Summary: An argument, an impasse, and the truth that really matters.
Rated: K+ WC 2700
About His Mother
“When are you going to tell him?”
Adam was sorry he asked the question, as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but he didn’t take them back. His father did not answer, reaching instead for the decanter of brandy he kept stored in the cabinet. He poured drinks for two and slid one across the desk toward his son. It surprised Adam, although it shouldn’t have. He was twenty-seven years old and well past the age when sharing a drink with his father might have made him feel important. He declined it all the same. He needed to keep a clear head for the argument he really didn’t want to have. People called Little Joe the stubborn one, but really they had no idea.
“I’m not going to tell him,” Pa said and downed his brandy.
“Then I will,” Adam said, reaching for the drink after all. He was going to need it and only wished it was a whiskey instead. None of what he had to say was going to go down smoothly.
He shrugged off his father’s glare but not his authority. It felt like a mutiny for good reason. Yet Adam knew he was right this time, and he planned to stand his ground. He knew he was on solid enough ground, and it would hold him just fine. She would have wanted it that way; Marie had always been up for a little insurrection.
“No one is telling Joseph a thing,” Pa said quietly.
Adam could hear thunder rolling outside. It meant lightning on the lake, a storm blowing in. It was tempting to joke about the symbolism involved, but he could hear the warning in his father’s tone. Little Joe always said that it was Pa’s quiet voice that spelled trouble, and his little brother certainly had ample opportunity to reach that conclusion. Adam sighed. He’d back off,. but he wasn’t backing down. It wasn’t going to be that easy. The trouble of the past week had all come back to her, and nothing about Marie Cartwright had been easy.
She’d been dead for some time already, going on ten years. It had been a prosperous decade for the Cartwrights. Ben had become one of the most established and widely respected men in the territory, the Ponderosa had grown beyond all expectations, and somehow along the way, his three boys had grown up into fine, young men. Of course, Joe was still a boy, but he was finally out of school, bound and determined to keep up with his brothers. Marie would have been proud of all of them, Adam was sure of it. It should have been her life. She’d never had it easy, and she’d deserved more than dying on a warm summer night late in August. The anniversary of her death was coming up again; Adam always felt in the air, like they’d been holding their breath until it passed.
Her death hadn’t been all that unusual. Everyone died, some younger than others. After infants, it seemed that women died the most often, from childbirth, accidents, or hard living. His own mother had died of fever during childbirth and Hoss’ mother had been killed on the long journey west. Lives could be lost at any time. The only thing surprising about death was its timing and the details. Nobody expected Marie Cartwright to die of a fall from a horse. It was entirely unexpected, but that didn’t keep some folks from holding it against her. Most of their neighbors were veterans of hard knocks and an endless variety of tragedy. The women had knuckles that were raw from lye soap, and worked themselves to the bone, keeping house and feeding their children. It was no wonder that they never took to Marie. Ben Cartwright’s young wife had help around the house. She worked hard as well, but she always smelled like lavender water. She had the bad grace to act like she was having fun surrounded by all her boys. She wasn’t one of them. And they talked about it.
Adam had often wondered how Little Joe had managed to stay away from all the gossip. Yet folks liked him, despite the dislike they harbored for his mother. He was lively and high spirited, traits that were better tolerated in a boy. But it didn’t keep them from discussing Marie. Some said they could hardly believe that she had died by accident. The crazy way she rode that horse was one thing, but nobody had really thought it would actually kill her. It would have been far more likely, they’d implied, if she’d have died at the hands of someone who had cause to hate her. Rumor had it that she had already been the cause of bloodshed back in New Orleans. There’d even been talk implicating Ben. There’d been death involved; it was all around her. Jealousy could do vile things to a man. There was simply something about a certain kind of woman that could drive a sane man mad. It was too hard to ignore a woman like that.
Adam had to agree with that. His father had certainly fallen hard during his time in New Orleans, ignoring all the possible consequences to his sanity or his reputation. She hadn’t been the most obvious choice for a stepmother, that was for certain!
