Summary: A story about grief, fear, and love, told from the top of a mountain. A prequel for the episode, “Between Heaven and Earth”.
Rated: K+ WC 4500
Angels Crossing Moonlight
* A prequel for the episode, “Between Heaven and Earth”.
The night was a whole lot darker than his dreams.
He was lost near the top of a mountain, backlit by stars and silver, flying clouds. From where he huddled, he could see moonlight falling on canyons and rifts and gullies. He was too scared to cry, even too scared to pray. He figured that God could hear him even if his pa didn’t.
Joe was only five years old and wasn’t as little as they liked to think, even though they still called him by his baby name. He knew how to climb and had never said no to a mountain before. Up till then, the biggest one he’d climbed was Big Hill, behind the north pasture. Hoss said it wasn’t really a mountain; it was more like a bump on the ground, but it felt like a mountain to Joe. Now that he was stuck on a real mountain, he agreed with Hoss. He’d never climbed a real mountain before.
His fear was rising like the moon. Joe knew what it was like to get so lost in fear that you couldn’t find your way out of it. That was how he felt on the day his mama died. That day stood like a mountain in his life. He could hardly remember what it looked like on the other side.
That morning, he’d been mad at his pa and even madder at his brothers but couldn’t remember why. The night was cold, and his stomach was empty. He wondered if anyone knew he wasn’t home anymore. Even though Joe had been mad, he hadn’t tried to run away. He’d been trying to control his temper. Everyone said he got his temper from his mama, so he figured she must have given it to him when he was born. It didn’t seem like the best kind of gift, but Joe figured she must have had her reasons. He reckoned that she ended up sorry for giving it to him, because she’d always been teaching him tricks about how to keep it in line. It wasn’t easy to be mad and stop yourself from breaking things. His mama knew that. She used to tell him that sometimes she wanted to break things too. She said it helped to walk in circles until the anger was all gone. It had worked before, so that’s what he did that morning when he got too mad to keep it inside.
Around the yard, he stomped in bigger and bigger circles, until he was deep into the pines that skirted the house. He should have gone back but instead kept going. The trunks grew closer and the woods deeper until he couldn’t circle much longer. Joe could barely see the sky. He started weaving and dodging through the underbrush, walking any which way he could. Hours were getting away from him, but he kept going anyway.
The morning passed like a song. He wasn’t sure how it got away from him. He spent some time tracking tree squirrels like Hoss taught him. Sometimes, he whistled to the chickadees perched on the higher branches, but they didn’t come down to him like they did for his big brother. Joe was hungry after a spell and ate a biscuit he’d stuck in his overall pocket. There was some sugar in his other pocket that he’d scrounged from breakfast to give to his pony. Digging deep, he licked the crystals off his fingers until they were gone. Then he was hungry all over again. He was a growing boy. His mama had measured him for a new set of clothes that fit better, but then she died before she could order the material.
Joe wasn’t mad anymore, but he’d stopped going in circles. He was leaving a poor trail of kicked-up pine needles and biscuit crumbs. His family would have to work hard to follow. They’d always found him before, but after Mama died, everything had changed. Sometimes, they didn’t come looking for him for hours. Other times, they didn’t even know he he’d been wandering all day when he finally came in for supper. He was good at keeping himself busy, and they were even busier – Pa with running the ranch, Adam with the cattle operations, and Hoss with school and his chores. Adam said Joe was a big help around the ranch, but it didn’t always seem to matter. Pa didn’t notice one way or the other. Lately, he hadn’t seemed to be paying much attention.
Adam explained that being sad took up a lot of time. It was easier to be angry than sad, and Pa hadn’t let himself get angry when Joe’s mama had died. That didn’t make much sense to Joe. He’d rather be angry than sad any day. His own anger was already gone, but his little life had run out of circles. He couldn’t go back to the way it was just because he didn’t like how things had turned out.
