Summary: This first story of a series called It’s Just a Year didn’t come through from the old library. This episode tells of how Adam received and education that allowed him to enter a prestigious Eastern university while living in the wilds of the west where there wasn’t a school or people with a formal college education. Adam has studied hard with a Harvard professor he found on the Ponderosa and is ready to leave for Boston when Ben asks him to remain home another year. Marie’s death has left him reeling and in need of his son’s help while he finds men to work the growing ranch.
Rating: K Word Count: 10,321
It’s Only a Year Series:
It’s Only a Year – He Said What? – Lessons in Understanding
It’s Only a Year – The Caster Oil Caper – Lessons in Humility
It’s Only a Year – The Worst of Consequences – A Lesson in Choice
It’s Only a Year – The Quiet of Uncertainty – A Lesson in Hope
It’s Only a Year – The Final Trial – A Lesson in Mettle
He Said What? – A Lesson in Understanding
“He said, What!?” The color in Ben Cartwright’s face changed from its early spring, sunburned shade of red to an alarming purple as he paced, creating dust swirls that blossomed and fell as he reached the length of the yard and pivoted to begin the journey back.
Tucked into the safety of a wagon bed, Little Joe was enjoying the scene he’d peek out to observe each time his father turned to pace away from him. Anytime Ben’s anger or frustration was directed toward one of his brothers was a fine day for the youngster who was most likely to be on the receiving end of the man’s frustration. This time his father’s anger was meant for his oldest brother, but at the moment was being directed toward Hoss. Each time his father’s back was turned, the youngster would pop out of the wagon, stick his tongue out at Hoss, and then settle back into his protected vantage point before Ben turned to retrace his steps.
Hoss returned Little Joe’s snotty salute behind his father’s back, not really understanding why he seemed to be in trouble for telling the man what he wanted to know. Well, maybe he’d told a little more than he’d been told to tell, but his Pa was a mighty man, and when he stood with his hands on his hips, looking down at you while those steely eyes bored a core right through your forehead into your brain and asked a question…you gave it all up: and Hoss had sung like a bird!
With his posture at attention, and his eyes sighted in on his middle son’s cranium, Ben had asked in certain terms, “Why isn’t Adam with you? You both went into town; I expected you’d both return from town.”
The boy had given the simple answer Adam had coached him to relay: “He’s staying in town to meet up with friends and will be home later.”
But that hadn’t been enough for the father who had spotted Hoss’ anxiety like a red cape in front of a matador, and charged. “What friends, son? Who’s he meeting up with, and what time is ‘later’?”
He had tried to save his brother by simply shrugging to convey his answer. But then Pa had taken a step forward, looming over the youngster, who seemed to melt an inch or two before exploding. “Well, maybe Adam isn’t really meeting anyone, but just seemed upset is all, and is maybe staying away from home until he feels better about coming back.”
Adam had been “upset” all right. As they had ridden into town and then done errands together, Hoss remembered the eldest had mumbled several quiet oaths against their parent. The first was that his father was a “domineering despot” that wouldn’t see the value of a good education unless it came with a contract and guarantee. Fact was, Hoss couldn’t agree or disagree with that because he wasn’t sure what a domineering despot was, and Adam was in no mood to answer younger-brother questions right at that moment.
Later in the trip Adam had said, “If that man thinks he can keep me from going away to school, he has another think coming.” But there was one tidbit that had really set his father off: Adam had described what “Ben” should do to himself if he thought he could stop him when he tried to leave for the East in a few weeks.
All this invaluable information had spewed like lava from an erupting volcano crater when Ben had laid his hand on Hoss’ shoulder with the exhortation to tell him, “just how upset” his brother was. Now that he thought about it more clearly, he felt sick with the realization that the information he’d given Pa had just issued a “Wanted, Dead or Alive” poster bearing the name, Adam Cartwright. Worst part was there wasn’t any reward coming Hoss’ way for the information leading to capture: just an angry father, and soon, an angrier brother who would know that he was the rat that leaked all the evidentiary information that their father needed to try and convict him of high treason on the Ponderosa.
Adding to his predicament, Pa had cried, “He said what?’ and made him repeat the slurs Adam had uttered so the man could have them branded into his brain before the prodigal son returned. Hoss knew there’d be no fatted calf prepared when Adam got back later: whenever “later” turned out to be.
Once Ben had walked off the worst of his anger, he completed the last return by coming all the way to the wagon where Little Joe was hiding, and grabbed the unsuspecting child by the waistband of his pants, lifting him to the ground next to Hoss. “Young man, I find it hard to believe that you would be hiding out to listen in on a private conversation.”
The startled child stuttered, unable to speak. Being only five, Little Joe got away with plenty of mischief just by playing on the goodwill of his accuser. But neither his father’s voice nor expression gave any indication that this would be the case. His eyes widened as Ben declared judgment and punishment in one proclamation.
“For your indiscretion, you will clean all three stalls in the barn today instead of your usual, one.” As Ben watched his son’s mouth open to speak, he quickly continued, “Since you have nothing to say in your defense…and I assume you will say nothing or face further punishment…you will go now and begin moving straw until you’re done. Do you understand?”
Joe nodded that he did, and then made the mistake of offering the fear that had played in his mind all the while his father had disciplined him. “Pa, there’s something just a throbbin’ there on the side of your head.” He indicated the place of the throbbing by pointing at his own left temple. “It looks like it’s ready to blow, Pa. You best be careful.”
The vein continued to pulse unabated while Ben pointed to the barn. “Get going now, before I add to your punishment.”
The child muttered as he stomped his way toward the barn, “Golly, a kid can’t even worry about his own pa without getting into trouble around here.”
Hoss waited in dread, wondering what he might face in retribution, but was relieved when his father’s color returned to a more normal shade and he laid an arm around the boy’s shoulders while explaining that he was thankful that at least one of his sons knew the value of truth and was proud of him for being so honest.
