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 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.”
“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.”