Summary: Hoss and Joe hire a new ranch hand while on a trip to purchase horses. Aware of the potential for problems with their father, they could not have imagined the stir the new hand would make.
Rating: T WC: 13926
A Gal Named Sal Series:
A Gal Named Sal
“Hey, here he comes now.” Hoss smacked Joe’s arm with the back of his hand when he spied Adam walking their direction.
Joe swallowed hard and tugged on his jacket. “Hey, Adam. Come to have a look at the new stock?”
“Thought I’d better check up on you two before Pa gets back.” Joe bristled as Adam surveyed the corrals and then fixed his gaze on the hand that was working with a feisty sorrel. “That our new hire? Looks pretty young to be training new stock.”
“Uh — yeah — just hired on.” Joe tried to sound more confident than he felt.
Adam gave the hired hand more intense scrutiny. “Wa — it a minute. That’s no boy. That’s a woman!” He turned to face his brothers. “All right, you two. What have you done this time? You know that Pa would never allow a female ranch hand. It’s too disruptive to the men.”
“Aww now, Adam.” Hoss swung a big arm in the petite woman’s direction. “Sal just wants a chance to prove herself. Look, you can tell from here that she knows what she’s doin’!”
“Sal? I assume that’s short for Sally?” Adam’s eyes squinted with his question.
“Well, she goes by Mustang Sally, to be more exact.” Joe folded his arms in front of him.
“Mustang Sally.” Adam muttered, his face grimacing. “So just where is ‘Mustang Sally’ going to sleep at night, or for that matter, bathe?”
Joe held up his hands. “We’ve got that all figured out.”
“Oh, you do, do you?” Adam countered.
“Yeah.” Hoss chimed in. “Done taken care of it. Sal kin have the little room in the barn.”
Adam crossed his arms tight against his chest and took turns glaring at his brothers. Joe pointed toward the corral indicating that Adam should have another look. Mustang Sally was handling herself and the challenging horse as well as Adam had seen any man do the job.
Adam flung his hands down to his side. “Ohhhh — all right! I am certain that I will rue the day that I didn’t put a stop to this, but we’ll give it a try.”
A surprised grin spread across Joe’s face. “You won’t be sorry, Adam.” He gave his oldest brother an enthusiastic nod.
“Yeah, I jest have a good feelin’ about Sal –.”
Adam lifted his hand and extended his index finger. “One complaint — one — mind you, and you two will give her whatever pay she’s got coming and send her on her way. Understood?”
Joe opened his mouth to protest, but Adam waved him off and walked away in a huff. Joe’s head wagged back and forth as he silently gave his brother a piece of his mind.
Hoss jammed his hands into his pockets. “Maybe Adam’s right, Joe. I know Sal is real good with horses and all, but this may turn out ta be more trouble than it’s worth — stir up a hornet’s nest and that don’t even take Pa inta ‘ccount.”
Joe stabbed a finger in Sally’s direction. “Just look at her, brother! We haven’t had somebody that good here in a long time!”
“You’re preachin’ ta the choir, Joe. I jest hope she’s up to the rest of it once all the men figure out she’s a gal!. Some of ‘em prob’ly won’t care as long as she keeps her distance, but others — well, that could be tough. Hope it don’t get ugly for her.”
Joe’s shoulders drooped as his cocky certainty suddenly took a hit.
Two days later, Ben rode in from Carson City and noticed that there was a lot of activity in the corral. He dismounted and tied Buck to the fence all the while intently watching the wrangler who had a horse circling on a long lead.
“I’ll take care of Buck for you, Mr. Cartwright.” Smokey sauntered over and climbed the fence.
“Thanks. I’d appreciate that.” Ben sighed heavily, removed his hat and mopped his brow with his gloved hand. “I take it, that’s our new hire.”
“Yeah, seems to really know what — uh –”
“She, right? What she’s doing.” Ben’s emphasis did not go unnoticed by Smokey. “And do you happen to know where the boys are?”
“Well, I think Adam had business in town and Hoss and Joe are out on the range. Prob’ly all home by supper.”
The dust flew when Ben gave his hat a frustrated smack on his leg. “How are the men reacting to –”
“Sally. She goes by Mustang Sally.”
Ben’s brows shot up.
“Oh there’s been some mumbling, but no dust ups.”
“That’s good. Let me know if anything changes. We can’t have a — any ranch hand causing a commotion and keeping the others from getting their work done.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright. Smokey untied Buck and glanced back at Sally. He swiped a hand across his upper lip and muttered, ”Ain’t it a shame.”
Ben turned sharply in Smokey’s direction. “How’s that?”
“Oh — nothing, boss.” Smokey took Buck to the barn to avoid further conversation.
Ben swiveled back around to have another look at Sally. He groused to himself, “I’m guessing that shame would be that underneath those dusty work clothes, there is a good looking woman. Yes, indeed, Smokey, you’re not fooling me!” Ben made his way toward the house. “At least she has the decency not to wear her pants too tight!” Once again he smacked his hat on his leg.
As Smokey predicted, all of Ben’s sons were present for dinner that evening. Ben intentionally avoided bringing up Mustang Sally and neither did his sons appear to want to wade into that topic. Hoss and Joe did have plenty to say about the new stock that they had acquired and Adam commented on the contracts that he had sought consultation about from Hiram Wood. However, the three sons became absorbed in their meals when the conversation dwindled.
Ben took a sip of his coffee and looked around the table at three heads that were avoiding eye contact. “So, I noticed that we have a new hire.”
Three mouths stopped chewing and heads cautiously came up. The Cartwright sons looked at each other, silently wondering who was going to risk stepping into the looming battle.
Ben’s eyes narrowed as he looked at each of his sons. “None of you have anything to offer? So I am to take it that this new hand somehow arrived on our ranch and magically began working without any Cartwrights approving it?”
Hoss gulped down the food in his mouth. “Well, now, Pa —“
“Yes?” Ben gave his big son a withering stare which caused Hoss’ shoulders to slump.
“Joe, why don’t you ‘splain how Sally got here.”
Joe swallowed down the bite of food that had suddenly tripled in size. “Me? You were as much a part of it as I was.”
When Hoss stayed silent, Joe gave Adam a pleading look.
“Don’t try to pull me into this! You two got yourselves into it and will have to explain yourselves. The only thing I’m guilty of is not asking her to leave the moment I saw her!”
Realizing there was no wiggle room, Joe set down his fork and leaned back in his chair. “Well, Pa, it kinda went like this. Sally had been tagging along with Graham and his bunch. She approached us after we bought the horses. She was looking for something a little more settled instead of chasing down mustangs all the time.” Joe paused.
“That’s understandable. It’s a tough life for a man, let alone a woman. Go on.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t agree to signing her on without seeing what she could do with a horse. So we picked out a tough nut”, Joe eyes flashed bright, “and she was amazing!”
“Really? That good?” Ben responded feigning sincerity.
“Yeah, Pa, she’s better than any man I ever seen.” Hoss added.
Joe nodded to his brother. “And you know that means something coming from Hoss, Pa.”
Adam shrugged when Ben looked across the table to get his take on things.
“And you’re sure there were no other reasons for hiring Mustang Sally?”
“Like what kinda reasons?” Hoss looked puzzled by his father’s inquiry.”
Ben placed his elbows on the table and clasped his hands together. “Like maybe there is an attractive woman under those ranch hand clothes, first, and secondly who just might be out shopping for a husband.”
“Oh, now, Pa. Sal ain’t like that at all. She jest wants to do a good job.”
Ben nodded. Forming a steeple with his fingers and bringing them to his lips, he then turned his focus on Joe. “And do you agree with your brother’s evaluation of Sally?”
“Yes. Yes I do.” Joe gave his father an emphatic nod. “Besides, the hands aren’t complaining about her. They can see how good she is with the horses. She’s making great headway already!”
“Well according to Smokey, there haven’t been any major issues — yet!” Ben brought his hands down and leaned back in his chair to cross his arms. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you deliberately chose to go against my policy of no women ranch hands.”
Joe gave his father a sheepish look and Hoss took a large swig of his coffee to help with the lump in his throat.
“So now we have a dilemma. We have a woman working here, which may I restate, is against ranch policy, but who by all appearances is quite good at working with the stock. Letting her go without cause would seem unjust and make me look like an ogre. It is my feeling, though, that Mustang Sally’s tenure at the Ponderosa is tenuous at best as I believe it is only a matter of time until the men protest or get into some kind of argument over her.”
