Summary: Adam’s quest to find answers. Hunger follows the events in Choices and Shadows. It is not necessary to have read the previous stories.
Rated: T — WC 17,000
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
“Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you.
You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the Bastard Time.”
Joe talked about the hunger that haunted him ever since his encounter with Silas Wellencamp. And when he talked about it, it was ‘hunger’ with a capital ‘H.” His personification of that otherwise normal biological function at first mystified Adam.
Their father thought it might have had something to do with the survival reflex . . . that people will do whatever they have to do, go to whatever place is safe in their mind in order to survive. Since very often their captor is also the one on whom they depend, they find something else to blame for their circumstances. He had seen it before when he was in the militia and they rescued women and children held captive by Indians. When returned to society, they would blame intangible things for their lot in life . . . the government, bad luck, the seasons. It somehow was the only way their mind could handle the trauma of captivity and still hold on to their sanity.
The man that held Joe had lost his mind, of that Adam was certain. But what he did to Joe had been beyond crazy; it had been diabolical. Why he did it was a mystery. Pa and Hoss were focused on just getting Joe home and back to good physical health. Although they all thought that sleep, fresh air and lots to eat would not only put on the pounds but revive the spirit and restore the Joe they knew and loved, it soon became apparent it wasn’t all he needed.
Sweeping what had happened to Joe under the rug was not, in Adam’s opinion, the way to proceed. He and his Pa argued about it ad nauseum. Hoss was tired of their arguments and quickly retreated whenever he sensed they were about to go around again, usually upstairs to be with Joe or out the barn to tend the animals who didn’t yell.
Given his Pa’s reaction to his research on Wellencamp, Adam decided not to tell him he contacted a college mate who had studied Arthur Schopenhauer’s work. The information received did nothing to dispel the theory he had begun to assemble.
The more Adam read, the more he came to believe that Silas Wellencamp was completely deranged. He had turned the basic tenets of the philosopher’s position about free will into something evil. One could only guess what he had put his wife and children through.
It was with trepidation that he finally approached his Pa.
“I agreed to your investigation of that fiend and I’m grateful you found out his background, but I don’t want you to pursue this line any further, Adam. What purpose will it serve? Joe is recovering; he’s eating and sleeping. He’s back to work.”
“Pa, I know that. But I think you see what you want to see, not what is.”
“You can’t think that he is still . . . suicidal.”
Adam was silent. It wasn’t that he continued to think Joe would harm himself intentionally, but he was also not so naive as his Pa. True, Joe had made tremendous strides since his breakdown, but there was an undercurrent that Adam couldn’t put his finger on.
Joe had stopped writing in the journal every night so while he was out riding fence, Adam re-read it from cover to cover. He couldn’t identify the source of his discontent but it was there nonetheless.
The more he read, the more he considered the only way Joe would finally put this event behind him was if they returned to Placerville. Hoss wasn’t sure it was the right decision, but was willing to concede that—like getting back on a horse after a bad fall—it might be something Joe needed to do. Their father, on the other hand, was dead set against it. In his view, Joe’s progress was better than expected and they should leave well enough alone.
Ben either didn’t see, or intentionally ignored, the indecision that plagued Joe still. True, he was making choices, but there was always a split second hesitation every time which was atypical. Joe was a man of action. More than any of the Cartwright sons, Joe was the one to act first and consider the consequences later. He thrived on hunches and gut feelings. And now it was Adam’s gut feeling that all was far from right.
Adam had always believed that once Joe wrote down everything in his journal the next step would be to go to Placerville. He needed to confront the specter of Hunger in order to see that it was as insubstantial as fog. The mist could flow over and around him, but it couldn’t become him.
Hoss had been won over, but his father still needed to be convinced. True, he had taken Joe on the Grand Swing, as he liked to call it, but Joe had not been off the Ponderosa in over six months, not even to town. It was past time.
After dinner, over coffee, Adam broached the idea of a camping trip.
“So, what do you think? A little fishing, just the three of us?”
“Sounds good,” Hoss said. “What do you have in mind?”
“The South Fork in Coloma?”
Joe’s spoon froze in midair.
“Good idea. We haven’t fished the American River in what five, six years? Not since you come back from college.”
“What about it, Joe? Are you in?”
He said “Sure,” but little beads of sweat appeared on his upper lip and forehead.
As pre-arranged, Hoss’s bunions flared up causing him significant pain and he begged off the trip at the last minute. Ben wasn’t fooled and drew Adam aside forcefully restraining his arm in a vise-like grip.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” he whispered between clenched teeth.
“Sweeping the shadows away. Trust me, Pa. This trip will be a turning point for Joe.”
Ben looked long and hard at his eldest, but in the end relinquished his hold.
On the trail, Adam asked innocently, ““Have you ever heard of Arthur Schopenhauer?”
“Chopin? You mean the composer?”
“No,” Adam smiled, pulling his ear, “though I’m glad that you know something about classical music. Actually both Chopin and Schopenhauer were born in Poland, but Schopenhauer is a philosopher, not a composer.”
“Schopenhauer is very famous. His book Will and Representation is very well respected. It has to do with his view of free will or what man chooses.”
Joe blanched at the word “choose” but Adam continued. “I can’t even pretend that I’ve been able to put my arms around everything he espouses, but it seems one of his principles is that one obtains moral freedom only by a denial of the will to live.”
“What?” Joe rolled his eyes.
“I know. I know. But he’s not condoning suicide; he just disagrees with the way society views it. What he’s saying is that when a man destroys his existence as an individual, he is not destroying his will to live.”
“Come on, Adam. I know you well enough to know you’re trying to make a point here. What is it?”
“The point is, Joe, is that I’ve been trying to figure out what Wellencamp was thinking—”
“—Wellencamp?! Why do you care what that bastard thinks! “
“Joe, I believe it’s important to understand what he was doing.”
“Why? What does it matter? He’s dead and I’m here. What do I care?”
“I think you do care, Joe. I think you want to understand what happened to you; what made him do to you what he did. Understanding is the only way you’ll have peace.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed, but he let Adam continue.
“Wellencamp’s daughter committed suicide and he couldn’t accept that she would do such a thing. He latched on to this notion of free will and twisted it somehow. He became obsessed and evidently drove the rest of his family to the same end. He was crazy, Joe. Why he latched on to you we’ll never know. Mitch remembered seeing him in the Jackass Tavern the night you and he, Hank, Wes and Slim were there two years ago. That’s why they were targeted. It wasn’t anything you did, Joe.
“Whether it was good luck or circumstance, Mitch escaped because he was in St. Louis. Your choice—your selection of a card, Joe, was inconsequential. He had already murdered those people. Except Hattie; he didn’t kill her. He just used her accidental death to convince you he had power over your free will.”
When Joe wrapped his mind around what Adam shared, he asked more questions. This time Adam had the answers. Eventually, Joe was persuaded that visiting the site where he was held captive would dispel the lingering shadows, so after fishing the South Fork, that’s where they went.
Adam was surprised at Joe’s reaction when they arrived. The charred remains of the house that burned the night he was rescued had been cleared away. Aside from a footprint of blackened earth, the land had returned to its natural state, green grasses growing where once stood the hell house that imprisoned him. Only the barn—now abandoned—remained untouched.
Adam studied Joe closely, but the kid gave away nothing . . . No rancor, no rage, no curiosity, no emotion whatsoever. Nevertheless, there was a sense of disappointment about him. After a few minutes of toeing the dirt, Joe strode to the barn and looked inside, then walked the perimeter of the clearing. When he returned to where the horses were ground tied, he mounted and galloped towards Hangtown without saying a word.
Adam found his brother in the Jackass Tavern swilling beer at a back table, an empty shot glass nearby. As he stepped through the bat wing doors, a tall man in buckskins with wavy red hair was sauntering up to the table.
“Mite early for a beer and a bump,” the man said. “Especially for a wee bairn.”
“Mind your own business.”
“Ye are my business, sonny. I suggest ye finish that boilermaker and be on your way.”
“Is there a problem here, Gus?” Adam asked as he stepped around the lawman and pulled out a chair to sit down.
“You two know each other?” Joe’s bewilderment was clear.
“Joe, this is Aengus Mason, the Sheriff of Placerville. He and his deputies were with us the night we found you. I’m not surprised you didn’t recognize my brother, Gus. The last time you saw us he was a bit the worse for wear.”
“Aye. I dinna recognize ye, wee Joe.”
Joe sprayed beer. “Wee Joe?” he squeaked before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Aye? Yer family was callin’ ye wee Joe as I recall.”
“Little Joe,” Adam explained. “A nickname when he was younger.”
“Just Joe, thanks. In case you’re wonderin’.”
“Ach, I can sympathize with the names given to wee bairns. Hard to grow out of, that’s for certain. What brings ye back to Placerville?”
“A look at the Gray Lady.”
“Nothing to see.”
Joe’s eyes moved back and forth between the men as they volleyed. Why didn’t Adam just get it over with?
“How is Travis? Mary had the baby yet?”
“Aye. A lovely lass, too. Takes after her da.”
Adam chuckled. “I do recall Mary has a bit of a temper.”
“That she does.”
Joe couldn’t stand it any longer. “Is Wellencamp dead?”
Adam and Gus exchanged looks but neither moved to answer immediately. Based on their conversation, as cryptic as it was, it was obvious to Joe that the two had spent more time together than what was needed to rescue him.
“Why would you think otherwise?” Adam asked.
“I heard you.” Two sets of unblinking eyes bored into Joe. “When I was in the carriage . . . I heard you say there was no body found.”
Adam shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Damn Joe and those ears! Even half unconscious he was eavesdropping.
“Aye. There was no body found in the house.” Gus took the measure of the youngest Cartwright as he delivered that bit of news. The lad did not move, jaw jutting firmly outward. Adam was right; this wee one had grit. No wonder Wellencamp was taken with him. “But in the woods the following day, we found a body . . . charred.”
