"I don't know what got into me," Luke said quietly.
Back at the Duke farm, he was seated on the hood of the General Lee with his legs folded beneath him, Indian style. Bo was sitting beside him with one foot propped on the front bumper, listening with solemn interest as his cousin described his wild chase through the countryside. Uncle Jesse sat on the rear of Daisy's jeep, Dixie, while Daisy sat on the stoop near the open door, where she could hear the baby if he awakened.
Luke shook his head slowly in a bewildered fashion, and continued, "The weird thing was, for a while when while I was driving the General with Enos chasing me, I actually forgot everything that happened over the past couple'a days. It was like it was before, when you an' me was bein' chased on a regular basis. I don't really even remember how I got up there to that cliff. One minute, I was just drivin' aimlessly tryin' to get away from Enos, and the next thing I knew, I was headed straight for nowhere."
"Cooter said that yer skid marks went to within five feet of the rim. There's a lot of sand and loose dirt on that cliff," Bo said, thoughtfully. "Yer lucky ya didn't skid right on over the edge."
"That's true," Luke agreed. "Someone was lookin' out for me today."
Jesse had listened without interrupting or offering comments until he was finished speaking. "You really scared me, Luke," he said, quietly. "For a while there, I thought . . . well, I thought maybe you was tryiin' t' do yerself in."
Luke shook his head again in response to Jesse's comment, and a trace of queasiness reentered his stomach at the thought of how close he had come to losing his life. "Nah, I wasn't even thinkin' about that. When Enos jolted me back to my senses with that car horn of his and I saw that cliff right in front of me, I tell ya, my stomach jumped right up in my throat. I don't mind tellin' ya, that's the scardest I've ever been. I'm sorry, ya'll. Sorry it took something like this to bring me back to my senses."
Bo slapped an affectionate hand on his shoulder. "You're forgiven, Cuz. Jus' don't put us through somethin' like this again, hear?"
Luke gave him a slight smile. "I'll try not to. 'Sides, you're the one who usually does the irrational things, 'n I'm the one bailin' ya out. Feels strange bein' on the other end of it." He fell silent for a long time, eyes averted as he pondered something serious. Then he finally asked, "Uncle Jesse, is our family cursed or something?"
Jesse looked up, surprised. "Cursed? What do you mean?"
"Are all Duke children destined to grow up without parents? Mine, Bo's, and Daisy's parents all passed on 'fore we was old enough to even remember 'em. And now my son has already lost his mama. How much more does this family have to give?"
"Yer generation was hit hard, that's a fact," Jesse admitted. "I don't know why bad things happen to good folks, and yer mamas an' daddies were good folks, as good as they come, but it weren't no curse that caused it. Sometimes, things jes' happen, and ya got no answers for 'em. Which brings me back to you, Luke. You ain't to blame for Cindy's death. I want you to understand that. It was a terrible, tragic thing, but no one knew it would happen. No one could've known."
Luke looked away, that uncomfortable tightness coming to his throat again, as he gazed toward that ever-advancing rain cloud. It was only a few miles away now, and he could see the curtain of rain that swept toward the ground in a wide transparent veil. Now that he had finally allowed the tears to reach the surface, it was difficult to shut them off again, and his eyes began to well.
Bo averted his eyes, pretending he had not noticed the tears, but Jesse's gaze was steady on his older nephew. "Luke, listen to me. The doctors didn't even know it would happen, so how could you? You gotta let it go, son. Quit beatin' yerself up over this, and stop takin' the responsibility for what happened. It was just one o' them unfortunate things that sometimes happens. No one was to blame."
"We should'a waited before havin' kids," Luke insisted. "If we'd waited, maybe the doctor's would'a noticed it during a check-up or something. Maybe there would'a been some symptom that would'a told her there was somethin' wrong."
"I spoke to the doctors afterward, Luke. They said it was somethin' she was prob'ly born with. Cindy took good care o' herself, havin' regular checkups an' all. If they hadn't noticed it by then, it's unlikely they ever would've found it. Now, I know that the normal reaction to somethin' like this is to try an' find blame, someone ya can take all that anger and frustration out on. But in this case, there is no one. Least of all, yerself. Waitin' wouldn't 've prevented it from eventually happenin', and I think you know that."
