At Dusk (by faust)

Summary: What has happened that has changed Adam so much?
A story about the ravages of life and the endurance of love with references to ‘Triangle’ and ‘Forever.’
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9500


The early evening had brought a soft breeze and a slight decrease of temperature. The night promised to be cooler than the last few, and that would bring some relief. Adam would be sleeping easier, maybe even all through the night—and that meant she might be able to get a full night’s rest, too.

She stretched her back, rubbed with her hands where the stiffness had settled most. She was bone tired. Bone tired, yet in an exhaustedly-enthusiastic way elated. After a full day out on the pastures looking for stray cattle, she had come home just in time to be called into the barn and watch their champion mare giving birth to a perfect little filly.

She massaged her aching shoulders and neck and rolled her head, listening to the soft creaks. What she wouldn’t give for one of Adam’s famous back rubs…No, that had been then.

She sighed deeply, then turned and headed to the ranch house. Sooner or later she had to go in, even though she didn’t feel ready for it. But then, she never felt ready for it, and she doubted that she ever would.

You would, if you only wanted it enough.

She shook her head. Don’t start with that, not today, not…not again. Breathe. In and out. Calmly.

Calm. Slow. In and out.

Slowly she made her way to the front porch. Mrs. Browne must have heard her—or she had just known she would come, in that miraculous way she often sensed what was going on at the Ponderosa—because there was a mug of hot chocolate waiting on the porch table.

Hot chocolate. Heaven. Five minutes all for herself, enshrouded in sweet delicious smell and the taste of normality. She indulged in the rich taste, the strong bitterness below the faint flavour of honey. Felt warmth flow through her body, pleasant even after a hot day, savoured the pampering until the last drop.

She put the mug down, almost reluctantly, then put her hands decisively onto the table and pushed herself up. Time to face the evening.

The big room was cool, as usual. In summer, Mrs. Browne always kept the curtains closed during the day, and the thick walls did the rest to keep the heat out. Even though he often complained about the dim light, Adam coped better with that than with the room being too hot. And she surely didn’t mind the coolness after a day in the scorching sun.

She spotted him at his usual place, behind the big desk. The table was cluttered with papers, some sorted into high, imbalanced stacks, some crumpled, some strewn over the top. Adam was bent over the desk, concentrated on a piece of paper on which he was drawing in his fine, precise strokes.

He looked up only when she had reached the desk and put a tender hand on his arm.

“Good evening, Adam,” she said and smiled encouragingly.

“Good…evening.” His answer was hesitant, and he leaned away from her.

It was just a tiny movement, but she knew what to look for and so it didn’t escape her notice. She sighed. It was going to be one of those evenings.

“Did you have a good day, Adam?” Sometimes she didn’t know how she managed the smile, but it was there, always, and it never felt false.

“I, well…yes. Yes, indeed.” He looked down on the disarray, spread his hands and hovered them over the papers as if he was trying to move them by magic—or as if he wanted to make sure they were real.

And then, on sudden impulse, he turned his hands, palms up; and he looked like a merchant on a bazaar who proudly presented his goods.

“I drew,” he beamed. “I drew.” He looked down, at his artworks, and nodded complacently several times.

She considered his offering. The pictures were beautiful, as always. Adam’s talent at drawing always amazed her. His precise, neatly drafted architectural sketches had the clean quality of etchings. There was never one single line out of place, never one angle out of proportion, not one stroke thicker or thinner than the rest. In Europe, he had been famous for providing fail-safe construction plans, fool-proof blueprints—even though Adam had always said, there was no such thing as fool-proof. “Never underestimate the fools,” he had laughed, and she had tried to picture him talking sense into a German fool, or a French.

But Adam’s technical drafts were even outshone by his sketches of living things. His ability to copy shapes and structures in an almost photographic way combined with his uncanny way of capturing the spirit of people and animals on paper was like painted poetry. Just as a well written poem conveyed so much more than the plain words you read, Adam’s portraits showed more than just a face, they transmitted the nature of a person, of a horse, even of a tree.

Since they had started their secondary business of breeding thoroughbreds, horses for connoisseurs rather than for people who needed them as tools, Adam had drawn the animals they planned to offer for sale; and soon their customers had preferred to rely on the pictures over coming to the ranch to see the horses in the flesh.

There was a small assortment of horse pictures spread out on the desk: a beautiful grey mare, a surprisingly lithe young gelding, an impressively majestic black stallion. All of them horses they had sold years ago; all of them looking exactly the way she remembered them, up to the shape of the gelding’s tiny little blaze.

She palmed her mouth to hide the pained smile. Adam’s pictures were always perfectly accurate, without fault or flaw. It was as if his hands had a memory of their own, disconnected from the rest. They never failed.

Her gaze fell on the portrait of a woman, and she couldn’t withdraw her eyes before Adam noticed it.

He turned the paper and slid it toward her, so she could have an even better look at it.

“That’s my wife,” he said with a shy smile.

“Yes, I know.”

He didn’t respond. Of course, he didn’t. He never did. She sighed, and listened to the inevitable, “I had a wife once, but she was taken.”

He looked up, biding; and she prayed silently that for once he wouldn’t go on, not today, not now, not again, not—

“Have you ever met her?”

Pursing her lips, she swallowed the sob. No matter how often Adam asked her this particular question, it always hurt her anew. Sometimes she tried to reason with him, tell him the truth, yell at him that he should know better, but it never did any good. The last time she had lost her patience he had retreated to himself for weeks and refused to talk to her at all. It had taken a lot to convince him she wasn’t one of “them” but his friend, and Adam had taken a turn for the worse during that period. She wouldn’t risk it again, if she could help it.

