Wandering Stars (by Debra P.)

Summary:  (With appreciation to Norman Lessing who wrote the episode “The Actress” in which we learned of Adam’s friendship with the famous actor Edwin Booth.) 
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  16,225


 

June 1865 – approximately two months after the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth

 

It was turning into a very quiet evening indeed at the Ponderosa. Following supper, each of the Cartwrights had settled into some more or less personal task, and none of them was paying much attention to the others for the moment. Ben was working on putting part of his gun collection into apple pie order. Adam sat in his favorite chair with a writing pad balanced on his knee, attempting to produce a poem to express his somewhat unsettled current emotional state. Hoss was putting the final finishing touches of sanding and polishing on a beautiful wood carving of a deer that he had devoted many careful hours to. And Joe, sprawled on the settee, was eagerly perusing the new dime novel that he had brought back with him from town earlier in the day.

Hop Sing had just quietly entered with a tray holding a coffee pot and four mugs and placed it on the low table in front of the fireplace when a knocking was heard at the door. At a glance from Ben, Hop Sing nodded, padded over to the door and opened it. There was a brief exchange of words, then, instead of showing the unseen newcomer in immediately, Hop Sing came back to where Adam was sitting and spoke quietly in his ear. Adam looked up at him in surprise, and Hop Sing nodded. Adam got up from his chair, laid down his writing pad and pencil on the seat and quickly made his way to the door.

Stepping outside, Adam glanced around until he caught sight of a slender figure standing in the shadows beyond the light pouring through the door. The visitor stood with his back toward Adam, gazing out into the yard.

“Edwin?” Adam said softly.

The figure turned around to face him. The face and the dark, wavy hair were familiar, but there was a haunted look to the eyes that Adam had not seen before.

“Hello, Adam.” The voice was unfamiliarly hesitant.

“What are you doing here? I hadn’t heard that you were planning to come to Virginia City. Why didn’t you let me know?”

“I didn’t come here to perform, my friend. Actually, I’ve given that up for the present*. The truth is, I was hoping that you might be willing to let me stay with you for a little while. And I know that, as things stand, I could well be considered an unwelcome guest…”

“You could never be unwelcome here, Edwin. You can take my word for that.”

Edwin Booth took a deep breath, and his tense posture seemed to relax a little. “It’s a tonic to hear that from you, Adam. These last two months…ever since that poor, disturbed brother of mine committed his unspeakable crime…I’ve seen almost everyone else turn away. Rejection has become the consistent pattern of my life.”

“I can imagine.”

“Can you, Adam? Within days after the assassination, virtually all my bookings for the next several months had been cancelled. I’ve received threats from people who don’t even know me, who only know what my brother did. People stop talking and stare at me when I enter a room. My life has become a nightmare, from which I am unable to awake.”

“When I heard what happened, I wanted to contact you, but I didn’t know where you were at the time and I wasn’t able to reach your agent.”

Edwin nodded. “He stopped taking messages for a while.”

Adam stepped up to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. “The nightmare will end, you know. It’s just going to take some time. And, in the meantime, of course you can stay with us.” He paused. “I’m glad you thought to come here.” A slight smile crossed his face. “We can discuss Shakespeare together in the evenings.”

Edwin managed a wan smile in return. “That would be a pleasure, Adam. Thank you.”

Adam leaned over to pick up Edwin’s traveling bag. “Let’s get inside. It’s a little chilly for this time of year.”

And with Edwin following close behind, he headed back into the house.

As they entered the great room, the other Cartwrights all looked up curiously, and, seeing Adam’s companion, rose to their feet. It was Edwin who noticed the slight hesitancy in their action and the uncertain glances that they exchanged.

“You all know Edwin here,” Adam began. “Well, he’s decided to take a little vacation time here on the Ponderosa. Pa, if it’s all right with you, I’ll put him in the room across from mine.”

“That will be fine, son,” Ben replied. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Booth.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” Edwin returned. He couldn’t help sensing the lack of real conviction in Ben’s greeting.

Adam led Edwin up the stairs and soon had him ensconced in the room that he had mentioned. “I think you should be pretty comfortable here,” he said. “We’ve already had supper, but I’m sure I can get Hop Sing to fix you up something if you’d like.”

“That’s very kind of you, but I ate just before I came out here. I think the best thing for me would be just to retire early and get a good night’s sleep,” Edwin answered.

“Very well, then. I’ll leave you to settle in now and I’ll see you in the morning. Good night.”

“Good night, Adam. And once again….thank you…for everything.”

Adam’s only reply was a brief smile as he closed the door behind him.

As Adam headed down the stairs he saw his family gathered near the fire. They were conversing animatedly, but their voices seemed to be muffled somehow, perhaps deliberately, and it was only when he had almost reached the bottom that he was actually able to make out the words.

“Pa, do you really think it’s such a good idea for Mr. Booth to be staying here? There could be some real trouble if the wrong people got to know about it,” Joe was saying. Adam stopped short to listen.

“It does feel kinda funny to have someone so close to the man who shot the president right here under our own roof,” Hoss added, a little shamefacedly. Overhearing this, Adam began to frown.

“I have to admit I have some serious reservations about this,” Ben answered. “The circumstances certainly aren’t the best, but…”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing!” Adam interrupted him. He came down the last couple of steps and moved toward the others with anger in his eyes. “Edwin Booth is one of the finest men I know. He had absolutely nothing to do with his brother’s criminal act. He deplores it as much as any of us…probably more! And still he’s been hounded and harassed over it as though he were responsible! I thought I could count on the three of you to understand and not to treat him as though he were the criminal. Well, apparently I was wrong! Now we may have our quarrels in this family, but there’s always been an underlying respect…until this very moment. At this moment…I feel ashamed for us!”

“Now son, wait just a minute….” Ben held up his hand while Hoss and Joe looked on stunned at Adam’s outburst.

“No, Pa. You all have made yourselves quite clear. Well, if Edwin Booth is an unwelcome guest in this house, then just maybe that’s what I am too!” With that, Adam turned on his heel and made for the door.

“Adam…wait…please!” Ben called after him.

But Adam didn’t reply. Grabbing his jacket and hat he cast one last angry glance back at his family and strode out the door, slamming it behind him.

*****

The door to the barn opened rather abruptly, startling the horses, who were settled in for the night. Adam Cartwright entered and quickly strode over to where his horse, Sport, was stalled. He gave the animal’s glossy neck a swift pat. “Sorry to knock you up, boy, but I need to take a ride,” he said. With practiced efficiency, he soon had his mount saddled and the bridle on. He led Sport outside and, with a smooth motion, mounted him. The horse responded willingly to his urging and broke into a canter as they moved out of the yard.

Once out onto the open trail, Adam leaned forward and clucked to his mount, setting him into a full gallop. They flew down the road, their speed creating a wind that whipped Sport’s mane back into Adam’s face and whistled past his ears, seeming to blow away the force of his anger. They continued that way for some time; both man and horse seeming to relish the exertion. When at last Adam eased his horse to a slower pace and finally brought him to a stop, he felt that the tension was drained out of him. They had arrived at a spot overlooking the lake, one of his favorite places to come when he had a problem to reflect on. As he gazed out at the moonlight tracing a sparkling path across the water, he found the familiar feeling of calmness overtaking him, and he felt himself able to think back on the scene between him and his family with a cooler head.

 Why had he reacted so strongly to what he had heard them say? Certainly the comments he had overheard were cause for disappointment, but had they really justified the outburst of anger with which he had responded? Looking at the situation with characteristic honesty, he had to admit that the answer was no. It seemed that the remarks about Edwin had only been the trigger that had set off something that had been building up inside him for some time. But exactly what was that? Adam sat there staring out over the water for quite some time, thinking about that question. And when the answer finally came to him, it caused a somber expression to come to his face, because the conclusion he had reached had implications that were far from entirely happy.

With a sigh, Adam gathered up the reins, turned Sport around and headed back toward home, this time at a walk. Though in one respect he wanted nothing more than to be back in the comfort of home, in another respect he was almost reluctant to arrive there. Because going home would mean confronting his father and telling him something that Adam knew he wouldn’t want to hear.

Adam’s thoughts were melancholy companions as he continued his slow ride. He was about halfway back to the ranch house when Sport suddenly came to a stop, pricking his ears, bringing Adam’s attention back to their route. There was a tree by the side of the trail a little ways ahead of them. Underneath it Adam could barely make out the figures of two men on horseback. Drifting clouds were passing across the face of the moon, obscuring its light for the moment and making the men very difficult to see. They were obviously trespassing in an area of the Ponderosa where they had no business to be. Instantly wary, Adam began to reach for his gun, only to realize that, in his hurry to leave the house, he had neglected to bring it with him.

One of the men had become aware of someone approaching.

“That you, Cal?” he called out.

Adam carefully urged Sport a little closer to where the two men waited. “No, it’s not Cal,” he replied.

“Well just who are you, and what are you doin’ out here, mister?” the man challenged him.

“I think that’s supposed to be my question. You do realize that you’re trespassing on Ponderosa land, don’t you?” As he came nearer, Adam positioned his hand in the pocket of his jacket and prayed that, in the bad light, he could bluff the men into believing that he had a weapon, if necessary.

