Prelude. Summary: Ben fears for his sons in the face of imminent civil war. This story takes place before my “Dividing Line” series and before the events portrayed in the episode, “A House Divided.”
Rated: K+ (4,570 words)
Dividing Line Series:
This story takes place before my Civil War series and before the events in the episode, “A House Divided.”
It was a night like any other, and yet it already felt like a memory. All evening, Ben had been haunted by a growing sense of melancholy. He’d been trying to shake it off. After all, his family was together on a cold night, warm in front of a vigorous fire blazing away in the hearth. Everything was as it had been – not a harbinger in sight. Adam had tucked himself in the corner of the room with a new book and was well into it already. The other two were hunched over a game of checkers, and Joe was cheating his hapless brother, even while surreptitiously glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was noticing. By all accounts, it seemed like an ordinary night with ordinary blessings intact.
However, the peaceful scene inside the house felt like a prelude to something else altogether. For the past hour, Ben had been reading The Territorial Enterprise, and the news was not good. War was probable, if not inevitable. Ben didn’t know if the newspaper was right, but certainly it seemed that the peace his country had known was coming to an end. The conflict had been spreading out west. Fights had been breaking out in saloons, at town council meetings, and out on the street. Tragic bleeding Kansas was only the beginning. Rabble-rousers on both sides wrote editorials condemning their opponents as not only enemies but also traitors to the nation. Every day, it seemed to be getting worse, the passions on either side growing more strident.
It’ll all be over in a day. Each side predicted the same thing. Ben knew better than to believe it. He had seen his share of battles, and they always began with a guarantee of victory. That was how they justified it – one decisive battle, a slaughter, and then the fighting would be over. Glory came easy to the young. Ben knew better, but that knowledge was a sorrow in his heart that he couldn’t easily explain to his sons. Victory was never cheap, nor was it easy. It was much easier to start a war than see it to its end.
The thought of his country being torn apart by civil war was horrifying to Ben. The thought of his family being caught up in it was even worse. And yet, that was exactly what seemed to be happening…
“Little Joe, I’m gonna toss your sorry hide clear into the next county, if you done cheated me again!” Hoss warned.
Ben looked up, startled. While he’d been mulling over the bad news in the paper, the game had evidently ended. As usual, Joe had confiscated all his brother’s checkers, and Hoss was glaring up a storm. But Joe didn’t back off from his much bigger brother. He had guts – Ben had to give him that.
His voice pitched high in self-righteous indignation, Little Joe exclaimed, “What are you talking about? Me cheat? When have you ever known me to cheat?”
Ben had to smile, despite his firm stance on cheating. He could see Adam’s small smirk, as well, from behind his book. How many times had those two ended a game the same way, and how many times had Hoss grudgingly accepted that his little brother was simply “lucky” at checkers? Ben leaned over to prod the embers, when the premonition washed over him again.
This moment will not last.
Ben didn’t want to believe it. It was so much easier to believe that his life would stay the same. It was such a good life – rich and satisfying, working hard alongside his sons to build up the empire that was the Ponderosa. Ben was truly thankful for the blessings he’d been given, and he hoped and prayed that life would continue as it had. Yet, even as that thought crossed his mind, Ben knew it was folly. Everything was changing. The country was already groaning with the birth pains of war, and only a fool or an immoral man would believe that his family could be untouched by it. War was a serious business for a father with three sons. Every time a baby boy was born, his parents knew they could lose him on a battlefield someday. It was an ancient heartache, but that didn’t make it any easier.
Ben had hoped his family would be spared, but already the discord was finding its way into his own home. He was deeply troubled by the argument that had happened that very evening between Adam and Joe. The fight erupted seemingly without warning. If Ben didn’t know better, he’d have said it came out of nowhere. But it had been festering for a long time…
Hoss had been reaching for the potatoes when Adam remarked almost casually, “Jefferson Davis has been talking about California again. He’s still hoping to win it for the South.”
Hoss’s hand stopped in mid-reach, never making it to the platter. He met his father’s eyes across the table. They both knew that discussing the leader of the Confederacy would not make for a peaceful supper.
Sure enough, Joe bristled. “Why should that matter, Adam? Doesn’t he have the right? California will have to decide what side it’s on, and they might as well have all the facts before they do. Makes sense he’d be interested. They say there’s just as many Southerners out in California as there are Yankees.”
