Summary: Advice for the Cartwright brothers comes from the most unlikely sources.
Rated: K+ WC 5160
I remember the last time we walked together in Boston. The air was still warm and wet during that time of year and it made my hair curl wildly under my hat. Uncivilized, you said, and tucked it back behind my ear. In all probability, the air smelled like salt, mackerel, and sewage, being so close to the harbor, but in my memory it smelled of pine trees and open spaces.
I was going to follow you home in the fall. I’d listened to your stories of the Ponderosa until I could feel it in my bones. Your ranch was already a part of me, and lust for it ran through my veins, in my blood. Flesh of my flesh, dust into dust, and I’d have followed you to the ends of the world, young man. Marrying you and going west to Nevada Territory was a trifling in comparison. Don’t forget. You loved me, and I was very, very brave.
You were twenty-one years old and different then. Your eyes were shadowed and dark. So very romantic. I thought you quite standoffish at first, a snob without good reason. Who were you to be proud when you couldn’t boast of ancestors who traced back to the Mayflower? Next, I had you pegged as an enigma come to Boston from the moors rather than the uncultured West. I created quite a troubled and mysterious background for you and fashioned you to be a lot more brooding and reclusive than was justified. Yes, ridiculous I know.
You always did complain that I read too much of Lord Byron! Yet, I recovered from that fancy, and you came courting me. I soon learned that you were a gentleman – handsome and funny, as if that wasn’t enough. Will you forgive me to admit that I was surprised?
Was I really so much of a snob back then? The heiress and the cowboy. We were going to surprise them all. We fell in love in the winter and were engaged in the spring. All summer, we made our plans. How could we have kept the world from finding out about it, let alone my father? He would have accepted you, Adam, given enough time. Given the Cartwright assets, he would have accepted just about anyone. My father was a blue-blood to be sure but was intensely practical. A Cartwright would do just fine. He was a dry, humorless man, but you were kind to him. I thank you for that, and for so much more. I might have died and never known what love was, if not for you. Now that would have been a tragedy, my dear.
I remember walking with you like it was yesterday. Do you remember it too? Can you feel the warmth of my hand through the linen of my glove? We were young enough to think that time didn’t matter. Anyone would forgive us for not knowing we should be counting our time by minutes and not years. We were in love and beholden to no one but the jasmine in the air. We walked in poetry, making our plans. Do you remember the poetry you wrote me? The ballads and the sonnets… you would be so embarrassed by them now. If anything, your tastes have grown even more refined in the years that have since passed. I have especially appreciated your recent readings. Wordsworth and Coleridge. Hawthorne and Flaubert. Fine company indeed. We would have done well, reading together by candlelight. Back then, you were so serious, dabbling in naturalism, and terribly out of fashion. You wrote of sunrise dappled over a lake, of trout swimming thick in rushing waters. In your words, I could see the galloping horse bearing west, his lathered flanks, and the proud way he held his head. I could see all that in your poetry, and I wanted to see it unfold in your life.
You didn’t tell your family about me, after I died. Instead you returned home to the Ponderosa after the funeral. You tried to store your grief deep inside, but in truth, you looked like a man devoured by sorrow. I watched you that day when you climbed down from the stage. It was the moment I’d waited for, the momentous homecoming. Of course your family had been waiting as well. Your little brother was almost run over by the stage, when he ran in front of the horses. I was right there and watched when your middle brother caught him by his suspenders and shook him.
I’d been waiting so long to meet them that I felt like they were my brothers too. I stood right by you, just like I said I would. It’s funny how both of us were shy at first, but then we found our bearings. You looked over your family with wonder and pride. You even forgot about me for a moment, and I didn’t hold it against you. How they had changed, and yet they were exactly what you expected! How you had changed… and that they could hardly imagine at all. You never gave them a chance to know your truth. Not very chivalrous my dear, wouldn’t you agree? Keeping your heart so tight to your vest when they had been waiting so long.
You were serious and dark and sad, and it couldn’t all be attributed to too much higher education. It hung over you, yet you clapped your brother Hoss on the back and swung your little brother up so high his hat flew into the water trough. He didn’t mind one bit. He’d never liked that hat; I heard him tell that to Hoss much later. Your grip was strong when you shook hands with your father. You’d left as a boy and returned as a man, but not the one he’d expected. Ben Cartwright tried to see the difference in your eyes, he tried to see me, but you had already turned away.
“Tell him!” I wanted to shout at you. “Tell him about me. About the way I died. About how we loved each other.”