How he’d managed to get so far away, Joe couldn’t have explained. It was already getting late. He hadn’t been able to track the sun moving across the sky. It had been shadowy and mysterious in the woods, with little glints of light dappled through the pine trees. He hadn’t been scared. Not one little bit. It felt downright natural to be having an adventure on his own. It made him feel kind of grown up and really brave. Hoss would have been proud of the way he looked after himself. As he walked, he chanted the names of the continents that Adam had been teaching him. He felt like he had already crossed over a bunch of them. Joe walked until his strong legs ached and his belly was empty. He was thirsty again even though he’d crossed small creeks and streams and had plenty to drink.
The day had passed so quickly. Joe couldn’t remember when the pine trees went away, and the land had changed all at once around him. He’d walked all day and wound up in a place he’d never seen before. It was almost nightfall. He didn’t even know if he was on the Ponderosa any more. When he was little, he thought the whole world was the Ponderosa, but Hoss told him he was being silly. Hoss said that the world was a whole lot bigger than the Ponderosa, but Joe still found that hard to take seriously. After he’d been walking all day, it was starting to made some sense to him. The world was so big, his pa couldn’t own all of it. Although it seemed unlikely, his pa might not even own a continent.
And then he found the new place. Red-rocked and dusty, as far as he could see, it looked like a desert. He’d never been to the desert, but he’d heard plenty of stories about the sojourn that his family made before he was born. After all that telling, Joe had been to the desert lots of times in his mind. The way Adam told them, the stories made the back of Joe’s throat all dry and thirsty. His pa didn’t talk much about their travels. He said he was happy to be home on the Ponderosa with his boys, and that was enough for him. Hoss didn’t remember the trip but liked to talk about it all the same. Adam said it made Hoss feel closer to his mama to talk about it. Joe could understand that. He liked to talk about his own mama too, but the others were too sad to listen. He told most of his stories about his mama to himself, in his own mind.
Joe kept walking, dragging a long stick behind him, and making snake tracks in the red dirt. He kicked rocks, scattering lizards and snakes, and wished Hoss was there to tell him if it was safe to try to catch them. Then he saw the mountain. It rose up to the sky in front of him, like a beanstalk from the bound volume of fairy tales that Adam read him at night. His brother had tried to take up where his mama had left off, but it wasn’t the same. Adam spent too much time reading the parts in the middle and not enough on the magic at the end. Hoss grumbled that Adam didn’t believe in magic anymore, but Joe knew that his big brother did believe in mountains. Adam said that sometimes you just had to climb whatever life put in front of you, no matter how high or seemingly impossible. In his five years of life, Joe had learned that his big brother was almost always right.
Joe could almost hear the mountain taunting him, “Go ahead – climb me, and take a look around. You’ll never know unless you try!”
He’d have had a hard time explaining it to his family. Adam always complained that his little brother never thought more than five minutes into the future. His mama used to agree with Adam, and she kept a wary eye on her little boy, because she never knew what he might do next. Nobody had been watching him as carefully after she died. They didn’t notice how much he’d been growing. He was still little for his age, but his arms were strong and his legs were fast. Sometimes, they got him moving and into a heap of trouble before his mind had a chance to catch up. That’s just how it happened. His hands and feet were taking hold of the mountain, and he was starting to climb before he gave it a second thought. By the time he was up higher than he’d ever been and starting to feel sorry about it, it was already too late. Without thinking, he’d hauled himself into more trouble than he knew how to get out of.
The angle was steep and the slope too slippery to turn around. It was much easier to go up than down. Joe’s breathing started coming out harder, and he got more and more worried as he climbed higher. Don’t look down. That’s what Hoss always said. He’d never been scared of heights before. When his mama was alive, he’d never been scared of anything. He’d believed that everything had to turn out all right. Once he turned five, he knew better. He understood that a person could fall and die and never make it to the happy ending.
