Summary: On the eve of his birthday Adam is questioning whether his life has made any real difference in the world. A special visitor comes to show him the truth. Feedback is strongly encouraged!
Word Count: 5685
The moonlight streaming in through his bedroom window would provide a convenient excuse for having trouble falling asleep had Adam Cartwright desired to claim one. But, of course, it wasn’t the real reason. No, it was a little more complicated than that. Tomorrow would be his birthday and, as was his wont, he had been doing a lot of thinking. And thinking back on the events of his life seldom seemed to provide him the sense of satisfaction that he hoped for.
Adam was known as an introspective man and people, especially his father, often accused him of being too hard on himself. Indeed, there was some truth to the claim that he was his own harshest critic. But that didn’t mean that his self-evaluation was necessarily false. He was a man who set a very high standard for his own behavior. He expected a great deal of himself. And Adam also wished profoundly to make a difference for good in the world. Looking back on his past only seemed to make him question whether in fact he was doing so.
On this night the thoughts whirling around in his mind had left him deeply disappointed with himself. He had come close to reaching the conclusion that his existence was proving to be of little consequence, his effect on the world almost negligible. That was a hard idea for him to live with. And it was the real reason that he was having trouble sleeping this night.
With a groan he rolled onto his side, facing away from the window. He squeezed his eyes shut and made a determined effort to clear his mind of all troubling thoughts. Eventually his breathing became slow and even, the tension in his muscles seemed to relax, and sleep finally embraced him.
But it didn’t last for long. As the moon continued on its journey its light retreated from the window and the room became shrouded in almost complete darkness. Then something, he couldn’t tell exactly what, caused Adam’s eyes to abruptly flutter open. He was struck by the sense that there was some kind of a “presence” in the room with him. Quickly sitting up he began to look around him.
And then he saw it. The figure of a woman standing at the foot of his bed. The figure was surrounded by a faint aura of light. She was petite and slender, garbed in a flowing white gown with dark hair tumbling down her back. But the face. Adam gave a little gasp as the truth hit him. The face was the same one he looked at every night when he went to bed, the face in the silver framed picture that rested on his nightstand.
The face of Elizabeth, his mother, who had died mere hours after giving birth to him.
“Mother…” His whispered word carried both a sense of wonder at the sight and a questioning of whether this could truly be.
“Yes, my darling son…it’s me.” Her voice was as he had always imagined it, with warmth and gentleness, underlined by something that suggested that this woman was not to be trifled with.
As usual, even in the middle of a situation that seemed calculated to disorient him, it didn’t take long for Adam to gather his wits and come up with the relevant question. “But…how is it that you are here? And why are you here?”
“Oh, Adam” Elizabeth responded, “I have been near to you every day of your life. Hasn’t your father told you that I would be watching over you?”
“Yes, he has said that he believes that, and I’ve always hoped it was true, but…”.
“But you’ve been reluctant to rely too much on that assurance” she finished for him.
“I suppose so” Adam acknowledged, a little sheepishly.
“Well, now you know for certain that it is true, and you need never again question it.”
Adam simply nodded.
“As for why I have been allowed to reveal myself to you now…it seems that you, my dear boy, are very much in need of a dose of divine encouragement.”
Adam’s eyebrows went up a little. “How do you mean?”
“Now don’t you start pretending that you don’t know, son. I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of what this is all about. Adam, I know how down on yourself you’ve gotten lately. You’ve always had a tendency to be too critical of yourself…and you really should listen to people when they tell you so…but just recently it seems to be getting a little out of hand. You’ve even been wondering if your life has made any difference in the world.” She raised her had as if to forestall an expected response. “Don’t try to deny it.”
Adam’s expression told her that he couldn’t. Elizabeth looked back at him with sympathetic eyes.
“So I’m here to show you exactly how much of a difference you have made, if you are willing to let me.”
“And how are you going to do that? Take me by the hand and make me fly with you out the window?” Adam smiled as he thought of a certain story by Dickens in which a spirit, visiting a man to show him the error of his ways, had done just that.
“Now this is serious, Adam, and I would really appreciate it if you would take it so” his mother admonished him.
“Yes, mother” he responded obediently.
