Summary: A Bonanza adaptation of the Frank Capra film. Ben Cartwright is facing a Christmas so bleak that he finds himself wishing he’d never been born. Enter one slightly unusual guardian angel with the offer to let him see what the world would have been like without him.
Word Count: 19,400
Ben Cartwright had never seen a bleaker Christmas Eve. Oh, there had been barer ones, certainly, especially in the early years. When he and his young son Adam, with infant Hoss in tow, had first settled this land, Christmas treasures had been sparse, but through the years the Ponderosa had prospered, and by the time the youngest boy Joseph came along, none of the Christmases could rightly be called bare. This Christmas was no exception in that regard: gifts aplenty would be piled beneath the majestic evergreen set in the alcove by the stairs—if they got around to setting one up, that is. What did a Christmas rich in gifts mean, though, when there would be no one to open them, when in place of the love they had shared was only silence and regret? Only guilt and one tormenting thought: it’s all my fault.
It had been a year fraught with problems, many of them weather-related. Spring floods had not only done damage to anything in their path, but had swept through so persistently that the grass had been slow to sprout. Ben and his boys had been forced to purchase hay from California to feed the cattle ‘til the pastures were ready for grazing and would face the same problem throughout the winter, since the shortened growing season also meant a meager hay harvest that autumn.
As if that weren’t enough, winter had come early, blanketing even the lower fields with deeper-than-usual snow. The Cartwrights had, of necessity, let their timber crews take an early hiatus, and the decreased production meant that they’d been unable to bid for a couple of contracts with the local mines that Ben had been counting on to make up for losses elsewhere. To add to the punch below the profit line, they’d lost substantially more cattle to winter kill than usual, and while the horse-raising side of the ranch had produced a modest profit, the Ponderosa had also been underbid for a large contract to supply army remounts.
The ranch was in no danger of going under. Profits from previous years had been sizeable enough to support the Cartwrights through one lean year. Still, it rankled Ben’s frugal New England soul to see the negative balance in the ledger books, rankled him enough that he determined to find some way to turn a profit, no matter how many barriers Nature or Circumstance threw in his way. Evenings normally spent in companionable games of checkers or chess revolved, instead, around endless discussions of how to boost that balance back to where Ben thought it belonged. Hoss and Little Joe, and even Adam, who normally relished a mental challenge, were thoroughly sick of the subject their father rehashed with them every night.
Then the McCauber mine fell into their laps. Amos McCauber had showed up at the Ponderosa on the evening of December 18th. “I’m pullin’ up stakes,” he told the Cartwrights plainly, “but I don’t want to leave owin’ any man, so I’m offerin’ this in payment of my debt to you, Ben.”
Ben ignored the roll of paper in the old miner’s gnarled hand. “Don’t want to lose you as a neighbor, Amos. We haven’t had a good year ourselves, but if you need help—”
Amos shook his head with determination. “I don’t. Taken help from you many a time before and ain’t too proud to do it again, but it ain’t money I need. I’ve just reached the point in life where I want a chair by the fire and my grandkids in my lap. My son Marty, over to California, is offerin’ me both, and I aim to take him up on it. Only sorry I took so long to make up my mind. Stagecoach ride sure can be miserable this time of year.” He again extended the deed to Ben. “Wish I had hard cash to pay my debt, but this ain’t no dry hole I’m givin’ you. I’ve seen good color of late. May even be close to hittin’ a bonanza, but this cold spell’s been hard on my creaky old joints and I’m lookin’ to settle in a warmer clime. Like to get to Marty’s place soon as I can, spend Christmas with those grandkids, so I’m hopin’ you’ll take this and call us square.”
Ben smiled as he took the roll of paper. “We’re square, Amos,” he said. “Still hate to lose a good neighbor, but I can understand a man wanting to hold his grandchildren in his lap—not that it seems I’ll ever have that pleasure myself.” He cast a significant glance at his three bachelor sons, who made a point of looking anywhere except back at their father. “Anything we can do to help you pack up?” Ben asked Amos.
“Ain’t takin’ much with me,” Amos replied. “Anything I leave behind in that ole shack, you and the boys are welcome to.” He stayed long enough to drink two cups of hot coffee before heading back into the cold.
Sitting in his oxblood leather armchair after the old man had left, Ben tapped the rolled deed into the palm of his left hand. “I wonder,” he mused.
Adam glanced up from the book he’d been trying, in vain, to read for the last several nights. “Hmm?”
Ben waved the deed toward his oldest son. “I wonder if this just might be the answer we’ve been looking for.”
Hoss, returning from the kitchen after taking in the tray of used coffee cups, scrunched up his nose. “A mine? Pa, you can tell by lookin’ at ole Amos that he ain’t done much more than eke out a livin’ with that mine. Some years, not even that. That’s why he owed you money, ain’t it?” He settled next to Little Joe on the settee.
“I know, but Amos did say he’d seen good color recently, perhaps bonanza color,” Ben argued.
“I don’t like mines,” Little Joe put in, mouth skewing sideways in distaste.
“You’re not overly fond of any kind of work—except horse breaking,” Adam said.
“I do my share!” Joe snapped.
“You do,” Adam agreed readily, “but whether you like a particular type of work or not is hardly germane to the question. What matters, at this stage at least, is whether or not it would be profitable to work the mine.”
“Reckon so,” Hoss admitted reluctantly. “I don’t like workin’ below ground any more than Joe does, but if you and Pa think it’s what we need to do, then that’s what we’ll do—and no complainin’, Shortshanks.”
“Do you think it’s what we need to do?” Joe asked, looking from his father to his eldest brother.
Adam pursed his lips and then slowly nodded. “We need to do something. Working a mine wouldn’t be my first choice, either, but I think it’s worth looking into. We’ll ride up there tomorrow morning, take some samples and see how they assay out. Then we can decide whether the mine will produce enough to merit our efforts.”
“Good.” Ben stood and stretched. “I have a good feeling about this, boys, and I’m glad you’re all behind me.”
Little Joe flicked a sharp glance at Hoss, who shrugged his broad shoulders. Adam noted the skepticism on his brothers’ faces and realized, somewhat ruefully, that he was the only one actually behind Pa in this venture—and even he had his doubts. Pa, however, seemed to view the acquisition of the mine as a gift from heaven, the certain sure cure for all their financial woes and was so blind to any other interpretation that he had barely noticed the conflicting opinions of his younger sons.
The assay report was inconclusive. It revealed a trace of gold and a stronger presence of silver, but not at the levels Ben had hoped for, to give him a quick profit.
“It all depends on how deep the vein goes, whether it widens out or pinches off,” Adam explained after interpreting the report for the rest of his family.
“And there’s no way to know that,” Joe said.
Adam shook his head. “Not without further exploration.”
Ben took a meditative puff on his pipe. “Then we explore further,” he stated.
Little Joe sighed audibly, stifling the sound as his father’s glare fell upon him.
“How much further?” Hoss asked, his distaste for the task plain on his open face.
Adam shrugged. “I don’t know, but that really isn’t the point.” He dropped his hands between his legs and leaned forward, facing his father across the low wooden table before the fireplace. “Pa, a lot of the shoring in that mine is old, some of it rotted. It won’t be safe to work until that’s replaced.”
Ben set the pipe aside. “We’re not going to incur that kind of expense unless we decide definitely to work the mine, especially not with our timber crew already released for the season.”
“I agree. We shouldn’t.”
Little Joe looked up, his expression hopeful for the first time in days. “So we’re gonna let it pass?”
Silence ensued, long and uncomfortable. Joe squirmed as his father stared at him for endless moments and then spoke with a menacingly quiet tone. “Are you not listening, Joseph? I said we’re going to explore further.”
“But, Pa,” Hoss inserted, “if it ain’t safe . . .”
“We’ll just dig in a little further,” Ben explained, “maybe another ten feet. That should give us an idea of whether the vein is worth pursuing. If it is, then we’ll shore it up properly and proceed.”
Adam drew a long breath. “Pa . . . I’m not sure we should.”
“I know we shouldn’t,” Joe declared.
Ben rounded on the boy. “I have heard just about enough out of you, Joseph. You have not had one positive word to say about this project since it came our way.” When he saw that his youngest had been effectively cowed, he turned a hard glance next on his eldest. “You surprise me, however, young man. I thought I could count on you to understand the importance of turning this situation around.”
“I do understand,” Adam said tersely. “I just think there are other concerns even more important. Like lives.” He practically bit out the final two words.
“We’ll be careful, of course,” Ben said. Failing to see the support he hoped for, he squared his shoulders. “Well, if you little boys are afraid, then I’ll make the exploration on my own.”
“Pa!” Hoss protested. “We can’t let you do that.”
“You ain’t gonna do that,” Little Joe insisted adamantly, jumping to his feet. “I don’t like workin’ in a mine, but at least I can.”
“Oh, you don’t think the old man’s up to a day’s work in a mine, is that it, young man?” Ben arched an eyebrow in the direction of his youngest son.
This time, with his father’s safety at stake, Little Joe refused to be cowed. “I think the old man can’t run as fast as a young one . . . if it comes to that.” He folded his arms across his chest and stared unblinking at his father.
“He’s right,” Adam said quietly. “I don’t like this idea, Pa, but if it’s going to be done, we’ll be the ones doing it, not you. No argument.”
A smile quirked at Ben’s lips as he heard words more often used by father to son, rather than the opposite direction. “All right,” he agreed. “I’ll give in to you young whippersnappers on this, and you’ll soon see that while the old man may not run as fast as the young ones, he just might see more clearly, more boldly.”
“Maybe,” Adam conceded with a half smile of his own. “I hope so, Pa.”
“Me, too,” Hoss agreed.
“Yeah,” Joe muttered, like his brothers fearing to say what he really thought, that the hope was a slim one.
All my fault, all my fault . . . Gasping for breath, Ben staggered toward daylight, only to collapse in the arms of another silver-haired man at the entrance to the old McCauber mine. He squinted in the mid-afternoon sunlight and made out the features of the family doctor. “You still here?”
“Not still . . . again,” Paul Martin said brusquely. “You’re the only one ‘still’ here, Ben, the only one who refuses to take a minute’s rest.”
Ben struggled to stand erect. “They’re my sons. Would you leave if they were yours?”
“No,” the doctor admitted, “but it’s been two days, Ben. You can’t keep going without a break. Now, you come with me.”
Ben shook his head. “No, no, not while there’s still a chance.” He turned agonized eyes to his old friend. “There is still a chance, isn’t there? They can survive two days?”
“Yes, there’s a chance,” Paul responded almost perfunctorily, knowing that each passing hour lessened the chance of the three Cartwright sons surviving the cave-in, knowing also that there was an even fainter chance that Ben would survive the deaths of all three. Not when he held himself to blame for what had happened. “You come over here and at least take a breather, Ben,” he ordered. “You’re going to fall over if you don’t.”
Having gone without nourishment and sleep for nearly forty-eight hours, Ben was almost trembling with weakness as the doctor led him to the shade of a nearby tree. “Well, maybe a few minutes,” he conceded as he sank wearily to the ground, “if the others keep working.”
“They will,” Dr. Martin assured him, “and you need to take more than a few minutes, Ben. Half an hour, at least, or so help me, I’ll get some of these men to hold you down while I shoot a sedative into you that’s guaranteed to put you out for hours.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Ben sputtered, his objection feeble despite the energizing anger that surged through him.
“I would,” the doctor stated firmly, “rather than see you kill yourself. It won’t help them, Ben.”
Nothing will. It was the thought Ben had been avoiding for hours, perhaps even days, perhaps from the first moment he’d learned of the cave-in. The wall of rock between him and his boys seemed impenetrably thick, and as far as he knew, there was no other way in—or out. Two days now—a long time to survive without food or water or fresh air, even if they hadn’t been hurt in the collapse . . . and if they had? Ben buried his face in his hands as thunder claps of recrimination reverberated through his aching heart. My fault, all my fault. Should have listened, shouldn’t have forced them to go my way. None of them wanted to do this; all of them just did it to keep me from the risk. Good boys, such fine boys. Deserved a better father. Instead, they get one who leads them to their deaths . . . just as I did their mothers long ago. Better for all of them if I’d never come into their lives.
“Don’t say that.”
