Dual stories by Cat and Jenny G looking at the flexible structure of the Ponderosa ranch house from two different perspectives. Does the house seem warm and inviting to you or do you always wonder where all those bedrooms come from when guest visit?
A short story explaining all the little mysteries about the Ponderosa, such as why did the size keep changing, why we never saw any of Ben’s neighbors after he gave them land, why Adam took off…
It was a quiet night at the Ponderosa. Little Joe and Hoss had gone to San Francisco on a business trip (Adam being the one who drew the short match). Adam, after finishing the chores, was in town. Ben had settled down at his desk and started going over the books. A large deep voice calling broke the quiet: "FEED ME, BENJY, FEED ME!"
Startled, Ben dropped the pen leaving a large ink spill on the ledger he was working. "Keep your voice down. Someone will hear you," Ben called out. "Besides, what about that guy I gave land to last week? Don’t tell me you finished with him already?"
The large voice again boomed out, "No one is here except you and me; and that guy wasn’t even worth the trouble. All skin and bones. How could you expect him to give me any energy. I need ‘em young and vigorous. I need new life, Benjy!"
Ben’s head fell into his hands. What had he gotten himself into? "Well you’ve already eaten all the ranch hands. Couldn’t you leave at least one? The boys are getting tired doing all the work with no help. You can’t keep eating everyone I give land to, the town hasn’t noticed yet, but they will. Eventually someone with brains will move into Virginia City. I’m not going to mention the women my boys keep bringing you. Joe’s alone should keep you fed for years!"
The voice became plaintive, "I can feel myself beginning to get smaller. I don’t know how long I can keep up the expanse. You’re going to have to lose some bedrooms."
Sounds of the wood creaking as the walls contracted came roaring in Ben’s ears. He was almost thrown from his chair as the house began to shake and shift. He could hear the wood upstairs screeching as it folded into itself and the upstairs got smaller.
"You can’t do this! I’ve got company coming soon. I need those extra bedrooms." Ben called out. Suddenly, the noise and movement stopped.
"Soon? How soon?" the voice wheedled.
Ben’s hand came up to his mouth, what could he say? How did he ever get into this mess? It was so many years ago when he made the bargain with the little cabin. He would bring new life onto the Ponderosa for the cabin. In return, the cabin would grow; give him and his boys a safe secure place to live. So far, the bargain had stood them well. But Ben learned the consequences of trying to break the bargain. Marie was one of the victims the first time he tried. The house grew quite large after getting her. But as long as he kept his part of the bargain, Ben and his sons remained untouched.
There was the time, however, when they thought they had lost Hop Sing to the house, but he had gone to visit relatives. The house was content with Cousin Number 2. Or at least Ben thought so, they never saw him again and there were plenty of bedrooms for the next visit. And not one guest had even disappeared!
"No, no one." Ben yelled. "I can’t take this any longer. There will be no new guests! You’ll starve!"
The voice became soft, almost purring, "Can you really do without me? What would happen to you if they found out? Even those in Virginia City would notice if the house became the cabin again. You can’t burn me, you tried." The voice was soft, whispering in Ben’s ear almost that of a lover.
"I’m not expecting anyone for two weeks." Ben said weakly.
"Not soon enough." The voice said plainly. Again, the shaking and shifting started again.
"Wait, I have an idea!" Ben said quickly…
It was some days later when Hoss and Little Joe had come back and were sitting down at the table looking at the empty spot where Adam used to sit.
"Don’t seem right without him," Hoss said.
Ben looked around the large home, "Well, it was for the better. I think he was getting restless. He would’ve left or told someone soon."
Joe looked up and moving his mouth around the food in it said, "yeah, but telling people he just up and went to sea? Think anyone would believe it?"
"Well you know those people in Virginia City. They actually believed Will and Laura moved off. Sad about Peggy though; but with a mother like that, who knows how she’d grow?" Ben got up and took his coffee to the living room.
Around them, the house
filled with laughter.
