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ZoeyT

 

 

A New Generation

Deathfic so don't start this series if you don't want to go there.
I don't, of course, own the characters or any rights beyond the pleasure of sharing this story with other Lancer fans .

Second in the Guardian Series

The afternoon was dark and bleak as only February can be. Beyond the window, a frigid mist mingled with the low, gray sky, coalescing into a dreary, vaguely menacing shadow world. The dismal scene added to the loneliness and unaccustomed depression of the young woman gazing out. Intermittent showers of near-freezing rain further obscured the winter-brown countryside and pattered against the house.

Petite and pretty, long, dark hair pulled back loosely from her face, Teresa O'Brien Whitaker shifted once again in a vain attempt to find a comfortable position before resting her head on the high back of the big, well-stuffed chair. Her knitting, forgotten for the moment, lay on a small table beside the chair. She tugged a thick shawl closer around her shoulders, twisting her hands into the soft wool before resting them atop her gravid midsection.

Despite the blaze crackling in the nearby fireplace, Teresa felt cold. These days she was always cold . . . and aching . . . and all too often nauseous . . . and . . . just plain tired. She had not slept well the previous night, tossing and turning as vague aches and cramps plagued her. Today had not been any better, although she had not mentioned her discomfort. Why complain when she couldn't really say what was wrong other than being pregnant? Everything seemed to hurt, from her swollen feet to her aching back to her throbbing head. She sighed, tugging again on the shawl and snuggling down further in the chair.

Determinedly, the young woman turned from the cold grayness outside to the bright warmth within, fixing her eyes on the fire and her thoughts on her family. The soothing combination brought a smile to her pale face.

Daniel Whitaker had gifted his second son with 300 acres from the northern portion of the LD Ranch. The snug house had been a wedding present from Teresa's family. Slightly more than five miles from the main house of the LD, it was just the right size for newlyweds and designed to grow with a family.

It was on this spot that Garth had proposed. Closing her eyes, she could see his handsome, earnest face framed by wavy dark brown hair and hear the deep, mellow voice explaining in soft and obviously long-thought-out words that it was his favorite spot on the ranch and she was the one woman he wanted to share it with. She could still see the trepidation in those clear gray eyes before they dropped from hers in an endless moment of lump-swallowing uncertainty. And, of course, she remembered the sparkle in those eyes, the flashing smile splitting the sun-browned face when she said "Yes." And the feel of those strong arms holding her close. How she longed for them now! Held secure in those arms, Teresa felt loved and protected and safe and confident about the future. Nonsense though she knew it to be, in Garth's arms, she always felt as though nothing bad could touch her . . . those arms were her strength and her shelter and they could protect her from anything.

Gazing around the room cheered her; everywhere were reminders of how fortunate she was in family and friends. Her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law had helped her choose some of the furnishings from catalogs but most had been made by local craftsmen or the hands of those same families and friends. Needles and fingers had flown for miles around producing quilts, rugs, tablecloths, and linens.

Concerned by her constant chills, her husband and brothers-in-law had provided enough wood to keep the house warm through three winters. Just five days ago the day before Garth left on a business trip - yet another gift had arrived in the form of her seventeen-year-old sister-in-law to keep her company in the final month of her pregnancy.

Lorena was a pretty young woman, and thanks to her mother's tutelage better educated than most girls in the valley. More important than "book learning" to the several young men in hot pursuit of her hand, she was known to be level-headed and well versed in all the responsibilities of a ranch wife. Right now, she was determined to make her sister-by-marriage as comfortable as possible, especially with Garth absent.

Both the Whitakers and the Lancers had tried to convince Teresa to stay with them for these final weeks. Both families were concerned by the fact that heavy rains not unusual in winter would flood both the creek and the river, isolating the small house. Teresa had been fiercely adamant that Garth's child would be born in their house on their land. At his mother's urging, Garth had made one concerted effort to persuade his wife before succinctly informing all concerned that he wasn't going to carry his wife screaming and fighting out of the house.

So here she sat on this miserable winter afternoon, staring into the fire, absently toying with a bracelet of intricately braided horsehair. Twined in the exquisitely worked strands were silver beads and polished crystals and a tiny silver medallion of the Virgin. Tracing the patterns in the braiding and gently fingering the beads summoned the company of happy memories; memories of her eighteenth birthday and the young man who had made the bracelet for her.

She remembered his bent head, shy smile barely discernible, as his nimble fingers fastened the bracelet around her wrist. That soft, musical voice telling her the medallion had been blessed by the priest. And the crystals . . . was he actually blushing? . . . the bruja put a spell on them to bring good luck. "And everyone knows leastways where I grew up that silver wards away evil." It would protect her, he said, when he wasn't around. He scuffed a boot and the smile widened a bit, taking on a sheepish quality. The blue eyes were impish when they peeked from beneath the long lashes. "Now don't go tellin' anybody. The padre finds out I went to the bruja, he'll be callin' down fire and brimstone on me. And if the bruja hears I didn't think her charm was enough, I'll be findin' scorpions in my boots or some such."

Teresa had laughed and flung her arms around his neck. Planting a gentle kiss on his cheek, she said "Thank you, Johnny. It's beautiful. And don't worry. I can tell everyone you made it for me without mentioning the rest. That's just between us."

Garth was, without doubt, the love of Teresa O'Brien's life, the other half of herself. Murdoch Lancer was a second father a bulwark of love and protection. Scott was the brother of her heart, always there; ready to listen, to comfort, to laugh, and to help. But Johnny was . . . brother . . . friend . . . Johnny.

Cocooned in the love and security of her small world, the mother-to-be drifted to sleep.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

The pain brought her upright with a gasp, her hand instinctively clasping her distended stomach. Panting in confusion as much as fear, she waited . . . for what she wasn't sure.