Three pairs of eyes stared back at the eldest Cartwright trying determine if he had finished his speech. It never ceased to amaze Ben’s sons at his ability to generate such a lengthy oratorical response to something they perceived as having little or no consequence.
With no reaction to his words, Ben threw his hands into the air and continued. “Besides all this, women are just not cut out for this type of work. They have — you know — issues that men don’t have!”
“Issues?” Hoss asked. Ben looked at his son incredulously. Hoss’ cheeks flushed. “Oh — yeah — those kinda issues.”
Adam brought a hand up to cover his smirk which was met by a glare from his father. Clearing his throat, Adam went back to eating.
Joe, however, being quite accustomed to his father’s preaching, took up Sally’s cause. “Pa, don’t you think you should at least meet Sally before passing judgment on her. She’s a nice gal and a hard worker, and so far her — ‘issues’ — haven’t been a problem.”
Ben gave his youngest a hard look and then relented. “All right, then. Tomorrow morning.”
“Early”, Joe followed.
“Early? You?” Ben’s brows shot up.
“Yeah. Sally starts early — before most of the men are up and moving.”
“Yeah. Really. Like I said, she’s a hard worker. I think it’s best to catch her when there’s not an audience.”
Ben nodded. “Sounds fair. I will plan on it.”
The next morning just as Joe had said, Sally was in the corral working a horse when father and son arrived at the fence. Absorbed in her work, it took some time for Sally to notice them. Joe motioned for Sally to join them. She led the mare over to where the Cartwright men were standing.
“Morning, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Remember, it’s Joe.”
Sally nodded and gave him an embarrassed smile. “Joe.”
“Sally, I’d like you to meet my father, Ben Cartwright.”
The woman deftly removed her glove and offered Ben her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright.”
“My pleasure, Sally?”
“Eldridge — Sally Eldridge.”
Ben released her hand, but not before taking notice of Sally’s striking blue eyes as she looked up at him from under her broad-brimmed hat. He also took note of her wavy dark hair that was neatly pulled back in a leather thong. Ben had previously seen her from afar and was surprised that Sally was older than her youthful mannerisms and gait belied. Her tanned cheeks blushed at her boss’s intense gaze. She turned toward the horse and fingered its halter.
Aware of the awkwardness of the moment, Joe commented. “Already got a halter on this girl! That’s great!”
Sally stroked the mare’s nose. “Yes, she’s doing well. Hope to get a saddle on her today.”
Joe looked over at Ben and found that his father’s eyes were still focused on Sally rather than the horse. “See Pa, like I said, Sally’s making quick work of the new stock.”
It took a second for Ben to surface from his thoughts and then he reached out to scratch the horse’s neck. “She seems more settled than I would have thought for so early in the process. You definitely have a way with horses.” Ben gave Sally a warm smile which again caused her cheeks to go pink. “Have you been doing this kind of work long?”
“Yes, for a while.” Sally purposefully avoided going into detail about her past unless she was pressed to do so.
“But you worked most recently for T. J. Graham.”
“Yes, for a while.”
Ben nodded when it was obvious Sally did not want to give any more details at the moment. “Very well then, we should let you get back to the training. Have you had breakfast?”
The tension in Sally’s shoulders eased at the prospect that the questions were likely coming to an end. “I’ll get some in a bit. The fellas save me a plate. Nice to meet you. Have a good day.”
“And you, as well.” Ben gave her an easy smile.
As Sally led the horse back to the center of the corral, Ben leaned into the fence. He and Joe watched as the female wrangler and horse moved away from them. When his father seemed to be enjoying the scenery just a little too much, Joe tapped his arm.
“You ready to get some breakfast or are you just gonna stand here and stare?”
“Um — yes — I mean no — I mean –Joseph!’ Ben scowled when his youngest gave him a look of smug satisfaction. “Let’s get some breakfast.”
Once inside, Ben took his seat at the table without comment. Adam and Hoss were already eating and attempted to decipher the look on Joe’s face as he slid into his chair. The brothers seemed confused by Joe’s expression which fell somewhere between vindication and bursting with a secret.
Hoss cocked his head at an odd angle and then turned to address his father. “Everything go ok meetin’ Sal?”
Ben kept his eyes down and focused on the serving platter of ham and eggs as he filled the plate in front of him. “Yes, Sally seems to be doing a fine job with the horses.”
Hoss looked first to Joe and then to Adam with a contorted mouth when Ben had nothing else to offer.
Adam’s hand hovered above his plate as he wagged his fork back and forth while looking directly at his father. “Sooo, that means she’s staying?”
Ben glanced up from his plate momentarily. “I see no reason to let her go.”
Adam mouthed to his brothers ‘no reason’ which caused them to choke on their food and cover their mouths.
Ben looked up at the disturbance. “You boys all right?”
Joe cleared his throat. “Oh — yeah — Pa. We’re fine. Hop Sing just must have put a little too much pepper on the eggs.”
Hoss swallowed hard and coughed back a guffaw.
Ben tasted the eggs. “Hmm. They taste just fine to me.”
The sons worked hard from that point to keep their composure. Ben quickly changed the subject to their responsibilities for the day.
Upon finishing his food, Ben drank his last sip of coffee and rose to head for the door. “Just let me know if anything comes up.”
“Anything?” Adam queried.
Ben walked toward the door where he paused to reach for his hat. “You know, like problems that need my attention.” And with that, he was gone.
Only seconds after the door closed, Adam dropped his fork, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. “Ok, Joe, spill it. What in the world went on out there?”
“Yeah, what’s goin’ on with Pa?” Hoss gave his younger brother a look of concern.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.” Joe paused making his brothers wait.
Adam sat back and folded his arms in frustration.
“Oh come on, Joe.” Hoss hollered.
“He’s — what’s the word I want?” Joe tapped his lips. “Smitten. That’s it.” He flashed a proud grin and fidgeted in his seat with glee.
“Smitten? Pa! How old is Sally?” Adam was incredulous.
“You’ve seen her. What do you think?”
“I only saw her briefly and from a long way off. I’ve been trying my best to steer clear of Mustang Sally!”
Joe shrugged and looked across at Hoss. “I don’t know. Maybe your age or a little older. What do you think, Hoss?”
“Yeah, I’d say that’s ‘bout right.”
Joe went on. “It’s kind of hard to tell. She takes pretty good care of herself, I mean given she works as a wrangler and all. Put her in a dress with her hair pulled up in some pretty combs — but — yeah — Pa seems quite taken with her. Almost acted like I wasn’t even there for a bit.”
Adam and Hoss looked at him dumbfounded.
Joe swiped his napkin across his mouth and dropped it on the table. “Aww, come on now fellas! You shouldn’t be so hard on him. Pa’s still a — a — lusty man. Isn’t that what the poets call it?”
When Hoss snickered, Adam nearly came out of his seat to take a swing at the big man’s head.
“Not lust you dunderhead! Lusty, like hale and hardy!” Adam’s head fell into his hands.
Hoss squared his shoulders and sat a little straighter. “Right — gotcha.”
“Well, there might have been just a little bit of lust.” Joe held up his thumb and forefinger in measurement and then broke into a fit of giggles.
“Ohhhh, this does not bode well!” Adam shook his head and then peered at his brothers through splayed fingers.
Word soon got around among the hands that the boss man had his eyes on Mustang Sally. Ben’s early morning meeting with her had not gone unnoticed by a couple of the men, neither had his too frequent stops at the corral to watch her at work. Though the rumor mill was working overtime, there had yet to be any problems that required Ben’s attention. And still, there were a lot of whispers and subtle comments deliberately said within Sally’s hearing. These served as confirmation of the feeling she had had on the day she met the head Cartwright. Sally tried to remain focused on her work and ignore the comments and the extra attention she was receiving.
There was a dance in Virginia City the following Saturday, and the hands were given the night off to go into town and let off some steam. Adam, Hoss, and Joe also planned to attend the event. Word among the hands was the Sally was staying at the ranch. Ben, too, had decided to skip the dance and told his boys that he would have a quiet evening of reading. Though they were looking forward to the evening in town, they wished they could be flies on the walls of the barn for the encounter that they were sure was forthcoming.
