Dark House (by Rona)

Summary:  Adam realizes life on the Ponderosa has changed.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  3945


 

The train station was bustling, as it usually was when the great ‘Iron Horse’ made its scheduled arrival. The novelty of the railroad had still to wear off in this small Western town. Some of the people were clearly going to be travelers, surrounded by bags and baskets and excited children. Some were just as obviously waiting to greet someone who was arriving. Others were just there to rubber-neck. Who knew what excitement might occur?

 A man stood alone at the back of the platform. Several people had already greeted him, but although he was usually gregarious by nature, this day he didn’t want to talk and he was swiftly left to himself. He felt oddly detached from the excitement of the crowd, from those anxious with various kinds of anticipation. He felt a cold knot in his stomach as the first plumes of white smoke caught his eye.

 He straightened as the great iron engine slid to a stop by the platform. Doors opened in the carriages and people swarmed forward, eager to get onboard, eager to meet friends and relatives. The man stepped forward a single pace and stopped, his eyes scanning the crowd. Sudden fear gripped him – would he recognize the person he had come to meet?

 *****

As the train pulled into the station, the man rose wearily to his feet and reached for the valise that sat at his feet. He was tired of travelling, tired of the unending sameness of the landscape beyond the train’s windows. He wondered exactly why he had come.

Pausing in the doorway of the train as a woman was handed down, he surveyed the people on the platform. He knew that he was being met and wished that the final leg of his journey was over and done with. He was too old to be gallivanting all across the country. He’d got his lust for travel out of his system a few years ago.

Stepping down, he courteously thanked the Negro porter for the unnecessary help, then wondered if he looked as old as that. Surely not! After all, he was in his prime – wasn’t he?

Looking around once more, he didn’t see a single familiar face and a pang of anxiety – all right, pure fear – shot through his gut. Would he recognize the man who was coming to meet him? After all, it had been seven long years since they had last met.

“Adam?”

The voice was much as Adam Cartwright remembered, but the man standing in front of him was not the younger brother that he so vividly recalled from his younger days. Joe was still slender, although much more muscular than Adam recalled, his face had filled out, but the biggest shock was the shaggy grey hair! Stunned, Adam gaped for a few ungracious seconds as reality sank in. It had been seven years. Joe was older, he was a widower; of course he had changed.

Joe was equally surprised by the sight of Adam. He had had a few moments longer to get over his shock at his oldest brother’s changed appearance. Adam was heavier than he had been, his muscles softer, was wearing a full, grey beard and showed too many signs that his life was now spent behind a desk, not working hard outside. For a long moment, he had appeared to be the stranger Joe had feared.

“Joe.” Adam put out his hand and Joe shook it automatically, although it crossed his mind that perhaps they should have embraced one another. Wasn’t that a more normal reaction for brothers meeting after a separation?

“The buggy is this way,” Joe offered, not at all sure what to say to this citified older man. “Do you have any other baggage?”

“No, just this.” Adam waited expectantly, and after a beat, Joe led the way to the front of the station where the buggy was hitched.

It only took a moment to get Adam’s bag situated in the back, and as Joe turned the horse, he pondered the meaning of the small valise. Adam could not possibly have all his belongings in there. Perhaps he had a trunk coming separately? Joe didn’t really like to ask, not two minutes after having met his brother.

“The town seems bigger than I remembered it,” Adam offered neutrally as they pulled smoothly away. “But a bit more run-down.”

“The mines aren’t doing too well at the moment,” Joe replied, wondering if he really heard disapproval in Adam’s voice. “Some of the folks have moved on. Others will come to take their places in time.”

“Is the silver bonanza over?” Adam enquired. He was gazing around with vague interest. “Didn’t that used to be the general store?” he blurted, pointing to a boarded up building.

“Yup,” Joe agreed. “Hanson went bust and moved on. We’ve got another store on Main Street.”

“Good Lord!” Adam exclaimed a moment or two later. “There’s a new jail building and it’s bigger. How does Roy Coffee like that?”

A pang shot through Joe and he had to fight to keep his voice even. Hadn’t Adam read the letters that had been sent to him? “Roy had a stroke a few years ago,” Joe replied quietly. “He’s still alive, but he doesn’t know anyone now and he needs help with everything. Clem Foster is the sheriff now.”

“Clem?” Adam repeated, and for a moment, Joe could see that his brother could barely remember the man. Then the frown cleared and Adam nodded. “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye with him when he first came,” he recalled.

“No, that’s true,” Joe agreed. “But he’s a good man, Clem. A good sheriff.”

They continued their journey down the street. Joe had almost asked Adam if he wanted to say hello to Clem, but changed his mind. And there was no point in taking him to see Roy Coffee. The old man was shrunken and frail, muttering to himself in a barely audible undertone. It was a sad end for a good man.

