Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
This is Part 2 of a trilogy that began with “Out of the Ashes”.
The conductor tapped on the open door of the compartment. “Stockton in ten minutes, Miss.”
The young woman staring out the window stirred slightly, then turned almost in slow motion, and smiled briefly. “Thank you.”
“They’re ready in the baggage car—I just checked.”
She nodded. “Thank you very much.”
“I’m real sorry, Miss.”
She nodded without speaking. As the man moved on down the car, she reached for her hat. Placing the long hatpin through the folds of the crown, anchoring it firmly to the bright auburn hair, she remembered how her mother was given to repeating regularly that a young lady always paid attention to her appearance in all circumstances. “It takes only a moment to make sure you’re neatly and properly attired.” Her mother’s face rose up in front of her as she drew on her gloves and deftly fastened the small pearl buttons.
Certainly Mother had practiced what she preached—always turned out to perfection. Papa was always telling her how lovely she looked, whether in a simple dress donned for breakfast, evening dress, or the split riding skirts and comfortable shirtwaists she favored even when she wasn’t going to ride.
The young woman looked out the window again and reflected on this same trip she’d made only fourteen months ago when she’d brought her mother’s body back for burial. Papa had been with her then, and he was with her now—in a way—though it was his body she was accompanying now. She pressed her lips together. This was not the time for tears. They would wait until she’d taken care of the necessary business. Mother used to say that, too. “A lady always does what has to be done, no matter what.”
The train slowed, then stopped with a jerk. Gathering her traveling bag and the package wrapped in plain brown paper, she stood up and started down the narrow passageway to the end of the car. As the conductor took her hand to help her on the steps, her gaze drifted down the platform a little. They were all there, just as they’d always been—her brothers. Even Nick was wearing a coat and tie. Poor Nick! Who’d insisted on that torture for him?
The others stood waiting their turn as Jarrod embraced her. “Hello, KatieBee, honey.” He kissed both her cheeks. She closed her eyes and savored the security of his arms.
“Hello, honey.” Nick took his brother’s place. In a moment, Heath took Nick’s, then it was Gene’s turn.
“Everything’s ready,” Gene said. “We thought we’d take him—that is, go on to the church before we go home—since the service is tomorrow morning.”
Dr. Katherine Barkley Wardell nodded. “Yes, I think that’s the thing to do.”
They walked farther down the platform and stood silently in front of the open baggage car, waiting. In a few minutes, two men slid a gleaming walnut casket onto a green baggage wagon and tipped their caps sympathetically. She reached into her purse for some money and offered it to the men. “Thank you for your particular care of him during the trip,” she said.
“No, miss, that’s not necessary,” one said uneasily.
He hesitated, then took the bills and handed one to the other man. “Thank you, miss.”
On the street at the end of the platform, two men stood beside the familiar horse-drawn, black-curtained hearse waiting to make the transfer. Jarrod nodded at the new automobile parked a few feet away. “We’ll follow them.”
“I’d like to walk, if you don’t mind, Jarrod. I’ve been cooped up on the train for so long. I need to stretch my legs.”
“All right. I’ll drive down and meet you.”
“I’ll go with her,” Gene said, offering his arm.
It was a strange procession that late October afternoon—the hearse, the young woman on the arm of the middle-aged man walking behind it, and the new touring car that followed at a dustless distance.
At the church, Nick, Heath, and Gene helped the mortician and his helper carry the heavy casket up the steps and down the aisle where they placed it on the waiting catafalque, then stepped back respectfully. Katherine came down the aisle with Jarrod who, she noticed, wasn’t leaning as heavily on his cane has he had last year after the stroke just a month before their mother’s death.
She began to unwrap the package she carried. “He gave this country fifteen years of his life,” she said, taking out an American flag. “He served honorably, and that meant a great deal to him. He deserves this.”
“Yes, he does.” Heath took the flag from her hands, and he and Gene unfolded it and draped it over the casket.
They stood silently in the unlit church as the last rays of the autumn sun waned in a red-orange blaze. “He was a good man.” Nick spoke with conviction. “A very good man.”
* * * * * * * *
The house was strangely quiet. Only Audra greeted her with quiet warmth. The unexpected pregnancy that had ended tragically two years ago had left Audra frail, but despite the loss of physical stamina, her inner strength remained untouched, reminding Katherine of their mother. “We have everyone parceled out between Heath’s house and Jarrod’s and Gene’s houses in town. My children are with Don’s mother. We felt we should keep things quiet, at least for tonight.”
An unexpected weariness caused Katherine to sway slightly. Gene caught her arm. “You’re worn out, KatieBee.”
“I suppose I’m more tired than I thought,” she admitted.
“Then you’re going straight upstairs and lie down,” Audra said, taking charge as always. “We’re having dinner in half-an-hour, but I’ll see that you get a tray.”
In the room that Mother and Papa had always shared when they came to stay at the ranch, Katherine changed her traveling suit for a dressing gown and sat at the dressing table to brush out her hair. Mother had always insisted that she brush it thoroughly morning and night. “Young ladies don’t have untidy, fly-away hair,” she repeated patiently.
Once, exasperated by being sent upstairs to put up her hair before dinner after a romp in the yard with her dogs, Katherine had asked, “Did you make Audra do all this?”
“Did I insist that she look and behave like a lady? I didn’t have to. Audra spent too much time in front of the mirror anyway.”
“She wasn’t a tomboy like me then.”
“She was well-rounded.”
“But I’ll bet with tending to the boys, you didn’t have time to stay on her like a hen with a single chick.”
Victoria smiled. “That much is true. Do hurry, Kate. You know your father likes for us to sit down at the table on time.”
She recalled that particular scene now as she replaced the pins in the hair she’d coiled in a silken knot at the back of her neck. Oh, Mother, I miss you, she thought. You cultivated me like a pearl—polished me, treasured me, kept me safe. . .I miss you. . .so much!
Lost in thought, she didn’t hear the knock on her door and startled as it opened. “I brought you a tray, KatieBee,” Audra said.
Katherine jumped up to take it. “Audra, you shouldn’t have carried that upstairs!”
“I brought my plate, too. Would you mind if I joined you?”
“Of course, not! I need some company right now.”
The two women arranged the dishes on a small table near the window and sat down to eat. “Nick told me about the flag,” Audra said. “I’m so glad you thought of it.”
“Those four years in the Confederate Army stripped him of all his rights,” Katherine said. “He couldn’t even be buried in a military cemetery.”
“He didn’t want to. He wanted to be by Mother.”
“I know that he mentioned it to Jarrod last year. He thought that the family might not consider it entirely fitting. . .”
“We all loved him. He wasn’t our father or even a stepfather really, but he was a member of this family in every way. He made Mother happy for twenty-five years.”
“How long was she married to Tom Barkley? I’ve forgotten.”
“Thirty years. She never thought she’d have nearly so long again.” Audra dabbed her lower lip with the corner of the heavy linen napkin. “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t help you more when she was ill.”
“I know you’d have been there every minute if you could.”
“You gave up your career before it hardly began.”
“I taught two classes and saw a few patients until the last month of her life. We had an excellent trained nurse, you know. She was there all the time, although I cared for Mother myself except for the few hours a day when I was at the college. Afterwards, I could see Papa going down, and I knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to try to add anymore to what I was already doing.”
“But you’ll go back, won’t you?”
“They’ve offered back my position full-time on the faculty, and I can build my private practice again.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Yes.” She stirred her coffee thoughtfully. “Audra, tell me about things—about Jarrod—about you. I feel I’ve been so out of touch this past year.”
“Jarrod is making an excellent recovery as you can tell. He declined to sit on the bench again, but he oversees everything at the firm, and Gene tries the cases and does the legwork.”
“Is Jarrod content with that? He enjoyed being a judge.”
“I think so. Yes, he is. He’s sixty-seven, after all.”
Katherine nodded. “And you, Audra?”
“I’m fine—you can see that!”
“The doctor is in, and she doesn’t think the patient is being completely truthful.”
Audra sighed. “I have my good days and my bad days, I suppose. I’ve known women who miscarried, and they didn’t so long to recover.”
“It wasn’t a simple miscarriage, Audra, it was a ruptured tubal pregnancy that necessitated a complete hysterectomy. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“But it’s been so long. I don’t understand why I’m still not myself.”
“What does your doctor say?”
“He says that surgery like that takes its toll on women.”
“Is he a specialist?”
“No, but. . .”
“Why don’t you visit me this spring? I’ll arrange an appointment for you with a doctor who specializes in women’s health.”
“Do you think it would help?”
“It certainly can’t hurt.”
Audra nodded. “I’ll speak with Don about it. I know he’d like to have his wife back the way she was, and the children—I’m not able to be as involved in their lives as I once was.”
Katherine insisted on carrying the tray back to the kitchen and stopped in the library to say goodnight to her brothers. Jarrod and Gene were preparing to go back to town. “We’ll meet you at the church at nine-thirty,” Jarrod said. “That way we can get seated ahead of the crowd.”
“Do you think there’ll be one? I mean, Papa wasn’t a local Stockton man.”
“I think there’ll be a considerable gathering,” Gene replied. “Some will be there simply because they know the younger generation of Barkleys, but there are still some in Stockton who remember Mother and who met Royce at one time or another.”
“I want to thank you again for allowing him to be buried in the Barkley plot.”
“And just where else would he be?” Nick demanded gruffly, his voice betraying his true feelings.
She looked up at the portrait of Tom Barkley. “I wonder what he’d say to having Papa buried on the other side of his wife?”
“He’d say it was fit and proper,” Heath said. “And it is.”
Katherine crossed the room to look more closely at the picture of the man she often felt she almost knew. “You look more like him every year, Nick.”
“You think so?”
“Oh, yes. And Audra looks so much like Mother.” She leaned her head against the mantle. “Sometimes I wonder if there’s anyone—anywhere—who looks like me.”
“No!” Nick got up and poured himself another drink. “That was settled a long time ago, honey. Fred Madden did his best to turn up somebody who knew. . .well, anyway, he didn’t find out anything, so it’s over.”
Katherine moved to the opposite wall to another portrait. She had been four of five years old then. Mother and Papa were sitting on chairs in front while Jarrod, Nick, Heath, Audra, and Eugene stood behind them. She, Katherine, perched contentedly in Papa’s lap, his arm around her protectively. They were all smiling—but then, they all smiled in those days when they were together.
“I don’t mean I’d change anything even if I could,” she murmured. “They were my real parents. I loved them.”
“They were, and you did,” Heath said quickly. “Life usually works out the way it’s supposed to KatieBee. Leah Thompson was my mamma, but I wouldn’t have missed out on our mother for anything in the world.”
“Hear, hear!” Jarrod interjected heartily.
She went upstairs later, still feeling the loving warmth of her brothers’ arms as they told her goodnight and added, as they always did, that they loved her.
After she’d put on her nightdress, she blew out the lamp and opened the curtains. How many nights had she sat with her parents in this window overlooking the road that led to the ranch?
When she was small, she’d slept on a trundle that pulled out from under the bed. The three of them would come upstairs together and sit here, watching the stars dance among the clouds or the rain run down the glass like a rushing torrent. Whatever was outside didn’t really matter as Mother told stories of beautiful castles and handsome knights who slew dragons and rescued beautiful princesses.
Katherine knew—had always known—that she was a princess and that no evil dragon would dare breathe fire in her direction so long as she was snuggled in the castle of Papa’s arms. No wicked crone would think of casting a spell on her as long as Mother wove her magic in stories and song. No wicked army would come near enough to carry her off when her four strong brothers were just a whistle away and her beautiful sister could banish all sadness with one brilliant smile.
Katherine Barkley Wardell had lived a charmed life—she knew that well. Now, though, as she stared into the darkness beyond, she knew that she’d have to make her own castle secure and slay her own dragons. Something inside her whispered that it wasn’t fair she was left alone like this. It wasn’t fair that the two people she loved best in the world would never hear her tell them that again. And most of all, maybe it wasn’t fair that somewhere out there, someone knew something about the newborn baby rescued from a lonely line shack almost twenty-eight Christmases ago—knew it and might take it to his grave unless she did something about it.
Not for the first time did she wonder where—and when—she would begin to unravel the mystery of Katherine Barkley Wardell.
As Jarrod had predicted, the church was full—even overflowing. Katherine sat in the front pew between Jarrod and Nick, her mind on the image she wanted people to carry away with them. She wore a black dress but no mourning veil, rather a fashionable black hat with a taffeta bow of royal purple. Her only jewelry was the gold watch on a fleur-de-lis pin that Mother and Papa had given her when she graduated from medical school three years earlier. In the front was the inscription To our Kate from Mother and Papa with great pride and deepest love. In the back was a picture taken of the three of them soon after her adoption was finalized when she was a few months old.
