Summary: Adam re-assesses his life in the aftermath of his broken engagement to Laura Dayton. (WHB and WHN for “Triangle”.) Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
Rating: T Word Count: 4,221
Special thanks to Sandspur for her invaluable beta reading skills, once again. Also thanks to the the intrepid soul who voted for my story in the tournament poll, whoever you are. Lonely are the brave.
MORE THAN A MEMORY
Adam was the strong one. Everyone knew that.
Hoss Cartwright outweighed his older brother by a good seventy pounds and could take him in arm wrestling any day of the week (though not without a bucket load of sweat), but he was no match for Adam’s iron will. When Adam made up his mind and dug in on an issue, there was no moving him. Little Joe’s nickname for him –Yankee Granite Head – was not entirely without merit.
He was also the quiet one. True, he had plenty to say about things that fueled his intellect and imagination – things like architecture, engineering, literature, social injustice; the world at large – but on the subject of Adam, he was mostly and sometimes provokingly silent. It was the only selfish thing about Ben’s oldest boy, those things he kept tucked away for himself, behind the wry smile and the glib answers, hidden from the questioning eyes of his well-meaning family.
“You’d have to kill me to hurt me,” he once joked. He almost convinced them. He could take physical punishment like no man his father had even seen, but as one familiar with the unseen wounds of the heart, Ben Cartwright knew something inside his son was broken.
He knew it the day Laura and Peggy left with Will.
It was a strange affair from the beginning, Adam’s engagement to Laura Dayton. To some it might have seemed like a natural progression, from a neighborly concern for a widow and her child, to deeper, romantic feelings for a lovely young woman. But Ben saw it differently. Laura was lovely, yet in some ways hardly more than a child herself, and Adam seemed only mildly interested and at times even ambivalent toward her. In fact, Ben doubted the engagement would have happened at all without the orchestrations of Laura’s Aunt Lil. “Cupid’s henchman,” he had pegged Mrs. Lillian Manford right away.
What surprised him most was the way Adam bowed to public expectations, almost resigning himself to the marriage as a foregone conclusion, willing to accept something comfortable and pleasant in place of a soul-stirring love with someone who could be his emotional equal. In spite of his own warnings to him about spending the rest of his life with the wrong woman, Adam had made his choice. But it wasn’t really Laura he was choosing.
Watching Adam with Laura’s little girl Peggy opened Ben’s eyes to the missing piece of his son’s heart. Consciously or not, Adam was desperate for a family of his own. As a father rich with sons, Ben knew how poor he would be without them. He’d been a much younger man than Adam when he had courted and married his mother Elizabeth. Perhaps Adam felt time was running out. With Laura and Peggy, he’d have a ready-made family with hopes for more children soon. Perhaps that would be enough.
It might have happened that way, and maybe it would have been a good life, if not for the accident. The fall from the roof of the house that would never be finished left them all contemplating the possibility that Adam might not walk again. In the meantime, Laura had fallen in love with his cousin Will. The heart makes its own choices in spite of all the good intentions of those who think they know better.
It was Adam’s iron will that pushed him out of the wheelchair that day to convince Laura he didn’t need her, and that she could go with his blessing. Stoic and proud, he’d taken it on the chin like the man he’d been since he was twelve years old – standing, but only on the outside.
Ben wanted to cry for him, because he knew Adam wouldn’t, at least not in front of anyone. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen tears from his eldest, who seemed to have left them behind with what precious little childhood he had enjoyed. Back on his feet, he looked pretty much like the same Adam Cartwright, at least to those who didn’t really know him. He resumed his regular duties at the ranch, still enjoyed the occasional social drink in town, and politely acknowledged the fair citizens of Virginia City while ignoring their sympathetic whisperings about “the poor man.” Gradually the whisperings stopped, and everyone assumed the worst was behind him.
They were wrong.
The storm had been brewing for a while before it erupted that day. Ben saw the silent warning in Adam’s knitted brows and peeved expression when Joe kept bringing up the trip to San Francisco. His youngest son meant well, but he was pushing too hard. And then Hoss came in with Peggy’s doll, the one she had lost while she and Laura were staying at the Ponderosa during Adam’s convalescence.
Adam’s mien softened as he fingered the doll’s threadbare dress. “Where did you find it?”
“In the root cellar – I remember she went out there with me one day, and I reckon she dropped it.”
“We could take it to her when we go to San Francisco,” offered Joe. “I know she’d love to see you.”
Adam looked daggers at him. “Joe, if you don’t shut up about San Francisco, I’m gonna punch you in the face!”
“Well, you’ve been mopin’ around here for months, so be my guest, if it’ll make you feel better! At least it would prove you’re somethin’ more than just a walking dead man.”
“Joseph, that’s enough! And no one is going to punch anybody,” Ben warned them.
