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Hearts of the West 3: James Joseph Ellison Jr.--Called Jay

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Hearts of the West 3: James Joseph Ellison, Jr.--Called Jay
by Scribe

 

 "Margaret Naomi Sandburg!"

"Uh-oh."

"Don't you 'uh-oh' me, young lady!"

When Daddy Jim used her full name in that tone of voice, it was time to bring out the big guns. Margaret (usually known as Maggie, or Mags, when she wasn't in disgrace), poked out her plump bottom lip, putting a good quiver in it, turned huge, moist blue eyes up toward the large man looming over her, and quavered, "I wuv 'oo, Daddy Jim."

Jim glared down at the three-year-old. "You can just stop doing the Papa Blair impression--it isn't going to work this time." Jim raised his voice, "Blair!"

Blair came out of their bedroom, rubbing his eyes. "Wha?"

For once the sight of his lover, sleep-rumpled, with his hair loose and his shirt open to show his curly pelt of chest hair, did not distract Jim. "Look at your daughter."

Blair sighed, still rubbing his eyes. "Maggie, what are you up to now? You're never just my daughter unless you're in trouble." He blinked.

A sheepish looking Maggie was standing on a chair at the kitchen table. Before her was a wildly colored, very moist sheet of paper, and several empty jars that had once held paint. There was no brush in sight, which explained the dripping hands and liberal splotches and streaks on the toddler's clothing, face, and hair.

Blair couldn't help it--he smiled. Jim rolled his eyes as Blair came over and touched a fingertip to a thick streak of red on Maggie's cheek. "Baby girl, since when did you join an Indian tribe? That's the best war paint I've ever seen, but why didn't you use the paintbrush?"

"I think the significant question is why she was painting at all." As Jim spoke, Maggie was pointing to the stove. Blair bent down, peering, and reached under, fishing for the missing brush. "She knows very well she isn't supposed to use her paints without one of us supervising."

Blair had managed to snag the brush. "It rolled, huh, sweetheart?" Maggie nodded, holding out her hand for the brush. Red and green plopped on the floor from her fingers. "I think it's a little late for that." Blair put the brush back up on the shelf. "And how did you reach those, anyway?" Blair looked at Jim, crossing his heart. "I had 'em on the shelf, Jim. You know that."

Maggie climbed off the chair. With a lot of pushing and tugging she got it against the wall, climbed back up on it, stretched up on tip-toe, and got the brush, showing it to her fathers. Blair sighed. "We need higher shelves."

Jim took the brush and put it back on the shelf, then picked up Maggie. She tried to snuggle in close, but Jim held her out from his body. "Daaaaady," she whined.

"Maggie, you've got paint all over. We need to get you washed up, and fast. I guess that means the dunking barrel."

Maggie kicked her legs. "Ya!"

"Yes, you would like that, you little savage." Jim carried her out into the attached smithy, Blair following. It wasn't used much any more, since Jim had signed on as deputy under Simon Banks. At the barrel he held her up so that her pug nose was only a few inches from his own and said sternly, "And you do know that you are never, never to do this by yourself, right?" Maggie nodded solemnly. She knew that when Daddy Jim talked like this he meant business. This was the same way he talked about the stove, snakes, and strangers when she wasn't with him or Papa Blair. This directive would be obeyed.

Blair reached around Jim on both sides, untying the drooping sash that held the little girl's loose dress about her waist. "Maggie's good about the important stuff, Jim--you know that."

"I know that our interpretation of 'important' varies a good deal," Jim said dryly. Blair clasped his hands at Jim's waist, pressing against his back. "Quit trying to distract me. She's still in trouble. Maggie, if I set you down long enough to take off your dress, am I going to have to worry about catching you again?" The little girl shook her head firmly, venturing a tiny smile. Daddy Jim had called her Maggie, so she wasn't in as much trouble as she might have been.

Jim settled her on her feet, and pulled the dress over her head. He examined it sadly. "I guess this one is for the rag bag."

Blair took it. "Nah, I was careful to only give her the kind that's water soluble." He laughed. "I remember that time the lady at church gave Mags the paint set, and we all spent the next two weeks wearing purple splotches." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Woulda had a hard time explaining that big ol' purple handprint on my ass if anyone had seen it."

"Not really," Jim replied.

Maggie made a waving motion at the two men, "You don't look!"

"I think you can keep your drawers on for this, Maggie," Jim assured her. Maggie was still too young to bathe without supervision, and she accepted that, but she was very touchy about disrobing. Once the panties were off she had no problem with being assisted with her bath, but no one was allowed to see the panties actually come off. Jim picked Maggie up, holding her under the armpits, and immersed her in the water up to her neck. "Okay, wash." The little girl began busily scrubbing at the paint smears.

"What do you mean you wouldn't have had a hard time explaining the purple handprint?" asked Blair.

Jim cut his eyes at him. "I'd have just told everyone that you mouthed off, and I popped you a good one on the butt."

Blair snorted. "Dreams are nice, aren't they?"

"Time for a dunking, Mags. Hold your breath," Jim warned. Maggie drew in a big breath, baby cheeks puffing out, and squinted her eyes shut. Jim dunked her briskly. When he raised her again, she blew out her breath gustily, spraying him. "Maggie!"

She giggled. "Ise a whale, Daddy! Pbbbbbpt!"

"Whales don't spit, darlin'." Blair was gently washing the paint from Maggie's hair. "They have to do that, because water gets in their breathing pipes, and they have to blow it out. Remember? I told you about the blow holes."

"This child is going to have the most unusual education in the west. Most of the parents around here haven't even started their kids on the ABCs or colors at Maggie's age."

"Children can learn at a tremendous rate, especially if you don't try to force it into narrow channels, Jim. And Miss Maggie is a particularly bright child, if I do say so myself."

"You do--and often." Jim hauled a dripping Maggie out and started to carry her back into the house. "I'd be annoyed if it wasn't for the fact that it's true. Get us a towel, eh, Darwin?"

Blair fetched a towel from the linen closet. When he got back to the kitchen, Jim was stoking the stove, strengthening the fire. He noticed Blair's look, and shrugged. "Can't have her taking a chill."

Blair smiled as he draped the towel over Maggie's head, thinking that some people in town might be a little surprised at how considerate the sometimes gruff deputy could be. "You big enough to do most of the drying yourself now, Mags?"

"Yeah!" Maggie began to scrub the towel over her skin with more enthusiasm than efficiency.

"That's yes, Maggie," Jim corrected.

Maggie nodded. "Yeah."

"Yes."

Now Maggie gave Blair a puzzled look. She repeated, very slowly and carefully, "Yeah." Jim covered his eyes.

Blair patted his shoulder. "Jim, she knows what it means, okay? Yes is a difficult sound for a toddler to form. Give her a little time. You wouldn't be that picky on someone who was learning English as a second language, would you? Well, it's all new to Maggie. She's doing remarkably well."

"I know, but a lot of people judge you on the way you speak. I don't want anyone thinking that Maggie has a loose character because of sloppy speech patterns."

"As if they'd dare, with you around." There was a knock at the front door. "I'll get that," Blair said. "It's probably another mashed finger, or maybe a strained back. As soon as the weather gets nice, everybody goes out and tries to do all the outside chores they've been saving up all winter in one day."

"Fine. I'll see if I can't talk Miss Priss into wearing something other than a smock," said Jim.

"I likes 'mocks," protested Maggie, trying to reach the middle of her back with the towel. "Theys comfy."

The last thing Blair heard as he headed toward the front of the house was Jim grumbling, "I swear, you are turning into your Papa."

He opened the door to find a woman and boy standing on their front porch. He smiled, giving them a quick once over. Neither looked sick, but you never could tell till you did an examination. Neither was familiar. He was no longer the only physician in town, though he was still the most popular, and respected. When Blair had first arrived in Cascade almost four years before, he'd quickly come to recognize all the townspeople, and was on at least nodding acquaintance with all of them. That wasn't the case now. Cascade had been growing steadily. There had been nearly four hundred people within city limits at the last count.

He made a split-second assessment, and decided, These aren't locals. He took in the woman's sleek, dark plum day dress, and the hat adorned with wispy egret feathers. No woman around here dresses that fashionably--not even the town 'fancy women'.

The boy was probably about ten or eleven--slender and fair skinned, with shiny black hair that drifted over his collar, and light blue eyes. He was a handsome kid, but... Lord, I hope his mama doesn't let him wander off while he's wearing those knickerbockers. I hate to think of the tussles he'd get in with the local boys. None of them could let an outfit like that pass without comment, not even if one of them was forced to wear it to church. There'd still be dust-ups later on. The woman, a handsome but cool looking blonde, was staring at him with a perplexed, displeased frown. "Can I help you, ma'am?"

She opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it. She leaned slightly sideways, and Blair knew she was reading the small, tasteful sign Jim had fixed beside the door. Dr. B. Sandburg, M.D. Her eyes returned to him. "I'm looking for the home of Mister James Ellison. I was directed here."

Blair nodded agreeably. "That's right." He stepped back, gesturing for them to enter. "Please come in." The woman hesitated, and Blair explained. "I'm Blair Sandburg--Jim and I share this residence. He's back in the kitchen, so if you'll just come in and have a seat, I'll let him know he has visitors."

They entered. The boy looked at the woman, who gave him a small nod, then sat on the sofa. Or rather he perched--sitting just on the edge of the cushions, thin, white legs bent sharply at bony knees. The woman looked around the room as she removed her white kid gloves. Blair was willing to like almost anyone, given half a chance, but he could feel his hackles beginning to rise as the woman's disdainful gaze swept over their neat, cozy little front room. Her upper lip lifted slightly in what might have been interpreted as a smile, and she said, "Oh, yes--this doubles as your waiting room, doesn't it?"

"Yes," he said shortly. "Who shall I say is calling?"

Blair was good at hiding his annoyance, but the woman still sensed it, and her smile grew a bit more smug. "Just tell him an old friend--with a surprise."

He was tempted to tell her that she'd have to be more specific, but he decided that he didn't want to waste the time--he wanted this woman to finish whatever business she had here with Jim and go. He glanced at the boy sitting silently on the sofa, tempted to ask his name also, but figured he wouldn't have any more luck there. Poor kid. He's just sort of fading into the upholstery. I'm not surprised. I think that being around that wench any amount of time would make any normal child either try to become invisible, or explode trying to get attention.

Back in the kitchen, Jim had managed to talk Maggie out of wearing a smock, but he wasn't entirely pleased with her idea of a compromise. The little girl was now dressed in the tiny pair of black coolie pajamas that Blair had brought back from his last trip to San Francisco. Jim said dispiritedly, "Do you suppose one of the church ladies could be persuaded to at least embroider some pretty patterns on these? Maybe some daisies, or a nice spray of lilacs?"

"I'm sure they'd fight each other for the chance, though I can't think of why you'd want them to. It isn't as if she's going to wear those to a party, Jim. They're for lazing around the house. You have a visitor. Well--visitors."

"Yes?" Jim gave Maggie's curly head a brief kiss as he stood up from fastening her last button. "Business, or personal?"

"She didn't say, but I think it's personal. She didn't say anything about needing the deputy--she mentioned you by name."

"Hm. Maybe it's my sordid past catching up with me."

Blair laughed. "Right. Me--I might have to worry about that. You--pfft. You go on, and Maggie and I will start dinner."

Jim gave him a brief kiss. "I love you when you're domestic." He yelped when his grinning younger lover suddenly gave his crotch a firm squeeze. "I love it when you're like that, too."

"Go. Maggie, my treasure, you are in charge of shelling the peas. I think if we sit you on a towel, that will take care of any strays that go popping off..."

Jim was shaking his head and smiling as he walked into the front room. The first look he had at his visitor was from the back as she examined the cheerful sprigged drapes that Megan had sewn, presenting them at Christmas. There was a critical tilt to the woman's head that immediately set Jim's teeth on edge. "I'm Jim Ellison, ma'am. I understand you're looking for me."

The woman turned slowly, and Jim suddenly felt light-headed. She didn't speak, watching his reaction with a tiny, secret smile. Finally Jim said faintly, "Carolyn?"

"It's been a long time, James, but I don't think I've changed all that much," her voice was dry.

"I--no. No, you... you look good, Carolyn."

Her gaze swept him, and there was grudging admiration in it. "So do you--but then, you always did. And you look the same." She sighed. "Exactly the same. You haven't changed at all, have you?"

Jim could feel the muscles in his jaw and across the back of his neck starting to tense. God, so quick. How can she still have this effect on me after all these years? I thought I was over this. "No, I haven't."

She shrugged. "I didn't really think you would have, but you never can tell. Even mountains are worn away into something interesting eventually."

Jim wanted to grit his teeth, but fought the urge, determined not to let her get to him. He focused on the other person in the room--the boy. What was Carolyn doing with a child? She isn't the sort to baby-sit for anyone, so I'm going to have to assume that's her son. Yes, he's got her nose, and there's something about the shape of his face... I'll be damned. She swore to me that she'd never have a child--that it just wasn't her nature. He looked at her with a new perspective. I guess she has changed. Jim smiled at the boy. "Hello."

The child's eyes darted to Carolyn questioningly. Carolyn gave a negligent wave, and the boy stood. He went to Jim and offered his hand. "How do you do, sir?"

Jim shook hands. The boy's grip was surprisingly firm. "Just fine, thank you. You know my name--what's yours?"

"I call him Jay," said Carolyn. "Sit back down, Jay." The boy obeyed quietly. "Quite a little gentleman, isn't he?"

"Yes, he's very well behaved."

"He'd better be. We live in hotels, and they don't put up with boisterous brats." Carolyn fidgeted with her gloves. "Is there somewhere he can go so that we can have a private talk?"

Jim stared at her silently. Sure. I could shut him up in the pantry--he'd be out of your way, then. Jim looked at Jay. "Jay, my friend Blair and his daughter, Maggie, are fixing our dinner in the kitchen. Would you like to go watch?"

Jay blinked, then said slowly, "The cook usually gets mad if I go in the kitchen."

Jim didn't quite sigh. He got the feeling that Jay hadn't felt welcome too many places in his short life. "Today Blair is the cook, and I happen to know that he loves company. Come on." Jim led Jay back into the kitchen.

Blair was just pouring a small jug of water into the stewpot on the stove. There was a fierce hissing as fragrant, meaty steam rose around him, making his hair frizz. Maggie was cross-legged on the table, sitting in the exact center of a large, clean towel. A bowl was in her lap, and she was shelling peas into it--laboriously peeling each pod open and daintily picking out each bright green bead. Jim wanted to laugh when he noticed the pink tip of her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth, just like Blair did when he concentrated. Both of them looked up curiously, offering friendly smiles. "Blair, Maggie--this is Jay. Jay, you've met Blair, and this is Miss Margaret Naomi Sandburg--but that's too big a mouthful, so we call her Maggie."

"Unless Ise bad," she piped up. "If Ise bad Daddy Jim says my big name, but Ise not bad very much." She held up a pod. "You wanna help me wif the peese?"

Jay looked at Jim. "Can I?"

"It's all right by me, and Maggie wants you to. Blair?"

Blair grinned. "I'd consider it a favor. Maggie gets to shell the peas because they only need a brief cooking, but at the rate she's going, we still might not have enough ready when it's time to put them on. Have a seat, and just drop them in the bowl. Oh, and Jay?" He winked at the boy conspiratorially. "Try to keep Maggie from eating more than she puts in the bowl." Maggie had been about to deposit a fresh pea in her mouth, and hastily dropped it in the bowl, plump cheeks flushing. With Jay established shelling peas and quietly answering Maggie's interested prattle, Jim returned to the front room.

Carolyn was still hovering in the center of the room. "You know, Caro, you can sit down without fear of soiling your skirts. If you'll remember, I've always been a fair housekeeper."

She didn't quite sneer. "Yes. Sometimes I don't know why we bothered with a maid."