The other man gave out with an unpleasant laugh. “You work for them Cartwrights or somethin’?”

“Something like that.”

“Well then, maybe you might know somethin’,” the man continued. “See, we heard some talk around town how a fella named Booth arrived on the stage earlier today and hired someone from the livery to drive him out to the Ponderosa.”

At that, Adam almost smiled. Edwin must have sent his driver back to town before Adam had even come out of the house to greet him. Funny how he hadn’t even thought to inquire how Edwin had gotten out to the ranch from town.

The man was rambling on. “We was kind of figurin’ on snoopin’ around a little and findin’ out a few things about this Booth fella.”

“Like what?” Adam inquired dryly.

“Like whether he’s kin to the man that shot the president,” the first man cut in.

“And if he were?”

“Well then somebody’s gonna make it clear to him that he ain’t welcome around here.” That was the second man.

Now that he had found out what the two intruders were after, Adam felt the anger rising in him again.

“Gentlemen, I strongly advise you to get off the Ponderosa at once…and not to come back,” he said in his most coolly authoritative voice.

“Now just a dang minute here! Where do you get off…”

 As the first man began to splutter indignantly the moon appeared from behind the clouds, casting greater light on the scene. The second man’s eyes grew wide as he saw Adam more clearly.

“Jesus!” he called out to his companion, “This fella ain’t one of the Cartwrights’ hands – he’s one of old man Cartwright’s sons!”

This revelation seemed to panic the other man. Immediately he drew his gun and got a shot off in Adam’s direction. Adam felt the hot sting as the bullet grazed his left arm, and he almost lost his balance in the saddle as his horse shied from the sudden sound of the gun.

“Of all the idiot things…! Let’s get out of here…now!” the man who had recognized Adam shouted. And the two trespassers spurred their horses to a quick getaway, not staying on the trail but cutting across country on the straightest route back toward town.

Adam reined in Sport and quickly drew out a handkerchief to put over the wound in his arm. The wound appeared to be superficial, but it still hurt quite a bit, and he was beginning to feel a little bit dizzy. He managed to get the handkerchief tied around his arm, then he sat there for a moment, looking in the direction where the two men had disappeared and trying to clear his head.

Finally, with a grim expression on his face he turned his horse’s head and resumed his journey home.

*****

As Adam rode up to the ranch house, he saw his father and brothers come out to meet him, as though they had been waiting. The look on Ben’s face was very serious, as though there was something he had been preparing to say. It was also a little angry…and perhaps just a little shamefaced. But as Adam dismounted and Ben caught sight of the handkerchief tied around his injured left arm, the expression turned to one of anxiety, and he hurried up to grasp his son by the shoulder. “Adam, you’re hurt! What happened, son?”

“I ran afoul of a couple of trespassers, and one of them got off a shot at me.”

“Trespassers?” Ben frowned, and his eyebrows drew together grimly.

“It’s all right, Pa. They’re gone. And this is only a graze.” He lifted the injured arm. “I don’t need the doctor,” he added, forestalling his father’s next question. “It only needs to be cleaned and bandaged.”

Ben took charge, turning toward his two younger sons. “Joe, have Hop Sing get together everything we’ll need to treat this wound. And Hoss, you take care of your brother’s horse.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss replied, stepping forward to grab Sport’s reins and lead him toward the barn. Joe had already disappeared back into the house to do his father’s bidding.

 Ben grabbed Adam by his uninjured arm and firmly guided him inside. In just a minute he had Adam settled on the settee near the fire. Hop Sing entered, carrying a bowl of water, some cloths and some material for bandages. Ben took the things from him, put them down on the low table in front of the settee and sat down next to his son. He had Adam take off his shirt, then quickly and efficiently set about tending to the wound as Hop Sing and Joe, who had come in following him, stood looking on in concern.

As he worked, Ben cast a somber glance at his son.

“Adam I think you should know that your brothers and I had a little talk after you left so abruptly. You were right that we shouldn’t have been treating your friend as though he were the criminal, and if that’s the way that it was coming across, then we regret it deeply. In fact, we all went up together to talk to Mr. Booth and make sure he understood that he is truly welcome here.”

“I appreciate that, Pa.” Adam paused. “But I’m afraid the truth is that your concerns may have been more justified than I wanted to believe.”

“How do you mean?”

“The men I ran into…they had heard that a man named Booth had come to the Ponderosa, and they wanted to know if he was related to the man who shot the president. They talked about making it clear to him that he WASN’T welcome.”

“Adam, is that the truth?” A voice intruded from across the room.

Adam and Ben turned their heads to see Edwin Booth standing at the bottom of the stairs, tying the belt of his robe around him and looking at them with eyes of pain.

“I’m afraid it is, Edwin,” Adam answered reluctantly.

Edwin moved toward them, his eyes focusing on the bandage that Ben had just finished wrapping around Adam’s arm. His face paled slightly. “So the ghost of my brother’s victim follows me even here,” he said slowly. “And because of it my friend is endangered. Adam, you could have been killed.”

“He’s right, you know,” Ben echoed solemnly.

Adam did not reply at once. He stood up, slipping his shirt back on, and turned to look into his friend’s eyes. “It’s really just a scratch,” he insisted in a reassuring voice. “Please, don’t make more of this than it deserves.” He laid a hand on Edwin’s shoulder. “Go on back up to bed now, and we can discuss the whole situation tomorrow.”

Edwin locked gazes with him for a moment, then nodded and turned toward the stairs.

Adam turned toward Joe and Hop Sing. “And if the two of you don’t mind, I really would like to speak with Pa for a few minutes…alone. Please.”

At this Hop Sing retreated back toward the kitchen while Joe moved to follow Edwin upstairs, leaving Adam and Ben alone together.

Adam sat back down on the settee next to his father. “Pa, I wanted to say I’m sorry for the way I spoke earlier tonight,” he began after a moment. “I should never have used some of the words I did…like ashamed. That wasn’t true. It could never be.”

Ben nodded carefully. “It did hurt to hear you say that. And I couldn’t quite figure out just what was making you that upset.”

“Neither could I at first. What I overheard you and Hoss and Joe saying about the situation with Edwin wasn’t enough to set me off that way. I knew that even as I was headed out the door. Somehow that just got mixed up with something that had been building up inside me for some time and made me react more strongly than I should have. I rode out to the lake and just sat there on my horse staring out at it for quite a while, trying to figure the whole thing out.”

“And did you?” Ben asked quietly.

Adam took a deep breath. “I think so. Tonight was about a lot more than Edwin. It was about the restlessness that I’ve been feeling more and more over these last few months. You’ve seen it, Pa. For one thing, I’ve been snapping at Joe more than usual, and I’ve even been that way with Hoss…which isn’t usual at all. I know I’ve tried their patience, and I think Hoss has done quite a job of smoothing Joe’s feathers and keeping him from striking back at me.”

“I have seen it,” Ben said. “I was hoping it was just something temporary that would pass.”

“Well, I don’t think it is. Pa, you know how often I’ve talked about wanting to experience as much of the world as I can…how often I’ve mentioned the possibility that one day I might decide to leave and head off on my own.”

“Yes,” Ben whispered, suddenly realizing that the painful prospect which he had kept pushed to the back of his mind was about to become reality.

“Well, I think the time has come, Pa,” Adam continued in a voice of quiet determination.

Ben sat silent for a moment. When he spoke it was with a slight tremor in his husky voice. “You realize, of course, that I don’t want you to go…that I’ll miss you terribly…and your brothers will too.”

“Of course I know, Pa. That’s what’s held me back from doing it before this.” Adam looked at his father, and his eyes held both sympathy and an unalterable determination. ”Pa, this isn’t so much something that I want to do as it is something I need to do.” He paused, concentrating his persuasive powers. “Think about what you did when you were younger. You crossed an entire continent pursuing your dream.”

“And you came with me,” Ben interjected softly.

“Yes, I did. So I know just how difficult the journey was. What was it that made you undertake such a thing? Wasn’t it the feeling somewhere deep inside you that waiting out there was the place that belonged to you and you just HAD to find it?”

Ben nodded. His son knew him so well.

“Well that’s the feeling I have. The place in this world that’s mine is out there somewhere and I need to go and find it.” Adam’s voice vibrated with his passionate intensity. “It may be that in the end I’ll find that my place is back here on the Ponderosa. But that’s something I have to discover for myself. Pa, you were in your early twenties when you set out. Well I’m already thirty-five, and I’ve been putting this off for quite some time. Pa, I can’t put it off any longer.”

There was another pause before Ben spoke again. “I understand, son. And I know I can’t stand in your way. It’s just…hard.”

Adam leaned forward and placed his hand over his father’s. “I won’t be exactly leaving you home alone here, you know. Hoss and Joe will still be here. And they’re quite capable of taking care of things in my absence…hard as it is to admit that.” He smiled slightly, attempting to lighten the moment.

Ben returned it. “Not that anyone else’s presence will quite make up for your absence. But exactly when do you intend to let them know about this? And… just how soon do you intend to leave?”

