Summary: A rumor spreads like a wildfire through Virginia City, and it’s up to the Enterprise’s hot new reporter to find out the truth.
Word Count: 7900
My name is Martha Collins, and I write a weekly column for the Territorial Enterprise. My deadline was creeping closer, and I had nothing—zip— zero. Being a reporter, I always carried my writing tablet in my jacket pocket, but this week the pages were blank, and that niggling feeling of panic was settling in. Never before had I had so much trouble coming up with a theme for my column so, for now, let me give you a little background on my current status.
I moved to Virginia City nearly five months ago. Close friends said I was running away, but others understood why I needed a change. I was on the wrong side of thirty, which left most men my age either married or confirmed bachelors. I wasn’t mistress material and, according to my father, I’d become far too independent for my own good. In other words, I was anxious to begin a new life.
My mother, bless her heart, was a fiery redhead like me and often caused Papa a world of grief with her futuristic ideas; mainly, condemning the way men ruled every aspect of our government, leaving women to bear the brunt of their stupidity. Being an only child, I listened regularly to their disputes over women’s rights or lack of, according to my mother.
Taking after Mama more than Papa, her views of “leaving the country’s power to men only” stuck with me and, over her deathbed; I vowed I would carry her opinions to a higher level. Though she was ahead of her time, the suffrage movement was gathering steam throughout the country, and I aimed to be a vital part.
I needed more out of life than Sunday socials and afternoon teas with women who were satisfied with the status quo, which is exactly what my life would’ve become had I remained content to stay put in my hometown of St. Louis. So, I laid a large U.S. map on the dining room table, closed my eyes, and dropped my finger on a spot west of Missouri called Virginia City. A new town and a new life in the wilds of the uncivilized west sounded like heaven to a woman eager to make her mark.
Did I have regrets? Not many; after all, what had I left behind? I ate alone and I slept alone, but I’d chosen a different way of life over humdrum days of selecting the right dress for the right occasion or acting satisfied and complacent when attending social events with some rather frightful companions my father would choose. After realizing that I’d rather pull my hair out by the roots than spend one more day pretending to be happy-go-lucky, Martha, I knew I’d made the right choice when I left that world behind.
As soon as I was settled at Elmira Benson’s boarding house on C Street, the second order of business was to land a job so I could eat and pay next month’s rent. I begged for employment at the local newspaper, but a woman? Though I stood my ground and waited for his laughter to subside, H.C. O’Halloran, the current editor, who was also in charge of hiring and firing, tried to end the conversation by walking me toward the front door.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said out of desperation.
“A deal? I’m sorry, Miss.”
“Just listen. I’ll work a month without pay, just long enough to test the water.”
“I don’t know . . .” He scratched the few hairs he had left on top of his head, and I continued my plea.
“If it doesn’t work out, you can let me go. I’ll understand, but maybe a woman’s touch is just what this newspaper needs. A column for women, sir. A counterbalance for hard news.”
After sinking his hands in his pockets and pacing back and forth in the narrow entryway, he turned his attention back to me.
“You can’t use your real name.”
“What’s wrong with my name?”
“Everything,” he said. “No one in Virginia City is apt to read a column written by a “lady” reporter. You got a middle name?”
“Good. M.L. will do nicely.”
“That’s right. M.L. Collins will be your byline.”
“You mean I’m hired?”
“We’ll see how it goes.”
“You won’t be sorry, Mr. O’Halloran.”
“Call me H.C.”
With a sigh of relief, I left the office that day and returned the following morning to start my new job at the Enterprise. But, what I discovered early on was that sitting inside a newsroom wouldn’t get the job done. I had to roam the city for stories. I had to talk to people, women, mostly, if I was to gather firsthand knowledge of their wants and needs. So, with pad and pen in hand, I hit the streets of Virginia City.
The Enterprise was the only newspaper in town, and I’d gained a healthy readership over the last few months. Although I varied the menu, I maintained a steady platform regarding women’s rights. At least twice a month I wrote an in-depth piece, and though the majority of my readers were women, I had no doubt their husbands were on the receiving end of my articles.
Women had the right to vote in three states: Colorado, Utah, and Idaho; and women served on juries in Wyoming, but Nevada lagged behind most western states. Times were changing; a new century was drawing near, and laws were slow to change in the “silver” state. I made it my job to challenge our leaders and push for progress.
To lighten things up in-between my constant badgering, I often found a bit of gossip or humor, which I gathered easily if I stayed alert and did a little eavesdropping where women weren’t generally allowed. Gossip and wild rumors ran rampant in a community that once housed 25,000 residents but had declined to less than 3000 over the past few years.