"We did because if she didn't do it, or I didn't do it--it didn't get done," Jim snapped.

"Let's not start on my failings as a homemaker," Carolyn sounded bored. "That's not why I'm here."

"Well, why are you here? We've been divorced for over nine years, Carolyn. I haven't heard a word from you since I signed the papers. You damn sure didn't show up in Cascade because you missed me, so you must want something. What is it?"

"I don't remember you being so cynical, Jim. What happened?"

"You know, if I thought you actually gave a damn, I'd sit down and tell you. But you've always prided yourself on your unsentimental outlook, and I know that last remark was for effect."

"That's one thing that always irritated me about you--you're always so sure about everything."

Shows how well you know me, Caro. I wasn't sure of much of anything till Blair came along and grounded me. "Not everything, but I have a good idea of what to expect from you."

"Oh, I think I'm still capable of springing a shock. That boy is my son."

Jim nodded. "I figured as much, given the resemblance. I'll admit that did surprise me a little."

Carolyn sat down abruptly, her posture stiff and angry. "It surprised me, too, but by the time I was sure, it was too late to do anything about it safely."

Jim felt cold anger, but tried to keep his tone non-judgmental. "I guess you haven't remarried."

She laughed shortly. "No. What I had with you was enough to last me for a long time--I wasn't anxious to repeat it." She smoothed her gloves on her lap. "Luckily I'd kept the wedding ring, so there wasn't a scandal. People are still remarkably close-minded about bastards, even in the big cities." Jim tried not to wince at the ugly word--bastard. Why did the world have to stigmatize a child for something that was beyond their control?

"I thought about giving him up--I even had an offer from a well-to-do couple." Jim's blood froze at the nonchalance of Carolyn's tone. She was talking about selling her own blood, like an unwanted puppy. "But I decided not to." She frowned. "I didn't like the husband. He was--shifty." She shook her head. "Not to be too crude, but I worried for any boot boy or junior footman employed in that family." She arched an eyebrow delicately. "Their duties might have included some rather unusual chores."

"I'll never understand how you could be so cool physically, and so blunt verbally, Caro. I'm glad to see that you had some scruples about the child."

"You should be."

There's something about that tone. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The woman's smile grew cruel. "What's that supposed to mean?" she mocked. "I told you I call him Jay. That's because his full name has unpleasant associations for me. His name is," she said very slowly, "James Joseph Ellison, Junior."

Part Two

There was a ringing silence after Carolyn's declaration, and it spun out for several seconds as the Sentinel stared at her. Finally she said, "Nothing. Typical reaction from you, James."

"What am I supposed to say, Caro?" Jim said quietly. In truth he was stunned, but he wasn't about to let her know that--Carolyn was a master at using any weakness.

She grunted, a sound at odds with her ladylike appearance. "Well, I'll have to admit that you're handling this better than I expected. I was sure that the first words out of your mouth would be that it couldn't possibly be yours."

"He."

"What?"

"He, Carolyn--he's a little boy, not a thing." Jim was looking back toward the door that led to the kitchen, thinking about the child who was sitting in his kitchen, helping his adopted daughter shell peas under the watchful, loving eyes of his lifemate. "Is he mine?"

She watched his face. "Yes, Jim, he is. There's no doubt in my mind. You remember that one night we had, after we met to sign the papers for the house sale?" Jim nodded. They'd both had too much wine, and somehow it had just happened. Both had known that it wouldn't change anything--and it didn't. Carolyn had moved on, and Jim hadn't seen her again till she'd shown up in his parlor. "Well, I'd just had my time of the month before that happened, and I wasn't intimate with anyone else between then and when I was sure that I was with child. He's an Ellison, all right." She made a face. "And he's as hard-headed and cold natured as his father."

Jim glared at Carolyn, thinking that she might know a thing or two about cold natures from the inside, but now was not the time to rehash old arguments. "Does he know?"

"Yes, he does. I've never kept it a secret from him." She looked down at her hands. "Sometimes the world is less than kind to a child without a father. I made sure that he knew he had one, even if he wasn't around."

Jim's voice was soft. "What did you tell him, Caro? Did you have me abandoning you before or after he was born?"

Carolyn sighed. "You might not believe this, James, but I didn't poison him against you. I took full responsibility. I could have told him anything I liked, fed him melodrama, but I didn't. I told him the truth--that it didn't work out between us, and I left you before either of us knew he was on the way."

Jim closed his eyes for a moment in relief, and said gratefully, "Thank you for that."

She shrugged. "It was easier than having to keep track of lies. Jay is a very intelligent boy--he'd have eventually caught me in a fib."

Jim finally sat beside her on the small sofa. "Are you planning to stay in Cascade long? I'd like a chance to get to know the boy."

"Oh, you'll have the chance. That's why I'm here-I need you to take him for awhile." Jim stared at her in silence. Carolyn laughed brittlely. "I've done it! I've finally shocked you."

"It's a little abrupt, that's all. I didn't even suspect he existed till a few minutes ago, and now you want me to take charge of him?"

"Did I say I wanted you to take him? No, James, I need you to care for him. Don't panic--just for a few months, perhaps a year at most--not forever."

"But--why?" His gaze flicked unconsciously to her belly. "You're not...?"

"No, I'm not," she said dryly. "Believe me, I've been a lot more careful since my last little surprise, and it's irritated a number of gentleman friends, believe me. I need you to keep Jay because I have to go back East." She gestured fretfully. "I don't have a profession, James--you know that. I'm like most women these days--I was raised to be a wife, and nothing else. I was careful with that settlement you gave me, but it ran out several years ago." She raised an eyebrow. "Certain friends have been generous with me since then, but that's no life for a child."

Jim flushed, but he felt cold. "No, it isn't."

 

 

Carolyn cocked her head. "No further comment? Hmm... Maybe you have changed. In any case, I can't support Jay decently out here, but I have connections on the East coast, in Boston and New York. I still receive invitations to visit from old friends, and I think it's time I took them up on the offer."

"If you want me to look after Jay while you have a vacation, Caro, just say so. I'd be happy to."

Carolyn slapped her thigh with her gloves, irritated. "You are so dense sometimes! This won't be a vacation--I'll be working hard. I'm going to find myself another husband, James--a rich one."

"Carolyn," Jim said slowly, "I don't want to be insulting, but..."

"But you will. I know very well that I won't be the most attractive filly on the Marriage Market. I'm vain, but I'm neither ignorant, nor stupid. I don't expect to capture some wealthy young scion. I know my target, James. I'm going to be after the older men--the widowers, the lonely old bachelors." Jim started to say something, but Carolyn spoke over him, "Yes, I know that they can afford to have all the pretty little things they want without offering marriage. I'll be able to give them what those little girls can't. I'll be a wife--I can run their household efficiently, be an ornament for them in society, and not embarrass them with my appearance or behavior--all the while leaving them to whatever other pursuits they desire." She laughed shortly. "Believe me, James, I will be a very desirable commodity."

Jim shook his head. "You make it sound like a business venture."

"That's what it is," she said, and her voice sounded almost tired. "I gave up on true love a long time ago." He was startled when she reached out and ran a finger down his cheek, and her voice was almost wistful. "I found a knight errant, but I never found my prince." She shrugged. "Life isn't a fairy tale, and there's no real magic. I'll make my way in the real world, but I need your help on this." Her voice dropped. "Don't make me beg, James."

He wasn't used to seeing her like this. His ex-wife had always been a self-sufficient woman. They hadn't parted on good terms, and having to ask him for anything must be galling. His first instinct was to say yes, but instead he said, "I'm sure there won't be any objection, but it's not just me here, Caro. I'll have to ask Blair."

"Your lodger?" She sounded puzzled. Jim stood silently, looking down at her, and understanding dawned in her eyes. "Oh. Oh, I see." She'd been aware of Jim's preferences almost before he had been. Surprisingly enough, she'd never used the knowledge as a weapon, and she didn't seem inclined to now, but still... Her eyes were wary. "There won't be a...problem with him, will there?"

Jim bit the inside of his lip to keep from lashing out verbally. She doesn't know him, he told himself. And she's worried about Jay, thank God. "If you mean like you feared about the prospective adoptive father--no. Absolutely not." He could see her relax a little. Just to be clear, he continued. "Blair is attracted to men--not children," he tapped his chest, "and to this man--exclusively. If anyone tried to touch Jay, you can be sure that Blair would be the first one to tear his balls off."

Now Carolyn smiled faintly. "Well, that's one point in his favor, anyway."

"Why don't you come back and have a glass of wine while I explain things to him?"

She wrinkled her nose. "I only go into kitchens to compliment the cook, James. I'll wait here."

Why am I not surprised? "I won't be long."

As he went into the kitchen he heard her murmur, "Take your time."

Blair was alone in the kitchen when Jim entered. He looked up from the pot he was stirring, saying, "Are they staying? It would be simple to throw in a few more potatoes and hop over to the store for some more bread and cheese."

Jim looked around the room. "Where are the children?"

Blair tapped the spoon on the pot, then laid it in the sink. "Miss Maggie is being a good hostess, and showing Jay around. She can probably talk for ten or fifteen minutes on your forge alone." His eyes flicked toward the door behind Jim. "The boy is nice, but I can't say I care for his mother. What does she want?"

Jim took his hand, tugging him toward the table. "Come sit down, Blair."

A little puzzled, Blair sat beside Jim at the kitchen table. "What is it, man?" His eyes narrowed. "What did she say to upset you? You look like someone walked over your grave."

"I've had a glimpse of my own mortality, that's for sure." Jim grasped Blair's hands. "Blair, that woman is Carolyn."

He didn't say any more--he didn't have to. Blair's agile mind started racing the moment the words left his lover's lips. A thousand thoughts and emotions flitted through his mind, and Jim read each one in his expressive face. There was shock, disbelief, acceptance, anger, pain, curiosity, and a dawning awareness and wonder. Finally he said softly, "You have a son." Jim nodded. Blair's grip tightened, and he smiled, "Oh, God, Jim! That's... that's so fantastic!"

Trust Blair to be able to put it into words for both of us. "It is, isn't it?"

Blair hopped to his feet, and Jim suddenly found himself caught up in an enthusiastic hug. "I can't believe it--a little Ellison! And he's so like you, Jim! I was thinking that while I watched him with Maggie. She was just babbling, and he kept giving her these 'what are you talking about?' looks, but he never got impatient, and he always answered her like she was making perfect sense, just like you do, and..."

"Whoa, whoa. Slow down, Darwin! I have to ask you something."

"Yes, I want to keep him!"

Jim gaped. "I... Carolyn has to go back East for a few months and wants to leave him here till she gets settled."

Most of the light suddenly went out of Blair's expression. "Till she gets settled?"

"That's what she's asking."

Blair seemed to be deflating by the moment. "You don't want to raise him?"

Jim sighed. "I didn't say that, Blair."

"Good. I don't have to kick your ass just yet."

"There's a lot to be considered. He doesn't know me--he might not want to live with me." Jim finally smiled. "Some people have told me that I'm not always the easiest person in the world to live with."

"That goes without saying," Blair said, offhand. "But you're worth the trouble." He started pacing. "This would be a good time for him to move here--we'll be starting the new school year in a couple of weeks. That will give him a little time to settle in, but not long enough to get restless before he has something to occupy his time. We can give him his choice of sleeping in the exam room, the parlor..." he was brightening again as he spoke, "Or we could go ahead and convert the other cell--it wouldn't take a lot of work, since we have the outside walls up already."

The door out to the old smithy opened. Jim watched in amusement as Jay held the door, allowing Maggie to precede him into the kitchen. She was chattering steadily. "An' Daddy Jim useta make all the horsie shoes, an' sometime he still do, but he a depp-ity now. He catches bad mens an' Sherff Simon puts 'em inna jail. Sherff Simon issa black man." She gave Jay a stern look. "But wese don' talk 'bout that 'cause it not 'portant, 'cause he a good man!" She glared, daring him to disagree. He nodded silently. Maggie gave him a beam of approval. She bounced over to Jim and hugged his leg. "I like 'im. He nice."

Jim plucked Maggie off his leg and handed her over to Blair. Blair sensed that Jim needed a moment alone with his son, so he took Maggie over to the stove, handed her the spoon, and got her to give the pot another stir. She'd be so engrossed that it would take a brass band to get her attention.

Jim squatted, bringing himself down on Jay's level. The little boy watched him solemnly. Jim said quietly, "Your mother says that you know who I am."

"Yes, sir." It was a whisper.

"Did she tell you why you're here?"

Jay nodded and repeated, "Yes, sir. She has to go to Boston for a long time, and it would be too much trouble to take me."

Jim caught Blair's sharp look, and was grateful that his lover resisted the urge to go in the parlor and slap Carolyn. "I don't think that's exactly what she meant, Jay."

Jay gave Jim a doubtful look, and he said quickly, "It's a long, hard trip, Jay--it wouldn't be easy for a little boy to make, and your mother will be very busy. She thought that it might be better if you stayed here with me for a few months. You can even go to school here. The school is new--only a year old."

Jay looked interested. "Is it very big?"

"Well, probably not by your standards, but it's pretty good for a town the size of Cascade. It has four rooms--two for the lower classes and two for the upper, and it even has an assembly room." Jim smiled. "I suppose that the schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles are much bigger."

"I don't know."

"How big was your last school? I hope you weren't in one of those over-crowded classes I've heard about."

"No, sir. I've never been to school."

"What?" The boy flinched, and Jim caught himself. "I mean--I'm a little surprised. How old are you, Jay?"

"I'll be nine just before Christmas."

"And you've never been to school?" he asked numbly.

The boy shook his head. "Mama said that maybe next year, when we're settled." He sighed. "She says that a lot."

Unable to stay quiet any longer, Blair asked, "Do you want to go to school?"

"Oh, yes!" the boy's reply was immediate, and sincere. "I'm not stupid! I can read, you know, and count, and even add and subtract. One of our boarding houses had a lady who used to be a governess, and she taught me. We were at that house a long time. Mama's friend in that city really liked her." Jim stiffened. The boy continued, "He always sent over a maid to sit with me when Mama went out with him. I liked that. I didn't much like staying at the rooms by myself." He wrinkled his nose. "There were funny noises in some of those places."

"You won't have to worry about that here, Jay," said Jim firmly. "Why don't you see if there's any chores you can help Blair with? That's part of living here--we all do chores--even Maggie."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Give him one day before you start setting up house rules, Jim." Blair smiled. "He's a guest tonight. But I tell you what, Jay--the silver is in that drawer, and you look tall enough to reach the upper shelves. Why don't you and Maggie start setting the table?"

Blair let Maggie slide to the floor, and she grabbed Jay's hand and started hauling him over to the cabinet, already instructing him on where he would find each item, and where it should be placed on the table. Jim rubbed his hands on his thighs. "I'm going to let his mother know that things are settled..." he started toward the door, muttering, "and possibly give her a piece of my mind."

"Little pitchers, big ears," Blair called as his lover stalked out of the room. "No, Mags, we don't need the oyster forks tonight. I know you like eating with them, but we're having stew, and you've already messed up one set of clothes today. Please have mercy on Daddy Jim's blood pressure."

Jim entered the front parlor. "He's more than welcome, Carolyn, but I want to have a word with you about..." His voice died away.

The front parlor was empty except for two small traveling bags and a small box, with an envelope addressed to Jim lying on top. Jim strode quickly to the front door and jerked it open, stepping out onto the porch. He looked up and down the street quickly, his keen vision cutting through the gathering twilight, but there was no one in sight, save for a late customer coming out of O'Connor's store. He extended his hearing, listening for hoof beats, or the receding rumble of wagon wheels--nothing. "Well, fuck me," he said softly. She must have run the moment the kitchen door closed behind me.

Jim went back into the parlor and picked up the envelope. He ripped it open and pulled out a single sheet of paper. Her writing is just like she is, Jim thought, Pretty and elegant, but also formal and cold. He read the few words quickly.

