I love thee to the level of every day's most quiet need,
by sun and candle light...
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sonnet 43, Sonnets from the Portuguese


Second in the Feathers Series,



The last of the apples are right at the bottom of the basket on the floor of the larder. She bends low to reach them, takes a breath and there it is: the last, faint, lingering scent of fall. It's a rich, sweet woodiness with the tang of cinnamon behind it. She breathes deep, smiling. She has a sudden sharp picture in her head of the farm back in Connecticut. Her ma sits on the back steps of the little house, working. Ma's always working. Her hands are never idle, always filled with darning or patching, getting them ready for the long trek West to Laramie where Pa's looking for a new place; all the wide land out there's for the taking, he says. His feet itch, Ma says, and she smiles. Ma's watching while Jessamie and Lizzie run around the yard, shrieking and playing with whispery-dry leaves piled under the trees at the edge of the clearing. Jessamie can see the red leaves floating up into the air every time she kicks at them. The fall sun glints on her boots, on the tiny, shiny black buttons that take so long to do up with the silver buttonhook Ma keeps hanging on a nail beside the bedroom door. Grandma brought it from Ireland a long, long time before.

The Connecticut house smelt of fall, too, just like the basket in her pantry; spicy and rich. The scented apple basket and the memory of being Grady's age, being eight and innocent... she swallows against the lump in her throat, the smile dying. Connecticut's long in the past, as dried and dead as the leaves in her memory, the whole of the world between her and it. Laramie stands between them. And the little ranch outside town's gone too. It's Ben Westerfield's now. She's left every home behind.

She makes a sharp noise, the sort she makes when Grady's slow to do his chores and she's getting foot-tappin' impatient with him. Foolish. She's too foolish, clinging to the past like this. There's too much to do here and now to waste time regretting what can't be changed.

What can't be cured, must be endured.

She shakes her head, makes a carrying bag of her apron front and drops the apples in, one by one, to take them to the kitchen table. She won't think of anything but baking this darned pie. She just won't. She lifts each apple up to the light, checking for bruises. These are the last of the fresh apples until late summer, when the trees bear again. Until then, she'll have to make do with dried fruit from her pantry and whatever the store has here in town.

At least Ben Westerfield hadn't expected her to leave her stores behind when he bought the house and land from her. He even sent a ranch hand and one of his big wagons to help her strip the house of everything she wanted to keep and freight it into town. The ranch hand touched his hat and smiled, and called her Miz Lancer, but Jessamie gave him no encouragement. When Ben himself rode over to make sure the work was done well and to walk through the house with her one last time, he took the hand back with him. She drove the wagon to town herself.

Ben isn't going to live there anyway. He just wants the land to join to his own ranch. The little house that hid her from the Hobarts' bounty hunters will tumble down and be forgotten. In a few years, it'll be no more than a few pieces of sun-baked wood half-hid in the grasses underneath the old apple trees.

No. No more. Don't think on it any more.

These last apples are still sweet despite their wrinkled skins. She peels them carefully, wrapping the thin peelings in a cloth. They'll be a treat for Grady when school's out and he finds his way back home.

Leaving the little ranch that was her refuge for so long... well, that's been hard, finding the nerve to sell up and move into town for Grady's sake. He goes to school now, mixing with other children for the first time. He likes the other children better than school, but he's learning and she's proud that he isn't too far behind, that she's taught him enough on her own.

Someone goes past her window, heels tapping on the boardwalk loud as drumbeats. She shoots a glance at the shadow moving over the glass, a dark shape behind the lace curtains that shield her. She waits, her left hand clenched below her breast. She holds the sharp little paring knife ready in her right. The footsteps don't pause. Whoever it is, is going on down to Main Street, to one of the stores, maybe. She puts down the knife as the sounds fade and eyes the apples, calculating. Two pies worth. One hot today, the other cold tomorrow. There'll be plenty to slip a big slice into Grady's lunch pail tomorrow.

It's a good thing that they're here in town now. Of course it is, it's better in a dozen ways. But she misses the quiet of the ranch and the smell of green, growing things. She's lived quiet and hidden for so many years that she's forgotten how to live in towns, with people.

"He lodges with me, you know." Mrs Wright, a widow more than thirty years older than Jessamie, likes to visit two or three times a week. Her own daughter is far away down near San Diego, and she's taken to Jessamie and Grady because she thinks Jessamie is widowed too, and because Yours is an Irish family, you say? My first was Irish. He was a good man. She sips on her tea and her eyes smile and twinkle at Jessamie above the rim.

"Who does?"

"Why, William Vincent, of course. The schoolmaster." Mrs Wright's eyes twinkle even brighter. "I knew his mother and he favours her, the way that Grady favours you. He's sweet on you, child, although you don't seem to see it. I'm mortal certain he's screwing himself up to ask to squire you to the church social next week."

