Summary: The Cartwrights look after a couple of children for a while.
Rated: T (10,015 word)
Through a Glass, darkly
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face.. 1 Corinthians 11-12
I didn’t want to go, and neither did Cy. We told our Pa, but he wouldn’t listen. He had to make that trip back east, and with Ma dead he needed some place for us to stay. It seemed only natural that he’d ask his old friend Ben Cartwright to help him out. I figured, being sixteen and all, that I was more’n man enough to stay at our spread. I’d take care of the chores. Cy’s fourteen now, and he could have helped out too. But Pa wouldn’t hear of it, and so we got packed off to the Ponderosa.
“Ben’s a good man, and he’s raised three fine boys,” Pa said. “He’ll take good care of you, and I want you to listen to him. If he says jump, you ask how high, ya hear me?”
Of course, Cy nodded his fool head off, but I stood and didn’t say a word. Pa caught on to that right quick, though. He turned those steely gray eyes on me, and said, “Did you hear me, Billy?”
Then I had to say yes, because the last thing Pa needed was to worry about us at a time like this. With Grandpa dying back in Philadelphia, and his business needing to be settled up, Pa was just about frantic. But, I sure didn’t want to go stay at the biggest spread in Nevada with Ben Cartwright and his three grown sons.
I’ve known them all my life; it’s not like they’re strangers and all. Seen ‘em at church every Sunday, and at all the picnics and town socials. Even been to the ranch a time or two, for some gathering or another. I’ve seen Joe Cartwright squiring as many of the pretty ladies around town as he could, and Adam giving him a run for his money with the rest of ‘em. The big one, Hoss, was friendly enough, I guess. He came over and doctored up that prize bull calf that Pa set such store by, and wouldn’t take a penny of Pa’s money, even though Pa begged him too. But he sat right down at the table and ate the best part of the pie that Mrs. Johnson had just pulled out of the oven. Pa kept offering him another piece, and he just kept taking it. Wasn’t much left over for us, I can tell you. We figured we’d be liable to starve out there at that ranch, if we had to sit down at the table with Hoss every night.
So, there we were, standing with our battered old suitcase in the middle of the Ponderosa great room, staring at the biggest fireplace I ever saw in my life, and old Ben Cartwright was smiling at us, the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. Even Adam got up to smile and shake hands, just like Cy and me was all grown up. Hop Sing said something about boys, and brought out a plate of the best cookies I ever tasted. Since Hoss wasn’t home at the time, Cy and me got to eat as many as we could, and that was quite a few, I must say.
Mr. Cartwright told us that Hoss and Joe were down at the corral. He said Joe was breaking some broncs for the Army and Hoss had gone to lend a hand, and they’d be home in time for supper. He showed us up to our room and told us to get settled and then disappeared. I looked at Cy, and Cy looked at me, and I know he was trying not to cry.
“Where do you think Pa is now?” he asked sort of soft.
I was about to make some smart answer, because we both knew that Pa was probably still on the trail to Virginia City, but I saw that Cy was trying hard to hold back those tears, so I didn’t. “I suppose he’s riding to town,” I said. “We’ll be okay, Cy. The Cartwrights are nice people, even if they are awfully old.”
“Yeah.” Cy’s face was glum. “I don’t suppose they know much about kids around here. What are we going to do all day, Billy?”
“Go to school, just like always. And then we’ll figure something out. You stick by me,” I said. “I’ll make sure it’s okay.”
Cy nodded and swallowed. I saw him brace his shoulders and try to act like a tough man, but it was hard for him. He’d been just a little guy when Ma died, and he’d always kinda looked to me to lead the way. So we went back down the stairs and wandered outside. Mr. Cartwright said he’d call us for supper, and that we needed to spy out the lay of the land.
In the corral next to the barn were some of the prettiest horses I’ve ever seen. I’d heard that Joe was trying to build up the horse end of the ranch, and when he wasn’t in town chasing the ladies he was doing a fine job of it. At least that’s what Mrs. Johnson said, when she came over to cook and clean for us. Mrs. Johnson loves to gossip, and it was from her that we got most of our information about the Cartwrights.
There was this one big stallion, prancing and pawing and dancing around that corral. He was the finest piece of horseflesh I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’d always wanted to have a horse like that. I couldn’t help myself. I slipped over the fence and was heading for that horse without even thinking. I was almost right up to him, my hand out, talking real low, when I heard a shout behind me.
I jumped and so did the horse. He took off for the other end of the corral, and I swung around to see Joe Cartwright standing behind me, and boy was he mad. His hands were on his hips and his eyes were blazing green sparks.
“What do you think you’re doing in here?” he demanded. “Can’t you see that horse hasn’t been broken yet? You could’ve been killed.”
He reached out and grabbed my arm and hustled me out of the corral, scolding me and muttering the whole way. When I saw that he was dragging me back into the house, though, I dug in my heels. Cy was trailing along with his face as white as a sheet. When I stopped and pulled against Joe’s arm, Cy’s face got whiter still. I thought he was going to pass out then and there. I shrugged loose, and glared back at Joe.
“I can walk by myself. You don’t have to drag me,” I yelled furiously. Joe was making me look like a baby and I hated that.
Joe kind of looked at me funny, like he recognized something about me, but he let go. “Billy, right?” he asked. People always had a hard time telling Cy and me apart, even though we’re almost two years different in age. “I’m sorry if I scared you, but you scared me even worse. I thought Lightning was going to kill you. He’s a tough one, and I haven’t had a chance to work with him much.”
