Summary: On the anniversary of Marie’s death, Ben discovers how much he did not know, including how blessed he truly is.
Rated: T WC 7700
The steamy heat of the August morning had already settled on the house. Adam and Hoss poked desultorily at their breakfast. It wasn’t just that it was too hot for bacon and eggs. The day itself didn’t lend itself to hearty breakfasts and robust energy. All they wanted was for it to be over.
When Ben came downstairs, his older sons looked up hopefully. His impassive countenance provided no additional information. Even so, they were cautiously optimistic that the storm clouds of the previous night had dissipated.
“Mornin’, Pa,” said Hoss, his gruff voice encouraging, coaxing.
“Mornin’, Pa,” echoed Adam with the same intonation.
“Mornin’, boys,” said Ben absently as he took his place at the head of the table. “Where’s your brother?”
“Not down yet,” said Hoss. Please, oh please, don’t let him take that one any further. Hoss knew perfectly well why his younger brother wasn’t downstairs yet. With any luck, Joe would delay his entrance until Ben was out of the house.
“Oh.” Ben poured his coffee without further comment.
Hoss and Adam exchanged quick glances of relief. Ordinarily, Ben would have been calling up the stairs or sending someone up to rouse Joe. Not today, though. Not on August 4.
“We were just talking about those fences up in the north pasture,” said Adam with slightly too much cheer. “I think it would probably be good to send a couple men up there to check them. I know of at least two breaks, and there are probably more.” He would have prattled on, but Hoss kicked him under the table. Adam glared at his brother, but he accepted the correction and fell silent.
“What? Oh, that’s fine, Adam.” Ben stirred his coffee absently. Adam and Hoss exchanged glances, and Adam slid the cream pitcher over until it was in Ben’s line of sight. Ben jumped slightly, then smiled ruefully. “Thank you, son,” he said, pouring cream into his coffee.
“Mornin’, everybody,” said Little Joe as he came down the stairs, still yawning. He hadn’t gotten in until past two. The cuts and bruises from last night’s fight looked worse in daylight. He’d given up trying to do anything about them. Either Pa would be all over him, or he’d wouldn’t notice. Hard to tell. Things seemed to change every year.
Ben glanced up as Joe approached the table. Then, he did a double-take. “What in tarnation happened to you?” he demanded in what Adam referred to as his orator voice.
“Nothin’ much.” Joe tried to deflect the question, sliding into the seat beside Hoss on the remote chance that his big brother might block his father’s view.
“What do you mean, ‘nothin’ much’? Look at you!” Ben was up from his seat and holding his youngest son’s face in his hands before anyone realized what was happening. Joe tried to escape his father’s grasp, and Adam tried to send Joe a warning look, both to no avail. Ben dipped a napkin into Joe’s water glass and dabbed at the cut over his son’s eyebrow while all three of sons attempted to dissuade him.
“Pa, it’s okay, it’s clean,” Joe protested.
“Pa, I think he’s fine,” Hoss suggested.
“He really looks okay, Pa,” offered Adam.
Ben surveyed his son’s face carefully, as if he would be called to account for any overlooked cut or bruise. Finally, he met Joe’s eyes. “Pa, I’m fine,” Joe said gently, placing his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Really. It was just a poker game fight. Nothin’ serious.” But it wasn’t the fight, and they both knew it.
The compassion in his youngest son’s eyes caught Ben off guard. “All right,” he said, returning to his own chair. His sons focused on their plates, and no one spoke for a long moment.
“I’m going to look for strays today,” Ben announced.
His sons exchanged skeptical looks. It had been years since Ben had actually gone out looking for strays. If they’d thought he was really going to do it, at least one of them would have offered to go along. After a moment, Hoss said, “D’you want me to come along? You might need some help if’n you find some.”
“No, I’ll be fine,” said Ben. Appearances had been kept up. Now, his sons could pretend that they thought he was looking for strays, and he could pretend that they believed him. Ben drained his coffee cup and rose. “I’ll see you all later,” he said. His gaze rested again on his youngest son, who smiled gently as Ben left the table.
After Ben had left, Joe said, “So, what do you think?”
“He was pretty moody last night,” Adam said.
“Just as lucky you warn’t here,” said Hoss. “Nobody could do nothin’ right. He even yelled at Hop Sing.”
“So, this is a bad year,” Joe said philosophically. It wasn’t as if there were anything anyone could do. They just had to weather the storm and wait for the day to pass. When he was little, Joe hadn’t understood why his father got to react this way. They’d all lost his mama, not just Pa. It wasn’t as if they weren’t all aware of the anniversary of her death. The mood around the house was always somber on August 4, but it had seemed unfair to a young boy that his father seemed to have some special dispensation to be grumpy on August 4, while the rest of them were supposed to behave.
