Summary: Three vignettes from the time after Inger Cartwright’s death.
Rated: K+ Word count: 2580
A Time For Grieving
Ben finished diapering Hoss and placed him in the large basket that served as the baby’s cradle. Straightening, he scanned the area for Adam. Not seeing the boy immediately, he stepped away from the wagon and called softly. Only the night sounds of the camp answered. Ben bit his lip and debated a louder shout, but many of the younger children were already bedded for the night, so he took a few steps and gazed around again.“Adam!” The call did not carry half the strength or volume of his usual bellow, but in the darker recess between their wagon and the Ames’s, Ben’s eyes caught a quick movement. “Adam!” His voice was no louder though the tone was sharper.
“Pa?” The six-year-old appeared out of the darkness slightly breathless and sliding to a halt in front of his father. Something in his son’s stance nudged Ben into lowering his voice and demanding, “What were you doing?”
“You were standing in the dark doing nothing?”
Adam’s chin dropped, and he shifted nervously. “Umm, well, no, I guess…um, I was just, uh, you know, Pa, I was just going.” He shifted again and kept his eyes on Ben’s boots.
Ben studied the child. “What happens when you lie to me, Adam?”
“I. . .I wasn’t really lying, Pa. I did go.” Adam felt his father’s hand on his chin and found himself looking up into a frowning face. “I wasn’t doing nothing wrong, Pa; really I wasn’t.”
“I want to know precisely what you were doing, Adam Stoddard.”
Adam swallowed. “I was. . .please, Pa; it wasn’t bad.”
Ben’s left hand reached out and took Adam by the upper arm turning him slightly. The movement brought more light to Adam’s face, and the dejection there stopped Ben’s right hand. He dropped to his heels and placed a hand on each side of his son’s waist. “Adam.” This time the soft, rich sound of Ben’s voice wrapped around his son. Adam sniffed, and Ben pulled the child into his arms. “What is it, son? Tell pa.”
“I was talking to Mama.” The words were barely a whisper, but they struck Ben with the force of a gale.
“I see,” he managed to respond, and then, in one smooth motion, stood lifting the child in his arms.
Adam buried his face in his father’s shoulder, his words closer to a whimper than a declaration. “I miss her.”
Ben’s arms tightened. “So do I, son; so do I.”
“I want her, Pa; I want her with me!” Adam words dissolved into sobs. Ben started to murmur wordlessly and pat the small back while fighting back his own despair. Unable to form any wise words of comfort, he carried his son back to the pallet that had been laid out for the night. Sitting on the woolen blankets, he held Adam until there were no more tears only watery sniffs and small hiccups. When even these ceased, he thought Adam asleep and lowered him onto the pallet.
“Pa, you can’t touch a star.”
“What?” He stared at Adam in puzzlement as the boy sat up and faced him.
“Mrs. Endicott has a remembrance.”
“She wears it every day.”
Ben’s mind shuffled thoughts and pluck out the correct one. Mrs. Endicott was a widow traveling with her married son and his family. She wore her husband’s signet ring on a chain around her neck. “So she does.”
“I don’t have a remembrance, Pa.”
“And you’re wanting one?”
Adam nodded and then held his breath.
“Well,” Ben thought frantically. “Well, let’s see. Perhaps. . .” Ben rose and walked slowly to the back of the wagon and climbed inside. It seemed like hours to Adam before his father returned and sat down beside him again. Ben placed his hand in front of his son and opened it. Curled on his palm was a blue silk ribbon. Adam’s hand came up, and he stroked it gently with one finger.
“Mama’s hair ribbon.”
“Yes.” Pictures of Inger flashed through Ben’s mind. “It will fit in a boy’s pocket, and you can touch it whenever you want.”
“I won’t lose it, Pa.” It was a vow.
“I know you won’t, son.” Then Ben allowed himself a small smile. “And ribbons don’t break.”
“No, Pa, they don’t, so Hoss can touch it too. If I hold it, he can touch it too.”
“Yes, he can.”
“Thanks, Pa.” The hug Adam gave his father was swift and short. The one Ben gave Adam was much longer.
The jar had broken. The break had not shattered the container or caused its collapse. No, the long thin crack had simply allowed the contents to mold unseen until both the jar and all it held were worthless. Ben turned the jar slowly in his hand, and then in one convulsive gesture threw it. Crashing against the rocks, the contents splattered; red stains spreading across the ground.
