Another "Paradise" crossover, tying up the loose ends from when the series was cancelled. For those of you who don't know "Paradise", there is still enough Barkley content to keep you happy, I hope.
Chapter One: Loose Ends
The train pulled into the station in Stockton with its usual clatter. Jarrod and Nick Barkley, along with Jarrod's wife Molly, eagerly scanned the disembarking passengers. "There they are!" Nick shouted, striding along the platform to where his mother and her companion stepped down from the railcar. Jarrod and Molly followed, all three planting kisses on Victoria's cheek.
Molly reached up to kiss the cheek of Victoria's companion, Henry Johnson. "You both look so well," she said, as Jarrod looked blandly on and Nick glowered. It was just as well that Henry, being blind, could not see them. "You must have had a wonderful time in San Francisco."
"We did," Victoria said, but was interrupted by a lovely young woman who hurried up to the group.
"Molly? Jarrod?" the woman said. "Pardon me for interrupting. . ."
"Amelia!" Molly said, throwing her arms around her friend. "Mother, Nick, you remember Amelia Lawson, our friend from Paradise." Nick and Victoria nodded, murmuring greetings. "And allow me to introduce our friend, Henry Johnson. What are you doing in Stockton, Amelia? Why didn't you let us know you were coming?" Her brows knitted with concern over the dark expression on her friend's face.
"I can't talk about it here," Amelia said. "I was hoping to be able to stay with you for a few days, if it's not too much trouble. I should have let you know I was coming, but I left Paradise in rather a hurry."
"Of course you can stay with us, you know you're always welcome." Molly paused. "Henry's staying with us, too."
"I can go to a hotel, if I'm in the way," Amelia said.
"Or Henry can stay at the ranch," Victoria offered.
"The children will be crushed if he doesn't come with us," Molly said. "They've been so looking forward to it." She took Amelia and Henry each by the arm. "We'll make room. Emma can go into the nursery for a few days - she won't mind - and Amelia can have her room."
"I don't want to be any trouble," Amelia said.
"Nonsense," Molly said. "It's settled." She turned to her husband. "You see Mother home, and I'll see you later, dearest."
"All right, dear," Jarrod said, amused.
"Bring everyone to the ranch for dinner," Victoria said.
"All right, Mother," Molly said, and led her guests off the platform.
Victoria turned to her sons. "I want to stop and see if Audra and Owen can come tonight, as well."
Jarrod looked at her knowingly. "Do you have some reason for wanting the entire family together, Mother?"
Victoria nodded. "I do. I want to have a family meeting."
"What about?" Nick asked.
"About Henry and me," she said. "This affects the whole family - time for a frank and open discussion."
"Good," Nick said, stalking off to gather the luggage.
Jarrod escorted her to the buggy, regarding her closely. "I can't imagine that you're asking for our approval, Mother."
"Not asking, but hoping," Victoria said. "In any case, it won't hurt to discuss it."
"Uncle Henry!" The three youngest of Molly and Jarrod's children threw their arms around Henry's knees as soon as he had walked in the door. He smiled with delight as he bent down for their kisses.
"We're glad you're here!" Emma, the oldest daughter, chimed.
"I'm glad I'm here, too," Henry said.
Emma glanced up at their other guest. "I think I know you," she said.
"It's Mrs. Lawson," her older brother, Lucas, said. "From Paradise, remember? She stayed with us before, although it has been a long time. Pleased to see you again, Mrs. Lawson. And you, too, of course, Uncle Henry."
"Vicky and Georgie," Molly addressed her two youngest children, "why don't you show Uncle Henry to the guest room and help him get settled?"
"Me, Mommy?" Six-year-old Vicky asked, wide-eyed.
"Yes, dear," Molly said, "do you think you can handle it?"
Vicky nodded gravely, obviously impressed with the responsibility, and led Henry off by the hand. Her younger brother Georgie ran ahead of her, galloping up the stairs to the guest room.
"Emma, dear, if you don't mind moving into the nursery, I'd like you and Lucas to prepare your room for Mrs. Lawson."
"All right, Mommy," Emma said, and she and Lucas went off obediently.
Molly led Amelia into the parlor. "Would you like a drink? Tea, perhaps? I know you've had a long journey. You must be exhausted. As soon as your room is ready I'll let you go freshen up and rest before dinner."
"I'm all right," Amelia said. "I've had nothing to do for almost a week but sit and think."
"Think about what?" Molly asked, pouring out two glasses of sherry and handing one to Amelia.
"About the future," Amelia said, sipping her glass. She set it down on the tea table firmly. "I've left Paradise. For good."
"I see," Molly said, sitting down across from her. "The last I heard from you, you and Ethan were about to be married. What happened?"
Amelia sighed. "You know he was made town marshal."
Molly nodded. "Yes, and I was glad to hear it. A much better use of his skills than being a gunfighter."
"I suppose." Amelia leaned forward and clasped her hands together tightly. "He left me at the altar, Molly, to go stop a robbery."
"I'm sorry," Molly said sympathetically, "but it was his job. Surely he came back?"
"That time, yes," Amelia said, "but how long before he never comes back?"
"Ah, I see," Molly said. "Too much danger for you to bear."
"Yes," Amelia said, taking a gulp of sherry. "I can't bear it, I realize it now. I hoped you'd understand."
Molly frowned. "I do, and I don't. Goodness knows, Jarrod has gone into enough danger since we've been married to turn my hair gray, but I can't imagine leaving him, no matter what he put me through. I couldn't live without him."
"Well, I can," Amelia said. "I have to. I can't stand by and see Ethan killed. I just can't."
"What about the children?" Molly asked.
"Not my responsibility," Amelia said harshly.
Molly studied her a moment. It was obvious her friend was in more distress than she cared to show, more uncertain about her decision than she cared to admit. "Well, then," she said at last, "you know you're welcome to stay here as long as you wish." She refilled Amelia's glass. "Do you have any idea what you're going to do next?"
"Sell the bank, probably," Amelia said. "I don't want to rush into anything, not until I'm sure what I want to do. Thank you for giving me a place to consider things."
"My pleasure," Molly said.
Emma opened a drawer in the bureau and began taking things out. "Tell me about Mrs. Lawson," she asked Lucas. "I barely remember her."
"She was here, let's see, almost three years ago, remember? She and Claire." Lucas took clean sheets from the wardrobe and began making up the bed.
"Oh, yes, I remember Claire," Emma said, brightening. "She's pretty. And nice."
"Yes," Lucas smiled. "Pretty and nice."
"I remember you like her," Emma said, grinning. "Do you still write to her?"
Lucas nodded, blushing. "Yes."
Emma laughed, then grew serious. "They're from Paradise. That's where we came from, isn't it?"
"It's where we were before Father found us, yes," Lucas said, treading softly. "You don't remember that, surely. You weren't much more than a baby."
"I remember it was bad," Emma said. "I don't remember what happened, but I remember being scared a lot." She shivered.
Lucas stopped tucking in the sheet and put an arm around her. "There, Emma, no need to remember. It was a long time ago, and we're safe now. Safe and happy."
"I know," Emma said, giving him a hug. "I do remember that you took care of me. That I was safe with you."
Lucas hugged her back. "Well, we're both safe with Mother and Father now. And if we do have to remember that time, I hope we only remember the good parts, and the good that came of it."
Emma nodded somberly and went back to her packing.
Audra and Owen were both at home when Nick, Jarrod and Victoria stopped by. "Of course, we're delighted to come to dinner," Audra said. "It'll be nice having the entire family together."
"If you're not too busy, Doc," Nick said, "I was wondering if you'd mind coming along now. I'm worried about Samantha - she doesn't look well."
"Trouble with the pregnancy?" Owen asked, picking up his medical bag.
"I don't know," Nick said. "That's why I'm asking you."
"Of course I'll come," Owen said.
"I might as well come now, too, then," Audra said, fetching coats for herself and her husband.
Samantha greeted them in the foyer and Owen had to agree that she did not look well - hollow cheeks, sunken eyes and, when Owen took her wrist to check her pulse, clammy skin. "I'm all right," she protested. "I wish Nick wouldn't hover. I'm just tired, is all."
"Well, if that's all it is," Owen said, smiling reassuringly, "let's put Nick's mind at rest, shall we?"
Samantha's eyes narrowed. "You're a little too good at that, Owen. Sure you weren't a con man before you were a doctor?"
Owen laughed. "Quite sure. But, yes, sometimes a doctor has to be a bit manipulative for the sake of his patients. Come now, Samantha, what will it hurt to let me look at you?"
"All right," she agreed, "but only for Nick's sake." She looked over at her husband. "I'm fine."
"Why don't we let the doc be the judge of that?" Nick said.
Owen led Samantha upstairs while Victoria gathered her children in the study. "Now then," she said, after they were seated and drinks were served, "as you've probably guessed by now, Henry and I have decided to court."
Audra smiled, Nick growled and Heath and Jarrod looked on seemingly unperturbed. "This affects the entire family," Victoria continued, "so while I don't wish this conversation to go out of this room, I do think we should have the chance to clear the air. So speak freely, please."
"Well, I, for one, am delighted," Audra said. "Henry's a good man, and obviously dotes on you."
"Dangles after her, you mean," Nick said.
"You think he's after my money?" Victoria asked.
"It's a possibility," Nick said. "He certainly doesn't have any himself."
"That's not fair, Nick," Audra said. "Owen didn't have any money either, and no one accused him of dangling after mine."
"Not every man is like Owen," Nick pointed out.
"No, they're not," Victoria agreed. "And although I don't believe that's what Henry is after, I am aware of the possibility. Believe me, I have no intention of rushing into anything."
"What about Father?" Nick said.
"What about him?" Victoria asked.
"Well, Henry certainly is nothing like him," Nick pointed out. "I don't see how you can compare the two. Or draw a line between them."
"I'm not," Victoria said. "In most ways, you're right. Henry and Tom are very different. Not in every way," she said, blushing, "but in temperament, certainly. But they both fight for what they believe in, in different ways. Don't underestimate Henry because he's not fiery like your father, or like you, Nick. In his own way, he's just as strong." She turned to her other two sons. "Neither of you have spoken. Jarrod? You may have more at stake here than anyone. Have you nothing to say?"
Jarrod sighed. "I'm not sure what to say, Mother. I do wonder what there is about this man that's made the two women I care most about fall for him."
"Do you still see him as a rival?" Victoria asked.
Jarrod thought about that a moment. "I guess I do, Mother. I wish I didn't, for everyone's sake, but - there it is."
"You let him stay at your house," Nick pointed out.
"It's what Molly and the children want - the kids are crazy about him. And I have to consider the facts - he lost everything of importance to him through no fault of his own. I don't want to punish him for that. I'm trying to be fair."
"Don't think that your own feelings are of no concern, Jarrod," Victoria warned. "You've made the mistake of being too self-effacing already."
"I know," Jarrod said, "and time will tell what's right here. For now, I'm willing to trust your judgment as to Henry's intentions. You're no foolish maiden - if you think his feelings are strong for you, then I'm willing to go along. The rest is between me and Molly."
"Very well," Victoria said. "Heath? Have you nothing to say?"
Heath ducked his head and cleared his throat. "Well - I never saw you and Father together. I have no memory myself of what you two were like, but I've seen you and Henry, and all I can say is, if it feels right to you, you got my blessing." He took her hand. "If it makes you happy, it's all right by me."
"Amen," Audra said fervently.
"Oh, all right," Nick said. "But you bet I'll be keeping my eye on him."
"I'd expect nothing else, Nick," Victoria said, smiling. She stood and they adjourned to the parlor.
Owen came down the stairs, a somber look on his face. "What's wrong?" Nick demanded. "I knew it - something's the matter with Samantha."
"Come upstairs, Nick," Owen said calmly. "Don't disturb yourself, but there are matters to discuss."
"What matters?" Nick asked, following Owen into the bedroom he shared with Samantha. Samantha was resting in bed, an odd look of both fear and delight on her face.
"First of all," Owen said, "you're expecting twins. . ."
"Twins!" Nick thundered. He broke out in a delighted grin. "You've done it this time, Sam," he said to his wife. "Is that why she's so tired?"
"Undoubtedly," Owen said, "and as far as I can tell, both babies are in fine shape, except that they should have turned by now, and neither of them have."
Nick blanched. He'd delivered enough calves and foals to understand the dangers of a breech birth. "Can you turn them?" he asked.
"I could try, if you insist," Owen said, "but the strain that would put on Samantha and the babies could be too much for them. You could lose one, or both. I'd rather not attempt it."
"What do we do then?" Nick asked, clasping Samantha's hand.
"Owen thinks we should deliver the babies by Caesarean," Samantha said.
"Out of the question!" Nick shouted. "No one is cutting my wife!"
"Calm down, Nick," Owen said. "It's a common enough procedure, far less dangerous than ordinary birth. I'd give Samantha a sedative - she wouldn't feel a thing."
"No," Nick insisted.
Owen put a hand on Nick's shoulder. "I understand your feelings, but they're misplaced, Nick. Look, Samantha's not due for a couple of weeks - let's wait a few days and see what happens, but if the babies don't both turn on their own, I'm really going to have to recommend a Caesarean."
Nick looked down at Samantha, torn. "What do you say, Sam?"
"I think we should trust Owen," she said. "What's the point of having a doctor in the family if we don't listen to him?"
Nick pursed his lips, flushed. He turned his head toward Owen. "Have you done this before?"
"Many times, Nick, and I've never lost either a baby or a mother, which is more than I can say for the usual method of childbirth. It's the safest way under the circumstances, believe me."
"How long do we wait?" Nick asked, capitulating.
"This close to her due date, I'd say no more than a week. I'd rather she not go into labor first, but if she does, we'll need to move right away. Someone should be with her constantly, in case she does go into labor, ready to bring her to my surgery as soon as possible."
"I'll stay with her," Nick said.
"Don't be silly, Cowboy," Samantha chided. "Your mother's here, and Alice, not to mention Silas. You have work to do."
"Heath can do it," Nick insisted. "I'm not leaving you."
"Well, you work that out between you," Owen said. "I'll make sure Audra always knows where I am in case I'm out when you need me. And don't worry, except about what a handful those twins are going to be."
"With a two-year-old already," Samantha said. "No wonder I'm tired."
"Better ask Alice or Mother to care for Lizzie for awhile," Nick said, sternly. "You're staying in that bed until those babies come."
"No need for that," Owen said. "Exercise might help those babies turn, if it's not taken to extreme. Eat several small nourishing meals a day and take a walk now and then."
"All right, Owen," Samantha said. "Thank you."
Molly arrived soon after with Henry and the children. Amelia did not feel up to a large family dinner, and assured Molly that she was perfectly happy dining at a restaurant. Although loathe to leave her guest alone, Molly allowed Amelia to prevail upon her not to miss this rare family gathering.
"Where's Jarrod?" Henry asked as soon as they arrived.
"I'm here, Henry," Jarrod said. "Do you need something?"
"I'd like some legal advice, if I may presume to ask you," Henry said. "May we speak in private?"
Jarrod raised an eyebrow but said, "Of course. Let's adjourn to the study." He led Henry into the other room. "Cigar?" he offered, "or perhaps a drink?"
"Why not both?" Henry said.
"Why not, indeed," Jarrod answered. He lit two cigars and handed one to Henry, then poured them both drinks. "Now, what did you want to know?"
"Correct me if I'm wrong," Henry said, "but is it true that when a woman of property marries, she loses all control and say over it?"
Jarrod nodded. "Yes, that's true. All property a married couple owns falls into the care of the husband."
"That is so wrong!" Henry almost shouted. Jarrod started in surprise as Henry continued. "Who makes these laws? Do they think that a woman has her brain removed when she has a ring put on her finger?"
"The reasoning is that a marriage should act as one entity, Henry," Jarrod explained. "If both parties have equal powers, it can cause all kinds of disruption."
"That's absurd," Henry said. "Why should a woman lose all her rights just because she falls in love and gets married?"
"Shall we move from the general to the specific?" Jarrod said. "Mother told us you were courting."
"This is not about property, you have to understand," Henry said, "it's about her. I have no head for business, it should be obvious. And even if I did, why should she have to ask me, or anyone, for permission to handle her own affairs? She's an intelligent woman, she'll be no less so if we marry."
"If?" Jarrod said, cool as ice.
Henry quirked an eyebrow at his tone. "You think I'm falling from Molly's arms into your mother's, don't you?"
"The thought had crossed my mind."
Henry sighed. "You have to understand, when I met Victoria I hadn't seen Molly in over twenty years. I had no idea where she was, what she was doing, if she were even still alive. I did not consider myself free, but that didn't keep me from having feelings for Victoria. I had been alone a long time."
"I realize that," Jarrod said.
"I would never have acted on those feelings if Molly and I were still married," Henry continued. "But we're not. I would never have acted on them as long as I believed they couldn't be returned. But they are, and we're both free. I'm sorry that the one woman I could love turns out to be Molly's mother-in-law, but I didn't plan it that way."
"Do you love her?" Jarrod asked.
"Yes," Henry said. "With all my heart."
Jarrod regarded him a long moment, impressed by his evident sincerity. "I hope so," he said, "for all our sakes. So what do you intend?"
"That's between me and Victoria," Henry said. "We've agreed to wait a year or two, until the training center is on a firmer basis - I must devote myself to that for the time being. After that - well, we'll decide when we get there. I did want to know what the ramifications for her would be. I don't want to take anything away from her - that just would not be right."
"It's inevitable, I'm afraid," Jarrod said. "The law is unlikely to change in the meantime. You could, I suppose, give her a power of attorney - it would be a sort of blanket approval of her actions."
"That shouldn't be necessary," Henry said. "She's not a child - she shouldn't have to ask for permission."
"Or Mother could do what my sister did - have her estate put into trust. If you don't want to touch the property."
"That's not the point," Henry said. "That would just move the problem out of both our hands, which is not what I want, either. I suppose the power of attorney is the lesser of the evils with which I am presented." He stood up. "Where can I put out this cigar?"
Jarrod took it from him and tidied up the glasses. "They'll be calling us to dinner soon, and Mother will scold us for deserting them."
Henry smiled. "I don't mind." He put out his hand. "Thank you, Jarrod."
Jarrod took it. "My pleasure." He paused. "Henry?"
"Break my mother's heart, and I'll break you. And then Nick will do it again for good measure."
"Understood," Henry said.
"Well enough, then," Jarrod said, stubbing out his cigar. "Let's to dinner, shall we?"
Chapter Two: Hope and Grace
It was Sunday afternoon as Molly poured out coffee for herself and Amelia in the parlor. Jarrod was at work in the study and the children could be heard playing noisily in the treehouse outside. "Are you feeling any better?" Molly asked.
"I feel fine," Amelia said. "At my wit's end, but fine."
The front door opened and Audra walked in. "Molly? Jarrod?" she called.
"In the parlor, Audra," Molly said. "Sit down, we're having coffee."
Audra sat down next to her sister-in-law. "Thanks, I could use some coffee," she said. "Hello, Amelia. It's good to see you again. Sorry you didn't come to dinner at the ranch last night."
"I didn't feel up to it," Amelia said. "I'd only just arrived, after all."
"And that is a long hard trip," Audra said. "At least without the professor's airship."
Amelia chuckled at the memory. "And I never did get to ride in it, either."
"So what brings you to Stockton?" Audra said. "Business?"
"Not really," Amelia said, frowning.
"Perhaps a change of subject," Molly suggested.
"No need," Amelia said. "I don't mind talking about it. Maybe another perspective would help."
"Perspective on what?" Audra asked.
"Amelia has left Paradise," Molly said.
"That sounds rather sad, put that way," Audra said. "Like something out of the book of Genesis."
"I suppose it is," Amelia said. "I was supposed to get married, but found I couldn't go through with it. How does one live with a man who puts himself in constant danger?"
"Amelia was about to marry the marshal," Molly supplied.
"I see," Audra said. "I went through the same thing before I decided to marry Owen."
"Your husband's a doctor," Amelia said. "It's hardly the same thing."
"In a way it is," Audra said. She turned to Molly. "Remember the typhus outbreak?"
"How could I forget?" Molly said. "We both nearly had nervous breakdowns."
"Jarrod helped Owen nurse the sick," Audra explained. "It was then I realized what dangers doctors face - how often their duties put them in mortal peril."
"I admit I never thought of it that way," Amelia said.
"It was Mother who made me really examine myself. She said that if I could live without him, it were better that I did - that a brave man needs a strong wife." She sipped her coffee. "She said that Father had broken her heart every time he stood up for what he believed in."
"And yet you married him anyway," Amelia said.
"As Mother said about Father, without him I have no heart."
Amelia set her cup down with a clatter and leapt to her feet. "Excuse me, I think I'd better go pack. I want to catch the first train out of here."
"Going back to Paradise?" Molly asked.
"No!" Amelia said. "I'm going to San Francisco. I'll sell the bank and then catch the first steamer to Australia." She clenched her fists. "I'm not like you. Either of you. You may be able to stand by and watch the men you love die, but I can't." Her voice sank to a whisper. "I just can't."
"There, there, Amelia," Molly said, rising and taking her friend's arm. "No one says you have to."
"I'm sorry I upset you," Audra said. "I was only speaking for myself."
"Why Australia?" Molly asked. "It seems a far way to run."
"I'm from Brisbane," Amelia explained, trembling. "I haven't been back in almost fifteen years. Maybe it's time I went home."
"Well, don't rush off," Molly said. "Henry will be going back on the evening train. At least let him escort you. We have a townhouse in San Francisco, you can stay there until you make your arrangements."
"That's very kind of you," Amelia said, mollified. "You don't think less of me because I can't do as you do?"
"Not at all," Molly said, sitting Amelia back down and then seating herself. "After I lost Henry, when I thought he and all my brothers were dead, I nearly lost myself. I did lose myself for many years. I can't blame you for not wanting to go through that hell."
"It must feel odd having both your husbands so close by," Amelia observed.
Molly wiped up the spilled coffee and poured Amelia another cup. "It is, but we're adjusting. That the children are so fond of Henry helps, I think. They've quite adopted him. There's still tension between him and Jarrod, but they're both honorable men. They'll come to terms in time."
The horses grazed by the waterhole as Henry lay with his head in Victoria's lap, the remains of their picnic scattered about the blanket. Her fingers caressed his hair as he sighed with contentment. "I remember the first time we rode out here," he said. "That was the first time I realized I might love you."
"Was it?" Victoria's brow wrinkled. "I can't remember anything romantic happening that day. Quite the contrary, I remember being rather hard on you."
"That's why," Henry said. "You treated me like a man, not some frail cripple. Your challenging me and your complete unconcern as to whether that horse would throw me was quite alluring."
Victoria laughed, then bent down and kissed him, lingeringly. Henry sighed again. "Too bad it's so much harder to get you alone here than it is in San Francisco."
"I know, I'm sorry," Victoria said. "And it's not going to get better any time soon. With Samantha expecting twins - well, we'll all be quite busy for awhile."
"Don't apologize," Henry chided. "Your family is very important to you, and you to them. I don't wish things to be any different."
"You're important to me, too, Henry."
He smiled. "I'm glad of that. Gladder than you can imagine. But I'm a patient man, and I'm happy to have what we have."
She kissed him again. "I'm not going to be able to get away for awhile. You'll have to come here and, even then, I won't have much time to devote to you."
"I shall have to be content to bask in your presence, I suppose," he said lightly.
"For awhile, yes."
"Well enough. I don't wish to deprive you of anything, the joy of your new grandchildren least of all."
"I knew you'd understand," she smiled. "We'd better be getting back. It's getting late."
"One more kiss?" he asked.
"All right," she said, obliging him.
He reached up and caressed her cheek, running his fingers lightly over her face. "So beautiful," he breathed. "I'm a lucky man."
She smiled and gathered up the picnic, then they mounted and rode back to the ranch.
Silas was on the verandah when they arrived, obviously watching for them in some agitation. "What's wrong?" Victoria asked before she had even dismounted.
"Mrs. Nick started having those babies," Silas explained. "Mr. Nick and her done tore out of here like a house on fire."
"How long ago?" Victoria asked anxiously.
"Not more than an hour. They didn't. . ." but Victoria was already tearing down the road into town.
Henry dismounted gingerly. "Ain't that just like her?" Silas said.
"Ain't it just," Henry agreed. "Would you be so kind as to find someone to care for this horse, Silas?"
"Why sure, Mr. Johnson," Silas said. "I'll get one of the men."
"You can call me Henry, Silas."
"If you like," Silas said, taking Henry's horse into the barn.
"And I'll need someone to take me back to town," Henry said.
"Mr. Nick took the buggy, but I'll be happy to take you in the buckboard," Silas said.
"That would be most kind of you," Henry said.
Victoria found Nick pacing up and down in the hall outside Owen's surgery. "Would Owen not let you in with her?" she asked.
"No, I'm going in," Nick said doggedly, "but Owen insisted she needed quiet while he sedates her."
"Understandable," Victoria said. "I was afraid you'd be finished before I got here."
"Couldn't go fast as I'd like in the buggy," Nick explained, running his hands through his hair. "It upset Sam. We just got here maybe ten, fifteen minutes ago."
Audra came out of the surgery, wearing a cloth mask over her face. "Oh good, Mother, you're here. Now, Nick, if you're insisting on going in, you need to wash your hands thoroughly." She led him to a sink in the infirmary. "Scrub hard, under the nails and up to the elbows. Then put on one of the masks there."
"What's that for?" Nick asked.
"So you don't breathe germs all over the operating room," Audra explained.
"Germs!" Nick thundered.
"Just do what she says, Nick," Victoria said, pumping water into the sink.
"Are you coming in, too, Mother?" Audra asked.
"If I'm not in the way," Victoria said. "If I can help."
"You can help with the babies afterward," Audra said. "There's no need for you to be in the room. Nick, we can't keep out, but it is rather a gruesome thing to watch."
"All right," Victoria said, "much as I would like to, I can see I'd be in the way. Come on, Nick, I'll pump for you while you wash up."
Owen came into the infirmary then. "She's ready. I'd like to get started right away."
"Coming," Audra said.
"Wait for me!" Nick said, holding up his dripping hands.
"Finish washing," Victoria demanded.
Nick growled but did as he was told. He put on the mask, Victoria tied it for him and he hurried into the surgery.
Victoria paced up and down the infirmary. In an astonishingly short time, she heard one baby wail, followed within minutes by another. A few minutes after that, Audra hurried into the infirmary, one naked baby on each arm. She handed one to Victoria and pulled down her mask, grinning. "Two girls," she crowed. "Small, but healthy,"
"They're beautiful," Victoria said, smiling appreciatively. She and Audra took the babies into the kitchen where the kettle had been set to boil, and proceeded to clean her two new granddaughters. "How did it go?" she asked Audra. "Is Samantha all right?"
"It went very smoothly," Audra said. "Owen is stitching her up now. She'll have quite a scar, but these two should be compensation for that." She cooed at the baby she held. "Owen's a great hand at surgery."
"We're lucky to have him," Victoria agreed. "Did Nick say what they were going to name these two? I hate to call them Baby One and Baby Two."
"No, he didn't," Audra said. "So in the meantime, I guess yours is Baby One and mine is Baby Two. Come on, Little One," she said, wrapping the baby in a clean towel. She cooed at it some more. "They don't do much at this age, do they?" she complained.
Victoria laughed, wrapping Baby One in a clean towel as well. "Just eat, sleep and soil diapers. Consider it good training for your baby."
Audra patted her own belly. "I can't wait until I start showing."
"You won't feel that way after you do," Victoria said.
"Yes, I will," Audra said. "I intend to enjoy every minute of it."
"Tell me that again when you're in labor."
Audra laughed. Owen came in then, looking haggard but smiling. "Is something wrong?" Victoria asked.
"Not at all," Owen said. "Surgery wears me out, is all. Samantha's sleeping - I expect she'll wake in about half an hour. Nick's staying with her until she does. Now let me look at these two young ladies." He took Audra's twin and peeled back the towel, examining her closely. He smiled and handed her back to Audra, then took the other, repeating his examination. "They're both fine," he said at last, and Victoria realized she'd been holding her breath. "Small, as twins tend to be," Owen continued, "but with proper care, I'm sure they'll prosper."
"They should nurse," Victoria said.
"They'll be all right until Samantha awakens," Owen said. "I've done several of these - they'll be fine for awhile. Just enjoy your grandchildren, Mother."
So she did, sitting in a rocker in the parlor, one granddaughter on each knee. She gazed at them, knowing it was impossible to tell what they would look like, but trying to, nonetheless. Would they be dark like Nick, fair like Samantha? One of each, maybe? Or maybe a combination - she chuckled to consider the possibility of a couple of red-headed Barkleys running around the house.
Samantha woke up slowly, blinking her eyes. "Sam?" she heard Nick say. "You all right?"
She sat up hurriedly and threw up into the basin Nick held. "You were ready for that?" she asked, wiping her mouth.
"Owen said you might," Nick said. "Here." He held a glass of water to her lips, and she drank thirstily. "All right, now?"
She nodded. "Just a little bleary still. The babies? Are they all right? What did I have?"
"Two girls," Nick said. "And they're fine. They're with Mother and Audra. I'll go get them for you." He stood to go, but Samantha clasped his hand.
"I'm sorry, Cowboy," she said.
"Whatever for, Sam?" he asked.
"I know how much you want a son - I'm sorry I couldn't give you one."
"Don't be silly," he brushed her hand off. "I'm tickled pink."
"You're not disappointed?" she persisted. "Don't humor me, Nick."
He sat down again. "No, I'm not disappointed. Sure, I'd like to have a boy around, but there's plenty of time for that. I'm surely not complaining - Lizzie's the apple of my eye, you know that. I'm sure these will be, too. And there's two, so it's twice as good."
"Twice the work, too," Samantha said.
"Don't worry about that, Sam. If you need help, we'll get it. If we can get them away from Mother," he grinned. "I'll go try."
Owen bustled in before Nick returned. "How do you feel, Samantha?" he asked. "Any pain?"
"Yes, now that you mention it," Samantha said, "but not nearly so much as I had with Lizzie."
"I can dispense you some laudanum if you like, but I don't really recommend it, especially while you're nursing."
"No, I don't think so," Samantha said. "I'll manage. Thank you, Owen, for everything."
"My pleasure," Owen said. He turned as Nick and Victoria came into the infirmary. "Madam, may I introduce your daughters?"
"Oh, they are beautiful!" Samantha exclaimed as Nick handed her one baby and Victoria the other. She peeled back the towels to examine each finger, each toe.
"What are their names?" Victoria asked. "I'm dying to know."
"I've been thinking about that, since Owen told us it was going to be twins," Samantha said. "If we had a boy, I wanted to name him 'Nicholas', and if we had a girl, I wanted to name her Harriet, after my mother, but two girls - " she looked at Nick, "what do you think of 'Hope' and 'Grace'?"
"That seems rather pious for you, Sam," Nick said. "Why those two names?"
"After you and your family, in a way," Samantha explained. "Because when I met you, you gave me hope I could be better, and your family gave me the grace to try to do it."
Victoria blinked back tears. "I think those are lovely names, Samantha."
"Well, then," Nick said, "Hope and Grace it is. Which one's which?"
Chapter Three: Heart to Heart
"Oh, dear!" Victoria exclaimed. "Henry!" She had just put Grace down to sleep next to her sister on a cot by Samantha.
