Summary: Ben Cartwright is in San Francisco on business and meets Barbara Dameron through mutual friends. He is quite taken with her, but pursuing a relationship with her could lead to unexpected danger.
Rating: T Word Count: 17,739
A San Francisco Encounter
The California State Cattlemen’s Association convention had brought Ben Cartwright to San Francisco for a week as it had each year in the fall for more years than he cared to count. Though it was considered by most to be the best season to visit the bay city, there never seemed to be much time to enjoy it as he was occupied with numerous meetings and contract negotiations. However, his friends Thomas and Edith Cole met him midweek for lunch and offered an invitation to a ball they were hosting on Friday, the day before he was scheduled to leave for home. At first he had declined just hoping to enjoy an evening to do as he pleased, but their persistence finally made him give in. Fortunately, Ben had packed along his best suit for some of the more formal convention events. Friday afternoon, he even managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the barber for a trim and a shave. He was an impressive sight when he entered the main hall in the Cole home that evening. Heads turned his way and many of the lady guests began speculating who this handsome, silver-haired man might be. Though engaged with other guests, the Coles had been keeping an eye out for Ben and moved to greet him when they saw him standing in the archway. After a few pleasantries, Edith introduced him almost immediately to a very attractive, middle-aged woman who was standing next to her. It seemed like only moments before the Coles excused themselves and moved toward the entrance of the hall to greet more guests that had just arrived.
Ben cleared his throat a bit uncomfortably. “Mrs. Dameron, I am getting the distinct feeling that we are part of a plan?”
“Yes, I was just thinking the same thing, Mr. Cartwright.”
“As Tom mentioned, I am here in the city on business and I guess Edith thought I shouldn’t be sitting alone in my hotel room this evening.”
Barbara Dameron smiled politely. “That sounds like Edith, ever the hostess. So, how long have you known the Coles?”
“Well, let me, think…I would guess about five years now. My oldest son Adam contracted their shipping company to deliver timber from our ranch in Nevada. And you?”
“Oh goodness. It’s been quite a long while. My husband served as legal counsel for Cole and Nagle Shipping for many years until his death last spring.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Dameron.”
“Thank you. Yes, it has been a difficult past few months, as you might presume. Fortunately my husband, James, had two very dedicated and caring partners who have helped me with the financial aspects of his estate. Not sure what I would have done without them….”
“I am glad to know that you have had help resolving business matters. Losing someone can be… challenging.…”
“Am I correct in sensing that you have also experienced loss?”
“Yes, I am a widower…have been for many years… So, you live here in San Francisco?”
“Yes, actually not far from here. It’s a lovely place, but much too quiet these days. We used to hold wonderful social events like this, and now I’m afraid that my heart just will not allow it without James…I’m sorry. That was probably more than you were hoping for.”
“Not at all. You obviously cared deeply for your husband. It sounds as though you have many wonderful memories to hold on to.”
“Thank you for your understanding, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Please call me Ben, Mrs. Dameron.”
“Yes, thank you, Ben. Then you must call me Barbara.
“Barbara it is. Ahhh, the music has begun. Would you consider it too forward of me to ask a lovely lady out onto the dance floor.”
“A distinguished, silver-tongued rancher who dances. Now I am intrigued.”
Ben gave a slight bow. “Why thank you, ma’am. I do occasionally get out of the pasture.” He smiled warmly and motioned toward the other dancers. “Shall we?”
The evening sped by. Ben and Barbara danced and conversed as though they were long time friends. The San Francisco socialite had planned to make an early exit from the ball, but as it turned out, she and Ben were the last guests to bid Tom and Edith Cole goodnight. Ben escorted Barbara to her private coach. The driver stood holding the door for her as they approached.
Ben gently took Barbara’s gloved hand. “I have thoroughly enjoyed the pleasure of your company this evening, Barbara.” Raising her hand, he leaned and kissed it, and then looked directly into her eyes as he whispered. “Until we meet again.”
The dim light concealed the blush that was overtaking her countenance. “Thank you, Ben. It was indeed a most pleasant evening. May you have safe travels back to Virginia City. Goodnight.” She turned and the driver helped her up into the expensive coach.
Ben stood and watched Barbara’s coach move down the street until the fog closed in around it. He turned back toward the house when he heard footsteps. “Tom, what are you doing out here in the cool, damp air with no overcoat?”
“She’s quite a woman, isn’t she?”
The smile on Ben’s face said that he concurred, but it faded quickly. “So just what are you and Edith up to, Tom? First you wouldn’t take no for an answer about my coming this evening and now you’re out here checking up on me?”
Thomas Cole’s neatly trimmed gray mustache twitched with amusement. “Edith and I just did not want to see a grand opportunity for two of our dearest friends to pass by. You did seem to be enjoying yourself unless I’ve become a horrible judge at such things. And Barbara, too, I might add.”
“So you are a sneaky host as well as a perceptive one.”
Tom chuckled. “Well you’ve caught me there. Ben, Edith feels as though we owe you a few days of San Francisco hospitality since you indulged us this evening. You’ve been tied up in meetings all week. What do you say?”
“Oh..I don’t know Tom. It’s not that I don’t appreciate your invitation, but I’m due back at the ranch on Sunday.”
“Oh now surely those boys of yours…Boys! I can’t even believe I’m saying that. Surely those grown sons can take care of things for a few more days. I do believe at this stage of your life you have earned the right to some time away from the ranch.”
Ben sighed. A few days just to relax and enjoy the sights did sound appealing to him. “Oh, alright then, Tom! You’ve talked me into it.”
“Excellent! That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear. How about we pick you and your luggage up tomorrow morning around nine. Edith already has some plans in the works.”
“I can see that the two of you are quite confident in your persuasive abilities, aren’t you?”
Tom gave him a satisfied smile. “You can stay here with us just long as you think you can bear to be away from your precious Ponderosa!”
“I will overlook your attempt at sarcasm and expect to return the favor of your hospitality at some point in the future. Thank you, Tom! This does sound marvelous!” Ben offered his hand to his host. “See you in the morning!”
Ben entered the hired cab that had been waiting to take him back to the hotel. As the rig rolled along, the evening replayed in his mind. He could not help wanting to see Barbara again, but thought he really should not plan to stay more than a couple of days. Additionally, he knew that she still needed time to recover from the loss of her husband despite an attraction that he was fairly certain was mutual. A smile crept across his lips at the memory of moving her gracefully around the ballroom. Feelings were beginning to emerge in Ben that he had not felt in some time. He was no inexperienced young buck who relished the flirtations of a woman, but Barbara Dameron had managed to capture his interest and desire with no apparent effort on her part. He guessed her to be about his age, maybe a few years younger, but she had a beautiful, youthful smile that had lit up the ballroom several times during the evening. Ben admired the ease at which she navigated a conversation certain that she was indeed capable of hosting a social event such as the one this evening. She had a knack for feeding the male ego without appearing vulnerable or needy, a rare commodity among the fairer sex.
During her brief ride home, Barbara was also struggling with her emotions. Ben had assessed correctly that she had loved her James greatly. Though quite taken with the handsome rancher, she did not want to betray that love by entertaining thoughts of another man after so many happy years of marriage. Ben Cartwright was as far from the image of a Nevada rancher as she would have imagined. His masculine presence along with his velvety smooth, deep voice seemed to fill a room, and on top of it all, he was a marvelous dancer. It had taken tremendous concentration not to let her thoughts stray where she knew they should not go while they were dancing. To Barbara there was something exhilarating about being in the arms of a man that knew how to lead a woman in dance.
There was a quiet knock at the front door of the Dameron mansion. Harrison, the butler, had been expecting the bell from the coachman announcing the arrival of the mistress of the house long before this. However, it was not the coach; so he responded quickly, certain that he knew who had come calling at this late hour.
“What do you want, Morgan?”, the butler asked flatly.
A man in a dark wool coat and hat that was pulled low over his eyes spoke in hushed tones. “You have something for me, I’m sure. The lady of the house should be in her room for the evening by now.”
Harrison spoke out in full voice. “Well you have guessed wrong and need to leave immediately. Mrs. Dameron had a social event this evening and will be here at any moment. I have nothing for you.”
“You know that Canfield and Russell aren’t going to like this. You’re getting paid good money to pilfer old man Dameron’s stuff. You said yourself the Mrs. hasn’t been in his study since the day Dameron died!”
“Yes, but who knows when she will change her mind and decide to go in there. She is going to notice immediately that there are things missing.”
“Well, like I told you before, you need to make it look like someone has broken into the house. Next time she goes out, break a window or something. Otherwise, you’re going to be the prime suspect. Got it?”
“Yes, I’ve ‘got it.’ Now get out of here!”
The man in the dark overcoat strode away with purpose and disappeared into the mist.
Saturday was a lovely day to experience the sights and sounds of San Francisco. A warm breeze was blowing in off the ocean as the Coles and Ben meandered through the streets of the city in an open carriage. The smell of salt water always brought back to Ben memories of Boston and his time at sea. The threesome enjoyed light-hearted conversation and the occasional stop at a shop here and there that Edith liked to frequent. As it approached lunch time, the horses worked hard to pull the carriage up Nob Hill to a cafe with a wonderful view out over the bay. Tom and Edith exchanged furtive glances as Ben held the door to the entrance for them. The couple led the way through the small building toward some tables out on a balcony, most of which were already occupied. Rather than choosing an open table, they moved toward a table where a woman was seated with her back to them. She turned toward them when Tom reached to pull the chair out for Edith.
Ben was pleasantly surprised to see Barbara Dameron looking up at them. Everyone exchanged greetings.
Barbara looked directly at Edith in mock annoyance. “My dear Edith, somehow you failed to mention that we would have company at luncheon today.”
Edith bit her lip. “I knew you wouldn’t mind the men joining us on such a lovely day.”
Ben took a seat next to Barbara. Leaning her way, he whispered, “For some reason in the abundance of conversation this morning they forgot to clue me in as well.” He debated whether or not to share with her how beautiful she looked in a less formal dress and a hat that was secured with a scarf. Instead Ben nodded toward the ocean. “The view here is outstanding!” Their eyes locked momentarily and Barbara was eventually forced to look away when his thoughts were completely conveyed in the warmth of his dark eyes.