“It’s not the same,” twenty-two-year-old Adam had tried to explain to his ten-year-old brother five years after Marie’s death. “We lost a ma, and that’s a huge thing, but Pa lost his wife, and that’s different.”
“How’s it different?” demanded Little Joe. “I miss her, too.”
“I know you do, Little Brother,” said Adam. “So do I, and so does Hoss. It’s just-it’s different. I wish I knew a better way to tell you, but I don’t. When you’re older, and you get married, maybe it’ll make more sense.”
“But you ain’t never been married,” Joe pointed out. “So how come you get it?”
Adam opened his mouth to respond, and closed it again. Never let it be said that this kid wasn’t sharp. He might not be interested in book learning, but Adam suspected that under his brother’s curls rested a mind that could challenge his own. “Don’t say ‘ain’t’,” he said instead.
Ten years later, Joe had stopped asking. He simply accepted, as his brothers did, that on August 4, his father would mourn Marie’s passing in whatever manner he deemed fit. Some years, Ben seemed to be in a fog; other years, it was impossible for anyone, son or otherwise, to do anything without bringing down hellfire upon themselves. Those years, even Hop Sing kept a healthy distance from Ben. Only Joe could approach him when he was in such a mood, and then only for very brief periods.
The year Joe was fourteen, his father’s temper had been particularly sharp. His brothers and Hop Sing had fled the house for the day. When Joe returned from school late in the afternoon, he found his father sitting at his desk, a bottle and a glass in front of him, staring blearily at Marie’s picture. When Joe came into his line of sight, Ben looked up, his eyes red and despondent. Joe walked around the desk to his father, who clung to him for a long time without a word. Finally, Joe helped Ben up to bed. Afterward, he washed the glass and replaced the bottle. His brothers never knew.
* * *
Ben didn’t know why he’d felt it necessary to lie to his sons about what he was doing. They knew that this was a difficult day for him. Even after all these years, the shock of her death could hit him like a punch in the gut. He wondered if it bothered Hoss and Adam that he didn’t have the same reaction to their mothers’ deaths. Naturally, he knew the days, and he marked them in his mind and heart, but there was something about this anniversary that threw him, every year. When the boys were younger, he’d tried to cover his feelings, but he suspected that he’d never been much good at it. A man who spends his life in straight talking and fair dealing can find subterfuge hard to manage.
He rode the well-traveled path up to the lake. Joe would probably make his own pilgrimage to this spot before the day was out, but the boy would be working much of the day. Ben could probably expect to have the place to himself until late afternoon. Even so, it wouldn’t bother him if Joe arrived before he’d left. Marie’s son had as much of a right to be there as he did.
As he rode into the clearing toward Marie’s resting place, he saw an unfamiliar woman kneeling by the grave. He reined in Buck and dismounted, approaching quietly.
“You can’t fault them for not weeding all the time,” the woman was saying. “It’s not as if they don’t have a lot of other things to do. The ranch is much bigger than it was in your time. What the-can you believe this? Dandelion greens? This late in the summer? Well, what can you expect, honey, they’re men. They don’t think of this type of thing. But don’t you worry. I expect one of them will be along soon, and everything’ll be all cleaned up by the time they get here.”
“Excuse me?” Ben stepped closer.
The woman turned. “You got here early,” she protested. “We weren’t ready for you.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The woman stood, dusting off her skirt. “I wanted to finish the weeding before you got here. We figured somebody would bring flowers later. So, anyway, here you are.” She gestured toward the grave. “I’ll just take this stuff and be out of your way.” She gathered the small pile of weeds that she’d pulled and started for the path.
“Wait a minute. Who are you? Where did you come from?” And why I have I never seen you here in fifteen years? She looked vaguely familiar, as if he might have seen her around town, but he was certain that they’d never met. She was probably about his age, with a few lines fanning out from the corners of her eyes. Her gray-brown hair was pulled back into a tidy knot, and her well-worn clothes were neat and simple. If he had passed her in town, she would likely have blended into the crowd without his noticing. Only her intelligent brown eyes might have drawn his attention.
The woman smiled and extended her hand. “You can call me Belle,” she said.
Slightly dazed, Ben shook her hand. “How do you do, Belle,” he said. “I’m Ben Cartwright.” Dazed or not, he was a gentleman.
