Synopsis: Ever been accused of jumping to the wrong conclusion?
Word Count: 4156
It was only when Adam raised a clenched fist that Joe realized that he had finally pushed his oldest brother too far. He stood, frozen, panting from the force of his anger and the shouting he had been doing. Adam was in a similar state. The brothers glared at each other across a gulf so wide that it seemed it might never be breached.
“What’s going on?” bellowed an angry voice. Ben Cartwright pushed between his sons, eyeing Adam’s fist with disbelief and then seeing the look on Joe’s face and knowing who had been at the back of this argument. “Stop it, both of you!” he ordered, his voice rough with the worry he felt.
Slowly – oh, so slowly – Adam lowered his fist and forced his hand to open. His dark brown eyes never left his youngest brother’s face and at that moment, Adam knew what it was to feel his emotions beyond his control. If Ben had not arrived when he did, Adam knew that he would have lost control. There was only one person in the world who could goad him to such extremes and Joe had done that this night. But worse, he had hurt Adam, judged him unfairly and the sting of that would never entirely leave him.
Without a word, Adam turned and stalked away. He had no idea where he was going, but he knew that if he stayed for one minute longer, Joe would be lying bleeding on the ground and Adam didn’t want to see that happen. He loved Joe – but there were times when he hated him also.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Ben demanded. It wasn’t often he felt the need to use his size to dominate his youngest son, but tonight, he felt it quite justified and loomed over Joe, using his superior height and weight to try to intimidate his slighter son.
“Its nothing,” Joe replied, sullenly.
“Nothing?” Ben repeated in disbelief. “My sons are about to come to blows and you say it’s nothing? Joseph, I suggest you stop lying to me and tell me what is behind this unseemly behavior.” His dark eyes fixed Joe with a stony glare. “That wasn’t a suggestion,” he added after a moment.
Unable to bear the weight of Ben’s gaze a moment longer, Joe ducked his head. “I… eh… I accused Adam of stealing my girl,” Joe replied.
“How could you think that of him?” Ben gasped.
“Oh that’s right, protect the perfect son!” Joe retorted. “Don’t even give me the benefit of the doubt; just assume that Adam is in the right! Well, not this time, Pa!” His temper fuelled again by the betrayal he felt, Joe turned on his heel and stormed off into the house.
Stunned, Ben just stood there. He could hardly believe that Joe was talking to him like that and yet… A small, niggling doubt crept into his mind. Had he jumped to the wrong conclusion – again? Surely, he above all should check both sides of the story. After all, he had learned this lesson the hard way.
Frozen, unsure which son he should go after first, Ben remembered…
“You want to go to sea? Are you mad?” demanded Jack Holloway, Ben Cartwright’s best friend.
“Maybe,” Ben replied, coolly, hurt by his friend’s disdain. “But I’ve signed up now and it’s too late to change my mind.”
Rolling his eyes, Jack snorted in exasperation. “Who have you signed up with?” he asked.
“Captain Abel Stoddard,” Ben replied softly. He waited for Jack’s reaction and wasn’t disappointed.
“Abel Stoddard? Are you completely crazy? He’s the toughest captain sailing out of this harbor!” Jack rolled his eyes again and shook his head. “If you had to go to sea, surely you could have picked an easier master!”
“I want to be the best,” Ben answered. It was something that would be with him throughout his life. “I want to learn from the best and if Captain Stoddard is the best, that’s who I want to learn from.”
Wordlessly, Jack looked at Ben. Jack’s family was as poor as Ben’s was, but he wasn’t trying to earn himself a living. He helped the family out by stealing. Ben knew that, and he hated that his friend was dishonest, but they had been friends for a long time and Ben pretended not to know how Jack came by his money. The whole thing made Ben very uncomfortable, but at 13, he didn’t know what to do about it.
“I sail at dawn,” Ben told his friend. “I just came to say goodbye.”
For a moment, Jack’s tough, all-knowing persona cracked and Ben saw the vulnerable, lonely young boy he strove to hide. In a blink of an eye, the vulnerability was gone and he nodded casually. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he advised Ben. “See ya around – assuming you get back, that is.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Ben joked. He watched his friend leave, unable to tell him that he was suffering from severe doubts. Now that the time had come for him to leave home, he wasn’t sure he was ready to do so.
