May 29, 2023

This entry is part 22 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 68 minutes. Went over because it was the ending and I wanted to do it right 😛

Jason checked the latch on the horse stall, ensuring it was fastened firmly. Over his shoulder, he heard footsteps.

“Do you know how many replies that advertisement received last year?”

Mystified, Jason turned to find his cousin several paces away, glaring at him. “What?”

“When I decided to find you a wife, it’s not like I chose the first woman who replied,” Dillon said, and Jason clenched his jaw. “I took it seriously. There were twenty women. Elizabeth was the only person I wrote back to.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything—”

“I knew from the second I opened her letter that she was the right person—”

“You recognized her name—”

Dillon dismissed that with a snort. “Yeah, okay. Let’s credit all that’s happened this last year by suggesting the only reason I picked her was the name. Maybe it made her letter stand out, maybe it’s why I took a second look. But it’s not why I invited her here.”

Jason grimaced, shook his head. “I don’t know why you’re bringing this up—”

“I spent a lot of time and energy last year finding you someone who would suit. She had to be devoted to her family, but she also had to know how to handle loss. How to deal with grief—”


“Shut up,” Dillon said, and Jason closed his mouth, realizing that his cousin was truly angry with him. “We can argue all day long whether I had any right to do what I did, and you’d probably come out on the winning side. But I didn’t do any of that lightly. I wanted you to be happy. I could have sent for the first woman who replied, but I didn’t. And I found you someone who suits you down to the bone. Don’t deny it—” he warned when Jason opened his mouth. “Elizabeth fits. She can handle all the stupid committee stuff that Grandmother thinks is important, she works hard, and she loves her family. Which includes you, jackass.”

Jason exhaled on a harsh breath. “I’m not doing with this you. It’s none of your concern.” He started towards the door of the stables, brushing past his cousin. “You took a risk, nearly humiliated Elizabeth, and put me in an impossible position—”

“It was a risk, but until tonight, I didn’t regret a damn thing. I found you the perfect wife, but I definitely didn’t do right by Elizabeth. She deserves better.”

Jason’s chest tightened and he whirled to face Dillon. “What the hell does that mean—”

“She’s in the house, practically in tears, sure that she’s ruined her marriage by asking you for more than you’ve promised. She’s burdened you with the weight of her love because you don’t feel the same. You told her so—”

“I never—” Jason swallowed hard. “That’s not what I told her—”

“You didn’t reject her?” Dillon wanted to know. “You didn’t tell her not to say it, to keep it to herself?”

“I—” He dragged a hand through his hair. “She thinks she loves me, but I know it’s not—it’s gratitude. For not sending her away last year. For Cameron—”

“Gratitude,” Dillon sneered. “Aren’t we full of ourselves? Then you don’t love her, either? All you feel is grateful? She’s given you a son to love. Another child. She’s made Grandmother happy. She’s impressed all the busybodies in town. She’s learning how to train horses—yeah, you have a lot to be grateful for.”


“You and I both know it’s bullshit. You’re so stupid in love with her you can’t see straight, but she can’t use those same facts to be in love with you back. Moron,” Dillon said. “You make her cry again, Jason, and we’re going to go another round. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you, but I worked too hard for you screw it up. So fix it.”


His cousin’s words rattled in Jason’s head as he returned to the house and managed to get through dinner. Elizabeth was careful around him, her eyes strained, her movements awkward. His grandmother had clearly taken against him—Lila sent him  several disappointed looks over dinner, and Dillon all but glowered.

Cameron was the glue that kept the evening upbeat. He talked about his pony, about his dog, about learning to read, about being a big brother, about the snow, about being sick — He filled the uncomfortable silences and brought light to his mother and grandmother.

Jason avoided saying goodnight to his family by excusing himself to put Cameron in bed for the night—fleeing like a coward, obviously, but he had no notion what to say. How to put it right.

Dillon had the right of it — Elizabeth was the center of everything. His family, the work on the ranch, and in a few more years, likely even the town itself. She’d slid in so neatly with all facets of his life that Jason hadn’t really appreciated how difficult it must have been for her.

But his world had centered around Michael, once, hadn’t it? Spending time with his nephew, finding an excuse to bring him to the ranch, planning all the ways he’d show Michael the world. Purchasing a pony long before he was old enough to ride—

Jason read to Cameron until his son’s eyes drifted close, his hand curled around the stuffed dog, the living one resting at the foot the bed, snoring softly. Jason tucked the counterpane around him, then took a deep breath.

It was time to face his wife and, as Dillon had commanded, fix what he’d broken.


When she’d retired for the evening, Elizabeth had nearly retreated to the bed, pretending to be asleep as she had the night before. But Lila had advised her to find some way to clear the air with Jason, to move forward. There was Cameron and this child to consider, and oh, Elizabeth wanted more children.

She wanted that ease back—the comfort and sweetness they’d brought to each other before she’d opened her mouth and ruined it all. Jason was a good man who cared about her, and he loved their children.

So she sat in the chair before the fire, working with her needlepoint—it was still a bit awkward as she retrained herself to avoid the use of her index finger, but it was more than she’d had before.

Jason came in, halting at the door, his expression blank. Elizabeth lowered the hoop to rest on her belly. “Cameron is asleep?”

“Yes,” Jason said, a bit warily. But then he came and sat in the chair across from her, both angled slightly towards the fireplace. She’d miss this when the weather turned warmer — there’d be no reason to sit before a cozy fire and speak of the day that had passed or the one yet to come. But perhaps it would be for the best if they didn’t have these moments—

Should she just pretend it hadn’t happened? Ask about the horses or the nursery? Or should she clear the air—

“I’m sorry,”  Jason said, breaking into her musing. Elizabeth blinked, then focused on him. “For yesterday. I hurt you—”

“I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable.” Her voice sounded strong, but her fingers trembled, the needle slipping. “That was not my intent. I just—I wanted to share how I felt.” Elizabeth met his eyes. “I never meant for my words to feel like a burden. They shouldn’t, you know. I don’t require you to share my feelings.”


“Love should be a gift. Offered freely. And mine is.” Here it was. The clearing of the air, the words spilling from her lips with little thought or consideration with what came next. “It needn’t change things between us. I’ve told you how I feel, and that’s—it’s what I wanted. I promise I won’t say it again—”

“That’s not—” With a grimace, he leaned forward, bracing elbows on his knees as he bent his head, dragged his hands through his hair. “I hurt you,” he repeated.

“It’s all right—”

“It’s not.” He rose to his feet, all but stalked across the room. “You could die,” he muttered, and she frowned. “Women do, you know. In childbirth.”


“And the baby—” Jason shook his head. He gazed out the window, over the dark landscape that was scarcely visible. “Dillon was right,” he added, and her confusion deepened. “You’ve been the perfect wife since the moment you stepped off that train—”

“You aren’t—” Elizabeth made a face, her bewilderment shifting to irritation. “You needn’t feel guilty for not loving me. That was never my intent—not in the saying of the words nor in anything else I’ve done since I’ve arrived. I—” Her face flushed. “I wanted to be a good wife so you’d never regret—”

“I don’t feel guilty,” Jason cut in, turning back to face her. “I feel—” He paused. “Unworthy,” he said finally. “I’ve done nothing to deserve all you’ve given me. And you owe me nothing. There’s no regret to be had, Elizabeth. I’ve told you that, over and over again. When I asked you to marry me, it had little to do with how you got here. I never made any damn sacrifice—”

His face was flushed, his brows pinched together, and something hopeful began to swirl. He really believed that, she realized. There’d been no sacrifice on his part. “Before the lake,” she said. “Before the lake, I worried all the time if I’d be good enough for you—”

“Damn it—”

“But I stopped. Because you looked happy that day. And you made me a promise that day would just be ordinary. That we’d have such memories, so many that Cameron wouldn’t remember just one. But I told you I’d never forget it.” Elizabeth rose to her feet, set aside the needlework. “Because I loved you that day. Yes, for the kindness you showed Cameron. To me. For the gentle way you taught him, and how you made me feel when I was in the water, in your arms.”

His expression eased as she approached him. “I’ve worried,” she said softly, sliding her arms around his waist. “Because I was scared you didn’t love me back. I was jealous of any woman who might have had your attention—”

“There wasn’t—” Jason framed her face, his touch soft against her skin. “There wasn’t anyone but you.”

“But I wasn’t sure of it, you see. Until these last few weeks. I’ve grown as large as a house—”

“You haven’t—”

“And I’ve driven you senseless with all my small worries about Cameron, the nursery, the horses—” She smiled, because it was so lovely to just know. “Yesterday, my love for you just spilled over, and I had to share it. Because it made me so happy. But it worried you. It scared you.”


“Because you love me, too.” A tear slid down her cheek, cool and quiet. He brushed it away with the tip of his thumb. “And you’ve had such a hard lesson to learn—that what you love—who you love—we have such a finite time in this world. And sometimes, our time ends before anyone is ready to let us go.”

Jason rested his forehead against hers. “Is anyone ever ready?”

“Maybe not.” She slid her hands up his chest, her palm resting over his heart. “But I would rather have a short life with love than a long without it. I love you, Jason.” His chest trembled beneath her hand. “And all I wish in this world is to hear the words from you. Just once.”

“I love you.” He captured her mouth for a quick, but soft caress. “I love you,” he repeated, and a soft sob slipped past her lips. She’d worried he’d say the words and she wouldn’t believe them, but oh, she did. He’d said it, and it was true, and it was real— “You won’t hear it just once, I promise.”

“The words are lovely, and I thank you for them. But you’ve shown me in so many ways, small and giant, that they’re true.” Elizabeth pressed her hand to his cheek. “And we’ll hold on to it for as long as we can.”

“A lifetime won’t be enough,” Jason said, taking her hand in his and kissing her fingertips. “I will always love you.”


Spring had blossomed by the first week of May. Dillon drove his grandmother back to the ranch as Lila bubbled over with happiness and plans for the wonderful summer getting to know her new great-grandson.

Dillon was feeling pretty smug when they arrived, and his cousin greeted them, tired but happy. He’d been responsible for all of it, he thought, meeting the new bundle of joy who looked like a red wrinkly mess to him. He’d found Elizabeth and brought her here. And then when Jason had nearly faltered, Dillon had fixed it all.

Lila returned from visiting with the new mother above the stairs and they went back to the carriage. He helped her over wheel, then swung up next to her. “Well, that’s a relief. For Elizabeth to be safely delivered, and all in good health.”

“Yes.” Lila smiled. “Your cousin is all settled. It’s your turn.”

Dillon dropped the reins. “What?”

“It’s time for you to write another advertisement.”

He paled. “Another?”

Lila snorted, then set the reins in her grandson’s hands. “You don’t really think I ever believed Jason advertised for a wife, do you? Foolish boy.”

Feeling less smug and vaguely ill, Dillon took his grandmother home.

In the bedroom, Elizabeth sat propped up against the headboard, cradling the day old newborn. Jason lifted Cameron onto the bed beside them both, then sat on the edge. “What do you think of your little brother?”

“He’s awfully red and angry looking,” Cameron said, peering at the swaddled bundle. “Not a lot of fun yet. He can’t play with me.”

“Not yet, darling. But soon. You’ll have to help us teach him everything he needs to know. How to talk, to run, to play—”

“I know. I know. Big brother. Big responsibilities.” Cameron crawled in close to her, laying his head on her shoulder. “I have to make my promises now.”

“Promises?” Elizabeth echoed, meeting Jason’s eyes. “What do you mean?”

“You made promises to Papa and he made them, to you. Then I had to make promises, too. Papa, you told her I made my promises, right? Because I’m a Morgan, too. Just like Mama.”

“At the wedding,” Jason clarified. He raised his brows, suggesting he’d explain more later. “Cam—”

“He’s too little to make promises yet, so later for him. But I can. So I promise to be a good brother. To take care of you and help you learn to scoop the poop and clean up. And to find you a dog and pony of your own if you want but it’s okay if you share mine.” Cameron furrowed his brow. “I don’t know how to read a lot yet, but I know more than you. So I’ll read to you like Papa does. Or maybe we can do that together.” He looked at his father expectantly. “Right?”

“Of course.”

“That’s some lovely promises you made,” Elizabeth said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Mama. And Papa. And baby Jake.” Cameron leaned down to kiss his brother’s cheek. “And Pip, too. And Alice. And Cinnamon—”

Jacob Martin Morgan yawned and then settled in for a nap, falling asleep before his brother could finish listing all the things he loved.


May 6, 2023

This entry is part 21 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 65 minutes.

The weather continued to improve as February faded into March, and Jason was relieved when the last of the snow had melted, leaving the ranch free of dangerous ice, and if a doctor was needed, they could arrive safely.

Elizabeth fretted over nearly everything as the birth of their child drew closer. She thought they had maybe eight weeks left, and worried that the cradle wouldn’t be ready or that the room next to theirs wouldn’t be cleared out enough for the nursery, or that Cameron would feel jealous over a new sibling—

Each morning, it seemed to Jason that as soon as Elizabeth opened her eyes, there was a concern, as if she was being chased in her dreams by a never ending list of problems. He’d grown accustomed to spending a few minutes each day reassuring her that the cradle was already finished, that he and Johnny had already cleared out the room they’d chosen for the nursery, and all Cameron could talk about was being a big brother—

This morning, he opened his eyes to the birds chirping outside the window, the streaks of pink and orange outside the window as the sun rose beyond the horizon. And for once, Elizabeth lay silent next to him, still sleeping. Her long hair, braided and tied with a yellow ribbon, lay across her chest. One of her hands curled up next to her cheek and the other resting comfortably on the bulge of her belly. That made him smile — Elizabeth had felt the baby move and shift, but Jason had managed to miss them so far — he and the baby kept a different schedule.