Jim,

I know what you're thinking, and you should be ashamed of yourself, using that sort of language about the mother of your child. I knew you'd say yes, so there was no real point in waiting--and I should be able to catch the last train in the next town over if I hurry. I won't say take care of him, because I know you will. Tell him I'll write.

Carolyn

Carolyn, you bitch. You could have at least told the boy good-bye. Jim hefted the bags, tucking the box under his arm, and tapped gently on the kitchen door with his toe.

Jay opened the door, looking puzzled. Then his expression cleared, and he said, "I was wondering why you were knocking to be let into your own kitchen." He stepped aside, making room for Jim to enter.

Jim set the two suitcases on the floor, depositing the box on a clear counter. He was wondering how to broach the subject of Carolyn's abrupt departure, and finally settled on off-hand. He gestured at the table. "We won't be needing the fifth place setting--Carolyn couldn't stay for supper." Blair turned from slicing the bread to give Jim a questioning look. Instead Jim fixed his attention on Jay. "She really had to run, Jay. She said to tell you that she loved you, and that she'd be writing soon." The little boy didn't exactly look disappointed. In fact, there was a disturbing lack of reaction. Jim offered, "You know, we have our own telegraph office now. I wouldn't be surprised if she sent you a telegram from her next stop." Jay muttered something as he turned away, too quickly for Jim to catch it. "I beg your pardon?" The boy looked at him. "Jay, it isn't polite to mumble. Speak so I can hear you."

The boy's eyes were wide. "I said I would."

"You would what?"

"Be surprised. I'd be surprised if she sent me a wire. Shall I take Maggie to wash her hands?"

"Um, yes, that would be good," said Jim, disconcerted by his flat statement.

"Come on, Maggie." He took the little girl's hand and led her toward the back of the house. "I saw a basin and pitcher back in this bedroom."

"Yes." Maggie toddled along with him. "That's Daddy Jim an' Papa Blair's room, an' we don't go in there 'less we knock first, an' then we wait for a 'come in', less the house is on fire or the Indians are 'tacking..."

When they were gone Blair said, "Jim, she really just took off and left him?"

Jim sighed, nodding. "And the really sad thing is that he expected it. What kind of a life has that child been leading, Blair?" Jim's voice was ragged. "My child, Blair. My child!"

Blair went to him quickly, embracing him. "Hold on, Jim. He's here now, and he's safe, and we're going to take care of him."

Jim returned the embrace, pushing his face into the fragrant mass of Blair's hair, inhaling his scent deeply and feeling immediately calmed by the beloved, familiar sensations. "But for how long? She said awhile--a few months. He looks so... lost." Jim heard the light footfalls of the children returning and stiffened slightly.

Blair understood and gave Jim a quick, final squeeze before stepping back. He said quietly, "We won't borrow trouble. We'll do our best for him, and deal with whatever comes, when it comes. Right now we have two hungry and tired little ones to feed and get to bed."

Jim nodded, smiling faintly as he saw that Maggie was clinging to Jay's shirttail, and the boy was shuffling slowly, so that she could keep up easily. He looked at Blair and said, wonderingly, "Things just seem more--real--when you have a child, don't they?"

Blair returned his smile, "Indeed they do."

Part Three

Maggie insisted that everyone have two helpings of peas. "I thought you didn't like green stuff, Mags," Jim teased her.

"But I cook-ed this," she explained.

"Oh. Yes, that would make a difference."

"Jay help-ed me some," she said generously. She held her thumb and forefinger up, pinched together. "A little bitty bit. Jay's a nice boy. Can we keep him?" she continued innocently.

"Well, yes, actually--we can."

Maggie paused, eyes rounded, mouth open to give a view of the last of her peas. She hadn't been expecting this, and she was astonished. Of all the toads, lizards, and stray dogs she'd brought home, Daddy Jim had never said she could keep one--now he was going to let her keep a whole boy? "Really?" she squeaked.

"Really," Jim assured her. "At least for a while. Don't you remember we said that his mother had to go on a trip? Jay will be staying with us till she gets back."

"Yay!" Maggie threw her arms up enthusiastically. Luckily no one was close enough to get poked in the eye with her spoon (Jim and Blair had long ago decided that she wasn't nearly ready for a fork), but several peas went flying.

Jay was watching her, puzzled. "You won't mind, Maggie?"

"Mind?" Her tone said that the question was ridiculous. "Now I gots a big brother. Raffie-la don't gots a big brother."

"Raphaella," Blair explained. "Our friends' daughter. She's a couple of months older than Maggie, and I'm afraid there's a terrible amount of competition between them. No," he told Maggie, "Raffie-la doesn't have a big brother. However," he tapped her nose, "she'll have a little brother or sister sometime in the spring."

Jim smiled as he started to clear the plates. "I thought so--she has that look about her."

Maggie frowned. "You mean Raffie-la's mama is preggie?"

There was a gasp and a clatter. Jay was staring at the little girl in astonished fascination. He looked quickly at the two men, obviously expecting Maggie to be reproved for such an indelicate turn of phrase, if not for daring to speak of the matter at all. "That's right," Blair said blandly. "Megan is pregnant." He smiled at Jay. "I hope we don't shock you, Jay, but I'm a doctor. I've been teaching Maggie the real terms for things since she was old enough to listen."

"Before that," said Jim dryly. "I still remember you changing her diaper and saying, 'My goodness, Maggie, your urinary tract certainly is in fine working order.'" He ruffled Maggie's curls. "I thought we'd agreed that you'd use the 'baby words' when we had company."

"We don't gots company," Maggie said, voice patient.

"Uh, Maggie?" Jim pointed at Jay.

She sighed in exasperation. "He's your little boy, right, Daddy Jim?"

Jay was watching him, and Jim said firmly, "Yes, he is."

"And youse my Daddy Jim, so Jay is my big brother, like I said."

Blair handed his plate to Jim, then stood up. "Can't argue with that. C'mon, Little Bit. It's time you were in bed."

Maggie hopped down obligingly. "Wanna story."

Blair took her hand and led her out to the old smithy. "When was the last time I didn't tell you a story?"

"Want one 'bout Lobo an' Midnight."

"Okay."

Blair had left water warming in the compartment on the stove. Jim shaved soap into the dishpan, then filled it, working up a good suds and beginning the dishes. When he turned to get a pot off the stove, Jay was standing behind him quietly, holding the last of the dishes. Jim took them, "Thank you."

"You're welcome. You really are my father, aren't you?"

Jim stopped what he was doing to turn back to the boy, soap dripping from his hands. "Yes, I am."

Jay studied him silently, then said, "And you really didn't know about me?"

Jim shook his head. "If I had, I'd have made sure that I was with you, Jay. You have to believe that."

"I guess." A sweet, high-pitched giggle floated through the room, mingled with deeper laughter. Jay turned his head slightly, as if attracted by the sound. "She's a real happy little girl."

"Yes, Maggie is a sunbeam most of the time."

"Is she your little girl?"

Jim took a breath. His family situation would seem incomprehensible to most of the world--how could he explain it to this child? And should he explain it? His relationship with Blair was still a mystery to all but a handful of people. Megan and Rafe knew, and so did Simon and his son. The local pastor had guessed, and proved himself a saint in Jim's eyes by saying nothing, even discouraging the church ladies from trying to set up matches for the two bachelors. But to most of Cascade they were simply housemates, sharing space since neither of them had a lavish income. When they thought of it at all, the townspeople assumed that sooner or later one of them would find a suitable woman, and the household would split up.

Finally Jim said. "She's not my daughter in the same way that you're my son, Jay. Maggie's mother died when she was born, and her father died right after. Mrs. Bolivar had asked Blair to take care of her baby if anything happened to her, so Blair adopted Maggie. He couldn't love her any more if he'd... he'd sired her. And Maggie is as much my daughter as she is his because I love her, and I've helped raise her."

Jay seemed to consider this. "So Maggie has two fathers instead of a father and a mother. How's she going to learn girl stuff? You know--cooking and sewing."

"She's already learning how to cook--you saw that tonight. As for sewing--" he grinned ruefully. "You have me there. I can replace a button, and Blair can stitch up a cut neat as you please, but other than that..." He shrugged. "Megan has promised to teach Maggie what we don't know--when she's old enough. She and Raphaella can learn together."

"This just seems like sort of a funny family. No offense meant," he said quickly.

"None taken." Jim rinsed the last dish in clear water. "Open the back door for me, would you?" Jay did, and Jim carried the washbasin to the door and tossed the water out into the yard. As the boy closed the door, he said, "I guess we are unusual, but I doubt you'll find anyone happier." He set the basin aside, then looked at Jay soberly. "I don't know if you can understand this, Jay, but there are two sorts of family. First, there's the one you're born to--mother, father, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles--you can't change that at all. They're all supposed to love each other because... well, because that's the way it's supposed to be. It doesn't always work out like that, though. Then there's the second type of family."

Jim went and sat at the now cleared table. He was a little surprised when Jay got a damp rag from the sink and began to carefully wipe up crumbs. "Thank you. Blair would tease me to death if I forgot that. The second type of family isn't as easy to explain. These people are the family that you choose. They're usually rarer than the first type of family, because they have to choose you, too. That's how it is with me, Blair, and Maggie--we've chosen each other. I have a father and brother." He grimaced. "At least I think I still do. I haven't heard from them in years. And I'll tell you right now that Blair and Maggie are more family to me than William and Steven Ellison ever were, despite the fact that we share the same blood."

"What happens if the people you choose as family don't choose you back?"

Jim felt a twinge of unease. The thought of Blair or Maggie not loving him back caused a deep ache. He looked at the thin, solemn little boy standing before him. What if he doesn't choose us? What if he doesn't choose me? You can't make someone love you. I guess my dad taught me that. "That would be a sad situation, Jay. You just have to hope that it doesn't happen." He glanced at the clock over the sink and said, "It's past nine--time for bed."

"Mom usually didn't get back to the hotel till way after midnight."

Jim felt his expression stiffen. "That was in the big city, Jay. We roll up the sidewalks early around here. We have to decide where you're going to sleep. There's a real comfortable divan up front in Blair's consulting room, or you can have one of the rooms out in the smithy--we've been working on them, but the free one is still a little rough."

"Why do you have rooms out there?"

"You wouldn't be trying to stall bedtime by asking a lot of questions, would you? I guess you need to know, since you'll be living here. A few years back I was the only law in Cascade, and I had two cells in the smithy for anyone ornery enough to need to be locked up. If it was just for a few days, they'd stay there. If it was anything more serious, I'd hold them till I could get them to the county lock up. When they built the new jail, we just didn't need them any more. By then Miss Maggie was getting big enough to where she needed her own room, so we made them over."

"Did it hurt Maggie's feelings when you made her sleep out there?"

"Hurt her feelings? She fussed the first couple of nights, then we could hardly get her to come out, because it was her room. Oh, by the way--you'll need to knock and get permission before you go in there if you don't want to see a tantrum, and now it's past nine. Where do you want to sleep?"

Jay looked at the clock. "Isn't that a cuckoo clock? It hasn't cuckooed. It hasn't cuckooed once since I've been here."

"Rafe gave us that last Christmas, and it only cuckooed for about a week. It keeps good time, though."

"Why don't you get it fixed?"

"Because we don't have a clockmaker in town, and it's too blamed much trouble to haul it all the way to Lansdale just because the bird is shy. Quit stalling, son." Jim felt a shiver of emotion when he said 'son', but he continued. "Where do you want to sleep?"

"I guess the room will be all right."

Jim nodded, standing up. "I'll get your linens." He got the sheets from the linen closet. "You'll have to use a folded blanket for a pillow till we can get you another. Mrs. Holliman keeps geese--I'll commission her to make you a down pillow. The rate those birds shed, it shouldn't take more than a week."

Jim led Jay out into the smithy. The boy tagged after him, peering around the big, dim room curiously. "This looks like a barn."

"Not far off the mark. This is where I used to do my iron work. I still do a little every now and then, as needed." Blair was just coming out of one of the two rooms. "Don't tell me she's asleep already?"

"Before you give her a kiss and tuck her in? You must be joking." Blair came over and took the sheets. "I'll set up Jay's bed--you go on and do your duty. C'mon, young man." He led Jay into the second bedroom while Jim went in to Maggie. "I figured you might decide to take this room, so I went ahead and put a lamp in here for you." He started fixing the bed. "It's a little bare right now, but we can fix that up easily enough."

Jay sat on the straight-backed chair against the wall. "It's not so bad. A lot of the hotel rooms weren't this nice."

Blair glanced around at the bare walls doubtfully. This is better than what he's used to? We haven't even bothered to put up wallpaper yet. "I guess it's good that we haven't started decorating yet. You can pick what you like."

The boy stared at him. "What I like?"

"Well, sure." Blair sat on the edge of the bed. "Jay, this is going to be your room--you should have it the way you like it."

Jay came over and sat beside him. "Blair, is this your house, or Mister Ellison's house?"

Blair scratched his chin. "On paper, it's his house, but if you asked him, he'd tell you it's both of ours. If anything happens to him, it will be mine--mine and Maggie's." He studied Jay. "And yours, now." Blair stood up, patting him on the shoulder. "And Jay? If you want to, I really think Jim would like it if you called him Dad." He grinned. "Or Paw. Something like that."

Jim came to the door. "Oh, good, you haven't gone to bed yet. Jay, Maggie wants you to go tell her goodnight. I'd do it, if I were you. If you don't, she'll just get up in the middle of the night, come in here and wake you up. That's what she did to Blair and I the one time we forgot."

Jay went next door into Maggie's room, while Jim and Blair waited out in the smithy. Blair said softly, "I'm glad he came to us, Jim. The more I hear from him, the less I like to think about the life he's led till now."

Through the open doorway they could see Jay standing by Maggie's bed, speaking to her quietly. Maggie reached out to him, and he took hold of her plump hand, listening as she spoke earnestly. "I'm already thinking of what my chances will be to get full custody. Is that very terrible of me?"

"No, it's just human. Even if you weren't a Sentinel, you'd be family oriented, Jim."

"What do you think my odds are?"

Blair sighed. "I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt--you know that. But simply from your history--Carolyn never telling you, never letting the boy get to know you, never seeking your help in raising him... I'd say your chances were real good. People like to think that the mother has first and best rights when it comes to raising children, but let's be realistic--it's still a man's world when it comes to the law."

"I wouldn't want to say anything against Carolyn--I'm sure she's done her best." He shrugged. "It's just that some women aren't maternal." He watched as Maggie tried to tug Jay down for a goodnight kiss. The boy stiffened slightly, then quickly lifted her hand to his lips in an exaggeratedly courtly manner. That made Maggie giggle, and she released him. Jay blew out the lamp, then came out, shutting the door. "You mean to tell me you got away without telling her a story?"

"I had to promise her one for tomorrow night. Do you have any books of children's stories?" Jay asked.

"Sure. At the rate Maggie's going, she'll probably be reading before she starts school, but Maggie prefers it if you make up a story for her."

The boy shifted uneasily. "I'd rather read to her. It isn't good to let your imagination get away with you."

He sounds like he's parroting someone else, thought Blair. "There's nothing wrong with a good imagination, Jay, but we have a book of Mother Goose, and another of Grimm's fairy tales--you'll have plenty of choices."

Jim patted Jay's shoulder. "You must be tired from your trip. Sleep as late as you like tomorrow."

"Thank you, sir. Goodnight."

Blair noticed Jim's disappointment at the formal address, but only said, "Sweet dreams, m'man."

As they started out, Jay called, "Sir?" They stopped and looked back. "Could... could I leave the lamp on?"

