Spirit Thief (by Nanuk)

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Summary: A journey with tragic consequences …

Word Count 16,700  Rated: PG-13

Spirit Thief Series:

Spirit Thief
A Series of Vignettes
The Marriage Bed

Spirit Thief

 

Author’s note: Based on two short bits written for BL.
 
Jamie is NOT the Jamie known from the series, but Adam’s son with Rebecca Kaufman. I just had to write this – and I apologize beforehand. Thanks to Christy, Elisabeth, Hope and Veroon for all their kindness, encouragement and constant prodding. 
Special thanks to Christy (THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!) for her wonderful beta-reading.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~

 

Adam came down the stairs, tears running freely and unheeded over his cheeks and into his collar. His eyes were sparkling, his whole body radiating with joy and life. Never before had Ben seen him so fulfilled; never before had he seen his oldest son so gleaming, so completely and absolutely happy as in that moment, and his own heart welled over at the sight of it. It was as if all the sadness, all the dark moments that had accompanied his oldest son all his life culminated in this moment of peace.

Ben was too happy to speak. He tried to take a step nearer, but his knees were shaking, and then Adam was right next to him, his eyes golden with light, holding in his arms the tiny baby he couldn’t stop looking at.

“Jamie Benjamin Cartwright,” he whispered huskily, and then looked up at Ben with the most enchanted smile on his face his father had ever seen.

Uselessly Ben tried to wipe his own tears away. They just spilled over at the sight of his grandson and blurred his vision, but he touched Adam’s neck and drew him closer, in an embrace with Jamie Cartwright between them, protected by their bodies, safe in their midst – their future. Ben looked at Adam, saw his eyes shining wet with happiness, and knew that life was good.

XXX

“Grandpa!” 2-year-old Jamie Cartwright stood at the top of the stairs, golden eyes sparkling, stuffed toy held tightly to his chest with one hand, beaming down at him. His other hand held on to the first two fingers of his father’s hand while he led him down the stairs.

Ben couldn’t help but grin at the sight of his son and grandson as they descended together. He felt a presence at his side, and half-turned to see Rebecca standing next to him, her eyes on her family. Her face, too, blossomed into a smile as she watched her men come down the stairs.

Jamie’s eyes were intent on the task of tackling the frightful height, but Adam looked up when he sensed two pairs of eyes on him. He gave his wife a loving glance over Jamie’s dark head, then grinned mischievously at his father.

“I bet you are happy that you didn’t have to watch three sons growing up on those steps, huh?”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “And just who is responsible for those stairs, I wonder?”

Adam flashed him another grin, his eyes sparkling with the challenge. “You agreed, though, if I remember correctly?”

“God forbid that you shouldn’t!” Ben put his hands on his hips as he mockingly glared at Adam.

“You did agree, Pa!” Leading Jamie around the banister to Rebecca’s waiting arms, Adam ducked his head as he passed his father.

“Finished playing?” Joe’s voice rang from the dining room area. He, too, couldn’t help but grin when two sets of dark eyebrows were lifted questioningly. “You two are quite a sight.” He squatted down and called out to Jamie. “And where’s my favourite buddy?”

“Heere!” Jamie’s eyes sparkled with joy, and he ran off towards Joe who picked him up, and to his delight, swept him into the air until his gleeful giggles and squeals filled the living room.

“He’ll want to be a bird if you go on like this.” Ben shook his head while he watched the game.

“Nothing wrong with that.” Adam raised his brow as he looked at his brother and son. “Joe wanted to be a horse, after all. You could start a circus, Pa.” He laughed as Ben cocked his head. “… Hoss will be a bear, and Rebecca here …”, he stopped short when he saw his wife’s eyes narrowing, “…will be a vixen”. He grinned when Rebecca playfully raised her hands towards him and with a hand on her waist drew her nearer.

Joe, slightly breathless from holding a wriggling Jamie upside down, joined in. “Pa can be a lion, and you…” his voice trailed off as he tried to think of an animal that would suit his oldest brother.

“A wolf perhaps?” Ben, too, seemed to enjoy the game. Adam flashed him a grin and indicated a bow, much to his family’s amusement. Rebecca took Jamie from Joe and regarded her husband with a knowing eye.

“A mule”, she said with conviction. Ben and Joe burst out laughing. Adam grinned and placed a kiss on her lips.

“And do you like being married to a mule, my little vixen?” His eyes twinkled with merriment as he drew Rebecca and Jamie back into his arms. A short kiss into the raven-black hair of his son, then he laid his arm around his wife and turned to Ben and Joe.

“Shall we go? We don’t want to miss the celebrations.”

He might have sounded quite business-like all of a sudden, but the gleam was still on his face, and Ben’s heart was glad to see it.

xxx

The interruption of his peace came the next morning.

“We thought we’d start in June.” Adam announced calmly over the breakfast table.

A knife clattered to the ground. Joe and Hoss stared open-mouthed at Adam who seemed oblivious to their reactions and continued to eat. For what seemed an eternity they were too shocked to speak, then they turned pleading eyes on Ben, waiting for him to protest.

Ben was silent. When he had heard Adam’s words, his heart had skipped a beat, and for a second he thought he was going to choke. Carefully he unfolded his napkin and placed it on his knee.

Swallowing slowly, he finally lifted his eyes and met Adam’s cool, appraising gaze. From somewhere far away he could hear Joe and Hoss arguing loudly, but he had only eyes for his firstborn son, and he suddenly remembered one afternoon, almost five years back. The afternoon when Adam had said those words to him for the first time. It had been shortly after his wedding.

x

“I can’t believe you mean what you said!” Ben stared at Adam, aghast. From the firm set of his son’s jaw and mouth he knew that Adam did indeed mean what he had just said, but Ben couldn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe it, anyway. It just couldn’t be true, and for the tiniest second he wondered whether he was hearing things. A quick glance into Adam’s direction told him otherwise.

“You want to do what?” Ben felt the anger rising inside him, but he fought to keep it down. He sensed Adam’s cool gaze on him, estimating him, and knew that his son tried to remain aloof to keep his own temper in check. The thought wasn’t very comforting to Ben. Illogical as it was, what he needed right now was a nice strong and heated argument to get rid of his own burning feelings. If Adam kept control of his temper, then he knew who the winner of the argument was going to be.

“Rebecca and I decided …” There it was again, that soft, mellow voice, trying to seduce him. Ben glowered at Adam. ” … that we would like to do some travelling.”

“That’s absolute foolishness!” The thought of Adam and Becky travelling in a wagon alone made him shiver.

“Is it?”

“Of course it is!” Ben ran a hand through his hair. He almost cursed every time he had to argue with Adam. His son knew him too well. Instead of getting into a discussion, he had managed to turn the argument completely around in the course of seconds, so that instead of Adam it was Ben now who felt as if he had to justify himself.

The worst thing about it all, Ben thought absent-mindedly while he tried to organize his arguments, was the fact that Adam’s mind was already made up when he decided to inform his family of their decision. Trying to change his mind at this stage of the proceedings would turn out just as difficult as turning around a stampeding herd of cattle. Ben unconsciously clenched his fists. Improbable, yes, but not impossible. Ben was resolved to try.

“I don’t understand why you can’t go to San Francisco for a week or two if you need a change of scenery.”

Adam took a deep breath and leant back in the chair. Ben recognized the gesture. It was the same one Adam used when he had to talk to a particularly stubborn business partner and tried to be patient while he steeled himself for a longer discussion – which he knew he was going to win. Ben bristled at the thought. Adam softly shook his head.

“We’ll be gone longer than that, Pa. Much longer.”

Ben glanced sharply at Adam, and the uneasy feeling in his stomach grew. Suddenly unable to sit, he stood and started to prowl.

“And just what exactly are you thinking of? You sound as if you have your plan ready, so tell me.”

He saw that Adam warily squinted his eyes at that sudden outburst, but he answered nevertheless.

“We’ll leave after the spring drive. Most of the hard work will be done by then, and you can easily spare me for the three months we’ll be gone.” Ben could see that Adam’s eyes sparked up with the mere thought of going. His stomach lurched at the realization, but he swallowed a sharp reply just in time.

“Three months?” He stemmed his fists into his side and frowned. One look at Adam’s face told him that he had to step careful, though. Adam was a grown man with his own family after all – Ben knew he tended to forget that. But, in truth, Adam was able to go anywhere he liked and for how long he liked. He had enough money, was smart and knew how to work. Adam would never have difficulties in providing for his family, no matter where he lived. Ben had known that the Ponderosa with its 1000 square miles was too small for Adam’s spirit, but he had hoped that the marriage with Rebecca would tie him to the land, would ground him and give him the happiness he had so long sought for.

Adam was happy, no question about that, and Rebecca was the joy of his life. But even though he worked here, together with his family, it didn’t mean that he could not one day choose to leave anyway.

Ben glanced at Adam, who looked back at him, carefully watching his face. He sighed, then sat down again and rubbed a hand over his face.

For years they all had been equal partners of the ranch, had had equal shares, but it had by everyone’s consent been accepted that Ben was the one to speak the last word. Now he just had to remember that Adam was an equal partner and a man in his own right, and that at this moment he was more man than he was his son.

Adam spoke up again, interrupting his thoughts. His voice was very soft.

“Pa, it’s … it’s not only that we want a bit of time just for ourselves.” He looked at his hands, then back up at Ben. For a tiny second he looked uneasy, but Ben knew that was because he was trying to choose his words carefully. His eyes, a warm amber in the afternoon sun, glanced at Ben, gauging him. For a moment he didn’t say anything, then he half-closed his eyes, remembering.

“Can you still see the prairie in your dreams? The endless blue of the sky, the endless land? The river with the little wood beside it…the water was so warm that day, and the grass smelled like summer … “

Ben remembered, too. He recognized the longing that was in his son’s heart, saw it in his face when he looked at him. His eyes still held the beauty of that day.

