Summary: A stranger stumbles onto the Ponderosa, bringing changes, healing, heartache, and a secret past that will haunt them all. This story, in a very roundabout way, is a WHN for the “The Crucible”. I love constructive criticism; please feel free to contact me with any suggestions or tips!
Rated: K WC 15,700
When Darkness Falls
It’s funny how your brain works in desperate situations. You’d think that right about then I’d be lying on the ground, curled up inside myself to keep the grief from bursting forth, but I wasn’t – not yet. I’d grieve when I had the time.
All I could do is keep putting one foot in front of the other; at least that’s what I’d been telling myself for the last five hours.
Five hours… I didn’t know how much longer I could last.
Just stop and rest awhile.
No, that wasn’t an option. If I did, then the pain would come back. Not the physical pain; that wasn’t gone at all. No matter how much I prayed to God it were, it was still there in every burning step. No, this was a pain that a body would rather die a thousand agonies than live a minute with; the type of pain that leaves you so gutted and empty you swear the slightest wind would blow you away. That was why I kept running – I couldn’t endure it any other way.
The forest had sunken into darkness; things stirred that wouldn’t have dared to whisper in the daytime. The air was so cold it almost seemed wet, and I couldn’t even tell the difference between my shivering and my spastic gasps for air any more. It was as if the very trees have come to life; reaching down to grab at my hair and clothing, determined to keep me in their wooden clutches.
It was a well-placed root that sent me sprawling to the soggy ground, and in an instant the pain was there. It mixed with the smell of molding leaves and breathing became next to impossible. The distraction that had held my fragile being together was gone, and I was alone with an unconquerable misery.
I didn’t have to stay. A darkness in my vision, a haze in my brain, told me to let go and it’d be gone. It would be a sweet release.
But I couldn’t; something held me back. It was the wind, carrying a still, small voice that stirred the remnants of my heart.
“Why’d you stop?” she whispered.
I could almost see her face, almost feel her childlike hand wipe the tears from my cheek.
“You have to get up! You’re almost there!”
Almost there? There’s nowhere to go. “I can’t,” the words came out barely above a whisper. “It hurts too much.”
“You’re almost there!” she said again.
I didn’t want to. Lying on the ground in the middle of the night had never felt so comfortable.
“Get up…” the voice started to fade away.
No! She couldn’t go – I needed her too much. Scrabbling to my feet, I searched the darkness wildly, stumbling over roots and through the branches. “Don’t go! Please.”
Then she was gone, leaving me alone in the thundering stillness. My heart reached a new depth of despair at her disappearance, and not even the glimmer of light in the distance could bring me back. Nonetheless, my feet headed toward it, survival mode overruling any want of peace.
Please…Oh God, please!
She had led me towards safety – towards hope. The broad, wooden house stood radiant against the black night as large gas lamps lit the windows. The porch couldn’t have been more than fifty feet away, but it seemed impossibly big in my mind as each step seemed to grow smaller.
The door was in my reach and my hand ready to knock, when my body said it’d had enough. I suddenly found myself giving the ground a personal greeting. Silently, I prayed that someone had heard me – it was so cold.
There was a moment of silence before the door clicked open, and then a harsh intake of breath cut through it. Strong hands turned me over, barely felt on my numb arms, and the light was blocked out as a face loomed over me.
He found me.
I felt such a sudden sense of peace I almost smiled. And as the man’s lips moved urgently above me, I knew it was ok to let go; I had made it. With the peace of darkness came the sense that somewhere, on that cool night, she was smiling.
Out of every job at the barn raising, he made sure I’d gotten this one; he’d even pulled a few of his long, ever-reaching strings to do it. Lack of experience didn’t matter; neither did the fact that there were plenty of people in the community more able to do the job, because it was all part of his game. He played a sport of tyranny and viciousness, and it was something I’d been forced to contend in for near three years.
Bitter thoughts continued to preoccupy me as stared at my charge. “Come on, git Annabelle! We don’t have all day!” I dug in my heels and yanked on the rope, but she ignored me and continued to graze by the side of the road. Dumb cud-chewer. I squared my shoulders and glared at her. “I hope whoever wins you makes a nice tasty meal out of you!.” She quit chewing long enough to give me a reproachful look, then turned around and headed back down the road.
“Aw, Annabelle! I was just kidding!” I hurried down the road after her. If I weren’t there on time there’d be steep price to pay. “No, don’t go that way!” Grabbing the rope, I put my whole weight behind my pull, but my skinny, girl arms hardly even slowed her down. She lumbered around the corner, dragging me along behind her before coming to a stand still. The sudden stop sent me crashing into the back of her then bouncing onto my backside.
“You stupid cow!” I picked myself up off the ground and dusted the dirt off my dress. “I should just chop you up right now and bring you to the barn raising that wa…” I trailed off as I looked up and saw a man patting Annabelle on the head, his eyes sparkling with humor.
“You need some help, miss?” he asked, flashing a wide grin.
There was a moment of silence as I stared at him. He was new in town – or a drifter. His clothing leaned more toward the second, being worn and dusty but surprisingly well cared for. His teeth were bright against his tan skin in a smile that lopped a little to the left. What was most striking, though, were his eyes – Persian blue framed by a tousled mass of curly black hair. My heart gave an involuntary flutter.
He frowned slightly at my lack of response. “That is, of course, unless you’ve got everythin’ handled.”
I bit my lip and shook my head, inwardly chiding myself for being shy towards the young stranger. He looked friendly, couldn’t be but a few years older than me, and he was new – the rumors wouldn’t have reached him yet. Now would be the only chance to talk to him. “I-I’m supposed to bring Annabelle to the Jenkins’ barn raising,” I said, finding my voice, “but I’ve never handled a cow before.”
A dark brow rose. “Well you certainly chose an interestin’ time to start learnin’.” He shrugged. “However, I think I can help you with both your problems.”
“Both?” I stuttered.
“It just so happens that I was just headin’ to the Jenkins place myself. And,” he said matter-of-factly, “I have a some experience with cattle under my belt. So now, you’ve got yourself a cowboy to lead Annabelle and an escort to the barn raisin’.”
I flushed a deep pink, not used to attention. I looked at him shyly. “Well, I appreciate your help, Mister…?”
“East, Patrick East,” he offered quickly. “And you are?”
I hesitated a moment, worried that he might’ve heard something already. “Evangeline Cartier,” I said, watching his expression closely.
“It’s a real pleasure, Miss Cartier,” his smile seemed genuine. “I just arrived in town yesterday, so you’re one of the first people I’ve met – you certainly didn’t hurt my opinion of the city none either.”
Inwardly, I grinned; we’ll see how long that lasted.
“Met Mr. Lancaster yesterday, and they hired me on as a carpenter for the barn raisin’. It’s what my Pa trained me for, so I thought I might as well put it to good use. It was quite luc-“
The hair on the back of my neck pricked up as suddenly everything changed. I didn’t know what was different – but it was there, palpable in the air. Patrick hadn’t seemed to notice; he was still talking, using the same words I remember him using. Turning slowly, I scanned the area for anything suspicious, something that didn’t belong in this memory.
I froze as something cracked through the air and then whipped back around to where Patrick was standing. He seemed fine, still oblivious to the fact that something was wrong.
“……travel around the country finding….”
I thought of the possibility that I was going crazy as he chattered on. That must be it; memories don’t chang-
I choked as a small red dot appeared on his shirt above his heart. It grew, spreading in drips and rivets, with every passing second. He didn’t even notice. I tried to run towards him, to scream, to let him know he’d been hurt, but it was like my muscles were frozen solid. He continued to talk, until suddenly his eyes grew wide and his voice trailed off.
He looked down, his hand slowly moving up to touch the wetness on shirt. His fingers came back red, and he stared at them for a moment before looking up at me in horror. My head was roaring, every nerve in my body screamed, but it didn’t make a difference. I could only watch as he slid to his knees, a cloud of dust rising around him as he hit the ground.
Patrick! No, Patrick! I already lost you once!
The temporary paralysis disappeared as the scream tore from my lips and everything shifted. It was all unfamiliar, confusing, but that didn’t stop me. Through blurred vision I searched for him frantically, knowing time was short. I couldn’t lose him again.
I spotted him about twenty feet away, still kneeling on the ground clutching his chest. Pushing myself forward, falling off something, crawling, I made my way towards him any way I could.
“Patrick,” I whispered. When he didn’t respond, I tried a little louder. “Patrick,” I reached out to brush a curl from his face. Something banged open behind me, and the air filled with shouting. Strong arms encircled my waist and I felt myself being lifted up, away from him. “No, Patrick!” I fought the grip holding me back. There was more shouting, more hands dragging me away.
