THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE NOT PROFIT AND IS NOT INTENDED TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Aunts

 

 

 

 

This story was suggested when I became a Great Aunt in 2001. Someone said that Great Aunt Kate sounded like a Bonanza character and that made me think of two of my Great Aunts and how they might have behaved on the Ponderosa. So I ‘gave’ them to Ben and this is the result. Emily and Alice Baker, two dear old ladies that I still miss, this one is for you.

 

 

A Bonanza Story

 

 

By Kate Pitts

 

 

Opening the front door, Ben stared in astonishment at the two tiny elderly ladies that were just climbing out of the buggy drawn up in front of the Ponderosa ranch house. As one of the two searched in her purse for money to pay the driver the other started towards the house.

 

“Benjamin.” She exclaimed in pleasure as she approached, holding out her hands in greeting. “Little Benjamin, how lovely to see you after all these years.”

 

“Aunt Alice?” Ben said in amazement, hardly believing the evidence of his own eyes. “Is that really you?”

 

“Of course it is.” Alice Cartwright smiled as Ben took her hands in his. “We decided it was about time we came for a visit.”

 

“We did so want to see your family.” Added the second of the two ladies as she turned from the buggy. “And this magnificent house you’ve written so much about.”

“Aunt Emily.” Releasing Alice’s hands Ben moved forward to greet his other aunt. “It’s wonderful to see you.”

 

“It’s nice to be here at last.” Emily Cartwright smiled at her nephew then indicated the cases that were piled on the seat of the buggy. “Perhaps you could help me unload the luggage so that this young man can get on back to Virginia City.”

 

“Of course.” Ben reached out to grab the first of the cases, grinning to himself at Aunt Emily’s description of Jake Sweeny as a ‘young man’; the buggy driver was older than Ben himself.

 

“Where are the boys?” Aunt Alice asked, coming back to stand beside her sister and watch Ben unload the buggy. “We’re so looking forward to meeting them.”

 

“They’re out working at the moment.” Ben heaved the case onto the floor, wondering what on earth was in it to make it so heavy. “I’m expecting them back in an hour or so.”

 

“At work?” Aunt Emily queried, a puzzled frown furrowing her wrinkled brow. “Surely not all three of them? Isn’t Joseph a little young to be out working?”

 

“He’s eighteen.” Ben told her, hefting a case under each arm and heading for the open door of the house. “Now come along in both of you. I can’t wait to hear all the family news.”

 

“Oh my! Eighteen!” Alice whispered softly to Emily as they followed their nephew inside. “Seems like the years have rather got away from us, sister.”

 

“It certainly does.” Emily agreed. “I’m afraid that the things we’ve brought may be a little young…” She broke off as they entered the house, exclaiming in admiration at the great room.

 

Putting the luggage down, Ben watched his aunts as they inspected the furniture and furnishings of the Ponderosa, stopping now and again to compliment him on the décor. He could still barely believe that these two aged women had made the long, arduous journey here to see him. It was good to meet them again after all these years and he looked forward to introducing them to his sons.

 

 

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Laughing and joking together, Adam, Hoss and Joe entered the house later that evening to be brought up short by their father advancing on them with a furious expression on his face. “Where have you three been?” He demanded angrily. “I was expecting you home hours ago.”

 

“Sorry, Pa.” Hoss apologised, as his brothers remained silent. “We got a little…er… delayed…”

 

“We had to go into town.” Joe explained as Hoss faltered to a stop. “Needed some extra supplies for the job.”

 

“All three of you?” Ben asked, raising his eyebrows in disbelief.

 

“Well, no.” Adam admitted, when Joe didn’t reply. “But it was real hot work, Pa, and we thought you wouldn’t begrudge us a nice cool beer.”

 

“You’ve been in the saloon?” Ben said and as his sons agreed that they had, they were surprised to hear a loud tutting noise and to see a little, grey-haired, old lady descend the stairs.

 

“Really, Ben. A common saloon” She said in a shocked tone. “I’m surprised at you, letting the boys go into such places.”

 

Seeing his sons’ quizzical look in his direction Ben turned to greet his aunt as she crossed the room to join them. “Boys, meet your Great Aunt Emily.” He held out a hand to the elderly woman and drew her forward. “Aunt Emily, this is Adam, Hoss and Joseph.”

 

“They’re certainly fine looking boys.” Emily said, as she scrutinized the three men closely. “Adam reminds me a little of you as a young man, Ben.”

 

“Oh, my. These must be your sons.” Aunt Alice interjected, appearing from the kitchen, her kindly blue eyes filled with excitement as she came to greet her great-nephews. “I’ve been so looking forward to meeting Little Benjamin’s boys.” She trilled, and Ben gave Joe a stern glare as he saw the look that crossed his youngest son’s face at her words. “Come here, boys, and give your great aunt a hug.”

 

As, somewhat bemusedly, Adam, Hoss and Joe greeted both their great aunts, Hop Sing brought through a tray of coffee and soon the family were seated around the hearth, while Aunt Emily poured a cup for each of them.