“I knew her, yes,” she finally offered.

Adam nodded. “She was a good wife. She wouldn’t have gone on her own. They took her, but she didn’t want to go.”

He picked up the portrait and studied it as if he saw it for the first time. “No, she didn’t want to go.” He shook his head. “She was a good wife.”

She knew to where this was going, and she was desperate to go through it as quickly as possible.

“Yes, she was a good wife,” she confirmed.

He rewarded her with a genuine smile; and then his face suddenly lost some decades and he looked like a hopeful little boy. “Do you think she might come back one day?”

“Oh, Adam.” This time she couldn’t choke the sob. “I’m sure she’d love to come back.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Yes, absolutely.”

“Then one day she’ll be back.” He seemed satisfied; not really convinced, but satisfied. As if imagining it was enough.

“I hope so.” And I pray I won’t lose my hope, I pray, pray, pray for a miracle. I pray, oh Holy Lord, I pray.

Adam looked at the picture again. “My wife. She’s beautiful. You look a bit like her, but, well, she’s much younger than you, of course. And she’s beautiful.”

Beautiful. She didn’t have to see the picture to know that. Yes, she had been beautiful, one of the most beautiful women Virginia City had seen in ages, people had said when she had come to stay at her uncle’s. Adam Cartwright, so they had also said, apparently had waited for a beauty like her to lure him back home after all those years travelling through Europe. It was ridiculous, of course, because his brother Hoss’s death had brought Adam home. Hoss’s death, the longing to finally settle down and the astonishing realisation that home was indeed the first place he had ever built, the Ponderosa.

But had he known that close to the Ponderosa a lady as beautiful as she had been waiting for him, Adam had told her the night he made his proposal, he might have come home earlier.

She had laughed and said that she actually had been waiting for him, but that she’d been a bit disappointed the first time she’d seen him. Somehow she had imagined him larger than life, and about a foot taller.

“A foot?” he had chuckled.

“At least a foot,” she had replied. And that the way the town’s people, her uncle included, had talked about him, Adam Cartwright was a hero, and from what she’d heard from Joe Cartwright, his brother was close to being a demigod.

Self-confident Adam had blushed endearingly at it, and somehow that had motivated her even more to say “yes” when he later had asked her to become his wife.

Yes, she had been beautiful back then and for a long time after that, but the strain of the past few years now showed on her features, and sometimes she didn’t even recognize herself in a mirror.

She grabbed another picture, blindly, and was relieved to see it was a relatively safe portrait: a man with a wrinkled face, a careful smile and heavy eyebrows over wise, incredibly dark eyes.

“Your father used to look exactly like that when he wasn’t sure how to deal with your ‘new-fangled ideas from Europe’,” she said, showing Adam her find.

“My father…you know him?” He gave her a puzzled gaze, then took the not-wrinkled paper, put it onto the desk, and meticulously smoothed it down.

For a moment she was taken into another time and place, imagining his hand caressing her face as he was stroking his father’s now. When had been the last time—? No. Don’t go that way. Stop it.

“I haven’t seen him for quite some time.” Adam studied the picture as if the answer were hidden in there somewhere.

She covered his hand with hers, noticing for the umpteenth time how thin it had become, how fleshless, how frail.

“Adam, your father is dead. Don’t you remember? He died last year; you were at his funeral. We were at his funeral.” She stroked the back of his hand with her thumb, enveloped his cold fingers with her warm ones, squeezed tenderly. “He’s resting down at the lake, next to Marie. If you want, I can take you down there tomorrow. We haven’t visited him for a long time.”

“At the lake?”

“At the lake.” She loosened her grip when she felt the tell-tale rigidness. Her endearments weren’t accepted easily these days, and if then only for brief moments. She let his hand go, let it fall back onto the desk, stroking over his fingers one last time as if to stretch them out.

He needed a manicure, she noted. Tomorrow.

Adam kept staring at the picture, smoothing it again for a few seconds, then, suddenly, he spread his hand wide, clawed at the paper like an animal, and screwed the paper into a tight ball.

“My father is dead. He’s dead. He was old, and now he’s dead. That’s how things go. He’s dead. Good.” He squashed the paper ball one last time, then threw it into the dustbin, hitting his target without even looking.

Instead, he glared at her: furious, wild, accusing. She made an involuntary step back.

“Adam…”

“I have sons, too. Right? I do have sons, I know that. I don’t forget things, I do not forget things, you hear me?”

“Adam, I…I’m sorry. I didn’t want to imply…I didn’t mean to upset you. Sometimes people do forget things; you, too. That’s not the end of the world, it happens. It’s all right.”

Don’t. Don’t patronize me.” He slammed his hands down on the desk. “Do not patronize me!” he roared.

She backed off, wincing. She felt her shoulders sagging, her head hanging, her arms crossing, her back curling. Like a hedgehog, it flashed through her. Only that I don’t have any prickles to defend me.

“Is everything all right, ma’am?”

Mrs. Browne, God bless her.

She relaxed, looked up into the motherly face of the housekeeper. “Yes, thank you, Mrs. Browne. Is…is it time for supper already?”

“Not quite, but it won’t be long now.”

Mrs. Browne slowly moved across the room. She didn’t spare the pictures on the desk a glance, but let her eyes dart between Adam and the pale, trembling woman before him. “It’s going to be pork roast tonight, Mr. Cartwright,” she said, halting her steps a good yard from the desk. “I was wondering if you’d prefer carrots with it or green beans.”