“Patrick! Don’t let him take me!” He finally looked up, a new pain defining his features. Slowly, he lifted his palm from his chest and turned it towards me; it was stained red with blood, just like his shirt. “Please!” Shaking his head sadly, he dropped his hand and, with a shudder, let himself crumple to the ground.
The groan of agony that ripped from my chest gave voice to every ounce of grief and despair etched on my heart and I could feel myself drooping under the burden.
The hands that held me gently laid me down as voices overlapped and distorted above me.
“…..high fever………get Paul……….water…….”
Amidst the confusion over and inside me, someone spoke soft words by my ear. Closing my eyes, I could almost imagine him there, right beside me, holding me tightly by the hand as he whispered, “everything’s going to be alright……”
“……marry me, Evie?”
“Patrick, I-I don’t know if I can.”
There was surprise and hurt on his face at my statement. “But you love me, don’t you?”
“You know I love you – it’s just, I’m just scared. You know he’ll never allow it.”
There was relief mingled with determination in his voice when he spoke again. “Is that it? Is that why you didn’t say yes?” he grabbed my hands and pulled me closer. “We’ll run away – elope. I’ve got friends all over who’ll marry us and protect us if need be.”
I turned away. “He’s rich, Patrick; he has connections, he could still find us.”
“Did you think I hadn’t thought of that, darlin’? You know my job never keeps me in the same place more then a couple month. And I have connections too; I can protect us.” He gently grabbed my chin and made me meet his eyes when I didn’t respond. “How much longer are you gonna live like this, Evie? You’re almost twenty; stop lettin’ him control you – make your own decisions.”
I knew he was right, and I wanted it so bad, but the question was whether I’d have the courage to go through with it. The argument was over when I looked into his eyes. My choice, and future, was clear. I closed my eyes and nodded my head slowly, praying that I could do it when the time came.
I saw that same broad smile he had the day we met. “We’ll leave tomorrow after sundown! Meet me here at one and I’ll tell you my plans.” He quickly pulled me in for a kiss, one on the lips and one on the forehead, and then disappeared into the night – leaving me to wonder how in just a few shorts months, I had become the luckiest girl in the world.
“…fever’s gone…….some..for a……tomorrow…check up..”
It was like swimming in a mire; an upward climb as you slowly put one arm in front of the other. The closer I got to the surface, the more the voices above me started to pull into coherent thoughts.
“…wonder who she is?”
“I don’t know; all I can say is that given the amount she’s been sleeping, her body must’ve been exhausted.”
I was almost at the top, and a dull ache had started to set into my bones. A cool hand rested on my forehead, and my eyes fluttered. Almost there.
“Hey Paul, I think she’s waking up.”
There was a shuffling of feet and someone smoothed the hair from my face. “Miss? Can you hear me? Can you open your eyes, sweetheart?”
I broke through the surface. Opening my eyes, I found myself looking up into three very concerned faces. When I shrunk back a little in surprise, and they backed up.
“Glad to see you’re awake,” the man closest to me spoke up, “you had quite a scare there!”
I tried to speak, but all that came out was a small cough. He grabbed a pitcher of water sitting next to the bed and poured me a cup, helping me hold it as I drank greedily.
“I suppose you’re wondering where you’re at,” he said.
I stopped drinking and nodded my head.
“Well, you’re at the Ponderosa; a ranch about 20 miles from Virginia City. I’m Dr. Paul Martin, and this is Ben Cartwright, the owner of the Ponderosa, and his son, Adam.”
A handsome, silver-haired man stepped forward as he was introduced, but my attention was caught on the man named Adam. I stared at him and tried to think of how I could’ve possibly seen him before.
“You were pretty sick for a time there.” Ben Cartwright said. “When Adam found you on the porch you were as cold as ice.”
Realization struck me, and for a moment I was transferred back to that moment on the porch – the cold numbing all the pain, the haze over my vision. In the darkness and confusion, I’d taken him for Patrick. Looking at him now, there was no comparison. Yes, they both had black hair and a dark tan, but where Patrick’s hair had been full of unruly curls, this man’s was straight and smooth. Patrick’s tan had been a healthy glow, Adam seemed pale and sallow under his coloring. The biggest difference, though, were the eyes. Patrick’s had been of the clearest blue, often filled with humor and mischief; but his, his were deep and dark, brooding while outlined with the bruises of sleepless nights. Our eyes met, but I tore my gaze away as the elder Cartwright started talking again.
“Do you know your name?”
This was the first question they’d addressed to me and I was caught off guard. My name? “E-Evangeline East,” I whispered.
“And, Evangeline,” he spoke softly, “do remember anything about the night you came here?”
Do I remember anything? Those words knocked the wind out of me as everything came flooding back. The name I had thought of so casually just a moment before now brought new waves of agony as reality came to light. The wall that my inner-self had so meticulously built to protect myself from the grief came crumbling down and I was thrown back into the horror of those moments.
Those screams – my screams? – echoed around the clearing as the fire glinted in his mad eyes. Reaching out, my hand closing around something, hitting him as hard as I could, running, running, running…
“They’re gone,” the words echoed hollowly in my chest.
“Who’s gone?” Adam asked.
I barely heard the words; I was trying to comprehend how this could be real. They couldn’t be – but the emptiness inside me told me differently. “They’re gone,” I whispered again. I pushed myself up from the bed – determined to see them again, one last time. My body protested and reacted in pain, but I pushed myself past it.
The doctor was speaking and trying to push me back down, but I pushed him away. Everything was drowned out as the words “they’re gone,” repeated in my head like a heartbeat. I flung myself towards the door, but my energy was gone. Someone caught me as I sunk to the ground and held me as the tidal wave of tears came
Why? The question screeched in my head. What had I done to deserve this? How could I live without them?
There was a small pinch on my arm, and someone offered soothing words in my ear. Weariness wrapped around me like a blanket. I laid my head on the dark shirt that held me as my sobs started to slow – but the pain never died.
The blue-black darkness flowed tranquilly around me, the muffled movements of my arms and legs the only sound. Was this what it was like in the mother’s womb – the feeling of safety all around, the stillness of everything but my own beating heart? I stopped moving and just took it in; it was beautiful.
I wished I could stay longer, but my throat started to ache from the lack of oxygen. The pristine surface of the water was broken as I came up and gasped in the cool night air. It’s sweetness filled my lungs, and gave me one more reason on top of so many others to be happy. I slowly swam back to shore and sloshed up onto the bank, shivering as I wrapped a thick blanket around me.
Patrick raised a brow as I walked back into camp. “I thought you said you were goin’ to wash your clothin’?”
“I did,” I said, unwrapping myself long enough to show him my dripping dress. “I just thought I would rinse my hair while I was at it.” He looked a little surprised and I gave him a saucy wink.
He chuckled and came over and wrapped his arms around me. “You’re freezin’, darlin’! You’ll catch a cold!”
I pulled back from him a little bit and looked at him with mock seriousness. “And when out of all these crazy places you’ve dragged us to have I ever gotten sick?”
He kissed my forehead. “I know dear heart, but what if the baby doesn’t have the same resilience as you?”
We both looked down to where my wet dress was stuck to my slightly swollen belly. I sighed knowing he was right – I would have to be more careful now if I wanted to keep my little nudger healthy.
“Well, I suppose then that you better get your rear in gear and get us a fire going, hmm?” I tugged on one of his stray curls.
“Yes ma’am,” he said softly. My heart pounded as his fingers left a trail of fire along the side of my face. We’d been married over a year, and he could still make me blush like a silly girl. He bent down and pressed his ear to my belly. “Next time she wants to go swimmin’ in the middle of a fall night, you just give her a good kick in the ribs, ya’ hear?” He stood up and headed towards the woods, laughing as he dodged the swat I aimed as his rear.
I smiled as I watched him go, gently rubbing my belly. Yes, life was good.
“Miss East, can you tell us what happened that night the Cartwrights found you?”
I looked down at my dress, fingering one of the many tears in the fabric. The Cartwright’s cook, Hop Sing, had done a pretty good job washing my dress, managing to get out most of the dirt and grime from that night. There were older stains though; this had been one of the first dresses I had made for myself after we’d gotten married – for that reason it’d always been a favorite of mine.
“Mrs. East,” I corrected softly. There was silence in the room, and I looked up at the six pairs of eyes staring at me intently. We were in the living room – me, the four Cartwright men, Dr. Martin, and a man who’d been introduced to me as Sheriff Roy Coffee. They wanted to know my story, and I had one ready. I’d been going over it in my head since I’d woken up. “Where do you want me to start?”
The sheriff looked at Ben and then at Dr. Martin before answering. “Well, why don’t you start off by telling us how you came to be in this area?”
