Summary: A young Adam on the trail west has his first pet and learns a valuable lesson.
Rating: G Words: 1,375
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Ben sighed softly and held the inconsolable child tightly to his chest, feeling the uncomfortable pinch through his shirt as small fingers clutched at him in the immeasurable grief so often associated with the first real and personal encounter with death.
He looked across the fire at Inger who cradled their baby son, sleeping now that he was satiated with milk. Her blue eyes, tear filled, met Ben’s and mutely pleaded with him not to reproach her. It had, after all, been at her insistence that Adam had been allowed to keep the fish, anxious as she was that he not harbour any jealousy towards his new brother. In the days prior to young Eric’s birth, Adam had accompanied his father and other men from the wagon train when they had gone fishing to supplement their limited diet.
Ben had chuckled as the excited child had caught one fairly quickly but it was far too small to consider cooking and Ben had urged him to return it to the river and wait patiently for something a little tastier. He was unaware that Inger had approached until she gave a low giggle at Adam’s jubilation. The mad idea had been hers.
“Let him keep it, Ben. I’ve got a deep cooking pot with a broken rim. If you smooth it down so that he does not cut himself, he can keep the fish in that.”
“Inger, that’s hardly practical. We’ll have water sloshing everywhere in the wagon. Besides, what’ll Adam feed it on?” But even as Ben was attempting to raise objections, young Adam’s eyes lit up at the prospect of having a pet; his father had refused to let him have one of the puppies born over at the Smithsons’ wagon a month earlier. Surely he could not begrudge Adam having a fish!
Inger was resolute. “Adam can crumble some stale bread very finely. A fish that size is hardly going to eat all our supplies!”
Ben waited until Adam had run off back to the wagon to get the pot and glanced at the fish safely caught in the net resting in the water.
“You’re so close to having the baby and Adam is going to have to shoulder more of the chores for a while. I don’t want him spending all his time watching that fish. More importantly, I don’t want him to lose interest in it after a couple of days and we have to take over the care of the thing.” It was hard to reprimand her when she looked at him like that, her smile one of amused tolerance at his reluctance. Her hand reached out and cupped his cheek.
“Oh, Ben, don’t take on so. It’s a little fish. Adam is so good, he will not neglect it and even if he does grow tired of it – which I doubt very much – we can release it when we get to the next stream. It will be something that depends on him. Soon we will have the baby …”
“And the baby will depend on him too. He’ll be a responsible big brother,” Ben interrupted.
“Of course he will, but he’s still a little boy, Ben. The baby will take up a lot of our time and attention, things that Adam has had totally from the pair of us, and especially from you. Now he’ll have to share us.”
“You think he’ll be jealous? That he won’t love the baby?” The thought had not occurred to Ben.
“I’m sure that won’t happen but we need to make him still feel special. You have not allowed him to have a pet and I know you have had very good reasons but a fish will take very little looking after and is hardly going to cost us a lot of money. You saw his face; he was delighted.”
Ben’s resolve weakened. Adam had, indeed, been so happy that he did not have the heart to refuse him such a simple pleasure. He tried one more tack. “Supposing he becomes really attached to it and it lasts ages, and then it dies?”
“Then we’ll deal with that when the time comes. He has known that people have died on the journey and you explained it all to him,” Inger countered.
“But he wasn’t close to them,” Ben objected.
“Then he has to learn that with life, there is death. You can’t shield him from that reality forever. You told him about his mother.”
Ben hesitated. “I’ve wanted to keep her memory alive for him but he never knew her. He’s an intelligent child, but I’ve often wondered just how much he understands about Elizabeth.”
Inger’s voice softened and her eyes searched his. “Then maybe he will learn more through having a pet of some sort. If questions arrive, he’ll ask and if he doesn’t …. well, we will be there for him, to explain and talk him through it.”
Ben had no time to answer as Adam returned bearing the pot. He eagerly danced round his father as Ben filled the pot with water and gently eased the fish into it from the net. There was no need for words as Ben handed the pot to Adam. The child took a deep breath, his mouth forming a silent ‘o’, his eyes wide in wonder as he watched the small fish circling its new home. He turned and headed slowly back to the wagon, carrying the pot as though it were the most precious thing in the world and might break at any moment. Ben and Inger, arms entwined, watched him go.
The fish had survived, far longer than either of them had expected. Eric was born, the weeks passed and Adam had proven himself to be a thoroughly reliable and caring fish owner.
All had been well until this evening. The wagons had stopped to make camp for the night and, once the evening meal had been eaten, Adam had checked on the fish which, for a reason best known to himself, he had named Pharoah after Ben had read him some stories on ancient Egypt. Inger was feeding Eric as Ben relaxed by the fire when Adam reappeared, holding out the pot for his father’s inspection, dark eyes brimming with tears and bottom lip quivering.
“What’s Pharoah doin’, Pa? Why’s he floating on his side? Why isn’t he swimming?”
From Adam’s reaction, Ben realised that he already suspected the truth but was desperately hoping that his father would prove him wrong, that Ben would make everything right again. Only this time, Ben could not do it. He took the pot from the child’s hands and, setting it aside, drew him down into his lap.
“I’m sorry, Adam, but Pharoah’ dead,” he explained gently. At first, Adam had stared at him, reluctantly absorbing the information and considering the implications.
Ben watched him struggle to keep the tide of emotions in check; then came the questions and Ben tried to answer them as best he could. Why did Pharoah die? Was it something that Adam had or had not done? Was Pharoah a good fish? Did God let fish into heaven? If so, would Pharoah go to heaven? Ben knew what was coming next.
“Is Pharoah in heaven with my Ma?”
With Ben’s reassurance that Elizabeth would look after Pharoah, the emotional storm erupted and the child sobbed uncontrollably. Eventually, Adam cried himself to sleep in his father’s arms and Ben settled into rocking him, reluctant to lay him down. The pain would go in time but Pharoah would never be forgotten. They would talk about him and maybe, in time, Adam would have another pet and the cycle of life would go on. He would survive this, a child’s first close encounter with death.
Someone moved into the circle of light given out by the fire. Smithson.
“Hey, Cartwright, you’d better get some sleep like your boy. We may not be getting much for a while. The news is that we’ll be in Indian country by this time tomorrow.”
3 thoughts on “Pharoah (by VRON)”
This was a precious story. A tough lesson for a young boy to learn, but little did he know he’d need to know it for what was ahead in just a short time from then.
This is real sweet story, with Pa and Adam. Thanks
This was a sweet Ben and Little Adam story. I think Pa handled it just right. Thanks