“So, you see, Joe. There’s nothing to worry about. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
Joe laughed bitterly. “You think I’m stupid, Adam? He said ‘a body.’ A charred body at that.” Joe turned to Gus. “How do you know it was Wellencamp?”
“Who else would it be?” Adam asked. “He lived alone. No known associates. His family was dead. Give it up, Joe. It’s over.”
Joe heard his brother’s words, but he was watching the sheriff. The man was inscrutable. He still stood, one foot casually placed on the seat of the chair, an elbow resting on his knee, his fingers laced loosely together. Gus had placed himself in the corner of the room, his back to the wall. From where he stood, he could see the whole tavern and Joe had no doubt—although he appeared relaxed and noncommittal—that he was prepared to react in an instant to any unwarranted move or disturbance that might erupt in the saloon. This man missed nothing.
And he knew more than he was telling.
There were no demons in Coloma for Joe to exorcise because he had no memories of being there, only of being hot and hungry and of the choices he had been forced to make. Adam doubted now whether he would ever be able to help Joe sweep the shadows away for the very reason that they were insubstantial and ethereal. Kane was a physical being, a tangible force with whom he had had lengthy conversations—which, unfortunately, he remembered all too clearly. In some ways, he envied Joe the incorporeal nature of his shadowed nemesis.
Adam understood now how Hoss had felt when he couldn’t track Joe. “I’m sorry, Pa. I done failed ya. I’m just so sorry.”
Failure. It wasn’t something Adam had a lot of experience with; not that it didn’t often take several—many, in fact—tries to succeed, but succeed he usually did in one form or another. He knew his father wouldn’t think any less of him and would thank him for trying. Even Joe would thank him.
Adam stole a sideward glance at Joe who still stuck to him like glue but hadn’t said more than a few words since they’d broken camp that morning.
Thanks wasn’t enough. He had promised his father a turning point and failed to deliver.
Unless . . .
“Come on. I want to show you something.”
Instead of continuing on the main road to Genoa, they turned toward the lake and Joe expected they were headed up to the promontory where his mother was buried. Instead, Adam followed the shore further north then suddenly took a sharp turn and started climbing. After a time, he said, “single file,” and took the lead by urging Sport ahead of Cochise.
“This path is a dead end, Adam. I’ve tried it before.”
Adam twisted in the saddle to gaze at his brother but only smiled, jerked his head to the right, and kept moving forward.
Joe shrugged and mumbled something that caused Adam to look over his shoulder.
“You think I’m an enigma? Isn’t that a little like the pot calling the kettle black?”
Actually, Joe had said ‘ignoramus,’ but if Adam chose to hear another word then who was he to contradict his elders. That thought made Joe laugh out loud causing Adam to twist in his saddle once again, but this time he stopped.
“No. Just thinking.”
“You puzzle me Adam.”
It was Adam’s turn to laugh. It was a genuine, deep laugh; one that Joe had not heard often in the last few years. His brother had always been serious, intense, but he could be fun, too, especially years ago when he told bedtime stories and acted out all the parts; or when he orchestrated the makeover of a shrewish woman.
“Where are we going?” Joe asked.
They climbed for a while longer, twisting and turning through the pines. If Adam hadn’t been leading, Joe wasn’t sure he would have ever noticed this trail—if you could call it that—much less followed it. After about a half hour their progress was halted when they came around a bend and were confronted with a large rock formation that blocked their path. It was a massive piece of granite with fissures and cracks.
“Watch your head here.” Adam instructed. He lay flat along Sport’s neck, moved towards the right where there was nothing but air—or so it seemed—and disappeared through the crack as if by magic.
“What the . . . !”
“Just do as I did and come along, Joe. No dilly dallying.” Adam’s voice sounded hollow.
Was this a cave?
Cochise was nervous and started to back up, but Joe patted his neck. “Come on, Cooch. You’re not going to let Sport have all the fun, are you?” As if he could hear him, Sport whinnied. Comforted by the sound of his stable mate and the caress of his trusted rider, the paint stepped surefooted through the narrow opening.
When Joe opened his eyes, he was on a wider portion of the trail looking out over a small but magnificent meadow, its grasses rippling in the wind, surrounded by majestic mountains that rose straight up to the sky. He gasped audibly.
“This is amazing!”
“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Adam kicked Sport into a gallop and sped down the gentle slope into the open field. It only took a second for Joe to snap out of it and urge Cochise to follow. The brothers rode hard, laughing as they went. Joe took the lead, grinning back at his brother, and then Adam surged forward. They changed position frequently, one or the other whooping it up, hat in hand as they zigged and zagged across the meadow.
Adam couldn’t remember the last time he and Joe had raced like this. It was good to see his brother happy, riding like the wind, free from the terror and uncertainty of the last year. Up ahead was a fallen tree which he easily sailed over, Joe and Cochise following suit. Circling a copse of oaks, Adam finally slowed Sport to an easy walk, allowing both horses to cool down.
“How did you find this place, Adam?
“Look over there,” Adam pointed to the base of the purple mountain where wild mustangs were grazing. The brothers watched for several minutes before Adam turned Sport around and headed towards a small stream Joe hadn’t noticed previously. In a grove of quaking aspens, Adam dismounted and removed Sport’s saddle and tack. Joe did the same for Cochise and they let the horses water and graze while they walked a spell.
Joe didn’t know where they were going, but he felt good—free for the first time in a long time. The sun was warm on his face and a gentle breeze ruffled his hair when he took off his hat. The brothers ambled along the meandering stream for a while without saying anything, just enjoying the day, the scent of grass, the buzz of cicadas. He pointed to a hawk soaring overhead and together they watched as it rose and fell on the air currents. For a long time it just hovered in one spot, held in place by an invisible force, then dove at an incredible speed straight toward the ground, its wings pinned back by the wind.
“Do you remember when you were young and I read to you about the adventures of Marco Polo?” Adam asked.
“Sure.” Joe screwed his face up. “In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree . . . that’s all I remember.”
“That’s Coleridge’s poem which he based on the writings of Marco Polo:
‘Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of animals which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his hawks.’
That’s what I call it.”
“This place.” Adam smiled again and then pointed straight ahead. “Xanadu.”
Before them was a cabin of sorts, but like nothing Joe had ever seen before. It was low and sleek, a meld of stone and timber, blending in to the cliff as if it were a part of the outcrop and in perfect harmony with its magnificent setting.
“What is this, then, your pleasure dome?” Joe laughed.
“Well, it’s not made of marble and there are no gilded birds and animals, but I did build it.” Adam unlocked the door and held his arm out toward, palm up, inviting his brother to explore the interior.
Joe stared at Adam for a moment, then handed him his hat and entered alone.
The inside was plain, but elegant somehow. Simple furnishings, but each piece had intricate details carved into the woodwork. A fireplace made of river rock took up most of the northern wall. It was not unlike the one at home only it was of a scale to fit this structure.
Joe immediately noticed the functionality of the front room and as his eyes adjusted to the reduced light, he saw much more. Despite Adam’s protest that there were no gilded animals or birds, there were finely carved moldings where the walls met the ceiling; built-in furniture—a table that was hinged to the wall and could be dropped down to make more room if needed; an oiled oak cabinet that appeared to offer both storage for canned goods and dishes, as well as a work surface where simple pots and pans were stacked. Next to it was a sink and small wood stove for cooking. On the opposite side of the room was a drafting table covered with papers and a bin next to it filled with rolls of what Joe took to be blueprints.
There was an arched opening on the right side of the fireplace and Joe walked through it to discover that the fireplace had a second hearth and the area on the back side was furnished as a bedroom. A solid, substantial and beautifully carved bedstead took up most of the room, but there was a small seating area in front of the fireplace on this side that replicated the one on the other. Lining the walls of the bedroom were bookshelves filled with volumes and mementos; Hoss’s animal carvings, pictures of their father and Adam’s mother and of Inger and Marie, a small engraving of a sailing ship. Adam’s room on the Ponderosa was organized, tidy and somewhat spartan. But this . . . this space was almost cluttered yet far more intimate in its chaos than Joe thought possible. Adam’s sanctuary.
Joe felt like an intruder in the sacred space and was backing up to leave when he bumped into the bed. Running his hands over the carved wood foot rail, and around the newels, his brows knitted together as he searched his memory for the source of familiarity. He continued to trace the finely-polished grooves and ridges in the wood until it came to him where he had seen the pattern before . . . on the cradle Adam had made as a wedding present when he announced his intention to marry Laura White.
Laura had chosen a life with Joe, her childhood sweetheart, over a life with her father, much to her father’s dismay and anger. Unbeknownst to Laura or Joe, her days were numbered and the choice as to whom she would marry and when was ultimately immaterial to the destiny that awaited her. When she died in his arms, Joe had been consumed with guilt and regret. If only they had not gotten caught in the rain; if only he had gone to her immediately after they heard the news about her fatal condition; if only she had not run all the way to the cabin; if only . . . . The cradle now sat shrouded in the attic at the ranch house; unused but not forgotten that it was meant to hold his child.
Was this why Adam asked me to come here, to this cabin, to understand that even back then I was making poor choices?
Joe hung his head in despair. It was useless to ask questions that had no answers, but he looked to the heavens nevertheless. It was then that he saw the hand-carved plaque on the wall. “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”
Overcome with remorse, Joe sank to his knees with a cry.
At first Adam waited calmly for his brother to explore the cabin on his own, but when there was no sound forthcoming, no question, no protest, no laughter . . . nothing, he reluctantly acknowledged that he cared more deeply about what Joe thought than he had anticipated. His patience exhausted and figuring his brother had had enough time to explore, Adam decided to investigate what was taking so long. All was silent when he crossed the threshold but then he heard a gut-wrenching cry. Joe was not in the front room which meant he could only be one place. In three steps he rushed through the archway to the back room and was alarmed to see Joe kneeling on the floor, his forehead pressed into his hands which were gripping the footrail of the bed.
