Summary: Author’s Note: I’m taking literary license by mentioning Paul Martin and Roy Coffee in this story since this is a prequel. I love these two characters and always imagined that they were there from the beginning. Also, I’m taking for granted that the large house was already built when Marie died. Hope you like it.
Word Count: 5000
“Hey, Hop Sing!” called Charlie Porter, the Ponderosa’s foreman, as he rode into the yard. “Gotta letter here for Adam. It’s from Denver.”
“Denver?” Hop Sing repeated.
“That’s what it says. Don’t recognize the writin’.”
Taking hold of the envelope, Hop Sing looked at both sides, wondering what it was, then thanked the foreman and hurried back into the house. “Mista Adam, letter come for you,” he called, holding out the envelope to the young man who approached at a slow pace, an obvious limp, sending grimaces across his face.
“Denver?” Adam answered as he rubbed his thigh and perched tenderly on the end of the settee to take pressure off his bruised back and leg, a gift from bouncing off the ground over and over while breaking horses these last few days. “I don’t know anyone in Denver.” Despite his obvious discomfort, his interest was piqued.
“Isn’t friend of father’s in Denver? Ted Knichols?” Adam smiled at the diminutive man.
“How do you remember these things?” Hop Sing just shrugged.
“Someone has too.” Adam gave him a short laugh this time, a sound rarely heard these days on the ranch since Ben Cartwright left home.
Almost four months before, Marie Cartwright had been killed in a riding accident, sending the family into a downward spiral. As they all watched their father fall apart, Adam had no choice but to pick up the pieces the best he could, even though he was battling against his own resurging memories of the death of Hoss’ mother on the trail. Then, his ability to take charge at six years old was minimal at best but, in essence, had prepared him for these horrible days and the ones he was sure were coming. Only a month after they’d buried Marie on that daisy covered hill, Ben Cartwright left without a word, leaving behind three confused boys and a ranch to seemingly run itself.
It hadn’t been easy wondering where their father had disappeared too. In the first weeks, Adam patiently explained to his brothers that Ben was just trying to gather his thoughts. When weeks turned into a month and word still had not arrived, their worry turned into depression, each son thinking they’d driven their father away on their own. When one month became two then almost three, it turned into something else for Adam – anger, anger at being left alone to deal with the ranch and hands who weren’t necessarily interested in listening to the boss’ son and two boys consumed with worry over whether their father was alive or dead. He couldn’t even acknowledge his own feelings, which were beginning to suffocate him because he had to be strong for them all. He was all they had.
Now, sitting in his hand was a mysterious letter coming from someone he’d only heard of in stories. Would this be the letter that informed them their father was dead? Or had Ben moved on, leaving them to fend for themselves? His hand began to shake as he continued to stare at the unfamiliar script.
Hop Sing watched Adam, watched emotion run across his face while his own thoughts fought to understand how Ben Cartwright could just throw his family away and leave this boy to hold everything together. He held Adam’s arm to still the shaking, seeing those fearful eyes turn to him.
“What if he’s dead?” came the question, just hearing the words making him lightheaded. “What if we’ve lost him, too?”
Hop Sing gave him a hopeful smile. “Open letter.”
Adam’s eyes fell back to the envelope that had come all the way from Denver. This could be their future in his hand, a future he didn’t necessarily want to see.
“Want me open?” Hop Sing offered.
Adam looked to his friend and for a moment almost handed it to him, but hesitated. If he was to be in charge he had to take the good with the bad.
Shaking his head no, he ripped open the flap and reached in to pull out a single sheet of paper, taking a deep breath as he unfolded it. A genuine smile graced him when he recognized the handwriting but soon faded as the words revealed themselves.
“What wrong?” Hop Sing asked at the change that came over Adam.
“It’s . . . it’s from Pa,” Adam stammered, his brow furrowing.
Hop Sing smiled, thankful that Ben was still alive. “What he say?”
Adam swallowed the sudden lump in his throat as he re-read the words written, feeling a heat rise in him.
“What he say?” Hop Sing repeated as Adam’s lips thinned.
“’Dear Son, I’m in Denver. Your Pa’.”
