Summary: An unexpected visit from an old Boston shipmate, and the question he asks, prompts Ben to think back to a time when he’d visited his brother with Adam, the winter before leaving for Missouri to join a wagon train west. Their stay had provided some great family times, while also pointing towards many obstacles Ben had never considered. It had finally prompted the biggest decision of his life.
Word Count: 15626
One Note: Bonanza canon never mentioned what had happened to Ben’s folks. Yet at the time he first headed out for the West, he would have been in his 20s, and therefore it’s reasonable to think they might be still alive. I have set a bit of my own thought into this story, letting his mother be alive and well, and Adam having a little time with her. In actual canon, it’s been so long he’d have no memories of her.
A Decision in Ohio
Ben heard the heavy grinding wheels of a wagon rolling into the yard, and was already heading towards the door when Hoss came bounding through.
“Whoa there, Son!” he said as he grabbed Hoss’ shoulders to avoid the near collision. “What’s got you so fired up?”
“You gotta come outside, Pa. We brought you a surprise from town.”
“Yeah, c’mon out and see.” Hoss grabbed a loose fold of fabric in his father’s sleeve and tugged him towards the open door.
Squinting as he stepped into the bright afternoon sunlight, Ben’s head drew forward for a better look. When a man wearing a naval-style coat and cap exiting the buckboard finally turned, he smiled and walked briskly to greet his “surprise.”
“You old sea dog!” he hollered.
The new arrival to the Ponderosa straightened his posture while snapping his arm in a salute. “Seaman Richard Wagner reportin’ for duty, Sir!”
The hand-pumping between the two old friends continued for some time while Ben asked, “What brings you to the West, Richard?”
The old sailor laughed. “I’m on my way to San Francisco, and when Abel heard I’d have to take a stage for the last part of my trip, he made me promise to at least try detouring through Virginia City… and of course, send back a detailed log. I would’ve wired you, but I wasn’t sure I could make the necessary connections.” He pointed at Hoss and Joe. “When my stage arrived, I asked about the Cartwrights, and the attendant there said he’d seen Hoss and Little Joe in town and went to find them. I’d intended to take a room before making my presence known, but once your boys found out I’d known you in Boston, they insisted I stay here. Hope that’s ship-shape with their pa.”
“Welcome aboard, Richard. I can’t believe you’re here! How long’s it been since we’ve seen each other?”
“How old’s your first boy? I remember comin’ to pay my respects after your missus passed, and it was a few months later you took off.”
Ben nodded, his lips pulling together in a thoughtful pucker. “It’d be around 30 years.” He looked to his sons. “I suppose Richard regaled you with stories of our years aboard Abel’s ship on the ride out here.” As the words left his mouth, Ben’s cheeks rose in a controlled grimace.
“He told us you two had served under Captain Stoddard but mostly he wanted us to tell him about the ranch.” Joe nudged Hoss.
“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss added. “But we’re fer sure hoping to hear them stories.”
“I still can’t believe you’re here, Richard,” Ben said with a hearty laugh.
The seaman snapped to attention again and winked at his host. You’re saying that wrong, Ben. Remember how Captain Stoddard would holler, ‘Ri-Chard,’ with a hard accent on the ‘chard’ part, and Ben-Ja-Men, like three separate words when he was unhappy with our performance?” A small grin settled on his lips. “He was a hard officer, but a good and fair man. I never envied you asking for his daughter’s hand. But Elizabeth Stoddard was a prize worth risking your hide to obtain.”
“I’m a better man for having Abel as my officer and father-in-law.” Ben chuckled. “But you’re right, I was shaking when I let him know I loved his daughter. He wasn’t surprised; that made it easier.”
Ben wrapped an arm around his old friend’s shoulders and began walking towards the house. “How about a glass of brandy to settle the dust.”
Hoss and Joe passed them on their way to stow their guest’s seabag and chest, and stood expectantly in the living area when they returned from upstairs.
“So, when are we gonna hear about them old days?” Hoss asked with a sly smile.
“If you recall,” Ben said evenly. “You went to town for supplies the crew needs at camp. It won’t take long to make your delivery and Adam should be home by the time you get back.”
With his sons out the door, Ben poured two glasses of brandy, offering one to Richard while indicating he should sit on the settee. “I’m so pleased to see you,” Ben offered sincerely. “And … I want to thank you for delaying your stories. I’ve told the boys about serving with Abel, but never about the end of his career.”
Richard nodded thoughtfully. “I met your oldest when he went to school in Boston. Good lad all around. He reminded me of you: serious, focused and concerned for his grandfather. Abel warned me back then that he’d seen no indication that you’d said anything to Adam about those dark days when he lost the Wanderer. Before I left, he asked that I continue to be discrete until I spoke with you. It wasn’t that he hoped you hadn’t told him, only that he didn’t want me blurting something if you’d chosen not to.”
“It was Abel’s story to tell if he chose. The fact that it was never mentioned by others while Adam was there, speaks to Abel’s respect in the sailing community. Being removed from command simply to get new blood at the helm was the worst thing that could have happened to a ship’s captain, and his subsequent actions arose from betrayal, grief and anger. What I choose to remember is how he rose above his despair to become as good a landsman as he’d been a sailor.”
“That he did!” Richard agreed.
“Let me add that you took over the Wanderer with dignity, and continued his legacy by upholding the standards he’d taught you. You had saltwater in your veins just as he did.” Ben’s look became thoughtful. “Does your presence here indicate you’ve retired?”
“Partly. After nearly 70 years of service, the Wanderer was decommissioned. She was given a complete refit back when I took her. But fixing her again would have thrown good money after bad.”
“I was aware of the decommissioning. Abel wrote about the ceremony, mentioning he’d been honored for setting that original route and his years of service. I suspect you had something to do with that?”
“I always abhorred how those owners snubbed Captain Stoddard. It was unnecessarily abrupt and cruel. Their thoughtless ways extended to how they conducted business, and they ran it into the depths within the decade. Their one good decision came in selling out to decent men who wanted to hear the history of my vessel, including its original custodian. They were the ones who found Abel and paid their respects.”
“Abel never mentioned what ship you were given after that.”
“I was unable to assume a new command. Around that time, I developed a condition in my ears where anything but calm seas left me sick, dizzy and unable to stand upright. There’s no treatment for it other than keeping my feet on the ground.” A quick chuckle. “Those Overland stages swing on their straps making the cabin float like a boat following a wave. Sometimes that caused a similar sensation, but the stage stopped often enough to let me walk it off.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Ben offered. “So … what’s in San Francisco?”
“The owners recognized that they’d lose years of experience if they let me go, and offered me a job on land when my problem manifested. I’ve been in charge of fitting and refitting their Boston fleet for a few years, and they’re expanding their routes to the West Coast now. They asked me to set up and run the San Francisco office.”
“That’s marvelous news!” Ben offered, raising his glass in a toast. “I travel to San Francisco a few times each year, so we’ll get together. One of the hardest parts about leaving Boston was the loss of good friends. You make new ones but they will never understand how it was when you were just starting out.”
“From what I saw on the ride here, and what your sons told me about the Ponderosa, you’ve created an empire, Ben.” Richard’s cheeks pinked to a rosy glow as the brandy loosened his tongue.“Truth is, Ben, most of your mates thought you’d regret leaving Boston,” he confessed abruptly. “There were bets placed on when we’d see you back in town running the chandlery with Abel again.” He smiled sheepishly. “I didn’t participate in that, wishing you only the best. If anyone could succeed, I felt it was you. Still ….”
Richard bit his lip while considering his next admission. “The one thing I did worry about was you leaving so soon after Adam was born. I saw you board that carriage with your hopes packed in your cases along with your clothes. I’d expected you’d leave Adam in Abel’s care until you got relocated, yet there you were with a nanny and your son making the journey. I prayed for your success, while having great concern. I’d never heard of a widower taking an infant on a trip like that.” He shook his head. “With mail service as bad as it was, Abel’s reports on your progress were sporadic and usually months behind what you were actually doing. You kept moving, but it seemed slow going. Without evidence that you’d reached the jump off point in Missouri after a few years, the new tavern scuttlebutt settled on you needing to leave your son behind to get where you were going. One thing Abel did share was that you had family in Ohio. I did wonder if you’d asked them for help, but I never asked Abel or your son about it.”
Richard’s lip chewing resumed for a bit as he saw Ben nod. “When I look around at this place and your prosperity, it seems like it must have been easy. But it couldn’t have been. You’ve done a good job, Ben … with all of it. Your younger sons are great, and I can’t wait to see Adam again.”
“Adam spoke of meeting you when he got home from school.” Ben smiled as his mind took a quick detour to Boston. “Those bets against my success that you mentioned, are in line with what I’d imagined. People were absolutely right to think I was daft. But Elizabeth and I had agreed to go west to find our future and fortune, and she was adamant that no one talk me out of it. When she passed, I had to take each day … each step … with resolve and a good deal of faith.”
