Summary: Just as the Civil War is coming to a close, Ben Cartwright arrives in Washington DC at the request of his old friend President Lincoln. Lincoln makes him an offer that could change his life, taking him away from this sons and the Ponderosa forever. If he refuses the offer, the powers that be have other plans to make him comply. But after a fateful night at Ford’s Theater, a medical emergency sends Ben into the lair of a vengeful doctor and an experience far worse than any amount of political scheming.
Rating T/PG 13: Contains brief coarse language (Word count: 24,448)
The Washington Affair
Ben stepped off the train in Washington DC, there was a feeling of jubilation in the air; the brutal Civil War had finally come to an end. Three days prior on April 9th, 1865, Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox and the Union capital was alive with celebration. Ben was uncertain why Abraham Lincoln had asked him to come now of all times. The war was over, there wasn’t much more he could say or do for him. Ben felt a bit awkward. President Lincoln had been writing to him for the past four years asking him for advice about the war. Ben was not a military man, he would sometimes gather the local militia, but grand war was not his forte. He had even paid the fine to keep his sons out of the war, a deed which was considered unpatriotic and unethical at best and treasonous at worst. But Lincoln couldn’t care less whether not Adam, Hoss and Joe fought for the union, he only cared about their father’s advice and wrote to Ben endlessly. The more Ben tried to ignore him, the more he wrote. He even threatened him a time or two if he didn’t answer, saying he would find some way to have him arrested or draft his sons if he didn’t respond. It got to the point where Ben dreaded receiving letters from the president because each one wanted more and more from him.
When Ben received his letter of invitation from Lincoln he considered not going, the journey, more than halfway across country, was long and arduous and had taken him nearly two and a half weeks. He had been lucky that much of the rail service had been restored and he was able to cross the country with relative ease, still he hated traveling and he hated being away from his ranch and his sons for so long. The trip would take at least six weeks; most of the time would be spent on travel. Still a man didn’t turn down a special invitation from the president, so he found himself in the nation’s capital, awaiting the carriage Abe was supposed to send for him.
The black carriage driver held up a sign that said “Cartwright” and Ben approached the man, smiled and handed him his bags.
“Name’s Moses,” the black man said as he loaded Ben’s things.
“Very nice to meet you Moses,” Ben said offering to shake his hand. Moses took his hand tentatively; he wasn’t used to white people treating him so directly. He smiled and offered to help Ben into the carriage, which he declined. Moses climbed up beside him and started the buggy.
It was a very short trip to the White House and Moses hardly uttered more than two words the whole time. That was all the same to Ben, he didn’t feel much like talking. It was three hours later than home and he was exhausted from travelling.
When they arrived at the gate the guard asked Ben for identification, looked on his list and waved them through, they stopped about a hundred yards away for a bag check. Lincoln had told Ben not to bring his gun. Guns were not permitted in the White House, loaded or not, but he refused to travel without it, so he had to check his pistol, holster and bullets in with the guard. When he left the White House for good, he could have them back. He didn’t want to but it was just the way it was done. Once his gun was safely checked in, Moses took him up to the front of the White House. Ben stood looking up at the large mansion. It was sure a step up from the house the Lincoln’s had had in Indiana when they were children.
“Thank you Moses,” Ben said as the man unloaded his bags and drove the carriage around back to the horse stalls. Ben lifted his bag and started up the steps. For good measure he straightened his tie and hat. Did one knock on the door in such a large place? He supposed one did and used the brass knocker on the door to announce his presence.
It took several minutes before he could hear someone opening the doors from the inside. A butler cracked the door opened and peered out at him.
“Yes?” the man said with a questioning look. He looked Ben up and down from head to foot.
“Hello, I’m Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa in Nevada Territory, I’m here to see Abe…I mean Mr…President Lincoln,” he said, switching to a more formal address for his friend. The butler too had a list which he scanned.
“There is no Ben Cartwright on my list,” he said sarcastically starting to close the door. Ben stepped forward.
“Wait, are you sure?” The man glared at him.
“Quite, Mr. Cartwright, good day sir.” The butler slammed the door. Ben stood on the porch, not sure what to do. He had not travelled two and a half weeks and over twenty five hundred miles to be turned away at the door. Surely Abe was expecting him, the carriage had been waiting for him and they took his name at the gate. What was the problem? Ben knocked again. The butler opened it.
“Persistent aren’t we?” he said dryly. “Name?” he said again.
“I already told you, Ben Cartwright,” Ben said again. The butler scanned the list.
“Sorry, still no Ben.” He proceeded to close the door again as Ben stepped into the threshold.
“Please sir, Mr. Lincoln is expecting me, can you verify with someone else? He sent a carriage for me and they had my name at the gate.”
“What is your given name?” the man asked again.
“How many times do I have to say it? Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa in Nevada!” Ben said, his voice starting to rise in frustration.
“It’s of no consequence to me where you’re of? And don’t raise your voice at the president’s home!” Ben nodded as the butler continued, “Is that your Christian name sir?” the butler asked droning on, his cat like eyes sizing Ben up quite disapprovingly.
“Christian name…? Yes, of course.”
“Benjamin, for God’s sake,” Ben thundered. The butler scanned the list.
“Why yes, there is a Benjamin Cartwright on this list, not Ben,” he said glaring at him. “Come inside sir.” Ben looked at the butler angrily.
“Why didn’t you let me in before?” The butler closed the door behind him.
“Sir, this is the home of the President of the United States, if you cannot give your full name, you cannot come in.”
“Everyone knows Ben is short for Benjamin!” Ben hissed.
“And yet it took you three times to tell me your name, forgetting your own name now?”
“No…” Ben said wanting to protest more, but the butler had already started walking away.
“Come along, Benjamin Cartwright, I’ll show you to your room.”
The room was the fanciest room Ben had ever been in. The ceiling was higher than the Ponderosa’s, there was red fluffy carpet beneath his feet, a massive four poster bed with a canopy and rows and rows of books along the walls. Adam would be in heaven, Ben mused as he set his suitcase down on the bed.
“No cases on the bed, Benjamin Cartwright,” the butler said, removing his suitcase from the bed. “I must remind you, you are in the White House, sir, not in your wild west. We’re civilized here.”
“Yes and must I remind you that I am a guest in your home?” Ben said angrily.
“It is not my home and everyone here is expected to conform to the rules of this house. You warrant no special treatment from me. I shall inform the President that you’re here,” the butler said as he removed the suitcase from the bed and left the room.
“Sheesh!” Ben said putting his suitcase back on the bed. He unloaded his clothes, he had only brought two suites with him but seeing how everyone dressed in Washington DC, he was beginning to think he should have bought more for the trip. If need be he could always buy more in DC. He hung them in the closet next to his “everyday clothes” (which he wasn’t sure he planned on wearing after all) and set out his shaving items and toothbrush. It was exciting to be in the White House. It was a once in a lifetime experience and despite his initial meeting with the butler, he planned to have a good time. It might be nice to catch up with Lincoln without the pressures of war weighing on the president.
He turned when there was a knock at the door and opened it quickly. He looked up into the haggard face of his old friend.
“Benjamin, so good to see you,” Lincoln said hugging him tightly. Ben hugged him back, concerned at how thin his friend felt. Abe was always tall and gangly but he felt like flesh and bones.
“You too Abe,” Ben said. “Or, do people call you something else now?” he said following the president out of the room.
“Old friends still call me Abe, Ben,” he said. “I trust your journey was pleasant?”
“Long and arduous and I’m getting a bit old for these endeavors, but not bad. Your butler is another story.” The president’s eyes twinkled with amusement as they stopped in a corridor.
“He’s quite the bane of everyone’s existence, mine too if you must know, but I don’t do the hiring.” The president stood back and took stock of his friend.
“The west agrees with you Ben, you look as strong as ever. Shoulders still just as broad as the last time I remember. You hair’s turned a bit more grey than I recall.”
“A bit yes, but that Little Joe will turn anyone’s hair grey. I think my hair will be snow white before that boy’s done with me.” Ben smiled and the president smiled back. It was so good to see Ben.
“I envy you your Ponderosa, my friend, so peaceful and quiet, like our farm in Indiana when we were kids. Oh to be back in those times when life was so much simpler.” Ben didn’t say anything; life had been very hard for him in those years. He didn’t want to go back.
“Come west when your term is done, Abe. Life is quitter in the west. You and Mary and the children are always welcome on the Ponderosa.”
“I look forward to a pleasant reprieve, dear friend,” he said quietly. They resumed their walking and Ben followed him up the stairs and down a long hall, passing room after room. There were so many rooms and so many decorations, he felt sure he would get lost. He wanted to take stock of everything so he could tell his sons about it when he got home but there was so much to take in, he felt he would never remember it all.
Lincoln led him to his office and offered him a seat by the window. Ben looked out the window to the rear lawn; he could see the horse stalls and the outbuildings. It reminded him of a southern plantation.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you here,” he said offering his friend a drink of whiskey. He did not pour any for himself. Ben took the glass and sipped it slowly. The liquor was soothing to his travel weary nerves.
“Well yes I am,” he said. The president looked out the window, his shoulders sagged and he looked pale and ill. Ben couldn’t help but wonder if Abe’s health would hold through his second term in office.
“War takes a toll on a man both physically and mentally. Do know what it’s like to constantly sign orders that you know will result in the deaths of hundreds of our finest young men?”
“No I can’t imagine,” Ben said trying to keep the edge out of his voice. Those orders had been signed on his advice. Ben knew that every word he wrote to the president could potentially mean the lives of many Americans on both sides of the war.
“Speaking of fine young men, how are Adam, Eric and Joseph?”
“Very well, thank you. They are all fine young men now. I couldn’t do without them on my ranch. I am so proud of the men they have become.” Ben’s eyes twinkled at the mention of his sons. They were his life.
“And you, how are you doing? It must get lonely at times for want of a woman’s company?”
“It has its moments yes, but for the most part, I’m too busy to worry about that much.”
“More busy than a president? Even I want the companionship of a woman Ben, even if she is a bit, shall we say, eccentric?” Ben smiled, remembering Mary. She had seemed a bit crazy to him that one time he met her years ago and he had heard stories since that she was insane or very nearly there.
“I keep an eye out,” Ben said.
“There’s no shortage of eligible ladies in DC, Ben.”
“Dare I ask what you’re getting at Abraham?” Ben asked suspiciously.
“I want you to stay here to advise me.” Ben looked into his drink. He wasn’t entirely surprised at the request but it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.
“You have advisors, plenty of them as I hear.”
“Yes, but none like you Cartwright. You have more wisdom in one letter than most of my advisors have in a full year of talk.”
“It’s easy to offer suggestions when I’m twenty five hundred miles away and far removed from the situation.”
“Wise council is wise council. I know a wise councilor when I hear one. You know, many political entities want me to punish the south for this war but I don’t think that’s best. What do you think I should do?”
Ben thought, he didn’t see how he was qualified to make such a decision, he could only offer his opinion.
“If it was me, I wouldn’t punish them.”
“Don’t you think they deserve it for starting this war and dragging it out for four long years?”
“Sure, maybe they deserve it but that’s hardly the point. One of the main reasons for this war was to preserve the union, was it not?” The president nodded. Ben continued. “So the best way to preserve the union is to get the southern states to come back to the union of their own accord. Promise to protect their land and pardon everyone but the high ranking military officials and you’ll get the poor folks on your side, my position is the same as I wrote in the letter I sent in ’63,” Ben said. “Punishing them will accomplish nothing expect perpetuating the hard feelings. Help them rebuild and by guaranteeing that their land is safe, and I guarantee you’ll get the wealthy plantation owners on your side. Spoken from someone who would rather die than see his land in the hands of someone else that will go a long way in endearing you to the wealthy landowners, many of whom had their fortunes wiped out by the war, their land’s all they have left.”
“I will not give them back their slaves,” the president said.
“As you shouldn’t, you cannot give them all they want, if you did, this war would have been for naught, but you can give them a lot, you can give the back their lives and dignity. It’s simple, use federal funds to help them rebuild. I’ve been to the south, Abe. I’ve seen the destruction.”
“It’s not our responsibility to help them rebuild!” the president contended.
“Sure it is, if they pledge their loyalty to the union and come back willingly then they are part of this country and therefore worthy of federal aid. They’re broke and cannot rebuild on their own. After all, what is the point of admitting them back to the union if they themselves and the union cannot benefit from it? The sooner you help them, the sooner they can begin producing and being profitable to the Union again. The south is or was before the war, the largest exporter of cotton in the world, that’s a valuable industry for the union and a huge source of taxable income. Help get that industry going again.” The president’s face broke into a wide grin, his grey eyes twinkled with amazement.
“You see what I mean? Not one of my advisors ever said it as well as that. I do wish you’d stay and advise me. Stop being so damn bullheaded and just stay here Cartwright. I need you.”
“I’m sorry but no,” Ben said firmly. Abraham Lincoln rose from his chair and gazed out the window. Ben watched the president, pained at how thin and gaunt he looked.
“I sometimes think of those days when we were kids. Carefree days, when we fished all day long, remember those days?”
“Yes, I do,” Ben said. Lincoln turned and smiled at him.
“They were good times,” Abe said. “You were my best friend for a long time.”
“And you were mine…” Abe walked back to the chair across from him and sat down.
“Those were much happier times weren’t they?” Ben thought about it. Not so much for him. His mother drank a lot in those days and often turned her wrath on her eldest son. She beat him mercilessly that summer when is father was away, determined to make him stop using his left hand. Abe had been his only source of comfort. Even after they moved out of Indiana, they still kept in close contact for many years after.
“I suppose not so much for you, Ben,” the president said sadly remembering that painful day.