“I’m not quite sure yet. Obviously I won’t be going for as long as Edwin decides to stay here, which may not be all that long. And I’ll talk to Hoss and Joe when my plans are more definite. For tonight, I just wanted to broach the subject with you.”

A silence fell between them which Adam cut short as he stood up and stretched himself tiredly. “Right now, I really feel like I need to get to bed. Funny how discussing something like this can do that to you. Good night, Pa.”

“Good night, son.” Ben reached out his hand and Adam clasped it briefly before he turned and headed upstairs.

Ben remained seated, staring into the fire, thinking about the little boy who had followed him so willingly on such a long journey, and his eyes were full, and his heart was heavy.

*****

The morning following Adam’s talk with his father found him, along with Edwin, sitting in the office of Sheriff Roy Coffee. Over an early breakfast, Ben had insisted that Roy should be informed of the incident with the trespassers, and though Adam was skeptical about how much good it would do, since he was able to give so little information about the men, he did not want to cause his father any further upset by making an argument over it. He persuaded Edwin to go into town with him, promising him a good meal at the International House when it came lunchtime. Roy’s eyebrows had gone up slightly when he saw Adam accompanied by the celebrated actor, but his normal rough courtesy asserted itself, and he waved them into chairs in front of his desk, then listened intently as Adam told his story.

“I’m sorry I can’t give you any more than that, Roy,” Adam concluded. “The night was so overcast anyway, and they were in the darker shadows under the tree. I didn’t really get much of a look at them. They got a better look at me”

“You say one of them called out “That you, Cal?” before they saw you plain?”

“That’s right.”

“So we know they was waitin’ for someone named Cal, and that’s about all we do know about ‘em. Well considerin’ how many people named Cal there are in these parts, I can’t say as that’s gonna be very much help in findin’ out who they were.”

“I know, Roy. I’m not really expecting very much in that regard. But Pa just thought that at least you should know about it.”

“Well, I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, and if I should by chance come up with anything, I’ll let you know.” Roy’s face set into a grimace. “I don’t like the idea of somebody gettin’ a shot off at you, Adam. Just thank the Lord that he was such a poor shot. It certainly could have been a lot more serious…an awful lot more serious. I’d hate to have to be gettin’ ready to go to your funeral tomorrow. Don’t know as I could stand seein’ how upset your poor pa’d be.” A teasing smile peeked out from under Roy’s mustache, but the look in his eyes betrayed the very real and very deep concern that he felt.

“I’m touched, Roy.” Adam responded dryly to Roy’s banter, but his eyes acknowledged what he had seen in the other man’s. He paused for a second. “Well, I guess it’s time for Edwin and me to be letting you get back to your job. I’ll be seeing you.” He made as if to rise from his chair.

“Now wait just a second, son,” Roy interjected. “There was somethin’ I was gonna tell you about too.” He hesitated, apparently not comfortable with what he had to say. “I found out this mornin’ that there’s a petition goin’ around town askin’ to make Virginia City off limits to any blood relative of the man who assassinated President Lincoln.” He noticed the look that Adam and Edwin were giving each other. “Now don’t get yourselves in a tizzy over this. No petition like that is gonna have any legal force. I don’t think there are even that many people signing it. But it is happenin’ and I thought you should be aware of it.” Roy looked directly at Edwin. “Mr. Booth, I just hope you’ll be real careful for as long as you’re around here. Now you got a right to be here, same as anybody else, and I wouldn’t do anything to interfere with that, but for your own safety it might just be a good idea if you would choose, on your own, to limit the amount of time you spend in town.”

Adam and Edwin continued to look at each other, appalled by the implications.

*****

A little while later Adam and Edwin were seated together at a corner table in the restaurant at the International House. They sat silently as they waited to be served, each of them thinking about their earlier conversation with the sheriff.

In a moment a young waitress with short brown hair and a pleasant smile approached their table.

“Hello, Adam,” she said, obviously addressing a familiar customer. She placed two glasses of water in front of them and handed them their menus. “I see you have a guest with you today.” Her smile was turned on Edwin.

“Yes.” Adam nodded. “Jessie, this is a good friend of mine and a very distinguished actor, Mr. Edwin Booth.”

The abrupt change in Jessie’s expression showed clearly that, though she had not met Edwin Booth before, she had certainly heard of him. A look of definite aversion passed swiftly across her features. She caught herself quickly and sought to compose herself, but the effort was evident.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Booth,” she said with forced politeness, lowering her eyes. “Now what will you two gentlemen be having today?”

Adam ordered a dish of trout almondine with a green salad, giving Edwin time to glance quickly down the menu and make his selection.

“And I would like the fried chicken with mashed potatoes, please,” he said.

“Very good, sir,” Jessie responded coolly. She gathered up the menus, turned and hurried off with a certain abruptness, leaving Adam looking at Edwin with a hint of amusement…which Edwin picked up on.

“Does something strike you as funny, Adam?” he inquired.

“Not exactly,” Adam replied, smiling. “It’s just that with all the choices available on that menu, I might have expected you to choose something a little more…sophisticated. I don’t really see you as a fried chicken sort of fellow.”

Edwin smiled back at him wanly. “Perhaps I just feel the need for something plain and simple as a relief from my current rather complicated situation.”

Adam’s expression sobered. “I’m sorry about Jessie’s attitude, Edwin. I wouldn’t have expected her to be a part of the problem.”

“I’m used to that sort of behavior by now, my friend. Think nothing of it.” Edwin shook his head ruefully. “If only that kind of reaction were the most serious thing I had to be concerned about.”

Adam sensed something of what was on his friend’s mind. “Edwin, if you’re still thinking about that incident last night….”

“Adam, please, don’t try to minimize it,” Edwin interrupted him. “The fact is that someone shot at you…might have killed you, but for the grace of God…and it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for my being here. Bringing that kind of trouble and danger upon you or any of your family is something that I simply cannot allow to happen. I regret having to say this, but I really feel it will be for the best if I cut my visit short and make arrangements to return to New York as soon as possible. I had hoped that this remote area would prove something of a refuge from the specter that dogs my heels, but it is proving otherwise. My presence in such a place is too conspicuous and draws too much attention. Back in New York I ought to be able to become lost among the multitude and perhaps there will actually be less trouble.”

Adam looked at his friend intently for a moment as he considered how to respond.

“I understand and appreciate your concern,” he finally said in a low voice. “But I don’t like to see you apparently trying to run away from the problem. Is there really anywhere you can go where the same difficulties won’t follow you? I very much doubt that going back to New York will make things any better. You talk about being able to disappear there, but in fact won’t you actually be under more scrutiny there than anywhere else?”

Edwin gave a discouraged sigh. “You may very well be right. But, in that case, what am I to do? What is the alternative? Do you, in your wisdom, have any ideas about that?”

Adam leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. “I just may. Now it seems to me that the basic problem is…”

At this point he was interrupted by the appearance of Jessie, bringing their orders. Without a word she placed the plates in front of them and quickly retreated. Edwin picked up a drumstick from his plate of fried chicken and took a bite.

“Mmm, very good,” he said. He looked up at Adam curiously. “You were saying?”

Adam ignored his meal for the moment and continued to regard his friend with an intense stare. “It seems to me the basic problem is that, right now, people are not distinguishing you from your brother. Anyone who bears the same name is tarnished with the same guilt. What you need to do is remind people of exactly who you are yourself. Not John. Not your other brother, Julius**. Just you…Edwin Booth.”

Edwin seemed very interested indeed. He put down his half eaten drumstick. “And exactly how do you suggest I do that?”

“Well, to start with, you stop avoiding the limelight. You actually seek it out.” A gleam came into Adam’s eyes. “And I think I know just what the first step should be.”

Adam retrieved a paper from the inside pocket of his jacket, which hung on the back of his chair. He unfolded it and looked at it for a moment. Then he looked over at Edwin a little hesitantly.

“I’m almost reluctant to show this to you. I can imagine what your first reaction may be. But it’s just possible that it could provide a good opportunity to test my idea.”

Edwin took the paper from him and examined it. It proved to be a notice taken from a newspaper, apparently the Territorial Enterprise.

 

The newly formed

AMATEUR THEATRICAL SOCIETY OF VIRGINIA CITY

proudly announces its first presentation

“THE CURTAIN RISES…”

on an evening of hilarious comedic sketches

and thrilling dramatic scenes

Monday, July 3, 1865, beginning promptly at 8 p.m.

Piper’s Opera House

Free tickets of admission may be obtained in advance at the Opera House. There will be a voluntary offering taken at the event with all proceeds going to support the Society’s first full season of theatrical offerings, beginning in October.

 

 

Edwin eyed his friend questioningly. “Adam, I don’t think I understand. Are you involved with this in some way?”

“Actually,” Adam replied, “I’m the one who organized it. For a long time I’ve been wishing that Virginia City had a theater group of its own. I started talking to a few people, and it seemed that there was enough interest to possibly make it work, so we decided to give it a try. I have enough money to put into it to assure that it will last at least one full season. Beyond that, we’ll have to see how things go. There are some pretty enthusiastic people involved, and a few of them even have some real talent. I’m hopeful about the prospects for success.”

