Summary: 17 year-old Adam has been in his first gunfight and although his wound seemed minor, it worsened as he continued to work, until he lost so much blood that he was near death. We now find out what happerned that night and who helps to heal a family wrought with sadness, guilt and decisions. there is no need to read the previous stories to enjoy this one. A young Abigail Jones makes her first appearance and Hop Sing makes a friend.
Rated: K+ 15,000
It’s Only a Year Series:
It’s Only a Year – He Said What? – Lessons in Understanding
It’s Only a Year – The Caster Oil Caper – Lessons in Humility
It’s Only a Year – The Worst of Consequences – A Lesson in Choice
It’s Only a Year – The Quiet of Uncertainty – A Lesson in Hope
It’s Only a Year – The Final Trial – A Lesson in Mettle
In this series of stories about Adam’s last year home, he has grown into a man, faced a number of challenges and now must take the longest journey of his life.
Prologue: These are the final paragraphs of the story leading into The Quiet of Uncertainty
Ben’s anger returned. “Since when is the right thing to do to lie and go behind my back when I’ve given you my final word on a subject?”
Adam was truly Ben’s son, and still did not back down. “I had to do it because you wouldn’t listen to me. I told you I might need a gun to kill a wild animal. Randall was a wild animal and I had to at least try to save you from him just as surely as I would have stopped an animal from attacking Hoss or Little Joe.” He had to sit down on a nearby rock. The shakiness he’d felt earlier was back and his heartbeat was throbbing in his neck as sweat poured from his face and further wet his shirt under his jacket. With effort, he was able to complete his thoughts. “Hoss and Little Joe have already lost their mothers. They couldn’t lose you too. If Randall was intent on killing one of us, it had to be me, and I thought maybe I’d be good enough for just that one moment to make things right.”
Ben took a good look at his son, noting his pale complexion, the rivulets of sweat running from his temples and noted that he’d swayed briefly before sitting down. “How badly were you hurt, Adam? Hugh implied it only tore your skin a little.”
“A flesh wound in my right should…” Adam’s eye rolled as he slid down the rock onto his back, unable to stay sitting.
Rushing to his side, Ben grabbed his own neckerchief and dabbed away the moisture from the boy’s face, as he chuckled softly. “You never were one to like the talk of blood.” But as he began to unbutton Adam’s jacket for a look at the damage, he hollered toward camp for help and a lantern.
The group came running with Hugh in the lead. Holding the lamp near enough to see, Ben and the foreman gasped to find the young man’s clothing and jacket lining drenched with dark red blood. The cloth covering the “nick” was soaked to saturation and when lifted, they found a steady flow of blood issuing from what they quickly decided was a lacerated blood vessel.
“I thought you told me it was a scratch!” Ben roared at Hugh.
“I swear it didn’t even bleed at first but it must have gotten worse with him moving around.”
Adam had remained silent while still alert enough to realize there was a serious problem. He reached for his father’s arm, holding on tightly. “Pa, I just wanted to…”
Ben rested a hand on his son’s cheek. “Adam, I understand. Let’s just get you fixed up now. We’ll carry you to the wagon and get that bleeding stopped. That’s all you need to worry about.”
“I can walk there.” His strength built for the effort as he pulled away from Ben, using his good arm to push up on the rock behind him while several of the crew rushed over to support his ascent. He smiled as he stood before his father. “See?” The smile left along with the brief color that had risen in his cheeks with physical exertion. His head spun as the truth of Randall’s earlier words whispered in his ears: “It don’t matter… the kid’s dead anyway.” He spoke his torment through a final heavy sigh, “I’m sorry, Pa…” as he crumbled to the ground and dissolved into unending darkness.
It’s Just a Year
The Quiet of Uncertainty – A Lesson in Hope
“Thank you Mrs., ah…Mrs.”
“Yarborough, Mr. Cartwright, Harriet Yarborough and my husband is Clem. Remember I said how we live at the boarding house. Clem would’a come with me today but he’s helping to build a house for them two ladies who live at the boarding house with us; the one of them teaches kids.”
“So you said. Well, thank you again, Mrs. Yarborough. It was kind of you to stop out and bring us that wonderful cake.”
“Just bein’ neighborly at a time of sorrow, Mr. Cartwright. As I said when I got here, we was just sorry as all get out to hear about your son. He was a very nice young man and once helped Clem and me when we was stuck on the road with a missin’ wheel. Put his shoulder into it and got the wagon right up while my Clem slipped that hub back in place and got us on our way.” The woman’s eye misted over as her bottom lip quivered. “It’s just a shame what happens to good people. Ain’t never the scoundrels who end up…”
Ben cut her off as he took her shoulders and turned her so she wouldn’t see their ranch hand, Hank, coming out the kitchen door bearing the woman’s towering cake to the wagon that was soon heading out to the camp.“ You should be leaving for home now, Mrs. Yarborough. I wouldn’t want you on the roads after dark, and you know fast evening sets this time of year.” Ben assisted Harriet up into her wagon once Hank had the cake out of sight, and bid her farewell. “Thank you again. I have many things I need to attend to as you might well imagine, so will bid you adieu.”
Hank came over to his boss as the woman pulled out of the yard. “I think I’m about ready to go, sir. Gotta say, I’m sorry over the situation, but the hands will appreciate all that home cookin’. Thanks for sending it our way.”
“We’re just glad it isn’t going to waste. You go along and tell Hugh I’ll ride out to check on things in few days.”
Finally alone, Ben leaned against the hitch rail and sighed in exhaustion. He had no idea how so many people, including so many he didn’t even know, had heard about Adam and wondered if the women of the territory had some sort of communication system that the men weren’t aware of. Maybe it was a form of smoke signals they sent out the chimneys of their cook stoves. He smiled at the notion of those strong willed, pioneering females keeping each other informed through a series of gray puffs drifting skyward, yet the reality was that a few of the ranchers had left camp the day after Adam was shot, and took home the news that spread like wildfire from one woman to the next.
Ben was honestly amazed and humbled at the expressions of sorrow and wishes that had begun pouring in within two days of the shooting—most often delivered in the form of food. He figured that edibles were considered the universal antidote to sadness. The greater the loss, the more food that was offered in tribute, and there had been so many casseroles, stews and bakery items delivered, that Hop Sing had soon run out of plates and bowls to store them.
Most of the food offerings had come in the front door and gone immediately out the back as the Cartwright cook sent them out to the drovers at camp. He wanted no part of such gifts, feeling that he knew best what this family needed.
Ben knew there were no appetites in the house anyway: even Hoss had been reduced to nibbling at his food before pushing the plate away.
Still leaning against the rail, Ben’s eyes were drawn toward the window above him—Adam’s room—and the events of the past few days began to drive hot pokers into his heart once again.
He’d seen Adam having breakfast that last morning: that very ordinary morning. His son was going to ride out with the herd while he attended to business in town, and they’d planned to meet up when they both arrived at camp later in the day. The boy had seemed himself that morning and had left about 30 minutes ahead of his own departure, but Adam must have returned home and taken the Colt pistol once the house was empty.
When Ben had arrived at camp that afternoon, Hugh had met him with the news that Adam had been shot in a gunfight, but hadn’t been seriously injured. He’d laughed at Hugh, thinking he was joking, but as the foreman had laid out the details, Adam’s betrayal had begun to burn in Ben’s gut. The boy had tricked him into practicing with the gun to see who drew faster and then had decided to act without any help while ignoring his father’s warnings and advice.
Ben’s chest clenched to the point of pain as he recalled Adam walking into camp with the colt slung low on his hip evidencing his disobedience, and all he could think of at the time was how much his son was going to suffer for his lies and manipulation. He remembered thinking then, as he did again now that had he heard that story about anyone but Adam, he might have believed it without a second thought. It was only because it had been “this” son that he’d actually listened as Adam had endeavored to explain. Hugh had told the angry father about Randall’s treachery, and how he’d played an innocent young man into thinking there was only one way to save his pa. This had all made sense, yet Ben hadn’t been able to simply look past Adam’s actions either. But he’d listened, while becoming less sure of what to do: his resolve softening in regards to the severity of the punishment as he realized his oldest child had done what he thought he had to. The tipping point toward some leniency had come when he’d admitted to himself that when he was young and invincible, he might have made a similar leap of faith.
