Summary: Some wounds heal with barely a trace; others leave scars too painful to touch. Can a father know the difference?
Word Count: 2200
“One man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable stars . . . .”
–Miguel de Cervantes
The moon crawled silently across an ebony sky devoid of stars.
Joe Cartwright, alone on foot, walked softly along the narrow path he knew by heart. Below him, barely visible in this darkest hour before dawn, was a weathered cabin beside a silver stream. He didn’t need to see it to know it was there. Always.
The cabin had been a favorite hideout growing up. Long ago abandoned by its owner, it had been alternately Black Beard’s lair, Robinson Crusoe’s island, or King Arthur’s castle—the locale of whichever book Adam was reading to his impressionable youngest brother at the time. It had always been a magical place; a place to slay dragons and be a hero; a place to dream what might be.
He opened the door and stepped into the past. Four years ago this very morning, his princess had come to this place to live happily ever after. Always they’d promised. But she was as ethereal as the dream they’d shared and had vanished just as quickly.
“Keep a warm place for her in your heart,” his Pa had said, “but don’t carry her on your shoulders for the rest of your life. She wouldn’t want it that way.”
Even now she was in his heart, but never the time and the place and the loved one all together.¹
Ben and Adam were already eating heartily when Hoss ambled into the dining room and took his seat.
“Little Joe coming?” asked Adam.
“No,” Hoss replied, ladling gravy over his biscuits.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” asked Ben.
“He ain’t goin’ nowhere with us today, you know that.”
“And why is that exactly?” asked Adam.
“It’s April 23,” Hoss said simply.
Ben dropped his fork on the plate and sat back in his chair with a great sigh.
Adam looked from his father to his brother, at first not grasping the significance of the date. “Oh,” he said, at last understanding. The silence continued for several minutes before Adam inquired, “Do you want me to go after him?”
“No,” Ben said. “Let him be for now. If he hasn’t come home by supper, I’ll go.”
Supper was a solemn affair, each Cartwright painfully aware of the unoccupied chair at the table. Hop Sing removed the plates of half-eaten food and brought in the coffee pot without a single rant.
“Dadburnit, Pa,” Hoss said. “I just don’t understand it. He lost Amy two years before Laura and he doesn’t disappear on her anniversary.”
“You’re right, Hoss,” Ben said, sadly nodding.
“Why do ya think that is?” Hoss pressed further.
Ben smiled slightly at his middle son’s earnestness in trying to grasp why Joe did what he did. Hoss never needed a reason to defend or protect his little brother, but he was sometimes sorely tried at understanding what motivated Joe. You’re not the only one, Hoss, Ben thought, looking across the table at his first born for help.
Adam put down his coffee cup and cleared his throat. “Ahem. While it’s true that Little Joe was with Amy at the end, Hoss, she died in her father’s house, in her own bed. She was still first and foremost her father’s daughter.”
Seeing his father’s subtle nod, Adam continued, “Laura, on the other hand, had clearly articulated her choice to leave her father and marry Joe; much to Captain White’s dismay if you’ll recall.”
Leaning forward, Ben rested his hand on Hoss’ forearm, “Laura died in Joe’s arms . . . in their house . . . in what was to be their marriage bed . . . on their wedding day. That kind of scar doesn’t heal easily, son.” If ever.
“I reckon. Just wish there was somethin’ we could do,” Hoss answered simply.
“Aside from the obvious?” Adam swallowed his words into his napkin, but Hoss heard anyway.
“Aw, Adam,” Hoss said. “Why would you want to do a thing like that?”
“A thing like what?” Ben queried, his tone a little sharper than before.
Adam looked from his brother to his father and back again before he finally said what he’d been thinking for years, “You could tear down the cabin so he couldn’t go there and wallow in self-pity.”
“Doggone it, Adam . . .” Hoss blustered and started to pull his arm away, but Ben had tightened his grip and held Hoss fast.
What had been a quiet—albeit sober—suppertime had turned suddenly into a battlefield. And Joseph isn’t even here! How does he do that? Ben wondered again how his youngest son was able to create chaos from afar.
“That will be enough,” Ben said still firmly gripping Hoss’ arm, but looking at Adam. “It’s still daylight. I’ll track him down and put an end to this annual ritual once and for all.”
“You’re not going to be able to track him, Pa,” Hoss said.
“He didn’t take Cochise; she’s favoring her right foreleg a bit and he was gonna let her rest up for a few days. I . . . I think he might have taken one of the newly-broke horses he’s been working with.”
So that’s part of it; Hoss is worried that Joe got thrown and is lying hurt somewhere. Ben’s stomach did a flip at the thought, but soon settled. No. Ben didn’t know how he knew, he just always did when one of his boys was injured. Joe wasn’t physically hurt, but Laura’s death had left a scar, of that much he was certain.
“Hoss, I’ll find him and bring him home,” Ben said at last, reassuring his son with a pat on the arm. “Don’t you worry.”
Adam arose from the table and said quietly, “I’ll saddle your horse.”
Ben went up to the lake first, hoping against hope that he would find Joe at his mother’s grave, pouring out his heart or seeking solace in the tranquil beauty of the place that was so like Marie herself.