One eye closed and Richard’s cheek rose. “Forgive me for asking this Ben, and I only bring it up because the rigors of cross-country travel, even with modern, more comfortable transportation, made me want to turn back a few times. Did you ever reach a point when things became so challenging that you had to go it alone for a while?”
Ben considered his answer as old memories washed over him like high seas over the bow. There had been moments when his fear over doing the right thing had tormented him. But he didn’t find it necessary to share this, and answered truthfully. “Adam and I made the entire trip together, and along the way I married. Inger died along the trail shortly after our son Hoss was born, leaving Adam and me with a sweet infant to care for. The journey was never easy, Richard, but it wasn’t hard either. There were always people to help and encourage us, making our blessings exceed our losses.” He nodded before adding, “Abel ‘s final words to me were that I should carry Elizabeth in my heart, not on my shoulders. It became our family’s way to keep moving forward. We remember and learn from the past, but look only to the future.”
Ben rose, collecting the empty glasses. “You must be exhausted from your travel. How about a nap before the boys get back and keep you up until midnight with their inquisition? Let me drop these in the kitchen, and I’ll take you to your room.”
After settling his guest, Ben slipped into his bedroom across the hall; his path taking him directly to the dresser, where he opened the bottom drawer and lifted a stack of nightshirts to retrieve a small, cloth-wrapped package tied with string.
Taking a seat in the rocking chair near the window overlooking the yard, he set the package on his lap and undid the bow. Richard’s questions had poked his memories, and he felt compelled to take a look at this remnant from the beginning of his journey west. Few possessions had made it all the way from Boston to the Ponderosa, but he had kept Elizabeth’s small portrait, her music box and her Bible for Adam, giving them to him once he’d understood their value. Ben had also kept the item in his lap: a silver rattle from Abel, engraved with Adams full name and birthdate. This keepsake had remained his secret—his plan to surprise Adam with it after the birth of his first child.
He turned the tarnished keepsake in his hand and shook it; the grains of rice still creating the distinctive rattle that had soothed its original owner. It bore every scratch and bang sustained during its use by the curious baby who’d needed something to “do” from the time he’d opened his eyes each morning. He would have it cleaned of tarnish one day, but not of its heritage. The dings and tooth marks were memories too precious to erase.
A sound drifted under his closed door like smoky tendrils from a leaf fire. The breathy snore of his old friend provided evidence that Richard had taken him up on the nap. With nothing pressing to finish, and nothing to start while having a guest, he allowed his mind to drift back to the one time when life had become so loud that he couldn’t hear the truth, and he’d let the opinions of others shift his resolve.
A time he’d had to make a decision in Ohio ….
Three (26 Years Earlier)
”C’mon, Adam,” Ben hollered to the child sitting on the top porch step of the boarding house. “Let’s get moving or we won’t make any miles before dark.”
The four-year-old rose; hopped down the remaining steps one-at-a-time until reaching the ground, and ran towards the small covered wagon his father had recently purchased. Stopping too far away to be reached, he fixed a granite-like stare on his father while closing one eye and resting his hands on his hips. “You promise there’ll be kids to play with at that farm?” His tone bore his skepticism.
“Yup. But you won’t know that until you get your bottom on the seat and we drive away.”
Mrs. Stauffer, the owner of the boarding house where’d they’d stayed the last year while Ben had worked at the Cleveland docks, ran over as fast as her substantial girth allowed. She grabbed Adam and hugged him tightly against her ample bosom. “I’m sure gonna miss you and all your big ideas.” She eyed Ben over Adam’s head. “Never thought I’d learn so much from a tyke, but this boy is always full of good information.” She mussed Adam’s hair affectionately. “You stay a good boy for yer daddy.”
“I will,” he promised as he wrapped his arms around her neck and squeezed hard. “I’ll miss you too.”
It had taken three years to reach Cleveland after leaving Boston; the location he’d sought after hearing about a good-paying job available as master of the barge docks on the river channel of the harbor. The position offered enough income to squirrel away funds for their final push to Missouri.
Ben’s initial plan of heading straight to Missouri had hit a wall almost immediately when Mrs. Callahan had confessed that her enthusiasm at leaving behind the great loss she’d experienced, had turned into paralyzing homesickness. Yet, she’d agreed to travel more locally with the Cartwrights until Adam was weaned from her milk, walking and out of diapers.
The solution was acceptable, and addressed Ben’s own concerns about money. Everything cost more than he’d planned for, and he’d reasoned there was no harm in taking odd jobs to keep his wallet from being empty while Adam grew a bit. By the time Adam reached 18-months-old, he was functioning as a toddler instead of baby, drinking from a cup, eating whatever food was available, talking like crazy and only needing an oilcloth under him at night.
The pride he felt in Adam’s accomplishments made him both fear and anticipate Mrs. Callahan’s departure. His expenses would drop quickly with only one adult to feed and shelter, yet he understood the increased responsibility he faced.
Adam had proved an adaptable child, and within a few months, father and son were doing well and took to the road.
Their travel still only took them to the next job, but they’d now reached a point where they would finally set their site on St. Joseph, Missouri.
Frugal living allowed Ben to stash any extra from his wages into an unmatched sock, and he’d found enough in there a while back to purchase a small covered wagon and team. Having transportation was not the final step in their odyssey. He would need to refill his sock with cash for living expenses and fees. Yet, even though Cleveland was comfortable and profitable, Ben wanted to move on.
Their first excursion by wagon would take them to southwest Ohio, with their destination intended to accomplish two things. The first was to give Adam a short taste of traveling in the open. Previous moves were accomplished by train or coach, and they’d always found shelter at an inn or boarding house. But he also wanted an extended visit at his family’s homestead. Once he crossed the Mississippi and struck out to the west, he wouldn’t see his mother or brother’s family for many years … if ever. He also had to ensure that John was satisfied with his life, and not feeling overwhelmed with being left to handle the family responsibilities. Ben wouldn’t change his plans based on what he found in Ohio, but he could encourage his brother to seek a different life if he was unhappy.
Anticipating their ability to leave, he’d sent a letter to John months ago, offering his services through fall and winter in exchange for staying with them.
There existed a grain of vanity in his plan. He was immensely proud of his son, and longed for his mother to meet the little boy.
Ben had left home as a young teen after observing a busy harbor during a trip to the coast. His curiosity about the ships and their destinations never waned, and he’d found himself unable to remain in a rural setting while there was a vast ocean and beyond to explore.
His parents hadn’t understood his need to serve in a frail-looking vessel, yet they’d never denied his right to go. His one regret was in not getting back home to see his father, who’d died six years ago after a brief illness. During his years aboard ship, Ben had dealt with loneliness and grief concerning the separation from his folks, but his regret only stemmed from the distance, not for his decision to leave.
In those same years, he’d learned something important about himself. He didn’t have saltwater in his veins like some of the sailors he’d worked with. What drove him to the sea was the lure knowing what was out beyond what he could see or imagine. It was the West that called him now.
It took a week to chew up the miles between Cleveland and the farm. As he neared home, he noted that trees had grown taller and other landmarks no longer existed, yet he envisioned it all as he’d known it as a boy. The house—not visible from the road—would take shape as soon as they’d turn off and clear a small rise in the rutted driveway.
At the final turn, a sign proclaimed, The Cartwright Homestead, painted in black letters on a weather-roughened board. He’d made this years ago, sawing the piece from leftover barn siding; sanding it; painting the name, and attaching it to a post as a birthday gift for his father. The lettering had been repainted, and a second line had been added, noting John Cartwright proprietor.
Adam saw the sign, and tugged his father’s sleeve. “That’s our name, Pa!”
“It sure is,” he replied, and then told him the story of its inception. He saw the little boy’s expression turn from interest to granite, fixing his attention forward as he stiffened. “What’s wrong, Adam? You were so excited to get here, but now you look … frightened.”
“I was excited when it was something I was ‘gonna do’.” He looked up at his father. “What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t want to play with me, Pa?”
Ben moved the reins into his left hand and wrapped his free arm around Adam’s back. “How about you leave the worrying to me? The name on that sign is Cartwright. We’re Cartwrights too.” He gave a sturdy squeeze. “Can you give them a chance?”
The little boy snuggled tighter against his father, and pointed. “Is that the house?” indicating the building now visible in the distance. Receiving a nod, he vowed, “I can give them a chance, Papa. I just hope they give me one.”
Ben smiled. This youngster was so astute. He could read well with good understanding of the contents, and he thought things through like someone with the wisdom of the ages under his belt. Yet his little boy’s fear was clearly showing. Adam’s very first word had been Papa, and he’d used that name until last spring, after declaring that he was too old for such a babyish term. Since then, he’d called him, Pa.
However, when this wise little man was tired, ill or frightened, “Papa” slipped out. It was how Ben knew Adam was in distress and needed comforting.
Ben withdrew from his memories when he heard noise in the yard below his window and stretched forward to look out. He smiled when he saw Hop Sing shooing birds out of his garden in a litany of angry sounding Chinese. The smell of beef roasting was already drifting throughout the house, and now Ben knew there’d be a fresh lettuce salad and peas as well. Hop Sing was as good a gardener as he was a cook and family organizer, and Ben was once again reminded of the blessing this man brought to his family.