Belle chuckled. “Just as suave as ever, aren’t you,” she said. “Your missus said that that was one of the first things she noticed about you. Awkward situation and all, you were a gentleman.”
“She said-when did she tell you this?” For a moment, Ben felt a clutch of fear. Did she think Marie was answering her now? Alone in the woods with a crazy lady. . . .
“When we first met,” said Belle. “Back when she was carrying your third one.”
All right, she wasn’t crazy-but why had Marie never mentioned her? “I’m afraid I don’t recall Marie mentioning you,” he said.
“I don’t expect she ever did,” said Belle.
But why not? Whatever reason Marie had for not mentioning Belle, it must have been serious. He and Marie had told each other everything. Marie had had no more ability to hide her thoughts or her feelings than her son did. One of the things Ben had enjoyed most was watching her try to keep secret what she’d gotten him for Christmas or his birthday. She was better about keeping the boys’ gifts a surprise, but it was delightful torture for her to keep Ben’s gifts from him. For days beforehand, she’d giggle, her large hazel eyes brimful of excitement. Without his even asking, she’d say, “No, no, I’m not telling you-but I’ll tell you this much, you’re going to love it! It’s exactly what you want! I can’t wait to see your face when you open it!” Ben loved to prod her, making wildly inappropriate guesses or pretending that he had no interest whatsoever in the gift.
On the night before Little Joe’s first Christmas, after the boys had gone to bed, Ben and Marie had sat on the settee in front of the fire, relishing the warmth, their closeness, and the fact that their family now included a child of their own. “I love you,” Ben whispered. He kissed Marie deeply, hungrily.
“That’s not going to get me to talk, my darling,” Marie said, moving her head so that Ben was kissing her neck.
“Oh, it’s not?” Ben nibbled her neck. “What about this?”
“No, no, not talking,” she said.
He slid his hands down from her shoulders. “What about this?” He began to undo the buttons on her blouse.
“Absolutely not, won’t tell, cheri,” Marie said.
Ben’s lips found the hollow in her throat, and he began his descent past her collarbone. “Will you tell me now?”
Marie’s eyes widened with pleasure as her husband continued his delicious inquisition. Each time he paused and asked again, she said, “Couldn’t possibly tell you. Wouldn’t dream of it.” Much later, when their clothes were tangled in a heap on the floor, and they lay wrapped in a blanket, she whispered, “Do you still want to know?”
Ben brushed her curls back from her forehead and kissed her. “Surprise me,” he said. And she did.
Afterward, as they drowsed in front of the dying embers, Marie said, “Look, cheri, it’s nearly dawn.” They gazed sleepily into each other’s eyes, satiated and utterly happy.
Suddenly, the import of her words slammed into both of them. Hurriedly, in the half-dark, they grabbed for clothing, whispering and giggling even as they listened for little boys who would be looking for Christmas presents. No sooner had Ben found his second boot than they heard Hoss calling, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” Marie turned her back to the stairs and finished buttoning her blouse as their roly-poly middle child raced down the stairs, followed by Adam carrying the baby. If their eldest son thought it odd that his parents were already downstairs, dressed and out of breath, he kept his counsel.
* * *
Ben came out of his reverie to see Belle smiling. He had no idea how long he’d been standing there. She smiled and patted his arm. “You have a good visit,” she said.
“Wait,” he said. “I didn’t know that you knew my wife. How did you know her?” The prospect of having new stories about Marie to add to his well-worn memories was not to be missed.
Belle turned back. “Mr. Cartwright-”
“-Ben, your wife was a lovely woman who helped me through a very difficult time. She knew something of difficult times-well, you know that. She told me about her first-born and her first husband.”
Ben was taken aback. Not many people who were still around knew that Marie had been married before coming to the Ponderosa, and he’d thought that none of them knew that she’d had a child. She and her husband had been estranged at the time he died while working for Ben. Ben, having no knowledge of the estrangement, had traveled to New Orleans to inform her of her husband’s passing. He had been instantly attracted to the lovely widow, whose heart he ultimately won. While she had told him everything before agreeing to marry him, she had found few close friends in Virginia City, and he’d thought that she had kept the story of her past within the family. It jarred him to know that this stranger knew the intimate details of Marie’s life. He wondered what else she knew.
Belle seemed to understand. “We didn’t see each other very often,” Belle said, settling herself comfortably beside the grave. Ben sat down on the other side. “Especially once your little one was born. How she loved that child! She loved all three of the boys, actually. She was fascinated by Adam-kept saying that she couldn’t wait to see what kind of a man he’d turn into. She felt bad that he’d had to grow up so fast, and it bothered her a lot that he didn’t take to her right away, but she always felt certain that he would be a strong, honorable man. She wanted to make sure he kept some softness, too. Said that a boy who’d been through that much might develop too hard a shell, and it was her job to keep chipping away at it, even if he fought her all the way. I remember her telling me about the time his pony died. She said that, after that, she knew he’d be all right.”