“Forget it,” Adam’s eyes narrowed. “You want me to go to San Francisco? Fine, I’ll go. But I’m going alone. There’s no way I’m taking you with me.”
“Now wait a minute, Adam…”
“You heard me, Joe; I said ALONE.” He pushed up from the table and threw his napkin in his plate. “I’m done here.”
Ben knew Joe was a lost cause, so he tried to persuade Adam to take Hoss with him instead, to no avail. His cryptic response about “other business” that needed his attention as well made his father uneasy, especially when it came time for him to leave.
“When can we expect you back?” He tried to keep the question casual.
“I don’t know.” Adam ducked his head and looked away, not a good sign by his father’s reckoning.
He placed a cautious hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. “Don’t stay away too long, son. This is your home, remember that.”
There was the wry smile, as if on cue. “Don’t worry about me, Pa. I’ll be in touch. You just take care of yourself.”
And then he was gone.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
He was the strong one. Everyone said so.
He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten such a reputation, but at times it was a stinking albatross around his neck. It was hard enough just being one of “those” Cartwrights – those timber kings and cattle barons, living high and mighty on their mountain where they had everything and needed no one. That was one consensus, anyway. Some folks seemed to think the Ponderosa wealth had come easily, and as the ranch continued to prosper, no amount of goodwill could turn the tide of their envy and animosity. They knew nothing of the sweat and sacrifice it took to build an empire; nor did they understand that prosperity didn’t always equal happiness or that life on the mountain top could sometimes be lonely. Other people leaned to the opposite extreme, practically elevating the Cartwrights to sainthood, expecting them to solve impossible problems with the wisdom of Solomon, placing them on pedestals from which they were destined to fall. Either way, it was like living in a fishbowl. Sink or swim; famine or feast – someone was always keeping score and like as not, you’d be found wanting. Adam had accepted it and even gotten used to it, but he’d never hated it until now.
He wouldn’t admit it, but the wagging tongues had gotten under his skin this time. He showed himself in town after Laura and Peggy left, if only to prove he hadn’t crumbled. It was a weakness to him that he even cared what they thought. And he despised himself for it.
Not that his feelings were any of their business, but he wasn’t bitter toward Laura. He supposed he’d known the truth even before his father suggested it. It wasn’t her fault for being the wrong woman at the right time. His biggest regret was Peggy. He loved that little girl. He would have been a good father.
He wondered what people would think now, if they saw Adam Cartwright weeping at the grave of a man he’d never even met. It would no doubt shatter all expectations. Might not be such a bad thing, at that.
James H. Dolan
Nov 30, 1833
May 16, 1863
It was a recent grave marked with a simple wooden cross the first time he saw it. The headstone hadn’t yet arrived. The H was for Henry, she’d said.
The barn was still standing but the house was charred wood and ashes. A man passing by in a wagon said he was a newcomer to the area but heard it had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground well over a year ago. The woman who lived there had died in the fire.
Picking his way through the foundation rubble, Adam recalled the modest clapboard house, freshly painted. Her husband had bought the paint just before he passed. She had finished the job herself, said it made her feel close to him, and she knew it would make him proud.
Her name was Moira. Moira Emily Spencer Dolan. He’d seen it written in her Bible….
His horse had gone lame and his canteen was empty, and he remembered almost making it to her front porch with his saddle before he collapsed. She managed to revive him enough to get him inside where he slept for nearly two days while she spooned water and broth into him. He woke up when she was digging in his palm with a rather large needle trying to remove a mesquite thorn.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “it needs to come out and it’s going to hurt. Do you trust me?”
“I trust it’s going to hurt, yes. But since my life has been in your hands these past few days, I’m willing to take my chances.”
“All right then. Be still.”
She wasn’t kidding when she said it would hurt. She was an unapologetically honest woman.
He repaid her kindness by helping out around the place – patching the roof, repairing the barn door, chopping wood for the stove – anything he could find to do for her as the days stretched into a week and then two. She was a fine cook and she made good coffee. Seeing her smile across the table became one of the highlights of his day.
The sky was on fire that evening with one of the most spectacular sunsets he’d ever seen, streaming ribbons of red, orange, gold, and every shade in between, splayed beneath the gathering purple twilight. But he found himself looking more at her. Then there was that moment when she looked at him. Nature prevailed, with one thing leading to another….
The next morning she was in the kitchen as usual, except this time her hair was down. A smile spread across his face as he imagined filling his hands with it and kissing that spot just below her ear again… but something in her expression stopped him. She’d been crying.
“Sit down, Adam. I’ll have your coffee in a minute.”
“I think maybe we should talk first, don’t you?”
“You mean about last night.”
“You’re obviously distressed, and I assume that’s why.”
She dried her hands on her apron and didn’t answer right away. “What happened last night was a moment, like the sunset – breathtaking and rare; you can’t hold on to either one except in memory.”