Jason gingerly slid from the bed, hoping he wouldn’t disturb her. It was difficult for her time sleep sometimes, and she’d been up and down through the night. He wanted her to rest as much as possible—

But he made it no further than the dresser to pull out clothing for the day when he heard the bed clothes rustling behind him. He looked back and Elizabeth was trying to sit up—Dropping the trousers in his hands, Jason went to her side and offered a hand.

“I feel like one of the ships back home,” she grumbled, reluctantly letting him pull her to her feet. “The ones bound for the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic. Big, clumsy, taking up space—”

“You’re none of those things,” Jason assured her, touching the end of her braid and flicking it of her shoulder. “And you don’t have to get up—”

“No, no, I do. I have so much to do before your grandmother comes to dinner tomorrow—” Elizabeth moved across the room, towards her own wardrobe, her face already set in a grimace. “I want to show her the nursery and, oh, Cameron and Pip got into the woodshed yesterday—and they tracked mud through the living room—”

“All taken care of.”

“I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Elizabeth continued to grumble as she sorted through the handful of dresses that would fit. “These all look like sackclothes—”

Jason kept his mouth closed. The first time she’d complained about her clothing, he’d offered to buy her anything she wanted. Which she took as his agreement that she resembled one of the cows in the barn. The second time, he’d told her she looked beautiful just as she was—which was apparently also his agreement that she was a cow.

Simpler to say nothing and stick to the one topic he knew he could handle. “Cam’s just excited about the weather. He knows it means we’ll be back working the horses. And he’s grown two inches since last fall.”

“Almost tall enough,” Elizabeth murmured. “A few more inches. He’ll be over the moon.” She sighed, rubbing her belly. “Still, he has better manners than he’s shown these last few days. I just have to—” Her eyes widened and locked on his. “Oh—oh—come here—”

He was at her side in seconds, his heart thudding, his throat tight. “What is it—”

Elizabeth snagged his hand and flattened it against the side of her belly. Jason drew his brows together in confusion at first—but then it registered what was pressing back against his palm. There was barely any strength behind it—it was little more than a gentle push—

Their baby. Kicking against his hand. Jason raised his other hand to double his chances of feeling it. “That’s—it’s the baby.” He grinned, feeling another kick—stronger this time. And then against his other had, what felt like an arm. There really was a baby growing inside of his wife. Their baby.

“Oh, I was hoping you would get to—” Her voice faltered, and he glanced up, worried when he saw her eyes damp with tears. “I’ve waited for weeks for you to feel the baby, and now you can, and it’s so amazing.” She cupped his jaw and leaned in, their mouths brushing gently at first, then Jason drew her a bit closer and deepened the embrace. When Elizabeth stepped back, her eyes stayed closed another second or so, and then opened with a starry-eyed expression. “I love you.”

Startled, Jason stepped back and his hands fell back to his side. He stared at her for a long moment, her cheeks flushed, her expression expectant. “You don’t have to say that,” he said finally.

Elizabeth frowned, shook her head. “But—”

“You don’t have to—” Jason started to say again, then swallowed hard. “It’s all right. I don’t need to hear that.”

Her mouth closed, and her cheeks lost some color. “I—”

“I—I have things to handle,” Jason said in a rush, before going back to his dresser, yanking out the first change of clothes he found. He hurried out of the room, not wanting to know what Elizabeth might say next.

He changed  clothes in the next room, where the nursery was half-furnished, the cradle he’d made tucked in a corner. Jason dragged his clothes on, his heart pounding so loud, it echoed in his eyes. He knew Elizabeth had meant well by her declaration and he’d nearly blurted out the response she’d clearly hoped for. But he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t accept the words when he knew that so much of what she felt was mixed up with gratitude. How many times over the last year had she spoken of his decision to offer marriage? Her worries that he’d sacrificed too much, her promises that he wouldn’t regret it—

No. He couldn’t stand to hear the words and know they weren’t true. They were much better off leaving their feelings unspoken.


Elizabeth nearly crawled back into the bed after Jason’s escape, her cheeks hot with mortification. She hadn’t meant to say the words—they’d just fallen from her lips at the way he’d lit up feeling the baby kick. Everything she felt had bubbled up and spilled over—

But it was just as she’d feared. He didn’t want those words. He didn’t feel the same way about her, and now he knew how she felt—oh, this was terrible.

Somehow, Elizabeth found the courage to dress and prepare for the day, to smile at Alice and Cameron at the breakfast table. To make excuses when Jason avoided the house most of the day, only coming to fetch Cameron to help muck out some of the stables. He’d avoided her eyes and Elizabeth hadn’t been able to look at him either.

Why, oh, why had she said anything? She ought to have kept it to herself. After all all the wonderful ways he’d changed her life and given her so much, Elizabeth had had no business burdening him with her feelings. Jason was so kind — God, what if he had spent most of the day trying to convince himself to return her words? To say he loved her so that she’d feel better?

She’d rather die than hear words he didn’t feel.

“You seem quiet tonight, Miss Elizabeth,” Alice said, setting down a bowl of soup. “You sure you don’t want to wait for Mister Jason to have supper?”

“Oh. No.” Elizabeth swirled her spoon in the creamy dish. “No. I’m feeling a bit tired, and I’ll turn in before he comes in. It’s a busy time—the thaw—”

“Not so busy a body can’t spend time with his wife,” Alice said, but it was a grumble offered as she left the dining room.

Elizabeth did exactly as she said, going to bed nearly an hour before she would normally, and when Jason finally came in much later, the way his footsteps hesitated at the threshold caused the tears to well up anew, but she squeezed them back, hoping her breathing would fool him.

The footsteps resumed, coming towards the bed. The mattress dipped beneath his weight and Jason stretched out next to her, laying flat while she laid on her side, turned away.

It was a terrible long night, and Elizabeth had only herself to blame.


The next morning, Jason decided that they ought to just pretend the whole scene had never happened. Especially as his grandmother and cousin were coming to dinner that evening, but Elizabeth seemed more upset than he’d expected. She wouldn’t look at him, not even over the breakfast table where Cameron bounced with excitement about the impending visit from his great-grandmother that evening. Elizabeth was so subdued that Alice sent him dark looks, indicating that Jason was fooling no one.

The carriage carrying his family drove through the ranch gate as the afternoon slid into early evening. Cameron waited on the porch with him, the little Greyhound Pip sitting expectantly at his side.

“Well, look at this handsome welcome.” Lila beamed as Dillon escorted her up the walk. She kissed Jason’s cheek, then leaned down for Cameron. “And it’s good to see you, too, Pip.” The dog yipped, as if reply and she laughed. To Jason, she said, “I hope Elizabeth is inside resting comfortably.”

“She’s supposed to be,” Jason said, holding the door open for his grandmother. “But you know it’s difficult to keep her in one place for long.”

Elizabeth was in the parlor, her face smiling but her eyes still carried a lingering somberness that cut at Jason. He’d hurt her the day before, rejecting her words. Maybe he ought to have just accepted them and said nothing—

“Hello, daring,” Lila said, pressing her cheek to Elizabeth’s in greeting. “And how is my youngest great-grandchild?”

“Restless,” Elizabeth said, touching her belly, hidden slightly beneath the dark blue dress with its higher waistline. “He’s awake when the world sleeps, and sleeps in the day.”

“He?” Lila echoed.

“I’m not sure when I decided it was a boy,” Elizabeth said, her smile a bit more genuine now. “But I just do. I knew with Cameron.”

“I want nothing more than a healthy baby,” Lila declared, “but I must admit, I was looking forward to seeing my Jason cope with a little girl with flowers and lace.”  She smiled at her grandson, the blue eyes they shared twinkling. “Well, maybe next time.”

Jason’s lips curved, but now he wondered if that would even be possible. Would there be another child?

Lila’s smile faltered slightly, and she looked back at Elizabeth, who dropped her eyes. “Dillon,” she said, not actually looking at him, “I think you ought to take your cousin to the stables. Put the horse up while I visit with granddaughter-in-law.”

“Grandmother,” Jason began, but Lila arched a brow, and he closed his mouth. “Of course.” He turned and left, not waiting for Dillon who eventually quit the room. A moment later, they heard the door close.

“And Cameron, take Pip into the kitchen. I think you deserve a cookie.”

“Yay!” Cameron punched the air and then raced out of the room, the dog yipping behind him.

“Now, my dear,” Lila drew Elizabeth to the sofa. “Tell me what’s happened.”

“Everything is wonderful—” Elizabeth started but her throat closed, and she couldn’t push out another word. She curled her fingers into her palm. “I fear I’ve made a terrible error. I—I spoke rashly, and it’s poisoned things between us.”

“Ah, it happens in all marriages,” Lila said. “You mustn’t worry so—”

“I told him that I loved him, and he said that I shouldn’t have said it. That he didn’t need to hear it.” A tear slid down her cheek. “He doesn’t feel the same, you see, and now I’ve burdened him with that—he doesn’t love me. And he can scarcely look at me now.”


Dillon had not, in fact, followed his cousin out the door. Instead, he’d lingered by the doorway, hoping to learn the cause of Jason’s glum expression and Elizabeth’s quiet. Then he’d heard Elizabeth’s hushed confession, the words shaky — he thought she must be crying. You could hear it in the words.

He scowled at what she said and tossed a dark look towards the direction of the stables. He’d worked hard to give his cousin a happy ending, and he’d be damned if Jason screwed it up now.

“Idiot,” Dillon muttered, and strode out the door, careful not to let it make a sound behind him. It was time to take matters into his own hands.


April 16, 2023

This entry is part 20 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 65 minutes.

Cameron shook off the vestiges of his illness in rather short order, only remaining in bed for another day to get some much needed rest.  On a bright morning in early February, Cameron bounced down the stairs into the kitchen where he was sure to sneak a rasher of bacon from a distracted Alice before taking Pip out for a quick watering of the snowy ground.

In truth, he recovered far more quickly from actually being ill than his anxious parents did. Elizabeth returned to tucking him in every night, listening as Jason read from Great Expectations, and they both lingered in his room until Cameron fell asleep. And during the night, Jason more than once went into the room while the little boy rested to be sure the fever didn’t return. Elizabeth wasn’t surprised when she woke some some mornings to find Jason sleeping in the chair by Cameron.

She pondered the situation over the next few weeks as storms came and went, and the child she carried made itself more widely known. She tired easily, taking long naps in the early afternoon, and ate more than she had in her entire life. Jason’s smiles were tighter than they’d been once, rarely reaching his eyes. Cameron’s illness had been upsetting, but she knew that it must have caused memories of another little boy who had survived to resurface.

Elizabeth left Cameron in the kitchen, grinning and dusted with flour as Alice showed him how to knead dough for their bread and went out to the porch that wrapped around the house. Jason stood there, dressed in nothing than his shirtsleeves. The man claimed not to feel the cold—

She grimaced — lucky man. She was already chilled by the time she reached him at the railing, clutching her shawl more tightly. “Cameron is helping Alice with the weekly baking, so apologies if the bread is less than edible.”

Jason turned at her words, and his brow drew down. “You shouldn’t be out here—”

“It’s not as cold as it was a few days ago, and at least I can claim to be wearing wool.” Elizabeth touched the thin cotton of his shirt. “If one of us is to catch their death from the cold, it’s you.”

Jason sighed, then looked out again over the horizon, to the pond frozen over for the season, to the distance foothills of the Rocky Mountains, their snow-capped majesty barely visible. The sky was a clear, beautiful blue with no cloud to be found. She hoped that the worst of winter was behind them, though she’d been told snow could continue to fall into April.

“Johnny said the road into town was passable again,” Elizabeth said. “I’d hoped we could go and see Lila on Sunday. We haven’t been since the assembly, and I know she must miss you and Cameron.” He didn’t answer. “Jason?”

“I’d prefer if we stuck close to the ranch until winter ended. You shouldn’t be traveling in your condition—”

“It’s hardly traveling, and I was operating a textile loom until the day Cameron was born, and then back the day after.”

Jason’s mouth pinched. “The day?” he echoed.

“Yes. He was born in the late afternoon, and he was kind enough to wait until I had completed my work. A quick and easy delivery, all things considered. It was difficult to find someone to care for a baby so young, but I managed.”

“You went back to work the day after,” he muttered turning back to the horizon. “Your parents should be ashamed of themselves. My mother rested a week after Emily was born, and Caroline—” He closed his mouth.

“Women have been managing childbirth for centuries, Jason. Yes, it can be dangerous, and I ought to have been more scared. But I didn’t know any better, which was a blessing in many ways. I had little choice. The only way to have more support from my family would have been to live my life their way. I couldn’t have given my little boy away like he didn’t matter.”  She paused. “So a bit of a ride into town won’t hurt.”

“If that’s what you want, then that’s that we’ll do.” He glanced down at the curve of her belly. “You said sometime in May, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” She hesitated. “When you will begin building the cradle? Will you wait for warmer weather?”

Jason nodded. “Yes. It won’t take above a week—”

“Or we could reconsider Lila’s offer,” Elizabeth said in a rush. “For the family cradle.”

