Authors: Shirl Henke
"We have us a whole new crop of thieves, it seems. Territory's going to hell in a hand basket."
Headly looked up at Germaine. "Has he eaten anything this past week?"
, some oatmeal." She shrugged. "He asked for
, then took only a few bites," she added, looking accusingly at the plate full of juicy pink beef.
"For now, stick with soup," the physician replied, watching her nod and leave with the tray.
"You need to see that specialist in Denver, Marcus."
"We've been over this before, Doc. I'm not leaving J Bar. There's not a damn thing any fancy doctor in Colorado can do for me. Only one thing would make me happy—and that's not likely to happen!"
To punctuate his last, bitter remark, the soft wail of a baby drifted in from the room down the hall where Lissa was nursing her infant son. Both men knew Marcus wanted his daughter to petition for a divorce from her husband and give up the baby to an agency back East. Then Lemuel Mathis would marry her. She steadfastly refused to cooperate.
Headly sighed at the look of intransigence chiseled on Jacobson's face. The stubborn old cuss would die of his own bile before he acknowledged what a fine grandson he had, but there was no use reopening that box of bees again. "I have to get over to the Elkins place. The missus is fixing to have another youngun' any day now. You have Germaine send for me if you feel worse. And keep taking that tonic I gave you. It might strengthen your heart."
When he had finished with Marcus, the doctor walked down the long hall to Lissa's room. Before he could knock, she opened the door. Although she smiled warmly at him, he could see the aching sadness in her eyes. Old Marcus had not been easy on her.
"How's my favorite new mother and that handsome little devil Johnny?" he asked, hearing a gurgle from inside the room.
"Johnny is just splendid," she said with a flash of real happiness shining in her eyes. She turned to the cradle beside her bed and lifted the kicking little bundle for inspection. "He's just been fed and is ready to drift off for his afternoon nap."
Headly inspected the thick cap of inky hair on the baby's head. Still, if he did not know the dark-skinned infant had Indian blood, he would probably not have guessed it. "He is thriving," the doctor said fondly. He had delivered Johnny, ignoring the cruel scandal and gossip that raged in Cheyenne over Marcus Jacobson's fallen daughter. "Wish I could say the same for his mother. You should go back to St. Louis, child. You could build a life for the two of you there."
She laid the sleeping baby in his cradle and walked down the back stairs with the doctor. "I guess it was a mistake, coming home when you wired me that Papa had the heart attack, but I hoped…" Her voice faded away in misery.
"You took a terrible risk, traveling through a blizzard eight months pregnant just to reach a man who has refused to acknowledge the existence of his own grandson."
"I couldn't let him die alone. I am his only family since his brother was killed in the Fedderman massacre."
"He's chosen to be alone, Lissa. Who do you have out here?" He wondered about her husband but said nothing.
"Old Vinegar Joe Riland, our chuckwagon cook, has been a loyal friend, but most of the hands, even Moss—well, they'll never forgive me for falling off my pedestal."
The doctor made a snort of disgust. "Durn fool place to put females, especially out here when we haven't got enough to go around as is. I debated about sending that wire. Probably shouldn't have done it, but then I wouldn't have had the chance to bring that youngun' into the world. What are your plans, Lissa? Do you intend to stay on in Wyoming?"
She sighed in perplexity. "I don't know. If Papa . . ." She swallowed painfully. "If Papa dies, then I'll have J Bar to think about. If he leaves it to me," she added in dull misery.
"He's still intent on your getting the divorce and giving up Johnny?" Although it was hard for Headly to believe, he knew Marcus would never change his mind.
"So he says, but so far he hasn't changed his will."
"He's just trying to wear you down. Don't let him." He did not want to say aloud that Marcus did not have much time left.
"You 'n Johnny are his only rightful heirs."
Her eyes took on the hardness of polished amber. "I'll hang on, Doc, for my son's sake. Someday J Bar will be his."
"You think of askin' Lemuel for help? Maybe if you agreed to marry him, he'd agree to adopt Johnny." The idea did not sound likely to Headly even as he suggested it.
She shook her head vehemently. "No. I'll never marry again."
He studied her as they stopped in front of his dusty old buggy. "You still love him, don't you, child?" he asked gently.
Her eyes glistened as tears slowly flooded them. She blinked them back. "I was young and foolish then, but I've had to do a lot of growing up fast. He didn't trust me enough to take me with him.
I'm learning to live without him. I have to for Johnny."
"But you still hope he'll come back one day." The elderly physician patted her hand. "You take care of yourself and that boy. He's a fine 'un, Lissa. I'll be by next week to check on your pa. Send word if you need anything."
She smiled. "Thank you, Doc. You've been a true friend."
As he rode away, Doc Headly thought it was a damn sorry day when the only people a spunky young woman like Lissa Robbins could call friends were a broken-down sawbones and a crotchety old coot like Vinegar Riland.
The next morning, Marcus summoned a visitor. When Lemuel Mathis rode up to the ranch house, Lissa was at Vinegar's mess kitchen with Johnny. Germaine showed Mathis upstairs. As soon as she had closed the door, they entered into an earnest discussion.
Unaware of their guest, Lissa returned to the house an hour later and headed upstairs to put Johnny down for his nap. Lemuel stepped into the hall and turned to face her just as she came in the back door.
Eyeing the sleepy-eyed, dark-haired baby with obvious distaste, he nodded stiffly. "Miss Lissa."
