Always In My Heart Part 2

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Always In My Heart is a Webnovel created by Catherine Anderson.
This lightnovel is currently completed.

392 Catherine Anderson.

you think we’re going to come home when you’re still acting like that, think again. It was almost as if Zach had felt confident of making good their escape. Given the fact that going through the gorge was the only way to get off Tabletop, that made no sense. Zach had to know they couldn’t double back without being caught. “Oh, G.o.d, ” Tucker said. His chest suddenly felt as tight as a drum, and his heart was starting to pound. “Oh, Jesus. ” Ellie’s fingers clutched at his. “What?” “The boys and I did some rock climbing this summer. ” Her blue eyes widened. “You what?” “Not extensively, ” he elaborated. “I just taught them the basics, stuff every good woodsman needs to know in case of an emergency. ” He reeled to a halt. He didn’t want to believe his boys would do something so foolhardy, yet a part of him was very much afraid they might. We’re sticking to our guns until you agree to our terms, Zach had written. How could he have felt so certain of success when there was only one way off the mountain? He’d worked with his sons last summer, teaching them how to rappel. They’d both learned the technique well. Tucker had cautioned them never to try it alone unless there was an emergency. But wasn’t that exactly what this was to them, an emergency? They were fighting to save their family, and in order to do it, they would risk a dangerous descent down the face of a cliff rather than chance being caught. Just as Tucker had worked his way around to that conclusion, he heard Bucky barking. He glanced up

ALWAYS IN MY HEART 393.

to see the dog tearing toward them through the snow in a flat-out run. When the Australian shepherd reached them, he grabbed the leg of Tucker’s jeans in his teeth, braced his hind legs, and began to pull frantically. Tucker released Ellie’s hand, shoved the dog loose, and broke into a run. “Take me to them, Bucky! Find Zach and Kody!” The shepherd gave a glad bark and whirled to retrace his steps. Tucker fell into a run behind him, thanking G.o.d that the dog had found them. Bucky could take them directly to the boys, saving valuable time. “Ellie, they’re trying to rappel down the north face!” he yelled over his shoulder. “Follow my tracks. I have to get there before they start down!” Ellie had never been a very fast runner, but fear lent her speed she hadn’t realized she possessed. This snow would make the rocks on the north face slick, increasing the danger greatly. If memory served her right, in several places there were drops of nearly a hundred feet. If one of the boys fell -oh, dear G.o.d, if one of them fell, he could be killed. Legs churning, heart slamming, she prayed mindlessly as she ran that G.o.d wouldn’t take another child from them. I’m sorry, so sorry. She’d never meant to make Zach and Kody feel that they mattered less to her than Sammy. What a nightmare to think that she and Tucker could lose one or both of the children they still had because they’d grieved so deeply over the one they’d lost. Why hadn’t they taken stock of their countless blessings and tried to be grateful for those? Yes, they’d lost one son. But they still had two to love. Why had it taken something like this to make them realize that life must go on? Bucky led the way, his barks a claxon to guide them when he grew nearly invisible behind the veil of falling snow. Not even Tucker’s much longer legs gave him that much of an advantage. Ellie raced along behind him, scarcely aware of the burning in her lungs as she panted for breath. Slipping, sliding. Reaching the boys became her one consuming thought. Fists clenched, arms pumping, she fairly flew over the snow-covered rocks. When the north face came into view, she scanned the terrain, searching for their sons. Nothing. There were so many large rocks along the edge of the cliff, creating dark splotches in the snow. Two kids in dark jackets might not stand out. “Can you see them, Tucker?” Though she screamed the question, she was so breathless from running that her voice barely carried. “Are they there?” If he heard her, he gave no indication. Instead, he veered suddenly to the left and picked up speed. Falling well behind, Ellie changed directions, too, craning her neck to see past him as they raced over the plateau. Finally she glimpsed a splotch of blue. Kody was crouched on his hands and knees at the edge of the cliff. As they drew closer, she could hear him sobbing. Bucky had already reached the child. After checking Kody for injuries, the dog raced back to Tucker and Ellie, his barks frantic and shrill, his feet in constant motion. The dog darted in and out around them, providing escort the remainder of the way. As Tucker covered the last few feet to reach Kody, he yelled, “Where’s Zach?” When the child failed to answer, he cried the question again. “Kody, where’s Zach?” “He f-fell!” Kody cried. “He lost his h-hold on the ropes, and he fell!” “Oh, dear G.o.d. ” Tucker dropped to his belly beside his son to look over the cliff. When Ellie staggered up beside them, he swung out his arm. “Stay back from the edge. It’s straight down. ” Ellie sank to her knees and grabbed hold of Kody