Summary: Adam is worried about an absent friend.
Word Count: 2300
“What’s the matter with you?” Hoss asked. He was keeping Joe entertained by playing checkers on the front porch while Adam sat on the steps poking at the dirt with a stick.
“What do you mean?” Adam responded.
“You’ve been sulking around since yesterday,” Joe chimed in.
“I do not sulk. That’s your forte.”
“Forte, schmorte. Talk normal, why don’t, ya.”
“My English is excellent, thank you. It’s yours I’m concerned about.”
Joe looked at Hoss and wiggled his eyebrows. He did love to get a rise out of Adam and took every opportunity to bait him.
“You’d better watch out, little brother,” Hoss cautioned, “or you’re gonna wind up in that there trough, cast or no cast.”
Ben came out of the house just then and Adam launched himself off the porch in a sudden burst of energy, falling into step with his father as he headed to the barn.
“Pa? Can I talk to you a minute?”
“Of course,” Ben said. As Adam held the barn door open for him, Ben saw the furrowed brow. “What’s wrong, Adam?”
“What makes you think anything is wrong?”
“You’ve been sulking around since yesterday . . . .”
“I do not sulk!”
“All right, fine.” Ben said as he backed Buck out of his stall. “What is it you want to talk about?”
“I’d like to go to San Francisco.”
“Well, sure, when the branding is done. You will have earned yourself a vacation and then some.”
“No. Now. I need to go now.”
“Adam, you know we’re shorthanded as it is, and with Joe’s leg in that cast for another two weeks . . . well, I can’t possibly get along with you away from the ranch now, son. I’m sorry.”
As Ben swung the saddle over Buck’s back he saw the troubled look on his son’s face.
“Adam, what’s wrong?”
“Just a feeling.”
“A feeling.” Ben was sure now that something was really wrong. Adam wasn’t normally moved by “gut” feelings like Joe could be, or even by the “hunches” Hoss often had. No, his first born, level-headed, empirically-trained, college-educated son did not have “feelings” often. Ben raised an eyebrow at Adam, encouraging him to go on.
“Pa, I received a letter from Helen Hunt. She’s going to be in San Francisco on Friday and was hoping I could join her for a few days.”
“You may have heard me refer to her as Helen Fiske. We became acquainted while I was back East and she was a student at Amherst.”
“Mm-hm. Go on.”
“She married a captain in the army. They had two boys, one of whom died in infancy. Her husband died two years ago, leaving her alone with the other son.” Adam paused, not sure how to explain what his concerns were. “Her letter was . . . cryptic. I’m sure there’s something else she’s not telling me.”
“You said she’s a widow. Does she mean something to you, Adam?” Ben said, leading Buck out of the barn.
“We’re just friends, Pa.”
“Mmm. But it would put your mind to rest to see her in person?” Ben asked while checking his cinch one more time before mounting.
“Yes, it would. It’s important to me, Pa. I can’t expla . . . .” Adam trailed off as Ben raised his hand up.
“Go ahead. I’ll see if I can hire a couple more hands while I’m in town.”
“Thanks, Pa. I won’t be more than a week, I promise.”
“Be careful,” Ben said before leaving the yard.
Right. Adam thought, knowing full well his father didn’t mean look out for bad guys, but was instead forewarning him to be wary of damsels in distress.
Helen was in distress, of that much he was certain the minute he laid eyes on her at the train depot where she’d met him. She was as vivacious as he remembered, but there was an undercurrent that he couldn’t put his finger on.
“It’s so good to see you, Adam,” Helen said, throwing her arms around him in her normal, exuberant fashion, but she clung to him a fraction of second longer than necessary and he felt how thin she was beneath the black silk bodice of her dress. When he pulled back to look at her at arms’ length, he noticed the deep shadows under her eyes and wondered why she was still wearing black after two years.
As if avoiding his questioning glance, Helen did not linger for a long appraisal. She grabbed his elbow and steered him toward a waiting carriage that took them to the Cliff House in Ocean Beach. Laughing, Helen ignored his protests that he had not brought clothes for a formal dinner, and assured him it was his mind she was after, not his sartorial splendor.
As usual, Helen had assembled the most interesting, intellectual minds she could find to join the evening soirée. The conversation was stimulating, the food extraordinary, and the vintage wine sublime. Adam was in seventh heaven. If she were wooing him, he would go willingly, he decided.
When the gentleman with whom he was talking politics stepped away to attend to personal needs, he looked up to see Helen was focused on something far, far away. A fraction of a second later a question from the woman on her right drew her back and she gaily resumed their conversation but not before wiping the corner of her eye with her napkin.
After thanks were given and farewells made to those going back to San Francisco, the remaining guests retired to their rooms. Adam escorted Helen to her suite and unlocked the door for her. As he turned to go, she placed her hand on his arm.
“Stay a minute, Adam?” She asked, but it was a plea more than a question.
“All right,” he said, opening the door. The suite was lovely, with a central parlor which included a dining table, a desk, and a settee and several comfortable chairs. On either side of the room were double doors leading to bedrooms. Adam presumed a nanny was in one of the rooms with the boy.
