When tragedy strikes twice in as many months, the Cartwrights discover that the strength of love, the bonds of family and the sense of wholeness can truly transcend mere mortality.
Rated: K+ WC 9000
I’m rather proud of this story. Frankly, I’m not even sure where the wisdom contained within it came from. I could almost believe the words themselves were whispered in my ear by an angel, a real, honest-to-goodness angel…maybe one who’d decided to give my own journey along the highway to Heaven a little boost… 😉
Important Note: The first part was written in response to Inca’s challenge to “Kill a Cartwright,” but the death happened off screen and out of sight. Those of you who’ve known me for a while shouldn’t be surprised to find me utterly unable to see my Cartwrights as anything less than invincible, immortal and forever young. My response to Inca’s challenge was also less about death as it was about healing, about finding a way beyond grief—about finding peace. The remaining parts were written to allow the healing to be made complete and to show the endurance of legacies.
I should caution you to keep a tissue or two handy; but my hope is that you will find this story to be more heartwarming than heartbreaking.
References are made to: My Brother’s Keeper and The Last Viking
Right Where He’s Supposed to Be
The fear is worse than the pain. It’s eating away at my insides, filling my stomach with acid and clamping down on my lungs with an iron fist. I can’t breathe. I don’t want to breathe. I can’t afford to let these danged gasps for air give me away.
They’re out there. I don’t know who they are. Hell, I don’t even know what they are. But they’re out there, scouring the underbrush…because just as I know they’re out there, they know I’m here, too. And if they find me…or, God help me, when they find me, they’ll do the same to me as they did to all those others. I know that, sure as I know I’ve got to gasp in another quick breath.
I can still hear them screaming. The little, balding man with the checkered suit had begged for mercy. He should have known better. The savages who shot our stagecoach full of fire-tipped arrows don’t know anything about mercy. All they know is hate. And death. But not an easy death. No. Never an easy death. Not even for that fine lady and her fine pearls. All those fine manners sure didn’t make it any easier on her. She ended up screaming just as loud and long as the rest of them.
But no one’s screaming now.
It’s quiet. Too quiet. My heart’s beating so hard I can feel it in my throat. And it’s loud. How can I make it shut up before they hear it, too? I wish….
It’s wrong. I know it’s wrong, but I wish someone else would start screaming again so those savages couldn’t hear my heart beating like it is. Of course, no one’s going to scream if they’re all already dead. And I’m pretty sure they’re all dead, every one of them.
There’d been a lot of ‘em, too. That stagecoach had been so filled up with people I’d ended up riding on top. And when the coach fell over, I fell farther than all the rest of them, clear on down the rocky hill and into the creek at the bottom. Far enough away for those savages to forget about me for a while…at least until there wasn’t anyone else left to do all that screaming they seemed to like hearing so much.
I couldn’t help any of ‘em. I could barely even help myself. About all I could do was use all that screaming to my advantage. It let me know the Indians were busy enough that I could pull myself through the water without them noticing.
I couldn’t get away. Not exactly. But maybe I could reach these reeds. Maybe the reeds could hide me well enough…or at least long enough that the Indians might lose interest.
Banged up as I am, I didn’t get very far. My leg’s broke. A couple of ribs must be, too; I reckon that’s what’s makin’ it so hard to breathe…that and this fear I can’t seem to swallow. About all I can do now is pray I didn’t upset too many rocks crawling over here. It’s dark. Full night, now. So maybe…maybe those Indians won’t notice a few overturned rocks.
They’re getting closer. There’s a rustle in the brush above me…can’t be more than ten yards away.
Oh, God, please! Please don’t let them find me!
I’m shivering. I clamp my teeth shut, trying…trying so hard to stop them from clattering together, but my head’s spinning, and I can’t. I just…can’t.
I see one of ‘em now. The moon’s bright enough and he’s…he’s close enough. I still can’t tell what tribe he’s from. I’ve never seen war paint like that before. He’s covered nearly head to toe in it, unless…. Is that blood?
I can’t breathe. I can’t let myself breathe. Can’t move. Can’t….
Where’d that voice come from? That brave looks as surprised as me. Maybe…maybe he thinks it’s me. He’s not moving this way anymore, and he’s…he’s looking into the trees, to where that voice came from.
“Hey, you miserable coward!” the voice calls out again; and I swear it sounds like…. “If you want to go after someone, how about trying someone who can actually fight back?”
Adam? No. It can’t be Adam. It can’t…can’t be Adam.
Whoever it is, he’s caught that brave’s attention. The rustling sounds get more distant. After a while, I don’t hear them at all. I don’t hear anything but the creek…and the thumping of my own heartbeat…and these blasted shivering gasps that never quite fill my lungs.
I think maybe…maybe I’m safe for now. It’s getting a little easier to breathe, and the shivering…well, I guess it’s not so bad anymore, either. And…look…. Just look at all those stars.
I can almost forget I was ever on that stage…like I’m a kid again, laying on the ground so I can anchor myself to look for shooting stars.
Adam used to point out all the constellations. I don’t remember too many of their names…but I recognize some of the shapes.
“What’s that one, Adam?” I find myself whispering. I don’t know why. I sure don’t expect him to answer me. But, for some reason, I’m not surprised when he does.