Hop Sing waited but nothing more came. “That it?”
“’Dear Son, I’m in Denver. Your Pa’,” Adam repeated clenching his jaw. Seven words. That’s all. Looking in the empty envelope again, he turned the page over and back several times until Hop Sing stopped him. “Your Pa?!” he said again, anguish plastered across his face, anger rushing through him. “Your Pa!”
Hop Sing didn’t know what to say. How do you say anything to that? Ben had been gone for nearly three months without a word, and when he’d finally decided to speak, this was all there was?
“He didn’t even ask after the boys,” Adam whispered trying to control himself. “He didn’t address the envelope. He wasn’t planning on sending this. He was forced to write this. Forced!”
“Mista Adam . . .”
“How could he just . . .” The words caught in his throat, all his loving memories of his father shattering in front of him. “How could he just forget us?”
Hop Sing opened his mouth to speak when the front door burst open, drawing both their attentions as Hoss and Joe barreled in, smiles wreathing their faces.
“Ya gotta letter from Denver?!” Joe yelled. “Is it from Pa?!”
“Is it, Adam? Is it?” Hoss added both practically leaping on him in their excitement.
“Lemme see,” Joe urged, reaching for the letter in his brother’s hand. Adam quickly pulled it away and, glancing briefly toward Hop Sing, forced a half-hearted smile onto his pale face.
“Yeah, it’s a letter from Pa,” he regretfully admitted, hating to see those gleaming faces before him, knowing it was a waste of time sharing such happiness with someone who obviously didn’t care anymore.
“Well, what does he say?” Hoss asked.
“Pa’s in Denver. Sends his love to you both . . . and Hop Sing, too,” he lied.
“What about you, Adam?” Joe asked. “Did he send his love to you?”
Adam hesitated for just a moment. “Of course,” he smiled.
“When’s he comin’ home?” Hoss asked, a big smile on his round face.
“Yeah, when’s he comin’ home?” Joe repeated, his face glowing as well.
How Adam wanted to just punch his father for putting them through this.
“Ah, he doesn’t know yet,” he continued seeing their joyful faces droop and hating his father even more. “Seems it’s been snowing and the pass is cut off, so he can’t get through. We might not see him for another couple of months.”
“Snowing?” Joe said confusion on his face. “But it’s just September.”
“Denver’s at a higher altitude, Joe,” Adam tried to explain. “It snows there at different times.”
Thankfully, Joe took the answer at face value then turned to Hoss. who nodded. “A couple months, then he’ll be home.”
“That’s an awful long time, Hoss,” Joe answered.
“Pass real quick. You’ll see.”
They didn’t see Adam rub his temple or catch the slight shake to his hand, so intent were they on discussing Ben’s return. Hop Sing put a hand to Adam’s arm to steady him, drawing Joe’s attention.
“Adam? You all right?” came the question from Joe, seeing a wan smile come to his brother’s lips. He was so afraid something would happen to his brother next.
“Sure, little buddy. Just tired. Now, don’t you two have evening chores?”
Eyebrows flew up their foreheads and they raced out of the house.
“Don’t slam . . !” Adam yelled then flinched as the door banged shut. “. . . the door,” he quietly finished, the remnant of the smile leaving him as he returned his narrowing attention to the letter.
“That good thing you did,” Hop Sing said.
“Was it?” Adam asked, flinging a hard look at the little man. “Is it ever a good thing to lie to them? Seven words, Hop Sing. Seven. He’s been gone for almost three months and all he can say is ‘I’m in Denver’?” He was looking for an answer, knowing Hop Sing didn’t have one but searching just the same. “He thinks so little of us to say nothing more?” Crushing the letter in a fist, he stepped toward the hearth and the small fire that burned there.
“What you doing?” Hop Sing urgently asked moving up behind him.
“I’m going to burn this.”
“Why? It from father.”
“I don’t want Joe or Hoss seeing this. It’s bad enough I saw it. I don’t want it around as a reminder that our father doesn’t care.”
Hop Sing grabbed Adam’s arm before he could hurl the offending object into the flames. “Your father love you very much.”