The Coles pretended to be reading the menu while this was going, but they could not help smiling. Tom then went on to explain to Ben that Edith and Barbara meet at this cafe every Saturday for lunch during the fall; so naturally Barbara had suspected nothing out of the ordinary. Though she did not voice it, she was pleased to see Ben again.
Their lunch was cheerful, filled with laughter and many stories, and good food. After what seemed like just a short time, Tom pulled his pocket watch out to find that it was already the middle of the afternoon.
“Goodness the time has flown. Edith, I think that Barbara should join us for the remainder of the afternoon and take supper with us this evening. What do you say, Babs?”
“Babs?” Ben chuckled and looked at Barbara quizzically.
“Oh I’m afraid that is Tom’s pet name for me, and since I have nothing pressing on my schedule, I accept.” Barbara smiled warmly at the Coles and then turned toward Ben. She could not help but be pleased by the look of anticipation on his face. She was finding that the more time she spent with Ben Cartwright, the more she wanted to spend time with Ben Cartwright.
Tom Cole sent Barbara’s coach back to the estate with instructions for the driver to let the house staff know that Mrs. Dameron would not return until late this evening. By late afternoon, Harrison had been informed that Mrs. Dameron would be out for several more hours; so he encouraged the housekeeper and the cook to take a few hours for themselves. This gave him time to confiscate a few more items from the study and to make it appear as if there had been a robbery should the lady of the house ever decide to enter her deceased husband’s sanctum. He hid the stolen items in his private quarters and this is where they would remain until the mysterious Mr. Morgan returned for them.
James Dameron had been an excellent lawyer and businessman. He and Barbara had moved to San Francisco shortly after the goldrush to set up his practice. Eventually he had invited Howard Canfield and George Russell to join him as partners while keeping majority ownership of the firm. Dameron, Canfield, and Russell grew to be a great financial success and were highly sought after for competent legal counsel and business consultation. James Dameron had invested wisely over the years in both businesses and in art and antiquities. His mansion was filled with expensive paintings and artifacts from foreign countries, the most valuable of which he had kept in his study. Very few people other than Barbara and the housekeeper had ever been allowed into his precious sanctuary, but his partners were among those who had seen his treasure trove. However, since James’ death, Barbara had forbidden anyone to enter her husband’s study.
There was a dark side to San Francisco and a wealthy man like James Dameron had known that. He was approached many times over the years to get involved in the black market. Wise enough to know how dangerous it could be, Dameron had always refused, but without his sharp scrutiny over the past months, his partners had caved to the continual pressures of those from the dark side of the business world in the beautiful bay city. This left Barbara Dameron an obvious target for Howard Canfield and George Russell especially since she and James had no heirs. Convinced that James’ partners had her best interest at heart, she followed their counsel to the letter. However, Canfield and Russell had gotten in over their heads with organized crime, and Barbara Dameron had no idea that they were rapidly depleting her wealth to pay the enormous debts they had incurred from their recent poor financial decisions.
Dinner that evening at the Coles was more relaxed than usual because it had been a very full day in the outdoors. Ben was quite accustomed to this, of course, but Barbara and the Coles were not. Edith had told the cook to prepare a lighter meal since the foursome had enjoyed some pastries and Ghirardelli chocolates late in the afternoon. After eating, they sat on the veranda sipping brandy and recounting the day’s activities. Around ten Tom sent for his coach to take Barbara home. It suddenly dawned on Ben that the Coles’ coach would be returning after dropping Barbara off. He took Barbara’s coat from the butler and helped her into it. Before she could give her parting words, Ben decided to take a chance on extending their time together this evening just a little while longer.
He leaned close and spoke to her discreetly. “Would you like some company for your ride home?”
Though she made up her mind immediately, Barbara did not want to appear too eager and hesitated just the appropriate amount of time before responding. “Most definitely.” Riding home alone in the coach after dark was one of the reasons she greatly missed her husband’s presence.
Ben quickly donned his coat and hat while Barbara thanked the Coles for a wonderful day and bid them goodnight. After helping Barbara into the coach Ben told the coachman with a wry smile that he need not be in a hurry nor leave his seat when they reached the Mrs. Dameron’s home. The young man nodded curtly, but Ben could see by his eyes that his meaning was clearly understood.
Having spent the entire day with Tom and Edith, Ben and Barbara felt a bit awkward and remained quiet for a few minutes before he finally broke the silence. “It’s been quite a long while since I have enjoyed a day as much as I have today…I’m thankful that we got to spend it together, despite Tom and Edith’s underhanded plan.” Ben chuckled and then reached over and took Barbara’s gloved hand in his. “You are a very special lady, Barbara, and I would like to continue seeing you, that is if you feel that you are ready for that.”
Even in the dim light of the small lanterns that lighted the interior of the coach, Barbara could see the gentleness and caring in Ben’s eyes. “I’m not sure that I’ve ever known man quite like you before, Ben. It was a marvelous day, wasn’t it?”
“Yes it was, but you’ve not answered my question.”
“To be honest, Ben, I’m not sure. My heart says ‘yes’, but my head says ‘I don’t know.'”
He nodded and was thoughtful for a moment. “Then why don’t you take tomorrow to think about it and I will make sure that Tom and Edith don’t have anything up their sleeves.” Barbara laughed out loud at his remark. “With your permission, I will stop by on Monday and we can talk again. How does that sound to you?”
“I would like that. Come for tea in the afternoon…around two.”
“Thank you. I will plan on it.”
They sat in comfortable silence for the remaining few minutes of the trip, then Ben exited the coach and helped Barbara get down. Gently placing his hand on the small of her back, he escorted her to the door. Barbara rang the bell for Harrison. Knowing that he only had a moment before the butler was at the door, Ben removed his hat and offered his parting words.
“Thank you again for a wonderful day. I will be looking forward to tea time on Monday.” Then he leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on Barbara’s cheek.
Just as he straightened up, Harrison opened the door. The butler was surprised to see someone other than the coachman with Barbara.
“It’s quite alright, Harrison. This is Mr. Cartwright, and you may expect him next Monday for tea.”
“Very well, Mrs. Dameron. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright.” However, his response was stiff and aloof.
“Likewise. Goodnight, Barbara.”
On Sunday, Tom and Edith had planned a foursome picnic, but relented after Ben explained the situation with Barbara. They were both pleased and concerned that things with Ben and Barbara had progressed so rapidly. Still, it was another beautiful fall day in the bay city; so the three spent the better part of it in a lovely park enjoying the sunshine and warm breezes. The tranquil setting did little, though, to help Ben stay focused on the conversations with his hosts. His mind was totally occupied with Barbara and her decision. He finally asked to be excused and went for a walk rather than embarrass himself and be discourteous to Tom and Edith by being unengaged in their discussions.
His heart went out to Barbara remembering the extreme loneliness of those first few months after losing the love of his life. Though he had not asked her specifically, he assumed by things she had said that her marriage had been a long and happy one. To Ben’s way of thinking, that would only make things that much more difficult for her. It was hard for him to imagine that if either of his marriages to Elizabeth or Inger lasted for many years, it would potentially mean that Hoss, but definitely Joe would never have been born. For all the pain he had experienced in his lifetime, it was challenging to think on such things or to wish life had dealt him a different hand. Each of his sons was precious to him.
It had been many months since Barbara had attended church. She truly disliked going without James, however, with such weighty matters on her mind, she thought it might be good for her soul. Initially it was, but because of her long absence, many parishioners paused after the service to speak with her. After repeating the same lines of conversation numerous times, she was sorry to have bothered to come at all. Once at home, she took her lunch out on the portico on the backside of the mansion where she could enjoy looking out on the grounds. She gave the housekeeper and cook the afternoon off and kindly told Harrison to make himself scarce, so that she could be alone to think.
Totally alone Barbara spoke aloud to her dear James, asking his advice about pursuing a relationship with Ben, rueing her inability to provide him with an heir, and confessing her intense loneliness and desire for the comfort and security of male companionship. She paced, wept, sat down, paced, strolled through her rose garden, and wept again. By late afternoon she was exhausted and went to her room to take a nap.
It was dark when she woke. She groped her bedside table for a match and lit the lamp. Suddenly very hungry, she went to the dining hall and rang the bell. Within moments, Harrison came to inquire about her need. He informed her that the cook had gone home for the evening, but she had left dinner in the warmer which he promptly brought to the dining room. Despite now having a contented stomach, Barbara was now wide awake when normally she would have been preparing to go to bed. She decided to read in the nook off the main hall. Just as she was finally starting to nod, there were whispers coming from the front hall. It sounded like an argument of sorts, but she could not make out exactly what was being said.
“Harrison! Harrison! Is everything alright?”, she called.
“Yes madame. It is just a vagrant and I am getting rid of him this moment!”
Barbara cautiously proceeded toward the front door. “A vagrant? On our property?” She could hear more harsh whispering and then the closing of the door.
“Yes, he was quite drunk and somehow wandered onto the estate, but he is gone now and I have secured the door. Nothing for you to worry about, Mrs. Dameron.”
“But shouldn’t you have rung Calvin from the stable to make sure that awful man is not lurking about somewhere?”
“No, I do not believe that is necessary. I am sure Calvin is asleep by now. I will go out and make absolutely certain that the vagrant is gone.”
“Please do be careful, Harrison, and take the Derringer from the drawer.”
“Yes, madame. I will.”
Harrison removed the small handgun from the table by the door and ventured out into the darkness. He made his way to the cobblestone lane where he was grabbed roughly and forcefully pulled into the hedge.
“Alright now Mr. Butler. I’m tired of this game.”
Harrison was trying his best to keep his wits about him. “There is no need to man handle me. I can’t be gone long or Mrs. Dameron will ring for the coachman to come.”
“You don’t even have a clue, do you Mr. Butler”, Morgan snarled. “And I suppose you think that Canfield and Russell are the ones behind all this. They’re just pawns in a much bigger game. Someone is playing for all the marbles and this game is for keeps.”
“I don’t understand what you are saying.” Harrison was shaking uncontrollably.
“You will soon. Very soon. Be here with the stuff tomorrow night at midnight. Now get back inside before the Mrs. rings for help.” Morgan spat out his words, pushed Harrison toward the door, and walked off.