Six year old Ben Cartwright’s cheeks were streaked with giant tears that were dripping off his chin. He was holding his left hand and sobbing. Lincoln knew he hated to cry, but by his inability to catch his breath, he knew he had been crying very hard. Lincoln ran to his friend as Ben ran towards him, worried that something terrible had happened.
“Ben, what’s the matter?” Lincoln called coving the ground between them quicker than Ben could.
“I forgot Abe, I forgot not to use my left hand like mother told me…” Ben gasped between sobs. “Mother said she’d do it if I didn’t stop and she did,” Ben said more tears escaping from his dark eyes. “She broke my fingers.” Ben released his left hand and showed his broken digits to the older boy. Lincoln’s anger rose in him and it was all he could do to keep from running into the small farm house and giving Mrs. Cartwright a piece of his mind. Even remembering it all those years later, made Lincoln’s blood boil and brought tears to his eyes, she had no right to do that to his friend.
The president broke from the terrible memory, his gaze turning to Ben who appeared to be lost in his own thoughts; he still appeared to primarily use his right hand. His mother had broken him and gotten her way. She was one of the few people ever to break Ben Cartwright, of that Lincoln was sure.
“Horrible cruel woman…” the president said under his breath. Ben looked at him questioningly. “Your mother.” Ben looked at his left hand without realizing he was doing it. He rubbed his index and ring fingers absently. His index finger was slightly crooked and was always a bit stiff when the weather changed. He flexed his fingers and looked up at his friend.
“She had her demons just like we all do. I suppose she only thought she was doing what was best for me,” Ben said finally. Abe’s face turned hard.
“I don’t see what’s best about breaking a boy’s hand for some silly superstition. But she was your mother and I will say no more about it…You know, if this was the old country and I was king, I could force you to stay,” the president said bringing the topic back to what he wanted.
“Well it sure is a good thing that this is not the old country,” Ben said quickly.
“It would be so nice to have a real friend Ben, someone whom I could confide in who didn’t want anything in return from me. Someone who would tell me like it was. You wouldn’t believe how many advisors have simply told me what they think I wanted to hear over the years. Others have told me what I should do to meet their own political agendas. Some are afraid to tell me what they really think. You’re not.” Ben sighed. That was one thing he disliked about Abraham Lincoln, he was always trying to make him do things for him that he didn’t want to do. Sometimes Ben felt as if Abe relied too heavily on him to make the difficult decisions the president did not want to make himself. And he often refused to take no for an answer.
“I love my sons and my ranch, I wouldn’t be happy leaving either. I’ve poured too much of my life into all of them.”
“Blood, sweat and tears is that it?”
“Pretty much…those boys have turned my hair grey and that ranch has made my hands bleed but I wouldn’t have it any other way and I’m not leaving.”
“Your boys are grown now aren’t they Ben? Your youngest Joseph is what twenty one?”
“Twenty two,” Ben said.
“Oh yes, I recall, just a year older than my Robert. Your sons are plenty old enough now. They don’t need you. Come stay here and be my closest advisor.” Ben looked down into his empty glass, he was exhausted and tired of saying no.
“Maybe they don’t need me but I need them,” Ben said finally. The president sighed. Ben Cartwright was as stubborn as he ever was. It was his stubbornness that caused his mother to break his hand, but it was also his stubbornness that gained him the largest spread west of the Rocky Mountains. It was the stubbornness that Lincoln valued greatly in his friend. The president leaned forward, pressing his fingertips together.
“Ben, I will make it worth your while,” he said conspiratorially. Ben leaned a little forward, intrigued.
“What do you mean?”
“I will make you my running mate in ’70 if you stay on here in DC and advise me for the rest of this term.”
“Running mate?” Ben asked, his heart racing. If his ears weren’t playing tricks on him (and they rarely did), Lincoln had just offered him the vice-presidency in four years. Ben was stunned speechless for a moment.
“Vice-president, Benjamin, the second most powerful man in the country. Lincoln and Cartwright 1870…what do you say?” Ben couldn’t say anything. He knew what an honor his friend was bestowing upon him. He needed time to think and clear his head.
“I…well…wow. I thought you’d be done after this term,” Ben said. Lincoln smiled as he watched his friend’s face. The stunned shock was evident in Ben’s eyes.
“Mary wants me to run again and it might not be so horrible in peace time. Now I see I have struck a nerve,” he said triumphantly, noticing the look on his friend’s face. It was a rare moment when anyone could stun Ben Cartwright. Lincoln reveled in it.
“What about Johnson? Wouldn’t it be expected that he will be your VP again?” Ben’s voice was a little shaky but his composure was starting to return.
“Johnson’s an idiot Ben, he’s a weak, stupid little man and I’ll ask whomever I want. And I want you.”
“I don’t think I could leave my ranch forever.”
“It won’t be forever. I promise you at least a month off every year and send you back to the Ponderosa…I will make sure your sons are protected…there’s no limit to what I can do for you…” Ben held up his hand.
“It takes me six weeks just to travel back and forth…and we have a thousand square miles Abe, there’s no way you can ask the tax payers to protect all of it.”
“Not all of it, no, but I can put a detail on Adam, Eric and Joseph round the clock. The house will be constantly guarded by our finest soldiers. Whatever you need, you’ll have. And fine two months off, no questions asked. There are a lot of perks to being VP, Ben: parties almost every week, fine food, the best wine in the world, excellent brandy and whiskey and women aplenty. You could have a different woman every night if you want…or different ones in the same night if that’s your fancy,” Lincoln said winking at his handsome friend as he played up all the aspects now that he had Ben’s attention. The president walked to a cabinet and pulled out an aged bottle of fine French wine and poured two glasses. He brought it back to the chair and handed one glass to his friend. Ben took a drink.
“That is very good wine,” he said savoring it carefully.
“You could have that whenever you want if you take my offer and since you’re unmarried, you can use your charm and good looks on the wives and daughters of dignitaries and have any woman you desire.” The president sized up his friend. He always envied Ben his looks. Even as children, Benjamin Cartwright turned the ladies heads. His shoulders were broad and his eyes were black as coal and liquid and his smile set women’s hearts aflutter. And when he opened his mouth, his booming, magnificent voice would melt the resolve of both men and women alike. He would have women throwing themselves at him in DC, young and old, married or not.
“You’ll have the ladies clamoring over each other to get to you Ben,” the president said, winking his grey eyes at him.
“I’m not sure about that,” Ben said unable to hide his smile. Lincoln always had been a great flatterer.
“I am,” Lincoln said. “You can have your pick of whomever you wish, bed a different one every night if you want. Even after you’re married…” Ben coughed and sputtered up his wine, slight color rising to his face.
“I don’t want.” The president admired that about his friend. He just hoped he would be able to stay that way, the temptation was just too great for most men, and even homely men like him had women constantly throwing themselves at him. They were attracted to power, but power and good looks were a brutal combination in politics. It would be extremely hard for Ben to resist. One look from those amazing eyes of his and women would melt in front of him. And it was a very lonely life despite all the people that were always around.
“You will, it can get terribly lonely, I won’t lie to you about that. A good woman, or at least a good night with one, will ease some of the loneliness that comes with this job.” Ben looked at his friend, he really couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“You’re serious about this, aren’t you, Abe?”
“Yes, I’ve thought this through very carefully. The more advice I’ve gotten, the more I’ve appreciated your frankness and honesty. This country has a long road of healing ahead of it and who better to help with that process than you? And a fitting reward for being my advisor (aside from your salary of course), would be to make you my vice-president. And you know, the vice-presidency is only the first step to the presidency.”
“I don’t wish to be president,” Ben said. “I don’t even want to be vice-president. I like what I have now. I’ve worked so hard for the Ponderosa and for my sons.”
“You don’t have to leave any of it, Ben and you don’t have to decide now. Come to dinner tonight and join Mary and I at the theater tomorrow and when you go back home, think hard on it, talk it over with your sons and give me your answer. It’s a lot to take in, I know and it’s a lot to ask of you, but do it as a favor to me. Now you must be exhausted from your travels. I will have the butler Weems draw you a bath, you can rest a bit and then he’ll show you down to dinner.”
“I would like to take supper in my room tonight if that’s okay, I’m exhausted.” Lincoln smiled somewhat patronizingly.
“I will see you in the dining hall at 8pm.” That was that. He was to meet Lincoln’s friends, like it or not. The president was making his decision easier for him.
Abraham Lincoln walked away from his office, worried that his friend had not agreed to run with him. There was no doubt he deeply cared for Ben Cartwright and he was a wonderful advisor, but that was not the only reason he offered him the position of vice-president in 1870. The truth was he had narrowly won the last election of which he was only a few months into, and the likelihood of him winning a third term was even more slim. But in Ben Cartwright he saw his chance. His friend was charming, charismatic and incredibly handsome. He had a good build, broad shoulders, a ready smile and an amazing voice. With him on the ticket, the women would swoon and the men would see a man they could trust.
Women couldn’t vote, but they were powerful influences on their husbands when it came time to cast a ballot. Not only that but he was a western cowboy, he was the embodiment of a self-made man who had risen out of poverty to become one of the wealthiest men in all of Nevada. He wasn’t at all sure that Ben would agree to be his running mate, but he at least hadn’t said no outright. If he did say no, Lincoln was prepared to insist. Abraham Lincoln was an honest man, but he wasn’t above using the power of his office to get his way. One didn’t become president unless he was willing to bend the rules a bit, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He would think hard on it and see what Mary thought, after all, it was her idea for him to run for a third term and her idea for him to pick a new running mate.
Ben sat at the long table that evening as course after course was offered to him. He tried to be polite to all the guests but there were just so many people and so much talk, it was hard to follow, and he was tired to his bones. He normally kept up very well with politics, but the truth was, he was not as well informed as many of the people at dinner, he simply lived too far away to keep up with all the political scheming in DC. His heart began to long for the Ponderosa and he was homesick for his sons and the life and things he knew. The longer he stayed at dinner, the more convinced he became of his decision not to accept Lincoln’s offer of the vice-presidency. Most of the people were very nice, but patronizing and fake. Every single man who talked to him wanted to know about Indians as how many he saw every day and if they were as blood thirsty as they had heard. No one seemed to want to hear when Ben said that they were not and that most of the ones he knew were very nice and only wanted to raise their families in peace, the same as everyone else.
“Must be the exception, my friend,” they would all say and then launch into a story about an aunt or second cousin who was attacked by a wild band of blood thirsty savages. Then they would inevitably ask about bandits and outlaws and all of the stories they read about in the dime novels, insisting that they had to be true as well “as you couldn’t make up some of those tales.” Ben knew full well that most of those tales were made but didn’t see the point in arguing.
“You must be a fast gun to live in such a wild place,” they would remark, not allowing him the chance to respond. He was fast with a gun and there were bandits in the west, but there were bandits and outlaws everywhere. They always maintained that they could never live in the west. Ben thought the same thing about DC and would have told them as much if it wasn’t for the fact that he was an honored guest of the president and did not wish to embarrass him. Instead he just smiled and said that the stories were very largely exaggerated and that the west was coming along just fine. The dinner guests soon tired of questioning him when he didn’t give them the answers they wanted and eventually left him alone to finish his dinner in peace.
He finally loosened up when dinner ended and the dancing begun. He liked to dance. There were plenty of beautiful women to dance with and dancing took him away from the constant barrage of questions and stupid assumptions. But he soon tired of dancing also as he could never dance with the same woman for more than one dance. There was no shortage of women who wanted to dance with him, most of whom were half his age and giggled incessantly at whatever he said, humorous or not.
When the fourth dance finally ended, Ben dragged himself off the dance floor and made his way to the refreshment table where he hoped to get a brief reprieve. He helped himself to punch and watched the dancers. It was almost nicer to watch than to dance. Fatigue was setting in hard and he feared if he sat down, he would fall asleep right where he sat.
“I see you’ve found plenty of women to dance with you,” a voice beside him said. Ben turned and looked towards the source of the voice. It belonged to a tall, thin faced man with a long pointed nose, with steel blue eyes and neatly trimmed beard.
“Yeah it’s nice to have a break for a bit. Ben Cartwright,” Ben said, introducing himself as he extended his hand to the tall man beside him. The man recoiled just a bit, but took his outstretched hand firmly.
“You wouldn’t be Benjamin Cartwright of Virginia City Nevada would you?” Ben was a bit surprised but hid it with a ready smile. He had not seen the man at dinner and wondered how he knew so much.
“Why yes I would, one in the same. I own a ranch called the…”
“Ponderosa,” the man said finishing his sentence. Ben felt a more than a little uneasy.
“How did you know?”
“Forgive me, my name is Dr. Jacob Fox, personal physician to the president. I believe you know my wife Anne and my daughter Alice. They stayed with you on your ranch about ten years ago when the stagecoach got stuck in Virginia City.” The doctor held his gaze, searching his eyes for any indication that his suspicions were correct.
“Oh yes, I remember, your wife and daughter are very lovely. We enjoyed having them very much,” Ben said his heart pounding with the memories of Anne.
“I bet you did,” Dr. Fox said sarcastically, his gaze lingering on the rancher. Ben met his gaze.
“What are you implying sir?” he asked coldly. The doctor met his stare.
“Not a thing…” he said, his words loaded with innuendo. “It’s just well, you know, a woman alone on a ranch with four men, it does cause one to speculate.”
“Two of my sons were just boys at the time, so it wasn’t four men exactly. And you’re welcome to speculate all you want doctor,” Ben said, hoping to see Anne at the dance. He wouldn’t approach her, but it would be nice to see her again. If she were in Washington, that might be enough incentive for him to stay, but no, an affair with the wife of the physician to the president would be far too scandalous.
