrod."
"He killed my sister, Nick. He killed Beth. He deserves to die."
"Yes, Sam, but killing a man changes you - it's you I'm worried about. Please, don't do it." Nick's voice held a pleading tone she'd never expected to hear from him.
She felt around in the dark until her hand came across something warm, wrapped in fabric. "I found someone," she said. "Is that you, Nick?"
"No," Nick said, and his voice came from a distance. She knew she had found Hyatt. She pointed the gun in his direction. "Don't, Sam, if you love me," Nick said. "I can't stop you, but please, don't."
Samantha's hand trembled and her finger hesitated on the trigger. She held the gun that way a long moment, then finally lowered it, easing back on the hammer. Nick heard the click and sighed. "Come here, Sam," he said. "Come here and kiss me."
Samantha followed the sound of his voice until her hand found something soft. "Ow," Nick said.
"Sorry," Samantha said, feeling gently until she felt his nose, his lips. She bent down and kissed him - a long, dirty, gritty kiss - the best one ever.
Chapter Twelve: A Plethora of Plucky Orphans
The entrance to the mine shaft was a rubble-strewn ruin when Lucas arrived, followed closely by Joseph. Jarrod was nowhere in sight, and Lucas could only conclude that he had entered the mine before the cave-in. He stood there, half in shock, half in thought. "Good Lord," Joseph said. "What happened?"
"It was unstable," Lucas said. "Someone must have done something to trigger it. It wouldn't have taken much." He began to unstrap his gunbelt and remove his hat and vest.
"You're not going in there," Joseph said.
"Only so far as it's safe," Lucas said. "I know better than to move anything."
"My sister said you had worked in the mine," Joseph said.
"Two years," Lucas said. "I learned a lot." He nodded toward the entrance. "We're not going to be able to dig that out - it'll collapse. I need you to go to the mine office - tell them there are people trapped in there and we need equipment and a mining engineer. I'm going to go see if I can find out if they're still alive."
"Mrs. Lawson said I was to stop you doing anything foolish."
"It's not foolish - my dad, my uncle and aunt are all trapped in there, maybe dying, maybe. . . Well, it's not foolish. I know what to do. Please go, get help. I'll be here waiting for you."
Joseph looked at him a long moment, then tore down the path and mounted his horse.
"Where are you going, Joseph?" Ethan asked. John Taylor was applying a splint to his leg.
"To the mine office to get help. The shaft collapsed - there are people in there." Joseph turned his horse and galloped up the road.
Ethan swore and pounded the dirt. "You sure do hate sitting on the sidelines, don't you, Ethan?" John Taylor said.
Lucas took a careful assessment of the shaft entrance. He thought he was still small enough to squeeze through, but it would be an ordeal, in more ways than one. He had hoped to never have to go underground again. He took a deep breath and began to crawl through.
The light from the entrance didn't reach far, and soon he was in total darkness. One thing about being underground so long, he had developed an almost unerring sense of direction - hence his ability to find the shortest route back to town - and an ability to rely on his other senses. He closed his eyes and listened. It wasn't difficult to hear the voices in the distance.
"Uncle Nick? Aunt Samantha?" he yelled.
"Lucas?" Nick said. "Don't come in here, boy."
"I'm already in," Lucas said. "I've sent for help. Are all of you all right?"
"Nick's pinned, but I'm all right," Samantha said. "We don't know about Hyatt, he's not talking."
"What about my dad?" Lucas asked, heart pounding.
"He's not here, Lucas," Nick said.
"Yes, he is," Lucas replied. "He came in just before the cave-in."
"Oh, no," Samantha gasped. "Jarrod?"
"Be quiet," Lucas said. "I can find him."
"Can you see in the dark, boy?" Nick asked.
"No, but I can hear," Lucas said. "Be quiet."
There was no sound for several seconds as Lucas listened intently. Finally, he was able to focus on the faintest of noises. "I can hear three people breathing," he said. "The two of you over there, and someone nearby. Keep quiet and I'll look."
Lucas followed the sound until he found the man breathing, covered in rubble. He felt carefully, seeing with his hands what he could safely move out of the way. He dug until he uncovered the person's face, then probed gently. "Dad?" he asked. "Can you hear me?" There was no response.
"Is it Jarrod?" Nick asked.
"Yes," Lucas said, "but he's unconscious. There's an awful lot of rubble on top of him that I don't dare try to move. I think he's hurt, but his breathing's regular. I hope that's a good sign."
"You said you only heard three people," Samantha said. "There's not a fourth?"
"No," Lucas said, "just the three of you."
"Hyatt's dead then," Samantha said. For all her hatred and anger, she was surprised to find that the news made her sad as well. Poor, terrible, twisted soul.
"You said you sent for help," Nick said.
"Yes," Lucas said, "but the entrance is blocked - no one bigger than I am could get in or out. I can carry in food and water, but it's going to be awhile before we can get you out of here." Will Dad make it? He has to, he just has to.
"Lucas?" Lucas heard Claire yelling from the entrance.