“No,” he said almost before she’d finished speaking, very nearly interrupting her. “No. I told you. I’d prefer to make it—for Cameron to help—”

“You said so before, but—” She tipped her head. “You slept in that cradle. So did your brother and sister. Your father. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have—”

“It doesn’t belong to me. I don’t want it.” Jason took her by the elbow. “You look chilled. We should go inside—”

“It belongs to Michael, doesn’t it?”

He stopped, dropped his hand. He wouldn’t look at her. “Yes.”

“It ought to have been his. The eldest child. Your brother to his son.” He continued to stare straight ahead. “Dillon—when Cameron fell ill—he told me about Michael. How you cared for him—”

“I don’t want to—”

“I know. But I think you might need to. Even if it’s just once. Dillon said you were with him every moment of his illness. Holding him until his last.”

His shoulders were tight, and his expression might have been carved from stone, but his eyes were shattered when he finally met her gaze. “Yes.”

“And then you washed him, carried him to the coffin, and then to the burial.” Her throat was tight. “He was never alone. Not for a moment.”

“He was too young to be scared,” Jason said finally. “He fought the medicine. Fought me. Fought everyone. Until he had no strength left. He just…” He looked away again. “You can’t know what it’s like to hold a child in your arms, and actually feel the life leave them. There’s a terrible stillness—it’s different than sleep.”

Elizabeth exhaled slowly, tears burning her eyes. “No. I can’t know. And I hope to God I never do. I am so sorry for his loss.”

“He wanted to play,” Jason murmured. “To go outside. It was the last thing he said. Just before the end. Could we go outside?” He dragged a hand down his face. “I don’t know what good it does—”

“Because a few weeks ago you held another little boy and cared for him every moment of his illness. Making sure he was never alone. That if, God forbid, he left us, you’d be there to hold him.”

“It’s not the same. I don’t—I’m not replacing Michael with Cameron—” His voice was rough as he turned to face her. “You can’t think that—”

“I didn’t—”

“I was very careful about that. I wouldn’t let Lila send any toys or things that belonged to him—and I never took Michael fishing or riding—the pony—”

“Jason—” Elizabeth put her hands on his forearms, and he closed his mouth, the strange rush of words cutting off abruptly. “You’re an amazing father, and I know that Cameron loves you. He couldn’t love you more if you’d been present every day of his life. And Michael is a part of your family. He will always be part of you. You needn’t hide anything about him. And it isn’t replacing him to love Cameron or let your children use his possessions.”

“I—” Jason took her hands, closing them between his larger palms. “I know that logically—”

“We don’t have to use the cradle. I like the idea of Cameron helping you build something his little brother or sister will use. I just worry if you keep holding in this grief, Jason, it will continue to sneak up on you the way it has.” Her eyes searched his. “You rarely speak of the family you lost.”

“It’s difficult,” Jason said after a long moment. “We were—I wasn’t on the best of terms with my father or grandfather at the end. I had left home, started the ranch. My father wanted me to go into business in San Francisco and my grandmother wanted me to take over the mines—” He shook his head. “And I just wanted the open space and to be left on my own.” He waited a beat. “By the time word got to me out here, by the time I got into town,  my parents had already died. My aunt, too. AJ and Caroline lingered for a few more days. And then Emily got sick—”

“Alice told me you’d thought Michael was spared.”

“He hadn’t had any contact with anyone—they’d kept the nursery maid clear, but somehow—” Jason stopped. “It was Michael, I think, that killed my grandfather. He’d lingered, fought harder, I think, but once Michael was sick, all the fight just disappeared. Michael was the last. I don’t know how my grandmother survived burying a husband, two children, two grandchildren, and a great-grandson.”

“You and Dillon, of course.” Elizabeth wound her arm through Jason’s and let him lead her back into the house. “She’s special, your grandmother. I might have crawled into my bed and stayed here.”

“No. You wouldn’t have.” Jason brought her hand to his mouth, brushed his lips across her knuckles. “Look at what you did for Cameron.”

“You do what has to be done. And worry about everything else later.”


The conversation they’d shared on the porch lingered with Jason for days, as he thought about how much lighter he felt, having acknowledged that some of the fear driving him during those dark days of Cameron’s fever had stemmed from the misery of Michael’s death.

He’d been so terrified that he’d feel Cameron’s body go limp, that he’d feel the heartbeat slow and stop—but he hadn’t. And that was important. Jason had to remember that Cameron hadn’t died in his arms. There would be no miniature coffin for his son, no burial in the graveyard.

A few days later, Cameron was excited when Jason took him into the carpentry shed attached to the stables. The little boy practically hopped and skipped along the thawing ground — they hadn’t had another snowfall in the few days and the temperature had risen above freezing.

“I get to cut stuff,” he told Johnny on the pathway. “Papa will let me use the big knife.”

“No, I won’t—” Jason put a hand on Cameron’s shoulder and edged him into the shed. “You’re going to sand things down. And maybe, maybe,” he stressed, “I’ll show you how to carve your initials.”

“Initials?” Cameron’s sandy brows drew together as he watched Jason look over the collection of wood, and gather pieces that would suit them. “What are those?”

“The first letter of your last name and first name. CM.” Absently, Jason reached for a woodturner from the shelf—then caught Cameron’s bewildered look. “Cameron Morgan.”

“Mama say I’m Cameron Webber. When we rode on the train, she made me say it over and over and over and over again.” Beleagured, he sighed. “Case I get lost, so I could tell everyone I Cameron Webber, son of Elizabeth Webber, bound for Port Charles, Colorado.” He beamed. “I remembered.”

Jason nodded. They hadn’t discussed it yet, but likely because he’d assumed it was understood. “That was smart. And I’m glad you didn’t get lost  before you and your mother got to me. But now you’re here. And we agreed a long time ago I’m the papa and you’re the son.”

“Oh.” Cameron considered that. “And Mama is the mama.”

“Yes. Do you remember the church last year? You and Mama came down the long aisle with me, and we said words?”

“Yes. Because I got my room. I never had a room before. Not all to myself. And then I got Cinders. And Pip. The words changed things?”

“They did.” Jason knelt in front of Cameron. “I made promises to your mother, but to you, too. They’re called vows. People say them when you get married. You promise to honor and cherish. To take care of each other. And when you marry someone with a child, like I did, you make those promises to the child. Your mother became Elizabeth Morgan, and you Cameron Morgan. When you go to school next year, you’ll answer to that name.”

“I didn’t make any promises.” Cameron looked worried now. “I shoulda made promises.”

“You don’t—”

“No. No. I make promises. Um—” He screwed up his face. “I don’t know what to promise. You need to tell me. I’ll do it.”

“All I need from you, Cameron,” Jason told him, “is a promise to be kind to other people, to look after your mother, and to be yourself.”

“That doesn’t seem hard.” Cameron nodded. “Okay. I promise to be kind, take care of you and Mama, and be me.” He beamed. “Good. Now I’m Cameron Morgan.”

Jason tousled his hair, charmed as always by Cameron’s easy acceptance and zest for life. “You already were, but I’m glad we made the promises.”

“We keep promises,” Cameron said soberly. “Mama said.”

“Mama’s right. Let’s get this cradle started or your little  brother or sister won’t have a place to sleep.”

April 10, 2023

This entry is part 19 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 55 minutes.

It was nearly three hours before a trio of horses rode through the gates of the ranch, and Elizabeth watched their approach to the house, fretting over the dark storm clouds looming ever closer.

The horses came right up to the house, Johnny followed by Dr. Drake and Dillon—Elizabeth went to the door, pulling it open just as the group reached it. “I’m so relieved you’ve made it back, but—”

“Don’t worry about the storm,” Dillon said, patting her arm and steering her away from the door as Patrick and Johnny brought in the supplies that had been stored in the saddlebags. “Patrick and I will get back to town before it hits. I didn’t want him riding on his own.”

“Where’s my patient?” Patrick asked, picking up the dark bag he’d brought.

“Upstairs. I’ll show you—”

“Best let me do that, missus,” Alice said, bustling past them. “Mister Jason won’t want you to get too close—” She began the climb to the second story, and Patrick followed. Elizabeth stared up mutinously. Surely a few seconds wouldn’t hurt—

“Johnny said Jason was handling everything on his own.”

“He worries for the baby.” Elizabeth rested her hand against the curve of her belly. “And I know that makes sense—”

“Here, let’s go in by the fire.” Dillon swept off his hat and led Elizabeth into the parlor. He checked the fireplace, adding another log. “Jason just doesn’t want to risk you. Can’t imagine anything worse than having to lose you and the babe—”

“I—I know that.”

“And the little mite is going to need you when his fever breaks,” Dillon continued. He spied the tea tray Alice kept refilling. “Let me pour you—”

“I just—he’s my son. I haven’t—” She sank onto the chaise, her eyes round with worry. “I’m frightened,” Elizabeth admitted finally. “That all of the efforts will not be enough, and we’ll—” She closed her mouth, unable to even allow the words out into the open.

“If Jason could will it to be done, Cameron would already be skipping around with his dog.” Dillon dragged a hand across the back of his neck. “Don’t know how he’ll manage if it happens again.”

“Again—” Elizabeth paused. “You’re speaking of Michael. Alice said Jason looked after him during the illness.”

“Before, during, and after,” Dillon said with a nod. “My cousin—his brother—AJ wasn’t much of a father. He and the wife, Caroline, were rarely here, always in San Francisco. Once little Michael was able to move around, Jason brought him out here a few times a week.”

“Oh. I didn’t—”

“Wouldn’t be surprised if Michael knew Jason better than his own father. When Michael fell ill, Jason wouldn’t let anyone else touch him. Don’t know how he did it. Barely slept. Barely ate. But nothing seemed to help. Michael couldn’t keep anything down. Jason kept dribbling water and broth—anything he could. But he just…faded.” Dillon’s voice was rough as he stepped over to the mantel, resting a hand against it. “Jason washed him once last time and put him in the coffin himself.”

“I didn’t realize—” Elizabeth fisted her hand in her lap. “He’s spoken a time or two of his nephew, but I don’t think I realized that Michael was more like his own son.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I didn’t think about it much until Grandmother sent me out here with the cradle. Jason sent me back almost immediately. Michael was the last baby to use it. Probably can’t stand to look at it.”

“No, I don’t imagine he can.” She rose. “You’ll want something warm to eat before you head back, and so will Dr. Drake.”


Upstairs, Alice hovered in the doorway, worried to come any closer as Patrick leaned over Cameron, laying flat on his back, his skin still hot.

“Fever dropped a bit,” Jason said, lacing both his hands at the back of his neck. “After a snow bath. We gave him honey syrup with ginger for the throat. It worked for a while, but it’s wearing off.”

“Won’t hurt to repeat that every few hours, but best I can tell, Jase, you’re doing all you can here.” Patrick straightened, went to the wash stand where a pitcher of water awaited. It had been set out the night before so that Cameron could wash when he woke in the morning. Now, Patrick used to wash his hands, face, neck.

“All I can.” Jason flicked his eyes back to his son, restlessly turning back and forth, unable to become comfortable. “But it might not be enough.”

“We never know, do we?” Patrick murmured. “Maybe the day will come when we do. But until then—you keep up with the usual. Wash with soap every time you leave the room. Have your housekeeper do the same—” At Jason’s confused glance, he continued, “Read a new article from a journal in San Francisco. Dr. Lister’s germ theory. Anyhow, you want to make sure your wife doesn’t fall ill. She won’t have the same reserves to throw it off, and unborn babies don’t do well with fevers.”

“I’ve told the others I’ll handle it.” Jason followed Patrick to the hall. “But that’s it. Nothing else we can do?”

“It’s the grippe, Jason. There’s no cure. We treat the symptoms. Keep his fever down, make he rests. Eats, drinks. Ease the pain in the throat to make that easier.” Patrick pressed his lips together. “When this storm passes and the roads are safe, I’ll come back out this way.”

“Thank you.”

“Soap and water,” Patrick tossed over his shoulder as he headed to the stairwell. Jason grimaced and went back to Cameron’s room. He peered out the window. The storm was still another hour or so away—they’d need to do another snow bath quickly or else it would be too dangerous to leave the house.


The slurred words drew Jason’s attention, and he all but leapt to the bedside, kneeling down so that his face was only inches from his son’s. Cameron’s eyes didn’t open, his cheeks and neck flush with fever.

“Hey, kid.” Jason touched his forehead. “What do you need?”

“Mama. Mama.”

Jason squeezed his eyes closed. Cameron needed his mother, of course he did. Until the last year, she’d been the anchor in his life. He dared not to risk her, but—

“Don’t be angry.”

He whipped his head around and saw Elizabeth at the doorway. He rose. “Elizabeth—”

“Dr. Drake told me about the soap and the water. And he said—” Her eyes were round and wide, hopeful. “I couldn’t—for longer than a moment. But, oh, please, just for a moment.”

“Yeah. Of course.” Jason exhaled in a rush. He went over to lead her to the wash stand — best if hands were clean going in, and then cleaned again, right? That made sense.


“Hello, my darling boy.” Elizabeth perched on the edge of his bed, and Cameron smiled. “Is Papa taking good care of you?”

“Bestest…” Cameron forced his eyes open. “Hurts. Everywhere.”

“I know, I know—” A tear slid down her cheek, but she made herself smile. “But you’ll listen to all that Papa says, and you’ll be feeling fit in no time.”

“Okay, Mama. Good boy.”

“You are a good boy. The absolute best.” She touched his cheek, then rushed out of the room, her heels clicking hard against the floor. Jason followed, finding her across the hall in her room, washing her hands fervently.

