Summary: This story is centered around what it was like for 7 year old Adam out on the trail with his Pa. It covers the two thousand mile journey they made with others traveling west in search of their new life. It describes their heartaches and joys and feelings of apprehension as they pushed on day after day not truly knowing what lay ahead.
Rating: K (10,035 words)
Two Thousand Miles
“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Adam Cartwright awoke with a start to the wind beating against the worn canvas of the covered wagon. He lay still listening to its fury as it forced its way in through the smallest passageways, whistling a message of triumph upon entry. The wagon creaked and groaned in defiance. Adam’s attention was suddenly drawn to the uneasy sounds exuding forth from the animals outside in the elements. He felt sympathy towards them, being forced to face nature’s fury unprotected. Normally, a storm like this would bring fear to any 7 year old boy, but not Adam Cartwright. He had weathered several of these storms and had traveled many miles in this rickety old wagon… a wagon that he and his father, step mother, and brother had been calling home the past 5 months.
Adam arose and looked around the small interior. He could barely see the silhouette of his sleeping father lying across from him. Suddenly a flash of lightening briefly illuminated his surroundings followed by a loud thunderous crash. The rain began pelting the wagon. Young Hoss Cartwright awoke abruptly and began to sob. His older brother quickly picked him up from his little makeshift crib and began to rock him steadily in his arms.
“Shhh… shhh… It’s okay little Hoss. I’m here.” He softly said to the 4 month old while trying to muffle his cries.
He did not want to wake his father who had slept very little as of late. The first trek of the two thousand mile journal west had certainly proven to be a harsh one for the Cartwright family. Hoss’s mother, Inger, had been killed a few weeks prior by an Indian arrow. Her last words to her beloved husband were for him to continue forth and live out his dream. Ben Cartwright’s mind struggled with the memory of these words. He was tormented with the fact that it was because of his dream to go west that Inger was no longer with them. The moment she breathed her final breath, he had wanted to turn back, but doing so would have meant certain death. They could never make it back before the first snows of winter hit. They had to push on… and they did so at an incredible pace. They had mountains ahead to cross and they had already been delayed due to unforeseen problems along the trail. Ben Cartwright had not only himself to think about, but the other families as well. He was their leader and everyone’s survival depended upon his decisions. People were growing weary and tired, which made for short tempers and long hard days.
Just then, Ben Cartwright stirred. He turned to face his sons. Hoss had quieted down some, but was wriggling in his brother’s small arms ready to start off another round of wails. Ben motioned for Adam to hand him the boy and Adam begrudgingly complied.
“Sorry he woke you, Pa,” he softly said, hanging his head down as if he were to blame for the baby’s unsettledness.
Ben positioned Hoss against his shoulder and began gently rubbing the infant’s back. Hoss seemed instantly comforted by his father’s strong hold and began to settle down once more. The storm outside was raging, but for a moment there was a stillness within the wagon. Ben sat eying his eldest son. A sense of sadness filled his heart. The boy had witnessed so much in his young life and was wise beyond his years. He knew he had not paid much mind to the boy the past few weeks and could see he was in need of some reassurance.
“Adam, why don’t you try to get some rest, son. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow and I’ll need your help.”
Adam’s eyes looked up at his Pa in surprise.
“You need my help? Sure Pa, I can do anything you ask me to do. I can take care of Hoss, I can walk in front of the train and make sure the road is clear, I can set rabbit traps, I can…”
Adam’s words were cut short by his father’s gentle touch upon his knee.
“Yes, Adam, But first you must do one thing.”
“What’s that, Pa?” Adam anxiously asked.
Ben smiled over at his boy as he placed the now sleeping baby back in his crib.
“Get some rest, son,” Ben simply replied as he tousled Adam’s hair.
Adam smiled and replied, “Yes, Pa,” before lying back down and closing his eyes. Ben then followed suit. Both listened quietly for the storm to lessen its rage. It was not long before it started to subside and soon, both father and son had succumbed to sleep.
The next morning, Adam was up bright and early ready to take on the day. He eagerly jumped out of the wagon and headed over to the nearest campfire to warm. There he found Sarah Harper, her son Howard, and her daughter Emily. Emily was holding Hoss who was playfully fiddling with a wooden block she had given him. The baby kept tossing it to the ground and Emily would pick it up and dust it off before handing it back to him. The moment Hoss had his hands on the square, he’d throw it to the ground again. The young teenaged girl seemed amused by his antics and giggled softly as she once again reached down to recover the toy. Adam snickered to himself and then decided to pass on some brotherly wisdom.
“He’ll keep you doing that all day if you let him,” he stated.
“Oh, I don’t mind. He’ll tire of it soon, I’m sure. He’s such a good baby.”
Adam then turned his attention to the girl’s mother.
“Good morning, Mrs. Harper,” Adam said politely as he sat down next to Howard.
“Good morning, Adam,” the woman responded. “Sleep well?”
“No ma’am. That storm was too loud for anyone to sleep through.”
A few moments passed. Adam’s eyes scanned around the area looking for his Pa. He was nowhere in sight. Mrs. Harper read the boy’s expression of wonder.
“Sam and your father rode out early to survey the river. All that water last night probably has made it rise considerably.” Adam recognized the worried look of concern on her brow. A river too swift to cross over would bring more delays.
“Ma,” Howard interjected. “Can Adam and I go sit up on those rocks up there and watch for Pa and Mr. Cartwright to return?” Howard was 9 years old and the closest in age to Adam. The two had built up a friendship and enjoyed each others company. Mrs. Harper scanned up at the rocks contemplating. She knew both men should be returning soon and could see no harm in the boys watching out for them.
“Just as long as you stay within sight, Howard,” She firmly stated.
The boy nodded and then turned towards Adam. “C’mon Cartwright. I bet you my morning biscuit that I spot them first!”
He then speedily took off towards the rocks with Adam trailing behind.