“My husband, Patrick, is a-” I stopped and corrected myself, “-was a painter; he’d travel around the country looking for different landscapes to paint. He didn’t make very much money off of it, so he’d often rent out his services as a carpenter in the different towns he stayed at. That’s how I met him. He’d stopped in my town and had hired on to help with a barn raising.” I turned my attention to a snag on my sleeve. Just stay focused, get through this, you can cry more later.
“Virginia City was our next stop, we’d heard there were some beautiful mountains around this area. It grew dark before we could get there, and we didn’t want to travel over unknown land in the dark with our wagon, so we stopped close to a stream for the night. Patrick was getting supper ready, our little daughter Abbey was asleep in the back, it was a perfect time for me to go wash some clothing. I couldn’t have been gone more than twenty minutes when I heard shouting. I ran back to find our wagon in flames. I-I tried to get to it – Abbey was in there – but the fire was so hot and I couldn’t see anything with the smoke. Patrick was gone too; I think he went in after her…” my voice wavered and tears crept into the corners of my eyes as someone rested a comforting hand on my shoulder. “So I started running, shouting, looking for help, but there was no one around. I don’t know how long I ran, but I kept going; I was about to give up when…when I saw your house.”
I was a terrible liar by nature, and sure that they would see through it when I got to the ending. I ventured a look up and was surprised by the looks and murmurs of sympathy coming from my audience. The grief in my voice must’ve added a measure of believability to it – for it was, after all, the one of the few absolutely genuine parts of my story. My stomached twisted in guilt at lying to these people who’d done so much for me, but they would never believe the truth.
“Evangeline…I’m-” Ben had broken the silence, but it seemed as if he was having a hard time knowing what to say. “…I’m so, so sorry.” There was genuine sadness in his voice.
“Do you have any family that we could contact for you?” the sheriff asked softly.
I felt myself unintentionally stiffen at the question, but forced myself to relax. “No – no family,” I whispered, “we were roamers.”
“Well, then I feel – and I’m sure my sons agree – that you should stay here until we can get you into a better situation and proper burials for your husband and daughter.”
I looked at the eldest Cartwright with something like panic creeping into the back of my throat. “N-No, I can’t-I mean-I thank you, Mr. Cartwright, for your generosity, but I really feel that I’ve encroached on your hospitality enough.”
“Nonsense. We’ve got an extra room here, and I’m sure Paul would agree that you aren’t well enough yet to be traveling yet.”
“I have to agree with Ben, Mrs. East. You’re still pretty weak from fighting off such a bad fever, and I don’t think you’d have enough strength to do it again.”
“No!” They all looked surprised as my response came out a little more forceful than I’d intended. I took a breath and tried to calm down. “No, really I-” I was cut off by someone softly clearing their throat.
Everyone turned to look at Adam, who was standing by the fireplace. “I think it’s an excellent idea, Pa; after all, Evangeline has no where else to go.”
They all turned back to look at me, but I kept my eyes fixed on him. There was sympathy in his eyes, but also suspicion – no doubt raised by such strong protesting on my part and maybe even by the end of my story. He stared back, waiting for me to make the next move. I would have to agree if I didn’t want him to start questioning my motives.
“W-Well, I suppose a day or two would be alright,” I said, trying to mask the frustration in my voice.
I only hoped it wouldn’t be too late.
“Mama, come play with me!”
She danced across my field of vision, waving a handful of yellow flowers. Smiling, I put down the shirt I was mending and chased after her. She squealed as I caught up to her and started tickling her ribs, and we fell to the ground giggling. Laying her head on my chest, her black curls spilled on to my face and tickled my nose. I picked one up and pulled on it playfully; they were just like her father’s…
I sat up with a gasp, and felt the tears gathering in the corners of my eyes as the image started to fade away. They began to flow steadily down my cheeks as I released everything I’d tried to hold in that morning.
Everyone has something that they build their life around; something that keeps them firmly attached to life and it’s meaning – something that keeps them from floating away like an empty shell. They’re like little strings wrapped around your heart and holding you to the earth; they make you feel safe, comfortable in your own skin. But what happens when those strings are cut? Where do you go? What do you have to hold on to?
These are the questions that haunted me. Long after my shuddering had quieted and the tears had run dry, after grief had slowly turned into burning anger, after smoothing my dress and composing my face into a smooth, proper façade, they still remained – waiting to be answered.
I was beginning to realize that the Cartwrights were a family that was used to getting their way. Every effort I had made to leave after the initial two days was brushed off, excused away, taken lightly, or similarly disposed of. Making it so much worse was the fact that I wasn’t allowed to do anything at all but rest. I wanted to do something to keep busy and have my mind engaged – something that would sedate the painful thoughts and soothe the anger.
The day was still only half over, and I was growing restless. The books I had found around the house sat unopened by the side of the bed and my half eaten lunch sat on my lap growing steadily colder. This did not please the little cook when he came to pick up my plate.
“Why you no eat? Hop Sing go to all this work making meal and no one appreciate it! Not Mr. Cartwright, not sons, not even guest! I go back to China and be famous cook – you all be sorry!”
“Hop Sing, it was wonderful,” I tried to pacify him. “I’m just not very hungry because I haven’t been doing anything to work up an appetite.”
“Ah, Mrs. East need her rest!” he said. “Don’t want to get sick again.”
“Hop Sing!” I called as he headed towards the door. “Couldn’t you use some help in the kitchen? I could peel potatoes for you or something.”
He didn’t turn around, but I saw him shake his head. “No. Hop Sing under strict orders. Mrs. East do nothing but rest.”
The door shut behind him and I muttered darkly under my breath. If I didn’t get out of these four walls soon, I was liable to crack. Feeling rebellious, I put on my shoes and climbed out the window in my room; I was lucky it was on the ground floor; I’d never been good with heights. With a triumphant smile, I fixed my dress and headed towards the barn. My mood lifted instantly as I walked in; the cool air and the familiar smells draining some of the tension from my shoulders.
A small black and white blur came racing towards me from behind one of the stalls, and I reached down to scoop the puppy into my arms. “Where did you come from?” I whispered, rubbing its soft fur against my face. I smiled as it licked my nose and wandered back to the stall it had come from, wondering if there were more of them. I came to an abrupt stop as I rounded the corner and saw someone sitting up against the wall of the stall. Adam didn’t notice me as he bent over the little puppy in his lap, murmuring softly as he tried to spoon some milk into its mouth. It gave out a small whimper as it opened its mouth for more, and he smiled.
“You were hungry, little guy,” he said, spooning more into its mouth. “Yeah, we’ll get you taken care of.”
I watched him silently, surprised at the gentleness in his voice. During my time here, he had seemed more distant than the rest of the family, like he was perpetually brooding over something in his mind. The dark circles under his eyes gave testament to the fact that it was something that never left him alone, and I had to wonder what kind of loss he’d experienced to cause such deep emotion.
There was a small yip, and I realized the fidgety puppy in my arms wanted down. It ran over to the corner where a tired looking dog was lying on the ground, and immediately started wrestling with one of its five other siblings.
“I see Hop Sing let you out of the house.” Adam was watching me from where he sat.
I wasn’t sure whether he was kidding or not. “Not really,” I said. “I snuck out the window.”
His mouth lifted into a small smile. “There’ve been times when I’ve wanted to do that too.”
He resumed his care of the little puppy, and I took it as a sign that he wasn’t going to send me back inside. Relieved, I slid down to the ground opposite of him. “What’s wrong with that one?” I asked.
“This little guy,” he said, scratching the pink belly, “is the runt of the litter. His siblings weren’t letting him get enough milk from his mother, so we’re giving him a little extra help. Hoss usually does it, but he was too busy today.”
“Oh.” We lapsed into silence and I watched him continue to feed the puppy until I’d worked up enough courage to speak again. “What’s his name?”
He looked up, confused. “Who? The puppy?” I nodded my head. “He doesn’t have one.”
“Oh.” For the second time in less than five minute, the monosyllabic word slipped from my mouth, bringing the conversation to an abrupt halt. I picked up a piece of hay and twisted in between my fingers – if I pretended to be distracted, the quiet might be less palpable.
“Do you want to name him?” he asked.
I looked to see if he was joking, but his eyes said he was completely serious. “Sure,” I mumbled, scooting over to get a closer look at the dog. It yawned, licked the milk from its nose, and looked up at me sleepily. “Frank,” I said.
“He looks like a Frank,” I explained, rubbing the puppy’s head. I knew he was giving me a strange look, but I kept my eyes on the sleepy head in front of me.
“Alright,” he said, after a moment of silence. “Frank it is.”
It was the fifth day I’d been at the Cartwright house, and it was going to be my last; that was something I was going to make sure of. So help me, I’d steal a horse if I had to. It was a matter of safety on everyone’s part – mainly mine – but I didn’t want them to get hurt either.