In the next instant, certainty overwhelmed her as surely as the gripping pain. She tried to rise only to fall back into the chair, closing her eyes against rising panic. Too soon . . . too soon . . . too soon!

"Lorena!" What was meant to be a shout for help emerged as little more than a gasp. Lorena would never hear her. Steeling herself, Teresa tried again. "Lorena!"

Hurried footsteps approached from the direction of the kitchen. A moment later, Lorena appeared in the doorway, a smile lighting her pretty face. "You're awake! Would you like some tea and ..."

The worlds stumbled to a halt as the girl realized something was wrong. She moved swiftly across to where her sister-in-law huddled in the overstuffed chair. "What's wrong, Teresa?"

"The baby," Teresa gasped. "I think the baby is coming."

"Oh, no. No. No." Lorena turned back to the parlor door. "Sofia! Ven aquí! Date prisa!"

By the time the housekeeper handpicked by the Lancer housekeeper, Maria hurried into the room, Lorena was kneeling in front of the chair, her warm hands clutching Teresa's cold ones.

Sofia was a small woman; a middle-aged widow. Her face was rounded and kind, the dark braids wrapped around her head threaded with silver. When Maria had approached her about the position in the new Whitaker household, the energetic woman had been happy to leave the small ranch on which she and her late husband had raised eight children to her eldest son and his family. Her daughter-in-law was a capable woman who chafed a bit at her mother-in-law's constant presence. Sofia relished the opportunity to be really needed again.

Taking in the situation at a glance, the housekeeper hurried to Teresa's side. "Está bien, querida. Todo estará bien." She slipped her arm around her charge's waist, lifting. "Ven conmigo."

Lorena hastened to take her sister-in-law's other arm. Sofia kept up a steady stream of reassuring chatter as they maneuvered the unsteady woman up the stairs and into the main bedroom. Settling Teresa into a chair near the fire, Lorena hurried to stir up the blaze while Sofia turned down the bed and warmed it. In short order, Teresa was dressed in a flannel nightgown and tucked in, leaning back on several plump pillows.

"Try to rest," Sofia instructed, patting a small hand. "I will make you some tea that will warm you and help you relax."

As she headed for the door, Sofia beckoned to Lorena. "Senorita Lorena, I will need your help."

"We'll be right back," Lorena promised with a smile she hoped was convincing.

Once in the kitchen, Sofia grasped the younger woman's arm. Keeping her voice low, she said "Go quickly! If you can get across the river, tell su madre to send for the doctor. And be careful, Senorita; the river will be high. Do not take foolish chances. If the ford is flooded, come back. We will manage."

Lorena nodded and slipped back upstairs to change into riding clothes. She raced lightly down again to lift her heavy wool coat, scarf, and gloves from a hook in the entry hall. Back through the kitchen where Sofia was making preparations and across the porch and muddy yard to the barn, head lowered against misting rain.

Ducking through a small door, she sighed in relief. The barn was warm and fragrant and Ghost nickered a greeting, hanging her head over the door of her stall. Across the aisle, Teresa's palomino mare, Belleza, also nickered, hoping for a treat.

Lorena patted the golden nose in passing, then turned to unlatch Ghost's stall. The dappled gray mare moved obligingly into the aisle and stood quietly while the saddle was hefted into place and the bridle slipped over her ears.

Pushing open one of the big main doors, Lorena led Ghost out. The horse balked momentarily at leaving the warm barn, but she was well-trained and followed her rider into the raw afternoon. After securing the door, Lorena turned to find Ghost looking back at her. The horse shook her head and snorted as if to say "Are you sure this is really necessary?" Despite the situation, the young woman laughed.

Gathering the reins, she patted the already damp neck. "I know how you feel, girl, but Teresa needs us to get this done. With that she mounted and urged the horse toward the river.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Garth Whitaker tugged his hat further down over his eyes and shivered, cursing the bursts of wind-driven rain that found their way beneath his slicker to soak the collar of his fleece-lined coat and the shirt beneath. His pants were soaked past the knees, his legs and feet numb. A wet-gloved, equally numb hand patted the soaked neck of the big bay horse.

"Sorry about his, boy," he told the animal. "I know its miserable but we should be home by dark tomorrow and you can settle into a nice warm stall with a nice warm mash. With plenty of molasses. Promise."

Roja snorted, ears flicking back in what struck Garth as an eloquent expression of equine sarcasm and the man felt more than heard a grumble of aggravation from his weary mount.

The two rode on, the only sounds the creak of wet leather and the squelch of hooves in the mud. Garth cursed again and fought down the compulsion to urge Roja to a faster pace. The heavy overcast meant darkness would come early, slowing them even more, but he dared not push the horse on the muddy, rain-slick footing. The man raised his eyes enough to be certain of their path across the brown, rolling landscape. A sigh escaped him.

"I know you think I'm weak-minded, dragging us both out in this, but I can't help worrying about Teresa. I know she's not due for another month and I know she has Lorena and Sofia and Mama's only five miles away, but, dammit . . . I just know she needs me. Another sigh. Something's wrong and I'm her husband and I should damn well be there!"

The horse snorted again and shook his head, foggy breath billowing off into the misty afternoon. Garth chuckled. "Is that a comment on the stupidity of humans, the miserable weather, or both?"

Receiving no answer, the man fell silent again. Concentrating on his wife rather than his present misery . . . even more of mind than of body . . . helped. He knew exactly why he felt so driven to get home . . . and at the same time, he couldn't have explained it had his life depended on it.

The business trip had been unexpected but the opportunity was too good to pass up. His father could not go, being laid up with a severe cold and his older brother, Robert, had taken his wife and children to visit her parents. Garth was only supposed to be gone five days. Teresa was not due for another month and she was well looked after. Still . . .