At first Hoss was happy with his father’s encouraging words, but then that sick feeling returned when he thought about what the “value of truth” might cost Adam. He finally postulated that it was Adam’s problem after all, and that if his older brother didn’t want their Pa to know what he was thinking, then perhaps he should have kept his thoughts to himself instead of putting them out there for the world to hear—or at least for a innocent younger brother to be pressed to report. That left Hoss feeling less guilty, but not any better.
It always bothered him when his pa and brother were at odds: something that was happening with frequency lately. He wasn’t even sure what it was about except he knew Adam wanted to go away and from what his brother had said, their pa seemed to think he shouldn’t. Hoss couldn’t figure why Adam would want to leave a place as wonderful as the Ponderosa anyway. It was a goldmine of critters and beauty the eleven-year-old could never get enough of. He vowed he’d never leave, unless of course he had a falling out with Pa, as Adam seemed about to be heading toward.
After Ben disappeared into the house, Hoss headed toward the barn to help Little Joe with the stall mucking. After all, the kid had been playing in the wagon when Pa had caught up to Hoss to ask about Adam, and wasn’t really trying to be secretive about hiding. Both of them knew he was there, so Hoss figured maybe Pa’s anger toward Adam was clouding his judgment toward Little Joe as well. All this figuring left him convinced that it couldn’t hurt to give the kid a hand. Maybe once they were done they might do something fun together, like a game of tag…anything that would keep Hoss’ mind off the problems to come when the mighty natural forces of Ben and Adam Cartwright would collide to cause a storm of biblical proportions.
Ben lifted cold water from the basin and allowed it to wash over his cheeks, completing the cooling off process that had begun as he’d left the boys doing their chores. While drying his face, he caught his reflection in the washstand mirror and was struck again with how much he’d aged in the last year.
He’d felt young and happy when he’d brought Marie home as his wife some six years ago. When he’d married, he’d thought it would be good for his boys, and really good for him to have a woman on the ranch. The news of a baby on the way shortly after they’d reached the Ponderosa had given him pause, as he thought back to the difficulties of raising two small children on his own. With the two older boys heading toward self-sufficiency, he hadn’t really thought about tackling an infant again, but had reasoned that it would be different this time. He’d assured himself that lightning couldn’t strike the same family three times, so the beautiful, petite, tough-minded force from New Orleans was sure to be around to help him raise the boys to adulthood. Then he’d figured that he and Marie would sit back and let the children run the ranch while they enjoyed their golden years together. He’d figured wrong.
He was alone again, and now raising three children on his own after a spiteful twist of fate took his third wife. It was clear now that lightning could strike the same family as often as it chose. But he’d had several years with the lovely woman, and held only good memories of their time together. He loved his sons; there was never a doubt of that, but sometimes it was hard… It was hard to grieve the loss of another wife, work a ranch, build a business and raise children, and right now he knew wasn’t doing a good job with any of it.
He assumed that the words Adam had blurted to Hoss had been laden with the acid of resentment, and not meant for his ears. The boy was just blowing off steam, and he could remember thinking some very similar things about his own father when the man had resisted his plans to enter service on the seas. But he’d always thought that he and Adam had a closer relationship than he’d had with his father, and it saddened him to think that maybe that wasn’t true either. He doubted everything at that moment and it dragged his face down, giving him a look that spoke of defeat, and he turned away from his reflection when he could face himself no longer.
Donning a fresh shirt, he resolved to find his son to see if they could come to a meeting of the minds.
Ben had been able to hire on a cook shortly before Marie had been taken from them, and the man had turned out to be a godsend. His diminutive stature belied his ferocity as a protector of the Cartwrights. He cooked, cleaned and kept a watchful eye on the younger boys when he and Adam were away. In the months since Marie had passed, he’d single-handedly kept the family moving forward. Sure, it always sounded like he was mad, but his ways had made them all heed his tone and obey his commands—putting one foot in front of the other until they could walk again on their own. Heading toward the kitchen, Ben apprised Hop Sing of his plans, and then found Hoss and Little Joe to tell them he’d back in the evening.
Even with a good horse, it was nearly an hour’s ride into town, so Ben had ample time to think over the events leading to the impending showdown with his eldest. He knew his request for Adam to stay home another year seemed unfair. Adam had been reasonable in his planning and everything had worked out splendidly, with the exception of Marie dying in an accident. Ben understood that while Adam recognized that Marie’s death was a tragedy, he didn’t feel it should impact his plans. The boy had never “loved” Marie as Hoss and Little Joe had. Maybe Adam had known what they hadn’t: that loving someone as a mother again would only bring greater heartache when she was taken away. Yet Adam had appreciated and respected Marie, and had given her as much of himself as he could, “loving” her in his way. For almost three years, the boy had been looking forward to setting out on his own adventure, and Ben thought that perhaps Adam’s faraway gaze allowed him to overlook what was happening right in front of him.
Life was different for the grieving, overworked man who saw no way to get along without his 16 year-old son at his side for at least another year. The child had always been smart, always eager and right on the money in everything he had ever tried, even handling his younger brothers as well as his father most of the time. In fact, Ben had found out from Hoss that his brother had actually brought him safely home earlier before returning to town to find release for his anger. That was Adam—careful and caring even as he did a slow burn. The father thought again of how easily his eldest picked up skills that even he sometimes struggled with and reasoned that the child had inherited the finest aptitudes of both his parents, and was endowed by God with the good sense of how to use those gifts.
