Summary: Ben learns from Adam that there is more than one way to reach a goal.
Word Count: 1700 words
“And where do you think you are going?”
The boy kept walking, resolutely placing one foot in front of the other, threading his way around puddles, deeply-grooved ruts, and chuck holes. Every once in a while he stumbled, but managed to keep himself upright despite the weight of the knapsack on his back.
When there was no reply, Ben Cartwright called “whoa,” set the brake and climbed down from the seat. Once on the ground, he secured the reins and moved alongside his five-year-old son, leaving the wagon where it was.
They continued silently in synchronous step for another quarter mile before he asked again.
“Adam? Where are we headed?”
When the boy hesitated for a fraction of a second at the word “we,” the corner of Ben’s mouth twitched. From his demeanor it was clear the last thing Adam wanted was father’s company on his journey.
Ben raised his eyes toward the overcast heavens. There was not even a hint of sun but he knew the direction they were going. East.
For Adam, it was always an easterly course that drew him. What he didn’t know was why that was so. Like his son, Ben was also born in New England and yet he had willingly left home at a young age to sail the open seas. For him, the epitome of happiness was seeing trade winds fill the sails and hearing the captain call for a bearing of due west. After his wife died in childbirth and his father-in-law returned to the sea he so loved, Ben took his infant son and headed west to fulfill his dream.
West. West was where his and his son’s future lay, that he was sure of, and he was doing his best to get them there. But the five-year journey from Massachusetts to Illinois had been fraught with setbacks, poor judgment, and even worse luck. If he were to count his blessings at this moment they would include less than two dollars in his pocket, a wagon in need of repair, a horse that was just this side of lame, and an angry son who wouldn’t speak to him, much less obediently follow.
Adam had been terrified during the violent storm and begged his father to turn back, but Ben—relying on his seafaring knowledge of meteorology—kept moving in a direction he was sure would take them further and further away from the storm. He was wrong. An example of yet another bad call.
It was divine intervention not wisdom that provided a safe harbor from the cyclonic winds. They’d taken refuge in a hollow near a limestone outcrop. Exhausted, he’d fallen asleep where he sat, the reins still in his hands. When he awoke, the poor horse was still in its traces and Adam was long gone.
Initial panic gave way to relief when Ben realized the boy had left a trail in the mud a blind man could read, but it broke his heart to see the footprints were soon joined by hand and knee prints, evidence the boy had fallen more than once.
Ben looked around at the debris-strewn landscape and marveled at the distance his son had traveled before he caught up with him. The tornado had left uprooted trees, shingles, damaged siding, and odd remnants of clothing and household goods in its path. Here and there one could see items perfectly intact and unscratched—such were the vagaries of tornadoes—but there wasn’t a building left standing in the small hamlet they had passed through not 24 hours before and no sign of life. Either the inhabitants had fled or were still holed up in their storm cellars, or—
Adam tripped once again and would have gone down hard had his father not grabbed him by the back of his collar.
“Adam!” Ben’s heart quickened. “Are you all right?”
The boy struggled against his father’s grip, but Ben held on. Heedless of the mud, he knelt taking his son’s shoulders in both hands and turned the boy to face him.
“Son, look at me,” he said, but Adam’s eyes remained fixed on the ground. “Enough walking. Let’s go back to the wagon.”
Adam crossed his arms over his chest and shifted his weight to one foot in perfect imitation of his father. “No!” he said emphatically.
“Now just a minute, young man; you will not speak to me in that tone, do you hear?”
“I’m not going back!”
“And just where do you think you are going?”
Adam jerked his chin. “That way.”
Ben looked over his shoulder at the remains of the devastated community. “There’s nothing here, son.”
“Not here. There,” he pointed in the direction of a sign post at the side of the road. Miraculously, the post stood tall and straight pointing east, its letters still readable:
Galesburg → 10 mi.
“That’s east of here. We’re headed west, remember?”
