The Mountain Eagle    
© July 2003, as allowable

Joe Cartwright couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t the hard ground he was lying on that was keeping him awake, though he hadn’t yet found a comfortable place for his hip.  He’d had an exhausting day chasing down steers that hadn’t figured out yet that they were supposed to be ambling north, not dodging into every creekbed and draw they passed.  First day on a cattle drive was never fun, and he usually slept the deep sleep of the pure and innocent on the first night.

Not this time.  He knew what the problem was.  His oldest brother, Adam, had gotten into it with their father at supper.  Some point of procedure, who was in charge of what, that sort of thing, but it had resulted in raised voices and stiff backs and oh-so-casual sips of coffee.

What was wrong with his brother these days?  Seemed like nothing really made him happy.  He’d have spells of lightheartedness when that sunbolt of a grin would appear, transforming his appearance and making Joe’s whole world shine.  When Adam smiled, really smiled, his dimples would appear and his eyes would light up, and no one could resist him.

Most of the time, he was the hardworking oldest son that most people knew: organized, driven, an irresistible force that men followed instinctively; quick to figure out solutions to problems and explain them in clear simple terms that the men understood immediately.

Then there were the black times, when Adam sank into dark, deep thoughts that no one, not even their father, could penetrate.  These moods were familiar to Joe, they were a part of who his brother was, but he was concerned at how often they’d been turning up, and how the lighthearted, fun Adam seemed to be disappearing.

He heard the clank of metal on metal above the usual night sounds and rolled over to see what it was.  His other brother, Hoss, who had the midnight watch, was hunched down by the coals of their fire, pouring himself a cup of coffee.  Joe pushed his blanket aside, shook out his boots and slipped them on, then crept quietly to his side.

Hoss hooked a second blue tin cup with his finger and held it towards him with raised eyebrows.  Joe nodded and took the cup, held it out.  The thick black coffee didn’t make a sound as it spilled into the cup, and when he sipped it, he was again reminded of Adam’s moods.  Dark, heavy, strong – a man’s coffee, a man’s man – silently bitter.

Hoss cocked his head at him, questioning.  No sound; the little camp was snugly tucked near an overhang of rock that reflected and magnified all noises.  Both Adam and their father, who had – surprisingly after their battle of words last night – set their bedrolls next to each other, were light sleepers.

Joe sighed and poked at the campfire, raising a few bright flames.  The smell of burning mesquite brought back memories of happier trips, when the family had ridden as one, with one purpose, one goal.  He felt the heavy warmth of Hoss’s hand on his shoulder and looked up to see him jerk his head toward the trail to the horses.  They rose together, tossed their coffee to the ground at the same time, and even set their cups on the same rock.  As they walked silently away from the fire, Joe mused on how close he was to Hoss, how sometimes they even seemed like twins.  That raised a grin – he wasn’t really a small man, himself, but next to Hoss he always looked half-grown.  No one would mistake them for twins, but he knew in some ways they were, especially when it came to the heart.

They reached the remuda, and Joe automatically counted to make sure none had gotten free, while Hoss went to the dappled gray that had taken a fall earlier that day.

“He gonna be all right?” Joe asked softly.

Hoss slapped the horse lightly on the neck, and it nuzzled him in return.  “Yeah, looks okay to me.  We’ll give him a light day tomorrow, maybe put Chuck up on him.”

Joe nodded.  Chuck was the lightest rider they had, with the gentlest touch.  “You gonna tell Adam in the morning that you’ve rearranged his plan?”

Hoss crinkled his nose and, instead of answering his question, asked one of his own.  “What’s really got at you, Joe?  You mad at Adam ‘bout fightin’ with Pa tonight?”

He thought carefully about his answer.  Did he resent Adam making things more difficult for their father?  Was Adam just rubbing him the wrong way, settling out his authority on the first day of the trail?  He shook his head.  “No, not the way you mean.”  He stroked the nose of the roan that stood next to him. 

Hoss waited for him to think it through.

“I mean, Adam’s got a right to say his piece, and they’ve always rubbed up against each other at the beginning of things like this.  Adam’s the ramrod and Pa’s the owner, and that’s gotta be settled.”  He paused.  “I thought it was settled.  I didn’t think Adam had to push it like that.”

“Maybe not.  Somethin’s sure diggin’ at him, though.”

“You’ve seen it, too?”

Hoss nodded.  “It’s burnin’ in his heart again, an’ the way he’s going, we’re gonna have another mighty explosion.”


Hoss looked up at the stars that covered the heavens like new snow on the ground.  “It’s that same itchin’ look he had back that last year we had your Mama.”

It all fell into place and hit him in the gut, blew the air out of him.  “He wants to leave.”

Now Hoss sighed.  He turned Joe back to face the camp, where they could still see the humps of blankets next to the fire.  “It ain’t a want, Joe.  Folks want a cold beer, to dance with a pretty lady, to have them sour balls from the jar at Tom Whitsun’s store.  No, what’s burnin’ in Adam is a need, somethin’ that’s gonna rip him from us one day sooner or later.  I seen it before, when he wanted to go East to college so bad.”

