Beauty is the Lover’s Gift (by Rona)

Summary:  When Joe falls sick with a fever after Julia Bulette’s death, Ben remembers his relationship with Julia.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA  (due to adult theme)
Word Count:  8079


 

 

It had been possibly the most traumatic few days that Ben could remember suffering through for a long time. They were all exhausted, and none more so than Ben and his youngest son, Joe. Looking at Joe as they dismounted in the yard, Ben thought how pale Joe looked. “Are you all right?” he asked, knowing the answer already.

“Yes,” Joe replied, but it wasn’t the truth. How could he be all right? he wondered. Julia Bulette was dead. Nothing would ever be all right again. Turning away from his father’s concerned, all-seeing eyes, Joe led his horse into the barn and took off the saddle, desperately trying not to think, and failing dismally. He knew why Julia had sent him away, and he had already planned how he was going to win her back and convince her that she should become Mrs. Joseph Cartwright. It seemed unutterably cruel to him that she had been snatched away from him before he could put his plan into action.

Not sure what to say to Joe, his brothers, Adam and Hoss, stayed quiet, but they watched him discreetly the whole time. Joe was worn out, it was plain to see. First there had been the trouble with Julia in town, then the fight with the fever that had infected a lot of the mining camps and it had all culminated in Julia’s murder. No wonder Joe looked tired. A sudden bout of almost unbearable sympathy as Joe staggered caused Adam to put his hand onto Joe’s shoulder as they all walked over to the house. And it was only then that they realized that Joe wasn’t just pale because the woman he loved had been murdered.

Joe was burning with fever!

*****

“I’m fine!” Joe insisted, trying to brush off the concerns of his parent and siblings. But his pale face, with its overly brilliant green eyes and flushed cheeks told a different tale and Ben felt fear gripping his heart. Joe hadn’t looked very well when he came home after the days spent nursing the sick miners and Ben had put it down to his being tired. Joe and Julia had worked the hardest of anyone to help those men. Why had he been so blind?

“Help me get him to bed,” Ben told his other sons as he put an arm around Joe’s waist.

“I’m fine!” Joe protested once more, struggling to break free. He pushed against Ben and almost fell as he managed to free himself. He caught his balance with difficulty and took a step away from Ben. He felt ghastly, but put it down to the loss of Julia. “Leave me alone.”

“Joe,” Adam said, putting out his hand to his youngest brother. “Please let us help you.”

“I don’t need help!” Joe shouted. He backed away. “Leave me alone!” His head was pounding and as Joe turned to go into the house, he was suddenly light-headed. Before he could catch himself for a second time, Joe toppled to the ground.

Instantly, Ben was kneeling by his side. “Joe!” He glanced up at his other sons. “Get the doctor,” he ordered, hoarsely. “And help me get him to bed.”

At once, Adam hurried off to the bunkhouse to rouse someone to fetch the doctor and Hoss helped Ben get Joe back onto his feet. This time, Joe didn’t protest that he was all right. He meekly allowed Ben and Hoss to help him into the house, stumbling often as his body gave in to the fire that consumed it.

While Ben helped Joe into bed, Hoss and Adam gathered up the things they thought they would need and hurried back upstairs to help. It would be a couple of hours at best before the doctor arrived. Ben thanked them with a smile as he soaked a cloth in cold water and laid it on Joe’s head.

“It ain’t that fever what them miners had is it?” Hoss asked fearfully, for they had lost many men during the epidemic.

“It can’t be,” Adam replied, soothingly. “That was carried by the water at the mine camps. Joe didn’t drink any of that water. This must be something that someone was already carrying.”

That was small comfort to the worried father. He knew that Joe and Julia had worked themselves to exhaustion before they’d taken a break and with the emotional turmoil that Joe had been going through, Ben didn’t know if the boy had eaten properly, or slept enough even before the crisis had arrived. There was no one he could ask, either, for other than Joe, the only person who knew the answer was dead.

The waiting was the hardest part. There was nothing Adam and Hoss could do except hover, watching as Ben bathed Joe’s brow with the cool water. Joe appeared to have fallen asleep, but the hectic color in his face and his ragged breathing spoke of the fight that his body was waging against the fever.

Doc Martin’s arrival was more than welcome a few hours later. “I’m sorry, Ben,” he apologized as he came into Joe’s room. “I should’ve seen that Joe wasn’t well.”

“We both thought it was Julia’s death that made him look so white,” Ben contradicted. “How were we to know?”

“I’m a doctor, I should’ve known,” Paul replied. He bent over the bed and listened to Joe’s heart.

