Many Shades of Guilt
He climbed onto the stool, stretched himself to his full height of four feet to reach the beam that supported the roof of the old line shack. He poked the free end of his rope through the gap between the beam and the roof, measured the distance from the dangling noose to the floor with a glance, and secured the end of the rope with a triple knot. Then he climbed back down from the stool, went over to the table and blew out the lantern, certain he could find his way in the dark.
“I don’t know why I got myself into this job as a substitute teacher.”
“Maybe ’cause yer the onliest with a college degree, older brother? Pass me the gravy, Little Joe, please.”
Adam rolled his eyes but didn’t answer.
“Adam, I know it isn’t easy, but I’m really grateful to you for doing me this favor. As the president of the schoolboard I had to find somebody, and there was nobody else available on such short notice.”
“And I thought ya’d enjoy the nice clean job, while we do our hard work on the ranch.” Hoss winked at Little Joe.
“Real men’s work,” Little Joe added.
“That’s not funny,” Adam said with an audible growl.
“Miss Jones was never sick as last as I can ‘member. It’s a pity about the new young teacher. First she got mumps and now them measles. Poor gal,” Hoss said, making his eyes as wide and innocent as possible.
“Never thought that Adam would miss Miss Jones.” Little Joe giggled and Hoss guffawed.
When Ben cleared his throat, both ducked their heads over their plates, just barely stifling their snickers.
“Well, are you through with the jokes? Can we speak like adults now?” Adam said with pursed lips.
“I can imagine Adam very well as a teacher. He’s a stickler for principles, and he was always such a good boy,” Joe started the banter again ignoring his brother’s sarcasm entirely.
“Yes, he loved school!” Hoss shuddered dramatically. “So he should love his new job; too bad he has only ten days left out of two weeks.”
That’s enough, boys,” Ben tried to intervene after a look at his eldest. “I think Adam isn’t in the mood for teasing.”
“Ah, he never is, our serious older brother. But Adam we like you as you are,” Joe clapped a hand on Adam’s shoulder.
Adam shrugged Joe’s hand away and said in an unexpectedly sharp tone, “Joe, you didn’t even know me as a boy. I can assure you I wasn’t always good. I struggled like everybody else, and I had to pay for it – but you’re right, I never had had the chance to be as mischievous and careless as you. I had to learn young to be responsible and serious! I wasn’t asked if I liked it.”
The other three men sat motionless for a moment, forks in midair, after Adam’s outburst.
“Hey, Adam, we were only joking. Sorry.” Joe looked confused.
“We know it wasn’t easy fer you – all that travelling with Pa. With nothing but a squawky fledgling fer company,” Hoss added with an apologetic grin.
“It’s all right. – Let’s eat in peace, Little Joe and still-always-hungry-younger-brother,” Adam said with an apologetic smile of his own. “Sorry, I’m in a bad mood I guess.”
“What did you mean before? Has something gone wrong at the school?” Ben asked.
“Yes, two of the boys were caught shoplifting yesterday. Roy told me about and it seems he as the sheriff wants the school to do something about it.”
“Oh, yes, when I was in town yesterday I saw Hugh Sanders dragging the boys by the collar to Roy. He was shouting the whole way and a lot of kids and even some older folks were tagging along,” Hoss said.
“Hugh Sanders? Demanding justice, I guess,” Adam snorted.
“Yeah, he shouted that Roy had to put little Matt and Abe in jail because he was ‘pressing charges for stealing in his shop. When I came out of the bank, Cyrus was there, face like a beet, and he was hauling Matt along ‘most as hard as Sanders did. The crowd was all abuzz. Y’all know he’s such a friendly feller but he was madder than a hornet right then. And all those rubber-neckers enjoyed the show. I wished I had scattered them whole mob to the four winds – with mighty kicks in their – tails!” Hoss punctuated his words with a dramatic wave of his fork.
“Poor Cyrus and poor kid –it’s bad enough without their having to face a mob on top of everything,” Joe said. “I can imagine how the other children will tease those boys.”
“A mob and a man like Sanders to stir them up,” Adam grunted in disgust. “What an example for children!”
“Remember how Sanders raised his prices last fall?” Joe prodded. “With all those families that had to winter here on their way to California? I figured then that he had a moneybag instead of a heart.”
“Don’t speak that way about Mr. Sanders, Joe. He’s a salesman — and maybe his own costs were rising,” Ben reprimanded.
“Ah Pa, ya know he’s only plumb greedy.” Hoss backed up his younger brother. “And he liked causing such a fuss! It’s good fer demanding compensation.”
“Well, boys, he may not be the nicest person you can think of but he’s in the right to press charges against stealing. Shoplifting is a serious matter. We shouldn’t discuss his character any further; it’s not our concern. Now let’s finish our dinner or Hop Sing will be right to complain we didn’t honor his labor.”
Ben sucked at his pipe. The newspaper lay unread on his lap, and he stared into the air before him. The conversation at dinner still puzzled him. Not the part about Hugh Sanders: in the depths of his heart he disliked that man, too. At the table he had tried to stop the discussion, any discussion, and his boys had respected his wish. It was Adam’s outburst that had bothered him.
Hot-tempered Joe was known for incalculable outbursts, but not his rational brother. Certainly Adam had a temper of his own, but a little teasing wasn’t usually enough to rouse it. With an sideways glance he looked at his eldest, now at the desk bowed over the ranch books. Dutiful, earnest, uncomplaining, doing his part of the paperwork after finishing his preparations for school. Adam had always been responsible and Ben as a father had been always proud of that. He also couldn’t remember Adam ever being bitter or accusatory, especially not when it concerned his early life. On the contrary, whenever he and Adam had shared memories of their journey west with the younger boys, it had always been a warm and happy moment for them all. Sometimes Adam mentioned in general that it wasn’t always easy, and that there had been bad incidents, too. Ben knew that was his way of referring to Inger’s death, and he had always respected that Adam didn’t want to be reminded of it. What had he said about struggling? He didn’t remember Adam struggling a lot. What could he have meant by that?