Ben looked up and saw a short Chinese man dressed in loose blue shirt and pantaloons. “Hop Sing? I’m sorry; I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud.”
“You didn’t,” said the man, “and I’m not Hop Sing. He’s back at the house, making sandwiches for the workers.”
“You’re . . . not Hop Sing? Oh, one of his cousins, I suppose. You’re as like as—”
“Not a cousin. No relation. Not even Chinese, except for this assignment.” The man shrugged. “Just a new theory we’re testing, to see if those we serve respond more readily to a familiar face.” He bowed awkwardly from the waist, as if not accustomed to the gesture by culture.
Ben blinked. Definitely not Hop Sing, however much he looked like the family cook. Hop Sing had never constructed a sentence in such flawless English. “Who are you and what do you want?” he asked, frown lines wrinkling his careworn brow.
The apparent Chinaman beamed broadly. “You may call me Sam Sung, AS2.”
The frown lines deepened. “AS2? What’s that?”
The Oriental’s proud smile widened. “Angel Second Class,” he amplified, “and I am here to help you through this hour of need.”
“Then grab a shovel and go to work,” Ben said gruffly.
The other man shook his head from side to side in a manner reminiscent of Hop Sing. “No, not that kind of help,” Sam Sung insisted. “I come to offer spiritual help, guidance, encouragement. I am your guardian angel, Mr. Ben.” He struck what he assumed to be an angelic pose and awaited the awestruck response celestial visitors were supposed to inspire.
Ben rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised; you look about like the kind of guardian angel I’d get! Sort of been sitting down on the job, haven’t you? But then I guess you can’t do much flying without wings.”
Folding his arms, Sam Sung scowled, for his wingless state was a sore point. “That attitude only reveals how much in need of guidance you are! No wonder the heavens are being bombarded on your behalf this night, such a gloom-monger you are. I have been dispatched by heaven to help you, and if I can, I stand a good chance of earning my wings. So how about it? Can we work together here?”
Ben clambered to his feet. “Look, little man, I’m in the middle of a crisis.”
“I know,” Sam Sung intoned soberly, his visage softening, “a more critical one than you realize. It is your soul at stake this night, Mr. Ben.”
Ben raised his voice. “I’m supposed to be resting, but if you’re going to pester the life out of me, I’d be better off going back to work. My sons need me.” If they’re still alive. He started toward the mine entrance, but halted when the Chinaman firmly grabbed his arm. “You’ve got a surprisingly strong grip for an angel,” Ben grunted. “Let me go.”
“Not ‘til I am certain your thinking is more clear.” With irresistible force he propelled Ben into the surrounding forest of snow-flocked pines. “Better here, I think, away from that which worries you into thinking yourself to blame for all the ills of the world.”
“Not all the world,” Ben muttered. Just my world, their world.
“Their world? Do you speak of your sons this time or your wives again?” the Chinaman queried.
Ben’s brown eyes flared wide. “I know I didn’t speak aloud that time!”
“I read your thoughts in your eyes. You blame yourself for the possible deaths of your sons, just as you have always blamed yourself for the deaths of their mothers.” Sam Sung reached up to lay a compassionate hand on the rancher’s broad shoulder. “It is not so, Mr. Ben; it never was.”
Ben twisted away from the comforting touch. Moving a little further into the forest, he turned, glaring over his shoulder. “No? Elizabeth died bearing the child I gave her; Inger would never have encountered Indians if she hadn’t come west with me; Marie would never have fallen if I hadn’t given her that horse. And now their sons—the precious boys they gave to me—lie gasping for the breath of life, and once again because of my decision—my foolish, self-centered decision.” He leaned his head into massive trunk of the ponderosa pine rising above him. “They’d have all been better off without me in their lives. I wish I’d never been born!”
“Don’t”—Sam Sung hesitated and stood stroking his hairless chin. “Ah, so . . . perhaps . . . yes, that might do it.” He stood as tall as the diminutive form he had assumed for this assignment permitted. “All right, Mr. Ben, you have your wish: you’ve never been born.” Directly above their heads, a large limb broke under its weight of ice and snow and plummeted down. Sam Sung pulled Ben out of the way and stared skyward, arms akimbo. “Well, you don’t have to make all that fuss about it!” he declared. “I think this just might work!”
“Work is exactly what I need to be doing,” Ben sputtered as he brushed blobs of snow from his shoulders. “Working at getting my sons out of that”—tomb, he thought, but refused to voice the thought aloud. Not that his silence seemed to preserve his privacy with this small man . . . angel . . . whatever . . . that trailed him back to the mine.
Ben came out from the trees and stared. For a moment he thought he must have lost his way in the trees, ridiculous as that notion was in a forest he knew so well, but the scene looked different, somehow. Amos McCauber’s old home was still in the same location . . . or at least, some structure was. It wasn’t a shack now, though, but a solid log building, at least twice the size of that tumbledown place. The mine entrance was just where it had been, too, but something didn’t look right. Then it hit Ben forcefully. There were no men in sight, no sounds of digging echoing down the tunnel. “They’ve all left!” he cried and began running toward the mine.
“No, Mr. Ben, you don’t understand,” Sam Sung called, plunging after the frantic father. “There is no one there!”
“I can see that!” Ben shouted. “My friends have all deserted me, but I won’t desert my sons. I’ll get them out if I have to dig them out alone with my bare hands!”
“They’re not there, either!” Sam Sung hollered back.
The loud voices roused someone in the cabin, and a burly, balding man appeared at the front door. “Who goes there?” he demanded. Seeing the small Chinaman headed for the entrance of his mine, he gave chase. “Hey, you there, yeller. What you think you’re doin’?”
Sam Sung spun around. “Mr. Ben go in mine,” he explained, pointing at the entrance. “I try stop him, that all. Sam Sung no want trouble with white man.”
“Well, you’re gonna get trouble—and that man in there, too.” The man strode past Sam Sung with determination. “Hey, you!” he called when he caught sight of the second trespasser.
Ben had come to an abrupt halt, for the differences outside the mine were nothing, compared to the changes within it. Wide tunnels stretched in all directions, all shored solidly with the square sets developed by Philip Deidesheimer for the mines in Virginia City . . . and there was no wall of rock. It didn’t look like the same mine . . . and yet it had to be. At the sound of another voice, he spun around and grasped the man by the shoulders. “Did—did you clear the cave-in? Is that why everyone’s gone?”
The other man frowned in befuddlement. “Cave-in? There’s no cave-in here, nor likely to be.” He slapped one of the uprights. “Solid,” he alleged.
“There’s no . . .” Ben babbled, trying to make sense of sights that made no sense. “Then . . . then where are my sons?”
“Sons? There’s more of you trespassing in here?” the miner demanded. “Christmas Eve’s a strange time to take up claim jumpin’, ain’t it?”
“Claim jumping?” Ben sputtered. “What are you talking about? This is the old McCauber mine, isn’t it?”
The man stroked his stubbly chin. “Well, it was.”
“Yes, yes,” Ben rushed to say. “It was ‘til he left it to me and I foolishly sent my sons in to explore and then it caved in—”
“There ain’t been no cave-in!” the man bellowed. “And this is my mine. Picked it up for back taxes after old man McCauber died.”
Shaken, Ben stumbled backward into another tall upright support. “Amos McCauber . . . dead?”
“Five years ago.”
Ben’s jaw hardened as he reared forward. “Now I know you’re lying. I spoke with Amos within the week, when he gave me the deed to this mine . . . though I wish I’d never seen it.”
The mine owner tightened his fists. “This is my mine, mister, and I’m askin’ you to leave quiet-like. I’ll only ask once, though, and if you don’t, I’ll throw you out on your head. Don’t want to do that, ‘cause ‘pears to me that head of yours is cracked already.”
“You velly smart man,” Sam Sung said, scurrying to Ben’s side and hooking his elbow. “You leave poor cracked Mr. Ben to Sam Sung, all light?” He started to pull Ben from the mine.
“Wait,” Ben protested. “My sons.”
“Where are they?” the mine owner demanded. “I want the whole kit and caboodle of you out of here—now!”
“No sons,” Sam Sung replied, tapping his index finger to his forehead.
“Oh,” the man said, his anger deflating. “Look, just get this loon off my property, will you, yeller?”
“Light away, Mr. Boss Man. Get him out chop-chop.” Sam Sung, again displaying surprising strength, yanked Ben away from the other man and out of the mine.
“What is the matter with you?” Ben cried. “I have to help my sons.”
“Mr. Ben, you have no sons,” Sam Sung said as he continued to drag the tall rancher away from the former McCauber property.
Ben jerked to a stop. “I have . . . no sons?” he croaked. “You mean they’re . . . gone?”
Sam Sung shook his head. “Not gone . . . not dead, Mr. Ben . . . never born.”
“Never born?” Ben looked thoroughly perplexed.
“You wished you were never born,” Sam Sung explained. “I gave you your wish. But a man who has not been born cannot have sons.”
Ire replaced Ben’s perplexity. “That is ridiculous—as, I might add, was your performance back at the mine. Sort of lost your grip on English all of a sudden, didn’t you?”
Sam Sung smiled with self-satisfaction. “Pretty fast thinking, hmm? Have to fit in with the locals, you know, and they expect pidgin English from the Chinese.”
“Well, maybe they wouldn’t expect it from Chinese angels,” Ben grunted.
The smile faded from the Oriental face. “That had better be our little secret, I think. If you tell anyone I’m an angel, they really will think you’re crazy.”
“I don’t care what anyone thinks,” Ben snorted, “as long as I find my sons.” His eyebrows came together. “They weren’t in the mine. Maybe they’ve been rescued . . . maybe they’re home.” His brown eyes brightened.
“Mr. Ben,” Sam Sung restated patiently, “you have no sons.”
“Bah!” Ben stood still, looking in all directions. “Where’s my horse?”
Sam Sung sighed. “You have no horse.”
Ben grabbed him by the front of his blue tunic. “What have you done with my horse?”
“You have no—” The rancher’s grip tightened, but the little angel vanished out of his hands, reappearing a few steps away.
Ben stared at his empty hands and then across the snow at the image of Hop Sing. “How did you do that?”
“By the grace of God,” Sam Sung said with an inscrutable smile. Seeing the rancher’s gaze harden, he added, “All right, all right. Heaven’s gone along so far. Maybe they’ll extend us the added grace of a couple of horses.” His left hand swept toward the trees.
Ben looked that way and saw two horses, saddled and waiting. “Buck and Sport,” he muttered. “What have you done with Chubby and Cochise?”
“Nothing. Oh, and these horses won’t answer to Buck and Sport, either. Those were names given by Ben and Adam Cartwright, neither of whom exists.” Sam Sung patted the buckskin. “This one is Dunny.” He swung into the saddle of the tall roan. “And this is Big Red. Now, where is it you wanted to go?”
“Home,” Ben said as he mounted the remaining horse. “The Ponderosa.”
“Mr. Ben,” the angel said with a sad shake of his unhaloed head, “there is no Ponderosa.”
Having had enough of angelic nonsense, Ben turned the buckskin toward home. He knew where the Ponderosa was, and no angel or man or figment of his imagination was going to keep him from going there and hopefully finding his sons, safe and sound. As he rode, however, he noted a change in the landscape. Where before regal pines had swept up and down the snowy slopes, now barren stumps dotted a water-gutted hillside. Ben stopped, stood tall in his stirrups and gazed at the devastation surrounding him on all sides. The halt gave Sam Sung time to catch up, and Ben rounded on him as soon as the Chinaman reached his side. “What have you done to my land?” he demanded.
Sam Sung, too, gazed with sorrow on the ravaged environment. “It isn’t your land, Mr. Ben. That’s the problem. You were never born, so this land was settled by men who didn’t give your care to it, men like Mr. Potter back at the mine, who care more for profit than conservation. They destroyed the watershed, cutting timber for that mine and others.”
Ben swallowed hard, still not quite believing the explanation, but having no other for the evidence of his own eyes. “The house?” he asked.
Sam Sung shook his head. “Never built. The land there looks just like this.”
Ben slumped in the saddle. “And Amos McCauber? He’s dead, like that man Potter said?”
Sam Sung nodded. “He died five years ago. That was the first time you bailed him out of his financial troubles, remember?”