to pull him safely away. Wailing shrilly, the child threw his arms around her neck. “He’s h-hurt really bad, Mom. I think he’s dead. It’s my f-fault! It’s all my fault! First I killed Sammy and now Zach. ” Ellie felt as if the earth shifted beneath her. She tightened her arms around her son, her mind spin-ning at the implications of what he’d just said. “No. Oh, Kody, no. Sammy’s accident wasn’t your fault, sweetie, and this isn’t, either. ” “Yes, it was! You don’t know ’cause I never told. He didn’t lose control of the motorcycle because he hit a chuckhole. He-” Kody broke off and gulped. “I dared him to do a wheelie. That’s how come he crashed. He was afraid I’d call him a chicken if he didn’t try!” After punctuating that with a keening wail, he added, “He said he didn’t know how, but I egged him on, anyhow. Finally, he gunned the gas and jerked up on the front wheel. The bike almost came over on top of him. He lost control, and when the front tire touched down again, he didn’t let off the gas. The bike crashed through the fence, right out in front of the hay truck!” In that instant, the years fell away, and Ellie was once again standing on the road, staring at her dead son. For the life of her, she couldn’t recall where Kody had been, and G.o.d forgive her, she had no recollection of his whereabouts later. All she’d been able to see was Sammy, all she’d been able to feel was pain. The other two boys had been home that afternoon, but right after the accident, they’d all but ceased to exist for her. Dimly she recalled Tucker’s brother Jeff coming to take Zach and Kody to his place. Sometime after the funeral, he’d brought them home again. In the interim, she’d been so numb that all she’d felt was a sense of relief not to have them underfoot. Never once had she stopped to think that Zach or Kody might harbor feelings of guilt over their brother’s death. “Oh, Kody, ” she whispered brokenly. “Oh, my sweet boy. You were just a little fellow when it happened. No matter what you said or did, it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t your fault!”

Kody’s body jerked with a tearing sob. “You don’t hate me? You aren’t mad?”Oh, G.o.d-oh, G.o.d. He had kept this ugly secret for three long years, afraid to come forward,terrified to confess his imagined sin. Cupping a hand over the back of his head, Ellie clasped himtightly to her body and met Tucker’s tortured gaze. For a heartbeat of time, the world seemed tostop moving. They were frozen there, like statues on an icy tableau, their mistakes and failuressuddenly picture clear.”We could never hate you, ” Tucker said firmly,”and we’d never, never be mad at you over something that was never your fault in the first place.”Ellie could feel Kody shaking-an awful, horrible shaking, the kind that resulted only from terroror shock. “It’s all right. It’s going to be all right, ” she a.s.sured him again.”Don’t let Zach die, Dad. Please, don’t let him die. Please, make him be all right!””Shh, shh, ” Ellie soothed. “Of course he won’t die. Don’t even think it. “Tucker pushed to his feet. Over the top of Kody’s head, he met Ellie’s gaze once more. “His fallwas broken by an outcropping of rock. It looks like his arm is broken. “This isn’t happening, Ellie thought stupidly. It can’t be. I’m only dreaming. But she wasn’t. Thiswas real. And somehow she had to deal with it.”Is he conscious?” she forced herself to ask.Tucker shook his head. Then, as if he knew how terrifying that news would be, he added, “ThankG.o.d for that. This way, at least, he isn’t in any pain. “”He went d-down first because h-he’s the oldest, ” Kody squeaked out. “Once he m-made it, I wa.s.s’posed to lower Bucky and our gear down to him. Then he was gonna h-help me make mydescent. “Tucker started pulling up the rope, which was tied off to a huge boulder several feet behind them.After testing the anchor to make certain it would bear his weight, he pa.s.sed the end between hislegs from the front, brought it around to the left of his body, across his chest, then over hisshoulder and down his back.”Kody, I need you to spot for me, partner, ” he said.Kody shook his head no. “I was sp-spotting for Z-Zach, and just look what h-happened! Have Mom do it. ” Ellie started to get up, but Tucker flashed her a look that stopped her cold. Shifting his gaze back to their son, he said, “Mom doesn’t know how to spot You do. To bring your brother up, I’m going to need your help. ” Kody straightened away from Ellie. His face was pinched and deathly pale, with bluish circles under his tear-reddened eyes. Ellie wanted to intervene, to tell Tucker he shouldn’t push the child right then. But once again he gave her a look that held her in check. She realized then that Tucker felt Kody needed to help, that playing a part in saving his brother might be cathartic. “All right, ” Kody agreed tremulously. Tucker nodded. “I knew I could count on you. What’s the first rule in an emergency?” Kody scrambled to his feet. Gulping down a sob, he said, “To keep your head. ” “What’s the second rule?” “Figure out what needs to be done, ” Kody said in a wobbly voice, “then figure out a way to do it without putting yourself in danger. ” Tucker nodded. “That’s exactly right. ” He reached out to hook a hand over the back of Kody’s head. Hauling him forward, he gave him a hard hug and ruffled his hair. “Why do you suppose someone made rules for emergencies?” Kody buried his face against his father’s jacket. ” ‘Cause accidents happen sometimes, and we have to kn-know what to d-do. ” “That’s right. Accidents happen. Today Zach has had an accident. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t yours. It just happened. Do you understand what I’m saying?” When Kody nodded, Tucker caught him by the chin and tipped his head back. “No more blaming yourself. Okay? Zach needs you to be sharp right now, and so do I. ” “Okay, ” Kody said. “I’ll do my best. ” “I know you will. I’ll need you to be my eyes, ” Tucker said as he hunkered down to ease toward the edge again. “I won’t be able to see behind me very well when I reach the ledge. ” “I know. ” Kody dropped to his knees and crawled with his father to the precipice. “I know what to do, Dad. ” As Tucker lowered himself over the side, he looked back at Ellie. “Kody’ll need your help to pull Zach up. Scoot over on your belly. Before you stand up again, move well back from the edge. I don’t want either of you getting dizzy and doing a swan dive. ” “Be careful, ” she called. He grabbed the rope with his left hand, hitched a loop around his left wrist to give himself extra support, and dropped over the edge. “I always try to be careful. ” The next instant, he was gone. Digging in with her elbows and toes, Ellie scooted over to lie beside Kody. When she looked over, all she could see at first was Tucker, abseiling down the face of the cliff. Booted feet planted firmly apart, he leaned out from the rock at an alarming angle, letting the rope around his thigh and along his back support his weight. Stepping slowly downward, he controlled his rate of descent by playing out line through his right hand.

Just watching him scared Ellie half to death. She’d never seen him do any rock climbing. Notsurprisingly, he executed the technique with the same athletic grace with which he did everythingelse, making it look absurdly easy. Ellie knew better. One mistake was all it would take, and hecould fall forty feet.”A little more to your right, Dad!” Kody called.Following Kody’s directions, Tucker propelled himself sideways. The shift of position allowedEllie to finally see Zach. She was glad to be in a p.r.o.ne position because she almost fainted.Sprawled on his back, her son lay on a ledge of rock barely as broad as his shoulders. His hairwas speckled with Snowflakes. One leg already dangled over the edge, and the slightestmovement might send him plummeting to his death on the jagged rocks below.Nausea punched her in the stomach. She dug her fingers into the snow, barely feeling the cold.Twisted sharply at the elbow, Zach’s right forearm was bent unnaturally outward from his body ata forty-five-degree angle. Even with a heavy jacket sleeve to camouflage the breaks, Ellie knewhe had severe compound fractures. After thirteen years of marriage to Tucker, she was alsofamiliar enough with first aid to know that the two broken bones in his forearm could, if moved,sever a main artery, resulting in almost certain death.With a frightened gaze, she took in Zach’s face- the awful stillness of his pale features, the faintpurple hue of his white-rimmed lips. He looked-oh, dear G.o.d-he looked dead already.Black spots blinked out her vision. For an awful second, her swimming head felt disconnectedfromher shoulders. She squeezed her eyes closed, clenched her teeth, her dragged in breaths throughher nose.”You okay, Mom?” Kody asked in a quivery little voice.Her throat burned as if she’d just guzzled a full bottle of Drano. She swallowed, her vocal cordsstretching taut. “Yes. ” Deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths. “I’m fine. “”He’s not dead, ” Kody a.s.sured her. “He isn’t, Mom. See? Watch his chest. “Ellie tried to focus. Couldn’t. “He’s breathing, then?”Kody made an affirmative sound. “I don’t think he banged his head real bad, either. When he firstfell, he was awake, and he could talk. It was only later, when he tried to sit up, that he pa.s.sed out.I think it hurt real bad to move his arm. “She was going to vomit. Gulping frantically to hold it down, she closed her eyes again.”Okay!” Tucker called up. “How am I doing, Kode?””He’s right under you, ” Kody called back. “About ten more feet. “Tucker craned his neck, trying to see. Apparently failing in that, he looked back up. “All right,you guys, this is where it gets tricky. I need to set down on the ledge, but I don’t want to step onhim or move him. There’s not a whole lot of room to spare, so you’ve got to direct my feet. “Kody inched closer to the edge. “This is where Zach fell, ” he whispered. Then to his father, heyelled, “Watch out there, Dad. I think the rock is icy.Kody no sooner hollered the warning than Tuck- er’s boots slipped on the granite. His body swung hard into the rock. For several seconds, he just dangled there, grabbing for the breath that had been knocked out of him. “Don’t turn loose, Dad!” Kody cried. “Don’t lose your grip!” Ellie’s pulse pounded in her ears like a drumbeat. Every muscle in her body strained with Tucker as he fought to get a foothold. To her horror, his boots kept slipping off the rocks, making it impossible for him to rappel. “Oh, G.o.d, ” she whispered. “Oh, my G.o.d. ” “The rock juts out