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Doc

 

 

Breathing
Part of the Widow series. Click here for the order of stories

September 2012 - Thanks to Karen for her insightful beta-ing

She sat on a tall chair in the garden with a sheet around her shoulders. Teresa combed her hair to make it lie smooth, then picked up the shears and nervously began cutting the longer tresses that had escaped the knife of Emily's attackers.

“It's OK, Teresa,” she said gently. “Even it all out.”

The younger woman continued tentatively snipping. “It's such a shame, Emily,” she said. “It's so unfair.”

Emily sighed, nodding. “But making it even now will make it look better faster, don't you think?”

“I think you're very brave,” Teresa replied.

“No, I'm not,” Emily said. “What choice is there? Life goes on. My hair will grow back.”

And it's almost time for me to go home. Her breath caught in her throat.



Later that afternoon she leaned against the corral fence, face to the warm sun, waiting for Johnny. She wondered what his reaction would be-she hadn't told him she was going to cut off the rest of her hair. 

She spotted him in the distance, riding in at collected trot. She loved the look of him on his horse-carrying his reins high above the saddle in his left hand, upper body curved forward a bit in his characteristic slouch. He waved when he caught sight of her. Dismounting, he handed the reins to a waiting vaquero and gave Barranca a final pat on the neck.

As he strolled over to her he opened his eyes in exaggerated surprise. “Whoa!” he said, reaching out and taking her by the waist. “You cut your hair!” His smile was easy  but she knew he was afraid of saying the wrong thing.

She smiled back. “How do I look?” She batted her eyelashes coquettishly.

“Like a 12 year old boy?” he offered tentatively, still smiling.

She pretended to slap him. He leaned down for a quick kiss. “I'm glad you cut it,” he whispered. “It'll grow back even prettier than before.”

“Thanks,” she whispered back.  “I hope I don't look like a 12 year old boy for very long.”



After dinner a few nights later, as they all relaxed in the great room, she told them that she was well enough to go home soon. She thanked them for their kindness. Murdoch and Scott both assured her she was welcome to stay as long as she needed. Johnny leaned against the wall of the fireplace, arms folded, legs crossed at the ankles. His lips were pursed as he chewed on the inside of his cheek. It was what he did when he was considering whether or not to say something. She met his eyes; he said nothing.

Instead, he shoved off the wall and walked past her, grabbing her hand and pulling her up off the couch. She had to trot a few steps to catch up with him; if it had been anyone else pulling her like that she would have jerked away.  He led her to the garden where Teresa had cut her hair. They sat on a stone bench by the wild lilacs; Johnny slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “Are you sure you're ready to go home?” he asked.

“I really should. I don't want to take advantage of your family's generosity any more than I already have.” She was glad her head was tucked under his chin so he couldn't see the tears in her eyes. A newly familiar tightness in her chest shortened her breathing. She thought of her ugly old dog and how he wouldn't be returning with her-the dog had died in the barn at Lancer and Johnny had buried him back at her place. She missed him. He had been a gift to her from Mr. Morris. A feeling of loss overwhelmed her. She had to remind herself to inhale.

Johnny's concerned voice interrupted her reverie. “You didn't answer my question. I don't figure it can be easy for you to go back there after what happened.”

“It's home. Where else would I go?”

“Stay here." He said it without hesitation." Stay as long as you want to.”

“And then what? Your family gets so used to me being around that it's like having another sister?" She pulled out from under his arm and sat up straight. "I don't want to be your sister!”

Johnny chuckled. “You could be my 12 year old brother instead,” he teased. Despite herself, she smiled.

 

Johnny's family had been concerned about her returning home alone. Teresa had tried to insist on staying with her for a while, but Emily was afraid to be responsible for the younger woman; she had been able to talk her out of it. Emily wished Johnny could stay with her as he had immediately after the attack, but they both knew it was challenging convention to even discuss such an arrangement.  Murdoch suggested she move into town but, as she had after Mr. Morris's death, Emily insisted her home was here, in her own house.  In the end Emily had won, as she usually did. Except that this time she almost wished she hadn't.

It was wonderful to be back home, alone, with her animals. They had been well cared for by the Lancer hands; Tramp and the other horses nickered at her warmly. She wandered through her barn and then through her house, making sure she had everything she needed to start living again. She missed her dog following her around. Once or twice she thought she heard him behind her.