“I remember,” Ben said.
“But you weren’t there to do it and no one else would. He tried to get across the mountains to his son, but froze to death in an unpredicted blizzard.” Sam Sung blinked back a tear, for heaven took note of all needless deaths.
Ben shook himself. “No. I can’t accept that. Amos is safe in California with his son, and I still need to find mine. Maybe they took them to Virginia City . . . there is still a Virginia City, isn’t there?”
Sam Sung shrugged. “Of course. You had nothing to do with its settlement, but you won’t find the boys there, Ben. They don’t exist.”
“They do!” Ben shouted and took off at a gallop, quickly leaving Sam Sung behind.
Virginia City was in festive swing as Ben rode into town. Evergreen garlands, decked with red ribbons, hung looped from all the second-story balconies; candlelit boughs, drooping with tinsel, glimmered behind frosted windows of private homes; a merry tintinnabulation trickled through the batwing doors of a hundred saloons, where men without families celebrated the season with one another. Ben rode past them all, tying up his horse in front of the sheriff’s office. He burst through the door, crying, “Roy, you’ve got to help me!”
The grizzled sheriff of Storey County rose to his feet. “What’s the trouble, mister?”
Seeing no sign of recognition in the eyes of one of his oldest friends, Ben felt his jaw drop open. “Roy, it’s me—Ben Cartwright.”
Roy Coffee shook his head. “Don’t recollect the name, but the way this place is growin’, that don’t surprise me none. Now, you said you needed help? That’s my job, but you got to tell me what the trouble is.”
“You know the trouble,” Ben scolded, “well, most of it. You know about the cave-in at the old McCauber mine, my sons being trapped inside.”
Alarm flared in the lawman’s eyes, and he reached for his hat, ready to respond to the community crisis. The old McCauber mine wasn’t exactly in his jurisdiction, but Roy Coffee always figured that any place where human life was in danger was his civic responsibility. “Hadn’t heard a word of it. You work for Potter, do you? He sent you with this message?”
“No,” Ben growled.
“Your boys work for Potter?”
“No, they work with me—on our ranch.” He stopped short of naming the ranch. On that point, at least, Sam Sung appeared to have been right: the Ponderosa was no more. That didn’t matter now, though; his sons did.
The sheriff slowly dropped his hat back onto its peg and turned to eye the stranger with suspicion. This report bore investigation before he ran off and left his town undefended. “Then how do you know there’s been a cave-in?”
Ben took a deep breath. “I was there,” he said, determining to stick to simple facts, “and my three sons were trapped inside. Now the cave-in’s been cleared, the mine shored up like it never happened, but my boys are missing.”
“They didn’t find their bodies?” Coffee asked, his sympathy aroused.
“No. I—I hope they’re still alive.”
Roy nodded. He had no children of his own, but easily identified with this distraught father. Of course, the man hoped his sons were still alive. “Are you sure they were in that mine?” he asked.
“Positive!” Ben cried.
“And they didn’t come out—alive or dead?”
“That’s right, and I want you to help me find them.”
“Easy now, easy, mister,” the sheriff soothed. “Let me take down a description. Three boys, you say?”
“Yes,” Ben replied tersely. “Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. You must remember them, Roy.”
“No more than I do you, mister, for all you keep callin’ me by my first name.” The sheriff took out a pencil and paper and sat at his desk. “Three boys. Cartwright, you said the name was?”
Ben took a deep breath. “Yes, Cartwright. For the love of mercy, you’ve known me for years and the boys practically all their lives!”
That remark brought a peculiar look to the sheriff’s eye, but he just wrote down the first name. “Okay, let’s have a description, starting with Adam.”
A dreamy look came over Ben Cartwright’s face. “Adam—he’s the oldest, soon be thirty. Tall, dark hair and hazel eyes, high forehead. Dressed in black shirt and pants. Highly intelligent, a college graduate, studied architecture back East. A bit aloof at times, but a better friend no man could find, dependable no matter what the—”
“Mister, that’s a mite more information than I need,” the sheriff interrupted to say. “Your second boy—Hoss, you said? Unusual name.”
“For an unusual boy,” Ben returned with a fond smile. “Built big as the mountains with a heart larger still, brings home every stray man or beast in the territory and can’t turn his back on any living soul in need.”
Coffee sighed. “Mister, what I need is a physical description. Think you could be a trifle more specific than just ‘big’?”
Ben shook himself. “I’m sorry. Adam is over six feet tall and Hoss taller yet, and he’s a big man in every other dimension, as well. He has straight, sandy hair and eyes as blue as Lake Tahoe. He was wearing brown pants, a light shirt and a leather vest when he went in the mine.”
“All right, that’s better, and the third boy—the youngest, I take it?”
Ben nodded. “Youngest and smallest. Joseph—his friends call him Little Joe—comes to about Hoss’s shoulder, curly hair, bright green eyes that twinkle with mischief, always laughing and smiling, smart as a whip, a bit of a trouble magnet, but a magnetic personality in all the right ways, too. Handsome enough to turn the eye of every woman within view and—”
“Mister,” the sheriff protested.
“I know, I know, too much information,” Ben said, rubbing his aching temple. “It’s just that I miss them so. It’s been two days now, and I’ve been half out of my mind with worry, and—”
“Two days!” Roy Coffee threw down the pencil. “If this cave-in happened two days ago, I’d’ve been told long before now. Two days is long enough for it to show up on the front page of the Enterprise, if it happened! Sounds to me like your youngest came by his penchant for mischief honestly if his old man can spin a wild tale like this—and on Christmas Eve, too! You oughta be ashamed of yourself. Now, get out of my office before you find yourself behind bars for the holiday.”
“This is no wild tale,” Ben protested. “I need your help—to find my sons.”
The sheriff bounded to his feet and pointed toward the door. “Out!”
“It’s your sworn duty to help citizens at times like this!” Ben emphasized his point by pounding his fist on the sheriff’s desk. Then he pointed a long finger in the sheriff’s face. “See if I serve as your campaign manager next year, you miserable excuse for a lawman!”
“That does it,” Roy Coffee growled ominously. He came from behind the desk, but before he could throw his irate visitor out bodily, the door creaked open timidly and a small figure in padded blue cotton shuffled in on soft slippers.
“Excuse, please,” Sam Sung said deferentially, again throwing himself into the role of nineteenth-century Chinese emigrant.
“What do you want, boy?” the sheriff demanded. “I hope you ain’t come to lay more troubles on my doorstep, ‘cause I got me a situation here.”
“Oh, no, honorable sheriff,” the Chinaman assured him, bowing subserviently from the waist. “Sam Sung no bring trouble; he take situation off your hands. Velly good, yes?” He bowed again, this time to the red-faced rancher. “Please to come with me, Mr. Ben.”
“You know this fellow?” Roy inquired, jerking a thumb over his shoulder in Ben’s direction.
“Oh, know him velly well,” Sam Sung proclaimed. “He no make mo’ trouble for honorable sheriff, Sam Sung promise. I take him home.”
“I don’t have a home, remember?” Ben sputtered. “The Ponderosa is no more.”
“Please, Mr. Ben,” the almond-eyed angel implored urgently. “Is best we leave—now.” He took Ben by the arm and headed toward the door.
Roy moved to block their path. “Nobody’s going anywhere ‘til I get me some answers.” Since the one calling himself Ben Cartwright wasn’t making much sense, the sheriff turned toward the Chinese man. “This fellow says there’s been a cave-in at the Potter mine. You know anything about that?”
“No cave-in. Mr. Ben just a little mixed up, is all.” Sam Sung tittered nervously.
Coffee folded his arms across his chest and eyed the pair with severity. “I guess he’s mixed up about having three sons trapped in there, too, huh?”
Almond skin blanching to pasty beige, Sam Sung gave a sick nod. “No sons there; no sons anywhere. He a little—”
“Mixed up,” the sheriff finished flatly.
“For the love of mercy, I am not mixed up,” Ben shouted, “though it’s a wonder, with this imposter switching from English proper enough to have come from my college-graduate son to this mangled up mess of good grammar and back again at the blink of an eye.”
The Chinaman sniffed loudly. “Sam Sung try best he can talk like good ‘Melican. Is hard when new to country.”
“You’re doin’ just fine,” the sheriff consoled. “Good as any Celestial I’ve ever met.”
Ben laughed wildly. “What you don’t realize, my fine badge-toting friend, is that you’re dealing with a whole different kind of celestial here.” He waved his hand toward the ceiling to indicate Sam Sung’s true origin and added, “He’s not even Chinese!”
Roy Coffee stared at the small man’s golden skin and slanted eyes. “He’s not? Then what is he?”
“No, Mr. Ben!” Sam Sung cried.
Ben laughed again. “He’s afraid you’ll think I’m crazy if I tell you where he’s really from.”
The sheriff slowly licked his lips. “Uh-huh. I was just thinkin’, mister, that it might be a good idea if we walked down and talked to this doctor friend of mine.”
“No,” Sam Sung moaned, hiding his face in his hands.
“Hush up, boy,” the sheriff hissed.
“Dr. Martin?” Ben asked. A smile spread across his face. “That’s good thinking, Roy. If the boys were hurt, they would have been taken to the doctor. Of course! That’s where they’ll be. Should have thought of that myself.”
“Well, you’ve been a little—uh—mixed up, haven’t you?” Roy asked, keeping his voice calm and soothing.
“Yes, yes. It’s been a most confusing night,” Ben admitted.
Roy nodded soberly. “Right. Maybe a little talk with the doc will clear things up.” He took his hat from the peg on the wall and put it on his head. “We’ll just walk down to his office together. My job to look into disappearances like this, you know.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Ben stated with unmasked irritation.
“Right, right. My sworn duty, like you said.” Roy Coffee turned a hard gaze on the Chinese man. “You comin’, boy?” It wasn’t really a question.
Eyes filled with misery, the celestial Celestial bobbed his head and followed the other two men. He had a dreadful premonition about what was about to transpire in the doctor’s office and would have preferred to skip the experience. Guardian angels were never accorded the luxury of jumping ship in the middle of an assignment, however, no matter how difficult their charges seemed determined to be.
Hands thrust into the wide sleeves of his tunic, Sam Sung skittered along behind the larger men, using them for a windbreak against the piercing gusts that blew icy pellets into their uncovered faces. He resolved at that moment to request that his next assignment be some frazzled soul in the Sandwich Islands, but as the sheriff opened the door to the doctor’s office and set the bell above it tinkling, a look of positive delight crossed the Oriental face. “Fantastic!” he cried. Then seeing the way Ben, Sheriff Coffee and Dr. Martin stared at him, he quickly rectified the out-of-character expression. “Uh—I mean, velly good, velly good.” He pointed at the bell above the door. “Ancient Chinese saying: every time bell ring, angel get wings.” He smiled broadly, proud once again of his quick thinking.
Roy Coffee cocked his head, staring at the Chinaman with suspicion. The other fellow had said there was more to the little man than met the eye, and Roy was beginning to think there just might be. “Didn’t know the Chinese went in much for angels,” he said. “Thought ancestor worship was more in your line.”
Sam Sung scrambled for a way out of the pickle he’d just talked himself into. “Oh, no, honorable sheriff. Not this Chinaboy. Sam Sung is velly good Baptist. He believe in angels.”
“Kind of easy when you are one, isn’t it?” Ben scoffed. “That has nothing to do with why we’re here, though. Paul, have you—”
“Hold on a minute,” the sheriff interrupted authoritatively. “You think this Celestial is an angel?”
“Yes, of course,” Ben snapped. “I told you he was a whole different kind of celestial, didn’t I?”
“Sure did,” Roy acknowledged with a knowing nod, “and I think it’s got a whole lot to do with why we’re here.” Turning toward the doctor, he tapped his index finger to his forehead two times.
Paul Martin cupped his chin, one finger stroking his cheek as he assessed the two unfamiliar faces before him. “I see,” he intoned slowly. “And do you think you’re an angel?” he asked the Chinese man.
“Hah! Get out of that one, if you can,” Ben snorted, planting his palms on his hips. “I assume Heaven frowns on outright lying.”