Jim frowned. While the kerosene lamps were much safer than candles or oil lamps, he still didn't like to leave one burning without supervision. But he noticed the boy's pinched expression, and softened. He's never had security, and now he's really been thrown into a strange situation. It should be all right. Jim stepped back in and turned the flame down low. "Will this be all right?" Jay nodded. "This time, but you'll have to get used to sleeping in the dark, son. We've never allowed Maggie a nightlight. It isn't as risky as it might be, but we still don't want to take chances."

"I understand. Thank you."

There was a surprise waiting back in their bedroom--or two surprises. Jim stared at the two furry creatures--one silvery gray and one ebony black--sitting on their bed, and sighed. "Why am I not surprised?"

Blair walked over and scratched behind the wolf's ears. "Maybe because they showed up the night we brought Maggie home? They have to look over the new family member..." he grabbed the rough fur and shook Lobo's head, "dontcha, Furball?" The wolf snorted at him, and swiped his face quickly with his tongue. "Ick."

The black jaguar watched them both, giving Jim the same sort of look that a fond, tolerant parent might use. He stepped down off the bed, walked over, and wound himself around Jim's legs, purring roughly. Jim stroked the cat's sleek head. "Haven't seen you for awhile, Midnight." The cat grumbled in the back of his throat. "Yes, I suppose you have things to do. Why are you here?" The cat turned its massive head, looking out toward the shadowy depths of the house. "Jay?"

The wolf wuffed softly, hopped down, and came to stand beside the jaguar, tail swishing slowly. Jim held out his hand, and the wolf pushed his cold nose into it briefly before moving to the door. He looked back over his shoulder to the big cat, whining. Blair said, "Hey! You two hit the Spirit Plain before you go into his room, okay? We don't need him scared into a fit the first night in his new home."

Both animals rumbled agreement and padded off into the shadows. "That's probably not necessary, Blair." The two men had discussed their spirit animals many times over the last few years, and had come to the conclusion that they were the only ones who could see them--unless they very much wanted to be seen. Maggie had never seen them, though she knew of them. It was her fondest hope that they'd show themselves to her some day.

Blair shrugged. "You never can tell, and it's better to be safe. Since he's going to be living with us, we'll have to tell him eventually, but..." Blair bit his lip as he removed his shirt. "He seems to be a little worried about being too fanciful. We'll have to let him know that sometimes out-of-the-ordinary is good." Jim had removed his own shirt, and Blair reached out, smiling as he stroked a hand over his lover's smooth chest. "I know it from personal experience."

"So do I." Jim took Blair in his arms and nuzzled his ear, nipping gently at the gold stud set in his lobe.

Blair hummed with pleasure, carding his hands up through Jim's short, soft hair, cradling the back of his head. "Mmm... I've been waiting for this all evening."

"I wanted to, darlin', but..."

"But Jay isn't ready for that. I understand." He kissed Jim tenderly.

Jim sighed. "It's just that... I can't touch you, or kiss you in public, but we've always had home, and now..."

"I don't think it will be for long, love. He seems like an open-minded young man."

Jim sighed. "God, I hope so." He kissed Blair deeply, tongue moving hungrily. When they broke apart he said, "I couldn't stand it if I couldn't touch you."

"Then touch me now," Blair whispered. He stepped back and removed the rest of his clothing. Jim watched with hot eyes as the sturdy, graceful body was revealed. When he was nude, Blair loosened his hair, letting it sweep over his shoulders, then he lay on the bed, and turned over on his belly. "Tonight, you take me, Jim." He peeked back over his shoulder, and his smile was as mischievous as it was sultry. "You make too much noise when I fuck you."

"Brat." Jim lowered his pants, his already hard cock bobbing eagerly as it came free.

"Honest brat. You howl like Lobo at the end. Now, when you fuck me, you usually just growl like Midnight. He's quieter, unless he decides to yowl."

Jim climbed up on the bed, straddling Blair's thighs. "Don't insult him, or you'll find that he's used your shoes as a chamber pot again." Jim shook his head, grinning. "I told you that you shouldn't refer to him as 'Puss'. Hand me the oil."

Blair reached under the pillow and pulled out a small stoppered bottle. "Oh, shit."

Jim sat back on his heels. "Nothing good ever starts with 'oh, shit'. Don't tell me--let me guess. Empty?"

"I forgot about that afternoon session we had yesterday." He laid aside the bottle. "Get up. There's more in the exam room."

Jim gripped his buttocks, massaging. "No, I don't think I want to take my hands off you long enough for that." He shifted back and used his thumbs to spread Blair's cheeks apart, then leaned down and blew a warm breath over Blair's exposed anus, making his Guide shiver with desire. "We'll just take nature's way, shall we?" He bent lower and lightly drew his tongue the length of the warm crease. Blair moaned. "Now, now," Jim whispered. "You're supposed to be the quiet one--remember?"

He licked slowly, savoring the unique flavor of his lover. Blair kept himself clean, so the taste was only a little earthy, but it was delicious to Jim. Jim concentrated on the crinkle of tender flesh that marked the entrance to Blair's body. He worked steadily, licking firmly, then softly--making sure he used plenty of saliva, getting him wet. Then he stiffened his tongue and began to probe. The tight ring of muscle had relaxed a little with Jim's gentle ministrations, and he managed to push in a little deeper with each press.

Blair had his face buried in the pillow, hands kneading it as he tried to contain his moans of pleasure. The soft, wiggling intrusion in his anal passage was exquisite, and the knowledge that it was soon going to be followed by the hot, hard length of Jim's cock was maddening.

Jim's hand snaked under Blair, stroking his belly, playing with the thin line of hair that ran down from his navel. Jim followed it down to the crisp tangle of hair at Blair's crotch, and then he found what he was seeking. Blair was fully erect--rampant, in fact. Jim stroked him experimentally, and his hand slid in slick moistness, slipping on pre-ejaculate. "I was going to ask you if you were ready for me," he said huskily. "But..."

"Yes, silly question. Please, Jim--I need to feel you inside me."

"Yes, sweetheart. Get up for me." He shifted, and Blair moved up onto his hands and knees. Jim shuffled forward on his knees, one hand on Blair's hip and the other holding his rigid prick. He pressed the flushed, weeping glans to the slightly spread hole, and shuddered at the almost scorching heat from that bare kiss of flesh. "Slowly, lover," he murmured, pressing into him an inch at a time. Finally fully seated, he paused, giving the smaller man time to adjust.

When they'd first begun making love, Blair had always been the active partner. Finally, several months into their life together, Blair had asked gently, "Jim, I love being inside you--it's incredible. But aren't you ever going to return the favor?"

Jim had been a little puzzled. "I thought... Well, I haven't..."

Blair had cocked his head, giving him an amused, quizzical look. "Jim, you're not my girl--you're my man. If you really don't want to fuck me, I can live with that, but I've been looking forward to it."

"Really?" The idea that this beautiful, sensual man wanted to be taken, and taken by him, was incredibly erotic. Jim started to get hard.

Blair noticed. He unbuttoned Jim's pants and reached in, stroking him. "Let me prove it to you." That was the night they 'christened' the kitchen. Jim still bottomed most of the time, but now he wasn't shy about asking to top. When he sensed that he wouldn't cause his lover discomfort, Jim started to move. He slid in and out slowly, slowly, reveling in the tight heat of Blair's body.

It was long, and sweet--even though they were both trying to keep the noise to a minimum. It wasn't the first time they'd had to try to be quiet--Maggie had slept in their room for the first year-and-a-half. And this way of making love had it's own attractions. Without vocalizing, they tended to concentrate more on the sensations.

Blair shoved back at Jim as his lover lunged into him, both of them striving for maximum penetration. Usually they were gentle with each other, but there were times when they needed more, and in these times neither had to worry. They both knew that their partner would not only accept, but revel in, powerful lovemaking.

Blair braced himself more firmly as Jim rested against his back. He wouldn't be able to support the weight for long, but he wouldn't have to. Like this, Jim didn't risk sliding out on the back stroke. Since he didn't need to hold Blair's hips, his hands were free for other pursuits. He reached down and began touching his lover--tugging carefully at the nipple ring, pinching the unringed nipple, then sliding both hands down to wrap around his rigid cock and tug firmly.

Blair pressed his face down into the pillow as his orgasm approached. It was just as well that he did, because this tilted his hips, bringing Jim across his prostate, and his half-strangled cry was muffled as he reached his release. Jim felt the already tight body clench around him as his hands were bathed with Blair's essence. He threw himself against his lover again, stabbing deep into that sweet heat, and let go. Blair moaned again, the sound unbearably sensual, as he felt his lover's seed fill him.

Jim immediately sat back, taking his weight off Blair, and the younger man went boneless, sprawling bonelessly. Jim collapsed beside him, breathing heavily. For a long moment both were silent, then Blair drawled. "When are we going to learn to put the basin next to the bed before we get started?"

Jim chuckled, then stretched. "If that's a hint, I'm too damn comfortable to move right now."

"Fine, lazy ass. Make me get up." But the complaints were jocular, and Blair didn't move right away. Instead he snuggled against Jim, and the Sentinel curled an arm around him, drawing him even closer. "I love you," Blair whispered.

"I'm still not getting up." Blair poked him. "Ow. I love you, too, genius. And I'm still not getting up."

"I'd make a snide remark about your 'getting up' so soon after what we just did, but you might kick me out of bed."

"Tease all you want--it's your turn."

"Jim, if you're that concerned about an equitable division of responsibilities, I tell you what--I'll get some of Maggie's drawing paper tomorrow, and we'll draw up a chart as to who's in charge of what, when. Mondays--Jim bottoms, Blair provides clean up. Tuesdays, Jim replenishes oil as needed. Blow jobs all around. Wednesday--for some reason it's always busy on Wednesdays. Let's say just hand jobs on Wednesdays. Thursdays... Hey, no fair tickling!" He dissolved into laughter as Jim ruthlessly worked his fingers up his rib cage to dig under his armpits. "And don't think I don't realize you're wiping your hands on me, you sneak!"

Out in his rough room, Jay lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. He'd been listening to Maggie's quiet snores. It seemed funny that such a pretty baby girl would snore. Then he'd heard the sounds from the main part of the house. His father and his father's friend were the only ones there, and he hadn't heard anyone else arrive, so it had to be them. Jay frowned. This was puzzling. He'd heard those sorts of sounds before, of course. They went on all the time in most of the hotels he'd lived in. But there'd always been one man's voice and one lady's voice.

"I just don't understand it," he said quietly. He looked over at the huge black cat that was curled up near the door, and the big gray wolf that had his head resting on the cat's haunch. "Do you know what's going on?" The wolf sort of smiled at him. "I am not too young to know. It sounds like sex sounds, but they're both boys."

 

 

Midnight blinked at him, then yawned, showing ivory fangs bigger than his thumb. "Yes, I am sleepy." He got up, went to the table, and blew out the lamp, then crawled back in bed. He had intended to leave the lamp lit all night, but now he didn't feel as if he needed it--not with the two animals sleeping nearby. Even if they are just my imagination, he thought.

Part Four

"Doc, who's that there little boy who let me in?" The man sitting on Blair's exam table glanced curiously toward the front parlor. "I thought I knew all the young 'uns around here, and I'd swear I've never seen him before."

"I don't expect you have, Reese." Blair was frowning as he peered at an array of small medical instruments that were laid out on a clean cloth. "He's Jim's boy--Jay."

Reese's mouth dropped open. "Dep'ty Ellison has a boy? I never knew that."

"Yes, well, Jim and the mother haven't been married for a long time. She had to go east, so Jay will be staying with us for awhile." He cast a wry glance at the man, knowing that the news would be all over town in a matter of hours.

Jim had given him permission to give out the bare-bones facts, figuring that it would be simpler than having the whole town parade through for individual explanations. "It isn't as if there won't be gossip, no matter what we say. It'll be best to get the facts out as quickly as possible. And this may help us in the long run. I never actually said anything, but I sort of gave the impression that I was a widower. The single ladies won't be quite so hot on the trail of a divorced man."

Reese said, "What you lookin' so perturbed about, Doc?"

"I can't find my tweezers. It would be nothing to pluck that splinter out with them, but they aren't here. That's funny--I never take them out of this room, except to sterilize them and bring them right back. Where could they have gotten to?" He sighed, picking up a small, sharp scalpel. "I'm sorry, but if I don't have them, I'm going to have to slice it out. Don't worry--it's in firm, but it isn't in deep. I'll just have to make a tiny slit in the skin so I can ease it loose with a probe. You'll have to have one--maybe two stitches."

"That's all right," the man said genially. "My woman won't try to bully me into washing the dishes if I have stitches in my hand."

Blair carefully split the skin over the thick splinter that the man had buried deep in his palm, and turned back to his instruments, then cursed. "Damnation! My smallest probe is gone, too! Now, that can't be carelessness--someone has been into my instruments. All right, I think I can use the medium probe for this." He picked up a small, thin, sharply pointed metal spike. "I don't like making do, though."

Blair worked the splinter free, stitched up the wound, cleaned it, and dressed it. He gave Reese a small jar of ointment, instructing him to wash the wound thoroughly once a day, and put the ointment on it at least three times a day. "Keep it clean and dry it well after you wash it. I don't want it to become infected, and that's in a difficult place to heal. Come see me again in three days, and I'll have a look at it. The stitches may be ready to come out by then, or it may take longer. We'll see."

"Thanks, Doc." Reese awkwardly reached into his pocket with his uninjured left hand and pulled out a coin. "All I got is two bits cash money, but I'll bring you over some eggs tomorrow morning, eh?"

"That'll be fine. We're going to need more provisions, what with another mouth to feed."

Reese nodded cheerfully. "I know how a boy can eat--got two of my own."

Blair spent a few minutes straightening up the exam room, cleaning his instruments with alcohol. It was nearly noon, so Jim would be home soon, and he wanted to be ready to have a leisurely meal with his family. The two men shared the cooking chores, but Blair was willing to take an extra turn now and then. He enjoyed it, enjoyed experimenting with herbs and recipes, and he was looking forward to getting to know Jay's likes and dislikes.

Blair went into the kitchen. He'd left Maggie and Jay drawing, and he expected to find the usual mess of pencils and crumpled paper, but he was surprised. The papers were piled in a neat stack, with the pencils on top. The pile was even sitting at the back of the table, leaving the center free, and the tabletop itself hadn't been decorated with any fresh artwork. "Damn," Blair muttered. "It looks like Jay is going to be a good influence on Maggie."

He thought briefly about starting lunch, but decided that it would be better to locate the children first. Though Maggie had it drilled into her that she wasn't to leave the house without one of the adults, and she wasn't to play with the forge or the tools, Blair knew enough about children to know that they would do things when they were together that they wouldn't do alone.

He checked back in his bedroom first--not that he expected them to be there, (the 'ask before entering' rule was set as firmly as the 'no going out without permission' rule), but it was closest. It was empty. He opened the door that led to the smithy and called. "You two are being awful quiet." There was another moment of quiet, then Maggie and Jay came to the kitchen. "There you are." He ruffled Maggie's curls. "I hadn't heard a peep out of you two for some time, and I was starting to get worried."

"Why?" Jay sounded genuinely puzzled.

Blair could well imagine that Carolyn wouldn't deal well with a boisterous child, but he didn't comment. "I thought maybe something had happened to you two--got kidnapped by Indians, fell down a well, were snatched by a ravening woodchuck..." Maggie was giggling. "It could happen. I remember once when Jim and I went camping, there was a prairie dog that had to have been crazy. He crawled right in your Daddy Jim's bedroll, and Jim woke up wearing him across his throat."

Maggie squealed. "Daddy yelleded!"

"You bet he did, and that was the first time I ever saw a prairie dog fly. Maggie, would you like to go to the store?" She nodded vigorously. She was one of the storeowner's pets, and could usually count on a piece of candy. "Good. I didn't have time to start soup this morning, but they're keeping that fancy canned kind now." He pulled out the quarter that Reese had given him, and offered it to the boy. "Jay, would you take Maggie over to O'Connor's store and buy two cans of soup?"