Luke sighed heavily, as if trying to expel all the weight he had been carrying the past two days and brushed the back of his hand across his eyes to dry them as he forced back the tears that had threatened to follow the first. "Damn it," he muttered. "I'm like a leaky faucet that I can't shut off."
"Luke," Jesse scolded in a kind voice. "You know I don't hold with cussin'."
Luke glanced at him sharply in response to the gentle reprimand, but his respect for the old man was so great that he was compelled to apologize. "Sorry, Uncle Jesse. Yer right. I just felt there had to be someone to blame for her dyin', and I convinced myself that the only person who could'a prevented it was me. But . . . I guess there was no one at fault."
"That's the gospel-truth, Luke," Jesse said, solemnly. "An' now that you've accepted that fact, you can start healin'."
At that moment, it was hard for Luke to imagine ever feeling whole again, but he hoped his uncle was right, that the pain of losing Cindy would ease, and that someday when he thought of her, he remembered only the good times, not the way she had died.
"Ya know, Luke," Daisy said, interrupting his thoughts. "The hospital called while you was gone. They wanna know if you've named the baby yet. They said they need it for their records."
"Guess I'd better start thinkin' on it," Luke replied. "I'll make a decision 'n call 'em in the morning."
"You mean you ain't got any ideas yet?" Bo asked with a smile. "We don't want that poor baby growin' up bein' called 'No-name Duke'!"
"Don't rush me," Luke told him with a hint of his old humor returning. "I want it to be a good one. A name that has meanin'."
The family fell silent for a long time, listening to the thunder rumbling. Soothed by the sounds of nature, Luke yawned wearily and allowed his eyes to close just to rest them for a few minutes. As Daisy looked over at storm, she saw a bolt of lightning zigzag across the blackened horizon.
"Wow, that's movin' right on in," she said. "I think we'd better start getting' these cars under cover." She got up off the stoop and moved toward her jeep.
"I'll look after the baby while ya'll's doing that," Jesse said, moving toward the house.
Luke and Bo slid off the hood of the General, but Bo placed a hand on his cousin's shoulder. "You go on inside and get some rest," he instructed. "You look like somethin' the cat drug in. I'll move the General back under the port."
Luke nodded. "Thanks, Bo. For everything," he added, meaningfully.
Bo swatted his arm, affectionately, then fished his car keys out of his pocket and slid through the General's open window. Not a moment too soon. The sky opened up and the rain poured as Bo moved the race car back under its protective awning. Daisy drove the Dixie jeep into the barn and parked it in front of the old tractor.
Inside the house, Luke went straight to his old bedroom, peeled off his clothes, and climbed into bed. Lulled by the rain pattering on the roof and the windows, he was soon fast asleep.
It was dark when Luke awakened, and he lay quietly for a long time in the familiar room, listening to the silence in the old farmhouse. The storm had moved on hours ago, leaving behind a countryside that smelled refreshed and clean. His curtains were drawn, but he could tell by the narrow band of silver that shown through the gap where they did not quite meet, that the moon had come out. Outside the window, crickets were chirping their nightly chorus.
He had slept through supper, and his stomach was beginning to rumble, demanding to be fed. He thought he was vaguely aware of Jesse opening his door sometime during the early evening, presumably to check on him, but he had quickly drifted back into a restful, dreamless sleep, and his uncle had elected not to disturb him.
After a few minutes of fighting the hunger, he tossed back the sheet and sat up, thinking that maybe there was still some left-over ham in the fridge. Yawning, he dragged his fingers through his unruly brown hair and glanced at the clock on the bedside table: One forty-five. He had been asleep nearly eleven hours, longer than he had slept in years.
Standing up, he flipped on the lamp and pulled on a pair of faded blue jeans, then padded barefoot into the living room. But as he passed the door to Daisy's bedroom, he stopped to look at it, drawn to it by an irresistible force. After a moment, he quietly pushed the door open and peered inside.
Daisy's room was awash in silvery moonlight that shown through her window, and he could easily see her still form on the bed, lying on her side. Her deep, even breathing indicated that she was sound asleep. His eyes drifted toward the crib at the foot of the bed, and the tiny mound that lay on the crib's mattress.