It looked like that was as close to an apology as he was going to give, so I nodded. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Joe. He’s so pretty, and I just wanted to touch him. I would have been fine.”
The fire died out of his eyes, and I saw him kind of laugh a little. “I know just what you mean. He’s one fine horse, I’ll admit. I’ve been wanting to do just what you did ever since we got him.” He put out his hand, like he wanted to shake. “I’ll make a deal with you. After I get him broken, I’ll let you take him out for a ride.”
I stared at him with my mouth hanging wide open. I forgot to take his hand in my excitement, and after a minute he dropped it down to his side. “Do you mean it?” I asked in disbelief. “You’d let me ride him?”
“Remember I said after he was broken, and not a moment before,” he said with a crooked smile on his face.
Now Joe must have been about 23, and that’s real old, but right then, he looked like he wasn’t too much older’n me. I held out my hand to him, ashamed that I hadn’t taken his when he offered it to me. “Thanks, Joe, it’s a deal.”
Joe grabbed my hand and shook it firmly. “But you stay away from him until then, you hear?”
It was all I could do to nod my head, I was so excited. He opened the door and ushered us inside. I saw Hoss over by the fireplace and he nodded hello. Adam looked up from a big, thick book that he was reading and smiled, and Mr. Cartwright called a greeting from where he sat at his big desk. It seemed right homey, and I forgot all about being homesick. I caught a glimpse of Cy and could see that he was feeling the same way. Of course it helped that we could smell something good cooking in the kitchen. My stomach growled like thunder on the mountain, as Pa says, and everyone laughed.
“You boys must be mighty hungry,” Hoss said kindly, a twinkle in his blue eye. “I know the feelin’ pretty well. Now, Old Hop Sing don’t take too kindly to boys messing in his kitchen, so to tide you over, how ’bout one of these apples?”
He pointed to a big bowl of fruit on the square table in front of the fire. I was mighty hungry, just like he said, and I quickly scooped up an apple. Cy was feeling shy, I could tell, but he took an apple too. We sat side by side on the settee, and just watched the show. I say show because that’s what it seemed like to me.
Hoss and Joe kept on teasing and joking with each other. They would pretend to fight and wrestle, until I thought they’d break something for sure. They must have known just how far to take it, though, because every time I thought that they’d gone too far, they’d stop. Maybe it was because every now and then, Mr. Cartwright would clear his throat. He did it just when things got wild, and even though I never saw Hoss or Joe look in his direction, if that throat cleared they stopped their fooling, at least for a few minutes.
Adam just sat and read, paying them no attention at all. He’s the quiet, serious Cartwright, according to Mrs. Johnson. At that time, he must have been about 35. He dressed all in black, and looked like a gunslinger, but he’d been to college back east, and had a real diploma and everything. I thought he was lost in his book, but once I caught him looking at his brothers, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d have said there was a bit of a tear in his eye. He looked real sad for just a moment, and then it was gone, and he was back at his book, so I thought I must have imagined it all. It was about then that Hop Sing called us all to supper and we headed for the table.
My worries about starving to death at the Ponderosa disappeared when I saw the food piled on the table. Hop Sing had cooked enough for twice our number. That table almost groaned under its weight. We bowed our heads, and Mr. Cartwright said grace, and then we tucked into supper. Hoss ate enough for two men, while the rest of us tried our best to keep up with him. And still the joking and the teasing continued. Now that Adam wasn’t buried in a book, he joined in with the rest of them.
Cy and I kept looking at each other when we thought no one else was looking. I’d never seen grown men act that way, and I’m sure he hadn’t either. The folks in town were always talking about the Cartwrights, saying that if you fought one you fought ’em all, but I hadn’t believed it until then. They were teasing and tormenting and picking on one another all night, but the love at that table was real. I felt my stomach clench up a little, because it made me miss Pa that much more. Sitting there with the Cartwrights made me want my own family around me.
I felt a warm hand on my shoulder just then. When I looked up, Mr. Cartwright was standing over me, a twinkle in his eye. “Your Pa will be back just as soon as he can, Billy,” was all he said, but I felt the knot in my stomach loosen. I don’t know how he knew, but his eyes made me feel warm all over.
I nodded my thanks and then we were all leaving the table. After a couple of games of checkers, Cy and I headed for bed. We talked over the day and agreed that the Cartwrights were different than we’d expected, but that staying with them wouldn’t be as bad as we had thought.
I tossed and turned long after Cy was snoring softly in the next bed, thinking about Pa. I missed him so badly right then, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be sleeping much. Sometimes when I’m fretting over something a walk helps to settle me down, so I decided to creep down the stairs and slip outside. I didn’t want to wake anyone, so I didn’t put on my boots. I just pulled my pants on over my nightshirt and headed for the top of the stairs at a tiptoe.
The murmur of voices down below me stopped me dead in my tracks. Someone was up talking, and I cursed silently over my lost walk. I crept to the head of the stairs and peeked over. I saw Adam talking over something pretty serious with his father. I knew it was serious because Mr. Cartwright’s face looked like it was set in stone. His eyes weren’t twinkling now; it looked more like he wanted to cry, just like me earlier.
Adam sat on the edge of the big square table that sits in front of the fire, while Mr. Cartwright sat in a chair beside him. I caught the words, “Back east” and “Clipper Ship” and I could tell that something was going on. I thought it might have something to do with my Pa, since he’d headed back east, so I stayed around to listen a bit more.