“So you deny it?”
“What are you implying exactly?” Ben asked.
“You know, maybe you and Anne had something going on,” the doctor continued, causally sipping his punch.
“What kind of something?” Ben asked, knowing full well what he was implying but he wanted to make him say exactly what he was referring to. The doctor lowered his voice and leaned in close to Ben’s ear.
“You slept with her,” he hissed. Ben remained nonchalant.
“Slept with her? Well that could imply many things; I slept in my house while she also slept in my house at the same time so one could argue that I slept with her given that we were in the same vicinity…”
“Damn it Cartwright! You know what I mean. Did you have marital relations with Anne?” Ben finished his punch and looked the doctor in the eye.
“How could I have had “marital relations” with her if we are not married? Now if you’ll excuse me, this next song is a waltz and it’s been a while since I’ve had a good waltz,” Ben said.
“I won’t excuse you!” he shouted but Ben was already heading back for the dance floor. Dr. Fox glared at him, he would find out what went on between him and Anne if he had to beat it out of one or both of them. Cartwright had taken his questions and circled them back on him, the man was clever but he would catch him and when he did, he would make him pay for it. He had long suspected an affair had happened but did not have proof.
The doctor watched Cartwright go out to the dance floor, he wanted him out of DC and he wanted to know the truth. He watched him dancing with the women on the dance floor. Cartwright had a way with the ladies that he envied. Sure Dr. Fox had had his share of women, but most seemed to want something from him or he had to pay for their services. He had very little doubt Cartwright would have to pay for any of them. Just like he was sure Anne had lain with him willingly, he was sure that the women he danced with would too if he desired. There was just something about him, the doctor observed enviously.
Hours later, when the party was still in full swing, Ben finally snuck upstairs and made for his room, but he had company he didn’t want. The woman, whose name Ben thought was Margaret or Martha, and who was younger than Joe, startled him when she pushed him against the wall outside his bedroom and kissed his neck, pulling on his collar as she did so. He pushed her away but she was undeterred.
“I’m really very tired, madam, and would like nothing better than to go to bed,” he said as she kissed his lips. He did not kiss back and turned his head away from her.
“Then let’s go to bed darling,” she purred into his ear as she ran her fingers along his face. He recoiled.
“I meant I want to go to bed without you,” Ben said prying her arms from around his neck annoyed that she had followed him up from the party. It was after two o’clock in the morning on April 14th and he was so tired he could barely stand.
“Oh loosen up,” the woman said yanking his shirt from his pants as she ran her hands along his bare skin under his shirt. He pulled her hands off his body, irritated. She was nearly falling down she was so drunk and he was dead on his feet.
“You are so incredibly handsome, do you know that Mr. Cartwheel?” she slurred, throwing her arms around his neck as she pressed her lips to his, he turned away quickly as he pulled her arms from around his neck yet again.
“Madam, you’re very drunk and I’m not interested,” he said firmly pushing her away. “Now, good night,” he said freeing himself with some difficulty from her grasp as he squeezed into his room, not opening the door enough for her to follow him in. He sighed with relief when he was finally inside with the door closed. He lit a lantern and changed quickly into his night clothes, he was so tired he was seeing double and his vison blurred. He hated Washington and was counting down the days until he could go home. He missed his boys; he missed his ranch, his horse and his own room. He even missed Hop Sing’s cooking. Lincoln could not pay him enough to be vice-president, not if the dinner and the party were any indications of what he would have to deal with on a regular basis.
Most of the women were pretty but they were half his age and empty headed ninnies and the men weren’t much better, they all had an agenda. The one woman he had wanted to see was nowhere to be found but that was probably for the best. If he had seen her…well he hadn’t so it didn’t matter. At least the bed was incredibly comfortable and he was soon sound asleep, but was awoken by Weems promptly at seven in the morning, four his time, for breakfast, either way, he had slept less than four hours. Ben said he wasn’t hungry and would like to sleep, but Weems wouldn’t hear of such an insult to the family. The butler proceeded to let himself into Ben’s room, threw back the blinds, and yanked the covers off him.
“Get up Benjamin!” he shouted startling Ben out of twilight.
“I’m tired, get out!” Ben thundered back. But Weems just stood by the bed, his arms folded tightly across his chest as he glared down at him. Ben shaded his eyes against the sunlight that was now streaming into the room, stinging and burning his unaccustomed eyes.
“I won’t get out until you get up and don’t even think about showing up to breakfast in anything other than a suit and you had better shave. I’ve prepared the water by the mirror for you already…” Weems’ tirade was cut short when Lincoln entered the room, Ben was sitting up in bed but had not yet gotten up. He was blinking quickly, letting his eyes get used to the light.
“Seems our guest is being insolent and ungrateful sir,” Weems said.
“Leave him be Weems, why it’s only four in the morning by Nevada time, isn’t that right Ben?” Lincoln asked. His exhausted friend rubbed his dark eyes that looked even darker to Lincoln than before, and nodded. The butler was incredulous, but left the room, mumbling and cursing.
“Sorry about that,” he said as the butler slammed the door behind him. “He can be very demanding, even to me.” Ben forced a smile, he was tired and didn’t want to talk but Lincoln had taken a seat on his bed. Ben rubbed his eyes, but the exhaustion still hung heavy.
“Ben, there is something that’s been on my mind. I meant to tell you about it yesterday but we got a bit sidetracked.” Ben thought it could wait until later but didn’t say so.
“What is it Abe?”
“I had a dream a few weeks ago that’s been very troublesome to me. Have you ever dreamt of your own death?” Ben was far too tired to recall all the dreams he’d ever had and would have rather been dreaming than talking.
“Not that I recall,” he said forcing the irritation out of his voice as he blinked rapidly; still trying to adjust to the light that was assaulting his tired eyes. “Why?”
“Because I did, and I think…I don’t believe I will survive the presidency Ben.” Ben sat up straight, his exhaustion forgotten momentarily.
“Dreams are just that, dreams Abe. You can’t put too much thought into them.”
“I know, I know, but this was different. I had a dream I was here in the White House and I was walking around and it was very quiet. I came upon a room, my office I believe it was, and there were many people gathered around, some were weeping and there was a solider standing guard. There was a body covered with a sheet in the background so I asked the solider who had died and he told me it was the president and that he had been killed by an assassin. When I stepped around him and pulled back the sheet, it was my own bloody face I saw… it was horrifying Ben.” Ben’s heart skipped a beat; he had had a similar dream about Abe a week before he came out. But his dream hadn’t been in the White House. In Ben’s dream they had been out somewhere, sitting in a balcony and a man had come up behind the president and shot him in the head. Ben remembered reaching for his gun to shoot the assassin but his gun was not at his hip. When he looked back at the president, he had begun to bleed all over Ben’s clothes and that was when he woke up. He decided against telling the president about his dream.
“It has sorely irked me,” Abe said.
“I imagine so,” Ben agreed. “But it was just a dream, dreams can play tricks on our minds all the time. You know that. And when you’re stressed, they tend to get worse.” Lincoln eyed him suspiciously.
“You don’t believe that yourself do you Ben?” he asked.
“Yes I do,” Ben said, unable to hide his irritation. He really, really wanted to go back to sleep. But Lincoln continued.
“I had a similar dream before Willie died only the figure under the sheet was him and not me.” Ben rubbed his heavy eyes and tried to be understanding.
“I can understand how the dream can be very unsettling, but that doesn’t mean it’s real. It was just a bad dream and even if it was real, what can you do about it? Every time you step out of this house, there is the potential for someone to kill you. It comes with the territory. So you can either stay locked in this house for the next four years, or eight if you win again and hope to avoid that fate, or you can go out and live your life as much as possible and give that dream no more of your time.” The president rose slowly, his fingers pressed together in thought.
“It’s been weighing heavily on my mind, but you have helped me some. I’m sorry Weems disturbed you. Please sleep as much as you want and get up when you are rested. I will make sure there is something warm for you to eat when you get up. We are planning to leave for the theater at seven tonight so please be up by then.”
“I will,” Ben said. The president smiled and slowly closed the door behind him. Ben got up and closed the curtains and slid back under the covers. He tried in vain to sleep for another hour but was unable to do so. So he shaved, dressed in his suit (Weems had taken the one he worn the previous night to be washed) and headed to the kitchen for breakfast. He was surprised to see Mary still at the table, sipping her tea.
“Good morning Mrs. Lincoln,” he said taking a seat beside her.
“Good morning Mr. Cartwright, I trust you slept well?” she said waving a maid over to the table. “Coffee?”
“Yes please,” Ben nodded as the maid poured a steaming cup. She set cream and sugar in front of him but he declined. He sipped the coffee black, willing the steaming liquid to awaken his still exhausted body.
“I’ve slept better, for one thing Weems burst in my room very early trying to make me get up, but I guess you have a very hectic household to run here which needs to run on schedule,” Ben said as another maid emerged with a piping hot tray of flapjacks, eggs, bacon, toast and maple syrup. Hoss would love this, Ben thought, wishing his sons were there. His boys had way of grounding him when he felt especially out of his element like he did there.
“We do indeed, but you are a guest in our home who has traveled a long way at the request of my husband. I shall make sure he does not disturb you again.” Ben nodded his thanks and started on his breakfast. The flapjacks were some of the best he had ever tasted. He supposed that came with being the president. Only the best was served. Mary set her tea down in front of her and watched him eat. Ben felt a little uncomfortable.
“Is there something you wish to talk about?” he asked, wiping his mouth. He wanted to eat and be left in peace, but he could see that wasn’t going to happen.
“Yes, Abraham told me he offered you the vice-presidency in ’70 and I must say, I think you’ll be great together.”
“Well thank you Mrs. Lincoln and I’m flattered it just that I haven’t accepted the offer yet. There’s much for me to consider,” Ben said taking a sip of his coffee before he took more bites of his breakfast. Was there no way to just have a quiet moment where he could eat in peace? Mary looked confused.
“What is there to consider, Mr. Cartwright? Abraham has just offered you the second highest position in the US Government and you need to consider it? You insult my husband and myself. We have discussed at length for many months.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Lincoln, I do not wish to insult you or your husband, but there is the matter of my ranch and my sons…I have a lot to think about.”
“Your sons are of no consequence in this decision. They are grown are they not? Why, your youngest is a year older than Robert who has just come back from the war. It’s not as if they are children.”
“Grown or not I resent the idea that they are of no consequence in my decision Mrs. Lincoln. I love them very much and I want to be near them.”
“Grown children leave their parents all the time, Mr. Cartwright. And for that matter, that takes care of your ranch too. Have your sons manage it, it will be there for you when you get back. There, you see, those matters were easily settled.” Ben ate more of his food, letting the silence linger. Mrs. Lincoln was being extremely pushy and he was feeling very uneasy. He resented the suggestion that his children were of no consequence in his decision. His sons were his life, grown or not.
“You have children, would you willingly leave them?” he asked.
“Perhaps, if I was offered something as good as what my husband has offered to you. They will always be there…” she cut off what she was going to say.
“They won’t always be there, Mrs. Lincoln, we have no guarantee of that do we?”
“No we most certainly do not,” she agreed.
“DC is more than twenty five hundred miles from my ranch and my sons, if something happened they would be dead and buried by the time I got back. I couldn’t live with that.”
“As parents we have to live with many things we don’t wish to Mr. Cartwright and as Americans we all have to make sacrifices for the good of our country, even if it may not be what we want. Your boys didn’t fight in the war because you paid to keep the out, legal yes, moral and patriotic, maybe not so much. You owe Abraham and your country at least this.”
“I don’t owe him anything, Mrs. Lincoln and I needed my sons to run my ranch, I kept them out of the war for that reason.” The president’s wife looked at him over the rim of her cup. She set it down and looked him square in the eyes.
“Or could it be that you were scared they would die?” she said, lowering her voice. Ben swallowed his food and finished his coffee, which the maid quickly refilled.
“Isn’t that every parent’s worst fear?” Mrs. Lincoln nodded.
“Yes I suppose you’re right about that. You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child Mr. Cartwright; it’s the worst possible thing in the world.”
“I’ve lost a child Mrs. Lincoln; I know what it feels like.” She raised an eyebrow and watched him eat.
“Really? Abraham never mentioned one of your children dying? You lost a child?” Ben nodded, he still had a lot left to eat but it looked like he was going to have a long drawn out breakfast because every time he took a bite, she asked him another question.
“A daughter in infancy, before Joseph was born,” Ben said quietly. He thought of his daughter sometimes but rarely spoke of her. It was far too painful even after so many years.
“Well a daughter in infancy is hardly the same as a son of eleven, wouldn’t you agree?” Ben was stunned; he didn’t know what to say. Yes, maybe losing a baby was easier than losing a child after eleven years, all he knew was that it hurt like hell when his infant daughter died.
Mary glared at Ben from the other side of the table. She put down her cup again and pursed her lips. She seemed oblivious to the pain she was causing him and continued.
“I hope you’re not suggesting, Mr. Cartwright, that the loss of a baby girl is anywhere near comparable to the loss of my eleven year old son?” she remarked coldly. “How long did she even live, twelve, twenty four hours?”
“Three hours and twenty five minutes,” Ben said taken aback by her coldness. His heart was breaking and his appetite was suddenly waning despite the nagging of his stomach.
“And how much could you have felt for her in that time, Benjamin?! You couldn’t possibly have loved her liked I loved my dear Willie,” she added. Ben’s heart was heavy, he was sad and suddenly very angry. He could still see his daughter, the little blonde haired angel who had died in his arms. Ben blinked back tears. He had loved his daughter from the moment he knew Marie was with child.