The examination didn’t take long. “I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with him,” he admitted at the end of it. “High fever and his glands are all up. His throat is sore, too. I’m sorry, I can’t give this illness a name, but we’ll treat the symptoms.” He pulled his bag towards him and rummaged in it. “Give him this quinine to bring his temperature down. I haven’t got much left, but I’ll send for some more tomorrow. It should arrive on the stage the day after tomorrow. There’s enough here for Joe to last until then, should he need it. Apart from that, we’ll try and cool him off and keep an eye out for any other symptoms that might arise. I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“His hand was so cold earlier,” Ben muttered, thinking back to the moment when he had touched Joe’s hand in silent sympathy in town.

“Shock, most likely,” Paul replied. He put his stethoscope into his bag and prepared the quinine for Joe.

“It ain’t the fever from town, is it?” Hoss asked again.

There was an uncomfortable silence as Paul gave Joe the medicine. Joe’s green eyes glittered with an unnatural brilliance in the warmth of the lamplight. He said nothing, waiting for a reply. “Paul?” Ben questioned when no answer was forthcoming. “It isn’t, is it?”

“It might be,” Paul replied, reluctantly. “I can’t say for sure right now, but it might be. I can’t rule it out and it seems the most likely thing, to be honest.”

“But you said it was caused by the contaminated water!” Adam protested, fear flaring in his heart. He shot a glance at Joe, lying so still in the bed. He could see the fear on Joe’s face. Who knew better than Joe what the fever could do? He’d helped nurse men through it, wearing himself to a shadow doing so.

“It is,” Paul defended himself. “But it can sometimes be passed from person to person.”

“No,” Ben whispered, as the specter of death appeared in his vision.

“He’s a fighter, Ben,” Paul reminded his friend. He looked round the faces. “I’m sure he’ll pull through. I’ll be back tomorrow morning to see how he’s doing.” He smiled at Joe. “You get some rest now.” He went, leaving behind three men in shock.

“Pa,” Joe whispered, reaching out. Ben went to his side at once, sitting on the side of the bed, taking Joe’s hand and stroking the hair from his hot forehead.

“I’m right here, Joe,” Ben replied, soothingly. “Do you want some water?”

Nodding, Joe eagerly swallowed the cool water, then lay back on his pillows. “Pa, don’t grieve,” he went on, his voice stronger. “It doesn’t matter if I die.”

“Don’t say that!” Ben shouted, his voice suddenly very loud in the hushed confines of the sickroom. “You’re not going to die, Joe! I won’t let you!” Tears were suddenly standing in Ben’s eyes. “It matters to me if you die! Joe, please, you have to fight. For me, Joe.”

“For us, too,” Adam insisted, leaning in close. “It matters to us if you die!”

“Julia wouldn’ want ya ta give up,” Hoss told him earnestly. “That weren’t her way, Joe, an’ ya know it. Don’ give up ‘cos she ain’t here no more. She wanted ya ta live!”

Those words that Hoss spoke were the ones that Joe needed most to hear. He knew that it mattered to his family if he died. What he needed to know was that Julia was not expecting him to follow her into the other world without a fight. Those words told him that his family had accepted Julia and were grieving for her, too, although he wasn’t sure how he knew that. Tears filled his eyes for a moment before he blinked them away. He was so tired. “I’ll fight,” he promised, wearily. “I’ll fight, Pa.”

“I’ll be right here with you, Little Joe,” his father assured him. “We’ll all be here with you.”

They sat with Joe for some time before he fell asleep once more. Ben stretched. “I’ll sit with him, Pa,” Adam offered in a low voice.

“No, you two go to bed for now,” Ben decreed. “I’ll waken you later to sit with him. I’m all right.”

Reluctantly, Adam and Hoss went off to get some sleep. Ben sat down beside Joe and took his hand. Joe slept on. “Oh what a tangled web we weave,” he whispered and thought back.

*****

Julia’s Palace had opened almost two years before. Ben had seen the workmen in the building on C Street and had discovered what kind of establishment it was going to be. He knew that the gaming tables would do well and the saloon girls would be an added attraction for most men. Turning away from the building, he saw a smartly dressed woman standing on the opposite sidewalk, also watching the work.

Lifting his hat to her, Ben thought to himself that he hadn’t seen her in town before. She was fairly tall for a woman, with dark hair beginning to go grey. She was also very beautiful. Something about her reminded Ben of his late wife, Marie, Joe’s mother. Perhaps it was her clothing, which was much more stylish than the matrons of Virginia City usually wore. Perhaps it was an elusive hint of an almost familiar perfume. Ben didn’t know, but he did know that he was smiling at her and wanted to get to know her better. “Ma’am,” he said. “Can I help you?”

“No, thank you,” she replied. “I was just watching the workmen.”

