Summary: A prequel story — Ever wonder how Adam got that little scar on his lip. This story tries to explain that.
Word Count: 3419
Easter was fast approaching and twelve-year-old Joe Cartwright couldn’t wait. He wasn’t a child any longer, but the fun of decorating eggs and getting some rare chocolate treats was still a reason to be joyful. Easter meant no school for a week too, so that made it even more special. His teacher was traveling to be with her family and wouldn’t be back for seven days. Joe hoped to make the most of those days if he could convince his brother Hoss and his father to do some fun things even if the spring workload was heavy. He wouldn’t even try to get Adam to do anything fun. He had been grumpy for at least a week and it seemed even longer. Joe even got out of bed before anyone called his name, which was an Easter miracle in itself. He walked out into the hall dressed and ready to do his chores and met Hoss leaving his room.
“Hey, Shortshanks, what’s got you all fired up this morning?”
“Hop Sing said I could help color and decorate eggs. Gonna do my chores and eat breakfast. He said we would start to work as soon as the breakfast dishes were done.”
Joe and Hoss met Adam coming out of the barn when they headed that way. He was leading Sport and had his jacket on and some tools in his other hand. He put the tools in his saddlebags and mounted up. “Chores are done. Tell Pa I’ll finish the repairs to the fence up in the east pasture and then start work on that line cabin like we discussed.”
With that, Adam turned his horse and rode out. Joe and Hoss stood there with nearly identical quizzical expressions. He hadn’t even given them time to say thank you. He never said goodbye.
“Well, that was right friendly of our older brother to do that.”
“Well he didn’t have to be so grouchy about it. A smile and a goodbye would have been nice.”
“Aw, c’mon now. He done our chores. How can you complain about him when he done that?”
“He’s just been so grumpy lately.”
“Maybe he done our chores to kinda say he was sorry about that. You know he don’t say what he’s feeling most of the time. You just have to read him.”
“How do you read him?”
“Well you watch how he walks or leans. You look at his eyes and his eyebrows. You watch where he puts his hands and his arms. You kinda learn what each move means so you can read him.”
“Seems it would be a lot easier if he just told us.”
“Don’t think that’s ever gonna happen. Now let’s go git some breakfast.”
When they told their father what Adam had done and said, he was grumpy too.
“You would think he would have some time to have breakfast with us. He hasn’t sat down to a meal with us in a week. Now it’s his birthday and I didn’t even get to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to him this morning. I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy.”
Hoss winced when he heard that. Adam was starting to hate being referred to as a boy and being introduced as ‘my oldest boy’ and so on. He knew too that every year, Adam got grouchy and unapproachable as his birthday neared. Adam said once he wished they would just forget about his birthday. His father had said that was ‘ridiculous’, and Adam got one of those mask faces he got whenever something was bothering him an awful lot.
“Pa, it’s really Adam’s birthday? Why didn’t he say something? When it’s my birthday, I always say something.”
“Joe, Adam don’t really like his birthdays.”
“Why not, Hoss? I thought everybody liked birthdays. Heck, I even like other people’s birthdays. I thought you did too, ’cause there’s always cake?”
Hoss looked at his father and saw the shiny eyes and thought he better end this conversation soon. “He’s just don’t and that’s it.”
“Well, I’m going to ask him why then, ’cause I want to know.”
“Joseph, you will not bother your brother with this. He has a right to think however he wishes. Is that clear?”
Joe nodded. When his Pa talked in that tone, there was no other choice except to agree. Sometimes Adam didn’t and then there would be this loud argument between Adam and his Pa. He liked to be outside that room with Hoss whenever that happened. They had had a doozy of an argument like that just last year on Adam’s birthday. He had not heard all that was said but he heard enough, even if it didn’t make much sense to him. He decided it was time to ask Hoss about it, once they were clear of their father’s hearing. Pa sent them out to chop some wood for the kitchen so it was a perfect time to ask.
“Hoss, can you explain to me what that big argument was between Pa and Adam last year on his birthday? You said you’d tell me when I was older. Well, I’m older now.”
“Aww, Little Joe, I don’t know if I ought to. You won’t repeat any of this to Adam now, will you?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
“Well, all right. Pa lit into Adam last year for being sad on his birthday. He said there was no reason for Adam to grieve as he had never known his mother. Pa said he had grieve just as Pa had for the other two wives he had lost — you know, our ma’s — but that Adam didn’t know what that grief was like. Well, Adam done lost it then. He got real mad. He said, ‘No, of course I don’t. I just feel guilty on my birthday when I see tears in your eyes and realize it’s because of me. And I never got to grieve for Hoss’ ma, because when I did cry, you said ‘Don’t cry, son, or you’ll make me cry’ so I didn’t. I held it all inside and never let it out. Then when Joe’s ma died, you fell apart in your grief so I couldn’t grieve then either. I had to take care of the ranch and Hoss and Joe while you were wallowing in your grief.’ And that’s when Pa hit him and not a slap neither, but he used his fist and hit him in the mouth. Now, sometimes I’d like to hit him in the mouth too, but not when he’s a telling me how he feels.”
