Each of Ben’s sons rides off in the wake of tragedy, leaving a stranger home alone—at least until suppertime.
Rated: K+ WC 5300
Written for the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner challenge in honor of Lorne Greene’s birth month.
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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
When Joe opened the door, he immediately wished he hadn’t. The man standing there disturbed him. Sure, he smiled broadly enough. He even extended his hand in a friendly greeting. But there was something about his eyes that turned Joe’s blood cold. And the man’s hand, when Joe reluctantly took it, had an odd grip, one that made Joe feel almost as though he had just been bested somehow.
“Name’s Carter,” the man said, pumping Joe’s hand with enough vigor to draw water from the well outside. “Cyrus Carter. That father of yours was almost like a brother to me way back when.” He laughed…but still his eyes seemed so cold. “Sure am pleased to find him again after all this time.” Pulling his hand away, he patted Joe on the shoulder and stepped, uninvited, into the room. “Mighty fine place he’s built here.” He glanced at everything in sight and steadily made his way toward the fireplace. “Yes, indeed. Mighty fine.” A moment later, he was seated in the red leather chair and grabbing an apple from the bowl on the table.
“M-Mr. Carter?”Joe stammered. He left the door open, feeling averse to closing it, and took a few hesitant steps toward the stranger. “I’m sorry, but…Pa’s not here. He…he rode into Virginia City, and won’t be back for some time. You…you could meet up with him there, if you’d like. I could sh—”
“Nonsense!” Carter’s outburst spewed bits of apple in Joe’s direction. “I’ve just ridden in from Genoa, for heaven’s sake. I am not about to hit the trail again so soon. No.” He settled back into the chair, sighing contentedly. “No, that’s quite alright. I am more than patient. I shall wait right here for his return.“
Disappointed, Joe cast a longing look outside, wishing against hope that his pa was already heading back home. Then, still not bothering to close the door, he set about trying to be a good host for Ben Cartwright’s uninvited guest.
The first thing Adam noticed when he rode into the yard was that the front door was open. Wide open. The second thing he noticed was that the barn door was closed tight. “Joe?” he called out, scanning the area for any sign of his young brother. “Joe!” he shouted again, this time with less curiosity and more anger. Little Joe was supposed to be cleaning out the barn, not airing out the house.
Shaking trail dust from his hat, Adam stomped noisily and purposefully across the porch and through the door. “Little Joe! Why aren’t you—” Adam’s gaze fell upon a stranger sitting in Pa’s chair and looking up at him with the devil’s own grin. “Excuse me,” Adam offered, clearing his throat and forcing a softer tone. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”
“No harm done, my boy!” The man rose, quickly crossing the room toward him. “You must be Adam, the oldest—and your father’s pride and joy, I’m sure, judging by what your brother had to say.”
“My brother?” Doubting the man’s words, Adam cast a quick look around the room. He found no sign of Little Joe.
“Joe, of course. The young man you were calling to just now. Why, he simply could not stop talking about how anxious he was for you to get home. ”
“Anxious?” What was it about this man Adam found so disturbing? Or maybe it was the absence of Little Joe that was bothering him. He looked around again, this time noting that Joe’s hat, jacket and holster were all missing.
“Quite,” the stranger answered. “Clearly he looks up to you. I’m afraid I made him a touch uncomfortable. He was eager for you to take over as my host. The name’s Carter, by the way. Cyrus Carter.” He held out his hand, but Adam was slow to take it into his own. “A very old friend of your father.”
“How old?” Adam asked, noting a dull look in the man’s eyes, something that might have been an early sign of cataracts…or an indicator that the man had no interest in Adam at all, despite the otherwise cheerful smile he wore.
Cyrus Carter winked. “From the days of his cantankerous youth.”
Why didn’t Adam believe him? “Well, as I’m sure Joe told you already, our father won’t be home for a few hours yet. I don’t believe he was expecting any visitors today, otherwise he would not have—”
Carter laughed. “No, he certainly could not have expected me. Even Ihadn’t expected this visit. It came about quite…well…unexpectedly. I was in Carson City when I heard some men mention your father’s name. Somewhere in the midst of all the shouting, I discovered this is where he had settled down. So, I rented a horse and…. ” He shrugged. “Here I am.”