“I’m told its going to be a new saloon,” Ben replied, wondering what her reaction would be. Most women would rather there weren’t any saloons in town, never mind yet another one being built.

“Yes, I know,” the woman replied. A smile played over her lips. Once more, Ben was reminded of Marie. “I’m Julia Bulette.” She held her hand out to Ben, who took it.

“Ben Cartwright,” he responded. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Bulette.”

“Its Miss Bulette, actually,” she replied. “I’m pleased to meet you, too, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Would you care to have a cup of coffee with me?” Ben asked, after a momentary hesitation. “I was just going to have one myself before I ride home and it would be lovely to have some company.”

“I’d like that very much,” Julia replied, thinking how charming and handsome Ben was. He crooked his arm, she took it and he escorted her to the hotel.

“Coffee for two,” he ordered and wondered why the waiter was looking at him so oddly. But then, everything that he or his sons did seemed to be big news in town, for reasons that Ben could never fathom.

It wasn’t long before the two of them were chatting away like old friends. “I’m a widower,” Ben admitted. “I live on a ranch outside of town with my three sons. Adam and Hoss are both grown up now, but my youngest son, Little Joe, is still in school. He’ll be 16 shortly.”

“Little Joe?” Julia echoed. “Why do you call him that?”

“Oh, his mother started it, soon after he was born,” Ben explained, laughing. “It kind of stuck. He was very little when he was a baby, and I don’t think he’ll ever be as tall as the rest of us, as he takes after his mother. All the boys take after their mothers.”

There was a hiatus then and Julia looked at Ben, wondering how on earth to tactfully ask the question that now burned in her brain. But Ben was adept at reading faces, and explained. “I’ve been married three times,” he said softly. “All my wives died.”

“I’m sorry,” Julia replied. She sipped her coffee.

“Where are you from?” Ben asked, changing the subject.

“I’m from New Orleans originally,” Julia replied. “But I’ve been in a lot of places along the way.”

“New Orleans!” Ben exclaimed. “Why, Little Joe’s mother was from New Orleans!” He smiled. “Bulette. Is that French? Marie was part French.”

“Yes, I am part French, too,” Julia admitted. She hoped Ben would not ask her if she had known his late wife, but he did, mentioning her name. “No, I didn’t know her,” Julia replied, honestly. She was relieved. How awkward it would have been to have known her and then had to lie. She saw Ben suddenly glance at the big clock on the wall as it struck five. “Oh dear, I hadn’t realized it was so late,” she said. “Thank you so much for the coffee. It was very pleasant talking to you, Mr. Cartwright.”

Rising to pull out her chair for her, Ben smiled. “I enjoyed it too, and I hope I can see you again sometime.”

Knowing it was time for the truth between them, but unable to baldly say to this man what she did for a living, Julia simply nodded. “You’ll find me at Julia’s Palace,” she replied and left.

Going over to the desk, Ben beckoned to the desk clerk. “Jim, what is ‘Julia’s Palace’?” he asked. If Jim didn’t know, then no one would know.

Rolling his eyes, Jim replied, “It’s the new saloon that’s being done up right now, Mr. Cartwright. That was Julia Bulette you were with.”

“I know that,” Ben snorted. “But why did she say…” His voice trailed off and he looked at Jim. “Does she own Julia’s Palace?”

Jim nodded silently and now Ben knew why he had been getting the odd looks. Everyone seemed to know who Julia was except him. Ben squared his shoulders. Well, so what if she owned a saloon. That didn’t make her a madam. Or a prostitute, he thought as he went to collect his horse.

But he guessed, from the reactions of the people around him, that it made her both things.

*****

“Ooh,” Joe moaned and Ben retrieved his roving thoughts. Joe was tossing restlessly and Ben took the now-warm cloth from his son’s head and soaked it in the cool water again.

“Easy, Joe,” Ben soothed. He was concerned that Joe’s fever wasn’t going down, despite the quinine.

“Pa?” Joe murmured and opened sleep-shadowed eyes. “I’m…so hot,” he whispered and Ben helped him to drink, knowing that Joe had to keep up his fluids if his temperature was to come down.

For a time, Joe dozed, but suddenly his eyes opened and he sat up. “Gonna be sick,” he wheezed and Ben hastily grabbed the basin he had brought over earlier. He tenderly supported his son as Joe retched endlessly over the basin. “Sorry,” Joe croaked as he lay back down.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Ben chided him gently. “This isn’t your fault, Joe.” He swiftly removed the noisome basin and came back a little while later with it clean and brought some fresh, cold water, too. He urged Joe to drink again, knowing that the vomiting would leave him even more dehydrated.