Ben hadn’t thought of that incident in years. When Adam was fourteen, he’d had a little bay that was his pride and joy. Every night, before he turned in, he went out to the barn to groom the horse he’d named for some Italian artist. Leo’s mane and tail were never tangled, his hooves were always cleaned, and his coat gleamed like satin. When he thought no one was listening, Adam recited poetry to Leo. The horse would stand perfectly still throughout the recitation, and when Adam was through, Leo would snort and shake his head. “Oh, what do you know?” Ben heard Adam say to the horse once. “You probably like Byron.” The horse whinnied, and Adam laughed.
The end couldn’t have been foreseen. One day, Leo refused to eat. By the next, he refused to drink. His flanks were heaving, and he was hot to the touch. By the third day, he was down, and Ben knew in his heart that the pony would never rise again. After dinner, Adam announced, “I’m going to stay with Leo tonight.”
Ben began to object, but Marie’s hand on his arm silenced him. “Take a blanket, cheri, it’s cold out there,” she said. Adam glared at her for a moment before he doubled back to snatch the blanket from the back of the settee. After the front door slammed, Ben raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“The horse is doing to die, and there’s nothing anyone can do,” he said.
“So?” Marie shrugged. “Is that a reason to keep the boy inside? His dear friend is dying. If he wants to be there, he should be there.”
An hour later, Adam stormed into the house. “How’s Leo?” asked Ben.
“How do you think he is?” snapped Adam. Before Ben could reprimand him, he said, “Sorry, Pa. He’s dying. There’s nothing to be done.”
“So, why are you here?” asked Marie.
“Didn’t you hear me? I said the horse is dying. I can’t do anything for him anymore.” They watched him stomp up the stairs and, a moment later, they heard his door slam.
Ben rose. “I don’t care if he’s upset, he isn’t going to speak to you like that.”
“No, don’t go up like that,” said Marie. “He’s hurting. Again, he sees death. Let’s not worry about manners tonight.” She went to the door and picked up her shawl. “I’ll be back when it’s over,” she said. “No one should have to die alone-not even a horse.” She slipped out the door.
Marie was sitting in the straw by Leo’s head, dipping a cloth in a pail of water and wiping it over his neck. “You’ve been such a good horse,” she murmured. “You’ve made Adam so happy. Thank you for being such a good friend to him. Do you really like Byron better than Wordsworth? I don’t know either of them, but Adam says that Wordsworth is better, and he’s very smart. You should listen to him.”
The footfall, when it came, was not unexpected. She continued to murmur to the horse until Adam was barely an arm’s length away. Then, she looked up.
“I didn’t know you liked horses so much,” Adam said.
“This isn’t just any horse,” Marie said.
Adam squatted next to the horse’s head, and Marie slid back to give him room. She handed him the cloth, and he dipped it into the water. “Would you-would you go up to my room and get the book that’s on the dresser?” he asked without looking up from the horse.
“Of course.” When Marie returned, she handed the book to Adam. He opened it and began to read aloud:
“In him inexplicably mixed appeared,
Much to be loved and hated, sought and feared;
Opinion varying o’er his hidden lot,
In praise or railing ne’er his name forgot:
His silence formed a theme for others’ prate-
They guessed-they gazed-they fain would know his fate.”
Adam’s voice faltered. Ben watched from the doorway, unseen by his wife and son, as Marie handed the cloth to him and took the book. As Adam bathed the horse one last time, Marie continued with the poem:
“What had he been? what was he, thus known,
Who walked their world, his lineage only known?
A hater of his kind? yet some would say,
With them he could seem gay among the gay;
But owned that smile, if oft observed and near,
Waned in its mirth, and withered to a sneer;
That smile might reach his lip, but passed not by,
None e’er could trace its laughter to his eye:
Yet there was softness to in his regard,
At times, a heart as not by nature hard,
But once perceived, his spirit seemed to chide
Such weakness as unworthy of its pride,
And steeled itself, as scorning to redeem
One doubt from others’ half withheld esteem;
In self-inflicted penance of a breast
Which tenderness might once have wrung from rest;
In vigilance of grief that would compel
The soul to hate for having loved too well.”*
When she finished, there was silence. Leo had drawn his last breath. Adam’s hand stilled. For a long moment, he and Marie sat in silence. The boy’s tears fell soundlessly on the horse’s neck. Marie lay her hand on his. He jerked his hand away. She shifted to sit next to him, careful not to touch him. Without warning, he turned to her and flung himself into her arms. Adam sobbed, and Ben stepped back from the doorway, careful not to be seen.