Sarah Harper smiled as she watched the two young boys. She relished in their carefree nature but knew it would only last a brief while. Everyone, even children, had responsibilities and assigned chores to do. After a reflective moment, she arose and heaved a huge sigh. Turning towards her daughter she then said, “Well, Emily. I guess we better get breakfast started.”
“Yes, mother,” The girl replied and then turned to the baby now fussing in her arms. “I know…I know… now don’t you fret. I’ll make sure that I feed you first young man.”
Adam tried with all his might to catch up with Howard as he widened the distance between them. He was just stronger and faster and soon Adam lessened his pace in defeat. There was no use rushing if he wasn’t going to have a chance to win in the first place. Howard glanced over his shoulder as he reached the base of the rockery.
He shouted out, “C’mon Cartwright. I thought we were racing?” Adam continued to nonchalantly walk towards his friend.
“Well, you thought wrong. What’s the hurry anyway?” He questioned. “Haven’t you seen your Pa ride in on a horse before?”
Howard gave Adam that ‘know-it-all’ look as he waited for him to catch up. It wasn’t long before the two stood aside one another.
“Don’t feel bad young chap,” Howard chided as he patted Adam hardily on his back. “My Pa says that I’m so fast that I could out run any jack rabbit.”
Well, before the jack rabbit could even blink, Adam quickly grabbed hold of the first rock and began scaling the small rockery. He made sure to kick just a little dirt down on his stunned friend as he reached the edge and swiftly lifted himself to the top. Adam then smiled very gratifyingly as he gazed down at Howard.
“And my Pa says it’s better to fight with brains than with brawn any old day.”
Adam laughed out loud as he watched his friend shake his head in defeat and start his ascent.
Just then, Adam heard the sounds of horses and looked out towards the horizon. He could see his Pa and Mr. Harper riding towards camp. Right as poor Howard reached the top, Adam began his descent.
“Boy, that extra biscuit is sure gonna taste good this morning,” he said to him as he passed. Howard rolled his eyes and turned to follow. Somehow at that very moment Howard knew it was just not going to be one of his better days.
The two men rode into camp and quickly dismounted. Everyone crowded around to hear the news.
“Well, that rain done raised that river clear to its brim. There’s no chance in crossin’ it today,” Sam Harper blurted out his disappointed to the crowd.
“We just can’t seem to get a break for nothin’,” he grumbled.
Suddenly, one of the men from the back of the crowd yelled out, “Well, if you hadn’t of made us stop here early the other day in fear of the pending storm, we’d be on the other side by now,” A few others voiced out in agreement. “Yeah, we still had plenty of daylight left, too.”
“Yes, and strong winds in our face and no shelter ahead,” Ben Cartwright angrily retorted. Then he softened his tone, sensing the tension building.
“Now everyone, we certainly can’t blame anyone for what nature throws our way. We’ll just have to stay here one more night and hope the river subsides.”
Grumbles of disappointment emanated from the group. Ben Cartwright waited, allowing his words to penetrate. He then continued.
“There’s no use in us wasting the day, however. Our food is very low. I need some men to go hunting and the women can launder. We can have a few of the boys set traps nearby in hopes of snagging some added meat. Let’s use the day to fix up the wagons and rest the animals.” We’ll set out early in the morning and hope we can make up some ground.
Mutterings could be heard amongst them, and then people began to disperse.
Ben Cartwright’s eyes fell on Howard and his boy. Remembering what he had promised Adam the night before, he turned towards Sam and said.
“Well, Sam. Can you think of two boys that might be able to take on the responsibility of setting a few traps?” Sam rubbed his chin as he pretended to think hard on the issue.
“Well, Ben. I don’t rightly know. I can’t think of any off hand,” he said. Both men laughed and the boys smiled.
“All right, you two,” Ben said. Then his face became suddenly serious. “But… remember…you are to stay together… and be sure to remain within your boundaries.” Ben pointed his finger at the two to make sure they were paying full mind. “You do remember what those boundaries are, don’t you?”
“Yes, Pa,” Adam said immediately. “We are not to go near the river and the camp must be visible by sight or we’ve gone too far.”
Howard nodded in agreement.
“Go on then… you two. But be careful now.” Sam patted his boy on the back and turned him facing the right direction. Adam looked up anxiously at his Pa for approval. Ben simply gave the boy a wink and a head nod and the two swiftly took off.
“C’mon Cartwright, speed it up. We’ve got a job to do.”
“What’s the hurry? We’ve got all day you know,” Adam retorted as he rolled his eyes at his older friend’s bossiness.
He couldn’t understand why Howard always had to be in such a rush. Ben had instilled in Adam many philosophies early on in his life. One of which was that it wasn’t the speediness of the task, but the completeness of it that mattered.
“Hey Howard.” Adam said. “Don’t you think we should stop and think out a plan?”
Howard wrinkled his nose at his friend. “What sort of plan do you need for setting traps?” He asked indignantly.
“Well, for one thing, you need to pick places where animals will be looking for food.”
“I know that! We need to find some brush and food sources to lure them towards the trap. C’mon, we’re wasting time.” Howard started off again in the same direction.
Adam stayed put. He called out to his friend, “Then why are you heading off towards the dry area where there aren’t any shrubs?”
This made Howard halt and suddenly become aware of his direction. He looked quickly around and then turned towards Adam.
“Well I… I… was just testing you is all. Good job, Cartwright. Just keep with me and you’re gonna be a fine hunter some day.”
Howard then headed off in the opposite direction. Adam just rolled his eyes as a smirk fell onto his lips. He then followed after his friend.
The boys worked hard in setting the traps for about two hours.
It was getting towards noon by the time the last trap was set. Suddenly, Adam realized that they had forgotten to do one important thing before leaving the camp.
“Hey Howard, Do you realize we didn’t eat any breakfast?” He asked. “You still owe me that extra biscuit you know.”
