Summary: A REALLY lost episode.
Word Count: 28,100
Sheriff Roy Coffee was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner, who was also a saloon gal in the Silver Dollar. Ben Cartwright signed it. And Ben Cartwright’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Sheriff Roy Coffee was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind, I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade or a blacksmith either. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or Nevada Territory is done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Sheriff Roy Coffee was as dead as a door-nail. WOMP.
Ben Cartwright knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? He didn’t move and he smelled quite dead. Ben Cartwright and he were partners for I don’t know how many years as Ben owned the Ponderosa, the biggest spread in the territory and Roy was the sheriff. Ben Cartwright was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Ben Cartwright was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that the sheriff was an excellent man of law business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Sheriff Roy Coffee’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Sheriff Roy Coffee was dead. DEAD DEAD DEAD. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say The Virginia City Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.
Ben Cartwright never painted out Old Sheriff Roy Coffee’s name on the Ponderosa outhouse. There it stood, years afterwards, above the door: Ben Cartwright, Cattle Baron of the Ponderosa and Sheriff Roy Coffee, buddy pal sheriff. The outhouse was known as Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Roy Coffee‘s favorite sitting and reading place. Roy had helped Ben build that two hole outhouse long before Adam and Candy Cratchett could swing a hammer, long before Ben met Marie either. Sometimes folks newly using the outhouse and finding there were no corn cobs or pages left in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, called Ben Cartwright Ben Cartwright, and sometimes Sheriff Roy Coffee, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him. A fine two hole out house with no splinters on the seat.
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Ben Cartwright! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner cattle baron! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as a prairie oyster from a one balled bull. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, unglued his toupee stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his booming voice that used to proclaim war news in Canada and read Alpo commercials as well as playing Captain Adama in space. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his coal black eyebrows, and his wiry chin and piercing eyes and silver hair. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Ponderosa Day, the holiday all the cowpokes and town folks and miners celebrated on the Comstock right after the San Gennaro Festival but before Chanukah.
External heat and cold had little influence on Ben Cartwright. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him and when he rode the range nothing mattered. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. He was one tough cowboy and what he couldn’t handle, a stunt double did. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. Even large quantities of cow manure or dead mules didn’t faze him. Dead women, lead bullets and corrupt lawman neither. They often came down handsomely, and Ben Cartwright never did.
Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Ben Cartwright, howdy! How are you? When will you come to see me upstairs in my private quarters above Julia‘s Place.” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle or a stale donut, no Indians sold him blankets or Saloon girls winked at him and no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place or even the Donner Pass or the Rusty Bucket, favorite saloon of Ben Cartwright. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him and would lift their legs upon his chaps; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”
But what did Ben Cartwright care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Ben Cartwright, cranky cattle baron of the Ponderosa, the biggest spread in Nevada Territory.
Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Ponderosa Day Eve — old Ben Cartwright sat busy in his ranch house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people on the dirt street and the wooden side walks outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet in cowboy boots upon the wooden sidewalks or drinking rotgut to warm them. The Virginia City clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already: it had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighboring establishments and saloons, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog rolled in from the Truckee River and came pouring in at every chink and keyhole in the log building and the barn as well, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the ranch houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything including the corrals and the barn, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale. Even the backdrop and the fake trees were enveloped in fog.
The door of Ben Cartwright’s log ranch house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, Candy Crachett who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Ben Cartwright had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal or a flaming chunk of tried buffalo poop. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Ben Cartwright kept the dried buffalo poop-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white patchwork comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.
“A merry Ponderosa Day, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Ben Cartwright’s nephew, Will “Zorro” Cartwright who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
“Bah!” said Ben Cartwright, “Humbug!”
He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost and with a sword carving a Z that stood for Zorro on everything about including Sergeant Garcia, this nephew of Ben Cartwright’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his moustache neatly trimmed, his shoulders broad, his hips narrow, his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again. He was hot. He was smoking’ and he had a hot babe, the former Laura Dayton awaiting him at home.
“Ponderosa Day a humbug, uncle!” said Ben Cartwright’s nephew, Will Zorro Cartwright. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”
“I do,” said Ben Cartwright. “Merry Ponderosa Day! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough. And you are married to LAURA DAYTON!”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily, though the word didn‘t mean the same thing it came to mean in the late 20th Century. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
“And you have a black cape and a swashbuckling mask as well as a black stallion named Torenado.”
“And a hot babe who looks like Barbie!” Will bragged.
Ben Cartwright having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
“Don’t be cross, uncle,” said the nephew.
“What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this Merry Ponderosa Day! Out upon merry Ponderosa Day. What’s Ponderosa Day time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and wearing your stupid black cape and swinging your sword but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Ben Cartwright indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with “Merry Ponderosa Day” on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart and spend some time with evil Kane in the desert looking for non-existent silver. He should!”
“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew. “KANE?”
“Nephew!” returned the uncle, sternly, “keep Ponderosa Day in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
“Keep it!” repeated Ben Cartwright’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”
“`Let me leave it alone, then,” said Ben Cartwright. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you! You sword swinging action hero!”
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Ponderosa Day among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Ponderosa Day time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: a time to eat roast beef and drink beer and pulque and fire six guns at the moon and howl, the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers on the Overland Stage riding to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys and cattle drives. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it! And Yahoo and Howdydoo!”
The clerk in the tank, Candy Cratchett, involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever.
“Let me hear another sound from you,” said Ben Cartwright, “and you’ll keep your Ponderosa Day by losing your situation. You’re quite a powerful speaker, sir,” he added, turning to his nephew. “I wonder you don’t go into Parliament or the senate with Senator Douglas who wants to free the slaves.”
“Don’t be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us to-morrow. We are having fried chicken and home made biscuits and apple pie and plenty of BEANS!”
“Yes! Beans! Beans, beans the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you toot!” sang Will. “And Laura’s Auntie Lil is going to do a hoochie mama dance on the table after dessert!”
Ben Cartwright said that he would see him — yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first. Besides he liked bean music.
“But why?” cried Ben Cartwright’s nephew, Will Zorro Cartwright. “Why?”
“Why did you get married?” said Ben Cartwright.
“Because I fell in love. And Hoochie Mama Aunt Lil made me a dupe.”
“Because you fell in love! With thin lipped, whiney Laura Dayton?” growled Ben Cartwright, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Ponderosa Day. “That gal kisses like an iceberg in the middle of winter. The iceberg that sank the Titanic and you, Will Cartwright, are sinking fast! Good afternoon!”
“Nay, uncle, she may be frigid but the pickings are slim to nothing out here in the wild west. It was either frigid Laura or Bessie Sue or Elsie the Cow or Darling Clementine.”
“Clementine?” asked the Uncle with a noxious tone of disdain in his voice. “Who was Clementine? “
“In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine, dwelt a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine,” explained Will to his Uncle.
“Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clementine,” sang Candy Cratchett in the outer office. “You are lost and gone forever!”
“Dreadful sorry, Clementine,” muttered Ben.
“Light she was, and like a fairy and her shoes were number nine. Herring boxes without topses sandals were for Clementine,” continued Will. “So you see Uncle, there was not much available female competition for Laura Dayton of the thin lips and frigid kisses.”
“Not much of a selection. But you never came to see me before that happened. Why give it as a reason for not coming now? Good afternoon,” said Ben Cartwright.
“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?’ Amigos? Compadres?”
“Good afternoon,” said Ben Cartwright.
“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Ponderosa Day, and I’ll keep my Ponderosa Day humor to the last. So A Merry Ponderosa Day, uncle!”
“Good afternoon!” said Ben Cartwright.
“And a Happy New Year!”
“Good afternoon!” said Ben Cartwright.
“And Joyous Kwanza and Happy Chanukah as well!” exclaimed Will.
“Good afternoon!” said Ben Cartwright.
His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the greeting of the season on the clerk, Candy Cratchett, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Ben Cartwright; for he returned them cordially.
“There’s another fellow,” muttered Ben Cartwright; who overheard him: “my clerk, Candy Cratchit, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Ponderosa Day. I’ll retire to Bedlam or Boca Raton, land of the early bird specials…to mondo condo and no snow and lots of rich widows.”
This lunatic, in letting Ben Cartwright’s nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Ben Cartwright’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.
“Is this the infamous Ponderosa Outhouse?” said the first.
“Ben Cartwright and Sheriff Roy Coffee’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Ben Cartwright, or Sheriff Roy Coffee?”
“Sheriff Roy Coffee has been dead these seven years,” Ben Cartwright replied. “He died seven years ago, this very night in the very out house behind the ranch house. Froze his sorry bony butt off right in that out house reading the corset section of the Sears Roebuck catalogue.”
“We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.
It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality”, Ben Cartwright frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back. “Don’t like none of them liberals from the blue states,” muttered Cartwright.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Ben Cartwright,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Ben Cartwright. “Is there no territorial prison with brutal guards played by Denver Pyle? No small jail cells with checker games through the bars with Sheriff Coffee?”
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again. “And plenty of prisoners like Griff King played by Tim Matheson and that other one played by Dean Jones who had but a wooden doll for a friend.”
“Better a tiny wooden doll than Laura Dayton,” growled Ben.
“But sir!” said the gentlemen.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Ben Cartwright. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Virginia City Orphanage for the dead miner’s children and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” said Ben Cartwright.
“Both very busy, sir. Wayne Newton is doing a singing show for a benefit for said orphans.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Ben Cartwright. “I’m very glad to hear it. Don’t invite me as I hate Wayne Newton as much as I hate the Ballerina.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth like red Indian Blankets that can be placed over stair railings or used for warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Ben Cartwright replied.
“You wish to be anonymous? Or perhaps buy some thin mint girl scout cookies or chocolate bars for Little League or sponsor a hungry orphan with that puffy girl, Sally Struthers, who was the daughter in “All in the Family”?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Ben Cartwright. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Ponderosa Day and I can’t afford to make idle people merry or cowboys dance unless I shoot at their feet and yell “Dance!” I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die with my boots on,” said Ben Cartwright, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Ben Cartwright returned. “It’s enough for a cowboy to understand his own business and not step in piles of steaming horse manure, and not to interfere with other people’s herds nor change their brands or drink from poison wells or get blisters on their butts from lumpy saddles. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Ben Cartwright resumed his labors and cowhands and wranglers with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.
Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages and Conestoga wagons, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Ben Cartwright out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations of tunes by David Rose afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen herd up there. The cold became intense much like soaking yourself in the horse trough and then putting your wet tongue on an iron pump handle on cold winter night. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some cowboys were repairing the hitching rail, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and cowboys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture as they drank rot gut and listened to rinky tink piano music spilling out from swinging back wing doors of the Rusty Bucket Saloon. The water trough being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. None of the cowboys were worldly enough to chip off the ice and use it in the rotgut with ginger ale or to make brandy squashes. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries and new saddles and spurs and leather chaps crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers’ and grocers’ trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Mayor of Virginia City (played by Tom Bosley or Wally Cox, depending on how the last vote went), in the stronghold of the might Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Ponderosa Day as a Mayor’s household should; and even the little tailor who sewed endless green corduroy jackets and tight tan pants and black garb for the stars of the show, whom Deputy Clem had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up tomorrow’s pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef and the fried chicken and biscuits and other grub. No one ever quite understood why the folks in Virginia City used English Money, yet, they did in this tale.
Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons or a lasso or a Sharps Buffalo rifle, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose and a hoopdedoo. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by coyotes or mountain lions or wolves that ate stray calves, stooped down at Ben Cartwright’s keyhole to regale him with a Ponderosa Day carol: but at the first sound of God bless you, merry gentleman and Happy Trails to You Yahoo! May nothing you dismay! Ben Cartwright seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
At length the hour of shutting up the ranch house arrived. With an ill-will Ben Cartwright dismounted from his saddle, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk, Candy Cratchit in the Tank, who instantly snuffed his candle out, and put on his cowboy hat.
“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Ben Cartwright.
“If quite convenient, Sir.” sad Candy with a smirking smile.
“It’s not convenient,” said Ben Cartwright, “and it’s not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound?”
The clerk smiled faintly. His head was shaped like a lima bean.
“And yet,” said Ben Cartwright, “you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”
The clerk observed that it was only once a year.
“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every Ponderosa Day!” said Ben Cartwright, buttoning his tan canvass great-coat to the chin. “But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning!”
The clerk promised that he would; and Ben Cartwright walked out with a growl. The ranch house office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white patchwork comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no great-coat or green corduroy jacket nor yellow deerskin coat but always wore a red shirt and black leather vest much as Adam had in the first season. Candy Crachit went down a slide on Gold Hill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honor of its being Ponderosa Day Eve, and then ran home to the bad side of Virginia City as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman’s buff.
Ben Cartwright took his melancholy dinner of salsa and buffalo chips and jerky and beer in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the Virginia City Enterprise, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s-book, went home to bed. When staying in town, he lived in chambers which had once belonged to the deceased Sheriff Coffee. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard from the jail, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Ben Cartwright, the other rooms being all let out as offices and horse stalls. The barn yard was so dark that even Ben Cartwright, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old barn yard of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.
Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the heavy oak door of the Ponderosa, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Cattle Baron Ben Cartwright had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Ben Cartwright had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London, even including — which is a bold word — the corporation, aldermen, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Ben Cartwright had not bestowed one thought on Sheriff Roy Coffee, since his last mention of his seven-year’s dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Ben Cartwright, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Sheriff Roy Coffee’s mustachioed face.
Sheriff Roy Coffee’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar or rattle snake bites on your derriere. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Ben Cartwright as Sheriff Roy Coffee used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid color, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.
As Ben Cartwright looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.
To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle.
He did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Sheriff Roy Coffee’s tush sticking out into the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said “Pooh, pooh, pooh!” and closed it with a bang.
The sound resounded through the house like thunder. Every room above, and every cask of Vino de Ponderosa in the wine-merchant’s cellars below, appeared to have a separate peal of echoes of its own. Ben Cartwright was not a man to be frightened by echoes nor bean gas smells. He fastened the door, and walked across the hall, and up the stairs, slowly too: trimming his candle as he went.
You may talk vaguely about driving a coach-and-six up a good old flight of stairs, or through a bad young Act of Parliament; but I mean to say you might have got a hearse up that staircase, and taken it broadwise, with the splinter-bar towards the wall and the door towards the balustrades with the red Indian blanket hanging on the rail: and done it easy. There was plenty of width for that, and room to spare; which is perhaps the reason why Ben Cartwright thought he saw a locomotive hearse going on before him in the gloom. Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Ben Cartwright’s salsa dip and cow chips.
Up Ben Cartwright went, not caring a button for that: darkness is cheap, and Ben Cartwright liked it. But before he shut his heavy door, he walked through his rooms to see that all was right. He had just enough recollection of the face to desire to do that.
Sitting-room, bed-room, slumber-room. All as they should be. Nobody under the table, nobody under the sofa; a small fire in the grate; spoon and basin ready; and the little saucepan of gruel and salsa prairie oyster stew (Ben Cartwright has a cold in his head and nothing cleared your Cattle Baron nostrils like some good salsa and bull balls) upon the hob. Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his pink satin lapelled, burgundy velvet dressing-gown, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the stucco wall. Lumber-room as usual. Old fire-guard, old cowboy boot, two fish-baskets, gun belt, gilt framed portraits of three dead wives, washing-stand on three legs, and a poker table.
Quite satisfied, he closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his cravat; put on his pink satin lapelled, burgundy velvet dressing-gown and fluffy slippers, and his night-cap that made him look like Hoss when he had amnesia and was called Heinrich; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel and salsa.
It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel. The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago who had kidnapped Hoss when he had amnesia and gave him the stupid hat, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles, designed to illustrate the Scriptures. There were Cains and Abels, Abel Stoddard and Peter Kanes and Crucibles Pharaoh’s daughters who Little Joe lusted after (claiming he was Joseph and the Technicolor dream coat not Little Joe and the Green (or Greene) corduroy jacket), Queens of Sheba, Aces, King, Queens and Jacks of Pokers, The Lady From Baltimore, Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds as well as the foolish professor played by Ed Wynne who tried to make Hoss fly like a bird, Abrahams, Belshazzars, Apostles putting off to sea in butter-boats, hundreds of figures to attract his thoughts; and yet that face of Sheriff Roy Coffee, seven years dead, came like the ancient Prophet’s rod, and swallowed up the whole. If each smooth tile had been a blank at first, or an early color TV, with power to shape some picture on its surface from the disjointed fragments of his thoughts, there would have been a copy of old Sheriff Roy Coffee’s head on every one. Not a pretty thing to behold or smell his bean gas remnants.
“Humbug!” said Ben Cartwright; and walked across the room and lit a match to rid the abode of the fumes.
After several turns, he sat down again. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten or when Little Joe was chasing a girl with a frog or falling from his horse when beaten by the miners, with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house.
This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar. Ben Cartwright then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains. He saw it on “Unsolved Mysteries” with Robert Stack in a trench coat.
The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
“It’s humbug still!” said Ben Cartwright. “I won’t believe it.”
His color changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him! Sheriff Roy Coffee’s Ghost!” and fell again.
The same face: the very same. Sheriff Roy Coffee in his dusty hat, usual checkered waistcoat, tights, and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his moustache, and his coat-skirts, and the tufty sparse hair upon his balding head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Ben Cartwright observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, wanted posters and old coffee pots and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Ben Cartwright, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind and the trap door of his long red flannel undies.
Ben Cartwright had often heard it said that Sheriff Roy Coffee had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.
No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.
“How now!” said Ben Cartwright, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”
“Much!” Sheriff Roy Coffee’s voice, no doubt about it.
“Who are you?”
“Ask me who I was.”
“Who were you then.” said Ben Cartwright, raising his voice. “You’re particular, for a shade.” He was going to say “to a shade,” but substituted this, as more appropriate.
“In life I was your partner, Sheriff Roy Coffee Sheriff Roy Coffee. Sheriff of Virginia City!”
“Can you — can you sit down on the red settee?” asked Ben Cartwright, looking doubtfully at him.
“Do it, then.”
Ben Cartwright asked the question, because he didn’t know whether a ghost so transparent might find himself in a condition to take a chair; and felt that in the event of its being impossible, it might involve the necessity of an embarrassing explanation. But the ghost sat down on the opposite side of the fireplace, as if he were quite used to it.
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Ben Cartwright.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Ben Cartwright.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Ben Cartwright, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of fine Ponderosa beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato, some of that crappy apple pie made from Ritz crackers. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Ben Cartwright was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is that he tried to be smart as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the specter’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones and the very toupee on his head.
To sit, staring at those fixed, glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Ben Cartwright felt, the very deuce with him. There was something very awful, too, in the specter’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Ben Cartwright could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapor from an oven or a branding fire.
“You see this toothpick?” said Ben Cartwright, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself.
“I do,” replied the Ghost.
“You are not looking at it,” said Ben Cartwright.
“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.”
“Well!” returned Ben Cartwright, “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you; humbug!”
“If you swallow a toothpick, it will really hurt coming out the other end.”
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise much like a coyote or Tirza the gypsy girl singing or Maestro Hoss playing the violin, that Ben Cartwright held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear in-doors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast! YUK!
Ben Cartwright fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.
“Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”
“Tis a hard job, but someone has to do it, Cowboy! Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “Do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” said Ben Cartwright. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of every cowboy,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men and avoid stepping in horse manure, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world — oh, woe is me! — and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness and avoid stepping in horse manure!”
Again the specter raised a cry, and shook its chain, and wrung its shadowy hands.
“You are fettered,” said Ben Cartwright, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Ben Cartwright trembled more and more. “Like the barbed wire fence on the north pasture that the boys are continually fixing or claiming to fix in each episode?”
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Ponderosa Day Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is a ponderous chain! Get that PONDEROUS! Not Ponderosa”
Ben Cartwright glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.
“Sheriff Roy Coffee,” he said, imploringly. “Old Sheriff Roy Coffee Sheriff Roy Coffee, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Sheriff Roy Coffee.”
“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied. “It comes from other regions and territories, Ben Cartwright, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of cowboys. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more, is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond our ranch-house — mark me! — in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of my shtunky sheriff’s office and your humongous cattle ranch; and weary journeys lie before me!”
It was a habit with Ben Cartwright, whenever he became thoughtful, to put his hands in his earthtoned breeches pockets. Pondering on what the Ghost had said, he did so now, but without lifting up his eyes, or getting off his knees.
“You must have been very slow about it, Sheriff Roy Coffee,” Ben Cartwright observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference.
“Slow!” the Ghost repeated.
“Seven years dead,” mused Ben Cartwright. “And traveling all the time?”
“The whole time,” said the Ghost. “No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”
“You travel fast?” said Ben Cartwright. “Like in the Overland Stage or riding the back of a fast stallion?”
“On the wings of the wind,” replied the Ghost. “Like that kooky professor who tried to get Hoss to fly with technicolor wings that rivaled the colors of the NBC Peacock.”
“You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years,” said Ben Cartwright.
The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little color television tube, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! Such was I!”