Jay stared at the coin, then looked at Blair doubtfully. "Are you sure you want me to?"

"I asked you, didn't I? It wouldn't be too much trouble, would it? You can't get lost, since it's just down the street."

"Oh, it's not that," his tone was dismissive, and Blair reminded himself that the boy had grown up in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. "But are you sure you want me to carry your money? What if I get robbed?" He looked up at Blair, and there was a certain bleakness in his eyes. "What if I steal it?"

Blair sat down. These issues needed to be addressed. "First off, I doubt you'd be robbed. Sure, there are a few bullies around--you can't get rid of them entirely, but we have a good law system these days to take care of the adults. And as for the ones your age--well, if any of the local kids dared something like that their parents would most likely make it kind of difficult for them to sit down for awhile. As to the second..." he hesitated, making sure that Jay was looking him in the eye, "that never entered my mind, Jay." He pressed the coin into the boy's hand. "Two cans--any kind that appeals to you. And I'm getting low on candy for my little patients. You might use the change to pick up an assortment." He held up a finger, and he was looking pointedly at Maggie. "None before lunch!" She poked out her bottom lip. "Jay, ignore that."

Jay smiled. "Yes, sir."

"I suppose you're a little old to call me Papa, like Maggie, but you don't need to call me sir all the time. Why don't you call me Blair?"

"I..." he seemed at a loss. Then he nodded, and said, "Yes, Blair." He took Maggie's hand. "Come on, Maggie."

Blair started fixing sandwiches. He was just cutting the crusts off Maggie's sandwich, wondering if he should do the same for Jay, when Jim came in. The older man glanced around, saw no children, and took the opportunity to put his arms around Blair and kiss him thoroughly. When he pulled away, Blair grinned at him. "Don't start something we won't be able to finish."

Jim grimaced, but stepped away to pour himself a cup of coffee. "Where are the kids?"

"I sent them to the store for soup. You know, that canned soup they came out with a couple of years ago is great stuff, and since they condensed it, it's only a dime a can. It tastes good, it's nutritious, it's no more expensive than making your own, and it's so quick and easy I almost feel guilty making it."

"Will wonders never cease?"

"I'm supposed to be the sarcastic one." He put the sandwiches on plates while Jim sipped, then said quietly, "Jim? He was surprised that I'd trust him with a quarter."

Jim sighed. "I get the feeling that he doesn't think very much of himself. Carolyn never was much for building anyone up. I know that I felt about mouse sized most of the marriage."

"Don't let Midnight hear that. Anyway, we'll just have to work on his self-esteem--let him know how much we think of him."

"That shouldn't be hard," Jim said softly. "He's a terrific little boy, Blair."

"He sure is." Blair patted Jim's shoulder. "You done good, partner."

Jim shook his head, eyes troubled. "I didn't have much to do with it."

Blair gave him a hug. "There's always going to be a debate over what is most important in forming a person's character--what he inherits, or how he's raised. Of course having the right kind of home life when you're young is important, but I can't help but think it isn't everything." He rested his chin on Jim's shoulder. "If it was, then no child who came from a good, loving home would ever go wrong, and we both know that isn't true." He squeezed Jim. "There's a lot of you in him, big guy, and it's coming out."

They heard the front door open, and Maggie chattered all the way into the kitchen. Jay was silent, but he was watching her with tolerant amusement. She was holding a small paper bag carefully in both hands, and she offered it to Blair. "We gots lemon drops, an' hoor-houndog drops, an' sour balls, an' pep-mints."

"Good variety, Maggie. Oh, and I think I see a jawbreaker in here, too." He looked at her, eyebrows raised. "Any idea how it got in there?"

She blinked at him innocently, and Jay said, "There should be two. I tried to tell them I didn't have permission to put anything on credit, and she said it was a welcoming gift."

"Was it a pretty lady with an accent?"

"Yes. I used to hear people from all over the world in San Francisco, but I never heard anyone who sounded quite like that." He looked thoughtful. "She sounded a little like some of the people from England."

"That would be Megan--Rafaella's mother. She owns the store, and she still goes in to help out or look over things occasionally. That was a gift, Jay."

"But she doesn't even know me."

"She knows us, and you belong with us, so that's enough for her," Blair assured him. "What did you decide on for soup?"

As Jay handed over the two cans, Maggie said, "We gots 'mato an' noxtail." She made a face. "I don't wanna eat any old noxtail."

"Oxtail," said Jim. "And it's just beef, Maggie. You like beef soup."

"I don't like no noxtail," she said stubbornly.

Blair bent down to get on her level, smiling, and said, "Honey, you don't know what you're eating when it's in a soup or a stew. You remember that soup that had the little white pieces of meat in it?" She nodded. "Do you know what that was?" She shook her head, her expression suspicious.

"Don't tell her, Blair," Jim warned. "I don't want to deal with her when she learns what t-r-i-p-e is. Even I had a reaction the first time you told me what it was."

"And you're the man who learned how to survive in the wilderness." Blair had gotten the can opener, punctured the top of one of the cans, and was working it industriously, prying the blade around the rim of the can lid.

"That's survival," Jim protested. "I don't have to eat..." He noticed Maggie watching him closely. "that stuff, so I don't."

"I know what t-r-i-p-e is," offered Jay.

Jim felt a quick stab of pride. He knew children Jay's age, who had been going to school for several years, who wouldn't have picked up on that. "Well, don't tell Maggie, no matter how much she teases you."

Jay looked at Maggie. "Did it taste good, Maggie?" She thought about it, then nodded. "Do you trust your Papa Blair?"

Maggie gave Jay a disbelieving look. "Yes."

"Then don't worry about it." Jay looked at Blair. "Mama says you ought to always trust whoever fixes your food. There was a chef once who didn't like her, and she says he put..." He trailed off when he realized that all three of the others were watching him--Maggie eagerly, and Jim and Blair with a measure of wariness. "Um, I'll tell you some other time."

"Thank you," said Blair sincerely. "Maggie, in deference to your fine sensibilities, we're having tomato soup. I'll mix it with hot water, and it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to heat up." He waved at the table. "Everyone sit."

They all sat down to eat. Halfway through the meal, Blair said, "Jim, did you get the tweezers out of my exam room for any reason?"

Jim swallowed. "You always manage to ask a question when my mouth is full. No, I know better than that."

"I'm missing my smallest probe, too."

"Probe?" said Maggie.

"You know, Mags. It's that pointed metal thing on the wooden handle. Sometimes I use it to lance boils."

"Oh."

Blair was immediately suspicious. "Have you seen either of those things, Maggie?"

"Yes. Course I seen 'em, Papa Blair. Youse showed 'em to me."

Jim snorted. "Oh, boy. Yes, she's your girl, Blair. That was as neat an example of answering a question without answering it as I've ever heard from you."

"Not funny. Maggie?"

She wouldn't look at him. "What?"

"You know what," he said sternly. "Did you take the tweezers and probe? Maggie, you know better than that! I need those things for my work. I had to use a scalpel and cut a splinter out of Reese McCormack's hand today because I didn't have them. That means he had more pain than he had to, and now we have to be even more careful that he doesn't get an infection. I'm surprised at you, young lady." Maggie's bottom lip was quivering, and her eyes were moist, but she wasn't going to escape a scolding. "I thought I'd taught you better than that. You..."

"Blair, please don't be mad at Maggie," Jay interrupted him.

Blair stopped, looking at the little boy. "Jay, I'm happy that you think enough of Maggie to want to take up for her, but this is serious."

"But Blair, it isn't Maggie's fault. I took those things."

Blair sat back. Well, this was unexpected. "Jay, why on earth?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't think about you needing them to help someone. I just wanted..." he trailed off, blushing.

"What would you need tweezers and a probe for?" Jim asked. He didn't like the possibilities. What would a boy Jay's age need with a sharp metal instrument?

"They were the closest thing I could find to tools."

"Tools?" Jim repeated blankly.

"Yes, sir. I can show you."

When Jim nodded agreement, the boy got up and went out into the smithy. Jim looked at Blair questioningly, but his lover just shrugged. He looked at Maggie. "What do you know about this?"

"It a secret," Maggie said solemnly.

"Ah." Jay came back in, and set a brown box on the table. Jim looked a little closer, then quickly looked at the wall over the sink. It was bare. He looked back. Sure enough, it was the cuckoo clock. "What's this about?"

"It didn't cuckoo. What's the point of having a cuckoo clock if it doesn't cuckoo?" Jay carefully moved the hands of the clock till it read one o'clock. The little door at the top popped open, the wooden bird popped out, and there was a wheezing sound. Then the bird slid back in, and the little doors closed. "I couldn't get it to make the cuckoo sound. I think that the whistle inside needs to be fixed. If I could find a little file, and some glue, I think I could fix that, too." He laid the missing tweezers and probe on the table beside the clock. "I'm sorry, Blair. I just wanted it to be a surprise." He looked at Jim. "Don't punish Maggie. I made her promise not to tell."

"Hm. Seems to me like we have a fine line here. Miss Maggie knows the rule about touching Blair's instruments. Did she just not tell you, or did she tell you, and you ignored her?"

Jay flushed. "I brought them to my room, and she came in. She told me it was wrong; yes sir, you can bet on that. But I already had the clock taken apart, and I figured there wasn't any point in putting them back till I finished what I started. And..." he snuck a glance at Blair. "Blair was in his exam room. I thought I could just put them back later."

"I'm glad you didn't, Jay," said Blair quietly. "I might have used them without cleaning them again. That wouldn't have been good."

"I see that now. I'm sorry."

"That's three apologies by my count," said Jim. "I believe you are sorry, Jay, and I know you didn't mean any harm." He sighed, looking at Blair. "Let him be a guest for one night before you start laying down the rules."

"Don't rub it in."

"Well?"

"Like you said, he didn't mean anything by it, and he's sincerely sorry." He looked at Jay. "I don't think you'll do this again."

Jay shook his head firmly. "No, sir!"

"That's the end of it, then," said Jim. He picked up the clock and moved the hands again till the bird popped out and the clock gave two wheezes. He smiled. "I have to admit that I never expected this to work again. You're a talented young man, Jay. But the next time you want to fix something, talk to me or Blair first. We'll see about getting you the proper tools."

Jay's face lit up as he realized that not only was he not in trouble, but that he'd pleased Jim. "If I had a file and some glue, I could make it cuckoo again, I think," he said shyly.

"Blair's instruments need to be kept strictly for medical work, but I still have all my iron working tools." Jim pushed away from the table, standing up. "Those weren't designed for delicate work, but we can look at them and maybe you can give me an idea of what you need. I expect I can find it in a catalogue somewhere."

The thought that someone would be willing to go out of their way and spend money to get him something just because he wanted it was obviously a new concept to Jay--but he liked the idea. He followed Jim out into the smithy and carefully looked over the array of available tools before agreeing that there was nothing suitable. Jim took out a pencil and a small notebook and wrote down a description of what Jay wanted. "Megan and Rafe get catalogues. I'll check them over, then tell you what's available." He smiled at the boy. "It's going to be nice to have someone to help with the repairs around the house. I don't always have time, and Blair..." He shrugged. "He's a lot better with people's internal workings, and I don't like him risking his hands around hammers and such. Don't tell him I said that. He gets grouchy if he thinks I'm trying to be over-protective."

"He's nice."

Jim's voice softened. "Yes, he is."

"He reminds me of some of the actors my Mama knew back in San Francisco."

Jim chuckled, leaning back against the cold forge. "You're not all that far off the mark. Blair used to be a traveling medicine man. He'd put on a show when he came into a new town, just to attract people and let them know he was there." Jim shook his head. "I lo..." He cleared his throat. "I like him a lot, but he isn't the best singer. He used to have a dog who was part of the act. He passed away when Maggie was two, and Blair and her both cried their eyes out. Darwin would dance when Blair played the banjo, and he'd howl when Blair sang. He could..."

"Do you love him?" The simple question stopped Jim cold, and he suddenly felt closer to a zone than he had for years. He didn't reply because he honestly couldn't think of anything to say. Jay was continuing apologetically. "I know it's rude to ask, but... Well, you sleep together when you don't have to."

Jim could understand his logic. Sleeping facilities were still crude in many places out on the West coast, since it was still semi-frontier. It wasn't unusual for the less-than-affluent to have to share not only rooms, but beds when they traveled. Children in many families shared beds till they married and left the nest. But in this household there were sleeping spaces galore, and the two men still chose to share a bed. "You think that just because we share a bed that Blair and I are in love?"

Jay shrugged. There were the sounds, too, but... I probably just imagined them. After all, they were way inside the house.

"We're both men," Jim said, watching him carefully.

Jay nodded, giving him a slightly disdainful glance. "I know that. I've known about the difference between boys and girls for ages. I mean, I know Blair has hair like a girl, and he wears an earring, but I can tell. So did one of the actors. His hair wasn't as long as Blair's, either, but..." he frowned. "I think he wore face paint sometimes, but that could just be because he was an actor. His name was Spencer. Mama's friend used to talk about him kind of mean. I don't know why. I think he would have looked better without the face paint, but he was still a nice man. He made some of the other children at the hotel leave me alone when they were teasing me."

Jim felt cold all over. He knew very well that there was a difference between men who desired other men, and men who preyed on children, but he couldn't help being worried. "He was a good friend?" he said carefully.

"Yes. Spencer let me read his book of Shakespeare. I couldn't understand most of it, but it sounded pretty, and he said that was important--to have a love of language."

"Did you spend a lot of time with him?"

"Not a lot. He had to work at night, and he slept during the day." Jay smiled. "He called it his 'beauty rest'. He was funny." Jay sighed. "I hated it when we moved from that hotel. I cried, and Mama told me not to be such a baby, but I missed him."

How the hell do I ask the boy if he was molested? "Were there any special games you used to play?"

"He taught me how to play backgammon. He said it would get me in less trouble than poker. He... oh." Jay's expression was suddenly understanding. "You think that maybe he was... funny. I mean, you think that maybe he liked touching little boys. That's what Mama's friend said, and I kicked him. Boy, was she mad."

"I guess so. So, Spencer never...?" Jim was feeling relieved. He was monitoring Jay's heart rate and breathing, and they were perfectly normal--the boy wasn't keeping any distressing secret. Still, he had to ask.

"No, sir!" Jay said stoutly. "Spencer's the one who told me about that. He said that I was fine with him, but my Mama had better be careful who she left me with, because there were old hawks out there that would gobble someone like me up." He looked puzzled. "I'm pretty sure he was just talking about people, and not real hawks. Anyway, Spencer told me that if anyone ever tried any stuff and nonsense with me, I was to scream like an Irish banshee and kick him," he pointed to his own fly, "right there, then run like the wind."

"That's some good advice."

"Yes, I think so. I've never had to do it, though." Now he folded his arms and stared at Jim. "You wouldn't be trying to stall answering my question, would you?"

Jim remembered his own conversation with the boy last night, and Blair's remark about a 'little Ellison', and had to fight down a smile, despite his anxiety. "If I said I did love Blair, and he loved me, would that bother you, Jay?"

Jay sighed. Maybe I didn't imagine those sounds, then. "No, sir. I think that would be pretty nice." He gave Jim a small smile. "Spencer said that people in love are usually a lot easier to get along with."

"I'm beginning to wish that I'd met this Spencer. I'm happy that it doesn't upset you, Jay, but I'll have to ask you not to talk about this outside the family. Not everyone is comfortable with this sort of thing, and it could make life hard. I wouldn't mind it so much for myself, but I don't want Blair or Maggie to have to deal with anything unpleasant."

"I understand. It's kind of like Mama told me not to talk about you and the divorce, 'cause it was just easier if people thought that my daddy was dead." He paused a moment, then said softly, "It wasn't easier for me. I used to kind of hope we'd meet someone who knew you, so I could ask them about you, but I guess Mama stayed away from anyone she used to know."

