Word Count: 6750
Fourteen-year-old Jamie Cartwright wandered disconsolately from the house. He kicked at a few piles of leftover snow, but the resulting spray of white only reminded him of the almost-past winter. He’d tried to figure out when things started to go wrong with his family and finally decided it was at Christmas. Something had happened the night his brother Joe got lost in the snow, but no one would talk about it, no one would share. It was mostly his father and Candy, though Joe was somehow included, yet confusingly excluded.
He wandered over to the corral and leaned on the top rail, letting the welcome sunshine warm his face while trying once more to figure it all out. It was as if whatever had happened had been centered around Joe, yet his brother wasn’t really aware of it, so it wouldn’t do any good to pester him into telling. He could have asked Hoss, he thought with a pang. He could have asked outright, and would have gotten some kind of answer, but they’d buried his big brother almost a year ago, now. He wondered idly if he would have been able to get an answer from Adam, the oldest Cartwright son he’d never met, who’d died before Jamie had been adopted into the Cartwright family.
He was lonely, he supposed. Lonely for someone who cared about the things that were important to him. Oh, his Pa and Joe and Candy all cared in their own way, but they were grown men—old in his eyes—and just didn’t understand how important certain things were.
Like fishing. And exploring the mountains that surrounded his home. And building things to make the ranch better. Knowing what had happened to make this past Christmas so unexpectedly joyful. And that, he decided, was the center of his dissatisfaction.
The brisk breeze, a last remnant of the winter past, tugged at his clothes, and with a sudden energy he couldn’t contain he turned abruptly and headed for the stable. His father had told him to go outside for a while and shake out the fidgets, and that was just what he intended to do. He’d saddle his horse Pepper, grab some food from Hop Sing to eat later, and take a good long ride.
He had no idea that his sudden decision was going to change his life.
Ben Cartwright eased down into his favorite red leather chair, a content man. He had a good fire at his left hand to take the slight chill off the air, a pot of hot coffee, one of Marie’s red and white china cups next to the coffee on the low table in front of him, a book bound with soft leather that had been one of Adam’s favorites, and the sure knowledge that he wouldn’t be interrupted for at least an hour.
He stroked the soft leather of the book with one hand and a host of memories flooded his mind. Adam, at the age of fourteen, trying to get up the courage to ask his Pa to buy it for him and finally deciding on his own that they couldn’t afford it; his son’s joy when he opened a box at Christmas to find the heart-desired volume; and Ben’s own joy in watching his son work his way through a very old tale that had meant much to him when he was the same age.
He remembered Adam debating as to whether or not to take the book with him to college and finally deciding not—he would leave the treasured volume with his father and buy a copy in Boston. Then, he said seriously, though laughter danced in his eyes, he and his father could both read it. Ben knew what Adam wasn’t saying, that the book would be a connection between them during this long separation.
Ben held the slim volume against his chin, remembering back six years when Adam went to Boston again and this time decided to take it with him, for he was moving and wanted to take some of his father with him. Older now, a man grown to his full power and strength, he wasn’t so shy of telling his father his feelings. Ben had treasured those words, had never shared them with anyone, nor had he felt the need even to write them in his diary. They were emblazoned on his heart forever.
And then the book had come back to the Ponderosa with the rest of Adam’s possessions after he was killed in the accident almost three years ago. Ben had been numb since he’d received the news, until one quiet, solitary afternoon when he finally unpacked the boxes from Boston. When he lifted the volume from its careful packing, the tears and grief welled to the surface. A ranch hand, passing by, had later remarked to Joe that the wind “sure had a bite to it today—moaning through the trees as it was.”
But when Joe and his father sat down to dinner that night, Ben could see that his youngest son knew he’d been grieving. As he watched the tears slide down Joseph’s face, he realized it was time to move on. And so he had locked another little piece of his heart away with a careful and much-loved key.
He hadn’t been able to read the book since that quiet, soul-searing afternoon, but for some reason he’d pulled it from the shelf today, and this time he recalled only the good memories.