“Green beans would be very welcome, I think, Mrs. Browne.” Adam smiled and turned his attention from one woman to the other. “You do like green beans, don’t you?”

“Yes, very much.”

“Then green beans it shall be,” he announced.

Mrs. Browne deadpanned, “Very well, Sir,” and made a funny little curtsy that evoked a good-natured chuckle from Adam, before she returned to the kitchen.

It was an old game, a very old one. One of the many things Adam had brought home from Europe had been a fake English upper class accent he had used at the most unexpected moments, usually to a very comical effect. Being addressed with that “master’s voice” had driven Hop Sing mad, but when the cook eventually had gone home to China—whether or not because of that “master’s voice” had become a never-ending argument between Joe and Adam—Mrs. Browne had taken over his duties; and she had always loved to play along. She was a real and true prairie flower, never having left Nevada territory in her life, but she enacted the royal servant masterfully and took great amusement out of it—just like Adam.

Adam cleared his throat. “Well, yes, as I was about to tell you earlier, I do have sons. Two sons. William and Phillip. They are…” The triumph with which he had started his tale died in his voice. “They are…not here right now. They are…”

She could see he was searching his memory. His brows were furrowed, his lips a thin, concentrated line. She gave him time, hoping against hope that he’d find a missing puzzle piece, find a lost year.

His forlorn face when he gave up nearly broke her heart. His previous outburst had taken his fury away, and left him only shame: shame of not knowing things he was supposed to, shame of taking that out on her.

The shame was agonizing to witness, yet it was the closest thing to empathy he still seemed to be capable of. Even though Adam never apologized openly, he always showed her he was sorry: they both knew he favoured carrots.

She took a deep breath, then spoke very softly. “Phillip is at Harvard. I think his next letter is due any day now. He’ll be very busy with his medical year exams, though, so there might be some delay. And William, the youngest, went on the cattle drive with your brother Joe.” She had learnt to keep the emphasis on the crucial information nearly impeccable; Adam wouldn’t miss them anyway, but could pretend she was only babbling.

She realised her mistake only when Adam’s proud “I’m the father of a Harvard student”-face fell at the mention of his youngest, and hurried to distract him. “I think Uncle Paul is desperately waiting for Phillip to finish his studies and take over the office. He says he feels every bone in his old body these days.”

But Adam had already stopped listening. He was rummaging in the papers on the desk until he found the unavoidable picture. The one she dreaded the most. The portrait of a beautiful little girl with thick black curls, twinkling dark eyes and a brilliant, dimpled smile. He neatly laid it down in front of her.

“You’re wrong,” he said firmly. “This is my youngest: Anna.”

She closed her eyes. She didn’t need to see the picture. She’d never forget her daughter’s features—she saw them whenever she looked at Adam.

Her daughter, their daughter: Anna. A female Cartwright, a sensation.

Well, all their children had been sensations: first Phillip—born barely a year after they had gotten married—Ben Cartwright’s first grandchild, Joe Cartwright’s first nephew, Adam’s first child. No family could have given a woman, a new mother, a feeling of having accomplished a miracle such as her family had given her. They had made her feel special: Adam in particular. He had practically carried her in his arms throughout the pregnancy, and he had looked at her with new respect, with new admiration when she had given him what he’d wanted so desperately: a child.

William had been born less than a year later, and Adam had bristled with pride. “If we keep on this pace,” he had boasted—yes, boasted, “I’ll have to add a few more rooms to the house.”

She had shaken her head and admonished him “Adam!” but secretly she had felt the same pride. No, it had been a different pride. She had been delighted to be good at something, to be able to satisfy Adam, to…please him.

So very often she had felt inadequate. Adam had prompted her to read this book and that, to show interest in history and literature, in mathematic and law, in politics and economy; and she had tried, really tried. She hadn’t been ignorant, not completely, but she had never been to college, she had never travelled the world, and she had never met people like him before, people who liked to discuss every blasted little thing.

She had attended school, of course, had read the usual books young girls loved to read, and she had even gone to the theatre in Sacramento a few times—but she had been expected to marry a farmer one day, and so her education had focused on things required for that. After the deaths of her parents she had been sent to her uncle, who had taught her some basic medicine and wanted her to help him as a nurse.

Then Adam Cartwright had laid his eyes on her and said that she brightened his days with her bewitching smile, her optimistic outlook at things, and her ability to make him feel alive.

Neither of them had expected their age difference of nineteen years could ever become an issue. Not then, not before everyday life had replaced the honeymoon.

They had been happy, there was no question about that, loved each other dearly and showed it, but at times their conversations were a bit strained; they didn’t often share the same interests, and she couldn’t always follow his train of thought.

She still remembered the conversation they had had, their first marital row, when she had finally broken down and confessed her insecurities, her worry that she wasn’t what he really wanted, that she wasn’t what he had expected her to be, and how she felt he was disappointed by her.

“I want to be what you need, Adam. But you have seen the world, met everyone and his brother, have studied, and read, and seen, and done things I’ll never… And I have spent my whole life in the outskirts of Sacramento, learning how to cook a decent stew and to breed a horse. How can I ever be what you like me to be?”

“I could teach you….”

“But I don’t want you to be my teacher. And I don’t want to be your pupil—I want to be your wife!”

“But you are my wife, of course you are. I just sometimes wished we could discuss things on another level—” He broke off, apparently realising that he was about to overstep the line. That fine line that they’d been avoiding ever since they’d been married. But it was too late: she had already seen him reaching out to it.

