Ben’s New Dilemma (Debbie Ann)

Summary:  Prequel, alternative universe
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  5300


 

Dawn broke over the horizon flooding the Ponderosa with light. Spring was beginning to make its presence known that morning, with wildflowers dancing in the gentle breeze.

As the Cartwrights were all sitting around the breakfast table, quietly eating, Ben watched as his niece, C.J., who sat tearfully playing with her eggs.

“C.J.” Ben urged.  “You need to eat, child.”

“Uh huh,” she answered with little expression.

Ben understood why his niece was hurting so.  Today marked the first anniversary of her parent’s death in a buggy accident.

“C.J.” Hoss said, excitedly.  “Me and Little Joe are goin’ fishin’ after we finish our chores.  Ya’ gonna come too?”

“I guess,” she answered.

Little Joe, his green eyes sparkling, looked at Hoss and said, “We’re fishin’ for supper.”

“Uh huh.”  C.J. seemed uninterested.

“Christina Jane!” Ben sternly said, attempting to get her attention.

“Huh,” she answered, shaking her head.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Uncle Ben.   I was thinkin’.”

“I know, child,” Ben responded reassuringly.  “I understand.  When the chores are done, why don’t you go fishing with the boys?”

“All right,” she agreed with little enthusiasm

*****

Once breakfast was finished and the chores done, Joe, Hoss, and C.J. went to the lake.  As they fished, they talked.

“I now it’s a hard day for ya’,” Hoss assured C.J.

“Me, too,” Joe chimed in.

“I know you both lost your ma’s,” C.J. observed, fighting the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes.  “But you still have your Pa.”

“That’s true,” Hoss admitted.  “But for right now, you have our Pa, too.  He’s always sayin’ how he loves ya’ like you was his own.  I was just sayin’ I understand.  It’ll get easier.”

“Why can’t it be easier now?” C.J. nearly choked as she lost the battle to hold back the tears that began streaming freely down her cheeks.

“I don’t know,” Joe said. “Sure wish we could tell ya’.”

*****

While the children were fishing, a strange surrey drove up to the ranch with a well dressed woman driving.

“Hello,” Ben called, before he had a good look at the driver.  “Name’s Ben Cartwright.  You’re on Ponderosa territory; can I help you?”

When the lady turned, Ben was taken completely by surprise.  He saw before him the image of his brother’s wife.

In a strong French accent, she answered, “Hello, Benjamin.”

“Suzette?” he began.   “Suzette Dubois?”

“Oui, Benjamin,” she responded.  “How are you?”

“Fine,” Ben said.  “And you?”

“Exhausted,” she admitted.  “I have been traveling since just after Christmas.  I received no word until then.”  Pausing for a moment, she continued, “Benjamin, I am so sorry about your brother.”

“Thank you,” he gratefully returned.  “I’m sorry about your sister.”

Wiping a tear from her eye, she said, “Merci.”

“Let me help you with your things and we can sit and talk a while,” Ben offered.

“Oui,” Suzette replied.  “We have many things to discuss.”

Once the bags were inside and the horses were tended, Ben had Hop Sing prepare tea for Suzette as she sank into the settee and he sat in his favorite chair.

“Where is Christina?” Suzette asked, nervously.

“She’s fishing with my boys, Hoss and Little Joe,” he observed.  “It’s been some time since you’ve seen her, hasn’t it?”

“Oui,” she admitted.  “I believe she was…two.  I don’t know her, Benjamin.”

“Well, “Ben stated.  “She is quite a young lady; turned 13 in February.  She enjoys riding and is also frequently in scrapes with my boys.”

Ben hesitated, looking into Suzette’s crystal blue eyes, before adding, “She blamed herself for a long time.”

“She blamed herself?” Suzette queried.  “Why would she blame herself?”

“She and a friend went fishing instead of going to school,” he began.  “The accident happened when her parents were searching for her.”

“Oh, the poor child,” she sympathized.

“You know today is a year since the accident,” Ben stated.

“And how is Christina dealing with it?”

“Sad and distracted,” he explained.  “Which is understandable.

As Ben and Suzette talked, time slipped away.  The grandfather clock chimed the four o’clock hour.

“The children should be getting back any time now,” Ben announced.

At that moment, the kitchen door flew open as two excited boys and one rather sullen girl entered.

“Pa,” Little Joe beamed.  “We caught a whole mess of fish for supper!”