Howard smirked at Adam’s remark. “Yeah, I guess we did forget to eat. No wonder my stomach is growlin’ right now.”
“Mine too. We best get back to camp or they’ll wonder what happened to us,” Adam replied.
Just then, Howard noticed some berries growing on some bushes nearby. “C’mon Cartwright, let’s have some lunch.”
He smiled at Adam and then eagerly took off towards his findings. It didn’t take two growing boys long to devour every last berry. They sat down near two trees to rest a bit before heading back to camp.
As Adam sat there, he glanced back in the direction they had come. He could still see the camp and the wagons, barely visible on the horizon. That visual told him that both of them had abided by their father’s wishes. They may have stretched the limit of their assigned boundaries, but they had not exceeded it. He just knew his Pa would be so proud of him when they returned to camp, hopefully with added meat to share.
Howard’s eyes, however, scanned to the beyond. He wanted to know what was ahead, not what was behind him. He, too, knew what the established boundaries were, but for some reason he had a yearning to cross that line. Perhaps it was the weeks of confinement around camp, or just a growing boy’s need for adventure. He just wanted to widen those boundaries just a little… to be daring… to be bold.
Howard looked over at Adam who was resting with his eyes now closed. He quickly decided to be straight forward about his thoughts. “Hey Adam? Why don’t we go over by the river and take a look at it before heading back to camp.”
Adam’s eyes immediately opened as he shot a stunned look at his friend.
“You heard my Pa, we’re not supposed to go…”
“I know what he said. I do have ears you know,” Howard interrupted. “But your Pa and my Pa aren’t here right now. We’ve done what we’re supposed to do and we have time on our hands anyway. What harm would it do to just go take a look? Then we could check all the traps on the way back to see if we caught anything.”
Adam knew it was wrong. His gut told him it was wrong. He could also tell that Howard had already made up his own mind and would go with him or without him regardless. Adam glanced nervously back at the camp. It was true that no one was around at the moment and everyone was probably busy getting ready for the long day ahead tomorrow. His Pa had set boundaries, but he also made it a point to stress that the boys were to stay together. Adam quietly weighed the odds. A few moments later, the boys were headed towards the river.
When Adam and Howard reached the river’s edge, the two boys could not believe their eyes. The water had poured over the bank and the current was raging. There were trees and debris floating rapidly down amongst the raging whitecaps. Neither boy had ever seen such a site.
“Sure beats those puny little rivers we’ve already past, don’t it?” Howard astonishingly asked. Adam just nodded, unable to find his words.
The two stood there for quite some time. Their minds were filled with wonder at nature’s fury. Suddenly, Adam’s eyes fell on something in the water. It wasn’t a tree or an animal. He strained to get a better look. There was something caught near the river’s edge on a branch. Adam blinked twice as he realized what he had just discovered. He whacked Howard on the arm and pointed in the direction of the object.
Howard turned and uttered, “What the…” His voice quickly fell silent as he, too, realized what was there.
The two boys carefully approached the water’s edge. Their mouths gaped open as their eyes stared down at the gruesome sight. It was a man… a young man, lying face down in the muddy water. His plaid shirt sleeve had caught on the branch of a log and that was the only thing keeping him from continuing his journey downstream. Neither boy had ever seen a dead body before. It sent shivers up both boys’ spines.
“What… What should we do?” Howard shakily asked Adam.
“I’m not sure… maybe we should try to pull him out… just in case he’s still alive?”
“No, he’s dead, Cartwright. There’s no doubt in my mind. He’s dead.” Howard almost said those words aloud just to reaffirm what his eyes were seeing.
“Well, maybe we should go get my Pa and …”
“NO!” Howard Bellowed. “Haven’t you forgotten we ain’t supposed to be down here in the first place? If we went and told we’d get a lickin’ of our lives.”
“A well deserved one, too.” Adam thought to himself.
“Well, you were the one that was so high and mighty about coming down here in the first place,” Adam sharply replied.
He then looked down at the man. His mind was full of questions. Who was he? Where did he come from? How long had he been in the river? Did he have a family?
“His family…” Adam stated it very softly as his face saddened.
Where was his family? And, did they know what happened to him? Adam thought briefly of his step mother and what it would have been like if she had just disappeared without a trace. He thought about how he would have felt not knowing if she were alive or dead. At least with a proper burial, both he and his Pa had been able to feel a sense of closure.
After a moment, Adam swallowed hard.
“We can’t just leave him there you know.” He then found enough gumption to move towards the body and grab hold of the limp arm. The water was rushing around his feet and he was having difficulty maintain his balance. Adam leaned his body up against the log for support and pleadingly yelled,
“Come on Howard, help me.”
Howard instinctively responded to his friend’s call. With much effort, the two boys were able to eventually drag the body ashore.
Adam and Howard sat in the mud along the bank breathing heavily. They were soaked to the skin and neither could believe what they had just accomplished. The question now was what were they going to do next? It was getting to be mid afternoon and both knew they’d soon have to head back to the wagon train. They had somehow found a way to get themselves into a deep pickle and neither had a solution.
“Adam,” Howard spoke softly. “I know you want to tell your Pa about him, but I think you better think twice about it.”
He looked over at his friend to gage his facial expression. Adam showed none for he was already deep in thought about what should be done.
Howard then continued his beliefs. “Think of how disappointed he’d be in you if he found out. He’d never let you go hunting again. You’d never be able to sit down properly for weeks. Is it worth it to tell?”
Adam said nothing as he hung his head at the thought of disappointing his Pa. Then he thought of the man lying face down in the mud.
After a long moment, Adam arose. He turned towards Howard and matter-of-factly stated, “Did you ever stop to think that this man that you keep calling ‘him’ has a real name?”