“It’s dangerous, Adam.” Ben didn’t look at his son when he said it. He heard the clock in the living room, slowly counting down time. HopSing clanged a pot in the kitchen. Somewhere outside a horse neighed. Time ran. His wife had died out there. The sky had been blue. When he lifted his gaze, Adam looked at him, his eyes soft with understanding.

“I know,” he said lowly.

Ben smiled sadly. Yes, he would know, wouldn’t he? And still …

“But you still want to go.” It was a statement. Adam sighed softly.

“I won’t leave you, Pa.” Unconsciously he rubbed his back, obviously searching for words with which to explain what could not be explained. “But I have to see the land, see new things…and old things … the plains and the horizon … ,” he stopped, suddenly lost for words, and cleared his throat. Then he lifted his dark eyes and looked straight at Ben. “Rebecca feels it, too,” he said softly. “We just have to go.”

There was no more argument after that. Ben had seen the yearning in Adam’s eyes and known with regretful finality that everything he said would only make Adam more determined.

Unusual as it was, they had agreed on a very strange arrangement. It had taken many evenings of arguing and heated discussions, but finally and with a contented sigh from all parties involved, they had settled on a plan that pleased them all.

Adam, who as the oldest would inherit the house at some time anyway, hadn’t begun to build his own home but instead expanded the big house so that he and Becky could live in the new section. As they would be gone a part of the summer, that seemed to be the easiest solution. Nothing at all had changed for Hoss, Joe or Ben, and only when Hoss or Joe married would they move into a new house.

Adam had promised to take care of all the contracts, bids and operations that he had a hand in before they would be gone, and as always, he was as good as his word. For two weeks he confined himself to his room to work out all the details that had to be taken care of, with strict instructions not to be disturbed by anything, or anyone. He had emerged finally one evening, pale-faced and visibly thinner, looking as tired as anyone had ever seen him, wearing a big contented smile on his face – and promptly fell asleep in his chair after dinner. His family smiled indulgently, and Becky had just shrugged and spread a blanket over him to let him sleep. Joe had grinned and rubbed his hands together. He’d enjoyed the next morning’s conversation immensely.

And so a ritual was established. Every year Adam would prepare the summer operations, and then he and Becky would be gone for about three months and indulge in their private longing to see the world, satisfy their never-ending desire to see as much of it as they could. Ben never really came to terms with it, however, even though he never spoke about it. Judging from the looks Adam threw him, he knew that his oldest son’s intuitive nature at least suspected that something was amiss. Too vivid were his own memories of journeys taken by wagon, and too great his fear that something could go wrong, for him to have agreed whole-heartedly to the idea. But when Adam and Rebecca came home the first year, bone-tired, dust-covered and glowing with happiness, their eyes bright with excitement, he knew they had made the right choice, and he resolved to be happy for them.

After that, they had kept it up, year after year. After the second journey, Rebecca had been with child, and Ben had hoped that they would stop their wanderings and settle permanently. But his prayers went unheard. They took their journey up again just after Jamie’s first birthday, and no matter how often Ben beseeched them, neither Adam nor Becky were willing to give up their yearly escape into freedom. To Ben’s eternal surprise, little Jamie rejoiced in the trip. He radiated well-being like a cat in a pot of cream, and blossomed into a healthy lad who, while obedient and well bred, had a mischievous streak that reminded Ben constantly of Joe. He was the spitting image of his father as a child, but his eyes were lighter, his spirit more carefree than Adam’s had ever been. Ben was glad to see it, and the guilt over Adam finally settled.

In the end, Ben never found out whose idea it had originally been. He suspected that it had been Rebecca who first brought it up, but if he knew his son at all, he was sure she hadn’t needed much persuasion to draw Adam to her side – if she had needed any at all. But of course, it was entirely possible that the foolish plan was a product of Adam’s restless nature, something Ben could very well imagine.

Perhaps Ben was not to blame in the original sense, but he knew that growing up constantly travelling had deeply influenced Adam. His own heritage might have had a hand in it, but the forever changing landscapes and never-ending horizons his oldest son had seen in his childhood had rooted a desire deep within him for wide spaces, and a longing that Ben had always known had to be satisfied one day.

So they had gone on their journey. After the heavy spring work had been done, after the new-born calves had been branded, the timber operations started anew, the herds moved to the summer pastures and life went at a slower pace again, they had been on their way.

When Ben looked up, Adam’s gaze was still on him, but he could see the tiny curve of his lips and knew that his son was aware of what he had been thinking. His eyes held an amused smile while he tried to ignore Hoss’ and Joe’s heated words that were thrown over the table, but he almost imperceptibly shook his head. No, Ben thought, and he had not assumed that Adam had changed his mind about not going, either.

Ben let his gaze wander over his family where they sat at the table. Opposite of him Adam, watching him with his amber hawk-eyes, one dark brow raised in anticipation. Hoss and Joe to his left, still a little pale from the shock of Adam’s sudden announcement. He almost smiled when he saw that Joe’s careful attempts to tame his hair had been undone when he ran a hand through it in frustration at his brother’s stubbornness. To his right Rebecca, trying to calm Hoss with her gentle smile and soft words, and Ben could see that she was successful.

And then his eyes finally came to rest on Jamie who was contently munching a sodden biscuit, mysteriously unperturbed by all the commotion, crumbs all over him. He suddenly knew why Hoss and Joe protested so loudly against Adam’s plans. They couldn’t imagine having to live three months without him. Neither could he. His own stomach lurched at the thought. Last year, every day without the boy had been too calm, too dark, too empty. He couldn’t let him go. And he couldn’t stop Adam either. The decision was made in a moment’s time.

“We’ll go with you.”

That stopped them. Hoss and Joe stared at him, their mouths open. Rebecca cast Adam a quick look. And Adam’s brows drew dangerously together, foreboding an argument. Ben could tell he was annoyed to the core of his stubborn soul. Somewhere deep inside him Ben was gratified that he had managed to unsettle Adam as his son was unsettling them, but he suppressed a grin and hastened to explain.

“Just for a day or two. Just to start you on your way.” Ben quickly glanced at Hoss and Joe, silencing them with a look, but he knew they were already getting comfortable with the idea. He concentrated back on Adam, who had closed his hand around the water glass and looked thoughtfully at his father, his eyes guarded.

“Why?” he asked finally.

Ben’s features softened when he shifted his gaze to his grandson who just at that moment looked up and met his grandfather’s eyes with his own golden ones. Jamie’s brows were knitted together in a frown, and he reassuringly smiled at him. Then he looked up and answered Adam, seeing the understanding in his son’s eyes and the almost invisible relaxation in the line of his shoulders.

“I want to be with him as long as I can.”

XXX

“Adam?” Rebecca’s voice sounded in the house, calling her husband. Ben came hurrying out of the kitchen and saw her in the living room, her arms full of things they wanted to take. Quickening his steps he reached her side and took half the things from her before they could slip from her precarious grip. Rewarded with a warm glance and a soft smile, he nodded at her at follow him outside.

“I’m glad it stopped raining”, she said as she carefully stepped around one of the puddles that covered the yard. “Adam was about to postpone the trip. He said he didn’t want to smell like a wet dog all the way.” She tied a knot around the bundle and lifted it into the wagon. Then her eyes wandered over the muddy yard and she turned to her father-in-law. “Have you already seen him this morning?”

“He’s checking the horses”, Ben explained, and when he saw her brows rise added under his breath, “…again. Jamie is with him.”

Rebecca threw him an almost mocking glance. “You don’t think he gets anything done with Jamie around him, do you?”

Ben chuckled while he placed the items in the wagon. “I wouldn’t think so, but then, he still surprises me every now and then.” He took a basket from Rebecca, only just refraining from asking what was inside, and nodded in the direction of the barn. “If he has him placed in that swing again, I doubt they’ll emerge before noon.” He shook his head in wonderment and threw a quick glance at Rebecca’s bowed head as she tied the strings around their equipment.

“You might just be right,” she said over her shoulder, but Ben could tell she was amused.

That swing was the strangest construction he had ever seen. He had seriously doubted that Adam was in his right mind when his son explained that he wanted to build a swing for Jamie – in the barn, of all places.

Everyone had stared at him when he had announced it at the dinner table; Hoss’ fork floated in mid-air, and Joe had only just managed to swallow the bite that seemed to be stuck in his throat. Then he turned his eyes on his brother, squinting.

“You gotta be joking…”

Ben had thought exactly the same thing, but Adam just grinned at his family with one of his cat-like smiles; and when Ben glanced at Rebecca and saw her look back at him and apologetically shrug her shoulders, he knew that Adam was serious. He couldn’t imagine why someone would want to build a swing for a toddler who was still unsteady on his feet and in danger of falling off every second, not to mention to build one in the barn where it would be in the way of everyone and everything. He just opened his mouth to say as much when Hoss forestalled him.

“Don’t cha think that it’s too darn dangerous for a little critter like him?” Hoss scrutinized Adam over the table.

“Yeah, and it will always be in the way.” Joe had finally recovered from his shock and glared at Adam. It was clear that as much as he loved his nephew, he was not prepared to put up with his toys all over the place, and certainly not in the barn. Ben cleared his throat.

“Adam, don’t you think that …”

“Pa…,” Adam spoke up before Ben could finish his sentence, and smiled reassuringly at him. Ben wondered shortly when he had started that annoying habit. He seemed to know just when to interrupt so that people never got around to saying what they wanted. As he did just now. And when he smiled at Ben again, his father knew that he had won him over already.