Ben Cartwright put his horse in the barn and walked slowly across the yard towards the house. For some reason that he could not quite put his finger on, he felt infinitely weary. It had been a long, tiring ride home from Placerville; it was a journey that he had made a hundred times before but this time it had taken a lot out of him. Perhaps, he thought, it was just that he was getting old.
Of course, even before he had set out for home he had been drained, emotionally exhausted by long hours of wrangling with fellow members of the Cattlemen’s Association. And it had all been such a waste of time! They were as mule headed and as entrenched in their old positions as they had always been. They simply couldn’t understand that the world was changing all around them, all the time. New people were flooding into the territory every day. The days of the wide-open ranges were numbered; the cattle barons had to adapt, or perish!
Ben heaved a sigh. In his heart he knew that things weren’t really as bad as all that. The change was slow; he was unlikely to see any difference in his lifetime. The boys though – his sons – well, perhaps that was a different matter.
The house, the barn and the yard were a study in gray. The sun had been hiding behind rain clouds all afternoon, although it had not rained. It was late afternoon, and the fading light robbed the familiar scene of all color and all life. Even the milk cows, close up against the side of the barn in the home corral, were unmoving, a part of the still life - only the flick of an ear or a switch of a tail gave the lie to the illusion. The house loomed, a dark, angular shape in its surrounding thicket of scrub oak and pine. The pine log walls appeared black; the roof was pointed and steep, specially designed to throw off the winter snows. It was a stark, sharp shape against the sky. No light showed at any of the windows.
Glad to be home, Ben let himself in through the front door – the door that was never locked. For a moment he stood just inside, letting out a pent up breath and shedding some of the tension that had built up inside him.
There was no one else in the house. It was dark, and it was quiet – but not silent. Standing there, not moving, listening, he could hear the tick of the long case clock that stood against the wall. It was slow and steady like the beat of a heart. If he really strained his ears he could hear the creaks and groans of the house itself, the noises made by all wood-built structures as the timbers moved and shifted one against the other. It was a familiar and comforting sound.
Ben hung up his hat and coat on one of the pegs beside the door and unbuckled his gunbelt, depositing it on the sideboard. He allowed his fingertips to glide lightly over the edges of the furniture, shifting from piece to piece as he moved further into the room. None of it was new. Some of it had once been expensive: shipped around the cape from the east, brought up the Sacramento River on a paddleboat and hauled over the mountains in wagons. The rest of it was locally made and had a rough-hewn practicality about its design, solid and durable. All of it was familiar, the touch of it the caress of an old friend
Ben had built this house himself, with blood and sweat and not a few tears. He had felled the mighty trees, trimming them where they lay and hauling them to this selected spot behind a team of horses. He had worked them with own hands until those hands bled. He had nailed them together with expectations and bound them tightly with hope. He had built them thick and built them tall, the walls of a castle, safe and secure against all that the world could throw against him. It was a house that had become, over the course of many years, a home to him and all that was his. Some days, like today, if he stood still and very quiet he could imagine that he heard it breathing, soft and slow.
Outside, beyond the lake and the pine-clad hills, the sun, setting now in a blaze of glory, at last slipped free of the enshrouding clouds. The intense copper light tinged with saffron and with dazzling pink flooded into the room through the tall, un-shuttered window that graced the dining room. It brushed a swathe of brilliance across the polished wood of the table and gilded the backs of the ornately carved chairs; it brightened the striped satin of the sofa and cast long, dark shadows on the floor.
Ben walked towards the fireplace – the heart of the home. Built of massive, grey granite the blocks fit snugly together - there was not room for even a playing card to be slipped into the cracks between them. They were the solid core on which the whole house leaned – the intrinsic backbone of the building without which it would surely fall. In a mood for remembering, Ben recalled putting these great blocks in place, the sheer hard work of hauling them, one by one over new roads in a flatbed wagon has been backbreaking. And then had come the muscle cracking effort of hoisting them into place. In memory he could still smell the bear grease that had eased the pulleys, hear the creak of hemp as the ropes strained under the load and feel the heat of that summer’s sun on his back. There had been only himself to do the work, with the help of one very young man to depend on and the occasional assistance of a neighbor.
