Word Count: 1300
It was just after day break and the logging camp was buzzing with activity. They had less than three weeks to deliver 20,000 feet of undressed timber to the railroad and Adam Cartwright aimed to see they did it. He pushed his men hard, but no harder than he pushed himself, he reasoned. Taking a swig of water from his canteen, he squinted into the rising sun. It’s gonna be a scorcher of a day, he thought with dismay, his shirt already damp from sweat; one more thing for the men to complain about. Picking up his axe, he furiously attacked the work, outwardly intent on meeting their deadline but inwardly trying to forget the guilt that plagued him. It was midday before he slowed his pace, his stomach rumbling. Food held no appeal, but he couldn’t go on unless he put some fuel in his belly; so he swung his axe, safely wedging it into a nearby stump and headed to the chuck wagon where his brothers were already eating. He was halfway across a small clearing when his father rode into camp.
Handing his reins to one of the men, Ben headed straight for Adam, his face etched with concern. Adam stiffened, recognizing the look. Great, just great, I’m working my butt off trying to meet a ridiculously short deadline and he wants to talk, Adam thought in annoyance as he watched his father approach. He just wanted to put the whole thing behind him, why couldn’t Pa understand that?
Hoss and Little Joe exchanged relieved glances as they watched their father stride purposefully towards Adam. After several failed attempts to get him to ease up, they’d finally sent for Pa. It was plain he needed to sort a few things out but he stubbornly denied it and just drove the men harder. They both hoped Pa could get through that thick skull of his, but at the very least he could lay down the law about the men. All but their regular crews were threatening to quit.
Adam drew a deep breath and walked toward his father, meeting him halfway. “Pa,” he said keeping his tone neutral. “What brings you up here?”
“Adam,” his father said softly, “I think we need to talk, don’t you?”
Illogical as it was, he found his father’s gentle tone irritating. He didn’t want to be comforted; he just wanted to get some food and get back to work. “Just leave it alone,” he replied impatiently, his eyes narrowing.
“No, I won’t!” Ben snapped back; his own frustration mounting. Not wanting to put on a show for the whole camp, he jerked his head to a nearby stand of trees. “Come on, let’s go for a walk.”
Adam made no move. “I’ve got work to do,” he said curtly, determined to avoid the unwanted intrusion.
Ben shook his head. “I won’t let you do it, Adam! I won’t let you hide up here and I won’t let you work these men into the ground just to exercise your own demons. Now come on!”
Adam held his ground as he eyed his father in exasperation. Seeing he had no intention of backing down, he reluctantly stalked into the woods, the eyes of every man in the camp on his back. Taking a seat on a fallen log, he steeled himself for the upcoming discussion. Ben gave a deep sigh and chose his words carefully. “Ross and Delphine’s ranch went up for auction today,” he began gently.
Adam dropped his head and stared at the ground, the color draining from his face. Ben’s heart ached as he watched his son, but he was determined to see this through, he had to make Adam realize it wasn’t his fault. He had mistakenly thought Adam had come to terms with the circumstances of Ross’s death weeks ago, but with the announcement of the Marquette’s ranch going up for auction, he had become brusque and uncommunicative. It was obvious his pain ran deep and he still blamed himself for their deaths. If he could just get Adam to talk about it, he thought. “I think it would be a good idea if we rode over there. I know Ross would have wanted you to have some of his things.”
Adam’s head flew up in swift reaction. “What do you want me to do, Pa? Pick up a few mementos as a reminder that I killed my best friend!”
Ben slowly shook his head as he moved behind his son. Placing his hands on his shoulders, he gently massaged his taut muscles. “You had no choice, Adam…Ross was sick…he’d already killed Delphine and he would have killed you…you just have to accept the fact that you were powerless to change the situation…you tried your hardest but it was too late and it wasn’t your fault…some things are just beyond our control.”
Adam hung his head and contemplated his father’s words. Ben continued to massage as he spoke. “You said your presence brought Ross comfort in the end…that he’d forgotten all those tortured months…don’t you think it’s time you forget them too.” Adam took a steadying breath as he listened. “Remember the good times Adam, the fun you had as boys, the camaraderie you shared as men…don’t carry the pain and the guilt, neither Ross nor Delphine would have wanted that.”
Adam glanced up at his father, his face full of despair. “As hard as I try, I just can’t seem to get that day out of my head,” he said quietly, a slight quiver to his voice. “I know I shouldn’t blame myself…but sometimes…I don’t know…sometimes I think it would’ve been better if Ross had died a stranger…maybe then I wouldn’t feel so much like I let him down…like I betrayed his trust.”
Ben nodded but remained silent; he would do nothing to stop the flow of words. Adam was finally speaking from his heart, finally voicing his guilt and hopefully putting it to rest.
“He clung to me in the end…like I could somehow help him…he kept asking me what happened and it tore me apart…I didn’t know what to say…what could I say? It was my bullet in him…mine…” he said, brushing a hand over his eyes. He felt his father’s comforting hand and gratefully acknowledged him with a brief smile.
Ben sat down beside Adam, his eyes warm and comforting. “I don’t know why this had to happen,” he said softly, “but I do know Ross was the best friend you ever had and it would be a shame if you could only remember him with sadness.”
Adam looked thoughtfully at his boots for several seconds before lifting his eyes to meet his father’s. “You’re right,” he said quietly, “and if you’re still willing, I’d like to ride over to the ranch.”
“I think that’s a fine idea,” Ben answered, relieved that Adam seemed more at peace.
Adam gave his father a hesitant smile as he got to his feet. “This might sound kind of silly, but there’s couple of whiskey glasses I’d like to have. Ross swiped them from the Bucket of Blood the night we shared our first drink.”
Ben chuckled as he stood up and put an arm around Adam’s shoulders. “I don’t think that’s silly, son. I think that sounds like a keepsake worth having.”
Adam nodded but remained silent as they walked back to camp. Reaching their horses, he looked to his brothers and offered them a small smile. He had a lot of changes to make when he got back, but right now he had to pay a visit to a friend’s house.