Word Count: 2212
It was the end of a tiring day for the three Cartwright brothers as they made camp for one last time on the way home from a cattle drive. They had hoped to make it back to the Ponderosa before nightfall, but with the sun already beginning to set and their goal still some distance away they had decided not to push their horses too much. Gathering around the campfire, they shared the standard, uninspiring trail supper of beans and biscuits, along with the unspoken wish that they had gotten started earlier in the morning so that they could be enjoying a dinner of Hop Sing’s good cooking and settling down to sleep in their own comfortable beds.
Joe stood up, fetched the coffee pot from its place by the fire and poured himself some of the slightly bitter brew. He glanced over at his brothers and raised the coffee pot invitingly. “Either of you want some more?” he asked.
Hoss shook his head “no” but Adam extended his hand, holding out his cup. “I could use some,” he answered.
Joe stepped over next to him and proceeded to pour the coffee. As he did so, he noticed how beaten up and dented the tin cup that his brother was using appeared. The handle of the cup was actually slightly twisted. As Adam tilted the cup in order to drink from it, Joe saw that the initials “A.C.” were scratched onto the bottom. Funny that he had never noticed that before.
“Say, Adam, it looks like you could use a new cup, don’t you think?” Joe said.
“This one is just fine, Joe,” Adam responded quietly.
“No, really, that one looks about ready to spring a leak. It isn’t as if you can’t afford a new one.” Joe gave a small chuckle.
“I’ll get a new cup when I want one. All right?” Adam spoke with a surprising edge to his voice and something in the look he shot his youngest brother gave Joe to understand that it would not be wise to pursue the subject further.
Joe was taken aback. Adam was certainly not one to discard something with good use left in it, but neither was he one to use anything beyond its reasonable limits of wear out of miserliness. And he was not normally one to show this kind of touchiness over something so…trivial.
Confused, he looked over to Hoss with an expression that asked “Do you know what’s going on here?” Hoss responded with a slight shrug of his shoulders and a slight shake of his head, indicating that he didn’t understand their older brother’s attitude any better than Joe did.
No more was said that evening and the three brothers all settled down to try to get a decent night’s sleep. But the next day, as they finished their journey home, Joe found his thoughts turning to the subject again. In fact, he realized, he was spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about this seemingly unimportant question. Why was Adam so attached to that old tin cup?
When they finally arrived back in the yard of the ranch house, they were warmly greeted by their father who heartily congratulated them on the success of the drive. They had arrived just in time for lunch, which they all consumed enthusiastically, it being the best meal they had eaten in some days. In the afternoon, there were quite a few chores to catch up on.
As Joe was bringing down some hay from the loft for the horses, the subject of Adam and the tin cup was still intruding itself into his thoughts. He knew that he would not be satisfied until he made some attempt to find out more. And the only way he could think of to do that was to go to the one person who was most likely to know something.
When he had finished his task, he put down the pitchfork, wiped his hands on his pants and headed for the house. He found his father seated at his desk, absorbed in some sort of paperwork. Hesitantly Joe stepped in front of the desk and cleared his throat to signal his presence.
Ben looked up and smiled on seeing his youngest. “Well, I didn’t expect to see you in here quite so quickly. Are you finished with your chores, son?”
“Yeah, Pa. There was something I wanted to ask you about.” Joe paused, suddenly realizing how what he wanted to ask might come across.
“Well, son, what is it?” Ben prodded him.
“Now, this may sound kind of silly,” Joe continued tentatively, “but I was just wondering…do you know anything about that beat up old tin cup Adam has?”
“Old tin cup?” Ben responded, frowning.
“Yeah. It has his initials scratched on the bottom. I noticed last night what bad shape it was in, but when I said something about him maybe getting a new one, he got a little touchy about it. I was just curious if there was some special reason he wouldn’t want to part with it.”
“His initials on the bottom…I can’t believe he still has that.” Ben’s voice trailed off, and his eyes took on a far away look.
“So you do know something about it?” Joe put in eagerly.
“Oh yes. That is a rather special cup. Your brother has had it for quite a long time…ever since he turned seven in fact. I remember that day very clearly…”
TWENTY-ONE YEARS EARLIER:
The realization hit Ben Cartwright like a fist in the stomach. All day he had been feeling the nagging sensation that he was forgetting something important. And now he knew what it was.
He had forgotten that today was Adam’s seventh birthday.
How could he have done it? Had he somehow put the significance of the date out of his mind because he was reluctant to remember the fact that it was also the date that Elizabeth, Adam’s mother, had died? Ben had always known deeply conflicting feelings as this day approached each year, but he had also been determined to do his best to see that Adam would not be adversely affected. And now, somehow, he had totally forgotten that the day was upon them. It was inexcusable. No wonder he had caught the boy looking at him numerous times throughout the day with a sad expression in his dark eyes. Just a little while ago Adam had retired for the night into their wagon, but it was quite likely that he wasn’t asleep yet. Was there still a chance that he could make this up to the boy? His mind was turning anxiously as he tried to think of anything that he had which might possibly make a gift for his son. But he couldn’t think of anything. What could he do? There was just one possibility.