“Actually, it won’t be complicated at all. I’ll be able to show you through that.” She gestured toward the full length mirror that stood in one corner of the room.
Adam was grateful that he apparently would not have to leave his comfortable bed.
As the two of them looked on in anticipation the surface of the mirror appeared to be enveloped in a kind of swirling mist. After a moment the mist gradually began to clear and Adam could see in it a bustling street in what appeared to be a major city, with carriages passing up and down it and people hurrying in and out of numerous busy shops. In the background there loomed the tall masts of several ships, revealing the presence of a harbor. It was like looking through a window, and the scene was familiar to him.
“That’s Boston” he said, “where I was born.” He didn’t need to add that it was also where he had gone to college. She would know that.
“Of course.” Elizabeth nodded. “What better place to begin to show you how things would be different if you had NOT been born? Let’s start by letting you see what would have happened to your father.”
The view through the mirror window shifted, and Adam found himself observing a man standing in a cemetery, gazing with obvious pain at a grave marker, square in shape, topped by a small figure of an angel. He recognized the place immediately. He had visited it on numerous occasions while he was in college, and even left flowers there. It was Elizabeth’s grave. And the man…it was his father, but so much younger than Adam was used to seeing him that it startled him for a few seconds. Then he noticed the inscription on the marker which gave the date of her death…and the date was the same as the date of his birth. But if this was meant to show a reality in which he had not been born, then that must mean…
“I see you’ve grasped the significance of the date.” His mother nodded approvingly. “And did you also notice that, while the inscription describes me as ‘devoted wife of Benjamin’, it omits ‘loving mother of Adam’? That’s right, son. Even if I never conceived or gave birth to you I would have died on that same date. That was my time, Adam. It would simply have happened in a different way.”
“But…how?” he got out past a small lump in his throat.
The subject was obviously not comfortable for her, but she understood how important honesty was if she was to succeed with this young man.
“A carriage accident, I believe. Some sort of loud noise spooked the horses pulling the carriage your father and I were riding in and they ran out of control. The vehicle overturned, injuring Ben…but crushing me beneath it.”
Elizabeth paused and Adam squeezed his eyes shut, attempting to shut out the painful vision that her words brought up.
“The important thing here is the way that all of this affected your father. He grieved deeply, of course, as you can well understand. But even more than that, he was consumed with guilt. However unreasonable it might be, he couldn’t help feeling that he should somehow have been able to prevent the accident.”
The mist covered the mirror and then retreated again, and Adam could see his father, dressed in shopkeeper’s garb, along with Captain Abel Stoddard, who still wore his slightly worn uniform. The two men appeared to be arguing.
Elizabeth resumed her account. “Ben continued to run the chandler’s shop along with my father, but not quite as successfully in this alternate reality. His sense of guilt and the Captain’s own unresolved feelings made for a good deal of tension between them. Their relationship deteriorated, and so did the business. Eventually, Ben could stand it no longer and he sold his share of the shop…not to my father…and prepared to start on his long anticipated journey West. But in this case it was not as a hopeful man, pursuing his dream, but rather as a troubled and discouraged man, attempting to flee a situation he found intolerable. And he was completely alone. Nobody traveled with him. Most importantly, he didn’t have you with him to remind him of the joy that he and I had shared, even if it was for too short a time, and to give him a focus toward the future.”
“Even when he did have me with him, I know that he was still grieving” Adam mused quietly. “Or at least he was until he met Inger. She was the one who really brought him out of that.” His expression changed from sadness back to curiosity. “So, did what happened between the two of them change?”
“Take a look.” His mother pointed toward the mirror, which now showed Ben Cartwright embracing Inger Borgstrom. “Yes, they did meet. And yes, they did marry. But it didn’t happen quite so easily or naturally.” She turned her face to look directly at him. “Adam, I don’t think you realize how much of a role you played in bringing them together. Inger was drawn to you from the first time she saw you, you know.”
Adam smiled at that. “Pa used to joke that Inger fell in love with me before she fell in love with him.”