None of those thoughts had mattered in the end when he’d noted that Adam looked too pale and had decided that he should check the wound before moving ahead with judgment and sentence. An involuntary shiver coursed from head to toe as he remembered what he’d seen as he’d opened the boy’s coat. Everything had been soaked to saturation with blood: dark red blood—so much that even the red pattern in Adam’s coat was awash in it when given a closer look. Adam had managed to stand one final time, speaking his regret: the last words his son had spoken. He and Hugh had managed to find a small fragment on Adam’s collar bone that must have splintered with the bullet’s impact and its rough edge had probably lacerated a blood vessel as the boy had used his arm bringing the herd in. Their final option had been to cauterize the area that continued to ooze, and that had put a stop to the bleeding: even though it had come so late as to not make much difference.
Some of those who’d stopped by in the last two days had prematurely offered their “condolences,” yet Ben wasn’t so sure they were wrong. Anyone hearing the grizzly details of the blood-soaked coat and Adam’s collapse might have assumed the worst, and Ben had an uneasy feeling that he might truly have witnessed his son’s “death” in the cook’s wagon at camp four days ago. Glancing again at the window above him, he sighed with the knowledge that while the form of his son rested in a bed in that room, his beloved Adam seemed gone.
As they’d worked on his shoulder that night, Adam had opened his eyes and focused on his father. There’d been no fear: only a sadness that haunted Ben every time he’d closed his own eye since then. He’d spoken to his son at that moment, telling him of his love and pride, with the encouragement not to worry: that everything would be fine. It had been his final parental lie, and it was then that Adam’s dark, amber-fired eyes had faded, taking his son’s essence away while leaving a shell.
Ben looked down at his hands while scrubbing them together. They’d been covered with Adam’s blood that night and he could still feel it there—sticky with the spirit of his son—poured out in endless waves of red.
To stem his misery, Ben entered the house and made his way to the only place he wanted to be: Adam’s side. As he entered the room he noted that his son’s complexion matched the bleached cotton of the sheets that covered him. The wound had not bled further, but he reasoned there probably wouldn’t have been much blood left even if it had opened again.
Ben had sent for a doctor from Carson City, but after viewing the clothing Adam had worn—calculating how much blood had been lost to so thoroughly saturate them—he had given his opinion that it was doubtful that Adam could recover. The man was honest in his explanation that even though the boy’s heart still beat, he breathed and even drank when a cup was held to his lips…these were not signs of recovery, but rather reactions that could remain intact even when his higher brain functions had ceased. Ben had seen that sort of thing before in battle. A mortally wounded soldier had sometimes continued to “respond” even when there had been no chance of recovery, and those men had died—some soon afterward—while others had lingered for a time. Understanding and accepting were two different things though. Those soldiers had been so horribly maimed that Benunderstood why they had been unable to live. But Adam had barely been injured—the small notch responsible had already begun to heal. Adam seemed to be merely resting, so Ben had been unable to accept that he could not recover.
The doctor had left with little encouragement other than to say, “Miracles are always possible.” Ben hated platitudes, but in this case he kept those words in the shirt pocket over his heart. He’d adapted the doctor’s words and breathed them now. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
Forcing himself back into the present, Ben looked around the small room to see those things that gave witness to all of Adam’s passions. There was a mound of paper on a shelf and Ben retrieved what must have been his son’s first attempts at drawing up the plans he’d presented to his father just a week ago when he’d told him that their house was too small. Part of the “business” Ben had seen to in town the day his son had been shot, had been to send the boy’s renderings to an architect in Sacramento, hoping to surprise Adam with the actual blueprints before he left for school. He’d even placed ads to find a lumbering crew to start hewing timber for the construction. Looking over Adam’s rough drafts, Ben realized again what a talent the youngster had for…the truth was that he was pretty good at whatever he tried—with the exception of being a gunfighter. Ben’s long-term plan had been to have the house finished by the time Adam returned from school in five years, knowing the college graduate would be excited at having a hand in defining the Ponderosa’s footprint for years to come.
Continuing his perusal of the room, Ben spotted the crate of books from Boston that was still mostly full except for a few tomes neatly placed on the shelves—the texts Ben figured Adam had selected to review first. The boy was so organized in his thinking, always planning each step. That’s what made all of what had happened so unbelievable: such a nightmare. Ben knew Adam had considered each facet of what he’d planned, applied logic and weighed all the options to decide he could do it. In the end, he’d been defeated by a rough edge of bone and a sense of obligation that wouldn’t allow him to neglect his responsibility to the ranch even after being wounded.
Ben had sent Hoss and Joe to school despite the events at home, figuring they’d be better focusing on something besides the quiet and sadness that hung around the house like a shroud. They’d be home soon, but even then the house would remain unnaturally silent.
The stillness seemed to eat up the air in Adam’s room until Ben thought he would suffocate. Hoping to create a diversion from the quiet, he rose to examine the books that Adam had chosen for his initial study. Selecting a heavy text called, An Introduction to Earth Science, took his place in the chair next to the bed, opened the book on his lap and began to read aloud: “Typically Earth Scientists will use tools from physics, chemistry, biology, chronology and mathematics to build a quantitative understanding of how the Earth works. This comprehensive study will begin with an introduction to Geology, the study of the earth, the materials of which it is made, the structure of those materials, and the processes acting upon them…”
By the time he heard the voices of his younger sons in the yard below, Ben had learned that James Hutton was viewed as the first modern geologist, and in 1785 he’d presented a paper entitled Theory of the Earth to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, explaining that the Earth must be much older than had been previously supposed. He’d also found out that the study of the materials of the earth could be traced back to ancient Greece.
Ben greatly enjoyed reading to his son, and thought he’d noted a response from Adam, although what it had been he couldn’t truly say. Maybe it was that Adam’s expression changed just a breath, or his color had flushed with a brush of pink…or maybe it was all in his own imagination. Whatever it was, it gave the man hope and he resolved he would continue to read to him as often as he could.
The initial hours of uncertainty regarding Adam’s condition had stretched into days, and now, more than a week. Although there seemed to be small changes, a visit from the doctor brought little encouragement.
Dr. Fredericks examined the patient, noting that while Adam’s color was better, there was little else to indicate improvement. He gave his assessment matter-of-factly: “This is a very odd case, Mr. Cartwright. The damage to your son’s body caused by the gunshot was so minimal that he should have made a speedy and complete recovery…if only he’d noticed the bleeding sooner…” He’d breathed out a deep sigh of his frustration with how things so seemingly simple could take such unforeseeable turns. “But he lost so much blood… He was a strong, healthy boy; I can see that…and in some ways that makes this sort of thing much worse.”
“How can his being healthy make this any worse?” Ben’s eyebrows knit in confusion.
Dr. Fredericks could see how much this father wanted to hear good news, but there seemed none to give. “It’s a matter of degree, I suppose. If your son had been hurt more, his body wouldn’t have withstood the blood loss and he would have died immediately.” The man saw Ben nod his understanding and appreciated that this seemed to be practical man who could accept information without the complication of emotion. “But since the wound itself wasn’t serious and your son was in vigorous condition at the time it happened, his body continues to fights on.”
Ben’s face brightened. “That would seem to be a good thing then.”
“’Seeming’ and ‘being’ are two different things. The body’s mechanisms may continue to work, but the large blood loss and lack of response since the injury would indicate that your son’s brain suffered irreparable damage.”
The pallor returned, “What does that mean?”
“Believe me when I say that this is the most unfortunate and hardest news that a doctor can give. From what I can see, your son’s life is being controlled only by those things that require no conscious effort. A mind is different than a brain, Mr. Cartwright. I told you last time that your son’s brain would continue to make his heart beat and cause him to breathe and respond to some stimuli. In fact, he can actually live a number of years in this state.”
“This state? You’re telling me that his body will be alive, but his mind is dead—or at best in a sort of permanent limbo?” Ben sat, unable to support the weight he felt was pushing him down. For his son, this was a sentence worse than death: to have life, but not the capacity to learn or to express his thoughts… The father’s breath came in ragged puffs, bringing the physician to his side.
“Mr. Cartwright, this is too much for you. I can see that you are doing a fine job of caring for your son, but you operate the largest ranch in the area and have two other children who need you as well. You will sicken yourself if you continue the pace you’ve set and as things are, there’s no answer as to when this might conclude.”