Harrison moved quickly back to the house. He straightened his jacket and tried to calm his breathing before entering. Barbara was waiting nervously by the bannister of the large staircase.
“Is he gone? You were outside for quite a while. I was beginning to worry.”
Harrison stood to his full stature before responding with as much confidence as he could muster given what had just transpired. “Yes, Mrs. Dameron. I checked thoroughly and he is gone. You may go on up to your room now.”
“Thank you, Harrison. Goodnight.”
Barbara climbed the stairs slowly and uneasily. Once in her room she changed into her night clothes and got into bed. Feeling frightened and alone, she gave herself over to the thought of allowing Ben to court her. She began to imagine the sensation of being held securely in his arms and resting her head on his broad chest. For Barbara, Monday afternoon could not come soon enough.
She slept fitfully and was very happy to see the rising sun after such a disconcerting evening. Barbara dressed and took her breakfast in the appearance of normal fashion, but there was nothing normal about the butterflies she felt in her stomach. Mid morning, Harrison brought her a message from a courier that Howard Canfield and George Russell were planning to stop by with some papers for her to sign later in the afternoon. She hated the thought of their interrupting her time with Ben, but then thought better of it. If she was to become more involved with him, it might be a good idea for him to meet James’ partners, besides the fact that the previous times her signature was required on legal documents were very brief.
That morning at breakfast, Ben was the beneficiary of the Cole’s gardener’s harvest of fresh flowers. Per Edith’s instructions the gardener prepared a lovely, large bouquet of Barbara’s favorite flowers. Ben offered his hostess a grateful smile and a kiss on the cheek. Edith waved him off saying is was nothing, still she wished that she could be a fly on the wall to see Barbara’s reaction when Ben handed them to her. He left the Cole home in the late morning, too anxious to hang about. Confident that he could find the Dameron estate on his own, he asked to borrow a horse and buggy. Dusty from lack of use the stable boy wiped the buggy down and Ben was soon on his way. He drove about until he found a small restaurant and took his lunch there, though he was too unsettled to eat much. After several cups of coffee, he got back in the buggy and drove around until it was time to arrive at Barbara’s. Feeling a bit like a young man about to give his best girl flowers, Ben raised the knocker on the ornate door at the Dameron mansion.
Harrison tried his best to be cordial when answering the door though it concerned him what possible changes could come from his employer possibly have a beau. He was also greatly worried by Morgan’s warning and did not relish the idea that his worries could multiplied by the addition of Ben Cartwright to the equation. After taking Ben’s hat, he escorted him to the doorway of the portico. Barbara was seated at a small iron table awaiting his arrival. Ben tucked the bouquet behind his back and strode out to greet her.
“Good afternoon, Barbara. Wonderful to see you.”
She turned in her chair. The smile she offered him gave him hope that they might have a future. Barbara was about to rise when Ben held out his hand.
“Please, stay seated.” A boyish grin covered his face as he pulled the flowers from behind his back. “And these are for you.”
“Oh, Ben, how beautiful!” Barbara held the bouquet with one hand and gently fingered the blooms with the other.
“That they are, but not nearly as beautiful as you, Barbara.” He placed his hand on her arm before pulling out the chair and taking a seat beside her.
“Thank you. You are quite the flatterer, but you do have wonderful taste in flowers, so I’ll forgive you. Lilies are my favorite.”
“I’m so glad that you like them.” He considered mentioning that they were Edith’s suggestion, but decided to leave well enough alone.
“Charlotte should be out shortly with our tea and some cakes. I’ll have her bring out a vase for the flowers so we can enjoy them.”
Soon the housekeeper brought out the tea and sweets. They sat for a time enjoying their refreshments as Barbara spoke about the history of the estate. Before long, they were interrupted by Harrison and the arrival of Canfield and Russell. The two lawyers appeared to bristle when Barbara introduced Ben to them, and they were obviously uncomfortable at the prospect of discussing business matters in front of him. Their expressions and demeanor did not go unnoticed by Ben and Barbara. Ben offered to walk around in the flower gardens until she had finished with her business. Barbara told him that it was not necessary.
Suddenly, she was annoyed by the lawyers’ nonverbal reaction to Ben’s presence. If she had really stopped to think about it, she might have thought that they were being protective of her. Regardless, the short notice they had given her before coming to her home upset her when she had been looking forward to spending time alone with Ben.
Barbara then took control of the conversation. “So gentlemen, what are these documents that requires my immediate attention? It seems this is becoming a frequent occurrence.”
Howard Canfield shifted his stance and glanced at George Russell. Ben tried to hide his amusement. This was a side of Barbara that he had not seen before.
“Our apologies, Barbara. We’ve obviously come at an inappropriate time. Would tomorrow work better for you?” Canfield was trying his best to be conciliatory.
Barbara looked at Ben and then back to Canfield and Russell. “I am not sure what my plans are for tomorrow or for the remainder of the week for that matter. I will either send a message to the office or stop by when it is convenient.” The tone of her voice was calm but firm.
George Russell really just wanted to leave and finally found the courage to speak up. “Very well then. We won’t take up any more of your time, Barbara. Good day…Mr. Cartwright.”
Barbara and Ben offered their parting words. Howard Canfield nodded stiffly before turning and walking back into the house with Russell.
Ben chuckled once the men were out of hearing distance. “Well, now I guess you handled that.”
“Yes, I suppose I did”, she murmured. Barbara appeared to have lost the strength she had shown just moments earlier and was now trembling.
“Are you alright? Forgive me for making light of the situation.” Ben’s eyes were soft and warm. He could not keep himself from pulling her into his arms knowing Barbara was on the verge of tears. Giving her adequate time to relax and regain her composure, Ben released her and placed his hands on her arms. “How about talking a bit of a stroll about the grounds so that we can talk?” He took hand and pulled her arm through his. They walked along for a time just enjoying the comfort of each other’s presence.
Inside the back entrance of the house, Canfield and Russell stood watching Barbara and Ben. They had witnessed Ben embracing her and found it quite concerning. Harrison came up to see them out.
“What do you know of Cartwright?”, Canfield asked conspiratorily.
“Not very much, sir. Only that he is a friend of the Coles visiting for a time.”
“Well then you need to find out more about him. Also Morgan told us that you’ve been lax about turning over more of Dameron’s things. You need to get on with it as it appears that the window of opportunity may be closing. Do you understand?”
Harrison stood tall and straight in military style without making direct eye contact. “Yes, sir, clearly. I will make sure it is done.”
“Good. See that it is.” Canfield’s expression became rock hard.
The entire situation had made George Russell intensely uncomfortable. “Come, Howard. We need to leave.”
Ben and Barbara made almost a full circle of the grounds and then took a seat on a bench in the rose garden that was visible from the house. Ben rested his arm comfortably on the back of the bench with his hand just behind Barbara’s shoulder.
“Barbara, I hope by now that you know just how much I enjoy being in your company. Am sensing correctly that you would like to continue to see me?”
The breeze had blown loose a few tendrils of her gray hair that were now floating about the sides of her face. Ben thought to himself that she could not have looked lovelier. Instead of answering his question, she placed her hand on his rugged cheek and gazed intently into his eyes. Ben’s heart swelled and he took her hand. Bringing it to his lips he placed a tender kiss in her palm. Barbara closed her eyes and drank in his sweet expression of love.
“I just can’t believe that this is happening so fast. How can it be?”, she whispered.
Ben looked on her with eyes warm with reassurance. “I think that these feelings we are experiencing roll the years back, but, Barbara, we are both of the age and have experienced enough of life to know the qualities and character we desire in a life companion.”
“Yes, that is so true, Ben.”
“I don’t want to pressure you into making decisions about the future too quickly; so we will take our time with all of that. But know this Barbara Dameron, I have fallen in love with you.”
“And I believe that I am falling in love with you, Ben Cartwright.”
Ben eyed her lips and then leaned in to kiss Barbara.
Both their faces were alive with happiness. Ben turned and pulled Barbara close so they were seated with his arm around her. Barbara rested her head on his shoulder, and Ben responded by placing a light kiss in her gray tresses.
The breeze had picked up prompting Harrison to close the doors to the portico. He stood staring at Ben and Barbara having watched their entire tender encounter in the rose garden. Charlotte entered the hall to do some dusting and wondered what had Harrison’s undivided attention. When she saw the older couple sitting contently, she could not help commenting.
“You know it’s impolite to gawk.”
“What? Oh, well you had best be on notice and looking for other employment if you know what’s good for you. My guess is that we will both be out of a job very soon”, Harrison replied with frustration.
“She’s been nothing but good to us and if he brings her happiness, then I wish her the best, job or no job.” Charlotte huffed and walked away thinking that some men have no heart at all.
Ben and Barbara had made plans to meet the following morning around nine. He asked to borrow the Cole’s buggy again to get him to the Dameron estate. Because it was overcast and looked like it could rain, he was going to suggest that they travel in her coach around the city. When he arrived at Barbara’s, Charlotte answered the bell instead of Harrison.
“Well, good morning Charlotte. I was expecting Harrison to answer the door.”
“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright. Yes, I think he must be ill today. We’ve not seen him at all this morning. Follow me please. Mrs. Dameron is taking her breakfast in the dining hall.”
Charlotte led the way to the dining hall where Barbara sat sipping her coffee. Ben did not hesitate when the housekeeper motioned for him to enter.
“Good morning, Barbara.” He moved to her side and leaned down to kiss her cheek.
“Good morning, Ben. Seeing you has brightened this dreary morning. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Charlotte would you please bring a cup for Mr. Cartwright and ring Calvin to take care of his buggy and bring the coach around.”
“Yes, ma’am”, Charlotte replied and took her leave.
Ben smiled at Barbara. “Well, good to know we are thinking along the same lines. It looks like rain.”
“Yes it does, and the winds can kick up and make it a nasty business.”
Charlotte had been standing in the background smiling and enjoying watching the sweetness of their greeting and the ease of their communication. Ben and Barbara were growing quite comfortable in each other’s presence already.
About half an hour later the bell rang for the front door. Charlotte came into the dining hall looking a bit puzzled and requested that Ben come and speak with Calvin outside, but that Mrs. Dameron need not come. Thinking that it must have something to do with the Cole’s horse and buggy, Ben excused himself and went to find out what the coachman wanted. Calvin was waiting for him just outside the front door looking quite distressed.