After gaining respect and support, I wasn’t about to let my readers or my editor down, but this was crazy. For days, I wandered city streets; I even took buggy rides out of town to ranches and farms, searching, for something to scribble down on my tablet. My colleagues had thrown out ideas, but nothing clicked. I had no first line, no first paragraph, nothing at all. As I sat at my desk, tapping my pencil against the worn, wooden surface, I thought of all that history, all that Virginia City had to offer during the height of its glory, and that’s when I realized what just might work for Friday’s column.
Ghosts of the past were topics I hadn’t considered until today. Land barons and mine owners became as wealthy as kings during the great silver strike of ’59. Big men, big ideas, and big money. Untouchable men in some ways, but was there a story worth my time and effort? How far would I have to dig and would the wild and wooly past appeal to my readers?
Deceit, embezzlement, swindles, adultery—you name it, and Virginia City had once embraced every aspect of despicable behavior. The old-timers had a knack for keeping those tales alive so maybe it was worth considering. Even though this week’s column would be a far cry from my usual banter over women’s rights, I suddenly became intrigued by the prospect of touching on a rumor that had our little town abuzz.
Speculation had spread like wildfire but so far, there were no facts to substantiate. Maybe if I dug deep, what a grand story it would be. H.C. would be over the moon if the most recent gossip about town held any weight. Maybe that was my angle. Not a story concerning the past but a present-day rumor.
I’d heard the name before; everyone in Virginia City had heard the name, Cartwright. Ben Cartwright—and his thousand square mile ranch—had been immortalized as one of the “kings” long before Nevada became a state. Some say he owned nearly everything in Storey County; that he kept the sheriff in his hip pocket, but common sense told me the tall tales old-timers had rehashed over the years might have become greatly embellished with time.
Decades later, the Cartwright name still held weight. And, along with the name came a rumor that intrigued me only because the high and mighty bluebloods considered the topic excellent fodder for their afternoon teas. Even if only a handful of women weren’t following my column so far, an article like this might grab their attention and boost my in-depth articles to new heights.
Cattle ranching had made the Cartwrights rich men, but the old man was smart. He diversified his holdings. By supplying mines with board lumber and cutting lengths of timber for new construction during Virginia City’s silver boom, his assets doubled and tripled over a short period of time.
Ben Cartwright was also a conservationist, noticeably unheard of back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Rather than scraping every lush mountainside of its trees, I’d been told he’d send his sons out to mark heavily loaded areas for felling. One old-timer told me Cartwright even planted young saplings after his crews thinned down a dense section. And, as rumors go, one of Cartwright’s sons even worked alongside Philip Deidesheimer after he’d created square set timbering for the Comstock mines. Good people, right?
But not every story has a happy ending. Silver mines petered out in the late ‘70s. The glory days were gone, and the once prosperous Virginia City turned into just another dusty boomtown gone bust. Timber contracts also dried up when board-lumber was no longer needed. Disease struck large herds of cattle when Texas Longhorns were introduced. Smaller ranchers went under and were forced to leave the area while Cartwright’s Ponderosa struggled to stay afloat.
The eldest son left Nevada in the mid-‘60s and Cartwright’s middle boy died unexpectedly a few years later, leaving Ben and his youngest, Joseph, to carry on the legacy the old man had envisioned all those years ago. Could the youngest be my story? Was the rumor I’d heard actually true? Maybe it was time to find out.
I was a good horsewoman. I could easily ride out to the ranch, but could I finagle an interview with the last, living Cartwright—the prince of the Ponderosa? I told H.C. my plan.
“I’ll rent a horse and ride out,” I proposed.
“You’re asking for trouble if you ride out there alone. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Martha.”
“The man’s old, H.C., and rumor has it he’s not well. How much trouble can he cause? Besides, aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know the truth?”
“You’re the only woman I have on staff. Write another women’s interest story. The ladies have really taken to your extensive articles.”
“Please? Just this once, I’d like to do something different.”
“Then go,” he said. “Take a ride if that’s what you want, but I don’t want to hear any complaints when the old man boots you off the ranch.”
“You’re a sweetheart H.C.; you’re going to love this story and so are my readers! If nothing else, we’ll knock the last living Cartwright down a peg. If he’s truly breaking the law, he might even be arrested and jailed. Wouldn’t that be something? Kudos for the Enterprise!”
I rose early the following morning. I’d finally found my muse, so to speak, and I was excited to be on my way. After renting a small brown mare from Kenny at the livery, I headed out to the infamous Ponderosa ranch, a place I’d only heard about but was anxious to see. And, if the rumor was true, I was ready and willing to take the old man down. Maybe Papa was “king” but the prince was breaking the law.
The ride wasn’t easy. The high desert quickly gave way to rocky, forested slopes. The climb was steady with hairpin twists and turns until the gorgeous, blue lake appeared. How those men ever hauled wagonloads of timber down the mountains was a miracle in itself, but the view was spectacular—a land made for kings.
