Summary: Ben’s presence with his family is sporadic and brief. Adam is feeling frazzled with running the ranch and caring for his brothers. Hop Sing is holding his breath wondering if the family can ever be the same, and Little Joe has heard something in town that his very young heart believes, despite all evidence to the contrary. (A prequel)
Word Count: 9990
Moments: When Lies Wound a Broken Heart
Adam turned briefly to check on Little Joe in the back of the wagon. They were more than half-way home, and the boy had said nothing since they’d left the small town growing up around Cass’ store.
In the last year, a boarding house with a small restaurant, a saloon, barber shop, and to everyone’s great relief, a livery with a blacksmith, had joined the general mercantile and a few other small businesses, to create a center where folks from surrounding homesteads could meet while getting supplies.
What was seldom cited as another major reason for the town’s growth, was the Ponderosa. Ben Cartwright had staked a claim here for his family when the only thing in the area was a trading post for trappers. But the former seafarer from Boston had seen the potential in the pine-covered hillsides and stretches of grazing land watered by alpine streams. It hadn’t taken long to grow his holdings, turning those acres from a profitable trapping enterprise into a burgeoning cattle ranch. The story of his success was being spread by those who were guiding wagon trains west. The presence of a prosperous neighbor bode well, and several families had ended their trip to set roots here.
Adam stole another quick look back to confirm Joe’s sullen appearance, raising the older boy’s suspicion that the child wasn’t feeling well. Trips home after a day in town were usually filled with tales of Joe’s exploits with other children while his brothers had gotten supplies, placed orders, and finally sat around on nail barrels in front of Cass’ store to compare stories with others doing the same chores.
Leaning closer to Hoss, Adam nodded towards the rear of the wagon. “Any idea what’s up with him?” he asked quietly.
The two older boys’ heads nearly met as Hoss responded in a similar volume. “Ain’t got a clue. I found him sitting behind Cass’ while the other kids were off playin’. He came along without a fuss, and ain’t said nothin’ more than yes or no to me.”
Adam’s cheek drew up as he considered the atypical behavior Hoss described. It normally required the threat of being carried to the wagon over his brothers’ shoulders to make Little Joe disengage from the fun. It disturbed him to the point he pulled up on the reins and brought the wagon to a halt. “Hey, Joe,” he said as he turned and smiled at the youngster. “Hoss and I can make room up here if you’d like to sit between us. You look kind of lonely back there.”
The child was a mere six-years-old, but his green eyes held fire and wisdom. He flashed a look towards his oldest brother that was anything but cordial. “The last place on earth I want to be is sitting between the two a you.” The anger vanished as quickly as it had formed, and Joe looked away, heaving a deep sigh.
“You feeling all right, buddy?” Adam tried again to get some clue as to Little Joe’s mood. “I know your stomach gets to twirling a bit when the Cass kids raid the store for rock candy.”
The inquiry brought no response, making Adam repeat, “Are you sick, Joe?”
“I’m not sick!” The words were nearly shouted even though Joe continued to look away. But he slowly turned to address Adam again. “But maybe you’d be happier if I was.”
The puzzled wrinkles reappeared on Adam’s cheeks and forehead, and this time, his expression was mirrored on Hoss’ face.
The middle brother shrugged and then leaned close again. “He’s got somethin’ in his craw right now. I’m bettin’ one a them kids said somethin’ to start him broodin’. It’s best to let him be.”
Hop Sing walked into the dining room carrying a platter of baked potatoes and roast beef. He stopped abruptly as he observed the number of Cartwrights awaiting the meal. He was used to keeping a plate warm for when…or if…Ben came home, but there was a further absence. “Little Joe sick from candy in town?”
“We don’t know,” Hoss admitted honestly. “He didn’t talk on the way home, and ran up to our room as soon as we got back.”
“I knocked on his door on my way down to supper,” Adam volunteered, “but he wouldn’t answer.”
“I get rest of dinner for you, then go see what wrong.”
“That might be best.” Adam looked at Hoss who nodded his agreement. “He might just tell you what’s bothering him.”
The older boys were filling their plates when Hop Sing headed upstairs. The small Chinese man spoke broken English, and didn’t understand everything he heard, but he was an intuitive man who’d felt the pulse of this household slowing in the weeks since Marie had died.
He knew his boss had also lost Adam and Hoss’ mothers without any warning. But the stories he’d heard about those tragedies had confirmed that there’d been too much at stake following them to allow the head of this family to stall in grief. Based on this, Hop Sing struggled to understand the man’s current shutdown. Instead of keeping his life on track, Ben Cartwright had slowed like a watch needing winding, until he’d simply stopped. He’d told Hop Sing and the boys that he needed to take a few days alone to think.
Those “few days” had stretched into weeks. He made appearances at the house only to ensure that the men were getting their wages and Hop Sing had cash for supplies. He’d work on the ledgers a bit, and spend enough time with his sons to reassure himself that they were getting by. These trips might include a family meal and an overnight at the house, but he’d be gone again before his sons came down for breakfast. No one knew where he spent his time, and when Hop Sing asked him directly about where they could find him if necessary, he’d said, “Out there,” while pointing to the horizon.
What was happening to this family he loved, bit at his heart, and made him wonder if Ben would ever find his way home. What tore at him most, was that the best parts of Ben Cartwright—his sons—also struggled with the loss of Mrs. Cartwright, and it left them anxious and wary now that their father’s absence was extending. they were making the best of it, but the strain of the abandonment and insecurity about the future was cracking their hope for ever having things the way they’d been before.
What Hop Sing observed was an increasing darkness and growing sadness. He assumed that the boys kept going, fearing that if they didn’t, it would be their fault if the family fell apart. It wasn’t a cook’s place to settle this, yet as he approached Little Joe’s room, he suspected that he was about to witness the first actual tear in the worn-out fabric holding these three together.