Ben locked a steely look on the man next to him. “First off, I’m not doing this alone. Hop Sing is largely handling Adam’s physical care, while I and my other two sons spend time with him. We read to him and try to never let him alone, and he seems to do better when we’re in here.”
Dr. Fredericks touched Ben’s shoulder. “You’re all doing a fine job, although I doubt that any of the stimuli you’re providing can penetrate enough to make a difference. I often find that families do such things as you mentioned…at least at the beginning, thinking them to be helpful. But the efforts fade in time as there is no response. I’m not saying that you that you should stop what you’re doing, but I advise that you be ready to face that it will bring no better outcome.” The doctor was surprised at the angry look directed his way over what he thought were words of comfort, and hastily prepared to leave. “I doubt that you want to hear what I have to suggest right now, but this is something that must be considered. If I were you, I’d enlist the help of a woman from the area to provide nursing care and sit with him so that you and your other boys can get back to your normal activities. And if there is no improvement in a reasonable amount of time, you will have to consider the possibility of institutionalizing the boy so that he can have proper care. ”
Ben edged toward anger. “I understand that you’re trying to be reasonable, doctor, but my family is operating as ‘normally’ as it can when considering the circumstances, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. And I don’t understand what an institution can provide that we can’t.”
“There would be more staff to tend to him. He would have care 24 hours a day and you would be able to go on with your life while others who know more about such things would look after your son. They could also see that he was properly fed…”
Ben interjected, “You may mean well, but please stop. I’ve visited such places and was sickened to see that they’re little more than warehouses. I will never allow my son to be in such a place. If I have to strap him to my back and carry him with me while I run this ranch, I will.”
The doctor’s lips pinched into a peevish pucker. “That’s fine for you to say now and I pray that your son’s case will come to resolution before you’ll need to make such repellent decisions, but I’ve seen these things happen often enough to know that time and uncertainty can alter many an assured position. I’ll stop back in a few weeks to see how you’re all doing and ask that you inform me should his condition change…either way.”
Ben knew the doctor wasn’t being intentionally unkind. He was just giving suggestions that others found most relieved them of their uncertainties and burdens. Ben wondered if it would have made a difference had this doctor known Adam prior to the incident so that he could understand that this patient was special beyond comprehension: that he couldn’t be treated like “others” he had known. And to that thought as the physician neared the door on his way out, Ben raised his voice with a final comment. “By the way, doctor, my son’s name is, Adam.”
“Pardon me,” Dr. Fredericks stopped his progress, “What did you say?”
The father walked to the bedside, laying a hand on his son’s cheek. “I said, his name is Adam.”
The older man wore a mask of question, still not comprehending.
“Even though you were aware of my son’s name from the time you first time you entered our home, you continue to call him, ‘he,’ ‘the boy,’ ‘him,’ ‘your son’…everything except his actual name. So let me introduce you. This is Adam Cartwright, Dr. Fredericks. He’s 17, unbelievably intelligent, and one of a kind. I wish you could have known him the way he was rather than as he is now, but I want you to understand that I will no longer allow you to speak of him as though those things don’t matter anymore. He’s still the same even if you can’t see it. All that matters is that I will do everything in my power to make sure he always knows that he’s with us and that we will never forget who he is.”
After the doctor was gone, Ben selected a book on botany and began to read. He was more convinced than ever that Adam was different when someone was reading or speaking to him. His breathing became steadier and his facial features relaxed rather than having the tightness that pulled his eyebrows together and pinched at the corners of his mouth. The entire family was now taking turns reading to him. Even Little Joe had wanted to contribute and Ben had encouraged him to read from his school primer.
After reading for a while, he checked the time and grew a bit restless as he realized that it was still a few hours until the boys would be home from school. Hop Sing was around somewhere, but obviously occupied or he would have checked in. Looking for a change of pace, Ben found Adam’s Bible, thinking he might read from that for a while. As he paged through, looking for the first chapter of Luke and the story of Elizabeth, he recalled an incident the previous evening when he’d found Hoss reading to his brother from Psalms, while tears streaked down the middle brother’s cheeks.
Hoss and Joe had cried at first when Adam was brought home, but had approached his recovery with such surety that even though their concern had kept them quieter than usual, they’d moved past tears. He’d questioned the eleven-year-old: “Is something wrong, Hoss? Are you worried about Adam? He seems to be holding his own, so you can take comfort in that.”
“It ain’t that so much, Pa. It was somethin’ I heard earlier when some of the hands were by the house. Is it my fault that Adam isn’t gettin’ better?”
The crew had begun taking turns riding to the homestead for updates. Ben would either find a burly ranch hand standing nervously by the front door, or he’d come outside and see a silent sentinel sitting atop his horse while staring up at Adam’s room. They’d grunt their inquiries as to Young Cartwright’s condition and then be off again, and Ben couldn’t imagine what any of them would have said to imply that Hoss had anything to do with what had happened. “Maybe you need to tell me what you heard.”
“Hank and Tom were outside yesterday when I was up here, and could hear they was talkin’ about what a shame it was that Young Cartwright was in such bad shape, and one of them wondered if that the kid was so sick in summer was to blame for him not getting’ better.” More tears had rolled. “The only time Adam was so sick this summer was when I made him that way. I tricked him into taking that medicine that hurt him and maybe it’s still hurtin’ him like those guys said.”
The father was moved with compassion. “That isn’t true, Hoss. Adam was just fine before this happened and his condition is only due to the injury. Don’t let what you heard bother you. I think we’re all trying to find reasons for why this happened and there just aren’t any good ones. There’s only one person to blame for what started all this and he’s long gone from here.”
His comments had soothed Hoss, but Ben knew there was a lot of blame being shared. Hugh blamed himself for keeping Randall on when he knew he was no good, and for not pressing Adam for the truth the day of the gunfight. Ben served up his own portion of guilt for not recognizing that his son was in trouble, and each ranch hand felt they’d betrayed the best of their bunch by not keeping a better eye on Randall that day. In the end, he figured that no amount of blame-placing changed the circumstances and they were all better off just accepting that there were many facets to this complicated tragedy.
He’d just begun reading from Luke when Ben heard a gentle tapping on the outside door and figured it was one of the hands there for their daily update. “I’m going to see who’s at the door and will be back in a bit, Adam,” he told his son as he left the room. He’d made up his mind that no matter what the doctor had said he was going to continue to include his son whenever he could.
Hugh was at the door, holding a revolver out for Ben’s inspection.
“Thought you might like to see the gun that shot Adam.”
“How’d you get it? Did Randall come back?”
“Nah, we got it off a drifter who came this way from Carson. Said he found a dead man by the side of the road and buried him, then took what little the man had and headed west again. Of course we recognized Randall’s horse as soon as the guy rode in with it.”
“Did he know how Randall died?” Hearing of the death made him curious, but gave him no satisfaction.
Hugh’s voice carried a tinge of gratification. “I think I might be responsible for that. The drifter said Randall’s hand was swelled up more’n twice normal size and looked black. I figure that’s the hand I plugged when he shot at Adam and it must have gone bad on him.” After a moment of reflection, he added, “Can’t say I’m sorry it happened and in some ways wish I could’a been there to watch the pain he was in, not that it makes any difference to nothin’.”
“I suppose it really doesn’t, but it’s good that he won’t be bothering us or anyone else after this. Thank you for letting me know.”
Hoss and Joe returned home as Hugh was riding out and the youngest came flying toward his father waving a slip of paper. “Pa! Hoss and me don’t need to go to school for two weeks. It says so in this note!”
Ben thought of correcting Joe’s grammar, but read the note instead. Dear Parents, Due to the number of children out for harvesting, school will be suspended for two weeks, resuming Monday, October 10th. “Seems like you’re right Little Joe. You don’t have school for a while, so you and Hoss can give me a little extra help around here. I think I’ll appreciate that very much.”
Hoss’ face fell. “Hmm, chores ain’t exactly what I was hopin’ we’d be doing, but I guess that’s fine, Pa.”
Ben looked up as he raised his axe to split another piece of firewood and saw a dust cloud in the distance indicating a wagon approaching. “Looks like we’re in for another round of company, boys,” he called to Hoss and Joe who were helping to stack the split logs near the kitchen for Hop Sing to use in his stove. “Better knock some of the dust off your duds and wash your faces before they arrive.”