here and caught snow, ” he called up. “It’s slick as snot. Must’ve melted and froze. ” The wind caught his body, twisting him on the rope. Ellie heard the hemp whine under his weight. She could only pray that no sharp edge of stone on the boulder would cut through the braid. Tucker glanced over the face of the cliff. “I’m gonna propel sideways, try to get away from the ice. ” “He can’t hang there for long. The wind is freezing cold, ” Kody said in a tight, urgent voice. “If his hands get numb, he’ll lose his grip and fall, Mom, just like Zach. ” Ellie couldn’t drag her eyes off Tucker to comfort her son. Using the rope like a swing, he began pumping his feet, trying to gain a sideways momentum. She realized that the half-cradle of rope no longer supported his weight as it had before. Instead, it bit in around his thigh, which had to be painful. To lessen the pressure, he was holding on for dear life with his hands and bearing most of his weight with his arms. Ellie knew that took incredible strength. A lesser man would have fallen-just as Zach had. Not Tucker. At first he barely moved, but then, ever so slowly, his shifting weight created a pendulum effect. As he began swinging in wider arcs, he tested the rock with his boots. Finally he found a surface that wasn’t icy, enabling him to plant his feet against the rock once more. Leaning back against the line, he rested for a moment. Then he jiggled his right leg to stimulate the circulation. “Whoo!” he said. Glancing down over his left shoulder, he studied the lay of the cliff face between him and Zach. “To get around the ice, I have to go straight down from here, then work my way back over and up, ” he called. His hazel gaze singled out Ellie. “To do that, I’m going to need more rope. ” Until that moment, Ellie hadn’t noticed that he had very little line left to play out. “Zach forgot one very important rule in rock climbing-to make sure he had enough line to reach the bottom. ” Ellie’s stomach felt as if it plunged the entire sixty feet to the rocks below. Her son had started down the face of a cliff without enough rope? “How can I get you more line?” she called. “You’ll have to tie on. ” He directed his gaze to Kody. “Do you have more rope, son?” “Yeah. ” Kody pushed up on his hands and knees. “But I haven’t learned all my knots!” “Your mother can tie knots. ” Tucker flicked another glance at Ellie. ‘It’s not that difficult, honey. The hardest part is that you’ll have to loosen the rope from around the boulder while you tie on another section. That means you and Kody will have to hold my weight while you’re making the knot. Kody knows how to belay, using the anchor as leverage. He can show you how. When you’ve added the extra rope, you just tie off to the anchor again. ” “Tucker, I can’t tie a knot to support your weight! Oh, G.o.d, don’t ask that of me. Please. What if it doesn’t hold?” “It’ll hold. ” He stared up at her, his expression completely calm. “A plain old square knot will probably work. “

“Probably?”

“Bad choice of words. You can do it, Ellie. You’ve got to. ” He flashed her a weak grin. “Sorry,darlin’, I made the stupidest mistake in the book. Rule number one in rock climbing, always checkyour own gear. I a.s.sumed that Zach knew enough to measure out enough line. “”He measured it, ” Kody called down. “We just didn’t know how far it was to the ground. “Tucker puffed air into his cheeks. “Yeah, well. There’s a lot to learn before you try to rappelalone. Accurately guessing the distance of a drop takes some practice. “Ellie pushed up on her hands and knees.”Don’t stand up near the edge!” Tucker yelled.”I won’t. “She crawled a safe distance away before she rose to her feet. Her legs were watery with fear, andher hands shook so badly, she doubted she could hold a rope, let alone tie a trustworthy knot.No choice. Both Tucker and Zach were in a h.e.l.l of a fix, and she was the only person available toget them out of it.Kody ran to get the extra coil of rope from Zach’s pack and then went with Ellie to the boulder.Bucky danced around Ellie’s legs, slowing her down. “Sit!” she cried sharply. For the first timesince puppyhood, Bucky obeyed her instantly, dropping back onto his haunches. Ellie made amental note to treat him to a T-bone steak when they got home. She wiped her hands on her jeans.”Okay, Kody, how do you belay?””It’s not that hard, Mom. We can do it. ” He motioned her over to the rock. “When I untie therope, we both grab hold, you out front, me back here. Brace hard with your feet and lean back,using all your weight. While I’m loosening the rope, we can use the boulder as an anchor to helphold Dad’s weight. When I’ve got the end loose, I’ll take over while you turn loose and get behindhere with me to tie the knot. “Tucker outweighed Kody by a hundred and fifty pounds. “What if you can’t hold him?””I can hold him. With the rope partway around the rock, I’ll have enough leverage. ” Evidently hecaught her dubious look. “I’ve done it before, Mom. Lots of times. Dad taught me how lastsummer. It’ll work. I promise. It’s not a matter of strength and weight, but leverage. “Ellie could only hope.She gripped the taut section of rope in her hands and braced her feet. “Okay. Loosen anchor. “From the corner of her eye, she saw Kody scrambling about at the opposite side of the boulder.

