Summary: prequel, alternative universe
Word Count: 3350
The summer sun blazed hot over the Ponderosa as the middle Cartwright son and a sad-eyed-girl sat upon the fence of the corral watching 18-year-old Adam Cartwright, breaking a new stallion. Ben’s 12-year-old niece, Christina Jane, or C.J. for short, came in April after losing her parents in a buggy accident.
Ben remembered a visit the previous year. She was a bright, happy girl with just a sparkle of mischief in her eyes. But since her return to the Ponderosa, the sparkle was all but gone.
As the two children sat on the corral fence, C.J.’s 12-year-old cousin, Hoss brightly beamed and asked, “C.J., do ya’ wanna go to the swimmin’ hole later? Pa said we could.”
“I don’t know,” came the distant reply.
“Come on! We can have fun!” Hoss excitedly said
“Maybe.” C.J. just stared blankly as she spoke.
‘Well that’s somethin’ anyway,’ thought big-hearted Hoss. He couldn’t stand to see his cousin in so much pain. ‘I wish there was somethin’ I could do so she wasn’t so sad.’
Suddenly, C.J. jumped down from the fence into the corral. Both children knew that when a horse was being broken, they were not allowed to go into the corral. Hoss was horrified knowing how dangerous it was, not to mention the trouble she could get into for disobeying Pa.
“C.J.!” yelled Hoss. When C.J. didn’t respond, he did the only thing he could think of. “ADAM!”
Adam looked and was startled to see his young cousin inside of the fence. He called one of the hands to take the reins of the stallion and walked toward C.J., who had a strange blank look on her face.
“C.J., what are you doing?” he asked.
“Huh?” she responded almost mechanically.
“C.J., it’s dangerous for you to be in here and you know it’s against the rules. Pa explained that to you.” Adam said, concerned both about her safety and her apparent disregard for the rules Pa made.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Adam. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Honey, you need to go back to the ranch,” he said with great concern. “Hoss, will you walk C.J. back to the yard, please?”
“Sure, Adam. Come on, C.J.” Hoss said. He knew under normal circumstances she’d be getting a tanning for doing something so dangerous and disobeying Pa, but he also figured because of her situation, she wouldn’t. “Cuz’, I don’t wanna see ya’ get in trouble.”
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. C.J. and Hoss stayed in the yard and played with 8-year-old Little Joe.
When Hoss saw Pa ride up, he ran and hugged him right along with Little Joe. Then he asked, “Pa, can I talk to you?”
Recognizing the concerned look on his middle boy’s face, Ben said, “Of course, son. Let’s go in the sitting room.”
They went inside and sat down on the settee.
“OK, son, what’s troubling you?” Ben looked into the eyes of this gentle giant and waited.
“Well, Pa, it’s C.J.,” he started but wasn’t sure how to continue. “She…um…”
“What, Eric? Speak up.”
“Pa, today C.J. and me…”Hoss started.
“C.J. and I,” Ben interrupted.
“C.J and I were watching Adam breaking some horses. We were sitting on the fence. While we were there, she jumped down, into the corral.” Hoss scarcely had the words spoken before Ben reacted.
“WHAT?!?” Ben exclaimed.
“Pa, she’s OK…nothing happened…but she seemed just so dazed.”
“Thank you, son,” Ben said. “Would you ask C.J. to come inside?”
“Sure, Pa.” With that, Hoss went out the door.
Ben had been concerned about C.J. for some time. Each day she seemed to get more distant. He was concerned that she was entering a deep despair. Although he knew when Suzette Dubois, her mother’s twin sister, returned from Europe, C.J. would be leaving with her, he felt that she needed the security of a real home and a parent now. He closed his eyes and prayed for guidance.
While Ben was thinking, C.J. entered the room. “You wanted to see me, Uncle Ben?”
“Yes, I want to talk to you, C.J. Please come sit down,” Ben said, patting a cushion on the settee.
“Yes, sir?” C.J. asked when she sat down.
“Over the last couple of months, I have been very concerned about you.”
“I’m okay, Uncle Ben.” C.J. answered, trying to reassure him.
“No, honey. I don’t think you are. I understand that you and Hoss were watching Adam while he was breaking horses today and you directly disobeyed me and jumped into the corral. Is that true?” Ben patiently waited for an answer.