Hoss gave an audible groan as they finished their dust-off and came to their father’s side just as the wagon began to wind its way into the outer section of the yard. “Dad burn, it’s Miss Jones! Wonder what she wants out here?” To Hoss’ way of thinking, the presence of their teacher could only carry bad news. “I thought we was to have a few days off, but maybe she’s changed her mind since yesterday.”
“Mind your manners, Hoss, and hush.” Ben could see that the wagon was occupied by two women, undoubtedly Miss Jones and her mother, who did everything together.
Ben watched the women with interest as the wagon pulled to a stop. Mrs. and Miss Jones had been in Virginia City about a year now. They’d come west with Mr. Jones, who was an assayer thinking he’d find great opportunities in California. But the patriarch had died on the trip, leaving his wife and daughter to fend for themselves. Virginia City was closest to where Mr. Jones had passed, prompting his wife to want to stay near to where her husband was buried. As far as Ben could tell, money wasn’t a problem and the two had settled into the boarding house while having a home built at the edge of town.
His first impressions at meeting the pair made him think that Mrs. Jones was a nice woman who held a very tight rein on her daughter, Abigail. To see the two next to one other, one would have guessed them to be sisters rather than mother and daughter. In most instances this comparison would mean that the mother looked young for her age, but in this case it was Abigail who dressed much like her mother and wore her hair in the fashion of older women, making her seem matronly. Ben figured Abigail was no more than 18 or 20 at the most, but couldn’t be sure.
At first he’d felt sorry for the young woman, thinking that she was perhaps forced to live as an old soul. He’d soon changed his position as he came to understand that she stood up for herself just fine, and began to suppose that rather than not having had the opportunity to be young and lighthearted, her mannerisms had merely indicated who she truly was. Ben remembered meeting the younger Jones woman for the first time and making the mistake of calling her Abby. She’d responded curtly, “I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright. You may call me Abigail or Miss Jones: either is fine, but Abby is simply unacceptable.”
Ben smiled as he approached the wagon to help the ladies down and was struck again by the severity of Abigail’s looks. Her mother’s features were softer, and brightened when the woman smiled, but Abigail was all points. It wasn’t that she was homely, but there was a sharpness to the cut of her nose, cheekbones and jaw, that made her appear to squint, and pulled her lips into a constant crease implying she had something sour in her mouth. He wondered briefly if she’d look different with her hair worn loose or curled around her face as younger women usually did, but realized that maybe this look truly did suit her best.
Reaching for Mrs. Jones’s hand, Ben asked, “What brings you ladies all this way on a fine fall day?”
Abigail spoke for the women. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Cartwright.” She looked over at her two pupils and added, “Hoss and Joseph, it’s good to see you using your free time wisely in helping with chores, but perhaps you could go into the house and tend to your studies for a bit while I speak to your father.”
The boys didn’t wait to be told twice and disappeared after extending their greetings. They liked Miss Jones but she didn’t put up with any horseplay and was strict with the children she taught. Hoss didn’t like school, but it wasn’t that he minded learning. Marie had taught him to read and do arithmetic and he enjoyed all of that; it was being penned up in a room all day doing it that drove him to distraction. He figured he’d learn so much more if he could just do things instead of listening to how others had already done them.
After Marie had died, Adam and Ben had tried to take over where she had left off with teaching the younger boys, but there was always so much to do that home schooling usually got pushed to the bottom of the heap. Since Virginia City wasn’t in a position to support a public school, there weren’t any other options. Adam had met Abigail in town and the two had developed a friendship based on their shared admiration of education. Once Adam found out that Abigail had earned her teaching certificate back East, he’d spoken to his father about making an offer to pay her to take Hoss and Joe on as pupils. Will Cass and a few other families had heard about the offer and had decided that it seemed a sound plan as well, and Abigail Jones soon had 8 children coming to class in a storage room at Cass’s store.
The younger Cartwright brothers often made fun of Miss Jones’s voice or mannerism with each other, but knew they couldn’t get away with doing it in front of their older brother. Hoss had once made the mistake of mimicking her and saying how plain she was, and received an upbraiding from Adam, who’d told him, “Any woman who uses her mind is beautiful, Hoss. It’s not fair to judge a person on looks. It’s what’s in their heads and hearts that’s important.” Hoss understood that was true, but also knew that his brother wasn’t quite as open-minded about the absence of a pretty face as he claimed to be. Adam might say that looks didn’t matter, and might even be very fond of Miss Jones’s brain, but Hoss never saw him give her a look like he did Becka Marks, the pretty blond from a ranch north of the Ponderosa.
Once the boys were in the house, Mrs. Jones offered, “We are so saddened to hear of young Adam’s plight. You must be devastated.”
Ben fully expected a dish of stew to be presented at any moment, but instead, Abigail took up the conversation.
“Hoss and Joe have told me that Adam remains in a sort of constant sleep.”
“That’s a pretty accurate description.”
Abigail tipped her head in a pose that from any other young woman might have seemed to convey concern, but on her, just made her look ill at ease. “They also told me that you’ve been reading from the textbooks Adam received from Boston, but that with all the work you do during the day and then with trying to stay by your son’s side through the night, you often fall asleep….” A soft giggle escaped as she added, “sometimes in mid-sentence.”
A red tinge brushed Ben’s cheeks as he thought about the talk he’d have to have with his younger sons about not carrying tales of their home life to school. “It embarrasses me to say so, but I’m afraid my young magpies are correct.”
“Well then, if that’s true…then about those books…I was wondering if you would let me have…”
It suddenly became clear what Miss Jones wanted, and Ben stopped her. “I think you’re a little premature, Miss Jones. Adam isn’t done with his books just yet, but should he not have further need…then I may let you have them.” What is it about this woman? She seemed so mousey, yet here she was, asking for his son’s books before the boy ever had the opportunity to use them. How dare she? She was just like everyone else who was waiting for his son to die…worse really, since she already had plans for his most cherished possessions. And that voice of hers: like metal rubbing against metal, her words clipped in a style that made him grit his teeth.
Ben had second thoughts about his outburst however as he waited to deal with the tears he was sure would come when the rebuke he’d just given her began to register, but was gratefully surprised as his words seemed to have no impact on the woman. In fact she began to titter in that metallic voice of hers.
“Oh dear, Mr. Cartwright, you must let me finish.”
“Forgive me, Miss Jones. It seemed you already had.”
“I wasn’t asking to have Adam’s books, but I would love to have the opportunity to read some of them. As you know, I will be free for the next two weeks and thought that mother and I might come out here each day so that I can read to Adam while you go about your ranch work. I assure you that it would be a far greater kindness to me than a service to you. It would be wonderful to actually read and share books that I might otherwise never experience, and do hope you will accept my offer.”
The father was speechless. He considered how Adam would respond to this stranger at his bedside. Would the boy find her voice grating as he did and cringe in whatever world he lived in now, or was it as the doctor had implied: that it wouldn’t matter anyway since Adam wasn’t aware enough to draw any conclusion. His heart was touched by this young woman as he realized that she had listened to Joe and Hoss, assessed that his family was in need and offered assistance to them in a way that would mean a great deal more than a plate of cookies. The choice was easy: Adam liked Abigail and shared a love of learning with her that overcame any negatives Ben could conceive.
“That’s a most kind offer, Abigail. I’m sorry I, ah, snapped at you a moment ago.” Ben felt a little of the weight rise from his shoulders with this woman’s generous offer and thought he should share the concerns that had prompted his harsh response. “You see, for a moment there I thought that you, like others who’ve stopped by, had come to the conclusion that Adam will never recover. Even the doctor has said that this all makes no difference: that even though Adam lives on, his mind has ceased to function and he can’t appreciate what we’re doing for him. So I ask you to respect that we believe Adam is still whole, even though he might be a little lost right now.”
Abigail moved directly in front of the grieving man and touched his arm. “Adam was one of the first people I met after we settled here. I was sad, lonely and confused over where my life would lead and never expected to find a person of such intelligence who appreciates the beauty of words as much as I do. Your son encouraged me to tell him about the books I love, told me about his studies and even mentioned that he was expecting that crate of books that I’ve heard so much about from the boys. Adam has such an eager mind that no bullet could have erased that, Mr. Cartwright. I believe that as long as he lives, that part of him must live on as well. By reading to him I will be able to return the kindness he showed me when I too, was a little lost.”