He had never once violated the privacy of Daisy's bedroom, but this time he knew he must. Tiptoeing quietly past her bed, grimacing slightly as the floorboards creaked under each step, he approached the crib and stood beside it for a long time, gazing silently at the infant that lay there. He was about the same size as the Thumbelina doll that Aunt Martha had given Daisy for Christmas one year, and he fondly recalled that she had carried the doll around all year to keep from hurting her aunt's feelings, even she had preferred joining her cousins as they constructed roads in the dirt for their Hot Wheels and Tonka trucks. The doll was carefully stored in a drawer in Daisy's dresser, one of her most cherished gifts from her late aunt.
The baby's hand twitched slightly in his sleep, and Luke knew that he would be waking himself up soon for his feeding. Glancing over his shoulder at Daisy's inert form, he understood that he had placed an unfair burden on her of caring for his child. She loved the baby, and had willingly taken over all the duties of feeding and changing and cuddling, but it was a duty he knew he must learn to do.
Gently, he slipped one hand beneath the baby's neck to support his head and the other hand under his lower back, and lifted him out of the crib. The infant squirmed his tiny body as he slowly came awake, a moving, living mass so unlike Daisy's inanimate doll. Lifting the child upright, Luke laid him against his bare chest so that his small head was resting beneath his chin. Turning, he crept toward the door.
The baby made a soft whimpering noise. "Shh," Luke whispered, stoking its back, soothingly. "Don't want to wake up yer Aunt Daisy."
Unknown to Luke, Daisy was already awake. She had awakened abruptly when one of those floorboards had creaked under his foot as he had crept into the room. After a moment's start at finding a man in her room, she had recognized him, but she continued to lie motionless, watching as he had observed the baby in the crib and finally lifted him from it. A pleased smile came to her lips, satisfied that Luke was making the effort to take an active role in parenting his son.
Still moving quietly, he slipped from the room and pulled the door closed behind him, making sure that it latched soundlessly.
Back in the living room, Luke flipped on one of the table lamps, and shifted the infant so that he was lying on his left arm, face up. His eyes were open, looking up at him in an unfocused gaze, and Luke smiled in spite of himself.
"Okay, little Jesse," he whispered. "I'm new at this, so yer gonna have to be patient with me while I learn the ropes."
The baby responded by squirming, as if uncomfortable, and whimpered again. Luke realized what the baby needed.
"I guess the first thing you need is changin', right? Okay, I think I can do that." He glanced back at Daisy's door, where he knew an opened package of diapers was sitting beneath the crib, but he did not want to risk disturbing Daisy by reentering her room. He remembered that Uncle Jesse had purchased a new package the previous morning, so he looked around the room, wondering where he had left them. "Now where did Uncle Jesse put those new diapers?" His eyes came to rest on the grocery sack on the kitchen cabinet near the sink. "Ah! There they are."
With the baby still nestled on the crook of his arm, he moved into the kitchen and removed the package of disposable diapers from the paper sack. The baby continued to squirm, and made little whimpering noises to express his discomfort.
"It's okay," Luke assured him. "I'm gonna change ya into something more comfortable, but ya gotta give me a minute. I'm a complete novice at this, but I think I can follow the directions on the package." He started to lay the baby down on the sofa's cushion to change him, then thought better of it. "Maybe we'd better lay somethin' under ya, ya think?"
Leaving the package of diapers on the coffee table, he went to the closet and found a clean towel, and carried it back to the sofa. Sitting down sideways on the cushion, he spread the towel next to him, and placed the baby on it.
He was temporarily stymied by the footed sleeper in which Daisy had dressed him, until he found the snaps that secured it, and carefully unfastened them and pushed it up to his waist. The diaper was next, and he paused to draw a deep breath, not knowing what he was going to find inside it.
With fumbling, inexperienced fingers, he unfastened the tabs and cautiously pulled the front of the diaper down, then released the breath he was holding. "Whew! You're just wet, is all. Glad we got to start with somethin' small my first time."
He removed the diaper completely and rolled it up, then took it into the bathroom, where he dropped it into the trash sack. While there, he dampened a washcloth with warm water, and used it to clean the baby, then dried him and, carefully following the directions on the package, he positioned the clean diaper under him.