She didn’t even try to hide her hurt, and cried into his face, “Why did you marry me, Adam?”

He pinched the bridge of his nose, a gesture she had learnt to read as a sign of annoyance. “You know why I married you.”

“Say it. I want to hear it.”

“I loved you.” He said the words, but they didn’t sound…right. He must have noticed that, because he cringed and looked at her apologetically. “I loved you,” he repeated softly and this time it sounded as if he meant it. “I loved you then, I love you now and I will always love you.”

“That’s not enough, Adam. Love alone isn’t enough for a marriage—I’m not that naive. You’ve loved other women before me, but you married me. Why?”

“I—”

“If it is so important for you to have witty conversations on eye-level, then why didn’t you marry a woman with more experience, a better educated woman, a woman who would be your equal? A woman of your age?”

He was angry. She could see he was angry, but she couldn’t see what right he had to be so. She had every right to be vexed with him, but not he, not…and then, when he answered, she understood: he was angry because she forced him to speak it out, to speak out something he had buried far behind the thin line they didn’t overstep.

“Because I wanted children,” he finally blurted out.

She stared at him. “I’m a compromise,” she said so quietly she nearly didn’t hear it herself. She felt bile rise in her throat. Clasping a hand to her mouth she started for the kitchen, but he was at her side in two long strides, turned her around to face him and held her in place with two urging hands on her upper arms.

“No,” he said. “I was a desperate middle aged man who had given up any hope for love and for his own family, and you were a generous angel who was willing to give him all that and more. You are the light of my life; and if I failed to show you that, then I have to apologise. I—”

He had never finished his speech because at exactly that point she’d doubled over and soiled his boots and pant legs with the remains of her lunch. They had spent the next hours with cleaning up the mess, talking (he) and crying (she) and desperately making love.

Two days later a broadly grinning Uncle Paul had told her that she was about three months pregnant with her first child.

Things had changed from then on—she’d never questioned the reason for that, had just basked in her new status.

Adam’s jog at her arm brought her out of her reminiscence. Her eyes flew open, surprised by the unwonted touch, and followed his hastily withdrawing hand to where it came to a rest about half an inch above the portrait of their daughter. It was as if Adam was afraid to touch it, to bestow upon it the same tender ministration he had given his father’s picture. As if it was too delicate to be touched. Or as if he knew that his affection would be wasted.

“My little Anna,” he whispered. “My beautiful little darling.”

When he looked up at her, his eyes had changed. They were glistening from tears—and something else. “Do you know what happened to her?”

She didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer.

Needn’t.

He would tell her anyway, and there wasn’t anything she could do or say: nothing would stop Adam from going on. Of all the things he could have remembered, it was this one event, this one particular day she would have preferred not to talk about, that he recalled in every excruciating little detail.

“We loved her so much, my wife and I, but we lost her.”

She released the breath she’d been holding while she’d been waiting for him to continue. The air came out on one long, quivering sigh that ended on a high-pitched suppressed sob.

We lost her. Three little words, but the key to all their sorrow. We lost her.

Anna had been born nearly four years after William. They had already given up upon having another child; Adam had been nearly fifty and she already thirty years old. They had been overjoyed when she had shown the tell-tale signs: the growing belly, the permanent morning sickness and her insatiable hunger for oranges—and him.

First, Ben had been delighted that Adam would continue the tradition of having three sons and later deliriously happy when his son had presented him the first Cartwright daughter born in ages: Anna.

Anna, who had looked so much like her father. Anna, who had turned out to be as smart as Adam, kind as Hoss and as charming as Joe. Anna, who’d loved ducks and piglets, who’d baked sand cakes for the ranch hands and picked wildflowers for her grandfather; Anna, who’d chattered the whole day but listened quietly when Adam read to her, her big hazel eyes fixed on his face and her mouth slightly open in that never-ending wonder. Anna, for whom everything had been a miracle, an adventure, something to be explored.

Anna, who—

“Those ducks,” Adam spat. “Those goddamned ducks!”

Those ducks. She pressed her hand to her mouth and stared at Adam, unable to tear her eyes from his. They were burning. There was a flame in them that turned their mossy greenish-brown into the blazing amber she had always so admired and loved—before life had extinguished the fire.

Those ducks. Without those ducks, they had later reasoned, Anna would never have set foot on the ice. Those ducks, gathered in the middle of the lake where the surface hadn’t been frozen over yet, huddled into a small, fluffy, piteous ball…they must have seemed so close, so easy to reach.

“Anna was only three.” Adam shook his head. “She didn’t know the ice wouldn’t take her weight. We didn’t look for a second, for half a second, and she was gone. Ran to the lake and onto the ice…”

They had been in a snowball fight: the whole family, Anna included—at least they’d thought Anna was participating in it—but those ducks must have sidetracked her. They had realised what she’d been doing only when it was too late. The boys had screamed and tried to go after their sister, but Adam had yelled to hold them back and—

“She broke through before I could reach her. I heard the cracking of the ice, saw her slipping; and then she turned and looked at me and cried ‘Papa!’” His gaze went down to the portrait. “She cried for me, but I couldn’t reach her in time. I tried, Lord, I tried, but she sank so quickly.”

“Adam, please…”

“The ice was so clear.”

She let out a shaking breath. She had been standing at the shore, holding her two sons in her arms trying to shelter them from the sight of their father desperately trying to save their little sister. Unable to do anything else, she had witnessed how Adam had tried to reach under the ice, how he had followed Anna’s trail when the current had drifted her further, how he had tried to break the ice, hammering onto it like mad with his boots, with his revolver, with his bare hands.