"What about Henry?" Samantha asked.
"I left him in the driveway when Silas told me the news. Didn't even help him down from his horse."
Nick started laughing. "It's not funny!" Victoria snapped.
"At least you have your priorities straight," Nick said. "Don't worry, Mother. If he's as capable as you keep saying he is, he'll make it to town all right."
"I suppose Silas will help him," Victoria said. "What time is it?" She looked at the clock. "He'll have missed his train if he didn't. I'd better go to Jarrod's and see if he made it back in time. And to spread the news. Are you up to some visitors, Samantha? I know everyone will want to see the girls."
Samantha nodded. "A couple at a time shouldn't be a problem."
"Don't wear yourself out, Sam," Nick warned. "You need your rest."
"I'll be fine, Cowboy," Samantha said. "I want to show them off."
Victoria kissed Samantha's cheek before exiting. Nick put his elbows on his knees and regarded his daughters thoughtfully.
"What's on your mind, Nick?" Samantha asked. "You're not usually so pensive."
"My conscience is bothering me, Sam," he confessed. "I lied to you earlier. I'm sorry."
"I see," Samantha said. "You are disappointed."
"Sorta," Nick said. "But you gotta understand - you weren't awake, so you didn't see, but when Owen cut you open, and all the blood, then pulled them out of you. . .well, I'd have been happy if they'd been piglets."
"But, yes, I did want a boy, I admit it." Nick looked down sheepishly.
Samantha took his hand. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Nick said angrily. "They're beautiful, and I'm gonna love 'em just as much as if they were boys. I'm sorry I lied to you, though."
"Maybe they'll be tomboys," Samantha said. "Riding and shooting. I think Lizzie will be, anyway. Would it be so bad if we don't have a boy?"
Nick shook his head. "As long as you're their mother, it'll be all right."
Victoria was surprised to arrive at Jarrod's house and find Heath, Alice and Silas there as well. "Is everyone here?" she asked.
Heath nodded. "We figured you'd be bringing the news here first, so we thought we'd wait."
"The children?" Victoria looked around. "I'm sure you didn't leave Tommy and Lizzie at the ranch."
"Of course not, Mother," Alice said. "They're in the nursery - Lucas is looking after them. So, what's the news?"
"Two girls," Victoria said. "Both healthy, and Samantha's doing fine. Owen wants to keep her a few days, but I think Nick'd like to take her home already."
"May we go see?" Alice asked.
"Yes," Victoria said. "But only a couple at a time."
"Jarrod," Molly said, "Why don't you and Silas go with Heath and Alice? I'll bring the children along in a little while."
"I can wait," Silas said. "I don't need to be first, before the family."
"Nonsense, Silas," Jarrod said, taking his arm. "You are family." He gave Molly a quick kiss. "See you there soon, dearest."
"Did Henry make it back all right?" Victoria asked as they left.
Molly nodded. "He and Amelia caught the evening train together. He said to give you his love."
Victoria smiled warmly. "So your friend left as well? I thought she was going to stay a few days."
Molly shrugged. "I think she thought we were a bad influence on her."
Victoria quirked an eyebrow. "How so?"
Molly explained Amelia's dilemma. "I see," Victoria said. "Well then, if she can't stand by him, she should leave. She'll do no one any good by staying. Strange, but when we met her before, she didn't strike me as a weak-willed woman."
"She's not," Molly said. "Quite the contrary - she's been a success in a man's world, taken care of herself in a very rough-and-tumble town. I would have said that she was tougher than I am. I don't really understand her trouble."
"There's a difference between toughness and strength," Victoria said.
"I suppose," Molly said. "I can't blame her - and yet I do. I feel that she's making a grave mistake, one she'll live to regret."
"Probably," Victoria agreed. "Very probably."
"Only two at a time," Nick said.
"Jarrod should go in first," Heath said. "Silas, you go with him, Alice and I will wait."
"Now, Mr. Heath," Silas began.
"Silas," Nick said. "You git on in there."
"All right, Mr. Nick, if you say so," Silas said reluctantly. He followed Jarrod and Nick into the infirmary.
"Jarrod, Silas," Samantha greeted them with a grin, "come meet my daughters, Hope and Grace."
"They're beautiful, Sam," Jarrod said.
"They sure are, Mrs. Nick," Silas said.
"Silas, why don't you hold the one on the left - that's Hope - and Jarrod, you take Grace."
"I'm delighted, Mrs. Nick," Silas said, following her directions.
"Who else is here?" Samantha asked.
"Heath and Alice," Nick said.
"Mother and Molly are with the children at our house," Jarrod said. "Molly will bring them over in a few minutes."
"Good," Samantha said, "I can't wait to introduce Lizzie to her sisters. Silas, why don't you go introduce Hope to her aunt and uncle - I'd like to speak to Jarrod alone for a moment."
Nick's brow wrinkled. "What for, Sam?" he asked.
"Don't worry, Cowboy, it's not about you," Samantha said. She batted her eyes at him. "Please?"
Nick grinned and kissed her, then ushered Silas into the parlor.
"What's this about, Sam?" Jarrod asked.
"I wanted you to hold Grace, because I named her after you," Samantha said.
"What? Her middle name is Jarrod?"
Samantha laughed. "No. But you remember when I first showed up, all full of anger and looking for revenge for Beth's death?"
"All water under the bridge, Sam," Jarrod said. "No need to think on it."
"Yes, there is," Samantha said. "You completely disarmed me you know, taking me in, calling me family, when you knew I meant you harm. You were grace personified, and that's why she's named after you."
Jarrod blinked, overwhelmed. "Well, Sam, you've proven yourself long since."
"That's not the point - the point is, you've always been an open-hearted man, Jarrod, and I love you for it. The question is, why can't you do the same for Henry?"
Jarrod started, taken aback. "Henry? Why Henry? What's he got to do with it?"
"You're so cold to him, Jarrod. You treat him like a snake about a strike. I've never seen you treat anyone that way - it's not like you."
Jarrod sat on the chair next to Samantha's bed, staring at Grace. The baby stirred and mewled and Jarrod caressed her cheek. "Here I thought I was giving him the benefit of the doubt."
"What doubt, Jarrod? Do you think he's dishonest?"
"Maybe. I don't know."
"Harrumpf. That man doesn't know how to be dishonest. I should know - he's too honest a pigeon to pluck, just like you were."
Jarrod looked up at her. "Are you sure, Sam? Because everything is riding on just how honest Henry is."
"I'm sure. Molly's sure, your mother is sure, everyone's sure but you. Even if you're not sure of their judgment, both of them having been in love with him and all, at least believe that I know how to size up a mark."
Jarrod regarded her a long moment. "I shall. . .take that under advisement, Sam," he said at last.
"You do that, Counselor," she said. "Now give me back my baby and go send in your brother."
Jarrod handed Grace over to her, turned to go, then turned back. "Don't be mad at me, Sam. This is a lot for me to come to grips with."
She softened then. "I know, Jarrod. But you're bigger than that, I know you are."
"Thank you, Samantha," he said. He went and sent Heath and Alice in, sat in a chair in the parlor thinking until Molly and Victoria arrived with the children.
"Mommy? Daddy?" Lizzie called as soon as she was brought into the parlor.
Nick came out of the infirmary. "Where's my Lizzie-girl?" he bellowed, picking her up and tossing her in the air.
Lizzie shrieked with laughter. "Growl like a bear, Daddy!" she demanded.
Nick obliged to more shrieks and giggles.
"Oh, good, Nick," Victoria said. "Get her all riled up just before you take her in to see the babies."
"Oh, Lizzie knows how to be quiet, don't you, Lizzie?" Nick said, putting a finger to his lips.
Lizzie nodded and imitated him. "Shhhhh!" she said.
Alice took her baby, Tommy, from Molly and draped him over her shoulder. She looked around Owen's tiny parlor, now crowded with Barkleys. "We'd better get back to the ranch, Heath. Should we wait for Lizzie?"
"Lizzie will stay with us until Samantha goes home," Jarrod said. "It's closer by. That all right with you, Feather?"
Molly nodded. "Of course it is." She kissed Alice and Heath good-bye.
"We'll come back tomorrow," Heath said.
"Now, be very quiet, Lizzie," Nick admonished as he carried her into the infirmary.
"Come meet your sisters, Honey," Samantha said. "Their names are Hope and Grace."
"Two sisters," Lizzie said, awed. She stared at them a long moment. "Can I play with them?"
"Not yet," Samantha said, "they're too little. But you're their big sister - it'll be up to you to teach them things and protect them, all right?"
Lizzie nodded, gravely serious.
"Would you like to hold them?" Samantha asked.
"Sam, she's too little," Nick said.
"Not if we help her," Samantha said. "Put her on the bed by me, Nick." Nick swung Lizzie up and Samantha nestled her in under her arm. "Now hand us Hope, Nick."
Nick picked up Hope and handed her to Samantha. Samantha put her in Lizzie's lap and wrapped her arms around both daughters. Lizzie put her arms around Hope and clutched her tightly. "Not too tight," Samantha warned. "You have to be gentle with your baby sister."
Nick looked on as his daughters got acquainted, and realized that he was no longer disappointed - not in the least. He grinned widely, picked up Grace and sat down by Samantha, happier than he could ever remember being.
"You don't have to guide me, Mrs. Lawson," Henry said. "I've traveled quite a bit by rail, I know my way around."
"I'm sorry," Amelia said. "I've never traveled with a blind person before."
"No offense," Henry said, finding an empty seat and sitting himself down.
"None intended, anyway," Amelia said, sitting herself down across from him. She stared out the window as the train pulled out of the station.
"What's the matter?"
"I can't do it, Ethan. I can't marry you."
"What do you mean? I thought. . ."
"You're finally happy, making a living at what you do best. I'm just getting in the way."
"I am. You know how I hate it, and I won't ask you to give it up because it's what you are. It's what you've always been. There's so much about you that I love. I don't know - I thought I'd get used to it. I suppose I fooled myself into believing that I would get used to it. But I can't."
"So, we can forget about the wedding, and keep things the way they are."
"That wouldn't be fair to either one of us. Or the children."
"Amelia, I can't let you go."
"You have to."
"What are your plans, Mrs. Lawson?" Henry asked.
Amelia pulled herself back from her memories. "Sell the bank - with the copper strike in Paradise, it should be worth far more than I paid for it. Then catch the first steamer for Australia." She stared out the window again. "Home," she whispered.
"And your young man? You don't think he'll come after you?"
"No," she said firmly.
"Why not?" Henry said. "I would."
"Because I left once before," Amelia said. "He came after me then. But it won't work - we both know that. No, he won't come after me again."
"You do seem to have made up your mind," Henry said, "but then why are you in such distress?"
"I'm not," Amelia asserted. "I'm doing what I have to."
"You are," Henry said. "I can hear it in your voice."
"Well, there are the children," Amelia said.
"Your children?" Henry asked, surprised.
"Ethan's children. Or rather, his sister's children whom he inherited. Don't misunderstand - they're fine children. All four of them. I'd have been happy to raise them with Ethan."
"But not without him, I think I see," Henry said. "So this is more than just a fear of death."
"I suppose," she said. "I hadn't really thought of it that way."
"Strange how some people run away from what someone else would sell their soul for," Henry mused.
"What do you mean?" Amelia said.
Henry shrugged. "I never had any children - it's my only real regret. Molly's children are a comfort to me, but it's not the same."
"Have you thought of adopting?" Amelia said. "The orphanages are full."
"There's not a court or an orphanage in the country who would allow an unwed blind man to adopt a child," Henry said with some bitterness.
"How unjust," Amelia said. "It's not as though you're incompetent. Quite the contrary."
"May I be blunt with you, Mrs. Lawson?" Henry asked.
"Please, don't." Amelia turned her head away. "I know what you're going to say - Molly and Audra have already said it. But I'm not them." She turned back, speaking fiercely. "I'm not you. I'm just myself, and I can't do what you all seem to expect me to do. I can't marry Ethan, and I can't be a mother to those children."
"Very well," Henry said. "Just be certain before you close that door that what you really want isn't on the other side of it."
"I'm certain," Amelia said. "I have to be." She turned back to the window. "I just have to be."
Chapter Four: Right All Along
"I'm glad you could get away, even if it is just for a day," Henry said as he and Victoria awaited their train in the station in San Francisco. "I haven't seen you for a month."
"I wouldn't miss a Committee meeting, you know that," Victoria said. "The entire world can't stop because I have grandchildren."
"How did the meeting go?"
"Lon gave his resignation," Victoria said.
"I'm sorry to hear that. He seemed to be a very dedicated man."
"He was, but it was obvious for quite awhile that he was unhappy with the direction the rest of us had chosen, so it didn't come as much of a surprise. I hope we can find someone a little more progressive to take his place." Victoria smiled. "As to that, we've had several requests from other schools for the blind to come assess the training program to see if it can fit into their programs."
"Truly?" Henry's face lit up. "Oh, that is a consummation devoutly to be wished."
"I thought you'd be pleased," Victoria said, grinning. "One request all the way from Kentucky. Perhaps your old director has changed his mind."
"Not that I wish to gloat, but I sincerely hope so." He held out his hand and Victoria took it. "This is the culmination of all my work for seventeen years, Victoria. You can't imagine how I feel right now."
"I'm happy for you, Henry, and proud."
He kissed her fingers as the westbound train pulled into the station. They waited for the incoming passengers to disembark before attempting to board for the trip to Stockton. Henry felt Victoria's grip tighten as she said, "I believe I know that girl. Young lady, rather." She stood up, pulling Henry up with her.
"Who?" Henry asked.
"Claire Carroll. Ethan Cord's niece." Her voice tightened. "She's with three boys, probably her brothers."
They approached the young people. "We're here. What now, Claire?" the oldest boy said, standing in the middle of the waiting room as the crowd washed around them. "Do we go knocking on every door in San Francisco?"
"Use your head, Joseph," Claire said. "She's a banker - we go ask at a bank. Surely someone at some bank will know her."
"Excuse me, Miss Carroll?" Victoria said. "I'm Victoria Barkley. Perhaps you remember me?"
Claire turned, her long blonde hair whipping around behind her. She looked bedraggled, yet far more mature than when Victoria had last seen her. 'Stately' was the word that came to mind. "Mrs. Barkley? Of course I remember you."
"May we assist you?" Victoria said. "You seem to be in some distress. Oh, this is my beau, Mr. Johnson."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson," Claire said. "These are my brothers. The eldest here is Joseph, then Ben and George. We're looking for Mrs. Lawson. Would you know where we can find her?"
"Come sit over here," Victoria said. "Why do you want to find her?"
Claire turned to her brothers. "Ben, George, why don't you go get the luggage?" She handed them two small slips of paper. "We'll wait here."
"Are they gonna help us?" George asked.
"Yes, George. Now hurry back." She turned to Victoria as the two younger boys hurried away. "They're still too upset, I didn't want to discuss this in front of them." She and Joseph followed Victoria and Henry to a bench and sat down.
"It's your uncle, isn't it?" Victoria said. "I think I knew the moment I saw your face."
Henry let out a deep sigh as Claire said. "Yes, he was killed a week ago, in a bank holdup."
"Claire worked there - she saw it happen," Joseph said.
"Oh, you poor dear," Henry said.
"What happened to me is not important," Claire said. "What's important now is that our ranch was mortgaged, and Joseph and I between us can't earn enough to keep up the payments."
"Is that why you want to see Mrs. Lawson?" Victoria asked. "To ask for an extension?"
Claire shook her head. "No, she's sold the bank, and the new owner, well, let's just say he's nothing like Mrs. Lawson. She was always willing to work something out. I don't think she's ever foreclosed - at least not since we've known her."
Claire ducked her head, blushing, and Victoria guessed that there was more to that story than Claire was telling. If it was what Victoria guessed, she couldn't blame the girl for not wanting to tell it, especially to strangers and in front of her younger brother.
"Why do you want to see her then?" Henry asked.
Claire shrugged. "We have no place else to go."
"There's Tacoma," Joseph said, anger tingeing his voice.
"What's in Tacoma?" Victoria asked.
"Our papa," Joseph said.
"I thought both your parents were dead," Victoria said.
Ben and George came then, carrying the luggage - one carpetbag and one suitcase. "He is d-dead," Ben asserted. "Mama told us he was."
"Mama wouldn't lie to us," George said.
Victoria glanced at Henry and realized the primary drawback to courting a blind man - no quick telegraphing of thoughts. Yet, Henry seemed to understand her anyway. "It's extraordinary circumstances, Victoria."
"What do you mean by that?" Joseph said.
"We do know where Mrs. Lawson is," Victoria said, "but she's made it clear she doesn't wish to be found."
"So you won't tell us where she is?" Claire said.
"We will," Victoria said, "whether she would wish us to is another matter."
"You're telling us not to get our hopes up," Joseph said.
"Mrs. Lawson wouldn't turn us away," George said. "She loves us."
"She loved Uncle Ethan, too," Joseph said, "but that didn't stop her from leaving."
"Enough of that." Victoria said. She looked into their tired, distraught faces. "No more bickering, please," she said more mildly. "Henry, would you take the children to hail a cab, please, while I go telegraph the family that we'll be taking a later train."
"We don't want to hold you up," Claire said. "Just tell us where to go - we can find our way."
"Too late," Victoria said as the train whistled and began to pull out of the station. "We wouldn't abandon you in a strange city, in any case. You run along, I'll be there in a few minutes."
The children accompanied Henry out of the station. "Do you see a cab anywhere?" he asked.
"Can't you - ?" Claire began. "Oh, you're blind. I didn't realize."
"I see one," Joseph said, hailing it.
"How come you're blind?" George asked.
"George," Claire said. "That's not polite."
"It's all right," Henry said. "I was blinded in the War, George."
"You were in the War?" Ben said, awe in his voice. "Are you a hero?"
"No, Ben, I'm not," Henry said. "I did my duty, that's all."
"Our Uncle was a hero," Ben said. "I-is a hero."
"I'm sure he was," Henry said. "From all I've heard, he was a very brave man."
The cab pulled up to the curb and Victoria rejoined them. It was a tight squeeze getting all six of them into the cab, but fortunately they did not have far to go before the cab pulled up in front of the Barkley townhouse. The children disembarked, hesitantly. Claire took a deep breath and rapped the knocker.
"We should wait," Henry said.
"Yes," Victoria agreed. "Although how anyone could turn her back on those children. . ."
"She doesn't want them," Henry said harshly. "She's made that clear. At any rate, they should all have a choice. And those children should be where they're wanted."
Victoria nodded and squeezed his hand, settling herself down to wait.
Amelia answered the knock, took one look at the children's faces, and stepped back, stricken. "He's gone, isn't he?" she said.
Claire nodded, struggling not to cry.
"You may as well come in," Amelia said, throwing open the door. She led them into the parlor. "How did it happen?"
"A bank hold-up," Joseph said. "Your bank."
"When?" Amelia said, ignoring the implied insult.
"A week ago," Claire said. "We came as quickly as we could - but it's a long way by stagecoach, you know that."
"How did you find me?" Amelia asked, clasping her elbows and pacing.
"We met Mrs. Barkley at the train station, by accident," Joseph said. "She brought us here."
"Her and her beau," George said. "I never knew anyone who had a blind beau before."
"Ah, Mr. Johnson," Amelia said, "so it was Victoria you met." She went to the window, looked outside. "It seems she's waiting for you."
"So you won't take us in," Joseph said heatedly, clenching his fists.
"I can't," Amelia said. "I have a ticket for Australia - the boat is leaving in two days. I've been waiting here until it leaves."
"You could take us with you," Ben said. "I've always wanted to see kangaroos."
Amelia turned away from the window. "No, Ben, I can't. Don't you understand? I'm not your mother; I'm not your aunt. I'm not responsible for you - I have my own life to live." She looked around at them - Joseph angry, Ben hurt, George openly weeping and Claire stoic - but did not change her mind. "Anyway, I'm surprised Claire hasn't told you; your father's still alive."
"I told them," Claire said woodenly.
"He's not our father!" Ben shouted. "Our father's dead!"
"No, he's not," Amelia said. "I'll give you money to help you find him, if you want, but you’re his responsibility."
"We didn't come here for charity," Joseph said.
"What did you come here for?" Amelia said, growing angry herself. "If I had wanted you, I'd have stayed in Paradise."
Claire stood. "Let's go, boys. There's no point in talking anymore." She shoved Ben and George out the door, and Joseph edged out behind them, glaring back at Amelia as he left.
"Wait, Claire," Amelia said. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"You meant it," Claire said tersely, closing the door. She clenched her fists and turned on Amelia. "What's happened to you? You used to be so warm, so sweet. I hardly recognize you now."
"Perhaps I saw where being warm and sweet would lead me," Amelia said.
"And where is that?"
"A widow with four children," Amelia said. "And you see, I was right. It would have."
"Well, you enjoy being right, Mrs. Lawson," Claire said, opening the door. "Enjoy it for the rest of your life." She slammed the door behind her, nearly stumbling down the steps and to the waiting cab. George and Ben were inside, George sitting in Victoria's lap, weeping. Joseph was pacing up and down the sidewalk.
"What now, Claire?" Joseph demanded. "Do we even have enough money to go to Tacoma?"
"Come on up, you two," Victoria said. "Tell me about Tacoma."
Joseph and Claire obeyed. "Our father turned up in Paradise a few weeks ago," Claire said, "just about the time that Mrs. Lawson left us."
"He's not our father," Ben said sullenly.
"What's wrong with Mrs. Lawson?" George said, sitting up and wiping his eyes. "Doesn't she love us anymore?"
"Not now, George," Claire said wearily. "And he is, too, our father, Ben. Uncle Ethan said so."
"He didn't tell us," Joseph said.
"You didn't ask him. I did," Claire said. "I think the two of them fought about us. Anyway, Papa said he was going to Tacoma without telling us who he was, but I remembered him."
"I take it that it's been a long time since you've seen him, then," Henry said.
"Since before George was born," Claire said, "and he's nine now, so, yes, it's been a long time."
"Do we have enough money to get there?" Joseph asked.
"Even if you did, that probably would not be best use of your resources, going yourself," Victoria said. "If you didn't find him, you'd be trapped in a strange town with nowhere to go and no way to get out."
"It's our only choice now," Claire said.
"Not necessarily," Victoria said. "We've been talking it over, and we think we have a plan you may find more suitable."
"What plan, Mrs. Barkley?" Claire asked, hope dawning on her drawn features.
"I have an empty cottage at our ranch - it's usually for our foreman, but it's been a long time since we've had one with a family, so it's been sitting empty. . ."
"We don't want charity," Joseph said, tersely. "Thanks anyway, Mrs. Barkley."
"Hush, Joseph," Claire said. "Be polite enough to let her finish."
"I'm not offering charity," Victoria said. She waved to the cab driver to drive to the train station. "Now, as I was saying, the cottage is empty, and you're welcome to use it. I take it you and Joseph had jobs in Paradise?"
"Joseph worked at the hotel, and I worked in the bank," Claire said.
"We w-worked, too," Ben said, "George and me. We raised chickens and sold the eggs, and vegetables in the summertime. And we took care of the horses when Uncle Ethan couldn't."
"That's fine, then," Victoria said. "We have chickens and horses, and a garden in the summer. If you two boys will take care of the chickens and do any other odd jobs my sons ask of you, that will pay for your rent, and Claire and Joseph can take jobs to buy your food and other necessities."
"What about Papa?" Claire said. "How do we find him? We can't stay with you indefinitely."
"Let me go to Pinkerton's and hire someone to track him down for you. A professional is far more likely to find him than you are."
"I don't think we can pay you for that," Claire said, worriedly.
"Let's say it's on speculation - if we find him, he can pay me back. After all, you’re his responsibility, not the other way around. If we can't find him, well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"It's still charity, no matter what you call it," Joseph said.
"To the contrary," Victoria said. "My family owes yours quite a number of debts. It would be only fair for you to allow us to pay you back."
"What debts? We hardly know you."
"Well, it's my understanding that my son Nick would have lost his leg had not your sister gone into the mine after it collapsed and helped lift that beam off it. And you and your brothers also helped with the rescue, did you not?"
Joseph nodded. "A little. Not that much."
"When time is of the essence, as it was then, every contribution is important. And we owe a debt to your uncle, as well. He protected my daughter-in-law and grandchildren when they were in danger from the mine manager. I understand your uncle was the one who shot him just as he was trying to kill my son."
"Did he?" Joseph said. "I don't believe he told us that story."
"Lucas did, when Mrs. Lawson and I went to Stockton a few years ago," Claire said. "It's true, but Uncle Ethan didn't like to talk about it."
"I believe it," Ben said firmly.
"Me, too," George said.
"So you see," Victoria said, "We owe you quite a lot. Is it a bargain?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Barkley," Claire said, "we kindly accept your gracious offer." The lines of worry began to ease out of her face, making her appear younger.
"Oh, one more thing," Victoria said, "the only condition I have is that all of you attend school while you're living at the ranch. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Claire said. "Thank you so much, Mrs. Barkley. It was lucky for us that you were here for us."
"Luck, or something better," Henry said, smiling.
Chapter Five: Settling In
Victoria reached under her seat and took out a parcel. "I bought some books for my grandchildren. Perhaps you would like to read while we travel?" She unwrapped the parcel.
"Oh, 'Little Women',' Claire said. "May I have that one? I've read it before, but it's one of my favorites."
"Of course." Victoria said, smiling. "Let's see - 'A New Voyage Around the World' - "
"M-may I h-have that one?" Ben asked.
"If you like - it may be a little difficult for you."
"Does it have maps? I like maps," Ben said.
"Why, I believe it does." She handed the book to Ben. "'Aids to Forensic Medicine and Toxicology' - that's for Lucas, I doubt any of you want to read that one."
"I do," Joseph said, eagerly. "If it's all right."
"Of course it is," Victoria handed him the book and regarded him with interest as he became quickly absorbed in it. "George, you have several choices."
George shrugged. "No, thank you, ma'am."
Victoria quirked an eyebrow. "Are you sure? Do you not like to read?"
"He can't," Ben said, glancing up from the map he was studying.
"Ben!" George shouted, "You didn't have to tell them! Now they'll know I'm stupid."
"Hold on, now, George," Henry said. "No one thinks you're stupid. What seems to be the problem? Do you not understand the letters?"
"No, I know my ABCs," George said. "I just can't read is all."
"What happens when you try?" Henry asked.
George shrugged. "I dunno. The letters kind of move around."
Joseph looked up. "What do you mean the letters move around? How can they move, George?"
Henry held up a hand. "I've been a teacher for many years, Joseph. I've seen this problem before, often in quite bright pupils."
George sat up straight. "You have? Did they learn how?"
Henry shook his head. "No, I never managed to teach them."
George slumped. "I'll never learn to read," he mourned.
"Now, then, George, don't give up hope," Henry said. "There might be a way." Henry sat back thoughtfully.
"You can look at the maps with me, George," Ben offered. All was quiet then until the train pulled into Stockton.
Nick met them at the station. His eyes swept over the bedraggled children as he kissed his mother's cheek. "Now I see why you telegraphed for the surrey, Mother. Good to see you again, Miss Carroll."
Claire curtseyed. "Good to see you, too, Mr. Barkley. You remember my brothers."
"I do, indeed," Nick said. "What brings you to Stockton?"
"We'll discuss that later, Nick," Victoria said. "We need to take Henry to Jarrod's and then get these children to the ranch. I thought they could stay in the foreman's cottage."
"All right," Nick said, amiably, offering Claire his arm. "Right this way."
They stopped at Jarrod's and Victoria disembarked along with Henry. "Wait here, I shan't be long," she said, taking Henry's arm.
He was greeted by shouts of "Uncle Henry! Uncle Henry!" as soon as they stepped inside the door and hugged intensely. He laughed and crouched down to return the hugs, never tiring of this greeting. He stood and said, "Molly? We have a serious situation."
"What's happened?" Molly asked anxiously.
"The Carroll children," Victoria said. "They're out in the surrey with Nick. We found them in the train station in San Francisco. They had come to find your friend, Mrs. Lawson, because their uncle's been killed."
Molly's hand flew to her mouth as she gasped and began to weep. "Ethan? Oh, no!"
"Why don't you show Uncle Henry to his room?" Lucas said to his younger siblings. The three younger children ran off, Henry in tow, to do as requested - only Emma looked thoughtful as they left. "I'll go speak to them, shall I, Mother?"
"Yes, Lucas, that's a good idea," Molly agreed through her tears. "Wait here, Mother, let me go tell Jarrod." She found her husband in the study and blurted out the news.
"Oh, dear," Jarrod said, "how dreadful for those children. I deduce that, since they're here with Mother and not with Amelia, she turned them away?"
"Mother didn't say, but she must have, mustn't she?" Molly hid her face in Jarrod's chest for a moment. "How could she, Jarrod? How could she look those children in the face and turn them away?"
Jarrod stroked her hair. "I don't know, Feather, but at least they're in good hands. How old is Claire?"
"I'm not sure. Sixteen, I think. I'm pretty sure she's the same age as Lucas."
"We'll need to find out for sure," Jarrod said. "It's important in a case like this. Come, let's go speak to them."
"I'm sorry about your uncle, Claire," Lucas said, taking her hand. "I know how upset you must be."
"Thank you, Lucas," Claire said. "I'm happy to see you again, I just wish it wasn't. . ." She choked, tears stinging her eyes.
"I wish it wasn't, too," Lucas said.
Victoria, Jarrod and Molly came out of the house and Molly ran to Claire, hugging her awkwardly. She reached out and clasped the hands of the boys, each in turn. "I'm so sorry," she said.
"I'm going to hire Pinkerton's to search for their father," Victoria said.
"He's not our father," Ben said sullenly.
"Robert's alive?" Molly said.
"You knew our father?" Joseph asked, surprised.
"And your mother," Molly said, "before Claire was born. Lucy was a good friend."
"That's right," Claire said. "I had forgotten."
"Show her the pictures, Claire," Joseph said eagerly. "Don't tell her which is which."
"Hand me my bag," Claire said. She took out two photographs, one in a silver frame, one unframed and crumpled as though it had been wadded into a ball and then carefully straightened. "Which one is he?"
Molly looked at the two pictures. She pointed to the crumpled one, "This one. That's Robert. Is the other man here Ethan? He looks so young." Tears began to sting her eyes again.
Ben leapt to his feet. "You're lying! It's the other one! Mama said!"
"Why would she lie, Ben?" Claire said wearily.
"Why would Mama lie?" Ben argued back.
"Well, she did," Claire said. "Thank you, Mrs. Barkley." She took back both pictures and stowed them in her bag.
Molly looked from Ben to Claire and back, confused. "We'll talk about it later," she said. "I'm sorry to have upset you, Ben."
"Let's get these kids to the ranch," Nick said. "They've come a long way and they're exhausted."
"Very sensible, Nick," Victoria said, climbing into the surrey.
"Just one thing, if I may," Jarrod said. "How old are you, Claire?"
"Sixteen," she said.
"When was your birthday?" Jarrod asked.
"Two months ago," Claire said. "Why?"
"Do you mind if I come discuss the legal aspects of your situation with you? Later, of course, after you've settled in and gotten your bearings."
"I would appreciate that very much," Claire said, seemingly comforted.
"May I come, too, Grandmother?" Lucas asked.