Until Jamie banged through the kitchen with a hollered, “I’ll be back for dinner!”
He frowned slightly at the thought of his now-youngest son. Jamie wasn’t the hellion Joe had been at that age, but they’d had problems enough anyway. Something was wrong, was bothering the boy and had been for a couple of months, and even with his long-honed skills from raising three other boys, he hadn’t been able to find out what it was.
He laid the book in his lap and, as he considered the problem, almost mindlessly traced out the faded, gold-stamped letters of the title: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
He felt the presence of his oldest son as if he were standing behind the chair, looking over his shoulder. A calmness settled on him and he realized that, once again, the answer would come in time. He had faith. He opened the covers to the first page and with renewed enjoyment began to read the lines that had grabbed his and Adam’s attention in the same way when they’d both been children.
Jamie rode hard through the fresh-wet smell of the early spring earth, his horse kicking up clods of mud in a spray behind them. He didn’t know where he was headed and didn’t care. He would know when it was time to turn around; his father and brothers had worked with him until it was almost instinctive to know both his location and the time. He knew he could ride for quite a while longer before having to turn back for dinner. The only limits he had were those of his own body and his horse’s.
He listened more carefully to Pepper’s breathing and was pleased to hear no sign of distress. His father’s oft-repeated words echoed in his mind: A man always takes care of his horse first. Hoss and Joe had jointly picked the horse out for him when he’d arrived at the ranch to stay, a penniless orphan afraid of gifts, whether they be of a horse or of family. He hadn’t appreciated it at the time, but they’d chosen a good one. Just the same, he’d better slow down, give Pepper a rest.
He looked around with interest at a part of the Ponderosa he’d never explored before. A wooded glade drew his attention, and he gently guided his horse onto a path that led into sun-dappled darkness for a few minutes, then broke wide open over a small pond. It was so quiet and peaceful and warm in the sun that he pulled his horse to a halt and slowly dismounted. He tied Pepper to a tree then wandered down to the water’s edge. He could see the darting shape of uncountable fish in the clear water and, with the memory of his longing to spend time fishing, looked around for a suitable branch for a pole.
“This is a good one,” he heard from across the water.
His head jerked up in annoyance that someone else knew of what he’d already come to think of as his special place.
He scowled at the lean, almost lanky figure. “What are you doing here?” he called, a thread of challenge in his voice.
“Lookin’ for a fishing pole, just like you,” the boy called back, for a boy it was. One about his own age, from the looks of him, but with straight black or dark brown hair instead of his own curly red. Perhaps he was also a bit taller, but Jamie could see, as the boy approached carefully through the damp grass, that he had the same kind of child-young man face the mirror showed Jamie every morning.
The boy handed over one of two long, flexible sticks he held in his hand. “You want this one?” he asked.
Jamie looked at the stick critically. He had to admit it would make a good fishing pole. In fact, it would be one of the best he’d ever used, once he cleaned up the little branches from it. “Thanks,” he said, and in that moment he had a feeling he’d found the friend he’d been hoping for.
The boys stayed at the pond all afternoon, telling occasional stories of other fish they’d caught, but they were also quiet a good part of the time and surprisingly, to Jamie, it wasn’t awkward at all. Finally, he realized it was time to leave if he was going to make it home for supper, and he stood with reluctance.
“You live around here?” he asked haltingly.
The other boy looked up at him with a sudden, guarded look in his light brown eyes. “And if I do?”
Jamie suddenly realized what the answer could mean and he hurried to reassure his new friend. “It’s not a problem if you’re camping around here. My Pa won’t mind. He owns all the land from the lake to down the mountains, but he’s never driven off someone who just needed a place to stay for a bit.”
Jamie could practically see the thoughts flying through the other boy’s mind, could see him question, consider, and make his decision.
“I live near enough to come back tomorrow,” he finally offered.