I’d been able to figure out the Cartwrights’ approximate schedule during the last couple of days, and they probably wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours. Having nothing else to do, I laid back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, drifting into sleep before being startled awake by the clattering of wheels in the yard.
Adam pulled up with a loaded buckboard and jumped off, shouting to Hop Sing who’d come out of the house. He and the little cook proceeded to unload the supplies while I lost interest and lay back in bed with a book. It was a well-worn copy of “The Three Musketeers”, beautifully bound with silver engraving. Alexander Dumas had always been a favorite of mine, and it was apparent that someone else in this house also had a good taste in literature. I was just getting re-acquainted with the hot-tempered D’Artagnian when there was a knock on my door.
“Just a minute!” I quickly got up and smoothed myself over before opening the door. Adam stood outside balancing five or six large boxes in his hands. I moved quickly out of the way so he could come in. “W-What’s this?”
“I took the liberty of picking up some clothes for you,” he said as he placed them carefully on the bed. “I know all of yours burned in the fire. I told Mrs. Johnson at the mercantile to make sure you’d have everything that a…a young lady might need.”
I took the lid of the top box and gasped as I pulled out a beautiful, blue dress. It wasn’t too fancy, perfect for every day use, and made out of sturdy, expensive material. I hadn’t had such a nice dress in years – Patrick and I had never been rich. We’d always had to make due. A quick peek in the next couple of boxes showed two more dresses of different styles and colors but both as beautiful of as the first. I was speechless as I held it up to myself in front of the mirror, and instantly felt the burn of tears in my eyes.
“Pa wanted me to ask you if you’d join us for dinner tonight,” he said as he reached for the doorknob. “He wasn’t sure if you were quite well enough to be up and about, but I assured him that if you were feeling any better, you’d be climbing out the windows.”
A little giggle escaped amidst the tears, and I briefly wondered what a fool I must look like with my puffy eyes, drippy nose, and haywire emotions. Struggling to regain my composure, I nodded my head.
“Alright then, I’ll have Hop Sing prepare a tub of water for you.” He said as he left.
I stared at the closed door, fingering the buttons on the dress absently. “Thank you,” I whispered.
Dinner was a quiet affair; besides the clinking of utensils and the occasional request for food, no one had really spoken. It wasn’t normal. I knew that from overhearing past dinners from my room. There was almost always talk of the day’s work or the latest business contract, maybe some teasing among the brothers, but tonight – nothing. I don’t think anyone quite knew what to say, and I certainly wasn’t going to start off by bringing up the subject of me leaving. So, I focused on my plate, nibbling here and there while pushing the food around to make it look like I’d eaten more.
Finally, Ben cleared his throat and broke the silence. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, Evangeline, you certainly look very pretty tonight.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright; you’ve been very generous in your hospitality,” I said, twisting my napkin in my hands. “And I have Adam to thank for this new dress; he certainly seems to have good taste.”
There was a smothered snort from across the table and Joe and Hoss were suddenly very absorbed with their plates, missing the withering look from their older brother. Ben looked like he was trying not to smile. “Ah – well – I’m sure he had a little help.” A burst of giggles escaped from Joe’s tightly pressed lips, and soon he and Hoss’ composure was completely dissolved.
What had I said? I looked at Adam in confusion. He was looking at his brothers with narrowed eyes, and gave the tiniest of grins when Joe yelped in pain. Joe shot him a dirty look. “Whatdya kick me fo-”
“If you’re finished, Joe, we’ve got something more serious to discuss.” A look of understanding passed between them, and Joe sobered immediately.
I didn’t like the sounds of that. Ben put down his fork and folded his napkin; the air had changed from lighthearted to one of nervous attention – everyone knew what was coming but me. He fixed his dark eyes on mine, holding my gaze, wanting me to understand what he was about to say.
“After you’d told us what happened, I sent some of my hands out to search for the remains of your wagon. They found it yesterday near Berges Creek, about six miles from here. We had your husband and daughter buried in the clearing by the water,” he said quietly, “and I’ve arranged for a minister to come out so we can hold a proper funeral tomorrow.” My lower lip trembled, and I quickly covered my mouth with my napkin. They were buried six feet under, hidden from my eyes forever. Had I really wanted to see them again – to have those still, pale forms be my last memories of them? “I hope you understand why we waited to tell you.” Ben was speaking again, and I tried to pull myself together. “We knew this would be hard for you, and we wanted to make sure that you were well enough before we had the funeral.”
How could I explain the feelings of that moment? There was, of course, the heavy and ever-present grief coupled with the hollowness of despair. Gratitude for the Cartwrights and what they had done was mixed in, along with doubt for the things I’d hidden from them. They had repeatedly shown me the magnitude of their good nature, and I was beginning to wonder if I should tell them truth. But not now. I had to think on everything first, and that wasn’t possible with all of them staring at me. Quietly, I excused myself from the table and headed for my room
There was but one thing that I knew for sure, and that was that I wasn’t going to be leaving tomorrow.
It was a beautiful fall day – for a funeral. The cool air swept around us as we stood at the foot of the graves, listening to the minister’s parting words. My eyes were riveted on the two white wooden crosses Hoss had made with Patrick and Abbey’s names so carefully carved across them.
As much as I felt their deaths, I had come to the point where no more tears would fall; I grieved in silence. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, an anger was unearthing itself deep down. It had been there all along, taking second to mourning, but now it wanted a bigger part – and I wasn’t quite sure what to do.
“…and may the Lord bless them and keep them. Amen.”
The service was coming to a close, and each of the six attendees drifted off until only me and Adam were left, and he was waiting to drive me home in the buggy. I knelt in front of the double mounds, and put my hands on the dark, crumbled earth. “He’ll pay for what he’s done,” I whispered, “I promise you.” And then Adam was there, helping me up and escorting me back to the buggy. We rode in silence for a few minutes, but I found myself needing to talk. I had all of these memories and emotions reeling through my head, and I just needed to let them out.
“You know the first time we met, I was chasing a cow down the street?”
I saw him shift in his seat to look at me. “I’m sorry?”
“Patrick,” I murmured. “I was trying to get a cow to a barn raising when we met, and he offered to help me.” I turned to him and saw that even though he was focused on the road, he had his head slightly cocked towards me, as if to let me know he was listening. “He had black hair just like yours – except his was curly – and he had this one curl that drove me crazy because it hung down over his right eye and always came back. He would come back from a day of painting, and it would be all different colors because he was always pushing it back as he worked.” The memory brought a smile to my face as I saw myself scolding him gently as I picked it out, him standing their like a sheepish little boy.
“I can remember when Abbey was born, we were betting on whose hair color she’d have. It was iffy for a while, but she finally got her first little black curl and he was so proud. Whenever we’d got into a town, he’d tie it up in a little bow making it stand straight up on her head, and carry her around with him. When people would comment, he’d smile real big and say ‘she may have her mother’s beauty, but she’s got my hair!'” I grew quiet as I relived those moments.
Thinking of Abbey brought something else to mind, something I’d forgotten about till now. “Did you know I heard her on that night?” I watched him closely to see if he thought I’d lost it, but he merely looked confused. “The night you found me,” I explained. “When I was lying on the ground in the woods, I was about to give up. It was so cold, and I didn’t know which direction to go; I just wanted to sleep. Then her voice came out of nowhere, and she said that I had to get up; that I was almost there. I followed her voice, and that’s when I came across your house. I never would have made it without her.”
Neither of us spoke for a minute; the scenery that whipped past us began to look familiar. “Do you think I’m crazy?” I asked finally.
“No,” he answered simply but sincerely. His reply was unexpected, and he shrugged his shoulders when he caught me looking at him in surprise. “Angels take many forms,” he said softly. His words struck me as the type that came from personal experience. It was just they way he said it, sort of sad with an edge of reminiscing. “My mothers. They’ve always been there when I needed them most.” His voice was so quiet, I wasn’t sure whether he was speaking to me or to himself.
Mothers? The plural of the word confused me. I wanted him to expand so I could understand him more, but the opportunity was lost as we rode into the yard. Men were yelling to each other and saddling horses, all moving with a sense of urgency. Adam’s brow furrowed with concern as he brought the buggy to a halt in front of the house; it was obvious something was wrong.
“Adam!” We both turned to see Ben yelling out the door of the barn. “Saddle up! We’ve got a fire up in the east woods!”
In one fluid motion, Adam hopped from his seat and quickly made his way to my side to help me down, before leaving the buggy in the care of a hand and making his way to the barn. Less than three minutes later a group of fifteen men rode out with the Cartwrights in the lead, their faces grim. I stood on the porch and watched them go, inexplicably feeling a flicker of worry. I hadn’t realized how much I’d begun to admire this family until their came such an opportunity as this for them to get hurt.
