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A Father's Stuggle
Summary: For Ben Cartwright, the journey west is ongoing, no matter the past, his fears, or the holiday.
~ ~ 1 ~ ~
Not so long ago, they seemed plentiful. And now . . .
If ever I took them for granted, Lord, I ask for forgiveness.
Many struggles are greater than mine; lives void of the simplest of comforts, souls graced with little or no respect, hearts aching for the tiniest measure of love. I can’t imagine living life that way; each day without promise, each future without hope. I know I have no right to complain . . . yet I’m burdened by doubts.
Not so long ago, in one glorious, horrific moment, my life and my dreams transformed.
In the months that passed, I was guilty of questioning your wisdom—even denying it, and for that, I have remorse . . . But now, years later, I’m ashamed to admit there are times I still harbor anger and more.
Today, although in my mind, my blessings seem few, they’re so very dear to my heart. But it’s because of my most precious blessing that I allow the anger and doubts to enter my mind.
He’s the reason for my every breath, the promise that wills me to put one front in front of the other. Am I doing right by him?
He’s my son, my Adam . . .
Shadows swept in hurried strokes along the shops’ porches. As Ben trudged along Hanson’s storefront walkways, he gathered his collar about his neck and smoothed his hair. The burgeoning wind held no more consideration for Ben’s hair than it did the sky’s ample clouds.
His left shoulder ached—the weekly hay supply had arrived at the livery and Ben was given the task of stacking the bales in the livery’s loft. As he made his way from the stables to the mercantile, Ben’s thoughts traveled to the coins in his pocket. Soon, dusk would blanket the small town, ushering Christmas Eve into the homes of those celebrating, and he had yet to select a present—albeit a meager one—for his young son.
Ben continued on his way, hugging his coat closer to his chest.
Maybe . . . a slate and a single length of chalk.
It was all Ben could afford, and although Adam would soon need a warmer coat, the slate and chalk would have to be enough. Adam was four-years-old, having spent his entire life in their small covered wagon and on occasion, in tiny rented rooms under the care of virtual strangers. Earning for their passage west was inevitable, and stopping in villages and towns was a necessity. Although it pained him to trust Adam’s care to kindly widows and shopkeepers’ wives, Ben knew it was his only choice. His dream lived on, even in the face of hardship.
The slate and chalk would bring a smile to his young son’s face and a sparkle to his dark eyes. Adam, with Ben’s help and the attention of Reverend Miller’s wife, Nancy, excelled at writing his letters, and the Christmas gifts would encourage Adam’s desire for constant learning.
Before entering the mercantile, Ben brushed strands of hay and patches of dust from his trousers. The small bell at the shop door’s frame tinkled as he entered, and the elderly shopkeeper, Mr. Arnold Canton, looked up from his ledger.
“Evenin’ Ben. I expect you’re here for your package.”
“Yes, indeed I am, Mr. Canton.”
Ben’s humble nod touched the shopkeeper’s heart.
“And I thank you, again, for agreeing to stay open until I could get here.”
Canton smiled. “My pleasure.” He reached beneath the counter and felt for the sacks. “You aren’t the only one in town bein’ paid on this Holy day.
“Why,” he continued as he brought the first sack into sight and set it on the counter, “I’ve done quite a bit of business today.”
Ben waited, expecting Canton to retrieve the small package he was anticipating. When the shopkeeper simply smiled and reached for a second large sack, Ben’s face reddened.
“There must be a mistake,” Ben said, reaching into his pocket for his coins—a full week’s pay minus the meager sum he paid the Reverend’s wife for Adam’s care. “I’m here for the slate and chalk.”
Canton grinned. “Oh, they’re both in there, Mr. Cartwright.” He nodded as he took the coins from Ben. “And a loaf of bread, a side of cured bacon, a bunch of fresh-picked carrots, a few potatoes, a new coat that should fit Adam for the next two years, and on top, a boxed chocolate cake.”
Ben’s mouth hung open.
“Now,” Canton continued as he walked around to the front of the counter, “you take care not to jostle the sack on the way to your wagon.” He lifted the sack and offered it to Ben. “Wouldn’t want little Adam to have to scrape the icing from the inside of the box, now would we?”