* * *
“What else did she tell you?” asked Ben. He handed his canteen to Belle, who drank and handed it back.
“She always had stories,” Belle recalled. “She just couldn’t get enough of you all. She never stopped missing her firstborn, but she said once that she thought that was why she’d ended up with a man who had two children-she said it was God’s way of trying to make it up to her. She always got such a laugh out of little Hoss.”
Ben chuckled. “I don’t think anyone’s called him that in twenty years!”
“She thought he was just the kindest person she’d ever met, of any age,” said Belle. “She was always afraid that the world would take advantage of his sweetness. I remember the time she told me about the chipmunk. I thought I’d fall off my chair, I was laughing so hard.”
“I don’t remember anything about a chipmunk,” Ben said.
“You were away on business,” Belle said. “She promised Hoss she wouldn’t say anything to you, and clearly, she kept her word.
“But you can tell me now?” It wasn’t quite a question.
“I think it would be all right,” Belle smiled. “But you can’t tell Hoss you know, because he’d know she told someone.”
“Agreed,” said Ben.
“It was one of those days like Hoss tended to have. He’d go to school, he’d struggle, the kids would find some way to make fun of him for being big, and he’d come home all upset and hide in the barn.” Ben nodded. He’d been all too familiar with this pattern. As soon as Hoss was old enough to leave school, Ben had given his consent. “Well, the way Marie told it, on this day, he was in the barn and heard something scratching. He looked around and didn’t see anything. So, he kept looking and kept looking. Eventually, he found this little tiny chipmunk, no bigger than his thumb. Anybody but your son would have said, ‘Okay, it’s a chipmunk,’ and they’d have gone with whatever they were doing. Not Hoss. Since the chipmunk wasn’t running away, he decided that there must be something wrong with it, so he thought he’d take a look and see if he could help. Sure enough, there was something-I don’t recall what it was, and probably nobody else would even have seen it. The chipmunk obviously felt pretty poorly, to let the boy handle it at all. So, Hoss wrapped the little critter up in a handkerchief, tucked it into his shirt, and snuck into the kitchen. His thinking, apparently, was that he’d get it something to eat, and then it would feel better.
“Unfortunately, there were a few things Hoss didn’t consider. First, what do you even feed a sick chipmunk? And second, how do you do this when you’ve got a Chinese cook with a temper? And third, how do you keep something like this secret when you’ve got a four-year-old brother who gets into everything and can’t keep his mouth shut for love nor money?
“Well, I think you can guess how it went. Hoss was trying to get the stove going so he could heat up some broth to feed to the chipmunk when Little Joe came wandering in. Hoss kept telling him to be quiet and that it was a secret-which was, of course, the absolute wrong thing to tell Little Joe. Your little one was so excited about being part of a secret that he immediately started running through the house, announcing, ‘Hoss has a secret! Hoss has a secret!’ Hoss came running out, trying to shush Joe, and he might have managed it if Hop Sing and Marie hadn’t come back from town right then. Little Joe raced out of the house, yelling at the top of his lungs about Hoss’ secret. Marie said that she didn’t think the angels showed as much enthusiasm when they announced the birth of Christ as her little boy did with Hoss’ secret.
“She tried to catch him to calm him down a little bit. Meanwhile, Hop Sing was taking the supplies into the kitchen. When he realized that Hoss had lit the stove, I guess he started in, ranting and raving in Cantonese. Marie said she was very glad she didn’t understand what he said, because she had a feeling that most of it was unprintable.
“So, there they were: Little Joe all excited about the secret, Hop Sing throwing a tantrum about the stove, Marie trying to find out what was going on, and Hoss trying to slip away. Naturally, this was the moment that the chipmunk decided that it was tired of being in the handkerchief, and it started to work its way out. Now remember, the handkerchief was still tucked inside Hoss’ shirt. So now, on top of everything else, Hoss has this little critter working its way out of the handkerchief, and he’s trying to get out of the kitchen before the thing escapes completely. Well, Marie finds out about the stove and is just as upset as Hop Sing, so now, she’s going on in French while Hop Sing is still yelling in Chinese, and Little Joe is adding his two cents in English-and the chipmunk escapes from the handkerchief and starts clawing its way around Hoss’ middle, trying to find a way out. Well, I guess when those little claws dig in, they’re pretty sharp, and Hoss’ eyes got big as saucers. He tried not to say anything, but when the thing decided it wasn’t escaping through the shirt, and it started down into his pants, and he started jumping around, trying to shake it loose-”
Ben was doubled over, wiping his eyes. “I never heard this,” he managed finally. “What ended up happening?”
