Willie jolted awake struck by the sudden need for a biscuit spread thick with marmalade. She rolled to face Scott, ready to wake him. Their wee one was hungry. He lay deep in sleep. Moonlight streamed through the parted curtain and flowed across his cheek and slightly parted lips. She watched as puffs of breath filled his cheeks until released in small bursts. Her finger traced the moons' path. His whisper of breath and the warmth of his skin reignited her passion sending her hand beneath the wedding quilt. Scott didn't stir; spent from their earlier dalliance. With a bit of persistence she knew she could rouse him, but in all fairness he deserved his rest. They'd have a lifetime.
Lancer was her home now but it was far larger than what she was used to in Spanish Wells and though she knew she was welcomed it felt odd to roam the darkened halls alone. She looked at Scott once more and snickered. He would well understand these feelings. In fact, he confided that he'd felt the very same when he first arrived. Murdoch had been far from welcoming. A stark contrast to the man she had come to know; though she did witness some of that surliness during his ugly quarrels with Johnny over the laudanum. Quarrels she felt partly responsible for since it was her idea to continue giving him small doses.
Her stomach growled, the marmalade had not been forgotten. She climbed from beneath the covers' warmth, but the chill did nothing to dissuade the craving. She pulled her pantaloons on beneath her nightdress and slipped Scott's discarded shirt over it. With a sharp tug she cinched her dressing gown tight about her waist. How much longer would that be possible? She took a moment to run her hand over her belly but the babe would have nothing of sentiment, she was hungry.
There was no need for a lamp. The full moon cast ample light, cascading down each step. Willie reached the kitchen and was in familiar territory. Even though the moon's glow did not reach directly she could see well enough to lift two biscuits from bread box in the larder. The marmalade sat on the table where she'd left it. She spread a cloth on the table, split both biscuits in two and slathered the halves. Marmalade oozed from the sides when she squeezed them together. Running her finger up the side of the knife she was careful to collect every last bit of gooey sweetness then licked her finger clean. Thoughts of Scott lying unclothed in their warm bed returned. Perhaps she should wake him after all.
The sound of pounding hooves caught her attention. She collected the corners of the cloth and carried the biscuits outside. The sight before her left her breathless. The full moon hung high above the blue-green hills casting a gossamer glow over everything it touched. Lancer truly was the most beautiful place on earth and she was blessed to call it home.
Snorts and more hooves redirected her thoughts.
"Easy, easy." Johnny's voice quieted the romp. It was coming from the small corral behind the barn. Joker flashed before her first as she rounded the corner. He raced along the rail. Johnny came into view a heartbeat later standing steadfast in the center, a rope coiled in one hand. "Good boy." Joker spun away and Johnny stepped forward tossing out an end of rope to pressure the horse into moving in the other direction.
Willie froze when Joker's ears flattened and he swung around heading for Johnny.
'It's okay, Joker, she won't hurt you." Johnny spoke without taking his eyes off the horse.
She took a few cautious steps then stopped to watch their dance. That's what Scott called it when he spoke of Johnny's way with horses. Soft spoken words, the flick of rope and tail, the spiraling circles, all came together as a beautiful dance. The only thing missing was music. "You make it look easy."
"Well, it ain't hard." He spoke as he circled around, his eyes following the dark bay. "Can't force him, he's too strong. Won't ever win that battle. He just needs to want what I want." Johnny stopped moving and Joker relaxed and stopped too. "He'd lost his trust in people; I'll get it back."
"Can't blame him, not after what he's been through. I watched the livery burn that night. Lou's no-good brother set the hay bales on fire and the place went up in seconds. I never knew horses could scream like that." The memory was one she'd never shake; their death cries gave her gooseflesh even now. "Heartbreaking."
"It is." Johnny looked done in. He bent to rub his leg and Joker approached. Johnny reached up and stroked his nose. "You're a good boy." He straightened and ran a hand over Joker's hindquarter. It was deeply scared from the flames. "I'm surprised he didn't die."