Wordlessly, he joined her there and washed his own hands. Then he drew Elizabeth into his arms the way he’d wanted to earlier, praying Patrick was correct. That the illness was less likely to spread.

“I’ll do whatever I have to make him well again,” Jason found himself promising, though it was a foolish offer to make, and he felt her body jerk in response. “Elizabeth—”

“That is not your promise to keep,” she murmured. She drew back, her eyes searching his. “But I know that you’ll do what you can, and we will pray it is enough. He was a strong, sturdy boy. That can matter sometimes.”


“And sometimes it doesn’t matter how healthy the child or how well-loved he is. How devoted his guardians are—” Elizabeth touched his jaw, the tips of her fingers brushing across his lips. “Sometimes the world is cruel for no reason at all. Whatever happens, I know that you will have done all you could.”

He kissed her fingertips, then drew back. “I need to get back to him.”

“And I need to be sure Dr. Drake and Dillon start back to town and that we are well-supplied. That storm looks worse than the last.”

Jason walked her to the stairwell, gave orders for a snow bath in a quarter of an hour, then returned to Cameron’s bedside. He picked up the book on the table, found their place, and continued to read. “‘His spirit inspired me with great respect…'”


Elizabeth watched Patrick and Dillon ride off under the gate, then made sure with Alice that they had all they needed—and checked their supply of soap.

“Imagine a thing such as soap keeping a man from being ill,” Alice murmured, staring at the chunk Elizabeth placed next to the washstand in the kitchen. “Makes sense, I suppose, don’t you think, missus?”

“It can make a man smell sweet which is no easy feat.” Elizabeth washed her hands again, the third time since she’d left Jason upstairs. It had been worth the risk for the moment with her son, to hold Jason in her arms. “And we’ll follow the doctor’s orders.”

“That we will, missus. And that includes making sure you have your meal.” Alice set down a plate at the kitchen table. “You eat up while I take these pails snow upstairs.”


Cameron’s fever raged on for five full days and four nights as a blizzard pelted the house with snow for three of those days. Johnny kept them well-stocked with logs for the fireplaces, and he himself hunkered down in one of the guest chambers to be ready if Jason needed anything.

Elizabeth tried very hard not to go into the sick room again, but she hovered in the doorway from time to time. Jason developed a routine quite quickly — medicine and a snow bath every four hours. Alice kept a pot of broth simmering on the stove, ready whenever Cameron seemed able to keep down his food.

Cameron coughed and wheezed, rarely able to do much more than lay in bed or in Jason’s arms while Alice changed his sheets, sometimes more than twice a day. Alice looked for any small chore she might be able to accomplish towards Cameron’s recovery.

Elizabeth scarcely slept through any of it, pacing the floors of the parlor and her own bedroom, worried sick for her entire family. What would she do if she lost her little boy? Would Jason ever forgive himself? And would she able to keep her own promise if the worst happen? Would she be able to believe that they’d done all they could?

But finally, finally on the six day, Elizabeth woke in the early morning hours, the sunlight streaming in through her bedroom window — the first truly sunny days in more than a week, which meant the clouds had gone.

Elizabeth got to her feet, slid her feet into slippers, and drew on her dressing gown. She stopped to wash her hands, then went across the hall.

Jason sat in the big chair by the window, his head lolling to one side, his arms wrapped protectively around Cameron, curled up in his lap, a counterpane wrapped around the little boy. It was the first time she’d seen Jason asleep at all, and it was a—

Her thoughts stumbled to a stop as she looked more closely at the pair, and gasped. She went into the room, pressed a hand to Cameron’s forehead.  Tears gathered and she sank to her knees, a sob rising in her throat.

At the sound, Jason jerked awake, his arms tightening around Cameron. “What—” He stared at Elizabeth, at the tears. “Elizabeth? You shouldn’t—”

“His fever—” Elizabeth could barely say the words. “Oh, his fever. It’s broken, Jason.” The tears slid down her cheek—tears of relief, of victory. He stared at her for another moment, before looking at their son, at the damp sweat on his cheeks, his neck— Jason sat up, his eyes bloodshot.

“His fever is gone—” Jason closed his eyes, pulled Cameron against him, and rocked gently, the little boy stirring slightly. “You’re all right. You’re all right,” he repeated. He kissed Cameron’s damp forehead, a tear sliding his cheek. “You made it.”

April 9, 2023

This entry is part 18 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 60 minutes.

Elizabeth knew that she ought to simply accept Jason at his word and allow his reassurances to soothe any lingering doubts, but it proved to be more difficult in the days that followed the assembly.  She told herself that Jason had never been anything other than honest, but she also knew he was kind and could find ways to shade a truth and cloak it with that decency.

Perhaps it was the child she carried that had caused these worries to resurface after months of lying dominant. And the cold, bitter winter that set in during early January, she thought, hardly helped. There had been a brief respite from the heavy snowfall when she and Jason had taken Cameron into town for a winter fair, and he’d begun teaching Cameron how to ice skate.

But then another storm hit shortly after that confined Elizabeth and Cameron to the house, only Jason braving the outside to tend to the horses and other animals out in the stables and barn — most of the ranch hands had left for the season, heading south for warmer weather as they did every year.

“How are you feeling today, Miss Elizabeth?” Alice asked cheerfully, setting down a breakfast plate. “Have you felt the new baby kick?”

“Flutters—” Elizabeth pressed a hand to her belly, the curve just beginning to deepen. “It was a few more weeks with Cameron.” It had been such a blessing to feel that movement, even when it had been painful and uncomfortable—it had reminded Elizabeth in the dark days after she’d left home and struck out on her own—that she wouldn’t be alone forever.

Alice drew her brows together. “Speaking of our young master, he’s not come down yet.” She smiled again, touching Elizabeth’s shoulder. “You stay and eat, miss. I’ll fetch him. Likely, he’s been distracted by that puppy.”

“All right. Thank you.” Elizabeth was grateful — she tired easily and the thought of taking those stairs again so soon was too much. She picked up her fork and began to eat.

Jason shoved another log onto the fire in the parlor, grimacing out the front window. He could see the dark storm clouds on the horizon and hoped it wouldn’t bring as much snow as the last one. Otherwise, they’d be trapped out on the ranch for weeks.

“Mister Jason.”

He turned to find Alice in the doorway, her hands clutched in front of her. “Alice? Is something wrong?” Her face was pale, her mouth pinched. His breath caught. “Elizabeth?”

“No, no, the missus is eating in the dining room. I don’t wish to alarm her in her condition—I went to check on little Cameron, and oh, he’s running a fever.”

A fever. Jason swallowed hard. It could be nothing. Children ran fevers. There were small colds and sniffles. But Alice had raised a son. Had looked after Michael and Emily. She knew when to worry. “Be sure Elizabeth stays down here,” he told her. “I’ll check on him.”

He forced himself to take the stairs slowly—the sound of his heavy footsteps rushing up the stairs would only carry and the very last thing he wanted was to worry Elizabeth before there was a good reason.

The little dog, Pip, was whining when Jason pushed open the door, circling and likely needing to be taken out side. The room was darkened — the sunlight was too weak to carry much light.

And Cameron lay on his back in the bed, the bedclothes kicked off. His blond hair was damp against his forehead. Jason gently perched on the edge, his pulse skittering as he drew closer—he could feel the heat from the little boy’s body even before Jason could touch him.

Jason brushed his hand against Cameron’s cheek. “Cam?” he murmured, still hoping it was nothing more than a simply illness. “Cam? Can you open your eyes?”

His eyelids fluttered but didn’t fully open, nothing more than a sliver of blue. “Papa.” The words were hoarse, pained. “Hurt.”

“Where?” Jason murmured, checking over his small body, praying he’d find no evidence of rashes. It could be so many things—

“Head. Feet. All over.” Cameron rolled over and curled his body into a fetal position. “Hurts.”

“Okay. Okay.” Jason smoothed his sweaty hair back off his forehead, then jerked back as Cameron began to cough violently, his small body wracked with tremors. It wasn’t a dry cough—

He exhaled slowly. The grippe. Fevers. Coughs. He’d had it as a child and survived, but he’d known several other children in town that had been killed by the high fevers. The body could only handle so much heat—and it was contagious. Highly contagious.

“All right.” Jason drew the covers back over Cameron. “Stay here. Rest. I’ll bring you something to help.”


“I know. Close your eyes. I’ll be back.”

Jason left the door open a crack and carried Pip downstairs. “Alice,” he said, finding the housekeeper hovering at the bottom. “I need you to take care of the dog, and then I need—” His mind raced. “It’s the grippe,” he told her.

Alice’s breath rushed out. “Oh, oh. Oh, dear. I have some honey syrup, and, oh, I stocked up on ginger when I was last in town. And I’ll get Johnny to get a snow bath ready.”

“Good. Good. I need to tell Elizabeth. And Alice—” He stopped her as she headed for the back of the house. “It’ll just be me looking after him. I won’t risk Elizabeth falling ill, and you need to take care of her.”

“You can depend on me, Mister Jason.” Alice always did better with a mission, and with her shoulders squared, she continued back towards the kitchen.

Jason went the opposite way, finding his way to the dining room where Elizabeth was finishing her breakfast. She had a teacup in her hand and a smile on her face when she saw him on the doorway. “Oh. Good morning. I slept so late—” The smile faded when he remained where he stood. “Jason?”

“Cameron has the grippe,” he said, and she was on her feet in a flash. “No,” he said, holding out a hand. “Don’t come any closer. I’ve already been in with him, and this can spread fast.”

“He’s my son—”

“And he’s mine, too,” Jason said. “I’ll see to him. We can’t risk you—”

“But—” Her eyes filled even as her hands rested protectively over the child she carried. “Jason, you could fall ill—”

“I know it. But I’m an adult, and I know how to take care of myself. Cameron’s still young. He’ll fight the snow baths and some of the medicine. If you weren’t—”

“If it were just me.” Elizabeth closed her eyes. Nodded. “Of course. Of course. You’re quite right.”

“I better head back upstairs.” He hovered another moment, hating that he couldn’t touch her, couldn’t hold her and offer more hope. He wouldn’t, of course, promise that Cameron would come through this. The odds were in their favor, but Jason knew better than most how fragile life was.

Particularly slight little boys like Cameron.

“I’ll take care of him,” Jason said, instead, holding her gaze.

“I know you will.”

Jason turned and went upstairs to await Alice.

He was right. Cameron fought like a wild man when Jason lowered him into the bathtub filled with snow. “No! No! Burns!”

“I know,” Jason said, wincing. The tiny fists that flew at him barely made an impact, but the tears and sobs of the miserable child did. But Cameron was burning up and he had to cool down his  body.

Alice hovered near the door, the container of honey syrup and a glass in her hand. After a few minutes holding Cameron down in the bath, Jason lifted him out, quickly wrapping him on a long dry cloth.

“Hurts,” Cameron sobbed, but he’d lost much his energy in the earlier fight and just slumped against his stepfather. “Papa.”

“I’ve got you,” Jason murmured, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, cuddling Cameron in his arms, keeping him as far away as possible as Alice and Johnny removed the bath. When they were gone, Jason gave Cameron the syrup, unsure whether to be relieved or worried when Cameron didn’t fight on the medicine, only let the spoon between his lips with a grimace at the strange taste.

He dressed Cameron in a fresh, wool nightshirt, then kept him in his arms, sitting back in the chair as the exhausting and trembling boy curled back into his embrace. The fever still burned, but not quite as high, Jason thought.

“Johnny’s riding to town for Doc Drake,” Alice said from the doorway.

Jason frowned at her. “But the storm—”

“Still aways off, and the snow is packed hard enough. We need a few supplies, and you’ll want your family to know—not Miss Lila,” Alice added. “But Mister Dillon. In case—in case.”

If the worst happened, Jason wouldn’t have to leave Elizabeth to inform his grandmother. He nodded grimly, tightening his hold around Cameron as if that alone could protect him.

“And I’ll see to the missus. She’s already fretting something fierce,” Alice added, “but I know she feel better knowing you’ve got in all in hand.”

Alice disappeared down the hall, and Jason exhaled slowly. He certainly hoped that was true. He readjusted Cameron and reached for the book on the table beside him. “‘At the appointed time I returned to Miss Havisham’s'”, Jason read,  “‘and my hesitating ring at the gate brought out Estella….”

Elizabeth was pacing the length of the parlor, unable to consider the basket of mending at her side. Her little boy, the center of her world, was ill, and she couldn’t touch him, couldn’t look after him—

She knew Jason had made the right choice—that she had more than just Cameron to think of, but, oh, it felt as though she were choosing between her children—and what if—

“Now here, missus—” Alice bustled in, a tea tray in her hands. “You need to rest. Keep off your feet. Mister Jason will do better if I can bring him good news of you—”

“How is Cameron?” Elizabeth asked, allowing Alice to settle her back in the chair. Then the housekeeper poured tea. “I heard—”

“He didn’t enjoy his snow bath, but he already looks better,” Alice said, patting Elizabeth’s hand. “Mister Jason knows all about caring for little ones. He saw to little Michael all on his own, you know.”

“No, I—” Elizabeth took a deep breath. “I didn’t realize that.” And cholera was a nasty illness—it would have been dreadful to watch a small boy waste away like that. “How awful.”

“Wouldn’t hear of anyone else. We were so thankful at first,” Alice said, “for the little master had been tucked away in the nursery and we thought he’d been spared. He and Miss Emily. Such a sweet girl. You have the care of her Ruby, you know.”

“Jason said as much. And I know Cameron’s pony was meant for Michael.”

