Summary: A mystery to be answered in your own mind.
Rating: T (1,955 words)
The following is a collection of five vignettes that leave the reader to decide which Cartwright is the central character. You are free to picture your favorite Cartwright in each scenario, or look for the nuances that might reveal each character’s identity. Be warned that much remains a mystery and proceed only if that strikes your fancy.
WILL YOU BE THERE WHEN I WAKE?
“Go to sleep now.” He said it softly while gently brushing his fingers over her face to close her eyes.
“Are you going to be here when I wake up?” She let her eyes shut, but the query was delivered in clear not sleep-slurred tones.
“No.” It was the truth. That he would never lie to her had been his only promise.
She opened her eyes and looked directly at him. “Then I shall never sleep.”
He shook his head. “Don’t. You know I can’t stay. You knew it from the first.”
“Can you go while I watch? Will your Cartwright honor steel you against my tears?” Her eyes glittered with tears not yet shed.
“Do you wish to watch my heart break?”
Her anger flared. “If it breaks, that is your doing not mine.” Anger gone, she pled, “Stay and keep both our hearts whole.”
He looked down at her and fought the overwhelming urge to lift her in his arms. He wanted to kiss her for the first time even though it would also be the last. He closed his eyes. If he looked at her a moment more, he would lose the battle that he fought within himself.
“Is it that easy to shut me out?” Her words dripped bitterness.
He stood. “Nothing about this is easy.” She heard the resolve in his voice.
“So I shut my eyes and when I wake to find you gone, I tell myself that you were but a dream?”
“If I stay, our dream will become a nightmare for you as well as for me.” He knew it was true. Eventually he would hate her for what she had made him do.
“Go then. Go back to your Ponderosa. Go back and be Papa’s good boy!” She said the last with derision, but there was truth there too. They both knew he could not live without his father’s respect.
He did not say goodbye. That was asking too much of himself. He simply left. She did not watch him go. She shut her eyes and pretended he would be there when she woke.
He placed both hands around the tin cup and felt the warmth of the hot coffee seep into his fingers. It would not be cool once the sun had risen and drenched the land for a few hours, but right now with only the first traces of sunrise changing the blackness to grey there was still a chill in the air that matched the one in his heart.
She had been like the sun in his life bringing light and warmth he had never really known with anyone else. Now she was gone and part of him, the part deep inside his soul was without heat. The coldness there spread a chill throughout his whole world, and he had not been truly warm since she had gone.
She was gone. He had faced that. Whatever they might have had together would never be. He had accepted that. Still, the cold was there, and the sun never quite seemed to rise in his soul.
He sat there alone as the sun climbed higher. Of course he was alone by choice. He had a family. They were there for him. All he had to do was go home, and they would wrap him in warm looks, reassuring words, and hands that patted the back and squeezed the shoulder. The Cartwrights were always there for each other. Anyone in the territory would tell you so.
He watched the sky change colors, as the coffee grew cold in his hands. The sun always came up. Sometimes it was hidden by clouds or washed grey by rain, but it always rose tugging in another day. Yes, the new day came whether you wanted it or not.
He tossed the cold coffee on the ground and rose. She was gone, and he felt her absence no less strongly here in the mountains then he had back there. Her ghost was in his mind not in the rooms, the streets, or the woods where they had loved.
He broke camp and mounted his horse. The sun shone. He turned his face up to its rays. Then he started riding toward home.
He was trying so hard to stay conscious. Fighting the pain, he crawled into his hiding place leaving a trail of blood-soaked earth that drained the energy from his body. It was almost too great an effort to draw in each shallow breath. Still he pushed back the darkness that tried to drown him and listened. He knew they were coming. He had to stay in control. He had to be ready. His hand tightened on the gun in his hand. Three bullets remained. Three bullets were all he had to stop a dozen men. When they came, he had to be ready. He knew his pa and brothers would be searching for him by now. That was another reason he could not give in to the black tide. He had hidden himself from his hunters, and he feared that he might also have hidden too well from his saviors. He had to be in enough control to recognize anyone who approached the miniscule cave. He had three bullets for defense; he had three bullets to signal for salvation. He had to be ready.