He pulled the covers up round Joe again, although his son was cooler for having thrown them off in the interim. “You sleep, Joe,” Ben coaxed, for Joe looked exhausted. Dark circles had appeared under his eyes. “You’ll feel better after a good sleep.”

“I’m really sick, aren’t I?” Joe mumbled.

“You’re going to be fine,” Ben replied, struggling to keep his tone even and soothing. Tears pricked at his eyes at Joe’s words. He hoped that, this time, Joe wouldn’t pick up on his unspoken thoughts, as he sometimes did.

“I love you, Pa,” Joe whispered and slipped into an uneasy sleep.

Dashing the tears from his eyes, Ben began to pray.

*****

It was almost dawn when Adam came through to relieve Ben. Joe’s fever was still the same and Ben was loathe to leave him, but he was exhausted and Adam reminded him that Joe needed him well, not sick and Ben finally went off to bed. He slept dreamlessly for several hours, wakening in the early afternoon. The house was still and hushed, the atmosphere somehow expectant. Ben rose and hurried through his shaving ritual, his heart beating faster than normal as he tried to convince himself that nothing untoward had happened. If Joe had taken a turn for the worse, Adam and Hoss would have fetched him.

Hurrying along the hallway, Ben opened Joe’s door and went in. Joe appeared to be sleeping and Hoss was sitting with him. He looked round when Ben came in and gave him a tired smile. “Hi, Pa. He’s about the same,” he said, in answer to the unspoken question.

“Has the doctor been out?” Ben enquired, crossing to the bed to put his hand on Joe’s forehead. The skin was hot and dry and, close to, he could hear Joe panting as he slept. He reached for the cloth, soaked it and draped it on Joe’s head.

“No, we ain’t seen him,” Hoss replied. “Adam’s downstairs having somethin’ ta eat. Whyn’t ya join him, Pa? I’ll sit with Joe.”

“Thank you, son,” Ben replied. “I won’t be long.”

“Take as long as ya like,” Hoss replied. “I’ll be fine an’ so will Joe.” Hoss spoke with deep conviction, sure that his little brother would fight off the devastating fever that had so decimated the mining camps around the town.

Half wanting to believe and half despairing that Joe had lost too much, Ben muttered,” I know he will.” He briefly clasped Hoss’ shoulder and went slowly out of the door and downstairs.

“How are you feeling?” Adam asked as Ben sat down at the table. “Did you sleep all right?”

“Yes, I did, thanks,” Ben replied. He thought how odd it was to be exchanging small talk with Adam while Joe lay so sick upstairs. Yet minutia like this was what kept the world turning. The major events in life, although they seemed to take up so much time and attention, were not the day-to-day events that made up most people’s lives.

Adam chatted on, telling Ben he had done Joe’s chores and given the necessary orders to the men, but Ben heard almost none of it. He ate mechanically, and without tasting. He was somewhat surprised to find that his plate had been cleared. Gulping down another cup of coffee, he rose. “I’ll go and relieve Hoss,” he told Adam and hurried up stairs again. Adam watched him go.  His father was acting strangely and Adam couldn’t figure out why. Joe had been sick before, although this fever was particularly virulent.  There was something else going on that Adam couldn’t understand. Finally, he shrugged. He would find out when – or if – Ben was ready to tell him.

*****

It was night once again. Paul Martin had not appeared and Ben was worried. He knew how difficult it was for one man to cover such a large area, but he had hoped that Paul would come. Joe’s fever still raged and he was out of his head, despite the quinine. Ben fretted and fussed over Joe until finally his son settled down into a deeper sleep.

Sitting tiredly in the chair by the bed, Ben watched as Joe tossed and mumbled in his sleep. If Joe didn’t get some solid rest, Ben knew it would be harder for him to recover. He changed the cloth on Joe’s head and washed his hands over his tired face.

“Julia!” Joe cried, sitting up. His fever-lit eyes only saw what was in his tormented dreams, but as Ben caught him to his chest, Joe clung to him, instinctively seeking comfort. Ben didn’t know how long he sat there like that, but Joe eventually slid into a deeper, calmer sleep, where he wasn’t tormented by dreams and Ben leaned back.

Julia. Ben thought back to Joe’s return from San Francisco. He was full of chat about the contract, bragging that he had got $5 a head more that year than Adam had done the previous one. He was justifiably proud of himself. But Ben’s heart had flickered when Joe brought up Julia Bulette’s name, chattering on about her, not realizing that each word gave away his interest in her. Ben had tried to play it cool, agreeing with Joe that she was a beautiful woman, and saying, no, he didn’t think she had known his mother. But the oblique warning he had thrown out to Joe about Julia had gone right over his son’s head. He blinked back tears; how could he have told Joe that all Marie and Julia had in common were the fact that they were women?

