Summary: In some ways, Adam and Jamie really aren’t so different.
Rating: K Word Count: 2845
Many thanks to BettyHT for the cover pic! 🙂
Scenes From Our Next Life series:
Warm Milk and Memories
He begged off early that night—claimed a headache that was only partly fake and left his family scattered about the great room in their usual evening pursuits. Normally it was his favorite time of the day, this slow winding down … but not tonight. Tonight, the sights which usually made him happy left him feeling instead disloyal and vaguely nauseated. It hadn’t been too hard to convince Pa—Ben, Mr. Cartwright—that he needed the extra sleep.
That sleep he’d counted on didn’t come, though. Instead he lay staring at the dark ceiling, arms folded behind his head and the occasional tear trickling down onto his pillow. He wasn’t crying, not really … but every now and then laughter would drift up from downstairs, and he’d feel a stab of guilt and grief, and his eyes would fill. He was glad when his family—yes, his family—finally made their way to their own beds, but still he didn’t sleep and eventually he decided to give it up for the night. Pa would be irritated when he was overtired in the morning, but there didn’t seem to be much he could do about that. Things would be okay again by tomorrow night. Hopefully.
Jamie rolled out of bed and padded down the stairs.
He was on the last step when a light rustle drifted from the shadows. Jamie froze, eyeing the darkened great room, and finally discovered Adam stretched out on the settee. His head was pillowed in the crook of one arm, an open book lay face down upon his chest. Jamie hesitated, surprised. Adam usually went back to his own place at night—after he’d come home from Australia, he’d said he needed somewhere that was his own, and a little one-room cabin about half an hour’s ride from the main house seemed to suit everybody. The pattering against the glass, though, reminded Jamie that it had been raining since dinnertime. Couldn’t blame his older brother (and it was still a little weird to think of Adam, almost a stranger, as his brother) for not wanting to get wet. Adam had a room upstairs for times like this, though, so he must have just fallen asleep reading …
“You going to stand there all night?”
Jamie yelped, staggered off the step, and grabbed at the railing to keep from crashing into the blue chair or the rifle case. Adam rose quickly, setting his book aside.
“Sorry.” His voice was pitched low, though Jamie had already made plenty enough noise to wake any light sleepers in the house. No new sounds drifted from upstairs, though. Jamie was glad. The last thing he wanted right now was for Pa—Mr. Cartwright—to be asking why he was still up. “Are you all right?” Jamie straightened, nodding, and Adam chuckled softly. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I heard you come down the stairs.”
“Oh.” Jamie sighed. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Adam lifted a curious eyebrow, barely visible in the dim glow of the banked fire. “What are you doing up this late?” He stepped closer. “Does your head still hurt?”
“What? Oh … no, it’s okay. I mean … it still hurts a little, but it ain’t too bad.” He always seemed to start stuttering all over the place when he tried to talk to Adam, and he hated it. The man was so smart, though, and so composed that he always made Jamie feel a little put on the spot. “I couldn’t sleep, though, so I wanted … I thought I’d get a drink. You know,” he added lamely, “in the kitchen.”
He sounded like an idiot.
It was the middle of the night, he was exhausted, his head really did hurt, and he ached deep down inside at his core. He didn’t care.
Adam was silent for a moment, then offered, “I think there are a few sugar cookies left.” The deep voice was strangely wistful. “Without Hoss here, they don’t go as … Well.” Okay. Not so strange. Jamie wasn’t the only one missing somebody. Adam stepped back, his voice suddenly brisk. “That and a mug of warm milk sounds pretty good right about now.”
“Yeah.” Jamie offered a tentative grin. “I could go for that.”
Adam’s hand landed companionably on his boney shoulder. “I bet you could.”
He steered Jamie gently toward the kitchen, placing one finger over grinning lips as they passed Hop Sing’s door. Jamie’s return smile felt hollow, but even so, it was the first he’d managed in hours. He claimed a stool by the center island as Adam fiddled with a lantern, lighting it and placing it on the well-scrubbed surface. For an instant the dark eyes rested on him, and Jamie had a sudden feeling that something showed in his face he didn’t intend his brother to see. Then Adam’s gaze moved on, and Jamie wondered if he’d been imagining things. Still, as Adam went to light the stove and place a pot on top, Jamie scrubbed frantically at his cheeks—just in case red eyes or an errant tear stain was still visible.
He didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t intend on giving himself away.