"He was the only one Lou managed to save, but it cost them both. The poor man's hands were badly burned as well. I'm not sure either would have survived without the other."
"Maybe, but the last thing Joker needed was to be penned back up in that stall. Not with the stench of the blacksmith next door." They were quiet for a moment and she watched Johnny. He leaned heavily against the bay and traced the scar with a trembling hand. "One gust of wind and he's living it all over again." Johnny sniffed at the breeze. It carried a delightful scent Willie was unfamiliar with. "A smell can bring back all kinds of memories. It might have been the cruelest thing Lou could a done."
"I'm sure that wasn't Lou's intention. He loves this horse."
Johnny scoffed. "Guess that's the problem then."
"How can love ever be the problem? That's unimaginable."
"Think I'll ask Alma to stitch up a saddle pad." His finger trailed across the deepest part of the scar. "Bet that's a lot of his problem right there. Saddle rubs him, must feel as uncomfortable as a burr." Johnny bent to climb between the rails. "Shouldn't a taken Remy to get me to look, I could a saved this boy a lot of grief if only I'd..."
"Since when is it your job to save everything that breathes, John Lancer?" As the question left her lips she regretted it. She sounded like her own mother and it was none of her business. And, no matter how close they'd become over these past few weeks, she had no right to the answer that was reflected in his eyes. She looked away. "I'm sorry."
"Willie." She felt his hand on her shoulder. "You've got no need to be sorry. You can ask me any question you want, but I got one rule."
She turned back to face him. "A rule?"
"Yup. You have to want the truth."
"What is the point in asking a question if you don't want an honest answer?"
"I don't know, but maybe you could ask Murdoch and Scott for starters."
At that moment Willie felt helpless. She heard the hurt in Johnny's voice and wondered what had he wanted to tell them that they refused to hear. There was little she could offer in the way of comfort. She looked at her hands and laughed a nervous laugh when she remembered the biscuits. "Seems I forgot all about why I got up in the first place. Would you like one?" she asked holding open the cloth.
He pointed toward the bench beside the barn. "First I need to sit. This leg's getting a bit ornery." He picked up a bucket from beside the pump, flipped it over in front of the bench and sat; putting his leg up. She passed him a biscuit and he licked at the marmalade that oozed out the edge. "Kinda funny you having a picnic by yourself in the middle of the night, ain't it?"
"I'm never by myself these days." She looked at him and smiled then took a bite from her biscuit.
He looked at her with a puzzled expression then understanding spread across his face. "I get it," he said. "That little guy." He waved his hand in the direction of her belly. "He's always with you."
"Little girl." She corrected.
"And just how do you know that?"
Willie took another bite and pondered the question. "I don't know. Just do, is all."
"Things sure are changing around here; Teresa and Maria leaving, you and Scott married, and a baby." He let go a soft whistle. Joker's ears perked and he wandered closer to their side of the corral. Together they sat in silence each nibbling at their biscuit. Willie watched as the moon drifted lower in the sky. The shadows it cast grew longer.
"Is it my fault, Johnny? Have I turned the Lancer world on its ear?"
"You sure have." He laughed. "Scott's world and Murdoch's will never be the same again and I don't think I've seen either one more proud."
She felt a blush color her cheek. "What about yours? And Teresa's?"
He stuffed the last of his biscuit into his mouth and didn't speak until it was gone. "Teresa's grateful. She's been ready to make a change for a while now, but there was little chance of Murdoch agreeing. He forgets she's got some of her mother's blood and this ranch was getting too small. You coming here gave her a ticket."
"And you?" she asked.
He yawned. "Don't know about you but I'm about ready for bed."
"Think I'll wait for my honest answer, if you don't mind."
"You sure?" he asked looking her in the eye.
"Wouldn't have asked otherwise," She said trying to sound cavalier.