Sam Sung gulped. Heaven did frown on lying—outright or otherwise—but he couldn’t afford to tell the truth, either. Trying to make light of the idea, he looked first over his right shoulder and then his left. “Not see wings,” he chuckled a trifle edgily. “Angels have wings, yes?”
“Not ‘til they earn them!” Ben roared. “You don’t get yours ‘til you help me find my sons, remember?”
Sam Sung shook his head. Finding the sons was not his assignment; helping Ben Cartwright find himself was, and the emissary from heaven decided that assignment would be best served by keeping his mouth shut at this point.
Ben grabbed the doctor by the lapels of his white coat. “Paul—you know me, don’t you, Paul?”
Eyes grave with concern, Paul Martin shook his head. “No, I—”
Ben clutched the coat more frantically. “My sons—Adam, Hoss, Little Joe—Paul, you must remember Joseph, at least. You brought him into this world.”
“I don’t think so,” Dr. Martin said gently. “I think I’d know if I had.”
“This is why I brought this fellow here, Doc,” Roy explained. “Been ravin’ about these lost boys ever since he came to my office, but this other fellow—you know, the angel?” Roy winked. “He says there ain’t no sons, ain’t never been no sons.”
“I have sons!” Ben bellowed. “Three sons—or, at least, I did ‘til he came along and fixed it so I was never born.” He pointed an accusative finger at Sam Sung, who was cringing back against the wall. How on earth could he help Mr. Ben if the man persisted in sounding like a blithering idiot? All hope of earning his wings on this assignment was melting like the snow on the street outside.
“You were never born?” The doctor uttered each word as if it had been a separate sentence. “I see. Well, I think I have just the place for you, a place where you can find the help you need, sir.”
“Just what I was thinking,” Roy said, nodding his agreement, “but it’s gonna be kind of hard to get him all the way to Stockton.”
“Stockton!” Ben roared. “I’m not going to Stockton. Why would I . . .” Suddenly, he recognized the reference to the state mental facility in that California town. “You think I’m crazy.” He struck his head with open palm. “I admit I sound that way, but, no, I’m not. I don’t need to go to Stockton; I need to find my sons. If they’re not here, I need to look elsewhere.” He started toward the door, but Roy Coffee grabbed him on one side and Dr. Martin on the other. “Let me go!” Ben yelled, struggling to break free.
“Here now,” the doctor soothed. “Let us help you, my good man.”
Sam Sung came forward, hands folded together as if in prayer. “Please, honorable sirs, Mr. Ben only little mixed up. Please let Sam Sung take him home and he be all light.”
“I don’t have a home!” Ben cried. “People who weren’t born never build them, remember?”
“My home,” Sam Sung suggested quickly. “I take him my home. Safe there.”
“Your home? You mean heaven?” Ben shook his head. “I’m not ready for that! For now, the thousand square miles of my Ponderosa would be heaven enough for me, so long as my sons were there.”
“Thousand square miles?” Roy asked weakly. “You think you have a ranch of a thousand square miles? I sure never heard of it.”
“That’s because this second class excuse for an angel vanished it!” Ben shouted, pulling against the men holding him.
“You had a ranch of a thousand square miles, but . . . it . . . vanished.” Roy shook his head, apparently finding it hard to believe that even a raving maniac could come up with a story that wild.
“Because he was never born—don’t forget that part.” Paul looked past Ben to Roy. “Let’s get him into the examining room, and I’ll give him a shot of a strong sedative, so you can get him where he needs to be.”
“Not sure I can hold him by myself while you get that ready,” Roy warned. Ben was still struggling against his captors, and for a man who had never been born, he was putting up quite a fight.
Dr. Martin looked back at Sam Sung. “You there, can you help us?”
The Chinaman’s head bobbed frenetically up and down. Help. Yes, he absolutely had to help, though not quite in the way the doctor meant. Having his charge end up in an insane asylum would do absolutely nothing toward his acquisition of wings! He followed the trio into the examining room and took Ben’s arm when the doctor released it and moved across the room to prepare the syringe. Then Sam Sung also released Ben’s arm and, lowering his head, rammed Sheriff Coffee in the stomach, knocking him to the floor. “Run, Mr. Ben!” the angel cried, as he stretched a leg out to trip the doctor.
Ben needed no urging. He turned and barreled through the still-open door to the outer office. The door to the street was shut, but that barrier slowed him only a moment. Then he was free and running down the street before sheriff or doctor could disentangle themselves from the arms and legs Sam Sung flung recklessly to impede their pursuit.
Roy Coffee finally got upright and clasped tight hold on the Oriental. “All right,” he snarled. “Man or angel, you’re going down to my jail, and then I’m gonna track down that crazy man, if it takes ‘til Christmas morning! Come on.” He pulled the smaller man along roughly.
As soon as they reached the street, Sam Sung looked both directions. Mr. Ben was nowhere in sight. Good. He was safe, for the moment, but he was still in need of help. And Sam Sung could not render it from a jail cell! He sent an imploring glance toward heaven and spoke a one-word prayer. “Please?” The answer came swiftly, and to Roy Coffee’s amazement, his prisoner simply disappeared.
The slopes of Sun Mountain were sparsely covered with stunted piñon pine, much of it cut down to feed the fires of Virginia City. The scant vegetation offered little cover to Ben Cartwright as he fled, but the descending blanket of darkness aided his escape. He’d quickly concluded that his best hope of eluding Sheriff Coffee, whom he personally knew to be diligent in the pursuit of either lost boys or lawbreakers, lay in getting outside town—fast. He’d run hard ‘til he reached rough terrain and had finally collapsed, thoroughly winded, behind a man-sized boulder. Drawing his knees up, he laid his throbbing head on the arms folded across them. How had he gotten himself into a bind like this? All he’d done was give in to despair and make one silent wish that he’d never been born. Now no one recognized him and he was running for his life from men he’d counted friends, men he’d counted on for help. He might not be crazy, as Roy and Paul thought, but the world sure seemed to have turned that way.
“Ah, here you are.”
Ben raised his head, scowling as he recognized a familiar face. “I don’t suppose there’s a snowball’s chance that you’re the real Hop Sing this time,” he grunted.
“No, still Sam Sung,” the angel replied. “Besides, there is no real Hop Sing, not anymore.”
Ben staggered to his feet and gripped the man’s shoulders with iron fingers. “What have you done with Hop Sing?”
“Nothing. It’s what you didn’t do.”
Ben threw his hands into the air. “Crazy as it sounds, I’m beginning to believe that I really wasn’t born, but what on earth does that have to do with Hop Sing? I wasn’t his father; he can be born without me.”
Sam Sung nodded, but said sadly, “He can be born, but he cannot live without you, Mr. Ben. Remember how you met?”
“Of course. I was riding home when I overheard sounds of a struggle. Four white miners were beating this little Chinese man, barely half their size.”
“You fought those four men,” Sam Sung reminded Ben. “You saved Hop Sing’s life that night and earned his undying loyalty.”
Ben shrugged off his heroism. “He repaid me many times over.”
“In the life you knew, yes,” the angel continued, “but in this new reality you have chosen—the one in which you were never born—those four men beat Hop Sing to death because you weren’t there to stop them.”
Ben stared at him, aghast. “Hop Sing . . . dead?”
“Many years.” Sam Sung’s expression saddened still more. “And there are others, Ben Cartwright, who lie in lonely graves because you were not there in their hour of need. You see, you really did have a wonderful life.”
For the first time that night Ben seemed to consider the idea. “I can’t complain, I suppose,” he admitted. “It’s been a hard life, full of loss, but . . .” Slowly his head rose. “My wives!” he cried. “If I wasn’t born, I couldn’t have led them into the dangers that took their lives. Are they . . . still alive . . . in this new reality?”
Sam Sung backed away. “Some questions, perhaps, you should not ask.”
Jaw rigid, Ben stalked toward him. “Well, I am asking. They are alive, aren’t they? Alive and well. That’s why you’re hedging the question; you don’t want me to know. But I have a right to know! Now, tell me: my Elizabeth, my Inger, my Marie—did they live?”
Sam Sung swallowed hard. “Each lived beyond the time she would have if she had met you. Each married and bore a son.”
“Hah! I knew it! Then they were better off without me.”
“Not necessarily. Please, Mr. Ben,” the angel pleaded. “Haven’t you seen enough yet to choose life over nonexistence?”
“No,” Ben declared. “Not ‘til I know the world is really better for having me in it, and for me, the world revolves around my wives and my sons. If I spare the lives of those wonderful women and save my sons from a horrible death by not being born, then that’s my choice.” His manner softened. “Could I see them, just once, the loves of my life?”
“You might not like what you would see,” Sam Sung warned.
Ben shook his head in denial. “If you think it would hurt me to see them happy without me, you’re wrong. I’d rejoice in that.” He paused and pleaded again. “Please? Is it possible?”
“I don’t know. Heaven might not approve.”
“Ask!” Ben demanded.
Sam Sung looked heavenward, and after a long pause his gaze returned to the face of Ben Cartwright. “You have been granted a great gift, Mr. Ben, a chance to see the world as it would have been without you. We cannot journey so far in a single night, however, without my transmitting special powers to you, and that, too, Heaven has granted. Come; take my hand and let the journey begin!”
Ben hesitated only a moment before taking the small gold-hued hand in his. Suddenly, he felt himself rising, higher and higher into the air as his stomach plummeted earthward. The ground below rushed past at an alarming speed, and he closed his eyes against the dizziness that assaulted him. He had a sense that they were moving east, back toward the New England town where he had first met Elizabeth Stoddard. When he felt the movement stop and opened his eyes, however, he found himself standing on the deck of a ship in the midst of a turbulent sea, with no land in sight. His legs, long unaccustomed to the roll of the sea, buckled, and he reeled against the railing. Then his muscles seemed to recover the once familiar feeling, and he stood upright, his eyes scanning the line of the ship, which was also remarkably familiar. “It’s The Wanderer!” he cried. Facing the angel, he asked, “But surely Elizabeth isn’t on board.”
“No,” Sam Sung admitted. “Elizabeth is no more, Mr. Ben.”
“But you said . . .”
“That she lived beyond what she would have as your wife,” Sam Sung explained, “but in Elizabeth’s case, it was only a year longer. She married and gave birth to a son and died soon afterward. It was the plan for her life, Mr. Ben, not something you made happen. An internal weakness made her incapable of surviving childbirth, whether your child or that of another man. I warned you that you might not like what you would see.”
“Then why bring me here, if she’s gone?”
Sam Sung sighed. “To see her son, if you insist, but I implore you, Mr. Ben: let me take you home now. Just say you want to live!”
Ben searched the deck with eager eyes. “Adam’s here? Where? Let me see him; let me know he’s well and happy, not trapped in some slow, suffocating death . . . like my boy.”
Sam Sung offered a wry smile. “It’s Milton, not Adam. Named for the poet, the one concession her husband made to her romantic nature.”
Ben coughed out his shock. What had possessed his first love to name her son Milton? Oh, he knew her love of poetry, of course, especially that of John Milton, but how could she? Didn’t she realize the trouble a name like that could cause a boy, from his school days through adulthood?
“Oh, it did,” Sam Sung agreed, again reading Ben’s thoughts, “but she never lived to see the beatings he took in the schoolyard. It made him tougher, though.”
“Made a man of him, strong of purpose, able to defend himself.” Ben nodded in satisfaction. “And he’s here, sailing with his grandfather? A good life, then.”
Sam Sung shook his head. “Abel Stoddard died a broken man.”
“Captain Stoddard . . . gone?” Though he had hoped for a different future for his old captain, Ben realized that Stoddard had been an old man when last he saw him. He would be dead by now, with or without Ben Cartwright in his life. “Yes, he would be . . . but you said broken?” Before the angel could respond, a tall, olive-skinned man with windswept raven hair came on deck. “Adam!” Ben cried.
“Milton,” the angel corrected, “and he can’t see or hear you. We’re nothing more than shadows to him and the others you’ll see.”
“But he looks the same,” Ben whispered in amazement.
Sam Sung smiled. “There are subtle differences, but your sons all took more after their mothers than after you, Mr. Ben.”
“I knew the younger boys did, but I always thought Adam looked like me.”
The angel nodded. “More than Hoss and Little Joe, but as you see, there was much of Elizabeth in him . . . and now in Milton.”