“Couldn’t prove that by me,” came Adam’s answer feeling his head begin to pound, uncontrollable fury rising in him – all these months of worrying, of keeping everything bottled up was dragging him closer to the edge. Pulling his arm from Hop Sing’s grasp, he shoved the crumpled letter in his face. “Seven words, Hop Sing. Seven. That’s how he tells us where he is; tells us with seven non-committal words. He’s made me lie to Hoss and Joe. He’s made me cover up for him.”
“So am I!” Adam yelled, the effort making him stagger back a step, his leg hitting the low table to drop him onto it. His heart thumped loudly in his chest and he clutched the sides of the table in hopes of gathering some control and keep those tears that so often threatened inside. He just wanted this to be over, to be able to get up in the morning and know that he was not the sole person responsible for everything. Was that too much to ask?
Hop Sing quickly sat next to him and wrapped an arm about him. “Everything be all right,” he said, feeling Adam tremble in his grasp.
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know how . . . how much longer I can hold it together,” came the admission, ashamed of his apparent weakness.
“You have me and boys,” Hop Sing said. “We here to help.”
“You shouldn’t have to do that,” he stated, his voice wavering, wiping at his eyes. “Pa should be here.”
“Yes, but he not.” Hop Sing knew that being reasonable wasn’t what was needed but all he could give at the moment. “We live through this. We must.”
Adam shook his head again. Live through this. They’d been living through this since Ben left and he was finally coming apart at the seams. It was an odd feeling, losing control when simple things like breathing and walking were no longer effortless.
Squeezing shut his eyes against a wave of dizziness, he clutched the table even harder in hopes of keeping himself together for a bit longer just as the front door crashed open again to bounce loudly against the sideboard. His head snapped up and he shot to his feet . . . and his world tilted.
“Adam!” Joe’s voice followed him down as he fell, landing with a thud on the table.
“What’s wrong with ‘im?!” Hoss called to Hop Sing as he hurried toward his fallen brother, grabbing his little brother’s hand as Joe began to cry.
“It’s . . . it’s all right, Hoss,” Adam reassured him, finding it odd he didn’t have the strength to sit up. “Don’t cry, Joe.”
“He’s gonna die, ain’t he?” Joe bawled as Hop Sing reached over and grabbed his face between his hands.
“Little Joe. Little Joe!” the cook repeated until he caught the youngster’s attention. “Go get Charlie. Go on.”
Joe nodded and ran out the door.
“Hoss,” Adam whispered.
“Yeah, Adam?” Hoss answered quickly leaning over him.
“Help me up.”
“I got ya,” came his soft words, carefully pulling his older brother into a sitting position.
A worried stare filling Adam’s vision. “I’m fine,” he insisted, patting Hoss on the leg and giving him a faint smile.
“I got Charlie!” Joe yelled, running back into the room toward Adam as the foreman diligently followed.
“What happened?” Charlie asked, his gaze settling on Adam’s pale complexion. He’d been waiting for something like this.
“He fell over,” Hoss gave him.
“It’s okay, Charlie,” Adam said with a slight nod, rising slowly to his feet, Hoss still hanging onto him just in case. “I’m fine.”
“He not fine,” Hop Sing interjected holding onto his arm.
“I’m just tired is all,” Adam stated, hating it when people didn’t believe him. “I just need . . . just need to . . .” The words trailed off as the room began to swoop about him and his eyes rolled up in his head.
“He’s goin’ again!” Hoss yelled, seeing his brother lose the remaining color in his face.
Charlie automatically reached, catching Adam easily as his legs gave way. “I gotcha, young’en,” he said, picking him up and heading toward the stairs, Hoss and Joe trailing closely on his heels.
Damn you, Ben Cartwright!
It bothered Charlie Porter to curse his boss. He’d never done that before. He’d been with this family since their third winter here and stayed willingly, and they’d always been fair and kind and the boys were always a joy. But now, with Ben leaving, this seventeen year old was forced into shoes that needed a few more years to fit. He’d never thought Ben Cartwright would do such a thing.
“As soon as I settle ‘im,” Charlie tossed over his shoulder, “I’ll go git Doc Martin.”
