Summary: In this sequel to Another Stranger In Town, Ben is the featured character. He travels to Dodge City on a mission for Dave who wants some help in mending fences.
Word Count: 7484
Festus Haggen was never more excited than when there was someone new in town and they had business with the marshal. He expected he would be privy to the details and that was about as exciting as life got for the grizzled former wolf hunter turned deputy marshal.
“Matthew, he’s anuther of them Cartwrights like that one that was here a year or so ago. That’s a right scary bunch they got over Nevada way. That one all in black made people nervous looking like a gunman like he did and with that look he had about him that made him look dangerous until he smiled that is. Now this one here, he walks down the street and he looks like the governor, he does, with that hair all shiny silver white and them fancy duds he’s a wearin’ and such. I ain’t seen him smile yet. I don’t know ifn he’s got a smile like that Adam who had a right friendly smile once ya got ta know him. This one looks mighty fierce like he better oughta get his way or them eyebrows of his gonna clamp down and some poor soul is gonna face his temper, and I like ta tell ya, I shur hope it ain’t a gonna be me. Now I kinda hope that no one ever gives him a reason to make them eyebrows of his come down ’cause that’ll just be trouble all around, dontcha know.”
“Festus, is there a point you’re trying to make here?” Matt Dillon was at his desk, and until his deputy had come in, he had been at work on monthly reports. He didn’t enjoy doing them but hoped to get them out of the way. Listening to Festus was robbing him of time he could be doing that. The desk was too small and the pile of work was too large.
“Well, I would ifn ya was to stop interruptin’ me in the middle of me tellin’ ya what it was. He wants ta talk wit you and said he’d be in the Long Branch directly ifn ya was in a mind ta speak with him there. He said he had some news ’bout ole Dave Reeves and a question from him too. He was hoping you could be over there directly as he’s got a business meeting to go to and he ain’t gonna be here but one day and a night and most of the day is pur’near gone already.”
Shaking his head, Matt picked up his hat and strapped on his gunbelt before heading to the Long Branch Saloon. Festus tagged along of course because he never missed a chance at finding out what was going on in Dodge City especially anything having to do with his friends. Inside the saloon, Matt saw Kitty sitting with a distinguished looking man who was holding her hand. A twinge of jealousy hit but Matt fought it down as he did every time he saw a man pay attention to Kitty. Their relationship required him to do it.
“Hello, Kitty. I’m guessing this must be Ben Cartwright. Festus told me I could meet him here, and he wanted to talk with me.”
Ben Cartwright stood then and put out his hand. “Good day to you, Marshal Dillon. I would like to thank you for treating my son with respect, at least after you let him out of your jail.”
There was a bit of a challenge there and Matt got it. “I am sorry about that, but if you have met Dave Reeves, you know how much alike they look. I had to check things out.”
“Well, no harm was done. My son is a forgiving man. And yes, I have met Dave, and I was surprised too at how much he and Adam look alike. It is rather unnerving to know your son resembles a gunman and convicted killer so much that they could almost be twins.”
Knowing that already, Matt was more curious about how Ben and Kitty were so friendly in so short a time. Kitty had picked up on his looks toward her and toward Ben and decided to explain before he even had a chance to ask.
“Sit down, why don’t you.” She gestured to Sam to send over another glass for Matt. “Ben and I met in Illinois years ago. I didn’t realize it when Adam was here because I didn’t recognize the last name and put it all together. I guess I only knew him as Ben mostly. I was working in a little saloon in Illinois years ago. I don’t even want to mention how many, and Ben and Adam came through on their way west. Ben worked at the saloon cleaning up.”
Matt found that idea amazing as he sat there looking at the prosperous rancher. “Cleaning up?”
Ben could see the surprise even if Matt hid it rather well. “I was headed west and needed more money. It paid a dollar a day, which was a very good wage in those days. Adam was only about five years old then.”