She’d understood the symbolism of that gift all too well. Both of her parents were nearing eighty. They had always been there for her—not only as her parents but as her best friends—and they knew how difficult it would be for her when they were gone. To all of them, the watch was a clear and final statement of mutual love and devotion. It would be with her forever, even though they would not. That night, clasping the watch in her hand, she had sobbed herself to sleep.
It was important to her now to present herself to the people of Stockton as who she was. Over the years, she hadn’t been deaf to the gossip—Royce Wardell was a traitor to his country—Victoria Barkley had run off to New Orleans and impulsively married someone she barely knew and betrayed her husband’s good name—and the two of them together had taken an orphaned baby—a bastard, no doubt—instead of contenting themselves with the adult children—all except one—who rightfully bore the Barkley name.
She sat up straighter and turned her attention to what the minister was saying. Don’t slouch, Kate, she could hear her mother saying. Young ladies don’t slouch, and they at least give the appearance of listening in church!
“To everything there is a season, and a time for everything under the sun. A time to be born and a time to die. . .” the minister intoned.
“There’s a time for everything, Kate,” Papa had said. “It’s time for you to go to school with other girls now, so we’re moving to Nashville.”
“But Papa, I like New Orleans! Why can’t Mademoiselle keep teaching me?”
“You’re a big girl now, Kate, almost eight. Big girls go to school, and there isn’t one here that Mother and I approve for you. We’ve decided on a school in Nashville near your uncles and cousins where you can live at home with us. We couldn’t bear to be parted from our princess, you know.”
They settled comfortably into a spacious house in town with a side yard large enough to accommodate the puppies Papa bought to console her childish grief over leaving New Orleans. She named them Arthur and Guinevere. Mother said it was fortunate that Guinevere turned out to be just plain Guinn so that the puppy population remained at two.
Her parents enrolled her in an exclusive girls’ school that prepared her well for any college she wanted to attend. She chose Vanderbilt, not only for its academic offerings but because she wanted to continue living at home, and her acceptance was immediate. Breaching the male ranks of the medical school had been a challenge but one that, with her parents’ support, she had met and overcome.
She focused her attention on the minister again. He was speaking of her father now, but his words rang hollow. He’d only met Papa on a few occasions, but she had lived her lifetime with the man he was trying to eulogize and could have done it much better.
“Tell me the story again, Papa. Tell me how you and Mother found me on Christmas Eve.”
He held out his arms, and she crawled into his lap, snuggling against his clean white shirt and leaving gingerbread fingerprints scattered over it. “I’m sorry, Papa. I got your shirt dirty.”
“The shirt will wash, Kate. I can buy a thousand shirts, but there’s only one Kate.”
“Tell me the story, Papa. Did the Christ-Child really bring me?”
“Only the Christ-Child can bring a miracle, Kate, and that’s what you are.”
She’d never grown too old for the story, but the day she was twelve—when she overheard two of the girls talking—she’d come home in tears. Mother sat beside her the rest of the afternoon, reminding her over and over that she was their beloved miracle, until Papa came home. He sat down on the other side of the bed and lifted her in his arms.
“There, there, Kate precious, don’t cry. Tell Papa what’s the matter.”
She was crying too hard to speak, so her mother told him, tersely and with barely-controlled anger, how she’d overheard the two girls speaking of the circumstances of her birth—in ignorance, to be sure, but with chilling accuracy just the same.
With her face buried in his chest, she couldn’t see the look of pain that crossed his face. Mother told her later that it was as if someone had plunged a knife into his heart. After what seemed like a long time, he began to speak.
“You were our miracle, Kate, our gift from God. How you came into the world is unimportant. How you live in the world is what counts, and you’ve lived twelve shining years with many more to come.” He rocked her in his arms, stroking her hair, kissing away her tears.
* * * * * * * *
She realized that the minister had finished speaking. Jarrod escorted her down the aisle while the others stayed behind to act as pallbearers. She lifted her chin almost defiantly as she passed the pews of mourners—or curiosity-seekers. It was difficult to tell who was who sometimes.
It was more difficult to maintain control at the cemetery. The gaping grave seemed to reach out and engulf her. Audra and Jarrod held her arms firmly as she hesitated. “Steady, KatieBee,” Jarrod murmured.
According to her wishes, Jarrod had asked the minister to announce that only the family would gather at the cemetery. Afterwards there would be lunch at the town hall—standard fare after any funeral of note.
The final moments were mercifully brief. Katherine’s lips moved with the minister’s as he repeated the Twenty-Third Psalm. Papa had always helped her with her memory work for Sunday School. He said his father would have had him memorize the entire Bible if it had been possible. Katherine was always convinced that he knew most of it anyway.
She insisted on staying until the casket had been lowered and the ropes pulled up again. That was the worst moment, and it was harder to swallow her tears, but she did. It wasn’t time for that yet.
She was nibbling half-heartedly at a plate of chicken salad when Nick found her. “KatieBee, you know that man over there?”
She followed Nick’s glance across the room. “I don’t think so. No—no, why?”
“I don’t know him either. Neither does Jarrod—or Heath or Gene for that matter. But he was at the church, and now he’s here.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know half the people here.”
“Well, you don’t live here, but we do.” He patted her and walked off toward the man.
Nick Barkley approached the stranger directly. “You from around here?”
The tall, well-dressed stranger surveyed him coolly. “No, San Francisco.”
“You a friend of Royce Wardell?”
“You could say that.”
Nick frowned. “I’m Nick Barkley, one of the family, and you’re. . .”
The stranger smiled thinly. “I’m just leaving.” He was gone before Nick knew what was happening.
* * * * * * * *
Katherine asked Audra to excuse her from dinner that night and went upstairs. Without bothering to undress, she fell across the bed and was asleep immediately. Sometime in the night, she woke to the sound of rain. She sat up, disoriented, and then realized that the windows were open, allowing rain to blow through the drapes.
When she had secured the windows, she slipped out of her dress and lay down again. In the dark silence, the totality of her loss overwhelmed her, and she wept, releasing the grief she’d held in for the sake of appearance. Of course, there were those who would say that her dry eyes signified an uncaring attitude—that she had no appreciation of what had been done for her. Some would say that she considered herself well rid of the protective environment in which she had been raised and would live high on her substantial inheritance.
Papa had made sure she understood about her inheritance. “I’ve done well for myself, Kate, better than I ever imagined. I’ve left everything in trust for you. Oh, you can have whatever you want, but a trust protects you from fortune-seekers and such. I want the best for you—you know that.”
“I’ve had the best, Papa. It wouldn’t matter if you didn’t leave me a single penny. I can earn my own way.”
“Of course, you can. You’ll do well, and the trust will be there whenever you need it.” He took her hand. “I need to speak to you of some things your Mother and I have discussed.”
“All right, Papa.”
“You know that under the terms of Tom Barkley’s will, Victoria inherited everything—to be divided among the children after her death. Of course, Heath wasn’t mentioned since Tom didn’t know about him. Jarrod shared with me several years ago that each of them had agreed to sign over a portion of their inheritance so that Heath would have an equal share.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“Only this. Jarrod spoke of doing the same for you. At that point, I felt it was time for him to have an idea of my personal financial circumstances. I wanted him to understand that you would have a generous inheritance of your own, and your Mother agreed that the ranch shouldn’t be shared out any further.”
“I agree with Mother. I have nothing to do with the ranch—not like the others.”
“I promised her I’d discuss it with you.”
“I understand, Papa.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Papa, I’m sure.”
“Then you’ll talk with Jarrod when. . .”
She’d left the room hurriedly, unwilling to discuss the inevitable. By then they knew that her mother was dying, and she wasn’t sure she could bear it. The thought of Papa leaving her, too, was unthinkable.
It had taken a full year for her mother to give up the fight. On the morning that she died, Katherine wept with relief that the suffering was over, but she knew in her heart that part of her father had died that morning, too.
His doctor said later that his heart was failing, but she knew that it was simply broken. So when he fell ill with pneumonia just over a year later, she accepted that he was ready to go, ready to join his beloved Victoria. She loved him too much to want him to stay, but his going had been hard. She felt so terribly alone now despite the love and support of her brothers and sister. Even they couldn’t fill the void in her aching heart.
Katherine got up again and looked out the window. The rain had stopped—it had only been a thundershower after all. All her life she had liked rain. Papa said that, when it thundered, God was telling the angels to light Heaven’s candles—and when lightning lit up the sky, they had done it.
She had never been afraid of storms—or of anything—as long as Mother and Papa were there. But now, for the first time in her life, fear struggled for supremacy in her soul. She had known for a long time what she had to do, and if Mother and Papa were here, she wouldn’t be afraid. Yet, if her parents were here, she wouldn’t have to do it.
At breakfast the next morning, Katherine told Nick that she wanted to ride into town. “I’ll have one of the boys take you in the chaise,” he said.
“No, I’d like to ride if you don’t mind.”
He frowned, “You don’t need to be on the road alone, KatieBee.”
She laughed and touched his arm affectionately. “You’ve always looked out for me, Nick, and I love you for it. But I’m almost twenty-eight years old, you know, and an excellent horsewoman.”
“I know, I know,” he conceded grudgingly. “Okay, I’ll have Fernando saddle a horse for you.”
“One that will get me there and back today, Nick, please.”
“Then you don’t want Maudie,” Audra said.
“Nick put her out to pasture last summer. She’s enjoying a well-earned retirement as the children’s pet.”
Nick glared at his sister. “Maudie’s a good horse!”
“I believe we’ll leave Maudie in retirement, Nick,” Katherine said, trying not to laugh. “I’m surprised that you don’t have one of those new automobiles like Jarrod,” she added teasingly.
Nick didn’t even glance up. “No place for one of those doodads on a working ranch! Give me a good horse any day! Besides, they’re a fad—won’t last.”
Audra and Katherine exchanged amused glances. “Oh, I think they’re here to stay, Nick. I’m thinking of buying one when I get back to Nashville.”
Nick’s fork banged against the side of the plate. “Now, that’s foolishness, KatieBee! What does a girl need with something that doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘whoa’?”
Susan, Nick’s wife, set down the coffeepot with more force than necessary. “There you go again, Nick! What’s being a woman got to do with anything?”
Katherine couldn’t help laughing this time.
“What’s so funny?” Nick growled.
Susan shook her head and lifted her eyebrows expressively.
“Haven’t you heard, Nick, that women are no longer content with just the so-called rights graciously—or ungraciously, as the case may be—extended to them by their husbands and fathers?” Audra tapped the table with one finger to emphasize her point.
“Oh, really? And just what does Don say about all that?”
“Don takes the path of least resistance and gives me my own way.”
“Mother was a woman ahead of her time,” Katherine said. “She knew her own mind. She was quite firm with Papa.”
“Oh, yeah? About what?”
“About everything, especially me. Do you realize how much Papa would have indulged and spoiled me?”
“You’re telling me he didn’t?” Nick threw his napkin on the table.
“Nicholas Barkley, that was uncalled for!” Audra’s wrath was instantaneous.
Nick grinned and leaned over to kiss the top of his youngest sister’s head. “KatieBee knows I’m teasing her. If anyone spoiled her, it was her brothers. Mother threatened all of us at one time or another. Come on out to the barn when you’re ready, honey. I’ll have a horse for you.”
“I know I was spoiled,” Audra said when Nick left. “Jarrod and Nick would have given me the moon when I was growing up. I remember Mother telling Don that he would have to take me firmly in hand—but he never did.” She dimpled as much as her thin cheeks would allow.
“I think I had the best of both worlds,” Katherine said. “Mother was strict—almost unyielding in most cases—and Papa thought I could do no wrong. But the combination paid off in the long run—I hope so anyway.”
“It paid off extremely well, I’d say,” Susan said, rising. “I’ve a committee meeting at the orphanage this morning, so you’ll have to excuse me. But sit here and visit as long as you like—don’t think of hurrying.”
“I have to pack, Audra said. “Will you be long in town, KatieBee?”
“I’m not sure,” Katherine said casually. “Don’t wait lunch for me.”
She savored the solitude of the slow ride into town and took advantage of the time to rehearse exactly what she would say to Jarrod and how she would say it—and if she would say all of it. There were two different matters to discuss. One, concerning the inheritance, he would have to handle. The other—she had carefully reviewed the advantage and disadvantages of sharing the other with each of her brothers and concluded that, given all the circumstances, Jarrod was the most logical choice.
His secretary greeted her pleasantly. “Mr. Barkley’s with a client, Miss Wardell, but he shouldn’t be long. Just make yourself comfortable. May I get you some coffee?”