Listening closely, he could still hear Richard’s soft snore, and his thoughts returned to the rattle in his hand and the sojourn with his young son.
Their arrival at the house was a joyous event. His mother scooped Adam up, covering the child with kisses and assurances that he was the sweetest and cutest child ever created. The visit began untroubled with John’s enthusiastic welcome and thanks that he’d have another adult to help him with harvesting and big projects he’d been putting off. Ben immediately noticed that the homestead looked well-kept and prosperous, leaving him excited to learn how John had taken a subsistence farm to a financial success.
The welcome they’d received buoyed Ben into thinking the transition from two families to one big one would go easily. But that changed following a bountiful lunch when John offered to show Ben where he’d be staying and help him stow his things. It didn’t take long for him to realize that many plans had already been made “for” him without waiting to speak “with” him.
John, and Patty, his wife, led Ben to living quarters they’d created for him out of the tack room attached to the barn.
“The bedrooms in the house are full,” John explained. “We thought you’d appreciate some privacy rather than putting a bed in the living room, and this room already had a stove.”
Ben nodded enthusiastically. “Adam and I will do just fine in here. Thank you!”
John looked upwards and rocked back on his heels while Patricia clarified. “This room is for you, Ben. Adam will sleep inside with our boys.”
“I’d prefer he stay with me, at least a while,” he replied with a smile. “He’s never been separated from me, and will do better easing into this new life.”
John steeled his spine shoving his hands into his pockets. His tone was firm, yet not unkind. “It will be best for everyone to break Adam of his tendency to get his own way from the start, Ben. With the circumstances you’ve lived in since leaving Boston, it was probably necessary to give into him just to keep peace. His life will be stable now, and if you continue let him have his way, he will learn to manipulate you. Staying with our sons will help him take his first steps to an independent, disciplined life.”
“I assure you that my son is well disciplined, John,” Ben said evenly. “That’s not to say he won’t have some tense and confused moments or misbehave now and then. But he listens and has never been a willful child. I’m not sure what you’ve imagined as the way we lived, but I have insisted on order. I will make sure he becomes comfortable around everyone, and prefer he stay with me until that happens. Being separated might create the very behavior you’re hoping to avoid.”
John sighed and attempted a smile. “I’m not saying that Adam’s a bad child, Ben. I’m simply doing what you asked me to do in your letter. You said you want Adam to experience normal family life. In this family, parents sleep separately from their children. It’s best he does this from the beginning.”
Ben felt a wave of nausea as he realized that his brother had caught him in his own words. His letter had contained no instructions as to what being part of a family would include for Adam, thereby giving John decisional power. Rooming with his cousins wasn’t an unreasonable idea either. It would give him a real taste of what having brothers was like.
But unfortunately, between his letter to John and their departure, something had happened to cause Adam’s distress over separation. He couldn’t disclose the incident to his brother though, because even though there wasn’t a shred of blame born by either him or his son, he feared John would see it as evidence of Ben’s ineffective parenting.
Four months back, Adam had been abducted by a couple staying at the same boarding house, and remained “lost” for a couple of weeks. The woman, crazed by the inability to bear her own child, had gone shopping for one.1 She’d convinced herself that she would be justified if she took a child from an imperfect situation, making it a rescue rather than kidnapping.
Adam filled her bill both on all accounts, and they ran off with him. By the time the situation was discovered, the couple was long gone, and their use of aliases and lies about everything had left no trail to follow.
His son made it home after two weeks thanks to the husband finally standing up to his insane wife. Adam had described what he’d endured through a child’s lens, bringing it down to the fact that she had been “really mean.” The husband had written a letter for Ben revealing the abuses she’d committed after being unable to convince Adam that they were his parents now.
Adam had recovered quickly: the only remnant being anxiety at unexpected separations from his father. Even that had eased, but Ben feared these sleeping arrangements might release a few demons.
Yet he couldn’t disagree further without more explanation, and acquiesced to John’s plan, praying that Adam would adapt as easily as he usually did.
Ben held his breath at bedtime. “He’d explained to Adam where he was expected to sleep and why. The stoic little man had accepted this after a single, “I don’t like this, Papa,” to which Ben replied that sometimes it took great faith to try new things.
Adam’s forlorn look and limply stated goodnight, sans hug or kiss, left Ben shaken. The child had trudged up the steps after his cousins, and Ben had found Adam sound asleep when he checked before going outside.
His hopeful optimism that all was fine, was destroyed at breakfast the next morning when the cousins called Adam, “Weeping Willie.” Obviously, the sleep he’d witnessed had come only after an emotional struggle. This wrenched Ben’s heart because Adam seldom cried. He accepted discipline, punishment and disappointments without outbursts or tears. After a “necessary talk,” he might pin his father with a woeful look, but he never held a grudge. Ben shivered as he imagined his son facing the terrors of a strange house, a strange room and strangers around him, on his own.
He took Adam aside after breakfast ostensibly to show him the chores he would be expected to do, and once away from the others, he said. “Was it a bad night?”
Adam shrugged, but his eyes showed how thoroughly bereft and betrayed he felt.
Hoping the worst was over, he allowed the living arrangements to continue a few more nights, until he couldn’t explain away what he saw each morning. Earlier, Adam could barely hold his head up or his eyes open at the breakfast table. Weeping Willie was no longer in use, indicating Adam was keeping the tears in check, but his struggles were clearly keeping him from resting.
Ben walked him to the barn after he dozed off between bites of oatmeal, and pressed him to explain why he was so tired. Adam, as was his way, was too singular to reveal the cause.
Thankfully, at lunch, Ben’s mother got Ben’s attention and winked.
She laid her fork aside and reached down to rub her shin. “I really bruised my leg in the boys’ bedroom changing their sheets today. It’s too crowded with the extra bed.
John Junior chimed in immediately. “I’m black and blue from the knees down from clunking into that cot. And with three of us in there, there’s no air to breathe.”
Ben took the opening his mother had provided. “I have a solution! Adam can move in with me for now, and when the crops are in, we’ll have time to build a bunk bed. A third bed won’t take up any extra space then.”
John gave his grudging agreement, waiting until he and his brother were on their way back to the field to call him out. “Well, you got your way with Adam, but you’re setting a dangerous precedence. I saw that he was struggling, but he would have gotten past it if you hadn’t given in.”
“I appreciate your concern, John, but there are things about my son you can’t understand yet. He is able to conform and adapt easily, so when he doesn’t, I know he’s in big trouble. It’s too soon to have everything that was normal to him torn away. It will be good for him to share a room with your boys, but for now he needs to be able to rest or he’ll become ill.” He smiled at his brother. “Frankly, John, I’m not sleeping any better than Adam because I worry about him. Both of us will fare better.”
While Ben had managed to get Adam resituated with his mother’s help, it didn’t end the well-intentioned suggestions that became the norm. John and Patty had carefully considered everything they felt Ben was not providing his son without ever seeing them together, and their “What’s best for Adam,” advisories were liberally applied to every conversation.
Ben’s mother was quietly his greatest supporter, telling him every day what a good job he was doing to raise such an intelligent, resourceful and loving child in the hardest of circumstances. But she also shared her reasoning for not speaking up against John’s constant warnings. “Your brother took over as head of this household when your father died, Ben. As such, I do not challenge him in front of his family. But I do speak privately to him about his hard-held opinions and warn him when he’s being too harsh.”
His mother’s position was understandable, and in all honesty; he would want the same respectful attitude in his home one day. Dramatic displays in the heat of the moment did nothing to resolve problems.
He also saw that John was good to their mother. He was doing a fine job with the farm, and overall, he was good to his children, usually “speaking” more of discipline and punishment than he ever handed out.
The further fact was that aside from the critiques of his parenting, he enjoyed working with his brother and it was great being part of a big group.
He thought back to the letter he’d written to John, again kicking himself for making it seem that he wanted guidance in raising Adam, rather than simply experiencing family life. Ben was reaping what he had inadvertently sown. He concluded he would keep his peace and enjoy the best parts of this stay until it was time to leave.
As is often the case with people who have all the answers when it comes to someone else’s child, they are oblivious to the mischief of their own children. Ben confronted this when returning to the barn for a tool he’d forgotten a few weeks later.
On entering the dark, dusty stall area leading to the tool room, he saw Adam struggling to lift a pitch fork of mucked bedding into a wheelbarrow. The little boy’s eyes and nose were running to the point where he looked ill. Further, it was well past the time he should have finished his chores and gone inside for lessons with his grandmother.
“Are you sick?” he asked while laying the back of his hand against Adam’s forehead. Feeling no warmth, he tipped the boy’s face up, and used his handkerchief to wipe away the snotty mess.
Adam sneezed, wracking his small body in a powerful shudder. “No Papa …. This stuff …” he said, pointing to the muck, and then at the pile of fresh straw in the corner, “makes my nose run and my eyes itch. My head hurts too, cuz I can’t breathe through my nose, and I choke on the dust when I breathe with my mouth.”