“Is the Silver Dollar still there?” Adam enquired politely. “And the Bucket of Blood?”

“No, they’ve both gone,” Joe replied. Again he wondered if Adam had read any of the letters sent. Or had he just skimmed over the parts mentioning the changes in the town? “Saloons come and go, depending on the mines.”

As they cleared the outskirts of the town, Joe urged the buggy horse into a trot. He glanced sideways at Adam. The older man seemed perfectly content to keep silent, but Joe simply had to ask. “Have you got a trunk coming with the rest of your stuff?” he ventured finally.

“Um – no,” Adam answered and closed his mouth very firmly.

Nonplussed, Joe continued to look at Adam, waiting for his brother to expand on what he’d said, but Adam turned his head to survey the surrounding countryside. Adam himself was surprised that he hadn’t said any more on the subject either, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Feeling that something ought to be said, he cleared his throat. “I was sorry to hear about… Alice,” he offered.

Joe’s face closed up and the look of pain in his eyes made Adam wish he hadn’t said anything. But how was he to know whether to mention Alice or not? It was incredibly awkward – etiquette didn’t cover a situation of offering condolences to your bereaved brother when you had never met your deceased sister-in-law. He was sure he shouldn’t have said anything, but it was too late now. After all, they hadn’t yet mentioned Hoss, or their father, just friends and Adam wasn’t sure what to say about their brother’s death.

“Thank you,” Joe breathed after a couple of minutes of fighting his emotions. Most of the time, he could deal with Alice’s death, but sometimes, something happened, like Adam’s condolences and the grief sprang up and choked him.

“Pa’s letter indicated that he was quite concerned that you and that other man might not come back from chasing after those killers,” Adam went on, wishing he had never brought up the subject, but feeling he ought to show that he had been thinking about Joe’s troubles. “At least you weren’t hurt chasing after them like that.” He made a sound that could have been a chuckle. “Same old Joe,” he added. “Always chasing after trouble without thinking.”

“When Candy and I went after those men, I was thinking, Adam,” Joe retorted stiffly. “The time I wasn’t thinking – didn’t want to think – was the time I was travelling, trying to run away from my feelings, not realizing that they would follow me wherever I went. At least once I had caught her – their – killers, I had some sort of closure.” Joe would always remember returning and kneeling by Alice’s grave, still wishing he had died with her, but knowing that he was alive for a reason. It had taken some time before he started wakening in the morning and looking forward to getting up.

Shaken as he was by Joe’s words, one of them had caught Adam’s attention. “’Their’ killers?” he queried.

“Alice was expecting our child,” Joe whispered. “I was building a nursery.”

“I’m so sorry,” Adam murmured. He didn’t remember Ben writing to tell him that part of the story. A pang for the loss of a child he could dangle on his knee and love without being ultimately responsible for it shot through him. Would he and Joe be the end of the Cartwright line?

There was silence again for a while, long enough for Adam’s thoughts to turn once again to their destination. He wasn’t sure he was ready for this. There had been so many changes while he had been gone. That thought triggered another one. “Can we visit Hoss’ grave first?” he asked, hoarsely.

“Of course,” Joe responded. “I thought you might like to do that.” He glanced at his brother. “I wish you could have been home when Hoss died,” he continued. “Both Pa and I wanted that.”

“I wish I could, too, Joe,” Adam assured him. “But I couldn’t face coming back alone after hearing that news. Not when I had missed the funeral anyway. Did he… was it…”

“He didn’t suffer too much,” Joe replied steadily. “Really, it was all quick. But him going so suddenly…” Joe stopped for a moment. He swallowed hard before going on. “I always felt that Hoss was invincible, you know. It was difficult knowing that you were so far away that you wouldn’t get back. I think… Pa… Pa always hoped you would come home after that, to stay.”

The unasked question was there in his words, but Adam pretended he didn’t understand and didn’t answer. He missed Hoss and knew he would miss Hoss even more now that he was back at the ranch and could see for himself that Hoss wasn’t there. Not that he had been deluding himself that Hoss was still alive – that wasn’t Adam’s way – but dreams sometimes led him to think that all was as it had always been back at the Ponderosa and it gave him a kind of comfort.

Sensing that his question wasn’t going to be answered, or at least not at the moment, Joe sighed. “I don’t suppose you have a wife and family that you’ve forgotten to mention in your letters?” he asked, the teasing tone clear in his voice.

That was better, Adam thought. He couldn’t handle the somber tone the conversation had taken for much longer. “No, not unless I’ve completely lost my marbles and have forgotten about them now I’m here in the flesh, too,” he joked back. He grew serious again. Letters could only tell so much. “There was a young lady,” he hedged. “I loved her, but she loved someone else and married him.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe murmured. It occurred to him that they had spent a lot of time apologizing to each other for things that neither had any control over.