“What was the shouting about?” Adam asked, more disturbed by what the man hadn’t said than by what he had.
“Oh, just some nonsense about a gold strike or some such thing. You know how it is. The poor and downtrodden are always trying to blame men like your father for their troubles.”
Adam tensed. “What were they saying, exactly?”
The man laughed again. “You two truly are brothers, aren’t you? You sound just like that young Joe. And he sounded just like that father of yours all those years ago when he pitted himself up against an entire herd of angry teamsters who had—”
“Where is Joe?” Adam asked, finally. “Why did he leave you alone here?”
“Why, to defend your father’s honor, of course! Once he heard the accusations, there was no—”
“Some rubbish about your father ordering a young man killed for trespassing. A drunken old man was upset over losing his son; that’s all. But you know how easy it is to stir up an angry mob.”
“And you let Joe ride into that mess alone?”
“Oh, come now! The ride will cool his head. I know all about his sort. Why, you’re father—”
“I’m not talking about my father!” Adam found himself shouting. “I’m talking about his seventeen-year-old son! Don’t you get it? That drunken old man you’re talking about could be just angry enough to figure my father deserved to lose a son exactly like he did!”
“Don’t be so dramatic. Of course, no one would—”
“You clearly don’t know very much about the west.” Adam turned his back on the man. “When my father gets here, be sure to tell him exactly why his sons have left you here alone!” When he slammed the door behind him, he found himself wondering why Joe hadn’t done that very same thing. But the thought died almost as quickly as it had formed. Not even Little Joe was hot-headed enough to ride off so recklessly without at least waiting to argue with his family about what should be done. Or was he?
Hoss rode into the yard feeling about as tired as he ever could. And hungry. He’d caught the aroma of beef and potatoes a full thirty minutes before getting close enough to taste it. Even so, he took his time settling Chubb in the barn. He couldn’t figure why his brothers’ horses were missing, but his thoughts were too focused on supper to try figuring about it too hard. Pa wasn’t back yet either, but that wasn’t unexpected. Between talking to Hiram and goin’ to that Cattleman’s Association meeting, he’d be plumb tuckered out by the time he got home. And hungry.
Smiling, Hoss opened the front door and took a long, welcome whiff of that fine meal. Only then did it occur to him that Hop Sing was off on another visit with a cousin. Who in Sam Hill could’ve done all that cookin’?
More curious than concerned, he made his way to the kitchen to find a man about a head shorter than he was wearing Hop Sing’s apron and busying himself mashin’ up some potatoes.
“Well!” the stranger greeted him enthusiastically. “You must be the middle one, Hoss!” He wiped his hands on the apron and then thrust out his right hand to shake Hoss’s. “You really are as big as they said!” There was something about his grip that made Hoss squeeze even tighter than usual, tight enough to send some men to their knees. But this stranger didn’t even stop smilin’.
“An’ who are you?” Hoss asked when the stranger offered nothing further.
“Ah, yes! Cyrus Carter at your service! I’m an old friend of your father’s! I hope you don’t mind my taking over the kitchen, but I figured that father of yours would be in need of a good meal tonight, what with all the….” He turned toward the stove, looking nervous. Or worried. “All his troubles.”
“What troubles?” Hoss felt his brow pull down so hard it almost gave him a headache. Or maybe it was this stranger that was causin’ all that poundin’ in his head.
Looking startled, the stranger—Cyrus Carter—gave his attention back to Hoss. “Oh, that’s right. You wouldn’t know, would you? I guess when I told your brothers, I just expected…or I figured….” The way he fumbled for words made Hoss’s head pound even harder.
“What’d you tell my brothers?”