“Do you know how dangerous that is?” Again, Ben waited for an answer.
“Yes, sir. I just wasn’t thinking.”
“Well, C.J., I’ve been very easy on you since you got here, but I’ve been seeing a lot of ‘just not thinking’.” At this point, Ben took on a much more stern tone.
She looked at him with a confused expression as Ben continued, “C.J., what would your Ma and Pa have done if you disobeyed them and did something that you knew was dangerous?”
“Um…I guess they’d whip me,” C.J. responded, hanging her head.
“You guess?” Ben asked.
“They’d whip me,” she responded, suddenly taking great interest in the pattern on the throw rug. C.J. did not like the turn this conversation was taking.
“And why would they whip you?” Ben patiently asked.
“B-because they loved me and d-didn’t want me to get hurt.” C.J. stammered.
“C.J., I know I’m not your Pa, but you are part of my house now. Heaven knows I love you as my own. My brother, your Pa, would be very concerned about your actions lately. And I refuse to let you drift to a place that you will be lost to us. We are your family and we care too much for you to let that happen!” Ben explained.
“Yes, sir.” C.J. said, her eyes fixed on her uncle.
“C.J., starting today, I will be taking a firm hand with you as one of my own. You will be disciplined when you disobey and do things that are dangerous.”
“Yes, sir,” she nearly whispered, realizing he meant business as she watched her Uncle Ben stand, move across the room, pull an armless chair away from the table and sit down. He called C.J. over to him.
As she stood before him, he looked at her with great compassion.
“C.J., I want you to tell me what is going to happen.” Ben said, pointedly.
C.J.’s mind was racing. Uncle Ben had never spanked her before. She finally managed to choke out, “You are going to spank me b-because I disobeyed you and c-could have g-gotten hurt.”
“And you understand that I am spanking you because I love you and I don’t want to see you hurt?” Ben asked, hoping she understood.
“Yes, sir,” she whispered.
“Alright, then, come on,” Ben said as he gently guided her over his lap. He hoped that he was doing to the right thing. Everything in him was telling him it was the only way.
He took a deep breath and began. The first swat was only hard enough to get her attention and the following four were not much more than taps. With that, it was done. He sat her up and spoke comfort to her, “It’s all over…it’s okay…all is forgiven….”
Suddenly Ben realized that C.J.’s was crying with much greater intensity than the spanking warranted. He also realized that he didn’t remember seeing her cry once since the funeral. These tears had been building for a long time and this was a much-needed release. He continued to hold her and thanked God for guiding him.
Adam came in shortly, followed by Hoss and Little Joe, and they were all surprised to find Pa sitting in the armless chair with C.J. crying in his lap.
“Pa?” Hoss said, obviously confused.
Shaking his head, Ben mouthed to him, “It’s okay…She needs this.”
And he was right. Later that evening, as the family sat down to supper, C.J. seemed more her old self. Although still not completely back to normal, she was definitely better.
Over the next weeks, C.J. grew more comfortable with life on the Ponderosa. Her adventurous spirit was returning, as was her propensity for mischief. Still, there was something underneath that Ben could not put his finger on.
One day, everyone else had gone into town and she was walking out by the corral when she noticed a new foal in the pen. She took the bolt out of the gate and went in to see the foal. Unfortunately, she forgot to close the gate. Before she realized it, one of the new stallions dashed out of the open gate.
C.J. saw, but it was too late. The stallion was gone. Her mind raced, ‘Oh, what am I gonna do?!? I’m gonna be in so much trouble. I’m gonna get the worst tannin’ ever. I gotta get outta here.” With that, she raced out of the corral, running all the way back to the house and to her room.
She lay down on her bed, mind still racing, ‘He’s out…the new stallion is gone. Oh, what am I gonna do?!?’
Suddenly, she heard the buckboard driving up, then heard Adam saying, “Sorry, Pa. I must not have fastened the gate right. I’ll get him.”
‘Okay,’ she thought, ‘that gets me off the hook. I don’t have to say a word.’
She quickly got a book and started “reading”.
She heard Adam riding off on Sport to recover the stallion she was responsible for letting out. Then she heard a knock at her door.
“C.J., are you okay?” Ben asked through the closed door.
“Yes, Uncle Ben, I’m fine,” C.J. answered. “Come in.”
He entered her room and smiled. “Well, young lady, what have you been up to today?”
