Summary: Thanks to the machinations of a conniving editor, Ben finds himself besieged by needy females in a town whose male population has been ravaged by accidents and disease. (Originally published in the first issue of Bonanza Gold)
Rating: K ( 7,429words)
Damsels in Distress
The brisk October breeze whipped leaves from the deciduous trees scattered among the evergreens on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains and made Ben Cartwright pull the collar of his coat snug against his neck. Risky time of year to be on the California side, he mused, noting the chill in the air, with its hint of snow soon to come. He’d had little choice, though, not in good conscience. Jason Delong had been a good friend from the time they’d come west together, and his passing six months ago had been a bitter blow. Though Ben hadn’t seen Jason’s widow since the funeral, he’d kept in touch by mail. Jennifer’s letters always said that she was fine; however, Ben could read between the lines well enough to sense that all was not well. He’d wanted to come sooner, but the fall roundup and trail drive had to come first, if he and his boys planned to eat this winter. Now that was over, and after the successful sale of the selected stock, Ben had sent his three sons home, while he rode to Wilson’s Bar to make certain that Jennifer Delong was also prepared for the winter to come.
As he rode the snake-like trail toward one of California’s more remote mining hamlets, Ben asked himself what had possessed his old friend to relocate here last year. Just the nature of miners, he supposed, to have that wanderlust, that eternal grasping for greener grass somewhere beyond the horizon. Not a good analogy, Ben acknowledged with a chuckle. Ranchers such as himself might yearn for greener grass; miners like Jason pursued, often fruitlessly, fields of gold, instead of green.
A nice grassy meadow was what this rancher’s horse yearned for, Ben thought as he leaned forward to pat the bay’s broad neck. Unlike the main stage route, with stations every ten to twelve miles, this narrow trail through the trees wasn’t supplying much by way of feed, and having come from a different direction on his only other visit to the Delongs, Ben wasn’t sure where he might find some. A whiff of wood smoke made him sit straight and sniff the air, trying to discern the direction from which it came. Smoke meant fire, and fire indicated people nearby. A ranch, perhaps? Not the best place for one, with woods all around, but there had to be some meadows, even in this hilly country. If he could find one, Buck would have his supper taken care of, and if it came attached to a ranch, maybe Ben himself could buy a hot meal, instead of making out on hardtack and jerky, as he’d planned.
Following his nose, he spotted a rough wagon track heading northeast and turned Buck onto it. The trail twisted through tall cedar, fir and pine until a broad clearing finally opened before Ben’s gaze. Not a sprig of grass in sight, but there was a rude log cabin, with smoke wisping from its stone and stick chimney. There was a barn, too, and whatever animals it was built to shelter would need feed. Maybe he could purchase enough for Buck from these folks. Worth asking, at any rate. From the look of the place, whoever lived here could use the money.
As Ben walked Buck up to the cabin, he saw a wiry woman, faded calico dress smudged with the residue of honest toil, setting a short log on a sawed off stump. Raising an ax, the woman slammed it into the log and then struggled to wrestle it free when it stuck tight. Ben dismounted quickly and strode over to her. “Ma’am? Here, ma’am, let me give you a hand with that.” Curling strong fingers around the ax handle, he jerked it free of the wood.
The woman pushed stray tendrils of dusty brown hair behind her ears. “Thanks, mister. Can’t imagine how you happened to wander by, lost in the woods as this timber ranch is, but I surely thank you for the help.”
Ben tipped his hat. “You’re welcome, ma’am. Truth is, I smelled your smoke and was hoping to buy some feed for my horse.”
“I reckon we can spare a bait,” she said. “Have to ask my man, though.” She inclined her head toward the cabin.
Ben frowned, forming an instant and negative opinion of any man who would laze around and allow a woman to tackle this kind of work.
The woman seemed to read his mind. “Don’t be thinkin’ ill of him, mister. My John’s a good worker when he’s able, but he cut his leg bad a week back, out harvestin’ firewood to sell in town, and can’t bear weight on it long enough to do any choppin’ yet.”
Ben smiled apologetically. “All due respect, ma’am, you’re not doing much chopping, either. Why don’t you let me split that pile for you, in trade for the feed?” He would gladly have offered his labor free to a couple down on their luck, but he’d learned early in life that outright charity was often rejected, whereas a trade eased people’s pride enough to let them accept the help they needed.
“Sounds like you’re gettin’ the short end of the stick,” she said with a smile, “but I’ll ask John.” She moved toward the cabin, turning about halfway there. “Ain’t got much to offer, but I reckon a meal for you and your horse and a bed for the night might make a fairer trade.”
Nodding, Ben pulled off his jacket. “A hot meal would be most welcome, ma’am.” He lifted the ax and swung it at the log, figuring that by the time he finished this job, that bed would be looking mighty welcome, too.
