Written in December, 1998 for submission to the 1999
40th Anniversary Bonanza Convention Short Story Anthology.
It is so beautiful here. It's always been my favorite place. The first time I saw this place I can remember feeling such peace…such fulfillment. I knew my husband was right: this was the place for us, for our family. For so many years now, I've watched the seasons change from this very spot. The hot summer bursting with the color of wild flowers and the lake rippling in the sunshine…the autumn, with its changes of oranges, reds and yellows and the crisp snap of coolness in the air…the winter's snow, making the mountains surrounding me glisten and sparkle in the sun's many-angled rays…and the spring - my favorite of all, despite the mud and the wet weather, if only because of the promise of new life it always brings.
It's true I cannot touch the soft grass now, but I can remember how it felt, the tender blades slipping between my fingers. I cannot smell the scents of the wild flowers any more, but I can watch them dance in the breeze, as though in a ballet choreographed by God. I cannot hear the birds chirping, but I can recall their sweet song and the way it uplifted my spirits. I can no longer taste the fresh tang of the apples in fall, but I can recall the looks on my family's faces when they bit into one or ate a piece of my apple pie. And I can still see…I can see it all. Especially when they come to visit me.
I have lost all track of time. What anchor I have is in the waiting…waiting for them to come, to talk to me, to tell me of their fears and their troubles, their joys and their quiet times.
I cannot leave here…it is not that I do not wish to, but I know I cannot. My work is not yet finished.
They have not come of late…it could be the snow…it is winter, is it not? Or is it spring now? They shall come again soon. It is for those times I wait, for I know they still need me. It is only when they come to visit me that I realize the passage of time…
I wish I could show my smile as I see one of them coming now…my "big little boy," a heart so full of caring and love and a quiet, gentle spirit belied by his massive frame. His father was wise to teach him early that his size should not be used for bullying and to instead indulge his caring spirit. But it was not a difficult lesson to teach. There are no cruel or mean bones in his large body. He is as gentle now as when I remember him sitting on my lap, telling me earnestly about the animals he's loved all of his life.
He comes to me, dismounts his big gelding and tethers him quietly on a thicket nearby. He is always quiet when he first arrives, looking around him at the peace and the beauty. Today, though, he is troubled. His beautiful blue eyes are dark with concern and worry.
"Mama, I wish you was here," he sighs, squatting beside me, his head down. "He needs you, Mama. There's been some...well, some things goin' on that have hurt him, hurt him real bad. He ain't himself at all. He ain't been lovin' his work like he did...Oh, he does it, and does it real good, but he don't have no joy in it no more. He won't tell me what's wrong and...well, Mama, that ain't like him, you know it ain't. We always been able to talk, him and me. I don't know what to do."
I cannot stroke his cheek to reassure him and I cannot gather him in my arms for a hug, but with this one I have always been able to speak to his heart. I try to impart to him that what will be will be and that patience and trust are the only routes to take. I know, full well, his worry...I have done the same all of his life. But I try to impart to my gentle one that he must do as he's always done...he must "be there" for him, to pick up the pieces when things fall apart, to put the joy of life back into living for him. For this is my "big little boy's" gift...of finding joy and peace in the world around him and then passing them on to those around him, especially the family.
My "big little boy" lightly strokes the grass and sighs. "I guess you're tryin' to tell me to let him be, but be nearby, ain't ya, Mama? Well," he smiles sadly, "you know I'll always do that. Ain't nothin' gonna keep me from bein' there when he needs me. I just wish he was still little and his problems was easier to solve. This problem's hurtin' his heart and there ain't no salve or poultice I can come up with to help that ache."
He gets to his feet, smoothly for so large a man, and smiles down at me. "Thanks, Mama. You always make me feel better just talkin' to ya." He gazes at me for a long time, then sighs once again and returns to his horse and mounts. One last look at the peaceful, swollen-from-spring-thaws lake gives him the peace and contentment he needs and he slowly rides off.
More time...how many days? The others will come if there is indeed something wrong...
Yes, here he comes...my philosopher. I wish he hadn't taken to wearing black so much of late. It makes him appear even less approachable to some, I'm sure. But knowing his tender, sensitive soul, this is very likely by design. He has always tried to hold at arm's length those he cannot trust with his heart. My poor philosopher...
