At A Time Like This… (by Krystyna)

Summary: (Missing Scenes from the episode “The Avenger”)
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  4500


Ben Cartwright had fought his demons and now felt at peace. That was what he wanted now more than anything else — peace of mind and peace in his heart. He didn’t want to dwell on thoughts of betrayal, on lies and deceit, on empty promises and half hopes. He didn’t even want to think any more of what will happen afterward when it was all over for him and Adam.

He’d already gone through all that mental tussling. The Ponderosa would belong to Joe and Hoss and whatever Hawkins had in mind, well, it would be up to Joe and Hoss to deal with it. He had talked about it with Adam, and they had agreed that Hawkins plan was to pick off the Ponderosa bit by bit. Without the town’s support, neither of them had felt confident that the last two remaining Cartwrights would be able to fend off such a subtle and influential enemy. Yes, they were quite agreed about how Hawkins would act and they both knew that there would be very little that they could do about it, now or later.

It was dark now. Outside there was little to see, just the lights in the saloon at the bottom of the alley. A breeze blew in through the open barred window and the sounds of the town at night drifted in with it. Sounds of laughter, women’s shrill voices, someone singing — and not very tunefully — and the old piano with several missing notes. He listened to those sounds while he lay stretched out on the frail trestle bed, his arms folded behind his head and his eyes closed. A cat screeched followed by the sharp barking of a dog. Ben sighed, footsteps close by, and Hanson’s shadow blocking what little light there was into the cell. Ben kept his eyes closed tightly; he had no reason to speak now.

“Anything I can get you?”

If it had been Roy this would not have happened, Ben thought, and quickly banished the thought because it hadn’t been Hanson’s fault. He heard Adam stir; he could imagine his son propping himself up on his elbow. “Pen and paper sometime before tomorrow evening?”

“Sure, I’ll bring it tomorrow for you”

The footsteps faded. At a time like this, Ben told himself, all one could do was to think back on other times, memories of times that were happy, or sad. At a time like this, he wanted to think about better times but all he could think about was his son, Adam. It was so unfair, so unjust. A young man in the prime of his life and to be hanged for something he hadn’t done. No — he mentally shrugged the thought away — no, this is not the time to dwell on all that again, not the time to arouse the anger and bitterness against his friends and neighbors. After all, Hawkins was a manipulator of feelings, and fear was the one he traded in better than anyone else Ben had ever known.

His throat felt tight; he cleared it with a cough and heard his son move in the bed,

“Are you alright, Pa?”

“Yes, son, I’m alright.”

“I was thinking…”

“Oh?”

“Being in a cell is bad enough, but having no proper window to shut out the wind and rain, and the racket in town … sure makes it a whole lot worse. I was wondering about designing a new cell block for the town.” There came a low chuckle, as though the thought had amused him somewhat.

“You’ll have to get to work on the design pretty quick, son,” Ben replied rather dryly.

He heard his son sigh, and he tightened his eyelids to stop the tears, not for himself, but for him, for Adam. It was then that he remembered the day — oh, a long time ago now — when he had taken down the book from the shelf, and in all probability it would have gone unnoticed. A stain so small that even a casual glance would not have attached much significance to it even had it been noticed. But he had noticed it that particular day, and immediately his feelings had been aroused and memories unleashed.

He could remember how he had felt his throat tighten involuntarily as he had seen the small mark on the page of the book he was reading. It would have meant nothing to anyone else. Perhaps they would have wondered what it was, why it was there, who had caused it to be there, and then they would have turned the page over and forgotten.

But he had not forgotten. Even now in his cell, surrounded by darkness and the sounds of his son breathing close in the bunk nearby, he could remember as clearly as though it had been yesterday how he had looked hard at the page until the words had seemed to merge into a thousand blurs, and he had had to close his eyes.

“Pa?”

Ben remembered how the sound of that voice had startled him, how he had thought himself alone; he had swallowed hard, dredged a smile up from somewhere and turned to look at the boy standing in front of him. Such an earnest little boy. He had reached out a hand and taken the boy by the arm,

“What’s wrong, son? There’s nothing worrying you, is there?”