Adam knelt beside his brother, placing a hand on his shoulders.
“Why Adam?” Joe slapped away the hand and turned toward his brother—not with anguish but with anger. “Why did you bring me here? You’ve been working so hard to convince me that the nightmare was over and that I had to move on. Yet all you did was remind me Silas was right . . . I’ve made wrong choices my whole life.”
“No, Joe. No!” Adam tried to take hold of his brother again, but Joe was already on his feet and pushed Adam to the floor as he swept past on his way through the arch. Adam rolled quickly, grabbing Joe’s ankle, causing him to stumble. Joe’s face hit the archway hard, but the wall had broken his fall forward and he was able to pivot on the other foot launching himself at Adam with a growl.
The brothers wrestled, tumbling over the bed and onto the other side, knocking books off the nightstand and shelves. Still concerned about his brother’s physical condition, Adam restrained himself from all out warfare, but after two of Joe’s wicked left hooks connected with his jaw and he felt the taut and well-developed muscles rippling beneath the bear hug he tried in order to pin Joe’s arms, Adam knew he was engaged in a no-holds barred fight to the finish.
They continued to battle their way through to the front room, out the door and into the meadow. In the beginning, Joe gave better than he got not only because he was angry at Adam, but also because he was, in his mind, fighting the Shadow as well. However, his stamina ebbed sooner than expected and he began throwing wild punches, flinging his arms, failing to keep his elbows in—everything Adam and Hoss had taught him not to do.
Older brother sensed immediately that the kid was beginning to tire. Overcoming the urge to beat the pulp out of him for the unprovoked attack, he exerted significant restraint so as not to hurt Joe. At last they were both lying on the ground, exhausted. Adam recovered first and staggered back into the cabin to get water and check the damage.
His mouth was bleeding, although he didn’t think any teeth had loosened. One eye was bruised and already turning black and his jaw was barely working. He felt his ribs and decided nothing was broken although he thought it advisable to bind them nonetheless. Adam ripped a clean cloth from the cupboard into strips and then wrapped his chest carefully, tying the ends in a knot. The remaining strips were placed in a bowl of water to which he added some witch hazel.
After doctoring himself, Adam carried the bowl, towels, some salve, and a bottle of liquor outside and sank into the grass beside his brother who was still unconscious. Adam remove a cloth from the bowl, wrung it out and began wiping Joe’s face gently blotting the eyebrow which was always the first to bleed. If I had a dollar for every time this eyebrow has opened up, I would be a wealthy man.
Under his brother’s ministrations, Joe’s eyes fluttered. He slowly bent his knees and rolled to his side groaning.
“Welcome back, kid.”
“Who ya callin’ a kid, old man?” he said as he sat up. The action brought on a wave of nausea which fortunately passed.
“Here.” Adam held out the bottle.
“You tryin’ ta get me drunk?”
“Purely medicinal. Go ahead, take a swig; it will help.”
The look Joe gave Adam was skeptical, but he took the bottle and swallowed, choking at the strength. It was Pa’s good stuff, not pulque. Coughing, he handed the bottle back and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Ow, that hurts.”
“Let me see.” Adam scooted over to examine his brother closer.
“You’re all right.”
“What do you know . . . you can’t even see.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about. Help me here, Joe. Why are you so angry?”
Adam looked hard at his brother, his narrowed eyes had turned a steely grey green and were piercing in their intensity. He was breathing hard, almost panting and his jaw was clenched shut, his lips in a thin line. Adam was shocked at how old Joe looked in that instant; old and worn down; older than their pa; older than time itself—and for a moment time stood still. Is that grey in Joe’s hair?
Eventually, Joe blinked and focused on something unseen—a distant memory perhaps, painful enough in its intensity to fill his eyes with tears at the mere recollection.
“What? Do you remember something? Something to do with Silas?”
Joe hung his head, but there was a slight shake. “No. You.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“I told you. To show you . . . this place, this meadow, the cabin. I thought you’d like to see it.”
“Why?” Before Adam could answer, Joe went on. “Does Pa know about this?”
“Hoss?” The look on Adam’s face told Joe he hadn’t.”
“So I’m the only one you saw fit to ‘share’ this place with? Why? Is there another lesson here for me to absorb? Some pearl of wisdom from the all mighty Saint Adam cast before swine?”
“That’s uncalled for AND unfair.”
“Is it? You’re so much better than me. Mr. Perfect. Never makes a wrong move. Always chooses right—”
“Enough!” Adam growled.
“Damn straight it’s enough. I’ve had enough . . . enough of you! You’ve been lecturing me for months, giving me the benefit of your years of experience and all mighty higher education. Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer . . . what a crock of shit that was. You want me to get over it; why don’t you get over it? You’re more obsessed with what happened to me than I am. Who’s spooked by Shadows now, huh? Oh that’s right. . He’s dead, but there’s no body. Ha! Get it? No body. Nobody. So what’s to worry about . . . nothing . . . nothing but shadows wherever I go.” And with that Joe pivoted on his heel and ran.
“Joe!” Adam sprinted after him but pulled up short when he couldn’t get his breath. All he could do was bend over, his hands on his knees. Only Joe could elevate his blood pressure this way.
Get yourself under control. Think, Adam. He was fine on the trip up. Cautious, but not worried; following without question. It wasn’t the climb or the pass through the cliff, or the meadow. No, he loved the meadow and the horses. He hasn’t ridden with such abandon in nearly a year.
Calmer now, Adam straightened up and walked down toward the stream where they had left the horses. Sure enough Cochise was gone. Adam scanned the meadow for the mustangs, but they were gone, too. A soft whinny brought him back to the present and Adam absentmindedly stroked the horse’s sleek neck. “No, Sport. I’ll not chase him. Not this time.” Yet he remained transfixed, watching for movement where there was none. Reluctantly, Adam slid down the slight bank to the stream. After soaking his handkerchief in the cool water, he wrung it out, wiped the sweat from the back of his neck and then held the cold cloth to the right side of his jaw. Damn, that kid can hit! Gazing at the cabin from a distance, he pondered the reason for his brother’s anger. Could it be the cabin? No. He admired the design; commented favorably on the workmanship; noticed details I didn’t think he would. The fact that I built it at all? Maybe. What would that signify to him? That I wanted some privacy; a place to call my own? Would he find that so strange? No. He of all people would understand; he’s gone off by himself often enough. Something in the cabin then. Possibly. How does his mind work? THINK! I’ve read his journal. He’s all over the place, personifying inanimate objects . . . shadows . . . hunger, attaching more meaning to them than warranted. What was it I said to him just last week? Sometimes a rock is just a rock, Joe, don’t make it out to be more than that. Well, this rock has become a mountain.
Adam shook his head and began the slow walk back. With each step he thought through again Joe’s movements from the time they arrived until he heard that guttural scream. By the time he reached the cabin he had eliminated everything except the contents of the cabin, but he was no closer to solving the mystery of what had set Joe off. The blueprints? No, he’s seen blueprints before. What else is in there? Not much . . . benches, a bed, a cupboard, books, pictures, a miniature oil portrait of my parents on their wedding day.
Once again he stopped and surveyed the meadow. Still nothing, but he suddenly became aware of lengthening shadows as the sun disappeared behind the western cliff face. He was surprised by how much time had passed and cursed mildly at having let things get so out of control. He hadn’t planned on coming here today and brought no provisions. With luck there might be some canned goods in the cupboard but he knew the pickings would be slim since he hadn’t restocked from the last extended stay. A stronger curse escaped his lips as he trudged on towards the cabin.
When he looked up, he had another surprise coming. Cochise was ground tied near the trees and there was smoke coming from the chimney. And meat . . . he smelled roasting meat.
Joe was sitting in the dirt next to the door leaning against the rock foundation. His left eye was swollen shut and he was sporting a bruise the size of the Ponderosa on his right cheek where it had smacked into the wall. Between his legs was the bottle of brandy . . . half empty.
“S’down,” he slurred a bit. “I’d say pull up a chair but Mr. Perfect failed to build one or two . . . much less a porch to put them on.”
“Are we going to go there again? If so, you can get back on your horse and—”
“—and what? What do you want me to do, Adam?”
“I want you to tell me what spooked you earlier . . . and don’t give me any double talk about shadows.”
Joe pulled a long swallow from the bottle and handed it to his brother. “Wasn’t the shadow of anything. Was just the truth.”
“Joe, I don’t know what I’ve done to upset you so please tell me; let me try to make it right, whatever it is.” It was getting hard to see his brother’s face in the twilight but somehow he knew what would be written across it if he could . . . regret.
“Meat’s done,” was all Joe said as he rose stiffly and went inside.
The men moved a bit slow due to their injuries but with an efficiency born of repetition that comes from years spent together sharing chores. Adam set the table while Joe plated the roasted rabbit which he had prepared in a sauce with wild mushrooms and onions. He set a bowl of rice on the table and sat down on one of the benches Adam had drawn up.
“This is delicious. When did you learn to cook like this?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Hop Sing over the last six months. You pick up a thing or two.”
“What’s in the sauce?”
“Herbs . . . and brandy.”
Adam snorted. “Pa’d have a fit if he knew you used his best brandy on game.”
“To Pa,” Joe picked up the bottle and took a swig, passing it to Adam.
“To Pa, long may he live!”
“Long may I live if he finds out,” said Joe.
“Your secrets are safe with me.”
That seemed to sober Joe a bit. “Are they, Adam?”
“Are they what?”
“My secrets . . . are they safe with you?”
“Do you mean do I tell Pa everything?”
“You know I don’t . . . not unless you’re in danger.”