“We’d already lost Mister Alan and his son. Mister Edward hung on for as long as he could, worried over his Lila.” Alice’s voice had roughened. “And my boy. My Ryan. We lost him within a few days.”

“Alice, I’m so sorry—”

“But little Michael—” Alice pressed a hand to her chest. “Well, that felt too much, you see. As if perhaps we’d been forsaken by a vengeful God. I know that might be blasphemous, but he was just a baby. Only just beginning to speak and be his own person—” She cleared her throat. “But Mister Jason took care of him from beginning to end. You shouldn’t worry about that.”

“I don’t.” And she realized that was true. She knew her son would receive the best care—that Jason loved Cameron as his own. “But it won’t stop me from worrying at all.”

“No, of course not. That’s a mother’s lot in life. But we’ll do our best, missus, and pray for mercy.”

April 7, 2023

This entry is part 17 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 57 minutes. Final scene took a bit more time.

Time seemed to be flying faster than ever as the days marched towards the end of the year, and the first snowfall of the year threatened the Port Charles annual Christmas assembly. Elizabeth had paced in front of their parlor window, praying that the weather would not keep them out at the ranch. She’d helped plan the harvest festival in September, but that had been at Lila’s side. This assembly had been the first event in which Lila had handed over the full reins, and it would do much to establish Elizabeth as a capable hostess, worthy of taking up the reins of the Morgan family legacy.

Jason had listened as Elizabeth explained the stakes of this evening but with a slightly quizzical expression that suggested he either did not understood or accept that she simply had to be in attendance or it would be more difficult for Elizabeth to make a place for herself in Port Charles. To his way of thinking, he’d married her and his family accepted her just fine. Everyone should just get in line.

But he hadn’t said it out loud, and she’d appreciated it. He was always so kind to her, always so considerate. He really had been the perfect husband and father, and while he might understand right now, he would if the assembly was a disaster. He had never lived without the approval of the world he lived in. He was a man, and it was so much harder for them to fall from grace.

For a woman, it was if they were born at the bottom and had to climb their way to the top, to earn their way into positions men were granted from birth.

The weather cleared and the snow was packed hard enough to travel upon. Cameron was overjoyed at the chance to bring his sweet greyhound puppy, Pip, to spend the evening with his great-grandmother, being spoiled rotten, as his parents attended the assembly.

Jason hoisted Cameron into the winter sleigh, and cautioned him to hold the dog tightly. Then, instead of holding out his arm to help Elizabeth down the porch stairs and over the icy front walk, Jason lifted her. “Oh, this is—I can still walk—” Her cheeks flushed, Elizabeth gripped his shoulder. “I’ve walked on ice before—”

“I wasn’t there to carry you,” Jason said, and she sighed. His overprotective nature could be quite bothersome at times, but it also warmed her soul. She worried, still, that she was little more than the convenient wife foisted on him by his impulsive cousin and lonely grandmother. It had been months, really, since she’d been plagued with those thoughts, but every so often, they returned. She always chased them back by reminding herself that kindness and good upbringing only went so far. Jason could have done nothing beyond marrying her and providing a home.

“We’ll see how you feel about that when I’ve grown as large as the porch,” she muttered, and he just laughed at her, settling her in the sleigh. Before long, he cracked the reins and they were off to town.


Several hours later, Elizabeth felt quite pleased with herself as she watched dancers swirl around the wooden floors of the town hall, enjoying the beat of the informal orchestra gathered for the evening. On the fringes of the dance floor, couples and groups milled about. The weather had cleared enough for many of the area’s ranchers to come in for the evenings with their families.

“Here—” Jason appeared at her side, handing her a cup of the punch he’d gone to fetch. “This is, uh, good, right?” He swept his eyes over the crowd. “It’s what you wanted?”

“Yes.” She beamed with pride. “It’s precisely what I wanted, and how your grandmother told me it should be. I was so nervous when she said she would step back, but—oh, your friend Sonny is gesturing at you.” Elizabeth touched his sleeve. “You should go—”

Jason made a face. He hadn’t left her side all night—that overprotective nature again— “I can see Sonny any time—”

“Yes, but you don’t.” And the neighboring rancher hadn’t exactly warmed up much to Elizabeth, she thought. Well, this would be a good opportunity to change that. “Please. I’ll be fine.”

He hesitated, then nodded and squeezed her hand before heading over to Sonny. Elizabeth decided to make a loop around the room to be sure everyone was having a wonderful time.

Halfway around, she came across Robin Scorpio stepping off the dance floor. “Elizabeth!” Robin said. She turned to her dance partner. “Uncle Mac, go find Aunt Felicia.” Her uncle melted into the crowd.

“I was hoping to see you tonight,” Elizabeth said, linking her arm in Robin’s. “I wanted to thank you for all your help tonight—”

“Of course. You’ve done a wonderful job—” Robin paused as a pair of women crossed their path. Her warm brown eyes darkened. “Britt.”

“Doctor,” Britta Westbourne said with a a false smile. “It’s nice to see you out of your office. I wasn’t sure you knew how to dress up for a party anymore.”

“It is nice to see you, Robin,” the blonde next to Brita offered, and Elizabeth dimly remembered that Robin was connected to Maxie Jones in some way. “Mrs. Morgan.”

“Yes, Mrs. Morgan, good evening.” Britt flicked her cold stare to Elizabeth, the expression at odds with the smile on her face. “You always seem to pop up out of nowhere, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry?” Elizabeth said, lifting her brows.

“Well, of course, not quite out of nowhere. After all, you’re an old family friend, aren’t you?” Britt tipped her head. “You’ve known them forever.”

“My grandparents were old friends with Lila, yes,” Elizabeth said coolly. “How fortunate for me to be able to continue the connection.”

“And how fortunate for your son.”

Elizabeth’s face remained blank. “Excuse me?”

“Britta just means that it’s nice that you were able to get married again,” Maxie said in a rush. “And that your son shares a superficial resemblance to Jason. He won’t feel left out.”

“Yes, I’m sure Britt is, as always, concerned with the well-being of others,” Robin said. “If you’ll excuse us—”

“How odd that Jason never mentioned an arrangement with a widow from back East,” Britt said as Robin attempt to pull Elizabeth away from the two women. “He certainly never indicated to me that there was another claim on his affections.”

Another claim—Elizabeth drew her brows together. “I’m sorry?”

“I just find it unusual that Jason never spoke of a betrothal to anyone else. He certainly had ample to time to inform interested parties.”

“I want to introduce you to my parents,” Robin said, gently tugging on Elizabeth’s arm. “Come on.”

Bewildered, Elizabeth allowed herself to be drawn away from the women and in the opposite direction. Another claim? Interested parties? Did she mean—

“Pay zero attention to Britt Westbourne,” Robin murmured. “I had more of claim on Jason’s affections, and that was ages ago—”

“He might not have said anything to anyone—” It was as if a bucket of ice water had been thrown over her. Perhaps Jason had been interested in the other woman—maybe it had been new and unknown to his cousin, too soon for him to think of marriage, but it might have blossomed if Elizabeth hadn’t been dropped on his doorstep—

Somehow, Elizabeth made it through the rest of the evening, pasting a smile on her face as Robin introduced her parents, Robert and Anna Scorpio. Then Jason came over to claim her for a dance, and she must have done an admirable job of keeping her emotions masked for Jason didn’t ask any questions.

As the evening wound down, Jason convinced Elizabeth it would be all right to leave and return to Lila’s home where they’d spend the night. She was relieved to get out of the room, eager to get away from the worries and suspicions that somehow she’d derailed the trajectory of Jason’s life, upending the plans he had made for himself. All those old worries and insecurities had returned in a rush, swamping her.

“You shouldn’t worry,” Jason said that night as she sat at the dressing table Lila had moved into Jason’s childhood bedroom. “Everyone was having a good time.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth murmured, drawing out the pins from her hair. One by one, the metal clinked into a small dish, and the heavy, curling mass dropped down. She reached for a hairbrush. She wouldn’t ask. It was none of her business, after all. Jason had made vows in front of God and his family, and he was an honorable man. She had no right to ask or demand more than he’d offered.

But, oh, how it hurt to wonder if he’d been on the edge of falling in love with someone else, and that her presence had ruined everything. If it had just been her, maybe Jason would have sent her own her way, returning her to the dredges of Port Hamilton or maybe sending her on to San Francisco.

Instead, she’d had a little boy whose story had captured his sympathy, and Jason had a lot of love to give children. Everyone spoke so wonderfully of his relationship with his nephew. So he’d married her instead of sending her away.

It would do no good to dwell on what might lay in Jason’s heart, she argued with herself. It could only hurt—

“Did you have some sort of understanding with Britta Westbourne?”

The question fell from her mouth before she knew that she would ask it, and her cheeks flamed as she caught sight of Jason the mirror, standing at the bed with his eyes wide.


“Nothing. Nothing.” Elizabeth rose and dragged a shawl around her shoulders, the winter chill seeping into her skin, despite the fire he’d laid and the thick wool gown she wore. “Just a silly—nothing.”

“It’s clearly not—”

“I should get some rest. It was a long day—” She drew back the counterpane, but Jason tugged it towards his side. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.”

“You’re my wife,” Jason told her.

“Yes.” Her shoulders slumped, but Elizabeth forced a smile. She’d received her answer. “Yes, and I count myself fortunate—”

Jason gritted his teeth and rounded the bed. “That’s not what I—of course it’s your business, and no. The answer is no—”

“I shouldn’t have asked—”

Jason caught her hands in his, and waited, but she would not look at him. That would only make all of this worse. “I did not have an understanding with her,” he repeated. “When my grandmother asked me to consider marrying, when I gave her a promise, yes, Britt was someone that I looked at. Someone I considered—”

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes. I understand—”

“You don’t.” Jason exhaled, drew her into his arms, but she couldn’t allow herself to relax. Couldn’t find comfort in his embrace. “I don’t know if I ever intended to keep my promise to my grandmother. If Dillon hadn’t brought you here, I’d likely still be just where I was a year ago.”

“You don’t owe me any explanations,” Elizabeth insisted. “I just—”

“When I realized I couldn’t see a future with Britt, she was angry, and I don’t think she ever forgave me. I didn’t care, to be honest,” he told her. “I had never made her any promises, and we’d only gone out walking a few times. I escorted her to a few assemblies. But I didn’t want anything else. And I couldn’t do it just for my grandmother. I’m sorry if she said anything to suggest differently.”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “So there was no one—” She hesitated. “When I arrived, there was no one you had to disappoint?”

“Just Dillon,” Jason said and she smiled at that. “And we really should think about revenge. He’s been walking around too smugly all these months. I told you that first day — I went to that hotel room to explain the misunderstanding and to promise anything you needed for a fresh start somewhere else.” He brought her knuckles to his mouth. “And then you gave me my walking papers. I knew that I had to take a second, closer look.”

Some of the doubt and worry dissipated, and now her smile was more genuine. “And it was worth it then? That second look?”

“Best decision of my life.”

April 2, 2023

This entry is part 16 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 58 minutes.

The local assembly hall was richly decorated and adorned for the holiday season, with strands of garland and holly hanging generously from every available surface. Elizabeth wandered over to the tables where the refreshments would be held and ignored the looks and whispers from some of the local women, particularly nosy Amy Vining and Britta Westbourne.

“You shouldn’t pay any attention to them.” Elizabeth turned at the new voice, recognizing Robin Scorpio, the pretty dark-haired woman she’d seen at other meetings. “Britt’s never forgiven you for swooping in and marrying Jason out from under her nose. And Amy’s just a gossip.”

“I don’t worry about any of them,” Elizabeth said, shrugging, though she was grateful every day that she’d hid her scandalous past. No one had ever questioned her life as a widow, and she thought most people would forget that Jason wasn’t Cameron’s biological father. After all, her little boy had Jason’s coloring—

Oh, maybe there would be other whispers, Elizabeth realized with a sinking thought. After all, Lila had put out that she was a connection from back home. What if they thought Jason had come East—

“They’ll have something new to talk about eventually,” Robin said, sliding her arm through Elizabeth’s and walking her over to the stage where a small group of townsfolk would play instruments during the Christmas party. “And you don’t know this, but I’m driving them insane by talking to you at all.”

“What?” Elizabeth frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, it’s all ancient history, but Jason and I had a little bit of a romance a lifetime ago.” Robin’s smile was genuine as she continued. “We were still at school, and then I wanted to go to San Francisco — I wanted to become a doctor.”

“You—oh. You work with Dr. Drake—”

“I do. I dragged him back from San Francisco. We practice together,” Robin continued, “but I’m sure many of the old  biddies thought Jason was pining away for me. He wasn’t,” she said quickly. “I just didn’t want you to hear any of the gossip and wonder. Jason never really thought about marriage at all. And that was never in our plans.”

“No one has said anything—”

“Not to your face,” Robin said cheerfully. “But you can be sure they have behind your back. Don’t listen to any of them.”

“I don’t plan to.”

“Good. Patrick told me your news, I hope that’s all right. I was so happy to see Jason settling down. He was so good with his nephew, he’s told you that, hasn’t he?”

“A few times.”

“A tragedy,” Robin murmured, her eyes growing distant. “It’s why I came home for good. I was just visiting when the epidemic broke out. I worked for days trying to save as many as  I could, but we lost so many. And Jason’s family was nearly wiped out. I don’t know how Lila got out of bed after losing her husband, both children, and all but three of her grandchildren. Ned lives in San Francisco.” She took a deep breath. “But you and your son, I know that’s brought them all such joy. And this new child. If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate.” Robin squeezed Elizabeth’s hand and then left her.