"Don't come in, Claire," he said.
"I won't," she said. "I met Joseph on the way - he's heading up to the mine. Are you all right?"
"My dad's hurt. My aunt and uncle are all right, mostly. They're all alive, anyway."
"Can I get you anything?" Claire asked.
"Do you have anything to write with?" Lucas asked. "I'll need quite a few things."
"I've got a pencil and paper in my pocket," Claire said. "Go ahead, I'm ready."
"We'll need a lantern, some blankets and pillows, a pick and shovel, a crowbar, food and water, a couple of pails, bandages and a bottle of whiskey. And ask John Taylor what to do for a head injury."
"Got it," Claire said. "Anything else?"
"Not that I can think of right now," Lucas said. "If you cut due south through the woods, you can be back in town in just a few minutes."
"Can I?" Claire said. "All right, I'll be back as soon as possible."
"Thank you, Claire," Lucas said.
"Glad to help," Claire said sincerely. Lucas could hear her hurry away.
"You've got a good head on your shoulders, Lucas," Nick said approvingly. "I never would have thought of all that."
Lucas wiped away tears, glad that no one could see him crying. In a moment he heard John Taylor's voice calling him from the opening. "All right, Lucas," John Taylor said. "Have you got any light at all in there?"
"No, sir, it's pitch black."
"All right then, you'll have to do this by feel. Gently examine his head, tell me if you feel any soft spots or depressions. Extremely gently now."
Lucas probed Jarrod's head with his fingers, as lightly as possible. "I don't feel anything like that," he said, "but there's a lot of blood."
"Scalp wounds bleed pretty freely," John Taylor said. "You can bind that up when Claire gets back. Is there any bleeding from the mouth or ears?"
Lucas felt again. "No, sir, I don't think so."
"All right then," John Taylor said. "That's all we can do in the dark. From what you said it doesn't sound too serious, but I can't promise you that until I can get a look at him."
"I understand, John Taylor," Lucas said. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet."
Lucas reluctantly left Jarrod's side to go check on Nick. "Are you injured, Uncle?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Nick said, "but this timber has me pinned down."
Lucas felt his way up the timber - it didn't seem to meet anything at the top, or be holding up anything else. "I think it's safe to get this off you. Aunt Samantha, see if you can help me lift it. Give me your hand and I'll show you where to lift." He felt Samantha's hand in the dark and placed them on the beam. "Now heave when I say three. One, two, three." The two of them heaved with all their strength, but the timber barely moved. "We need another person," Lucas said. "We could move it then."
"Leave it," Nick said. "You shouldn't be in here, let alone anyone else."
Lucas smiled in the darkness. "Well, you know us Barkleys," he said.
Claire arrived back a little while later, and Lucas met her at the entrance. "I got what you asked for," she said, "and a basin, some towels and washcloths, and a brush and comb for your aunt."
"Thank you, Claire," Lucas said, "I didn't think of that."
Claire smiled. "Because you're not a girl. Is there anything else I can do?"
Lucas bit his lip, then shook his head.
"There is something," Claire said, "isn't there?"
"It's too dangerous for me to ask you," he said.
"Then I'm volunteering. What is it?"
Lucas sighed. "I think we can get my uncle free, but we can't do it alone. Anyone bigger couldn't get in, and anyone smaller wouldn't be strong enough."
"Looks like I'm your person, then," Claire said.
"All right," Lucas agreed reluctantly, "but you come in, do the job, and then get right out, you hear? I'm only asking because I'm afraid he might lose his leg if the circulation is cut off much longer."
Claire nodded. Lucas took some matches out of his pocket, lit the lantern and guided Claire carefully into the mine.
"You shouldn't have brought her in here, Lucas," Nick chided.
"We have to get you free, Uncle Nick," Lucas said. He showed Samantha and Claire once again where to lift, and this time the beam came free and Nick was able to slide out. Nick sat up and grimaced, rubbing his legs against the pain of returning circulation.
"Now get, girl," he growled.
"Getting, sir," Claire saluted, and Lucas lit her way with the lantern. "Thank you for letting me help," she said when they were by the entrance.
"It's me who should thank you," Lucas said.
Claire gazed into his eyes a moment, then leant forward and kissed him gently on the mouth. "You're the bravest boy I ever met," she said, then turned and hurried down the path.
Lucas stood stunned for a moment, then gathered up the supplies and carried them into the mine, bit by bit.
"Thank God for the light," Samantha said. "I was positively hungry for it."
Nick looked at Lucas and grinned. "She kissed you, didn't she, boy?"
Lucas blushed. "How did you know?"
"You got the look," Nick said, "I remember my first. . ."
"Nick," Samantha chided. "Leave be. Can you stand yet?"
Nick rubbed his legs some more. "Give me a few minutes."
Lucas carried the lantern over to where his father lay, nearly buried in rubble. He lay so still, so pale, only his soft breathing giving assurance he was still alive. "John Taylor, are you still there?" he called.
"Here, Lucas," John Taylor replied.
