Clarissa Returns (by pkmoonshine)

Summary:  Cousin Clarissa Cartwright returns to the Ponderosa to visit her cousin, Benjamin, and “his lovely family,” on the occasion of Stacy’s graduation from school.

Rating:  K+  (40,200 words)

Bloodlines Series:

Bloodlines
The Lo Mein Affair
The Wedding
Sacrificial Lamb
Poltergeist II
Independence Day
Virginia City Detour
The Guardian
Young Cartwrights in Love
San Francisco Revisited
There But for the Grace of God
Between Life and Death
Orenna
Clarissa Returns
Trial by Fire
Mark of Kane

*********

 

Chapter 1

“Dear Benjamin,

Good news! In fact, the best news. It looks as though I’ll be able to accept your very kind invitation to come visit after all.

Cousin Amelia is doing so much better than was initially expected. Imagine that! Less than two days after having a baby, she is back on her feet running around like a house afire (incredible as it may sound) with even more vim and vigor than she had before having the baby. Ah, the strength and stamina of youth!

As Cousin Amelia is most insistent upon resuming the mantle of her responsibilities and obligations, I’ve decided it’s high time I met my young cousin once removed . . . and what better time than her school graduation? I’m looking forward to seeing you and your boys again as well.

I will be arriving the fifteenth of June, on the noon stage.

Love to all,
Cousin Clarissa”

 

“I gotta bad feeling about this,” Joe murmured in a gloomy tone of voice, after reading again the short note from his father’s first cousin, Miss Clarissa Cartwright. [1]  “A REAL bad feeling!”

“So you’ve already said . . . about a dozen times,” Ben observed wearily.

“Dadburn it, Pa . . . why’d ya hafta go ‘n invite her t’ come for Stacy’s graduation in the first place?” Hoss groused. “The LAST time she was here . . . well, doggone it, she tried t’ starve me t’ death.”

Joe chuckled as he reached over and patted Hoss’ massive girth, as he might the head of a very large, friendly dog. “Big Brother, I don’t think it’s even possible for you to starve to death. You’ve got more stored up in there for the winter than a hundred great big mama grizzly bears.”

“Joseph . . . . ” Ben accompanied utterance of his youngest son’s real given name, with a sharp warning glare. “That’s enough.”

“Yes, Sir,” Joe murmured as he removed his hand from Hoss’ stomach.

“ . . . and Hoss . . . . ”

“Yes, Sir?”

“To set the record straight, I DIDN’T invite Cousin Clarissa to come,” Ben said curtly. “I merely TOLD her about Stacy’s upcoming graduation.”

“But, in her letter she talks about accepting your kind INVITATION,” Joe quickly pointed out.

“I did NOT invite her,” Ben reiterated. “I merely told her that your sister is graduating. Period. Cousin Clarissa, however, has taken that to be an invitation, which she’s decided to accept, now that this Cousin Amelia . . . whoever SHE is . . . seems to have bounced back so quickly after having a baby.”

“Blast her scurvy hide!”

This last Ben added silently, reverting back to some of the salty language he had once used as a sailor.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe murmured contritely. “I should’ve realized that you wouldn’t have actually invited her . . . not after what happened the LAST time she visited.” [2]

The three Cartwright men occupied the small round table nearest the door of the Silver Dollar Saloon, dressed in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best. Ben wore his best summer suit, a custom made three-piece, gray cotton, with a clean white shirt, and black string tie. Hoss had on his brand new three-piece suit, royal blue cotton that enhanced the brightness of his sky blue eyes. He also wore a freshly laundered, pressed shirt, with a dark navy blue string tie. Joe wore a clean pair of beige pants, with a clean white shirt, his green denim jacket, and a black string tie hanging around his collar, its ends untied.

“Boys, THIS time, I won’t make the mistake of asking Cousin Clarissa to move in with us . . . that I promise,” Ben said earnestly. “But, I couldn’t very well tell her NOT to come. Now that Cousin Amelia is back on her feet, and the rest of our relatives seem to be enjoying a bout of perfect health, poor Clarissa’s at loose ends. You KNOW she has no place, really, to go— ”

“ . . . and YOU feel sorry for her.” Joe’s words sounded more like an accusation, than observation.

“Well, of COURSE I feel sorry for her,” Ben hotly defended himself.

“I feel sorry for her, too, Pa. I ALSO feel sorry for a wounded she-bear,” Joe argued, “but no matter how much I feel sorry for that wounded she-bear, I’m sure as shootin’ NOT going to invite her into my home.”

“Joe . . . and you, too, Hoss! Given the double good fortune of our abundant good health, AND having Hop Sing around to do the cooking and cleaning, I seriously doubt that Cousin Clarissa will want to linger much past your sister’s graduation exercises, next Tuesday,” Ben said sternly.

“What if she has no choice?” Joe demanded, drawing a blank look from his father.

“Li’l Brother here’s gotta point, Pa,” Hoss immediately chimed right in. “Y’ just got through sayin’ yourself that all our relatives seem t’ be enjoyin’ a bout o’ good health.”

“That’s right, Pa,” Joe agreed. “You also said that Cousin Clarissa’s got no place to go. Does that mean . . . W-WE’RE stuck with her until . . . until one of our other relatives gets sick?”

Hoss blanched. “Now why in t’ world didja hafta go ‘n say a thing like THAT, Li’l Brother?!”

Ben glared over at Hoss first, then at Joe. “Alright, Boys, I’m layin’ it all right out on the table,” he said sternly. “I haven’t the foggiest idea as to how long Cousin Clarissa plans to stay with us. BUT, for the time she’s here, I expect the both of you AND your sister to make the best of things. Is that clear?”

“Y-Yes, Sir,” Joe gulped, flinching away from his father’s withering glare.

“Hoss?!” Ben prompted.

“Yes, Sir . . . and who knows? It’s been a few years . . . maybe Cousin Clarissa’s changed a mite, ‘n lost some of her snooty, stuck up ways,” Hoss, the eternal optimist, suggested hopefully.

“A body can always HOPE, I suppose,” Joe murmured with a melancholy sigh.

“Hey, Pa?” Hoss ventured.

“What?” Ben snapped.

“When she left after her last visit . . . I thought she was gonna go t’ work for George Bristol, over at the bank,” Hoss said, with a puzzled frown.

“She did for a while,” Ben said.

“Yeah. I remember seeing her at the bank, working away behind that great big desk, ‘way in the back corner,” Joe said. “I also heard that Mister Bristol was gonna ask her to marry him.”

“So did I, Li’l Brother. Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“What happened between Mister Bristol ‘n Cousin Clarissa anyway?” Hoss asked. “One minute the two of ‘em are talkin’ weddin’ plans, the next, she’s off on a stage headin’ east t’ some sick cousin, or some such . . . never t’ be seen again.”

“I don’t know. Neither George nor Clarissa ever said, and I’ve never asked. The two of you aren’t going to ask either,” Ben said sternly. “Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss said very quickly.

“Joseph?” Ben quickly prompted his younger son.

“Yeah, Pa . . . sure.”

Satisfied, Ben reached into his vest pocket and pulled out the gold pocket watch that had once belonged to his father, and flipped up the cover. “Boys, you’d better finish your beer. It’s almost time to go meet that stage.”

Hoss downed his near full mug of beer in a single giant swallow, then raised his arm, intending to use his sleeve as a napkin.

“Hoss! Not on your brand new jacket!” Ben hissed, casting a withering glare at the biggest of his three sons.

“Oh.” Hoss immediately dropped his arm. “Sorry, Pa, I guess I kinda forgot I was all gussied up.”

“Ben . . . Hoss . . . Joe . . . can I get you another round?” It was Sam, bartender and manager of Virginia City’s Silver Dollar Saloon.

“No, thank you, Sam,” Ben said, after downing the last swallow of beer from the bottom of the mug. “We’ve got a stage to meet. How much do we owe ya?”

“Lemme see . . . all three of ya had two beers apiece . . . that’s six altogether . . . your bill comes to three dollars even.”

Ben dug into his pocket and pulled out four silver dollars. “That’s three for the beer and one for your trouble, Sam,” he said, placing the money in the bartender’s open palm.

Sam smiled. “Thank you, Ben. It’s always a real pleasure doing business with the Cartwright family.”

“Thank YOU, Sam. Be seein’ ya.” He, then turned his attention to his sons. “Let’s go, Boys . . . and Joseph, will you please tie that tie properly?!”

“Aww, Pa, the daggone thing feels like a noose,” Joe complained, even as his fingers worked to tie it.

“Funny you don’t say that when you’re gettin’ ready for a Saturday night dance, Li’l Brother,” Hoss teased.

“That’s different,” Joe said.

“I’ll say it’s different,” Hoss guffawed. “F’r one thing Cousin Clarissa ain’t got the cute li’l figure Lilly Beth Jared’s got.”

“NOBODY’S got the cute li’l figure Lilly Beth Jared’s got,” Joe declared with a bold grin, as he finished tying his tie.

Ben very pointedly cleared his throat. Though he respected the girl’s parents, Virgil and Amelia Jared, as very shrewd, yet fair and honest business people, he had definite reservations about his youngest son and their oldest daughter, Lilly Beth. “Boys, that will be enough of THAT kind of talk,” he said in a very quiet, yet very firm tone of voice. “To put this politely, I don’t think Cousin Clarissa’s going to be the least bit interested in hearing the pair of you going on and on about the virtues of Miss Jared’s waist line.”

 

“Warm water with equal measurements of lemon juice and honey.”

“Warm water . . . lemon juice ‘n honey,” Emily Gibson murmured wearily, as the rigors of a long journey, keeping constant watch on a lively young daughter, and the non-stop verbiage of one Miss Clarissa Cartwright the entire way out from Saint Jo, had extracted their toll on her stamina, physically and mentally.

“Equal measurements, Dear,” Miss Cartwright said using the same tone of voice Emily herself might use in addressing her own young daughter, accompanied by that ever-so-slight condescending smile that always seemed to be on her face.

“Equal m-measurements?!” Emily echoed with a bewildered frown.

“ . . . of lemon juice and honey.”

“Equal measurements,” Emily murmured, deeply grateful that this long arduous journey was at long last near its end.

“Equal measurements of lemon juice and honey in warm water,” Miss Cartwright reiterated. “Best thing in the world for your little girl’s cough.”

Emily sighed. She had told Miss Cartwright many, many times on the long road out from Saint Jo, that Sarah HAD a cough and cold, but she was fully recovered now. Yet, somehow, Miss Cartwright never seemed to hear it, or much of anything else, for that matter. Emily finally concluded that any and all attempts to correct the older woman’s many misconceptions was naught but a colossal waste of time, energy, and breath, and had opted to stop trying. She gathered her young daughter, aged four, into her lap and pointedly turned her face to the window, hoping against hope Miss Cartwright would take the hint.

“Aunt Matilda . . . actually she was my GREAT Aunt Matilda, being my maternal grandmother’s sister . . . at any rate, SHE’S the one who told me about equal measurements of lemon juice and honey in warm water when my father took ill, and started coughing a lot,” Clarissa Cartwright blithely rambled on, wholly oblivious to Emily’s decided lack of interest.

“Yes. You told me.” Emily had stopped counting the number of times Miss Cartwright had imparted THAT particular piece of information after about the first dozen.

“It worked wonders for my father. Absolute wonders!”

After a seeming eternity of riding down C Street, the stagecoach finally began to slow.

“Mommy?”

“Yes, Sarah?”

“Are we there yet?”

“Almost, Sweetie-Pie.”

“Will DADDY be there to meet us?”

“He’d BETTER be,” Emily groused silently. “He’d better be, because if I have to endure this woman’s company for even one second AFTER we get off this stage . . . so help me, I’m going to strangle him with my bare hands.”

“I’ll be visiting my first cousin and HIS lovely family,” Clarissa continued. “I’m sure you’ve at the very least heard of him, since you live here in Virginia City.” She grimaced, then smiled again. “He’s a very important man.”

“Unh hunh,” Emily murmured listlessly. She had ALSO told Miss Cartwright a pretty fair number of times that she and Sarah were just arriving in Virginia City . . . that her husband had come here a year ago to work, to save up, and buy some good farm land . . . that he had just sent for them a month ago.

“You MUST know him. Benjamin Cartwright of the Ponderosa.”

“Yeah, sure.” Why bother wasting the energy trying to explain it all to Miss Cartwright yet again? Whoever this Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa was . . . Emily felt very sorry for him, and for his lovely family. As the stagecoach finally came to a stop, she began to scan the sea of faces gathered at the stage depot, through the rounded eyes of a trapped wild animal, desperately hoping and praying that her husband was there.

“Benjamin’s daughter, Stacy, will be graduating from school in a few days, and come fall— ”

“VIRGINIA CITY!” the stagecoach driver yelled. “NEXT STOP, CARSON CITY. STAGE LEAVES AT THREE O’CLOCK.”

“Well!” Clarissa exclaimed, as her smile quickly faded to an irritated frown. “THAT was terribly rude!”

“Come along, Sarah,” Emily frantically urged her young daughter, the minute the stagecoach door opened. Desperation quickly gave way to a deep, profound relief the minute she spotted her husband, standing over near the stage depot building. He smiled and waved; she smiled and waved back.

“Remember . . . warm water . . . equal parts lemon juice and honey,” Clarissa called after Emily, as she snatched her young daughter up into her arms and bolted toward the handsome young man, now making his own way toward them. Rather, he WOULD be a handsome young man, if he had dressed properly in a suit and tie. “Honestly! The very idea! Coming into town dressed like a . . . a . . . like a farmer!”

“Clarissa?”

She turned and found Benjamin standing at her elbow, smiling, looking every bit as handsome as she remembered. “Oh, Benjamin, it’s so good to see you,” she gushed, offering her hand.

Ben gallantly took her hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it. “It’s good seeing YOU again, Clarissa. You look well.”

“Thank you. YOU look very well yourself.”

“Hello, Cousin Clarissa, glad you could come for Stacy’s graduation,” Joe Cartwright greeted his father’s first cousin politely, with a big smile that never quite reached his eyes.

“Joe, I don’t believe it!” Clarissa exclaimed with a delighted smile. “You’ve actually grown even MORE handsome than you were when I LAST visited.”

“Why . . . thank you, Cousin Clarissa,” Joe beamed, while Hoss sarcastically rolled his eyes heavenward.

“I mean it! You weren’t much more than a boy when I was last here, and now . . . you’ve grown into a very fine, very handsome young man.”

“I guess I HAVE grown some since I saw you last, Cousin Clarissa,” Joe said, as two splotches of bright pink appeared on each cheek.

“Yeah . . . he ‘gruesome’ all right,” Hoss chuckled, unable to resist the play on words. His comment drew a dark glare from his younger brother.

“ . . . and YOU’VE grown some, too, Young Man,” Clarissa rounded on Hoss severely. “Unfortunately, it’s all in the middle. The first thing I’m going to do when we get to the house is give that . . . that . . . what IS his name? Hop-a-Long!? Sing-a-Song? Sing Sing, perhaps?!”

“Hop Sing, Cousin Clarissa,” Joe said.

“Hop Sing!” she said with a delicate grimace. “The minute we reach the house, you can rest assured that I am going to give him the dressing down of his life for not feeding Hoss properly.”

Hoss’ face immediately fell. “Awww, Cousin Clarissa . . . y-y’ don’t need t’ do that . . . . I think Hop Sing feeds me pretty good.”

“Oh, he feeds you good, alright . . . in fact, he feeds you TOO good!” Clarissa said sternly. “It’s not healthy, Hoss. It’s not healthy at all. This time, I’m going to make sure Hop Sing puts you on a proper diet . . . and that YOU stick to it.”

“Pa . . . . ” Hoss turned to appeal to his father, his big, baby blue eyes round with sheer horror, “ . . . help!”

“Clarissa . . . if anyone’s going to say anything to Hop Sing about, ummm Hoss’ diet . . . it’s going to be ME,” Ben said, as Joe burst into gales of mirthful laughter.

“Dadburn it, Li’l Joe . . . . ” Hoss growled menacingly. “How would YOU like t’ starve t’ death?”

“At least for ME, starving to death is a very real possibility.”

“Boys, settle down,” Ben admonished his two younger sons with a warning glare.

“But, Pa . . . . ”

“Hoss, I SAID . . . settle down.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Now why don’t you boys see to Cousin Clarissa’s luggage?” Ben said. “After you get it loaded in the buckboard, you can pick us up at the C Street Café.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss murmured, acutely aware of his stomach just starting to rumble.

“Hey, c’mon, Hoss . . . don’t tell me you’re hungry after that big lunch we just had?!” Joe teasingly admonished big brother.

Hoss exhaled a long, melancholy sigh. “No, it ain’t so much that I’m hungry NOW . . . it’s more that I know I’m gonna BE hungry, especially after Cousin Clarissa gets through with Hop Sing.”

“Actually, we’re ALL gonna be pretty hungry after Cousin Clarissa gets through with Hop Sing,” Joe hastened to point out.

Hoss frowned. “Oh yeah? How do ya figure?”

“After the way she worked him like a slave driver the LAST time she came to visit. . . well, you KNOW the very first time Cousin Clarissa opens her mouth, Hop Sing’s gonna high tail it out to San Francisco to help his cousin with that restaurant . . . THIS time for real!”

For a brief, intense, terrifying moment, Joe half feared Hoss was going to lose the big lunch he had consumed earlier, right then and there. Instead, the biggest of the Cartwright offspring, sighed again. “Oh, Lordy . . . . ” he murmured very softly, under his breath.

 

“Benjamin, how very . . . quaint,” Clarissa said with a tight, forced smile, as she dusted the seat of the chair with her napkin.

“Yes . . . I, uhhh . . . think this place is charming myself,” Ben said, darting an occasional worried glance toward the open kitchen door, “ . . . and the fact that they serve up the best lemonade and cherry pie in town, certainly doesn’t hurt business any.”

“The very best lemonade I ever had was from a street vendor of all things, in Philadelphia,” Clarissa said, as she continued to sweep the seat of her chair, growing more and more vigorous with each stroke. “Tart with just the right amount of sweetness. I was there helping Cousin Hepzibah when her mother . . . poor thing, may she rest in peace . . . . ”

Ben darted another quick, furtive glance back toward the kitchen. “ . . . uuuhh, Clarissa . . . . ?!”

“ . . . when she broke her hip,” Clarissa blithely rambled on. “Cousin Hepzibah isn’t related to YOU, Benjamin, since she’s related to me on my MOTHER’S side of the family. But, on days nice and sunny, she and I would take her mother to the park across the street, where— ”

“Clarissa!”

She straightened, pulling herself up to full height. With her iron, rock hard fists planted down hard just below her waist, Clarissa turned and favored her cousin with an angry murderous glare. “Benjamin, that was inexcusably rude— ”

“Clarissa . . . would you PLEASE sit down?!” Ben said sternly, all the while taking care to keep his voice low.

“I will in a minute.”

“Now!” he growled, in the same tone of voice he had, over the years, used to call his four children to order whenever they behaved in a manner best described as extra and ‘specially unruly.

Clarissa defiantly gave the seat of her intended chair one last vigorous swipe with her napkin, before primly seating herself, poised on the very edge of her seat, with back stiffly erect and hands folded on top of the table.

They had gone to the C Street Café, a small restaurant owned and operated by Maxine Pettigrew and her widowed sister, Letty Mae Harris. It had a cheerful, if small, dining room, with its whitewashed walls, and tables adorned with fresh flowers and covered by red and white-checkered tablecloths. There was a large round table in the back corner, able to comfortably sit six, and a line of tables for two lining the wall next to the enormous picture window looking out onto the street.

The table for four, located next to the small window overlooking the alley, was kept in perpetual reserve for one Mister Elbert Sweeney, the very first customer to walk through the door of the establishment. He was an elderly man, widowed for the better part of thirty-two years, more often than not given to eccentricity. He arrived promptly at seven fifty-two every morning for breakfast, and every afternoon at four minutes past twelve for lunch . . . except on Sunday, when the restaurant was closed.

Ben had chosen the table placed directly in front of the large picture window, and positioned square in the center under the words, “C Street Café,” carefully lettered in white paint, edged with red. He was comfortably seated, hands folded on the table in front of him, with one eye glued to the street, watching for his sons, and the other trained on his cousin.

“Hey! Ben Cartwright, long time no see!” Maxine Pettigrew greeted the clan patriarch with a big, bold smile and deep, booming baritone voice. Aged in her mid-forties, she stood nearly as tall as Ben, in her stocking feet. Her hair, long ago gone to salt and pepper gray was worn in a single braid that reached almost to the small of her back. By nature, she was a friendly, gregarious woman, always ready to lend a helping hand to anyone in need, be they friend or stranger.

“Yes, it has been a long time,” Ben agreed, returning Maxine’s greeting with a warm smile of his own. “How’ve you been keeping yourself?”

“Can’t complain. I expect you’ve been kept pretty busy with that li’l gal o’ yours fixin’ to graduate.”

“Hardly a LI’L gal anymore,” Ben said with a touch of regret.

“No, I expect not. Accordin’ t’ Letty Mae, kids grow up mighty quick.”

“TOO quick, if you ask me! By the way . . . how’s Letty Mae doing? I heard she’s been a mite under the weather lately.”

“Winter sniffles, turned into pneumonia,” Maxine said, “but, the worst is past. Soon as she gets some more o’ her strength back, she’ll be around.”

“You tell her I was asking about her,” Ben said. “You hear?”

“I hear ya.” Maxine turned to Clarissa and smiled. “So. Who’s your lady friend?”

Clarissa, much to her horror and chagrin, felt the telltale prickle of blood rushing to her face. She rolled her eyes heavenward, desperately wishing for a very large, very deep hole into which she might crawl.

Ben chuckled. “Maxine, this is my COUSIN, Clarissa Cartwright. Clarissa, this is Maxine Pettigrew. She and her sister, Letty Mae own and pretty much run this place single handed.”

“Howdy,” Maxine acknowledged the introduction with a smile and extended hand. “Glad t’ make your acquaintance.”

Clarissa tried very hard not to grimace, as she gave Maxine a limp, ‘dead fish’ kind of handshake. “I’m also pleased to meet YOU, Mrs. Pettigrew,” she murmured.

Maxine laughed out loud. “Honey, only Mrs. Pettigrew I ever knew was my ma, now gone to her reward, God rest her soul. I’m MISS Pettigrew, though most folks generally call me Maxine.”

“My apologies, MISS Pettigrew,” Clarissa said stiffly.

“So. What can I getcha, Ben?”

“We’ll have a couple o’ glasses of that wonderful lemonade of yours,” Ben said.

“Can I getcha a hunk o’ pie with that? It’s apple . . . hot, just outta the oven.”

“Tempting, but I’d better pass,” Ben said with heartfelt regret. “The boys’ll be along soon with the buckboard and my cousin’s luggage.”

“I’d best g’won ‘n fetch that lemonade, then,” Maxine said. “I hope you enjoy your stay, Miss Cartwright.”

“Benjamin, I have never . . . NEVER . . . not ever . . . been so embarrassed in my entire LIFE,” Clarissa moaned softly, after Maxine had retreated to the kitchen in the back of the establishment.

Ben looked over at her in complete bewilderment. “I’m afraid I . . . I don’t . . . understand,” he murmured, shaking his head.

“Your LADY friend! She actually referred to me as . . . as your lady friend!” Clarissa moaned again, and buried her beet red face in her still gloved hands. “How crass! How rude, how impertinent, and . . . and how VULGAR! By rights we should get up and walk right out of here.”

“Why?”

“Why?!” Clarissa echoed, incredulous. “Haven’t you heard a single word I’ve said?!”

“You mean because she mistakenly assumed you to be a friend?” Ben queried, equally incredulous.

“Not just a friend, Benjamin . . . a LADY friend,” Clarissa said scathingly. “You know very well that a LADY friend is something far different than a friend.”

“Clarissa . . . she didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I don’t believe this!” Clarissa gasped, outraged. “Y-You’re actually taking up for that woman!?”

“Maxine is a good friend.”

“A friend?!” Clarissa sighed disparagingly, and rolled her eyes heavenward. “A friend?? Benjamin, don’t you realize that people judge you by the company you keep?! That woman is . . . well, let’s face it! She’s loud, crude— ”

“I get the picture, Clarissa,” Ben said stiffly.

“I’M not so sure you do. If we were in Boston— ”

“Here y’ are. Two lemonades, ice cold,” Maxine announced as she sauntered back into the dining area, carrying two tall glasses, filled to the brim with fresh lemonade, one in each hand.

Though exceedingly thankful that Maxine’s return had effectively nipped Clarissa’s nascent tirade in the bud, Ben couldn’t help but anxiously wonder how much she might have overheard.

“ . . . and WHAT, may I ask is THIS?” Clarissa demanded in a cold, imperious tone of voice, as she gingerly lifted a small piece of greenery from the edge of her glass.

“Clarissa . . . . ” Ben hissed, as he shot her a warning glare.

“Benjamin, I am NOT used to finding grass in my lemonade.”

Ben could feel the blood draining right out of his face, as vivid remembrances of what happened the last time his cousin came for a visit trooped unceremoniously through the places of mind and memory. “M-Maxine, I . . . I . . . I’m sorry , I . . . . ”

“It’s all right, Ben,” Maxine said, as she placed a friendly, reassuring hand on his shoulder. “You ‘n me . . . we’ve been friends for quite a spell. We pretty much understand each other.” She gave him a friendly wink, then, turned her attention to Clarissa, and smiled. “As for the greenery in your lemonade, Miss Cartwright, it’s a sprig o’ mint for garnish. Letty Mae grows it herself out back yonder.” She inclined her head toward the back door, standing open to admit the fresh air, and to the backyard beyond.

“I see.” Clarissa responded in a voice that dripped icicles.

“Thank you, Maxine. How much do I owe you?” Ben interjected very quickly, before Clarissa had a chance to say anything more.

“Two lemonades, ten cents apiece . . . your total’s twenty cents.”

Ben dug into his pocket and extracted a half dollar. “Here you are, Maxine, and please! Keep the change.”

She grinned. “Thank you, Ben. That’s right neighborly of ya,” she said, as she pocketed the coin. “If ya need anything else, just gimme a holler. I’ll be in the back.”

“I will, Maxine . . . thank you,” Ben called after her.

“Honestly, Benjamin . . . I don’t believe you sometimes,” Clarissa lamented.

“What’s the matter NOW?” Ben asked, with a bewildered frown.

“Well, for one thing, I can’t even begin to understand WHY you gave her a thirty cent tip on a bill totaling TWENTY cents,” Clarissa fumed. “It might be different, if the service had been something exceptional and sterling, but— ” An exasperated sigh exploded from between her lips.

“Clarissa . . . . ”

“What!”

“Are you STILL upset over her reference to you as my lady friend?”

“Of COURSE, I’m upset. Benjamin, I was humiliated!”

“Clarissa, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I could understand you being upset if there were others present, maybe . . . but . . . you and I are the only ones in here.”

“What about Miss Pettigrew?” Clarissa wailed.

“What ABOUT Miss Pettigrew?!”

“Benjamin, what is going to stop HER from telling everyone that I’m your newest . . . lady friend?” She grimaced.