“Ben got in a bit of trouble with the owner because he began romancing the lady that McWhorter wanted to marry. I remember that her brother, Gunnar, got mixed up in it too before it was all settled. The last I saw of Ben, he was headed out of town married to Inger with Adam sitting on the seat next to the two of them looking happy as can be. I never would have guessed that little boy was the man who was here a couple of years ago. He certainly looked different than that little boy.”
“Yes, he grew up to look like Dave Reeves, and he certainly knew how to handle a gun as well as Dave. I’m glad Dave was able to turn his life in a better direction.”
“He did, and he is one of the reasons I’m here. I have a short meeting with a cattle buyer, but the reason I’m staying over on my way to St. Louis is because of Dave. He asked me to do something for him.”
A bit leery, Matt had to ask. “What kind of thing would Dave want you to do here? His life is in Nevada now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is, and he’s doing well. He’s already been given his own region. He’s a full marshal now working the northern region of Nevada mostly. But he has a very important part of his life here yet. He can’t forget his son.”
“His son has a new father.”
“I know what it’s like to have sons. I have three, and no matter where they are and what kind of life they would choose to lead, they would always be my sons. He doesn’t mean to interfere in his son’s relationship with his stepfather if you’re worried about that.”
“What is it that Dave wants then?”
“He knows his son will turn eighteen this year or already has. He wrote a letter to him. He would like you to deliver that letter and talk to the boy about him. With all that has happened, he would like his son to know the whole truth about him and thinks you are the man to tell that story. He left the letter unsealed and said he would have no objection to you reading it first. Knowing how protective you are of Anne and Billy, he wanted you to see that there was nothing harmful or threatening in there. He’s made a good life for himself, and he’s a good man.”
Pulling a letter from his vest, Ben handed it to Matt who opened it to read.
I know that you have heard many things about me that aren’t good. Yes, I killed men. In all those cases, they were in fair gunfights until that last one, Harvey Cagle. I know it was wrong to do it, but I didn’t see a way out. He was going to have your stepfather killed one way or another. I paid my price for that crime. Every man pays a price for bad choices he makes. Another bad choice I made was when I refused to change my life for your mother. I could have had a life with her and you, but I refused to consider her pleas. That is all on me. When you talked to me and said you wanted to be like me, I knew you wanted to be like me for all the wrong reasons. I was harsh with you that night to send you into Carl Anderson’s protection. I knew then what I had to do. It was the most difficult decision of my life. It was also the worst one. I should have gone to Matt Dillon. I should have told him what Cagle wanted. I didn’t trust the law to do its job and decided to do it myself. All I can hope is that my decision has not hurt you any more than I know. I pray that your life with your stepfather and your mother has been a good one. My life has changed because of Matt Dillon’s help and the help of Adam Cartwright and other men here in Nevada who gave me another chance. I am a U.S. Marshal. I work for the law now. I think I do a good job at it. Now that you’re a man who will sometimes face some tough decisions of your own, I hope you understand how a man can make a bad decision without being a bad man. If you ever get a chance to visit Nevada, I hope that you would consider coming to meet me. I would like to see you more than you can probably imagine, but for reasons I’m sure you can understand, I cannot return to Kansas.
Your father, Marshal Dave Rivers
“When he got his commission as a U.S. Marshal, they thought it might be best if he used the name Rivers instead of Reeves. Lots of cowboys move around and might know the name Dave Reeves even from more than ten years ago. It’s to be safer and stop anyone challenging him to a gunfight based on his former reputation.”
“That is smart. Not likely they’ll guess that Dave Reeves got out of prison to become Marshal Dave Rivers.”
“That was the thought.”
“Well, Ben, I could deliver this letter and talk with Billy, but I think it would be better coming from you. You know Dave and have talked with him. You could tell Billy more about the kind of man he is now and the life he’s leading.”
“But I don’t know Carl Anderson and Anne. Dave said they would probably be reluctant to let Billy have a letter from him. He doesn’t think they would likely want Billy to know much about him or how to contact him. He thought because you are friends with them that you might be able to convince them to at least give Billy the letter.”