“But you were always a good lawman, Sheriff Roy Coffee,” faltered Ben Cartwright, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Lawman!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business! A spit in the brass cuspidor or life.”
It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.
“At this time of the rolling year,” the specter said, “I suffer most, especially my hemorrhoids. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”
Ben Cartwright was very much dismayed to hear the specter going on at this rate, and began to quake exceedingly.
“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone. Gone with the Wind.”
“I will,” said Ben Cartwright. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Sheriff Roy Coffee! Pray!”
“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.”
It was not an agreeable idea. Ben Cartwright shivered, and wiped the perspiration from his brow with his bandana.
“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Benjamin.”
“You were always a good friend to me,” said Ben Cartwright. “Thank’ee!”
“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe.”
Ben Cartwright’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done. “Adam? Hoss? And Little Joe? What sort of name is Hoss?”
“Well his real name is Eric. But his nickname is Hoss,” said the spirit.
“Hoss?” gasped Ben. “What sort of name is Hoss? Is he a beast?”
“No, Hoss means ‘A big, friendly sort of man.’ His uncle Gunnar who later became a Swedish Mexican Commanchero Viking in an Orange satin shirt…”
“You jest! An Orange satin shirt”
“I ain’t joshing, Ben! That’s the goldurn truth. Orange as the formica in the Brady Bunch’s kitchen.”
“So Eric is called Hoss based on the orange garbed Viking?”
“Yes, exceptin’ in that awful PAX “Ponderosa” show where Marie Exploded and Hoss was horse bit in his butt… but yes, Hoss was named by that Uncle Gunnar feller.”
Ben shook his head in disbelief at the tale. “Adam? Hoss and Little Joe will haunt me? They won’t marry and move off the Ponderosa? Ever? “
“Well Adam will disappear in a huff, but that is yet in the Ponderosa Day of the future…Yep them boys will haunt you like a chunk of steak gristle caught in your molar,”
“Hoss, Adam and Little Joe?”
“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Sheriff Roy Coffee?” he demanded, in a faltering voice.
“I — I think I’d rather not,” said Ben Cartwright.
“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell on that big sucker grandfather clock in the dining room tolls one.”
“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Sheriff Roy Coffee?” hinted Ben Cartwright.
“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate on that big clock that is in the dining room. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us.”
When it had said these words, the specter took its red checkered table cloth from the dining room table, and bound it round its head, as before. Ben Cartwright knew this, by the smart sound its teeth made, when the jaws were brought together by the bandage. He ventured to raise his eyes again, and found his supernatural visitor confronting him in an erect attitude, with its chain wound over and about its arm and a sheriff’s badge on his chest.
The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the specter reached it, it was wide open.
It beckoned Ben Cartwright to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Sheriff Roy Coffee’s Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Ben Cartwright stopped. He sure didn’t want to walk through the painted on window scenery that often changed from episode to episode so that the dining room view was of a forest or a desert or a meadow depending on the season and all the bedrooms of his house faced to the front.
Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of the hand, he became sensible of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; cattle mooing and banjos twanging, wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory and background music by David Rose that gave a movie like quality to each episode. In future times Michael Landon, a clever lad, would recycle the melodies into Little House Episodes. The specter, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; rubbed his fingers through his moth eaten moustache, tipped his hat and floated out upon the bleak, dark night. “Adios, Ben! And happy trails to you!”
Ben Cartwright followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out.
The air was filled with phantoms, and cattle and Indians and cactus wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Even women all wearing blue dresses flitted about and rode out of town on the stage or died after falling in love. Every one of them wore chains like Sheriff Roy Coffee’s Ghost; some few were linked together like men in the chain gang at the Nevada Territory Penitentiary; none were commercial free. Many had been personally known to Ben Cartwright in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. He was the banker whose daughter, a doomed blonde girl in a blue dress, had been killed by Beau Bridges. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded together; and the night became as it had been when he walked home to the Ponderosa.
Ben Cartwright closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. His hat was on the hat rack, his gun belt coiled on the sideboard. The bowl of wax apples on the low table in front of the settee was untouched. He tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable and said “HUM!” And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the Ghost of Roy Coffee, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep upon the instant wearing his tan leather vest and his earth toned gray green shirt.
When Ben Cartwright awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque log walls of his massive cattle baron chamber. He was endeavoring to pierce the darkness with his chocolate brown ferret eyes, when the chimes of a neighboring church struck the four quarters. So he listened for the hour.
To his great astonishment the heavy bell went on from six to seven, and from seven to eight, and regularly up to twelve; then stopped. Twelve! It was past two when he went to bed. The grandfather clock in the dining room was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Twelve!
He touched the spring of his repeater and twirled his six gun, to correct this most preposterous clock. Its rapid little pulse beat twelve: and stopped.
‘Why, it isn’t possible,’ said Ben Cartwright, ‘that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night. It isn’t possible that anything has happened to the sun, and this is twelve at noon! There are fences to ride and stray cattle to round up.’
The idea being an alarming one, he scrambled out of bed, and groped his way to the window. He was obliged to rub the frost off with the sleeve of his burgundy velvet dressing-gown with pink satin lapels before he could see anything; and could see very little then. Ben had received that robe from a female admirer but never revealed if it was Lotta Crabtree, Adah Menkin, Julia Bullette or Joyce Edwards. All he could make out was, that it was still very foggy and extremely cold, and that there was no noise of people or ranch hands or cattle running to and fro, and making a great stir, as there unquestionably would have been if night had beaten off bright day and it was pay day on the Comstock, and taken possession of the world. This was a great relief, because “Three days after sight of this First of Exchange pay to Mr. Ben Cartwright or his order,” and so forth, would have become a mere United States security if there were no days to count by.
Ben Cartwright went to bed again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; and, the more he endeavored not to think, the more he thought.
Roy Coffee’s Ghost bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after mature inquiry, that it was all a dream, his mind flew back again, like a strong spring released or a bucking bronco, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, ‘Was it a dream or not? ‘
Ben Cartwright lay in this state until the chime had gone three quarters more, when he remembered, on a sudden, that the Ghost had warned him of a visitation when the bell tolled one. He resolved to lie awake until the hour was passed; and, considering that he could no more go to sleep than go to Heaven, this was, perhaps, the wisest resolution in his power.
The quarter was so long, that he was more than once convinced he must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock. At length it broke upon his listening ear.
‘A quarter past,’ said Ben Cartwright, counting.
‘Half-past!’ said Ben Cartwright.
‘A quarter to it,’ said Ben Cartwright.
‘The hour itself,’ said Ben Cartwright triumphantly, ‘and nothing else!’
He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did
with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy One. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of his bed were drawn.
The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Ben Cartwright, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.
It was a strange figure-like a child: yet not so like a child as like a grown cowboy, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its curly chestnut hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age until he dyed it with Clairol; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. His eyes were sparkling like green Heineken bottles. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest green corduroy; and round its waist was bound a lustrous gun belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. His gun belt snuggly strapped on accentuated his narrow hips and tight tan pants. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown, around the tan cowboy hat, on its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
Even this, though, when Ben Cartwright looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its gun belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.
‘Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?’ asked Ben Cartwright.
‘I am,’ said Little Joe.
The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
‘Who, and what are you?’ Ben Cartwright demanded.
‘I am Little Joe, the Ghost of Ponderosa Day Past.’
“Little Joe? What kind of name is that? You look neither little nor like a Joe,” said Ben.
“Tis but a nickname as my brothers, Hoss and Adam, are larger and older than I,” smiled Little Joe.
“Horse? Your brother is a horse?” inquired Ben.
“Hoss! Not Horse, Pa…er, Ben Cartwright. His real name is Eric but we call him Hoss. It means a big, good humored mountain man spirit.”
“Ah ha!” exclaimed Ben. “Not horse?”
“No, sir. Except in that long past stupid rip off show that had the name based on Hoss getting butt bit by a horse and my dear sweet mother being EXPLODED Marie, not real Marie…you lost past love,” Joe explained. He picked up the golden framed picture of REAL Marie and shed a tear. “My MAMA!”
‘Long Past?’ inquired Ben Cartwright: observant of its dwarfish stature. “And don’t drip any tears on that picture.”
‘No. Your past.’
Perhaps, Ben Cartwright could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him; but he had a special desire to see the Spirit in his cap; and begged him to be covered.
‘What!’ exclaimed the Ghost, ‘would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give. Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow so I look cool and sexy?’
Ben Cartwright reverently disclaimed all intention to offend or any knowledge of having willfully bonneted the Spirit at any period of his life. He then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.
‘Your welfare!’ said the Ghost, Little Joe.
Ben Cartwright expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately:
‘Your reclamation, then. Take heed!’
It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm.
‘Rise and walk with me, Pa….er, Ben!’
It would have been in vain for Ben Cartwright to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes and it would be easy to step on some horse manure in the dark or trip over a fence post; that bed was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that he was clad but lightly in his slippers, his burgundy velvet dressing-gown with pink satin lapels, and nightcap; and that he had a cold upon him at that time. The left handed grasp, though gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped his robe in supplication.
‘I am mortal,’ Ben Cartwright remonstrated, ‘and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this! Just like you brought me down from Eagle’s nest shall I carry you.’
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open prairie road, with cattle pastures on either hand. Virginia City had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.
‘Good Heaven!’ said Ben Cartwright, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. ‘I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!’
“Err um…weren’t you raised in Boston, Pa?” Joe asked.
“Oh, yes, but tis cold and the middle of the night and I make less sense than that episode called the ‘Ballerina’ when I am cold and tired.”
The Spirit, Little Joe gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle left handed touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten.
‘Your lip is trembling,’ said the Ghost. ‘And what is that upon your cheek?’
Ben Cartwright muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a single tear; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
“Tis a tear, Pa…er, Ben. No one cries better than I do!” bragged Little Joe.
“No one indeed. And you are a manly cowboy as well,” smiled Ben.
‘You recollect the way?’ inquired the Spirit, Little Joe. “Or do we need to check out that big sucker map on the wall behind your desk that bursts into flames at the beginning of each episode?”
‘Remember it!’ cried Ben Cartwright with fervor; ‘ I could walk it blindfold as well as riding on Buck who was also the horse ridden by Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. He was a man much admired.’
‘Strange to have forgotten it for so many years but I don‘t give a hoot about Marshal Dillon. It was Miss Kitty I admired!’ observed the Ghost, Little Joe. ‘Let us go on.’
They walked along the road, Ben Cartwright recognizing every gate, and hitching post, and pine tree; until Virginia City appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, silver mines, saloons and winding Truckee River. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with cowboys upon their backs, who called to other cowboys in country gigs and carts, driven by cowboys. All these cowboys were in great spirits as it was pay day and Saturday night, and shouted “yahoo and howdy” to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry banjo music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.