Adam put down his fork and fixed his little brother with a hard stare. “Show some common sense, Joe. You know as well as I do that the Confederacy is interested in California for two reasons – bringing slavery to a free state and getting their pockets full of California gold.”
Ben cleared his throat. “Boys, I hardly think that the dinner table is the right place to discuss this. Why don’t we wait until -?”
But Joe shoved his plate away in plain disgust, and gravy splashed onto the table. Not seeming to hear his father, he shot back, “Adam, slavery’s been outlawed in California for a decade, so why even bring it up? You’re trying to make this into something it’s not. This is about the South being able to settle things for itself. Why the hell does the North have the right to tell them what to do?“
“Joseph, watch your language at the table!” Ben glowered at his youngest. “What’s the matter with you? Your brother made a simple political statement, and I don’t think it’s worth getting fired up about it.”
“I disagree, Pa,” Adam said quietly, and Hoss gaped at him, floored by his older brother’s audacity. Disagreeing with their father wasn’t exactly something to do at the dinner table. “I think Joe’s right to be fired up. We should all be fired up about what’s happening to this country. I can’t think of anything more important than slavery and what it means for this nation. What happens in California affects all of us. The South needs that gold, so it can continue the barbaric practice of buying and selling human beings for profit for another hundred years…”
Joe slammed his fist onto the table, and the glasses shook so hard that Hoss’s toppled over. “This is not about slavery!” Joe was close to shouting. “I’m not arguing with you about slavery. This is about states having the right to decide for themselves. The South just wants to be left alone.”
“And you’re saying that slavery has nothing to do with it? That this is all about independence and not about money?” Adam didn’t bother hiding the disdain in his voice.
Joe squared his shoulders and glared defiantly. “That’s what I’m saying.”
“Well then, I’d say you’re being naïve,” Adam snapped, but Joe was already on his feet, fists raised. Immediately, Ben and Hoss were on their feet as well, ready to separate the two if necessary.
“That’s enough now! Joseph!”
But Adam wasn’t going to be baited. He didn’t stand up, but instead calmly wiped his mouth with his napkin.
“How can you just sit there and call me naïve?” Joe asked furiously, even as Hoss restrained him. “Dang it, Adam, you can’t just dismiss me like that!”
“Then at least get your facts straight.” Adam folded his napkin, but Ben could see his oldest son’s hands were shaking. That was the thing with Adam. He stayed calm, but his feelings were just as strong as his little brother’s. “The Southern cause has nothing to do with you, anyway, Joe. It’s not your fight.”
Joe shook off Hoss’s grip. “Let go of me, Hoss. I’m not going after him. Let me ask you this, Adam. How can you be so sure this ain’t my fight?”
“What do you mean by that?” Ben asked, seriously alarmed by his son’s question, as he clenched the back of his chair. “Now listen to me, boy. This fight has nothing to do with any of us, and I will not see it tear apart this family.”
Frowning, Hoss said, “This ain’t your fight… you ain’t going nowhere, little brother.”
At that, Joe straightened up, but he didn’t look angry any more. If Ben really looked at his boy, he almost looked a little bit scared. But he didn’t look away. Didn’t back down.
“Comes a time,” Joe said softly, “when a man has to stand up for what he believes in.”
Ben shuddered at the sudden change in tone. He felt a wild urge to change the subject, as if that would change the circumstances. Yet, at hearing his kid brother’s quiet words, Adam’s countenance changed. He no longer looked disgusted, but instead, he just looked sad. Pushing his chair away from the table, Adam stood up and came alongside, resting a hand on Joe’s shoulder.
In a much gentler voice, Adam said, “I agree with you, Joe. A man has to stand up, and I believe you’ll be man enough to do it. I am not trying to dismiss you. All I’m asking is that you spend some more time thinking about what you believe, before you go running off half-cocked to stand up for it.”
Joe didn’t flinch. “And you’ll do the same?”
“I will,” Adam promised, and Joe held out his hand to make amends.