Ben proudly noted the captain’s hat on his son—well, hers, at least. He saw also Milton’s smile of complete self-content and wondered if he himself were the reason that expression had so rarely crossed the face of his Adam. “He looks well . . . fit . . . satisfied with his life,” Ben mused, “though I would have thought he’d choose a scholar’s path.”
“Why? He didn’t in your reality.”
“No, I suppose not.” That his eldest son had chosen to return to the Ponderosa after his college years was one of the joys of Ben’s life. He smiled as he watched this alternate incarnation of Adam stride the deck with forceful confidence and then turned to the angel. “He’s a man among men, a leader. If you’re trying to convince me that this young man would have been better off with me as his father, you’ve failed completely.”
“Then you haven’t seen enough,” Sam Sung said harshly. “Keep watching, Mr. Ben.” He pulled the man back to the railing, as if inviting him to a seat in a theater. Sailors, oblivious to their presence, moved back and forth on the deck as they tended to the normal routines of life at sea.
“Have you checked the condition of the cargo this morning, Thompson?” the captain, the man Ben knew only as Milton, asked his first mate.
“Just going there now, sir,” Thompson said. He touched his forehead in a cursory salute and moved toward the hatch to the hold.
As the first mate threw back the hatch and descended to the deck below, an unbelievable stench, an acrid odor reminiscent of vomit and diarrhea and rotting flesh, arose from the dark depth to assault the nostrils of Ben Cartwright. What on earth? What kind of cargo was Captain Milton, last name unknown, hauling? A dark suspicion surfaced in his mind, but he quickly threw it aside. It wasn’t possible.
Grim-faced, the first mate reappeared after several minutes below and went directly to the captain. “Well?” the captain demanded, dark eyes flashing. “More lost?”
“Five more, sir,” Thompson reported. “The air’s foul down there with their filth, and we’re like to see similar losses every day unless we take action. Much as it goes against the grain, sir, I think we’d better get ‘em all up top and hose down the entire hold.”
Captain Milton exhaled with disgust. “Very well, then. Turn out all hands and see to it.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” Thompson saluted, more crisply this time and began to bellow, “All hands on deck!” When the crew had assembled, he ordered some to move the cargo up from below and others to man the hoses.
Ben watched, appalled, as naked, ebony-skinned men, women and children, chained in groups of three, stumbled out onto the deck. Dark eyes widened at sight of the roiling sea—or, more accurately, at sight of nothing but sea in every direction; women and children screamed in fear; men blazed with indignation and fierce anger. “A slaver?” Ben sputtered, brown eyes snapping in outrage at Sam Sung. “My son would never command a slaver!”
“This isn’t your son,” Sam Sung reminded him sharply.
“Keep your eye on them,” Milton shouted. “Some of them look ready to bolt. Drive them forward and hose them down, as well.” His nose wrinkled in distaste. “The filth of these savages is unendurable.”
“Aye,” the first mate agreed readily, “and costly, too. Cleanin’ ‘em up and gettin’ some fresh air in ‘em should cut our losses, sir.”
“It had better,” Milton snarled, “or I won’t have enough to meet the contract with Rodriguez by the time we reach San Paulo.”
“Could put some salve on them sores,” the mate suggested. “Extra expense, but might be worth it in the end, sir.”
Milton cursed and spat on the deck. “All right, try it, but only on the strongest bucks and best potential breeders. Not worth the expense on the others, especially not the little pickaninnies, so I’ll waste none there, understood?”
“Aye, sir. Understood and in full agreement.” Thompson hurried off to put the economic measures into operation.
“This isn’t possible,” Ben protested. “Adam has always believed in the equality of all men; he could never be party to enslaving men or so heartless as to treat them like—like cattle—no more than a notation in the profit or loss column.”
“This isn’t Adam,” Sam Sung said again.
“I know that!” Ben barked. “But Elizabeth believed just as firmly in the rights of all men to equal treatment and justice, and this is her son.”
Sam Sung laid a consoling hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Elizabeth died before she could pass on her values to her son.”
“But Captain Stoddard . . . he would never . . .” Ben stopped, for suddenly he remembered that there had been a time when, in his despair over never going to sea again, a drunken Abel Stoddard had signed on as captain of a slave ship.
Eyes grave, Sam Sung nodded. “You begin to see, don’t you? Because you were not there to prevent it, Abel Stoddard did sign that contract with Mandible and, without help, could find no way out. He did become captain of a slave ship, and though he earned enough to purchase The Wanderer, for him that first voyage was a living hell, a hell whose flames he could only drown in whiskey and Jamaican rum. He tried to take on other cargoes after that, but his reputation was ruined.”
Ben swept salt water from his face, not all of it put there by the spray of the sea. “That’s what you meant when you said he died a broken man.”
“Yes,” the angel acknowledged sorrowfully. “Unable to face the wretchedness you see on this deck, he drank himself to death. His first mate, however, was able to harden himself and, in fact, came to relish the traffic in human misery . . . although not as much as his son.” He inclined his head toward the new captain of The Wanderer.
“Milton was . . . that man’s son?” Ben asked. “Elizabeth married the captain of a slaver? I can’t believe she would!”
“No, he was just first mate of The Wanderer when they married,” the angel explained. “He was a decent enough man then, and he did love her, though not with the affection she would have received from Ben Cartwright, had he been born. It was the slave trade that changed him, hardened him, even to her, and destroyed the love they once had known. Her grief over that and over her father’s demise contributed to her death when Milton was born.”
“Then she wasn’t happy, even for that one extra year,” Ben concluded with a sigh.
“She wasn’t happy,” Sam Sung confirmed, “and she had no impact on her son’s life. He lived with his paternal grandparents ‘til he was old enough to serve as cabin boy on The Wanderer, which his father inherited, but he spent most of his tender, formative years seeing sights like this every day.” His hand swept toward the bow of the ship, where dark bodies writhed as cold salt water surged onto them from the hoses held by laughing crewmen. “When his father died, he became captain, and he is, as you said earlier, completely satisfied with his life’s work, an active participant in the enslavement of human beings that your Adam would have fought to prevent.”
Ben buried his face in his hands. “No. Dear God, no,” he pleaded.
Sam Sung again placed his palm on Ben’s broad shoulder. “It’s time to go,” he said softly. “We have two more stops to make.”
Ben looked up. “Yes,” he said urgently. “Take me from this pit of hell. Take me to Inger. Surely, her life and that of her son will be better than this.”
“Judge for yourself,” Sam Sung urged, his hand slipping down to grasp that of the man in his charge.
Again Ben felt himself rise into the air, and even though he was prepared this time, the velocity with which they moved through time and space again made his stomach lurch and his senses reel. “Can’t we slow down?” he implored, eyes squeezed shut.
The angel made no response, but soon Ben felt himself descending again, felt his feet touch solid earth once more and breathed a sigh of heartfelt relief. He opened his eyes and smiled in recognition at the scene before him. The Illinois House stood directly across the street, and to his left was the tree in the middle of the dusty road, beneath whose verdant boughs, now stripped bare in winter’s grip, he had proposed to his love, Inger. Instinctively, he turned toward the store where he had met her, and his brow wrinkled, for the sign above it read “McWhorter’s Emporium.” He pointed it out to Sam Sung. “It should say ‘Borgstrom’s Emporium,’” he chided. When the angel only folded his wide-sleeved arms across his chest and stared back at him, Ben felt his face flush, first with embarrassment at his continuing forgetfulness and then in anger at the man whose name Inger’s store now bore. “That scoundrel,” he growled low in his throat. “He took it from her, didn’t he? Tricked Gunnar into selling it, just as before.”
“Of course,” Sam Sung stated flatly. “There was no Ben Cartwright to stop him.”
Ben shrugged. “Well, I couldn’t then, either.”
Sam Sung thrust his index finger at the other man’s chest and added, “And no Ben Cartwright to rescue Inger from the fate that awaited her.”
Ben’s gaze narrowed. “You said she lived, married, had a son.”
“All true,” the angel replied. “Do you want to see her?”
Ben’s eyes brightened. “She’s here?”
Sam Sung nodded. “Where you first met her.”
Ben moaned. “She works for McWhorter?” Poor Inger must have married a man as penniless as he himself had been if she were still working outside the home. Not a pleasant prospect, of course, especially for a homebody like Inger, but money wouldn’t matter, so long as the man loved her. At least, unlike Elizabeth, she was alive . . . and he could see her; all he had to do was walk through that door. “Will she see me or will I be a shadow, like on the ship?”
Ben nodded. That was best, he supposed. Since she was married to another man, it wouldn’t be right for him to embrace her and kiss her, as his heart longed to do. No, it would be enough for him to see her sunny smile once more, to see again in her eyes the love that encompassed all of humanity. Licking his suddenly dry lips, he approached the emporium with tentative steps and, turning the handle, entered.
His heart leaped; his breath stopped.
She stood behind the same counter where he’d first seen her, her blonde head bent as she wrapped a loaf of bread in brown paper for a customer huddled inside a frayed gray flannel cape. “Are you sure this is all?” she inquired, concern in each soft Swedish accent.
“It’s—it’s all I can afford,” the other woman sighed. “Thank God we still have our cow, though bread and milk will make a poor Christmas dinner.”
Inger looked as though her heart would break. “And the children? Have you nothing to put in their stockings?”
“No,” replied her customer with a sad shake of her head. She held out a protesting hand when she saw Inger turn toward the jars of candy lining the counter to her left. “I can’t pay for that . . . and you mustn’t.”
“No, you mustn’t,” a loud voice announced as a wheat-haired and blue-eyed giant of a youth strode vigorously from the back room.
“Hoss,” Ben whispered in awe, for the young man was almost a carbon copy of the son he and Inger had sired, except for the fancy suit and shirt.
“No one calls him that,” Sam Sung inserted, “though she did still name the boy after her father.”
“You know Papa wouldn’t approve, Mama,” the young man scolded.
“But it is Christmas Eve, Eric,” Inger pleaded, her alpine eyes shimmering with unshed tears, “a time for giving.”
Eric clapped the lid back on the apothecary jar of peppermint sticks. “It’s never a time for charity. Charity does nothing but take from those who deserve, to squander on those who don’t.”
“I—I must be going,” the customer said. “God bless you for your kindness, Inger, but please don’t quarrel on my account. The last thing I want is to cause you trouble.” She tucked the bread beneath her flannel cape, to keep it warm, and hurried out the door.
“Oh, Eric, they have nothing.” Inger almost sobbed. “Nothing but bread and milk for Christmas dinner and nothing at all for the children, when we have so much. What would it hurt to give them a little candy?”
“It would hurt you, Mama,” Eric said, “when Papa found out. A disobedient wife deserves to be chastened, but I would not like to see him hit you again.”
“He hits her?” Ben glowered. “This miserable excuse of a man makes her work to support him and then he”—Ben stopped, for an unspeakable thought had just crossed his brain. Why would Inger’s husband care if she gave away candy . . . unless . . . he owned the store? “McWhorter?” he croaked. “She married McWhorter? But why? She didn’t care anything about him.”
“McWhorter was most persistent,” Sam Sung explained, leaning on the counter, “and she had few options once Gunnar sold the store out from under her. No Ben Cartwright to carry her off to a new beginning, remember?”
“And he beats her?” Nostrils flaring, Ben clenched his fists. “I’ll kill him!”
Sam Sung snorted. “Hard task for a shadow.” He looked sadly at Inger. “It’s more a case of occasional slapping than brutal beating—at least, so far.”
“Slapping is brutal enough!” Ben cried. “She’s a gentle soul; she should never be touched but in love.”
“No woman should,” Sam Sung agreed. “Even discounting the violence, though, hers has not been a happy marriage . . . nor a happy motherhood.”
Ben’s gaze snapped back to the young man still arguing with his mother. “He’s not as loving as my Hoss, but he seems to care for her,” he said.
“He does,” Sam Sung admitted, “to the extent he’s able to care about anything but money, that is, but he doesn’t have her tender heart. His father saw to that.”
“Mama, I have no more time to argue,” Eric was saying. “It is time for me to work with Papa now.”
Inger grasped his forearm. “You will not tell him?” The importunity in her voice wrenched Ben’s heart. His Inger, begging her own son for protection from her brute of a husband. The sight was unbearable.
