Word Count 14,070
She sat in the middle of the road and cried. Tears mixed with dust and blood to form a grayish/pink hue on her cheeks but she paid it no mind. She glanced around once in a while, thinking she had heard something. But it would only be a grasshopper or a bumble bee. She kept looking at the wreckage as well. Trying to wrap her mind around what had happened.
It was so sudden and violent yet she could not recall any particular thoughts she’d had or any particular moments. It had all happened too fast. One minute, she was sitting in the back of the wagon, the next she was lying on the ground twenty feet away.
It had taken a long time, so it seemed, for her to become oriented. To make her mind tell her what had happened. Even longer to move, to check herself for any injuries. She had felt the blood oozing down the side of her face and touched the cut gingerly, drawing back her hand and stared uncomprehendingly at the sticky crimson fluid.
With great trepidation, she had managed to get to her feet, waiting for the dizziness to pass before she attempted any further movement at all. Finally, the ground had stopped spinning and she looked up.
What she saw kept her frozen in place for what felt like hours, though her rational mind knew it could not be so. She took faltering steps towards them. Two bodies laying on the ground. One half-trapped under the wagon, the other sprawled nearby. She didn’t want to go, didn’t want to know but she already knew the truth of it. She knew they were dead.
She checked them both, for a long time she checked just to be sure. That’s when the tears had started and they had not stopped since. She stumbled away, unwilling to be near this fresh death and had ended up in the road.
Johnny and Scott Lancer drove the supply-laden wagon down the road from Green River toward home. Saturday afternoon was always thus. Ride into town, buy supplies, maybe stop for a beer or two, then ride back. Not much of an event, yet they both looked forward to this time together.
They enjoyed each other’s company immensely and relished the teasing and the jokes that seemed so easy between them almost from the word go. Today was no different as they bombarded each other with relentless banter. Suddenly, Johnny tensed and leaned forward, staring at the road. “Scott?”
“I see her,” Scott replied, growing solemn as well.
They pulled to a stop not five feet from her and both jumped from the wagon. Johnny saw the remains of the wreckage from his side and motioned his brother over to take a look.
“I’ll check them, see if she’s hurt,” Scott said as he headed toward the overturned wagon.
Johnny approached slowly, cautiously. He wasn’t sure she was even aware of him. He decided his best chance of not scaring her to death was to walk around her. Giving her a wide berth, he then stood in front of her and knelt down. She had dark blonde hair and looked pretty young to him. Slender in her beige dress, the white cuffs now nearly black with filth.
She stopped crying and looked up slowly into the kind eyes but she did not speak.
Johnny smiled at the brown eyes. “Are you alright?” he asked and knew soon after she wasn’t. He saw the wound on her head.
Scott walked up behind her and shook his head sadly.
“She needs some water, Boston,” Johnny said softly.
Scott nodded and went to retrieve the canteen as Johnny pulled a bandana from his back pocket. “Miss, I’m just going to clean that wound up a little so I can get a closer look. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you, I promise,” he said gently.
She stared silently at him, the only sound she made was an occasional sniffle. Johnny smiled and began cleaning the cut as Scott handed him the water.
He wet the bandana then offered the water to her. She took it and drank hungrily until Johnny had to force her to stop.
“Easy now, you’ll make yourself sick,” he smiled.
Scott walked behind his brother and slightly to his left, then knelt down beside him.
“She might need stitches, she definitely needs a doctor,” he appraised.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny mumbled then turned to speak to her. “Miss, we have a ranch nearby. Our sister can take care of you until the doctor arrives. Do you think you can walk?”
She nodded and began to stand as Johnny held out a hand, ready to catch her should she need help. She was small in stature, a little taller than Teresa. She managed to walk of her own volition to the wagon but faltered once she got there. Fear overcame the flat expression and Scott saw it.
“I’ll ride in the back with you, Miss. Just so you don’t fall,” he said softly.
Johnny smiled and nodded to his brother as they helped her up.
Johnny pulled the wagon in the front of the house and jumped down quickly to help his brother. Murdoch walked out with a scowl on his face.
“Johnny, don’t leave that wagon there!” he growled.
Johnny put up a hand to stop any further comment and nodded his head toward the inside of the wagon.
Murdoch walked around and saw her then as the boys helped her down.
“Why don’t you take her to Teresa and I’ll tell Murdoch what happened,” Johnny said to his brother.
Scott simply nodded and guided the girl to the house as Johnny turned his attention to his father.
“Found her sitting in the middle of the road. There was a wagon overturned just off the side. Two people dead, looks like it might have been her parents. She was just sitting there, Murdoch. She hasn’t said a word,” Johnny explained worriedly.
“Good Lord, that poor child. I’ll send for Sam.” Murdoch walked off to do just that.
Sam Jenkins examined the girl and stitched up the cut on her head. He left her in Teresa’s capable hands as he went to the kitchen for coffee and to give his diagnosis.
“Well, the cut’s not bad but she probably has a mild concussion. She’s scraped and bruised but nothing broken.”
“Did she talk to you?” Johnny asked.
“No, not a word. I don’t know if it’s the trauma or if she couldn’t speak before the accident.”
Johnny tensed at this, remembering another young girl who had no ability to speak. He dropped his head and sighed.
“We need to find out who she is. Boys, ride back out to the wreckage and see if you can find anything that might identify them. Some papers, anything. And, of course, we’ll need to bury them,” Murdoch said morosely.
“Shouldn’t we wait, I mean for her? She might want something special for them. Maybe send them home or something,” Johnny suggested.
“Yes, that’s probably best. I’ll have a couple of the hands go with you and take them to the undertaker in Green River,” Murdoch replied.
Scott and Johnny helped the hands put the bodies in a wagon, then began rummaging through the stranger’s effects. The act itself made Scott’s flesh crawl. It didn’t seem right but he knew it was necessary.
“I think this must be her stuff. We can pack it back up and take it to her,” Johnny said as he went through a trunk.
“I hate this,” Scott grumbled.
“So do I, brother, but we don’t have much choice. I guess we should really take as much of it as we can. Might be some things she’ll want to keep.”
“Unlike you, she might not travel light?” Scott grinned.
Johnny did not return the smile however, and went back to what he was doing.
“Did I say something?” Scott asked.
“No, let’s just get this done,” Johnny said flatly.
“Johnny, what is it?”
“Nothing, Boston. It just reminds me a little of when my mother died. Didn’t have much to take with me,” Johnny mumbled.
“I’m sorry,” Scott said, remorsefully.
“Forget it, okay?” Johnny said, then lit up in a smile.
They loaded the belongings into the wagon and headed back to the ranch house.
The Lancer men searched through the items methodically and Teresa took the girl’s clothes to wash.
“I think I found something,” Murdoch said as he pulled out a folder full of papers.
“Amos Nelson,” he mumbled. “That must be the man’s name.”
“Anything else?” Scott asked.
“There’s a deed to some land near Stockton but they were headed the opposite direction you said. Doesn’t make any sense,” Murdoch said.
“No, it doesn’t. I guess the wagon could have flipped enough to turn completely around,” Scott frowned.
“No, the tracks were headed toward Lancer,” Johnny disagreed.
“Well, I don’t suppose we’ll find out for sure until the young lady can tell us herself,” Murdoch sighed.
“And if she can’t?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know, son. We should get Val involved.”
One week later, Teresa had the girl up and moving about but she still had not spoken. The Lancers had had no choice but to bury the bodies at the Green River cemetery. Murdoch told her but she gave no hint of a response. Â
She sat on the veranda with Teresa who was doing some mending, and stared into space.
Johnny sauntered up and watched her for a few minutes but she gave no indication she even knew he was there.
“Hot today. Any lemonade, Teresa?” he asked.
Teresa smiled and walked into the house and Johnny took her chair.
“Pretty, ain’t it? Prettiest place I’ve ever seen,” he commented.
“Sooner or later you’re gonna have to give us some clue, ya know. I mean, I don’t even know what to call you. Is your last name Nelson?”
“How about Jones? Smith? Finklehammer?” He could almost swear he saw a faint twitch at the corner of her mouth and he was encouraged for the first time.
“I know. Hortence Finklehammer. That’s it, isn’t it? Speak now or forever hold your peace cause that’s what I’m gonna start calling you.”
“Hannah,” she whispered.
Johnny leaned forward. “Hannah?”
She did almost laugh this time, almost. “Nelson,” she replied instead.
“Pleased to meet you, Hannah Nelson. I’m Johnny Lancer,” he grinned. “That wasn’t too hard, was it?”
She did not reply.
“Those were your parents, I’m guessing. I’m sorry, I know how hard that must be. I lost my mother when I was pretty young. Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head.