By mid Saturday afternoon, Ben’s three sons were lingering at the door while acquiring jackets, hats and gun belts. They struggled to keep ornery smiles off their faces.
Joe knocked Hoss in the ribs. “So, Pa, you’re sure there’s nothing you need now before we leave for town — you know like a bottle of that good wine from the root cellar?”
Ben side-eyed his youngest from his chair. “Oh, you mean so I can celebrate having the house to myself, is that what you’re implying, Joseph?”
“Well we’re just worried that you might get a bit lonely this evenin’, that all.” Hoss winked at Adam.
“I’ll manage somehow. Have a nice time at the dance.” There was a touch of exasperation in Ben voice.
“Thanks, Pa. Enjoy your quiet evening of SOLITUDE.” Adam raised his brows to Joe.
“Thank you. I plan to. Enjoy the dance AND BE GONE WITH YOU!”
The three brothers snickered on their way to the barn. Adam shushed his Hoss and Joe when they reached the door just in case Sally was in her room.
After dinner, Ben decided to take a stroll outside which eventually brought him to the barn. Needing an excuse to go in, he decided to curry Buck. As he worked, his eyes kept wandering to the slip of light under the door to the room where Sally was staying. He knew that it would be inappropriate to knock on her door without cause. He was certain that he had made enough noise for Sally to know that someone was in the barn. Ben racked his brain trying to come up with something that would bring Sally out of her room.
Sally had claimed the evening for herself having bathed, washed her hair, and donned fresh clothing. She was now relaxing on her cot with a book of poetry, one of her few prized possessions. Fairly certain that it was Ben in the barn, she did her best to keep her mind on her reading.
Though busy grooming his horse, Ben grew distracted by his thoughts and allowed the curry comb to fumble out of his grip and clatter against the stall causing Buck to jump and whinny.
“Sorry, old boy.” Ben patted his jittery horse as he retrieved the comb.
Hearing the commotion and Ben’s comment to his horse, Sally cracked the door. “Everything all right, Mr. Cartwright?”
“Oh — yes. Everything’s fine. Just clumsy. Sorry for all the noise.” He was feeling dishonest even though it was an accident that brought Sally to the door.
“All right, then. I’ll let you get back to your work. Have a good evening.”
“Yes, thanks. You, too — uh — excuse me, Sally?”
She pushed the door open a little farther. “Yes?”
“Uh — I was going to have some coffee on the porch. I’m just about finished here. Would you care to join me?” Ben felt like he was as tongue-tied as a schoolboy trying to keep the desperation he was feeling from his voice.
Sally hesitated, torn between seeming rude and giving the wrong impression.
Now feeling embarrassed, Ben attempted to tamp down his feelings. “I’m sorry. You’re probably ready to call it a day. Please excuse my intrusion.”
“No — no, not at all. Actually some coffee sounds good. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll join you on the porch.” Sally pulled the door closed. Shaking her head, she muttered, “What on Earth do you think you’re doing?”
Unable to suppress his grin, Ben made quick work of currying Buck’s coat, and hurried to the house to get the coffee ready. He had the tray on the table when Sally came walking up to the porch. Ben rose from his chair to pull out the nearest one for her.
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright, and thanks for the invitation.” Sally’s smile was tentative.
“Thank you for joining me.” Ben filled two cups before taking his seat.
As they sat quietly and albeit a bit awkwardly, sipping their coffee, Ben could not help but notice that Sally had pulled her damp hair up off her back. A few curly, dark strands framed her face. Scrubbed, in fresh attire, and without her large hat, Sally’s natural beauty was on display. She was an enigma to him. Sally appeared educated, confident in her abilities, and comfortable enough in her own skin to deal with rough and mouthy men. All this left him pondering what twists and turns in her life had brought her to this point.
Sally’s thoughts were more complicated. The evening after Hoss and Joe had accepted her request to work as a wrangler on the Ponderosa, she had told T.J. Graham that she did not want to see him again until he was ready to settle down. She was tired of constantly being on the move and sleeping on the ground. Though Graham cared for her and Sally returned his affections, she was ready for a more calm and predictable lifestyle. Tonight, she found a warmth in Ben’s dark eyes that she had not noticed before and comfort in his resonant voice. Sally estimated Ben’s age based on his sons. There was no question that Ben Cartwright was still a strong and virile man, but she determined that he was likely fifteen or more years older than her. She was experienced enough to know that age meant little in the West. Life had a way of requiring one to overlook one’s preferences.
Ben decided to break the silence. “How’s the coffee?”
“Good, thank you.”
“I would imagine you’ve seen quite a lot of this territory.”
“More than I’d care to admit. But it is wonderful country.”
“You know, I was a young seaman when I met Adam’s mother. I can’t even remember when I first realized that I wanted to come west. Adam and I started that journey when he was very small.”
“Just the two of you?”
“Yes, I lost Elizabeth in childbirth.”
“Thank you. Life deals you a blow, but with a child you have to find a way to go on. We eventually made it to Illinois where I met Hoss’ mother. Our journey started up again. We lost Inger during an Indian attack at Elm Grove.”
Sally’s eyes narrowed in sympathy. Her mouth opened to speak, but Ben continued.
“Given where we were, I felt that we had no choice, but to continue. The two boys and I broke away from the wagon train at Fort Hall and settled here twenty-five years ago.” Ben paused to sigh and set down his cup. “Twenty-five years. It doesn’t even seem possible that it’s been that long.”
Sally wondered about Joe’s mother, but decided not to ask. “You’ve done quite well for yourself and your sons. I’m sure you’re very proud of your accomplishments.”
“Thank you, but I’ve been blessed with wonderful sons and had some good luck.”
“You’re being modest. It takes a lot more than luck to own and operate a big spread like this.”
“Yes, there has been plenty of work to go around, if that’s what you mean.” Ben paused to refill their cups. “So now you know how the Ponderosa came to be. Tell me about yourself. How did you end up working with Graham?”
“Honestly, it was a bit of a winding path.” Sally contemplated just how much of her story to share.
“I’ve got all evening.” Sally’s forced laugh took Ben by surprise. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, it’s just that it’s maybe not the story that most women would be proud to tell.”
“Try me. I’m always up for a good story. My sons have tested me on numerous occasions.”
This time Sally’s laugh was genuine. “All right, then.” She paused to take a deep breath. “I was married to Matt Eldridge. Both our families came out west in ‘48. We went to Oregon for a time. After Matt and I married, he decided that he wanted to go to California in search of gold. We settled in Jamestown. I was one of the few married women in town.” Sally got a faraway look in her eyes. “There’s no other way of saying it. It was a terrible life. Matt had gold fever and it got him killed.”
“But you didn’t go back to your family?”
“No, we didn’t leave on the best of terms — I mean — I’m sure they would have taken me in, but I felt guilty going back with nothing.”
“I had learned to fend for myself, handle a gun, work with horses, and the like. T. J. Graham was one of the few truly good men I met in that God-awful town. He hired me on for a month’s trial. I’d worked for him for almost a year until Hoss and Joe showed up a couple of weeks ago.”
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that I think quite highly of my sons, but they don’t seem to be the reason that you came to the Ponderosa.”
Sally laughed again. “Yes, Hoss and Joe are good men. You have every reason to be proud. Like I mentioned before, I was needing a more settled life. Your sons gave me a chance to stay put for a while.”
What Sally said was true. However, she conveniently left out the part about telling T. J. Graham that if he wanted her, he would need to buy a ranch and settle down.
“You seem to be enjoying your work here and you obviously know horses. Can I — uh — we count on you staying a while?”
“Time will tell, I guess, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Please, in this setting you may feel free to call me Ben.”
With memories of T.J. fresh in her mind, Sally set down her cup. Her voice became more business-like. “Thank you for the coffee. It’s been a pleasant evening, but I think I should turn in. Goodnight.”
Sally was out of her chair and on her way to the barn almost before Ben could bid her goodnight. She had grown accustomed to the prying eyes of ranch hands, but she was unsettled walking away from Ben. She wondered what was going through his mind. Ben, on the other hand, felt foolish. He suspected that Sally knew he had feelings for her, feelings that did not seem mutual. He sat for a time pondering the situation. He wondered if T.J. Graham was more important to Sally than she had admitted. With a deep sigh, Ben rose to clean up and carry the coffee tray inside.