So lost was Ben in his reverie that he failed to hear the rapid rattle of a horse’s hooves outside in the yard. A few moments later the front door opened and Hoss Cartwright, Ben’s middle-born son came in to the house.
Hoss was a huge man in every respect. Taller than his father even without the high crowned hat, he was wide in the shoulder and barrel-chested, a veritable giant of a man. But physical size was just a small part of what there was to Hoss Cartwright. Large as the great room of the ranch house was, his personality filled it to capacity. Bashful, kindly and caring, his bluff manner concealed a heart as big as all outdoors. At the sight of his father his broad face split into a white, gap-toothed grin.
"Hi, Pa! We weren’t expectin’ you back from Placerville ‘till tomorrow!"
Ben smiled fondly as his enormous son dumped hat and gunbelt on the sideboard. "I decided not to stay overnight after all." He didn’t add that a bleak room in a hotel in Placerville held none of the attractions of home. Hoss, of all his sons was the one most likely to understand that sentiment.
Hoss, as was his habit, headed straight for the kitchen. Ben found himself remembering the man’s mother. Hoss had inherited her ice blue eyes and her reddish hair, spun as fine as silk – along with her open-heartedness and practical, Swedish individuality. She had not been an especially large woman; Hoss had gotten his size from somewhere else.
Of course, Inger had never known the house – had taken no part at all in its design or construction. Ben had met and married her on his way west. She had died in a covered wagon, victim of an Indian attack while still making that prolonged, intermittent and much-interrupted journey.
He paused to wonder what she would have thought of the home he had built. Certainly it was larger and more pretentious than anything she had ever known. Ben smiled slightly as he thought of her. Her halting voice with its light and lilting accent would have made the high rafters ring with laughter and the strange, sweet songs of her homeland. She would have pulled him out into the center of the great room and danced him around for the sheer joy of living!
Hoss came back from the kitchen munching on a huge slab of sandwich. Ben frowned. "I thought we would wait supper until your brother got home."
"Mm. Sure, Pa. That’s okay." Hoss spoke through a mouthful of bread and fat belly-pork. "This is just a little snack ta keep a man goin, ya know?"
Ben chuckled and shook his head indulgently. Hoss’s appetite – and his capacity – was renown.
"Say, ain’t it kinda cold in here?" A puzzled look on his face, Hoss looked around and behind him for the source of his discomfort. The walls of the house, two pine logs thick, effectively resisted the summer’s heat and the intense cold of winter. They could do little to forestall the encroaching damp chill of a late autumn evening.
Ben noticed how chilly it had become and turned to the fireplace. The makings of a fire were already laid in the hearth - great slices of pine wood on a bed of shavings. He struck a match on the hearthstone and applied it to the kindling.
The shavings caught fire at once and the bark on the logs started to crisp and curl. Faint at first and then stronger as the flames took hold, flickering amber firelight touched the men’s faces, and a wave of radiant heat spread outwards through the room.
Ben held out his hands to the warmth, and Hoss sat down to finish his sandwich. The big man was sure glad to see his father looking more relaxed; in recent days his pa’s dark eyes had been distracted with worry and his mood as fragile as them fancy spun-glass do-dads Hoss had seen in a city store once at Christmas.
"So how’d your meetin’ with the cattlemen go, Pa?"
Ben sighed and settled himself into the other armchair. "Not well." Ben’s voice sounded as weary as he felt. "They just don’t seem to understand that with all the new people coming in we’re going to have to give way on some things: access, right of way, water rights, or in the end they’ll take everything away from us by sheer weight of numbers."
Hoss pulled a face. He didn’t understand everything that went on at those high-flown meetings, but he had similar concerns himself - about newcomers encroaching on the wild and beautiful places that he loved. He settled back and started to tell his father about the day he had spent checking the yearling herd and on the progress of the young stock.
It was nearly full dark when Joe Cartwright arrived home, and it was turning cold outside. Bursting through the door with his usual enthusiasm, he found his father and his brother sitting companionably in the warm glow of the firelight.