“Is that how Adam got that cut and that big bruise on his face?”
“Yep. Then he picked up his holster, hat, and coat, and he left, and he didn’t come back for a week. Pa was mad at first and then he was worried. By the time Adam walked back in, that bruise was all green and yellow and the cut on his lip was all scabbed over but you could see it had been a bad one.”
“Why didn’t he get a whipping for leaving like that? If I did something like that, Pa would have tanned me good.”
“’Cause Adam’s a man. You don’t go tanning a man. He won’t stand for it.”
“How old do I gotta be to be a man so Pa can’t tan me no more?”
“With you, that may never happen.”
Joe got a wide-eyed look at that, until he saw Hoss’ smirk. Joe would have done something about it but quickly remembered he needed to be on his best behavior so he could color eggs and so he would get his Easter treats. He could plan something to do to Hoss after Easter.
Hoss ended up in the kitchen with him decorating eggs. They made a big bowl of them and set them on the dining room table. Then they watched as Hop Sing decorated a cake for Adam’s birthday. They couldn’t wait to taste it that night.
Joe was very disappointed, though, when Adam did not return before his bedtime. Joe was lying in bed thinking nasty thoughts about his oldest brother when he heard Adam ride in. He jumped out of bed and ran over to his window, and he was going to shout something at Adam to let him know how mean he was. But instead, Joe watched him dismount and drop his head against the saddle and just stand that way for a moment before he led Sport into the barn with slow steps. Joe remembered what Hoss had said about reading him and realized that Adam was hurt or sad. He planned to work on this because it really wasn’t that hard to do. Then he heard the front door open and close and saw his Pa walking to the barn. He couldn’t hear what was said, but he saw them walk out of the barn a bit later and Pa had his arm around Adam’s shoulders.
Hoss tapped lightly on Joe’s door. That boy slept through anything, so if he was asleep, he wouldn’t hear. Soon, though, he heard footsteps and Joe opened the door.
“Pa says if you want some, you can come downstairs and we’ll have birthday cake to celebrate Adam’s birthday.”
Joe didn’t need a second invitation. He ran down the hall and took the steps two at a time.
Ben was going to call to Joe to admonish him but stopped himself when Joe threw himself into Adam’s arms.
Adam caught him by reflex. “Hey, little buddy, what’s this all about?”
“Happy birthday, Adam. Can you play it on your guitar so we can sing it to you?”
Adam smiled and picked up the guitar. He played and the three sang to him. Then they walked to the table. Hop Sing brought out the cake with the candles blazing and Adam blew the candles out. Hoss ate his first piece of cake so fast, he hardly had a chance to taste it, so he asked for another piece. Adam smiled again and told Hop Sing to give Hoss a big piece this time.
Joe was staring at Adam and finally Adam had to know. “Joe, what are you staring at?”
“Does it still hurt?”
“Does what hurt?”
“The scar. Does that still hurt?”
Adam looked at his father and then at Hoss. “No it doesn’t hurt at all. It’s all healed now. Thank you for asking, and can I have another piece of cake before Hoss has a third piece?”
“I can have a third piece?”
The Scar Story from Ben’s Point Of View
My son Adam is a complex man. I seldom know what is going on behind those eyes that seem to see everything. I very much failed to see what the problem was this year as Easter neared. It was only on Adam’s birthday that the truth hit me between the eyes. As I sat at the breakfast table for the fifth time that week without my eldest in attendance, I was angry that he had so little consideration for us that he wouldn’t sit down to meals with us. He left early and came back after dinner. At first, Hop Sing had been angry with him too, but something changed and by midweek, Hop Sing was holding a plate for him on the warming shelf above the stove. Adam would eat in there and then head to his bedroom. I had no delusion that he was going to sleep. He was just avoiding us, or, as I came to realize, he was avoiding me with the one thing I could hardly forbid him to do: he spent all those hours working.
Every morning this week, Adam has been up early and doing his chores. He left each day before his brothers were even awake. Today they saw him before he left and Joe said he didn’t say goodbye but only that he was going to do the repairs we had discusses. I never even got to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to him and he was gone no doubt to return as late as the other nights. Well, tonight was to be his birthday dinner, and if he thinks I’m going to let that slide, he doesn’t know me very well.
Joe and Hoss have been my salvation this week with all of their excitement over Easter. Hop Sing has boiled eggs and the boys are going to help color them today. I have some chocolates in my room to give to them on Easter after church services. I needed to give Hop Sing some time to clean up after breakfast and prepare for the egg coloring, so I sent my youngest sons out to chop wood to fill the bins in the kitchen. Unlike Adam, they seem unaware of how well I can hear them with the window over my desk, open to let in the mild spring breeze. When I hear Hoss talking in answer to Joe’s query about the argument that Adam and I had last year on his birthday, I suddenly found it hard to breathe.
