A Night by the
A Bonanza short story
By Kate Pitts
Unusually for this high in the Sierra’s, the heat of the day had scarcely dropped at all when night fell. Even now, at well past , the air was still warm and sultry. Not a breath of wind stirred the pines or rippled the surface of the lake. There seemed no end in sight to the long, hot spell that had scorched the land this past month, making both day and night unbearably hot and uncomfortable.
Lying back on the dry, sun baked, grass, Adam Cartwright gazed up at the heavens where a round yellow moon sailed plump and serene in a cloudless sky. The beauty of the night wasn’t lost on Adam, though his thoughts weren’t on the scene before him but caught up in memories of long ago. Long summer days when he and his brothers’ had fished and swum in the glittering waters of the sun-drenched lake. A small smile played at the corners of his mouth as images flickered through his mind.
He remembered his very first sight of the lake as a small boy and how awed he had been by its sheer size and its overwhelming beauty. Recalled his father, taking a rare break from the back-breaking work of clearing the land for the ranch, teaching him to fish while little Hoss played happily nearby. Then, a few years later, family picnics with his step-mother Marie, an infant Joe on her lap, watching and laughing as her husband and stepsons frolicked in the water, occasionally flicking a few drops in her direction. Such happy times.
So lost in his reverie was he that Adam didn’t hear the approaching rider until he was almost on him. Startled by the sound of hooves, he rolled over, fingers reaching automatically for his gun and gave a sigh of relief as he recognised his youngest brother.
“Hey Adam,” Joe hailed him, dismounting and hitching his horse next to his brother’s mount, Sport, before ambling over to the lakeside. “What are you doing out here?”
“Too darn hot to sleep, so I decided to take a ride out to the lake,” Adam raised a quizzical eyebrow as he took in Joe’s attire. His brother wore what had obviously been a clean white shirt, damp now with sweat, and a string tie which hung loosely around his neck. “I take it you haven’t even been to bed yet?”
Joe grinned widely, teeth flashing white in the moonlight. “I had someone to see.”
“Betsy?” Adam asked, naming his brother’s latest young lady.
“I think he was already asleep when I left. He said he wanted an early night, remember?”
Adam nodded. Ben had retired right after supper saying he was exhausted from a long, hot day in the saddle. Adam suspected the real reason was that his father wanted some time alone to think about what they’d discussed that evening. His announcement that he was leaving the Ponderosa.
Plumping himself down beside his brother, Joe sat in silence for a while, staring out at the lake. Beside him Adam waited, steeling himself for the questions that he knew were bound to come and, eventually, Joe sighed heavily and shook his head.
“How could you leave all this?” he asked softly, and though the words were accompanied by a gesture that encompassed the view before them, Adam knew he meant far more than that.
“It’s not been an easy decision . . .”
“What’s out there that’s so much better than here?” Joe continued, cutting across his brother’s words. “Why do you need to leave? If you’re that tired of the Ponderosa why don’t you just take some time off, a few months even? Don’t you realise what you’re doing to Pa?”
And now we come to the crux of the matter, Adam thought to himself, seeking words to reassure Joe. “Pa’ll understand,” he said quietly.
“Will he? Didn’t you see the look on his face when you said you were leaving?”
“It’s going to break his heart.”
“It’s going to hurt him, I know that, Joe,” It was something he couldn’t deny and the knowledge of that hurt had made his decision all the more difficult. “But he knows I’ve been unsettled for some time, and Pa of all people understands what it’s like to want to follow your dream. I need to do this, do something with my life before I grow old just doing the same old things, in the same old place.”
“You’ve done plenty with your life,” Joe argued hotly. “Everyone knows Adam Cartwright round here.”
“Yes, as my father’s son, as his right-hand man. That’s not enough for me, Joe. I want to do something for myself. You of all people should understand that, seems I recall you wanting the same thing a while back.”
The truth of the comment made Joe pause, realising that Adam was right. It wasn’t so long ago that he too had wanted to break free from his family, prove himself in his own way. “Yeh,” Joe nodded ruefully. “I guess I do understand. But do you really need to go so far away to do it?”
Adam didn’t answer straight away, marshalling his thoughts before he spoke. “You remember when you were small and we’d come out here to fish sometimes?” he asked eventually.
“And I’d bring along a book to read?”
Joe nodded. “Sometimes you’d read me a few pages.”
“Stories of far away lands,” Adam said wistfully. “Places I could only ever dream of seeing. But now I’m going to see them for real, Joe. I’m actually going to experience all those places I’ve read about. Don’t you think that’s exciting?”
“I guess,” Joe’s voice was soft and he bit his lip before continuing, his words an echo of the little boy who had asked this very same question when his big brother left for college many years before. “You will come home some day, won’t you?”
Adam gave the same answer he had all that time ago. “I will, Joe, I promise.”
“You just better write often, let us know how you are,” Joe said, swallowing hard as he fought to keep his feelings under control, knowing full well that Adam was uncomfortable in emotional situations. “Because…” he added with a light touch to his brother’s arm. “Because I’m sure gonna miss you.”
Then, before the moment could become too intense, Joe scrambled to his feet, unbuttoning his shirt as he did so. “I reckon a swim would cool me down. Race you to the rock and back?”
“You’re on,” Adam grinned, pulling off his own shirt and following his brother into the cool waters of the moonlit lake.