As Hop Sing watched the boys follow after their brother, he once again wondered when this would be over. Taking a step toward the stair, his foot kicked something across the floor and sad eyes beheld the wrinkled letter from a wayward father. Retrieving it, he spread it out and slipped it back into its envelope, briefly looking at the fire then promptly tucking it into his shirt. It was then he moved silently up the stairs.
A vision of a gray-haired man standing over him made Adam take notice as he tried to blink the fuzziness from his eyes. His anger evaporated at the sight. Ben was home. They hadn’t been discarded after all.
“Pa?” he whispered, blinking again.
“No, Adam,” came the unexpected answer that altered the vision before him from gray to darker hair, the longer face becoming more square to view someone else.
With great effort, he moved to prop himself up and scanned the room. “What’s wrong? Are the boys . . ?”
“They’re fine,” Paul Martin answered, placing a hand firmly on his patient’s chest to push him flat to the bed. “It’s you we’re worried about.”
Adam squished up his brows and blinked a few more times. “Me?”
“Yes you. You collapsed yesterday and scared the daylights out of everyone.”
“What?” There was a hazy memory of laying on the table and Charlie tucking him in. He shook his head at the thought.
“And you’ve been asleep for almost a full day.”
“A day?!” Adam yelled, pushing himself up again. “I’ve got work . . .”
Paul’s heavy hand regained its place and pushed him down once more. “Yes, a day,” he answered with infinite patience.
“But I’ve got responsibilities and . . .”
“You’ve got to rest, Adam,” Paul interjected. “You’re exhausted and you’re no good to anyone if you keep keeling over.”
“I can’t let anything happen while . . . while Pa’s away,” he faltered, looking away from the good doctor who raised a brow.
“I heard you got a letter from Ben.”
“Yeah,” came the quiet answer.
Paul watched a frown cross Adam’s face. “The boys tell me he’s in Denver?”
“Yeah,” came again a bit quieter still.
“Did he say when he’s coming home?”
There was a long pause. “No,” finally found its way out on a sigh.
Paul cursed inwardly.
Paul Martin had known the Cartwright’s for a number of years now. They’d welcomed him when he’d arrived to set up his practice with open arms. He’d been particularly taken with Adam, that serious boy who soaked up knowledge like a sponge, and followed him around on his rounds more than a few times. His love for his family was palpable, as it was with all the brothers, and he knew Adam would go to the ends of the earth and sacrifice anything for them – this time, his health being one of those sacrifices.
So when incessant pounding on his door just yesterday brought in Charlie Porter telling him to come quick – Adam Cartwright had collapsed – he grabbed his bag and hot-footed it to the Ponderosa without a second’s pause. Since Ben had left, both he and Roy Coffee made it a point to oversee the family, giving aid to Hop Sing whenever needed. It appeared he’d been remiss in his duties, for what he’d found was a played-out young man – or boy, as Paul thought of him – who was out cold, not even batting an eye as he conducted a rudimentary examination. The boy needed sleep and he left strict instructions for him to be left alone. He’d be out in the morning to check again. Now morning had come and he sat on the bed of his friend’s son watching misery envelop him at the mention of his own father, and worried even more.
“I’m sure Ben’ll be home soon,” Paul said laying a hand on Adam’s arm, trying to give him some support no matter that it didn’t solve anything.
“If you say so,” Adam muttered.
“Ben loves you, all of you,” Paul began. “He just needs time. He’s lost.” Paul caught a flash of anger as Adam turned the look toward him.
“So are we, Paul,” came the answer in words edged with anger. “And we can’t run away. I have responsibilities. This ranch, the boys . . . I can’t run away and hide.”
“It was his wife, Adam.”
“And our mother!” He glared at Paul as tears glistened. “We lost her, too.”
Lowering his head, Paul nodded as Adam reached to pull the blanket from him. Paul’s strong hand quickly stilled the movement. “Let me go.”
“I will not.”
“I have a job to do.” Adam tried again.