He rides the big handsome stallion into the clearing and dismounts, looking around him first, as though anchoring in his memory those things that always help him connect to this place, which brought him back from so far away and which keep him here...but for how long? I do not know. I do believe he will stretch his horizons farther than here in the future, but I do not believe it will be before he thinks all of them can not only survive, but thrive, without him. It is not ego that motivates him, but a deeply ingrained belief in family and in solidarity.
He walks to me slowly and drops beside me, cross-legged, allowing himself to relax...in fact, I believe he is more relaxed here than anywhere else.
"It's still beautiful, isn't it?" he says softly as he gazes around himself. "I'll never forget that picnic up here, you know. When I finally let down my guard and admitted to you that Pa'd made the right choice when he brought you home." He chuckles to himself. "Took me long enough..."
He reaches over and weeds near me absently. This takes some time and allows him to gather his thoughts and feelings. Then he sits back once more and gazes over the lake.
"I'm worried about him," he says softly. "I've always tried to do as you asked me and look after him, but...he's shot up so much in the last couple of years and is fighting so hard to find his own place in the family. Sometimes we forget he's not the little brother we're used to teasing and picking on." He smiles. The smile fades. "There's something going on with him. He won't talk to anybody about it. Not to me...not to Pa...and not to his biggest confidant, which I think worries me more than anything else. You know how close those two have always been, so able to share each other's troubles. I think sometimes I was jealous of that closeness, but I've learned that they're just so much a part of each other, I don't mind it anymore. They still sometimes come to me for advice. But he hasn't. Not lately."
He finally turns and looks toward me for the first time. "He's been getting into a lot of trouble lately. Roy's been out to the house to talk to Pa about it and it's really concerning him. I mean, the little fool can often be thoughtless and silly, but he's never been mean or really hell-bent on disobedience. But lately..." My philosopher shakes his head with worry. "No one can reach him and I don't know what to do."
This one's mind I can reach...I have always been able to, although he's tried to shut me out more times than I like to think about, a mirror of his father's stubbornness and more. I've always admired and loved his ability to think things through and bring his mind to bear on a problem, phlegmatically and logically. People have never realized how hard he works to be that "arm" of the family. It isn't that he doesn't possess a heart or a poetic soul, it's simply that he knows the family has to have one member who "thinks." It costs him, though...it costs his sensitive heart.
I try to impart that worrying will not solve the problem. Perhaps the beginning of finding the answers rests in learning what it is he does when he's in town and with whom he does it; trusting him must also enter into the equation...my philosopher understands equations and how everything must all fit together to discover a solution...
His dark eyes search the surroundings as he thinks. "I wish you were here to talk to. You always knew each of us so well; you'd know exactly how to talk to him. But I guess...I guess I may have to go around that and try to figure out what's going on based on what he's doing. Trying to find that out without making him think I'm checking up on him isn't going to be easy," he says wryly, glancing at me.
He sighs and gets to his feet once more, brushing off the seat of his pants. He, too, looks out over the lake, then back at me. His eyes are sad. "You always understood us all...I wish I had your gift."
I try to make him understand that he does...but I don't know, this time, if I've got through to him. He sighs and turns toward the big horse with the three white socks, so much like my own Sable was...
He has not come. Days have passed and he has not come. Usually, when something is troubling him he comes to me to talk it out. This concerns me more than anything else, for it tells me he's doing something of which he's not proud. How I wish he would come...
The spring is getting late now and I can sense the heat of summer beginning to fill the days. Someone else I have greatly missed has not been here either. I hope the hoof beats I hear are those of his horse for, if the other two are any example, he must be greatly worried.
Yes, it is he. Oh! This is one I wish I could touch, wish I could gather in my arms to console! The weight of running a large ranch, of managing three growing...no! grown…sons, of being a fine neighbor and a loving man sits heavily on his broad shoulders. There is far more silver in his hair than before. I wryly wonder how much of it is due to worrying about his youngest.
God, how I loved this man! So straight and tall, so powerful a personality and so gentle and loving a heart. How he captivated me, so different from what I knew in New Orleans! I had no chance...my heart was his even before I knew it. I thank God for the time he gave us, but…oh! it's so hard to think of the time since that we've missed together. Still, I am grateful for these visits.
He dismounts his big buckskin and walks with him to me. He kneels beside me and strokes the grasses and smiles. "Hello, my love," he says softly. "I'm sorry it's been so long since I've visited, but this winter and spring have been so filled with..." he sighs and sits back, "…with so many different things. Lord, but I wish you were here with me! You could always cut through the craziness and find the things that really mattered to keep me on a proper course. Charting it alone has been awfully hard."