Adam stared at his father, his dark hazel eyes so nearly the color of gunpowder Ben was taken aback by their intensity.
When there was no response from his son, Ben continued, “There is nothing for us east of here.”
Adam pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and—unfolding it reverently—handed it to his father. “There is for me,” he said.
Ben was mystified. The page had been carefully torn from a newspaper and contained advertisements and bits of news and announcements. He turned it over; the back was no different.
“I don’t understand son. What does this have to do with anything?”
Sighing as one might when dealing with an infant, Adam pointed at the paper. When there was still no recognition on his father’s face, Adam pointed again, this time tapping the specific spot.
Classes will resume following Easter recess.
Ben closed his eyes. Adam wanted to go to school and was willing to do anything to get there; willing to walk miles over treacherous terrain; willing to disobey his father; willing to put himself in harm’s way . . . all for the love of learning.
“You promised, Pa. You said I could go to school when I turned six. I’m almost six. I want to go to school.”
“Adam, when we get to California, then you can go to school.”
“No!” And he turned and resumed his course towards Galesburg as fast as his legs would carry him over the rutted road. Once more he fell into the mud, but this time he did not get up.
Ben sprinted to his side, lifted him carefully into his arms and began the long walk back to the wagon.
While dinner cooked over an open fire, Ben washed his son’s muddy clothes in the nearby stream. They were drying on a rock by the fire when Adam finally opened his eyes. Confused at first by the unfamiliar surroundings, he saw the setting sun ahead of them and realized at last where they were . . . on the road again going west . . . and he turned away so his father wouldn’t see his tears.
“Ready for dinner, Adam?”
“It’s your favorite . . . rabbit stew,” Ben said, trying to entice the youngster into sitting up and having a few bites.
“Come on, son. You haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday.”
“I don’t want any.”
“Well, suit yourself. Mmmm. Sure is good if I say so myself.”
Adam rolled back toward the fire and watched his father eat.
“I just thought you might want to eat a hearty dinner and have a good night’s sleep before starting school tomorrow.”
Adam sat up swiftly. “Before what?”
“But if you’re not hungry, well, all I can say is more for me,” and Ben ladled more stew onto his plate.
Ben laughed openly and handed the plate to his son.
“There’s no bread or milk. I’ll get some tomorrow when we get to Galesburg.”
After licking his plate clean, Adam put his arms around Ben’s neck and whispered, “I’m sorry, Pa.”
Ben returned the hug and sat Adam on his lap. “I’m sorry, too, son. I did promise. And I know what it’s like to want something so badly you’ll do anything to obtain it; pursue any course.”
“I’ll study real hard, Pa, and make you proud.”
“Adam, I’m already proud of you. You just do your best, that’s all I ask.”
“I will, Pa.”
“And so will I. I’ll find us a place to stay and then look for work while you’re in school. They’ll be time enough to head west when school’s out for the summer. Deal?”
“Deal!” said Adam, solemnly shaking his father’s hand.
After Adam was tucked in and the dishes done and packed away, Ben filled his pipe with the last of his tobacco and settled back against the rock to watch the sun slip over the horizon and the constellations bloom one by one in the inky sky.
Staying the course was part of a sailor’s life, but so was tacking into the wind. Maybe that’s what has been wrong these past few years. He’d been so doggedly determined to reach California that he had sailed directly into the wind and wound up in irons. So, they would head east for a bit . . . tack to starboard and then tack to port . . . eventually they would reach their destination.
With a practiced eye, he found the North Star and began to chart a new course.
Adam awoke feeling under the weather, but insisted he was “fine.” His enthusiasm, however, diminished with each passing mile. By the time they arrived in Galesburg, his father was acutely aware of his son’s physical discomfort. Thus it was that Ben’s first stop was not to find the school or a place to live or even employment, but to purchase milk, bread and medicine from a kind, tall, blue-eyed Swede . . . named Inger.
Story Notes: I was challenged to write a story beginning with the line “And where do you think you are going?”