I didn’t catch much, only bits and pieces, but it sounded like Adam wanted to take a trip east and his father was trying to talk him out of going. From the way Adam’s jaw was set, I knew that no matter what Mr. Cartwright said to him, there’d be no persuading him to stick around the Ponderosa. I had heard in town that Adam was getting restless, but I hadn’t paid much attention. He was so much older than me, I figured it wouldn’t matter to me, one way or another. Stay or go, what Adam Cartwright did wouldn’t affect me in the slightest. At least that’s what I used to think. But now, looking at Adam’s tight jaw and tense face, and Mr. Cartwright’s bent head, the unshed tears in his eyes, I knew that it did matter to me.
The Cartwrights were a family that loved each other whole-heartedly and they didn’t care who knew it. To see Adam deliberately causing such pain in his father was a hard thing to watch. There are some families that wouldn’t mind seeing a son go away for a long spell, but this wasn’t one of them. I wanted to shout at Adam to stop it, and I wanted to put my arms around Mr. Cartwright and tell him that it was going to be all right. But I couldn’t do either, because this was a private conversation and I wasn’t even supposed to be there.
The two men kept talking and talking, and I guessed that Mr. Cartwright was pleading with Adam not to go. Adam kept shaking his head, and he had reason after reason why he should be allowed to pack up and leave. Things looked like they were getting pretty ugly, and I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, Adam turned on his heel and stalked across the room to the door. He looked back at his Pa and said something that sticks with me to this day.
“This is something I’ve got to do, Pa, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. I’m a grown man, and I’ve given a lot of years to this family and this ranch. It’s time for me to follow my dreams now, but I don’t want to part on bad terms. Please, Pa. Think about this and give me your blessing. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
And with that he was gone. Out the door before Mr. Cartwright could even move. He didn’t slam it, not smooth, sophisticated Adam. He closed it gently and disappeared into the night. It wasn’t too long before I heard the sound of hoofbeats, and I knew he was riding off for who knows where. I turned back to look at Mr. Cartwright, and he was sitting right where Adam had left him. For a moment I wished I hadn’t looked. I felt like I was seeing a dead man. His face was white, and tears streamed down his cheeks. When Cy and I first got there, I’d thought Mr. Cartwright looked pretty young, for an old man. Now he just looked old. Old and beaten.
I knew I’d just seen something I wasn’t supposed to, so I crept back along the hallway and slipped into bed. I thought about Adam leaving until my eyes couldn’t stay open anymore. My last thought as I slid off to sleep was about how I didn’t understand why he’d give up something like this. A home, a family who loved him, it seemed like the best life a man could want. Why did he want to go? I figured I’d do some more thinking on it, but I slept instead.
We went to school in the morning, just the same as we always did, only this time, we rode Cartwright horses. The day passed quickly, and we found ourselves eager to get back to the Ponderosa. Some of the kids were teasing us about living with the “rich folks”, but Cy and me didn’t pay them any mind. For all their money, the Cartwrights were decent folks, and I didn’t want to say anything bad about them.
As we rode along the trail, Cy and I talked about what I had overheard the night before. Cy didn’t seem to understand what I was so upset about, but then he hadn’t seen the look on Mr. Cartwright’s face after Adam stormed out of the house. I’d noticed that Adam wasn’t at the table for breakfast, and his Pa had a faraway look in his eye while we were eating. A couple of times, Joe or Hoss asked him a question and he didn’t answer, and I could see that they were starting to figure something was wrong. I knew they were just waiting till Cy and I got out of the house to start talking about it.
“Why would Adam want to leave anyway?” Cy asked me, his face all screwed up in a grimace. “He’s got a big house, lots of food, a fine horse, and good clothes. Isn’t that all a man could ask for?”
I tried to see it from Adam’s point of view. “Well, maybe he just wants to see more of the world than what we’ve got here,” I said slowly. “He left here once before, to go to school, and maybe that does something to a man.”
“Well, ya wouldn’t catch me leaving a place like the Ponderosa,” Cy maintained. And then he changed the subject, like he was tired of thinking on it.
He talked about Pa and what he was doing, and where he’d likely be. I let him ramble on and on without saying much because I was still trying to get my mind around the problem of Adam and the why. That was the part I couldn’t figure out, why he would want to leave. I didn’t get to a reasonable answer, and before I got too far we were back at the Ponderosa.
When we rode into the yard, I could see Joe was in the corral with the big stallion, Lightning, and Cy and me went to sit on the fence and watch. Hoss was already perched up there, shouting encouragement to his brother. Joe had the horse all saddled up and he was singing to him real low and easy. Joe did have a way with horses, that was plain to see.
He had two of the ranch hands holding the horse steady and then he eased himself into the saddle, light as a feather. Now, Joe Cartwright isn’t a big man; in fact, at that time he wasn’t much taller’n me and I’d still got some growing to do, Pa said. But that horse acted like someone had just dumped the biggest load in the world on his back. He started bucking and jumping and twisting around so fast it made my head spin. The ranch hands had backed out of the way fast, and we all watched Joe hang on for dear life.
He sat real easy in the saddle and rode out the twists and turns, like I said, real easy. It was pretty to watch. He looked like he was part of the horse. But then, Lightning went up and he went down, and the next thing we knew Joe was on the ground, lying kind of dazed like. The hands grabbed the horse and pulled him to a stop, and the stallion stood there sweating and blowing like a steam engine. Hoss jumped off the fence and ran to Joe faster than I ever seen a big man like that move before.