“I set her straight,” Ben quickly assured her. “Remember? I told her that you’re my cousin. Even if I hadn’t, Maxine Pettigrew is the soul of discretion. She wouldn’t have told a soul, unless I had given her permission.”

The withering glare on her face told Ben that Cousin Clarissa was far from being convinced. He sighed, wondering if Joe’s very bad feeling about all this, might have been right on the money after all. “Better finish your lemonade, Clarissa. The boys are pulling up outside now.”

***

 

Chapter 2

 

Miss Esther Johnson, teacher at the schoolhouse in Virginia City, stood next to her desk, smiling proudly at the graduating students, this year numbering seven. Aged in her mid-to-late forties, she was a diminutive woman in stature, barely reaching five feet tall, with girth measurement to match. Her light brown hair, slightly wavy, was pulled away from her plump, round face, and styled in a very tight, very severe chignon. Her eyes were as Joe Cartwright’s . . . hazel, with the chameleon ability to change color according to their surroundings. This afternoon, Miss Johnson’s eyes were deep blue, a reflection of her navy blue suit, with skirt, matching jacket, and a plain white blouse.

“Students, you ALL did very well,” she said in a clear voice, while standing atop a stoutly reinforced wooden soap box, to better see the faces of all her graduating students. “Very orderly and dignified. You need to remember the order in which you’re lined up now, so please take a moment to make note of who’s in front of you . . . and who’s behind you.”

Stacy Cartwright noted with a grimace that Millicent Adams, daughter of Seth Adams, president of the First Mercantile Bank of Virginia City, was seated on her right, and Julio Fernandez on her left. Julio was ok, but the prospect of having to sit next to stuck up Millicent through the entire graduation ceremony was the one tiny cloud marring an otherwise much-anticipated event.

“It’s only for a couple of hours . . . maybe not even THAT long.”

She could hear Pa now, speaking the same words he had spoken two nights ago, when she had groused about the horrible prospect over supper.

“After that, you don’t have to associate with her ever again.”

That, of course, was very true, especially since none of the Cartwright funds were invested with Seth Adams’ bank. “ . . . thank goodness,” Stacy murmured very softly.

“What was that?” Millicent demanded in that imperious, condescending tone usually guaranteed to set Stacy’s teeth on edge.

“Nothing,” Stacy returned, favoring her arch nemesis with a smug, secretive, Mona Lisa kind of smile. “I was just thinking out loud.”

Millicent snorted derisively and tossed her head, thankful beyond words that none of the Cartwright funds were invested at the First Mercantile Bank of Virginia City, even if her father WOULD have given his eyeteeth for things to be otherwise. The thought of having to go through life toadying up to the likes of a backward bumpkin like Stacy Cartwright was beyond imagining.

“Millicent, if I might have your attention for just a few moments more, I could finish giving everyone their instructions,” Miss Johnson said in a clear, succinct tone of voice, while favoring the tall, blonde haired girl with a stern glare.

“Yes, Miss Johnson,” Millicent muttered through clenched teeth.

Stacy had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud.

“We will have our final rehearsal Monday afternoon, at three-thirty,” Esther said. “The honors awards will be announced at that time. In the meantime, have a nice weekend. I’ll see each and everyone of you in school Monday morning.” She paused briefly. “Oh yes. Just in case anyone is tempted to cut class on the last day, he who gives in to temptation will be barred from participating in the commencement ceremonies. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Miss Johnson,” the seven graduating students all responded in unison.

“Very good. See you all Monday morning.”

“So, tell me. What WAS so funny, Stacy?” Julio asked as the seven made their way toward the door.

“Millicent mostly, though the irony of us graduating seniors staying after school on our very last day before graduation exercises isn’t lost on me either.”

“I thought of that, too,” Julio admitted with a chuckle.

“Ok, Julio . . . now it’s your turn to tell ME,” Stacy said. “What are your plans after graduation?”

“As if YOU didn’t know . . . . ” Julio smiled. “I’ll be attending college in San Francisco, of course, but I got a letter from Angela Drake herself yesterday afternoon, telling me that she is willing to take me as a student.” [3]

“That’s wonderful, Julio. I’ll be looking forward to your first concert at Piper’s Opera House right here in Virginia City in a few years,” Stacy said with a broad grin.

“I’ll see that you and your pa have front row seats,” Julio promised. “Do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“I don’t know when I’ll see him next . . . . ”

“I do,” Stacy said with a smile. “He’ll be at our graduation ceremonies with bells on . . . leastwise he’d BETTER be. I’m putting myself through all this for HIS benefit, not mine. If I had MY druthers, I’d have asked Miss Johnson to mail my certificate.”

“I AM very grateful for Mister Cartwright putting in a good word for me with Miss Drake,” Julio said with a warm smile. “I shall tell him so on Tuesday.”

“Hey . . . Stacy!”

She turned and saw Susannah O’Brien and Molly O’Hanlan, heading in her general direction.

“I’d best move along, Stacy,” Julio said, sparing a smile and a wave for the Cartwright daughter’s closest friends. “I leave for San Francisco two days after graduation and I have lots yet to get done.”

“Alright, Julio. See you Monday.”

“Stacy, Susannah and I are going to do some shopping this afternoon,” Molly said. “You want to join us?”

“I’m afraid I can’t,” Stacy declined reluctantly.

“See? I told you!” Susannah said with a smug grin and extended hand, palm up. “You LOSE. Cross my palm with a half buck, or else.”

“Or else WHAT?” Molly demanded as she withdrew a half dollar coin from her purse and placed it square in the center of Susannah O’Brien’s open palm.

“ . . . or else I bring the curse of the Shoshone nation down upon your head,” Susannah threatened, as she pocketed the half dollar.

“ . . . which wouldn’t last two seconds against a good, old-fashioned IRISH curse,” Molly countered, her blue eyes sparking with pure mischief.

“What was this bet all about?” Stacy demanded, looking from one to the other.

“I bet Molly that you WOULDN’T go shopping with us this afternoon,” Susannah said smugly. “She lost.”

“Susannah ALSO said that the REASON you wouldn’t go shopping with us is . . . because you’d be in a real big hurry to reach the post office just as her brother gets off from work,” Molly added, her words ending in a squawk of protest, courtesy of a sharp elbow jab to the rib cage from Susannah.

“I wish,” Stacy sighed. “However, today, such is not the case. Pa’s Cousin Clarissa arrived on the stage earlier, and I promised I’d go straight home. So . . . it looks like you owe Molly a quarter back, Susannah.”

Susannah dug two dimes and a nickel from her pocket and dropped them one by one onto Molly’s outstretched palm. She then turned and stuck her tongue out at Stacy.

Stacy merely smiled and returned the gesture.

“Hey! Come on, You Two, cut it out!” Molly hissed. “People are STARING!”

“I’ve got to get moving,” Stacy said. “See you guys on Monday.”

“As MY sainted Irish grandmother would say . . . Ooooh, Lordy!” Susannah heaved a melodramatic sigh, after she and Molly had parted company with Stacy.

“Why?” Molly asked.

“Mister Cartwright’s cousin . . . MISS Cartwright.”

“What’s the matter with her?”

“Plenty,” Susannah replied. “Last time she was here . . . . ” She sighed again, and rolled her eyes.

“What?” Molly demanded.

“Well . . . thanks to HER, the Cartwrights not only lost a lot of friends, but there were also a few folks ready to tar, feather, and run ‘em out of town on a rail,” Susannah said grimly.

“That’s AWFUL! What did this cousin DO?”

“It’s enough to curdle your blood!”

 

Stacy, meanwhile, had led her horse, Blaze Face, over to the small stream behind the schoolhouse for a cool drink of water, before starting off on that long ride home. “Well, Big Fella, we’re coming up on the end of an era,” she said softly, while gently stroking the top of his left thigh, just in front of the saddle. “Got one more full day of class, on Monday, followed by yet another rehearsal . . . . ” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Then the big day is Tuesday.”

Wednesday morning, she would go to work for her father on the Ponderosa, full time, just like her brothers, earning wages instead of being given an allowance. Though Pa had not, as yet, decided exactly where she would begin, he had come to a hard and fast decision as to what she would NOT do . . . ever, if he had his way in the matter . . . .

“Pa, I could really use The Kid’s help in saddle breaking that string of horses we brought in off the range a couple o’ days ago,” Joe said gamely, at the breakfast table just his morning.

“Oh, Pa . . . may I?” Stacy asked, with eager anticipation. “Please? PRETTY please?!”

“No,” Pa said, his voice carrying within it all the finality of that last nail being driven into a coffin.

The disappointment mixed with surprise she saw in Joe’s face mirrored the way she felt. “But, Pa . . . . ” she protested, “I can— ”

“I KNOW you can, Stacy, but my answer is still NO.”

She knew better than to argue when Pa used THAT tone of voice. The remainder of the meal was taken in strained silence, broken only when she had asked to be excused in order to finish getting ready for school . . . .

“The LEAST he could’ve done was tell me why,” Stacy groused, as Blaze Face finished drinking his fill, and lifted his head.

“Why what?”

Stacy turned, and much to her pleasant surprise, found Jason O’Brien standing at her elbow, gazing down at her with a warm smile that turned her knees to jelly. “Jason, what are YOU doing HERE?” she asked as she draped her arm over the saddle for support.

“I figured YOU’D still be here.”

“You didn’t get fired or anything like that . . . did you?”

Jason chuckled softly, and shook his head. “We didn’t get much mail in today, so Mister Blevins let us all off an hour early.” Mister Blevins was the postmaster at the Virginia City post office. “So what were you muttering under your breath about just now?”

Stacy sighed, then shared with him the conversation she, her father, and brothers had at the breakfast table that morning. “He just plain, flat out said no,” she concluded, her ire rising once again. “He didn’t even tell me WHY.”

“You didn’t ask?”

“Not when Pa uses THAT tone of voice, I don’t,” Stacy said, as she and Jason climbed up into their respective saddles, and headed for the road that would take them out of town, toward the Ponderosa.

“It might have a lot to do with Marie,” Jason said thoughtfully.

“Joe’s ma?”

Jason nodded. “They ever tell you how she died?”

“Pa and Joe said she was thrown from her horse,” Stacy replied.

“I was a baby when that happened, but I remember Pa and Crystal saying she was an accomplished horsewoman,” Jason continued, “with a real keen eye for horseflesh to boot. Your pa had given her a mare named Clover for her birthday. Clover was a real fine horse, but very high strung.”

“Clover’s the horse that ended up throwing Joe’s ma?” Stacy asked.

“Yeah. Marie had been working very diligently with her every day. That last morning, according to MY pa, she and Clover went out as usual, and when they came back . . . I don’t know whether something had spooked her or if she stumbled in a chuck hole, but Pa told me that the only thing your pa could do was stand there and watch helplessly as Clover tossed poor Marie to her death,” Jason said.

“That’s . . . awful!” Stacy murmured softly, her heart going out to her father. “You think, maybe he’s afraid the same thing will happen to ME . . . if I help Joe bust broncs?”

“Deep down, I think he may be.”

Stacy silently digested all that Jason had told her. “I’m glad you told me, Jason,” she said in a small, contrite voice, barely audible.

“Just promise me you won’t tell your pa what I told you. I COULD be ‘way off the mark about this.”

“I don’t think you are, Jason. I’ve got a real strong hunch that you’re right on the money,” Stacy said. “I just wonder why I didn’t think of that myself.”

“Probably because, now that you’re about to go to work on the Ponderosa full time, you’re real eager to prove yourself,” Jason said with a smile. “Just like Susannah, now that SHE’S going to be working for Pa and Crystal. But, I’ll tell you the same thing I told HER, Stacy Rose . . . . ”

“What’s that?”

“You DON’T have to prove yourself,” Jason said earnestly. “Certainly not to your pa and your brothers. They’re REAL proud of you. I can tell by the looks on their faces when they talk about you . . . and I daresay your pa, especially, knows everything you’re capable of doing . . . and WILL be capable of doing . . . probably better than YOU do right now.”

“You really think so?” she asked, awed by the idea.

“I KNOW so,” Jason quickly assured her.

 

“Benjamin . . . SURELY there must be SOMETHING I can do!” Clarissa implored, growing more and more exasperated with each passing second. She had spent the better part of the last half an hour pacing up and down behind the settee, anxiously wringing her hands.

Ben glanced up from the open book he cradled in his hands, and smiled. “Yes, Clarissa . . . yes. Now that you mention it, there IS something you can do.”

The anxious scowl on her face instantly vaporized, leaving behind a smile, bright as the sunshine of a beautiful summer day. She abruptly ceased her interminable pacing behind the settee, and turned to face her first cousin, comfortably ensconced in the maroon leather easy chair. “What?” she demanded. “Plan meals? Help with the cooking . . . the housekeeping? You name it, Benjamin.”

“You needn’t worry about any of THAT,” Ben said, as he marked his place, then closed his book. “Hop Sing has all that very well in hand.”

“Then . . . what . . . WOULD you like me to do?”

“I would like you to sit down . . . and relax.”

Clarissa’s face fell.

“I mean it, Clarissa.”

“B-But . . . with Stacy’s graduation exercises on Tuesday . . . that big party you have planned for her AND her two closest friends— ”

“I already told you, Clarissa . . . though we’re holding the party here at the Ponderosa, Hugh O’Brien and Molly O’Hanlan’s parents are co-hosting this shindig with me,” Ben patiently explained once again. “The O’Briens are providing the fatted calf, we Cartwrights are providing the fatted PIG and a few fatted chickens, the O’Hanlans are providing the music, the liquor, and the cake. The rest of the costs are being split three ways.”

“What about the cooking, the cleaning, the decorating— ?!”

“Hop Sing will oversee the cooking and the cleaning,” Ben replied, “and Stacy, Molly, and Susannah have volunteered to take charge of the decorating. Joe will probably help out, of course, and I’d be REAL surprised if Susannah’s brother, Jason didn’t lend a hand.”

“What about fresh flowers?” Clarissa suggested hopefully. “Flower arrangements are my forte, you know . . . . ”

“Yes, I know,” Ben sighed, upon remembering how, on the occasion of her last visit, Clarissa had taken it upon herself to fix things up inside, with an over abundance of tatted lace doilies, and vase after vase after vase of fresh flowers sitting on virtually every flat surface available.

“Well?” she prompted.

“Clarissa, we won’t be needing any flowers, except for a vase full on the food table perhaps.”

“What?!”

“The morning of the party, Stacy, the boys, and I will be moving the furniture into the store room, so we’ll have plenty of space for dancing,” Ben explained. “With the McGuire brothers providing the music, it’s gonna be awfully hard to keep your feet still.”

Clarissa gasped, as her hands flew right up to her cheeks. Her mouth moved, but no words, no sound issued forth, as she stared over at her first cousin through eyes unblinking, round with shocked horror.

“Clarissa? Are you . . . alright?” Ben queried anxiously.

“Y-Yes . . . NO!” Clarissa very quickly pulled herself up to full height, and glared murderously at Ben as she slammed a pair of dainty, rock hard fists down hard onto her hips. “Benjamin Cartwright . . . do you mean to tell me that you expect a . . . a . . . that you and your boys actually expect a delicate young lady, like Stacy, to help you move furniture?!” she sputtered, giving full vent to the righteous ire and indignation rising swiftly within her. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, do you hear me?! ASHAMED!”

“Clarissa, I am very pleased to report that there is nothing delicate or weak about my daughter in the least,” Ben said complacently, “and, if I were you, I wouldn’t refer to her as a lady, young or otherwise.”

This pronouncement drew a bewildered frown from Clarissa.

“I’m afraid Stacy doesn’t accept that as much of a compliment . . . as Hoss found out the hard way, not long after she came to live with us,” Ben explained. “He was left limping for the better part of a month.”

“ . . . and y-you . . . you let her get away with that?!”

“Certainly not.”

“But, you just WARNED me about— ”

“Oh, I warmed her backside good and proper for kicking Hoss in the shins,” Ben replied.

“But . . . what about this business of . . . well . . . of not referring to her as a lady . . . young or otherwise?!”

“I can see her point, and respect her feelings, even if I don’t completely agree,” Ben said. “Now . . . in the meantime . . . . ”

“Yes?”

“Would you please stop that frantic pacing and sit down?! I’m tiring myself out just watching you.”

Clarissa exhaled a soft, melancholy sigh, as she circled around to the other side of the settee, and sat down. “Benjamin . . . . ”

“Yes, Clarissa?”

“I want to help,” she said, her voice unsteady. “Please . . . let me help?”

“Clarissa, you’re our GUEST.” Though his tone was kindly, even gentle, there was an underlying firmness that signified the end of this particular topic of conversation. “After all these years of caring for one sick or infirm relative after another, it’s high time you sat back, put your feet up, and allowed someone to wait on YOU for a change.”

“I see,” Clarissa murmured softly, before lapsing into sullen silence . . . .

“HELPFUL? HELPFUL!? YOU CALL REDECORATING MY STUDY . . . MY STUDY MIND YOU . . . WITH AN OVER ABUNDANCE OF . . . OF LACE DOILIES AND FLOWERS HELPFUL?!”

The voice of one James Burgess, raised in anger and frustration, once more echoed in Clarissa’s ears. He was the husband of her second cousin, the former Rosalyn Jones, and father of Amelia Hatcher, second cousin once removed, who, at the time was expecting her first child, due any day.

“THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE FINAL STRAW!”

“James . . . please!” Rosalyn meekly begged, in a voice barely audible.

“NO! I WON’T HAVE IT, ROSE. I WON’T! BY HER OWN ADMISSION . . . BY HER OWN ADMISSION . . . SHE MADE GERTIE CLEAR OFF THE TOP OF MY DESK . . . IN MY STUDY . . . NOW, I CAN’T FIND A BLESSED THING!”

“James, please keep your voice down . . . she’ll HEAR you.”

“I HOPE THAT INTERFERING, BUSYBODY SECOND COUSIN OF YOURS DOES HEAR ME,” James ranted. “HALF THE PAPERS THAT WERE ON MY DESK ARE GONE . . . MISSING . . . I HAVE A SICK FEELING SHE THREW THEM OUT— ”

“I’ll ask her to stay out of your study, James,” Rosalyn said wearily, “as for your papers, I’m sure they’ll turn up. Jenkins is searching through your study, and Ellen has the scullery maids sifting through the trash right now.”

“Rose, I want that woman OUT of my house.”

“Oh, James . . . no, please. She’s got no where to go— ”

“I don’t wonder,” James snapped back sardonically.

“ . . . and she HAS been a big help in looking after Amelia . . . . ”

Amelia’s husband, Jeremy Hatcher was away, in Philadelphia, on a business trip. Because Amelia was so near her time, she had gone into her confinement at her parents’ home.

“A HELP!? YOU CALL SCARING OUR POOR DAUGHTER TO DEATH HELPFUL?!” James echoed, incredulous.

“It’s all right, James . . . I asked Doctor Jaeger and Kristen, the mid-wife, to talk to Amelia . . . to answer her questions, and to allay her fears and concerns, and they have,” Rosalyn said. “Amelia’s feeling a lot better about things.”

“THAT’S a mercy anyway . . . but, I STILL want that woman out of my house, at the earliest possible convenience.”

“James, please— ”

“No, Rose. I’m putting my foot down.”

“I’ll tell her to stay out of your study.”

“It’s NOT JUST my study,” James protested. “It’s . . . it’s going through and undoing all the hard work YOU’VE done to furnish and decorate this house to suit HER tastes, HER idea of what’s proper. Her obsession with cleanliness has been driving poor Ellen crazy . . . last week, she was ready to quit, Rose, did you know that?”

“No.”

“I told her that from NOW on, she takes her orders from you or me, period. As for the rest, she’s to continue as she always has. I also instructed Ellen to pass that on to the other maids.”

“Oh, Dear, I had no idea.”

“ . . . and I’d just as soon hire a proper nurse to look after Amelia,” James continued. “I know it’s natural for her to be concerned, even fearful right now, and I feel it would be far better to have someone looking after her who’s knowledgeable in matters of the human body, than someone who doesn’t have the common sense the Good Lord gave a sparrow. The very idea, telling poor Amelia about all the women who died in childbirth.”

“She HAS been a help, James . . . . ”

“That woman has been about as helpful as . . . as . . . as a fifth wheel on a wagon. I want her out of here, Rose. As soon as humanly possible . . . . ”

As useful as a fifth wheel on a wagon.

The very same words her father used, and used often, as his illness and forced invalidism turned him bitter and cantankerous. Hearing those words on James Burgess’ lips hurt just as grievously as they did all those many long years ago, when Papa spoke them.

As useful as a fifth wheel on a wagon.

After overhearing that altercation between Rosalyn and James, Clarissa had gone to her room straightaway, with tears streaming down her face, to pack her things. Far be it from her to stay where she wasn’t wanted! She had every intention of leaving first thing in the morning.

That night, however, Amelia went into labor, giving birth to a fine healthy baby boy. Clarissa stayed on, intending to be of help with the baby. However, Amelia had insisted on caring for her newborn son herself, as she was able, and, true to HIS word, James had hired a young woman, not much older than Amelia, yet trained as a nurse, to look after mother and son. After two days of enforced idleness, she left for Virginia City . . . .

“Benjamin, bless his heart is a lot more polite about it,” she mused sadly, in silence. “But, underneath it all . . . he’s still saying the exact same thing Cousin Rosalyn’s husband did . . . . ”

. . . . and Papa.

“Tea time for Missy Cousin Clarissa,” Hop Sing blithely announced, mercifully drawing Clarissa from her less than happy reverie. He entered the great room carrying a tray bearing the silver tea service, along with cups, saucers, and teaspoons for two.

Clarissa sighed and shook her head. “Hop Sing . . . how MANY times do I have to tell you . . . I am NOT your cousin,” she stated primly, all the while favoring him with a withering glare.

“Oh. So sorry,” Hop Sing apologized. An impish grin spread slowly across his lips, as he set the tray down onto the coffee table directly in front of Clarissa, who sat perched on the very edge of the settee, knees pressed close together, hands folded in her lap. “Tea time for Missy Cartwright.”

“That’s supposed to be MISS Cartwright,” Clarissa corrected him in a peevish tone of voice.

“Horses, Mister Cartwright . . . in yard,” Hop Sing said, pointedly focusing his attention solely on Ben. “Miss Stacy home. Mister Jason come, too.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben said, as he set his book down on the coffee table.

“Who’s this Mister Jason?” Clarissa asked, as she reached for the teapot.

“Mister Jason special somebody Miss Stacy like very, very much,” Hop Sing said with a broad grin.

Before Clarissa could even think of pursuing the matter further, the front door opened. Stacy entered first, with Jason following close behind.

***

 

Chapter 3

 

“Benjamin . . . is that Stacy?” Clarissa asked, sotto voce.

“Um hmm.”

“She’s beautiful!” Clarissa exclaimed with a genuine, almost childlike delight, upon catching first sight of the tall, slender young woman, with her long, dark brown hair plaited in a single braid. She had never, not in the whole of her long life, ever seen a woman walk the way Stacy did, with back straight, shoulders back, with such confident sureness of foot. “She’s . . . absolutely beautiful!”

“Yes, she is,” Ben immediately agreed before walking over to greet his daughter and Jason.

“She’s going to be the belle of the ball when she makes her societal debut,” Clarissa mused silently, with a dreamy smile. That, of course, would happen in two years, upon completion of her studies at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies, a venerable institution, known far and wide as THE finest finishing school Boston, and the whole of the east coast for that matter . . . had to offer. Clarissa herself would have gone there. In fact, she was all set to go there, when her father had taken ill.

Ben, meanwhile, greeted his daughter with a customary hug and kiss on her forehead. He, then turned and politely offered Jason his hand, while keeping one arm draped protectively around his daughter’s shoulders. “Good seeing you, Jason.”

“Thank you, Sir. Good seeing you, too,” Jason said, as he shook hands with the Cartwright family patriarch.

“ . . . and how was YOUR day, Young Woman?” Ben asked.

“Our rehearsal went very smoothly, Pa,” Stacy said with a smile, as she gave her father an affectionate squeeze around the waist, “and Julio said he heard from your friend, Miss Drake, yesterday.”

“Oh?” Ben queried, not without a slight bit of trepidation. “What did she say?”

“She’s agreed to take him as a student.”

“That’s wonderful!” Ben declared with much heartfelt relief. Angela Drake was a famous opera diva many years ago, and had recently found new acclaim as a very fine, if, more often than not, very tyrannical, teacher and mentor. Her artistic temperament was every bit as mercurial as it had been in her heyday. Though he had made a point of warning young Julio Fernandez of this when he had offered to write on the young man’s behalf, he was happy to know everything had gone well.

He turned to his cousin, now standing beside him. “Clarissa . . . .”

Her mind was thousands of miles away, in Boston, to be exact, wholly lost in a vivid reverie of herself and dearest Cousin Mirabelle Jones Standish looking on proudly, as the most handsome young man in all of Boston, the very crème-de-la-crème of Boston high society, bowed, and asked Stacy to dance on the momentous occasion of her society debut . . . .

“Clarissa?!”

She started violently, and opened her eyes to find Benjamin standing in front of her, with his arm around the shoulders of a young lady, with the brightest sapphire blue eyes she had ever seen. The young man, Jason, stood a little behind them, to their right.

“I’m sorry, Clarissa,” Ben immediately apologized. “I didn’t mean to startle you like that.”

“I should be the one to apologize, Benjamin,” she said ruefully. “Here I am . . . a woman of my advanced years . . . wool gathering, of all things, like a silly young school girl . . . . ” She looked over as Stacy, and gasped. “Oh dear! I’m so sorry, I . . . I didn’t mean to imply that YOU’RE a silly school girl . . . . ”

“Clarissa, this is my daughter, Stacy,” Ben proudly made the introductions, “your first cousin, once removed.”

“Oh, Stacy, I’m so pleased to meet you . . . finally . . . face-to-face,” Clarissa gushed. “Your father’s told me so much about you in his letters, I . . . well, I feel like I half way know you already.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, too, Cousin Clarissa,” Stacy acknowledged the introduction with a warm smile.

“ . . . and this is Jason O’Brien,” Ben continued, motioning for the young man to move forward. “His father and I have been friends and neighbors for more years now than I care to count. He’s . . . lately . . . become a special friend of Stacy’s.”

“I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting you when you last came to visit,” Jason said with a smile. “I’m pleased to meet you this time.”

“Why thank you,” Clarissa beamed, as she offered Jason the same dead fish of a handshake she had offered Maxine Pettigrew earlier. “Young Man, I must say . . . your manners are quite lovely.”

“Thank you, Miss Cartwright.”

“It’s such a rare and wonderful surprise finding a young savage with such exquisite manners.”

Stacy felt the blood drain right out of her face, as she pointedly stepped over to Jason’s side and slipped her arm through his. Jason merely smiled over at her and reassuringly patted her hand.

“Cuh-Cuh-Cuh . . . Clu-Clarissa . . . . ”

“Yes, Benjamin?”

“Clarissa . . . J-Jason’s . . . well, h-he’s HARDLY a savage . . . . ” Ben stammered, as his own face rapidly turned ten different shades of red, one after the other after the other.