Jamie broke out into a big grin. “If not tomorrow, then the next day for sure.”
The boy grinned back. “It’s a deal.”
“My name’s Jamie,” he said, laughing a bit that they could go all day never knowing each other’s names.
“Call me Acey,” the boy replied, and stuck his hand out.
They shook seriously, as men would, then laughed like the boys they were and gathered up their catch from the pond where they’d been keeping fresh. They left the poles leaning against a tree for another day and Jamie mounted up and with a wave rode off. He didn’t see Acey release his fish back into the water and then melt into the woods.
Joe corralled his father after dinner that evening, once Candy and Jamie had gone upstairs to bed. “Pa?” he asked.
Ben was seated in his red chair, deeply involved in packing his pipe, and didn’t look up. “Yes, son?”
“Did Jamie seem…happier tonight to you?”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “Now that you mention it, I think he did.”
Joe rubbed at the back of his neck. “There’s something been going on in his head almost all winter—”
“I know,” Ben interrupted, “and he won’t talk about it.”
Joe laughed softly. “Sounds like another Cartwright I know.”
A corner of Ben’s mouth lifted in a smile as he drew on his pipe. “And like that other Cartwright, we’re likely going to have to wait until he sees fit to open up a bit.”
There was a long silence, broken only by the sound of the fire crackling in the hearth. Then Joe said, so quietly Ben almost missed it, “I wish Hoss was here.”
“Me, too. I wish both of your brothers were here.”
Joe studied his father carefully. “Pa, something’s different. I don’t know why, or quite when, but sometime this winter you’ve changed somehow.”
Ben puffed thoughtfully. “Changed in what way?” he asked, intrigued by Joe’s observation and curious as to what he’d say.
“I can’t quite put my finger on it, but you seem calmer. At peace. You’re…well, you’re not angry anymore is the best way I can say it.”
“Angry about what?”
Joe swallowed. “Hoss,” he finally said. “And Adam.”
“Hmm,” Ben rumbled, deep in his chest. “I suppose that’s true.”
Joe rubbed his hands over each other, then ran them through his hair. “But why not?”
Ben leaned forward and set his pipe in its bowl on the low table in front of him. He looked deeply into his son’s eyes. “Why do you want to know?
“Well, Jamie’s happier than he’s been in a long time, and you’re happier, and…I guess I want some of that peace for myself.” He paused. “See, I’ve been dreaming.”
Ben waited patiently.
“I’ve been dreaming about Hoss and…and about Adam.” He rose and paced once, quickly, around the settee, stopping at the side of Ben’s chair. “Something I first dreamed that night I got caught in the snow.” He kneeled so he could look his father straight in the eye. “I dream that Adam and Hoss help me find the cabin. That whenever I get too tired, they’re there, pushing me on, helping me. And that if they weren’t there I’d die.” He slumped, dropped his head into one hand. “Pretty stupid, huh?”
Ben cupped Joe’s chin in his hand and raised it so he could look deeply into his son’s brilliant green eyes. “It’s not stupid at all.” His gaze drifted off to some internal distance. “I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to talk about what happened that night. It was so…strange.”
He brought his attention back to his son. “But now I think we should. You aren’t the only one to be haunted by memories of Hoss and Adam.”
He gestured Joe back to the settee. “Pour yourself some coffee. It’s quite a story.”
Jamie saw Acey frequently after that first day, and though the boy never offered any details about his family, Jamie found he was as true a friend as he’d ever had. And he knew, himself, that sometimes a boy just didn’t want to talk about where he’d come from, so he never asked for details he was sure his friend would deny him.
They always met at the little pond, and on the rare occasions when Acey didn’t turn up, Jamie would just lie in the sun and think about horses and friends and girls and other important things.