Ben still remembered his dark eyed, curly headed toddler riding next to him in the wagon—always with a book in his hands—asking, “Papa, what’s this word,” as he taught himself to read by age four. When they’d finally passed into the plains with the wagon train west, Adam had schooled with Inger and then with other children when Margery Adams, a woman who had taught in the East, had gathered the youngsters for classes on days when they hadn’t been able to travel. Adam had sat in rapt attention whenever such opportunities had presented, and had soon surpassed the other children and most of the adults in their traveling community. Ben had learned early on that Adam wasn’t going to be an “ordinary” child. He had blazed through reading material and hungered for the chance to learn anything he could. And it wasn’t just book-learning that he’d wanted. The child had learned how to repair wagons, hunt, follow a trail as well as any Indian child, and could handle a team by the time he’d passed his eighth birthday. He’d enjoyed being with other children, but had often gravitated to the circle of men around the evening fires, absorbing their stories and experiences like a sponge.
And now the boy was headed for college in Boston: probably at a prestigious university whose name was uttered in awed tones by those who understood the magnitude of the accomplishment. Ben shook his head in wonder as he thought about how Adam had achieved that feat. Raised in a wild land, where there were still no organized schools, his oldest child had managed to find an education that had prepared him for testing into such hallowed institutions.
Ben still remembered the day Adam had ridden up to the house jabbering up a storm: talking and laughing in such a state that on hearing him approach, the father had rushed from the house, thinking the child was delirious. He wasn’t, but rather was accompanied by a middle-aged man in a tailed woolen coat and top hat. Marie had joined Ben at the door to assess what was going on and he could still visualize Adam, alive with excitement, and fairly bouncing with enthusiasm as he introduced the gentleman.
“Ma, Pa, this is Professor Adolf Metz! Professor, these are my parents, Ben and Marie Cartwright.”
Ben had looked to Marie, hoping she had some insight as to whom the man might be. But sensing no greater discernment from her, they had simply welcomed the man inside.
Adam had barely contained his excitement. “Pa, the professor is out here doing research on native plants in the far western Nevada territory. He teaches Botany at Harvard and is helping to gather information to add to a new edition of an Asa Gray, Manual.* There are others doing similar research for the book in Arizona and Utah. Imagine, Pa! Plants from the Ponderosa included in a botanical guide of such importance?”
Ben had seen the look of expectation pooling in his son’s eye, and had suspected that Adam had a plan, figuring that his father should know how this Professor Metz and someone named Asa Gray figured into it, but he hadn’t a clue. “That’s very interesting, professor. Welcome to the Ponderosa.” The man had extended his hand in greeting, and exchanged pleasantries after which Ben had led him inside to a their one comfortable chair…as he had continued to wonder what his son had up his sleeve.
The boy had finally blurted out. “I met Professor Metz out on the rise a few days ago, sketching plants and taking samples. Of course I was intrigued and went to speak with him. I’ve gone back every day since then to talk with him.”
Ben had nodded to encourage the explanation, still not comprehending.
“I told the professor that I want to go back East someday, Pa, and maybe attend Harvard or another school out there, but fear my education is so lacking that I would be laughed out before ever having the chance to show them I could learn.”
“Ah…” Ben had finally seen the light. He knew his son longed to return to visit his grandfather and see the place where he’d been born. He’d often mentioned his desire to attend college as well, but Ben had known that while Adam was richly intelligent, he didn’t have the educational background needed to compete with students who’d attended preparatory schools throughout their lives.
The quiet professor had finally broken into the conversation. “Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright, it doesn’t take long to figure out that your son is unique. And although his formal education has not been what other may have enjoyed, it seems you have done a remarkable job giving him a fine background in all the basics.”
Ben’s cheeks rose in color. He knew it had been Marie who had ensured that his son had time to study, and had worked long hours to help him find his way through the many books she had brought along when she’d come from New Orleans. “I think Marie and Adam need take the credit for that, sir. They have both been diligent.”
Adam had risen to pace the wooden floor, unable to wait any longer to unleash his great good news. “Here’s the best part: the professor has promised to work with me over the next three years while he’s here, so that I’ll have the requirements needed to test for admission to an Eastern school! Isn’t that the most gracious offer?”
Ben hadn’t wanted to put a blanket over Adam’s fire, but had been wary of such a magnanimous offer. “It does indeed sound generous, son, but I’m not sure you have time for such endeavors. And furthermore, I would imagine the professor will want compensation for such a huge investment of his time. We may need to hear his terms before you get too excited.”
Adam’s spirits had fallen as quickly as he’d sunk down onto a chair.
The teacher had risen to plead his case. “Your son is a quick study, Mr. Cartwright, and from what I’ve seen, he will push himself to learn whenever he can. I’ve spoken to him enough to know that he’s bright and intuitive. We can work together whenever we have time. I will guide him and he will be responsible for putting in the effort. And as to compensation, I’d ask only that the boy work hard, and that I’d be allowed to traverse your property for my studies, and perhaps take shelter in your line shack or bunk house as I need to…” He had smiled as he’d added, “And perhaps be invited for a home-cooked meal and a bit of company from time to time.”
Ben had been unable to say no, and the teacher and the boy had started working together. Adam learned Latin and Greek; sharpened his math skills, and read the classics. He studied grammar and composition, history, chemistry, and of course, botany.
He had often been at odds with the child who had stayed up all night studying and then dragged through the days of hard labor on the ranch. But Marie had always defended Adam, and had cautioned her husband about showing his fear over his son becoming “too smart for his own good.” To his credit, Ben had listened to Marie and had eased up on Adam’s workload a bit to allow him to spend as much time in his studies as possible.