Matt pursed his lips and leaned back in his chair at that because it made sense, but his argument had made sense too. It was Festus who offered the solution.
“Well, near as I kin see, the both of you should go on up there together to see ’em. One of you to talk ’em into it, and t’other ta talk wit Billy. Now don’t that make the most sense?”
“Does what make the most sense?” Doc Adams had come into the saloon only in time to hear Festus.
“Well, Doc, ya see, Dave Reeves who’s Dave Rivers now has this here letter he give to Ben here who is Adam Cartwright’s father, you see, to give to Matt ta give to Billy, dontcha know, except Matt thinks Ben oughta give the letter to Billy only Ben says Dave says that Carl and Anne prob’ly won’t as not let him give Billy the letter so Matt ought to be the one ta do it ’cause he kin talk to Carl and Anne and talk ’em into it, ya see? And I says they both oughta be going wit one to talk to Carl and Anne and the other’n to talk to Billy, and don’t that make the most sense?”
Rubbing his chin and shaking his head, Doc Adams paused for a moment to let all of that sink in. “I swear, I must have been around this flea bitten old wolf hunter too long.”
“You kin keep your ole crotchety opinions all to your own self, you old scudder.”
“Well, if you’d wait a minute and let me talk, I could say what I was going to say and you wouldn’t have to get your back up like a mangy dog. What I wanted to say was you’re actually starting to make some sense some days. Either that, or I have heat stroke from being out in that hot sun going to the Darwin homestead and back already today.”
Kitty grinned. “Sam, bring a beer for Doc.”
“I’m guessing you must be Ben Cartwright then? Hello there. If nobody told you yet, I’m Doc Adams.”
Ben and Doc shook hands and Matt handed Dave’s letter to Doc to read. After he finished, Doc took off his glasses, wiped them, put them in their case, and stashed them in his pocket again.
“Matt, I do agree with Festus on this one. You should go, and Ben should go too. That boy has a right to that letter, but a calmer influence like you would be good to have to make sure no one goes off half-cocked. I know his stepfather is a good man, but when you start talking about a man’s family, men have a tendency to get touchy no matter how even tempered they are otherwise.”
Kitty smiled. “Make that three in favor and for all the reasons Doc explained so well.”
Ben put up his hands in mock surrender. “Hard to fight those odds. I could be back from St. Louis in three days. If so, I could make arrangements to stop here and go with you then. Would that be convenient?”
“Looks like I got voted into it. Yes, that would work. I could have my schedule cleared and send a wire to Carl letting him know we were coming.”
“Do they know about Dave getting a job in Nevada and traveling there with my son?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it because I didn’t tell them, and I don’t know who else would have. We kept that pretty quiet here mostly for Dave’s sake.”
They both knew there was going to be a lot to tell the Andersons then. The odds were that they didn’t know the circumstances of Dave’s parole either nor why he got the opportunity to leave Kansas. It would all have to be explained.
The rest of Ben’s visit to Dodge City was meeting with a cattle buyer and having dinner. He left the next day on the train bound for St. Louis, but his mind was on the issues in Kansas and what faced him there when he returned. When his business was concluded in St. Louis, he didn’t do the visits to friends he had originally planned, but instead booked the return trip to Dodge City to fulfill a promise.
Although there was a stage they could take, Matt and Ben decided to ride up to see Carl and Anne and talk to Billy if they could. It would give them a chance to discuss the situation more thoroughly. In addition, neither cared much for being bounced around in the cramped confines of a stage usually crowded with other passengers who often lacked adequate personal hygiene. The forced camaraderie wasn’t something that they enjoyed either. By mutual agreement, they preferred riding. It was only about a day’s ride either way. The stage made frequent stops and they would have to stop several times to rest their horses so it came out to about the same amount of time. Each stop or break they took would be another opportunity to discuss their plans as well as their thoughts. The rides in between would be good times to think through anything they had discussed or wanted to talk through. On one of their stops, they discussed marriage and grandchildren.