After checking supplies in the kitchen, she stepped out onto the wooden porch Mr. Morris had built to remind her of their first home in Ohio. They had spent many evenings on this porch, rocking in the wooden chairs, watching the stars come out. She and Johnny liked to sit there and talk. It had been one of the old dog's favorite spots, too. She breathed in the familiar air and tried not to feel alone.

As the sun went down she went inside and lit the lamps in the front room. The walls were whitewashed and the furnishings light in color to capture as much illumination as possible. Mr. Morris had done that for her so she could read into the night. Her thoughts were scattered; she knew that this evening she would be unable to concentrate on words on a page. The shadows were darker than she remembered.

She had forgotten what to do. Her chest felt tight, and it was hard to breathe. She inhaled and filled her lungs with as much air as they would take. She wandered back into the kitchen and occupied herself making a cup of tea she didn't want.

When it was bedtime she was reluctant to undress. She tried not to think about why. She lay on top of her bed, fully clothed in the growing darkness. She listened to the familiar sounds of the night and wondered why they were suddenly so sinister. She'd lived here by herself after Mr. Morris was killed-had it really only been a year and a half ago? But now there was no dog to keep her company. It wasn't proper for Johnny to stay any more.

Sleep didn't come; she got up and walked slowly into the front room.

She sat in the lamplight and tried without success to slow her runaway thoughts. She remembered the fear she had felt when her attackers came. She remembered the pain of them hitting her, the shame and loathing when they raped her, her overwhelming sense of helplessness-and the fear that Johnny would die. She tore her mind away from that horror only to have other long-neglected memories take its place-the deaths of her mother and father, her husband... She spiraled down into the darkness inside until she became entangled in the secret thing that she had almost been able to forget.

 

Johnny arrived early the next morning. When his cheery “Heigh ho the house!” went unanswered he flipped  Barranca's reins around hitching rail and ran up the stairs, boots clomping. “Hey, Emily,” he called as he threw open the door, but his next words died in his throat as he saw her sitting motionless in the chair, staring blankly into space. She didn't look at him.

“Emily?” he asked softly, kneeling in front of her and gently taking her hands in his. She didn't respond.

He saw the sputtering lamps, a full cup of tea cold on the table. He knew from the bleating and snorting of the animals in the barn that they hadn't been tended to yet today. “Oh, Emily, honey,” he said sadly.

He rose to his feet, still holding her hands, pulling her to rise with him. She stood unsteadily for a moment before lifting her chin to look at him. “You're here,” she said. Her voice was quiet and hoarse. “I thought I was all alone.”

She drew in a breath to sigh, but it stuttered in her chest. It sounded like a sob.

 “Sometimes I don't think I can breathe.”  Her voice was so low he had to lean in to hear.

“What did you say, honey?”

“I feel like I'll forget to breathe and I'll just slip away.”

He pulled her into his arms and held her tight. “You had a bad night, didn't you?”

She nodded. “All night I stayed awake, remembering to breathe.”

“Good. You did real good. But you know what?” He pushed her away a little so he could see her face. He talked to her as if she was a frightened child. “I think you're not ready to be alone yet. What do you say? Do you want to come back with me for a while?”

“Johnny?” She didn't appear to have heard him.

“What, honey?”

“What if I'm going to have a baby?”

He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him; her next words nearly finished him.

“I had one, once.”

He looked at her, dumbstruck. “You had a baby?” he repeated.

She nodded. “She died.”

“Oh, honey...”

“I can't do that again. If I have another baby and it dies... I can't do that again.”

 She began to tremble and cry; Johnny led her to the couch and sat next to her. She gradually curled up in his lap, weeping, hands covering her face. He held her, rocked her, murmured sounds of comfort. At last her sobs quieted and she became silent, unmoving.

Johnny continued to hold her as if both their lives depended on it. Finally she pulled her hands away from her face to look up at him.

“There, now,” he said, his face solemn. “Any better?”

She nodded. “A little.”

She found she was still wrapped in his arms, her body folded in his lap. With a sniffle she straightened to sit on the couch beside him. He kept an arm around her.

“Do you want to tell me about your baby?”  he asked gently.

“I don't think I can right now,” she whispered.