When the ranch house came into view, my stomach pulsed with trepidation. What had I gotten myself into? Was I intruding—well, yes, but didn’t the citizens of Virginia City have a right to know what was taking place in their own backyard? I moved the little mare forward and tied her to the hitching rail between the house and barn. I took a deep breath and walked toward the front door, but just as I reached for the knocker, the door opened and an older gentleman with wild white hair stood just inside the threshold. His unexpected appearance startled me, and I drew my right hand to my chest.
“Hel—hello,” I said shakily.
Seeming just as surprised as I’d been, he quickly apologized. “I’m sorry,” he chuckled softly. “I didn’t mean to startle you, but I heard your horse and—“
“No apology necessary,” I replied after catching my breath.
“Is there something I can do for you?”
“I—um—I—well, yes, there is. I’m looking for Mr. Cartwright.”
“I’m Mr. Cartwright but please, call me Joe.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.”
“Because I’m—well, I don’t know.”
“Would you like to come in?”
Now that I’d gathered my wits, I couldn’t help but notice Mr. Cartwright’s strikingly handsome face. Even though he wasn’t a young man, his fine-tuned features certainly hadn’t faded with time. But, what caught me off guard even more were his arresting green eyes and lopsided grin, and I could only imagine how many young ladies had fallen under his spell before they ever knew what hit them.
Like a freckled-faced, knobby-kneed girl, who’d been dumbstruck by a pretty face, I hesitated at the doorway. I was staring at a king or the son of a king, I guess, and I felt awkward and worst of all, tongue-tied, which wouldn’t do at all for a person in my position. I’d been caught off guard by Joe Cartwright’s outward appearance, but this was ridiculous. I was a seasoned reporter, and I needed to keep my mind intact.
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I’d like that very much.”
He opened the door wider, and I stepped inside, into the infamous castle I’d only heard about and felt sure few people of my generation had ever seen. Though it was nothing more than a log and mortar ranch house, the atmosphere felt warm and inviting, but it was nowhere near the mountain castle or miner’s mansion I’d expected to see. It had a comfortable feeling, a well-constructed home that had housed a father and his sons for nearly forty years, but royalty? I questioned the use of that word.
“You have a lovely home, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Thank you. Won’t you sit down?”
He pointed toward a striped sofa that was visibly outdated, according to today’s standards, but I took a seat and turned my head when I heard him call out to someone in another room.
An older Chinese woman, not a fashion plate by any means, darted out from another room. The kitchen? She had a long, gray ponytail and short little bangs covering half of her forehead. She wore ankle-length black trousers and a sparkling white blouse. Whereas no cultured woman in their right mind would be caught dead wearing a simple pair of pants, the Chinese woman looked comfortable and at ease in what I presumed was her native garb.
“We have a visitor. Could you make some coffee and could you bring out some of your lemon cookies?”
“Oh,” I said quickly. “Please, not on my account, Mr. Cartwright.”
“It’s no problem, Miss . . .”
“I’m sorry. Collins. Martha Collins.”
The Chinese woman smiled and bowed slightly from the waist before moving back into the kitchen. Even though the rumor hovered at the back of my mind, I realized she must be Mr. Cartwright’s current housekeeper or maybe his full-time nurse. Because he wasn’t well, it made perfect sense that he’d need steady help keeping up a house this size.
Mr. Cartwright moved toward a worn leather chair and eased himself down slowly. “Too many wild broncs in my younger days,” he said casually. “My father always said all those hard landings would catch up with me someday.”
He crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. He had a certain swagger when he walked, an air of confidence, but I could tell that years of hard work had taken a toll on the youthful man he’d once been. Though I’d come to either squash or enhance the rumor, something about Joe Cartwright’s easy manner intrigued me. Maybe he wasn’t just a man with a hidden secret; maybe there was a more reputable story I could tell, but would my readers care for simple or mundane?
Oddly enough, I found myself eager to know more about the worn-out old rancher. A man who felt comfortable enough to joke openly to a stranger about past injuries was liable to discuss most anything. Maybe I could finagle a bit of insight into the last half century, those bygone days of cowboys and Indians or taming wild broncs, of ruthless sidewinders and renegade Indians. Had this old cowboy ever been shot or wounded by an Indian’s arrow?
I thought about H.C. and the story I’d ridden over the mountain to tell. I’d come for a scoop, a shocking story, and I didn’t want to disappoint, but I was already beginning to waver.
“I’m a reporter for The Enterprise,” I said. “I write a weekly column, and I thought our readers might enjoy an inside look at the last surviving Cartwright—you know, since the name Cartwright is a legend in these parts.”