Eric frowned in strong rebuke as he pulled free of his mother’s clutching hand. “I will not tattle, Mama,” he promised, his voice harsh, “but you must not foolishly give away our stock in trade. If Papa misses anything, I will not lie to protect you. It is my future you give away, too!”
“Oh, Eric, a handful of candy will not threaten your future,” his mother pleaded, though feebly, for her heart ached too sorely for stronger words. “And God would bless you,” she added almost in a whimper.
“Enough, Mama!” His broad palm struck the countertop, only inches from her slender hand, and she flinched away. “One more word, and I will tell Papa, and you know what will come of that!”
Inger drew back from him, and the young man, face flushed with anger, left abruptly, slamming the door behind him. She peered through the window until he disappeared from sight. Then, wiping a tear from her eye, she lifted the lid from the jar of peppermint sticks and counted out six, one for each of the children in the destitute family.
“How does she dare?” Ben whispered, shaking his head.
Sam Sung smiled with heavenly affection at the Swedish woman. “She has a big heart, a giving heart, and it is Christmas.”
“Well, it won’t be a merry one for her if he . . . will he?” Ben demanded. “Will he find out? Will he strike her?”
“I can’t answer that,” the angel replied. “That lies in the future, and the future is not for me or you to know.” He opened the door to the emporium. “Come. Let’s follow the boy.”
Ben shook his head. “I’ve seen enough.”
“I think not,” Sam Sung said severely and closed supernaturally strong fingers around the man’s arm.
If there was one place in town Ben Cartwright did not wish to go, it was the Illinois House, toward which Sam Sung dragged him. He’d seen quite enough of that tavern when he worked there for McWhorter. It hadn’t seemed different from any other saloon at first, and McWhorter had seemed like a decent, even a caring man when he offered the virtually penniless Ben a job. Ben had come to know him, however, as a manipulator of weaker-willed souls like Gunnar Borgstrom and a man who could become violent if manipulation failed. He’d come close to beating Gunnar to death, and now, apparently, he controlled his wife with violence. His son, too? Probably not, at least not past childhood. Like Hoss, the boy was big enough to defend himself, and McWhorter had been no match, even for a man the size of Ben. No, Eric was probably safe from his father’s fists, probably had been since he was ten or so. Could even have defended his mother, had he not absorbed his father’s chauvinistic attitude toward women.
As Sam Sung towed him through the door, Ben’s eyes fell on the man behind the bar, and his upper lip twisted in a sneer. He’d long since forgiven McWhorter for his injuries to Gunnar and his robbery of Inger. Inger herself had led Ben down the path of forgiveness as she laughingly assured him that McWhorter’s treachery had only speeded the happiness of their marriage. She’d been right then, but now there were fresh offenses to add to the brute’s tally, offenses not only fresh, but ongoing. For those, particularly for the ill treatment of his beloved Inger, Ben felt no forgiveness. If he’d had the power, he’d have pummeled McWhorter’s face to a bloody pulp. As the provoking angel had reminded him, however, shadows had no power, either to punish or to protect.
Sam Sung led him to a table in a back corner. “Sit down,” he suggested. “This may take awhile.”
Twilight gave way to full darkness, and the Illinois house grew more crowded and more rowdy with each tick of the clock. McWhorter, just as in the days Ben knew him, played the congenial host, urging “just one more drink” on each patron, so long as they had coins to pay. The sight sickened Ben. “It’s Christmas Eve,” he growled. “Why doesn’t he close the place and spend the evening with his wife?”
Sam Sung clucked his tongue against his straight, white teeth. “You know why. There is money to be made. Whenever there is money to be made, Inger must wait.”
“He’s a fool,” Ben grunted.
“He’s not your concern,” the angel chided. “You had no impact on his life. You’re here to see the boy.”
Ben focused on the young man behind the bar, who was busy drawing beer from wooden kegs, washing up shot glasses and mugs and keeping bowls filled with salty nuts—all the duties Ben himself used to perform. The boy was a hard worker, Ben noted, just like his own Hoss. “He seems a decent enough lad,” he commented. “Oh, it’s not the kind of life I’d want for a son of mine, but at least he doesn’t trade in human flesh, like Milton.”
“Just the destruction of human flesh and human souls,” Sam Sung snorted.
Ben folded his arms across his chest. “You’re talking about the father, not the son. He’s doing no more here than I did, years ago.”
“Is that so?” the angel asked gently. “Keep watching, Mr. Ben.”
To keep his eyes on young Eric posed no hardship. Though Ben kept reminding himself that this wasn’t Hoss, that round face and muscular frame looked exactly like the son he loved and feared lost forever, buried behind a ton of rock, worthless however much it might assay. Hoss’s image, even if it wasn’t the real man, was a feast for a father’s starving eyes.
The night wore on, the din increasing as liquor loosened inhibitions, but it was for the most part a festive din. Spirits were high on the eve before Christmas, and McWhorter encouraged them with ebullient toasts to the coming holiday. “Drink hearty, my friends,” he urged. “After all, a man must fortify himself to face all that Christmas cheer!” He laughed, as if the statement were a great joke, and most laughed along with him. Some, those who would be spending the day alone or, worse, surrounded by relatives they avoided at other times of the year, took the admonition seriously and drank as if life or sanity depended on numbness of mind.
Occasionally a man became inebriated enough to cause trouble, and then McWhorter would call his son from behind the bar to evict him. That Eric did so with greater force that seemed necessary concerned Ben, but he told himself that it was only because Hoss would have handled the situation so differently. Just how differently became apparent when a thoroughly besotted customer called for another bottle of whiskey. McWhorter, of course, snapped his fingers for Eric to bring one over, but when he held his palm open for the cost of the bottle, the drunk fumbled through his pockets, finally turning them inside out in a vain attempt to find some money.
“No money, no whiskey,” McWhorter declared.
“Put it on my tab,” the man slurred.
McWhorter shook his head. “You haven’t been very prompt about paying them in the past, Lambert. No credit. I think it’s time for you to leave.” He reached for the whiskey bottle.
Not quickly enough. The customer grabbed it first, hugging it to his chest as he headed for the door.
“Eric,” his father commanded.
Eric obeyed without a second’s delay. “Give me the bottle, Mr. Lambert,” he ordered, “or I’ll take it from you.”
With liquor-induced confidence in his own invulnerability, Lambert snorted. “Think you can, sonny? Come and try!”
A smile lifted one side of Eric’s mouth, as if he’d been waiting for this opportunity all evening. When he reached for the bottle, however, Lambert jerked his arm back, striking the wall behind him. Glass shattered; whiskey sprayed across the room, and both men were momentarily stunned. Then with a snarl Lambert brought the broken bottle forward, waving its jagged edge at Eric’s chest. “Look what you done!” he bellowed.
Eric jumped to the side and grabbed Lambert’s forearm, wresting the bottle from him. Ben breathed a sigh of relief that the young man was out of danger, but his eyes widened as Eric doubled his massive fist and plowed it into Lambert’s face. Lambert cringed back into the corner, but Eric followed him, striking blow after blow at the disabled man. McWhorter stood back, watching with fatherly pride.
Ben could take no more. “Hoss, no!” he shouted as he lunged toward the young man so like his son in visage, so different in behavior. He tried to get between Eric and Lambert, but neither man seemed aware of his presence. Though with all his strength he pulled on Eric’s arm, the young man continued beating the drunk with forceful, punishing fists. Ben’s restraining hand had no more effect than a fly lighting on the brawny arm of Inger’s son.
Sam Sung wrapped his arms around Ben and dragged him back. “He can’t feel you, Mr. Ben.”
“He’ll kill him!” Ben shouted, struggling to break free.
“No, not this time. It’s over.”
Eric hauled Lambert to his feet and wrestled him toward the door. Laughing at the crack that reverberated as he bent one arm behind the man’s back, he tossed Lambert’s limp body out into the snow and brushed his hands together in satisfaction. He made his way back to the bar, grinning broadly when his father rewarded him with an energetic clap on the back.
Ben stared at his guardian angel. “Not this time? You mean, he’s killed before?”
“No, not yet,” the angel assured him.
Ben felt his lower lip tremble. “But he will? Wait! You can’t know that! You said it wasn’t for you or me to know the future.”
Sam Sung nodded. “No, I don’t know the future.” He gazed gravely at the youth now drying beer mugs behind the bar as if nothing had happened. “It doesn’t take a prophet, though, to guess where that young man is headed.
Ben slumped in exhausted defeat. “A killer? My Hoss would never—”
“This isn’t your Hoss!”
Ben massaged his pounding forehead. “I know, I know, but I’m not the one who made Hoss gentle. It’s always been in his nature. It comes from her, not me.”
Sam Sung led him back to their corner table and sat him down. “Nature must be nurtured, Mr. Ben,” he said kindly. “Don’t you remember how it was when Hoss was a child?” He shook his head in grieved recollection. “The taunts, the bullying that soft-hearted boy endured in the schoolyard—‘til the day he learned he could silence his tormenters with his fists. It was no different with Eric. He started out with Inger’s sweet and tender nature, but when the crisis came, he didn’t have Ben Cartwright to sit him down and tell him that he had to learn to live with who he was.”
“His father?” Ben shook his head. He remembered that talk he’d had with a young Hoss and in his wildest dreams couldn’t imagine McWhorter uttering similar words. “No, he wouldn’t,” he muttered.
“No. Eric heard just the opposite message from his father,” Sam Sung reported. His voice altered as he recited words McWhorter had often repeated to his son during his developing years. “Stand up for your rights; don’t let any man walk on you; make them respect the power of your fists.” The angel sighed. “Inger tried to teach him tolerance and compassion, to warn him against misusing his strength, but McWhorter shouted his message louder and punctuated it with punishing blows. Your son learned to control his strength; McWhorter’s learned to use it to his advantage.”
“And if it were to his advantage to kill . . .” Ben couldn’t bear to finish the sentence. “It would break his mother’s heart.”
“It’s been broken a long, long time,” the angel said with brimming eyes. “Have you seen enough?”
“Yes . . . yes! Take me from this horrid place,” Ben pleaded.
A now-familiar feeling gripped his stomach as they again rose skyward, but having become accustomed to the dizzying sensation, Ben was able to keep his eyes open as he and Sam Sung sped westward. He saw the wide expanse of the mighty Mississippi as no man to that point in history ever had, and his heart leaped into his throat as they turned to follow its serpentine path south. New Orleans! They were going to New Orleans, to his Marie, to see once more her beautiful face. He could hardly contain his excitement as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico loomed before them and they began to slow down for their descent.
Man and angel went right through the roof of a building, and as soon as they were inside, Ben recognized the gold-and-ivory elegance—all too well. “This is D’Arcy’s salon,” he muttered through gritted teeth. “Don’t tell me my Marie still works in this portal of hell.”
“No,” Sam Sung replied. “Marie married into wealth and has no need to work for her living, but since there was no Ben Cartwright to show her the perfidy of her cousin, she still believes him her benefactor. Is it so hard to believe that she would choose to spend Christmas Eve with her family?”
“With her family? No,” Ben replied. “She loved Christmas time on the Ponderosa and did much to enrich it for all of us, but she stayed at home, gathering family and friends about her.”
“Her husband, Monsieur Devereaux, prefers the gaiety of the salon, as, you surely notice, do many others.”
Then Ben saw her, coming in on the arm of a stout man dressed elegantly in the richest burgundy brocade. She wore satin and silk in a slightly lighter shade of the same hue, the dark color setting off her golden hair, which shone like precious metal beneath the crystal chandeliers, although now there were platinum strands among the gold. Edward D’Arcy came at once from behind the bar to greet his cousin, and kissed her on both cheeks.
“Joyeux Noël, mon cousin,” Marie said, returning the kiss in like fashion
“Ah, you are lovely tonight, my dear. Don’t you think, Devereaux?”
Devereaux shrugged. “She looks well enough when she makes the required effort.”
“And a Merry Christmas to you, as well, monsieur.” Edward made a mocking bow to the man.
“Well enough!” Ben protested. “She’s beautiful. How can he not appreciate that?”
“It was her beauty Monsieur Devereaux coveted,” the angel explained, “and beauty fades with time.”