* * * * *
His arms ached from splitting a huge pile of wood, but Ben was whistling as he rode into Wilson’s Bar the next morning. While he admitted it with reluctance, he was no longer accustomed to the type of labor he normally assigned to his boys, particularly Joseph after all-too-frequent indiscretions in word or action, and his muscles were protesting, even after a night’s rest. Still, it gave him satisfaction to have helped those folks up at the struggling timber ranch, and he felt that he had made two new friends.
He had one more commission to fulfill for them, though he’d had to argue long and hard before they’d let him send a doctor back to their place to tend what Ben could tell was a deep and dangerously infected cut on John Blackburn’s leg. He’d finally finagled another trade, feed for him and Buck on their way home, in exchange for his paying the doctor’s bill. Molly Blackburn had told him, out of her husband’s hearing, that she knew better than to think a helping of her salt pork and beans was worth even a minute of a high-paid doctor’s time, but she’d agreed out of fear that John might lose his leg if he didn’t get medical attention. “I won’t be forgettin’ all you done for us, Ben Cartwright,” she’d said as she saw him off after a breakfast of biscuits and sowbelly, “and neither will the good Lord. You done cast your bread upon the waters, and it’ll come back to you, like the good book promises.”
Just so it doesn’t come back in the form of heavy biscuits and greasy sowbelly, Ben thought as he led Buck into the sole livery stable on the main street of Wilson’s Bar. Molly Blackburn had done her best with what she had to work with, but she had confessed herself low on supplies, saleratus to make biscuits rise fluffy being among the items on the list for her next trip to town.
Handing two bits to the stable hand who’d shown him to a stall for Buck, Ben asked directions to the doctor’s office.
“End of the street,” the young fellow said, pointing to his left. “Can’t miss it; last house in town.”
Figures, Ben thought. Well, it was a small enough town that even going to its extreme edge wouldn’t delay him long, and then he’d head over to the Delong place and see what kind of help the widow of his old friend might need.
* * * * *
Jenny Delong ladled watery stew into a chipped china bowl. “Not what you’re used to at home, I know,” she apologized as she set the dish before her guest. “I’d’ve done better if I’d knowed you was coming, Ben.”
“And scrimped on your own meals later,” Ben chided as he examined the bowl, which contained precisely one cube of beef, with a couple of slices of carrot and a few chunks of potatoes. “Why didn’t you tell me things had gotten this bad?”
Jenny sat down before a bowl equally lacking in nutrition. “Following Jason’s pattern, I guess. You know he wasn’t one to come begging for help.”
“No man is,” Ben said. “No real man, I mean, but there’s no shame in turning to a friend in time of need. I’ve had to a number of times.”
Jenny nodded. “But you always put that help to good use and paid it back ten times over. Wish with all my heart that Jason had settled in one place, like you, and worked to build us a future, but he was always reaching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Now all me and the girls has got is a mine I know nothing about running.”
“You have a good superintendent?” Ben queried. “One you can trust?”
Idly stirring the contents of her soup bowl, Jenny sighed. “That’s just it; I don’t know. Jason trusted him, and I did at first, but it seems like the mine just produces less and less since Jason died, and it makes me wonder.” She set the spoon down and dabbed at the corner of her eye with a red-checked napkin. “Wish I could get shed of the place, but the only offer I’ve had is from that superintendent. Even I knew what he offered was rock bottom for any mine hereabouts, despite his claim that he was only buying the mine at all to help me out. That’s when I started to get suspicious of him, I guess.”
Ben, too, set his spoon aside. “You think he’s dipping into the till?”
Jenny set her lips grimly. “Hate to accuse any man without proof, but, yes, that’s what I’m afeared of, Ben, and I just don’t know what to do. I know I acted peeved with you for showing up unexpected-like, but I could surely use some advice.”
Ben laced his fingers atop the bare wood table and tapped his thumbs together in thought. “Even if you sell the mine, it won’t bring enough to set you up for life. Any thoughts on what you’d do then to put food on the table?”
“I’m good with a needle, and I’m a fair cook—when I have something to put in the pot,” Jenny said with a rueful smile at the stew neither of them found appetizing. “I’d like to move to a little larger town and start a bakery. Miners pay well for baked goods. Might take in mending and washing on the side, if needed. I’ve done a little of that here, but I’d do better in a bigger place, I think.”
“Have to agree with that,” Ben chuckled. “Wilson’s Bar isn’t much of a town. Let’s plan on getting you out of it, then.” He scooped up a bite of potato on his spoon and ate, gesturing for her to do the same. “First thing is to get that man—and any others—off your payroll.”