“Is that all it was, just a moment? Do you really believe that?”
“That’s all it can be.”
“Why? Tell me why.”
“James has been my whole life since I was eighteen years old. I’ve never even thought of loving anyone else. I can’t think of it. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to.”
In the soft morning light with her chestnut waves framing her lovely heart-shaped face, she looked closer to eighteen than twenty-four. He would have taken her home with him that very day and given her anything to prove her wrong.
“Moira, my father had three wives, and he was deeply in love with each one of them. You’re young and you still have your whole life ahead of you. Don’t deny yourself the chance of happiness with someone else who would love you. James wouldn’t want that, I’m sure of it.”
“In another time and place, maybe, I don’t know. But here and now, I just can’t give you what I think you’re asking. I’m sorry.”
“Are you sorry about last night?”
“No,” she shook her head. “It’s just that feeling of waking up from a wonderful dream and realizing that’s all it was. Last night was a beautiful illusion, one I’ll always remember. But it wasn’t real, Adam. It’s time to wake up and be who we are.”
“And who are we, exactly?”
“I’m a woman trying to make sense of her life, and you’re a man whose family is probably thinking the worst because he hasn’t come home.” Her voice softened, “Don’t you think it’s time?”
His throat tightened, and it took him a beat to reply. “Maybe it is. But let’s get one thing straight first. I’m wide awake, and this is real.” He kissed her long and hard, for the last time. “Remember that, too.”
She’d made her choice clear, and pride wouldn’t allow him to press her further. The right woman, the wrong time – would he ever get it straight?
He went out and saddled the horse he’d bought in the town where he’d picked up her supplies earlier in the week. She met him in the yard with a bundle of food she’d packed for him.
“Well, Mrs. Dolan, I guess this is goodbye. Did I ever thank you for saving my life?”
“More than once, Mr. Cartwright,” she smiled. Her blue eyes were bright with tears.
“Good. I was afraid maybe I’d forgotten my manners. By the way, you really shouldn’t take in any more strangers. It’s not safe, you know.”
She pressed her lips to his cheek and he felt the dampness on her face. His arms went around her in spite of his resolve not to hold her again.
“God speed, Adam,” she whispered.
He closed his eyes and breathed her in. “Take care of yourself; promise?”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Moira Spencer never thought she could love anyone the way she’d loved fair-haired, blue-eyed James Henry Dolan. He had swept her off her feet when she was only seventeen and married her within the year, filling the empty corners of her life with his quick laugh and irreverent sense of humor, not to mention his exasperating way of stopping their arguments with a kiss and making her forget why they were fighting in the first place. She missed his muddy boots by the door and the smell of his pipe in the evenings. She missed the way he breathed her name into her neck when he wanted her, the way he could still make her shiver at his touch, and the gentle, unselfish way he loved her. How his indomitable heart could have stopped beating at 29 years for no apparent reason she still could not fathom, and in the weeks after he died she felt as though she had buried her own heart with him.
Painting the house provided a kind of solace; besides, she wasn’t about to let all that money go to waste. James would have teased her – she was the practical one, they both knew – but he would have approved. Then Adam Cartwright literally dropped at her doorstep. She wasn’t sure the best she could do for him would be enough even with God’s help, but he was a strong man, and judging from his scars, he was a man who had beaten the odds a few times already.
When he was able, he was more than willing to do for her. He was attentive and polite, clearly an educated man, though not intimidating like others she’d known; tall, dark, and very handsome when she allowed herself to think about it. A man could have taken advantage of a woman in her situation if he’d been inclined, but somehow she knew he wouldn’t. He put in a hard day’s work as if he’d been born to it. It was easy having him there, comforting just being able to talk to someone.
If fault was to be found, it was in the sunset that evening, she told herself afterwards. She had never seen much of beauty that could move her in such a way and was surprised to feel the tears on her face, more surprised when he stroked them away with his thumbs. The simple gesture was so like her husband that she didn’t resist when his lips brushed her cheek or even when they found her mouth. In the warmth of his kiss, all the loneliness and longing welled up inside her like a mountain spring. It was James she was missing and he had to know that but it didn’t seem to matter. Nothing more would have happened if she hadn’t allowed it. No, in her heart she knew the fault lay with her.
He took what she freely offered in a way that was both tender and profound, leaving her breathless and marveling at the differences in men. He cared for her, a woman can know such a thing, and he would have stayed if she had given him any encouragement at all. But it would have been a selfish choice. One night, no matter how wonderful, couldn’t change the fact that she was still desperately in love with her husband, and Adam Cartwright deserved more than that. One thing she hadn’t counted on was the hurt in his eyes when she kissed him goodbye. She cried afterwards, thinking of it. The idea of being responsible for another person’s pain only added to her burden of grief.