It took a minute, but then Joe sat up, holding his hand to his head and moaning a little. But he laughed, too, which made me feel a bit easier. It must have made Hoss feel a bit easier, too, because he kind of blew out a deep breath and hugged his brother tight for a minute. Then Joe giggled that funny, high-pitched laugh of his and slugged Hoss’s shoulder and the two of them were laughing fit to be tied. Cy and I just stood and stared, and I didn’t know what to think. It looked to me like Joe had almost gotten himself killed by that big stallion, but maybe I was wrong. I know Cy thought so too, because he had that white-faced look on him again.
I thought Joe would head back for the house after that, but he didn’t. He just called for the hands to bring that horse back around and he climbed right back up on it. He held on a bit longer this time, too. And the next time, he rode the horse to a standstill. I’ve never met a man as stubborn as Joe Cartwright. He was going to have that horse trained to a saddle if he died trying. It made me think that I’d like to work with horses when I get older. I decided that I was going to talk Pa into letting me start with some at our place.
Right about the time Joe had the stallion eating from his hand, I noticed that someone else had been watching him. I caught a look at Adam. He’d been standing in the shadows at the far end of the corral, not talking to anybody, just watching Joe and the horse. He had that look on his face again, like his heart was breaking, and it made me want to cry. But men of sixteen don’t do things like that, so I scrubbed my sleeve across my eyes real hard to stop the tears from coming.
I knew now that Adam was thinking about leaving, and so I guess that seeing his brother almost killed like that must have given him some second thoughts. It gave him some kind of thoughts, that’s for sure. He just kept staring and staring at Joe, like if he took his eyes off him, Joe might disappear.
A big clanging started up by the house just then, and we all trooped up for supper. Hop Sing had loaded up the table again, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the Cartwrights ate like this every night. If they did, I was surprised they weren’t all as big as Hoss.
Supper was different this night. Joe and Hoss weren’t clowning, and Adam didn’t say a word. Mr. Cartwright asked Cy and me about school, but then he didn’t say much either. I could feel the tension in the room. It felt so thick you could cut it with a knife. I knew Mr. Cartwright must have talked about Adam’s leaving with Hoss and Joe and I could see that they weren’t too pleased with the idea either. Hoss looked a little sad, but Joe was angry. His eyes crackled, just like they’d done when I tried to touch Lightning. He didn’t say anything to Adam at all; he just kept shooting these looks at him. I was surprised that Adam didn’t burst into flames, right then and there. He must have been used to Joe’s temper, because he went right on ignoring everyone at the table. It wasn’t a very comfortable meal, and after supper Cy and me excused ourselves and went up to our room. I could see that the Cartwrights needed some time to talk, and I didn’t want to be in the way.
Once we got up to our room, Cy turned to me with big, wide eyes. “What’s going on, Billy?” he asked immediately. “Why’d you hustle me up here so fast. I’m not ready for bed yet.”
“You can be so thick sometimes,” I told him. “Can’t you see the Cartwrights need to talk? And they weren’t going to do it with us sitting in the room.” I moved to the door and eased it open.
I was right. I could already hear the murmur of voices, and someone didn’t sound happy. In fact, it wasn’t a murmur that I heard but a muffled shout. I looked back at Cy, who was sitting on the edge of the bed, confusion and misery evident in his eyes. “I’m going to go listen to what they’re saying,” I said. “You stay here, if you want.”
Cy was shocked, and he didn’t try to hide it. “You can’t do that. It’s spying!”
He grabbed my arm and tried to shove me down on the bed, but I’m bigger’n he is, and I shook him off pretty easily. “I just want to listen. They’re too wrapped up in what’s happening to notice me,” I said, trying to calm him down. “It’ll be fine. You stay here, and then you won’t be in trouble if I’m caught.”
I left Cy looking like he was going to cry, and I crept along the hallway until I was back to the spot at the top of the stairs that couldn’t be seen from the room below. I could hear almost everything that was going on, but was afraid to peek. I didn’t want anyone seeing me.
The first thing I heard was Joe’s voice, probably because he was the one doing the shouting. From the sound of the boots thumping across the floor, I could tell he was pacing around while he yelled.
“Why, Adam? Tell me why? You don’t love us anymore? The Ponderosa isn’t good enough for you? Just tell me why?”
Joe’s voice had risen to a high note and I risked peeking around the corner of the hallway to see him. He had stopped right in front of Adam, his hands were back on those hips of his, and he was staring into Adam’s eyes. I thought that maybe Adam would yell back at him, or hit him, or something, but Adam just stood there and took it. He looked tired, and he put one hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe shook him off and dared him to try it again, all with that glint in his eye that I’d seen when I tried to touch Lightning.
I saw Adam’s arm rise up, and then he seemed to think better of the notion, because he dropped it again. “Of course I still love you Joe.” It was the voice of a man talking to a child, and I realized that maybe that was how Adam still saw Joe. “I always thought I’d go back east when you were grown up and didn’t need me around anymore. I feel like that time’s come. I want to see the world a bit, before I settle down for good. You can understand that, can’t you?”
I watched as Joe hung his head, and I thought for a minute he was going to give in and agree. But as I was learning quickly, Joe could be quick-tempered and more than a little hard headed. He flung his shoulders back, and his head came up and he glared up into Adam’s eyes. “I’ll never understand it, Adam, not even when I’m old and gray. You go right ahead and desert the Ponderosa.”