“Just let me try it, and if it is a nuisance or bothers anyone, we can take it down again.” He looked almost entreatingly at Hoss and Joe. If he had been a girl, Ben mused, he would have fluttered his eyelashes. As it was, he gave them a small smile. Ben knew they would give in just as he had. No one was more persuasive than Adam when he wanted to be, not even Joe. Little Jamie, right now happily playing with the food on his plate, was a charmer like Joe had been, and Ben already feared what awaited them when the boy was older.

Joe sighed in defeat. “Why do you want a swing in the barn, anyway? Why can’t he have one outside, like every other child?”

Adam chuckled. His eyes flashed shortly when he recognized his victory, but he soon subdued it when he explained his motives.

“He likes horses as much as you do, Joe.” From the corner of his eyes Ben saw the tips of Joe’s ears turning an interesting shade of pink, but he concentrated back on Adam who tried to restrain the hands of his offspring. Jamie had perked up at the mention of his beloved “horsies” and excitedly waved his spoon, spreading mashed potatoes all over himself. When Rebecca made to rise and clean him, Adam grinned and shook his head, grabbing a napkin.

“He always wants to see …them … All the time, and we can hardly keep him away. When we take him to the barn, we’re never able to do our chores because we always have to keep an eye on him.” He finished wiping Jamie’s hands and sat him on the ground to crawl off before he turned his attention back to his family.

“With a swing in the barn, we can take him with us while we do our chores, and everyone will be happy.” Adam grinned at his family, then winced when Rebecca nudged his side, reminding him to mind his manners.

Ben motioned with his fork. “We’ll see.” Hoss and Joe resumed eating, but he could tell their curiosity was sparked. They would see.

Jamie’s laughter came from the barn, and Ben found himself grinning involuntarily in response. Well, they had seen. One day they had entered the barn to find a basket-like construction hanging from of the rafters. Basket-like, because at first Ben couldn’t think of any other word to describe it. It was a wooden construction all right, but made like a basket with two holes in it. Adam, just finishing the last adjustments, had looked up to greet them, and had read the questions on their faces correctly.

He reached out to Jamie, who regarded his swing with a suspicious frown on his face. But as soon as he lifted him, Ben knew how it was supposed to work, and he marvelled at his son’s inventiveness. Jamie would sit in the basket, but his legs would reach through the holes and prevent him from standing up and falling out. The strings of the swing were long enough to be easily wrapped around one of the posts and out of the way when not needed, and just long enough for Jamie to reach the ground with his toes.

They had laughed when they saw Jamie grinning broadly as he realized just how his new toy worked. His delighted squeals had upset the horses for a moment, but they soon got used to it. As it turned out, Adam’s idea came to save them a lot of time, because Jamie was content to sit in his swing, feet kicking the ground every now and then, and listen to stories while his father and uncles worked – as long as he was near his adored “horsies”.

Ben was abruptly pulled back from his memories when the barn door opened and Adam came out, Jamie on his arm, rope over his shoulder. As soon as he spotted his grandfather, Jamie started wriggling, and when Adam set him on the ground, came running to throw himself into Ben’s arms. He giggled when Ben swept him up and started to tickle him. Ben grinned.

“Good morning, Grandson.” He handed Jamie to Rebecca and turned to greet Adam.

“You’re up early.” He eyed the rope and raised an eyebrow.

Adam yawned then grinned back. “Jamie was too excited to sleep long. He kept Rebecca up half of the night, then slept for a few hours, then woke again.” He appraisingly eyed his wife’s retreating form as she took Jamie inside for breakfast, then glanced at Ben. “We can be lucky we got any sleep at all.” He noticed the look Ben sent the rope on his shoulder and shrugged.

“Thought I’d take some just in case.”

Ben, who had never had any doubts about Adam’s ability to choose equipment, held up his hands. “Just wondering.” He gave the wagon a knowing look. “Probably to stop that thing from falling apart, huh?”

Adam threw the rope inside and mockingly glared at his father in response. “Nope. We need it so I can tie Jamie to the wagon should he decide to wander off.” He looked back at Ben when he heard his laughter.

“I wish I’d have had that much rope when you were little. You always had a disposition to wander off on your own.”

“Me? Never!” Adam grinned at his father and gave the wagon a last look. Ben clapped his shoulder.

“I think you have everything, son.” He had never been able to tell whether Adam was actually nervous before the first day of the journey, but he could feel the tight muscles under his palm and gently urged him toward the house.

“Let’s have breakfast. The others will be waiting.”

XXX

“Everybody ready?” Adam swung himself up onto the seat. Standing, he cast a quick look around and met the eyes of his family, then sat down next to Rebecca and Jamie and grabbed the reigns.

Ben saw that he laughed at something Rebecca had said, and then braced his legs against the board and flickered the reigns. Abruptly, the heavy wagon moved as the horses began to draw. With the sleeves of his shirt turned up as he always did, Ben could see the muscles move on his son’s arms when he easily directed the vehicle out of the yard. Hoss and Joe urged their horses forward and settled in behind the wagon. Ben had no doubt that as soon as the road permitted it, they would be riding next to the wagon, joking with little Jamie until Adam would roll his eyes and raise his brows, or Jamie fell asleep. Or both.

He sighed deeply, then smiled to himself. He had seen the last look Adam had sent the house before the wagon rounded the corner. He thought back to yesterday’s evening, when he had found Adam and Rebecca on the porch again, saying goodbye in their own way, as they had that first year. In his mind Ben repeated the words Adam had said to him then. He didn’t think he would ever forget.

Ben went out after dinner to get a bit of fresh air. He looked forward to an evening of quiet contemplation before tomorrow’s hectic activity began.

Not that this day hadn’t been busy, too. Last minute preparations had been done; everything was packed and ready for departure.

Adam had already checked and re-checked the wagon and their equipment, and Ben knew he’d do it again tomorrow morning.

He sighed softly. Right now he could feel every bone in his tired body, and wondered for a second why he had suggested helping Adam with the preparations if he didn’t want him to leave. But he knew very well why. Everyone who just looked at Adam knew why they helped. His smiling face was thanks enough.

And if Ben was honest, he had to admit that a part of him even wanted to go with him. A tiny, well-hidden part of himself wanted it despite his ever-present fear that something could happen. But he’d be able to relive his memories, good and bad alike, and just remember.

Did his memory really do that to him, he wondered? Did it let all the bad memories whither so that only the positive, warm ones survived the onslaught of the years? The happy ones?

“Pa?”

The low, warm voice came out of the darkness, startling him, and he snapped his head up sharply. He turned towards it, squinting his eyes, but all he could make out was a haphazard shadow, hidden in the darkness at the end of the porch.

“Adam?”

The shadow didn’t move, but he heard a low rustling, and then the voice of his eldest again, soft and inviting.

“Want to join us?”

Curiously Ben stepped nearer, until his eyes finally could tell the shadows apart, and what he saw made him smile.

Adam sat in one of the chairs, tipped back until it leant against the wall, feet on another one. Rebecca was curled up against his chest, head against his shoulder, deeply asleep. A heavy blanket covered the both of them.

He sat down next to Adam and leant back. He wasn’t really surprised to see them out here, they often read to each other in the evenings, but he had thought they would be already up in their room.

“Don’t you need your sleep?” His voice was quiet in the night, almost inaudible, and when Adam didn’t answer he thought he hadn’t heard him.

After a long time Adam’s voice floated up from the darkness.

“We just wanted to say good-bye.”

Ben remained quiet. He thought about what Adam had just said, and the word “good-bye” rang in his mind.

Good-bye …

Did it mean that?

He didn’t know he had held his breath but then his son’s voice sounded again in the silence of the night.

“This is our home, Pa. Forever. We will always come back here. You should know that.”

Ben felt a shiver run down his spine. Suddenly a weight was taken from his shoulders he didn’t know he had been carrying with him.

“I’m glad, son”, he said, and when he felt a warm, comforting hand on his shoulder he knew he hadn’t been able to repress the husky catch in his voice.

He turned his head and gazed at the nightly sky, the silent darkness surrounding them.

Somewhere a wolf howled, then a second, and from the corners of his eyes he saw that Adam protectively held Rebecca tighter.

Ben sighed softly and leant his head back to enjoy the silence. Strange, he thought, how in the moments when our eyes are blind, we see our beloved ones the best.

He had always felt close to Adam, but never so much as in the hours of darkness. There had never been many words between them, nor had they needed them. In their deepest souls they shared a harmony, were they alike in mind and spirit. He knew there was a time of day he associated with each of his sons, but he wouldn’t have been able to explain why. For Hoss, it was early afternoon, when the birds just woke from their nap. For Joe it was the time after a hard day’s work, when the body was pleasantly tired, the mind pleased with the work. For Adam, it was the night and the early hours of dawn when the sun rose to greet the new day.

No, he thought, the night didn’t need any words, but he didn’t know how often he had said the words anyway: “Thank you, Lord. Thank you for my sons”.

He wasn’t sure how long they sat together in silence, simply enjoying each other’s company. Finally, after what could have been hours or seconds, Adam spoke again.

“We should get some sleep,” he said, but he didn’t move. Ben turned his head to look at him, but the night was dark, and Adam was just a darker shadow on the porch. All of a sudden it seemed important to know the thing that had worried him all day.

“Adam?”

“Hm?”

“Will you…,” he stopped, suddenly unsure of what he wanted to say. It sounded strange in his own ears. “I mean…”

“Pa…,” Adam’s voice was barely more than a whisper over the quiet sounds of the night.

“This is my life, Pa.” He paused, and Ben saw that he had closed his arms around Rebecca. “I will always remember.”

“I know.” Ben had a hard time swallowing, but he managed to smile, even though he wasn’t sure whether Adam could see him. “Have a save journey, son.”

“Thanks, Pa.” Adam cleared his throat, and Ben suddenly realized that Adam had been waiting for him to say those words – his absolution for going. Now, he carefully tugged in the blanket around his wife, then slid his arms under her and lifted her up.

“Good night, Pa,” he whispered.