Then the feel of the sun on my face pulls my eyes open, and I realize I’ve fallen asleep.
No! I wasn’t supposed to fall asleep! They could still be out there!
Panicking makes me tense up, and all the pain I was in before comes back. It’s even worse now. I can’t help but cry out.
Dammit! If they are still out there, they’ll have heard me, for sure.
But the man I hear shouting doesn’t sound like an Indian at all. It’s not Adam, either. “Over here, sarge! One of ‘em’s still alive!”
Before I can make sense of who said that, something blue catches my eye. An army uniform? It is, isn’t it? I feel a new kind of warmth settle across me, and then I see someone’s given me his blue army coat.
“Easy, son,” a grizzled old voice says softly. “You’re gonna be alright, now.”
I look up at him, and for a second…just for a second, I see Adam smiling back at me.
When I blink, my brother’s gone and all I see is a wind-ravaged face with gray stubble. But it doesn’t matter. It was Adam. I know it was. No one’s ever going to be able to tell me different.
My brother, Adam, saved my life last night—that messenger who came by two months ago be damned. Adam wasn’t lost at sea. He’s not lost at all. He’s right here, just like he’s supposed to be. Just like….
“Watch that leg, Williams,” the grizzled voice says. “Looks like a clean break, but all this mud ain’t helpin’, any. Don’t fuss, son,” he says to me, then. “You just let us do the work, ya’ hear?” The man with the gray stubble smiles down at me and pats my shoulder.
“It’s okay, Joe.” I can feel Adam’s breath in my ear. “Just go back to sleep for a while. Before you know it, you’ll be as good as new.” He brushes his hand over my hair and rubs my temple with his thumb. And I know I can trust him.
So I do. I go ahead and close my eyes, knowing full well that Adam’s right there with me. Right where he’s supposed to be.
No. Not again. Please, God, not again. I can’t bear it. I can’t….
Hoss reminds me that I’m not alone in this. Hearing his voice, as quiet and uncertain as it sounds, helps me to draw breath, to fill my lungs…to give me strength. But his eyes, when I finally meet them, almost take that strength away again. How can a grown man look so much like a frightened boy? Do I, too, look that way? Or worse…like an old man, finally broken by the burdens of life?
“Is it…is it Joe?”
His eyes move my own to the crumpled paper in my fist. Surprised at my carelessness, I unfold my fingers, and then, finally, remember to nod. “Yes.” My voice sounds small. Too small. I clear my throat and pull my back up straight. “Yes. It’s Joe. He’s alive, Hoss. He’s hurt, but he’s alive.” My throat constricts around the words. How can it be so hard to speak them, when the one word I dread more than any other isn’t among them? He’s alive. My youngest son is still alive. But for how long? For how much longer?
I find my eyes drawn again to the telegram.
Stagecoach attacked. Company assets must be secured. Come soonest. Inform sheriff. One survivor. Joseph Cartwright of Virginia City. In the infirmary. Fort Ruby.
“I’ll get fresh horses.” Hoss pulls me from my thoughts…dark thoughts I want no part of.
Have I told him where we need to go? I’m not sure. I don’t remember.
“Yes, Hoss. Thank you, son.”
It doesn’t matter where, does it? Hoss would go to the ends of the earth if he had to, like he’d been so ready to do for Adam.
“They ain’t looked everywhere, Pa,” Hoss had insisted. “There’s got to be somewhere they ain’t looked. An island, maybe. Pa, we can’t just…. They can’t just tell us he’s lost. He can’t be lost, Pa. He just…. He can’t.”
My fingers curl tightly around the paper once more. “Joe’s still alive.” A whisper is all I can manage. It’s also all I need. The words are meant for no one but myself.
For just a second or two, I think I forgot how to breathe. Mister Patterson, that agent for the stage line, he’s been arguin’ with Pa and me for days now. It started back in Virginia City when he told us that telegram had been meant for him, not Pa.
“It isn’t safe, Mister Cartwright.” He’d said it like that ought to matter, as though whether or not the road was safe should be enough to keep Pa and me from reachin’ that little brother of mine…my only brother now. “I shared that information with you as a courtesy, but you must wait until the army announces the road is secure. Likewise, I have a duty to secure company assets. You, on the other hand—”
“Have a duty to my son!” Pa didn’t have to say much more than that. Even the horses could see we weren’t about to let anythin’ stop us from reachin’ that fort. They seemed as anxious as we were to get on the trail.
From then on, the arguments were about anythin’ and everythin’. Patterson always wanted to stop for the night before it was full dark, but Pa and me just wanted to keep pressin’ on. Then he wasted time each mornin’ not only pickin’ up the camp, but also clearin’ it. Me, I didn’t much care if any of them Indians followed us or caught up with us. Fact is, I was bristlin’ for a fight, and the more days we spent on the trail, the more fight I had in me.
But then, when we got to that fort and that captain was ready to turn us away, the agent who’d been fightin’ against us started fightin’ for us. And I plumb forgot how to breathe.
“You’re argument, Captain Richards, is as far from sound as any I’ve ever heard.” It was the strangest thing, hearin’ Patterson talk like that. He sounded…I could swear he sounded just like Adam. “Turning these men away for already having taken a road you deem unsafe would do nothing more than put them right back on that very same road all over again.”