Jenny obediently sipped some of the stew broth. “Just close the mine down? I’d have nothing at all coming in then, Ben. What if the mine doesn’t sell or brings so little I can’t make a new start?”
“It’ll sell,” Ben assured her. “Let’s cut your expenses right away, and next thing we’ll do is get a new assay to see just what this property’s worth. Then we offer it for sale. Is there a newspaper in this town?”
“Of sorts,” Jenny replied with a sad shake of her head. “Run by another widow lady and about to go under, from what I’ve heard.”
“Cholera, same as Jason?” Ben asked.
Jenny nodded. “Lost a lot of our menfolk that way. Women and children, too, of course, but seemed like the men was hit hardest. Anyway, Mrs. Collins has been trying to run her husband’s newspaper since he passed on, but though she’s an educated woman, she don’t seem able to make a go of it.”
Ben stood up. “Well, all we need is an advertisement. You’ll need to come with me to the mine, to authorize me to fire the superintendent and lay off the mining crew. Then I’ll take some samples to the assay office, while you do some grocery shopping.”
Tears filled Jenny Delong’s eyes. “Ben, I don’t have anything to shop with.”
Ben pulled a ten-dollar gold eagle from his pocket. “You do now, and don’t give me any speeches about charity, either. This is simply a matter of self-preservation. If I’m going to be eating at your table, I’d like to see some meat on it.”
The tears poured freely now, as Jenny threw her arms around Ben. “Bless you, Ben. I promise you a fair return on your investment at supper tonight.”
Ben kissed her on the forehead. “Got to sample the wares of that upcoming bakery, don’t I, if I’m gonna put this much effort into seeing it launched?”
“Apple pie still your favorite or would you favor pumpkin this time of year?”
Ben laughed. “Considering how poorly I’ve been eating the last couple of days, maybe you’d better bake a couple of each.”
* * * * *
Ben approached the office of the Wilson’s Bar Bulletin with a fair amount of ambivalence. From the condition of the building itself, the newspaper gave all appearance of being a profitable business, but having perused a copy in his hotel room last night, Ben could easily understand why the Widow Collins was having problems making a go of it. Oh, the lady wrote well enough, all the periods and commas in their proper places, as best a non-literary man could tell, but the paper had been boring beyond belief. Somebody ought to tell the new editor that only a small portion of the reading public in a mining town was interested in reports of cotillions in San Francisco or the latest fashions back east—and it wasn’t the portion most likely to be interested in advertisements of a mine for sale.
Still, the Bulletin was the best option in town for getting the word out, so Ben opened the door and stepped inside. He almost backed out immediately when he saw a woman slumped over the desk behind the wooden railing, head down on her folded arms. The head rose so quickly, however, that he had no chance to escape.
The woman, who appeared to be about five years younger than Jennifer Delong, gazed at him from red-rimmed eyes. “Yes? May I help you, sir?” she asked as she pulled a long strand of straight, wheat-colored hair across her shoulder.
Ben paused a moment, not sure what to say. “Ma’am, I can come back, if this is a bad time.”
A weak smile barely lifted the corners of the woman’s mouth. “Later isn’t likely to be better, Mr. . . .”
“Cartwright,” Ben said. “Ben Cartwright, and I presume you’re Mrs. Collins?”
The woman nodded as she stood and approached the railing that divided the entry from the editorial desk and printing press. “Kathleen Collins. How may I help you?”
“I came in to place an advertisement in your next issue, if I may,” Ben explained, removing a folded paper from his inside vest pocket.
“I don’t know whether you may or not,” Mrs. Collins sighed. Then she straightened up. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be evasive. It’s just that I’ve been sitting here, trying to decide whether to put out a next issue or just give up and run back east, tail between my legs.”
“Might not be a bad idea, Mrs. Collins,” Ben suggested kindly, “if you have family back there to go home to. It’s hard for a woman alone to make her way out here.”
A livid spark flared in the woman’s brown eyes. “Oh, you’re just like every other man of my acquaintance—and my family, too, for that matter. You think of women as weak and helpless, unable to make their way without some man to fend for them. Well, I’m not! I can take care of myself and I will!” She laughed abruptly. “Well, at any rate, that answers my question about whether I’m ready to quit or not. I guess I should thank you for that, Mr. Cartwright.”
“You’re welcome—I think,” Ben said with a wry smile.
“Let’s see that ad copy you’re holding,” the lady editor suggested, holding out her hand. Glancing at it, she nodded. “So you’ve managed to convince one weak female to pack up and leave, have you, Mr. Cartwright?”
“I didn’t have to,” Ben said sharply. “Mrs. Delong had already made the decision. I’m just trying to facilitate matters for her.”