At the end of the second year, the professor had approached Ben with a proposition. “Mr. Cartwright, I would like to take Adam along with me to Boston when I leave next summer. He is an incredible young man, who will be as well prepared as any child schooled in the East, and should have no problem obtaining a fine education. I’ve already written several schools back home that should be willing to have him sit for their exams, and I have no doubt that once he completes those, there will be several offers of acceptance. He can take his pick and I’m sure he’ll be offered financial assistance if you are unable to afford such an education”
“Don’t worry about financial obligations, Professor. I can take care of my responsibilities.” He hadn’t meant his reply to be as harsh as it sounded, but then, the man had no right to question his ability to provide his son with whatever he needed. But with that said, Ben began to have deeper reservations. He had secretly hoped that the professor might have been pushing his son toward something the man had wanted more than Adam did at this point, reasoning that perhaps Metz wanted Adam to be the feather in his cap: an uneducated western child that he could show off as his creation. But after speaking to Adam, Ben had realized that his son wanted to go as much as the professor wanted to take him, and had begrudgingly agreed.
He knew that his initial fears had been misplaced. The professor had always seemed to have only Adam’s best interests at heart, and had given far more to the child than he ever received from the Cartwrights. Ben had come to know and respect the man as he had visited, and even stayed in their bunkhouse through the inclement months. During those wintry times, the professor and student had spent hours together and the man’s intentions had always seemed motivated only by joy in teaching an eager pupil. But Ben had still struggled with the decision to let Adam go. He’d had no other choice in the end. When he had looked into his son’s eyes, he saw such desire that he had simply given in. Ben had known the same desire when he had crossed the Mississippi in search of a new and prosperous land where he could prove himself, and reasoned that Adam now needed to prove himself as well.
Planning for the trip had moved forward. Professor Metz had secured passage with a supply train that would head east in spring, getting them to St. Louis where they would then take a stage to Atlanta and finally the railroad, north to Boston. The trip would take a few months, with hopes that Adam would arrive at his destination by early August—in time to test and be accepted at a university for the fall term.
Adam had been driving himself to be ready, but then one day Marie had ridden into the yard; her horse had lost its footing, and she had died instantly as the huge beast had crushed her.
Nine months had passed now, and Ben was still struggling. He knew that Adam had done his best to keep the ranch and his brothers going while he himself had floundered. Ben knew that Adam had not even considered staying behind when it came time for Professor Metz to leave—and his date of departure was quickly approaching.
The conversation that had set off the chain of events leading to Adam’s earlier outbursts to his brother had occurred the night before when Ben had asked Adam to walk with him so they could discuss a few “things”…
Adam had tried to mollify his anger by going to the saloons in town. He’d gone to both the cheerless offerings available without being served so much as a glass of stale beer. It wasn’t that the saloon keepers were averse to having a young man get drunk in their establishments, it was simply that they didn’t want to endure the wrath of Ben Cartwright that would have rained down on them had they allowed Adam to drink. Thwarted in his attempt to lose himself in alcohol, he headed out of town and rode aimlessly, finally settling on a stand of Pinion pine to stop and think. Sliding off his saddle, he tied his horse loosely to a low hanging branch, sunk down in a bed of fallen needles, and leaned back against a tree.
His mind still roiled. <i>How could he wait until now to spring this new plan? I’m just weeks away from leaving and now this!</i> It didn’t seem enough to think out his anger, so he began to shout to the lofty sentinels surrounding him. “I will leave! By all things mighty, if I have to sneak away in the middle of the night, I will leave when the time comes. I’ve worked too hard to give this up!”
The rant eased his mind so that he could recall the events of the previous night. His father had asked that he take a walk with him after supper. He’d seen no problem in that since they’d often walked together to discuss plans for the ranch, or when what they were speaking of couldn’t be heard by the prying ears of his younger brothers. They had walked often following Marie’s death while Adam listened as his father had tried to make sense of how to move on.
Little Joe and Hoss had already headed up for bed, when Ben had said, “C’mon son, let’s take a walk.”
Adam saw it all clearly as he relived his agony.
He’d put the book aside that he’d been reading—the “Iliad,” in Latin—and followed Ben outside. The first inklings that this wasn’t a simple talk began to manifest when Ben stuttered and hemmed as he tried to get started with his thoughts. Still, Adam had not suspected that the next words out his father’s mouth would put an end to his dreams.
“Um, son, I know you’re very excited to go with Professor Metz, but we need to talk about that.”
The hair on Adam’s arms had stood at attention as he’d felt a cool wisp of fear breathe down his back. “I sure am, Pa. I’m looking forward to knowing Grandfather, and seeing how well my odd sort of education will hold up.”
Ben had reached around his shoulder, “Count on you to find a Harvard professor wandering around out here and convince him to teach you.” He’d given a tight laugh and hugged him. “You know, it’s that kind of ingenuity and ability on your part that I’ve always appreciated. I know you want to go with Adolf, but I don’t see how I can do without you. ”
Adam had pulled away to see his father’s face, trying to understand the meaning of his words. “What are you saying, Pa?”
“It’s just that…”
“It’s just what? Please, I have to know what you want from me.” He’d panicked then, wishing he could run away before his father uttered the words he had known were coming.
“Adam,” the man’s eyes had pleaded for understanding. “Son, I know how much going to college means to you, and while I’m not asking you to give up that dream, I am asking you to delay it. This year has been hard, and I know that I’ve not done as well as I should have following Marie’s death, but I did what I could and find I’m coming up short. “
“Pa, I’m ready now. How much of a ‘delay’ are you suggesting?” Adam thought his question had seemed reasonable, but had sensed the tightening in his father’s voice, indicating he wasn’t happy about being second-guessed.
“Please let me finish. I’m short on hands to watch the cattle and have to be away a good deal in this next year to guarantee we continue growing the business. I’ve tried to find hands, but there aren’t a lot of unemployed men around this area. Those who come through are on their way to California for gold, not work on a cattle ranch.”
Adam’s hands clenched, just as they had the night before as his father had continued, “I’ve sent ads to a number of newspapers all the way east to St. Louis and west to Sacramento and San Francisco. The Ponderosa is beginning to make a name for itself, son, and I have you to thank for helping me get it to this point. I know that once men see that we have work and that we’ll pay them well, they’ll come. But that will take time.”