He sounded so much like Adam I half wanted to pull him into a bear hug. But he wasn’t Adam. He wasn’t even close to bein’ Adam. And all I could do was ball my hands up into fists until that captain finally called a corporal over to take us to Joe.
And now…now I’m forgettin’ to breathe all over again. Because Joe…he sure don’t look like Joe. My little brother…Little Joe…he ain’t never still. He’s always movin’, even in sleep. But that man lyin’ there ain’t even twitchin’. He’s as still as….
No. I ain’t even gonna think it. My little brother’s alive. He may not be movin’, but he’s alive. And we sure didn’t come all this way to watch him die.
He’s too silent, too still, and his arm feels so slight in my grip. It’s almost as though he’s a child again, so like a child that simply touching him spurs memories long abandoned, even…forgotten. A moment from long ago comes awake in my thoughts so clearly, so vividly, and so welcomed that for an instant I am afraid to breathe lest I chase it away again.
The child’s squeals that draw me to the top of the stairs at first frighten me, and then they anger me for having pulled me from the sweet bliss of slumber. And then, finally, they fill me with more joy than I’ve known for a time beyond measure as my gaze falls upon my sons, all three of them, breaking a strict rule against roughhousing inside. Adam tickles young Joseph until the boy’s giggles erupt into a cackle of laughter that elicits a howling hoot from Hoss, whose intervention turns both brothers, the oldest and the youngest, against him. Chairs are pushed, scratching across the floor…and still I watch, unwilling to disturb this…treasure.
My boys are laughing again, after so many weeks in somber silence. My Marie is gone, and yet, my boys are laughing. And I can’t help but chuckle along with them. It’s a sense I’d never thought to know again, but my smile is as real as theirs.
When Adam takes Joe into his arms and calls a truce, Joe wraps his small hands around his oldest brother’s neck and Hoss leans heavily against them both until all three fall to the floor.
I’m not sure how it started, who rescued whom, but all three of my boys are whole again, as am I.
But that had been long ago.
“Adam.” The name spills from my lips without thought. The moment of sweet joy turns bitter, choking me with the harsh, horrific knowledge that my oldest son is gone. He’s…gone.
“D’you see him?”
Hearing Joe’s whisper takes what’s left of my breath. I open my eyes to see him looking at me, and…he’s smiling.
“Joe!” My hands engulf his, and his smile deepens.
“D’you see him?” He’s waiting for me to answer, but to me, the question lacks meaning…or importance, until…. “Did you see Adam?”
It’s a good thing Pa’s sittin’ down. The color drained clear out of his face when Joe asked if he’d seen Adam. Good lord. I don’t feel too well myself. Did Joe forget? That doc said Joe got awfully banged up fallin’ down them rocks. And then layin’ in the water like he did for so long….
Maybe he’s just confused. Bein’ sick can do that to you. It can jumble up your thinkin’. But…what do we do now? Do we tell him? Do we let him go on believing Adam’s still alive?
Dadburnit, Adam! Why’d you have to go off to sea like that, anyway? I’d like to throttle you good for that. You shouldn’t…. You shouldn’t have….
“Hoss?” Joe’s lookin’ at me now. “What’s wrong?”
Maybe he thinks I’m mad at him. I’ve got to simmer down. I can’t let Joe think I’m angry at him. Bein’ angry at Adam’s no good, either. But how do I tell Joe what’s wrong? I can’t tell him about Adam. Not again. Not now. Maybe I can just…. “What’s wrong, little brother, is the way you went off and scared Pa and me half to death!”
Joe’s confused, alright. His eyebrows are gettin’ all bunched up. “I didn’t…just go off. You knew I was headed to—”
“I don’t mean it that way, Joe. Not like with Ad—” Damn. I didn’t want to say that. Pa’s lookin’ even paler now. “This wasn’t your fault, Joe. I know that. It’s just, when we heard about what happened to you….”
“You didn’t have to worry.” How can he do that? Go from all confused to smilin’ like there ain’t nothin’ wrong? “Adam was lookin’ out for me.”
Adam? Dangnammit! “Joe, Adam can’t have—”
“He was there, Hoss.” Joe sounds stronger all of a sudden. Oh, his voice is still soft. But his words…his words are strong. Like he’s convinced himself what he’s sayin’ is true.
“Joseph.” Pa’s got both his hands around Joe’s, like maybe he’s tryin’ to give Joe strength. “Adam’s gone, son.” Funny thing is, Pa don’t sound as strong as Joe.
And Joe’s still smilin’. “He’s back, Pa.” Yeah, Joe’s still smilin’, but his eyes are tearin’ up, even so. “He’s…he’s not lost anymore. He…found his way home.” Joe’s voice is startin’ to choke up now, too.
“Joe….” Pa’s voice is even more choked up than Joe’s. I guess he can’t say anything else.
I’m not sure I can, either. But I’ve got to, don’t I? “Joe…even if Adam…even if he could make it home, he couldn’t have found you out there. He wouldn’t have known—”
“He was there, Hoss…just when I needed him most. That Indian…almost found me. Another second…and…he would’ve found me. But then Adam…Adam called him out. Adam led him away.” The tears are fallin’ now, but Joe ain’t gonna give up that smile, is he?