Not wanting to go inside and stew, I made my way to the barn, hoping the puppies might give a temporary release from an otherwise emotional day. Frank came tumbling over as soon as I sat down and immediately curled up in my lap. Since I had been feeling better, Hoss had given me the responsibility of taking care of the little runt. It was safe to say the attachment had been immediate and mutual. I would miss him when I left.
A small sigh escaped my lips as I realized reality was impossible to get away from, even for a little bit. I had a decision to make – either leave now, or tell them the truth. It actually wasn’t much of a contest at all; the real challenge was telling myself I was going to do it, and then having the courage to go through with it.
The Cartwrights were no ordinary family; nothing like the people in the town I grew up in and nothing like the other wealthy people I had known. Their sense of loyalty to each other and their willingness to help everyone, had, despite everything in my past, made me trust them more than I’d trusted anyone other than my husband. They would believe me; I knew it. A weight was lifted off my chest as the decision was made. I leaned my head back against the stall wall, enjoying the first sense of peace and assurance that I’d felt in a long time.
I sat there for a while, lightly dozing. The minutes ticked by slowly as a bee buzzed somewhere overhead and Frank yawned and stretched his legs in my lap. The little puppy was about to curl up again, when he suddenly stiffened and a low growl rippled from his throat.
“What’s wrong, Frank?” I murmured. Without opening my eyes, I ran my hand along his back and was shocked to feel the hair standing up in a bristly ridge. There was a soft shuffling sound, and he growled again. Unnerved, I opened in my eyes just in time to see a large hand grab my arm and haul me to my feet.
A paralyzing fear came over me as my gaze moved up the arm that connected to the hand gripping my wrist. I took in his face, one side lumpy and misshapen with angry bruises, the other twisted in a snarl of triumph, before finally meeting the worst part of his cruel semblance – a pair of black, glassy eyes. “You didn’t think I forgot about you, did you?” he hissed.
There was a snarl as Frank, who’d been sent tumbling out of my lap, grabbed my attacker’s pant leg and pulled. His little weight had no affect on the man, who merely gave a harsh laugh before kicking the puppy away. Frank gave a small yip as he hit the wall, then was still.
The sight of his motionless little body jolted me, and a sudden flash of anger gave me courage. “Don’t you touch me!” I spat, digging my fingernails into the soft part of his wrist until he released me. He stood momentarily stunned as he looked at the bloody gouges I’d left, before looking up at me. The rage in his eyes sent a shiver of panic down my spine as the moment of anger dissolved into a flood of raw terror.
In a movement so fast I barely saw it, he backhanded me viciously across the face and sent me sprawling to the ground. I felt something spill down my cheek and gasped as my fingers came away red; his ring had left a long gash under my eye. His laugh, the laugh that had haunted me for so many years, echoed through the barn, and my gut gave a nauseous twist. “You’ve been hiding for me, Evie – I don’t think that’s something a very good step-daughter would do.”
I closed my eyes against his taunts. “Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?” I whispered.
I heard his breathing grow closer as he squatted down next to me, a cry slipping from my lips as a hand wrapped itself in my hair and yanked my head back. “You made a fool of me,” he said. “You think I could show my face in town after you ran off with that good-for-nothing painter? You think they would let me stay mayor when I can’t even control a stupid child? No,” he jerked my head one last time before getting up, “it took me two years to build up my reputation again after you left. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that one day I would be able to repay you for what you did. The day I got that telegraph saying you’d been spotted was the happiest day of my life.”
“So you killed them in cold blood – a father and an innocent three year old.” I could barely get the words out. “You killed your own grandchild.”
“That was an accident!” he snapped. “He had his back to me and I didn’t see the child in his arms!”
I could feel the bile rise in my throat as he spoke; now I finally knew how it’d happened. “You’ll hang for what you’ve done.”
“Hang! Hang? You think anyone is going to believe you?” his laugh was harsh. “Everyone knew you despised me – is it so hard to believe that you would turn on me when you had the chance? I can see it now; the stepfather, mayor and a successful businessman, gets word that his prodigal stepdaughter has been found. Dutifully, he goes to try and bring her home – to save her from her depraved lifestyle. She meets him and lures him out to the middle of nowhere before her and her husband try to rob him like common thieves.” He waved his hands dramatically, as if making a speech. “He had no choice but to shoot his own flesh and blood in self-defense. The daughter, afraid of the law, runs into the nearby woods and fabricates a story about an abusive step-father to save herself from punishment.”
“The Cartwrights will believe me,” the courage behind the words rang false.
“Oh really. The Cartwrights?” he mocked. “I suppose you think you’ve got them all under your thumb.”
“Don’t think I haven’t seen you cozying up the one with the black hair, you little hussy. You’re husband hasn’t even been gone a week and you already have a new man.” His words were so ridiculous they took a moment to digest. Me? And Adam? “Besides, even if they do believe you, do you think they’re going to want to help you after they find out you’re responsible for the fire in their woods?” He shook his head. “My, they must’ve lost a lot of money today.”
The truth hit me – he’d set the fire as a distraction so I’d be alone. And, in a way, I was responsible. If I had just left earlier, none of this would’ve happened.
“Well,” he pulled something from his pocket, “it’s been a long four years – but I think this will make it all worth it.” The long knife in his hand glinted in the sunlight.
He was going to kill me right here and now and no one would ever know what happened. He stepped forward menacingly, and in a moment of desperation I flipped onto my hands and knees and started crawling towards the barn door. A hand closed around my ankle and dragged me back; a kick in the side, and I laid dazed, waiting for the inevitable.
It never came. There was a muttered curse as voices could be heard approaching. They were too far away to stop him, but he wouldn’t be able to get a clean get away if he killed me now. He stooped down next to me and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “I’m not finished with you yet,” he whispered. “and you never know, if you’re still here in a day or two, I might come and let the Cartwrights join in on the fun.”
With that threat lingering in the air, he was gone, leaving me alone to salvage my emotions. I dragged air into my lungs with a sob, and limped my way over to Frank’s still form. The puppy was dead, the warmth of life already leaving his tiny body. The tears ran freely as I picked him up, the salty drops burning as they traveled over the gash under my eye.
As I cradled him to my chest, one thought resonated in my mind above all else – it seemed that no one could love me, and live.
I buried Frank under a tree at the back of the house. I’d taken his little body to my room and wrapped him in my old dress before cleaning myself up. One look in the mirror had told me that I was going to need a pretty good excuse for the gash under my eye. With shaking hands, I’d washed off the drying blood, wincing as I discovered the purplish bruise forming underneath. One small blessing in this was the long sleeves on my dress; they did a good job hiding the large handprint encircling my right wrist.
After that, I’d headed back to the barn with my little bundle in tow, skirting around a couple of ranch hands who were, in fact, my unknowing saviors. It took a little rummaging before a suitable shovel could be found, and the little hole took even longer. When finally the last of the dirt was piled back onto the makeshift grave and a few words mumbled through numb lips, I went back to my room and locked the door behind me.
The initial shock of the last hour was beginning to wear off, and I was unprepared for the onslaught of emotion. It was mainly anger; raw, seething hate for him and scathing disgust for myself for letting him have so much control over me. Unconsciously, I fingered the bruise around my wrist, my mind already planning my get-away.
The sun was setting when the thunder of hooves filled the yard, and a few minutes later the house door slammed and voices could be heard echoing through the house.
“Smells good, Hop Sing! I’m hungrier than a brown bear atta trout fest!”
“Mista Hoss always hungry!”
“I’m gonna have to agree with Hoss for once; fightin’ fires sure works up an appetite!” Joe said.
“Fight fires or not – no one eat till cleaned up!”
“Aw, Hop Sing-” There was a sharp crack and Hoss yelped in pain.
“No grubby hands on food!”
There was quiet for a minute before someone could be heard muttering. “Dadburn tyrant…”
Hop Sing obviously had good ears. “Mista Hoss right!” he screeched from the kitchen. “Hop Sing come from dynasty Chinese rulers – have hands chopped off if not clean!”
There was a burst of Joe’s infectious giggle before it was abruptly silenced. “Snappier than a brown bear too,” he complained.
I heard Adam’s chuckle as it grew closer to my room. “Evangeline?” he rapped on the door, “dinner’s ready in case you couldn’t tell by the commotion.”
“Just a minute!” I called. I went to the mirror to smooth out my appearance and couldn’t help but grimacing at the now multi-colored blotch on my face. “You can do this,” I whispered. “Just pretend that everything’s normal.” I snorted and briefly wondered if that was my best option. While the few hours alone had given me time to get my emotions in check, it unfortunately hadn’t done anything for my lying skills. Shaking my head, I made my way towards the door. “Just do it,” I told myself; they’d be more suspicious if you didn’t come to dinner at all.