“No, thank you.” She sat down and picked up a magazine. In a few minutes, a man came out of Jarrod’s office.
“I’ll tell him you’re here,” the secretary said.
Jarrod came out of the office to greet her. “How are you this morning, honey?”
“I’m fine, Jarrod. I slept well.”
“You were almost exhausted yesterday.”
“The trip caught up with me, that’s all.”
She preceded him into his office and took one of the fat leather chairs in front of his desk. “I need to get some business out of the way,” she said, getting right to the point.
“I’m at your disposal for as long as you need.”
“It won’t take long, Jarrod. Papa said he spoke to you about my inheriting from him and leaving the ranch undivided any further.”
“Yes. You know we haven’t probated Mother’s will yet. There wasn’t any particular hurry since we’d formed a business trust several years ago.”
She reached into the pocket of her riding jacket. “I brought a release that Papa’s attorney drew up for me, stating that I forfeit all claims to any of the Barkley holdings.”
Jarrod frowned. “Are you sure you want to do this, KatieBee?”
“Papa said he discussed all this with you. I have more than enough, Jarrod. And Mother wanted it this way, too.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“She told Papa. That is, they discussed it.”
“I think we should have a family meeting. . .”
“We’ll do whatever you think best, Jarrod, but the release is legally binding. All I want. . .” Her voice trembled slightly. “All I want is to be able to call the ranch home—I want my children, if I have them, to know their Barkley heritage.”
“Honey, that goes without saying.”
She laid the paper on his desk and settled back in the chair. “Jarrod, how did all of you really feel when Mother and Papa announced they were going to adopt me?”
“More than a little surprised,” he said honestly. “But after we thought about it awhile, it seemed the right thing to do. They brought you home a week before they returned to New Orleans, and by the time you left, we were all in love with you.”
She smiled. “You’ve never made me feel like an outsider.”
“Because you never were. You were just our little sister—an unexpected but most welcome blessing.”
“I don’t know if that makes it easier or harder to say what I have to say.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
Katherine sighed. “I didn’t know for a long time that I was named for Papa’s first wife.”
“You weren’t named for her so much as they wanted your name to reflect both sides of your heritage. Mother suggested your name—and then changed the spelling to make it specific to you.”
“Nick was the one who gave me the nickname of KatieBee, isn’t he?”
Jarrod chuckled. “He was downright foolish over you! I think he was trying to cover his real feelings by complaining that your name was too long and too formal for such a tiny baby. But ‘Dr. Katherine Barkley Wardell’ has a nice ring to it.”
“I wouldn’t want to be called anything but ‘KatieBee’, at least not by my family.”
“I think it’s too late anyway.”
“Mother told me the whole story when I was about seventeen. I asked her why, and she said she thought I ought to know everything about Papa—how much he’d suffered by following his conscience during the war—how he lived because of Catherine’s care but she paid with her own life—and how her family blamed Papa and turned against him.”
“I didn’t know she’d told you.”
“That last year, when there were just the two of us, Papa talked to me on a more adult level—more like one friend to another, not a father talking to his daughter. I suppose Mother had told him that she’d shared the information with me, because one night he just said, without any preface, ‘I could die easier if I knew that Catherine’s family had forgiven me.’” She sat forward and chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Jarrod, I tried to make it happen. I knew, through Mother, who and where the family was. It wasn’t hard to track them down—they’re prominent in Manhattan.”
Jarrod’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You contacted them?”
He looked relieved. “That wouldn’t be a good idea, honey. But go on.”
“I had Papa’s attorney forward a letter I wrote to the surviving brother who’s in charge of the family business. I introduced myself and told him what Papa had said—about wanting forgiveness before he died. I was tempted to add that it wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t.” She sat back. “It wasn’t, Jarrod, not at all.”
“Did you get a reply?”
“Oh, yes. He said that Papa was a traitor and should have been convicted of treason long ago and that, but for Papa, his sister would still be alive. It was the most venomous letter I’ve ever read! I wrote an equally hostile reply, but Mr. Twomble refused to forward it and advised me to tear it up.”
“Yes and promised him not to make any further contact.”
“Well, you tried, KatieBee. It was a loving and generous thing to do.”
“I did more than that, Jarrod—I wrote a letter and had one of the male interns at the hospital copy it and sign Richard Wright’s name to it.”
“You what?” Jarrod stared at his sister in amazement.
“I wrote a letter giving Papa full absolution—saying that the family had spoken hastily and in grief and that they regretted their unkindness to him. Then I gave it to a friend who was traveling to New York and had her mail it back from there. It was a masterpiece of deception, I know, but Papa—Papa actually cried when he read it. And there was such a peace about him after that. He took pneumonia that same week and died just ten days later.”
Jarrod shook his head. “Honey, I don’t know what to say.”
“There’s nothing to say. I’d have done anything for Mother and Papa—anything!” Her seafoam green eyes blazed. “They had no right to condemn him! He was the most wonderful man—Mother and I adored him! And he loved us so much! They were so right for each other—and for me!”
Jarrod offered her his clean handkerchief as tears formed in her eyes and started down her flushed cheeks. “KatieBee, you were the joy of their lives together. You did everything for them—more than could be expected. We all felt badly that you had the entire burden, but with my stroke and Audra’s poor health. . .Eugene was trying to keep the firm going, and Nick and Heath couldn’t leave the ranch. . .”
She wiped her eyes. “We went over all this last year, and I told all of you that I understood. I knew you were all thinking of me. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t get at least one letter from someone in the family.”
“Just so you understand.”
“I do—and now there’s something I need for you to understand, Jarrod. It’s very important to me.” She looked up almost pleadingly.
“Well, honey, I can’t understand until you tell me.”
She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ve rehearsed this for weeks.”
Jarrod watched her carefully. He’d had a feeling, ever since she arrived, that more was weighing on her than Royce Wardell’s death. Though it had been a devastating blow for her to lose both her parents in the short span of fourteen months, their deaths had not been unexpected. Whatever was on her mind didn’t involve her parents.
He sat back and folded his hands and waited for her to speak.
Katherine rose and crossed the office to stand before a family portrait identical to the one hanging in the library at the ranch. She studied her mother’s elegant bearing and serene countenance and the way her father held her tenderly against his broad chest and felt their strength and love flowing out to her.
“I want to know—I need to know everything you can tell me about the circumstances of my birth.”
“Why, honey? Why now?
“I’m asking the questions, counselor,” she replied with an unaccustomed sharpness in her voice.
“I don’t know much.”
She knew instinctively that he was trying, for whatever reason, to avoid the discussion. “Then tell me what you do know.”
He walked to a file cabinet and opened a drawer, producing a thin folder which he laid on his desk. “It’s all there, KatieBee.”
She didn’t move. “I want to hear it from you, Jarrod. I came to you—not Nick or Heath or Gene—for very good reasons.”
He sat down again. “One of Donnell Houghten’s boys was chasing strays on Christmas Eve afternoon and thought he heard a baby crying. When he went into the line shack, he found you lying on the bed with your mother.”
“Victoria Barkley Wardell was my mother.” Her voice was flat.
“He snatched you up and put you inside his coat and rode as fast as he could to Dr. Merar. Then he took a pack horse and went back for. . .for the girl. Fred Madden told me the boy broke down when he told the story. Seems he had an older sister who’d just given birth to a baby girl in Sacramento, and he said he kept seeing her face all the way to town.”
“Does he still work for Mr. Houghten?”
“No, and I have no idea where he went.”
“Go on with the rest of the story.”
“Fred got somebody from the newspaper to make a sketch of the girl and print up enough copies to send around to all the towns within a fifty-mile radius. The lady who kept the saloon over in Ash Flat wrote him that her name was Annie, that she’d come in on the stage less than a year before, then disappeared sometime around the first of December.”
“She’d been living in the line shack all that time?”
“I would assume so. I went up there myself, but there wasn’t anything that could identify her any further—a few clothes, some food—no pictures or letters or anything like that.”
“Did anyone try to trace her before she came to Ash Flat?”
“It would’ve been like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“Well, at least one other person knew of me—or at least the possibility that I might exist.”
“Not necessarily. Cowboys still come to town after roundup or on a Saturday night looking for a good time. They get liquored up, and, well—well, they don’t always remember on Sunday what. . .”
“She was a saloon girl then,” Katherine interrupted.
“A girl making a living the only way she knew how. Don’t judge her, honey. You have a fine education and an outstanding career in front of you—but you had the opportunity. She didn’t.”
“We always celebrated my birthday on the twenty-third. Was that because of what Dr. Merar said?”
“He felt you weren’t over two days old.”
“How did she—the girl—die?”
“She hemorrhaged—but she managed to take care of you first. The cord was tied, and you were wrapped in a blanket. She was buried decently.”
“In a pauper’s grave.”
“I said she was buried decently, KatieBee. Mother asked me to see to that even before she and Royce discussed adopting you. She said it was the least somebody could do. Audra donated a dress—a nice one. She wasn’t just wrapped up and put in a pine box.”
“She’s in the cemetery?”
“Yes with a marker—her first name and the date. That’s all we knew.”
“How do I find it?”
“I’m not sure I remember, but the caretaker can show you. He knows the place like the back of his hand.”
She turned and picked up the folder from the desk. “I’ll take this if you don’t mind. I’m going to ride over to Ash Flat, so I might be late for dinner.”
Jarrod shook his head. “If you’re determined to go—and I can see that you are—I’ll have Trevor take you in the automobile.”
Katherine considered her oldest nephew who was just two years her junior. They’d been the best of pals when they were growing up. Summers and Christmases at the ranch, visits to Nashville, vacations on the coast—they’d shared many good times. He’d graduated from law school and come back here to practice with his father. Still, she hesitated. Would he understand any better than Jarrod?
Jarrod took advantage of her hesitation. “Let me put it this way, KatieBee—you’re a grown woman, and I can’t stop you from going, but I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d relieve my mind by letting Trevor go along.”
“When you put it that way, all right.”
“I don’t understand why you want to do this.”
“You never can, Jarrod. You have a birthright.”
“And you don’t?”
“It’s not the same.”
“What do you think your parents would say about all this?”
“They’d tell me it was all right.”
“You’re sure about that?”
She turned back to look at the picture. “I’m very sure, Jarrod. I’m not looking for another family—only information. They were my parents, and I loved them more than words can express. I know who I am, but I need to know where I came from. Oddly enough, I feel I owe it to that poor girl—to Annie.”
Jarrod put his arms around her. “You’re one in a million, KatieBee.”
* * * * * * * *
Trevor didn’t talk about the purpose of the trip as they drove, but as they got closer to Ash Flat, he slowed and cleared his throat. “You really want to do this, KatieBee?”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. You can’t understand, Trevor! You . . .”
“Whoa, ladybug! What’s this ‘you’ bit? It was always ‘us’ before.”
“Look, I’ll help you any way I can, but. . .”
“But you don’t understand.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well, do you?”
“In a way, I do. I think I’d want to know my origins the same as you. I just don’t know how far I’d go to find out.”
“I don’t know either.” She pointed to the sheriff’s office. “Stop over there.”
The sheriff was an older man, a fountain of information about the days when Ash Flat was somewhat less that respectable. “Hallie Bett,” he said when Katherine asked about the saloon. “Started out as a bar girl and ended up owning the place.”
“Does she still own it?”
“Nah, sold it years ago. Closed down now. But she’s still around. Lives over at the hotel—got religion in her old age.” He raised his eyebrows expressively. “Downright respectable these days—anyway, she thinks so!”
“Thank you,” Katherine said, turning to go.
“What you want with Hallie Bett, girl?”
Trevor saw her jaw tighten and took her arm. “Thanks for you help,” he said and shoved Katherine gently through the door.
* * * * * * * *
Hallie Bett admitted the young people to her room as if she were welcoming royalty. It was hard to tell how old she was, but her surroundings were reminiscent of a much earlier time. She offered them tea from a pot whistling on a gas ring in the corner and brought out a tin of cookies from the shelf above it. Then she seated herself, spreading a white linen napkin over her neat black skirt. “Now,” she said cheerfully, “what can I do for you folks?”
“I’m looking for information about a girl who worked at your saloon twenty-eight years ago,” Katherine said bluntly.
“Lots of girls worked for me over the years. Does she have a name?”
“That’s all I know.”
“Why are you interested in her?”
“She was my. . .she gave birth to me.”
“I see.” Hallie sipped her tea in silence. “I take it she didn’t raise you.”
“She died shortly after I was born.”
“So you never knew her.”
“What happened to you after she died?”
“I was adopted.”
“Did it turn out well?”
Katherine nodded. “I was very fortunate.”