Sometimes they’d walk through the woods and Acey would surprise Jamie with his knowledge of the trees and plants. His new friend was quiet in the forest, too, and taught Jamie the way to walk across the ground so as to move almost soundlessly. It even worked sometimes, but Jamie almost invariably stepped on something that would make a very large cr-r-a-a-ck! and then he’d start laughing. Acey would look at him with disgust, but then a smile would creep across his face, and soon he was laughing as hard as Jamie, a joyous sound that rang through the woods.
But sometimes the black-haired boy would stop in the middle of whatever he was doing, and a wistfulness would come to him that Jamie soon learned usually meant the end of the day’s wanderings and a return by Acey to wherever he called home.
Jamie soon figured out that the look appeared most regularly when he talked about the Ponderosa and the people who lived there. He decided his friend must not have much of a family, which was confirmed when once he braved a question.
The other boy’s bleak, “They’re mostly gone, now,” didn’t encourage him to continue, and out of consideration for Acey’s feelings he never brought it up again.
He was curious, of course, about the boy—where he lived, how he got his supplies, what he did when he wasn’t with Jamie. He’d cautiously felt out his family on the subject, as well as discreetly asking around town, but no one mentioned a family living on or near Ponderosa land, and for Acey’s sake he didn’t want to bring the boy and whatever family he had to the attention of the authorities.
For his own sake, as well.
He enjoyed the boy’s company in a way that his family just couldn’t match. He still loved his father and Joe and Candy, but Acey filled a hole in his life that he hadn’t known was there. The boys were interested in a lot of the same things—horses, ranching, hunting—and they discussed all aspects of whatever was the topic of the day. Jamie shared funny stories about what happened on the Ponderosa, but he soon found he’d rather listen to Acey, who had a store of tales of swordsmen, sailors, and the knights of old. There were days when their laughter startled the birds from the trees. Other times they were comfortably silent together, and when they talked it would be quietly, seriously, especially about that most mysterious of all subjects, girls.
Jamie figured his friend would be as shy on the subject as he was since he never seemed to go anywhere—certainly not to school—but Acey was surprisingly knowledgeable and gave Jamie a few suggestions that helped him stay calm when he was trying to get up the nerve to ask Alice Winters to the Spring dance. He wanted to find a date for Acey, as well, but the boy refused, politely but definitely.
“But it’ll be fun,” Jamie said. “Everyone’s going. You could meet all my friends from school.”
“I can’t,” Acey replied, paling slightly.
Jamie was getting more excited by the possibilities. “I can loan you some clothes and we’ll get you all spiffed up—hey! You could come to my house in the afternoon and get ready with me.”
But what seemed like an excellent idea to Jamie threw Acey into a near-panic. “I can’t, Jamie, I just can’t.” He shook his head, over and over, breathing hard. “Please don’t ask me.”
“All right,” Jamie answered softly, trying to ease his friend’s obvious distress. “I won’t. I don’t understand, though.”
Acey sat down hard on a nearby log and dropped his head into his hands. His voice was muffled, but clear. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done this, shouldn’t have come. It was wrong. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway, but you seemed to need somebody so much, and I needed…” His voice faded away and he scrubbed at his face with his hands. He looked up, his eyes wild. “I have to go. I’m sorry, Jamie, I have to go.”
Jamie grabbed at his arm. “Acey, it’s all right, I won’t ask you again.”
“No, that’s not it,” Acey cried. “You don’t understand how wrong this is. I’m sorry, Jamie, I’m really sorry—”
He broke away and ran to the woods, turning back just once. The haunted look on his face kept Jamie from following, but stayed with him for days.
“Jamie?” Ben’s voice floated across the great room of the Ponderosa ranch house, a soft thread of sound through the drumming of the rain outside.
The boy slowly turned from the flames of the giant hearth that had held his attention since lunch.
Ben stood at his shoulder, concern shadowing his eyes. “What’s wrong, boy?” he asked gently.
There was no use denying it. Ben Cartwright had a sixth sense for his sons’ feelings.
“I don’t know that I can explain,” Jamie answered. “I don’t understand it myself.”
Ben sat on the low table next to his son. “Take your time. Just tell me how it all started.”