The child had shaken his head and had quickly slipped his small body into the space between his father’s arm and body. He had leaned against the big man, and smiled contentedly. “Pa, I thought you were unhappy about something. I thought you looked sad.”

“Oh, did you?” He had forced his smile to grow wider and he pulled the boy closer, so that the warmth of the child’s body had been felt through the thin night shirt he was wearing,

“Sometimes you do look sad, Pa.”

“Oh, but then everyone does, at times.” Ben could remember himself saying, and how he had forced a touch of lightness to his voice. A lightness that he hadn’t felt at heart, and the boy had noticed and given his father a long, quizzical look,

“Yes, I suppose so. Sometimes I’m sad, you know,” the child had replied and he had sighed heavily as though to emphasize the point.

“I guess you are. Want to tell me about it?” Ben could recall how gently he had held the boy, holding him close, because he hadn’t wanted to let him go, just like now …just like now…

“Well, sometimes I wish I had a mom of my very own, you know.” The dark brows had knitted into a dark line upon the smooth brow. “When I see the other kids at school with their parents, I do wish I had a mom of my very own, Pa. Sometimes they ask me why I haven’t got a mom, and I have to tell them that she went away. But, Pa, I wish she had not gone away, I wish she had stayed with us, or had taken me with her.”

Ben shivered. He heard that child’s voice now in his memory, and tightened his eyelids down over his eyes and shook his head. Oh God, what would he have done had his son died with his dear Elizabeth. He recalled thinking exactly that same thing and asking why, why now? Why had Adam said all this now when he had just found that stain on the page of his book? A small stain. A tear drop that had fallen upon the page of the book they had been reading only hours before she died. Sometimes, life could be cruel.

Oh yes, life could be so cruel. He tried to prevent himself from sniffing; holding back tears tended to make one sniff and he didn’t want his son on the other bed to become anxious now. Ben licked dry lips and then remembered what else his son had said that day, something that had been important, important enough for him to remember today.

“Sometimes though,” the boy had continued, “I’m glad I didn’t go with momma, because then I would not have been with you, would I?”

And he had said: “Sometimes, Adam, I think the very same thing. What would I do without my boy by my side, huh?”

He recalled how his son had smiled up at him; the dark eyes had shone and he had turned quickly into his father’s embrace and entwined his arms around the man’s neck and held him close.

“I’m glad you’re my Pa. No one else has got a Pa like you… you’re the best Pa in all the world.”

Ben pinched the bridge of his nose. That voice seemed to echo in his head … ‘You’re the best Pa in all the world.’ And look, he wanted to say now, look where it’s brought you?

*****

Adam stared up at the ceiling. Had he been able to see the ceiling, he would have seen nothing different from how it had been the previous days. But he couldn’t close his eyes; he didn’t want to drift away into sleep now. There was too much to think about, too much to remember. He bit down on his bottom lip and struggled now to start talking, because he wanted to talk, he wanted to spend the last night of his life telling his Pa…well, telling his Pa everything, anything. Just to talk, to fill in the time, the hours, with meaningless inconsequential chatter.

They had discussed about life afterward, for Joe and Hoss. They had speculated on how it would be, and the what if’s and the perhaps; they had discussed friends and neighbors, petitions and newspaper reports – not that either of them had much faith in them being successful – and they had talked about Sally Bryne’s lies, or misconceptions, and how all the while she had stuck to her story, there was no hope for them.

His throat felt dry and he wished he had asked for more water when the sheriff had just come but then that would make Pa worry. He closed his eyes now; at a time like this, he didn’t want his Pa to worry about anything else.

Darn it, if he had a gun now he sure would like to shoot that dog.

He had pins and needles in one leg now and moved it a little to ease it off.

“You alright, son?”

“Sure, Pa, I’m fine.”

“Try and sleep.”