Robin’s words were still echoing in Elizabeth’s head a few hours later as she left the assembly hall and walked the short distance to Lila’s grand house to retrieve Cameron. She wasn’t bothered by Robin’s recounting of a youthful romance — Elizabeth hadn’t come to her husband as an untouched saint, and Elizabeth could hardly begrudge him the same.

It was the reminder of how much grief Jason had suffered in the previous years, and wondering if it had anything to do with the strange way he’d been acting since they’d learned of her condition. He was overprotective on the ranch, not letting her near the horses when he’d previously not blinked at her help. And then there had been that dinner—

“Hello, dear,” Lila said as Elizabeth came into the parlor. She removed her reading glasses. “How does the assembly hall look?”

“Like it’s been drowned in garland and holly,” Elizabeth said, taking a seat next to the older woman. “Things are nearly ready for the end of the week.”

“I’m so glad you and Jason have decided to come and stay the night in town. You’ll enjoy yourselves so much more.” Lila set aside the newspaper she’d been reading. “I wanted to apologize for overstepping when you were here last. And for sending Dillon out to the ranch.”

“I—” Elizabeth paused. “When did Dillon come to the ranch?”

“Oh, a few days ago. I know Jason said he wouldn’t need and any of the toys or furniture we’d saved, but I didn’t think that would extend to the cradle. It’s been in our family since Alan was born,” Lila said. “Alan and Tracy both used it, and then all three of Alan’s children. It was meant for the eldest son—” A pinched, pain expression fluttered over her face. “And, well, that would be Jason now.”

“I didn’t—he didn’t—” Elizabeth exhaled. “He sent it back, didn’t he?”

“He did. Dillon said he was quite irritated over the matter. I really hope you’ll both accept my apology.”

“Of course. You meant well. I’ll speak to Jason.”

After reassuring Lila once again, Elizabeth retrieved Cameron from the nursery, hitched up the carriage and horses, and made her way home, wondering how she would broach the topic with her husband, if she would at all. It wasn’t her family. Perhaps it wasn’t her place—

Was Jason worried about the implications? That she’d expect Cameron to inherit the cradle as the supposed elder child? While it might explain his reaction in some ways, it did not sit well with her as the reason. Jason had never once suggested he planned to treat Cameron differently from any future children. Rather, he’d accepted from the first, the responsibility to act as Cameron’s father. He’d seemed to find joy in the prospect.

Once at home, Elizabeth turned Cameron over to Alice and hunted down her husband, still not quite settled as to what she might say. She found him in the training yards, putting Dusty through his paces.

The stallion was pleased to see her and immediately pulled away from Jason to shove his head over the fence to sniff at Elizabeth. “Hello, darling,” she murmured, her fingertips brushing against the velvet of his coat. “I miss you, too.”

“How was your meeting?” Jason asked, glancing behind her to watch Johnny unhitch the carriage and lead the horses inside.

“It was fine.” Elizabeth bit her lip. “Your grandmother wanted to apologize for sending the cradle.”

Jason’s mouth tightened. “Did she?”

“Yes. I—” She paused. “I suppose she was a bit hurt that you didn’t want to use the cradle that your father used,” Elizabeth said finally. “Is—I don’t—is there something wrong with it?”

“No. I meant what I said before. She ought to keep it there at the house for visits.” Jason tugged the stallion back towards him. “We’ll get one for here. I was going to work on it this winter. Cameron can help.”

“Oh. You—you don’t plan to just purchase a new one?”

“No. I was going to make one. Unless you’d rather—”

“No, I think that would be lovely, and such a wonderful way for Cameron to feel included.” Elizabeth’s spirits brightened. “He won’t have been able to use it, but it’ll be his all the same.”

Jason’s face eased. “That’s what I hoped. He should have his own things. Not hand-me-downs from people he never knew. He deserves that much. He’s the oldest.”

“Of course. And Lila will understand completely when you explain it that way.” Elizabeth stepped back. “I ought to go in and check on Cameron. You’ll be in for supper?”

“I will.”


Jason watched Elizabeth carefully pick her way from the stables towards the front of the house. The winter had already descended on the area—their autumn shorter than normal this year, and he thought they’d see snowfall before the Christmas. He would have to make sure she had all the clothing she needed for a cold winter. And that they were ready to clear the paths so she wouldn’t be hurt—

Once Elizabeth was inside, Jason turned his attention back to the horse who also seemed to watching her go. The horse and the woman missed one another, and he felt a spear of shame for forcing her to stop coming to the stables. But if Dusty or another horse kicked at her — or she fell—

At least he’d navigated the tricky situation of the cradle. For the first time in his life, Jason cursed his grandmother. Lila knew what she’d been doing by taking her apology to Elizabeth, and not to Jason. She was interfering—

But he’d handled it, Jason told himself as he walked Dusty back into the stable and put him up for the night. Even better, he’d come up with something better than an old cradle. He’d carve one himself, and he’d teach Cameron, just as Jason had been taught by his own father.  Cameron could put his initials into the wood—

It would be something better. Something that only belonged to them without memories of what came before.


When Jason had brought the puppy home for Cameron, he’d expected the little  boy to name the greyhound after the little rag doll puppy — Archie. But Cameron had been horrified. Archie wasn’t going anywhere — that had been his first dog. And anyway, the little greyhound wasn’t an Archie. Anyone could see that. He was something better.

Cameron had insisted on pouring over the primary books his mother was always trying to teach him to read, and then tugging novels and other books from shelves in Jason’s study, asking for words, looking for just the right word to describe the puppy with his long nose and spindly frame.

Finally, only the day before Elizabeth’s conversation with Lila, Cameron had dragged down Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and begged Jason to read it to him. Maybe the dog’s name would be in this book. Jason had obliged, and within the first few pages, they’d had a winner. The dog’s name was Pip. Of course it was, Jason thought. But Cameron hadn’t wanted him to stop reading, and decided that it would be his papa’s job to put him up for bed in evening because they would read first.

So Jason perched on the edge of Cameron’s bed, reading and keeping an eye on his son as Cameron drifted into sleep, Archie the rag puppy clutched in one hand and Pip the greyhound’s snout in the crook of his other arm.

Jason set the novel on the bedside table, turned the lamp down low, and made sure Cameron was warm and tucked in, before going across the hall. Inside their room, Elizabeth had brought in a chair that sat before the fireplace, a basket of mending by her side. She’d struggled with that first, Jason remembered, but she’d taught herself to sew without the tip of her finger.

He across from her, in the chair he’d brought because it seemed like a cozy and private way to end each day, just of the two of them. Elizabeth smiled at him, the flames of the fire flickering over her face. She’d seemed sad after that dinner with Lila, and there’d been shadows in her face earlier during the conversation at the stables.

But he’d reassured her, and now she was happy again. “I never thought Cameron would fall in love with Dickens,” she said, pulling out one of Cameron’s shirts and searching her bag for a button that would match. “But he was excited for you to keep reading tonight.”

“He made it through an entire chapter,” Jason said, toeing off his boots and setting his hands before the fire. “We’ll see how how he feels after a few more nights of it.”

“And he loves that dog. Thank you for remembering it. He’s wanted one for so long.” Elizabeth met his gaze. “You’ve always been so wonderful with him. From the beginning.”

“He made it easy.” And so had she, Jason thought. Both of them had just trusted Jason from nearly the first moment. It ought to have been harder to create a life together from nothing — she’d been the bride his cousin had found for him after all — but sitting here, it was as if they’d always been traveling down the road towards one another.

“I was thinking you might want to start training with Dusty again.”

Her fingers stilled, and she blinked. “But you said—”

“As long as I’m there,” Jason added in a rush. “For now. I—he misses you. And, well, so do I. We were doing good work out there together. It’ll be a few more weeks before winter really sets in and we won’t be able to train as much—” His words were cut off as Elizabeth flew out of the chair and launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck. Startled, Jason laughed, then drew her into his lap. “I suppose that’s a yes?”

“It’s absolutely a yes. I know you’re worried, and I promise I’ll be very, very careful.” Elizabeth beamed. “You won’t have to worry. The baby comes first.”

“I know.” He kissed her, savoring and lingering. He hadn’t realized how lonely he was until that day in the train station, when he’d walked in and saw her sitting there. Waiting. He would do anything to protect their life together.

April 1, 2023

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 58 minutes.

After learning of Elizabeth’s condition, she reluctantly agreed to step back from some of the new duties she’d assumed in the stables. She personally thought that she could have continued on with little alteration to her activities, but Jason had seemed so worried for her safety that she’d agreed with little argument. And he’d asked her for so little since their marriage had begun, it seemed churlish not to agree.

“Just until you’ve safely delivered,” Jason told her. He tightened his arm around her, the sounds of rain pattering gently against the windowpane. “For my sake,” he added. “I still have a few months left on my term, and I can’t be here every day.”

“I’ve already agreed,” Elizabeth murmured, her eyes closed and her mind drifting towards sleep. “You mustn’t worry so.”

“I won’t.” He would, of course, but he would do a better job hiding it from her, Jason decided as her breathing deepened and the weight of her body tucked against his shifted, indicating she’d fallen sleep. She’d done this once before, and all on her own—though he disliked thinking of her alone with Cameron back East. How had she managed? Had there been anyone to turn to? Had the birth been easy?

It might not be within his power to guarantee that both his wife and their child would be safe and healthy, but surely there were ways to encourage that ending—actions Jason could take.

It was difficult to follow her into sleep, nearly impossible to stop his mind from imagining all the disasters that could occur if he wasn’t there to pay attention. His father had managed this three times, his grandfather twice, and hadn’t Jason’s brother done it as well?  They’d kept their wives from tragedy—

But they weren’t there to ask, and none of Jason’s other acquaintances were fathers. He was on his own.


Elizabeth had suggested they wait a few more weeks before telling his family — it was Lila’s fondest wish for more grandchildren—she wanted to be absolutely sure. And she fretted over Cameron’s reaction. He was a secure little boy, who had taken to life on the ranch and as Jason’s son so easily, one could scarcely remember it had only been a handful of months since they’d met.

But finally, as the stubborn summer finally relented and the days turned towards autumn, Elizabeth and Jason took Cameron into town for their weekly dinner with Lila and Dillon, prepared to share their good news.

Cameron raced into the house, eager only to see his grandmother, but for the treats she ensured were on hand for the little boy. By the time Jason and Elizabeth entered the parlor, Cameron was already sitting at Lila’s side, a piece of a sugar candy in his hands.

“My darlings.” Lila rose and embraced them both, lingering with a hug for Elizabeth. “I’m so happy to see you both. And of course, my little prince.”

Cameron beamed up at her. “That’s me,” he told his parents smugly. “Prince Cameron.”

Elizabeth laughed and sat on the settee across from Lila and Cameron. “Yes, Prince Cameron who must remember to clean up after his new puppy. And his pony.”

“Puppy!” Lila’s eyes sparkled. “I must hear everything.”

Only too happy to talk about the dog that Jason had brought home a week before, Cameron’s excited words kept them occupied until dinner was served. They talked of life on the ranch, Jason’s last few weeks as sheriff, Dillon’s plans to stay on as a deputy, and plans for Cameron to begin school in the spring.

“I know how to read. Mama taught me,” Cameron told Lila proudly. “But Papa says I have to learn how to do lots more so I can have more horses and race them and make them happy and—”

“And it will be good for you to make friends,” Elizabeth added. “Your own age.”

After dinner, Cameron went up to play in the nursery, and they settled back in the parlor, with tea for the ladies, and ale for Jason and his cousin. When his grandmother had served both she and Elizabeth, Jason sent Elizabeth a glance, and she smiled nervously. Nodded.

“Grandmother, Elizabeth and I have some news to share.” He took her hand in his, felt her trembling fingers in his own. Lila looked hopeful, but said nothing. “In May, we think, you’ll have another grandchild to spoil.”

“Oh, oh! I had hoped!” Lila rose to embrace Elizabeth again. “My sweet girl! A baby!”

“Congratulations.” Dillon’s smile was smug, and Jason knew the little brat was taking some credit for the action. “And thank you. You’ve bought me at least another year of breathing room.”

“Don’t get used to it,” Jason told him. “Grandmother will remember you at some point—”

“Sure. But you keep giving her grandkids—” Dillon shrugged and looked back at their grandmother and Jason’s wife, seated together now as Lila pumped Elizabeth for any and all information. “I’m safe for a while.”

“And you shouldn’t worry about anything,” Lila told Elizabeth, patting her hand. “Now, I know you and Jason wanted Cameron to have things here in town, but we have so much furniture and toys left over from the children we’ve raised. You must look through it—”

Elizabeth opened her mouth, likely to agree, but Jason interrupted. “Grandmother, I’ve told you. We want you to have things here. Elizabeth comes to town often enough, and it will be a relief to have somewhere safe for Cameron and the baby.”

Elizabeth pressed her lips together, her expression a bit mystified. But then she smiled. “Yes. Of course. You’ve been so kind to Cameron, and he thinks of this house as another home. I want all our children to feel that way.”

“Still—” Lila looked almost mutinous but Jason wasn’t going to change his mind on the subject. He wanted Cameron to have his own things. For his children to have their own memories.

“We should get home,” Jason said, interrupting her again. He set his glass aside. “You need your rest,” he told Elizabeth who would never argue with him in front of his family, and she took a deep breath.