“Calvin? Is something wrong?”
The coachman could barely get out his words. “Yes, Mr. Cartwright. Something is very wrong. I didn’t know what to do that’s why I asked for you.”
“Certainly. I am glad to help. What do you need?”
“Please follow me, sir.”
Ben walked alongside Calvin out to the lane to find a man who appeared to be in great distress sitting hugging his knees to his chest and rocking back and forth and occasionally emitting pitiful moans. Ben looked at the man and then at Calvin with questioning eyes.
“Mr. Cartwright this is Henry, the gardener.”
Ben looked on the man with great concern. “Henry, can you tell me what is troubling you?”
Henry covered his face with his hands and shook his head before rasping. “It’s Harrison….”, he sobbed. “Only you wouldn’t know it except for his clothes.”
“What? Where?” Ben asked incredulously.
Henry nodded to his right. “Behind the hedge…I came up on him…while I was trimming the bushes.” Henry went back to rocking and sobbing.
“Henry’s no softie, Mr. Cartwright. The way he is acting I didn’t have the nerve to go look.” Calvin was growing increasingly pale.
Ben had seen more than his fair share of horrible things throughout the years and had no desire to see any more, but someone needed to have look. Cautiously he proceeded in the direction Henry had motioned. Even though he thought it might be something awful, it was far more gruesome than he expected. The body was definitely Harrison’s, identifiable by his clothing and build, but just as Henry had said, his face was unrecognizable, beaten beyond belief. Ben had to look away momentarily to gain the mental fortitude to process the situation. He turned and walked quickly back to Calvin and Henry.
“Calvin, do you have a blanket in the coach box?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get it for you.”
Calvin handed Ben the heavy, wool blanket. “Take Henry to the stable and stay with him for the time being. Give him whiskey if you’ve got it to calm him down. He’s had a terrible shock. I will ring for you if I need you.”
Calvin nodded. Ben and he worked together to get Henry on his feet.
“Mr. Cartwright…I’m sorry to have put this on you.” Calvin dropped his head in embarrassment.
“It’s alright, Calvin. It’s not a task that anyone would have wanted.”
Ben walked back to where Harrison’s body laid and covered it with the blanket. If at all possible, he did not want to move the body until the authorities came and looked for clues. He tried to gather his thoughts, dreading having to tell Barbara and Charlotte what had happened. He entered the house and walked back into the dining hall. Ben tried to force a smile, but Barbara was too good at reading faces not to detect his strained expression.
“Ben, something is wrong. It’s Harrison, isn’t it? I’ve had a bad feeling all morning. It’s just not like him to disappear.”
He nodded. “Yes, it’s bad. He’s been killed.”
Barbara gasped and Ben took her hand as she began to sob. She stood and he pulled her into a comforting embrace.
Ben went on. “Henry found him while he was doing his work.”
“Oh dear God! Who would do such a thing to Harrison?” Her sobs choked out her voice for some time, but then something came to her mind. “Wait! Wait! The other night he told me there was a drunk man who had wandered onto the property. I knew that it did not make any sense at the time, but I was frightened and had no reason not to believe Harrison. Do you suppose there is a connection? He has never lied to me as far as I know.”
“I’m not sure, Barbara. It’s possible that the two incidents are connected, but I think we should check his quarters just to see if anything looks out of order.
Suddenly Ben and Barbara realized that an ashen-faced Charlotte was standing near. Concerned that she might pass out, Ben released Barbara and brought Charlotte to the table to sit down. Barbara patted the young woman’s hand.
“I know, my dear, it’s an awful thing. Do not worry about any duties today. You will be alright with us.” Barbara tried to offer as much comfort as she could.
Charlotte burst into tears. “I feel horrible. I didn’t particularly care for Harrison, but I never wanted him dead.” She covered her face and sobbed.
Ben and Barbara gave Charlotte some time to collect herself before the three of them went to Harrison’s room. Charlotte hung back and did not want to go in; Ben told her she could wait in the hallway unless they found something they needed her to look at. Ben opened the wardrobe and Barbara looked through the dresser drawers. It felt so strange to her to be going through Harrison’s person things.
“How did this get in among his things?” Barbara pulled a hand gun from the drawer she had been looking in.
Ben came over to see that she was holding an old pistol. “That’s not Harrison’s?”
“Absolutely not! It’s part of James’ gun collection from the study.” She began frantically pulling drawers open. “And here is another. Oh my goodness, Ben. He was a thief! I trusted him implicitly, and he was a common thief!”
Ben looked more carefully at the pistols. “Well, a thief, yes, but maybe not so common. I’m sure these are quite valuable, are they not?”
“James kept what he considered his most valuable possessions in the study. No one was supposed to have been in there since James passed. Charlotte have you been in the study?”
“No ma’am?”, Charlotte called from the hall.
“DId you ever see Harrison coming or going from the study since Mr. Dameron passed away?”
“No ma’am, I didn’t.”
Barbara handed the pistols to Ben. “We had better go check the study. Who knows what else he might have taken.”
Ben followed Barbara down the hallway. “Let’s go check this out, but then we must go and inform the authorities before any clues are lost because of the weather.”
When they got to the study, Barbara reached into a vase, pulled out the key the door, and held it up for Ben to see. “Somehow Harrison knew about this. He had to.”
The three entered the dark, rich wood-paneled room that smelled like a combination of mustiness and oil. The drapes were pulled but blowing in the breeze.”
“What’s this? Someone has opened the window.” Barbara shouted.
“No wait! You ladies stay there by the door until I check it out. I don’t want to risk either of you getting hurt.” Ben instructed.
When he pulled back the drapes it was obvious that the window had been broken. He picked up the largest pieces of glass and piled them in a corner. After examining the area, he felt it was safe for them to move about the room. Because it was an overcast day, the room was still quite dark; so Ben lit the lamp on the large desk that sat in the middle of the room and Barbara lit the two wall lamps. It immediately became apparent that most of the items were missing from the shelves around the room.
Barbara stood with slumped shoulders. “His precious possessions are gone. Almost everything is gone. How was Harrison able to do this without anyone knowing. I’ve been such a fool. He knew that I could not bear to come into this room. He knew…” Her voice trailed away.
Before Ben could get to Barbara, Charlotte placed her hand on her mistress’ arm. “Don’t blame yourself, ma’am. You loved Mr. Dameron so much. It was just too hard for you. You couldn’t have known that Harrison was such a bad man. It’s not your fault.”
“Charlotte’s right, you know. It’s very difficult to stop a determined thief. You were most likely out of the house or asleep while this was going on.” Ben added.
He held the lamp and further examined the window and the area around it. “My guess it that this window has not been broken for very long. Otherwise, there would be weather damage to the window sill and the floor, but there is none.” He carefully pulled the shutters closed and latched them.
“That’s one thing to be grateful for in this horrible mess. I’ll have to get Henry to put some boards up until we can get some new glass.”
“Well, ladies, we need to be moving along. I would like both of you to pack a few days of clothing. I’m sure that Tom and Edith will be willing to put you up for a while. For the time being, it is not safe for you to be staying here.”
Ben motioned them out of the study and he blew out the lamps before leaving the room. Barbara locked the door, but kept the key with her.
They were soon on their way to talk with the authorities. What they did not see while they were traveling about was the coach that followed from a safe distance until they neared the Cole estate.
There was a bustle of activity as Edith orchestrated getting Barbara and Charlotte settled upon their arrival at the Cole mansion. Ben immediately asked to speak with Tom privately. They moved from the main hall to Tom Cole’s office. Ben explained in detail what he knew about Harrison’s death and his apparent thievery of James Dameron’s property. Tom paced back and forth in front of his beautiful mahogany desk.
“My God, Ben! This sounds like a dreadful business. We are only left to assume that Harrison was selling James’ things. He must have gotten tangled up with some bad ones.”
Ben sighed and ran a hand through his silver hair. “I didn’t want to get into it with Barbara, but that is what I’ve been thinking. One only kills a man in that manner to scare everyone away from finding out the truth.”
“That’s true, but there is something else I don’t understand. Several months ago, not long after James passed, I talked with Canfield and Russell about hiring a guard for Barbara’s place. Not too many people know that James was a crack shot and that he kept pistols hidden throughout the house. He never bothered with a guard because I believe he would have had no qualms about shooting a ne’r-do-well, if necessary. But that all changed once he was gone. Now his partners handle Barbara’s finances and I assumed that because it would be in her best interest, they would want to do this for her. They were in agreement and assured me that it would be done. I just don’t see how something like this happen if there is someone patrolling the property.”
“No one mentioned anything about a guard. Surely Barbara, but especially Calvin or the gardener would have said something if there was someone regularly patrolling the estate.”
“Ben, I think we need to make a visit to Canfield and Russell right away. They have some explaining to do!”
“Yes, it would appear that they do, but first we need to stop by Barbara’s place and see if the authorities have come by. Give me just a few minutes and I will be ready to go.”
Ben had not been wearing his revolver since coming to the city. With the situation taking a dangerous and uncertain turn, he went to his room to retrieve his gun belt. He made sure that his gun was fully loaded before strapping it on. He patted his jacket. He always carried a Derringer in an inside pocket while in San Francisco. Only good at short range, he hoped that it was never necessary to use it, however, he was unsure whether Tom Cole carried a gun routinely and planned to offer it to him if he was not armed.
By the time that Ben and Tom reached the Dameron estate, the police had come and two men were carrying Harrison’s body away toward an undertaker’s hearse. Tom and Ben found it very frustrating that the police had nothing to offer from their investigation of the premises. The constable said that murders like this one were common events in San Francisco and normally the cases were never solved; the workload much too great for the number of men on the police force. Having nothing more to go on, Ben and Tom left for the law office.
At the office of Canfield and Russell, Tom was surprised by the new, young face seated at the secretary’s desk.
“Good afternoon, sirs. How may I help you gentlemen?” The inquiry was made by a pretty brunette dressed in a starched white blouse.
“Good afternoon, Miss. I don’t believe we have met before. I am Thomas Cole of Cole and Nagle Shipping. I was expecting Miss Peabody to be at this desk. Is she off today?”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Cole and no sir. Miss Peabody has not worked here for several months.”
“Really? And your name is?”