Adam shot his friend a disgusted look. He then turned coldly away and started walking back towards camp. Howard instinctively followed. Not a word was spoken between the two as they made their way back. They retraced their steps and found a few rabbits and a squirrel, nothing more. It certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, but it would be considered prize meat and well received. The two were completely exhausted by the time they dragged their feet into camp.
Mrs. Harper eagerly came to greet them with baby Hoss propped up against her hip.
“My goodness boys we were beginning to worry about you.” Hoss’s eyes fell on his brother and he instinctively reached out for him. Adam half-heartedly took the baby into his arms.
Mrs. Harper then quickly eyed both of them, noticing the dried dirt on their clothes. Howard immediately noticed her suspicious stare and made up a flimsy excuse.
“Adam and I kind of got into a disagreement… about where to put the traps,” he muttered. “We also found a mud hole to wrestle in while we were settling it.” He nervously glanced over at Adam in fear that he might say something otherwise.
Mrs. Harper tried to stifle her grin. “Oh, I see…” She simple replied. “Well, I bet you boys are hungrier than lions. I’ve got some nice stew warming on the fire. You best get cleaned up and then you can eat.”
Howard let out an “Oh, Boy! Thanks Ma.” Then he handed her the prize meat and rushed off.
Mrs. Harper turned then to Adam. “Well, Adam. Aren’t you a might bit hungry as well?” She questioned.
“No thank you Ma’am,” he politely replied. Would it be too much to ask you to watch Hoss for a while? I’d like to lie down and rest.”
“Adam? Are feeling okay?” She questioned as she accepted the baby back from his brother.
The boy simply replied, “Just tired, Mrs. Harper,” and then walked solemnly towards his wagon.
Mrs. Harper watched the boy for a few moments. She knew that something had happened and Adam was obviously feeling the effects of it more so than her own son. “Well, I’m sure Ben will find out what went on in due time,” she said to herself. Then she turned her attention back to Hoss.
“Well little man, shall we see what we can find for you to eat? You certainly are taking on a big appetite these days.”
Adam quietly entered the wagon and was relieved to find that his Pa was not around. He lay down across the makeshift bed as the tears began to uncontrollably fall. It wasn’t long before sheer exhaustion led him into a deep sleep.
A little while later sounds could be heard emanating from within. “Tell me your name. I want to know your name!” Adam bellowed. “Answer me. What is your name? Tell me your name!”
“Son…son… wake up, wake up!” Ben’s voice echoed off the canvas walls. He shook his son once more and repeated his command. “Adam… Wake up!”
The boy’s eyes instantly popped open and Ben watched as he carefully looked around to gather his whereabouts.
“Pa?” he groggily asked. “What happened?”
“You must of fallen asleep son from all that work you did today.” Ben’s face suddenly changed to a look of concern. “Were you having a nightmare?”
Adam simply nodded and hung his head. The realization of that nightmare came rampantly flowing back, and tears began to well in his eyes.
Ben assisted the boy into a sitting position and began to feel his forehead. “Are you feeling all right, Adam. Sarah said that you didn’t eat any lunch.”
Adam again nodded. “I’m fine, Pa,” he simply stated. “It just…it just has been… a… long day is all.”
Ben noticed the dirty clothes and bedraggled appearance of the boy and realized there was far more to this story than met the eye.
“Yes, it looks like you two had quite an outing… brought back some meat, too. That’s good work, son.”
If only Ben knew how hard it was for Adam to hear those words of praise. He may have brought back meat, but he left a dead man to the elements with his face down in the mud.
“Dinner isn’t for another hour or two, but Sarah left you a little stew to tide you over until…”
“Pa.” Adam forcibly interrupted, but his eyes still remained glued to the floor. There was a long pause of silence as Ben eyed his son.
He then softly asked, “Yes, son. What is it?”
Adam took in a deep breath before speaking. He apprehensively glanced over at his father. “I…I…would like to show you something, Pa.” His voice was shaky. “Can we take a ride together before dinner?”
Ben did not hesitate in responding to his son’s plea. “Of course, son…of course,” he stated, as he motioned towards the opening. Adam arose and both father and son exited.
It didn’t take long for Ben and Adam to grab a mount and ride double out of camp. Adam clung to his father’s waist as his mind raced with all sorts of thoughts. His father stopped just outside of camp.
“Which way?” he questioned.
Adam simply responded, “Towards the river.”
“The river?!!!!” Ben’s voice was sharp. “You two didn’t go to the river, did you?”
Adam felt his father’s body becoming tense. “Yes, pa,” he softly admitted.
“Adam Stoddard Cartwright!” Ben began to dismount and Adam squeezed tightly around his middle.
“Please Pa… Please… I’m sorry. Not now… Not yet. I deserve to be punished but I have to show you something. Please! Please let me show you something first.”
The boy began to sob as he kept a tight hold on his father. Ben could feel his shirt becoming wet from his boy’s tears. He had never seen him react in such a way. Ben was torn with emotion. A part of him was angry at his son for his disobedience and he wanted to have a long discussion with his backside right here, right now. Another part of him was concerned about how upset his boy seemed to be. Something had clearly left an impression on him. Ben soon realized that whatever it was, it had left enough of an impression to warrant a confession of his whereabouts. With that in mind, it didn’t take long for the actions of a concerned father to outweigh the need to be a stern disciplinarian.
Adam breathed a sigh of relief when, after a long moment, his father kicked the horse into motion once more.
As the two approached the river, Adam directed his father over to the man.
Ben quickly dismounted and turned the man upright. He instinctively felt for a pulse or breath, but it was clear the man had been dead for some time. Adam remained by the horse, fiddling with its reins. He could not bear to look at the body one more time and he was filled with shame for leaving him there in the first place.
“Howard and I…we… pulled him out of the water, Pa.” Adam said softly.