Johnny dropped his head and pushed a breath through closed lips. "Lancer means a lot to me and I've been happy with the way things were for a long time." He met her gaze. "But, it was the need for change that brought me and Scott here in the first place and it's time for things to change again. Your being here just makes it easier."
"Easier? It makes what easier?"
Johnny looked from her to Joker. "Yup, that saddle pad will make a world of difference." His voice grew soft and Willie had to scrunch a little closer to hear. "Found a sketch of one in with Reba's things. Pity is she had the skills to make it." He sighed. "There was a lot of good in that girl."
"Most of us couldn't see it. Why could you?"
"Maybe I was looking in a mirror. She did a lot of bad things and she had a lot of bad things done to her. But before that, her life was sweet and it should have stayed that way and there is only me to blame."
"You're wrong. It was Grayson, no one else."
Johnny pushed up from the bench. "Thought you wanted the truth, guess you're no different."
"Wait." Willie placed a hand on his arm.
"Figured with you it wouldn't matter, guess your love for Scott's got you blinded too." Johnny stared at her.
She reached for his hand. "Johnny, I…"
"I'm cold," he said and disappeared into the barn.
She'd let him down. What he needed was someone to listen and believe, not someone to tell him he had things wrong. Earlier he'd said love was the problem and she couldn't imagine how that was possible. Now she understood. Scott and Murdoch needed to believe in the Johnny they knew and loved. Only problem was, Johnny didn't think that meant him.
He walked out of the barn wrapped in a blanket pulled from the Sunday buggy. He sat beside her and opened one side to let her in. She accepted his offer.
"Guess I didn't keep my end of the bargain, did I?" she asked.
"No, no you didn't."
"Tell me then. Tell me how this is not Grayson's doing."
"Because blaming him is the easy way out. Over the years I wanted to kill him more times then there are blades of grass on this ranch."
"What stopped you?" Surprise met her question; surprise mixed with relief and any misgivings she had faded away. This was right.
"Suppose there are as many reasons as chances, but it all boils down to one thing. I was selfish and I kinda felt I owed the man. But that night, in the saloon, everything changed. I made right on my mistake."
Their eyes met and she believed what he said. He was the one. He killed Grayson. Murdoch and Scott couldn't accept this truth. They loved him too much to believe he was capable of cold blooded murder and that hurt, hurt him more than he was willing to admit.
"I'll let you in on a little secret. Every time I pulled that trigger to take a man's life I believed I was doing it for the right reasons. Grayson was no different, it made no difference that he didn't have a gun, and it made no difference that it was what he wanted. I wanted it and…" He leaned his head back against the barn and closed his eyes. "I thought I could save her. Right up until she shot Love I thought there was hope."
"You can't save everyone."
"Maybe not but I have to try."
"Who needs saving now, Johnny?"
His eyes searched her face begging to find understanding.
"The boy?" Tears stung Willie's eyes when she understood what that meant.
Johnny shrugged. "Don't forget, I've got some of my mother's blood in me too. Wanderlust is a hard thing to tame."
"But… You can't go. Lancer is your home. You belong here."
"I do." He smiled. "And I always will."
"You need time. Your leg needs to heal, and your hands… they're still shaking. It would be dangerous for you."
"Don't worry. There's still things that need doing. And I have to meet that little bundle of hope you're carrying around inside. But, I feel the call and I won't let it go unanswered."
"I still don't understand why?" She wiped the tears from her eyes with the corner of the blanket. "Why do you need to save everyone? From Selma at the Painted Lady to Grace and her fear of horses there isn't a person in these parts you haven't tried to save in one way or another…"
Johnny stood and draped his side of the blanket over Willie. "You look cold. We best head inside."
She stood to follow. "Johnny, maybe it's time to be selfish, maybe it's you that needs saving."
He stopped then turned to face her. "Don't you think I know that?
Willie stood motionless watching as Johnny walked away. She had her answer. This was the only way Johnny knew how to save himself.
The End – Epilogue to follow