Hoss chimed in, “Yeah, Pa.  Hop Sing is gettin’ ready to cook ‘em up.”

No one noticed the strange woman until she stood.  When Suzette got to her feet, C.J.’s face went ashen.  As the image of her mother stood before her, emotions flooded her mind faster than she could handle.  Suddenly, darkness claimed her as she slumped to the floor.

“C.J.?” Hoss worriedly cried out, catching her.

Ben crossed the room and picked up C.J., carrying her to the settee and gently laying her down.

“Hoss,” Ben ordered.  “Go get a cool damp cloth from Hop Sing.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss replied, hurriedly doing as he was instructed.

“Pa, who’s this?” Little Joe questioned.  “And why’s she look like Aunt Brigette?”

“Suzette Dubios,” Ben answered.  “She’s your aunt’s identical twin sister. Suzette, this is my youngest son, Joseph.”

“Hello, Joseph,” she said, offering her hand.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too, ma’am,” Little Joe responded, taking her hand.

Hoss returned with the damp cloth asking,” Is there anything else I can do, Pa?”

“Yes, son,” Ben said, placing the cloth beneath C.J.’s neck.  “Take your brother and get cleaned up for supper.”

“Yes, sir; come on, short shanks.”

Ben and Suzette both focused on C.J. as she began to stir, moaning.

“C.J.,” Ben said.  “Open your eyes, child.”

“Uncle Ben,” C.J. struggled.  “What happened?”

“You saw your Aunt Suzette and fainted.”

“A-Aunt Suzette?” Suddenly C.J. understood.  “Ma’s twin sister.”

“Yes,” Ben clarified.  “Her identical twin.”

“I thought it was Ma,” C.J. admitted as she began to cry.

“Christina,” Suzette began.  “I know it may be awkward, mon chere.”

“I-I’m sorry, Aunt Suzette,” C.J. said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Ben, as he took C.J. by the hand, asked, “Can you sit up, child?”

“I-I think so,” C.J. said, allowing Ben to assist her.

“Child,” Ben comforted.  “I know today was hard; I promise, it will get easier.”

“Yeah,” she snapped.  “That’s what everybody keeps sayin’.”

“Christina Jane Cartwright,” Ben firmly and immediately grabbing her attention, “I will let that rudeness pass this time, since I know you’re hurting; but I would advise you to change your tone.  Understood?”

C.J. closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath and apologized.  “I’m sorry, Uncle Ben, Aunt Suzette.  It’s just everybody keeps sayin’ that it’ll get easier.  But when does ‘easier’ come?”  With that, C.J. buried her face in Ben’s chest, tears flowing freely.

“It’s okay, C.J.,” Ben began.  “It won’t happen all at once, child.  But, probably sooner than you think, the sad thoughts and memories will give way to the good ones.”

“Are you sure, Uncle Ben?” she asked, sobbing and sniffling.

“Yes, child,” Ben reassured her.  “Now, why don’t you and your Aunt Suzette both clean up for supper.  I understand we’re in for a ‘mess of fish’.”

“Yes, sir,” C.J. giggled.  “M…I mean, Aunt Suzette?  Let me show you where the wash house is.”

Ben watched as his niece and his sister-in-law walked out the door, hoping that they could use this time to get to know each other.

As they walked to the washhouse, C.J. and Suzette did indeed talk.

“I am sorry, Christina,” Suzette apologized.

“Aunt Suzette,” C.J. assured.  “It’s okay.  I’ve known for some time that you would be coming.  When I saw you, I just got confused.”

“So,” Suzette probed.  “You enjoy fishing?”

“Uh huh.”

“And riding horses?”

“Very much,” C.J. told her.

“Do you like life here?” Suzette asked

“Oh, yes, Aunt Suzette,” C.J. enthusiastically said.  “I have some paintings of sunrises I’ve done, even some snowscapes.”

“You paint?” Suzette sounded surprised.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So do I,” Suzette announced, excited at having found some common ground.  “I have since I was a child.”

“Really?”

“Oui.”

Entering the washhouse, both C.J. and Suzette, each beginning to feel more comfortable, began getting to know one another.

*****

After supper, everyone retired to the sitting room.  Hoss and Little Joe played checkers while Suzette visited further with Ben.  C.J. sat quietly observing and listening.

“Benjamin,” Suzette observed.  “What I have seen of this Ponderosa of yours, it is lovely.”

“We like it,” Ben responded.  “God allowed us to enjoy a little piece of heaven right here on earth.”