He didn’t say the words, ‘and me’ but we all heard them anyway. He stomped over to the door and flung it open, but before he left, he called back, “And once you leave, brother, don’t bother to come back.” Then he was gone, and unlike Adam earlier, he did slam the door, and mighty hard too.
Even from where I sat above the stairs I could hear Adam’s sigh. I watched as he turned back to his other brother. I caught a glimpse of his eyes when he did, and they almost tore the heart right out of me. They were full of pleading and had a sort of wistful kind of hope, too. “What about you, Hoss? You haven’t said anything yet.” Adam’s deep voice sounded quiet, so that I could barely hear him.
Now, even in the short time I’d been at the Ponderosa, I could tell that big old Hoss had the kindest heart of any man I’d ever met. I just knew that he’d say something to make Adam feel better. I rose to my knees and silently begged Hoss to make it all right for Adam.
Hoss got up from where he’d been sitting on the edge of the fireplace. I think this whole time he’d had his head in his hands, but I can’t be sure, because I’d been concentrating so hard on what Joe was saying. But now Hoss got up and moved closer to Adam. The thumbs of his big hands were through his belt loops, and I could see the tears just streaming down that big face. I’d never seen anyone with a broken heart before, but I could tell that Hoss Cartwright’s heart was broken that night.
“Well, Adam, I wish ya luck in whatever ya do, you know that.” I could tell that Hoss was having a hard time getting the words out and I leaned closer to hear. “But I cain’t say that I’m glad you’re goin’, and I cain’t even say that I’m happy for ya.”
Hoss crossed the room, but he didn’t go near Adam. It took all my strength to keep from shouting at him to stop, to talk to his brother, but I didn’t and he kept going, till he was at the door too. “I’ll be going to find Joe, Pa. We’ll be in later.” He didn’t slam the door, but if anything, the soft sound it made when he shut it was worse than any slam could have been.
The silence in the room just kept getting bigger and bigger until I wanted to run down the stairs screaming to stop it. But I just sat where I was, hugging my knees and watching, afraid to move now, because if I did they’d hear me.
I saw Adam walk across the room slowly, like a man who’s been gut-shot. He stood looking down at Mr. Cartwright who had been sitting silently this whole time. He looked like one of those wood carvings on the front of a ship, his face was so still. The silence stretched on so long, I found myself counting the ticking of the clock. Suddenly, Adam knelt down and grabbed his father’s arm. “Pa? Say something.” It sounded like he was begging.
From my perch on the stairs, I saw Mr. Cartwright stand up, and his knuckles were so white with tension I could see them glow in the dim lamplight. “I don’t have anything to say, son. I think you need to make your decision without any interference from me.” He turned away from Adam then, and I flinched, because it looked like he was going to catch me on the stairs. But his eyes stared past me without seeing, and I could tell he was blind with pain. “I’ll wish you a good night, son. Get some rest, and we’ll talk in the morning.”
With that he was climbing the stairs, and I dodged back so quickly I bumped my shin on the doorframe and had to bite back a cry of pain. I barely got into the room and clicked the door shut before I heard his footsteps pass by. I stood with my back to the door, breathing hard.
“Billy, what’s going on?” Cy’s voice was shrill, and I rushed across the room to put my finger on his lips.
“Shh, keep it quiet!” I ordered him in a fierce whisper. “I can’t talk about it right now.”
I tried to make myself believe that I couldn’t talk because someone would hear us, but I knew it was because I was so caught up in what was happening that my stomach hurt. Even without looking, I knew that Adam was down by the fireplace in mortal pain. I also knew that his father and brothers shared that pain, and now I did too. I hadn’t meant to get so caught up in the lives of the Cartwrights when Pa dropped us off, but somehow I had. I wanted Adam to stay so bad it made my teeth hurt, but I couldn’t tell you why. I just knew that this family needed him, and I didn’t understand why he couldn’t see that.
I stumbled across the room and turned down the wick of the lamp. I muttered good night to Cy and climbed into bed and turned my face to the wall. I spent a long time that night hoping that Cy couldn’t hear my tears.
The next week passed by in a blur. It seemed that we all moved through the days without thinking or feeling anything. I didn’t see much of Adam; he seemed to be keeping clear of the house and all the people in it. I don’t know what time Hoss and Joe came back that night, although I’m sure it was very late. I heard them come up the stairs, and I heard the deep rumble of Hoss’s voice as he comforted Joe in the hallway.
At breakfast the next morning, no one spoke of what had happened the night before. Mr. Cartwright was kind to Cy and me, and asked about our lessons at school. We answered him as best we could, to make up for the fact that Joe and Hoss weren’t saying much. I kept sneaking looks at Adam’s empty chair at the table, and figured that it was a sight that people were going to have to get used to at the Ponderosa.
Cy and me went to school, Joe and Hoss did their work around the ranch, and Adam stayed away from home. We knew he was there somewhere, because his chores were done, but he didn’t come to meals and he slept somewhere else. I guess he was off thinking things through somewhere. I know he sure had everyone in that house thinking as well, and it wasn’t easy for any of them.
We had a wire from Pa telling us that he’d almost settled Grandpa’s business affairs and that he’d be home soon. I found myself wanting him to stay in Philadelphia longer, because I’d gotten so caught up in what was happening with the Cartwrights. Cy couldn’t wait for Pa to come back. I know he felt the unhappiness in the big house and it scared him. I know he cried some at night, too, because I could hear him, even though I pretended not to notice.
