Summary: Ben remembers.
Word Count: 1900
Sheriff Roy Coffee always enjoyed visiting his old friend, Ben Cartwright at the Ponderosa. Not that Ben was as old as Roy: in fact it was received wisdom that Roy was the oldest Sheriff in the territory and he certainly suffered from an amazing lack of animation. Once they had finished a game of checkers (which took rather longer that usual, due to the fact that Roy fell asleep half-way through), they were enjoying a cup of coffee when the Giggly Sisters appeared with Joe and their pet bear, Paw.
“Nice to have some ladies around the house,” Roy remarked, sucking the dregs of his coffee through his moustache. “It’s been a long time.”
Ben looked reminiscently towards his desk, where the pictures of his three wives sat. Roy had often wondered if he should perhaps probe a little more closely into their deaths. After all, it was sad for a man to lose one wife, to lose two was incredibly tragic, but three! Wasn’t that just a little improbable? Could there possibly be something more to it than Ben was letting on?
The only problem with this was that Adam was the only witness to two of the deaths, and Ben was the only witness to one. And everyone knew the Cartwrights stuck together. With a slight shake of his head, he decided not to pursue the matter any further. Perhaps it was just bad luck.
“It’s a pity you didn’t know about the Curse of the Cartwrights, isn’t it?” remarked the redhead sympathetically.
“You could hardly say it was a curse,” Ben protested. “These are dangerous times you know. After all women do die in childbirth, like Elizabeth.”
“My Love,” the others chorused, resignedly. They knew the routine by now.
“Poor Elizabeth, she barely had time to see Adam before she died.” Ben sighed. “Childbirth is extremely hazardous, you know.”
“I do know,” the redhead said. “I do have two children, remember?” Ben looked round worriedly, for he had disturbing memories of a small girl child, wittering on incessantly about riding lessons.
Roy looked interested at this, for he hadn’t had much of a chance to chat to the Giggly Sisters. “Children, huh?” he asked. “Where are they?”
“With their mythical father on an imaginary oil-rig,” the redhead said, helpfully, and Roy wished he’d never asked.
“Perhaps all those readings of ‘Paradise Lost’ were a slight mistake?” said the blonde. From what she remembered of the text it was very long, packed full of illusions and imagery and really rather dark and depressing. Ben shrugged his shoulders; the same thought had often occurred to him. John Milton did have rather a tendency to ramble on at great length. However, the only alternative poet Elizabeth had liked was George Gordon, Lord Byron, and the “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet certainly wasn’t suitable reading for a woman in a delicate condition.
“Anyways,” Roy said, helping himself to a ham sandwich, “after poor Elizabeth’s childbed trauma, you met Inger.”
“My Ma was Swedish!” Hoss added helpfully. “That’s why I’ve got a Swedish name, rather than a biblical name like Pa, Adam and Joe!” Mind you, now he came to think of it, that did seem a little unfair. Surely there were Swedish biblical names they could have used?
“My dear wife, Inger, was indeed Swedish,” Ben said, neatly preventing his family from ruining a poignant story with their choruses. “She was a sweet, unassuming girl and she loved Adam very much. We were so happy – but alas! Once again my happiness was cut short by Inger’s untimely death.”
“Remind me again how she died?” Roy mumbled through a mouthful of Black Bun, left over from New Year.
Hoss felt the tears trickle down his face. “She was shot by Indians.”
Ben felt he should explain. “Inger was a statuesque lady and kind of hard to miss. Luckily, Hoss, Adam and I were unhurt.”
“Very convenient!” Roy commented acerbically.
Ben eyed Roy askance, but decided not to push it. He wondered what this sudden interest was that Roy had in his late wives. Surely he’d heard the stories before. However, Ben realised that he hadn’t given the Giggly Sisters his history, and thought it would be a kindness to tell them, even though they seemed to know quite a bit about his wives.
“And then there was Joe’s darling mother, Marie,” Ben said, quite forgetting his chorus.
“My Love,” they all chimed in, grinning at one another. Ben glared at them.
Joe nudged the redhead. “This is where he tells me how like her I am,” he whispered.
“You’re so like your mother, Joe,” Ben said, dreamily. “She was like having spring in the house the whole year round.”
The blonde rolled her eyes. What did he mean by that? Was she cold and wet all the time? Fresh and bright? What?
“I remember your mother, too, Joe,” Roy said, in his creaky way. “I even remember when you were born.” He shook his head, and flakes of dust fell from his hat. Well, Roy wasn’t very animated.
“She was French,” Joe added helpfully. He’d always felt that this fact gave him a certain dash and élan. After all, everyone knew the French were stylish, and debonair and generally full of joie de vivre. He liked to think he’d inherited a certain amount of continental elegance and always insisted that his jackets were cut high and tight, to display his perfect physique to its best advantage. Was it possible to inherit dress sense, as well as charm, great hair and devastating good looks?