 

“What did you do with the big case, Benjamin?” Alice asked as she finished her coffee and put the empty cup on the table. “It has a few gifts in.”

 

“It’s just in the spare room.” Ben got up from his chair. “I’ll go and get it now.”

 

“I’m afraid that we rather let the years get away from us.” Alice apologised as Ben fetched the case and put it down in front of her. “So the presents may be a little young for you. It seems the years go so much faster as one gets older. It hardly seems any time since your father wrote us about the death of poor, dear Marie.”

 

“It was thirteen years ago.” Joe said quietly and Alice turned to him with a sympathetic smile.

 

“I’m sure you must still miss her, my dear.” She said, her thin hand reaching out to pat Joe’s comfortingly. “I’m sure you all do.”

 

“The presents, sister.” Emily prompted, as, for a moment, there was a sombre silence in the room.

 

“Oh, yes. The presents.” Alice pulled open the case and reached inside. “This is for you, Adam.” She held out a small package wrapped in brown paper and Adam bent forward to take it. “For Erik.” A similarly wrapped, though slightly bigger package was handed over. “And this one for Joseph.”

 

Accepting the biggest package of the three Joe tore the paper aside to reveal a box containing a number of toy soldiers. Looking up from the parcel he saw the eager eyes of the two little old ladies and his father’s warning glance. “Thank you.” He managed politely, not wanting to hurt his great aunts’ feelings but very aware that he was in line for a lot of teasing over this from his brothers. “They’re very nice.”

 

“What d’you get, Adam?” Hoss enquired, seeing that his older brother had unwrapped his gift and was staring down at it in some dismay.

 

“A shirt.” Adam’s voice was a little hoarse as he answered and both his brothers leant forward so that they could see the garment.

 

“I was thinking that you were around Erik’s age.” Emily explained, as Adam successfully managed a grateful smile. “So it should still fit.”

 

“I’m sure it will.” Joe put in, unable to hide a gleeful grin as he saw the startling red plaid of the shirt. “I bet Adam will look real fine in it.”

 

“Thank you. It’s very nice.” Adam told his aunts before turning to fix a baleful look on his youngest brother.

 

“Hey, this is just perfect. Thank you Aunt Alice.” Hoss leaned over to bestow a kiss on the little old lady’s cheek. “And you Aunt Emily.” Face alight with pleasure he delved into his gift, a huge pack of candy.

 

“I remember your father saying that you were fond of sweetening.” Aunt Alice smiled, watching her great nephew as he happily tucked into the candy. “I was a little worried that you might have grown out of that.”

 

“No, Ma’am.” Hoss replied around a mouthful of lemon drops, giving his brothers a superior look at having received the best of the gifts. “I just love candy.”

 

 

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Hop Sing had surpassed himself with a meal that had both aunts exclaiming in delight. Conversation around the supper table had been convivial with Ben asking for details of his family and the two old ladies recounting tales of his childhood, much to his sons delight. Now, it was late and, as Alice and Emily retired to their rooms for the night, Ben opened the bottle of brandy that his aunts had brought him as a gift, and poured a glass for each of his three sons.

 

“You gonna wear that shirt?” Hoss asked his brother as he picked up the parcel from the couch and passed it over to Adam, before sitting down. “It’s a tad…um…bright.”

 

“Bright!” Adam intoned gloomily, pulling the shirt from it’s wrapping and holding it up. “I don’t mind red but this thing’s practically scarlet, and plaid as well.”

 

“I think you ought to wear it at least once while your great aunts are here.” Ben told him, handing round the brandy. “It was kind of them to think of you.”

 

“But Pa, it’s so…” Adam trailed off, seeing a determined look settle on his father’s face. “All right, I’ll wear it, but only around the ranch. If you think I’m going to town in that thing…”

 

“If you’re going to wear it round the ranch better watch out for that old bull up in the top meadow.” Joe said with a wide grin. “You know what they say about a red rag to a…”

 

“Why don’t you be quiet and go play with your soldiers?” Adam’s voice dripped with sarcasm as he smiled sweetly at his youngest brother. “And shouldn’t little boys like you be in bed by now?”

 

“Oh, very funny.” Joe flushed at the reminder of the childish gift and turned to his father. “I hope you don’t expect me to play with those things, Pa?”

 

“No, of course not.” Ben sipped his drink appreciatively, it was very good brandy. “Just keep them in your room until your great aunts leave, then I’m sure we can find a good home for them with some local child.”

 

“Well, I thought my present was just perfect.” Hoss put in, leaning back on the couch and rubbing his stomach happily. “The best candy I ever tasted.”

 

“You could have let someone else have a piece.” Joe grumbled, giving Hoss a resentful glance. “How you managed to eat all that and then supper is beyond me. You deserve to be sick.”

 

“Aw…you’re just jealous.” Hoss teased, picking up the box of soldiers. “Just ‘cause little Joey got the soldiers and not the candy.”

 

“Will you quit it!” Joe grabbed the box from his brother’s hand, scattering soldiers across the couch.