“Maybe it wasn’t quite a joke” Elizabeth responded. “The way she cared for you was the first thing that made Ben begin to appreciate her. Still, in the reality without you they did find their way to love and marriage and take up the journey West. Hoss came along on schedule and they were very happy.” She hesitated then. The mirror window was now showing Ben and Inger in a wagon that, along with a number of others, was following a path through the prairie. Inger held her newborn in her arms. There was a question in Adam’s eyes that she understood without his having to speak it.
“And yes, the next part of the story remains basically the same. There was an Indian attack and Inger was killed, after placing Hoss in the arms of another woman in the party…not you, because you, of course, weren’t there. She died in your father’s arms, and he was again left devastated. In fact, he very nearly decided to abandon the idea of going on with his journey to simply settle in the nearest town he could find. But he was too stubborn to give up that way, and he did go on, until he and Hoss eventually reached the place where they would settle. And this is where your absence truly starts to become critical.”
“Think about it, Adam. How old were you when you reached Nevada with your father?”
“In other words, you were old enough and strong enough to be a real help to him in building your cabin and starting to work the land. You were also mature enough to be a big help in caring for your younger brother. You both worked so very hard and together you began to make the Ponderosa into what it would become. But in the alternate case, Ben only had Hoss, who was not yet four years old and simply too young to help in that way. And the demands of caring for so young a child also consumed a great deal of his time and energy. The result was that, however hard he struggled, and it was a real struggle, he simply couldn’t make the kind of progress he hoped for.”
“Surely, as Hoss grew up, that must have changed.”
“Yes, Hoss was able to take on much more physical work, but that didn’t change the basic situation as much as you might think. When Ben felt he was ready to expand the ranch he found that other settlers were already establishing themselves in areas that he had hoped to expand into, especially the most desirable ones.”
The mirror misted and cleared again, and they were looking on at Ben Cartwright, sitting in a slightly shabby chair in front of the fireplace in his cabin, slowly sipping a glass of brandy. A young Hoss played at his feet with some blocks.
“The ranch never grew beyond a decent but modest spread that provided a living, but never a very rich or easy one. He made some improvements to the cabin over time, adding a couple of bedrooms, a loft and a small porch, but it never grew into anything like the beautiful home that you designed and built when you returned from college. All in all, given the size of the dream he had started out with, Ben found the life he managed to create here to be, shall we say…quite a disappointment.”
Elizabeth gave a small sigh. “As for Hoss…he had his own issues. You know that he always had a difficult time in school.”
“Yes, I know very well.”
“But in your reality, with the help you gave him, he finally succeeded and finished school. In the alternate reality he never got that kind of help. Oh, your father tried as much as he could, but as involved as he was with just keeping the ranch going he simply couldn’t help as much as he would have liked. Hoss grew more and more frustrated, and eventually Ben very reluctantly gave in and let him drop out of school. But it wasn’t just the schoolwork that frustrated Hoss. He also suffered a great deal from all the teasing he endured from other children because he was so big for his age.”
“I know that too.” A touch of anger was in Adam’s voice as he remembered how often he had seen his younger brother upset over that.
“Your support and understanding meant so much to him, son. With that he was able to adjust, and accept his size and strength as a gift rather than a bane. Absent that, Hoss was never quite able to make that adjustment. Again, your father tried, but it just wasn’t enough. The truth is, Hoss grew into a very unhappy young man. He drank more than he should, got into too many fights and spent numerous nights in Roy Coffee’s cells. His personality could best be described as…sullen.”
“Hoss??” Adam could hardly believe it.
“Yes, Hoss. He stayed on the ranch, feeling that he really had no better place to go. But even that love for the natural world which is such a big part of him in both realities wasn’t enough to overcome his unhappiness.” She hesitated for just a moment. “And then, Regan Miller came into his life. He hoped that she would be the one to bring him some degree of happiness. But without you there to open his eyes he couldn’t see past his infatuation to recognize what she really was. He married her, and as you no doubt would expect, it wasn’t long before she took up with another man.”
In the mirror they now glimpsed an enraged Hoss Cartwright shaking a badly frightened Regan.
“Hoss barely managed to keep himself from beating her severely when he found out. He did divorce her. She returned to San Francisco. And he wrapped himself even more tightly in his despair.”
There was silence for a long moment as Adam absorbed all this. Then he came out with the question that had to be asked.
“Marie…and Joe…how do they fit into the alternate reality?”