“There was a terrible accident up at that timber camp of yours. Just dreadful. I heard about it on the road out here. Your brothers went there straightaway to see what they could do to help. But the oldest one, Adam? Yes, Adam. He insisted that your father didn’t need to worry about anything. He and Joe…and…and you, of course…would see to it all the injured men were taken care of. He told me to do whatever I could to keep your father right here at home, tired as he’s bound to be after all those meetings he had to attend in town.”
“Adam said that?” Suddenly Hoss was as worried about Pa as he was about this mess at the timber camp. He found himself torn about what to do.
“He surely did. I guess your father hasn’t been feeling too well lately. Adam didn’t want to see him get too worked up.”
“Pa’s feelin’ sorely?” Funny, Hoss hadn’t noticed. But Adam…well, Adam was more observant about things like that, wasn’t he?
“Why…yes. You didn’t know?”
“No…I…don’t reckon I did.”
“Well, perhaps your father and Adam were both trying to keep it quiet, so as not to worry you.”
“Maybe.” It still seemed odd to Hoss, but…yeah…maybe they’d do that.
The stranger patted him on the arm. “Now you’d better head on up there and help your brothers. I would hate to have your father decide he should ride out with you.”
“No…I guess he’d want to, if he saw I was still here.”
“He would, indeed!” The stranger’s smile was placating…and unnerving. “Now, you’d better run along before he gets home!”
When Hoss rode out again, he kept an eye out for his father before the trail split off into the trees. Part of him wanted to risk having Pa see him. Something sure seemed funny about all this. But if the accident up at that timber camp was as bad as that stranger said, they were bound to need Hoss’s strength to help set things right again…even if that strength was a bit diminished for lack of food. That cookin’ sure had smelled good.
Ben’s ride back to the Ponderosa had taken the edge from most of his anger, but the stress from the afternoon’s meetings was still weighing heavily on him. Why agenda topics that should amount to simple decisions tended to swell into ridiculous arguments, he would never understand. He was tired and anxious for the comforts of his chair, his pipe, his hearth…his home. With any luck, one of his boys would already have seen to supper. He couldn’t remember whose turn it was tonight. He didn’t much care, either. As long as someone cooked something, he would happily take his seat at the head of the table and dig into whatever meal was served him with relish.
But when he went to settle Buck into the barn, he discovered the other stalls empty. His sons were gone. All of them. Or…at least their horses were.
Gone or not, someone had, in fact, cooked something. The aroma wafting out to him from the kitchen was already making his mouth water in anticipation. Yes, someone had cooked. His boys must be home, after all. The horses had probably been secured in one of the outer corrals. It wouldn’t be the first time his sons had opted to give their horses a bit of freedom before finally bedding them down for the night.
Content in his logic, Ben let the last of his concerns slip off of his back, and entered the house feeling eminently pleased to be home.
“Ah, Benjamin!” A strange voice called out to him with a volume that nearly rattled Ben’s bones. “I have been waiting anxiously for your arrival! How good it is to see you again!” With a smile that seemed as wide…and cunning…as that of a snake-oil salesman, the stranger confronted Ben and extended his hand.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said, still somewhat startled as he tentatively took the man’s hand. “Have we met?”
The stranger’s eyes widened, his mouth curling into a narrow ‘O’. “Oh, you’re pulling my leg,” the stranger decided, laughing coldly. “It’s only been…what? Forty years.”
“Forty….” Ben studied the stranger’s eyes, the roundness of his face, the tightness in his jaw. And he saw…nothing that looked familiar. “You’ll have to forgive me. I’m afraid my memory just isn’t—”
“Oh! Now I am offended! Shame on you, Benjamin Cartwright! Forgetting your brother in crime!”
“Brother in….” Ben shook his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir.”
“Sir?” The stranger laughed again. “Sir?” he repeated. “Oh, now that’s rich! I’m not sure anyone has ever at any other time in my life called me, ‘sir’!” He glanced around him, taking in Ben’s coat and hat. “But where are my manners? Come in, sir. Please, do come in and make yourself comfortable.” The stranger moved further into the main room.