Canton’s grin grew wider.
“But . . . I don’t under . . . I can’t pay . . . I-”
“No need to pay for more than the slate and chalk, Ben. The food is a gift. You have friends here in Hanson, and what’s Christmas if not a time for friends to share and show their fondness for those who’ve shown kindness in turn?”
“The bread is from me. You’ve helped with unloading a few times and expected nothing more than a thanks in return. The bacon’s from your boss—a bonus, he called it, for your good work ethics. The carrots and potatoes are from the Reverend. He so enjoys spending time with little Adam, and he knows the boy likes them both. The coat was made by the Reverend’s wife. She loves to sew, and she made it from a coat that was donated to the church last season. And the cake, well, that’s from my wife. We haven’t been blessed with children as of yet, and she says no child should go without something especially sweet on Christmas.”
Ben couldn’t find words. His eyes glistened with emotion. “Thank you, Arnold. I’ll be sure to thanks the others at church tomorrow morning. I . . . I . . .”
“Go, Ben. Go to your boy.”
Ben smiled. “Yes, I’ll fetch Adam from the Millers’ and-”
“He’s not there, Ben.”
“Nancy and Adam stopped by a few hours ago. She took him to your wagon to help . . . That’s all I can say. They’re at the wagon.”
Confused, Ben nodded and left for home—the covered wagon he and Adam had been traveling in for the past four years.
Exhilaration was something he hadn’t allowed himself to feel in years. Practically giddy with wonder, he hurried down Hanson’s main road, turning sharply to the left as the road became a trail.
Up ahead, his wagon sat in a small clearing and, eager to see his son, Ben’s stride lengthened and his steps quickened. When his camp came into view, his gait slowed abruptly.
“What? The fire’s lit and . . . Is that Nancy’s ham and potato soup I smell?”
He moved closer, clinging to the sacks against his chest. His lungs filled with the savory aroma.
“Well, I’ll be.”
“Surprise!” Adam shouted as he poked his head through the bonnet flap. “Are you surprised, Pa? Are you?”
Ben’s eyes twinkled, and he winked at Nancy as she moved into view.
“Son, I am quite surprised.”
While Adam beamed, Ben placed the sacks beneath the wagon.
“Pa,” Adam said, “come inside. You’ve got to come inside.”
Ben climbed into the wagon. Hanging from a makeshift wire hanger was a lush evergreen branch adorned with three bunches of red berries, each tied together with red yarn.
“My goodness,” Ben said, “what a beautiful-”
“It’s not a Christmas tree, Pa, it’s a Christmas branch. Just the right size for a wagon. It looks real nice, doesn’t it, Pa?”
“It does, Adam. It looks beautiful.”
Nancy moved to the bonnet opening. “The soup is ready whenever you’re hungry. Adam helped with the campfire.” She winked at Adam. “He’s quite a handy young man, especially when he’s set on doing something for his father.”
Ben’s heart welled with pride.
“We’ll see you and Adam tomorrow in church, won’t we?” she asked as she climbed down from the wagon.
“Yes,” Ben replied. “We wouldn’t miss attending Christmas Day service with our wonderful friends.”
~ ~ 2 ~ ~
Mine runs deep, as faith should, and yet I’ve lost faith in myself.
I’ve made choices with me and my eldest son in mind, but those choices led to incomprehensible loss.
What have I done?
Was it a poor choice to love again? To give Adam something he wasn’t truly aware he was missing? I can’t help but wonder if newfound happiness, suddenly gone, leaves us worse off than before.
Lord, I struggle to hide my despair, even in the face of the blessings still with me. I try to hide my guilt, but it haunts me. I sought out love for myself and my boy, and it was . . . glorious.
You saw fit to call that love home, and now, I’m left balancing that memory and the comfort and love it provided with the knowledge that the pain would not exist had I not made that choice.
I am sorrowful, and although he tries to hide it, at times my Adam is beside himself with grief.
And there is another. They are my sons. My Adam and my Hoss . . .
The boarding house window was speckled with ice crystals, each one a perfect abstract design.
Ben twisted in the chair, his shoulder aching—a week of nine-hour shifts had taken a toll.