“You too…”

He was restless. He wanted to get up and walk about, pace the floor, kick at the wall. He knew that would make Ben anxious, and tonight of all nights, he didn’t want that for his Pa. But he couldn’t stay still on that bunk any longer and got to his feet and walked to the window and looked out into the darkness. He raised his eyes to the night sky and watched as a star fell gracefully to earth, trailing behind it a fading blaze of light. In the velvety darkness of night, other stars spun, twinkled, shone. Shadows swayed within shadows as the buildings of the town seemed to huddle closer together. The dog was howling now, howling at the moon as though it knew and understood what it was like to have a broken heart.

Ben Cartwright glanced over at his son and sighed. Adam sat with such stillness, his face raised to the moon as though, like the coyote, he could have howled a long wail of grief. He stood up and walked to Adam’s side. “What’s on your mind, son?”

Adam said nothing for a while. It seemed as though he were going to ignore his father’s question, then he sighed and gave a half smile. “I was just remembering things,” he said in a quiet, almost shy way of speaking, a way that he could adopt when with his father, because there was no one else who understood or knew that softer more vulnerable layer of his heart…

He looked down at his feet; it was not a cold night — April 24th — a spring night promising a warm day. Tomorrow would be his last day on earth.

“Remembering what? What kind of things?” Ben’s voice gentled, as he prepared himself to listen to revelations that perhaps he would regret hearing later on.

“Well, I was remembering the time when I was very small. We were travelling through Illinois, if I recall rightly, and we were alone.”

“That wasn’t anything unusual. We often were alone,” Ben said quietly, wondering now where the conversation was leading.

“It was before we met Inger. I remember one night that it had been very dark, and cold. For some reason, you didn’t light a fire. We didn’t have a fire for quite some nights.”

“I remember that time. No, we didn’t have a fire. It wasn’t safe. There are worse things to fear than the animals of the forests when travelling alone back then…” Ben’s voice trailed away.

Back then he had said. Why, it was just over 30 years ago. But then, so much had happened during that time. Cities had grown where there had been wildernesses, and a whole indigenous people had been dispersed and deposited in various locations throughout the United States. Back then…he glanced over at his son who was once again deep in thought. At the back of his mind he was conscious of the dog howling, the piano player forcing some woeful tune from those yellowing keys.

“I was frightened. I remember clinging to you because I was so frightened that something terrible was going to come out of the woods and eat us up. At night, under the canvas in our wagon, I would listen to the howling of the coyotes, and the hoot of owls. There were other sounds, all coming together; so that it seemed the woods came alive more at night time that during the day.” Adam paused and sighed, as though in some ways he wished he could turn back the clock.

Ben smiled and nodded, he put an arm over Adam’s shoulder and looked out of the window, the moon shone and illuminated the two men, casting shadows over their faces as they stood together at the barred emptiness of the window. “I remember, I said to you, there was no need to be afraid. Even wild animals needed their own time, and the night was their time. “

Adam nodded, and the slow smile graced his lips once again. “Yes, and you told me to be at peace, and to sleep, so I lay in your arms and listened to the sounds. It all came together and I stopped being afraid. I was thinking, tonight, just sitting here, listening again, and remembering.”

Ben said nothing. They sat together, shoulder to shoulder. Their broad backs, the tilt of their heads that in the shadows were so alike that a stranger would not have known father from son.

“Adam…” Ben’s throat tightened again, “Adam – are you afraid now?”

Adam said nothing, his lips tightened imperceptibly and then he frowned. “Perhaps I should be, but no, I just feel numb. I just feel – nothing.”

*****

Hoss Cartwright dismantled the rifle and checked each separate piece carefully. He fumbled in the drawer to pull out a box of cartridges and then looked up at Joe, who was busy doing just the same. “It may not work,” he said quietly.

“I know that,” Joe’s voice snapped back, snap – just like a piece of elastic twanging back when released after being pulled to full stretch.

“Still, we gotta give it a try, huh?”