Ben straightened and looked around. “Isn’t your job to put out oats for the horses, and then feed the animals in the pens outside? This work is pretty heavy for someone your size.” Ben stiffened when he placed his hand on Adam’s back, finding his shirt soaked with sweat. It was a chilly November morning, and Adam shivered when a breeze blew through the open door.
The worried father watched as several emotions played across the youngster’s face. “What aren’t you telling me, son?”
“Will and Junior said Uncle John wants me to do more stuff and if I don’t, their pa will ask us to leave.”
“Aren’t these the chores they’re supposed to do together?”
A shrug was followed by a nod. “They say we’re be … beho …”
Beholding?” Ben supplied.
The child’s face screwed into a pucker. “Yeah. What does that mean, Pa?”
“It means that we should willingly help as a way to repay their kindness. But Uncle John gave you work that fits your size. He or I are the only one who can add to that, and he would never put us out. I’ll speak to him.”
Adam’s eyes and mouth opened wide and round. “No!” He sneezed again and shivered. “Don’t say nothing, Pa. They’ll call me a tattletale.”
Ben smiled knowingly. His son was clearly at the bottom of this family’s pecking order, something the cousins had figured out too. He also understood that telling John outright what his boys were doing would embarrass his brother and tip his hand towards punishment that might make the situation even worse for Adam.
In one way, Will and Junior’s actions were just what Ben had hoped Adam would experience as normal brotherly rivalry that he would learn to navigate. But in this case, he would have to creatively help his son.
He looked around the barn assessing what still needed to be done. Taking Adam’s pitch fork, he had the muck removed in minutes and then had his son spread new straw despite the continued sneezing. “Go wash up now, change your shirt and get to your lessons.” Taking another swipe at the new accumulation of drippiness flowing from Adam’s nose, he promised, “Don’t worry, son, you won’t have to do this again.”
As everyone crowded around the table for supper that night, Ben tapped his spoon against a glass for attention. “We’ve been here a while now, and I want to thank you all again for making us feel so welcome,” he began. “We are both anxious to help, and in fact, Adam is looking for a few other chores to do. But I found him earlier biting off more than he can chew, attempting to clean stalls. He can’t physically handle the work, and that means someone else will have to go after him to finish. Instead of helping, it just creates double effort.”
He’d looked around the table, settling on his nephews before moving on to John. “I’ll bet there are things he could manage better.” He waited a breath. “Any suggestions?”
His nephews had the moral perception to blush. Along with the blush came wide-eyed stares while anticipating their father’s response.
John eyed his boys carefully. “We want you to feel like family and appreciate your help … don’t we boys? But you don’t have to work harder than the rest of us to show your thanks.” He’d closed his eyes and sat back in his chair. “Ma sweeps the porches every day, but her rheumatism makes it hard to bend down to hold the dust pan. How about after Adam feeds the animals, he finds Grandma and gives her a hand with that.” He nodded towards his wife and then Adam. “And if Grandma doesn’t need you, ask Aunt Patty if she needs help in the kitchen. That will be plenty.”
Things settled into a calm rhythm for Ben and Adam as the Boston Cartwrights grafted their branch into the Ohio Cartwright’s family tree. The best part of late fall and early winter was being included in the preparations for the coming holidays. Adam had never experienced this before. There’d always been special dinners in the boarding houses, but Adam was at the perfect age now to appreciate the anticipation.
John shared his woodworking skills, helping Adam build a birdhouse and trinket boxes for Christmas gifts. He even paid him a few pennies for sweeping the woodshop each evening so he’d have money to purchase presents he couldn’t make. Adam blossomed during this time. Sleeping well had returned him to a bright-eyed child who hurried through his chores and absorbed his grandmother’s lessons like a sponge. When those were finished, he’d join his uncle in the shop, and hit his pillow exhausted and happy each night.
The closer the holidays came the more excited the household became. Fragrant decorations were put up, while cookies and fruit cake were baked and stored for coming celebrations. The house usually smelled sweet and cinnamony, with an undertone of whatever was being cooked for dinner that night. Ben teased his mother and sister-in-law that a person could gain weight just by inhaling.
Adam’s eyes had sparkled like bits of amber on Christmas morning, finding several gifts under the tree with his name. The gifts he’d made and purchased were well received, and his happiness from that day lingered as winter laid its covering over the land.
Ben’s memories of Christmas didn’t last as long. With the deepest part of winter setting in, and their stay already half over, Ben noticed a disturbing change in his brother’s conversation. He’d initially been encouraging over Ben’s plans to go west come spring, but now it seemed that providing a home for the winter entitled him to an opinion in the matter.
It began one sunny winter afternoon as the two brothers looked over a stack of boards for projects they’d complete indoors.
“We should get those bunkbeds built,” John told Ben.
“I hope to leave early in March if the weather cooperates,” Ben responded while continuing to pull similar sized boards into piles. “Maybe we could leave the sleeping arrangements as they are for the duration, and work on the new coops, pens and feed lockers, and fencing board to expand your corral once we can set posts.” Ben’s suggestion was met by his brother’s reddening face and clenching fists.
John’s voice carried an accusatory tone. “Adam is doing so well here. I can’t believe you still plan to take him on that dangerous journey across the country! Don’t you understand what a bad decision that would be. I’m sorry if we haven’t been obvious enough in wanting you to leave Adam with us.”
“Thank you for your offer, but I have no intention of leaving my son behind.”
John turned abruptly and walked away. Ben continued to sort the lumber, and when his brother returned, his posture was no longer imposing. “Let’s do as you suggested and get the big projects done. We’ll still build the bunkbed after that. Patty says it will work better in that room whether Adam remains or not. “
Ben heard the caveat, and anticipated that this was not the last he’d hear about his upcoming trip.
Outright suggestions to leave Adam behind eased as winter progressed. That didn’t mean his brother stopped advocating for it. He simply changed tactics. Any behavior from Adam considered imperfect was called to Ben’s attention. All things received the same scrutiny, whether he was a little slow doing something Ben asked of him; became cranky when overtired; got too excited and boisterous or indicated his displeasure with anything from a vegetable he didn’t like to a punishment he reasoned was undeserved. The head nod towards the “willful child,” was accompanied by John’s practiced expression conveying that this was the result when children were not consistently parented. In truth, every instance was simply Adam being a little boy; the same behavior John managed to overlook in Will and Junior.
Ben soon realized that objecting or reacting brought further judgment that he was being “overly sensitive” to the truth. He found that laughing it off or nodding sagely disarmed the situation. And if there were true instances of disobedience or disrespect, he spoke to his son in private.
Life proceeded with the occasional bumps and nudges, until an incident in late February left Ben shaken to the core.
A fever overtook Will after a trip to town where other children were ill. He recovered quickly, with Junior following in his wake with similar symptoms and a quick return to health. The last to get sick was Adam.
The symptoms began as they had with the other boys, but instead of a low fever with a day in bed as his cousins had experienced, the fever set in hard and hot over the next two days, with Adam’s cough ringing out even as he slept after becoming too exhausted to stay awake. Ben, his mother and Patty used every home remedy they’d heard of to bring the fever down and ease the gurgle in his throat and chest, yet he worsened until he barely woke for sips of broth or water. The doctor brought from town advocated cool baths for the fever, steaming pans of water for congestion, an elixir for the cough, and prayer. They moved Adam inside to his grandmother’s room so there’d be more people available to keep an eye on him while Ben took catnaps and cleaned up. But the worried father couldn’t really sleep, and seldom left Adam’s side.
The fever finally broke on the fifth morning of Ben’s vigil. The little guy was starving and limp as a dishrag, but he smiled, asking to get out of bed and sit on his father’s lap.
Two more days passed with Adam confined to the house, and Ben still unable to sleep as he remained vigilant for a relapse.
The little boy recovered as quickly as he’d taken ill, leaving Ben to join his brother in the woodshop again. The sleepless nights had taken their toll, and he moved as though heavy weights were anchoring his ankles.
John laid down his hammer and square down on the workbench and looked over at his brother. “I’m so relieved that Adam’s better.” He puckered his lips. “Has he ever been so sick before?”
Ben shook his head. “Sniffles, a cough and some stomach upsets, but nothing like this. Thank God he’s fine.” He smiled feebly. “Unfortunately, I don’t suppose it’s the last time this will happen.”
“That’s an unfortunate truth with children,” John offered with a nod. ”Isn’t it interesting how these illness make their way through towns. Sometimes the adults get the worst of it and the kids are fine. This time it was only children, and some got it much worse than others. You feel so helpless watching them struggle.” He released a long breath. “You had a lot of help and support through this, Ben. You might want to consider how differently it might have gone in a drafty wagon out in the middle of nowhere.”