“Good night, Pa. I’m going to bed.”
The sudden approach startled Ben. Should he try and ask? Joe and Hoss were already upstairs; he was alone with his oldest.
“Why did you snap at your younger brother, Adam? What made you so upset?”
“Nothing, Pa. I had a hard day…and I’m sure tomorrow will be harder,” Adam turned in the direction of the stairs. “I’m really tired. I wonder why teaching can be so exhausting.”
Raising his usual distractions, Ben guessed. Should he let it go? But it wasn’t curiosity that was driving him.
“Adam? Is something troubling you besides those boys? May I help you?”
“No, sir. I’m fine.”
“Sir?” Ben arched his eyebrow skeptically, now certain that Adam was dissembling.
“Oh, Pa…” Adam’s hands gestured surrender. “I was reminded of…” Adam came slowly back from the stairs and seated himself on the settee opposite Ben’s chair. Ben tried to look him in the eyes, but Adam’s gaze was fixed on the rug before him. Ben was about to ask when Adam suddenly glanced up again. “Pa, I did steal once as a boy myself.”
“You? – Oh yes, now I remember.”
“Yes, but it was Will who misled you. He was a year older.” Ben smiled reassuringly.
“Will? My cousin?”
Trying to chase the blank look from Adam’s eyes, Ben explained further, “You and Will took some candles from the church.”
Adam’s forehead was still wrinkled, but he slowly nodded.
Ben tried to find the point where their memories would fit together. “When we visited my brother John, we went all to Mass one Sunday because Will’s mother was Catholic. In that church were candles stacked in boxes you could buy for lighting on the altar of the Virgin Mary. You boys were inside the church a few moments unsupervised before the Mass. Later we found some of those candles in the bedroom you both shared.”
“I don’t remember that, Pa. I think I was around four when we visited Uncle John.” Adam answered slowly. But then he continued with more confidence, “Candles and matches are always very intriguing for little boys.” Adam looked sheepishly at him. “I’m sure we got a spanking, Will and me.”
“You did, more for having candles than for stealing, but Will didn’t. The same day his mother found the candles he fell from an apple tree and broke his arm. Your Uncle John considered him punished enough. – I hope Will learned his lesson; after all, it was his idea, and I think you didn’t even know that people had to buy those candles. Oh, the priest made a fuss about the “sacrilege” but after you had apologized very nicely and I had made a small donation to his church he forgave us.” Ben chuckled.
“I don’t remember a lot of that time. Only that Will seemed to me kind of reckless, and that I admired it about him.”
“Yes, he was quite the daredevil. But he was also a charming little boy. I liked him, even though you got into more mischief in the three weeks we stayed at my brother’s place than in all the years before. I wonder where he is and hope he’s well.”
Adam nodded. “Yes, I would like to meet him again, too.” Then he stretched his arms, yawned, and stood up. “It’s late Pa, I need to get some sleep.”
Ben cursed himself inwardly: Old fool, so engrossed in your own memories, in the opportunity to speak about your brother with the only person left who knew him, that you couldn’t pay attention to what he wanted to say?” Trying to recapture Adam’s moment of openness, he blurted out, “You didn’t mean that incident, did you?”
“Oh Pa, no, but not tonight. I’m too tired. Maybe tomorrow.” Adam gave him a half-smile. “It’s so long ago and we have no need to hurry now, have we?”
“No, we haven’t,” Ben nodded. “Sleep well, son. I’m sure you will find a way to deal with the boys.”
“I hope so, too. Good night.”
His jawbone hurt, so hard had he clenched his teeth on their way back home from town. He had paid Sanders five dollars as compensation for the shopkeeper’s loss and inconvenience. A man like Sanders, Cyrus thought, a man he had always despised for his bad character! But what could he do with a son like that? At least Sanders wasn’t a thief or the father of a thief! He had to change Matthew’s tune, and he would!
Adam was nearly unseated when Sport veered off the main road onto the track that led to the Ponderosa ranch house. Once he recognized where he was Adam patted his horse’s neck. “Good old boy, I’m glad you still pay attention when I don’t. I’m wondering if I did what was expected from me. Maybe it shouldn’t have been me to deal with those little thieves? Maybe I know their feelings too well?” Wasn’t it ridiculous, that he had made excuses not to tell his father yesterday about his shoplifting, Adam thought. When his father had talked about the innocent candle-sneaking he did as a small boy, he hadn’t been able to tell him about the real thing. Was he still afraid his father could be disappointed in him after such a long time? – Maybe he was.
Was his own experience, as he called it sarcastically, the reason why he hadn’t punished the two sinners? No, it wasn’t, Adam decided. When he had seen those contrite and remorseful boys, he had known they had learned their lesson, and more punishment wasn’t needed. Anybody would have seen it. What was more, just as Joe had suspected, their schoolmates had teased Matt and Abe before school, dancing around them and mocking them as thieves, so he had chosen to teach the children not to use the misdeeds of others as an excuse to feel ‘holier-than-thou’ or a reason to bully them. The last straw had been Sally’s disappointed face. The girl had obviously been looking forward to the sight of a paddling with joyful anticipation; he had seen the glitter in her eyes. A glint that reminded him of something he couldn’t quite remember.
Sally’s attitude had prompted him to discuss with his class the Bible lesson about not throwing the first stone, and most of the children had confessed they weren’t ‘without sin’ themselves, but had also taken something without asking – mostly fruits, cookies or jam at home. Sally had said nothing, and had shown how bored she was with the way the lesson had gone. At recess the other children had invited Abe and Matt back to their games, and even if Matt wasn’t in the mood to play – Adam knew a bad conscience could last a long time – his class had given him a second chance anyway. He would keep a close eye on Matt for the next few days – and maybe even on his twin sister Ann as well. The little girl seemed almost as upset as her brother.