He sighs and pulls his knees up, wrapping his arms around them like a boy. "Love, I'm terribly worried. You must know for whom. For nearly a month now, he's been irritable and won't talk to us...not to me, not to his brothers...not even to Hop Sing, who's as worried as the rest of us. Roy's been out to the ranch a couple of times to tell me he's concerned about what he's been up to and the company he's keeping. I refuse to allow myself to believe he's doing anything horribly wrong, my love. He's too good a boy for that. You had too much to do with giving him a courageous and righteous heart to let me believe he'd deliberately hurt someone or intentionally do wrong, but..." His voice drifts off and he closes his dark, expressive eyes in weariness. "Oh, love, I don't know how to reach him. Dear Lord, but I wish you were here for him...for me...for all of us. I just don't know what to do." He allows himself to sag, his eyes glistening...something he rarely, if ever, allows himself to do in front of the boys...he's always believed he has to be impossibly strong and solid for them, forgetting his own needs so often.
I reach out to him...this man who shared my bed, my mind, my heart...it amazes me to note he is still part of me - and this is why I can always reach him. How true it is that death cannot separate us from those we love... There are times now, just as when we were together, that he pushes me away, that his stubbornness won't allow him to relent, but eventually I can reach out to him and he allows me to gather him in. I hope this is one of those times.
He sighs and once again runs his big, work-worn hand over the grasses...those hands! Those hands that built an empire...that brought me to passion I'd never known before...that tenderly cradled his babies...that softly stroked away their tears of pain or hurt...how I love him...
I send to him all of that love, for with this one I can do nothing else. It is as though that which separates us makes even stronger the bond of love we shared. In that love I try desperately to send support... acceptance... understanding... consolation.
He wipes his eyes and a small smile dusts his lips. "Yes, I know," he whispers. "Love him. Love him and it all will come together, since we've done everything we can to make the finest man we could with what God gave us...and oh, love, what God gave us! I don't want to see him hurt, but his nature is such that he can't avoid it. He feels everything so strongly! He's been hurting...I know he has, but he's shut me out. I guess you're trying to tell me to stay close and be there without pushing it. How can I keep from pushing, when I know he's in trouble?" This last is said with some heat as he swiftly climbs to his feet and stares out at the lake. "I can't just stand by and do nothing as he throws his whole life away!"
Once more I try desperately to send him my love...my reassurance. It takes a long time for him to allow these feelings to reach him. If I could feel exhaustion, I think I would with this effort...his sons have certainly come by their stubbornness and obstinacy honestly! If I could smile I would, seeing the barriers slowly break down. His shoulders loosen a little and he glances back at me.
"All right," he says finally, the smile dusting his lips again, "I know what you're trying to tell me. Let him grow in his own way...let him find his own path, because forcing him down the one I want will just end in a battle of wills." He sighs and picks up his hat. "I just hope his path doesn't take him so far in the wrong direction that he can't find his way back." He once more kneels at my side. "Oh, love, watch over him, I'm begging you. He needs you so much."
As he mounts his big buckskin, I think to myself, I have never done anything else. What makes you believe I would stop now?
Spring turns to summer and still he has not come. My concern grows as I sense the days turn far differently from the way they did when I walked these grasses and picked these flowers...but I sense them turning none the less. Finally...finally...the black and white pinto gallops, hell-bent for leather, into my clearing and he throws himself off, avoiding me and heading directly for the lake.
How he's grown and changed! I marvel at how handsome he's become. He was always a beautiful child, but now...I smile to myself as I behold him (can I still smile? Yes, when he is here I can), but then I am saddened by the despair shown in the stoop of his shoulders, the tension in his stance as he gazes out at the lake.
Finally, after a very long time, he turns guiltily and comes to me. He sits down beside me slowly and picks a few blades of grass, twining them together as I taught him so many years ago. "Mama...I'm sorry I ain't been here lately," he says softly, his eyes on the necklace he's weaving. "I...I've been real busy and…" He stops, a wry smile crossing his lips. "No, I can't lie to you. I never could lie to you, could I?" He sighs and stretches out lengthwise at my side, propping himself up on a green-clad elbow.
