Home is Where the Heart Is (by Territell)

Summary:  Ben returns to the Ponderosa after Marie’s death.
Category:   Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  G
Word Count:  2.900


Ben faced the ride back to the Ponderosa with mixed feelings; he had been away for so long. He was anxious to see the boys, his boys, his very reason to continue living, but in order to do that he had to face reality; Marie was no longer there.

How long had it been? Time had no meaning for him since that bright and sunny day in early August, which had turned cold and bleak when Marie’s horse stumbled. The world as he knew it had ceased to exist. In the days that followed and at the funeral, Ben had gone through the motions, saying the right things to the mourners who came to pay their respects. But inside, deep inside, the hurt was growing and growing. By the fourth day following the tragedy he knew he couldn’t stay, he knew he had to get away. He didn’t want his boys to witness his demise yet he could do nothing to stop it. His life was spiraling out of control!

The day he left was a blur. He vaguely remembered shaking Adam’s hand and asking, almost pleading with him to take care of his brothers. Hoss had given him a teary hug and kiss before running back into the house. But Joseph, Little Joe. Where was his memory of him?

Ben tried to steady his breathing. He had no memory of saying goodbye to his baby. In fact, Ben could hardly remember setting eyes on the child in the four days following Marie’s death. The very sight of the boy with his mop of curly chestnut hair and large green eyes actually caused him physical pain, and in an act of self-preservation his brain had failed to accept the child’s presence. Shame washed over him at the hurt he had inflicted on his family, but most of all on the innocent tot whose own world must have also been shattered on that fateful day.

Ben had no plan in mind when he had left Virginia City that morning. He only knew he wanted to escape from anything and everything that reminded him of his lost love. In the weeks that followed he had traveled from town to town, sleeping in a different bed almost every night, talking to no-one and only finding solace at the bottom of a whisky bottle.

Ben thought of the other two great tragedies in his life; the deaths of Elizabeth and Inger. He had loved them both deeply and he remembered the enormous grief he had experienced with their passing. In the days that followed his two sons had been the catalyst that gave him the strength to carry on. Eventually the wounds had healed and, even though he was still left with invisible scars, his life had begun to have meaning once more. Would he recover this time? Ben did not know. Marie’s death had destroyed his very soul and for a long time he had also wanted to die. Even his three sons could not give him the will to carry on.

In many ways Ben had been a fortunate man. He had shared the love of three wonderful, beautiful women and each of them had given him the legacy of a son. Had he failed them? What must they think looking down from above on the broken man he had become? His wives had all been very different but each of them had been a strong woman in their own way; would they have reacted as he had done? He didn’t think so.

Ben allowed his horse to set its own pace as they trudged along. He was deep in thought and it was some time before he realized he was once again on Ponderosa land. Pulling his horse to a halt Ben slid from the saddle and looked out at the breathtaking landscape before him. A surge of pride swelled in his chest; this was his land, the land he had nurtured and worked his fingers to the bone to build. His Ponderosa!

The pine trees stood tall and strong as they had for over a hundred years, and the lake in the distance flowed on endlessly, never stopping to ask why; just doing what nature did, surviving. Looking at the sheer beauty of it all, Ben’s heart took on a new acceptance; death was an inevitable part of living. All living things had to die to make way for the new. Sometimes nature was cruel and robbed the living of their future before their time as it was not selective, and doled out the same treatment to a tree, a rabbit, bird, man or woman. There was no way of preventing these things, and to survive Ben would have to become like the nature surrounding him, and accept his lot in life and carry on.

It was not a conscious move, but Ben found himself turning from the road and heading towards the lake. He had not been to Marie’s final resting place since the day of the funeral, but he knew that he had to talk to her before returning home. Ben wanted to say sorry for not looking after her boys, for failing to be the man he should have been. But most of all he needed to make peace with her, and then, and only then, could he face his sons.

A simple headstone had been erected. Ben had not yet seen it and his throat constricted as he read the simple epitaph:

Marie Cartwright

Beloved Wife and Mother

Who had chosen the words? It could only have been one person. Ben said the name out loud, “Adam.” His eldest and most complex son.