A jolt of recognition made Adam rein Sport in hard. Sally’s expression – now he knew when he had seen it first: when he’d been six he’d watched as a mob of men had encircled another man who tried to flee but couldn’t. And even though his father, who had been driving along the main street to the store, had immediately turned their wagon and left the town, he had seen the face of one of the men clearly. The cruel glint in that man’s eyes had disturbed him almost as much as the trapped man’s cries and pleas for mercy. Adam remembered he had been hungry that evening but still very grateful to be far away from those men.
“C’mon Sport, even if somebody tells me it wasn’t right not to punish Matt and Abe, I was right to disappoint Sally. And maybe the boys will do a voluntary penance like I suggested, something nice for all the others; that will be better than punishment anyway.” And with that he urged his horse into a gallop.
Matt stood on the shore of the stream behind his father’s farm. All of him ached: his hide from the beating, his muscles from working, his eyes from crying. He was sure he deserved it, but it was hard, very hard. He grabbed his small leather pouch and brought out a handful of marbles. Without looking at them he threw them in a wide arc into the water. Marbles: he would never touch one again, never!
Ben watched the small flames licking around the bigger logs he had diligently arranged around the burning kindling. It was the first time they had needed a fire this year.
“Joe and Hoss will have a chilly night up in the timber camp,” he said.
“I worry about them, too,” Adam answered. “The timber is my business. It should have been me riding up there.”
“Adam, not even you can be at two places at once.” Ben said dryly.
“Ah, sure.” Adam answered, slightly irritated. “But in three days I’m finished at school. Fred is an experienced foreman, it wasn’t necessary to go up today. I could have done it on Saturday.”
“So it should be you freezing up there? Is it that what you suggest? Or do you think your brothers aren’t able to do the job?”
“No, I mean, yes, but…”
Ben interrupted the stammering Adam. “Come, now, they are grown men. Sometimes you’re a bigger mother hen than I.”
Adam rolled his eyes, but let his gaze fall again onto the pages of his book, settling himself more comfortably in his chair.
An hour later Ben glanced up from his own book and watched his son reading. Was he as relaxed as it seemed? When Adam had broken off their last conversation so abruptly, he had seen a flicker of unease in his eyes that had surprised him. Whatever Adam had wanted to discuss seemed more important to him than just a random memory. He glanced at the big clock and noticed it was nearly the time when Adam usually went upstairs. Now or never. Looking back down at his book, he worded the question in his mind, waiting for the rustle of Adam turning a page so he wouldn’t interrupt him so harshly. But the sound didn’t come, not for five minutes.
“Yes, Pa, I should tell you my story now.”
Ben wasn’t surprised that his son already knew what he was trying to ask. Adam always had had that ability, even as a small boy.
“Adam, not if you don’t want to tell me. You don’t have to. But I saw how upset you were and…maybe it’s better?”
“Yes, Pa, I think I should tell you finally. I waited long enough.” Adam’s grin showed perhaps more pain than intended. “It was years after the incident at Uncle John’s you told me about. And I wasn’t just a little boy anymore…” Adam stood up and paced a few steps up and down, massaging the bridge of his nose, before he settled himself onto the table by the fireplace. “Do you remember the summer when Hoss was so sick?”
“Certainly I do. I thought we would lose him. By the time the fever broke after two weeks Hoss was only skin and bones. If he hadn’t been such a strapping toddler, he wouldn’t have survived.”
“The three months we stayed in that small town were full of mixed feelings for me, you know?”
Ben couldn’t see Adam’s face clearly. Had he deliberately chosen his seat with the brightly shining fire behind him? His voice sounded distressed and higher than usual. Ben only nodded slightly, waiting for his son to continue.
“If you don’t mind, Pa, I will tell you from the beginning.”
“Please, do so, son.”
“You know how eager I was to go to school, and to meet other children, to find friends. Not that I had really missed them…but that little town was a real paradise for me. The teacher liked me and I even got a report card, although I only attended the school for four weeks. I was really proud of it. And there were four boys around my age in school I became friends with very fast. Then I had my first summer vacation. We did a lot of things boys do together: swimming, fishing, exploring, and daring each other to prove our courage. You had a good job there and could afford to pay a woman who took care of Hoss and cooked supper for both of us, so I was free to play with my friends. I had only to come at noon to eat and to collect Hoss at four and bring him to our room before you returned home.
“One day we decided to build a tree-house. We worked hard on it for two weeks, and I loved building something. Then Hoss came down with the fever. It wasn’t so bad at first, or at least I didn’t realize it. But you and Hoss moved into the doctor’s house because it could be contagious, and I couldn’t visit you.”
“You did spend a lot of time alone. When I think about it now – you were only eight yourself. But we ate together each evening, and you had still supper with the hired woman.”
“It was all right for me, Pa. And I wasn’t alone. I was with my friends. Later – especially when I realized how sick Hoss was, I blamed myself for it, but at first I simply enjoyed being able to stay longer with my friends in the afternoons.”
“Any boy would like to play given the opportunity; nothing is wrong with that, Adam.”
“Maybe. A week later I had a lot more to blame myself for. After we had finished building our tree-house, we wanted to have a little celebration, but when we tried to plan it, a few apples, some lumps of sugar, and a bottle of juice didn’t seem much of a feast. One boy, his name was Jeremiah, told us about the canned peaches he had recently for dessert. A can of sweet, juicy peaches. That was what we wanted. We knew where canned peaches could be found – in the store. But none of us had money, and then one thing led to the other. We managed to secretly take a can out of the storage room behind the mercantile, and we had our feast. I don’t know now how we justified it to ourselves, but we never thought of it as stealing. It was only an adventure to get that can of peaches.