The meeting had gone well; the deal was closed and Garth was anxious to head home despite the cold and intermittently heavy rain. His host had urged him to wait another day at least on the chance the weather would clear. It had seemed like good advice last night, given the dangers and discomforts of riding in such abysmal weather. But later, Garth woke abruptly from a sound sleep with a bone-deep certainly that he been spoken to and . . . touched?

Rubbing sleep from his eyes, the young man searched the shadows, finding nothing more menacing than a dresser and a wardrobe in the dim light of the banked fireplace.

He sighed and snuggled back down into the warm feather mattress, pulling the heavy quilts up to his ears. A dream. That was all . . . a dream. He was anxious about Teresa. The name conjured a picture that brought a sleepy smile to his lips and a longing for the warmth of her small body snuggled next to him. Just a few more days at the most and he would be home where he belonged, holding his wife in his arms in their own bed. Just a few more days.

Toss . . . turn . . . it was only a dream . . . you're just an anxious first-time father . . . you're restless because you haven't done anything all day except talk business and play cards . . . you know she's well cared for . . . toss . . . turn . . . it was only a dream . . . toss . . . turn.

With an exasperated curse, Garth surrendered. Sitting up, he lit the bedside lamp, surveying the room in the soft light. Shaking his head, the young man pulled the top quilt around his shoulders as he considered. What's wrong with me? Why am I sitting here in my longjohns in the middle of the night the cold night losing sleep over a dream?

Aggravation warred with unease. Garth Whitaker was not a man prone to uncertainty or superstition. Yet uncertainty and a nameless sense of threat roiled in his stomach, chilling him more than the damp night air.

Something was wrong. For the first time in his life, the pragmatic rancher was utterly convinced of a threat he could not see, hear, touch, or lay name to. Something was wrong and he had to get home.

He lifted his pocket watch, a gift from his father on his twenty-first birthday, from where it lay next to the lamp. Four a.m. He grunted at the delay. Given the time of year and the weather, it wouldn't be light for nearly three hours. Riding across unfamiliar country in the moonless dark was asking for disaster even without the rain. Nonetheless, there would be no going back to sleep.

The unease subsided a bit as Garth placed the watch back on the table and began to dress. He could have his gear packed and be ready to go at the first hint of light. It would be hard riding but he had to get home. He had to . . . Teresa needed him. Of that he was certain; more certain than he had been of anything in his entire life . . . except, of course, for the certainty that Teresa was the woman he wanted to build a life with.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Ghost moved steadily through the miserable afternoon. Lorena hunched in her coat, squinting into the foggy mist, and quietly echoing her brother's curses. In an unconscious effort to avoid stewing on the current situation, her mind lit on the thought of what Mama would say if she could hear her daughter's muttering. She'd skin me alive! In spite of the circumstances, a smile twitched her soft lips. Growing up on a ranch with their father, four brothers, and a gaggle of ranch hands, it was pretty much inevitable that Lorena and her sisters had heard all manner of unsuitable things. On a few memorable occasions, Mama herself had been driven to utter some pretty unsuitable things. Nonetheless, everyone at the LD minded their manners and their tongues around Miz Letty; and her daughters. The consequences of Mama actually hearing such words from one of her daughters did not bear thinking about.

The errant thoughts came to an abrupt halt as Lorena realized that the sound intruding on her wandering consciousness for the last several minutes was the river. Harsh reality brushed away any hint of humor as Ghost halted of her own accord well short of the muddy torrent rolling over what was usually a grassy meadow. The river, normally a sparkling expanse, not more than hip-deep here at the ford, was now an ugly, violent maelstrom filled with debris.

The young woman sat stunned, staring at the nightmare before her. Obviously, the rain had been far heavier in the mountains than here in the valley. There was no way . . . simply no way . . . to get across. Even if they could avoid the uprooted trees and other debris, she and Ghost would be swept away by the roiling current before they were halfway across.

Lorena briefly considered her options. Even if she somehow managed to get safely across and reach the main ranch, it was a good bet the water was still rising. She and Mama would never get back across, much less the doctor - if he was even in Green River to be fetched - in which case Sofia would be alone with Teresa. And if she didn't make it . . . if she and Ghost were swept away by the current or pulled under . . .

Determination firmed the jaw beneath the scarf and sparked in gray-green eyes. There would be no help. It was up to Sofia and Lorena herself to safely deliver Teresa's baby. Sofia was experienced with midwifery . . . Maria would not have chosen a women who wasn't for her beloved daughter-of-the-heart . . . and Lorena had assisted in the delivery of her older sister's two children in addition to all the foals and puppies she had helped with over the years. They would manage.

Resolutely, she turned Ghost back and urged the horse to a faster pace. Please, God, let it be enough , she prayed. Let us be enough!

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Sofia returned the bedroom to see her young mistress clutching the covers in tiny fists, her eyes closed and jaw set against the latest surge of pain.

The woman hurried to sit on the bed, taking the fisted hands in her own. "Breathe, chica. Breathe deeply and think warm thoughts. Think of su marido. He will be here soon. I know it. And then your niño will be born and you will hold her in your arms. Ah, there is no feeling like that, querida. Eight children I have borne and each time it was the same and also different." You will see."

The quiet confidence of the soft, familiar voice soothed the frightened young woman. The pain eased and she slumped back against the pillows. When Sofia handed her a glass of water, Teresa drank gratefully. When she finished, Sofia placed the glass back on the bedside table and reached for the cup of medicinal tea.

Smiling over the rim of the cup, Teresa said "You've been saying for months that it's a girl so I won't argue about that. But how can it be the same and different?"

Sophia sighed, seeking a way to explain. "The joy is always there," she told the younger woman with a smile. "But the love - you will see there is nothing like it; different from your love for Senor Garth or Senor Murdoch or your brothers. And each child is a gift from God; each is different and so is your love for that child. You will see."

In the next instant, Sophia grabbed the cup, setting it quickly aside before grasping Teresa's hands to help her through the next contraction.