“Good night, son,” Ben whispered back and stood to watch Adam as he carried Rebecca inside. ‘I love you’, he added in his mind.

“I love you, Pa,” came the third voice, drowsy with sleep, surprising them both. He smiled as Adam half-turned back to him and saw him shrug his shoulders amusedly.

When Adam had closed the door behind him, Ben sat down and looked at the night sky. His children would be all right, and all would be well.

Ben turned Buck and sat still for a moment, regarding the long, straight lines of his family’s home, lines that stood for strength and protection. His gaze travelled over the mountains in the distance, majestic as ever with their white crowns and the carpet of green underneath, until a sharp shout called him to his family. The house might be home, but not more than his family. He repeated Adam’s words in his mind and added his own vow. Yes, he would always remember, no matter what would happen. Then he turned his horse towards his family and kicked Buck into a gallop to catch up with them. The journey had begun.

XXX

Adam sighed and wearily rubbed a hand over his face, a tiny gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by his family. By common consent they had decided to spend the first night on Ponderosa land, just at the border. A half-hour travel tomorrow and they would leave their property and be on their way. Ben, Hoss and Joe would accompany the wagon until the lunch break and then return home. Ben didn’t look forward to tomorrow. It meant that he had to say good-bye to Adam, Jamie and Becky and return home to find the house empty. No, he didn’t like it at all.

Still, he had to admit that he had enjoyed the day. The journey had been uneventful, spent with chatter and banter between his children. When Jamie had fallen asleep in the afternoon and been put to bed in the wagon, his family had continued on their way, quieter, but not less playful. Now, after dinner and seated around the campfire, pleasantly drowsy with all the fresh air and good food, Ben understood – perhaps for the first time – why those trips were so important for Adam and Rebecca. He had watched them all day, both on the wagon and preparing the dinner, and now, leaning against a tree, he could see that they looked more relaxed than he had seen them in a long time.

“You alright?” As always, Hoss was the first to speak out loud, though Ben saw Rebecca’s comforting hand on Adam’s thigh.

“Just tired,” he said and flashed them a grin. He held his hands out to Jamie, who had just come back from his cleaning trip to the river with Joe.

“Hey, little Puck, come here.” Gently, he pulled his son onto his lap and started to stroke the little back, humming softly under his breath. Ben, absorbed in the sight, gratefully accepted a cup of coffee from Rebecca. The light from the fire illuminated the two dark heads and conjured up dark red sparks in their hair, making them look like elves.

A hand clapped Ben’s shoulder and he looked up in surprise. Joe stood next to him, smirking.

“You don’t want to fall asleep now, Pa, do you?”

Playfully Ben lifted a hand, but Joe had already ducked out of reach. Only then did Ben see that he held Adam’s guitar in one hand and passed it on to Rebecca.

“You think you can get your brother to play?” he asked dubiously. Adam looked quite content where he was, and Ben doubted he’d exchange Jamie for a guitar anytime soon.

Joe shook his head and sat down besides Ben. “Hope springs eternal.” He grinned. “Perhaps he’d like another toy to play with?”

“So you think your nephew is a toy?” Rebecca was behind Joe, holding a wooden spoon and a bowl, but when Joe warily glanced at her, squaring his shoulders, she merely winked at him and sat down beside Adam.

Joe held up his hands as if he wanted to surrender and shrugged innocently. “Of course he is.” That got him a frown from both Rebecca and Adam and a sharp look from Ben. He pointed to Jamie who was contently snuggled up against his father’s chest, almost asleep.

“Just look at him. All sweet and cuddly. You’d never think he’s such a …uh …” Seeing Adam’s raised brow just in time, he cringed and hastened to find another word, under the piercing eyes of his family, “…a sprite, usually.”

“Well done, buddy,” Adam commented dryly. When he saw Joe’s baffled look, he motioned with his head to Hoss who had come up behind his little brother, hands in pockets.

“Ya saved yerself jus’ in time, Shortshanks.” Hoss winked at Adam, then noisily let himself glide to the ground and stretched out his feet towards the fire. He nodded towards Jamie.

“The Little One asleep?”

Adam bowed his head towards the dark curls, then looked up and smiled softly. “Almost.”

“It has been an exciting day,” Ben said. “No wonder he’s exhausted.”

Rebecca laughed and bent over to ruffle the unruly hair of her son. “He didn’t sleep last night, that’s why.” She sent Adam a loving glance when she saw his rueful smile and intertwined her fingers with his.

“It’s no wonder he couldn’t sleep. Your little Puck has always had an adventurous streak.” Joe stretched himself out on the ground and crossed his arms behind his head. “You named him aptly.”

Ben could only shake his head as he watched his youngest son’s grimaces while he tried to find a comfortable position. “And you always stayed put when you where small?”

Joe innocently batted his lashes. “I did when I was that young”, he pointed out. “You have to admit that Jamie started quite early.”

Hoss snorted, and Ben half-smiled when he lifted his eyes to meet Adam’s remorseful look. His face painted in reds and golds from the fire, Ben saw him shivering and knew that he, too, vividly remembered the night when Jamie had got lost.

He had been so small then, perhaps no more than a year and a half. But Ben would never forget the look on Rebecca’s face when they rode into the yard that evening in fall.

Her eyes were wide open in fear, her hair dishevelled and her clothes looked as if she’d been on the trail for a day. She had hugged her shawl to herself – a small, futile gesture to try and stay calm in what could well turn into the horror of her life. But her whole body had screamed in terror and fear, had screamed in agony for Adam. Ben’s inside had turned to stone.

He had cast a fast look at Adam’s face, but his son had been down his horse in less than a second, hugging his wife tightly to his chest. Rebecca was frantic. Her eyes begged Adam to do something, and when he took her arms and looked into her eyes, willing her to speak to him, she was only able to whisper. Three words, and Ben’s throat grew dry with the remembrance of how her voice had sounded. Three words that had them all in shock.

“Jamie is gone.”

Rebecca almost collapsed in Adam’s arms, but he held her steady, while his eyes searched Ben’s.

“Pa.” He nodded. Ben could still remember the look on Adam’s face when he gathered the men and gave out instructions to begin the search. His voice was calm, and his hands didn’t shake. His eyes were narrowed and the line of his jaw set. Few would have noticed anything amiss. But Adam’s face was white as a sheet, and Ben started praying.

“Would you like me to come with you?” Ben asked softly. Adam was in front of the horse, but he couldn’t see his face. He had let Adam handle and organise the search parties, because it was his son that had gone missing, even though his heart ached. Adam hadn’t given HIM any instructions, and he knew that out of respect his son would never do that. But still, he could offer his service, and Adam would decide where he needed him the most: looking after Rebecca or coming with him.

His son turned around. His face was pale, but he nodded gratefully.

“Thanks Pa.”

“Alright then.” He pondered for a second, then laid his hand on Adam’s tensed back. “We’ll find him.”

“Yes.” And with that his son was on his horse and gone, and he mounted up and followed.

They had just left the yard and turned towards the river, when Adam spoke abruptly.

“I wonder whether it’s perhaps better to search on foot, Pa.”

“What makes you say that?”

“He’s just a baby. He can’t have come far. Maybe not at all. Perhaps he just wanted to play hide and seek, as he likes to do.” Adam’s voice was tight, and to Ben it sounded as if he choked on his words. “For Heaven’s sake, he could even be in the wood shed.”

Ben would have smiled if not for the situation. For a moment they rode in silence, carefully checking the road and the traces on it. Neither said a word, but Adam suddenly halted is horse.

“Pa, what did we speak of over the last few days?” His eyes were glued to Ben’s face, burning like coals in the rising darkness.

Ben was too surprised to answer at first.

“What?”

Adam ‘s voice was urgent. “Pa! What did we speak of? Could he have heard something that he wanted to see, to do …,”impatiently he ran a hand through his hair, ” I don’t know … anything…” Again his eyes begged his father. “You know how he is, always wants to be in the middle of everything, wants to see, wants to know… Did we speak of something that might have interested him?”

“Nothing that he heard… “, Ben screwed up his face as he, too, frantically tried to remember. “We spoke of the elections… the changes around here … the Indians …

“The land …the mill …winter pastures for the cattle and… “Eyes half-closed, Adam tried to sum up last evening’s topics.

“But he couldn’t have heard that, he was in the kitchen, and came out only when … “

Adam eyes lit up. “When we spoke of the wind and the leaves in fall … “He sat up straight and took a good look around, as if he saw for the first time where they really were.

“There is that little wood not far from the house … he sees it every time we go to town, and we spoke of it … ” Adam’s whole body suddenly glowed in anticipation, now that they had a new clue, a new trace of where Jamie could be. Gone was the hopeless despair of earlier, the energy was back; he was radiating it. Hardly looking back to see whether Ben followed, Adam turned Sport around and spurred him into a gallop.

It took them only five minutes to reach the small wood of broadleaf trees Adam had mentioned. Cluster of trees was more like it, Ben thought. The ground was hard and trees other than pines had a hard time finding enough water. Still, somehow these few had managed to survive and right now formed a colourful spot in the midst of the dark green pines around them.

They slowed the horses to a walk and carefully observed the ground. Ben heard Adam curse softly under his breath as he glanced towards the horizon. It was rapidly growing darker, and the shadows under the trees made seeing difficult. Ben felt the cold hand of fear tighten her grip around his heart again, but just when Adam bowed down low from the saddle to examine something on the ground, he saw the unmistakeable form of a child underneath a mountain ash. He almost collapsed with relief.

“Adam!” He called out sharply and pointed, but it wouldn’t have been necessary.

In less than a second Adam was on the ground and all but threw himself next to the little boy who sat in the midst of the dry leaves.

“Jamie!” Ben could hear Adam suppressed cry and heard the obvious relief in his voice. Jamie threw his little hands around Adam’s neck and held on for dear life, burying his head in Adam’s neck as he began to cry.