It was easy to say that my entrance had an immediate effect on the table. Joe and Hoss stopped mid-banter while Ben froze with his coffee cup to his lips; Adam stood up slowly from his seat. “Evangeline, what happened?”
“Oh this?” I forced a smile; “I tripped in the barn today. It’s not as bad as it looks, I promise.”
Adam walked over and gently lifted my chin to the side. “That’s quite an unusual place to get a cut from falling.”
“I must have hit it just right,” I murmured.
“We’ll have to have Hop Sing put some ointment on it later,” Ben suggested from his seat.
I turned my head from Adam’s grasp and nodded, thankful for the interruption.
“Yeah,” Adam said, pulling my seat out for me. He was evidently skeptical, but didn’t push the subject any further.
The discussion at the table that night was, of course, the fire. One of the line shacks had burned down and the trees in the surrounding area were scorched, but no other damage had been done. The relief was felt by everyone in the room.
“I just don’t understand how that fire could’ve started, none of our hands are that careless.”
The mouthful of peas I’d just swallowed sat heavily at the bottom of my stomach, making me feel sick.
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know, Joe, accidents can happen. I think we just need to be thankful that no one was hurt.”
“It just doesn’t add up,” Joe muttered. Hoss and Ben nodded their heads and I pretended to be engrossed with my plate.
There was a sharp rap on the door, and my heart constricted. He hadn’t come back already, had he? “I’ll get it.” Adam pushed himself back from the table and headed towards the door. “Oh, hey Charlie.” I breathed a sigh of relief as I heard him greet their foreman. They spoke in hushed tones for a minute before Adam quietly thanked him and closed the door.
“What did Charlie want?”
Adam didn’t seem to hear Ben as he sauntered his way back over and rested his hands on the back of his chair, staring fixedly at nothing in particular. His demeanor was shockingly different from that of a few minutes ago, and the air in the room grew uneasy.
“Adam, did something happen?”
Instead of turning to answer his father, he looked at me – and suddenly I knew why Charlie had come. “So you tripped and hit your face,” his voice was soft but icy. “Was that before or after he pushed you?”
My only option was to tell the truth or try and bluff my way out; and with the threats of that afternoon still hanging in the air, I chose the second one. “W-What? Who are you talking about, Ad-”
“Don’t!” he broke in sharply, “lie to me.”
“Adam! What’s going on here?”
“Why don’t you ask her?” he answered Ben without taking his eyes from mine.
Everyone at the table turned to me, and I looked down at my clenched fists. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
There was a dry snort. “Sure you don’t.” He continued when I didn’t respond. “Charlie came to tell us that he’d seen a man coming out of the barn and ride away when he was riding back from the corral today. He was too far away to stop him but close enough to tell he was a stranger.” The room was silent as the realization of what he was saying sunk in. “He said he saw Evangeline come out a few minutes later and run into the house.”
“Who was he, Evangeline?”
“He was just a friend.”
“A friend!” Adam quipped. “One who likes to push you around?”
“He didn’t push me!” I snapped.
Surprise flashed across his face before being replaced with dark comprehension. “He hit you.”
The conversation was quickly approaching very dangerous territory. I rose from my seat and placed my napkin on the table. “Thank you for dinner, Mr. Cartwright,” I said with forced calmness, “it was delicious.” As I turned towards my room, Adam made a move to stop me, and I couldn’t stop a little cry from slipping out as he accidentally grabbed my bruised wrist.
By now, Joe and Hoss had started to rise and Ben was already on his feet, all watching wordlessly as Adam slid his grip from my wrist to my hand and slowly pushed back my sleeve. There was a sharp intake of breath as the blotchy handprint was revealed. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded.
I jerked my hand from his grasp and stepped back. “Because you wouldn’t understand.”
No one made a move to stop me as I went to my room and shut the door; my heart raced in my chest as I sat on the bed and held my head with shaking hands. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. For some reason I couldn’t understand, it mattered what the Cartwrights thought of me. I would’ve rather left with little or no word than to disappear while they suspected the worst.
But that couldn’t be helped now.
The sounds of a hushed discussion drifted in from the living room; their words were muted but I could tell they were arguing – no doubt about whether to kick me out now or to wait until morning. They could’ve saved their breath. Without stopping to pack any of the extra clothing I’d been given, I quietly opened the bedroom window and stole towards the barn.
A small chestnut stood calmly inside her stall, nickering softly as I approached and rubbed her sleek forehead. Penny was one of their extra riding horses – or so I remembered. Stealing a horse was bad no matter how you looked at it, but at least no one was depending on this one to get around.
Lighting a small lamp, I made my way over to the saddles. There were plenty piled around, but four lay neatly in a row across a wooden beam, the oiled leather shining even in the dim light. Even if their initials hadn’t been on them, it would still be obvious whom these belonged to. They were plain, but the quality was undeniable. After some rooting in the corner turned up a couple of old, dusty ones; I hauled one over to Penny praying that they hadn’t been put there because they were damaged.
Penny gave a small whinny as I slipped into the stall, huffing under the weight of the saddle. Under normal circumstances I could’ve carried it, but this past week had all but sapped my energy. I swung my arms up, the saddle just brushing the back of Penny’s back…
“Never took you for a horse thief.”
I jumped at the voice behind me, letting the saddle crash to the ground. It shouldn’t have surprised me that he’d know.
“I remembered you liked to climb out windows,” I heard him take a step closer, but refused to turn around. “Thought maybe after what happened at dinner tonight you’d try to leave without saying goodbye.” That last part was meant as a joke, but neither of us laughed.
The saddle sat at my feet, and I picked it up, determined not to let his words get to me. He was determined not to let me go. As I hefted its weight off the ground, he intercepted me, taking it from my hands and plunking it back on the rail with the good saddles. He stood there for a moment watching me, his arms folded over his chest, giving off every signal that I wasn’t going to leave without telling him something. “Where were you headed?” he asked finally.
“Just like that, then. Without any word of explanation as to why a man burned down one of our line shacks before coming to the ranch to attack you.”
Another mystery I should’ve expected he’d solve. My goose was now completely and thoroughly cooked. Unable to think of anything else to say, I resorted to the excuse I’d been using all my life. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Well so far you haven’t given me much to work with, so I’d say it’s not my fault. Now if you’d just tell me what’s going on-”
“I can’t, Adam!” I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing he and his sensible, convincing arguments would just disappear.
“You don’t have much of a choice anymore, Evie!” My eyes snapped back open at the sharpness that had crept into his voice. “The moment the safety of my family was affected was the moment you lost all say in the matter. Now you’re going to tell me who’s responsible so we can at least charge him with arson if not for assaulting you.”
He thought it was so simple. But after years of building up the thick walls, I’d almost forgotten how to tear them down. Trust had never been an easy thing to come by, and now, when it was almost demanded of me, it taunted me by just staying out of my reach.
“Just let us help you.”
Such sincerity; they had a natural predisposition to think the best of everyone – even if a person didn’t deserve it. When I looked at him, I could see it in his eyes. It made me want to take a chance. I could feel the words fighting to be free, causing almost physical pain. With a deep, shuddering breath, I gathered myself before letting go. “I-It was my stepfather.” The relief that burst forth from the admission was unexpected, albeit short lived. I was no longer on my own.
Adam looked stunned. He had, after all, grown up in a family that seemed in every way perfect. “You told us you had no family.”
I smiled bitterly. “He’s not family. He’s nothing more than the man that married my mother.” As I thought of it, I felt like I needed to explain, needed him to understand that Mama was a good woman forced into an unfortunate situation. “She only married him so we wouldn’t go hungry, but she never stopped loving Papa.”
“What did he want?” his voice was soft now, as if he didn’t want to frighten me.
Such a large question with such a simple answer. “To kill me.” Shivers rippled under my skin. I’d been so close to death. I sunk down to the straw, hugging my knees to my chest. Footsteps crunched and Adam slid down next to me. He didn’t say anything, but his presence was comforting as I dove head first into the past.
“We moved here from France when I was three. Papa wanted to find a job here – said it was a place where even the poorest had a chance. He made enough money doing odd jobs to rent us a room, but then one day he didn’t come home. Mama told me when I was older that he’d been killed in a riot outside one of the factories.
“So there we were, Mama barely knowing any English and me just a child, turned out on the streets of New York.” I closed my eyes as the most poignant memory I had surfaced. The sweet, French lullaby sung softly in her husky voice as she wiped away my tears of hunger and fear. The rough fabric of her dress pressed to my cheek as I hid my face in her bosom.
“She did everything she could to keep us safe. She’d wake up every morning, kiss me on the cheek, and tell me to stay hidden until she got back. Sometimes it was for only a few hours, but other times she’d be gone a day or two, but she never came back without something for me to eat. I was little; I never thought of how she’d gotten it, but looking back I can’t imagine what it must’ve cost her.