"I...I'm in a spot of trouble, Mama," he says very quietly, swallowing hard. "It isn't like I meant to, things just happened and got out of control," he adds plaintively. "I was so sick of being the little brother, of everybody telling me what to do, what to think, how to act...Even my old friends were makin' me feel closed in." He sighs and rolls onto his back, closing his eyes in the summer sun, allowing the warmth to soothe and calm him. "I been hanging around with some new friends, Mama, but...well, just lately I've begun to realize they're not the kind of people you and Pa would approve me bein' around. I've been drinking too much...gambling too much...seeing...well, seeing the wrong kind of girls." He blushes furiously and glances over at me. "Mama, I thought I was being grown up. I really did. I still got my work done and being away from the family...well, it made me feel self-sufficient, you know?"
Oh, yes, darling, I know...
"But..." he slowly brings himself back up to a sitting position, "…but I'm finding that these new friends of mine are telling me what to do just as much as the family and my old friends did; they're just doin' it in a different way. If I don't do what they want me to do, then they tell me they ain't my friends anymore." He shakes his head sadly. "That ain't what real friends are; and it wasn't until the fight in the saloon last night...or, I guess," he says with a sheepish grin and scratching at his brown curls, "sittin' in the cell last night, that I realized that. I finally figured out that when I thought Pa and the others were 'tellin' me what to do' they were just trying to look out for me and help me do what's right. They were doin' it for me. These new 'friends' of mine...they're doin' it for themselves."
Disconsolately, he yanks at some dandelions before he speaks again. "Pa and...well, and everybody else, they're sorta letting me be now. I guess that's what I wanted before, but now...oh, hell, Mama, I don't know anymore what I want! All's I know is I ain't doing things the way Pa taught me...the way you taught me..." He sighs and sags. "What do I do now, Mama? How do I make it right?" he asks, his voice breaking and his dark lashes glistening with tears, making his beautiful green eyes sparkle like emeralds.
Gently, tenderly I reach out to him with my soul, for this is how I can always reach him...he is part of my soul, after all. I send him forgiveness and waves of compassion. I try to make him think of his father and his brothers who love him...of all of the people he's grown up with who make him feel loved and secure…to make him understand they cannot live his life for him, that it's time he grew up and faced things. I try to make him understand he cannot run away from the mistakes he's made, but that an honest effort to put things right again will help him repair the damage, just as his father has taught him all these years.
This time we have no trouble connecting, for he has come to me. "I know, Mama. I gotta go back and face Pa, own up to everything," he sighs. "Boy, he's gonna be mad as a hornet!"
I send to him memories, memories of other times he's made mistakes...While his father might have been angry, he was always understanding and fair - and a source of strength and compassion as my firebrand struggled to once again find the right path.
"I guess I oughta be glad I'm too old for a tanning, huh, Mama?" he smiles sadly. His lips tremble and the tears fall, tears of repentance and sorrow. "I'm sorry, Mama! I can't believe I could get so far away from everythin' you and Pa taught me! I'll make it right, Mama, I swear I will!" he sniffles. "I just hope I ain't gone so far that Pa won't forgive me. Drunk and disorderly...fightin' in the saloon...Hell, I'm only 17, Pa's not gonna be too pleased that I lied to him and said I was going to Mitch's when I went to the Bucket of Blood instead. And I can't believe I lost my whole pay packet in one stupid poker game!" He swallows and gets to his feet. "But you're right, there's nothing for it. I gotta go tell him the truth and pray he doesn't kill me." He sighs, wiping his wet cheeks with the heel of his hand.
He draws in a shuddering breath and reaches out to stroke the lettering carved into the stone. "Marie Cartwright, Beloved Wife and Mother."
"Thanks, Mama," he says brokenly as he gets to his feet. He turns to go, then hesitates and turns back. "I won't let so much time go between visits, either," he says softly. He grips the stone for a moment, resolutely sets his shoulders and prepares to mount to ride home to face his father, admit his wrongdoing and once again head down the path to manhood his father has set him and his brothers on.
I struggle to make sure my connection to him is felt as far as it is allowed. I am grateful to sense that the confrontation is made; the confession and apology offered; the stern but quiet fatherly talk that alleviates guilt takes place; the gently absolving hug from his father is given; and the tender acceptance of his brothers is allowed to be acknowledged. They are all right again…my little boy is growing up.
I have sometimes wondered why I am still here, why I have not gone to my "rest" as I recall so many people calling it. But, whenever they come to me, I know why. My work is not yet finished. They have not yet said all they need to say to me…my caring, loving Hoss…my sad, serious and sensitive Adam…my beloved Ben…and my darling Little Joe.
No, my work is not yet finished. When it is, I will know.