An instant later, the rope slipped in her hands, the rough hemp burning her palms and taking skin.She tightened her grip and leaned back with all her weight.Suddenly the tension against the rope lessened.”Okay!” Kody said triumphantly. “Gotcha covered. “Ellie threw him an incredulous look over her shoulder.”I’ve got it, Mom. You can turn loose now and come around to tie the knot. “Prepared to grab hold again, just in case Kody had problems, Ellie slowly slackened her grip.”See?” Kody said when she’d turned completely loose. “I’ve got him. “Ellie hurried around the boulder. With quivering hands and fingers that had turned to rubber, shefumbled with the two ends of rope, trying frantically to make a strong knot. When she wasfinished, she tugged to check her work, thinking as she did that the true test would be the fullforce of Tucker’s weight.”Done?”Ellie tried to say yes. Her voice wouldn’t work. She could only give a nod.”Okay, then. Let’s play out the length. ” He craned his neck to yell over his shoulder. “We’redone, Dad. Start taking in rope!”Ellie’s heart b.u.mped up in the back of her throat as they fed out the line. At any moment, sheexpected to hear Tucker scream as he free-fell toward the rocks. When nothing happened, herlegs nearly buckled. The knot she’d tied was holding. Thank G.o.d.After the new section of rope had been played out,Ellie helped her son tie off to the boulder again. By the time they returned to the edge of the cliff,Tucker had rappelled around the section of ice and was already working his way back to Zach.Ellie held her breath as her husband hooked a leg over the outcropping and then pulled himself uponto the ledge with their son. When he gave her a thumbs-up, tears filled her eyes. Relief, fear,joy-the mix of emotions churned within her, impossible to untangle or clearly define. On theone hand, she rejoiced because he’d finally reached Zach, but on the other, she despaired becausethere was still so much to accomplish before they’d both be safely off the ledge.For the next thirty minutes, Ellie and Kody were kept busy searching for limbs, sticks, and greenbark that Tucker could use to fashion a splint for Zach’s arm and a sling to lift him up the side ofthe cliff. Given the fact that they were above the timberline and trees were in short supply, theyhad to go to the east rim of the plateau, just above the canyon, to find the needed items.During that foray, Ellie thanked G.o.d at least a hundred times that Tucker was so well trained infirst aid. Zach was badly hurt; she didn’t kid herself into thinking otherwise. But with Tucker incharge, at least he had a chance.Later, as she watched Tucker working over their son, Ellie knew her faith in him was welldeserved. With only a first aid kit, rope, and strips of cloth he’d torn from their clothing, Tuckerimmobilized their son’s fractured forearm with a splint and then fashioned a stretcher, using thelimbs they’d found as side rails. It was a time-consuming process, and at times, Ellie feared that Tucker would never signal for her and Kody to pull Zach up. Before that moment arrived, Zach regained consciousness, only to pa.s.s out again from pain when Tucker had to lift him onto the makeshift stretcher. Ellie’s heart felt as if it might pound its way from her chest while she and Kody worked together to pull her elder son to safety. If the line snapped-if the wind picked up-if Zach regained consciousness and panicked-he could fall to his death. Perhaps there were angels who lent the stretcher wings, or maybe it was the steadying Hand of G.o.d- or, perhaps, it was only Tucker’s fine workmanship- but nothing went wrong. The ropes didn’t break, the wind held its breath, and soon the stretcher was on safe ground. “Thank you, G.o.d, ” Ellie cried as she crouched over her injured child. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. ” She wanted to check Zach everywhere for other injuries. Leaving his side was one of the hardest things she’d ever done in her life. But until Tucker had scaled the cliff and was safely beside them, she had no choice. Crawling on her belly, Ellie left her sons and returned to the edge of the embankment to watch her husband make the ascent. Yes, my husband, she thought when she mentally started to correct herself. Maybe she and Tucker were legally divorced, but she knew now that they had never been divorced in their hearts. They’d only gone their separate ways for a while. When he finally reached the top and swung up