"Of course, Lucas," Victoria said. "You're always welcome."
Molly turned to Jarrod. "I need to go, too, love, if you don't mind."
"Not at all, Feather," Jarrod said. "I'll mind the children and the children will mind Henry."
Molly smiled and Victoria said, "Bring everyone to dinner, Jarrod. Henry hasn't met the twins yet, and you and the children are always welcome."
"All right, Mother," Jarrod said, helping Molly into the surrey. She squeezed between Nick and Victoria as Nick flicked the reins and headed for the ranch.
Jarrod watched the surrey out of sight and went back into the house. He walked up the stairs to Henry's room, smiling at the chatter of children's voices emanating from it. "All right, children," he said, opening the door, "let Uncle Henry have a moment to get settled. We're going to the ranch for supper, so go put on your ranch clothes. Emma, would you help Georgie get dressed?"
"Where are Mommy and Lucas?" Emma asked.
"They went to the ranch ahead of us," Jarrod said, "to help their friends get settled. They'll be staying at the ranch for awhile."
"All right, Daddy," Emma said, taking her little brother by the hand. She had a serious look on her face as she brushed by him.
"Just a moment," Jarrod said. "Vicky, take Georgie to the nursery, please." He crouched down to speak to Emma. "Is something wrong, Sweetie?"
Emma nodded her head. "I'm sad about Claire's uncle," she said. "I didn't know him, but I remember Claire and she's nice. I wish I could make them feel better."
Jarrod patted her shoulder, paused, then embraced her in a hug. "I know, so do I. Sometimes people have to be sad, Emma. That's when they need their friends the most. The two younger boys are about your age. Maybe you could be their friend."
"Maybe," Emma said. "If they're as nice as Claire, I think I could."
"They'll be staying at the ranch for awhile," Jarrod said, "so you'll have a chance to see." He hugged her again. "Now run along and get ready, all right?"
"All right, Daddy," Emma said.
Jarrod turned to Henry with a sigh as Emma left. "It's an awful business," Henry said.
"It is," Jarrod agreed. "I had intended to speak with you about something, but I'm not sure now is the right time, with all this going on."
"If you need to talk, Jarrod, it is the right time." Henry sat down in an armchair and motioned for Jarrod to do likewise.
Jarrod sat across from him. "I find I have been upbraided for the way I've been treating you."
"Upbraided? Whatever for? You've been the soul of patience."
Jarrod snorted. "But not of warmth, so I'm told."
"Not by Molly, surely? I have no cause for complaint."
"No, not Molly. Samantha, actually. And I've been doing some soul-searching, and I believe she's right. And I also think I've discovered why."
"And why is that?" Henry asked quietly.
"Because I've never had a satisfactory answer as to why you didn't try to win Molly back. I know you loved each other, still do. Why was it so easy for you to let her go?" Jarrod leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees. "I'd have fought tooth-and-nail for her."
"I would think the reason is obvious," Henry said.
Jarrod shook his head. "Not to me."
"It's the children, Jarrod," Henry said. "I didn't wish to bring misery to your children."
Jarrod's head snapped up. "Is that the only reason?"
"I do admit to having already developed feelings for Victoria, but they certainly hadn't developed to the point that I would have given Molly up for her, if that's what you're asking. No, Jarrod, the children are the only reason. I don't know if that will ease you or not." Henry shrugged. "It's the truth."
Jarrod sat silent for a moment, lost in thought. "I envy you, you know," he said at last.
"Envy? Me?" Henry said. "Whatever for? You have everything I could have ever wanted."
"I only met Molly just before she turned forty, you know," Jarrod said. "I've met some of her old friends, but you're the only person we know now who knew Molly when she was young. It's not just that she loved you first, although I admit I envy that as well, but there's so much of her life that you had that I didn't. She has a window on my boyhood through my family, and they're not shy about telling tales about me, but the only things I know of Molly's girlhood are what she's told me herself."
Now it was Henry's turn to sit silent. "Well, then, I suppose we shall have to envy each other. Or share."
"What do you mean?" Jarrod asked.
"You've been quite gracious in allowing me to partake of Molly's present," Henry said. "I see no reason not to share her past with you. If that's what you want."
Nick pulled the surrey up in front of the ranch house. "Nick," Victoria said, springing down, "please go tell Silas to bring fresh linens to the foreman's cottage. And you and Heath bring down the extra bed from the attic. Molly and I will go air out the cottage and take off the dustcovers."
Lucas clasped Claire's waist and helped her down from the surrey. "What would you like me to do, Grandmother?"
"If you could bring in some wood, that would be very helpful," Victoria said. She ushered the children around the back of the house to the cottage and flung open the door.
"My, this is a pretty little cottage," Claire said, looking around. "I like the curtains."
"Only two bedrooms," Victoria said, "although there's a small garret - we could put a bed in there if Joseph would like his own room."
"We all shared a room in Paradise," Claire said, "so this is better than we're used to."
"The bathroom is through there if you'd like to freshen up," Molly said.
"Let's get the cottage ready first," Claire said.
"Let's get these windows open," Victoria said. "Air it out a bit, then we can start a fire. If you boys would start removing the dust covers from the furniture - gently now, we don't want to raise a lot of dust. Oh, here's Silas, already." She took the linens and introduced him. "They'll be staying with us for awhile, Silas," she said, "and Jarrod's bringing the children for dinner, so we'll have to put the other leaf in the dining room table." She turned to Claire. "Since there's no food in the house yet, I hope you'll have dinner with us."
Claire looked at her brothers. "That's sweet of you, Mrs. Barkley," she said, "but it has been a long journey. Would it be all right to have our dinner out here tonight? I don't think we're quite up to a large gathering."
"As you wish," Victoria said. "Would you care to join us for church tomorrow?"
Claire's eyes lit up. "Oh, yes, that would be lovely."
The younger boys rolled their eyes at this, but Claire pretended not to notice. Molly and Claire began making beds in the bedrooms and Lucas brought in a load of wood. "Well, it's presentable," Victoria said in a few minutes. "I hope you'll be comfortable."
"It's lovely," Claire said. "We'll be more than comfortable, I'm sure. Thank you for all your kindness."
"Silas," Victoria said. "Why don't you take Ben and George to the house for their baths, and Joseph and Claire can take theirs here."
"All right, Mrs. Barkley," Silas said, leading the two younger boys off.
Nick and Heath appeared then, carrying a brass headboard and mattress. "Set that up in the larger bedroom," Victoria said. "Claire, you don't mind having the smaller bedroom to yourself, do you?"
"Not at all," Claire said.
Lucas stoked up the fire and put water on to heat while the men set up the bed. Molly began to make it up while Claire went to take her bath. Nick took Victoria aside. "I've sat on my curiosity long enough - just what is going on here, Mother?" he asked.
"We'll have a family council and discuss it," Victoria said. "I'd rather tell it all once. I hope Jarrod thinks to bring Audra and Owen, too. Or else I'll have to fill them in tomorrow." She looked around. "I think we'll leave them alone now."
"I need to stay," Molly said. "I need to talk to them about their father - I don't really understand what's going on there."
"I'll get more wood," Lucas said. "One load is not nearly enough."
Victoria smiled at his transparency. "All right. Come back to the house when you're through."
Lucas went to the woodpile and Claire peeked out of the bathroom as she heard the door close. "Is everyone gone?" she asked.
"Everyone except Lucas and his mother," Joseph said. "He's getting wood and she wants to talk to you about Papa."
"All right." Claire came out wearing her robe and Molly followed her into her bedroom. "I've never had my own room before," she confided to Molly, taking her hairbrush and sitting down in front of the vanity. Molly took the brush from her hand and began brushing out her long hair.
"Such beautiful hair, Claire," Molly began, only to see Claire suddenly burst into tears and begin to sob. Molly put her arms around her. "Claire? What's wrong?"
"Mama used to do that," Claire said. "Brush my hair and tell me how beautiful it was. No one's done that since. . ." She covered her face with her hands and sobbed uncontrollably. Molly held her until her cries subsided.
"I'm sorry," Claire said. "I shouldn't be crying. I have to be strong, for the boys."
"Haven't you cried about this at all, Claire?"
"I cried when Uncle Ethan was shot - I was there, I couldn't help it. And at the funeral, a little. But I can't just let myself go, Mrs. Barkley. There's no one to hold this family together if I can't do it."
"It's all right to cry, Claire," Molly said. "It doesn't make you weak." She picked up the hairbrush she had dropped. "Would you rather brush it yourself?"
"No, it's all right," Claire said. "If you want to."
Molly began brushing Claire's hair again. "You know, Claire, I was in very much the same position you were in when I was your age. My mother died when I was six, and then my father died when I was sixteen. I had an older brother who was seventeen, and three younger brothers, and we tried to hold things together by ourselves, too."
"How did you manage it?" Claire asked anxiously.
"Well, I finally managed to prevail on the man I loved to marry me," Molly said, "and things were much better after that. But then the War came and blew everything straight to Hell."
Claire started a little at her language, then seemed to realize it was appropriate. "I've heard a lot of bad stories about the War," she said. "And Lucas wrote me about what's happened to you and your family these few months. So I do know who Mr. Johnson is. You must have been happy to find him alive, but how awkward that must be, too."
"I was, and it is," Molly said, "but we're managing it. My children adore their 'Uncle Henry' - and the rest of us are coming to terms with it." She finished brushing and Claire turned around to face her. "Now, Claire, tell me about your father. It seems I'm not the only one with relatives who come back from the dead."
Claire sighed. "I don't know the whole story, Mrs. Barkley. I can only tell you what I surmise. Papa did turn up in Paradise a few weeks ago, but he didn't tell us who he was. I was only six or seven when he left us, so it took me awhile to recognize him. He seemed rather nice, but rather sad, and then he just left. I think he and Uncle Ethan had a fight about us, and Uncle Ethan won. I guess he deserted Mama and she didn't want us to know about it. I don't even know who the man in the picture she always said was Papa really is."
Molly sat on the bed. "I think she was trying to protect you, Claire. Maybe it would be best if you didn't find him, awful as that sounds to say."
"I think you need to be honest with me, Mrs. Barkley. Our whole future may depend on it. You didn't like Papa, did you?"
"But I did, Claire. Everyone liked Robert. He was easy to like - very engaging, clever, charming, generous to a fault. Except the money he was generous with usually was borrowed from someone else who never saw a penny repaid."
Claire bit her lip. "Go on."
"Do you really want to hear the rest, Claire? It's not pretty, especially for a young girl like yourself."
"I need to know the truth, Mrs. Barkley. How else can I do what's best for my family?"
"All right," Molly said. "It wasn't just profligacy with money - he liked to drink too much, gamble too much and he liked. . .pretty girls too much. He broke Lucy's heart far too many times to count, I'm sorry to say, but he always came back with a pretty apology and a pretty story. When she was with child with you, it seemed he really meant to change. They left the theater then, meant to settle down and raise you right, but I guess he couldn't stick with it, whatever his intent. It's not a flattering picture of your father, I'm sorry, but that's the man I know."
Claire sat silent a long moment. "I'll need to think about this awhile - but I don't know if Joseph and I can raise this family by ourselves." She squared her shoulders. "I'm most worried about Ben - he idolized Uncle Ethan. This has really torn him apart."
"I saw how angered he is by the whole situation," Molly said. "Claire, you won't hesitate to ask me for anything you might need, will you? Lucy was my friend, it's an honor and a pleasure for me to help her children."
"Your family is doing quite enough for us already, Mrs. Barkley."
"But that's what friends are for, Claire, to help each other in times of trouble. And you may call me 'Molly' - you're old enough and friend enough."
Claire turned her head, brushed back a tear. "Thank you, but I'm not comfortable with that yet. Perhaps 'Miss Molly'?"
"All right," Molly said, standing. "I'll leave you to rest, but I'll be in the house. Don't hesitate to come ask for anything you need."
"All right," Claire said, taking Molly's hand, "Miss Molly."
Claire dressed herself after Molly left and went out into the sitting room. A freshly scrubbed Joseph was helping Lucas pile a load of logs by the fireplace. "That's certainly enough wood," Claire said. "We should last through the winter at that rate."
Lucas grinned. "I didn't want you to run out." He stood and dusted bark off himself into the grate. "I've shown Joseph where the woodpile is."
"Thank you, Lucas," Claire said, offering him her hand.
"It's nothing," he said, taking it. "I'll see you tomorrow then? I know you want to rest tonight."
"I'd like that," Claire said. "Thank you."
The younger boys returned with Silas, bearing platters of food and pitchers of drink. "My goodness," Claire said, "are we feeding an army?"
"You got three growing boys here, Miss Claire," Silas said. "There's no ice in the box yet, so you bring your leftovers up to the house when you're done, if you have any."
"I'm so hungry I c-could eat a horse!" Ben declared.
"Better not let Mr. Nick hear you talk like that, we don't eat no horses around here," Silas said, smiling.
"He didn't mean it," George said.
"I know that," Silas said. "I was just joshing."
"Thank you, Silas," Claire said. "I'm sure we shall enjoy the dinner very much."
Silas left and the children set the table and settled down to eat. "I like it here," George said. "It's nice."
"But we can't stay here forever," Joseph said.
"Why not?" George asked.
"We don't belong here," Joseph explained. "They're not our family."
"Hush, Joseph," Claire said. "Let's eat and get a good night's sleep before we talk about what to do next. We'll all think better tomorrow."
Chapter Six: Decisions
Ben and George knocked on the back door to the ranch house. "Here's your eggs," George said when Silas answered. "We fed the chickens, too."
"Why you boys didn't have to do that," Silas said, "although I thank you kindly."
"Yes, we did," Ben said. "Mrs. Barkley s-said that's how we p-pay for the cottage."
"Did she now?" Silas said, frowning thoughtfully. "Well, you boys run along and tell your brother and sister that breakfast'll be ready in about twenty minutes, all right?"
The boys ran off and Silas turned to the stove and began cracking eggs into the skillet.
"Good morning, Silas," Victoria said, coming down the back stairs. "Anything left for me to do?"
"Mrs. Barkley," Silas said sternly, "what're you doing making those children work? You ain't never charged no rent for anyone to stay here before. And them with no mother nor no father to take care of them."
"Ah, Silas, it's for their pride." Victoria put her hands on her hips. "Isn't that as important as their food or their clothes?"
"I suppose," Silas said. "But it don't seem like you, is all."
"They wouldn't have come if I hadn't," Victoria said. "And this way, they don't feel helpless. There's nothing worse than feeling helpless."
"No, Mrs. Barkley, I don't suppose there is," Silas agreed.
"We have to find proper paying jobs for Joseph and Claire," Victoria said, "but any small chores you might find for the younger boys would be greatly appreciated, Silas."
"All right, Mrs. Barkley, I guess you know best."
Ben and George almost ran into the red-haired girl who came dashing around the corner of the house. She pulled up short when she saw them. "Who are you?" Ben demanded.
"Lena Barkley," the girl said. "I live here. You must be Ben and George."
"I thought we'd met all the Barkleys," George said.
"Oh, no," Lena shook her head. "There's my mom and dad, my baby brother Tommy, my Uncle Nick and Aunt Samantha and Lizzie and Hope and Grace. Hope and Grace are babies, and Lizzie's not much older."
"I didn't know there were so many," George said, awed.
"That's just the ones who live here," Lena said. "My Uncle Jarrod and Aunt Molly live in town with my four cousins, and my Aunt Audra and Uncle Owen live in town, too."
"We know L-lucas," Ben said, "and Judge and Mrs. Barkley. Which ones are they?"
"Uncle Jarrod and Aunt Molly," Lena said. "Lucas, Emma, Vicky and Georgie."
Ben shook his head. "We'll never remember all th-that."
"It's not that hard, once you've been here awhile," Lena said.
"Well, we need to go now, Lena," George said. "See you at breakfast."
"Maybe we can go riding later," Lena called after them as they dashed off.
Ben turned around, running backwards. "That would be g-good!"
Breakfast was a boisterous affair with so many people in the house at once. Silas suggested that the younger children eat in the kitchen, which Lena seemed to regard as a rare treat. Lizzie insisted on joining them, on the grounds that she was 'a big sister now.' Lena rolled her eyes, but patiently helped her eat and then cleaned her up afterwards.
Even Claire seemed a bit overwhelmed, although she had been there before and was acquainted with everyone except Alice and Lena, and the newest arrivals. She was glad that no one questioned them about their recent loss or their plans for the future, as the first was still too much of a shock and the second was too uncertain.
"You feel like coming to Church with us, Sam?" Nick asked, getting up from the table and stretching. He looked at his wife with concern - she was altogether too pale and wan.
"I don't think so, Cowboy," Samantha said with a sigh. "I surely will be glad when the twins start sleeping through the night."
"You have twins?" Claire asked, perking up. "How old?"
"Just barely a month," Samantha said, smiling. "Two girls, Hope and Grace."
"Oh, how darling," Claire said.
"They are," Samantha said. "But they're a handful."
"I'll stay home, you get some rest," Victoria offered.
"No, Mother," Nick said, "I'll stay home. I know how you hate to miss Church. Sam, you go upstairs. I'll look after the girls for awhile."
At the church, Victoria glanced around for the rest of her family. Audra was already sitting in their pew with Owen, and Victoria looked up as Jarrod arrived with his children and Henry. "Where's Molly?" Victoria asked, kissing Jarrod's cheek.
"Gone to San Francisco on the early train," Jarrod said, offering her his arm.
Victoria frowned. "That won't do any good, Jarrod."
"We know, Mother. But you can't know what Amelia's meant to us, especially to Molly. Her behavior the past few weeks has been quite a disappointment. Molly can't sit by and watch."
"None of us can," Henry said.
"Are they ready for visitors?" Jarrod asked Victoria. "I know they need some privacy, but the sooner I can advise Claire of her legal position, the better for all, I think."
"They had breakfast with us this morning, and I believe Lena has asked Ben and George to go riding this afternoon. I don't think they're adverse to company."
"Good," Jarrod said. "I'll come by this afternoon, then."
"We were expecting all of you to Sunday dinner," Victoria said. "Audra and Owen, too."
"Well then, I certainly hate to disappoint you. Good, because Emma has been wanting to express her sympathy."
Samantha did look a little better when they got back to the ranch, although it was obvious that she needed more than an hour's respite. Still, she was cheerful and Hope and Grace were passed from hand to hand with great enthusiasm.
"Victoria tells me you're interested in medicine, Joseph," Owen said, taking the boy aside after dinner.
"How did she know?" Joseph asked.
"It's not everyone who would find 'Aids to Forensic Medicine' good reading material on a train," Owen said, amused.
"I need to return that," Joseph said. "She meant it for Lucas."
"I'm sure he won't mind if you keep it for awhile," Owen said. "Well then, to come to the point, I've been looking for an assistant. Have you had any experience?"
"A little," Joseph said. "John Taylor was teaching me. And I've helped him a few times." Joseph squinted his eyes warily. "But he's not a 'real doctor', so you might not think that counts."
"Is he the Indian gentleman who tended to Jarrod after the mine collapse?"
Joseph nodded. "He is."
"Then I certainly have nothing disparaging to say about your friend," Owen said. "The extent of Jarrod's injuries - if he'd been tended by someone less skilled, he'd have been crippled."
"He saved Claire when she was bitten by a rabid wolf, too," Joseph said. "He went to Reno and learned how to make the vaccine. Uncle Ethan, too."
"Did he teach you that?" Owen said.
Joseph shrugged. "I helped. I don't know if I could do it by myself."
"I wouldn't expect you to," Owen said, "but I'm glad to know you've had some laboratory experience. What about it then? Would you like to come work with me? After school and Saturdays, of course. It's very important you finish your schooling, if you want to be a doctor."
"Frankly, I'd love to work with you," Joseph said, eyes shining. "But I'm not likely to ever go to college. There's no way we could afford it now."
"There are scholarships," Owen said. "That's how I managed it. I wasn't any better off as a boy than you are. Work hard, Joseph. If that's what you really want, don't give up on it. Find a way."
"All right, sir," Joseph said. "I'll come to your surgery after school tomorrow, then?"
Owen smiled. "Capital."
"Claire," Jarrod asked, "are you ready to discuss your legal position?"
"Please, Judge Barkley, the sooner the better," Claire said. She handed the baby she was holding - Hope, she thought - to Samantha with some reluctance. She looked around the crowded parlor. "Perhaps we should adjourn to the cottage?"
"Good idea," Jarrod said, offering her his arm.
"Where is Miss Molly?" She looked up at him. "She said I could call her that."
"I'm sure she did, Claire," Jarrod said. They entered the cottage and sat down. "Now then, you're sixteen, how old are your brothers?"
"Joseph is fifteen, Ben is eleven and George is nine."
"All right then," Jarrod said, "although Joseph is not a minor from a criminal court standpoint, from a civil court standpoint, you're the only one who is legally an adult."
"I see," Claire said. She shook her head. "What does that mean exactly?"
"Most importantly for you, it means you can be legal guardian to your brothers. In the absence of your father, no one, and I repeat, no one, has the authority to take them away from you."
"Well, that's some comfort," Claire said, "although I don't suppose anyone would want to."
"Better to know what ground you stand on," Jarrod said. "I hope you don't mind that Molly told me what you discussed yesterday, about your father."
"No, it saves going over it again," Claire said.
"Are you sure you want to find him?" Jarrod said bluntly. "I know the current situation is difficult for you, but having an irresponsible guardian would likely only make matters worse."
"I'm considering it, Judge Barkley. The problem is that I don't have much to go on. Miss Molly hasn't seen Papa since before I was born, and I barely remember him. I know a few facts, but facts aren't everything, are they?"
"I'm a lawyer, Claire. The law relies on facts."
"I know, but the thing is - Judge Barkley, you knew my uncle before we came to Paradise, didn't you?"
Jarrod pressed his lips together. "Yes, I did."
"And you didn't like him, did you?"
"Claire. . ."
"Please, Judge Barkley. It's like I told your wife, our future may depend on your honesty."
"All right. No, I didn't. I didn't like what he was or who he was."
"But he changed," Claire said. "He didn’t want us at first, not for a long time. Didn't want to settle down, but he did. He learned to love us, Judge Barkley, learned to care about law and justice, just like you do. I'm not saying he was perfect, but he did change."
"And you think your father can change, too?" Jarrod said.
"He might," Claire said. "I don't know if it's worth the risk."
"In due conscience, Claire, I should point out that he didn't change for your mother or for you children when you were young. He abandoned her and all of you already."
"I know," Claire said.
"Well, at least you know you have a choice. If you decide not to look for him, I would recommend that you seek to terminate his parental rights. It would be a shame if he showed up and destroyed your life the way he destroyed your mother's."
"Can I do that?" Claire said. "I mean, he is our father."
"It can be done," Jarrod said. "You have grounds, and I, for one, would feel much better if you were those boys' incontestable guardian."
"I don't know if I'm up to the job," Claire said quietly.
"You don't have to do it alone, Claire," Jarrod said. "I know you don't want charity, but. . ."
"It's Joseph who's so adamant against it," Claire said vehemently. "To keep my family together, I'd beg in the streets."
"Joseph's a bright boy, but I think you may be the more clearheaded," Jarrod said. "Then you know you have a home here, if you want it."
"I. . .appreciate that, Judge Barkley." She stood. "I don't know what I'm going to decide yet."
"Well, at least let us offer you the breathing room to make your decisions. No need to rush into anything."
"Thank you." Jarrod turned to go, but she put a hand on his arm. "Uncle Ethan quite admired you, you know. He told me you were the bravest man he'd ever met."
Jarrod hesitated before he spoke. "Did he? I can't imagine why."
"Can't you? He deeply regretted not going to the mine with you that day."
"He had no cause to, he'd made no promises. I had."
"Promises to whom?"
"To Lucas," Jarrod said. "Not to leave him there, to come for him."
"To make him your son."
Jarrod smiled. "That came later. But yes, to make him my son."
"George," Henry said, when they were through with dinner, "might I speak to you a moment?"
"Me?" George said. "What about?"
"Yeah, what about?" Ben asked.
"It's a private matter," Henry said, "if you don't mind, Ben. Come with me into the study, George."
The boys looked at each other and shrugged. George followed Henry into the study. "Come sit by me, George," Henry said, seating himself on the sofa. "You said you knew your ABCs - I would like you to recite them for me, please."
"Why?" George asked.
"Because I want to try something that might help you," Henry said.
"It's useless," George said sadly. "I've tried and tried, but I can't read. My teacher in Paradise made me sit in the dunce corner, I'm so stupid."
Henry's face flushed. "What a terrible thing to do to a child. I know it's common, but what a terrible thing."
"You're a teacher. What do you do?"
"I teach adults now, George, but when I taught children, if one had trouble learning, I tried to help him. It's a terrible to thing to call a child a dunce who is sincerely trying to learn."
"I'm sincere," George said.
"I'm sure you are, which is why I want to try something. It's an experiment - I don't know if it will work, but are you willing to try it?"
"I'll try anything," George said.
"Good boy," Henry smiled. He pulled a thick sheet of paper out of his pocket. "Have you heard of Braille, George?"
"No. What's Braille?"
"It's a system of writing that blind people use."
"Blind people can read?" George asked. "How do they do that?"
Henry showed him the paper. "With their fingers. See, I've written the alphabet here in Braille. So you see why I want to hear you say it."
George recited clearly, a growing excitement in his voice. Henry smiled warmly. "That's fine, then," he said. "Now what I want you to do, is take this paper and say the alphabet over and over while you read it with your fingers. Don't look at it - just learn the letters by touch."
"How will that help me?" George said, looking at the paper. "They're just dots - they're nothing like real letters."
"But if you can learn to read Braille, then that would prove you're not a dunce, wouldn't it? And the letters are unlikely to move around for you under your fingers. It's an experiment, as I said. There's no guarantee this will help you, but I thought it was worth trying."
"I'll try," George said, clutching the paper to his chest. "I'll try really hard."
"I'm sure you will, George," Henry said. "I'll be back next weekend, but if you feel comfortable with the letters before then, ask Mrs. Barkley to write you out some exercises. She writes Braille, too."
"Which Mrs. Barkley?" George asked. "There're so many."
Henry laughed. "Mrs. Victoria Barkley."
Ben burst in then, followed by Heath and Emma. "Come on, George. Lena's father is going to take us riding. Emma, too."
"What do you have there?" Emma asked. "Is that Braille?"
"Yes," George said, putting the paper in his pocket.
"You said you'd teach me Braille, Uncle Henry," Emma said accusingly.
"Did I, dear?" Henry said. "Then I shall certainly keep my promise. Perhaps you and George can learn together. I'll write you an alphabet before I leave."
"All right then," Emma said, mollified.
Ben had been looking around the study in awe during this discussion. "You certainly have a lot of g-guns."
"We do," Heath said sternly, "but they're not to be played with, hear?"
"No, sir," Ben said solemnly. "I know that."
"Well then," Heath said, "maybe we can have some target practice later."
"You'd let us shoot one?" Ben asked. "Uncle Ethan would never let us."
"Every man should know how to handle a gun," Heath said. "I'm surprised at your uncle, him being a lawman and all."
"He let Joseph use the rifle sometimes," George said. "But he said Ben and I were too little."
Heath looked the boys over. "All due respect to your uncle, but I think he's wrong. You have to respect a gun, but it's a tool. Know how to use it, and it'll be your friend."
Lena dashed in. "Come on. I'm waiting."
Heath laughed. "Be right there, Sweetheart. You coming, boys?"
Claire saw Jarrod to the door and was surprised to find Samantha sitting in the porch swing. "Are you all right, Sam?" Jarrod asked.
"I'd like to speak to Claire a moment, if I may," Samantha said.
"Of course, Mrs. Barkley," Claire said. "Would you like to come inside?"
"Oh, I'm fine where I am," Samantha said, "if you don't mind."
"Of course not," Claire said. She turned to Jarrod. "Thank you for all your help, Judge Barkley."
"My pleasure," Jarrod said, taking her hand. "Please call on me, whatever you decide to do."
"I will. Thank you again." She watched him stride off then sat down by Samantha. "What did you want to see me about, Mrs. Barkley?"
"I saw the way you handled my babies, like you know what you're doing. Do you?"
"I think so. I took care of George while my mother performed. That was a long time ago, but I think I still remember."
"Nick and I have been talking about hiring some help. . ."
"Did your mother-in-law ask you to hire me?" Claire said suspiciously.
"No, she's hoping to find you work in a bank, like you had before, or something like it," Samantha said.
Claire shuddered. "No, not a bank. Not so soon. But you have a houseful of people. Why do you want my help?"
"The men are gone during the day, and Alice has her own baby to look after. Victoria is wonderful, of course, but I have three children under two years old and I really could use an extra pair of hands."
Claire looked into her wan face and knew she was telling the absolute truth. "I have to go to school," Claire pointed out.
"I realize that," Samantha said, "but even a few hours a day would be a godsend. Say from the time you get home until dinner? I realize that would leave you no time for cooking your own dinner, but I've talked to Silas, and he has no objection to your family taking your meals with us. So if I pay you in food and a little pocket money, would this scheme meet with your approval?"
Claire considered a moment. "Yes, it does. I'd be nearby in case my brothers need me, which I wouldn't be if I got a job in town. Thank you, Mrs. Barkley, you're very kind to offer."
"No, I'm not," Samantha said. "I'm taking terrible advantage of you."
Claire laughed. "Well then. I think we'll get along famously."
Jarrod came around the corner of the house to find Molly just pulling up in the buggy. He helped her down and planted a kiss on her lips. "Well, Feather, how did it go?"
"It didn't 'go' at all," Molly said, her face dark as a cloud. "She wasn't there."
"She was out?" Jarrod said. "Did you wait?"
Molly shook her head. "Not out. Gone. All her things gone, the house locked up." She looked up in Jarrod's face worriedly. "Where could she have gone, Jarrod? Her boat doesn't sail until tomorrow and there aren't any others - I checked."
It was Jarrod's turn to look worried. "I don't know, Feather. But she can take care of herself, we know that. I'm sure wherever she's gone, she'll be all right."
Molly shook her head. "I don't know about that. But I am not telling the children. They have enough to deal with right now as it is."
Jarrod kissed her head. "You're right. And I'm sure she'll turn up eventually, or at least write and let us know where she's gone." He led her into the house, but it was obvious, in spite of his consoling words, that he was just as worried about Amelia as she was.
Chapter Seven: If Wishes Were Horses
". . .And there she was, dripping wet from head to toe, and all she could say was, "Would you look what you did to my hair?" Henry leaned back and smiled at the roar of laughter from all the Barkleys assembled.
"Well, if you had hair like mine, that would be your first worry, too," Molly said, absently smoothing a lock of her wiry curls. She looked from Henry to Jarrod, who was slapping his knee and rocking back and forth with laughter. "Why have you started telling tales on me now, Henry?"
"Forgive me, my dear," Henry said, "but it's part of the bargain that Jarrod and I made."
"What kind of bargain?"
Henry tilted his head. "We agreed to share our envy."
"And how is that working out for you?" she asked, nonplussed.
"Well enough, Feather," Jarrod said. "I hope you don't mind, dearest - I'll explain it to you later."
"Turnabout is fair play, I suppose," she said. "Lord knows I've heard enough tales of your boyhood. Like the time you put firecrackers in Nick's bed and almost burned the house down."
"Really?" Henry said.