"What'll they think of next?" he wondered aloud as he secured the tabs. "When Bo was a baby – 'course he was quite a bit older'n you are when he came here -- they was still using cloth diapers. I wasn't very old, mind you, only a few years outta diapers myself, but I can remember Aunt Martha washing them things every day o' the week. I use t' like to swing on 'em when they was dryin' on the clothesline, and sometimes I pulled em' right off the clothespins, and she had to wash 'em over." He paused, thinking back to those days and his patient aunt. "Guess I was a bit of a handful. Nowadays, ya just wad 'em up and throw 'em away."
With the diaper now in place, Luke gazed down at his son the wonder of a new father, and observed every detail of the tiny fingers and toes, the tiny upturned nose, the silky brown hair, and the bright blue eyes.
"Everything's so tiny," he marveled. He gently took the infant's miniature hand. "You even got tiny little fingernails. God, you're so beautiful. I can see why Cindy wanted you so bad. I wish you could'a grow'd up knowin' yer mama, but when yer old enough, I'll tell you all about her."
Repositioning the sleeper, he fastened the snaps and picked the baby up again. Placing him against his chest again, he carried him into the kitchen and set a pan of water on the stove to heat. He knew that Daisy kept the formula in bottles in the refrigerator for the night feedings, so he opened the door and withdrew one, and placed it in the pan of water to warm it.
While it heated, he found some leftover chicken and sliced ham in the refrigerator, and nibbled on it cold as he constantly walked slowly around the kitchen to keep the baby from getting restless.
When the bottle was warm enough, he tested it on his wrist, as he had seen Daisy do. He wasn't sure exactly what temperature it was supposed to be, but it seemed logical that it shouldn't be too cold or too hot. When it felt right, he carried it into the living room again and sat down on the sofa. When he was comfortable, with little Jesse nestled securely on one arm, he pressed the nipple against the baby's lips, and smiled when he took it in his mouth and began to suck, eagerly.
Luke smiled. "Hey, you gotta hearty appetite there, don't'cha?"
In his bedroom, the elder Jesse Duke awakened with a start, uncertain what it was that had awakened him. Raising his head off the pillow, he listened carefully. A man's voice, speaking softly, filtered through the closed door. Lowering his eyes, he noticed the narrow strip of light shining beneath the door. Someone was up.
Tossing back the blanket, he eased himself slowly out of bed, careful not to bring discomfort to his aching old back. Dressed in his nightshirt, he padded quietly to the door and opened it a crack, peering through the narrow slit. What he saw brought a smile to his lips.
Luke was sitting on the sofa, feeding his son. For the first time in days, a smile turned up the corners of his mouth, and he was speaking softly to the child.
"You know, when you was growin' in yer mama's belly, I never gave much thought on what t' call ya. See, I was leavin' that up to her. She was more knowin' on things like that than me, and I knew she'd pick out a good name for ya. Trouble is, she never got a chance to tell me what it was. Oh, I know she had several that she was considerin', but I don't know for sure that she'd made up her mind."
He pulled the bottle away and turned it upright to check on the progress. The baby worked his lips and puckered his little brow, as if wondering where it had gone.
"Yer a regular little chow hound," Luke said, returning the bottle to the baby's mouth. "Anyways, one name yer mama was thinkin' on was Luke Junior, but I ain't too keen on that. I don't want you goin' through life bein' called Junior. So, I decided that you should have a good, noble name befittin' a Duke, a name ya can wear real proud-like. And I can't think of a more noble man in this whole county than yer great uncle Jesse. I know you will bring honor to his name, just like he done. Ya see, he didn't have no fancy education or nothin' like that, but he's the smartest man I ever met. I learned more just watchin' him than I did in all my years o' schoolin'."
Still concealed behind the door, Jesse felt his heart swell with pride as he listened to his nephew's words.
Little Jesse finished the bottle, and Luke set it on the coffee table. Draping a towel over his shoulder, he placed the infant against it and patted his back until he burped.
"Oh, that was a big one!" Luke exclaimed, quietly. The baby was then cuddled on his arm again, and Luke gently pressed his lips against the baby's forehead. "You go to sleep now, little Jesse. I'll be right here keepin' watch over ya."
Uncle Jesse quietly eased the door closed again. Luke was going to be just fine.
- The End -
A/N: Yes, I know the ending was a little sappy, but with a baby involved you knew it was going to be dripping with sweetness. Hope you enjoyed it, and thanks again for all the kind reviews.