A distance rumble filled his ears. Was it thunder? Was it the hoof beats of a dozen horses, or just the rush of his own blood through his ears? He fought to clear his eyes. He had to focus. Lightening illuminated the area within his vision. In the flash-frozen scene, he recognized the riders. His saviors had come. Pointing the pistol to the sky, he fired three times and then closed his eyes and let the darkness take his mind.
He heard a shot in the distance. He knew it was a rifle being fired. He had heard rifle fire hundreds of thousands of times in his twenty-two years. Rifle fire meant one thing to him at that moment. Rifles were only fired by humans. Rifle fire meant there was someone out there. Someone was close enough to hear if he fired a signal. The question was if that person would heed the sound, follow it, and rescue him. He had only one bullet, and he had been saving that one for himself.
Over the past three days since he had found himself on the canyon floor with not one but two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder, he had considered the best use of that one bullet. He had decided that the protection that it offered from predators and scavengers alike was too limited if turned on them. It would serve him well only if turned on himself. Pa would be ashamed of him, of course, if he knew how much comfort that one bullet had given him. A Cartwright never gave up, and that bullet represented the ultimate surrender. Still, the feel of it in his hand had given him confidence. It was his means of control, and the thing he had always feared the most was losing all control.
If he fired a signal and no one came, could he face the rest of it without the power to end it himself? If he only knew who had fired that shot, he could weigh the odds. He had always been good at figuring the odds. Who would be firing a rifle in such an arid and isolated place? An Indian who had managed to obtain a white man’s weapon might be near. That would complicate the matter, for an Indian might prove friend or foe. Of course, any solitary man crossing this land could prove friend or foe. He knew there were evil men in this land of all skin shades. He needed to decide. The shooter might even now be headed away from him.
Should he allow himself to hope? Should he push the thought that it might be someone searching for him from his mind or allow it to enter?
He reached for the gun. The thought was there now, and it left him no choice. He placed the bullet in the chamber and fired. The sound echoed, and then the silence returned. He waited, and as the time passed he strained ever harder to hear. When he did hear the sound of a voice calling, he almost dismissed it as wishful thinking. Then he called out. Realizing his parched throat could produce only a weak sound, he lifted the empty gun and brought it down on a rock. He repeated the act with a steady rhythm until the voices became clear, and he knew they were calling his name. He tried again to shout and managed a louder call. Then there was no need to shout. The others were yelling. They were yelling that they had found him and coming excitedly toward him. He smiled for with his family the odds were never against him.
JUST A BLISTER
He had paid little attention to the blister. After all, he had had hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of blisters over the years. He did not think that he had broken in even one pair of boots without a blister or two on each foot. Then there were all the blisters raised on his hands by the physical toil that had been part of his life since he had been old enough to follow a simple command. What with cooking, branding, campfires, and the like, burns had raised blisters in more places than he cared to remember. Then there were the blisters that Pa had raised on his behind. Well, maybe they didn’t count as actual blisters, but they had demanded a great deal more of his attention than one little blister on his thumb. He had only himself to blame for that blister though. Pa and his brothers were always reminding him to wear his gloves. His only thought when the blister broke open was a fleeting relief. Later he had been too busy to think of where he was putting his hands, and when they finally got home that night, he was just too tired to even wash his hands let alone doctor a blister. It was just a blister after all. He had paid little attention to that blister, and that had been his mistake.
He could still hear Doc Martin’s voice. “Any opening in the skin can lead to infection, Ben, and if that infection is ignored. Well, we will do everything we can.”
“Will he lose his hand, Paul?” His father’s voice was dead and toneless.
“That may be the least of it.” Doc Martin had always told them the truth of things.
After that, all the voices had drifted far away. He had drifted too, moving around in a world of dissolving images, verbal snippets, waves of heat, and piercing pains.
He opened his eyes and slowly brought the room into focus. There was his Pa in the chair beside his bed. There was his hand lying on the bedcover wrapped in white. He sighed and felt the tears seep down his cheeks. He promised himself next time he’d wear his gloves. He didn’t want to get another blister after all.