"I won't be going," says Jessamie, not giving herself time to think. Pretty Jessamie Kavanagh might have gone to the social, sweet sixteen and blushingly innocent. Jessamie Lancer won't go, can't go, not with what stands between her and innocence. The shadow Matt Hobart casts is black and long for all that he's more than eight years dead. She isn't afraid of shadows now. She isn't. But she can never be free of the taint of him.

"Tch." The Widow shakes her head. "It's time you stopped repining. You're out of mourning and you're young yet. You'll marry again and give that boy of yours the pa he wants and needs. Will Vincent's got prospects. He's quite the catch. His folks own the Feed and Grain store over at Smithfield. Do you know it? It's about twenty miles down the Sacramento road."

"I won't marry."

Mrs Wright pats Jessamie's knee. She wears pretty mittens of crocheted lace, like someone out of a book. "Of course you will. I said the same after my first died, and my second. I thought I'd die from grief, just as you did, I'll be bound. But you can't mourn Mister Lancer for ever, child."

Oh yes, she can. And she thinks that she will. She'll mourn Johnny Lancer until she's too old to feel anything and she, too, wears lacy mittens on her cold hands.

Jessamie makes her pastry on a slab of white marble veined with dark grey. It's smooth and cool under her fingers, the polished stone like silk.

It was Grandma's too, like the silver buttonhook. Lizzie held it for her when Ma died, just after Grady was born, and had it freighted to the new house as soon as Jessamie told her it was safe. Grady was beside himself as they unpacked the barrel together, hanging over the edge and breathing loud with excitement.

Everything in the barrel was wrapped in old soft cloths and then wrapped again, and every chink and cranny packed with more cloth so that nothing could move an inch. Out came a set of china dishes from the old country, green and white and edged with gold, and Ma's inlaid workbox. When she opened it up, the brightness of the silks spilled over her fingers. The bone thimble sat in its little holder beside the sharp silver bodkin, just as she remembered. Grady wasn't much interested, his fingers already tugging at the next layer of wrapping cloth while hers stirred the skeins of silk and she thought of the fine stitching on her Ma's best handkerchief.

Grady called her back to the barrel. She took out the platter to match the dishes and then, just as carefully wrapped, they found a tinplate train and Grady, whooping, wound up the clockwork and played at Going to San Francisco to See Johnny all the afternoon. He lost interest in the barrel, leaving Jessamie to unpack the rest of it as well as she could through eyes that stung from the dust. She had to wipe them before she could unwrap Ma's china lady in her pink skirts and golden hair and set it on the mantel shelf above the stove. She fiddled with it for a moment or two, her back to Grady and his noisy "We're at the station, Ma, and look! There's Johnny waiting for us!" while Jessamie turned the lady this way and that to make sure she showed her prettiest side to the room. When the stinging in her eyes was gone, she went back to unpacking, ruffling Grady's hair with her hand as she went. The barrel was nearly empty. Right at the very bottom, wrapped in an old woollen shawl, was the marble slab. Ma always said there was nothing to beat it for rolling pastry

She folded the packing cloths away. She'd put some of them, the brighter ones, into the quilt she as planning for Grady's bed and the rest would find some use. Nothing was ever wasted.

Grady came and leaned against her. "It was bully in San Francisco, weren't it, Ma? Do you think Johnny misses us? I miss him something fierce."

The dust stings her eyes again as she remembers.

Not a scratch or chip on any of the precious things that Lizzie had packed so carefully. But then, Lizzie always has been the quiet, careful one. No one, much less one of the Hobarts, would have caught Lizzie out walking too far from help to be heard. No one would have...

Jessamie closes her eyes, pushing away the memories. She knows which pa Grady wants and needs and it isn't the schoolmaster. She can't give Grady what he wantsówhat she wantsóbecause she doesn't know what to tell Grady about that bright summer afternoon when she went walking out of town and crossed Matt Hobart's path. She doesn't know how to tell him that they aren't really Lancers and that all he knows is a lie. She just doesn't know what to tell him and she doesn't know how.

She never has.

She's never been one to just sit, hands folded idly in her lap, and rock back and forth, and back and forth. She's like her Ma, that way, always keeping busy. There was always so much work, just her working the ranch and Grady too little to help much, that the days were never long enough for all she had to do. Now she doesn't have the chores that she did then and sometimes the hours hang heavy on her.

She looks at Ma's workbox on the table. She sent to San Francisco for some fine linens and she's working a pretty handkerchief, painting roses and those tall June lilies on it with needle and thread in tiny split-stitches. It's fine work and she's good at it. Ma taught her.