“Hoss yanked his pants off in the middle of the kitchen, and he shook them around until the chipmunk flew out. Naturally, where do you think the chipmunk landed?”
“In the broth!” Ben chortled.
“So now, you’ve got chipmunk soup, Hoss in his underwear, Hop Sing with a whole new thing to yell about, Little Joe trying to climb up on the stove to see what just landed in the broth, and I guess Marie just couldn’t handle it anymore. She just yelled at Hop Sing to do something about the broth-as if he was going to understand French-and she dragged the boys out of the kitchen and sent them up to their rooms and sat there in the living room, laughing hysterically, until she was under control enough to go and talk to Hoss.”
“I can’t believe she never told me this.” Ben was still gasping for breath.
“She promised Hoss that she wouldn’t tell you,” Belle said. “I guess he was pretty embarrassed by the whole thing. Truth be told, she loved the fact that he tried to help the chipmunk, even if it wasn’t necessarily his wisest moment.”
Ben agreed silently. Hoss’ love for animals had always been one of the things Ben loved best about his son, too. It wasn’t just that Hoss reminded him of Inger in those moments; it was seeing a man of such imposing size and strength exhibiting such gentleness of heart. He’d once heard a preacher talking about the Beatitudes. In talking about the one that said, “Blessed are the meek,” the preacher said that meekness wasn’t weakness; it was strength under control. This was a perfect description of Hoss. He wished more people saw how wonderful Hoss was.
“Would you like some lunch?” Ben asked. He rose to fetch his saddlebags. Hop Sing had fixed lunch for him. He knew, too.
Belle rose as well. “No, I’m imposed too much already,” she said. “This is your day with her.”
“I’m having a day with her,” Ben said. “You’re giving me new things to think about. Now, when I think about her, I can think about that ridiculous chipmunk, and I can remember her reading Byron to a dying horse. It’s almost like getting an extra day with her.” His eyes darkened as he recalled the events of August 4 fifteen years earlier.
“In that case, I’d love to join you for lunch,” Belle said smoothly, drawing her arm through his and taking him back to his wife’s resting place.
When they were seated, and the picnic was spread out, Ben mused, “She must have had dozens of stories of Little Joe.”
“Dozens? How you underestimate your wife,” Belle laughed. “She used to bring him when she would come to visit me. What a little tornado! Marie was the only person I ever met who would have had enough energy to keep up with that little boy. I trust you remember the time he started out for Carson City?”
“I don’t think I ever heard about this one, either,” admitted Ben.
“She probably didn’t want to upset you, since it all turned out fine,” Belle said. “That was back when I was living in town, and Marie and Little Joe had come for lunch. They used to do that every once in an while. Well, one day, they came when I was working on a dress for Bertha McGee. I don’t remember the occasion; maybe it was her daughter’s wedding. Anyway, it was an important dress, and it had to be just right. Marie, bless her heart, was always willing to help anyone with anything-but you know that.” Ben nodded. “So, when she saw that I was rushing to finish the dress, she immediately announced that she would help. I asked her what she would do about Little Joe, and she said blithely that it was time for his nap anyway, and he’d be fine while we worked. The child was tired, so she put him down to sleep on my bed, and we got to work.
“Marie and I were hard at work for a long time. Finally, she said that she and Joe would need to be getting home. She went into the bedroom, and I tell you, I have never heard a scream like the one that woman made. Well, you can guess-Little Joe wasn’t there. She immediately reverted to French, and I grabbed her arms and shouted in her face that she had to speak English. She was still screaming, but now it was something about a stagecoach.
“You were out of town at the time, and I guess you had gone by stagecoach to wherever you were. As a result, Little Joe was just entranced with the idea of a stagecoach. I don’t know what he thought it looked like, but according to Marie, he had talked of nothing else since you left. So, she assumed that he must have gone over to the stage office to see them. The problem was, Marie knew her son, and she knew that he probably wouldn’t be happy with just looking at a stagecoach.” Ben rolled his eyes. Marie did indeed know their son.