“I knew we’d have to get around to that. All right.” Elizabeth seemed to be bracing herself to tackle a subject that she knew would not be pleasant.
“Adam, your father did go down to New Orleans with furs to sell and with the news of the death of Jean DeMarigny, who had worked for him briefly, to give to his widow. So he met Marie, they fell in love, and he brought her back to Nevada as his wife. The life she found here was, in many ways, more demanding than she had anticipated, but she did love Ben and she made the best of it. When Joe was born, they knew a period of great happiness. But again…it was brutally cut short…by the riding accident that killed her.”
“That sounds pretty much like what happened in my reality” Adam observed.
“Up to a point…yes” his mother acknowledged. “Son, I’m afraid that the rest of what I have to say about Joe is going to be most difficult for you to hear.”
“It’s no secret that Joe could be very quick tempered and volatile. Your father and you together had a big job trying to keep him on the right track. You so often were able to smooth things over when he got into trouble or steer him away from it in the first place. And though Joe has often complained about your tendency to bossiness he has always trusted you and relied on you more than he would want to admit. Without your presence and influence those traits that led him into trouble came out even more. And it all came to a head with Red Twilight.”
“Oh no.” The involuntary whisper drawn out of Adam carried a world of trepidation.
“You’ve guessed where this is going. Yes, Adam. Red Twilight shot Hoss in the alternate reality, as in your own, and Joe vowed to make him pay for it. But you weren’t there to remind him how shooting Red would lower him to the same level, to make him think about what it would mean, and help him avoid making the biggest mistake of his life. Joe killed Red Twilight, Adam. And he was tried for it.”
“He was hung?” The stabbing pain Adam felt at the very idea was very clear.
“No. Given all the circumstances, the judge had enough mercy to spare him that. But he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. And for someone like Joe, that was almost as bad…not to mention how it nearly destroyed his father.”
At that moment Adam found himself unable to say anything.
“So there you have it, my dear son. You see the difference. Your father with disappointed dreams, suffering distress over his two sons…your brothers…whose lives have gone off their rails. Or a contented father with his dreams fulfilled, a prospering empire and two thriving brothers. And that difference has a good deal to do with you.”
Elizabeth gazed at Adam with all the love and pride that he had always wished he could have had the chance to see in her eyes. And he was so grateful to see it there now.
“Very well. I can grant that my presence in their lives has been of value to my family. But what about…”
“The larger picture…the world outside of your family.”
Adam nodded. It was satisfying somehow that she could read his thoughts so clearly.
“Oh Adam, there are so many lives that you have touched in a positive way. Shall I remind you of just a few of them?”
She turned toward the mirror again, and through the waning mist there appeared a young woman with brown hair, dressed as a saloon girl. Her expression appeared to have a natural sweetness, but it was spoiled by the pain and trouble in her eyes.
“Marty Johnson?” Adam’s voice revealed his dismay.
“Yes, Marty Johnson. A girl with real artistic talent and great ambition who was desperate to get away from a grandfather who was stifling her. When you encountered her at that way station, Adam, you acted like a caring older brother toward her. You kept her from running off with the outlaw Luke Martin and, in the end, you saw to it that she got the chance to pursue her artistic dreams.”
“I take it that in the alternate reality things didn’t work out that way.”
“Indeed. With you not being there to stop it, Luke Martin did take her away with him. Naturally, he abandoned her when it became too much trouble to keep her with him. And she had no real choice then except to do what so many women throughout history have been forced to do…sell herself to keep food on the table. She never was able to follow those artistic dreams. Instead she contracted consumption, and died, still young.”
Adam bowed his head at the thought of such a fate befalling that gentle young woman. When he raised it again there was a new image in the mirror. This one showed an attractive blond woman in her thirties, sitting in a rocker. A dark haired boy knelt at her feet with his head in her lap, crying.
“That’s Ann Grant and Jody” Adam noted quietly.