Jim patted Jay's shoulder. "Your Mama wasn't too happy with her life before she had you, Jay. Sometimes people just want to forget."

"She couldn't forget you--she had me."

The tone of those words told Jim that Carolyn hadn't always been happy about having a living reminder of the man she'd left behind, and his heart hardened against her just a little more for taking it out on the boy. "Let's go back inside, Jay, before Maggie comes hunting us down."

Part Five

Two weeks later

"Wanna go see Jay."

Blair sighed. He'd known there was going to be tears when Jay went off to school. Maggie had become attached to him very quickly, and she hated being separated from him. "Honey, be patient. You saw him at lunch." Most of the town children returned home for lunch, with only the farm children bringing lunch pails. Jay had returned at noon for his meal, and Blair and Jim were gratified to see that he was much less nervous than he had been that morning.

"It's almost two o'clock. Jay will be back soon."

"Wanna go see Jay now! Jay needs me. He was scared."

"You know that's not true, Maggie." Jay had been antsy, fiddling with his new school supplies, walking back and forth to break in his new boots. This was going to be the first time he'd ever spent extended periods of time with children his own age, and the natural anxiety of a new student was multiplied, but his excitement at finally being able to go to school had over ridden his tension.

Maggie sighed. "Yeah. Jay not scared of nothing. He's 'most brave as you or Daddy Jim." Jay had 'rescued' Maggie from a lizard that had somehow made its way into the little girl's room. While Maggie had no fear of mice (they had a hard time persuading her that they really couldn't keep them as pets), she was terrified of cold-blooded creatures.

She'd already loved Jay before the lizard incident--after it she followed him with worship shining in her eyes. Blair had confided that if he didn't like Jay so much, he might have felt jealous, "because she's never looked at anyone but me like that before. I know I've teased you about you meeting her beaux at the door with an axe handle, but it looks like I won't be far behind."

"Papa, pleeeease?" Maggie leaned her head against his leg pleadingly.

Blair sighed. "It's quiet today. Why don't we walk over and visit with Megan and Raffie?"

Maggie perked up. "Yeah! I gots to tell Raffie 'bout how Jay caught the dragon!"

"It was a lizard, Maggie."

"Was a baby dragon," she insisted. "Him was gonna eat me up, but Jay save-ed me wif his sword!"

"It was a ruler, and he just caught it and put it outside, but yes, you need to tell Raffie about it."

Blair led Maggie down the street to the livery stable--and the Rafe family house right beside it. Megan was sitting on the front porch, knitting with ferocious concentration, while Raphaella played under a tree. Raphaella saw them coming and ran to meet them, chubby legs pumping industriously. Maggie met her half-way, and they did a moment of squealing dance before they headed back to the tree, Maggie already starting on her fairy tale version of 'The Great Dragonlizard Fight'.

Blair went up on the porch and dropped into a chair beside Megan. The Aussie gave him a welcoming nod, but didn't look up from her handwork. She was muttering under her breath. "Knit one, purl one, knit two, purl... Shite!"

"Raphaella is going to have a very colorful vocabulary," said Blair mildly.

Megan sighed, dropping the jumble of yarn and needles into her lap. "Sorry, mate, but this bloody knitting is driving me to distraction."

"Then why are you doing it? There are at least a dozen ladies in town who'd knit you anything you like for practically the cost of the yarn."

She tipped him an irritated, but amused look. "Because I've sworn to teach those two little ones the womanly arts, and I need to learn them myself first." She watched the two little girls who were sitting at the base of the tree, heads close together as they whispered and giggled. "Maggie looks blooming, as usual. You know, Sandy, I didn't think it was possible for her to get any more vivacious, but she sparkles now that young Jay has come to stay."

"He's good for all of us, Meg," he said quietly. "I just hope that we're good for him."

"I don't see how you couldn't be."

Blair shook his head. "He's got a lot of problems for someone so young. Maggie was the only one he'd really talk to at first. I mean, voluntarily, as opposed to answering questions. I think his mother was one of the rabid 'children should be seen and not heard' ones."

Megan scowled. "Bloody unnatural, that's what that is."

"Some of the rich folks hand their children off to nurses, nannies, governesses, and tutors, then pack them off to boarding school. By the time they're willing to spend any time with them, there's hardly any chance that they'll ever actually know each other."

"I'll go you one better, mate," said Megan, her tone growing frosty. "Some of the high toned British ladies hire a wet nurse rather than ruin their figures by using the tits God gave them to nourish their own flesh and blood."

"Megan, you have to get over this excessive delicacy."

She snorted good-naturedly. "Looks like school is out." She pointed up the street toward the town's new school.

Children were emptying out of the building, straggling off in all directions. Blair felt his heart lift when he recognized Jay, walking with two other boys, all three talking animatedly. That was one worry taken care of. His first day had apparently gone well, and that boded well for his chances of getting along with the other children.

"Hm," said Megan thoughtfully, "Elias Farrow, the banker's son, and Lewis Reynolds, whose daddy runs the café. Looks like Jay's going to be acquainted with all the levels of Cascade society."

Jay noticed them down at the livery, and went there instead of going home. Blair watched him walk, noticing that he was moving with more and more confidence. At first he'd almost sidle along the walls at home, as if trying to keep the awareness of his existence to a minimum.

He paused to speak to the two little girls under the tree. Raphaella solemnly showed him a leaf, and he took it, studying it gravely. He spent a moment talking to them, pointing out the veins in the leaf, turning it this way and that. Then he handed it back and came up on the porch. "Good afternoon, Missus Rafe."

"Afternoon, Mister Ellison."

He smiled shyly. "All right. Good afternoon, Missus Megan."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "I suppose it's good that you want to be respectful. Do you think you could handle a few cookies?"

He glanced at Blair, who responded, "Ask her if the offer includes poor, starving physicians."

She laughed. "It includes the whole Ellison-Sandburg brood." She shoved the tangled knitting project into a small bag, and stood. "This gives me an excuse to put away this nonsense. I'll be right back."

Jay sat in the chair that Megan had vacated, and Blair said. "Did the day go well?"

Jay smiled, shoulders going back while he threw out his narrow chest. "The teacher tested me to see which grade I should go in, and she put me in the sixth! That's two grades higher than most children my age."

"I know!" Blair applauded. "Very impressive."

"Well..." Jay hesitated, then admitted. "I'm in sixth grade, but I have to study history with the second graders, because I'm very good on reading, writing, numbers, and geography, but not history." He shrugged. "They never had any history books for me to read in the hotels, and the grown ups never wanted to talk about it."

"That's no problem," Blair assured him. "No one can be an expert in every area."

"You are."

"What gave you that idea? I'm hopeless when it comes to fixing anything with moving parts--like the clock."

Maggie and Raphaella came up on the porch, and Maggie immediately squirmed up on Blair's lap. Raphaella watched with blatant envy, then held her arms out to Jay. "Hold me!"

Blair waited for the boy to balk. Maggie was one thing--Jay had accepted her almost immediately as his sister. But Blair expected him to show the typical young boy's reluctance to have contact with a girl. He was a little surprised when Jay simply hoisted the plump little girl up onto his lap.

Maggie said, "Where Raffie's mama? She getting cookies?"

Jay answered before Blair did. "Yes, she is." He cocked his head consideringly, then said, "Applesauce cookies."

"Yummy!" crowed Raphaella. "My Mama makes the bestest apple-sassy cookies in the whole, wide world."

"Don't set your heart on those," Blair cautioned. "The apple crop this year was pretty scant. It'll more likely be plain oatmeal, or maybe sugar cookies. You like sugar cookies, don't you?"

All three of the children readily agreed that sugar cookies were just fine, but Jay was looking skeptical. Jim came sauntering up the street, and Maggie squirmed down to greet him. Jim swung Maggie up to ride on his shoulder, as he made his way to the porch. He noted Raphaella placidly sitting on Jay's lap, but all he said was, "I got home, and the house was empty. I was lonely, and I thought 'Where would Maggie, Blair, and Jay be?' Well, there was only one answer." Jim took a sniff, and grinned. "They'd be where the apple cookies are."

Blair sat up straight, startled, as Megan came out, carrying a plate of cookies. She said, "I hope you lot feel privileged. I used my last jar of applesauce in these."

Everyone was too involved in getting the cookies fairly divided to notice that Blair was unusually quiet, and he was watching Jay with marked speculation.

*****

He watched Jay carefully from then on, but he couldn't study him as closely as he wished. He's settling in well. I don't want to make him self-conscious. Not only would it destroy the trust he's building up, but he wouldn't act naturally. Lord, if what I suspect is true...

They were spending a quiet evening at home. Jim was reading a week old paper imported from Seattle, Maggie was dressing and undressing her baby doll, rocking it and telling it stories, and Jay was writing a paper about the Boston Tea Party. He knew Blair had lived in Boston, and he'd questioned him closely about the actual location of the event, drinking in the details. Now he was scowling as he erased a mistake with an India rubber eraser.

But he might not be a Sentinel. Burton never said that it was definitely hereditary. He might just have one or two heightened senses. But wouldn't it be fantastic? How can I test without him knowing?

He got up and walked through the kitchen, back into his bedroom. He left the door open, but turned his back to it, and whispered, "Jay? Could you come here for a minute?" There was nothing. He tried again, not raising his voice. "I have something to show you."

He heard footsteps, and Jay came into the room. "What is it, Blair?"

"I just thought you might like to see these." He showed Jay his old jaguar head cuff links. "I got these from a holy man in Peru, and..." His voice trailed off. The boy was staring at the links, eyes wide. Blair knew that most people would consider them exotic, but he hardly felt they warranted this sort of fascination. "Jay?"

"That's not a regular cat, is it?"

"No. No, it's supposed to be a black jaguar." Jay reached out and touched the link with the tip of his finger. Blair said softly, "Ever seen one of those, Jay?"

The boy blinked, and his eyes shifted. For the first time Blair had known him, he looked furtive. "No. I've seen lions and tigers at the zoo, though. Those are nice, but I need to go finish my paper. I have to hand it in tomorrow."

Blair watched him go. Scent, and hearing...

*****

"Wese having chicken soup for lunch?" Maggie knew very well that she couldn't see the top of the stove, but she stood on tiptoe anyway, straining up.

"Chicken and rice, Mags." Blair indicated another pot on the stove. "See? I have the rice ready to stir in."

"Goody! Jay likes chicken. I gonna go wait for him."

"Don't go off the porch, baby," Blair cautioned automatically as the little girl scampered into the front room. When she was gone, he quickly unwrapped a twist of paper, revealing a single square of candied orange peel--no larger than his littlest fingernail. He speared it on a fork then swished it vigorously through the simmering soup, and tasted the broth, closing his eyes in concentration. After a moment, he shrugged, muttering, "Tastes like chicken."

He heard the front door open, Maggie's usual chatter, and Jay's usual quiet replies. He quickly popped the now soggy peel into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed, all before the children entered the kitchen. "Jay--just the man I wanted to see. I need your help." Jay put a book down on the table and came over to the stove, looking at him questioningly. "Maggie can't help me on this. For one thing, she can't handle hot soup. For another, she has an unsophisticated palate." Blair dipped up a little broth. "I need you to taste this. I think something's a little off, but I can't put my finger on it."

Jay sipped the soup. "It tastes all right to me."

"But isn't there just a little something there that shouldn't be? Tell me what you taste?"

"Let me try some more." Blair rinsed the spoon, then dipped up some more. Jay tasted, then frowned in concentration. "Well, there's the chicken, and there's salt and pepper." Blair tried not to smile as Jay poked his tongue into the nooks and crannies of his mouth. "Um... celery, onion..." He looked at Blair questioningly. "Sort of a musty taste."

"That's probably the sage." Darn. Nothing that someone with a fairly sharp ordinary sense of taste couldn't identify. "Anything else?"

"I think..." Jay trailed off, looking embarrassed.

"Don't hold back, Jay. I won't be offended if my cooking has gone funny--I make mistakes occasionally, and I need to know what they are."

"I have to be imagining it," said Jay apologetically, "Because nobody would put an orange in chicken soup."

He was a little startled by Blair's sudden, brilliant grin. When Blair saw his confusion, he quickly fought down the elation he felt. Damn, I didn't think of a good explanation. What's plausible? "I thought there was a lump in the sage when I used it. You know," he started ladling rice into the soup, "last Thanksgiving I was making a fruitcake and the stuffing for the turkey at the same time. I guess I must've accidentally gotten some peel in the sage, and never noticed it." Jay was staring at him. Oh, that was a lame explanation, but it was the best I could do on the spur of the moment.

"Well, it didn't hurt the soup. Spencer said citrus goes good with fowl. He said duck a la orange was one of his favorite dishes."

Jay had talked about Spencer before. "The more I hear about Spencer, the more I'm sure I'd like to meet him."

"That's what my father says. Maggie? Look, I found a picture book at school, and the teacher let me bring it home."

At lunch, Jim said, "Blair, since when did you start using oranges in soup?" He didn't understand his lover's smile till they had a talk later.

*****

"No."

The single word was spoken in a tone that Blair hadn't heard for some time from Jim Ellison--it was denial. "Jim," he said patiently. "I'd have to get him to co-operate in testing to be one hundred per cent sure, but the signs are there. Hearing, smell, taste..."

"No. He's just a little boy."

"How old were you when you noticed that your senses were--out of the ordinary?" Jim was silent. "I'm not necessarily saying that he's a Sentinel. He might just have a couple of extra acute senses, passed down from you. But the possibility is there, and it won't do any good to try to ignore it. In fact, it could do a lot of harm." They were sitting on the edge of their bed. The children had gone to sleep long ago, but Jim still glanced warily toward the door as Blair talked. A sudden thought struck Blair, and he said, "You've been thinking the same thing. You're afraid Jay will hear us now."

Jim shook his head. "He was sawing logs when I checked a minute ago. But..." He sighed, rubbing his hands distractedly over his head. "Yes, I've been noticing a few things. You remember Wednesday, when Mrs. Chalmers came in to have you look at that mashed finger, and you scolded her for wearing gloves before it was healed? She left her doe skin gloves out in the parlor while you were taking care of her, and Maggie just went into fits of ecstasy over them, babbling about how soft they were, rubbing her face against them. She insisted on rubbing one on Jay's cheek to show him, demanding that he agree with her. He said that they were nice, but that they'd sewn one patch in wrong-side-out, and that made the palm a little rough. I checked the gloves when they went outside. He was right, Blair. You know Mrs. Chalmers--she's careful about her clothes, and if she'd noticed something like that, she'd never have worn those gloves out in public." He lay back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. "Hell, I had to look twice. And he was right--it did feel rougher than the rest of the glove."

"That may not be conclusive, but it's a pretty strong indicator."

Jim pounded his fist on the mattress. His voice was fierce as he said, "I don't want that! I don't want my son to have to go through what I did. It was sheer hell, Blair."

Blair reclined beside him, rubbing his shoulder soothingly. "I know. But it doesn't have to be like it was for you, Jim. It doesn't seem that the senses have been getting out of line--not yet, anyway. If they do, he'll have me and you to help him understand what's happening, and work with it."

Jim rolled toward Blair, embracing his lover and burying his face in his chest. "How can I tell him? He's so young, Blair. It's going to sound like a fairy tale--or it's going to sound crazy."

Blair held him. "He's intelligent. I think that he must realize that he's... different. In fact, it sort of worries me that he hasn't said anything about it to either of us. Isn't it the sort of thing that a child would share?"

"Not necessarily." Jim tilted his chin, gazing up at Blair. "It would depend on the sort of reaction he got the first few times he mentioned it." There was a history of pain in that tone. Jim didn't talk much about his early life. It was apparent that he hadn't gotten much support from his family. Blair imagined Jim as a little boy, very like Jay, frightened when his body suddenly seemed to be rebelling, going to the people who were supposed to understand, and care for him, and receiving--what? Nothing good, nothing helpful. Jim's attitude toward his abilities when Blair first met him was evidence of that. It had taken his new lover's acceptance and (to Jim's shock) admiration for Ellison to begin to see himself as, perhaps, someone special, instead of a freak of nature.