"Hey, what you-all fellas sittin’ there in the dark for?"
The youngest of Ben Cartwright’s sons, Joe had retained the appearance and much of the hotheaded exuberance of youth. Shedding his coat and gunbelt at the door, he moved swiftly ‘round the big room, lighting the oil lamps and keeping up a constant stream of chatter. Before long, the yellow light had spread to every corner, driving back and defeating the very last shadow. Ben watched him with affection. In Joe, he could still see the image of Marie, his mother – just as alive and as full of energy as she had been on that last fateful day. Of a smaller stature than either Hoss or his father, Joe was light boned and slight. He had his mother’s dark brown hair with its tendency to curl in the nap of his neck and her sparkling hazel eyes, green flecked and so often filled with mischief.
Hoss got up to close the shutters across the tall window, sealing out the night. Ben, now warm and comfortable beside the fire, had to make an effort to stir himself. Soon, the three of them were sitting round the table with supper spread out in front of them; in Hoss’s case a good deal of it was already inside him! While they ate, Joe talked, regaling them with tales of his exploits with the banker’s daughter and telling them all about the new, bright-chestnut foal that had been born that autumn to his favorite mare.
Watching the young man’s animated face as he spoke, Ben was again reminded of Marie. She had adored horses too, and had loved to ride. Of all Ben’s wives, Marie alone had known the house – indeed, Joe had been born there. It had been Marie who, of a French-New Orleans background herself, had imported the elegant continental furniture that graced the great room, the gilded, silver backed mirrors and the fine linen that the family still used. Marie had loaded the tables with flowers and filled the air with their fragrance. Marie had hung bright curtains at all the windows and brought a sophisticated, feminine grace. Marie had turned the big, solid house into a warm and welcoming home.
Once they had gathered again beside the fire, Ben put on another chunk of pine wood, and the flames danced and crackled. He started his first pipe of the evening, lighting it with a long spill and puffing out clouds of smoke. None of his wives, he remembered, had much enjoyed the aroma. Then, while Joe and Hoss set up the checkers board and sat down to the first of an interminable number of games, he settled back into his armchair. He shook out the pages of the Virginia City Clarion; the paper was only a week old so, its news was virtually brand new.
By half past eight the fire had burned down to smoldering ashes, and Ben was dozing in his chair. He had been lulled into sleep by the warmth and the comfort and the murmur of his son’s voices. Hoss was losing yet another game, and Joe was chortling with delight.
"That’s two weeks chores you owe me!"
"Aw, Little Joe," Hoss shook his head mournfully, "I guess it just ain’t my night."
Joe started to set up the board again. "Another game?"
"I don’t reckon…"
Joe beamed. He just knew he was on a winning streak, and he wanted to push it as far as it would go. "One more game – double or nothing!"
Tempted by the prospect of recouping his losses but aware that luck was running against him, Hoss scowled, "I don’t know…"
"Go on! Be a devil!" Joe glanced at his father to assure that the elder Cartwright had not heard his small blasphemy. "It’s your move."
Hoss’s face screwed up in concentration. He wiped his palms on his pants and reached out a hand.
The wind moaned in the chimney. Hoss hesitated, his fingers poised over a piece. "What was that?"
"I wasn’t nothin’. Just the wind." Joe was eager to get on with the game; already he was savoring victory and anticipating long, warm lie-ins in bed. "C’mon. Get on with it!"
Hoss threw off the feeling and made his move. The ranch house was a very long ride from their nearest neighbor, and they were not expecting any visitors. It must have been just the wind that he heard. He tried to pay attention to the board – after all, there was a whole lot riding on it.
The game was halfway through and Hoss, to his surprise and delight, was winning when the front door opened abruptly, and a tall man walked right in. Joe and Hoss looked up in surprise. Joe’s hand jerked, knocking over the checkers board. Ben started awake. The newcomer closed the door in the teeth of the gale that tried to follow him in. He took off his black hat and shook it, shedding jewel-bright droplets of water; outside in the night, it was raining. Joe and Hoss relaxed, and Joe cocked a cheeky grin.