He said that every time he saw a June lily, he thought of her; tall and slender and shining in the sun. No one has ever said anything so pretty to her.

She doesn't want to stitch. She raises her hand and plays with the gold bar brooch at her throat. And as the house fills with the hot sweet smell of pies, she settles back in her chair and rocks.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

When she lies in bed at night, she thinks about San Francisco.

She thinks about Grady sound asleep in the bed in the alcove, behind the heavy curtains, and she thinks about Johnny, his face shadowed in the lamplight as he leans over her. He looks intent, as if everything is centred on his hands as he undoes the tiny pearl buttons of her silk blouse and slips it from her shoulders. His fingers tremble as he slips them under the lacy strap of her chemise, the way that she's trembling.

But isn't the same as... it just isn't the same. He takes it slow and sweet, letting her set their pace until she stops trembling because of the past and starts trembling because this is now and it's Johnny and this is right. For all that every upright man and woman in this town would shun her if they knew, it's right. Johnny feels good, so very good and if it hurts her a little the first time he pushes himself up into her, she doesn't let it show and in a moment or two she doesn't care. All she cares about is his hands clasping hers, the feel of his chest against her breasts, her nipples hard and shiny from him sucking on her until she thought the heat between her legs would fill her veins with lightning. His mouth's on hers, stifling the little gasps and cries, muffling her so they don't wake Grady.

He moves in her, the pleasure-pain like a question demanding to know who this Jessamie Kavanagh is, pretending to be Jessamie Lancer. He makes her forget, until all that matters are his hands and his mouth and that they're so joined together that she can't tell where she ends and he begins.

She wrote to him to say that she couldn't see her way to it, that she loved him but she wasn't right for him. That she didn't know what she could say to Grady, to explain why his name and his life were lies. She didn't know how she could tell Grady that his pa had forced her and that she'd shot Matt Hobart dead as soon as she could get to a gun.

She wrote that he should find some girl who could come to him clean and innocent. And she wrote that he should not answer her, that he should not come.

She used her silver-nibbed pen, and her writing was clear, the letters well formed and graceful. She wanted to be a schoolmarm once and she'd been proud of her penmanship. Once.

He must have got the letter days ago now.

He hasn't replied.

When she wakes each morning, her face is wet.

She's just lifted the second of the pies from the oven when someone knocks on her door. For a moment she freezes, the pie dish in her hands held in layers of thick cloth to protect her hands. She puts the dish down carefully on the top of the stove.

Another knock. Harder.

She didn't hear anyone come up the boardwalk. Whoever it is, must have come up the middle of the street. It can't be the widow; she's been and gone. Jessamie glances at the little clock on the mantel shelf. It can't be the schoolmaster either, come to ask her to the social. He should be hearing Grady's spelling right about now.

It can't be anything. The Hobarts are gone. There are none left to find her. It can't be anything. She and Grady are safe now. Go and open the door, you fool.

She opens the door and a whirlwind blows in.

She's caught and held, lifted up and a mouth is on hers, a voice in her ear. Her heart hammers and leaps about in her chest like a wild thing caught in a cage.


She grabs him and holds on to steady herself, to get her balance back. She holds on. It's Johnny.

He waits. He cocks his head to one side, his mouth curving into a smile. She has her hands on his arms, tightening her grip while she looks at him. Her heart leaps again. She can't help smiling back.

It's Johnny. He's come.

"Johnny." She dips forward until her forehead is resting against his chest, then settles into his arms. "Johnny."

"Mrs Lancer," he says, and then they're spinning again, round and round together and she laughs while he says she's a fool, a damned fool, and she's his and they'll work out something together to tell Grady, and his voice is husky and low, and now she's holding on and kissing him back, while he lifts her up and sets her on the table, right on top of Grandma's pastry board and her skirts are ruffled right up around her waist and she's clinging to him, and kissing him and he has one hand on her breast, sliding down her side towards her drawers, and the other is wound in her hair as he pulls her in to kiss her again. She winds her legs around his waist, shameless, and Johnny! and Johnny! Not here! Not on Grandma's marble slab! and Oh Johnny, oh Johnny ...

And I told you not to come. I told you.

He's going to, she knows, right there on the table. She doesn't care, because he's smiling at her and she doesn't care at all if they break the pastry slab and the darned table together.

He kisses her, and laughs, and the last bit of heaviness in her melts. "The one thing you're going to have to learn, Mrs Lancer, once you and me are married, is that you can coax me and kiss me but hell, Jessamie, I never was any good at taking orders."


Marble's stronger than she realised. The slab didn't break.

Maybe she won't break, either.


3076 words

Back to Feathers 1 : Candle In The Sun

To Feathers 3 : Hope Sings