Joe’s response was to drink some more brandy, but he never looked away.
“Are you in danger, Joe?”
“Nah, I’m fine. You worry too much, big brother,” he said, slapping Adam’s back as he left the cabin to attend to nature’s call.
When Joe returned, Adam was putting the dishes in a bucket to be washed.
“I’ll do that.”
“No. You cooked; I’ll clean up. Why don’t you start a fire?”
Adam took a lantern and the bucket of dishes down to the stream along with their canteens. When the domestic chores were done, he fed and watered the horses then tied them to a picket line for the night and walked back to the cabin.
After the fire caught, Joe went over to the drafting table curious as to what Adam was up to. On the drawing board were several blueprints for houses all lettered in Adam’s immaculate hand. Like the cabin, the structures were both grand in scope and simple in design. Again, there was an elegance about them. As Joe flipped through the pages, he became aware of Adam leaning in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest.
“Is this Stick Work?”
Adam crossed over to Joe to see which design he was looking at. “Yes,” he said, his surprise evident but unspoken. How did Joe know that?
Joe turned to the next blueprint. “And Gothic Revival?”
“Yes.” Unable to contain his curiosity any further, Adam asked, “How do you know about these styles, Joe?”
“I pay attention.” Seeing Adam’s eyebrow go up, Joe elaborated. “You like architecture; I wanted to know more about what was important to you, so I read some of your books.” The look on Adam’s face was one of disbelief. “Is that so hard to understand?”
“You never cease to amaze me, Joe. You read dime novels but can recite Coleridge; you eat liverwurst and pickle sandwiches but put together a delicious meal with practically nothing; your command of the English language is sometimes crude but you understand Cantonese.”
“You’re a dichotomy.”
Ignoring him, Joe headed for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To get my gear. I’ll sleep outside.”
“You’ll do no such thing. The bed’s big enough for two.”
“Just leave it be, Adam,” Joe said, closing the door behind him on the way out.
Despite the lack of light in the cabin, Adam awoke an hour before sunrise as was his custom. The lamp in the front room had been left burning low to provide Joe with a point of reference should it be needed. He had slept in his clothes because he was too sore to undress, plus he hadn’t wanted Joe to know about his bruised ribs. Kid was feeling guilty enough as it was for jumping him without reminding him of the damage he had caused. Of course, he was feeling pretty guilty himself with Joe sleeping outside on the ground. Why wouldn’t he sleep in here? It’s not as if we haven’t shared a bed before.
The thought of pulling on his boots was a bit too painful to consider without a cup of coffee so he padded to the front room in his stocking feet to light the cook stove. He opened the chimney damper and placed crumpled up newspaper into the firebox along with a piece of kindling before striking a match. The newspaper caught immediately so he added more kindling and opened the air intake to get the fire going.
The beans he had soaked overnight were plumped and ready. Once the flames were hot enough, he put the pot on the stove top and adjusted the air intake until the beans were simmering. Coffee was next. Adam checked the nearly-bare cupboard and there was just enough Arbuckle’s. There was also one can of peaches left so he opened it and split the contents between two plates.
By the time he washed up, dawn had broken and the coffee was ready. He filled two mugs and carried one out to where his brother was sleeping near the horses in the grove of aspens. With a perverse sense of justice, he waived the coffee under Cochise’s nose, then left the mug on the ground near Joe and stepped back into the cabin. Sure enough, the whinnying started as soon as he walked away.
“Dadburnit, Cochise! Wait just a dang minute!”
Adam chuckled to himself and went to check on the beans. Serves him right.
By the time Joe walked into the kitchen, the food was on the table.
“Very funny,” he growled. Joe in the early morning was not a pleasant prospect. Joe in the early morning without coffee was a nightmare. Adam remedied the situation by handing his brother another mug, pointing at the table and saying, “Eat.”
“It’s too early to eat. The sun’s not even up.”
“It is. Eat.”
The beans weren’t as good as Joe’s rabbit stew, but they were passable; they at least equaled brother Hoss’s best effort and definitely surpassed their Pa’s beans.
Joe rubbed his hands over his face and winced. “Ow!”
“Watch your eye.”
“Why do I feel like a thousand men just walked over me?”
“Could be the brandy or the fist fight or sleeping on the ground or—”
“—any number of reasons. I know, I know,” Joe groaned, all too familiar with the usual brotherly chastisements that accompanied the morning after.
“We need to get a move on. Pa was expecting us home last night and he’ll be wondering where we got to,” Adam warned.
“You really have never told him about this place?”
“Well, I know that,” Joe said indignantly. “It’s not like he’s going to take away your toy for misbehaving.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Grrrr.” At that, Joe got up from the table and went outside, presumably to do his business, but when the kid didn’t return, Adam got worried.
“Joe?” he called. No answer. “Joe!” Still no answer. “Confound it!” Adam pulled on his boots and went in search of his brother. He didn’t have far to go. Joe had crawled back into his bedroll and was sound asleep.
By eight o’clock, Joe was awake again and in a more pleasant mood. Adam had cleaned up the breakfast dishes and was readying the cabin for departure.
“Any more coffee?”
“No, but there’s spring water in the jug. Help yourself. I’ve already filled the canteens.”
While Adam went about stocking the wood bin with dry logs and laying crumpled newspaper and kindling in the grate, Joe drank straight from the jug and left it to dry upside down on the drain board.
“So where is it?”
“The trap door.”
Adam turned to look at him but resumed his task.
“Don’t tell me you built this cabin without a secret passage,” Joe asked undeterred.
“You’ve been reading too many dime novels.”
“Pa taught us to always leave an opening. I can’t believe you’d build yourself into the side of a mountain without some plan for escape.”
Adam finished with the fireplace and stood up laughing. “It’s behind the headboard. The cabin’s built in front of a small cave which leads to a tunnel that comes out above the waterfall.”
“There’s a waterfall?”
“And a hot spring.”
Joe whistled. “You weren’t kidding when you said ‘pleasure dome.’”
Adam laughed again and put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get going before Pa sends out a search party.” He closed and locked the door and then put the key under a rock near the corner foundation.
“I know why,” Joe said after they set out. For some reason it was so much easier to talk riding side by side, not looking at each other, not being affected by what was in the other person’s eyes or the look on their face, just listening.
“Why you brought me here.”
“I told you, Joe. I had no ulterior purpose. I only thought you would enjoy it.”
“Xanadu. You did, didn’t you?”
“Sure. But that’s not why.”
“All right. Why did I then?”
There was silence for a bit before Joe said matter-of-factly, without emotion, “You’re leaving.”
“Not this again,” Adam started.
“I don’t mean on a business trip,” Joe said, a little sadly. “You’re leaving for good and you’re never coming back.”
Adam frowned but his voice betrayed no emotion. “What makes you think that?”
“The words on that plank above your bed—’Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.’ At first I thought you put those words there for me to see; meant to point out all my shortcomings and wrong decisions. I thought you were trying to get across yet another lesson about the choices I’d made. When I saw the carving on the foot rail of the bed, felt it with my fingers, I knew it was the same design you had carved into the cradle—”
“—cradle?” Adam interrupted.
“The one you made for me and Laura White as a wedding present.” Joe saw confusion on Adam’s face. Had he really forgotten?
It took a moment of reflection, but Adam nodded. “I’ve replicated that design many times since college. It was one I saw in New England in an antique store. Its graceful yet intricate at the same time. Hard to explain. I didn’t recall I’d used it on the cradle for you and Laura.”
“She loved it; we both did. When I recognized the design, it brought back so many memories; so many emotions. Just feeling that wood, all I could think of was all the bad decisions that led to her death. But most of all, I thought about the child that might have been and never was. Never would be. And that’s what you heard; the sound of my heart being ripped open once again.”
Sport responded to a tug on the reins and stopped, but Cochise kept walking, his head hung low as if he could read the emotional state of his rider.
Adam didn’t know what to say. This was not what he expected to hear and he had no rejoinder planned. He needed a moment to pull his thoughts together and was about to say something—anything—just to buy some time, but Joe continued.
“I’m sorry I hit you, Adam. It wasn’t you I was fighting. It was . . . everything. Not just the last year, but all the ‘it might have beens in my life. It hurt; the loss of not just Laura and all our dreams of a life together, but all the others, too. All the women I’ve loved and lost, whether it was my choice or not.”
“I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean for you to fall into the wall. I was just trying to stop you from running away.”
“And I did what you expected; I ran away. But while I was running I started thinking about those words and what they meant and I realized you were just a convenient target. It was easier to rage at you than accept responsibility for my part in what’s happened to me. So I came back.”
The horses walked sedately, in tune with the low hum of conversation and no more anxious today to run than their riders were.
“What do the words mean to you?” Adam asked finally.
They continued in silence for a time. Adam could almost hear the wheels turning in Joe’s head, wondering if he could trust his secrets to his older brother.
“The words aren’t about regret for choices made that don’t turn out the way we’d planned.” Joe looked sideways, to see Adam’s reaction, but there was none.
“Go on,” was all his brother said.
Joe took a deep breath and proceeded. “They’re about missing the chance to make a choice . . . of any kind—right or wrong. That is ultimately the saddest thing; making no choice at all.”
Joe pulled up on the reins and turned Cochise around so he was facing Adam. “I think you brought me here to bear witness to what you had built, to show me Xanadu, yes, but more than that . . . to show me your designs because you wanted . . . because you needed someone to tell you to take a chance on making them real. What was that Latin word Abigail Jones was always spouting?”
“Carpe diem. Seize the day.”
“Yeah,” Joe held Adam’s gaze, “You needed me to tell you it’s time for you to seize the day and live your life.”
“I am living my life,” Adam protested.
“No,” Joe said firmly. “You’re not. You’re living the life Pa chose for you.”
“He didn’t choose; I came back here after college of my own volition.”
“True, but you have stayed long after you wanted to go.”