Jamie nodded. “I met a fella, my age, and we made friends. I hurt him somehow and I don’t know what I did or how to make it better.”
Ben made encouraging noises. Grateful his father was taking him seriously, Jamie went on. “I went riding one day, and I found this great fishing pond, hidden away in a bunch of trees. There was another fella there, and he cut two fishing poles, and…well, we’ve been friends ever since.”
“When was this?” Ben asked, though he suspected he knew.
“Just after snowmelt,” he answered, then turned to his Pa with enthusiasm. “He’s the greatest ever, Pa. He knows all the plants—not just their names, but what they do, can you use them for food, or healing—and he knows those woods, all the good hidey holes, the blueberry patches, where the animals hide out…” Admiration shone from his eyes. “We even built a treehouse for when those surprise rains start up. You shoulda seen how fast he put that thing together and all the parts fit just perfect. We took some food and a canteen—” He stopped, suddenly guilty, but at Ben’s encouraging nod, went on, though his voice dropped. “We had so much fun.”
Ben worked it through. Jamie had been gone a lot in the afternoons, but not long enough to travel very far. A faint sense of unease rose in his gut. “Who is this boy, Jamie? Where does he live?”
“He said to call him Acey. And I don’t know where he lives.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “How do you find him, then?”
“Oh, we usually just meet at the pond. Or sometimes, when I get to the woods, he’s there waiting for me.”
Ben held his worry strictly in check and asked as casually as he could manage, “Where is this pond?”
Jamie jerked his head to the east. “Up off Silver Creek.” He looked up into his father’s eyes, saw the concern reflected there. “I promised you wouldn’t chase him and his family off. They just need a little time to rest up, figure what they’re gonna do next.”
Ben patted him on the shoulder and said, “Of course, son, but I wish you’d told me sooner so I could have made the offer myself. How many are in his family?”
Jamie looked suddenly miserable. “I don’t know. Acey’s the only one I ever saw an’ he don’t talk about his family much. It hurts him.”
He fell silent and Ben nodded his understanding. Of all his boys, Jamie would be sensitive to and respect those very feelings. His adopted son had loved his father and mother deeply and he’d been devastated by their deaths. He sighed. He had to check out Jamie’s story, of course; he couldn’t have squatters on his land, no matter the friendship between the boys. In the meantime, though, Jamie was still hurting.
“Tell me the rest of it,” he urged gently.
Jamie nodded and seemed almost relieved to share his problem. “You know I wanted to ask Alice to the dance.”
Ben nodded. “And I was real proud of how you went right up to her after church and asked so politely. You’re growing into a fine young man.”
Jamie blushed slightly. “Acey told me what to do, how to say it. He made me practice on him.” He smiled shyly. “She said yes. And I was so happy that I told Acey I’d find a girl for him an’ he could come, too. But he got scared.”
He looked up at his father. “Do you think—” He swallowed and tried again. “Do you think he’s running from the law?”
Ben rubbed his son’s back soothingly. “I doubt there’s much trouble a fourteen year old boy could get into with the law. His father might have reason to hole up, though. Is that what’s been bothering you?”
“No,” he answered thoughtfully. “It was when I invited him to the house. He’d made it pretty plain he didn’t want a date, but he got real upset when I said he could come here to get ready.”
“Upset as in afraid?” Ben asked.
Jamie shook his head. “Upset like sick to his stomach. Like something hurt so bad he couldn’t stand it. Like…when my father died and before I really knew you and Joe and Hoss.” He dropped his head into his hands and the only sounds were the steady thrum of the rain outside, punctuated by the crackling of the fire. “Then he ran away, and I haven’t seen him since. I tried riding around through the woods, but it was like he disappeared into air—like he was never there to begin with.”
“Jamie, there are times in our lives when we hurt people. We don’t mean to, we certainly don’t want to, but no man can completely know another’s heart and that means sometimes we misstep.”
“But what can I do?” the boy wailed softly.