‘These are but shadows of the things that have been,’ said the Ghost in the green corduroy jacket. ‘They have no consciousness of us.’
The jocund travelers came on; and as they came, Ben Cartwright knew and named them every one. “Tis all my old long lost friends who I knew long ago. They came to the Ponderosa and were never seen in another episode once they caused a stir. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them? Why did his cold eye glisten and his heart leap up as they went past? Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Ponderosa Day, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes? What was Merry Ponderosa Day to Ben Cartwright? Out upon merry Ponderosa Day! What good had it ever done to him?
‘The schoolhouse is not quite deserted,’ said the Ghost. ‘A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.’
Ben Cartwright said he knew it. And he sobbed. “It was the school of Miss Abigail Jones!”
They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick built by the sudden wealth of a prospector who hit a silver strike, with a little weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and Derby Royal Bunnies shtupted and reproduced ad infinitum and the barn and corrals and sheds were over-run with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished, cold, and vast. There was an earthy savor in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candlelight, and not too much to eat.
“A lonely boy was reading by a feeble fire.”
They went, the Ghost, Little Joe and Ben Cartwright, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Ben Cartwright sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.
Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the paneling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Ben Cartwright with a softening influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears. “Twas before I ran off to sea with Captain Abel Stoddard!”
“Adam’s grandfather?” Little Joe asked.
“Yes, one and the same,” said Ben.
The Spirit, Little Joe touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in sailor’s garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, a parrot on his shoulder and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.
‘Why, it’s Captain Abel Stoddard!’ Ben Cartwright exclaimed in ecstasy.
To hear Ben Cartwright expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.
“There’s the Parrot!” cried Ben Cartwright. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Hallo!’
Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, ‘Poor boy.’ and cried again.
‘I wish,’ Ben Cartwright muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: ‘but it’s too late now.’
‘What is the matter?’ asked the Spirit, Little Joe.
‘Nothing,’ said Ben Cartwright. ‘Nothing. There was a boy singing a Ponderosa Day Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.’
The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its left hand: saying as it did so, ‘Let us see another Ponderosa Day!’
Ben Cartwright’s former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Ben Cartwright knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays.
He was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly. Ben Cartwright looked at the Ghost, Little Joe and with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced anxiously towards the door.
It opened; and a little girl, much younger than the boy, came darting in, and putting her arms about his neck, and often kissing him, addressed him as her ‘Dear, dear brother.’
‘I have come to bring you home, dear brother!’ said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. ‘To bring you home, home, home!’
‘Home, little Fan?’ returned the boy.
“Gee, Pa. I didn’t know you had a sister. Is she my Aunt Fran? Is she the one who used to send us the dry hard fruit cakes for Ponderosa Day, back East?”
“Fan, not Fran,” corrected Ben. “Fran was Cousin Clarissa’s domestic partner. This flashback girl is Fan.”
‘Yes!’ said the child, brimful of glee. ‘Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a man!’ said the child, opening her eyes,’ and are never to come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Ponderosa Day long, and have the merriest time in all the world.’
‘You are quite a woman, little Fan!’ exclaimed the boy, Ben Cartwright of Ponderosa Day past.
She clapped her hands and laughed, and tried to touch his head; but being too little, laughed again, and stood on tiptoe to embrace him. Then she began to drag him, in her childish eagerness, towards the door; and he, nothing loath to go, accompanied her.
A terrible voice in the hall cried. ‘Bring down Master Ben Cartwright’s box, there!’ and in the hall appeared the schoolmarm, Abigail Jones herself, who glared on Master Ben Cartwright with a ferocious condescension, and threw him into a dreadful state of mind by shaking hands with him. She then conveyed him and his sister into the variest old well of a shivering best-parlor that ever was seen, where the maps upon the wall, and the celestial and terrestrial globes in the windows, were waxy with cold. Here she produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake, and administered installments of those dainties to the young people: at the same time, sending out a meager servant to offer a glass of something to the postboy, who answered that he thanked the gentleman, but if it was the same tap as he had tasted before, he had rather not. Master Ben Cartwright’s trunk being by this time tied on to the top of the chaise, the children bade the schoolmaster good-bye right willingly; and getting into it, drove gaily down the garden-sweep: the quick wheels dashing the hoar-frost and snow from off the dark leaves of the Ponderosa pines like spray.
‘Always a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered,’ said the Ghost, Little Joe. ‘But she had a large heart. Not like that Fran who shipped us those bad fruit cakes. That was how Hoss broke that front tooth, you know. On one of those petrified glace cherries’
‘So he had,’ cried Ben Cartwright. ‘You’re right. I will not gainsay it, Spirit. God forbid!’
‘She died a woman,’ said the Ghost, Little Joe ‘and had, as I think, children…’
‘One child,’ Ben Cartwright returned. “William Zorro Cartwright.”
‘True,’ said the Ghost. ‘Your nephew, Cousin Will, who stole whiney Laura Dayton from Adam. That truly was a blessing.’
Ben Cartwright seemed uneasy in his mind; and answered briefly, ‘Yes, twas a blessing.’
Although they had but that moment left the school behind them, they were now in the busy thoroughfares of Virginia City, where shadowy passengers passed and repassed; where shadowy carts and stage coaches battle for the way, and all the strife and tumult of a real city were. It was made plain enough, by the dressing of the shops, that here too it was Ponderosa Day time again; but it was evening, and the streets were lighted up.
The Ghost stopped at a certain warehouse door, and asked Ben Cartwright if he knew it.
‘Know it!’ said Ben Cartwright. ‘Was I apprenticed here?’
They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in a Welsh wig, sitting behind such a high desk, that if he had been two inches taller he must have knocked his head against the ceiling, Ben Cartwright cried in great excitement:
‘Why, it’s old Abel Stoddard! Abel Stoddard! Bless his heart; it’s Abel Stoddard! Abel Stoddard alive again!’
Old Abel Stoddard laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands and poked his parrot on his shoulder; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:
‘Yo ho, there! Benjamin! Gilligan!’
Ben Cartwright’s former self, now grown a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-prentice.
‘Gilligan, to be sure.’ said Ben Cartwright to the Ghost. ‘Bless me, yes. There he is. He was very much attached to me, was Gilligan. Poor Gilligan. Dear, dear.’
‘Yo ho, my boys!’ said Abel Stoddard. ‘No more work to-night. Ponderosa Day Eve, Gilligan. Ponderosa Day, Benjamin! Let’s have the shutters up,’ cried old Abel Stoddard, with a sharp clap of his hands, ‘before a man can say Jack Robinson!’
“The baseball player? Garsh!” said Gilligan.
“Pa, what happened to your old friend?” asked Little Joe. “I mean, Ben Cartwright, not Pa.”
“Gilligan? He who was long lost.”
“Long Lost? All your old friends are long lost. And then they show up on the Ponderosa with some sort of troubles and sometimes a pretty daughter who stirs up one or all of our longing.”
“No Gilligan was truly Long Lost. He was shipwrecked on an island, a castaway. He was there for a long long time. He had to make the best of it. It was an up hill climb and not heard from for years.
You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it. They charged into the street with the shutters-one, two, three-had them up in their places-four, five, six-barred them and pinned then-seven, eight, nine-and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.
‘Hilli-ho!’ cried old Abel Stoddard, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. ‘Clear away, my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Gilligan! Chirrup, Benjamin!’
Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Abel Stoddard looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.
In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches like the morning after a night of drinking pulque. In came Mrs. Abel Stoddard, one vast substantial smile. In came Elizabeth Stoddard, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers, sailors, whose hearts she broke when she fell for Ben Cartwright. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, the sailors from the Wanderer, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and every how. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them. When this result was brought about, old Abel Stoddard, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, ‘Well done.’ and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of rotgut especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.
“Then old Abel Stoddard stood out to dance with Mrs. Abel Stoddard.”
There were more square dances, and there were forfeits, and more square dances, and there was cake, and there was red punch, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast of beef, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled beef, and there were mince-pies made by Hop Sing‘s father, and plenty of beer from the Silver Dollar Saloon. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind. The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him.) struck up ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ Then old Abel Stoddard stood out to square dance with Mrs. Abel Stoddard. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.
But if they had been twice as many-ah, four times- old Abel Stoddard would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs. Abel Stoddard. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me
higher, and I’ll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Abel Stoddard’s calves. His spurs shone in every part of the dance like moons.
You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next. And when old Abel Stoddard and Mrs. Abel Stoddard had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Abel Stoddard ‘cut’-cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.
When the clock struck eleven, this square dance ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Abel Stoddard took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Ponderosa Day. When everybody had retired but the two prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were in the hay loft in the back-barn.
During the whole of this time, Ben Cartwright had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now, when the bright faces of his former self and Gilligan were turned from them, that he remembered the Ghost, Little Joe and became conscious that it was looking full upon him, while the light upon its head burnt very clear.
‘A small matter,’ said the Ghost, Little Joe ‘to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.’
‘Small!’ echoed Ben Cartwright.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Abel Stoddard: and when he had done so, said,
‘Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps.”
“Pounds? Why do you think we would use English currency?” asked Ben.
“Who knows, Pa? That’s what the script said. Don’t ask me. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?’
“He the writer… by the way, I wrote this script over the weekend. Ain’t I talented? And good looking too? Next season I am going to direct a couple of episodes too!” smiled Little Joe.
“Let’s not get all full of yourself, son,” said Ben, elbowing the spirit paternally.
Joe winked at the camera. “Let’s get back to the story, Pa….er, Ben,”
‘It isn’t that,’ said Ben Cartwright, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. ‘It isn’t that, Spirit, Little Joe. “Tis the network.”
“Yes, son. NBC, the network has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil or even total cancellation mid season. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
‘What is the matter?’ asked the Ghost, Little Joe.
‘Nothing in particular,’ said Ben Cartwright. “I was just thinking of how the network put you on Hullabaloo and you sang rock and roll in a tight suit with a narrow tie.”
‘I sure was something, I think?’ the Ghost insisted. He drew out his six gun and twirled it. “The gals loved it. That sweater was alpaca from the same store Andy Williams and Wayne Newton use. ”
“Er… don’t give up acting for singing, son.”
Little Joe reholstered his pistol. “Can I sing in the shower?”
‘No,’ said Ben Cartwright, ‘No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk, Candy Crachett just now. That’s all.’
His former self turned down the kerosene lamps as he gave utterance to the wish; and Ben Cartwright and the Ghost again stood side by side in the open air.