“Well, if you ever do, I’m a pretty good listener. At least, that’s what my brother says. You met him, his name is Scott.”
Teresa appeared then and Johnny stood up. “Teresa, this is Hannah Nelson. She’s a chatty little thing so don’t get her started,” Johnny grinned devilishly. “Well, back to work. Have a nice day, ladies.” He tipped his hat before striding away.
“Well, I figured it would be Johnny who got you to talk. If he didn’t charm you, he must have just plain annoyed you enough,” Teresa laughed.
“He’s nice,” she said softly.
“Yes, a lot more than most people give him credit for,” Teresa said.
“She talked to you?” Â Scott asked in amazement.
“She told me her name put I had to pull it out of her,” Johnny shrugged.
“Well, at least we know it is Nelson. That just makes it more of a puzzle. If they owned land near Stockton, why were they headed east with seemingly everything they owned?” Murdoch asked.
“I don’t know but I doubt she’ll give up much more for a while,” Johnny said.
“I have a friend in Stockton. I’ll wire her and see if she’s heard of the family,” Murdoch said.
“She?” Scott and Johnny said in unison.
“Don’t start,” Murdoch ordered.
“Keep working on her, Johnny. Gently. Maybe she’ll open up to you again,” Murdoch said in a calmer tone.
“I’ll try but I don’t want to push. She just seems so …. lost,” Johnny said sadly.
“And vulnerable,” Scott added with a mixture of warning and melancholy.
Murdoch’s telegram generated a quick reply and he walked into the estancia with a grim look on his face.
“I’ve heard from my friend in Stockton. She’s sending her oldest son here. She said she couldn’t go into it in the telegram,” he reported.
“Who is this friend, Murdoch?” Scott asked.
“Her name is Victoria Barkley. Jarrod, her son, is a lawyer. She asked that we keep Hannah here until he arrives to explain the situation.”
“Sounds like a big mystery. So, she knows the family?” Johnny asked.
“Evidently. She didn’t go into any detail in the wire.”
“Well, I suppose there’s nothing to do but wait,” Scott sighed.
Johnny picked up a small figurine on his father’s desk and played with it for a minute before sitting it back down. “Think I’ll go check with Teresa, see how she’s doing.”
“He’s pretty wrapped up about this,” Scott commented once Johnny was out of earshot.
“He always is when he brings home a stray,” Murdoch replied.
Two days went by and Hannah had not spoken again. Johnny had tried to gently push her but without success. He found her this evening sitting on the veranda with some needlework Teresa had given her.
“Nice evening,” he started.
She nodded her head but did not look at him.
Johnny took a deep breath and sighed heavily. He decided to tell her about their pending guest. “Jarrod Barkley will be here tomorrow. Do you know him?”
Her head jerked up then, eyes wide with fear. “Why?” she uttered.
“Hannah, we have to know who you are, what happened. We can’t help you otherwise and you haven’t been very obliging. Are you afraid of Barkley?”
She shook her head no and dropped it again.
Johnny knelt down in front of her. “If you want to tell me, I’m listening.”
She looked at him, tears in her eyes and she bit her lip. “It’s so hard.”
Johnny took her small hand in his and smiled at her. “I know, but I promise I won’t judge you or your family. You can trust me.”
She gave him a small smile and nodded.
“We had a small ranch in Stockton. It wasn’t anything grand like here or the Barkley’s but it was ours. This man wanted to buy it from daddy but he wouldn’t sell. He kept coming by every week making the offer and …. he would look at me. It made my skin crawl,” she stopped here, her voice trembling with emotion.
Johnny gave her hand a small squeeze of encouragement but said nothing.
“He finally starting threatening my father, saying he’d have our ranch. We couldn’t figure out why it was so important to him. The sheriff said he couldn’t do anything until the man broke the law and so far, he hadn’t. One night when my parents were gone he came by again. He forced his way in. I tried to stop him but I couldn’t.” She stopped to catch her breath, her entire body trembling at this point.
Johnny felt the dread deep in his gut. He was quite sure he shouldn’t be the one to hear this. With nothing but concern in his voice, he asked, “would you rather talk to Teresa?”
She nodded her head and burst into tears. Johnny pulled her to him, rocking her back and forth, trying to comfort her. She tensed at the contact and he released her as casually as he could. ‘That was stupid, Johnny,’ he thought.
He stood up and went inside, feeling like an ass.
Teresa came out and sat next to her, taking her hand. “Johnny told me about the man. Can you tell me any more?” she asked softly.
“The sheriff arrested him and he hung himself in the cell but it was too late by then,” she sniffled.
“Too late? What do you mean?”
“I’m pregnant,” she sobbed and buried her face in her hands.
Teresa was stunned by this information.
“My father was taking me back east to Ohio. That’s where he’s from. He didn’t want anyone to know. He didn’t want me shamed,” she mumbled through her hands.
“Okay, it’s all right. We’ll help you, don’t you worry about anything. Hannah, do you want the baby?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t at first, I couldn’t stand the thought of having his child. But now, I’ve lost everything else. I just don’t know,” she cried.
Teresa squeezed her hand firmly. “How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” she said.
Her face was impassive but her heart plunged. Eighteen and unmarried with a child on the way. She could understand her father’s concerns. Not because she’d done anything wrong but Teresa knew all too well how people loved to gossip.
“How far along are you?” she asked a bit timidly.
“Four months now.”
“You have time to decide. Whatever you want to do, we’ll help you,” she smiled.
“Thank you. I didn’t know what to do. I …..” she trailed off the tears falling again.
“Hannah, is it all right if I tell the family?”
“Yes. They’ll find out anyway,” she said.
“Pregnant?” Murdoch asked in astonishment.
“No wonder she’s been so upset. She not only lost her parents but she’s going to have a baby,” Scott said, just as stunned.
“That’s not all of it. She was raped. That’s how she got pregnant. He’s dead, hung himself, but her parents were taking her to Ohio to have the baby,” Teresa imparted, her voice trembling with anger at the deed.
“Does she want the child?” Johnny asked.
“She doesn’t know. She’s confused and afraid and alone,” Teresa said sadly.
“No, she’s not alone. We’ll help her,” Scott said.
Johnny smiled affectionately at his brother.
Teresa smiled as well and hugged Scott. “That’s kind of what I told her.”
“Well, this young lady has some decisions to make. Did she say if she had any other family?” Murdoch asked.
“I didn’t ask her, I thought I’d questioned her enough.”
Jarrod Barkley arrived the next day on the ten o’clock stage from Stockton and was met by Murdoch. After exchanging quick pleasantries, they headed for Lancer.
“How long has it been since I was last here, Murdoch?”
“At least five years, Jarrod. You were just starting up your law practice then,” Murdoch reflected.
“Well, I look forward to meeting your sons. How is Hannah?”
“Upset, very quiet. She wouldn’t speak at all at first. Johnny finally got her to open up a little then Teresa took over.”
“Johnny, he’s your youngest?”
“That’s right. He has a way of getting people to trust him,” Murdoch smiled.
“That poor girl has been through hell,” Jarrod said solemnly.
“She told Teresa about the rape and the child she’s carrying,” Murdoch said.
Jarrod’s eyebrows went up at this information. “Her father was nearly destroyed when it happened, her mother as well, but she was such a strong woman. It was her decision really to go back to Ohio, at least until the baby was born. She spent many hours talking to Mother about that decision.”
“It couldn’t have been easy but surely people would have understood.”
“Well, most would I’m sure but there were some who had already started talking. The gossip was that she should have tried harder to fight him off.”
“That is ridiculous!” Murdoch fumed.
“Of course it is, but people can be very cruel, Murdoch. Melinda Nelson had no intention of letting her daughter be ambushed by the less genteel women of Stockton.”
“Well, I can understand her decision. Such a tragedy. Jarrod, do you know if she has any other family? Teresa only got her to really open up last night and she didn’t want to press.”
“I’m really not sure about that. I know the Nelson’s were originally from Ohio but whether they had people still there, I couldn’t say.”
Murdoch pulled up in front of the hacienda and Jarrod smiled. “It hasn’t changed a bit,” he commented.
“Well, it’s noisier now,” Murdoch chuckled.
“Are you complaining?” Jarrod asked with a wry smile.
“No, not at all, Jarrod, not at all,” Murdoch answered.
Jelly came out of nowhere and took Jarrod’s bag from the back of the surrey.
“Jarrod, I’d like you to meet Jelly Hoskins,” Murdoch introduced.
“Howdy. Sure hope you can help that little gal. She’s a sad sack if’n I ever did see one,” Jelly said as they shook hands.