Adam retrieved the milk in silence and poured enough for two, then straddled another stool as they waited for the drink to heat. The lantern was low, and the warmth from the stove stole through the small space, and the silence was comfortable and … sleepy. Slow minutes and deep night wrapped around them, lulling him where all the hours lying in bed had not. Jamie jerked awake as Adam rose to remove the pot from the heat and pour the warm, frothy milk into two mugs. He managed another rueful smile as milk and a sugar cookie appeared on the counter before him.
The cookie was large and soft, and the milk was just right, and Jamie spoke without meaning to.
“My pa died today. Well, tomorrow really.”
The sleepy, contented feeling vanished. Adam blinked, chewed slowly, swallowed, took a drink from his own mug, and finally said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Yeah.” Why had he said it? Now the moment was ruined. Jamie tried to hurry past. “Nobody does, I haven’t ever … said anything.” Adam didn’t respond, but the pressure of his heavy gaze was enough to keep Jamie babbling. “I mean … I’ve got a new family now, right? It would be weird for everybody to know how much I …” He trailed off, confusion and a strange sense of disloyalty—to both of his families—overtaking him.
Sometimes he wasn’t sure what he should feel.
Of course, right now he felt nothing but embarrassed. Adam was part of that new family—although that seemed different somehow. They’d only just met five or six months ago.
The silence was awkward now, and Jamie searched frantically for something to say that would—
“I used to worry about what would happen if Pa died or was hurt out on the trail.”
Jamie’s roving gaze jerked back. He knew that Adam had grown up in a wagon too, and that like Jamie his pa—Ben, Mr. Cartwright—had for a time been his only family and his whole world. Sometimes Jamie thought it might be nice to talk with Adam about those times … but Adam wasn’t somebody you just asked about things. Not things like that, anyway.
“You … did?”
Adam’s admission was both a surprise and a relief. Being left alone was a possibility Jamie had worried about constantly, especially in those last years. Pa hadn’t been well for quite some time, and then there was always the chance that some angry crowd would … Jamie shied away from that thought, from memories of yelling and pelting stones and hot tar.
Anyway, it was nice to know he wasn’t the only one.
“Not so much before Inger.” Adam shrugged, bringing the mug to his lips for a slow swallow. Jamie had the distinct impression that his brother was using the drink to space his words. Maybe even his thoughts. “I was still too young then to put it all together, for the most part—though I think I was getting there. I’d seen death, of course, but I didn’t even remember my own mother, and I hadn’t seen anyone’s else’s ma or pa die. At least, not anyone I really understood as a mother or father.” He sighed. “After Inger, though … Another boy had died on the trail not too may weeks before, and then her, and … there was just a point a few months later when I remember sitting by the fire and holding Hoss and really realizing that it could happen to anybody, at any time.” He lifted one dark brow, staring into his mug. “It could happen to Pa, and then I’d be alone with a baby brother and no idea what to do.”
Jamie shuddered. He’d worried enough for just himself, he couldn’t even imagine what it might have been like to have a brother or sister to worry about too.
“I didn’t say anything to Pa,” Adam continued. “I wanted him to know he didn’t have to worry about me. That he could depend on me.” One tiny corner of his mouth quirked up. “He kept a pretty good eye on us, though. It wasn’t too long before he was after me to tell him what was going on, and I couldn’t hold out against that.” He shrugged. “I didn’t really want to, I guess.”
“What did he …” Jamie looked down, tracing a circle on the counter. “What did he say?”
His own pa, filled with an eternal optimism that Jamie had never seen (before or after) in any other person, had … well, not brushed off Jamie’s worries, but had always been quick to assure the boy that no matter how bad things got, everything would be all right in the end. A younger Jamie had believed him and been comforted, but as Jamie got older, as he watched his pa fade beneath illness and scorn …
He was curious how his new pa had responded to the same question.
Adam studied the delicate china, eyes lost in memory. “He told me that he didn’t plan on leaving me or Hoss for many, many years, but that sometimes things don’t work out like we plan.” He pulled a wry face. “I knew that, of course. But then he reassured me that there were plenty of people who would be happy to take care of me and Hoss, relatives and friends and a couple of the families in the train with us right then, even. I knew a lot of the names, and it made me feel a little better. Pa said he’d talked with people after Inger died, and written down instructions in case something did happen, and that I didn’t have to be the one to worry about taking care of either myself or my little brother.”
Jamie nodded, grinning faintly. “Yeah, that sounds like Pa.”
Adam’s gaze remained fixed in the past. “I told him that I would miss him, though, and I didn’t want anybody else taking care of us because it wouldn’t be the same.”