Closing his eyes, Ben’s mind drifted back…

*****

After his first meeting with Julia, Ben had seemed to meet her whenever he was in town. In fact, it became something of a game for them both, each one trying to greet the other first. It soon became apparent to Ben that they were destined to be friends and he cared not a jot for the disapproving stares of the townsfolk. All right, Julia ran a saloon, where there was gambling and girls. But that didn’t stop her being a beautiful woman and a wonderful, witty companion. Ben found that his trips to town now frequently warranted a trip to the saloon, and soon he had introduced Adam and Hoss to Julia.

It was only later that Ben realized that he felt more than friendship for Julia. Once he did realize, he wondered how on earth he could have been so obtuse for so many months. He had seen Julia once or twice a week for several months, spending time leaning on the bar, nursing a drink and just talking to her. Finally, he plucked up the courage to ask her out to dinner.

“I’d like that,” she replied, smiling. “But it’s a little difficult for me to leave my place. Perhaps you could come here and be my guest upstairs?”

“That wasn’t what I had in mind,” Ben protested. “I want to treat you.”

“Well, there’s nothing stopping you doing that,” Julia teased. “You could order dinner to be served here.”

“If that’s the only way I can get you to accept, then that’s the way it’ll be,” Ben agreed. “Tomorrow night?”

“Tomorrow night it is,” Julia smiled. “Thank you, kind sir.”

Walking on air, Ben had gone off to arrange for a fine meal to be taken to Julia’s Palace the next evening, ignoring the black looks the restaurant owner gave him. Even then, he didn’t see that his feelings ran deeper than he thought. He thought his friendship with Julia would be a seven-day wonder. In the growing township, there was always something new to see and talk about.

Until Ben had appeared the next evening and seen another man about to kiss Julia. His temper had flared and he had stormed across to throttle the young man. Luckily for Ben, before he could get there, Julia had brushed the other man away and Ben realized that the man was drunk. But he was shaken and realized the depths of his feelings. He had fallen in love with Julia Bulette.

Over dinner, Ben was quiet, pushing the superb food around on his plate, with very little of it reaching his mouth. His whole being was filled with the knowledge that he loved Julia. He couldn’t get enough of looking at her. Her perfume tantalized him and he wanted to crush her to his chest and kiss her until they were both gasping for air.

“You’re very quiet, Ben,” Julia observed. “Are you feeling all right? You’ve hardly eaten anything!”

“I’m fine,” Ben replied, feeling like a youth again, despite his three marriages. How did you tell a glorious woman that you loved her? And then he found out how you told her. “Julia, I love you,” he declared.

For a moment, Julia just looked at him, then she rose from the table and went over to gaze sightlessly out of the window. She didn’t want Ben to love her; she didn’t want to love Ben. Even if he couldn’t see it, they had no future together. The bluenoses wouldn’t let them be married.

Worried by her reaction, Ben also rose from the table and went over to stand behind her. Her perfume tickled his nose. “Julia?” he questioned, softly and reached out to put his hands on her shoulders, turning her towards him.

That was the moment Julia knew she was lost. She couldn’t deny her love for Ben. She reached for him, and their lips met in a long kiss. After a moment, Ben drew back, looking into Julia’s dark eyes, and seeing there the love that he sought. He kissed her again, his tongue plunging deep into her mouth. Julia responded with passion to match his own.

After a few moments, Ben forced himself to draw back. His body was on fire and the last thing he wanted to do was stop. “Julia, I’d better go,” he whispered hoarsely.

“Don’t go!” Julia commanded, her voice low and husky with desire. “Stay, please.”

“Your reputation,” Ben objected.

“I don’t have a reputation!” she laughed. “Or not the kind you mean! Ben, don’t go!” He hands reached down and began to open his belt buckle and Ben was lost.

Catching her hand, he led her to the canopied bed in the next room.

“I love you,” Ben whispered.

 *****

“Oh, no!” Joe cried, and brought Ben out of his reverie. He leant forward to change the cloth on Joe’s head, feeling that his son’s fever had grown. Anxiously, Ben stripped back Joe’s covers, remembering that he had been cooler before when he’d thrown off the covers. Soaking another cloth, he began to bathe Joe’s chest, hoping that would help.

It seemed to do the trick. After a few minutes, Joe was perceptibly cooler and Ben did not pull up the covers until Joe actually began to shiver slightly. The heat was not gone from Joe’s body, but Ben was relieved that he had cooled down even slightly. “I’m here, Joe,” he whispered, smoothing the damp curls back from Joe’s forehead once more. “Please fight, son. For me.”