Standing up from his place by the campfire, Ben made his way over to one of the other wagons that belonged to his friends, Patrick and Maeve O’Brien. Maeve was standing by the wagon, washing their dishes from supper. She smiled at him warmly as he approached. With some embarrassment, he explained his dilemma to her and asked if she had anything that he could buy from her to give to Adam. She considered for a moment.
“I think I might have something that will do,” she said finally. “Wait here just a minute.” And with that, she disappeared into the wagon. Very shortly she returned, holding a bright shiny new tin cup in her hand. “We got a set of four of these back in Bonnerville, but of course Pat and I only use two of them. This one has never been used. Maybe the lad would like a nice new cup to drink his milk from.”
“I’m sure he will appreciate it. Thank you, Maeve.” Ben took the cup from her gratefully, thinking that it might not be the most exciting gift, but it was something brand new and something Adam could use. “What do I owe you?”
“Just ask Pat and me to join you for supper the next time you manage to bag a pheasant. That’s all.” Maeve looked at him with a kindly gleam in her eyes. Ben took her hand to seal the bargain and turned back to his own wagon.
Climbing inside the wagon, Ben discovered Adam curled up in the corner, his head bowed, his hands clasped around his knees. Baby Hoss rested on a soft blanket next to him, gurgling contentedly.
“Adam,” Ben said softly, not wanting to startle him.
Adam raised his head and looked up at him with large, solemn eyes. It looked as though he might have been trying to hold back from crying.
“I’ll bet you thought I forgot all about your birthday, didn’t you son?”
Adam lowered his eyes, not responding. Ben knelt down in front of him. “I have to admit, I was a little late in thinking about it, and I’m very sorry for that, son. But I do have something for you. I only wish it could be more.” He brought the cup out from behind his back and held it out to Adam. The shiny object gleamed as it caught the little light that came in from outside through the back of the wagon. Adam regarded it uncertainly, making no move to reach for it.
“Go ahead, son. Take it. It’s yours. I’ll even scratch your initials on the bottom of it if you’d like me to so everyone will always know who it belongs to.”
“Thanks, Pa. That’ll be nice.” Hesitantly, Adam took the object into his hands and stared at it. Something in his reaction troubled Ben. He reached out to caress the boy’s hair, but a slight movement of Adam’s head discouraged the gesture.
“Is there something wrong, son?” Ben said gently.
Adam looked directly at him, and the tears he had been struggling to hold back were filling his eyes. “Pa, do you wish that I had never been born?”
It was the question Ben had always dreaded. He had known that Adam would almost inevitably ask it at some point, still, the pain of hearing it was like a deep knife wound. How could he answer?
“Oh, son,” he began in an unsteady voice, “I simply can’t imagine how that would be.”
“My ma would still be alive.”
“Don’t say that, son. It seems that God never planned for your mother to have a long life. If she hadn’t died when you were born she might very well have died in some other way. We simply can’t know. What I do know is that from the day you were born you have been a very important part of my life. Having you gave me a reason to go on, to make a new life. I simply never could have gotten this far without you. Even now, the way you help take care of your baby brother and all the other ways you help…I need you more than ever. Son, I love you so much and I thank God every night that I have you.”
Ben held out his arms and Adam slipped into them, laying his head on his father’s chest and beginning to let out his emotions in quiet sobs. Ben held the boy tight and began to rock him, almost as though he were an infant again. Tears traced down his own face as well…and they were tears of thankfulness.
BACK TO TWENTY-ONE YEARS LATER:
When Ben had finished the story of how Adam got the tin cup, he and Joe both remained silent for a moment until a sound from over by the door drew their attention. Ben and Joe both looked over and saw Adam standing there.
“How long have you been there?” Ben asked him quietly.
“Long enough to hear what you were talking about.” Adam paused. “You know, Pa, I never forgot what you said to me that night. Or the way you said it.”
“It’s just as true now as it was then, son,” Ben said, standing up. “Son, I’m sorry if I was talking too much about something you would rather have kept private.”
“It’s all right, Pa. There’s really no reason for you not to tell him the story.” Adam reached into the saddlebag that he had placed on the credenza and drew out the old tin cup. “You know, Joe, I’ve decided you were right that I should get myself a new cup. I don’t want to put any more wear on this one. In fact…” Adam walked over to the fireplace and carefully placed the cup on the mantelpiece. “I think I’d like to give it an honored place right here. What do you think, Pa?” He glanced over at Ben.
“I think that’s fine, son.” Ben said, smiling.
He and Adam exchanged a long look. Then they each looked over at the cup on the mantle. And in the eyes of both of them, the cup was as bright and shiny and perfect as it was when it was new.