Word Count: 1330
The hilltops were shrouded in a thick gray mist but Adam Cartwright was well below the peaks, searching out the valleys for any cattle that might have wandered too far. The size of the herd was drastically reduced after the last drive to market but those that were left would fare much better closer in. He had been out since sunrise and his bones told him it was time to go home. Sport picked up his pace as he sensed his day was finally ending. The smell of wood smoke permeated the crisp autumn air. Adam was close enough now to see smoke from both the main chimney and the smaller kitchen chimney as it curled lazily into the windless sky.
By the time he arrived home and had taken care of his horse, the shadows of evening were beginning to stretch across the front yard. He knew he’d better hurry or his father would have more then a few words for him, not to mention Hop Sing. Besides, the nip of late October became more apparent as the sun began to set. He rubbed his hands together to chase away the stiffness.
After depositing his gun belt and hat in their usual place, Adam walked into the dining room. His father and brothers had already begun eating. “You have some trouble son?” Ben asked.
“No, not really,” Adam replied as he walked past them and into the kitchen to wash. Arriving back at the table, he continued, “Just found a few head scattered in some out of the way places. Took me awhile to drive them in.”
“Sorry about startin’ without ya but I wasn’t about to let Hop Sing’s cookin’ go to waste.” Hoss stopped eating long enough to acknowledge his older brother’s presence.
“Yes, well, before everything on the table migrates to your plate, would you mind passing me the bread?” Adam reached out to take the plate but he found that his hand couldn’t hold on to it. Bread and plate clattered to the tabletop, hitting the gravy boat and splattering its contents in several directions.
“I’m sorry Adam. I thought you had a hold of it,” Hoss said.
“So did I. It’s not your fault. I just couldn’t seem to hang on.” Adam pulled his hand into his lap and looked at it. He unconsciously started to rub it again.
Ben tried to mop up the offending gravy when Hop Sing appeared to clear the mess. “Did you hurt yourself today—something that Paul should look at?”
“What’s wrong, Adam? You clumsy tonight?” Joe laughed.
Ben threw his youngest a stern look. “It wasn’t that long ago, Joseph, when we spent each meal cleaning up the milk you managed to spill.” Joe gave his oldest brother a smile then turned his attention back to his dinner.
Before his father could ask again, Adam said, “My hand’s fine, Pa. Probably just got stiff out in the weather all day.” Ben started to say something but Adam beat him to it. “And no, I don’t need to see Paul.” He watched as Hop Sing brought out more gravy and a plate of fresh bread. “Thanks, Hop Sing. Sorry about the mess.”
“It ok. You not stuff yourself like Mr. Hoss or eat like baby bird like Mr. Little Joe. Make Hop Sing happy to see you eat.” Ben and Adam both laughed as Hoss and Joe protested Hop Sing’s description of their eating habits.
After dinner, the men settled in by the fire. Ben took up his accustomed place and started to read the paper. Hoss and Joe sat on the settee, the checker board between them on the coffee table. Adam grabbed the book he had left next to his chair and made himself comfortable.
Before long, Adam felt his eyes beginning to close. In the haze between awake and asleep, he looked at his family and smiled. He treasured the comfort and warmth of their presence. The last thing he remembered was the wind starting to blow a cold rain against the windows.
The images of his dreams flickered like the flame of a taper caught by a breeze. He saw a young Ben Cartwright with hair as dark as his own, smiling down at a sleeping child in a wagon. The look of love in his father’s eyes seemed to ease some of the guilt he had always carried concerning his mother. No man could look at a child as his father looked at him and still hold him responsible for her death.
The darkened wagon became an open meadow and he and Hoss ran in the tall grass. Soon he heard a quiet whimpering coming from behind him. Adam ran back to Hoss’ side and knelt down. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the tears that had begun to show in the clear blue eyes. “Tell me why you’re cryin’.”
“I couldn’t see you no more and I was afraid you was gonna disappear.” Hoss held out his arms to his brother.
Adam held his brother close and said, “I promise not to disappear if you’ll promise never to leave me.”
“I promise, Adam. I’ll never leave you—ever.” The images flickered again.
The moon shone as bright as the summer sun, lighting their way back home. Joe hadn’t said much and Adam decided not to push him. Joe would talk when he was ready. Adam smiled to himself. At least they seemed to have that trait in common. Just as the house came into view, Joe spoke up. “Why do you do it, Adam? Why do you put up with a dumb kid brother that keeps making mistakes and getting into trouble?” He dropped his head and looked at the ground.
Adam placed a hand on the troubled teen’s shoulder and said, “Look, Joe, do you suppose you’re the only one who’s gotten into trouble in this family? Hoss and I have done our share of dumb things and I’m not sure we’re finished yet.” He placed a hand under his brother’s chin. “Look at me. The important thing is that you learn so you don’t keep making the same mistakes. That’s all I ask—that’s all Pa asks.” The warmth of his brother’s smile let Joe know that Adam believed in him and if that was so then surely he could believe in himself.
The images sputtered and stopped. The first thing he sensed as he started to wake up was the snapping of the wood as the fire consumed it. Then it hit him. The pain in his hands was worse than it had ever been. He opened his eyes and looked down into his lap. He saw hands that were gnarled and swollen with a lifetime of hard work— the hands of an old man. Frightened and confused, he held them up in front of him. His eyes searched for his family. Hop Sing was standing by the dining room table. He looked at Adam and gave a small bow then he slowly disappeared.
When Adam looked back into the great room, his father still sat in his favorite chair but now Joe and Hoss stood on either side of him. They were looking at him and smiling. Before he could say anything, their images started to thin and he could see through them. Hoss raised his hand in a final farewell. Then they were gone.
Adam slumped back in his chair as reality came back into focus. They were gone and had been for many years. His mind must have conjured them up. He smiled to himself. And why not—he missed them so. He looked around the room then closed his tired eyes, hoping to find them once more.