Adam shook his head. “That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? Are you really staying here because you want to? Or is it because you think it’s what we expect? If I recall, you asked Laura Dayton to marry you because you thought it was what was expected. Weren’t you secretly relieved when Laura and Cousin Will absolved you of that choice?”
“Watch it!” Adam warned.
Joe held up a hand in peace. “I’m not trying to start another fight, Adam. You asked what the words meant to me. And I’m telling you what I saw in that cabin. You’re always talking about having epiphanies about stuff. Well, that’s the epiphany I had . . . understanding what I saw and what those words represented.”
“And what was that exactly?”
“Hunger. With a capital H.”
Adam continued to stare at Joe, his arm crossed over the pommel. “Personification again?” he said with a touch of sarcasm.
“Yes,” Joe replied. Cochise sensed the change in his rider and became antsy, dancing around Sport, who remained stock still. Joe didn’t try to rein the paint in, instead letting his horse circle not once, but twice. When he had come around for the second time, Joe again looked his brother full in the face.
“The Hunger that gnawed at me while I was captive had a name; let’s call it Desire. Desire to save my family. Your Hunger has a name, too. I think Discontent is its name. When did that start, Adam? How long has the Hunger of Discontent been gnawing at you? How long has the Discontent been growing inside you?
“No, it’s not. When did it start, huh? Has it always been there or was something—what was the word you used—oh, yeah—the ‘genesis’ of the Hunger. Was it when you started building that house for your Laura’s wedding present? Was it the act of designing the house that unleashed the Hunger in you? Or was it after she dumped you for Cousin Will? You started building this cabin after they left, didn’t you? You couldn’t climb ladders anymore after you fell while lifting those rafter beams so you started building something low and sleek. Were you using innovative designs and materials to feed the Hunger inside you? All those sketches and blueprints . . . were they the sugar that sweetened the meal?”
Joe saw the barely-restrained anger in his brother’s eyes, the locked jaw, the balled fists. No doubt his tongue is nearly chewed off by now. Regardless, Joe had come this far and knew he had to finish what he started because he might never have the chance again.
“The only way you’ll satisfy the Hunger, Adam, is to feed it.”
Now Sport was restless as Adam’s legs gripped the steed in an effort to contain his temper which was rising. “And what—in your infinite wisdom—would I feed it with, pray tell,” he seethed.
“Go be an architect if that’s what you want! Or travel. Go with Sam Clemens to Europe like he asked you to.” Joe saw the flicker of surprise cross Adam’s face. “Yes, I know about the invitation. I know you turned it down because of me.”
“It wasn’t you. I didn’t want to go.”
“Oh, really? Then how come you started pouring over all those travel books and reading up on Italianate Houses, French and German Colonials, and Greek Revivals? You’re Hungry, Adam. Go to Boston, or Chicago, or London . . . or Timbuktu for that matter. Just go somewhere and be what you were meant to be.”
“I can’t leave, I promised—”
“Bull. You can and we won’t stop you. Pa, Hoss, me—none of us—would want you to look back at the end of your life and be sad over all you passed up. If there is something you want to do, do it now; there are only so many tomorrows, you know. Don’t look back with regret at the opportunities you missed because you were too busy taking care of everybody else’s needs and ignoring your own. Make a choice, Adam. Choose to live your life the way YOU want. Not what Pa wants; not what I or Hoss want. You; what you want with no be-sorrys and no regrets. Don’t become a bitter old man because the life you dreamed about passed you by while you were so busy being what you thought everyone else needed.
“Sure, I need you. Hoss needs you. You’re our big brother, the smart one, the sensible one, the one who was both mother and father to us for more years than I can count and far more years than you should have been. But we’re strong because you made us that way. We’ll survive your absence, but we would never survive your death from despair. The window of opportunity is only going to be open for so long. If you don’t seize it now, it will vanish and then how will you feel? I’ll tell you . . . resentful. You’ll wind up hating yourself and then us when you realize something that could have happened didn’t happen because you didn’t take that first step.”
The color had slowly drained from Adam’s face during Joe’s rant. Never had anyone seen so clearly into his soul as this. Pa and Hoss had come close on several occasions, but he had always managed to drop a veil before revealing too much to them. He never, in all his born days, expected it would be his kid brother who would reach right into his gut and pull out for all the world to see that which he desired most . . .the freedom to choose a different path with no regrets.
“You’re quite a man, Joe,” he whispered. When he saw the look on his brother’s face, Adam thought his volatile younger brother was about to fly off the handle again. Instead, Joe turned away. When he turned back, his eyes were brimming.
“That’s the first time you’ve ever called me a man to my face.” When the quizzical look on Adam’s face registered, he added, “Kid, buddy, fella . . . but never ‘man.'”
“You’ve always been my kid brother; it’s hard to think of you any other way.”
“And you’ve always been ‘old’ to me.” Joe chuckled. “Hoss always said the truth was somewhere in the middle and we were more alike than we knew.”
A hawk called overhead and again the brothers watched its graceful soaring.
“Thank you, Adam.”
“For all you did for me this past year; for sharing your sanctuary with me; most of all, for riding free with me in the meadow yesterday. I know sentimental stuff offends your sensibilities—but I’m going to tell you anyway, brother. I love you. I love you enough to let you go . . . with a full heart and no regrets.”
And with that, Joe urged Cochise forward and went through the pass alone.
Joe rode home but not directly. For the first time in a long, long while, he was alone—truly alone. He made a decision without hesitation; choosing the route that would take him the long way home, taking his time, enjoying the ride along the lakeshore. At one point he stopped and just gazed out over the water. The day was one of the most perfect he’d ever experienced. As he was watching blue herons hover above the water searching for their noon meal, the sun’s rays struck the surface at such a precise angle that the waves looked like cut diamonds and sparkled with such intensity that Joe could almost believe the water was on fire. He held his breath and watched without blinking until the earth moved on its axis just a fraction and the fire was gone. Carpe momento. The moment would be etched in his mind forever.
Would he always look back and remember that it was a perfect day when he sent Adam away? Even though there was no way of knowing if his brother would actually leave just because he told him to; he sensed today was a turning point in their lives.
Ben was working on the books in his study when he heard the rapid clip clop of hoof beats that could only mean his youngest son was home. He smiled absent-mindedly and then realized with a start that he hadn’t heard that sound in a year. A turning point! Adam was right; this little respite did Joe some good!
Joe had already unsaddled Cochise and was brushing him down by the time Ben crossed the yard and entered the barn.
“Joe! Good to have you ho—”
“Joseph! What in the world happened to you?!”
“Wha—? Oh, my eye.”
“And your face!” Ben was at Joe’s side instantly grasping his chin tenderly and turning his face from side to side.
“Really, Pa, it’s okay. I ran into a wall, that’s all. Adam doctored me up good.”
“What about your eye . . . and your eyebrow?”
“Oh, well, I ran into Adam’s fist first, that’s all. Nothing I haven’t done before,” Joe said matter-of-factly.
“Nothing you haven’t done before,” Ben repeated. “I thought you boys had grown beyond fisticuffs to settle your differences. Adam, what were . . . where’s Adam?”
“Ah, he had some thinking to do, I think.”
“You think. You don’t know?”
“Nope. But he’ll be along soon. Boy, am I starving. Nothing but trail food last night and this morning. Is that roast pork I smell?” Joe put the curry brushes down and started to head toward the house but Ben grabbed his arm.
“Just a minute, young man. Where have you two been?”
“Like I said, Pa, just camping out, talking.”
“And you’re sure you’re all right?”
“Perfect, Pa. It was a glorious day! I’m gonna wash up, okay? See you at the table.”
Ben stood bewildered and watched his son walk away. There was something Joe wasn’t saying—he could always tell—but there was no denying that his son was in a better frame of mind than he had been in many months. There was a spring in his step, too. Whatever had transpired between the brothers, must have been resolved because Joe wouldn’t have been so upbeat had it not. On the other hand, it remained to be seen what sort of mood his oldest would be in when he got home.
The wait was a long one.
Ben finally gave up and went to bed around 2 a.m. When there was no Adam at breakfast, he yelled at Hoss. “Go wakeup, Joe!”
“Adam’s not back yet?”
“No. And your brother knows something he’s not telling. Go get him.”
“Yes, sir.” Hoss looked longingly at his plate. I sure do hate cold eggs.
Hoss knocked softly but entered without waiting for a reply. Joe was curled up sound asleep with the blankets twisted around him. The bruise on his cheek was turning sort of a sickly yellow green and Hoss made a face.
Jiggling the bed with his knee, he called Joe’s name. When there was no response, he filled a glass with water from the basin and then flicked drops at Joe until he stirred.
“Get up Joe. Pa’s fit to be tied.”
“Why?” Joe yawned.
“Adam’s not home yet.”
That got Joe’s attention and he sat up quickly.
“You want to tell me what really happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come on . . . this is ol’ Hoss. You can tell me.”
“There’s nothin’ to tell, Hoss. Now let me sleep.”
“Oh, no you don’t little brother.” Hoss grabbed the covers and threw them off the end of the bed. “You’re not leavin’ me alone downstairs with Pa, and I’m not stayin’ up here with you when there’s breakfast on the table.”
“Come on now.
“Okay, I’m up.”
Hoss didn’t look entirely convinced.
“Really. You can go back to your breakfast. Tell Pa I’ll be down in a minute. And don’t hog all the bacon!”
That seemed to satisfy Hoss and he left to do as he was bid but before going downstairs, he turned at the door to make sure Joe got out of bed.