“It couldn’t have been Adam, son.”
“But it was. It was, Pa!”
Dadburnit. “Joe, I don’t know who it was. All I know is…I’d sure like to see him so I could thank him.”
“You will.” Joe’s voice is gettin’ softer. “I’m sure you’ll see him.” My little brother can’t seem to keep his eyes open anymore, either. “You just…wait. Adam’ll show up. Right when you need him most.”
If that ain’t the dadblamed dumbest thing Joe’s ever said. I wish I could holler at him. You know when I needed Adam most, little brother? I needed him when Pa showed me that telegram. I needed him out on the trail, when I didn’t know if you’d even be alive by the time we got here. I needed him when….
But I have to swallow all these thoughts. I can’t say any of it. And swallowing it all is like filling my gullet with some kind of hot, burnin’ poison that’s makin’ me go plumb crazy.
I’ve got to stop panting like this. And my hands are all balled up into fists again. I can’t keep thinkin’ about Adam this way.
Why doesn’t Pa say something? Why’s he sittin’ there so quiet?
Well, if Pa ain’t gonna say anything, I guess maybe I’ve got to. “You just….” What I’ve really got to do is breathe, but…. “You get some more sleep, little brother. You hear?”
“You just wait, Hoss. You just…wait.” And that’s all he’s gonna say. Joe’s breathin’ slow and steady now, like he’s listened to me for once. Just like that, he’s asleep again.
I still can’t breathe and I sure can’t think about sleepin’.
But Pa…. Pa could use some sleep. He’s holdin’ onto Joe’s hand with both of his, like maybe he’s afraid to let go. I guess maybe he is. And I guess maybe I don’t blame him none for it, either. I just wish…I sure wish he could’ve done that with Adam.
Dadburnit, Adam! Why’d you have to….
Hell, I can’t stay in here like this. I can’t breathe at all in here anymore. All this smell of sickness…and medicine…and…. I could almost swear I’m suffocating. I can’t do it. I can’t stay here. I’ll just…. I’ll tell Pa I’m goin’ to check on the horses. I’ll tell him….
Or maybe I don’t need to tell him anything. He’s got his eyes closed now…and his head’s bowed down low enough he can pull Joe’s hand right up to his forehead. It almost looks like he’s prayin’. Maybe he is. And…maybe he should. And….
Maybe that’s what I ought to do, too. Outside. Where I can breathe.
Dangnammit, Adam. Can’t you see we need you here right now?
“Adam will show up. Right when you need him most.”
If only prayin’ could be enough to make that true, little brother. I wish to Heaven prayin’ could be enough to make it true.
Heavenly Father, please help Joe to understand that his brother is…is lost to us, that Adam is in Your hands now, in…good hands, where his restlessness can find…has found the peace he could never seem to find here on this Earth. Forgive me, Lord.
“Forgive me, Adam.” The words escape my lips unbidden. Why, when my prayer to the Lord could be held silent, made within, why did I find the need to speak aloud to Adam just now?
My eyes fall to Joseph and I see those words have not disturbed his sleep. Perhaps…perhaps it’s time…finally time to speak them, in truth.
“Forgive me, son. I shaped you into the man you were to become.” I say the words to Adam, although Joseph is the man I see before me…Little Joe, who’s spirit was shaped by Adam as much as Adam’s had been shaped by me. “I am responsible for your restlessness. I am the one who kept you from finding any sense of peace. I wanted to give you a home, a true home, a place to set down roots; yet in my desperation to give you that home, I kept you from one, taking you from place to place for all those years, your first years of life. I taught you that sense of restlessness. However hard I tried to do otherwise, the legacy I gave to you was one of wanderlust, not roots.”
Tears are falling freely now, tears I’ve contained for all these weeks, tears I’ve held inside along with the words I could never bring myself to speak.
“Forgive me, Adam, for forcing you to give your brothers the roots I could never give to you.”
You didn’t force me, Pa. Adam’s voice sounds in my head, in my thoughts. I must shun them, argue against them. They’re a dream, a wish, nothing more…my own, desperate hope to absolve myself for failing him.
“Adam, my son, I relied upon you, I depended upon you far more than was my right.” The words are hard to speak, and yet I speak them, because I must. “I denied you the chance to be, simply, a child, to cherish the excitement of new discoveries.”
You gave me more discoveries than Hoss and Joe combined could ever know, Pa. Don’t you see that?
“No. I’m dreaming. I’m hoping. I’m…wishing. But I know the truth. You worked. All your life, you worked. You worked hard, always so…so very hard.”
And yet that memory comes again, the laughter of all three of my sons. Yes, all three. Adam did laugh, didn’t he?
“Hard work clears the path to Heaven.” The voice reaches my ears now, not merely my thoughts.
Stunned, I look again to Little Joe. His eyes remain closed. His chest is rising and falling in a slow, peaceful, steady rhythm. His hand, still in my tight grip, is wet now from my tears.