“I’ll do my best,” Jarrod assured him.
“Oh, here are my boys. Jarrod, this is Scott and this is Johnny,” Murdoch continued the introductions.
“Gentlemen, it’s a pleasure. Your father tells me you managed to get Hannah to talk a little, Johnny.”
“Yeah, mostly to Teresa but she hasn’t said anything else yet,” Johnny told him.
“Why don’t we go in the house and talk this over,” Murdoch suggested.
Jarrod caught the boys up on everything he knew of the situation and his family’s involvement. They sat quietly listening, both felt the anger rising at the girl’s treatment. Not only by her rapist, but the ‘good’ people of the town.
“I suppose the first thing we need to find out is if she has any family,” Jarrod finished.
“Good luck,” Scott said.
“Johnny, she opened up to you. Surely she would be willing to answer a few questions,” Jarrod said.
“I’ll try but I’m not gonna push her,” Johnny warned.
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Jarrod stated.
“Well, you must be tired. Why don’t I show you to your room, Jarrod. We can talk more later. I want to hear all about how your family is doing,” Murdoch smiled.
Alone in the great room, Johnny voiced his concerns to his brother.
“I don’t want to scare her off, Scott. Maybe you should go with me,” he suggested.
“It might make her uncomfortable, Johnny. Make her feel we’re ganging up on her,” Scott refuted.
“You got a point there, Boston,” Johnny frowned.
“What’s troubling you, brother?” Scott asked.
Johnny sighed and shook his head. “All of it.”
Johnny found Hannah sitting in the garden that afternoon and stood a safe distance from the girl.
“Jarrod Barkley’s here,” he said.
She looked up and nodded her head.
“Hannah, do you have any other family? Maybe somebody back in Ohio?” he asked.
“No, there’s no one,” she whispered.
“Yes,” she answered simply.
“Have you thought about what you’re gonna do?” Johnny asked.
She didn’t answer him right away but stared out over the garden for long moments. He waited patiently.
“It’s so beautiful here,” she said softly.
“Yeah, it is.”
“I wish ……”
“What, Hannah? What do you wish?”
“I wish I could stay here, at least until the baby’s born,” she said, dropping her head.
Johnny watched her, feeling her pain and wishing more than anything he could take it all away. She was too young to deal with all of this and he suspected she’d been pretty well protected by her parents from the ugliness of the world. He walked over and sat next to her, leaning back and crossing his feet at the ankles.
“If that’s what you want,” he said quietly.
She looked up at him then. “Really? You mean it?” she asked incredulously.
“Sure. It’ll give you time to decide what you want to do with the baby and where you want to go from here,” he smiled.
“What about your family, what will they think?” she asked.
“What do you mean? I’m sure they’d be fine with it,” Johnny asked.
“And the town?”
“Forget about the town or anybody else. Whatever you want to do, it’s your business, Hannah. Don’t ever let what other people think decide your life for you,” Johnny said, a touch of anger in his voice.
“My parents cared what others thought,” she said.
“No, I don’t think so. I think they were just trying to protect you from a bunch of busybodies who don’t have a life of their own to worry about,” he said.
She smiled at this. “Mrs. Barkley, she was so kind to me.”
“I don’t know her but Murdoch sure thinks a lot of her so I guess that’s good enough for me,” he smiled. “Now, how about getting in a nap before dinner. You need plenty of rest,” he said seriously.
“Yes sir,” she said and left him alone.
“She wants to stay here until the baby comes,” Johnny reported to his family as they convened in the barn, away from Hannah.
“What did you tell her?” Scott asked.
“I told her it was all right.”
“Johnny, I don’t know about that,” Murdoch said.
“Why not? She’s got no one, Murdoch. Where is she gonna go, back to Stockton?”
“No, I don’t suppose she could do that. Still, it’s …. improper,” Murdoch said.
Johnny snorted at this. “I don’t care what people think or what they say. It’s none of their business. As far as they’re concerned, she’s a friend staying with us. What’s so improper about that?”
“I have to agree, Murdoch. She has no one else. What do you propose she do?” Scott said.
“There are places young women can go to have their baby and give it up for adoption,” Murdoch said.
“She doesn’t know if she wants to do that yet. Besides, I know about those places. They’re all run by a bunch of nuns and priests who spend every day telling those girls how they’re all going to hell!” Johnny spat.
“Do we really need to decide this right now? Why don’t we wait until Hannah decides if she wants to keep the baby,” Scott interjected.
“That sounds right to me,” Johnny said.
“All right, boys. I suppose it won’t do any harm,” Murdoch said but his tone reflected more concern than he was willing to voice at the moment.
As they started out of the barn, he took Johnny’s arm to hold him back. “Son, are you starting to have feelings for this girl?”
“No, Murdoch. I feel sorry for her but that’s all.”
Jarrod could do nothing for the girl without family to provide guardianship and he left two days later with a promise to help her with whatever she decided to do.
She watched him leave from her bedroom window and sighed her relief. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she thought about all that had happened to her since that horrible night. She was just coming into her womanhood when it was viciously stolen from her and she wondered if any man would want her now. If he could ever want her.
She thought about him, his smile, his eyes, his kindness. She could tell he was sincere in his worry for her. She wondered what it would be like to have him kiss her.
She touched her fingers to her lips as she tried to imagine it. But the only image that came to her was liquor-stenched breath and sloppy wet lips forcing themselves on her. She shuddered and laid down, trying to shake the image away.
She closed her eyes, sure she wouldn’t be able to sleep but soon, she drifted off.
Her piercing scream echoed through the halls of the house as she fought off her attacker in her nightmare. She could feel his hands all over her, ripping her clothes and pushing her dress up to her waist. She felt him slap her hard across the face and tell her to shut up. Â She was fighting and clawing with everything in her but it was no use. She was too small and weak to fend him off.
She felt someone shaking her and she lashed out again, screaming from somewhere deep inside her. Her eyes flew open, wild and panicked as she fought him off.
“Hannah! Wake up!” Â
She stopped then, hearing the familiar voice and her hands went limp beside her. She looked up at his face and saw the scratches on his cheek.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” she cried and collapsed against him.
“It’s okay. Sssshhh, it’s alright. Take it easy, it was a nightmare. You’re safe now, you’re safe,” he said softly as he rocked her like a child.
“Johnny, I’m so sorry. I hurt you,” she cried.
“No, honey, I’m okay. It’s just a scratch,” he said.
“No; no, I don’t guess I hurt you anymore than I could hurt him,” she said.
“It wasn’t your fault. You have to understand that. He was bigger and stronger. There was nothing you could do,” Johnny said firmly but gently.
He sat her back, adjusting the pillows so she could sit up and went to wet a cloth. He handed it to her then got her a glass of water.
“Better?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” she sniffled. “Please, let me clean that off.”
Johnny touched the scratch on his left cheek and smiled. “Heck, that’s nothing. Teresa would laugh me out of the house for somethin like that,” he grinned.
“I thought the nightmares were over. I haven’t had one in so long,” she said.
“Something happen to make you think about it?” he asked.
She blushed then, remembering her earlier thoughts of him, then formulated a quick lie. “I guess seeing Mr. Barkley again,” she shrugged.
Johnny nodded his understanding as Teresa walked in the room.
“She had a nightmare but she’s okay now, right?” Johnny said.
“Right. Thank you again,” she smiled.
“Johnny, what happened to your cheek?” Teresa asked as she came closer to check him.
“I guess I should be more careful when I’m trying to wake up a woman,” he grinned devilishly.
“It was my fault, I was …..” she couldn’t finish as the memories came back and her eyes filled with tears again.
“Go on downstairs and clean that up. I’ll take care of her,” Teresa said sympathetically.
Johnny gave his sister a quick hug and left the women alone. He went to the kitchen to find Maria, sure he could garner some sympathy and a cookie or two from the older woman.
“Maria, got anything I can clean this up with?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Dios! What happened?” she asked but didn’t wait for an answer as she ushered him to a seat and began tending him.
Johnny gave her the proper ‘ouches’ in all the right places while she cleaned the cut and she tssked each time, giving him a pitiable look. When she’d finished, she poured him a glass of milk and set a plate of cookies in front of him. She informed him these treats would make him feel much better, then kissed the top of his head and went back to her cooking.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Teresa asked.
“Yes, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not, Hannah. Whatever you want to tell me, it will go no further,” Teresa smiled.