Trevor cleared his throat. “Miss Bett, we’ve forgotten our manners. I’m Trevor Barkley, and this is Dr. Katherine Barkley Wardell.”
“Barkley. The Stockton Barkleys?”
“That’s right.” Trevor fingered the rim of his cup. “My father is Jarrod Barkley.”
“He was until he had a stroke awhile back.”
Hallie turned to Katherine. “So he’s your—uncle?”
She shook her head. “My brother.”
“You’re pretty young to have a brother as old as I know Jarrod Barkley must be by now. I figure he’s close to my age.”
“When Victoria Barkley remarried, she and her husband adopted me from the orphanage in Stockton.”
“Are your parents living?”
“Mother died fourteen months ago. I came back to Stockton three days ago to bury Papa.”
“I’m sorry for you. I lost both my parents when I was fifteen. That’s when I started working in a saloon—I didn’t know anything else to do to keep from starving. I expect the woman who gave birth to you went to work for me for the same reasons.”
“Annie, you say, and about twenty-eight years ago.” She put aside her cup and went to a trunk covered with a scarf. “I been sitting here thinking as you talked—maybe this will help.” She rummaged for a few minutes, then stood up holding a piece of paper in her hand. “Years ago a deputy came by the saloon and asked if I knew this girl.” She held out the paper. “This is Annie.”
As Katherine grasped the paper, she stared into a face remarkably like her own and felt as if she were choking. Trevor, looking over her shoulder, gasped.
Hallie sat down again. “I told the man all I knew—just her name. She called herself Annie—and she’d spent all she had on the stage to Ash Flat. I gave her something to eat, a bed, and a job.”
“How—how old was she?” Katherine asked, unable to take her eyes off the picture.
Hallie shrugged. “Fourteen or fifteen, I guess.”
“You said she came in on the stage. Where did she come from?”
“She didn’t say, but I remember it was the afternoon stage from up north.”
“And you don’t know anything else about her?” Trevor persisted.
“She was shy—couldn’t drink. Made her sick. I made sure the bartender always brought her a sarsaparilla when some cowboy bought her a drink.”
Trevor shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Was there ever—anyone—you know—special?”
Hallie chuckled. “Nope. She was still a little girl, Mr. Barkley. She should’ve been home tending the younger ones, going to school, thinking about church socials and. . .”
“Then how—how did she come to be. . .” Trevor swallowed nervously.
“Pregnant,” Katherine said, trying not to laugh at his discomfiture.
“Only happens one way,” Hallie said. “She wouldn’t talk to me, but I knew. Crawled up inside herself worse than ever. Sick a lot. Thought she was hiding her belly under a shawl, but I wasn’t fooled.”
“And then she just disappeared?”
“Late November, first of December, I recall. Never heard anything of her again until the deputy came around with the picture.”
“That was the end of it then?” Trevor asked.
“No. Sometime in January, a fellow came into the saloon asking for her. I’d seen him around before—oh, in the late summer, I guess. He used to sit at a back table with Annie—sit there all evening just talking to her. She always seemed happier after he’d been there. I figured maybe he was the one. Anyway, he didn’t come around anymore after awhile, and then she left. But he came back in January and asked where she was. When I told him she’d gone, he seemed pretty upset. I didn’t—tell him about her. Didn’t seem much point in it.”
“Did he tell you his name?” Katherine asked.
“I wrote it down after he left. And the name of the place he said she could find him if she came back. It’s on the back of the picture.”
“But you knew by then that she wasn’t coming back—that she was dead,” Katherine murmured.
Hallie nodded. “I’ve wondered if I did the right thing, but it seemed like it at the time. Seemed like he cared about her, and if he knew he’d been the reason why she died—maybe I was wrong. I don’t know.”
“May I keep the picture?” Katherine asked.
“Sure. What are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. Think about everything you’ve said, I suppose, and then decide. Thank you, Miss Bett.”
Hallie nodded. “I’m glad things turned out for you—glad some good came of things anyway.”
Katherine and Trevor went back to the automobile parked in front of the hotel. “Now what?” he asked.
“I’m going to find out where she came from.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I’ll start with the next town north and go from there.”
Trevor shook his head. “Not today, you won’t. Get in.”
Saying she wasn’t hungry, Katherine asked to be excused from supper and went upstairs to her room. She placed the picture Hallie Bett had given her on the table and studied it closely. Annie. The girl who had carried her in her body. A child herself.
Katherine touched the curve of the girl’s cheek. What had it been like for her, alone in that isolated place and in pain? Had she had younger brothers and sisters and learned something about delivering babies—tying the cord and swaddling the newborn? Had she realized she was dying and felt afraid? Or had she just simply closed her eyes and never waked up?
Mother hadn’t been alone—or afraid either. She and Papa had been with her every second when they realized that the end was imminent. They’d held her hands and talked to her, and she’d talked back to them with her eyes until she’d slipped into a coma. And still they stayed with her, right to the last breath. She’d gone so quietly—looked so peaceful. It had been hard, but it would have been harder not to be there.
She’d been with Papa, too, the night he died. When he’d fallen asleep, she’d allowed herself to close her eyes—and when she opened them again, he was gone. She reflected how like Papa that was—self-effacing, never asking for anything other than to be loved. Even in death he’d asked for nothing but to be allowed to slip away without disturbing anyone.
Katherine’s throat ached, and she shook her head to clear away the poignant memories. Opening the folder she’d picked up from Jarrod’s desk, she began to read. “Female infant born on or about December 23, 1880. Mother deceased (childbirth). Father unknown. Declared a ward of the Stockton County Court. Petition for adoption filed January 7, 1880, by Jarrod T. Barkley, attorney at law. Petitioners: Royce Edward Wardell and Victoria Barkley Wardell of New Orleans, Louisiana. Custody granted to petitioners pending investigation of possible relatives.”
She turned the page. “Adoption of female child granted to petitioners on March 1, 1880. No relatives found.”
The third and final page was a copy of her birth certificate—unusual for that time in the sense that it listed her as a natural child born to her parents. How had Jarrod managed that? She knew only too well how the word ‘illegitimate’ was so heedlessly written and could follow a child all of his life. Once, when she was in medical school, she’d refused to fill out that part of a birth certificate for a baby born in the charity ward where she was interning in obstetrics. The supervising physician had railed at her for being a foolish, sentimental girl who had no business thinking she had a place in a man’s world of medicine. She’d simply pushed the paper across the desk toward him and walked away—and he’d never spoken to her about the matter again.
Three pages and a picture—her entire history. All of her brothers, even Heath, had stories about their births: Jarrod on the dirt floor of a dugout, Nick during a hailstorm with stones crashing through the window, Gene—the first to be born in this house, upstairs in his parents’ bedroom—and Heath, in humbler circumstances but welcomed just the same. Audra’s was the best story of all—she’d been in quite a hurry and had arrived in the buggy after a picnic before Tom Barkley could get Mother to town.
Each of them had been greeted by loving arms and with a particular joy that made the pain only a memory. But she had slipped into the world unnoticed—and unwanted, in fear and shame. Thinking of it, she ached—not for herself—but for Annie.
* * * * * * * *
She flipped open her watch and estimated that the family would be going to the library as they usually did after supper. It was time for her to join them now—time to tell them everything.
“Well, well, princess, come down out of your ivory tower to join us?” Nick teased her as she entered.
“Yes, and I will have a glass of sherry, thank you for offering.”
He grinned and poured a glass for her.
“Is Heath coming over tonight for billiards perhaps?” She accepted the sherry and settled into a chair.
Nick glanced at the door. “Speak of the devil. . .”
Heath took the glass of sherry Nick was holding. “Thank you, big brother.”
Nick scowled. “Never learned to pour his own!”
“I have something to discuss with you,” Katherine said, feeling her courage ebbing away. “Jarrod knows, and I’m sure he’s told Gene.” A cold knot formed in the pit of her stomach.
“The princess wants to speak to her royal subjects,” Nick said lightly. He threw himself into a chair and draped one leg over the arm.
Audra sat down by Katherine. “Don’t pay any attention to him, KatieBee.”
“Do I ever?” Katherine tossed back, playing for time.
Nick scowled again, and Heath chuckled as he sipped his sherry.
She took a deep breath. “Actually, it’s not necessarily something that’s up for discussion. I’ve made a decision, but I feel that you should know about it.”
Audra smoothed her sister’s hair back from her face with a practiced hand. “What is it, dear? You seem so serious.”
“I’m very serious—and I’m in no mood for anyone to make jokes—or argue with me.”
Nick’s eyes grew wary. His little sister had changed over the past few years, and while he was proud of the woman she’d become, he wasn’t sure he liked the fact that she was quite so opinionated and independent. More and more she reminded him of Audra—and they both reminded him of Mother.
“Based on the information Jarrod gave me this morning, I went to Ash Flat and spoke with the woman who ran the saloon there when I was born. You may already know that the girl who gave birth to me worked there. Her name was Annie. The sketch that was circulated in the search for her identity looks very much like me.” She produced the paper from behind her skirt and passed it to Audra.
Audra’s eyes widened. “Oh, my. . .”
“Let me see that!” Nick jumped up and took possession of the paper. His jaw tightened, and he handed it on to Heath without comment.
“Hallie Bett—the woman I spoke with—said she came in on the stage from up north. I plan to take the railroad line as far as it goes in that direction and work my way back. Hopefully someone will recognize the picture.”
Nick’s face flushed angrily, but with effort he swallowed the angry words rising in his throat.
Katherine looked at him almost pleadingly. “Nick, I’m a grown woman and a practicing physician. I don’t need your permission—only your support.”
He stalked across the room and refilled his glass.
“Why do you want to do this, honey?” Heath asked.
“Maybe for myself—a little—and maybe for her. For Annie. I’m here because of her.”
Heath nodded. “I can’t say that I understand completely, but you know I’ll support you.”
“I will, too, KatieBee. You know that.” Audra kissed her cheek softly.
“Thank you, Heath. . .Audra.” She looked at Nick still
standing with his back to her. “Nick?”
He whirled angrily, the liquid in his glass spilling over the edge. “Like hell, I will! You know who you are! Doesn’t matter where you came from—you were raised a Barkley, and you’ll live and die a Barkley!”
“And a Wardell,” Heath murmured.
Hot tears stung Katherine’s eyes, and her mouth quivered like a hurt child.
“Nick, how could you?” Audra snapped at him.
Katherine half rose. Never in her life had anyone in her family raised a voice or a hand to her. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She was angry with herself for reacting so childishly, but she was wounded. Mother had always corrected her so matter-of-factly, even when she was due much sterner measures, and Papa—Papa left the correcting to Mother entirely. He hadn’t even raised an eyebrow the day she tried to be helpful and washed out all of his pipes in warm soapy water, leaving them completely ruined.
She’d cried heartbrokenly when she realized what she’d done, but Papa had taken her on his lap and comforted her by saying her how pleased he was that she wanted to do something for him. Mother, tucking her into bed later, observed casually that not all things needed to be cleaned with soap and water and suggested that she ask first before washing anything else. Then the next morning they’d gone to town and bought Papa a new pipe.
“Nick was always yelling at me,” Audra said hurriedly, reading her younger sister’s thoughts in her shocked expression. “Always threatening to warm my britches or. . .”
Katherine berated herself for her ridiculous tears, but she couldn’t stop them. Nick had raised his voice to her—even used profanity—it would have hurt less if he’d struck her. She drew her handkerchief from her pocket and pressed it to her trembling lips.
“Aw, now, honey, I didn’t mean it!” Nick’s face was stricken. He put his arms around her and held her head against his chest. “I’m sorry, KatieBee! I’m really sorry!”
She sniffed. “You never hurt my feelings before,” she choked.
“Aw, honey. . .”
She lifted wet eyes to his face. “You—you yelled at me!”
He patted her awkwardly. “Aw, honey. . .”
“We don’t have to understand to support you, KatieBee,” Heath said. “And you know we do—always have, always will. But if you’re not fixing to run off tomorrow, maybe we could talk about it—your trip, I mean.”
“Well. . .” she said slowly.
”That’s right,” Nick said. “We’ll talk about it, honey. In the first place, you don’t need to go traipsing off by your self and. . .”
“Nick,” Heath said warningly.
“I mean, it’s going to take some planning! Maybe one of us could go with you. We need to think this thing through before you do anything.”
Katherine struggled with her emotions. She’d never given way like this, not as an adult anyway. Now she’d behaved like a spoiled child and for no other reason than Nick had opposed her and—the tears came back at the memory of his angry voice. Or was she crying because she was alone, because she couldn’t run to Mother or Papa with any trouble ever again?
Audra took her from Nick. “You’re tired and overwrought,” she said gently. “You’ve had too much to deal with for over a year, and now you’re wanting to take on more. But right now you’re going to bed.”