“Legend? You flatter me, Miss Collins, but I think you might want to associate the word legend with my father, Ben Cartwright, not me.”
As his smile faded, I wondered if he might be reluctant to give me a full interview. I needed to change direction somehow, enough to keep him interested. And, when I recalled what H.C. had said about being booted right out the front door, I had to make sure that didn’t happen.
“Well, anything you could tell me—I mean, I won’t print anything without your say so, but I hoped you could give me a short interview. Tell me how things have changed for you over the past fifty years.”
“I’m not sure “short interview” and “fifty years” belong in the same sentence, Miss Collins.”
I’d sounded more like a ten-year-old copy boy than an experienced reporter. And, that easy—all-knowing—smile caught my eye and had me staring longer than I should. “No, I guess they don’t belong together at all, do they?”
“If you can narrow it down, I’d be glad to answer whatever questions you have.”
“Maybe we could start with your father.” The king of the Ponderosa.
“Or, if you’d rather, we could talk about something or someone else? Do you ever hear from your eldest brother? I’ve been told he left the ranch long before things turned bad.”
Mr. Cartwright chuckled. Whether he was laughing at me or at my ridiculous question, I wasn’t sure, and I was leery of inserting foot in mouth once again. The man, although twice my age, was noticeably handsome, and he’d unnerved me to a point where I was definitely off my game. Luckily, the Chinese woman appeared carrying a large silver tray. She set it down on the low, wooden table and broke the awkward silence between us. She began pouring coffee into elegant china cups that didn’t quite seem to fit with the more masculine décor.
“No,” he said, looking up briefly. “I don’t hear from my eldest brother.”
“Beautiful china,” I said when the woman handed me a cup. Okay, the eldest brother was out and by the tone of Mr. Cartwright’s voice, the subject I’d selected hit another dead end but, to my relief, he picked up on my comment about the elegant old china.
“It was my mothers,” he said. “My father met and married my mother in New Orleans then brought her here to the Ponderosa. Back in the early ‘40s, the Utah territory was much different than what she’d been used to in the south. My father bought her this set of china, hoping she’d realize the land he’d chosen to make their home wasn’t totally barbaric or backwoods.”
“What a thoughtful gesture,” I replied.
But I watched closely as an air of sadness washed over the old cowboy’s face. “Not many pieces left now,” he said. Even with a few gentle age lines, I could almost visualize a younger version, a gentle sort, a kind-hearted man who became visibly emotional if images of the past lured him away from the present.
The Chinese woman perched herself on the edge of the hearth within reach of Mr. Cartwright’s chair, but shouldn’t I find it strange that a servant would stay and drink coffee with the head of the household? Her hands rested in her lap, and it seemed as though she planned to remain seated for the length of the interview.
“I’ve heard you had a second brother,” I began. “Is that correct?”
“Yes.” Mr. Cartwright set his cup and saucer on the table. He leaned forward. “Is that what you came to talk about? My brothers?”
“Not necessarily.” I took a steadying breath. “I’m not sure where to go with this, Mr. Cartwright. I seem to be asking all the wrong questions. Maybe this interview was a mistake after all.”
I’d come for a completely different story, but my biggest mistake was not preparing any so-called general questions. I came to observe and then write, and my mind kept wandering back to that damnable rumor, never confirmed but the talk of the town.
“Please stay, Miss Collins,” the woman said. “You’ve ridden all this way to see my—to talk with Mr. Cartwright, and surely the two of you can agree on something you can write in your column.”
I smiled at the woman, but total embarrassment took over and I ended up apologizing for my ignorance. “It’s my fault, Miss Ling,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so blatantly tongue-tied while conducting an interview.”
Mr. Cartwright started to smile, but a violent cough had him covering his mouth and leaning forward in his chair. Miss Ling stood up quickly, held his free arm close to her chest, and rubbed his back with gentle circular motions until the heaviness of a cough subsided.
“You’ll have to excuse me, Miss Collins,” he said, working to clear his throat.
Ling helped him into a room off the dining room but only moments later, she pulled the door closed behind her and sat down comfortably in the red, leather chair.
“I’ll leave now,” I said. “This was a bad idea, and since Mr. Cartwright isn’t feeling well . . .”
“No, no,” she said softly. “Mr. Cartwright is ill, yes, but he only need lie down for few minutes and catch breath. Maybe I can help while my—while Mr. Cartwright rests.”
She’d done it twice now. She’d started to say something else and quickly corrected herself. At first, I let it go, but when it happened a second time, I was sure there was more to their relationship than either let on. Maybe I’d been mistaken. Maybe she wasn’t the housekeeper or nurse after all.
“Okay,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Let’s start with you, Miss Ling.”
“Only if you call me Su Ling.”