a leg, Ellie grabbed handfuls of his jacket to help pull him the rest of the way. He rolled over the edge, coming to rest on his back. Sobbing with relief, she bent over him, raining kisses on his face even as tears streamed down her own. “Oh, Tucker, I’ve never been so scared in all my life. ” He hooked an arm around her neck and pulled her down on top of him. For a moment, they just lay there, chest to chest, heart to heart, glad-so very glad-just to be alive. “He’s going to make it, ” Tucker whispered near her ear. “It’s just a broken arm, sweetheart. He’s going to be fine. ” Ellie could only nod. Tucker sighed and loosened his arms from around her to sit up. After gaining his feet, he drew her up beside him, and together, they hurried over to their boys. Zach had regained consciousness again, and he managed a faint smile before letting his eyes drift closed. Tucker examined him for other injuries. “He’s okay, Ellie, ” he finally p.r.o.nounced. “The arm may hurt like the devil, but he’s going to be fine. ” While Tucker called for help on the cell phone, Ellie sat beside the stretcher, holding Zach’s unin-jured hand, her other arm looped around Kody’s shoulders. “Dad says he’s going to be all right, ” she told her eleven-year-old. “Did you hear that? Good news, huh?” Tears welled in Kody’s eyes. His chin wobbled as he nodded. “Yeah, real good news. I thought he might die, and it would’ve been all my faultagain. He wanted to turn back, and I wouldn’t. “Ellie pressed her cheek to the top of Kody’s head, wishing she were incredibly wise and knewexactly what to say to him.”Sammy’s accident wasn’t your fault, sweetie. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. ” Not hers, not Tucker’s,and most especially not Kody’s. “I’ve always blamed myself for what happened, ” she whispered.”Did you know that?”Kody nodded. “I kind of figured. Lots of times, I wanted to tell you it was me that caused it tohappen, but I was afraid you’d hate me. “”Never, ” Ellie said fiercely, hugging him again to drive home the point. “I could never hate you,Kody. Never in a zillion years. “”But I called him a chicken, ” Kody cried. “He wouldn’t’ve popped that wheelie and plowedthrough the fence if it wasn’t for me. “”Ah, but he wouldn’t have been on the bike at all if it hadn’t been for me, ” Ellie countered. “Ibroke the rules and let him go riding when your dad wasn’t home. “Tucker walked up just then. “I’ve got you both beat. There wouldn’t have been a bike, period, if ithadn’t been for me buying him one. “Ellie smiled and ruffled Kody’s hair. “There, you see? We’ve all been blaming ourselves, each inour own way. Which of us is guiltiest, do you think? Maybe we should draw straws, the shorteststraw loses. “”That’d be dumb, ” Kody said.”No dumber than all of us dragging our bottom lips on the ground for the rest of our lives,blaming ourselves for something we never meant to happen. ” Tucker hunkered down to look hisyoungest son dead in the eye. “Sammy’s gone, Kody. We’ll always miss him. Deep in our hearts,we’ll always wish things had happened differently. But we can’t let that spoil the rest of our lives.Sammy wouldn’t want that. This guilt thing is tearing all of us apart. It’s time to let it go. “Kody nodded. “I’d like that. It makes me feel awful inside. “”Excuse me, I’m dying over here, ” Zach injected hoa.r.s.ely. “Forget about Sammy for once andthink about me, why don’t you?”Tucker winked at Ellie and reached past her to check Zach’s pulse. “Wiser words were never spo-ken. How you feeling, sport?””Like, awful. My arm hurts. “Tucker nodded. “I know it does. A rescue copter is on the way. Before you know it, a pretty littlenurse will be spoon-feeding you Jell-O. “”I don’t want Jell-O. ” Zach wrinkled his nose. “I haven’t had anything good to eat in three days.I’m starving. “”Hunger is a very good sign, ” Tucker a.s.sured him. “I’d say you’re going to live. “”I better. ” Zach closed his eyes, clearly spent. “If I don’t, all three of you will be on another guilttrip for three years. “The words hung there on the air, stark and brutally true. For a moment, Ellie was so taken aback,she couldn’t think how to react, and then she burst out laughing. Tucker soon joined her. Kody took a little longer, but soon he was giggling, too.Never opening his eyes, Zach smiled wanly. “That’s a really good sound, ” he said faintly.It was a beautiful sound, Ellie thought. The most beautiful sound on earth, in fact.The Grants were a family again.

Epilogue.