Ben sighed. “Perhaps nothing. You can only go to the pond and hope he comes to you. He might, and he might not. Either way, don’t be too rough on yourself. I know you didn’t intend to hurt him, and maybe, after he’s had time to calm down, he’ll understand that, too.”
Jamie nodded. “I’ll try, Pa. I sure hope he comes back, though.”
And in spite of his worries, Ben found himself saying, “Me too, son. Me, too.”
Ben was glad to see Jamie come downstairs a while later with paper and pencil in hand. They desperately needed the rain, but this kind of weather was hard on his youngest. He smiled at a memory of trying to keep a young Joseph occupied during similar days. Jamie, at least, didn’t require two brothers, as well as a father, to entertain him.
Jamie was turning into a fair artist and could sit for hours working on a drawing that interested him. Such was the case that afternoon, though he refused to allow anyone even a peek, saying it wasn’t finished yet. His concentration was total and he didn’t even notice Joe and Candy come in, slapping their wet hats against their slickers as they came through the door.
Taking advantage of Jamie’s abstraction, Ben motioned the two into the dining room, far enough from his desk where Jamie was immersed in his sketching that the boy wouldn’t be likely to hear. Curious at his subterfuge, they followed with questioning looks.
“Have either of you been out to the cabin lately?” he asked quietly.
A strange look, surprisingly similar, crossed the faces of the two still-damp men and they glanced at each other. Candy shook his head; but Joe said, “I went by last week to make sure it was all right. Why?”
Ben grimaced. “Jamie tells me there’s a boy living out there somewhere. I’d assume there’d be some sort of family as well.”
“Near as I can tell, no one’s been in the cabin since Christmas. I had a lot of dust to clear out.” He looked back at his little brother. “What does Jamie say about all of it?”
“He’s made friends with the boy, tried to get him to come here for a visit.”
“And?” asked Candy.
“The boy took off like a scared rabbit, he says. Jamie’s upset because he feels he hurt the boy somehow, but he doesn’t know how.”
“Mr.Cartwright, we can’t let someone squat on the Ponderosa, even if his son is Jamie’s friend,” Candy warned.
“I know, I know,” he agreed. “But there’s something else going on here, I can feel it.”
Joe had tremendous respect for his father’s hunches. “What do you want to do about it?” he asked.
“We’ll have to be careful about this—the boy is very important to Jamie and we don’t want to do anything to hurt him.” He came to a sudden decision. He looked at his older son. “Joe, I think the two of us had better ride out that way tomorrow, if the weather lets up, and look around again. He usually finds the boy at the Silver Creek pond, so we might find some tracks there, especially after this rain. Candy, see if you can get the hands talking without raising any suspicion; find out if anyone’s seen anything lately. We’ll just have to keep an eye on things for a while.”
Candy jerked his head toward the other room. “What about him?”
Ben sighed. “Don’t say anything yet. I’m going to let him go back on out there—”
“You sure that’s a good idea?” interrupted Joe.
“No,” he replied honestly, “but I think your brother is a fairly good judge of character for his age. If this boy is everything Jamie’s said, I really don’t think he’s any trouble. I’m just worried about his father or whoever is out there with him. I want to find out what’s going on, and we can’t do that if we scare them off.”
And there was a look shadowing his eyes that abruptly reminded Joe that this wasn’t the first fight of this sort to come to Ben Cartwright. The tough rancher who had built and held a ranch from a time when his only neighbors were Indians still lurked under the normally genial smile. No one crossed Ben Cartwright and got off scot-free.
The rain let up sometime during the night, and though the morning dawned foggy and damp, the weather soon cleared to a brilliant coolness that fairly cried out for long exploring rides. Jamie asked his father for the afternoon off and was pleasantly surprised when he agreed. Ben shooed his son off to Hop Sing for a packed lunch with just a few words, “I hope he’s there.”