“I would love to see more of this place tomorrow,” she admitted.

“Well,” Ben offered.  “I think C.J. might be able to show you around.  She’s gotten quite familiar with the land and has her favorite spots to paint.”

Turning to C.J., he continued, asking, “Would you be willing to show Suzette more of the Ponderosa?”

“Yes, sir,” C.J. quietly answered as her mind became awash with the realization of the meaning of her aunt’s arrival.

“Thank you, Christina,” Suzette said gratefully.

“Uncle Ben,” C.J. revealed.  “I’m not feeling very well.  May I go to bed?”

“I expect that’s fine,” Ben replied.  “Is there something I can do for you?”

“No, sir; I think I just need some rest.”

“Is that all right with you, Suzette?”

“Oui,” she answered.  “Good night, mon chere.”

“Good night, everyone.” C.J. said, not wishing to be rude.

Ben and the boys responded, “Good night.”

After about another half hour, Ben looked at the clock, turned to the boys and said, “Boys, it’s getting late.  It’s time for you to be getting to bed.  We have a lot to do in the morning.”

“Aw, Pa,” Little Joe complained.  “Do we have to?”

“Joseph,” Ben spoke in a tone not to be challenged.  “You have to.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe conceded.

Both boys then said, “’Night, Pa. ‘Night Miss Suzette.”

“Good night, boys,” both Ben and Suzette offered.

As the two boys disappeared up the stairs, Ben turned to Suzette asking, “What about you?”

“Actually, I am a bit fatigued, Benjamin,” she admitted.  “I think I will join the children in slumber.  It has been quite a long day.”

“Agreed,” Ben declared.

*****

Although C.J. went to bed, sleep refused to claim her.  She realized that with the arrival of her aunt, her days on the Ponderosa and with her uncle and cousins that she had grown to love so much were numbered.  Hating the thought of leaving, the silence in the darkness gave way to a soft whimper as C.J. cried into her pillow.

Hoss, who was also unable to sleep, heard his cousin crying.  The gentle giant, hating to hear anyone or anything suffering, quietly got up, hoping his Pa was asleep, and went down the hall to C.J.’s room.

Gently tapping on the door, he whispered, “C.J., can I come in?”

Quickly wiping tears from her eyes, she whispered back to him, “Yes, Hoss; come on in.”

Slowly, Hoss entered, crossing the room and sitting on the edge of the bed.

“What’s wrong, cuz?”

“Oh, Hoss,” C.J. mournfully answered, drawing her knees to her chin and burying her face in her hands.  “It’s Aunt Suzette.”

“What about her?” he queried.  “She seems like a nice lady.”

“Yes, she does but…” Her voice trailed off as tears freely fell.  “Oh, you don’t understand.”

“Then explain it,” Hoss demanded.

“She came to take me away from here,” C.J. stated matter-of-factly.

“What?” Hoss exclaimed, a bit more loudly than he meant to.

“Shhh,” C.J. whispered.  “I don’t want to wake anyone, least of all Uncle Ben.  He wouldn’t be happy with either one of us being awake.”

“I know,” Hoss carefully whispered.  “What do ya’ mean she came to take ya’ away?”

“It’s what Ma wanted,” she began.  “I’m not sure why, but she wanted Aunt Suzette to finish raising me.  I don’t even know her.”

Looking into her cousin’s eyes, C.J. declared, “I just can’t bear to leave this place.”

Drawing his cousin into a hug as she wept, Hoss promised, “We’ll figure something.”

Eventually, C.J. cried herself to sleep.  Hoss, gently stood, covering his cousin and quietly went back to bed.

*****

In the morning, as everyone sat down to breakfast, Ben noticed the two 13-year-old cousins were unusually quiet.

“C.J.?” Ben asked.  “Is everything okay?”

“Huh?” she responded.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Uncle Ben.  I was thinkin’.”

“What’s got you so far away, child?” Ben asked with great concern.

“Nothin’, Uncle Ben,” C.J. lied, trying to be convincing.  “Just thinkin’ about…um… school.”

“Oh, I see,” Ben replied, knowing she was lying. Deciding not to pry at this time, he turned is attention to his middle son.  “Hoss, what’s on your mind, son?”

“Nothin’, Pa,” Hoss answered, looking at his cousin and then adding more eggs to his plate.