Ben looked up with a start at Adam. Adam could see the surprise and anger within his eyes. Ben said nothing for the fear dwelling inside of him was too strong for words. The river had subsided some, but the current was still strong. Ben couldn’t believe that the two boys would have had enough strength to pull the man ashore without being washed downstream themselves.
He then searched the man’s pockets in hopes of finding some form of identification. There was none. Quietly, he then went about the business necessary to give the man a proper burial.
As the sun began to set, Ben and Adam stood at the foot of the fresh grave. They removed their hats and bowed their heads before quietly reciting the 23rd Psalm. The two then solemnly mounted and rode back towards camp.
Howard gulped as he saw Ben and Adam return. They dismounted and the two walked straight over to the big campfire where most of the families had gathered for the evening meal.
Ben didn’t waste any time in addressing the issue at hand. “We’ve been to the river,” he simply stated. Howard shot Adam the meanest look and Adam instantly averted his eyes.
“It has subsided some, but it is still raging rather strong. Hopefully by morning we’ll be able to cross.” A hush fell over the crowd as they absorbed the meaning of Ben’s words. Once again they were left to only hope. Hope that they could move on safely by morning and not lose another day of travel.
Ben waited for a moment before continuing. “Sam, it seems our boys decided to take a trip down to the river this afternoon despite our distinct orders to do otherwise.”
Ben’s words left Sam surprised and momentarily stunned. Ben shot Howard a stern glance before continuing. This time it was Howard who averted his eyes.
“Unfortunately, they stumbled upon a dead man floating in the river. They apparently entered the water and brought him to shore.”
There were a few gasps and then quiet murmurs as people realized what danger the boys had created for themselves.
Ben then quickly concluded his story. “Adam led me to the body and we made sure to give him a proper burial.”
Sam shot his boy a penetrating look of anger. He arose from his seat and hastily grabbed Howard’s upper arm.
“I was gonna tell you, Pa… Honest,” Howard tried to quickly put together an excuse. Sam didn’t waste any time in leading his boy away.
Ben then somberly stated, “The man had no identification on him whatsoever.” He then took hold of Adam’s arm and two solemnly walked out of the campfire light.
They walked in silence until they were safely behind their own wagon. Ben found an old stump and sat down, turning his boy to face him. Adam knew the time had come for them to have their talk.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I knew it was wrong and it won’t happen again. I promise.”
Adam hung his head as tears filled his eyes. He could faintly hear poor Howard’s cries as his father delivered his comeuppance.
Ben said nothing for several moments. He looked sympathetically at his young son and had feelings of guilt for bringing him to this God forsaken country. He could see the boy was literally exhausted…both mentally and physically. Yet, he stood stoically before him ready to accept what was deserved. The boy had been disobedient and there were many things that Ben wanted to discuss with him; the dangers and the reasons for the set boundaries and the importance of following orders, but he knew that his boy had suffered enough for one day. It just wasn’t the right time for a lecture.
After a long moment, he carefully reached over and raised his boy’s chin. Looking deep into his tear filled eyes, Ben then softly stated,
“Adam, I think this long day needs to come to an end. Let’s get what is necessary done so that we can put the memory of this day behind us and look forward to tomorrow.”
Adam could not hold back his emotions any longer. Tears began to stream down his face and his father instinctively wrapped his arms around his son. There he held him close for some moments, rubbing his back soothingly. Ben waited until the boy’s sobs turned to sniffles. Then he released his hold and positioned the boy in front of him once more.
Inside Ben’s heart was breaking, but he knew he had to punish Adam for disobeying. He heaved a huge sigh and then continued.
“Adam, we both know you were wrong in not following orders and as I’ve told you before I will not tolerate any disobedience. Starting this evening, you are confined to the wagon. You will only come out for meals and necessaries. I will ask Emily to take care of Hoss. Perhaps spending time alone will allow you to think about making a better decision next time you are tempted to disobey. I will decide when the punishment shall be lifted. Is that understood?”
Adam simply nodded and remained rigid. Without warning, Ben swiftly spun Adam around, administering one single firm swat to his behind. He then squared his son’s shoulders to him and looked deep into his eyes.
“Let that be a reminder to you of what to expect if ever we find ourselves in this position again.”
Ben then waggled his finger at his son. “Consider yourself very lucky this time Adam Stoddard.”
Adam blinked both in surprise and relief. He then reached forward and gave his Pa a huge hug. Ben warmly accepted the embrace. Adam nestled his head into his Pa’s shoulder. Looking up at his father he softly said,
“I’ll remember, Pa. You’ll see.”
Ben smiled warmly and patted the boy on the back. A few moments later he began to rise. “Well, we best go get your brother and have something to…”
Ben’s words were cut short as Adam grabbed hold of his arm.
“Pa?” Adam tried to look up at his Pa, but his eyes quickly fell to the ground. He kicked the dirt at his feet as he muttered, “Do you think that man’s family will ever know what happened to him?”
For a moment, Ben could only stare sadly down at his son, sharing his feelings of pain. He then gently placed his arm around him and the two began walking side by side. Adam could tell that his father was struggling to find the right words.
“Son, always remember that love is stronger than death. Love can’t stop death from happening, but death can’t stop people from being loved. Although that man has died and no one knows who he is, there are people somewhere still living that truly loved him. They will cherish the memories they had with him forever. There will always be sadness and a feeling of emptiness, not knowing what truly happened. Yet, they’ll have their memories and it will be those memories of him that they will carry on within their very souls. All we can hope for is that, over time, this will help ease some of their pain.”
The next five days dragged on for Adam Cartwright. The wagon train managed to get across the river and now they were nearing the base of the mountains. Adam sat quietly in the wagon as it rumbled along. He tried to look out the back, but the dust would billow up and clog his throat. He knew his punishment from Pa would not be an easy one, but he hadn’t imagined it to be like this. He was so bored that he tried anything to entertain himself. He made up silly challenges like seeing how long he could stand on one foot without falling over. He tried drawing, but the wagon was too jarring. He even tried singing to himself, but nothing helped. Adam even missed his little brother. He so wished his Pa had allowed Hoss to stay with him, for at least he would have provided some company. Then there was Howard. Howard was still mad at him for ratting and was giving him the cold shoulder. Inside the walls of that wagon, Adam had no choice but to think and reflect on his actions. It didn’t take much persuasion in his mind to come to the conclusion that he would handle things differently the next time around.