Kathleen Collins had the grace to blush. “That’s kind of you, I’m sure, and I apologize for that diatribe against male arrogance.”
Ben chuckled. “Not the best way to attract new business, ma’am, especially considering the ratio of men to women among your readers.”
Kathleen laughed. “That’s true enough.” She looked down again at the paper Ben had handed her. “You don’t mind if I correct your spelling, do you?”
“I’d be grateful,” Ben said. “Sharpen up the copy any way you think would help Mrs. Delong with her sale. I read a sample of your work last night, and I’m sure you can do better than I.”
“Just the one error.” Kathleen smiled. “Better than most men would do.”
Ben wagged a playful finger beneath her nose. “There you go again, alienating your audience.”
Mrs. Collins smiled as she nodded acceptance of his gentle rebuke. “I’ll try to keep that in mind, Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben took a deep breath to bolster his courage. “Might I make another suggestion, Mrs. Collins?”
Kathleen’s head cocked to one side. “Please do,” she said, liking the direct way in which he was looking at her.
“About your subject matter,” Ben said. “It really doesn’t appeal to the majority of your prospective readers.”
The editor’s shoulders slumped forward. “Meaning men, of course. No, I suppose not. I’ve always heard that it was best to write about what you know, but I know so little about mining.” She gave a deep sigh.
“It’s isn’t necessary to write about mining to attract miners as readers, ma’am, at least judging by what I see in the Territorial Enterprise back home,” Ben said. “Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille both attract quite a following with their humorous pieces.”
Kathleen Collins laughed. “I’ve read some of those, but I doubt my writing’s up to that quality. Still . . . wait! You said your name was Ben Cartwright. Not the Ben Cartwright of the famous Ponderosa, surely?”
“I surely am,” Ben said with a chuckle, “although I’ve never heard myself called famous before.”
“Oh, but you are!” Kathleen declared enthusiastically. “Even in Wilson’s Bar I’ve heard the quality of Ponderosa beef praised.”
Ben could almost feel his chest swell with pride. “Well, that’s gratifying to hear.”
“And I just know our readers, miners and women alike, would enjoy reading about the founding of the great Ponderosa ranch,” the editor suggested, leaning eagerly toward Ben.
“Oh, well, there’s—uh—not that much to tell,” Ben stammered. “Just came west, settled a piece of property, worked hard. That’s about it.”
“I’m sure you could tell some fascinating stories of the early days, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Collins pressed. “Oh, please say you will. After all, you’re staying in town to help Mrs. Delong, aren’t you? Surely you have some time on your hands, waiting for a buyer, time enough to write up a short article or two?”
Ben held up his hands in unmitigated horror. “I’m not a writer, Mrs. Collins,” he protested. He waved a hand at the ad copy in her hands. “Why, I can’t even spell properly, and as for punctuation . . .”
“That’s my job, as editor,” Kathleen said with a sly smile, “and if you won’t help me with something my male readers would enjoy, then there’s no point in placing this ad, is there?” She offered the ad copy back to him. “The ladies certainly won’t be buying any mines.”
Ben groaned, knowing she had him over a barrel. “You, ma’am, are a conniver.”
“So my husband always claimed,” Kathleen chuckled. “Three columns, any time before noon will do, Mr. Cartwright. This is an evening paper, as you know.”
Grimly, Ben tugged his hat down over his forehead. “Three columns by noon, Mrs. Collins,” he promised.
* * * * *
After a filling breakfast the next morning, Ben closed the door to Jenny Delong’s home behind him, to shut out her rippling laughter, and tried to hang onto his irritation as he stalked down the street. Failing, he let a chuckle slide past his twitching lips. Though he’d been frustrated by the writing assignment that lady editor had saddled him with, he had to admit the way she’d trapped him was amusing. He thought he’d done a fair job of putting words to paper, although not as well as that oldest son of his could have done. Adam was the scholar in the family, but spelling and punctuation aside, Ben didn’t think he’d done half badly by Kathleen Collins. At least, he’d insured that the paper would continue a few more days, and, hopefully, that was all he’d need. The assay report had come back better than expected, suggesting the likelihood of the superintendent’s pilfering and indicating the possibility of a quick and profitable sale.
Entering the newspaper office, he saw a woman dressed in homespun and a poke bonnet in consultation with Kathleen Collins. He stepped to one side, prepared to wait until the ladies had finished their business or gossip, whichever it was, but Mrs. Collins waved him forward. “Let’s see what you have,” she requested eagerly.
Blushing slightly, Ben handed over the four hand-written sheets. “Not sure I got the length right,” he muttered. “Don’t know what three columns looks like, handwritten.”