“Well, all right. Pa lit into Adam last year for being sad on his birthday. He said there was no reason for Adam to grieve on his birthday as he had never known his mother. Pa said he had grieved just as Pa had for the other two wives he had lost — you know, our ma’s — but that Adam didn’t know what that grief was like. Well, Adam done lost it then. He got real mad. He said, ‘No, of course I don’t. I just feel guilty on my birthday when I see tears in your eyes and realize it’s because of me. And I never got to grieve for Hoss’ ma because when I did cry, you said, ‘Don’t cry, son, or you’ll make me cry’ so I didn’t. I held it all inside and never let it out. Then when Joe’s ma died, you fell apart in your grief so I couldn’t grieve then either. I had to take care of the ranch and Hoss and Joe while you were wallowing in your grief.’ And that’s when Pa hit him and not a slap neither, but he used his fist and hit him in the mouth. Now, sometimes I’d like to hit him in the mouth too but not when he’s a telling me how he feels.”
How could I have forgotten what had happened with Adam that day? What must my son be feeling? We never resolved that argument. I hit him, and he left for a week. When he returned, he said he didn’t want to talk about it. I meant to get into that conversation with him at some point but I failed in that regard.
I spent most of that day lost in thought. I composed and then rewrote in my mind at least a dozen times the speech I needed to give to my son. I expected him to be late and wasn’t surprised when he wasn’t there at dinner. I tried to have a normal meal with my two younger sons, but I could see how disappointed they were. I sent Joe to bed at the usual time but suspected he wouldn’t be going to sleep. That young one has a short fuse and holds a grudge. Hopefully, if I accomplished what I hoped with Adam, Joe and Hoss would be feeling better before this evening was done.
The sound of a horse’s hooves let me know Adam was home. I looked out the study window and all I saw was the downcast set of his head and shoulders. My son was hurting and I was the only one who could help. I grabbed my jacket and headed out to the stable to see him. He was standing next to Sport feeding him sweet grain when I entered the barn.
“Hello, son. We missed you at dinner, and I know I’m the reason for that. I have something to say and it’s a year late, so I hope you can forgive me. I’ve been told that when I’m angry, I lose my sense of hearing. I think it may affect my vision too, because what I missed last year was all the hurt and grief that was inside you. I denied it was there because I didn’t want that to be true. You are not the reason for my teary eyes on your birthday. You are the reason that my grief over losing your mother was not all encompassing. She lives in you. I loved you from the moment I first held you and I always will. I never knew how my words affected a six-year-old. I didn’t know that the wall you built up around your heart was built from my words. I was blinded by my own needs and didn’t see how a boy with no home who lost the only mother he had ever known would be devastated, perhaps even more than I was. I can never make that right, but I am so sorry I acted that way. And yes, I did the same to Joe and Hoss when Marie died and left you to take care of everything. I was wrong, but in my depression, I didn’t realize what I had done. By the time I regained my good sense, you seemed fine and I never suspected that you were doing that to help me.”
My son Adam tried to reassure me then that he never meant for me to feel guilty. He just wanted me to understand how he felt. Finally I did. Acknowledging his needs seemed to go a long way in lifting his spirits. I asked if he could celebrate his birthday with us as we all loved him and wanted to enjoy some time with him. He gave me one of those crooked little grins he has and I knew things were better between us. I hugged him then, and in the darkness of the stable with no witnesses, I got a rare hug in return. We groomed Sport together and talked over the back of his chestnut horse about what he had done that week. I commended him on all that he had accomplished and he dipped his head a little in embarrassment over the praise. Apparently I did too little of that with him too. We left the stable, and he allowed me to walk with my arm around his shoulders. I saw Joe at his window and suspected he had planned a verbal assault on his brother, but apparently he had reconsidered because he remained as a silent witness.
Once inside, I sent Hoss up to get Joe. I knew he was awake, but the energy that one has is amazing. He came flying down those stairs, and before I could yell at him for it, he leaped into Adam’s arms and hugged him. Now Joe is the only one who can seem to hug Adam without him flinching out of it, but he had rarely done it since Adam had returned from college. This was a welcome sight indeed, and I saw Hoss standing on the landing grinning at the same thing that caused my heart to swell. Joe begged for Adam to play so we could sing to him. Now Adam is a fine singer and I’m sure our enthusiastic, although discordant, singing was difficult for him to hear, but he accepted the motive, if not the gift, with his usual aplomb.
Hop Sing brought out a cake with candles ablaze and we had a good time. Hoss ate three pieces of cake and then wondered if he could have another, because there was still some left. I said no because we could have the rest for a rare dessert with breakfast. He was so disappointed that we all had to laugh at the look on his face. On my eldest son’s face, though, was a look of peace and calm I had not seen in a while. Joe had asked if that scar on his lip from where I hit him a year ago still hurt, and he looked at Hoss and then at me before smiling and assuring Joe it didn’t hurt any more. Hoss and I both knew he was talking about more than that scar.