*****

Ben’s affair with Julia had gone on for another couple of weeks before Ben made the move that ended it all. He spent every day working at the ranch as he always had and then spent the evenings with his sons until such times as Joe went to bed. Then he would go into town, leaving Adam and Hoss wondering who their father was seeing.

“It’s Mizz Robertson,” Hoss guessed. “She’s a real good cook.”

“She’s older than Pa is,” Adam scoffed. “It could be Mrs. Rennie. She’s a widow and not too old.”

“D’ya think it’s love?” Hoss asked.

“Sure do,” Adam nodded. “I reckon next thing we know, Pa’ll be telling us he’s gonna get married again.”

“Ya reckon?” Hoss asked, beaming. “It’ll be weird, seein’ someone else here in Ma’s place.”

“I know,” Adam replied, softly and Hoss remembered that Adam had found it difficult to reconcile himself to Marie’s arrival in their midst, resenting her replacing Inger, Hoss’ mother – the only mother Adam could remember. Hoss suddenly had an inkling of how Adam had felt then.

“When d’ya think Pa’ll tell us?” he asked, eagerly.

“When he’s ready,” Adam suggested dryly. He glanced significantly at the stairs. “But he’d better be careful how he tells Joe. Fifteen isn’t a great age to gain a stepmother.”

“Ya reckon Joe’ll be upset?” Hoss enquired, looking suddenly miserable.

“Anything’s possible,” Adam replied. “And with Joe, who can tell?” The brothers exchanged a long look.

Meanwhile, Ben had gone straight to Julia’s Palace, not caring that he was being watched closely, or that he was being gossiped about. He dismounted and quickly hitched his horse to the rail outside. “Ben!”

Turning, Ben smiled when he saw Dr Paul Martin. “Doc, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” Paul replied. “Could I have a word with you in private, Ben?”

“Of course,” Ben replied, puzzled and chafing under the delay. He followed the other man to his office, where Paul offered Ben a seat. “What’s this about?” he asked.

“It’s about you and that woman,” Paul answered bluntly. “Ben, I’ve known you for quite some time, but I have to say, you’ve got me worried now. What are you playing at? Do you realize how ridiculous you look? Going into that place every night? People are talking, Ben and the talk isn’t nice.”

“People always talk,” Ben replied, holding onto his temper. “And what I do and who I see is no one’s business but my own.”

“Usually, I’d agree with you,” Paul replied. “But not this time, Ben. That black eye Joe came home with today. I don’t suppose he told you the truth about how he got it, did he? I bet he told you it was just a playground scuffle that got out of hand.”

Warily, Ben nodded. “Are you telling me that wasn’t true?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you,” Paul replied. “Joe got beaten up by a gang of boys after school, who were telling him all about his old man who sees the town …” Paul let his voice trail off. “Well, I’m sure you can guess the rest. Joe defended you, saying that you wouldn’t do that. He lost, Ben. I patched him up afterwards. He’s not hurt bad – just bruises. So far, he doesn’t know who the boys were referring to. But he’s going to find out very soon if you don’t stop what you’re doing.”

“I think I’ll be the one who decides whom I see,” Ben replied, icily. “Send me the bill for Joe’s treatment.” He rose and headed for the door.

“Don’t go away mad!” Paul exclaimed, hurrying after Ben and grabbing his arm. “Look, if an old friend can’t tell you what’s what, who can?” He peered into Ben’s face, seeing the anger draining away. “You’re serious about her, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” Ben replied. “Good night, Paul.” He left the office, and stood outside for a moment, drawing in huge draughts of air to calm his temper. So the people were talking about him, were they? Well, by God, he’d give them something to talk about, he swore and hurried off down the street to Julia’s Palace.

*****

The memory of that night would haunt him forever, Ben thought wearily. He had gone into Julia’s place and she had greeted him with a big smile. After a few minutes, she had led him upstairs and they had fallen into each other’s arms as though they were starving.

“Julia,” Ben said, after they were dressed again and drinking some brandy. “I want you to marry me. Please say you will.”

Gazing across at Ben, Julia felt her heart contract.  She loved Ben, more than she had ever thought was possible, and she knew that he loved her. But she hadn’t expected this. She had thought that Ben would tire of her, or that the gossip would get him down and she would be left with a broken heart. What she hadn’t expected was a marriage proposal.

For a moment, she longed to say yes. But she knew that she couldn’t do that. Ben was rapidly becoming a very important man in Virginia City and she didn’t want to see any harm come to him because of her. She knew that she was barely tolerated in the town as it was; if she married Ben, they would be hounded out.

“I can’t,” she replied.