 

“Boys!” Ben remonstrated, putting down his empty glass and getting to his feet. “I think that’s enough. I know your aunts made a little mistake with your ages but they meant well.”

 

“I’m sure they did.” Adam admitted quietly. “They seem like nice old ladies and I guess it would make them happy to see that we appreciate the gifts.”

 

“I suppose I could sort of make some kind of display for the soldiers.” Joe said with a sigh. “I sure wouldn’t like to hurt their feelings.”

 

“Thank you.” Ben smiled at the three. “Now, I’m off to bed. I’ll see you in the morning, boys. Goodnight.”

 

The three brothers glanced at each other, the same thought occurring to all of them. As Ben headed for the stairs he was stopped short for a moment by his sons’ chorus of “Goodnight, Little Benjamin.”

 

 

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Riding back from inspecting the herd the following afternoon Ben was surprised, as he pushed open the ranch house door, to hear Hop Sing’s raised voice.

 

“Missy Emily say food no good?” The little cook was asking angrily. “You not like Hop Sing’s cooking?”

 

“Now, I didn’t say that.” Came Emily’s clipped tones. “I simply asked if it was necessary to use so many spices in this dish.”

 

“Is old Chinese recipe.” Hop Sing replied indignantly. “Passed to me from honourable ancestors.”

 

“And I’m sure it’s very nice.” Alice’s soft voice said placatingly. “It’s just that sister had such bad indigestion last night…”

 

“What’s the problem?” Ben asked, rounding the corner to the dining area to find his aunts standing by the table confronting an irate looking Hop Sing.

 

“Ah, Mister Cartlight.” The cook exclaimed in relief as he saw his employer. “You tell Missy Cartlights that Hop Sing’s food not cause indigestion. Is most gentle on stomach.”

 

“I’m sure it is for most of us.” Ben hedged as his aunts turned to look at him. “But perhaps the ladies have a…erm…more delicate constitution. If you could just leave the spices out while they’re here.”

 

A look of outrage passed across the little housekeeper’s face and he gave a loud “Humph!”

 

“Then that’s settled.” Emily said unequivocally, turning to her nephew. “And another thing, Benjamin. Alice and I feel young Erik could benefit from slightly smaller portions of food.”

 

“Smaller portions?” Ben gulped, a worried frown creasing his brow. “Hoss is rather fond of his meals, Aunt Emily, and he does need a lot of food. He works very hard, you know, needs the energy.”

 

“You saw how quickly he ate that candy last night.” Emily sniffed. “Sister and I feel that he could do with losing a little weight. Make him feel much healthier.”

 

“I think Emily may be right, dear.” Alice faltered, seeing the look on Ben’s face. “He is a little large.”

 

“I…er…I’m not sure it’s a good…” Ben mumbled, unable to think of a kind way to tell the ladies not to interfere

 

“Leave it to us.” Emily declared, brushing aside her nephew’s half-hearted protest and heading for the kitchen. “Follow me, Hop Sing, and I’ll show you exactly what to cook.”

 

Throwing a furious glance at his employer, Hop Sing followed the two elderly ladies, muttering under his breath something that sounded suspiciously like “Hop Sing go back China, leave Pondelosa for good.”

 

 

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“Why, Adam, you do look nice.” Aunt Alice exclaimed as the family gathered around the table that evening. “That shirt really suits you.”

 

“Thank you.” Adam dipped his head in acknowledgement and held out a chair for the elderly lady to sit down. Despite the brightness of the garment and his initial reaction to it, he had to admit that a glance in the mirror had confirmed his great aunt’s opinion, the red shirt went very well with his dark colouring.

 

As Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen and began to serve, Ben couldn’t help but notice the little man’s self-satisfied smirk, which seemed to widen when Hoss beheld the plate of food that was put before him.

 

“Hey, Hop Sing, looks like you gave me Joe’s portion by mistake.” The big man said, picking up the offending meal and holding it out to the cook.

 

“Is no mistake, Mister Hoss. Missy Emily say is just right for you.” Hop Sing informed him, nodding his head in the elderly lady’s direction. “She say you not need so much food.”

 

“Huh?” Hoss grunted, a dismayed look settling on his broad face. “But I always eat more than this.”

 

“I know that, dear.” Emily told him, applying a sprinkling of salt to her own meal. “But you’ll soon get used to eating less and just think how much healthier you’ll feel.”

 

Any protest that Hoss might have made at her words was quashed by one glance from his father and, with a sigh, he bent his head with the rest of the family as Aunt Alice said grace.

 

“Did you have a good day, boys?” Emily asked her great-nephews as Ben poured water into crystal glasses and the family began to eat. “What have you all been doing?”

 

“The usual kind of thing.” Joe began, biting into a piece of meat. “Tending herd, seeing to the fences, barn chores…”

 

“Always plenty to do on a ranch this size.” Adam added, staring across at his youngest brother who was chewing his food with an expression of distaste on his face. “You all right, Joe?”