Old fool. Setting Joe’s hand down gently, I turn to dig my handkerchief from my pocket, only to discover I’m no longer alone. There’s a man standing beside me. And for an instant, just for an instant, I imagine it to be Adam. It is an instant that eases the pain in my heart ever so slightly.
“Idle hands are the devil’s tools.” He speaks a phrase I said often to Adam, a phrase I would use to inspire my son to take on all of that hard work. But the man speaking that phrase now is smiling, not scolding. “In my experience,” he tells me, “men who work hard play hard, too. Have no fear, Mister Cartwright, your young son will do both before long. The doctor has assured me he is recovering quite nicely, perhaps even…miraculously.”
My gaze lands on the Bible he’s carrying.
“I’m the chaplain here, Mister Cartwright, the Reverend Jacob Miller.”
Rising, I reach out to shake his hand and belatedly realize I’ve yet to wipe from my own the salty wet trails of my tears. He takes my hand nonetheless, encircling it with both of his, much as I had done with Joe’s.
“I hope you’ll excuse the interruption….” He speaks bluntly, yet not without compassion. “…And the observation, but from what I’ve borne witness to just now, you’re being far too hard on yourself. Something tells me your grief isn’t entirely about young Joseph’s accident?”
“I’m sorry, reverend.” I try to extricate my hand, but the chaplain seems unwilling to let it go. Confused, I look at him more closely. His eyes are warm and inviting, like a campfire on a cold, desert night. And I feel compelled to explain. “I’m afraid my son’s…accident is simply reminding me how fragile we are. You see, we’ve only just lost his oldest brother.” I stumble on the word ‘lost,’ feeling its weight on my tongue…and in my bones.
“Do you hold yourself at fault for both?”
“No. Of course not. I simply—”
“You’re simply a father, blaming yourself for failing to protect your progeny.”
“I suppose so. Yes.”
“Tell me about him, if you would.”
“Joseph? Why, he’s—”
“His brother, actually.”
The reverend nods. “This son is sleeping soundly and is not in need of your protection just now. As is the other, you can be sure. But you’re not sure about that one. I’d like to have the chance to find out why.”
Brushing the flanks of my borrowed horse ain’t helpin’. Neither is talkin’ to him. But I do it anyway. Joe’s always talkin’ to that horse of his, and it seems to help him. So maybe I ought to keep at it, at least for a while longer.
“If we were home right now, I’d saddle you up and head into Virginia City. I’d go straight to the Bucket of Blood and take on the biggest yahoo I could find.” The horse blusters and stomps his right foreleg, almost like he’s arguin’ with me. “You’re big; I’ll give you that. But you ain’t no yahoo. And Joe’s the one who busts mustangs. I got too much bulk to move like he does.”
I’m not sure if the way the horse is shakin’ his head means he’s arguin’ again; but I ain’t aimin’ to talk about me anyhow. “Now Adam, he could move right. He’s the one who taught Joe. He sure was proud of that little brother of ours. He’d stand at that corral for hours when he could get away with it, just so he could watch Little Joe bust them broncs. He sure was proud of Little Joe. And Joe…he sure did look up to Adam. We both did. Adam was…he was….”
No. I don’t need to be brushin’ no four-legged animal. I need to be punchin’ a two-legged one. But I can’t, can I? All I can do is throw that blasted brush as hard and as far as I can.
I sure didn’t mean for it to hit that fella’ comin’ in the livery.
“Why, you…!” He don’t bother finishing his sentence. He’s already runnin’ toward me. He even throws the first punch, hittin’ me square across the jaw.
No. I didn’t mean to hit him with that brush. But I sure am lookin’ forward to hittin’ him with my fists now.
For two months I’ve been fighting to keep the pain hidden…to keep my heart shielded and to tether my thoughts to my two, living sons, the ones who’ve been at my side since Adam boarded that stage years ago.
Yes, Adam has been gone for years. That simple fact has made it…easy…to believe he’s still far from us yet not entirely unreachable…to think I might find a letter in the mail someday soon…and to still harbor some hope for his return.
But now…now I find his story coming to the fore. My fight has been lost and I don’t even remember throwing a single punch. I simply…gave in, surrendering to a man of God for no reason other than that he asked.
And still the words are coming, even when there’s no need to say anything more. “Adam felt a connection back east, I suppose, a connection to his mother and to the sea, which her family has plied for generations. I had hoped…prayed for his connection to the Ponderosa to be stronger, but there were times, so very many times when he expressed the desire to go back there, to get away from what he saw as the desolation, the hardship out here.”
Memories of the accident during Adam’s wolf hunt with Joe flood my mind. It had been an accident, of course, an horrific yet faultless accident. Adam had targeted the wolf without knowing his brother had been so close. Later, while Joe had struggled physically simply to survive, Adam had faced a different struggle, an emotional battle against guilt for having pulled his trigger at the wrong time, against fear for his brother’s life and against anger at the desolate spaces out here in the west. Had he ever really stopped fighting that battle?
“What kept him from leaving sooner?” The reverend’s question once again pulls me back to the room, a small, quiet room beside Fort Ruby’s infirmary.
I take a deep breath of the dusty, slightly manure-scented air wafting in through the open window. It only strengthens the memories. “A sense of duty, I suppose, an obligation to his brothers and me.”