“How much time? A month, two…three?”
“I’d say at least another year. It will take that long to get them here and trained. Adam, I’m asking for just one more year. You’re not even 17 yet, so another year will mean nothing in the grand course of life. It will go past in no time, and then I’ll take you to San Francisco and arrange passage to Boston. Professor Metz can meet you there and go ahead with your plans.”
Adam’s answer had been steel: unbending and cold. “A year might not seem like much to you, but it just about the right amount of time for me to forget everything I’ve learned. In a year, I won’t be able to pass the tests. In a year it won’t matter. A year is a lifetime to me, Pa.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Adam. You’ll continue to study; you’ll be fine. I’ll give you more responsibility here and you’ll learn sound business practice that will help you in life.”
The wind had gone out of his sails as he’d realized he couldn’t convince his father of his folly. “How will I ever tell Professor Metz?”
“I’ve already told him. He understands.”
The sadness had changed to anger: the same anger that was pushing him now. “You told him? Why would you do that? You could have at least given me the dignity to do that myself. He must think me a child.”
Ben had tried to touch his son, but he’d pulled away. “You are my child, Adam. It was my responsibility to tell him of the change of plans. He is disappointed, of course, but understands that family must take precedence.”
There had been no further words exchanged. Adam had gone to the house and retired to his room, where he slept only to dream of being pulled from a wagon until his fingers were bleeding raw with his attempts to hold on. This morning, he and Hoss had been sent to see if any mail had come through, and place an order at the mercantile in Virginia City. It was on that trip that his anger had bubbled and vented within hearing of his younger brother. He hadn’t cared. He figured that Hoss would tell; he relished the thought that his father would know how he really felt. It was liberating to think that maybe the man might understand what he’d done.
He wasn’t done stewing yet and let his mind lock further on his dissatisfaction. He wondered why his father would see fit to destroy his son’s dream when that same son had helped him find what he had searched for. “Ben’s Holy Grail,” he muttered to himself. “The Ponderosa: Ben Cartwright’s chalice of life; his garden of Eden, his promised land.” He had sojourned with his father for two thirds of his life, and figured that now he would leave on his own Grail quest. But no, his father had suddenly decided to claim parental authority. “It isn’t fair!” he called to the silence. Pounding the earth with his fists, he looked to heaven and cried out, “Why?”
In fact, Adam had many questions for his Creator at that moment and stood to address him with his arms reaching upward for the answers that his soul couldn’t give him. “Why is everything I love taken away? Why did you give me brains and the capacity to use them only to make me stay here and forget everything that makes me feel alive? What do you want from me? Please tell me what to do…where I’m supposed to go…and who I’m supposed to be.”
His anger dissipated on the wind blowing through the copse of pines, but there were no answers in the wind. Then in his heart he heard his father’s voice whispering in his memories from the long journey to where he was now, “We find our answers by moving forward, son, not by standing in wait, or grumbling over the road we must take.”
The previous evening’s conversation drifted in again, but this time Adam remembered more than just the words and his reaction. He had stood eye-to-eye with the man, but had only registered his disappointment and horror at what he’d heard. Now he saw the man’s face–drawn in sadness—wrinkled with the sun’s heat and the permanence of worry. He wondered if his father had similar conversations with God, asking why his life was never easy—why so much was taken away even as so much was given.
Recent images of his father flooded his heart. He saw his look of pride as Professor Metz had told him how well Adam was doing: what a quick and intelligent boy he was. And there was the look of sadness when he’d originally told Adam that he could leave with the professor. What had that been? Since their argument, Adam had assured himself that the sadness he’d seen had been motivated only by the pending loss of an unpaid ranch hand. But now…he knew differently. He’d seen that same look of sadness cross his father’s face when Marie had been laid to rest, and whenever he spoke of Inger or his own mother. Now he realized that his father would feel the same painful loss when his son left, and it cut him to his core.
With these thoughts came clarity on other things. He saw his father struggling with being alone again. Marie had brought lightness to their home that Adam hadn’t known since Inger had been in their lives. Pa was an all-business sort of man. He lived and breathed to make a legacy, but since Marie’s death, he had lost his drive. He moved in a haze of melancholy and Adam now remembered how much he’d worried about his father in the early weeks after the tragedy. But he’d been able to shut out what conflicted with his plans and had come to believe that his father was coping; he wasn’t.
The ranch was in a perilous state. Adam realized they were shorthanded and their best efforts at attracting men to work for them had failed. His father worked from dawn to dark, and would drag in like a worn piece of shoe-leather. He had lost his softer side that Marie had encouraged and strengthened. There were no family times, no picnics or fishing trips. It was all work—all the time, and Adam had often felt in the last months, that the harder they worked, the less they got done. He knew now that his father’s body had been working, but his heart hadn’t been in it. Yet recently, he’d also seen a spark return. He’d thought that maybe the grief was finally lifting. And now he understood that maybe his father could make it back, if his son didn’t take that spark with him when he left for Boston.
And yet, what of himself? How long and how much would be enough? If he stayed now, would he ever leave? Would he remember the pure joy of learning or ever capture it again?
He was exhausted. Mounting up, he headed for the sanctuary of home. His father’s horse wasn’t in the barn, so he took care of his own animal and headed inside. The house was oddly quiet, and Adam was surprised to see that it was almost nine. His brothers were asleep and Hop Sing must have gone to the bunkhouse already. In the privacy of his room, he ran his hand lovingly along the books lined up neatly on his shelf. How could he walk away from these and stay with the life of a rancher? He didn’t mind ranch work, but didn’t see it as his avocation. Working the land would never be enough because he loved the lessons of history and respected how the world of mathematics showed the complex equations at work in even the simplest things. He treasured how the English language could be plied by an artist to reveal the heart of man, and he prized philosophy and science. It all gave him hope. He reasoned that one day, he’d return home and his two lives would come together in some remarkable way. But unless he could leave, he couldn’t return, and now he feared he would never know what could have been…if only…
Sitting quietly in his room, he heard a horse enter the yard, and the barn doors open. Adam knew he’d be facing his father in less than fifteen minutes and spent the time repenting for his earlier sins while planning his own penance.