When it was over and Teresa was settled again, Sophia took the empty cup and hurried back to the kitchen to check on her preparations.

Melting down into the pillows, Teresa again fingered the bracelet as she waited for the next surge of pain. Blessed . . . ward off evil . . . protect you . . . Please, bring Garth . . . please . . . I need him . . . please . . . Had she been asked in that moment, the young woman could not have said whether she was beseeching God, the Holy Mother, the bruja's spirits . . . or the brother whose love and strength were as tangible as the bracelet on her wrist. She only knew she needed Garth.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Dusk was shading into full dark by the time Lorena led Ghost back into the barn. The cold, wet pair was greeted with equine nickers and a mournful bawl from the back of the barn. Lorena unsaddled Ghost, gave the horse a quick rubdown, and threw a blanket over her. As she settled the blanket, a sleek form dropped into the manger with a soft thump and a calico head peeked out. "Meow!"

The young woman smiled in spite of herself. "Hello, Callie. Keeping dry?"

"Meow!" The feline vaulted nimbly to the top of the stall partition and made her way toward Lorena even as the girl slipped out of the stall and latched the door. The next, more insistent, "Meow!" as the cat leaped to the door, was drowned by another aggrieved bawl from the shadows beyond Lorena's lantern.

Need warred with need in the space of two breaths. A lifetime of ingrained duty to the animals that meant survival won out over the almost irresistible urge to race back to the house where she couldn't be urgently needed yet. Best get this done now. There'd be no time later when matters in the house were urgent.

Trailed by the persistent Callie, Lorena scooped oats for the four horses and the cow, forked down hay for the animals, and filled all the water buckets. While Bridie munched her hay, Lorena milked her, carefully pouring a measure of the warm milk into a heavy crockery bowl for Callie, Blackie, Tom, and any other felines currently inhabiting the barn.

A quick side-trip to place the covered bucket in the springhouse and at last the very cold, very worried girl hurried back to house. She all but tiptoed across the porch, pausing to tug off her muddy boots before slipping into the welcoming warmth of the kitchen. A brown-and-cream dog raised her head at Lorena's entrance but didn't move from her spot near the stove. "Hello, Sadie. Keeping dry?" she asked in wry amusement. Draping her wet outer clothes over chairs to dry, she slipped quietly up the stairs. Just as she reached the upper hall, a muffled groan emanated from the master bedroom.

Straightening her shoulders, Lorena moved to the open door. Something made her pause to reconsider. No, I can't go racing in there dressed like this. I might as well scream 'I tried to get help and we're stranded and there's no one to help you except us!'

Turning away, the young woman made her way down the hall to her own room. Stripping off her damp clothing, she quickly toweled and rebraided her hair before pulling on the dress she had been wearing earlier. Teresa would probably figure it out anyway, but there was no sense in adding to her fear.

When Lorena calmly reentered the main bedroom, Sofia was supporting Teresa as the two slowly walked the length of the room. Hearing Lorena behind her, Sofia paused in her encouragement to glance over her shoulder. There was no question in her eyes . . . it was plain enough that Lorena couldn't get across the river and there would be no doctor . . . but the look of warning quickly shifted to unqualified approval when she took in the younger woman's dress and demeanor.

Moving to Teresa's other side, Lorena joined in the soft encouragement as though she had been there all along. "Breathe, sweetheart, deep breaths. That's right."

One more round and Sofia indicated that she wanted to place Teresa in one of the fireside chairs. Another cup of warm tea in which she had mixed herbs to help the soon-to-be-mother relax and to ease the pain was pressed into the chill hands. "Bebe, querida. Lentamente."

Lorena knelt beside the chair, wiping her sister-in-law's face with a cool cloth. Forcing certainty into her voice, she encouraged "Garth will be here soon. You'll see. He's due home today (a slight exaggeration since it could have been anytime in the next few days, especially given the weather). You know he'll be anxious to get home, all things considered." She chattered on in a low, soothing voice.

Frightened, in pain, and slightly addled by the medicinal tea, Teresa, latched onto Lorena's words as another wave of pain seized her. Garth will be home soon . . . Garth will be home soon . . . Garth will be home . . .

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Miles to the north, the object of Teresa's thoughts hunkered under a makeshift shelter in a copse of trees, cursing the fog, the cold, the mud, the darkness, the pervading wet that made it impossible to build a fire, the trip, his recent host, his father's illness, and the vagaries of fate in increasingly colorful and inventive terms. The rain had stopped but the damp cold penetrated to his very bones as he chewed on cold beef, biscuits, cheese, and apples packed by his hostess that morning. He could hear Roja munching on his somewhat damp oats, occasionally voicing a complaint of his own about the sorry accommodations.

Garth sighed for the tenth time in as many minutes, staring out into the blackness of the moonless night. It would, he reflected, be worse if the wind was blowing. The wind would have cleared the fog but, with no moon, it would still be too dark to keep going. He and Roja would be just as trapped and even more miserable.

If only he could shake this feeling that something was wrong at home. Try as he might, he could not push aside last night's dream. It had seemed so real; as real as the dark urge that had ridden every mile with him and now lodged cold around his heart.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

The kitchen of the Eberhaus ranch was warm, bright, and filled with the smells of good food. Around the table, Willem and Greta Eberhaus, four of their eight children, and Dr. Samuel Jenkins lingered over the morning meal. Upstairs, three seriously ill little Eberhauses slept, doctored safely through a severe bout of croup, and now watched over by their sister, Liesel.

It had been a close thing. The children were very sick, especially the youngest, Caspar. Willem had sent his eldest son, Georg toward Spanish Wells while Willem himself headed toward Green River, praying the doctor would be found in one direction or the other. Willem could not cross the river, already in full spate, but Georg had managed to ford the creek and been fortunate enough to find Dr. Jenkins in Spanish Wells. Returning had been even more difficult; the creek was rising rapidly and choked with debris. But they made it. The children would recover.