“Well, of course not,” Clarissa readily agreed. “I didn’t mean to imply that he was.” She turned and favored Jason with a condescending smile. “I was trying to say that for a young savage to have so diligently applied himself to learning proper etiquette . . . well, that’s quite an accomplishment.”

For a brief, insane moment, Ben heartily wished that the earth would open and swallow him right up. “J-Jason, I . . . I’m really sorry about . . . . ” he barely managed to stammer out his apology.

“It’s quite alright, Mister Cartwright,” Jason readily and graciously accepted Ben’s apology, unable to quite hide his own smile of amusement. “I understand.”

“Would you like to sit down and perhaps . . . visit with Stacy for a little while?” Ben invited, gesturing toward the settee with a broad sweeping motion of his arm.

“I’d like nothing better, but I really need to be off,” Jason said with genuine regret. “I still have chores to get done before supper, and while PA might let me slide just this once, my sister, Crystal WON’T.” He turned and favored Clarissa with a feral grin. “In fact, SHE just might lift my scalp.”

Clarissa gasped and shuddered.

“Stacy, why don’t you g’won and see Jason off, while I have a little, ummm CHAT with Cousin Clarissa,” Ben said, regaining a small measure of his composure.

“Ok, Pa,” Stacy murmured, her voice a flat monotone.

“Oh, Benjamin, you never told me how lovely she is,” Clarissa effused with a big, bright smile, after Stacy and Jason had stepped through the front door, and closed it behind them. “SHE is going to take Boston high society by storm, you just mark my words.”

“B-Boston?!” Ben echoed, suddenly feeling as if someone had sucker punched him hard in the stomach.

“Well of course, Boston,” Clarissa said, favoring her cousin with a look that clearly questioned the completeness of his mental faculties.

“Clarissa, wh-who said anything about . . . Boston?!”

“Stacy IS going to finishing school . . . isn’t she?” Though phrased as a question, it was more than clear that Clarissa took this as a given, set in stone.

“I . . . well, to be honest?! We’ve, ummm . . . never . . . actually . . . t-talked about it,” Ben stammered, completely taken aback. It was assumed all the way around that Stacy would go to work for him here on the Ponderosa, as her brothers had. In fact, from all indications, Stacy herself was looking forward to that every bit as much as he, Hoss, and Joe were looking forward to her joining them.

Clarissa sighed disparagingly, and rolled her eyes. “Benjamin, arrangements SHOULD have been made by this time LAST year,” she castigated her cousin very soundly. “All of the best schools have waiting lists a year long, some even TWO.”

Ben closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Clarissa— ”

“However, YOU needn’t worry, Benjamin,” she said, rudely cutting him off, mid-sentence. An eager smile began to spread slowly across her face. By golly, she would show Mister and Mrs. Think-They-Know-Everything-James Milton Burgess that she WASN’T as useful as the fifth wheel on a wagon, thank you very much . . . and while she was at it, she’d show her father, too, may he rest in peace. “You needn’t worry about a blessed thing,” Clarissa said again, her eyes glowing now with a fierce, determined inner light.

Ben remembered with a sinking heart having seen Clarissa’s face and eyes glowing with that very same unholy inner light, just before she had set about to making herself useful on the occasion of her last visit. In the space of a single day, she had forced poor Hop Sing to clean the already spotless house from top to bottom, stem to stern, before cheerfully overhauling the decor. Ben had never, not in all his born days, EVER seen such an over abundance of flowers and lace doilies gathered together in one place. The final indignity was having to wear those blasted slippers whenever he, Hoss, and Joe came into the house, to preserve the clean floors.

“Clarissa—,” Ben ventured with a shudder.

“What is it, Benjamin?”

“I . . . n-needn’t worry a b-blessed thing . . . about . . . WHAT?!”

“About Stacy. Cousin Mirabelle lives in Boston . . . and SHE is a most distinguished alumna of the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies,” Clarissa blithely rambled on, wholly oblivious to Ben’s growing trepidation.

“C-Clarissa . . . wh-what . . . is this . . . Sarah Lynn Portnoy A-Academy for . . . Young Ladies . . . and WHAT in the world does it have to do with Stacy?” Ben asked, trying to ignore the thoroughly discomfiting feeling of having just fallen in ‘way over his head.

“What is the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies?!” Clarissa echoed, incredulous. “Benjamin, I don’t believe you! I honest and truly DON’T!”

Ben shook his head and shrugged his shoulders helplessly in response.

Clarissa sighed disparagingly, and shook her head. “The Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies happens to be THE finest finishing school, not only in Boston, but on the whole of the east coast . . . and maybe in the whole COUNTRY as well!!”

“I’m sorry, Clarissa, but . . . I’ve never heard of it.”

“That comes of being a man, and having been the father of SONS for the most part, I suppose,” Clarissa said, her stern tone of voice at complete odds with the smile trying to burst forth on her face. “All I can say is . . . thank heaven Cousin Amelia recovered from having that baby as quickly as she did, because it’s plain to see that I’ve got my work cut out for me HERE.”

Ben felt his heart plummet to his feet. “Clarissa, what . . . exactly . . . do you mean when you say that you have your work cut out for you h-here?” he ventured with much reluctance, fearing that he already knew the answer.

“I meant that you and Stacy don’t have a thing to worry about,” Clarissa said brightly, with a rapturous smile now on her face. She clasped her hands together in wondrous glee. “Benjamin, Cousin Mirabelle is not only a distinguished alumna of the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies, but over the years, she’s been a very generous contributor as well. One word from her to the headmistress and I guarantee Stacy will be accepted immediately, right on the spot, sight unseen.”

“Accepted?! Accepted where?”

“To the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies!” Clarissa said, with a touch of exasperation.

“N-Now just one minute here— ” Ben tried desperately, in vain, to get in a word edgewise.

“Oh, Benjamin, Benjamin . . . all the golden opportunities . . . all the lovely prospects that young lady has ahead of her . . . . ” Clarissa blithely rambled on, as if her first cousin had not even tried to speak. “When she makes her society debut in two years, Miss Stacy Rose Cartwright is going be the absolute belle of the ball, you mark my words.”

“Clarissa— ”

“What is it, Benjamin?” Clarissa demanded impatiently.

“Don’t you think you ought to ask Stacy first before you start planning her whole life for her?”

“Ask Stacy?!” Clarissa laughed with genuine mirth. “Ask Stacy? Surely you jest.”

“No, Clarissa, I am NOT joking.”

“Benjamin, she may be about to graduate from school, but she’s STILL hardly more than a child,” Clarissa said severely, “and a GIRL child at that.”

“What’s THAT supposed to mean?”

Clarissa sighed again, wondering how a man intelligent enough to build and run a vast empire, like the Ponderosa, could, at the same time be so infuriatingly dense. “Girls tend to be very capricious, always changing their minds from one minute to the next, with their pretty little heads in the clouds, carried away by one fanciful whim or another,” she patiently explained. “Perhaps you CAN allow a young man a certain amount of say in his future, since boys generally tend to have their feet planted more firmly on the ground, but to trust a GIRL to make the kind of crucial decisions that are going to affect the whole rest of her life?!” Clarissa vigorously shook her head. “Never. Older and wiser heads MUST prevail.”

“Clarissa, Stacy’s NOT— ”

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, Benjamin, I have a million things to do.” With that, she turned and flounced out of the room, and up the stairs.

Ben, pale and shaken, lifted his eyes to the heavens. “Help . . . . ” he whispered softly.

 

“Jason, I’m so sorry for what Cousin Cla— ” Stacy, meanwhile, began to apologize the instant they had stepped out onto the porch, closing the front door behind them.

Jason quickly silenced her apology mid-sentence with a gentle, feather light kiss on her lips. “It’s all right, Stacy Rose.”

“No . . . it’s NOT all right,” she protested.

“Miss Cartwright is old, she’s from a different generation. She doesn’t know any better.”

“But . . . PA’S older than SHE is, and . . . HE certainly knows better.”

“Your pa’s traveled a lot,” Jason hastened to point out. He slipped his arm about her shoulders as they stepped down off the porch, and started across the yard toward the hitching post, where both their horses remained tethered. Stacy, in turn, automatically placed her arm about his waist. “He not only traveled all the way from Boston to Virginia City . . . but, he also spent many years traveling all over the world back when he was a sailor. He’s had lots of opportunity to meet and get to know a lot of different people from many, many, many different places and backgrounds.

“Miss Cartwright, on the other hand, probably never ventured more than ten miles from the place of her birth, until her father died, and even though she’s traveled a lot since, it’s been from one relative to the next . . . all of them, more than likely, people very much like herself.”

“THAT’S a scary thought . . . but, you’re probably right,” Stacy had to agree.

“She means well, Stacy Rose, she’s basically harmless,” Jason said, “and, as I just said, she doesn’t know any better. I don’t take people like that seriously, and neither should YOU.” He punctuated his words with a playful kiss on the tip of her nose.

“I STILL don’t like the way she was going on and on about you being some kind of ignorant savage, who barely has enough brains to learn table manners,” Stacy growled. She, then cast a quick, furtive glance over in the direction of the front door, noting with great satisfaction that it remained closed. “ . . . and another thing, Jason Thundercloud O’Brien . . . how many times do I have to tell you . . . if you’re going to kiss me, then for heaven’s sake, KISS me?!” With that, Stacy threw her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly on the lips.

Jason’s arms automatically encircled her waist and shoulders, tentative at first, then more firmly as his initial shock faded, and he began to return her kiss with equal ardor. “NOW who’s the savage?” Jason demanded with a warm smile, when their lips finally parted.

“I was wondering about that myself.”

Stacy and Jason glanced up sharply, and found Joe leaning against the corral fence, with his arms folded across his chest, chuckling.

“How long have you been standing there?” Stacy demanded indignantly, her complexion significantly more ruddy than usual.

“Long enough to begin wondering whether or not you two were gonna come up for air,” Joe teased, taking great delight in his sister’s discomfiture.

“You should’ve made your presence known.”

“Made my presence known?! Are you KIDDING?!! I would have not only spoiled that, ummm tender scene between the two of you, but I would have also blown what could be my biggest ace in the hole ever,” Joe said with a mischievous grin.

“What do you mean your biggest ace in the hole ever?” Stacy demanded warily.

“I mean you take my turn mucking out the stalls for the next six months, and maybe . . . MAYBE, mind you . . . I won’t tell Pa what goes on out here in his very own front yard when he’s not looking,” Joe said smugly.

“Oh yeah, Grandpa? Well I have a COUNTER proposal for ya,” Stacy said, returning his smug grin with a cat-that-just-ate-the canary one of her own. “How about you keep the details of what goes on out here in the front yard when Pa’s not looking to yourself, and I’ll keep Lilly Beth Jared’s new pet name for ya to MYSELF.”

Joe blanched. “Whuh—wait a minute! How did you— ” His scowl deepened as the evil laughter Stacy could no longer keep back assailed his ears. “Hey! Who do you think you’re trying to bluff?! You don’t even know what her new pet name for me is!”

“YOU know that and I know that . . . but PA doesn’t know that,” Stacy said, taking no pains to hide the smug, triumphant note in her voice. “All I have to do is come up with something suitably naughty.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“Wouldn’t I?”

The fierce scowl on her face and the rigid set of her jaw answered the question she posed in a way mere words couldn’t even begin. “Where in the ever lovin’ world did you ever learn to be so daggoned devious, Little Sister?”

“From my venerable honorable older brother sir.”

“Never!” Joe immediately declared in tones of mock indignation and righteous outrage. “I’ll have YOU know, Miss Stacy Rose Cartwright, that I am the heart and soul of the whole, the pure, and the unvarnished truth. I would never even think of lying, except when I turn in every night.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“What about that little chat YOU had with Pa about the dress I had made for The Wedding of the Century?”

“WHAT chat?”

“The one that left him absolutely convinced that I was having a dress made like the ones the girls, who work at the Silver Dollar, wear.”

“Uh oh. On THAT note, I think I’d better get while the gettin’s good,” Jason said, with an amused smile. “Joe, a piece of advice, if I may?”

“What?” Joe growled.

“When it comes to being sneaky, and devious, a SISTER will beat ya every single time,” Jason said with a broad grin. “I know. I grew up with TWO.” He, then, turned his attention back to Stacy. “I’ll see you Tuesday, at the graduation exercises, Stacy Rose. I’ll be right there in the front row cheering you and my sister on.”

“I’ll be looking for you, Jason,” Stacy said. “Thank you for riding home with me.”

“My pleasure as always.”

Joe and Stacy waited until Jason had mounted his horse and ridden off.

“So tell me something, Kid . . . where in the world did you ever learn to kiss like THAT?” Joe demanded, as he and Stacy turned and started toward the house.

“You promise me you won’t get mad?”

“Uh oh. Don’t tell me it was from watching me and Lilly Beth,” Joe groaned.

“I’m afraid so, Grandpa,” Stacy said, as she slipped her arm through his.

“I tell ya . . . . ” Joe murmured, shaking his head in dismay. “All I gotta say is . . . it’s a darn good thing for you and Lilly Beth that Jason and I are honorable, trustworthy gentlemen.”

“I just hope I haven’t seen the last of Jason,” Stacy said sadly, with a healthy dose of trepidation.

“Seen the LAST of Jason?!” Joe echoed, favoring her with a look that asked which rock did she just crawl out from under. He immediately stopped walking, then turned and looked her straight in the face. “Stacy Rose Cartwright, I want you to listen to me and listen real good,” he said sternly. “Speaking as a guy who’s been engaged a couple of times, I know what I’m talking about when I tell ya . . . Jason’s in for the long haul, Kid. I know the look when I see it.”

“Y-You really think so?”

The eager, almost childlike hopefulness he saw in Stacy’s face and in her eyes killed the smart retort sitting right on the tip of his tongue. “Hey! I KNOW so,” Joe reiterated gently. “Where’d you get the idea you’d seen the last of Jason anyway?”

“Cousin Clarissa,” Stacy said dolefully. “When Pa introduced her to Jason, she complimented him on his manners, then gushed about how diligently a . . . a young savage had to have applied himself to have learned proper etiquette in the first place.”

“Hoo boy!” Joe murmured, rolling his eyes. “What did PA say?”

“I don’t know,” Stacy said miserably. “I was too busy wondering which one of us was gonna faint first.”

“I sure hope Pa gets Cousin Clarissa a good, stout, leather muzzle this time,” Joe said grimly. “If he doesn’t, our family’s not gonna have a single, solitary friend left in the whole wide world.”

 

Ben, now seated behind his desk, glanced up wearily as his two younger children trudged in through the front door. “Joe! I didn’t know you were home,” he exclaimed in mild surprise.

“Yeah, I rode in as Jason was leaving,” Joe replied. “Hoss and I made real good time getting the needed supplies out to that broken section of fence surrounding our winter pasture. We got everything unloaded, ready to start work first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Good,” Ben said with an approving smile. “Where’s Hoss? He came back with you . . . didn’t he?”

“No, Pa . . . he didn’t.”

“Oh?” Ben’s smile faded. “Where did HE go?”

“Valhalla.”

“Valhalla?!” Ben echoed with a puzzled frown. “What for?”

“His exact words were . . . ‘A decent meal, dadburn it.’ ”

“Why would Hoss have to go to Valhalla to get a decent meal?” Stacy asked, with a perplexed look on her face.

“Because Cousin Clarissa vowed to put him on a diet . . . again! Just like she did the LAST time she came to visit,” Joe said with a scowl. “It was awful, Kid. She had him down to eating nothing but lettuce and turnip greens.”

“Poor Hoss,” Stacy murmured softly.

“Hoss’ll be alright,” Ben said. “I’m more worried about what she said to Jason.” He turned his attention to his daughter. “Stacy, is . . . is everything all right?”

“Yeah, Jason’s ok,” Stacy said. “I think you and I were more upset than HE was.”

“I’m very relieved to hear THAT,” Ben declared with heartfelt sincerity.

“Pa . . . where’s Cousin Clarissa now?” Joe asked, taking great care to lower his voice.

“She said something about having a million things to do, then went on upstairs,” Ben replied, as he cast a uneasy glance over toward the steps . . . .

 

“HEEEELLOOOOOO! GOOD MOOOOORRRRNING!” Clarissa called out, as she pounded insistently on the fast closed door of the bunkhouse with her balled fist.

No answer! This was the third time she had knocked on the door and called.

Scowling, she pounded on the door as hard as she could, rattling its very hinges. It was seven o’clock, and the sun had been up for nearly an hour now. It galled her no end the way Benjamin’s servants took such outrageous advantage of his good nature. At the very least, they should have been up, washed, shaved, dressed, and about the business for which her cousin no doubt paid them very handsomely.

It was Candy who finally answered the door, groggy with sleep, his hair mussed, eye lids half opened, clad only in a pair of pajama bottoms.

Clarissa stood, as if rooted to the very spot, with a crimson face, her mouth hanging wide open.

Candy yawned in her face. “S-Sorry, Miss Cartwright . . . . ” He yawned again. “Wha’ can I do f’r ya?”

“You can make an effort to look half way presentable before you come to the door,” Clarissa angrily sputtered, the minute she found her voice.

Candy just stared over at her blankly, with a puzzled frown on his face.

“You’re positively indecent! Benjamin’s daughter should not have to endure being exposed to— ”

“Sta— uhhh, Mister Cartwright’s daughter doesn’t make a habit of barging into the bunkhouse this early in the morning . . . or at any other time, either, for that matter,” Candy said stiffly.

“ . . . and speaking of early in the morning, Young Man, WHAT are the lot of you still doing in bed?!” she cried, outraged. “You should have been up and about your duties HOURS ago.”

“MISTER Cartwright expects us to report to work PROMPTLY at eight-thirty, unless, of course, HE says otherwise,” Candy said, his own ire beginning to rise. He yawned again, much to Clarissa’s annoyance and vexation. “Now if you will excuse me . . . . ” He started to close the door.

Clarissa angrily thrust out a hand to stop him. “Just a moment, Young Man.”

“NOW what?” Candy groaned, taking no pains to conceal his own irritation.

“I have an URGENT message that MUST be wired to my cousin in Boston, as soon as possible,” Clarissa said imperiously.

“I’m sorry, Miss Cartwright, but we all have our assigned duties for the day,” Candy said stiffly. “We’re not going to have the time to stop and— ”

“Mister Canaday?” a sleepy voice spoke out of the darkness of the bunkhouse interior.

“Yes, Kevin?”

“Mister Cartwright asked me to go into town this morning and pick up his mail,” Kevin O’Hennessy, one of the younger hands said. “I can take Miss Cartwright’s message to the telegraph office.”

“Thank you very much, Young Man,” Clarissa said, smiling, though her tone remained faintly imperious. She stepped toward the open door.

“ . . . uhhh, Miss Cartwright, I . . . . ” Candy thrust out his hand, as the blood drained right out of his face. “I’LL see that Kevin g-gets the message.”

“If you DON’T mind, MISTER Canaday,” Clarissa said as she pushed her way past Candy, and sauntered into the bunkhouse. “I’d prefer handing Kevin the message my—su, su, su . . . . ” With a feeble groan, she fainted dead away at the sight of Kevin standing to the right of the door, in the complete altogether.

***

 

Chapter 4

 

Ben gazed over at his cousin’s prostrate form stretched out on the settee, with her feet propped up on the arm, groaning softly, as Hop Sing alternated between fanning her and holding a bottle of smelling salts under her nose. He, then, turned and glared over at Joe and Stacy, both of whom were leaning against the back of the settee, trying desperately not to laugh. Their success in that arduous endeavor was dubious at best.

“Candy, I believe you,” Ben said, placing a reassuring, paternal hand on the junior foreman’s shoulder. “I know my cousin can be very forceful when she sets her mind.”

Candy exhaled a long, heartfelt sigh of relief.

“I . . . don’t THINK Miss Cartwright will up and try to barge in again like she did just now,” Ben continued, “but, just in case? Perhaps it might be wise for you and the other men in the bunk house to wear a modicum of SOMETHING to bed, while she’s here?”

“Yes, Sir.” Candy turned to leave.

“Oh. Candy . . . one more thing?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“I know some of the men keep flasks for, ummm shall we say medicinal purposes?”

Candy nodded.

“It might be a good idea for them to keep their flasks well out of sight while she’s here, too,” Ben added, remembering how Clarissa had sauntered into the bunk house, hung curtains, then dumped every last container of whiskey she could find, when she came to visit last. That had prompted half the men to quit on the spot.

“I guess it kinda figures she’d be a teetotaler,” Candy sighed. “I’ll tell the others, Mister Cartwright.”

“Thank you, Candy . . . I’d appreciate that.” Ben waited until his junior foreman had left, before turning his attention to Clarissa.

“Oohhh, Benjamin, I . . . I feel so silly,” she groaned, as Ben seated himself on the coffee table next to the settee.

“There’s no need to feel silly, Clarissa,” Ben said gently, as he took her hand in his own. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”

“Benjamin, you need to be FIRM with these people,” Clarissa moaned. “You need to let them know exactly WHO is in charge here.”

“Cousin Clarissa, take it from me . . . there’s no doubt at all in anyone’s mind as to who’s running things here,” Joe spoke up for the first time.

“ . . . and I’ve already spoken to Mister Canaday, and asked HIM to pass the word on to the others.”

“Good!” Clarissa said, as she started to rise.

“Cousin Clarissa, not sit up so quick,” Hop Sing warned.

“Hop Sing, I am NOT your cousin,” she said with a grimace. She rose, only to fall back down with a feeble moan, as her head started to spin.

Hop Sing sighed and sarcastically rolled his eyes heavenward. “Mister Cartwright, Missy YOUR cousin. YOU stay with Missy. Time for Hop Sing start make breakfast,” he said tersely, before turning heel and making tracks toward the kitchen.

“Oh, B-Benjamin . . . I’m so sorry . . . . ” she groaned . . . .

“Sorry?! Hell! You’re pathetic, Child, utterly pathetic . . . about as useful as a fifth wheel on a wagon!”

Her father, the first night Clarissa tried to cook their supper. They could no longer afford the housekeeper, the maids, or the gardener because his medical expenses, the doctor, the nurse who came each day, his medicines, all cost a small fortune. They had kept Cook on as long as they possibly could, but in the end, they were forced to let HER go as well . . . .

“You’re pathetic, Child, utterly pathetic . . . . ”

What did he expect?! She had never learned to cook or clean. She never had to learn . . . never thought she’d EVER have to learn.

. . . every bit as helpful as . . . .

. . . a fifth wheel on a wagon.

. . . a fifth wheel . . . .

. . . on a wagon.

She squeezed her eyes shut against Papa’s angry, jeering face, and brought her hands up to her ears, pressing so tight, she half feared she was going to end up crushing her own skull . . . and still his cruel words poured in, relentlessly, without even the slightest sign of let up.

“I’ll show YOU,” she adamantly vowed. “I’ll show you.”

Clarissa?

Clarissa, wake up.

Her eyes snapped wide open, and she found herself staring up into three anxious faces of her first cousin, and his two younger children.

“Clarissa? You all right?” Ben asked.

“I . . . yes, I’m f-fine,” she murmured softly. “Benjamin?”

“Yes, Clarissa?”

“I . . . I’m not very hungry,” she murmured softly, her voice barely audible. “Would you mind too terribly much if I went back upstairs to rest for a little while?”

“Not at all,” Ben said quietly. “Feel up to having a slice of toast and a cup of tea?”

Clarissa responded with a tremulous smile. “That would be wonderful, thank you.”

“Hop Sing will bring it up when it’s ready. In the meantime, why don’t you rest, maybe even have a nap,” Ben said. “After lunch, if you’re feeling up to it, maybe we can persuade Stacy to take you out to Ponderosa Plunge . . . . ”

 

“Oh, Benjamin, what a delightful day this has turned out to be!” Clarissa exclaimed, her face aglow with an almost rapturous delight, as she and Ben stepped out onto the front porch together. She had spent most of the morning napping, despite her intentions to the contrary, and it had proven a much needed, much welcome tonic. Now, with her normally abundant vim and vigor, for the most part, restored, she was ready and eager to face the afternoon.

“Yes, indeed it HAS turned out to be a fine day,” Ben agreed, “perfect for a nice ride out to Ponderosa Plunge. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”

“Yes, I am, thank you,” Clarissa said, with a smile as bright as the sun shining overhead. To her own mind, she was fashionably attired in a riding costume, with jacket, hat, and skirt, long and flowing, hued in a sensible dark brown most suitable to a lady of her advanced years. She also wore a cream colored blouse with a subdued ruffle at the collar and at the wrists, peeking modestly out from the sleeves of her jacket. Her leather kid gloves were the same dark brown as her riding habit, while the scarf, which held her hat in place, was made from a translucent, diaphanous material dyed to match her blouse.

“Oh, Benjamin, I’m so glad you suggested that Stacy and I ride out together this afternoon,” Clarissa said, as they made their way across the yard to the corral fence

“I know you’re going to enjoy it. I . . . wish I could go with the two of ya, but I’m afraid I’ve put off doing the ledgers for too long already.”

“That’s quite alright,” Clarissa said. “Not that I wouldn’t enjoy your company, but I feel this will be a nice chance for Stacy and me to get better acquainted.”

Ben was gratified and relieved that there had been no further mention of Boston, finishing school, or debutante balls since yesterday afternoon. He fervently hoped and prayed that Clarissa had decided not to press the matter any further, that she would just relax from here on out, and enjoy the company of her relatives.

Stacy and Candy stepped from the coolness of the dimly lit barn into the bright morning sunshine, leading Blaze Face and Gentleman Jim, Clarissa’s mount, respectively. Clarissa was horrified to see that Stacy’s horse was outfitted with the kind of saddle MEN use . . . and Stacy herself attired in a pair of britches, a shirt, and a wide brimmed Stetson, just like one of her father’s hired hands.

“Oh dear . . . . ” she murmured, as the blood drained right out of her face, leaving it a sickly, ashen gray. “B-Benjamin . . . . ”

“Y-Yes, Clarissa?” he queried with sinking heart. He had come to learn all over again, very quickly, that he was in for a big, long diatribe of a lecture when she got that horrified look on her face, and spoke in that particular bell like tone of voice.

“Doesn’t Stacy have a proper riding costume?” she demanded, taking great care to lower her voice.

“You mean . . . for riding side saddle?”

“I mean for riding as a lady ought to ride,” she snapped.

“Clarissa, during the time Stacy lived with the Indians, she learned to ride a horse astride,” Ben explained.

“Did no one ever try to teach her otherwise?”

“She tried once or twice before letting it be known that she would ride as she already knew how to ride,” Ben said.

“You should have been firm, Benjamin.”

“Clarissa, very few women out here ride side saddle,” Ben tried to explain. “With the work we do . . . rounding up horses or cattle— ”

“I can assure you that Stacy will be doing NONE of those things when she reaches Boston,” Clarissa said severely. “The only kind of riding she’ll be doing . . . IF she does any at all, will be to promenade around the square on Sunday afternoon, AFTER she attends church.”

“Hoo boy!” Ben sighed, as he paused to gaze upward to the heavens, silently, desperately beseeching. “Clarissa— ”

“What?”

“I . . . think you and I need to come to an understanding on a few things— ”

Clarissa glared over at him, with her posture ramrod straight, and arms folded tight across her chest.