He knocked softly and immediately opened the door. The Cartwrights had rules about privacy and knocking, but those didn’t apply right now. Adam was frazzled with trying to be a ranch manager, a consoler and a parent, and Hoss kept going because of Adam’s strength, so at this moment, Hop Sing knew he had to take charge.
Little Joe was leaning against the window sill, staring out. “You no come for dinner. You sick?” he asked. Without waiting for a reply, he moved to the child’s side and felt his forehead. “No fever. You come down, eat with brothers.”
Little Joe continued staring forward. “I don’t want to be with them ever again.”
The eyes of the small man popped open: the only outward indication of his surprise. “They do something bad to you in town?”
“No.” A deep, loud sigh preceded silence, but the boy did turn to look at his companion.
“Then why you mad at them?”
“They killed my mama.”
Joe’s face became granite; his look so cold and hard that Hop Sing took a sharp breath. “That not true. You know Mama die in accident.”
“That’s what everyone thinks, but Adam and Hoss are the reason it happened.”
“You just missing Mama tonight. I bring supper tray up. You eat; get good sleep. All better in morning.” Hop Sing turned to leave, but realized he needed more information about this new demon causing the youngest son’s mind and heart to blaze against his own family. He turned back and gently grasped Little Joe shoulders. “What make you say that about brothers?”
The boy’s chin rose defiantly and he stared straight into Hop Sing’s eyes before he lost his nerve and looked away. “Someone told me the truth about a lot of things in this family. Hoss and Adam didn’t make Mama’s horse fall, but she wouldn’t have died if it weren’t for them!” He pulled away from the cook’s hands, and threw himself on the bed, pounding the mattress with his fists as he sunk into it.
This was one of those times where’s Hop Sing’s trouble with English left him bewildered. How could someone not be responsible for an event, but still be responsible for the deadly outcome? What he did understand was that Little Joe was confused and hurt over something he’d heard. And that “something” was so awful that it shook his faith to the point of doubting those who loved him and would willingly give their lives for him. His intuition told him that Little Joe was too upset to answer more questions or listen to reason. “You need food and rest.” He pulled the child into a sitting position on the bed and pointed towards the washstand in the corner. “Water in there. Clean up. I get tray.”
The youngest brother’s seat at the table remained empty the next morning at breakfast.
Adam waited as Hop Sing set a plate piled with bacon in front of Hoss, and then asked, “You told us Little Joe was too tired to come down last night, and you let Hoss sleep in Pa’s bed* so he wouldn’t disturb him. But since he’s still not here, I’m worried that he really is ill.”
“He not sick,” the cook replied as he returned to the kitchen and reappeared carrying a bowl and a plate of bread. “He sad…I think.”
Hoss scooped a good portion of the fluffy yellow eggs onto his plate. “We get that, but he ain’t never not wanted to be with us when he gets that way. I stuck my head in our room on the way down, and he wouldn’t look over nor say nothing to me. He was dressed, but he just stared out the window.”
Hop Sing sighed, aware that a good meal and sleep hadn’t healed the wound inflicted the previous day. “I go see what wrong.” He headed for the steps, now very grateful that the boys’ rooms did not have locks or he was sure he’d be taking Joe’s door off the hinges to get inside. This time, he didn’t knock, and he found the boy in the same position Hoss had described. “You look at me,” he commanded of the youngster, who complied quickly. A quick check with the back of his hand confirmed there was no fever. “Why you not downstairs?”
There was no hesitation. “The same reason as last night. I don’t want to be near my brothers.”
“I not run restaurant. You come down now or go hungry.” Hop Sing was firm but not unkind. “You work out foolishment with brothers.”
The bravado Joe was displaying at the start of the conversation faltered. “I can’t do that, Hop Sing. If I stay with my brothers, the same thing that happened to Mama will happen to me.”
The small man was completely confused. “What you saying?”
The straight back and raised chin reappeared. “You go to town, so you’ve heard what everyone knows. It’s why Pa won’t come home. He must be afraid of them too. I wish they’d leave and never come back!”
A dark thought formed at the back of Hop Sing’s mind. He had heard ugly presumptions being offered about the dark cloud hanging over the Cartwright family when he’d gone to town for supplies. But he hadn’t heard anything said about the boys. Now he suspected some child had heard the gossip and altered the message by accident or intentionally. With Little Joe struggling with sadness and confusion, he’d taken bait and hook and he was caught in the misery of believing. “Who say these things to you?”
“Doesn’t matter. He said everyone knows and agrees.”
Another frightening thought spread through Hop Sing’s thoughts. The boy had mentioned wishing to be rid of Adam and Hoss. Would their continued presence at the house be enough to make the child steal off on his own to get away from them? A solution formed quickly. “You wait up here. Brothers going with crew for couple days. You and me at house: no brothers. I come up when they gone.”
Adam noted the worried look on their cook’s face as hurried down the stairs. He tossed his napkin on the table and stood. “What’s wrong?” His rising tone reflected his rising concern.
Hop Sing raised his finger to his lips and nodded towards the kitchen, before saying loudly. “You two come, so I pack right food for trip.”
The older brother had picked up on the cook’s need for privacy, but Hoss’ back was towards him and he said, “What you mean by our…”
Rounding the table, Adam clamped his hand over his younger brother’s mouth, and whispered, “Just follow us. Somethings wrong with Joe, and Hop Sing doesn’t want him hearing what he’s going to tell us.”
“Oh!” Hoss shoveled the last of his eggs into his mouth and grabbed his buttered and jellied bread before following the other two.
“So what’s going on with him?” Adam asked while pacing around the kitchen table. “There’s no doctor out here, but Sally Marshall has eight kids, so she’s close to an expert.”