‘My time grows short,’ observed the Spirit, Little Joe. ‘Quick!’
This was not addressed to Ben Cartwright, or to any one whom he could see, but it produced an immediate effect. For again Ben Cartwright saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. His hair was silver. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing pine tree would fall.
He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Ponderosa Day Past.
‘It matters little,’ she said, softly. ‘To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.’
‘What Idol has displaced you?’ he rejoined.
‘A golden one.’
‘Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.’
‘I was a boy,’ he said impatiently. “A mere sailor. I wanted more. I want to be a cattle baron, not a sailor.”
‘Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,’ she returned. ‘I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.’
‘Have I ever sought release?’ Ben wiggled his black eyebrows suggestively.
‘In words. No. Never.’ said Elizabeth. “Though I did offer that night my parents were gone and you and I were smooching by the fire….”
He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed.
‘You may-the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will-have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen… a cattle baron out west!’
She left him, and they parted.
‘Spirit!’ said Ben Cartwright, ‘show me no more! Conduct me home to the Ponderosa. Why do you delight to torture me?’
‘One shadow more!’ exclaimed the Ghost.
‘No more!’ cried Ben Cartwright. ‘No more, I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!’
But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms, and forced him to observe what happened next. “Look, Pa! LOOK!”
They were in another scene and place; a room, not very large or handsome, but full of comfort. Near to the winter fire sat a beautiful young girl, so like that last that Ben Cartwright believed it was the same, until he saw her, now a comely matron, sitting opposite her daughter. The noise in this room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there, than Ben Cartwright in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty. The consequences
were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly.
But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that she with laughing face and plundered dress was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group, just in time to greet the father, who came home attended by a man laden with Ponderosa Day toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenseless porter! The scaling him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round his neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection! The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received!
And now Ben Cartwright looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed.
‘Elizabeth,’ said the husband, turning to his wife with a smile, ‘I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon.’
‘Who was it?’
‘How can I? Tut, don’t I know?’ she added in the same breath, laughing as he laughed. ‘Mr. Ben Cartwright.’
‘Mr. Ben Cartwright it was. I passed his office window; and as it was not shut up, and he had a candle inside, I could scarcely help seeing him. His partner, Roy Coffee lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe.’
‘Spirit!’ said Ben Cartwright in a broken voice, ‘remove me from this place.’
‘I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,’ said the Ghost. ‘That they are what they are, do not blame me!’
‘Remove me!’ Ben Cartwright exclaimed, ‘I cannot bear it!’
He turned upon the Ghost, Little Joe and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.
‘Leave me! Take me back! Haunt me no longer!’ Ben bellowed.
In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Ben Cartwright observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.
The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Ben Cartwright pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light, which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.
He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.
Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Ben Cartwright had no occasion to be told that the bell was again upon the stroke of one. He felt that he was restored to consciousness in the right nick of Jamie, for the especial purpose of holding a conference with the second messenger dispatched to him through Roy Coffee’s intervention. But, finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new specter would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own cowboy hands, and lying down again, established a sharp look-out all round the massive, like himself, cattle baron bed. For, he wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance, and did not wish to be taken by surprise, and made nervous.
Gentlemen of the free-and-easy sort, who plume themselves on being acquainted with a move or two, and being usually equal to the Jamie-of-day, express the wide range of their capacity for adventure by observing that they are good for anything from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter; between which opposite extremes, no doubt, there lies a tolerably wide and comprehensive range of subjects. Without venturing for Ben Cartwright quite as hardily as this, I don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and Jigger Thurmond’s bull would have astonished him very much.
Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the bell struck one, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this Jamie, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the grand father clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was some Jamie’s apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it. At last, however, he began to think-as you or I would have thought at first; for it is always the person not in the predicament who knows what ought to have been done in it, and would unquestionably have done it too-at last, I say, he began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine. This idea taking full possession of his mind, he got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.
The moment Ben Cartwright’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.
It was his own dining room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The log walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, ponderosa pine and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Ben Cartwright’s Jamie, or Roy Coffee’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, fried chickens, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, apple pies made from soda crackers, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of prairie oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples in a huge bowl on the coffee table, grapes from the Edwards vines, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of Ben’s own special red punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Ben Cartwright, as he came peeping round the door.
‘Come in!’ exclaimed the Ghost who had the name of Hoss. ‘Come in! and know me better, man.’
Ben Cartwright entered Jamieidly, and hung his head before this Spirit of Hoss. He was not the dogged Ben Cartwright he had been; and though the Spirit’s eyes were clear blue and kind, he did not like to meet them.
‘I am the Ghost of Ponderosa Day Present,’ said the Spirit, Hoss. ‘Look upon me!’
Ben Cartwright reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice and hairy. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath trimmed ten gallon hat, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark blondish curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanor, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique gun belt; but no pistol was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust. Hoss did however have a Sharps buffalo rifle leaning on the settee in the adjoining room.
‘You have never seen the like of me before!’ exclaimed the Spirit.
‘Never,’ Ben Cartwright made answer to it. “I have amnesia like when you were called Heinrich by the Dutch couple who gave you a stupid woolen hat.”
‘Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family, Little Joe; meaning (for I am very young) my elder brother, Adam born in these later years?’ pursued the Phantom.
‘I don’t think I have,’ said Ben Cartwright. ‘I am afraid I have not. Have you had many brothers, Spirit?’
‘More than eighteen hundred,’ said the Ghost.
“Eighteen hundred?” Ben exclaimed wondering quickly if it could be true. ‘A tremendous family to provide for.’ muttered Ben Cartwright. He had been a sailor as a young man, but eighteen hundred did seem like a large number.
“Well, two brothers. Adam and Little Joe,” grinned Hoss.
“Whew!” said Ben wiping a bead of sweat from his forehead. “Just two? Adam and Little Joe?”
“Yes, sir, Pa,” nodded Hoss. The Ghost of Ponderosa Day Present rose. He eyed the bowl of apples on the coffee table and took one. Hoss bit into the apple noisily and repeated “Jest the three of us, Pa. Adam, Joe and me.”
‘Spirit,’ said Ben Cartwright submissively, ‘conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.’
‘Touch my ten gallon hat!’
Ben Cartwright did as he was told, and held it fast.
Holly, mistletoe, red berries, ivy, turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, meat, pigs, sausages, prairie oysters, phony apple pies made from crackers, puddings, fruit, and red punch, all vanished instantly. So did the room, the fire, the ruddy glow, the hour of night, and they stood in the Virginia streets on Ponderosa Day morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the wooden side walks in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses, and the saloons and livery stable whence it was mad delight to the cowboys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms.
The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of stage coaches and wagons; furrows that crossed and recrossed each other hundreds of Jamies where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Nevada Territory had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavored to diffuse in vain.
For, the people who were shoveling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball-better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest- laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiters’ were radiant in their glory. The saloons were doing land office business as were the bawdy houses. There was great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Friars from Los Angeles, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.
The Grocers’! Oh, the Grocers at the General Store’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses. It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even
that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, Everything was good to eat and in its Ponderosa Day dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humor possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Ponderosa Day dawns to peck at if they chose.
But soon the steeples called good people all, to church and chapel, and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and with their gayest faces. And at the same Jamie there emerged from scores of bye-streets, lanes, and nameless turnings, innumerable people, carrying their dinners to the bakers’ shops. The sight of these poor revelers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Ben Cartwright beside him in a baker’s doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch. ‘Is there a peculiar flavor in what you sprinkle from your torch?’ asked Ben Cartwright.
‘There is. My own.’
‘There are some upon this earth of yours,’ returned the Spirit, ‘who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.’
Ben Cartwright promised that he would; and they went on, invisible, as they had been before, into the suburbs of the town. It was a remarkable quality of the Ghost (which Ben Cartwright had observed at the baker’s), that notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place
with ease; and that the bearlike cowboy stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall.
And perhaps it was the pleasure the good Spirit had in showing off this power of his, or else it was his own kind, generous, hearty nature, and his sympathy with all poor men, that led him straight to Ben Cartwright’s clerk’s; for there he went, and took Ben Cartwright with him, holding to his ten gallon hat; and on the threshold of the door the Spirit Hoss smiled, and stopped to bless Candy Cratchitt, the foreman of the Ponderosa’s dwelling with the sprinkling of his torch. Think of that. Candy had but fifteen bucks himself; he pocketed on Saturdays; and yet the Ghost of Ponderosa Day Present blessed his four-roomed house.
Then up rose Mrs. Cratchit, Cratchit’s wife, dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned not blue gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence; and she laid the cloth, assisted by Belinda Cratchit, second of her daughters (played by Sally Field), also brave in ribbons; while Master Peter Cratchit plunged a fork into the saucepan of potatoes, and getting the corners of his monstrous red shirt collar and black leather vest (Candy’s private property, conferred upon his son and heir in honor of the day) into his mouth, rejoiced to find himself so gallantly attired, and yearned to show his linen in the fashionable Parks. And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker’s they had smelt the goose and prairie oysters, and known it for their own; and basking in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion, these young Cratchits square danced about the table, and exalted Master Peter Cratchit to the skies, while he (not proud, although his collars nearly choked him) blew the fire, until the slow potatoes bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled.
‘What has ever got your precious father then?’ said Mrs. Cratchit. ‘And your brother, Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy? And Martha warn’t as late last Ponderosa Day by half-an-hour!’
‘Here’s Martha, mother!’ said a girl, appearing as she spoke.
‘Here’s Martha, mother!’ cried the two young Cratchits. ‘Hurrah! There’s such a goose, Martha!’
‘Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how late you are.’ said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing her a dozen Jamies, and taking off her shawl and bonnet for her with officious zeal.
‘We’d a deal of work to finish up last night,’ replied the girl, ‘and had to clear away ten acres of lumber this morning, mother as well as rounding up strays.’
‘Well! Never mind so long as you are come,’ said Mrs. Cratchit. ‘Sit ye down before the fire, my dear, and have a warm, Lord bless ye!’
‘No, no! There’s father coming,’ cried the two young Cratchits, who were everywhere at once. ‘Hide, Martha, hide!’
“Hide? The cow’s outside?” asked Martha.
“No! You hide! Make yourself scarce, you dang fool girl!” said Mrs. Cratchit.
So Martha hid herself, and in came Candy, the father, with at least three feet of comforter exclusive of the fringe, hanging down before him; and his threadbare clothes darned up and brushed, to look seasonable; and Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy upon his shoulder. Alas for Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!
‘Why, where’s our Martha?’ cried Candy Cratchit, the foreman of the Ponderosa, looking round.
‘Not coming,’ said Mrs. Cratchit.