“Miss Barnes, sir.”
Ben was feeling a sense of urgency and interjected, “Miss Barnes, it is extremely important that we speak with Mr. Canfield and Mr. Russell.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Your name please?”
“Cartwright, Ben Cartwright.”
“Well, I’m sorry Mr. Cartwright, but Mr. Canfield and Mr. Russell are with other clients at the moment and cannot be interrupted.”
Tom Cole waved Ben off. “Miss Barnes, I have message for you to relay to your employers. If they want to continue to represent Cole and Nagle Shipping, they will reschedule their current appointment and speak with us immediately.”
Ben looked at Tom with surprise. The stress of the day had definitely taken a toll on Tom. The young woman looked at them with shock and then dropped her head. She peeked up uncertainly to find Tom glaring at her. Nervously she stood up from her desk. Almost stumbling over her chair, she went and knocked on the door across the room. Miss Barnes cracked the door and delivered the message. Closing the door, she then returned to her desk.
“Gentlemen, if you would please have a seat, Mr. Canfield and Mr. Russell will be with you in a few minutes.”
“Good!” Tom replied.
Ben offered her a weary smile. “Thank you, Miss Barnes.”
The secretary appeared somewhat relieved by Ben’s politeness.
Momentarily, two men exited the room that Miss Barnes had entered. The first man was dressed in an expensive suit and carried a top hat and cane. He gave Ben a mysterious smile and bid him good day. The other was a large, powerful looking man who carried a heavy, dark wool coat and hat. He appeared quite stern and did not acknowledge Ben and Tom before leaving the building.
A voice from inside the room called, “Miss Barnes, you may send the gentlemen in.”
Tom and Ben entered to find Howard Canfield and George Russell standing behind a large table. Canfield attempted a pleasant smile.
“Good day to you, Mr. Cole and Mr. Cartwright, we meet again. Sorry for the delay. How can we help you with this urgent business of yours?”
“We are here representing Barbara Dameron. Are you aware that her butler was brutally murdered last evening?” Tom asked pointedly.
“Murdered!” George Russell’s voice squeaked out.
“Yes.” Ben replied. “The body was found by the gardener. Later this morning, Mrs. Dameron and I discovered that Harrison, the butler, had been stealing valuable items from your deceased partner’s study. We are only left to assume that whoever is behind this terrible crime was finished using Harrison for their purposes and hoped to deter any type of investigation by the severe manner in which he was killed.”
Canfield acted as if he was shocked. “That’s horrible! What a shame for Mrs. Dameron to lose so much of what James held dear!”
Ben was examining him closely as he spoke and felt that something about the lawyer did not seem quite genuine. He also noticed that Russell was beginning to perspire and look pale.
“I don’t understand how this happened. We discussed months ago that a guard would be hired for the Dameron estate. Did you follow through or not?” Tom blurted out.
“Yes, yes. Of course, we did. There is someone there between the hours of midnight and five a.m.” Canfield spoke confidently despite the fact that he felt like he was going to toss the contents of his stomach.
Ben’s face grew hard. “I find it interesting that you did not inform Mrs. Dameron or her staff about it. I have questioned them and no one know anything about a guard.”
“Well, we didn’t think it was necessary given the hours of the day when the man would be working.” Beads of perspiration were also forming on Canfield’s brow.
“But you didn’t even think to tell Mrs. Dameron about it if for no other reason than to offer her some peace of mind?” Ben pressed.
“As I said, we just didn’t think it was necessary as long as her property was being protected.” Frustration was beginning to creep into Canfield’s voice.
“I would like to speak with this guard. What is his name?”, Ben asked.
“I have no idea who the man is. He works for a firm that does this sort of thing. We set it up months ago and will have to look it up and get back to you.” Canfield had had enough of the interrogation by Ben. “And now gentlemen, Mr. Russell and I are needed in the judges office; so I am afraid we are going to have to cut this short. We will get you the information that you want. Good day, gentlemen.”
Tom was about to protest, but Ben grabbed his arm. “Let’s go, Tom. You heard Mr. Canfield. He will get the name of the guard to us.” Ben made it sound convincing, though he doubted it would ever happen. Good day.”
Canfield and Russell said goodbye and closed the door to the conference room once Ben and Tom were out of the building.
“What are we going to do now? That Morgan! I knew we shouldn’t have trusted him.”, Russell exclaimed.
“Shut up!”, Canfield said in a hoarse whisper. “We didn’t have any choice in the matter. Now we need to come up with a plan. FIrst thing we have to do is get a guard over to Barbara’s tonight because I bet Cartwright will be checking to make sure someone is patrolling the estate. That Cartwright fellow is a persistent cuss. We could lose everything because of him!”
Outside the building, Tom and Ben paused to discuss their conversation with Canfield and Russell.
“They’re liars. Both of them!” Tom surmised.
“Yes I believe you are right, Tom, but right now we have no proof. Where do we go from here?”
“Natalie Peabody worked for James for years. I find it very interesting that she left just shortly after James passed away. Ben, wouldn’t you think that Canfield and Russell would want to keep on a very experienced employee at a time like that?”
“What you are saying makes a lot of sense providing she was let go, but we do not know that for sure. I think we need to find Miss Peabody and talk with her and we also need to confirm that there is a guard working at Barbara’s estate. My guess is there will be one there this evening whether or not one has been there the past few months. Tom, this is going to be more than you and I can handle. I think we should look into hiring a private investigator.”
Tom Cole agreed with his friend. He felt exhausted from the day’s events. For better or worse, Tom had needed an investigator a few years back; so he and Ben made their way to the office of Martin Spector.
Over dinner that evening, Ben and Tom related to Barbara and Edith how their day had gone and that they suspected that Canfield and Russell were at least in part behind the great sham.
“I simply can’t believe that Howard and George got Harrison to steal our possessions and then had him killed!” Barbara could not hold back the tears.
“There, there, Barbara. Tom and Ben will get to the bottom of this.” Edith tried to console her dear friend.
Ben looked on the woman he cared for greatly with concern and sighed. “The problem is that we have no solid proof, but today Tom hired a private investigator. If Canfield and Russell are truly behind this scheme, hopefully Mr. Spector will be able to find the information we need to prove it.”
Tom and Edith reassured Barbara that they would do whatever was necessary to get to the bottom of the murder and thefts.
The following morning when Ben came down for breakfast, Tom and Edith were sitting at the table in the dining hall. He bid them good morning.
“Good morning, Ben. What are your plans for the day?”, Tom inquired. I’m afraid going to need to leave shortly for a meeting with clients.”
“I’m not quite sure. I see that Barbara hasn’t come down yet. I will probably spend some time talking with her to see if she can think of anything that might be helpful in making some headway on figuring out who is behind this mess. I’m sure this is all very exhausting for her.”
“Yes, quite.” Edith could see how concerned he was for their mutual friend.
Within moments the Coles’ maid brought in a note. Tom gave it a cursory scan and held it out to Ben. “This is for you. I hope it’s not bad news from home. None of us need anything else to go wrong.”
“Certainly not,” Edith added.
Ben opened the envelope and read the telegram. His brow creased as he reread the message. He folded the note and placed it back in the envelope. He clasped his hands and rested his head on his hands as though praying.
“Oh dear, Ben. Something is wrong, isn’t it?”, Edith exclaimed.
“It’s Joe, my youngest son. He’s been in some kind of accident. I’m going to need to leave immediately.” Ben’s face held a pained expression.
“How dreadful, Ben. I will tell the staff before I leave to give you all help you need.” Tom offered.
“Thank you, Tom….and Edith. You have been very gracious hosts, but now I must hurry and get my things put together and head to the train station.” Ben rose from the table.
Tom stood. “Yes of course. Rest assured I will do everything in my power to get this situation resolved.” He held out his hand to Ben who grasped it firmly and nodded his appreciation.
Ben went directly upstairs to pack his belongings. Once he had everything together, he carried his bag with him down the hall and stopped at Barbara’s room. He knocked gently on the door.
“Yes, who is it?”, Barbara’s muffled voice could be heard through the closed door.
“It’s Ben. I’m so sorry to bother you, but I need to speak with you. I’m afraid it’s important.”
Barbara requested a moment. When she opened the door, she was in a beautiful, floral dressing gown with her hair loosely pulled up in two combs.
Ben looked on the lovely woman with chagrin. “Barbara, I’m so sorry to intrude, but I really do need to speak with you privately. I would not ask if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.”
“Of course, Ben. It’s quite alright. I was just doing some reading. Please come in.” Barbara motioned him toward a pair of comfortable upholstered chairs in the corner of her bedroom quarters and they both sat down. “What is it that you need to tell me?”
“I am leaving for home right away. My youngest son, Joe, has been injured in an accident. I hate leaving you in a situation like this, but I really must return to the Ponderosa.”
Barbara reached over and placed her hand on his arm. “Of course you do. I appreciate all the help you have given me. It sounds as though Tom has things in motion to get this resolved.”
“Yes I think so, but I did have one question for you before I leave. Do you happen to know anything about Natalie Peabody, the former secretary at the firm?”
“Former secretary? Natalie is no longer with the firm?”
Ben looked a bit surprised. “We were told yesterday that she has not been there since shortly after James passed.”
“Really? Now that I think about it, I have not been in the office since James passed. Howard and George have always brought any papers that needed to be signed to the house.”
“I see….So how well did you know Miss Peabody?”
“She was James’ first secretary and had been with him, goodness it must have been almost twenty years.”
“That is a long time. Do you know if she had any family in the city?”
“Yes, a sister, she lived with her sister’s family since she was not married. Just off of Market Street not far from the office. Her brother-in-law’s last name is Lavin. But why are you asking this if you are leaving town?”
“I thought I might stop past the private investigator’s office before heading to the train station.”
“I would be happy to give this information to Tom if you like.”
“That’s not necessary, Barbara. Tom has left already this morning to meet with someone and I don’t want to trouble him. He seems to have an awfully lot on his mind lately. I will take care of it before I leave San Francisco.”
“Then I will leave this to you.” She paused briefly. “I certainly hope that you find your son improving by the time you get home.”