“Yeah.” Joe wiped his nose on the back of his hand and sniffed, he looked up at his brother, “What do you think they’re doing right now, Hoss?”

His brother swallowed the lump in his throat, and then shook his head. He didn’t want to think about it; it was hard enough to have to face the fact that his Pa and brother were in a cell anyway. Even harder to accept the fact that tomorrow, April 25th, would be the day they were going to be hanged.

Hop Sing came in with coffee and set everything down on the table; everything rattled. He couldn’t speak; he was heartbroken, and broken hearts didn’t go along with chatter. Instead, he made lots of coffee and the cups rattled as he set everything down on the table.

Hoss poured out the coffee; he kept his head down because he wanted to do more than just think. He had asked Adam once what word could be used when someone wanted to think more deeply than usual about something important in their lives and his brother had said he probably meant meditation. So that was what he was going to do now, a bit of meditation.

He sat down in the red leather chair that smelt of his Pa, and of his Pa’s smelly old pipe that they all tolerated because, at the end of the day, they felt Pa deserved some kind of treat. He remembered the day, not so long ago, when he had taken Chubb out to his favorite spot on the Ponderosa. He had dismounted and walked alongside his horse with his eyes looking down at his feet. He had the reins in one hand and trailed his free hand through the grasses and wild flowers. He could remember it now, as clearly as it had happened.

He had gone that day to that special place because he had wanted to think about a special person. His mother. He wished he could say he had known his mother. He just loved the essence of her, someone based on the memories of his Pa and his brother. For some weeks he had been fed, held, caressed, loved by someone of whom he had had no memory.

Hoss sipped the coffee and didn’t care that he had forgotten to add some sugar. He just wanted to recall that day; at a time like this, he wanted to meditate on the sound of a horseman riding up and he knowing exactly who it was. He had known who it would be and had tossed aside the limp remains of a decapitated daisy. “How’s you know I was here?” he had asked without looking up.

“It’s your favorite place, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but how’d you know you’d find me here?”

“Because it’s today.” The horseman had dismounted and walked towards Hoss. He had looked at the big man and smiled, “Making an early start, Hoss?”

“I wanted to think about my Ma.”

“I know it.” The rider narrowed his eyes and had glanced across the lake. “I know it.”

“Tell me about her, Adam? Tell me, not about what happened to her, just about her?”

His brother had looked at him, said nothing for a moment, then nodded. There was little point in talking about what had happened that day, the anniversary of which had been that particular day, for Hoss had known it by heart. Better to have talked about the things that had made Inger what she had been — special, really special.

Hoss heaved a sigh, sniffed, and wiped his eyes. Across the room Joe glanced up, firmed his mouth and said nothing. Hoss gulped down some more coffee, but his Pa was special too, and so was Adam, and who was going to tell him about his Ma? Who was going to ride up to his special place and talk to him in the future about his Pa, and about his brother and all the things they had shared over time.

Hoss stood up and put down the cup and saucer. “I’m gonna go git some air.” he muttered and walked quickly out of the room.

*****

Joe wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked away from the door as his brother slammed it behind him. He wanted to yell out that he was suffering too, but then, Hoss knew that already. Hoss knew him inside and out, and at times, Joe sniffed, over these past few days, he had got to know a lot more.

He sat down on the chair that Hoss had just vacated and put his face in his hands. It was such a slim chance that this was going to work. He shivered. What if it didn’t? Should they have tried to break jail? No, Hawkins men were all over the town; they’d have been noticed and arrested too. Better this way; at least – he drew in a shudder of a sigh – well, at least they could try and perhaps die with them. The Ponderosa didn’t matter compared to the lives of his Pa and brother.

So many memories, so little time. He wanted to know that his father would be there waiting for him when he returned from riding the cattle, or checking the timber. He needed to know that Adam would be there, no matter how grumpy, so that he could be reassured that he was cared about, protected. He gulped again; Adam had always been there to protect him, even when they argued, even then.