So Joe kept climbing, gravel and rocks skittering out from under him. He was good at climbing, but the knees of his overalls were torn from walking though the undergrowth in the woods, and blood from the scratches on his hands made his grip slippery. He couldn’t let go long enough to wipe them off. The mountain still loomed above him, and the sun was setting. He couldn’t go much higher – it was getting steeper and steeper. He wanted to cry so badly, but he wasn’t a baby any more. He was stuck in his own bad decision, betrayed by a body that just wouldn’t do what it was supposed to. Joe couldn’t go up, and he couldn’t go down. Even though he’d been trying to work everything out on his own, he didn’t know what to do next. All of a sudden, he thought about jumping to a lower ledge, but it was too far down. Even he knew that. After all, he did have the common sense God gave him. Folks were always asking him about that.
Just when he was sure he was going to fall off the side of the mountain, Joe found it – the safe place that he so desperately needed. It was a cleft in the rock, a shelter that mama eagles used to build nests for their babies. There were still remnants of an abandoned nest – sticks and twigs and feathers. Joe figured a mama eagle would know how to choose the best spot for her babies. That was the sort of thing that mamas were good at. He’d be safe there too.
Joe hauled himself up and over, collapsing into the nest. To his absolute relief, it held him. With his heart thumping against his chest, he spent a long time breathing raggedly, trying not to be afraid. He was as tired as he’d ever been and had gotten himself into more trouble than he knew what to do with. Sunlight was sinking past the mountain ridge in the west. There wasn’t a soul around, anywhere below the mountain. He couldn’t ever remember being so alone. Joe curled into himself, in that old eagle’s nest, so that he couldn’t look down. Tears welled in his eyes, but he wiped them away crossly. Instead, he scrunched himself into the shadows and tried to remember what Adam told him to do if he had a problem.
“Think about it real hard.” Adam told him just the other week, when he was struggling to saddle his stubborn little pony. “Keep thinking about the best way to handle it, until you’ve thought of as many answers as you can. Then all you have to do is just choose the best one.”
“Why don’t you just tell me how to do it?” Joe had grumbled, his hands clenched into fists. “That’s what Pa used to do.”
Joe was sorry he said it when Adam looked away then, all serious and sad. He figured maybe his big brother also liked it better when he didn’t have to come up with all the answers either.
But Adam said they all had to do for themselves and not rely so much on Pa. He said that Pa needed time to work things out for himself and that they’d have to look out for each other while he was gone. Joe didn’t like the look on his brother’s face when he was saying it. It was like Adam didn’t even believe his own words, and Adam always believed in himself. The world suddenly felt like it could slide out from under him. The idea of it made him start to cry. To Joe’s dismay, Adam looked like he might cry too. He kneeled beside his little brother.
Adam tried to explain. “Listen, Little Joe, I can’t help you my whole life. We’re all going to have to grow up quicker than we want to. Please don’t cry. We don’t have any choice. I’m just trying to help you grow up right, and I’m doing the best I know how to.”
That only made Joe cry harder, not because of what Adam had said, but because he knew Adam was right. He was supposed to grow up, and he was scared to think of it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be big like his brothers. He wanted to be big more than anything. He wanted to grow even bigger than his brothers. Bigger than a mountain. Maybe even bigger than his pa. He just wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. Joe wasn’t sure if he was ready to get bigger when being little had turned out to be so hard. His mama’s death was the biggest thing that had ever happened to him, and he hadn’t figured out how to get his mind around it. His thoughts went round and round it in circles, without making much sense.
Hoss had been listening to his brothers’ conversation from the other stall. He came to crouch beside them, circling his arm around his little brother’s shoulders. Hoss grumbled up at Adam.
“Ain’t his fault that everything changed. He’s only a little thing. He’s only five years old, Adam. Can’t be expected to understand what’s going on.”
“And you’re only eleven,” Adam answered. “And I’m only seventeen. None of us have a choice in this. It doesn’t matter how old any of us are. We’ll just have to make the best of it, until Pa’s himself again. We owe him that.”
“How long he gonna be gone this time?” Hoss asked, quietly.