“OK, OK,” he agreed.  They huddled in silence until a whinny drifted in from the barn, and Johnny remembered the neglected animals. “Why don't you lie down here and see if you can sleep? I'll go out and take care of the animals, and then I'll be right back so you won't be alone, OK?”

Wordlessly she nodded, and allowed him to lay her down on the couch. He slipped a pillow under her head and grabbed a quilt from her bedroom to cover her. By the time he tucked it around her shoulders she was asleep. There was a single tear on her cheek; he wiped it carefully away. 

 

She slept dreamlessly for several hours and awoke with the sense that she was being watched. With a start she sat up, heart pounding, to see Johnny sitting across the room, looking at her.

"Hey," he said.  He jumped up from the armchair to hand her a glass of water. Then he sat back down, studying her intently.

"How're you feeling?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," she replied. Not as scared as last night, but still not herself...she realized Johnny was talking again.

"The beasts are all OK," he was saying.  "Jughead tried to bite my butt and one of your goats nearly ate my hat, so everything is fine out there."

She smiled wanly. "Thanks."

He continued to look at her with concern; she sipped at the water, still trying to figure out how she felt.

"You look kinda lost, there, pretty lady," Johnny said with a hint of a smile.

She nodded. "That about covers it, "she whispered.

Johnny sighed. "What are we gonna do with you?" He moved over to sit beside her on the couch; she leaned into him gratefully. She took a deep breath, trying to chase away the clutching feeling in her chest.

His voice remained soft and gentle as he asked the question she dreaded. "Will you tell me about your baby now? I'd really like to know about her."

"What words are there?" she wondered; apparently she spoke aloud, because Johnny asked, "What was her name?"

"Rachel."

"Well, that sure is a pretty name." Johnny offered in an effort to keep the conversation going.

Emily struggled to respond. "We were going to call the baby Andrew if it was a boy, and if it was a girl we were going to call her Susan. Except when she was born I looked at her and she didn't look at all like a Susan, so I called her Rachel."

"Just like that, huh?" There was warmth in his tone; she drew strength from it.

 "Just like that." She remembered the feel of the baby in her arms, how she snuggled into Emily's neck. She would give anything to feel that again.

"How old was she when she died?" Johnny's calm question pulled Emily out of the dark place that threatened her.

"Four months. She was just learning to move her fingers in front of her eyes and watch them."

"I bet that was real cute." He smiled a little at her. "I bet you were a good mama."

"No. I wasn't good enough. It didn't seem right that I could keep on living and she was gone."  Emily felt her throat constrict and was glad Johnny was there, keeping her from the abyss.  "She wasn't even sick. She just didn't wake up one day. The doctor said she just slept away, that babies do that sometimes. They just quit breathing..."

They sat silently for a while, Emily lost in thought. Rachel had been gone for nine years. Mr. Morris had never spoken of her after the funeral. Today, with Johnny, was the first time she had spoken Rachel's name since leaving Ohio, and that had been five years ago.

"Do you think you might be carrying another child?"

She took a deep breath before answering, "I don't know. I started thinking about it last night and I couldn't seem to stop my mind going around in circles. I don't want to be. I mean, I know people do it, and they love the baby, but how can they? How is it not a reminder of...of..."

Johnny leaned forward, elbows on knees, head bowed. He clasped his hands together and spoke without looking at her. "Emily, I think we should get married."

He felt her stiffen beside him. She didn't say a word.

He turned to her and trapped her hands between his. "I was thinking about this in the barn," he said earnestly. "Things are real complicated right now, but the problems go away if we're married. You won't have to worry about being by yourself, and if you're gonna have a baby we can raise it..."

She pulled her hands abruptly away from his. "Stop. Just stop it, Johnny."

He was shocked by the sharpness in her voice. There was an anger in her eyes that he didn't understand. "Stop what?" He sat back from her a little, searching her face for a clue about why she was upset with him.

"Don't do this to me." He couldn't remember Emily raising her voice to him before. "Don't sit there and offer to marry me to save me from myself. I can take care of myself!"

"No, honey, you can't." Johnny's voice became more insistent. He leaned closer to her; she leaned away. "But you don't have to try any more. Don't you see-if we get married..."

"I said stop!" Emily shouted as she jumped to her feet. "I'm so tired I can't see straight, and I'm afraid I'm half crazy, but I know when I'm being patronized!"

