Word Count: 1750
Adam Cartwright woke, once more trying to grasp the ghosts of his dream. It floated away from him, though, shredding like the mist in a soft night breeze. He remembered only a sense of belonging, of finally finding the place he was meant to be. He wondered idly how long it would take to go back to sleep this time.
The clear bright moonlight of the high Sierra mountains streamed through the window of his room. It faintly illuminated a painting on his wall of the windjammer his grandfather had sailed across oceans. The ship turned ghostly in the pale light and his sleep-dazed mind had a sudden fancy that his long-dead mother was on board, watching over him every night.
A sudden restlessness had him jerking the covers back, and he stood, the moonbeam now outlining the strong muscles of his bare chest and arms.
He could just make out the time on the old brass ship’s clock at his bedside. “One-thirty,” he muttered. He’d gone to bed early the evening before—to the slight distress of his father, who assumed that any of his boys who willingly turned in early must be sickening for something—saying he was merely tired from the day’s work, but the dark of deep night demanded the truth.
He wanted the dream.
It wouldn’t come back tonight, though; it never did. He pulled on his pants and socks, shrugged into a black shirt and vest, not bothering to fasten either, and grabbed his boots. He ignored the lamp and matches that sat next to the clock; the moon lit the room well enough for him to gather what he needed.
He padded silently along the hall and down the staircase to the great room, moving as quietly as his Indian friend had taught him in their youth, so as not to wake any of his family. He really didn’t want to explain why he was going for a ride in the middle of the night. Actually, he thought as he fastened his gunbelt around his hips and tied the rawhide thongs around his thigh, he wasn’t at all sure he could explain.
He carried his boots with him out the door, only slipping them on when he’d reached the end of the porch. He tucked his shirt in as he crossed the yard, his feet making only a slight scuffling noise in the dirt. He slid open the well-oiled latch soundlessly, glad he’d fixed it after waking the foreman the other night.
The horses were glad to see him, and Sport eyed him with a combination of soft curiosity and eagerness. His horse loved these night rides as much as he.
The web of the dream was just beginning to let go of its hold on him as he walked the sorrel out of the barn and down the road. Once out of earshot of the house, he mounted in a swift bound and they were away as if shot out of a cannon.
Sport reveled in their speed and his nostrils flared as the scents of the night air teased him. Something about the mood of the man on his back encouraged him to fly, fly down the road; a test of the strength and endurance of horse and rider. They rode for a long time, pace easing occasionally but never stopping, wild and free in the night as they never were during the day.
Eventually they reached the path to the lake and of one mind they slowed. Sport shook his head, willing to keep going, but his rider’s mood had changed and so he was content to carry him slowly to the very edge of the water.
Adam dismounted and stood next to his horse as the animal dropped his nose to the water, slurping noisily. Sport merely twitched an ear at Adam’s soft laughter, otherwise ignoring him in favor of a long cool drink. Once the horse had his fill, he raised his head and looked out over the lake, water dripping from his muzzle as he snorted at the cool night wind that blew down from the surrounding mountains.
Adam stroked his horse’s neck as his own gaze traveled across the cove where they stood, out over the broad, wide lake. The breeze tugged at his shirt, tried to ruffle his hair. “What’s over there, boy?” he asked softly. “What do you see?”
Sport let out a gentle, deep whicker of contentment that Adam could feel rumble through the animal’s chest.
“Are there fields of fresh mountain grass? Or maybe a mare with a saucy look and a high-flying tail?”
His horse whinnied then; a full-throated ringing that carried across the water and seemed to echo back at them.
They stood in silence for a long time until, his voice harsh with longing, Adam whispered, “Is there a girl over there for me, too? Someone with long, soft hair; with curls that I can twist around my fingers? Someone who will stay with me on nights like this, who will know how to ease my heart?”
They stood until the moon set behind the mountains and the stars became such brilliant pinpoints of light that they made tiny shadows all around. He should have felt cold, but his yearning was so strong that he was only exhilarated by the stiff lake breeze. Sport laid his chin on Adam’s shoulder, closed his eyes, and blew a sigh of satisfaction.
The wind dropped and the starlight began to fade behind a gathering mist, and Adam knew he should head for home. He didn’t move, though, and slowly and absently stroked Sport’s nose, the velvet softness tickling the palm of his hand. He watched as the fog grew into a wall of white, covering the water like a blanket and hiding the distant snow-capped mountains.
The pearlescence swirled and twirled in the light breeze, changing shape as easily as a girl’s dress turned and dipped on a dance floor. He watched, fascinated, as shapes grew and shifted, bringing shards of memory.
A lady’s scarf. A pang to the heart—lace that had graced the shoulders of a beautiful woman, who’d been cut down by a jealous man’s bullet even as he held her for a kiss.
A cradle. He smiled. Little Joe had been so tiny.
Just for a moment, a face; a strong face with thick silver hair and fierce black brows. Until they softened to eyes that could comfort a small boy, could lead a band of men, could hold a world with just a glance.
A ring. An imperfect, wide band, carved with greatest care from wood. Another jolt to the heart. Another lost love.
A feather? Like the one that had hung from his childhood friend’s hair?
A small puppy. On the run from a large, determined, soft-hearted boy.
The fog was thickening, as if it were coming in from the North Atlantic to cover the whole Eastern seaboard, to hide the grave of a dark-haired woman with dancing black eyes so like his own whom he’d never known, yet who’d become his sole confidant while at university.
When? he asked himself. When will there be someone for me?
Just then the whiteness parted and in the distance, across the cove, he saw the figure of a girl with long hair that shone in the fleeting starlight. She was clothed in a floating white dress and was beautifully proportioned as if made for a man’s arms. She gazed at him from beside an old, gnarled pine, her body balanced delicately with one hand on the trunk of the ancient tree, and when she smiled a sweet, calm smile, he drew a quick breath of sharp recognition.
His dream. She had been his dream. “Wait!” he called, startling Sport. “Wait!” He grabbed at his horse’s reins, but by the time he’d leaped to the saddle, the mists had closed, and she was gone. He reined his horse to the right and kicked his sides, determined to get around the cove before she left. Where the woods came down to the water, leaving no room to pass, he merely drove Sport into the lake and water sprayed to all sides as they raced to the other side.
He reached the pine, but no one was there.
Ben Cartwright knocked on the doors of his youngest and then his middle son, loudly informing them that it was time to be up and at their morning business. He paused, though, at the door to his eldest’s room. Adam had been out for another of his night rides. His son thought he kept it a secret, but he didn’t know about a father’s hearing, a father’s heart. Ben knew when he left and knew when he’d returned.
He shook his head slightly, wondering what it was all about. If it had been worry about the ranch, Adam wouldn’t have hesitated to tell him, so it had to be something personal. Well, he’d either find out or he wouldn’t; it was no use wondering.
He opened the door quietly and softly entered the room. It was dark—the curtains had been pulled against the morning sun. Ben could see well enough, though, to determine that Adam’s haphazardly dropped boots were wet. He frowned and decided to let him sleep today. He’d leave a note asking him to review the latest timber contract. It wouldn’t take Adam long to deal with it, but it would keep him at home where he could catch up on his rest.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkened room he looked more closely at his son, expecting him to be sprawled in haggard exhaustion. He took a step closer.
Adam was sprawled, all right, and his covers had fallen away from one goose-pimpled arm. But as Ben tugged the comforter up over his son’s bare shoulder, he saw that, instead of the frown Adam seemed to wake up with every morning lately, he had a faint smile on his face.
And twined through the long, tanned fingers of one hand was a smooth length of white satin ribbon.