He didn’t want to think anymore. He put the rifle down and went upstairs to his father’s room. He sucked in the smell of him, filled his lungs with the essence of all that was his father. Tomorrow, Pa, he promised himself, tomorrow I’ll get you free. They won’t hurt you, Pa, they won’t; I won’t let them hurt you.

He stopped short at Adam’s door. Just leaned his head against the door frame and wept.

*****

“Here you are, Adam”

The paper and pencil were passed through the bars and Adam took them with a nod of thanks. He retreated to his bunk and smoothed the paper out on his knee and began to write. On his bunk, Ben watched for a little while, and then lowered his eyes to read from the bible. Adam scowled; the pencil was too blunt and he had to press hard against the paper to write, and some of the paper had torn. He paused, listened to the sounds from outside, thought over that young man who had come to look at Ben and seemed so disappointed that Ben had not been the man he had been looking for, and then he gathered his thoughts and began to write.

“Dear Hoss and Joe,

Well, I’m sitting here with a blank sheet of paper before me and a head full of memories and thoughts of you both, not knowing really what to write.

What does a man write with just an hour left to live? I sit here in this cell and all I can think about is the unfairness of it all. Blind justice sure was blind in the cruelest sense of the word when they dished out the sentence for Pa and me. I doubt if there was anyone more surprised about the verdict than Pa. Guess I am just that much more cynical, but he put a lot of stock in the friendship of these townsfolk here and I am angrier at his disappointment in them and the calm manner in which he has accepted all this, than I am for myself.

I don’t know if we will see you again before we go out for sentence to be executed. I do know that Pa meant it when he asked you both not to do anything stupid at the execution. I know you both well enough to feel pretty sure that you have hatched up some scheme between you both but…, well, I guess I just don’t want to have my last minutes on earth resembling some kind of bar room brawl. If it is at all possible, it would be better for both Pa and me to die with some dignity.

It is a strange feeling really. I was so angry before, but sitting here in this cell and watching Pa as he calmly composes himself to face the Greatest Judge of all, has, in a way, numbed my feelings. I am no longer angry nor disappointed. I can well understand how the townsfolk feel. Fear is the greatest emotion and the most manipulative. And these folks are scared yellow, that’s for sure. Tomorrow they will be feeling even more scared because they will know that they too have to face God, and unlike Pa and me, they will not be innocent of shedding innocent blood.

Having said that, they are still your friends. Still the folks you have known, been schooled with, faced hardships with, over the years. Don’t beat them about this. They’ll be feeling wretched enough and will have to one day face the consequences of their actions.

Pa and I have talked a lot about this situation. He says that in the Bible we are assured that God will avenge the righteous. I don’t know if I fit into that category, but I know I am innocent, just as Pa is, and I feel sure that somehow, we shall be avenged.

In some kind of odd way, I don’t even feel as if I am going to die. I just have a strong feeling that somehow or other Pa and I will come out of this alright. Of course, if you get to read this letter, well, then I was wrong.

You know, Hoss, Joe, how much I love you both. I can’t wrap the way I feel in fancy words, but I pray to God that He keeps you both safe. Treat each day as a thanksgiving, because, well, who knows how long that day is going to be in this world in which we live. Thank God each morning, and each evening, thank him again. Life is a precious gift from him, and each day of life should be one of thanks to him for giving it. May your days be long and happy ones, Joe, Hoss.

There is so much I want to say to you both, perhaps, God willing, I will be able to say them to you. Face to face. If not, so be it.

Pa has closed the bible now and indicates to me that the time has come for us to get ready. I have said my prayers with him that we may depart this world in peace. He looks at me now and smiles. I know he has written to you both already. His eyes are clear and his hand steady. So also are mine. I feel some pride that I can die by my father’s side. That in itself is some blessing.

Be careful. Now I must close this letter. Suddenly I want to say much more, time runs out, I somehow feel that you will not get to read this rambling mess of words. God help me if I am wrong.

My love to you both, forever and forever, amen.

Your brother, Adam.”

***The End**

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