"That's not the half of it," Nick said. "Wait 'til you hear. . ."
"You boys ready for some target practice?" Heath asked when they had returned from their ride and tended to their horses.
"Yes, please," Ben said eagerly.
"Not me," George said. "I want to. . .I mean, I have something else to do."
"If it's your Braille, maybe we can study together," Emma suggested.
George frowned. "No, thank you. I'd rather do it by myself. Thanks just the same."
Emma scowled at his retreating back, hesitated a moment, then took off after him.
"Come on, then," Heath said to Ben, watching this byplay wordlessly. Ben and Lena followed Heath into the study and watched him open the gun case and take out three revolvers. "Now the first rule is - every gun is a loaded gun. Remember that."
"I know," Ben said fervently. "Believe me, I know that rule."
"Sounds like you might've learned that the hard way," Heath observed.
"Yes, sir," Ben admitted. "I did."
"Anyone hurt?" Heath asked.
"No, sir, I was lucky."
"Well, don't press your luck," Heath said, loading the revolvers and carrying them out to the shooting range. He handed one gun to Ben and one to Lena.
"Girls don't shoot guns," Ben objected.
Lena just rolled her eyes, stepped up to the line, took careful aim and placed a bullet less than an inch from the center.
"Wow, you're good," Ben said admiringly.
"When my mother came to this country, there wasn't anything here but Indians, bandits and bears," Heath said. "If she hadn't known how to handle a gun, she wouldn't be here now. I pray she won't ever need to, but I think my daughter ought to have the same skills. It never hurts to know how to do something, even if you never need it."
"I'll need it," Ben said. "I'm gonna be a marshal, like my uncle."
"You certainly will, then," Heath said. "It's high time you learned."
"George!" Emma stalked after him. She put her hands on her hips as he turned to face her. "Did I do something? Are you mad at me?"
"No, I'm not mad," George said. "I just want to study by myself, is all."
"Why?" Emma insisted. "Learning's easier together."
George hesitated a long moment, frowning. "All right!" he said at last. "We'll be in the same school so everyone will know then, I guess." He looked down at the ground, scuffed his toe in the dirt. "I can't read, all right? Mr. Johnson thought if I can't learn with my eyes, maybe I can learn with my fingers. Are you happy now?" he shouted.
Emma took his arm and pulled him back into the barn. "You could have just said so," she said calmly. "Look, I have trouble in school, too."
"You do?" George said. "I thought - well, everyone here seems so smart."
"My grandmother is, my mom and dad are. Lucas is so smart it's scary sometimes," Emma said. "I can read, though. I love books - it's remembering things I have trouble with."
"I can remember just about everything," George said. "Anything anyone tells me, every song I ever heard."
"See? You're lucky. I wish I could do that."
"You're lucky," George said. "I wish I could read."
"Maybe we can help each other," Emma said. "It's worth a try, don't you think?"
George nodded in agreement. "Yes, it is."
"I didn't do very well, did I?" Ben said sorrowfully, looking at his target. "I didn't even hit it half the time."
"It's not bad for a first time," Heath said.
"Yeah, you should see my first one," Leah consoled him. "I think I hit the target once."
Heath gathered up the guns. "That's enough for today. We'll come out again next Saturday."
"Tomorrow?" Ben asked.
"You have school," Heath said. "I don't want you getting behind."
"I don't need school," Ben said. "What does a marshal need schooling for?"
Heath frowned. "I don't know about that. A marshal upholds the law - he needs to understand what the law is."
"Shooting the bad guys," Ben asserted. "Throwing 'em in jail. That's what it is."
"It's a lot more than that, Ben," Heath said. "Ask any lawman - ask my brother, he's a judge."
"Judges just sit on a bench," Ben scoffed. "They don't go out and catch the bad guys. You don't have to be brave to be a judge."
Heath stared down at him. "Better go to school, Ben. You've got an awful lot left to learn if you think that."
Ben turned on him, fists clenched. "What do you know?" he shouted. "My uncle never went to school and he was the bravest ever! Braver than you! Braver than all of you!"
"Ben. . ." Heath began, but Ben ran off toward the cottage.
Lena began to go after him, but Heath stopped her. "Why did he do that?" she asked.
"We gotta remember, Sweetheart," Heath said, "those kids have been through an awful lot. They lost their parents, now their uncle. They're all alone and scared. They need our help, not our judgment."
Lena took his hand. "All right, Daddy," she said. "I don't know how I can help, but I'll try."
"I feel as though I've hardly gotten to see you," Victoria complained as she drove Henry to the train station. "And we haven't been alone at all."
"You've had a lot to take care of," Henry said. "Not just your own family, but those children. I'll come back next weekend - maybe we can find some time alone then."
"So soon? I'm not complaining, but you usually space your visits a little further apart."
"I'm teaching George Braille. I promised to come back and see how he's doing. I also promised you'd write him some exercises if he's comfortable with that before then - I hope you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind." Victoria looked thoughtful a moment. "Braille? Do you think he can learn that if he can't read normal writing?"
Henry shrugged. "I don't know. I told him it was an experiment. I thought it was worth a try. I hate to see a good child struggle to learn."
"I still can't get over that woman abandoning them like that," Victoria said. "They're all good children - I don't know what's wrong with her."
"It was clear to me when I talked to her that she was afraid of something - I don't know what, I doubt even she knows what. I told her she was throwing away something I'd sell my soul to have."
"Henry?" Victoria raised an eyebrow. "You're not telling me you want those children?"
"That's exactly what I'm telling you." Henry sighed. "Not that I could ever have them - I barely have room enough or money enough for myself. But I've always wanted children. Now here they are. I can't imagine that I would be in their best interests, but that doesn't stop me from wanting them."
"You said yourself they should be where they're wanted, Henry," Victoria said.
"And they are," Henry said. "Don't try to tell me that you and yours can't do better for them than I can. I'm no fool."
"No, you're not a fool," Victoria said. "You're a kind, warm, deeply feeling man. You should have what you want."
"Don't you go interfering, Victoria," Henry said. "I know how you like to fix things. No, those children have to do what's best for them, not for me."
"You're right, of course," Victoria said. "I just wish. . ."
"Wish all you like," Henry said. "Wishing never harmed anything."
Ben stomped into the cottage, finding George and Emma studying their Braille and Claire reading a book. She looked up and took in his stormy face. "What's wrong, Ben?"
"Nothing," Ben said sullenly.
"I thought you were doing target practice with Mr. Barkley," George said.
"I was. I'm finished," Ben went into the boys' bedroom and threw himself down on the bed.
Claire put her book aside and followed him in. "Something is wrong, Ben. Do you want to tell me?"
"No." Ben hid his face in the pillow. "Just leave me alone."
Claire studied him for a long minute, unsure whether to press him or not, but her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Molly and Lucas. She bustled out into the parlor.
"We've come to collect Emma," Molly said. "It's time to go home."
"Good-bye George, Claire," Emma said. "I'll see you in school tomorrow."
"Good-bye, Emma," George said. "Thanks for helping me study."
"Lucas, I'm sorry," Claire said. "I've quite neglected you."
"Don't worry about it," Lucas said. "We'll talk tomorrow. We have lots of time to talk."
Claire stood on the porch and watched them leave, where Joseph joined her. "Where have you been?" she enquired.
"Talking to Dr. Grigsby," Joseph said. "He's hired me as his assistant."
"That's wonderful, Joseph!" Claire said. "I know how much you want to be a doctor."
"Sit down, Claire." Joseph indicated the porch swing. She sat down next to him. "That's not going to happen," he said. "Dr. Grigsby said he went to school on scholarship, that he was no better off than we are, but he didn't have a family. I'm just as responsible for Ben and George as you are - I can't go off to school and leave them all to you."
"Joseph, you're wrong. Think of all the good you could do as a doctor. We'll manage. We have help."
"Charity," Joseph said, shaking his head. "We can't accept charity."
"Why not?" Claire said. "What do you think charity is for? We'll repay it by doing good ourselves. That's how it works, Joseph. And the best way for you to repay it is by becoming a doctor."
Joseph sat silent a long moment. "That sounds logical, but it feels all wrong, somehow."
"That's just your pride, Joseph - you always did have a lot of it. Think it over, you'll see I'm right."
"You always think you're right."
Claire smiled. "Not always. Most of the time." She sighed deeply. "Come into the cottage. We need to discuss what we're going to do about Papa."
They went in and Claire summoned Ben into the parlor with the rest of them. Ben sat down heavily, arms crossed, expression glum. She proceeded to tell them of her talks with Molly and Jarrod. "So the question we all have to decide is this - do we look for Papa, or try to make it on our own?"
"He's not our father," Ben said.
"Yes, he is, Ben," George said. "I don't want to believe it either, but it's true. Mrs. Barkley wouldn't lie to us."
"You're saying Mama did!" Ben said angrily. "You're saying she was a liar!"
"I'm sure she thought she had good reason, Ben," Claire said patiently.
"She didn't! She didn't!" Ben yelled. "Papa's dead!" He ran out the door, elbow hiding his face.
Claire stood up, Joseph grabbed her arm. "Leave him alone, Claire. Let him cool off."
Ben ran into the barn, threw himself down on some hay bales, covered his face and sobbed. He cried loudly for several minutes before sitting up and drying his eyes. He was horrified to find Lena standing looking at him. He stared at her speechless.
"Don't worry, Ben," she said. "I cried a lot when my Papa died, too."
"Your papa?" Ben sniffled. "He's still here. What do you mean?"
Lena shook her head. "He's my daddy. He adopted me when he married my mama. My papa died a couple of years ago."
"I'm sorry," Ben said. Now that he had cried himself out, he felt ashamed. "I'm sorry for what I said earlier, too. Tell your dad, will you?"
"Tell him yourself," Lena said. "He won't bite you."
"I don't even know why I said it," Ben continued. "I like school."
"Because you miss your uncle," Lena said. "I understand."
"Yeah," Ben said, unable to express the depth of his feelings. He hid his face against his knees. "What if your papa wasn't your papa?"
"What do you mean?" Lena asked, puzzled.
"My mama told us Papa died when I was little, but now there's this man everyone says is him, even Claire, even Joseph and George, but he can't be. Mama didn't lie."
Lena sat down in the hay next to him. "I didn't know my papa until just before he died. He was mean to my mama - didn't want to marry her, so she and Grandma raised me."
"Your parents weren't married?" Ben asked, shocked.
"No," Lena said. "I don't think my Papa would have been a good husband for Mama, or a good daddy to me. But he was sorry for it before he died, so we forgave him. Maybe your mama didn't want you to know that your papa didn't want to stay with you. That can hurt a lot - she would want to protect you."
"Did yours? Lie to you, I mean?"
"No," Lena shook her head, "I knew. But it hurt, all right. I was glad when he came to see me before he died, even though that hurt, too. It hurts a lot when your own father doesn't want you."
Ben nodded, speechless.
"But you're a big boy, now, Ben," Lena said. "Bigger'n me. Almost grown up. You can take the truth, whatever it is, can't you?"
"I guess I have to," Ben said. "Thanks."
Lena stood and dusted the hay off her trousers. "I better get back to grooming my horse. See you later, Ben."
"Yeah, later," Ben said, deep in thought. He stayed lost in thought until the sun set and the sky grew dark.
Claire was waiting on the verandah when Victoria returned from the station. "May I speak to you, Mrs. Barkley?"
"Of course, my dear," Victoria said, descending lightly from the buggy. "What may I do for you?"
"I'm asking you not to do something for us," Claire said.
Victoria quirked an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Don't have Pinkerton's look for our father," Claire said. "Not yet, anyway. From what Miss Molly tells me, he may not be a fit guardian for us. I need time to think about it, and not all my brothers have adjusted to the news yet. Would you wait until I decide, please?"
"Of course, Claire," Victoria said. "Whatever you wish. You will join us for supper, won't you?"
Claire shook her head. "I don't wish to spurn your hospitality, Mrs. Barkley, but I do feel that we need time to ourselves if I'm to keep my family together. I'd really prefer we take our evening meals alone, if that doesn't offend you."
"Not at all," Victoria said. "I think it shows good thinking on your part. Forgive me, I can be rather overwhelming. You're the one who has to make the decisions for your family, please stop me if I become overbearing."
Claire smiled. "You're not overbearing at all - you're the soul of kindness. I don't know what we would do without you."
"It's my pleasure, Claire. We'll see you at breakfast, then. We'll have lunches packed for you and your brothers, all right?"
"That's most kind of you, Mrs. Barkley." Claire said.
Dinner was over and Claire was getting ready for bed when a subdued Ben finally reappeared. "Where have you been, Ben?" she asked, trying not to scold.
"In the barn. Thinking." He sat on Claire's bed and propped his chin on his fist. "He really is our Papa, isn't he?" he said.
"Yes, Ben, he is. We may not like it, but that's how it is."
"Does he have to be?" Ben said. "I mean, does he have to take care of us? He doesn't want us. Can't you go on taking care of us?"
Claire sat down next to him. "I could. Judge Barkley thinks that might be the best thing, too."
Ben threw his arms around her. "So do I." He buried his face in her shoulder. "Claire, I'm sorry. I've been so bad today. I felt so mad - I yelled at Mr. Barkley when he was being nice, I yelled at you. I'm afraid I might hurt somebody, I'm so mad all the time."
Claire put an arm around him. "It's called grief, Ben. We all feel it - we just express it differently. Some people get sad, some people get angry. You're one of the angry ones, I guess."
"I'd rather be sad," Ben said. "Angry makes me feel bad - not bad feelings, but like I'm a bad person. I don't want to be a bad person."
"Ah, Ben," Claire said, shedding a few tears herself, "you're not a bad person. Tell you what - whenever you start to feel that way again, come talk to me, all right? Whatever's wrong, we'll find a way to work it out, together. As a family, OK?"
Ben nodded. "I have to go apologize to Mr. Barkley."
"Ben, it's bedtime - I'm sure he understands."
"I'm sure he does, too," Ben said, "but I still need to do it. I won't be able to sleep until I do."
"All right," Claire said, "but hurry back. We've got school tomorrow."
Ben nodded and went out. He knocked on the front door of the house and asked for Heath when Silas answered it. "You don't have to knock, Ben," Silas said. "Just walk right in."
"All right," Ben said. He looked up shyly at Heath when Silas summoned him. "I'm sorry, Mr. Barkley, for what I said today. I didn't mean it, and I didn't mean to yell at you."
"Come into the study, Ben," Heath said.
Ben followed him in. "I'm in trouble, aren't I?"
"No, Ben, you're not in trouble," Heath said. "Sit down. You know, most people have lost someone they loved - none of us are gonna hold it against you because you're taking it hard. Your uncle was a brave man, and you admired him, and it hurts to lose him. We all understand that."
"I'm still sorry," Ben said. "You were nice to me and I was mean to you. It's not right because my uncle died."
"Don't worry about it, Ben," Heath said. "The best thing you can do is to become the man your uncle would have wanted you to."
"I intend to," Ben said. "I hope I can."
"I have every confidence," Heath said. "Now, you better get home to bed. You've got school tomorrow."
"Yes, sir," Ben said. "And I'll do my best there, too."
"Good boy," Heath said.
Ben walked slowly back to the cottage and got ready for bed. Joseph and George were already asleep as he crawled into bed and Claire came to tuck him in. "Everything all right now, Ben?" she asked.
Ben nodded. "Better, anyway. Claire? Uncle Ethan was the bravest, wasn't he?"
"Why do you ask, Ben?" Claire hesitated.
"Because I always thought the bravest man won, and he lost, and I don't know what to think anymore."
Claire sat down on the bed. "Brave men are willing to do what's right, no matter what, Ben. It's not a magic shield that keeps them safe. Uncle Ethan knew what the risks were, and he took them because it was the right thing to do. He knew he might die."
Ben wiped an unwanted tear. "I thought he was the best. I thought he'd never die."
"You were a little boy when we came to Paradise," Claire said. "Uncle Ethan was your hero. But he still can be, Ben. Did you admire him because he was brave, or because you thought he was the best?"
"What's the difference?" Ben asked, curiously.
"There's lots of ways of being brave," Claire said. "It's not just about being good with a gun."
Ben shook his head. "I don't understand."
Claire pulled up the covers. "I know. It's still hard for you. But you'll see someday. Now go to sleep." She kissed his forehead and went to her own bed.
Ben thought he'd be awake for hours, but he was dreaming before Claire had turned out her light.
Chapter Eight: School Days
Victoria took the children to school for their first day, driving the surrey with Lena, Claire, Ben and George. Joseph rode a horse as he would be returning later after his job with Dr. Grigsby. They arrived early to find a few children waiting outside, including Lucas and Emma. Emma was nearly bouncing up and down with anticipation. "Grandmother!" she chimed, "may Lena, Ben and George come home with me after school? Mommy said it was all right."
"We have chores," Ben said.
"Oh, I think we can let you out of them on your first day at school. Just make sure they do their schoolwork," Victoria said.
"Mommy always makes us do it first," Emma said. She turned to Ben and George. "She was a teacher - she's good at helping people learn things."
"Of course we'll come, won't we, Ben?" George said. Ben nodded in agreement.
"Thank you, Emma," Claire said. "I'm sure the boys will look forward to it. We're all a little nervous."
"Why nervous?" Lucas asked.
"There wasn't a school in Paradise until a few months ago," Claire explained. "We're all behind, I'm afraid."
"Don't worry about that," Lucas said. "I was further behind than that when I came here. Mrs. Jensen is good at helping people get caught up. You'll like her."
"I'll take Joseph's horse, then," Victoria said, "and he can bring the boys back after work. Claire can get a buggy from the livery."
"I'll bring her, Grandmother," Lucas said. "I was planning to call at the ranch today anyway."
Victoria smiled. "All right then, I'll see all of you later. Have a good day at school."
"We will, Mrs. Barkley," the Carroll children said.
Mrs. Jensen arrived then and opened up the school. "I see we have some new pupils," she said cheerily. "Ones who like to come early."
"These are the Carrolls, Mrs. Jensen," Lucas introduced them. "Claire, Joseph, Ben and George. They're staying at the ranch for the time being."
"We came early because we hadn't been in school for two years until a few months ago," Joseph explained. "But Lucas said you're good at getting people caught up."
"And I can't read," George admitted, "you should know that."
"All right, George, is it? Let me find out what your sister and brothers know so I can put them in the proper places, then you and I will sit down together and see what we can do for you, all right?" George nodded, comforted by her manner. "Lucas," she continued, "if you'll open the schoolroom and greet everyone for me while I'm working with these children, I would be grateful."
Lucas agreed and Mrs. Jensen took the children into the adjoining library. "Now then, let me ask you a few questions to get started. First, your ages?"
Claire supplied these and Mrs. Jensen continued. "All right." She pulled some booklets from the shelf and handed one to each of the three older children, along with some pencils. "I'm going to ask you to take these tests - don't worry about knowing all the answers, this is to find out how much you know and what class to place each of you in." Claire, Joseph and Ben opened the booklets and began to read while Mrs. Jensen took George off into the corner.
"Now then, George," she sat at the table across from him, "I'm going to ask you some of the same questions your sister and brothers are answering. Take your time, and we'll see what you know." This test took some time, and the older Carrolls were quite finished by the time she was done. She took their tests and asked them to find books to read until she had finished with George. "All right, George," she said, writing on a slate, "I want you to copy these letters for me. Don't try to read them, just write what you see." George took the chalk and did what she asked, and she took the slate back and examined it carefully. "George, can you tell that you've written several letters backward?" she asked, showing him the slate again. George shook his head. "No, ma'am. They look the same to me."
Mrs. Jensen frowned. "I have to be honest with you, George, I have seen this problem before, and I don't know what the solution is. You're obviously a bright boy with a retentive memory. I'll try to work with you on this, but I can't promise you anything. It's a shame, really," she said sadly.
"Mr. Johnson thinks I might try learning Braille," George said. "He isn't sure it will help, but he said it was a 'speriment."
"Who is Mr. Johnson?" Mrs. Jensen asked. "Your former teacher?"
"No, ma'am," George said, shaking his head. "He's Mrs. Barkley's beau."
"Oh, I see," Mrs. Jensen smiled. "I have heard of him, but I've never met him. I hear he's had great success with the blind training center in Berkeley." She sat thoughtfully for a moment. "Well, I agree, it is worth a try. Perhaps you can reinforce by touch what your eyes see. I still want to try to teach you to read by sight, but I don't see that the two have to exclude each other. And maybe we can try some different approaches ourselves until we find something that works. Are you a patient boy, George?"
"No, ma'am," George said, "but I want to learn, I really do. I'll do whatever I have to."
"That's very good, George," Mrs. Jensen smiled and handed him the slate. "Why don't you draw while I look over these tests and I'll speak to all of you in a moment."
In a few minutes she joined the children at the large table. "Claire," she began, "you're sixteen, and by all rights should be graduating in a few months, but I sincerely doubt that I can have you caught up by then."
"That's all right," Claire said, "it doesn’t matter."
"However," Mrs. Jensen continued, "if you're willing to work through the summer, you may be able to graduate then. Are you planning to go to college?"
Claire shook her head. "No, I have my family to raise. I'd never really planned on it anyway."
Mrs. Jensen looked at them over her glasses. "You children are on your own? I didn't realize." She tapped her pencil on the table thoughtfully. "Well, perhaps later we'll discuss it further. I would like you to at least finish your schooling here. Now, Joseph, you show a distinct feeling for the sciences, and I do believe you can catch up by the time you should graduate. What are your plans for the future?"
"He's going to be a doctor," Claire said firmly.
"Claire!" Joseph said. "That's not your decision!"
"He has a job with Dr. Grigsby," Claire continued.
"Do you not want to be a doctor, Joseph?" Mrs. Jensen asked.
"Of course, I do," Joseph said. "That's not the point. I can't desert my family to go to college any more than Claire can. 'Doctor's assistant' is good enough, if it comes to that."
Mrs. Jensen looked from him to his sister and his brothers. Claire had a stubborn look on her face, and the younger boys seemed apprehensive. "Dr. Grigsby is an excellent doctor, very modern," she said. "I'm sure he'll teach you quite a lot. Well, then, I'm going to put Ben and George in the same class for the time being - George will need all of you to help him learn his other lessons until he can learn to read. He shouldn't continue to fall behind - is that all right with you, Ben?"
"Y-yes, ma'am," Ben said.
"I'll be assigning you extra work, too, Ben," Mrs. Jensen said, "until you can catch up with your schoolmates. Are all of you willing to work hard?"
They all agreed, George nodding enthusiastically, and Mrs. Jensen ushered them out into the schoolroom.
"There, that wasn't so bad," Lucas said to Claire at the end of the school day, "was it? No need to be nervous."
"No, there wasn't," Claire agreed. "We all like Mrs. Jensen very much, don't we, boys?"
"Yes," Joseph said. "I'll be home for dinner, Claire." He kissed her cheek and Claire's eyes followed him as he strode down the street to Owen's surgery. She heaved a sigh.
"Let's see everyone to our house," Lucas said, "and I'll get our buggy and drive you to the ranch." They did so, Claire kissing her younger brothers good-bye before Lucas assisted her into the buggy and flicked the reins.
"Is something bothering you, Claire?" Lucas asked. "About Joseph?"
"You noticed?" Claire sighed again. "He exasperates me sometimes - well, a lot, actually. Of all of us, he's the one most likely to truly amount to something, but it's as though he can't see it, or doesn’t want to."
"How do you mean?" Lucas asked.
"He wants to be a doctor, should be a doctor, but he's got this idea in his head that he has to take care of us. I can take care of us, or I hope I can. It's my responsibility, not his."
"It's understandable he should feel that way," Lucas said. "You're his family - all he has right now."
"Not you, too," Claire said irritably.
Lucas laughed. "Let's say I can see both sides. But what about you? Joseph isn't the only one who can amount to something."
"I have no choice," Claire said. "Maybe after the boys are grown up, I can think about myself - I have too much else to think about right now."
"I see why Joseph exasperates you," Lucas said. "You're too much alike."
"We're not anything alike," Claire said.
"As you will," Lucas said.
"Why are you calling at the ranch again?" Claire asked, changing the subject. "You were there only yesterday."
"To call on you, of course," Lucas said. "I may, mayn't I? We are still friends, aren't we?"
"Yes, we're still friends," Claire agreed, blushing. "But I have to work - your aunt hired me to help with the babies."
"Oh, well, I can call on my cousins, too," Lucas said, smiling.
"You don't need to help me," Claire said. "It's my job, not yours."
Lucas shrugged. "They're my cousins, not yours."
Claire studied him. "It has been a long time, hasn't it? You've changed, Lucas, grown up."
"So have you, Claire," Lucas said. "So I suppose we should get reacquainted - not take anything for granted because we knew each other when we were kids. And only for a brief time, even then."
"We've had our letters," Claire said. "We're not exactly strangers."
"No, not strangers," Lucas said, growing thoughtful. "But not children anymore, either."
They arrived at the ranch and Lucas assisted Claire from the buggy. Samantha met them in the foyer. "Welcome, Claire. And Lucas, what brings you back out here so soon?"
"Paying a call on Claire, Aunt Samantha," Lucas said, kissing her cheek. "And yes, I know she's working, so I thought I'd pay a call on Lizzie as well."
"She'll love that," Samantha smiled.
Victoria emerged from the study. "I'll take Lizzie. We don't want to overburden Claire on her first day."
"It's all right, Grandmother," Lucas said. "I'm sure you have other things to do."
"Well, I am behind in my transcribing," Victoria said. "I suppose I could use a free afternoon, at that."
"Transcribing what, Mrs. Barkley?" Claire asked.
"I transcribe books for the School for the Blind," Victoria said. "It's a slow process."
"And certainly worthwhile," Claire said. "Please, don't let us interrupt you."
Samantha led Claire and Lucas up the stairs to the nursery, where they found Alice with Lizzie and Tommy. Lizzie ran and wrapped her arms around Lucas's leg while Samantha re-introduced Claire. "I'm just putting Tommy down for his nap," Alice said. "I'll get him when he awakens, don't you worry."
"And the twins have just been fed and should sleep for a little while," Samantha said. "So if you'll take care of Lizzie until they wake up, I think I'll go see if I can nap myself."
Claire looked into her wan face. "Of course, don't worry yourself, we'll be fine."
Lucas reached down and picked Lizzie up as Samantha left.
"I'll be helping Silas with dinner, since Lena's at her cousins'," Alice said, "but if you need anything, call down the back stairs. No need to bother Samantha - she's had a hard enough time." She smiled at Claire. "Which is why we're all very glad that you're here."
"I'm glad to be here, too," Claire said. Alice left and Claire turned to Lizzie, who was clasping Lucas firmly around the neck. "Hello, Lizzie. I'm Claire - we haven't had a chance to know each other yet, but I hope we'll be friends."
Lizzie shook her head and hid her face against Lucas's hair. "Come now, Lizzie," he said, "why don't you show Claire your doll? I'm sure she'd love to see him."
Lizzie thought a moment, then squirmed down. She pulled a bedraggled doll out from the behind the chair and offered it to Claire. "Oh, Raggedy Andy," Claire said. "I love Andy."
"Raggy Daddy," Lizzie corrected.
"Why Raggy Daddy?" Claire asked. "He doesn't look anything at all like your daddy."
"He belonged to Uncle Nick when he was little," Lucas said, "although he'd probably shoot me for telling you, so don't let him know."
Claire laughed. "I'm having a hard time picturing that." She sat down on the floor and held the doll by its hands. "Look, Lizzie. See Raggy Daddy dance."
Lizzie laughed and danced along, and Lucas sat on the floor as well. Soon Lizzie was playing with Claire as though she'd known the girl her entire life. Claire found she was enjoying herself until all three babies awakened and began crying at once. "How do they do that?" she asked. "It's as though they're on a clock."
"I'll get Aunt Alice," Lucas said. Claire picked up Hope - or was it Grace? She'd have to find out how to tell them apart - and began to change her diaper. Lizzie insisted on helping, and Claire allowed her to dab on the powder as Alice reappeared to tend to Tommy.
"You all right there?" Alice asked as Claire handed Hope - or was it Grace? - to Lucas and began diapering the other twin. Claire nodded and finished, letting Alice have the table. She and Lucas rocked the twins until they fell back to sleep and were busily playing with Lizzie when Samantha returned, looking somewhat better.
"Are they all right?" she asked. "You never called for me."
"They're fine, Mrs. Barkley," Claire said. "Lucas helped, and they slept most of the time anyway."
"Well, don't expect everyday to be like this," Samantha said, "but I do appreciate having a rest. You run along now, Claire, I'll handle it from here."
"It's not dinnertime yet," Claire protested.
"Nearly," Samantha said. "Go on, your brothers will be home soon and you've done far more than I expected already."
Lucas walked Claire back to the cottage and sat in the porch swing beside her a moment. "Would you like to come in?" Claire said. "I could make some tea."
"It's all right," Lucas said. "I wanted to ask you - there's a barn dance at the Culver's ranch on Saturday. It should be a lot of fun if you and your brothers want to come, if you feel up to it."
"I'm not sure it's proper," Claire said. "We're in mourning, aren't we?"
"I think mourning is supposed to protect people from unwanted social duties," Lucas said, "not isolate them from all pleasures. No one will think it's improper - it's just a barn dance, not a ball."
"It does sound like fun," Claire said hesitantly. "But I don't think I have anything to wear."
Lucas laughed. "That's just like a girl. What you have on is fine - it's nothing fancy. The girls might wear a few new ribbons, is all. And I don't think you need even that, Claire. You'll be the prettiest girl there as it is."
Claire blushed and turned her head. "Thank you. I'd love to come. I'll ask my brothers."
"There's a taffy pull for the younger kids," Lucas said, "so tell Ben and George to wear their old clothes." He stood up and looked down at her. "I should be getting home for dinner. I'll see you in school tomorrow."
Claire looked up. "Lucas? Thanks for all your help today - it wasn't necessary, but I appreciate it. Especially with Lizzie - I don't think she'd have taken to me if you hadn't helped."
"She would have eventually," Lucas said. "Lizzie's fun - a handful sometimes, but fun. You should have fun, Claire."
"I'll have fun on Saturday, if we come," Claire said, "and I'm sure my brothers will want to."
"Bring your violin. Do you still play?"
"Sometimes, when I have time," Claire said. "I haven't played much lately - I doubt anyone would want to listen."
"Everyone who can play something usually does, taking turns," Lucas said. "No one's a virtuoso, it's just neighbors enjoying themselves. So, yes, we would want to listen."
"All right," Claire promised, "I will."
Lucas kissed her cheek as he left, and she was still standing there when her brothers arrived.
"How is your new job, Joseph?" Claire asked as they gathered around the dinner table.
"Fine," Joseph said tersely.
Claire raised her eyebrows. "Just fine? Did something happen?"
"Nothing happened," Joseph said. "I cleaned up, I helped with a couple of patients. It was fine."
Claire looked at him askance but decided not to press him just then. "What about you two?" she asked Ben and George. "Did you have a good time at Emma's house? Did you get your schoolwork done?"
"Yes, we got it done," George said proudly. "Mrs. Barkley helped us, and I helped Emma."
"How did you help Emma, George?"
"She has a hard time remembering things," George explained, "so I told her to make up a song about it, that would help her remember, and it did."
"That's very clever, George," Claire said. "What did she make a song about?"