And so an uneasy peace was won in the Cartwright family. Subdued, they sat down for the cobbler that Hop Sing had been keeping in the kitchen until it was safe to come out…
But peace could be fleeting, and even with the roaring fire, Ben was feeling cold. This too shall come to an end. The thought gave him sudden chills, like walking over a grave. He shouldn’t be thinking so negatively, and yet he couldn’t help himself. The night was turning out quiet and uneventful on the surface of things. Adam was still reading, while his younger boys had settled their differences over the checkerboard and had taken on typical projects for the last hour before bed. Hoss was whittling, and Joe had started braiding a lariat as a gift for the new preacher’s pretty daughter and her equally pretty mare. His brothers weren’t especially keen on the relationship and had been doing everything they could to keep Joe away from the girl. Ben shook his head rather fondly. It was a relief to stay out of Joe’s love life for a change and be able to rely on his older sons to keep their brother out of trouble.
Joe was holding the lariat out, studying it critically.
“Something’s not right,” he said.
Adam looked up from his book. “Give it here,” he sighed, extending his hand.
Joe handed it over and asked, “Think Nelly will like it?”
“Don’t think you have no business givin’ it to her in the first place,” Hoss grumbled from the other corner. “Little Joe, you planning on sparkin’ that little gal?”
“I haven’t decided,” Joe replied diffidently, and both his brothers rolled their eyes.
Ben smiled, enjoying his own neutral role in the ongoing argument. For years, he had prayed his three boys would always look after each other, even after he was gone. Even with all the fighting over politics, some things had stayed the same. Ben thought wistfully of the conversation he’d overheard between his boys just last Sunday.
“Don’t set your sights on that one,” Adam had warned his little brother. They were all squinting in the late morning sunlight. The sun always seemed brightest when coming out of church.
“You’ll be lucky to have fire and brimstones at your tail, if you break that pretty little gal’s heart,” Hoss added. “I hear talk that new preacher’s handy with a bullwhip, and I’d say he looks downright mean, iffen you ask me.”
“Who says I’m going to break her heart?” Joe feigned being offended, before flashing an easy grin at his brothers. “She’s really something when she’s riding that little filly. Did you see her at Fiddler’s Pasture last Sunday? There’re some awfully nice places to ride on the Ponderosa, and I was thinking she might want to see them. That’s all.”
“That’s all…” Hoss muttered, and Adam added, “That’s enough.”
“Let me ask you this, Little Brother,” Hoss said, “just who do plan on bringin’ along with you on this here… ride?”
“Pa?” Adam asked innocently. “Hoss or I? How bout her father? I’m sure the reverend would be happy to chaperone….”
Joe was frowning. “Now how the heck can I get to know her better with all of you coming along? Dang it, you two, I only want to ask her on a ride!”
Adam aimed a sidelong look at Hoss, and they both nodded. Together, they each grabbed an arm and started dragging their kid brother along the cobbled path toward the horses.
“Hey, what are you doing? I didn’t even ask her yet,” Joe yelped indignantly. “You never even gave me half a chance!”
“I hear that preacher’s keeps a loaded shotgun under the pulpit,” Hoss said conversationally.
“I can look out for myself,” Joe grumbled, trying to kick at Hoss’s shin, even as he was being hauled away from the church. “Come on, Adam, you gotta know I’m old enough!”
“Sorry buddy,” Adam replied. “But I’ve spent about half my life keeping you out of trouble, and it’s a hard habit to break. Now are you going to get yourself in the saddle, or do Hoss and I have to help you?”
Joe had grown up with those brothers and knew what they meant by “helping,” and he scowled. He’d get in the saddle by himself, thank you very much, but he wasn’t about to hurry with it. Over his shoulder, he caught the eye of the girl in question. She had been watching him the whole time, not even having the modesty to blush when he looked back. The girl looked a little like trouble, but Joe didn’t see it. He tipped his hat to her, and she smiled, evidently liking what she saw and waved as he rode away.
Ben had been watching the whole thing. He was awfully grateful his sons were taking their seventeen-year-old brother in hand. Ben shook his head and thought to himself – Adam and Hoss were right. That boy was going to get himself into some serious trouble one of these days. There were a whole lot of temptations in this world. A father couldn’t keep up…
Ben sighed and rubbed his hand over his tired eyes. After the fight at dinner and the grim news articles in the Enterprise, he could only wish that a pretty girl was all that could tempt his boy. This life could dole out trouble that his brothers wouldn’t be able to haul him out of. How could he keep Joe out of harm’s way? How could he keep any of his sons safe? Ben knew the lure that war could have on a young man’s heart. It was a seductress that could be more compelling than the prettiest girl with a wandering eye.