Edwin considered for a moment. “It is certainly a noble undertaking, my friend, and I congratulate you on your ambition. But I’m not quite sure how this relates to me. Could you possibly be suggesting…?”

“What I’m suggesting,” Adam interjected, “is that you make a special guest appearance, perhaps perform one of your famous soliloquies at the end of the program.” Seeing the look on Edwin’s face he hastened to elaborate. “Now I know that this is a strictly amateur event and not at all what you’re used to. But you have to remember that the point is to get you back on stage and to get people thinking of you as an actor again and not as John Wilkes Booth’s brother. This would only be a first step in that direction, but I think you need to take that first step somehow, and I doubt that you’ll find a more favorable opportunity.”

The corners of Edwin’s mouth turned down as he fingered the glass of water in front of him.

“Given the kind of reception that I’ve had so far in this town, aren’t you concerned about what might happen?” he asked hesitantly.

“Not if we make it a surprise and don’t announce it ahead of time,” Adam replied. “No one except the rest of the cast will know anything about it before the night of the performance. That way nobody will have the chance to cook up any trouble.”

“And what about those other people in the cast?” Edmund insisted.

Adam chuckled lightly. “I think those are the last people you have to be worried about. From what I’ve seen of them, I’d imagine that most of them will be seriously star struck at the idea of being on the same stage with you. There’s a rehearsal this afternoon at the home of the director a couple of miles out of town. Why don’t you come along with me and see for yourself?” The look that he gave his friend offered both encouragement and a challenge. “I really think this could be what you need right now.”

Edwin leaned back and sat silent for a moment with lowered eyes, obviously in deep thought. Finally he raised his eyes to meet Adam’s and accept his challenge.

“Very well, my friend. I trust your judgment. And I believe that your idea is a sound one. I shall do as you have said.” He raised his water glass with a flourish.

“Once more unto the breach!” he declaimed.

That caused Adam to smile as he raised his own glass in return.

“Shakespeare would be proud of you,” he said.

*****

It was evening when Adam and Edwin finally found themselves back on the Ponderosa after what had turned out to be a longer than anticipated day.

Edwin’s introduction to the members of the theatrical group had gone well. As Adam had predicted, their reaction to the appearance of the famous actor had a certain awestruck quality to it. Many of the women had blushed prettily and bobbed awkward curtsies as though they were being presented to the king, while the men had tended to swallow nervously as they reached out hesitantly to accept Edwin’s offered handshake. But Edwin was adept at putting people at ease in such situations. And when Adam explained that the renowned actor would be making an appearance in their show, the awe quickly changed to excitement as the aspiring thespians greeted the news with applause.

Adam had enjoyed watching as Edwin sat back observing the cast members running through their various sketches. A couple of times Adam thought he caught his friend wincing fleetingly at some demonstration of overeager amateurishness, while at other moments Edwin’s eyes widened with real interest as one of the performers revealed a flash of genuine inspiration. Somehow Edwin never let the young actors catch anything but encouragement in his expression. And he was able to offer some genuinely constructive suggestions in a manner that was easily accepted by them.

When the rehearsal was over, Jess McBride, the young man who Adam had recruited to direct the production, invited everyone to stay for a light supper of corn chowder and ham sandwiches, and he made a point of telling Edwin how delighted he would be for him to join them. Edwin glanced over at Adam, saw him give a slow nod of approval, and politely accepted. The supper had turned into something of a chat fest, as Edwin lingered to answer questions from the enthusiastic group and regale them with stories of his own experiences on stage.

When Adam eventually suggested, gently but firmly, that it was time for them to leave, it was with some reluctance that Edwin assented. On the way back to the ranch, Edwin seemed more relaxed than he had been since he arrived, and Adam was glad to see it. As they entered the house, they were bantering over some ideas Edwin had come up with to improve the theatrical society’s production. Edwin was actually smiling, and Adam was feeling a sense of satisfaction at the success of the opening stage of his plan.

The discovered Ben alone in the great room, sitting in front of the fire, taking a sip from his snifter of brandy. Ben turned his head at the sound of their arrival, then took another quick sip of his drink, put down the glass, and slowly rose to greet them.

“Well, I’m glad to see that the two of you have made it back,” he said. “I would have had Hop Sing keep some supper warm for you, but I wasn’t sure just when to expect you. I was beginning to get a little concerned.” There was something accusing in his eyes that made Adam slightly uneasy.

“I’m sorry we’re late, Pa,” Adam offered. “The rehearsal ran late and Jess invited the whole group to stay for supper afterwards. I guess the time just got away from us a little.”

“I think it’s your brothers you need to apologize to,” Ben told him. “They spent a good deal of time today covering your chores. Now, I know they had expressed themselves willing to take on extra work so that you could spend time with your friend, but I don’t want to see you taking advantage of that. They do have their own work, you know, and sometimes they even have their own plans.”

Adam was tempted to bridle at the implied criticism, but he managed to hold back the retort that almost rose to his lips, reminding himself that, on this occasion, his father’s remarks had some justification.

“I’ll make it up to them, Pa,” he said carefully. “Where are they, by the way?” he added, glancing around the room and seeing no sign that his brothers were home.

“It’s Friday evening. Where do you suppose they are? Right after we ate, they headed into town to have a couple of drinks at the Silver Dollar. It seems there’s a new girl there that Joe wants to get to know a little better,” Ben replied.

“Just so he doesn’t get to know her TOO well…eh, Pa?” Adam attempted to lighten the mood, but his father did not rise to the bait.

“I’m sure your brother can handle himself just fine,” Ben said pointedly. “Now if you two gentlemen will excuse me, I think I’d like to retire early this evening. Good night, Adam…Mr. Booth.” He nodded briefly and turned to make his way up the stairs. Edwin’s eyes followed him until he disappeared. Then he turned to Adam.

“If I’m any judge, your father seems upset about something, my friend,” he said. His brow furrowed. “I just hope it doesn’t have anything to do with anything

I’ve done…”

“I don’t think so, Edwin,” Adam assured him. He paused, then reluctantly added “I think it’s me.” Seeing the curiosity in Edwin’s gaze, Adam laid a hand on his shoulder and gently steered him in the direction of the fireplace.

“Look, why don’t we just sit down by the fire, I’ll pour us each a drink and we can talk for a bit? There was something I wanted to discuss with you anyway.”

A couple of minutes later they were both comfortably settled with glasses in hand, Adam in his favorite blue chair and Edwin in the corner of the settee closest to him, waiting patiently for him to speak.

“I’m afraid my father is a little upset and on edge right now,” Adam finally began. “Just last night I had a talk with him and I had to tell him something that…well…let’s say it was something he wasn’t happy to hear.”

“And what was that?” Edwin interjected as Adam seemed to hesitate.

“I told him that it was time for me to leave the Ponderosa…to go out on my own,” Adam responded quietly.

Edwin looked at him in surprise. “I’ve heard you mention that possibility, of course, but always as something that might happen sometime in the future. I’d no idea that you’d actually decided to take the plunge.”

“Neither did my father,” Adam said dryly. “I explained to him that I felt the need to see as much of the world as I can and to find my own place in it the way he did when he was younger. He said he understood, but I’m afraid it still came as something of a shock to him. I know he doesn’t like the idea of my going. And I don’t think he’s quite figured out how to deal with it. So he becomes a little angry over something else.” Adam leaned back in the chair with a sigh. “I hate the idea of hurting him, but I’m afraid there’s just no way around it. This is something I need to do to be true to myself. I’ve been putting it off for a long time, and if I don’t do it now I’ll only get more and more restless until something explodes and I’ll wind up hurting him even more.”

“I know how hard it can be to find one’s own place in the shadow of a formidable father,” Edwin said sympathetically. “I seem to recall that when we first met you asked me if I was going into acting to please my father or if it was really what I wanted for myself. I believe I answered rather blithely at the time that of course it was what I wanted. But, in truth, finding my own way was an issue that I had to grapple with for quite some time. Believe it or not, there are still moments when I have doubts as to whether I might not have been happier as a schoolmaster.”

“Not that many moments though, I’ll wager.” Adam smiled as he said it.

“Perhaps not,” Edwin admitted. “But enough so that I can say I believe I understand what you’re going through. I wish you well in your quest, my friend. If there is any way I can help you, you need only ask.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Adam replied. “There was something I wanted to ask you. Now, you know that you’re welcome to stay here as long as you like. But however long that is, you will eventually be leaving. And I suppose that when you do, you’ll probably be going back to New York.”

“I imagine so.” Edwin nodded, giving him a curious look.

“Well, I was wondering how you’d feel about my going back with you,” Adam continued. “I think New York would be an excellent place to start my adventures. I haven’t been there since I visited with some friends during the summer while I was at college, and I’d really like to see it again. I was hoping that you’d be willing to let me stay with you for a little while, just until I decide where I want to go from there.”

“It would be my pleasure to have you,” Edwin assured him heartily. “I certainly owe you no less for all that you’re doing for me.”

“Thank you, Edwin. It’s good to have that much settled. At least I know the first place I’ll be going when I leave. Now it’s just a matter of when. Perhaps after the performance on the 3rd you’ll be clearer on your own plans and we can make a decision together about that.”