"The Spanish Armada," George said.
Claire laughed. "I'd like to hear that sometime."
"I helped her with it," George said.
"You always were good with songs, George," Claire said. "Nice to be able to put it to good use. How about you, Ben?"
"They have a t-treehouse," Ben said. "Even better than ours in Paradise."
Claire looked grave for a moment. "Maybe someday we can have another treehouse, Ben. I'm sure the Barkleys will let you play in theirs again soon." She put down her fork. "We need to talk now about Papa, if everyone is ready to do that. Ben?"
Ben nodded sadly. "Y-yes, I'm ready. I don't want him - he doesn't want us, why should we want him?"
"We liked him, Ben," George said, "before we knew he was our father, we both did, didn't we?"
"Miss Molly said he was easy to like," Claire said. "That doesn't mean he could take care of us."
"What else did she say, Claire?" Joseph asked.
"That he liked to drink and gamble, that he always borrowed money he didn't pay back, that he broke Mama's heart," Claire said. "That he seemed to want to settle down with us, but couldn't. I wish I had better news."
"I don't think there's much to decide," Joseph said. "We can make it on our own, if we have to, and it looks like we have to."
Claire looked around at her brothers. "Do you all agree?" Ben and George both nodded sadly. "Well, then, I'll talk to Judge Barkley - we need to terminate Papa's parental rights."
"What does that mean?" Ben asked.
"It means he won't be able to take us away, or have charge over us, Ben," Claire said. "The court will make me your guardian."
Joseph shrugged. "You are anyway, Claire. Might as well make it legal."
"I don't know how long that will take," Claire said. "Until then, I guess we stay where we are."
"Can't we stay here forever?" George asked. "I like it here."
"I don't know, George," Claire said. "I'm sure the Barkleys wouldn't throw us out, but we don't really belong here. But that's something to think about another day." She stood up. "Let's clean up, then you two can go play while Joseph and I do our schoolwork."
After the two younger boys had gone outside, Claire and Joseph sat down at the kitchen table with their schoolbooks. As Claire opened hers, she said, "All right now, Joseph. Tell me what happened at work."
"Nothing happened, Claire, I told you," Joseph said irritably. "Everything's fine."
"Then why are you angry, Joseph? You can't hide it from me, you're mad about something."
"All right!" Joseph exploded, leaping up from the table and pacing around the kitchen. "You were right! I do want to be a doctor! Are you satisfied? But it's impossible, Claire. Being so close to it, and wanting it and knowing I can never have it - well, how would you understand?"
"I understand," Claire said, quietly. "Do you want to quit and find another job?"
"No," Joseph said, sitting down. "Close is better than nothing, I guess." He ran his hands through his hair. "I'd still want it, anyway." He looked up at her. "You're not arguing with me about it."
"No," Claire said. "Lucas said you exasperate me because you're like me, and I see now that he's right. How can I blame you for wanting to take responsibility for this family the same way I do? I was treating you like a child, and you're not - you have the same right to make the same decisions I do. So, we're partners, Joseph. We'll make our decisions together, all right?"
"All right," Joseph agreed. "Thanks, Claire."
When schoolwork was done and the younger boys returned, Claire told them, "Oh, I almost forgot - Lucas says there's a barn dance on Saturday that he'd like to take us all to. I thought we could use a little fun."
"Going to a stupid dance isn't fun," Ben said.
"Yes, it is," George argued.
"There's a taffy pull for the kids," Claire said. "It's meant be for everyone, Ben."
Ben shrugged. "Sure, if everyone else wants to."
"All right then," Claire said. "Go get ready for bed, boys."
Joseph stayed behind as Ben and George ran off. "Nice of Lucas to ask you."
"He asked us," Claire corrected.
"Claire, it's all right if you like him," Joseph said. "You're sixteen - you should have a beau."
"No one said anything about a beau," Claire said. "Of course I like him - he's a nice boy. Very brave and smart. And kind, but he's not my beau."
"Well, we'll see," Joseph said. He kissed Claire's cheek and went off to bed.
As Claire pulled the covers over herself, she remembered that today was Monday - the day Amelia's ship was to sail. It had nearly gotten lost in all the past few days events, and she was almost sorry she had remembered it. She sighed, not sure how she felt about the loss of her former friend. She hoped Amelia would be happy in Australia, but she rather doubted it.
Chapter Nine: Last Respects
"Ethan, I'm leaving."
"Well, you go on, I'll be all right."
"No, I mean I'm leaving Paradise."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't do it anymore, I can't stay."
"Last night in that hotel room, I lived out my worst nightmare. You were dead, and I was raising your sister's four children. My life didn't matter anymore, because without you, my life was just empty."
"But I didn't die."
"Not this time. But I can't go through that again, and I know that if I stay, I'm going to have to someday."
"Amelia, we've. . ."
"Every day I worry, will this be the day that you die? That's why I broke off the engagement, and I should have just gone then. I can't make that mistake again. I'm sorry. I love you."
"I won't let you go."
"You won't stop me."
"Where will you go?"
"I don't know."
"But you won't be coming back."
"Not until it's too late," Amelia whispered to herself as the stagecoach pulled to a stop outside the Paradise Hotel. She took her bag from the driver and hauled it up the steps into the foyer.
"Amelia? Amelia!" the hotel manager said, coming from behind the desk to take her bag. "I never expected to see you!"
"Hello, Scotty," Amelia said. "Do you have a room?"
"Of course, we do," Scotty McBride said. "But why don't you come stay with Mary and me at the ranch? You'd be welcome, and much more comfortable."
"That's sweet, Scotty," Amelia said, "but I'm only staying one day. No need to put Mary out - the hotel will do fine."
"You heard about Ethan, I take it," Scotty said.
"Yes," Amelia said. "I heard."
"That why you're here? To pay your last respects?"
"If that's what you call it, yes." Amelia signed the register and took her key, but left her bag at the desk and walked down the street - past the big yellow house that was no longer hers, past the bank that for so long had been the center of her life, past the empty church and into the churchyard.
She had no trouble finding the grave - even after two weeks the earth looked freshly turned. She stood over it, dry-eyed, paralyzed.
"Today's the day I thought I'd find you here."
She didn't turn around. "Why is that, John Taylor?"
The aged Indian emerged from the trees. "Figured how long it would take the children to find you, figured how long it would take you to get back. I should have bet on it."
"You were so sure I'd come? I wasn't. At every stop I expected to get off and turn back, yet here I am." John Taylor came and stood close behind her. "I'm supposed to be on a ship sailing to Australia right now," she continued.
"But you're not."
"No, I'm not. Why am I not, John Taylor?"
"Because you love him," John Taylor said.
She turned to him then, buried her face in his chest and sobbed. "Why? Why, why, why?" She clutched his lapels. "Why did I have to be right? And I was right, so why do I feel so wrong?"
"You're the only one who knows that."
"What do I do now, John Taylor?"
"What we all have to do - mourn and then live." He wrapped his arms around her.
"I don't know that I can," she wept. "I thought if I got away, if I didn't know, then I would be all right. But without him I have no heart."
"I know," John Taylor said. "When the Army killed my family, I had no heart, either. Didn't have for thirty years." He nodded down at the grave. "It was Ethan who gave it back to me. And the children. And you."
"The children," Amelia said. "Without the children, none of this would have happened. Ethan would still be a gunfighter, I would never have gotten involved. Never have. . .loved. . ." she melted into tears.
John Taylor held her until she stopped crying. "The children aren't with you," he said. A statement, not a question.
She shook her head. "No." She looked up at him. "I didn't throw them out into the street," she defended herself. "They're with the Barkleys."
"The Barkleys are good people," he said, "but they're not family."
"Nor am I," she said. "I can't raise those children, John Taylor. I'm not cut out for it."
"So you say, but I'll make a prediction."
"That you'll have no peace until you do right by them." He let her go then, and disappeared into the trees as he had come.
Chapter Ten: Henry Speaks His Mind
"My son-in-law tells me you're a hard worker."
Joseph looked up from mopping the surgery floor. "Oh. Mrs. Barkley. Excuse me, I didn't hear you come in."
"No need to apologize," Victoria said. "It shows Owen was right."
"I try," Joseph said. "I want to do a good job."
"Owen also says you're bright and have a good grasp of medicine."
Joseph squinted his eyes. "You've been talking to my sister, haven't you?"
"To Claire? About you? Why, no, I haven't. I merely came here to discuss your prospects."
"I haven't got any," Joseph said.
"The West needs doctors desperately, Joseph," Victoria said. "I'm already sending one young man to medical school. If you work hard. . . ."
Joseph cut her off. "You're very kind, Mrs. Barkley. But I have a responsibility to my family. I can't just go running off to school and leave them behind."
"If I could assure you that they'll be taken care of?" Victoria asked.
"With all due respect, they're not your responsibility, they're mine. Mine and Claire's." Joseph's chin went up and his eyes flashed.
"Well," Victoria said, stymied. "I can certainly respect that, Joseph." She began to pull on her gloves. "If you change your mind. . . ."
"I won't," Joseph said. He shrugged. "That's just how things are."
Victoria left, lost in thought, and drove her buggy to the train station to meet Henry. She greeted him with a kiss. "So good of you to come a day early," she said.
"I wanted to see how George was getting on with the Braille," Henry explained, climbing into the buggy.
"Should I feel jealous?" Victoria teased. "You find the Carroll children more attractive than I?"
"Never," Henry said. "Don't be absurd."
"George hasn't asked me for help."
"It has only been a few days - we must be careful not to rush him. I'm afraid his last teacher humiliated him badly - his confidence needs time to heal itself."
"They started school this past Monday," Victoria said, "and seem to be doing well - they're quite eager to go every morning. I've heard nothing but good things about Mrs. Jensen, the teacher."
"Perhaps I should call on her," Henry said. "Working as a team might be in the boy's best interests."
"I'm sure it would be," Victoria said.
"And I'm going to speak to Claire," Henry said firmly.
Victoria looked up at him. "You've decided to take them in after all, Henry?"
"To ask," Henry said, pushing up his spectacles. "I thought she should know it was a choice, even though it's unlikely to be one of her choosing."
Victoria looked at him sympathetically. "Don't disparage yourself so, Henry. You want them, that counts for quite a lot."
Henry hunched his shoulders. "Something, anyway. Have they taken steps to find their father?"
Victoria shook her head. "No, and Jarrod told me he's made an appointment for Claire to meet with a lawyer tomorrow about making her sole guardian. Apparently, she and Joseph have decided to go it alone."
Henry raised his eyebrows at her tone. "Did something happen, my dear?"
"I went to offer to put Joseph through school, if he wanted - you know how the lack of doctors is one of my sorrows - and he turned me down. Said he had a responsibility to his family. I assured him I could see they were taken care of, but he'd have none of it."
"Was he rude to you, after all you've done for them?"
"No, not rude, just very firm," Victoria said. "I think he's wrong, but I still respected him for making that choice. They're not children, Henry. They may not need or want anyone to care for them."
"Well," Henry said, "I guess we'll see, then."
George and Ben ran out when they heard the buggy arrive. "Uncle Henry!" George yelled, then clapped his hand over his mouth. "I'm sorry - I shouldn't call you that."
"Don't be sorry, George," Henry said, climbing down from the buggy. "I rather like it."
"It's just - Emma calls you that. But I shouldn't, you're not my uncle."
"I'm not actually her uncle, either," Henry said confidingly. "So I don't mind at all."
"Come on, George," Ben said. "W-we have to go clean the tack, like Mr. Barkley asked us to."
"Have you been studying the Braille, George?" Henry asked.
"Yes," George said, "and I want to show you how good I'm doing." He looked torn for a moment, but Ben rescued him.
"You go on, George," Ben said, "I can clean the tack myself."
"I'll do your part tomorrow," George said. "Thanks, Ben."
Ben nodded and ran off, and George accompanied Henry and Victoria into the house. Samantha and Claire were in the foyer, each carrying a baby, and Lizzie ran up and wrapped her arms around Victoria. "We were just about to take the girls out for an airing," Samantha explained. "It's a nice day, for once."
"You must be feeling better," Henry said.
"You can tell?" Samantha asked.
"You voice sounds stronger, more spirited," Henry said. "You sounded weary before."
"Well, I have Claire to thank," Samantha said. "Another week or two of her capable hands and I may be my old self again."
"It's nothing," Claire said. "I'm only doing my job."
"And very well, too," Samantha said. "Come now, Lizzie, let's go outside."
"Grandmother, too," Lizzie said.
"All right," Victoria said. "I could do with a turn about the garden."
"Come into the study, George," Henry said when the women had gone. "Let's see what progress you've made."
"I think I know all the letters now," George said.
"Well, now, that's admirable," Henry said. He sat at the desk and pulled a sheet of paper from the drawer. He felt around the desk until he found Victoria's Braille slate and stylus and wrote a few words on the paper. "All right, George. Read this aloud - don't worry about making words, just read the letters and then I can see where you might need some more practice."
George took the paper, closed his eyes and ran his fingers over the raised dots. "G-E-O-R-G-E. I know that one, that's my name, George."
"Very good," Henry raised his eyebrows. "Please continue."
"E, no, I-S-A-V-E-R-Y-S-M-A-W, no, wait, R-T-B-O-X."
"The last one is 'Y'," Henry said, "but that's very good, George. Better than I expected."
"There were a few I had trouble with," George lamented.
"Some Braille letters are the reverse of other ones," Henry said, "every beginner has trouble with those. You should see some of the things Mrs. Barkley wrote when she was learning. And now she transcribes books into Braille for us."
"Did I really do well?" George asked.
"Extremely well," Henry said. "I've rarely seen anyone learn it so quickly."
"I've been working really hard," George said.
"I can see that. Why did you not ask Mrs. Barkley to help you? You were obviously ready for more, and you will need the help of someone who knows both Braille and normal writing."
George shrugged. "I dunno. She always seems so busy. And I'd rather learn from you."
"But I can't be here all the time, George," Henry said gently, "and she wants to help you. I'll get her to write out some exercises for when I'm not here and you can get your brothers and sister to help you, if you like, but please, don't be afraid to ask for more if you're ready to move on."
"All right," George said, "but I wish you were here all the time."
Henry smiled. "Thank you, George. Shall we continue?"
George agreed eagerly, and they worked together for the next hour.
They found the women in the garden and George ran to his sister. "Uncle Henry says I'm doing excellent!" he enthused.
Claire smiled. "That's wonderful, George. 'Uncle Henry'?"
"He said it was all right if I called him that. It is, isn't?"
"If it's all right with him," Claire said.
"I would like to speak with you, Claire," Henry said, "when you are through with your work. If you can spare me the time."
"Why don't you go now, Claire?" Samantha said. "Victoria and I can handle it from here."
"If it's all right," Claire said. "Then we'll have time before Joseph gets home."
"I'll go help Ben finish the tack," George said, running off.
Claire led Henry to the cottage. "You'll have to help orient me," Henry said. "I haven't been here before."
"Of course," Claire said. She assisted him up the steps and then explained the arrangement of the parlor as she led him to a chair. "You manage so well, I keep forgetting you're blind."
"That's quite a compliment," Henry said. "Thank you."
"And thank you so much for what you're doing for George," Claire said. "He used to be such a sunny little boy until he started school. Our first teacher was quite cruel to him. But the past week - we've had our old George back. I can't thank you enough."
"I can't guarantee that this will help him read," Henry began.
"You've given him hope," Claire said. "And Mrs. Jensen has been most understanding, as well. She lets him recite his tests, and he's made good marks. He's becoming more confident, thanks to both of you."
"That's gratifying, but I did not come here to talk about George," Henry said.
Claire raised her eyebrows. "You didn't? What did you come to talk about then?"
"I was hoping," Henry cleared his throat, "wondering if, perhaps, your family might like to come live with me."
Claire was stunned into silence for a moment. "Live with you?"
"I don't expect you to accept," Henry said, "but I thought you should know that you are wanted. So that you know you have a choice. I can't offer you much - I live in Berkeley in a very small house - I would have to expand it before you came, if you come - and I don't have a lot of money. I'm not offering you an easy life - I wish I could."
"We don't need an easy life," Claire said. "We're used to hard work. But, Mr. Johnson - I can't believe you would want to take on four children."
"At my age?" Henry said.
"I didn't say that," Claire said.
"Let us be honest," Henry said, "or we shall accomplish nothing. Yes, I am old. I never had children and it's my deepest regret. However, that is not what I wish you to concern yourself with. Even I don't believe that this is the best thing for you, but it would be dishonest not to tell you, since it is what I wholeheartedly wish."
Claire sat silent for several moments, thinking, and Henry did not interrupt her thoughts. She regarded him quietly, moved by his obvious sincerity. "Is it all right if I think about it for awhile?" she asked at last. "I would need to discuss it with my brothers, in any case."
"Of course I do not mind," Henry said. "I'm flattered that you haven't rejected me out of hand."
"No, of course not," Claire said. "You've made a very kind and generous offer. But there are many things to consider here. I'll try not to keep you waiting too long for an answer. Although it will be a few weeks before I'm legally free to make those decisions."
"Victoria did tell me you are seeing a lawyer tomorrow. I wish you well in obtaining your freedom." Henry stood to go. "It's very important that one have both freedom and choices."
Claire stood on tiptoe and impetuously kissed his cheek. "If we do turn you down, I hope you won't consider it a personal rejection. I think you are, and probably will be, very important to us. Uncle Henry."
Henry blinked behind his spectacles and patted her hand which lay upon his arm. "Thank you, my dear." He turned at the footstep upon the porch. "I believe your brother is home."
Joseph slouched into the parlor. "Mr. Johnson? What are you doing here?"
"I was just going," Henry said.
"I'll go wash up," Joseph said as Henry left. Claire went to call the younger boys to dinner, over which she told them of Henry's offer.
"That boring old m-man?" Ben said, incredulous.
"He's not boring!" George shouted.
"No need to shout, George," Claire chided.
"He's not boring," George said, moderating his tone. "He's nice. He helps people."
"Nice people c-can be boring," Ben asserted.
"Most nice people probably are boring, by your standards, Ben," Claire said. "That's not the point."
"What is the point?" Ben said sullenly.
"The point is," Claire said patiently, "that Mr. Johnson wants us. He said he always regretted not having children of his own - I think he might really love us, if we give him the chance."
"I don't want to live with an old blind man," Ben said stubbornly. "I thought Claire was supposed to take care of us."
"And I will," Claire said, "as soon as the court says I can. But that doesn't mean we can't accept some help."
"If you say we have to go live with him, I'll run away," Ben threatened.
"Ben Carroll!" Claire scolded. "That is no way to behave!"
"I will! I will!" Ben said, leaping up from the table. "You can't make me!" He ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.
Claire looked at Joseph. "What do I do now?" she asked.
"Let him cool off," Joseph said. "You know there's no talking to him when he's like this."
Claire's eyes remained on the slammed door. "He didn't need to get so upset - we were merely discussing it."
Joseph stood up and began clearing the table. "It's only been two weeks, Claire. You know how he felt about Uncle Ethan."
"Give him time, I know," Claire said.
"Well, I want to live with Uncle Henry," George said. "If we have to live with anyone." He thought for a minute. "I think I can love him, too."
"That's good, George," Claire said. "But we have to all agree to it, you can see that. It wouldn't do to make any one of us unhappy."
"No," George said. "It wouldn't." He got up from the table. "I better go study my Braille."
Joseph began pumping water into the sink and washing the dishes as Claire took a dishtowel and began drying. "You're awfully quiet, Joseph," she said. "You've hardly said a word. Is something wrong?"
"No," Joseph said. "Not wrong. Just. . .Mrs. Barkley came to talk to me today, about 'my prospects'."
"I'm trying not to let it bother me, but it does, Claire," Joseph said. "She said she was already putting one boy through medical school, that the West needs doctors."
"What did you say?"
"That I have to take care of my family. What did you expect me to say?"
"Nothing," Claire said. She leaned on the sink and sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Joseph."
"You've got nothing to be sorry for," Joseph said. "You're not the one who killed Uncle Ethan."
"No, but I'm still sorry. I know I promised not to try to change your mind, but Mr. Johnson lives in Berkeley. That's near the University."
"I don't think we should move in with him just because it might be convenient," Joseph said. "That wouldn't be fair to him."
"No, but we could move to Berkeley," Claire said, "or somewhere else where you could go to school. We don't have to stay here. We don't have to stay anywhere. We can go wherever we want, after I'm legal guardian."
"And what do we do for money, Claire?" Joseph said. "You want to live in some hovel?"
"We'll manage somehow," Claire said. "We have to."
Joseph shook his head. "No, Claire. Maybe after the boys are grown, but if we're going to manage, we'll both have to have jobs. There's no way you can do this by yourself, and you know it."
Claire turned her head so he wouldn't see her tears. "I know. Well - first things first. We need to get our legal status set before we can take the next step, whatever that might be."
Chapter Eleven: Pro Bono Publico
"What's wrong with you, boy?" Heath asked Ben the next day on the firing range. "You can't even hit the target. You did much better than that last week."
"I'm s-sorry," Ben said. "I can't concentrate."
"Try harder," Nick said, hopping down from the fence where he had been watching. "Here, let me show you." He pointed Ben at the target and steadied his arm. "Now, look at the target, think about the target, and squeeze."
Ben took aim, but did not shoot. "I'm sorry," he said again, handing the gun to Nick.
"What's wrong, Ben?" Heath asked again. "You shouldn't give up so easy."
"I'm not giving up!" Ben said fiercely. "I can't think, is all. That old blind man wants us to live with him, and I'd rather d-d-die!"
Heath suppressed a grin at the melodrama. He composed his face seriously to reply, but Nick beat him to it. "That might not be such a bad idea," Nick said with a shrug.
Heath raised his eyebrows at this, but went along. "What's the problem? Did he do something to offend you?"
"No," Ben slumped. "He's all right, I guess. But he's not brave, not like Uncle Ethan. Or you." He looked at Nick. "Either of you."
"I wouldn't say that," Heath said. "He may not be able to use a gun, but that's not what makes a man brave." He crouched down to Ben's level. "Did you know he spent almost twenty years trying to get his training center set up, and he never gave up, no matter what?"
Ben looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head and said, "So?"
"There's lots a ways of being brave, Ben," Nick said, unknowingly echoing Claire. "Not giving up on what you believe is right is one of the best ways."
"It's not the same as danger," Ben argued. "That's the bravest."
"There's more than one kind of danger," Heath said. "And more than one kind of brave. The quicker you understand that, the better off you'll be."
Ben shook his head. "You're right I shouldn't give up, though." He held out his hand for the gun. "Let's practice."
They practiced for half an hour. "What's with you, Nick?" Heath asked as the two men walked back to the house. "I thought you didn't approve of Henry."
"I got nothing against him," Nick said, "he's a good man as far as I can see. He might be good for those kids, anyway. I just don't want him dangling after Mother."
"That don't make sense," Heath said. "If he's a good man, why shouldn't Mother care for him?"
"Because he's not Father," Nick said tersely, stalking off.
Heath strode after him and took his arm. "Listen here, Nick," he said sternly. "Real love is a rare enough thing in this world. Anyone who spurns it when it's offered is a plumb fool."
"Who are you calling a fool?" Nick roared.
Heath stood his ground. "No one. Certainly not Mother."
Nick glared at him, then turned and stalked off toward the corral. "I got work to do." He stopped and turned back, fists on hips. "We got work to do. You coming?"
"I'm coming," Heath said.
"Judge Barkley should be here in a few minutes," Claire said, putting Grace in her crib. "I'm sorry to run out on you early, Mrs. Barkley."
"Think nothing of it," Samantha said. "You've worked hard all week." She reached into her pocket. "Here's your pay."
Claire looked down at the money Samantha handed her. "It's too much," she protested. "More than we agreed on."
"Nonsense," Samantha said. "You've earned it." She clasped Claire's hand. "Since you're going into town, why not buy a few new ribbons for the dance tonight?"
"I shouldn't," Claire said hesitantly.
"Go on," Samantha said. "Have some fun - enjoy yourself for once."
"I will," Claire smiled. "Thank you, Mrs. Barkley."
She ran downstairs as she heard the buggy arrive. "Thank you so much, Judge Barkley," she said to Jarrod, clambering aboard. Jarrod flicked the reins and turned the buggy around. "But I don't understand why I need to see a lawyer. Couldn't you handle our case?"
"I'm afraid not, Claire," Jarrod said. "I'm a trial judge - I can neither plead nor hear your case. But don't worry, Matt is a very good lawyer - I've known him for years."
Claire sighed. "I don't know how we can afford it."
"Matt's agreed to take the case pro bono."
"Latin," Jarrod explained. "Pro bono publico. It means 'for the public good.' All lawyers are supposed to perform a certain amount of work for free for those who need it. It's a common practice."
"I'm not complaining," Claire said. "As I told you before - I'd beg in the streets to keep my family together." She squared her shoulders. "Whatever it takes."
Matt Cooper gave them a warm welcome. "Come sit here, Miss Carroll." He pulled out a chair for Claire. "Judge Barkley has outlined your case, but I still wish to ask you some particulars."
"May Judge Barkley stay?" Claire asked.
"He may, although you must be aware that attorney-client privilege won't apply to him."
"I have nothing to hide," Claire said. "Please, I'd feel more comfortable. I've never done anything like this before."
"All right," Jarrod said, pulling up a chair. "But only for your peace of mind."
"Now then," Matt said, sitting behind his desk and looking down at some papers. "You're sixteen, your mother died three years ago and left you and your brothers in the care of her brother, your uncle, is that correct?"
"Yes, it is."
"And how long had it been since you'd last seen your father?"
"At that time, seven years," Claire explained. "Our mother told us he was dead." She opened her purse and took out the two pictures. "This is the man she said was our father, the other is our real father."
"And how do you know that, if you haven't seen him in ten years?"
Claire looked over at Jarrod. "Judge Barkley's wife knew both our parents before I was born. She identified him. And he showed up in Paradise, where we lived with our uncle, just a few weeks before our uncle was killed."
"Did he come looking for you?" Matt took off his spectacles and dangled them from one finger thoughtfully.
"I don’t think so," Claire said. "I think he was just drifting through. He didn't tell us who he was, and I only barely remembered him. Then he left without us. I think he and my uncle fought over us, but that's only an impression. I don't really know what happened or why. No one would tell us anything."
"You do realize, that if it was your mother's wish that your uncle raise you, your father had no legal right to remove you from your uncle's custody?" Matt said.
"No, I didn't," Claire said. "He's our father."
"But your mother's wishes would be considered absolute by the courts," Matt explained. "Your uncle was a marshal - did he make arrangements for you in the event of his death?"
Claire shook her head. "No, I suppose he always expected Mrs. Lawson would raise us. Her leaving was rather sudden - I don't think he'd had time to take it all in."
"Who is Mrs. Lawson?"
"Uncle Ethan's fiancée, at least she was until a couple of months ago." Claire bowed her head.
Matt replaced his spectacles and tapped a pencil thoughtfully. "You have a case, Miss Carroll, but I have to tell you it's not of the strongest. That your father abandoned you and your brothers when you were very young children weighs in your favor, but the uncertainty of his intentions of just a few weeks ago could undermine your case considerably. Is there anyone other than your father who might know the whole story?"
Claire shook her head. "Mrs. Lawson, probably. It was right after that that she left. But she's on a ship for Australia right now."
Jarrod shifted uncomfortably and cleared his throat. "Well, actually, she may not be."
Claire sat bolt upright. "What do you mean? She's still here?"
"We don't know where she is," Jarrod said. "Molly went to confront her last Sunday, the day before she was to sail, but she was already gone - lock, stock and barrel. We didn't tell you because we thought you had enough to worry about, but if Amelia can help your case, you should know."
"I wish people would stop not telling us things," Claire grumbled.
"I'm sorry, Claire," Jarrod said.
"Any idea where she might have gone?" Matt asked.
"I can't think of any," Claire said. "Her family's in Australia, and all her friends are in Paradise, as far as I know, and I don't think she would have gone back there."
"We'll check with the ship line to make sure she didn’t sail," Matt said, "and then we'll send Pinkerton's to Paradise to ask around. If it's where she lived, she might have gone back, or someone there might have a clue where she would have gone. It's a chancy proposition, though - if your father did come looking for you and decided to leave you in your uncle's care for your own good, it might actually undermine your position."
Claire looked at her hands thoughtfully. Jarrod regarded her silently, offering no advice unless asked for it. Finally, Claire raised her head. "We have to look for her. It's our only real choice. I don't believe Papa was looking for us, I don't think he cared enough. But if he was - then maybe we're wrong about him. Either way, it's better to know, isn't it?" She shot Jarrod a sharp glance as she spoke.
"I believe so, Miss Carroll," Matt said.
Claire stood. "Thank you very much, Mr. Cooper. Please let me know what you discover as soon as you do."
"I will," Matt said, taking her hand. "I'll do whatever I can to aid you."
Claire nodded and she and Jarrod left the office. She was silent as she climbed into the buggy, her lips pressed into a thin line. "May we stop by the general store?" she asked. "I need to pick up a few things."
"Claire," Jarrod said, addressing her thoughts and not her words, "we didn't intend to hurt you - you children had so much else to worry about, and Amelia had done you enough harm already. We didn't want to pile any more worry on you."
"You keep telling me I'm an adult, that I can handle raising my brothers, then you turn around and treat me like a child," Claire said. "It undermines my resolve."
"Claire, I truly am sorry. But you have to remember, you're the same age as my own son."
"And do you treat him like a child?"
"Sometimes," Jarrod smiled, "but he usually brings me up short, too." He sighed. "Will you forgive us? We made a mistake, but an honest one."
"All right," Claire said, letting out the breath she had been holding. "I know you didn't mean any harm, and you've been so kind to us already. But, please, don't do it again. If there's anything to know, we should know it."
"Agreed," Jarrod said, flicking the reins. "And of course, we may stop by the store."
Claire bought a few necessities - flour, sugar, tea. She eyed the ribbons arrayed in bright rows behind the counter, but did not buy any. Jarrod drove her back to the ranch, and she trudged behind the house to the cottage.
Her brothers were all waiting for her on the porch, standing in a line with barely suppressed grins on their faces. "Hello, Claire," George greeted her, giggling behind his hand.
"What are you boys up to?" Claire asked suspiciously.
"Here," Joseph said, thrusting a brown paper parcel into her hands. "Open it."
Claire looked stupefied at the parcel a moment before opening it to reveal a dress of blue calico, with white lace collar and cuffs. "Joseph, you shouldn't have."
"It's nothing," Joseph said grinning. "I got paid today and Mrs. Grigsby helped me pick it out. She's good with clothes."
"No, I meant you shouldn't have," Claire said, thrusting the dress back at him. "You had no right to spend our money this way."
"Why not?" Joseph said, growing heated. "When was the last time you had something new, Claire?"
"I don't remember, but that's not the point. You shouldn't have done it without consulting me. Ben and George need new shoes - "
"No, we don't," Ben interjected.
" - and anyway, we may need that money later. We shouldn't spend it on frivolities."
"Stop it, Claire!" Joseph shouted. "Stop being a burden!"
"I'm not a burden! What do you mean by that?"
"Yes, you are! You can't have this, and you can't do that! Why? Because of us! How do you think that makes us feel?"
"You're someone to talk!" Ben shouted. "You can't go to school or be a doctor because of us! How does that make George and me feel?"