“Thank you. Now I really must go.” Ben stood and reached for her hand and gently lifted her to stand as well. He rubbed across the back of her hand with his thumb. “I’m not sure just when I will be able to return, but I will return as soon as I can.” Warm reassurance radiated from his dark brown eyes. He leaned down and placed a tender kiss on her lips. “I will miss you, Barbara.”
“And I will miss you, Ben. Godspeed.”
At the railroad depot, Ben purchased a ticket to Reno. He boarded the next train and took a seat. After a few minutes, he picked up his bag and moved through the car to the next until he was at the back of the train. At the door he scanned the platform looking for one of the men he had seen at the law office. Ben had only to assume that he was hired thug of the well-dressed man he had also seen yesterday. With the intimidating man nowhere in sight, Ben moved quickly off the platform out to the street and hired a cab to take him first to a telegraph office and then to a hotel where he registered under the name Joseph Adams.
Ben recognized immediately that the telegram he had received at the Coles was a ploy to get him out of the picture, despite the fact that he had acted as if it was legitimate. It was supposedly from Adam, however, long ago the two of them developed a coded response for when things were truly urgent and the message did not have it. Secondly Adam was in Sacramento on business; so the message should have come from Hoss since it was reporting Joe as being injured. Though it frustrated him to do so, Ben remained at the hotel the remainder of that day and the next. He knew that he could not risk being seen by anyone who would recognize him. During these days, Ben took all his meals in his room. About to go stir crazy, he determined to venture out on the third day and try to find out more information about Miss Peabody. He wore his suit with a white shirt and string tie, but not his stylish vest, hoping that it might make him less conspicuous to pick out on the street and that he would look more like a regular businessman. He kept his hat pulled down a little lower than usual to obscure more of his face.
Ben took a cab to the area of the city Barbara had described, and then set out on foot. He got the break he needed when he came up on a gentleman who was about to get in his carriage. Ben asked him if by chance he knew someone named Lavin that lived in the neighborhood. The man pointed to the house two doors down. Ben thanked him and bid him a good day.
Ben approached the house and knocked on the door. When no one answered after repeated knocks, he walked back off the stoop, then turned around quickly. He noticed movement in the drapes at the window on the left side of the house. He walked back up to the door and knocked again before speaking.
“I’m looking for a Miss Peabody. Would you be able to tell anything of her whereabouts?…I understand why you might be hesitant to open the door. I am asking because I am concerned for Miss Peabody’s safety. She may have been privy to some information that could have put her life in jeopardy..…” He paused and knocked one last time. “Please, I would be grateful for any information you can give me and I am willing to pay.”
He heard the sound of the bolt lock sliding, then the door opened just enough for Ben to see a security chain. “Who are you?” A nervous woman’s voice asked from within.
“Ma’am, I am a friend of Barbara Dameron’s. She was the one who told me where Miss Peabody lived. Are you Mrs. Lavin?”
“Mrs. Lavin, I can fully understand why you would not want to open your door to a strange man. Is there a chance that I could return when your husband is home. I really need to speak with you about your sister.”
“I don’t know…I will have to ask my husband.”
“I would be very grateful if you would speak with your husband about this. I can be reached at the Whitcomb Hotel. Just send a message to Joseph Adams in room 209. I look forward to hearing from you. I’m so sorry to have frightened you. Please know that I am very concerned about your sister. Thank you for your time, Mrs. Lavin.”
The door clicked shut and the bolt thrown back into place almost immediately after Ben finished his last word. He did not turn and look back as he walked away. He did not want to leave any impression with Mrs. Lavin that he would attempt to get into her house.
Ben hailed a cab when he reached a main thoroughfare. Back at the Whitcomb he checked at the desk and found that there was a message waiting for him. On the second floor, he lightly rapped on the door of room 212.
“Who is it?” A voice called from within?
The door opened and Ben entered.
“Well hello, Pa…I mean Mr. Adams.” Little Joe stifled a giggle.
Ben clapped his sons on their arms and acknowledged Joe, Hoss, and Adam by the names they had used on the hotel registry. “Good to see you Mr. DeMarigny, Mr. Borgstrom… and Mr. Stoddard, I wasn’t expecting to see you here. I thought you were still in Sacramento.”
Adam smirked, “I wrapped things up early when I got the message from Hoss and Joe. Thought you could probably use a little more help.”
Ben brought his sons up to speed on what had transpired over the past weeks, then they went downstairs to the hotel dining room to get something to eat. After dinner, they returned to their respective rooms. Ben found a note that had been slipped under the door of his room. It was from the Lavins requesting him to meet with him the following morning at a restaurant near the Whitcomb. Ben immediately went to Adam’s room to let him know what was happening.
Adam closed the book he was holding. “Pa, I’m going with you. This could be really important.”
Ben slipped his hands into his pockets. “Honestly, I think we should all go, you and I to talk with the Lavins and Hoss and Joe to watch from a distance just in case someone is spying on us.”
“Sounds good. Let’s plan to get to the restaurant early before the Lavins arrive. We had better go talk with Hoss and Joe so that we are all on the same page.”
The following morning, Ben and the boys arrived at the restaurant twenty minutes ahead of the designated time. Each of the them was positioned at a different table with Ben at one that sat in the corner of the dining room that was farthest from the entrance. He sat facing the door so he had a clear view of the entire room. Adam was at a table nearby with Hoss and Joe each at a table just inside the entrance. It gave Ben an odd feeling to have no idea who he was looking for since he had only heard Mrs. Lavin’s voice. Still, when a man and women appeared in the doorway and began scanning the room, he was not surprised to see the woman secretly point at him just before they moved toward his table. Ben watched carefully as the couple who he believed was the Lavins came his way. As he stood to greet them, he noticed the hulk of a man he had seen in the law office and at the train station was moving through the doorway; so he positioned himself such that the Lavins were blocking him from being seen clearly. Though he had coached his sons to be on the look-out for the large thug, Ben glanced at Adam to confirm. His nonverbal message soon made the rounds. It was to be Hoss’ job to handle the big man if things got ugly. Shortly another man was in the doorway and made eye contact the thug Ben had recognized and who was now seated alone near the door on Joe’s side of the room. Joe picked up on it immediately. His eyes followed the new man to a table near where Hoss was sitting.
Ben proceeded tentatively with the Lavins; he had the uneasy feeling of sitting on a keg of gunpowder. He kept his voice very low as he spoke to the nervous middle-aged couple now seated in front of him.
“Thank you so much for meeting me, Mr. and Mrs. Lavin.” Ben opened.
“So just why are you so concerned about my wife’s sister, Mr. Adams?”
Ben continued in hushed tones. “In the past few weeks I have become friends with Mrs. Barbara Dameron. I am concerned for her welfare as well as that of Miss Peabody. Mrs. Dameron’s butler was recently murdered and most of her husband’s valuable collectibles were stolen.” Ben paused momentarily when the Lavins’ eyes grew wide and were filled with concern. “Mr. Dameron’s former partners are now handling her affairs. When a friend and I went to meet with Mr. Canfield and Mr. Russell, it came to my attention by the comments of the new secretary at the law office and also from information that Mrs. Dameron offered that Miss Peabody left her long term employment shortly after Mr. Dameron passed away. That struck me as a bit odd given the circumstances. Things seemed a bit vague and I wondered if you had an explanation. I am hoping that her leaving was in no way connected to the unfortunate things that have been happening lately.”
Mr. and Mrs. Lavin looked to each other with uncertainty, unsure whether to trust Ben with any information they might have. While they debated, he did a quick look about the room. Though Ben did not know the name of the big man staring at him, Morgan was now able to see enough of Ben to know he had been given the slip the other day at the train station. The look on Morgan’s face convinced Ben to bring Adam into the equation sooner rather than later.
“I understand that you are wondering whether or not to trust me; so I am going to be completely honest with you.” Ben changed to a whisper. “My name is not Joseph Adams, but Ben Cartwright. I am a rancher from Virginia City, Nevada. I was here on business when I became acquainted with Mrs. Dameron. I remained in San Francisco under an assumed name to try to make some sense of what has been going on.” Ben looked up to be certain that Morgan had not moved. “Please don’t look around the room, but my three sons are here in the restaurant with me. I have reason to believe that we are being watched at this very moment and I would like my son Adam to join our table for some additional protection, if you don’t mind.”
Ben’s last few sentences were frightening Mrs. Lavin greatly and making her wish that she had not encouraged her husband to seek Ben out, but the sincerity in his eyes gave her some comfort and the courage to trust him. Mr. Lavin nodded to Ben. Adam had been watching his father intently and wasted no time moving to his side when Ben gave him a slight motion to join them. Both Morgan and his partner took notice, but made no move.
Adam leaned in and introduced himself. “Mr. and Mrs. Lavin, My name is Adam Cartwright. My father and brothers and I are pleased to offer any assistance we can.”
Seeing the same sincerity in the eyes of the son as they had in his father, Mr. Lavin pulled an envelope from the interior pocket of his suit coat.
“My sister-in-law believed that Mr. Canfield and Mr. Russell were involved in some illegal business deals after Mr. Dameron’s death. She found some papers by accident one day that could have confirmed what she was thinking, however, she feared for her life and fled the city.”
Ben looked at Adam with shock, and then back to the Lavins. He was almost afraid to ask the obvious question. “But she is alive?”
“Yes, she is living in St. Louis with my brother’s family using a deceased family member’s name when she communicates with us.” Mr. Lavin whispered in haste. Ben and Adam exhaled relieved sighs in unison. “She wrote down everything she believed to be true, but has no proof of any of it.” Lavin laid out some papers in front of them. “We have felt at times that we were being followed, but have never been approached by anyone until you came to our house the other afternoon. You are certain there is someone watching us now?”
Adam responded. “Yes, but we have a plan in mind. My father and I will accompany the two of you to the Whitcomb hotel where you will check in under an assumed name. There we can keep you safe.”
Mr and Mrs. Lavin looked at each other in resignation. This was definitely not what they had hoped for, but now felt they had no choice. Ben picked up the stack of papers from the table and tucked into his jacket.
“We will read these thoroughly once we get back to the hotel. Hopefully there will be something in here to offer the police.”
Adam explained how they were going to exit the restaurant, then Ben and he flanked the Lavins and moved quickly toward the door. Morgan and his accomplice rose and began to make their move, but each were run into by a Cartwright. Morgan bounced off Hoss and tried to push him out of the way. Each thug was told to keep his hands still or he would have a six-shooter in his brisket in short order. With no solid evidence on either man, Hoss and Joe escorted them out of the restaurant, but not until the others were out sight.