The young woman arrived at 10 on Monday morning as promised, accompanied by her mother who wished to avoid any hint of impropriety at Abigail being alone this house of men. Mrs. Jones bade the Cartwrights a good morning, looked around the living area and then stationed herself in Elizabeth’s comfortable chair with a basket of needlework at her side.
Abigail asked to be shown to Adam’s room, and once there, ceased to be the reserved schoolmarm as she drew herself up in an air of confidence. Walking to the bedside, she touched Adam’s hand, speaking directly to him. “Adam, it’s Abigail Jones. I’m most thrilled to be here today, as your father has given me permission to peruse your textbooks and read to you from them. I’m sure I won’t understand everything, but there should be many that we can enjoy together.”
Ben was amazed at this transformation and touched by her ability to so easily include Adam in her conversation. He watched as she moved to the shelf of books, chattering excitedly about the titles she found, but when nothing there seemed right to start with, she looked through the crate until exclaiming, “Ah, here’s the one: The Sonnets of Shakespeare.”
As she made herself comfortable, Ben gave her a few details of where she would find things around the house, made sure she knew that she and her mother were invited to lunch with them, and then left the two bibliophiles to headier purposes.
After exchanging a few pleasant words with Mrs. Jones, Ben begged his leave, but remembered that he’d left his coat in his room and headed back up to retrieve it. Nearing the top of the steps, he could hear a voice reading:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
Ben’s only question was: whose voice was it? Glancing in Adam’s room, he saw that it was indeed coming from Abigail Jones. Gone was the metallic twang; her voice was melodious and rich. Ben had heard such vocal changes before as those who had trouble speaking their own thoughts let themselves be transported by words that they didn’t have to create. He reasoned that perhaps Abigail’s nature made her try too hard when she was being herself, but in reading the beautiful words others had written she was freed of her self-consciousness and timidity.
When Ben answered the light rap on the door the second morning, Abigail flew past him into the house and up the steps with a prim smile and “Good morning, Mr. Cartwright,” tossed over her shoulder. He was impressed by her enthusiasm and felt encouraged by the presence of this young woman.
Ben and the boys spent that morning cleaning the barn and returned to the house only when their stomach’s indicated it was lunchtime. The three hungry males stopped in their tracks as they entered the kitchen and saw Mrs. Jones with a huge towel wrapped around her as an apron while she stood over the stove ladling soup into bowls.
The woman was humming and on noting the trio standing in the doorway, she beckoned them in, pointing to the table. “Everything’s ready: sit! Eat! I’ve already had mine, so I’ll keep peeling apples while you three dig in. There’s fresh bread on the table along with some apple butter I made with your cook this morning. Try it, I think you’ll like it!” When no one moved for a moment, she commanded, “Hurry now, or it’ll get cold.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Jones. Everything sure smells good.” Ben motioned the boys to the table as he asked, “Um, where is Hop Sing?”
“He took soup up to Adam and is sending Abigail down for her lunch. But it’s taking longer than I expected so I’ll go see if there’s a problem.”
After she disappeared up the steps, Hoss commented just loud enough for the others to hear, “If I wasn’t sure that was Mrs. Jones, I’d say it was Hop Sing wearin’ a dress!”
Little Joe giggled. “She sure talks just like him, don’t she?”
Ben had to keep himself from laughing too. “Mind your manners boys and eat your soup. I’m going to have a quick talk with our cook before I eat.” Thankfully he met the ladies as they were coming downstairs, and figured he’d have a few minutes of privacy with Hop Sing to find out what was going on.
Adam was propped in a sitting position while taking sips of the broth Hop Sing put to his lips. Ben was struck by how ordinary everything looked—like any other time one of the boys needed tending when they were ill for a brief time. What took his breath and made his heart ache each time he saw these very normal activities was that he knew they weren’t normal at all.
He was finally able to shake away the sadness to ask, “How was his morning?”
“Had cereal for breakfast, now soup. Do good. Maybe like Miss Abigail’s reading.” He snickered, “Much better than father snoring before he get two sentence done.”
“That’s probably true. Have you heard her up here? Her voice is so different when she reads; doesn’t even sound like the same person.” He watched a bit longer, willing his son to look at him: to open his eyes and see what was around him. Adam’s eyes had opened from time to time over the weeks, but there had been no recognition, and Ben had assumed it was more of what the doctor had explained: that Adam’s brain was sending signals his mind couldn’t interpret.
“Oh,” Ben remembered why he’d come upstairs. “I noticed that Mrs. Jones is busy working in the kitchen. She’s a guest in this house and I don’t think she should be doing chores for us.”
Hop Sing stopped to look at his boss. “That what I tell her. No help! Sit. Be guest.”
“And yet, she’s working.”
“Say she tired of sitting while everyone else busy. Not good for her to feel ‘useless’ and want to help too. I say no again, but she pick up knife and ask how I like apples cut.”
Ben smiled. Evidently his cook had met up with a powerful force. “I’m still surprised you didn’t tell her to leave. You don’t like anyone in that kitchen with you.”
Hop Sing’s eyes grew large. “I say again she no help, but she say if she can’t help, she not come anymore. And if she not come, Miss Abigail not come either. Then stood with hands on hips and ask for towel to cover clothes.”
“That was pretty sneaky. If she wouldn’t come, her daughter couldn’t come either, so you couldn’t refuse. Sounds like you’ve met your match. Are you getting along and being nice?”
A smile brightened the cook’s face. “She very nice lady! Always ask before doing so I tell her how I like. Good cook too. Show me new recipe for preserves call apple butter, and say we do same with pumpkin later in week. Mr. Hoss will like much. Also show how to make apple pie filling to put up. No work later when use it!”
Ben nodded. “Well I’m glad it’s working out. You could use a little help around here too.” Before leaving he walked to the bedside, laying his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I’ll see you later, son.”
Lunches became feats of culinary excellence over the next three days as the two compatriots of the kitchen exchanged ideas and recipes. Everyone seemed a bit sad as the week drew to a close, knowing there’d be a gap over the weekend until the two women returned on Monday.
Joe and Hoss stayed out of the house as much as possible while Abigail and her mother were there, but Miss Jones did round them up for studies at least once a day while she let Adam rest. Even then, Hoss didn’t mind because it reminded him more of the days when Marie would sit with them at the table to go over his lessons and then make up problems to help him remember. His favorites were the ones Marie created dealing with baby raccoons, chicks or just about any animal.
Hoss had told Miss Jones about Marie and how she’d taught them, and was so “doggoned excited” that she’d made up a few homespun problems herself. He told his father, “She weren’t so good at it as Mama was, but she tried, Pa, and that was sure nice of her.”
The second week continued as the first had ended. Hop Sing and Mrs. Jones continued to develop a camaraderie that Ben had never seen from his cook before. He knew there was no romance going on, just the closeness that develops between people with common interests and talents. The bond had grown so secure that Ben had been shocked by a jaw-dropping conversation he’d overheard earlier that day.
He’d entered the house quietly to sneak a piece of cake for himself and the boys as an afternoon snack. It was a chocolate nutty thing that had never graced the Cartwright table before and all three of them agreed that it was worth risking Hops Sing’s wrath to sneak a second piece. Hop Sing and Mrs. Jones were outside the window folding sheets and he’d heard Mrs. Jones begin the conversation.
“It certainly has been pleasant spending these days out here. I haven’t felt this useful in a very long time and will be sad to leave on Friday.”
“Hop Sing much grateful for help. Learn many new things.”
“My only regret is that Adam has not improved while we’ve been here. Perhaps the doctor is correct and he simply won’t recover…although it pains my heart to even entertain such a thought. But one must wonder how long he can go on sipping only broth…” Her voice trailed off with a poignant sigh.
“You wrong, lady. Mister Adam get better all the time. Look better, stronger. He wake up any day now. You see.”
“The Cartwrights are very fortunate to have you. And I hope that you’re correct about his progress. You know…” She paused as if checking to make sure they were truly alone. “After I met Adam and saw how taken my Abigail was with him, I got to thinking that she might make a suitable wife for him.”
That comment had sent Ben’s jaw plummeting, and he stood dead still so as not to give his position away before hearing Hop Sing’s response.
“You mean that?” the cook asked.
“Well, yes. What makes you ask?”