“Until he’s done with the contract for the roundup,” Adam replied. “Hoss, it’s not like Pa was always home before.”
“Ain’t the same,” Hoss answered. “Mama took care of us before.”
Giving in, Adam sighed and turned to help his little brother fix his saddle. They didn’t talk much after that, and Joe decided right then and there that he was going to do for himself whenever he could figure out how. His family had a world of trouble without him adding to it.
Even though his pa came back from that trip, he didn’t stay home for very long. Adam said the house brought back too many memories, and it helped Pa to get out of it as much as possible. Joe didn’t understand it much. He liked remembering his mama. It made him feel steady inside. When he started to feel sad, he got himself moving. There were plenty of chores to do, and it helped him feel better to have something he was good at. It seemed like the same sort of thing should work for everyone else. But that’s what Adam said Pa was doing – keeping himself busy so that he could forget what was lost to him.
Pa had been so busy, they hardly saw him and when they did, it was like he was already planning where to go next. Sometimes at breakfast, Pa sat at the table and asked his boys what they planned for the day. Adam always had a whole list, and Hoss was also busy. Joe knew the right things to say to make them happy. They didn’t have to know how he really passed his days, as long as he made it home before dark.
Joe knew his father loved him, and he’d still say it sometimes before leaving after breakfast. It wasn’t the comfort it used to be. Just because someone loved you, it didn’t mean that they stayed. They could tell you they loved you in the morning and could die before supper. They didn’t always come back to you, even if they wanted to. Love was fine and good, but it didn’t always change a thing.
Cold night air was falling over the canyon, mixing it up with the moonlit dark. Joe started shivering even harder, huddled against the mountain. He could hear wild noises in the night. He could see the outline of wings above the night sky. Bats or birds, he didn’t much care for their company. Once, he would have believed they were angels. Twigs snapped and scattered in the ravine below, and thought he heard something growling. Joe fervently prayed that mountain lions weren’t as good at climbing as he was. Thoughts started running, like wild critters, across his mind. He wished he’d thought of some of them before he started to climb. He was as stuck as he’d ever been, and as hard as he tried, he couldn’t think a way out of it.
He was scared, a feeling he wouldn’t want to share with anyone. It didn’t do to be scared. Pa and his big brothers never felt scared of anything. Joe tried to shove the feeling away, but he could feel fear settling into his bones. It filled his pockets and his heart and soul. It shamed him, needing his family so badly and not knowing what to do for himself. He may have been little, but he was a Cartwright, same as Adam and Hoss and Pa. His mama was a Cartwright too, and she’d never have let a mountain scare her.
“Be strong and courageous,” she used to read from her Bible, and he’d sit up in his chair, as straight as a pine, to show her that he could.
He’d always had his share of grit for his size. That was what his pa used to say, and he didn’t say a thing like that unless he meant it. He’d been trying so hard to be brave for them, to make things up to his pa and his brothers. But he didn’t care about being brave anymore. Joe was cold and scared and wanted his pa to come get him. He wanted his mama to be alive again.
She’d been dead for so many weeks, he couldn’t keep a count of them any more. There was a full moon in his window the night before she died. It tracked across his room, and she told him that angels could walk across moonlight. Mama sang songs about Heaven and Earth and everything in between. That was what he loved about his mama. She wasn’t afraid of anything. She sang love songs so even angels could hear them.
Adam was the only one who kept singing inside the house. By the hearth at night, Adam sang funny songs that made he and Hoss giggle and dance and knock over chairs and books. But only when Pa was gone. Pa wasn’t ready for happy songs just yet. Upstairs in his own room, Adam sang Mama’s songs when he thought no one could hear him. But Joe listened when he was supposed to be sleeping. He was glad that his big brother still remembered the words. From his lonely place on the mountain, Joe started singing those songs until he’d sung all of them and he couldn’t remember how they went anymore.
He could feel his eyes closing and his mind wandering. Hours had passed, and he should have been asleep in his bed. Instead, he tucked himself into the eagle’s nest. When he began to dream, he could feel himself growing smaller and smaller instead of bigger. He dreamed of being rescued. He dreamed of falling.