As they left the library, Katherine heard Heath say, “Nick, despite how she started out, she’s never known what it meant to be an orphan child until now. She’s hurting.”
“I know, I know! But what good is it going to do her to. . .” His words were lost as Audra urged her toward the stairs.
* * * * * * * *
Katherine broke down completely as Audra tucked her into bed. Audra looked so much like Mother—she’d always envied her older sister that resemblance. Mother was so lovely, so elegant!
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me,” Katherine sobbed.
Audra kissed her forehead. “You’ve just buried your last parent, sweetheart. We all mourned Mother, but we’re older. We had her longer. And even though we’ll all miss Royce, you’ll miss him more.”
“They loved me totally! No one will ever love me like that again!”
“Not as a parent,” Audra said softly, “but as a woman. You have so much life in front of you, KatieBee—so much happiness yet to come.”
“But they won’t be here to share it with me!”
“Oh, I think they will. I think they’ll always be with you in a way.”
“Do you think I’m wrong to want more information on Annie?”
“Not unless you’re trying to replace something—or someone—you’ve lost.”
“No one could replace Mother and Papa. It’s not like that, Audra. But I have to know—I just have to!”
“What exactly do you want to know?”
“Where she came from—why she was working in a saloon—and how I—how I got started.”
Audra sat down on the bed and took her little sister in her arms. “You were the most beautiful baby! Royce couldn’t take his eyes off of you, and when Mother asked if he wanted to hold you, he backed off like a skittish mare! I finally got him to sit down in the rocking chair, and then Mother and I left him alone with you. I wasn’t sure that was a good idea—but we kept an eye on him through the door. I think I was the only one of the family who wasn’t all that surprised when Mother announced that they were going to adopt you.”
“I guess Nick paced and ranted.”
“Oddly enough, no he didn’t. He hadn’t approved of Mother marrying Royce, and things hadn’t been very pleasant for awhile that Christmas—but they’d called a truce anyway. So he didn’t have anything to say about it, at least not for awhile. It took all of five minutes after they brought you home for Nick to fall completely under your spell.”
“Mother said they were really too old to be starting over, but she felt that Papa deserved a chance to be a father.”
“He did, KatieBee, and oh, how he adored you!”
“Mother had her hands full—keeping me on the straight and narrow when Papa would have given me anything I asked for and thought I could do no wrong.”
“She relished every moment of it. I remember when you were about two—we were all here at the ranch for the summer—you would persist in turning somersaults in the upstairs hall, and you’d come so close to tumbling downstairs headfirst. One morning Mother retrieved you for something like the dozenth time, and I can still see her standing there holding you and trying to explain to you why you couldn’t get close to the stairs. She looked at me and said, “Audra, I am too old for this!”
Katherine actually wiggled with anticipation of a story she hadn’t heard.
“And then you put those fat little arms around her neck and laid your head on her shoulder and said, ‘Kate loves Murr.’ You couldn’t quite say ‘Mother’ yet. And when you said that, she just melted. I could see it so plainly.”
“I don’t know many fifty-plus-year-old women who’d take on an infant after raising four of her own.”
“Well, you know, I think she enjoyed you in a different way than she’d enjoyed us. She’d seen us turn out all right despite everything, so she knew you would, too. She’d been through all the childhood illnesses, scrapes and bruises, broken bones, and devilish escapades—and survived them right along with us. It was almost like reading a book she’d read before and knowing how it came out. Or like frosting a cake—the baking is the hard part, but the frosting is fun.”
“And I was the frosting?”
“Of course. Oh, KatieBee, darling, I know it’s so hard for you to give up being their daughter, but that’s just part of life! It’s like one chapter ending in your life and another one beginning, don’t you see? I’m not telling you that it’s wrong to grieve—you have to do that—but don’t try to get back what you’ve lost. You can’t do it.”
“Do you think that’s what I’m doing?”
“I don’t know. Are you?”
“I’m not trying to find a family to replace Mother and Papa—not when I have all of you. It’s more like trying to find the part of me that’s lost—and then I can close the chapter and go on.”
“Well, right now, you’re going to sleep. We’ll talk about all this tomorrow evening.”
“I thought you were packing to leave.”
“I was, but I think perhaps I need to stay on awhile. Don and the boys can go back to Santa Barbara—they can look after themselves for awhile.”
“Audra. . .”
Audra smiled. “Don’t argue with me—I’m older.”
Katherine’s eyes were heavy. “And wiser,” she murmured. “Thank you, Audra. I love you.”
“Sleep tight, darling. Everything will work out.” She turned out the lamp and left the room.
In the darkness Katherine tried to think about the day’s events, but she couldn’t concentrate. Tomorrow—tomorrow she’d let Nick and Heath and Jarrod and Gene say whatever they wanted—advise her—tell her what they thought—and, hopefully, pet her as they’d done since she was small. She loved them, and, yes, she needed them—at least their support. But no matter what, she was going ahead. The need to know was too strong to be locked away and forgotten.
She drew the covers around her, remembering how as a small child she’d sought refuge from bad dreams in her parents’ bed. They would tuck her between them, and she’d fall asleep immediately, secure in the warmth of their bodies and their love. Audra was right—she had to turn the page and begin a new chapter, but for tonight—for tonight she wanted to read the finished pages one more time.
Jarrod moderated the family meeting with his usual authority. Trevor had asked to come along, claiming he was part of the situation by virtue of having accompanied Katherine to Ash Flat the day before. Nick, mindful of his youngest sister’s vulnerable state, put on a positive face and kept his mouth shut. Heath maintained his customary stoic silence, and Gene seemed to think it was his job to help Pappy conduct the proceedings.
“All right,” Jarrod said, “we’ve established that you intend to see this through, KatieBee. What we need to do now is decide how best for you to go about it.”
“I’m open to any suggestions,” Katherine said calmly, her emotions firmly in check again.
“I don’t see why she has to make the trip herself,” Nick said, unable to keep quiet any longer. “Why can’t we have more pictures printed up and send them to the local law enforcement in those towns? They’re seven of them—I got out the map last night and looked.”
Jarrod glanced at Katherine. “Honey?”
“I think that’s a good suggestion,” she said quietly, “but I need to go myself. If I find someone who knew her, I need to be able to speak with them face to face.”
“I think so, too,” Trevor agreed quickly.
Jarrod raised his eyebrows at his oldest son. “We agreed you’d be a spectator, not a participant.”
Trevor’s face reddened. “You made me part of this when you sent me to Ash Flat with Katherine yesterday!”
“Why can’t Trevor go with her again?” Gene asked.
“This isn’t your quest, Trevor,” Katherine said gently. “I appreciate your willingness to put your own business aside for me, but. . .”
“You could run into trouble in some of those places.” Heath spoke for the first time. “We don’t know what made her take off, but a fifteen-year-old girl don’t run just for the sake of running. Something made her go in a hurry. And from what the woman in Ash Flat told you, it sounds like she wasn’t prepared for life outside of wherever she came from. Suppose you do find where she came from—and the people she left behind? Could be they’re not too interested in anybody nosing around in their business.”
“I’ve thought of that,” Katherine said.
“Good point,” Jarrod said, putting the tips of his fingers together thoughtfully. “And another thing—you’re a very wealthy young lady as well as a very beautiful one. The name ‘Wardell’ may not be readily recognizable in those places, but everybody knows the Barkley name. If you don’t like who you find, they’ll always know where you are.”
“I’ve thought of that, too, but I don’t have to use the Barkley name at all.”
“I still vote for sending the pictures out or for Trevor going with her,” Nick said. He turned to his sister. “Honey, I’m just thinking of you.”
“I know you are, Nick, and I appreciate it.”
“I don’t see why you don’t want me along,” Trevor said sulkily.
“It’s not a question of not wanting you, Trevor. But the people I want to talk to may be willing to talk to me—to one person—but not to two of us. I don’t want it to seem like an inquisition.”
“You really think you’re going to find out anything after all this time?” Nick asked.
Katherine smiled at him. “Are you saying I’m old?”
“You know I’m not!” he growled, then realized she was teasing him. “But twenty-eight years come Christmas has been a long time, honey. A long time for people to put things behind them—to forget.”
She let her eyes wander over her brothers, loving them even more at this moment. They didn’t understand—and they didn’t agree—but they were behind her now. “Here’s what I want to propose. I’ll ride the spur as far north as Redding and go to the sheriff’s office, the newspaper, the general store. . .places people gather. . .”
“You stay the hell out of the saloons,” Nick growled.
Everyone laughed. “I believe they’re referred to by other names now in polite society, Brother Nick,” Jarrod said.
“Whatever they’re called—promise me now, KatieBee. Mother and Royce wouldn’t like it.”
“I promise, Nick. I promise I won’t do anything to put myself at risk. In fact, I’ll sign the hotel registers ‘K. Wardell’ and give Nashville, not Stockton, as my home.”
“And you’ll wire the minute you get to Redding and everyplace in between,” Nick said.
“The very minute.”
“And don’t carry a wad of cash on you. You can always get a bank draft cashed in the bigger places.” He looked down at her sternly.
“I’ll get you a letter of credit tomorrow,” Jarrod said. “Trevor said something yesterday about a name on the back of that picture.”
“Yes. The man who came looking for her in January.”
“Could he be your. . .the man who. . .” Gene looked uncomfortable.
“Pregnant,” Katherine said, rolling her eyes. “The man who got her pregnant! Why does everyone have such a hard time with that word? You don’t have any trouble talking in the most graphic terms about breeding stock. I’ve heard it all my life. I’ve sat right here in this room and heard. . .”
“Okay,” Nick interrupted. “We get the point.” He glared at Heath who laughed out loud.
“I’d like the man’s name,” Jarrod said, looking slightly amused at the exchange. Maybe I could turn up something on him.”
“I’d be very grateful, Jarrod.”
“All right then—it’s settled. KatieBee goes alone, but she checks in with us at every stop.” Jarrod pointed with his cane at the glass decanter on the table by the fireplace. “And now, Brother Nick, if you’d be so kind.”
* * * * * * * *
Nick and Heath put her on the train the next day. “You’ll get into Redding after dark,” Nick said. “I don’t like that.”
“I’ll be fine, Nick.” Katherine stood on her toes to kiss his cheek, then Heath’s.
“Don’t forget the wire—the minute you get there!” Nick turned his hat nervously in his hands. He had a bad feeling about all this.
“I’ll be fine,” she repeated. Heath handed her traveling bag to the conductor and gave her a hand up the steps. “Heath. . .Nick. . .”
Heath nodded. “Have a good trip, honey. Don’t forget where home is though.”
She watched them standing on the platform, looking after the departing train, until the station disappeared from sight. In her compartment, she took off her hat and opened her traveling case and reached inside for the book she was reading. Instead, her hand closed around cold steel—a handgun.
Of course, Nick had put it there. It was like him. He knew, that she could use it with skill because he’d taught her himself. Papa hadn’t particularly liked the idea of Nick teaching her to shoot, but Mother said that it was a good idea. Sometimes Papa came along just to keep an eye on things. A gun in the dainty hands of his princess disturbed him even though he conceded the wisdom of his wife’s words.
She smiled, remembering the afternoon that she’d knocked six tin cans off the fence in just seconds with Papa watching. He’d applauded her enthusiastically, and Nick had wrapped her in a huge bear hug. She’d been thirteen that summer. The next day she’d ‘become a young woman’, as Mother put it. Of the two momentous events, the success with the gun had seemed far more exciting, and when she’d said as much to Mother, her words had been met with understanding. “You’re caught between two worlds, Kate,” she said, cuddling her daughter. “Your body says you’re a woman, but your mind tells you that you’re still a child. You still want to play—and you should. You have years ahead of you to grow up.”
She’d looked at her mother’s unlined face framed by the white hair that shone like spun silk. “I want to be just like you when I grow up, Mother.”
“You’ll be yourself, Kate—and your Papa and I will be so very proud!”
Katherine tucked the gun into her purse. She wouldn’t need it, but she’d be able to tell Nick she’d carried it as he intended. She shook her head and laughed, and then opened her book.
* * * * * * * *
She didn’t find anything in Redding or even the next town, but she perfected her approach to those who were sympathetic to her quest and those who were not. By the time she got to Orland, she felt prepared for anyone and anything.
The sheriff was a young man, hardly older than she was, but he looked at the picture and listened to her story. It wasn’t the real story, of course, but it was plausible: her cousin Annie had run off with a man her family disapproved of, and her aunt was ill from worry. She’d heard they might be living in Orland, and so…
The man shook his head. “Don’t recognize her, Miss, but that don’t mean she ain’t here. Tell you what—go on down the street a piece to Bartlett’s Store. Almanzo Bartlett’s lived in this town all his life and knows everything that goes on. And if he don’t know, his daddy will.”