“I have a… companion,” Adam revealed. “We are discreet, but even if we married, we wouldn’t have children. I’m too old for that nonsense and so is Grace. The Cartwrights won’t continue through my efforts.” It wasn’t that Adam didn’t like children, because he did. He had very fond memories of Peggy, Laura’s daughter, and knew that Peggy was a good bit of the reason he had thought he was in love with Laura, but he had never really had an urge to have children of his own. If he had married and they had come… well, that was different. But he couldn’t imagine himself going out and finding a young wife solely for the purpose of having children. He was too old and set in his ways.

“None of us knows what the future holds,” Joe responded. He had wanted to yell at Adam for the implications in his remark, tell him that he had just buried his wife and was hardly ready to go looking for another one. After all, when he met Alice, he hadn’t been looking for a wife, particularly; it had just happened. Joe had been remarkably unlucky in his love life and he sometimes thought he was cursed to remain single forever.

“Where are we going?” Adam asked after a few moments, observing that they were no longer on the direct route to the Ponderosa.

“You wanted to see Hoss,” Joe responded. He was beginning to feel a little annoyed at Adam’s lapses in memory. “He’s buried…”

“Of course, at Hoss’ Heaven,” Adam concluded. “I suppose I was thinking about the lake where…Marie is.”

“You used to call her Ma,” Joe observed, his tone carefully neutral.

“Now that I live in Boston, I sometimes come across people who remember my own mother,” Adam explained, wondering why he felt so defensive about this. “It can create confusion to mention ‘Ma’ when sometimes I mean Inger and sometimes Marie. I’ve sort of got into the habit of calling them both by their names.” He touched Joe’s arm, the first contact the brothers had had since shaking hands at the station. “I don’t mean any disrespect, Joe.”

“I can see the problem,” Joe agreed. “Do you like Boston?”

“It’s my home,” Adam replied, simply and Joe winced.

“The Ponderosa is still your home, too,” Joe remarked.

“I no longer have only myself to consider,” Adam reminded his brother. “I don’t think I could ask Grace to come all the way out here to live. She’s used to civilization.”

“The Paiutes hardly bother us at all now,” Joe retorted. He always felt a pang of guilt at the way the Indians were treated by most white people. The Cartwrights had always done their best by their neighbors, whatever their color, race or creed, but the Paiutes had been forced onto a reservation, like so many other tribes and Joe didn’t think it was fair. “And hey – we even have a railroad nowadays.”

Smiling, Adam agreed. “I know, Joe, but that wasn’t really what I meant. Grace has lived all her life in a city. I don’t think she would transplant well to a completely rural existence. After all, going to the Ladies’ Aid meetings in the evening during the winter would hardly be possible, would it?”

“Uh – I guess not,” Joe agreed. It was a thought that had never crossed his mind with Alice. He didn’t know if she’d ever thought about joining the Ladies’ Aid and it had certainly never occurred to him to ask if she minded living in the country. After all, she knew that he worked on a ranch; living in town would have been impractical.

As though he had been reading Joe’s mind, Adam added, “Remember, Grace has only known me in Boston, never here. To her, the Ponderosa is something from my past.” He chuckled. “I don’t really see her wearing those skirts that some of your past girlfriends wore to ride in. I don’t know if she has even seen a Western saddle.”

It was a whole other world, Joe thought, as alien to him as the moon. He shook his head slightly and brought the horse to a halt. They had arrived at Hoss’ Heaven, a stunningly beautiful area looking out across the ranch. Hoss had always said he would build a house there if he should ever marry and when his death was nigh, he had requested that he be buried there.

As Adam knelt stiffly by the grave, Joe stood looking out across the vista. He could remember bringing Alice here. The memory both comforted and tormented. After a time, Joe looked at Adam and saw that his oldest brother had not changed that much. His eyes were dry but their depths revealed a grief that he couldn’t share with Joe.

“Let’s go,” Adam said, quietly, rising slowly. Hoss’ death was suddenly so real to him that he thought his heart would burst if he stayed there any longer. He had loved Hoss very deeply, right from the first moment that he had seen his infant brother, and the love had never wavered over the years. As Joe had said, Hoss always seemed invincible, but now he was gone. Adam felt a pang of his own mortality. “Let’s go to the house.”

The brothers were silent now, heading for the ranch house. Joe wondered briefly why Adam had wanted to go there first, rather than the graveyard by the lake, but reasoned that the older man must be tired. He clearly wasn’t as fit as he had been while working on the ranch and Joe suddenly realized that his brother was in his mid-fifties. It seemed extraordinary. Still, the graveyard would be there tomorrow and Adam would have had a good night’s sleep in his own bed by then.