“You’re all as good as dead!” Morgan yelled.
Hoss and Joe kept their revolvers trained on the two until they were out of range.
Back at the Whitcomb, Ben and his sons gathered together in his room to go over Miss Peabody’s notes after the Lavins were settled. Ben passed each sheet to Adam as he finished reading it until he came to the last few. Ben jumped from his chair and rushed to collect his jacket and gun belt.
“Dear God! We’ve got to get to Barbara! I just hope we’re not too late!”
Ben and his sons took a very fast cab ride to the Cole estate. Hoss and Joe stayed near the rig while Ben and Adam went to the door. The Cole’s butler greeted them and stated that Barbara had left a few days ago and that Tom and Edith had left for an extended trip earlier in the day. Despite Ben’s demands and protests, the butler went on to say that he had not been informed about any of the travel plans for either parties and had nothing to offer them.
Adam grabbed Ben by the arm and then spoke loudly enough so that the butler would hear him. “Surely Tom had to leave his travel plans with someone at his office. Maybe we can catch him before he leaves the city. Come on, Pa, we need to get going.”
Ben was certain that the butler was not being forthright with them. Yet, he was so consumed with his concern for Barbara that he had failed to notice the Cole’s coach now sitting in the lane that came up from the carriage house. Adam, on the other hand had not.
“Pa, my guess is the Coles are still inside the house.” Adam nodded toward the polished coach.
Ben scowled at his son certain that the butler had outright lied to them. He turned as though he would head back to the house for a full on confrontation, however, Adam again pulled him away.
“We have no idea what we will be getting into if we go charging into the mansion. I know this is painful for you, Pa, and that Tom was not specifically mentioned by Miss Peabody, but we can’t assume that he is not involved. Let’s bide our time and try to follow. If nothing happens soon, we’ll rethink our strategy.”
Ben sighed in resignation. Time was of the essence and he hated the thought of sitting and waiting, but he knew that Adam was right. The driver of their cab was instructed to leave the Cole property and go in the opposite direction of the wharf. Once out of sight of the gate, the driver was to turn the rig around, pull off to the side and wait. Time crawled by as the foursome watched for any sign of activity, but eventually the Cole’s coach moved out onto the road heading in the direction of the wharf. Adam told the driver of their rig to leave plenty of distance but keep the coach in site until there was more traffic, then he was to close the gap.
At the wharf, Adam had their driver stop and let them out once the Cole’s coach pulled into the loading area. However, the first person out of the coach was not Tom Cole, but the second thug from the restaurant. The Cartwrights watched from afar as he studied the area for any sign of a problem. Soon, Tom and Edith appeared as well. Ben grimaced as he exchanged looks with his sons.
Ben growled. “I don’t believe it! I just can’t believe it! Tom and Edith involved in……”
Adam interrupted his father with urgency in his voice. “There is no time to be judge and jury! Right now we’ve got to stop them. Once they are on the sea, there will be little hope of getting to the truth. Joe and I will take the side gangways and try to intercept them. Hoss, and Pa close in from the rear. Come on! Let’s go!”
With all the activity in the area, the Cole’s body guard was not able to see what was coming until Hoss and Ben were almost on top of him. The henchman drew his gun and fired a shot that caught Hoss in the arm, but it was too little, too late.
“Drop your weapon!” Adam called. “None of you are going anywhere until we get some answers to some questions.”
The thug dropped his gun and gave Adam a lethal stare.
Tom and Edith were doing their best to appear shocked by the behavior of Ben and his sons. “Ben, what is the meaning of this?” Tom shouted.
Ben handed Hoss a handkerchief for his arm who reassured his father that he would be fine. Then Ben got into Tom’s face. “You tell me, Tom. Why did your butler lie to me? I thought you and Edith were my friends. And why all this secrecy and the personal guard? And most importantly, where is Barbara?”
Edith buried her face in her husband’s arm as Ben’s voice grew louder with each question. The commotion brought a constable running up to them before Tom could respond to Ben.
“Alright now. You best be puttin’ those guns away if you know what’s good for ya or you’ll all end up in jail!” The officer shouted.
“Officer we have reason to believe this man’s company is shipping stolen goods and that Mr. Cole may be an accessory to a murder.” Adam replied.
The constable eyed Adam a strangely. “Well now, those are pretty fancy words comin’ from a man holdin’ a six-shooter. Cole, ya say, as in Cole and Nagle shipping?” Guess we best go to the station and sort this out.”
Edith began to sob and blurted. “No wait! Just tell them, Tom! We can’t hide this awful mess any longer!”
“Edith! Hush!” Tom hissed.
“No! I won’t hush! It’s my brother, Gerhard. He forced us into this horrible business!”
Adam looked at Mrs. Cole in disbelief. “Gerhard? As in Gerhard Nagle, the man that I met several years ago? He is your brother?”
Tom hung his head in defeat. “For Edith’s sake, my brother-in-law bought me out, so to speak. He owns it all, our estate, Barbara’s, the business, everything. We were going to take the Arracon to Australia and stay for who knows how long, possibly for the rest of our days.”
“But why go to the trouble of matchmaking Barbara and me and where is she?”
“We hoped something might work out between the two of you before anything too ugly happened, but we were too late to help Barbara; so that’s why I pretended to send you that telegram. One of Gerhard’s men came and got her two days ago and we have not seen or heard from her since. I tried, Ben….I tried.”
“Well you should have tried harder, Tom. I’m disappointed in you. What you’ve been party to is despicable! You should have found a way to bring your brother-in-law to justice. But there’s no time for this now. We need to bring in Nagle and find out what he’s done with Barbara. She better be somewhere safe and sound, or he will be one very sorry man!”
Tom hung his head in shame, but then looked up squarely into Ben’s face. “You watch your step, Ben. You surely know by now, he is not one to be trifled with.”
Adam requested some back-up from the constable as they pursued Gerhard Nagle, but was told that policemen were in short supply in San Francisco. The constable was able to find another officer to escort the Coles and their bodyguard to the station and get medical attention for Hoss, then he went alone with the Cartwrights. Just before the others left, Joe stashed Hoss’ revolver in his belt and pulled his jacket down over it.
The office of Cole and Nagle was about a mile away. The driver of the Cartwright’s cab was enjoying the adventuresome day he was having, especially when Ben kept handing him additional money for his services. Adam, Ben, and the officer headed for the door with Joe remaining outside to keep watch. A bookish clerk sat at a high desk furiously writing figures into a logue book near the entrance. He looked up when the threesome entered the building.
The constable spoke out with more authority and confidence than he felt at the moment. “We need to speak with Mr. Nagle right away.”
“Mr. Nagle is a very busy man. Do you have an appointment?” The clerk squeaked out.
“Get him out here!” Ben bellowed.
The little man jumped and nervously set down his pencil before hurrying to a closed door labeled ‘Gerhard Nagle, President.’ The clerk knocked timidly. He opened the door a crack when given permission to do so, and whispered into the room. The mousy man moved quickly back to his desk, grabbed his jacket and bolted out the door of the building. Ben’s eyes went wide when the nattily dressed man he had seen leaving the law firm several days ago strode out of his office.
The man smiled and nodded. “Officer, and Mr. Cartwright. Good to see you again. Adam isn’t it? And this must be your father by Tom’s description.” Gerhard Nagle held out his hand to Ben, but let it fall back to his side when it was not accepted. “Gentlemen, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
Ben’s face grew stony. “I am finding no pleasure in this but I am finding it interesting that Tom made sure you knew who I was but failed to introduce me to you the other day in Canfield and Russell’s office.”
Nagle gave the pretense of embarrassment. “Oh was that you. Pardon my rudeness. I hadn’t noticed.”
Adam gave the shipping magnate a hard look. “You can stop playing this game, Nagle. The Coles have already confessed to being coerced into participating in your illegal activities.”
Nagle arched a brow. “I think you must be mistaken. The last I knew Tom and Edith were on their way to Australia. In fact, I think you are the ones playing the game. I believe you are trying to bluff me into saying something that I might later regret. Just what is it that I have supposedly done?”
“For the past several months you have been smuggling stolen goods through a subsidiary of Cole and Nagle called T & G Enterprises.” Adam replied.
Nagle laughed out loud. “Really? And what piece of fiction have you been reading lately?”
“Notes from Miss Natalie Peabody.” Ben stately firmly.
Adam thought he detected a chink in the Nagle’s cool, calm facade when he shifted his stance just slightly before replying. “And just who might that be?”
Ben continued his pointed explanation. “Don’t pretend you don’t know who she is. She was James Dameron’s secretary for years and I know his firm has represented Cole and Nagle for a long time. There is also the unexplained murder of Barbara Dameron’s butler and now her disappearance!”
“My, my, my, this is quite a story you’ve fabricated. I would have expected better from you and your father, Adam. You seemed like such a level-headed man in our contract negotiations.”
The constable decided that he had heard enough. “Mr. Nagle I’m afraid these are very serious charges and that you will have to come to the station for more questioning.”
“Alright, officer. I will give you my full co-operation. Just let me get my hat and cane.”
Adam was tempted to follow Nagle into his office once the man was out of sight, but then someone yelled. Ben, Adam, and the constable jumped when two shots were fired close together. Joe rushed through the door with his gun drawn. Adam drew his gun and cautiously entered Nagle’s office. The sight turned his stomach. Nagle’s henchman, Morgan, had been lying in wait and was now gasping for breath. He had a fatal wound to the chest and was just barely alive. Nagle was without a doubt dead. He had apparently put his gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Ben pushed through the doorway and saw that Morgan was still breathing. “He knows where Barbara is. I’m sure of it!”
Adam leaned down and supported the dying man. He spoke calmly and quietly. “What’s your name?”
Morgan’s chest heaved. “Mor-gan.”
Adam pleaded softly. Morgan, please! Do something decent with your life before it’s too late….Come on man! Tell us where she is!” Morgan’s eyes rolled back. Adam tried once more. “Morgan hang on! Where is she?”
In a moment of clarity, Morgan’s eyes flew open and he gasped for air, though his life was rapidly fading away. “Cellar…her house…..” And then the big man was gone.