I think it was the end of the second week of our stay when things finally came to a head. Adam showed up at the house one day and started to pack up his things. Hoss and Joe came in from their chores and heard the noise in his room, and then all hell broke loose.
“Were you even going to say goodbye?”
I heard Joe’s yell all the way in my own room. It’s funny though, he didn’t sound angry, he sounded hurt. Me, I’d have been as mad as hell if Cy just packed up and left.
“Of course I was going to say goodbye, Joe. Don’t you know me better than that?” Adam’s voice was rough and husky, like he’d been drinking, or crying.
Leaving Cy sitting doing his homework at the desk, I snuck out of my room and down the hall, until I was just outside Adam’s door. I had this feeling that I could have stood bold-faced in the doorway and those boys wouldn’t have seen me. I could see Adam throwing things willy-nilly into his carpet bag and Hoss leaning against the wall as if he couldn’t stand up straight any more. But it was Joe I could see best, and to this day I wish I hadn’t.
He was standing in front of Adam, as if he could keep him from leaving by just blocking his brother’s path to his clothes. It was the look on his face that stays with me though. Joe’s face was white and strained, with tight lines around his mouth, and his eyes showed pain like I’ve never seen before and hope to never see again.
“Why, Adam, why do you have to leave us? Why isn’t this life good enough for you?”
I cringed at the pleading I heard in Joe’s voice, because I’d never heard a grown man talk like that before. But Joe didn’t really sound like a grown man just then, he sounded like Cy had when he’d lost his pet kitten. I think he’d been about four or five then, and it had broken my heart to tell him that the kitten wasn’t coming back, just like Ma. In fact, just then, Joe reminded me a lot of Cy; he seemed younger, more lost. Adam must have seen it too, because his face got kind of soft, and his eyes got misty. He stopped packing and just reached for Joe.
“It’s not that life isn’t good enough here, Joe. It’s that there’s so much more to it out there that I want to see. Can’t you understand that? I’m not running away from you, I’m running toward a life I’ve always wanted to live. Please, little brother, try to see how I feel.”
I think I gasped, but I don’t really remember. But I know I saw Adam Cartwright crying! I never thought a man so silent and strong could cry, and I felt the tears run down my own cheeks too. ‘Don’t go, Adam,’ I thought, ‘he still needs you.’
Of course, Adam couldn’t hear me, but I don’t think he really needed to. He knew that Joe needed him. It was obvious that leaving was breaking his heart as much as it was breaking Joe’s. But he was being driven. He probably didn’t even know by what. I like to watch people, and I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen men look like that, just before they took a big risk on a new mine shaft, or before they bought their first piece of land. I suddenly realized that Adam couldn’t help himself. He knew what he was doing to his family, and it was hurting him too, but he just couldn’t help himself. His dreams had gotten so big, so real to him, that he just had to go and make them true.
Joe must have seen it too, because he let out a moan like he’d been punched. “Do you really have to go, Adam?” he whispered so softly that I almost couldn’t make the words out.
I watched with big eyes as Adam pulled Joe into his arms and gave him the biggest hug I’ve ever seen. For a minute, I didn’t think he’d ever let his little brother go. But I don’t think Joe would have minded that.
“Yes, I have to.”
Four simple words. That’s what it all came down to in the end. Four words that tore apart one of the closest families I’d ever seen. He had to. Adam didn’t think he had a choice.
Hoss moved into the picture right about then. He put his arms around both of his brothers at once and just about squeezed the breath out of them. That made Joe laugh even though he was still crying. It made me feel just a bit jealous to see the three of them standing there like that. I mean, Cy and me, we’re real close, but we don’t act anything like those Cartwrights.
It took every bit of my strength to tear myself away from that doorway, but I knew that if I didn’t move soon, someone would see me standing there, and I didn’t want to get caught spying. I tiptoed back down the hallway to my room and shut the door.
Cy took one look at the tears streaming down my face and he started to cry too. Silly kid, crying without knowing why. “Billy, what’s going on?” he screamed at me. “Is it Pa?”
I hushed him up as best I could, and remembering what I had just seen, I reached out and hugged him hard. He kind of pulled away from me a little, because I can’t remember the last time we had hugged. But I kept holding him, and in a minute he relaxed and hugged me back. “Pa’s okay,” I whispered. “Adam’s leaving.”
I meant to say more, meant to try to explain to Cy what was happening, but I couldn’t. I cried so hard my stomach hurt and I couldn’t talk. And the whole time, I sat on the bed with my nose running and the tears pouring down my face, Cy just sat beside me with his arm around me. When I couldn’t cry any more, I lay down on the bed, and Cy pulled the quilt up over me. I closed my eyes but I didn’t go to sleep like Cy thought I did. What I was doing was thanking God that I had a brother, and praying that we’d always stay together.
I didn’t think I’d slept, but I woke up from a doze to find Cy still sitting by me on the bed. I must have been asleep about an hour, from the looks of the shadows on the floor. I yawned and stretched, and Cy smiled down at me.
“Feeling better, Billy?” he asked me, with a look of hope on his face.
“I’m not so wrung out, but I’ve felt better,” I managed to say. I tried to sound cheerful, but I think I failed pretty miserably, because Cy kinda drooped a little.
“Hop Sing just rang the bell for supper. Are you ready to go eat?”