“Three days later we wanted new adventures; after all the excitement of building our tree-house and having our own feast, our usual games seemed dull. Then the dare-devil took hold of us. First we dared each other to climb a big tree, then to jump from the tree into the lake, and then – to go back to the mercantile again. This time we made a plan of how to make the owner go into his store room and bragged about what each of us would take when he did. At first, everything went as we planned, but then Jeremiah overdid it. He tried to hide a whole plucked chicken under his jacket. When the store owner suddenly thundered that all boys in his mercantile should immediately come to the counter and turn out their pockets I thought the sky was crashing down on my head. I managed to get rid of a package of crackers, but I still had things in my other pocket. I remember that my hand felt numb and all I could see was my palm with the candies and the small can of tuna I had stolen. Pa, I can’t explain why it didn’t come in my mind before but it was like my world went into pieces when I realized what I had done – that I was a thief, a criminal. We stood before the counter, all five of our little gang, all pale, and most of us in tears.
“After they scolded us for a long time, the salesman and his wife took pity on us and let us go without telling our parents or the sheriff. At first I was relieved, but in the night I began to feel bad and guilty – that you were always good to me, that I betrayed you, that you didn’t know you were raising a thief. There was only one way to relieve my bad conscience – to confess to you. The day after the theft when we met in the evening I had mustered up all my courage to tell you, but just then you told me how sick Hoss had become and that you couldn’t leave him alone anymore. I thought I couldn’t add the disappointment about me to your burdens. Later on, when Hoss began to recover, I couldn’t bring myself to confess anymore. I promised it to myself each night but I couldn’t do it in the morning. I couldn’t do it until today, Pa. My bad conscience didn’t let me sleep quietly for months and it took years until my heart didn’t race and my hands didn’t become sweaty when anybody mentioned that place.”
“You punished yourself more than I ever would have, Adam, so it seems.”
“Maybe. Nowadays I really suppose that I have paid for my crime. But as a boy…It’s late. We should go to bed now, Pa. Good night!”
“Good night, son.” Ben tried and failed to catch Adam’s eyes. “I see how bad you felt back then.” He wished he could rise and hug his son, but, seeing Adam’s rigid stance, he only continued, “You must see in your defence that the offerings of a shop can be very tempting for young children. Especially when you’re inexperienced and part of a group.” Ben smiled. “Sleep well, son.” And at least Adam smiled back.
After Adam left, Ben realized that something was still amiss in Adam’s smile. It didn’t reach his soul. Had Adam ever been able to forgive himself? He was always so hard on himself. – And once again Adam had used the late hour as an excuse to leave. Wasn’t it typical how Adam had avoided showing his emotions even if he had talked about issues that had obviously affected him very strongly? He was always surprised by how differently his boys reacted. Joe opened his heart wide to find his father’s help – and had done so since he was a little boy while Adam always tried to hide his feelings. And Hoss? Somehow he always seemed to be in between. What was more, Hoss could even read Adam. But he couldn’t ask Hoss this time.
Ben wondered how he would have reacted if he had known about Adam’s theft back then. Disappointed? Angry? Furious? Certainly he would have been shocked. Even today he would never have thought that it might be Adam of all his sons who would have failed in such a matter. But eight years old wasn’t an age when you would always make the right decision.
What had he called the “paradise?” School, friends, and a few hours in the afternoon to play?
Ben bit his lips as he went upstairs.
Adam hadn’t expected to be sad when his time as a teacher ended. Only two days left. It was satisfying to watch children absorb something new and to have the younger children – and sometimes the older ones – come at recess to tell him about their lives and to ask him for advice. He had obviously earned their trust. And that made him proud.
Some of the older girls looked at him in a way it wasn’t easy to ignore, but no…he wasn’t tempted by fourteen-year-old girls. Sadly, the boy to whom he would most have liked to speak avoided him. Would he have himself trusted a teacher as a boy? Adam was certain he would not have. He had spoken with Matt’s best friend Joshua, but even he said it was hard to speak with Matt – mostly because of his father. It wasn’t difficult to see that the first thrashing the boy received after the theft hadn’t been the last one.
Adam had always liked Matt’s father Cyrus, a big, hard working farmer with an ever-friendly smile who always reminded him a little of Hoss. They met occasionally on Saturdays at the general store, stocking up for the next week, and often shared a glass of beer afterwards. Adam had liked it that the man always added a treat for his children, maybe only a penny’s worth of candy, but always something. Cyrus’s harsh behavior since the theft felt very disturbing. Adam scanned the schoolyard and was relieved to see Matt and Joshua sitting together, deep in discussion. A friend was good for the boy. He wondered if he should visit Cyrus and talk to him directly.
The next day neither Matt nor Ann was at school, so Adam decided to ride by Cyrus’s farm on his way home. Maybe something had happened to them on their way to school? Anyway he would like to have a glance at the children and to speak with Cyrus.
The farmyard looked tidy and cheerful with bright, well-weeded flowerbeds around the house. Adam was surprised at how welcoming Cyrus, a busy man and a widower, had made his home. Maybe the children had caught a cold and all his concern was needless.
Riding up to the house, Adam called out and as he was dismounting Cyrus rounded the corner of the barn, cleaning his hands on his handkerchief before he stretched out his right hand, smiling.
“Howdy, Adam. Nice of you to visit me.”
“Howdy, Cyrus. You have done a lot here! Your place looks real friendly with all those blooms. And I see you are also paving your yard.” Adam pointed back at a heap of stones behind him.
“Yes, it’s a lot of work to do, but it’ll be worth it. Thank you. What brings you out here?”
“Well. I’m here…because I missed your children today in school and would like to…”
“They are sick.”
“Oh, sorry. What do they have?”
“Not feeling well.”
“Cyrus, I would like to have a word with you about Matt.”
“Did he do wrong in school? Tell me and I’ll punish him.” Adam was taken aback by the sudden harshness in Cyrus’s voice.
