Summary: Adam returns home to stay after a loss helps him to be ‘found.’
Word Count: 4,700
“I’ll not be standin’ for your broodin’, Adam Cartwright!” She squeezed his hand.
How could she be so strong? Adam wondered. Her grip, like her voice was as strong as ever, even while she was so weak she could barely lift her head from the pillow.
“I worked mighty hard to bring out that smile in you,” she went on. “I’ll not be goin’ where I need to be goin’ without seein’ the fruits of my efforts!”
Oddly, Adam did find himself smiling then. He wrapped her hand in both of his and brought it to his lips. “You worked miracles,” he said.
Her brows shot up. “Miracles, is it? Well then. There. You see? I told you there’d be nothin’ to worry about where I’m goin’!” She winked at him, flashing that glorious, impish smile that had drawn him in when his eye had first met hers on that dock in Boston Harbor. “Aye, there it is! I so love that smile, Adam! I don’t know how you kept it hidden all those years. Or why.”
“Because you weren’t there to help me find it,” he told her, honestly.
“Nonsense. It was never about findin’ it. It was only about rememberin’ it. You’ve always had it in you, Adam Cartwright, that mischievous, little boy grin.”
“Aye, mischievous. Tell me you haven’t been mischievous with me all this time.”
“I would hardly call it mischievous.”
“What would you be callin’ it, then?”
She giggled. It was a quieter sound than it should be, lacking the volume it would normally have but not at all lacking in tone. She saw humor in everything. Even this. “Now, you’ll be rememberin’ what I told you, Adam. Won’t you?”
His smile died, his brows dropping in worry. Try as he might, he could not find sense in her words. What had she told him to remember?
“Shame on you! How can I go anywhere if you’ll not be rememberin’? There.” She looked toward the book on her nightstand. “Read me that sonnet.”
His smile came back, but only halfway. It was a sadder, lonlier version of what he’d worn a moment before. His eyes moved back to hers. He didn’t have to open the book. He knew the words. Every single one.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Though art more lovely, and more temperate.”
She closed her eyes, her smile growing, as though his recitation of Shakespeare’s words were filling her with something. Peace? Joy? Maybe both.
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May; and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” Adam held tighter to her hand. It felt so small in his, and yet so…lifegiving. “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, and often is his gold complexion dimmed. And every fair, from fair sometime declines, through chance or nature’s changing course, untrimmed. But thy eternal summer shall not fade….”
And it wouldn’t, Adam knew then. Her fiery hair would never gray. Her smooth brow would never bear a wrinkle. It wasn’t right. No matter how much joy she found in Shakespeare’s words, in Adam’s mind it wasn’t right at all.
Closing his eyes briefly to a rising tide of rage, Adam forced himself to press on. The words, after all, were for her. “…Nor lose possession of that fair though owest. Nor shall death wanderst in thy shade, when in lines to time though growest. So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
She kept her eyes closed after he finished, seeming to relish the words, her smile as warm and real as ever. Finally, she looked to him once more. “There now,” she said in a softer voice than before. “That’s what it is you must be rememberin’. I may be goin’, but I’ll never be leavin’ you. I’ll be watchin’ you, Adam Cartwright. I’ll be lookin’ for that smile, because that is what will be keepin’ me with you. Don’t you ever lose that smile, my love. Not ever. You have to be livin’ here in my stead. So long as you live on, I’ll be livin’ on with you. So long as your eyes can see, I’ll be lookin’ through them. And you know what I’ll be lookin’ for, don’t you?”
He choked back the rock that was burrowing its way into his throat and fought to blink fresh tears from his eyes. “Reasons to smile.” The words were a struggle to say, but nowhere near the struggle he was facing with the message. How could he find a reason to smile, looking as he was toward a future without her?
“Aye.” The word was a whisper. She closed her eyes again. “They’re out there,” she went on, her voice so soft now he could barely hear her. “You know they are.”
She looked at him again. Only this time she seemed to look deeper, right into his soul. “I know it can be easier for you to see the dark in things. But ‘tis better for you to see the good. Remember that.” A single tear escaped her eye. “Promise me?”
“I…promise,” he whispered back, his full voice lost to that miserable rock. But could he really keep such a promise? Already the dark was closing in around him, threatening to swallow him whole. Soon…too soon her eyes would grow dark. And then…and then how could he ever see light again? He knew already, knew it with absolute certainty: the dark would consume him.
And yet…she smiled. Even now, she smiled. And with her last breath, her smile grew. And then she was gone, but her smile…her smile was frozen in time, forever a part of her…forever a part of him.
