Small View, Tennessee
“He’ll be here any minute now!” Olivia bounced excitedly on her toes as she glanced down the line.
Tina held her hand up to her brow, shading her eyes from the glaring sun. “He was supposed to be here almost a half hour ago. I thought now that the war was over, everything at the train station was back up and running properly.”
Carrie laughed. “Don’t let my husband hear you talking like that. Poor Jackson has already got enough to deal with without listening to you gripe about a train running a little late.” She bounced the baby boy on her hip. He was two and a half years old and was maybe getting a tad too big for her to heft him in such a way, but she wanted to hold onto him as long as she could. She was about six months pregnant with she and Jackson’s second child and she knew, in just a few months, she wouldn’t be able to tote little Austin around anymore.
Jackson had insisted they name their first boy after her pa and Carrie hadn’t argued. She liked that Jackson felt so connected to her family and every time she looked at her lovely little boy, she saw that he had her father’s smile.
“Uncle,” Austin said, pointing toward the trees that grew on the other side of the railroad tracks.
Olivia giggled. “No, silly boy,” she said, moving his tiny little hand so that it just pointed off into the distance. “Your uncle Adrian is going to get here by train. He won’t come smashing through the trees.”
Over the past few months, Olivia had taken to reading adventure stories aloud to Austin. She had blossomed into quite the little reader and all the family members enjoyed sitting around the fire at the end of the evening, listening to her as she read aloud. Zack, over at the mercantile, had begun setting aside these dime novels just for Olivia. It was Tina who always went into town to fetch them, and Carrie mentioned more than once to Jackson that she thought there might be a romance brewing between his best friend and her younger sister.
Jackson never got too tangled up in those sorts of conversations. He said he loved both Tina and Zack and if, once Adrian got home, they went about their courtship properly, he wouldn’t stand in their way. Carrie giggled to herself as she thought of her husband’s insistence that they would not allow Tina to get married until Adrian returned home.
“You made him a promise,” he would remind her whenever she mentioned the topic. She loved how her husband respected her brother and even though he wasn’t really a part of their lives when Carrie said she would watch out for Tina, he intended to help her keep her word.
Woot! Woot! The train blew its whistle and Carrie shifted Austin in her arms as she tried to stand on her tiptoes so she could watch the train chug into the station.
“Here,” Jackson said, coming up behind her and putting his hands on her waist.
“What are you doing here?” Carrie cried, turning to see her handsome husband. He had a fine layer of perspiration on his forehead, and he was panting a little as he came to her side. He held out his hands for the baby.
Austin shouted, “Dad!” and when he reached for Jackson, she handed him over.
“I had to come to meet your brother,” Jackson replied, jostling the baby a little in his arms and tickling his tummy, making him giggle. “What would he think of me if I wasn’t standing right here by your side when he first got off the train?”
“He’d understand that you were busy and…” Carrie started to explain, but Jackson shook his head. Austin began shaking his head too and laughing hysterically at Jackson’s antics.
“I’m not too busy to be here for my family,” Jackson said and then he smiled lovingly at her.
As their marriage had grown and flourished, Carrie came to understand that for Jackson, taking care of her and her sisters was his priority. He had never been so attached to anyone, outside of his father, before, but from the moment she and her sisters came to live with him, he put everything else on hold when it came to taking care of them. She appreciated this, as it was the way she’d always viewed the world. Her family members were so dearly beloved by her that her heart swelled with pride just thinking of them.
She ran her fingers through Austin’s soft brown hair. It hung a little long, just like Jackson’s, and the baby laughed as she tickled the back of his neck.
“How’s the other little guy feeling today?” Jackson asked, nodding toward Carrie’s bulging stomach.
She ran her hand affectionately over her swollen abdomen. “We don’t know that the baby’s a little guy. She could be a little girl.”
“And just my luck, she’ll have reddish blonde hair, just like her mother and her aunties,” Jackson sighed and made a silly face. “Then, I’ll have to spend the rest of my days fighting off the boys with a stick.”
Tina chuckled. “You may not have to do that.” She looked at little Austin with a playful smile. “Her big brother might take care of his little sister all on his own. Lord knows my older siblings have always watched out for me.”
Carrie grinned at Tina. She knew her sister was anxious to find herself a husband and move out of Jackson and his father’s house. She was just glad Tina understood Jackson’s wishes about waiting until Adrian came home for anything official to be announced about her courtship with Zack. Nowadays, Tina spent a lot of time at their old home.