“Pa? Pa!” Adam dropped the kindling he had just gathered and ran back toward the wagon. He skidded to a stop staring at his father’s back. “Pa,” he called again, but his father made no answering gesture. The boy took another step forward and then realization hit him. He’s crying! Pa’s crying! The thought struck a deep chord of fear within the child, and he froze. “Pa.” This time the syllable was more of a whimper than a word.
“See to Hoss.” The words were garbled and spoken without Ben turning toward the boy.
Adam watched his father stumble away from the wagon and ran to snatch up his brother from their pallet. The startled baby began to wail. Patting Hoss’s bottom and murmuring softly, Adam fought his own tears.
Ben approached his wagon hesitantly. He located his sons sleeping on their pallet and then recognized the woman sitting beside them. She rose and gestured for him to follow her.
“I’ve some stew left,” Aida Ames said simply heading toward her own fire.
“Feed them an hour ago. They’re both sleeping.”
“I, I. . .”
“Can tell me as you’re eating.” Aida walked to the fire and proceeded to fill a plate from the pot that hung over it. She handed it to Ben.
“I,” Ben began and then sighed. “There’s no excuse. Leaving them. . .”
“They’re fine; you knew there were folks here.”
“Still, I . . .” His words fell away.
“Adam said you were crying. Since you went away to lick your wounds, I’d venture it weren’t a bodily injury.” Ben shook his head. Aida inched closer. “What happened?”
“I. . . it was ruined. . .I. . .” The fork in Ben’s hand clattered against the tin plate. “Stupid! Silly and stupid!” He slammed the plate to the ground as he stood.
Aida caught his arm. “I’d let it be, Ben, if it wasn’t for those two boys. Prodding a person’s grief, well, usually I’d mind my own business, but, well, you scared Adam clean through and deep, so,” she took a deep breath, “so I ain’t letting you just walk off and stew in your misery. I ain’t telling you I know how it is with you losing Inger and her being your second and all, but I do know loss, Ben. I’ve put parents, and sisters, and my own boy in the ground. Grief eats at you from the inside unless you spill it out.”
He took a step away, but her grip only tightened, and he answered, “It was the preserves, a blasted jar of preserves.”
“The last of the ones Inger put up to bring with us. The jar cracked, and they spoiled.”
“Oh.” It was a soft utterance of understanding. “Things break, and things spoil, and one by one what they left us seems to go too.”
“When I looked at it, everything. . .it was like everything else that got wasted. I was so angry!”
“You’ve a right to be.”
“From time to time. Did you smash it?’
“Against the rocks.”
“Good. Won’t change a thing, but still. . .” She smiled. “Only things you need to worry don’t get broke are those two boys of yours. That’s where Inger left all the love you need to keep you going.” Her gaze went to the dim outline of the sleeping boys, and Ben’s followed.
“Adam was scared?”
“You’ll have to talk to him in the morning. Wouldn’t hurt for him to let out some grief of his own.”
“He tries so to be brave.” There was a great deal of weariness but a hint of pride in Ben’s tone.
“There’s a good bit of his father in that boy, a good bit.” Aida patted Ben’s shoulder. “Now finish that stew, or you’ll be feeling the sharp side of my tongue.”
“Yes, m’am,” Ben answered turning back and picking up the plate once again. Taking a mouthful, he chewed slowly and swallowed. “Thank you, Aida.”
“No need, Ben, no need. She wasn’t my friend for very long, but she was a good friend nonetheless, a good friend and a good woman.” She walked to the back of her wagon as Ben ate. Returning she reached out her hand and offered Ben a jar. The firelight flickered in the glass causing the contents to glow ruby red, “For the boys. I make mighty fine preserves if I do say so myself.
Ben smiled and accepted the gift. When he returned to his wagon, he wrapped the jar in cloth to prevent cracking.
Truth and Promises
Adam watched the darkening sky and chewed his lower lip. Hearing his name, he turned his head to look back over his shoulder. Mrs. Ames stood behind him holding Hoss on her right hip.
“He’ll be back shortly, child. Don’t you worry none.” Aida Ames reached out her hand toward the boy. “Come eat some supper now.”
Adam made no move to take the proffered hand. “But Pa. . .”
“Can eat when he gets back; we’ll keep it warm for him.” Aida gestured with her hand, and when Adam still did not move added firmly, “Adam Cartwright, will I need to be telling your pa of your not minding?”