John’s words made Ben grimace, and a pain shot into his chest like a dagger being plunged through his flesh and muscles. “I am thankful for the blessings you mentioned, John. I’d like Adam to always be safe, but there are no guarantees. Severe weather, bad accidents and illness can take lives even from those living in comfortable homes, not just when someone is traveling to their destiny.” He looked away, trying to find the words to reassure his brother that he was aware of the risks and the outcomes. “We won’t be traveling alone. There could be fifty-to-a-hundred people in our caravan. From what I’ve heard, these groups become families in their united efforts. Pioneers … explorers … have always bucked the odds against success, willing to face the unknown while praying for God’s protection. It’s the only way a nation can grow.”
“So, you fancy yourself a pioneer and speak of this as your destiny now,” John said with a haughty tone. “And you find no problem putting your young son through the hell you just mentioned to get there. Do you hear how selfish you sound? Are you so adamant in taking Adam along because you need him to see you as heroic?”
Ben remained silent, refusing to rise to the bait his brother had cast, despite feeling John’s verbal blade slide between his ribs again. He turned so his reaction would go unobserved, and resumed planing the edges of the doors for the cabinet he was building.
“You see how well Adam does with Ma in his lessons, and he can attend a real school when the weather eases,” John continued, undaunted by his brother’s lack of response. “He won’t have time to do lessons on the road, and there won’t be a school where you’re going. Adam will fall behind and he’ll never catch up.” Although his words still bore accusations, he eased his tone to sound reasoning. “There won’t be a church, stores or any sort of comfortable home until years of hard work.” He sighed. “I’m going to renew our offer. Patricia and I want you to leave Adam with us. Not forever, but long enough for you to find what you’re seeking.”
Ben hated his brother’s offer, yet …. “How long do you propose he stay here?”
“He’s going on five, and I’d reckon he’d be through his primary studies before you get back.”
“With as fast as Adam learns, that’ll be a year from now.” Ben chuckled, trying to lighten the conversation, but John remained stone-faced. “Won’t there be risk associated with this trip no matter how old he is?”
“He’ll fare better with more years under his belt. You’ll have your hands full as it is, Ben. There won’t be time for Adam and he’ll get lost in the rush, becoming a disrespectful, wanton youngster no one can abide.” He paused only for a breath. “And think of the dangers, not only from illness or injury, but from marauders and Indian attacks. Those stories sound brutal.”
John’s words sent salt into the verbal wounds left in his initial assault, making Ben’s heart burn with uncertainty.
“Safer, faster ways of travel will come available over time. Or if you prefer, I’ll take Adam to your father-in-law in Boston. He can arrange passage to the West Coast on a suitable ship.”
The pain eased, and Ben found a platform again. “You’ve decided all this behind my back! Wouldn’t the right thing … the kind and responsible way of doing this … have been to include me in these plans? I’m a reasonable man, and honestly, you’re making some valid points, John. But this way, you insult my ability as a parent and make me defensive.”
John looked away, releasing a prolonged sigh. “There’s a reason we didn’t include you, younger brother. You get these big ideas; go ahead with them without a thought to how they affect others and then tire of them.”
Ben’s jaw dropped. “What are you talking about?!”
“You told Ma and Pa it was your destiny to sail the seas when you left for Boston. It grieved Ma, and Pa had to work harder in your absence.” His laugh was bitter. “And how long did that last before you tired of it? If you tire of this destiny; what will happen to your son!”
“That’s not fair or accurate, John. I knew it would be hard for our parents to let me go, but they truly understood. Pa would have worked just as hard whether I’d stayed or gone. It was his nature. And Ma encouraged me because she knew that staying to please them would produce bitterness.” This time Ben sighed. “If you’ve felt the burden of staying on here, then I’m sorry for you. Pa wrote that he gave you the option of selling the farm when he got sick. You seem happy in the life you’ve chosen, but if you’re not, then exercise some of that honest introspection you’re expecting from me and decide what you do want.”
John blushed deeply. “I’m sorry, Ben. I know Pa sent you on your way with his best wishes, and you’re correct that he offered me a chance to use the farm money to do what I wanted. It was my decision to continue, and I’m content here.” The redness in his cheeks diminished as he changed from contrition to confrontation again. “What I’m talking about is that you saw the sea as your career, but that all changed. This will take longer and be harder, so I worry you won’t stick with it when you don’t get what you want fast enough.”
Ben reared back, regarding his brother as a stranger. “Did Ma never share with you what I was doing? If she had, you’d know that I served on Abel’s ship for several years, rising through the ranks to become the youngest officer to be offered my own vessel. But things changed when I considered marriage and a family. The sea requires everything from a man, and often takes away more than it gives. I no longer wanted to be gone for months while Elizabeth raised our children and wondered if I’d return. Having land—space without boundaries—is possible in the West. I want to take on the vast country with my family at my side. I don’t want to leave Adam behind because it’s his future too.”
“I’ll leave the offer on the table, Ben.” John finally smiled. “Think it over and decide what’s best. I won’t bring it up again.”
John remained true to his word … in his way. He never confronted Ben again, and they moved past the moment of bitter honesty between them. The indication that John’s judgments had not swayed, showed itself in new tactics focusing on Adam.;
As the deep winter gave way to pleasant, sunny days, John and Patricia began speaking of upcoming events. Stories of parties, festivals and community gatherings created the same excited anticipation as Christmas had.
Never being part of such things before, Adam got excited too and questioned Ben about whether they’d stay long enough to join in the fun of what was being described.
After one such buildup, John had his nephew nearly bouncing in his seat with excitement, and then gave Ben a knowing look before saying, “I’m so sorry Adam. I shouldn’t have brought it up because you’ll be on a hot, dusty road in the middle of nowhere with a mighty wind blowing in your face by then.”
The most recent of these baits came at breakfast when Patricia spoke about starting their projects for the Fourth of July celebration. She described the big picnic with games, food and firework, and how they’d enter their crafts to be judged for prizes. She spread this scene over the meal like soft butter on biscuits, ending it by saying, “You did such a good job on that birdhouse you made me for Christmas, Adam, you’d surely win a blue ribbon if you entered it.” She frowned then. “I forgot, child, you won’t be here anymore. I’m so sorry I brought it up.”
Ben saw his son’s confusion. Adam had no idea what a blue ribbon was, but he knew that now the child wanted to win one. The little boy lost interest in his breakfast as the conversation continued to what thing each of the Cartwrights would make and enter.
Later, together in their room, Adam asked, “Will I ever get to do fun things like Uncle John and Aunt Patty talk about?”
What Ben found interesting was that while Adam asked questions and clearly grieved not participating; he never suggested he’d prefer to stay behind to enjoy them.
Ben gave the only promise he could make. “There will be lots of people with us in the wagon train, son. They’ll all remember what parties and fun felt like, and they’ll find ways to celebrate too.” He winked. “And if they don’t, we’ll bring it up and get everyone excited.”
Ben was in his room sorting their possessions into the boxes he’d soon pack into their wagon, when Patty appeared in his open doorway.
“I’d like to talk to you, Ben,” she began as she took a step inside. “We’ve been pointing out a lot of issues concerning your desire to take Adam with you. Some are exceedingly valid, and some,” she blushed as her lips turned upwards in a knowing smile, “have been petty, judgmental and even hurtful. I’m sorry for those. Please understand that our motivation is love for both you and Adam, even though our methods may have drifted a bit.”
“Thank you for that, Patty,” he offered, matching her smile.
“Despite anything we’ve said to the contrary, I clearly see that you love your son. Adam is a sweet boy who adores you, and he’d do anything to please you. Is it possible he’d say he wants to go with you because of that bond or in fear of disappointing you, even though he might rather stay here where life is a little more settled?”
“I’ve considered that,” he said truthfully. “Yet I see no evidence of him trying to please or appease me. He is old enough now that he understands giving up one thing to get something else. I know this trip will challenge him, but Adam is strong and adaptable.”
“I see that too. He’s managed to fit in with the boys and is always eager to learn something new. I believe he will miss being part of us.” She sighed. “There is something Adam will miss more than he can possibly realize: something you can’t give him. Adam loves being around your mother. He seeks her out for comfort and loves to hear her stories. And you’ve come inside to find him sitting at the table talking with me while I cook. Even the best of fathers can’t replace that for a young child.”
Patty’s observations were true and brought a new dimension to his decision. As noted, Ben often found his son curled in his grandmother’s lap or happily chatting with his aunt. He closed the distance to his sister-in-law and took her hands. “This is something I will truly consider.”
Patty’s thoughts prompted Ben to ask his mother to walk with him after lunch. They skirted the edge of the fields where the first green shoots of spring were inching their way through the ground.
“Ma, do you think I can raise Adam on my own?” he asked her once far enough away their conversation wouldn’t be overheard.
“Are you asking because John and Patricia have put doubts in your head?”
“Yes and no.” Ben stopped and faced his mother. “I’ve laughed off a lot of it, but there have been good points too. John fears the inherent dangers of the long trip, and points out the difficulty of tending to a youngster while trying to do everything else, especially if Adam gets ill. And Patty pointed out that Adam loves you so much he might suffer loss when we leave.”