Patches of golden sunlight spilled down through the branches of the trees, dappling the winding dirt road with yellow. Puttering along on her trail bike behind Tucker and the boys, who rode their motorcycles slowly so as not to kick up dust, Ellie lifted her face to the breeze, loving all the wonderful smells that came from the surrounding woodlands. Pine and juniper, sage and manzanita, the scents of home. This was where she’d been born and raised, and where she and Tucker had chosen to raise their children. Little wonder. Central Oregon was, in her opinion, one of the most beautiful places on earth. An osprey circled above them, its belly and the underside of its wings flashing white as it swooped low over the trees. Above the sound of the motorcycles, its two-syllable cry drifted on the air, a shrill ka-whee, ka-whee that was soon echoed by its chicks, confined to a treetop nest somewhere in the nearby forest. Tucker signaled to turn right, leading his followers to a lovely gra.s.sy meadow bordered by dense woodlands. Eager to eat, the boys and Ellie parked their bikes behind his, cut the engines, and swung off their saddle seats. The blessed quietness of the woods suddenly surrounded them, which really wasn’t quiet at all when you listened closely. A crystal-clear stream ribboned through the gra.s.s, its gurgling adding yet another beautiful element to an already gorgeous afternoon. The osprey still circled overhead, calling to her babies. The breeze whispered in the forest, the gusts and lulls creating a hushed sound. “This is perfect, ” Ellie called to Tucker, who was loosening the straps that secured their picnic basket to the back of his trail bike. She threw her arms wide and turned in a circle. “I can’t believe how wonderful it feels. ” “Check out that ospey!” Zach cried. “Don’t they usually nest near lakes?” Tucker shook out the blanket and spread it on the gra.s.s. “That’s right, lakes or streams. ” He gestured with a swing of his head. “About a quarter of a mile from here is Hazel Lake. It teems with trout, good hunting for an opsrey. ” Ellie leaned her head back to watch the bird search tirelessly for sustenance. With a nest full of babies, the osprey had her work cut out for her. Spring was such a lovely time of year. Everywhere one looked was a sign of new life and the never-ending cycle of renewal. Even the light green new growth on the trees, tipping the boughs like candle tapers, seemed part of the celebration. As Ellie went to help Tucker lay out the food, she touched a hand lightly to her waist and smiled to herself. Tucker glanced up and frowned in concern. “Are you feeling sick?” “No, I feel wonderful!” Oddly, that was true. She’d had no morning sickness so far. Of course, it was still early on. She knelt on the blanket to empty the basket. Calling out to the boys, who’d wandered over to explore the stream, she said, “First come, first served! If you want your share, you’d better get dibs. I’m starving!” Tucker grinned and helped himself to a chicken leg. After taking a bite, he said, “Your appet.i.te has sure picked up. Watch it, lady. I like that figure of yours just the way it is. ” Ellie might have informed him that her waistline would soon expand beyond his wildest expectations, but that was news she wanted to share in private. She’d only gotten the word herself yesterday. She wanted to hug the secret close for just a little longer. The boys joined them on the blanket to partake of the picnic. Soon they were all too busy eating to talk. When Tucker dusted his fingers clean on his jeans, Kody mimicked the action, making her smile. It was so good, so very good to be out here as a family again, enjoying the forest and nature. No more feelings of guilt. No more sadness. Kody was a normal, happy boy now who seldom had time to watch television and never wrote in his notebook. Zach was slowly working through his feelings of anger toward Sammy, which, perversely, had filled him with guilt until the counselor had a.s.sured him that such feelings were natural. As for her and Tucker, they no longer blamed themselves for what had happened, either. Sammy’s death had been a terrible accident-something neither of them could prevent. As parents, they had to turn loose now and let their children take some risks. Life, according to Zach, wasn’t worth living if you never got to have any fun. Ellie supposed there was a great deal of truth in that. It had been a long journey, one that had lasted most of the winter, but their weekly counseling sessions had worked a miracle. Under the direction of Harold Mooney, their psychologist, she, Tucker, and the kids had taken it step by slow step. Zach and Kody had been given more freedom in increments. Now they were allowed to ride their bicycles to town, they owned Rollerblades, and they went skating with their friends on a regular basis. Ellie still had her moments of irrational terror for their safety, but with each pa.s.sing day, it was getting easier for her, and she thought it was getting easier for Tucker, as well. Three months ago, she’d taken an important step forward by going to a beauty salon to have her hair styled. Tucker had celebrated the change in her appearance by taking them all out for junk food that evening, a major hurdle for him to leap over. When she’d started wearing makeup a week later, he’d marked the occasion by throwing away all the carob-coated nuts and raisins in the cupboard. As for their house, Ellie would never allow herself to fall back into the trap of being a perfectionist, but she and Tucker did muck out each room once a week, working together, side by side. What touched her the most about his willingness to help