Summary: What is it like, being a Cartwright daughter? Only one person could tell you, and it might not be what you think. Chronologically, this story takes place shortly after Winter of Discontent and is an expansion of a recent Pine Cone Challenge bit posted in the forum, the prompt being “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.” (Part of the Ties That Bind series)
Rating: T (2,093 words)
Ties That Bind series
Jilly Cartwright lingered at the upstairs open window, watching the sun go down at the edge of the city, and remembering. The San Francisco that greeted her nearly five years ago was a shadow of what now stretched before her. Multiple-storied structures dotted an evolving skyline of hotels, banks, and law offices interspersed with private residences and businesses of every imaginable kind. Uncle Miles called it “the city of greed and gold.” If it could be bought and sold, a person could find it here, he assured her. But what good did it do anyone in the end?
Laughter drew her attention to the street below where a young couple waited for an approaching carriage. A lamplighter doffed his cap to them as he passed. There was something in the man’s ease of movement that made Jilly smile and put a lump in her throat at the same time. She thought of her brothers and wondered what they might be doing.
Her gaze reverted to the letter in her hand, the most recent one from Pa, though she could quote it from memory by now.
I am so proud of the young woman you have become. Your mother would be proud too. Lately I’ve been thinking of that morning in May when we tended her grave and planted the flowers. Watching you, I was reminded how much of her lives on in you. It brought me great comfort then, and the memory of that day warms me even now.”
It had been a sun-kissed, picture perfect beginning, with spring easing into summer amid fields of sweet clover and wildflowers beneath a canopy of endless azure blue. For the first time during her visit, she had her father all to herself—a rare gift—and she realized how much she had missed even the sound of his voice, among so many other things. It was a day she knew she would never forget, yet she had nearly spoiled it with a single remark as their conversation veered toward her brothers.
“You don’t love me the way you love them.”
The words had spilled from a place so deeply locked away she hardly knew it existed, out of her mouth before she could stop them. The perplexed, wounded look on her father’s face as they hung in the air between them told her she might just as well have slapped him. She quickly did her best to explain what she really meant as though she understood it herself, and to her relief he seemed satisfied.
Whatever had possessed her to say such an appalling thing in the first place? By any standard, there could be no better father in the world than Ben Cartwright, and she’d never had any reason to doubt his love. Not even when he sent her away to San Francisco. But she had left as a child and returned a young woman, and the interval proved more than just the sum of time and miles.
The house she grew up in had changed very little, except for her room. In her absence it had primarily been reserved for guests, her father had explained, pointing out the freshly painted walls and new furniture, bedding, and curtains. He seemed anxious for her approval, and she hid her disappointment behind a well-honed smile. It was beautiful, she’d agreed, but there was nothing to indicate she had ever lived there. It was as if her past was a rug that had been pulled out from under her feet, her childhood swept away with the dust and the cobwebs.
Other changes were inevitable. Her brothers were all older, with Joe no longer a boy. To their credit, they had practically tripped over each other at times trying to make her feel welcome, which she found endearing, but it also added to the feeling of being a guest in her own home. They regaled her with stories of things she had missed, like the bonanza that created silver fortunes overnight for people like Annie O’Toole and Swede Lundberg; Lotta Crabtree’s infamous visit to Virginia City; and the day a fourth ‘Mrs. Cartwright’ arrived at the ranch, to the surprise of everyone, including the supposed groom. Over the next few weeks she became familiar with names like Henry Comstock, Sam Clemens, Philip Diedesheimer, and Clementine Hawkins. And others, more sinister, like Sam Bryant and Red Twilight. She learned about Emily Pennington, Amy Bishop, and Regina Darian; and the tragic ends of their friends Delphine and Ross Marquette.
Like their father, her brothers bore the burdens of men, including love’s loss, and they had spent the past few years building an empire alongside him. Her life in San Francisco seemed inconsequential by comparison. And it didn’t take long for her to see what everyone else in the newly formed Nevada Territory already knew, that the Cartwrights were a singular entity as distinctive as the Pine Tree brand, whose influence carried well beyond the borders of the Ponderosa. They might fight among themselves on occasion, but against outsiders they moved in lock step, and one was as good as all four. Everyone seemed to know that, but few people seemed to know or remember that there were actually five.
Jilly watched them in awe that summer with a new awareness of what it meant to be a Cartwright, most notably the differences between sons and a daughter. Sons were a man’s strength and lifeblood; through them he would live on as they carried his name to the next generation. But it was more than that. The impenetrable bond uniting her father and brothers had been forged through experiences in which she had no part. They had walked through fire together, without her, emerging even stronger. She was, for all practical purposes, an outlier. In hindsight, she supposed she’d been one ever since her mother died. More and more, she found herself missing the woman she never knew.