Adam sighed heavily with relief. He closed Morgan’s eyelids and laid him gently on the floor.
“Please God let her still be alive!” Ben cried.
Seeing blood on Adam’s jacket from holding Morgan in his last moments, the cab driver was longer certain he wanted the Cartwrights in his rig, money or no money. Adam assured him that they would pay for any damage and that he was to push the horses hard and get to the Dameron estate as fast as possible.
It was late afternoon when they arrived. Barbara’s home was dark and lifeless. In the past few days while Ben had been staying at the Whitcomb hotel, Gerhard Nagle had dismissed the staff and closed up the house. Morgan thought it the perfect hiding place for the mistress of the house. He had not had the stomach to kill her outright, though it would have been more merciful in some respects, but he could easily put out of his mind that she would die a slow death with no food or water and no one would hear her cries for help.
The mansion was locked up tight, so they were forced to break a window and send Joe inside to unlock the door. They lighted some lamps and went to the kitchen to find the entrance to the cellar. It took both Adam and Joe to break down the locked cellar door. Fearful what they would find, Ben tentatively shined his lamp about the room. Barbara laid unmoving on the cold stone floor. Ben and the boys moved rapidly to her side. Placing two fingers on her neck, Ben checked for a pulse.
Tears welled up in Ben’s eyes. “She’s alive. Help me get her into the kitchen.”
Wrapped in a blanket near the stove that now had a fire blazing in it, Barbara sat leaning over on Ben’s lap. He dampened her lips with water and rubbed her arm to increase circulation. She began to whimper as she came around.
Ben held her close and whispered gently to her. “You’re safe now, Barbara. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Barbara sat up and clung to him. “I can’t believe you found me and that I’m alive.” She broke down in sobs.
“Shhhh! You’re going to be fine now. I promise.” Ben continued to hold her and speak words of comfort.
Joe found some jars of canned peaches in the cellar and offered some to Barbara. She ate them eagerly. Ben kept giving her small sips of water and she ate her fill of peaches. After about an hour, Barbara could feel her strength beginning to come back. Ben went to her room to gather some clothing for her, and then they headed for the Whitcomb. He arranged for them to have rooms next to each other. Ben was concerned that she might have nightmares after her ordeal.
In the aftermath, it came out that James Dameron had not died from heart problems, but had been poisoned over a few months by his butler, Harrison, per Morgan’s instructions. With two murders, an attempted murder, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen property as evidence, it was much less surprising than first thought that Gerhard Nagle would chose to end things quickly and leave one less witness. Months later, the captured thug and the lawyers, Canfield and Russell, were each sentenced to three years in prison since they were not directly responsible for any of the killings. Thomas Cole received one year of prison time for complicity under duress. The judge had mercy on Edith after all she had suffered and she went to live with her son and his family in Denver.
As could be expected, Barbara struggled greatly at coming to terms with all that had happened. She had thought of Edith as her closest friend, and now that friendship was gone as well. She would eventually be able to sell her estate, but it was going to take time to undo everything Nagle had done with the help of Canfield and Russell. However, she would never get back the precious possessions of her husband.
Ben and Barbara spent the better part of each day together over the next weeks. He felt that they were growing quite close but he sensed that she was holding back and was not certain that she wanted to marry him.
After much consideration on her part, Barbara traveled with Ben back to the Ponderosa. He thought that some good, fresh Nevada air would help to clear her mind and lighten her heart. He was also hoping that he might be able to persuade to stay for good.
After dinner on Barbara’s first evening at the ranch, Ben accompanied her out to the porch to enjoy the cool evening air. They stood looking out over the horizon watching the last bits of sunlight disappear over the mountains.
“Hop Sing is a magnificent cook. What a delightful meal!” Then Barbara grew thoughtful. “Ben, your sons are fine men…a tribute to you. It couldn’t have been easy for you all those years with no wife to help shoulder the burden.” There was a sadness in Barbara’s voice as it trailed away.
“No it wasn’t easy, but it possibly made us closer than many fathers and sons. We had to pull together to build the Ponderosa and I am very blessed..….I imagine life wasn’t easy for you, either, in many respects. Your husband probably poured himself into his law practice and …..”
“And left me at home alone with no family to focus my attentions on. That is what you were hesitating to say, wasn’t it?” She turned away from him.
Ben wished he could do something, anything, to bring her some joy. “Barbara, these past few weeks have been a horrible time for you. I’m sure the void created by James’ death, friendships lost, and the family you were never able to have has been crushing at times…” Barbara’s head dropped and he took hold of her by the arms to turn her toward him. “I know we didn’t have much time before things fell apart, that’s why I wanted you to come here and not just go off traveling by yourself looking for solace….” Barbara shivered both from the cool air and because of her emotions. “You’re chilled. Shall I get your shawl?”
“No, thank you. It’s upstairs. I’ll be fine. It’s probably time for me to turn in anyway. I’m feeling tired.”
There was a twinkle in Ben’s eyes. “I think I have a better solution than a shawl.” He pulled her close and wrapped his arms tightly around her. A contented smile came to his face when he felt her relax in his hold. He spoke softly near her ear. “Tomorrow I want to take you to a special place. It’s my favorite spot on the Ponderosa. We’ll take a picnic lunch. I think you’ll like it.”
Barbara pushed her sadness aside long enough to look up to offer him a smile. “That sounds wonderful. I will look forward to it.”
Unable to let the moment pass, Ben leaned down and kissed her softly. They walked together back into the house where she said goodnight to Ben and the boys. Ben filled his pipe with tobacco and lit it with a stick from the fireplace, then he returned to the porch. A few minutes later Adam came out carrying his cup of coffee. Father and son stood in comfortable silence for a time.
“A beautiful night…” Ben puffed on his pipe as Adam continued. “Barbara is a lovely lady. I’m glad you were able to convince her to come for a visit. She seems to be well read. Makes for good conversation.”
Ben nodded. “Yes, warm and engaging. I do enjoy that about her.”
Adam looked thoughtfully at his father. “Hoss, Joe and I were just talking. Do you think she’ll stay? That is what you want, isn’t, Pa?”
Ben paused mid draw and cocked his dark brows. “Do my sons think that their father is too old to want to experience love and companionship again at this stage of his life?”
Adam reached up to uncharacteristically grip his father’s shoulder. “Not at all, Pa. We just want you to be happy.” After a moment, he dropped his arm and smirked. “Besides, it would be a relief for us if you found someone so that we could get a reprieve from your constant harping about our inability to settle down and produce a passel of grandchildren for you.” Adam heard Ben’s frustrated huff as he made a hasty retreat back into the house.
Despite Adam’s attempt to get under his skin, Ben’s eyes grew soft, thankful for his sons’ encouragement. Now he just hoped that the majestic vista at Tahoe would free Barbara’s aching soul and open her heart and mind to making the Ponderosa her home.
Supplied with one of Hop Sing’s delicious picnic lunches, Ben and Barbara took the buggy and ventured out to Lake Tahoe. It was a lovely, warm Indian summer day for mid November. Ben pulled the buggy to a stop at his favorite spot to view the lake with the backdrop of the Sierras.
Barbara drew in a breath. “Oh it’s magnificent, Ben! I would never imagined anything so beautiful as this here!”
Ben smiled broadly, so pleased with her reaction. “I’m glad that you like it. I call this place my little piece of heaven on earth.”
“And I can see why. Thank you for sharing this with me! What a treasure!”
“Yes, a treasure.” Ben was gazing intently at Barbara as she took it all in.
She flushed when she realized his meaning and turned back toward the lake. Ben got down to help her from the buggy. He collected the basket and a blanket. Barbara took Ben’s arm as they strolled to a comfortable, shady spot.
They thoroughly enjoyed sharing the lunch during which Ben also shared some of his sons’ misadventures at the lake. He explained how he and his two older sons ended up here. Barbara marveled at Ben’s resiliency and determination to follow through and see his dream come to fruition. It suddenly made her realize how needy she was and how little she felt that she had to offer. Ben sensed the change and suggested a walk.
They walked for a time in silence and then Ben stopped to tip her chin up toward his face. “Barbara, please let me help bear your burden. I believe that we connected that first evening we met and if you will have me I would love for you to be my wife.” His dark eyes burned into her sad blue ones.
“You are such a gallant, caring, compassionate man, Ben, but I would not be able to bear it if I thought you were asking to marry me out of pity.” She was blinking back tears as she pulled away no longer able to look at him.
Ben moved close, gently placing his hands on Barbara’s upper arms and whispered softly in her ear. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We are lonely people, you and I, and you have with good reason kept a guard on your heart….but maybe it’s time to let it down. You are an amazing woman, Barbara. You captured me that first evening on the dance floor. It would be my privilege and honor to be your husband and companion for the rest of our days. I want to share this and so much more with you. Nothing would bring me more joy than to make you happy. I love you, Barbara.” He tenderly kissed the side of her neck and felt her rigid frame melt into his. Ben slipped his hands around her waist and pulled her back into his chest, then he placed a string of light kisses from below her ear to her shoulder.
This was the tender, intimate touch she had been craving for months. Barbara turned in his arms and looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “You are a dear, sweet, wonderful man, Ben Cartwright. You know, you’ve made me fall in love with you.” She put her hand on his cheek before pressing her lips to his. Ben closed his eyes and drank in the precious moment. His eyes were still closed when Barbara pulled back and whispered. “Yes.”
Ben’s eyes popped open to her beautiful smile. “Yes?”
She took in the joy and wonder in Ben’s eyes and laughed. “Yes. I will marry you. You are a very persuasive man.”
There was a deep rumble in Ben’s chest before he cupped her face in his hands and kissed his bride to be.
Ben and Barbara were married in an intimate ceremony at the church in Virginia City. His sons were all smiles as they watched their father lead his bride in their celebratory first dance in the ballroom at the Palace Hotel. A few years down the road, Barbara and Ben did experience the delight of having grandchildren. So despite their previously painful life experiences, they enjoyed years of love and companionship, and Ben was forever grateful for their encounter in San Francisco.
Other Stories by this Author
- Was There A Man? (by Hart4Ben)
- Through Fiery Trials A Pathway Lies (by Hart4Ben)
- The Measure of a Man (by Hart4Ben)