“Any of your sons married, Ben? Any grandkids?” By the way Ben looked, Matt guessed he had opened a touchy subject. “I’m sorry if that’s something you’d rather not talk about. I thought maybe if you did you might have a boy about Billy’s age.”
“No, all my boys have been close but haven’t married. Adam almost was married, but his fiancé took up with another man.”
“Oh, that must have hurt.”
“It did. I’m not sure he’s over it yet. He’s had a lot of heartbreak. Sometimes I think he’s expecting too much, but then again, if he has to live with her for the rest of his life, he has a right to be choosy.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“I would like to have grandchildren though. Sometimes I think my youngest son may be the first to marry. How about you, Matt? Why haven’t you married?”
“It wouldn’t work for me.”
“People wouldn’t accept a marshal married to a saloon owner?”
Matt jerked his head toward Ben who had a slight smile. “Is it that obvious?”
“I have a son like you who keeps things pretty well under cover.”
“Adam?” Matt waited for Ben’s nod. “Yes, he didn’t give away much.”
“I’ve gotten used to watching for small signs of what’s going on with him. You’re a lot like him. You don’t say anything about what you’re feeling so I had to watch closely, but the signs are there.”
“No, the town wouldn’t accept it. They’ll accept us as we are because they can make believe it isn’t true. There’s nothing official or permanent. We don’t share a house on the edge of town or anything like that.”
“It would be easier in places further west where people are willing to be more forgiving because it seems so many have a past. We tend to judge more on what a person does now rather than the past or what society thinks is right. One of the most honored women in Virginia City ran her own house on D street.”
“I can’t see that happening here.”
“Yes, the more settled an area, the more some people think they have a right to judge others. Now, what can you tell me about Carl and Anne Anderson? Are they going to be willing to give Dave a fair hearing?”
“I don’t know. They accepted what he did in killing Harvey Cagle and understood why. They spoke up for him at his trial. It helped him avoid the gallows. But now you’re talking about Billy. I don’t know how they’re going to react when it’s their son.”
“He’s Dave’s son too.”
“I don’t know that they see it that way.”
They didn’t. When they got to his home and explained their mission, Carl was adamant that Billy was now his son.
“Bringing this up after all these years will only confuse things. It took a long time for him to accept me as his father and come to terms with Dave Reeves being a murderer. Now he’s out of our lives, and we were able to move forward without his shadow hanging over every day. Listen, I appreciate that he did what he did because he thought he was helping us, but he murdered a man. I don’t want my son associating with a murderer. We have other children now. You saw them outside. We don’t want them to have that kind of influence in their lives.”
After Carl seemed to run out of steam and calm somewhat, Anne responded to what he had said. “Carl, he did it to help us. It doesn’t make him a murderer. You make it sound like he did that every day.”
“Anne, he killed people for money.”
“He was a gunman. He was in gunfights. He didn’t murder them. I didn’t like what he did, but except for that one time, he didn’t murder anyone. Now don’t talk like that because no matter what, I don’t ever want Billy to hear you say that about his father. I do agree that I don’t want him back in Billy’s life. It would be too hard, but don’t talk about him like that. It’s not fair.”
It was time for Ben to start mediating. It was the main reason he was there. “Carl and Anne, what you don’t seem to realize is that he is in Billy’s life and always will be. You can’t deny the facts. He fathered that boy, and Billy knows it. He won’t ever forget that Dave Reeves is his father.”
Carl wasn’t so easily convinced. “But he doesn’t need to be reminded of it. He can put it so deep in his mind that he doesn’t ever have to think about it again.”
Ben expressed then the most important thing he had to say to the couple. “I’m going to leave this letter from Dave to Billy with you. I think you ought to read it. I know you can burn it or do something else with it, but that would be a terrible mistake that you would regret. Read that letter and think about what he says. I have three sons. One thing I know is that they will never forget a parent no matter how old they get and no matter how little they knew that parent. My two older sons never knew their mothers who died too soon, but each keeps their mother near their heart every day of their lives. My youngest son only knew his mother until he was five. They all know they had a mother they don’t really know. None of them can put that memory deep enough to forget it though. It’s not possible.”