So how could Adam forget her? Nobody else could. Sometimes, months would pass without him thinking of her. Other times, he felt like he’d be haunted by her forever, her memory sifting other girls like chaff. Marie’s ghost lingered around the edges of their lives. It wasn’t a quiet haunting. She rattled her chains furiously from time to time and occasionally shoved a skeleton out of the closet at the most inconvenient moments. That past week, another two bit crook had come around, demanding his share for knowing something new about Marie. The revelations kept coming. Adam figured his stepmother must have been very busy when she was young.
“Pa,” he said, “you can’t keep doing this. You pay off one of them, and then another one shows up. You can’t buy them off forever. They’re predators. Parasites. They’ll keep feeding if the body’s still warm. You’ve got to let this end for once and all. She deserves to rest in peace, and Little Joe deserves to know the truth. She’s dead, Pa. The truth can’t hurt her anymore!”
His father stared at him, before firing back, “She’s dead. I do know that, Adam. But her memory is not dead. Not to your brothers and not to me. Little Joe deserves to know the truth about his mother, I agree with you completely. The truth is that she was a good woman who had a harder life than you or I will ever understand. And I’m not about to have her memory be dragged through the mud like – “
“Pa, stop,” Adam said softly, not wanting him to finish.
His father looked him a little more carefully, and his voice softened. “Son, you don’t remember her. You were too young when she died. Too young to have really known who she was.”
With that, Adam felt a anger rising up inside him to match his father’s. It was a ridiculous argument. He hadn’t been a kid when she died, and he certainly remembered Marie. He remembered her more than he wanted to. He certainly didn’t blame his father for having fallen in love with her. It didn’t hurt that she was a jaw dropping beauty. Pa liked to compare her beauty to a sunrise. Well, she was all that and more. Did that make her a saint? She’d have laughed at the idea. However, she’d have smiled a bit more gently and sadly at the way her young son had been taught to remember her.
She’d died a month short of Little Joe’s fifth birthday. He’d adored his mama while she had lived, but he had been too little. He couldn’t remember her, not really, and it hurt more than Joe usually let on. Her memory hadn’t had a chance to take hold, so he’d built a tower for her in his imagination and set her on top as the reining princess. Even the most righteous woman in the world would have had a long way to fall but for Marie Cartwright, it was a ridiculous construction. It was Joe’s idea, yet his pa had helped him build it. It was all he had of his mother: her perfume and laughter, the stories that Pa had told him, and his tower. Adam worried that for all Joe’s love for his mother, the truth might be enough to break him.
Yet the boy deserved to know.
Adam believed that his father should have told him a long time ago. It was part of his duty, to tell Joe before he heard it from somewhere else. The boy wasn’t a fool, and he had a good heart. He’d been raised to be kind to those who didn’t have as easy as he did. He was every bit as hot tempered and impulsive as Marie, but also as compassionate and kind. He’d been told he favored his mother all his life, and some meant it more kindly than others. The world was not always a kind place, and his little brother had always enjoyed his share of it. Life had been a lot easier for Little Joe than it had been for Marie, and that’s the way she would have wanted it.
It was the reason she had paid La Rouche off the first time. He’d wanted money for silence, and at the time it had seemed like a reasonable exchange of assets. She didn’t realize that he would only be the first one. There would be many others to follow while she was alive. Even after her death, the men would keep coming asking for more and more. They always wanted more from her than she had to give.
Adam found her by the fireplace one evening, crying and stirring up embers that had already died out. He had been fifteen years old and she was hardly a decade older, but he understood enough of the world to know that Marie did not break easily.
She looked at him through her tears and said calmly, “Adam, I’ve made a terrible mistake….”
He had only been fifteen, but she trusted him with the truth. She might just have trusted her own son. And yet, Adam understood why his father worried. Little Joe saw the world in such extremes. Good and bad, right and wrong. He loved his family and hated their enemies. He felt things with an intensity that could be frightening and sometimes violent. How would his little brother react if he knew the truth?