“Mister Adam just 17 now, much young to marry. Need school before even think of such thing.”
It was Hop Sing’s final thought though that helped Ben understand the trust these two strangers had developed as they’d worked together.
“Miss Abigail nice girl. Very smart. Pretty, but Adam marry beautiful woman like father did. All Mister Cartwright’s wives beautiful. You see pictures inside. Son marry like father.”
Ben expected that Mrs. Jones would be defensive over such thoughts, but her answer surprised him.
“I suppose you’re right about that. I think parents tend to see only the good things about their children and I’m no different. I’ve encouraged Abigail to dress in prettier, more youthful dresses and wear her hair differently, but she tells me that she’s satisfied with who she is and won’t change just to please a man. Yet because she is this way young men are often unkind to her. Adam was different. He made her feel happy about who she was. But I believe that you’re right. He will want a woman with a good mind, but one who will wear her beauty as easily as she wears her clothing and be graceful in social situations. That’s not my Abigail.”
“Miss Abigail find good man to marry. Be very happy. You see.”
The eavesdropper completed his mission and headed quickly out the front with his three slices of ambrosia so as not to be discovered. He’d learned a great deal about both the people out there folding clothes. Hop Sing had a heart as big as the Nevada Territory and wouldn’t be dissuaded from his hope that Adam would recover. The man had also been honest with Mrs. Jones about the likelihood of Abigail and Adam being a couple.
On the other hand, Mrs. Jones allowed herself to see Abigail realistically enough to know that her daughter might be more comfortable with a quieter life than Adam would offer. Overall, he was grateful that Hop Sing had helped the mother remove he expectations from Adam’s future.
That expectation was soon back in play as the younger member of the Jones family made her feelings clear in another conversation Ben “overheard.” He was beginning to feel like a fly on the wall, but reasoned that he couldn’t have removed himself from either eavesdropping session without making matters worse than simply standing by quietly.
Adam had become very restless the previous night, keeping Ben at his side. There had been other times when the boy had thrashed—had even seemed to be speaking to someone as his lips had moved in silence. Such times gave Ben hope that this was an indication of Adam’s fight to find his way back to them. However, as the night waned, the fighting had ceased with a return to that calm look of slumber. Ben’s frustration had bubbled over as he’d hollered at Adam, “Fight, son! Conquer this once and for all! You can’t go on this way forever!” Even now he shuddered as he recalled the harshness in his tone. And the worst part was that as he’d pronounced his frustration verbally, he’d begun to think that perhaps Doctor Fredericks would be proven correct after all. Ben had begun to ask himself some hard questions: Was he truly losing his patience and beginning to doubt that anything they were doing would pay off? Was Adam’s condition too difficult to deal with by themselves? Was he losing faith that Adam would ever be whole again?
Toward dawn, Hop Sing had entered, and after giving father and son a quick assessment, had whispered, “Bad night?”
“You could say that.”
“Bad for you, or bad for son? You look worse than him. Go sleep. I stay here now.”
It hadn’t taken another prompt for Ben to move to his own room where he’d dropped onto his bed and slept as images from the night plagued his mind. Yet within the torment was a soft voice telling him to forgive himself—for all of it: not stopping Adam from taking the gun, not being there when he was shot, not recognizing that the boy was in serious peril as he demanded an explanation for his actions, and finally for his impatience in Adam’s recovery. The voice had told him to rest, and then had promised that Adam was fine and just needed a little more time.
He awakened hours later and checked his clock to see that the morning had already passed to mid-day. As he recalled the dream that had lulled him into sleep, he realized again how complicated the human mind truly was. In his anguish at hollering at his son, his own mind told him what he needed to hear, but in a way that he would accept it: it was Elizabeth’s voice he’d heard and with her kind words he had rested fully for the first time in weeks.
As he’d risen and readied for the remainder of the day, he heard another voice: this time it wasn’t the beautifully toned Abigail as she continued to read about Roman history, but rather her own tinny voice as she spoke haltingly. A few words drifted in through his door as he realized that this was a very private conversation. Yet if he moved or exited, she would suspect that he had heard and would probably be very embarrassed, so he stayed put and tried to think of other things; the harder he tried to not listen, the more he heard…
“This is my last day here, and it has been a most wonderful two weeks, Adam. I can’t help but wonder what you think about as you sleep. Do you know that I’m here? Have you understood the books that I’ve read to you?” Abigail paused before saying what was in her heart. “I know that we’re very different people, but since I first met you, I’ve wondered whether you could ever think about me in any other way but as a friend. I suppose it doesn’t matter, for when you awaken, you will leave for school, and I will remain here, stuck in a life colorless and lonely without you. But if you should ever wonder whether I care for you, Adam, the answer is yes.”
Ben waited until Abigail had settled back into reading from the history text before he slipped silently from his room and headed outside. As he thought about what he’d just heard, he felt that Hop Sing and Mrs. Jones were right about Adam. Ben could not foresee a time when he would choose a girl like Abigail Jones—not because his son was overly concerned with looks—but because Adam would choose a woman who was more secure about herself than Abigail: an equal in all ways. Ben’s sympathy went out to Abigail for he knew that somewhere in her heart she wanted a fairy tale ending that would never be.
He appreciated the help the Jones women had given his family, but reasoned it was time for them to move on. He applied that same reasoning to himself as well as he began to make plans.
Doctor Fredericks arrived at the Cartwright house in the third week of October, and after examining Adam declared him to be in very good shape, but still held no hope of further improvement.
“Have you continued reading to your son?” he asked of Ben, before correcting his statement to, “I mean, have you continued reading to Adam?” The old doctor smiled as he noted, “I remember what you told me about using Adam’s name. I’m afraid that physicians often forget that the patient they’re treating is more than a list of symptoms and responses, and I suppose we become frustrated and distant when we can’t find the answers to make things better. I apologize for speaking about Adam instead of to him.
Ben was gratified by the confession. “Thank you, doctor. I think I’ve had time to think about a few things you said as well, and some of them do make sense.”
“I still believe that including Adam in our daily lives is important, but you were correct: it takes a lot of time and we’re all getting worn. I try to stay with him all night, but sleeping in a chair isn’t restful. As I plod through the day I’m often short with everyone, making them think I’m angry when I’m really just tired.”
“Have you decided that Adam should be placed in a hospital? There is a good one in St. Louis as well as one run by a religious order in San Francisco.”
A look of horror flashed over Ben’s face. “That still isn’t an option. We’re nearing fall roundup and once that’s done I’ll have more time. But I have sent inquiries to find an orderly who would come to stay with us. Hop Sing can’t keep handling Adam and the household, and I need to spend more time with the boys and on the ranch. We’ll manage until we can find someone suitable, but for now I’ve decided that Adam can be alone through the night. It’ll be hard…on me, but if I truly believe that things should feel ordinary to him, then sitting at his side every night isn’t how things would normally be.”
“It seems like you’ve put a great deal of thought into this. It’s important for you to rest, and since your room is near, you’ll hear anything that seems out of the ordinary. It won’t be easy, but you’ll come to understand that you’re not abandoning Adam by taking better care of yourself and your other obligations.”
Fall roundup was upon him much too soon and as uneasy as he felt about being gone a few days, Ben knew that he had to help bring the herd down from the high country and get them into the south pasture for the winter. As he made plans for his absence, he arranged for Hoss and Little Joe to stay with the Smyth family, freeing Hop Sing to care for Adam without other worries.
Ben lingered at Adam’s bedside before leaving on the morning the drive was to begin. “I sure wish you were coming along, son. The men keep asking about you. They miss you being out there with them; they miss your songs too. Hugh says they’ve tried to make up their own words like you used to, but no one can do it like you. Your brothers will be staying with the Smyths so they can get to school, but Hop Sing will be here with you. He’s even promised to read to you in his own tongue, something you’ve always enjoyed hearing.
I’ll be gone four days if all goes well, and then we’re pretty much ready for winter.”
Dropping to one knee, he touched his forehead to his son’s. “I have to go now, Adam.” His voice cracked as he added, “I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
Ben accepted the concept of premonition and at times “felt” things more than knew them, but he wasn’t prone to take much stock in such forewarnings—believing that you made your own fate by good decisions and consideration of the facts. Yet as he descended the stairs, he was enveloped by a certainty that things were about to change. He stopped briefly as he looked around his home one last time, then shook off the ominous feeling and headed out the door.