 

“Fine.” Joe swallowed the meat hastily and reached for the water. “The beef just seems a little er…” He waved an arm around, searching for the right word.

 

“Bland?” Adam suggested, biting into his own serving. “And the vegetables are sort of watery.” He looked round at Hop Sing, a quizzical expression on his face.

 

“Is how Miss Emily tell me to cook it.” The little man told him, unable to hide a supercilious look at his employer before heading off to the kitchen.

 

“I told him to leave out the spices.” Emily said, cutting her meat up into small pieces and chewing appreciatively. “So much better for the digestion. Can you imagine, he was only going to boil the potatoes for twenty minutes, not near enough time to get them soft enough for sister and I.”

 

“This is just the way we have it at home.” Alice told them, looking up from her plate, and Adam thought he detected a slightly wistful tone in the words. “Don’t you like it?”

 

Exchanging a quick look Adam and Joe hastened to reassure their great aunt. “Sure, it’s really tasty.” Joe reached for the salt, sprinkling it liberally over his food before taking a big mouthful. “Really good.” He said with a smile, swallowing manfully.

 

“Very nice.” Adam added as he too applied salt, chewed and then reached for his glass to wash the tasteless meat down with water. “Compliments to the cook.”

 

As Emily blushed a little at the praise Ben gave his sons a grateful smile, accepted the salt shaker that Adam held out to him, and hoped, for all their sakes, that Hop Sing had something a little more appetising in the kitchen for after the aunts had retired to bed.

 

 

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The morning brought more misery for Hoss as he took his place at the table and Hop Sing silently handed him a bowl of oatmeal.

 

Relieved to see the steaming plates of ham and eggs that sat waiting in the middle of the table for the rest of them, Ben reached for his coffee cup. “Ladies not awake yet?” He asked.

 

“They not down yet.” Hop Sing confirmed, heading toward the kitchen. “But they say oatmeal only for Mister Hoss.” He added, seeing the big man reach out towards the ham.

 

“Aw, they won’t know…” Hoss began and was about to serve himself when Joe jerked his head toward the stairs in warning. Hearing footsteps, Hoss hastily withdrew his fork from the meat, picked up his spoon and dug into the oatmeal with a resigned sigh.

 

“Good morning, everyone.” Aunt Alice trilled happily as she descended the stairs, Emily close behind her. “What a lovely morning it is.”

 

Casting a quick glance out of the window behind him at the cloudless blue sky, Ben agreed that it was and stood up to pull out a chair for Emily while Adam performed the same service for Alice.

 

“Thank you, Benjamin.” Emily sat down, casting a disparaging look at the eggs that Joe was heaping on his plate. “I see I need to instruct Hop Sing in how to prepare eggs. Poached are far easier on the stomach than fried.”

 

Ben smiled weakly, hoping that Hop Sing hadn’t heard. After the aunts had gone to bed the night before he’d prevailed upon the cook to make omelettes for himself and his sons but the crashes, bangs and stream of Chinese that had issued forth from the kitchen had let them all know that the little man was very unhappy about the situation. 

 

“We wondered if you might spare one of the boys today, dear.” Alice changed the subject, accepting the plate of food that Adam handed her and tucking in with apparent relish. “Only sister and I would like to go into Virginia City.” 

 

“We thought perhaps one of you might like to introduce us to some of the more respected ladies of the town.” Emily added, looking around the table at her great nephews. “We’d like to invite them here to a coffee morning, if that’s all right with your father.”

 

“Of course.” Ben swallowed his coffee hastily as Emily turned to him. “You must treat the Ponderosa as your home while you’re here.” Putting down his cup he looked at his sons. “Which one of you would like to take your aunts to town?”

 

Three pairs of eyes slewed away from his as Ben turned their way, three pairs of hands busied themselves with eating. Even Joe, usually the first to volunteer for a day away from work and chores, said nothing.

 

“Very well.” Ben’s voice held disappointment and the three brothers had the grace to look slightly shame-faced as their father spoke. “I think it might be nice if you drove your aunts, Hoss.”

 

Hoss looked up from his oatmeal, a glum expression crossing his face but he didn’t dare argue. “Yes, sir.”

 

“Lovely.” Aunt Alice said with a smile, her eyes twinkling as she put a frail hand on her large great nephew’s arm. “We’ll have a lovely time, won’t we Erik?”

 

In the face of the old lady’s enthusiasm Hoss could only smile and agree. “Sure we will, Ma’am.” He assured her heartily. “Sure we will.”

 

 

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Hoss was greatly relieved, as he assisted his great aunts down onto the Virginia City sidewalk, to catch sight of Mrs. Prudence Wheatley. Prudence was the widow of Hiram Wheatley one of the town’s most respected bankers and, deciding that must surely make her just the sort of lady Alice and Emily wanted to meet, Hoss lost no time in introducing them.

 

“How lovely to meet you both.” Mrs. Wheatley exclaimed as she shook hands with the sisters. “You must let me show you around our little town.”

 

“That would be very nice.” Emily accepted the offer with a gracious smile. “Alice and I would so like to make the acquaintance of a few of the ladies of Virginia City.”