"That's different!" Joseph said.
"No, it's not!" Ben shouted back.
"Stop fighting!" George shouted. "The dress was supposed to make Claire happy. Why are we fighting?"
Claire looked at her brothers' stormy faces and felt ashamed of herself. "George is right," she said. "Why are we fighting? I'm sorry, it's my fault. It's a lovely dress, Joseph." She kissed his cheek. "I'll be happy to wear it to the dance."
"All right then," Joseph said, mollified. "And with next week's pay we'll buy Ben and George new shoes, OK?"
"OK," Claire nodded. "Ben and George, go fetch our dinner, would you? Then we'll all get ready to go to the dance."
Ben and George ran off, and Joseph turned to go wash up, but Claire stopped him. "Am I really a burden?" she asked.
"No," Joseph said. "Well, sometimes. It's the way you always put yourself last, Claire. I understand most of the time, but sometimes you really need to think of yourself - it may not matter to you if you're happy or not, but it matters to us."
Claire blinked back a tear. "I'm sorry. It didn't even occur to me."
"No, it doesn't, Claire. That may be what we love about you, but it can sure irritate the heck out of us, too."
Claire laughed, then grew sober. "That goes double for you, Joseph. Ben was right."
"Don't start, Claire," Joseph warned. "There's a heck of a lot a difference between a new dress and medical school."
"I know," Claire said, "and I'm not going to argue about it. But I have something to tell you - Mrs. Lawson may not have gone to Australia, after all." She told him of her meeting with Matt Cooper. "So, you see, we have to find her. I thought you should be prepared for that."
"That's going to hurt the boys, George especially. Do we have to, Claire?"
Claire nodded. "I'm afraid so. Much as I would like it to be different, we still need her."
Chapter Twelve: Barn Dance
Lucas took the blanket-wrapped parcel from Claire and assisted her into the buggy as her brothers clambered up behind. "Is this your violin?" he asked.
Claire nodded. "I've been practicing, a little. I hope I don't embarrass myself."
"Don't be silly," Lucas said, flicking the reins. "I'm sure you'll play beautifully."
"I know some reels, and a few waltzes," Claire said.
"Relax, Claire," Lucas said. "Have some fun. It's what you've come for."
"At least I'll have you to dance with," Claire said.
"First and last dance," Lucas agreed. "It's traditional."
Claire looked disappointed, and Lucas smiled. "I'd better stake my claim, or I probably wouldn't get to dance with you at all."
"Claire will have it easy," Joseph said. "I only know a couple of girls from school."
"Yes," Lucas said, "I'm afraid most of the ranchers stop sending their daughters to school once they've learned to read and write. I've gotten in trouble with the Culvers, who are hosting the dance, for giving books to their daughter Sophie."
"How can you get in trouble for th-that?" Ben asked.
"Some people don't see the point of educating women, more's the pity," Lucas said.
"What's the point of not educating them?" George asked.
"That, George, is an admirable question," Lucas said. "Don't worry, Joseph, I'll introduce you to the families with daughters. You should have no lack of partners, either, although you'll have to be the one doing the asking. But with all the ranchers' sons clustering around Claire, the pickings should be easier for you."
Joseph laughed and Claire blushed, hiding her face in the collar of her coat as Lucas drove through the darkness to the Culver's ranch. "Ben and George, go find my mother - she's helping with the taffy pull and will tell you what to do," Lucas said, helping Claire down from the buggy. The younger boys ran into the barn as Lucas escorted Claire and Joseph in.
"It's cold in here," Claire said, pulling her coat tighter around herself.
"When everyone gets here and starts dancing, it will warm up in a hurry," Lucas said. He took Claire and Joseph over to greet their hosts. "Mr. and Mrs. Culver, Sophie," he tipped his hat at the sweet-faced young girl standing with her parents, "I'd like you to meet Miss Claire Carroll and her brother, Joseph. Their family is staying at the ranch with my grandmother for awhile."
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Carroll," Mr. Culver said, taking her hand. "Any friend of the Barkleys is our friend, too."
"I was wondering if Sophie would be kind enough, if she's not promised elsewhere, to give Joseph the first dance," Lucas said. "He hasn't been in Stockton long and doesn't know many people."
Sophie looked from Lucas to Claire, and disappointment crossed her young face, but, "Of course, I'd be delighted," she said graciously. She took Joseph by the arm. "Come, I'll introduce you around. No one stays a stranger long in Stockton."
"I think she likes you," Claire remarked as Lucas led her to where the musicians were gathering.
"She's a nice kid," Lucas said. "Smart, too." He sighed. "It's such a waste."
Kid, Claire thought. She must be at least fourteen. But Lucas always had been overly mature, and even though she knew that had been born of terrible hardship, she respected him for it.
"Lum, Ed," Lucas said to two men, one young, carrying a violin, and one older, carrying a concertina, "This is Claire. She'd like to play a bit tonight, too - not the first dance," Lucas smiled, "that's mine."
"Pleased to meetya, young lady," Lum, the one with the violin said, shaking her hand vigorously. "Whatdya play?"
Claire removed the bit of blanket to reveal her violin. "Oh, good," Ed said, "we could use another fiddle."
"Where's Lulu, Lum?" Lucas asked. "Isn't she playing?"
"She's off cooking taffy," Lum said. "She'll be over in a minute. Give us a bit, Claire. Show us what you're made of."
"All right," Claire said shyly, tucking the violin under her chin and drawing the bow across. She played a few bars of a Virginia reel, then lowered her bow. "Is it all right?"
"More than all right," Ed said appreciatively. "Right purty." He turned to Lucas. "Where you been hiding her?"
Lucas laughed. "I'm not. She's only been here a couple of weeks."
"And I'm in mourning," Claire said. "I'm not even sure I should be here now."
"Don't you worry none," Lum said, "we'll have you cheered up in no time. Oh, here's Lulu." He introduced a freckle-faced young girl still in pig-tails to Claire. "This here's Claire, this here's my sister Lulu. Or Louella Louise, if you wanna get formal."
Lulu made a face at her brother but curtseyed nicely. "Thank you, Columbus," she said. "And pleased to meet you, Claire."
Lum made a face in turn, and Claire laughed. As more people had arrived, she found that Lucas was right and the barn was becoming quite warm. "Where may I put my coat?" she asked.
"Oh, just toss it on a hay bale," Lum said.
"I'll take it for you," Lucas said, assisting her out of it. "I'll go put it in the buggy."
He returned a moment later, and Lulu took charge of Claire's violin as Lucas led her out for the first quadrille. "Pretty dress," he whispered as the other dancers took their places.
"Thank you. Joseph bought it for me."
"He shows good taste," Lucas smiled.
"Your Aunt Audra helped him," Claire said.
"Then he shows good judgment," Lucas said, as the musicians struck up the tune.
Victoria and Henry arrived with Lena midway through the third dance, when Claire and taken up her violin and joined the other players. They followed Lena to the rear of the barn where it seemed that most of the children in Stockton had gathered. "Do you need some help?" Victoria asked Molly as Lena ran off to join the other children.
Molly shoved a wisp of hair out of her eyes. "No, I'm nearly finished. Time for some of the other mothers to take over." She looked over to where Vicky and Georgie had a long string of taffy stretched out between them. "Gather it back up and stretch it out again, Vicky. Don't let it drop on the floor. Ground, rather." She shrugged. "Oh, well. They're washable."
"Where's Jarrod?" Henry asked.
"Off in a corner talking shop, probably," Molly said. "I'll have to roust him out if I'm going to get a dance at all, undoubtedly." She looked up as Audra arrived. "Hello, dear. Where's Owen?"
"On a call," Audra answered, kissing Molly and Victoria on the cheek. "He promised to meet me here later, if he can get free."
"I'm sure you can find plenty of dance partners," Victoria said.
Audra shook her head. "No, not until Owen gets here. I may borrow a concertina and play a little, though."
Jarrod joined the group then. "Is this everyone?" he asked. "I take it Nick and Heath decided to stay home with their wives and babies?"
Victoria nodded. "We brought Lena so she wouldn't miss the fun." She looked over at the dance set. "I must say that Claire does play well, doesn't she? We've been enjoying listening to her practice late every evening."
"Yes, she does," Molly said, although she said it with a thoughtful frown. "And her face. . . ." Claire's eyes were closed as she played in concentration and what could only be called bliss. Molly turned to Jarrod. "Would you mind keeping an eye on Georgie? I'll be back before the dance is over."
Jarrod looked startled. "Where are you running off to, Feather?"
Molly whispered in his ear. Jarrod looked at her quizzically. "Do you think that's a good idea? She has enough to think about right now."
Molly nodded. "Not just a good idea, but necessary."
"All right, Feather, if you think so. But be careful driving into town."
"I will." Molly hurried off with a swift goodbye to the rest of the family who watched her leave with puzzled expressions.
"What was that about?" Audra asked.
"Something. . .private," Jarrod said. He looked over at his younger children busily pulling taffy and offered Audra his arm. "I think I can get away for one dance. Dear sister? Will you do me the honor?"
Audra looked up at him thoughtfully. "All right, Big Brother. No point in just standing around, I suppose."
Victoria looked up at Henry as Jarrod and Audra moved off to the dance floor. "I'm sorry, Henry," she said. "It didn't occur to me until now how cruel it was to bring you to a dance if you can't dance. Or can you?"
"Not cruel at all," Henry said. "I did use to love dancing, but I still can enjoy the music, and the energy."
"Perhaps we could manage a waltz later," Victoria suggested.
Henry laughed. "Only if you lead, my dear. I'm afraid avoiding the other dancers would be quite beyond me."
"Come." Victoria took him by the hand and led him out the back door into the darkness.
"Chickens?" Henry said, sniffing the air.
"Gone to roost," Victoria said, putting her hand on his shoulder. "It's the wrong music, but we can make do."
Henry put an arm around her waist. "Is the area clear?"
She put her head on his shoulder and nodded. "Yes. Dearest."
Henry sighed contentedly and waltzed, slowly and cautiously, not venturing far from their starting point. The music ended but he did not release her. "This is lovely," he said. "To have you alone for once." He bent down and kissed her.
"We'd better go back in," she said sometime later. "We don't want to create a scandal. Although I doubt we're the only ones out here."
"Probably not," Henry said. "Victoria - am I being selfish?"
Victoria was taken aback. "What do you mean, Henry?"
"About taking in the children. If they do decide to live with me, it will make our being alone together that much more difficult."
She put a hand to his cheek. "Don't be absurd. You think I would stop you because of that? I know how important family is - if you got your wish, I would only rejoice. Besides, their uncle carried on a courtship while they lived with him - I don't think they would make things any more difficult for you than they were for him."
Henry kissed her again. "Thank you, my love. I don't want to jeopardize what we have."
"You aren't," she assured him. They returned to the dance. "Owen's arrived," she said, glancing over the dancers. "He's dancing with Audra. And Molly's returned." She led him over to where Molly was standing with Lucas and Jarrod watching the dancers.
"Why aren't you dancing, Lucas?" she asked. "You'd better be careful, or someone will snatch Claire away from you."
Lucas shrugged. "I'll have the last dance. I want her to have as many partners as she can."
Victoria opened her mouth to speak, but Molly stopped her. "It's no use, Mother. I've been saying the same thing for the last fifteen minutes." She looked up at her son. "He's not listening."
Lucas smiled. "Actually, Mother, I hear you quite well. Don't worry about me and Claire - if she's happy, then I'm happy."
"If you say so, Son," Molly said, frowning. "But faint heart never won fair maiden."
The dance pattern broke up as the tune came to an end, and the Barkleys and the Carrolls seemed to coalesce around the little group. "Ben and George!" Claire exclaimed, "You're all sticky."
The boys held up bags of candy. "You won't mind when we share," Ben said.
"I don't mind now," Claire said, "but you'll have to take baths when we get home."
"Claire, Joseph, boys," Molly said, "we'd like you to have Sunday dinner with us tomorrow, if you'd be so kind."
"You're the one being kind," Claire said, "but we'd love to, wouldn't we, boys?"
"Last dance," Lucas said as the musicians took their places. He offered Claire his arm. "Miss Carroll."
"I have the last dance with Sophie," Joseph said, moving off to claim his place.
"I want to dance, too," Emma said.
"I'll dance with you," George offered. "Ben can dance with Lena."
"That leaves me with Georgie," Vicky pouted.
"Tell you what," Jarrod said. "I'll dance with you, Buttercup, and Mommy can dance with Georgie. We'll form our own square."
Jarrod and Molly moved off to dance with the children, leaving Audra and Owen with Victoria and Henry. "I'm glad you could make it, Owen," Victoria said.
Owen smiled down at his wife. "I know how Audra loves to dance - I didn't want to disappoint her."
Victoria regarded her daughter and son-in-law. Audra had been well aware of the hardships incumbent in being a doctor's wife, but even so, Victoria sometimes wondered at the inevitable strain on her daughter's marriage. Seeing Owen's smile, and the light in his and Audra's eyes as they looked at each other warmed Victoria's heart. She was sure they would do well - such love, as she knew from experience, could soften any hardship.
The dance ended and the party began to break up. Everyone took leave of their hosts and Lucas fetched Claire's coat and assisted her into the buggy. "Did you have a good time, Joseph?" Claire asked. "I won't ask Ben and George - no one could get that messy and not have a good time."
Ben scowled but George laughed. "Yes, I had a good time," Joseph replied. "Sophie introduced me to lots of people - she's a nice girl."
Something in his tone made her raise her eyebrows, but she did not remark on it. She could feel Lucas's smile although he remained quiet until they had arrived back at the ranch. "Come on, Ben and George," Joseph said as Lucas helped Claire down from the buggy, "let's get your baths started."
"Did you have fun, Claire?" Lucas asked when her brothers had gone inside.
Claire nodded. "Yes - I can't remember the last time I enjoyed myself that much."
"Good." He fondled a lock of her hair. "No lack of partners?"
"No, but that doesn't matter. I think I enjoyed the playing more than the dancing, to tell you the truth."
He leaned down and kissed her, softly, then pulled back. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that," he apologized.
"Yes, you should," she corrected, "if that's how you feel."
He sat down in the porch swing. Claire hesitated a moment, then sat next to him. "I'm going away in the fall, Claire," he said. "To college - only to Berkeley, but still. Then to law school after that. I intend to be home as much as possible, but things are going to change, that's all that's certain."
Claire shrugged. "I don't know where we'll end up, Lucas. We don't intend to stay here forever, living off your family's kindness. As far as we're concerned, nothing's certain."
He turned to face her. "It wasn't hard to read between the lines of your letters, Claire. How lonely you were in Paradise, with no one your own age to talk to or be friends with. How much responsibility you had, even then, when your uncle was alive."
"It was all right," she protested.
"No, it wasn't," Lucas said. "You're a pretty girl, Claire. You ought to have the chance to enjoy being a pretty young girl. Go to lots of dances, have lots of beaus. It's what you deserve."
"It's not what I want," Claire said, "it's not who I am. I don't want lots of beaus. One would be lovely - someone I could care for, someone who would care for me."
They sat in choked silence for a long moment, both afraid to speak. Finally, Lucas took her hand. "In that case," he said hoarsely, "would you like to be my girl?"
"Yes, I would," she said. Lucas put his arm around her shoulder, she put her head on his, and they sat thus, not speaking, for a long while after.
Chapter Thirteen: Soul Food
"Oh, good, you brought your violin." Molly greeted Claire after church.
"Yes, Mrs. Barkley said you'd asked for me to," Claire said. "Although I can't imagine you'd wish to hear me play again after last night."
"You're too modest, Claire," Jarrod said, helping her and Molly into the buggy. He kissed Molly's lips. "Don't be too long, dearest. We'll wait dinner, but you know how Georgie gets if meals are late."
"I'm sure you can handle him, dear," Molly said, taking up the reins. "Give him a roll if he gets too fussy." She snickered to the horses and the buggy moved off.
"Where are we going?" Claire asked.
"I wanted to talk to you alone for a bit, Claire," Molly began.
"I see," Claire said tersely.
"See what?" Molly asked, puzzled at her tone.
"I suppose you know that Lucas asked me to be his girl."
"Yes, he told us this morning. I am pleased."
"You are?" Claire asked, startled. "I thought. . .that's not what you wanted to talk to me about?"
"No. Why? Did you think I'd disapprove?"
"Yes, I did. I mean, I'm just a poor orphan - hardly a match for a Barkley."
Molly laughed, much to Claire's surprise. "So was I, Claire. So was Lucas, for that matter. I hope you don't think either of us has become so high and mighty as to look down on you for your misfortune. I thought we were better friends than that."
"We are. I'm sorry - I didn't mean to insult you. Just the opposite."
"I'm not insulted. I know how you feel. I felt the same way when I fell in love with Jarrod. But, Claire, none of us has anything but admiration for you, for the way you're handling a difficult situation. I am a trifle surprised, because I chided Lucas at the dance for hanging back - I'm glad he had the sense to go forward."
Claire heaved a sigh of relief. "I'm glad, Miss Molly. I don't think I could have borne your disapproval."
"I couldn't have borne it either," Molly agreed. "If I were ever to look down on someone for having less than I do, after all the generosity I've received - well, that will be the day I deserve to hang."
"So where are we going?" Claire asked again.
"We're here." Molly pulled the buggy up in front of a small house, covered with roses. There was a small hand-lettered sign in the window.
"Music Lessons?" Claire read. "Miss Molly, no. I don't have the time or the money."
"Listen to me, Claire," Molly said sternly. "I heard you play last night, and although you play very well, I realized that you hadn't improved since we heard you play three years ago. You have a talent - you owe it a debt. You can't let it stagnate."
"I can't take any more from you," Claire said. "Food and shelter, clothing, we can work for. Not frivolities." She unconsciously clutched her violin.
"I'm not doing this for you, Claire, I'm doing it for your mother. Lucy was my friend, and she suffered, and I was never able to help her. But I can do this for her daughter. She would want me to - we both know she would."
Claire sat still in the buggy, obviously wrestling with herself. Her shoulders slumped in capitulation. "Yes, she would. I can't argue with that. I wish I could."
"Come then," Molly said, tying up the reins and disembarking from the buggy. "Madame Minska awaits."
"She's from Poland or Estonia or someplace like that. Claims to have tutored the Czar's children, which I doubt, but she is an excellent teacher - I've heard her students." Molly climbed the steps to the porch and knocked on the door.
The door was opened by a middle-aged woman in a flowery dressing gown. "Molly, mon cherie!" she chimed in a husky voice, "you are prompt, as always."
"Good afternoon, Madame," Molly said. "This is Claire."
"Pleased to meet you, Madame Minska," Claire said, curtseying.
Madame looked her over, from head to toe, then offered her hand. "Enchanté ," she said. "So this is your little violinist. Come in, my dear, I do not bite. Mon cherie, she comes in the middle of the night - "
"It was nine o'clock," Molly said.
" - saying I must see you, it is a matter of life and death - "
"Hardly," Molly said.
"Shush. Who is talking here?" Madame gestured broadly. "How old are you, dear?"
"Sixteen," Claire replied, uncertain what to make of this woman.
"Hm," Madame considered her. "I prefer younger. Let me see your instrument."
Claire handed the violin over mutely. Madame examined it closely. "You need to restring your bow."
"I know," Claire said.
"We'll take care of that," Molly said.
Madame examined the violin critically, turned the pegs, plucked the strings. "It'll do," she shrugged, handing it to Claire. "Play."
Feeling intimidated, Claire tucked the violin under her chin. She drew the bow across the strings hesitantly, but then closed her eyes and launched into "Greensleeves." Madame watched her intently, arms crossed.
"Your wrist is too slack," she said when Claire had finished. "You need to hold it straighter, higher, like so." She took the bow from Claire and demonstrated. "Your posture is terrible - you shall grow hunchbacked if you continue in that manner." She took Claire's shoulders and pulled her back and upright. "You are too hesitant - you need to play with more - how do you say? - gumption. Your bowing, it hurts my ears."
Claire blinked back tears. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time," she said, hurt.
Madame waved a hand. "What you mean, waste my time? I decide if you waste my time. True, you are older than I like, but you feel the music, here." She tapped her chest. "You have bad habits, but you have talent, I know. It may not be too late to save you. I will try."
"Thank you," Claire said, flabbergasted. "Madame."
"When you can come for first lesson?" Madame asked.
"I don't know," Claire said. "Between school and work, the only free day I have is Sunday."
"You come back next Sunday, then," Madame said.
"On the Sabbath?" Claire asked.
"The Good Lord will object to making beautiful music on Sunday, you think?"
"No, I don't suppose He will," Claire said. "But other people might."
"If He no care, and I no care, who you worried about?" Madame asked.
"No one," Claire said firmly, lifting her chin.
"Until then you practice, no? Do not worry about the tune - stand straight, and hold your wrist, so. Do not forget."
"I won't. Thank you again," Claire said.
"We must go now, Madame," Molly said. "My husband is waiting dinner for us."
"Of course," Madame said. "It is good to see you, mon cherie. You must call on me yourself, soon."
"I will." Molly kissed her cheek and she and Claire walked to the buggy.
"Whew," Claire said. "I'm exhausted."
"She can be very exhausting," Molly agreed, "but her results are excellent. I think you shall do very well with her."
Claire climbed into the buggy. She sat silent as Molly flicked the reins. "I don't know how to thank you," she said at last.
"Do well, Claire, that's all the thanks I wish for."
"I. . .don't. . ." she choked up.
"What's wrong, Claire?" Molly asked.
"I don't know," Claire said. "I feel. . .have you ever wanted something so badly, it scared you?"
"I. . .yes, I have," Molly said. She pulled up the buggy in front of her house. "Come, let me show you something."
"Emma," Jarrod said as soon as he and the children arrived home, "why don't you and Vicky take Ben and George upstairs to play until Mommy comes home?"
"Me, too!" Georgie chimed.
"All right," Jarrod agreed, "but come tell me if he gets fussy, Emma."
Emma agreed and the younger children dashed upstairs. "I'll go check on the roast your mother left cooking," Jarrod said to Lucas.
"Would you like me to help you, Father?" Lucas asked.
"No, Son, why don't you entertain Joseph until dinner. Your mother shouldn't be too long at Madame Minska's."
"Who's Madame Minska?" Joseph asked as Lucas ushered him into the library.
"No harm in your knowing now," Lucas said, "since you can't spoil the surprise. She's a violin teacher."
"Ah," Joseph said, fingering the spine of a book. "Are all your relatives meddlers?"
Lucas laughed. "I suppose we are. Does it bother you?"
Joseph shrugged. "Not as far as Claire's concerned. Someone needs to look after her - she doesn't think enough of herself."
"Maybe," Lucas said. He spied the book Joseph was fingering. "Gray's Anatomy. Go ahead and look at it if you like."
Joseph took the book and opened it. "Why so many medical books?" he asked. "Are you going to be a doctor?"
"No, lawyer, like my father, but I think science and medicine are going to be very important in the future - I think I should know all I can. I worked for Dr. Merar as an assistant last year."
"Why not your uncle?" Joseph asked.
"Because I thought Uncle Owen would go too easy on me," Lucas grinned. "How do you like working for him?"
"Wonderful," Joseph said. "I think he can teach me a lot. Even if I can't be a doctor, maybe I can learn enough to be of use, anyway."
"I'm sure you will, but don't sell yourself short, Joseph."
"Don't start," Joseph warned.
"I'm not," Lucas said. "Claire's told me of your argument. I'd do the same thing as you if I were in the same position. There's nothing more important than my family."
"Even though you're adopted?" Joseph's face grew red. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
"It's all right," Lucas said. "Anyway, it's because I'm adopted. I spent my entire life dreaming of what it would be like to have a family. I never thought I'd be this lucky. Not just great parents, but sisters and a brother, and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. And a grandmother who's almost unbelievable." Lucas grinned.
"Yes, you are lucky," Joseph said enviously. He hesitated. "Now, that is. I don't suppose you could call being forced to work in a mine 'lucky'."
"No, we - Emma and I - have had some difficult times," Lucas agreed, "but we're happy now. That's all that matters."
"Do you remember your parents at all?" Joseph asked.
Lucas shook his head. "I was a foundling - no one knows who my mother was. I'd like to know, but I doubt it will ever happen."
"Probably just as well," Joseph said. "If you're happy, why change things?"
"I'd like to know if she's happy, is all," Lucas said. "It wouldn't make me love my mother and father any less to know that."
Molly and Claire returned then. "Jarrod?" Molly called.
Jarrod came out of the kitchen. "Did all go well?" he asked, kissing Molly's cheek.
"Yes, dearest. Could you hold dinner just a few more minutes? I want to show Claire something."
"I've heard no protests from Georgie yet," Jarrod said. "It should be all right."
"Good," Molly said, leading Claire up the stairs. They passed the second floor and climbed the steep stairs to the attic. They entered a small room under the eaves, crowded with canvasses, both painted and unpainted, and smelling strongly of paint and turpentine. "This is my studio," Molly said. "Usually I paint outdoors, but this is where I store my things."
Claire turned in a circle, gazing around her. "I had no idea," she said. "Where do you find the time?"
"I eke it out here and there," Molly said. "There are more important demands on my time - my husband, my children, of course - but if I couldn't do this, I think I'd die. On the inside."
Claire looked over the canvasses that were stacked against the wall. "I like this one," she said, holding up a picture of a young child with a paintbrush. "A painting of a painter." She looked at it more closely. "Is this Vicky?"
"Yes," Molly said, "although it's just a sketch, really. I never got the opportunity to finish it properly. I painted that, let me see. . .Vicky was not quite two, and it was the day Jarrod told me we were moving to Paradise. I'd been painting in the garden and Vicky got into my paints while I wasn't looking. She got so messy, I decided to give her a canvas and a brush and let her go to it. Jarrod likes it, he keeps wanting to hang it, but I won't let him."
"She has this look - " Claire hesitated, "it's the same look Mama had when she was practicing."
"Jarrod says it's the same look I have when I'm painting." Molly put her hand on Claire's arm. "It's the same look you had last night when you were playing. It's why I ran out of the dance to go see Madame. I could see - it's not frivolity, Claire. It's something you need. Desperately."
Claire felt a tear trickle down her cheek. "I'm afraid - if I do this, if I devote myself to it as it deserves, I might neglect my duties. I can't let my brothers down, Miss Molly. There's too much at risk."
Molly sighed. "You need to provide for yourself, too, dear. You have deeper needs than just food, clothing and shelter. Would your brothers be happier if you kill your own soul through neglect? What good is a live body with a dead soul? To anyone?"
"I never thought of it that way," Claire said. She stood in thought, still holding the painting. "I'll make you a deal," she said at last. "I'll take the lessons if you'll hang this painting."
"Because it's better than you think it is," Claire said. "It's no portrait, maybe, but you have captured. . .something. I don't know the word for it."
"Well, all right," Molly said. "It will please Jarrod, anyway."
After dinner, the younger children played outside while the adults and older children enjoyed coffee in the parlor. "I'm sorry to rush off," Claire said after a few minutes conversation, "but I need to be sure to speak to Mr. Johnson before he goes back to Berkeley."
"I'll go get the buggy," Lucas said. He kissed his mother's cheek. "I'll have supper at the ranch."
"All right, Lucas," Molly said. "What do you need to speak to Henry about?" she asked Claire.
"He's invited us to live with him," Claire said. "I told him we'd think about it, but I'm afraid that's not a possibility. I don't want to leave him hanging."
"No, of course not," Molly agreed.
Joseph went to gather Ben and George and the children took their leave of each other. As the buggy pulled away, Molly stared into the fireplace, frowning.
"What's wrong, Feather?" Jarrod asked, sitting next to her and taking her hand. "Something's upset you."
Molly shook her head. "Not upset, just. . .I was in much the same situation as Claire is when Henry married me."
"You're not accusing Henry of anything inappropriate, are you?" Jarrod asked, "because even I wouldn't do that."
"No, of course not, but - " she turned to her husband, "it does make me wonder, Jarrod. Did he marry me because he loved me, or because he wanted to rescue me?"
"Can't it be both?" Jarrod said.
"I'm sorry," Molly said, caressing his cheek, "it shouldn't bother me now, either way. It just hit me suddenly. I'm sorry, dearest."
"Don't apologize, Feather," Jarrod said, wrapping his arms around her. "After being married to the man for three years, you should know the answer, but if you don't, then ask him."
She pulled back and looked into his face. "Perhaps it would be better to let that sleeping dog lie."
"You've always observed how the past can come back to hurt us," Jarrod said. "If there are any mines laying about, better to defuse them than risk stepping on them."
"I'll think about it," Molly said. "Perhaps you're right that I may already know the answer, if I’m honest enough with myself."
Jarrod kissed her. "I know no one more honest."
"I'll go talk to Mr. Johnson," Claire said at the ranch as Lucas went to put away the buggy and take care of the horses.
Joseph and George went into the cottage, but Ben followed her and took her arm. "What are you going to tell him, Claire?" he asked.
"What do you expect, Ben?" Claire said. "I'm not going to force you - especially not with anything this important. Whatever we decide, we'll decide together."
Ben bit his lip. "Can you tell him we haven't made up our minds yet?"
Claire looked down at his somber face, startled. "Ben?" She crouched down. "Is something the matter?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm just not s-sure I was right. And I'm sorry for the way I've been acting."
"Do we need to talk first?"
"There's no time," Ben said. "Go tell him, then I'll talk."
"All right," Claire said, straightening. "I must say I'm relieved."
"You think we should say yes," Ben said.
"Not necessarily," Claire said, "but I'd like to keep all our doors open until we can make a decision."
Ben went back to the cottage while Claire made her way to the house. She found Victoria and Henry having tea in the parlor. "Hello, Claire," Victoria said. "Would you like some tea?"
"No, thank you, Mrs. Barkley," Claire said, "but I would like to speak to Mr. Johnson alone, if you don't mind."
"Of course," Victoria said, rising. "If you want me, I'll be in the nursery."
Claire sat down in the place Victoria had vacated. "You've come with your answer," Henry said.
"I thought I had," Claire said. "You see, Ben was dead set against it - it's been hardest for him. He idolized our uncle and, well, you're nothing like him."
"You said he was against it. Has he changed his mind?" Henry asked hopefully.
"He stopped me on the way here and said to tell you we're thinking it over," Claire said. "I'm sorry to leave it that way - it seems cruel not to give you an answer."
"No, my dear," Henry said, "not cruel at all. I want you to do what is best for your family. That you're considering my offer at all is much more than I would expect. You have much to consider before making a decision - you should take the time to think it over and discuss everything with your brothers. I would expect no less."
"Thank you.'' Claire stood. "When will we see you again?"
"I should be back next weekend," Henry said. "I still have much work to do with George, and of course, any chance to be with Victoria is not to be missed."
"Are you going to marry her?" Claire asked. "Forgive me for prying, but if we live with you, that will be our concern, too."
"We've only been courting a few weeks," Henry said. "And I need to stay with the training center at least another year, maybe two. So the answer to your question is, 'maybe, but not for a good while yet.' Is that answer enough?"
Claire nodded. "Yes, thank you." She kissed his cheek and left.
Lucas was sitting in the porch swing and Ben on the steps when she got back to the cottage. "Do you mind, Lucas?" she asked. "I need to talk to Ben alone for awhile."