“I don’t want you exerting a lot of undue pressure on Stacy about going to that finishing school in Boston,” Ben said, feeling very disconcertingly on the defensive.

“I can’t talk to her about it . . . mention it as a possibility?!”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t MENTION it, or suggest it as a possibility,” Ben said in a very quiet, very firm tone of voice. “But, I WON’T have you browbeating my daughter into doing something she doesn’t want to do.”

“Are you saying that . . . that you don’t want her to g-go to Boston?”

“Between you and me? No. I DON’T want her to go to Boston, but— ”

Clarissa looked over at Ben, stunned, for a moment, before suddenly bursting into tears. “Benjamin . . . B-Benjamin, h-how COULD you?!” she sobbed, grief stricken and very angry. “How COULD you?!!”

“H-How could I . . . what?!” Ben stammered, wholly taken aback by her tears.

“How could you be so selfish?!”

“S-Selfish?!”

“Yes, SELFISH!” Clarissa said angrily, then softened. “I’m sorry, Benjamin, I . . . well, I guess not having had children myself, it’s very difficult for me to understand how hard it must be for a parent to let them go, but . . . surely . . . you’re NOT going to put YOUR desires . . . what YOU want . . . above Stacy’s happiness.”

“Of course not. If . . . I had been allowed to finish, I would have said that it’s not for ME to decide . . . or YOU either, for that matter,” Ben said. “It’s up to STACY to decide what she wants to do after she graduates, and I mean to stand by that.”

“Have you ever once ASKED Stacy about going to finishing school?” Clarissa pressed with all the stubborn relentlessness of a pit bull.

“Well . . . no . . . not in so many words . . . . ” Ben replied, feeling very much like a criminal, who had been caught in the very act, standing before judge, jury, and executioner, without a proverbial leg to stand on. “But . . . we’ve talked about things— ”

“WHAT things . . . other than this ranch?” Clarissa demanded.

“Stacy knows what her options are, Clarissa,” Ben said, bristling at her unspoken insinuations.

“Cousin Clarissa?”

She turned and found Stacy standing at her elbow.

“Ready to ride?”

“Yes, I am,” Clarissa said with an emphatic nod of her head . . . .

 

“Well, Cousin Clarissa? What do you think?” Stacy asked, eagerly watching for Cousin Clarissa’s reaction to the wondrous landscape spread out before them.

Clarissa Cartwright gasped in awe at the magnificent vista, of deep blue lake, tall ponderosa pine trees, mixed with aspen, oak, cottonwood, and birch spread out before her. The dark forest, deep pine greens, mixed with the lighter greens, lush almost succulent over the long stretch of many, many miles, gradually faded into a uniform blue green hue, which, in turn melted away into the bluish-purple mountains in the far distance. “Oh, Stacy . . . it’s . . . it’s magnificent,” she murmured softly. “Nothing less than . . . magnificent.”

“Would you like to get down and stretch your legs a bit?” Stacy asked. “I can help you, if you need it.”

“No, Stacy . . . thank you. I’m fine,” Clarissa replied, though, in truth, she would have liked nothing better. Unfortunately, Benjamin didn’t employ a proper groom, a man, who, under normal circumstances, would have accompanied them on their ride, and deftly seen to it SHE at least was assisted in dismounting and climbing back onto the saddle once again, when they were ready to move on. She was gratified, even touched by Stacy’s generous offer to assist her in dismounting, but doubted very seriously that the child possessed sufficient strength to accomplish so arduous a task.

“Pa told me that Adam named this place Ponderosa Plunge, the first time they came here together,” Stacy said, speaking softly, reverently, as Molly and Susannah did whenever they entered the sanctuary of Saint Mary’s in the Mountains. “Adam used to come here a lot, especially when he needed to think, or simply to be alone. So do I.”

“It IS quite lovely and peaceful here,” Clarissa said, her stiff tone of voice at odds with the smile on her face. “Benjamin . . . your father . . . allows you to ride out here . . . alone?”

Stacy nodded. “As long as my morning chores are done, and I’m back in plenty of time to get Blaze Face properly stabled by the time Hop Sing has breakfast ready.”

Clarissa added ‘ NO riding alone’ to the rapidly expanding list, of things Stacy must know and understand before starting at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies, come fall. She would also have to be fitted with a proper riding costume, maybe two or better yet, three. It wouldn’t do at all for her to be seen promenading around the square on Sunday afternoons in the same one too often, not among the wealthy elite making up the very cream of Boston high society.

“ . . . and, most important, she MUST be taught to ride in a manner proper for a young lady . . . using a side saddle,” Clarissa mused darkly, in silence.

“We’ll have to come out here one morning to watch the sun rise,” Stacy said with a dreamy smile, blissfully ignorant of her companion’s silent, dire musings, “ . . . that is . . . if you wouldn’t mind getting up before dawn.”

“I’m a firm believer in early to bed and early to rise,” Clarissa said quickly. “May I ask you a question?”

“I guess . . . . ” Stacy replied, suddenly wary.

“Nothing personal . . . well, maybe a little personal.” Clarissa’s disgruntled frown faded into a warm smile. “I was just wondering what your plans for the future might be, now that you’ll be graduating in a few days.”

“Oh.” Stacy relaxed slightly, and even returned Clarissa’s smile. “Wednesday morning, I go to work for Pa, just like Hoss and Joe,” she replied with confidence, and a touch of pride. “He’ll be paying me wages, too . . . just like he does them.”

Clarissa was appalled. Absolutely appalled! “What . . . kinds of things will you, uhhh b-be doing?” she forced herself to ask that question.

“Pa hasn’t exactly come to a decision as to where I’m going to start,” Stacy replied, feeling oddly on the defensive. “I HAVE been working with Joe and Hoss training horses after they’ve saddle broken . . . some.”

“Only some?” Clarissa triumphantly snapped right back.

“As school and . . . homework have allowed.”

“What ELSE?”

“What else?!” Stacy echoed. A bewildered frown creased her normally smooth brow.

“What else do you do around here?”

“I have MY morning chores, of course . . . . ”

“Is that all?”

“No. I’ve also been teaching people how to ride,” Stacy said, warming now to a favorite topic. “Kids mostly, but I’ve also taught a couple of adults. Just this past summer Mrs. Hansen . . . she’s one of our neighbors . . . she came with her youngest daughter, Meribeth . . . and I got to teach BOTH of ‘em at the same time.”

“Do you . . . enjoy that?”

“Very much,” Stacy replied, her bright blue eyes shining with adoration and deep reverence. “I love horses, Cousin Clarissa. They’re not only useful as work animals, but I’ve found them to be wonderful companions, too . . . especially Blaze Face.” She punctuated her words with a gentle, loving caress along the side of his neck. “If I can teach someone else not only how to ride, but also how to take care of their horse, I feel like I’m doing something really worth while.”

“I . . . see,” Clarissa said stiffly, with a grimace.

“Pa says I also pass along my love of horses to the people I teach. I think I like that idea best of all,” Stacy said, finding it hard to speak past that sudden lump in her throat, upon remembering the love and pride shining in her father’s eyes when he had told her that. “Now that I’m graduating, I’ll have lots more time to give lessons.”

“Stacy, have you ever thought about . . . well, about doing something else? ANYthing else?”

No,” Stacy replied, “because everything I’ve ever wanted is right here.”

“That poor child!” Clarissa mused silently. “THIS . . . . ” she grimaced, “ . . . is all she’s ever KNOWN!” Benjamin meant well, but no matter how much he, his sons, and even Stacy herself tried to pretend otherwise, the real fact of the matter was . . . running a ranch, especially a ranch the size of the Ponderosa, was work for a MAN. The boys would someday marry, and start their own families . . . and they would eventually take over the duties and responsibilities of running things when Benjamin finally became too old, too infirm to effectively run things himself.

But, where would that leave Stacy?

The only future Clarissa could possibly envision was an empty life, not unlike the way her own had been, after Papa took sick. The thought of Stacy spending year after lonely year caring for a cantankerous, invalided father . . . never marrying, or having her own family, because there was no time for such folderol . . . .

Papa’s words.

. . . and what would happen to her after Benjamin finally shuffled off this mortal coil, as all men and women eventually must? Would Stacy end up as SHE had? Left bereft of hearth and home because Papa’s last will and testament said share and share alike, and she had no money to buy out her brothers’ and sister’s shares of the old homestead?!

No!

A glint of the old Cartwright steel flashed in Clarissa’s gray green eyes, and her mouth thinned to a near straight, determined line.

NO!

That would NOT be Stacy’s future. Not while SHE was around to prevent it. And she silently vowed, then and there, that she would do all that lay within her power to save poor Stacy from such a fate.

“Stacy,” she snapped out the girl’s name.

“Yes, Cousin Clarissa?” she queried, suddenly wary. There was something unsettling about the look in her companion’s eyes . . . .

“Will you be going away to finishing school?”

“No!” Stacy’s reply was succinct, emphatic, no beating around the bush.

“There’s a fine one in Boston,” Clarissa continued, as if Stacy had not even spoken. “In fact, it’s the finest on the entire east coast, if not in the entire country. Young ladies come from far and wide to attend . . . even from as far away as England and France. What would you say if I told you I could get you admitted there as a student . . . even now at the eleventh hour?”

“I would say thank you very much for your offer, Cousin Clarissa, but I DON’T want to go.”

For a moment, all Clarissa could do was stare over at her young cousin once removed through eyes round with shocked astonishment, too stunned to even speak.

“I . . . Cousin Clarissa, I . . . think, maybe we ought to be getting back now,” Stacy said, suddenly desirous of being free of the older woman’s company.

“Stacy— ”

“Cousin Clarissa, I don’t want to go to finishing school,” Stacy said in a firm tone that brooked no argument, no further discussion of the matter, sounding very much like her father when HE came to a final decision.

An exasperated sigh exploded from between Clarissa’s rapidly thinning lips, as astonishment and shock began to give way to anger, and a very real, all consuming fear for Stacy’s future. “Stacy Cartwright, do you realize that you literally have the world . . . the WHOLE WORLD . . . lying right here, at your feet?!”

“I-I don’t understand— ”

“Of COURSE you don’t understand! How could you POSSIBLY understand?!” Clarissa exploded, rudely cutting Stacy off, mid-sentence. “Given all the right resources . . . completing your studies at one of the finest, if not THE finest finishing school, making your societal debut, and finally . . . making a good marriage to a man of impeccable breeding with generous financial means . . . do you realize there’s nothing you can’t do?! Nothing you can’t have??”

She opened her mouth fully intending to tell Cousin Clarissa that she already HAD everything she could possibly want . . . right here. Not even the best finishing school, or a grand and glorious societal debut . . . whatever THAT was . . . could ever take the place of the kind and loving family, who had unconditionally accepted her as the beautiful, unique young woman she was, who had always encouraged her to follow her own heart. With Pa, Hoss, Joe, and Hop Sing behind her, she already knew there was nothing she couldn’t do . . . or have. All she had to do was simply make up her own mind to go after it.

As for making a good marriage, she would be hard pressed to find anyone better than Jason O’Brien. He was every bit as loving and kind as her biggest brother, Hoss. She saw that not only in the gentle, respectful way he touched and handled the animals entrusted to his care, but in the kind, gentle, loving, and respectful way in which he treated HER. Jason loved and accepted her as she was, for the person she was, every bit as much as Pa, Hoss, Joe, and Hop Sing did. Would the social climbing, blue blood, Cousin Clarissa had in mind, who in all likelihood looked down his long thin nose with disdain at everything west of the Appalachians . . . . Could such a man truly love and cherish her as Jason did? Stacy doubted very much that would be the case.

“Stacy, you have been blessed with so much,” Clarissa’s voice, made harsh and strident by her increasing anger and fear, dissipated Stacy’s thoughts and words, before she had the chance to give them voice. “So many opportunities, so many advantages . . . . Do you realize how many young ladies would give literally give their eyeteeth for the chance to attend a prestigious finishing school, like the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies . . . to be presented to society at a grand and glorious debutante ball . . . and to make a brilliant marriage to a man of means who could provide for them and their children a life of comfort with a secure future?”

“But, I— ”

“I was all set to go, you know . . . . ”

Clarissa’s anger and fear gave way to the deep, profound sadness and bitter regret that consumed her for so long. “I had been accepted at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies,” she continued, her head tilted downward, her eyes riveted to her gloved hands, now tightly clasped to her chest. “I was packed . . . all ready to go, when . . . a week before I was supposed to leave f-for Boston, Papa h-had an attack of apoplexy that . . . that left him unable t-to . . . to look after himself.”

“Oh, Cousin Clarissa . . . I’m so sorry,” Stacy murmured softly, her heart going out to her companion.

“All the money we had went to pay for doctors, nurses, medicines, and hospital stays,” Clarissa went on, surprised at how powerful those initial feelings of pain, grief, even anger remained, despite the passage of nearly half a century. “There was no money left to pay my tuition at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies, or purchase a stage ticket so I could travel to Boston. My cherished dream of being presented to society was dashed, too, along with any shred of hope for making a good marriage. Stacy . . . . ”

“Yes, Cousin Clarissa?”

“More than anything, I want to drag you down off that horse and shake you, and SHAKE you . . . good and hard . . . until I finally shook some sense into you,” Clarissa furiously rounded on her young cousin once removed. “Here YOU are . . . with the world literally at your feet . . . with all the wonderful advantages I had to give up . . . and you want to throw it all away with both hands! I don’t understand you! I don’t!”

“Cousin Clarissa, I think we’d better go back now,” Stacy said in a hollow monotone, feeling suddenly, overwhelmingly afraid.

“Stacy, you’re being silly, do you know that? Silly, childish, and . . . and very, very SELFISH!”

Stacy paled in the face of Clarissa’s dark angry scowl, her cheeks and forehead beet red, her steadily rising fury, teetering on the edge of hysteria.

“There’s a lot of impoverished young ladies out there who would absolutely JUMP at the chance I’m offering you . . . JUMP! Do you hear me?! . . . and here YOU are . . . ready to cheerfully throw it all away without a single thought. It . . . it makes me SICK.” With that, she abruptly turned her horse and rode off at a fast gallop, leaving Stacy staring after her feeling terribly sick at heart, and utterly dumbfounded.

***

 

Chapter 5

 

“More coffee, Mister Cartwright? Hop Sing make fresh.”

Ben glanced up from the ledger, lying open on the desk before him, and found Hop Sing standing there with a smile on his face and coffee pot in hand.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben said as he grabbed the empty mug sitting at his elbow, to his left. “Say . . . . ” He paused a moment to sniff the air. “ . . . do I smell peanut butter cookies?”

Hop Sing nodded as he filled Ben’s mug. “Fresh, right out of oven. Mister Cartwright want cookie? Hop Sing go get.”

“You needn’t bother, Hop Sing,” Ben said. “I can help myself.”

“Oh NO! By time Mister Cartwright help himself, Little Joe and Miss Stacy help THEM-self, and MISTER HOSS finally help himself . . . no cookie left for supper,” Hop Sing declared with a scowl and an emphatic nod of his head. “No APPETITE left for supper either . . . except Mister Hoss.”

“True,” Ben was forced to admit.

“Mister Cartwright drink coffee. Hop Sing go back in kitchen, get— ”

The sound of horse hooves pounding against the earth rudely cut Hop Sing off mid-sentence. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ben shoot right up out of the chair, with a dark scowl on his face.

“If I’ve told that young man once, I’ve told him a thousand times . . . . ” Ben muttered under his breath as he came out from behind his desk, and beat a straight path toward the front door, moving at a very brisk pace.

“Oohhh . . . that Little Joe, he never learn. Little Joe in big trouble now,” Hop Sing observed with a mournful shake of his head. “Heap deep, very, big, big, BIG trouble.”

“Uh oh. What did I do NOW?” It was Joe, sauntering down the steps, with his green jacket over his arm.

Ben and Hop Sing watched, their faces twin masks of astonishment, as the youngest Cartwright son skipped over the last two steps to the floor. “Hey!” the latter said. “If Little Joe in here . . . who gallop horse in yard?!”

“I intend to find out,” Ben growled under his breath, as he threw open the front door.

Joe and Hop Sing exchanged anxious, puzzled glances, before falling in behind the clan patriarch.

 

Outside, Clarissa, with tears streaming down her face like rivers, pulled hard on the reins, with force sufficient to elicit a grunt of pain and protest from her mount, the patient, elderly Gentleman Jim.

“Hey! Take it easy, Miss Cartwright,” Candy quietly admonished her, as he took hold of Gentleman Jim’s bridle. “You can do some serious injury to his mouth pulling like that.”

“Help me down!” Clarissa snapped, as she angrily wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand.

“Y-Yes, Ma’am,” Candy murmured warily, as he took the horse’s lead and quickly secured it to the corral fence. He, then, moved to help Clarissa down.

Ben, meanwhile, had stepped outside, just in time to see his cousin entering the yard at a full gallop. She had stopped Gentleman Jim abruptly, just short of the horse actually careening into the corral fence.

“Pa?”

He turned and found his youngest son standing beside him, his face, his hazel eyes mirroring the look of surprise he knew had to be on his own face. Hop Sing stood quietly behind them.

“Was that C-Cousin Clarissa galloping into the yard just now?”

“Yes, Joe . . . it was,” Ben said quietly, as he moved to step down off the porch. He grimly noted that Gentleman Jim was lathered and breathing heavily. There was an angry scowl on Clarissa’s face, and, in her exchange with Candy, she seemed upset, agitated.

“Pa?” Joe queried, as he fell in step along side his father. “Didn’t Cousin Clarissa and Stacy go out together?!”

“Yes,” Ben replied, as his initial surprise at Clarissa galloping into the yard at break neck speed began to fade into anxious concern. Where WAS Stacy? Was she lying somewhere hurt? Was that the reason Clarissa was so upset? He saw Clarissa push past Candy, to beat a straight path towards him, her face darker than the worst thunderstorm he had ever experienced.

“I’m gonna saddle Cochise,” Joe said grimly. “Stace was taking Cousin Clarissa out to see Ponderosa Plunge, right?”

“Yes.”

Joe nodded, then turned and made his way toward the barn door, standing open.

Ben, meanwhile, turned his attention to his distraught cousin. “Clarissa?!”

“Benjamin, I don’t want to talk about it!” she declared, resolute and angry, as the tears continued to stream down her face.

“Don’t want to talk about what?!” Ben pressed, as he fell in step beside her.

“Stacy!”

“Clarissa . . . . ” He placed his hand on her shoulder, effectively halting her hasty retreat toward the house.

She turned to his with an exasperated sigh. “What!?”

“Stacy . . . she’s not hurt . . . is she?”

“No,” Clarissa snapped. “She’s not hurt! She’s throwing away a bright, secure future with both hands, but she’s not hurt!”

Had she tried to coerce Stacy into going to Boston to attend that Sarah Leah . . . or whoever Academy for Young Ladies? Ben’s heart sank at the prospect, knowing all too well how forcefully persuasive his cousin could be when she got a notion firmly entrenched in her head. “Clarissa . . . what . . . exactly . . . do you mean Stacy’s throwing away a bright, secure future with both hands?” he queried anxiously.

“I DON’T want to talk about it.”

“Clarissa, please— ”

“I could do so MUCH for that child, Benjamin! So . . . very . . . MUCH! You’ve GOT to talk to her!”

“About WHAT?”

“Her FUTURE! Benjamin, you know as well as I do that THIS . . . ” Clarissa took in the yard, the house, and barn with the dramatic, sweeping gestures of both hands, “ . . . THIS . . . is no proper life for a young lady.”

“WHAT is no proper life for a young lady?!” Ben demanded.

“Life HERE on this ranch . . . on ANY ranch,” Clarissa pressed. “Oh, Benjamin, please! Listen to me! You know as well as I do that there’s nothing that Stacy can do here . . . not really! You have HOP SING to do the cooking, the laundry, and the house cleaning. As for the rest of the chores around here . . . they’re jobs for MEN, not for a young lady. Stacy just plain and simply doesn’t have the strength and stamina to do what needs to be done, no matter how much YOU want to pretend otherwise. She’s going to end up being as useful around here as . . . as . . . as a fifth wheel on a wagon! That’s the way it IS! Benjamin, please! If you honestly and truly love her . . . . ”

Clarissa and Ben entered the house, taking the former’s tirade right along with them. Neither one of them saw or heard the hooves of another horse ride into the yard, a big bay gelding, with a rich reddish brown coat, black mane and tail, with a wide, white stripe stretching down the length of his face. Nor did they see the pale face of his rider, her bright blue eyes riveted to their backs as they entered the house, too stunned to speak or even move.

“Is THAT the real reason why Pa hasn’t been able to decide what he wants me to do?” Stacy wondered silently, as Cousin Clarissa’s words churned within her troubled thoughts as the sea churns with the approach of a storm. The thought of being as ‘useless as a fifth wheel on a wagon,’ to use Cousin Clarissa’s blunt assessment of things, troubled her deeply. But, the alternative . . . the future her father’s cousin envisioned for her . . . seemed a fate worse than death.

 

“Come on, Boy,” Joe said softly, as he led Cochise, saddled and ready to ride, out of his stall. “Let’s you and me head out for Ponderosa plunge and see of we can find Stacy and— ”

The soft snort of another horse entering the barn immediately drew Joe’s attention. He glanced up sharply, just as Stacy entered the barn, leading Blaze Face. A wave of relief washed over him, upon noting that neither his young sister nor her horse seemed in any way hurt or injured. A second glance, that took in the bowed head, the tell tale slump of her shoulders, brought an anxious frown to his face.

“Hey, Kid . . . glad you’re back,” Joe said by way of greeting, as he tethered Cochise to one of the beams that helped support the barn roof.

Stacy paused, and glanced up sharply upon hearing her brother’s voice, but said nothing.

“Everything . . . ok?” Joe probed cautiously, as he set himself to the task of unbuckling the cinch.

“Grandpa, can I ask you something? Theoretically?” Stacy asked, as she tethered Blaze Face’s lead to another support pole, several yards from the one to which her brother had tied Cochise.

“Sure,” Joe replied.

“Am I as . . . as useless around here as a . . . as a fifth wheel on a wagon?!” It took every ounce of will she possessed to utter the words forming that question. Stacy immediately braced herself, fully expecting to hear the worst.

“No,” Joe immediately blurted out his answer. “Where in the world did you get THAT idea?!”

“Outside just now,” Stacy said in a very small, very sad voice.

Joe frowned. “Surely PA didn’t— ”

Stacy immediately shook her head. “Not Pa,” she said and she bent down to undo the cinch of her own saddle. “Cousin Clarissa.”

“What did PA say?” Joe asked, laboring mightily to keep his own voice calm and even.

“I don’t know,” Stacy said, her voice catching on the last word, as she removed her saddle. “He and Cousin Clarissa went into the house at that point.”

“Stacy, it’s NOT true what Cousin Clarissa said,” Joe told his sister in a firm, no nonsense tone of voice. “There’s a lot that you can and have done around here . . . and a lot you’re going to be learning how to do.”

“Then why is Pa having such a hard time deciding what he wants ME to do?” Stacy asked, her voice catching, as the two of them started toward the tack room, carrying their saddles and blankets, “and . . . why won’t he let me help you with the saddle breaking? I can do it . . . I KNOW I can.”

“To be perfectly honest with ya, Kid, I haven’t the faintest idea why he won’t let you help me bust the broncs,” Joe said with a bewildered frown. “But, if you want MY two cents on your first question, I think he’s having a hard time trying to decide where you should start is because you’re able to do so much. On the one hand, Pa and I both know that I could use your help in TRAINING that string of horses we just brought in off the range, after they’ve been saddle broke. On the other hand, it’s time for us to be moving out cattle out to the summer pastures, now that the branding’s done . . . and Pa’s also thinking he’d like you to start learning how to do THAT.

“But, the bottom line here is . . . we NEED you, Stace, and . . . we WANT you. Pa, Hoss, and I’ve been looking forward to you starting to work with us full time every bit as much as YOU have.”

“Y-You have?! Really?”

“Yes, we have . . . really.”

Stacy carefully placed her saddle on its rack, all the while carefully searching Joe’s face. She knew immediately by the open and earnest look on his face, that he had told her the truth. “Thanks, Joe,” she said very softly.

“Anytime,” Joe replied. “Stacy?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask a real big favor of you?”

“Sure.”

“Would you finish stabling Cochise for me?” Joe asked. “I just remembered something urgent that needs doing.”

“Ok,” Stacy agreed.

“I owe you one, Kid.”

Stacy immediately shook her head. “Not THIS time, Grandpa. I owe YOU one, and you can consider stabling Cochise as payback.”

 

“Pa?!” Joe burst into the house like a juggernaut. “Pa, I need to talk to you about— ” He was surprised to find that his father was no where in sight. “PA?” Joe called out again raising his voice slightly.

“Joe?” Ben appeared at the top of the stairs, his face pale, his dark, chocolate brown eyes round with apprehension. “Did you find Stacy?”

“Yeah. She’s out in the barn.”

Ben quietly descended the stairs. “Is she all right?”

“PHYSICALLY, she’s fine and dandy,” Joe said curtly. “Emotionally . . . Pa, I think you need to sit down and have a heart to heart talk with her . . . pronto!”

“What’s the matter?”

“For openers, Stacy overheard everything Cousin Clarissa said to you in out in the yard,” Joe said, taking no pains to conceal his rising anger.

“About?!”

“About her being as useful around here as a fifth wheel on a wagon . . . among other things.”

“Oh no,” Ben groaned softly.

“Oh yes. Pa, right now . . . if I could have but one wish . . . it would be that Cousin Clarissa could turn into a great big, strapping Cousin CLARK . . . so I could pound him.”

Ben sighed and rolled his eyes. “Joseph, I’m going out to the barn to have that heart to heart talk with Stacy. In the meantime, I want YOU to get hold of yourself.”

“Pa— ”

“Take a deep breath.” Ben quickly and succinctly nipped his youngest son’s tirade in the bud. “Count to ten . . . twenty . . . or a hundred if you have to . . . whatever it takes, but put a rein on that temper of yours.”

“Alright.”

“ . . . and after you get a good hold on your anger, if you can’t say anything nice to Cousin Clarissa, I don’t want you to say anything at all. Is that clear?”

“Clear, Pa, but— ”

“No buts, Joseph.”

“Come ON, Pa . . . you’re not going to let Cousin Clarissa get away with— ”

“I will take care of Cousin Clarissa,” Ben said very firmly, “AFTER I see to your sister.”

Joe was about to remind his father how every single time he had tried to talk with Cousin Clarissa on the occasion of her LAST visit, she would burst into tears and prattle on about how she needed to be useful. The end result was that she cheerfully kept right on driving the family crazy, and alienating their friends. The dark, angry glare he saw on his father’s face, however, made the words die a sudden, quick death before giving them utterance.

“Joseph?” Ben prompted.

“Yes, Sir.”

Satisfied that his mercurial youngest son would refrain from having it out with Cousin Clarissa, at least for the time being, Ben hurried outside to the barn.

 

“Need a hand?”