Ben remembered being that young. He had been every bit as zealous as his youngest son and every bit as stubborn as his oldest. Ben had once figured that a man had to experience battle before he could call himself a man. That courage was something you could claim only after you had looked death in the face and marched right into it. He’d learned a lot about courage since becoming a father, and there was one thing he was sure of. The bravest thing he’d done in his lifetime was to invest his heart and soul in raising sons and to face the prospect of letting them go. The newspapers cried out for war. Fine, Ben thought to himself. Let them sacrifice their own sons to it! As a man of integrity, Ben could not think that way for long. But as a father, the desire to protect his sons was overwhelming.
His gaze fell on Adam. If war were declared, would Adam go? His oldest boy might seem the least likely to go rushing off to fight, but Adam was dead serious when it came to this conflict. He’d actually been restrained with Joe at the dinner table. Adam had been keeping his emotions pretty close to his vest, even as tensions in town grew higher and higher, but Ben suspected that son’s convictions ran hotter than any of them would have suspected. Adam felt strongly enough about slavery to stake his future on it – Ben was sure of it.
The idea of his oldest son fighting for the Union filled him with a mixture of pride and utter despair. No Cartwright would disagree that slavery was a sin and needed to be abolished, but Ben still prayed that the issue would be resolved without any moere bloodshed than had already taken place in Kansas. Every morning, he rose early and prayed for a solution that only the good Lord could engineer. And yet every week, the news in the periodicals was bleaker. The pro-slavery states and the free-soil states would never come to an agreement. The issue could no longer be put aside – just about everyone agreed on that. It would be resolved somehow, but at what price? Adam had made up his mind – he knew where he stood. The singular question remained – what would he do about it? It hurt Ben just to think about it. The dreams he had for his oldest son… Ben wanted to see his responsible oldest son marry, settle down, start a family… Adam had so much potential. What a waste, he thought to himself, what a waste.
Then, Ben looked over at Hoss and had to smile. His middle boy’s face was scrunched up with the task at hand. Even from across the room, Ben could see the colt emerging from the block of wood, a slow but steady birth. Hoss had always had a gift for whittling. It took a special kind of patience – Hoss had always been willing to wait things out. All the same, his middle boy had been bothered and upset by the recent fighting between his brothers. He didn’t read the periodicals, and he didn’t see how the talk of war had much of anything to do with him and his brothers. It hurt him deeply to see his brothers so angry at each other so much of the time. Hoss couldn’t understand how his very own country could potentially divide in two, let alone his very own family. He didn’t believe it would happen and often said so. Ben could only pray that Hoss was right. Ben looked down at the headline from the newspaper. “Freedom in Kansas Bloodily Subdued.” Lord help them all, if the horrific bloodshed in Kansas was only the beginning…
“Okay, does this look any better now?” Joe was showing the lariat to Adam. “I just can’t get it tight enough. Do you think Nelly will like it?”
“If you’re asking me, I think it looks like trouble,” Adam said, leaning over and pulling on the loose end to tighten it. “You shouldn’t be giving this girl gifts if you’re not serious. Her father wouldn’t like it, and I’m telling you, Joe, you’re just asking for trouble, when you’re not serious –“
But Joe shrugged off Adam’s warnings, and Ben knew from experience that his youngest was unlikely to listen. He was the picture of Marie, like her in so many ways, both in his strengths and in weaknesses. Joe was hot-tempered for sure, but he forgave easy. He felt things strongly, sometimes too strongly. It was easy to underestimate him. For the casual smirk he was aiming at his brother, sparking the preacher’s daughter could have been the only thing on his mind.
But Ben knew better. There was intensity inside his boy that drove him hard. His life wasn’t just about pretty girls and fast horses. Joe believed in the Southern Cause with a zeal that frightened his father. His youngest boy was all he had left of Marie and her beautiful face, but Joe reminded him of her in ways that had nothing to do with appearances. If his strong-willed young wife been a man, she’d have been first to sign up for the Cause, no matter how much she had despised slavery and no matter how she had hated the code that had sacrificed so many of its young men. Yet, Marie loved the South with incredible intensity… hate and love ran through her blood; they were inseparable. And so it seemed that her only son had inherited that same passion for a land he’d never even seen. It would have broken her heart to see him go, but Marie would have understood more than her husband.