Across the tiny room, sitting close together on the floor, were his sons, Adam and Hoss. Ben glanced at the boys, playing at stacking blocks of wood.
For the fourth time since Ben had arrived home, eleven-month-old Hoss delighted in reducing seven-year-old Adam’s creation to rubble.
The toddler’s infectious giggle drew a smile to Ben’s face, and it was then that he noticed Adam’s pensive expression—the boy’s mind was on something other than his toppled wooden design.
“He’s learning about consequences, Adam,” Ben said. “He doesn’t mean to-”
“I know,” Adam interrupted as he stood and crossed to his father. “Pa, can we go out and chop down a tree?”
Puzzled, Ben leaned forward, resting his forearms against his thighs. “We talked about this. We already have a Christmas branch, son. It’s decorated and hanging in its place. Having a tree in such a tiny room with Hoss crawling and getting into mischief-”
“Not a Christmas tree, Pa, just a tree—for Mrs. Shaughnessy.”
“Yes, Pa. She’s a real nice lady. Hoss likes her. She plays games with him and teaches him and sings to him, and she holds him real close when she rocks him to sleep.”
Ben stood and reached for Hoss—he’d pulled himself up by holding onto the rickety table in the room. He placed the boy onto the room’s only bed and handed him a wooden spoon from atop the dresser.
“Adam, Mrs. Shaughnessy is paid to take care of Hoss, and you, as well.”
“But that’s just it, Pa. She doesn’t just take care of Hoss. She . . . well, the way she looks at him, I can tell she cares about him, loves him. And Pa, Hoss likes that.”
Ben’s throat tightened.
“Pa, Mrs. Shaughnessy’s always giving her preserves and pickles to Mr. Goodwin.”
Ben was even more confused. “Who is Mr. Goodwin?”
“He’s the man who brings the deliveries to Hanson. He takes Mrs. Shaughnessy’s jars to Mason City, to the orphanage there. Don’t you see, Pa? She’s a real nice lady who likes to do nice things for children—children who don’t have mothers.”
Now, I understand. Almost.
“But what does that have to do with chopping down a tree?” he asked.
“Mrs. Shaughnessy keeps her jars in her pantry, and it’s real hard for her to reach the two top shelfs.”
“Oh, yeah, shelves. So, if we cut down a tree, we can make her a stool—the one she has is all rickety and old. She told me it’s was old when she got it, and she’s had it since before Mr. Shaughnessy died all those years ago.”
Ben had never been more proud of Adam. “You want us to build her a stool.”
“Yes, sir. It would be a good Christmas present from me and Hoss, ‘cause Hoss . . . I mean, ‘cause we love her, Pa.”
Adam watched his father’s face closely. “Is that all right, Pa?”
Ben took a deep breath and smiled. “Of course it is.”
“Are you sure, Pa? I know you’re still awful sore and , well, you’re still sad and me and Hoss, well, we miss Mama, too.”
Adam sat on the bed, next to Hoss. “Pa, is it okay to love Mrs. Shaughnessy? Is it, Pa?”
Ben pulled his son to his chest. “Adam, finding someone worthy of your love is a gift from God, and it makes me proud that you’re such a generous soul.”
“Then we can make the stool and give it to her?”
“Yes, Adam. We most certainly can. Now, grab your coat and Hoss’s, too. Let’s get started. Christmas is just three days away!”
~ ~ 3 ~ ~
It took a while to settle, to accept the peace. It’s a welcome feeling, and I am grateful.
My sons are well, my wife is happy and loving, our ranch is productive and fulfilling. I am a fortunate man.
Yet I’m overcome Lord, by the fear that creeps into my heart from time to time. Tonight, Christmas Eve, is one of the times.
Over the years, I’ve found that loss breeds fear, and my sons and I have known, and to some extent, accepted, great loss. And now, I find the contentment I feel being threatened by the fear of more loss.
Two of my sons have lost mothers, and for the past two years, they’ve known the guidance and love only a mother can provide.
We’re happy, Lord, but sometimes I can’t help but question the future . . .
“Ben? I thought you were coming to bed hours ago.”
As Marie descended, the adoration Ben cast toward the staircase carried with it a love that consumed his very soul.