“John and Patty are good people, but they’re already anchored. They have no intentions of exploring further and don’t see the value of what you’re doing.” She patted Ben’s hand. “I knew you had a pioneer’s spirit from the time you could walk. You always wanted to see what was over the next hill.” A chuckle. “Adam is so much like you.”
A crooked smile softened Ben’s worried expression. “Is that good or bad, Ma?”
“It depends on your point of view. John sees your restlessness to make your own way in this world as a weakness, whereas I know the strength it takes. I saw how you distinguished yourself in naval service, and I admired your decision to step away from it when you married Elizabeth. You are doing a wonderful job with Adam despite the many jabs your brother takes at you. But John’s a good man too who’s doing a fine job where he’s settled himself.”
“He’s done so much in a few years. I admire that and have told him so. In our talks that don’t involve him chastising me for my plans, I can tell he is content with his life—anchored—like you said. What he can’t understand is wanting to take Adam with me on this adventure. Most people don’t think fathers can raise children on their own.” He smiled down at the small woman who’d raised him. “Should I leave Adam here for a while?”
“There is value in doing that, Son. Your travel would certainly be easier alone.”
“Will John be a better father to my son than I will be if I drag him across the country?”
“Maybe,” she answered truthfully. “John’s not a perfect parent by any means, but I believe with all my heart that he loves your boy and will give him every advantage while he remains here. Patricia will love Adam too, and I plan to live a few years. I will watch over him like a hawk and promise to let John know right off if I disagree with him on anything regarding my grandson.”
“So … how do I decide what to do?”
“Find a quiet place where you can listen only to your own thoughts. You already know what you want to do. Now you have to let it find peace in your head and heart.”
He laughed. “That’s a problem, Ma. There is no place or time when I’m ever alone enough to listen.”
Ben efforts at falling asleep that night were fruitless. The conversation with his mother had served to strengthen both sides of his options. He assumed it was what she’d intended. Her motives were kind in offering reassurance of Adam’s care if he remained, yet reassuring him that he was a capable caregiver.
His son slept soundly next to him, unaware of the turmoil roiling in his father’s mind. The child’s breathy snore from playing in the hayloft earlier broke the unaffected quiet his mother had spoken of needing to make a decision. How could he leave this sweet, amazing blessing—this gift from Elizabeth—behind? How would he go forward without hearing Adam’s breath while asleep and seeing his glorious, soul-healing smile each day?
But another part of his brain scolded him for the risk he’d put this same child through. Was John more correct than he wanted to admit about his need to have his son along to look up to him? But if he didn’t take him, how long would it really take to get out to the land nestled near a lake and a river on the eastern hillside of the Sierras? Even with the best of weather, a year would pass before he’d reach the unclaimed land with pelt-animals, pastureland and virgin timber.
A year didn’t seem so long to leave Adam here …. But that timeframe was a lie. It would take another year to begin trapping and build a shelter, and still another or two to set aside money to begin homesteading in earnest. Adam would be at least eight before he could even consider a reunion.
Ben gently encircled his son with his arm, feeling the rhythm of his heart, and finally drifted to sleep … still facing the most important decision of his life.
There was a huge negative and unforeseen effect to Ben’s indecision. He’d never had an option to go it alone for the cross-country travel, and rather than it giving him peace, it produced a headache! And with the departure closing in on him like a runaway wagon, he began to take his anxiety out on Adam.
He grew short with boy, hoping to forestall any behavior that might add powder to John’s arsenal of see what I’ve been telling you arsenal. Adam wasn’t doing anything wrong, but Ben’s myopic view made him see everything through a lens that magnified each “imperfect” response or action. The result was sadly predictable. The more he criticized Adam, the more confused and fearful the child became, until every expression and response “appeared” willful.
The looming decision became even more complicated earlie when he’d come home from planting to find Patricia holding Will and Adam, each at arm’s length. She’d looked up at him and snarled, “These boys broke a cheap figurine, and Will says Adam shoved him to the ground and started a fight when they disagreed over which one of them was responsible.”
Ben apologized for Adam’s role in the fracas, and then took his boy outside. He knelt on one knee to be at eye level, took Adam’s hands, and gently asked, “What really happened in there? Tell me the absolute truth.”
“We took our wet shoes off at the door after spilling a pail of water in the barn, and walked through in our stocking feet. It left wet footprints on Aunt Patty’s clean floor and she said to get our socks off before going anywhere else. After that she went out to get the wash off the lines, and Will rolled his socks off into a ball and tossed it at me. I ducked, so it missed me but it hit Aunt Patty’s statue of that pretty lady. He said it was my fault for ducking.”
“Why’d you knock him down?”
The little boy’s eyes dropped to half-mast and he turned to show Ben his ripped pants and dirt encrusted fabric. “I got scared and ran outside. Will chased me; shoved me down, sat on me and said I needed to help him hide the statue so his ma wouldn’t even notice. Aunt Patty heard the thing break and came looking for us, so he told her I’d knocked it down and then started a fight.” He took a deep breath. “But only my pants are dirty, Pa. Will’s pants are clean.”
The incident left Ben to wonder whether Adam would be picked on and blamed for everything if he stayed behind. On the other hand, he had stuck up for himself and Patty was fair—not wearing the same blinders as John when it came to their boys’ misbehavior. She would have listened to Adam and believed the same evidence and reasoning he used just now. Overall, this seemed a solid indication that Adam was a full part of this family.
Two days remained until departure, and Ben still hadn’t told Adam that he might be staying behind, nor had he told his brother that he would take his son along. He didn’t understand this paralyzing indecision. There had never before been a time, even when he’d known how deeply he might he might affect or hurt someone, when he wasn’t certain of his choice well before his final action.
Once up and dressed, he asked Adam to sit with him on the bed before going in for breakfast. “You like it here, don’t you?” he asked, hoping for a rousing yes or no.
“I guess,” Adam said before he shrugged and looked away.
When he looked back at his father, Ben realized his astute youngster suspected exactly what his father’s next words would be. Those usually bright, golden-brown eyes were dark, and he sighed so long, Ben pictured him deflating like a becalmed sail. It left him unable to speak. “We’ll talk more about this later,” he said while grasping Adam’s hand and leading him outside.
His planned departure the following day found Ben up early to clean the wagon and place the stays and canvas. What should have been the happiest day in the last four years, was burdened by thoughts of holding Elizbeth’s lifeless body while promising that he would always do right for their son. He’d considered this the easiest promise he’d ever made. But this stop in Ohio had made the “right thing” impossible to determine. His reservations about his ability to properly raise Adam on the trail, wove with misgivings about John’s motives in offering to keep Adam. Was this trip too dangerous for a child as John posited or was he undercutting his younger brother’s confidence to get even for being the one left behind to assume responsibility. As the hour of his final decision approached, he had to wipe away those thoughts to believe that John was a good man, motivated only by concern and love.
Absent any further discussion to confirm that he would stay behind, Adam was beside himself with excitement while helping to pack the wagon. As the room emptied, and the wagon filled, he came to his father with a questioning expression. “Did you already pack my stuff, Pa? I can’t find it.”
Ben squatted and took Adam’s shoulders. “Your things are in your cousins’ room. I have something very important to tell you, and I want you to listen before asking questions.”
The articulate, now five-year-old, looked directly into his father’s eyes. “You’re not taking me along, are you, Papa.”
“Your uncle and aunt think it best you remain here while I go ahead and get our new place built. It will be a hard trip out there and this way you can stay where you’re safe with those who can take care of you better than I can.”
The child’s eyes widened to saucers, and then his long lashes fluttered to his cheeks as the first silent tear escaped. “No one can take better care of me than you, Papa,” he said through the hiccups of grief and betrayal. “And besides; who’s gonna take care of you if I’m not there?”
His hands had tightened on the little boy’s shoulders. “It’ll just be a year, maybe two. You love Grandma, and if you leave now, you’ll never …. He realized he was treading too deep into muddy water, and backed away, saying only, “You’ll enjoy the time with Grandma and John’s family. You’ll go to those parties and attend school where you’ll meet even more friends. Traveling will be easier when you’re older.”
Adam pulled from his father’s grip, rubbing his arms where he’d been held a little too tightly. Words formed on his lips, but they dissolved like raindrops falling through dry air. His face turned to granite for a moment as he considered what he’d just been told, before collapsing into agony. “Oh, Papa,” he’d finally screamed out. “I wish we’d never come here!”
He ran away, hiding in the hayloft until dinner, and trudged dutifully to his cousins’ room at bedtime without saying goodnight.
Ben had the team hitched to the small wagon before the rest of the Cartwrights were up the next morning, and jumped when he felt a hand on his back. He swung around to find his mother.
“You gave me a start,” he chuckled. “Did you come out to say goodbye before the others?”
She wasted no time with unnecessary pleasantries. “I respect your decision to leave Adam with us, Son. But judging from your faces last night at supper, neither of you are comfortable with this.”
“I’m not, Ma. But I don’t want Adam to pay an ultimate price for my plans.”