Ordinarily, the always-busy doctor would have departed immediately after breakfast, but the family had prevailed on him to remain, pointing out that, even if the weather had cleared which it hadn't both the creek and the river would be flooded.

"Greta, if I ate like this every day, my horse wouldn't be able to carry me," he proclaimed patting his stomach.

The woman returned his smile and blushed at the compliment. "Danke, Doctory. It was a small thing after all you have done. If you had not come, I think our Caspar . . ." she subsided into a quiet sob.

Willem reacted quickly to his wife's distress. "Now, leibling, it is all over. Caspar will be fine. Louisa and Gretchen will be up in a few days There is no reason for das weinin."

Sniffles subsiding, Greta dabbed at her eyes and wiped her nose on her apron, all the time nodding acknowledgement of her husband's gentle reproof. Nonetheless, when she spoke, her tone held a hint of challenge. "Ja, this is true, mein husband, but it is a woman's privilege to cry on occasion." With a final, more decisive nod, her eyes met Willem's.

Dr. Jenkins broke the moment, subduing an unseemly chuckle with a brisk clearing of his throat. "Willem, is there anything I can help you with earn my keep as it were?"

Greta's exasperation with her husband shifted immediately to the doctor. "Earn your keep? Did you not just save my children?" The woman shook her head at the general denseness of men. "Sit. Have some more coffee. For chores, we have children. They need to earn their keep!" Her stern gaze sent the four children scurrying. The girls began to clear the table. The boys pulled on coats, following their father out to the barn.

As the door was swinging shut, Greta called "And bring in some more wood!"

"Ja, Mama!" floated back as the door swung shut.

Sam Jenkins smiled at Greta's back as she attacked the dirty dishes, humming under her breath as she worked. Memories of his wife drifted though his mind; singing as she worked or sewed; the swish of her skirts as she moved around the house; her smile across the table; her sure hands assisting him in surgery. It had been more than twenty years, but he still felt her presence. Sometimes, he found himself turning to speak to her only to find himself alone . . . again . . . still. He sighed. Coming west had given his life new purpose. His patients had filled the emptiness of his life. How many lives had he brought into the world over the years? Every one of them was part of him; in a way, his own children. He was blessed with a very large family of the heart.

He drained his cup and pushed back his chair. Crossing to the sink, he set the cup down. "Thank you again, Greta. I think I'd better check on the children."

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

A long, rending scream echoed through the house like the shriek of an enraged banshee. In the bright warmth of the bedroom, the desperately laboring woman writhed against the pain, her grip on the knotted towels threatening to crack the stout footboard.

Lorena sat on the bed, braced against the headboard, supporting her sister-in-law, while Sofia's firm, quiet voice never wavered in its instruction and encouragement.

The crescendo of pain finally eased, and Teresa collapsed against Lorena, panting. The younger woman eased her gently into the pillows, brushing wisps of dark, sweat-soaked hair away from her face. Then Sofia was there with a sip of medicinal tea and Lorena once again wiped the tear-stained face with a cool, damp cloth.

"Garth . . . where is he?" Teresa moaned. "I need him . . ."

"Ssshh, querida," Sofia crooned. "You are doing very well. Your husband will be here when he should be. Of what possible use would he be now? If he was here, he would only be downstairs pacing or worse getting in our way. No, we will do this and then he will come and be happy with you and his beautiful daughter."

Lorena chimed in. "When Charlotte had her babies, Owen drove us so crazy, Mama threatened to tie him up and shut him in the barn. Sofia's right, love. Let's get his done and then Garth can show up and be the proud papa."

Teresa nodded, trying for a smile and not quite succeeding. She closed her eyes, trying to concentrate on Garth and how much she loved him rather than the pain.

Over the exhausted woman's head, two pairs of eyes met. It past noon nearly twenty hours in labor and Teresa was exhausted. Outside, the weak afternoon light was already dimming toward early darkness. The thickening fog created the illusion that the small house drifted in a land of sinister enchantment isolated its inhabitants trapped by malevolent spirits held at bay only by the light and hope within.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

In a dimly lit bedroom, Sam Jenkins carefully coiled his stethoscope before tucking it into his bag. Caspar was definitely breathing more easily. Propped up on a mound of pillows, the sleeping three-year-old looked like a wan little doll. Greta had been right if he had not come, Gaspar would probably have died. The child did not have the strength of his older siblings to fight off the congestion and fever.

The doctor settled wearily into a rocking chair that had been moved into the room for his comfort, resting his head on the high back. Around him, the three children slept. Of their own volition, his heavy eyes closed, the movement of the chair slowly stilling as sleep won out.

He was walking through dense fog. Shadowy, amorphous shapes seemed to float around him only there until he tried to focus on them. There was no sound; no light but . . . neither was it dark. Another form coalesced directly in front of him but this one did not vanish when he looked at it. In the swirling grayness, a woman's face became clear, although the rest of her body remained a dim outline. Sam gulped. "Eleanor?"

The face lit and the remainder of the form became a bit more substantial. "I miss you, Sam." It had been half a lifetime since he had heard his wife's voice, seen that beloved countenance.

"I miss you too, Ellie." The words were uttered in an awed whisper. Glancing around, the stunned man cleared his throat. "Where are we? What is happening?"

Eleanor drifted closer. "I'm always with you, my love; you know that, don't you?"

Dumfounded, Sam could only nod. "Ellie . . ." He looked around again. "Am I dead?"

Eleanor's smile became pensive. "No, Sam; not yet. However much I want you with me, my heart, it's not time yet. You still have so many people to help lives to save and lives to bring into the world. When the time comes, I'll be waiting for you. Know that. But right now, you're needed most urgently."