Paul held firm, not flinching at the hard glare turned on him. He narrowed his own eyes. “Listen here, young man,” Paul began in a flinty tone. “Since Ben isn’t here, I’m taking his place for the moment, so listen to me.” Waiting for an objection fully expected, he relaxed when none came. “I am the doctor here and my word is law. You will lie in this bed for two straight days. Two days,” he repeated as Adam opened his mouth then quickly thought better of it. “Charlie Porter will take care of ranch business. If he needs to ask you a question, he can but you are not to go out and help for two days. Hop Sing will take care of the boys. You will rest in this room, in this bed. These are doctor’s orders which will not be ignored. Do I make myself clear? Do I?”
Adam’s glare slowly faded. “Yes, sir,” came the sullen response as Paul pulled the blankets back up.
“Now, whether you’re up on your feet or flat on your back, you will still use both Charlie and Hop Sing until Ben returns.”
“If he returns,” Adam whispered as he looked away, a sadness falling about him.
Paul cursed Ben again, then his own visage softened. “He will once he realizes that he’s left something of great importance behind – his sons. He just needs to remember that.” Standing, Paul reached into his bag, retrieving a packet which he then emptied into a waiting glass of water. “Drink this,” he ordered handing it over to Adam, “and let yourself rest. Things don’t seem so drastic when you’ve got a little sleep under your belt.”
Reluctantly, Adam took the glass and dutifully drank the bitter concoction, made a face then handed it back, running the heel of his hands over his eyes.
“Everything will turn out, son. Just get some sleep.” Giving Adam a smile, Paul closed his bag and headed toward the door, turning to see his patient staring out the window. Heaving a sigh, Paul moved downstairs to an impatient Hop Sing pacing the great room.
“He’s exhausted,” Paul answered before the question was raised. “What with the loss of Marie and now Ben . . . well, he’s overextended himself and I doubt whether he’s had time to grieve properly.”
“No. He strong for all. No time for self. He try do everything.”
“Well, you and Charlie’ll have to force him to let you help, get some responsibility off his shoulders, whether he likes it or not. I just wish Ben would come home.”
“Me, too. Not right he go away when boys need him.”
“I never would’ve expected this from Ben Cartwright but then grief does funny things to people. Well, make sure the boys let him sleep. I’ve told him to stay in bed for two days.”
“I make sure.”
“I’m going to talk to Charlie, then I’ll be on my way.”
“Thank you, Docta Paul. For everything.”
“I care for these boys just as much as you, and if Ben can’t be here, then I’ll take his place. Call me if you need anything.”
Closing the door behind the doctor, Hop Sing bowed his head then rubbed his face, looking back into the great room, remembering cheerful voices and happy times and wondered when they’d have it all back again. Clucking at their misfortune, he headed for the kitchen then stopped feeling eyes upon him. Turning, he beheld worried gazes falling on him from the top of the stairs.
“Is Adam gonna be all right?” Hoss asked, anxiety dripping from every word as Hop Sing moved up the stairs to sit next to them, embracing the boys.
“He be fine,” Hop Sing answered with a nod. “Work too hard. He keep to bed two day so no bother. Need sleep.”
“It’s ‘cause Pa’s gone, ain’t it?” Joe sadly asked.
Hop Sing nodded again. “He must take father’s place; take care of boys and ranch. Wear self out.”
“But he’ll be all right?” Joe asked, clutching onto Hoss.
“Yes, Little Joe. He get better. You hungry?” Both boys shook their heads. “Okay. I go work. You keep quiet now. Don’t bother brother.” Smiling at them, Hop Sing headed back downstairs and toward the kitchen.
Huddled together as they were should have given them strength but instead the boys felt only sorrow and fear. Their mother was dead; their father had disappeared and now their big brother, the one who was always there to look after them, was down and they just wanted everything the way it used to be.
“What’re we gonna do, Hoss?” Joe whimpered, leaning against his brother. “What if Adam dies, too?”
“Don’t talk like that,” Hoss admonished, holding on tightly. “He ain’t gonna die.”
“We didn’t know Mama was gonna die.”
“Hush now, Joe. Adam ain’t gonna die.”
“But what if he does? There won’t be nobody left but Hop Sing and they won’t let him keep us.”