Elizabeth confirmed it with a nod. “You’ll notice that Matt isn’t included. With your help Matt turned himself around. He threw himself into caring for his wife and son and their farm. He was actually able to create the better life that he had always promised them. But without you being there he simply continued to try to find shortcuts to prosperity, including illegal ones. He was killed, along with his companions, in another attempt at cattle rustling. Facing the real truth about his father was a bitter blow to young Jody. And he didn’t have the role model that you showed him to counter it. The anger he felt came out in increasingly serious discipline problems and, as he grew older, even scrapes with the law. Ann was left a widow with very few resources. She eventually resorted to accepting a marriage proposal from a fairly well-to-do businessman, though she had no real love for him. But he turned out to be abusive, and the marriage was an unhappy one.”
“Well, at least things worked out for them in this reality and they avoided the unhappy alternative. I suppose I can take some comfort in that.”
“You certainly can. And there’s another family that you can say the same thing about.”
As Elizabeth spoke the view through the mirror shifted again, revealing a middle aged man and woman with two children sitting around a table, eating. The meal appeared to consist of little more than a bowl of soup and some bread. The cabin was rough and bare, with minimal furnishings, their clothing worn. There was very little conversation, their heads were lowered, and an air of weariness hung over the whole scene.
“You remember the Hacketts, Adam” Elizabeth stated rather than asked.
“I most certainly do. A good family that had fallen into hard times through no other fault than being, perhaps, a little too ambitious. That cranky old curmudgeon Jedediah Milbank wanted me to throw them off their farm because they had been unable to make a couple of payments.”
“But you didn’t do that, did you? Instead you advance them enough to cover their current debt to Milbank and came up with a plan to allow them to get back on their feet. And that plan worked. They remained living happily on the farm. In a couple of years they had regained stability financially and were able to start repaying you. And do you recall how good it made you feel to be able to help them that way? When you rode away that day you let out a shout of sheer jubilation at the joy of living.”
“It did feel good. And, knowing that it turned out well in this reality makes it still feel good. But, from what we’re seeing, in the alternate reality it was, apparently, another unhappy ending. Let me try to fill in the details. Milbank did throw them off the farm. Having very little to make a new start with, it would have been hard for them to find another place to go. I’m guessing that they wound up on a poor piece of land where, even with great effort, they could barely eke out a meager living.”
“You have it right” his mother agreed. “They lived in those circumstances for a time until Ted worked himself into a fatal stroke…and the rest of the family wound up in the poorhouse, to their great humiliation.”
Elizabeth saw in her son’s face that he was still doubtful about something.
“You’re still not satisfied, are you? You’re still asking yourself about your influence in the even larger scheme of things Well, let me show you something about that.”
The figure of a man with thick dark hair and spectacles pushed up on his head appeared in the mirror. He was standing in front of a mine entrance, exchanging heated words with another man who, from appearance and dress, could well have been the mine owner.
“That’s Philip Diedesheimer. Now you’re not going to try to convince me that I can somehow take credit for Philip’s new system of timbering to improve mine safety, are you?”
“Of course not. Not for the new timbering system. But you did do something very important for him, Adam. You saw to it that his system was given a fair trial and so got it accepted by the mine owners of Virginia City. That success here was critical in getting the system to be more widely accepted throughout the industry. Without it, that would have taken a much longer time…and how many more lives do you think might have been lost unnecessarily in the meantime?”
Elizabeth could see from the look on Adam’s face that she was making progress in getting her point across. Now was the time to drive it home even more strongly.
“Here’s something else I’m sure you’ll be interested in” she declared.
She directed Adam’s attention back to the mirror where they could now see the front of a large building with a banner hanging above the door welcoming delegates to the statehood convention. As they watched, men began to pour out of the doorway, many of them appearing very excited, some giving off enthusiastic rebel yells. Then other men began to appear wearing more sober expressions that spoke of defeat.
“What do you think is happening here?” Elizabeth asked.
“Well, based on who seems happy about what’s going on and who seems unhappy…it’s almost inconceivable, but…it appears that Southern sympathizers may have stampeded the statehood convention.”
“That’s right. Without your presentation of the evidence exposing Judge Terry’s plot to win Nevada’s support for the Confederacy, the delegates were swayed by the impassioned rhetoric they heard, the vote to join the Union was defeated and Nevada’s treasure was diverted to the support of the Southern cause. Just think about ALL the implications of that…for the course of the war and for the future of the country.”