"I can see him now, tell me what to look for."
"Has he woken up yet?"
"No," Lucas called.
John Taylor was silent.
"That's not a good sign is it?" Lucas asked.
"I won't lie to you - no, it isn't. It could be a severe concussion, or he's suffered such bodily damage that the brain just shuts down for awhile. Can you see if he has other injuries?"
"No," Lucas said, trying not to weep and failing, "he's under too much rubble."
"Try to dig him out if you can without disturbing him or risking another rock fall. Might be better to wait until the mine engineer gets here."
"He's here." Lucas heard a familiar masculine voice outside the entrance. He hurriedly, but carefully, made his way through the rubble to the outside, where he found Claire, Joseph, John Taylor, Ethan Cord - hobbling on a makeshift crutch - and Richard Carter.
"Mr. Carter," Lucas said, "where's the engineer? My father, uncle and aunt are trapped in there."
"I'm a mining engineer," Carter said. "What were you doing in there, boy?"
"My name is Lucas Barkley," Lucas said tersely, but proudly. "Not 'boy.' I was freeing my uncle, who was pinned down, and carrying in supplies. And tending to my dad, who's seriously injured. And pardon me, but I doubt you're the one I would trust to run this rescue." Lucas looked up at Carter defiantly.
Carter looked back at Lucas, filthy, clothes in shreds, yet taking on authority like a man. "Jarrod Barkley your father?" he asked. Lucas nodded. "Believe me, Lucas, the last thing I want is for Jarrod Barkley to die in my mine. My name would be worthless - no one would believe that I had done everything I could to save him. So we're on the same side, at least in this." He stepped back and examined the mine entrance. "We're not going to be able to get through that way - start digging here and the whole shaft could cave in." He tapped his chin. "I wish I could get a man in there to survey what's left."
"I can do it," Lucas said.
"What do you know about mines, boy - I'm sorry, Lucas?" Carter scoffed.
"I worked in this one for two years," Lucas said.
Carter studied him, frowning. "You're that boy Barkley took from me, aren't you? The troublemaker."
Lucas shrugged. "If that's what you want to call me. We're wasting time - if you have a map of the shaft, I'll go back in and do that survey."
"Doesn't look like you have a choice, Carter," Ethan said.
Carter glared at him. "I don't recall giving you permission to leave, Cord."
"No, I don't recall that you did," Cord said easily.
Carter shook his head and turned back to Lucas. "All right, you'll have to do. Come with me." He headed down the path to where he had a table set up. Lucas looked down at his tattered shirt and shed it. Claire gasped at the scars on his back, then covered her mouth, embarrassed. Lucas just shrugged and followed Carter. The two spent some time bent over maps and consulting.
"Looks like we're getting quite a crowd down there," Cord said. "Maybe I better go see they don't get unruly. Joseph, you want to help me with that?" Joseph nodded and followed his uncle as he hobbled down the hill.
John Taylor turned to Claire. "Shocking, isn't it?" he said conversationally.
"I knew he'd been beaten," Claire said, "but I didn't realize how badly. How awful." Her eyes filled with tears.
John Taylor shrugged. "It's part of who he is, and you see who he is."
"You're not saying it's all right!"
"Not in a moral sense, no," John Taylor said, "but lots of awful things happen - it's best just to go on, like this young man is doing. Of course, it helps to have someone or something to love. Lots of strength comes from that."
"You're right, John Taylor," Claire said, giving him a hug, then skipping down the hill.
Lucas and Carter finished their consultation, and Lucas took the map back into the mine. Nick and Samantha had cleaned and bandaged Jarrod's head wound, but he was still unconscious. "We need to clear this rubble off," Nick said.
Lucas examined the pile carefully. "All right," he said, "but be careful to lift the rocks off, don't roll them. And if it starts shifting, even a little bit, stop. Better to leave him like it is than risk burying him deeper." Nick nodded and got to work.
Lucas knew that he sounded far more assured than he felt - inside he wanted to wail and kick things, but that wouldn't help matters. He picked up the lantern and began carefully examining the shaft, foot by foot.
Lucas came out a while later, map filled in. It was now late afternoon, and work had not even begun. He sighed inwardly and tried not to think dark thoughts. Carter took the map and carefully looked it over. "Good job," he said, grudgingly. "Looks like we'll have to go in through the hillside, here." He tapped the map. "Blasting is out - if a gunshot can cause a collapse, dynamite will bury them for sure. We'll have to dig." He motioned to his men.
"How long?" Lucas asked.
Carter shook his head. "Tomorrow afternoon, evening, maybe. No sooner."
Lucas's heart sank. Carter looked at him. "It's the best I can do, Lucas," he said gently.
Lucas looked up, aware that he had been hearing a distant droning for some few minutes, gradually growing louder. He shouted and ran to the top of the hill, which was bare. He jumped up and down, waving his arms as the airship sailed over the top of the trees. He saw the two women leaning over the side as Wickwire cut the engine and maneuvered the airship over the clearing.