“Oh, um…nothing,” she stammered, “just reading and some painting.” She had an easel set up by the window with a painting started of a sunrise on the Ponderosa. ‘Well that’s sort of true,’ she reasoned because she had painted some that morning.
“Well, supper will be ready in about 15 minutes. I want you to come down and get washed up.” Ben said, smiling as he turned to go downstairs.
“Yes, Uncle Ben,” C.J. said, smiling back.
Supper came and went and Adam had not yet returned from recovering the stallion. It was now after dark and C.J. began to see concern in her uncle’s eyes. Then they heard a familiar sound. Sport was back.
When they went out, the sight terrified C.J; Sport had returned riderless. Her heart sank into what seemed a bottomless pit.
Ben told Hoss to go to the church and ring the emergency bell. Hoss hopped on Sport and was off quick as a wink.
‘Oh no, it’s my fault. Something has happened to Adam and it’s my fault,’ she thought, sinking into the step on the porch as her Uncle Ben road off after Hoss.
After three hours, C.J. had scarcely changed position when she heard the sound of a buckboard followed by Ben and Hoss. Dr. Martin was the driver and Adam was laid across the back with a splint on his leg.
“ADAM!” C.J. exclaimed, running toward the buckboard excitedly.
“Wait, child.” The doctor told her that Adam had a pretty bad fall and his leg was broken. “We need to get him up to his bed. He’s got medicine in him for the pain, but it could start wearing off. I want to get him in bed before that happens.”
The men worked furiously to get Adam quickly to his room. All C.J. could do was watch and think, ‘I’m sorry, Adam…I’m so sorry.”
When all was done, she went to her room and cried, feeling guilty because she had disobeyed Uncle Ben, let one of the new stallions escape, and then lied to him. Then to make matters worse, Adam got hurt.
C.J. hardly slept that night, the guilt weighing upon her like the weight of the world. ‘If I tell, I’ll get tanned for sure. But if I don’t…oh what do I do?…Oh, it’s my fault…Adam’s hurt and it’s my fault.’ She tossed with every guilty thought.
It was still early in the morning when C.J. decided she just couldn’t stand it any more. The guilt was too great, so she went downstairs to talk to Uncle Ben. She found him sitting on the settee, praying for Adam.
“Uncle Ben, can I talk to you?” C.J. nervously asked.
Ben, seeing the guilt in her face said, “Of course, honey, come sit down.”
“I….um…um…I have a confession to make.” She looked at the floor as she spoke.
Ben lifted her head and looked into her eyes. He could see the built-up guilt was wearing on her. “Go ahead.”
“It wasn’t Adam’s fault the stallion got out. I…um…disobeyed you. I went to the corral and went in when I saw the foal. I just wanted to see the foal.” At this point, C.J. was crying as she spoke. “I forgot to close the gate and the stallion ran.”
“Anything else?” Ben asked. She could see that he was getting angry, but remaining calm.
“Yes, sir. When you came in and saw me “reading”, I told you I had been reading and painting…that was only about half true. I didn’t think Adam would get hurt. I’m so sorry, Uncle Ben.”
“Christina Jane, go wait for me in the barn.” He was angry and needed to calm down; he also saw the remorse in her eyes. But disobedience and lying were two things that Ben just could not and would not abide, especially from a child he loved.
“Yes, sir,” she said, quickly complying.
Hoss, without meaning to, heard the conversation.
“Pa?” he said sheepishly, his teddy bear features looking sad. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I couldn’t help hearin’.”
Ben was trying to breathe and count, “Eric, you know how I feel about that!”
“Yes, sir,” Hoss said, pausing for a moment. “Pa, please remember…she’s a girl.”
His concern touched Ben. “Yes, son, I know…now get on upstairs.”
“Yes, sir,” Hoss said, quickly obeying.
Ben went to his room to think and to pray, once again, that he was doing the right thing. There were definite rules in the Cartwright household regarding lying, whether an outright lie or a lie of omission, being disobedient, and being disrespectful and there were consequences for breaking those rules. His niece had managed to break two at once. Had one of the boys done the same, he would be sitting in the barn waiting for a “necessary little talk.”
Ben hung his head, hating what he had to do. But he had sufficiently calmed down and it was time for him to “talk” to C.J. It wasn’t fair to keep her waiting any longer.