“Don’t you dare pretend to know what it’s like to lose a child, Mr. Cartwright! Your baby daughter doesn’t count. Men don’t want girls,” Ben put down his cup louder than he had intended and returned the woman’s glare. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He didn’t expect her to weep in sympathy with him, but he also didn’t expect the cold disregard she was displaying either.
“I don’t know, Mrs. Lincoln, all I know is that I loved her very much and I…” Ben paused, fighting back tears. He never spoke of her and was surprised when tears came to his eyes and lump rose in his throat. He cleared his throat and drank more coffee. He set the cup back on the table and stared into it.
“…I wanted her. I wanted her to live with everything I had inside me. If I could have given my own breath to her, I would have. When she died, it tore my heart out,” Ben whispered. “I cannot speak to your pain, I can only speak to my own,” he added.
“Babies die all the time,” Mary continued. Ben wanted to add “so do bratty little boys,” but he wouldn’t stoop that low. Ben’s sadness turned to anger. Why did he have to defend how he felt to this woman he hardly knew? Why was her loss more important than his? They both lost children that they loved. Why did one have to be more important than the other?
“Your daughter was nothing compared to my Willie,” she jabbed. Ben was incredulous; did she even realize what she was saying? “It was a long time ago and you will never speak of her in my presence again.” Ben slammed his fist on the table and got up quickly.
“Good day, Mrs. Lincoln, we’re done talking,” he said blinking rapidly as he jumped up from the table and hurried to the door.
“We’re done when I say so!” she shouted back. “And you will accept my husband’s offer.” Ben crossed back to the table, placed both hands flat on the table and looked into her eyes.
“Your husband can take his offer and shove it up his ass!” Ben shouted then turned on his heels and ran out the door, slamming it behind him. The president’s wife stared after him, her mouth hanging open in disbelief.
Ben did not stop running until he got back to his room, barely closing the door behind him before the first tear fell. He wiped it away quickly. He leaned against the door, tilting his head back so he was looking at the ornate ceiling, trying to gather his wits. He could still see the baby daughter they named Samantha with her strawberry blonde hair and eyes as blue as the noon sky. He could still see her perfect little hands and feet with the ten tiny fingers and toes he had counted himself. He could still hear her struggling to breathe. He could still see the bruise that the umbilical cord had left around her tiny neck as it choked her life out before it began.
If only he had known she was choking when he was delivering his child, maybe he could have prevented it before it was too late…but he hadn’t and she died because of his inexperience. Maybe Mrs. Lincoln was right, maybe it wasn’t the same to lose a baby as it was to lose an eleven year old, but that didn’t mean it didn’t still hurt. It felt like his heart and literally been ripped out of his chest when she died. Only the birth of Joe had finally eased the pain, but even then, not completely. Samantha’s death still hurt even after so many years. That was why he never spoke of her. He tucked the baby away safely in his heart where she was safe and protected, he did for her in death, what he could not do for her in life.
“Papa wanted you sweetheart,” he whispered into the heavens. “My heart was shattered when you died. If I could have given my life to save yours, I would have in an instant. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you…I tried, God knows I tried…in the short time I had you with me, I hope you know how much I loved you.” Ben was crying as he told his daughter all the things he never had. He had stuffed his feelings down after she died, creating a wedge between him and Marie that had nearly cost them their marriage. He blamed himself for her death and he never wanted another child, not if it meant the risk of going through such pain again.
“Say hello to your mama for me, sweetheart,” he whispered, drying his tears. Ben walked to the washbasin and splashed water on his face. He was drying his face with a towel when he heard a knock at the door. Abe’s voice called to him from beyond.
“Ben please, open up it’s me,” he said urgently.
“Just come in Abe,” Ben said shortly. “Hello,” he said, still drying his face with the towel. The president stepped into the room and took one look into his friend’s eyes. They were red and extremely pained. It looked like he had been crying. Damn that Mary, she had a special way of offending people. Why couldn’t she just keep her big mouth shut?
“Ben…walk with me for a bit?” Ben sighed and threw the towel on the table before following his friend out of the house and into the garden in the back, neither speaking until they both got outside.
“Mary told me what happened…you’ll have to excuse her, she often talks out of turn. She doesn’t always think before she speaks.” Ben nodded but didn’t say anything, his heart was still too heavy. The president stopped and looked in his friend’s eyes, the sorrow was evident in their vast depths.
“I’m so sorry Ben,” Abe whispered, knowing his wife had hurt his dear friend deeply. Ben’s jaw was set as he nodded. “When we lost Willie, the last thing in the world I would have wanted was for someone to downplay my loss to me…people did do it, Ben, they said “at least you have two other sons and you can always have another…it just made it so much worse.” Ben grunted and nodded, he was still hurt and didn’t wish to talk about it anymore. He drove his hands in his pockets and stared down at his shoes.
“Abe, I really don’t wish to talk about it anymore,” he said quietly. The president nodded and resumed walking.
“Sure is a beautiful day,” he replied trying to break the ice.
“Yeah,” Ben grunted. The president watched his friend’s face as Ben stared down at the ground. He hadn’t realized how much Mary’s words had cut his friend. Mary had not told him all that was said, but he suspected it was much more than the bits she had told him. Still, the part she did tell him, that she had said that a baby daughter was no comparison to a son, as if it was common knowledge, was not something one should say to any father who had lost his child.
“What was your daughter’s name Ben?” Abe asked. Ben didn’t look up from his feet, his heart was so heavy it was in his stomach. But he smiled slightly when he thought of the girl. Abe’s heart was in his throat.
“Samantha Rose,” Ben said quietly.
“Pretty name,” Abe said. Ben nodded. The ice was still thick and showed no sign of breaking. Damn it, Mary had a way of messing things up sometimes. If only she could just keep her mouth shut, Abe thought again. Sensing his friend really was done talking about his daughter he changed the subject.
“Uh, she also told me what you said I could do with my offer…” the president said, allowing some amusement to enter his voice.
“I’m sorry about that, I didn’t mean to use the language, it’s just that…well I was upset.”
“So does that mean you’re still considering it?” the president asked hopefully.
“No Abe, I really don’t wish to be vice-president. I’m honored that you asked me, really I am, it’s just not for me. I don’t belong in politics. I belong on my ranch…twelve hundred pounds of horse flesh underneath me, running so fast the world is a blur, cattle as far as the eye can see…my sons around me. I need that I’m not made for this kind of life.”
“No one is made for this life, Ben, you just do it and after a while it grows on you.”
“I wouldn’t be happy,” Ben said, wishing Lincoln would just take no for an answer.
“It’s not a matter of happiness, it’s a matter of success and duty and loyalty to your country.”
“It’s about happiness for me,” Ben said. “And as far as duty, I pay my taxes, I don’t owe the United States of America more than that.” The president sighed. Cartwright was just as stubborn as he ever was.
“I suppose…Ben if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot planned for today.” Ben nodded and shook his friend’s hand goodbye. He felt a sense of peace with his decision finally reached. He would not run with Lincoln in 1870, he would go home to his sons and to his ranch and live out the rest of his days there. As far away as he could get from the scheming politicians in Washington and that horrible Mary Lincoln, he thought.
Ben walked around the garden, allowing the crisp air to clear his head. His heart felt lighter and he was ready to go home. He was looking forward to the theater that evening and hoped it would be a good chance to get his mind off of all that had transpired. After his second time around the garden, he stopped and sat down under the rose trellis on the cool stone bench. The garden was beautiful, he could get used to it, he thought, as he saw Mary crossing the garden towards him. His heart fell and he got up to leave.
“Wait Benjamin,” she called. Ben paused and turned to look at her. “Abe insisted that I apologize to you about his morning,” she said quickly. “So I apologize.” Ben nodded, noting that there was no sincerity in her voice. “But she was just a baby after all…” Ben put up his hand to stop her.
“Did you come out here just to start this all again?” Ben asked sharply.
“No, sit for a moment Mr. Cartwright,” she said motioning to the bench. Ben shook his head and remained standing, leaning against the trellis leg. Ben folded his arms tightly across his chest, his guard up. There was an awkward silence between them.
“Willie loved the rose garden,” she mused. Ben didn’t look at her, he didn’t care.
“Mrs. Lincoln, I really couldn’t care less…” Ben said turning his eyes back towards her. She glared at him. She didn’t know why he was still so upset with her. She had only spoken the truth. Just because he didn’t want to hear it, didn’t make it any less true. And she had apologized.
“Fine, but here’s something you should care about, Benjamin, I really must insist you take the president’s offer,” she said quickly and somewhat desperately.
“I told Abraham and I’m telling you, thank you but no thanks, politics is not for me.” Mrs. Lincoln smoothed her dress.
“I really must insist…” Ben smirked at her. The woman had gall.
“Insist all you want madam, I’m still not going to take it.”
“You insult my husband Mr. Cartwright, he’s been thinking on this for months and you dare say no. Your refusal is deeply hurtful and insulting.”
“No insults are meant Mrs. Lincoln, believe me I’m honored, but I wouldn’t be happy here,” Ben said, thinking she was one of the main reasons he wouldn’t be. Mary rose and leaned on the opposite leg of the trellis and looked at him. He really was very handsome but he could be standoffish and that could come across as arrogant. She would have to make him change that.
“Listen Mr. Cartwright, we cannot win in ’70 without a fresh face on the ticket and you’re that face. Do you think Abraham Lincoln could win again on his own merits?”
“I hadn’t given it much thought and frankly I really don’t care,” Ben said looking into her eyes.
“Well I have, all I think about is winning the next election and he needs you to do that.”
“Hardly,” Ben said. “There are plenty of fresh faces all over DC who would jump at the chance to run with him.”
“He doesn’t want the others Benjamin, he wants you, and you he’ll have,” she said quickly.
“I’m not a slave and your husband does not own me, he cannot force me,” Ben said sharply. Mary leaned in close.
“No, my good sir, he cannot, but I can,” she whispered, inches from his ear. “Now here’s the deal, you accept Abe’s offer and your boys live, if you refuse, they die.” Ben’s head shot back and his eyes were full of rage.
“Are you threatening my family Mrs. Lincoln?” The woman stepped back, her arms folded as tightly across her chest as his were, her eyes hard and stormy.
“Yes, Mr. Cartwright that’s exactly what I’m doing,” she said. “And don’t you think for one minute that I’m not capable of having your sons killed, I know people all over the country who find me charming and sophisticated and who will not hesitate to do my bidding. Shall I start with Adam, he’s your oldest and your favorite I take it?” Ben’s heart skipped a beat. “No, maybe that big dummy Eric…you call him Horse right?”
“Hoss and he’s not a dummy!” Ben shouted. Mrs. Lincoln was not deterred.
“There’s always Joseph, so handsome, so wild, the child after your own heart, isn’t he Benjamin?” she asked. Ben’s heart was racing. “Of course I won’t be picky, I’ll just have any of them killed. It’s all the same to me…then you’ll really know what it’s like to lose a child, a son, not an hours old little bitch whose existence doesn’t even matter.” It was like she had stabbed a knife in his heart. Ben was furious. His hand clenched into a fist but he held back. If she were a man, he would have floored her for daring to speak of his daughter in in such a way, and had she been any other woman but the president’s wife, he surely would have slapped her. He was so angry he was at a loss for words. He took a deep breath and gathered what he could of his composure.
“You’ll not harm my sons! I’ll hunt you down and kill you wherever you are!” Ben shouted.
“No you won’t Benjamin, no one will believe that the president’s poor wife had anything to do with the accidental death of some cowboy two thousand miles away. But they will in fact, hang you from the highest tree if they think you harmed the president’s poor, crazy wife,” she said. “Now if you accept before you go back to Virginia City, then your sons will not be harmed, if you do not, your boys will be dead before you get home and your damn ranch will be burned to the ground.” Ben was at a loss for words again. He couldn’t see how he was Lincoln’s only chance for reelection in four years.
“Abraham might be honest and a man of honor, but I’m not, Mr. Cartwright and if you tell him about this meeting, not only will I deny it, but I’ll have your boys killed in front of you and make you choose which one dies. You will accept his offer and run with him in ’70, whether you like it or not is of no consequence. My husband gets what he wants, Mr. Cartwright, I always see to that.” Ben swallowed a lump in his throat, this made the situation a whole lot different.
“You’re bluffing, you won’t hurt my sons,” Ben said.
“I am most assuredly not bluffing. Now there is a matter of finding a wife for you, we can’t have an unmarried VP, that will just leave you open for rumors and speculation…ideally she should be with child right around the time you start the campaign, the public does so love a baby.” Ben couldn’t believe what he was hearing. His mind was racing with a way out, but he couldn’t see one.
“You cannot force me to marry,” he said again, this time more harshly.
“No I can’t but of course, there’s always the matter of your boys lives to consider. I suggest you don’t resist Margret when she comes onto you again, Ben. She told me you resisted her after the party. She’ll make you a fine wife and will bear you beautiful children.”
“You can’t force me to do any of this,” Ben said.
“Suit yourself Mr. Cartwright,” she said walking away. “You will know how it feels to have only two sons, I hope you said goodbye to them before you left. One of them you’ll never see again and the other two will die before your eyes.” Ben was stunned as the woman walked away. He had heard about things like that happening but he never thought they were real. He felt his stomach twist and lurch and he vomited his breakfast into the garden.