With the next day being Sunday, Ben made his way to church. He was not surprised that none of his boys met him there after having a big evening the night before. All four Cartwrights were finally together Sunday evening for supper. Joe was anxious to see if he could pry any information from his father about Saturday night, but Ben offered none. In fact, there was an obvious coolness between Ben and Sally in the days that followed. No one seemed willing to discuss it until the morning Ben purposefully avoided getting into a conversation with Hoss, Joe, and Sally who were standing at the corral fence. Ben gave them a cursory wave as he walked by, and said he was off to town. Hoss and Joe exchanged puzzled looks. Sally chose to excuse herself rather than respond to any questions they might have.
Later in the day, Joe quizzed Smokey. “Is something going on with Sally?”
The ranch hand put his boot up on the fence rail and rubbed his grizzled face . “Dunno. She’s just been all business lately. Only the horses seem ta get any smiles. She use ta take a joke now and then. Now she just walks away. The work’s getting done, so there’s no complaints from me.”
“Alright, well, let me know if you hear anything, OK?”
“Sure thing, Joe.”
The uneasy days seemed to melt one into another until the day Sally was injured. While her attention was focused on the horse she was working, an agitated appaloosa got away from one of the hands. The two animals tangled throwing Sally against the fence. In the end, she had to be pulled from the corral to keep from being trampled. With a broken right arm and a severely sprained ankle, she cried out in pain when the hands moved her. The Cartwrights were summoned when Smokey saw the seriousness of her injuries.
Ben immediately took charge of the situation. “Joe, ride for Doc Martin and tell him we will need a nurse for Sally’s ongoing care. Hoss, ride for Mrs, Cunningham. We will need her help until the nurse gets here. You two”, Ben pointed to two hands near him and then to the side door on the barn, “get that door off the hinges and bring it over here as quickly as you can.”
Ben knelt down beside Sally, who with tears in her eyes, was holding her broken arm and grimacing in pain.
“Just try to lay still, Sally. We’ll have you in the house very soon. Ben gently removed her hat and pulled his handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the beads of perspiration from her brow.
“Thanks.” Sally half coughed out her gratitude between ragged breaths.
After conversing briefly with Hoss and Joe, Adam leaned over his father’s shoulder. “How we doing here?”
Ben glanced back. “Oh, Adam, I could use your help getting Sally settled inside.”
“Sure thing, Pa.’”
“And find out what happened, will you, Adam?” Ben turned to face Sally again and wiped a dusty tear stain from her cheek. He offered her a tentative smile. “Try not to worry. We’ll take care of you.” Ben gave her good arm a gentle squeeze.
Adam slapped his father’s shoulder and immediately pulled Smokey aside.
The seasoned hand jammed his hands in his pockets in chagrin. “It was an accident, pure and simple, Adam. Sally was workin’ a horse and Chet dropped a saddle and spooked the one he was workin’ with. He didn’t mean any harm and feels real bad ‘bout what happened.”
Adam smacked the back of his hand against Smokey’s arm. “Thanks for the information. I’ll speak with Chet.”
Several hours later, Sally was resting comfortably in the downstairs guest room with the help of laudanum powder. Her broken arm was immobilized and her ankle wrapped with a thick bandage. Mrs. Cunningham was there to help with Sally’s needs until the nurse came. Paul Martin reported to the Cartwrights concerning Sally’s condition.
“Overall, she’s stable. She should sleep for several hours with the laudanum. Her ankle will be painful, but should be better in about a week. Her arm is another story.”
Ben’s brow furrowed with concern. “It’s bad, isn’t it. I was afraid that was the case.”
“I can’t tell for sure, but it’s broken in at least two places, possibly more. It will heal in time, but Sally may never have full use of it again. Given what she’s been doing, that could be a problem. Sylvia Tilman will be here tomorrow. She is an excellent care giver. I would guess you will need her for about a month.”
Martin picked up his bag and moved toward the door. Ben placed his hands on the doctor’s shoulders and gave him a grateful pat. “Thanks, Paul. I appreciate you making those arrangements.”
After three days that consisted of mostly drug-induced sleep, Sally woke to find herself in the guest room with Sylvia Tilman at her bedside. Sally requested to speak to whichever of the Cartwrights happened to be available. When Ben came in following Miss Tilman, Sally’s emotions were suddenly a jumbled mess.
“Sally, it’s good to see you sitting up. How are you feeling?” Ben’s voice was genuinely warm and sincere.
“I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble. Hopefully I’ll be up and about here soon.”
The look on Sylvia Tilman’s face said otherwise.
“You are not causing us any trouble. This was not your fault. It was an unfortunate accident and now you need to rest and get your strength back. Doctor Martin said specifically that your arm will need several weeks to heal.”
Though she wanted to argue, Sally thought better of it. She truly did not have the stamina at the moment. “Thank you for all you’re doing for me. I do truly appreciate it.”
“Not at all. Please let Miss Tilman know it there is anything you need — anything at all. Now, I’ll let you get some rest.”
Rest was the last thing Sally wanted to do but knew that she must. However, two days later, she insisted that she be allowed to get up and move around. Covered in one of Ben’s old robes, Sally moved about her room to loosen up her stiff ankle. Feeling as though the walls were closing in around her, she asked Nurse Tilman about walking about the living area. Sylvia agreed because she knew that the Cartwrights had gone to town on business. Under the watchful eye of her nurse, Sally walked between the living and dining areas for a time before taking a seat on the settee.
A knock at the door, brought Hop Sing from the kitchen. Sally turned her head sharply toward the door when she heard T.J. Graham’s voice. Hop Sing was reluctant to allow the lanky, sandy-haired stranger into the house, but relented when Sally confirmed that she knew him well. She struggled to her feet and greeted Graham with a smile that was not returned. After some awkward moments, Sally reassured both Nurse Tilman and Hop Sing that she would prefer to speak with Graham alone; so they promptly left for the kitchen.
“It’s good to see you, T.J.. Sorry to greet you like this.” Sally uncomfortably pulled the belt on the robe a little tighter.
The cowboy gave her a look of disdain at the sight of her wearing a man’s robe. “So this is how it is. Which one is it? Hoss? Joe? Or the older one? What’s his name? Adam?”
Sally squinted at him in confusion. “T.J. — you don’t understand. It’s not what you’re thinking. I got hurt. A broken arm and a banged up ankle.”
Graham looped his thumbs in his gun belt. “And I’m sure you were more than happy to move in!”
“I was in no condition to put up a fight the day that it happened. Today is the first I’ve been on my feet.”
“Yeah, sure. You expect me to believe that.”
“Yes, T.J., I do because it’s the truth!”
“Well, I’ll give you some truth. I’m on my way to Wyoming. Got some mighty fine horses out there”, Graham thumbed behind him, “and I’m gonna start me a ranch. But you just go on and enjoy this fine life, Sal. It’s what you’ve always wanted. Do me a favor. If you ever make it to Wyoming, don’t bother looking me up!”
Desperate tears were building in Sally’s eyes. “T.J.! Wait!”
Graham turned on his heel and left slamming the door behind him. Sally stood stunned and then burst into tears. It had been a long time since she had allowed herself the luxury of a good cry. She limped to the guest room and closed the door.
Once the house was quiet, Sylvia Tilman came from the kitchen to check on Sally. The sobbing she heard coming from inside the guest room made her think better of it.
While riding back to the ranch not long thereafter, the four Cartwrights noticed two riders leading several horses coming in their direction. Hoss and Joe reined up when they recognized T.J. Graham and the other rider. They each threw up a hand in greeting and received a hostile look. Even Adam was met with a pointed glare as Graham and his friend rode on past without a word.
Adam side-eyed his brothers. “Well now, that was some greeting from a man that I don’t even know. Who was that?”
“Let me guess.” Ben broke in. “T.J. Graham.”
“Yep, that would be him.” Hoss removed his hat and scratched his head. “Wonder who put the burr under his saddle?”
Joe shook his head. “I just don’t get it.”
“Well, maybe I do.” Ben kicked Buck into a canter and headed for the house.
He found the house quiet when he entered, with Sylvia Tilman seated on the settee reading.
He hung up his and hat and removed his gun belt.