Ben, recognizing that “nothing” was much more than both children wanted to talk about, thought ‘I’ll see if I can get them to talk about this “nothing” later…individually.’

“All right, children,” Ben announced.  “Those chores won’t do themselves.  Let’s finish up breakfast so we can get to them.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss and Little Joe responded in unison, standing to go outside.

“C.J.,” Ben said firmly.  “Let’s get to those chores done.  Remember, you promised to show your aunt the Ponderosa.”

“Yes, sir,” C.J. answered, slowly obeying.

*****

When they children finished their chores, Hoss pulled C.J. aside.

“How ya’ doin’ today?” he asked

“Okay, I guess,” C.J. answered.

“Ya’ got somethin’ in mind?” Hoss asked, ready to assist her if she asked.

“Not sure, Hoss,” she admitted.  “We’d better git.  I’m supposed to show Aunt Suzette the Ponderosa.”

“I’ll saddle yer’ horse for ya’,” Hoss offered, “and a gentle one for yer’ aunt.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” she hugged him gratefully.

Hoss went into the barn while C.J. slowly returned to the house, stopping at the door briefly, reluctant to let her time on the Ponderosa draw to an end.  Slowly, she drew a breath and stepped inside.

“Aunt Suzette,” she called.  “We can be on our way in a few minutes.  Do you have somethin’ you can wear to ride in?”

“I do not know,” Suzette admitted, not sure if she liked the idea of wearing pants.  “If you mean pants, no.”

Almost shaking her head, C.J. told her, “You can’t ride in a dress.”

“She’s right, Suzette,” Ben agreed.

C.J. offered, “I have a pair that’s too long for me right now.  I’ll get them so you can change.”

Reluctantly, Suzette agreed to change.

C.J. was slow to ascend the stairs and equally slow to descend.  She handed the pants and an appropriate top to her aunt, figuring that she also wouldn’t have a shirt to wear with the pants.

“We can go when you’ve finished changing,” C.J. declared.  “Hoss has the horses ready for us.”

As Suzette disappeared into the guest room, Ben, who had been observing, out of concern for his niece, questioned, “C.J., are you all right?”

“Sure, Uncle Ben,” she lied, forcing a wry smile.  “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Just checking,” he explained, lifting the chin of the young lady who had become so endeared to him in the year since her arrival.  “I love you, child.”

“I know, Uncle Ben,” she answered, hugging him tightly while fighting the threatening tears, screaming in her mind, ‘THEN DON’T LET HER TAKE ME FROM HERE!!!’  “I love you, too.”

Ben knew that something was troubling the child. He could feel the tremors that pulsed through her body as they embraced.  ‘I wish you would talk to me, child,’ he thought.

Suzette emerged in appropriate attire for riding announcing, “I am ready, mon chere.”

Sniffing and quickly trying to wipe any hint of tears from her eyes, carefully avoiding looking into Uncle Ben’s dark, knowing eyes, C.J. almost cheerfully said, “Let’s go then.”

“Have fun you two,” Ben called after them.

*****

The day waned on to late afternoon as C.J. was dismounting with Suzette by the lake.

“This is my favorite spot,” C.J. explained.  “When I want to talk to Ma, this is where I come.  Little Joe’s Ma is buried just beyond those trees.”

“It is a peaceful place,” Suzette observed.  “Have you enjoyed the entire time you’ve been here?”

“Not exactly,” C.J. admitted.

“But you seem to love it so much,” Suzette puzzled.

“Oh yes, now.  But not at first.”

“Can you tell me why, mon chere?”

C.J. looked in her aunt’s eyes, deciding that explaining may sway Suzette’s decision in her favor.

Taking a deep breath, she began, “Well, I first came here right after Ma and Pa’s accident.  I was sad so everybody sort of let me be.  But the sadness in the first couple of months grew deeper.  I felt…I don’t know…like I’d been wandering…and the path I was on was growing darker and darker.”

Listening with interest as her niece explained, Suzette probed, “What happened?”

“Uncle Ben reached me.”

“How?”

“It started after I’d been here for a couple of months.  I think it was when Hoss and I were watching Adam breaking horses.  I jumped into the corral…I’m not sure what made me do it…I knew I was being disobedient…I just didn’t care…not about being disobedient or the possibility of getting hurt.”  C.J. was only just beginning to understand as she confessed how bad the situation really was just under a year ago.

Looking more confused than ever, Suzette asked, “What happened?”