I’d have given anything to have indulged in a decent haunting. It’s what you’d have expected of me, and I expected more of you. But I was your secret, pure and simple. I belonged to you, to your memory, and you weren’t sharing with anyone. It was your way. I would have liked your father, and I’m shameless enough to think he would have liked me too. Your brothers still make me smile. I’m always rooting for all of you, even when your predicaments have me terrified. I have stood by you at gunpoint many times. Of course you warned me what life would be like in the West. It wouldn’t be easy. But I’d have held up quite well. I know what you’d say about it. It’s easy to be brave when you’re already dead..
Adam Cartwright, I’d never have figured you for a miser. And yet you hoarded the memory of me, kept it buried away, sealed up tight in an ill fitting tomb. My goodness, you missed me, and I missed you too. But I never asked this of you. Tell me this, young man. When was the last time you fell in love? Don’t tell me that the right young woman has never come along. I was there with you. I’ve seen her. The right young woman has come along, again and again, and yet you’ve never let me go.
Do you blame yourself for the fact that I died? Is it fair to say that we should have left the city that summer? It was the season of the fever. We stewed in the contagious heat. Bodies piled up behind the university cathedral, and in the crowded streets we covered our face with our gloves. We breathed infection like it was air and pretended not to care. As you liked to put it, we were “of service”. We took care of sick friends, sitting by their bedsides and reading them truffles of prose. Bringing them comfort and offering up our own health like it was a sacrificial lamb. What did we know? We were in young and in love. That should have been immunity from any plague.
You blamed yourself for the fact that I was the one to fall ill. I can still see the guilt in your eyes as you sat by my bedside. My delirium and fever took me to the Ponderosa with you. I made you tell me stories. Adam, my love, I was your wife during those final hours, in truth and in imagination. I wasn’t afraid of anything other than not being by your side. Make of it what you want. I faced my fears and lived through them, even though I didn’t live at all. I’m by your side, quiet in your shadow. I stood by you, the last time you cried, and I’m standing still. Waiting to see what you will make of this world and the life you’ve been given. Please do not waste it.
So Adam Cartwright, you can deny it all you’d like, but you don’t fool me. You love me, you love me not. And I do not love the possibilities that you’ve set aside. The way you measure other women to my memory and find them wanting. Unfair! To them and to me. Ghosts make for poor company, and they rarely bring you coffee in the morning. I am a poor substitute for having love in your life. Your fidelity is admirable, Adam, but it is useless. Cheat on my memory, my dear. Have a fling with flesh and bones and not shadows.
How long will I haunt you? I suppose you’re wanting to know. If only I could give you a firm answer. Of this I know. I will follow you across this lovely, aching earth until I am sure you will love again. It’s not much to ask for. Stiff upper lip. New England restraint. All very commendable, but not very honest, Mr. Cartwright.
Do you see her? The small brunette stepping off the stage? Yes, that slip of a thing! Don’t turn your head, don’t dismiss her! Oh, I know she doesn’t look like much, but take my word for it. Her eyes, oh her eyes! They sparkle. A smart one, that girl. She would love your poetry and would help edit your excesses. And yes, you do have excesses, please don’t flatter yourself. Don’t look away, she’s eying you, just like I did that summer. There is mystery in her lips. Don’t be afraid. Move a little closer.
Burying your memories mocks our love. Makes it yellowed and brittle like a daguerreotype that is left in the sun. I am mercury. I am vapor, yet I can’t fade away. Let go of me, Adam. It was a wonderful summer, and that will always remain. I am lovely and blue-eyed and I will always be nineteen. This will never change. It’s time for you to step forward. Reach for her.
Let go of my hand.
You never knew my name.
I knew yours from the beginning. Hoss Cartwright. The middle son of an important family. We were just passing through the territory on our way to our California homestead, but everyone in Nevada territory seemed to know who you were. The very thought of your family terrified me. The Cartwrights were loud and confident, generous and powerful. Everyone had a story to tell. But you were different. Your name was Hoss, and it was a kind, gentle sort of name. It made me feel comfortable. I’d never met a man like you before that night.
You might not remember me. After all, you’re still firmly planted in time. You’re living your life, working hard, and why should you remember the face of a red-cheeked, shy girl? We only spoke that one time, that one night. What foolish choices we make when we believe that there will always be another time.