“Good afternoon, Miss Tilman.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben sat down on the front edge of the cushion of his red chair. “How has the day been going?”
Nurse Tilman closed her book and pursed her lips. “Sally? Physically, she was up walking, doing as well or better than expected.”
“But I sense there is some qualification coming.”
“How did you know?”
Ben sat back and crossed his legs. “We ran into Mr. Graham on the road home.”
“I see.” The nurse lowered her voice. “I tried not to eavesdrop, but it was difficult not to.”
Ben tipped his head with understanding.
“I did not hear all the details, but it was obvious by the tone of their voices that things did not go well, and Sally was quite upset. I have not spoken with her since Mr. Graham left. She went to her room and closed the door.”
“Hmmmm.” Ben steepled his fingers and brought them to his lips and seemed to be caught up in his thoughts.
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“I may be rather young to be doing this sort of work, but I have dealt with more than a few difficult patients already.”
Ben gave her a sympathetic smile.
“I have the feeling that Sally will only accept my help for so long. I seriously doubt I will be here for more than another week. I just don’t think she will stand for it.”
Ben released a heavy sigh. Just then his sons came through the door. “Thank you for your insight on Sally.”
Sensing that the conversation was over for the time being, Nurse Tilman excused herself to go out and take a walk.
After shedding hats and gun belts, the three brothers stood looking at their father.
Joe put his hands on his hips. “Well, what did you find out?”
Ben placed a finger to his lips. “Please keep your voice down, Joseph.”
Joe raised his hands in question.
“Nurse Tilman implied that Sally and Graham had words, and that’s all she shared. We should not be speculating about what happened. If Sally chooses to enlighten us, then so be it, a and if not, you will not push the issue. Do I make myself clear?”
Joe nodded and headed for the kitchen. Hoss was right on his heels. Adam watched his father fiddle with his pipe and finally give up on it.
Suddenly, Ben realized he was being observed, and he mumbled, “Guess I’ll work on the ledgers.”
Adam kept a straight face, but it amused him to see his father so rattled by Sally and whatever relationship she might or might not have with T. J. Graham.
Though Sally wanted to refuse any further help from Sylvia Tilman or the Cartwrights in general, she had no choice if she wanted to salvage any use of her right arm. T.J. Graham’s words had left her feeling even more weak, but worse than that, disloyal. He had not given her adequate time to explain the situation. She wanted to run away, but could not. Sally had no where to go. She felt trapped and despondent.
Ben concerns for Sally grew with each passing day that she refused to come out of her room. He fully understood why she would not want to sit on the porch or walk about the yard as it would make her the focus of attention that she did not want to be. He could see how her proud independent spirit was currently working to her detriment. He told Nurse Tilman about a bench by the garden hoping that she would be able to persuade Sally to sit outside in the fresh air and sunshine, but in a more secluded spot. Ben smiled when Hop Sing reported that Missy Sally was helping him by keeping watch for the pesky rabbit that had been eating his vegetable plants.
The next day, Ben noticed that the guest room door was open and Sylvia Tilman was changing the bed. He went to the bookshelf to retrieve a book of poetry and headed for the garden. He found Sally sitting on the bench by the garden staring into the nearby trees. He intentionally made noise so as not to startle her. Sally looked in his direction and moved to get up.
Ben motioned for her to remain seated. “Please! Stay! It was not my intention to chase you away from your peaceful spot. I was just wondering how you were doing.”
Sally shrugged. “I guess I’m on rabbit duty.” There was no humor in her voice.
Ben forced an uncomfortable chuckle. “Yes, well, Hop Sing did mention something to that effect. Would you mind if I joined you for a bit?”
Sally wordlessly shifted toward one end of the bench.
“Thank you. This is a nice spot — more quiet than out front.”
The thought occurred to Sally that it had been quiet until Ben showed up, but she remained silent. She could not shake the thought of how she must look wearing one of Hoss’ shirts; the only thing big enough to fit over the splints on her arm. And yet, she was grateful to Sylvia Tilman for braiding her hair. Meanwhile, Ben sat holding the book of poetry in his hands in such a way that Sally could read the title if she chose to. He was doing his best to be content with the silence between them.
With Ben showing no sign of leaving, Sally finally spoke. “So do you enjoy poetry?”
“Oh this, yes — yes I do. And you?”
“Would you like to hear something?”
“I – uh – well — you probably have more important things to do.”
“Not at the moment. Shall I give it a go, then?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
***“To A Skylark
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest….”
Sally drew in a long cleansing breath and then released it. “That was beautiful. Thank you.”
“My pleasure. Sometimes when life is weighing heavy on me, it’s good to fill my mind with someone else’s beautiful words. They may not change anything in a physical way, but often change my outlook and do wonders for my frame of mind.”
“It’s true that sometimes you need to just be in a different place for a while even if it’s all in your mind.” Ben took note of the faraway look in Sally’s bright blue eyes.
“Shall I read another?”
“Oh — no thank you, not right now.”
Ben nodded and closed the book. He contemplated what to say before heading back into the house. “I’ll leave you to enjoy the sunshine.” He rose, took a few steps, and turned to face Sally once again. “Would you consider joining us for dinner this evening?”
“Thank you for the invitation, but no. I think it’s best that I eat in my room.”
“As you wish.”
“I’m just curious. Would you be treating me this way — I mean — going out of your way for me, if I was a man?”
“By that, do you mean have I ever cared for one of my hands in my house and made sure he got proper medical treatment and rest until he could go back to work? The answer to that would be, yes. I do feel responsible for everyone who works here at the Ponderosa.”
Sally’s face tinged pink for making the wrong assumption.
Ben went on in an attempt to temper the moment. “What happened was not your fault and neither was it the result of breaking ranch rules or carelessness on your part. Unfortunately, ranching can be a dangerous business.”
Sally gave Ben a sheepish look of contrition. “I’m sorry if I came across as rude or ungrateful.” With a hint of a smile, she went on. “So did you read poetry to your other ailing ranch hands, too?”
Ben laughed and tapped the book in his hand. “All right, I will concede the poetry was for you — because — well just because.”
“I have always welcomed anyone staying in my home to dine with us; so my offer still stands.”
Sally looked off into the distance. When she did not respond, Ben moved back and sat on the edge of the bench.
“I know that this is not the life you want for yourself. Sometimes when life knocks you out of the saddle, it just takes a while to recover and find a new path. You may not be seeing that path just yet, but don’t give up. You will find it. Just remember that that task might be made easier by allowing others to help you.”
Ben so badly wanted to take Sally in his arms and kiss away her fears and concerns, but the emotional wall she had built made him wonder if she would consider his dinner invitation let alone a relationship with him. For a moment, Sally looked intently into Ben’s eyes as if trying to make sense of it all, but then turned away.
“Well then, I hope you have a pleasant afternoon. I will have Hop Sing set a place for you just in case you change your mind about dinner.”
Sally held her breath as Ben walked around the house. She expelled it in frustration once he was out of sight. Though she kept her voice low, her punctuated words came out like bullets from a gun.
“Men! I swear God created them just to drive women crazy! You let yourself fall in love with a man who drags you off to the gold fields and then gets himself shot over a claim. You finally make some headway on recovering from that mess and think you’ve found yourself another man, but no! Turns out he’s an — “ Sally stopped short of using the word she wanted for T.J. Graham. “Good riddance! And now there’s this wonderful man, who I can’t for the life of me figure what he sees in me, and can give me everything I’ve ever wanted in life, who is all but tripping over himself to win my heart. Either he’s crazy or I’m crazy!”
Sally remained on the bench for a while contemplating what to do about dinner. In no way was she afraid to sit down at a table with men. She did it all the time. But this was different. This was a family, and not just any family. A wealthy, respected, and powerful family with whom she was creating indebtedness. She felt on the verge of tears once again, something that also frustrated her. Her steely veneer had taken a serious hit in the past several weeks. After giving it some thought, she decided to give dinner a try with the assumption that Sylvia Tilman would likely be included since they had been dining together in her room.
It was Nurse Tilman’s wordless nod that let Ben know that Sally had agreed to come to the dinner table. Though he welcomed both ladies to the table, Ben did not press them for information, but rather followed up on comments they made during the dinner conversation. And then with dessert, the stories began, one about an elephant named Sheba, and another about a thoroughbred racehorse and security for a wager. There was plenty of laughter and Joe’s exaggerated explanations practically had the ladies in tears. The laughter was a release for Sally that did not go unnoticed by Ben and did his heart good. He tried hard not to make her uncomfortable by giving her too much attention.