“Close enough by the time it’s edited,” Kathleen said, smiling as she scanned the first paragraph. Suddenly reminded of her manners, she looked up. “Oh, Mr. Cartwright, this is Mrs. Marcus Whittaker—the Widow Whittaker, that is.”
Ben voiced a sympathetic cluck. Wilson’s Bar sure was hard on its menfolk. “The cholera, ma’am?” he asked the woman.
“What? Oh, no,” Mrs. Whittaker said, limpid blue eyes tearing up. “My Marcus met with an accident, died real sudden.”
“Just two weeks ago,” Kathleen added, to explain the woman’s easily triggered emotions. “Marian is here to place an advertisement for their ranch, aiming to sell so she can move back east to be with family.” She couldn’t resist adding, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “I assume you approve.”
“If that’s what the lady wants,” Ben said, arching an eyebrow.
Kathleen laughed. “You’re a rancher, Mr. Cartwright. Perhaps you can help her word her advertisement so as to appeal to a man such as yourself.”
“Well, that would be difficult without knowing the property,” Ben demurred.
“Oh, please, sir, help me if you can,” the widow pleaded. “I scarcely know what to say, beyond that we have about eighty acres, some in pasture, some in crops.”
“How much in each?” Ben inquired.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mrs. Whittaker sighed. “Marcus handled the ranch; I just took care of the house and the children.”
The editor looked up from her reading. “This is quite good, Mr. Cartwright—Ben, if I may.”
“Of course,” Ben said, looking pleased. He knew he was no Mark Twain, but he basked in the praise, nonetheless. “I’m glad you like it.”
“Oh, I do,” Kathleen returned enthusiastically. “I’m sure it’s exactly what my readers would like to see. There’s just one thing, Ben.”
The balloon of his ego deflating slightly, Ben nodded. “I know I’m not a real author. You just fix it up any way you need to.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Kathleen said. “I was just noticing that you mention the discovery of the Comstock Lode in your story, and I’m sure the miners here would enjoy an eyewitness account of that—in a follow-up article.”
Ben gaped at her in utter shock. “No, absolutely not,” he protested. “One article, that was our agreement.”
“But, Mr. Cartwright—Ben—you have to stay in town ‘til the mine sells, anyway, and you’ll be back from Mrs. Whittaker’s place before suppertime, so that leaves you all evening to write.”
“Mrs. Whittaker’s place?” Ben croaked.
“Why, someone needs to help her appraise her ranch, so she’ll know what to ask for it, how to word her ad for prospective buyers,” the lady editor amplified persuasively. “Who better than the largest rancher in Nevada?”
“Oh, what a splendid suggestion!” Mrs. Whittaker cried, clasping her hands and raising them to her chin. “Oh, I’d feel so much more secure knowing a man like that was advising me.”
“Of course, you would,” Kathleen cooed, “and Mr. Cartwright will still have time to write that article for me this evening.” She looked up. “Won’t you, Ben?”
The widow’s eyes were fixed entreatingly and the lady editor’s confidently on Ben Cartwright’s face. Unable to refuse their mute pleading, he nodded glumly.
“Fine,” Kathleen bubbled. “Three columns—”
“By noon,” Ben finished curtly. “But this is the last time!”
* * * * *
He’d said it and he’d meant it, but he’d had to stick to his guns to avoid another writing assignment from the word-hungry lady editor. Gratifying as it was to hear that sales had soared in response to his two previous articles, Ben knew he was no writer. It was the hardest work he’d ever done, and his brain ached worse than his muscles had after splitting those logs for Mrs. Blackburn, whom he’d seen on the street yesterday and talked to long enough to hear that her husband’s leg was coming along nicely.
Still, the articles had served their purpose in providing a broader audience for the advertisement he’d placed in the classified column. Several prospective buyers had surfaced and were, in fact, now in a bidding war for the Delong mine. Another day or two should see the property profitably sold and him on his way out of Wilson’s Bar.
As had become his habit the past few days, Ben stopped by the hotel registry to pick up the latest issue of the Bulletin. “Glad you’re staying over,” the clerk said as he handed over the paper, “but I wish you’d see your way clear to write up another piece, Mr. Cartwright. Sure do enjoy reading about your adventures.”
“Thank you,” Ben said, “but I’m a rancher, not a writer. I’ll be staying over another night or two, Mr. Simpson, and then it’s back to the Ponderosa for me.”
Silas Simpson grinned, the gap in his front teeth reminding Ben of his middle son, though the man was decades older than Hoss. “Reckon the ladies’ll be sorry to hear you’re leavin’.”
Ben frowned, puzzled for a moment. Then, concluding that the clerk must be referring to Mrs. Delong and Mrs. Collins, he nodded, placed the folded newspaper beneath his arm and climbed the single flight of stairs to his room. After removing his boots, coat and vest, Ben settled down on the bed and opened the paper, curious to see whether it contained anything better than news about cotillions and high fashion, now that Kathleen was sole writer again. One glance at the headline blazoned across three columns of the front page, and he bolted to his feet. “I’ll kill her!” he growled.