The foreboding that had chilled Ben at his departure was born out on the third day of the drive.
They’d reached grazing land that was a reasonable ride to the ranch and Hugh had suggested, “Why don’t you head home tonight, Mr. Cartwright. I know you’re itching to check on Adam, and you can easily ride back tomorrow to go over the final details. We’ll get along fine without you.”
Ben had gratefully accepted the suggestion and was going over a few last items with Hugh when they saw a horse approaching fast from the direction of home. The rider was small, dressed in gray, and the two men looked to each other as they each spoke, “Hop Sing.”
Both Hugh and Ben ran to meet the wild-eyed cook as he brought the horse to a halt and began talking a mile-a-minute. “Everything fine this morning. Take care Mister Adam like always. Everything fine still. But go check now and he gone!”
Hugh looked to see how Ben was handling the news, ready to lend a shoulder to lean on if the man needed one. He saw his boss pale, then draw himself up to face the loss as he faced everything: head on.
Ben finally replied, “Thank you, Hop Sing. I was just getting ready to return home when you came so why don’t you go on ahead. I’ll finish up and be along in few minutes.
The cook looked confused and reiterated his earlier news. “But Mister Adam is gone! You come now!”
“I heard what you said, but I’ll be able to deal with this better once I know Hugh and the men can finish up without me returning. I’d ask you to wait, but I’d prefer to make the ride home alone.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Hop Sing muttered in an unintelligible mix of languages, turned his horse and took off toward the house.
Ben rode into the yard no more than 15 minutes after Hop Sing had arrived. As he tied his horse, Ben’s eyes were drawn as they had been for the last six weeks, to the window above him. In his heart he knew he would continue this ritual for some time to come even though his reason had changed from hope to despair. He sighed deeply as he dismounted and headed inside.
Hop Sing stood at the top of the stairs motioning for him to hurry.
The grieving father entered the room, his heart beating wildly as he saw the tangled mess of covers…but nothing else. He asked with concern, “You moved him already? Where did you take him?”
Pointing toward the empty bed, Hop Sing explained again, “I not take him anywhere. He gone, like I say.”
“What?” Ben roared. “What do you mean, he’s gone. I thought you meant he died!”
“He just gone. Come up to give water and he nowhere. Check house, barn. Look everywhere, but he gone.”
The color drained from Ben’s face as he sat on the bed. “Who would do such a thing?”
“No one come. Hop Sing in house or just outside all day. Hear if horses come to house. No one come. This crazy!”
“That’s one way to describe it! If you didn’t hear anything, then they must have come quietly, maybe watching until you were busy with something before sneaking inside.” Ben shook his head repeating, “But who would do such a thing. Who would be that cruel?”
“Hop Sing have no answer. No see anything.”
“Let’s approach this rationally and start by looking for clues. Is there anything missing?”
The cook eyed his boss skeptically. “Seem to be missing son. That pretty big anything.”
Ben’s lips pinched in a line of frustration as his eyes narrowed. “Perhaps something besides Adam? Maybe something in here or downstairs? ”
“Not notice. No find son, look quick around house and yard, then go find you.”
“Let’s search the house first and move on from here.”
The two looked through the other bedrooms, moving down to the lower room without finding evidence of foul play or the missing boy. It was as Ben left the front door that he hit pay-dirt. In the dust he found footprints made by someone who was barefoot. His breathing came in short bursts of hope as he considered that perhaps Adam had actually gone from the house on his own two feet since there were no other prints to indicate that he was accompanied by anyone else.
“Looks like he went toward the barn.” There was no containing his excitement as Ben took off in a run with Hop Sing at his heels. “They disappear at the barn door; there’s not enough dust to get an imprint. You look in the loft and I’ll check down here.”
Ben saw nothing unusual as he made a hasty search and was about to move to the shed when he caught sight of something he’d missed on his first pass. A bulky wagon harness was hanging in the far end of the empty stall where Adam’s horse was normally kept, but otherwise the area seemed empty. As he stopped to look more closely, Ben noted the striped fabric of a nightshirt behind the collar.
Heart pounding and his mouth so dry he could barely speak, he approached the crumpled mass of his son. Thoughts roiled in his mind as he contemplated how the boy had gotten there. Adam was sitting deep in the straw, head leaning against the wall, seemingly still in the state of sleep he’d been in since the injury. He had obviously walked as evidenced by the footprints, leaving Ben wondering if the boy was capable of wandering in his sleep. The alternative was that he’d actually awaken, but Ben was fearful of hoping for that, mindful of the disappointment it would generate if not true. He finally decided there was only one way to find out which option had brought Adam outside.
Crouching next to his son, Ben reached out to touch his shoulder. “Adam, can you hear me?” The absence of a response sent the man’s heart plummeting. He looked away to call out, “Hop Sing, come down here. I’ve found him and I’ll need help getting him back to the house.” As he heard the cook begin his descent from the loft, Ben turned again toward Adam, and nearly toppled backward in shock. His son’s eyes were open and he was awake! “Adam?” he held the boy’s shoulders. “Adam, do you hear me?”
The boy began to shiver as he responded in staccato, “Sure…I hear…you, Pa. Why did…did…didn’t you wake me up this morning?”
Hop Sing grabbed blankets from the tack box, tucking them around the boy.
Once he warmed up, Adam began a litany of questions and accusations that flowed like lava down a hillside. “What’s going on? Where is everyone? Why didn’t someone wake me up? And where are my clothes? I couldn’t find anything to wear and someone’s been in my room going through my things…” Those thoughts hung in the air as a look of fear replaced his growing confusion, and his voice broke in a strangled sob, “Pa, What’s wrong with me? I’m so tired and I can’t figure anything out?” Reaching for his father’s arms, he lamented , “I don’t even know why I’m out here.”
Realizing that the father and son needed to be alone, Hop Sing offered, “I go inside. Warm food and tea, fix bed.”
Settling in next to his son, Ben wrapped an arm around Adam’s shoulder and drew him near. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Adam thought for a moment, “I woke up and wanted to get dressed, but I couldn’t find any of my clothes. I thought maybe the rest of you were still sleeping, so checked, but both bedrooms were empty so I went back to my room and noticed that things were rearranged and thought Hoss and Little Joe had been playing around and went downstairs to find them. There was no one there either. I guess I must have come out here then.”
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here when you awoke. I think you must have just missed Hop Sing. He was probably looking for you while you were looking for him. Do you remember anything from before today?”
Adam reached for his shoulder, “I got shot yesterday, didn’t I? I was explaining to you why I’d taken the gun…and then…it’s a blank. It wasn’t much of a wound—even feels really healed up already. I must have slept hard last night…had some odd dreams…and everything still seems fuzzy. My mother was reading to me…you were too. Mostly, I felt like I was lost in a canyon. I could hear voices in the distance that I recognized—yours, Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing…and tried to walk toward them. But the faster I walked, the farther away your voices seemed. I tried not to be scared, Pa, but I couldn’t wake up from it and after a while I thought I was really lost.”
Ben drew Adam in a quick embrace before leaving briefly to retrieve the clothing the boy had been wearing the night his journey into darkness had begun. He’d meant to discard it, but had left it in the barn all this time, perhaps knowing it would be needed at some point. “I know this is going to be hard to understand, but here’s what’s been happening. You were shot—just as you recall, but it was a month and a half ago, not last night. That bullet did more damage that you realized and while you worked the herd that day, your shoulder started to bleed. This is what you were wearing.” Ben gave Adam the stiff, blood-stained shirt, and the jacket—with its heavy sheepskin lining, dyed a deep amber-red with his blood. “Hugh and I figure that this lining absorbed so well that you didn’t even realize you were bleeding, and by the time you got to camp that night, you’d bled so much that…well let’s just say it was a miracle you survived.”
Adam held the coat to examine it, but then pushed it away as visions of what had transpired that day played on the edges of his memory. “This happened a month and a half ago… six weeks?”
“Closer to seven actually.”
“What have I been doing all that while?”
“It seemed you were sleeping, but it wasn’t something we could wake you from. The doctor who’s been out here a couple of times was pretty sure you’d never wake up, but we all held out hope that you’d find your way back, and it sounds like you were trying to do that.”