“Make myself….” Every bit of Ben’s earlier anger came back at that moment. “What is this?” He followed the stranger without bothering to remove his coat. “You are in my home; I am not in yours!”
Without turning, the stranger went to the fireplace, grabbed a poker and began turning logs.
“Excuse me, sir!” Ben said, coming along beside him. “Would you be so kind as to give me your name?” Ben said the words gruffly, feeling in no mood for hospitality—particularly since he’d no intentions of being a host to anyone for the evening.
It was another moment before the man turned to face him again—this time with eyes cold enough to make Ben forget about the heat from the fire. “My name?” he asked in a low voice that was almost a hiss. “I’ll give you my name, all right.” He rose to his full height, which was still a head shorter than Ben, and raised the red-hot poker before him, pointing it like an epee at Ben’s chest. “Allow me to re-introduce myself, Mr. Benjamin Cartwright. I am Cyrus Carter.”
“Cyrus Carter,” Ben mouthed the words, barely saying them aloud as he sought his memories for any familiarity. “Cyrus Car—” It came to him like a punch that knocked his breath away. He took a step backward without thinking.
Cyrus Carter laughed. It was a long, deep belly laugh that pushed Ben back another few steps.
“Get out,” Ben said in a soft but harsh voice. “I said get out of my house!” His voice rising with each word, Ben felt rage and fear intermingle within him. He wondered again about his sons, and then found himself grateful they truly did appear to be gone.
“Now, Benjamin!” Carter said with that snake-oil smile again. “You simply must be more gracious to your host. I went to a great deal of trouble to make you your last meal, after all!” His laughter enveloped Ben like a slime-coated tarpaulin that had been left too long by the lake. The smells from the kitchen changed then, too, reminding Ben of decay and death…and the screams of thirteen men trapped on a burning ship in the middle of the harbor while Cyrus Carter rowed away— with a dazed Ben Cartwright lying cold and numb…and safe…in the bow.
Adam was angry, confused and admittedly concerned. There’d been no sign of an angry mob in Carson City. Nor had there been any sign of Little Joe. He was starting to believe he’d been swindled, and that angered him all the more. Whoever Cyrus Carter was, friend of Pa’s or not, Adam was going to see to it that he—
Spotting another rider racing toward him on the road, Adam’s thoughts shifted back to concern, as beneath those clouds of dust he caught sight of a green jacket and a paint pony.
That racing rider was very clearly Little Joe.
“You started that fire!” Ben accused. “You intended to kill them all along!”
Cyrus’s grin never faded. “It makes no difference. You were in on it. All of it.”
“Maybe, in the beginning, yes. Because you tricked me, just like you tricked all the others. I was young and impressionable…and foolish.”
“Stop this pretending!” Carter shook his head. “You’re leading me to believe you’ve come to believe your own lies! Lies that left me rotting in prison for thirty years while you built yourself an empire!”
“You deserved every one of those thirty years. You cheated people out of their life savings, having them invest in a cargo you never had any intention of purchasing; and then you burned that cargo—and all those men along with it—only because you couldn’t steal it for yourself!”
“It was a good plan. We could have made a fortune, you and I. Do you have any idea what kind of prices the silk alone would have fetched for us? But you ruined it! I would have paid back my investors tenfold, and had the crew happily unload it for me if you hadn’t pushed things!”
“You wouldn’t have paid anyone a penny, and you know it!”
Cyrus Carter shrugged and nodded. “Why should I have? If they were stupid enough to believe me, it was their loss.”
Ben pointed sharply at him. “That is why I pushed things! For a while I was stupid enough to believe you. I wasn’t about to let you swindle anyone else, ever again.”
“So you swindled me, instead?”
“I told the truth. I informed the captain you were a fraud.”
“They would have killed me for that, and you know it! You knew it then, too! You wanted them to kill me!”
“No,” Ben said sadly, shaking his head. “The captain would have gotten you safely off that ship and into the constable’s custody before he told his crew.”