Stacy turned from the task of brushing her horse, and found Ben standing at her elbow. Though her eyes blinked excessively, there was a glint of steel there, as well. “Thanks, Pa . . . but, I can manage,” she replied. “Honest . . . I can.”

“I KNOW you can, Stacy,” Ben said quietly, as he picked up the extra brush on the small table Hoss kept next to Chubb’s stall.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?” he replied, as he moved in alongside her and began to brush Blaze Face’s rear flank.

“If I ask you a question . . . will you give me an honest answer?”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Do you . . . oh, Pa . . . do . . . YOU . . . want me to finishing school?” she asked. Though her voice caught, her gaze never wavered.

Ben put the brush aside. “Stacy, it’s what YOU want that matters,” he said earnestly, taking both of her hands in his own. “If YOU want to go to Boston, to finishing school— ”

“I don’t,” Stacy said with that firm, resolute set of mouth and chin that signaled a decision was made, end of conversation. “To be completely honest? I think it’s a waste of time, even if Cousin Clarissa DOES think it’s the best thing in the world that could ever happen to me.”

“Oh?”

“Of course,” Stacy said firmly. “I KNOW how to use a knife, fork, and spoon . . . and if it’s ever a case of WHICH knife, fork, or spoon . . . all I have to do is watch YOU guys. I also know how to conduct myself in public like a half way civilized human being, despite what Grandpa says sometimes . . . AND I know how to waltz.”

“Yes, that’s all very true,” Ben agreed.

“ . . . and not even the best teacher and the very best of finishing schools could teach me any of that stuff half so well as YOU have,” Stacy declared, as she slipped her arms around Ben’s waist and gave him a gentle, affectionate squeeze, “and besides . . . I’d miss you, Hoss, Grandpa, Hop Sing, Jason and Blaze Face terribly.”

“ . . . and we’d miss YOU terribly, Young Woman,” Ben said, as he placed his arms around her shoulders, and hugged her close. “However . . . . ”

“However . . . what?”

Ben set her apart, just enough that he might look her straight in the eye. “While it’s true that finishing school IS learning about proper etiquette, how to dance, run a household, and how to conduct yourself properly in different social situations, it’s also an opportunity to further your education, especially in the arts, to learn another language— ”

“I’m already pretty fluent in Paiute.”

“Yes, you are,” Ben agreed with a chuckle, “and if you someday find you have burning questions about art or music, I suppose you COULD always write and ask your brother, Adam. But, Stacy . . . . ”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“I think the most important aspect of attending a finishing school is the opportunity it presents to meet and interact with other young women in and around your age from all over the country. Are you sure you want to pass that up?”

“Pass up the opportunity to interact with mean, spiteful, social climbing young women, like Pruella Danvers, Millicent Adams, or that dreadful little snot, Jenny Lind!?” Stacy said with a comically grotesque shudder that brought an amused smile to her father’s face. “Heck . . . YES! They can be so sugary sweet to your face, but the minute you turn your back, they’re sticking a KNIFE in it. If THAT’S the way the crème-de-la-crème of high society acts . . . well, I want no part of it.”

“It’s . . . unfortunate . . . that the likes of Miss Danvers, Miss Adams, Miss Lind . . . and Cousin Clarissa, too, for that matter . . . have come to define what high society is,” Ben said quietly, as they set to finishing the task of brushing down Blaze Face.

“What do you mean, Pa?”

“Most of the people I was privileged to know when I lived in Boston, who could be considered the cream of its high society, were and are wonderful people, kind, generous, and very down-to-earth,” Ben replied, as he turned his attention to Cochise

“Really?”

Ben nodded. “Between you and me, Young Woman, I think snobbish people, like Pruella Danvers, Millicent Adams, Jenny Lind . . . AND Cousin Clarissa . . . are terribly insecure people trying very hard to convince themselves that they’re something . . . they’re . . . not.

“Take Mrs. Wilkens, f’r instance,” Ben continued, as he removed Cochise’s bridle and blanket. “SHE came from a wealthy southern family, who can trace its roots back to the founding of Jamestown. She went to a finishing school in Charleston, then spent the following year touring Europe to round out her education. When she returned home, she was presented to society at a great big, grand and glorious debutante ball . . . and it was there she met and fell in love with MISTER Wilkens, a kind, decent man, who was every bit as down to earth she is.

“Now I ask you . . . have YOU ever once known Mrs. Wilkens to ever go about with her nose in the air, putting on a lot of fancy airs?”

“No,” Stacy replied, as she changed Blaze Face’s water, and gave him fresh hay.

“Neither have I . . . and I’ve known her almost from the time Hoss, Adam, and I first came here,” Ben said. “Of course you won’t see someone like Mrs. Wilkens putting on airs . . . because SHE doesn’t have to.”

Stacy silently set to work helping her father brush Cochise, all the while digesting the import of his words. “I . . . think I understand what you’re saying, Pa,” she said slowly. “Pruella Danvers, Millicent Adams, and Jenny Lind are all sow’s ears trying hard to be silk purses . . . while Mrs. Wilkens doesn’t try to be a silk purse at all . . . because she really IS one.”

“I’ll bet MOST of the young women who go to finishing school are very much like Mrs. Wilkens.”

“Point taken, Pa . . . but, I still DON’T want to go,” Stacy said very firmly, “because everything I want and . . . and everyone who really matters to me . . . are all right here.”

On impulse, Ben slipped his arms around her and hugged her tight for a moment. “Cousin Clarissa’s going to be terribly disappointed.”

“I know, Pa,” Stacy said sadly, as she slipped her arms around his waist and rested her head against his chest. “I wish I could do something about that, but I can’t . . . because the only thing that’s going to make her happy is for me to go with her to Boston. I’m sorry if I’m being selfish— ”

“No, you’re NOT being selfish, Young Woman.” Ben’s tone of voice was gentle, yet firm. “You’re entitled to live your life as YOU see fit . . . whether you decide to stay here with Hoss, Joe, and me . . . go to Boston with Cousin Clarissa . . . or travel and see the world like Adam did. The decision has to be what you want . . . not what Cousin Clarissa wants . . . not even what I want, because we’re not the ones who are ultimately going to have to live with what comes of that decision.”

“Thanks, Pa . . . for letting ME decide.” Stacy hugged him again, then reached up to kiss his cheek.

“Do you want me to tell Cousin Clarissa?” Ben offered, knowing only too well how daunting such a prospect could be.

“Thank you for offering, but I think I need to be the one to tell her,” Stacy said. “If I’m old enough to MAKE my decisions, I’m old enough to stand by them. But, there is one thing I’d like you to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I’d like you to be with me when I DO tell Cousin Clarissa what I’ve decided . . . to help me pick up the pieces.”

“Surely not YOURS?!”

Stacy shook her head. “Mostly Cousin Clarissa’s,” she said, “and . . . well, maybe mine, too . . . a little . . . but, only because I feel so sorry for her. Pa, between you and me? I think COUSIN CLARISSA’S the one who wants to go to finishing school.”

“What?!”

“I’m serious.”

“She’s a little old for that, don’t you think?”

“I know that, Pa . . . and YOU know that . . . and most of all Cousin Clarissa knows that,” Stacy explained. “While we were out at Ponderosa Plunge, she told me about how much she looked forward to going to some finishing school in Boston. . . then her pa suddenly took sick. The cost of doctors, medicines, and hospital stays took nearly every cent they had. Between that, and having to look after her pa all the time, Cousin Clarissa told me she had to give up everything she had ever wanted . . . going to Boston, having her society debut, her opportunities to meet decent young men of good background . . . HER words, Pa, not mine.

“When I told her that I didn’t want all those things . . . that I wanted to stay HERE, Cousin Clarissa got very upset with me. She went on and on and on about how lucky I am, about all the advantages and opportunities I have, and . . . how stupid, selfish, immature, and silly I am in wanting to pass all that up. By the time she got through, I felt really guilty because I honestly DON’T want all the things she had to give up.”

“It’s all right to feel sorry for Cousin Clarissa,” Ben said. “I can’t help feeling sorry for her myself. But, that doesn’t obligate YOU to live the life she couldn’t have.”

“Thanks, Pa. It’s still not going to be easy to tell her, but at least, now, I don’t feel so guilty because I don’t want all the things SHE wanted,” Stacy said, then frowned. “Does that make any sense?”

“That makes PERFECT sense,” Ben said, with a smile.

“Pa . . . . ”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“I have that final fitting with Madame Darnier Monday afternoon . . . you know, for the dress I’m wearing for graduation,” Stacy said. “Think maybe YOU could come along, too? That way, I could tell Cousin Clarissa about not going to finishing school with just the three of US.”

“What time is that fitting?”

“Four-thirty,” Stacy replied. “That’s to give me enough time to get there after school lets out . . . and we do the final rehearsal for the graduation ceremony.”

“Cousin Clarissa and I will meet you there,” Ben said. “We’ll come in the buggy. When we leave Madame Darnier’s, you can hitch Blaze Face to the back, and ride home with us. You can tell Cousin Clarissa your decision on our way home.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

 

Clarissa grimaced with distaste as she and Ben stepped into the dress shop of Madame Camille Darnier, the following Monday afternoon. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all of rough hewn lumber. In the middle of the sales room lay a large, round rug, made from pieces of fabric interwoven, its bright colors bleached to their pastel variants from long years exposure to sunlight. The only adornment on the walls were a half dozen small etchings, depicting the French country side, that hung behind the counter, and a full length mirror hanging beside the door, leading back to the large room that served as fitting and sewing room. Six straight backed chairs, with no cushions, four matching, the other two odd pieces, completed the furnishings in the sales room.

“Oh, Benjamin . . . this is AWFUL!” Clarissa declared, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “Simply AWFUL!” She shuddered delicately.

Ben looked over at his cousin surprised, and not without trepidation. He silently, fervently hoped and prayed that the proprietress of the establishment hadn’t overhead Clarissa’s remark. “What’s so awful?” he asked, taking care to keep his voice low.

“Benjamin, this is supposed to be a fine ladies’ dress shop, not a . . . a hardware or feed supply store,” Clarissa said, unconsciously lowering her voice to the came decibel level as Ben’s.

Ben stared over at her with a bewildered frown.

Clarissa sighed disparagingly, and shook her head. “I can’t expect YOU to know any better, being a man, but when I go into a fine dress shop, I expect certain amenities.”

“Like what?”

“Like wallpaper to start with . . . white with tiny pink rose buds or blue forget-me-nots . . . curtains in the windows . . . a ladies’ maid to offer me tea and refreshments . . . a COMFORTABLE chair . . . matching furniture . . . and with a name like Madame Darnier, I expect the furniture to be French provincial, white with gold trim.”

“So Madame Darnier doesn’t offer all those amenities you’re used to,” Ben said in a dismissive tone. “The thing that’s most important to me is she’s got to be the best dressmaker in Virginia City.”

The pale face, eyes round with horror, her gloved hands clasped tight over her open mouth all seriously questioned Ben’s sanity.

“We first came to her a couple of years ago to have a dress made up for Stacy that was suitable to wear to a wedding,” Ben continued. “Madame Darnier came up with something that was lovely, that looked very well on Stacy, AND was to Stacy’s taste. That last was no picnic I’m sure, because my daughter has very definite ideas as to what she will and won’t wear.”

Stacy’s taste?! Clarissa groaned inwardly. Incredible as it seemed, Stacy was even more ignorant of what constituted appropriate women’s attire than her father. No dressmaker in her right mind would or should pander to the dictates of a backward, unaware young girl, like Stacy.

“Ahh, Monsieur Cartwright . . . bonjour.” A portly woman, tall, with silver gray hair, and bright emerald green eyes greeted Ben with a warm smile of genuine delight, as she flounced in from the room beyond. She wore a green dress that enhanced the color of her eyes, with a cameo broach pinned just below her throat. “Mademoiselle Stacy said you would be coming by this afternoon,” she continued, extending a hand, well manicured, with a simple pearl ring on her third finger. “It is always a delight. I wish more men would take an interest in the clothing their wives and daughters wear.”

Ben took her hand and kissed it. “Half the delight is seeing my beautiful daughter in a new dress. The other half is seeing YOU.”

Camille Darnier laughed, low and throaty. “You have the honeyed tongue of a rogue, Monsieur.”

“From YOU, I’ll accept that as a compliment,” Ben declared with a bold grin. “Madame Darnier, I’d like to present my cousin, Clarissa Cartwright. She’s here for Stacy’s graduation.”

“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Madame Cartwright,” Camille acknowledged the introduction with a smile, and an offer of her hand.

“That’s MISS Cartwright,” Clarissa said stiffly, with a pained smile. She declined to shake Madame Darnier’s hand.

“MISS Cartwright,” Camille said, nodding. “If you will excuse me, I will see how Mademoiselle Stacy is coming along. Please, have a seat.”

“Thank you,” Ben said. He took Clarissa by the arm and steered her over to the line of chairs, sitting against the wall perpendicular to the same facing the street.

***

 

Chapter 6

 

“Benjamin, she is cheap, vulgar, and that phony French accent is absolutely DREADFUL!” Clarissa declared, as she removed a clean handkerchief from her purse.

“Hardly cheap, though I feel it IS money well spent,” Ben said, as he took a seat on one of the end chairs, “and personally, since I’ve gotten to know her a little, what with having a daughter, who on occasion needs to have a dress made . . . I find Madame Darnier to be a very charming, gracious woman, with a wonderful sense of humor.”

Clarissa sighed and sarcastically rolled her eyes heavenward, as she made a point of thoroughly dusting the chair beside Ben with her handkerchief. “She’s also after YOU.”

Ben laughed out loud.

“She IS, Benjamin, you mark my words,” Clarissa admonished him primly, as she seated herself stiffly at the very edge of the chair. “A woman KNOWS when another woman is after a man.”

“Clarissa, you couldn’t be more wrong,” Ben said, as his laughter subsided. “Though Madame Darnier is flirtatious by nature— ”

“I can certainly see THAT.”

“ . . . and while occasionally she occasionally enjoys the company and companionship of a man— ”

“Just one?” Clarissa queried in a tone dripping with acid sarcasm.

“THAT was beneath you and completely uncalled for,” Ben admonished her, taking great care to lower his voice. “If I had been allowed to finish, I was also going to say that Madame Darnier has made it perfectly clear that she has no desire to marry again.”

“She actually SAID that?!”

“Not in words— ”

“Benjamin, honestly! How in the world can you be so DENSE?!” Clarissa admonished him severely, her voice rising slightly as each word tumbled from her mouth. “No woman throws herself at a man . . . the way that . . . that WOMAN did at you just now— ”

“Clarissa, please! Keep your voice DOWN.”

“Frankly, Benjamin, I don’t care if she— ”

“Well, I DO. Please, Clarissa . . . for ME?”

“Alright,” Clarissa agreed stiffly, with much reluctance. “Though how you can actually sit there and tell me that woman has no interest in marrying again— ”

“Simple,” Ben said, taking care to lower his voice to the decibel of a stage whisper. “Madame Darnier is a warm, gracious woman, with a keen interest in music, art, and literature as well as being a very shrewd business woman. A woman with all THAT going for her can have just about any man she wants . . . IF she’s of a mind. The fact that she’s not taken a husband in all the years she’s lived and done business here in Virginia City . . . well, that tells ME she’s not looking.”

Clarissa sighed mournfully, then lapsed into sullen silence.

“Pa? Cousin Clarissa? What do you think?” Stacy asked, as she entered the room. The dress was white, made from fine linen, light and cool for the hot summer days soon to come. It had a full skirt, and long sleeves, slightly puffed at the ends. The tailored bodice, with its clean, simple lines displayed her burgeoning womanly figure to full, yet very tasteful advantage.

Ben rose to his feet, smiling. “Beautiful,” he said immediately, “and very grown-up.”

“On the occasion of her graduation from school, I thought a more mature, adult style appropriate,” Camille Darnier said.

“I agree completely,” Ben said, his eyes suddenly misting.

“Pa? Are you all right?” Stacy asked anxiously.

“I’m all right . . . just . . . realizing my little slip of a gal is fast becoming a beautiful young woman.”

Stacy slipped her arms around Ben’s waist and gently squeezed. “You keep that up, Pa, and you’re going to have ME blubbering right along with you,” she said, her voice catching on the last word.

Ben slipped his arms around her shoulders and hugged her close for a moment. “We, ummm . . . can’t have you getting tear stains on that beautiful dress before Madame Darnier has a chance to finish it,” he said, as he gave her an affectionate squeeze, before letting her go. “You’d best get changed.”

Stacy nodded, then turned and headed back toward the sewing room in the back.

“I will be right with you, Mademoiselle Stacy,” Camille called after her. She, then, returned her attention to Ben. “All I need do is put in the hem, and the dress will be complete.”

“How long will that be?” Ben asked.

“I have no more fittings today,” Camille said with a smile. “I can have it ready within the hour, Monsieur Cartwright. Do you wish to wait, or shall I send it out to the Ponderosa this evening?”

“I think you’d better have the dress sent to the Ponderosa,” Ben decided. “If I tried to squeeze it into the buggy between Stacy, Miss Cartwright, and myself . . . it’s going to end up a hopeless mess of wrinkles.”

Camille smiled. “Mademoiselle Stacy shall have her new dress before you and your lovely family sits down to supper,” she promised.

“Thank you, Madame Darnier.”

This prompted a sarcastic roll of the eyes from Clarissa.

“Ah, non, non, non, Monsieur Cartwright. I am the one who should be thanking YOU,” Camille insisted graciously. “Now if you will excuse me?”

“I’m glad SOMEBODY around here knows which side her bread is buttered on,” Clarissa growled, as Camille made her way to the back room, to help Stacy take off the dress. It rankled her no end the way Cousin Benjamin insisted on treating service people, shop keepers, and even the people who worked for him as equals.

Ben sat back down, and looked over at Clarissa as she made it a point to wipe off the chair she had just occupied, yet again. “Didn’t you just do that?” he queried with a puzzled frown.

“One can’t be too careful,” Clarissa said stiffly. “So much for this supposed Frenchwoman’s reputation as the best dressmaker in Virginia City!”

“Why do you say that?”

“Oh come now, Benjamin,” Clarissa responded with a stiff, pained smile that came no where close to reaching her eyes. “That dress!”

“I thought it was lovely.”

“Lovely?!” Clarissa echoed, staring at him as if he had taken complete leave of his senses. “Lovely? It’s so PLAIN. No ruffled hem . . . no lace on the neckline or sleeves . . . no ruff at the waist— ”

“That’s what Stacy prefers,” Ben explained. “Simple, straight lines. She doesn’t like ruffles.” He refrained from adding that Hop Sing had a very strong aversion to ruffles, too, especially if they happened to turn up in the laundry.

“Benjamin, has it never occurred to you . . . . ?! Has it never occurred to you AT ALL that maybe, just maybe . . . growing up in a household with a father, two older brothers, and a male servant . . . that Stacy has no idea in the world WHAT she likes or even wants??!”

“Never,” Ben said immediately. “Even from the time she was just a little slip of a gal, Stacy has ALWAYS had a very clear idea as to what she likes and doesn’t like, what she wants and doesn’t want . . . AND how SHE wants to spend the rest of her life.” This last Ben added as a preamble for the talk Stacy would be having with Cousin Clarissa on the ride home.

“That poor, poor child!” Clarissa moaned, shaking her head. “YOU have done your daughter a terrible disservice, Benjamin.” She sighed, and shook her head again. It was becoming very clear that she and Cousin Mirabelle would have their work cut out for them when she arrived in Boston with Stacy.

Ben scowled, bristling against Clarissa’s allegation. “HOW have I done Stacy a terrible disservice?” he asked in a tone cold enough to generate an early frost.

“Benjamin, when a lady makes an entrance, especially on an occasion as important as her graduation, the first thing people notice is what she’s wearing,” Clarissa said in a tone, faintly condescending. “Is it stylish? Is it something appropriate for the occasion? Is it something suitable given the lady’s age? All these things are going to reflect back on Stacy, whether of good or for ill.”

Ben closed his eyes for a moment, and slowly counted to ten. “Clarissa,” he began upon opening them, and looking her square in the face, “when you look at a very fine painting, do you ever see its frame?”

“No . . . not if the painting has the right frame.”

“Why not?”

Clarissa favored him with a quizzical smile. “Because a frame is supposed to compliment and enhance the picture,” she replied.

“Madame Darnier once told me that a woman’s dress, especially when it’s for a special occasion . . . like her school graduation . . . is like a picture frame,” Ben said. “It should enhance and compliment the women, so that you see HER first when she makes her entrance, the same way you always see a picture first, when its set in the right frame.”

“Benjamin, that’s ludicrous!” Clarissa declared with a derisive snort. “To call attention to herself . . . especially in the manner YOU suggest, well . . . it’s not done! It’s simply NOT done! THAT kind of thinking breeds arrogance and conceit.”

“Clarissa, I assure you, Stacy is a very far cry from arrogance and conceit,” Ben said, his ire rising all over again.

“Not so far as you’d like to think,” Clarissa argued. “When I look at Stacy . . . the way she walks and carries herself . . . the way she looks you straight in the eye when she’s speaking to you . . . even in the way she speaks, I see a confident, independent young lady who thinks extremely well of herself.”

“ . . . all qualities I’ve tried not only to instill in Stacy, but in Hoss, Joe, and Adam, as well,” Ben returned, without missing a beat. “I learned a long time ago that earning the lasting respect of others begins with a healthy respect for yourself.”

“Which is FINE for your sons, Benjamin. A man NEEDS to cultivate the respect of his fellow man in order to make his way in the world,” Clarissa ardently pressed. “But, a LADY . . . especially a YOUNG lady . . . is supposed to be modest, retiring, demure, and humble.”

“I happen to love my daughter very much the way she IS,” Ben said stiffly.

An exasperated sigh blasted out from between Clarissa’s lips. “Benjamin, I warn you . . . that kind of independent spirit will NOT be tolerated in Boston high society. She should have been broken of THAT a long time ago.”

Ben looked over at his cousin, appalled. “You don’t know anything about breaking and training horses, do you?”

“Of course not,” she snapped.

“When I speak of breaking a horse, I’m taking about bringing him to the place of accepting bridle, saddle, and harness . . . of bringing him to a place where he will work with a man, or woman for that matter,” Ben patiently explained. “On the Ponderosa, at any rate, we NEVER break a horse’s spirit. In the long run, it produces a cowed, frightened animal, I don’t feel is of much use to anybody.

“I’ve also found that the same holds true for people. I’d no more break the spirit of my own daughter or my own sons, than I would one of my horses . . . and besides, Stacy’s bold, independent spirit is one of the things about her that I admire and cherish the most. Do you remember what you said when you first saw her the day you arrived?”

“Yes. I said that she’s beautiful.”

“One of the things that makes her beautiful is her bold, independent spirit.”

Stacy emerged from the back room a few moments later, attired in the long split riding skirt and plain cotton shirt she normally wore to school. “Pa . . . Cousin Clarissa . . . I’m ready to head for home,” she said, casting a nervous glance in Clarissa’s direction.

“I am, too,” Ben agreed, noting the nervous glance. He placed a paternal hand on her shoulder and gave her a gentle squeeze to reassure, and as a reminder that he was with her.

“Benjamin . . . I just remembered . . . I need to purchase a few personal items,” Clarissa said, as an afterthought. “Would you mind? I shouldn’t be any more than an hour . . . if that.”

“I don’t mind at all, Clarissa,” Ben said. “Why don’t you meet Stacy and me here in an hour?”

“Alright,” Clarissa said with a smile. “See you in an hour.” With that, she quickly scurried off.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“Why do I all of a sudden feel like a lamb being led to the slaughter?” Stacy asked, as she and her father set themselves to the task of watering Blaze Face and the horse hitched to the buggy.

“You’re probably feeling a little apprehensive because of having to put off telling Cousin Clarissa about not wanting to go to Boston,” Ben said sympathetically. “Tell you what. After we get the horses watered, why don’t the two of us g’won over to the Silver Dollar, and get something to wet our whistles while we wait for Cousin Clarissa?”

“Sounds good to ME, Pa,” Stacy readily agreed. “I, ummm . . . don’t suppose you’d let me have a mug of beer . . . would you?”

“Anytime AFTER your next birthday, Young Woman,” Ben said, then smiled. “That’s not so far off, you know.”

“I guess not,” Stacy replied, “and I guess I don’t really need a good mug of beer or something stronger to help bolster my nerve to tell Cousin Clarissa about my decision to stay right here.”

“Well, I’m certainly glad to hear THAT.”

“Actually, I have something better,” Stacy said as they secured their horses to the nearest hitching post.

“You do, ‘ey. And just what might that be?”

“You,” Stacy declared, as she took his arm.

“Stacy Rose Cartwright, I love you,” Ben said as he gave her hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

“I love you, too, Pa.”

“You ready for that drink, Young Woman?”

“Yeah.”

 

Clarissa, meanwhile, had fled around the corner and down the street to the Western Union telegraph office, where she desperately hoped against hope that word from Cousin Mirabelle in Boston would be waiting. As she peered in through the window, she was heartily dismayed to find the George Ellis, the telegraph operator, seated at a small table within, with his back to the window, scribbling fast and furious, almost keeping time with a series of odd clicking noises she heard inside.

“Young Man . . . . ”

There was no response.

“YOUNG MAN.” Clarissa raised her voice slightly, so to be heard above those loud, annoying click-clacking sounds.

Again, no response. George continued to scribble almost like a man possessed, trying desperately to keep pace with the clicking of the telegraph machine. He remained as he was at the table, making no effort whatsoever to even acknowledge her presence.

Clarissa discreetly cleared her throat a few times, then impatiently drummed her fingers on the window counter as she stood there fuming. She cleared her throat again, then coughed loudly.

Still no response.

A sigh borne of pure and utter frustration exploded from between her thinned lips and clenched teeth. “YOUNG MAN !” she yelled.

George yelped, then whirled in his seat with momentum sufficient to send his chair, and himself toppling to the floor. He lifted his head slowly and gazed up at her with a dazed, almost stupid look on his face, before turning to stare helplessly over at the telegraph still clicking.

“Young man, I am not accustomed to being so rudely ignored !” Clarissa rebuked him severely.

“MA’AM, THE MACHINE!” George wailed, his eyes round with apprehension.

Suddenly, the clicking stopped leaving behind a near deafening silence in its wake.

“Uhh! Finally!” Clarissa sighed disparagingly. “Another minute of that inane clicking and I would have almost certainly gone right out of my mind.”

“B-But, Ma’am . . . that was the telegraph machine,” George stammered as he slowly rose to his feet.

“I don’t care WHAT that was,” Clarissa said imperiously. “The least you could have done was turn that noisy thing OFF.”

“I was trying to get down an important message for Sheriff Coffee,” George tried to defend himself. “He sent a wire to the sheriff over in Carson, and he’s been waiting for this reply all day.”

“Well, I happen to be conducting some urgent business for my first cousin who just so happens to be a very important man here in Virginia City,” Clarissa argued. “I have been standing here for the better part of the last fifteen minutes now, trying desperately to get your attention in such a way so as not to make a complete public spectacle of myself and you just SAT there, ignoring me completely . . . writing.”