“Yes. I get tired easily,” she said, squeezing Lila’s hands. “Thank you for dinner, and for your excitement. I will see you at the meeting in a few days.”

“Bring Cameron,” Lila said as she walked with them to the door. “I don’t see him nearly as often as I’d like.”

“Of course.” Elizabeth hugged his grandmother, but when Lila turned to Jason, he’d already started up the stairs to fetch Cameron. He didn’t want to chance being left alone with Lila just yet — she would have too many questions.

He didn’t want to answer any of them.


The drive back to the ranch was mostly silent, as Jason held the reins and concentrated on the road in front of them. It was just as well, Elizabeth thought. She hardly knew what she would say to him.

Lila had apparently already offered Jason anything he wanted from the nursery prior to tonight, and he’d refused without saying anything. She couldn’t understand his protest — the nursery was filled to the brim with toys, and Elizabeth knew there were more pieces of furniture in the attics. Lila had told her once, with great sorrow, that she’d saved things for her children. For her grandchildren.

Only she’d lost nearly everyone one of them before they could use any of it. She’d had to pin all her hopes and dreams on Jason and Dillon—of course she’d expected Jason to inherit pieces that she’d brought East —

But Jason had refused. Twice. Without broaching the subject with Elizabeth, which meant it was not up for discussion.  Why had Jason refused Cameron access to pieces of his family’s history? And for their own child—

Her hand rested on her abdomen where little evidence of the child could be seen. What reason could there be? Jason had thrown himself into being Cameron’s father after that day in the lake, and he’d never hinted at any unhappiness. Quite the contrary, until he’d rudely refused his grandmother’s offer, Elizabeth had nearly thought herself living in the fairy tales she’d read about as a child.

Had she been fooling herself in thinking there was affection on Jason’s side? She’d wondered at the beginning why a man who had hardly seemed in need of a wife had chosen her, and she’d thought it perhaps was due to his loneliness, for the need of a woman in his bed. But he’d never treated her that way—

She pushed away her worries and fretting. Whatever reason Jason had for refusing Lila’s offer, she would not allow it to affect her marriage. Jason was a kind man, an excellent husband, and a perfect father. There was little reason to invite trouble by asking questions that might bring unhappy answers.


Jason was surprised when, after their dinner, Elizabeth said nothing about Lila’s offer. She didn’t press him or demand an explanation. They tucked a sleepy Cameron into bed and retired to their own room, just as they did most nights, and Jason wondered—hoped—Elizabeth had accepted the reasons he’d given his grandmother.

But Lila was not to be so easily defeated, and on the day Elizabeth went to town with Cameron for the committee meeting, Dillon arrived at the ranch, towing a wagon with a sheet-covered lump.

Jason stood at the top of the porch stairs, a grim expression stretched across his face. His cousin hopped over the wheel, his boots hitting the ground. “Give me a hand with this, will you?”

Jason opened his mouth to refuse, but fell silent when Dillon whipped off the sheet to reveal a cradle. A cradle Jason recognized all too well —

It had been ordered from London, the city of his grandmother’s birth, and shipped to New York as soon as Lila had told Edward of their impending first child. Nothing but the best for Edward and his family. The cradle had been carved by one of the city’s finest artists, and both of Lila’s children had used it.

They’d brought it West with them, first to San Francisco where Jason’s father had inherited it as the eldest son. All three of Alan’s children had called the cradle home for their first few months of life. And then, Jason’s brother had married and inherited.

The last baby to be held secure, to be rocked into sleep was Michael.

It belonged to the eldest son. And now it was here, on the ranch, mocking Jason and reminding him that due to the whims of a capricious fate, he was the eldest son. His brother was gone. His nephew. All dead. Because life was fragile. And the people you loved could be lost without warning.

“Take it back,” Jason said, roughly .Stepping back, he met his cousin’s confused eyes. “Take it back,” he repeated sharply. “And tell Grandmother not to send anything else. I don’t want it.”

January 1, 2023

This entry is part 14 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 62 minutes.

Jason had already tossed the horse’s reins aside when Elizabeth began to sway, but he had taken no more than a step when she collapsed, falling backward straight into the stallion—Dusty had come a long way since the summer but the quick movements started him and he reared—

Putting Elizabeth’s fragile form at the mercy of more than nine hundred pounds of agitated animal—and he’d never make it in time to stop—

But Johnny was already there, grabbing and yanking Dusty’s reins, the horse veering sharply away but still fighting against the Irishman’s. “Whoa—”

Jason raced to Elizabeth, sliding hard against the ground as he dropped next to her, taking her hand and checking for a pulse in her wrist, then he scooped her into his arms and turned towards the fence. “Cameron—”

He only now registered the little boy’s cries, not realizing that Cameron had slid between the posts and was already across the training yard—where Johnny was still calming the agitated Dusty and Jason’s horse was wandering around.

“Damn it—” he swore, jerked his head back. “Cameron, get back—”

“Mama!” His face was red and stained with tears. “Mama!”

“Get back over the fence,” Jason ordered, more harshly than he wanted to, but the fear was pounding in his veins—for the pale, unconscious woman in his arms, and for the small child at the mercy of animals who towered over him— “Now! You know the rules!”

“I got him!” Johnny looped Dusty’s reins over a hitching post, then dashed past Jason to lift Cameron into his arms with ease. “Come on, little guy. Let’s get your mother some help.”

Satisfied, Jason went towards the pasture gate where another stable hand, who had heard the ruckus, was already tugging it open. “Johnny, send for the doctor—” He didn’t bother to check if his order had been heard, just tightened his grip on Elizabeth, his long legs eating up the distance between the training yards at the house.

“Mama!” Cameron sobbed from behind them. “Make her wake up!”

Jason reached the steps at the back of the house, almost relieved to see Alice coming to the open doorway, drawn by Cameron’s cries.

“What on Earth—” She pushed the door open, stepping back hastily as Jason barrelled past her, making for the stairs at the front of the house. “Mister Jason—”

“See to Cameron,” Jason tossed over his shoulder. “Johnny—”

“I got it—” Johnny set Cameron on his feet, then crouched down. “Hey, there. You stay with Alice, and I’ll head to town for a doctor. You’ll see. Everything will be right as rain—”

“I’ll get you some milk and a couple of those cookies,” Alice promised, trading a troubled glance with the stablehand.

“I b-broke the r-rules,” Cameron sobbed. “Papa mad—”

“Papa’s just scared,” Alice assured him. “Go,” she told Johnny. “I’ve got it handled.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Johnny disappeared out the door, and it swung closed with a thud behind him, and Alice went to look after Cameron.


Jason laid Elizabeth out on their bed, the blood still pounding in his ears as he went to the water and pitcher on the nearby table. It was the heat, he told himself. He’d get some water into her and shed some of the heavy clothes, and it would be all right—

It would be just fine.

He turned back, a cloth damp with water in his hand, relieved to see Elizabeth’s eyelashes fluttering. She blinked at him, then raised herself up on her elbows. “What—what’s going on—”

“Just rest,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed, gently dabbing at her cheeks with the cloth, the streaks of dirt disappearing. “I’ll have someone go fetch ice—” The closest icehouse was just outside of town by the Grand Lake—he knew he should have had one built nearer the ranch—

Elizabeth blinked at him, her eyes still glazed and slightly unfocused. “How did I get inside?”

“I brought you in.” Jason unlaced her boots and tossed them to the floor. “Sit up for a second—” She was still sluggish, her movements delayed, so he able to strip off her shirtwaist and skirt, leaving her clad in nothing but a chemise and a thin petticoat—

Her color was already getting better, Jason decided, helping her to lay back and propping a pillow behind her bed. “I’ve sent for the doctor.”

“So silly, all this fuss. I was out too long,” Elizabeth said, but her eyes drifted closed again. “You’ve warned me about the heat—”

And he hadn’t done anything to remind her, had he? He’d let her work all these weeks under a hot sun as if she’d been born and raised to work a ranch—Jason clenched his jaw. “Not enough,” he muttered, relieved when Alice came in with a fresh bowl of water. “Cameron?” he asked, thinking of their son for the first time since coming upstairs.

“Enjoying some cool milk and cookies. Worried over his mother, so I said I’d come to see.” Alice smiled brightly. “And there you are, missus. Looking much better.”

“I feel silly,” Elizabeth said. She stifled a yawn. “I’ve simply worked a bit too long—”

“Burned the candle at both ends, didn’t you?” Alice said. She handed Jason the new bowl and retrieved the old. “In town planning with Missus Lila, and then out here with the horses, and then reading with Master Cameron in the evening.” She leveled a glare at Jason who scowled. “Seems to me a few days rest is in order.”

“I didn’t mean to worry anyone,” Elizabeth said, sighing. “I’m so sorry—but I won’t need to be in town as much—the harvest festival was quite a success, and the Christmas assembly doesn’t require as much attention—”

“We’ll just wait to see what Doctor Drake says,” Jason said, bringing her a new cloth and dabbing at her neck and collarbone. “Rest—”

“And Cameron—he was outside. He must have been so worried—” Elizabeth grimaced. “And scared. I don’t think he’s ever seen me sick. Will you check on him?”

Jason started to refuse, unwilling to leave her side until he was sure she was going to be all right, but he remembered now he’d yelled at Cameron and how the little boy had cried. “All right. I’ll be right back.”

Cameron was in the kitchen, a cup of milk and a trio of cookies set in front of him, all looking quite untouched. His cheeks were stained with tears and dirt, his eyes puffing from crying.

Jason crouched next to him and Cameron sniffled, more tears sliding down his face. “Hey. Mama’s okay. She’s awake. We’ll have the doctor say for sure, but she’s okay now—”

“You mad at me.” Cameron wiped his nose his sleeve. “I broke rules.”

“Yeah. You did. But I wasn’t mad—” Jason hesitated. “I was angry, and I was scared,” he admitted and Cameron’s gaze focused on him. “There were horses that could have hurt you. You can’t be in the training yard alone. So, yes, you broke a big rule. But I know you were scared, too. So I’m sorry for yelling.”

“I-I’m sorry for breaking the rules.” Cameron hugged him, burrowing his face into Jason’s neck. Jason hugged him tightly, lifting him out of his chair as Jason rose to his feet. “Mama okay?”

“I think. I hope so. Doctor Drake will tell us—” He turned towards the front of the houses when he heard the clatter of hooves. Cameron still in his arms, Jason strode towards the entry way, relieved to see Patrick Drake looping the reins of his horse over the post just below the porch, Johnny just behind him. “You made good time—”

“Caught me on the way back to town,” Patrick said, lifting his black medical bag and coming inside the house. “Johnny said your wife collapsed?”

“I think it was just the heat,” Jason said, setting Cameron on the ground. “She’s upstairs and awake, but—”

“But we’ll see.”

Jason left Cameron with Johnny and Alice, then walked Patrick up the stairs and down to the bedroom where Elizabeth was sitting up. Her cheeks flushed when the doctor came in, and she started to tug the bedclothes in front of her thin chemise. “Patrick, this is Elizabeth. Elizabeth, Doctor Patrick Drake.”

“Hey there, Missus.” Patrick flashed her one of his famous dimpled grins, then set the medical bag on the dresser. “How are you feeling?”

“Tired,” Elizabeth admitted, flashing a hesitant smile. “I felt a bit tired all day, honestly, and I should have stopped for water. I just get…I forget when I’m working with the horses.”

“Heat can sneak up on you, and it’s been tricky this fall.” Patrick fitted an instrument into his ears, then pressed the end against Elizabeth’s chest. “Heart is a bit rapid, but not too much.” He tilted his head, studying her form. “Are you eating all right? Sleeping? Everything else, uh, regular?”

“Sleeping, yes. Eating, I suppose. More than usual.” Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed. “And regular—” Her mouth closed. “Oh. Oh. Dear. I hadn’t—I lost—I lost track.”

“Happens.” Patrick patted her hand. “You got a bit overheated, and bit overextended. Time to take it easy and rest. I’ll let you fill in the husband.”

“Fill me on what?” Jason demanded as Patrick packed up the bag. “You barely looked at her—”

“And that’s why I’m the doctor and you’re not. Clear to me she’s overheated and overworked. Anything else, not really my place. I’ll send the bill. You come and see me, Missus Elizabeth, when you have a need.”

“Thank you.”

Jason nearly followed Patrick down the hall, intent to demand the damned doctor actually do more than ask a few questions, but then turned back to his wife who had sat up. Jason’s scowl deepened. “You’re supposed to rest.”

“And I will—I just—” Elizabeth slid her legs over the side of the bed and rose. “I don’t want to be lying down for this part.” She held on to one of the posts at the end of the bed. “I feel even more silly. I quite lost track—” She bit her lip, then looked away.

“Your cheeks are red again. I’m going to get that damned doctor—”

Elizabeth caught his elbow as Jason turned away again. “No, they’re—I’m a bit embarassed to have caused all this trouble. It’s not as though I’m a green girl, you see. I ought to have seen the signs. It’s just—it’s quite different this time. And I really did just lose track—” She took the deep breath. “I’ve missed my courses, Jason. And if I recall correctly, it’s been at least two months.”

Jason was stunned into silence as he grappled with the meaning of the statement. For her to have missed two months— “You—there’s a—you—” He took a deep breath. “You’re with child, then. There will be a baby.”

“Yes.” Her lips curved into a hesitant smile, even as her eyes remained sober, searching his. “Sometime in May if my guesses are right. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve certainly been trying.”

Jason raked a hand through his hair, the reality sinking in. A baby. She was carrying his child—their child, he corrected.