“I’ve never seen ice so clear. Like glass.” Adam still looked at the picture. He wasn’t telling her the story anymore; he was talking only to himself. There was wonder in his voice, sad, resigned wonder and…tenderness, such tenderness. “I could see her face through the ice. Her eyes were open, as if she were looking out for something, but her mouth was closed. She didn’t cry out for me anymore. She knew I couldn’t help her. She knew. I didn’t know it, but she…she did. She knew.”

He fell quiet for a moment, his eyes still at the picture. He traced the girl’s eyebrows with one tenuous finger, then her cheeks, her nose, finally her lips.

“When I was finally able to break the ice, it was too late. I plunged into the water as soon as I could, gripped her…it was so cold, she was so cold…I brought her back to the shore—didn’t take more than a few…but it was…was too late. She wasn’t…there anymore.” He looked up, straight into her eyes, and she could see the fire dying. His face changed: all traces of tenderness vanished and were replaced by a grim set of his jaw. “And then they took my wife.”

No, she hadn’t been taken. At least not immediately.

She had hoped when Adam had made it back to the water’s edge with Anna in his arms, had covered her husband and daughter in her dry coat, and together they had tried to revive the quiet little girl. Together they had eventually realised the futility of their attempts, and together they had sat with their daughter’s dead body between them and wept soundlessly. It had probably been the closest they had ever come in their marriage, the one time they had really been equals in their grief and devastation.

They’d been numb after that, going through the next days as if in fog or under water. Every movement had been an effort, every word had seemed too much, every thought beside ‘Anna is dead’ a waste. Ben, despite being heartbroken, had been a great help in arranging the funeral, and Joe…Joe had offered help in the best possible way. He had taken care of the ranch and the business, even though he had been fighting with his own demons. Although trapped in a cocoon of numbness, she had sensed how this all must have stirred up memories from the loss of his wife and unborn child ten years back. Sensed? She had heard him crying in the night when everyone had been supposed to be asleep, had heard him sob Alice’s name into his pillows.

Adam had come down with pneumonia shortly after they had buried Anna, and for too many scary weeks she had feared she’d lose him, too. Worn down between nursing her husband, consoling her sons and trying to keep up her optimism in front of her father-in-law, she hadn’t allowed herself the luxury of grieving for her daughter. She had done what had to be done, had functioned until the day Uncle Paul had declared Adam on the road to recovery. Only then had she let the full impact of what had happened break through her carefully woven defensive shell—and broken down completely.

Adam was right in one thing: she hadn’t wanted to go, and surely he hadn’t wanted to let her go, either; but the decision had been taken out of their hands. Ill and nearly out of her mind with grief and rage, incapable of uttering anything but “Why?”, she hadn’t been able to put up any resistance; and Adam…he had been too weak to even get out of bed, let alone to fight the pooled forces of Ben Cartwright and Paul Martin.

They had sent her to Boston where some distant relatives of Ben lived. She didn’t remember much of the long journey, only the tender hands of her chaperon holding hers seemingly all the time. The salty air in Boston had helped her health, and the change of scenery had helped her mind; but more, much more good had been done for her when she had started to follow Adam’s tracks. She had visited the house in which he’d been born and where he later, during college holidays, had lived; had seen the little shop Abel Stoddard once had owned. She had even made the trip to Harvard, had been shown around by a friendly custodian and seen an auditorium and sat down in one of the seminar rooms for a while. She had envisioned Adam here, not at all surprised how easily she was able to conjure the image, and had run her hands over the surface of a desk as if she was trying to capture some traces of the young Adam she’d never known.

Back in Boston, she had gone to the library. That was where she had found the link. She had spent weeks there, engrossed in the world of Longfellow and Milton, of Dickens and Scott, and, bizarrely enough, getting lost in those far away universes had connected her more with Adam than anything. For the first time in her life she’d felt she truly understood him—not necessarily what he was saying, but why. It hadn’t been a compensation for the loss of her child, of course, but it had been something. Something that had made her looking forward to coming home.

“They took my wife,” Adam repeated, louder this time, as if trying to get her attention back. “They took my wife, and she never came back. Never.”

In a way, he was right. The woman who had stepped out of the train at Virginia City Station nearly three months later had been different from the one they’d sent away: stronger, more self-confident and…more worldly-wise.

But the man who had picked her up had been different, too. Adam, pale faced, visibly aged and still enfeebled by his long sickness, seemed somehow weak and more dependent on her than before.

They’d become more equal, but it had rattled the carefully built architecture of their marriage. They had tried both defining new structures and re-establishing the old, but only when she’d gotten with child again about two years later had it given them some sort of relief.

It had lasted only a short time. A miscarriage, resulting in a nearly fatal haemorrhage, after only a few weeks of pregnancy had robbed them of their dream and any hope for another child. Adam had held her while she had shaken with fatigue and sorrow, with frustration and shame of having failed, and he had given her the greatest possible gift.

“Nothing will bring Anna back to us,” he had said, “and I’ll learn to bear it. But I’d never bear losing you, too.”

She squeezed Adam’s hand, wordlessly, and this time he squeezed back.

A clatter of tableware announced Mrs. Browne’s presence, and a smell of roasted meat told them it was time for supper.

“May I?” she asked, gesturing to the push handles of Adam’s chair.

“That would be very kind, thank you.”

