Summary: Ben learns a valuable lesson.
Word Count: 1140
He stared out the hotel window and watched the fog roll in over the bay. He could see the masts of the ships in the harbor. He closed his eyes and imagined the wind on his face and the rolling deck beneath his feet. Long ago, a ship had been his path to freedom, but he was not a boy any longer and running away to sea was not an option, not with the three anchors that held him. He shuddered. Did he really think of his sons as anchors holding him where he no longer wanted to be? He turned from the window, and walked to the bed. Stretching out on the sagging mattress, he stared at the ceiling. He should be with them now instead of here in a shabby hotel in San Francisco. True, he had come to the city to conduct business, but truer still was the fact that he had come to escape from the Ponderosa and its memories — memories of Marie that he could not face. She haunted him there. Her spirit filled each room of the house, invaded the barn, and appeared in each view. He continually found himself turning to catch sight of her, straining to hear her voice, or reaching out to touch the woman he loved. Each time he failed, the pain tore at him again, and despair crushed the breath from him. So he found one reason after another to leave, to escape, to go where he did not see her around each corner or hear her voice calling his name. As long as he was miles away, he could think of her there and dream of returning to her arms and pretend that the dream might still come true.
Restless, he rose and put on his jacket. Ben left the hotel and began walking the streets. Finding himself at the wharves, he sat down on an old crate and watched the bustle.
“You’re mean, Allen!”
His ears caught the sound of a small, high voice, and he turned to see three boys.
“You’ll see how mean I can be if you try running off again!” The largest of the boys bellowed as he caught the arm of the smallest. Ben watched as the small boy bit the hand that held him and took off running. As the child passed him, Ben reached out and caught hold of his waist. The two older boys came running up.
“Let me go! Let me go!” The child struggled unsuccessfully to free himself from Ben Cartwright’s hold.
“Hold on there, boy,” Ben instructed as he tried to settle the child.
“I’ll take him, mister. He’s my brother.” The largest boy reached out and tried to grab the squirming child, but the little boy maneuvered out of his reach behind Ben’s legs.
“Wait.” Ben’s tone was the one that he had learned as first mate, and both boys obeyed the order. “Now, what is going on here?”
“That’s my little brother Jimmie. If you hand him to me, I’ll be taking him home,” Allen stated flatly.
“NO!” Jimmie’s wail was ear-splitting, and tears began rolling down his cheeks.
Ben drew the child onto his lap and asked gently, “Now why don’t you want to go with your brother?”
“Cause he’s mean!”
“Mean!” Allen sputtered. “He’s the brat that bit my hand. He hasn’t seen mean yet.”
Jimmy wailed again and clung to Ben, burying his head in his chest.
“Now, son, that’s no way to talk.” Ben said looking at Allen. The boy dropped his head and looked sheepish.
“I won’t do nothing to him, mister,” Allen said contritely.
“Yes, he will.” Jimmy looked out from the shelter of Ben’s arm. “He said I was gonna get a spankin’ when we gets home. He spanks hard. That’s why I runned away.”
Ben looked at Allen. The boy must be about fifteen or sixteen. At the moment he looked very frustrated.
“He deserves a spanking, and he knows it. That’s why he ran away from me.”
Jimmy stuck his tongue out at his older brother and then buried his head in Ben’s chest once again. Ben watched the anger flare in Allen’s eyes. He stood up with Jimmy in his arms. “How about I walk home with you boys? Then I can speak to your father about all this.”
The middle boy who had been standing quietly behind Allen spoke softly, “Our old man ain’t around right now. Truth is, he ain’t hardly ever around. Allen takes care of us.”
Ben’s brow furrowed with concern. Allen took a deep breath and said firmly, “Mister, this really ain’t none of your concern. I’ve been seeing to my brothers since our mama died. If ya will just hand me my brother, I can get us home before dark.”
Ben looked at the little boy in his arms and then at his brothers. What the boy had said was true; he had very little right to interfere, but he was reluctant to simply hand Jimmy over and walk away.
“Okay, mister, I promise not to do nothing to him, okay? We need to go.”
Hearing his brother’s promise, Jimmy loosened his hold on Ben. “Ya promise not to spank me?” he queried.
Jimmy looked at Ben and stated, “Brother don’t break his promise.”
“Do you promise to mind your brother and not run off again?” Ben asked the child.
“Yes, sir. I promise.” Jimmy turned and reached his arms out toward his brother. Allen took the child from Ben. Jimmy buried his face in his brother’s shirt with a soft, “I’m sorry.”
Ben watched the three boys until they were lost in the fog. He started to curse the man who had left the three boys to fend for themselves, but stopped before it was uttered. Three other boys had a father who “ain’t hardly ever around.” Perhaps Jimmy’s father thought he had a good reason to be gone. Ben started back to the hotel. As he walked, he faced the truth. Marie was not and never would be in his home or his arms again. He cursed himself. He had been taking the easy way out, escaping from his grief and running from his responsibilities, but his boys had not been able to escape the Ponderosa. He had left his sons to face their own grief alone, selfishly thinking his pain a good enough excuse to abandon the only reasons he had for living. As he trod through the dimming light, Ben Cartwright’s stride became more purposeful. It would end now. He would return to his sons, to his home, and face the pain until one day the dream that was the Ponderosa would be able to grow again.