She thought of him more than she wanted to, more than she should have. Sometimes she wished he had never come, wished she had never known his touch because it made her lonelier than before. Other times she wished she hadn’t sent him away. In her most honest moments, she knew why she had done it, and why she had lied to him, telling him she didn’t know if she could ever love anyone else. It was because she knew she could love him. She knew it that morning when she woke up next to him, may God forgive her, and that meant letting go of James. She couldn’t; no, she wouldn’t.
They couldn’t hold the sunset, but if she lived a thousand years, she’d never forget.
Since that day she prayed he would find happiness, just as she had. Adam was a good man, deserving, and he had left her with more than a memory. She had thought it impossible, and when she discovered it she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so she did both. Then she sold her homestead and went to live with her sister Fiona in Stockton where no one knew her or James.
As it happened, Moira’s heart, thought to be buried, was only sleeping. It awoke the moment she felt the first flutter of life inside her.
The adored child nodding at her breast arrived two weeks early by her calculation, eleven months to the day after James Dolan died. Only her beloved Fi knew the particulars, except for the man himself – she’d kept that secret for everyone’s sake; his family was too well known. People admired the young widow raising her baby alone, often commenting on the child’s dark beauty and how she must take after her father, and what a comfort that must be.
There were times when she wondered if she had done the right thing; sometimes guilt and regret kept her up at night. What would their lives be like if he had stayed? It was no use wondering, because what was done couldn’t be undone; besides, he was married now. She knew God had pardoned her sin but consequences remained, and one of them was sacrifice. If she had wronged him with her choice, she prayed he could forgive her too, knowing she made it to protect the only one of them who was truly innocent. A child needed a name.
She stroked her daughter’s ebony curls and watched the little mouth curve in sleep. Adaline Spencer Dolan, one year old, was growing in grace and indeed the image of her father. But Adam Cartwright didn’t even know she existed and likely, he never would.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
He had given his family a vague account of his time away that summer but never mentioned Moira, and a few months later he’d met Laura and Peggy. They needed him. She didn’t. Those two young widows couldn’t have been more different. Of course Laura had a child to consider. Moira never got the chance to be a mother.
His knew his hopes of finding her here now were slim to none, but he had come anyway on that thread only to find her gone forever. He hadn’t even considered the possibility, and it caught him like a sucker punch. He wished he hadn’t come, so he wouldn’t know. He would rather imagine her somewhere in the world, happy with her life even with someone else. The truth doesn’t always set one free.
You should have let me love you, Moira. It would have saved you from this. Maybe it would have saved us both.
Another sunset, but there was no beauty in it; it was only a reminder of all the things that had slipped through his fingers in thirty-five years. Memories were a cold comfort. Adam scrubbed the tears from his face. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for anymore, but it wasn’t in Nevada; that seemed certain.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Epilogue — May 1868
Ben Cartwright felt a sense of satisfaction and pride strolling Stockton’s Main Street on the way to the bank with his youngest son. It had been a good trip with Joe, who had proven himself a capable ranch foreman with a good head for business over the past three years. Nobody was calling him “Little Joe” anymore.
A woman and a little girl exited the bank as they arrived. The toe of Ben’s boot brushed something in the doorway – a doll. He picked it up and called after them.
“Excuse me, young lady?”
The two turned around.
“Would this be yours?” Ben stooped down until he was nearly nose to nose with the child, who appeared to be around four years old. A pair of solemn hazel eyes fringed with dark lashes met his.
“Oh, Adaline, you must be more careful with Lucy,” said the woman. “What do you say to the nice gentleman?”
“Thank you,” said the girl, hugging the doll.
“You’re very welcome,” he replied.
“Come along, sweetheart. Aunt Fi is waiting,” said the woman. She smiled at Ben, “Thank you again.”
He tipped his hat. The little girl waved, the corners of her mouth turning up in a way that made his heart ache. “Beautiful child,” he murmured.
“Beautiful lady,” said Joe, smiling. He glanced over at his father, “Something the matter, Pa?”
Ben shook his head, “I was just thinking about Adam, and how long it’s been.”
Joe put a hand on his shoulder. “He’s been on my mind too, but it won’t be much longer according to his telegram. He might even make it home before we do.”
He never expected it to be this long, and the time had been crushing. There had been a few short letters, but it had been three years since he’d seen his oldest son’s face. What changes would he read there? Had the years been kind to him? Was he coming home to stay? Ben almost feared the answers. He didn’t think he could bear to see him leave again.
Adam, you were always the strong one. Stronger than your father.
Read the sequel: Convergence (by JC)
Special Credits: Characters Laura and Peggy Dayton first appeared in The Waiting Game” (Season 5) written by Ed Adamson. Will Cartwright was introduced in “Return to Honor” (Season 5) written by Jack Turley. “Triangle” (Season 5) was written by Frank Cleaver.
Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
Words/phrases dealt to me were:
in the root cellar