“Sorry, Ma’am, but . . . I HAD to get that message for Sheriff Coffee. As it was, I missed getting— ”

“The constable is the LEAST of your worries, Young Man . . . because I fully intend to let my cousin, Mister Benjamin Cartwright, know about your rudeness and the inexcusably shabby way you treated me,” Clarissa declared, highly indignant.

“Yes, Ma’am,” the boy murmured softly, not quite knowing what else to say.

“Now . . . do you have any messages here addressed to Miss Clarissa Cartwright?”

“I’ll check, Ma’am.” The boy walked back over to the table and began to leaf through the stack of envelopes piled in the center. “Yes,” he said, finally. “I DO have a message here that’s addressed to you, Miss Cartwright.”

Clarissa snatched the envelope out of the boy’s hand and ripped it open. “Please, please, please, please, oh, please!” she murmured softly, just under her breath, as she drew out the folded slip of paper. Clarissa closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Then, upon opening her eyes a moment later, and exhaling, she quickly slipped the message out of the envelope, and unfolded it.

The message read:

 

“Cousin Clarissa [stop]

Made inquiries [stop] Portnoy Academy will accept Stacy [stop] Willing to board Stacy and sponsor debut upon graduation [stop] Please wire regarding ETA [stop] Look forward to visit and meeting Stacy [stop]

Regards [stop]
Cousin Mirabelle [stop; end of message]”

 

“Oh, this is wonderful, just WONDERFUL!” Clarissa exclaimed with delight. She smiled and clasped her hands. “I can’t wait to tell Stacy the news!” Clarissa returned the message back into the envelope, folded it, then stuffed it into her purse.

“ . . . uuhh, Ma’am?”

“What?” Clarissa sighed, taking no pains to conceal her annoyance.

“ . . . will there be a return message?”

“Yes,” Clarissa immediately replied. “Yes, there will. Do you have paper and pencil?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” George procured both and slid them across the counter toward Clarissa.

“ ‘Cousin Mirabelle,’ ” she wrote, “ ‘Thank you for your kindness and generosity. Leaving Virginia City Thursday morning. Will wire one week before arrival. Regards, Cousin Clarissa.’ ” She tore the sheet with her message off the pad and thrust it into George’s face. “Please send that to Mrs. Mirabelle Standish . . . Boston, Massachusetts.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” George said, taking the sheet of paper. “Do you expect a return reply?”

Clarissa quickly drew herself up to full height, with posture ruler straight. “I’m not expecting one, but if one should come, please deliver it to me at the Ponderosa,” she said in a tone, faintly condescending, accompanied by a smile.

“Yes, Ma’am.” George took a moment to count the words. “That will be two dollars and forty cents.”

“You can put that on Benjamin Cartwright’s tab.”

George looked over at her askance.

Clarissa’s smile faded. “I AM his first cousin, Clarissa Cartwright,” she stated imperiously.

“But, Mister Cartwright don’t keep no tab here.”

“Doesn’t!” Clarissa snapped. “Mister Cartwright DOESN’T keep no . . . I mean doesn’t keep a tab here.”

“I just said that.”

Clarissa sighed and rolled her eyes, as she yanked on the cord, opening her small reticule. “Here. Two dollars and thirty cents.” She slapped the money down on the counter.

“Ma’am . . . . ”

“WHAT?!”

“I said two dollars and FORTY cents.”

Clarissa exhaled a short, curt, exasperated sigh, as she dug down into the bottom of her purse and extracted two nickels. “Here.” She slapped them down onto the counter with the remainder of the money.

“Thank you, Ma’am. It’s a pleasure doing business with you,” George said in a wry tone.

“Thank you,” she snapped. “Now if you would be so kind as to give me directions to the stage depot? I need to purchase two tickets for the stage leaving Thursday . . . at once.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” George gave her the directions, then very dutifully wrote them out for her on a scrap sheet of paper. He exhaled a very long, heartfelt sigh of relief when Clarissa Cartwright finally turned heel and left, half running, half skipping down the street.

“George, I need to send a telegram.”

He turned and found Eloise Kirk standing before his window. She and her daughter, Rita Mae owned Kirk’s Hostelry, one of the better boarding houses in town. Though Rita Mae handled most of the day-to-day operations these days, Eloise still did the meal planning and cooking.

“It’s for my daughter, actually,” Eloise continued, as she slipped the scrap sheet of paper, with the message already written out. “It’s to a Mister Charles Wainwright Smith in Saint Jo, confirming his reservation at our hostelry at the start of August.”

George nodded and took the slip of paper from Eloise.

“George . . . . ”

“Yes, Mrs. Kirk?”

“That woman who was just here . . . isn’t that Ben’s cousin?”

George sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yes, Ma’am, it is,” he sighed disparagingly, then set himself to counting up the letters and spaces in Eloise’ brief message. “That’ll be a dollar eighty, Mrs. Kirk. Does Rita Mae expect a reply?”

“No,” Eloise replied as she counted out the amount and placed it on the counter. “But if there is one, would you please have it delivered to Kirk’s Hostelry?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I certainly will.”

“I wonder who she was sending a wire to . . . . ” Eloise wondered aloud, as she watched Clarissa’s fast retreating back.

“It seems Stacy Cartwright’s changed her plans for after graduation,” George said. “Can’t figure it, though . . . . ”

“Can figure what, George?” Eloise asked, as she quickly turned her full attention back to the young telegraph operator.

“I’d thought Stacy was gonna be workin’ for her father and brothers once she’s done with school, but . . . . ” he shrugged. “Seems she’s changed her mind.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Stacy’s gonna be goin’ to some fancy finishin’ school back east,” George said. “I saw the wire myself, sayin’ Stacy’d already been accepted. It was from some cousin o’ theirs in Boston.”

“Well, I do declare,” Eloise murmured softly, with a big bright smile on her face. “Will wonders never cease.” Best of all, she had the exclusive. “Thank you, George. Thank you very much.”

“Oh . . . Mrs. Kirk?”

“Yes?”

“Your change. You just gave me two dollars. The cost for sending this wire to Saint Jo’s only a dollar eighty.”

“It’s all right, George, you just keep the change, you hear?”

“Sure, M-Mrs. Kirk . . . thank you.”

Eloise turned heel and fled back down the side walk, eager to spread the word about the Cartwright daughter’s very sudden, very unexpected change of plans.

 

“Howdy, Ben . . . howdy, Stacy,” Sam, the bartender greeted father and daughter as they stepped into the nearly deserted Silver Dollar Saloon. “Your usual?”

“No, I think I’ll have a sarsaparilla this time,” Stacy said.

“How ‘bout YOU, Ben?”

“I’ll have a beer, Sam.”

“Well, Stacy, it won’t be long now . . . no more school, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks?!” Sam quipped, as he opened a bottle of sarsaparilla for her, and filled a beer mug for Ben.

“Not exactly,” Stacy said, with a smile. “School will be in session come Wednesday morning out on the Ponderosa . . . I’ll be learning more about our LEDGER books, and when it comes to dirty looks . . . no teacher I ever had can compare with Pa, Hoss, and Joe . . . except maybe for Miss Tess.”

Sam chuckled. “So you won’t be heading east after all.”

“After all?!” Stacy echoed with a bewildered frown. “I never had any plans to go east.”

“Oh,” Sam murmured, then shrugged.

“Where in the world did you get the idea Stacy WAS going east?” Ben asked.

“Sally said she overheard Emmeline Jenkins ‘n Paula Henry talking about it with Mrs. Kirk.”

Ben frowned. “When was this?”

“Just now, I think . . . right out in front of the notions shop.”

“Oh no,” Stacy groaned.

“Looks like my cousin’s somehow become acquainted with Eloise Kirk,” Ben sighed, as he reached over and gave Stacy’s hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “Sam, I’m afraid Clarissa’s . . . misunderstood a few things.”

“That explains it,” Sam said. “I hope you don’t take offense, Stacy, but I’d always figured you to be the last gal in the world t’ ever attend a finishin’ school.”

“No offense taken because you figured right,” Stacy said, trying to fight down a rising tide of panic. “I sure wish I was old enough to order whiskey,” she sighed morosely. “ ‘Cause right now . . . I could sure use something a lot stronger than sarsaparilla.”

“Don’t worry,” Ben said. “We’ll set Cousin Clarissa straight on the way home.”

“Stacy, I got a little something for ya,” Sam said. “A graduation present.” He reached down under the bar and produced a small, flat package wrapped with brown parcel paper.

“Thank you, Sam,” she said, as he placed the package in her hands. “Can I open it now . . . or do I have to wait until tomorrow?”

Sam chuckled at the eager, childlike hopefulness he saw reflected in her bright blue eyes. “I couldn’t to THAT to ya, Stacy. G’won and open it.”

Stacy needed no further urging. Within less than the space of a heartbeat, she had removed the brown wrapper, and found herself staring at a miniature watercolor set in a simple wood frame. “Pa, look!” she exclaimed, her eyes shining with delight. “It looks like Sun Dancer and me!”

“Yeah, it sure does!” Ben declared with a smile, as he peered over her shoulder.

“It should,” Sam said with a smile. “That IS Sun Dancer and you. My aunt was visiting the summer you and that big golden palomino ran in the Independence Day Race. She made some sketches of you and that big stallion . . . and that water color is one of ‘em. She gave me that one and some others she did in Virginia City and of the surrounding country side. I’ve been saving that one for the right time.”

“Thank you, Sam.” On impulse Stacy leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’ll always treasure it. Your aunt’s very good.”

“Yeah . . . she IS, if I do say so myself. When I write her next, I’ll tell her how much you appreciate her work.”

“If you give me her address, I’LL write and let her know, too.”

“Sure thing, Stacy. I’ll copy it down ‘n give it to your pa or one of your brothers next time they come in,” Sam promised.

“ . . . uummm, Mister Cartwright?”

Ben turned and found Sally Tyler, one of the saloon girls at the Silver Dollar, standing at his elbow. “Yes, Miss Tyler?”

“There’s a lady waiting out on the sidewalk,” Sally said, “says she’s your cousin. She, uhhh . . . doesn’t look real happy.”

“Hoo boy,” Ben sighed, and rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Miss Tyler.” He, then, turned to his daughter. “Come on, Stacy. We’d best get a move on.”

Stacy nodded, as she grabbed up her virtually untouched bottle of sarsaparilla in her free hand. “Thank you again for the picture of Sun Dancer and me.”

“You’re welcome, Stacy.”

 

“Benjamin Cartwright, it’s bad enough that YOU and your sons patronize saloons, but to take your daughter in there with you— ” Clarissa, her face darker than the thunderclouds that came with the worst of summer storms, immediately lit into her cousin the instant he stepped out onto the sidewalk.

“Stacy, why don’t you g’won ahead and get Blaze Face securely attached to the buggy,” Ben said quickly, cutting off his cousin’s tirade mid-sentence.

“You’ll be ok, Pa?” Stacy queried, as she inwardly shuddered at the sight of the murderous frown on Cousin Clarissa’s face.

“I’ll be fine. Now scoot.”

“How COULD you, Benjamin?”

“Clarissa, Stacy NEVER goes into a saloon, without her brothers or me,” Ben said, cringing away from the indignant scowl on Clara Mudgely’s face as she sauntered by on the sidewalk, “and she doesn’t drink anything stronger than sarsaparilla or root beer.” Yet.

“You think THAT makes it all right?!”

“For a few minutes, at THIS time of day, as long as she’s with Hoss, Joe, or me . . . I don’t see that there’s been any harm done.”

“No HARM done?! What about that poor child’s reputation?!” Clarissa wailed.

“What ABOUT her reputation?”

“Benjamin, I keeping telling you . . . Stacy is a young LADY,” Clarissa admonished him sternly. “Ladies, no matter what their age, do NOT patronize saloons. Ever!”

“Back east, no,” Ben agreed, “and I freely admit that not very many women in THIS part of the country patronize saloons either, but a few of them DO in the company of their men folk, early on in the day.” There were exceptions of course, like Amy Wilder [4], but he wisely decided not to open THAT particular can of worms. “An occasional stop in at the Silver Dollar Saloon with her father during the late afternoon is NOT going to tarnish her reputation one bit.”

“Cousin Mirabelle and I are certainly going to have our work cut out for us,” Clarissa groused in silence.

 

They found Stacy waiting next to the buggy, with Blaze Face already hitched to the back.

“Cousin Clarissa, I’ve given thought to everything you told me when we rode out to Ponderosa Plunge a few days ago— ”

Clarissa smiled and clasped her hands. “You have?!”

“Yes, and I’ve decided . . . ” Stacy reached over and touched her father’s arm for support, for strength, “ . . . I DON’T want to go to the . . . whatever academy— ”

“The Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies,” Clarissa graciously supplied the information.

“I want to stay right here,” Stacy continued.

“Stacy, I’m going to ask you a question and I expect an honest answer,” Clarissa said.

“All right . . . as long as it’s not something real personal.”

Clarissa shot Ben a dark scowl at Stacy’s reply, then returned her attention back to her young cousin. “If you could live anywhere in the world, do absolutely anything you want . . . anything! Where would you go? What would you do?”

“There’s a lot of places I’d like to VISIT someday,” Stacy said slowly. “Pa’s told us about a lot of interesting places he’s been, back when he was a sailor. I’d also like to visit Ireland someday . . . see where my mother was born, and I’d like to see Boston, where Pa came from, and places there he and Adam have talked about.”

“So you would like to go to Boston,” Clarissa beamed.

“Someday, with Pa, or maybe Adam,” Stacy said. “But, I don’t want to LIVE in any of those places. When it comes to living somewhere, to settling down, and calling someplace home, that place is right HERE. I just can’t see myself living anywhere else.

“The Ponderosa is a beautiful land, and a good land. She and Pa have taken real good care of each other, and she’s taken good care of my brothers, Hop Sing, and me, too. Pa’s taught Adam, Hoss, and Joe a lot about taking care of the Ponderosa, and he’s taught me a few things, too. Once I’ve graduated, he’ll be able to teach me more. I want to learn, so I can help look after the Ponderosa, and teach MY children . . . when I have them, someday . . . how to look after her, too.”

“Stacy, how do you KNOW?” Clarissa pressed. “How in the world can you POSSIBLY know?! All you’ve ever seen, ever known is THIS small piece of the world.”

“You don’t have to travel all over the world to find your heart’s desire,” Stacy said. “All you have to do is look in here.” She touched the place over her heart.

“Is that one of YOUR pearls of wisdom, Benjamin?” Clarissa asked, leveling a scathing glare in his direction.

“No,” Ben replied. “My daughter’s reached THAT conclusion entirely on her own. However, speaking as someone who HAS been all over the world, there’s a lot of truth in what Stacy just said.”

“Alright, Benjamin,” Clarissa said in a dismissive tone, allowing the entire matter drop . . . for now. She leaned back into the seat, and closed her eyes. All the arrangements were finally in place. A happy smile slowly spread across her lips. Tonight, she would spring her surprise after an exquisite supper fit for a king. Stacy couldn’t help but accept, and gladly, with the trip to Boston, her acceptance at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies all but guaranteed, along with Cousin Mirabelle’s generous sponsorship. Clarissa couldn’t wait to see the expression on her young cousin’s face . . . .

***

 

Chapter 7

 

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Missy?”

Clarissa sighed and shook her head. “That’s MISS, Hop Sing, as in MISS Cartwright.”

“Yes, Missy Cartwright.”

Clarissa sighed wearily as she rolled her eyes upward toward the heavens beseeching The Almighty for a large dose of patience and calm. “Instead of the usual COFFEE in the living room, I’d like you to bring in the champagne I have cooling in the sink,” she ordered in a tone, faintly imperious.

“Yes, right away, immediately Missy COUSIN Clarissa.”

“Hop Sing, HOW many times do I have to tell you . . . I am NOT your cousin,” Clarissa reprimanded him severely.

“Oh, so sorry, Missy,” Hop Sing said. “Hop Sing forget. Must be old age catch up. So sorry. So very sorry.” He immediately turned heel and beat a hasty retreat back toward the kitchen, chuckling softly every step of the way.

An explosive sigh borne of pure exasperation exploded out from between her lips. “Benjamin, I KNOW good help is hard to come by out here in this barbarous, uncivilized, Godforsaken part of the country, but HONESTLY. His complete and utter lack of respect for his betters is absolutely appalling. You’ve GOT to talk to him.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Ben said, making a mental note to tell Hop Sing how much he admired and appreciated his restraint. “In the meantime, Clarissa . . . what are we celebrating?”

“Celebrating?!” Clarissa echoed, her brows coming together to form a bewildered frown.

“You asked Hop Sing to serve up this scrumptious supper . . . no! BANQUET would be a better word, and now champagne,” Ben prompted. “I took that to mean we’re celebrating some good news that you have to share with us.”

“Oh. Yes! Yes, I DO have good news to share with you,” she said, all smiles once again. “Oh, Benjamin, I’ve been dying to tell you all day.

“Why don’t we adjourn to the living room?” Ben suggested, as he rose, and gallantly held her chair. “We can toast your good news there.”

“Splendid,” Clarissa beamed.

Smiling, Ben turned and offered her his arm.

“I didn’t want to say anything about this until I knew for sure,” Clarissa said, as she demurely took Ben’s arm, “but, I finally received a wire from Cousin Mirabelle in Boston.”

“Cousin Mirabelle?!” Joe echoed, with a bewildered frown.

“In Boston,” Clarissa said with a complacent smile.

“So, where does SHE fit into the family?” Joe asked.

“Uncle Joseph . . . your paternal grandfather . . . and my father were first cousins to Cousin Mirabelle’s mother,” Clarissa explained. “SHE was married to a man by the name of Clive Benedict Jones.”

“Say! Is this Cousin Mirabelle any relation t’ ol’ Cousin Muley?” [5] Hoss asked.

“Yes,” Clarissa replied with a grimace. “Cousin Muley is her youngest brother. HE was a late-in-life baby, born soon after Cousin Mirabelle married Edward Standish. Their mother died when Cousin Muley . . . . ” she grimaced again, and shuddered delicately, “ . . . was quite young, so Cousin Mirabelle and her late husband ended up raising him.”

“So you wrote to Cousin Mirabelle about Stacy fixin’ to graduate?” Ben asked, steering the conversation back to its original track.

“Yes,” Clarissa replied. “Cousin Mirabelle’s a widow now . . . her husband died a few years ago, when an influenza epidemic hit the city. Her children are all off on their own. Her youngest boy just started Harvard last year, and the others are married, the older two with families.”

Ben led Clarissa to the red leather chair next to the fireplace, and gestured for her to sit down. Hoss, meanwhile, sat down in the big blue chair, while Joe and Stacy seated themselves on the settee, leaving a space for Ben.

“She is also a most distinguished alumna of the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies,” Clarissa continued, without pause, “and in the years since her marriage, has been one of its most generous patrons. I told Cousin Mirabelle about Stacy’s upcoming graduation, and asked her to speak to the headmistress of the academy about accepting her as a student.”

Stacy’s face suddenly lost every bit of color it had. She stared over at Cousin Clarissa, through eyes round with sheer horror.

“This afternoon I got a wire from Cousin Mirabelle. Oh, Stacy, it’s all been arranged. Everything,” Clarissa blithely rambled on, wholly oblivious to Stacy’s horrified dismay. “Not only have you been accepted as a student at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies, but Cousin Mirabelle has graciously offered to act as a sponsor when you make your debut to society, after you graduate. Oh, Stacy, with luck, you’ll make a fine marriage with a young man of good breeding and you’ll get to live in BOSTON, instead of an uncivilized mining town like Virginia City, on the edge of this godforsaken frontier.”

“C-Cousin Clarissa— ” Stacy began, as she suddenly saw the brief span of her whole life flash before her eyes.

Clarissa turned to Stacy, and favored her with a condescending smile. “Don’t interrupt, Dear,” she rudely cut her young cousin, once removed, off, in a sugary sweet tone that set Stacy’s teeth on edge. “It’s not polite, and I can tell you right now, it won’t be tolerated at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies. I was also going to tell you that I’ve made arrangements for us to leave for Boston on the morning stage, day after tomorrow. Benjamin?”

“Y-Yes, Clarissa?!” Ben stammered, every bit as stunned and horrified as his daughter.

“I’ve also arranged for Stacy and me to stay at the hotel the night before we leave,” Clarissa said. “That way we won’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to make the stage and— ”

“N-No,” Stacy murmured, while vigorously shaking her head.

“What was that, Dear?” Clarissa asked, her smile never wavering.

“I said NO! Cousin Clarissa, didn’t you hear a single word I said when we were coming back from town this afternoon?!” Stacy demanded, as her initial shock underwent a quick metamorphosis to outrage, even anger.

“You told me that you wanted to go to Boston, Stacy,” Clarissa said, her smile still fixed firmly in place.

“ . . . with Pa, or maybe Adam, to see the places THEY’VE talked about,” Stacy shot right back. “I didn’t say I wanted to live there or . . . or go to finishing school there.”

“But . . . it’s all been arranged,” Clarissa said.

“I told you . . . on our way home from town this afternoon . . . I want to stay right here.”

“Oh, Stacy, for heaven’s sake . . . open your eyes! There’s no future for you HERE! None! But, in BOSTON . . . . ” A dreamy smile appeared on her face, as her eyes locked onto the marvelous future she had envisioned for her young cousin, once removed. “After you complete your studies at the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies . . . and you have your debut? YOU are going to take Boston society by storm. You’ll have your pick of fine, eligible young men . . . the very cream of society, Dear, with an impeccable lineage that stretches all the way back to the Mayflower. You won’t have to settle for a young man, half savage— ”

“First of all, Cousin Clarissa, when the Mayflower landed, Jason’s relatives were there to meet the boat,” Stacy said, directing a dark, murderous glare over in Clarissa’s general direction, “and furthermore, his ma was daughter, GRANDdaughter, and GREAT granddaughter to a long line of many chiefs. Among the Shoshone, THAT’S like coming from royalty, which makes Jason’s lineage a heckuva lot more distinguished than somebody who can ONLY trace his back to the Mayflower and the pilgrims.

“Second . . . I told you this afternoon AND the day before yesterday . . . when we rode out to Ponderosa Plunge, that I DON’T want to go to finishing school, I DON’T want to make a debut in polite society, and I sure as shootin’ DON’T want to end up leg shackled to some fancy pants dandy who doesn’t know the butt end of a rifle from the barrel,” Stacy continued, carried along by the momentum of her growing fury. “I want to stay right here.”

“B-But, Stacy . . . everything’s all arranged!” Clarissa protested, her smile drooping noticeably. “C-Cousin Mirabelle is expecting us.”

“Cousin Clarissa . . . I’m sorry YOU couldn’t go to finishing school in Boston and have your society debut,” Stacy said, as she slowly rose from her place on the settee, “but . . . no matter how much I DO feel sorry for you, I’m NOT going to do all those things for you. I have to live my life as I see fit. I can’t . . . I WON’T . . . live the life YOU couldn’t have. Excuse me— ” With that, Stacy beat a swift, hasty retreat outside, slamming the front door behind her.

“Hoss . . . Joe . . . why don’t you g’won out and see to your sister,” Ben said quickly, upon noting the sudden lack of color in Clarissa’s cheeks and the way she pointedly bowed her head and fixed her gaze on her hands, folded demurely in her lap.

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss murmured, as he rose. “C’mon, Li’l Brother.”

Ben waited until his sons had gone out of the house, and Hoss had closed the front door firmly behind them. “Clarissa— ”

“How DARE she?!” Clarissa wailed, now looking every bit as horrified as Stacy did a moment ago. “How dare she speak to me like that?! Benjamin, so help me . . . if YOU don’t take her to task, I WILL.”

“Clarissa, first of all . . . I am Stacy’s father,” Ben said, his own ire suddenly rising. “If there’s any discipline to be meted out, I will be the one to do it, not YOU . . . not anybody ELSE. Second, I am NOT inclined to discipline my daughter or my sons, either, for that matter . . . for telling the truth.”

“What’s THAT supposed to mean?!” Clarissa demanded, hurt, angry, and very bewildered.

“I mean that Stacy was absolutely right when she said just now that she’s got to live her own life, as SHE sees fit . . . not the life YOU were forced by circumstance to give up.”

“Benjamin, that’s a . . . a horrible . . . monstrously CRUEL thing to say! Everything I d-did . . . all the arrangements I made . . . it was all for STACY . . . because I . . . I care about her. I c-care about her a great deal! I DO, you know. I really and truly DO.”

“I know you do, Clarissa,” Ben said, “but, I ALSO believe there’s truth in what STACY said about you making all those arrangements for another young woman, about the same age as my daughter is now, who WASN’T able to go to Boston, to live with her cousin, Mirabelle, while she attended the Portnoy Academy, OR have a society debut.”

Clarissa digested Ben’s words in cold, stony silence. “Well,” she said at length, in a small voice. “I had no idea you thought so poorly of me.”

“Clarissa, no. I don’t think poorly of you at all,” Ben protested.

“You . . . and Stacy, too . . . y-you’ve BOTH just let me know . . . in n-no uncertain terms that . . . that I’m a . . . that I’m a selfish old w-woman, with n-no thought for anyone b-but herself.” With that, she turned and fled across the great room toward the stairs, sobbing heartbrokenly.

Ben stood, as if rooted to the spot, watching in stunned silence as Clarissa fled to the upper environs, weeping every step of the way.

 

“I TOLD her!” Stacy said, as anger began to give way to regret and remorse. “I KNOW I told her . . . I know it, I know it, I KNOW it!”

“Hey, Kid, you’re preachin’ to the choir here,” Joe said gently. “We’re on YOUR side. Now, try ‘n calm down a little . . . I think you’re upsetting poor Blaze Face.”

“Oh no.” Stacy immediately made her way over to his stable. “I’m sorry, Blaze Face,” she murmured softly, as she stroked the length of his muzzle. “I AM upset, but it’s certainly not YOUR doing . . . . ”

Blaze Face nickered softly in response then lowered his face and mouth down to pocket level.

“He’s lookin’ for a treat, Li’l Sister,” Hoss said, smiling.

“Unfortunately dresses don’t come with pockets,” Stacy sighed, gazing down at her attire in dismay.

“Well, I think ol’ Hoss can fix you ‘n Blaze Face right up,” the biggest of the Cartwright offspring said. “I always keep a secret stash right over here.” He walked over to the stool and small table he kept next to Chubb’s stall, and bent down.

“There’d better be enough in that secret stash over there for Chubb and Cooch, too,” Joe said, “or they’re gonna be mighty jealous.”

“Don’t you worry none about THAT,” Hoss said, as he retrieved a small bag out from among the straw lying under the small table. “There’s plenty.” He parceled out treats to Joe, Stacy, and himself.

“I . . . I wish Cousin Clarissa had ASKED me, before she made all these big plans to take me to Boston,” Stacy sighed dejectedly.

“Even if she HAD asked you, Stace, I doubt seriously she’d have listened to your answer,” Joe said. “Cousin Clarissa gets a notion in her head, decides it’s the best thing in the world for you, and does it. The LAST time she came to visit, she worked poor Hop Sing like a slave, then had Pa, Hoss, ‘n me wearing slippers inside the house so we wouldn’t get the floor all muddy . . . half the men working for us up ‘n quit because she insisted on hanging curtains in the bunkhouse . . . and we nearly lost all our friends after she insisted on telling ‘em how important a man Pa is and how lucky they were to have us doing business with ‘em.”