“That sounds sensible,” Edwin ventured. His expression turned thoughtful. “I think the two of us make quite a pair…don’t you agree? A pair of wandering stars”.

Adam’s cocked eyebrow showed that his interest had been caught. “How do you mean?” he said.

“Well, as for myself, unanticipated events pulled me out of my proper sphere and I came wandering here, hoping to escape their pull and find my way back. You, on the other hand, are questioning whether the sphere you occupy is in fact the proper one for you and are about to go wandering in order to find out. And yet, from our very different directions we cross paths and find ourselves wandering together…at least for a while.”

“That’s an interesting metaphor, and quite poetic,” Adam said. “I would only add that I hope that each of us will end up in the sphere where he truly belongs…shining brightly.”

“Amen to that, my friend…amen to that,” Edwin replied.

*****

It was the middle of the afternoon on Monday, July 3, and Edwin Booth was getting ready to leave shortly with Adam in order to arrive in Virginia City in time to prepare for that night’s performance.

He had spent much of the last two weeks in a state of nervous apprehension over what the reaction to his appearance would be. Heeding Sheriff Coffee’s advice, he had avoided actually going into Virginia City. Rehearsals had continued to be held at the home of the director, except for the final two dress rehearsals, which had been held on the stage of the Opera House itself. On those occasions, Adam had taken precautions to insure that Edwin’s presence would not draw attention. They had used a circuitous route through side streets in order to arrive at the back entrance of the theater. Edwin had worn a long cape and a broad brimmed hat in order to disguise his appearance. The rest of the troupe had, of course, been sworn to secrecy concerning his participation in the show. They were to be the only ones, apart from Sheriff Coffee, to know about the plan. Edwin was most grateful for their cooperation. Finding himself among people who had no trouble seeing him as the actor instead of as his brother’s brother had been wonderful for his morale. And now, as curtain time approached, he sensed the old familiar tingle of anticipation that he normally felt on an opening night. It blended with his nervousness to put him on edge and caused him to drum his fingers impatiently on the top of the dresser as he stared into the mirror, checking that his hair was properly smoothed down.

He heard a knock at the door and turned his head in that direction. “Come in.”

The door edged open and Adam peered around it. “Are you about ready to go?” he inquired.

“In just a moment,” Edwin replied. He picked up the jacket of his suit from where it lay on the bed and began to put it on.

Adam stepped into the room. “So how are you feeling? Any stage fright?”

“I suppose I am a little anxious, but that’s normal.” Edwin paused and looked at his friend earnestly. “Adam, whatever happens tonight, I feel that simply getting involved in this has already done me good. I wanted you to know that…and I’m grateful to you for it.”

“Well, I just hope that you’ll still be feeling that way after it’s all over,” Adam replied smiling. “Come on then. It’s time we were going.” He gestured with his arm toward the open door. “Your public waits.”

A moment later the room was empty.

*****

The steady clop of a horse’s hooves was heard amid the drowsy late afternoon silence, and seconds later a buggy could be seen emerging from behind the trees that hid the curve in the trail, moving at an easy pace. Adam, driving the buggy, stared straight ahead, keeping his eyes focused on the path ahead, while Edwin, sitting next to him, leaned back casually and basked in the slanting rays of the sun that broke through the branches of the trees, seeming to enjoy the ride.

Suddenly the sound of a gunshot broke the quiet, and Adam sensed a bullet whizzing past his head. Startled, both men turned their heads to look behind them. Three men on horseback with kerchiefs covering their faces came out from behind he trees along the path and began to pursue them.

“Get down!” Adam shouted, and Edwin bent forward into a protective posture. Adam grabbed the buggy whip and brought it down sharply on the horse’s haunches. The animal jumped forward, racing away with such speed that the buggy bounced over the bumps in the trail, jarring the two passengers while several more shots were fired over their heads. But in spite of the horse’s best effort they were eventually overtaken by the riders. One of the men came alongside them and grabbed at the horse’s bridle. Adam attempted to fight him off using the buggy whip, but the man was still managing to slow them down. Meanwhile the other two horsemen had sped past them, then abruptly whirled their horses around to stand there, blocking the trail. Adam was forced to bring the buggy to a complete halt while the three men surrounded them with guns drawn.

“All right, you two. Get down from that contraption and put your hands up,” one of the men growled in a slurred voice which sounded as though he had been drinking.

Adam and Edwin looked at each other apprehensively.

“I’m sorry about this, Edwin,” Adam said in a low voice.

“It’s not your fault, Adam,” Edwin returned quietly.

Slowly they began to get out of the buggy. Surreptitiously Adam moved his hand to feel the gun that was hidden underneath his jacket. Facing three to one odds against men who already had their weapons pointed at him, Adam was uncertain as to how he would be able to bring his own weapon to bear in this tight spot. But he felt a responsibility for his friend and he knew he would have to do something. If he kept his head, surely some opportunity would present itself. He just hoped he would be quick enough to pick up on it.

But just as he was considering these things, an unexpected occurrence turned all their thoughts in a very different direction. Gunfire was heard from farther down the trail in the direction of town. Glancing in that direction they all caught sight of several riders approaching at top speed, getting off occasional shots as they rode. Adam quickly recognized the rider in the lead as Sheriff Roy Coffee. The men surrounding the buggy began to return fire and the air was soon resounding with the sounds of the gunfight. Amid the confusion, Adam drew his concealed gun and managed to wing one of the men who had stopped them.

The next few moments were chaotic, but at their conclusion the sheriff and the men with him had all three of the men who had attacked Adam and Edwin in custody. Two of the attackers and one of the sheriff’s men were wounded, none of them seriously. When it was over Roy Coffee pulled his horse up beside the buggy.

“You all right, Adam?” he asked with genuine concern.

“I’m fine. Roy,” Adam assured him.

“What about you, Mr. Booth?” Roy continued.

“I am uninjured, sheriff, thanks to the timely arrival of you and your friends, though I cannot imagine how you managed to turn up precisely when you were needed,” Edwin replied.

“I was just about to ask about that myself,” Adam added.

Roy chuckled. “Well now, that’s a story. The men who attacked you are Cal Fredericks, Otto Brandt and Blackie Fuller, and they….”

“Did you say one of them is named Cal?” Adam interrupted him.

“That’s right, Adam. I figure that Brandt and Fuller are the two men you caught trespassin’ that night a couple of weeks ago and Fredericks is the ‘Cal’ they was waitin’ for.”

“So they actually decided to follow through on what they were talking about that night,” Adam said. “But how did you know about what they planned for today?”

“You can thank Leah from the Silver Dollar for that. She overheard them talkin’ about their plans and came to me with the information.” Roy paused to wipe a hand over his brow. “You fellas know a woman named Edie Fuller, don’t ya?”

“Of course,” Adam said. “She’s in charge of the costumes for the Theatrical Society.” Then he made the connection, and his expression changed. “And I suppose she’s related to this Blackie Fuller.”

“She’s his wife,” Roy confirmed. “Now I understand you told everybody involved with the show not to tell anyone else about Mr. Booth appearing. Well, it seems that Edie Fuller didn’t think that applied to husbands. She told Blackie all about Mr. Booth. Gave him enough information that he and his friends were able to plan to intercept ya comin’ into town today.”

Adam shook his head. “I’d like to give her a good talking to about that.”

“So would I,” Edwin added.

“I doubt she had any idea what her husband and his pals were up to,” Roy resumed. “Fortunately they wasn’t as careful as they mighta been. The saloon girl overheard ‘em and so it all got back to me and I was able to get a posse together to stop ‘em.”

“Fortunate indeed,” Edwin said quietly. For a moment all three men were silent, thinking about what might have happened. Then Edwin spoke again. “Adam, given what’s happened, do you still think it’s such a good idea for me to go through with this tonight?”

“I’d say it’s more important than ever,” Adam responded.

Edwin looked at him thoughtfully. “I suppose you’re right,” he said finally. He straightened his shoulders and his face set with determination. “There is a great tradition to uphold, after all. Whatever the circumstances…the show must go on!

*****

Edwin Booth stood in the wings of the stage of Piper’s Opera House, listening to the laughter of the audience at the final scene of the Theatrical Society’s performance. The evening had been going well and the audience had been responsive to virtually everything that was presented. And now his own call to step back into the limelight was only moments away. He clasped and unclasped his hands anxiously, surprised at the degree of his own nervousness. He had thought that he had his “opening night” jitters under control, but the incident earlier in the day had brought all his apprehensions about what he was doing back to the fore. One minute he trembled at the thought of being booed or pelted with tomatoes when he stepped onto the stage. Then the next minute he almost laughed at the mental picture of himself with tomato juice running down his face  He felt himself to be uncharacteristically unsettled, and that was not a good omen. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths to steady himself.

Hearing someone coming up beside him, Edwin opened his eyes and looked to his right to find Adam Cartwright standing there. Adam was acting as stage manager for the performance, making sure that everyone was in place on time for their entrances and that everything backstage was running smoothly. When the final skit was finished, he would be the one to make the announcement of the surprise encore.

Sensing his friend’s unease, Adam rested a hand on his shoulder and gave him what he hoped was an encouraging smile. “Are you all ready?” he whispered into Edwin’s ear.