The next evening after supper, his Pa came over to him.
“Adam, starting right now, your punishment has been lifted.” Adam looked up with a huge smile, but before he could get out a ‘thank you’ his Pa continued speaking. “You will be allowed to resume your normal duties, but you must stay within the camp area unless I request you to do otherwise. Understood?”
Adam nodded and then said, “I’m sorry for what I did and believe me Pa I know what to do the next time.”
“Well, let’s just hope there isn’t going to be a next time.” Ben smiled and then ruffled his boy’s hair playfully.
“Now why don’t you go and relieve poor Emily from your brother’s torment. I’m sure she could use a break after all these days.”
Adam smiled and said, “Sure, Pa. I suppose it’s only fair that it’s my turn now to get my hair pulled and baby spit spewed all over me.” Adam then ran off as Ben chuckled over the boy’s comment.
“Something tells me that he’s going to enjoy every minute of that torture, too,” he said to himself.
The next morning as everyone was organizing for departure two men road into camp. They dismounted and asked everyone to gather around. The taller one spoke first.
“Excuse the interruption, but my name is Rick Roberts. This here is my brother Steve. We’ve been looking for a man, our younger brother for several days. We were out hunting about a week ago when a storm hit. We somehow got separated from him on our way back to camp. We haven’t seen him since.”
Adam’s eyes opened wide. Could it be the man he found? He pushed his way towards the front of the line to stand near his Pa.
Then the other brother spoke. “We saw your campfire and thought maybe he might have joined up with you or another wagon train for the time being.”
Adam eyed the men and then he noticed something. They were wearing identical shirts. The same shirt the man from the river had on that day. He looked up at his Pa and was about to speak when Ben placed his hand on his shoulder and nodded in agreement to his thoughts. Ben then stepped forward to talk to the men.
“Gentlemen, my name is Ben Cartwright.” He extended his hand out in greeting and both men shook his hand. Ben noticed that the men had the same sandy colored hair and complexion of the man he and his son had buried down by the river. There wasn’t any doubt in his mind that the man they were looking for was the one they had found.
“I’m afraid that I do know the whereabouts of your brother. About six days ago my son and a friend found a man floating in the river. The two of them pulled him ashore. We searched his pockets and found nothing and then buried him underneath a nearby oak tree.”
Both men looked at each other before Rick spoke once more. “Well, maybe it wasn’t our brother our brother had on…”
“…a checkered shirt like what you both are wearing and dark brown pants. He had a mole on his right cheek and a visible bullet wound scar on the top of his right hand.” The men both hung their heads as they heard the words.
Then Steve let out a half-hearted chuckle. “That wound was from when we were kids. Remember Rick?” He then removed his hat and wiped away a tear that was forming in his eye.
Rick answered his brother with a reflective, “Yeah Steve… I remember.” He then turned to Ben. “We’re much obliged to you sir for what you have done.” This time Rick extended his hand out to Ben. Ben accepted and placed his other arm on the man’s shoulder. “We are all truly sorry for your loss. Hopefully this will help your family gain closure.”
The man simply nodded. Ben then offered the two breakfast, but they refused with the excuse they needed to get back to their own wagon train and inform their parents and younger sister of their loss. The men were about to ride out when Adam walked quietly up to them. Steve and Rick looked down at the boy from their mounts.
“What was his name?” He apprehensively asked. Steve and Rick exchanged puzzled glances. “What was your brother’s name?”
Ben was quick to come up behind his boy. “This is my son, Adam. He was one of the boys that discovered your brother at the river.”
“Oh I see…” Steve said. “Well, I guess we owe you a big thank you, too.” He then reached down and extended his hand towards Adam. Adam looked up at his Pa who gave him an assured nod and then raised the boy up closer to meet the man’s hand.
Once Steve grabbed hold, he held tight. He then looked deep into Adam’s eyes and said, “On behalf of my brother, William Aaron Roberts, I thank you for caring and seeing that he left this world in a dignified manner.”
Steve then released Adam’s hand and the two brothers rode away. Ben allowed his son to watch until the last bit of dust dissipated from his sight. He then quietly turned his boy around and, without saying a word, led him towards the wagon. He knew deep down that William Aaron Roberts had made a lasting impression and Adam had learned a valuable lesson about life. There was no more to be said. It was time to push on and hope for a safe journey.
And, push on they did. The next few weeks were grueling for everyone. All the animals were wearing down from the exertion of climbing the elevated terrain. The carcasses of the animals not sturdy enough to make the climb were strewn everywhere. More and more people were seen as trail merged with trail. That meant that food supplies were scarce and everyone had to compete for camping sites along the way. Soon, there was only one way to travel and the ruts were so deep and well formed that it seemed to Adam that the wagons were just leading themselves to their unforeseen destiny. Day by day Adam’s eyes witnessed personal possessions being abandoned alongside the trail. Stoves, chests, and furniture strewn across the hilly countryside serving as personal monuments… monuments that represented the strength and determination of a group of people willing to give up and endure anything in order to follow their dream.
Adam sat silently alongside his father with Hoss in his arms. The air was crisp and cool. He looked down at his little brother and smiled. His round little cheeks were bright pink and on his face he wore the goofiest grin. Hoss squirmed just a little and one of his feet poked out from underneath the blanket. Adam could not resist temptation and reached down and began tickling the bottom of it. Hoss let out the biggest giggle as he moved his foot to safety under the blanket once more. This made Adam laugh out loud and, in turn, made Ben glance over at his boys.