“Papa…” The sobs racked through the tiny body, and Adam frantically closed his arms around him, pressing him against his chest. Then he let go for second and ran his hands over the lad’s head and body, making sure that he was unscratched and unhurt, before he hugged him back to his chest.

“Shh, Papa’s got you, Jamie. It’s all right. Everything’s alright.” For an eternity, he just sat in the leaves, red and yellow and orange, and rocked his son, oblivious to anything going on, whispering little nonsense-words to his son.

Ben had dismounted and slowly made his way over to Adam. He took out his gun and gave the agreed signal that their search had been successful before he crouched down next to his son and softly touched his shoulder.

“Adam?” He was hesitant to break into that precious moment, but he had to make sure that Jamie was all right, and he wanted to get a good look, himself. Then Adam finally lifted his head up from Jamie’s unruly curls and glanced at Ben, smiling self-consciously. His voice was unsteady and he took a deep breath to calm himself.

“I don’t know how you survived us, Pa.” Ben could hear that Adam had a hard time swallowing. He patted the dark-clad shoulder assuringly.

“You’ll get used to worrying.” He grinned, and gently laid his hand at Jamie’s back just to have a physical connection with his grandson.

“Well, lad, you sure had us worried.” He quickly glanced at Adam as Jamie just buried himself deeper into Adam’s neck, but his son had regained his composure. He softly shook his head as he felt Ben’s questioning gaze on him.

“He’s alright, Pa. Just scared.” He nodded to the horses. “Let’s get home. Rebecca is worried sick.”

“You’re probably right.” Ben groaned as he got up onto his feet. He could feel his tight muscles now that the tension had flown out of him. All he longed for was his bed. When he turned he could only just make out Adam’s face in the dim light of the evening, but he saw the dark brow rising. Adam had Jamie settled comfortably on one hip and with the other hand drew slow calming circles on his back, but his son’s hands were still tightly locked around his father’s neck as if he never wanted to let go again.

When Adam noticed his father’s gaze on him, he cocked his head, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“I guess you have an idea how to get changed into a nightshirt with someone clinging to you?”

Ben chuckled. “Nightshirt? You or the lad?”

Adam flashed him a grin. “Since I’m not wearing nightshirts – and you might just as well not comment on it – I guess we’re talking about Jamie.”

“I feared as much.” Ben grunted, then held Sport while Adam mounted with Jamie in his arms. He watched as his son loosened the little boy’s death grip around his neck and transferred it to his waist instead, then handed Adam a blanket that he tucked in around his son. When he knew that they were both settled, he mounted his own horse and slowly led the way home.

Only when the wood was out of sight, did they resume their conversation over the horses’ heads. Jamie hadn’t stirred once, and Ben nodded over to the small dark bump in front of Adam that hid Jamie.

“How is he?”

“Falling asleep, judging from the weight of him.” Adam rode one-handedly, one arm always securely around Jamie,

“Will you punish him for escaping from his mother?” Ben thought he knew the answer. It was dangerous for a child out here, and even more dangerous for one that didn’t know the dangers.

“I guess I have to.” Adam sighed. His reluctance was clearly audible. “He’s afraid enough right now, but I can’t let him think that he’ll always come out of it unhurt like he did today.”

“He’s very young.”

“Old enough to understand what is right and what wrong.” Adam grimaced, and Ben knew why. He had felt exactly the same before he had to punish each of his sons for the first time. Adam had experience when it came to the kind of punishment – with Joe, but he didn’t have any with his own son.

“Don’t be too hard on him, son.” Ben grinned to lighten the atmosphere. “After all, he can’t even properly defend himself.”

Adam snorted lightly. “You mean I should wait with the necessary talk until he has learned some more words?”

Ben chuckled. “Something like that.” He squinted at Adam when his son just shook his head in amazement. “He’s my grandson, Adam. I’m allowed to be soft where Jamie is concerned.”

“And will that be your excuse to spoil him senseless?” Adam laughed out loud when Ben glared at him fiercely. A second later, though, Ben joined him when he couldn’t restrain himself any longer.

“Doesn’t seem as if I made a lasting impression on YOU, hm?” He winked at Adam, then spurred forward when their home came in sight.

Rebecca came running from the house just when Ben handed Jamie back to Adam after they had dismounted.

“Jamie? Oh my God, JAMIE!” Tears running unheeded over her face, she frantically reached for her son and pressed him to her breast, then fell into Adam’s open arms as suddenly all energy left her. He closed his arms around his family, holding on to them as much for their sake as his own. Head bowed down towards Rebecca’s, they stood still, cheek to cheek, shivering, Jamie buried in the warmth between them. Silently Ben took the reigns of the horses and led them into the barn.

When he came back to the house a short while later, he found everyone in the living room. Hoss and Joe were standing next to the settee where Adam and Rebecca tried to clean Jamie up from his expedition.

“… He was playing … hide and seek … hiding under the dry leaves …”Adam looked up when Ben opened the door and met his eyes, shrugging softly. Ben grinned and went over to join them, wanting to take another look at his grandson.

Rebecca had just finished putting his nightshirt on and now grabbed a brush to get the unruly curls into some kind of order. Jamie was on Adam’s lap, still refusing to let go of him. Softly mumbling under her breath, she avoided looking at Adam while she tried to disentangle the jumble, but Ben saw that her lips twitched with relieved serenity when she looked at the assorted greenery on her offspring’s head.

There were dry leaves and little twigs entangled in Jamie’s jet-black locks that made him look like a sprite. Strangely enough, his golden eyes contrasted with the yellow of the leaves that gleamed in the firelight. Adam chuckled deeply at the sight.

“A Little Puck, no?” Ben saw that his eyes searched for Rebecca’s face over his son’s dark head, grinning, though his eyes were still haunted by the events of the evening.

Ben patted his arm again and winked. “I wish Joe had been this easy to brush. I still remember the fight…the tantrums…”. He laughed when Joe self-consciously ducked his head.

“Never,” he muttered under his breath. Hoss just punched his back in reply.

Adam gratefully looked at Ben, then his eyes darted back to his son’s face, and he bowed his head to plant a kiss in the unruly strands. “Our ‘Midsummer night’s dream’ for sure,” he whispered softly.

Jamie had been cleaned up, fed and put to bed, the incident soon forgotten – but the name stayed. Adam had continued to call him “his little Puck”, much to everyone’s amusement. It suited Jamie very well, Ben thought, for the little sprite brought magic to their lives day by day, his mischievous, quick-witted spirit enchanting everyone with his tinkling laughter and delightful smile. Ben smiled as he remembered … but he also remembered Adam’s soft words in the night, and he knew that the moment when he called Jamie “midsummer night’s dream” would be forever be a moment of magic to him.

“Pa?” The questioning voice drew him out of his reverie. He looked up to find the worried glances of his family on him. Hoss sat up and peered closely at his face.

“You ok, Pa? Ya have been awfully quiet all day.”

Ben nodded reassuringly and threw Hoss a warm glance. Joe had lifted himself up on his elbows, his lucent green eyes glittering with the firelight. “You feel ok?”

“Just remembering how Jamie got his name.” Ben grinned when he heard Joe giggle. “You don’t think your Pa is getting old, are ya?”

“Aw, come on, Pa, would I ever think such a thing?” Joe laughed when he saw Adam roll his eyes mockingly.

“I don’t know, would you?” Ben never knew how Joe managed to look mischievous and contrite at the same time. He lay full-length on the ground, with the saddle behind his back and obviously enjoyed the conversation.

“Naaa, he wouldn’t, Pa.” Hoss crossed his feet in front of the fire, wriggling his toes. Then he put one hand in his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief, pointedly disregarding his family when he uncovered a biscuit and heartily bit into it. Adam stared at his brother, then sighed theatrically and sadly shook his head. “I know how hungry you must be, brother, after only two helpings of dinner”, he muttered to Rebecca, then returned to the topic.

“Not while Pa is still able to tan your backside, huh?”

Joe raised his brows in playful concern. “Me? I’m always good.” He nodded towards Jamie, who was deeply asleep in Adam’s arms. “Just wait till he starts to think of wonderful plans to keep you entertained, brother, and you’ll think of me as the angel.” When everyone burst out laughing at that, he stuck out his tongue, then joined them, raking a hand through his hair and making it look like a thundercloud in consequence.

“I guess we can be lucky if you don’t teach Jamie any nonsense.” Rebecca said, wiping tears of mirth out of her eyes.

Ben took a deep breath. “I don’t think he’ll need any help, Becky.” He smirked when he saw Adam’s face. “Sorry, son. But with that heritage…”

“What he really needs, though…,” Joe paused for more effect, which was quite spoilt when he had to yawn widely, “is a brother to help him.” He pointedly directed his gaze at Adam, who lazily grinned back at him and demonstratively laid his arm around his wife. For a second Ben’s heart fluttered in anticipation when he saw Rebecca cast down her eyes in embarrassment, but with the firelight he wasn’t able to tell whether she actually blushed or not. He directed his own questioning gaze at his oldest son, but got an almost imperceptible shake of the head in return. Well, perhaps not yet, but Adam’s whole stance said that Jamie wouldn’t stay an only child long.

“Or a nephew, brother.” Now it was Adam’s turn to smirk when he saw Joe wriggle uncomfortably. “Ever thought of that?”

Ben raised his brow, awaiting Joe’s answer. For a moment, Joe looked despairingly for help, then his eyes came to rest on Hoss, and he pointed his thumb in his direction. “Why don’t you ask him? After all, he is older than me.” Having successfully averted all attention from himself and onto his brother, he settled back, looking so monstrously relieved that Ben couldn’t help but shake his head in amusement. Taking pity on Hoss who was the one who now looked as if he was going to choke the next moment, Ben decided to smooth things down a bit. After all, it was late, and tomorrow’s journey would not be easier.