“He came back . . . .”

“Yeah, and I was mighty thankful he did, ‘cause it was awful hard on Pa to let him go.  Adam knew it, too.”

Joe rubbed at the back of his neck.  “How can he do it again, Hoss?  He doesn’t care what he’ll do to Pa?  I thought . . . I thought he . . . .”  He just couldn’t put it into words.

“He loved him?”  Hoss never seemed to have trouble speaking from the heart.  He put an arm around Joe’s shoulders.  “Look over there, little brother.” 

Joe gazed over at the other two Cartwrights, their father sleeping on his back, Adam on his side, as usual. 

“Look close at Adam.  He’s layin’ on his left side, facin’ Pa.”

Adam usually slept on his right side.

“Look at his hand, Joe.  Look at his arm.  It’s layin’ right next to Pa’s, back of his hand resting against Pa’s shoulder.”

So it was.  A warmth grew in Joe’s belly, loosening the gripping tension that had kept him from enjoying much of his dinner.

“Pa told me once, one time when I thought like you that Adam didn’t love him near enough, he told me that Adam’d been like that his whole life.  Never a cuddly feller, not like you were when you were a baby.  But sometimes when they was travelin’ west, Pa’d wake up in that wagon in the middle of the night and find Adam snugged up tight against him, his hand resting against his shoulder,” he nodded toward the fire, “just like that.”

What had always looked so casual, like an accident, took on new meaning.  He looked more carefully, studying the sleeping faces of his brother and father.  It suddenly seemed to him that there was a hint of contentment on both of their faces, that they slept more deeply for something shared.  “He loves Pa, but he needs to go.”

“Yep.  An’ it’s about ripping him apart.” 

He could see the anguish in Hoss’s face, not for what they would lose when Adam left, but for Adam’s pain.

“Why isn’t he more like us, Hoss?”  Joe’s words came out on a thread of air.  “Why aren’t we like him?”

“I asked him once.  I asked him before he went to college why I felt so strong that my life was here.  He showed me some words out of a book that say it pretty good.”  He looked up at the stars again.

And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls
that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges,
and soar out of them again
and become invisible in the sunny spaces.

“That’s Adam all right,” Joe interrupted.  “He can go down into the pits of hell, and he doesn’t do it too much but he can have as much fun with things as me.”

“Hush.  It wasn’t him he was talkin’ about,” Hoss replied, and continued:

And even if he forever flies within the gorge,
that gorge is in the mountains;
so that even in his lowest swoop
the mountain eagle is still higher
than the other birds upon the plain,
even though they soar

“. . . even when he’s in the blackest, lowest gorges,” Joe repeated softly, “the mountain eagle is still higher than the birds on the plains.”

Hoss nodded.  “He called me a mountain eagle, an’ you are, too.  More than me, most like.  But him . . . .”

“It’s there in him, too.”  Joe was sure of that, sure as he could be of anything.

“Yeah, but Joe?  It ain’t right to keep an eagle in a cage or where he ain’t happy, even if it means he flies down to the plains or across the oceans and ain’t never again as high in the air as he was when he was in the mountains.”

Joe gazed at the man who slept so peacefully next to their father.  “We gotta let him go.”  When Hoss didn’t answer, he looked up. 

Hoss was choking on it, too. 


When they returned to the ranch after seeing Adam off on the morning stage, Joe didn’t follow his father and brother into the house.  He went instead to the barn and saddled up his pinto.  When he led his horse from the barn, Ben was standing on the porch, but didn’t say a word – just waved a hand.  One small gesture that said he understood.  Joe touched the brim of his hat once in answer, then swung into the saddle and rode up into the mountains.

He didn’t go where his father likely expected, though.  Usually when he was upset, he’d head to the beautiful grove by the lakeshore that held his mother’s grave.  This time he rode high to the rim, along a trail that his oldest brother loved.  He rode all afternoon until he reached a certain break in the trees.  His breath caught at the full glory of the deep sapphire lake that was set into pewter-gray mountains and surrounded by the emeralds of thick stands of Ponderosa pines.

He gazed at the beauty around him and wondered, once again, how Adam could bear to leave.  Hoss had been right, though.  The two of them had talked to their father, and then the three had approached Adam.  It was like a thread had been cut, the way that quiet, underlying tension in his brother had suddenly snapped, and he’d dropped into a chair, hands scrubbing at his face.  Joe still remembered his words:  I thought I’d have to fight you, that I’d wreck what we have, that I could never come back after doing that to you.

An eagle’s cry split the mountain air, and Joe searched through his tears.  Yes, there it was.  Flying straight out of the western sun, arrowing across the ridge, and down to the Carson Valley plain. 

But Adam would be back.

The End

Quote from “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville


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