“I hadn’t dreamt about it in so long, it’s just a shock. It was so real, I could feel everything, hear everything. He came to the house that night in February. My parents had gone out to dinner for their wedding anniversary. I should have never answered the door but how could I have known? He was drunk, he barged in and began pacing, cursing my father. He knocked things over, threw glasses and lamps, anything he could find. Then he turned and seemed to notice me for the first time. God, I should have ran before that but I never thought in a million years he would do such a thing. He grabbed my arm and ripped my dress. Then he smiled at me, the ugliest smile I’ve ever seen. He pulled me into my bedroom and threw me on the bed. I tried to run, to get away, but he grabbed me and threw me back. Then he hit me so hard across the face, I saw stars. Before I could come to my senses again, he’d pulled my dress up around my waist and pulled down my undergarments. I swear I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t understand what was happening. Then I felt it and he started grunting like a pig. It hurt so bad, Teresa. I felt like I was being ripped apart. I could smell his foul breath and then he kissed me,” she stopped, unable to go on as she finally told what she had never before uttered to another living soul.
Teresa took her in her arms and held her tightly, rocking her soothingly while she gained control.
She pulled away and wiped her eyes. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be, is it? I mean, it can’t be,” she asked, nearly begging for some reassurance.
“No, that is not how it is supposed to be. Not at all, honey,” Teresa said.
Hannah made an appearance at dinner but it was obvious to all that she was someplace else. Johnny looked at Teresa who only smiled and shook her head slightly.
Scott began to talk about anything he could think of to divert attention from her and hopefully put her at ease. Johnny joined him, smiling fondly at his brother’s innate ability to sense other’s discomfort.
Suddenly she stood and ran out of the room. Johnny was on his feet instantly following her.
He heard her first, throwing up in the bushes beside the house. He waited until she was done, not wanting to impede on her privacy.
He walked up behind her noisily and handed her his kerchief.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, must be the baby. I thought this only happened in the morning,” she said.
“You’ve been dealing with a lot lately. Maybe I should take you to see Doc tomorrow.”
“I suppose so. I haven’t seen a doctor since we left Stockton, not for the baby anyway. Seems I’m always thanking you for something,” she smiled weakly.
“No need, I’m glad to help,” he smiled back.
“Well, young lady, you have a healthy baby. I wish you had told me about this when I examined you the first time but I can understand why you didn’t,” Sam said nonjudgmentally.
“So, everything is normal?” she asked.
“As normal as can be. You will be sick for a few more weeks but then it will pass. You need lots of rest and make sure you eat properly, even if you don’t feel like it,” he ordered.
“All right. Is there anything else I should be doing?” she asked.
“No, just follow doctor’s orders and call me if anything untoward happens or you feel overly ill,” he advised.
“Thank you, Doctor Jenkins,” she smiled.
“You’re very welcome. Johnny, you can come in now,” he called.
“How is she?”
“Fine, just fine. Rest and proper nutrition is what she needs. You see to it, young man,” Sam said.
“I will, we all will,” Johnny added quickly.
They were silent for the first part of the ride home then she suddenly spoke. “Can you pull over for a minute?”
Johnny pulled up quickly under a stand of trees. “You okay?”
“Yes, I just wanted to get down for a few minutes. Is that alright?” she asked.
“Sure, let me help you,” he said as he jumped down and walked quickly to her side of the surrey. He helped her down and she let her hands linger briefly on his arms, feeling the muscles ripple as he sat her on the ground.
She walked over and sat under the trees and he joined her, concern all over his face.
“I’m alright, really. It’s so nice here, so quiet,” she smiled.
He said nothing.
“I was wondering what it would be like to be a mother. Or what it would be like to give my baby away. I’m not sure I could do that, even though….”
“It’s a tough decision,” he commented.
“What would you do, Johnny?”
“I can’t make that call for you, Hannah. Nobody can, it’s up to you,” he answered.
“I just don’t know what to do. I had a friend, she was older than me, and she got married and within a month she was pregnant. I felt her baby kick in her stomach. It was the most amazing thing. When she was born, I held her, changed her and fed her. I felt so warm and at peace. I’m afraid I won’t feel like that with my baby because of how it came to be,” she frowned.
“Hannah, you can’t think about that part of it, not where the baby’s concerned. It can’t help how it was conceived, it has no control over what anybody did. It’s helpless and nobody should blame it for …..” Johnny stopped, feeling his own painful childhood surging inside him and he turned away from her.
“What’s wrong, Johnny?” she asked as she laid a hand on his arm.
“Nothing. It’s just that kids are the ones who get treated badly because of what their parents did or didn’t do. They’re the ones that suffer for it, right or wrong, and it is wrong. I’m not saying you did anything wrong at all, Hannah. But it’s father did and it shouldn’t suffer because of him.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” she said.
“You didn’t, it’s okay. I hope you can find the right decision for yourself,” he said and smiled as he turned to face her again.
“Johnny, I talked to Teresa yesterday about what happened to me. I asked her, well, if it was always like that with a man,” she stumbled over the words, her cheeks glowing.
“No, Hannah. No, it’s nothing like that. When a man and a woman love each other, it’s beautiful. It’s not ugly and hurtful. That wasn’t love, that was something entirely different,” he said fervently.
She reached over and kissed him then softly on the lips. Â
“Come on, we better get back,” he said and stood, offering her a hand up.
She stood and leaned into him. “Johnny, I want you….” she said.
“No Hannah, no you don’t. You’re grateful to me for helping you. You don’t even know me.”
Johnny walked back to the surrey and waited to help her up then drove back to the ranch without another word.
Murdoch found Johnny on the veranda that evening after dinner. “You were quiet tonight,” he commented.
“Something wrong, son?”
Johnny sighed and looked up at his father. He felt an almost overwhelming need to have this man touch him in some comforting way just then.
As if sensing it, or maybe reading it in his son’s eyes, Murdoch stepped closer and laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder, squeezing firmly. “What is it, son?”
“Hannah kissed me today.”
“I see, and you didn’t like it?”
“It’s not funny, Murdoch. She thinks she wants to be with me,” Johnny said, irritated.
“And you don’t think she knows what she wants,” Murdoch surmised.
“She doesn’t even know if she wants to keep her own kid. How could she know what else she wants?”
“You sound angry,” Murdoch commented.
“I guess I am a little. I just don’t understand how there’s even a choice. I know I said I’d help her whatever she wanted to do but, I just don’t understand how a mother can give her kid up,” Johnny said.
Murdoch sat down beside him, trying to see his face, but Johnny was turned away from him as always. “Look at me, Johnny.”
When he didn’t, Murdoch took his hand and cupped Johnny’s chin, turning his face toward him. What he saw cut his soul. “Talk to me. This isn’t about Hannah, is it?”
“Johnny, your mother loved you so much she couldn’t leave you behind,” Murdoch said, trying to keep any bitterness out of his voice.
Johnny laughed at this. “Yeah, she loved me alright.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t. Those Pinks ain’t worth the money you paid them. You should ask for it back. Yeah, she took me away from you but it wasn’t because she loved me. She left me, too,” he said huskily.
“What are you talking about?” Murdoch asked, his voice rising.
“She left me, Murdoch. That’s what I’m saying. I was ten when she ran off.”
Murdoch stood up and began pacing, his fists clenching and unclenching. Johnny thought briefly the old man might just belt him.
“So you see, I’m not much of a believer in motherly love.” He shouldn’t have said it and he knew it but it was out now and he couldn’t hold back his bitterness and anger.
“Where is she?” Murdoch asked. It wasn’t a question of idle wondering, it sounded more like a man bent on revenge to Johnny.
“She’s dead, Murdoch. That wasn’t a lie. I found out about it a year later,” Johnny said softly.
Murdoch continued to pace, trying to find someplace to put his anger; his rage. “Are you telling me she lit out of here in the middle of the night with my son only to abandon him a few years later? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Calm down,” Johnny said.
“Calm down? How do you expect me to calm down? I can’t believe this. The only thing that kept me sane all these years was the thought that at least you were with your mother. At least you had someone to take care of you,” Murdoch raged.
“I did have someone to take care of me – me,” Johnny said matter-of-factlyy.
“How can you be so blase about this?”
“Guess I’ve had more time knowin it than you,” Johnny shrugged.
“What is all this yelling about?” Scott demanded as he burst through the French doors, ready to intercede in another of the constant battles between his father and brother.
“Stay out of this, Scott!” Murdoch bellowed.
“Easy, Murdoch. Look, you need to calm down before you hurt yourself,” Johnny said. He stood up and faced his father, bringing a halt to the pacing. Johnny placed a hand on either of his father’s arms. “Listen to me, it was a long time ago and it’s over now. Nothing you can do will change it and bustin a gut ain’t gonna make a difference now. I should never have told you.”
“Yes, you should have, Johnny. I …. I’m sorry, I need to be alone right now,” Murdoch stammered and Johnny heard a tremble in his father’s voice that scared him.