Baffled, Johnny tried to keep his temper. "I'm not patronizing you! I'm proposing to you!"

She glared at him. "No. That was not a proposal. That was an insult." She pushed past him and made for the door, shaking off his hand as he grabbed her arm. She ran to the barn and he started to follow, but confusion made him hesitate. Why was she running from him? He felt rooted to the porch as she pulled Tramp out of the barn by the reins. He watched as she climbed up bareback and rode away without a glance in his direction.

Barranca whinnied shrilly from the hitching rail in front of the house, unhappy at being left behind by his riding buddy. Johnny walked slowly down the steps to comfort the horse, shaking his head.

What the hell just happened?

 

Emily rode hard away from Johnny, to a meadow where she could turn Tramp around little shrubs in tight circles. Every time he circled a bush she kicked him down a straightaway and then reined him to a sliding stop, only to pivot him back to another bush. It was difficult to do bareback, but the horse's sweat provided enough friction to keep her from sliding off. The concentration it required helped take the edge off her anger.

She realized in time she was overdoing it. Her legs were trembling, and Tramp was blowing and lathered. She walked him cool before heading down a hill to a nearby stream. Sliding down, she pulled off the bridle to keep the bit clean while Tramp sucked up the water. Sated, he began pulling at the grass growing on the bank. If he headed back home it wasn't too far-she could easily walk back.

Emily sat cross-legged and gazed out over the water, steadying her breathing and her thoughts. The inseams of her trousers were wet and filthy with dust and horse sweat; they felt bad and smelled worse. But the exercise had cleared her mind. Her anger was fading. It was a sunny day, and for the first time since last night she was beginning to feel like herself.

"That was some ridin'," came a casual drawl from behind her. With a silent groan she got to her feet and turned to face Johnny. He stood on the rise, grinning, holding a wicker basket in his hands. "Too bad you didn't get anywhere. Shouldn't have turned all those circles-you'd be halfway to San Diego if you'd kept in a straight line." He set the basket on the ground beside him, and put his arms out in a gesture of invitation.

Inwardly, for just an instant, Emily damned Johnny's irresistible ways. She'd intended to stay a mad at him until she figured out...well, something. Now here he was. He'd even brought her a picnic. She couldn't help herself-she smiled back at him and met him halfway. Wrapping her arms around his waist she melted into the security of his arms. She listened to his heart beating and felt his lips kissing the top of her head. For a moment she felt at peace.

They found a flat spot to spread the old blanket Johnny pulled out of the basket. He'd also brought some bread, apples, and a skin of water. Until she saw the food she hadn't realized she was hungry. They ate without talking, sitting side by side on the blanket and watching the sun sparkling over the water. The silence grew between them until she said, "You don't even know what you did to make me mad, do you?"

"No, ma'am, but I'm very sorry and I won't do it again," he answered with his most charming smile, ducking his head like a guilty little boy.  "Besides, I'm pretty sure you're gonna explain it to me, aren't you?"

"Oh, you bet I am! But not right away." The joking tone faded from her voice. "Can we just sit here and enjoy the day some more?"  With a small sigh Johnny  gathered her once again in his arms.  

From the safety of his embrace she remembered another day a lifetime ago, when she and Johnny swam together. She made him a promise that day. Violence had interrupted their relationship soon after, and it seemed they had been existing in limbo ever since. Johnny-kind, sensitive, compassionate Johnny-had rarely touched her since, except to offer the same comfort a brother would offer a sister.

But she remembered how he touched her that day in the water; for the first time since she was raped she remembered it without the overlay of disgust and terror that had been the legacy of that attack. She remembered his breathtaking kisses, the feel of his bare skin against hers.

Remembering, she wanted it again.

She rose to her feet and invited him to do the same. When she first put her lips to his, he returned her kiss gently, almost chastely. But she pressed against him more insistently; her mouth opened, her tongue searched, and he pulled back, surprised. 

"Do you remember the day we went swimming?" she asked. He nodded, breathless.

She smiled. "I promised you that when I was finally ready, you would be the first to know."

Taking a deep breath, she looked deeply into his blue eyes and said, "It's time."