Hoping the article wouldn’t be as personally mortifying as “BEN CARTWRIGHT—NEVADA’S NOBLE KNIGHT” indicated, he paced the floor as he scanned line after line of effusive praise. With each paragraph he felt his face flush a little warmer as he read a description of himself that made all the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table look like a child’s tin soldiers by comparison. Somehow that—that minx of an editor had sniffed out all the small kindnesses he’d done the last few days, from the meager assistance he’d given the Blackburn family, to managing the mine’s sale for Jenny Delong, to advising Mrs. Whittaker on the disposal of her property and—last, but not least—single-handedly saving the town’s newspaper, as credited by Kathleen Collins herself. After touting Ben Cartwright as a man possessed of the wisdom of Solomon and the chivalry of Sir Lancelot, the article concluded, “Indeed, could any damsel in distress ask for a more gallant knight to champion her cause than this self-effacing rancher from Nevada?”
Ben threw the newspaper to the floor and grasped hold of the foot rail of the bed. Squeezing his knuckles around the solid brass, he fought to control his rising temper. How dare she? This was her way of getting back at him for his refusal to supply her with more articles, was it? Well, she’d get a taste of what he could do with his tongue, instead of his pen, first thing tomorrow morning! If the newspaper office hadn’t already been closed, he’d have been on his way over there this minute, but this was better. This way he’d have time to compose a lecture guaranteed to cow her into contrition, as surely as his booming voice could cow three grown sons into submission whenever they got out of line.
* * * * *
Ben was still fuming as he dressed the next morning, but he tried to curb his raging wrath. He was taking breakfast, as he had all his meals here in Wilson’s Bar, with Jenny Delong, and while she had obviously fed a few pertinent facts to that scheming editor, Jenny had only been expressing her gratitude. Ben couldn’t fault her for that. No, he wasn’t angry with Jenny or with Molly Blackburn or Mrs. Whittaker, either, though he wished that they had all held their tongues. His rage was reserved for the one who had made a public display of good deeds meant to remain private, and he had no intention of holding his tongue when he saw her right after breakfast.
His anger showed, though, in the staccato thump of his footsteps when he descended the stairs to the lobby. As he strode swiftly across the room, a young woman who had been sitting there stood and blocked his path. “Excuse me, sir,” she drawled in a thick-as-syrup southern accent, “but are you the problem-solvin’ man?”
Behind the hotel desk, Silas Simpson leaned his chin on his palm and cackled. “Yep, that’s him, all right—hee, hee. He’s that problem-solving man for all the ladies hereabouts.”
Ben fixed the clerk with a baleful eye, which Silas simply ignored. Delicate fingers touched his arm lightly, making him turn back to a lady about the same age as his youngest son, dressed as if she’d taken to heart the advice in the article he’d read that first night in town. “Ma’am, you are mistaken,” he said. “I am no more capable of solving problems than any other man in town. If you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend, so perhaps Mr. Simpson here can assist you.” With a tip of his hat, Ben escaped out the front door—or thought he had. The pretty little blonde exited right after him and dogged his tracks down the street—all the way to the newspaper office. Ben banged on the door with his fist, determined to speak to that infernal editor at once, whether it was office hours or not.
The door finally opened, and Kathleen Collins smiled out at him. “Ah, Mr. Cartwright. I thought I might be hearing from you today.”
“Conniver?” she suggested with a saucy wink.
The little southern lass wedged in next to the editor. “Oh, Mrs. Collins, do implore your friend Mr. Cartwright to aid me in my hour of need. I’m a damsel in distress, just like you wrote in the paper.”
Ben fired a finger at the young woman while he glared at Kathleen. “You see? You see what you’ve done?”
“Why, Ben,” Kathleen intoned innocently, index finger touching her lower lip. “I’ve simply reported local news—and perhaps paved the way to make a bit more, gentle knight.” She took his arm. “But we shouldn’t discuss this on the street. Do come in—and you, too, Miss Perkins. I’m sure that good Sir Ben will aid you if he can.”
“Oh, thank you!” Miss Perkins gushed, hurrying into the office.
Laughing, Kathleen pulled good Sir Ben in after her and shut the door. “Now, what was it you needed, Miss Perkins?”
“Don’t ask her that!” Ben said sharply. Aware that his tone sounded rude, he turned to the young woman. “No disrespect, Miss . . .”
“Perkins. Miss Magnolia Perkins,” the woman drawled with a dainty curtsey.