"Not at all," Lucas said, rising. "I'll go call on Grandmother."
"Will you have supper with us?" Claire asked.
"Gladly," Lucas grinned, kissing her cheek.
Claire sat on the step next to Ben. "What's going on, Ben? You were quiet as death in the buggy on the way back, and now this."
"Emma and Vicky had us play this game called 'Blind Man'," Ben said.
"You mean 'Blind Man's Bluff'?"
"No," Ben shook his head, "'Blind Man.' You wear a blindfold and try to act normal - walk around without bumping into things, eat, get dressed, stuff like that."
"I see," Claire said. "Well, maybe it's good to find out how other people get along."
"I thought it would be easy," Ben said, "but it was really scary. I couldn't do anything."
"People get used to it, Ben, after awhile. That's what Mr. Johnson does, helps blind people learn how to do for themselves."
"I know," Ben said, "and I was thinking - it's scary to be blind. Maybe he's braver than I thought. Mr. Barkley says there's lots of ways to be brave."
"So did I," Claire said, "if you'll remember. So are you saying you want to live with him after all?"
"I'm saying I'm not sure," Ben said. "I don't know."
"Well, we have a few weeks before we need to decide," Claire said, standing and brushing herself off. "We're not legally free yet."
"When will we be?" Ben asked.
Claire thought a moment before deciding to tell the whole truth. "The lawyer thinks we'll have a better chance if we know the whole story about Papa - why he showed up, why he left. But probably the only person who knows now is Mrs. Lawson."
"She can't help us," Ben said. "She's gone to Australia."
"No, Ben, probably not. Miss Molly went to see her before she was to sail, but she had already gone. No other ships sailed, so we don't know where she is. The lawyer is having her looked for."
"When were you planning on telling us, Claire?" Ben demanded, leaping to his feet.
"I only found out yesterday," Claire said.
Ben slumped. "I'm sorry, of course you wouldn't lie to us. But will Mrs. Lawson help us, if she's found?"
"I don't know, Ben. I hope so." Claire stood and put her arm around his shoulder. "That's all we can do, hope."
Chapter Fourteen: Return to the Fold
Molly answered the knock at the front door and stood transfixed for a moment before throwing her arms around her visitor's neck. "Amelia! Where have you been? Oh, we've been so worried."
"Have you?" Amelia said, surprised. "Whatever for?"
"Oh, I want to shake you!" Molly said, tugging her inside. "I went to see you the day after the children came, but you were gone. No note, no letter, no telegram. How dare you go running off like that and not let anyone know?"
"I'm sorry," Amelia said, "but I had no idea anyone would worry. The thought didn't even cross my mind. Truly."
"Come sit down," Molly said, leading her into the parlor.
"How are the children?" Amelia asked. "Have they found their father? Are they still here?"
"Sit." Molly pointed to the sofa and began pacing in front of the fireplace. "What I went to San Francisco to see you for was to give you a piece of my mind."
Amelia held up a hand. "No need. I've been awful, I know that. I hope I can make some amends. That's why I'm not on my way to Australia right now."
"It's been almost two weeks, Amelia. Where did you go? What have you been doing?"
"I went to Paradise," Amelia said. "You know what a long trip that is - five days by stagecoach each way."
"I didn't think you'd go back," Molly said quietly. She sat down next to her friend. "I think better of you that you did."
"I had to," Amelia said. "I didn't want to, believe me, but something inside me drove me back." She bowed her head. "I had to see for myself."
Molly saw that she was weeping and offered her a handkerchief. She sat back and quietly waited for Amelia to finish. "So," Molly said at last, "what do you plan to do, Amelia?"
Amelia sniffled. "First tell me - have the children found their father?"
Molly shook her head. "No, and they haven't looked. We're trying to get Claire declared legal guardian and sever their father's parental rights."
"Claire? But she's a child. Why in heaven's name would you do that?"
"She's an adult, Amelia, more so than a lot of people much older," Molly said. "I knew her father - he's no fit guardian. Like it or not, Claire's the head of that family."
Amelia stared at the handkerchief clutched in her hands. "I suppose that's true," she said. "Their mother dead, Ethan - " she choked, " - gone, they've no other relatives." She looked up. "Where will they go? What will they do?"
"They're still deciding that," Molly said. "They have a few options - but they're taking responsibility for themselves, Amelia. We're here to guide and help them, but whatever they choose is what will be."
"Which is. . .as it should be, I suppose." Amelia bowed her head and sat silent for several moments. "Oh, Molly, I've made a mess of things, haven't I?"
"Yes," Molly said. "Amelia, how could you? How could you have turned your back on those children? Do you have any idea what you've done?"
Amelia nodded. "I know. But my wrongdoing goes back further than that." She looked up. "I do love them, you know. Even before I fell in love with Ethan, I loved those children. There never would have been anything between Ethan and me if not for them."
"Then how could you turn them away?"
Amelia stood and walked to the window, gazing out of it sightlessly. "I was scared, Molly. It's why I ran away from Ethan, why I've done pretty much everything up until now. I never wanted children - I always thought I'd be a terrible mother. That Pierce and I never had any I always counted as a blessing. Ethan - Ethan was a better father than he knew. If we raised those children together, I thought we could manage it. But he kept courting danger, Molly. I knew it was only a matter of time before. . .well, before. So I was right, but. . .I'm only beginning to understand just how wrong I was, as well."
"The children need you, Amelia," Molly said.
"I don't think so," Amelia said, fingering the curtain. "From what you've told me, they'll do fine without me. I think maybe I need them more than they need me."
"That may be," Molly said. "But they need you in another way. Their lawyer believes that they need to know the truth about their father's visit to Paradise. Why he was there, what his intentions were. Why he left them in Ethan's care."
Amelia reeled backwards. "No! It was Ethan's wish to keep it from them, and their mother's. You can't ask me to break their confidence."
Molly strode over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "What is it, Amelia? What's so terrible?"
Amelia shook her head. "No, I can't tell you. Please, don't ask me to."
Molly frowned. "Claire extracted a promise from us - not to hold anything back from her anymore. She's not a child, Amelia. She needs to know the truth in order to make good decisions, just as anyone does. And as long as there's a doubt about their father's intentions, the court is unlikely to free them from him. Do you want Robert to come lay claim to them? Because that will always remain a possibility unless you tell what you know."
Amelia turned and leaned her head against the wall. She remained that way for a long moment, then turned and sighed. "All right, if I must, I must. But directly to Claire - she can tell you if she wishes."
"Fair enough," Molly said. "They're in school now, and Claire and Joseph both have after school jobs. I'll take you to the ranch this evening. Where's your luggage? You can rest and freshen up after your long journey."
"At the station," Amelia said. "I'll stay at the hotel - I can't imagine you'd wish me to stay here after all that's happened. All I've done."
"Nonsense," Molly said. "You're still our friend, Amelia. I certainly don't condone your actions, but that doesn't make me care for you less."
"Thank you," Amelia whispered. "I'm glad."
Dusk was coming on as Molly drove the buggy up in front of the ranch. She and Amelia alighted and walked around back to the cottage. Ben and George were playing with a ball, and they both turned and stared as the two women approached. "Mrs. Lawson!" George exclaimed, running and throwing his arms around Amelia. Amelia stood stunned a moment at this unexpected greeting before falling to her knees and taking the boy in her arms. She found herself sobbing uncontrollably as Ben and Molly looked on. Claire and Joseph came out of the cottage at George's shout, Claire hesitating a long moment, listening to Amelia's sobs, before approaching and putting her arms around her as well. At this, Ben wrapped his arms around the three of them, and Joseph put a hand on Amelia's shoulder.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Amelia sobbed. "I've done everything wrong - I'm so sorry."
Molly stood by a moment before tiptoeing discreetly off to the ranch house. Amelia and the children stayed thus, frozen in tableau for several minutes, before Claire took Amelia's elbow and helped her to her feet. "We were about to have supper. Will you join us, Mrs. Lawson?"
Amelia wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Thank you. Yes, we have much to discuss."
"Where have you been, Mrs. Lawson?" George asked.
"Later, George," Claire said. "Let Mrs. Lawson freshen up - we'll talk over supper."
Claire led Amelia inside and showed her to the bathroom. Amelia washed her face and hands before joining the children at the kitchen table. "Where have you been?" George asked again as the food was passed around the table.
"Paradise," Amelia said.
"I didn't think you'd go there," Claire said. "When our lawyer asked where you might be."
"I had to," Amelia said. "I had to say goodbye. And I found I had other business, as well." She spooned food on her plate. "Molly told me about your case, that you need my help to gain your freedom."
Claire nodded. "What do you know about Papa, Mrs. Lawson? What did Uncle Ethan tell you? Was Papa looking for us? Did he want us at all? Why did he not tell us who he was, and why did he leave?"
Amelia sighed. "Truly, I don't want to tell you - your uncle thought it best you not know, and I have to agree. If I weren't convinced it were necessary, I wouldn't be here."
"Understood," Claire said, "but it is necessary."
"Then I'll tell you, Claire, after supper. Alone."
Claire shook her head. "No, we're not keeping secrets from each other, not anymore. Tell us now, then I won't have to repeat it later."
Amelia looked at Ben and George. "It will hurt the young ones."
"W-we can take it," Ben asserted. "Can't we George?"
George nodded in agreement, and Amelia looked from one determined face to the other. "All right," she said at last. "If you're sure. No, your father was not looking for you - he came to Paradise quite by accident. Ethan tried to run him out of town, but he wouldn't go once he realized you were there. According to Ethan, he didn't even know that your mother had died."
"It had been a long time since we'd seen him," Joseph said.
"Your father wanted to take you away," Amelia said. "He'd already bought train tickets - and this is the part I wish I didn't have to tell you."
"They fought, didn't they?" Claire said. "I've always thought so."
"More than that," Amelia said. "You remember that your uncle was shot. . . ."
"By two men trying to rob Papa," Ben said. "We remember - Uncle Ethan nearly died, and that's why you left."
Amelia shook her head. "No, Ben, that's not how it was. That's the story your father told so you wouldn't have to know that he was the one who shot your uncle."
The children sat in stunned silence for a long moment. "Why?" George asked tearfully. "Why would Papa shoot Uncle Ethan?"
Ben elbowed George. "Stop crying, George. Be tougher."
"They fought over you, as Claire said," Amelia explained. "I arrived just in time to see your uncle trying to strangle your father and then your father pulled a gun and shot Ethan." She put her hands over her face. "It was self-defense. But Ethan would rather have killed him than let him take you away. He loved you that much."
"We know he did," Claire said sadly. "Thank you for telling us, Mrs. Lawson. Will you tell the judge? We'll need to see Mr. Cooper - he's our lawyer - and schedule a hearing."
"Yes, of course," Amelia said. "The next ship doesn't sail for two weeks. I'll stay longer if needed, but it would be well to get it done soon."
"You're still leaving?" George asked.
Amelia nodded. "I need to go home, George. I haven't seen my family in fifteen years. I didn't realize how much I missed them until I decided to go back. Do you understand? There's nothing left for me here. Except you, and I have no right to you anymore."
"You could," George said, "if you loved us."
"That's enough, George," Joseph said. "We don't belong where we're not wanted."
"That's not so, Joseph," Amelia said. "I've only now come to realize how much I do want you. But I missed my chance, didn't I? I should have married Ethan - should have taken what time we had and been grateful for it. I see that now, too late. You should be my family, but you're not, and there's no way to make that right." She took a paper from her pocket. "One thing I can make right, though, is this." She pushed the paper across the table to Claire. "It's the deed to your ranch in Paradise. I paid the mortgage off for you. It's yours, free and clear."
"We can't take it," Joseph said. "It's charity."
"No, it isn't," Claire said. "Who worked the ranch most of the time, while Uncle Ethan was away? Who fed the chickens and milked the cow and tended the garden? Who kept the house and stabled the horses? We did, Joseph, you know we did. We've earned this."
"I would have paid it off anyway, if I'd married your uncle," Amelia said. "As I should have. Consider it your inheritance, Joseph. It's not charity - it's only fair." She turned to Claire. "The land is worth far more now since the copper strike. You should turn a good profit, if you decide to sell it."
"Could we go back, Claire?" George asked. "It's our home, and I miss John Taylor."
"We'll discuss it, George," Claire said. "We'll discuss everything."
Amelia stood, her food untouched. "Thank you all. You've been far kinder than I deserve."
"You're not going yet?" George said. "You haven't finished your dinner."
"I'm not hungry, George," Amelia said, "and I can't impose on your hospitality. I did what I came to do."
"Please don't go yet, Mrs. Lawson," Claire said. "I'm sorry you're uncomfortable with us - we don't wish you to be."
Amelia sat back down. "It doesn't matter - I thought you might be uncomfortable."
"A little," Claire admitted. "But we're glad you came back, for whatever reason, and for however long. It gives us a chance to repair things between us. Please don't go yet."
Amelia felt tears sting the back of her throat, but she did not cry, and she did not leave. She merely picked at her food. "How are you doing in school, Ben and George?" she asked. "Do you like your teacher?"
"Yes," the boys chorused. "And Mr. Johnson is teaching me Braille," George said. "Mrs. Barkley is helping, because he can't be here all the time. He thinks it might help me learn to read."
"I never thought of that," Amelia said. "Is it working?"
"A little," George said. "I'm still learning the letters."
"All right, boys," Joseph said when dinner was over. "You go play, Claire and I need to talk to Mrs. Lawson."
"I thought we weren't keeping secrets anymore," Ben challenged.
"It doesn't concern you," Joseph said, "but if it does, we'll be sure to tell you, all right?"
"All right," Ben agreed, hopping down from the table. He and George dashed outside as Joseph turned to Amelia.
"About the mortgage," Joseph began.
"Joseph," Claire said, exasperated.
He held up a hand. "All right, Claire, I agree that we've earned the part Uncle Ethan had already paid, but the difference isn't ours. We're glad the bank won't foreclose now, Mrs. Lawson, but we can't accept your money."
"It's the least I can do," Amelia said. "Please."
Joseph shook his head. "Don't think we don't appreciate all you did for us while Uncle Ethan was alive. But we're trying to make it on our own now. We're not your responsibility. We're our own responsibility."
"I see," Amelia said, gazing at Joseph with respect, if also a bit of irritation. "A loan, then. If you sell, you can pay me from the proceeds. If you decide to try to run the ranch, then you can pay me from your profits, if any."
"How much interest?" Joseph asked.
"This isn't a business deal, Joseph," Amelia said. "I'm not a banker anymore. It's a personal loan, between friends."
"Fair enough," Claire said, cutting Joseph off before he could protest. She stood up from the table, gazed at Amelia a moment, then threw her arms around her. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too," Amelia said. "All of you. You can't know."
Ben and George ran back in. "Lucas is here!" George chimed.
"I'll be right out," Claire said, releasing Amelia.
"Help with the dishes, boys," Joseph said, "while Claire entertains our guests."
"Kisses her boyfriend, you mean," Ben corrected.
"That, too," Joseph said as Claire blushed.
"I'd better go," Amelia said.
"No, please stay," Claire said. "They're just teasing." She led Amelia out into the parlor where Lucas was waiting. "Good evening, Lucas," she said, eyes shining.
Lucas's eyes were shining as well as he took her hand. "Good evening, Claire, Mrs. Lawson. Is everything satisfactory?"
"Better than it was," Claire said. "Mrs. Lawson is going to help us with our legal problem."
"Good," Lucas said. "In that case, Father says he'll make arrangements for you to meet with Mr. Cooper tomorrow."
"Is he clairvoyant?" Claire asked.
"Mrs. Lawson is staying at our house, Claire," Lucas said. "Didn't she tell you?"
"There hasn't been time," Amelia said, "we've too much else to discuss. And I seem to have misplaced your mother somewhere."
"I'm sure she's at the ranch house," Lucas said. He looked down at Claire. "Have you practiced your violin today?"
Claire shook her head. "No time."
"You don't dare disappoint Madame Minska," Lucas said. "Come, I'll watch and keep an eye on your posture for you."
"Who's Madame Minska?" Amelia asked.
"A violin teacher," Claire said, "and she's very demanding - at least I think she is - I've only had an audition so far. My first lesson is on Sunday."
"How wonderful for you, Claire," Amelia said. "And I really should go find Molly." She kissed Claire's cheek. "Tell the boys good-night for me, and I'll see you tomorrow at the lawyer's office."
Claire took her hand. "Will you come for supper afterward? We have so little time left, we shouldn't waste it."
"No, we shouldn't," Amelia said, tears in her eyes. "All right, I'll come, and thank you." As she walked toward the ranch house, she stopped and looked back at the cottage. She glimpsed Claire through the window as the girl took out her violin and drew the bow across the strings. Claire's brothers gathered around her as the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" floated out the window. Amelia watched a long moment before turning and trudging away.
Chapter Fifteen: A New Life
"Uncle Henry! Uncle Henry!" George shouted. He and Ben ran out to the buggy as Victoria pulled it up in front of the ranch house. "Guess what? Mrs. Lawson is back!"
Henry alighted. "Yes, Mrs. Barkley has been telling me. You must be pleased to see her," he said carefully.
"Yes," George said, "even though she's not staying long."
"That's too bad," Henry said. "You must cherish the time you do have then." He turned to Ben. "Aren't you usually at target practice at this time, Ben?"
"How'd you know I was here?" Ben asked. "I haven't said anything."
"I can still hear you," Henry said.
"I thought I might l-learn Braille, too," Ben said. "Then I can help George. Claire and Joseph are too busy, but I have lots of time."
"That's admirable, Ben," Henry said. "I'll be happy to teach you as well, if you like." He turned to Victoria. "If you'll excuse us, dear."
"Of course," Victoria said graciously. "I'll tend to the horses. And the transcription you asked me to do is on the desk."
Henry thanked Victoria and led the boys into the study. He sat at the desk and took Victoria's Braille slate and wrote an alphabet for Ben. "Please study this while I work with George, Ben."
"I need to learn to write, too," Ben said.
"I'll bring another slate when I come next week," Henry promised, "but in the meantime you need to memorize the alphabet. Even if it is boring," he addressed Ben's unspoken protest.
Ben grinned. "All right, sir, I'll try." He sat in the armchair with his alphabet.
Henry wrote out some exercises for George and listened patiently as George read them out, letter by letter. "Very good, George," he said. "You're doing quite well."
"I've been working ever so hard," George said earnestly.
"I can see that you have," Henry said. "Do you think you're ready to learn words now?"
"If you think I am," George said.
"I think so," Henry said. He found the pile of Braille sheets Victoria had left for him and ran his fingers over the letters. "Here's a Braille version of the McGuffey First Reader I asked Mrs. Barkley to write out for you. And the original Reader, so your brothers or sister can help you."
"We have that, thank you," George said. "We have all the Readers. Claire and Joseph used them to teach our uncle."
Henry raised his eyebrows. "Your uncle couldn't read?"
"Not until we taught him," Ben said, looking up. "He'd never had the chance to learn."
"It's very admirable that he would learn as an adult," Henry said. "That takes a lot of courage."
"Does it?" Ben asked.
"It's difficult to learn to read, especially for an adult," Henry said. "Harder still to admit that one can't do what many children can do. Especially for a strong man, as your uncle was, I'm sure."
"There's lots of ways of being brave," Ben said, thoughtfully.
"Yes, there are," Henry said, listening carefully.
"Are you brave?" Ben asked.
"You asked me that once before," Henry said, sitting on the sofa across from Ben, "and I told you I only did my duty."
"You fought in the War," Ben said. "That was brave."
Henry shrugged. "I didn't want to. You see, Ben, I'd spent all my life trying to convince people it was wrong to treat other people as property, that all men truly are created equal, and that slavery was an affront to our Creator. I didn't want to kill anyone over it, but when the War came, I couldn't hang back while other men fought for what I believed in. Do you understand?"
"I think so," Ben said.
"I think that's brave," George asserted.
"Thank you, George," Henry smiled.
"But when you were blinded," Ben pressed on, "were you scared?"
"Of course I was," Henry said. "It's why I teach blind people now - I know how it feels, and someone kind helped me learn what I needed to know. It's my way of paying him back, since I have no other."
"Why not?" Ben asked.
"He was killed in the War," Henry said. "A good man - a great loss."
"I'm sorry, Uncle Henry," George said. "That makes me sad, too."
"Don't be, George," Henry said.
"Come on, George," Ben said, standing up. "We better stop pestering Uncle Henry."
"You're not pestering me," Henry said. "Come, George, let's do that first lesson."
After the boys left, Victoria found Henry in the study, lost in thought. "Are you all right, Henry?" she asked. "I know Mrs. Lawson's sudden return must be quite unsettling."
"It's all right," Henry said. "But Ben was asking me some interesting questions."
"What about?" Victoria sat next to him and took his hand.
"Ah," Victoria said. "Claire says that he idolized their uncle, who was undoubtedly brave, albeit not someone I would consider heroic, at least not from what Jarrod and Molly tell us. But then he was a gunfighter when they knew him - I believe he changed when he had to take on the responsibility of those children."
"Perhaps that explains it," Henry said. "In which case, I suppose I may consider it in the nature of a job interview. But I have no idea whether I passed or not." He squeezed her hand. "Do you think Mrs. Lawson is a threat to me? I had the impression that taking those children was the last thing she wanted."
"You should have seen her face last night, after she had been with them," Victoria said. "I think she's coming to regret her choices - refusing their uncle, rejecting them. Yes, I think she wants them, but I hope to goodness they don't go with her."
"It might be for the best," Henry said. "She's been a large part of their lives."
"She's too unstable," Victoria said. "How can she care for them properly if she can't trust her own mind and heart?" She shook her head. "No, they'd be better off with someone more down-to-earth."
"Don't be partisan, Victoria," Henry said. "Please, dear, I adore you for taking my part, but we must do what's best for the children."
Amelia came down to breakfast Sunday morning still in her dressing gown. "Forgive me," she said, "I had a bad night."
"Are you feeling all right?" Molly asked, pausing as she dished out porridge for her children. She took in the dark circles under Amelia's eyes and her haggard appearance.
"I'm feeling some strain," Amelia said. "The long journey to and from Paradise, other things. I'll be all right."
"Well, sit down and have some breakfast," Molly said.
"Nothing for me, thank you," Amelia said, sitting down. "I'm feeling a trifle queasy."
Molly raised her eyebrows but made no further remark. "How did the meeting go with Matt Cooper?" Jarrod asked as Molly sat down and began eating.
"It went well, I think," Amelia said. "He thinks the children's case stands a better chance now, particularly after I remembered that Robert had only wanted the children so that he could prove himself to his father and regain his inheritance."
"I didn't know Robert had a father still living," Molly said. "So the children have a grandfather - that must be welcome news."
"Not helpful in itself," Amelia said. "I have no idea where he might be or even what his name is. Back East somewhere is all Ethan told me."
"All the more reason for Claire to have guardianship as soon as possible," Jarrod said. "Since we know now that their father's designs are selfish ones, the sooner they're beyond his reach the better."
"I suppose," Molly said. "Still, it's family - I know that's important to the children right now."
Amelia stood. "Do you mind if I don't go to Church with you today? I think I need some rest."
"Of course not," Molly said. "You go lie down."
Amelia went upstairs, and Molly hesitated a long moment before excusing herself from the table as well. "Would you mind taking the children to church without me, Jarrod?" she asked. "I think I'll stay home with Amelia."
"All right," Jarrod said, raising an eyebrow. "If you think so, Feather."
Molly knocked on Amelia's door when Jarrod had gone. "Amelia? May I speak with you?"
"Come in," Amelia said, sitting up in bed. "What is it, Molly?"
Molly closed the door behind her and leaned against it. "I don't know how else to ask this, but to come straight out. Amelia, are you with child?"
Amelia gasped. "No!" she exclaimed.
"Forgive me for asking then," Molly said.
"I'm sorry," Amelia said. "You took me by surprise." Her forehead furrowed. "Why did you ask?"
"You've been awfully emotional since you've been here - I know it's an emotional time for you, but still. And you haven't eaten breakfast once. So I wondered. Forgive me."
"Nothing to forgive." Amelia drew up her knees and leaned her head against them. "It didn't even occur to me. After all, I was married for ten years."
Molly sat down on the bed. "So you could be?"
Amelia nodded. She looked up into Molly's face. "Please don't judge me - as a divorceé I had no reputation to protect."
"Shh," Molly took her hand. "I'm not judging you. Ethan, of course."
"Of course," Amelia said. She put a hand to her belly. "But it still hardly seems possible."
"I'll go see if Owen has left for church yet," Molly said, standing. She looked into Amelia's face. "Because if you're not with child, then you're obviously ill, dear." She kissed Amelia's forehead and left.
She returned a few minutes later, Owen in tow. Owen made reassuring noises as he examined Amelia. Molly sat on the opposite side of the bed, holding Amelia's hand. "Congratulations, Mrs. Lawson," Owen said at last. "You're about nine or ten weeks along - does that seem about right to you?"
Amelia nodded, eyes brimming. "Yes, that's about right. Thank you, Doctor."
"Thank you, Owen," Molly said, putting an arm around her friend. "Do you mind seeing yourself out?"
"Not at all," Owen said, gathering up his bag. "Please call on me, Mrs. Lawson, if there's anything I can do for you. I would recommend you rest for a couple of days - you seem to be in a state of nervous exhaustion, and that's not good for yourself or your baby."
"We'll take care of her, Owen," Molly said. "Thank you."
Owen left and Amelia buried her face in Molly's shoulder, sobbing heartily. "There, there," Molly said, stroking her hair, "this child is a blessing, Amelia. Please try to see it that way."
"I know it is," Amelia said, wiping her eyes. "I don't deserve it - Ethan's child." She clutched her belly. "Ten weeks ago - it was the night before our wedding, what should have been our wedding. Oh, Molly, why was I such a fool? Why didn't I marry him when I had the chance?"
"Shh," Molly said. "Don't worry yourself, Amelia. You need to rest - you heard Owen."
"What do I do?" Amelia said. "How do I raise this child alone?"
"You won't be alone," Molly said. "We'll help you - and Claire and the boys will help. After all, it's their cousin you're carrying."
"I don't want to tell them," Amelia said. "It seems like blackmail."
"How so?" Molly asked, frowning.
"I'd been thinking - I'd been thinking of asking them to come to Australia with me. Oh, I know," she said hurriedly, "they've already begun rebuilding their lives here - Claire's violin lessons, and I've seen the way she is with your son, but I thought - I'm not sure what I thought."
"You thought you want them after all?"
"Everything I've done has been wrong, Molly. Not marrying Ethan, not taking them in when they needed me. I doubt I can even begin to make amends, but I thought I should try."
"You have to want them, Amelia, really want them," Molly said sternly. "You can't make that offer just to assuage your guilty conscience. It's not fair to them, or to you."
Amelia thought for a long moment. "You're right. Help me, Molly, help me figure out what's right."
Molly smoothed the bed covers around Amelia. "Rest first, dear. Your heart will tell you what's right if you listen to it. But you do need to tell Claire - this is about her family now, and we promised not to keep anything from her."
"Even if I ask you to?"
Molly's brow wrinkled. "I hope you wouldn't do that, Amelia. Don't make me choose which friend to be loyal to."
Amelia shook her head. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be - you need time to figure things out, and to get well. Time enough for decisions then." She straightened. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, I'll be fine." Amelia took Molly's hand. "Thank you - you're the best friend I can imagine. I can't think what I would do now without you."
"No need to think of that." She smoothed Amelia's forehead. "I'm not going anywhere."
She left Amelia alone then, with her thoughts and her aching heart.
Chapter Sixteen: Due Consideration
Lucas dropped Claire off at Madame Minska's after church, helping her down from the buggy then reaching down her violin. "Don't be nervous," he said, looking into her face. "She's not an ogre."
"I know," Claire said, "but she is intimidating."
"You'll do fine," Lucas said, smiling and parting with a quick kiss.
Claire took a deep breath before mounting the steps and knocking at the door. "You are prompt," Madam Minska said, opening the door and leading the way into the studio. "That is good. Now, play - show me what you have been doing."
Claire steadied herself and put the violin under her chin, drawing her bow across it. She practiced a few scales before launching into 'Auld Lang Syne." When she had finished, she took a deep breath and awaited Madame's criticism.
"Much better," Madame said, surprising her. "You have been practicing hard, no?"
"Yes," Claire said, "but it feels very awkward."
"You have been playing wrong for a long time," Madame said, "it will take time to train your muscles to play properly. Yes, it is awkward, but it must be done. Then you shall play well, you shall see."
Claire sighed. "I was afraid," she began, then stopped, blushing.
"You think I am a hard taskmaster?" Madame asked. She waved a hand. "And so I am. You shall work very hard, yes? But I tell you what you do right, as well as what you do wrong - then you learn to do right all the time."
"Yes," Claire agreed, "thank you."
Madame put some sheets of paper on the music stand. "Here are fingering exercises. Play slowly, please."
Claire played with renewed good will, Madame correcting her when necessary. The hour flew by, and it was with a smile on her face that Claire greeted Lucas afterward.
"There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked, extending a hand down to her.
"No, it wasn't," she agreed, climbing into the buggy. "Where's Mrs. Lawson? She was supposed to join us for Sunday dinner."
"She's ill," Lucas said. "Mother sent for Uncle Owen while we were at church. Mother didn't say what's wrong, but she's all aflutter, although she tries not to show it."
"Oh, dear," Claire said. "Perhaps I should stop by and see her."
"All right," Lucas said, flicking the reins. At his house, he helped Claire down and bounded up the steps, flinging the front door open. "Mother!" he called.
Molly came down the stairs. "Lucas? I thought you were having dinner at the ranch." She hesitated. "Hello, Claire."
"Lucas said that Mrs. Lawson was ill," Claire explained. "I thought I'd stop by and visit for a moment - see if there was anything she needed."
"Of course," Molly said, descending the stairs. "Lucas, why don't you go up and see if she's ready for visitors."
Lucas shrugged and climbed the stairs. "Come into the library, Claire," Molly said.
Claire followed her. "Is it something serious, Miss Molly?" she asked. "Lucas said you had the doctor in."
"She's not gravely ill," Molly said carefully, "but she is suffering from nervous exhaustion. Owen thought she should rest a day or two."
"Nervous exhaustion," Claire said flatly, her lips in a thin line.
Molly put a hand on her shoulder, surprised at the girl's anger. "It has been a difficult few weeks, Claire."
"I know," Claire said tersely.
"You can talk to me, Claire, if you're upset by something. What's the matter?"
"I don't have 'nervous exhaustion'," Claire said, almost shouting. "I saw Uncle Ethan gunned down right in front of me." There were tears standing in her eyes. "I have to take care of my brothers - see that they have enough, find us a home, look to their education and welfare. I don't get to take to my bed - I have too much to do."
"Claire," Molly said, putting her arm around her. "I know how hard this is on you, you know I do. But don't be hard on Amelia - it's not like you think."
"And you don't have a guilty conscience." Claire and Molly whirled around to find Amelia standing in the doorway, in her dressing gown and looking pale.
"You shouldn't be out of bed," Molly scolded.
"It's all right," Amelia said. "Leave us alone, will you, Molly? Claire and I have much to discuss."
"Will you. . ?" Molly asked.
Amelia nodded. "Yes, I will." Molly patted Amelia's cheek as she left. "Come sit down, Claire," Amelia said, gathering her dressing gown around herself and sitting on the sofa. "Let's talk, woman to woman."