“All right, Su Ling. Let’s start with an easy question. How long have you known Mr. Cartwright?”
Su Ling folded her hands in her lap and smiled. “Mr. Cartwright, may I call him Joseph? He has always reserved the title of Mister for his father. He not feel comfortable using such formal title for self. He much prefer Joe or Joseph.”
“Yes, of course. I’ll remember that. So, how did you two meet?”
“He won me in a poker game.”
“He thought I was a horse.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, chuckling softly, “but you lost me, Su Ling.”
“Very understandable, Miss Collins. It long story and it happen many years ago. Joseph and I very young and starry-eyed in those days. I hadn’t been in America long when I first meet all Cartwrights and most admirable housekeeper, Hop Sing. After Joseph bring Su Ling home to Ponderosa, I think I might help Hop Sing—you know, cooking, cleaning, but Cartwrights have different plans for unworthy girl.”
“I very naïve to ways of mysterious west. I try understand difference between Master and Mister. I head-block over many things, but Joseph’s father try explain much different culture than Su Ling used to. Very inscrutable and very foreign to brainless girl like me. See, I slave girl. Cartwrights say I emancipated—free—but Su Ling not want to be free.”
“Didn’t want to be free?”
“Su Ling know nothing else. Su Ling belong to General. He bring lowly slave to America. His name Mu Tsung and he own Su Ling, but when he die, Cartwrights tell Su Ling she no longer slave girl.”
“How did the General die?”
“Su Ling his property long time, but situation change when Joseph bring Su Ling home to Ponderosa. General offended by white man talk; he want property back, but Joseph not give back. He stand against General in battle. Mu Tsung very powerful man. He have many enemy and Joseph is number one on list. Su Ling afraid she lose new friend, afraid he be killed.”
“So Mr. Cartwright—I’m sorry, Joseph, killed the general?”
“General try kill Joseph but in end, Joseph smarter. General make fatal mistake and Joseph take advantage.”
“I’m guessing this happened many years ago. Have you lived with the Cartwrights ever since?”
“No. I leave Ponderosa and work many years for Kam Lee. He doctor in Chinatown. He need Su Ling more than Cartwrights.”
“Then you became his nurse?”
“He only Chinese doctor in Virginia City and he appreciate very much Su Ling help. He very good doctor for many year but after time, hands no longer cooperate. He die four year ago. Very sad time for Chinese community and for Su Ling.”
“Is that when you came back to live with the Cartwrights or should I say Joe Cartwright?”
“Soon after, yes.”
“But you’ve known the family a long time.”
“Very long time.”
“And you kept in touch all that time?”
I hoped Su Ling might elaborate or slip up and say something about her relationship with Joe, but she was smart enough to pick her words wisely. Nothing slipped out that she wasn’t willing to share with an outsider.
“A lot has changed over the years,” I said.
“Many changes, Miss Collins.”
Su Ling leaned back in the over-stuffed chair and the room became nearly silent but for the rhythmic ticking of an ancient grandfather clock. I wasn’t sure if she had more to say or if the interview had come to a close.
“You ask about brothers,” she said.
“Mr. Adam leave family when Joe young man and still need guidance from one so wise, but Ponderosa not have hold on Mr. Adam like rest of family. He look elsewhere for new life. Joseph miss brother very much. Mr. Adam not post letter for many year now. Joe sit at father’s desk. He open bottom drawer and reach for bundle of old mail, but he not read, he only touch and remember a different time. Maybe Mr. Adam find happiness. Maybe Mr. Adam dead. It not right leave only living relation hang on limb.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond; I needed to change the subject, and I glanced toward the hearth. I noticed something I thought might be Su Ling’s. “Is that your mandolin?” I asked.
Su Ling stood and reached for the stringed instrument. “It called Pipa. Mr. Adam offer treasured gift to Su Ling long time ago. I sing for family on many occasion.”
“Would you play for me?” Clearly, I understood her meaning when she glanced toward the bedroom door. “Oh, I wasn’t thinking,” I apologized. “We don’t want to wake Mr. Cartwright. Maybe another time. I’d love to hear you play.”
“Be my pleasure, Miss Collins.”
“What about Joe’s middle brother. Hoss? Is that correct?”
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “Mr. Hoss big man, biggest man I ever know and, like Mr. Joseph, he never leave Ponderosa. He very special man with big heart; he love brothers and father very much, but his life cut short. Father and son have difficult time after. Joseph still have difficult time. Brothers gone, father gone. Like wagon with three broken wheel, it difficult to keep going.”
“He must have been a wonderful person.”
“He very wonderful, but Mr. Hoss hold big place in heart. He never really gone.”
“I’ve often been told when Nevada was still a territory that Ben Cartwright was considered a king in these parts.”