“You don’t really believe that.” Her tone was soft, and her hand returned to gently grasp his arm.
“Honestly, Ma, I don’t know what to believe. I always thought I was doing a good job with him, but … maybe I’m not. Adam has to be so grown up when it’s just the two of us. Here he gets to play and take lessons with you. He deserves to be a child.”
Her laugh rang out in the quiet morning air. “Adam is a child in age only. He thinks and reasons better than most adults, watches what others do, and could probably run this farm if he was a little bigger. Have you considered that he does better with more responsibility not less? You fear he can’t be a child with you because he can’t play childhood games or go to a regular school or church ….”
She quieted and stroked her chin. “Childhood is about growing up surrounded with love and purpose, not playing games. Adam adores you, and is every bit a child who will prosper in love and intelligence in your care because you adore him too. You will take the time to help him learn and strengthen his faith. You’ll find other children for him to be with and encourage his active mind in a hundred ways each day.” She stepped forward to embrace her son. “Yet, all those things do come with the worry of causing more harm than good. So, Ben; If you’re convinced it’s best to leave Adam here, I will love and care for him in gratitude for the opportunity.”
She stepped back. “I’ll leave you to finish, son. My last caution is that you take another moment to consider this decision from your heart, not from the doubts and fears others have planted in the fertile soil of your disquiet.”
Adam came outside with the others to say goodbye, but remained rigid when Ben lifted him for a final hug and reassurances that time would fly and they’d be together soon. The look in his eyes changed from accusatory to lost as he pulled away and ran to bury himself in his grandmother’s skirt.
Not wanting to prolong the separation, he waved while offering his thanks, and slapped the reins to set the horses in motion. A sudden, sharp pain rippled across his chest as he drove from the yard, making him wonder if his heart was failing. It was … but not because of a physical dysfunction that would cause it to stop beating. This was pain associated with the absolute rending of his spirit. He’d felt it the day Elizabeth had been laid to rest, and when he’d received the letter about his father’s death. It was the pain of utter loss. But what he faced this time, was that he hadn’t really “lost” something precious. This time, he’d given it away.
He’d prayed so hard as he’d contemplated this day, asking for insight—a sign—to let him know what to do. The answer seemed to have come in the constant litany of warnings from his brother, until he could only see how terrified Adam would become facing constant danger that melted the will and resolve of even seasoned adults. He’d heard only the roar of admonitions that he was a selfish dreamer. It blew out the flame of his resolve, and completely silenced the reassuring voice that had always told him that he and Adam would accomplish their journey together or not at all.
Over the last few weeks, He and John had brought several loads of stone from the river banks to fill the low spots in the driveway. The scree hadn’t compacted yet, making his wagon wheels stick in the soft gravel like he was axle deep in mud. He glanced back after some minutes of slow progress, surprised to see an empty yard, reinforcing the fact that he was now truly on his own.
Finally reaching the main road, he pulled on the left reins to turn the team west, and gave a solid slap to their rumps to get them up the last small rise and around the corner. Rather than responding, both horses stopped. He snapped the reins again, less aggressively this time and clicked his tongue encouragingly.
When they remained statue-like, he jumped down and inspected their feet, suspecting loose stones had gotten stuck in their hooves to cause discomfort. All eight feet were fine, and with no obvious reason for their noncooperation, he finally grabbed their halters and tugged. The horses lowered their heads and leaned back in resistance.
Ben had always found these two animals accommodating and easy to handle, and their current behavior left him flummoxed. Unsure what to try next, he climbed back to the driver’s seat and tried another snap of the reins and a loud verbal charge to get moving.
The wagon and horses remained frozen in place.
Then, amid the blessed silence of nature, absent the voices of others telling him what he “should” do; he heard it. The phenomenon couldn’t have been more dramatic if a lightning bolt had exploded in his vicinity, yet his answer came in a soft voice he recognized. There was no accusation, only understanding of what he’d faced trying to do the best for “their” son. The voice was loving, reassuring him that he was equal to any task he took on. Elizabeth’s laugh in his thoughts, was so real it made him shiver. It was followed by her assertion that the horses wouldn’t move until he decided—without any other influence—what was best for Adam.
He inhaled deeply, and finally exhaled. It was a simple function he hadn’t been able to fully accomplish for some time now, and the fresh influx of air left him alert and full of vigor. He jumped from the wagon and ran the quarter-mile back to the farm while reciting a litany of thanks for the moment of grace that had just occurred.
The yard was deserted, but he heard young voices inside the barn and quietly made his way there to listen.
“Lookit the crybaby!” It was the Junior’s voice. “Your Pa’s gone, crybaby, and he’s never coming back for you. Our Pa knew he’d do that. Who’d want to keep such a smart-aleck around anyway!.”
Will’s voice rose next. “You know he ain’t a bad kid, Junior. He ain’t even a smart-aleck; he’s just smart, and you’re mad because he knows more’n you. The poor kid’s missin’ his pa, just like we would if it was our pa who had to leave us behind a while.”
Ben heard Junior’s snort.
“I guess you’re right, Will, ‘ceptin’ for the part where you think he knows more’n me. C’mon, Adam, we’ll all get our chores done and then go fishing.”
The conversation ended as Ben heard a broom moving along the rough floor, and the hinges on the feed box squeak as the lid was raised. Adam remained silent and he pictured the little boy trying to control his emotions both at the abandonment, and perhaps even over the kindness his cousins had managed to show. Ben was about to enter the barn when his brother exited the house.
“That was a short trip,” he’d said in a teasing tone as he neared. “Are you having trouble with the wagon?”
“No,” he replied. “I forgot something.” The sound of their voices brought Will and Junior outside, but Adam stopped just inside the door with only his curly dark hair visible past the edge.
“It’s good you remembered before you got too far away! What’d you forget?”
“I forgot to say a few things, John, like thanking you for all the advice you gave me. But I also forgot to tell you that while I might be considered a horrible father for what I’ve got planned, it is my decision alone as to what’s best for Adam, and it’s based on everything we’ve accomplished together so far. Every parent makes mistakes. Sometimes we’re too strict and other times not strict enough. It takes balance and courage to direct our children towards living good lives filled with faith and reason. I can’t allow you to take that responsibility from me.”
He’d glanced back at the barn door. “But what I truly forgot … is Adam. Without him, my life will feel like a ship without a rudder or a sky without sun or stars to direct my course. Nothing I do will be right or good unless he’s next to me. What I need from you, John, is not to raise my son or remind me of the strong hot winds that will blow against us, but for you and your family to pray for that wind to be at our backs as we find our new home.”
Adam charged from the barn, and with only a large smile directed towards his father, he ran towards the house. When he exited a minute later, he was carrying a pillowcase stuffed with his few belongings, and tugging his grandmother by her hand. He stopped and handed Ben the sack. “I’m ready, Pa.”
“I want you to say goodbye to your cousins, and thank your aunt and uncle for being so good to you.”
With Adam making the rounds, John shook his head and directed his quiet comment to Ben in a disparaging tone, “You’ll regret this one day soon, and it will be too late.”
“There will be hard days, John, but never regret over them. You’re a good and honorable man who’s committed to this farm and your family. I admire you, and if I were a different man, I could have driven away today without a look backwards. I’m not that man.”
His mother moved closer once John left to stand with Patty to say goodbye to Adam. Her smile was knowing. “What made you come back, son?”
He grinned. “Why do I suspect that you and my wife had something to do with the fact that the horses stopped, giving me time to think. I saw clearly that I’d made the wrong decision.” Her laughter made him ask, “What’s so funny?”
“Prayers get answered so well sometimes.” Her chuckle returned. “I’d prayed that you not be allowed to leave until you had a chance to think with no one else butting in.”
He’d bent to her cheek, leaving a last kiss, and whispering his thanks. “Between you and Elizabeth storming heaven, I could only make the right decision. Thank you.”
Ben offered his thanks and goodbyes a last time before slinging the pillowcase over his shoulder. He took Adam’s hand as they began the long walk to the waiting wagon.
It took a gentle nudge this time to get the horses moving.
He pulled the little boy closer on the bench as the team turned onto the road and settled into a steady pace. “Are you mad at me?”
A quick shake of his head was followed by Adam snuggling in and looking up into his father’s eyes. “After you left, Grandma said to get my pillowcase packed, leave it by the door and then do my chores.”
“Did she say why you should do that?”
“Grandma said you’d be back. I told her I knew that, but it would be a long time. She just laughed.”
“I’m sorry I made you so sad. This was never what I wanted. I let others make me doubt how strong you and I are together. I will never do that again.” Their separation had lasted an instant, but he knew it must have seemed an eternity to his child.
Adam’s forgiveness was instantaneous, but came with a question. “Were Uncle John and Aunt Patty mad at you cuz I was being bad, Pa?”