“Well, Miss Magnolia,” Ben said, dipping his head in return. “I mean no disrespect, but I am not your knight in shining armor”—he stared pointedly at the editor—“or any other woman’s.”
“Oh, sir, don’t turn me away!” Magnolia Perkins implored, a veritable waterfall cascading down her cheeks. “I simply won’t know where to turn if you do.”
Eyes full of pleading, Ben looked to Kathleen for help, but she only cocked her head to one side, as if to emphasize that she was a mere observer—and reporter—of this bit of town news. Ben turned back to the southern belle, his hands spread helplessly. “Miss Magnolia, whatever your problem is, shouldn’t you be seeking counsel from your father?”
Magnolia dabbed at her eyes with a lacy handkerchief. “Oh, sir, if only I could, but I, sir, am an orphan.”
Ben groaned, knowing his fatherly heart could refuse this weeping child no longer, no more than he could have turned away a daughter of his own. “Well—well, then—what is this problem you’re facing, my dear?”
* * * * *
Ben glowered at the three tittering females sitting around the breakfast table with him. The more he ranted about the trouble “that woman,” as he repeatedly called Kathleen Collins, had caused, the more Jenny Delong and her two young daughters giggled. “Oh, I’m sorry, Ben,” Jenny finally said, trying, with meager success, to stifle her merriment. “I had no idea she intended to write you up as such a hero—though you are to me, of course.”
“The worst of it is, it’s set me up as some sort of unparalleled ‘problem-solving man’ for silly-minded girls like that little miss from Georgia,” Ben groaned, “and I can only hope she’s the last of her tribe.”
“Oh, I know,” Jenny laughed again. “Magnolia Perkins hasn’t a brain in her head, never did. So were you able to help her?”
Ben nodded, finally chuckling himself. “Yeah, wasn’t anything anyone with a modicum of sense couldn’t have figured out.” He scooted his chair back. “Fine breakfast, as usual, Jenny. Maybe you ought to consider running a café, instead of just a bakery.”
“I’ll give it some thought, since the man advising it is reported to have the wisdom of Solomon” she said, naughty twinkle in her eyes. “You’re meeting with all three potential buyers this morning?”
“Two this morning, one this afternoon,” Ben said as he moved toward the door. “I’ll let you know as soon as the deal’s made, and I think I’ll be bringing good news.”
Tapping her cheek with her finger, Jenny gazed nonchalantly at the ceiling. “Funny, that’s what Kathleen says, too—that you make good news.” She laughed aloud as Ben slammed his hat on his head and strode briskly out.
He moved toward the hotel, planning to freshen up before his first meeting. When he stepped into the lobby, however, he found it crowded with females, who looked up eagerly at the sound of a masculine step. With a basic instinct for self-preservation, Ben spun on his heel and ran all the way to the Delong house. Knocking frantically, he rushed inside as soon as the door opened. “Jenny, you have to protect me!” begged good Sir Ben.
* * * * *
At Ben’s insistence Jenny locked the door and drew the curtains, but those frantic females somehow ferreted him out and plaintively called his name until Jenny grew embarrassed by the commotion on her doorstep and herded them all into her front parlor. “Now, ladies, I’m sure Mr. Cartwright will see you, but you must wait your turn,” she directed, standing in the doorway between parlor and kitchen as Ben, quite literally, hid behind her skirts.
“But I have appointments,” Ben hissed in her ear. “For you, if you’ll recall.”
“Hush. I know,” Jenny whispered back, “and I’ll break you free for those, so long as you promise on your knightly honor to come back and not leave me to deal with this alone.” She gestured toward a chair at the kitchen table. “It isn’t round, but it will have to do, Sir Ben,” she said.
Haunted by all those imploring faces in the next room, Ben sat at the table, as one by one, Jenny directed misty-eyed petitioners to the seat opposite the problem-solving man. With only three refreshing interludes into the world of sensible male negotiations, Ben spent the day listening to more tales of woe than any man should have to endure in a lifetime. He weeded out all he could, flatly refusing to counsel any woman with either a husband or a father to whom she could turn, but that cholera epidemic had left enough widows and orphans to keep him busy from daylight to dusk, giving advice on everything from child-rearing to financial planning to coping with the sudden loss of a loved one.
He finally crept furtively back to the hotel after dark, peering cautiously in the doorway before entering. Finding the room devoid of damsels, in distress or otherwise, he took a deep breath and walked in. He stopped at the registration desk to inform the leering buffoon behind it that he had concluded the sale of Mrs. Delong’s mine and would be leaving in the morning.
“Sorry to see you go, Mr. Cartwright,” Simpson smirked. “Ain’t seen Wilson’s Bar this lively in quite some time.”