With a crooked smile of hope and thanks, Jamie ran off to the kitchen, then the stable. He had Pepper saddled and was on the road in record time.
When he entered the woods, he was forced to slow to a walk by the branches that had fallen on the trail from the storms of the past few days. Pepper blew gratefully, but Jamie hardly noticed; all his thoughts were centered on Acey and hoping he was all right. Jamie strained to see through the still-damp tree branches but even when he finally arrived at the pond he found no sign of his friend.
Sighing with disappointment, he dismounted anyway. He ground tied his horse; Pepper wouldn’t roam far, not with all the lush grass that grew here. He wandered over to the trail that his friend had taken that last day and called out.
Nothing answered him but the sighing of the wind in the treetops. It had a suddenly mournful sound, almost as if someone were crying. He called once more, but again there was no answer. He stared at the ground, thoughts far away. It took a moment for the stick on the ground to register in his mind. It was one of the fishing poles Acey had cut their first day together.
He cocked his head, and an odd fancy took him, that it was pointing the way into the woods. He looked back to his horse, then into the woods again. On a sudden impulse he stepped forward once, twice. Then he was moving swiftly down a path he’d never traveled before, into woods he’d never seen. He came to a fork, a choice. He studied the two paths, trying to decide which way to go. The one to the right led to dark, dense trees; the other seemed to lighten a little farther on. He almost took the second, until he noticed another stick on the ground. It was the other fishing pole, and it was pointed toward the darker path.
Laughing a bit nervously at the symbolism, he chose the path to the right.
He was soon rethinking his decision. He knew there was reason to be cautious—any trip into the wilderness had its dangers—but a different fear was growing in him and he kept telling himself he should head back. But his feet kept moving forward.
He didn’t know how long he’d been walking when he saw the cabin. Small, snug, obviously one room. He stood on the edge of the clearing it sat in and studied it. A little rough, maybe, but obviously sturdy. He didn’t see any tree stumps around—how could Acey’s family have built this without disturbing the forest around them?
He stepped up to the porch and opened the door and realized from the furnishings that if Acey did indeed live here, he and his family had merely taken up residence. He wandered around the single room, touching an ancient but well-made chair, the mantle of the fireplace, an old book that lay on a small cot against the wall. There was an air of disuse to the place, though everything was clean and dust-free.
“Acey?” he asked hesitantly.
“He isn’t here right now,” came a soft, deep voice from the shadows of the room.
Jamie whirled around. “Who are you?” he said, a little frightened by the man who stepped forward into the dim light. He was tall, well-built, and had a sense of power about him. He was perhaps a bit older than Jamie’s brothers, but there was no gray in the jet black hair. Then the man smiled and Jamie was so reminded of his friend that he instinctively relaxed. “Are you his father?” he asked.
The man hesitated. “We’re…related.”
“I wanted to talk to him, make sure he’s all right.” He looked to the door. “Is he coming?”
A slow shake of the head was his answer.
Jamie sat down hard on the cot and a tear threatened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
The man crouched in front of him and Jamie saw he had Acey’s eyes, that same light brown that would show flecks of gold in the sunlight. The man reached out one strong hand and placed it on Jamie’s shoulder. “It was none of your doing, and he knows that. In a way, he brought it on himself; but believe me, Jamie, the rewards were well worth it. He was glad to know you, and, through you, to know your family again.”
“Again?” Jamie asked, confused. “But he wouldn’t go with me to meet my Pa and my brother and…”
“But knowing you was all he could have,” the man gently explained. “And even that…shouldn’t have been.”
“You’re taking him away, aren’t you?” Jamie asked, suddenly sure.
“In a way, but he…and I…will always be with you, and with your family.” He rose and looked the long way down at the grieving boy. “Tell them that, would you?”
Jamie nodded, beyond words. He didn’t know why he’d gotten so attached to his friend, he knew only that he was going to miss him desperately. “Will I see him again?” he sniffed.
The man shook his head. “No. But he left something for you.”
Jamie’s heart leapt. “What?”