The hurt that blossomed in those dark eyes was almost more than she could bear, and Julia braced herself to appear unmoved, as though she hadn’t noticed, as though her own heart was not being ripped out of her chest. “But why?” he gasped. “Don’t you love me?”

“No,” she replied, her voice harsh. “I don’t love you, Ben.”  She hoped that he would think the harshness was just amusement, not smothered tears. “And you don’t love me, either. You’re just infatuated with me. It happens a lot. It’s because of what I am.” She looked him in the eye, daring him to deny that.

“I love you despite what you are,” he cried.

“No, you don’t,” she responded. “You love me because I am a little bit like your late wife. How many times have you compared me to her? But I’m not her, Ben and I never will be!”

“That’s not true!” Ben denied. “I love you for you! Julia, please!”

“No, Ben,” Julia insisted, turning away from him. “I’ve enjoyed your company and I enjoyed you in bed, but that’s it. I’m never going to marry you. I think its best if you go now and don’t come back. Goodbye.”

Devastated, unable to believe what he was hearing, Ben went over and put his hands on her shoulders. “Julia…”

Whirling, Julia slapped Ben’s face. “Get out!” she ordered. “Do I make myself plain? I don’t want to see you again.”

Letting his hands drop, Ben retrieved his hat and coat, his hurt brown eyes always on Julia. She kept her face stern and her demeanor business-like until the door closed behind him. She swiftly crossed the room and turned the key in the lock, fearing that he might come back, or – worse – that she might go after him.

Sinking to her knees behind the door, Julia at last gave way to heart-wrenching sobs. It gave her no comfort to know that she had sacrificed her love for his own sake.

*****

Nothing was said at the Ponderosa, but the change in Ben’s demeanor was dramatic. Gone was the bounce in his stride, his beaming smile and his zest for life. In its place was a quiet, thoughtful, withdrawn man. His first act the next morning was to quiz Joe about how he had really come by the black eye. Under his father’s gentle, but insistent, questioning, Joe finally admitted that the boys in school had said bad things about his father. Ben chastised Joe gently for fighting, thanked him for defending his honor and then, to Adam and Hoss’ shock, agreed to Joe leaving school for good that summer.

“What was that about?” Adam asked Ben after his brothers had gone outside. “I thought you wanted Joe to stay on until he was 16? It’s only a few more months, Pa.”

“There’s no point, Adam,” Ben replied. “Joe doesn’t want to be in school; that’s only too clear. What point is there in making him go back for a couple of months after the summer vacation? He might as well leave school at the end of this term.”

“His romance has gone wrong,” Adam told Hoss at lunch time. “What other reason could there be?”

“I thought he didn’ seem hisself this mornin’,” Hoss agreed. “Poor Pa. I wonder who it was.”

“I suppose we’ll never know,” Adam replied.

*****

It took Ben some time to get over his disappointment. He finally confided to Adam that he had been in love and that the lady concerned had rejected his offer of marriage. When Adam asked who it was, Ben replied that it didn’t matter. It was over, and that was the end of the subject.

Taking the hint, Adam told his brothers that they would have to tread a little warily around Pa and were not – under pain of death! – to mention this to Ben at all. Hoss nodded solemnly, his soft heart troubled by his father’s obvious unhappiness. He did everything he could to bring solace to Ben, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his father.

The person that was perhaps most troubled by the news was Joe. He was counting down to the end of his school days with great joy, but he still had to contend with the nasty jibes of his school mates, who had got such a wonderful reaction from him. Several more times, Joe had come to blows with them, although, mercifully, he had not been badly injured, and had not learned the name of Ben’s supposed paramour.

If only he had learned, Ben now thought, in anguish. Perhaps then they would have been spared this heartache. Had Joe wondered why Julia had wanted to see him, as well as Joe, that night she died? It wasn’t just to tell Ben that she was giving him his son back. That night, Ben realized that Julia had loved him as much as he had loved her.

“There’s a certain security that comes from relying on no one but yourself,” she had told him bitterly. “You and your son have spoiled that for me.”

Ben didn’t doubt that Joe and Julia had loved one another. But how must she have felt when Joe proposed marriage to her, with his father standing there, having uttered those very words two years earlier? Had she understood when he told her he would welcome her into the family if that was Joe’s wish? Had she understood that he couldn’t risk losing Joe? Ben would never know the answers to those questions.

Putting his head into his hands, Ben wept.

*****

The next morning, Joe’s fever broke in a drenching sweat. Between them, Ben, Adam and Hoss changed the bed and settled Joe in once more. Joe had smiled weakly at them all before falling into a deep, healing sleep.

It would be several days before Joe would be able to get out of bed, Paul Martin told them when he came out with some more quinine. The fever left the victim weak. However, it was a relief to him that Joe was on the mend and he left, advising Ben to get some sleep.