“She’s still beautiful to me,” Ben insisted, unable to tear his eyes from the vision of loveliness that had been his third wife.
Sam Sung smiled. “You look through eyes of love, Mr. Ben.”
“He doesn’t love her.” Ben made the statement flatly, as if it were inevitable after what he’d seen at their first two stops.
Sam Sung shrugged. “Neither does she love him, but she wasn’t looking for love. All her romantic dreams were crushed in the disillusionment of her first marriage. This one had all the ardor of a business contract: security for her, a pretty show thing for him.”
They watched as Marie’s husband guided her to a table and with courtly, though rather perfunctory, manners held the chair as she seated herself. He motioned for a waiter and ordered a bottle of the finest champagne. “I know how you like champagne, ma femme chérie.” His voice held a rough edge.
“And you always give me what I like, do you not, mon mari? Am I not of all women most blessed to have such a man as you?” Though Marie smiled for public display, her tone was cynical.
“Do not be unpleasant, Marie,” Devereaux warned.
She laughed—not with the silvery sound Ben remembered, but with the tinny clamor of a brass bell. “Oh, never! We must never be unpleasant—except in our own home.” The final phrase was hissed for his ear alone.
“Where we shall go at once if you cannot behave as a wife should,” he hissed back.
The champagne was served, and for a while both lost themselves amid the bubbles. Marie drained her second glass and looked to Devereaux to pour her another. She frowned as she followed his distracted gaze to a prettily painted face at the next table. “You will not cast your eyes on a strumpet such as that while in my presence, monsieur,” she warned haughtily.
Devereaux slowly turned to face her, scorn evident in his expression. “This from the Great Strumpet of New Orleans?”
Ben instinctively stepped forward to defend his wife, but Sam Sung took his elbow and pulled him back, shaking his head. “Shadows,” he reminded Ben.
“How dare he speak to her like that?” Ben cried. “How dare he display such disrespect for his wife—for any woman?”
Sam Sung sighed. “He but repeats the name by which she is known to many in this town. You know her story; you know the false accusations of adultery under which she suffered.”
“Yes, but D’Arcy admitted his complicity with Madame D’Marigny!”
Sam Sung wearily shook his head. “After Ben Cartwright fought him and forced the truth from him. But since Ben Cartwright was never born, the lies went unchallenged. Everyone in New Orleans believes Marie to be a woman of low repute. Everyone—including her own husband.”
While Ben and the angel were in conversation, Marie, her face flushing as dark as her dress, stood abruptly. “Very well, then. Seek entertainment where you will, monsieur—as will I!”
Ben gasped. “She wouldn’t! However much her reputation may have fallen, you cannot make me believe that Marie would ever be unfaithful. It wasn’t in her.”
“No,” Sam Sung assured him quickly. “The Ursuline sisters trained her too well for that, but it is the company of another she seeks. Shall we follow and see who it is?”
Ben wasn’t sure he wanted to see this other man in Marie’s life, but since he trusted her implicitly, he followed Sam Sung across the room. He smiled as he saw the youthful face at the table Marie was approaching. “Joseph,” he whispered. Then he lifted his hand before the angel could correct him. “I know, I know. It isn’t Joseph, but he looks exactly like my son, more so than Milton resembled Adam, more even than Eric favored my Hoss. Natural, I suppose. I always did think Joe was the picture of his mother, and this lad is, too . . . but he looks younger.”
“Two years younger,” Sam Sung said with a nod. “It took two more years for her to become cynical enough to accept a marriage of mere convenience.”
“Sixteen?” For a moment Ben just looked surprised, and then he exploded. “He’s sixteen, and they let him spend Christmas Eve in a gaming parlor!”
“Why not? You must remember that his mother was almost as young when she first came to this place, and, to her, it is a second home, as it is becoming to him. The boy’s parents both dote on him and deny him nothing his willful heart desires. Besides, here he has dear Cousin Edward to watch over him and to teach him all he knows of gaming . . . and other things.” Sam Sung again gave an eloquent shrug. “The boy has been a regular here for almost a year. And quite a popular one, as you can see.”
Indeed, Ben could see, and even though this wasn’t really his son, he felt outrage at what he saw. The boy was obviously in his element with a lovely lady on each side, each vying for his favor with caresses and kisses and fingers running through his luxuriant chestnut curls, but he was too young, far too young for such attentions.
“Joyeux Noël, Philippe,” Marie said with tender affection.
The boy stood at once and lit the room with his dazzling smile. “Joyeux Noël, ma petit mère.” Genuine love shone in his emerald eyes and was reflected in her matching set as he kissed her on both cheeks. Ben felt his heart pulse faster at the endearing sight. No wonder Marie preferred the company of her son to that of her husband!
“Give your chair to Mamá, ma chérie,” Philippe dictated to the pretty companion on his left.
The twenty-year-old woman’s lips curled in a petulant pout. “Why waste your time with this old crone, Philippe? We were having such a good time before she came.”
“For shame, Angelique! You behave not at all in keeping with your name, and since you cannot, you must leave now!” Philippe ordered crisply, grasping her by one elbow and pulling her to her feet. Then he tipped her chin up with the index finger of his left hand. “But do not stay away long,” he urged with a provocative smile, “lest my heart pine for you, eh, ma petit chou?” He pressed his lips to hers in a long, lingering kiss full of promised passion that Ben fervently prayed would not be fulfilled.
“Precocious lad, isn’t he?” Sam Sung grunted.
“Yes,” Ben growled, “and I don’t understand why his mother allows it.”
“Oh, she’s tried to steer him in straighter paths,” the angel explained, “but with both Devereaux and D’Arcy pulling him the other way . . .”
“Here, Mamá,” Philippe said, guiding his mother toward the vacated chair. “Is Papá being difficult again? You will sit with me awhile and be my good luck charm, oui?”
Marie dipped her chin in eager acquiescence and, with a swish of her satin skirts, sat down. “Are you winning?” she asked.
“Mais oui,” Philippe replied, as if no other answer should be expected. “Do not fret for me, ma petit mère. I am skilled with the cards.”
“Indeed, you are, monsieur,” said a man across the table with a suspicious narrowing of his eyes. “Very skilled, indeed, for a youth of such tender years.”
“Ah, did you hope to take advantage of my youth, Monsieur Anglais?” Philippe tossed back with a saucy tilt of his head. “Someone should have warned you that this would not easily be done!” He flashed a smile of supreme confidence around the table, and those who had played him before met it with good-humored chuckles.
Five more hands of poker were played, with Philippe winning all but one. After each successful venture he accepted a kiss of congratulations from his mother on one cheek and one on the other from the dark-haired beauty to his right. Angelique returned, draping herself penitentially over the back of his neck, but the added attention proved no distraction whatsoever to young Philippe.
Ben Cartwright shook his head in disapproval. “He’s really quite used to all this, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he will make a fine riverboat gambler someday,” Sam Sung returned with a hint of sarcasm.
Ben arched an eyebrow. Had the Oriental angel read his thoughts again or did this alternate incarnation of his son simply portray the part so well that the analogy sprang to mind naturally? A bit of both, perhaps. Philippe was certainly dressed for the role of professional gambler, with his frilled white shirt and fancy cravat, his shoulder-length curls of golden chestnut and, above all, his easy air of practiced confidence.
The next three hands all went to Philippe, but as he was accepting the congratulatory kisses he obviously relished as much as the victory itself, Monsieur Anglais sprang to his feet. “No one could win so consistently—in a honest game!”
Philippe disengaged himself from the bevy of beautiful arms and slowly stood. “Do you accuse me of cheating, sir?” he demanded sharply.
Marie grasped at his arm. “No, Philippe, I am sure he did not mean that.” She looked imploringly to the other man. “Please, sir, withdraw this accusation, I beg of you.”
Anglais drew himself haughtily erect. “To the contrary, Madame, I maintain it most vigorously. I should not be surprised, I suppose, to find dishonest fruit falling from a dishonest tree!”
Philippe cast aside Marie’s restraining arm. “How dare you speak to my mother in this manner?”
“She should be used to it by now,” Anglais sneered. “All of New Orleans knows of her . . . virtue.” The final word was spoken with bitter mockery.
Philippe lifted his glass of champagne and flung it, glass and all, into the face of his accuser. “For this insult, monsieur, I demand satisfaction!”
“Philippe, no!” Marie cried. “Not on my account, I beg you!”
Her son stroked her cheek tenderly. “On both your account and my own, ma chère mère.” With gaze as hard and cold as emerald ice, he glared at his opponent. “We will meet at dawn at the Plantation Allard,” the youngster declared, “and the weapon will be the épée.”
Marie buried her distraught face behind slender hands as she sank into the satin-upholstered chair. “Philippe, no,” she pleaded softly. “I cannot lose you.”
“At dawn,” Philippe repeated to his dueling opponent, adding with an imperious wave of his hand. “Now, be gone. You sully this place with your vile suggestions.” He knelt beside his mother. “Do not weep, ma petit mère,” he soothed. “You are of all women most virtuous, and you know I cannot allow this insult to stand.”
Marie sobbed inconsolably. “You are all I have.”
The boy cradled his mother in his arms, as if she were the child and he the parent. “You will not lose me,” he promised. “I am as skilled with the épée as with the cards.”
“Is he?” Ben demanded of his guardian angel.
The angel reflected for a moment. “Quite possibly,” he said, “although he is as yet untested in the duel at arms. He learned the craft from Edward D’Arcy, and I am sure you remember what a master duelist he was.”
Images swam before Ben’s eyes: he and Marie bending over the fading figure of her old fencing master, Marius Angierville, as he stretched beneath the moss-draped oaks of the Plantation Allard. Oh, yes! he remembered all too well D’Arcy’s skill with a blade. The man was a killer, and now he had passed that skill on to Marie’s young son. Ben could only pray, as he was sure Marie was, that he had not also passed on that killing instinct. Despite the warmth of the southern night, Ben shivered.
Time seemed to fly as fast as angels’ wings as Sam Sung transported his charge to the Plantation Allard, over whose popular dueling ground mighty oaks, hung with curtains of Spanish moss, stood sentinel. “I’m not sure I want to see this,” Ben said. “Can’t you just tell me that the boy will live?”
“You know I can’t,” Sam Sung chided. “The future . . .”
“Is not for you or me to know,” Ben recited in singsong. “I know. If only I could know that much, though. If I could know Marie would not be left bereft of the one person who loves her . . . or if I could just know that my own sons would survive their ordeal . . .”
The angel shook his head. “But you cannot. Your decision must be made without knowledge of the future, Mr. Ben, for all men must live, all must make their daily decisions without foreknowledge of the future. Heaven requires a certain measure of faith from all men, Mr. Ben.”
“You know, it’s really disconcerting to hear all this philosophy pouring from Hop Sing’s lips,” Ben groaned, “especially in such impeccable English. Couldn’t you talk more like him, too, in the interest of greater familiarity? That was the idea of the experiment, wasn’t it?”
“That ghastly pidgin?” Sam Sung shuddered. “No, I don’t think so. It was incredibly hard to maintain the few times I tried it. And you’d be well advised to pay more attention to Hop Sing’s philosophy, Mr. Ben, if you choose to return to life. That is a man who knows how to maintain his faith!”
Their discussion came to an abrupt halt as a carriage stopped beneath the oaks. The door in its side opened, and Edward D’Arcy stepped down, reaching back inside to assist his fair cousin. Young Philippe followed and, finally, Monsieur Devereaux descended the steps, pulling his great cloak about him.
Marie searched the lawn beneath the oaks and looked relieved when she saw no one else there. “Perhaps he will not come,” she murmured.
“Oh, he will come.” Devereaux scoffed at her naiveté. “You, Madame, may not understand the meaning of honor, but I can assure you that he does.”
“Papá, do not dishonor Mamá,” Philippe scolded. “I would regret being forced to duel with you!”
“Don’t be a fool, boy,” his cousin Edward reprimanded, “and I must say the same to the two of you, as well. The boy must keep his wits about him for his first affair of honor, and you do nothing but distract him with such petty bickering.”
“He is right, Antoine,” Marie whispered contritely. “It is our son that matters now.”