“A king and his castle?” Su Ling chuckled. “Some might say, I guess. But Mr. Cartwright not king. He one of a kind but not king. Not many men like him then or now. He very honorable man who raise three fine sons. He love sons more than he love land or castle he build for family. Ben Cartwright very wealthy man but not above anyone else; he work hard and gain respect of others. He not king, Miss Collins. He just man, but he gone over four years now.” After a beat. “Does that make Joseph king?”
“You tell me.”
“No . . .Joe not king. Joseph live in father’s house, but he live without father and brothers. It lonely life for man who love family with all heart. He miss father and brothers very much, but he keep father dream alive. He never leave Ponderosa. He born here. All memories are here in this house.”
Without many words, Su Ling had given me a small glimpse of the inner workings of the Cartwright clan, and the term “king” didn’t seem to apply. Ben Cartwright was an honorable man, according to Su Ling, a man who loved his sons above anything else. Though I needed to push on, I took what Su Ling said to heart, but I had more questions to ask.
“People in town say Joseph has been forced to sell sections of the Ponderosa just to stay afloat. Is that correct, Su Ling?”
“Not have to, Miss Collins. Joseph give land away. He would never sell,” she said.
“I don’t understand. I thought the Ponderosa was broke.”
“Um, without enough funds to operate properly.”
“Oh, sorry. Sometimes I still head-block.”
“No, my fault,” I said, apologizing once again.
“Families move west, Miss Collins. Want to settle, just like Mr. Cartwright settle land many years ago. Sometime money is problem and Joe try to help. He give small piece of land to hard-working families who have nothing left but horse and wagon. He no want children go hungry so he give milk cow too. Families most grateful. Repay kindness when able.”
“So he just gives land away? Why doesn’t he sell to the highest bidder?”
I felt like such an outsider, so out of my element when Su Ling hid a smile with the back of her hand. What was I missing? Wasn’t there a fortune to be made selling off sections of the Ponderosa?
“No heirs to carry Cartwright name,” she said. “Joe is last son to live and work Ponderosa. Sometimes he make joke. He say too much land for one person. Joe never sell land. If sell, rich men buy parcels and ruin.
“In old days, men want build roads and railroad across Ponderosa. Mr. Cartwright make sure never happen. Miners with large water guns want to mine land. It ruin land and cause trouble for settler downstream. Joe never sell to miners. This land his home, Miss Collins.”
“I know exactly what you mean. I’ve seen the tailings hydraulic mining leaves behind.”
“Land too rich, too beautiful for mining. Joseph never let that happen.”
Su Ling was a treasure. Her complete understanding of Joe Cartwright and what his father’s land meant to him was a new and stark awakening for me. She didn’t hold back the truth with double talk. Honest and simple explanations only enhanced everything she’d said so far, but I’d come for a completely different story and now I felt ashamed to ask.
“Tell me more about yourself, Su Ling.”
“Me? You come to talk about Cartwrights. I not Cartwright.”
Before I could stop myself, the question rolled past my lips and suddenly, we’d moved into forbidden territory. Part of me felt ashamed that I’d put this lovely woman in such an awkward position but for my own peace of mind, didn’t I ride out here for that one simple measure of truth?
“I’m sorry. I misspoke Su Ling. Will you accept my apology?”
“Are you married, Miss Collins?”
“No . . .”
“But you have known love?”
“Yes, many years ago.”
Although I’d never considered myself homely or unkind, I’d always been too outspoken for my own good. My beliefs that women had a place in this world sent most eligible prospects running like frightened jackrabbits. After a quick account of old beaus, and the many suitors Papa had brought by the house after I’d reached an age that branded me a spinster, I realized I hadn’t known true love since I was a girl of fifteen. My first love, my only love, but the young man didn’t suit my father’s idea of marriage material. His words still played in my mind.
“He’s too wild, Martha, too unsettled. He’s not the right boy for you.”
No other beau ever compared to the sweet young boy I’d fallen for so many years ago. I’d listened to Papa; I’d turned my young man away, but I’ve never forgotten Jacob and the few short weeks we spent together. His wildness, as Papa called it, was a quality that would likely diminish over time. Daring? Yes, but never disrespectful, and his sweet, bubbly nature overwhelmed me in ways I couldn’t explain. Maybe I was too eager to please, but I’ve often wondered how different my life would have become had I stood up to my father and not let my wild young man go without more of a fight.
As years passed, my chances for happiness faded so I created my own agenda. I’d found my place in the world, and I was content with the outcome, at least, I thought I was. I stared at the empty tablet lying on my lap. I hadn’t written a word, but that wasn’t the reason I couldn’t make eye contact with Su Ling. She’d been honest with me so far, but her question had flooded my mind with memories of long ago. Like Mr. Cartwright, I felt a wave of melancholy rise inside me.