“Uncle Ben loved me,” C.J. admitted.  “He put that love into action.  That day, he told me that I was a part of his family and that he would not allow me to despair as I had been.  He sort of became a parent when I needed one and has been ever since; willing to hug me or discipline me as needed.”

“Is that why you love this Ponderosa so much?” Aunt Suzette inquired.

“That’s part of it.  I’ve shown you my favorite places,” C.J. insisted.  “The Ponderosa is a beautiful place…and I believe it’s been helping me to heal.”

“Yes,” Suzette agreed.  “It is lovely.”

Looking up, C.J. noticed the position of the sun in the west.  “We should be getting back.  It’ll be close to dark by the time we get to the house.”

*****

While C.J. and Suzette talked, Hoss sought to speak with his father.  He found Ben at his desk working on the ledgers.

“Pa,” Hoss asked.  “Can I talk to you?”

“Of course, son,” Ben answered. Seeing that his son was troubled, he thought, ‘Finally, I’ll get some answers.’  “What’s on your mind?”

“It’s…um…” Hoss stammered.  “It’s C.J., Pa.”

“You know what’s been troubling her, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss sheepishly responded, hoping he wouldn’t get in trouble for lying.

“Well, son,” Ben demanded.  “What is it?”

Hoss looked into his father’s chocolate eyes and, with tears pooled causing his own blue eyes to sparkle, stated, “C.J. don’t wanna leave the Ponderosa.”

“What?”

“She said her aunt came to take her away from here and she don’t wanna go.”

“Oh, I see,” Ben said, putting a comforting hand on the shoulder of his gentle giant.

“Pa,” Hoss admitted.  “I don’t want her to go neither.”

“I know, son.  I thought it must have been you that went to C.J. when she was crying last night,” Ben said knowingly.

Hoss’ eyes showed the surprise at his father’s statement.  “Yes, sir,” he admitted.

“I would have gone myself,” Ben explained with a warm smile, “but you beat me to it.”

Hoss met his father’s eyes once again with a smile as Ben continued, “Hoss, I will think about it.  Okay?”  Quickly he added, “And I won’t tell C.J. you said anything.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Hoss replied as though confession had made his heart light as a feather.

“Go get your brother and get washed up for supper.”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss agreed, going out the door.

When C.J. and Suzette returned, Ben greeted them in the yard. “Ladies, I see you finally decided to come home.”

C.J. dismounted and answered contritely, “Yes sir.”  It was the answer she had given on more than one occasion when she had returned home late. She was hoping that the Ponderosa would indeed remain home.

“Go on and get cleaned up for supper,” Ben ordered with a smile.

*****

After supper, C.J. once again claimed to not be feeling well and retired to her room.

This time, however, Hoss was not far behind her.  Knocking on C.J.’s door, Hoss whispered, “Can I come in?”

“Sure, Hoss.”

Entering quietly, Hoss sat in the chair next to the bed.  “How ya’ doin’?”

“Same,” C.J. blankly answered.  “I just can’t leave.  I love this place too much.  And I would desperately miss Uncle Ben and you and Little Joe.  I just can’t go.”

“Don’t go doin’ somethin’ you’ll regret,” Hoss warned.

“I know.”

“I’m gonna turn in,” Hoss said.  “I don’t want Pa thinkin’ I was lyin’.”

“’Night, Hoss,” C.J. replied.  “And thanks.”

“’Night, C.J.; and yer’ welcome.  Love ya’, cousin.”

“Love you, too, cousin,” she returned.

*****

Once everyone was in bed, C.J., who again couldn’t sleep, snuck outside, still wearing her nightshirt and with only her house shoes and her shawl to protect her from the cool night air.  She thought that maybe if she could clear her head, sleep might eventually claim her.

As C.J. walked, she talked to her Ma. “Ma, I know you wanted me to go with Aunt Suzette, but I love it here.  I just can’t bear the thought of leaving.”

It was very dark on the path C.J. chose, only intensified by the moon racing in and out of the passing clouds.  Unable to see in the dark, C.J. was unaware of the tree that had fallen in the ditch by the side of the trail.  She misjudged her footing on the unseen path, sliding into the ditch, twisting her ankle, and causing her foot to become effectively stuck in the lower thick branches of the fallen tree.

“AGHHH!!!” she shrieked, wincing in pain as she tried to free her foot.  ‘What am I gonna do now?’ she thought.