I was at the barn dance, standing next to the quartet of fiddlers. Your eyes were on me all evening. That’s what I remember the most. It surprised me, even though I was almost pretty. That’s what they used to say. “Almost pretty.” It wasn’t much of a compliment, but it was probably true. My hair was auburn and straight and reached to my hips, but my sister had pinned it into upswept braids. My hair was my best feature, and yet I always kept it hidden. It was an April night, cold and moonlit. The barn was thrumming with fiddling and young men, flirtatious and eager to dance. There were never enough girls for all the young men, so I was asked several times. I couldn’t bear it, the idea of having to look a stranger in the eye and find interesting things to talk about. As my ma put it, my shyness always got in my way. It kept me from taking the chances I so admired in others.
But I kept watching you standing by the punchbowl with your father. I would later find out that you were guarding it from your little brother. You would do the same thing at dances for years. He was only fifteen, but he was already getting into trouble. So you’d appointed yourself up as the deputy of the punch bowl. Anything to keep your little brother from the wrath of your father. And besides, it gave you an excuse to stand on the sidelines. You just couldn’t believe that any of those girls would be waiting for you to ask them to dance. I didn’t know any of this at the time of course. I learned all about you, later, when I had so much time.
And the whole town seemed to like you. From widows to children, they came over to talk, and I could tell you were kind. Once, your older brother walked over to you and tried to nudge you in the direction another young lady. I’d seen her when she walked into the dance. She was the kind of girl that all the boys liked, with round little lips and traveling eyes. You just blushed and joshed with him, shoving him toward the girl instead. Then you got back to watching me.
When the fiddlers took a break, your little brother came over to you. He was as lively as they come, and looking back on it, I can understand why he might have been trouble. But you came to life then, even though you wouldn’t let him near the punchbowl. He whispered something, and you rocked back on your heels, laughing so hard your whole body shook. Even though he was the outgoing kind of boy that scared me the most, I wanted very much to hear what he had to say. Anyone you loved had to be interesting. I was a quiet girl, but I understood a lot about people just by standing in the shadows while others soaked up the sun.
I was thirsty but didn’t dare go near the punch bowl. I’m afraid I wasn’t very brave. I’m ashamed of that now. It was always weighing me down, the burden of shyness. Since then, I’ve learned you struggle with it too. We share that together, although your big laugh and easy way with people cover it up better than anything I learned to do. All I could do was bite my fingernails and look away from you. So instead of smiling and meeting your eye, I stared down at the packed dirt floor strewn with sawdust. The music started up again, and I expected my night to be just about over. We were leaving the next day on our westward trek into California. The ice was finally melting, though huge drifts of snow still covered the mountains. The rivers were already swelling. My father was anxious to go. We had been without a home for so long. Forever and ever, I’ll keep thanking my ma for allowing me my one night of folly. A request from her quiet daughter who wanted to experience life just once, the way other girls knew it.
“Ma’am, would you like some punch?”
You were standing beside me, and I didn’t even see you coming. How surprising for a girl who prided herself on noticing everything. I looked up at you in shock, but you were flushed and nervous, already finding something else to look at. My mind flooded with possible answers, but I didn’t say any of them. I nodded, and you were kind enough to notice.
I drank the punch too quickly. The heat of the rum took me by surprise and concern crossed over your face.
“Sorry, about that Ma’am. Should I bring you some water instead?”
I wanted to laugh at what you were calling me. I wasn’t a “Ma’am”. I was hardly even a “Miss”. Up to that point, I had hardly been anything at all.
But I was brave then, very brave, and I replied, “No. I mean, the punch is good. Very good. Thank you, sir.”
“Aw, Ma’am… You can call me Hoss. Miss…?”
My lips parted to answer but I just couldn’t manage it. We couldn’t stop looking at each other. It was a little like staring into the sun. You know you shouldn’t look, but after you’ve started, you’re willing to risk going blind. I should have told you my name, and I was about to, but providence intervened just then, and with a dramatic moan, one of the fiddlers suddenly collapsed onto the ground.
Inexplicably, you laughed but saw I was concerned. Leaning closer, you explained, “That’s ol’ Hank. He’s a dang good fiddler, but he does get carried away. Ever since he went to a revival meeting last summer, he gets knocked down by the Spirit from time to time. We ain’t right sure what he means, but usually a little tarantula juice’s enough to cure it.”
I laughed at that. Out loud. I couldn’t help it. Immediately, I covered my mouth with my hand, and you grinned at me. I could see you beginning to relax, tapping your foot to music that was no longer playing. You might have even asked me to dance. But your pa and another man were helping Hank the Religious Fiddler to his feet, and you reluctantly decided that you should help them.
Before you walked away, you looked back at me and asked, “I’m sorry for asking it this way, Ma’am, but do I know you? I just have the strangest feeling that we met.”