Hoss leaned against the table Adam was circling. “What I wanna know is whether we’re really have to head out with the men? I was gonna do my chores and ride over to the Thompson place to go fishin’ with Mark.”
“You two stop moving and talking,” Hop Sing said sternly, bringing Adam to a halt, and Hoss to attention. “Brother not sick here,” he pointed to his stomach. “He sick here.” A quick indication to his head, and, “Here.” The diagnoses was ended with Hop Sing’s hand over his heart. “Someone tell him something in town, make him sad…afraid.”
“Didn’t I say that,” Hoss broke in as he looked towards Adam for agreement.
“You did, Hoss, but Hop Sing said he’s more than sad.” He addressed the cook. “It’s the other part I don’t understand. Who’s he afraid of?”
“You.” He looked from one brother to the next.
“Huh? We ain’t done nothin’ to him. It’s more like we been doin’ everything we can to keep his mind off what’s wrong.”
Hop Sing nodded. “We all doing that. This different. He say someone tell him it brothers’ fault Mama die, and he afraid he and Papa die too if you stay.”
The jaws on both brothers dropped simultaneously, but Hoss was the first to recover enough to speak. “He thinks we killed Mama! We loved his mama just like he did, and we wasn’t even home the day it happened.”
“I say that, and he say you not kill her. You…cause it. I no understand difference.”
Adam sighed long and loud. “There was always talk in town that the Cartwrights had some sort of curse that accounted for the death of three wives: three mothers. No one would say that to our faces, but it made good gossip behind our backs. A couple of weeks ago, Dave Cass asked if he could come out to go fishing with us. I was in a bad mood. Pa hadn’t been home for over a week, and there was so much to get done that I snapped at him about us not having time for fun. He fought back dirty, repeating all the gossip about Pa being a bad father, and the speculation that he might have done something to get shed of his wives when he’d gotent tired of them.”
This time Hop Sing’s jaw hung down. “What you say to him?”
“That he had no call spreading such lies, and that anyone who’d think or say anything bad about Pa should have to go through what he has so they’d learn compassion.”
“Yeah!” Hoss said adamantly. “You think Dave said them things to Joe too?”
“Sort of. He didn’t like what I said, so his next theory was that if it wasn’t Pa’s fault that our mothers all died, then it must be mine. I know there’s gossip that I’m a jinx: a Jonah who has brought bad luck to my family since the day I was born.”
“That ain’t true one bit.” Hoss’ face turned beet red as his fists clenched. “If it weren’t fer you, our family couldn’t be where it is today. I’d say you was the best bit of luck Pa could ever have gotten.”
“Thanks, Hoss.” The blush rose and faded as Adam continued. “But I’m different, and therefore an easy target. Even though I do the same things as other kids, I also read a lot, ask questions, and don’t let people put me off or lie to me. That makes people wary.” He looked directly at Hop Sing. “Yesterday, Dave wanted Hoss and me to stay and ‘play’ with him, but we couldn’t. He got mad, and it didn’t help that I suggested that he should help his father more in the store instead of playing with little kids. My guess is that he got back at me by filling Joe’s head with lies.”
“Why Cass boy do such ugly thing?”
“He’s got a mean streak sometimes,” Hoss explained. “He feels like king of the mountain most times, cuz his pa’s got that good business, and he don’t like it when he doesn’t get his way. He’s called me some awful names when he’s mad. But then a few minutes later, he’s all smiles and fun, like he don’t remember what he just said.”
Adam nodded. “I’ve seen that too.’s confusing, is that Dave’s mother died shortly after Joe was born. He understands that no one in his family was responsible for that. If his father doesn’t rein this mean streak in with some serious discipline, I fear Dave’s razor-sharp tongue and mean spirit will get him in big trouble one day.”
Quiet settled over the kitchen as the three considered all that had been revealed.
“Adam can go up to Joe and explain what happened,” Hoss said hopefully. “Then I can go fishin’.”
Hop Sing swung his head so forcefully, that his braid deposited itself on his shoulder. “Little Joe not listen to brother. He afraid. No sense, but it so. Would say Adam try to trick him. There only one way to stop this.”
Adam’s voice was resigned. “We need to find Pa. Losing Marie was awful enough, but Pa disappearing as well is too much for Joe.” The young man looked down at his feet. “I’ve never known Pa to run away, so I don’t understand what he’s going through. But it’s time to come home.”
Hoss and Adam gathered a few necessities for their trip while Hop Sing put together enough food for several days away. Hoss needed to go into the room he shared with his younger brother, but as before, there was no conversation. Adam did stop to tell Joe goodbye, without mentioning where they were going.
The two exiles were quiet as they rode out with the other men as a bit of subterfuge to keep the youngest brother unaware of their true mission. But they parted company at the first crossroads to head west while the drovers headed south. Wes, their cattle foreman had offered a few men to help, after Hop Sing explained the situation, but the consensus reached earlier in the kitchen, had been that this was a job to be done by family. Ben might be found faster with more people looking, but they didn’t want him riding home only to put out a fire and set off again. Hop Sing was convinced that only his sons could make an appeal that would bring their father home—voluntarily and permanently.
“Do we separate here too or go on together,” Hoss asked as they watched the rest of the crew ride away.
“From what the guys told us, no one has ever seen Pa out in the open country other than when he rides in to check on the herd. My best guess is he’s west, in the hills back near that log cabin we lived in while trapping. It would give him a central place to go, and I’ve often heard him say that being up there brings him peace. Let’s both go that direction, and then we’ll fan out to search, and meet up at intervals, and at night.”
“You afraid of losing me?” The comment came with a smile.
Adam shook his head and picked at a bur on his saddle blanket. “I don’t admit things like this often, Little Brother, but right now, I’m afraid about so much I can hardly breathe at times.”