"And he would have mentioned it to Carolyn," concluded Blair. "Son of a bitch. I can't think of anyone much less likely to be of any help."

"That's an understatement. She knew about my senses, but she kept insisting that I could just... just block them out, or make them go away, if I wanted to bad enough." His expression twisted. "In other words, if I loved her enough to try. She seemed to believe that I had the spells simply to annoy her."

"Oh, God," Blair groaned. "Poor Jay. No wonder he hasn't said anything to us--he probably thinks we'd scold him, or even punish him, for something he can't help."

"What are we going to do?"

Blair hugged Jim hard. "First off, we're going to love him--that's the most important thing. We're going to wait a little while, to see if he wants to tell us this on his own. If he doesn't, and it seems like it's getting to be more than he can deal with, then we'll talk to him, and we'll take it from there." Blair kissed Jim's forehead. "I know this may be impossible, but try not to worry. He's a lot tougher than he looks, Jim."

"Do you think that he'll be able to learn to handle the senses, if he is a Sentinel?"

"Hell, I think he'll give his old man a run for the money in that department. You have to remember, Jim, that children are the fastest learners around. They have to be, for their own survival. Look at all they learn in just the first two or three years. Language, walking, feeding themselves, social skills... It's amazing, really. They..."

Jim kissed him, effectively silencing him. "I'm too tired for a lecture tonight, professor."

"Okay. Go to sleep, Blessed Protector." He was quiet for a moment, then said, "I think I know how to sort of open the way for Jay to talk to us."

Jim opened his eyes. "Okay, that's more important than sleep. How?"

"Just by letting him be a boy," Blair smiled. "After all, curiosity is a pretty normal thing."

Part Six

"Blair? What's this?" Jay was staring with covetous eyes at a large book lying on the kitchen table.

Blair came out of the bedroom, winding a cord around his hair to hold it in a neat tail. "That's a monograph."

"It looks like a book."

"Um, yeah--that, too. A monograph is a scholarly book or paper written on one subject."

"Oh. What's this one about?"

"That one is by Sir Richard Burton, and it's about Sentinels."

"Sentinels? You mean Roman soldiers?" Jay looked interested.

"No, those are Centurions. A Sentinel isn't a soldier--well, not specifically, or all the time." Jay looked at him, waiting for a clearer explanation. He'd learned that Blair might ramble all over the place as his interests took him, but that if you were patient, he eventually got back to what you'd been talking about in the first place. "It's about special people, who are uniquely suited to... Um... You see, Sentinels can..." He trailed off. I don't remember it being this hard to explain to Jim. I guess I'd better go with my first plan, instead of trying to just thrash it out. "I tell you what, Jay--why don't you just go ahead and read the book? Sir Richard explains it a lot better than I can."

Jay picked up the book eagerly and began leafing through the pages. "This looks like a pretty grownup book, Blair."

"Well, if you run into something that you just can't understand at all, ask me."

"Hey, here's a picture." Jay peered at the illustration. "Are you sure it's not about Centurions? He sort of looks like a soldier from way back when."

"No, that's a Sentinel."

Jay was peering at the picture, frowning. "You know what? He looks a lot like my father."

"Yes, he does," Blair agreed softly.

"Maybe I can ask him if I find something I don't understand."

Blair was torn. It was wonderful that Jay was willing to look to Jim, but Blair was fairly sure that Jim wasn't ready to deal with answering questions about Sentinels from his son--not when he was still uncomfortable with the possibility that his abilities had been handed down. "You could, I guess. But I've read that thing around a hundred times, and Jim's only looked at it once or twice. You come to me if you need help, okay?"

"Okay." Jay started for his room, reading as he walked. He stopped. "What does in... in-dig-ee-noose mean?"

"That would be indigenous. It means typical of a region or country, or it can mean natural, or inborn. Like, um, Indians are indigenous to America. The white man isn't, because we came over on boats a long time ago."

"Oh." Jay nodded thoughtfully, and continued out to his room.

Blair crossed his fingers and looked up at the ceiling pleadingly. "Just once... just once let it come easy, huh?"

For two days Blair never saw Jay around the house without the book. He had to be told firmly to put it away at meal times, and Maggie became fussy when Jay preferred to read rather than play with her. "You have to learn, Maggie," Blair told her. "It's a sad fact of life, but not every man in the world is going to be willing to dance attendance on you all the time."

She stared at him. "Why not?"

Blair smiled. "You got me there."

When Jim had seen Jay reading the book that first day, he'd said quietly, "Blair Jacob Sandburg..."

"Uh-oh." Maggie looked at Blair, wide-eyed. "Papa Blair, what you do?"

"Nothing, darlin'," Blair assured her.

"But Daddy Jim used three names."

Jim kissed her on the cheek. "He gets so vague sometimes that he needs to be reminded. Don't worry, sweetheart--Blair isn't in trouble. Jay, can you watch Maggie for a few minutes? I want to take Blair over to the cafe for a cup of coffee."

Jay glanced back toward the kitchen. From where he was sitting, he could see the coffee pot on the stove. "Sure."

As they stepped out onto the porch, Blair said, "Jim..."

"Not yet. Come on." They crossed the street and walked down to the cafe. Once they were seated, with cups of coffee that neither wanted steaming before them, Jim said, "What were you thinking of?"

"It helped you--I thought it might help him."

"He isn't ready for that, Blair!"

"How do you know? He's an intelligent boy, Jim--one of the sharpest I've ever known, and I'm not saying that just to butter you up. Look at the way he fixed the clock. It cuckoos just fine now, and no one ever sat down and taught him how to do it--he figured it out himself."

"That's simple mechanics--this is... is a lot more subtle, and complicated." Jim stared into his cup. "Christ, this Sentinel thing affects you on so many different levels. It colors your whole life."

Blair glanced around. The cafe was quiet--they were the only customers, and the waitress was back in the kitchen, chatting to the cook. Blair put his hand over Jim's. "I know. Jim, I know how uncomfortable thinking about the condition makes you--you've only barely come to terms with it." Jim looked up at him. "Oh, I'm not disparaging you--you know that. You had to overcome a lifetime of fighting with your nature. But don't you see? We can spare Jay that. He has a chance to grow up understanding what and who he is." Blair sat back and sipped his coffee, then grimaced at it's chill. "That's not something that even so called 'normal' people can achieve."

"You're right," Jim murmured. "It's just hard."

Blair nodded, his eyes soft. "I might not have understood before I got Maggie, but I do now. Everything is a decision when you have a child. And every single decision you make is colored by that child. Hostages to fortune."

"That's a good term--hostages to fortune." Jim laid a few coins on the table. "Let's go home. The hostages are going to be wondering what we're up to."

On the third day Jay brought the book back to Blair. "Thank you for letting me read it."

Blair sat forward on the sofa, hands clasped, and tried to keep his voice casual. "What did you think of it?"

"It was very interesting." He ran a finger over the cover. "I never read a fairy story that long before."

"Fairy story?"

"Yeah." He looked at Blair. "I thought you said it was a real book."

"It is."

Jay sighed, obviously believing that Blair hadn't understood him. "Yes, I know it's a real book. I mean I thought it was a real book. You know, about real stuff--like science and history."

"Jay, it is." Jay stared at him. "You don't think I'd lie to you about that, do you?"

"Blair, you don't believe in Sentinels?" It sounded like he was asking Blair if he believed in elves, or unicorns.

"Yes, Jay, I do."

"But you're a doctor. You can't believe..." He stopped, then started again. "You have to know the difference between real and made up. If you've never seen a Sentinel, how do you know they're real?"

"You've never seen a jaguar. How do you know they're real?"

Jay frowned. "I've seen pictures, and read books." Blair tapped the monograph. The boy's frown deepened, and his jaw jutted stubbornly. "You don't have to tell me stories, Blair. Maggie can talk about dragons and stuff, but she's a baby--she doesn't know any better. I know not to make things up!" Before Blair could respond to that, Jay had turned on his heel and left the room.

Blair muttered, "Jim Ellison couldn't deny you even if he wanted to."

A week later

Blair was in his exam room, making out a list of supplies he had to send off within the next few days. It was getting easier--he could get a lot of things from Lansdale, only a day's travel, but there were still many things he had to order from Los Angeles or San Francisco. That meant that he had to order well before there was a chance of running out.

Jay and Maggie were sitting in the front parlor. Jay was meticulously cutting paper dolls out of an old newspaper. Maggie would then use her set of colored pencils to draw elaborate costumes on the dollies. He heard her say, "Tell a story, Jay."

"Okay, Maggie," Jay answered obligingly. "Which one do you want?"

"Wanna made up one."

"All the stories are made up," said Jay reasonably.

"Want one you made up."

"Maggie, I told you--I don't have a good imagination." Blair's pencil stopped moving as he heard the sudden tension in the boy's voice.

"Please, Jay. You try, huh? Just a little?"

Blair could imagine the big blue eyes and fluttering eyelashes that accompanied that wheedling tone. Jay, like the other men in Maggie's life, caved. "Oh, all right." He hesitated. "Ow."

That would be the 'get going' poke, Blair thought wryly.

As if to confirm his guess, Maggie said, "Start! Once 'pon a time..."

"Honest, Maggie, I don't know what to talk about."

"Just talk!"

"Oh, um..." Jay's tone changed, as if he'd suddenly thought of something. "Once upon a time there was a great big black cat, and a big silver wolf. These weren't like other cats and wolves. See, the cat didn't have orange, or green, or yellow eyes. He had blue eyes. So did the wolf..."

Blair was frozen. Maggie didn't tell him about Midnight and Lobo, did she? he thought. When they realized that she (like everyone else, except possibly Garret Kincaid that one time) didn't see the spirits, they had discussed whether or not to tell her about them. They finally agreed to. If she were ever in danger, the spirit animals would certainly go to her aid, and they wanted her to be ready, and trust them. We told her not to talk about them to other people, though, because they wouldn't understand. I don't think she'd have told Jay unless we gave her permission--so how did these story characters come up? They aren't exactly standard for fairy tales.

Blair stepped to the door, moving quietly. It was open just a crack, and he peered through. He could see Jay and Maggie sitting on the sofa, side by side. Maggie had her thumb plugged into her mouth--a sure sign that all was right with her world. Jay was talking steadily, but he wasn't looking at his companion. He hasn't got that 'staring into the middle distance look, either, Blair thought, watching the boy's eyes shift minutely. He looks like he's watching something.

Jay was telling a story about how the big black cat decided to go mouse hunting, but mice were just too tiny for him to bother with, so his wolf friend had suggested that he chase rabbits instead. "But the cat wasn't used to chasing rabbits--he was used to chasing mice. The rabbits all got away, ran down their rabbit holes, and laughed at him. And when he tried to push his nose into the hole to catch them, the rabbits just turned around and kicked dirt in his face..." Blair heard a deep, protesting rumble. Jay smiled, but Maggie showed no sign of having heard it. "...and it made him sneeze." There was another grumble, then a distinctly feline sneeze, and Jay laughed. Maggie wasn't sure what the joke was, but she was willing to laugh along, so she did.

Blair cautiously pushed the door. It opened a little more, and the sliver of the room he could see widened. Midnight, Jim's Spirit Guide, was lying across the door to the kitchen, watching the pair on the sofa with lambent blue eyes. Jay was continuing, "And then he decided to try to catch chickens, but all he got was a mouthful of feathers, and that made him sneeze again." Midnight sneezed again, and Jay laughed.

I'll be damned. That cat is playing with him. He'd never let Jim get away with hinting that rabbits and chickens could get the better of him. Blair studied Jay again. He doesn't seem the least bit surprised to have a huge predator sitting across the room. I'd say this isn't the first time they've met. In fact, I'd say they're old friends--but he's never mentioned it. I don't understand. Kids who grow up in this area would be excited to see a big cat, but they wouldn't be flabbergasted. There are still pumas in the mountains, not far off. No, any of the local kids who saw Midnight would be busting their lungs to tell everyone they could that they'd seen a black mountain lion.

He was trying to decide what he should do about this (if anything) when Jim came in. "Hey, Rafe is getting ready to take Raphaella to the pond outside of town. It seems that the blackberry bushes are heavy with the last crop of the year, and if we don't want the critters to rob us of all our blackberry cobblers, we'd better go get them. You two up for some berrying? Megan has made up a big jug of lemonade to send along."

"We ride Rainy or Burton?" Maggie asked eagerly. She dearly loved both Rainier, Jim's horse, and Burton, Blair's mule. She'd never gotten to know Naomi--the other mule who had pulled Blair's physic wagon clear across America with Burton. Naomi had quietly passed away when Maggie was one. They weren't sure what it was, but it hadn't been much of a shock. She had been old when Blair had bought her. He'd gotten a bargain, since the mule wasn't in her prime, and was as ornery as a sack of wet cats. Yes, Naomi had been hard to live with, but as a crying Blair had told Jim that night, "Sure, she was a cranky, mean, cantankerous old bitch, but she was my cranky, mean, cantankerous old bitch." Jim had just held him, not commenting. He'd had no great love for the mule, but he knew how Blair felt. Naomi had been named for his deceased mother, and she was one of the last reminders he had of his life before Cascade.

"Rafe is going to drive a wagon, but I'll be riding Rainier. You can ride with him and Raffie, or with me."

"With you!"

"What a surprise." Jim looked at Jay. "Jay, I thought that you might like to ride Burton. Rafe tells me that you're doing very well on your riding lessons." Jim had been taken aback when he'd learned that Jay didn't know how to ride. Jay had explained that of course they had never owned a horse, and the people they knew who did have horses weren't about to let a child ride them. Jim had arranged riding lessons with Rafe that very day.

His wisdom in doing this was proven by the light in Jay's eyes. "Can I?"

Blair came out. "Sure you can. He needs the exercise, anyway. Maggie feeds him too much sugar, and he's getting fat."

As Blair spoke, Jim's eyes wandered over and fastened on Midnight. He made a surreptitious shooing motion at him. The big cat yawned elaborately, looked bored, and vanished. Jay was too excited by the prospect of his longest ride to date to notice Jim's gesture. But he did blink when Midnight disappeared.

"That's settled, then," Jim said. "Blair, want to ride in the wagon?"

Blair shook his head regretfully. "I can't. I have to finish making out this list so I can have it telegraphed by this evening, and they can get it in the mail tomorrow." He tapped Maggie's nose. "Just be sure that you don't let this little glutton eat more than she picks. I want to get at least two good cobblers out of this expedition." Maggie promised, with much crossing of the heart and many hope to dies, to only eat a little bit.

"Sir, can I get those big gloves I saw in the smithy? I bet that the thorns wouldn't be able to stick me through them."

"They're pretty big, Jay, but if you think you can handle them, sure." Jay trotted out to the smithy and came back carrying the heavy leather gloves that Jim had used when he had to work closely with hot steel. They were going to reach almost to Jay's elbows when he wore them, but he looked pleased. They left, and Blair went back to his chore.

It took him longer than he'd expected, since he kept thinking of things that they needed aside from the usual supplies. It was a couple of hours before he was through, and took the list to the telegraph office. Having a telegraph office here, and not having to make the trip to Lansdale, really made life easier. Blair figured that the time and trouble saved easily balanced off the expense.

He finished sending the telegram, and was walking back up the street when he heard the thunder of hoof beats. He recognized the big roan, and the man astride it, easily. He felt a prickle race up his spine. Jim wouldn't be driving Rainier like that unless something was wrong. Then Blair saw the small, limp figure clutched to Jim's chest, and he broke into a run.

Jim had pulled up at their house by the time Blair arrived. The figure that Jim was holding so desperately had dark hair--Jay. "Jim!" He lifted his arms insistently, and Jim carefully deposited the boy. Blair was already up on the porch and kicking at the door when Jim jumped down. Jim slapped Rainier's reins over the porch railing, then hurried up and opened the door before his lover could kick it down.