“Surely you don’t want to hear about my personal life,” I said. “Besides, we’re getting off track. The story isn’t about me.”
“Doesn’t everyone have a story to tell? Doesn’t everyone have a secret they don’t want to share? You have a job to do, Miss Collins, and what I’ve told you so far won’t sell newspapers, will it?”
“I never meant to pry, Su Ling.”
When I glanced up from my tablet, I realized Su Ling’s eyes had never left my face. They were as clear as glass and her gift for slamming the truth down my throat left me speechless. I was a strong advocate of women’s rights, and yet I was intent on forcing the truth from another strong but very insightful woman.
“I over-stepped,” I said, “and I had no right.”
“I read your column,” she said. “You have much worth and you make people think. You give hope for future, but that hope does not include women like me.”
“What are you saying, Su Ling?”
“Obviously, I Chinese, Miss Collins. Laws not same.”
“I’m trying to change those laws. I’m trying to make a difference for all women.”
Su Ling smiled. “Not make difference for Chinese women. I know why you here. I no longer naïve slave girl. You ride to Ponderosa to decide for self if rumor you hear is true?”
“Then you know what people are saying about you and Mr. Cartwright.”
“Truth or fantasy. Why is truth so important to you?”
“Because I’m a reporter. I report the truth.”
“No matter the consequence?”
During our brief visit, Su Ling had said few words, but the simplicity of her dialogue painted a picture of a truly decent family, an honorable family, and that’s how the name Cartwright should remain. I’d seen firsthand the answer I’d come for, but the answer to Virginia City’s present-day rumor would have to remain hidden behind these four walls. Though I’d love to tell Su Ling’s story, a biography of sorts, a story of generals and slavery and emancipation, it wasn’t my story to tell. Neither was the love story that she and Joe Cartwright were forced to conceal.
Both accounts would make great copy, but both were tragic accounts of people’s lives and had no place in a weekly newspaper column. Stories that covered acts of slavery or forbidden love would rank high above all others, but lives would be ruined forever. Though I might have set out to destroy, to grab my readers with a shocking headline, an old Chinese woman relayed stories of love and kindness, a story no one would care to read.
“Some truths are better off left untold, Su Ling. Nothing that was said here today will go to print.” Again, that beautiful smile lit her face, and signs of age seemed to vanish. Her dark, gentle eyes softened, and the rigid tension that carried through her shoulders began to subside. “I only have one question.”
“Woman to woman.”
“How long have you and Mr. Cartwright been in love?”
Her eyes dipped to her lap. I knew it was a trust issue but before I walked out the door, I wanted to hear her reply.
“Since the day I won her in a poker game,” came a voice from the bedroom doorway.
We both looked up. Neither of us had heard the door open, and Su Ling rushed from her chair and stood alongside her prince. With his arm draped over her shoulders, they crossed the short distance and Su Ling eased him down onto the cushioned seat. He reached for her hand, and she lowered herself to the arm of the chair.
Theirs was a rare and genuine love, a love that was unexpectedly acknowledged in front of a newspaper columnist, a risky move at best, but their lives together were a constant risk. A forbidden love. In this country alone, anti-miscegenation laws have prohibited marriage between the races for hundreds of years.
My column would have brought in more readers than any story I’d published before. Readership would have soared to new heights due to my inside scoop. I could see the headlines now: Living a Life of Sin
My breath hitched in my throat as I watched the two of them from my seat on the far end of the sofa. When Joe turned his head just slightly, there were no words, only a teary-eyed glance for the woman he loved.
She spoke softly in Cantonese, but he answered in English, ”No, I’m fine.”
“May I offer you another cup of coffee, Miss Collins?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I best be on my way, but thank you for everything, Su Ling, you too Mr. Cartwright.”
“Did Ling answer all your questions?”
“Yes, she did, Mister . . . Joseph. We had a lovely talk, and I have everything I need.”
“Good,” he said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t much help, but I’m glad you stayed and had a chance to speak with this beautiful young woman.”
Su Ling rolled her eyes. “Sometime Joseph forget we same age, Miss Collins.”
I stood and shook Joe’s hand. “I want to say it’s been a pleasure meeting and talking to you both.”
As if his handsome face wasn’t enough to charm any woman he met, Joe Cartwright produced a most generous smile, and those amazing green eyes twinkled as though he was actually flirting with me. And then something odd happened. Joe Cartwright winked.
My insides quivered like jelly, but it was much more than a little flirtation that made me wonder if he’d known all along why I’d come for an interview. Yet, he’d let his “wife” tell her side of the story without interference or fear of the outcome. But why? I fought to clear my head.
“Thank you again,” I said. Su Ling scurried in front of me and had the front door open before I’d even crossed the room.