But come morning, Ben was at the docks while it was still dark and as dawn broke, he looked back at port just once before turning his gaze out to sea.
Blinking, Ben came back to reality. He had to speak to Adam and hear his side of the story. He had to speak to Joe to get his side of the story, too. Which one should he speak to first? It didn’t matter which son he chose, Ben realized; the other would most likely take it as a slight, or an indication that the other was the favorite, when he wasn’t. The truth was, Ben didn’t have a favorite son. He loved them all as they were and tried very hard not to favor one over another. Now, faced with Joe’s accusation of treating Adam as though he was perfect, Ben began to wonder if he had been as successful in this endeavor as he had thought.
Sighing, Ben decided to track Adam down first. He crossed to the barn as he once more plunged back into his memories of the past.
Life at sea was hard and brutal. Ben learned that discipline was extremely important. Hesitation in obeying an order could cost a man his life. In his months at sea, Ben had already seen one man lost overboard in a storm and another badly injured. He returned a man, not a boy.
It was difficult for Ben to reconnect with his family when he first got back. He had left on The Wanderer as a child, immature in body and mind, but he returned as an adolescent, his mind matured, his body grown dramatically. He was slender to the point of emaciation, but his muscles were strong from hard work and while he was at home, Ben continued to fill out and grow.
It was hard for him to find common ground with Jack. They had met one night at the tavern by the docks. Jack had grown a lot, although not as much as Ben, but he was thin and wary and bad habits had already taken over his life. He was drunk whenever he had money and he had had a few brushes with the law.
“You can’t keep on stealing, Jack,” Ben told him. “What would happen to your mother and sister if you get caught?” Jack’s father had died from influenza over the winter while Ben was away.
“Don’t preach at me, Cartwright,” Jack cursed. “I hear enough of it at home!” With an Irish-catholic mother, Ben was pretty sure he did hear a lot of preaching, but he wasn’t willing to drop the subject. Ben didn’t want to see his friend in trouble.
“I’m only saying this because you’re my friend!” he replied. “Jack, this is important. It’s not too late to turn your life around.”
“Oh, save it!” Jack shook Ben’s hand off his arm. “Would you give up going to sea just because I asked you to?”
“If I was pirating, or doing something else illegal, then yes, I’d give it up.” Ben sighed. “Jack, please?”
“All right,” the other boy nodded. “I’ll give it up.” He gave Ben a hard look. “But I’m not going to sea!”
“I wasn’t going to suggest it,” Ben grinned, although it had been on the tip of his tongue.
“Sure.” Jack looked at Ben and smiled. He would give up stealing while his friend was home; they had enough to live on for the moment. But once Ben was gone…
There were no two days alike at sea. Ben learned to live on his wits and he turned his hand willingly to every job he was given. His months at sea brought changes to his physique and his face was tanned from the wind and salt. By the age of 17, he had attained his full height, although he still had some filling out to do.
Home from his latest voyage to Europe, Ben waited eagerly for Captain Stoddard to give him permission to disembark. On the pier, Jack was waiting for him, leaning nonchalantly against a bollard used for securing vessels. His clothes were threadbare and Jack was painfully thin, but he threw Ben a cheerful grin and a jaunty wave.
Turning, Ben was slightly surprised to see the grim expression on his captain’s face. “Yes, sir?” he asked.
“A word with you before you disembark.” Stoddard jerked his head in the direction of his cabin and Ben obediently followed, wondering what on earth he had done wrong. He couldn’t think of anything, but perhaps that was just his ignorance speaking.
Whatever Stoddard had to say seemed to be difficult as he hesitated for a long moment before starting. Ben grew more and more nervous, resisting the urge to wipe his hands on his pants legs. “It’s about that young man out there, Jack Holloway,” Stoddard began. His usual commanding tones were gone and Ben was rather surprised by the gentleness of his voice.
“Yes, sir?” Ben was confused.