“Poor woman,” Hoss sighed and shook his head. “She tries so hard t’ be useful ‘n needed, she . . . well, she ends up bein’ about as useful t’ folks as a fifth wheel on a wagon.”

The sound of the barn door opening immediately brought all conversation to a complete halt. As he stepped into the barn, Ben found himself staring into three anxious faces, all turned expectantly toward him.

“What happened, Pa?” Hoss asked, half fearing he already knew the answer, given his father’s face, drawn and pale, and the sadness he saw mirrored in those dark brown eyes.

“She . . . wouldn’t listen,” Ben said ruefully.

“I’m sorry everything went so badly, Pa,” Stacy said with remorse. “It’s just that . . . well, the more she went on about finishing school and the rest of it, I . . . I actually saw my life pass before my eyes! . . . and when she said what she did about Jason— ”

“It’s all right, Stacy,” Ben said gently, as he slipped his arms around her and held her close. He felt her arms encircling his waist, and the weight of her head resting heavily against his chest. “I’m sorry things turned out the way they did, too . . . and, I want you to know that none of this is your fault. You were absolutely right in telling her that you have to live YOUR life, not the one she missed out on.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Stacy murmured softly.

“So . . . what, exactly . . . happened?” Joe asked.

“She and I . . . well, I guess you might say we had words,” Ben sighed. “Then, she ran upstairs crying her heart out.”

“Pa, maybe she’ll see things different in the morning, after she’s had a good night’s sleep, ‘n a li’l time t’ think things over,” Hoss suggested hopefully.

“I hope so, Son,” Ben said with a heavy heart.

 

“Good morning, Benjamin . . . good morning, Hoss,” Clarissa greeted them in a brisk, no nonsense tone, as she strode purposefully into the dining room, her face set with iron willed determination. “Aren’t Joe and Stacy up yet?”

“They’re out in the barn gettin’ the buggy hitched,” Hoss replied. “The graduation exercises start at eleven o’clock, ‘n Stacy needs t’ be there by ten-thirty.”

“I see,” she murmured softly. “Hoss . . . . ”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“My things are all packed. Two trunks, a suitcase, and three carpetbags. Would you mind fetching them down for me?”

Ben frowned. “Clarissa . . . y-your things are all packed? I . . . don’t understand.”

“Benjamin, may I speak with you?” Clarissa asked, directing a furtive glance over at Hoss.

“I’ll be outside, Pa,” Hoss said very quietly, as he rose from his place at the dining room table.

Clarissa immediately seated herself in the chair Hoss had just vacated.

“What’s this all about?” Ben asked.

“Benjamin, first of all, I want to let you know that I don’t harbor any ill feelings toward Stacy at all,” Clarissa offered magnanimously, with a small, sad smile. “If anything, I feel sorry for her.”

“You feel sorry for Stacy?!” Ben echoed, incredulous. “Why?”

“Because THIS is the only kind of life that poor child is ever going to know,” Clarissa wailed. “Up at the crack of dawn, working her fingers to the bone . . . outside, I have no doubt . . . in all kinds of weather . . . . ” She shuddered. “Worst of all, in a couple of years she’ll probably end up married to some cowboy!”

“Like her father and her brothers?” Ben queried in a wry tone.

“I didn’t mean that to be a slight against you or your sons, Benjamin,” Clarissa said immediately. “You, Hoss, and Joe have worked hard and done very well for yourselves. You’ve also made a good life here for yourself AND for your sons, but . . . oh, Benjamin, Benjamin . . . don’t you see?! This is no suitable kind of life for a young lady.”

Clarissa sighed, and dolefully shook her head. “I honestly . . . really and truly thought Stacy would jump at the chance to go to the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies, and the prospect of being presented to proper society if those things were actually offered to her,” she continued. “Then . . . last night, it occurred to me that not only does she KNOW nothing else, but—

“Oh, Benjamin, you HAVE to talk to her! It’s NOT too late for her to change her mind about accompanying me to Boston. If you care ANYTHING about Stacy . . . anything at ALL, then please . . . talk to her,” Clarissa begged. “If you tell her YOU want her to go to Boston, she’ll listen to YOU. I know she will! Please— ”

“Clarissa, Stacy’s made her wishes abundantly clear,” Ben said quietly. “I know you MEANT well, when you made all of your arrangements, but— ”

“You’re not going to talk to her, are you?”

“No.”

“Then, there’s nothing more to say,” she said in a very small, very tight, angry voice. “I would greatly appreciate it, if either you or Hoss could take me into town.”

“I wish you would reconsider your decision to leave.”

Clarissa resolutely shook her head. “I think my leaving at the earliest possible convenience, would be best for all concerned.”

“But the next stage doesn’t leave for another three days.”

“I intend to check myself into the International Hotel in the meantime.”

“Will you be attending Stacy’s graduation?”

“No,” Clarissa said ruefully. “Not after that set-to between Stacy and me last night. Why, I’m probably the very last person she wants to have there . . . ch-cheering her on . . . . ”

“I wish you’d reconsider.”

“No. I think it best this way. Benjamin . . . . ”

“Yes?”

“When I came to visit a few years ago . . . do you remember what I told you, then?”

“I’m sorry, but I think you’re going to have to refresh my memory.”

“You and the boys invited me to live with you,” Clarissa said. “I told you that I couldn’t just sit around, and be idle. I had to be a useful, contributing member of this family.”

“I remember now.”

“Well . . . . ” Her voice caught. “Last night, it became very clear that HERE . . . I’m just about the m-most useLESS creature on the face of the earth. I wanted so MUCH to help Stacy . . . to offer her something better. Then . . . it was bad enough t-to have HER s-so . . . so callously . . . so cruelly throw aside all my hard work, but when you and Stacy BOTH accused me of . . . of acting SELFISHLY— ”

Ben reached over and covered her trembling hand with his own. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you had KNOWINGLY acted from selfish motives,” he said kindly, as he dug into his pocket for a handkerchief. “As I just said, I think you meant well, and I believe that you did what you did because you genuinely care about Stacy.” He pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to his distraught cousin.

“Thank you,” she said stiffly, as she accepted the proffered handkerchief.

“Clarissa, folks OUR age . . . well, we’re at a place now where most of our future lies behind us,” Ben continued. “It’s a natural thing, I think, for US to look at young folks, especially young folks like Stacy, who have their whole future ahead of them with just about everything in the world to choose from, and wonder what would WE do if we had it to do all over. I found myself wondering when Adam, Hoss, and Joe came of age, and yes . . . I’ve caught myself wondering again now that Stacy’s about to come of age. It’s fine to wonder, as long as we don’t let it turn into something unhealthy.”

“What do you mean?” Clarissa asked, warily.

“I mean . . . when a parent forces a child to follow in THEIR footsteps, for example, or to follow in footsteps, they, for whatever reasons, couldn’t.”

“Are you saying I did this . . . with Stacy?”

“I’m suggesting that as a possibility.”

Clarissa buried her face in the handkerchief Ben had given her, and began to sob in earnest. “Oh, B-Benjamin, I . . . I . . . I d-don’t want H-HER t-to . . . to end up like ME!”

Ben silently reached over and gently touched her forearm.

“ . . . all those y-years!” Clarissa sobbed. Ben had never, ever heard the depths of bitterness, of remorse and regret from any human being, that he heard welling up and spilling out of his cousin, as freely as the copious tears now running down her cheeks. “All those y-years of . . . of s-so diligently c-caring for Papa . . . d-day and night . . . did h-he care? Was he . . . was he in any w-way . . . appreciative?! NO!”

Ben remembered Uncle Reuben, Clarissa’s father, as a cold, bitter man, as much filled with anger, even hatred, as his own father, Joseph, was filled with warmth and love. His uncle had always looked so much older than his siblings as well, even though he was the youngest. Once, in the company of Ben’s father, and their older sister, Aunt Leah, a stranger had actually thought Uncle Reuben was their father. As a child, Ben had always been afraid of him, and had always gone out of his way to avoid him. There was one exception however . . . .

 

A family picnic, held out on the Boston Commons. Grandfather and Grandmother Cartwright were there, along with his aunts, uncles, cousins, and of course, his own father and mother, his brothers, and baby sister.

“Papa?” Ben could hear the voice of, then, five year old Clarissa, as clearly now as his had all those many, long years ago. “Papa, may I play with the other children?”

“No,” came the reply, terse, clipped, and very angry.

“Please, Papa?”

“No. Your stepmother needs you to help look after the baby.” There was a slight, yet unmistakable emphasis on ‘step.’

“Reuben, it’s all right . . . I can manage.” It was one of those rare times Ben remembered Aunt Doreen, Reuben’s second wife, actually stringing together more than two words.

“I SAID no.”

Aunt Doreen sighed, and quickly averted her eyes to her hands, folded in her lap, with fingers interlacing.

Clarissa turned and watched her cousins romping and frolicking, her eyes filled with longing and envy, as their children’s games took them all over the thick, lush, carpet of well manicured grass, that lay between the picnic area and a vast pond, filled with ducks. Tears flowed from her eyes, and ran down her cheeks, like rivers.

“Clarissa.” Uncle Reuben’s voice cracked like a whip.

The girl turned and stared up into her father’s angry face, through eyes round with horror.

“Stop that damned crying.”

His words, and the anger behind them, had the opposite effect. Despite her valiant efforts to the contrary, Clarissa began to cry even harder.

“I TOLD you to STOP that damned crying.” Reuben grabbed his daughter in a painful, vice like grip, eliciting an involuntary cry of pain mixed with surprise. He hauled her unceremoniously to her feet, and slapped her across the face with force sufficient to rattle her teeth. When he drew back his arm to slap Clarissa again, eleven-year-old Ben immediately sprang into action, without thought or consideration, in manner not unlike his own impulsive youngest son.

“STOP IT!” Ben cried as his hands grabbed hold Uncle Reuben’s arm mid-swing.

“Let go of me, Boy,” Uncle Reuben snarled, in a voice barely audible.

“Leave her alone!”

“I’m WARNING you . . . . ”

“NO!” Ben shouted.

“You let go of me right now or so help me . . . as God is my witness, Boy . . . I’ll give you the thrashing of your life.”

“Reuben, you so much as lay a finger on my son, I’ll not only thrash YOU within an inch of your miserable life, but I’ll have you jailed for assault and battery as well.” Ben turned and found himself staring into the face of his father. Never, not in the whole of his brief span of life upon this earth, had he ever seen him look so angry.

Father and Uncle Reuben stood with backs ramrod straight, glaring at one another. For one brief terrifying, exhilarating moment, Ben was sure the two men were going to come to blows. Then, Uncle Reuben shook Ben off, sending him tumbling to the ground in an ungainly heap.

“Your boy owes me an apology, Joseph,” Reuben said.

“I’M NOT GOING TO APOLOGIZE,” Ben shouted, his voice, his entire body shaking with anger and a lot of healthy trepidation. “YOU’RE . . . YOU’RE NOTHING BUT A MEAN, NASTY, COWARDLY SON OF A SEA SNAKE!” With that, he turned and fled, as far and as fast as his legs could carry him.

His father found him somewhere on the other side of the pond, listlessly tossing one stone after the other into the shallow water near the bank.

“Ben . . . . ”

He drew himself up to full height as he turned to face his father. “You . . . you can take me out behind the back house and thrash me within an inch of my life if you have to, Father, but I won’t apologize.”

“I’m NOT going to whip you, Ben,” his father said quietly.

Ben gazed up into his father’s face, shocked and astonished. For a long moment, he was too stunned to move or speak. “Y-You’re . . . you’re N-NOT?!”

“Walk with me?”

Ben nodded as he fell in step alongside his father.

“You took up for your cousin against . . . well against some pretty tough odds, Son,” his father said. “Uncle Reuben’s a big man.”

“I . . . I didn’t think about that, Father,” Ben said quietly, his voice barely audible. “I only saw that he was gonna hit Clarissa . . . and maybe really hurt her . . . all because she asked if she could go play.”

“I know.”

“Father?”

“Yes, Ben?”

“Why does Uncle Reuben hate Clarissa so much?”

“Because her mother died bringing her into the world,” Father answered, his voice filled with sadness. “Uncle Reuben loved your aunt, Anna, very much.”

Ben remembered staring up at his father with a bewildered frown on his face. “Does that mean . . . Uncle Max didn’t love Aunt Etta?” Uncle Max, short for Maxwell, was his father’s oldest brother.

“No. Uncle Max loved your Aunt Etta very much . . . and to this day STILL cherishes her memory.”

“But . . . he doesn’t hate Cousin Abby because Aunt Etta died bringing HER into the world.”

“It’s all in how you look at things, Son. When your Aunt Etta died . . . Uncle Max told me that your cousin, Abby was the very last gift Aunt Etta ever gave him,” Father explained. “In HIS eyes, that made her all the more precious. Your Uncle Reuben, however . . . . ” He sighed, and very sadly shook his head, “all he sees is the loss of a woman he claimed he loved more than life itself . . . and he blames poor Clarissa for it.”

“Uncle Reuben doesn’t love Aunt Doreen?”

“I think he does . . . after a fashion,” Father replied. “But, not in the same way he loved Anna.”

“Poor Aunt Doreen . . . and Clarissa, too,” Ben murmured softly, as tears welled up in his chocolate brown eyes. “They love Uncle Reuben so much . . . and they . . . they try so hard to make him love them back, but he won’t. He won’t EVER love them back, will he, Father?”

“No, Ben . . . I don’t think he ever will.”

“Why NOT?”

“Because he’s blinded himself to everything except Anna dying,” Father patiently explained. “He’s not living . . . not really, and he won’t let those around him live either.”

“That’s why he won’t let Clarissa play with us?”

Father nodded. “Worst of all, I think is . . . he won’t ever let himself know and feel how much Aunt Doreen and Clarissa love him. That’s why . . . as much as I do feel sorry for Aunt Doreen and Clarissa . . . I think the one I feel the sorriest for is Uncle Reuben . . . . ”

***

 

Chapter 8

 

The sounds of Clarissa’s agonized weeping drew Ben back to present time and place. He quietly rose, then walked over and gently helped his grief stricken cousin rise to her feet. He put a gentle arm around her shoulders and led her away from the dining room table over to the settee. There, they sat down together, and Ben held Clarissa close, as she poured forth the torrent of anger and sorrow, she had carried around with her for so long, in the same way he held his own sons and daughter close in their times of grief and anguish.

“All those y-years . . . all those y-years of . . . of looking after him . . . c-caring for him . . . giving up m-my life . . . m-my future . . . all my chances t-to marry . . . to have a family and . . . and a h-home of m-my own . . . . ” she looked up and favored him with a defiant, angry glare. “I . . . I H-HAD prospects, Benjamin. I d-did.”

“I know,” Ben said in a quiet, gentle tone.

“ . . . and I g-gave it all up . . . threw it all away . . . t-to . . . to care for Papa,” Clarissa sobbed. “All he did . . . all h-he ever did was . . . c-complain and . . . and f-find fault. N-Not once d-did he ever s-so mush as s-s-say . . . thank you. It would have m-meant so much if he had . . . .

“ . . . and . . . when h-he died?! He l-left me d-destitute, Benjamin . . . destitute, h-homeless . . . without anything t-to call my own, except . . . except the clothes on m-my back. M-My sister and brothers were . . . they were n-no better! You’d have thought they would h-have had pity and . . . and let m-me k-keep my home . . . the only h-home I’ve ever known, but no! They wanted their share of the m-money. So . . . here I am . . . always m-moving f-from pillar to p-post, helping c-care for relatives every b-bit as . . . as mean, and ungrateful as P-Papa was. I d-don’t want the s-same thing to h-happen to Stacy— ”

“Clarissa, that will NEVER happen to Stacy,” Ben said gently, yet firmly. “When my time comes, HER share of the Ponderosa . . . and of my OTHER worldly goods . . . will equal that of her brothers. Should THEY decide to sell their portions and move on, her home will still be here.”

“But . . . what if YOU become ill and . . . and infirm l-like . . . like Papa?”

“Stacy won’t be saddled with the full responsibility of with caring for me alone,” Ben promised. “I KNOW my sons, Clarissa. Hoss and Joe WILL pitch in and help with my care, should such a thing come to pass. They’ll insist on it. I daresay Adam will, too, though HIS help will, more than likely be of a financial nature, seeing that he lives out in Sacramento. But, they will all share equally.”

“Oh, B-Benjamin . . . I’m s-so s-sorry— ”

“You needn’t be,” Ben said, understanding now some of the complexities that had prompted Clarissa to make the arrangements for Stacy to go to Boston, to finishing school. “You cared enough about Stacy to take steps to make absolute certain her future was secure. I can’t fault you for that. Perhaps . . . I should be the one to apologize for accusing you of wanting to live the life you couldn’t have through Stacy.”

“No . . . . ” Clarissa wearily shook her head. “While I DID want to make certain that Stacy had a . . . a comfortable home and secure f-future . . . I’m afraid I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to a secret desire deep down to . . . to live the life I had to give up . . . through her. It’s not a bad kind of life, Benjamin.”

“No.”

“ . . . and there’s a p-part of me that just plain can’t understand why in the world Stacy wants to stay HERE, when she could go to Boston.”

“Perhaps you need to ask STACY about that,” Ben suggested.

“If she’s even talking to me.”

“Stacy’s a very forgiving young woman, once she’s had a chance to cool off. In fact, she feels every bit as badly about how things went last night, as you do.”

 

“Ok, Kid . . . now that the buggy’s hitched, it’s time for YOU to jump into that bath Hop Sing’s got ready for ya upstairs and get dressed,” Joe said, as he quickly double checked the harness and fastenings to make certain everything was secure. “You’ve got an hour before we have to leave.”

Stacy nodded mutely.

An anxious frown creased Joe’s brow upon noting that his sister’s eyes blinked excessively. “You all right, Stace?” he asked gently, as he placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You’re not getting all sentimental on us now . . . are you?”

“No . . . I’m not getting sentimental about leaving school, I . . . well, I still feel bad about what I said to Cousin Clarissa last night,” Stacy said contritely.

“I’m sorry it finally had to come to that, too,” Joe said quietly, “but from where I sit . . . it was either take the stand you did or let her drag you clear across country to that finishing school in Boston. You TRIED to tell her nice and polite, I KNOW you did, but she wouldn’t listen.” He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and favored her with a reassuring smile. “Pa, Hoss, Hop Sing and I are all with ya, Kid. You just remember that, and try not to let Cousin Clarissa mar what should be one of the biggest days of your life.”

“Thanks, Joe,” Stacy said as she impulsively turned and gave the youngest of her three older brothers a big hug.

“You’re welcome,” Joe said as he returned her hug with an affectionate one of his own. “Now scoot! That hour’s dwindling away fast!”

Stacy nodded, then turned and started walking briskly toward the barn door. She nearly ended up in a head on collision with a very shocked, very astonished Clarissa Cartwright, before she had gone a half dozen steps. “Oh dear . . . I-I’m sorry, Cousin Clarissa.”

“Stacy, I want to speak with you,” Clarissa said, in a flat monotone that somehow lent her voice an unintended, yet faint, imperious air. “Now.” Her eyes moved over to Joe, standing next to Stacy. “Alone.”

“Cousin Clarissa, anything you have to say to my sister . . . you have to say to me, too,” Joe said quietly, as he stepped up beside her and placed a protective arm around her shoulders.

“ . . . uhhh, Grandpa?”

“Yeah, Kid?”

“I . . . don’t think you have to worry,” Stacy said slowly, taking due note of the older woman’s puffy upper lip, her red, swollen eye lids, and the unusual brightness of her eyes. “I’ll be ok.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

“In that case, why don’t the two of you step outside and talk?” Joe suggested. “I think maybe I’d kinda like to check the harness . . . make sure everything’s properly fastened.”

A smile tugged hard at the corner of Stacy’s mouth, as she silently nodded her head. She refrained from pointing out that the two of them had already double-checked the fastenings.

“Oh! . . . and one more thing, Kid.”

“What’s that, Grandpa?”

“If ya need me . . . I’m right here.”

“I’ll remember that, Grandpa. Thanks.” Stacy slipped her arm around his waist and gave him one more gentle, affectionate squeeze, before following Clarissa out into the yard. “Cousin Clarissa . . . . ”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“I’m sorry about the way things went last night,” Stacy said contritely. “Pa’s always warning me about my temper. I try to find better ways to work it out, but last night . . . well, I’m afraid it got the better of me.”

“Stacy, I’M the one who should be apologizing,” Clarissa said, equally remorseful. “All things considered . . . you . . . had . . . every right . . . to be angry.”

“I’ll accept YOUR apology, if you’ll accept mine.”

A tiny smile played at the corner of Clarissa’s mouth. “It’s a deal,” she said quietly, holding out her hand.

“Done,” Stacy agreed as they shook hands.

“Oh, Stacy . . . . ” Clarissa murmured, her voice tremulous. “If you could only realize what you’re giving up.”

“Maybe I have no idea what I AM giving up, but I know very well what I’m NOT giving up,” Stacy said quietly.

Clarissa favored her young cousin once removed with a bemused smile. “Oh? And what are you not giving up?”

“Did Pa ever tell you anything about my life before I came here?”

“Not very much. He said that you lived with your mother’s family until you were five or six, and after that with a family of Paiutes.” Clarissa shuddered at this last, unable to help it.

“Miss Paris . . . my mother . . . didn’t tell Pa she was going to have me,” Stacy began. “She just left, without telling anyone where she was going . . . or why she was leaving. She didn’t even say good-bye. I know she was a very proud woman, and I think maybe she left because she didn’t want Pa to feel obligated to marry her. What she didn’t know . . . unfortunately . . . was how much Pa DID love her . . . and . . . and that he was about to ask her to marry him.”

“I . . . I had no idea,” Clarissa murmured softly. “What . . . finally happened to her?”

“She ended up going back to HER family, to her parents and sisters. They looked after her until I was born. After that, her pa told her that they would give me a home, but SHE had to leave and never see them . . . or me . . . ever again.”

“Oh, Stacy . . . what a terrible, cruel thing to do,” Clarissa murmured softly.

“My mother’s family didn’t like her . . . or Pa either for that matter,” Stacy said, unable to keep the sadness and rancor out of her voice. “They did what they saw as their duty by me, but I think it was more to spite Pa and Miss Paris than out of any great love for me.

“The Paiutes who took me in and raised me cared a great deal about me. In fact . . . I don’t see how any mother could love her child more than Silver Moon, my Paiute foster mother, loved me,” Stacy continued. “But, SHE was told in dream that she had been entrusted with me until the time came for me to go live with my real family . . . so, even though they loved me, we all knew I wouldn’t be staying.

“When I came to live here, I finally knew what it was to belong somewhere . . . to have a family and a home I could really and truly call my own for the very first time in my whole life. You asked me if I knew what I was giving up . . . well . . . if I had agreed to go with you to Boston, gone through with all the plans you had for me? THAT’S what I would’ve had to give up.”

Clarissa winced at the catch in her young cousin’s voice. “Oh, Stacy, I’m so sorry,” she murmured, with deepening remorse. “I . . . I had no idea. No idea at all. Can you ever forgive me?”

“Of course I can, Cousin Clarissa,” Stacy replied. “On ONE condition.”

“ . . . and that is?”

“That you’ll come with Pa, Hoss, Joe, and Hop Sing to my graduation? Please?”

“Oh, Stacy, I . . . I’d be happy to,” Clarissa cried, smiling through the new tears forming in her eyes, as she enveloped her young cousin into her arms.

 

“ . . . soon, all TOO soon, the seven of us will go our separate ways,” Molly O’Hanlan, valedictorian for her graduating class, spoke in a clear, crisp, voice, filled with excitement. She stood before the podium, drawn up to her full height, gazing out into the sea of faces spread before her with confidence. “Julio Fernandez leaves Virginia City in a couple of days for San Francisco, where he’ll be attending the Amadeus School of Music and taking voice training with renowned singer and teacher, Miss Angela Drake.

“Liam Sullivan leaves in two weeks for New Haven, Connecticut, where he’ll be attending Yale University, studying medicine. His schoolwork has always been outstanding; from the time I’VE known him anyway. I can’t ever recall a time when his name didn’t appear on the teacher’s honor roll. He’s also received a four-year scholarship from the university and he’s been chosen as recipient of the Jeremiah Edward Martin Memorial Scholarship, established by Doctor Martin in honor of his father, to give financial aid to a student, who has proven himself an exemplary scholar and a young person of strong moral character. Liam, we’re all expecting great and wonderful things from you in the years to come.

“Millicent Adams and her mother leave Thursday morning for Boston, where Millicent will be attending the Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies for the next two years. According to Mrs. Adams, Millicent will be the first of HER generation to attend this venerable institution . . . a tradition that began with her maternal grandmother.

“Carol Ann Thompson will be getting married at the end of the month, then moving back east to Philadelphia, where her husband-to-be will be learning all about the newspaper publishing business from his uncle.

“Stacy Cartwright and Susannah O’Brien will remain right here in Virginia City, working for their fathers on the Ponderosa and Shoshone Queen, respectively.

“As for myself, I leave for Minnesota the day after Carol Ann’s wedding, where I’ll be attending normal school to get my teaching certificate.

“But, no matter where we go . . . whether it be to the far flung corners of the world or whether we stay right here . . . no matter what we do . . . whether we become well known, or remain largely UNknown to the world at large . . . I know I can safely speak for all of us when I say that we’ll look back on our time here, in the school house behind me . . . and remember with affection and gratitude, not only our teachers, but our parents, and the entire community as well, for caring enough to properly teach us about the three ‘R’s’ . . . and how to be decent human beings.

“Thank you.”

Molly’s valedictorian speech earned her a rousing standing ovation. Ezekiel Abercromby, the head of the school board, rose, finally, and pounded his cane on the floor of the platform, assembled the day before, to call for order. One by one, the people, assembled for the graduation exercises, sat down, until only Francis O’Hanlan, Molly’s proud father, was left on his feet, still applauding. A gentle tug on his arm from his oldest daughter, Colleen Nikolas, seated beside him, brought the proud father back down to earth.

“Oh, uhhh . . . sorry,” Francis, his face beet red, hastily stammered out an apology, as he dropped back down into his chair.

“It’s quite alright, Mister O’Hanlan,” Esther Johnson said with a big smile, as she stepped up to the podium. “You have every reason in the world to be proud today.” She, then looked up into the expectant faces of the gathered assembly. “ . . . and now, Ladies and Gentlemen, we come to that portion of these exercises for which you have been anxiously awaiting . . . the presentation of graduation certificates.”

“It’s about time,” Joe Cartwright quipped, as the gathering of family members and friends of the graduating class all politely applauded.

“Joseph!” Ben hissed, favoring his youngest son with a dark glare.

“To present the certificates,” Esther continued, once again raising her voice slightly, in order to be heard above the applause, “I give the podium over to Mister Ezekiel Abercromby, head of the school board.”

“Oh no,” Ben groaned softly, as he lifted pleading eyes to the heavens, beseeching whoever might be listening for mercy.