She wheeled him to the dining table, thankful that he’d allowed her the small gesture of caring. He took great pride in doing as much as he could on his own, but he was limited to so little and perhaps therefore not very willing to let her do anything for him he could still do himself.

Embracing the opportunity, she excused Mrs. Browne from serving and settled Adam at his usual place, then took her own seat, at his right. She winced as she sat down, once again feeling her cramped back muscles and other aching body parts.

“Are you all right?” He leaned back in his chair and gave her a quick all-over look.

“I’m fine.”

He lifted an eyebrow, and she nearly laughed at the rare familiarity.

“Really, I am,” she emphasised. “It has been a long day, and I’ve spent most of it in the saddle. I’m not as young as I used to be, I guess.”

Adam grinned knowingly. “You better ask Hop Sing for that special salve for saddle sores then.”

She was still thinking about the best way to respond when Adam frowned and said, “Oh, well, Hop Sing isn’t here anymore. He’s gone home to China.”

He looked at her, his eyes somehow more alert than before, and there was a trace of the old warm caring in his voice. “I wonder if he’s still alive. He was a good friend.”

“Yes, I remember he was very close to the family.”

“It’s a pity that his miraculous remedies have gone with him,” Adam continued. “That salve did wonders whenever one of us had saddle sores.”

“Well, then I’d surely love to have a batch of it,” she chuckled, then folded her hands. “Shall we…?”

They gave thanks, silently as usual when the boys weren’t home to make them a family; then she waited on Adam, taking great care in placing meat, vegetables, and potatoes separately on his plate, so that neither would touch the other. Filling her own plate, she said a quiet “sorry” when Adam winced as she sprinkled thick brown sauce over her meat and potatoes and shifted her body to shield her dish from his view.

Adam made an annoyed sound but started to eat, slowly following a ritual pattern. He started with the meat at the top of the plate and, without missing a single crumb, went on clockwise to clear his plate, accurately cleaning it up, section by section with meticulous precision, his movements deliberate and neat. After every tenth bite he stopped, wiped his mouth delicately with his napkin, replaced the cloth accurately on his lap, then took three small separate sips of water, and continued the mission on his plate.

As she did every night, she tried to ignore the nearly hypnotic cadence of his actions so as not to let herself fall into the same rhythm, but soon she ate when he ate, and drank when he drank, giving in to an almost reassuring synchronicity.

Adam was half way through his food, when he stopped abruptly and turned to her.

“I used to ride a lot,” he said, daring her with a cocked eyebrow. “Had my fair share of saddle sores, too.”

She couldn’t help but snicker. “Indeed, you had them. I remember a few times I had to rub Hop Sing’s—”

She broke off when she saw his scandalised eyes.

“You didn’t…” He shook his head, frowning. “You can’t possibly…”

And then there was the pained expression back in his face, the sudden realisation, the surrender. “I can’t remember,” he said in a very low voice.

This time she was on guard. This time she just smiled and recommenced her meal, with sunken shoulders and a tense back, feeling how Adam stared at the side of her lowered head, but not daring to meet his eyes.

Not again. I will not be lured into provoking another outburst. Not again tonight.

She heard him let out his breath in a wheeze and then take up his cutlery.

“Well,” he stated defiantly before he took up eating, “for some reason I can’t even remember the last time I’d sat on a horse. Must have been ages ago.” He even managed a short chuckle.

The potatoes in her mouth seemed to become more; more than she was able to swallow, more than she was able to breathe around.

The last time he’d sat on a horse. Suddenly her mind was flooded with memories of that last day he’d sat on a horse, that day they’d brought him home on the bed of a buckboard.

Why a man of fifty-eight should feel the need to show his two adolescent sons how to break a horse had been beyond her—it still was, though she had stopped asking that question long ago—but apparently Adam had tried to do just that.

Thirteen year old Phillip had been cradling his father’s head in his lap, stroking his shoulders and keeping him from moving, and William, with his tear-streaked face, had argued with the foreman about who was going to ride into town to get the doctor, not comprehending that they’d sent someone already.

When they had carried Adam into his bedroom, he’d passed out—but only after he had assured her everything was just fine, not half as bad as it looked.

As it has turned out, it had been even worse than it looked.

The fall from the bucking horse would have been bad enough for a younger man, for a healthier man. For Adam, who already had hurt his back seriously all those years ago when he had fallen off the roof of the house he’d been building for a woman he thought he loved; for him, it had been disastrous.

While with time and exercises eventually he had made a full recovery back then, this time the damage was permanent. Uncle Paul’s diagnosis had been unambiguous: something in Adam’s back had been irrevocably marred, and nothing, no amount of time or exercise, would bring him back his mobility.

“My brother Joe, he’s a good horseman.” Adam’s voice brought her back to the present. “A real fine horseman. I taught him to ride when he was a kid, y’know.”

The unexpected words conjured another memory: Joe, sitting in the red chair, face in his hands, rocking back and forth, back and forth, and blaming himself. “I should have…should have…Oh, Lord, why didn’t I stop him?”

“Yes, why didn’t you?”

She had been furious, but, despite her harsh words, not with Joe, not with him. Joe, proud of his larger-than-life older brother’s legendary skills at bronco busting, had just been supportive—and enthusiastic about watching him teach his sons those skills, just as he once had taught his little brother.

What Phillip and William had learned that day, though, was that their father wasn’t indestructible, that no one was indestructible: not a delicate three year old girl and not a man like an oak tree.

Yes, she’d been furious. However, whether with God or with Adam, she’d never been sure.