 

“Oh, yes.” Alice spoke up eagerly, blithely ignoring Emily’s frown at the interruption. “Sister and I are planning a coffee morning out at the Ponderosa.”

 

“Really?” The idea of a visit to the big ranch, and a possible meeting with Ben Cartwright, piqued Prudence’s interest. “You come along with me.” She said with a smile, linking her arm through Alice’s. “I’ll introduce you round.”

 

“You may run along, Erik.” Emily told her great nephew as Prudence and Alice chattered happily together. “We have a little shopping to take care of as well, so can you find something to do with yourself for an hour or two?”

 

“Sure I can.” Hoss assured her, visions of a roast dinner at the International Hotel beginning to dance through his head. “Don’t you worry about me none.”

 

As the three ladies walked sedately off along the street Hoss rubbed his hands together in glee before setting a fast pace across to the Hotel to order the biggest meal that the impressive menu had to offer.

 

Feeling much better with a full stomach, Hoss even had time to take in a couple of beers in the Silver Dollar saloon before ambling back to the buggy and settling down to wait. He was just dozing in the warm sunshine, the combination of food and alcohol making him sleepy, when the old ladies returned.

 

“You may drive us home now, Erik.” Aunt Emily’s tone was curt and, pushing his hat back from his eyes, Hoss glanced round in surprise. The old lady looked angry, she was stowing her packages hurriedly away in the buggy as though in a rush to leave. Beside her Alice seemed flustered, cheeks red and blue eyes limpid as though tears threatened. 

 

“Is sumthin’ wrong?” Hoss asked in concern, getting out to assist the ladies into the vehicle. “Sumphin’ happen?”

 

“Something is very wrong.” Emily said with a sniff, settling herself back in the seat. “Sister and I have been hearing all about your family and a certain young man in particular.”

 

“Now, Emily…” Alice put in, her voice trembling a little. “Do remember that it was just ladies gossip. I’m sure young Joseph isn’t as bad as they make out.”

 

“Joe?” Hoss asked in surprise. “What did they say about Joe?”

 

“Not anything I wish to repeat at the moment.” Emily told him sternly. “But I shall be having serious words with your father about the boy. Allowing him to run wild the way he does.”

 

“Joe ain’t wild.” Hoss protested, climbing into the buggy and taking up the reins. “Sure he gets into a fight or two but he’s a good kid really.”

 

Emily’s derisive snort told Hoss that she didn’t believe a word of that and with a shrug he set off for the Ponderosa wondering just what his father would say when Aunt Emily had ‘serious words’ with him.

 

 

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“Benjamin!” Emily called, as she and Alice entered the house. Behind them Hoss deposited his great aunts’ parcels on the table and quietly left to see to the horses. “I want a word with you…about this young man!” She waved a hand at Joe who was cleaning his rifle by the fire.

 

“Joe?” Ben queried, getting up from the chair where he’d been sitting reading. “What about him?”

 

“I hear you’ve been letting the boy run wild.” Emily told him, frowning severely at her great nephew. “Have you no control over him?” 

 

“Now really, Aunt Emily.” Ben protested as the elderly lady glared up at him. “Joseph is a grown man, not a little boy.”

 

“I still say you should be keeping a tighter rein on him.” Emily said sternly. “The tales sister and I heard today. Drunken carousing, gambling, fighting…he’s bringing the good name of the Cartwrights into disrepute.”

 

Behind Emily, Alice twisted her hands together in distress and shot a sideways glance at her youngest great-nephew who had got to his feet and was staring at Emily, a look of astonishment on his face.

 

“Joe’s no angel I agree.” Ben conceded, jumping in quickly as he saw his son open his mouth to reply to the charges. “But I do feel that some of what you’ve heard may be a little exaggerated. Certainly Joe occasionally fights and gambles, and I can’t say I’m happy about that, but he’s no worse than most young men of his age.”

Joe threw his father a grateful smile, glad that Ben had come to his defence. The smile faltered and faded at his great aunt’s next words.

 

“So he risks the Ponderosa on the turn of a card and you don’t mind! Really, Ben, I thought you’d have brought the boy up better than that.”

 

Bristling with indignation at the implication that he hadn’t raised his son well, Ben almost overlooked Emily’s first sentence. It was the sight of the rather sick look that appeared on Joe’s face and the way the young man was backing slowly towards the door that brought his attention to it. “Risked the Ponderosa?” He asked quietly.

 

“Mrs. Jenkins husband saw the whole thing.” Emily informed him, distaste at what she’d heard evident in her tone. “Joseph was no doubt under the influence of drink but to risk his share of the Ponderosa was extremely foolhardy.”

 

“Extremely.” Ben agreed with a tight nod, his voice calm and even as he turned to his son, far too calm and even. “What do you have to say about this, Joseph?”

 

“There wasn’t really any r…risk, Pa.” Joe faltered, wincing as he saw the look on his father’s face. “I had a really good hand and…”

 

“You had a really good hand.” Ben repeated, stepping past the aunts to stand almost toe-to-toe with his youngest son. “So you thought you’d bet some of the Ponderosa?”