What an inconvenience she must have been for her poor father. Of course, he loved her and was proud of her, but it wasn’t the fierce love and pride he had for his sons, nor would it ever be. She’d lately come to realize that the tenderness in his eyes was as much for her mother’s memory as it was for her, perhaps more. If that was a comfort to him, then she was glad, but she wondered sometimes if he really saw her at all.
Her own picture sat on his desk, along with the ones of his three wives. They were lovely footnotes in the family history, and the world of Cartwright men had gone on without them, even thrived, just as it had in her absence. There were time she felt like a ghost herself, hovering on the fringes of their lives.
They loved her, each in their own way, as well as they could. But they did not need her the way they needed each other.
And oh, how she loved them. When she was a child she’d thought they were indestructible, because nothing bad ever happened that wasn’t made right in the end, at least not that she could recall. But she was no longer that naive. She had seen evil in the world, and terrible things had happened to people she loved through no fault of their own. Her family seemed to live in the mid path of harm’s way, sometimes mandated by the mere fact that they were Cartwrights. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. Sacrifice was something her father understood better than most men, and he had impressed that ideal upon his children, particularly his sons. Who wouldn’t be proud of them?
Christmas had come and gone, and in spite of her hopes there had been no more letters from any of them, so she read the old ones over and over to remind herself they not forgotten her, and to quiet the voices that sometimes whispered in her head. Even though she knew they were false, they were cunning and insistent during her weakest moments. Like today.
A sudden, biting gust of wind took her breath. Shivering, she drew back inside the window and pulled it shut against the unexpected cold. “As cold as a witch’s tit,” she’d heard Hoss say once. He’d forgotten her presence and had blushed profusely at her wide-eyed reaction coupled with the snickers from Joe and Adam. But she hadn’t minded. In fact, she grinned every time she thought of it, though a proper young lady would never utter such a thing out loud. As cold as the grave. That was more suitable. Poor Aunt Margaret. No, that wasn’t right, because Aunt Margaret didn’t feel the cold, and she was no longer sick or sad or missing her daughters. What was it like, Jilly wondered, that moment when a person steps from here to there? Was it glorious as she had been taught all her life, or was there simply nothing at all? To feel nothing didn’t seem like such a bad thing anymore…
Her head ached, and she hadn’t finished her essay. She’d put it off until after the funeral. Wrapping her shawl around her, she lit the lamp on her desk, and sat down to write. For several moments she did nothing but stare at a blank piece of paper until it was merely a blur. She pulled her handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped her eyes, remembering her first birthday away from home. Aunt Margaret had made her a beautiful cake, the favorite of all her girls, she’d said. In spite of the festivities and her guardians’ generosity, Jilly went to bed that night feeling bereft without really knowing why, unable to give voice to the particular sadness of lemon cake when your heart longs for chocolate. Hop Sing would have known. He always knew.
Her teacher—dear, sweet Miss Somervelle—had sensed how miserable she was, encouraging her to write all of her unhappy thoughts on paper and then tear them up. “That way you’ll have power over them, instead of the other way around,” she’d told her. Jilly wasn’t sure why, but it helped. Of course, that was when she was barely twelve.
Forgoing her assignment, she wrote things she would never allow herself to say, praying that God would forgive her for being so faithless. When she was finished, she agreed that some of them probably did belong in the dustbin, but she didn’t tear them up. For now it was enough to have them corralled on a page rather than running loose in her head where they could overtake her without warning. They were for her eyes only. Her family would never understand the fact that sometimes she felt more lonely among them than apart from them, and her pain would only hurt them too.
I’m sorry, Pa.
He was expecting her home in the spring. There would be no good way to tell him she didn’t plan to stay. She wasn’t yet sure what she would do, but there must certainly be jobs for teachers in places where Cartwright was simply a name, where she could be judged on her own merit, loved or not for herself instead of her father’s fortune. Or maybe she would go to New Orleans, where she might still find traces of her mother. Either way, her family would try to talk her out of leaving; no doubt they would all have something to say. She would respect them and listen, but it wouldn’t change anything. Her mind was set.
But first she had to graduate. And so, with the weight of indecision lifted, she finished her essay and had to admit it was quite good, perhaps one of her best. That night, as she drifted into a dreamless sleep, her last thoughts were of her father…
You look at me with tender eyes and smile
As you remember your beloved one
Yes, I am your flesh and blood, your child
But woe to me, for I am not a son.
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