“Won’t you come again, Miss Collins?”
Her voice was sincere, not harsh or accusatory or angered in any way. “I’d love to, Su Ling.” I stepped onto the front porch then hesitated. I turned back around. She hadn’t moved from the doorway. “A promise is a promise,” I said. “Nothing I learned today will go into my column.”
“Then your trip over the mountain was for nothing?”
“Oh, no, Su Ling.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let’s just say I needed a reminder.”
I hurried to sort my thoughts. “A reminder of the good in people, Su Ling. Of acts of kindness that go unnoticed. Of a simple life that no one has the right to destroy.”
“Your words speak much about your own heart, Miss Collins. I think there is much kindness there too.”
I turned to leave, but something odd caught my eye. Hanging on the front porch was an old-fashioned birdcage, but the cage door had been propped open. I studied the empty cage for a minute longer before I looked back to Su Ling. “A birdcage?”
“Yes.” She stepped outside the door.
“But the cage is empty.”
“Empty for reason, Miss Collins. It reminder to Su Ling.” She crossed the wooden planks and pointed to the door of the cage. “Door open for reason. Little bird fly in and out.”
I must have looked a bit confused. Su Ling continued.
“When I first come Ponderosa, I bring little bird with me. Mr. Joseph use bird and try explain freedom to Su Ling. He say bird find happiness if free, but bird not leave cage. Bird not ready, not understand. Su Ling much same as yellow songbird.”
I gave myself away when I smiled.
“You understand predicament?”
“I think I do.”
“When little bird find courage to fly away, she find world outside cage not seem better, only bigger than world she leave behind. She not same as other birds. She different.
“We all weather storm in heart, Miss Collins. Cartwrights emancipate Su Ling, but she not free in all respect. Su Ling not ask be part of white man world. She try concentrate on other things, but Mr. Joseph very desirable young man and newly emancipated Chinese girl lose control of own senses. She fall in love with young white man. She see same look in Mr. Joseph eye and she hurry to leave Ponderosa, must make different life, must say goodbye. Must go separate way.”
“But you’re together now,” I said though my voice felt unsteady.
Tears burned at the back of my eyes, but I stopped myself from saying more. I understood her meaning very well. I also recognized how much this old Chinese woman and I had in common. We’d each chosen alternate paths in life. We’d left our young men behind. Su Ling became a nurse, and I became a reporter. For different reasons, of course, neither of us had the option to stay with the handsome young men of our youth. I took Su Ling’s hands in mine.
“I’m happy for you and Joseph,” I said. “I wish you many more years together.”
“Thank you, Miss Collins.”
“Call me Martha.”
“Please call on us again, Martha.”
“Maybe you’ll show me more of the Ponderosa next time.”
“Joseph would be very pleased.”
I walked toward my rented horse and climbed aboard. Maybe I had a story after all. Why not a feel-good story, something positive for a change or would my column find a home lining the bottom of someone’s birdcage? If my story didn’t depict the worst in people or cause some type of controversy, would the piece be deemed worthless?
Women’s rights were one thing, but maybe I’d found an equally important cause: Equal Rights For All, which I’d learned today wasn’t just a woman’s issue. I needed to include those of Asian descent. Those whose presence on American soil was unwelcomed, those who weren’t even allowed to become American citizens due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of ‘82.
My mind raced with an abundance of new issues, but the story that stuck in my mind most vividly centered on Joseph Cartwright. The name Cartwright had been a proud and honored name for many years. And still, hidden on top of the mountain, generosity toward those with little or nothing was still a Cartwright trait. Though private and far from self-serving, Joe Cartwright carried on his father’s legacy of do unto others. Wasn’t there a way we could all take note and become better citizens ourselves?
Equality for all—except those of a different race. I’d have to work that out in my head before I could do justice to the story. Laws weren’t changed overnight, but a new century was dawning and with anything new, there was always a sense of promise and hope for the future. Maybe even a sensible solution where unjust laws were banished from law books and courts forever.
I’d met two extraordinary people, a man and a woman I could now call friends. Each, in their own right, had filled with me warmth and a sense of possibilities. After carrying a torch for nearly a half a century, I could only hope that Joseph and Su Ling would live a long and peaceful life without interference from the world outside the Ponderosa.
If I was to maintain a healthy readership, I needed to be taken seriously. Lighthearted gossip or a frivolous story only conveyed that I had a lighter side and was able to find humor along with the rest of Virginia City. I’d never attacked an individual personally, and I wasn’t about to start now.
Joe and Su Ling needn’t fear me. I wasn’t the enemy. No one had the right to condemn the life they’d chosen. I would put pen to paper this evening. H.C. might wring my neck, but I had no regrets. The rumor was safe with me.