Carter smiled again. “You remember that captain, do you? Remember how he had his evening meal all laid out for him, with all that fancy serving wear?” He pointed to the head of Ben’s fancy table, where he had carefully set out all of Ben’s best serving wear. “That captain thought he was special…just like you do, now.”
“Is that why you killed him?”
“I didn’t kill him! I just shut him up for a while to stop him from telling his crew!”
“And then you set fire to his ship…and left him there to die.”
“I should have left you there to die, too!”
“Yes,” Ben agreed, nodding sagely. “Except you wanted to shift the blame to me.”
Chuckling softly, Carter shook his head. “You and your good name just wouldn’t be sullied. Well, now it’s your turn, captain. I’ve waited a long time for this.”
Joe let out a whoop and a holler when he saw Adam waiting for him on the road. “Don’t think I’ve ever been gladder to see you, brother!” he said breathlessly when he reined in.
But Adam didn’t seem too pleased at all. “Where’ve you been?” he asked coldly.
“Genoa.” Joe was still grinning.
“What on earth were you doing in Genoa?”
“Looking for you.” He reconsidered his words, realizing he’d been looking for something, but he sure hadn’t actually wanted to find his brother. “Well…sort of.”
“You knew I wasn’t going to Genoa! Why would I?”
Joe chuckled. “I had no idea why! But the stranger told me about a fella he thought might be you, and….” Suddenly Joe didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t even want to think about it. His insides had been all churned up all the way to that town from thinking about it. He cleared his throat, swallowed bile, and pressed on. “And, well, if it was you, I couldn’t let…I mean I couldn’t….” He shrugged. “I just couldn’t.”
Adam gave him one of those suspicious looks of his, crumpling his brows down just so and narrowing up his eyes. “What did the stranger tell you?”
That look didn’t bother Joe at all. What did bother him was what the stranger had made him think. “Well, he…he got me talkin’ about you, and…and then he asked me to describe you…and…well, then he got this funny sort of worried look on his face an’…and he told me he thought that may-maybe this fella in Genoa might be you.”
Somehow Adam’s brows came down even lower. “Joe? What fellow in Genoa?”
Joe gulped. “He said when he was there someone found a man by the side of the road. He’d been bushwhacked, left for dead. They brung him in to the doctor, but he never did wake up and no one knew his name. Stranger said the man was dyin’, and…well…he thought it might be you.” Joe shrugged again while he toyed with the reins in his hands. “If it was…I didn’t know how it could be, but if it was…and he seemed so certain…and…well….” Joe took a deep breath and looked his brother in the eye. “Adam, if it was you, I just couldn’t leave you there alone like that!”
Adam let out a heavy sigh, like he wasn’t nearly as relieved as Little Joe. “By stranger,” he said softly, “you don’t happen to mean Cyrus Carter, do you?”
“Yeah! That’s him! Did you go to the house? Did you meet him?”
“And what…what’d he say?”
“He told me you’d gone to Carson City to face off an angry mob!”
“Me? Why would I go off by myself to face an angry mob?”
Shaking his head, Adam finally managed a small smile. “Because you’re hot-headed and stubborn.”
“I may be hot-headed and stubborn…sometimes…but I’d never be that hot-headed and stubborn!”
Adam’s smile grew wider. “I know. I thought I knew that, anyway. But Mr. Carter had me convinced.”
“Why would he send me off to Genoa and you off to Carson City?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t like it, either.”
“What about Hoss?”
Adam met his gaze. “And Pa.”
“Race you back?”
All Adam had to do was nod once, and Joe was kicking his heels into Cochise’s flanks. It’s a good thing it was a good day for a good, fast ride.
They were nearly to the house when they ran into Hoss.
“Where you two been?” Hoss asked, looking every bit as suspicious as Adam had earlier.
Adam shared a glance with Joe. “It’s a long story.
“What about you?” Joe asked. “That stranger send you off somewhere?”
Hoss’s brow came down lower, just the same as Adam’s had. “The lumber camp. He said there was an accident. Lots of men hurt. Said you two had already gone on up there to help out.”