“I don’t know how well you know him, Ben, but I think you should be aware that he’s bad news. He’s been in trouble with the law.” Stoddard looked closely at Ben. He had a soft spot for the youth.
“I know he did a few silly things a couple of years ago, but Jack stopped, Cap’n,” Ben replied, earnestly. “Last time we were home, he was waiting tables.”
“But when you aren’t home, he’s in trouble,” Stoddard told him. “He’s been arrested a few times, but the police have never found any evidence to convict him. But it’s only a matter of time, Ben. And I wouldn’t want you to get caught up in any of his schemes.”
Shaken, Ben just looked at Stoddard. “But he told me he’d stopped,” he muttered, almost inaudibly.
Putting a sympathetic hand on the youth’s shoulder, Stoddard shook his head. “Be careful of him, Ben,” he advised.
“I will, sir,” Ben nodded.
“Dismissed,” Stoddard added and watched Ben walk from the office. He had hated having to do that, but he was too fond of Ben to see the boy dragged off the rails by bad company.
“Adam, can I talk to you, please?” Ben asked, finding Adam in the barn, grooming Sport. A humorless smile passed over Ben’s lips as he realized that more often than not, this is where he would find Joe, grooming Cochise to relieve his feelings. The brothers were more alike than they would admit to.
Slowly, Adam turned to face his father, his face unreadable. Ben often regretted that Adam had learned the necessity of having a poker face, not admitting to vulnerabilities or fears. “What did Joe say?” he asked, tonelessly.
“I’m not talking to Joe right now,” Ben replied quietly. “I’m talking to you, because I want to hear your side of this story. What were you arguing about that made you so angry that you were threatening to hit your younger brother?”
Sighing deeply, Adam gathered his thoughts. “Joe got mad when he saw me talking with Anne-Marie,” Adam declared. “He accused me of stealing his girlfriend. I told him he was being a fool, but it wasn’t my fault if he couldn’t keep her interest.”
“And?” Ben knew that this wasn’t the end of the story. He raised an eyebrow.
Adam glanced down and sideways before straightening up again. A hint of color stained his neck and crept up to his cheeks. “When Joe came back from town, he told me he and Anne-Marie broke up. I laughed and said that she obviously preferred a real man. I was joking, Pa!” he added hurriedly. “Just joking. The next thing, Joe was calling me for everything and…”
“Just joking,” Ben echoed.
“Well, Anne-Marie wasn’t the girl for Joe,” Adam protested. “She’s not good enough for him. After all, she’s no better than she should be!”
“And I suppose you were proving that by flirting with her?”
“Well… Yes,” Adam admitted. “I didn’t think he would take it like this! It’s not like they were serious about each other!”
“I think it’s up to Joe to decide who is good enough for him,” Ben replied. He didn’t have a good opinion of Anne-Marie either, but Joe was a grown man and entitled to make his own mistakes. He said as much to Adam. “I didn’t say a word when you brought home Sue Ellen Terry,” he reminded Adam.
“I know,” Adam responded. “But he had no call to call me those things.”
“No, I’m sure he didn’t,” Ben agreed. “But you had hurt him and he was hurting you right back. Son, you two know each other too well. You both know how to go for the jugular. I think you owe Joe an apology.”
“I know.” Adam sighed. “But he owes me one, too!”
“I’m not denying that.” Ben patted Adam’s arm. “However, I am going to speak to him before that. I have an apology of sorts to make, too.”
“You?” Ben was touched by the note of surprise in Adam’s voice.
“Yes, me,” he replied. A wistful smile crossed his face. “Everyone makes mistakes, Adam. Everyone.”
“Where are you working now?” Ben asked, as he and Jack walked towards Ben’s home. For the first while he was on shore, Ben found it rather disconcerting that the shore didn’t go up and down. He often found himself stepping more heavily than intended.
“I’m between jobs,” Jack evaded. “I didn’t like the last place and so I’m looking for something else. But since you’re only home for a short time, I thought I’d wait until you’re away again before I look seriously.”
Knowing that Jack’s mother had been very ill the last time he was home, Ben was rather surprised by this. “What about your family?” he ventured.