Looking out the window, Matt watched three children play under the supervision of Billy who was watching over them at his parents’ request. Matt turned back to Carl and Anne. “Carl, you love all four of your children, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“They seem so different. They look different, and as I watch them, they act so differently. Yet you love them all the same.”
“I love them for who they are.”
“If you can love four children, Carl, why are you so sure that Billy can’t love and respect two fathers for who they are too?”
There was nothing more to be said. Having planted the seeds of ideas that Carl and Anne needed to consider, Ben and Matt turned to leave, and Matt walked over and said goodbye to Billy too before they got their horses. Ben waited for Matt and watched him with Billy and could see by the interaction between the two that Billy clearly respected the marshal. In town, they found a restaurant and had a good steak dinner. As they sat back and enjoyed their coffee, Ben wondered what Matt was thinking because he had that look that Adam sometimes did when he was staring into the distance like he was looking at something but was clearly lost in thought.
“I have a feeling that you’re going to be talking to Billy at some point. I think we ought to think about staying in town until that happens.”
“I need to get home. I’ve already spent a couple of days longer traveling than I expected, and it will probably be two more before I can get a train to head back home.”
“I don’t think it will be that long. Can you spare one more day? If nothing happens by tomorrow at this time, we can plan to leave the following morning.”
Ben agreed. “We can plan to leave that morning regardless.”
“What will we do with our spare time until then if I don’t get to talk to Billy?”
“I saw a billiard hall.”
“It’s not something I’ve done much. I guess it’s time to learn. Maybe I can surprise my sons if I catch on well enough. I’d love to surprise my oldest and beat him at that. He’s got a lot of skill at banking shots. Could you give me some lessons in doing that?”
The two men spent a relaxing evening shooting billiards with Ben gaining enough confidence that he was willing to bet two bits each on the last four games. The end result was that he owed Matt a dollar, but he was getting closer to winning by the fourth match. He knew that betting those two bits made him concentrate more so he thought of the dollar as money spent on a lesson. He was hoping to have a chance to win some back the next day.
At breakfast, that plan fell apart. With no plans, they had slept in and it was already the middle of the morning by the time they were savoring their coffee. The two men had finished their breakfast of ham, eggs, biscuits, and potatoes when a shadow fell over the table. Both looked up, but Ben was startled. He felt as if he had traveled back in time. The young man standing there resembled Adam at eighteen so much it was remarkable. The eye color wasn’t the same though and the skin color was lighter. The hair was brown not black. As he got over the initial shock, he took in all the differences and knew then that this had to be Billy. He had not seen him up close. At the Anderson house, the young man had been fifty feet away and wearing a slouch hat.
“Good morning, young man. I take it your parents gave you the letter from your father?”
“He’s not my father.”
“Oh? Then why are you here?”
“I thought I should talk to you and at least give you the courtesy of an answer to give to him. My mother thought it was the right thing to do.”
“What do you think?”
Although Billy’s words were resolute, Ben sensed a great deal of indecision in them. The young man shrugged in response to Ben’s question. It was clear he didn’t know what to think. Matt excused himself and offered his chair to Billy.
“I’ll head over to the sheriff’s office. I have a few things to talk over with him. You two can talk here.”
Leaving then, Matt assumed it would be easier for Billy to talk with only Ben at the table. He saw Billy sitting down as he exited and hoped Ben’s experience with three sons would be enough to get through to Billy. At the table, Ben was hoping the same thing. He decided to go the core of the problem first.
“There are only seconds at times to make terrible decisions of life and death but then days, weeks, months, and years to regret those decisions when they were the wrong ones. No one can know all the consequences of a decision when it’s made so quickly. I have three sons, and I know that all three have been in such situations and have made terrible decisions because they had to do so. Afterwards, they sometimes regretted their actions, but often there was nothing else they could have done or any other action could have led to as many or more problems. I have to wonder if they would have felt worse if they had not acted.”