“Let me guess,” Adam started, “everything was just fine and no one knew what you were talking about.”
Sighing, Adam looked toward the house. “We’d better get in there and find out just what he’s said to Pa.”
“Or…done,” Joe added, gulping. “You know, he had a grip like….”
“Yeah,” Hoss answered, his own gaze, hard as stone, directed at the house. “He sure did.” And then Hoss kicked Chubb’s flanks hard enough to beat both Joe and Adam home.
Pa was seated at the table by the time the three brothers barreled their way through the front door, guns raised and ready.
“It’s about time you boys got home,” Pa said, keeping his eyes on the plate in front of him—the family’s best china—and stabbing his fork into a juicy steak.
“Pa?” Adam asked, dumbfounded, as he turned a slow circle.
“Where is he?” Hoss added.
“Joseph,” Pa said, ignoring both and still looking at his food.
Joe looked at his brothers, knowing he was as confused as they were. “Y-yeah, Pa?”
“Do I need to teach you again about the difference between being kind to strangers and being taken by them?”
Finally, Pa looked up. He nodded. “Mr. Carter,” he echoed sharply.
Joe smiled nervously. “Weren’t just me, Pa. A-Adam and Hoss, they—”
“Yes, Joe,” Pa answered. “You’re right. You were all swindled. All three of you.” He threw his napkin down on the table and approached them. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I have a package I would like for you to deliver to Virginia City.”
“A package?” Hoss asked. “Now?”
“You’ll find it in the barn.”
“You want all of us to go?” Joe asked, feeling a grin start to form and unable to hold it back. “To Virginia City? Tonight?”
“Yes, Joseph. I do. But not to the saloon.”
Joe’s grin died. “But if we’re already there….”
“No saloon,” Pa repeated. “Now, if you would, kindly retrieve that package—”
“Now, Pa?” Hoss asked. “Cain’t we eat first?”
“No. I want you to leave now. I don’t want that package out there any longer than absolutely necessary.”
Adam met Joe’s gaze and then rolled his eyes as a slow smile showed he’d already figured all this nonsense out. “This package doesn’t happen to have a name, does it?”
“Yes. It does.”
“Ya’ mean,” Hoss started, “Cyrus Carter?”
“What’d he do, Pa?” Joe decided to ask then. “Did he try to send you off somewhere, like he did us?”
“No, Joseph. He cooked supper.”
“Supper?” Hoss asked longingly.
“And then he tried to kill me.”
Every one of the brothers stiffened, eyes going wide in alarm.
“You all right, Pa?” Hoss asked.
“How’d you stop him?” Joe asked.
But Adam smiled. “Let me guess. You swindled him.”
Pa’s cold look softened. He even smiled. “You might say that.”
“How’d ya’ do it?” Joe asked, confused.
Pa sighed. “It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is he didn’t succeed. And you boys are home, safe and sound.”
“’Cept you’re sendin’ us out again,” Joe said sheepishly.
“You sure you ought to eat that food?” Hoss asked. “Seeing as how he tried to kill ya’, an’ he cooked it, an’ all?”
“This food, I cooked. Because I was hungry. His food is outside.”
“I’m mighty hungry, too, Pa.” Hoss went on.
“I’m sure you are. So the sooner you go, the sooner you’ll get back.”
“Come on, fellas,” Adam said, wrapping an arm around each brother. “Let’s do as he says and take that package of his in to Sheriff Coffee.”
“And no saloon,” Pa added before closing the door behind them.
“That’s all right,” Adam said softly so only his brothers could hear him. “They serve beer at the International House, too.”
Hoss brightened. “And steak.”
“And steak,” Adam agreed.
“And whiskey?” Joe asked.
“Not for you,” Adam answered.
“Why not me?”
“Because you’re only seventeen.”
“But I rode all the way to Genoa so you wouldn’t die alone!”
“You what?” Hoss nearly shouted.
“Carter,” Joe and Adam said in unison.
Hoss shook his head. “We sure do have a lot to talk about over supper.”
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