Pondering this theory, he looked across at Adam, who was certainly the model of New England reticence in his sober outfit of black. After a brief flirtation with a red shirt, Adam had plumped for this inconspicuous attire, only venturing into a contrasting white shirt for very special occasions. There was something a little sinister about Adam’s monochrome clothes and a shiver ran down Joe’s spine as he recalled tales of the famous Salem witches, but he told himself not to be so silly. After all, his eldest brother still indulged his frivolous side in his gaily coloured pyjamas.
Joe turned and looked at Hoss, who really didn’t overly concern himself with clothes, as long as they were practical and hardwearing. He only seemed to have a couple of jackets, both of which were brown and made of a rather hairy fabric. Both were very warm and Joe wondered if this was yet another example of genetic inheritance. From what he remembered of Miss Abigail’s geography lessons, Sweden was a rather chilly country. It had been obvious from his first appearance that Hoss’ Uncle Gunnar was the family rebel, as he had sported an incredibly vivid red silk shirt.
The redhead smiled gently at Ben. “I’ve been wondering about something – Joe talks about living in New Orleans when he was little, but it’s never really mentioned. How long did you stay there for?”
It had to be said; Ben really didn’t like the redhead. She was the one who asked the awkward questions, and he was sure she was the one who was leading Joe astray. Besides, he didn’t know the answer to the question. He’d often wondered why, in The Storm, it had been implied that they had lived in New Orleans, for he couldn’t remember doing so at all.
“Not long,” he prevaricated. “Not long at all.” He looked round, hoping someone would prompt him, or at least change the subject.
The blonde sort of obliged. “Why didn’t you mention Clay’s father to him when he was here?” she asked. “Since Jean was a good friend of yours, and had saved your life, I’d have thought that would be the first thing you’d say.”
“I was shocked by Clay’s appearance,” Ben answered.
“Weren’t we all?” Adam inserted, dryly. The Cartwrights were, to a man, clean-shaven, so it was somewhat disconcerting when the moustachioed Clay Stafford had appeared in their midst.
“And who on earth was that female in the photo you gave to Clay?” the redhead demanded. She was nursing Paw, who had fallen asleep on her lap, with all four paws in the air. He looked so cute. “She didn’t look anything like Marie, although she was better than the picture in House Divided.”
“I wondered that too,” Joe agreed, and they all looked at Ben for an answer. Roy pricked up his ears. Could this be another woman Ben had done away with?
Ben looked rather shamefaced. Marie had been a lovely woman and her picture was always slightly to the forefront on his desk. That is, on the occasions it was on the desk, for like so many other things the pictures tended to appear and disappear with alarming regularity. It almost made the viewers dizzy at times.
“I gave you that picture when you were a child, remember?” Joe nodded. “Well, I was afraid you’d lose it, so I, well, there just happened to be this old picture of Cousin Clarissa’s dear mother lying around, so I popped that into the frame instead.”
Joe’s eyes nearly popped out of his head with shock. “I’ve been cherishing a picture of Great Aunt Agnes?” he exclaimed in disbelief. Ben put a consoling hand on Joe’s knee and patted it gently. He was a little taken aback to realise that his youngest son had failed to realise that neither of those pictures bore the slightest resemblance to the one in the gold frame that sat on Ben’s desk, or indeed to his dear Mama.
Roy leaned back and then clutched his back in agony. He’d quite forgotten just how uncomfortable the sofa was. “Ben, you’ve known joy three times and sorrow three times. It’s just plain tragic.”
The redhead kept thinking of the immortal words of Oscar Wilde and was tempted to comment, “to loose three wives looks like carelessness”, but she decided it wasn’t really appropriate. Mainly because the playwright wouldn’t actually write The Importance of Being Earnest for another 30 years, but also because she could see that Ben was rather upset by the whole conversation.
In point of fact, Ben was looking at his three sons and seeing the qualities of their dear mothers reflected back at him. Elizabeth, Inger and Marie lived on in his three sons and no other woman could ever enter his heart in quite the same way. He sometimes fretted over the fact that none of the boys seemed inclined to settle down and it was indeed tragic the way so many young ladies met tragic ends or simply disappeared once the closing credits ran.
Perhaps there was some merit in the theory of the Curse of the Cartwrights after all? Ben looked across at the Giggly Sisters, who were draped attractively over Joe and wondered why they seemed to immune to the phenomenon. Roy leaned over and whispered confidentially, “I hear they’ve got a new delivery of blue dresses in the Mercantile!”
Ben’s eyes sparkled with mischief and delight. Perhaps another trip into town was called for?