A storm raged. It smashed into the sides of the boat, breaking it into pieces. Only…he wasn’t on a boat. He was on dry land. On the Ponderosa.
Adam was seated, alone, at the dining room table. There was nothing on it, and no one was seated beside him.
They were all gone, he realized. All of them. Pa, Hoss, even Little Joe were gone. He was alone. Alone in the world. And his world was the Ponderosa.
Rising to his feet, Adam felt that world tilt beneath him. It was breaking apart. Everything was falling away from him. He had to get out. He had to move fast, but moving was a struggle. With every step the world pitched like a vessel caught by a tempest at sea.
By the time he reached the door, the dining room behind him had fallen to splinters.
He heard people screaming and shouting outside. Pulling on every ounce of strength he could muster, he forced the door open to find a crowd of people running from the collapse of the world. He had to join them if he, too, wanted to survive. He’d barely had that thought when already he was among them, running for his life. And then a great, white bird was flying beside him, and he felt he needed to run from that, too. But he couldn’t. His legs simply would not cooperate. In no time at all the bird was directly above him. And then it wrapped its talons around his shoulders and started lifting him high into the sky.
He flew up and away from the world, up into soft, white clouds, the kind of clouds that spoke of lazy summer days, the kind of clouds that never held a drop of rain.
And then, when the bird deposited him in the middle of a white, marble palace, he came to understand why…
…why he had been chosen to speak with God.
“How dare you?” They were hardly words he would ever have imagined uttering to God, but they fell from his lips, unchecked. And in doing so, they freed him, opening the floodgates to more words, spilling his rage—baring his soul. “All you do is take and take. You tear apart people’s lives. You give them a taste of something sweet and then pull it away, like it’s nothing but a game to you. And now you expect me to plead for the sake of humanity? How dare you? Every single one of these people deserves a chance at life. It may be a game to you, but it’s not a game to them. Or to me.”
But it had been to her, hadn’t it? She had always looked for the good in things. She had relished whatever was sweet. And when that was taken away, she looked for something else. And always, every single time, she found it.
Remember, my love, she told him.
And suddenly he knew, he really knew what he had to say.
“So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,” he told God, “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
And suddenly it all made sense. Even God saw the sense in it. And when the bird took Adam home, he saw that the storm had passed. Humanity was given a chance to live on, because in doing so God could live on. And Adam had found a reason to live on, because in doing so she could live on
When Adam woke, he saw her smile. He felt it. It was so real, he could almost hold it in his hand. And her place in the bed beside him suddenly felt less empty. And he smiled, certain she would know her efforts were still bearing fruit.
Adam found reasons to smile during the long journey home, but every smile came with a price. They were smiles meant to be shared between him and his bride, not hoarded to himself. This was a trip they were supposed to have taken together, one that had always been delayed for reasons that suddenly lost all meaning. His family should have had the chance to meet her, and she, them. What had been so important to have kept Adam and his bride from taking this trip together?
Mischief. He could almost hear her whisper in his ear. And he smiled again.
‘Adventure,’ he would have whispered back, if she were truly there beside him.
The last miles to Virginia City had Adam itching to be home. He could hardly sit still.
Like an impatient, wee boy, she would have told him.
And he was impatient, so impatient he would have gotten out and started running if the stage driver had to stop for any reason at all.
And yet when they arrived, as the familiar streets came into view, impatience changed to dread. His heart started to feel heavier in his chest, pounding out in an almost violent rhythm. Why had he come here? What did he hope to find? What if things had changed, maybe so much that nothing was as he’d remembered it?
Then you will find somethin’ new and excitin’ to smile about, said that soft, sweet voice in his head.
Steeling himself, Adam waited for the other passengers to step out before taking his place at the door. When it finally came to be his turn, his eyes landed instantly on Joe.
Yes, something had changed. Joe had changed. His hair was longer than Pa would ever have allowed before. He was thicker in the chest, too, evidence that his boyhood was far enough behind him that even Pa would have had to accept he was a man in his own right. There were also streaks of gray in Joe’s hair, a sight Adam found disturbing. Had life been so hard on his little brother? If so, what secrets had been left unwritten in his family’s letters?
Don’t you go lookin’ for the dark! came her cautioning voice in his head.
And then Joe grinned up at him, and Adam found his reason to smile. That was the same impish grin Adam remembered, proof that Little Joe was still Little Joe, thick in the chest or not.
Jumping to the ground, Adam took his brother’s hand and then pulled him into a hug, the kind of hug his baby brother used to cherish but his teenaged brother used to shun. He found himself grateful when this brother, this grown man, little brother hugged him back equally hard, if not harder.