After the ladies excused themselves, Ben lit his pipe and went outside with his thoughts. He was not surprised when a few minutes later he heard footsteps coming his way.
“Very.” Ben looked from where he was leaning on the corner post of the porch at Adam. “I was expecting Joe.”
Adam snorted. “Believe it or not, he went to bed. Must have worn himself out with all his antics.”
There was a low rumble in Ben’s chest. “I’m surprised you made it through dessert.”
“Yes — well — Sally seemed to be enjoying herself even if some of it was at my expense.” Adam sipped the brandy he had brought with him. “She’s had a rough go of late.”
“Yes, for quite a long while, actually.”
“She lost her husband during the gold rush. That’s why she started working with horses and met up with Graham.”
“Any idea what really happened with him.”
“No idea. Sally seems reluctant to talk about him.”
“So — I’ve been wondering. Where do you see all this with Sally going?”
“You mean other than being the source of entertainment for my sons?”
Ben held up his hand. “No, I understand how it must look, your lonely old fool of a father –”
“Pa don’t. Sure we’ve been giving you a hard time, but all we really want is for you to be happy. What anyone else thinks really doesn’t matter now, does it? People are going to talk no matter what if there is a Cartwright involved.”
“That is unfortunately true. You know, Sally is nothing like any of your mothers, and yet, underneath she is a woman, caring and vulnerable. Oh, she hides it well, but it’s all there. Of all things, you can tell it by the way she works with horses.”
“You seem pretty sure about her. Has she given you the same impression?”
“Honestly, no. She has had to endure a lot and my guess is that she is frightened, probably more so now than she has been since her husband died. It’s going to take time for her to trust again.” Ben drew on his pipe and released a cloud of smoke into the night air.
“Well, her arm is still several weeks from being healed. That will hopefully buy you both the time you need to figure things out.”
“Yes — time. Only time will tell.”
Adam reached out and patted his father’s shoulder before heading inside leaving Ben to mull over their discussion.
Sally had heard Ben and Adam’s muffled voices coming from the porch as she sat reading in bed. Unable to make out their words, she was left to wonder if their conversation had focused on her. Dinner had gone better than she had hoped. Still, she speculated whether she had now created some kind of expectation. A heavy sigh brought a look from Sylvia. Sally reassured the nurse that she was fine. However, with her mind a jumble of thoughts, it took a long while for sleep to overtake her.
In the morning, Sally asked Sylvia to take her breakfast tray out onto the porch. The early morning hours were her favorite time of the day, and she had sorely missed her work with the horses. She was resigned to the fact that the hands were going to talk about her regardless of whether she was seen or not seen. She watched as Chet, the young hand whose mistake had caused her accident, was busy doing menial tasks around the corral. The gangly eighteen year-old noticed her when he came to the pump to fill a bucket with water. He kept his head down and was about to return to the corral when he abruptly set down the bucket and stepped up to the porch.
“Mornin’ Miss Sal.” Chet nervously pulled off his hat and kneaded it in his hands.
“Good morning, Chet. Nice morning isn’t it.”
“Yes ‘am. It is. I — uh — I — just want ta say how sorry I am ‘bout what happened.” Chet peeked up between his words unable to maintain eye contact. “Real sorry my greenhorn mistake got you hurt.”
Though Sally had every reason to be angry with the young man, her heart went out to him. “Thank you for your apology. Everybody makes mistakes. The most important thing is that you learn from them.” Sally gave the boy a warm smile.
“Yes ‘am. I will.”
“You go on now and have a good day.”
A relieved grin suddenly appeared on Chet’s peach-fuzz covered face. “Thank ya, Miss Sal. You too.”
And with that Chet hurried to pick up the bucket and head back to the corral. Sally noted that his movements seemed lighter and more energetic as if a load had been lifted. She even thought she heard him whistling as he went back to his chores. She found herself envying his ability to do his simple tasks.
Just then Adam came out the door with his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. “Sally — it’s good to see you up and about so early.”
“Thanks. You’re a bit of an early bird yourself this morning.”
“Off to Sacramento on business. Be back in a few days.” Adam surveyed the grounds and noticed Chet scurrying about. “Got an eager beaver in the corral, I see.”
“Yes, he’s a good-hearted kid.”
“I hope you know that he feels badly about what happened.”
“Yes, he snuck over here and apologized just a few minutes ago. Actually, it was kind of sweet.”
Adam chuckled. “The poor kid is green as a gourd, but he does seem to love horses and is willing to do whatever is necessary just to be around them.” Adam’s mouth twitched when Sally seemed to be lost in thought. He threw up a hand. “Have a good day.”
“Yes — you, too.” Her response seemed more of an afterthought.
Sally was still looking longingly at the corral when Adam led Sport from the barn. He mounted up and gave his horse a pat. “Who knows what could happen in a few days, boy. Maybe the seed will take root.”
Adam was not entirely surprised to find Sally and his father standing at the corral fence when he returned at the end of the week. She was dressed once more in her own shirt thanks to an inventive alteration by Hop Sing that had opened up the right sleeve and added some ties to keep it in place. Chet was working with one of the new horses under Sally’s supervision. Sylvia Tilman had expressed her disapproval of this arrangement to Ben. He, too, had his concerns, but gave his consent, understanding that to do otherwise would only cause friction between Sally and him. The obvious joy and fulfillment it brought to Sally made it clear that it had been the right decision. The side benefit to Sally being back at work was that Ben now had a legitimate excuse to check in with her each day. The ranch hands began to joke among themselves that the space between Ben and Sally was narrowing with each passing day when they stood together at the fence. The hands also began making wagers as to how soon there might be a wedding announcement.
The weeks went by and both Sally’s arm and her spirit healed. The Cartwrights held a little celebration when the splints came off her arm. Paul Martin gave her permission to use her arm for basic personal care, but the rest of the time it was to be in a sling. Given the severity of her injury, he recommended this for a few more weeks.
It was also time to say goodbye to Sylvia Tilman. Sally thanked the young woman for her good care and for putting up with such a balky patient. Now that she had regained some of the use of her arm, Sally insisted that she go back to her room in the barn. This meant she also went back to taking her meals with the ranch hands. Ben knew it was pointless to protest. Sally had recently commented to him how much she missed riding. This left him wondering what else might change in the next few weeks.
Ben was missing something, as well. He missed Sally’s presence at dinner, and after a few days, he asked her to join the family for the evening meal. Though she was reluctant to do so, it had been a particularly good day working with Chet, and she wanted to report on his progress; so she agreed to it. She mentioned to Chet that she wanted to show him a bridle before getting washed up for dinner and went to the barn to get it.
Sally jumped at the unexpected voice of Pete McClelland. “Clel? Whatt in the world are you doing here?”
“I came for you.” The burly cowboy with shaggy, brown hair and several days growth of beard moved closer.
“Where’s T.J.?” Fear caused her stomach to clench.
“Probably in Wyoming. He said he was done with ya, so I figured you were fair game now.”
Sally’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “Fair game? Clel I never gave you any reason to think that I had feelings for you.”
“That don’t matter. I got all the feelin’s we need for both of us.” Clel lunged at her and tried to kiss her.
“No! Stop! Don’t!” Sally turned and twisted her head away.
Just then Chet entered the barn. “Hey! Hey! You stop that! She don’t want you to kiss her!”
The young man jumped on Clel’s back and started pounding his ear.
Inside the house, the Cartwrights were seated at the table. With Sally nowhere to be seen, Hop Sing came out of the kitchen to complain that dinner was ready and should be served before it was unfit to eat. Ben gave his sons a knowing smile, and told the cook to bring out the food. He suggested that they go ahead and begin eating and that he would go check on Sally. However, when Ben reached the door, he paused and shook his head. A niggling, unexplained feeling came over him. He pulled his revolver from the holster and hurried to the barn. He could hear the thuds of a fight before he got there.
Then he heard a man’s voice. “You don’t have the guts to shoot me, Sally. Just put that gun down.”
Ben threw open the door and found a badly beaten Chet lying on the floor and the man he had seen riding with T. J. Graham closing in on Sally. She held her gun with a shaky left hand.