Joe could actually see his reflection in the mirror with both eyes this morning—that was an improvement. His cheek was an odd mixture of unappetizing colors and a quick but light rub over his face told him it was still too tender for a shave. He decided a quick splash would have to do. As he dressed, he debated what to say to Pa. Now that Joe thought about it, Adam had been moving kind of slow. Was it possible he was hurt? Joe couldn’t remember the fight clearly such was his anger at the time. A glance at his bruised knuckles told him that he had gotten a couple of good punches in and when they’d fallen off the bed, he knew Adam had absorbed the brunt of the impact, hitting the ground first with Joe falling on top of him. He thought he remembered pummeling his brother’s chest pretty hard then, too. More sobering than that was the thought Adam might have really taken leave of home and family right then and there. Without saying goodbye? Would he do that? Joe blew air out his cheeks, took a deep breath and headed down to breakfast.
“Pa,” he called from the foot of the stairs.
“Sit down Joseph, your breakfast is getting cold.” Breakfast wasn’t the only thing that was growing cold; Ben’s words were almost icy.
“Pa, can I talk to you a minute?”
Ben paused with his fork in mid-air, about to say something, but observing Joe’s posture, he decided against it. Joe was standing tall and straight, shoulders squared, feet wide a part as though he were bracing for something. “Hoss, please excuse me.”
“Sure, Pa.” Hoss looked at his brother for a clue as to what he was doing, but he was unreadable. Like I been sayin’, more like Adam every day.
Joe had already headed into the study area and was looking out the window with his thumbs tucked behind him in the waistband of his pants.
Ben sat down in his leather desk chair and said, “Does this have to do with the fight you two had?”
Joe decided to forego his concern over Adam’s health for right now. Pa could get really worked up about stuff like that and if he thought any one of his sons were hurt, well . . . even a mama bear couldn’t be more protective than Pa. He gambled that Adam was all right and merely said, “Not exactly.”
“And what do you mean by that EXACTLY.”
“We worked it out.”
It was obvious to Ben there was more or Joe wouldn’t have asked to speak with him. He waited, but Joe didn’t seem anxious to begin, or rather, didn’t seem to know where to begin as he was chewing on his lip.
“I committed the family to a position without talking to you first.”
“I see,” but Ben didn’t really. “You remember, of course, that I’ve given you all the authority to commit the resources of the Ponderosa when you feel it necessary. We share equally in the outcome of any venture—profitable or otherwise.”
“I know, Pa . . . but it wasn’t a business venture.”
“It was something I said to Adam.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I think what I said to Adam was right,” Joe hesitated a bit, but then was more forceful as he continued. “I know in my gut I was right, but I said you and Hoss would agree with me and . . . and I had no right to do that . . . to speak for you, I mean. I’m sorry. I’m hoping you will back me up, but I, uh, . . . I’ll understand if you don’t.”
“And what was it you said to him?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You can’t tell me. Does this have something to do with Adam not coming home with you last night?”
“Uh . . . maybe?”
“Maybe? Could you be more specific, please.”
“I guess he’s thinking about what I said. What I asked him to do . . . and not do.”
“Well that’s clear as mud.”
“I know, Pa, I’m sorry, but I’d be violating—”
“—I know . . . the Brothers’ Code, is that it?”
“Yeah. You understand then?” Joe asked hopefully.
“Let me see if have this right. Despite my misgivings about this campout, I let Adam talk me into taking you off the Ponderosa. Now you tell me that you and he had an argument that turned into a fight where you both—I presume from looking at you, you both were injured—”
“—I’m fine, Pa—”
“—Let me finish, please!” This request was accompanied by a raised eyebrow. “Where you both were injured. You tell me that you made peace with your brother and yet you returned to the house alone. Adam has still not come home and you believe he is ‘thinking’ about what you said to him, the contents of which statement or statements you will not divulge, yet you want me to support you unconditionally. Is that about it?”
“Uh, yeah. That about sums it up.” The earnestness with which Joe pleaded, not in words so much as with his eyes, was hard to ignore.
“Is this one of your hunches, then?”
Joe thought a moment. He had often had gut feelings about events or people that proved right when everyone else thought differently. So did his Pa. They were alike in that respect. He knew his Pa had come to appreciate his hunches over the years, so he nodded his head. “Yes, Pa. I had a hunch and I acted without thinking. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe so.”
The next morning Adam was sitting at the table when the family came down for breakfast. No explanation was offered for his disappearance or reappearance and none was asked, though Ben was sorely tempted. Instead he took his place at the head of the table and asked Hop Sing for some juice.
Hoss was his usual self, accepting Adam’s presence with equanimity and immediately launching into a retelling of the trials of cleaning out a stream blocked by a beaver dam all by himself.
When Joe came down, he crossed the great room and gave Adam a squeeze on the shoulder before sitting down and filling his plate with ham, eggs and potatoes.
Ben was aware of the physical contact Joe initiated and waited to see his oldest’s reaction. Adam said nothing but responded by with a slight wave of his coffee cup before forking more bacon onto his plate. With a sigh of relief, Ben relaxed and tore into his breakfast with relish. After Hoss had finished his tale of woe related to dams and muck removal, Ben related the latest crisis at the town council meeting, drawing a smile from Adam and outright guffaws from Joe and Hoss—especially when Ben got to the part about the Widow Hawkins’ insistence on Ben accompanying her to the Ladies Aid Society’s Benefit for Orphans and Indigent Children. After all, he WAS chairman of the board of the school district and a member of the City Council. The more he connived and contrived to get out of the engagement, the deeper he was mired. So, at last he graciously agreed to escort her, much to the displeasure of the Widow Stevens. It was going to be a LONG school year if he couldn’t find something—or someone—else to keep these ladies occupied.
Joe suggested he court both of them at the same time. Hoss agreed because he dearly loved the Widow Stevens’ plum preserves and was hoping she would favor his Pa with a case or two. Hop Sing, of course, overheard this comment and had a conniption in Cantonese which set Joe off again his high-pitched giggle echoing throughout the house.
If playing the buffoon in a ridiculous farce was the cause of the good mood around the table this morning, Ben didn’t mind. It was good to have all his sons home.
“How would you feel about going to town, son?” Ben asked.
“Sure, Pa. When do you want to leave?”
“You’ll have to go alone. I have to meet Chet Perkins in Carson City and Adam and Hoss will be going up to the mill to check on that order for the International House renovation. Do you mind?” This would be the first time in over six months that Joe had gone to town by himself but after his campout with Adam had turned out all right, Ben had been encouraging Joe to range further and further from the ranch house . . . each chore or task meeting with success so far. Joe’s confidence and self-possession were returning. Although Ben observed a momentary hiccup in his son’s demeanor, he was pleased when Joe agreed heartily enough.
“Sure, Pa. What do you need me to do?”
“Take these contracts to Hiram Wood and then I’d like you to stop at the bank and check on those wire transfers from the Army. The monies should have been received last week, but weren’t. If there’s a problem, I want to know about it sooner rather than later. We won’t be delivering that beef without payment in full; not after the billing dispute with Ft. Churchill last year.”
“Got it. Anything else?”
“Get a haircut!”
Joe blanched at that request but merely mumbled noncommittally, took the contracts and left to saddle his horse.
Adam, who was descending the stairs and overheard the last exchange said, “Do you think that was wise?”
“Sending him to town?”
“No, he’ll be fine in town.”
“Sending him to the barber.”
At first Ben had no idea what Adam was talking about and then it hit him . . . Joe had been kidnapped from the barbershop in Placerville and that was the beginning of the nightmare they’d all been living for the last year. How could I have been so blind?
“Look, it will take him a while to complete the other tasks. Why don’t I go with Hoss to the mill to check the amount of board feet we have already. I’ll make any needed adjustments and then leave him to deal with the International House representatives while I go into town to make sure Joe’s all right.”
“You don’t think he’ll object to the molly codling?”
“Oh, I can think of one or two reasons I might sneak off into town without our father’s knowledge . . . ,” Adam winked.
It was sunny and clear at the Ponderosa, but the closer Joe got to Virginia City, the murkier the sky became. The blasting from the mines threw a lot of dust and debris into the air and the noise from the stamp mills was intense. Joe’s head began to throb in time to the rhythm of the machinery.
Attorney Hiram Wood had been the Cartwrights’ business lawyer since the Cartwrights first came to the Territory. A middle-aged man with greying hair and a bit of a paunch, he was often underestimated by his adversaries. The man was, however, a shrewd lawyer and ingenious to boot. His knowledge of real estate and contract law had enabled the Cartwrights to amass a number of diverse holdings and build an incredible portfolio of investments.
Hiram was busy with a client so Joe had to wait in the outer office for a good forty-five minutes until he was free. The wait was no chore as it appeared the estimable Mr. Wood had hired himself a pretty young thing to mind the store while he was busy. She was shorter than Joe by half a foot and had curves in all the right places. Her straight auburn hair was pulled off her face with combs, gathered at the nape of her neck with a twist and then cascaded down her back in gentle curls. There was a little mole on the side of her neck just below her earlobe that Joe decided he would like to nibble if only she would only give him the time of day. No matter how often he tried to engage her in conversation, however, the young woman was intent on her tasks and paid him no never mind. It was only after he concluded his business with the attorney and was about to leave that the lovely young lady looked up and blushed, her peaches and cream complexion glowing with heat.
“Excuse me, Miss . . .?”
“Smith. Pamela Smith.”
“Well, Miss Pamela Smith. Would you care to have lunch with me? I assure you I am a very reputable young man with excellent credentials as Mr. Wood can attest.”
“What am I attesting to, Joseph?” Hiram said as he came out of his office and placed a stack of filing on Pamela’s desk.”
“The stellar reputation of a gentleman and a scholar, of course.”
“That would Adam Cartwright you would be referring to, would it not?”
Joe clutched his heart in mock distress. “Mr. Wood! You cut me to the quick!”
Hiram laughed. “Let me introduce you to my niece, Joe. Pamela, this flirtatious rogue is Joseph Cartwright, son of Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright,” Pamela replied and curtsied prettily.