How lucky Ben was to have Adam as his firstborn. The child had acted as his right hand man from the moment he took his first steps, and in his seventeen short years he had faced more heartache than most men faced in a lifetime. Adam had always managed to hide his own grief in order to be a shoulder to lean on for the man he adored. Ben lowered his eyes in sorrow as he thought of the burden he had placed on those young shoulders over the years. In oh so many ways what a thoughtless, selfish father he had been. Would Adam ever be able to forgive him for this his latest transgression?

Sitting on the ground next to the grave, Ben reached out and lifted one of the wild flowers that had been placed just below the headstone. Marie had loved wild flowers, and he was comforted to see that his sons had continued to visit their mother in order to leave a token of their love.

Night was beginning to fall, and as Ben sat looking out over the lake he was again reminded of why Marie had loved this spot on the Ponderosa best of all. The majestic beauty before him entered his very being and soothed the erupting volcano that had threatened to destroy him over the past weeks and months.

Many times over the years Ben and Marie had stolen themselves a few hours alone so that they could come to this very spot and make love. As Ben closed his eyes and brought the memories to mind, he could almost feel the softness of her body in his arms and the smell of her hair as she lay against his chest. Marie had been a very passionate woman, and although she had been small and petite in stature, Ben had soon found out that beneath the fragility was an energy and lust for life that was often expressed most fully in their lovemaking. She was a woman who knew what she wanted and she had awoken an animalistic instinct in Ben that he had never experienced before and doubted he ever would again.

As the darkness enveloped him Ben lay back on the ground and looked up at the stars. Gazing heavenward it suddenly hit him that in all this time he had never shed one tear for his wife. His grief had been too great and painful to share with the rest of the world, and it was only now that he was finally able to understand the expression his grandmother had used all those years ago.

He had been about ten years old and was attending the funeral of the husband of his father’s sister. His aunt was inconsolable and wailed and cried throughout the minister’s final words. Ben had been surprised and confused when his grandmother had turned to his mother and whispered, “A mooing cow soon forgets its calf. Mark my words she’ll be married again within the year.”

Before the year was out his aunt had married again and his uncle was all but forgotten.

Ben smiled at the old and almost forgotten memory, but now on the shores of Lake Tahoe on a clear but cold November night he knew it was time to let go. He finally allowed the dam to crumble and the suppressed tears held inside him for so long overflowed from his clouded eyes and rolled down his cheeks in a never-ending flood. Once he starting sobbing Ben could not stop and he screamed out his pain and anger into the stillness of the night, until hours later, he lay exhausted on the ground, finally spent but with an inner calm he had not felt for oh so, so long.

His grandmother’s words of wisdom came back to him once again. “Have a good cry; it’ll make you feel better.”

So often she had said those words to his mother when the harshness of life had become too much for her. His grandmother had died just before his twelfth birthday and that had been his first experience of the pain of losing a loved one.

Ben fell into an exhausted sleep, his dreams full of images of his beautiful Marie. She was riding across the plain, her long curly hair flowing out behind her in a golden mane. Her laughter echoed in his head, and as dawn broke he tried hard not to awaken; he wanted to stay in this place of safety and happiness forever. But as the suns first rays of the morning spread their wintry warmth over the chilled earth, Ben opened his eyes to face reality once more.

Chilled to the bone Ben stretched his aching limbs and stamped his boots on the hard earth in an effort to bring feeling back to his frozen feet once more. Rubbing a hand across his stubbled chin, he decided to light a fire and try and make himself more presentable before returning to his home. He could not allow his sons to see him in his present state; eyes red with crying, clothes that he had not changed for several days and nearly a week’s growth on his face. When he returned to his children he wanted to be whole once more. He wanted them to see the strong man he once was and not the broken man who had rode away almost twelve weeks before. This was to be a new beginning.

Two hours later, shaved, changed and fed, Ben rode into the yard of the Ponderosa. As he dismounted from his horse his eldest son came striding out of the barn after completing his morning chores. Adam stopped in his tracks and drank in the sight of his father; this was the moment he had been praying for over and over again for so long, that he thought it would never happen. Ben turned and smiled at his son; Adam dropped the broom in his hand and ran into his father’s outstretched arms.