They both watched as he walked away toward the corral.
“Johnny, what in the world happened?” Scott asked, dumbfounded by what he’d just witnessed.
“I told him something I never should have. Dammit!” he spat and turned away.
“What did you tell him that got him so worked up? I’ve never seen him so angry.”
“Me neither. I thought he was gonna fall over. I should have kept my big mouth shut. What the hell was I thinking?” he said more to himself than his brother.
“Johnny, what did you tell him?” Scott asked again, annunciating each word.
Johnny turned and looked at Scott, his face a mask of indifference. “It was something about my mother. That’s all you need to know, Scott.”
“I see. None of my business?”
“That’s right,” Johnny clipped.
“Is there anything I can do?” Scott asked, undaunted by the mask.
Johnny’s face relaxed as he knew Scott would not push. “No, brother. Just give him some time alone. Nothing can be done, it’s in the past.”
“Why does that sound so familiar?” Scott smiled.
Johnny walked out to the barn half an hour later and found his father sitting on a haystack. He thought Murdoch looked like he might have aged twenty years in those thirty minutes. He walked over and sat beside him.
“I wonder sometimes why I ever married that woman.”
Johnny cringed at this statement but he let it go, knowing his father was hurting. He stayed quiet and waited.
“She wasn’t like that when we met. She was full of love and spirit. I don’t understand it, I swear I don’t. I can’t remember doing or saying anything to make her hate me and, believe me, I’ve thought about it a million times.”
Still, he said nothing but waited for Murdoch to get it all out.
“I guess that’s why she took you in the first place; to hurt me. I guess I always knew that though.” He got up and walked away a few paces, his back to his son.
“I wish to God I’d never met that woman!”
Johnny closed his eyes and stood up quietly, then turned and walked to the barn door. As he was opening it, he felt a hand on his shoulder and he tensed.
“God, I’m so sorry, son. I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s okay,” he whispered.
“No, it’s not okay. I’m sorry, I’m sorry for everything that happened to you because your mother and I couldn’t act like adults.”
Johnny laughed softly. “I can’t imagine you ever not acting like an adult.”
Murdoch gave a small smile. “I’m sorry I lost it.”
Johnny shrugged. “I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Because, Murdoch. What good did it do? All that happened is you got mad and all those memories got dug back up.”
Murdoch put a hand on each shoulder. “Listen to me, son. I know I said the past should be left there, but I was wrong. Anything you want or need to tell me, I hope you will. I promise to try not to react like a lunatic.”
Another soft laugh and Johnny nodded his head. “Most of the time, I don’t think about it. Then, something like this happens and …. I always go back to my own garbage. Why is that?”
“Well, I suppose we all tend to associate current problems with the past. I guess we think we can help by using our own experiences. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it only causes unpleasant memories.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Well, nothing from my past is gonna help Hannah. I just didn’t want her getting attached to me.”
“Can’t blame her, son. You helped her come out of her shell. You were the first person she saw after the accident. It’s only natural that she look to you for comfort.”
“Still and all, it ain’t helpin any. Â Maybe it’s best if I steer clear of her for a while.”
“That may be best. I’ll talk to Teresa about keeping her busy.”
Johnny avoided Hannah for the next few days. Teresa kept her busy with sewing and cooking and the like. Scott occupied her time in the evenings with books and talk of big city life. She was becoming more relaxed around them all and even smiled more often.
Soon, she noticed a slight pudge in her belly and she was surprisingly delighted. She thought long and hard about what she would do. She came to a decision and felt she should let the Lancers know. She approached Murdoch one afternoon as he went over some contracts.
“Mr. Lancer, may I speak with you?”
He looked up from his desk and smiled. “Of course, Hannah.”
She sat in front of the desk, feeling a bit uneasy now. “I just wanted you to know, I’ve come to a decision.”
“I’ve decided to keep my baby.”
Murdoch smiled at her. “That’s wonderful, dear.”
She returned the smile but it was fleeting. “That’s all I’ve decided, though. I don’t know how I’m going to take care of it.”
Murdoch chewed his lip for a minute. “Hannah, I know a woman in San Francisco; Grace Cunningham. She’s a widow and has no family. I could write and ask her to take you in, help with the baby. I’d like to pay for you to finish your schooling.”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t ask you to do that, Mr. Lancer. You’ve done so much already, all of you,” she protested.
“You didn’t ask, I offered. Please let me do this for you. You want your child to have a good start in life, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course, I do. I just…..”
She lowered her eyes and blushed slightly. “I was hoping to stay in the area,” she said quietly.
Murdoch assumed a knowing look. “Hannah, may I be perfectly honest with you?”
“Even if it might hurt?” he asked, cocking a brow.
She frowned but only nodded.
He took a deep breath and hoped her reaction wasn’t over the top. “Johnny doesn’t reciprocate your feelings for him. He doesn’t care for you in that way.”
Her eyes stung with tears. “I see,” she croaked out.
“I’m sorry, my dear. I thought it was only fair you know,” he said sympathetically.
“Yes, of course. Thank you for telling me. When should I plan on leaving for San Francisco?”
“I’ll write to my friend. It will take a few weeks.”
She simply nodded and stood, walking swiftly from the room.
Murdoch kept an ear out for his sons to return from working. When he heard them ride up, he headed to the barn. He told them both of his conversation with Hannah, including his blunt honesty.
Johnny cringed a little but he was grateful to his father. He hadn’t had the heart to tell her himself.
“Well, I think it’s an excellent solution. I’m sure she’ll get over her heartbreak,” Scott smiled.
“I’m sure she will,” Murdoch agreed.
“Gee, thanks,” Johnny snorted.
Scott wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “See, brother? You really aren’t that unforgettable.”
“Ya know, Scott. I bet I can make you not forget me for a good long while,” he shot back with a grin.
“Alright, boys. Let’s go inside before I have to make myself unforgettable to both of you,” Murdoch said sternly. There was only a hint of a smile in his eyes.
“I’ll write that letter tonight. Johnny, ride in to town tomorrow and mail it for me,” Murdoch said as they crossed the yard.
“Sure,” he said then stopped and turned. A surrey was coming toward the house and they all turned and waited. Surprised to see Jarrod driving up.
“Jarrod, we weren’t expecting you,” Murdoch extended a hand.
“I thought it was easier if I just came. A telegram wouldn’t have sufficed,” he explained.
“Sufficed for what?” Scott asked.
“Hannah has an aunt in Ohio. She wrote to her brother, not knowing he was dead. The mail was delivered to Mother since she knew the family. We decided to read it hoping for clues.”
“I wonder why Hannah didn’t know about her,” Scott frowned.
“Let’s ask her,” Murdoch said and walked to the house.
Murdoch asked Teresa to retrieve the girl and they all waited in silence for her to appear.
She walked in with her head bowed, glancing quickly at Johnny. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, Hannah. Jarrod has good news for you. It seems you have an aunt in Ohio,” Murdoch explained.
She looked at him in surprise. “I do?”
“Yes, you do. She wrote to your father and the letter was forwarded to us. Mother thought it best to read it first. I hope you don’t mind,” Jarrod jumped in, handing the letter over. “It sounded as if they didn’t get along all that well,” he added apologetically.
“Maybe that’s why Hannah didn’t know about her,” Scott interjected.
She shook her head and sat down to read the letter. It wasn’t pleasant, just cold and to the point. Evidently, her father had written his sister inquiring about land for sale.
“She doesn’t sound very nice. If my father was at odds with her, there must have been a reason. He was such a nice man. Everyone liked him. Didn’t they, Jarrod?”
“Yes, that’s very true. Amos was a very good man. Fair and honest and he’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Hannah looked at Murdoch with fear in her eyes. “I don’t want to go.”
“Jarrod?” Murdoch asked.
He sighed. “Well, the problem is you’re underage, Hannah. Unless your aunt agrees to your staying here, there may be no legal choice,” he explained sympathetically.
“We had planned on Hannah going to San Francisco to stay with a friend of mine and finish school,” Murdoch told him.
“You’ll have to get her permission,” Jarrod replied.
“I’ll write to her. Explain what’s happened.”
Hannah looked up and smiled. “Seems I’m always thanking you, Mr. Lancer.”
“I’m happy to help, Hannah.”
“I’ll go help Teresa with supper,” she said and rose. She walked by Johnny but kept her eyes downcast.
Johnny walked over and leaned against the wall, letting out a breath.
“Is there something else going on here?” Jarrod asked, feeling the tension.
“Hannah has a crush on Johnny,” Scott explained.
Jarrod gave an ‘oh’ look and smiled. “Well, whatever is decided, I’ll help any way I can.”