Katherine slipped the picture carefully back into the leather portfolio, thanked the sheriff for his help, and made her way to Bartlett’s Store. Except for the requisite group of old men smoking around a pot-bellied stove the place was empty.
“Help you, miss?” The middle-aged man behind the counter smiled at her pleasantly.
“I’m looking for someone,” Katherine said, approaching him and laying the portfolio open between a jar of pickles and a box of beef jerky. She opened her mouth to give the rehearsed explanation, but something held her back. She knew why when she saw the man’s eyes widen in surprise.
“That’s Annie Jimson! You know her? Where is she?”
Katherine’s heart pounded. “Annie Jimson? You’re sure?”
“Miss, I went to school with her until she took off nearly thirty years ago. I was right sweet on her, too, but she was so pretty—I knew she’d never look at the likes of me, leastways not like I wanted her to.” He drug his eyes from the picture to Katherine’s face. “You—you favor her, miss. Are you kin somehow?”
Before she could answer, he held up the picture toward the men around the stove. “Look here—that’s Annie Jimson, ain’t it?”
One of the men brought his chair forward from two legs and set the other two down hard. “By golly! By golly, it is!” He got up and came over for a closer look. “Little Annie Jimson—it sure is!”
Katherine’s mouth went dry, and her heart pounded harder. “What can you tell me about her?”
The counter man—Alonzo Bartlett, she assumed—studied the picture again. “She sure was pretty—smart, too. Miz Wilcox, our teacher, said she could even go to college if she wanted to, but her pa—old man Jimson—he wouldn’t have any of it. Took her out of school right after that. It was time to harvest the crops, and he drove her like a slave.”
One of the men by the stove leaned over and spat into a tarnished brass cuspidor. “Meanest man God ever put on this earth—old man Jimson was. Still is, far’s I know.”
“He’s still alive?” Katherine asked carefully.
“Still breathing anyway, last I heard,” the man said. “But he’s been dead a long time.”
Katherine felt chilled. “Her—Annie’s mother?”
The storekeeper shook his head. “The next year after Luther wouldn’t let her go to school anymore, the diphtheria took Miz Jimson and little Luke, too.”
“Luke was her brother?”
“Yeah. He was a couple of years younger, and he wasn’t quite right, you know? Had a funny look about him—almost like he was Chinese or something.”
Katherine knew all too well.
“But he was a sweet kid, never caused no trouble. Even went to school for awhile when he was little. Miss Wilcox gave him chores to do and let him draw pictures. I remember he liked to listen to the stories she read everyday after lunch. Some of the other children made fun of him—but not all. Most just accepted him, and if they didn’t, why, Annie’d let them have it good.” He chuckled. “She wasn’t very big, but one day she took down Bob Crown—took him by surprise and sat on top of him and beat the tar out of him before Miss Wilcox came out and made her stop! Bob, he didn’t mess with little Luke again, I’m here to tell you!”
“So her mother and brother died with diphtheria. When?”
The man scratched his head. “Come to think of it, I guess—well, I guess it was around the time she took off. She was there at the burying, and then I didn’t see her in town for awhile. She usually brought in eggs to sell at the store ‘bout once a week. This is my pa’s store, y’see. He liked Annie—felt sorry for her—and always paid her a little extra. She musta squirreled it away and used it to run off on. Can’t say that I blame her though. That old man made her life miserable!”
Katherine considered her next words. “Where—where would I find her father?”
“You don’t wanta find him, miss,” said one of the men by the stove. “No, sir, you don’t wanta go anywhere near him, ‘specially if you was a friend of Annie.”
“I—I wasn’t exactly a friend,” Katherine said.
Almanzo Bartlett put on his gold-rimmed glasses and peered at her closely. “You sure do look like her, miss. You some kin?”
Katherine nodded. “I’m some kin,” she said. “Is there anyone else in town who would remember her?”
“Caroline Fuller,” said another of the men by the stove. “They was best friends. Caroline went off to some kind of girls’ school and then married a doctor, and they came back here.”
“Where does she live?”
“Doc Fuller has his office a few doors down, and they live up over it.”
Katherine closed the portfolio. “Thank you very much for your help,” she said, turning to go.
“Wait a minute, miss! You go see Caroline but stay away from old man Jimson. He’d as soon shoot you as look at you!”
“If he can still see to point a gun,” a man guffawed.
Katherine kept walking toward the door. “I’ll remember what you said.”
Caroline Fuller looked at the picture, then at Katherine, then back at the picture. “Oh, Annie,” she murmured.
“Mr. Bartlett at the store said you were her best friend.”
“That’s right. We told each other everything—or I thought we did. But she didn’t tell me she was going to leave. If she had, I’d have done everything I could to stop her. My father was the circuit judge, you see, and he might have been able to find some way to get Annie away from her father. That man nearly worked her to death, and he wasn’t above hitting her either. When Mrs. Jimson and little Luke died, Annie told me that at least he couldn’t hurt them anymore. I remember we were standing at the gate of the cemetery after the funeral. It was raining and cold, and she didn’t have on much more than a shawl for protection. I tried to get her to come home with me that afternoon, but she said she couldn’t. I remember she had to run to catch up with the wagon—Mr. Jimson had driven right off and left her.”
“How long after that did she leave?”
“I’m not sure—I didn’t see her again for a few weeks, but that wasn’t unusual since she wasn’t attending school anymore. Then one day I went in the store to get some thread for Mamma, and Mr. Bartlett—the older Mr. Bartlett—asked me about her. He said she hadn’t brought him any eggs in over a month. I just said that maybe the hens had quit laying for some reason, but I knew then that she’d gone. There wasn’t any reason for her to stay, not with her mamma and little Luke dead.”
Caroline stared out the window. “I’ve thought of her every day, believe it or not. Wondered where she was—hoped she was happy.” She looked back at Katherine. “But she’s not—is she?”
Katherine swallowed hard. “She’s—she’s at peace anyway.”
“Do you know what happened to her?”
“I know part of it.”
“Will you tell me, dear? I loved Annie—I need to know.”
Katherine gave the sparse facts, stopping short of saying that she was the baby born in the line shack.
Caroline cried for a few minutes, then said, “You’re her daughter, aren’t you?”
“Oh, my dear.”
“I was adopted by lovely people. I had a very happy life.”
Caroline nodded. “Annie would be glad for that.”
“Another man at the store mentioned that her father is still alive.”
Caroline’s eyes flashed. “Alive enough to be dangerous. Stay away from him!”
“I—I want to see where she lived.”
“Philip and I will drive you out there if you have to go, but we’ll only look from the road.”
“I wouldn’t want to trouble you, Mrs. Fuller. I can rent a horse at the livery.”
“Don’t do it, Miss Wardell. I’m telling you—don’t do it. He was mean before, and since she left, he’s crazy mean—and he’s dying anyway. Philip goes out to see him every week or so.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Personally, I think the evil in his soul is finally consuming him—but medically, it’s gangrene.”
“Yes, that’s when. . .”
“I know what it is, Mrs. Fuller. I’m a physician myself.”
“I graduated from the medical school at Vanderbilt.”
“That’s where my husband graduated!”
Katherine smiled. “Then you know I’m fully qualified. Go on about Mr. Jimson.”
“He cut his foot on a piece of farm equipment, and it got infected. By the time he came to see Philip, it was already gangrenous. Philip cut out what he could and gave him specific instructions about taking care of it, but that’s been a month ago, and it’s just gotten worse.”
“Why don’t you stay to supper, Miss Wardell? You could speak with Philip about Luther Jimson, and I’d like to talk more about Annie—share my memories of her with you. It—it would be of help—to me, at least.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Fuller. I accept your invitation. I’m going to check into the hotel and then send a wire—my family expects to hear from me regularly.”
“You have a large family?”
“Four brothers and a sister—much older—and they’re very protective of me. My parents aren’t living.”
“I’d like to hear more about your family, Miss. . .”
“Please call me ‘Katherine’.”
“Katherine. Well, you take care of the things you need to do, and then I’ll expect you at seven. The Spur Hotel is the best, by the way.”
* * * * * * * *
Katherine registered at the Spur and asked if someone could take a message to the telegraph office. The clerk gave her a form and a pencil.
“Spur Hotel in Orland. Success. More tomorrow. Love, KB.”
Upstairs she changed her traveling dress and lay down across the bed. She had found what she was searching for—or part of it anyway. No matter what Caroline Fuller said, she knew she was going to see Luther Jimson. She had to look into the face of the man who had sent Annie on a flight to an early and unnecessary grave.
Anger and unforgiveness—Papa had said those were the two worst evils in the world. “Everything bad that happens springs from those two terrible things, Kate precious. Learn to use your anger for good—and try to understand things from the other person’s point of view and forgive the wrongs done to you. If you do those two things, you’ll have the happy life your mother and I want for you.”
She hadn’t known then about the anger and unforgiveness of Catherine’s family that had affected Papa’s life. It was only much later that Mother had told her what had happened to Catherine and how Papa was so angry that he looked for the men for five years with the intention of killing them.
She couldn’t imagine Papa hurting anyone—he was so gentle, so kind, so thoughtful of people around him, especially Mother and her.
What about Luther Jimson? What had made him so angry and unforgiving? She’d never know, of course. The point was, she had to forgive him—for Annie.
And what about little Luke? She’d seen a few babies born like that. The doctors always made arrangements for them to be transferred to an institution and never allowed their families to see or hold them. She’d cared for one during her pediatric rotation—spent hours rocking the fretful infant who couldn’t seem to keep nourishment down. He’d died in her arms one night, and she’d wept for hours. Mother and Papa tried to comfort her by saying that God had mercifully taken him back before he was institutionalized, and that had helped—but not much.
Then there was Annie. Katherine couldn’t think of her as her mother—only as a frightened child. But she owed her life to that child, and that debt was, as yet, unpaid. Perhaps that’s why she was here. Perhaps . . . She closed her eyes and dreamed that she was riding across the north pasture at the ranch. Riding like the wind, riding toward something she couldn’t identify but had to reach. Riding and riding and riding. . .
* * * * * * * *
She liked Philip Fuller immediately because he addressed her as ‘Dr. Wardell’ and treated her with the same respect he would have given a male colleague. They spoke of Vanderbilt—though he had come through there years before she did—and of the advances that were changing the face of medicine in the United States.
However, he was firm on the subject of Luther Jimson. “Please understand, Dr. Wardell, that I accept you as a full and equal member of the medical profession, but I also have a duty to protect you as a young woman. I think your parents would agree with my keeping you from a truly unpleasant experience with Luther Jimson.”
“I understand and appreciate your motives, Dr. Fuller, but I’m determined to see him.”
Philip Fuller exchanged glances with his wife. “Something tells me that it’s useless to try to persuade you otherwise.”
Katherine smiled. “Yes, it is.”
“Could you tell me what it is you hope to accomplish?”
Katherine didn’t hesitate. “I have to forgive him—for Annie.”
“What if he doesn’t want—or feel he needs—forgiveness?” Caroline asked.
“I’m only responsible for giving it to him—whether or not he accepts it.”
Later, over coffee in the small sitting room, Caroline shared more memories of her girlhood friend. “She wrote beautiful essays—Miss Wilcox always had her read them aloud. And she could do sums in her head faster than most of us could do them on the chalk board.”
“Did she want to further her education?”
“More than anything—but she knew there was no chance. And she wouldn’t have left her mother and brother anyway. Mrs. Jimson had been frail since Luke’s birth. Annie did most of the housework and practically raised her brother.”
“You indicated that her father beat her.”
“I know that he did, but in those days—well, what went on in families stayed there. The community didn’t get involved.”
“But you said that your father. . .”
“I never told him, because I had no proof. Annie wouldn’t talk to me about it, but I saw the bruises on her arms—and suspected they were elsewhere as well. And it occurred to me that her father would as soon kill her as allow her to leave his house. I think she thought so, too. I think that’s why she ran away.”
“What made him that way?”
Caroline put aside her cup. “My father said that Luther Jimson came out to California after the war. So many people did. The South was ravaged—almost unliveable in places. Perhaps he lost everything. Perhaps he was bitter about that—or about an imperfect child and a sickly wife. I don’t think even Annie knew.”
Just before she left, Phillip Fuller said, “Look, I’ve been thinking about what you want to do. I have to go out there tomorrow—see if he’s still alive—and you can go with me if you like.”
“Oh, Phillip, is that wise? She looks so much like Annie! He’s sure to see it!” Caroline touched her husband’s arm nervously.
“Caroline, my love, I agree with you—but it would be more unwise for her to go alone.”