“Like that we won’t find Pa…or that we will, and he won’t come home for good. A good part of me fears that nothing will ever be the same again. If that happens, I’ll raise you and Joe the best I can, while the two of you hate me for not being Pa. Wes will keep things going with the herds, but I have no experience with the financial side of ranching, and will probably lose everything before I figure out how to run it.” He watched Hoss’ expression become somber, and he lightened his tone as he concluded, “I’ll become a legendary failure. People will tell stories of the kid on the east side of the Sierras who had a fortune that was better than gold…and lost it all in months, ending up having to raise his brothers in a cave.”
Hoss inched his horse closer to his brother and grabbed his arm. “I know you said that last part, tryin’ to be funny, but there’s a couple a things you should know. You ain’t never failed at anything, so far as I recall. And you’ll do yer best no matter what, if need be. But you won’t have to, because we’re gonna find Pa.”
“And say what to him when we do? I’m afraid I’ll either scream at him or start to blubber and say nothing.” A hint of a smile broke the granite-like fix on Adam’s features that fear had placed there
“I been wonderin’ the same thing, Older Brother, and I’ve been prayin’ on it something fierce each night. The words aren’t there yet, but I’ll get them when I need them.”
Adam’s smile grew larger. “You remind me so much of your mother. She was calm and encouraging even when everything seemed to be going wrong.”
Hoss sniffed loudly. “We best get started. Pa ain’t gonna find himself.”
Both horses moved forward with gentle nudges from their riders. The smile that had begun with Hoss’ assessment of their situation remained and grew again briefly as Adam considered the truth of the boy’s final statement. Their father was lost in a wave of grief and doubt, and after indulging in it for so long, it was unlikely he would ever be able to find himself.
Ben crouched at the edge of a steam holding the reins while his horse took a drink. In this position, he caught a reflection of himself, and was startled. The man looking back at him bore no resemblance to the man Ben knew. This man looked haggard, had a shaggy, grizzled beard and badly needed a haircut. Unable to confront the truth of his appearance, he rolled backwards into a sitting position and let the gray, dappled horse munch on grass.
His outward dishevelment was only half as bad as what was occurring deep inside his soul. He breathed out, shaking his head. It baffled him that he was once a man of plans and drive: sure of himself and his decisions. Not all of them were perfectly planned, but he made them work if he committed to them.
Marie was one of those unplanned occurrences. He’d courted Elizabeth for a few years while he’d proven his worth to himself and Abel. Inger was a surprise, but they’d both needed someone to believe in. She saw in him what he’d feared was gone at a low time in his life, and he had given her a life of purpose and adventure. It had taken her love and absolute devotion to get him moving onwards when he’d reached the end of his resources, and her faith supporting his, had sustained them when they’d bought a bigger wagon and set out across the country.
But Marie had been a flash of light—too bright to ignore—to beautiful to turn from, even when his early attempts to meet her were spurned. He’d sought her out as a death-bed request, and found that she’d also been through the crucible of loss and misfortune. She’d needed someone to believe her without doubt: someone to stand up for her and restore what others had taken. Whether it had been his desire to return honor to this wonderful, innocent woman, or his instant love of her spirit, despite all that had happened, he’d known he wanted to be with her forever.
She’d eventually allowed him in, and their marriage had been sweet. Marie brought grace and gentleness to his home; order and guidance to his children, and she never let him have his way unless she was in full agreement. All these traits were wrapped with her love. She mothered Hoss, mentored Adam, and bore him another son who possessed his mother’s spirit and spunk. Even with her gone, he understood that he still had so much to live for. There was land and growing wealth…and his boys. Yet when Marie’s life had left her, his had seemed to leave as well. He felt guilt about what he was doing, but he simply couldn’t face the expectation that he pretend hislife could go on as normal, when the fire in it had been extinguished.
He hadn’t been to town since Marie’s death, but he knew the crew talked when they visited the saloon, and surely his absence was noticed as Adam assumed responsibilities for the ranch and his brothers. There was no doubt the gossip was rampant and ugly by now, yet he had no energy to end it.
At times, he wondered if he might be suffering from a fatal disease. His body hurt; he had no appetite and his mind wandered. His belt was full of new holes to keep his loosening pants from sliding down, and the man who’d stared back at him from the stream just now, was distinctly drawn an unhealthy looking.
It might have spurred him more, if when he had gone home in the last weeks, he’d found things in an uproar because of his absence. Being truthful, the calm he convinced himself existed there, only appeared that way because it was what he wanted to see. Everyone was glad to have him home, yet they were quiet and careful around him. During his visits, he was careful to never look his children in the eyes. He knew he’d see their confusion and fear. He preferred wearing blinders, so he could leave when he itched to be alone again.
During these absent weeks, he’d ridden the hills, gazing at the lake from high ridges and the shoreline. He’d felt some peace amid the tall fragrant pines and earthy smells of the forest floor, but it never accompanied him beyond the hills. Their cabin he’d built from these pines when they’d first arrived, had become his refuge. He’d hoped to rediscover the man he’d been back then: forging ahead with his dream, raising two youngsters the best he could while creating a good life. Adam and Hoss had been adaptable kids, and as tough as things had been, they’d all thrived.
He didn’t love his boys less since Marie’s death. He just felt empty, with nothing left to offer them. There were times when the deep, cold mountain lake called to him—telling him it would make him feel whole again and take away his pain. He’d resisted this siren so far, knowing that somewhere deep inside, there was still a fire laid, and all that was required was a spark to bring it to life.
As usual of late, his contemplation got him nowhere. Rising, he patted the horse’s broad rump. “Time to mosey on, old boy.”
Up in the saddle, Ben did a sweep of the world around him, hoping to figure out where to go next. “Upwards seems good,” he told his surroundings, and pulled the reins to the right.
