No infringement of copyright is intended.
~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~
He surveyed the remains of what had once been his home. The ashes had returned to the earth and long grass now hid the few charred remains that had survived the fire. The only thing left to mark where the house had stood was the stone hearth. Broken and weathered as it was, it reminded him of a gravestone. He spurred his horse gently forward and rode slowly toward the corral. Most of the railings were broken, having rotted away under the onslaught of eight seasons of weather. Tufts of grass dotted the enclosure where horses were once kept. The barn, only partially destroyed by fire that night, had collapsed in on itself at some point. It was only a heap of broken wood now. A gentle breeze blew and an intermittent squeak could be heard above the sound of the wind in the trees. Chris squinted upward. The windmill still stood but one of the blades was broken causing it to rotate drunkenly.
He dismounted and stood for a moment. He wondered why he had come. Ever since Ella's hanging, he'd felt drawn back to this place. He tethered his horse to a fence post and paused briefly to scan the tree line. He walked. The quiet jingling of his spurs marking each step.
The wind gusted as he approached, carrying the sounds of his spurs and the windmill away. The trees grew quiet. He stopped; the world around him was silent. In front of him laid the graves of his wife and son.
He looked down at the rough hewn wooden markers that displayed the names of those beneath. Unlike the rest of his homestead, they seemed untouched by the passage of time. Grief, as always, crowded out any other thoughts. Tears filled his eyes, obscuring his vision. He felt the warm tracks they made on his cheeks. The old familiar pain was back.
He dropped his head and again, as always, fought back, pushing the grief and the pain deep inside himself. Later he would get drunk, maybe then he would find the courage to end the battle.
He felt an arm slip in behind his own. A small hand wrapped gently around his forearm and then moved slowly up until it came to settle on his bicep. The action was intimate, the touch, so very familiar. He turned his head and found loving eyes looking up at him.
He gasped and stared in disbelief. The woman he loved with all of his heart and soul stood beside him now holding his arm. Her touch; her scent; she was as real as the day he had left for Mexico.
She hadn't changed. Her smile was as wide, her skin still as smooth as he remembered; her eyes sparkled with laughter.
"Sarah," he repeated. He brought his hand up to touch her cheek ever so lightly, afraid that she would disappear under his touch. His eyes darted left and right as he searched her face in disbelief.
"Chris, my love," she replied.
He drew his fingers slowly over her lips tracing the outline of her mouth. She smiled again and he moved on, gently stoking her cheek with the backs of his fingers as his hand traveled up into her hair. He combed his fingers lovingly through the mane of loose curls that spilled down her back, savouring its softness. The feel of her beneath his roughened skin was a healing balm to his soul.
"How...?" he asked unable to find the words. She said nothing as he looked down at her. His eyebrows furrowed with confusion while his heart burst with his love for her. His head shot up suddenly; a sound in the silence around them... a child's laughter?
Adam smiled and waved at him before breaking into a run. Chris watched, dumfounded, as his son raced toward him, laughing as he caught Chris by the leg. Chris bent over and took the child gently by the shoulders. He squatted down to look at him. His heart stopped. It truly was his son. Chris tried to speak but the ache in his throat was so great he found he could not. Overwhelmed, Chris hugged him roughly. "I love you, Pa," Adam said returning the embrace. After a long moment Chris felt Adam's head turn on his shoulder and felt the boy's kiss on his stubbled cheek. Chris kissed the boy back before holding him out at arm's length. He had forgotten just how much Adam, though was dark haired and dark eyed like his mother, looked like himself.
Adam smiled and stepped aside to reveal someone behind him.
Chris looked questioningly at the small figure for a moment. Then, with a sudden realization that took his breath away, he looked up at his wife in shock. She smiled sadly and nodded, "The one that never was."
Chris turned his attention back to the little girl. Blonde like himself, her hair curled like her mother's; the child smiled shyly at him. He held a hand over his mouth as new tears appeared. She had his eyes. She walked up to him unafraid. Then giggled and threw her arms around his neck. He dropped from his squat to both knees and slid his arms around her.
A moment later the little arms pushed insistently at him. He leaned away from her, loosening his hold as she wiggled out of his grasp. She giggled at him again as Adam took her hand, then both children smiled and ran off. Chris watched as they climbed through the fence railings of the corral, calling out playfully to each other.
Chris stood and turned to the woman he loved. "I don't understand," he said.
"It's time, Chris," Sarah replied.
"Time?" he questioned.
"It's time to let us go." she said. "Ella has paid for her crimes. Now, please, my love, give us our freedom."
He understood. His grief, his unwillingness to let go, had kept them prisoners in his heart all these long years.
"Sarah, please, it's too hard." A lump formed in his throat at the thought of her leaving him again. "I love you all so much."
She drew herself in close to him and reached up to caress his cheek, her touch as light as a summer breeze. "You needed us, that's why we stayed so long... but now it's time to let us go."
"Please, no, I love you," he begged as new wet tracks made their way down his face; the thought of living without her robbed him of all pride.
She cupped his face with her hands, "And I love you; that will never change."
She dropped her hands, turned and walked a few steps away before turning back to face him again. The children were standing beside her now.
"Sarah!" he cried reaching out to her.
"Good-bye, my love."
The plaintive cry echoed in the clearing as the wind rose and the apparitions before him faded away.
He fell to his hands and knees. "No," he cried. Agonizing pain from deep within his chest radiated outward. His hands dug into the ground, the earth squeezing slowly out from between his fingers as he fought back a great groaning sob that would not be denied. It tore out of his chest in the form of one great wail, carrying with it all the grief, anger and guilt he'd never before allowed himself. His body trembled with the release and he collapsed onto his side.
He awoke to silence. The shadows of the day were long now, the sun lower in the sky. Slowly... painfully, he rolled up to his knees. Sitting back on his heels, he looked around. A sparrow sat on the fence where his children had played. It appeared to be singing but he could not hear it.
He pushed himself to his feet. The wind blew rustling the grass and the leaves in the trees.
He looked down. The grave markers that had seemed untouched by time were now gray and weathered; the names on them almost indistinguishable. Then he heard the sparrow's song.
The woman that had given him so much in life had come to ask for freedom for herself and their children in death. In so doing, she had given him his own freedom back. The time of dying, grief, guilt, hate and revenge was now past. He turned and strode back to his horse, his spurs chiming like church bells. He mounted and rode away without looking back.
It was time to live again.