The night waned on as C.J. grew cold and frightened.  Deciding her only hope was to try to call out for her family, she began to scream, “UNCLE BEN!!!  HOSS!!! HELP ME!!!”

She stopped shouting and groaned in pain.  “It’s no use,” she conceded.  “No one can hear me.”

Shivering, she prayed, “God…I’m in trouble.  My ankle is hurt and my foot is stuck and I’m cold and I’m scared.  I need help.  Please, God…Help me!”

She pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders and soon was able to find a moderately comfortable position, in spite of the pain in her ankle.

*****

Ben, who had gotten little sleep, woke early the next morning, unaware that his niece was absent from her room.  His intent was to speak with Suzette regarding an idea he had about her and C.J.

Ben dressed quickly and went downstairs to find Suzette sitting on the porch in the cool morning air, watching the sunrise.

“Good morning,” he greeted with a smile.

“Good morning, Benjamin,” she responded, clearly startled from deep thought.

“Sorry,” Ben admitted.  “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“No, no…it’s all fine,” she assured.  “I was just thinking and enjoying your ‘little piece of heaven.”

“Good,” Ben said.  “I actually have an idea I wanted to discuss with you.”

“And what,” she asked, curiosity peeked, “is this idea?”

“Well…” he began.

*****

Sleep had finally claimed the tired girl, who was awakened in the morning by the sound of the birds singing and the sunlight breaking through the trees.  She then became aware of the throb in her ankle.  ‘I hope someone finds me soon.’

*****

At the house, Ben and Suzette finished their discussion as the boys were coming downstairs for breakfast.  Hoss offered to get C.J. for breakfast, only to discover she was absent from her room.

“PA!” Hoss shouted, racing down the stairs.  “She’s gone!”

“What?!?”

“Her bed’s not made, she’s just gone.”

Ben could hear the worry in his middle son’s voice.

“Son, it’ll be fine,” Ben reassured him, trying to remain calm himself.

“Benjamin,” Suzette worriedly asked, “where could she be?”

Rising, Ben answered,” I don’t know, but I’m going to find out!  Hoss, go get the horses ready.  I want you to come with me.”

“Pa,” Little Joe whined.  “I wanna go to.”

“Joseph,” Ben, pulling him close, firmly said, “I want you to stay here with Miss Suzette.  She’s worried and I want you to help get her mind off C.J. being missing.  Can you do that for me?”

Knowing that what his father had just said was not a request, Joe conceded reluctantly.

“Yes sir.”

*****

Growing increasingly uncomfortable, C.J. began crying out again. “UNCLE BEN!!!  HELP!!!  HOSS!!! UNCLE BEN!!!”

Hoss, who was becoming quite a good tracker, quickly found his cousin’s tracks.  “Pa!  This way!”

“CHRISTINA JANE CARTWRIGHT!!!” Ben called.

“C.J.,” Hoss yelled.  “WHERE ARE YOU?”

Hearing yelling in the distance, C.J. hopefully called, “UNCLE BEN?!? HOSS?!?”

The calling back and forth continued for another 10 minutes.

“PA!  I SEE HER!  OVER HERE!  SHE’S HURT!” Hoss called out, dismounting. He ran to the edge of the ditch. Looking down on C.J. and seeing her tearstained cheeks, he told her, “Its okay.  We’ll get you out.”

“Hoss, I’m so glad to see you,” she admitted, tearfully sobbing.

“Christina,” Ben probed.  “What’s wrong?”

“Uncle Ben, my ankle hurts bad and my foot is stuck.”

“Hoss, help me with these branches,” Ben ordered.  “Okay, when we pull these two branches apart, I think you can free your foot.  Christina, when I count to three, I want you to pull your foot free.  Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” she agreed, expressing her understanding.

“All right, Hoss,” Ben began.  “1…2…3!”

Pushing the branches of the fallen tree apart, C.J. was indeed able to pull her foot free.

“Looks bad, Pa,” Hoss said.

“Go get the doctor, Hoss.  I’ll get C.J. back to the house.”

As Hoss rode toward town, Ben gently picked up his niece and placed her on Buckhis buckskin horse.

*****

Suzette and Little Joe heard only the one horse ride up.  Its arrival at the house prompted both to come out to see what was happening.

“Christina?!?” Suzette queried, unable to see the condition of C.J.’s foot on the opposing side of Buck.  “Are you well?”

“I’m all right, Aunt Suzette,” she said as Ben lifted her from the saddle.  “Can’t walk right now,” she added, seeing the look on her aunt’s face at seeing her ankle.