Both kinds of dreams made him jolt awake again and again, crying out, “Pa!”
He had almost given up hope, when he thought he heard someone calling his name. He didn’t know if he could trust it, because he’d already been disappointed before. It was hard to have faith in what you couldn’t see, and Pa hadn’t been there for him for a long time. But Joe had always believed in him. The thought of losing his father terrified him more than any mountain. He was willing to give it one more try.
“Pa!” he screamed into the dark.
It wasn’t much, but it turned out to be enough. No matter how small his voice was, it was big enough to reach the one person on all the continents who was meant to hear it. Folks said it was always darkest before the dawn. It was easier to say something like that than to understand what it meant. Daybreak was on its way. All that darkness didn’t stand a chance.
Then he heard voices in the wilderness. Disoriented, Joe forgot where he was and almost launched himself off the cliff toward them. At that moment, wings brushed through the air, and he was sure he was surrounded by angels, instead of eagles. He backed off, terribly afraid. But, there was something that was bigger than his fear, and it was calling his name. It was the voice that he longed to hear, and it wasn’t a dream. It was coming back to him, crossing over moonlight.
He dared to peer over the edge and saw lanterns at the bottom of the mountain, sparks of hope in all that darkness. Joe hadn’t realized how high up he was until he saw the lights down there. All his bravery gave out on him, and then he was sobbing for the first time all night.
“Pa!” he cried out again and again. “Pa!”
Pa was calling back to him, “Don’t move, Joseph! Stay there! I’m coming to you!”
Joe couldn’t see his pa, but he believed in him. His voice was getting closer, much closer than those lights so far away. Others had come with Pa. He could make out Adam’s voice, urgently handing out orders at the bottom. He was sure he could hear his brother, Hoss hollering down there as well. But Joe was crying too hard to think of anything but one thing: his pa had come to save him. The nest was no longer as much of a shelter as the voice rising up to him.
It felt like hours. Joe could hear rocks scattering and falling, as his father made the difficult climb. At long last, his pa’s face appeared in front of him, backlit in moonlight. Joe lost his reserve and threw himself at him, almost knocking them both off the edge. But Pa held on, and Joe held on harder. There was no way he was going to let his pa get away this time. Wherever he was going that night, he wasn’t going alone. Pa held his boy for a long time, stroking his hair and repeating things that didn’t much matter, until Joe calmed down enough to make sense again.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” Joe whispered.
“Little Joe, listen to me,” Pa said urgently, not letting go. “I will always come for you. It doesn’t matter where you go or how big you get… I will come. I will never leave you. Do you understand, boy?”
If Joe didn’t know better, he might have thought his pa was afraid. It was a ridiculous thought. Nothing could scare his pa. He’d sailed the seas, crossed the plains, and fought off pirates and Indians. He was the bravest man in all the continents, and he was bigger than any mountain. Joe knew Pa wanted an answer, but he couldn’t talk; he was crying too hard. He could only nod a little, but his pa was finally paying attention.
“All right then, let’s see what we can do about getting down from here. I’ll carry you down, son. You just hold onto me.” Pa gathered his boy in his arms.
Faith could move mountains. That’s what folks said. Joe didn’t know about that, but he reckoned love could surely get you down one.
Wrapped in his pa’s warm coat, Joe could feel the night begin to blur like a bad dream. His eyes were starting to close. He and his pa carefully made their way down the mountain. It was good not to worry anymore. Wayward nightmares would have to wait. They still had a distance to go, but Joe knew that things would turn out fine. His mama would have said that his type of story could only have one kind of ending. The kind that angels liked to sing about. Joe was asleep before it was over and was already forgetting how it began. He didn’t need to remember. Pa would take care of everything. His pa would take him home.
And as they slowly made their way down to his brothers, Joe dreamt of angels and mountains and of his pa’s strong arms.