Ben stopped the wagon and pulled Adam to his lap. “You weren’t bad, and we both did the best we could. It’s just that Uncle John and Aunt Patricia can’t understand us wanting to go so far away to find a new home. It scared them, so they only saw the danger instead of the excitement we feel. They were sincere in offering to give you a safe and normal life.” He smiled at his son. “What they couldn’t see, and what I lost track of, is that this is a normal life for us, and we’re happy. The Cartiwrights together … ” Ben said with a wink.
Adam winked back and finished their motto. “Forever!”
The expression on the little boy’s face turned serious as he laid his head on his father’s chest. “I was so glad to see you outside the barn,” he admitted. “Until I heard you tell Uncle John you forgot me, I felt like I had a hole in me somewhere, and everything inside me was leaking out of it.”
Ben sighed heavily, amazed at Adam’s accurate description of how he’d felt as well. He tipped the boy’s chin up to see his eyes reflecting gold and amber in the sun. “I can’t promise that the next year will be easy or without times that are scary for both of us. I also can’t promise that I won’t ever make a mistake or that things won’t change from time-to-time. But I do promise that we can get through everything, because our best life is what we make together.”
He set Adam on the bench next to him again. “I promise you will be with me until you decide to go out on your own, son. I will find you when you’re lost, keep you as safe as possible, and make your life normal, but always exciting.”
Ben was startled when he heard the door across from his room open, followed by Richard giving a hearty greeting. The response came from Adam, who must have arrived home while Ben had been lost in his memories. He rewrapped the rattle and stowed it in the dresser while listening to the conversation in the hall, absolving himself of eavesdropping in thinking it best not to interrupt.
“You’re Adam!” Richard said with enthusiasm. You’ve changed some since you were in Boston, but not so much I wouldn’t recognize you. Do you remember meeting me?”
“You were captain of the Wanderer. Captain … Wagner?”
“That’s it, boy! I bring greetings from your grandfather.” He chuckled. “I think I surprised your father pretty good by showing up here.”
“I’m sure he’s most pleased. Listen,” he said to forestall more details. “I came through the kitchen and Hop Sing has issued his orders. In this house, he is the captain. He knows we’ll want to gather for a drink before dinner, so he’s declared 45-minutes before he wants us at the table. Any failure to follow his orders is considered mutiny.”
“I’ll respect his authority over this vessel. Just tell me where and when to report.”
“My brothers just arrived, so they’ll be heading up to change too. Let’s meet downstairs in ten-minutes.”
Ben heard Richard’s agreement and the door closing, followed by a soft knock at his. “Come in.”
“Hi, Pa.” Adam greeted him with a smile as he stepped inside. “Hop Sing told me we had a surprise guest from Boston. He also said you’d been upstairs a while and thought you might have dozed off. You probably heard me tell Captain Wagner that we’ve been summoned to the main deck.”
Ben returned the smile. “I wasn’t sleeping, just lost in thought. It seems you remember Richard?
A nod. “We’d meet him at a pub when he was in port so Abel could hear about his latest voyage. Their favorite pastime was regaling me with tales of harrowing adventures.” Adam tugged at his ear as though pulling forth more memories. “Now and then Captain Wagner would bring up a story about serving with you, but Grandfather always gave him an obvious signal to hold back. I admit wondering what Abel didn’t want me to hear.” He chuckled. “Maybe tonight you two can tell those stories without censorship.”
“I hate to disappoint you, Adam. Richard and I intended to get off deck duty into command, so we were careful about our behavior … on and off the boat. Our stories are interesting or maybe funny, but there’s nothing embarrassing.”
Adam’s brow lifted as his cheek rose. “You said you’ve been thinking. Were you remembering your days on the ship?”
Ben’s head moved side-to-side. “No, Richard asked me a question.”
“That must have been some question.” Adam laughed. “May I ask what it was or are you saving it for tonight?”
“The question was about you … or more so about me in regards to you.” Ben sat on the edge of his bed. “Richard was a good friend in those early years and took over the Wanderer around the time you were born and your grandfather took over the chandlery. Next to your mother and Abel, he was my biggest supporter when I decided to leave the service and seek a legacy on land.”
He shot Adam a pained smile. “Today he confessed that he’d wondered how I’d manage. He prayed for our success, but admitted that he, like most of those gossiping in the pubs, were certain I’d be back.”
“But you surprised them all. Maybe yourself the most?” Adam winked while leaning back against the dresser.
“Maybe a little,” he admitted. “Anyway, after marveling about what we’ve built on the Ponderosa, Richard mentioned that he recalled I had family in Ohio, and wondered if I’d maybe left you with them for a while to go ahead and get this place started. Correspondence was infrequent back then, and Abel never gave him any details about the trip. He hadn’t wanted to ask you either, but after seeing the ranch, he wondered again how I could get it going with a youngster in tow.”
Adam nodded. “It was unheard of for a father to do what you did. I can only imagine how much I slowed you down, and then we had Hoss too. But you never let me feel that I was a burden.” Adam became silent as one particular memory took shape. They seldom spoke about Ohio, other than when a situation sparked a recollection, and at Adam’s age now, he remembered only bits and pieces. Once they’d left John’s place, their life had gotten full fast. He did remember getting an illness that had made him miserable and they’d stopped for a rest and a job in southern Illinois. That was where a beautiful blonde shopkeeper with the biggest blue eyes had stepped in to help and stole both of their hearts. “Anything particular about our trip that had you thinking, Pa?”
“How much do you recall from those days with Uncle John?”
“A little about my cousins, but you told me it would prepare me for having brothers one day.” He smiled softly. “I can’t remember Grandma’s face anymore, but I recall her voice and that I always felt safe with her.” Pushing off from the dresser, he straightened and took a step closer. “You would never have left me there, Pa.”
“How’d you know that for sure?”
“I wasn’t sure about it at the time, but someone told me not to worry.”
“That was your grandmother.”
“She did, but someone else did too …. or maybe I just dreamt it, like I did last year when I had that fever. Then I was on a clipper ship stuck in a dark, calmed sea. I got better when I felt a cooling breeze against my skin as the ship broke through into daylight. Someone next to me at the rail told me everything was fine, and then to look up because there was a cloud that resembled an elephant.” Adam sighed. “It’s interesting what our minds create during stressful times.”
“You are fortunate, son. You had your mother in Heaven, and your grandmother on earth watching over you in Ohio. They knew I didn’t want to leave without you, and made sure I couldn’t. Since then, Grandma joined Elizabeth and we’ve added Inger and Marie to those looking over us. It’s our great blessing.
Adam met his father’s eyes and nodded, allowing a moment of silence to linger. “We should get moving. You’ll need to resume your role as host, and I’ll join you as soon as I change.” He approached the door and stopped with his hand on the knob. “When I came out of that fever, you told me that memories are precious things, ready for us when we need them. I don’t remember many details from those early years, Pa, but what I do recall is all good. I had a one-of-a-kind childhood, and except for losing Inger on the way, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Hoss turned a heavy-laden spoonful of mashed potatoes onto his plate, while asking their guest, “Did you and Pa start out with Captain Stoddard at the same time?”
“Pretty near,” Richard offered. “Ben was on board a little sooner than I was, but we sailed our first voyage together as deck swabs and galley swampers.”
Joe laughed. “I always imagined Pa climbing the masts setting sails.” He looked towards his father. “Is Captain Wagner saying you cleaned the floors and kitchen?”
“There had to be a starting point, Joe.” Ben grinned and shook his head. “Abel knew I had nothing to offer him other than a willingness to learn. Richard was equally unprepared, but Captain Stoddard gave us a chance to prove our mettle.”
Ben’s gaze drifted to places unseen as he sighed. “Our first days on the Wanderer were spent in port getting it shipshape. Besides the constant work, Abel taught us how the ship worked, and gave us many lessons in following orders. Once on the sea, he gave us a taste of being a sailor, but we were still so green behind the ears, our efforts were often more bumbling than helpful.”
“We were a little green around the gills at first too, as I recall.” Richard dipped his forkful of roast into the well of gravy in his mashed potatoes, and chewed. “Your pa and I spent a lot of time bent over the rails.” He reached to his right and nudged Ben. “Both of us lost weight until we got our sea legs.”
Ben chuckled. “It took a long time before I could handle the motion, and back then we didn’t have the padding we do now. We were skinny as belaying pins.”
The meal took a more interesting turn as Richard began revealing more about “Ben-Ja-Min” Cartwright from their early days together, including some of their shenanigans, like running a shipmate’s netherwear up a mast after he’d gotten so inebriated in port, they’d had to carry him aboard.
As the laughter died, Joe winked at his brothers. “So, did Pa have a girl in every port until he married Adam’s mama?”
1 Adam was abducted by a couple in my story In the Child’s Best Interest.
My thanks to whomever posted the picture of young Adam in the gallery. I’m not good with pictures and always hope there’s something I can use.
Other Stories by this Author
- Moments – A Brother’s Decision (by Missjudy)
- A Prayer in the Night (by MissJudy)
- In Defense of Innocence (By MissJudy)
- In the Child’s Best Interest (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – The Worst of Consequences – A Lesson in Choice #3 (by MissJudy)