“As ready as I ever will be,” Edwin replied softly. “At this point, I just want to get it over with.”

“You’ll be fine,” Adam reassured him.

At that moment the scene on stage was coming to an end. There was a burst of laughter from the audience, followed by hearty applause as the actors took their bows and exited the stage. As they came off, the cast members huddled together in groups in the wings, evidently anticipating what was coming next. While the audience’s applause still lingered Adam stepped out on the stage and gestured to gain their attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “on behalf of the entire troupe I would like to offer you our sincere thanks for your warm reception here tonight. This concludes the scheduled part of this evening’s performance. However, I am pleased to announce that there is still one additional scene to be played out here tonight.” He paused as the audience looked up at him expectantly. Ben, Hoss and Joe were all sitting in the front row with smiles on their faces. They, of course, were the only ones who were in on the secret. “On this occasion,” Adam continued, “we are honored to have with us one of the greatest stars of the American theater…Mr. Edwin Booth.” At this a murmur ran through the crowd. “Mr. Booth has consented to perform for us an excerpt from one of his most renowned performances. He will be presenting the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in which the Prince of Denmark, in despair over the death of his father at his uncle’s hand and frustrated at his seeming inability to take action against the murderer, considers ending his torment by taking his own life. At this time it is my privilege to present to you…Mr. Edwin Booth.” He gestured toward the wing where Edwin awaited.

The murmur of the crowd became more intense. There was a slight hesitation before a tentative outbreak of applause was heard. As he moved offstage, Adam noticed several people getting up and heading toward the exits.

A moment later Edwin emerged from the wings and stepped to the center of the stage. He too had noticed the handful of people who were leaving, and he thought to himself that at least the audience had not arisen to leave en masse. He was trembling on the inside, but outwardly he forced himself to appear composed. In his all black costume with the long cloak falling from his shoulders, he presented an elegant and regal presence. He stood there without moving, his stillness drawing the eyes of the audience, and waited for the noise to die out completely. Then, into the stillness, he finally spoke.

“To be, or not to be…that is the question”*** he began, in a low voice that forced the audience to pay close attention.

“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.”

His voice became more intense as he began to be more caught up in the character’s pain.

“To die, to sleep…
No more…and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep…”

He infused the lines with all of Hamlet’s longing for peace and for escape.

“To sleep…perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause.”

He began to recite the litany of all the wrongs that human beings must endure,

including “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes”, and to ask wonderingly why anyone would bear such wrongs if they could end the suffering by their own choice. The thought of the trials that he himself had been going through enabled him to immerse himself more and more deeply into Hamlet’s suffering. And as he did so, he felt the audience being drawn along with him. The pain of the character’s dilemma invoked sympathy and compassion. And it also demanded an answer.

“Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”

Hamlet’s desire to escape the pain and suffering of human life is powerful. But his uncertainty about what comes after is even more so. And that paralyzes him.

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” Edwin concluded in a bitter voice. And in a final gesture of despair he bowed his head, burying his face in his hands.

There were three seconds of utter silence. And then, suddenly, the audience erupted in thunderous applause. Led by the Cartwrights in the front row, they rose to their feet almost as one. The clapping continued and voices were raised in cheers of “Bravo!”

With a graceful bow, Edwin acknowledged the standing ovation. He glanced over to where Adam was standing and saw him smile as he gave a thumbs-up gesture. Edwin smiled back, then took another bow.

And the cheering went on.

*****

In the dressing room about forty-five minutes later, Adam was patiently waiting for his friend. Edwin was elated at the success of the evening. Following the performance, there had been something of a mob scene backstage. Some of those who came were family members and friends of the cast, but a good number of them were fans hoping to meet Edwin and ask for his autograph. Booth had spent over a half hour graciously obliging their requests and chatting with them. By now, almost everyone else had left, and he finally had the opportunity to change out of his costume and into his regular clothes. As he did so, his enthusiasm continued to spill out in his steady stream of conversation.

“You were so right, Adam,” he said. “Once people got to see me as an actor again, it seems that whatever animosity they might have harbored disappeared.” He looked over at Adam as he buttoned his shirt. “After tonight, I feel renewed, and prepared to pick up my career as quickly as I can. I am eager to get back to New York, not to attempt to escape from the scandalmongers, but to begin making arrangements for a new production to tour. Oh, it may take some time for things to come together, but I am confident now that things will work out, and “the sooner, the better” is the operative phrase. I understand that the stage which leaves on Wednesday mornings provides the best connections for traveling to the East coast. It’s too late to make arrangements to leave this Wednesday, but I think I should be able to be ready by a week from Wednesday if that suits you, assuming, of course, that you are still interested in coming with me.”

“Oh I’m still interested, and I think a week from Wednesday should work out fine,” Adam responded. He cast down his eyes and lowered his voice as though talking to himself. “It’s probably best that there shouldn’t be too much time before I leave. It will be easier on all of us if the break is clean and quick.”

Edwin was tying his shoes and didn’t catch everything his friend was saying. “What was that, Adam?”

“Oh, I was just thinking that now I’m going to have to tell my brothers about my plans and that things are likely to get a little difficult around home when I do, so it’s a good thing that my actual departure should come as quickly as possible.”

“You aren’t having second thoughts are you?” Edwin asked, cocking his eyebrow.

“No. I’ve thought about this for a very long time and I know that it’s something necessary for me.” Adam’s expression turned pensive. “I only hope that I can make THEM understand that,” he said wistfully.

*****

In spite of the fact that he got to bed quite late that night, Adam made sure he was the first one down for breakfast the following morning. And, as he had hoped, his father was the next one to come down. As Ben reached the bottom of the stairs, he saw his oldest son already seated at the dining table, enjoying his first cup of coffee. Sounds from the kitchen indicated that Hop Sing must be just about ready to start bringing out their food.

“Good morning, son,” Ben said cheerfully. “I’m a little surprised to see you up so early this morning after the night you had. That was quite a show your group put on, and I must say Mr. Booth came through magnificently. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words of Shakespeare spoken with more insight or passion.”

“Thank you, Pa. I’m sure he’ll appreciate the compliment,” Adam said. He paused for a moment, a little unsure how to bring up what he had to say. He finally decided that the direct approach was probably the best.

“Pa, there’s something that I need to talk to you about,” he said quietly. “And I wanted to do it before Hoss and Joe get here.”

Ben immediately became wary. He had a fairly good idea of what was coming. “All right, son. What is it?”

Adam finished his coffee and set the cup down. “Edwin is going to be leaving to go back to New York on Wednesday the 12th, a week from tomorrow.”

“I see.” Ben returned in a carefully neutral voice.

“And I’m leaving with him,” Adam continued. “I’ll stay with him in the city for a little while until I decide where to go from there.”

Ben took the news in silence, but Adam could see in his eyes how hard it was for him…and it was hard on Adam to see it.

“Pa, I need to talk to Hoss and Joe about this, and I think I should do it this morning,” Adam said. “I wondered if you could…”

He was interrupted by the appearance of his two brothers as they came clattering noisily down the stairs.

“I think I understand, son,” Ben said quickly. “I’ll find some excuse to make an early exit and leave you alone with them.”

“Thanks, Pa. I appreciate it,” Adam replied.

A few seconds later, Hoss and Joe were taking their places at the table with chipper greetings. The door to the kitchen opened and Hop Sing entered carrying plates of biscuits and sausages and a large bowl of scrambled eggs. Adam mentioned that Edwin had told him last night that he planned to sleep in late this morning, which Ben declared was understandable, and Hop Sing promised to keep some food warm for him.

The Cartwrights settled down to a hearty breakfast. But it wasn’t very long before Ben arose and excused himself, saying he wanted to go out to the barn and check on Buck, who had a sore hoof from picking up a stone yesterday.

“But Pa,” Hoss objected, “you ain’t ate anything yet. Are you feelin’ all right?”

“I’m fine,” Ben assured him.  “I guess I’m just not very hungry this morning.” And with a significant glance at Adam, he turned and left them.

Joe turned to his older brother with a grin. “Hey, Adam, I really enjoyed that show last night. You think maybe you could introduce me to the girl who played the daughter in that first skit…the one with the curly brown hair and big brown eyes? She’s really something.”

“Sorry, Joe,” Adam replied, a gleam of amusement in his eyes. “I’m afraid she’s already engaged…to a big, burly blacksmith.”

“Oh, well…” Joe’s face turned crestfallen. “Anyway…I wanted to say that I thought Mr. Booth was great too. Heck, he even managed to make that Shakespeare you’re so hot on sound interesting.”

“He sure did,” Hoss chimed in. “I mean, the way he spoke them words, you could actually understand what he was talkin’ about.”

Adam couldn’t help but smile at his brothers’ newfound appreciation of the Bard.

“I’m glad to hear you say that. You’ll have to tell him yourselves later.” His expression became serious. “I know that the two of you have put in a lot of extra work so that I could be free to play the proper host to him while he’s here. I want you to know that I really do appreciate it.”

“That weren’t no problem, Adam,” Hoss said as he dug into his food. “You’d do the same for us if we needed it.”

