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Paulus perched on the roof, watching the dust swirl in the distance. Something or someone was galloping to their lonely farm. He slid down the tiles and raced up the hill to meet the horseman.
"Son," said a quivery voice, "I've missed you."
Paulus stammered, "G ... ood morning sir." He had a flash of memory of his father leaving for war five years before. He had been tall and dressed in a golden breastplate with plumes in his helmet. Could this really be Father? An old man with bleary eyes and sunken cheeks wearing a helmet trailing tattered ribbons?
Then Paulus' Mother came, screaming, "Husband, husband!"
"You could help a Roman soldier," Father said to Paulus.
Paulus grabbed the horse and held it steady as Mother helped Father to the ground. Claudia, Paulus' older sister ran up, squealing in joy, and helped Mother drag Father and his bundles into the house.
"Father, you look ill," Claudia said.
"I'm all right, now I'm home," he replied, limping into the hall. He bowed to the little statues of ancestors sitting on ledges along the wall.
Only then did Paulus know that his family was together again. "Pluck the bird we were keeping to sell," he yelled. "Stoke the fire. Father is back."
"See," Mother said proudly. "He's such a good son."
"Son, you've become a fine young man."
A smile grew on Paulus' face. At age 10, he had been the man of the house, while Father was away. He poured wine for his father.
"You got all my letters?" Father asked.
"Yes," said Paulus. "Mother showed me a map of where you were."
"It's been a long trip home. Pirates ambushedus on the sea. Our ship was almost taken but we fought them off. My leg was slashed with a sword." He patted his thigh.
Mother pulled up his tunic to see. "It's a wonder you're still standing." She hurried off to get ointment to soothe his wound.
"Every land we went," Father went on, "the Roman army was always victorious. We even built a great city in Africa. But it was marvellous to come back to port and the final march across the mountains and into Rome." He went on and on as they ate dinner, describing beautiful cities and his voyages, until finally, he could speak no more. Tears filled his voice and his eyes.
Paulus began to worry what their farm must look to him after the magnificent sights he had seen.
"We managed to keep our vegetable garden going," he said handing Father more radishes, "but there hasn't been much feed for the animals."
They finished eating and Mother cleared away the food. Paulus went out to find Adolphe and help get the last jugs of wine from the cellar. The old servant slowly lifted the trapdoor and teetered on the steps. He looked sad, Paulus thought, and he seemed to have aged even more in the time Father had been home. Paulus unstoppered a jug, wondering if things were going to change.
As he came back into the dining room he heard Mother say, "We've only just managed on the money you sent."
"But everything will be right now you're back," Claudia interrupted. She kissed Father and went off to get her beauty sleep.
"I won't be able to farm for a while," said Father. "Perhaps we ought to sell off this useless land and find fortune in Rome. I've become quite an expert in working leather."
Paulus felt his heart thump. He looked out at the farm through the window. Fields went to the horizon. The ones close to their house were planted with vegetables and barley. He knew and loved every hill and tree that followed the stream. Most of all he loved the animals: the old ass, the few sheep and the hens.
He quietly went out and measured some corn for the hens. He had done his best to look after them but Father was the head of the family, and if he wanted to move to the city Paulus knew they would have to go. For a moment, he looked in at his parents huddled around the candle. Mother looked happy. Father poured more wine and talked and talked. Paulus scattered the feed in the yard and tied up the gate. The hens squawked and pecked until it was gone and then settled on their roosts. Paulus sat on a stone step watching.
Then he moved on to Ploddy, the old ass. Even he looked sad, gnawing the rail of his pen. Paulus felt teary. The feed box, mended with sticks and bits of rope, was empty. He filled it and watched Ploddy nuzzle and snort while he ate. Paulus rubbed his eyes, determined not to cry. He sat on the gate, which was propped up on a tree stump, trying to think of a solution. The darkness got blacker and he shivered. He reminded himself he was glad Father had at last come home, but he was worried about the farm.