A shattering scream of agony reverberated all around them, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. The stunned man involuntarily covered his ears with his hands, head pivoting in search of the source of the nerve-wracking sound. When he looked back to where Eleanor had been, there was only swirling fog and shifting shadows and then he was falling . . . hurtling downward through a bright blue sky toward a thundering, storm-swollen river. The heaving water spread impossibly wide below him, dark and nightmarish, churning white around massive boulders. He reflexively threw out his arms and amazingly found he could fly, gliding above the horrifying torrent. Somehow he knew he needed to reach the distant riverbank; he had to . . .

He was in an enormous room he had never seen before. Sunlight streamed through huge widows, playing across the flagstone floor. In the center of the room was a baby's cradle and beside it stood a woman. Sam could not see her face clearly but she was dressed in a plain blue skirt and embroidered white blouse of the sort favored by Mexican women. Long, silvery gray hair fell over one shoulder in thick braid. The woman was smiling as she sang softly, presumably to the unseen baby in the crib. In her hand was a crystal about the size of a robin's egg, sunlight flashing in its facets. As the puzzled man watched, she swept one hand gently over the crystal, then leaned down to place it in the crib.

Intrigued, Sam moved closer. The woman looked up, as though noticing him for the first time. "It is good you are here." She stepped back, allowing him to move closer until he could see into the crib.

The dark-haired infant kicked and tiny fists waved as the little one gurgled at the face above him. How do I know it's a boy? The stray thought drifted through his mind without pausing for reflection. The crystal flashed in a minute fist, fracturing the sunlight into rainbow shards across the crib. Without thinking, Sam reached to take the object from the child before he decided to eat it . . . and froze in a cold wave of shock as incredibly blue eyes looked directly into his with such intensity that he nearly choked. "Johnny Lancer?" He stretched a hand toward the child . . . and woke with a jolt.

It took a moment to reorient himself. Shaken, the doctor rose slowly and walked to the window to stare out at the gloomy morning. It was no longer raining but the fog was a misty curtain trailing down from the heavy overcast. Still disturbed by the dream, the medical man tried to make sense of . . . of what? Did it mean something? Even if I believed in such nonsense as portents in dreams, what could it possibly mean? Eleanor . . . a flooding river (well that makes sense right now), flying, crystals . . . Johnny Lancer . . .

Restlessness possessed him. He moved back to the bed, checking Gaspar for fever. The child stirred at his touch, eyes fluttering open. "Mama?"

"No, Gaspar, he whispered. "It's Doctor Sam. Did you have a good sleep?"

"Mama!" The cry threatened to segue into a full wail.

"Shush, son. Don't wake your sisters. Just be quiet like a mouse and I'll get your mama." Even as Sam turned toward the door, it opened and Greta hurried across to take her baby into her arms, murmuring to him as she moved over to the rocking chair. She flashed a smile at the doctor and he returned it before heading for the kitchen, closing the door gently behind him.

In the kitchen, the older children were working at their lessons while Willem mended harness. Everyone looked up expectantly at the doctor's entrance.

After reassuring them about Gaspar's improved condition, the aging medical man helped himself to a cup of coffee and moved out onto the back porch, relishing the fresh air despite the cold.

The dream haunted him. There was no other term for it. He turned it over in his mind, trying to recall something that would give meaning to the disjointed sequence and the inexplicable feeling of unease that lingered in its wake.

Shaking his head in an attempt to shed the odd feelings, Sam tried to focus on what was real. He had patients who needed him. He needed to plan. When the flooding subsided, he would have to cover a lot of ground in a hurry just to see all the ailing and injured and there would be plenty with this weather.

So where to start? The Eberhaus children don't need me anymore. The only person I can reach is Teresa Whitaker. She's not due for another month but it wouldn't hurt to check on her. The creek should be down in a day or two and I can work my way on down the valley north of the river. The gray head nodded with satisfaction. That will work. No hurry about getting to the Whitaker place. If the weather holds, this afternoon, it'll be an easy ride tomorrow.

He had no more than reached this sensible decision when his breakfast did a slow roll around his stomach. The dream he had relegated to the mental trash heap slipped back in the door of consciousness. A glance at his watch confirmed that he should have plenty of time to reach the Whitaker home before dark even considering the condition of the track.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

The cold, misty grayness was all too rapidly dimming into what Garth Whitaker knew would be cold, wet, total blindness. How in the hell could a man not be sure where he was in country he had ridden over all is life? The question was born of frustration since Garth knew perfectly well why but that did nothing to lessen his resentment or quell the mixture of dread and impotence that churned in his belly. He was distressingly aware that he had to ford the creek to get home. Just how he was going to accomplish that, he had no idea. The streams he and Roja had battled their way across on the way south left no doubt in the young rancher's mind that the creek would be in flood. Don't think about it . . . cross that bridge when we come to it . . . wish there was a bridge . . . damn thing'd probably be washed away anyhow . . . gotta keep moving . . . Teresa needs me . . .

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Meg was a sturdy little mare, well suited to a doctor's needs. Broken to both harness and saddle, she was gentle, dependable, equable, and utterly indifferent to screaming children, flapping fowl, and yapping ranch dogs. She was happy in any stable that offered shelter, appreciative of anyone who fed and groomed her. And she would all but purr for anyone who offered her a turnip.

Together, Sam and Meg had traveled many a mile in good weather and bad with and without roads. She had never failed him and he repaid her loyalty in full as did everyone else for miles around Green River, Spanish Wells, and Moro Coyo. Meg was Doctor Sam's horse the one who brought him where he was needed - and she was treated accordingly.

On this wretched afternoon, the mare picked her way slowly down the track, thick mud sucking at her hooves with every step. Huddled in his heavy coat, scarf, and gloves, hat pulled low, her rider tried to warm himself with thoughts of the success behind him. Today was one of those times when being a doctor was rewarding.

That sobering thought led to others that plagued any doctor worthy of the name. What caused such illnesses? Surely, somehow, someday, someone much smarter than Sam Jenkins would find a way to do more than treat symptoms . . . to save so many more patients . . .