“Sure, older brother. You know you can count on us,” Joe added. “By the way, do you know how much longer he’s going to be staying? Just curious, you understand.” And he gave his brother a wink.

Adam found himself feeling grateful to Joe for leading, however unknowingly, into the subject he wanted to speak of. “Actually, I wanted to talk to the two of you about that. Edwin has decided to start back to New York a week from tomorrow.” He paused. “And I’m going along with him.”

“Decided to take a real vacation, instead of just the usual business trip to San Francisco, did you?” Joe quipped. “So just how long do you expect to be gone?”

“I’m not coming back Joe,” Adam said quietly. “At least not for quite some time. I’m leaving the Ponderosa to go out on my own.”

Joe stared at him wide-eyed. “Leaving? Just like that? Adam, how can you? How can you do that to Pa?” His voice was strident.

“Pa knows all about it. We’ve discussed it already, and he understands.”

“Does he? Well that’s fine and dandy, but I sure don’t! What about all the hurt you’ll be causing him…all of us? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Of course it does. Believe me, if I didn’t care about that, I would have done this a long time ago. And I wouldn’t do it now if I didn’t feel that it’s something I need to do, something really vital to me.”

“It seems to me that we have everything we need right here!” Joe insisted angrily.

“That may be true for you, and for Hoss too. But I’m a different person than you and there are other things I need in life, things I can only find by doing this.”

“So all that we have here just isn’t good enough for you…is that it?”

“It isn’t a matter of not good enough, Joe. It’s a matter of finding out once and for all what’s right for me and where I really belong.”

Joe stood up, pushing his chair back forcefully, and threw his napkin down on the table. “Sounds to me like nothin’ more than plain old selfishness. Well, you just go ahead and do whatever you damn well please, Adam. ‘Cause if you don’t care, then why the hell should I?” He turned and stormed off across the great room and up the stairs.

Adam also rose and took a couple of steps after him, but then decided it would be no use. He stood there, his head bowed, clearly shaken by his brother’s outburst.

Hoss had been sitting there watching the whole scene with a pained expression. Now he got up slowly and came to stand next to Adam, laying a hand gently on his shoulder.

“Don’t fret too much about Joe, Adam. This just hit him sudden like and threw him off balance. He’ll come around…you’ll see.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Sure I do,” Hoss responded firmly.

“And what about you, Hoss? Do you understand?” There was a clear appeal in Adam’s dark gaze as it rested on his brother.

“Don’t know as I understand completely,” Hoss answered him. “But I understand enough to know it ain’t just selfishness on your part. I can’t say it comes as such a surprise. We talked about how this might happen someday. That was way last fall…you remember?”

“Oh yes…I remember,” Adam replied softly.

*****

OCTOBER, 1864

 

It was Sunday afternoon on the Ponderosa and dinner had been over for about an hour. Still sated with Hop Sing’s good cooking, Hoss Cartwright had decided to step outside and enjoy the inviting fall weather.

As he walked out onto the porch of the house, his ears caught the strains of a guitar and the soft murmur of a familiar voice. He looked over to where his brother Adam sat plucking out a charming tune on his treasured instrument and quietly humming along. Hoss stood there silently, captured by the rhythm of the music but even more so by the look on his brother’s face. Adam was completely wrapped up in what he was doing. Hoss had seldom seen him look so completely relaxed, so….happy. It made Hoss glad to see him that way.

Not wanting to break the spell, Hoss remained quiet, until, with a final flourish, Adam ended his impromptu concert. Adam’s hand hung suspended over the strings as the last notes drifted off into the cool autumn air. As silence finally descended, the guitarist looked up and noticed that he had an audience.

“How long have you been standing there?” He smiled.

“Few minutes. What was that you were playin’, Adam? It was right pretty.”

“That was a tune from a piece by Mozart that I heard the last time I was in San Francisco. Getting it to work as a guitar solo is quite a challenge, but I think I just about had it there at the end.”

“Well, it sure sounded fine to me.”

“I’m sure Mozart would be gratified by your approval,” Adam said with an amused glint in his eye.

Hoss smiled back at him. He wanted to keep his brother in this mood if he could. “This Mozart, is he your favorite?”

“One of them. There are a number of composers that I enjoy.” Adam cocked an eyebrow at his brother. “Could I possibly interest you in coming to a concert with me sometime? It would be something new for you.”

“Shucks, Adam, I guess I’m just made to like the kind of music you stomp your foot or dance to, not the kind you dress up in a fancy suit and sit down to listen to.”

Adam began to strum the guitar again thoughtfully. “There’s nothing wrong with that, Hoss. Our local fiddlers certainly have their place, and some of them are really quite good. But there are a lot of other kinds of music too. Wouldn’t you like to take in everything that’s out there?”

Some intensity that had crept into Adam’s voice caught Hoss’ ear. He started to sense where this was going, and it wasn’t the direction he had been hoping for. “Takin’ in everything that’s out there,” he echoed thoughtfully. “That’s real important to you, ain’t it, Adam?”

“Yes, it is. And I’m not just talking about music. There’s a whole world out there of ideas to consider, places to see, people to encounter, challenges to meet. And I want to experience as much of it as I can.”

Hoss remained silent for a long moment. When he spoke again there was a touch of sadness in his voice. “You’re gonna do it, ain’t ya, Adam?”

“Do what, exactly?”

“You’re gonna leave here. Go away.”

This time it was Adam who took a long moment before replying. “Maybe. Someday.”

“That’d hurt Pa somethin’ awful.” It was not an accusation – just a fact.

Adam lowered his eyes. “That’s the main reason I haven’t done it yet.” He paused before continuing. “Of course, there are others. This place would be hard to leave.” He raised his eyes again and looked straight at Hoss. “So would you.” The amused glint came back into his expression. ”Even Joe would be, I guess.”

Hoss stuck his hands in his pockets and moved to stand closer to his brother. “You really figure everything that’s out there is any better than what we got here?”

“Maybe not better. But just maybe better for me.”

Hoss stared down at the ground, looking sorrowful. He had wanted to encourage Adam’s happy mood, but it seemed that in the end all he had done was stir up his brother’s restlessness.

Adam sensed what was troubling Hoss. He stood up, faced his brother directly and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Hoss, I promise you, even if I do go someday, we won’t lose each other. I’ll want to share everything I’m doing with you, with all the family, and somehow I will find a way to do that. You have my word.”

Hoss looked up shyly. “Can I have that in writin’?”

Relieved at his brother’s change in mood, Adam gave him a playful punch in the arm. “Are you challenging my honor?”

“Never that, brother,” Hoss smiled. “You ready to head back inside?”

“Not quite yet. You go ahead. I’ll be there in a little while. Then I’ll see about giving you that promise in writing.” Adam smiled at his brother.

 Hoss nodded and disappeared back into the house. And the tune from the piece by Mozart once again filled the air.

*****

BACK TO JULY, 1865:

 

“You made me a promise back then, Adam,” Hoss said. “Even wrote it out on paper an’ signed it. I still have that piece o’ paper in my dresser drawer upstairs. Now you usually set a lot of store on keepin’ your promises, and I just want to know that you mean to keep that one too.”

“Of course I do, Hoss,” Adam assured him. “I intend to write as often as I can. And just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean I won’t be interested in what’s going on back here. I’ll be counting on you to write to me too.”

“A lot o’ people say they’re gonna keep in touch with each other. Let’s just make sure that the two of us are part o’ the ones that actually do it. Deal?” Hoss held out his hand.

“Deal,” Adam said, grasping it firmly. They held the handclasp as they looked into each other’s eyes, sealing the bargain.

“That’s all right then,” Hoss said with satisfaction. He looked over toward the stairway. “I suppose we’d best leave Joe alone for just a little bit. Meantime, I’ve got a lot o’ chores to do and I guess I should be gettin’ at ‘em. I’ll see ya later Adam.” And with a quick pat of his brother’s shoulder, he turned away and moved toward the door.

“See you later, Hoss,” Adam said as his brother strode away.

After a few seconds, Adam walked over and sat down on the settee in front of the fireplace. There was no fire going in the hearth on this summer morning, but Adam hardly noticed as his thoughts were occupied with what had just happened. Breaking the news of his departure to his brothers had proved as difficult as he had feared. He was grateful for Hoss’ understanding. But Joe’s reaction troubled him. He could only hope that Hoss was right that their younger brother would come around. He didn’t want to part on bad terms with any of his family, especially since  there was no guarantee that they would ever see each other again.

*****

The day’s warmth lingered long after dark had fallen. The heavy, humid atmosphere seemed to mute the sounds of the crickets as they carried on their nightly conversation. High flying clouds scuttled across the face of the moon while the stars seemed to be playing hide-and-seek behind them. And Adam Cartwright was sitting on the porch of the ranch house, gently strumming his guitar. The motion of his hand was almost unconscious. He was not trying to play any particular song. His strumming simply provided an accompaniment to the thoughts that flowed through his mind.

Tonight was his last night on the Ponderosa. Tomorrow the stage would take him away from this place that had been the center of his life for so long, and from the family that had kept him anchored there…until now. His thoughts and feelings were a jumble of regret at what he would be leaving behind and anticipation of what the world might have in store for him. Everyone else was in bed and probably asleep, but Adam knew that sleep would not come for him this night, and he felt the need to go outside to take the air of this place into himself one last time so that he would always carry it with him, whether he ever found himself returning here or not.