Ben noted with relief that Adam’s horse was put up for the night as he walked his buckskin into the barn. In his tired state, he realized that he should have just waited at home rather than go searching after his son, but the thought that his child was out there in anger and pain had forced him to go: to try.
He’d reached town in the late afternoon and had visited the saloons, finding out that Adam had indeed tried to find solace there. Betsy, a woman from the second watering hole, had followed him into the street. “Ben,” she’d called to him, “Your boy seemed pretty upset so I talked with him for a bit.”
Ben had walked backed to her and snapped, “That better be all you did with him, Betsy.”
“Ah, come on, Ben. You know I wouldn’t take advantage of a baby like him.” She’d given a hard, wheezy laugh. “But I wouldn’t mind if his daddy came ‘round and spent some time with me.”
His tone had softened. “Did he tell you anything interesting?”
“Nothing I could make head nor tale of. It was just pure upsettedness, if that’s even a word: like he was mad at the whole entire world.”
He’d thanked her, and checked a few more places in town before riding toward home, hoping he’d see his son somewhere along the way. The ride had given him more time to think things through, wondering if he was wrong in making Adam stay home. Yet he felt his thought was accurate; the boy was so young, maybe too young to be out on his own. He momentarily convinced himself that his decision to keep Adam home another year was truly in the boy’s best interest. That state of sureness was rapidly replaced as questions pelted the tired man from every angle. Was he being altruistic in keeping him around, or domineering as Adam had described him? Did the ranch mean more to him than his own flesh and blood; the need to keep it running more important than his son’s need to follow his dream? And most of all, could he face the agonized look of betrayal in his son’s eyes again if he demanded that he stay. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this change of fortune might make his son into a bitter man who resented his father and home.
There were no answers, only more questions. He would have rather gone to bed and forgotten the last two days had ever happened. Heck, he wished he could forget that the previous year had ever happened, but it wasn’t in him to back away from what needed to be done. He’d had troubles going on after Marie died, but had found courage from his sons and the land that continued to renew itself with each passing season: the death of winter was replaced by the birth of spring, the grassland burned by a rogue lightning strike had seemed lost until the rains nourished the area and brought it back to life more full than it had been before. His children kept going, saddened by loss, but always finding new joy and hoping for what would come tomorrow.
These things had finally penetrated into his heart and brought him to life again. He’d felt his roots strengthened by family and nature and had shaken off the pain and anger…even if it had proved to be a little too late to benefit his eldest. With his newly found focus he had known he would be able to move ahead and stop complaining about the journey, as he had always told his children to do. He was sorry that he had to stop Adam in his path, but reasoned that it was a temporary detour.
Ben entered the dimly lit house and made his way to the stairway.
Adam heard the footfalls outside his door and the squeak of the hinges as it opened slightly. He knew he could feign sleep and put this off until morning, but he was so tired and wanted to rest tonight with a clear conscience. “Come in, Pa. I’m awake.”
They both spoke at once. “Pa, I’m so sorry I said those things. I’m sure Hoss told you everything,” was covered by his father’s own, “I’m sorry that I sprang this on you so late.”
Ben stood at the side of the bed while Adam sat propped against his pillows. “I didn’t mean this to come as such a surprise, Adam. I should have given you indication some time ago that it wasn’t going to work out for you to leave this year. I’m afraid I procrastinated because I honestly thought it might all work out…and maybe because I couldn’t bear your disappointment.”
“It’s all right, Pa. I knew things weren’t going well, and should have offered to stay on until we are all back on our feet. I think I kept hoping the same thing you did: that it might all just fall into place.”
He sat next to his son. “I’ve been thinking of something that might help in the short run. I’m going to offer some of the small ranchers on the flats the chance to move their beef onto our land this summer while they work for me. They can help me run the Ponderosa in exchange for a salary, and a bonus of 10 head of cattle to take with them once I find drovers to hire on. It would benefit all of us, if they’d see it as such. I know many of them are going through some hard times and this might get them through the summer and increase their herd in a way that would cost them nothing. Give me a week or two to make the offers, and if they sign on, then you can still leave as planned.”
Adam saw the sincerity in his father’s idea and was moved by the offer. “It’s a sound plan even if I stay. It would give you more freedom to do what you need to while I keep Hoss and Joe in line and take care of ranch business like you mentioned last night. I’m staying, Pa. Not because you told me to, but because I want to.”
Ben laid his hand upon his son’s. “Can you live with a domineering despot who should do unspeakable things to himself for thwarting his son’s ambitions?” The statement was accompanied by a wink.
“I’m really sorry about that, Pa. I said those things from my gut, but not from my heart.”
“I know that, son.” He patted the hands beneath his. “Are you sure this offer to stay is coming from the right place? I don’t want you to offer from your gut and regret it with your heart.”
“It’s just a year, Pa. I’ll keep up my studies somehow. Maybe Professor Metz can map out a plan of how best to do that before he leaves. But you also need to know that come a year from now, I’m going.”
Ben nodded as he stood. “I know you are, son. I might not understand why education is such a powerful siren to you, but I understand the need. From the first time I heard about the opportunities in the
West, it began to gnaw at my soul and fill my mind with possibilities. My life became a means to an end. I mapped my course and kept to it, even though I had to make a few detours to get here and took on a couple of travelers to accompany me along the way. It was like a hole inside me that had to be filled.”