Mary smiled to herself as she walked away, she had Mr. Cartwright over a barrel and they both knew it. She knew he doubted that she had the connections to carry out her threats, but that just showed how little he knew. Everyone knew how many connections she had and she would have no trouble having his sons killed if that was what she desired. Men like Cartwright had a lot of nerve thinking they could do whatever they wanted. He had to learn that there were some people you just didn’t say no to and Mary Lincoln was one of those people. Meek and crazy she might appear to everyone else, but she was far from that. She was shrewd and scheming. She wouldn’t stop at anything to get him to do what she wanted him to do to ensure her husband’s victory a third time.
There was the problem of the wife, if he didn’t like the woman she picked out for him, that would be an issue. She could force him to marry, but short of standing over their marital bed with a gun to his son’s head, she could not force him to consummate the marriage. That did present a problem. She might have to switch tactics on the marriage plan, rather than have him marry a younger woman, it might be more practical to have him marry a woman he did care for that was closer to his age. Children weren’t as important as the marriage itself. And truthfully, the public might look more favorably upon a woman who was closer to his own age. There was always the beautiful Anne Fox who would make a fine wife for him, the trouble was she was already married to that weasel doctor…Mary puzzled over her options as she walked back into her house. She welcomed the challenge.
Ben was dressed in his best suit when he was shown up to the presidential box about 7:45PM. He was handed a program for the play “Our American Cousin” and read through it while he waited for Lincoln to arrive. He was looking forward to the play, it was supposed to be funny and he needed a reprieve. He had had more than enough of politics in the last two days than he ever wanted to have for the rest of his life. He knew he didn’t want to be vice-president, but he knew that Lincoln, despite his assurances to the contrary would be deeply offended and probably would not give up easily and Mary was worse. Her threats against his sons deeply disconcerted him and he worried about them constantly. If he said no, she would have one or more of them killed before he even got back home, his best bet would be to agree to the president’s request, go home and decide what to do from there. For the time being though, he was going to try to enjoy the play and decide what to do in the coming days. Once he got home, Adam would probably be able to help him figure out a way to back out of it tactfully.
Ben was a little surprised when the curtain went up at 8:00 and the president still wasn’t there. He didn’t think it was too odd given that his friend was a very busy man. So Ben sat back in his seat in the president’s box and watched the play. He guessed it was around 8:30 when the president, Mrs. Lincoln, and two young people accompanied them into their box. Lincoln made quick introductions to Ben and the young couple and everyone took their places. They all sat in a long row, the president and first lady sitting together, while Miss Harris and Major Rathbone sat beside them, Ben sat on the very end, furthest away from the president. There were some empty seats between them but Ben made no effort to move closer. He didn’t feel like being whispered to throughout the entire play.
As the play went on, the president’s bodyguard became bored and said he was going downstairs for a drink. Ben felt uncomfortable when the man left. There was a window behind them which anyone could climb through. Ushers were coming in and out all the time and surely they would see if someone suspicious came up to the president’s box. Still he wished he had his gun. Mary would occasionally catch his eye and either glare at him or smile at him, alternating between moods. He was very uneasy despite the fact that the play was entertaining.
It was in the middle of the third act, when everyone was laughing at the play, that Ben heard the shot that he would remember for the rest of his life. He knew instantly it wasn’t part of the play and looked in the direction of the president the moment he heard the shot. He reached for his gun but it was not at his hip. Ben saw a shadowy figure jump from their box and onto the stage. Ben was stunned, he looked at Abe, his head was slumped over his chest and then Mary screamed, just like his dream. Dear God, he thought, it’s all coming true.
“They’ve shot the president, they’ve shot the president!” Mary screamed. Major Rathbone jumped to his feet and grabbed at the assassin, missing him, just as he jumped from the box. Ben hurried towards Abe, he knew immediately that the shot was bad. It had entered the president’s head near his left ear and he was bleeding badly. Ben held his hands over the blood, hoping to slow the bleeding and then shouted down to the audience.
“We need a doctor in the president’s box now!” The theater erupted in screams. Ben saw the assassin land on the stage, Ben heard his ankle snap. Then he hobbled and shouted “Sic semper tyrranis” and escaped behind the curtain. Ben didn’t watch him, he was too busy holding the president’s head as Mary wailed. He wondered what was taking the doctor so long. When the first doctor showed up, he examined Lincoln quickly, the he looked at Ben and Mrs. Lincoln.
“His would is mortal, I’m afraid he shall not recover.” The doctor could not hide the horror in his face and neither could anyone else. “Help me get him to the boarding house across the street where he can pass in comfort.” Ben nodded as soldiers surrounded the president. Ben picked his friend up under his shoulders, keeping Lincoln’s head pressed against his stomach. Blood rushed from the president’s head and soon covered his white shirt as they carried him down the stairs and across the street to the Peterson House. The woman who ran the boarding house ushered them upstairs and into an empty room where they carefully laid the president diagonally on the bed. Ben stood looking at his friend, so this was it, this was how his life was going to end. Ben was in shock. If he’d only had his gun, he could have shot the assassin and if he had been paying better attention, maybe he could have stopped him before he shot Lincoln. Mary was screaming as she ran into the room, she bumped into Ben as she hurried to her husband’s side.
Then the doctors started coming, each one trying to see what if anything, they could do. But they all declared there was nothing that could be done. Dr. Jacob Fox was one of the first to arrive, he examined the president and spoke to him, but the president didn’t respond. He too, declared the president wouldn’t make it. He rose, his steel eyes saddened and in shock, he rubbed Mary’s back quickly as he turned towards Ben, his face immediately turned hard.
“You, sir, out of this room now, this is for family and physicians only.” Ben nodded and started for the door.
“Wait, Jake, let him say goodbye, for the president’s sake. My husband loved him so.” Then she turned on him, her voice filled with malice. “Then you get the hell out Benjamin Cartwright…you should have been the one shot, not my dear sweet Abe…”
“Mrs. Lincoln I’m sorry,” Ben said. She glared at him.
“Say your goodbyes BENJAMIN and then get the hell out! I don’t ever want to see you again!” Ben was shaken by the hatred in her voice and all that had just transpired but he needed to say goodbye to his friend.
“Hurry up,” Jacob hissed. Ben walked to the other side of the bed opposite where Mary sat sprawled over her husband and leaned over the bed. His friend’s face was serene, but his breathing was shallow and labored.
“Goodbye old friend. I really don’t know what to say or even if you can hear me… You’ve done a good job holding the country together these last four years, we couldn’t have asked for better. May you rest in peace.” Ben gently squeezed his friend’s hand and stood up straight. Jacob grabbed Ben’s arm and compelled him to the door.
“Don’t leave this house and don’t change clothes, the police would like to speak with you.” He lowered his voice. “If you so much as looked at the assassin, you had better say so and if I think you had anything at all to do with this, I won’t rest until you hang.” With that he slammed the door in Ben’s face.
Ben stood in the hallway shaken and in shock. He couldn’t believe what had just occurred. The president of the United States had just been assassinated. He could hear crowds gathering outside, women screamed and cried and men talked loudly, going over theories of what might have happened. Ben leaned against the wall, bloodied and weak in the knees.
“I have an extra room, mister,” the woman, who had shown them in, said. “You can sit down, get cleaned up and rest if you’d like. I’ll have my husband get the bath ready.”
“Don’t bother with the bath just yet, I have to wait for the police. But I would very much appreciate a room,” Ben said realizing suddenly that he no longer had a place to stay. He doubted he would be let back into the White House that evening and he would need lodging for the night. The woman looked at the blood on him, she wasn’t sure she wanted him wearing his bloody clothes into one of her clean rooms, but she had already offered and the man looked as if his knees might collapse at any moment.
“Will the president be alright?” she asked as she led Ben down the hall to another room. Ben shook his head no as she opened the room and let him in. The woman wiped back a tear.
“Shame, he was a fine man. Made some mistakes, I think, but don’t we all?” she mused. Ben nodded and stepped into the room. He could hear the crowd outside growing bigger. He carefully peeked out the crack in the curtains; there were hundreds of people outside, standing vigil as they waited for news of the president.
Ben lit a lantern and walked to the mirror, blood covered the entire front of his white shirt and left dark patches on his black pants. His sleeves were covered to the elbows in blood and his left hand was covered in dried blood from where he had held his hand over Lincoln’s wound. There was even blood on his face and streaks of it in his hair, he hadn’t the faintest idea how he had managed to get blood in his hair. He wanted to take a bath and clean off all the blood, but he remembered the doctor’s words and thought better of it. Besides that, he had nothing to change into and dare not go back to the White House at the present time. As covered in blood as he was, he doubted he would even get out the door without being mobbed.
So he sat back in the rocking chair by the fireplace and thought of his friend. Lately, the relationship had become much more one sided, Abe seemed to need more and more from Ben and it was growing tiresome. He wasn’t entirely surprised that Abe had asked him to be his advisor because it seemed that’s what he had already become to Lincoln. In a way, Ben understood, war takes a toll on everyone but especially the president. He had been honored beyond words that he had asked him to be his running mate in ’70 but it was simply not something Ben wanted to do. After Mary’s threats, constant fear for his sons had hung heavy on his heart but now that fear was gone. The president’s death had released him from an obligation that he had been dreading. He leaned his head back in the chair and said a silent prayer for his friend. He didn’t pray that he would live, only that his death would be quick and painless.
He didn’t remember dozing off when he heard a knock at his door. He awoke quickly, remembering the sticky, stiff blood on his shirt that had now dried. It was late, probably after midnight and he wondered if Lincoln had died yet. The doctors seemed to think it was only a matter of time before he did. Ben got up quickly, feeling a slight stab of pain in his stomach when he did so. It stood to reason that his stomach would hurt after what he had just been through. But he thought no more of it as he opened the door.
“Benjamin Cartwright?” a man in a suite asked.
“Yes, can I help you?”
“Yes I’m Wallace Bratton, chief of police, I’d like to talk to you about the assassination attempt,” he said. Ben nodded and opened the door, standing next to chief Bratton was none other than Dr. Jacob Fox.
“What’s he doing here?” Ben asked, motioning to the doctor.
“As you may know, he’s the president’s personal physician and I’ve asked him to accompany me to help make sure I address any medical questions that may come up. I’m good with gunshots and the like but no so much the medical aspects, he can help with medical details should they arise.” Ben eyed him suspiciously and the doctor met his gaze. Ben opened the door and let them in, Bratton and Fox took a seat on the bed, Ben pulled up a chair from the desk and sat facing them. The chief of police looked at the blood on the man’s clothes. There was sure a lot of blood.
“Now your name is Benjamin William Cartwright from Virginia City Nevada is that correct?”
“Yes,” Ben replied.
“And how do you know Abraham Lincoln?” Bratton asked writing on a notepad in front of him.
“We were childhood friends. Our farms were next to each other in Indiana when I was about six or so. We’ve kept in contact ever since. He asked me to come out here to visit with him.”
“Do you have proof that he asked you to come out here to visit him?”
“Yes, but not on me, you’ll find the letter in my traveling case back at the White House, it’s in the top section.” Bratton wrote this down and continued.
“Do you know why he asked you to come visit and did he mention to you if there was anyone who might have wanted to kill him?”
“Well when he asked me to come out, I assumed it was just to have a visit with an old friend…”
“But it wasn’t?” the chief asked, cutting him off.
“Uh, no, well not entirely, he wanted me to be his top advisor.” The chief looked skeptical at Ben, as did Dr. Fox.
“Really? The president has plenty of advisors,” Bratton said.
“That’s what I told him, but he said he couldn’t trust them to tell him the truth and asked me to move to DC to advise him.”
“And what did you tell him?” Bratton asked, still a bit skeptical but not as much as he had been.
“I told him no, that I didn’t want to,” Ben said. Both the chief of police and the doctor looked at each other and then back at Ben.
“Why would you say no? That’s a tremendous honor and a wonderful opportunity,” Bratton said.
“I hate politics and I don’t like your city, no offense meant Mr. Bratton,” Ben said. The chief smiled, breaking the ice a little.
“That makes two of us, Mr. Cartwright.” Dr. Fox looked at the chief incredulous.
“And did Mr. Lincoln mention to you if he thought anyone was trying to kill him?” Bratton continued.
“No, just that he’d had a dream a few weeks back where he saw himself dead. He didn’t say if he found out who did it in the dream but it did seem to spook him a bit.”
“But there was nothing in any of the letters or correspondence that might have hinted at who could have done this and why?”
“No,” Ben said. He had thought of that himself and there had never been any indication that Abe knew someone wanted him dead.
“When you were sitting with the president, did you see the man who shot him?”
“Not really, I heard a shot and I looked towards where I had heard it and saw Abe slumped forward. Then Major Rathbone fought with the assassin and he jumped over the railing, landed on the stage, snapped his ankle and shouted something in Latin.
“Sic semper tyrranis, how do you know it’s Latin?” Dr. Fox asked.
“Because my son’s into Shakespeare and that sounded familiar to me,” Ben said, glaring at the doctor.
“I believe it’s from Julius Cesar,” the doctor added helpfully for Bratton’s benefit.
“Care to translate what it means, doctor?” the chief asked slightly annoyed. Jacob smiled.
“Thus be it ever to tyrants,” he said triumphantly. Ben smirked. He knew what it meant too, Adam had told him but wasn’t about to tell the chief that.
“What in the hell does that mean?”
“It means that tyrants should be killed, obviously,” Jacob said.
“The point is that whoever the person was who shouted that, Bratton, must have been familiar with Shakespeare’s play,” Ben said. “And I think that the assassin knew the theater and was known to them because he came in without being stopped.”
“You think he might have been an actor or someone who worked at the theater?” the chief asked, this was his first big lead.
“That would be my guess,” Ben said. Dr. Fox looked at him skeptically.
“I don’t believe him chief. I think he knows who did it, and what’s more, I think he was involved.” The doctor glared at Ben, smirking.