He wasn’t quite sure why he had brought the guitar out with him. He regretted the fact that the instrument was just too inconvenient to carry with him. Hopefully he would be able to get a new one at some point. There were other things that would not be so easy to replace.

The last week, since the time for his departure had been set and announced to his family, had been a difficult one. And the most difficult thing had been watching the way his father and brothers looked at him. As he went about his daily tasks, he frequently sensed he was being watched. He would turn his head and catch his pa following him with his eyes. It seemed as though Ben was trying to impress every moment of their remaining time together on his memory. Whenever he thought that Adam was noticing him, he would quickly turn his head and pretend that he wasn’t staring. But then Adam would catch him doing it again just a short time later. It was disconcerting.

Hoss was managing to behave normally for the most part, though perhaps a little more subdued than usual. But he couldn’t help the sadness in his eyes, and Adam couldn’t help noticing it. And then there was Joe. His eyes still held an anger that showed no sign of abating. More than once Adam had tried to talk to him, to make him understand, but each attempt had been brushed off. It hurt Adam deeply, but he was being forced to resign himself to the idea of leaving with that problem still unresolved.

Even Hop Sing had gotten into the act. But he had expressed his feelings about the departure of the oldest son in his own special way. It seemed that the menu for every meal during the past week had featured at least one item that Adam was especially fond of. And tonight’s farewell dinner had been a veritable feast of his very favorite foods. When Adam went into the kitchen afterwards to thank Hop Sing for his special effort and for all his service over the years, the Chinese cook had made clear, in his most respectful manner, how sorry he was to see the young man go. Yes, Hop Sing’s cooking, and his devoted care, was one more thing that Adam knew he would miss.

There were moments when the thought of all that he was going away from became overwhelming, and he could almost convince himself that he was making a big mistake. But then he would begin to think about what he was going toward and a sense of excitement would rise up and overcome the regret. Despite its problems, the part of the world that he knew was a wonderful place. And the part that he had never seen was so much larger. What unexpected wonders must it hold? What opportunities might he find waiting for him? What people might he encounter who would have a major influence on him? Somewhere out there might he even meet the long elusive true love of his life?

Adam gently laid the guitar down beside his chair, then slowly stood up, walked over to the edge of the porch and gazed up at the stars. When he was just a boy his father and he had spent many nights watching the flickering lights in the sky while his father taught him all about their secrets. Adam had been fascinated by his father’s explanation of how sailors used them to navigate their course. “Remember, son, as long as the stars shine above, you can never be truly lost.” His father had told him that, and he had always found it comforting. Well, he was a man now, needing to navigate his own course. He himself might be a “wandering star” as his friend had suggested, uncertain of his ultimate destination. But, by the grace of God, the myriad of stars still shone above, steady in their spheres, and he felt sure that, by their light, he would always be able to find his way.

*****

It was a hazy morning in Virginia City, threatening oppressive heat and humidity later in the day. At a little before eight o’clock there were only a few people stirring in the streets. A stagecoach was pulled up in front of the depot and the horses had just been hitched to it. The Cartwright family and Edwin Booth stood gathered around the ticket window. Adam and Edwin had gotten their tickets and discovered that they would be the only passengers. The stage was due to leave in just a few minutes.

Roy Coffee had dropped over a little earlier, right after they had arrived, to shake Adam’s hand and wish him well. Adam was grateful for that. He was also grateful that the stage was leaving as early as it was, since it meant that there wouldn’t be that many people observing the good-byes between him and his family.

From the top of the stage the driver called down to them. “Whatever bags you two fellas got, let’s go ahead and get ‘em loaded!”

“I’ll take care ‘o that,” Hoss offered. He stepped over to where the traveling bags were lined up on the ground and began handing them up to the driver.

When the bags were safely stowed the driver informed his passengers that the stage was ready for them to board. Edwin tugged at Adam’s sleeve and spoke quietly in his ear. “I’ll go ahead and get on and give you and your family a moment alone,” he said, and Adam nodded his appreciation.

Edwin moved to face Ben. “Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Cartwright. You and your family showed me kindness when I needed it most, and I appreciate it greatly.”

“You’re most welcome, Mr. Booth,” Ben replied. “I hope we will have the opportunity to see you perform again sometime.”

Edwin turned and stepped up into the coach, leaving the Cartwrights to face the awkward moment of farewell.

Joe stood closest to the stage. With an inward sigh, Adam stepped over and stood in front of him. This was the moment he had been dreading most. He was sure his brother was still angry at what Joe considered Adam’s lack of caring, and Adam really didn’t know what to say to him. But, to his surprise, what he saw in his youngest brother’s eyes at this moment was not anger or hurt, but something else entirely.

“Adam,” Joe began quietly, “I’m sorry about being so hard on you, and about saying you were selfish.” He paused to swallow a small lump in his throat and then plunged on. “I couldn’t get to sleep last night. I guess you couldn’t either. My bedroom window was open and I heard you playing that guitar of yours. Anyways, I was doing a lot of thinking while I was lying awake, and I was remembering a lot of things. Things like the way you were there for me when my ma died. There were all the times you helped me with my homework or smoothed things over when I got in trouble, or took care of me when I was hurt. You taught me so many things. I can’t count how many times I’ve come to you for advice, and you always seemed to say the right thing. I realized that somebody who was selfish would never have done all that. And it hit me just how much I’ve depended on you and how much I’m gonna miss having you around. But I don’t want to be selfish either. I can’t say I understand why you need to do this. Maybe I never will. But I guess I can accept that you do need to do it and leave it at that. I just hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Joe awkwardly threw his arms around his brother’s neck. “You take care of yourself, Adam,” he whispered huskily.

Adam closed his eyes and felt an enormous sense of relief and gratitude wash over him. “It means a lot to me to hear you say that, Joe,” he said, fighting down a lump in his own throat. “I was afraid we were going to part badly, and I didn’t want that to happen.”

“I didn’t either,” Joe said, pulling back with a shy smile.

“Just promise me one thing, Joe,” Adam said to him. “Don’t give Hoss too hard a time…all right?”

“Sure thing, brother,” Joe replied.

Adam composed himself and turned to Hoss. Their eyes met, and a good deal seemed to pass between them without any words. Finally, Hoss stepped forward and wrapped Adam in a bear hug. “Be happy, brother,” he said simply.

“Thanks Hoss…and the same to you,” Adam answered.

“And don’t you forget that deal we made,” Hoss added.

“I’ll remember,” Adam returned softly.

And then there was only one more good-bye to be said. As he faced his father Adam could see how hard Ben was trying to maintain a cheerful front. But Adam knew him too well to be imposed upon.

“Well, son, I guess this is it,” Ben said carefully.

“Yeah, Pa, I guess it is.”

“Adam, I hope that this journey you are embarking on will turn out to be everything you want it to be,” Ben continued. “But wherever you go, never forget that your brothers and I care for you and pray for you. And know that, if you should ever decide that you want to return, you will always be welcomed home with open arms.”

Ben’s voice began to shake a little as he spoke, and the emotions that he was striving so hard to control were threatening to rise up and overwhelm him. He reached out and drew his son into a powerful embrace, and Adam returned it. They stood together that way for a long moment, and when they finally drew apart they both appeared drained. But Adam still had something more to say.

“Pa, I need to tell you how grateful I am for the support you’ve always given me. Especially now. I know it isn’t easy for you, but you’ve made it possible for me to do what I have to do.”

“That’s my job, son.” Ben managed a trace of a smile.

“And you do it very well.”

And then the voice of the driver intruded. “Time to be goin’,” he called.

Adam turned his head. “Coming!” he called back. Then he returned his gaze to his father. “Good-bye, Pa,” he said quietly.

“Good-bye son. And God keep you.”

Adam set his foot on the step of the stage. Then, with one final glance back at his family, he stepped inside and took the seat next to Edwin.

“Everything all right, Adam?” Edwin asked

“Everything’s fine,” Adam replied. He settled back in his seat, pulled his hat down over his eyes and began to think about all the things he’d like to do when they reached New York.

The driver took up the reins and called to the horses. Slowly the stage pulled away from the depot. It picked up speed as it headed down the street and out of town, kicking up dust in its wake.

Ben Cartwright stepped out into the middle of the street, and Hoss and Joe came up on either side of him. Together they watched as the stage grew smaller and smaller until it eventually disappeared completely from sight. They remained standing there for a moment longer, each absorbed in his own thoughts. Then Ben roused himself to place an arm around the shoulders of each of his sons. “Come on, boys. Let’s go home,” he said quietly.

And together they moved off down the street as the last traces of the morning haze disappeared and the sun shone brightly down on them.

***The End***

Author’s Notes:

*Edwin Booth actually did temporarily abandon the stage following his brother’s assassination of President Lincoln, until January of the following year, when he returned to a warm reception.

 **Edwin Booth did in fact have another, older brother who was named for their father, Junius Brutus Booth.

 ***Edwin’s speech is from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, Act III, Scene I.

 

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