“Pa?” Joe queried, as he and Hoss turned toward Ben with anxious frowns.

“Benjamin? What’s the matter?” Clarissa pressed.

“That man is the biggest . . . and I do mean THE BIGGEST windbag that ever walked on two feet,” Ben groaned again, shaking his head.

“Pa’s right about that,” Hoss murmured ruefully.

“We be here all afternoon, almost to suppertime,” Hop Sing added his own gloomy two cents worth.

“I had a speech all prepared, but in the interests of moving along, we’ll go right to the presenting of the graduation certificates,” Ezekiel said, his words eliciting a collective sigh of relief not only from the Cartwright men, but from the rest of the people assembled as well. He picked up the first certificate from the pile. “Miss Millicent Abigail Adams.”

Millicent rose from her place on the first row and mounted the stairs to the top of the platform, with a stiff, regal bearing to a smattering of polite applause from her parents, seated directly behind her. She walked to the podium, where Ezekiel Abercromby stood, with head slightly upraised, and expectantly held out her hand. The elderly head of the school board handed her the certificate, shook her hand, murmuring a soft, “Congratulations, Miss Adams.”

“Thank you, Sir,” she murmured softly, before stepping back and taking her place a few feet behind Ezekiel.

“Miss Stacy Rose Cartwright.”

Her father, brothers, Hop Sing, and Jason O’Brien were all on their feet a split second before she was, applauding and cheering.

“WAY TO GO, STACY!” Joe yelled at the top of his voice, while Hoss whistled and Jason let out a loud war whoop eminently worthy of his Shoshone ancestors. Even the prim and very proper Cousin Clarissa had risen to her feet and clapped loudly, grinning from ear-to-ear. Molly, Susannah, and Julio also applauded with enthusiasm.

Stacy mounted and crossed the stage with an easy confidence, smiling broadly, glad beyond measure that this phase of her life was finally completed. She eagerly looked forward to joining her father and brothers first thing tomorrow morning as a full time partner.

“Congratulations, Miss Cartwright,” Ezekiel murmured, as he handed Stacy her certificate and shook her hand.

“Thank you, Mister Abercromby.”

“Well! THAT was quite a cheering section,” Millicent said, her voice heavy laden with acid sarcasm, as Stacy took her place standing beside her. She punctuated her remark with a haughty toss of her head.

“What’s the matter, Millicent?” Stacy immediately returned, sotto voce, without missing a beat. “Jealous?”

Millicent gasped in outrage.

“Mister Julio Xavier Fernandez.”

The Fernandez family all leapt to their feet, clapping and cheering in English and in Spanish, their numbers easily surpassing the Cartwrights for volume, if not enthusiasm. The only one who remained seated was Mrs. Fernandez, who was one week from the projected birth date of the ninth child she carried within her. Even so, her ovation was no less spirited than the same offered by her husband and their other children. Julio was the oldest boy in the family, placing him third among his siblings, with two older sisters, four younger brothers, and a younger sister. He had set a fine example for his younger brothers, inspiring them to put forth their best efforts, not only in the classroom, but in other areas of their lives as well.

Susannah O’Brien leapt to her feet, clapping and cheering, followed closely by Molly, and the rest of their class, still seated. On stage, Stacy quickly tucked her certificate under her arm and added her applause to the grand standing ovation. Millicent sighed, and finally joined in, clapping her hands with insulting lackluster.

“As many of you no doubt know, Julio Fernandez has been given the award for the most improvement shown over the course of his career as a student,” Ezekiel explained as the applause and cheers began to fade, and people returned to their seats. “This young man has had to endure many hardships, not the least of which was a language barrier during his first couple of years, being fluent only in Spanish. His schoolwork has not only steadily improved over the years, but he has also discovered a love of music and a rare gift for song. Though not the first in his family to complete his basic education, he IS the first to go on to college.

“Congratulations, Mister Fernandez.” Ezekiel beamed, as he handed the young man his certificate and heartily shook his hand.

“Thank you, Mister Abercromby,” Julio murmured softly, returning the older man’s smile with an equally warm one of his own. He walked over and took his place on the stage next to Stacy.

“Miss Susannah B. O’Brien.”

Not to be outdone by either the Cartwrights or the Fernandez family, Hugh, Crystal, and Jason immediately leapt to their feet, clapping and cheering. Robert McShane, the eldest of Crystal’s two sons, stuck his two little fingers in his mouth and whistled, just as their uncle, Jason, had recently taught him. Molly, Stacy, Julio, and Liam also cheered and applauded.

Susannah looked over at her nephew and smiled her thanks and approval, as she climbed up the steps, toward the top of the platform.

“Congratulations, Miss O’Brien,” Ezekiel murmured, as he handed Susannah her certificate and shook her hand.

“Thank you, Mister Abercromby,” she returned gratefully, grinning from ear-to-ear. Like Stacy, she also looked forward to working for her father and her older sister, learning about the day-to-day operations involved in running the Shoshone Queen. She walked over and took her place next to Julio.

“Miss Molly O’Hanlan.”

Molly rose and mounted the steps, smiling, with back straight, shoulders back, displaying all the attitude she could possibly muster.

“Molly, it’s not how big you are . . . how smart you are . . . or even how big a gun you carry . . . that counts for anything . . . . ”

She could hear those words again, ringing in her ears, speaking just as clearly to the places of mind and heart now, as they did when Stacy first uttered them six years ago, almost seven, the first day they met.

Her father and sister both smiled broadly, as they clapped their hands. Her brother-in-law clapped and whistled.

“HEY, MOLLY . . . ‘WAY TO GO!” Stacy smiled and shouted, as she applauded every bit as enthusiastically as Molly’s family.

Susannah O’Brien whooped clapped her hands with much energy and enthusiasm.

“Congratulations, Miss O’Hanlan,” Ezekiel murmured as he handed Molly her certificate, and shook her hand.

“Thank you, Mister Abercromby,” Molly responded.

As she walked over to take her place beside Susannah, Molly noted with a pang of regret the absence of her mother, Myrna O’Hanlan, and brother, Frankie. The former had suffered an attack of the vapors early this morning, the absolute worst ever, brought on, no doubt by the row between herself and her son the night before.

“Mister Liam Patrick Sullivan.”

The Sullivan clan, every bit as numerous and vocal as the Fernandez family, the O’Briens, and the Cartwrights, all leapt to their feet, clapping and cheering.

“Congratulations, Mister Sullivan,” Ezekiel murmured, with the same warm smile he had given Julio and Molly.

“Thank you, Sir. Thank you very much,” Liam said, smiling back, as he shook hands with Ezekiel. He walked over and took his place beside Molly. “Modest as always, aren’t you, Girl.”

“Liam, what are you talking about?” Molly queried, taking great care to keep her voice down.

“Not one mention of the straight A average you’ve carried in all the years I’ve known YOU,” Liam chided her gently. “Molly O’Hanlan, between you ‘n me? I’m expecting great things of you, too.”

“Miss Carol Ann Thompson,” Ezekiel Abercromby wearily called the last name.

Carol Ann mounted the stairs, to the polite applause offered by her parents, her younger sister, her husband-to-be, and her perspective parents-in-law. Her mother smiled, and looked on proudly as she crossed the platform to receive her certificate.

“Congratulations, Miss Thompson . . . on your graduation from school, and upon your up coming marriage,” Ezekiel said as he handed Carol Ann her certificate, and shook her hand.

“Thank you, Mister Abercromby,” she murmured listlessly, before walking over and taking her place beside Liam Sullivan.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Ezekiel said, as he turned to the assembly of parents, of brothers and sisters, and of close friends. “I give you our graduating class and their teacher, Miss Esther Johnson, who is herself, one of the three finest teachers I have ever had the pleasure of working with during my long tenure as head of the school board. One was a woman known to us and to our children simply as Miss Tess, and the other was my own daughter.”

Everyone leapt to their feet, applauding, cheering, and whistling.

“I agree with him about Miss Tess and Miss Johnson,” Ben growled under his breath. “But Miss Abercromby, I’m afraid left a whole lot to be desired.”

“Miss Abercromby was the WORST teacher the Virginia City School’s ever had,” Joe dutifully explained to Cousin Clarissa, “bar none.”

***

 

Chapter 9

 

“Hoss . . . Joe, it was lovely . . . just lovely!” Clarissa declared with a big smile, after Ben had set off toward the platform where Stacy still remained with her graduating class, receiving the congratulations and good wishes of others. “I’m so glad now, that I stayed.”

“So am I, Cousin Clarissa,” Joe said, with all sincerity, “and I know Stacy was glad that you were able to be here, too.”

“I hope you’re feelin’ a mite better about Stacy,” Hoss said quietly. “Pa said you were kinda worried about her.”

“I feel much better about her, Hoss, knowing that she has you, Joe, and Benjamin around,” Clarissa replied, “though deep down, I still can’t quite understand why she would prefer the kind of life she’s going to have here . . . to the kind of life she COULD have in Boston. But . . . . ” she shrugged, “to each his . . . or HER own.”

“Missy Cartwright wise woman,” Hop Sing declared with a big smile.

Clarissa smiled inwardly, gratified that Hop Sing had, at long last, stopped referring to her as cousin. Though she had realized, and grudgingly come to accept the fact that Benjamin, his sons, and his daughter looked upon the man as part of their family, she just plain and simply could not bring herself to claim any kind of familial relationship. “Perhaps it IS wrong of me, but I’m too old . . . too set in my ways to try and change now.”

 

Meanwhile, Ben found himself feeling oddly disgruntled, as he made his way over toward the platform, upon seeing his daughter turn and catch Jason O’Brien up in a great big bear hug. Those feelings deepened as Jason hugged back with equal energy and enthusiasm.

“Mister Cartwright!”

Ben turned, and smiled as he saw Julio Fernandez walking toward him. His smile, however, came no where close to reaching his eyes. “Congratulations, Julio,” he said, as he shook hands with the young man. “Your family has every reason in the world to be very proud of you.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Julio said, as two bright splotches of red appeared on both cheeks. “I also want to thank you putting in a good word for me with Miss Drake.”

“I was certainly more than happy to do that,” Ben said, as he cast a quick, furtive glance over toward Stacy and Jason. He was gratified to see them just standing now, and talking quietly with each other. “Mister Abercromby was absolutely right when he said you have a rare gift,” he continued, returning his attention at once to Julio. “I’m just very glad . . . and relieved . . . that your initial contact with Miss Drake went as well as it did. To put it very politely, she can be somewhat mercurial.”

“So I’ve heard. Still . . . she’s one of the best, if not THE best, voice teacher there is. I’m deeply honored that she’s agreed to take me as a student. I’m looking forward to working with her and learning from her.”

“ . . . and I’M looking forward to your first concert in Piper’s Opera House right here in Virginia City.”

Julio smiled. “I promised Stacy that I’d save the two of you front row seats.”

“You’d better, Young Man. If I don’t see ya before you leave for San Francisco, Julio, I wish you all the best along with a safe trip.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Julio . . . Julio!” The young man turned and found his next youngest brother, Ramon, standing beside him, his complexion a few shades paler than normal and his dark brown-black eyes round as saucers. “Papa said to ask you to run, tell Doctor Martin that Mama’s having the baby.”

“N-Now?!” Julio queried, incredulous.

“Yes, now!”

“Julio, you’d best get a move on,” Ben quietly urged the stunned young man. “Tell your folks, I’m thinking about ‘em, and that I’ll remember them and the new baby tonight in my prayers.”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright,” Julio said.

“Yes, Sir . . . thank you,” Ramon voiced his gratitude, before left to return to his parents, and his oldest brother ran to find Doctor Martin. “Julio and I will tell them.”

“Pa . . . . ”

Ben turned and smiled, upon finding Stacy, with certificate in hand, standing at his elbow. “Congratulations, Young Woman,” he murmured softly, as he slipped his arms around her.

“Thank you, Pa.”

He was pleased, and gratified, as he felt her arms encircle his waist and squeeze with every bit of the exuberance he had seen her hugging Jason with a few moments before.

“I’m sure glad it’s behind me.”

“No regrets?” Ben asked, as he and his daughter made their way over to the place where Hoss, Joe, Hop Sing, and Cousin Clarissa waited.

“None,” Stacy replied. “I think the only thing that remains is for you to decide where I’m going to start come tomorrow morning.”

“I’ve been giving the matter a lot of thought,” Ben said, as he slipped a paternal arm around her shoulders, “and I’ve decided to let Joe finish up training this string of horses.”

“Oh?”

“Yep,” Ben nodded his head solemnly, then smiled. “Tomorrow morning, you’re going to be helping Hoss and me move the cattle out to the summer pastures. I hope you’ve been practicing your roping.”

“I sure have,” Stacy declared with a big smile.

“Hey, Pa . . . you ‘n Stacy ready to g’won down to the International House for some lunch?” Joe asked, as his father and sister joined the rest of the family. He glanced over at Hoss, his eyes dancing with impish delight. “The way Big Brother over there keeps looking at me and licking his chops is giving me a real case of the willies.”

Stacy laughed out loud at Joe’s comically grotesque shudder, while Clarissa looked on, uncertain, until she heard Ben laugh.

“Little Joe, Miss Stacy . . . better show Mister Hoss lotta respect,” Hop Sing immediately admonished both. The mischief dancing in his black eyes and the amused smile tugging hard at the corner of his mouth gave lie to his stern tone of voice. “Little Joe, Miss Stacy couple of puny appetizers to appetite like Mister Hoss.”

“You got that right, Hop Sing,” Hoss guffawed. “In fact the two of ‘em are too puny t’ even bother with.”

“Little Sister, I think we’ve just been insulted,” Joe alleged with mock severity.

“I KNOW we have,” Stacy immediately replied.

“All right, Children, settle down . . . all FOUR of ya!” Ben’s glare took in Hop Sing as well. The twinkle in his eyes, however, was not lost on his two sons, his daughter, or Hop Sing.

“Yes, Pa,” Hoss, Joe, and Stacy chorused together in unison, before dissolving into more laughter.

“Yes, Sir, Number One Boss of Ponderosa. Hop Sing go now, visit with papa, Hop Ling.”

“You sure you don’t want to come have lunch with us first?” Stacy asked, looking a little crestfallen.

“Hop Sing miss good company, but food at International House . . . NOT good.” Hop Sing shuddered and made a face. “Lady cook at restaurant lousy, not good cook, not nearly good as Hop Sing.”

“No one’s as good as YOU, Hop Sing, ‘n that’s a fact,” Hoss declared.

“Only one cook better,” Hop Sing said. “That Hop Ling, Hop Sing papa. He teach Hop Sing to cook before Hop Sing and papa leave China.”

“Clarissa, I . . . don’t know what your plans are, but I want to let you know that you’re welcome to stay with us for as long as you wish,” Ben said, as he and his cousin followed behind Hop Sing and his exuberant children at a slower pace.

“Thank you, Benjamin,” she murmured gratefully. “I appreciate that, very much. Truth to tell, I’m kind of at loose ends right now. That letter for me in this morning’s mail was from Cousin Rosalyn . . . . ”

“Yes, I saw you reading it before the graduation ceremonies started. Who’s Cousin Rosalyn?”

“Amelia’s mother.”

“Ah yes. The one who not long ago had a baby.”

“That’s right,” Clarissa affirmed. “It seems Jeremy . . . that’s Amelia’s husband, and the baby are both down sick, Amelia’s hysterical, and from the sound of the letter, poor Rosalyn’s beside herself. She begs me to come.”

“Are you?”

“I don’t know,” Clarissa replied, miserable and clearly torn. “Before I left them to come here, Rosalyn’s husband and I . . . well, I guess you might say we had words. Though they need me . . . they don’t really WANT me.”

“Then don’t go. As I just said before, you ARE welcome to stay with us for as long as you like,” Ben said with a smile.

“I thought maybe I’d send a wire to that home for the elderly out in Sacramento,” Clarissa said.

“The place you were going to when you stopped to visit us the last time?”

Clarissa nodded. “I was too young to go in then, but now . . . well, let’s just say I’m close enough and leave it at that.”

“Clarissa . . . . ” Ben stopped walking. “May I ask you a personal question? You certainly don’t have to answer it, if you don’t want to.”

“That’s fair enough, I suppose.”

“What about your sister and brothers?” Ben asked. “Haven’t any of THEM asked you to come live with them?”

“No,” Clarissa shook her head. “I haven’t seen them since we laid Papa to rest. I get a Christmas card from my sister, but that’s all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You needn’t be, Benjamin. They were a cantankerous lot, anyway,” Clarissa said ruefully. She started walking again. Ben fell in step along side her. “In fact, I don’t think they have very much to do with each other, and . . . as much as I would dearly love to live with you, Hoss, Joe, and Stacy, I think I’m at a time in my life that I want someplace of my own to call home.”

“I can set you up in a nice little house right here in Virginia City,” Ben offered.

“You’ve been very generous to me over the years, Benjamin.” She smiled. “Starting from the time you attacked Papa because you thought he was going to hurt me.”

“I’m surprised you even remember that. You were pretty young.”

“Five years old, and I’ll never for get it,” Clarissa declared. “But, I won’t take charity.”

A strained silence fell between them.

“Benjamin, that place out in Sacramento . . . it’s not a bad place,” Clarissa said, sounding for all the world as if she might be trying to convince herself as well as her cousin. “It’s small . . . a one room efficiency, but that’s more than enough room for me . . . and, it’s more than I’ve ever had. It’s within walking distance of the general store, and I have a lovely view of the river.”

She had purposefully neglected to mention such things as hauling her own water up from the well to a room, more than likely on the third, maybe even the fourth floor, or that she would be expected to share the bathroom facilities, located at the end of the hall, with eleven others.

“Are you sure this is what you want?”

“It’ll do.”

“Clarissa— ”

“Benjamin, you ask what I want . . . well, what I want right now is to have a nice lunch, in what looks to be a very nice restaurant, and celebrate Stacy’s graduation with her, and with you and your boys,” Clarissa said firmly. “For today, at least, I don’t want you, Hoss, Joe, or Stacy to be worrying about me.”

“Alright,” Ben agreed, “but, this conversation’s far from over.”

“MISS CARTWRIGHT? MISS CLARISSA CARTWIGHT?!”

Clarissa and Ben turned and found George Ellis, from the telegraph office, huffing and puffing as he ran up the steps, his face beet red, waving a piece of paper clutched in his right hand.

“I’m Miss Clarissa Cartwright,” Clarissa said, when George stepped up on the hotel porch beside her.

“I just now got a reply back from a Mrs. Mirabelle Standish to the wire you sent her earlier this morning,” George said.

“Th-Thank you,” Clarissa murmured as she received the message with trembling hands.

Ben reached into his pocket and drew out a half dollar. “Thank you, George. Here’s a little something for your trouble,” he said quietly, as he pressed the coin into the telegraph operator’s hand.

“Thank YOU, Mister Cartwright. Thank you very much,” George said, grinning broadly, from ear-to-ear. He turned and made his way back down the hotel steps with a definite spring in his own.

Ben turned his attention back to Clarissa. An anxious frown deepened the lines already present in his brow, upon noting her pale face, the eyes, round with shock, glued to the paper she clutched in her trembling hands. “Clarissa?” he murmured gently, as he reached out to touch her shoulder. “Clarissa . . . it’s not bad news . . . is it?”

She turned and looked up at him, with a tremulous smile and eyes glistening with the brightness of tears yet to be shed. “No, Benjamin . . . no! It’s not bad news . . . far from it,” she said, pausing to wipe the stray tears that had slipped over her eyelids, and started to run down both cheeks. “No . . . this is good news . . . very good news . . . Cousin Mirabelle has asked me to come to Boston, Benjamin.”

Ben smiled. “To visit?”

“No . . . not t-to visit . . . Benjamin, she . . . she actually wants me to come and live with her!” Clarissa exclaimed, laughing and crying at the same time.

“Clarissa, that’s wonderful.”

“I’ll be going home,” she murmured, smiling, yet not quite sure she dared believe. “I’ll finally be going home.” She gasped. “Oh dear!”

“What’s the matter?” Ben asked.

“I’ve got to wire Mirabelle immediately— ” Clarissa turned, with every intention of running all the way to the telegraph office.

Ben reached out and placed a gentle restraining hand on Clarissa’s forearm. “We’ll have plenty of time to do that . . . AFTER lunch,” he said.

“But, I . . . oh, Benjamin, I have a million things to do.”

“ . . . not the least of which is getting a good meal inside ya, now that we have two things to celebrate,” Ben said, as he steered her into the hotel and over to the French doors that opened up into the restaurant.

“I know we’re celebrating Stacy’s graduation,” she said, wholly bemused, “but . . . what ELSE are we celebrating?”

Ben smiled. “I think YOU have some good news to impart . . . . ”

“So I do,” Clarissa said, smiling back. “So I do!”

***

 

Epilogue

 

The Cartwright family assembled together at the Overland Stage depot the following morning, attired in their Sunday-go-to-meeting finest. Ben wore his best gray cotton summer suit, with a clean white shirt, black string tie, and black hat. Hoss had on his royal blue cotton suit, recently made, a freshly laundered white shirt, with a dark navy blue string tie and his white ten gallon hat. Joe wore the greenish gray linen suit that brought out the emerald in his eyes, a white shirt, freshly laundered, pressed, and starched. He held a black hat in one hand, and his black string tie was tucked away in the left hand pocket of his jacket. Stacy wore her graduation present from Cousin Clarissa, a light blue dress, made from fine linen, with rounded collar, and sleeves, slightly puffed, with a ruffled trim, that reached to her elbows. There was a thin edge of white lace around the sleeves and neck.

“Sorry you won’t be here for the big party Saturday night,” Stacy said with genuine regret, “but I’m glad to have met you, and that you were able to come for my graduation.”

“ . . . and I’m very glad I met you, too, Stacy,” Clarissa said with a big smile. “Now when Benjamin tells me about you in his letters, I’ll have a very lovely face to go with the words.”

“Thank you, Cousin Clarissa,” Stacy said, as they embraced.

“Have a safe trip, Cousin Clarissa,” Joe said with a smile. “It was good seeing you again.”

“It was very nice seeing you, too, Joe.” Clarissa offered Joe her gloved hand. She was surprised and very pleased when he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Benjamin, you mark my words . . . THIS young man is going to leave a string of broken hearts stretching from one end of Nevada to the other.”

“He already HAS,” Stacy quipped.

Hoss sighed and sarcastically rolled his eyes heavenward. “Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“With the way Li’l Brother over there’s preenin’ ‘n struttin’ his stuff . . . looks like you’re gonna need t’ start buyin’ his HATS ‘bout ten sizes larger.”

“Very funny, Big Brother,” Joe growled, as Stacy burst into a fit of the giggles. “THAT was so-ooo-ooo funny . . . I plumb forgot to laugh!”

“Joe . . . Hoss . . . and you, too, Stacy! Settle down!” Ben admonished his three younger children, while trying very hard not to smile. He, then, turned to his cousin. “Clarissa, I know you’re going to be very happy living in Boston with Cousin Mirabelle.”

“I know I will be, too, Benjamin . . . though it seems very odd to be traveling someplace where . . . no one’s sick, injured, or just had a baby,” she said with a tremulous smile and a helpless shrug. “I just hope I can . . . somehow . . . find the wherewithal to resign myself to living a life of idleness.”

“I prefer to think of it as living a life of leisure,” Ben said, taking both of her hands in his own. “After all the years you spent looking after your father, and a whole passel of relatives, I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”

“I need to be useful, Benjamin,” Clarissa said in a very small, very sad voice.

“Clarissa, you’re going to be taking on what just may be the most important job in the whole wide world,” Ben said.

“Really?!” She brightened slightly at the prospect. “What job is that?”

“Companionship. You said yourself that Cousin Mirabelle’s widowed, her children are all grown, and living their own lives, some with their own families,” Ben replied. “It can get very lonely rattling around in a big mansion up on Nob Hill.”

“Well . . . yes, I suppose it can,” Clarissa said slowly, thoughtfully.

“You also told me that Cousin Mirabelle had been a generous contributor to the Sarah Linda? Sarah Lea, perhaps?!”

“Sarah Lynn Portnoy Academy for Young Ladies,” Clarissa adroitly supplied the name of the institution.

“If she’s given so generously there, I’ll bet you anything she’s involved in a lot of other charity work.”

“You’re probably right, Benjamin.”

“If she is, she’ll more than likely get YOU involved as well,” Ben continued. “I have a real strong feeling that Cousin Mirabelle’s gonna keep you so busy, you’re gonna find yourself wishing for an idle existence.”

“Pa,” it was Hoss. “Cousin Clarissa’s bags’ve been stowed on top. Since she’s the only passenger t’ Carson City, Mister Dawson says he’s ready to go, whenever she is.”

Clarissa pulled herself up to full height and took a deep breath. “Well, I guess this is it.”

“You have a safe trip, Clarissa,” Ben said.

“Thank you, Benjamin,” she murmured softly as they embraced, “thank you so much . . . for everything. I hope you’ll write.”

“Count on it. You’ll wire us when you reach Boston?”

“Yes, I will,” Clarissa promised. After bidding the Cartwrights one last good-bye, she allowed the driver to help her up into the coach.

Ben, his sons, and his daughter stood together, watching as the coach traveled down C Street and turned the corner.

“I hope she’ll be happy living with Boston with Cousin Mirabelle,” Stacy said quietly, as they turned to leave.

“I pretty sure she will be,” Ben said. “She won’t be going to finishing school, or making any kind of societal debut, but she’ll be more in her element.”

“I just hope Cousin Mirabelle’s able to keep up with Cousin Clarissa,” Joe said, his voice filled with doubt.

“Actually . . . I’m hoping Cousin Clarissa can keep up with Cousin Mirabelle,” Ben said with a chuckle.

“Oh?” Joe queried, his voice filled with doubt.

“Surely you haven’t forgotten that Cousin Mirabelle’s youngest brother is none other than Cousin Muley?!”

“Hey, that’s right,” Hoss laughed out loud. Joe began to giggle, and Ben also joined in the laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Stacy demanded, looking from one to the other, in complete bewilderment, “ . . . and who’s this Cousin Muley?”

“I’ll tell ya all about Cousin Muley on the way home, Young Woman,” Ben promised. “Boys?”

“Y-Yeah, Pa?” Joe queried, as the laughter began to subside.

“You’d best get on down to the Livery Stable and pick up your horses,” Ben said, “and be sure you come straight home. The four of us have a lot of work to do this afternoon.”

 

The End
February 2004
Revised September 2008

Next Story in the Bloodlines Series:

Trial by Fire
Mark of Kane

***

 

  1.  Miss Clarissa Cartwright appears in Bonanza Episode #267, “Clarissa,” written by Chester Krumholz.

2.  See Bonanza Episode #267, “Clarissa,” written by Chester Krumholz.

3.  Angela Drake appeared in Bonanza Episode #201, “The Spotlight,” written by Dick Carr.

4.  Amy Wilder’s story is told in Bonanza Episode #350, written by Jack Miller and John Hawkins.

5.  Cousin Muley Jones appeared in two episodes: #160, “The Saga of Muley Jones,” written by Robert Barron and Alex  Sharp; and # 193, “Hound Dog,” written by Alex Sharp.

350 total views, 1 views today

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.