"It's Mrs. Robbins, Mr. Mathis," she replied with a dare in her voice, rewarded when he stiffened with shock at her audacity. She smiled wryly. "There's no use pretending a civility neither of us feels, just to spare my father's feelings."
"If you cared at all for him, you would consider his feelings," he shot back.
It was her turn to bristle. "If I did not love my father, I would never have come back here, believe me." She turned and headed into her room, but his words stopped her.
"After he has time to rest up, Marcus will want to talk with you about a matter of grave importance. If you do care for him as you profess, I urge you to consider his proposal very carefully."
Her heart skipped a beat but she did not respond. "Good day, Mr. Mathis."
When Marcus heard her knock several hours later, a bitter smile twisted his lips fleetingly. He had rested since Mathis left, storing up his badly waning energy for this. It would work, he could feel it in his bones. "Come in, Lissa."
"Lemuel said you had something to propose to me," she said tentatively to the cold stranger who had once been her indulgent father. How haggard and old he looks. Yet his pale blue eyes were as steely as ever.
"Rather, let's say I have terms for you, terms Lemuel has agreed to, although it took some talking to get him to agree, I don't mind telling you."
She sighed wearily. "We've been over this all before, Papa," she began, but he raised his hand, gesturing for her to be silent.
"You said you came back because you care for me.”
"You know that I do!"
"Then you'll honor my last request. I haven't got much time, Lissa—Doc Headly knows it and you should, too."
She felt tears burn her throat. Why does it have to end this way, Papa? "1 can't marry Lemuel—I'm already married."
"Lemuel is a close friend of Governor Hale. He's agreed to expedite a quiet divorce."
She shook her head. "I won't do it."
His face broke into a cruel smile. "Forget about your false protestations of love for me. Think of that boy in there." He gestured angrily toward her room where Johnny slept.
"That boy is your only grandchild," she said with growing unease.
He ignored her words. "You'll get the divorce and marry Lemuel—be damn lucky to have him take you with a breed's brat in the bargain."
"I'm going to pack, Papa. Johnny and I will go back to Aunt Edith—"
"I don't think they'll have you once I write them describing how you laid with a dirty half-breed killer and got yourself pregnant before he even married you."
She looked at him in dumb amazement, seeing the predatory ruthlessness he had never revealed to her before.
"Ever since I was a child, I heard the stories about how you led the vigilantes who hung nesters in front of their wives and children. I never believed my papa could do such things. I see now that I was deceived." Her face was chalky.
"All I care about now is J Bar."
"Maybe it's all you ever cared about," Lissa replied evenly.
"You lost all claim to my love the day you let that trash touch you. Heed my warning, Lissa. You and that boy will have nowhere to go. I'll put you out to starve—or to sell your tarnished wares in Cheyenne to survive. But then you still might starve. Most white men won't take greasers or gut-eater's leavings."
"That speaks well for your paragon, Lemuel Mathis," she replied. Trying desperately to think calmly, she decided to stall until she could have some time to gather her scattered wits. "If I agreed to marry him, what guarantees do I have that he won't turn Johnny out? I certainly won't rely on his word or yours."
"I'll rewrite my will tomorrow, guaranteeing your son a sizable inheritance in trust."
"Half of J Bar," she said coldly and was rewarded when he paled in surprise.
"I won't have that breed claiming this land!" He leaned forward in bed, then fell back, gasping for breath.
Lissa's resolve almost broke. She fought the urge to rush over and help him sit up, to soothe his labored breathing. Sitting still with her nails digging into her palms, she met his icy glare with fathomless, sad eyes.
Finally he countered doggedly. "You sign the divorce petition and I'll give your son half the ranch, provided you agree to sell his share for full market value to Lemuel—your husband."
Lissa did not want J Bar, but it was Johnny's birthright. She could not see him cheated out of it, left impoverished in a hostile white world as his father had been. If Marcus destroyed her reputation in St. Louis, she and her son would be destitute. If only she had some way to reach Jess. But he was gone, perhaps even dead by now. Marcus had tried to have him killed the day he left her in Cheyenne. Perhaps someone else had succeeded where he had failed. How ironic. When Marcus had told her about hiring Pardee, she had packed up and fled to St. Louis in shock and despair. Now there was nowhere left to turn.
"Draw up your papers," she said quietly, walking to the door without a backward glance, unable to bear the look of triumph glittering in his ice-blue eyes.
Just before the door to Marcus's room opened, Germaine sped away from it and down the stairs before Lissa caught her eavesdropping.
Late that night, while everyone on the ranch slept, Germaine Channault slipped from the big house into the shadow of the cottonwood trees at the edge of the backyard. A tall figure with light, wavy hair waited for her.
"You're late," he accused her.
"I had to be certain everyone was asleep."
He made a sound of disgust. "Just so you don't fall asleep from nipping too much at the old man's whiskey."
"How dare you—"
"I dare because I have the right, and you know it," he replied harshly. "Now tell me why you sent for me. I could be out taking down another hundred head off the east range tonight."
"The old fool is forcing her to divorce the breed," she hissed.
He smiled in the darkness. "That could fit right in with our plans ... if the old man dies as soon as she gets shut of Robbins. You could help him along. A pillow over his face in his sleep. You said he's weak as a newborn colt these days."
"How can you talk so?" she asked, her voice breaking.
"How can you hesitate now? You're the one who sent for me—had me hire Conyers to break J Bar."
"My plan did not include murder."