“What time shall I be ready?” Katherine asked.
“I’ll call for you at the hotel around noon.”
Caroline kissed her cheek timidly. “Be careful, Katherine. You’ve already become special to me because of Annie.”
Katherine smiled. “Papa used to say that it didn’t matter how I came into the world—it was the way I lived in it that was important. It touches me that you share his sentiments—that you don’t see me as. . .”
Caroline shook her head. “Your papa was a very wise man.”
Since it was late and quite dark, Philip insisted on seeing her back to the hotel. When she paused at the desk for her key, the clerk handed her an envelope. “This came for you earlier, ma’m.”
Katherine opened the telegram as she climbed the stairs to her room. “Pleased for you. Man in question owns Seven Star Hotel in San Francisco. Advise next move. Love, Jarrod.”
Philip Fuller stopped the carriage at the half-unhinged gate. “That’s it.”
Katherine gazed down the rutted road to the unpainted house. The roof was collapsed on one side of the porch, and the other side looked to be in danger of following suit. Except for a ragged lace curtain fluttering from a broken window, there was no movement anywhere.
“He kept it up pretty well until a year or so ago. Then he sold off his stock and quit planting and just sort of holed up here. Came into town for supplies from time to time.”
“How long does he have?”
“Dr. Wardell, I don’t even know if he’s alive right now. Have you ever seen gangrene before?”
“There’s not much of that in Nashville, I don’t suppose.”
“People don’t seem to be affected by the same things in the city as they are in more rural areas. I did have a rabies case once.”
The doctor winced. “I’ve only seen one, and that was enough. Thank God for Pasteur!” He tapped the horse lightly with the whip. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
The stench was worse than anything Katherine had ever smelled. Spoiled food in pans still sitting on the table and stove, human waste—and the overpowering smell of rotting flesh—Katherine gasped and stepped back.
“You don’t have to come in, you know.” Philip looked at her with concern.
She shook her head. “I’m coming in with you.”
Luther Jimson lay on sheets that had long since turned gray, his bandaged foot propped on a padded board that the doctor had rigged for him. His dirty white hair was matted, and, Katherine suspected, infested with lice. But it was his eyes—her own seafoam green eyes that peered angrily from his unshaven face—that startled her most.
“When’s it gonna be over?” he demanded in a voice hardly above a whisper.
“I don’t know, Luther. Soon. But I could make you more comfortable in town. There’s an empty room behind the livery. Your meals could be brought in, and the lady who cleans at the boarding house said she’d see to you.”
“All right. I’ll have a look at the foot now.”
Katherine was glad she hadn’t eaten much breakfast—and what she had swallowed now seemed determined to come back up as she watched the doctor unwrap Luther’s foot. He seemed to sense her discomfort. “Dr. Wardell, would you get me some water, please? There’s a pump on the sink in the other room.”
She fled, choking back the urge to regurgitate, but through sheer force of will, she’d recovered her composure as she brought the water in a basin. Her hospital training took over as she helped Philip Fuller wash and rebind the foot. Then she emptied the water in the yard and scrubbed her hands under the pump.
In the bedroom, Philip was refilling the bottle of laudanum that stood on a table by the bed. “You’re using more of this,” he commented.
The old man let out an oath.
“It’s all right, Luther, that’s what it’s for. You’re sure you won’t consider going to town. . .”
He swore again.
Katherine thought of her mother, how clean and fresh she and the nurse had kept her, how they’d done everything to make her comfortable—how in those last few days, she’d administered morphine by injection when the pain grew unbearable. Mother had always been so appreciative of every attention—always thanked her graciously. Compassion for the dying old man stirred in Katherine’s heart now. He had no one to care for him. He would die alone and in pain as Annie had done. Perhaps he deserved it. Perhaps it was, after all, justice.
Justice. Papa had spoken of how important that was. “Justice, not revenge, Kate precious. Justice is a natural consequence. Revenge is against the laws of nature—and of God.” She hadn’t really understood then, but she did now.
The old man groaned and thrashed around with surprising strength. Then, suddenly, he seemed to see her for the first time. Shock—and recognition—contorted his face. The epithets that spewed from his mouth weren’t anything she hadn’t heard before, but they stung her.
“You’re wrong, Luther—that’s not Annie. That’s Dr. Wardell. She’s visiting from. . .”
“Bastard!” Katherine was more startled by the venom in his voice than by the word itself.
Katherine stepped forward a little. “That’s right, I’m Annie’s child,” she said flatly.
“Bastard!” Without warning, his bony hands closed around a shotgun that leaned against the bed frame. It was almost too heavy for him and swayed perilously, but Katherine knew he could fire it.
Her purse, which she’d retrieved from the other room, hung heavily from her wrist. Slowly she slipped her hand inside and withdrew the handgun. “I can hit a target six out of six times with this,” she said quietly. “Please put down the gun, Mr. Jimson.”
Philip Fuller stood motionless beside the medical bag he’d begun to repack in preparation for leaving.
“Filthy bastard!” Luther Jimson spat again, trying to steady the gun.
“Please put the gun down,” Katherine repeated.
Only when the gun fell across the man’s bony legs did Philip let himself breathe again.
“Annie died when I was born,” Katherine said. “But she gave me life, and I’m indebted to her. I came here to find out who she really was. I came to tell anyone she had left—and I suppose that’s you—that her life will go on through me, and I’ll live it the best I can. I know you don’t understand—never understood her or what you did to her—maybe you couldn’t understand. I have to believe that if I’m going to forgive you, Mr. Jimson. And I am going to forgive you.”
He stared at her, his jaw working spasmodically as if he had something to say. She braced herself for another verbal assault, but it didn’t come. The anger that continued to blaze from his eyes told her that he hadn’t accepted anything that she’d said. But she’d said it. That was all that counted.
“I’ll be outside in the carriage,” she said to Philip. She turned, slipping the gun back into the purse, and left the house.
They were almost to the gate when the shotgun blast shattered the afternoon stillness. Without a word, Philip turned the carriage around. He was only in the house for a moment. Taking the reins again, he said, “I’ll send out the sheriff and the undertaker.”
He stopped again at the gate. “I think you gave him what he needed most, Katherine—a reason to quit holding onto all the hatred and bitterness of his wasted life and leave it. I don’t know whether he went to Heaven or hell, but he’s gone.”
Katherine looked back at the house. “Maybe that was his hell.”
Philip flapped the reins. “Maybe so.”
Katherine spent the evening with the Fullers at their insistence. She wasn’t particularly hungry, but she didn’t really want to be alone either. She couldn’t help thinking of the oath she’d taken when she became a doctor—‘Do no harm’. Had she done harm to Luther Jimson by confronting him? Philip said not, but he didn’t really know either.
She had wired Jarrod that she was staying over a day in Orland, but she hadn’t told him why. It seemed the least she could do, considering everything, to see Mr. Jimson—her grandfather—laid to rest—if rest was indeed what he’d found.
“Are you going home now?” Caroline Fuller asked, interrupting her reverie.
“Not right away. I’m going on to San Francisco.”
“San Francisco?” Philip asked.
“Yes, I think that’s where my—where the man who fathered me is living.” She explained briefly about the name Hallie had jotted down on the back of the picture and how Jarrod had traced the name to a prominent businessman in San Francisco.
“I wonder if you should really go—alone—to see him,” Caroline said.
“I think I have to.”
Surprisingly, Philip agreed with her. “I think it’s best to finish things now,” he said.
Philip saw her back to the hotel again where she found another wire from Jarrod. “Come home to discuss San Francisco.”
She slept fitfully and woke early, feeling oddly detached from her surroundings. She needed to go home, to go back to work—but mainly she needed to go to San Francisco.
She drew back the dull green curtain and looked down at the street. Orland was waking up to the business of the day. A delivery wagon stood in front of Bartlett’s Store. A tiny woman in a black dress was busily sweeping the walk in front of her millinery shop. On the corner, a man in a business suit unlocked the front door of the bank and stepped inside.
She let the curtain fall back into place and thought of her room at home in Nashville. Papa had bought new furniture for her when they moved from New Orleans—bird’s eye maple polished to a satiny sheen. There was a four poster bed with a canopy, a dressing table, a bureau, a desk and chair, two bookcases, and a cabinet with glass doors to hold her ever-expanding doll collection.
Mother had chosen sky-blue drapes and white sheers for the wall of windows that overlooked her rose garden just beyond the side portico. There was a thick, slightly-darker blue carpet on the gleaming hardwood floor and a lacy blue-and-white coverlet for the bed. Katherine closed her eyes and actually felt the silky white down comforter folded neatly at the foot.
The first night they’d tucked her into bed in her finished room, she’d said that she felt like she was living in Heaven among the clouds. Papa said he was sure he saw an angel in the corner, and Mother added that there was another one by the door, and that the two of them would guard her all night long.
She thought longingly of that beautiful, safe haven and wished she were back in it now. She wished that her quest was finished—but there was still one more thing she had to do—and she had to do it alone, no matter what Jarrod or anyone else felt.
* * * * * * * *
Only Katherine and the Fullers stood beside the plain pine box as the minister—who hadn’t even known Luther Jimson—struggled to find words appropriate to the occasion. She thought of how different her parents’ services had been. So much love and warmth had permeated the sadness, so many joyful memories had tempered the grief. But there was no one to mourn Luther Jimson, and nothing that anyone could—or wanted to—remember.
She had tried to buy flowers, but there were none to be had. “Orland isn’t quite big enough for that yet,” Caroline had said apologetically.
A cold, wet wind blew through the cemetery, tearing at the women’s hats and riffling the pages of the minister’s book. When he’d spoken the final ‘amen’, Katherine handed the elderly man an envelope containing what she hoped would be a generous donation to his church—or his living. “Thank you. I appreciate what you’ve done.”
They took refuge from the chill in the hotel café and ordered coffee. “I appreciate everything you’ve done, too,” she told the Fullers. “Especially coming with me to the cemetery today.”
“We were glad to do it,” Philip said. “Have you notified your family that you’re going on to San Francisco? Forgive my inquisitiveness, but Caroline and I feel a particular responsibility for you somehow.”
“My brother Jarrod wired me to come home to discuss things first, but I’m going on. Jarrod’s quite cautious and very protective of me.”
“Don’t you think perhaps you should go home?” Caroline touched Katherine’s arm lightly. “San Francisco is such a big city, and. . .”
Philip cleared his throat. “I think, Caroline my love, that Dr. Katherine Wardell is more than capable of looking after herself.” He’d detailed to his wife the younger woman’s cool display of the gun and stated intent to use it. When he thought of it again now, he felt only admiration for her—though he’d had a brief, uncomfortable moment of near-terror the previous afternoon. He’d never had a liking for weapons of any sort.
They laughed together, dispelling the heaviness that had accompanied them from the cemetery. Then Katherine grew serious again. “I hadn’t expected things to turn out quite this way,” she said.
Philip shook his head. “I’m glad for him and glad for me,” he said bluntly. “Every time I’d go out there, I’d have trouble sleeping. I didn’t like the man, but he was a human being after all.”
Philip had patients to see, but Caroline accompanied her to the train later. “You’ll keep in touch with us, won’t you, dear? Let us know how things turn out for you in San Francisco?”
Katherine hugged her. “Of course, I will. You’ve been very kind, and I’ll never forget you.”
* * * * * * * *
She took a cab from the station to the Seven Stars Hotel. It was a luxurious establishment complete with potted palms and overstuffed chairs in the chandelier-lit lobby and two elevators with gleaming metal doors.
“What time does the restaurant begin serving dinner?” she asked the bellboy as he set her bags down inside the room. She opened her purse and handed him some coins.
“Thank you, miss. Five-thirty, but dinner goes until ten, and you can have room service.” He indicated the house phone on the writing desk.
She didn’t unpack right away. Instead she sat down and considered how best to find Will Trowbridge. How hard would it be to locate the man in San Francisco? It didn’t really matter. She’d come to see him, and see him she would. She reached for the house phone, and a clerk answered immediately.
“I’d like to speak with the manager, please.”
“That would be Mr. Millard. Is there—is there a problem with the room?”
“No, the room is lovely, but I need some information. Would you connect me with Mr. Millard, please?”
It took a few moments for another voice to come on the line. “Millard here.”
“This is Dr. Katherine Wardell in room 3409. I’d like to speak with Mr. Will Trowbridge. Does he perhaps have an office in the hotel?”
There was a long hesitation. “Mr. Trowbridge isn’t. . .this is Thursday, and he usually checks in. . .I suppose I could give him a message.”
“That will be satisfactory. Please tell him that Dr. Katherine Wardell wishes to speak with him at his earliest convenience.”