Some young men might have invented a question like that and considered themselves clever, but you made it sound sweet and innocent. I should have answered with something quick. But of course I didn’t say anything of the kind. Instead, I shook my head and looked back at my older sister, who was watching our encounter with a frown.
You looked sort of disappointed and tipped your hat before you turned away. Before you finished, my sister had me and I allowed myself to be led out of the barn. And that was that. The next morning I boarded the wagon with my family and we set off for Sacramento. And yet the only thing that kept running through my mind was your face and your question – do I know you? I should have answered, and yet I didn’t even try.
The meek shall inherit the Earth, but unfortunately they’re also buried in it. I will spare you the details. I won’t tell you about the flooded crossing, the chance we shouldn’t have taken, and the dancing, terrified horses panicking as they forded the river. I won’t describe the creak and groan of the wagon frame as it broke half way across the river. No one needs to know of my father’s muttered oath, or my sister’s desperate screams. I don’t need to tell you that I left this life as quietly as I had lived it.
But that’s assuming life ends with death, and that’s quite a presumption. Don’t you know that the probabilities and possibilities continue on and on? There’s so much I could tell you, but it would be like tracking a dream. You would never remember the beginnings and endings. Why should I try? Our tragedy had nothing to do with the Cartwrights, but you heard about the wagon train disaster the following week and were sad, even though you didn’t know why. When your brothers asked what was wrong, you weren’t even sure what you could say.
When your father asked, you replied simply enough, “I might have known someone on the wagon but reckon I’ll never know for sure. She never told me her name.”
And a shadow passed over your face. But that’s not where it ends. As it turns out, the meek do inherit the Earth, and I’ve finally been able to travel. I’ve been haunting the places that you love the most. I’ve been to the pretty valley that you’ve always wanted to claim for your own and walked along the reflecting pond where you’ve dreamed of teaching your children to fish. I don’t blame you for loving it there. There’s a peacefulness about the place, where the hills rise up and the sky begins, that I never could have imagined. It is the perfect place for two quiet people to build a home.
Can the living learn from the dead? I hope so, I surely do, because there are things I need to tell you. You asked if you knew me, and I couldn’t answer.
I didn’t know myself well enough to say, “No, you don’t know me. But today can be our start.”
Would it have made a difference if I’d told you my name? I can’t know that, and it’s probably for the best that you didn’t know. Could you have possibly fallen in love with me right in the middle of that barn? Would you have left Hank the Fiddler to wallow in his religious fervor? Would you have walked me home? Could loving me have kept me alive? I don’t know, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But I spent my life in the shadow of others, and I don’t want you to do the same.
Don’t compare yourself to your brothers. Opportunities for love are not going to come in droves. Meet her at the next dance. Look for her at church. Take a ride to a neighboring ranch, and catch the eye of the farmer’s shy daughter. I can only tell you where to look, but you have to do your part. Ask her name. Learn from me. Don’t take silence for an answer. Believe me, Hoss, love is out there.
She’s waiting for you.
I loved to go barefoot, even after I was too old for it. There was something about the creek on the silly piece of land that our fathers were fighting over. It made me want to take off my shoes so I could feel the current, so cold against my toes it was almost shocking. Dreamy. Back then, I wanted to feel everything. I was sixteen and wanted life to rush over me, like water over pebbles.
Pa was always chiding me, “Amy Bishop, what am I going to do with you? How will I ever marry you off to a respectable young man with you going barefoot like a mountain girl?”
Ducking my head, I pretended not to know any better. My father loved his only child even more than he loved that piece of land. And I loved him too. But his dreams were not my dreams. And I never loved anyone as much as I loved you.
You didn’t mind my bare feet even in the beginning, and I never thought to apologize for them. The first time I met you at the creek, you surprised me. Every time after, I was expecting you. I pretended to be outraged by your very existence when I met you but knew that my life was finally getting interesting. One of the infamous Cartwrights daring to speak with Amy Bishop! Anyone could have told us it would never work out – a Cartwright falling in love with a Bishop. However, anyone who makes fun of love at first sight wasn’t there to see it happen. And that’s how it was with me and you.
I was sixteen, and you were hardly a year older. They might have called us children, but we certainly knew better. My prettiness was just coming into its own, but you were so handsome I forgot all about me. Who would have blamed me? I was ridiculously happy to find out that all the old poems about love were true. Sky, sun, water, earth. I didn’t need any of those things. They were beside the point.
We were a little preoccupied.