“No, he does his best but the boy is unhappy, desperate…Look, Cyrus, I know he did something no father would appreciate but…it’s now two weeks…”
“Two weeks? If your boy were a thief would you think he would change in two weeks? He has a lot to learn about right and wrong.”
“He’s only ten, Cyrus. Guide him and show him…”
“I show him all that’s needed. I give him enough work to do so he can’t come up with more crimes. And I show him the consequences of all his doing. I’m afraid I didn’t do it before. And now I would prefer to finish our discussion.”
“Cyrus, please, I don’t want to upset you but…”
“I think, it’s better you would leave my property now, I have work to do.”
“But Cyrus, Matt seems in despair, and even Ann’s often depressed. Maybe we could find a better way for all of you. I’m sure he knows he did wrong and regrets it deeply.” Adam took a few quick steps towards Cyrus, stretching out his arms in an effort to underline his point, to reach the man.
“Don’t touch me!”
Adam gaped at the gun Cyrus was suddenly pointing at him. Automatically, his hands went up, dropping Sport’s reins. Cyrus’ eyes were squinted, his lips a straight line, his gaze full of fury. He no longer resembled the man Adam had believed he knew.
“Do you think, because you are one of those high and mighty Cartwrights, that you don’t have to respect the property of a poor farmer? Get out! I don’t want to listen to any more suggestions from you!”
Adam was astonished to hear a click as the furious man pulled back the hammer. He backed up a few steps, hands still in the air, then fell heavily, as a sharp pain seemed to split open his head. But he hadn’t heard a shot. The only noise he was aware of as everything went dark around him was the long cry of a child’s voice shouting, “Noooo!”
Matt skimmed through the pantry. No – he didn’t need much to eat. He grabbed two apples and the end of a hard old bread loaf, and filled a canteen with water. That was enough. Why should he eat? He had tried it but he was worthless. No, worse: he was the reason why everything had changed on their farm. Yesterday his father had even beaten Ann only because she had said something in his favor, and today his father had killed the teacher. He had liked that substitute teacher. His father had carried the body of the teacher over to their wagon and driven off, perhaps to town. There was blood all over the teacher’s head and shirt. Maybe the doctor could do something? But it didn’t matter for himself. Yesterday he had only wanted to run away but now he knew better. In the moment he had stolen those marbles he had passed through an invisible gate to the dark side. Ann would be sad at first but in the long run it was going to be better when her evil twin brother was gone. He didn’t want to cause his family more pain. And maybe he could find their mama wherever she was now, maybe she could forgive and love him, maybe his guilt would be washed away when he did what was needed.
Matt felt in his pocket for the big key Joshua had given him and left the house.
When Adam awakened it was still dark and the pain in his head had increased. Was it night? Why couldn’t he see anything? With rising fear he tried to lift his hands to his face.
“Easy, big brother, don’t touch those eyes of yours.”
Adam lowered his hands relieved after all to hear Hoss’s voice.
“Ya suffered a bad head concussion, and the doc covered your eyes with a compress. Said the light ain’t good fer ya. You’ve got some stitches in your scalp, too. Maybe your head ain’t as hard as I always thought. A heap of real granite stones did some good damage to it.”
Adam tried to move on the small unfamiliar bed and learned quickly that not only his head ached. “Oww, my back. What happened, and where are we? I can’t remember when I fell.”
“We’re in the doctor’s office. Paul wanted to check on ya tonight in case of pressure in your skull. Pa’s still in Reno, Joe’s home to look after the hands and the animals, so I’m here with you. Cyrus brought you here, Paul said. Told him how he found ya lying on top of a heap of stones he had on his ground to pave his yard. Were you visiting Cyrus? Did something startle Sport?”
“Oh, I remember now, I was visiting him. But it wasn’t Sport’s fault I fell backwards on those stones –” Adam hesitated. “It was an accident, Hoss, but something is wrong with Cyrus; he’s changed. Do you have some water? My tongue is as dry as blotting paper.”
Adam drank in small gulps and rolled the water over his tongue. He had experienced once before what happened when he drank too fast, and he didn’t need nausea on top of everything else. Besides, he could think first and didn’t have to speak. Surely something was wrong with Cyrus, really wrong. He wished he had seen the children. Were they well? Should he send Hoss out to the farm? But Cyrus might attack Hoss, too. Adam closed his eyes under their cover and attempted to block out the pain that tried to crack open his skull. He must concentrate on a plan. His cot seemed to wave and roll slightly. Had he drunk too fast, after all? Bile rose into his throat. Then he was pulled into a tunnel, he turned around and around, he tried to hold on the edges of the bed but his fingers lost their grip and then he fell and fell and fell…into nothing.
Loud and angry voices.
Adam tried to understand.
“…he isn’t lucid, that’s why you can’t see him. And besides, I don’t want you of all people near him. I don’t know why my brother is in this condition, but he was on your farm when it happened!”
“But I need him. My boy’s missing and Ann said maybe Adam knows something. Matt’s friend Joshua doesn’t know where he is.”
Cyrus. He sounded agitated, maybe desperate.
“Hoss, are you here?” Adam asked in the darkness.
“Sure, I wouldn’t leave ya alone, brother. Should I chase Cyrus ‘way?”
“No, please let him in…but keep a close eye on him. I need to hear what’s wrong with little Matthew.” Adam was surprised at how weak his voice sounded.
A few moments later he heard Cyrus speaking from somewhere near his feet. “Sorry, Adam. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to you and about what I did to you…” Adam could hear the distress in the man’s voice. “Please help me. Will you have a look at the letter Matt left back in Ann’s room? Maybe you can tell me where he is.”
“Read it to me, Cyrus.”
“‘My dear twinnie,
‘I love you and because of that I have to leave you. Don’t be sad. We will see each other again. I’ll be waiting for you by the river when I can. Good bye and tell Dad I’m sorry.
‘In eternal love
‘your brother Matthew.’