“Then one time she was gone for four days. I thought she was dead. But she came back, wearing a pretty new dress and a ring on her finger. She said we’d never have to go hungry again. That day we moved with Earl, my new stepfather, to the small town in Wisconsin he was mayor of. He wasn’t the nicest man, but he provided for us, and that’s all we could ask for.
I took in a painful breath. “That all changed when I was five. Mama was pregnant and he was so excited about having his own child. He had a new room built onto the house for the baby and was planning a party for the whole town…” At the memory of Mama’s swollen stomach and gaunt cheekbones I shook my head sadly. “Not a week before she was due, the baby died unexpectedly. A tiny baby boy. Doc said she couldn’t have any more children; she just wouldn’t survive.
“Earl was a different man after that,” I whispered. “It’s as if he blamed me for being born when his son couldn’t be. Mama tried her best to make him happy – but she couldn’t always be around…” There was no need to elaborate. I could tell Adam understood by the way his lips tightened into a thin line, his eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “He stopped hitting me as I got older. I think he was afraid I would tell someone…” My face bloomed red with shame and I could barely speak the truth. “But words can hurt just as much as an open hand.”
“His position as mayor made it possible for him to make sure that I didn’t have any friends. Everyone was told that I was an ungrateful problem child,” I laughed bitterly. “That I would corrupt the good moral character of the town kids. But when Mama died, that’s – that’s when I thought for sure he’d lost his mind. What was I to do, though? I was seventeen, a stranger in my own hometown with a stepfather bent on terrorizing me into submission. “I lived like that for three years.” That was almost unbelievable to me. It seemed like another lifetime ago, but altogether painfully fresh.
“Pat never believed any of it. From the very first day we met on the road into town, he was sweet and friendly, no matter how hard Earl tried to ruin it all. Three months later he asked me to marry him. I was scared because I knew it’d never be allowed, but Pat wouldn’t let that stop us. So we eloped. With Pat always on the move for his work, we thought we were safe.
Four years we traveled around the country in a wagon. Abbey was born with curls just like her Pa. I’ve never seen a happier child in my life.” Tears pricked the corners of my eyes and I bit my lip, trying to hold them back. I had to finish the story. “I-I told you the truth about coming here. Pat had heard that the Black Mountains were beautiful, perfect for painting.
We’d stopped by a little river to make camp for the night. After dinner, I went down to wash the dishes; I wasn’t gone more than two minutes before I heard a gunshot. B-By the time I got there, the wagon was in flames.” I gripped my dress to keep my hands from trembling. “E-Earl told me that he hadn’t seen Abbey in Pat’s arms when he shot him…but he hit them both.” Adam’s hand appeared on my arm, giving me strength to go on.
“I think he was hoping to burn the bodies, including mine,” I shuddered, “so if they were ever found people would think we’d all died in a fire. But I got away. He was waiting for me when I ran back, and when he grabbed me I used the nearest thing as a weapon. Hitting him in the face with a hot pan gave me enough time to run, a-and the rest you know.”
I couldn’t read the dark eyes that watched me as I finished, nor the tone of his voice when he asked me to tell him what happened that afternoon. “He threatened to come back and hurt your family if I-I was still here. That’s why I have to go.” I said as I finished relaying the scene in the barn. He remained thoughtfully quiet and I nervously awaited his verdict.
“If you leave,” he said finally, ” you’ll be completely unprotected. That won’t work.”
“We’ll get Roy out here first thing tomorrow morning and you can tell him what you told me.” He held up his hand as I began to protest. “Until then, I want you to promise me that you won’t leave the house unless you have one of us with you.”
It furthest thing possible from the reaction I’d been expecting. This family was unlike any I’d ever encountered. “A-Adam, I-” His jaw line hardened and I knew I was about to run into the classic Cartwright obstinacy that had kept me here two weeks after I’d initially planned on leaving. With a small sigh of defeat, I mumbled my consent.
“I just don’t understand why you didn’t tell us,” he said, seemingly a bit more relaxed now that he was sure I wouldn’t run off. “Why lie to cover him?”
I ran through a long list of reasons in my head before finally realizing they all came down to the same, basic thing. “I was scared that you would blame me for not doing more to stop him.”
A black brow rose. “You really think that?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Not now – but at the beginning I was afraid you wouldn’t understand.”
He sighed through his nose, probably at the dumb excuse that had once more come from my mouth. “I really think you’d be surprised, Evie, at how many people would understand…” there was a slight pause. “Including me,” he said softly.
The sadness that had been etched on his face for the past weeks had returned, but now it seemed much deeper. His eyes spoke that some unwelcome memory had returned at his words, a flicker of change across a granite smooth face. I didn’t know whether he was going to expand or just leave it at that subtle clue, but it seemed to me that he needed to talk about it as I had mine.
He rested his elbow on his knee, running his fingers through his hair as he studied the ground. I looked away because this moment somehow seemed private, but turned back again when he spoke suddenly.
“About two months ago,” his voice wavered slightly as he began. “Joe and I were in a small town called Eastgate for business. We finished up early, figured we might as well take a few days to relax before starting home again. Joe wanted to stay for a trial that would be happening in the next couple of days and me,” he gave a small smile, “I just wanted to get away by myself for a bit. We agreed to meet in three days at a place called Signal Rock.
“Well, it seems our business in town hadn’t gone quite as unnoticed as we thought. Some men from town heard us talking, followed me out of town, took my horse and the money from the sale, and left me stranded in the desert.” Anger clouded his brow. “They didn’t even give me a chance.”
His eyes lifted briefly from the ground to look at me. “You can imagine what a miracle I considered it when I stumbled across a camp out in the middle of nowhere.” He looked down again. “The man’s name was Kane, and we made an agreement that if I helped him in his mine for three days, he would let me borrow some supplies and his donkey to get back to civilization.
The fingers that were laced through his hair clenched until the knuckles turned white, his voice took on a brittle edge. “Three days came and went, right along with that nice veneer Kane wore. I found myself a slave to a man determined to strip me of my dignity – who wanted to make me an animal. I couldn’t get away from him. There came a point in time where I discovered that mine had been empty of anything valuable for years, and that that was something Kane had known all along.”
Goosebumps raced along my skin. How could one man treat another that way? One he didn’t even know?
“All I could think then – and still to this day – is ‘why?’ I wasn’t the only one who suffered. He had just as much chance of dying out there as I did.” I could tell this question still haunted him by the way he paused for a moment, his eyes faraway as if looking for the answer. When he spoke again, his voice was rough. “He made it clear that only one of us would survive. After working for him for two weeks, he put a gun on the ground between us and said we’d fight to the death. Whoever made it out alive could take their chances trying to get back to civilization.
“I nearly killed him. I wanted him to pay for what he’d done to me, but as my hands slowly squeezed the life from him,” he clenched his fist, as if reliving the moment, “I knew that he would win if I killed him. He would’ve succeeded in making me no more than an animal fighting for survival.” The tension in his shoulders had built up so much that I thought he would lash out at something, but finally he sighed and his shoulders slumped. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.
“When my family finally found me wandering in the desert dragging Kane behind me, he was already dead, and I wasn’t far behind.”
It all made sense now – the gaunt frame, the darkened eyes and skin, the moody silence. And yet, despite his personal pain, he’d still found the strength to reach out to me. There could be no doubt that Adam Cartwright was an extraordinary man.
“For the longest time I couldn’t tell my family what had happened.” He seemed to be speaking easier now that his story was over. “There was a stifling guilt that wouldn’t let go of me. It’s the same as what you just told me. I thought that it was somehow my fault; that I should’ve done more to stop him.”
“They don’t even compare, Adam! Anyone can see that Kane was just plain crazy!”
A ghost of a smile spread across his face. “And a man who tracks his stepdaughter and her family across the country years after she’s left just to extract some underserved vengeance isn’t? Really, Evie, did you think people would blame you for having an abusive stepfather? You did what you could under the given situation, and it is Earl’s fault, and Earl’s alone, that Pat and Abbey are dead.”
It wasn’t that simple. I opened my mouth to express my doubt, but Adam cut me off. “People like you and me and can’t understand evil, Evie. We can’t comprehend that some men are so depraved that they can hurt without instigation; that they simply terrorize because they feel it’s part of their nature. We have to look for a reason for these things that happen, and in our desperation, we end up blaming ourselves. It’s as if we think if we have somewhere to place the blame, we can have closure.”
I bit my lip. Everything he’d said made sense. I’d often caught myself wondering why these things happened to me. Why death seemed to follow me everywhere. I’d known Earl was a bad man, but thought that surely even he couldn’t be so cruel without a reason to act so. All blame had been placed accordingly – on my shoulders.