Joe was smitten.
“Joe, that’s a very kind invitation. Pamela is only just arrived in Virginia City and doesn’t know many people. I’m afraid her old uncle keeps her shackled to this desk for too many hours each day. She should be out and about more, enjoying life.”
“Forgive me, my dear, I don’t mean to answer for you when it comes to luncheon engagements.”
“I would be delighted, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Joe. Just call me Joe,” he said, extending his arm in greeting and then bringing her fingertips to his lips.
Hiram was bemused by Joe’s show of gallantry, but confident that his niece would be in good hands. A Cartwright—any Cartwright, including the Don Juan of the family—was above reproach when it came to respecting women.
“Just have her back by 2 p.m., Joe. I have a will signing later this afternoon and require her assistance.”
“Shall we?” he said, placing her hand in the crook of his arm and leading her out the door and onto the boardwalk where they strolled leisurely chatting like old friends.
Adam rounded the corner by the stage depot and caught sight of Joe with a most attractive young woman on his arm. Intrigued, he followed at a discreet distance until they entered the Cafe del Rio. A lunch date? Well, what do you know. A turning point!
Hiram looked up just as the door opened and the clock struck two.
“Here we are Mr. Wood. Right on time.”
“So you are, Joe.”
“Are you checking up on me, Uncle?” Pamela teased.
“Why no, of course, not! I was about to grab a bite of lunch myself when I realized you didn’t have a key to the office, my dear. I’ll have one made for you right away.”
“Pamela, may I see you again?”
“Yes, I’d like that Joe.”
“There’s a dance tonight at the Livery. Would you like to go?”
“I’m afraid I’m not a very good dancer, but if you don’t mind bruised toes, I would love to go.”
“I’ll wear my sturdiest boots. Pick you up at eight?”
“Yes , my dear?”
“Joe has asked me to a dance tonight. Would that be all right with you?”
“Yes, dear. That would be fine.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be sure to have Pa sign these papers as soon as I get home and I’ll bring them back this evening.”
“You do that, Joe. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Good bye, sir. Pamela,” Joe tipped his hat and left the office with a grin as wide as the Missouri. Hot diggity! I got me a date.
Half way out of town Joe reversed course and stopped at the barber shop.
“Hi ya, Harvey!”
“Well I’ll be hornswoggled, it’s Joe Cartwright. A bit early for your yearly haircut, isn’t it?”
“Don’t get your hopes up, Harv. Just a shave and a trim, if you don’t mind.”
Across the street from the barber shop, a figure lurked in the grey shadows.
“Everything’s fine, Pa,” Adam said.
“Everything?” Ben raised his eyebrows.
“Yes. He brought the papers home didn’t he?”
“Yes; they’re all in order. What about the barber?”
“No trouble there. I was wrong; he wasn’t bothered a bit. I watched from across the street.”
“Good.” Ben breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh,” Adam added as an afterthought.
“He has a date to the barn dance tonight.”
“A date! Adam, that’s the best news I’ve had in a long, long time!”
“I thought you’d be pleased. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I owe Sam Clemens a letter.”
“No dance for you tonight?”
“No, but Hoss can go if you’re worried.”
Ben shook his head. “No; just thinking that you deserve a break, Adam. You’ve borne the brunt Joe’s recovery and I’m grateful. I don’t believe I’ve told you near often enough just how grateful I am. You were right all along . . . about what he needed. Thank you, son, for giving Joe back to us.”
Joe sat on the corner of Ben’s desk as he often did and watched without comment as his father scrubbed a page in the ledger with a rubber eraser.
“Is there something you want, Joseph?”
Ben straightened his shoulders, took a deep breath, and began to add the figures again.
“Thirty-five hundred, Pa.”
“$3,527.18; not $3,427.18. You forgot to carry the one.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed. “And you can tell this by looking at the ledger upside down?”
Joe shrugged with a smile. Ben re-added the figures again and sighed heavily before changing the four to a five. “Thank you,” he said grudgingly. “All right; I’m done. What do you want?”
“Joseph, I know you. Something is on your mind. What is it?”
“Got me.” Joe chuckled. “Okay,” he said as he shifted from the desk to the chair. “Pa, you have always given me . . . us . . . Adam, Hoss and me . . . the freedom to follow our own path; the freedom to disagree with you, with each other.”
“Yes, Joe. I have. All I asked in return was that each of you reason through each action and that you weigh the consequences and the impact your decisions would have.”
“Do you reason through each action and weigh the consequences?”
“I try to; why do you ask?”
“Sometimes . . . sometimes there isn’t time to reason; you just have to do what your gut tells you is right.”
With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Ben recalled Joe’s confession a few days ago. “I committed the family to a position without talking to you first.”
Ben leaned back in his chair and stared at his son. “You knew Adam was thinking of leaving?”
“Worse, Pa . . . I told him to go.”
A part of Ben wanted to lash out. How dare you! But Joe’s words echoed in his head. You’ve always given us the freedom to follow our own path . . . do you reason through each action and weigh the consequences? . . . I told him to do something; or not do something . . . he’s thinking about it.
“Pa, Adam needs to leave. If we hold him here, he’ll stay. But he will be unhappy in the long run. Can we do that to him? I know that if you ask him to stay, he will without complaint, without anger, but without heart. He needs to do this. No be sorrys and no regrets. I don’t want him to be sad.”
“Why do you think he is sad?”
“He quoted something to me written by John Greenleaf Whittier, do you know him?”
“The poet? From Indiana I believe.”
“I guess; I don’t really know.”
“What about Whittier?”
“He wrote, ‘Of all things of pen or word, the saddest of these, it might have been.’” Joe paused while the words sunk in. “Pa, I don’t want Adam to look back on his life and regret the things he’s never done. He wants to build things and see the world. He needs to visit all those places he read to me about when I was a kid; medieval castles and the Great Wall of China. All those places you went . . . Rome, Paris, London, the museums in Venice and Amsterdam, South America.”
Joe’s animated and impassioned speech washed over Ben and moved him to tears. Unable to control his emotions, he stood to look out the window, turning his back to Joe. He knew how fervently Joe had clung to his brother in the last year. Had he clung to his first born any less? He couldn’t fathom Adam not being here for him as a confidant, a counselor, a friend. When Adam was away at college there was an emptiness, an ache so deep inside he could hardly breathe despite having two other sons to hold and love. He couldn’t imagine the Ponderosa without the presence of his first born, his Adam.
As if Joe could read his mind, he put a comforting hand on his father’s shoulder. “I can’t imagine life without him, but I can’t imagine looking into his eyes and seeing regret. I know he’d never blame me . . . not out loud anyway. But in his heart there would be always be a hole, and I could never fill it no matter how hard I tried. Could you? Could Hoss? Could any of us really?”
Ben saw the truth in what Joe was saying but still couldn’t find the words to speak.
“I know it will hurt Pa. The first Christmas he isn’t here. His birthday. When Hoss or I get married; the birth of our children. Heck, his marriage and children if anyone will have him.”
Ben snorted. “Oh, somehow I think Adam will find female companionship no matter where he journeys in world.”
“You mean like you did?”
“Oh, come on, Pa. I’m old enough now to hear about those adventures. Won’t you share them?”
“Someday, Joe. Maybe someday.” Ben looked out over the meadow and beyond to the mountains. So many memories.
“If he does leave, Pa, will you be okay?” Joe whispered.
“As you said, Joe, I can’t hold him here . . . but he will always be here,” Ben thumped his chest, “in my heart.” My first born. “But, no, I can’t hold him on the Ponderosa. It was always my dream; not his. It’s just that . . . I can’t . . . I can’t imagine not seeing him ever again,” he choked and would have turned away but Joe wouldn’t let him. He threw his arms around his father, gripping him fiercely, his own sobs mixing with his father’s, two hearts beating as one.
“Pa, I’ve learned this past year that there’s never any guarantee that we’ll see each other from one hour to the next. That was a hard truth for me to understand despite all the experience I’ve had with losing someone I love. So many people have been ripped from my side. Too many. It’s a lesson I should have learned long ago but never seemed to.”
“It is a hard lesson, son; one we never get used to . . . even when we understand the inevitability of it all. You can’t blame yourself.”
“I know, and I don’t. But I can make a difference in how Adam leaves here . . . with a full heart knowing he has our blessing and support. I think it’s the least we can do for him.”
“I agree, son. So what do you have in mind?”
“I have an idea. You remember the letter Adam got from Sam?”
“Yeah. Some newspaper is paying him to go abroad and write his impressions. He leaves on a steamer in a few months from New York. He’s invited Adam to go with him. It’s a trip organized by General Sheridan . . . you know, from the Civil War.”
“Yeah, I saw the letter.”
“You read something that was private?” Ben reproached.
“He left it out for me to see.”
“I know he wanted me to see it.” Not the eyebrow! “Pa, you know Adam doesn’t leave his stuff around carelessly.” Not in this house anyway. “Maybe it was unintentional, but I think he left it out for a reason; I think he wanted someone to see it so he could be convinced to go.”
“I wrote to Sam myself and asked him for the details. He sent this flyer. Here.” Joe pulled a folded advertisement from his pocket and handed it to his father.
EXCURSION TO THE HOLY LAND, EGYPT,
THE CRIMEA, GREECE,
AND INTERMEDIATE POINTS OF INTEREST
The undersigned will make an excursion as above during the coming season, and begs to submit to you the following programme:
A first-class steamer, to be under his own command, and capable of accommodating at least one hundred and fifty cabin passengers, will be selected, in which will be taken a select company, numbering not more than three fourths of the ship’s capacity. There is good reason to believe that this company can be easily made up in this immediate vicinity, of mutual friends and acquaintances.