“I missed you, Adam.” There was a catch in Joe’s voice, and when they pulled apart Adam saw there were tears in his brother’s eyes—tears that must have matched what Adam felt in his own.
“Yeah.” It was all he could say, the only word he could form around the rock that was once again lodged in his throat.
“We didn’t expect you ‘til next week,” Joe said, clearing his own throat around what must have been a similar rock. “Pa’s on his way back from Sacramento, and Hoss is helping old man Grainger dig a new well. You know they both would have been here.”
“I know. I made good time. Somehow I kept gaining rather than losing days.”
“Well, I’m glad.” Joe’s grin had something almost conspiratorial in it.
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“It gives us a chance to catch up first.”
Adam smiled. “I suppose it does.”
“How about I buy you a beer?”
Adam followed Joe’s gaze to the Bucket of Blood and found himself torn. He was thirsty. But part of him felt like Joe did, then. He felt almost selfish, wanting to keep his little brother all to himself for a short while, rather than share him with a saloon full of…strangers, Adam realized. Yes, they would probably be strangers, wouldn’t they?
“Sure,” Adam said. “Why not?”
The saloon was empty when they arrived, except for an old cowboy. He looked vaguely familiar, though it might only have been the thick, gray beard reminding Adam of his father-in-law, an Irishman as feisty and headstrong as the daughter he’d raised. But this cowboy’s eyes lacked the sparkle Adam had come to equate with the woman who had charmed him away from the brooding soul he’d been before. When the cowboy turned his eyes to them, Adam could see there was a thin fog of cataracts clouding the color of his irises.
“Hey, Rusty!” Joe called companionably over to him, and then Adam remembered. He remembered a man more formidable than his own pa, a man who could quiet a mustang with one steely look.
Adam smiled at the image in his mind even as his heart was near to breaking at what the years had done. “Hello, old friend,” he said, extending his hand.
The wrinkles lining Rusty’s weathered face grew deeper, his dulled eyes looking somewhat off to Adam’s right. “I reckon I know that voice.”
Adam reached forward and pulled Rusty’s hand to his own. “It’s Adam. Adam Cartwright.”
For a moment Adam could swear he did see a sparkle in Rusty’s gaze. “Adam Cartwright?” A smile opened a crevice in the old cowboy’s whiskers and made his beard dance. “Why, Adam Cartwright!” He chuckled as he pumped Adam’s hand with a strength more reminiscent of the man he’d been than indicative of the one he’d become. “I thought you’d traded prairie dust for salt water!”
“I suppose I did for a while.”
“Land sakes, it’s good to see you!”
“It’s good to see you, too.” But was it? Was it really good to see this frail shadow, when the image in Adam’s memories was so much better—stronger, fitter…ageless?
When Joe pulled him away to accept the well wishes of Sam, the bartender, Adam found himself struggling to imagine his father as a weathered, old cowboy, too frail to work the stock and too blind to do the books. But Joe had said Pa was on his way back from Sacramento, so he had to still be fit; hadn’t he?
The question, though it lay heavy on his heart, was slowly engulfed in a rising tide as the saloon’s outer doors began to swing like an endless wash of waves. Each passing minute seemed to pull someone else in from the street. The saloon filled little by little with old friends, curious about the quickly spreading rumor of Adam’s return. Before long every chair was taken and still more people came in. Worries for his aging father gave way to conversations that made Adam himself feel ten years younger.
For a short time that afternoon in Virginia City, Adam could almost believe he’d never left home at all.
But he had left, and he was older than he’d been the last time he’d shared a beer with his brother in this very saloon. And he was worn as much from the long journey home as from the pain of losing the only woman he could ever truly love. The room began to spin dizzily about him, and the voices of friends began to flood his ears like a storm at sea. He was finding himself growing further and further adrift, until he felt Joe at his side.
And then suddenly Adam realized his younger brother was rescuing him from himself much as he had once been known to rescue Little Joe.
Yes, Adam had left; and while he’d been gone, Little Joe had matured.
Riding in the buckboard beside his brother, Adam turned his gaze from sights that continued to pull the breath from his lungs, sights that pressed down on him like a weight against his chest. Once, not too long ago, these very sights had been so familiar he’d come to barely notice them. Why was it they now filled him with such a yearning, a desperate need for something he wasn’t sure he would ever understand? He’d left because he’d felt the need to leave. But why? Why leave all of this?
You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Adam Cartwright, her voice called out in his head once more. Of course, you had to leave! If you hadn’t, you’d never have met me, and then what sort of mischief could you ever hope to raise?