“What about Hop Sing?” Adam suddenly asked.

“Oh, he’s still in charge of the kitchen,” Joe replied, sounding sadly amused. “He keeps his nephew or whoever Lin Song is jumping. He’s too frail to do anything but issue orders now and some of them are out of date.” He sighed, for Hop Sing had always been part of the family and Joe loved him. But the little Chinese cook was failing fast and Joe knew that there would soon be another loss for him to deal with.

In some ways, losing Hoss and Alice while they were young and vigorous had been easier to take than watching loved ones grow old and unlike themselves. The loss of memory and motor skills that kept Roy Coffee cruelly imprisoned in a body that would no longer do his bidding seemed immensely wrong. Watching Hop Sing, once so full of energy, being fed after he had been put to bed, and knowing that the Chinese man had full retention of his faculties and knew of the indignities that old age was handing him, was torture of the worst kind. One day, Joe knew that his body, too, would start to fail him. Would he end up bed-ridden and incapable? Joe shuddered.

“Does Candy still live in the house?” Adam enquired.

“Sure does,” Joe replied, wrenching his mind firmly away from those painful thoughts. “You’ll like Candy, Adam.”

“I’m sure I will,” Adam replied positively, but privately, he wasn’t so sure. Candy seemed like a bit of a maverick from the things Ben had written in his letters and Adam thought that Joe didn’t need someone else to lead him into trouble. He seemed to manage to find enough trouble on his own. Yet there could be no doubting from what Ben had written that Joe and Candy had hit it off in a big way and that Ben and Hoss hadn’t been immune to this man’s charm either. Forgetting that he had not always chosen his own friends wisely, Adam wondered if Joe had made a mistake becoming so familiar with this man. “It’s unusual for the foreman to sleep in the house. I don’t remember that ever happening before.”

“I’m not quite sure how it came about, either,” Joe grinned. “But it did and we’ve never regretted it. He’s a good friend, Adam.”

“Being a good foreman is more important,” Adam intoned sententiously.

Rolling his eyes, Joe grunted. “Do you really think we’d have kept him on if he wasn’t?” he jibed.

The horse suddenly picked up his trot slightly and Joe sat up a little straighter. “Soon be home,” he murmured.

A cold knot lodged itself in Adam’s stomach and he sank back in the seat.

Pulling the buggy to a halt, Joe slid from the seat and looped the rein around the hitching post. “I’ll get someone to come and see to the buggy,” he told Adam over his shoulder. “Come on inside.” He patted the horse’s neck and ducked underneath it, looking expectantly at his older brother. “Adam?”

“I can’t,” Adam whispered. He knew now, for sure, that he should have never made this journey. A verse by Tennyson whispered in his mind:

Dark house, by which once more I stand,

Here in the long, unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand.

 

“What?” Joe asked, frowning, clearly not understanding. Yet how could Joe understand something that he didn’t really understand himself?

 “I can’t go in there,” Adam said, his voice as quiet, rich and dark as Joe had ever heard it. “This is a mistake. I can’t go in.”

 “But Adam…” Joe swallowed, clearly at a loss. “Its home,” he persisted.

And that was when he knew. “No,” he murmured. That was it; that was the word that had jarred all his thinking since Joe’s letter had arrived, asking him to come home. Because the Ponderosa was, in his heart, no longer his home. He had his fond memories of the place, but he did not want to go inside and have them superseded by something that he would not – could not – remember fondly; something that had changed completely forever. Already, some of his memories had been irrevocably changed. He didn’t want to remember Hoss Heaven with a gravestone, but knew he always would. He didn’t want to go into the house and see the changes, the losses – or see his father as a living corpse, still alive, still breathing, but completely unable to communicate. Joe’s letters had not left any detail out. For all that Ben was alive, he was essentially dead and Adam could not deal with seeing that, however selfish that made him. “Take me back to the train.”

*****

As the buggy left the yard, only one man turned to look back and it was the wrong man. Joe stood in the same spot as if he had been transfixed and only the lone tear on his lashes betrayed the incredible hurt he felt. All those days and miles of travel and Adam had left without a backward glance, without even going into the house.

Home is where the heart is. For Joe, the Ponderosa had always held his heart. Even in those dark days after Alice’s death, he had known that, eventually, he would return to the only home he had ever known and wanted. Even now, it was where he wanted to be. For Adam, it was different. His heart had made a home elsewhere, despite the hurt it caused his family. Swallowing over the lump in his throat, Joe resolutely squared his shoulders. Adam had always been honest and true to himself. In this he was no different.

Alone, Joe went inside the dark house.

***End***

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