“I don’t know what to say.” The young man reached out and touched his father’s face. “I still feel like I’m in that dream, like this is all just another part of it. I want to believe this is real…that it’s over…but it’s all illusive.” Adam’s hand fell back to his lap as his voice dropped to little more than a whisper, “I still don’t know that this is real, Pa.”
Ben wrapped his arms around his son and pulled him close. “It’s real, Adam. Don’t worry any more. You can feel the warmth of my skin, my heart beating…you don’t feel things like that in a dream. I’m as real as it gets, and you’re safe now.”
For the first time in many years, Adam laid his head on his father’s shoulder and held on as he began to regain his own strength from the power he found in the arms that enfolded him. He asked without raising his head, “Pa, if I’ve been asleep for weeks, why am I still so tired? And I must have missed so much, yet it seems like I know things that happened—not just what was happening in the dream, but actual things. It’s so hard to figure what’s true and what isn’t.”
Gently breaking away, Ben raised Adam’s face to address his child’s concerns. “You weren’t really sleeping, son. It was a type of sleep but I think your body was healing and that takes a lot of energy. You don’t get through something like you’ve just experienced without being exhausted. As to your other question, there might be a reason you’re aware of what’s been going on.’”
“We continued to talk to you while you slept—read to you, and kept you up on all the changes and activities around here. I always assumed that you might be more alert than your condition indicated.”
“I remember my mother reading to me, but that can’t be, so maybe I’m putting parts of that dream together with the other things you did.”
Ben chuckled as he explained, “Your mother may have come to you in your dreams, Adam. In fact I dreamed of Elizabeth myself during that time. But it was probably Abigail Jones’s voice you heard reading to you. She has a lovely reading voice and spent two weeks here going over some of your textbooks. Abigail wanted to help and when she found out that we were reading to you, she knew it was the best way to offer her assistance. Her mother came along too and Mrs. Jones and Hop Sing became good friends.”
“That was a thoughtful gesture. It is strange how different she sounds when she reads, isn’t it? She worries and frets over everything when she speaks, while her voice rises to a most offensive tone, but when she reads, her words come from a different place…especially if she’s reading a love story.” Adam noted that a look of sadness washed briefly across his father’s face. “What’s wrong, Pa?”
Ben smiled. “Nothing’s wrong. I had pretty much the same thoughts about Abigail. She has so many fine traits, and yet it’s the abrasive ones that others tend to focus on, and that’s a shame. I worry that she’ll have trouble finding someone who can appreciate the good things enough to overlook the others.”
“I’m not sure who that someone will be or when he’ll get here, but he’ll come. I know one thing for certain…”
“It won’t be me.” Adam chuckled. “Now if we could just find someone who’s a knight—a prince disguised as a commoner—a minstrel of song…like in her favorite stories—then she’ll be happy.”
While Ben offered no more to the conversation, he did chuckle along with his son, relieved to hear his remarks concerning the lady, Abigail. “Are you sturdy enough to head inside?”
“I guess so… Pa, is Randall really dead? I dreamed that I saw a grave marker with his name, but it seems real that he’s dead.”
“As far as we know, he is. I told you that Hugh met a man that said he’d found Randall dead on the side of the road: probably from an infection in his hand.”
The exhaustion of trying to sort out what was real or simply dreamed caused Adam to begin shivering again.
Ben rose and helped the boy to stand using his strength to shore up the little that Adam was able to muster. “Let’s get you inside. I’ll answer everything you want to know once you’ve warmed up. It’s late October you know, and too chilly to be roaming around outside in your nightshirt.” He wrapped the blankets around his son again and gathered him to his side to help him walk.
As they began the journey, Adam countered, “There’s a good reason for me being out in my nightshirt, Pa: where are my clothes? I wanted to get dressed, but couldn’t find anything to put on!”
“They’re in a box under my bed. We didn’t want Miss Jones to be uncomfortable in the presence of your personal things.”
“I can see Abigail being a little uneasy looking at my long-johns.” Adam’s voice turned serious again, “Pa, about that other thing that was under your bed… I honestly can’t remember much from that night right now, so had we come to an understanding about that?”
“Six weeks is a long time to think about things, son. I didn’t want you to have the Colt because I was afraid of what might happen: and it did. You showed disrespect in going behind my back and risking your life. Through all this time, I kept thinking that none of this would have happened if you’d trusted me.”
Adam nodded as Ben continued. “On the other hand, as you said that night, I was offering way too many ‘what ifs’ while you just had to act with the information you had. You’d decided you had to stand alone and I don’t think any amount of reason would have dissuaded you from that. It’s just who you are, son, and perhaps…you’re just like me.”
Ben stopped and turned his son to face him. “You should be dead right now. There’s no way you should have survived what you went through, and yet, here you are, standing on your own two feet: a little worse for wear, but whole. Your life is a gift…to both of us, so I’m not going to waste time being angry. I don’t ever want you to lose your fire, Adam, but I do think you have a lot to learn about using it safely.”
Adam realized he’d been holding his breath during his father’s explanation. As he breathed out he asked the question that was most important to him, “Pa, will you ever forgive me?”
“Will I forgive you? Adam, I forgave you the moment you walked into camp that evening.”
Ben could see Adam’s face relax with the admission. “Hugh helped me see that you acted in the way you thought was expected of you in the circumstances. I didn’t agree with that reasoning at first, but when I saw you standing there, looking somehow older and wiser from the sadness that follows such experiences, I realized that I was looking at myself. I’m afraid I’m just as impulsive, head strong and willing to risk everything to make things right. You made some good decisions and some really bad ones, but you made them from a place of goodness. That’s what I finally realized and understood. You had to balance your betrayal of my trust with the greater good you thought you could accomplish.
“I’m sorry, Pa. Going behind your back was the one thing I couldn’t get around, but I couldn’t tell you what was happening until it was over: I had to do it on my own.”
Ben finished his thoughts as they resumed their progress, “I can’t wait to see how that singular resolve of yours will play out in your life. There are two things I’m certain of: one is that you’ll never be shaken from your principles, convictions or decisions, and the other is that we’ll butt heads over that many times to come.”
As they neared the door, Adam asked one last question. “Pa, you said that I shouldn’t have lived after what happened, so did you believe I would survive? When I first woke up and couldn’t find anyone, and my clothes and horse were gone, it felt as though I didn’t have a place here anymore: like I was a ghost walking where I used to live, but that you’d removed the evidence of my having been here. I felt so alone”
“I’m sure that things seem a little off-plumb for you right now, but never doubt that we were all here waiting and praying, certain of your return. You’re not alone anymore. You’re home where you belong…at least for another five months.”
Entering the house, Adam made his way across the room and collapsed in his mother’s chair. His face had brightened with his father’s last comment. “I’d forgotten about that. You have no reservations about letting me go after what’s just happened?”
“I have hundreds of reservations, but you’re a man now, and you need to do what you need to do. But how about you refrain from taking castor oil or getting shot during your remaining time at home.”
Adam’s smile was broad as he saluted. “Aye, aye, Captain. I shall remain with my nose in my books, my shoulder to the grindstone and out of trouble.” As Hop Sing entered the room with a tray of food, Adam quickly added a solemn, “Thank you, Pa.”
The clatter of dishes as Hop Sing set the tray down, followed by the barrage of orders to his charge to eat and drink, gave Ben a chance to head upstairs where he grabbed the box of Adam’s clothes from under his bed. As he rearranged heavy text books on the shelves to make room for the clothing, the father was struck again by the silence in Adam’s room. But he sighed in thankfulness as he realized that it was now the silence of promise. One heavy tome tipped as he work, sending a picture of Elizabeth flying from the shelf. Catching it as it plummeted, Ben smiled while touching the image of his first wife, saying, “Maybe you were here reading to your son after all, my love. I miss you so much when I have to face Adam’s peril alone, but I think miss you most when I can’t share my joy with you. All I know for sure is that this child of ours is a most precious gift.”
Next Story in the It’s Only a Year Series:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
Other Stories by this Author
- It’s Only a Year – The Final Trial – A Lesson in Mettle #5 (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – The Worst of Consequences – A Lesson in Choice #3 (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – He Said What? – Lessons in Understanding #1 (by MissJudy)
- It’s Only a Year – The Castor Oil Caper – Lessons in Humility #2 (by MissJudy)
- Say Something – Lessons of the Heart (by MissJudy)