When they cleared out and moved to Jackson’s house, they’d taken everything of value with them. But when Joe talked the mayor and Jonah into relinquishing the hold they had on the property, Tina had asked if she might not go back from time and time and tidy up the place. She said she wanted to keep it in order so that when Adrian came home, he would have a place to live. But Carrie always secretly suspected Tina liked having a moment or two alone, just as much as she liked maintaining the household for her brother.
Now that Adrian’s train was within sight and they were minutes from greeting him again, Carrie wondered where Tina would go when she craved her moments of solitude now.
A couple of railway workers moved forward and placed a set of steps in front of the passenger cars. This time, when Carrie stood on her tiptoes to glance around the yard, she was looking for Dews and Geo. Every week or so, she brought them both a bit of lunch. Whenever she stopped in to see Jackson, she brought a full basket, leaving food at the telegraph office for Joe and his employees, but she always made it a point to visit her old co-workers as well. The two men had been so nice to her, and she couldn’t come to the depot without thinking of them. She didn’t spy them now, but she figured that’s because they would be queuing up down toward the boxcars, ready and waiting to get that next shipment unloaded. According to what they’d last told her, Geo had proposed to Dews’ eldest daughter, and they were set to be married any day now. She thought it fitting that the two men should be tied together in such a way, and she wished them both every happiness.
A few soldiers began to descend the steps just then and Carrie felt her breath hitch in her throat. It had been years since she’d last seen Adrian and so much had happened between now and then. While she had come clean and admitted the truth of the situation to him years ago, after being prompted to do so by her husband, she still wondered what he would say when he got off the train and saw her standing there…six months pregnant with her second child.
It’s crazy, but I still want my big brother to approve of my actions.
Carrie tapped her fingers against her belly, and the baby—boy or girl, she didn’t know—responded by kicking back at her.
“Adrian!” Tina shouted and she began to wave her arms frantically.
“Adrian!” Austin echoed and he began mimicking Tina’s movements. Jackson laughed merrily as he ducked out of the way of Austin’s little swinging arms.
And then Carrie caught sight of her big brother.
Adrian had always been tall and slender, but now, he was as slim as she’d ever seen him. His clothes bagged off him and his shoulders seemed to slump forward. He had a gray cap atop his head and the sight of it made Carrie think of the one she’d worn when she first started working at the railroad. She ran her hand through her hair, touching the gold comb Jackson had given her on their wedding day and smiled softly.
“Adrian!” she shouted, and then, as she lifted her hand to wave it just as Tina, Olivia, and Little Austin were doing, he glanced right at her. His smile, so familiar, spread across his face and he bounded down the steps and ran toward them. Carrie held out her arms, expecting Adrian to run toward her, but instead, he stopped right in front of Jackson and the baby.
“So, this is the man who’s been taking care of my family,” Adrian said, eyeing Jackson curiously.
“I’ve done my best,” Jackson replied.
“Uh-huh,” little Austin said, nodding his head enthusiastically.
That made Adrian chuckle. “And you’re the little guy who’s going to be the future of our family?” He reached out and grabbed hold of the pudgy hand Austin was still swinging in the air.
“He is,” Carrie said, dropping her arms and scooting closer to her husband. “Adrian, this is my husband Jackson, and this is our son, Austin.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Adrian said, nodding his head respectively at the two most important men in Carrie’s life. “And thank you.”
Jackson smiled. “I only did what I had to do. Love compelled me to take care of your sister and to protect your family.”
Then, Adrian did something very unexpected. He threw his arms around both Jackson and Austin, wrapping them in an enormous hug. “I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank you enough for keeping them safe.”
Jackson grinned and shot Carrie a look through the corner of his eye. She shrugged. Adrian had never been this affectionate before, so she didn’t know what to do with his behavior now. “You don’t have to thank me,” Jackson said. “It was my pleasure.”
Carrie tapped Adrian on the shoulder then and he dropped his hold on Jackson and Austin as he turned to look at her. “Carrie Berry…” he whispered.
“Adrian,” she replied, “you’ve finally come home.”
“I’ve finally come home and thank God my family is still standing here almost just the same as the day I left them.” He glanced down at her bulging belly, then held his arms open to her so she could walk forward and into his hug. Just as they had always done, Tina and Olivia moved forward then too, joining the family hug. When Jackson and Austin joined their little circle, Carrie felt whole…as if her world was finally complete. She smiled lovingly at the people she cherished most and hugged them even tighter, grateful for the fact that her family had not only been able to survive the war, but they managed to thrive too.