“Adam, do you know where he is waiting? My lass has been crying for hours and I can’t find him. Where’s my son?”
“‘By the river?'” Adam asked in alarm. “Cyrus, did you listen to the preacher last Sunday? Hoss, we have to find Matt.” He swung his feet out of his bed and moaned at the sudden pain in his head.
“Do you mean he is referring to…that river, to the Jordan river? Oh, no…”
“Hoss, please help me. We have to go to Joshua’s house. How late is it?”
“It’s past ten. But ya can’t walk or ride. Paul said it would be dangerous!”
“I talked to Joshua. He didn’t know anything!” Cyrus almost cried out.
“Maybe if I ask him he will remember something that helps. I know it’s only a try but he is your boy’s best friend, and we have to start somewhere. C’mon, Hoss, help me to get up.”
“Adam, ye’r sick. It’s not good fer you…”
“What if we put Adam in the back of the buggy? Wouldn’t it be possible? ” Joe intervened.
“That’s a good idea, Joe!” Adam said, carefully loosening the cover over his eyes. “It’s dark outside, it can’t be too dangerous. Let’s go!”
Matt ate his second apple and got down on his knees to pray. He asked the Lord for forgiveness for all his sins and then lit the lantern he had found in the shack. He needed clear sight for his purpose. Carefully he knotted the rope.
As the buggy clattered over the rutted road that led to the farm of Joshua’s parents, Adam wasn’t sure if the idea was so good after all. He saw flashes before his eyes even when he closed them.
It took them half an hour to reach the farm house. They had to wake the family and it wasn’t easy to persuade Joshua’s father to bring the boy out where Adam lay in the back of the carriage.
Finally, still blinking sleepily and with a blanket wrapped over his nightshirt, Joshua came outside. He came to a stop when he saw Cyrus.
“I don’t know where Matt is. I told you so before, sir,” he said defiantly.
“Joshua. You have to tell me where my son is! Tell me or else…”
“Cyrus, calm down. Let me speak with Joshua. You are too upset. Hoss and Joe, please go a few steps away with Cyrus. I would like to speak with Joshua in private. Please, Cyrus.”
Cyrus hesitated. Adam tried to sit up.
“Come on, Cyrus. Adam’s the doctor here, or better the teacher.” Joe slapped Cyrus on the shoulder, and finally Cyrus went with him.
Adam lay back again and waited for the pain in his head to lessen before he spoke. “Joshua, come here next to the wagon; I can’t walk right now. We came here in the middle of the night because it’s very important. We’re afraid for Matt. Maybe he isn’t only hiding from his father. Maybe he’s trying to do something very stupid. He left a letter saying good bye. You know how desperate he was. Is there really nothing you know that can help us to find your friend?”
“Mr. Cartwright, do you mean he…he would…oh no!”
“What’s the matter, Joshua?”
“The rope! He told me he would like to have the rope we used to swing with. He wanted to hide in our shack because of his father and I thought he wanted to play with it. I gave it to him the day before yesterday. When he wasn’t in school today I thought he was there. Last week I brought some supplies up to the shack for him…”
“Where is this shack, Joshua?”
“It’s up in the hills but you have to walk – the last part is too rough for a wagon or even a horse.”
Too rough for him as well, Adam thought in momentary desperation.
“I can go, Adam.”
“Joe? I thought you were with Cyrus. You shouldn’t…but anyhow. Thanks, brother.” Adam reached for his brother’s hand to press it briefly. “Please, take care of yourself and good luck.”
A few minutes later the lights of three lanterns were heading up into the hills where Joshua’s father was leading Joe and Cyrus to the shack, while Hoss took Adam back to town.
His heart was racing. They had left their horses and he hurried along the path that zigzagged up the hill. Why couldn’t the others go faster? His boy was in danger!
Cyrus prayed and swore in the same time. He stubbed his toes and scraped his shins on stones and tore his clothes on thorny twigs. He knew with deadly certainty that he had to be fast. Their leader was lagging, and even the far younger Little Joe was three curves of the path behind him, but he could see the line of the path climbing up the hill in the moonlight and he had his own lantern so he headed forward without a break. His lungs were aching, trying to bring the hot breath in and out; then he could feel only numbness, but he didn’t stop, he couldn’t stop.
When he saw the dark outlines of a building he started to run, not knowing where he had found the energy. The door was closed; he tried the handle. It didn’t open. He cracked his shoulder against the door one – two – three times. Did he break his shoulder? He didn’t know. Finally the door flung open and he tumbled inside the dark shack.
First he heard the noises, then he saw him. A body hanging from the roof – his feet were thrashing around, under him a fallen stool. In two strides he was there supporting the small body, opening the noose around his neck, hearing the intake of breath. He wasn’t too late – maybe two minutes later he would have been, but he wasn’t! Thank you, Lord! He carried his boy to the narrow bed and laid him down. He felt the boy’s neck. No bone was broken, only the skin. Then he collapsed beside the bed. He had lost control over his body, he couldn’t stop the trembling and shaking, he was unable to move any further, to move a single finger or toe. Then Joe Cartwright was by his side and the other man lit up a fire in the fireplace, but he still couldn’t move; his gaze was fixed on the red line around the neck of his son, and he was not even able to brush the tears away that were running down his face.
“It’s not your fault, my laddie, it’s all mine,” was all that he could think, and he stammered it over and over again.
Little Joe woke with a start. The pounding noise he had heard in his dream didn’t stop and he wasn’t in his bed. Then he remembered, Pa wasn’t back yet – Adam had forbidden anyone to send him a telegram – and when he had brought Matt to the doctor’s office yesterday at dawn he had stayed there. After a brief examination the doctor had reassured everyone that Matt would be all right once he’d had at least twenty-four hours of undisturbed rest – he’d stared right at Cyrus when he said that. Hoss had taken Cyrus home and Joe had promised to watch the boy and Adam.