Blair rushed into the exam room, settling the boy on the table. "What happened?"

"Christ, Chief, I'm not sure! It all happened so fast, but check him for snakebite."

"Shit!" Blair was ripping Jay's shirt off. "Where's the bite? What kind?"

"If it bit him, it was a rattler."

"A rattler? Here?"

"I know, I know we usually don't get them this far west in Washington," Jim's voice was tight. "But you know that you can never make a sure statement on things like that."

Jay was limp, staring up blankly. Blair was running his hands over the boy's torso. "Jay, talk to me! Where did it get you? Jim, there's blood on his face." Blair grabbed a cloth and wiped quickly. His voice was frustrated, and bewildered. "But I can't find a wound."

"That's the snake's blood. I killed it."

"What happened?"

"I don't know! He was picking berries with Maggie a little ways from the rest of us. All of a sudden I heard Maggie screaming, 'Snake! Snake!' I was moving even before I looked. She was running toward the rest of us, and Jay was standing by one of the blackberry bushes, and... and..." Jim's expression was one of stark horror. "Blair, he was holding one of the biggest damn snakes I've ever seen. He had it just behind the head, and it must've been as long as he is tall. I don't know how he could close his fingers in those big gloves, but he did it. That snake was whipping and snapping around him like a bullwhip, and his arm was jerking with the force of it. I knew that he couldn't hold it for very long. Dear God, the look on his face! I don't think I've ever moved that fast--not even when I was going after Kincaid."

Jim hesitantly stroked the boy's dark hair. There was no response. Jay continued to stare blankly. Jim's voice was almost a sob when he continued. "I couldn't shoot, not with it flying around Jay, so I pulled my knife while I ran. I was yelling at him to hold it against the ground. Thank God he wasn't too panicked to do it. He bent over and shoved the snake's head down against the grass. He said something like, 'I can't hold on.' I managed to stomp on the snake's back, and I chopped through that bastard with one stroke."

Jim sat down weakly on the room's divan, and tears started down his cheeks. "It... it slipped. You know they keep moving, even after you cut off their head. The blood splashed Jay, and he jerked. Right then the damn head squirted out of his grip, and... and the fangs caught in the glove. The son of a bitch was hanging from the glove. Jay screamed and shook his hand, and the glove came off with the head hanging on it." Blair immediately began to examine both of Jay's hands minutely, wiping away blood smears as Jim continued talking. "He stared at his hand for a second--just kind of froze. He wouldn't answer me when I spoke to him. I grabbed him up, yelled at Rafe to take care of Maggie, and lit out for here."

"I still can't find a wound. Unless it struck him before he grabbed it, I don't think he was bitten."

"But look at him! Is he in shock?"

Blair quickly checked the child's pulse, felt his brow. He frowned, then his expression cleared a little. He put his hand on Jim's, as if to reassure him, and said, "He's not in shock--he's in a zone."

"Oh, no," Jim whispered. "No, no, no, no."

"It makes sense. He just had an intensely emotional incident. His epinephrine spiked and..."

"Blair, speak English!"

"Sorry. You know how when you get excited or you're in danger you get a sort of rush of energy, and your body reacts?"

Jim nodded. "I'll say. I've got a pounding headache from it right now."

"That's from a hormone called epinephrine--made by the adrenal glands. I read about it in one of my journals. It was isolated by a Japanese chemist. It's what's saved a lot of people, giving them the speed and strength they need to overcome danger." Blair pointed at Jim. "Like you said--you'd never moved so fast. Your child was in danger, and your body gave you what you needed to save him. But that sudden flood of chemicals would have to be hard on a little boy like Jay. I think that, plus his fear and worry about Maggie, brought on the zone. But Jim, this isn't nearly as bad as it could be." At Jim's glare, Blair said, "Think--I might have to be cutting him and sucking out poison right now. We ought to be able to bring him out of this."

"Go on, then."

Blair started to turn back to the table, then hesitated. "Jim? I think you need to do this."

Jim exploded. "Damn it to hell, Sandburg, don't waste time! You're the Guide."

"I'm his friend, but I'm not his Guide--and you're his father." Jim started to say something in protest, and Blair grabbed his arms. His voice was fierce. "We don't have time for your insecurity! Your son needs you. You know what he's going through--you've been through it yourself. Help him."

Jim stared at Blair for a moment, then shook him off and went to the table. He bent low over Jay. Once again he stroked the boy's hair, and murmured to him, "Jay? Jay, don't be afraid. I know it's scary, son, but you're going to be all right. I've had this happen to me, too, and I know how horrible it is. It's dark, and it's cold, and you feel so alone." His voice trembled. "You're not alone, son. You'll never be alone again, I swear it. Just listen to my voice, Jay. Grab it with everything you have--your heart, your soul. Grab it and follow it back to me. Let it pull you."

It went on for long moments. Jim touched him gently, rubbing his hands, whispering assurance and love. "Come on, Jay. You'll scare Maggie if she sees you like this. You saved her life, didn't you? You can't go away now--she loves you." His voice cracked. "I love you. I just found you, Jay. Don't leave me now. Stay with me--stay with us. Jay, come back."

Finally there was movement. Jay blinked slowly. His cold fingers flexed against Jim's palm, curling till he was holding Jim's hand. His head turned slightly, and he saw Jim. He whispered, "Is Maggie all right?"

Jim pulled him up into a sitting position, hugging him. "Thank God. Yes, Jay. She's scared, but she's fine."

"Where is she?"

"She's with Rafe and Megan. I don't think they'll bring her over till we send for her. She's going to be awful worried about you," Blair told him. "How are you?"

"I'm fine." His voice was tiny. He laid his head against Jim's broad chest, and didn't try to pull away.

"It isn't brave to pretend you're well if you're not," Blair told him gently. "Now, how are you?"

"Kind of weak," Jay admitted. "I feel like I did after that time I had the flu, and I threw up for days and days."

"It will get better. Other than that, all right? No pains?"

"No." He looked at his hands. "I guess those gloves worked pretty good. I thought for sure that old snake had got me."

"So did I," said Jim fervently. "Tell us what happened. I almost had apoplexy when I looked up and saw you holding that snake."

"I know you're not supposed to touch snakes, but I had to," said Jay defensively. "I was picking berries with Maggie, and I heard her kind of whimpering. I looked, and that snake was lying right across her shoes--just lying there, like it was taking a nap. Maggie was so scared that I knew she was going to run in a minute, and I figured the snake would bite her if she moved. I couldn't let that happen. I didn't have a hoe or a shovel, or anything. Anyway, it was awful close to Maggie's legs, so it would have been hard to hit it without hurting her. So," he shrugged, "I grabbed it." His expression grew pinched. "It was strong. I thought it was going to get loose and bite me." He looked at Jim, and his face was filled with near awe. "But you came running and killed it. You sure are brave." The simple admiration after the boy's own heroics flustered Jim, and he just held Jay closer.

"I killed the snake," Jay continued. "And then it bit me." He frowned. "I guess it bit the glove, but I sure was scared."

"I don't blame you," Blair said. "What happened next?"

"I'm not sure. The snake's blood got on me." He looked puzzled. "It was warm. I thought snakes were supposed to be cold blooded, but it was really warm. I could feel lots of little, tiny warm places on my skin, and I remember I was worried if snake blood was poisonous. I was trying to feel all the places the blood had touched me, and... it got dark." After a moment, Jay said, "Did I faint? I didn't faint like a girl, did I?"

"No," said Blair. "You were concentrating too hard on what you were feeling. You remember reading about zones in Sir Richard's book?"

Jay's expression closed up. "That's just stories."

Jim said quietly, "I've read that book. Son, some stories are true--even fantastic ones."

"Not that book," Jay insisted. "If you see, hear, taste things other people don't, then you're crazy, or you drink too much whiskey. There was an old man in San Francisco, and he used to see bugs and rats everywhere." His face twisted. "He talked to them, and one day they sent him away. That's when Mama told me I better watch myself, or people would think..." He trailed off.

"So that's it," Jim muttered.

Midnight came into the exam room. He went directly to the table, stood on his hind legs, and put his paws on the table. He immediately started sniffing and nudging Jay's legs. The boy's eyes were focused on the big cat, and they were wide with an odd mixture of dread and relief. Jim looked at Blair, who nodded. Yes, he sees him.

"Jay, have you ever seen or heard things other people couldn't?" Jim asked.

"No," he said quickly. He spoke quickly, his voice stiff and mechanical. "I'm sensible and level headed. I don't imagine things." Midnight had finished his inspection of Jay's lower body, and was now checking his torso, whiskered snout brushing over the boy's pale skin. "I don't!"

Jim tightened his arms comfortingly. "What are you seeing now?"

The boy started to cry. "Nothing, I promise. I'm not crazy, really I'm not. Please, I don't see things that aren't there."

"No, you don't." Jim reached down and rubbed Midnight between the ears. The jaguar pushed his head up into Jim's palm. "Where were you when we were out at the pond?" he scolded. The cat grumbled. "Yes, I know--even a spirit can't be everywhere at once."

Jay's mouth dropped open. Blair reached out and tapped Midnight on the nose. The cat snorted and wrinkled his lips, showing his teeth. Then he butted Blair's hand, and the Guide laughed, giving him a scratch, just as Jim had. "You don't see things that aren't real, Jay. Midnight is very real."

"You both see him?" Jay squeaked.

"We do," Jim assured him. "Tell me, have you seen a wolf, too."

"He's real, too?"

"That would be Lobo--he's mine," said Blair. Jay was twitching as Midnight buried his muzzle against the boy's throat. "Midnight, stop that! You'll tickle the boy to death. He's all right--you can relax. Go on, now." The cat stubbornly laid his heavy head in Jay's lap. "Oh, for heaven... Jay, pet him. He won't leave till you do." Jay worked his fingers into the cat's sleek black fur, and was rewarded with a rough purr. Midnight backed up, dropping to the floor--and vanished. Jay inhaled sharply, and Blair said quickly, "That's all right. They leave sort of suddenly sometimes."

"Are they ghosts?"

"A ghost would be someone who had died. Spirits never actually lived--not like we do," Blair explained. "They just--are."

"I don't understand," Jay said plaintively. "Maggie doesn't see them."

"Not many people do, but that doesn't mean they don't exist," said Jim. "They only show themselves to people they like, or if they're protecting us."

"I thought I made them up."

"No. Jay, I have no doubt that you have a strong imagination, but you know the difference between real and imagined." Jim tipped the boy's face up till he could look into his eyes, and said firmly. "You are not crazy--no matter what anyone says. You're confused right now, but that's understandable. When did you first see Midnight?"

"The first night I was here. I was scared for a minute, 'cause I know they have painters and wolves out in the country. I thought some had come into town and gotten into the house somehow. But they were so friendly. I could just feel that they liked me, and I was lonely. Blair? That zone thing--it won't happen again, will it?" His voice was very small.

Blair sighed. "I can't say, but I'm afraid it might."

Jay's expression crumpled. "I don't like that!"

"I don't blame you," Jim told him. "They're pretty awful, aren't they? I know I always feel awful when they happen to me."

The boy stared at him. "They happen to you?" Jim nodded. "But you're strong."

"That doesn't have anything to do with it. I'm a Sentinel too, and I have to be careful not to concentrate too hard on something, or I zone--just like you did."

"Oh." Jay stared at Jim, and it was obvious that he was thinking, fast and hard. Blair and Jim both were relieved when he relaxed slightly. "It stinks, huh?"

Jim smiled. "It isn't pleasant, and it isn't safe. That's why I'm glad that Blair and I know for sure. Now we can help you."

"You can make it all go away?"

"No, Jay," Blair said softly. "What you have to understand is that this isn't really something that's wrong with you. You're not sick, you're just different. All children have to learn how to do things as they grow up--you just have more things you have to learn. Don't worry about it--Jim and I will help you. We can teach you how to keep your senses under control, so they don't overwhelm you. And we can teach you how to avoid zones. I'm not sure if it's possible to entirely eliminate them, but we can most certainly be sure that they don't happen as often as they might."

Jay thought some more. "If I have a little boy when I grow up, will he be like me?"

"That's a very grown up question. The answer may not make you happy, though. The truth is--I don't know. He might. You never can tell with children, Jay. You have blue eyes, like your daddy--the handsome devil," Blair dodged a good-natured poke from Jim, "and you have his dark hair, but your nose is just like your mother's. We all get a little of what we are from each parent, and then Mother Nature sometimes throws in a few surprises. When you have children, they might be Sentinels, or they might not. If you have more than one, you might get one plain and one fancy. There's just no way to tell. But Jay? That's how it is with all babies. A parent never knows what they're going to get."

"But we love them anyway," Jim finished.

Jay stared at Jim. "You do love me, don't you? I remember when I was in the dark, I heard you. I heard your voice, and I wasn't scared anymore." He was silent. Then he said, "Dad? Do I have to go live with Mama again?"

The joy and hope in Jim's face sent a spear of love through Blair that was so sharp that it was almost pain. Jim's voice wasn't quite steady when he spoke. "I was hoping... I talked with Blair, and I'd like it very much if you'd live with us forever--or at least until you're grown up."

Jay's expression mirrored Jim's. "Can I? Mama couldn't make me go with her, could she?" He bit his lip. "I don't really think she wants me to stay with her. She always says how much trouble it is to take care of me, and how she can never go anywhere or do anything she likes." He scowled. "That's a lie. She always does what she wants." He suddenly seemed to realized what he'd just said, and shot a worried glance at Jim.

His father said quietly. "No, I'm not going to punish you for saying that. But Jay, remember that she did take care of you for a long time, even if she grumbled about it. And she brought you to me. Whatever else she did, she did that."

"I'm just worried. She might be happy now that she doesn't have to worry about me..." Jim's heart swelled, realizing that Jay knew he was safe with him. "...but... Well, sometimes Mama would do things she didn't really like, just to make someone mad."

Jim nodded. "Cutting off her nose to spite her face. Yes, that's very like her. Don't worry, Jay. We'll have to wait till the Christmas holidays, but then we'll take a trip over to Lansdale and talk to a lawyer about having this put down on paper."

Jay clutched at Jim's shirt. "He'll make it so I can stay with you, and Maggie, and Blair?"

Jim touched his cheek. "You're my boy--my blood. I'm not giving you up, Jay."

The boy sighed happily. "Can I go see Maggie now? I need to show her I'm all right. She has such an imagination, she may think all kinds of things."

"Miss Maggie will most certainly be brought home, but I think you ought to rest for awhile," pronounced Blair. "Do you think that you can go out to your room and put on a fresh shirt? You ought to be properly dressed to receive a lady."

Jay giggled, and it was the bright, untroubled sound that a child's laughter should be. "Lady? Maggie?" He giggled again. "I think I can do that," he glanced at Jim, and there was a mischievous spark in his eyes, "if Dad will let go of me."

Jim let go. Jay slipped down and made his way out of the exam room. Jim stared after him, and there was a hint of anxiety in his otherwise happy expression. Blair interpreted it correctly. "Don't worry. You have an excellent chance of making the law see the sense in giving Jay to you legally."

"I don't know. People are so adamant that the only real home is one with one mama and one daddy. Carolyn said she was going to get married. What if the court thinks Jay would be better off with her and her new husband?"

"I seriously doubt she'd even consider it. She wants to be free, Jim--she's made it pretty clear. She hasn't even contacted you to tell you where she'll be staying."

"No, she hasn't." His voice turned grim. "I hope she does soon. I'll need to know where to send the papers."

"That's my man. Well, I'd better go get Maggie before she worries herself and the entire Rafe household into a fit. I'll be right back..." he grinned, "Dad."

Jim returned the grin. "Yeah," he agreed. "Dad."

 

 

The End