 

“No…I mean…yes…I mean, I just got carried away. I knew I could beat this guy and so…”

 

“It isn’t even yours to bet!” Ben thundered and Joe cringed. “It’s in trust until you’re twenty one. Just exactly how did you think you’d pay up if you lost?”

 

“But I didn’t lose.” Joe pointed out, seeing too late that this assertion only made his father angrier.

 

“I apologise, ladies.” Turning abruptly away from Joe, Ben faced his aunts. “It seems you were right, I have been letting Joseph run wild but I can assure you that it is going to stop.”

 

“Please don’t be too hard on him.” Alice quavered, a little unnerved by the fury on Ben’s face. “I’m sure he didn’t mean…”

 

“Sister!” Emily interrupted sharply. “This is between Ben and Joseph, we shouldn’t interfere.”

 

“I think I can find enough jobs around the Ponderosa to be sure Joseph won’t be gambling for a while.” Ben announced softly, fixing his son with a glare. “In fact it could be a very long time before he sets foot in Virginia City again. Right now he can make himself useful and carry your packages to your room.”

 

Doing as he was told and picking up the parcels Joe couldn’t help feeling resentful. If it weren’t for the aunts’ interference none of this would have happened. He sincerely hoped that the two old ladies wouldn’t be staying much longer.

 

 

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“They have got to go!” Joe said softly. “They’ve just got to go.”

 

The three Cartwright brothers were alone in the great room, Ben, Alice and Emily having retired to bed and Hop Sing busy in the kitchen.

 

“They mean well.” Adam counselled, leaning forward in the blue armchair. “And they are Pa’s aunts. It’s nice for him to have family visit.”

 

“All right, they mean well.” Joe conceded. “But look what they’ve done so far, got me confined to the ranch and made Hoss miserable with that silly diet.”

 

From his seat on the couch Hoss nodded gloomily, memories of tonight’s supper of boiled chicken, lettuce and celery only too fresh in his mind.

 

“Well to be fair you deserved what you got.” Adam said with a disapproving shake of his head at his youngest brother. “Betting with the Ponderosa!”

 

“I did win.” Joe pointed out irately. “So Pa need never have known.”

 

“You’re lucky he didn’t find out from someone else.” Adam said with a wry smile. “That punishment might have been far worse if the aunts’ hadn’t been standing there listening.”

 

“Well I still think…” Joe began, breaking off abruptly as he caught sight of Aunt Alice at the top of the stairs, dressed warmly in a red flannel robe and with a parcel held tightly in her right hand.

 

Following their brother’s surprised look, Adam and Hoss swivelled around to watch the old lady descend.

 

“I just had to come down and see you boys.” She whispered as Joe put a hand out to assist her over to the couch. “I had to apologise.”

 

“Apologise for what?” Adam asked with a puzzled frown. “You haven’t done anything to apologise for.”

 

“Your Great Aunt Emily.” The little old lady explained in a quivering voice, tears in her faded blue eyes. “She tends to be a little straight laced and to interfere in things which don’t concern her.” Turning to Joe she patted him consolingly on the arm. “I’m so sorry she told your father about the card game, dear.”

 

“Joe brung that on himself.” Hoss put in, concerned at the elderly woman’s distress. “It’s ain’t your fault. Pa would probably have found out anyhow.”

 

“I’m glad you’re being so understanding.” Alice smiled tremulously at her great-nephews and dug a hand deep in the pocket of her robe bringing forth a paper wrapped package, which she handed to Hoss. “I managed to slip away at the mercantile.” She told him. “And got you a little sweetening to make up for Emily’s diet.”

 

“You shouldn’t have.” Hoss protested but opened the package eagerly, sighing contentedly as he popped a red hot in his mouth.

 

“It’s just a little something.” Alice smiled, pleased to see her gift appreciated. “And I got this for you, Adam.” She held out the parcel she had carried downstairs.

 

“I’m afraid Emily dragged me away before I could get anything for you, dear.” She apologised to Joe before turning to peer short sightedly at the clock. “Oh, my it is late, I’d better get back up to bed. Goodnight boys.”

 

“Perhaps the aunts aren’t so bad after all.” Joe admitted as the little old lady disappeared upstairs. “At least Aunt Alice is all right, and like you say, Adam, they are Pa’s relatives and he hasn’t seem them for years.”

 

“Yep.” Hoss agreed, speaking around the candy in his mouth. “Reckon we should try to be more understanding, eh, Adam?”

 

Turning to look at their eldest brother Hoss and Joe saw Adam sitting staring at the contents of the parcel he’d just unwrapped. Another new shirt lay revealed, this one in a vibrant shade of lime green.

 

“More understanding?” Adam muttered in a stunned voice, his fingers gripping the shirt fabric tightly. “Oh, no. I agree with Joe, they have to go! And…” He added, with a sudden glint in his eye. “I think I might just have an idea how to get rid of them.”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Managing to extract himself from the ladies that were gathered in the great room of the Ponderosa for Emily and Alice’s coffee morning the following Saturday, Ben drew his eldest son to one side. “Notice anything about the women your great aunts have invited?” He muttered, keeping his voice as low as possible.