Murdoch wrote the two letters, explaining to both women, in detail, what had occured and Hannah’s decision. He sent Johnny to town the next morning to post them. All they could do now was wait for the replies. Knowing the reply from Ohio would be slower.
Jarrod spent the day riding the range with Scott. They talked a great deal and Scott found he liked the man. He hoped to meet the rest of the Barkleys soon.
Johnny returned from town and walked into the kitchen. He found Hannah standing on a bench and Teresa with pins in her mouth.
“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded.
“Johnny! You scared the life out of me! What are you yelling about?” Teresa scolded as she removed the pins.
“Why is she up there? She could fall,” he asked angrily.
Hannah smiled at his concern but Teresa rounded on him. “For your information, I am fitting her for maternity clothes. And she is quite safe. As you can see, she’s holding onto a support beam.”
Johnny walked over and extended his arms. Hannah dipped down and allowed him to lift her to the floor. “Support beam! What if she got dizzy and lost her grip? Can’t you do that without her doin a balancing act?”
“You men! You act like pregnant women are china dolls. Too fragile to even walk for nine months!” Teresa seethed, hands on hips.
Johnny suddenly noticed his father standing in the doorway with an amused look on his face. His own face reddened a bit. “Yeah, well, it’s not safe. That’s all.”
“If it will make you feel better, Johnny, I won’t get back up there,” Hannah said, amused as well.
He looked at her. The smile on her face only adding to his anger and embarrassment. “Do whatever you want. It’s your kid,” he shot and stalked out of the room. He could hear them laughing and it only served to anger him more.
“Well, what was all that about?” Teresa asked anyone.
Murdoch’s smile had left. He frowned as he stared at the door his son had just fled through. “I don’t have a clue,” he murmured and went to find Johnny.
He found him in the tack room, tooling leather. Murdoch walked over to the workbench and stood there quietly. Johnny was giving the leather a rough go of it.
“Are you fixing that or tearing it up?”
Johnny threw the tool down, then the leather. “I don’t know.”
“What’s wrong, son?”
He took a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t know that either. When I saw her on that bench ….. I could just imagine her falling. She’s already had one bad spill from the wagon. It just …… it just went through me.”
Murdoch sat on a stool and rested his arms on the worktable. “Another of your own experiences?”
Johnny grimaced and starting playing with a scrap of leather. He didn’t answer in words but Murdoch could see he’d hit on the problem.
“Can you tell me about it?”
“Can I? Sure, I could. I’d just rather not.”
A horrible thought went through Murdoch’s head and he had to ask. “Johnny, did you lose a child?”
His head jerked up and he looked wide-eyed at his father. “No!” Â
Murdoch nodded, relieved. “Someone you knew then?”
He only nodded.
“Because they were careless?” Murdoch played twenty questions.
“Yeah, they were careless alright,” he mumbled.
“I know how strongly you feel about protecting children. Even before they’re born. But, yelling at Teresa like that…”
“I know. I shouldn’t have done that. I’ll set it right with her,” he interrupted.
Murdoch smiled and patted his arm. “I know you will, son.”
“It’s funny, ya know? Seems like since Hannah’s been here, you and me are gettin along better.”
Murdoch raised both brows at this. “You’re right. I wonder why that is?”
Johnny shrugged. “I don’t know.” He laughed a little. “Seems I don’t know much today.”
Murdoch laughed a little as well. “That’s alright, son. Tomorrow, you’ll know more.”
Johnny grinned and playfully tapped his shoulder.
They heard Scott and Jarrod in the barn and went out to meet them. Johnny hadn’t spent much time with the oldest Barkley son, but he liked the man. Seemed to have a good head on his shoulders and a kind heart.
“Well, I have finagled an invitation to the Barkleys after the cattle drive,” Scott announced.
“Oh, you did? Jarrod must have told you about Audra,” Murdoch grinned.
Scott cocked a questioning brow at Jarrod.
“No, I seem to have forgotten to mention my beautiful sister. I did, however, tell Scott all about Nick. And if you think he’s a bear on a normal day, try messing with our sister,” he said with a warning look.
“How beautiful is this sister and how old is she?” Johnny grinned.
“She’s quite lovely and it doesn’t matter. If either of you try anything, you’ll have Nick to contend with. Believe me, boys, you don’t want to contend with Nick,” Murdoch smiled.
The brothers smiled at each other. Both plotting their moves though the cattle drive itself was months away.
“Oh, I was thinking, sir. Wherever Hannah ends up going, she’ll need an escort. I thought I could take her, is that’s all right,” Scott mentioned.
“I think that’s the best choice, son.”
“Me, too,” Johnny mumbled.
Murdoch received the letter from San Francisco two weeks later. A week after that came the reply from Ohio. Hannah’s aunt was adamant that nothing be done until she arrived. By the time the letter was received, she was one day behind it.
It was decided that Murdoch would pick her up at the stage. Hannah would wait at the ranch. She paced the great room for an hour after the rancher left, wringing her hands. Teresa watched her but was unable to find any words of comfort for the girl.
Scott and Johnny walked into the room and she stopped pacing, running immediately to Johnny.
“What if she’s just horrible?” she asked, fear dripping from her voice.
Johnny smiled at her and took her arms. “What if she’s not?”
She tried to smile but it was useless. “If she didn’t get along with my father…..”
“Now, Hannah,” Scott interrupted. “There are a million reasons why a brother and sister don’t get along. Old arguments that were never resolved can fester. Why, she probably doesn’t even remember why they were angry with each other.” He smiled and took her arm, guiding her to a seat. “You aren’t doing yourself or that baby any good by worrying and wearing a path in the floor. Relax and try to have an open mind.”
Johnny had to smile. Scott always seemed to know the right thing to say.
She took a deep breath and blew it out, her hand rubbing her swollen belly. “You’re right. I’ll try,” she smiled.
“Good girl. Maybe some lemonade will make you feel better,” Scott smiled.
“I’ll get it,” Teresa offered.
“Sit. I’ll get it,” Johnny commanded, grateful to have an excuse to leave. He felt guilty but she had run to him the second he came in. Nothing had changed and he was determined not to give her any wrong ideas.
As he helped Maria with the drinks, his mind wandered. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen. All he knew was he’d made a mistake somewhere along the way with Hannah. When that had happened, he hadn’t a clue.
“Nino, where are you?” Maria asked.
His head snapped up and he looked confusedly at her. Then he blinked and smiled shyly. “Perdoneme, mamacita. I’m thinking about Hannah.”
“Ah, she has feelings for you,” the older woman nodded knowingly.
Johnny dipped his head and nodded.
“You did nothing wrong, chico. You helped her, you were kind to her. It is not your doing. You cannot make someone care for you, si?”
“Si, I guess not. Still …. “
“Still, nada! You are not responsible for that child’s feelings. Now, take the lemonade before it warms,” she smiled and kissed his cheek.
All three of them were standing when Johnny walked back in with the tray.
“She’s here,” Hannah barely whispered.
Teresa took her hand and squeezed it tightly. Giving the girl a smile of support, she led her to the French doors. Johnny and Scott followed.
The look on Murdoch’s face told the story and both younger men nearly groaned as they shared a woeful glance. The tall rancher’s face was granite, deep lines furrowing his brow, his mouth set in a tight line.
The stately looking woman disembarked the surrey gracefully with Murdoch’s assistance and smoothed her dress. She straightened her stylish hat and withdrew a handkerchief from her dress sleeve. She lightly dabbed at her still-smooth face. She was at least forty but she wore it well. Her auburn hair showed only a trace of gray under the hat. Her expression was dour as she sniffed lightly.
Teresa pulled Hannah into the yard to greet her. Murdoch straightened himself and inhaled deeply.
“Mrs. Toliver, this is Hannah Nelson,” he said a bit grumpily.
Her brown eyes took in the girl from head to toe, lingering briefly on her mid-section. Tilting her head up slightly, she looked down her nose at her niece. “Yes, well, you certainly are coming right along, aren’t you?”
Hannah turned a deep red and lowered her head, making a slight nodding gesture.
“Boys, take Mrs. Toliver’s luggage to her room, please. Ma’am, this way,” Murdoch said as his arm extended toward the door.
She bowed a bit then proceeded through the French doors ahead of everyone else. Murdoch rolled his eyes but only the brothers saw.
“This does not bode well,” Scott said once they were out of hearing range.
“Murdoch looks like he wants to strangle the woman,” Johnny observed.
“Well, brother, I guess we’ll see for ourselves soon enough. Did you notice he didn’t introduce anyone else?”
Johnny grinned. “I noticed. Maybe he didn’t want her to know our names,” he laughed.