Adam and Hoss made it to the edge of the hills by mid-day and separated to search, meeting at dusk to camp.
“Pa’s horse has that right, front shoe that’s a little different, so I know it’s him, but there’s no way to pick the trail that will get us to where he is,” Hoss reported as his brother got a fire going to warm up the stew Hop Sing had sent.
“I saw the same thing: lots of tracks but no real directions. All we can do is keep moving, hopefully finding some that are fresher. It won’t pay to go home without him. Hop Sing thinks Joe will take off if we’re there, and then we’ll be looking for two people instead of one.”
Hoss ran to the lake to refill their canteens, noticing on the way back how their campfire sent tendrils of smoke above the trees. “You know,” he said excitedly as he returned. “If Pa is close by, he might smell our smoke and come looking to make sure it ain’t something more than a cook fire. He might even be curious enough to wonder who’s out here.”
“He might at that.” Adam nestled the pot into the embers. “Stir the stew so it doesn’t burn, and I’ll take care of our horses.” The older boy made repeated trips between the tie line and the camp, bringing their saddles and supplies, all while keeping an eye to the darkening sky. He finished with a trip to the lake to wash up, and took one last look upwards, hoping he might pick up exactly what Hoss had mentioned: evidence of another campfire floating above the trees. To his dismay, the high horizon was clear. This drained his spirit, yet he assured himself that not seeing direct evidence of his father’s whereabouts, didn’t mean he wasn’t out there.
The second day of searching provided further evidence that their pa had wandered these hillsides, and Adam began to wonder if any of these rambling paths would prove a means to an end, or merely keep them moving in circles.
After Adam voiced this opinion after supper, Hoss told him, “We gotta keep following Pa’s steps. Seems we always done that in the good times, and it’ll work now too.”
The older brother leaned back against his saddle, tucking his arms behind his head. “You’re right. It’s not like he’s trying to cover his tracks. It’s more like he’s lost.”
“Pa wouldn’t get lost out here,” Hoss snorted out in a loud laugh.
“I didn’t mean literally being lost.” Adam smiled as he saw the puzzled look on his brother’s face. “That means he knows where he is, but he’s looking for something inside himself that he hasn’t been able to find.”
“You mean them things like what’s always kept him going before or a way to be happy again?”
Adam nodded. “That’s perfect, Hoss.” He watched his brother’s cheeks pink with the compliment, and didn’t say more. But privately, he considered how the circles his father was riding, did prove that he truly hadn’t found the answers Hoss had mentioned.
Morning dawned bright and pleasant as the boys set out again.
“I’ll ride further up into the tree line today,” Adam told his brother. “That’ll get me nearer to the cabin and streams we used when trapping. You ride between the lake and the lower trees.”
Hoss shivered involuntarily and looked at his brother with eyes wide as saucers. “That was weird.”
“What was weird?”
“It felt like something touched my back, and I got this feelin’ that we’re gonna find Pa today.” He shivered again. “I swear someone whispered in my ear that everything was gonna be all right.”
Adam winked. “Maybe you just hope that to be true so we can get home for supper.” He might have teased Hoss more, but he knew exactly what his brother had experienced. There’d been times when Adam too had felt a guiding hand, or an encouraging whisper during the toughest times. What he didn’t know was whether it had been his imagination or a spiritual nudge. But it had never steered him wrong, and he took his brother’s pronouncement at full value. “We should figure out a way to communicate if either of us finds something worthwhile. I don’t want you going off to follow a hunch, and end up needing to trail you instead of Pa.”
Hoss looked down at his hands to hide his grin, but his back began to shake as he chuckled. “It wouldn’t be the first time I done that, would It? I know the men still call me Squirrel sometimes, cuz I ride off followin’ most anything that looks interestin’, ‘stead of the herd.” When he looked over at Adam he was till grinning. “Maybe we can just yell? We ain’t never all that far apart.”
“The hills get steeper over this way so it might be too far for that. We each have a rifle. You know enough about using it to fire into the air if you have a good clue. I’ll do the same.”
Hoss was riding what Adam called a pattern-search, while his brother was, “establishing a perimeter.” Hoss got too mixed up to do it that way, so they’d modified his to move forward for the count of 100, while inspecting both side of his path; then move over several feet and do the same thing going the other way. It worked, although he often forgot where he was in the count, and had to guess where to pick up. But he could always tell when he got back to his starting point and that was good for him.
The brothers had been on the search since full-light, after rising with the dawn to make breakfast and clean up their camp. They hadn’t taken the time to clean up much so far, and with the warm days causing him to sweat up a storm, Hoss knew he would need to drop into the lake tonight and wash up before sleeping. He chuckled to himself thinking it was pretty awful when you couldn’t stand your own smell. In the Cartwright house, Pa only required them to take a bath on Saturday. But his father insisted that they each wash their “essentials” at least once a day. To Hoss’ annoyance, he was usually so sweaty, it meant doing his essentials morning and night. He could almost hear his father’s thunderous voice at the dinner table when one of them showed up smelling like sweat or manure. “This may be an all-male household, but I won’t tolerate it smelling like one when I’m trying to enjoy a meal!”
He’d lost count again and was figuring out where he might have left off, when his eyes were drawn forward to a set of tracks bearing the notched shoe. He slid from his horse to take a closer look; his heart beating faster as he realized that these tracks were fresh. Whereas the other prints they’d seen had been covered by fallen needles and leaves, these were on top of that material. He brushed away the debris from a half-moon print showing in the soft soil to confirm that the remainder of the horseshoe was not visible in the dirt. He did the same with a few more to verify his conclusion.