was each night when they cleaned up the kitchen. Tucker had never yet allowed her to wash off the stove. One day soon, Ellie vowed, she would polish the range again, but she was in no hurry. If she’d learned anything from all the counseling, it was to be patient with herself and with her family. Overall, she felt that all of them had made amazing progress. Now, after months of therapy, they had finally sold the Springfield house, allowing them to take the final and most difficult step of buying motorcycles again. This trip today was their first real outing. The short rides they’d taken together before this had been more for the sake of instruction than pleasure, with Tucker providing the lessons and laying down safety rules. Ellie hadn’t expected to enjoy herself. She’d been so sure it would only bring back painful memories. But instead she felt joyously free. “Penny for them, ” Tucker said as he selected a cookie for dessert. “I’m just thinking how fun this is. ” He winked at her when the boys chorused their agreement. After making quick work of the cookie, he stood and offered her a hand up. “Let’s take a walk. ” Ellie glanced at the kids. “Will you guys be okay?” “Like, what are we gonna do, Mom, drown in knee-deep water?” Zach asked. “Point taken. ” Ellie laughed and reached for Tucker’s outstretched hand. He lifted her easily to her feet. She leaned happily into him when he slipped a strong arm around her shoulders. “Nevertheless, stay out of the water while we’re gone!” she called back. As they entered the tree line, a hush settled over the forest. Ellie imagined little squirrels diving for cover to peer nervously out at them. “Oh, Tucker, isn’t this something?” she said. “It’s so beautiful here, I can scarcely believe it. ” “You’re beautiful, ” he informed her huskily and, without any warning, swung her around to press her back against a tree. “So beautiful. After three years of starvation, I can’t seem to get my fill of you. ” Ellie giggled and slapped at his wandering hand. “Behave. The boys might follow us. What’ll they think?” “That their dad is one lucky fellow. ” He kissed her then-a slow, sweet joining of mouths that made her pulse start to race. Ellie melted into it. He was her everything, she thought dreamily, the other half of herself. When he came up for breath, she gazed up at his dark face. The small forest residents had resumed their activities. A squirrel chattered nearby. She could hear tiny claws skittering over the rough bark somewhere above her head. The osprey call came again, a distant ka-whee that drifted musically on the breeze. Ellie had meant to tell Tucker her news at a special moment, but now she knew there would never be a more perfect time than now. She looked deeply into his hazel eyes. Her heart gave a glad little b.u.mp. “I’ve got some really wonderful news to share with you, ” she whispered. “Remember that night at the hot spring, when you realized you wanted another baby?” His face went still. His hand convulsed on her back. “Yeah, ” he said cautiously, “I remember it very well. ” “Your wish came true. Dr. Pruitt called yesterday to tell me the news. I’m not irregular because I’ve gone off the Pill. I’m very, very pregnant. ” A suspicious shine came to his eyes. He stared down at her, as if he couldn’t quite believe his ears. Then, with a loud whoop that startled her, he swung her up into his arms and turned in dizzying circles, laughing and yelling, “Yes!” at the top of his lungs. When his initial joy subsided, he stopped spinning to kiss her again, his hands moving gently over her body as though she were suddenly made of fragile gla.s.s. Trailing his lips over her cheeks, he whispered, “And you’re riding a motorcycle? I should paddle your f.a.n.n.y. You should have told me. I would have postponed the bike thing until later. ” “We can’t put this on hold for seven months. ” She caught his face between her hands. “Dr. Pruitt says it’s perfectly safe as long as I go slow and stay off rough roads. I’m fine, Tucker. And so is our baby girl. ” “You already know the s.e.x?” “Not for sure. I just have a feeling. I’m not sick this time. Not at all. This pregnancy is totally different from the other three. I think a girl agrees with my system. ” He chuckled and bent his head to rest his forehead against hers. “A baby, Ellie. Just think of it. I’m so happy!” Ellie was happy, too. Happier than she’d ever imagined she might be again. Life did go on. Time truly did heal all pain. When she thought of Sammy now, she had mostly good feelings, and her memories made her smile. “Oh, gag!” Both Ellie and Tucker jumped at the unexpected sound of Kody’s voice. Still locked in each other’s arms, they turned to see both their sons walking toward them through the trees.

“You guys aren’t supposed to get all mushy in front of us, ” Zach chimed in. “Do you want us toget warped?””We love each other, ” Tucker said with a chuckle.”Live with it. “Zach elbowed his brother and did an about-face. “Come on, Kode. Let’s leave the lovebirds alone.”Kody followed his brother, complaining with every step. “I always miss the good part. At thisrate, I’m gonna be twenty before I know anything about anything. Why can’t I watch to see whathappens next?”Tucker turned a laughing gaze back to Ellie. When the sound of their sons’ footsteps drifted away,he rubbed noses with her, then gently kissed her forehead.”Tell me, Mr. Grant, what part does come next?”she asked.All the amus.e.m.e.nt left his expression. For a long moment, he looked deeply into her eyes. Then,in a voice gone husky with emotion, he replied, “The forever part comes next, Ellie girl. Andthat’s going to be the very best part of all. “

end.