Adam sat up straight as his face filled with wonder. “That’s exactly it! I know that I have to study as much I can to understand how the world got to this point and find a way to become part of the future. I get so excited about learning more that I ache with the need for it.”
Silence enveloped the room as each man considered what pushed them. Ben finally gave his son a tug on his shirtsleeve. “You look as tired as I feel, boy, but I’m thinking you never had supper either. How about we head down and see what Hop Sing might have left for us.” He walked toward the door as Adam moved from his bed. Making sure his son was looking at him, he paused before exiting, “Thank you. I probably don’t tell you how much I appreciate you enough. But I do.”
As they headed down the stairs, the tension that had lingered between the two men broke as Ben asked, “Say, I hear you and Betsy had a nice long talk about your problems.” Even in the sallow lamplight from below, Ben could see his son’s face pale.
“I swear I didn’t tell her anything. All I could think about was how to get away!” After a pause, he swallowed hard and grimaced as he confessed. “She kept calling me ‘such a pretty young thing.’ Then she’d pull me toward her and hold me so tight against her large…um…chest, that I could barely breathe, and cooed that once I got a little older, I should come see her to find out what having a real woman was like.”
Ben waited for Adam to get closer to drape his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Betsy’s a good hearted soul, Adam, but I’m sure you’ll find your own ‘real woman’ someday and you’ll actually enjoy being smothered by her.”
Adam waited for a moment as he realized his father was teasing him and then broke out laughing. “Thanks, Pa. Let’s see, on my list of what I need in a woman, I’ll include an ample bosom—suitable for causing asphyxiation.”
The only sadness that remained in the weeks following his decision to stay at the Ponderosa was that Professor Metz absented himself from the ranch. Adam assumed it reflected the man’s deep disappointment with him. It bothered him greatly at first, but he came to accept that perhaps the professor meant it as a kindness: better to just leave him to adjust to the situation as he needed to without any outside influence or distraction. On an earlier trip to town, Adam had asked around to find out if the man had been spotted there, and left word with a few town regulars asking that if they should see him come through, they tell him to please send word to the ranch or stop out before he left for Boston.
The professor hadn’t stopped, even when the date they’d originally planned to depart had come and gone, leaving Adam believing he’d never see his mentor again. He was left wondering how he could head East on his own in a year without the professor’s introduction to the schools he’d need to contact. Yet, he couldn’t worry about that now, and found himself hoping that the schools might remember his name from Adolf’s initial inquiries.
After coming to grips with his situation, Adam threw himself into the chores of the ranch; the physical labor relieving his sadness about the matter. His hope was that he would hear from Professor Metz someday or perhaps meet him again once he got to Boston. He held no malice toward the man for leaving without returning to see him. Whatever turns his life might take in the future Adam realized that the professor had opened a world to him that he wouldn’t have known had he not stumbled across him sketching plants in their field. But future plans were just that, and he was committed to keep his mind in his work and make the best of this time with his family.
The sun was already beginning its descent, while Adam and Hoss finished tamping in the last of the fence posts they’d been setting throughout the day. Hoss had been grumbling steadily about how work should be abandoned once the sun set and that his rumbling stomach needed to be filled, but Adam had insisted they finish so they could begin fitting the connecting fence slats in the morning. “Always finish what you can, Hoss” Adam had told the boy. “It seems hard to do it when you’re tired and hungry, but it’ll seem even harder to face it again in the morning. This way we can get an early start on something new instead of having to face old problems.”
The middle brother had mumbled his displeasure, but finally admitted it made sense to be done before they headed in and said it “wouldn’t take more’n a few shakes of lambs tail” to do. As the sun’s slant produced deepening shadows, Hoss stopped filling the last hole, and squinted to get a better look at what he thought he saw in the distance. “Hey, Adam, look yonder. Ain’t that your friend, Professor Metz comin’?”
Adam joined his brother in squinting, trying to pick out familiar details of the approaching wagon. As the driver rounded the bend, the man’s top hat came into profile. Adam began flagging the wagon down while Hoss jumped up and down, waving and whooping beside him.
“Halloo, Adam and Hoss,” the man called as he neared the pair. “I didn’t expect a welcoming committee, but am overjoyed to see you both.”
Adam remained quiet even as Hoss offered a return greeting. He wasn’t sure why he was so overcome with emotion, but he feared that should he speak, his voice might betray him. Instead, he smiled, tipping his hat, and set to gathering their tools as he mumbled that they should all head toward the house.
In the time it took to stow their gear, get the team settled, and wash up, Adam was able to regain his composure and entered the house anxious to hear why the professor had returned.
Adolf crossed the room to embrace him, slapping his back. “Why I’m pretty sure you’ve grown and inch or two in my absence, young man. And you’ve filled out through your shoulders too. It seems that hard physical activity has done you well. But then, even I’ve begun to develop musculature I’ve never had before as I’ve plodded around this countryside. For a man like me, accustomed to sitting behind a desk my entire adult life, I have to admit it feels quite good to be stronger and more robust.” With a wry smile he added, “You know I can’t wait to get back to Harvard and challenge a few of my colleagues to an arm wrestling contest like they do out here.” The comment was punctuated by a wink toward his pupil. “But I’ll be careful never to issue that challenge to you, Adam, for I’m afraid I’d never stand a chance.”
“You have always seemed to thrive in our Sierra climate Professor.” Unable to contain his curiosity, Adam pressed the man to know why he hadn’t left as scheduled. “Did something go wrong, Professor Metz? I thought you’d be nearly to St. Louis by this time.”
Ben came to stand with the professor as he smiled at Adam. “Let the man speak, son. I think you’ll find his information quite interesting.”
“Your father is correct. Nothing went wrong. I’d say instead that everything is going right.” He laughed at the young man’s questioning look.