Leaving New York about June 1st, a middle and pleasant route will be taken across the Atlantic, and passing through the group of Azores, St. Michael will be reached in about ten days. A day or two will be spent here, enjoying the fruit and wild scenery of these islands, and the voyage continued, and Gibraltar reached in three day or four days.
“Ten days!” Ben exclaimed. “Ten days to cross the Atlantic! Imagine that.”
“And look here . . . Genoa! Wonder if it compares to our Genoa? And Padua . . . ‘I come to wive it wealthily in Padua,’” Joe quoted Act 1, Scene 2 of Taming of the Shrew. “Maybe Adam will come home with a wife, Pa!”
“Now, Joe,” Ben cautioned, but couldn’t help laugh, getting caught up in his son’s enthusiasm.
Together they devoured the itinerary, memories washing over Ben as he recalled his own stops in many of the same ports and the adventures he had had. How can I deny my son the opportunity to see any less of the world than I did before putting down roots?
“What‘s your idea, Joe?”
“The ticket’s $1,250. Can we buy his passage? I don’t have enough for the ticket myself, but I’ve got some money saved that should be enough to buy him new luggage and a journal. Let him write in his own darn journal for a change!
“I don’t know, Joe.”
“Look at all these cities, Pa,” Joe tapped the flyer. “Rome, Paris, Florence, Venice, Jerusalem. Don’t you think it’s time, Pa? Time for Adam to see the world like you did and choose his own dream?”
How does Joe always manage to know what I am thinking?
“Besides, Pa, who knows? Maybe after he’s seen what’s out there, the Ponderosa will look pretty good and he’ll come home to stay.”
“And if he doesn’t? Joe, are you really ready to let him go? You’ve clung to him so tightly this last year.”
“You heard the doc—more importantly, you heard Hop Sing. I’m recovered in mind, body and spirit now. I’m fine.”
Ben had heard it all before, but this time he firmly believed it was true.
“I’ll wire the money today.”
“Yipee!!!” Joe shouted, slapping his Pa on the back. “Let’s tell Hoss!”
They made their presentation at dinner on Sunday. Adam was taken aback at the proposal and protested vociferously, but each point he made was rebuffed.
“Aw, come on, Adam,” Hoss said. “You know you want to. Just think of it as a vacation. It’s not forever, ya know.”
“You deserve it, big brother, after putting up with me all year,” Joe encouraged.
“I want you to have that experience, son, to see firsthand the things I’ve seen, go to the places I’ve told you about since you were a boy.”
“Mr. Adam have good time. Meet many people. Be happy in heart.”
In the end, Adam not only acquiesced, he was secretly relieved the decision had been made for him. He had to admit it would be exhilarating accompanying Samuel Clemens—wit and intelligence being a definite bonus in a traveling companion. The sidewheeler steamship Quaker City, formerly in service for the Union during the War Between the States, had been completely refurbished and outfitted with 150 cabins for the excursion. Not only was there a library on board, but a music room and passengers were encouraged to bring an instrument. Ben was reassured that the ship also carried a physician and fully equipped infirmary. Ten days or not, anything could happen at sea and often did.
Aside from periods where Adam disappeared “on business,” with a wink to Joe, he and his father spent each evening pouring over the itinerary and looking at maps. Joe and Hoss sat nearby, enthralled by the anecdotes Ben told. Their Pa didn’t often talk about his past and they so loved hearing the tales. Too soon the date for departure was at hand but the memories of the last few weeks were solid and would last a lifetime.
At the stage depot amid the flurry of activity when the Overland coach pulled in, Adam pulled Joe aside.
“Give me a dollar.”
“What? It’s not enough I paid for your ticket and luggage?”
“Pa paid the ticket, not you. Give me a dollar.”
Joe grumbled, but managed to find enough coins in his pocket to meet the demand. Before he could ask what it was needed for, the family was caught up in a whirlwind of handshakes and slaps on the back, wishes and instructions. At the last second before boarding, Joe threw one arm around Adam’s neck and whispered into his ear, “No be-sorrys and no regrets.” When he let go, his eyes were brimming with tears but his smile was a mile wide.
The sign on the weathered adobe read “Limbo Junction” and it described perfectly Adam’s state of mind . . . in limbo between worlds, between one life and the next, unsure of his preference.
What in the hell am I doing? Hoss would have me believe this is nothing more than a vacation. Joe knows better; I suspect Pa does, too.
The worst part was that the delay due to a broken axle gave him an extra day to nurture the doubts which began almost as soon as the stage left Virginia City. Twenty-four hours; more than enough time to review the events of the last year; to examine his choices; to decide whether to go on or to return. Go west where there are people who love and need me. Go east where . . . what? What awaits me? The unknown.
As usual, Adam was up before dawn and after morning ablutions stretched his legs by pacing between the station and the barn waiting for the stage to arrive. Correction. Stages. Two were due in that morning; one going east, one going west.
I should let the Overland Stage Line decide my fate and take the first stage that arrives.
The unknown. It was the unknown that had driven Adam most of last year. With the help of several newspapermen and a college mate, Adam had conducted an investigation of the devil that held Joe captive. It wasn’t enough for Adam to have Joe safely back home, he had to know why Wellencamp did what he did.
Why did I need to know? Perhaps because his madness stemmed from a distortion of the notion of free will and that is something I have struggled with in the past . . . and struggle with still if truth be told. Where is my free will to live my life and not my father’s life. Where does free will begin? Am I as mad as Silas Wellencamp? Could I be driven to such insanity?
Though I do my best to forget, Joe’s struggle to overcome the torment of his captivity renewed the memories of what I also endured at the hands of a mad man. Perhaps it is a crucible I will always bear. I am surprised my father did not dwell on the similarities between Kane and Wellencamp. Maybe it’s because he really refuses to believe such madness exists in the world when it comes to his sons. As if refusing to believe in monsters under the bed will allow his babes to sleep safely.
Did I have free will when it came to Kane? Wasn’t he also forcing me to make a choice? In the end he died but I did not kill him. Was it my will that enabled me to overcome his madness? How close did I come to embracing the same insanity? I struggle still with these questions, perhaps I always will. Perhaps my understanding of what drove Wellencamp to such extremes was as essential to me as air and water, though I doubted anyone else could understand that.
Pa didn’t comprehend the urgency with which I felt compelled to explore Wellencamp’s reasons. Neither did Joe at first when I tried to share what I had learned. In the end, he understood more than I ever dreamed he would.
Do I go forward? Embrace the journey that awaits me? Will I just travel and return again to the Ponderosa? I don’t know. My family did not ask for promises I couldn’t give and for that I am grateful, but the fear of the unknown is palpable.
Do I go back? The urge is strong. Despite outward appearances, Joe needs me still. I should not have left him so soon. He—
The station master broke into Adam’s reverie. A coach east; a coach west . . . both had arrived at the same time and he had only minutes to choose which to board.
“Shotgun?” offered the driver as Adam stood fanning his face with his black hat. The sun was barely above the horizon and the day was already molten.
Looking at the endless miles of road that stretched like ribbon across the Utah salt flats, he was sorely tempted. It would be good to ride up top out of the dust instead of inside the rank and spring-less carriage. Instead, he wiped his brow with his sleeve and repositioned his hat.
“Thanks, but no,” he muttered, gripping opposite sides of the door frame with sweaty hands. His feet, on the other hand, remained firmly planted in the sand. Adam closed his eyes afraid to look in either direction lest he succumb to the doubt that gnawed at his insides.
The driver shook his head but said only “Suit yer self.”
With a deep breath, Adam hauled himself inside the coach and faced east, turning away from all he knew and loved.
Like the original Adam before Eve, I am alone. I remind myself that this is—after all—my choice.
The first time Joe came to Xanadu following Adam’s departure two years ago, he found a porch had been added to the cabin and inside was a rocker with the initials JFC burned into the top rail, the arms and legs carved in the special pattern he loved.
On the seat of the rocker was the journal Joe had written during the darkest period in his life. Four other journals were there as well, one each from Pa, Adam, Hoss and Hop Sing. It took some time before Joe was ready to read them, but when he did he was moved to tears and filled with a renewed appreciation not only for what Adam had done for him but for the never-ending love of his family.
Joe continued to visit Xanadu when time allowed, making sure the cabin survived winter storms and spring rains. He repaired the roof when needed, oiled and polished the built-in furniture, and kept the wood box stocked against the day when Adam would return.
Adam’s last letter had said, “I’m sending you a package; open it some place private.” It was nearly three more months before the package arrived covered with many stamps and seals reflecting its journey half way around the world. Some place private. It seemed right to Joe that he open the package here, in Adam’s sanctuary.
Joe was watching Kubla, the skewbald mare, run free in the meadow tossing her mane with wild abandon. When darkness fell, he knew it was time. Sighing, Joe dragged the rocker inside the cabin and lit the lamp. He retrieved the package from his saddle bags along with a bottle of Pa’s best brandy.
Inside the package were two volumes. The one on top was fresh off the press: Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, the story of the Quaker City’s excursion to the Holy Land of which his brother had been a part. The other was a worn leather-bound journal. Joe rubbed his thumb over the embossed letters of its owner and smiled.
He turned to the first page and read in Adam’s neat hand,
Socrates said, ‘A life unexamined is not worth living.’ My brother reminded me that you must first choose to live that life – no be sorrys and no regrets.
Mark Twain would have to wait.
Joe lit the fire and poured himself a cup of coffee with a healthy shot of brandy in it before settling down to read. When he picked up the journal an envelope dropped to the floor.
Inside was a single sheet of card stock with fancy scrolls and lettering written in lawyer gibberish which he had to read several times before grasping the gist of it. Ignoring the Wherefore’s and Whereas’s and Heretofore’s, it boiled down to one sentence:
For the sum of One Dollar ($1) the receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged, Adam Stoddard Cartwright transfers to Joseph Francis Cartwright all rights, title and interest in the real property known as Xanadu, more particularly described as . . .