“Well, we went over to the stagecoach office. Marie was in tears and frantic, and she kept babbling in French while I was trying to talk to the gentleman working there, who appeared to think that we’d been drinking or something. I asked him for a schedule of stages that had come and gone in the past few hours. Fortunately, only one stage had come through, and it was headed to Carson City. So, we alerted Roy Coffee to the problem. He said that he’d telegraph the stage office in Carson City to see if Little Joe was aboard. Marie wasn’t sitting still for that, though. No sooner had Roy gone to the telegraph office than she grabbed my arm and said, ‘We must find my son!’ The next thing I knew, we were renting a buggy and racing out of town on the road to Carson City. Even in a carriage, we moved faster than the stage, and we caught up with it within an hour. Sure enough, guess who was happily sitting on some lady’s lap, just thrilled by his whole adventure! The tantrum that ensued when Marie tried to take him off the stage-I think his shrieks may still be echoing somewhere in these hills.”
“But why wouldn’t she have told me this?” Ben asked.
“I expect that she was bit concerned about having lost your son, even if it was just for a little while,” Belle said. “After all, you’d gotten two sons across the country without misplacing them. She probably felt that this simply wouldn’t have happened to you. She was a bit intimidated sometimes by how well you managed everything.”
“You’d have been surprised,” Belle said. “Of course, it didn’t help in the beginning, when Adam kept telling her how wonderful Inger had been and how well you’d all managed for so long.” Ben remembered all too well Adam’s attempts to show Marie that he neither needed nor wanted her. That he’d eventually come to accept and love her was a testament to her persistence.
Belle continued, “Even though she knew that the boy was hurting, it was hard to hear. All she had to her credit was a failed marriage and a son whom she’d truly lost. She was terrified that she’d mess up again and somehow lose you all. Her greatest fear was that somehow, she would lose your love. She said that if that happened, she would die, even if she was still alive.”
Ben was silent. In nearly eight years with Marie, he’d never had any idea she felt this way. The truth was that nothing she could have done would have made him love her less. “She never told me that,” he said finally, for what felt like the umpteenth time that day. He took a bite of his sandwich. There had been so much he hadn’t known.
Belle rested her hand on his arm. “She loved you,” she reminded him. “And I know she told you that. She told me that she always made a point of telling you. She wasn’t trying to make me feel bad when she said it. She just wanted to me know that she knew how incredibly blessed she was.”
Ben was silent. Then, something Belle had said caught his attention. “What do you mean, she wasn’t trying to make you feel bad?”
“Everyone has loss,” Belle said simply. “You, me, Marie. She didn’t want me to feel bad when she was in a good time and I wasn’t.”
Ben nodded. Yes, that was Marie. Unexpectedly, his eyes filled. It was so unfair. This incredible, vibrant, complex, loving woman, yanked from him just as he’d begun to feel that maybe this time, he could relax and be happy and the rug wouldn’t be pulled out from under him. He looked away to hide the tears that welled up.
Belle’s hand was still on his arm. “You’ve no cause to feel sorry for yourself,” she said.
The words were like a slap. He shook off her hand, and he glared at Belle through his tears. “You think not? Do you know how many times I went through this? Three times. Three times, I loved a woman, and she loved me, and she died. Did Marie tell you that, too?”
“Yes, she did.” Belle’s words were as clipped as Ben’s. “She told me about the first two. She told me how she felt that she was God’s way of making up to you what you’d lost, and she was taking that responsibility very seriously. She was determined that not a day would go by without your knowing how much she loved you. Did you know that?”
Ben said nothing. He hadn’t known how she saw her role, but he’d known how deeply she loved him. Whether during passionate fights, or more passionate lovemaking, he never doubted for a moment that she loved him. He said as much to Belle.
“Do you have any idea how fortunate you are?” she demanded. “Was it like this with your other wives, too?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, did you know when they died that they loved you?”
“Yes,” Ben said. “But it didn’t keep them from dying.”
Belle shook her head impatiently. “You’re such a bloody fool, Ben Cartwright,” she said. “You have no idea how incredibly blessed you have been. All you see is what you lost. Shame on you for being so stupid.”
Ben’s eyes widened in shock. “What-how dare you-have you any idea what I’ve been through? What I’ve lost?” he shouted.
“What you’ve lost?” she mocked. “Three times in your life, you found love. Three times, you knew how much she loved you, every single moment. Three times! Do you have any idea how incredible that is? Yes, their lives were cut short, and yes, that was tragic, but do you know what would be worse?”
“What?” Ben demanded.
“If they’d never loved you at all.”
Ben was caught off guard. “What are you talking about?” he asked finally.