He found another smile then. Maybe Joe noticed it, too.
“I never thought I’d see the day,” Joe said with a grin.
“What do you mean?”
“My big, responsible brother, Adam, in the Bucket of Blood in the middle of the day, accepting beers from respectable folks who were supposed to be working.” It was strange to hear Joe giggle just as he always had; the sound seemed to erase years despite the gray strands in the younger man’s hair.
“I guess I never thought I’d see it, either,” Adam admitted. “Just as I never thought I’d see the day when you had to pull me out of a saloon.”
Joe’s laugh sounded almost as good to Adam’s ears as hers had been.
“Why was it we used to argue so much?” Adam found himself asking.
Joe cocked an eyebrow at him. “Because I was young and stupid, and you were—”
“No.” The word came out more forcefully than Adam had intended. This time both of Joe’s brows came up with every bit as much surprise as Adam felt himself. “You were never stupid, Joe,” he went on then, confident now in his words. “You were eager…ambitious…mischievous. And I…I guess I’d forgotten how to be.”
Joe pulled the horses to a stop, giving Adam his full attention. His eyes were alive with questions, but he couldn’t seem to put any of those questions into words.
Well, go on, then, Adam heard his bride quietly prompting.
“It’s something she told me,” Adam said, giving Joe the grin he knew his bride would want to see, “…or taught me, maybe. She said I was born to be mischievous, but I’d forgotten how.”
“Y…you?” Joe was as puzzled as Adam had ever seen him. “You? Mischievous?”
Adam chuckled. “I told her I preferred to say I was adventurous; but I can’t help but think she was right.”
Joe raised his eyebrows again, then looked toward the horses and scratched his head. “I don’t know, older brother, but I think maybe you had a bit too much of that sea air.”
“No, younger brother.” Adam leaned into the hard, wooden seat and let his gaze once again sweep across the wondrous view before him. Finally, he breathed it in, all of it, everything from the fresh scent of pine to the choking dust brought up by the horses’ hooves. “I think I had just as much as I’d needed.”
Three days later, after Hoss had finished digging Old Man Grainger’s well and Pa, fit as ever, returned from his trip to Sacramento, four Cartwright men once again sat together in the Ponderosa’s great room as they hadn’t done for many years.
With more stories to tell than there were hours to tell them, that first night together had Adam talking with his family well past dawn. Some of their stories left Adam aching, wishing he could have been there to help when they’d clearly needed all the help they could get; and he was sure some of his own stories had each of them feeling the same way. They had all endured difficult times, just as they had all experienced wonderful things. And when he began talking about the woman who had filled these past few years with more adventure and mischief than he could ever have imagined, Adam realized he could see her looking back at him in each of his brothers’ eyes—and in Pa’s too. He could see her smile in Joe’s dimpled grin, in Hoss’s almost childish look of wonder, and even in the sparkle of quiet retrospection of Pa’s distant gaze.
Finally, at that moment, Adam discovered he was truly home. He was where he belonged, precisely where he needed to be. And though she was not beside him, she was with him, nonetheless. And she would remain with him for as long he drew breath.
So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Adam settled back into life on the Ponderosa so easily it was almost as though he’d never left at all—or his leaving had been nothing more than a temporary detour that had taken him directly to the one person on this earth who could help him find the smile he’d lost somewhere along the way.
Life is an expedition. It is a voyage. People come into our lives and go away again like ships in the harbor. One day, I am the harbor, and another, the ship. I have traveled to distant places, and then left them behind me, just as people have come into my life, and then left me behind.
All of the places where I have been and all of the people who have come and gone, I hold them within me still. I imagine I always will, even if I never lay eyes on them again. They have each left a mark upon me, subtly altering the person I was, molding me into something different; I can only hope something better.
Adam set the pen back into its holder on his desk, and then, leaving his journal open so the ink could dry, he pushed himself to his feet and stepped to the window. The clear night had the sky alight with as many stars as he had ever seen. When one shot away, leaving a sudden, blazing trail, he could almost hear her telling him to, “hurry up! Make a wish before it’s gone!”
“How can I?” he whispered back. The mourning was over, sorrow replaced by a sense of peace, but the question came nonetheless. How could he wish for anything at all, when having her in his life, even for a short while, had been greater than any wish he could ever have imagined?
Promise me, she had told him. Promise me you’ll always be lookin’ for reasons to smile.
He couldn’t help but smile at the memory of her voice. “I promise,” he said softly, silently praying he would never stop hearing it.