“No, m’am,” Adam turned and followed her glancing back only once in the hope of seeing his father’s approach.
“Now, sit down and eat up, Ben. You must be plum starving!”
Taking a plate of stew from Aida’s hand, Ben thanked her and sat down beside the fire. “Can’t deny that I’ve been thinking about your stew since sundown.”
“Have a biscuit too and some coffee. Good thing you and Sam had some luck hunting. Meat supply was getting real low, real low.”
With his mouth full, Ben nodded. Sam Ames joined them, and Ben relaxed as he filled his stomach.
Washing down the last bite with a large swallow of coffee, Ben sighed. “The boys didn’t give you any trouble, did they?”
“Those two? Not a mite, Ben, not a mite. That Hoss is about the sweetest tempered babe I’ve ever seen. His smile is just a joy, just a pure joy.”
“I can’t thank you enough for all your help with him since. . . Well, I just don’t know what I would have done without your help and that of the other ladies.”
“Now, don’t start in about that, Ben. Lord wants us to do what we can for each other, and you do more than your share for this wagon train.”
“Still, I do thank you.” Aida made a dismissive gesture, and Ben let the matter drop. “And my other scamp, did he behave himself?”
Aida straightened, and a serious look settled on her face.
“He didn’t misbehave, did he?”
“No, no, he’s a good boy, Ben.” Her fingers twisted the cloth of her apron. “Ben, when you were late coming; well, he was fretting more than a boy his age should.” She shook her head. “More than a boy his age should. Still, I expect, well, what with. . .with all that’s happened.” She shook her head again and offered both men another cup of coffee. Ben declined and headed to his own wagon.
“Pa? Pa, is that you?”
“Yes, Adam, it’s me,” Ben answered and then went down on his heels beside the pallet where his son lay.
“Did you get some meat, Pa?”
“Yes. A large deer and some smaller game. Took time to get it all back here.”
“That’s why you was late?”
“Yes. That’s why. Now tell me why you’re not sleeping, young man. Mrs. Ames told me she put you down over an hour ago.”
“I just. . .I couldn’t. . .I was waiting for you. I’ll be good and go to sleep now, Pa, right now.” Adam tugged up the blanket covering him and squeezed his eyes shut.
Ben rubbed his chin and settled into a seated position. “Adam.”
Adam opened his eyes to see his father’s arms reaching toward him. He scrambled up and onto his pa’s lap. “I’m glad you’re back,” he declared snuggling against Ben’s chest.
Ben rubbed the back beneath his hand and rested his chin on Adam’s curls. “Were you worried, Adam?”
“Yeah.” The single syllable was nearly lost in the cloth of Ben’s shirt.
“Because you thought I might not come back?”
Ben stifled the urge to give false assurances. “Were you worried about what would happen if I didn’t?” He felt Adam’s head nod. Ben sighed; then he lifted the child away from him, so they could look each other in the eye. “It’s time I told you about something, Adam, now that you’re a big boy.”
Adam straightened. “I am big now, Pa.”
“And that is why I won’t tell you that nothing could ever happen to me. I shall try my hardest to make sure that nothing does, but. . .well, I shall not tell you that it could not. I shall tell you, though, that you and Hoss will not be left alone in the world.”
“Who would take care of us, Pa?”
“Grandfather? But he’s in Boston.”
“Yes, he is, and until you could go to him our friends would care for you. Several of the families on this train know where I keep all the information about how to reach him, and they would send Hoss and you to him.”
Adam dropped his eyes before asking, “What if he didn’t want us?”
Ben placed his hand under Adam’s chin and lifted it. “He loves you, Adam, and he has already promised that you and Hoss would always having a loving home with him.”
“Yes, he has. For that matter, so has your Uncle John.”
“Yes, he and your aunt would love you and raise you with their son if for some reason your grandfather could not.”
“Oh.” It was a small sound in the darkness.
Ben cupped Adam’s face in his hands. “It would be hard, son, very hard, I know, but you and Hoss would have each other and a good home and three angles to watch you always.”
“You have it all written down?”
“Yes, and tomorrow I shall show you the papers and where they are kept.”
“And I’ll remember.” Adam leaned once more into the comfort of his father’s arms. Ben held him until long after the child had sunk into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Other Stories by this Author