“What is that?" Carter said, reaching the crest of the hill.
"It's my mom," Lucas said joyfully.
Chapter Thirteen: Waiting, Hoping and Praying
Wickwire gently brought the airship down to the clearing and threw down the tether rope. Lucas tied it to an outcropping, then assisted his mother out of the basket. Molly fell to her knees, embracing him. "Lucas!" she cried, "what's happening? Why are you so dirty?"
Lucas told her, his words stumbling over themselves, with an occasional clarification from Carter. The party walked down to the mine shaft. "How bad?" she asked.
"Pretty bad," Lucas admitted. "He's been unconscious for hours now. We won't know until we get him out, and Mr. Carter says that won't be for another day."
Molly stood and looked up at Carter. "So you're Richard Carter," she said. "I'm Molly Barkley."
"I wish we were meeting under better circumstances, Mrs. Barkley," Carter said, "but if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work. We have to dig through the hillside, and it's slow going since we don't dare risk blasting."
"Why not use the hydraulic drill?" Wickwire asked.
Carter scrutinized him. "Oh, I remember you. I ought to sue you for fraud. That thing never worked."
"It'll work," Wickwire said. "Just get it here."
"I don't have time for any crackpot schemes," Carter huffed.
"Bertie's not a crackpot," Molly said. "If he says it will work, then it will. I say we use it."
"Do you dare stake your husband's life on that, Mrs. Barkley? Because it sounds to me that time is of the essence."
"Which is why we have to use the drill. If you take a whole day, Jarrod may well be. . .well, it seems it's our only real hope."
Carter shook his head. "It's on your head then, because I'll have none of it." He motioned to some of his men, who after a hurried consultation set off in the direction of the mine office. "They'll bring it here, but in the meantime I'm going to keep digging." He stalked off.
"He's rather different than I was expecting," Molly said.
"He's a reasonable man," Wickwire said. "Maybe too reasonable."
"No room for wonder?" Audra said.
"Precisely," Wickwire agreed.
Molly yelled into the mine shaft, "Nick? Samantha? Are you all right?
"Molly?" Nick's voice came closer to the opening.
"And Audra," Audra said.
"What are you two doing here?" Nick demanded. "And how did you get here?"
"We got word this morning that Cass Hyatt had escaped, and we came to warn you," Molly said.
"You're too late," Nick said. Then, "This morning?"
"We came in Bertie's airship," Molly explained. "And yes, we know we're too late, we're sorry."
"But Doc thinks he can get the hydraulic drill working which should get you out faster," Lucas said.
"That's good, if he can pull it off," Nick said.
"He will," Lucas said hopefully.
"How's Jarrod?" Molly asked, trepidation in her voice.
"Still unconscious," Samantha said. "I wish I could say differently."
"What about Jack?" Audra asked.
"That. . . ," Nick began swearing, colorfully and thoroughly.
"What's that about, Nick?" Samantha asked as Audra staggered backward.
"That worm was planning to besmirch you to Carter for a price," Nick said.
"Ah," Samantha said calmly, "I had wondered if it was something like that."
"And you wanted us to take him in!" Nick yelled.
"He was hurt," Samantha said.
The men from the mine arrived, pulling the drill in a handcart. Wickwire and Aaron rushed over to inspect it, and a small crowd of townspeople gathered around as well. Ethan Cord hobbled over and cleared them out, all but his nephews.
"Look at this!" Wickwire exclaimed. "They've taken it out of it's housing. No wonder they couldn't get it to work."
"What's a housing?" Ben Carroll asked.
"It's what holds it up and guides it," Wickwire explained.
"Can't you hold it up and guide it?" Ben asked.
"It would take an awfully strong man," Wickwire said. "A virtual Hercules."
Ethan smiled. "One Hercules, coming up," he said and hobbled off to where the crowd had gathered.
He returned a few moments later with the largest man Molly had ever seen - bearded, kind-eyed and simply huge. "This is Tiny," Ethan said, "our blacksmith."
Wickwire crooked a smile and examined Tiny admiringly. "Yes, young man, you just might do."
"I'll do whatever I can to help," Tiny said.
"Thank you, Mr. . . ?" Molly said.
"Bloom," Tiny said.
"Thank you, Mr. Bloom," Molly said gratefully.
Aaron had been examining the engine. "I need to go get my tools from the airship, but I think I can get it running. We'll need fuel, and water for the hydraulics."
"I can fetch water," Joseph said, "there's a spring just over the hill."
"Me, too," Ben said.
"Me, too," George said.
"All right, boys, you do that," Ethan said, and the boys ran off to find buckets.
One of the men who had hauled the drill spoke up, "Mr. Carter said you were to have anything you need."
"Ten gallons of kerosene?" Wickwire said.
"Done," the man said, and hurried off to fetch it.
Aaron ran off to fetch his tools. "What can I do?" Molly asked Wickwire.
Wickwire thought for a few moments. "I'm sorry, Molly," he said, "I'd give you something to do if there was anything. I'm afraid you'll just have to watch. And pray, if you know how."