“Oh, Mama died a few months back,” was Jack’s careless response. “And Minna,” his little sister, Ben remembered, “went to live with Aunt Jane.”
“I’m sorry,” Ben murmured, not having any idea what to say and embarrassed by the thought that Jack might be upset.
Shrugging, Jack looked unmoved. “She was sick,” he replied. “I couldn’t afford to get the doctor.”
“Oh.” Ben didn’t have a clue what to say to that. They walked in silence for a while.
“But things got better after I didn’t have to look after Mama and Minna any more,” Jack stated. “I do all right.”
“Good,” Ben muttered. He was relieved when they reached his house and Jack turned away with a careless comment about seeing Ben later.
“He’s trouble!” Ben’s father declared in no uncertain terms. “I don’t want you going anywhere near him, you hear?”
“I hear,” Ben muttered, sullenly. He knew his father had a point, but Ben wanted to be allowed to make up his own mind about Jack and the old ties of friendship were still strong. Later, he left the house to meet Jack anyway.
The meeting between them was strained. Ben had never been good at dissembling and this was no exception. Finally, Jack put down his beer and looked at Ben. “Spit it out, pal,” he advised. “I can’t bear the suspense any longer. What’s wrong?”
“I know the truth,” Ben replied, quietly.
“The truth?” Jack looked uncomfortable. “And what truth would that be?” His tone had cooled off.
Glancing around the crowded tavern, Ben lowered his voice even further and leant forward. “I know what you’re doing,” he finally said. “I know you’re still stealing.”
For a moment, a look of relief flitted across Jack’s face. It was there and gone so fast that Ben wondered if he had imagined it. And then Jack smiled and it was the cold smile of a killer. Jack looked feral; dangerous. Ben felt a shiver work its way down his spine.
“I’m glad,” Jack declared. “I was getting pretty fed up of lying to you, Ben and your innocent belief in hard work was getting really hard to take. Now, are you ready to dump that old fool you work for and earn some easy money?”
“Easy money? Stealing?” Ben looked as disgusted as he sounded. “How easy is it to quiet your conscience?” he asked. “Tell me that, Jack!”
“Easier than you think,” Jack boasted. He grabbed Ben’s arm as the other youth tried to leave. “Ben, listen to me! You could come in with me. Your life would be a lot easier than it is aboard that stinking ship. I know just the job, too.”
“Shut up, Jack!” Ben warned, but Jack was determined to tell Ben all the details, in the hope that he would sway his friend into joining him.
“I’m going to rob old man Leibling’s house. Everyone knows that old man has got money to spare. His wife goes around in fur coats and a carriage and they’ve got more servants than a dog has fleas! They won’t miss what we take, Ben.”
Shaking the hand off his arm, Ben rose. “Jack for the last time; no!” He turned and walked out of the tavern without a backward glance.
The news was all over town by the following afternoon. Not only had the Leibling’s house been robbed, but Mr. Leibling had had the misfortune to meet with the robbers and was stabbed to death. The robbers had escaped empty handed.
Shaken to his core, Ben had to sit down when he heard the news. His heart was pounding so loudly in his ears that he barely heard his mother ask if he was all right. He nodded distractedly – there was no way he could tell his mother what was on his mind.
Several hours – and several miles – later, Ben came to the conclusion that he had no choice. Much as he regretted it, he would have to tell the police what he knew. Turning around, Ben set about retracing his steps back to town, his mind still churning and his stomach keeping it company. Despite knowing that Jack had done something dreadfully, completely wrong, Ben couldn’t help but feel he was betraying his friend.
Therefore, he was utterly dismayed when the first person he met on his return was Jack. Not the Jack who had left him the previous night, but a Jack who had had a bad beating from someone and was in obvious pain.
“How could you?” Ben hissed.
“Not now, Ben,” Jack replied. He tried to brush his friend’s hand off his arm, but failed. “I don’t need to hear another sermon.”
“You broke into that house and now Mr. Leibling’s dead!” Ben accused. “Jack, how could you? He was an old man!”
“I didn’t do it!” Jack protested, but his innocence didn’t sound convincing.