“We’ll check into that Jacob,” Bratton said. “All of his things are at the White House and are being combed through as we speak, if there’s anything there, my men will find it. And if they do Mr. Cartwright, you better be ready to explain.”
“How do we know he is who he says he is?” Dr. Fox continued. “What if the real Ben Cartwright was attacked in route to DC and this man, this imposter, took his place in order to kill the president? We don’t know anyone that knows what he looks like that can vouch for him. He seems too ready with convenient answers.” Bratton looked at the doctor then at his bloody suspect.
“He does raise an interesting point, Cartwright. Is there anyone in town who can vouch for you?”
“Mary maybe, I mean Mrs. Lincoln…but you can always send a telegram to Virginia City and ask the sheriff for a description of me. Shouldn’t be too hard to confirm,” Ben said. “I believe this man’s lovely wife Anne can also vouch for me, she and her daughter got stuck in Virginia City a number of years ago and we had them stay at my ranch. The hotels were all full…”
“You fucking bastard!” Jacob yelled, lunging at him. Ben rose to meet the challenge, ready for a fight. “He slept with my wife!” Dr. Fox shouted as he ran at Ben and began to pummel him. Dr. Fox was thin and wiry; he was strong but no match for Ben. Ben punched his squarely in the mouth sending him sprawling backwards. The chief was on his feet and snatched the doctor up off the floor and away from Ben. Jacob Fox held his bleeding lip.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ben maintained as he righted the chair and resumed his seat, flexing his fist that had made impact with the doctor’s face.
“You’re a damn liar!” Jacob shouted. “Arrest him, chief.”
“I can’t arrest him for something like that Dr. Fox,” the chief maintained.
“He hit me, arrest him for that!” Bratton sighed.
“You hit him first, Dr. Fox, and if he slept with your wife, or you think he did, that’s something you need to work out between the three of you, this has absolutely nothing to do with our murdered president! Now, if you can’t keep this professional Dr. Fox, get the hell out and quit wasting my time! The more time we sit here bullshitting, the further away the assassin’s getting! Now, Mr. Cartwright I will confirm everything you’ve told me and you better believe I’m going to send that wire to Virginia City to ask for a description of you. If it comes back fine and if we don’t find anything in your luggage, you are free to go. I would like to wipe your hands for evidence and I will need your clothes as well.” Ben held out his hands for Bratton to take his samples.
“All my clothes are back at the White House, I don’t have a change,” Ben said thinking it would be nice to get out of the bloody clothes, but not liking the idea of being naked until his clothes were brought over from the president’s house.
“Oh well,” Jacob said, unable to hide his delight.
“Let me see if Mrs. Peterson has robe for you to wear. I will go directly to the White House and bring your things if they have already been searched, if not, I will at least send my man with a change of clothes for you.”
“Why bother, Wallace? He’s a suspect, let him walk around naked,” Dr. Fox called as the police chief left the room to search for the proprietor. The doctor stood in the doorway, smirking at Ben.
“I hate you, I wish we could find something on you,” he said.
“Well you won’t,” Ben said, peeling off his bloody shirt. “Abe was my friend and I cared very much for him.” The doctor looked at Ben as he removed his shirt. His shoulders were broad and there was definition in his arms from years of labor. The man was strong, no doubt about that. He could see the muscles in his arms and chest. Red streaks of blood clung to the skin of his stomach, chest and arms.
“I know you screwed her, Cartwright, and I’m going to prove it,” he said as Ben sat on the chair and peeled off his boots.
“Blood everywhere, even in my shoes,” Ben said, ignoring the doctor.
“Did you hear what I said?” Ben looked up from pulling off his boot, blood was even on his sock.
“Yes you’re going to try and prove it, go ahead and good luck,” Ben said, unfazed.
“I’m going to kill you when I prove it,” the doctor said.
“Then I’ll know exactly where to look if he turns up dead,” Bratton said, returning with the robe. He set it on the bed and gathered up Ben’s shirt into a brown piece of paper. “Come on, doc, it’s not like you haven’t done the same,” the chief said.
“That’s different,” he said as Ben pulled off his sock and handed it to the police chief. Then he pulled off his other boot and sock and handed the bloody items to Bratton.
“How in the hell did you get blood in your boots?
“I’m asking myself the same question,” Ben said rising to remove his pants. He handed his best pair of pants to the police chief, but the chief waited.
“Uh, your shorts too I’m afraid.” Ben looked down, his white undershorts were saturated as well. Ben peeled them off too, the blood had dried and they stuck to his skin. The doctor sized him up and smirked. Ben pulled the robe on over his shoulders and quickly tied it at the waist.
“Thank you Mr. Cartwright, sorry about this,” he said, holding up his clothes.
“It’s alright,” he said.
“Mrs. Peterson has arranged a bath for you and I’ll send you a change as soon as I can,” the police chief said.
“Thank you,” Ben said, seeing him out. Jacob Fox lingered.
“Unimpressive,” he said, eying Ben’s crotch.
“Well now, I would be concerned if you thought otherwise, you see I’m not into men,” Ben said quickly. “And that would be just a tad strange if you were impressed, no?”
“Shut up! I know you did it!” the doctor maintained.
“Well now, here’s the thing, Dr. Fox, if you kept your wife satisfied, maybe, just maybe, you wouldn’t have to worry about her sleeping with someone else. When you accuse me of it, that’s really a reflection on you because that means you’re not giving her what she needs. Now good night, Dr. Fox,” Ben said shoving the man out of the door as he slammed it closed.
Twenty minutes later, Ben sat in the bath water scrubbing his skin until it was nearly raw. He felt as if the blood would never come off even though the water around him was red with it.
“You’re going to scrub your skin off mister,” Mr. Peterson said as he brought in more warm water. Ben ignored him and kept scrubbing. Mr. Peterson dumped the warm water into the bath as Ben rubbed the soap on his face and neck.
“The president’s gone, ain’t he?” Ben nodded as he scrubbed his neck.
“Was he your friend?” Ben nodded again, feeling the tears come to his eyes. “And that’s his blood you’re scrubbing your skin raw from, right?” Ben nodded again as he used a cup to pour more water over his hair. Even his hair had blood in it. The water cascaded down is face, hiding his tears.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Peterson said, leaving a fresh towel on the chair across from him. “Call me if you need anything else and let me know when you’re done.” Ben nodded and splashed water on his face. His skin was beginning to hurt so he decided to stop scrubbing. He got up carefully, stepped out of the tub and dried off and looked back at the pink water in the tub. His heart ached with loss as the tragedy began to hit him. He climbed the stairs to his room, naked except for his robe, and threw himself on the bed. He lay on his back, tears rolling down his cheeks as the moonlight shown in through the window, on the early morning of the 15th of April. His friend, his president would die that day, in just a few hours Abraham Lincoln would “belong to the ages.”
Just as Ben was beginning to doze, Wallace Bratton was true to his word and sent a few of his officers over with Ben’s things. His suitcase was there along with most of his everyday clothes, his other pair of boots and the one suit he had left. The letter Lincoln sent, asking him to come, was gone. He figured they would take that to prove who he was, but everything else seemed in order. He changed into his night shirt and lay back on the bed again, but he couldn’t sleep. His heart was broken and sleep eluded him. He tried to read, but couldn’t, his eyes were too heavy. Frustrated, he got up, changed into his everyday clothes, pulled on his jacket, hat and boots and went outside for a walk. People still lined the streets at the front of the boarding house, so he went out the back way, savoring the cool air and grateful for his clean clothes.
His walk took him to Ford’s Theater. The place was still lit up and there were soldiers and police outside questioning people and combing the building. Lincoln was dead or going to be very soon and Andrew Johnson, a man who had awoken vice-president just the day before, was now president, the most powerful man in the United States. Ben stopped, if the assassination had happened four years later and he had accepted the offer to be vice president, he would be the president of the United States. His mind was blown at the thought. It was too much to take in. He wanted desperately to be home with his sons, but at least his sons had a father to come home to them, Tad and Robert didn’t have a father anymore and Mary was without her husband. Ben tried to feel sorry for the woman but could not. After the things she had said about his baby girl and the threats she had made against his sons, any sympathies he might have had for the woman were gone.
Ben walked on for a few more blocks, but it was dark and cold and his eyes were heavy so he turned back towards the Peterson house. He dug his hands in his pockets and tried to make sense of a world that didn’t make sense. Mary had lost her son Willie two years prior and now she had lost her husband in such a tragic manner. No wonder the woman was nearly mad. Tad and Robert had lost a brother and now a father. How much was more than a person could handle? When had they suffered enough? Ben rubbed his cold hands together as he turned back to go into the boarding house when he heard giggling from across the street. He was a bit startled when he saw Dr. Fox emerge from a woman’s house, the woman, clad only in a robe, blew him a kiss as he staggered away. Ben cursed the man under his breath. If he had a wife like Anne, he would never even look at another woman. Jacob didn’t deserve Anne. Ben climbed the stairs to his room and changed back into his night clothes; he climbed under the covers and dozed fitfully for a few hours.
When he awoke it was after 8AM, he was still tired, but he had to get up. He could smell the food downstairs and his stomach ached with hunger. He changed quickly and hurried down to the dining room. Every eye was upon him, and the chatter fell silent. He was the man who had carried the president into the boarding house. He was the man who had had the president’s blood on his clothes and they had a million questions for him. Ben smiled at the eyes staring at him, grabbed a plate and walked to the stove where Mrs. Peterson loaded his plate.
“President Lincoln died about an hour ago,” she whispered. Ben nodded, he figured as much. He took his plate silently to the table and sat down, feeling the stares boring a hole into his soul. He tried to eat as everyone stared at him. The silence was deafening as they waited for him to speak but it was the last thing he wanted to do.
“You can eat in your room if you wish,” Mrs. Peterson said seeing how uncomfortable he was. Ben obliged and took his plate and coffee and went upstairs. He didn’t feel like talking to them about the previous evening.
“That was extremely rude,” he heard one woman stay as he nearly ran from the dining room. He didn’t care if he was rude, he didn’t want to give them something to gossip about. All they wanted was some juicy information about what he had seen and been through that they could gossip and talk about for weeks. He wasn’t about to give them that. He owed his friend at least that much.
He finished his breakfast and took his dishes downstairs, the people at the table grew silent again, but eyed him angrily. He touched the brim of his hat to Mrs. Peterson and hurried outside.
The pain in his stomach grew worse the day after Lincoln officially died. Ben wanted to leave Washington before the funeral procession started. He had heard around town that they services were scheduled to begin on Easter Sunday. Millions were expected. He didn’t think much of the pain in his stomach; it was to be expected after the previous days’ events. Already the streets of Washington DC were getting more and more crowded as people came from all over the country and the world came to pay their respects to the fallen leader of his war weary country. Ben looked out the window of his room at the boarding house, rooms were already being snatched up, and if he checked out, he might not find another place in town and he really should stay and attend his friend’s funeral. It was the very least he could do to honor his friend and the president of his country, but he really wanted to go home.
“Rest in peace my friend,” he whispered, hoping that Abraham would know how much he was missed and how much he meant to the country. Abe had told him that he would not wish the presidency on his enemy and the presidency at war time, he would not wish on his mortal foe. Ben did not envy him his position. If anything, his friend looked haggard and aged since he had seen him years before when he was just a senator. And as much as Ben hated Mary, he didn’t relish in her misery and his heart ached for her children, he knew what it was like to lose a spouse, and he knew what it was like to lose a child, but both in such a quick amount of time for a woman who was already losing her grip on sanity, might just push the woman over the edge. He turned away from the window, feeling the pain in his stomach again as he did. He put his left hand over the pain and went about dressing. There was still business to tend to in DC that he might as well get to before the throngs of people grew larger.
Over breakfast and coffee in the boarding house’s common room (the population of which had grown overnight) there was fevered conversation about who had shot the president and what the motive was. Some of the women began crying as they spoke of “honest Abraham and his poor widowed wife.” Ben tried to ignore the conversation and eat his food, but the pain in his stomach was growing more uncomfortable. Still, it didn’t really concern him and he was able to eat without a problem, so he forced his food down and listened to the theories. But his food was soon done and as much as he wanted to linger, he needed to see Major Thomas about securing the lumber contracts. If he could get the contracts for the army as they rebuilt the war torn parts of the country, there was no limit to the amount of money the Ponderosa could make. He was giddy at the prospect. He rose quickly, stopping as his stomach protested in pain. He held it briefly, breathing slowly to help the pain pass. He must have injured a muscle or something as he carried the president. He would have to remember to go a little more easily so it didn’t get worse. The last thing he needed on his long journey home in a bouncing stage coach and trudging train was an aching stomach.
The meeting with Major Thomas went well, despite both men’s distraction. The Major was distracted by the death of the president and the current task of protecting both the city and Johnson from another possible attack, and Ben was distracted by the steadily growing pain in his stomach that had moved to his right side.
“We’ll be contacting you in a month or so when we have done a survey of much of the damage, we’re going to need a lot of lumber, especially to repair the damage in the rebellion states. Will the Ponderosa be up to providing us with all we need?”
“Absolutely,” Ben said a confidently as he could. He had never had such large contact before and all that he needed to do to prepare for it raced through his mind.
“Good, good Cartwright, and you make a fair price,” the Major said signing the paper that would secure the contract. Ben’s heart leapt, with this contact, he and his sons would be set financially for the rest of their lives. But he would need a lot more man power than he currently had and his desire to leave right away grew stronger. But he had to stay for Abe’s sake. He could always send a telegram to Adam and tell him they got the contract and to hire as many more men as he could find. Ben flinched as he rose from the table after the deal was signed.