“Oui, Madame. On that, at least, we agree.” The harshness of his tone, however, told his listeners, including the two unseen ones, that he still held her to blame for the jeopardy in which their son now stood.
To no one’s real surprise, but to their infinite regret, another carriage pulled up beneath the oaks. Monsieur Anglais and his second sprang out. Edward, acting as Philippe’s second, met with his counterpart to establish the rules of the contest. “Monsieur Anglais has no wish to kill a child,” the second stated, “so we suggest that the contest be only to the drawing of blood.”
“We agree,” Edward accepted quickly, “although you may be surprised at whose blood is drawn first, monsieur.”
“Why did you agree to that?” Philippe hissed when he was told the terms. “He should die for what he said about ma mère!”
“And you, you little popinjay, deserve to die for your foolishness in making this challenge,” Edward hissed back, circling his young cousin’s upper arm tightly. “When you have defeated many opponents, you may consider a fight to the death, but not in your first affair at arms! Do you understand?”
“Oui.” Philippe flounced away. Anger flamed in his cheeks, and seeing that, Edward drew him aside, determined to calm the young man down before he met his opponent. He succeeded to some degree, but Philippe was a hot-blooded youth, whose temper had been honed, rather than restrained, all his life. To Edward’s regret, for he knew the dangers of fighting with a hot head, he could not cool the boy down completely before the duel began.
Soon the oaks echoed with the clash of thin, triangular blades, and the lump in Ben’s throat rose and fell with each thrust and parry. “He’s good,” he admitted. “I thought Joseph was, but this boy is a master.”
“And yet still a boy,” Sam Sung pointed out.
Ben nodded. Philippe was as skilled as Monsieur Anglais, but the longer reach and stronger lunge of the grown man were obvious advantages. Still, the talented boy held his own through many a blow and counterblow until with a vindictive thrust Anglais’ épée skewered Philippe’s shoulder and he collapsed with a cry.
“Mon fils!” Marie screamed, running to him.
Ben, too, started toward the boy, but the angel held him back. “He is not your son,” Sam Sung reminded him. “Leave him to his parents.”
Antoine Devereaux thrust his wife aside. “Keep back, you slut.” He bent over his son. “Mon fils, mon fils,” he murmured.
Philippe’s emerald eyes flickered. “Papá? Mamá?” Then they rolled back in his head.
Marie screamed again, and Edward slapped her face. “Be still! It is a flesh wound only; he will live.”
“To fight another day?” she shrieked. “I am sick to death of the Code! I will not sacrifice my son to it!”
“She’s right, isn’t she?” Ben whispered hoarsely. “This is only the first of many such mornings for Philippe, and on one of them . . .” He waved aside the angel’s remonstrance. “Oh, I know, we don’t know the future, but as you said about Eric, it doesn’t take much of a prophet to see where this boy is headed—toward one futile duel after another in defense of his mother’s honor.”
“I’m afraid so,” Sam Sung admitted, “but Philippe is not your concern. The time has come, Mr. Ben, to make your decision. Choose wisely, for you will not be given this gift a second time. Will you return to the world you have known or will all you have seen come to pass, instead?” He swept his arm toward the scene of grief beneath the oaks, and the gesture seemed to encompass scenes in New England and Illinois, as well.
Ben stared, as the woman who had been his third wife gathered her bleeding son into her arms, and he sighed deeply. “None of them knew real love, even with their longer lives,” he said weakly. “And—and their sons—so like my own and yet so . . . so without a compass. Their lives haven’t been better, either.” With resolve he drew himself upright and grasped the small Oriental by both shoulders. “Take me back!” he implored. “Whatever I must face, let me live! I want to live!”
The last Ben remembered, he was shaking his guardian angel, but now it seemed as if it were his own shoulders being vigorously shaken.
“Ben boy! Wake up!”
The gravelly voice sounded strange, accustomed as he’d become of late to the accents of New England, Sweden and France. Yet somehow familiar. Ben opened his eyes and instantly drew back as he saw bending over him the grizzled face of the man who wanted him committed to an insane asylum in California. Behind him he felt the rough-barked solidity of a huge ponderosa pine. Trapped! But then something in the sheriff’s rambling words registered. “You called me Ben,” he said slowly.
Coffee chuckled. “Well, what else would I call you, Ben boy? You must’ve drifted off when the doc sent you to rest, but you’re gonna want to wake up for this!” He squeezed his friend’s shoulders more firmly. “Did you hear what I said, Ben? They’ve broken through!”
“Broken . . . through?” Ben was still having a hard time moving from one reality to another.
“The cave-in,” Roy explained. “They’ve broke through!.”
“The cave-in.” Ben blinked. “There’s been a cave-in? Oh, thank God!” He grasped Roy by the arms. “You know about the cave-in?”
A puzzled look came across the sheriff’s face. “Ben, of course, I do. I got word two days ago.”
“And you’re going to help me find my boys?” The warm chocolate of Ben’s eyes seemed to melt.
Roy Coffee helped his obviously overwrought friend to his feet and explained patiently, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Ben: they’ve broke through. We’ve found your boys!”
“You’ve found . . .my boys? Alive?”
Roy gave him a wide grin. “You bet they’re alive.”
Joy radiated Ben’s face as he took off at a run. His boys—alive!
“Ben, easy, easy,” Dr. Martin urged, but Ben ran past him to the small, ragged opening in the wall of rock. The workers automatically stepped back to let him through. “Adam! Hoss! Joseph!” he called frantically.
“We’re here, Pa.”
Never had Ben heard a more beautiful sound than the voice of his oldest son, nor had he seen a more beautiful sight than the face that appeared behind that small opening. “Adam,” Ben whispered in awe. His voice broke as he asked, “Your brothers?”
“We’re all here, Pa,” the warm voice assured him, “and I can’t tell you how glad we are to see you!” A hand reached out through the opening.
Ben grasped it, pressing kisses against the callused palm. “Are—are you hurt?” he asked anxiously.
“A little battered and bruised, a little short of breath—the air’s a bit stale in here,” Adam reported, “but nothing serious . . . well, except Joe.”
A tight ball of fear rose in Ben’s throat, and he couldn’t force it down. “Joseph?” he croaked.
“What’d you go worryin’ him like that for?” came a petulant protest from further within the cavern.
Adam turned toward the voice. “Because he’s your father, and he expects to be told the truth,” he said bluntly.
The other boy’s voice sounded closer as he called out a second time, “I’m all right, Pa.”
“Oh, sure you are! You keep still, Shortshanks.” The same voice then added, “We’re okay, Pa, ‘cept I’m about half-starved; fact is, I was just about to start nibblin’ on little brother here.”
Ben’s face shone brighter as he recognized the wrangling voices of his two younger sons. “Well, you hold off a little longer, son, and we’ll get you a better meal than that!” Ben laughed out his relief, and then he choked abruptly. “You—you mind your brothers now and keep still, Little Joe,” he called. Looking at Adam, he asked in a broken whisper, “How bad is he?”
“Cracked ribs, I think,” Adam whispered back. “He’ll mend, Pa.”
“Yes, yes, he’ll mend; everything will mend.” Ben wiped tears of joy from his cheeks and resolved to quit babbling like a fond fool. “You boys just rest easy, and we’ll soon have you all out of there.” With a final squeeze of Adam’s hand, he backed away and let the men get back to the task of carefully tearing down the wall between them.
It took longer than the impatient father would have preferred, but soon the opening had been widened enough for even Hoss to get through. Fresh tears coursed unrestrained down Ben’s face as he wrapped first Adam and then Hoss in his arms. As he reached for Little Joe, he remembered the injured ribs and, instead of an embrace, took his son’s face in his hands and tenderly kissed him on both cheeks, as he’d seen the boy’s mother do to Philippe. Joe looked a little surprised, but accepted the unaccustomed gesture with the same readiness with which he always responded to expressions of affection.
Ben’s hands dropped to his youngest son’s shoulders, but his loving gaze encompassed them all. “I could just eat you up!” he cried, not knowing how else to express his relief and overflowing excitement.
“No, Pa,” Adam chuckled dryly. “We could eat you up—literally.”
Ben laughed. “Oh, forgive me; forgive me, boys. I wasn’t thinking. You must be starving! We’re gonna get you home and fill up all the empty places, I promise.”
Hoss smacked his lips. “Yeah. I’ll start with a beef steak, about two inches thick and—”
“Beef broth . . . chicken soup,” Paul Martin teased as he made a cursory examination of the three boys.
“Ah, Doc!” Hoss protested.
“Bah, humbug!” Adam declared in his best Dickensian voice.
Little Joe just giggled, and though the sound broke into a gasp as he clasped his ribs, Ben thought the boy’s laughter had never seemed more infectious.
Opening the front door, Ben led Little Joe into the great room, with Roy Coffee and Paul Martin assisting Adam and Hoss in right behind them. “Hey, Pa!” Joe cried, one arm cradling his ribs while the other pointed toward the alcove by the stairs. “When’d you find time to put up the tree?”
Ben shook his head and stared at the ceiling-scraping evergreen, bedecked with popcorn garland, candy canes and cherished ornaments. “I didn’t.” Hearing a shuffling sound behind him, he turned and saw a Chinese man standing in the dining room. For a moment he mistook the family cook for his guardian angel, but he quickly realized that he had the real article this time. “Your work?” he asked softly. “You are a man of faith.”
The Cantonese cook bowed. “Hop Sing know in his heart all be here for Christmas. Mr. Charlie and Mr. Wilt, they chop tree, help make beautiful.”
“Beautiful it is.” Adam smiled his appreciation. “A lovely sight to come home to. Thank you, Hop Sing—for your faith and your hard work.”
Hoss made his way directly to the tree to snare one of the candy canes. “Appetizer,” he told the doctor, holding his treasure aloft.
“Go ahead,” Paul Martin chuckled. “I don’t think a little sugar’s gonna hurt in the least, but you all belong in bed—especially this young man.” He touched Joe on the shoulder.
“Aw, no, Doc,” Joe pleaded, lips pooching out in an endearing, child-like pout. “It’s Christmas Eve; we gotta be together.”
“Together,” Ben affirmed with a smiling nod at the family doctor.
Dr. Martin knew better than to fight the entire Cartwright clan. “Oh, all right,” he conceded, “but I want everyone down, resting . . . you on the settee, Little Joe, as soon as I get those ribs wrapped.”
“Get me a candy cane,” Joe ordered as his father lowered him to the settee.
“Me, too,” Adam demanded, while Roy Coffee seated him in the familiar blue chair.
As Hoss stretched to pluck two more striped canes from the evergreen branches, he brushed against one that held a tiny bell-shaped ornament and set it tinkling.
Little Joe giggled. “Hey, Hoss, you remember what Miss Abigail used to say around Christmas time? ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!’ You just made an angel, Hoss!”
Amidst the laughter that met this remark, no one noticed the broad smile that crossed the face of Ben Cartwright. “That’s right,” he said to no one in particular. He winked at the bell on the tree. “Atta boy, Sam Sung!”
“I guess you know there ain’t gonna be no gifts from me under that tree,” Joe said.
Hoss pulled the candy cane from his mouth long enough to say, “Typical.”
Adam nodded, adding with a grin, “Last-minute Charlie.”
“Yeah, I piddled around again,” Joe admitted with a shrug, “but I got something nice planned for you, Pa, and even for those two nuisances over there.”
Ben moved to the settee and put an arm around his youngest son. “Don’t worry about it, Joe. I have all the gifts I need.”
“I’ve got one more for you,” Adam offered. “From what I could see of the vein that cave-in opened up, we’ve hit a real bonanza.”
Ben was gratified to hear that the mine could be worked profitably, but silver and gold no longer seemed important to him. He squeezed his youngest son close, while gazing with lingering love on each of the others. “I’ve already had my bonanza, boys. In fact, you might say, my life’s been one bonanza after another, and right now it feels so full I don’t know if I could hold another one!”
Roy Coffee and Paul Martin lighted the candles on the tall tree, while Hop Sing served steaming bowls of chicken soup all around. Since everyone was exhausted, there were no traditional readings this year, no voices lifted in rousing carols, but the candles’ soft glow illuminated a scene of enduring love as tender as any the Ponderosa had ever known—and Ben blessed the day he had been born to see it.