“May I tell him in regards to what?”
“It’s personal.” Katherine hung up.
She waited until nine o’clock without results, so she dressed and went downstairs to the restaurant. A maitre’d wearing a ruffled shirt and black jacket seated her at a table for two in a secluded corner. “Will this be satisfactory, miss?”
“Completely.” She glanced at the menu he laid in front of her. “I’ll have a glass of white wine.”
“Is there any particular. . .”
She smiled sweetly. “I’m sure you know the best wine available.”
The maitre’d snapped his fingers at a waiter in a white waistcoat, murmured something to him, and bowed to Katherine.
While she waited for her veal with béarnaise sauce, she sipped her wine and looked around appreciatively at the elegant dining room. She felt completely at home here. After all, she’d dined out often with Mother and Papa, had been taught the proper manners, and had learned how to deal with servers. The best that money could buy was nothing new to her.
The last thought made her uncomfortable. Mother said that money was a convenience, nothing more, and had discouraged her budding extravagances when Papa began to give her weekly pocket money. Mother had also made her understand that a portion of her funds should be set aside for the offering plate each Sunday.
So as she grew up, money meant little to her. She was appropriately dressed for every occasion—Mother saw to that—and she knew that her education was expensive. But Mother had taught her to mend and to cook and insisted that she keep her own room tidy despite the fact that Papa employed a housekeeper and a part-time upstairs maid. How many times had Mother called her away from some activity to remake a carelessly-spread bed or wipe the ring from the bathtub?
She declined a second glass of wine when the waiter brought her plate. Papa said that a glass of wine before or after dinner was appropriate for a young lady—but certainly not both and certainly not with dinner itself.
The waiter was taking her plate and replacing it with a cup of custard when Katherine became aware of the man wearing formal evening dress standing just inside the door. He seemed to be watching her, and he also seemed somewhat familiar. As he came toward her, she recognized him as the man Nick had asked her about at the dinner following Papa’s service.
“Dr. Wardell, I believe you wanted to see me. I’m Will Trowbridge.”
Her throat constricted, but she managed to say, “Please join me.”
“Thank you.” He sat down across from her.
“You were at my father’s funeral in Stockton last week.”
He smiled. “I was at your mother’s also, but you didn’t see me.”
“So you knew my parents?”
“You might say that.”
“I might also ask how you knew them.”
“I knew of them.”
Katherine felt suddenly weary, as if she were playing an interminable game of cat-and-mouse.
The man smiled at her. “You look like her, you know. You have her eyes.”
Katherine relaxed. “Annie.”
“She died giving birth to me.”
“I know that.”
“She was all alone.” She regretted the accusatory note in her voice.
“I know that, too.”
They sat in silence, each taking the other’s measure. Finally the man spoke. “I’m not your father—though I would have been proud to be.”
“Do you know who he was?”
“Would you tell me if you did?”
“Yes.” He signaled to a passing waiter. “Coffee.”
“Why did you go back to the saloon in Ash Flat looking for her?”
“May I tell you a story?”
“I wish you would.”
“When I was seventeen, I got into a fight with my father—one of those silly things that kids do—and decided to take off on my own. I rode into Ash Flat feeling like a man and headed straight for the saloon—the Desert Lily. I’d never had a drink in my life, but I was determined to have one that afternoon. While I was waiting, I saw Annie sitting alone at a table in the back and swaggered over thinking I was going to impress her.”
He shook his head. “Before I knew it, we were talking like we’d known each other all our lives, commiserating with each other for being out in the cold, cruel world. The thing was, I knew I could always go home—and she knew she couldn’t. I got a job with an outfit north of there, but every chance I got, I went into town to see her. After awhile, I began to notice that she was filling out in the wrong place, and I finally convinced her to talk to me. She was so innocent—and a drunken cowboy had gotten her out in the alley one night and taken advantage of her.”
His jaw hardened. “I was so angry—I’d been brought up to respect women, you see. I had three younger sisters and a mamma who took a wooden spoon to my backside pretty regularly. Anyway, I told Annie I’d marry her and give the baby my name, and she jumped at the offer.”
He stirred his coffee thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, before we could get things taken care of, I got sent with a herd to the railhead at Carson City. I promised her I’d be back—even wrote to her from there when we were delayed waiting for the cattle cars—but I guess she never got my letter. When I got back, she’d gone. I didn’t know exactly when the baby was due, but it wasn’t hard to figure out that she’d gotten scared and run off again.” He ran his hand through his hair. “The thing that always bothered me was that she felt like I’d run out on her—and I hadn’t. I need you to believe that.”
“I do believe you, Mr. Trowbridge. But how did you know about me?”
“I quit my job and looked for Annie until my money ran out. Then, in the spring, I went to Stockton because I’d heard the Barkleys were hiring. Somebody told me that Nick Barkley was in the café, so I went looking for him. He was there with his brother Jarrod, and when I heard Jarrod say something about a baby and an adoption being finalized, I sat down and eavesdropped. I heard enough to know that the baby they were talking about was probably Annie’s. One of them mentioned the cemetery, so I went out there and asked the caretaker if there was an Annie buried somewhere. When I saw the marker and the date, I knew what had happened.”
“I still don’t understand why you came to my parents’ funerals.”
He smiled almost boyishly. “Well, I didn’t go to work for the Barkleys, but I kept up with you. The Stockton newspaper always ran those little stories about how Mr. and Mrs. Royce Wardell and daughter Katherine were visiting from New Orleans—or Nashville. I knew when you finished Vanderbilt—summa cum laude, no less—and when you received your medical degree. When I read that your mother had died, I wanted to see you—and I also felt I owed her—and your father—a great deal. They’d done for you what I would have done if things had been different.”
He gestured around the dining room. “I made a small silver strike over in Nevada, found some good investments, and ended up with this hotel and several other rather lucrative business enterprises. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? I could have given Annie all this.”
“You gave her something,” Katherine said softly. “You gave her hope.”
“That wasn’t enough, was it?” His tone was surprisingly bitter.
“It was something anyway.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I know about Annie—shall I tell you about her?”
There was, Katherine thought, a hungry look in his eyes as he leaned forward, waiting.
The dining room was deserted by the time they finished talking. She’d done exactly what Jarrod had cautioned her against—shared her life with a stranger—but Will Trowbridge didn’t seem so much like a stranger now.
He, in turn, had shared something of himself with her. “There have been a few women in my life but none I wanted to share my life with. I took care of my parents and saw that my sisters were educated. I’m content.”
“Papa thought he was content until he met Mother. He’d been alone for a long time. And then, of course, there was me. Mother always said he deserved a chance at being a father.”
“It could happen, I suppose, but I’m not counting on it. Is there anyone special in your life, Katherine?”
“Actually, there is. He’s a doctor, too. We’d been seeing each other for almost a year when Mother became ill. Then there was Papa to care for. He said he understood and that it would be the right time for us someday.”
“And is it the right time now?”
“Yes. I expect we’ll be married as soon as I return to Nashville.”
“I’m very happy for you then.”
“Are you going back to Stockton tomorrow?”
“I think so. My brother Jarrod thought I shouldn’t come here without another family meeting to discuss it, but I knew I had to come now—and I’m glad I did.”
“I’m glad, too. If you like, I’ll send you back in my private railway car.”
“I’ll travel coach—Mother would disapprove of the unnecessary luxury.”
He laughed. “So would my mother!”
He walked her to the elevator and held the door. “I’ll say again that I would have been proud to be your father, Katherine, and I hope you know that you can call on me if there’s ever anything I can do for you.”
She nodded. “You’ve done a great deal already.” Impulsively, she kissed his cheek. “Goodnight, Mr. Trowbridge—and thank you.”
* * * * * * * *
As she’d known he would, Jarrod readily forgave her for ignoring his directive, and then everyone in the family over eighteen gathered for dinner one night to hear the story of her journey. She was tempted to skip the part about the gun, but it figured too heavily in the explanation to be dismissed.. She thought Nick looked somewhat smug when she repeated what she’d said to Luther Jimson.
She needed no urging to stay through Christmas. Audra went home but promised to return. The family tradition of not exchanging gifts had continued. Contributions to the orphanage—which had been taken over by the state ten years ago—and to other worthy causes were the rule of thumb.
Katherine’s birthday on the twenty-third, however, was celebrated with what Gene called ‘all the trimmings’. She took that opportunity to announce that, before her next birthday, she would be Mrs. Theodore Emerson. Predictably, a discussion ensued as to who would give the bride away. Just as predictably, Pappy put his foot down. “I’m the oldest—it’s my responsibility and my honor.” Nick disagreed, as did Heath and Gene, but Jarrod remained adamant.
Audra tapped on her door after everyone had gone to bed. “I’m so happy for you, KatieBee. You remember that I wore Mother’s dress—and then put it away safely for you.”
“Oh, Audra! No, I didn’t remember! I was only four!”
“It’s stored in the cedar closet in the attic. You’ll want to take it with you so that it can be fitted.”
Katherine embraced her sister. “It will be like having her there!”
* * * * * * * *
On Christmas Eve morning she asked Fernando to saddle a horse for her, and, without asking anyone’s leave, rode into town. It was an unusually mild day for late December. Teddy had written that it was snowing in Nashville and that he’d given up his automobile for a horse—at least until spring. Thinking of him made her smile. He’d been so patient and understanding—standing by whenever she needed him but not pressuring her to slight her responsibility to Mother and Papa. They had approved of him wholeheartedly. She only wished that Papa would be the one to escort her down the aisle, but. . .
Stockton had boasted a single florist for a year now, and it was to his shop she headed. The selection was small this time of year, but there was plenty of holly. It didn’t take long for him to fashion three wreaths tied with red velvet ribbon.
She placed two of the wreaths on her parents graves and stepped back. “You said I was your miracle—well, you were mine, too. You gave me the best life I could have had. I wouldn’t change anything, not really. I wish that Annie hadn’t died—alone. Maybe she’d have left me at the orphanage anyway—who knows? Maybe Mr. Trowbridge would have found her later, and they’d have been happy. But I can’t imagine not being your daughter. That’s who I am—who I’ll always be.”
She sought out the caretaker to help her find Annie’s grave and was surprised to find an obviously new marble marker on it. ‘Annie Jimson, 1864-1880. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’
“Do you like it?” She caught her breath sharply as Will Trowbridge stepped from behind a nearby tree. “It was just set this morning.”
“It’s my Christmas present to myself.” He stepped up beside her. “I see you thought of her, too.”
“Yes. I had some made for my parents and thought I’d bring one to her.”
“Very appropriate. She gave you breath—and they gave you life.”
She looked up at him. “That’s a beautiful thought.”
“You’re going home to be married after Christmas then?”
“Yes. Jarrod’s going to give me away, but I wish that Papa. . .”
“I understand.” The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. “You know, strange as it may seem, two days after you left I met someone.”
“I don’t know yet, but we’re seeing each other regularly. She’s a widow with a ten-year-old son.”
“So you’d be getting an entire family.”
“Will you let me know? You can write to me in care of Vanderbilt. I also teach classes there as well as see patients in the hospital.”
“Of course. Will you invite me to your wedding?”
“The first invitation is yours.”
She laid the wreath on Annie’s grave. “Why do I feel that it’s tomorrow already? That it’s Christmas?”
He took her arm. “Maybe because yesterday is finally over—for both of us.”
“I think you’re right. I’m going to my brother’s office. Would you come with me and meet Jarrod? I’ve told him about you.”
“I just have a few minutes. My private car is being switched over to the noon train to San Francisco. I promised Elizabeth I’d be back in time to help trim the tree.”
“Then I’ll walk with you to the station.”
* * * * * * * *
“Now, honey, you’ll wire us as soon as you get home.” Jarrod kissed his sister’s cheek. “And write us about the wedding plans. We’ll need some advance notice for such a long trip, you know.”
“Yes to all of the above,” Katherine laughed.
One by one the others kissed her and added their brotherly admonitions to Jarrod’s. Gene handed her bag to the conductor and assisted her up the step. “So we’ll see you in the spring, KatieBee! Take care!”
“And you tell Dr. Theodore Emerson that I’m going to want to have a long talk with him as soon as I get there!” Nick blustered.
“With your shotgun across your lap?” she called back.
“Maybe! Just maybe!”
Heath shook his head. “Maybe you should think about eloping!” he yelled over the noise of the engine.
Katherine stood on the steps until the train picked up enough speed that the conductor forced her to come inside. She took one last look at her brothers—the four of them standing side by side—before she complied. She loved them so—and they loved her—and she was, at long last, going home. She had come to bury Papa and to find the truth about herself, and she had done both. Yesterday was over. The book was closed.
(Continued in "A Matter of Justice".)