The two men were well matched in their swimming skills but Joe’s youth just gave him the edge and he reached the shore slightly ahead of Adam, laughing breathlessly as he waded back to dry land.
“Need some help, older brother?” he called back teasingly as, behind him, Adam reached shallow water.
Ignoring the question, Adam paddled ashore, water sluicing from his wet body. Reaching Joe, he clapped him soundly on the back, “Good swim!”
“Thanks,” Joe grinned happily. “Long time since we raced like that.”
“Too long.” To Joe’s surprise Adam flung an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. “Know something, little brother?” he said quietly. “I’m going to miss you too.”
A shout from the trees interrupted the conversation and they turned to see Hoss walking towards them, leading his horse.
“Hey brother! Couldn’t sleep either?” Joe greeted him.
“Just too dadburn hot. I was lyin’ there a sweatin’ like a hog and got to thinkin’ that it just might be cooler by the water,” he grinned at his brothers standing before him half-naked, with lake water dripping from their wet hair. “Guess you fellas thought a swim might cool you down, huh?”
Shooting a quick sideways glance at Joe to let him know he wouldn’t mention the visit to Betsy, Adam nodded, “Something like that.”
“Pa still asleep when you left?” Joe asked diffidently, hoping he hadn’t been heard creeping out earlier. Though he was too old to need permission to leave the ranch, Joe would rather his father didn’t know he’d done so. Especially as Betsy wasn’t exactly the kind of girl Ben would approve of.
Hoss shrugged. “Was all quiet when I left,” he said. “But don’t reckon any of us were sleepin’ real good tonight.”
“So, you wanna swim?” Joe looked back at the water. “It’d cool you down some.”
“Nope,” Hoss shook his head. “But what do you fellas say to us spendin’ the night out here like we used to do when we were kids? Kinda like a last night together, just the three of us.”
Adam smiled, recalling the many summer nights he and Hoss had spent by the lake, joined by Joe as soon as Ben thought he was old enough. “Sounds like a good idea to me, but I don’t have a bedroll and neither does Joe.”
“I got bedrolls for all of us.” Hoss laughed at the surprised look on his brothers’ faces. “I seen your horses was gone,” he explained, “and guessed I’d find you here.”
“You guessed,” Joe asked, “How?”
“’Cause we all been frettin’ on Adam leavin’ ain’t we?” Hoss said simply, “and where do we always go when we got somethin’ worryin’ at us?”
His brothers nodded their understanding. It was true; the lake always seemed to draw them to it when something was preying on their minds. Somehow the peace and serenity that could be found in the beauty of the lakeside had a way of soothing a troubled spirit.
“So,” Hoss continued, turning to his older brother. “I’ll get the bedrolls, then how about you tell us a bit more about the places you’re intendin’ on goin’, Adam? I’d sure like to hear some more about it.”
Joe smiled knowingly to himself at the words. When Adam had told the family of his plans earlier that evening, Hoss hadn’t seemed surprised, and Joe had wondered if he already knew about it. Seemed he’d been right, Adam had talked things over with Hoss first. Somehow that knowledge wasn’t surprising and it was kind of good to know that his oldest brother hadn’t made his decision completely alone.
Settling down on his bedroll, Joe listened to Adam’s deep, calm voice telling them of all the far flung exotic places he planned to see. For a while he was enthralled by the tales his brother told and the visions his words conjured up. But the night air was heavy, like a warm blanket and Joe soon found his eyelids closing, Adam’s voice becoming no more than a soothing background noise, as sleep claimed him.
A loud clap of thunder woke Joe some hours later as, overhead, clouds gathered and the first drops of rain began to fall. Beside him Adam was just stirring while Hoss snored on, oblivious to the threatening storm.
Nudging Hoss awake, Joe scrambled from the bedroll, hastily rolling it up and heading for Cochise, his brothers’ close behind him, while above them great forks of lightning rent the night sky and the rain began to fall in earnest.
By the time they galloped into the yard of the Ponderosa all three were drenched and they dismounted quickly, laughing and joking as they stabled their horses before heading into the shelter of the ranchhouse, rainwater dripping from their clothes onto the floor of the great room.
Just coming down the stairs to breakfast, Ben opened his mouth to complain about the wet floor but stopped. Instead he just stood and watched, drinking in the sight of his sons together, happy and carefree. He had spent a sleepless night, turning things over and over in his mind. And now, as the new day dawned, he knew what he must do. However hard it was, however much he wished he didn’t have to, he would send Adam on his way with his blessing. But, oh how he would miss him.
There was such a short time left before his eldest son went and Ben knew that he had to try and make that time as happy as possible. Adam needed to know that he left with his family’s love and understanding. This small moment with his three sons was one he intended to capture in his memory forever, to treasure when Adam was no longer here.
Unaware of their father watching from the top of the stairs the three younger Cartwrights laughed all the harder as Hop Sing came scurrying in from the kitchen scolding them shrilly in Chinese, while fetching towels for them to dry themselves. For all three it felt for just a moment as though they were boys again, but at the same time they were all aware that their days as the three Cartwright boys were numbered, all too soon they would be apart. Like Ben they cherished this moment together, one of the last for who knew how long. But deep in all their hearts they knew that one day they would be reunited. A family once more.
© Kathleen Pitts June 2005
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