“There, on the bed.”
“A book?” he asked, not terribly impressed. He liked dime novels, but not much else caught his attention.
“Yes,” the man sighed in amused understanding. “A book. A very special book.” He picked it up, ran his hands around the edges in the same caressing movements Jamie had seen his father use, lightly touched the faded letters stamped into the cover, then slowly, almost reluctantly, handed it to him.
“Even if it’s a book, if it’s from Acey I’ll always treasure it,” he said.
“I know you will,” the deep voice answered. He moved to the door then, his movements as fluid and silent as Acey’s had been. “I have to go now,” he said, “but I’ll always carry you in my heart, and I know I’ll always be in yours.”
“But who are you?” Jamie asked.
The man gestured at the book. “Your heart will tell you.” And he was gone.
Jamie looked after him, trying to puzzle out what he’d meant, then opened the book. There was an inscription on the inside cover with his name, and he traced the letters; then he turned to the first page and lost himself in the story.
After the siege and the assault of Troy, when the city was burned to ashes, the knight who therein wrought treason was tried for his treachery and was found to be the truest on earth…
Ben and Joe Cartwright found him there, on the cot, hours later. He was fast asleep, the book resting on his chest. Ben frowned when he saw the title and gently pulled it from his son’s hands.
“How did this get here?” he asked.
Joe merely shrugged. “It’s not the sort of thing I’d expect Jamie to pick up.”
“Jamie,” Ben called and shook his shoulder gently. “Jamie, boy; wake up.”
Jamie opened his eyes slowly, blinking and squinting in the failing light of late afternoon. “Pa?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you,” Ben answered gruffly. He held up the book and spoke sternly. “What’s the meaning of this, young man?”
Jamie snatched at it and, caught by surprise, Ben released it too early and it fell to the floor. With dual cries of anguish, both reached for it, but it had fallen at Joe’s feet and he was the one to retrieve it.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” he read. “Pa, wasn’t this one of Adam’s—” He stopped abruptly.
“Yes,” said Ben into the silence.
“There’s writing in it,” Joe said as he held it at an angle, trying to make out the words.
“Writing?” said Ben tightly at the thought of anyone defacing this of all books.
“It’s mine,” Jamie interjected. “Acey gave it to me. Well, his father…or brother…or…” He trailed off in confusion.
Ben took the book to the window and when he saw the writing he sat suddenly next to Jamie on the cot, stunned.
And the book fell open in his lap to the inscription:
To Jamie—I hope you come to love this book as much as I. Your friend, A.C.
It was hours and many explanations later before Jamie began to come to terms with what had happened to him. He knew he’d never share this story with anyone, but that feeling of being separate, that wondering about Christmas, was finally gone, dissipated, as surely as he knew he’d never see his friend again.
He sat silently for a long time in front of the fireplace in the huge ranchhouse, and Ben and Joe waited patiently as he gradually took it all in. Finally he spoke. “He gave me a message for you.”
Ben raised an eyebrow and traded a surprised look with Joe. Neither of them had known quite what to make of Jamie’s story, but after their experiences at Christmas they were inclined to take him very seriously.
Jamie concentrated, trying to remember the exact words. “He said, ‘I will always be with you and with your family. I’ll always carry you in my heart and I know I’ll always be in yours.’”
A single choked sob broke from Ben.
Joe crossed to him, knelt in front of him. “Pa?” he asked.
Ben tried to speak, swallowed, and in a thick voice finally answered. “Those are the last words your brother said to me before he got on the train to Boston.” He turned to his youngest boy. “Jamie, thank you. Thank you for giving him a bit of childhood he never had.”
Jamie nodded, unable to find any words. Then he remembered. He ran lightly up the stairs to his room then straight back down, a piece of paper in his hand. He held it out to his father, and Joe and Ben saw his drawing—a perfect image of the oldest Cartwright son at about the age of fourteen, but happier and more carefree than he’d ever been in life.