“Adam,” Ben said. “She’s gone now. None of the past makes the least bit of difference to her. But it makes all the difference in the world to Little Joe. She tried to protect him while she was still alive. Can you see that I have no choice but to do the same?”
“It will come back to us,” Adam said evenly. “There’s a price for this, Pa. A price for Joe, and it has nothing to do with the money you just paid that piece of rubbish. Marie knew that. She knew she had made a mistake by paying them off.”
“How would you know that?” Ben asked.
“She told me,” Adam said. “I found her crying once. She knew she was wrong. If she’d let the truth come out, they wouldn’t have any way to hurt her or any of us. She said the last thing she wanted to do was to get us tangled in her mistakes. She never meant for that to happen. She would have wanted her son to know the truth about her!”
“Your brother does know the truth about his mother,” his father insisted, his voice barely contained above a whisper.
Startled, Adam realized they’d both risen from the desk and were staring at each other, eye to eye. It wasn’t a comfortable position, but he had no plans to back down.
“You just told me that you weren’t going to tell him!” Adam shouted, his own anger rising to match his father’s. “You raised us to value honesty above everything else, and now you’re telling me that you intend to keep lying to that boy until he finds out from someone else!”
“I’m telling you he knows the truth,” Ben thundered. “He knows all the truth that matters.”
“Then explain to me how that can be!”
Ben took a hard look at his oldest son and forced himself to soften his voice.
“You’re not a father,” he said, “and I don’t think you’ve ever really been in love. Am I right about that, Son?”
He waited for an answer, until Adam found himself nodding.
Ben continued, “The things Marie did before I knew her don’t concern me. They had nothing to do with who she really was. I loved her, and that was enough to change her past. All the important things… the way Little Joe sees her, the way he thinks about her…. that is who she really is. I admit I’ve kept things from him. I know I’ve protected him more than I should. But not in the way he sees his mother. She was more than the worst things she might have done. Love covers a multitude of sins. Son, that’s the truth that matters.”
Adam let out the breath he’d been holding and looked up at the fading photograph on the top shelf. Marie looked down at him, serene and unsmiling, a princess on top of her tower.
You see, she seemed to be saying, your father knows more than you, after all!
Adam didn’t think she’d hold it against him. But he wasn’t so sure. He wanted to believe that love protected, trusted, persevered, and was enough to make a difference. Yet he also knew that love rejoiced in the truth.
Ben Cartwright had always ruled his world, by the sheer force of his own will. Adam was far more pragmatic. As his little brother liked to say when his pa wasn’t around, Adam was just too practical for his own damn good. He knew that they lived in a fallen world and yet Marie had made the most of it. Little Joe saw her as a princess. A saint. The truth was a hell of a lot more interesting.
“And if he finds out?” Adam asked softly. “The rest of the truth… Will he agree that it doesn’t matter?’
“He’s stronger than you think,” Ben replied with growing confidence. “He loves his family, and he loves his mother. She was a Cartwright too. That’s what really matters.”
“I hope you’re right,” Adam said, “but I still think you’re wrong.”
Just then, the door swung open and slammed into the back of the wall, adding to the dent that had been there before. Chips of plaster dusted the floor. Ben bit back the rebuke that formed automatically, frowning at his youngest son’s entrance. The boy was so much the picture of his mother that he sometimes had to look away.
Little Joe Cartwright loped into the room, laughing and easy after a long day of riding fence. He was fifteen years old, and it had been a pretty good day. His horse was the fastest in the territory, pretty Katie Fredricks had kissed him behind a tree, and he was hungrier than he had ever been in his entire life. He snagged an apple from the bowl on the credenza and bit into it, chewing with immense satisfaction. He smiled cheerfully before noticing the obvious impasse between his pa and big brother. The two of them had been at it again. The only thing he didn’t know was who had won.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Little Joe asked, his happiness fading only by a measure. “What are you two fighting about? Hey… isn’t one of you going to answer…?”