It was true. It was true, and that was what he didn’t want any of them to know …
He must have moved, or made some sound despite his best efforts, because Adam’s eyes flickered up. “He told me that it if anything happened to him it was all right for me to be sad—that he hoped I would miss him at least some—but that I had to pick something funny about him and remember it too. That I couldn’t just be sad.”
A dozen memories of good times and laughter hit Jamie without warning. His pa had thought laughter was the cure to all ills …
“And as soon as he said it, all I could think about was the first time Hoss had a really bad diaper after Inger died.” Adam shook his head, rose, and strolled back to the cookie jar. “Pa went to change it, and it … well, it reeked, and he pinned everything back up and told me we were going down to the stream because he didn’t want the wagon smelling like that while we were trying to sleep.” Adam handed another cookie to Jamie and resettled. “So he took Hoss, and I brought the pins and the new diaper and … whatever else, and we went down to the stream. Pa took off the diaper, and we both almost passed out from the smell, and then we saw that Hoss wasn’t even done yet.” Jamie choked down a giggle, remembering at the last minute Hop Sing was sleeping next door. “Pa was holding him out over the water, and I was holding my nose, and Hoss was kicking around like it was some great game … and Pa and I just looked at each other and at Hoss and started laughing and couldn’t stop.” He shook his head. “We hadn’t really laughed since Inger died, and I think it had just all built up to that point.”
“What happened?” Jamie giggled, wiping at his eyes.
Adam chuckled. “Oh, one of the women came down to rescue us. It took me and Pa hours to go to sleep that night, though. Every time one of us would start to drift off the other would start laughing again. Hoss was out right away, the little stinker.” He sighed. “When Pa said to think of something funny, I knew right away that would be it.” Adam grinned, shaking his head. “It’s still clear as crystal in my mind, even now.”
“We got stuck in a ditch one time.” Jamie spoke before he could change his mind. Adam’s words had called forth a flood of memories, and it seemed only right to share. “We were leaving this town in California, and things had gone good. It’d been raining for two days straight.” He cast a defensive glance toward Adam, daring the other to argue. His brother only stuffed half a cookie into his mouth and settled back on his stool. Pacified, Jamie continued. “It shouldn’t have been any big deal, but every time we tried to get out something went wrong. The horse was scared of a rock in front of him and wouldn’t pull that way—we never did guess what he thought it was, but we kept comin’ up with idea for the next week. When we tried to get him to back up instead, the rear wheels stuck. Almost tipped the whole thing, and half of our stuff ended up out the back in the mud. Pa got down and tried to guide the wheels, but he slipped and went down. I went to help him, and slipped too. We were both covered in mud from head to toe, and our wagon was stuck in a ditch that wasn’t any deeper than my knees, and the horse was still actin’ real funny about that rock, and Pa just looked at me and said,” Jamie pitched his voice deeper, “‘Jamie lad, there’s a dark side to this rainmaking lark’.”
Adam’s rich chuckle joined his own giggle, and a moment later Hop Sing’s door yanked open. The cook’s head appeared, hair frazzled and nightcap askew. “It middle of night, some people trying to sleep around here! You clean Hop Sing’s kitchen before morning!” The door slammed shut again before either could respond. Jamie clapped his hand over his mouth, stifling a snort. Adam turned back to him, grinning wide enough that his dimple appeared.
His older brother. It … didn’t seem so strange, now.
Adam rose smoothly, wiping crumbs from the counter into one hand. Jamie slid off his stool and gathered the mugs for washing.
“You said it would be strange for everyone to know, but no one wants you to forget him.” Jamie froze, as Adam’s voice spoke from directly behind. “No one here needs you to do that in order to feel secure about our family as it is now. We’ve all lost people, we know that doesn’t just go away in a week or a month or a year. We know how important it is to build a new family and remember the old.” One hand landed on Jamie’s shoulder. “Joe’s mother taught me that, once I let her.” A breath of a chuckle. “I wonder sometimes why we always make it so hard for ourselves.”
Jamie hung his head for a long moment, fighting back tears for an entirely different reason. Adam waited patiently, his grip warm and heavy. Finally, Jamie managed a nod.
Adam squeezed once before releasing him. “Any time.”
Jamie looked around quickly, but Adam was already pouring water to heat for washing.
“Uh …” They were apparently done, and he was good with that. “Wash or dry?”
“Good. I’d … well, I’d always rather dry.”
“I think I knew that about you.”
Adam grinned, and Jamie grinned back. Then he went for another cookie while they waited for the wash water to warm.