His hands shook as he pulled the rifle from the saddle scabbard and pointed it skyward, squeezing of one shot. The blast seemed deafening in the still mountain air, yet Hoss wondered if the heavy cover of pine might muffle the sound too much. It felt like his heart had relocated to his throat as held his breath, waiting for a signal form Adam. The boy actually jumped when the retort disturbed the silence around him.
They’d modified their plan before splitting up to include a series of shots at intervals to help locate the person who’d sent up the original signal. Hoss fired again after counting to a thousand…or there abouts. He was so nervous that he continually lost track. His excitement needed a release, so he followed his father’s prints on foot, and he smiled as an idea formed when he saw the direction they were heading.
It didn’t seem long before he heard Adam calling, and the two reunited minutes later. The younger brother took the older one on a tour of what he’d found and then offered his thoughts. “He’s headed to the lake. He might just need a bath like I do, but I have a hunch about where he’s goin’.”
“Where’s that?” Adam’s wide eyes and large smile showed his admiration for his brother’s find.
“One a the first places we looked for Pa was where Mama’s buried. There were so many sets of horse and human prints there we couldn’t make head nor tail of ‘em or tell how old or fresh they was. What we do know is that he goes there a lot.”
Adam nodded. “You think he’s going there now?”
“I found fresher prints going into the hills too,” Adam revealed. “But nothing this good.” He closed his eyes and pictured the small cemetery on the lakeshore where Marie had been laid to rest. It didn’t surprise him that their father would revisit Marie’s grave. Many times while growing up, Adam had witnessed his father holding a picture of Elizabeth or Inger, his eye focused on an unseen place. There’d been no actual grave to visit, but Adam had always suspected these moments were times when he’d go there in his memory—finding a last place of connection to them. He sighed as he was prone to do during deep thought, and finally spoke again. “The plot isn’t far as the crow flies. It’s just taken so long to get here because we’ve been searching along the way. And I agree that if Pa’s not going there directly, he’ll get there eventually.”
“So how far should I follow these tracks if they ain’t headed that way?”
“Our best bet to find him is to wait where frequents, so head to Marie’s grave even if these tracks veer off. I’m going back to check the prints I found. If I’m right, he goes to the cabin often too. Once I check that, I’ll head over and meet you by the grave before dark.” Adam thought further. “Fire off two shots if you should catch up to Pa, and I’ll get there as quick as possible.”
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting on the rock next to the lake, but it was long enough to cause his tailbone to go numb. His recent conversation with Marie at her gravesite on the rise above him, had covered the same subjects as always: why had she come into his life if she had to leave so soon. He’d hollered at her for not being more careful, and then apologized for criticizing her spirit: the trait that had first drawn him to her in New Orleans. He’d thanked her for being the kind of woman who always kept him on his toes; then for giving him Little Joe, and finally for keeping all three sons under her wing. Memories they’d made as a family, and in the times alone as they’d shared their love intimately, had sent his heart beating so fast as to become breathless, and then battered it down into a useless organ that barely kept a steady beat. He screamed at God, and yet, he told himself that anger over this loss negated all the things for which he held gratitude. And for all this thought, in the end, he sat here staring out at the lake, mesmerized by its vastness, with absolutely nothing making more sense.
Deep in thought, he was unaware of anyone approaching until a twig snapped behind him. He nearly toppled off the rock as he swung around.
“Hi, Pa,” Hoss said softly. “Sorry I startled ya.”
Ben flashed a half-smile towards Inger’s son. “Did you see me when you were just riding past, or are you part of a search party hunting me down?” He hadn’t meant the words to sound bitter, but he knew they had when he saw his son’s eyes widen and his mouth pull into a deep frown. “I’m sorry, Son, that came out badly. It’s nice to see you.”
Hoss moved closer and sat on a rock facing his father. He took a deep breath and sent one last prayer to find the words he’d hoped would be there if this opportunity came. “It’s just me and Adam out lookin’. We been followin’ your tracks for a couple days now, and decided to check here, cuz it seems like the place you come the most.”
“Good thinking. Is your brother nearby?”
“He’s west and higher up the hill. I’m supposed to fire twice if I find you.”
“Then you should probably do that.” While Hoss returned to his horse and sent the signal, he repositioned himself on the grassy bank and motioned for his son to join him when he returned. “Do you have to wait for Adam or can you tell me why you two are looking for me?”
“You need to come home, Pa.”
His admiration for Hoss’ fiery statement was instantly replaced by defensiveness. “You and Adam are not my keepers, and you do not get to decided what I need to do.”
His father’s outburst might have silenced this child in another circumstance, but instead, Hoss gave the man a good looking over, and replied. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Pa, but I think I got every right to say it.”
“You better tell me why that is.” This response was gently encouraging.
Hoss took a deep breath. “You told us a story once about bein’ schooled before enlistin’ on yer first merchant ship that the captain is always to be obeyed. But you also said that sometimes the captain can get off course and might need a little help in sortin’ things out. Even Grandpa Abel would talk over them sort of things with you when you were his first mate, and you was able to set him true again.”
A smile formed at the corner of Ben’s mouth. “So you think I’m floundering a bit on my course?”
“Seems so,” the boy said honestly. “You been sailin’ it for a bunch a weeks now, and it ain’t getting’ you nowhere.” Hoss folded his arms around himself in a shielding manner as he headed into deeper water. “Have you looked at yerself lately, Pa? You’re skinny and look like one a them crazy trappers who’s been alone too long, so’s they starts talkin’ to the trees and their mules.”
Ben chuckled at the description. “I might have talked to a few trees already,” he admitted. “So, what else are you thinking?”
“We all understand that you’re sad, Pa. We hoped that getting’ away would help ease that, but it ain’t workin’. Whatever yer doing, you look worse fer it, not better. In my way a thinkin’, if this ain’t doin’ it, then it’s time to try somethin’ new…like comin’ home and facin’ it head-on. It’s what Adam, and me and even Joe’s been doin’. From the tracks we been followin’ up here…you’re just walkin’ in circles.”