“Is that the only reason? Or do you think that perhaps his heart was in two places at once? That perhaps he felt the need to leave, but he felt a stronger pull to remain among you, here, with his family?”
“Perhaps. He…saw to it that Joseph was ready to stand on his own. He took great pride in his young brother, almost as though he were Joe’s father, himself.” Because I allowed him to do so…maybe even because I expected him to. Yes, I took Adam’s childhood from him, and then I expected for him to willingly give to Joseph what I’d never given him. I sacrificed one son’s childhood for the sake of another’s.
Abraham had been willing to sacrifice a son to show his faith in God. But I…I had thoughtlessly sacrificed one son’s wellbeing to show nothing more than my faith in myself, in my ability to build something grand, something I’d stubbornly believed would be enough to keep all three of my sons rooted beside me, to keep them from ever having the need to go anywhere else.
“From everything you’ve just told me,” the reverend goes on, “I would say Adam did well in this life. He left a fine legacy with his brothers.”
How can he say that? And to sit there so calmly…. He’s even smiling, for Heaven’s sake!
“My son had more things to do in this life, Reverend Miller.” The man’s title slips bitterly off my tongue. “What would have been…what should have been Adam’s legacy is lost to us! He left no children, no—”
“Children are not a man’s only mark on this world, Mister Cartwright. Adam’s presence here touched many people, I’m sure, and his influence upon each of them is his legacy. His influence upon his brothers is surely a superb legacy, wouldn’t you agree?”
“It isn’t enough. It just…isn’t enough!” My fisted hand strikes the arm of the chair, jolting me to the core.
“So says his father on Earth. But his Father in Heaven clearly thought otherwise. Would you argue with God about whether or not it was time to call your son home?”
“Yes!” The admission strikes me a nearly physical blow. Closing my eyes, I inhale as deeply as I can, and then, “Yes,” I repeat in a much softer, less frenzied tone. I feel myself sinking deeper into the hard, wooden chair beneath me, my bones bent, my spirit broken…like a horse that has had its flanks bloodied too often from the spurs of thoughtless drovers.
I can’t fight any longer. I can’t…pretend.
I feel broken. I’ve been blaming myself, angry at myself; yet now I discover a different anger, a deeper anger. “It was too soon.” I can hardly speak, can hardly…think. I just can’t imagine never seeing my son again, never—
“What about Joseph?”
“What?” His question startles me, pulling me from a dark, immeasurable void.
“By all rights, he should be dead. From what I understand, it’s a miracle he survived that fall. It’s also a miracle those Indians left him be for so long. And still another miracle he’s doing so well now.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’re angry with God for taking one son, and yet He’s blessed you thrice over by returning another. Joseph is the only one who survived that incident, Mister Cartwright. One man out of so many. There has to be a reason for that, a purpose to it, don’t you think?”
“If…if you’re comparing me with Abraham, you’re—”
“No, not at all. Abraham had a choice. You did not. But…think on something else for a moment. If Adam were given a choice to answer God’s call or to allow his young brother to do so, he would choose to answer it himself; would he not?”
Joe’s voice echoes in my memory, “Adam was lookin’ out for me.”
“No. It can’t be.” The words escape my lips as my gaze looks inward. I can still see Joseph lying hurt—so terribly hurt—and yet not broken. In his smile I see a strength I find bewildering…perhaps even…enchanting…a strength I wish I could find within myself.
“I beg your pardon?” The reverend’s own bewilderment pulls my gaze back toward him. He, too, has a sense of strength about him, the strength of faith.
“Joseph….” I find the words hard to utter. Surely Joseph’s faith has been misplaced. “He…he’s convinced his brother saved him.”
“Maybe he has good reason to be so convinced.”
“How can you say that?”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, Mister Cartwright. We’ll never know the truth behind all of His mysteries. But there are some truths you can be assured of with your sons. Adam was clearly a strong and courageous man—as is his young brother, to have survived long enough for those cavalry men to find him.”
Reverend Miller’s words remind me that the cavalry men found Joseph alive only because the Indians had failed to do so themselves.
And now Joe’s quiet voice begins thundering through my head. “That Indian almost found me. Another second and he would’ve found me. …Adam called him out. Adam led him away.”
I allow more of Joe’s words to spill from my own tongue. “He’s not lost anymore.” When I notice the reverend watching me, I feel compelled to explain. “It’s something Joseph said of his brother…that… he’s not lost anymore. He found his way home.”
“Perhaps we should add wisdom to Joseph’s list of proficiencies. Both of your sons were lost for a time. Now both are found. Both are right where they are supposed to be, Mister Cartwright. I dare say it is you who is lost now.”
“Yes.” I am lost. I am so very lost. Without Elizabeth. Without Inger. Without Marie. And now…now Adam. How can I not be lost?
“I encourage you to listen to your sons….”
My sons. I should have three. Three sons. Three fine sons to—
“…The one lying in that cot with faith in his heart….” The reverend’s words drill into my thoughts, separating my sons, tearing them from one another in my mind’s eye. “…And the one who has found his place with God.”
God help me, I just want my sons to be whole again. I want my…soul…to be whole again. And now this man of God suggests that I listen to my missing son, my…dead son. “How can I? How can I listen to a man who…who has been silenced?”