Adam had adjusted to his new limitations remarkably well, had managed the ranch from his desk, given the foreman—and her—more responsibility and kindly but firmly declined any help from Joe, who had been in the middle of building up his own business—his own ranch—with his second wife, Coralee.

Again, Ben had been a great help. Not only had he refrained from offering to take charge of the Ponderosa again, he had also assured Adam that you didn’t need a fully-capable body to work a ranch, just a fully capable head. He had even provided diversions when Adam’s days had seemed to stretch out endlessly and he’d chafed at their unproductiveness.

“I said, I taught my brother how to ride.”

She started. “Pardon?”

“I said—three times now—that I taught my brother how to ride.” Adam’s mouth was a thin line after he’d delivered his words and the fingers of his right hand tapped out a belligerent march on the table.

“I’m sorry, I was…” Quick thinking, all she needed was some quick thinking—but she had some practise in that, and so.… “I was trying to imagine Joe as a child. He must have been a very good student—and you a very good teacher—since he’s quite an expert horseman today.”

“Oh, yes he was. Not very patient, but he really needn’t to be—he was a quick learner.” Adam smiled, apparently lost in his own memories, and once more, she was thankful that at least he still had those.

“And who taught you?” he suddenly asked, his eyes again focussed on her face.

“My father did. He wanted me to be able to do anything that would be needed on a ranch.”

Adam frowned. “Then why did you become a nurse?”

“I’m not—” She caught herself at the last moment.

Breathe. Slowly, calmly. In and out.

In. Out.

In. Out.

Breathe against the hurt, that was what she kept doing. Always. Well, not the first time. Not then. The first time it had happened, she’d been choking.

“Who are you?” Words like a cannon shot.

“Who are you?” Adam had asked when she’d come home from work.

For a split second she’d thought, no hoped, he’d been joking, but deep inside she’d known right then that he’d just slipped one step further down into the sea of dark oblivion.

Of course, she’d told him who she was. “I’m your wife, Adam. I left this morning to see Mr. Boyd about the water rights—you kissed me good-bye. Don’t you remember?”

He had nodded, but not smiled. He had nodded, but with a frown, his eyes dark with suspicion. He had nodded, and said it was all right.

It all had started innocently enough not even a year after the accident: Adam had forgotten small things, like where he’d put his book or what he’d had for supper the night before. They had joked about it at first, said he was sparing brain cells. But then he forgot business appointments, complete days, weeks; that Joe had been married for six years, that Phillip wanted to study medicine, or that his wife had ever returned from Boston.

In the months following that first “who are you?” she had felt as if trapped in some sort of freak lottery. Every time she’d came home, every time she’d entered a room, every time she’d encountered Adam in the house, she’d had to be prepared to either be recognised or questioned. As time had gone on, she’d drawn a blank more and more often and eventually even a half-hearted apology from Adam for having denied knowing her the day before had become a jackpot. Their moments of true companionship had become few and far between: most of the time suspicion had replaced what had been affection.

The drama had reached its grotesque climax one night when she’d tried to kiss him goodnight and he’d bellowed at her, calling her an impostor and demanding she’d leave the bedroom. He had been disgusted by her assumption she could sleep in his bed, take the place of his wife, touch him in an intimate way. Neither she nor Ben, who’d come to her aid, had been able to calm Adam down. Even after she’d retreated to one of the guestrooms, she had heard him rage on for what had seemed hours. Wide-eyed, with her hands pressed at her mouth, she had heard Ben uselessly trying to reason with his son, and Adam accusing them all of tricking him.

“My wife was taken.” She’d heard it for the first time that night, not knowing that it would become a constant.

Adam had never again called her by her name since that evening. And never again had they shared a bed or had he kissed her.

“It’s the age,” Uncle Paul had said when she’d eventually consulted him. “This is called senile dementia; it’s a sign of aging.”

“He’s sixty-one, for heaven’s sake! He isn’t old.”

“Sometimes it starts early. A severe injury can provoke or amplify it, sometimes an emotional trauma. And he’s had his fair share of those, hasn’t he?”

“You’ve had your fair share, too, and you don’t forget anything at all. Ben’s had his share, and he doesn’t forget much, either—and you’re both even older than Adam.”

“Well, some people get tuberculosis and some not. Some people get cancer, some not. It’s the same with this; some people get it, some don’t.”

“But why Adam? Why he?”

“You know I can’t answer that.”

“But it’s unfair!”

“Yes, it is.”

She’d soon discovered that it was even more unfair: like Adam’s paralysis, this new ailment was incurable; there was nothing Paul could do to heal it or even to impede its progress. But the paralysis, seemingly the much worse impairment, had eventually even turned out to be a blessing of some sorts: she dreaded to think where Adam’s disturbed mind would direct him if he’d be able to get on a horse.

She had arranged herself, again. They had…coped, all of them.

Then Ben had died, Phillip had left for Boston, and William had spent more and more time at Joe’s ranch to help his childless uncle and to avoid a confrontation with his increasingly disconcerting father.

Uncle Paul had remained her only confidant, even though he couldn’t provide any help beside headache powders, calm words, sharing the helplessness—and holding her when she’d broken down crying in his office.

“The worst isn’t that he forgets names and things and people,” she had whispered into his shoulder. “The worst is that he has forgotten how to be Adam.”

Breathe. Focus. Be you.

Be you.

“I don’t think I’m much of a nurse, Adam. I like to call myself a rancher or horse breeder.” She spoke cautiously and slowly, closely watching his face for signs of annoyance, ready to stop at any given moment.