He exhaled slowly, forcing himself to smile. This was good news. Of course it was. Even if his brain was already racing with newfound worries. She’d been working so hard nearly every day she’d been in this condition. Out in the heart or driving herself back and forth to town. And women died in childbirth. Hell, babies died in childbirth—but he’d been silent too long and her smile was fading.

“You should rest,” Jason said, scooping her into his arms and setting back in bed. “You’ve been working too hard, and we need to take care of the baby.” He kissed her forehead. “And you.”

“This is good news, isn’t it?” Elizabeth’s hands rested on his arms, stopping him from stepping back. “We—you said you wanted children. The day we met. You said—”

“I do. I just—it’s it’s good news,” Jason added. “I was—” He sat on the bed, then sighed. “I’m sorry. I think part of me is still stuck back in the paddock, worried that the horse would hurt you. Or that you were sick. I can’t seem to shake loose of it.”

“Well, that’s all right.” She smiled, taking one of his band between both of hers. “It’s lovely, isn’t it? This time next year, a new little life to look after. You’re such a good father, Jason. It’ll be wonderful to do this together, won’t it?”

“Yes. Yes,” Jason repeated, because it would. He leaned forward to kiss her. “It’ll be great, and you’ll be amazing.” He just hoped they’d all survive it.

December 30, 2022

This entry is part 13 of 22 in the Flash Fiction: Invisible Strings

Written in 63 minutes.

Cameron climbed up the railing of the fence until he could rest his elbows over the top, Jason with a steadying hand on his back until he was sure Cameron had his balance. It was nearly the end of the summer now, the hottest days of August dragging into September when the nights, at least, would begin to cool off.

After three months on the ranch, Cameron had grown an inch and his face had begun to slim down, sliding slowly from baby to child. He’d already changed so much from the small child who had been curled up in his mother’s lap that day in late May. His bright blue eyes were focused on what was happening in the middle of the paddock — since the first day Elizabeth had begun to work with the horses, Cameron had haunted their every step, all but obsessed with the stables.

Elizabeth had worked wonders with the stallion over the last few weeks, and if she’d been an experienced rider, it’d be her up on his back right now. And it should be Jason, he thought with some regret, but the horse needed to be worked daily and he still had four months left until a new sheriff could be sworn in. So, instead, Elizabeth stood at the bridle, keeping the horse calm and Johnny had swung up into the saddle.

She smiled and laughed up at the stable hand, and Jason ignored the stab of irritation in his stomach. Not jealousy, he knew, but simple envy that Johnny had the freedom to spend all day at the ranch. His grandmother had meant well, and sometimes, Jason hadn’t minded spending long hours in town, but over the last few months, every morning he woke and had to ride away from the ranch—and his family, he acknowledged—he resented it more.

“I wanna ride the big horse,” Cameron told Jason. “Papa, make Mama let me.”

“Not yet,” Jason cautioned his son—and that was getting easier, he thought. To just look at the child and feel the warmth, the sense of posession. He hadn’t known Cameron as a baby, hadn’t been part of creating him, but through a benevolent quirk of fate, he’d have the raising of him. He ruffled Cameron’s blond hair. “And not on one that big. Not to start.”

Cameron scowled, then looked back at Elizabeth as she led Dusty around the training yard, Johnny simply letting the horse get used to his weight. She’d worked with other horses in the stable, Jason knew, and had knack for it, but Dusty was her favorite. He looked forward to the day he could give the horse to her as a gift.

“I scooped the poop,” Cameron said darkly, drawing Jason’s attention. His mouth was turned up in a sulk. “You said I scoop poop, I ride.”

“I said if you learned to take care of the horses, you’d be able to learn when the time came—” Jason sighed. And he was putting off the inevitable. Cameron was mad for horses, just as he’d been. He cupped his hands around his mouth so that his voice would carry across the yard. “Elizabeth!”

She turned towards them, her brows raised.

“We’ll be in the stables,” he told her, and she raised a hand in recognition, then looked back at the horse.

Jason lifted Cameron off the fence and set him on the ground. “Come on. I’ve got something to show you.”

“Not more poop,” the little boy muttered, but he put his hand in his father’s and followed him happily. The only place Cameron liked more than the stables was the lake, and they’d already spent the morning swimming. After a few more floating sessions, Cameron had advanced quickly and now moved through the water like a fish. It had taken he—and his mother—barely three months to shed the remnants of their city life.

Jason stopped in front of a stall and lifted Cameron to sit on the railing of the empty stall next door, then curled Cameron’s hand around the post to keep his balance. “Stay there for a minute, all right?”


Jason unlatched the stall and took the reins of the pony that sat inside. She was a brown mare, no more than thirteen hand height—Jason was taller—but she still towered over Cameron by more than double his size. “In another year two or two,” he said, “or when you’ve grown another foot,” he clarified, “this is Cinder. She’ll be yours.”

Cameron’s eyes were wide. “You—mine?” he asked, almost breathless. “My horse?”

“Cinder is a pony,” Jason said. “She’s six, and she’ll take good care of you until you’re old enough for a horse.” He tipped his head to the tack room. “Come on, I’ll show you how to saddle her. You start taking care of some of her chores. And maybe your mother can show you how to walk her. Never alone,” he told Cameron, looping Cinder’s reins over the post so that he could set Cameron on his feet. He crouched down, met the boy’s eyes. “It’s very important that you follow the rules so you can keep yourself and Cinder safe. You’re not old enough or tall enough yet to be on your own with the horses.”

Cameron nodded soberly. “Mama said so. And you said so. Rules. But—” His shining eyes looked at the horse again. “But I can see her. And I scoop her poop. It’s okay. I’ll do it.” He threw his arms around Jason’s neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ll be good. I’ll be the best.”

“You already are.” Jason squeezed Cameron back, then got to his feet. “Come on. I’ll show you how to saddle a pony and then we’ll try her out.”


Johnny swung a leg over Dusty’s back and hopped to the ground, then swept off his hand, his brown hair plastered to his head with sweat. “He sure does take the energy out of you,” he said, stroking the side of Dusty’s belly.

Six weeks earlier, the horse might have reared up or bit Johnny for the audacity, but the horse just stood calmly by, enjoying the way Elizabeth stroked her hands down his long head.

“He’s eager to please,” she told Johnny. “You can see it, can’t you? It’s why he took so long to trust us—”

“To trust me.” Johnny plopped the hat back on his head. “You had him at the first word.  But yeah, I get that. Old Man Coleman did a number on him and horses ain’t that different from people, you know. You smack them around enough, they start flinching from everyone.” He spat at the ground. “But that’s enough for him today, I think—” He turned and looked across the yard. “And you don’t want to miss that—”

Elizabeth turned to follow Johnny’s outstretched arm and her eyes lit up. Jason was entering the training yard, one hand fisted around a leading string and the other resting lightly on the back of a saddle. And her son, Cameron, in the saddle on the back of the sweet pony she’d looked after a time or two since her work in the stables had begun. His grin was wide, his little hands tightly curled around the pommel.

“I wondered when he’d put the little guy up on Cinder,” Johnny said, folding his arms, smiling himself. “Your boy is crazy for these horses, you know.”

“He’s crazy for everything about Jason. Fishing, swimming, horses—he wanted to be a sheriff for a whole week,” Elizabeth murmured. “But yes, the horses seem to be sticking. And of course, the pony is a perfect size for Cameron to learn on. I’d wondered why Jason had a pony in the midst of all the others—”

“Oh, he’s had Cinder for a few years now.” Johnny’s expression sobered. “Bought him just after the nephew took his first steps. Right out there by the fences, did you know?” he said to Elizabeth who blinked at him.

“No, I didn’t—”

“Always felt bad for the kid,” Johnny continued. “The brother—AJ—married some socialite from San Francisco, and he never liked being west of the mountains. Spent all his time back at the company offices in town. But the old man—Edward Morgan—” Johnny clarified, “— made it clear that the heir would stay here. Hell of a thing — they were in town just for a week and caught that cholera.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, Jason brought Michael out here every few weeks and bought that there pony for him. Kid never got to use it.”

Elizabeth’s heart ached for the loss. What would she do if she lost her baby? “I’m surprised he didn’t sell the pony.”

“Nah, couldn’t bring himself to do it. But it’s good that he kept her on. He spent a lot of time making sure it was a good, calm pony,” Johnny told Elizabeth. “Your boy will be safe and sound.”

“I know—” Elizabeth exhaled slowly, then looked back at Dusty, giving the horse one last stroke. “You mind putting him up for the afternoon?”

“Not at all, missus. You go enjoy your boy.”


Before the day Jason put Cameron up on Cinder, the little boy had been equally obsessed with every horse in the stable. After, all his attention was pointed at his horse (it didn’t matter how many times it was explained to him that she was a pony and that was different). He woke up, and raced through his breakfast so he could help Johnny or who ever was working that morning feed Cinder. And then he helped clean out her stall, and if there was time, Johnny or Jason showed him how to put the saddle on her—and how to care for it.

And every night before Elizabeth tucked him in for bed, Cameron insisted on being measured because if he could just get to forty-eight inches, Papa would let him actually start riding lessons.

One night, as September drew to a close, Cameron pouted and demanded she measure again. “You’re wrong,” he told her crossly. “I’m four and a half. Papa said.”

“That doesn’t mean you’ve grown, darling,” Elizabeth said, but dutifuly lined him up against the door frame of his bedroom and made a mark where his head rested. “Look. Just the same.”

Cameron’s lips stuck out, and his eyes were damp. “I’ll never be big enough.” The tears slid down his cheeks and he sniffled.

“Sweetheart—” Elizabeth sighed, smoothed his hair back. “You know if you were ready, Papa would let you start lessons.”

“I-I know—b-b-but you get to ride—a-and y-your h-horse is m-much—” Cameron’s words came out in scattered sobs as he sank to the ground and put his head against his knees. “Just wanna to be big.”

Elizabeth sighed and spied Jason climbing the last set of stairs. “I’m taller than you, my love—”

“Not a lot,” he sniffled. And that was true—but she was still a foot and a half taller than him, even at five foot four. “I wanna ride.”

“You get to—”

“Led around like a baby.” Cameron raised his head, angry now. “Not a baby! No more!” He glared at Jason who had joined them. “Papa, I big enough.”

Elizabeth made a face and silently shook her head at Jason who crouched down. “Not yet, Cam,” he told him. “You need to be tall enough to reach the stirrups. It’s not about  being old enough. You’re not a baby. But if your feet can’t reach, you can’t tell Cinder when to stop. Or how to slow down or speed up.”

Cameron furrowed his brow at Jason’s sensible words. “Stirrups,” he repeated, testing out the word. “Where your feet go.”


“My—” He stretched out his legs. “Legs not long.”

“Not enough. Not yet. We’re checking every night, aren’t we?” Jason told him. He lifted Cameron into his arms. “And you know the second you’re ready, Mama will tell me. She likes riding. She wants you to learn.”

“You do?” Cameron asked, peeking at his mother over Jason’s shoulder. “Really?”

“Really. I’m not good enough to leave the paddock just yet, either,” she reminded, following them inside the room, watching as Jason set Cameron in his bed. “But next spring or summer, maybe we’ll all be ready. And we can go riding together.”

Cameron nodded. “Okay. Okay.” He swiped at his eyes. “My feet tell Cinder what to do?”

“Yes, in part,” Jason told him. “It’s important. You don’t want to confuse her, do you?”

“No.” He sniffled again, then heaved a shuddering sigh. “Okay.” He looked at his mother. “Sorry, Mama.”

“It’s okay, love.” She finished the bedtime ritual of tucking him in and switching off the light. Then she and Jason went across the hall to their bedroom. “It’s going to be a longer winter,” she predicted. “He’s not going to add that last six inches for a while.”

“It’s all right,” Jason said easily, drawing her into his arms. “He can ride with me in the spring, and I’ll take you both into the mountains.” He nuzzled at her neck, the soft skin just beneath her ear. She closed her eyes, swaying slightly in his arms. “But we still need to get you through your first Colorado winter.”

“Mmm, well, I’ve been through a winter in upstate New York,” Elizabeth reminded him. “So I’m not scared.”

“Good. And I know what we can do when it gets too cold,” Jason said, the corner of his mouth turning up with that wicked light in his eyes. She grinned, then laughed when he picked her up and tossed her onto the nearby bed.


Summer didn’t give up its hot, sweaty grip on the days until the first weeks of October bloomed, and Elizabeth truly hoped that the heat would began to fade soon. She was desperately looking forward to the bitter chills everyone kept threatening her with. It was irritating to work and live in the shadows of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and be drenched in her own sweat.

She felt like she was swimming through the air as she put Dusty through his last work out of the day, just a normal run to keep him loose and limber. It would break her heart when Jason proclaimed him ready to sell to the next owner. Would he let her help? Maybe she could choose—

“You look flushed,” Johnny told her, his own face florid from the heat. “I’ll finish up with him. You go get some water—”

Elizabeth sighed, and looked towards the corner of the yard where Jason was working with another horse, and Cameron was perched on the fence railing. Jason had hired two more deputies and had cut back to only three days in town these days which was wonderful for all of them. She smiled at the familiar sight, and twisted back to look at Johnny to agree to his suggestion—

But then her vision grayed and her knees dropped out from beneath her. She hit the ground with a grunt and a thud, her head lolling back in the dirt—only the dim vision of Dusty’s black hoofs rearing up and Jason and Johnny’s shouts mixed with Cameron screaming before the world went black.