“Didn’t you want to play something, Adam?” he asked, raising one brow when he looked at Adam.

His son smiled wryly in his father’s direction, but he nodded and handed Jamie carefully over to Rebecca, taking hold of his guitar that leant behind him. Glancing around, he silently asked for songs, inviting suggestions. When none come forward, he settled himself comfortably and softly stroked the strings, until his fingers settled on a melody Ben amusedly realized was “Greensleves”.

For a long time he just played softly and let the music fill the hearts of his listeners. Joe had his eyes closed, but a smile hovered on his lips. Hoss dreamily gazed at the fire, his eyes clouded with dreams. Then Adam’s rich baritone rose softly over the tones of the guitar, giving the old words a voice. Ben leant back against the pine and sighed when he watched Adam as he sang for Rebecca, the expression on his face heartbreakingly vulnerable.

“Greensleves was my delight,

Greensleves was my heart of gold

Greensleves was my heart of joy

And who but my Lady Greensleves…”

xxx

“Is that the life you want, son?” It was late, the fire almost burned down, and Ben’s thoughts turned towards the next morning.

Tomorrow they would follow the road further north until Pyramid Lake, then turn east and follow the water upriver. Ben had been surprised to hear that this year Adam didn’t want to pass over the mountains, but intended to stay at this side of the Rockies, going east in a wide circle and finally returning home from the south. It meant that the journey would be much shorter this year, a fact that had Ben wondering, but he was far from complaining.

Adam glanced at him and smiled softly. Ben could see the firelight reflected in his eyes, but beyond that they were filled with a deep-down happiness he had seldom seen. “Campfires do that to romantic souls”, he mused quietly. Hoss and Joe had fallen asleep some time ago, and Rebecca, too, had retired and taken Jamie with her to the wagon. Ben shifted slightly to take a bit of weight off his back. He had been surprised when he realized that he felt peaceful out here, with his family around him. It had been a long time since he had sat at a campfire himself, and a longer time since he had sat at a campfire with a small boy with enormous golden eyes. That boy had grown into a man years ago, despite all the hardship life had thrown at him. He had a wife, and a son who looked liked him, a life of his own, but the eyes were still the same, and Ben knew that the boy would stay his son forever.

Adam settled deeper into the blankets and cast a content look into the direction of the wagon where his family was sleeping. Ben knew he was picturing them in his mind’s eye, Rebecca, curled together on her side, and Little Jamie, probably on his back next to his mother, legs and arms sprawled wide. Ben smiled at the thought, then looked up to see Adam’s questioning eyes on him.

“Just thinking of Jamie”, he said, and earned himself a raised eyebrow and a golden look. He grinned.

“The way he sleeps reminds me of Joe at that age.” Ben rubbed a shoulder and sighed. Other memories came floating back, of Joe, Adam, Hoss, but he didn’t mind.

“Strangely enough, you always curled yourself up under the blanket and stayed that way all through the night. Sometimes I even had to disentangle you from it.” He chuckled softly as a memory of a particular strange morning rose up in his mind.

“And you always grumbled like a mean old bear while you tried to free a poor innocent boy of his dilemma.” Adam grinned.

“Mean old bear, hm?” Ben caught Adam’s surprised look and the sly grin that followed and only just caught himself from laughing out loud.

For another second he just grinned, then he too settled deeper into his blanket and sighed with contentment.

“This land is so beautiful.” Adam’s voice was raw with emotion and Ben could hear the yearning in it despite of the soft words. “Is there more one could want?”

Ben glanced at his firstborn, the most ambitious of his sons, saw the nights he had spent behind the books studying contracts and bids, but then he remembered the expression in his eyes when he sang, and love and longing when he looked at Rebecca and didn’t say anything.

Adam didn’t notice. His gaze was on the trees’ shadow outlined in the darkness and the stars in the distance above.

Ben watched him. Tomorrow they would leave Adam and his family. He, Hoss and Joe would go home to the ranch, and Adam would travel the country he loved, his family by his side. They would say good-bye and not see each other until the beginning of autumn.

Tomorrow Adam would be his usual active and reserved self, taking control of everything that had to be done, carefully planning every step of the way.

Tonight he was his son, fragile and delicate in the hands of the Lord, clothed in the blue velvet of the night and covered in stardust. Tonight he was only Adam, his son, and he watched the beloved face until the golden eyes glanced back at him and he smiled.

“It is the life I want, Pa,” his son said, his face enchanted with the magic of the night.

Ben nodded.

“I know,” he said softly.

XXX

“Are you sure you want to take that trail?” Dubiously Ben eyed the winding path until it disappeared behind some boulders. He glanced back to where the others waited, then watched Adam who stood next to him, his arms crossed over his chest, deep in thought. When he finally looked up, he took some more steps, his attention fixed on the path before him. Small rills were steadily running down the mountain – result of the week of rain before they started – soaking the ground and loosening debris.

Ben heard Adam mutter softly under his breath before he turned back to his waiting father.

“I think we’ll take it,” he announced, casting another considering look onto the road. “It’s only a short way, and if we go slowly, we’ll make it.” He turned and waved his arm, signal for the others to come forward. Then he cocked his head at Ben.

“How far did you say you wanted to come?”

Ben grinned sheepishly. “You know, it’s been a long time since we saw the lake.” Adam suspiciously narrowed his eyes, but then the corners of his lips quivered slightly.

“It’s not for long, Pa,” he said softly, avoiding Ben’s eyes.

Ben sighed. “I’ll miss you anyway, son. Lets have lunch.”

xxx

“Would you please stay put?” Rebecca’s irritated voice roused Ben from his nap. Rolling over, he saw that she was trying to dress Jamie, who, judging from the state of his hair, had just woken from his own slumber and was stubbornly refusing to be put into clothes. Clutching his stuffed toy to his chest, he continually tried to run off to join Hoss and the horses, not caring about his half-dressed state in the slightest.

When she finally had enough, she moved into his line of sight and took hold of his chin.

“Sit!” she ordered, with a voice to be obeyed, and Ben chuckled when the boy sat where he stood without another word. Even so, when Rebecca moved a step to the side, he tried to peer around her to look at his horsies again, though his bottom never left the blanket.

“Smart kid!”

He must have said it aloud, because Becky turned and looked at him, then glanced at her offspring. Ben saw she had a hard time not laughing, as she sternly told Jamie not to move while she dressed him. Jamie, his lips almost quivering, held on to his toy while Rebecca got his clothes on, never letting go for a moment. Ben’s heart gave a small squeeze when he recognized the toy, but he smiled at his grandson when he finally was allowed to race off to see the horses.

“He’ll never give it up, hm?” Ben remarked to Becky, nodding into the direction of the boy where he stood next to Hoss, the toy held in one small hand. It was an old one, already worn and mended at several places, but Jamie didn’t seem to mind.

Becky smiled and softly touched his arm. “Never.”

They were still at the lunch table, when Hoss came down the steps again, carrying a huge chest on his shoulder. Ben looked up from his coffee when he saw the dark object, and frowned when he recognized it. His eyes went over to Adam, but his son just watched Hoss and went on drinking his coffee, one eyebrow raised. Becky’s face was a study of curiosity, but when she turned towards her husband for an explanation he just smiled and put his arm around her. Ben exhaled softly. As long as it wasn’t bothering Adam, he wouldn’t say anything. Joe on the other hand rose and curiously went over to Hoss who deposited the chest on the table in the living room.

“Care to tell us what you have in mind, son?” He knew the things that were in there, and wondered what had made Hoss bring it down today. The chest was Adam’s, holding the few things from his childhood they had managed to save over the years and the distance. He wasn’t sure whether Adam wanted to be reminded of some of the painful memories in there.

Hoss glanced up then, realizing for the first time that whatever he had in mind might not be such a good idea after all. He sought out Adam and silently asked him for permission, which was given with a small nod, almost imperceptible for someone not watching closely. Only then did Hoss turn towards Ben and explained.

“Ya know, we’ve been speaking so much about family and traditions and such…I thought it might be good for the wee one to have som’thin’ of his Pa.”

Ben shook his head and smiled. Trust Hoss to think of something like this. It was true what he had said, and Ben could see that he had already infected Joe with his idea. They were already busy rummaging through the chest like two small children with a treasure box, and only low exclamations from Adam to “take it easy” slowed their eagerly searching hands. In a way, that was what it was, Ben realized as he watched his sons, a box filled with treasures. No matter that they knew what was in the box, that they had opened it numerous times already. Delving through their oldest brother’s belongings was like discovering a whole new world.

“You know, I have never seen this chest before,” Rebecca said. She watched her brothers-in-law a second longer, then turned back to Adam and gently touched his thigh. Adam smiled softly and raised her hand to his mouth to plant a light kiss on her palm.

“Go on and discover the dark secrets of your husband, Mrs. Cartwright,” he said and winked, but Rebecca just laughed and kissed his cheek. “I will,” she whispered conspiratorially, and Ben saw a gleam of mischief dance in her eyes.

Concerned he turned to Adam.

“Son, don’t you think…”

Adam glanced at him, then smiled assuringly, his amber eyes saying more than his words.

“She knows what’s in there, Pa. I took her up a long time ago and told her everything she wanted to know. It’s the excitement that goes together with old things, I guess.” He lightly shrugged his shoulders and returned to his coffee, but Ben noticed that his mind, too, was with the memories in the chest and he couldn’t blame him.