“I’ve sent Hoss for the doctor, Suzette,” Ben assured her.  “She’ll be fine.”

Ben carried C.J. up to her room.  Deciding that now would be the perfect opportunity for him to speak to his niece, he asked Suzette and Joseph to wait downstairs.

“Christina Jane Cartwright,” he began, sounding very cross, “would you care to explain yourself?  What exactly were you doing sneaking out in the middle of the night?  You know we have rules in this house, young lady!”

Knowing he was right and hoping that her injury was punishment enough for disobeying the rules, she responded, “I’m sorry, Uncle Ben.  I couldn’t sleep and went for a walk.”

“You snuck out!  Do you realize what could have happened?  You worried me, your aunt, and your cousins.  It could have been much worse!” he asked sternly.  “If not for the fact that you’ve been hurt, you wouldn’t be able to sit very comfortably right now.”

“Yes, sir,” C.J. answered, looking at her foot, which had swollen and turned an ugly shade of purplish black.

“Well,” Ben’s voice softened, “I guess we don’t have to worry about you sneaking out again anytime soon.  Now, why don’t you tell me what’s been bothering you?”

“I…um…it’s…um…” she stammered. Then suddenly bursting into tears, she admitted, “Oh, Uncle Ben, I just can’t leave the Ponderosa.”

“Well,” Ben began, “I had a talk with your aunt early this morning, before your disappearing act.”

“You did?” C.J. asked, confusion peeking through her tears.

“Yes,” Ben confided.  “Your aunt has been a bit nervous about taking on a child by herself, having no experience with children.  The old Baxter place has been up for sale for quite some time.  It’s right on the edge of the Ponderosa, near the lake.  I had been thinking that acreage would make a nice addition to the Ponderosa and had already been considering putting in a bid on it.”

“Really?” C.J. asked with the hint of a smile on her lips.

“Really,” Ben confirmed.  “You still have the house your Ma and Pa left you; you can decide as you get older what you want to do with that.  In the mean time, the old Baxter place will make a fine home for two such accomplished painters as you and your aunt.  I will be available to your aunt should she have questions or need advice.” He paused, looking deeply into Christina’s eyes, before continuing. “Or assistance with any situations that may arise.  Understood?”

“Yes, sir.” She knew exactly what Uncle Ben meant when he added the last statement.

“Good,” Ben admitted.  “I didn’t really want you to leave either.”

“Oh, thank you, Uncle Ben.  Thank you.” C.J. hugged him tightly.

At that moment, the door flew open and Little Joe exclaimed, “Pa!  Hoss is comin’ with the doctor.”

“Hello, Ben,” Paul said as he entered.  “Well, there’s my patient.”

“Hi, Paul,” Ben retorted.  “Is it that obvious?”

“Hi, Dr. Martin,” C.J. chimed in.

“Ben, if you don’t mind, I’d like to examine this young lady,” the doctor demanded, trying to clear the room.  He had wanted to do a thorough examination in light of the fact that she had been most of the night in the cool spring air.

“Certainly, Paul,” Ben agreed.  “Come on, Joseph.  Let’s get downstairs.”

*****

Everyone waited in the sitting room for the doctor to complete his examination.  While they waited, they talked.

“All right,” Ben began, “I am going to be putting in a bid on the old Baxter place on the outskirts of the Ponderosa by the lake.”

Hoss, looking confused, asked, “Why, Pa?”

“Boys, C.J. and Suzette are going to live there,” Ben explained with a smile.

Beginning to grow excited, Hoss asked Suzette, “You’re not taking C.J away?”

“No, Hoss,” Suzette confirmed.  “Christina will be close by.  You will see her every day at school and as often as you wish.”

Hoss excitedly proclaimed, “C.J. will be so happy!”

The doctor came downstairs and announced, “It’s a bad sprain, Ben.  I gave her something for the pain. Keep mustard plaster on that ankle, and keep her off that foot.  I’ll bring a pair of crutches out for her tomorrow so that she is not bedridden for too long.”

“Thanks, Paul.  Would you care to join us for lunch?”

“I would, thank you, but I have to check on the Tanners who are expecting their first child; it’s getting near Celia’s time.”

Hoss, at this point, was ignoring the conversation between his father and the doctor and even the fact that there was anyone else present in the room.  He was glad that his cousin was all right, and that she wasn’t going anywhere.

***The End***

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