“I don’t think I’d feel worse if my father wasn’t a murderer.”
Noting that he had referred to Dave as his father, Ben kept that to himself. “Yes, but Carl could have been killed if Harvey Cagle had lived. Yes, Dave could have gone to Matt Dillon, but he had no proof that there was going to be a crime. It isn’t a crime to want someone to be in a gunfight. Pressuring someone to be in a gunfight isn’t illegal. If Dave had gone to Matt, Harvey might have found another way. He may have staged an accident, a fire, or done something else.”
“You really like my father, don’t you?”
“I do. I have met him, and I’ve seen the work he’s done. My son, Adam, knows him better than I do, and he likes him. I trust his judgment especially after this length of time and after so many others are impressed by the job Dave is doing for us in Nevada. You know what he did that led to his parole too, don’t you?”
“No, no one ever told me that story.”
“It’s really in two parts. He helped during an epidemic at the prison caring for the ill. That in itself was brave because he exposed himself to the disease and could have died too. But he did more. When some prisoners were going to use the situation as a way to escape and were planning to hurt or kill some guards in the process, he stopped them. He saved lives in both cases. After that, he wasn’t safe in prison, and he had done such brave things, he got a parole.”
“Anywhere else, he would have been a hero.”
“Yes, you see as your father said in his letter: doing a terrible thing doesn’t make a man a terrible man. He knows that he did something awful by shooting and killing an unarmed man. He regrets it every day, but he worries about you and your mother too because of what he did. He wants you especially not to have to suffer any ill effects. He hopes that one day you will visit him.”
“I don’t know if I ever want to do that.”
“Remember what I said about making a decision and living with the consequences. Think about this, Billy. What if your father gets killed in his job? That could happen. There are risks in a job like his. If you doubt it, ask Matt Dillon. If the worst did happen, then how would you feel? It would be one of those decisions you have made that there is no way to change the outcome.”
“But when could I go see him? I don’t have any money, and my parents don’t have the kind of money to send me on a trip like that. I’ve never traveled on my own either.”
“It sounds like you’ve made a different kind of decision now. Was it that easy to convince you?”
“No, or yes. I guess it depends on how you look at it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but that didn’t really matter. It was easy to say I wouldn’t go see him because I knew I couldn’t. Then you telling me all the reasons why I should consider it made me think I ought to tell you why I really couldn’t go.”
“Billy, if it wasn’t for the money and if there was someone willing to help you with the travel, would you want to go visit your father?”
Dropping his head, Billy was silent for at least a full minute. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes. “Mister Cartwright, I don’t know what I want to do. He is my father, but he hurt me and he hurt my mother. I don’t know if I want to take a chance on him again.”
“I can understand that. Why don’t you go home and talk to your mother and stepfather about it. Take some time and think about it. We’re going to be here until tomorrow morning. You have until then to contact me directly to bring an answer to your father. If not, you know how to send him a letter.”
“Thank you. I’ll do that.” With that, Billy pushed the chair back and stood to leave. He put out his hand to shake Ben’s hand before he left.
Taking money from his pocket, Ben realized he was going to be paying for Matt’s breakfast too. He smiled at how clever his new friend was. As he walked out of the restaurant, he met Carl Anderson who asked if they could talk.
“I have to open the store, but if you wouldn’t mind, we could talk there. First thing in the morning, there usually aren’t many customers. We should have privacy to say anything needs saying.”
“We can talk, but you have to know that I will respect Billy’s privacy and not repeat anything we discussed.”
“That’s all right. We’ll talk, just the two of us, man to man about this situation. I don’t want to lose my son, and I think you can help me with that.”
“I don’t think you’re going to lose Billy, but I’m willing to talk with you about the situation.”
The two men walked to Anderson’s General Store without saying much other than commenting on the weather and the general state of the town. Once Carl unlocked the doors to the store and set out the signs for the day, he took a deep breath and looked at Ben.
“I feel obtunded by everything that’s happened since we met with you yesterday.”