“He’ll only remain silent if you don’t listen.”
How? But the question, itself, remains silent. And before I can say or ask anything more, the door opens.
“Mister Cartwright?” Although the doctor’s expression is guarded, somehow I know the news he brings is not about Joseph.
“Hoss?” My middle son’s—my eldest living son’s name comes unbidden, as though…almost as though I am repeating what has just been whispered in my ear.
The doctor’s eyes soften and his mask slips away, revealing something I can only imagine is frustration. “I understand he’s been…introduced…to the bull of the fort, if you will.”
“The bull of the fort?”
“It’s a turn of phrase lumbermen use to—”
“Yes, yes, I know. But what exactly are you telling me?”
He sighs heavily as his frustration melts into…amusement? “I suggest you follow Corporal Harris, Mister Cartwright. It’s best that you see for yourself.”
“Dammit, Hoss! You’re mad at me, not him!”
Adam? Can’t be Adam. I’m hearin’ things. I’m—
“You don’t even know who this man is!”
I can’t be hearin’ Adam. There’s a lot of men around…a lot of yellin’ going on. I know that’s all I’m hearin’. Funny thing though…I don’t know where all these men came from. In fact, I don’t even remember comin’ out of the livery. All I know is I’m out in the street now. And whoever that was who sounded like Adam, well, he was right. I’m fightin’ with a man I don’t even know. And I don’t even know why.
And I sure don’t know how come I’m on the ground now. That last punch must’ve packed a wallop. I guess maybe that’s on account of the fact I stopped fightin’ and started thinkin’…all on account of the fact I could’ve swore I heard Adam.
“I’m sorry, Hoss.”
Whoever that is, he’s got no business soundin’ like Adam. Trouble is, I can’t seem to open my eyes to look at him.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Yeah, but you did, didn’t you? You hurt all of us.
I guess maybe it didn’t hurt so much right off. We all figured you’d come home. But you never did. You never did come home.
I’ve got to go with the turn and tide of things.
I remember Uncle Gunnar sayin’ that. And I remember how you got that sort of faraway look in your eye when he said it, too. Like you envied him. Like you wanted to see all them places he saw, all them countries and oceans. But you saw how his life turned out. He could’ve got Joe killed when he was leadin’ that band of Comancheros. He did the right thing in the end—but dangnammit, Adam! You and Uncle Gunnar were about as different as night and day. And you sure weren’t no Viking. You were as honest as a man could be. A good man. A good brother. My brother. Mine and Joe’s.
“Pa?” I can’t say any more than that. I’m sputterin’ too much from all this water someone’s thrown in my face. But at least I can open my eyes now. Pa’s kneelin’ next to me…and someone…someone I don’t know is kneelin’ on the other side. Someone who’s got a mess of cuts and bruises on his face.
“I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.” The stranger’s smilin’ through a split lip. “But you dropped your guard and my fist vas already coming.” He sounds a bit like Uncle Gunnar. “Dat vas some fight, ya? Ve gave the men a run for their money!”
“I guess we did, didn’t we?” I test the soreness in my jaw, and then let both Pa and the stranger help me get up. Now I can’t help but see all those men…all those soldiers slappin’ each other on the back and passin’ money around. I reckon they’d been betting on who would win.
“Hoss!” Pa don’t sound as happy as that blond-haired soldier. “What on earth were you thinking, son? Brawling in the street, in the middle of—”
“I wasn’t, Pa. I wasn’t thinkin’. I don’t even know how it started.”
“You hit me vit a horse’s brush!” That blond man’s still smilin’, so I guess he ain’t still mad.
“I reckon I did, didn’t I? I’m sorry about that.”
“Oh, nie! Nie! Don’t be sorry!” He slaps me on the back like all them other men are doin’, and I stumble for just a second, just enough to get a worried look from Pa. “I’ve been in need of a good fight since we found dat stagecoach.” And suddenly that blond stranger ain’t smilin’. “A gruesome ting dat vas. All dose people. I’ve been fighting mad ever since, but the Indians vere already gone. There veren’t no one to fight.” He spits blood into the sand. “Do you know the man ve found out there? De man who’s in the infirmary now?”
I look to where he’s pointin’ and it’s like I can still see Little Joe lyin’ in that bed all banged up but resting good and peaceful. Like he ain’t banged up at all; he’s just real tired. Like he figures he’s gonna wake up tomorrow and be just fine.
I see Pa lookin’ that way, too. He’s got that sadness in his eyes, the one he’s been carryin’ since we heard about Adam. But the fear he had on the ride out here…well, at least that’s gone now. Joe’s gonna be fine. And we ain’t leavin’ him alone until he is.
That stranger’s still lookin’ at me, still waitin’ for me to answer. “He’s my brother.”
“Oh, nie! He can’t be your broder! You…you are like me, ya? Big as any Norseman! Dey call me the bull of the fort. Not a man here as big as you and me.” He slaps me on the back again; this time, I don’t stumble. “But dat man in there…. Nie. He is too small to be your broder!”
“Well, he is my brother. And I’m mighty grateful you found him when you did.”
“It vas Villiams who found him. Strange ting dat vas, too.”
