Summary: After the flowers have wilted and the mourners have left, the Cartwrights must learn to live with the loss of the woman they loved.
Rated: K WC 2100
He’d forgotten how exhausting grief was.
In the first days after her death, Adam was merely numb. There was too much to do. He didn’t have the luxury of allowing his feelings to overwhelm him.
He’d stood beside her grave, clutching Little Joe’s hand on one side and Hoss’ on the other. That night, he tucked them into bed together. At five, Little Joe didn’t understand death, but Hoss, who had just turned eleven, did. Little Joe only knew that his mama had gone away and everyone was acting strangely, and he was scared without knowing why. Hoss had lived on the ranch long enough to know that death was a part of life, but that didn’t make it any easier to lose the only mother he’d ever known. So, Adam held his brothers as they wept, and then he settled them into Hoss’ bed, knowing that each would draw comfort from the other.
He greeted mourners and saw to it that they were fed. He listened politely to their well-meaning condolences and clenched his teeth as they prattled on about how grateful she must have been to be brought into such a lovely family and how much it must have meant to her. He wanted to tell them that whatever they’d given her wasn’t a flea on a steer’s hide, compared to what she’d given them. The prim and proper contingent from Virginia City, who could always be counted upon to do the socially correct thing, couldn’t possibly have understood what it meant to the Cartwrights to have this beautiful, vibrant woman sweep into their lives, with her musical laughter and her fiery temper, her stubbornness and her eye for beauty and her passionate love for them all.
It was she who replaced the tin plates they’d used since the wagon train with rose-colored china, who planted the flowers that graced the porch, who insisted that a good night’s rest was greatly aided by fine linens rather than the coarse fustian sheets they’d acquired on the trip west. Everything about the house that was beautiful had come by her hand.
More importantly, she loved each of them for just who he was, and she tolerated no criticism of them. She listened raptly when Adam read aloud in the evenings. She went with Hoss to the secret place where they could watch as the deer gathered in the morning mists, graceful and silent. She played endless games with Little Joe, laughing helplessly as he made up his own rules and forgot them a minute later. She worked tirelessly in the kitchen with Hop Sing, teasing as she tried to convince him to try different spices or herbs, and laughing at his mock tantrums. And every now and again, she would favor her husband with a gaze from beneath lowered eyelids that would have made any man move heaven and earth for a fraction of what her eyes promised.
No, the mourners were dead wrong. Marie had given them all much, much more than they’d given her.
Her absence left a gaping hole, and every now and again, Adam fell headlong into it. Little things could do it. The rose-colored cup that held his morning coffee. Her handwriting on the list of household items needed from the mercantile. The lacy shawl hanging on the peg next to his hat. Her saddle, still setting neatly beside the others in the barn. The horse, with his broken leg, had had to be put down, but the saddle and bridle had been restored to their usual places, just as if she was going to come back and use them. When he went to the barn to saddle his own horse, he looked away to avoid seeing hers, but he knew he was doing it, and that was almost as hard as actually seeing the saddle.
It was tiring, dodging reminders.
Holding everything in was even more tiring, but there was no choice. Someone had to step up and run the ranch until Pa was able. The men had to be dealt with, assignments given and problems addressed. The cowhands were sorry enough about Mrs. Cartwright’s passing, but that didn’t stop the strays from needing to be rounded up. A woman’s death didn’t change the railroad’s need for timber, and it didn’t make the men up at the timber camp any easier to handle. After the first few days, the ranch hands were used to Marie’s absence, and it was hard for them to remember that the family wasn’t.
In a way, though, their forgetfulness was easier to deal with than the overbearing sympathies of those who remembered. “How are you, my dear?” asked the ladies from church, one hand resting on his arm as if he were about to reveal a deep, dark secret. Tell us how you really feel, their eyes urged. Let the tears pour down your cheeks as you sob. Show us your most intimate feelings, every last bit of your grief. When he nodded with a sad smile and said, “We’re doing fine,” he could see the disappointment in their faces. They wanted to gush and weep with him, pretending to mourn her even though they hadn’t approved of her.
Even worse were the ones who told him that it was a blessing that she’d died as she had, quick and painless. There was no blessing about it, he wanted to say. She came riding into the yard, and her husband and little boy watched her fall and die. Hop Sing gathered the shrieking, kicking child in his arms as Pa searched desperately for any sign that she was still alive. And when it became clear that the search was futile, it fell to Adam, barely seventeen, to handle the details–sending for the undertaker and the preacher, carrying her body from the yard into the house, having supper taken to Hoss and Little Joe upstairs, choosing a dress for burial and words for a headstone. Sudden death meant unexpected decisions, and goodbyes that could be said only to a coffin. There was no blessing here.