“Oh Pa” was all that Adam managed to say. Ben hugged him to his breast with a fierceness that had Adam almost gasping for breath. After what seemed an eternity Ben held him at arms length, and looking into the dark eyes before him that almost mirrored his own, he was rewarded with the look of love and understanding that he had been frightened to hope for and never expected.

Before another word could be spoken the door to the house burst open, and with a whoop of sheer joy, Hoss raced towards his father and threw himself into the man’s open arms with such vigor that the pair of them almost tumbled to the ground. “I knew you’d come, I just knew you would.”

Ben laughed at this most trusting and gentle son of his; funnily he had never worried about losing Hoss’s love. It was not in the nature of the boy to hold grudges or resentment towards anyone, let alone his own father.

Once again hugging the pair of them to him, Ben simply said the words he had wanted to say all the way home. “I’m sorry, I’m just so sorry.”

The boys just hugged him harder and Hoss looked up at him with a flicker of anxiety in his eyes. “Are you home to stay, Pa? You’re not going away again are you?”

Ben lovingly cupped the boy’s chin and tilted it slightly so that he could look into the cornflower blue eyes. “I’m back for good, son. I promise I won’t ever leave you like that again.”

As the three of them stood in the yard they were unaware of a pair of small frightened eyes watching them from the upstairs window.

“Adam” Ben said at last looking at his eldest, “Where’s Little Joe?”

“He’s in the house, Pa. I left him sleeping,” said Adam with just a trace of concern in his voice.

Ben started to move towards the door when he felt his son’s hand grab hold of his arm.

“Pa, it’s Little Joe. You have to try and understand, Pa. It’s not his fault; he’s just so little.”

“What’s wrong, Adam? Is he ill or hurt?” said Ben as alarm bells began ringing in his head.

“No, Pa” said Adam allowing his head to fall forward resting his chin on his chest. “It’s just since you went away, he’s been real quiet, and well, at first, he cried for you all the time, but now, it’s like you don’t exist. He doesn’t talk about you at all, Pa. It’s like he has forgotten who you are!”

Ben closed his eyes and tried to ignore the hand that had grabbed hold of his heart and was now squeezing the very life out of him.

“It’s OK, Adam; I understand.” With that, Ben forced his legs to move and walked towards the house.

Entering his home again after such a long time, Ben was relieved to see that everything looked the same. But even that thought was overshadowed when he once again remembered that things were not the same, and never would be. The tinkling laughter that was Marie was gone from their lives forever. Pushing aside these thoughts Ben concentrated on the here and now; for too long he had thought only of his own pain. Now he had to think of his sons.

As he looked round the great room, his gaze fell on his red leather chair, still in the place it had always been, and there, peeking out from behind, were the largest most expressive hazel eyes anyone had ever seen.

The small angelic face looked out at him with a confused and bewildered expression; looking to Ben like a small fawn, so fragile and helpless. Little Joe blinked and unshed tears flowed from each eye and rolled down his soft baby cheeks before finally falling from his chin. His small rosebud mouth opened and formed the word “Papa” but no sound could be heard.

Ben dropped to his knees and silently begged Marie for forgiveness. How could he have rejected this beautiful child? The same child that had given him such pain to look at only a few short weeks ago now filled his heart with such love he thought he would burst. He looked so small and helpless. How could so much pain be expressed in the eyes of a four year old? Ben choked back a sob; how could he have forgotten? In his absence his little boy had had his fifth birthday, and neither parent had been there to share the joy of the day with him.

Opening his arms, he looked with such tenderness at the babe before him and said with almost a sob, “Little Joe.”

With the speed of a young rabbit, Joe jumped up from his hiding place, and with a cry of “Papa”, buried himself in the loving embrace of his father.

Cradling the child in his arms, Ben rocked backwards and forwards on his knees, at the same time saying a silent “thank you” to the powers that be for granting him the chance not given to many; the chance to live again.

Later that night Ben sat on the settee, his eldest son’s head resting on his shoulder, his middle son asleep beside him and his baby curled up on his lap where he belonged.

He was truly home.

***The End***

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