“Oh, I got hit in the head while loading some grain bags a few months ago and was knocked kind of senseless for a time. I couldn’t seem to think straight. The doctor said I was obtunded. It’s how I feel right now. This has me feeling like I got hit in the head all over again. I guess I wish you had never come to us with that letter.”
“Dave was always going to be out there. Sooner or later, you had to confront that.”
“I guess I knew that, but somehow I thought that maybe he would get killed in prison. We didn’t know he got out. Oh, we heard some stories, but we didn’t know if we should believe them. I guess we didn’t want to believe them. It was easier hoping he would die without ever showing up here. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s how I felt. Now I see how important he is to Billy, and it makes me feel guilty. I guess we should have done something sooner to help him see Dave, but we have the other children to take care of. How can we spend all that money to send Billy on a trip to see Dave.”
“You know Dave did what he did to save your life.”
Slumping down on a stool, Carl had to accept that and knew it. “I pray for forgiveness every day for that because I’m grateful to him. I know I shouldn’t be grateful to a man who committed a murder to help me, but I am.”
Ben knew that Matt would have understood the moral quandary well. He had faced some of those in his job. “It makes you angry at Dave because you blame him for how you feel.”
“I guess that about sums it up. And I love Billy and raised him up as my son. I can’t lose him now.”
“It’s not losing him. He’s a man. He’s going to be leaving your protection at some point. You need to consider letting him try out those wings to see if he can fly when you’re still around to help him.”
“I guess this is it then. We’ll have to see if there is some way for us to pay for that trip.”
“There might be another way. Why don’t you let Billy think it through. Talk to him. See what he wants to do. If he wants to go see Dave, come and see me. We’ll work something out.”
“All right. I guess we need to do more talking. How long will you be here?”
“We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.”
That was the last of the conversations Ben had that day. Emotionally exhausted, he got a newspaper and sat in the sun relaxing and warming up until lunchtime. After a hearty lunch, Ben announced to Matt that he was going to take a nap and did. He felt better when he awakened and then had a light dinner with Matt and told him about the two conversations he had with Billy and with Carl.
“You know, Carl is a reasonable man. Once he’s had a chance to think about this, I think he’s going to make the right decision for all of them. He’ll help Billy sort out his feelings about all of this too.”
“I hope he does. He risks alienating his son if he tries to push him into a corner on this. I know. I’ve done that with my sons, and it doesn’t work. I’ve had to back down.”
The two spent a quiet evening then in conversation wondering what the next morning would bring. They assumed they would hear from Carl one way or another.
Sheriff Roy Coffee stood outside his office and welcomed the posse back grateful that he hadn’t had to ride with this one. Clem stepped forward and took charge of the wounded prisoner taking him inside to a cell as Roy asked another man to go ask Doctor Paul Martin to please come care for the wound in the man’s arm. Roy addressed the dusty U.S. marshal who had headed the posse.
“Dave, I seen ya got the last of ’em. Gave ya some trouble though?”
“No, not really, they didn’t. We had enough men that I got them positioned all around the camp and had them surrounded before I ever called out to them. Told them the situation and said they could come in and probably get some prison time. Be out in time to live a decent life.”
“You figured them for prison time? A man at the bank got killed.”
“Yes, but we all know the older ones in the gang did that. These two young ones were outside holding the horses. It wasn’t likely a judge would give them the gallows for that. The young fools decided to try to shoot it out though. Ten against two was no contest. I wasn’t going to let anyone in the posse get hurt because these two didn’t know a good deal when they heard it.”
“Not enough experience probably to know better, and now one of ’em will never get the chance.” Roy shook his head in sorrow at that. He had seen others make the exact same mistake.
“No, and I am real sorry about that.”
“We know you always try to bring them in alive, Dave. It’s why I liked you heading up this posse. Don’t let him haunt your dreams. At least you brought one in alive.”