Ever since Rebecca and Adam had announced that they were going to have a baby, they had talked about their family, bringing up old memories and stories they hadn’t told in years. Rebecca had listened raptly, and her cheeks had glowed while she had tried to commit it all to memory. Ben had been deeply moved to see it, knowing that she did it to be able to tell their child its history. Still, some stories told of sorrow were still not forgotten, and more than once he had seen the dark shadows that still lurked in the golden eyes of his oldest son, and knew that his own face must have mirrored his loss, for his sons had quietened then. Adam had often taken Rebecca upstairs, probably to tell her the rest of the story. Hoss had sent him an apologetic glance and cleared his throat before disappearing into the kitchen, and Joe had clapped his shoulder in comfort before he, too, headed outside.

The stories were good. Ben knew that. They helped to keep the memories alive, helped remember the losses of this family and reminded the living how precious life was. If Adam was able to sit quietly and watch his family rummage through his past, then it meant that he was at peace. Ben felt again how grateful he was for his family. Under his breath he said a quick prayer of thanks, then took his coffee cup and got up to join his other sons in their treasure hunt.

Behind him he thought he heard Adam mumble “Children!” but when he turned around, his brows drawn together, the dark head was bowed over the cup, and he smiled. A shout from the living room brought his attention back to Hoss, Joe and Becky. All of them were grinning all over their faces as they bent over the chest, and when Ben peered over their shoulders, he, too, couldn’t keep from smiling.

He looked up to beckon Adam over from the dinner table, only to discover him standing next to him. Nodding softly, he motioned with his head to the stuffed bear the boys just held up for Becky to inspect.

“Remember him?” he asked softly.

Adam met his eyes, and for a moment Ben didn’t see the man, but a small boy staring back at him, unruly black curls framing his radiant face. He blinked, and the image disappeared, but the eyes that looked at him were still the same. Adam questioningly raised a brow, and Ben chuckled.

“How old were you?”

“Five?” Adam turned back and took another look into the chest, over the backs of his brothers. “I’m still surprised you kept it.”

Ben snorted softly. “How could I not? You wouldn’t let go of it for a second the first week. And afterwards you made sure you always knew where it was. What did you call it? I think I forgot.”

Adam smiled self-consciously, but his eyes held a glint of amusement. “Ben.”

“Mmm, now I remember. I always felt honoured.” Laughing softly and rubbing a hand over his chin, the namesake of the toy reached towards the table, where Hoss and Joe had laid out a small collection of the things they thought would suit the baby. Some wooden soldiers were there that had been carved by Ben, some animals, a rag ball. Ben gently stroked a finger over the rough surface of a wooden block that had once represented a wagon, it’s colours faded now. He just wanted to ask Adam about it, but when he straightened up, he saw that his son’s mind was no longer on the chest. Instead, he looked at Rebecca, who was holding the small stuffed bear close to the slight bulge of her belly, his face carefully blank. Ben, standing next to him, though, felt the small shiver that ran through his body.

“I see she made her choice, then.” Gently he laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder and was rewarded when his son lifted the corners of his lips in a smile.

Adam quirked his lips in an amused half-smile. Ben rubbed his neck when he glanced at him, and he could tell Joe was about to burst out laughing the next second. His lips already twitched when he observed his brother’s dilemma, but so far he had been holding back. Hoss stood before them, nervously playing with the buttons on Jamie’s jacket whom he held on his arm.

“I…I …uh…promised ‘im, Adam!” His gaze wandered over to Rebecca, pleading for understanding. “He said he liked ta ride, and I dun promised he could.”

Ben wanted to laugh out loud. Adam, because of his own weird sense of humour, hadn’t told Hoss and Joe yet that they would accompany him until Pyramid Lake, and Hoss had obviously found his own excuse to stay with his nephew a little while longer. He could very well imagine that Hoss hadn’t been able to refuse Jamie’s “wanna go horsie” – he had never been able to deny the boy anything.

Adam rubbed a knuckle over his lips, unsuccessfully trying to hide his own amusement. When Hoss continued to stutter words of apology, he exchanged a look with Rebecca. Finally he stepped forward and peered closely at Hoss who seemed to shrink under the cool gaze.

“Please, brother, tell me how my 2 year old son managed to convince you to let him ride?”

Hoss crumbled further, but then Adam obviously took pity on him and slapped him comfortingly on the shoulder.

“Well, if you promised, then you will have to take him.” He laughed when Hoss hopefully raised his eyes. “Seems to me we’re going to enjoy each other’s company just a bit longer.” Winking at Rebecca who just shook her head, he affectionately ran a hand through Jamie’s hair, then hoisted him onto his own hip and nodded at Hoss.

“Mount up and I’ll swing the young man up to you.”

Hoss was only too happy to comply. “I tell ya, Adam, ya shure havta look out fer this young ‘un. He’s sneaky, that fella.”

“Oh, now you’re hiding behind the boy?” Ben glared at Hoss, hands in his sides, but Adam just laughed.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it, Hoss. After all, he has two uncles to look out for him.” Grinning mischievously when he saw Hoss’ cheeks turn red with that, he kissed Jamie’s chubby cheek, then held him up for Hoss to place him in front of him.

“Don’t worry, Hoss. Pa had already persuaded me to let you come a bit further.” He thoroughly enjoyed his brother’s incredulous face when he stared at Ben who shrugged good-naturedly in response.

“You would have found out soon enough, son. No need to upset you unnecessarily.” Ben explained, then raised his eyebrows when Jamie, hands clapping excitedly, bumped his little legs up and down, trying to get the horse to walk.

“Go, go, go”, he chanted, and Hoss tightened his grip to keep him from falling off.

“I see the young man is getting tired of waiting. We better get going.” Ben blew a kiss to Jamie and turned to get his horse, only to almost bump into Buck as he found himself suddenly face to face with his mount.

“What the …”

“I thought I’d help you to get going, or we are going to spend the night here.” Joe’s light voice spoke from above Cochise, ringing with hilarity.

“I just wish you had that much insight every time we want to go somewhere”, Ben mumbled under his breath, but he took the reigns from Joe nevertheless and mounted. Adam still stood with Hoss and Jamie, one hand on Chubb’s withers, the other on Jamie’s leg, but when Joe called out, he patted the horse and went to take his seat on the wagon where Rebecca was already waiting.

xxx

Following the path, they went up higher into the mountains. The undergrowth next to the road became thicker, the ground wetter. Sometimes Ben could see evidence of the destructive power of nature right and left of the road where landslides had devastated the natural growth. Boulders had been carried down by an untamable force, felling trees like matches where they had gone. In some spots nature had already begun to pullulate and cover the damages, but others were still bare and naked, the havoc still visible. The path they had taken wound itself through the mountains, and grew steeper with every mile. Ben knew that Adam didn’t like the look of the slopes at all; repeatedly he saw him checking the trail, frowning as he did, but he didn’t say anything. Ben caught himself observing the incline, too, but just as with Adam he couldn’t put down his finger on anything specific.

When the path became too narrow for them to ride next to the wagon, Hoss and Joe chose to ride in front, Ben behind. He heard his sons joke with Jamie, Hoss pointing out birds to him every now and then, while Joe teased him incessantly, keeping his mind occupied. Ben smiled and turned his eyes back on the trail. The earth plunged down heavily just some feet away, and unconsciously he urged Buck further to the wall. Adam too drove at a slower pace, carefully examining the road as he went.

“You still there, Pa?”

Ben looked up and saw Joe waving to him. He had turned Cochise in the attempt to see what had kept his brother and father.

“Joe, I swear, you’re the most impatient guy on Earth.” Hoss had stopped , too, shaking his head when he saw the exercises his brother was doing on his horse.

Joe pulled a face that had Jamie squeal with delight. “I have to entertain myself when older brother here dawdles like he does.”

“Dawdle?” Ben heard Adam’s deep voice and could almost imagine his taunting smile.

“Look who’s speaking.”

Joe bristled visibly. “Why do you always have to pick on something that happened ages ago?”

“Ya have been such a darlin’ lately that we havta do it to make us feel superior.” Hoss tried to interfere before any real damage could be done, but Ben wouldn’t have placed any bets on him.

“Does it work?” Rebecca seemed curious. Ben couldn’t see her face, but he saw Joe’s, who looked at her in surprise.

“Of course it does,” Adam assured her smugly. “Why do you think we use it?”

Ben couldn’t understand what he said then because he heard a soft rumble that distracted him for a second, but whatever it was, Joe’s eyes sparkled when he looked back at him. He seemed almost embarrassed when he glanced at Ben, but soon his smile returned. Lolling lazily in the saddle, he winked at Adam, then laughed and turned his horse back on the path. Hoss gave Adam a relieved grin, then took hold of Jamie’s tiny hand and waved his parents, before he, too, continued the ride.

Ben only shook his head.

For another mile they rode in silence, with only Jamie’s light babbling and Hoss’ soft replies.

Then suddenly Ben heard it again, a low rumbling that filled the air, and when the ground shook, he thought for a second his heart stopped. Almost of their own accord, his eyes lifted to the summit of the hill, seeing without believing the growing cloud of dust that veiled the trees and marked where the debris, loosened by the long rain, and sliding on the wet ground, was coming down onto the small party, aiming directly at the wagon. His mind suddenly blank, he heard Adam’s urgent voice, calling out to him.

“Pa! Get back!”

That woke him. He tried to move then, but Buck fought his rider, terrified of what was to happen, and Ben had to use all his strength to keep the animal under him. The ground shook again, and in front of him he heard his sons’ frantic voices as their horses panicked, heard Hoss’ hoarse voice and Jamie’s crying, but the only one he had eyes for was Adam. Standing in the wagon, shouting orders on tops of his lungs, he was holding on to the reins for all he was worth, fighting desperately against the horses’ will to run. Ben cried out with anguish when he saw it, realizing with desperate clarity what his son was doing, knowing the path had suddenly become a death trap.

He couldn’t move backwards because his father was behind him, he couldn’t move forward because Hoss and Joe were in front of him trying to keep their bucking horses under control, trying to protect their brother’s son. Trying to protect Jamie.