‘Not coming!’ said Candy, with a sudden declension in his high spirits; for he had been Jamie’s blood horse all the way from church, and had come home rampant. ‘Not coming upon Ponderosa Day!’
Martha didn’t like to see him disappointed, if it were only in joke; so she came out prematurely from behind the closet door, and ran into his arms, while the two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy, and bore him off into the wash-house, that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper.
“Nothing better than singing pudding unless it is Elvis singing on the Ed Sullivan Show.”
“Certainly not Little Joe singing on Hullabaloo!” laughed Spirit Hoss.
‘And how did little Jamie behave?’ asked Mrs. Cratchit, when she had rallied Candy on his credulity, and Candy had hugged his daughter to his heart’s content. “Did he whine and kvetch like he usually does?”
‘As good as gold,’ said Candy, ‘and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He thinks he is the youngest son of Ben Cartwright, though we all know it will always be Little Joe. Jamie told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Ponderosa Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see and red haired, freckled boys live on large ranches thinking they are adopted by cattle barons.’
Candy’s voice was tremulous when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy was growing strong and hearty.
His active little crutch was heard upon the floor, and back came Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy before another word was spoken, escorted by his brother and sister to his stool before the fire; and while Candy, turning up his cuffs-as if, poor fellow, they were capable of being made more shabby-compounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons, and stirred it round and round and put it on the hob to simmer; Master Peter, and the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch the goose, with which they soon returned in high procession. Nothing like some gin and a goose dancing around to make your evening rock.
Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course-and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs. Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigor; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Candy took Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!
There never was such a goose. Candy said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t eaten it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone-too nervous to bear witnesses-to take the pudding up and bring it in.
“This is better than Hop Sing’s fried chicken!” exclaimed Candy.
“Better even than KFC!” said Peter.
“Even more yummy than chicken fingers at Mc Donald’s!” declared Tiny Jamie.
Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! Sounds like a yummy idea! Desert that smells like laundry. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered-flushed, but smiling proudly-with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball or a large cow turd, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Ponderosa Day holly stuck into the top.
“Nothing is better than flaming cow poop!” said Martha. “Let’s take a bag of it and leave it on Ben Cartwright’s doorstep. We can knock on the door and when he comes out he will step on the flaming cow poop and we can scream Merry Ponderosa Day!”
Oh, a wonderful pudding! Candy Cratchit, the foreman of the Ponderosa said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. “There is no need to share our cow poop or pudding with Ben Cartwright. He is just a scroogy Cattle Baron!” Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.
At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the pulque jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire and a round of poker dealt. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Candy Cratchit, the foreman of the Ponderosa called a round up circle, meaning half a one; and at Candy Cratchit, the foreman of the Ponderosa’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle.
These held the hot stuff from the pulque jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Candy served it out with beaming looks, while his chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily. Then Candy proposed: “OUCH ! Get my chestnuts off the fire!”
Mrs. Cratchit poured some icy water on Candy’s lap and all was well.
‘A Merry Ponderosa Day to us all, my dears. God bless us!’
Which all the family re-echoed.
‘God bless us every one!’ said Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy, the last of all.
He sat very close to his father’s side upon his little stool. Candy held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, though he didn’t. Jamie was quite unlovable despite the effort that was made to add him to the cast. Perhaps it wasn’t Jamie but the bad writing of the scripts that forced the lad to whine and whimper and act much like a sissy girl. Candy felt sadly and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him though he wouldn’t protest much should it give the show an additional season and co-starring status for him.
‘Spirit Hoss,’ said Ben Cartwright, with an interest he had never felt before, ‘tell me if Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy will live or learn not to whine. Will he get better scripts than “Bucket Dog’?”
‘I see a vacant seat,’ replied the Ghost,’ in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.’
‘No, no,’ said Ben Cartwright. ‘Oh, no, kind Spirit! Say he will be spared. Tis only the girls in the blue dresses who die as well as the ranch hands who utter a line or two.’
‘If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,’ returned the Ghost Hoss, ‘will find him here. What then. If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’
Ben Cartwright hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief. “Had the writers only given him a decent script!”
‘Man,’ said the Ghost, ‘if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? Or is it Dortort the producer? Can he kill my three hungry brothers in the dust?’
Ben Cartwright bent before the Ghost’s rebuke, and trembling cast his eyes upon the ground. But he raised them speedily, on hearing his own name.
‘Mr. Ben Cartwright!’ said Candy; ‘I’ll give you Mr. Ben Cartwright, the Founder of the Feast!’
‘The Founder of the Feast indeed!’ cried Mrs. Cratchit, reddening. ‘I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.’
‘My dear,’ said Candy, ‘the children! Ponderosa Day.’
‘It should be Ponderosa Day, I am sure,’ said she, ‘on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Ben Cartwright. You know he is, Candy Canady Cratchit. Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow.’
‘My dear,’ was Candy’s mild answer, ‘Ponderosa Day.’
‘I’ll drink his health for your sake and the Day’s,’ said Mrs. Cratchit,’ not for his. Long life to him! A merry Ponderosa Day and a happy new year. He’ll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt!’
The children drank the toast after her. It was the first of their proceedings which had no heartiness. Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy drank it last of all as he wanted to get really drunk as a skunk and become a rock star, but he didn’t care twopence for it. Ben Cartwright was the Ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes. All this time the chestnuts and the jug went round and round; and by-and-bye they had a song, about a lost child traveling in the snow, from Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy, who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it very well indeed. Perhaps he should have appeared on Hullabaloo and become a rock star.
There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty and from K Mart; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Ben Cartwright had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy, until the last.
By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Ben Cartwright and the Spirit Hoss went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlors, and all sorts of saloons, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There all the children of the house were running out like wild Paiutes.
But, if you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high. Blessings on it, how the Ghost Hoss exulted as he was invisible and able to eat his fill at most every place!
And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants or the White Buffalo Woman or the place where Adam shot Ross Marquette when he went insane; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.
‘What place is this?’ asked Ben Cartwright.
‘A place where Miners live, who labor in the bowels of the earth,’ returned the Spirit. ‘But they know me. See!’
Alight shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Ponderosa Day song-it had been a very old song when he was a boy-and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigor sank again.
The Spirit Hoss did not tarry here, but bade Ben Cartwright hold his pale ten gallon hat, and passing on above the prairie, sped — whither. Not to sea. To sea? Where Ben had been a sailor? To Ben Cartwright’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.
Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse marking the entrance to Boston Harbor or Fire Island. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds -born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water-rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.
But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Ponderosa Day in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, Popeye too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.
“Merry Ponderosa Day!” said Popeye to Swe’Pea! “Have ye some spinach and grog!”
Again the Ghost Hoss sped on, above the black and heaving sea -on, on-until, being far away, as he told Ben Cartwright, from any shore, they lighted on a ship, the Love Boat. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Ponderosa Day tune, or had a Ponderosa Day thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Ponderosa Day as well as singing the theme of the Love Boat much as Jack Jones did, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him. Even Captain Stuebbing and Julie, your social director, were jolly on Ponderosa Day.
It was a great surprise to Ben Cartwright, while listening to the moaning of the wind, and thinking what a solemn thing it was to move on through the lonely darkness over an unknown abyss, whose depths were secrets as profound as Death: it was a great surprise to Ben Cartwright, while thus engaged, to hear a hearty laugh. It was a much greater surprise to Ben Cartwright to recognize it as his own nephew, Will Zorro Cartwright and to find himself in a bright, dry, gleaming room, with the Spirit Hoss standing smiling by his side, and looking at that same nephew with approving affability.
‘Ha, ha!’ laughed Ben Cartwright’s nephew. ‘Ha, ha, ha!’
If you should happen, by any unlikely chance, to know a man more blest in a laugh than Ben Cartwright’s nephew, all I can say is, I should like to know him too. He had a fine hand with a sword as well and could come out of the night when the full moon was bright and carve a z for his name, a z that stood for Zorro. Introduce him to me, and I’ll cultivate his acquaintance.
It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor. That is why sitcoms usually have laugh tracks to juice up the jolly. When Ben Cartwright’s nephew laughed in this way: holding his sides, rolling his head, and twisting his face into the most extravagant contortions: Ben Cartwright’s niece, by marriage, laughed as heartily as he. And their assembled friends being not a bit behindhand, roared out lustily.
‘Ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha!’
‘He said that Ponderosa Day was a humbug, as I live!’ cried Ben Cartwright’s nephew. ‘He believed it too!’
‘More shame for him, Will Zorro!’ said Ben Cartwright’s niece, Laura Dayton indignantly. Bless those women; they never do anything by halves. They are always in earnest though Laura did whine as much as Tiny Jamie the red haired boy.
She was very pretty: exceedingly pretty, Barbie Doll pretty. She had all kinds of good little dots about her chin that melted into one another when she laughed; and the sunniest pair of eyes you ever saw in any little creature’s head. Altogether she was what you would have called provoking, you know; but satisfactory, too. Oh, perfectly satisfactory! With a dimpled, surprised-looking, capital face; a ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed-as no doubt it was but she never enjoyed I. If sizzling lips Adam Cartwright, the third spirit couldn‘t melt Laura Dayton with his hot burning kisses, no one could. Now Will Zorro was sort of stuck with her;
‘He’s a comical old fellow,’ said Ben Cartwright’s nephew, ‘that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him. Plus I might just be in his will ha ha.’
‘I’m sure he is very rich, Will,’ hinted Ben Cartwright’s niece. ‘At least you always tell me so. ‘Do you think I would have dumped Adam if I had thought you weren’t part of the family and due some moolah?’
‘What of that, my dear.’ said Ben Cartwright’s nephew. ‘His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it. He hasn’t the satisfaction of thinking-ha, ha, ha!-that he is ever going to benefit us with it.’
‘I have no patience with him,’ observed Ben Cartwright’s niece. Ben Cartwright’s niece’s sisters, and all the other ladies, expressed the same opinion.
‘Oh, I have!’ said Ben Cartwright’s nephew. ‘I am sorry for him; I couldn’t be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always. Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? He don’t lose much of a dinner.’
‘Indeed, I think he loses a very good dinner,’ interrupted Ben Cartwright’s niece.
“I’ll eat Pa’s share!” exclaimed Spirit Hoss not recalling he was still invisible.
“Who said that?” said Laura Dayton nervously. She hoped it wasn’t her sleazy Aunt Lil showing up drunk and ruining Ponderosa Day as she did in previous years when she showed up with her fifth husband Geraldo, the pool boy.
Everybody else said the same, and they must be allowed to have been competent judges, because they had just had dinner; and, with the dessert upon the table, were clustered round the fire, by lamplight. “Hope it isn’t Lil!” they all agreed.