At first, we thought only of the feud. Then we worried about our names, about our fathers. When we were together, we weren’t worried about much of anything any more. At least that’s the way I remember it. The truth is always more complicated. I’ve chosen to forget about the uglier parts of it: you holding a gun on your father, the dead boy, the pitchfork in the barn. I’ve also chosen to forget the name of the man who killed me, my father’s long-time hand who was foolish enough to believe that I was waiting for him. They were all fools to think it could have been anyone but you. To be honest, I didn’t notice him watching me, didn’t fully realize the danger. I didn’t know my days were numbered or I might have paid more attention. Like you, I had faith that every day would be better than the one before.
Little Joe Cartwright, could we have been any younger? Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened to us after the first bloom wore off? Would we have bickered over petty things, like lighting a lamp properly or getting the best price for a bag of flour? You might have ended up with a bad back from branding cattle, and my hands might grown dry and cracked from washing your clothes. Our children might have had runny noses, and we might have grown grouchy with each other, always scraping to make our money last a little bit longer. You and I were both spoiled as children. Who’s to say we would have endured hardship well? How boring and how disappointing that would have been! Because I didn’t live very long, we never had to face anything so unpleasant.
There are certain advantages to dying young. I stayed pretty, for one thing. I have to admit, Joe, that the years have been good to you too. My heart still aches just to look at you. Is there any other love that’s better than the first one? Even though I know how it ends, I still flush when I think of it. You could tell our history in a single telling, doomed like it was. Live and love and death over a four day period. But I did love you. Do you remember our plans, how we were going to run away together, get married, start a new life? And not necessarily in the proper order. We loved each other more than we cared about the details.
And then I stopped to catch my breath in the barn that afternoon, and it was over. Just like that. My life and our story. The pitchfork flying through the air took me by surprise, and it was surprising how little it hurt. I remember you carrying me to the house, my blood soaking through your torn shirt. We were both in shock, but you were still gallant. You lied to me on my deathbed, told me how I was going to live and live and live, but I forgave you. I knew you were lying, even as I saw how beautiful it was. My funeral was quiet and sad, and thank you for crying. Still in love with me, you mourned, but you didn’t let my death bury you. You moved on. It wasn’t as simple for me, not at first. I had more trouble finding things to do. So I decided to stay with you a little longer. Not every day, of course, I had places to go of my own choosing. As an overprotected only daughter, I’d never seen much of the world and had a lot to make up for. But I always came back to you, Little Joe. It’s not hard to understand why. You were simply too much fun.
Nobody forgets their first love, and you were no exception. But you never got bitter over losing me so violently. You didn’t feel sorry for yourself. You remembered kissing me and making me smile and wanted to feel that way again. You were never one for doing anything half-hearted. And so you met another girl the following year and fell in love again. And again and again. And again. I have never watched anyone who was gutsier with love than you. I’ve watched them desert you, deny you, and die on you, time and time again, and yet you keep pressing on. I must say, Little Joe, that you fall in love like you live your life. Recklessly and with an breath-catching amount of passion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve yelled at you to look out!
As it is, I’ve had a fine time, watching you live through all these years. I only had sixteen, but you’ve had so many more. Through you, I’ve met saints and scamps, groveled in the desert and stood at the edge of the big blue sea. I’ve attended more shootouts than I can count on all my fingers. I’m glad you’re a fast draw, but my pa was right to worry about you and me. I’ve watched you love and grieve and live.
I was the one for you but not the only one. There’s a whole world of pretty, brown-eyed girls out there, and you know it. You celebrate it. The next one might be the right one. Don’t give up. Throw yourself back into love, and don’t listen if they tell you it will never work out. Remember me and live. Dip your toes in the cold water, Little Joe.
Live and live and live!
8 thoughts on “Buried (by DBird)”
All the vignettes were wonderful and deserve their own tissue or two … but the last one, wow! A whole pack of tissues for that one alone. And what a great message!
What an interesting story. Thanks Liked this story
What an interesting story. Thanks
As an Adam fan obviously loved his story. Whole story just so beautiful.
This was beautiful!
I’ve never read this story, and I thought I’d read everything you’d written. How this one escaped me, I’ll never know. Anyway, another great read, Debbie.
The aching beauty of this story made me weep — a reminder of what to embrace and what to let go. Thank you, Debbie.
The dead never really leave us – sometimes they become “guardian angels” directing us toward that quiet moment that changes one’s life – like finding that perfect someone. We just need to be paying attention once in awhile and listen to our inner voice (intuition).