She crossed the room and sat facing him, bathed in the fire’s glow, her blonde hair draping her shoulders.
Ben reached for her hand, pressing it lightly against her lavender robe.
“His eyes are burdened,” Marie thought. “It’s Christmas Eve,” she said softly, concerned by her husband’s melancholy mood.
Ben turned away and stared into the flames.
“I looked in on our boys.” Her tone lifted. “As usual, Adam fell asleep reading. I marked his place with the drawing Hoss gave him this afternoon, and then I laid the book on his nightstand.”
She stroked Ben’s thumb with hers. “Hoss was uncovered, again, and snoring lightly.”
Still, Ben studied the flames.
“I brushed his blonde curls from his face and tucked the sides of his blanket beneath the mattress. He’s every bit the sweet boy whether awake or asleep.”
The love in Marie’s words drew Ben from his thoughts.
She cocked her head, pleased with her husband’s slight smile. “And Little Joe, well, our baby is fast asleep, dry and cozy in his cradle.”
Ben gently squeezed her hand. “Our sons are content.”
“That’s right . . . but you, my husband, are not.” She touched his cheek lightly. “Our home is warm and safe. There are gifts beneath our glorious tree; some practical, some full of whimsy.” She slipped her hand free of his, rose, and crossed to the eight-foot pine. “The tree is adorned with ornaments and keepsakes made through the years by Adam and Hoss and treasured friends.”
She delighted in removing one particular ornament.
“This one,” she said as she held it for Ben to see, “made from a simple evergreen branch. It was Adam, was it not, who made this one?”
“Yes,” Ben said, crossing to the tree, “on the occasion of our first Christmas in Virginia City.”
“Ah, yes, when you and Hoss lived in the once abandoned cabin on the outskirts of town.”
Ben nodded and took the ornament from Marie. “Virginia City was hardly a town or a city back then. More like a muddy, dusty camp filled with fortune seekers and dreamers.”
“None a more handsome dreamer than you, Ben.” She kissed his cheek.
“Watch that sugared tongue,” Ben said, drawing her into an embrace. “It may get you into trouble.”
Marie laughed. “If it brings a smile to your face, it is worth the risk.” She turned again to the Christmas tree. “And this one, Margaret Shaughnessy made this one, did she not?”
Ben’s smile broadened as she handed him the ornament. “Two little rag dolls, one taller than the other, sewn together by their hands.”
“Adam and Hoss, the young boys she cared for all those years.”
“Yes,” he said softly, replacing the treasured gift back onto its branch. “I don’t know what I would have done without her. I’d never have been able to work and save my pay to move further from town and build this, our Ponderosa.”
“But you forget, Ben. If it wasn’t for Adam and Hoss and you’re invitation for Margaret to travel from Hanson to Virginia City, she might still be living, how do you say it, hand to mouth back in Hanson.”
“I’m fortunate she agreed to travel west with us.”
“You are all fortunate, Ben. As are the friends you made along the way and those you’ve made here.”
Still, Ben seemed pensive.
Marie turned and laced her fingers at her waist. “Our life couldn’t be more perfect, Ben, and if I know you, you’re troubled by that very fact.”
He stood and moved to her. Holding her shoulders, he said, “You do know me, my love.”
Marie ran her fingertips across his chest. “What has happened before, we cannot change. We have only to accept, learn, and move forward.”
A grin spread across Ben’s lips. “You’re using my own words against me.”
“Not against you,” Marie said with a chuckle, “with you. Always with you.”
She put her hands at his waist and drew him closer. “I remember everything you said the day you proposed, and your wisdom rings true now as it did then. “We can’t know what the future will bring, but we can choose the path we take into that future.”
The grandfather clock chimed three times, and Ben nodded and pulled Marie against his chest. “Our sons will be awake in a few hours-”
“And our lives will be filled with even more joy than at this very moment.”
“That’s right. And then, Mrs. Shaughnessy will arrive, and so will Roy and Paul, and our home will be filled with loved ones.”
Ben kissed her forehead, then gazed into her eyes. “I love you, my darling. Merry Christmas.”
~ ~ the end ~ ~
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