Meanwhile, C.J. was waiting in the barn, sitting on the pile of hay in the corner, afraid to move. She hoped Uncle Ben would calm down before he came out to punish her.
Suddenly, she heard the barn door creak open and saw Uncle Ben standing there. He looked at her sternly, but with compassion.
Ben came in and spoke calmly. “Christina, I am very disappointed in your actions today.”
Her head slowly dropped. She hadn’t realized how much she hurt him.
Ben continued, “You disobeyed me, resulting in the loss of a stallion, and MORE importantly, injury to Adam.”
At this point, C.J. began to sob softly.
“Then, then you tried to cover up your disobedience with a lie. This will NOT be tolerated in this household, do you understand me, young lady?!?”
“Y-yes, s-s-sir,” she whimpered.
Ben sat on a bail of hay and called her over to him. She obeyed almost immediately. She didn’t want to get tanned, but she knew the pain in her backside would ease the anguish she felt in her heart because of her guilty conscience.
“Do you have anything to say?” he questioned C.J.
“Yes, sir…I’m real sorry,” she said dropping her head and crying.
“I know,” he said, and with that went to the task of tanning her. As he spanked her, she cried loudly, “I’M SORRY, UNCLE BEN! IT’S MY FAULT!!! I’M SORRY, ADAM!”
When Ben finished spanking C.J., he realized she was still crying loudly, but the cries had changed “I’M SORRY…IT’S MY FAULT…..MAMA….PAPA….I’M SO SORRY!!!”
Ben suddenly realized why she had not completely returned to herself. She blamed herself for her parent’s death. The accident with Adam must have brought this to the surface.
Ben sat her up and pulled her close to him. He embraced her as she continued to repeat, “I’m so sorry, Mama…I’m sorry, Papa….”
As she began to calm down, Ben took her tear-stained face in his hands and asked her, “Child, why are you saying sorry to your Ma and Pa?”
“It was my fault,” she said still crying.
“How, child?” Ben gently asked.
“If I hadn’t run off from school with my friend, Ma and Pa wouldn’t have come after. If they hadn’t they’d still be alive.” C.J. spoke through her tears.
“Oh, child,” Ben said lovingly, with much compassion, “It was an accident. You cannot blame yourself. Had you been with them, you may have been killed, too.”
“But it was my fault,” she said, still sobbing.
“No, child,” Ben insisted, “I will NOT allow you to blame yourself. It was an accident…there is no one to blame; there is no fault.”
“No fault?” C.J. queried.
“NO fault,” he said, holding C.J. tightly until her crying subsided. “Now, your punishment is over. All is forgiven.”
“Thank you, Uncle Ben,” she said, sniffling.
“You’re welcome, child. Now, off to bed.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, turning back, “I love you, Uncle Ben.”
“I love you, too, child.” With that, C.J. went to her room. She lay down on her stomach on the top of her covers so as not to add to the pain she was experiencing in her backside and drifted off to sleep easier than she had in months, reassured that her parent’s death was not her fault.
When C.J. awoke, she was still feeling the effects of the tanning that Uncle Ben gave her only hours before. She decided that she would wear skirts this week; to pull jeans up would be too difficult.
When she got downstairs to breakfast, she saw Hoss had brought cushion for her to sit on, as was the custom of the siblings of recently chastised children in the Cartwright household. There was a refreshing new smile on C.J.’s face and a certain glint in her eye that Ben was glad to see.
After eating breakfast, she excitedly asked, “Uncle Ben…can we go swimmin’ today?”
“Certainly, as long as you promise to be careful. No jumping from the trees or the steep sides of the swimming hole. Is that understood?” Ben said, thinking, ‘Yep, Christina Jane is back,’ and smiling.
“Yes, sir. Come on, Hoss. Come on, Little Joe.” Even as C.J. spoke these words, all three children were fleeing the table as quickly as they could, squealing with glee.
Ben was glad that C.J. let the guilt of her parents death go. And something told him that was not the end of “necessary little talks” with his sometimes-rambunctious niece.
‘One day at a time, Ben,’ he thought to himself, shaking his head, ‘One day at a time.’
Ben went to the door to see the C.J., Hoss, and Little Joe running at nearly top speed toward the swimming hole. He grinned to himself as he turned to go upstairs to check on his eldest. He would take this opportunity to tell Adam what had happened.