Molly sighed. "That's what I was afraid of. All right, Bertie, I won't get in your way."
"I need to go back in," Lucas said, "and see how Dad is."
"Please don't, Lucas," Molly said. "Stay here with me." Where you'll be safe.
"I need to," Lucas said, holding his mother's gaze.
Molly looked up at her son, filthy, bloody with scrapes and half naked. She gazed at him for a long moment, then nodded, giving assent. Lucas kissed her cheek and crawled into the shaft.
Molly and Audra walked down the hill to where the townspeople had gathered. Amelia rushed up, accompanied by Claire, and embraced her friend. "Molly! You certainly do know how to make an entrance."
Molly smiled, somewhat haggardly, and sat down heavily on a fallen log. "Oh, Amelia," she said, "this is my worst nightmares come to life."
Amelia cupped Molly's chin in her hand. "It'll be all right, Molly, don't you worry."
Molly looked up at her, taking no comfort from her words.
"You should have seen him, Mrs. Barkley," Claire said, eyes shining. "He knew exactly what to do - even Mr. Carter listened to him."
Ethan ambled over.
"He's so like his father," Molly said. "I think that's why they loved each other from the moment they met."
Ethan tipped his hat. "Good to see you again, Mrs. Barkley," he said.
Molly looked him over. "I see you haven't missed out on the day's calamities, Ethan," she said.
Ethan patted his leg. "Just a mishap, ma'am," he said.
Molly introduced Audra to Ethan, who tipped his hat and said, "Would you two ladies excuse us? I'd like to have a word with Mrs. Barkley, if I might." Amelia shrugged and took Audra off to meet some of the townspeople.
Ethan lowered himself gingerly down onto Molly's log. "I'm ashamed that I never apologized to you," he began.
"Whatever for?" Molly said. "You were nothing but good to us."
"Now that's almost an insult," Ethan said with a rueful grin, "I hope not many women are as forgetful as you are." His eyes went to where Amelia stood talking.
"Oh, you mean the kiss?" Molly said. "Don't worry, it's long since forgotten. Or forgiven, whichever you prefer."
"It's just that there's two things I'm regretful about from when you were here before - one was that I kissed another man's wife, and a good and faithful wife at that, and the other is that I let that man go face danger alone. I am heartily ashamed." Ethan stared down at the ground, his eyes hidden.
Molly looked at him for a moment. "Well, that's good, Ethan."
"Shame is good?" Ethan asked.
"Don't you think so?"
"I don't rightly know. It's all new to me." He looked up at her. "You still praying for me, ma'am?"
"Yes," she said. "It seems to be working."
"I don't know about that - Claire seems to be the churchy one of the family. I don't have much experience of it myself."
"She's a fine girl," Molly said. "We all liked her very much."
"'Specially that boy of yours," Ethan said.
"It seems to be mutual," Molly said. "No harm in it."
"No, none as I can see." Ethan stared off into the distance. "He's more of a man than I am."
Molly sat silently.
"Well," Ethan said, standing uneasily. "I better go tend to what duties I have. I just wanted to tell you I was sorry."
"Thank you, Ethan. I think you're doing a fine job with those children. They'll be the making of you."
"They are that," he said, and hobbled off.
Amelia walked over and took his place, her eyes following him as he walked off. "So, Molly," she said, "how do you deal with a man who's always the first one to run into danger?"
"Ah," Molly said, following her gaze. "That's how the wind blows."
Amelia nodded. "It does. I'm not sure I want it to, but I don't seem to be able to help it."
Molly sighed. "Well, it seems the only way for me to deal with it is to stay by his side. Otherwise, I just have nightmares and crumble away." She balled up her fists. "I'm not staying behind again. Not ever again."
"But the children?" Amelia asked.
"We'll work something out," Molly said. "I don't know what yet, but something."
Amelia rested her head on Molly's shoulder. "It was so much easier when I didn't care about anyone but myself."
"Yes, easier," Molly agreed, "but hardly worth it."
"It had better be worth it," Amelia said grimly.
Audra came and sat on the other side of Molly, saying nothing. The three women sat with arms around each other and waited. And prayed.
Lucas knelt at this father's side. Nick and Samantha had done an admirable job of clearing the rubble, and the extent of Jarrod's injuries was more apparent. One arm and one leg lay twisted at odd angles, and Lucas knew they must be broken. He suspected that ribs were broken as well, but, he hoped, no vertebrae. Not his back, please, not his back.
"He'll be all right, Lucas," Nick said, gently.
"I hope so," Lucas said. "Let's hope that Doc can get his drill working and get us out of here." Before it's too late.
Nick paced up and down, fretful with inaction, until Samantha asked him to come sit beside her. They settled down to wait, leaning against the wall, arms around each other. Lucas settled down by his father's side, to wait, and to pray.