Could it really be that easy? Could years of pain and guilt be explained away so simply?
As the tears that ran down my cheeks slowly became less and less tainted, I knew it could. It would take time, but someday I would be healed.
The lamplight slowly dimmed and Adam tentatively put his around my shoulder. Together, we sat in the resounding quiet.
Lies are tricky things. A person might tell one because they find it necessary at the time, but it grows and grows like a prickly vine. Before you know it, you’re being strangled by your own monstrous creation and the only way out is to let someone come and hack away all your defenses. You’ll find that more often than not that that vine leaves you more scarred up than whatever loving punishment the truth might bring.
My lie had brought consequences that reached far beyond myself, Frank had died, the Cartwrights had lost a line shack, and now they had to take days away from their ranch in an effort to find a man who should’ve been dealt with a long time ago. The guilt was strong, and I undoubtedly felt terrible about what I’d done, but in the same way, I knew this was how guilt was supposed to feel – you were supposed to be able to see where you had gone wrong. In this, I was able to, unlike the guilt caused by living under Earl all of those years.
Now, it was finally, hopefully, going to end for good. A posse seven men strong was out looking for Earl, making him a wanted man, and my family would have justice.
I was supposed to stay close to the house until they found him, but I needed to see their graves again. I needed to be able to mourn in private without the funeral crowds around me.
Adam had flat out refused when I’d first asked, but finally relented given the condition that he could come along to protect me and that we wouldn’t be out very long.
So that’s how I found myself kneeling in front of Patrick’s grave, red rimmed eyes and dirt staining my dress, wanting to tell him the things I had learned. Adam respectfully stayed by the wagon, giving me the privacy I desired as I grieved.
“You’d be proud of me, Pat,” I whispered. “I told them. I let it go. He’s gonna pay for what he did. I-I miss you so much, darling.” I covered my mouth with my hand, trying to choke back a sob. “What am I going to without you and Abbey?” Hot tears now flowed freely from my eyes. “Where am I going to go?”
There was no response. There never would be.
The tears eventually ran themselves dry, and now in their place began the memories of a past life, drawing me closer to them than I’d been in a long time.
It wasn’t until the second cold drop landed on my upturned face that I opened my eyes and saw how dramatically the weather had changed in the last half hour. Dark clouds had rolled in, edging out most all of the sunshine; the pattering of drops soon multiplied into a light, steady rain.
“Evie! We better get going!”
Giving my husband and daughter’s graves one last goodbye, I got up and turned back to the wagon. I took three steps and then froze. There, behind an unsuspecting Adam, a figure stepped out of the forest; the glint of wet steel shone through the rain.
“A-Adam!” The scream caught in my throat, coming out a hoarse whisper.
He sensed the terror in my eyes and spun around, but Earl was already there. Adam’s hand shot out and caught Earl’s wrist, stopping the knife inches from his face, but his arm was at an awkward angle and he was quickly losing leverage. Earl continued to press him until Adam was almost bent over backwards, but with a growl, Adam shoved him away.
He reached for his gun. Earl tackled him at the knees, sending it skidding across the wet grass.
They rolled over and over, fighting for an advantage. Adam came out on top, delivering two swift punches to Earl’s head. Earl struggled underneath him, managing to throw him off and tackle him again with his knife raised.
My mind screamed at me to move as they continued to grapple. Something lay a few feet from me, catching my eye. The smooth metal of the revolver felt foreign in my hands, but I gripped it tightly. Bringing it straight up in the air, I closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger.
The blast resounded through the clearing. I opened my eyes to find Earl and Adam, frozen mid-punch, staring at me. With more control than I felt, I brought the gun down and aimed it at them.
In that moment, something took control of me. It was a different person. A person who could coldly hold a gun to the man who had made her life hell – a person who could pull the trigger. The hate that emanated from this new Evie scared me.
“Adam,” I said quietly, “up here by me.”
He got up stiffly and limped to my side, his clothes covered in a mixture of a brown and red but revealing nothing more than superficial injuries. Earl remained kneeling in the mud the knife held limply in his hand at his side. I couldn’t help but revel in the happy irony of the situation.
The tables had finally turned.
I aimed the gun right between his eyes, noticing that for once I couldn’t read them. I couldn’t tell whether they were taunting or scared. I didn’t think it hardly mattered.
Adam stepped closer to me, but I didn’t dare take my eyes from the bloodied face of my stepfather. “Evie,” he said softly. “Give me the gun.”
I ignored him. Earl deserved to die. My trigger finger twitched. I could kill him and know that I’d never have to see his ugly face again.
“Evie, think about what you’re doing.” His hand reached out, palm upward, stopping inches from mine. “Give me the gun.”
“No.” The word came through gritted teeth. “He took everything I had!”
“You pull that trigger and you’ll be letting him take even more.”
I blinked, resolve wavering slightly, then shook my head. I’d waited for this for too long.
“If you kill him, Evie, you’re letting him win.”
I shuddered as realization washed over me. The game wasn’t over till one of us was dead, and the only way I could beat him was to let him live. “You promise he’ll pay?” I whispered.
“I promise,” he said softly.
I tore my eyes from Earl’s and looked at the gun in my hand, dripping wet with rain. With a shaky sigh I lowered it into Adam’s outstretched hand.
I thought it was over, but I never should’ve lowered the gun.
Just as I placed it in his palm, Adam let out a strangled cry and swung it back up. Two shots rang out successively, but not before I felt something thump against my chest. I tasted copper. I looked down, dumbfounded, at the hilt of the knife that now jutted out to the left of my breastbone. My legs crumpled beneath me.
Adam’s face hovered over mine; his voice muffled beyond understanding. Arms wrapped around my shoulders, pulling my head from the ground as the darkness began to seep in. Soon, that’s all there was. I could no longer feel the rain falling or Adam’s hands holding me.
Then a soft light appeared, nothing but a pinprick at first, then growing and swiftly overtaking the dark. Two figures appeared, and I smiled in pure joy.
Abbey wiggled excitedly in her father’s arms as I approached. I gave her a swift kiss on the cheek before taking Pat’s hand and letting him lead us home.
The sun was shining; birds chirped from the green filled trees; the wind moved softly through the tall grass, but all was unnoticed by the silent, black clad figure that stood in the midst of it. The man’s eyes were fixed on the mound of freshly dug dirt before him and the new wooden cross that stood at the head of it. It was an exact replica of the two others beside it that had been erected no more than five days before.
Adam Cartwright knelt and placed the flowers that he’d brought at the foot of her grave – the grave of the girl who’d changed his life in a matter of weeks.
Some would’ve thought that that stony façade held little to no sadness, but had they truly known him, they would’ve noted the lines of grief etched around his eyes or the lips that pressed themselves into a thin, grim line. And to the most observant eye, they just might have noticed the beginnings of a subtle change that had started within and was now making its way to the surface.
He had been a hardened man, his experience in the desert with Kane leaving him embittered and alienated from those he loved. But his experience with her had changed that.
In the two days since they buried her, he’d been wrestling with the past. Her final moments – the words that he had spoken – haunted him.
“If you kill him, Evie, you’re letting him win.”
He’d seen the pain in her eyes; he knew that she could pull that trigger. But she hadn’t. She had beaten him.
Just like he’d beaten Kane….or at least that’s what he would’ve said if asked about that time in the desert. He’d beaten Kane; he’d proven he was the better man.
But now, now he knew he’d never won. The game was still going, and it would be for a long time. And he’d been letting Kane win.
Kane still haunted him, ruining his life by driving a wedge between him and his family, by taking away the enjoyment in things he’d once loved – by filling him with hate. It was something that Evie, if she had lived, would’ve experienced too.
Now, he’d just have to win it for the both of them.
He straightened up at the sound of his name, but didn’t turn around. His rigid posture seemed to relax slightly as his father placed his hand on his shoulder.
Neither spoke, neither knowing the words to say, until Adam quietly broke the silence. “She didn’t deserve to die like that; she should’ve had a second chance.”
Ben stared at the white crosses before them, searching for what words of comfort he could offer his son.
Somehow, without them even realizing it, a chapter in their lives had ended. As the page turned, the broken pieces left behind would find their way into this new beginning, mending – growing stronger – as time went by.
A little bird flew across their field of vision, circling around before lighting upon the cross. Ben watched as it cocked its brown head to and fro, flitting its wings. “She’s with the ones she loves again,” he said finally. “That’s the best second chance anyone could as for.”
A small smile found its way onto Adam’s lips. He gazed at the bird another moment, giving the hand on his shoulder a squeeze, before quietly taking his leave.
Yes, she has returned to those she loves, Ben thought, looking after him, and so has my son.
The bird watched him as he turned and left, then, without a sound, spread its wings and took flight.
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