He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her again. "Now?" he breathed. "Here?" She nodded, and he continued to kiss her mouth, her eyes, her ears, her neck. He kissed her with the love and passion she longed for. Carefully he helped her remove her clothes-all of them, this time; she did the same for him. Once her skin was against his she marveled at how his touch could be both gentle and exciting. He guided her slowly down onto the blanket where he continued his unhurried exploration of her body. She had never experienced such tenderness or such pleasure. Her love for him brought tears to her eyes. He saw them and asked, "Are we OK?" She smiled at him and said "Oh, yes," and pulled him closer.

 

Afterward they lay together on the blanket in the lush grass. She was soaking her riding trousers in the creek but had put her undergarments back on; Johnny was shirtless. Emily lazily ran her fingers through the thick hairs on Johnny's bare chest, enjoying the sensation and appreciating the firm muscles under his skin. He laced his hands behind his head and gazed at the cloudless blue sky. "You surprised me, pretty lady," he said.

'I surprised myself, too,' she thought. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" she asked aloud.

"It's a good thing. A very good thing." His grin was impish. "Didn't you think so?"

"Oh, yes! A very good thing!" she said. She raised up on one elbow so she could look down at his face. "Thank you."

He lifted his head off the ground. "You're welcome, but what for?"

She didn't answer. Johnny looked at her with a lopsided smile; then he, too, got up on one elbow. He kissed her slowly. "Really," he said quietly. "Why are you thanking me?"

"For making me feel so beautiful." She sighed and averted her eyes. "For waiting for me. For saving me. I've felt so bad lately, especially last night. I was so scared..."

"Well, you've been through a tough time." Johnny said softly, reassuringly. He ran a finger across her cheek. "It's one thing to feel all right when you're surrounded by people like at Lancer; it's real hard to deal with things when you're alone in the dark."

"Is that the voice of experience?" she asked him.

Johnny smiled ruefully and gave a short nod.

"Somehow I don't see you falling apart like I did last night," Emily said. She reached out to push his dark bangs off his forehead.

"Nope, never. " His rueful smile broadened. "Although there was one time I was sleeping rough, and in the middle of the night my camp was invaded by snakes. I shot five rattlesnakes that night. When the sun came up I found I'd shot my lariat to pieces." He chuckled, and was happy to see her smile back at him.

"I'm real glad to hear that. If Johnny Madrid can have a bad night, I guess I can too."  Her smile faded.  "I can take care of myself, you know," she said seriously. "You made me mad when you said I couldn't. You made me mad when you said you wanted to marry me so you could take care of me."

Johnny drew in a breath as if to answer her; then she saw him chew on the inside of his cheek as he sat up and crossed his legs Indian style, and she knew he had decided to keep quiet.

"Mr. Morris married me to take care of me. It was the right thing for me to do, then. But I'm older now, and I know...I just know more. Being with you makes me realize how much more there is for me than a marriage of convenience."  She matched his position so she could reach for his hand; she held it tight. "When you ask me to marry you, I want it to be because you can't live another minute without me. It needs to be because we want to be together for the rest of our lives-not out of your sense of obligation to an unborn child I may or may not be carrying, and not because I'm afraid of the dark!"

As she spoke Johnny lowered his head and studied the blanket without expression. She still held his hand and it was warm and real in her grasp, but a cold fear struck at her heart. When she was done he was silent for a while; then he took a deep breath and began to talk without looking at her.

"I'm sorry I don't always have the right words to say what I mean."  His voice was soft and quiet as smoke. "But I won't apologize for what I said. I never meant to make you mad or belittle you. But a man wants to take care of what's precious to him, Emily. I want to take care of you because nothing in this world means as much to me as you do."

He raised his head to look at her, his eyes sparkling like the sun on the water; the fear in her heart melted away in their warmth. "I can't live another minute without you," he said with a smile. "I want to share everything I have with you. I want you to share everything you have with me. I want to remember Rachel with you."

As he continued she heard laughter in his voice.  "I want us to remember that ugly old dog together. I want us to have lots of kids and dogs and horses and flowers, and I want you to read all the books in the library, and I want to laugh and cry with you and grow old with you."

He shifted his legs suddenly to kneel in front of her, making her laugh because it made him tower over her as she sat cross-legged.

 "Marry me, Emily," he said.

She threw her arms around him. "You said it just right, Johnny. Of course I will marry you."

The words came as natural as breathing. 

 

 

~ end ~

Part of the Widow series. Click here for the order of stories

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