"Hi, Adam! We didn’t expect you ta make it home ‘til tomorrow!"
Adam Cartwright, the eldest of Ben’s sons, the child of his first marriage, unbuckled his gunbelt and hung up his dripping coat. He ran a hand through his cropped black hair. "I got as far as Sutton’s Crossing and thought I might as well ride on home. That was before it started to rain." He didn’t have to add that, mostly, he preferred home to anywhere else. He moved swiftly to the fire to warm himself. His brothers could see that his pants were soaking wet and that he tracked water across the floor.
Ben got up and shook hands with his son. "I’m glad you got home. Did you have a good trip?"
"Eventful, anyway." Adam’s handsome, evenly featured face twisted for a moment into a grimace of distaste. It was an expression that reminded Ben instantly of the beautiful, dark haired Elizabeth. How often had he seen her pull that very same face in a fleeting moment of disgust.
"The trail’s already washed out in two places between here and Sparks," Adam was saying, holding his hands out to the fire, "and the Truckee River’s runnin’ high."
Ben frowned, "But you did get the contract to Kingdom Jones on time?"
"I was late," Adam confessed, "but I talked fast. He signed it."
"That’s good news, son! Well done!" Ben felt the strain of the last few days lift off his shoulders. He noticed how wet Adam was. "You’d better get dry, and I guess you’re tired after your ride."
Adam stretched a few stiff muscles in his back. It always amused him how his father still tried to chase him off to bed. "I’d like to unwind before I turn in - and I could do with something to eat." He arched an expectant eyebrow at his younger brothers.
Gazing at the upset checkers board, Hoss sighed. Just when it looked like he had a chance of winning… Joe was more than happy to abandon the game; he was already well ahead in the scoring. He slapped his older, bigger brother on the black clad shoulder; "I’ll get ya some grub, Adam."
"Thanks Joe." Adam gave him a wink and one of his rare, quick smiles.
Hoss started to put the checkers back into the box. "Hey, Joe, get some for me too, huh?"
Adam went upstairs to change into some dry clothes while Ben stoked up the fire. Sitting back in his chair he thought some more about Elizabeth.
She had been the first woman he’d ever loved. For a long time after her death he had believed that he would never love again. She’d had the same raven-black hair that she had bequeathed to Adam, and the same eyes: hazel-brown in daylight, dark in the shadows and a bright yellow topaz in the full light of the sun. He had her wicked sense of humor, her slow burning temper and her sudden, sincere laugh.
It saddened him to think that Elizabeth had had no part in the house. When she had been alive it had been no more than an insubstantial dream in Ben’s mind – a ‘one-day’ sort of thing. He’d had grandiose plans for them then, in the far off days of his youth, such high hopes! That had been half a lifetime ago. Those hopes and dreams had died when she had died and were buried in the New England earth. She had left him only memories – of joy and of sadness. And, of course, she had left him her son.
It had been Adam who had relinquished his childhood and crossed a continent, following his father west. Most of the way he had walked, cold, tired, and hungry across desert, plain, and mountain. He had crossed rivers, fought Indians, eaten his meat raw when he had to; he had never complained. It had been Adam, as a young man, who had worked alongside him to tame a wild land. It had been Adam who had drawn up the plans for the house and worked with his hands to get it built. And Adam who had retraced his steps across the country, exiling himself for long years and returning with the education and the acumen necessary to ensure the survival of the family business to the end of the century – and beyond. Ben knew that - just sometimes – he forgot that his eldest had a sensitive and artistic nature carefully concealed behind his tough exterior.
When Adam came down, clean, and dry, and dressed in comfortable clothes, he brought his guitar with him. After he had eaten he sat beside the fire, playing gentle melodies and singing in his fine baritone voice. Then his family joined in and sang along with him: hymns and ditties and the popular music hall songs of the day. The house swelled and grew with the love and the lives of those present and those whose lives were remembered. It filled up with music and laughter until it spilled over and flowed out into the yard along with the rich golden light.
Cat and Jenny
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