‘I was only going to say,’ said Ben Cartwright’s nephew, ‘that the consequence of his taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, as I think, that he loses some pleasant moments, which could do him no harm. I am sure he loses pleasanter companions than he can find in his own thoughts, either in his moldy old ranch office, or his dusty cattle baron bed chambers. I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him. He may rail at Ponderosa Day till he dies, but he can’t help thinking better of it-I defy him-if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Ben Cartwright, how are you. If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds of prairie oysters. I think I shook him yesterday.’
It was their turn to laugh now at the notion of his shaking Cattle Baron Ben Cartwright. But being thoroughly good-natured, and not much caring what they laughed at, so that they laughed at any rate, he encouraged them in their merriment, and passed the bottle joyously.
“Them folks sure drink a lot!” observed Spirit Hoss.
When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost Hoss had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton’s spade that buried Roy Coffee.
But they didn’t devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits and Trivial Pursuit and watched “It‘s a Wonderful Life”, for it is good to be children times, and never better than at Ponderosa Day, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.
Ben Cartwright’s niece, the former cold lipped money hungry Laura Dayton, was not one of the blind-man’s buff party, but was made comfortable with a large chair and a footstool, in a snug corner, where the Ghost Hoss and Ben Cartwright were close behind her. But she joined in the forfeits, and loved her love to admiration with all the letters of the alphabet. Likewise at the game of How, When, and Where, she was very great, and to the secret joy of Ben Cartwright’s nephew, beat her sisters hollow: though they were sharp girls too, as could have told you.
The Ghost Hoss was greatly pleased to find Ben in this mood, and looked upon him with such favor, that he begged like a boy to be allowed to stay until the guests departed. But this the Spirit said could not be done.
‘Here is a new game,’ said Ben Cartwright. ‘One half hour, Spirit, only one!’
It was a Game called Yes and No, where Ben Cartwright’s nephew had to think of something, and the rest must find out what; he only answering to their questions yes or no, as the case was. The brisk fire of questioning to which he was exposed, elicited from him that he was thinking of an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted some times, and talked some times, and lived near Virginia City, and walked about the streets, and wasn’t made a show of, and wasn’t led by anybody, and didn’t live in a menagerie, and was never killed in a market, and was not a horse, or an ass, or a cow, or a bull, or a tiger, or a dog, or a pig, or a cat, or a bear. It wasn’t the wolf who chewed on Little Joe in “My Brother’s Keeper” nor a cougar that Lord Marian would not shoot nor a Derby Royal in heat or Walter the Dog. At every fresh question that was put to him, this nephew burst into a fresh roar of laughter; and was so inexpressibly tickled, that he was obliged to get up off the sofa and stamp. At last the plump sister, falling into a similar state, cried out:
‘I have found it out! I know what it is, Will Zorro! I know what it is!’
‘What is it?’ cried Will.
‘It’s your Uncle Ben Cartwright!’
Which it certainly was. Admiration was the universal, though some objected that the reply to ‘Is it a bear?’ ought to have been ‘Yes;’ inasmuch as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Ben Cartwright, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.
‘He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,’ said Fred, ‘and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled Vino de Ponderosa wine from the Rossi vineyards ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, “Uncle Ben Cartwright!” ‘
‘Well. Uncle Ben Cartwright!’ they cried.
‘A Merry Ponderosa Day and a Happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is.’ said Ben Cartwright’s nephew. ‘He wouldn’t take it from me, but may he have it, nevertheless. Uncle Ben Cartwright!’
Uncle Ben Cartwright had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart, that he would have pledged the unconscious company in return, and thanked them in an inaudible speech, if the Ghost Hoss had given him time. But the whole scene passed off in the breath of the last word spoken by his nephew; and he and the Spirit were again upon their travels.
Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and deputy Clem’s jail, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Ben Cartwright his precepts.
It was a long night, if it were only a night; but Ben Cartwright had his doubts of this, because the Ponderosa Day Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together. It was strange, too, that while Ben Cartwright remained unaltered in his outward form, the Ghost Hoss grew older, clearly older and balder and heavier. Ben Cartwright had observed this change, but never spoke of it, until they left a children’s Twelfth Night party, when, looking at the Spirit as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was thin.
‘Are spirits’ lives so short?’ asked Ben Cartwright.
‘My life upon this globe, is very brief,’ replied the Ghost Hoss. ‘It ends to-night.’
‘To-night!’ cried Ben Cartwright.
‘Tonight at midnight. Hark! The time is drawing near.’
The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.
‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Ben Cartwright, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw or a battered sneaker?’
‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’
From the foldings of its robe, Hoss brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
‘Oh, Man! look here! Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish much like Tirza the gypsy girl; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Ben Cartwright started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Ben Cartwright could say no more. He sure hoped they weren’t though in the awful, outrageous sequels to Bonanza Hoss did have a child. The less said about that, the better.
‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And abide the end!’
‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Ben Cartwright. “What about social services!”
‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit Hoss, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’
The bell struck twelve.
Ben Cartwright looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Roy Coffee, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Ben Cartwright bent down upon his knee and his nightgown hiked up exposing his tushie; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. He quickly yanked it down.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit Adam neither spoke nor moved. He wanted to leave off playing the part but was willing to sign on for another season though he later regretted it. By then Laura Dayton had left with Cousin Will Zorro.
‘I am in the presence of the Ghost of Ponderosa Day Yet To Come?’ said Ben Cartwright raising his coal black eyebrows.
The Spirit Adam answered not, but pointed gracefully onward with its hand toward the painted back drop that looked like a prairie. He loved being dramatic having studied on the stage.
‘You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,’ Ben Cartwright pursued. ‘Is that so, Spirit Adam?’
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. The Spirit winked and flashed a dimple in his cheek. “Yes, Pa. Tis me, Spirit Adam.” That was the only answer Ben received from the dark figured cowboy.
Although well used to ghostly Adam’s company by this time, Ben Cartwright feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. Had he not just used the outhouse he would have peed in his boots.
The Spirit Adam pauses a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover. “Go!” He pointed towards the chamber pot.
Ben shook his head indicating he did not need to use the porcelain convenience.
But Ben Cartwright was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud, there were Adam’s ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, as well as guitar made in New York hidden in the folds.
Why would someone want to wear black? It was so ominous and dust showed on it? Did Adam think it made him look dark and dangerous and much like Paladin in “Have Gun Will Travel” or Johnny Cash?
‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any specter I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?’
It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them. Adam was always a man of few words when he set his mind on something.
‘Lead on!’ said Ben Cartwright. ‘Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit Adam!’
The Phantom Adam moved away as it had come towards him. Adam was never one to be very touchy feely like Little Joe. Ben Cartwright followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.
They scarcely seemed to enter Virginia City; for the city and the mountains rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; on ‘Change, amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked the money in their pockets, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals; and so forth, as Ben Cartwright had seen them often.
The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of business men discussing silver strikes or cattle herds or the price of corsets in the mercantile or the running of the Union Pacific rail road. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Ben Cartwright advanced to listen to their talk.
‘No,’ said a great fat man with a monstrous chin, played by Ed Begley. ‘I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead.’
‘When did he die?’ inquired another who was played by the same guy who played Uncle Joe in Petticoat Junction.
‘Last night, I believe. Doc Martin said it was last night.’ said Ed Begley.
‘Why, what was the matter with him?’ asked a third, taking a vast quantity of snuff out of a very large snuff-box. ‘I thought he’d never die.’
‘God knows,’ said the first, with a yawn. “Doc Martin knows,” said the other. “Even though Doc was played by three different actors, Doc Martin knows.”
‘What has he done with his money?’ asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock. He was played by Burgess Meredith a full decade and a half before he played in “Rocky.”
‘I haven’t heard,’ said the man with the large chin, yawning again. ‘Left it to his company, perhaps. He hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know.’
This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.
‘It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral, Styrofoam tombstone and cardboard coffin,’ said the same speaker; ‘for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?’
‘I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided by Hop Sing,’ observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. ‘But I must be fed, if I make one.’
‘Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,’ said the first speaker, ‘for I never wear black gloves like Little Joe did for a few seasons, and I never eat lunch even if prepared by Hop Sing. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye! Adios, Happy Trails!’
Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups. Ben Cartwright knew the men, and looked towards the Spirit Adam for an explanation. “Hey? What do you think? You went to college back east,” Ben urged Spirit Adam to comment. “You’re the one with the high falooting education.”
The Phantom glided on into a street. Its middle finger pointed to two persons meeting.
‘How are you?’ returned the other.
Not another word. That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting. Ben Cartwright was at first inclined to be surprised that the Spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial or was he just raising his fingers in the NYC taxi cab salute?
They could scarcely be supposed to have any bearing on the death of Roy Coffee, his old partner, for that was Past, and this Ghost Adam’s province was the Future. Nor could he think of any one immediately connected with himself, to whom he could apply them.
Ben looked about in that very place for his own image; but another man stood in his accustomed corner near the Silver Dollar Saloon near the horse trough, and though the clock pointed to his usual time of day for being there, he saw no likeness of himself among the multitudes that poured in through the Porch. It gave him little surprise, however; for he had been revolving in his mind a change of life, and thought and hoped he saw his new-born resolutions carried out in this.
Quiet and dark, beside him stood the Phantom Adam, with its outstretched hand. When he roused himself from his thoughtful quest, he fancied from the turn of the hand, and its situation in reference to himself, that the Unseen Eyes were looking at him keenly. It made him shudder, and feel very cold. It could also be from peeing down his bare leg.
Ben and the Phantom Adam came into the presence of this feller, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. But she had scarcely entered, when a cowboy, similarly laden, came in too; and she was closely followed by a Chinese fellow in faded black. After a short period of blank astonishment, in which the old man with the pipe had joined them, they all three burst into a laugh.
“Let the charwoman alone to be the first!” cried she who had entered first. “Let Hop Sing alone to be the second; and let the undertaker’s man alone to be the third. Look here, old Shmo, here’s a chance! If we haven’t all three met here without meaning it!”
“You couldn’t have met in a better place. You were made free of it long ago, you know; and the other two ain’t strangers. What have you got to sell? What have you got to sell?”
“Half a minute’s patience, Shmo, and you shall see.”
“What odds then! What odds, Mrs. Dilbel?” said the woman. “Every person has a right to take care of themselves. He always did! Who’s the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose.”
Mrs. Dilber, whose manner was remarkable for general propitiation, said, “No, indeed, ma’am.”
“If he wanted to keep ’em after he was dead, a wicked old screwy cattle baron, why wasn’t he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he’d have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.”