His musings and steady Meg finally brought him to the Whitaker ranch house just early twilight settled in. The last mile through the low hills had been even slower than the boggy track along the river. The lights of the house were a welcome sight to the weary, muddy pair. As the doctor reached the front porch, bag in hand, a tortured scream shattered the stillness of the winter evening.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Teresa's anguished screams and sobbing pleas for Garth had deteriorated into incoherent babble punctuated by ear-splitting shrieks. For all Sofia's skill and confidence, Lorena was losing her battle with incipient panic. They were going to lose Teresa . . . or the baby . . . or both . . .

Only single-minded concentration on Sofia's instructions, on the next thing to be done, on the firm voice, kept the younger woman's terror at bay. Whispered prayers passed her lips in a continuous stream . . . "Holy Mary, Mother of God . . ."

"Sophia! Lorena!" The shout from downstairs mingled with Lorena's startled yelp. What . . . ?

In the next instant, she was hurtling blindly down the stairs, braid flying behind. "Garth! Garth! You're here! You're . . . umph!"

Lorena found herself sprawled gracelessly on the steps, peering through slightly bleary eyes at Dr. Jenkins who lay flat of his back in the entry hall. His bag had burst open, flinging instruments helter-skelter across the polished floor.

As Lorena slowly picked herself up, shaking her head to clear it, the meaning of the figure laid out in the hall like one of the rugs penetrated her numb mind. She scrambled down the last few steps to kneel beside the physician. "Dr. Jenkins, I'm so sorry! Let me help you . . . I can't believe you're here . . . how did you know Teresa needs you? The baby . . . the baby is coming . . . that is, it's trying to come but . . ."

With Lorena's help, Sam managed to get to his feet during this disjointed discourse but it was obvious the man was shaken. Nonetheless, he was first and always a doctor. His mind picked the salient words from the torrent. "Teresa? The baby?"

"Yes, yes, she went into labor yesterday afternoon but I couldn't get across the river to get you or even Mama and she's been in labor and the baby won't come and she's getting weaker and we don't know what else to do . . ."

"Whoa, whoa, girl. Calm down. Gather up my instruments and get them sterilized while I go up and see her. Bring them as soon as you can."

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

He heard the creek long before he reached it. The cold had not abated, but the misting rain had stopped some hours earlier. As the afternoon waned, lowering clouds merged with thickening fog into an all but impenetrable blanket. Garth was so numb he no longer felt the cold much and he knew that was dangerous. As tired, and almost as cold as his rider, Roja had stumbled more than once in the slick, viscous mud. If the damned stuff would just freeze, the going would be a little easier, Garth thought, wondering if there was some celestial ledger book on cursing; he'd certainly done enough of it in the last two days to fill a book and a pretty big one at that.

Focusing on the matter at hand required more effort than it should have and the young rancher realized the cold was slowing is mind; more danger. And the matter at hand was most definitely dangerous. Just beyond Roja's hanging head, the usually sparkling creek roiled, swollen out of recognition, twisted shapes bobbing in the muddy white-capped turbulence that stretched into the infinity of fog and gathering shadows.

Garth sat staring at the impossible barrier separating him from everything that mattered most. Even the deafening roar was somehow not as terrifying as the dark, surging water, leaping and plunging as though the gates of an icy hell had burst open. He had reached the creek but where was the ford? Further east. Those bluffs end maybe a quarter-mile above the ford. But, even if I find the damned ford, how will we cross that?

" Garth!"

His head jerked up. Teresa? "Teresa!" His voice had a peculiar muffled sound in the enveloping fog. Roja danced a step, shaking his head as his rider's hands tightened on the reins. Between one heartbeat and the next, the young husband realized he could not have heard his wife's voice. Even if Teresa was insane enough to be out here and there was no way in hell Sofia and Lorena would be insane enough to let her be out here he would never have heard her over the roar of the water. But he had . . .

Gray eyes squinted into the silvery veil, searching the twilight shadows for something he knew could not be there on the riverbank he could barely see. And then his heart leapt . . . a blurry glow that had to be a lantern appeared on the low bluff across the creek revealing the fog-shrouded form of a man waving. As he watched, the man turned and began to walk downstream. Was whoever it was waiting for him? Had something happened? Had someone sent a hand or one of his brothers to watch for his return?

Standing in the stirrups, he shouted over the roar of the turbulent water "Hello the far bank!" Not surprisingly, there was no answer the man couldn't hear him. The vague form continued to move downstream, fading into the grayness.

Still not having the faintest idea how he could get across the fast-flowing, debris-choked stream, Garth nevertheless felt a surge of hope as he urged the weary Roja along the riverbank following the bobbing light.

Twenty minutes later, Garth was wondering if he was following someone who, after all, had no idea he was here and was simply out wandering around in the fog and cold for reasons unknown. He reined Roja to a stop and looked around, trying to orient himself before it became too dark to see anything at all. Once again, he nudged his weary brain. The bluffs had given way to a brush-covered hillside. The ford could not be far away. I still don't have a hope in this world of getting across it.

The urgency that had awakened him two nights ago was still riding him with hard spurs . There has to be a way. Teresa needs me . . .

By the time he had circled back to that inescapable compulsion, the young man's tired mind had finally taken in what his eyes were seeing the light had stopped a bit further downstream and was moving back and forth.

Roja was only too willing to stop when Garth pulled him up. They were directly opposite the light now and the dark outline of the man was barely visible through the fog. Garth bellowed "Hello!" again but received no response. The soft incandescence continued to move slowly back and forth.

He was about to try again when a horrendous crash, followed by a deafening roar and a series of cracks, thuds, and tremendous splashes just upstream caused Roja to jink violently, all but losing his feet in the soft mud and nearly unseating his rider. What the hell . . .