“Yes, and the money’s back, the rest of the robbers are either dead or in jail, and this case is closed. I’m looking forward to a hot bath and a good dinner before I have to sit down and write out all the paperwork. I’m not sure in what order that will be, but first I owe these men a beer. If anyone wants me, you know where to find me.”
“Well, there is someone who would like to see you. Ben got back today, so maybe you could go pay for that round and head back here before you get a room. He’s right here in the office. We’ve been talking a bit.”
“I’ll do that, Roy. I want to hear what Ben has to say.”
“We’ll be waiting for you, Dave.”
Walking inside, Roy was smiling. He guessed that Dave was going to be happy with the news. He was underestimating Dave though. He was overjoyed. Walking into Roy’s office less than a half hour later, he froze in the doorway when he saw the young man sitting next to Ben beside Roy’s desk.
Rising to meet his father, Billy put out his hand, which Dave took. The two couldn’t stop there though. The contact of their hands led them into a hug. It was brief but showed that the feelings they had were strong and genuine.
“I never thought you would come back with Ben. I was hoping for a letter, but this is so much better.”
“Ben told me that choices have consequences. He said if I didn’t come to see you and something happened, well, then, I might never get to see you. I guess I didn’t want that to happen.”
“I’m glad. How long can you stay?”
Looking at Ben, Billy wasn’t sure. “Mister Cartwright paid for my ticket so I don’t know. Pa, ah, Carl, expects me back to help out. He needs me at the store and at home.”
“Billy, I think he might spare you for a week. That will give you about five days here and another two days for travel. My son, Adam, is planning a trip to Denver, and I’m going to ask him to go early and extend his trip to Dodge to make sure you get that far safely. Your father, Carl, can meet you there.”
“Thank you. I’ve heard your son, Adam, looks a lot like my father.”
“He does. I’m sure you’re going to hear all about that while you’re here. Now, Dave, if you need a place to stay for a few days, the Ponderosa has guest rooms that are empty and waiting. We would be pleased to host both of you. It would give you a quiet place to talk.”
“Thank you, Ben. I’d like that. I have to write some reports and get them sent in. I’ll do that tonight and tomorrow. Then I can come out to your place if that works out all right. Billy, can you stay for dinner with me tonight?”
Ben smiled and nodded. “I’ll stay and have dinner with Roy if he’s agreeable. Billy and I can go out to the Ponderosa after dinner. We’ll see you tomorrow?”
“As early as I can post that report, I will, and then I’ll be out there.”
So for five days, Billy got to learn about his father’s life, the things he had done and how he had turned his life around to work for the government as a marshal. Dave talked too about a woman he had met and was considering courting. She was a widow with grown children. Billy joined in on the teasing when the Cartwrights couldn’t resist that opening. Billy described his life and how he found it odd to have so many little children in the house. Adam commiserated and compared it to having Hoss and Joe underfoot when he was young. That got Hoss and Joe complaining about their bossy older brother.
“That’s what the children say about me!” Billy laughed. He knew then that it was all a normal part of being a family.
Before the week was up, Billy and Dave agreed to send each other letters on a monthly basis if possible knowing that there could be times when that wouldn’t work. On the last day of their visit, Dave had to pack up his things to head out. He had been summoned to Carson City because of a criminal investigation on which he was needed. Before he left, he and Billy hugged one more time.
“I love you, son. I always will.”
“I love you, dad. I’m proud of you.”
That brought tears to Dave’s eyes. As he rode to Carson City that day, each time he thought about that parting moment, he had tears in his eyes again. He guessed that might happen fairly often as he thought about that farewell. Knowing his son was proud of him for all the right reasons was the best moment of his life so far.
On the Ponderosa that night, each of the Cartwright sons told their father that they loved him before they headed off to bed. Each said it quietly and privately, but after the experience of the past week, they all knew that there never was a moment that you could be sure wouldn’t be the last time you would see your father. It made each appreciate that they could see their father every day.
The next day as Ben sent Adam off on a mission to deliver Billy back home, he said the same to his son and for the same reason. There is never a better lesson than to see what others have lost to realize what you still have.