The truth of his son’s word hit so hard that Ben had to look away. “When did you get so smart?” he asked without turning back.
“It’s not that I’m smart. I’m just tellin’ you what I see. And there’s more you should know. While we done all right at home without you this long, it’s getting’ harder each day. We’re all getting’ scared that you ain’t never comin’ back. Adam feels like he can’t do nothin’ right anymore. He’s miserable and operatin’ on nothin’ but fear. And Joe…”
The weight of Hoss’ words concerning what he was doing to his children bore down on his chest, making it hard to breathe. “What about Joe?”
“I ain’t gonna put no sugar on this to make it taste better, Pa. He heard somethin’ in town that makes him think that he’s gonna die just like Mama, and he wouldn’t stay at the house unless Adam and me left.”
Ben pulled back as though slapped. “What in tarnation did he hear?”
“He won’t say a word to us, so we don’t know fer sure. He talks to Hop Sing, but even then, just enough to explain why he wouldn’t come downstairs while we were there. He said me and Adam made Mama die, and you and him are next ta go.”
“This is all my fault,” he uttered more to himself than to Hoss. “Those gossips in town must be concocting stories that are laced with evil.” Spurred to action, he rose, brushing the loose grass from his pants. “Wait here for Adam; I’ll go find out what this is about.” After further thought, he added, “You two camp here tonight and I’ll come back in the morning to let you know how things are going.”
The brush Joe was using to groom the small horse he was allowed to ride, fell from his hand as he glanced out the barn door and saw his father enter the yard. It took only seconds to cover the distance between them.
Ben caught the nearly flying child in mid-air and pulled him close. “Seems like you’re happy to see me,” he said as he swung the boy onto his hip.
“Boy, am I ever.” Joe sniffed loudly and rubbed his shirtsleeve across his face as the tears he tried to hold back, leaked onto his cheeks. “Are you home for good this time?” The question was tentative and hopeful.
“I need to go somewhere yet, but I’ll only be gone for a few hours, and then…” He paused as he searched his heart to know if what he was about to say was true. It was. “Then I’ll be home for good.”
“Do you feel all better now?”
“Maybe not all better, Son, but being out there wasn’t working, so I think I’ll feel better here.” The small child nodded, and laid his head onto his father’s shoulder. “I saw Hoss out by the lake. He told me you weren’t feeling so good. Want to tell me what’s bothering you?”
“He’s a tattletales.”
“I wouldn’t call it tattling; he was worried about you.” He waited for more, but the silence continued. “Let’s go find a couple of hay bales in the barn and you can tell me all about it.”
It felt like pulling teeth to get the story started, but it was soon clear exactly what sort of rumors had been imparted to the youngster, and by whom. “Dave Cass told you that your brothers hold so much bad luck that they can cause the death of anyone who’s near them?”
“Yup. He said Adam was born bad, and it was his fault his mama died first, and then because he was there when you were married to Hoss’ mama, his bad stuff killed her too.”
“Do you believe that?”
A nod came first, followed by a shrug.
“You know I don’t abide gossip. I’d bet some adults in town are saying things like that about me too, and it’s evil and cruel. It’s hard enough to lose the person you love, without being accused of superstitious nonsense.” Ben took Joe’s chin gently to look him in the eye. “I shouldn’t have to say what I’m about to, but I will, just once. Adam’s mother did die following his birth, but there was a medical cause for it, and there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. We were greatly blessed that Adam was born alive and healthy, because that usually doesn’t happen with that illness. If you want to know what Elizabeth was like, look at your brother. She was kind, loving, intelligent, fierce and she loved your brother and me more than life itself. It would hurt her so badly to think that anyone would blame Adam for her death, and even more so, if this claim was believed by his own brother.”
Joe looked down, while kicking his feet against the bale. His neck and cheeks were ablaze, but he offered no response.
“Hoss’ mother died defending the people in our caravan. You’ve heard the stories of how she wouldn’t hold back her help to save herself, because that’s the kind of decent, loving woman she was. Neither of your brothers had anything to do with her death. It came as a result of one man’s hatred and scheming, and it led to the death of the most wonderful and innocent among us. What made the loss bearable was having Hoss to remind me of her. Knowing your middle brother is like knowing his mother too, Joseph. There isn’t a mean or treacherous bone in his body. And think about this; Adam was your age when this happened. Can you imagine if something happened now that made you responsible for doing all the work your mother did, and helping with a baby too?”
Joe’s head moved side-to-side, before he looked up and asked, “But why did my Mama have to die? She wasn’t sick and there was no Indian attack.”
“It was an accident, Little Joe. Your mama rode a little too fast and the horse made a misstep and fell.”
“Why’d she do that!” the boy shouted as the tears began again.
“Your mother charged at life with excitement, and accepted the consequences of her actions without making excuses. You’re just like her.” He tousled Joe’s hair. “But it’s a valid question that I asked of her while I was away. The only answer I got was that she was sorry she left us, but she will always love us.”
“Mama talked to you out there?” Joe’s cheek rose until he was squinting.
“She spoke to me in here.” Ben pointed to his heart. “You can do the same thing if you’re sad.” He let that rest a moment, before adding, “Let’s talk about your brothers a little more. Did you tell Hop Sing you wanted them to go away because you were afraid of them?”
A quick nod.
“Think back to the day when Dave told you those ugly things. Did anything happen between him and your brothers that might have angered him?”
He shrugged weakly. “He wanted them to play when we got there, but Adam said they had to take care of things. Then Dave said something mean about you being gone, and Adam told him to keep his thoughts to himself.”
“Aha, so it was after he was disappointed and embarrassed that he told you a tall tale that would hurt your brothers?”