“I’ll bet,” Ben grunted. Then he leaned across the desk and asked in a beseeching whisper, “Is there a back way out?”
“Just down the fire escape,” the clerk laughed, “but if you plan to use that, you’d best pay up tonight, Mr. Cartwright.” And Ben did just that.
* * * * *
As Ben Cartwright rounded the barn and came into the yard of his home, he finally relaxed. Here in the all-male domain of the Ponderosa Ranch, he could at last feel safe from heartrending pleas for help from damsels in distress. That last day in Wilson’s Bar had nearly done him in, but all that was behind him now. Ben stepped down from his horse, wrapped the reins around the hitching post and walked to the house. He opened the door on a scene to warm his heart: all three of his sons gathered around the family hearth, all three looking up, glad to see him return, and, most importantly, all three of them men. “Hello, boys,” he said as he removed his hat and jacket.
“Hey, Pa!” Joe cried, bouncing up to welcome his father with a warm embrace.
“Hey, Sir Pa!” Hoss called, that gap-toothed grin splitting his broad face.
Ben flinched away from Joseph to stare at his middle son. “What did you say?” he demanded tersely.
Hoss seemed to shrink in on himself. “Uh, I said—uh—yes, sir, Pa, sure is good to see you.”
Ben’s silver-flecked eyebrows drew together in a severe line. “Sounded a little different the first time.”
Eyes closed, Adam leaned back in his chair and, resting the back of his hand against his forehead, began to quote dramatically:
“When he was come almost unto the town,
In all his weal, and in his moste pride,
He was ware, as he cast his eye aside,
Where that there kneeled in the highe way
A company of ladies, tway and tway,
Each after other, clad in clothes black:
But such a cry and such a woe they make. . . .”
“Who told you?” Ben bellowed.
Adam opened his eyes and gazed with exaggerated innocence at his father. “Ah, thy fame precedes thee, good and gentle knight.”
“Yeah, Pa, it’s all in the paper,” Hoss said, “and I just want you to know I’m plumb proud of you for helpin’ out them widow ladies and such.”
“It’s in the paper, the paper here?” Ben felt a sudden urge to sit down and gave in to it.
“Yeah, Pa.” Little Joe scurried around and sidled up next to his father on the settee. Handing over the latest issue of the Territorial Enterprise, he pointed to the front page. “Quite a write-up, don’t you think?”
“But how?” Ben’s voice faded away as he shook his head in bewilderment at sight of the familiar headline.
Adam laughed. “Newspapers reprint stories from other papers all the time, Pa. Didn’t you know that?”
Ben nodded grimly. He had been aware of that fact, somewhere in the rarely visited recesses of his mind, but never before had that particular piece of information held such personal pertinence. “She’s done it to me again,” he moaned.
“Ain’t it great, Pa?” Joe bubbled. “You sure made a name for yourself over at Wilson’s Bar. When I was in town today, this whole flock of ladies was askin’ when you’d be back.”
“A whole flock of ladies?” Ben laid his aching head in his hand. “Ladies with problems?” he quavered.
“Yeah!” Joe gave an enthusiastic bounce. “And I was thinking, there being so many and all, that you could handle all the old widow women and I’d take the young ones off your hands.” As his father’s head shot up, Joe caught a glimpse of the ominous glint in those narrowed eyes and drew back toward the opposite end of the settee. “Just to help out,” he faltered, his voice rising in a nervous squeak. “Or—or maybe I could just go stable your horse to help out.”
“Git!” Ben roared. “And you stay away from those ladies with problems, you hear me, boy?”
Joe scrambled to his feet, mumbling as he stumbled toward the door, “Yes, Sir Pa—I mean, yes, sir, Pa. I hear you, yep, sure do.”
Hearing a chuckle behind him, Ben rounded on his eldest son. “And as for you, young man, keep it up and you just might find yourself using your literary gifts as the next correspondent from Nevada to the Wilson’s Bar Bulletin. I know just the lady to contact to make it happen!”
Adam was never as easy to intimidate as his younger brothers, but Ben sensed that he’d struck the right chord this time when his oldest son sank back in his blue armchair without so much as a word.
He turned to Hoss, who always withered easiest under a direct stare, and saw the big man gulp down an apparently huge lump in his throat. “I sure was proud of you, Pa,” he said. “That’s all I got to say.”
Looking back and forth between his two oldest sons, Ben nodded in satisfaction of a mission accomplished. There’d be no more teasing from any of these boys, including the one in the barn, but boys were easy. Damsels in distress? That was a whole other kettle of fish, a kettle he didn’t plan to dip into anytime soon. The Ponderosa was looking mighty good right now, and a winter secluded there was sounding better than it ever had.
Note: Adam’s quotation is from “The Knight’s Tale,” one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.