“You alright?” the Major asked, rising to assist as Ben leaned on the table to steady himself. The pain in his side was much stronger and had increased substantially when he stood up. Ben exhaled deeply, steadying his breathing.
“Just fine,” he said as he straightened himself and forced a smile. Ben shook the Major’s hand and the two men walked out of the restaurant, both going opposite directions.
Ben thought about hailing a cab to the telegraph office, but after waiting a few minutes, and none were free, he decided to walk. The weather was gloomy and it looked as if it might rain. Fitting, he thought, nature is crying for Lincoln too.
He was relieved to see that the line at the telegraph office was not very long and was able to send a wire to Adam. He wanted to tell his son so much more about what he had been though but it was too much to put in a telegram and he didn’t want the boys to worry. For now, he didn’t have much to do except to see some sights but there were so many people around, he wanted to see the places that most people weren’t all going to. That was his plan except for his stomach, the pain was not subsiding, despite the walk and fresh air and he was feeling less and less inclined to be out, especially since he was beginning to feel nauseous.
He threw up the first time right before he got back to his boarding house. It wasn’t severe, but it was enough to bring up the lunch he had just had with the Major. As much as he didn’t want to, he decided his best course of action was to just go back to his room and lie down for a bit. Maybe rest was all he needed, after all he hadn’t a full night’s rest since he arrived in DC. His body was probably just starting to give out from lack of sleep.
The small climb up the stairs to his room made his side scream in pain and it was all he could do to remain standing as he stumbled into his room. He really should see a doctor, but the closest one was Dr. Fox, whose practice was a few doors down across the street. The good doctor was the last person Ben wanted treating him and it was probably just stomach upset after all. So he requested a bucket (he was feeling extremely nauseated) and warm brick from Mrs. Peterson and once he had the items, settled back on his bed with the warm brick on his side and the bucket within reach. The warmth did ease the pain enough to allow him to doze off for about an hour, but the pain brought him back awake with such force that he barely had time to lean over the bed and vomit into the bucket.
That night was by far one of the worst nights of his life that he could remember. Chills wracked his body, the pain grew stronger with each passing minute and he vomited so much that he was dry heaving even after there was nothing left anywhere in his body. To add to that, extreme diarrhea kept him racing down the stairs to the outhouse in the back. Like it or not, he made up his mind to see Dr. Fox in the morning, if he made it that far.
By the time the morning arrived, the vomiting and diarrhea had dissipated (he assumed due to lack of fuel) but the pain in his stomach was so bad he could barely walk straight. His hair was drenched with sweat and his skin prickled with chills brought on by fever.
He managed to get down the stairs and past Mrs. Peterson due largely in part to the massive amount of guests she had to occupy her mind and he found if he walked slowly and deliberately, he could walk relatively upright and draw very little attention to himself. But once outside, the office of Dr. Fox, seemed like it was miles away. In actuality it was less than a block, but by the time he reached the doctor’s office, he was stumbling, heaving and fell against the door of the office. Keeping his left hand pressed hard to his right side, he reached up with his right hand and pulled the bell for the doctor, hanging on the bell, ringing it repeatedly until a frazzled and irritated orderly came out. But as soon as the orderly saw him, his face changed and he immediately began to help him inside.
“What hurts?” a young doctor asked as the orderly assisted him to a chair in the uncrowded waiting room. Ben sat in the chair doubled over in extreme pain.
“My right side,” Ben managed to gasp. At that point even talking hurt. He sat in the chair bent over at the waist, taking his breath in and out through his teeth. The young doctor felt his head, nodded and wrote something down on the paper he had in his hand.
“Any vomiting, chills, bowel abnormalities?”
“Yes to all,” Ben said irritated at the questions. “Please doc, I just need help, I can’t take the pain much longer,” he said, his eyes meeting the younger man’s.
“Just a few more: when did the pain start?”
“I woke up with it yesterday morning and it got worse,” Ben said. “Kept me up all night, nothing will make the pain stop.” The young doctor wrote more and nodded.
“Matthew, get him to bed number two please, I’ll be right there. I need to get Dr. Fox. I can’t do surgery yet.”
“Surgery?” Ben asked.
“Yes, I’m fairly certain it’s your appendix and it will need to be taken out immediately,” the younger doctor said as he disappeared into the adjacent room. The orderly assisted him onto the bed and helped him take off his shirt. He instructed him to lean back and wait for the doctor. Ben wanted to say what else was there for him to do, but he decided against it. It wasn’t Matthew’s fault or anyone else’s that he was hurting, no sense in being unpleasant about it.
It seemed like an eternity before Dr. Fox appeared followed by the young doctor. Dr. Fox’s face fell and then turned into an evil grin when he saw Ben.
“Hello Mr. Cartwright, it seems you are in need of my services,” he said walking up to the bed. “Move your hand,” he said pushing Ben’s left hand away from his side. Ben complied and the doctor jammed his fingers into his side. Ben cried out.
“I take it that hurts?” he said, barely able to keep the mocking patronage out of his voice. Ben bit his lip and nodded, struggling to regain his breath. “How about this?” the doctor asked as he did it again, hitting his appendix nearly dead center. Ben swallowed a scream as the pain increased ten times as he held his side and sat up quickly from the pain.
“What do you think, you bastard?” Ben hissed, glaring at him. The doctor smirked and forced him to lay flat again.
“Your assessment was right Howard, it’s the appendix and I’d say by the look on our patient’s face, fever and symptoms, it needs to come out right away.”
“Shall I get the chloroform?” Matthew asked. Dr. Fox hesitated, then a smile crossed his face that was so diabolical, Ben nearly reconsidered having him treat him, but he would rather die on the table at the doctor’s hand, than live one more day with such pain.
“No I think we’ll do this the old fashioned way,” the doctor said. Matthew and young doctor Howard stared at each other, than back at Dr. Fox. It was Dr. Howard who spoke up.
“We have plenty chloroform Dr. Fox, and he’s not unstable. We should use it,” he said.
“We have to ration supplies for our boys who are coming back from the front lines Dr. Howard. Surely you don’t want me to waste chloroform on a simple matter like an appendectomy when I could use it to remove a soldier’s leg?”
“We have plenty…” Dr. Howard said. “And it’s a short surgery.”
“NO! And you will not question my authority again! Matthew tie him down, Dr. Howard get my knives and wash up.” The young doctor looked at his patient, his eyes were apologetic. He had never seen Dr. Fox in such a mood. His teacher and mentor was the epitome of ethics and usually had very good bedside manner, so he could not understand why he was insisting on such a barbaric method. But he there was nothing he could do, Cartwright would die without the surgery so he went about getting the doctor’s supplies and washed his hands.
Ben was frightened, he didn’t like the idea of the doctor cutting on him while he was still awake, especially if there was no need to do so. The orderly seemed sympathetic as he tied Ben’s wrists to the bed. Ben noticed that the young man’s hands shook as he tied the strips of cloth tightly around his wrists. He then moved onto his ankles, not removing his boots or speaking a word as he did it. Matthew finished tying him and gently patted his shin, offering a weak but encouraging smile as he stepped away from the bed. Ben’s side stabbed him continually and at that moment, he couldn’t imagine anything being worse than the pain in his appendix. Dr. Fox stepped up to the bed, the younger doctor was behind him, Ben could see that Dr. Howard was glaring at the older doctor. Dr. Fox unbuttoned his patient’s belt, then his pants as he pushed them down below his waist.
Dr. Fox snorted but placed a towel over his patient’s nakedness. Ben swallowed, he was terrified. His appendix throbbed and stabbed him over and over. He wanted to curl up to stop the pain, but was tied down so tightly, he couldn’t move if he wanted to.
Dr. Fox cleaned the area with alcohol and tenderly touched the area of skin under which was the offending organ. Ben groaned. Then Dr. Fox began to cut open his flesh.
“You better not scream,” Dr. Fox said without looking up from his work. “I won’t have you screaming your lungs out and scaring the other patients. How would it sound to people walking by? They’ll think I’m running a butcher shop.”
“I’m not gonna scream,” Ben managed to gasp through clenched teeth. He wouldn’t give Dr. Fox the satisfaction if he could help it.
“If he screams, gag him,” Dr. Fox said, looking at Matthew.
“Gag him sir? Really? He’ll he won’t be able to breathe, it will be stressful enough…” Dr. Howard said. Dr. Fox didn’t look up from cutting.
“Then he better not scream.” Ben gasped as the knife cut deeply into his skin. His mind raced with pain as he tried to distract himself. He shut his eyes and tried to think of something else, but all he could think about was the murder of Lincoln and that just made things worse. Exclamations of pain were escaping his lips despite his best attempts to stifle them.
“Sounds a lot like you’re about to start screaming,” Dr. Fox said to his groaning patient. Ben opened his eyes and looked up at the doctor. He swallowed hard and shook his head no.
“I’m not…ahhhh…” his fists were clenched so hard that his fingernails dug into his palms. The doctor ignored him as he cut into him. Ben was quickly feeling overwhelmed with pain. Dr. Fox was starting to regret keeping him awake, maybe it was just a bit too cruel. But if he had slept with his wife, he deserved it.
“I’m afraid this next part’s going to hurt quite a bit as I cut through the muscle,” the doctor said without looking up at his patient. Ben exhaled and tensed, he had hoped the worst of the pain was over. Just then his appendix began to stab him over and over again, aching more and more. It felt as if it was going to explode. His body was rigid with pain.
“Ahhhh…” he moaned arching his back against the pain of his throbbing appendix and the cutting.
“The tenser you are the more it will hurt,” the doctor said. Ben tried to relax, but relaxing was harder than he thought it would be. He looked down at his side, blood was running down his right side and dripping onto the bed. Matthew wiped the blood away from the incision, but it quickly returned. Ben looked at the cut, the skin was bleeding and there was a thin layer of fat beneath it. His appendix stabbed him so hard it forced his breath from his lungs.
“Ahhhhh…” he moaned, struggling to breathe through very tightly clenched teeth. Sweat ran down his face and torso, clinging to his back, making his skin stick to the sheet beneath him. His heart pounded hard against his chest and his palms were soaked with sweat. His wet hair clung to his head. The muscle in his side flexed tightly as the doctor sliced through it. Ben’s vision went black for a moment but not long enough to grant him any relief from the excruciating pain.
“You’re very brave Mr. Cartwright,” Dr. Fox said almost admiringly. “I half expected you to be screaming bloody murder by now.” Ben swallowed, his mouth was parched and sweat glistened on his face. “It shouldn’t be much longer now, I’m nearly through the muscle.” Ben nodded and cried out in pain. He strained against the bindings, his muscles fighting which made cutting that much harder and more painful. Ben just wanted it to be over. He knew that the appendix had to come out and he welcomed surgery but he knew that Dr. Fox had only kept him awake for revenge. He was angry with the doctor and angry that he needed his services in the first place.
“We’re through the muscle now. Howard, hand me the clamp,” he said, as the younger doctor complied. “Do you see the appendix there? It’s very engorged, I say it’s ready to burst.” Dr. Howard looked down at his patient and nodded as Dr. Fox jammed the clamp in the wound to hold it open. Ben opened his mouth in a silent scream.
“Oh did that hurt?” Jacob mocked, twisting the screw to open the clamp wider.
“Ahhhh…dear God,” Ben gasped. Dr. Howard saw his patient staining against his bindings and it was all he could do to keep from punching Jacob in the face. There was no need for such suffering. Because he was awake, the surgery was much more dangerous and much more painful than it needed to be. He was bleeding heavily and on the verge of shock.
“That’s wide enough,” Dr. Howard said. But Jacob ignored him and twisted the screw one more time finally eliciting a scream. Damn, Cartwright was tough, he had fully expected him to cry like a baby and so far he only just made him scream and even then it wasn’t much of a scream. Blood poured out of the wound, his racing heart made the blood pour out of him faster.
Ben cut his scream short, he didn’t want Jacob having that control over him. But he was quickly losing control of himself. His breathing was rapid and labored and his skin crawled with goosebumps and he was starting to feel dizzy.
Dr. Howard stood beside him, feeling his pulse. His patient’s heart was pounding. Ben’s head was spinning as was the room. He swallowed hard and looked down at his side just in time to see Dr. Fox pulling his appendix out of his body. He swallowed a wave of bile that surged up his throat.
“Sever it quickly, this thing’s about to burst,” Dr. Fox said urgently. Dr. Howard complied and severed the appendix. Dr. Fox placed the organ in the metal tin by the bed just as it exploded, covering the front of the doctor’s apron and his hands with blood and puss. Matthew held the end of Ben’s intestine out so Dr. Howard could stitch it while Dr. Fox washed his hands quickly and returned. Ben watched everything as if he wasn’t the one being operated on. Blood covered his body and the sheets beneath him. Blood covered the doctors’ hands and aprons. His exploded appendix was shiny with blood. His eyes were riveted on the oozing organ that had just emerged from his body. It occurred to him that he hadn’t asked the doctor if it was vital to his health. At the time he hadn’t cared what it was for as long as it stopped hurting. Sweating and exhausted, he looked over at the younger doctor who was putting his intestine back in his body.
“Www…what’s it for?” Ben asked. His insides had stopped hurting almost as soon as the appendix was removed, but the cut hurt to the point of distraction.
“The appendix, we have no idea,” Dr. Howard said. “It doesn’t appear to do anything at all. You should have no adverse effects from its removal.” Dr. Fox came back up to the bed, looking at the exploded organ as he did so.
“Never in all my years have I seen that happen,” he said. “Lucky you came when you did. If that happened inside of you, it would have surely killed you.” Dr. Fox checked the stitching on the part of the intestine where the appendix was once attached.