Claire sat down stiffly next to her. "I'm sorry you're ill, Mrs. Lawson," she said, equally stiffly.
"I'm not ill," Amelia said with a sigh. "I'm with child."
Claire gasped, then threw her arms around Amelia, laughing and crying at the same time. Amelia drew back for a moment, surprised by her reaction, then embraced the girl, laughing and crying herself.
"Oh, oh, I’m so glad!" Claire exclaimed. She drew back, wiping her eyes. "It's as though part of Uncle Ethan is still here."
"I'm glad you're happy," Amelia said. "I was afraid. . ."
"That I'd condemn you?" Claire said. She shook her head. "I wish you and Uncle Ethan had gotten married, but how could I be upset about that now? We're going to have a cousin!" She clapped her hands in delight.
Amelia took her hand. "We need to talk, Claire, honestly, about the future. What are you planning to do? And what can I do for you?"
"We need to get free of Papa," Claire said. "Nothing we decide will matter if he can swoop in and take over. After that, we haven't decided. The one thing I want is to sell the ranch so Joseph can go to medical school."
"Nothing for yourself, Claire? The ranch should be worth a good deal of money now."
Claire shook her head. "There's nothing else I want that money could buy me." She lowered her voice. "Mr. Johnson has asked us to live with him. I don't know if we will - Ben was against it at first, but he might be coming around."
Amelia started. "He did?" She frowned thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose that is something he would do. I don't suppose you'd consider coming to Australia with me?"
Claire gasped again, caught off-guard. "Oh, Amelia, I don't see how we could. Could we?" she said broodingly. "Couldn't you stay, now that you're part of our family, in a way? At least your baby is."
Amelia put a hand on her belly. "I think he should have a chance to know his grandparents, don't you? And I have a brother - so he'll have cousins in Australia as well."
Claire bit her lip. "I don't - how do we make that choice? To leave everything we know?"
"It's wrong of me to ask you, I know," Amelia said. "I have no right, after the way I've behaved."
"Why did you?" Claire asked. "Since we're being honest - I never really understood."
Amelia heaved a sigh. "I was afraid," she whispered. "Afraid of how I'd feel if Ethan were killed, afraid of you - of the responsibility of you. I was never one of those girls who played with dolls and dreamt of motherhood. I'd follow my dad around and ask him to teach me boxing." She smiled. "And he did. The reason I fell for Pierce was because he was unusual and exciting - I guess, in a way, the same reason I fell for your uncle. But the thought that I might end up having to mother the four of you alone was too much for me to handle. I'm sorry - sorrier than you can know."
"I think I see," Claire said. "I may never understand, though, not really."
"No, I don't suppose you will."
"But - your baby," Claire said. "You're going to be a mother now. It's unavoidable. What will you do?"
"Call for help loudly and often," Amelia said.
"And love him," Amelia said. "He's all I have left of Ethan."
"You're sure it's going to be a boy?"
"I hope it is," Amelia said. "But if it isn't - " she shrugged, "it's still half him."
"I wish you'd stay," Claire said longingly. "I can understand why you want to go, but please stay."
"I'll consider it," Amelia said slowly, "if you'll consider coming with me."
"We'll consider it," Claire said, "if you really mean it. All of us together."
"I do," Amelia said. "I really do."
"Would you mind having dinner with your grandmother instead?" Claire asked Lucas as they arrived at the ranch. "I need to talk to my brothers in private."
"If you like," Lucas said.
"You're not put out?"
"A little," Lucas admitted, "but I'll get over it." He smiled at her.
She took his hand. "I'm glad you're honest," she said. "And I'm glad you're my beau."
"I am, too," he said, pulling the reins. He turned to her, "Will you tell me what's bothering you, Claire? What did Mrs. Lawson say to upset you so?"
"I'm not upset, but I can't tell you what we talked about. I want to," she said earnestly, "but it's not my tale to tell."
"All right," he said, "I won't press you. But I'm here to help you anyway I can." He helped her down and gave her a quick kiss before leading the horses to the barn.
Claire walked around the ranch house to the cottage. Ben was sitting on the steps, chin cupped in both hands. "You're late," he observed.
"Mrs. Lawson was ill, I stopped by to see her," Claire explained. She sat next to her brother on the steps. "You look thoughtful."
"I am," Ben said, standing, "but let's talk about it over dinner. I'm hungry."
"There's lots to talk about," Claire agreed, standing as well. They went into the cottage and found Joseph and George in the kitchen.
"I know I'm late," Claire said, heading off her brothers' remarks. "I stopped to see Mrs. Lawson, who's ill and won't be joining us today."
"Aww," George said. "That's one day we'll miss having before she goes to Australia."
Claire pulled out her chair and sat down. "We need to talk about that, boys." She began dishing out their dinner, frowning as she pondered how to begin.
"What's wrong, Claire?" Joseph asked.
"Nothing," Claire said, with a sigh, dropping her spoon and leaning back in her chair, "but Mrs. Lawson has found out she's going to have a baby."
"Uncle Ethan's baby," Joseph said flatly.
"Yes," Claire said.
"But they weren't married," George said, confused.
"You don't have to be married to have a baby," Claire said. "You're supposed to, but it's not required. So, we're going to have a new cousin."
"Oh, goody!" George clapped his hands, then paused, frowning. "But - if she goes to Australia, we'll never see it."
"I've asked her to stay," Claire said, "and - " she took a deep breath, " - she's asked if we would go with her."
"No," Joseph said firmly.
"We should consider it, Joseph," Claire said.
"And do what, Claire?" Joseph said, throwing his napkin down and standing up so quickly he knocked his chair over. "We don't know anyone there, we'd have to start all over, again. And why? For a baby?"
"Family," Claire said, "it would be family." She looked around the table. "What do you think, George? Ben?"
"I don't know," George said seriously. "It'd be nice to have a cousin, but I don't know about going all that way to be with Mrs. Lawson."
"She abandoned us, Claire," Joseph said. "She might do it again."
"I don't think so," Claire said. "Ben?"
Ben was frowning furiously. "I think I'd like to go to Australia," he said, "it would be an adventure, but I've been thinking about Uncle Henry. . ."
"And?" Claire asked quietly.
"He's braver than he thinks he is," Ben said.
"I told you," George interrupted.
Ben ignored him. "But I don't understand - how can you be brave and not know it? I thought courage filled you up."
Claire looked over at Joseph. "Sometimes a person is the bravest when they're the most afraid, Ben."
"I don't understand," Ben complained.
"Do you know who Uncle Ethan told me was the bravest man he'd ever met?" Claire said.
Ben shrugged. "A general? Some marshal?"
"No," Claire said. "Judge Barkley."
"No!" Ben declared. Then he paused. "Really?"
"Really," Claire said. "Maybe you should talk to him - maybe he can help you understand."
"This is all beside the point," Joseph said. "We can't go to Australia."
Claire sighed. "Not unless we're all agreed, no we can't. But I promised Mrs. Lawson we'd consider it. Wouldn't you hate to never know Uncle Ethan's son, or daughter?"
"I'd hate it," George said, frowning.
"I suppose," Joseph agreed reluctantly, "but I still don't think it's enough reason."
Henry had just pumped water into the kettle and set it on the stove when he heard a knock on the door. Puzzled as to who could be calling on him, he made his way to the front door of his cottage and pulled it open. "Who's there?" he enquired.
"It's Amelia Lawson. May I speak with you, Mr. Johnson?"
Henry stepped aside. "Of course, Mrs. Lawson. Please sit down. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Amelia stepped over the threshold and gazed about the tiny house. "I thought we should talk about the children. It seems we have a mutual interest in their welfare." She sat on the sofa. "May I light the lamp? It is rather dim in here."
"As you wish," Henry said, standing in front of her. "With all due respect, ma'am, when last we spoke you repudiated any responsibility. And repudiated them again when they needed you most. Don't you feel you've given up all right to make any decisions in their behalf?"
Amelia bowed her head at his reproof. "Yes, and I'm deeply ashamed, Mr. Johnson." Her hand shook as she lit the lamp, then she gazed up at him. "I've been wrong about a lot of things. No, everything. I know I can never make full amends, but I hope to right some of the wrong I've done."
"What do you have in mind?" Henry asked.
"Please sit down," Amelia said. "It's difficult enough without you looming over me."
The kettle began to whistle. "I was about to make some tea," Henry said. "Would you care to join me?"
"Yes, thank you," Amelia said. Henry left the room and Amelia sat gazing at the lamp until he returned, tea tray in hand.
"I'm afraid I'm lacking in the way of dainties," Henry said, "but I could make some sandwiches if you like."
"No, I'm not hungry," Amelia said. He sat down across from her, poured out the tea and extended a cup in her direction. "You do get on very well for a blind man, don't you?" she observed, taking it.
"Yes, Mrs. Lawson," Henry said, tersely. "I've had much practice."
"Please call me Amelia," she said. "I'll feel less like you're scolding me."
Henry sat back. "I suppose I am. Shall we speak freely with one another, Amelia?"
"Yes, please," Amelia said. She set down her cup. "Claire told me you had asked her and her brothers to live with you."
"And she told me that you had asked them to come to Australia with you," Henry replied.
"I see," she said. "I did wonder why you seemed so hostile."
"Not hostile, exactly," Henry said, "but no, I am not happy with your interference. I doubt that living with me is what they would have chosen, but you yourself have made it clear that being responsible for anyone other than yourself is the furthest thing from your desires."
Amelia put her hand to her belly. "There's no help for that now. I'll be responsible for another soon enough."
"What do you mean?" Henry asked, although light was dawning in his face.
"What you suspect," Amelia said. "I'm going to have a baby. Ethan's baby. I suppose Claire didn't tell you."
Henry shook his head. "No, of course she wouldn't. And how do you feel about this turn of events?"
"Elated. Confused. Frightened." She trembled. "If it's a reward, I certainly don't deserve it. If it's a punishment, then it's missed its mark. I find I want this baby as I've never wanted anything in my life, and I'm terrified that I'll mess it up."
"I think most mothers feel that way," Henry said. He stood and sat down on the sofa next to her. "And how do the Carroll children fit into this?"
"A very good friend in Paradise told me I'd have no peace until I did right by them," Amelia confided. "He's right. But I don't know exactly what that is, or if it's even possible now." She looked around the room. "You have a very small house to hope to take in four children."
"It will have to be expanded," Henry said. "Claire is aware of that. And before you ask, no, I don't have much money. I'll care for them as I would my own, but that's all I can offer."
"You told me once you would sell your soul to have children," Amelia said thoughtfully. "What is right here, Henry? This baby is all we have left of Ethan - the children have a right to it, but so does my family in Australia. My parents, my brother, his children. I can't be two places at once - shouldn't the children go with me?"
"That's for them to decide," Henry said, "but you have to think what's best for them. They've only begun putting their lives back together after their uncle's death. Is it right to uproot them? And are you more concerned about them, or about assuaging your conscience?"
Amelia looked up. "Molly asked me the same thing, and I honestly don't know."
"Ask yourself where you'd be happiest," Henry said. "Where would the children be happiest, and where your child would be happiest. Those questions may not have the same answer. It seems to me that no matter what you decide, you're going to have to give up something. Or the children will."
"And they have so little left," Amelia mused. She sat silent for a moment, then stood. "Thank you - I appreciate your honesty, and your wisdom."
"I don't know about wisdom," Henry said, "but you're welcome." He stood and reached out for her hand. "I know you're in distress, my dear, and if I can help you in any way, I will. But you must know that my first concern is those children."
"Which is as it should be," she said. "My needs are mere pittances compared to theirs."
"That's not so," he said, "for you have lost your way and it is vitally important that you find it again. It's only that I have made the children's concerns my concerns - not that you are any less important."
She blinked back tears. "Thank you. Perhaps - perhaps this child was given to me to lead me back?"
"That's quite possible," Henry agreed. "Stranger things have happened. The world is often full of grace unlooked-for."
Chapter Seventeen: Decisions
"Come in the parlor for a moment, Joseph," Dr. Owen Grigsby said as the last patient left. Joseph wiped his hands and followed his employer, sitting on the sofa as Owen indicated. "Now then, you've been here a few weeks, and I wanted to tell you that you're doing an excellent job."
"Thank you, sir," Joseph said.
"And I was wondering if you've given further consideration to your educational prospects," Owen continued. "I know my mother-in-law has been planning to speak with you."
Joseph shook his head. "No, sir. I have to care for my family - I won't be able to go to college, at least until my brothers are grown."
"That's not necessarily so, Joseph," Owen said. "There may be ways."
"No, sir," Joseph said stubbornly. "I know where my responsibilities lie. Thank you just the same."
"Your tenacity would be admirable, Joseph, if it were a tenacity of purpose and not tenacity of idea."
"What do you mean?" Joseph said, looking up. "Tenacity of purpose? Idea?"
"If you were a doctor, and sought to cure disease by any means available, that would be tenacity of purpose," Owen explained, sitting down across from him. "If you pour all your effort into one particular cure, without considering other possibilities, that would be tenacity of idea. Now which do you think would be more effective?"
"Tenacity of purpose, of course," Joseph said. "But my family is my responsibility - mine and Claire's - I'm not going to shove it all off on her, or on someone else, either." His jaw set stubbornly.
"Of course you aren't," Owen said. "You're a responsible young man, and that's one of the many reasons you'd make an excellent doctor. But you seem fixed on the idea that there's no way to do both."
"I know how the world works," Joseph said.
Owen looked at the fifteen-year-old boy and smiled ironically. "Do you?" he said. "You're young yet - you may find that the world is not always as harsh as you seem to think it is."
"Things could be worse, I know," Joseph said. "And I'm grateful for what we do have."
"But you're afraid to want more?" Owen probed. Joseph did not answer, and Owen continued. "I know - I've felt that way many times myself. But the one lesson that Life seems to keep trying to teach me is to not close any doors."
"I'll. . .think about it, sir," Joseph said at last.
"You do that," Owen replied.
Ben and George had gone home with Emma after school. Ben knocked timidly at the library door and peeked around it at Jarrod's answer. "May I speak with you, Judge Barkley?"
Jarrod put aside the brief he was studying. "Of course, Ben, come in and sit down. What may I do for you?"
Ben sat in the large overstuffed chair, legs dangling. He came right to the point. "Uncle Ethan said you were the bravest man he ever met."
Jarrod leaned forward on his elbows. "Did he, now?" he asked carefully.
Ben nodded. "He told Claire. What I don't understand is, why?"
Jarrod chuckled at the innocent insult, then sobered. "It's hard to explain, Ben. I didn't feel particularly brave then - I only did what I had to do."
"And what was that?" Ben asked earnestly.
Jarrod tapped a pencil on the desk. "The mine manager was 'employing' orphans, Ben. But it wasn't as though they could quit - it was veritable slavery. Lucas had run away many times to get help - "
"And been beaten," Ben interjected. "I know that - we saw the scars when you were trapped in the mine."
"Did you? Well, I was unconscious and didn't know about that."
"Yes, sir. We know Lucas is brave, but I'm asking about you."
Jarrod nodded. "Well, you see, as a judge, I wanted to take those children away from the mine, and the mine manager tried to fight me. He tried to kidnap my wife and baby, shot your uncle who was guarding them, and took Lucas back to the mine. I had promised Lucas I wouldn't let them have him, so I went to the mine alone to fetch him and the other children out."
"That was brave," Ben said, awed. "Why weren't you killed? Did Uncle Ethan help you?"
Jarrod looked at the boy a moment, and considered. Did he tell the entire truth and endanger the boy's hero-worship, or did he hedge? He took a deep breath and told the truth. "No, Ben. In fact, your uncle tried to argue me out of going. He thought it was foolhardy - and so it was, but I had to go anyway."
Ben frowned. "But. . .he wasn't scared, was he?"
Jarrod shook his head. "Not scared, but calculating, Ben. He didn't see any way I could win, so he chose not to go with me. He stood guard over my family instead."
"But you did win. How?"
"By the time I got there, the mine manager had been fired by the owner for mismanagement," Jarrod explained. "So I didn't walk into a gunfight, but into something worse."
"Worse?" Ben raised his eyebrows.
"Yes," Jarrod said. "I found a man who did evil but thought he was doing good. The mine owner actually believed that having orphans working in his mine was a good thing, for them and for everyone."
"I don't understand," Ben said once again.
"It's difficult," Jarrod said. "I don't think I understand it myself. I took the children, but he got me fired, so I'm not sure how you would score that battle. Or whether you think it counts as courageous or not."
Ben sat in thought for several moments. "Yes," he said. "You didn't know you weren't going to get shot."
"Now tell me, Ben, why all this matters."
"Mr. Johnson's asked us to live with him," Ben said.
"I knew that," Jarrod said carefully. "He's a good man."
"I know," Ben said, kicking against the chair. "And he's good for George, and Claire likes him, but - I don't know how to explain."
"You want someone you can look up to, like you did your uncle, is that it?"
Ben nodded. "Yes, and Claire and your brother both say there's lots of ways to be brave, and I think maybe Uncle Henry is brave, but doesn't know it, and I thought since Uncle Ethan thought you were brave, maybe you could explain it to me."
Jarrod took a moment to think and sort through this jumbled sentence. "Well, Ben, Claire's right - there are many ways to be brave. I don't know Mr. Johnson all that well, but my wife has known him since she was a child and has always admired him. He's the sort of man who tries to do right, no matter what, and you might not think so, but that does require courage. All the more so as it's not usually praised as such."
"I think I'm beginning to see that," Ben said. "It's hard though."
"It can be," Jarrod said. "It's easy to confuse force with bravery, although the two are really quite different."
"That's what Uncle Ethan always said, too."
Jarrod quirked an eyebrow. "Did he?"
Ben nodded, then stood. "Thank you, Judge Barkley."
"Anytime, Ben," Jarrod said. "Oh, and tell Claire that the hearing's been set for Friday afternoon. Will you be a good messenger?"
"I won't forget," Ben said as he opened the door and left.
Jarrod sat sunk in thought until Molly appeared with a tea tray. "Don't work so hard, dearest," she admonished.
"I'm afraid I haven't been working at all," Jarrod confessed. He pulled Molly down on his lap and kissed her. "I've been thinking. Molly dear, have I misjudged Cord?"
"I think so," Molly said cautiously. "Why do you ask now?"
"I've been having a talk with Ben. Something he said. Maybe Cord was more than a cold-blooded killer."
"He was never that, dearest, even before the children came. He lived by a code - maybe not one you or I would approve of, but he wasn't completely lawless." Molly put her arm around his neck. "Usually you're the one who sees the best in everyone - I've always wondered why you have this blind spot where Ethan was concerned. And I don't think it's because he was sweet on me - you were hostile to him before that."
Jarrod sighed. "I know. Maybe it's what he represented - the idea that right and wrong can be bought and paid for, that might makes right."
Molly kissed his nose. "Maybe. But he's not a symbol, he was a man. And I know he tried to do right by those children. If you knew nothing about him at all, you'd only have to look at them to see that."
The front door opened and they heard Amelia bustle in. Molly stood and opened the library door. "Amelia? Back from San Francisco already?"
Amelia nodded and took off her hat. "I did what I went for." She walked into the library. "Oh, good, Jarrod, you're here. May I ask you both a question, and will you promise to give me an honest answer? Even if you think it'll hurt me?"
Molly frowned. "Of course, Amelia. If that's what you wish. What do you want to know?"
Amelia looked from one to the other. "Who do you think it would be better for the children to be with - myself or Mr. Johnson?"
"Amelia, don't," Molly began.
"Please, Molly, I need to hear your answer. Your honest answer. It's important," Amelia pleaded.
"All right, since you insist," Molly said. She took a deep breath. "Henry."
Amelia showed no reaction, looked at Jarrod. "Do you concur?"
"I'm afraid so, Amelia," he said. "Not that we think you won't make a fine mother - "
"But Henry's more, well, steady," Molly said. "At least right now." She took Amelia's arm. "Once you get your bearings - "
"No need to sugarcoat it, Molly," Amelia said. "You haven't said anything I haven't been thinking myself."
"I'm sorry, Amelia," Molly said, hugging her. "It is all a muddle, isn't it?"
"Not so muddled," Amelia said. "It's becoming clearer by the minute."
"The children's hearing is Friday afternoon," Jarrod said. "You'll testify, of course, as will Molly and myself."
Amelia nodded. "Of course. First things first." She swept out of the library and climbed the stairs to her room. She shut the door so no one could see her weep.
Ben hopped out of the buggy before Joseph had brought it to a complete stop. "Claire!" he shouted as his sister came out of the ranch house to greet them. "I know what we should do!"
"Be careful, Ben," Claire admonished. "Do about what?"
"Everything!" Ben said. "The ranch, Uncle Henry, everything!"
"Do you?" Claire said, amused, as George and Joseph climbed down from the buggy. "Please tell us."
"In a minute," Joseph said, taking the horse by the bridle. "Let me tend to the horse first. I'll meet you at the cottage."
The children walked around the house to their cottage. Ben could hardly contain himself until his older brother returned. "Now, Ben," Claire said, sitting down in the parlor, "tell us what's on your mind."
"It's easy once I stopped thinking about myself," Ben declared. "I'm surprised you haven't figured it out yourself, Claire."
"Say I haven't," Claire said. "What do you think we should do?"
"Well, think," Ben said. "If we didn't have to look after each other, what would each of us want?"
"I don't think that's the way to look at it," Joseph said. "We do have to look after each other."
"Let me finish," Ben said. "Joseph would want to go to college and become a doctor." He held up a hand as Joseph began to protest. "And Claire would want to study her music and be near her beau."
Joseph's protest turned into an amused snort. Claire frowned at him, but said, "Go on, Ben."
"And George would want to learn to read," Ben finished.
"And you?" Claire asked.
Ben shrugged. "I can't do what I want until I grow up anyway. As long as I learn how to ride and shoot, I'll be okay." He frowned thoughtfully. "Although I might want to study law, at least a little bit." He turned to Claire, then to Joseph. "But don't you see? If we sell the ranch, we'll have enough money to send Joseph to school, and if we live with Uncle Henry, Claire can be near Lucas, George can go on learning Braille, and Joseph won't have to leave us when he goes to college. It's what everyone wants. It's what we should do, you know it is."
"And what does Mr. Johnson get?" Joseph asked. "A bunch of kids to take care of."
"That's what he wants," Amelia said from the doorway. "I'm sorry I overheard, I didn't mean to barge in."
"It's all right, Mrs. Lawson," Claire said, rising. "Of course you're always welcome."
"Thank you," Amelia said. "Ben is right, you know. That is what you should do."
Claire stood staring at her a long moment. "Is it? You've changed your mind then."
"I went to see Mr. Johnson," Amelia said. "We had a long talk. I have to admit that he would be better for you than I would be."
"So that's it?" Claire said, blinking back tears. "You're going to go away and leave us again?"
"Oh no, dear," Amelia said, striding over to her and putting a hand to Claire's cheek. "I'm going to move to San Francisco. If my child can't know his father, I think he should know his father's family, don't you?"
Claire embraced her, crying. George ran and threw his arms around Amelia as Ben and Joseph looked on. Claire wiped her eyes. "I'm glad, because I don't think I could bear to say good-bye to you again."
"You won't have to," Amelia said. "Maybe when he's old enough, I'll take him to Australia for a visit, but he belongs here."
"If you're not going," George said, "why don't you want us to stay with you?"
"Do you trust me, George?" Amelia asked.
George looked up at her, confused. "We love you," he said at last, clasping her tighter.
Amelia knelt and hugged him back. "And I love you. But I've breached your trust badly - I need to earn that back, if I can. Otherwise we'll never be comfortable with each other." She tilted his chin up. "But you know that if you need anything, you only have to ask me."
"We'll be all right," Joseph asserted.
"I'm sure you will," Amelia said, standing, "but that's what friends do, isn't it? Help each other?"
"I suppose," Joseph agreed reluctantly.
"Will you stay for dinner, Amelia?" Claire asked.
Amelia smiled at the use of her first name. "I'd be glad to."
After dinner, Amelia and the children talked and planned far into the night.
Friday's hearing went much as all involved had hoped. Although the judge did express some reservations at terminating Robert Carroll's parental rights without his knowledge or consent, Molly's testimony as to his character, all the Carroll children's express wishes to have Claire as guardian and fears of their father's interference and, most of all, Amelia's testimony of how he had shown no interest in his abandoned children except for his own personal gain finally served to convince him that granting the children's wish was indeed in their best interest.
All four of the Carrolls met Henry when he arrived the following morning. "May we speak with both of you, Uncle Henry and Mrs. Barkley?" Claire asked as he climbed down from the buggy.
"Of course," Victoria said, glancing at Henry. She took in all the Carrolls smiling faces and she felt her heart warm.
Claire took Henry's hand as the group walked into the parlor. "Mrs. Barkley tells me you won your case," Henry said cautiously. "That you're now legal guardian of your brothers."
"Yes," Claire said, leading Henry to the sofa and sitting down next to him. She kept hold of his hand as her brothers seated themselves, George snuggling up close under Henry's arm. "And we would like to accept your very kind offer, if you're sure you still wish us to."
Henry's face crumpled up and he could barely keep from crying. "Of course I do," he choked. "But are you sure, absolutely sure, that this is what you want?"
Claire nodded. "Yes, we've discussed it at length and we're all agreed." She turned to Victoria. "We would like to remain your tenants through the summer, if that is agreeable to you. It would allow me to finish school and continue my violin lessons. . ."
"And I still have a lot to learn from Dr. Grigsby," Joseph said.
"Of course you may," Victoria said, her own eyes shining.
"It will take some time to expand my house," Henry said, "so that suits me as well." He took a deep breath. "And what about your friend, Mrs. Lawson?"
"She's gonna live in San Francisco," George supplied. "We'll still see her, but she thought we should live with you, too."
"Did she now?" Henry said, surprised.
"Yes, she did," Claire said. "Mrs. Barkley, we were also wondering if you would help us sell our ranch? None of us has done anything like that before."
"And Claire said she bet no one ever got the better of you in a bargain," Ben said.
"Ben!" Claire said, turning red. "Really! You weren't supposed to repeat that."
Victoria laughed. "Of course," she agreed, "I'd be delighted. May I ask what you intend to do with the money?"
"Send Joseph to medical school," Claire said firmly, "and help Uncle Henry expand his house. If we're going to live there, all the expense shouldn't be on his shoulders."
"I don't wish to touch any of your money," Henry said. "You have a family to rear and educate - you'll need it, if not now, then in the future."
"We can discuss that later," Victoria said firmly. "What you don't need right away, you should invest. I can give you advice on that, if you wish."
"That would be lovely," Claire said. She stood and kissed Victoria's cheek, then threw her arms around her. "Thank you for everything," she said. "We wouldn't have made it this far without your kindness."
Victoria patted her cheek. "You'd have done just fine, dear."
Claire shook her head. "No, we wouldn't. We'll never forget it."
"Grow up to be the fine men and woman I know you're capable of being," Victoria said. "That's all the gratitude I need."
"Ben," Henry said, "is this what you want, too? I know you've had your doubts."
"Yes," Ben nodded. "I'm the one who convinced them."
"Sure you were, Ben," Claire said, smiling.
"And Joseph?" Henry persisted. "I know we don't really know each other yet - is this to your liking as well?"
"Yes, sir," Joseph said. "It seems to be what's best for everyone." He looked at his brothers and sister. "I know they're very fond of you - I don't know if I can be as much, but I hope we'll be friends, at least."
"I'm sure we shall," Henry said. He offered his hand and Joseph shook it.
"I need to go," Joseph said. "I'm late for work, but we all wanted to speak to you together."
"Thank you," Henry said. "Thank you all."
"I need to go to work, too," Claire said, kissing Henry's cheek. "And thank you."
The Carrolls filed out, and Victoria threw her arms around Henry and kissed him. "Oh, Henry, I'm so happy for you!"
"I can hardly believe it," Henry said. His brow wrinkled. "I wondered what made Mrs. Lawson change her mind. She seemed fairly determined to take them away with her when she visited me a few days ago."
"Her conscience, I hope," Victoria said dryly. She looked at him shrewdly. "You are going to need more money," she observed.
"I'm not touching theirs," Henry said staunchly. "We'll manage."
"Of course," Victoria said, "but since you're taking on a family, the board would probably be willing to raise your salary."
"Where's that money going to come from?" Henry said. "I won't take your money either, even if you do disguise it, and I certainly don't want them to take money away from the school or the training center to give to me."
"Oh, I think I can find a wealthy contributor who'd be willing to cover the raise," Victoria said.
Henry touched her face to read her expression. "Who?"
"Mrs. Lawson, of course," Victoria said. "It's the least she can do."
"Sometimes it scares me how your mind works," Henry said. "But yes, I have to admit there's a certain justice in that."
Henry left a message for Amelia to call on him that evening. He received her in the study after dinner. "What changed your mind?" he asked without preamble. "You seemed determine to take them with you."
"You did," Amelia sat across from him. "They'd already lost so much, I didn't think it right they should have to give up any more." She looked down at her hands. "If anyone has to give up anything, it's only right it should be me. I've lost my chance to be part of their family - this is the best I can do." She looked up at him. "May I help? I know this is what you want, but it's not going to be easy. I have no right, but I want to help, if you'll let me."
"What did you have in mind?" Henry asked.
"Whatever you want," Amelia said. "Money, if that wouldn't insult you. But anything at all."
"Victoria had thought to ask you to contribute to the training center as a way of supplementing my salary," Henry said, "but now that it comes to it, I find that too roundabout and devious. Disinclined as I am to accept charity, I know you feel a responsibility to them and I think I should respect that."
"Thank you," Amelia whispered. "You're too kind."
"Not at all." Henry reached out for her hand and she slipped hers into his. "I love them, they love you - I'd rather have you working with me than against me."
"One last thing," Claire said to her brothers before they retired for the night, "I think we should look for Papa."
"Claire!" Joseph said. "After all we've been through trying to free ourselves from him?"
"That's just it, Joseph," she said, "now he doesn't have any power over us, I think he should have the chance to belong to this family, if he wants to."
"Why do you think he'd want to?" Joseph asked. "He never has before."
"The way he looked at me when he first saw me, that day in Uncle Ethan's office," Claire said. "There was, I don't know, longing. Maybe he is unreliable and irresponsible, but maybe he can change. Maybe he's started to already. I think he should have the chance."
"I do, too," George said.
"I don't know," Ben said. "And he shot Uncle Ethan."
"Even Mrs. Lawson admitted it was in self-defense," Claire said. "And he's the only link we have with our grandfather. I don't know about all of you, but I want as much family as we can get."
Joseph stood frowning a long moment. "All right," he said at last. "But he'd better behave himself. We don't need him."
"If that's what everyone else wants," Ben agreed. "And I bet Judge Barkley could get him to go away if he bothers us."
Claire laughed. "I'm sure he could." She kissed her brothers goodnight. "I'll ask Mrs. Barkley to hire Pinkerton's tomorrow then." As she climbed into her bed, she wondered why she did not feel overwhelmed by the responsibility she had been handed, but found that she felt nothing but hope. Whether their father turned out to be a blessing or a burden, she knew she was surrounded by people who cared, who would not let them fall. She mumbled a grateful prayer as she laid herself down to sleep.