Word Count: 1300
“Mistah Cartwright? Mistah Benjamin Cartwright?”
Ben turned at the sound of his name. His eyes swiftly located the owner of the decidedly feminine and Southern voice that had called him. He tipped his hat. “Yes, ma’am. I’m Ben Cartwright. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Umm. . . Actually there is, sir. You see, well, you don’t know me, but I’m an old friend of Marie’s from New Orleans.”
Ben studied the woman before him and decided that at most she was of an age with his eldest son. “A friend of Marie’s?” Ben’s voice indicated his doubt. “My wife left New Orleans some eighteen years ago. You would have been but a child.”
The young woman stiffened at Ben’s tone. “I was but a child; still, I thought of Marie DeMaringy as my friend.”
“I see,” Ben replied though there was much about this situation that was not clear to him at all. “Well, I’m very sorry to inform you that my wife passed on some dozen years ago.”
“So I had heard, but she left a son, did she not?”
“Yes, our son, Joseph.”
She could hear the protectiveness in his voice and see the wary concern that came into his eyes over what might be the dubious nature of her appearance. She cleared her throat.
“I am only passing through Virginia City, Mr. Cartwright. I knew that Marie had married and went to live near here. I knew your name. I had a few days here between switching stages, and I made some inquiries. I assure you there was no intention to intrude. I, well, I . . .” Her words ceased as she fumbled with several folded and sealed sheets of stationery and a flat, wrapped box. “If Marie had been alive, I would have liked to speak with her and give her this.” She indicated the box. “When I heard of her passing, well, my thoughts were to give it to her son. When a gentleman pointed you out as Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa, well, if you could give this to your son, I would appreciate it very much.” She thrust the box and the papers toward Ben. “The letter explains its significance.”
“Of course, I’ll see Joe gets it.” There was still a degree of caution in Ben’s tone.
“Thank you, sir.” She started to turn away but paused. “It should bring him no worry, Mr. Cartwright; as I said, Marie was my friend.” She moved swiftly after that, walking confidently toward the International Hotel.
Ben watched her go and then stared down at the box and letter in his hand. The flowing script indicated that the missive was intended for Mister Joseph Cartwright. Ben’s thumb picked absent-mindedly at the wax seal. He had a sudden impulse to tear open the letter and read it through, but he pushed that urge away, walked to his horse, and stuffed the contents of his hand into his saddlebags to be delivered upon his return to the ranch.
Ben waited until after dinner and then gave a short account of his encounter to all three of his sons. It was not until he was telling them that he realized he had not even asked the woman her name. He went to his desk, retrieved the letter and box, and carried them to his son.
Little Joe took them. “What do you think it could be, Pa?”
“I haven’t a clue. Perhaps, something your mother once gave her,” Ben replied.
“That sounds likely, Short Shanks,” his brother Hoss observed.
“We’ll know after you’ve opened them,” Adam commented wryly.
“Yeah, we will,” Little Joe acknowledged gazing at the items in his hands trying to decide which to open first. Suddenly he set down the box and opened the letter. He read the first words aloud, “Dear Mr. Cartwright, I knew your mother in New Orleans when I was a child. She befriended me in a way I can never truly repay. I felt you might like know what that meant to me then and forever since. I would ask that you keep this a private matter. . .” Joe’s voiced softened at the word private, and though his lips continued to move the words they formed could no longer be heard. His father and brothers watched his face and read each emotion that flickered there as he continued to read. When his lips stilled, Joe raised his head, and they saw the sheen of tears in his eyes.
“Joe.” Ben’s voice was soft and reached out to his son as did Ben’s hand.
“It’s all right, Pa. She says that Mama was like an angel to her. That she, well, that she kept her from, well, from a harm. Saved her. She meant what’s in the box as a thank you.”
“Open it, Joe,” Hoss urged.
His brother turned and lifted the box. Slowly he unwrapped and opened it. He lifted out a small, framed picture, and stared transfixed by what he saw. Ben saw Joe’s shoulders begin to tremble. He stepped closer and wrapped his arm around his son. Little Joe turned toward his father, and Ben gently took the picture from Joe’s limp fingers.
Ben’s own eyes began to mist as he saw a rendition of what was clearly an angel with the face of his beloved Marie. He drew his youngest into his arms as the only too familiar knife of grief pierced his heart.
Hoss and Adam had both came closer surrounding their little brother with a protective circle.
Little Joe clung to his father and whispered softly, “It’s how I always think of her, Pa. Just how I always see her.”
Adam looked from the picture to his father’s face, and then dropped his eyes quickly. He cleared his throat and said simply, “It was kind of that woman to give it to you.”
“Can I hang it in my room, Pa?”
To Ben, Joe’s voice sounded suddenly much younger, more like the child he had once been. “Of course you may, son. It was given to you.”
“That’ll be something fine to see each night and morning, Short Shanks, something real fine.” Hoss patted his little brother on the shoulder.
Little Joe slipped away from his father and said, “Let’s do it right now. Tomorrow I’m gonna go up and tell Mama.” Little Joe darted for the stairs. Hoss laughed and went to fetch a hammer and nail.
Ben caught the look on his eldest son’s face. “Adam, your brother. . .”
“I would never spoil it for him, Pa.” Both pairs of eyes gazed at the papers Joe had set down.
“Do you know what she might have saved her from?” Adam’s voice was low and flat.
“She said something once about a young girl she kept, well, from the gambling house.” Ben looked up at his eldest. “What she said in the letter must not have…”
“Been overly explicit,” Adam supplied.
“None of us is perfect, Adam.”
Adam gave his father a weak smile. “It never hurts to see an angel in someone, Pa, least of all your mother.”
Ben gave Adam a far deeper smile. “She was one, son; I assure you your mother was one.”
Adam’s dimple crept onto his face. “You think of them all as angels, Pa. I guess to you they were and always will be.” He walked over and flung his arm across his father’s shoulders. “We’d best go up and give a hand. You know that boy hasn’t ever hung a picture straight in his life.”
Ben chuckled. “When is the last time you let anyone hang anything without your measuring and leveling and . . .” Ben’s words drifted away as he walked with his son up the stairs.