Struggling to keep his seat, Garth's head whipped around in alarm, fully expecting to see a wall of flood-driven debris descending on them. And there, in the last ebb of light . . .

Not more than a few hundred yards upstream, where the creek curved sharply, a huge cottonwood, undermined by the flood, had crashed down across the surging stream, an entire section of the hillside collapsing with it. The startled man gaped as an avalanche of mud and rock thundered down to spread like a collapsed bridge across the rampaging stream. The mass of roots, still partially buried in the collapsed bank, was now pointed upstream. More cracking, thudding, and grinding echoed through the mist as another dark shape - probably another tree - slammed into the mess, followed by brush torn from the banks upstream to reinforce the dam.

Garth tore his eyes from the destruction as his racing mind caught up with his other senses, finally processing what was happening. In the same instant, he realized that the movement of the light had stopped. It hung suspended on the far bank, the shadowy figure behind it once again waving. Amplified by the reflecting fog, the light shone across the water as though marking out a path . . . a path where the water level had dropped as abruptly as the parting of the Red Sea.

There was no time for consideration. That dam wouldn't last long. The roar of the relentless current assaulting the barrier was deafening. The figure on the far bank whoever he was urgently waved him on. This was the only chance Garth Whitaker was going to get to reach his wife tonight and reach her he must. With a whisper of thanks for his answered prayer and a whoop of unbridled elation, he spurred Roja into the water.

By midstream, the horse was struggling against the building current as the icy flood crashed against the earthen dam and began to flow over it. Only too aware of what would happen when the dam disintegrated, Garth listened with sharp-edged apprehension for the thunder that would mean doom to both of them. The unearthly groans of tortured wood were interspersed with cannon-fire cracks as massive limbs broke under the onslaught. Screaming encouragement to his mount nothing less would have been heard - the young man willed the powerful beast to move faster. They were in a race for their lives with the rising water and weakening dam. At last long, long last . . . an eternity, it seemed to the man - the big animal heaved himself out of the rapidly rising creek, floundering and slipping up the muddy bank to stand with hanging head safely beyond the deadly turbulence charging headlong down the creek bed as the water triumphed.

Almost as exhausted as the quivering Roja, the shaken man slipped from the saddle to stand barely leaning on his horse for long moments before laboriously lifting his head, mouth opening to thank their rescuer . . . and froze. He was alone on the fog-shrouded riverbank.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Teresa leaned forward, panting and straining. Her hands gripped the knotted strip of toweling as though it was her hold on life itself. The young woman had long since shut out everything except the firm voice and the desperate need to leave Garth this gift. She was never going to see her beloved husband again but she would give him the blessing of their child . . . she would . . . hold on . . . push . . . breathe . . . was that Dr. Sam's voice or her own mind? What was real? The pain . . . that was real. Her body was being torn apart. I'm dying. Garth, I love you. I love you. Take care of our baby. Garth! What . . . Garth? No . . . not real . . . hold on . . . push . . . breathe . . . "Garth?" Had she actually said that?

Strong arms were holding her tight against his warm chest; supporting her, giving her strength. The beloved voice whispered in her ear. "I'm here, sweetheart. I'm here and Doctor Sam is here and everything will be alright."

Teresa opened her eyes and twisted her head, desperate to see him. Understanding, Garth shifted her in his arms and then she was looking up into his loving gray eyes. "Garth." It was no more than a whisper. An instant later, she was dragged back by a wave of cramping, tearing pain. Dr. Sam was talking to her but his words were lost in the chaos of agony. Her husband's arms tightened around her and he braced himself against the oak headboard, pouring reassurance into her ear even as his hoarse voice was drowned by a shattering scream that welled up from the very core of her being. Darkness reached out, offering release from the icy talons of anguish . . . but those arms held her fast. And then, miraculously, the pain began to ebb and the darkness retreated and Garth was still there . . . warm and strong and real . . . and there was . . . a cry?

Soft with tears of joy and exhaustion, Garth's voice was there. "We have a little girl! Did you hear her, love? She's beautiful and Doc says she's healthy."

Teresa found it impossible to open her eyes. The darkness was reaching out again, but this time it was warm and comforting. Garth is here. We have a little girl. Do you see her, Daddy? Daniela Pauline. As always, she was loved and protected and safe in his arms. And their future was full of promise.

As she drifted into sleep, a slight smile curving her lips, Teresa saw another beloved face; framed by dark hair, his smile lighting the darkness, and his blue eyes dancing. "Everything will be fine, querida. I promise. I love you."

"I love you too, Johnny."

Leaning back against the headboard, his beloved wife clasped firmly against him at last, Garth heard her murmur, but the words were lost as he drifted on the edge of sleep. He jerked awake at a soft voice and a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Easy, Garth. She's asleep and you need some sleep yourself after a bath and something to eat. Come with me."

Lorena. Almost too weary to move, the young father accepted a hand up. Glancing down at his sleeping wife, the exhausted rancher turned questioning eyes on his sister, receiving a reassuring smile in return.

"Doctor Sam says she'll be fine they're both fine. Sophia will take care of them." The girl drew herself up, assuming a stern demeanor. "You, brother mine, are about to drop where you stand. I'll fix you something to eat and heat water for a bath. And when I'm done with you, there are two muddy, hungry horses in the barn. Let's go." Tugging Garth across to the door, Lorena looked back over her shoulder. "You too, Doctor Jenkins. You look almost as bad as Garth.

Sam finished checking his patient's pulse and looked up. "Lorena, that sounds heavenly." He moved wearily to follow, turning back as he reached the door through which Lorena and Garth had already disappeared. "Sophia, you're a jewel. I'm not at all sure she would have made it without you."

The housekeeper met the doctor's gaze squarely. "Gracias, Doctor. We had help, you know."

Sam discovered that smiling required effort. "I know, Señora." He closed the door softly behind him.

 

 

~ end ~

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