Scott grinned as well but he had a sinking feeling about this. A feeling that Hannah was in big trouble.
Once the luggage was dispatched, they returned to the great room. Murdoch stood up as they entered. Evidently, he realized his slight of earlier and introduced his sons. They received the same appraisal as Hannah had. Johnny had a sudden urge to take a bath.
They all settled as Aunt Agnes sipped her lemonade daintily. The room was quiet as a church on Monday.
“Now then. I understand this is the result of a ruthless attack,” she stated flatly, eyes glancing toward Hannah’s belly.
“Yes, ma’am,” she whispered.
“The utter brutality of this wilderness,” she proclaimed haughtily.
Everyone bit their lips to refrain from replying.
“Mr. Lancer, I must thank you for your hospitality in taking in such an unfortunate young girl. If you don’t mind, I’d like to rest before dinner. Hannah, you will show me to my room.” She stood then and waited expectantly for the girl to do her bidding.
Hannah stood and moved quickly toward the stairs, her head bowed.
A collective sigh could be heard once they ascended the staircase. No one was quite sure what to say.
“Murdoch, we can’t let Hannah go with that awful woman,” Teresa spoke out.
“We don’t have a choice, darling. I told her about San Francisco but she didn’t say anything.” He stood up and paced then. “That is the most exasperating female I have ever had the displeasure of meeting!”
Scott looked at Johnny and nearly begged with his eyes. But Johnny could no more stop himself than he could stop the moon from rising. He burst out laughing.
Murdoch turned to face him, an incredulous look on his face. “What is so funny?”
“You are! You should’ve seen your face when you drove up,” Johnny cackled. “I thought you’d either bust a gut or slap her silly.”
Scott chuckled. “You did look rather perturbed, sir.”
Murdoch nodded his head with frustration. “As either of you would be if you’d spent over an hour alone with that woman!”
They all grew solemn again. “Teresa’s right, though. She don’t seem real happy about this. Why would she even want Hannah?” Johnny asked.
“I’m not sure what she’s going to do, son. She hasn’t deemed it necessary to tell me her plans,” he sighed.
Hannah came downstairs then and looked at them all. She then proceeded to burst into tears and run toward the kitchen. Teresa was after her within seconds.
Supper was late. Due completely to Mrs. Toliver’s late arrival. She informed them she dined at seven sharp, not six. Murdoch told her in no uncertain terms that, while he understood she was used to her schedule, so was his family. Dinner would be served at six from hence forth.
No one spoke nor even attempted conversation during the meal. This did not seem to bother Hannah’s aunt in the slighest. The rest of the group felt like visitors in their own home.
When Maria brought out the cherry pie for desert, it started.
“Madam, I would like apple pie,” Mrs. Toliver announced.
“We do not have apple. Tonight, we have cherry,” Maria replied statically.
Her smile was more of a grimace as she turned to Murdoch. “Mr. Lancer, do all servants in this wilderness speak to guests in such a horrendous fashion?”
Murdoch opened his mouth but it was not his voice she heard.
“Maria is not a servant. She’s family,” Johnny said icily.
Maria smiled tenderly at him but still held her breath.
“Family? What relation is she?”
“None of your business.”
“Johnny,” Murdoch said, placing a hand on his son’s arm. He turned his attention to the aunt. “I’m afraid there isn’t any apple pie, Mrs. Toliver. Perhaps tomorrow night.”
She looked smugly at Johnny and nodded once at Murdoch.
He managed to unclench his jaw momentarily. “Perhaps we should retire to the living room for coffee or brandy,” Murdoch said and stood.
The young people held back as Murdoch escorted Mrs. Toliver into the great room. Johnny was seething and he wasn’t alone.
“Perhaps, Mrs. Toliver wuld care for a special apple pie tomorrow night,” Teresa said in a soft voice no one recognized as hers.
Scott and Johnny looked at her in absolute shock. Both had to fight hard not to break out in laughter. Hannah smiled and even giggled a little.
Containing themselves, albeit barely, the four young people retired to the living room as well. Murdoch was pouring a sherry for Mrs. Toliver and a brandy for himself. Although both were sorely tempted, Scott and Johnny waved off the offer for a drink.
“Now then. I suppose we should discuss the situation,” Mrs. Toliver began. “I have thought long and hard about this, Hannah. The only solution I see as viable is to give the baby up for adoption.”
Hannah gasped and stared open-mouthed at the woman.
“Close your mouth, child. It is most unappealing.”
“Mrs. Toliver, Hannah has decided to keep her baby,” Murdoch intervened.
“Keep it? That is absurd! It is impossible!”
“Why?” Johnny asked.
She shot him a disgusted look. “Because, young man, it is wholly improper. A young unmarried girl raising a child; it’s ridiculous and unseemly.”
Murdoch spoke up before Johnny hit the roof. “I mentioned my friend in San Francisco…”
“Yes, yes. Mr. Lancer, that is a most kind gesture. However, Hannah is my responsibility and I do not shirk my responsibilities.”
“What about Hannah? This baby is her responsibility,” Johnny asked.
“An unwanted child born by sordid circumstances is hardly her responsibility.”
“It isn’t unwanted!” Hannah decried.
The woman sighed in exasperation. “Hannah, you are barely eighteen. How do you expect to raise this child on your own?”
“With love, Aunt,” she replied with surety.
Mrs. Toliver rolled her eyes. “Love! It certainly wasn’t conceived that way, was it? Are you willing to throw your life away for a bastard child?”
“Lady, you got a lot of nerve. Hannah didn’t do anything wrong and neither did her baby. She has every right to keep it if she wants to. If you won’t help her, we will,” Johnny spoke in a low tone, his inflection sharp. Â
“This does not concern you. While I am grateful for the care you’ve given my niece, this is a family matter,” she replied just as sharply. Turning back to Hannah, her voice did not soften. “We will leave in two days for Ohio. I have already made arrangements with an orphanage in Cleveland.” She stood and strode to the stairs as Hannah’s eyes welled with tears.
They watched the woman ascend the stairs once more. Each person reeling with their own emotions. Hannah sat perfectly still as silent tears coursed down her cheeks.
Johnny stood and started pacing, his fingers tapping his thigh, his face a picture of rage.
“What am I going to do?” Hannah finally asked in a whisper.
Murdoch sighed and gave her a sympathetic look. “I’ll send for Jarrod in the morning. Maybe there is something he can do legally.”
“Legally,” Johnny snorted. He turned to his father. “Why can’t we just get her out of here?”
“You mean hide her?” Scott asked.
“Why not? She probably wouldn’t bother looking,” he tossed his head towards the stairs.
“Son, I know it’s frustrating, but you’re talking about kidnapping.”
“It ain’t kidnapping if Hannah wants to go.”
“He’s right, I can’t go back to Ohiio with her,” Hannah agreed.
“Wait, just wait all of you,” Scott interrupted. He stood and approached his brother. “I think we should wait for Jarrod, Johnny. There may be something he can do.”
“And if he can’t” Johnny challenged.
Scott stared at him then dropped his eyes for a second. Meeting Johnny’s stare once more, he smiled slightly. “Then, we’ll just have to get creative.”
Johnny relaxed and smiled back with a nod.
Murdoch was gone before sun up the next morning. He wanted to get word to Jarrod first thing. He left strict orders with his family to treat Mrs. Toliver with a modicum of respect. To that end, the brothers disappeared.
He returned at lunch time but his mood had not improved. The telegram crunched in his pocket told the story. There was nothing Jarrod could do. No one had to ask, the answer was plainly written on the rancher’s face.
Teresa knew and her heart sank as she served lunch to Murdoch, Hannah and Aunt Agnes. It was a quiet meal. Hannah and Teresa cleared the table and quickly went to the kitchen. Murdoch mumbled something about work and left himself to find his sons. He was opposed to sneaking Hannah off but he couldn’t help mull the idea over.
“Where is Hannah?” Mrs. Toliver asked from the kitchen door.
“She’s out in the garden, I believe,” Teresa answered.
Mrs. Toliver headed for the the back door which Teresa opened graciously for her. She nodded and smiled tightly at the young girl.
When she rounded the rose bushes, she saw them. Heads together, speaking in whispers. Her back stiffened.
“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded.
Hannah, Scott and Johnny all turned at the terse voice.
“Hannah, what are you doing?”
She looked confusedly at the older woman. “We were just talking.”
“Talking! A proper young lady does not consort with two men in such a private place. It is simply not done!”
“Madam, nothing unseemly is happening here, I can assure you,” Scott said, using his most civil tone.
She walked closer and looked hard at him. “You seem to be rather ….. civilized, Mr. Lancer. It seems out of place in this wilderness.”