Chapter Fourteen: Free at Last
Aaron finished working on the engine, poured kerosene into the fuel tank and started it up. The sound of the engine revving brought the crowd surging uphill, cheering. The men from the mine paused in their labors, but were tersely ordered back to work by Carter. After fetching water, the Carroll boys had rushed back to town to gather leather straps for the harness Wickwire was rigging up so Tiny could control the drill. Soon all was in order, and Tiny took up the machine and applied it to a patch of ground chosen for the experiment. Wickwire turned it on and stepped back, and the drill bored its way into the hillside.
Carter sauntered over and inspected their work. "All right," he said to Wickwire, "you're not a fraud. Bring it on over and we'll get digging." This brought another cheer from the crowd, and tears of hope from Molly. Carter called off his men and Tiny went to work.
The work went much more quickly, but it was still three hours to drill, the miners shoring up the tunnel all the way. When Tiny broke through, there was jubilation, although Carter insisted that the shoring work be finished before anyone entered the new tunnel. Molly was practically biting her nails off with anxiety, propped up by her friend and her sister-in-law. Even so, she insisted that John Taylor be the first to go in, if he was willing to risk it.
John Taylor just smiled and said, "It would be my pleasure."
Then Nick and Samantha were staggering out, Nick still limping, into the arms of Audra and Molly. Molly was alarmed by the bruises on both their faces, and her worry increased until she could no longer bear it and insisted on going in to be with her husband and her son.
John Taylor was splinting Jarrod's right leg as Molly knelt down beside him. "How is he?" she asked.
"Broken leg, broken left arm, two or three broken ribs. I don't see any head injury, but his being unconscious this long does worry me. It's probably best for now - setting these broken bones would be mighty painful if he were awake, but if he doesn't come around soon. . .well, it's worrisome."
Molly bit her lip and held Lucas's hand and stayed out of John Taylor's way while he worked. She and Lucas raised Jarrod up so John Taylor could bandage the broken ribs, then stood aside as he was carried out on a stretcher, to the cheering of the crowd.
"Where are we taking him?" one of the stretcher bearers asked.
Molly was confused for a moment, until Amelia said, "My house, of course." Molly blessed her and followed her husband down the hill, her arm around the shoulder of her son.
They put Jarrod in the downstairs bedroom, and Molly sat by his side. Lucas went, at Amelia's insistence, upstairs for a hot bath. Jarrod had not stirred at all during the long, dark trek back. Molly stroked his good hand and said, "Jarrod, dearest, please wake up. It's me, Feather. Dearest, you're safe now, you can wake up." Still Jarrod did not stir. Molly leaned over and kissed his cold lips, and with joy felt them warm and respond to her. She stroked his hair. "Wake up, dearest."
Jarrod's eyes fluttered open and he looked up into Molly's face. "Where am I?" he asked.
"In Paradise, at Amelia's," Molly said, "and if your next words are 'who am I?' I swear I'll strangle you."
Jarrod chuckled then grimaced. "Ah, don't make me laugh, Feather, it hurts." He clasped her hand. "What happened? Are Sam and Nick all right? How long have I been out?"
"The mine shaft caved in; Nick and Samantha are bruised and battered but otherwise fine; and you've been out about eight hours." Molly bowed her head. "We were so afraid for you - so hurt and no one could get to you except Lucas."
"Eight hours? Then how did you get here so fast? And Lucas? So many questions," Jarrod sighed wearily.
"I came by magic carpet," Molly grinned, giddy with relief and joy at last.
"What?" Jarrod asked.
"Bertie's airship, dearest. We got word this morning that Cass Hyatt had escaped, and came to warn you. We were too late for that, but Bertie was able to repair the drill that finally dug you out. You'd still be in there if not for him and Aaron. And Mr. Bloom, the blacksmith."
"And Lucas?" Jarrod asked again.
Molly beamed. "You'd be so proud of him, Jarrod. He took charge - freed Nick, who'd been pinned by the cave-in, arranged for supplies and equipment, called for help, even made the survey of the shaft that Carter needed to plan where to dig. He's a man, Jarrod - you were right. He's his father's son."
"He shouldn't have gone in," Jarrod said.
"Pish," Molly said. "You've got to stop doing that, Jarrod - to him and to me. You have to allow us to care for you the same way you care for us, but that's a discussion for another day. Rest now, dearest. You have a lot of healing to do."
Lucas came in, freshly scrubbed in one of Amelia's bathrobes. He smiled to see his father awake and came to his side and took his good hand. "Hello, Dad."
Jarrod smiled at him. "I hear you were a Barkley today," Jarrod said.
Lucas grinned. "I guess so. I just did what I had to."
"Admirably, according to your mother. I'm proud of you, Son."
Audra came in, carrying a couple of carpet bags and accompanied by John Taylor. "Jarrod!" she cried, "I'm so glad you're awake. We were worried."
Molly and Lucas stood aside as John Taylor examined Jarrod, folding back his eyelids and checking his eyes. "Is he lucid?" he asked Molly.
"Yes, I am," Jarrod said, and Molly laughed and nodded.