When Joe was younger, Ben would find the hastily-scrawled notes he left at his mother’s grave; missives that shared life’s latest indignity or fervent dream; that told funny jokes or bespoke secrets so heart-breaking that Ben wept to read them. But read them he did, embracing any means of better understanding his enigmatic son.
Alas, this evening no fresh-picked lilacs graced the mossy mound, nor were there any scraps of ink-filled paper tucked into the headstone’s crevices to enlighten him. Ben knelt before the stone and traced her name with his finger in silent supplication. Marie. Help me.
A soft pine-scented breeze stirred the branches above him and brought back memories of their summers together by the lake and oh-so-many dreams.
Maybe Adam is right. Maybe I should have razed that cabin after Laura died; gotten rid of the painful memories; allowed my son to heal instead of constantly tearing at old wounds. Well, it isn’t too late for me to do right by my boy.
No light emanated from the cabin as he approached in the creeping twilight, and there was no horse tied outside or in the nearby lean to. Perhaps Joe didn’t come here after all. Not knowing his son’s whereabouts was not a comforting thought, but it was momentarily preferable to imagining his son alone in a dark and empty sepulcher brooding over a life only dreamed of.
He opened the door quietly and entered. Ben hadn’t been to the cabin since the day they had seen Laura’s father off, but he remembered the layout well enough. To the left was a small bedroom, and sure enough, stretched out on the bed was Joe.
The cabin was rapidly being swallowed by darkness, but there was still enough light left for him to spy a kerosene lamp on the mantel. Ben groped for the nearby matches and lit the lamp, carrying it into the bedroom. His heart caught when he saw that Joe had fallen asleep reading Laura’s diary. Oh, Joseph.
Suddenly Ben shivered. Even though it had been a warm spring day, there was a decidedly winter-like nip to the evening air, and he wished he had his jacket. He took a quilt from the foot of the bed, spread it over his son and then went to start a fire. There was plenty of kindling and wood and the fire caught easily, drawing well. This fireplace has been used, and recently. Just how often does Joe come here?
Ben turned up the lamp and looked around the cabin in earnest for more evidence of occupation. No dust; no cobwebs. The cabin has been cared for. He went into the alcove at the right which served as the kitchen. There’s water; the pump doesn’t need priming. And there are staples in the larder; nothing perishable, but food nonetheless.
Returning to the chair by the fire, Ben sat down wearily and put his head in his hands. What are you doing here, Joseph? Didn’t I warn you not to carry her on your shoulders the rest of your life?
Emotionally exhausted, Ben sank back in the chair. As he did so, he saw the cradle Adam had made as a wedding present for the young couple. It still sat by the fireplace, another testament to unfulfilled dreams. Oh, Marie . . . how can I help our son heal?
“You already have, mon chéri.”
“Am I dreaming?”
“Mais oui. Shhh. All will be fine, you will see. Our son is all right.”
“How can you say that? Look at this place!”
“And what is wrong with this place?”
“What’s wrong! It’s a damn tomb, that’s what it is!”
“Shhh, my darling. Do you not visit my grave? Tend it carefully? Plant flowers? Re-read our love letters?”
“Do you not remember lying in our bed gazing at stars so brilliant it seemed we could almost touch them?
“Did you not tell me that we must always reach for the stars to keep our dreams alive?”
“Non, chéri, there is no difference. Here there is solace. Here our son finds peace and joie de vivre. Open your eyes.”
His heart racing, Ben awoke with a start as a log snapped and fell to the hearth, showering the darkened room with sparks. Marie?
Regaining his composure, he looked around the cabin and slowly began to see it through her eyes . . . a bouquet of lilacs on the table, clean floors and windows; freshly laundered drapes. Joseph must have been working nonstop since sunup, not moping around morose and bereft as I’d imagined.
With sudden clarity Ben remembered that Matthew White had taken Laura’s body back to New Orleans for burial. Joe had no grave to visit; no headstone to lean against or carved name to caress with his fingertips; no real memories of a life shared, only a life promised. Only this house. This is the only place Joseph has to cherish her memory and their dreams.
Rising from the chair, Ben made his way around the room truly seeing for the first time the home his son had so lovingly restored and furnished for his wife to be . . . the pictures, the rocking chair, the sewing basket, a dried mud pie on the mantel. This cabin is Laura’s headstone: a monument to hope everlasting and dreams yet to come.
Tiptoeing into the bedroom, he watched as Joe drew deep, even breaths and saw the smile upon his face. Joseph has healed. A scar—after all—is no longer a living wound.
Ben stood outside the cabin, drinking in the night sky. Seldom in his recollection had the stars shined as brightly; he knew every constellation, every cluster. He taught each son how to find his way by looking up at the heavens. Strange that I had almost forgotten to look up.
“You could almost touch them,” Joe whispered.
Ben smiled and put his arm around Joe’s shoulder, drawing him close.
“Always remember, son . . . it takes courage to keep striving for the unattainable.”
Joe leaned his head against his father’s shoulder, content in the warmth of his embrace. Taking turns, they named the constellations as the stars traversed the velvet sky and disappeared one by one into the pre-dawn light of April 24.
Turning, Ben said, “You know what I was thinking, Joe?”
“This cabin could use a coat of paint.”
¹ “Never the Time and the Place” is a poem by Robert Browning.”
The Truckee Strip” was written by Herman Groves (Season 1)
“The Storm” was written by Denne Petitclerc (Season 3).