 

“Well, let me see.” A hint of an amused smile played on Adam’s lips as he surveyed the bevy of females dotted around the room. “There’s Mrs. Wheatley, Miss Spencer, the Widow Hawkins, why, Pa, there seems to be a number of women that have, shall we say, an interest in you and not a married lady among the lot.”

 

“Exactly.” Ben said uneasily and frowned as he saw the laughter lurking in his eldest son’s hazel eyes. “Don’t look so happy about it.” He advised wryly. “Aunt Emily just told me that they invited Miss Abigail Jones as company for you, she should be here any minute.”

 

“What!” Adam blanched at the news, a hunted look chasing across his face. “You know what that woman’s like!”

 

“Just have to grin and bear it.” His father said, smiling politely over at the Widow Hawkins, who was raising her cup in salute to him. “Seems to me that my aunts may be trying to play matchmaker with the pair of us.”

 

“Matchmaker!” Adam exclaimed in horror. “When it comes to choosing a wife I’m the one that will do it…and it won’t be Abigail Jones.”

 

“No.” Ben nodded in agreement. “Can’t say I think much of their choices for me, either.” He winced as Prudence Wheatley, seated on the couch with Joe, let forth with a loud laugh that bore an uncanny resemblance to the braying of a donkey. “I really ought to tell my aunts not to interfere but I can’t bring myself to hurt their feelings. I must say I’m beginning to wonder just how long they intend staying.”

 

“So you wouldn’t be too upset if they headed home?” Adam asked quietly and Ben thought he detected a hint of relief in the question.

 

“Much as I’ve enjoyed seeing them I think I’d be glad to get back to normal.” Ben admitted ruefully. “And I know Hoss certainly would.”

 

Casting a glance over to where his middle brother was perched awkwardly on the hearth, a cup of coffee in his hand, gazing longingly at the plates of cakes laid out on the table, Adam had to agree. “I’m glad you feel that way.” He told his father, leaning close and casting a quick glance round to be sure nobody was in earshot. “Because I have a plan and I could do with your help…”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

As the family finished breakfast the next morning and Hoss headed out to saddle the horses, Adam poured himself a second cup of coffee. “I was talking to Bill Steven’s in Virginia City last night.” He remarked to his father as he stirred sugar into the beverage. “He told me that his sister is looking for a companion to accompany her back east. She doesn’t want to make the journey alone, you know how frail she is…”

 

“Poor woman.” Ben nodded sombrely. “I hope she finds someone. It would be too bad if she has to put off the trip. She’s been so looking forward to seeing her daughter and the new baby.”

 

“Bill says it might be her last chance.” Adam agreed, his expression sorrowful. “What with her health and all.”

 

“You talking about Mrs. Davies?” Joe looked from his brother to his father with a puzzled frown. “But she’s not…” He broke off abruptly as Adam’s booted foot tapped him smartly on the shin.

 

“Not well at all.” Ben jumped in quickly, with a warning frown at his youngest. “That’s true, Joseph. It will be very sad if she misses this opportunity to see her grandchild for the first time.”

 

“Beats me who she could ask to accompany her.” Adam said with a little shrug of his shoulders. “It would have to be a lady of some social standing. Mrs Davies is quite particular.”

 

“But she’d need someone kind and caring as well.” Ben added, fighting to contain a smile as he saw that Aunt Alice was following the conversation with interest. “Only wish we could help.” Pushing his coffee cup aside he sighed deeply and shook his head gravely. “Very sad.”

 

“Nothing we can do, I’m afraid.” Adam drained his cup and stood up, pushing back his chair. “Better get to work, I guess. Coming, Joe?”

 

“Sure.” Joe had caught on to the charade by now and took his time getting up from the table, watching the aunts as he did.

 

“Is this Mrs. Davies an elderly lady?” It was Aunt Emily who spoke and Adam turned aside quickly to hide a triumphant smile as his father answered.

 

“She’s must be around, oh…” Ben shook his head and looked to Joe. “My age wouldn’t you say?”

 

“About that.” Joe confirmed, and couldn’t resist adding a few details of his own. “Of course she looks older, what with the illness and all…”

 

“C’mon, Joe, she doesn’t look that bad.” Adam interrupted hastily, narrowing his eyes in warning. “Considering…”

 

“And when does she want to travel?” Emily asked, looking at her nephew. “Soon I assume?”

 

“As soon as possible.” Ben answered quickly. “Why?”

 

“Well, I just thought…” Emily glanced at Alice, sitting opposite her. “If sister agrees of course, that we might accompany the poor lady.”

 

“That’s a wonderful idea.” Adam said with enthusiasm, sitting back down at the table. “But are you sure you want to leave so soon?”

 

“We were planning on staying a little longer.” Emily told him, with a small sigh. “But we have to go home sooner or later and if we can be of service to this dear lady then we should do it.”