Ben’s mind whirled with useless ideas to find a way out, but just then another shout alerted him.

“PA!”

Alarmed, Ben lifted his head, but it was already too late. With horror in his eyes he couldn’t do anything but watch helplessly when the avalanche of sand and stone reached the path, reached them in a cloud of boulders and dust, crashed onto the wagon and half turned it to the side – and down the incline, into the abyss waiting beyond. Frozen, he watched in horror, praying that there was something he could do when he knew deep inside his heart that there was nothing, nothing at all.

All he could do was watch in horror as the wagon was carried over the slope and into the abyss.

Then it was over, just as suddenly as it had begun. In a second’s notice the mountain had moved, in a second’s notice it had stopped. In a second’s notice it had taken two lives.

Ben stared at the rubbish on the path, the spot where moments ago the wagon had been, where his son had been. Now, there was only a heap of debris and rubble, marking the path the landslide had taken. Ben stared at it, not believing. All he could see was the sickening sight of the wagon carried along and being transported over the edge.

He stared at Hoss and Joe on the other side of the avalanche, holding on to Jamie, wordlessly praying , but their bloodless faces confirmed his worst fears. Abruptly he shook himself. He had to do something, anything … even if it meant to know for sure.

“Take Jamie and try to find a way down. I’ll try it here and …”, he wasn’t able to finish his sentence, but seeing their desperate glances, he knew he had to say something, something to let them hope, something to cling on to.

“We’ll find them,” he said softly, knowing that he needed to hear it aloud as much as they did. Then he urged Buck into the undergrowth, away from the place of pain, away from the place where his family’s life had been taken from them.

xxx

Ben hardly knew where he rode or how he got down that slope. He never remembered the direction the horse took or the twigs and branches that pulled at his body, the leaves that stroke his face. He never remembered how he managed to reach the ground, never remembered the bloody streaks on his hands, never felt the tears on his cheeks.

All he would ever remember was the sight of the wagon where he found it, lying on its side, the remains half-buried among the stones that had taken it with them – and knowing that all hope was lost.

All he would ever remember was the piece of black fabric on one bloody shoulder, and his son’s hand under the wreckage that held his wife’s, the bodies buried under the stones and wood that had taken their lives.

“Oh dear God, no!”

His eyes blind, he fell to his knees and sobbed. Sickness rose in his throat and overwhelmed him, and he retched when the waves of pain rolled through his body. With both hands, held on to the ground for dear life, knowing that if he lost his last anchor, his last connection to reality, he would drown in his pain and never get up again. His mind screamed that he had imagined what had happened … because…because … it couldn’t be true, could it? Then his son’s amber eyes looked at him through the veil of pain he had wrapped around himself, tearing his soul out of his body with both hands, and helplessly he retched again until he was spent and fell on his side, arms wrapped around his body, trying to hold on to anything, anything.

For a second he forgot what had happened, lying still on the ground, trying not to move. Then, the memories came back, and he knew there was no escape for him, no refuge, no salvation, just the black hole that swallowed everything.

He heaved again, his hands clutching bundles of grass in the futile attempt to keep his sanity. Voices suddenly penetrated through the pain-filled haze he was in, calling him, waking him, and he sat up in desperation and willed his body to work, willed it to obey.

“Nooo!” he shouted, his voice frantic. “Stay away!”

Through blurring eyes he saw Hoss and Joe halting their horses, saw Jamie in front of his son – and heard when his heart broke, felt the sharp pain in his chest and welcomed it. He scrambled to his feet, tears streaming down his cheeks, while he desperately tried to stop them from coming any nearer. He choked, felt the taste of bile rising in his throat again and swallowed hard. He couldn’t break down, not now, he just couldn’t.

Blind with tears he turned to his sons, trembling. “Get back,” he shouted, praying they would go, and not see their brother, would not see his body, lifeless and beaten as he had seen him.

But Joe must have heard the desperate note in his voice. He handed Hoss the reins and came over, walking slowing, shaking, and Ben knew he couldn’t spare him when all he wanted was to send him away, blessed with ignorance.

Ben ran a hand through his hair, shivering so strongly that he could hardly stay upright. He was glad that Hoss didn’t come any nearer, glad that he took care of Jamie whom he did not want to see what had happened to his parents. Jamie … he couldn’t think of Jamie, couldn’t think of Jamie without seeing the amber eyes of his son, lost to him forever.

But Joe went to him, and he couldn’t stop him, couldn’t stop his brother from wanting to know. He bit his lip in a failing attempt to keep from moaning out loud. The tears spilled over at the sight of his son’s frightened eyes, and all he could do was stare at him, willing him to go back.

Joe was white as a sheet by the time he reached him. The tears were running freely now, but Ben didn’t even notice. All he could see was the face of his son, and he clenched his hands into fists so that he could stay upright and face what had to be done. He gritted his teeth again, and tried to swallow, but the pain inside of him was almost too much, consuming his body.

Joe came to him, and he could see that he knew the truth and tried to deny it. He pulled his boy to his chest, and had the fists bury themselves in his shirt while he held him tight. Then he held him at arm’s length and willed Joe to look at him.

“Joe, go back. I don’t want you to see it.” It hurt to see his son as he broke down sobbing, but he couldn’t allow it.

“He’s my brother, I have the right …”, Joe’s green eyes were pleading, begging his father, tearing whatever strength Ben had.

“NOOO!” He shouted with fury born of desperation. His chest was heaving while he tried to regain control again. If he lost it now, then he wouldn’t be able to go on, to do what had to be done, he couldn’t break down now. Not now.

He searched for Joe’s eyes again. “Don’t”, he said.

‘Don’t.’ He silently pleaded with Joe. ‘Please, don’t.’

But Joe struggled, and Ben held his jacket; and when he sank into his arms, he held him tight and touched his neck.

“Go back,” he said, and it was an order to be obeyed. “Go back. Bring a doc and some hands to help, but don’t come back here.” His voice was calm this time, his mind busying himself with what he had to do … and keeping the image away that would haunt him forever.

He saw his son’s eyes again, green as the grass on the summer pasture, wide with pain and fear, the cheeks stained wet.

“Keep Jamie away.”

“But Pa!”

“Keep him away,” he pleaded, his voice breaking, and his son turned away then, not saying a word but he knew he was crying, he had seen the tears.

He watched as Joe reached Hoss, and saw the older man sharply turn his head towards his father, but he couldn’t see his face, because he bent down to Jamie in his saddle, and whispered something, then they both turned and rode away. Ben watched them for a minute, saw the silhouettes getting smaller …and fell to his knees.

Then his glance shifted towards the mountain and the tragedy it had brought to his family – and he knew he couldn’t wait much longer. Slowly getting up, moving as though he were underwater, he walked to where his oldest son lay dead, his hands intertwined with his wife’s.

XXX

From far away Ben heard the voices, saw bodies move back and forth, but he didn’t acknowledge them. Colourful dots moved back and forth in front of his eyes, moved from that first carriage that had brought all those people to the site where the wagon was, a miserable heap of broken promises and memories too heavy to bear.

Green eyes repeatedly appeared before him, saying something he couldn’t understand, didn’t want to understand. The pain was too much. He couldn’t bear it. His beautiful son was dead, and the golden amber eyes would never smile at him again. His son was dead.

Hands grabbed his arms and hauled him to his feet, and he struggled because he didn’t want to leave his son alone, but then they let him down, in the shadow of a pine whose branches moved gently with the breeze. Yes, he thought absently, pines were their mark, standing straight and tall, just like his son. A bird sang somewhere high above him, and he lifted his head and saw the blue sky, felt the wind on his skin. The tears ran down his throat, into his shirt.

Some people came and spoke to him, but he couldn’t listen, couldn’t concentrate. Words floated around him like a storm, but there was only one that he heard, one he understood. Jamie. Jamie, who looked so much like his father that Ben wanted to cry out with the pain that pierced his heart. Jamie. And then he heard the voice of his son in his mind, reminding him, and he smiled softly despite his tears.

“Remember,” he thought. “I will always remember.”

XXX

Adam came down the stairs, tears running freely and unheeded over his cheeks and into his collar. His eyes were sparkling, his whole body radiating with joy and life. Never before had Ben seen him so fulfilled; never before had he seen his oldest son so gleaming, so completely and absolutely happy as in that moment, and his own heart welled over at the sight of it. It was as if all the sadness, all the dark moments that had accompanied his oldest son all his life culminated in this moment of peace.

Ben was too happy to speak. He tried to take a step nearer, but his knees were shaking, and then Adam was right next to him, his eyes golden with light, holding in his arms the tiny baby he couldn’t stop looking at.

“Jamie Benjamin Cartwright,” he whispered huskily, and then looked up at Ben with the most enchanted smile on his face his father had ever seen.

Uselessly Ben tried to wipe his own tears away, but they just spilled over at the sight of his grandson and blurred his vision, but he touched Adam’s neck and drew him closer, in an embrace with Jamie Cartwright between them, protected by their bodies, safe in their midst – their future. Ben looked at Adam, saw his eyes shining wet with happiness and knew that life was good.

The end.

Next Story in the Spirit Thief Series:

A Series of Vignettes
The Marriage Bed (note this story is rated NC-17 by the author)

Other Stories by this Author

Author: Nanuk

3 thoughts on “Spirit Thief (by Nanuk)

  1. This story not only made me cry but also gave me nightmares! I guess I shouldn’t have read it at midnight. It was an amazing story. You made the emotions so real – I could feel Adam’s joy as well as the horrendous devastation Ben felt.

  2. I actually cried with this one…its was beautifully written. I think the one I felt sorry for most was Ben. I can’t imagine the pain and the feeling of hopelessness he was going through. All was lost, forever.

    1. Awww, thank you. I think you are right … When I think about it, it’s always parents who suffer the most, because of course, they don’t expect to see someone younger die. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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