“We ain’t gonna havta worry about that ‘cause Adam’s jest tired is all from doin’ everythin’. He just needs ta know we’re here.” Hoss sat up straighter and Joe looked up at him then followed his brother’s gaze. “Come on.”
“Where we goin’?”
“Just hush up and come on.” Quietly the two made their way down the hall.
Thirty minutes later Hop Sing moved through the upstairs bedrooms, wondering at the quiet. Even though he’d asked it of the boys, he never fully expected it. He’d even made donuts and Hoss hadn’t appeared.
Setting down the laundry basket, he made his way to the only room he hadn’t touched and peeked inside, his breath catching at the sight. Adam, lying on his side, had an arm draped over Joe who snuggled up against him while Hoss cuddled up behind. Moving quietly into the room, he found Joe looking up at him as he neared.
“He needs us,” Joe whispered, hoping they wouldn’t be asked to leave.
Nodding, Hop Sing retrieved two blankets from a drawer and laid them over the brothers and quietly left the room.
Soft snores permeated his dreamless sleep and Adam slowly lifted bleary eyes to the window, seeing stars dotting the night sky and realized he had no idea what day it was. But he did know whose curly head resided under his chin. A hint of a smile tugged at him as he kissed Joe’s head, hearing those snores again. There was no need to glance behind, knowing instantly who slept there.
It was just the three of them now (and Hop Sing, of course) and they had to stick together. People would try and split them apart but he wouldn’t allow that. All they had was each other and he resolved right then and there to be the best father he could. No one else would raise the boys but him, and if that meant they had to leave in order to stay together, then they would. He had to prepare. There was no telling when or if Ben was coming home and there was no need to hope any further that he would. Those seven words proved that.
Seven words . . . seven words that pulled his heart from his chest and mashed it into pulp. Those words he could never forget; those words that left them behind without a care by their own father. That was something he’d never considered in his wildest dreams. Ben always said how much stronger they were together than apart, but when push came to shove, they’d been left behind, abandoned by the one who claimed to love them.
Tears came suddenly as emotions finally broke through and he buried his face in the pillow. Trying to quiet his sobs only made them worse and, distantly, he felt Hoss’ arm reach over to hold him as Joe clutched tighter to his hand.
Memories of Inger flooded him of the first time he’d been truly happy and that horrible day when he’d watched her die; then Marie’s smiling face followed and he’d seen his family bloom in her radiance and then she was gone. Then, as with Inger, he hadn’t given in to the grief because he didn’t know if he could bear the all-consuming sorrow he knew waited for him. But now there was no holding it back and it overwhelmed him. There’d been so many deaths in his young life, too much for a boy, let alone a man. When would it ever stop?
“It’s okay, Adam,” Joe said, hanging onto his brother as he cried. “We’re here. We ain’t leavin’.”
“Yeah,” Hoss chimed in. “We’ll always be here for ya, jest like you was here for us.” Adam groped for Hoss’ hand and held on tight. They meant everything to him and, right now, they were his world.
“You just sleep now. We’ll protect you,” Joe continued, his own tears dampening the sheets beneath him. “Go on. Close those eyes.”
“Yeah, it’s past yer bedtime. We cain’t keep comin’ in here,” Hoss added in a serious tone, bringing a fragment of a grin to Adam as his cries softened. He’d said that a number of times when the boys hadn’t settled and cherished their meaning. He held on tighter and tried to think of better times with his brothers as he drifted back to sleep with his remaining family around him.
Hop Sing leaned his head against the wall as he listened to Number One son’s cries, then smiled at the soft voices of his brothers’ comforting words. Reaching into his shirt, he pulled out the letter and tapped it against his fingers.
These seven words had provided no relief, no love, with an envelope written by another. It mocked him with its insincerity, and for once in his life, he was angry with Ben Cartwright for deserting his children in their great time of need. It was something he never would’ve believed if someone else had told him.
Determination pushed him from the wall to move downstairs and stand in front of the hearth. Glancing once more upstairs, he came to a decision. Adam was right. Joe and Hoss should never read this letter. They would not understand any more than he did.
He tossed those seven words into the fire.
One month later, Ben Cartwright came home.