Lincoln had talked of sacrifice. Thinking of it, Ben took another long look at his sons, as if he could make the memory of this peaceful night last even longer. Adam, Hoss, Joe. There was nothing more important to him in the world. For a moment, he wished he’d raised cowards instead of principled young men. Lord, he prayed, don’t ask me for that kind of sacrifice. It was the price of raising boys. Knowing that every dream he’d treasured could vanish just like vapor.
“You all right, Pa?”
He looked up, startled. Joseph had set aside the lariat to sit next to his father. Ben didn’t even admonish him for sitting on the table but instead rested his hand on his son’s leg. He’d had this boy for seventeen years. Most folks would say a boy at seventeen was practically a man, but it wasn’t enough. There was so much life Joseph hadn’t lived. Ben hadn’t had enough time, hadn’t taught him what he needed to. Seventeen wasn’t enough at all…
“I’m fine, son,” Ben said, gently. “Just tired.”
“I’m sorry for what happened earlier,” Joe said quietly, even though he had to know his brothers could hear him. “Don’t know what got into me at supper, getting my back up like that. I had no right to raise my voice. I’m sorry, Pa. I can imagine why you’d be tired, raising a bunch of hot-heads like us.”
“Speak for yourself,” Hoss called out, looking up from his whittling. “You gotta admit I’m the easy one in the family.”
Joe rolled his eyes and grinned at his brother, but then turned back to Ben. “Our fight’s over, Pa. Don’t you worry. Isn’t that right, Adam? We’re all right now, ain’t we?”
Adam met his father’s eyes first and then his little brother’s. “Sure we are,” he said, but he smiled almost sadly. “Don’t worry about it, buddy. We’re all right. No more talking politics over supper.”
However, from the look in his oldest son’s eyes, Ben knew that it wasn’t over. Adam wasn’t a romantic like Little Joe. He had a pretty good idea of what his convictions might cost him. But he was willing to pay the price for them.
Ben had to pull away from Joe. The lingering melancholy of it all was too much. He couldn’t help knowing that everything he treasured was at grave risk. He’d do anything to hold onto them and not let go. But what could a father do? Lock his sons up from the world? Refuse them their place in it? No. There were some battles that landed beyond Ben Cartwright’s control. The nation was being torn up from the inside out. He prayed the same thing would not happen to his family.
So, Ben lit his pipe, lifted it to his lips, and inhaled deeply. His hand trembled, but he forced himself to hold steady. There was no sense in chasing sorrow. It would come in its own good time. Trouble and joy were bound together in this journey of being a father. There was no point in turning his back on the joy when it was right there in front of him…
His sons were there. Worried. Waiting for him to say something.
“Are you all right, Pa?” Adam finally asked.
Was he all right? How to answer a question like that…
Ben got himself up and walked over to his liquor cabinet. He took out a bottle of his best brandy, the one he reserved for the most auspicious occasions, and turned his back on the startled looks they traded with each other. What could he say to them, to his three much-loved sons? If they told him tomorrow that they were going off to fight, how could he offer up his blessing? Could he simply stand back and watch his sons take the road to war with its marching drums and savage glories? There was a thrill in the prelude to wartime – Ben wasn’t so old that he couldn’t remember what it felt like. Yet nobody would sacrifice more in this oncoming tragedy than those who were left behind. He’d raised his boys well but not for this. Was it for nothing? Would it all be laid to waste in the end?
Ben was no fool. It really didn’t matter what he told his sons, because he was pretty sure they wouldn’t listen. In their place, he wouldn’t have listened either.
So, he mustered up his own courage. He poured himself a shot of brandy and drank it down. It warmed everything but his heart, yet Ben turned to his boys and smiled.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Just some fool thinking, nothing to worry yourselves about.”
Although puzzled, his sons smiled back at him. And the night went back to being ordinary again. But Ben hoarded the memory of their smiles, like a poor man holds onto treasure.
Other Stories by this Author
- Dividing Line Series – Dividing Line (by DBird)
- Dividing Line Series – The Quickening (by DBird)
- Dividing Line Series – Peace Offering (by DBird)
- Dividing Line Series – The Telling (by DBird)
- The Return Series – 5 – New Orleans Moonlight (by DBird)