Hop Sing approached them to announce that the evening meal was ready. “You Cartlights and Professor Metz sit down now or supper get cold. Talk while you eat. No want good food ruined while you all jabbering.” The dynamo was gone as quickly as he had appeared, leaving his command hanging on the air: requiring action even in his absence.
Hoss was the first to the table. “Yeah, Adam, talk while we eat. I’m starvin’ in case you forgot. You do remember promising me that we’d have supper as soon as we finished the last post. So, we’re finished; we’re home…let’s eat!”
Ben led his guest to the table while Adam followed and got Little Joe settled at his place. Although he could accomplish these everyday tasks without much thought, his heart was beating wildly while his brain raced, wondering what the professor’s presence might mean for his future. His hopes for finding out the import faded as his father and Adolf spent most of dinner speaking about Boston and the news each had recently received from there. It wasn’t the news Adam wanted to hear since they spoke of the weather, and compared notes about people they found were mutual acquaintances.
Finally as the two older men took seats before the fire sipping coffee and brandy, Adolf smiled at his host. “I do suppose we’ve made the boy wait long enough, don’t you think, Papa?” With Ben’s smile and nod, the professor motioned for Adam to sit on the bench beside him. “Young man, as I was preparing to depart without you, I received a frantic letter from my partner in this adventure who was cataloging the areas along the eastern section of this territory. While the outdoor life seems to suit me, he has been ill much of the time and his work has lagged for it. He was unable to continue any longer and asked that I meet him at a town near the Arizona border as quickly as possible. I made haste to get there and arrived within two weeks so he could go over the work he’d already done and explain what still needs to be finished after he returned to Boston. The university is so far behind on their cataloging that they are in no hurry to have our information and sees no problem with me continuing on here for another year while I finish what Professor Maxwell began.”
“That area is much different from here, so you should have a variety of new materials to take with you.” Adam smiled at his mentor and was glad that the man would be able to continue doing something he seemed to truly enjoy. But the hope that seeing the professor again had been anything more than a social call to say goodbye, waned as he had heard the story unfold. “Being over there will place you that much closer to going home when your work is complete. I hope that desert climate suits you as well as ours.”
Adolf noted the sadness and defeat in the boy’s voice and gave Ben a look to encourage him to continue the story.
“That’s not the only news Adolf has, Adam. He came back now to retrieve his things and to let you know that he’ll be back next spring to take you with him to Boston.”
His color returning, Adam eyed the professor expectantly, “Is that true?”
“Does your father ever lie to you, Adam? I thought not. Of course it’s true. I sent a note explaining our delay along with Professor Maxwell. We’ve also sent ahead for you to receive a set of first year textbooks to study and hopefully they will arrive in time for you to use over the winter months.” Pulling a folded mass of pages from his coat pocket, he continued, “I’ve also written up a lesson plan for you to begin reviewing what we’ve gone through so far. I know I won’t be here to help you, but I trust that you will continue your studying and be ready when I return. Will you do that?”
Adam nodded his assent while his mind whirled in gratitude for his changing fortune. “I’ll be ready, sir.”
Ben and the younger brothers said their goodbyes to Professor Metz the next morning and then headed back to the house to give Adam privacy.
While alone, the professor asked what had puzzled him since riding up on Hoss and Adam the evening before. “You seemed so surprised to see me yesterday, and yet you also had so little to say at first. Are you angry with me?”
“Oh, no!” the young man averred. “I could never be angry at you, sir.”
“But it was something.” He looked deeply into his student’s face and in a flash of wisdom, knew what had prompted the boy’s odd reaction. “Ah, you thought I had abandoned you; that I had left without further communication because I had given up on you.”
Adam’s sheepish look was all the answer the man needed.
He briefly laid his hand on Adam’s cheek in a fatherly gesture. “I never had a child, but if I had, I would have wished them to be like you in every way. But you have a father, and he’s a very good one, so I can’t hope to ever have that relationship with you. I will content myself with having you as my pupil.” Gripping the boy’s shoulders, he looked directly into his eyes. “I could never have given up on you. But your father is correct. Your intelligence, skill and attention to responsibility belie the fact that you are so young. This year will be good for you, even though I am anxious to get you back East to see how you will astound them there. You come from a fine family, and whether you know it or not, your father wants this for you as much as you do. We had time to talk while you and your brother were getting cleaned up yesterday. He‘s a good man and you will do well to learn as much as you can from him in this year since it will make you an even better person than you already are.”
He climbed onto his wagon as he prepared to leave. Looking down at the young man he’d grown to care for, he vowed, “It’s just a year Adam. I’ll be back for you in just a year. And then we’ll take the East as Cartwright and Metz…arm wrestlers extraordinaire!”
Adam waved, repeating his thanks and good wishes until the man was too far away to hear. Looking around the yard he finally raised his eyes and shouted, “Thank you!” As he walked to the house he began to chant quietly in cadence to his steps, “It’s just a year; it’s just a year, it’s just a year…”
Next Story in the It’s Only a Year Series:
It’s Only a Year – The Caster Oil Caper – Lessons in Humility
It’s Only a Year – The Worst of Consequences – A Lesson in Choice
It’s Only a Year – The Quiet of Uncertainty – A Lesson in Hope
It’s Only a Year – The Final Trial – A Lesson in Mettle
- While Asa Gray was a Harvard professor and did publish botanical manuals through the school, this particular version is fiction. However – anything is possible, so in my mind, it just didn’t get published and Professor Metz’s presence became way of explaining how Adam could have learned Latin and the other subjects needed to qualify for Harvard or some Eastern school. J
Other Stories by this Author
- It’s Only a Year – The Castor Oil Caper – Lessons in Humility #2 (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – The Final Trial – A Lesson in Mettle #5 (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – The Worst of Consequences – A Lesson in Choice #3 (by MissJudy)