“I was just tickling his foot, Pa,” Adam stated. “Do you think he’s warm enough?” He then asked.
Ben smirked at the boy’s comment. “I’d say he’s plenty warm enough, but with the way he’s growing out of everything he owns… Well, he might just soon find himself facing the elements wearing nothing but bare skin and bones.”
Adam laughed heartedly at his Pa’s comment and the sound of his laughter was music to his father’s ears. Just then, Adam noticed another grave and his whole face took on a sullen expression. This sight was becoming more and more familiar. He had seen grave after grave, some as close as 80 yards apart, all along the trail. This image only reinforced in Adam that not everyone made it to their destination…not everyone was able to fulfill their dream. It also brought him apprehension in the fact that he wondered if all three of them would make it safely across. Would they be able to say that they made their dream come true?
Suddenly, Adam realized that he really didn’t understand this dream. People were risking their lives, dying, starving, enduring the harsh elements for months on end, but what for? What could be waiting for them on the other side that they would risk everything just to achieve?
Adam’s thoughts were interrupted by his father’s voice. Ben had noticed his boy’s sudden change in demeanor and knew something was troubling him.
“Penny for your thoughts, Adam,” he directly stated. Adam glanced up at his Pa for a moment. He didn’t know exactly what to ask or tell. He just said the first thing that came into his head.
“What is this dream, Pa? I don’t understand…All these people dying and fighting and leaving things behind…for what? This?” Adam pointed to another passing grave.
Ben was taken aback by his son’s statement. It made him realize at that very moment that he never really shared with Adam the reasons for them leaving. The boy had been living Ben’s dream not his own. He had been enduring all these hardships not for himself, but for the sake of his father’s own ambitions.
There was a long silence as Ben kept his eyes straight ahead, not daring to look over at his son. Adam waited in anticipation devoting his full attention to his now sleeping brother. The two rode quietly along for some time before Ben softly spoke.
“Adam… a dream is nothing more than a desire … a want for something better. This dream we’re living now started before you were born. Your mother and I were happy living with your grandfather. We could have stayed where we were and lived a contented life. But I wanted more. I wanted to take my family out west to where I could own my own piece of land and build my own farm. I wanted to see what was beyond that horizon…to experience the unknown. Your mother would sit for hours listening to my glorified ideas and hopes… We’d laugh and dream of our future life together and say to each other, ‘Some day… some day’.”
Again there was silence as Ben carefully thought out his words.
“Well, Adam, your mother made me promise just before she left us that I would follow that dream no matter what happened, and your Grandfather Stoddard made sure I held true to that promise. And so…”
Tears began to fill his eyes as he struggled with the right words to say to his son.
“…we find ourselves heading out west sharing this dream with many others. The hardships we face are unforeseen and for the most part out of our control. Yet, we haven’t any choice but to continue on and face what is beyond that horizon, for there is nothing waiting for us from where we have come.”
Ben then turned and looked directly into the eyes of his son.
“Sadly, Adam, my dream has been your reality for all these months. And for that, son, I am truly sorry.”
A moment later, the wagons slowed to a halt. It was time to stop for the evening. Ben quickly jumped down and began busying himself with necessary tasks. Adam remained for a moment in the wagon, processing his father’s words. He intensely watched his Pa and the others. They all looked tired, drawn, and defeated. Yet, Adam could sense the continued drive within them….their utter determination and willingness to still tackle the unknown. He now understood the why and found himself for the first time gazing out towards the horizon with a sense of hope. He too, wanted to be a part of the dream.
They continued over the mountains for what seemed like days. The animals and the people were weakening from lack of food and clean water sources. People were steadily dwindling as death became almost a daily occurrence.
That night at the campfire Ben’s face was lined with concern and despair. He was carrying a heavy burden… not only for himself and his family but for the others as well. He thought, by his calculations, that they should have reached the summit before nightfall. They obviously had not, which meant one more grueling day ahead. No one had complained… no one had argued. They just set up camp and made due. It was a chilly evening and families huddled together to keep warm. Adam sat next to Howard and Emily gratefully enjoying a thin soup mixture Mrs. Harper had made. Howard skewed up his nose at every bite. He was about to voice a comment of complaint when his eyes locked in on his father’s glare… a glare that meant for him to keep his mouth shut. Adam had learned early on to be grateful for whatever was put before him. It wasn’t the best tasting soup, but it at least filled the emptiness in his belly… for a while.
Adam looked over at Mrs. Harper who was feeding Hoss his evening meal. No matter how scarce the food, Hoss always seemed to have plenty to fill his ever growing stomach capacity. The boy had grown steadily the last few months and now was twice the size of a normal baby his age. He eagerly accepted spoonful after spoonful of whatever was offered to him.
“There you go young man, I bet your belly feels like it’s about to burst out at the seams,” Mrs. Harper said to Hoss as she playful tickled the boy’s middle. Hoss let out a loud giggle in response.
“Mine feels as empty as a bottomless pit,” Howard grumbled.
“Howard, you apologize to your mother this very instant.” Mr. Harper’s voice was cold and stern.
Howard quickly complied. Mr. Harper then turned to him, “I don’t think it’s your stomach that’s empty boy… just your mind. The way I figure it… there is only one way to cure a very selfish boy of that…”
“Please Sam…” Sarah Harper interjected. “We’re all tired… the boy didn’t mean any disrespect…”
“…Nor is he thinking of anyone else but himself,” Sam stated in anger.
He then turned his attention back to his son. “You are to spend the rest of the evening in the wagon, boy, where you can spend as much time thinking of only yourself as you like. Now git!”
Howard jumped up immediately and started off towards the wagon. Adam watched his friend disappear into the darkness.
Mrs. Harper glanced over at her husband who had focused his attention back to eating his meal. Her eyes then turned towards Ben. He was sitting there with soup in hand and his mind a million miles away.