“Joe? Somebody is knocking. I’d open the door myself but this bandage…”
“Don’t you dare touch that bandage, Adam. I promised Doc Martin you wouldn’t do it again.” Joe wasn’t sure how he could know it without seeing Adam’s eyes but he was quite sure Adam was rolling them.
The knocking started again.
“I’ll get it, Adam, don’t worry.” Joe wondered if he should grab his revolver but decided against it.
“Good morning, Little Joe.” It didn’t surprise Joe to find out their early visitor was Cyrus. “Hello my laddie, good morning Adam,” the big man said, looking towards the two cots without stepping through the doorframe.
“Come in, Cyrus.”
Cyrus took a few steps in the direction of Adam’s bed, fumbling with the things he had brought with him.
“Here, Adam, don’t know if you like them. Feels funny, a man picking flowers for another man, but they have a fresh fragrance – not too heavy, I know strong perfume’s not good for sick persons – but you can smell it even if you have to shut your eyes. I thought…” he stammered. “They are from my garden.” Cyrus made two more steps towards Adam’s bed clutching a big bunch of flowers in his hands and hesitated again. “We only need a vase.”
“I can get one,” Joe volunteered. “And I’ll look for breakfast, too.”
Just as he spoke the other door opened and Paul Martin’s young assistant came in with a tray.
“Here’s your breakfast, good morning. I hope you like hot milk, Matt? For you men I have coffee…What nice flowers. I’ll get a vase.” She handed the tray to Joe, took the bouquet from Cyrus, and bustled back into the other room.
“Here, those candies are for you, Matt,” Cyrus said, giving his son a large bag. “The doc says you can come home with me today.” Joe thought it wasn’t just the big man’s voice that suddenly seemed very small.
“That’s great, Dad.”
Was it his imagination or did Cyrus really grow two inches? Joe asked himself. But one thing was certain: he didn’t need to worry any more about father and son, and the smile on his brother’s face told him Adam felt the same. To give Cyrus and Matt a moment of privacy, Joe leaned over to his brother. “Here’s your breakfast, Adam. Don’t burn your hands. I will help you.”
“So, here are your flowers back.” The young woman had returned and put the vase on the nightstand.
“I can smell them, Cyrus. It’s a big improvement after the chloroform fumes I’m used to here – No, without joking, I do like the fragrance. Thank you.”
“Adam, it was me who put you in this position, I’m so sorry. – I’d like to…to tell you all something,” Cyrus continued with a slight stammer. “I think I owe you at least an explanation after all I did to you, Matt and Adam. And without you, Little Joe, I’d still be sitting helplessly in that line shack. I’m so grateful you carried my boy down the hill to the doctor. You know, I’m not a great speaker, but I will try it. I have to try it.”
Cyrus licked his lips before he started again, “When I was a boy I lived with my family in Edinburgh. My father was a cobbler; he was poor but very proud. He never backed down from nobody. And he was a very strict man. My brothers and me lived in fear of him. He used his heavy strop on us whenever we didn’t toe the line exactly. His beatings were always hard and merciless. Often after a stropping, he’d point to the prison that was next to our house and tell us that he would prevent us from ending up there by teaching us right from wrong in the way that God demanded.
“I remember how I shuddered as a small boy whenever I heard the iron wheels of the prisoners’ cart rumble down the street and under our bedroom window bringing a criminal in to prison – or worse, out to execution at dawn.
“A few days before I left with my uncle for the new world, I had a quarrel with my father. I cursed him for thrashing me so often and told him I would never beat my children like that. He laughed at me and said I should wait until I had children of my own. I didn’t believe him, not until I had to come into town to fetch my boy out of the jail. From that moment I could hear my father’s voice in my head, his laughter and his warning. I had failed as a father; I had spared the rod and my son was in prison. That first night after the theft I sat alone in the dark living room until the wee hours, drinking half a bottle of whiskey and silently apologizing to my father, promising him I wouldn’t let his grandchildren become criminals.
“Now I know it was only a demon of the past that had grabbed me and that I was never so wrong in my life as in these last few weeks. Laddie, I’m sorry I did that to you; it will never happen again. The demon of the past is banished forever! I’m sorry, all three of you. I’m deep in your debt. I hope I can make it up to you someday.”
Five days after Adam had finally come home, Ben found himself squinting against the bright sunshine that filled his son’s room.
“Adam, Paul said you shouldn’t have intense sensory input for a week, and you shouldn’t read for more than an hour a day!” Ben crossed the room and pulled the curtains closed, leaving the room in the dim light the doctor had asked for.
“Sorry, Pa, I lost track of time.” Adam put the book on his nightstand and rolled on his back, smiling apologetically at Ben.
How often had he heard the same apology when Adam was a boy? Even the sheepish, boyish, smile was the same, Ben thought. Slowly going back to the bed, he began to feel a bit uncomfortable about his own behavior. His initial anger when he’d discovered his sons hadn’t informed him about Adam’s accident had faded, but wasn’t it his duty to supervise his son’s remaining convalescence, especially after all the escapades Paul had told him about? “It’s only – I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”
“It’s all right, Pa. I really wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t realize it was noon or that the sun was shining so brightly.”
“I have something for you that Joe brought back from town. It’s from your class.” Ben showed Adam a big envelope.
“Can you read it to me, Pa? I don’t want you being mad at me for reading when I shouldn’t,” Adam grinned.
“Don’t be so cheeky, young man,” Ben answered with a wag of his finger and opened the envelope. It contained a large sheet covered in bold, colorful letters and a smaller envelope. With a smile, Ben held the sheet out to Adam. “I think I can make an exception and allow you to read this by yourself.”
Dear Mr. Cartwright,
We are very sorry you are injured.
Get well soon.
You left us a day early, so we would like to ask you if you will come to visit us some morning when you feel well again, so we can celebrate your farewell like we planned it as a surprise.
The letter was surrounded by the children’s signatures, and in a short notice at the bottom the teacher seconded the invitation.