My stomach churned at the thought of food, but I knew that Cy would stay with me if I didn’t go down, and I didn’t want him to lose out on supper. So I just nodded and told Cy that I needed to wash my face. We went down the stairs together, and I couldn’t help but gasp at the sight of all four Cartwrights waiting for us to start the meal. For some reason, I’d thought Adam was going to just ride out and leave without much of a fuss.
I should have known better by now. Adam knew what his leaving was doing to his whole family, but he wasn’t about to just walk out without a proper farewell for them. We all took our places at the table, and listened as Mr. Cartwright said grace.
Once I saw that everyone was at the table, I’d kind of thought that things would be pretty tense, but once again I found out that I didn’t know the Cartwrights that well. Hoss and Joe must have gotten over their anger and seemed pretty set on making Adam laugh before he went. This wasn’t so easy as it sounds, because Adam seemed to be having trouble with his eyes. They were kind of red, and scratchy looking, and he kept scrubbing at them with the back of his hand. But Joe Cartwright is hard to resist when he sets out to charm somebody, and it wasn’t long before Adam cracked a smile. Even old Mr. Cartwright laughed a couple of times, and the meal was one of the most pleasant we’d had since that first night.
And then, supper over, we all went to the chairs by the fire, and Adam looked at everyone in general, but no one in particular.
“I think I’ll ride into town tonight, and stay at the hotel. That way I’ll be ready when the stage leaves in the morning. I don’t want to take a chance at missing it.”
He spoke casually, but everyone in the room gasped. I saw Mr. Cartwright sit back in his chair with a thump, and every bit of color drained right out of Joe’s face. It was Mr. Cartwright who spoke first, neither of the others could, and Cy and me weren’t really involved in this at all.
“Tonight, Adam?” It seemed to be all he could do to force those two words out, and Adam frowned slightly.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I think it’s for the best.”
He didn’t say much more than that; I guess he felt like all the arguing had been done already. I could tell he didn’t want the good-byes drawn out more than they had to be, so I walked toward him with my hand out.
Everyone looked at me in surprise. I think they’d all forgotten that Cy and me were there. “I wish you a safe journey, Adam,” I said, more to break the tension than anything else. I had to swallow hard so’s I could finish up without embarrassing myself. “It’s been real swell knowing you these past couple of weeks.”
Adam looked down at me gratefully, and his dark eyes seemed gentle. “Thanks, Billy. It’s been nice knowing you, too.” He shook my hand just like I was a grown man, and he gave it an extra squeeze. I could see he really was pleased that I’d done something to make his leaving seem like a normal thing for everyone.
Cy always was one for following me, so he came up real quick and shook Adam’s hand too. And then, I grabbed him and dragged him up the stairs, because I knew the Cartwrights needed this time alone together. Cy knew better’n to put up a fuss this time. I guess he was getting used to me dragging him away from the Cartwrights’ family scenes. We both stopped at the head of the stairs, and we both crouched down to where we could see them without them seeing us.
They were still all standing where we’d left them, but as we stopped to watch, Hoss was the first to move. He crossed the room to Adam in two big steps, and even though Adam is a tall man, Hoss is even taller, so when he put his arms around his big brother, Adam almost disappeared. “Ya promise to write, Adam? And send us fancy things from all those places yer going?”
I could see the relief in Adam’s grin from where I sat. “Of course I’ll write, Hoss. I’ll try to get letters to you as often as possible. And you won’t be able to find room for all the things I’ll send you.”
Hoss let out a huge bellow of laughter and clapped Adam on the back. I almost laughed too, when I saw Adam stagger from Hoss’s slap. I stuffed my hands over my mouth to keep the giggles from escaping, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Cy doing the same. It just looked so funny, because Adam is always so dignified, but there was no way anyone could look dignified after Hoss Cartwright slapped ‘em on the back.
I was amazed at how well Hoss was taking Adam’s leaving, but when he turned away, I sucked in my breath. His face was streaked with tears, and his blue eyes looked bleak and tired. But he took care that no one saw him, and it wasn’t long before he’d scrubbed the tears away from his eyes.
I’d been so busy watching Hoss that I hadn’t noticed Mr. Cartwright walking over to Adam. But suddenly, he was there. “You take good care of yourself, son. Make sure Grandpa Stoddard watches out for you.” He held Adam tightly, and couldn’t seem to make himself let go.
Adam made no move to break the embrace either. He seemed content to let his father take his time over his goodbye. It seemed like hours before Mr. Cartwright dropped his hold on Adam’s shoulders and stepped away from him. He turned away for a moment and then swung back with determination written all over his face. “Your home will always be here, Adam. You are welcome to come back anytime, you know that, don’t you?”
I saw Adam’s face crumple a little at that. He tried to speak and couldn’t, cleared his throat and tried again. “Thanks, Pa.”
Everyone turned to look at Joe, who was still standing by the fireplace. The silence stretched out, going on and on and on. But Joe stood rooted to the spot, and he didn’t move, didn’t look at Adam, didn’t do anything but stand with his fists clenched and his eyes staring at the floor. Even from where I sat at the top of the stairs, I could see his whole body tremble.
Just when I thought I was going to scream to break the tension, Adam spoke. His voice was so soft I almost didn’t hear what he said. “Goodbye, Joe.” When he got no response, he turned to go, walking over to the door where his carpetbag sat near the sideboard.
His hand was on the doorknob when there was a whirl of motion, and Joe shot across the room. He threw himself at Adam, and was met by Adam’s waiting arms.