But Adam just nodded distractedly as if he wasn’t really listening anymore. He neatly scooped up the last few crumbs of potatoes, ate them with concentrated attention, then wiped his mouth, folded his napkin neatly into a small rectangle and decisively laid it next to his plate.

He looked up expectantly, and as if on cue, Mrs. Browne rushed in with a pot of coffee. She filled their cups, then cleared up the table and retreated to the kitchen.

“I’d like to take my coffee outside; sundown is near, and it isn’t so hot anymore. A bit of fresh cool air would do me good. You, Adam?”

She really needn’t ask: with little more than a short nod, Adam was on his way to the front door; and, smiling, she followed him with their coffee mugs.

They settled on the front porch with Adam’s wheelchair close beside the rocker she favoured in the evenings, and in contented mutual silence they sipped coffee and watched the spectacular sight of the sun going down.

Then Adam started to hum a slow melody. She closed her eyes and listened to his deep baritone, felt how the sound reverberated in her mind, how it filled her soul.

How many times had they sat like that, after the children had gone to bed, and enjoyed being alone, being a couple, being them.

Adam broke off, but when she looked at him in alarm, he was smiling.

“Would you be so kind and fetch me my guitar?” he asked.

“Sure. I—sure.”

She was back with the requested in less than twenty seconds.

Adam tuned the guitar and started to sing, Dixie and Aura Lea, Buffalo Gals and Mock’in Bird Hill.

She smiled and laughed and then joined in, and their voices rang out into the night and vanished in the nascent dark behind the trees.

They had just sung the last verse of Wait for the Wagon when Adam turned to her and said, “You have a lovely voice.”

She blushed. Like a school girl, or like back then when she had been Paul Martin’s niece and Adam had been the man who’d conquered Europe.

“But you can’t hold a tune, try as you might, you can’t.” He chuckled. “I swear, you sang that last verse in three different keys.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise…. I don’t do it on purpose, really.”

He grinned. “I know, and that’s the true tragedy. Because if you did it purposely, then you could just stop it. But this way, we’re doomed.”

She couldn’t figure out what he was on about. “Shall I stop singing then?”

“No. No, please don’t stop. As I said, I like your voice. It distracts me, but I like it anyway.” He strummed some chords, then looked back at her, winking. “Come on, one more: Sweet Betsy From Pike—that’s an easy one; not even you can spoil it.”

She snickered blissfully, then joined in. “Oh, do you remember Sweet Betsey from Pike, who crossed the wide prairie with her lover Ike…”

They sat and sang together until it was time to turn in.

Going through their nightly routine didn’t take too long. She assisted Adam in stripping off his clothes and putting on a nightshirt, brought him freshly warmed water and a clean white towel, kneaded his shoulders until he fully relaxed, then helped him into his bed, straightened his nightshirt around his legs, fluffed up his pillow one last time, and tucked him in.

“Good night,” she said, bending down to cup a hand over his cheek for a second before she adjusted the collar of his nightshirt.

His eyes followed her hand from his collar to the bedcovers she unnecessarily smoothed down once again. “Thank you,” he smiled. “You’re always so kind to me.”

“Adam, I’m not kind.” She cupped his cheek again. “I love you.”

He took her hand, gazed briefly into her palm, then squeezed once and let go.

“That’s very kind of you,” he said.

She held the sob back until she had reached her own bedroom. She allowed herself only that one choked, dry sob. She didn’t cry. She never cried, not anymore. There weren’t any tears left, she suspected, or maybe she was just too weak to cry.

She prepared herself for the night, quickly, methodically, all the while thinking about tomorrow. She would try to make it a short workday, then take Adam down to the lake. It would do him good to see something other than the ranch house. All in all, it hadn’t been a bad day today, but she could make it better tomorrow; with just a little more consideration she could make it better. It was all a matter of consideration. Of her consideration.

She sat down before the vanity and combed her hair. White had sneaked into it during the past months, thick, coarse white hairs, much thicker than her dark brown ones. She plucked one of the whites out and twirled it in between her fingers. In a way that hair was like her: faded, but stronger than ever.

“You don’t have to love me back,” she said to the wall separating her room from Adam’s. “It’s all right.”

And it was. She had had Adam’s love for many years, she still had the memory of it—and that was enough. She shook her head at the irony of it.

How precious memories were…how essential.

She gave her reflection one last glance, smiled and, in her own nightly ritual, stated firmly, “Minna. My name is Minna.”

She crossed the room, sat down on her bed, blew out the candle and slid under the bedcovers. Facing the abandoned side of her marital bed, Minna snuggled into her bedding, rested her hand on the vacant pillow next to her, and whispered into the dark, “Good night, my love.”

___________________________

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
but the greatest of these is love. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:13

***The End***

Author’s Note:  This story is dedicated to all those strong unsung heroes out there, who, professionally or privately, care for those in need, for loved ones who have lost everyone and themselves; and to Mrs. L. who once must have been a lovable person.

Or, as Sassybrass said: For those of us who love the Man in Black, and who say we’d stand by him through thick and thin; this is for you. For those who stand guard and care; this is for you.

I can’t truly express the amount of gratitude I feel for my magnificent betas, Sklamb and Sandspur, for all the time and thoughts they spent on making this story that tad better that makes all the difference. You are truly amazing, ladies!

Return to faust’s homepage

One thought on “At Dusk (by faust)

  1. I read this on Brand, and again here with tears. Tears for the tragic beauty of it, and tears for the truth.

    Unforgettable.

    Thank you, faust.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.