“And you believed him straight off.” Ben’s tone was not unkind, but it was becoming stern. “Why was that? Your brothers have always been good to you. They’ve been watching over you and the ranch while I couldn’t, all while missing your mother just like you do. Yet you believed that they’d caused her death because Dave Cass said so?”
Joe stood abruptly and began to back up. “Why else would Mama die?” he nearly screamed.
Ben reached out and drew the boy to him again. “Because it was her time, and there’s nothing we can do to change that, including putting the blame on others.” Pulling him into an embrace he said quietly into Joe’s ear, “What would your mama say if she could knew what you were saying about Hoss and Adam?” He waited for an answer, but when none came forth, he added, “She’d say you were wrong, and owed them an apology.”
“I know that.” Joe’s voice was barely a whisper.
“You know what?”
“That Mama would say I was wrong. She was talking to me just like she was with you, only while I was sleeping. But she said you’d help me know it was true when you came home for good.”
Father and son stayed glued together while Ben rocked his youngest. After several minutes, he sat Joe on his knee. “You have apologies to make to your brothers and Hop Sing.”
“Mama said that too,” he admitted.
“Good for her.” Ben’s smile lit his face with peace. “You’ll have to trust me for a couple of hours. It’s early enough that I can go out and bring Adam and Hoss home yet today.”
“I can ride along.”
“I’d like that most times, but I have some apologizing to do to those two as well, and I’d like to do that alone.” His son’s expression was disappointed, but accepting. “Let’s go tell Hop Sing what’s going on, and he’ll make a welcome home dinner.”
Ben could see that his boys had fashioned poles from branches and used the line and hooks they carried in their saddle bags to fish from the bank. Ben wondered if they might both be asleep as he approached without any indication that they were aware of his presence. As he got closer, he could hear that they were talking, and stopped to let them finish.
The words weren’t clear, but he heard each of them say, “Pa,” and figured they were talking about him, or at least about the situation. Not willing to eavesdrop further, he called out, making them set their poles aside and run to meet him.
“Yer back fast,” Hoss said warily. “Do we have to stay away longer?”
“Just the opposite. I’m here to bring you home for a feast.” He noticed that his eldest was silent, and staring at him with his mouth on the verge of hanging open. “What’s wrong Adam?”
The young man shook his head and chuckled. “You look so different, Kind of…”
“Like a crazy mountain man, as Hoss said earlier?”
“I guess so.” He laughed again. “How’d it go with Little Joe? Is he willing to receive us back without fear we’ll cause his demise?”
Ben sat in the grass and asked his boys to join him as he told them of Dave Cass’ revenge.
“That’s purdy much what we figered,” Hoss said as his father finished. “Does Joe understand that Dave did it out of spite?”
“He does now. I intend to visit Dave and his father and talk about this. What that boy did was reprehensible, especially after the kindness shown him after losing his mother.” Hoss and Adam nodded in agreement. “You’re both anxious to get home, but I’d like to talk to you before we go.” He laughed when the looks reflecting back at him were guarded. “Don’t look so dour. I’m proud of the way you’ve handled things while I was away, and that you decided to set me on a truer course.”
Looking directly at Adam, he said, “You bore the biggest weight of my absence, and from what I can see, everything is in perfect order. I appreciate that you did that, and I’m sorry it was laid on your shoulders. If you’re willing to take a step back, I’ll take over now.” The offer was received with a nod and smile. “I also know you’re anxious to go East for school, and unfortunately, my spate of grief will delay that. But I do promise that you’ll be on your way as soon as possible.”
“Hoss,” he said, turning towards his middle son. “What you said to me a few hours ago…was perfect. Thank you for everything you did while I was gone, and having the courage to be honest today.”
The gaunt, hairy man rose. “C’mon, you two. I need a bath and a shave before supper, and it wouldn’t hurt you two to clean up as well.” Adam returned to the shore to grab a few things he’d left there, while Ben and Hoss headed towards the horses. This middle son did not hold grudges or fume and fuss over things once they were done, yet there was a look on the boy’s face that spoke to a dark emotion. “What’s bothering you, Son?”
Hoss opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. “It ain’t nothin’.”
“It is something. Don’t stop being honest now.”
“It’s jest that…well, Adam’s always told me how we buried Mama in the mornin’ and headed out that same day with you in charge of the wagon train. And you found a nurse for him and made plans to leave Boston as soon as you could after his mama passed. It leaves me wonderin’ if maybe….” His voice went silent as he mounted. “Never mind, Pa.”
“You’re wondering if I loved Marie more than your mother or Elizabeth, since I didn’t go through this rough patch after they died?”
“It was circumstances, son. There was no time after either Elizabeth or you mother died. You and Adam were babies, and there was no one else I could rely on. My heart was cruelly battered by the losses, but I had to patch it up the best I could, and get moving. Those two wonderful women would have expected no less. With Marie, I thought letting the grief percolate would ease it more, but as you surmised, it didn’t work. The only reason I could indulge my sorrow was because I had you and Adam to run things and watch over Joe. I can’t change what I did, but I promise I’ll do the best I can from now on.”
“Yer word is always good, Pa. That’s enough for me.”
When Adam returned and mounted up, Ben positioned himself between his sons’ horses, and thanked them again before raising his arm in the air, pointing east, and saying, “Let’s go home!”
*In my canon, the Cartwrights have a two-story, wooden house that their crew built for them while Ben was in New Orleans. Hoss and Little Joe share a room. Adam designs the iconic house before leaving for school, and Ben has it built while he’s gone.
Other Stories by this Author
- One Step Closer #3 – Two Hearts Broken (by MissJudy)
- Say Something – Lessons of the Heart (by MissJudy)
- A Moment Before Leaving (by MissJudy)