“That’s far enough! I will have no problem putting a bullet in you if you take one more step toward her!” Ben bellowed.
Clel gave Ben a hard look and put up his hands. He turned back to face Sally. “Dammit, Sally you shoulda just come!”
Embarrassed and ashamed, Sally ran into her little room and slammed the door shut. Since she appeared to be unhurt, Ben turned his attention to Chet while keeping his eyes on Clel. He moved toward the beaten young man and offered him a hand up.
“You ok, young fella?”
Chet groaned as he wobbled to his feet. “Yeah, I’ll be alright, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Good, we’ll get you patched up just as soon as I take care of this problem.” Ben wagged his pistol in Clel’s direction. “Move!”
Ben told Chet to have a seat on the barrel outside the barn while he marched Clel toward the porch.
“Adam! Hoss! Joe! Need some help out here!”
The three brothers came running out of the front door. They were shocked to find their father holding a gun on the man they had seen with T. J. Graham several weeks ago. The bunkhouse quickly emptied with all the excitement in the yard.
“I need a volunteer to escort this trespasser to Sheriff Coffee’s office. I don’t know the full story yet, but apparently Graham’s friend here was being a little too aggressive with his method of persuasion with Sally. My guess is that Chet tried to put a stop to it and got the worst of that deal.”
“Little snot-nosed son-of-a-bitch!” Clel spit on the ground in disgust.
“Save your complainin’ for the sheriff! I’ve got this jasper, Pa.” Hoss grabbed Clel and shoved him toward the corral to get some rope.
“Good. Tell Roy I’ll be in tomorrow and give him the whole story.”
Hoss gave his father a thumbs up as he walked away.
Ben handed his gun to Joe. “Do me a favor and explain things to Hop Sing. I’ll be in as soon as possible.”
“Adam, come with me. Chet is going to need some cleaning up and possibly some bandages.”
Smokey and a couple of the other hands were already having a look at Chet by the time Ben and Adam got there.
“Thanks, men. If you don’t mind, I need to ask Chet some questions, that is if you’re up to it.”
Chet got up gingerly. “I’ll tell you everything I know, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Well, Miss Sal and me was workin’ and she wanted ta show me the bridle she uses on her horse. By the time I took care of the last horse we was workin’ with and got here to the barn, I could hear her hollerin’ at that fella sayin’ she didn’t want him — botherin’ her. I remembered him. He was with that other fella that was lookin’ for Miss Sal a while back.” Chet paused and took a deep breath. “Anyway that fella, she called him Clel, had a hold of her, and she couldn’t fight him with her arm and all; so I started poundin’ on him and he let go of her. She musta gone in her room and got her gun, and that’s ‘bout the time you came in.” Chet let out a big sigh.
“That’s about what I had figured. Young man, you showed some real courage and you may have just saved — Miss Sal — from something truly awful and for that I am very grateful to you.” Ben held out his hand to the boy. Chet flushed with the praise, but grasped his boss’s hand. “Now Adam’s going to get you fixed up. Plan on taking tomorrow off. You’re going to be more sore by then than you are now.”
Chet gave Ben a weary nod. “Yes, sir.”
“Adam, see to him.” Ben placed a hand on his son’s shoulder and whispered near his ear. “Wish me luck. I’m going to check on Sally.”
Adam pursed his lips. “Hope she’s doing well.”
Ben entered the barn and gave the door to Sally’s room a light knock.
“Sally — Sally?”
Sally was curled up on her cot. She didn’t bother lifting her head up off her pillow. “Please! Just go away!”
“Only if you promise me that you’re not hurt.” Ben’s ears strained for her response. “Sally?”
“I promise! Now please, I just want to be alone!”
Dejected, Ben closed his eyes and prayed that he was doing the right thing by walking away. Inside her room, Sally stifled her sobs until she was certain Ben had left.
Once in the house, Ben joined Joe at the table, but then sat for a moment staring at his empty plate.
“Physically, I think so. She didn’t want to talk.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah, I bet she’s pretty upset.”
Ben placed his napkin in his lap. “I guess she’ll talk when she’s ready.”
He forked a piece of chicken onto his plate and spooned out some mashed potatoes beside it. He took a few bites and then pushed back from the table and went to pour himself some brandy. After taking a seat in his leather chair, Ben began twisting the glass with his fingers. He paused and quickly brought the glass up and drank the liquor in one gulp.
Sally stayed in her room for the entire following day until just after supper. She had debated long and hard about what to do. Initially she thought about just riding off in the early morning without a word, but felt guilty about that. She knew that she owed Ben and his sons the courtesy of hearing her decision in person after all they had done for her. Seeing heir horses in their stalls, she took off for the house. She raised her left hand and took a deep breath before knocking on the door.
Joe’s eyes brightened at seeing her when he answered the door. “Sally! Come in! Look,Pa, it’s Sally.”
Ben got up from his chair and greeted the petite woman with a warm smile. “Sally, it’s good to see you. Is there something we can do for you?”
It struck Sally how small she felt, dwarfed by four large men and the news she was going to share. “I — uh — I came to say thank you.”
Ben chortled. “Well, you’re welcome, of course. We were about to have some coffee.” He swung his arm wide in invitation. “Would you like to join us?”
“No — thank you. I’ve imposed on your generosity long enough. So I’ll be leaving in the morning and going back up North to live with my sister in Oregon.”
Ben’s head tilted slightly. “I don’t understand. You said that you love it here in the Sierra Nevadas.”
“I do, but I think my injuries have shown me that it’s time to live a different kind of life, and I’m not sure that’s possible here.” The hurt in Ben’s eyes was more than Sally could bear. “So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish getting my things together.”
The Cartwrights watched with open mouths as Sally bolted out the door. The brothers looked around at each other, but said nothing. Stunned, Ben stood staring at the open front door. He turned for his chair, and then suddenly charged out after Sally.
Joe looked at over Adam. “Do you think Pa can change her mind?”
“Who knows. She seems pretty set on her plans.”
Hoss jammed his hands into his pockets. “Things was goin’ pretty good ‘til that damn McClelland fella hadta show up!”
“Yeah.” Joe flopped down onto the settee.
Out at the barn, the door to Sally’s room was ajar when Ben entered. His chest tightened as he reached out tentatively and rapped on the door. Sally was not surprised to find him standing in front of her when she pulled the door back.
“Is there something you need from me?” Sally stood frozen in the doorway.
“Yes. Yes there is.” His frustration was evident. “For one, a better explanation as to why you’re leaving.”
Sally looked down unable to hold Ben’s penetrating gaze. “I — uh — I just feel that it’s time to move on with my life. I’ve got some money saved, enough to get me to Oregon. I’ll — I’ll figure things out once I’m there.”
“And what if I told you there was something else that I needed — someone — that I need.”
Sally bit her lip, and slowly brought her eyes up to meet his sad eyes. “You, Sally. I need you.”
“But you have everything you could ever need or want.”
“This?” Ben spread his arms wide.”
“It only brings so much fulfillment if it’s not shared with someone.”
“You have three wonderful sons.”
“Yes, that I do, but not a woman to fill the emptiness in my soul.” Ben’s hands came up and he pressed them to his chest.
Sally shook her head and looked away for a moment. “I’ve seen the pictures of your wives, Ben. I am not that kind of woman. Not beautiful and refined.”
He felt the tears building in his eyes. “You are beautiful to me. When I’m near you I feel more alive than I’ve felt in years. You are all the woman that I want, Sally.”
For reasons she did not fully comprehend, she responded with her given name. “Sarah — Sarah Beth Eldridge.”
Ben’s expression softened. He stepped forward and brought his hands up to cup Sally’s face. “Sarah.” He breathed her name before leaning down and placing his lips over hers. His face broke into a contented smile when he ended the kiss. He leaned down and gently caught her lips again before releasing her.
Sally’s eyes remained closed, her body tingling as she reveled in the moment. “I didn’t realize until just now how much I’ve wanted you to do that.”
She opened her eyes and found Ben beaming down at her. He chuckled. “I wanted — hoped — that I’d get the chance to kiss you the evening we had coffee together on the porch, but — well.”
An expression of chagrin came across her face. “I thought I knew what I wanted in a man at that point, but sometimes people aren’t who you think they are.”