“That’s nice of the children,” Ben said. “I’m glad I found such a fine substitute teacher. I’m proud of you.”
“Ah – Pa.”
“Don’t ah-pa me, I mean it. Should I open the other letter, too?”
Ben settled himself on the edge of Adam’s bed and slit the envelope open with his pocketknife. “It’s from Abe and Matt, they say they have a surprise for everyone during the celebration. And you know why.”
“Yes, Pa, I know. They’ve thought of something they can do for their schoolmates. It’s a good sign, a very good sign, and I’m looking forward to that little party.”
“I’m glad that everything ended so well for Matt and Cyrus,” Ben said. “I thought a lot about them and how desperate Matt must have been.”
“He was, Pa, you could see it clearly every day, long before he…ran away.”
“But his father didn’t.”
“No, he was caught by his own demons from the past. When I visited him that day I met his father, I guess. Not a very pleasant person.”
“Demons from the past,” Ben repeated slowly. “Joe told me the whole story.” Then he said into the dim room, “I wonder why I didn’t see how desperate you were after – back in that summer. A good father should have noticed.”
“I did all I could to hide it from you, Pa.” Adam’s smile was only a shadow.
“I’m afraid you did.” Ben laid his hand on top of Adam’s arm halfway expecting, Adam would pull it away – but he didn’t. “Were you so scared of me?”
“No, not really, Pa. And certainly not about a punishment, which I was sure I deserved. It was different…”
Ben waited anxiously, seeing his educated son struggling for words.
“It was like a circle of guilt I couldn’t escape,” Adam finally continued. “I was deceiving you by not telling what I did. I called myself a coward because I didn’t tell you, because I couldn’t confess anymore after I didn’t the first time, and I felt so guilty about that, but,” Adam’s voice was only a whisper, “what I had to confess was such a big sin that I was afraid you could never trust me again, that you couldn’t forgive me. That I had gambled away – your love.”
“A can of tuna, a few peaches and candies – Adam, you really thought I wouldn’t have forgiven you?”
“But it was a crime, Pa. A crime in boyish dimensions but still a crime, as if I robbed a bank today.”
“No, it was a mistake of a boy.”
Ben saw the doubt in Adam’s eyes.
“Of a young boy, Adam, and boys make mistakes – and not only boys. When you told me your story I realized how young you were – even given this incident was so near the end of our travels – I realized how much I expected from you at an age I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry about that.” Ben remembered the small boy looking seriously up to him on so many occasions. “You know, I never expected being perfect from you, did you?”
Adam closed his eyes, only the working of his jaw muscles betraying the turmoil of feelings he fought down.
How often had he been misled by his son’s composed face? By his independent attitude? When had Adam started to show he was “big now?” Ben smiled ruefully when he thought about the three year old wearing his first britches, fiercely declaring his adulthood. Later there were his younger brothers he helped to raise, concealing his own needs beneath their much larger ones. How blind had he been, Ben thought as he again laid his hand on Adam’s arm. When once again he didn’t meet any of the resistance he’d been expecting he gently began to stroke it. “Son, you know, you couldn’t gamble my love away? It’s my love and I spend it on whom I like. There is nothing you could and nothing you can do to stop my love, you know that, too?”
Adam’s hand, rising in its accustomed way to pinch the bridge of his nose, paused to rub quickly across his eyes.
Was it shortly after Joe’s birth when he had sat on the edge of Adam’s bed last?
Had there been other things Adam had hidden? Probably. Oh that shell of his; that armor of sarcasm! At least time should have healed old wounds by now. But – Ben was shocked when he thought about it – had he been wrong in that for such a long time, too?
“Adam, do you remember when you told me after Marie’s death I should cuddle Little Joe a lot, and also Hoss because he had lost his mother, too? After the two months I was frozen with grief and you did everything that I couldn’t?”
“Yes, Pa, I do.”
“You lost your mother, too, and I didn’t cuddle you a lot.”
“Ah Pa, I was mostly grown. And I don’t need so much cuddling.” Adam’s typical half-smile was back, but it didn’t fool Ben this time.
“Maybe I should have tried doing it more often, you liar.” Winking at him, Ben gave Adam’s arm a final pat. “But I didn’t mean – then. You helped me so much with your little brother…we both were so concerned about him but…”
Adam stared at his father with wide eyes, then narrowed them suspiciously.
“You weren’t yet seven then…and I didn’t cuddle you – or at least not enough. And…we never said good bye properly. Maybe I should have asked you this a long time ago.” Ben tried to speak around the lump in his throat. “Would you like to make a journey with me? To Ash Hollow, to visit your mama’s grave. I…I would like to do that with you.”
When Adam turned his head abruptly toward the wall, Ben prayed he hadn’t made a mistake. When had he last called Inger Adam’s mama? Nowadays they usually spoke of Inger as Hoss’s mama and Liz was called Adam’s mother. How could he think time could have healed a wound that was never cleaned out? It was his fault he hadn’t given his boy an opportunity to grieve and to be consoled sooner – decades sooner. Ben waited biting his lips.
Silence built up in the room like a wall. Like all those walls his son had built for his shell, Ben realized. Could he possibly have stopped him building them?
At first Ben wasn’t sure the faint whisper was really Adam speaking but then his heart leaped as he understood his son’s nearly inaudible words, “We should take a wagon, Pa. I would like to bring her a headstone.”
“Yes, that we will do, Adam. That we will do.” Ben could feel the wetness in his eyes, when he realized that one of Adam’s walls had come down at last. Guilt and mistakes, Ben thought. Nobody is free of them and they will leave their marks. But if you are lucky, you can be given a second chance before they grow into demons that destroy your or your family’s life, Ben thought gratefully while he massaged Adam’s shoulders without hesitation, just as he would have done with his youngest son.
Thank you Sandspur and Sklamb. You did a terrific work!
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