“Do you want to know how I met your wife? She was out riding. She found me not far from here. I was in the process of trying to make a noose so that I could hang myself. She sat me down, and we talked for hours that day, and when we were done, I didn’t kill myself. She took me back to my house, and she made me something to eat, and she sat by my bed until I fell asleep. She told me later that you were upset when she got back so late, and even more so when she wouldn’t say where she’d been, but that was Marie for you. She was a great respecter of privacy.”
“Why-what-?” Ben wanted to ask, but he felt that the great respecter of privacy would disapprove.
Belle met his eyes squarely. “When I was nineteen years old, I married the man I had loved for four years. He was the only man I’d ever loved-the only one I’d even thought of. All through the marriage, I loved him. He could be very distant, and our-our marital life wasn’t much to talk about, but I overlooked all that because he was the love of my life and I thought that was just how he was.
“When I was twenty-seven, he came home one day and told me that the marriage was over. He looked me in the eye and told me that he’d never really loved me-even on our wedding day. Now, he’d found someone he did really love, and he wanted to end our marriage so that he could be with her. I felt utterly worthless. Stupid. Useless. A failure. The only man I’d ever loved had never loved me. All those years, I’d thought I had something that I’d never really had, not even for a moment. My entire life had been a lie. We’d never had a child. I don’t know if it was the infrequency of-anyway, it had never happened. When he left, that night, he left me with nothing. Oh, I was to get some money, and some of the furnishings, but I had nothing. My life was a farce, and it all came crashing down in one day. I used the money to come here, and I fumbled along for a while. One day, when I couldn’t stand it any more, I bought a length of rope, and I came out here-and I met Marie.” She swallowed hard. “I don’t dispute that you’ve had great tragedy in your life. You lost three women you loved. But let me tell you, Mr. Cartwright-there are greater tragedies than losing someone who loves you. You’re a believing man, aren’t you?” Ben nodded. “So, you know that when the last day comes, you’ll see them again. And until then, for all your days, you can know that you were loved, deeply and fully. You can look at your sons and see the fruit of that love. And you never have to wonder if you were wrong, because you know that they loved you. Don’t you?”
Ben nodded slowly. Marie’s last words to him, as she died in his arms in the yard, the horse a few feet away, had been, “Ben, cheri, je t’adore-” It was so hard. It had taken so long before he’d finally felt secure that he would have a life with his wife. He and Elizabeth had barely had a year as husband and wife before she died in childbirth; he and Inger had had only as much before the Indian attack. But he and Marie had had a home together, and they’d raised their sons and built a life and a family, and in nearly eight years together, he’d finally dared to believe that happiness might be his-until she rode into the yard at breakneck speed on that August day. One moment of foolishness, or carelessness, or urgency, and it was all over. “If only she hadn’t been riding so fast that day-” he said for the thousandth time since her horse had fallen.
Belle watched him carefully. She would never tell him why Marie had ridden so fast.
“Imagine how happy Ben will be,” Marie had breathed into her ear. After seeing the doctor, she’d run down the street to Belle’s house, bursting with the news. “Maybe this one will be a girl! If it is, we’ll name her after you, my friend!” Belle had laughed with excitement at her friend’s wonderful news. If only she’d known then what would happen, she would have-what? Told Marie to be careful? Marie was too excited to be careful. Marie was deeply, madly, passionately in love with her husband and her children. She’d come so close to staying in New Orleans and having nothing, and she’d been so richly blessed. But Marie had never made Belle feel as if she felt herself to be deserving any of her good fortune. To the contrary, Marie always said, “God is just evening the score. Imagine what you’ll have when He finally decides to make up for Robert!”
Belle stood. When Ben started to rise, Belle stopped him. “I need to go,” she said. “And you need to stay. But thank you for a lovely day. It was nice to remember Marie with someone who loved her.”
Ben rose and took Belle’s hands. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for giving me . . . just, thank you.”
Belle squeezed his hands briefly and walked away. Ben stood by his wife’s grave, watching as Belle mounted her horse and rode off. She was barely gone when Little Joe rode up. Upon seeing his father, he paused uncertainly.
Ben smiled at Marie’s son. “I thought you might come by,” he said.
Joe gestured toward the path Belle had taken. “Who was that?”
“An old friend of your mother’s. Do you remember someone named Belle?”
“Belle? That was her? I remember Mama talking about her. I think maybe she even took me to see her once, but I don’t remember.”
Ben laughed, a sound that startled his son on that day. “You did go to see Belle, as it happens,” he said, resuming his seat on the ground. As Joe settled in, Ben said, “It seems that she was working on a dress for Bertha McGee. . . .”
*Excerpt from “Lara,” by George Gordon, Lord Byron.