“We have to get this blood out,” he said lifting a syringe from the table as he twisted the clamp that was holding opened the wound, wider, causing his patient to cry out in pain. “I have to have enough room to maneuver the syringe to make sure I get all of the excess blood,” he said twisting the clamp unnecessarily one and a half more turns. Jacob Fox could barely hide the smile of vindication as Cartwright finally screamed; a real scream, not just a moan or a gasp or a short exclamation of pain, but a long, hard scream that made him pull on the bindings that held him to the bed.
“Howard, hold the light so I can see the blood to remove it,” Dr. Fox said as the young doctor stood morosely beside him. Dr. Fox was deliberately hurting Cartwright for reasons unbeknownst to the young doctor. Dr. Howard held the light while looking at their patient. His body was rigid with pain and his teeth and eyes were so tightly clenched that that young doctor feared he might break his teeth.
“Hold the light lower,” Dr. Fox commanded as he extracted the blood. “Still can’t see a damn thing,” Dr. Fox said twisting the clamp still wider. Dr. Howard heard their patient’s skin tear. He watched helplessly as Cartwright’s eyes flew opened and he screamed again, this time more desperate and gut wrenching. Then he heard a pop and the bindings around their patient’s right wrist snapped from the strain and his hand shot to the wound. Dr. Howard watched, unable to move as Ben’s shaking right hand tried to pull the offending clamp from his body.
“NO!” Dr. Fox yelled as Ben tried in vain to pull the steel clamp from his body. But the effort only caused the pain to increase as the instrument didn’t budge. Ben’s eyes were clouded and distant as he tried again as Dr. Fox began to push him back down on the bed.
“Help me damn it!” he shouted over his shoulder to Dr. Howard and Matthew. Both of the younger men stepped forward to help subdue their incredibly strong, delirious, adrenaline fueled patient. Dr. Howard knew it wasn’t good when he heard the binding on Ben’s left wrist snap. Now they were trying to make him lay back down and were trying to keep both of his hands from yanking out the clamp.
“Cartwright stop fighting, you’re going to hurt yourself!” Dr. Fox shouted as Ben’s left hand began to yank on the clamp. He seemed perplexed and unable to reason as to why the clamp would not come out.
“Mr. Cartwright, don’t pull on it, just lie back,” Dr. Howard tried to soothe as he kept his own hand over Ben’s trying to keep him from yanking on the clamp. Ben looked at him, his eyes red and distant. Dr. Howard hardly had time to think before a very powerful left fist slammed into his face. Blood immediately began to pour from his nose before he hit the floor. Before he blacked out, he saw their patient successfully pull the instrument from his body. He saw the skin tear around it as it came out, he saw Cartwright’s eyes go wide with pain before he vomited down the front of himself. Then all was darkness.
Dr. Fox had to fight back fear as Dr. Howard fell behind him, having been squarely punched in the face by his delirious patient. No amount of reasoning would calm Cartwright and Dr. Fox’s heart fell into his stomach when his patient successfully wrenched the clamp from his body. The force of it tore his skin further, increasing blood flow and pain significantly. The pain was what finally gave the doctor the upper hand. As soon as the clamp was free, Cartwright stopped almost instantly, the pain having increased almost to the point of sending him into shock. He looked at the doctor, his eyes finally registering as he opened his mouth and vomited violently. He held his hand over the bleeding wound as he vomited again, looked at the doctor with deeply pained eyes, and fainted.
The blow to the face had broken Dr. Howard’s nose but not severely. Still it hurt and it was enough to turn both eyes black. He was mad and embarrassed about the bandage on his face and his black eyes, if Dr. Fox hadn’t insisted on keeping Cartwright awake, their patient would not have hit him. He didn’t blame Cartwright, he was delirious and in extreme pain when he punched him. In truth, he probably didn’t even know what he was doing, still the blow had been so strong and powerful that there was an initial fear that his nose might have been shattered. Thankfully it wasn’t, but it was hard for him to face both the doctor and his patient in his current mood. But he must. Dr. Fox had other things to attend to so he left the further care of Cartwright, primarily up to Dr. Howard.
Dr. Howard was concerned when his patient didn’t wake up as quickly as he should have following the surgery. He kept a constant vigil, monitoring his vitals and watching for any sign of infection or further distress, but none seemed present. His heart rate was strong and steady and his breathing was normal. Even his eyes responded to the light when Howard peeled opened his eyelids and shined a light in them, so there was no medical reason why Cartwright had still not come to, hours after the surgery. It was likely due the stress of the surgery and the depletion of nutrients prior to the surgery that was causing him to sleep. He had lost a lot of blood as well (more than necessary due to the stress of the surgery on his fully conscious mind and body) which could also be contributing to his failure to wake up. Despite his vitals begin strong and normal, his body was likely weak and needed the rest. Still he worried and had broth constantly fed to him in hopes that the food would strengthen his body and revive him.
When Ben finally came to, four hours later, he was in a different bed, wearing a clean night shirt, with a bandage wrapped around his middle. The incision hurt but not nearly as bad as the appendix had, so he couldn’t complain. His mouth ached for water and his stomach gnawed angrily at him, wanting sustenance. Just as he was about to get up and go look for food and water, a young woman emerged from a side room, carry a tray of food and water.
“Here you are Mr. Cartwright, Dr. Howard said to tell you to drink all the water and eat as much of the soup as you can. You need to replenish your fluids.” She placed a wooden tray over his lap and set the food on it. The bowl of soup smelled delicious and he was drinking the water before she even finished filling the cup. He set it back down and she filled it again and smiled. “I’ll just leave this water pitcher here on the nightstand, drink as much as you can and call me when it’s empty. I’ll refill it for you. My name’s Laura. If you need anything, just call me, I’m only in the next room. Don’t get up.”
“Thank you Laura,” he said as he finished the second cup of water. He had no trouble finishing all the soup and was soon finished with the water. He was still hungry and thirsty but not nearly as much. He wanted solid food and he wanted to get up and be on his way. But his body was weak, he could feel it. His muscles ached like they did after he had worked very hard on the ranch and he remembered the stress he had endured during the surgery. No wonder his body ached. He had a very long trip home and so he decided it was best if he recuperated as much as possible before attempting to go home. The last seventy two hours had taken a toll on his body physically and mentally and he needed to recover. As much as he hated being in bed and being waited on (especially in the lair of the man who hated him), he welcomed the rest.
He slept twelve hours straight, occasionally being awoken by Laura who forced him to drink a whole glass of water and swallow some broth before allowing him to go back to sleep, and other times by Dr. Howard as he checked on him, feeling his pulse or prodding at his incision. When he awoke, it was the morning of the 18th of April, the day before Lincoln’s funeral. He hardly remembered what day it was, all that had happened over the last four days, seemed like a bad dream. He ate his first solid breakfast since he had been in the hospital and was given orange juice to replenish the sugar in his body. He had lost a lot of blood during the surgery, and that coupled with the vomiting and diarrhea he had had prior, had depleted his body severely. The stress of the surgery had also taken a toll on him.
“Well Mr. Cartwright, you’re looking quite well,” Dr. Howard said later that day as he listened to his heart and checked the incision. Ben’s eyes were riveted on the doctor’s face. There was a bandage wrapped around his head, covering his nose and there were dark black circles around the young doctor’s eyes.
“That nose looks painful doc,” Ben said as the physician wrapped a fresh bandage around his middle after having checked his incision. The doctor eyed him but didn’t say a word.
“What happened?” Dr. Howard couldn’t believe that Cartwright didn’t remember, but it made sense that he wouldn’t.
“I was punched in the nose by a patient,” Dr. Howard said as he pulled Ben’s shirt back down and stepped back, as he removed the stethoscope from his ears. Ben’s brows furrowed.
“Was it me?” he asked quickly, feeling the stiffness in the knuckles of his left hand. That would explain the bruising on his knuckles as well. Dr. Howard nodded slightly. Ben’s heart sank.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Howard. I don’t even remember hitting you. You have my sincerest apologies. Was there much damage to your face?” Dr. Howard shook his head no.
“Just a broken nose. Nothing that won’t heal, get some rest. You should be able to leave in a day or two if you continue like you are.” Ben nodded, but his eyes lingered on the young man. He hadn’t meant to hurt him. Why had he hit him, what had he been thinking? Ben looked down at the swollen knuckles of his left hand and stretched his stiff fingers.
“Let me get you something for those knuckles,” Dr. Howard said seeing the bruises from the impact with his face.
“No, it’s alright. I reckon it’s only fair that I have an aching hand while you have aching nose.” Dr. Howard smiled.
“It wasn’t you’re fault Mr. Cartwright,” he said as he rubbed ointment on his painful knuckles. Ben grimaced a bit. “You were delirious and nearly out of your mind with pain. You broke the bindings on your wrists and started fighting us.”
“I don’t remember that,” Ben said.
“You knocked me out and yanked the clamp from your body and passed out from the pain. I do wish you’d passed out sooner, Mr. Cartwright.” Ben nodded, he wasn’t sure what more to say, apologies would not heal the young man’s face. The doctor continued his ministrations in silence then set Ben’s hand down on the bed.
“Rest now, I’ll be in to check on you again in a few hours.” Ben nodded and watched him as he left the room.
“If there’s anything I can do to help please let me know,” Ben said as the young doctor paused in the doorway. The young man shook his head.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do Mr. Cartwright…”
“Ben, call me Ben.”
“Alright Ben. I daresay this incident ruined my wedding plans. My Betsy and I were to me married this Saturday, but now…well I can’t really show up to my wedding looking like this. I’m afraid we had to postpone our wedding. Won’t be able to marry now till the fall I’m afraid.”
“Why the fall?” Ben asked.
“Well, we’re out the money for the venue and we have to send our guests home. We have family coming from all over. It will take me at least that long to save up again.” Ben felt even worse. Not only had he damaged the man’s face but he had ruined his wedding as well. His sorrow was evident on his face.
“Don’t go blaming yourself to harshly, Ben. Dr. Fox should have known better. I lay the blame on him, not on you.” Ben nodded, but the doctor’s words did nothing to quell the guilt he felt.
“Dr. Howard…”Ben said to the young man’s back as he started for the door again. The doctor turned back to him. “If you had the money for the venue and a way for your guests to come back again before the fall, would you get married sooner?” The young doctor wasn’t sure what Cartwright was getting at but he nodded.
“If we did, but we don’t.”
“You just make the plans for a month from now, you’ll have the money, I guarantee you that.”
“How can you guarantee me that?” Dr. Howard asked. Ben reached into the pocket of his jacket that was hanging on a chair by his bed. He pulled out a bank draft and began to write.
“Because I’m going to give you and the future Mrs. Howard the money you need to have the wedding you planned for.” Dr. Howard was stunned.
“That’s not necessary Mr. Cartwright…”
“Nonsense! It’s the least I can do after rearranging that fine looking young face of yours.” Ben filled out the bank draft and handed it to the young doctor who was now standing beside his bed again.
“Will fifteen hundred dollars be enough?” Dr. Howard’s mouth fell opened. It was more than enough. They could pay for their wedding, the guests and have money left over.
“It’s too much, Ben.”
“Consider it my wedding gift to you and your young lady for all that you’ve done for me. I know you fought with Dr. Fox over the surgery…and they told me you wouldn’t leave my bedside until I woke up. You’re a fine doctor and a very nice young man. It’s the least I can do.” Dr. Howard tried to protest but Ben wouldn’t hear of it. In the end, Dr. Howard hugged his patient gratefully and ran from the hospital to tell Betsy the good news.
Two days later, Ben was given the all clear to be discharged. He dressed quickly, ready to leave the hospital and get back home. He had been in the capital ten days in total but it felt like a month. It was hard to believe that it had only been ten days since he had first stepped off the train, excited at the prospect of his visit with his old friend. And now that friend was dead, the country that had been so jubilant about the end of the war, was reeling yet again from the murder of their leader. And he was going back home to the Ponderosa a different man than he had been when he left. But there was one final order of business he had to tend to before he went back home. He had to pay Dr. Fox for his services.
Ben knocked on the door of the doctor’s office. He had barely seen the man since the surgery and was grateful for that. He entered the office when the doctor told him to come in. Dr. Fox was sitting behind his desk, writing something in a ledger when his patient entered.
“Well Cartwright, you’re looking well,” he said setting down his pen and sizing up his patient. He looked completely different from when he had stumbled into his office six days prior, barely able to stand up.
“Much of that is thanks to your Dr. Howard, he’s really a fine physician. How much is my bill Dr. Fox?” Dr. Fox rummaged through his ledger and handed the total to his patient. Ben’s raised his brows.
“One hundred and seventy five dollars is quite a sum,” Ben said.
“It’s all there and itemized if you wish to review it Mr. Cartwright. I’m not charging you any more than what is due, a bit less actually. Normally I charge for chloroform as well…”
“Well that was one service that wasn’t rendered Dr. Fox,” Ben said writing the bank note. “Wouldn’t be quite honest to charge for that now, would it?”
“No less honest than a man who will sleep with another man’s wife,” the doctor snarled.
“Or a doctor who will perform surgery on a man while he’s wide awake just to hear him scream because he wants revenge for something he can’t prove,” Ben said quickly, throwing the bank draft on the desk as the turned to leave. Dr. Fox stood up and walked with him to the door.
“Well I guess we’re even Mr. Cartwright, no hard feelings then?” Dr. Fox said extending his right hand to Ben. Ben smirked and punched the doctor squarely in the face, sending him to the floor.
“Now, we are even, Dr. Fox. Good day to you sir,” Ben said as he left the doctor’s office and headed for the train station. He never wanted to set foot in Washington DC again.