 

“I agree.” Alice put in, smiling across at her sister. “It’s been lovely to see you all and I’ll miss you, of course, but I do think Emily is right, it’s our Christian duty to help.”

 

“I’ll ride in to Virginia City and let Mrs. Davies know right away.” Adam offered. “She’ll be so grateful.”

 

“You do that, dear.” Emily got to her feet and brushed a few stray crumbs from her dress. “Sister and I will get started with the packing.”

 

As the aunts disappeared upstairs Ben smiled wryly at Adam. “That all went according to plan.” He said softly. “So why do I suddenly feel so bad about it?”

 

“I don’t know.” Adam shook his head slowly and ran a hand though his hair. “But if it’s any consolation, I feel the same way.”

 

“Yeah.” Joe hooked his thumbs into his belt and sighed. “Sorta feels like we’re throwing them out, doesn’t it?”

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

Neatly attired in her dark blue travelling outfit, Alice watched her sister settle herself down in the stagecoach beside Mrs. Davies before turning for a last word with her nephew and great nephews.

 

“I bought you a parting gift each.” She told them, reaching deep into the large bag she was carrying. “Some tobacco for you, Benjamin. A nice leather belt for you, Joe and a new wallet for Hoss.” She handed the gifts around as she spoke. “And for you, Adam, a book of poetry I thought you might like.”

 

“Aunt Alice, you really shouldn’t have bothered.” Adam told her, exchanging a guilty look with his father. “We don’t deserve presents.”

 

“Of course you do, dear.” Alice patted his arm gently. “It’s only a little something, just to say thank you for your hospitality.”

 

“I’m afraid we don’t have anything for you.” Ben said quietly, feeling very uncomfortable at accepting the tobacco after what he had done. “Just a hamper of food Hop Sing made up for the journey.”

 

“Tell him thank you for me.” Alice smiled up at her nephew fondly. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to get back to cooking the way he likes…no more fussy old ladies to please.”

 

“Aunt Alice.” Guilt was proving just too much for Adam. “I have to tell you something.”

 

“Yes, dear.” The little woman turned to survey her great nephew curiously. “What is it?”

 

“This whole thing…” Adam waved his hand at the waiting stage. “This going back east with Mrs. Davies, it was all arranged by me and I’m so sorry.”

 

“Mmmm…” Alice murmured softly, drawing Adam a little further away from the coach where she could be sure Emily wouldn’t overhear. “I know that, dear.”

 

“You know!” Adam, Ben and Joe exclaimed simultaneously while Hoss looked on with a confused frown.

 

“Well I guessed.” The old lady smiled, a twinkle in her faded blue eyes. “It was a little convenient wasn’t it?”

 

“It was true that Mrs. Davies was looking for a companion on this trip to see her daughter and the baby.” Ben explained. “But I’m afraid we embroidered the truth a little.”

 

“She’s not really ill.” Joe confessed, his hands twisting at the leather belt Alice had given him. “In fact she’s as fit as I am, but Adam asked her if she would play along with the story.”

 

“And she agreed.” Alice laughed merrily. “She’s doing a fine job as well, I don’t think Emily suspects a thing.”

 

“You’re not angry?” Ben asked, amazed by how well Alice was taking this. “It was a dreadful thing to do.”

 

“Nonsense.” The old lady declared. “I do understand you know. I live with Emily and I know how difficult she can be. No, Benjamin, I’m not angry. You did us a favour as it happens.”

 

“A favour?” Ben echoed, baffled.

 

“To tell the truth Emily really didn’t like it much at the Ponderosa.” Alice enlightened him. “The place was just too cold and draughty for her, she does like her comforts. She’d been worrying how to tell you that she wanted to go home so Mrs. Davies was a godsend.”

 

“Thank goodness for that.” Ben heaved a sigh of relief. “We’ve been feeling really guilty over this.”

 

“It’s all worked out very well.” Alice reassured him. “And I’ve had a lovely visit with all of you. Perhaps one day you might come east and visit us?”

 

“Perhaps we will.” Ben told her as he bent to give the old lady a farewell kiss. “And I’ll write of course.”

 

“Of course.” Alice turned to her great nephews, accepting goodbye kisses from Joe and Hoss before taking Adam’s arm and allowing him to escort her to the stage.

 

“Well.” Ben remarked, as the coach pulled away, both aunts waving from the window. “Despite everything I’m quite sorry to see them go.”

 

“They weren’t so bad.” Joe agreed, watching the aunts disappear from view.

 

“Especially Alice.” Adam added. “Quite a sharp old dear isn’t she?” He looked over at Hoss who was standing, hands in pocket, absently kicking at the ground. “What do you think, Hoss?”

 

Looking up, Hoss grinned widely. “I think I’m gonna go home.” He said happily. “And ask Hop Sing to cook me up the biggest plate of chicken and dumplings you ever did see.” And with that he headed off to where his horse stood waiting, his laughing family following behind.

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

  © Kathleen Pitts 2002

 

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