Adam settled in one of the chairs and stretched out his long legs. Lacing his fingers across his stomach, he watched Helen as she laid her wrap and reticule on the desk and removed her gloves. She still moves like a dancer, he thought as she pulled back the drapes on the far wall and opened the French doors which led out onto a balcony overlooking the ocean. The room instantly filled with the scent of salt air and the sound of waves crashing on the rocks below. A waning moon was setting over the ocean, turning the rippled water silver in its wake.
There was something about the way Helen stood looking at the waves below that made the hair rise on the back of Adam’s neck.
“Helen?” he asked.
Helen placed her hand on the rail and stepped onto the balustrade.
He reached her just as she put one leg over the railing. Grabbing her by the waist, he tried to lift her back onto the balcony but couldn’t believe the strength in her thin arms as she tenaciously hung on to the rail, screaming “Let me go, let me go!”
Finally, with one fierce tug which ripped her dress the two of them landed in a heap on the stone floor.
Her eyes were open, but unseeing. Adam wiped her brow with his sleeve and swept back the curly hair that had escaped her chignon. Untangling himself from her skirts, he lifted and carried her to the settee, kneeling beside her. He knew he should call for a doctor, but he didn’t dare leave her for fear she would try to jump again if she came out of this catatonic state.
Adam had barely gotten his own breathing under control when there was a pounding at the door. No doubt management responding to the report of a woman’s scream, he thought, but before he could get up, the door was kicked open and he was surrounded by hotel personnel with guns drawn.
“On the floor now!” one shouted.
His legs were kicked out from under him and he was quickly forced into a supine position.
“Hands behind your back!” someone else yelled.
“She needs a doctor,” Adam tried to say, but everyone was shouting at once and no one was listening.
“Shut up.” “Cuff him.” “Where’s that blood coming from?” “She’s unconscious.” “Someone get a doctor!” “Not her; must be him.” “The other rooms are clear.” “He tried to rip her dress off.” “The bastard!”
Before he knew what was happening he was forcibly removed from the room and dragged down the back stairs to a waiting paddy wagon. No amount of protest prevented the rough treatment so he stopped talking. Nevertheless, one guard “accidentally” forgot to lower his head when putting him in the back of the wagon and another spat on him, saying “Damn rapist.”
The ride to San Francisco was interminable. The wagon stank with the bodies of unwashed men and excrement. He was certainly worried about Helen. More than that, however, he wondered what he was going to say to his father.
Justice moves more slowly in a civilized big city than in a wild west boom town. It was nearly a week before he was allowed to see an attorney and send word to his father; another week before Ben arrived.
During the second week, the attorney found out that Helen had been taken to a private hospital where she was recovering from the “attack,” but still hadn’t said a word.
During the third week, Ben used his influence with the governor to have Adam released on bail, but he couldn’t leave the hotel, much less the city.
During the fourth week, Adam was exonerated of all charges when Helen was finally able to tell the District Attorney and a judge what had happened.
There were no apologies made by the San Francisco Police Department, no recompense for his mistreatment or time served.
Ben was present when Helen told her story. Surprising to some, but not Ben, was the fact it was the first time he had heard the story. Respecting her reputation and privacy, Adam had never mentioned to anyone that the woman had tried to commit suicide. Adam related only that they had had too much to drink at the dinner party; that she had tripped when going out on the balcony for fresh air; and that he had accidentally ripped her dress when he stepped on the hem while trying to keep her from falling. Afterwards, Adam said—only to Ben—that he was trying to protect her son from the knowledge that his mother tried to kill herself.
Ironically, what Adam didn’t know at this time in 1865, was that Helen was wearing black because her only surviving son had died of diphtheria just a month before. Childless and a widow at age 35, alone and grief stricken, she had despaired of ever finding happiness or a purpose to life again.
Helen eventually regained her joie de vivre. She and Adam continued their correspondence and passionate discourse regarding politics, philosophy, and human rights. She remarried and began a writing career which eventually would lead to social and political activism, unusual for a woman in the Victorian era.
Adam never regretted his actions that night, not only in saving Helen, but in protecting her reputation.
Although they never spoke of it again, Ben’s heart swelled with pride every time he thought of what his son had done.
The events in this story are fiction, but the woman was real. Following her remarriage, Helen Hunt Jackson became passionately involved in the plight of Native American Indians.
“In the morally rigid Victorian era, when middle-class American women were supposed to follow the ‘cult of domesticity’ as dutiful mothers and housewives, Helen Hunt Jackson had the courage and conviction to try to make a positive difference in the lives of those who had been victimized by ignorance, prejudice, corruption, and cruelty. She was described by her contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson as ‘the most brilliant, impetuous, and thoroughly individual woman of her time.’
“President Chester Arthur designated her special commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1882 — the first woman to hold that position—but Jackson’s report of 1883 calling for ‘some atonement’ for past neglect and injustice was not acted upon by government authorities.
“Jackson continued her struggle to redress Indian grievances and also returned to her earlier career as a writer of poetry, essays, and novels. In 1884, based upon her experience with the California Indians, she hurriedly wrote the popular and commercially successful novel, Ramona. The work, which has been reprinted frequently and adapted to screen and stage, was the highlight of her literary career. In 1886, the North American Review called the book “unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman,” ranking it (with Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe) as one of the two foremost ethical novels of the century.”
She was exactly the type of woman Adam would have admired.