“Ben, you best eat up before the soup gets cold,” she softly stated to him, but Ben remained in his own world.
It didn’t take much for a smart woman like Sarah Harper to realize that the man before her was struggling with the torment of guilt and uncertainty.
“Emily, why don’t you take Adam and Hoss for a little walk,” she said to her oldest. Emily understood and accepted Hoss from her mother’s arms.
“Come on, Adam. Let’s see who can count the most stars tonight,” she said.
Adam did not want to count stars. He looked over at his Pa with a deep look of concern. His father had grown quieter and quieter the last few days. Adam had tried to talk to him, but he would just remain sullen, responding only when necessary.
“Adam?” Emily interrupted the boy’s thoughts. “Let’s go now…” she softly said. Adam arose and quietly followed.
Sarah then looked over at her husband who was just finishing up his meal. He recognized the look on her face and smiled over at his wife with loving eyes. She was so caring and understanding and willing. Yet, he knew the one thing that got Sarah Harper’s dander up was seeing someone trying to carry everyone else’s burdens along with their own.
After a brief moment, Sam quietly set his bowl down and walked away, leaving his wife alone with Ben.
Sarah walked over and sat next to the man. Her presence awakened him from his thoughts as he looked around at the now empty campfire.
Ben muttered a flimsy apology. “Oh…I’m sorry… I must have been deep in thought.”
“Yes, you seem to be doing a lot of thinking these days, Ben, and if you don’t mind me saying, I think it’s a little too much thinking.”
Ben glanced over at Sarah then cast his eyes downward. No words were spoken for some time.
“Ben, I remember when Sam and I decided to join you on this journey. You were so confident and sure of yourself. You spoke intelligently and demonstrated great leadership qualities. We wanted a good leader. Someone we could rely on and depend on and give us that so needed feeling of security. We all set out not knowing truly what was ahead. You did not have to twist our arms or beg us to join you. We came of our own free will. We chose to follow this destiny with you, Ben, our destiny.”
Sarah paused to give Ben a chance to digest the words before continuing.
“You have been a good leader, Ben, but sometimes with good leaders they tend to take more than a little of the blame and far less the credit they deserve. Think of what we have accomplished… not what we have lost.”
Sarah reached over and took Ben’s soup bowl… untouched. She quietly walked over to the fire and threw the soup back into the pot to warm. Ben sat quietly watching her. Soon she returned with a fresh bowl and smiled.
“You know, Ben. My father always said that it was important for everyone to take their own lives into their ownhands because then there was no one to blame… no one… that is… but your own self.”
Ben smirked at the comment. After a moment, he softly responded, “Your father was a wise man.”
Sarah smiled broadly. “And now kind sir… I would appreciate it if you would eat something.” She handed the soup over to Ben and he accepted. “We can’t have our fearless leader passing out from hunger when we need him the most.”
The next day, the wagon train reached the steepest terrain. Women and children were removed from the wagons to lighten the load. Weak from hunger and exhaustion they tediously walked alongside, everyone helping everyone as they climbed. Howard and Adam walked with Emily and Mrs. Harper. Adam held tightly to his little brother and paid careful mind to each step. Mrs. Harper could tell that Hoss’s weight was a strain for the 7 year old.
“Adam, why don’t you let me carry Hoss for a while,” she graciously asked.
Adam’s arms were aching and his legs felt weak, but he was determined that his brother was going to be in his arms when they reached the top.
“Thank you, Mrs. Harper,” he politely responded. “But this is something my brother and I have to do… together.”
The woman simply nodded and then eased back. They climbed steady for what seemed like hours and then… as Adam had barely enough strength left to put one foot in front of the other he heard it. It started off like a bird call far off in the distance then it became louder and louder as it emanated out from the tall pines surrounding them. Sam Harper came whooping down through the woods.
“We made it! We made it! I can see the valley. I can see the valley. Yippee! Wahoo! Praise God everyone we made it!” Other cheers grew from Sam’s as the message passed rapidly down the hillside.
Sam kissed his wife and daughter and picked Howard up and swung him around. “Come on Harper family…our knew home awaits,” He shouted. Then he turned and started back up the hill walking alongside with his family.
Adam felt the push of the people behind him that had suddenly regained strength. He shifted Hoss in his arms and continued upward, but with a feeling of sadness. Why hadn’t his father come down to get him, too? He trudged on, resting as needed, for another fifteen minutes. Finally, he could see the destination ahead. He paused to watch the wagon in front of him disappear over the crest. “Only a bit farther, Hoss,” he reassured his little brother.
Adam then heaved a huge sigh and was about to start climbing again when he noticed his Pa, sitting on a large rock just below the crest. His Pa started waving his hat at him. He then shouted out in his booming voice, “Come on boy, how much longer are you going to keep me waiting?”
Adam smiled broadly and waved back. He then started to briskly take on the remaining distance between them. When he reached his Pa, the two stood facing each other for what seemed like a long moment. Ben dropped to his knees and gingerly placed Hoss in his left arm, giving the baby a gentle kiss on his cheek. He then grabbed hold of Adam and held him close to his chest. Tears welled in his eyes as his emotions gave way.
An instant later, Ben arose and took hold of Adam’s hand. “I had Sam drive our wagon over so that we could share in this moment together. Adam, just over that hill is our future… Our new life…”
“Our dream, Pa?” the boy interrupted.
Ben stared down at his son for a long moment. The boy was right… it wasn’t just his dream anymore, nor had it ever really been. He knowingly looked down at Adam and grinned. “Yes, son… our dream. Now … let’s work on making it our reality?”
Other Stories by this Author
- Be Ready for the Thunder (by pbeaking)
- Camping at Eagle’s Nest (by pbeaking)
- Memories Within (by pbeaking)
- Posies (by pbeaking)
- Father (by pbeaking)