John Taylor folded back the bedclothes and pinched Jarrod's toes. "Can you feel that?" Jarrod flinched and nodded. John Taylor smiled. "It looks like there's no brain or spinal damage, which is gratifying. On the other hand, your left arm and right leg are both broken in several places, and at least two ribs are broken. It'll be a couple of months at minimum before you're fully recovered, although you may be up and around before then."
"When can I travel?" Jarrod said. "I'd hate to impose on Amelia for that long."
"By stagecoach?" John Taylor said. "I wouldn't recommend it for at least a month."
"How about by airship?" Molly asked.
"I don't know - how smoothly does it ride?"
"Like floating on a cloud."
John Taylor smiled, "I'd like to try that sometime. Well, if it's as you say, he could travel tomorrow. It'd be best if those bones were set in real casts, and I don't have the means to do that here."
"Tell them about Nick," Audra prompted.
"I didn't think he was hurt badly," Molly said.
"Nothing's broken," John Taylor said, "but the circulation was cut off to his leg. He would have lost it if Lucas and Claire hadn't freed him. He may always have a limp, but I don't think it'll slow him down any."
"You've pretty well summed my brother up," Jarrod said.
John Taylor grinned. "I like a man who charges through life."
"That's my brother," Audra agreed.
"You've been marvelous, John Taylor," Molly said, giving him a hug. "Thank you."
"No thanks are needed, Molly Barkley. I'm glad to do anything I can for you." John Taylor turned and left the room.
Audra handed Lucas a carpetbag. "Here are your clothes, Lucas. Mr. Taylor and I stopped by your house to pick these up and check on Nick and Samantha."
"They aren't staying here?" Jarrod asked.
"Not enough room for all of us," Audra said. "I'll be going back there myself." She handed Jarrod a letter addressed to him. "This was on the doorstep. It's from Jack. I had to grab it away from Nick - he wanted to rip it to shreds."
Jarrod handed it to Molly. "I can't open it with one hand. Read it to us, love."
Molly opened the letter and read.
Dear Mr. Barkley,
I do not deserve to call you 'Jarrod' - Carter was right, I had offered to sell dirt on Samantha. I had come to Stockton to blackmail her with that threat for the twenty thousand dollars I felt she owed me. Yes, my memory has returned - I don't know whether it was Carter's revelation or your brother's rough handling that did it, but I remember everything now.
I am certain by the time you read this that you and your brother will have rescued Samantha from her peril and administered justice to her kidnaper. I will be long gone by then. I'm sorry to rob your brother of the opportunity to teach me a lesson, but I think, perhaps, I have already learned it. It would be poor payment for all your family's kindness and hard work if I had not. Perhaps when we meet again, I shall be someone whom it would be worth making your friend. Until then, I think the best way for me to keep body and soul together is to avoid your brother.
Tell Samantha that I am sorry - I owe her the greatest debt of all, I think, and I hope someday to be able to repay it.
Tell your mother and your sister that I have my mother's eyes and my father's chin.
Gentleman Jack Darby
Molly looked over to where Lucas had fallen asleep in his chair, grateful that he hadn't heard that last part - there were things she didn't want him to be a man about, not just yet. Audra looked thoughtful, but relieved.
Amelia bustled in with a tray. "Dinner's ready," she said. "All of you must be famished." She looked over at Lucas. "Or exhausted. Or both. I made enough for everyone, if Nick and Samantha would care to join us as well."
"I'll run over to the house and ask them," Audra said. "After I get Lucas to bed, poor dear." She kissed his cheek and roused him enough to get him to walk upstairs.
"I'll eat here with Jarrod, if that's all right, Amelia," Molly said.
"That's what I thought," Amelia smiled. "I brought enough for both of you."
"And if Bertie - Professor Wickwire - shows up, would you let him know we'd like to take the airship home tomorrow, if that's possible?"
Amelia nodded and went to serve dinner.
Richard Carter stopped by to see Jarrod the next morning. Molly and Lucas were having breakfast in Jarrod's room. Carter took off his hat and nodded to Molly. "I'm sorry to stop by so early, but I understand you're leaving this morning."
"Yes," Molly said. "As soon as Professor Wickwire can get the airship ready - just the three of us. The rest of the family will wait here until he can make a return trip."
"I wanted to know what you want done with the body, first of all," Carter said.
"Ah, Cass Hyatt," Jarrod said. "He still has family in Stockton - better send them a wire - oh, wait, is the telegraph still out?"
Carter nodded. "It is. I know it's not your place to make that decision, but you're the only one I can ask. And it is summer."
"Bury him in the churchyard," Molly said. "We'll get word to his family when we get back home. We want to thank you, Mr. Carter, for all you've done. You did an admirable job of leading the rescue."
Carter twisted his hat in his hands. "Your son led the rescue, ma'am, which is what I've really come to talk to you about." He looked over at Lucas, but addressed Jarrod. "When you were here last year, I said an orphan could never amount to much. Well, I was wrong. He's a fine young man."
"He was a fine young man before we got him," Jarrod said.