He preferred the notes which still arrived almost daily. Most of them said almost exactly the same thing, but they were oddly comforting. There was something soothing about being able to accept sympathy without having to be in the same room as the sympathizer. He would much rather not have to look the person in the eye and react at once to what was being said. Late at night, when the room was silent but for the crackling fire and the notes sat neatly on the desk, he found dealing with other people to be somehow more manageable.
Now, as he descended the stairs, he found himself wishing that he could go away for a while. Somewhere, anywhere, as long as he wouldn’t have to think or do or be responsible for anything. Someplace where he could rest from the eternal, exhausting cycle of daily life with its overlay of unending grief. A spare, white room with no jagged reminders or weighty obligations. A place where he could finally stop being strong for everyone else.
He listened to the rain pelting against the roof and wondered if it would ever stop, any of it. The rain. The grief. The simmering anger at the unfairness of it all. The haunted faces of his family, telling him as clearly as any words that there was no solace to be found here, because they were all as devastated as he was. The increasing fear in Little Joe’s eyes as another day passed without his mama returning and he began to understand that she would never come back to him, no matter how much he wanted her. The exact same feeling in Adam’s own heart.
He sat in the leather chair, next to the fire, and waited. The coffee pot sat on the hearth to stay warm. The grandfather clocked chimed the hour, then the half hour, and then the hour again. His book lay closed in his lap; he had neither the energy nor the inclination to follow someone else’s thoughts. His eyelids began to droop, and he sat up straighter, willing himself not to succumb to sleep.
The door opened, and he jerked awake. His father had come in, dripping. He met his son with a small smile. “I didn’t expect you to be up,” he said. When there was no response other than a shrug, he asked, “Hoss and Little Joe are asleep?”
Adam nodded, standing. “For a while now,” he said.
“Little Joe hasn’t had any nightmares?”
“Not so far,” he said. “I put him in with Hoss.” He watched chilled fingers fumble with the coat buttons, and he crossed the room to meet one more need.
“Here,” he said, reaching past the cold hands. “Let me help you with that, Pa.”
His father patted his shoulder. The older man’s eyes were rimmed with red. It was impossible to know whether the wetness on his face was rain or tears. His son unbuttoned the wet coat and slid it off as easily as if he’d been undressing Little Joe. He hung up the coat and hat as his father unfastened his gun belt. Adam coiled the gun belt on the credenza, remembering to place the gun in the drawer where his brothers wouldn’t happen upon it. Then, he shepherded his father across the room and seated him by the fire. He poured a cup of coffee, frowning slightly that it hadn’t stayed hotter, and he wrapped his father’s hands around it.
Later, when he’d bid his father good night, Adam closed his bedroom door. He sat down at his desk and waited for grief to wash over him. It always did, every night. During the day, he kept it at bay, but at night, when he was alone, it overflowed its banks and flooded his soul. He began to shudder as the agony of grief rose.
His little brother’s shrill scream pierced his thoughts. For a moment, he clenched his fists. Just once, he thought. Just once, somebody else could handle the crisis.
But even as the words crossed his mind, his feet propelled him to the door. He would comfort the child. He would see both his brothers back to sleep. Pa sometimes woke, and sometimes not, but it didn’t matter.
He pushed back the grief that had started to rise in his own heart as he lit the lamp by Hoss’ bed. He gathered the sobbing child in his arms, nodding reassuringly as Hoss patted the little boy’s back, eyes brimming with tears.
“It’s all right,” Adam lied. “Everything’s all right.” He buried his face in the child’s curls, making soothing sounds, until his little brother’s sobs gave way to hiccups. He wiped the little boy’s tears and gave him a drink, and Hoss helped to settle him again.
“Is everything all right?” asked his father from the doorway. He looked bleary-eyed, as if waking from a brandy-induced slumber.
“He’s fine, Pa,” said Adam. He kissed the little boy on the forehead and tousled Hoss’ hair. “You two go back to sleep now,” he said, blowing out the lamp. In the light from the hall, he could see Hoss gather Little Joe in his arms. “You get back to bed, too,” he added, as if his father was merely a third younger brother.
“You do the same,” said his father. For a moment, he sounded as he used to, strong and sure. His eldest son squeezed past him in the doorway, resisting the urge to rest his head on the broad chest. The luxury of crying on others was not for him. His job was to stay strong for the rest of them. He headed back to his own room, turning to close the door behind him.
“Adam.” His father stood in the doorway, his eyes dark with the agony of inexpressible loss. It was on the tip of Adam’s tongue to ask what Pa wanted, but his father was reaching for him. Without thinking, he found himself held tightly, and he reached around to hold his father just as tightly. Not a tear fell, but in the quiet of a cold, rainy night, father and son wept.
Other Stories by this Author
- Studio Executives #8 — A Sharp Idea (by pjb)
- Reflections on Killing His Friend (by pjb)
- Saying Goodbye (by pjb)
- After the Storm (by pjb)
- Marie, Once More (by pjb)