And now the Conclusion of this What Happened Instead for The Crucible. Thank you all so much for your kind words! I hope you all enjoy the conclusion as we bring our Cartwrights to their full and upright position. ...For the most part.

...

Ben sat in the red armchair, brooding into the fire as he did almost every night. His crimson robe wrapped tightly around his nightgown, warm slippers toasting his feet. Despite the late summer air drifting through the house, a chill seeped into his bones making them ache with anguish.

Joe mentioned something about checking the stock. Or was it Hoss? At least he thought that's what someone said, he wasn't sure anymore. He muttered his usual monosyllabic grunt of acknowledgement, not looking up from the slowly dying embers in the hearth.

He propped his elbow on the arm of the chair, his chin resting in his palm. His eyes stared out vacantly, seeing a young, dark beauty standing on her tip-toes, excitedly leaning over the dock railing, looking out into the open ocean. A tall blonde with flour dusting her smiling cheeks as she kneaded dough, laughing. A woman with long curls sitting in the rocking chair by the fire, humming as she knitted. A tall man with dark hair curled up like a cat in the blue armchair, his nose buried in a thick book.

He ground the palm of his hands into his eyes.

Distantly he heard the soft clop of a horse in the yard. He vaguely turned his head toward door, unable to summon the strength or even the desire to satisfy the vague curiosity.

Did it even matter?

"Pa!" He heard a shout from Hoss. Frantic, non-believing. Something was wrong. "Pa, get out here! Quick!"

Fear gripped his hear, his breath caught in his throat. Any number of incidents raced through his mind. His body would never stand another heartache.

Ben grabbed the arms of the chair tightly, an itch in the back of his mind forcing him to his feet. He had given up on prayers, on dreams and desires. On life itself. Nothing would ever bring back his wives.

Or his son.

Ben staggered to the door, his feet shuffling lightly on the floor. He set his hand on the latch. Eyes closed, he rested his head on the frame, just for a moment to prepare for the next cruel twist of fate. He could hear the deep chuckle of the Universe, Mother Earth, maybe even God Himself. It left a bitter taste in his mouth. Finally he threw open the door, his eyes frantically searching for Hoss.

There was a horse in the yard, catching Ben's eyes first. A bit scruffy and looking bone tired. Who would let their mount deteriorate that much? He then saw both of his sons standing by the animal, their eyes and faces lit with pure joy.

Ben narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Where was the blood? Where was the sorrow? Where was his immanent pain?

That's when he noticed the dark figure in tattered clothing. Barely a man, he looked as thin and ragged as the poor creature that brought him in. The only thing keeping him upright was the death grip on each arm from Joe and Hoss.

He looked tired, worn out. Dark, unruly curls matched the scraggly beard covering his face. Ben winced as he gazed over the emaciated form. The poor Devil.

It was then that he caught the Stranger's eyes, rich amber in color, lids drooping with exhaustion. Something about those eyes captivated Ben to where he couldn't look away. They brought back a wash of memories. Those eyes spoke of first love, innocent and true. They had begged him to go west among tall trees to raise tall sons. Those same eyes from a different face became his companion on the long trek, filled with complete trust and adoration. They stood toe to toe with him, burning with the passion of conviction. They sparked with laughter, patience, understanding.

He knew those eyes.

He took a cautious step forward, then another, slow and disbelieving. He swallowed hard, not letting his mind even think that his deepest and most longed for wish could possibly come true. Ben's feet began to move ahead of his mind, running before the command was given.

Ben reached out for the man, hands trembling. He hesitated only slightly before cupping the hollowed face with the gentlest of touches. His heart fluttered wildly, already convinced while his mind refused to accept it. He had to be sure. Far too good to be true, he had to be absolutely sure.

"Pa?"

Like a drain had been pulled, the tautness in his muscles released. His arms tightly enveloped the thin figure, the familiar warmth against his chest a final conformation. After a long moment, Ben held the man at arm's length, letting his hands run through his dark hair, over his thin face, drinking in every detail of the man's being. Tears fell freely from Ben's eyes as he lightly kissed his forehead.

"Adam." Ben murmured quietly into the man's hair. "Oh, my Dear Adam." He began to rock gently, calming both the pounding in his chest and the heaving shoulders in his arms.

'My Son has come home.'