I heard Joe say it plain as day, and I saw Adam’s face go white with pain. “I have to go, Joe. It’s time. Let’s just say goodbye.”
Joe raised his head at that, and his face was red with crying. “Please, Adam, I’ll beg, I’ll get down on my knees if I have to, but please, don’t go.”
I stared at Joe amazed. Even in the short time I’d been at the Ponderosa I’d seen what a proud man he was. He didn’t knuckle under to anyone. I could tell he meant it about begging on his knees, and I could tell Adam knew it too. He took Joe’s chin in his hand, and he raised up Joe’s face, so he could look into those green eyes. “No begging, Joe. I’d stay if I could, but it’s killing me. It’s killing my spirit and my will to live. I’ve got to go, if only for a little while. I can’t live my life here anymore, always wondering what it would have been like if I’d only been brave enough to go. Let me go, Joe. Please.”
I couldn’t see Joe’s eyes anymore. I couldn’t really see anything anymore, because I was crying so hard. I knew then that Adam would stay if Joe begged him to, and Joe knew it too. He held the power in his hands to control Adam’s life. I have never admired Joe Cartwright more than I did that night, when I heard him say, “Then go, Adam, but promise me one thing.”
I looked up in time to see the hope rising in Adam’s face. “Anything, Joe.”
I think it was only two words that Joe said, although time has blurred my memory a little. “Come home.”
Adam shut his eyes, and I could see the relief that swept through him. He was going, and he was going without taking along the packload of guilt he might have. “I promise.”
We all watched as he hugged Joe fiercely, then he let his little brother go, and I saw his eyes sweep around the room as if he was trying to memorize what it looked like. And then he was gone, shutting the door behind him quietly, as always. Behind him, the room was silent. I shivered briefly, because it felt like the silence of a tomb.
I couldn’t stand it anymore, and with a moan, I pulled Cy to his feet and dragged him to our room and shut the door. I turned out the lamp as we got into bed, and I used the darkness to hide the storm of emotion that swept over me. I felt like I’d just seen a murder committed, and I didn’t know what else to do. At long last, I slept.
The telegram came from Pa. His business was finally finished and he was on his way home. We’d see him in a week. Of course I wanted to see Pa, and of course, I was happy at the thought of him coming home. But, somehow, I had become totally enthralled by life at the Ponderosa and the people who lived there. I didn’t want to leave them behind. The firestorm of emotion that had ripped through the family during our visit had marked me for life. I felt like my father had dropped off a boy, but was returning home to claim a man.
I was sitting on the edge of the corral watching Lightning prance and paw his way around the enclosure, when I felt someone climb up on the fence beside me. I thought it was Cy, so I didn’t bother to turn my head. I was so surprised to hear Joe’s voice, I almost fell off the fence. I had thought he was out riding the fence line checking for damage.
“I owe you a ride on him.” Joe’s voice was casual, and I turned to see him gazing at Lightning. I had a funny feeling that he wasn’t really seeing the horse, though. Joe’s mind often seemed somewhere else these days.
“Aw, it’s all right,” I said. I was dying to ride Lightning, but I figured that Joe had been through enough in the last few weeks that he didn’t need one more thing to worry about. So I tried hard to hide how much I wanted to be on that beautiful horse, riding free as a bird across the pasture.
“Want to do it now?” Again, Joe spoke almost absently, and I struggled hard to figure out what he really wanted me to say.
“S-s-sure,” I managed to stammer out. “I’d like that more than anything in the world.” Inwardly I cursed myself for sounding like a kid. More than anything I wanted the Cartwrights to see me as the man I felt I’d become.
Joe hopped down off the fence and made a move to turn toward the barn. I hopped down right beside him and grabbed his arm. “Joe, wait.” I knew I had to say it then, or I’d wonder about it all my life. “Why, Joe? Why did you do it?”
Those green eyes looked at me, and I saw that they were no longer so young and carefree as they’d been. I think Joe had done some growing up too, those weeks I’d been at the Ponderosa. “Why did I offer to let you ride, Lightning?” he asked, deliberately misunderstanding me.
I shook my head stubbornly. “That’s not what I mean.” I took a deep breath, determined to force the question out. “Why did you let him go? He wouldn’t have gone if you’d just said the word, and I know that you wanted him to stay. So why?”
He stood still for so long that I thought he wasn’t going to answer me. I had to remind myself to breathe because I’d scared myself so badly just asking the question. At last he looked down at me and smiled. There was something so sad and lonely in that smile that I felt the tears try to start again, and I had to bite my lip to keep them away.
“I knew that if I asked him to stay, he would’ve. You’re right about that. But I also knew that if he stayed, we would have lost the Adam we love so much anyway. I couldn’t bear to hold him back, just because I was too selfish to let him go.”
His sad smile faded and was replaced by a look that was so desolate that I felt a chill go all the way to the marrow of my bones. “Do you understand, Billy? It was better to sacrifice my own happiness for his sake. That’s what brothers do. I hope I’ll learn to live with it someday.”
I nodded. I knew what he was saying. Deep in my heart I knew that I’d do anything for Cy, so why wouldn’t Joe feel the same about Adam? I had a feeling that wherever he was right now, Adam knew also, and understood what Joe had done for him. I hoped he’d be grateful, and I also hoped he’d remember his last promise. I pasted a shaky smile on my face, and nodded again.
“Thanks, Joe. Can I ride Lightning now?”
We walked to the barn together, both moving forward, but both remembering what had passed. Neither of us would ever be the same.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
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