It was obvious that Adam was doing just that. After a moment of silence he finally spoke up.
“Actually, Joe deserves a good deal of credit for the way things really went in our reality, with the way he spoke up in support of my addressing the delegates in spite of the reasons he had to do otherwise.”
“Yes, he does. But if you hadn’t uncovered the evidence to begin with that never could have happened. Your action in this situation really did have some very wide ranging and positive effects…wouldn’t you agree?”
Adam didn’t speak in reply, but she could see that she was close to having him convinced. And now…
“There’s just one more thing” Elizabeth concluded. At the wave of her hand the scene in the mirror was altered to show the main road leading into Virginia City…and a large sign at the side of the road that read “WELCOME TO BRYANTVILLE”.
“Bryantville?!” Adam reacted with shock…almost horror. The scene in the mirror morphed to show the main street of “Bryantville”. Dusk was approaching. Drunken men were stumbling out of several saloons, a couple of women simply attempting to walk down the sidewalk were being harassed, and gunshots could be heard coming from somewhere nearby. A man crossing the street was nearly run down by three horses racing down it, their riders whooping and hollering and waving their hats.
“Dear God…what happened?” Adam demanded.
“It’s not too hard to figure out is it?” his mother replied. “Adam, when Sam Bryant and his thugs made their move to take over Virginia City, you were about the only one who actually understood him…and was willing to stand up to him. Your insight, your courage in making the hard decision…”
“That decision could have cost my father his life!” Adam cried.
“But if you hadn’t made it” Elizabeth went on soothingly, “Bryant, as you surmised, would have felt free to do virtually anything he pleased. His and his gang’s takeover would have been complete. You also showed great strength in holding to your conviction in spite of all the opposition you encountered…even from your own brothers. If you weren’t there to oppose Bryant at that critical time, Virginia City would have slid into a morass of lawlessness, violence and decadence. Decent people would have fled. It won’t surprise you to hear that Bryant actually manipulated the city’s elections to put himself into the mayor’s office and keep himself there indefinitely. As you saw, he even went so far as to push through a measure naming the town after him! Virginia City owed you a great debt for keeping all that from happening. Now I would say that counts as a wide ranging influence for the good. Wouldn’t you?”
Her eyes challenged her son…and he was finally ready to meet the challenge.
“Mother, I accept your lesson. It seems I actually have had more of a positive influence than I was able to see. And I thank you very much for opening my eyes.” Adam’s voice, his expression, and his whole attitude revealed a man who had come to grips with something that was troubling him and was now satisfied.
“I am so very glad to hear that, my darling son.” The love and pride shown from Elizabeth’s eyes again, and her smile was like a benediction. The new day’s first sunlight was beginning to filter into the room. “Now I really must leave. Very soon it will be time for you to be stirring.”
“I wish you didn’t have to go. I’ve always wanted so much to really get to know you.”
“There will be plenty of time for that…all eternity in fact…when the time is right. Good-bye, my dear Adam. And never forget that I am always near you.”
As the aura of light around her dimmed and her image began to fade away Elizabeth raised a hand to her lips and blew him a final kiss. It seemed to him that he could feel it touch his cheek. And then she was gone.
Adam settled back against his pillows with a thoughtful expression on his face and set himself to pondering the vision that he had just experienced.
After a moment there was a light tapping at his door.
The door edged open and Joe slipped into the room.
“You all right, Adam?” he inquired.
“Certainly. Why do you ask?”
“Well I don’t know. I just thought I heard something going on in here. Actually, it sounded kind of like it might be a woman’s voice. But then I knew you wouldn’t be having a woman in your room…not with Pa in the house!”
“Certainly not, Joe.” Adam couldn’t help chuckling at his brother.
“So what do you suppose it was that I thought I heard?”
“I really can’t say. I’ve been here all the time and I haven’t noticed any strange sounds.”
Joe thought for a moment, frowning. “I guess it will just have to remain a mystery” he finally concluded. And he shrugged.
“I suppose so” Adam echoed.
Joe turned away and started to shut the door. But then he looked back and smiled.
“By the way…happy birthday, brother!”
Adam returned the smile. “Thank you, Joe.”
“No, Adam. Thank YOU…for being you.”