Scott tried not to tighten his jaw. “I was raised in Boston.”
Her eyebrows went up at that. “Really? Well, Boston is quite lovely.” She turned her glare to Johnny. “And you?”
“And me what?” Johnny asked, not attempting to mimick his brother’s polite air. His hands went to his hips as he considered the woman. His brother’s casual brush against his arm was not lost on him. Even if it was a useless attempt on Scott’s part.
“My life is none of your business, lady.”
“You are quite hostile, aren’t you?”
“When I have to be. When someone tries to run someone else’s life, no matter what they want.”
She sighed heavily. “Why is it so hard for you all to understand what this means? Maybe it’s because you are men. An unmarried girl …”
“We know all that,” Johnny interrupted. “But all you can see is how this will look to other people. You haven’t for a second thought about what Hannah wants. This wasn’t an easy decision for her to make but she’s made it. Now, you come along and take that away from her. Why can’t you understand that she loves her baby?”
The challenge in his voice was unmistakable. Scott knew there was about to be a battle of wills and he wasn’t sure who would win. His hand went protectively to Hannah’s arm as he quietly backed her away a few paces. For her part, Hannah was stunned at what was happening and not altogether sure what indeed was taking place.
“I understand that she thinks she loves this baby. I also understand that keeping it will ruin her life. What chance will she have to ever marry? What man would want her?”
Johnny shook his head sadly. “Any man who can see her for herself and not for what’s been done TO her. Do you think so little of all people, Mrs. Toliver?”
Her face actually softened a little and she smiled. “Young man, when you have lived as long as I, you will understand exactly how people truly are.”
“I may be younger, ma’am, but I’ve seen the very best and the very worst in people. Boy, someone sure did a number on you,” he answered.
She turned her back then and lowered her head. Johnny was surprised by the reaction and he looked to his brother. Scott was equally surprised and didn’t know what to make of it. He could only shrug.
No one had noticed Murdoch standing at the corner of the house. He cleared his throat. “Boys, why don’t you take Hannah inside.”
Once alone, he approached the woman.
Straightening her shoulders, Agnes lifted her head and took a deep breath. Gathering her decorum, she turned to face him.
“I suspect my son hit a sore spot,” he smiled sympathetically.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she protested, nose going up.
Murdoch sighed softly. “Mrs. Toliver, it’s only you and me here now. Two adults. Why don’t we sit down and talk this through?”
Once seated on a bench, Murdoch decided his best course of action. “Johnny has had a hard time with everything that’s happened. He hasn’t had an easy life. He tends to take things to heart and he is very protective of those he views as being persecuted.”
“An admirable quality, I’m sure,” she responded stiffly.
Murdoch grimaced at her tone but plunged ahead. “He was forced to grow up too quickly. He was on his own for many years. He doesn’t think Hannah’s age is a factor. Only what she wants. He believes she has the right to make her own decisions even though she’s isn’t of legal age. While I understand this, I know it doesn’t work that way. Especially when you have a family to lean on.”
She turned to look at him. “He didn’t grow up here, I take it?”
“No, neither of my sons did but that’s another story. The point I’m trying to make, Mrs. Toliver, is this; Hannah is young and she has been protected by her parents from the realities of life. That probably wasn’t the best thing but I won’t judge that. She has been through hell and it was a painful journey to where she is now. It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make. I do want you to know that no one here tried to sway her one way or the other.”
“I see. But you are all ready to fight for her right to make that decision.”
“Yes, exactly,” Murdoch smiled.
She sighed heavily and looked out over the garden. “When I was seventeen, I fell in love. I wanted to marry but my parents forbade it. They didn’t like the man nor trust him with my future.” She smiled sadly. “I loved him so. I eventually married but it was never the same. I would never love anyone as I did him. Children were not in the cards for us. My husband died three years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Murdoch said.
She looked up at him. “Yes, I believe you are. Thank you. He was a good man but I can honestly say I didn’t love him. He was good to me and I to him. What I fear, Mr. Lancer, is that Hannah will end up in a similar situation. Never knowing true love. If she keeps this child, I worry that she will be alone for the rest of her life.”
“Mrs. Toliver, none of us can know what the future holds. You may be right. Then again, you may be wrong. As long as Hannah understands what might happen, shouldn’t the final decision be hers?”
She frowned as she dipped her eyes. After a few long silent moments, she nodded as if coming to a decision. “I’d like to talk with my niece in private.”
“Of course. I’ll send her out,” Murdoch said. He stood and hesitated a second, then walked away unsure what would happen.
Hannah came out and stood near her. “You wanted to see me?”
“Sit down, child. My dear, have you really thought this through? Do you have any idea what you are getting yourself into? A child is a wonderful idea. But, the reality of raising that child is much harsher than you could ever imagine. Especially alone.”
“I know it won’t be easy. I have thought carefully about this. Aunt, I just can’t bear the thought of giving my child away. Of abandoning it when I don’t have to. Mr. Lancer has made arrangements for me in San Francisco. He’s even offered to pay for my schooling. I can provide for this child.”
She looked at the girl with doubt. “If anyone is to pay for your education, it will be me. Your father and I did not get along, Hannah. I suppose you’ve figured that out. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love my brother. I see a great deal of his stubborness in you, as well.” She smiled at that.
“What if you never find a man to love? Have you thought of what having a child will do to your chances of finding true love?”
Hannah swallowed hard. “I thought I had found it but he doesn’t feel the same. It hurts but my child is more important. Maybe I’ll never marry, Aunt. But I have to give my child a chance to grow up with it’s mother. To know the love of a parent like I did. Isn’t that more important?”
Agnes smiled. Maybe she wasn’t so young and foolish after all. She took Hannah’s hand in her own. “Then I suppose the only thing to do is keep your baby. I would like very much for you to come with me, Hannah. My home is very nice and there’s plenty of room. A big yard with lots of trees. There’s even a school nearby. Would you do that?”
Hannah looked up stunned. “You …. you want me and my baby?”
“Yes, my dear. I was never blessed with children myself. I’d love to have a child in the house.”
Hannah nearly ran Teresa down as she flew through the door with her news. She dragged the other girl into the living room and told them all. Then, she and Teresa went upstairs to plan her trip.
Scott and Johnny looked at their father with wonder.
“How did you do it?” Scott asked.
“Get her to change her mind, sir?”
Murdoch shrugged. “Sometimes, boys, us grown ups really do know what’s best.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Bull. What did you say to that old ….. what did you say to change her mind?”
“He didn’t say anything. He listened,” Agnes answered from the dining room.
Johnny dropped his head, embarrassed she’d overheard.
“I owe you all an apology. I know I’ve been horrible. I suppose I needed to be reminded of a few things,” she said, glancing toward the patriarch.
Murdoch smiled. “Sometimes, our past can help us see the future.” His eyes went to his youngest with that comment. Johnny looked up and smiled.
“It seems my neice has a crush on one of you. I assume it is either Scott or Johnny,” she smiled and cocked a brow.
Scott smiled widely and she knew.
“We’ll be leaving as scheduled. I want to again, and more sincerely, thank you all for helping Hannah.”
“We were happy to do what we could,” Murdoch answered.
The next day, Scott and Johnny loaded the baggage on the back of the surrey as Murdoch assisted Aunt Agnes up.
Hannah and Teresa had their heads together with last minute goodbyes and promises to keep in touch. Finally, it was time to leave.
Hannah kissed Scott’s cheek and thanked him, then she went to Johnny.
He was standing at the back of the surrey, his arm draped casually over a suitcase as she approached.
“Well, this is it,” she sighed.
“Good luck,” he smiled.
“Thank you for everything, Johnny. Especially for putting up with my feelings.”
“Be sure and let us know if it’s a boy or a girl.”
She reached up and kissed him on the cheek, lingering near his ear. “I’m still in love with you.”
He blushed ever so slightly and nodded his head then helped her into the surrey. Â
The three of them stood and waved as Murdoch drove the women to town.
“What did she say to you?” Scott asked.
Johnny shrugged. “Nothing. Just thanked me.”
Johnny looked questioningly at his brother. “What?”
“Oh, nothing. It just occurs to me that you were very adamant about keeping your distance. It reminded me of a line in a play. Me thinks you did protest too much,” Scott paraphrased with a wicked grin.
“Brother, I don’t know what you’re talkin about. But then, that’s nothing new,” Johnny grinned and walked away whistling.
Scott frowned as his teasing did not evoke the reaction he’d hoped for. He stood there alone, trying to figure a way to get his brother’s goat.
We are pleased to announce the arrival of John Scott Nelson. Born August 8, 1871 in Cleveland, Ohio.
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