Carter nodded. "I realize that. And I realize, too, that he should never have been forced to work for me. You were right, the town was right, and I was wrong."
"It takes a big man to do that," Jarrod said, "admit he's wrong. So are you on our side now?"
"About child labor," Carter said. "I'll even lobby for you, but you're still wrong about those other reforms. Minimum wage will completely ruin business."
Jarrod chuckled, then winced. "Come visit us in Stockton," Jarrod said. "We'll have dinner and drinks and I'll try to convince you otherwise."
"You once said you'd rather drink with the devil," Carter pointed out, smiling.
"Well, in this case the devil will be drinking with me," Jarrod said, smiling, too. "I should warn you that I'm planning to try to steal your secretary. I've been looking for a good one for several years now."
"Not on you life," Carter said. "I couldn't do without her."
"Better give her a raise then," Jarrod said.
Carter looked at him, squinting. "You're trying to convince me already, aren't you?"
"Good wages make good employees," Jarrod said brightly.
Carter put his hat back on his head. "Well, I'll leave you now - I know you need to get ready to leave. And maybe I will stop by and have that talk, once you've mended. I was supposed to go to Washington to lobby, but I think I'll wait until I've had time to think it through a little more." He tipped his hat to Molly and exited.
Jarrod beckoned Lucas over and patted his shoulder. "I'm proud of you, Son. Carter's a powerful man, he can make a good ally. You may have helped save thousands of children from working in the mines."
Lucas blushed. "I just did what I had to."
"A true Barkley," Molly said.
Wickwire knocked at the door and came in. "The airship is ready," he said, "and the men from town are here to carry you up the hill. Oh, and that Indian gentleman is here to oversee everything." He ushered John Taylor, Tiny and a couple of other men into the room, who were carrying the stretcher they would use to carry Jarrod to the airship. He, Molly and Lucas went into the living room to give the men room.
"Aaron already at the airship?" Molly asked.
"He's not coming, not this trip," Wickwire said. "Couldn't manage the weight of all five of us. Besides, he wants to get the drill back in working order. So, Lucas, I'll need you to help me operate the ship, all right?"
Lucas nodded. "Sure, Doc, it'll be fun." He picked up the carpet bags and carried them outside as the men brought Jarrod out.
Molly hugged Amelia good-bye. "I wish you were staying longer," Amelia said. "I miss you."
"We miss you, too," Molly said, "but I'm sure we'll be back. And you know you're always welcome to stay with us anytime you want to." She followed the stretcher outside, where a crowd had gathered. "Nick, Samantha, Audra - Bertie, and I guess Lucas, will be back for you tomorrow."
"You're not getting me up in that contraption," Nick said, unknowingly echoing Heath.
"Aw, come on, Cowboy," Samantha said. "It'll be fun."
Nick looked down at her. "You don't mean you actually want to fly in that thing, do you?"
"Yes, I do." She batted her eyelashes at him. "Please?" she smiled.
Nick looked at her battered face, the bruises blooming across her cheeks. "All right, Sam," he sighed. "If that's what you want."
The crowd began to move slowly uphill, the men being careful not to jostle Jarrod. Molly walked beside the stretcher, holding Jarrod's good hand. "Professor Wickwire," Amelia said, "I was wondering if you needed investors in your airship."
"He already has one," Audra said. "Me. Think what exploration we could do from the air."
"I have some other ideas I'd be happy to pitch to you, Mrs. Lawson," Wickwire said, "when I come back. It'll take me at least two more trips to get everyone home."
"Imagine being able to fly to Stockton in less than a day," Amelia shook her head.
"I won't make claims for the speed right now," Wickwire said. "A train would be faster, if the railroad came this far, and less dependent on weather. But it'll get faster, as we learn more about aeronautics. One day everyone will be flying."
"I think you’ve made believers out of all of us," Amelia smiled at him.
The party made its way to the airship, where another crowd had gathered, including Ethan Cord and his family. The men carefully lifted Jarrod into the basket. Molly turned and thanked them, bestowing hugs on both John Taylor and Tiny. "I can't thank any of you enough," she said.
"Just come see us again sometime," John Taylor said. "That'll be thanks enough."
"I second that," Ethan said, still hobbling over.
"Didn't I tell you to stay off that leg?" John Taylor chided him.
"Can't," Ethan shrugged.
"Good-bye, Lucas," Claire said, shyly, aware of the crowd. She kissed his cheek. "Let's keep writing." Lucas nodded, tongue-tied.
"I w-wanted to ride in the b-balloon," Ben said.
Wickwire bent down. "Don't worry, young fellow. One day you will, I promise."
Molly and Lucas climbed into the airship, followed by Wickwire. Ethan cast off the rope and the ship ascended into the sky. Molly sat by Jarrod's side. "How do you like my magic carpet?" she asked.
"Wonderful, Feather," he said. "But anyplace is wonderful that has you in it."
"Then don't leave me behind again," she said. "I can't bear it, I really can't. I belong by your side."
"All right, Feather," he said. She bent down and kissed him as the ship turned toward the south and home.