Ben reached out and stroked her tanned cheek. “These past few weeks have been — well — difficult for you, to put it mildly.”
She toyed with his silver sideburn. “You are the kindest, most gentle, and patient”, she emphasized, “man I’ve ever known.”
She kissed the tip of her finger and placed it on his lips. Ben snatched her hand and pressed her finger to his lips. Sally allowed it to linger there. He then brought her hand down, but continued to hold it.
“So, there’ll be no more talk of leaving, right?”
“Are you really sure that you want this one-armed horse wrangler?”
Ben threw back his head and laughed. “Truth be told, I’ve WANTED you since the first day I saw you.” He touched a finger to her nose.
“Truth be told, I had a feeling that was the case! Men are not very good at hiding such things.”
This brought more laughter from Ben. “Well, I know what I want, but if you have any doubts about my feelings for you let me make it perfectly clear. Sarah Beth Eldridge, would you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”
Sally’s eyes were glistening. “Yes, Ben. I will.”
Sally slipped her right arm out of the sling so that she could encircle Ben’s neck. He drew her in tightly against his body. The lengthy kiss that followed left them both in need of some cool night air. Ben took her hand and led her outside.
He wrapped his arms around her from behind and pulled her against his chest. Pointing up at the purple black sky that was aglow with stars he murmured into her ear. “Just think, you would have missed all this.”
Sally turned in his arms. “Yes, but there is someone I would have missed so much more. I just couldn’t let myself believe it before tonight.”
“You can believe in this.” Ben placed a string of kisses along her neck. He felt Sally relax and let her body melt into his. “All I want to do is make you happy.”
Sally couldn’t help but close her eyes and take it all in. “You are off to a mighty fine beginning, Mr. Cartwright.”
There was a faint rumble in Ben’s chest.
Standing on tiptoe, Sally extended her neck and kissed Ben. He leaned into her kiss and then relaxed his hold when her head came to rest against his chest. Ben savored the sensation of nestling his chin in her dark waves as much as Sally found delight in the security of his arms.
Eventually they made their way back into the barn and sat down to map out a plan that would result in a wedding in two weeks. Built into their plan was a few hours of revenge for all the verbal abuse Ben had taken from his sons over the past weeks. Finally, he gave Sally one last kiss and bid her goodnight. He solemnly entered the house saying nothing except that he was turning in for the evening.
Hoss was seated on the edge of the hearth and heaved a great sigh. “Must notta gone too good from the look on Pa’s face.”
“I just can’t believe it! I was sure they’d end up getting married. I’m going to go have a talk with her!” Joe was ready to push off the settee.
Adam’s mouth twisted in frustration, and he pointed directly at his brother. “Now, Joe, that’s the last thing you should be doing. I’m sure Pa said all there was to say. If Sally refused him, then she has her reasons and we should stay out of it!”
Hoss rubbed his big fists over his mouth, deep in thought. He looked over at a deflated Joe who had leaned back and sat massaging his thighs in frustration. With nothing more to say, the brothers headed upstairs to bed.
At the crack of dawn, Sally left for Virginia City in a buggy driven by Smokey. She managed to leave before any of the Cartwrights were out and about. A while later, Adam and Hoss were already seated at the table when Joe came down for breakfast.
“Haven’t seen him.” Adam replied.
Joe raced toward the front door.
“Joe, don’t!” Adam hissed.
Ignoring Adam’s reprimand, Joe trotted to the barn. He knocked on the door to Sally’s room, and got no response. After several more tries, he cautiously opened the door and looked in. He found the room neat and tidy with the bed made, but no Sally. He walked slowly back to the house, his shoulders slumped in dejection.
Dropping into his seat at the table, Joe confirmed what the others had assumed. “She’s gone.”
Hoss paused his chewing. “Figured as much.”
Just then Ben came trotting down the stairs much more upbeat than the events of the previous evening would have dictated.
Hoss flicked his fork at his father. “Mornin’ Pa.”
“Good morning, boys.”
Joe huffed. “You seem awfully chipper given that Sally is gone. She didn’t even bother to say goodbye.”
Ben’s demeanor was calm and matter of fact. “Not surprising. Would you pass the eggs, please? She probably didn’t feel that it was necessary.”
Even Adam’s eyes went wide with his father’s remark.
“Not necessary? After everything — I mean — I thought –” Joe’s anger was rising.
Ben pushed back and crossed his arms. “Yes, and just what do you think, Joseph? Do you feel the need to run your father’s love life?”
“I — uh — well — uh — no, Pa.”
Adam smirked at Joe’s stammering response while Hoss kept his head down trying to stay out of the fray.
“It just so happens that your father is fully capable of taking care of himself.” Picking up his fork, Ben used it to make his point. “Life will go on. It always does.”
“Sure, Pa.” Joe watched dumbfounded as his father plowed into his food.
Ben allowed the somber mood to take hold before wiping his mouth and taking up the conversation once again. “It just so happens that it wasn’t really necessary for Sally to say goodbye.” His tongue poked the inside of his cheek waiting to see how long it would take one of his sons to get his drift.
“How’s that?” Hoss scrunched up his face.
“Wa-it a minute. Wa-it a minute. So she is coming back!” Joe flashed a grin in his father’s direction.
“Actually, yes — this coming Saturday.”
“Saturday?” Adam’s arched a brow. “What’s happening on Saturday?”
Ben’s eyes were bright with delight. “A party — here at the Ponderosa.”
“A party!” Joe nodded and winked at his brothers. “Come on, Pa, spill it all!”
Ben gave them a hearty laugh. “Sally, that is Sarah, agreed last night to marry me!”
Three men jumped out of their seats hooting and hollering and trying to be the first to shake their father’s hand and slap him on the shoulder. Once the chaos had subsided, Ben went on.
“Sally has lots of things to do to get ready for the wedding, and we felt that it’s best if she spends these next two weeks in town. Tongues will be wagging enough as it is.”
Adam’s eyes narrowed. “So, Pa? You led us to believe last night that everything was off with Sally. Now I’m wondering just what the two of you were up to all that time in the barn.” He sat up straighter and puffed out his chest. “Maybe tongues should be wagging! Is the propriety and integrity of the great Ben Cartwright to be called into question?! I can’t imagine such a thing!”
Hoss and Joe exploded in laughter. Adam quirked a know-it-all smirk for which he received his father’s requisite scowl.
Ben’s expression began a subtle transition until a knowing smile settled on his lips. “Guess you’ll never know.” He threw his napkin on the table and launched himself out of his chair. “I’m off to town to see my girl! Don’t expect me for supper, and by all means, don’t wait up!”
“You behave yurself, Pa. Hoss called as his father donned his hat and gun belt by the door.
“Always!” Ben chuckled deviously as he left the house.
The brothers ate quietly for a bit, and then Hoss put down his fork and looked across the table at Joe.
“Pa — and Sally — in the barn?”
“Nahhhhh!” Joe and Hoss’ response came in unison along with their forced nervous laughter.
When Adam didn’t join in, their frivolity ended abruptly and they turned to their older brother for his explanation.
“Adam?” Joe implored.
The eldest took a deep breath. He then pulled a face and shrugged when memories of their father and Marie suddenly surfaced.
Hoss gulped, and Joe struggled to swallow the food in his mouth.
Two weeks later, Sally and Ben, dressed in their wedding day finery, stood in front of the ranch house under a canopy adorned with flowers. Family, friends, and all the ranch hands were present to witness them take their vows. Whistles and cheers filled the air when Ben kissed his bride. Upon seeing Sally dressed in a form-fitting gown with her dark hair pulled up in delicate combs, Smokey commented to some of the hands that he had been right about her all along and that the boss was one lucky man. The hands then made a big show of stuffing the money they had wagered on the date of the nuptials into Chet’s pockets after deciding that the wedding might never have come off without him. Hop Sing had prepared a marvelous feast including a beautiful cake for the special occasion. There was food and drink in abundance. And though Ben got the first dance with Sally, she had many partners throughout the celebration. The newlyweds did manage to escape the party early enough to make it into Carson City for their own private celebration.
Ben and Sarah, the name he chose to use for her, had many wonderful years together. During that time, the Ponderosa became known for having an excellent line of horses thanks to Joe, Sally, and Chet.
***Author’s Note: To A Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley
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