“Strange?” Pa beats me to asking.
But instead of answerin’, the blond fellow waves another man over toward us. “Hey, Villiams! Come here! Tell dese men how you found that one who survived out there.”
The man who answers is a young’un. Almost looks too young to be in the cavalry. He looks young enough I figure he should be back home, gettin’ looked after by his older brothers. But maybe…maybe that look I’m seein’ ain’t so much about bein’ young as it is about bein’ scared. There’s something in his eyes, a haunted sort of look.
“It’s all right,” the blond fellow tells him; and he puts a hand on the younger fellow’s shoulder, almost like a big brother might. “Be honest. Tell dem vat you told us.”
Williams’ eyes meet mine and he swallows so hard I can see his Adam’s apple bobbin’ up and down. He glances toward the blond fellow again, and at that man’s nod, he turns back to me and Pa. “A shadow,” he says. “I saw a shadow. A…a man. He weren’t wearin’ a uniform. He was all dressed in black. He called out to me, sayin’, ‘Over here,’ and he waved at me, sort of…sort of like Ollie did just now. I shouted back at him, askin’ who he was, but he just started movin’, and he waved me to follow him. Next thing I knew, that injured man hollered out, like he was hurtin’ somethin’ awful. A…and the shadow man was gone.”
In my own mind, I can’t help but see Adam. And I can still hear Joe tellin’ us that we didn’t have to worry about him.
Adam was lookin’ out for me. Joe had said that like he’d been so sure it was true.
But it can’t have been Adam. It just….
“What do you mean, gone?” Pa asks. He looks like he wants to believe it same as I do.
Williams shrugs and shakes his head. “He was jest gone. A patrol tried to find him. It ain’t safe out there just now. We figured we ought to find him for his own good. But he wasn’t nowhere.”
“Pa?” I want him to tell me Adam’s out there. That somehow he found his way back from bein’ lost at sea. And that somehow he’d ended up out there, all those miles north of home…all those miles away from where he should have been headed.
And I can see Pa wants to tell me exactly that. But he can’t. Because he knows as well as I do that it can’t be true. Because even if Adam beat all them odds and ended up out there with Joe, he sure wouldn’t have disappeared. He’d have stayed with Joe all the way back here. He’d be in this fort right now.
And then, as Pa shakes his head and pats my back, and starts steering us both over toward the infirmary, I remember hearin’ Adam shouting to get me to see I’d been fightin’ the wrong man. And somehow I can’t help but start believin’ that maybe it was him I’d heard…that maybe Joe was right. That maybe Adam did find his way back to us. And that maybe Adam really is watching over us. And that maybe, just maybe, he really is right where he belongs.
The squealing laughter of children….
There is no greater sound on this Earth. I welcome it. I cherish it. Just yesterday, Joseph tried to silence that sound, to keep it from reaching me and disturbing my sleep. With five rambunctious children, he faced a monumental feat. And an unnecessary one. Silence does not help me sleep. No. It does just the opposite. Silence opens my mind to feelings of emptiness…of loneliness…of loss. Silence reminds me of those whose voices can no longer reach me.
But Joseph’s children—my grandchildren—remind me of so much more…of three boys who lived and loved…who worked and struggled…who laughed…and wept…who filled my life and made it whole.
Joseph’s children remind me that every moment spent together is a blessing, and that all the moments spent apart are neither to be hated nor feared. Those moments together can buoy us through the tempests that seek to keep us feeling incomplete when we’re apart.
Remembering those moments, valuing them, that is the key to a full life, to a good life. What has been, what has come and gone, is as much a gift to me as this moment.
Yes, even this moment is a blessing. I am a feeble, old man…an ancient, weathered creature who has grown too weary to climb from this bed. And yet this moment is a gift; it is as valuable to me as all the moments I’ve left behind me. Because I know how to catch that small boat Hoss’s uncle, Gunnar Borgstrom, could never quite reach.
Because I know how to listen.
Years ago, when I had been lost in grief after losing Adam, a wise man told me that my son’s voice had been silenced only because I had stopped listening. It took another wise man—my own son, Joseph—to teach me how to listen again. To listen anew. And now…now listening is all I ever do. And it is enough. All that squealing laughter just beyond my bedroom door fills me with a sense of fullness…of home. And the one laugh that rises above the others, the laugh of a full-grown man who has also learned the potent value of memories…the laugh of my last living son, my Joseph—Marie’s Little Joe, Adam’s young charge and Hoss’s dearest friend—that laugh, more than any other, reminds me that a life lived honorably and well, a life spent spreading smiles and laughter…and touching others with gifts of hope, of faith and of courage…such a life plants seeds that are destined to keep growing long after the man or woman who lived it has faded to dust.
Surely, the seeds left by my wives and sons have grown as vast as the stars blinking down at me through my open window.
Yes. I have been blessed. And now, as I close my eyes, relishing the sound of children at play despite the late hour, I can almost hear my oldest boy pointing out constellations and telling his brothers stories of ancient Greece.
I can even feel his breath on my ear as Adam whispers, “Welcome home, Pa.”
And now I know with more certainty than anything I’ve ever known before, that we are all, truly, right where we’re supposed to be.
(or a new beginning?)
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