“No?” Ben scoffed. “You told me you were going to! You asked me to help!” He shook his head, furiously angry. “And now I’m expected to believe that you didn’t do it? Pull the other one, Jack!”
Swearing, Jack shoved Ben away. “Get lost!” he cried. “Take your self-righteous carcass back onto that stinking boat and drown! I won’t miss you!” With an odd kind of dignity, Jack turned and stumbled away.
Ben headed straight for the police station.
The sick feeling didn’t go away for ages. Ben barely slept that night. He couldn’t shake the feeling he had betrayed his friend. And yet, he knew he had done the right thing. Ben had always believed in law and order, even though he lived most of his life in an environment where the police were less than welcome. So he was apprehensive when he was called to the police station a day or so later.
“Jack didn’t do it,” the sergeant repeated, beginning to wonder if the tall youth before him was ‘all there’. “We arrested the man who did late last night.”
“I was so sure,” Ben whispered. “He told me he was going to do it.”
“I’m sure he planned it,” the sergeant agreed. “But Big Benny met him at the gates and beat the living daylights out of him. The only reason we know this is because one of my men found Jack on the road and tried to get him to go to the doctor. Jack refused, but we know that this happened at the time the Leibling house was being robbed, because Mrs. Leibling told us what time it occurred.” The man sighed. “I dare say we’ll get Jack for something else one of these days, but just not today.” He frowned. “Are you all right, son?”
“Yes, thank you,” Ben murmured and wandered vaguely out of the building to stand on the sidewalk, oblivious of the crowds bustling around him.
What had he done?
“What did you do?” Joe asked, as Ben paused in his story. He was enthralled, caught up in his father’s simple, compelling narrative.
Sighing deeply, Ben looked at Joe. “I tried to apologize,” he admitted. “But not surprisingly, Jack didn’t want to know. He had told me the truth and I didn’t believe him. I’d jumped to a conclusion, acted on impulse and all it cost me was a friend.”
“Did he ever forgive you?”
“No,” Ben replied. His eyes softened as he looked back across the years. “I met Elizabeth and went back to sea and the next time I got back, Jack was dead.”
“Dead?” Joe’s eyes were out on stalks. “What happened?”
“He hadn’t changed his ways at all,” Ben explained sadly. “And he was shot by a man whose home he was robbing.”
There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that revelation, so Joe said nothing. He ducked his head slightly and looked at Ben covertly out beneath his lashes. The point of Ben’s story wasn’t lost on him; he knew exactly what Ben was trying to say.
“I’ll apologize to Adam for what I said to him,” Joe offered. “And… I’m sorry, Pa.”
“I know you are, son,” Ben responded. He put his hand on the back of Joe’s neck. “And I’m sorry, too, for any actions that might have led you to believe that I always take Adam’s part over yours.”
As Joe started to shake his head, Ben smiled. “I’m sure that either of your brothers would say that I usually take your side, Joe.” He sighed. “But I try not to favor one of my sons over the others. I love you each for what you are. But there are times, Joe that I look at you and see me at your age. We’re more alike than you realize.”
“Really?” The disbelief was clear in Joe’s voice.
“Really,” Ben agreed. “But after what happened with Jack, I learned not to jump to conclusions quite so quickly. I hope you’ll learn to do that, too.”
“I’ll try, Pa,” Joe agreed. He made a face. “I’d better go and say sorry to Adam.”
“Yes, good idea.” Ben smiled. “You’re lucky you just fell out with your brother – they usually tend to be more forgiving than anyone else.”
Smiling, Joe acknowledged that with a nod. “I guess you’re right,” he agreed. “And Anne-Marie wasn’t worth fighting over. I should have just admitted that instead of letting my pride and anger do the talking.”
Watching Joe leave the room, Ben knew that the brothers would apologize to and forgive the other. The storm would be over and neither of them would ever know the feelings of guilt and anguish that had haunted Ben when he had learned of Jack’s death. Since then, he had tried never to jump to conclusions and he lived in hope of teaching that hard lesson to all of his sons.
To Lillian – thanks for the idea!