“It’s the truest word that ever was spoke west of the Mississippi or the Mistersippi, it’s a judgment on him.”
“I wish it was a little heavier judgment, and it should have been, you may depend upon it, if I could have laid my hands on anything else. Open that bundle, old Shmo, and let me know the value of it. Speak out plain. I’m not afraid to be the first, nor afraid for them to see it.”
Shmo went down on his knees for the greater convenience of opening the bundle, and dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark blue stuff.
“What do you call this? Blue dresses?”
“Ah! Blue Dresses from doomed females! Don’t drop that oil upon the red Indian blankets, now.”
“His red Indian blankets that was hanging on the stairs?”
“And that uncomfortable settee as well!”
“The settee from the big room? The one that folks crapped out on and heaved their last?”
“The exact one. The red settee what showed no blood or sweat,” said the woman.
Hop Sing nodded in agreement. “Same settee!”
“Whose else’s do you think? He isn’t likely to take cold without ’em. I dare say. Ah! You may look through that gray shirt and tan leather vest till your eyes ache; but you won’t find a hole in it, nor a threadbare place. It’s the best he had, and a fine one too. Wore it close to fourteen seasons. Got the silver brocade vest in there as well. They’d have wasted it by dressing him up in it, if it hadn’t been for me.”
Ben Cartwright listened to this dialogue in horror. “My best duds! Oy vay!”
“Spirit! I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is this!”
The scene had changed, and now he almost touched a bare, uncurtained bed. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon this massive cattle baron bed; and on it, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this plundered unknown man.
“Spirit Adam, let me see some tenderness connected with a death, or this dark cattle baron chamber, Spirit, will be forever present to me.”
The Ghost Adam conducted him to poor Candy Cratchit’s tiny log foreman house, — the dwelling he had visited before, — and found the mother and the children seated round the fire.
Quiet. Very quiet. The noisy little Cratchits were as still as statues in one corner, and sat looking up at Peter, who had a book before him. The mother and her daughters were engaged in needle-work. But surely they were very quiet!
“‘And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them.'”
Where had Ben Cartwright heard those words? He had not dreamed them. Twas on that awful, corny episode where Wayne Newton sang and the orphan child threw up after eating the wax apples on the coffee table? The boy must have read them out, as he and the Spirit crossed the threshold. Why did he not go on?
The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face. “The color hurts my eyes,” she said.
The color? Ah, poor Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy! His orange hair and freckles had blinded Mrs. Cratchit.
“They’re better now again. It makes them weak by candle-light; and I wouldn’t show weak eyes to your father, Candy Cratchit when he comes home, for the world. It must be near his time.”
“Past it rather,” Peter answered, shutting up his book. “But I think he has walked a little slower than he used, these few last evenings, mother.”
“I have known him walk with — I have known him walk with Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy upon his shoulder, very fast indeed.”
“And so have I,” cried Peter. “Often. And riding a horse with Tiny Jamie tied on the back like a sack of grain.”
“Sometimes dragged behind as well,” said another. “I loved to see his head bounce on the dirt! Occasionally father used him as a basket ball and bounced him on the cobblestones all the way home,” recalled Peter. “Very jolly!”
“I saw that often, particularly during NCAA playoffs!” cried their mother who was a fan of the University of Indiana.
“And so have I,” exclaimed another. So had all.
“But he was very light to carry, and his father loved him so, that it was no trouble, — no trouble. And there is your father at the door!”
She hurried out to meet him; and little Candy in his red shirt, black leather vest and his comforter — he had need of it, poor fellow — came in. His tea was ready for him on the hob, and they all tried who should help him to it most. Then the two young Cratchits got upon his knees and laid, each child, a little cheek against his face, as if they said, “Don’t mind it, father. Don’t be grieved! He bounced his last and is kaput!”
Candy was very cheerful with them, and spoke pleasantly to all the family. He looked at the work upon the table, and praised the industry and speed of Mrs. Cratchit and the girls. They would be done long before Sunday, he said.
“Sunday! You went today, then, Candy?”
“Yes, my dear,” returned Candy Cratchit. “I wish you could have gone. It would have done you good to see how green a place it is. But you’ll see it often. I promised him that I would walk there on a Sunday. My little, little child! My little child! I miss bouncing him like a basket ball.”
He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart, perhaps, than they were.
“Specter Adam,” said Ben Cartwright, “something informs me that our parting moment is at hand. I hear the parting music theme composed by David Rose and know we are headed for the final Chevy commercial. I know it, but I know not how. Tell me what man that was, with the covered face, whom we saw lying dead?”
The Ghost of Ponderosa Day Yet To Come conveyed him to a dismal, wretched, ruinous churchyard.
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to one.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, Adam. Or are they shadows of the things that May be only?”
Still the Ghost Adam pointed dramatically downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
The Spirit Adam was immovable as ever. He leaned on the tombstone at a 45 degree angle and chewed on a finger nail. Then he spat the chewed part out with disgust upon the ground.
Ben Cartwright crept towards it, trembling as he went; and, following the finger, read upon the Styrofoam stone of the neglected grave his own name, — Ben Cartwright, cattle baron.
“Am I that man who lay upon the bed? No, Spirit Adam! O no, no! Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. Who is? I weigh fifty pounds more than when this show started. And besides, this script reeks. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse…”
“Intercourse?” gasped Ben who always assumed that his sons had never done that but during the commercials. “Can they show that on TV? Why show me this, if I am past all hope? Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life.”
For the first time, the kind hand faltered.
“I will honor Ponderosa Day in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. Especially on Sunday nights at nine o’clock. Even in the reruns on TVLand. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future on cable and on video tapes. Forever in the hearts of America and other lands. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. O, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
Holding up his hands in one last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom Adam’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Yes, and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. The chamber pot was his as well. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard other than the dinner bell on round up.
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist, no night; clear, bright, stirring, golden day.
“What’s to-day?” cried Ben Cartwright, calling downward to a cowboy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?”
“Today! Why, Ponderosa Day.”
“It’s Ponderosa Day! I haven’t missed it. Hallo, my fine fellow!”
“Hallo!” yahooed the cow poke.
“Do you know the General Store in Virginia City? In the next street to the Silver Dollar but one, at the corner?”
“I should hope I did.”
“An intelligent boy! A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize turkey, — the big one? The turkey that looked like a buffalo with feathers on hormones that was enlarged by the atom bomb testing in the desert near Reno?”
“What, the one as big as me?”
“But not as ugly as you. What a delightful boy! It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!”
“It’s hanging there now.”
“Is it? Go and buy it.”
“Walk-ER!” exclaimed the young stupid cowboy. “You are joshing!”
“No, no, I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell ’em to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling.”
“A shilling ain’t any good in Nevada Territory, you dang fool!”
“Come back with him in less than five minutes, and I’ll give you half a crown!”
“Are you kidding? You dang fool! Give me good old American money! Or gold!”
“Here, lad! A bag of gold my son Hoss obtained from some lost leprechauns!”
Ben tossed the sack of gold from the window. It struck the lad in his head with a thud. The boy was off like a shot.
“I’ll send it to Candy Cratchit’s! He sha’n’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy.”
The hand in which he wrote the address was not a steady one; but write it he did, somehow, and went down stairs to open the front door, ready for the coming of the poulterer’s man.
It was a turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ’em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.
Ben Cartwright dressed himself “all in his best,” including the silver brocade vest and at last got out into the streets of Virginia City. The people were by this time pouring forth, as he had seen them with the Ghost of Ponderosa Day Present, Hoss; and, walking with his hands behind him, Ben Cartwright regarded every one with a delighted smile. He looked so irresistibly pleasant, in a word, that three or four good-humored fellows said, “Good morning, sir! A merry Ponderosa Day to you!” And Ben Cartwright said often afterwards, that, of all the blithe sounds he had ever heard, these were the blithest in his ears.
In the afternoon, he turned his steps towards his nephew, Will Zorro Cartwright’s house. He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it.
“Is your master at home, my dear?” said Ben Cartwright to the girl.
“Where is he, my love?”
“My love? Like in Elizabeth, my love or Inger, my love or Marie, my love?” she asked having read TV Guide.
“Never mind, you floozy. Where is Will?”
“He’s in the dining-room, sir, with his mistress.”
“His MISTRESS?!?!?! Did he not marry the whiney Laura Dayton and make their union legal?” exclaimed Ben who was an upstanding sort in that regard though he did look the other way when Little Joe did dally with Julia Bulette and Adam “stayed in town over night” and Hoss went on those long trips to the wilderness and came home with a grin a mile wide.
“Well… she thinks they are wed but the vicar was only Cousin Muley,” winked the girl.
“Don’t let Lil know as she has her eye on his fortune.”
“He knows me,” said Ben Cartwright, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. “I’ll go in here, my dear.”
“Why, bless my soul!” cried Will Zorro, “who’s that?”
“It’s I. Your uncle Ben Cartwright. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Will Zorro?”
“Let him in!”
It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece, Laura Dayton looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump Aunt Lil, when she came. So did every one when they came. They were coming and going. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!
But he was early at the office next morning. O, he was early there. If he could only be there first, and catch Candy Cratchit coming late! That was the thing he had set his heart upon.
And he did it. The clock struck nine. No Candy. A quarter past. No Candy. Candy was full eighteen minutes and a half behind his time. Ben Cartwright sat with his door wide open, that he might see him come into the Tank.
Candy’s hat was off, before he opened the door; his comforter too. He was on his stool in a jiffy; driving away with his pen, as if he were trying to overtake nine o’clock.
“Hallo!” growled Ben Cartwright, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?”
“I am very sorry, sir. I am behind my time. I was rounding up strays on the south pasture.”
“You are? Yes. I think you are. Step this way, if you please.”
“It’s only once a year, sir. It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.”
“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend. I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” Ben Cartwright continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Candy such a dig in the black leather waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, “and therefore I am about to raise your salary!”
Candy trembled, and got a little nearer to the cattle baron.
“A merry Ponderosa Day, Candy!” said Ben Cartwright, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Ponderosa Day, Candy, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Ponderosa Day bowl of my famous red punch, Candy! Make up the fires, and buy a second coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Candy Cratchit!”
Ben Cartwright was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy, who did not die though it was wished by many, he was a second father and taught the lad not to be so whiney. He became as good a friend, as good a master, as good a cowboy and as good a man as the good old Virginia City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world as well as Nevada Territory. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him; but his own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, though, during the commercials, the Spirits did frolic very much with winsome gals in the hayloft. but lived in that respect upon the Total-Abstinence Principle ever afterwards; (abstinence from spirits, not gals though ) and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Ponderosa Day well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Jamie, the red haired boy observed, “God Bless Us, Every One!”