Over the next few days, Joe seemed to do nothing but eat and sleep. When he was finally allowed to get up, he rested on the sofa in front of the fire, gazing absently into the flames. He was very quiet, but it took Ben another few days to build up the courage to speak to his son.

“Joe, there’s something I want you to know,” he began nervously, sitting down in front of Joe.

“What is it?” Joe asked, suddenly frightened by the look on Ben’s face. “Pa, what’s wrong?”

Slowly, Ben told his story, looking mostly at his hands, afraid to look his son in the face. Joe did not speak or move, just sat listening, barely able to believe his ears. When Ben at last ran out of words, he glanced up at Joe’s face.

The anger blazing there caught him by surprise. Joe’s face was chalk white, but his eyes more than made up for his lack of color anywhere else. “I don’t believe you!” he said, softly. “I don’t believe you!” he bellowed. “You loved Julia? You were lovers?”

“Joe,” Ben began, reaching for him, but Joe was not ready for that yet. He shoved himself off the sofa and backed away.

“I don’t want to hear any more!” he warned Ben. “Not another word!”

“But, Joe…” Ben protested, rising and following.

“Leave me alone!” Joe cried and fled out of the door, slamming it behind him. Too shaken to react, Ben just stood there, looking at it.

*****

It was only when Adam and Hoss returned that Ben realized that his worst nightmare had come true. Joe was not out in the barn, nor was his horse. Joe was nowhere to be found.

“What happened?” Adam asked.

“He cain’t have gone far,” Hoss muttered. “He’s still weak.” Those words sent new daggers of guilt to Ben’s heart. “What happened, Pa?”

Once more, Ben slowly told his story. Adam and Hoss exchanged a long look. They both still remembered their speculation about who Ben had fallen in love with. It had never occurred to either of them that it was Julia Bulette. Now, with the evidence spread out in front of them, Adam wondered how on earth they hadn’t known. And it explained so much about their father’s behavior towards Joe and Julia.

“Pa, you’ve done nothing wrong,” Adam assured him when Ben fell silent. “Joe’s just surprised and a bit shaken. So are we. But we haven’t just lost someone we loved, the way you and Joe have.” He patted Ben’s shoulder awkwardly, not used to being the comforter for his father. “Joe’ll come round and be back soon.”

“Sure will,” Hoss agreed, stoutly. “He’ll be home fer supper, ya see if he ain’t.”

Smiling, grateful that his sons had accepted what he had just told them, Ben still wasn’t convinced that Joe would come round that easily. This news had given him a much greater shock than Adam and Hoss had received.

Darkness fell, but it didn’t bring Joe back.

*****

It was cold and dark, and Joe had neither food, nor a bedroll. He didn’t care. His blood surged hotly in his veins and he didn’t feel the cold at all. How could Pa not have told him about Julia before? Joe shuddered. Pa had said he and Julia had been lovers. He, too, had wanted to marry her. Joe was shaken to learn that the woman he loved had almost been his stepmother.

Exhaustion closed his eyes that night, for his body had not fully recovered from the effects of the fever. But come morning, Joe didn’t feel like he’d slept. He wanted to scream and shout and rail against the fates that had first robbed him of the woman he loved and then tore apart his memories of her.

Rising, Joe saddled his horse and rode off. He had no particular destination in mind; he just felt better moving. His thoughts whirled endlessly as he pictured Julia and Ben together. Had she laughed deep in her throat after they had made love, as she had done after she and Joe made love? Had she loved him for himself, or simply as a way to get back at Ben?

Tormented beyond endurance, Joe urged his horse into a gallop, squeezing his eyes closed against the tears that blurred his vision. He kept urging Cochise on, even as he felt the horse tire and falter. The horse, trusting him, responded. Joe opened his eyes to see the landscape rushing past him and suddenly felt dizzy. The next thing he knew, he was tumbling to the earth.

*****

He didn’t know how long he’d lain unconscious. He could feel his head pounding and when he tried to rise, he was immediately overcome with dizziness and nausea. Joe barely managed to roll over before he was sick. There was nothing in his stomach, which made the whole process somehow worse. Slumping back, Joe took stock of his position.

Cochise stood a few feet away. The horse was lathered and still panting, its head down by its knees as it recovered its breath. Joe felt a pang of remorse. He shouldn’t have taken his feelings out on the horse. “Cooch,” he coaxed and the pinto came over to him, one slow step at a time. Joe was relieved that it wasn’t lame. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, as he caressed the mole-soft skin on its nose.

Holding on to the stirrup, Joe made it as far as his knees before his stomach rebelled. Another bout of dry heaves left him feeling wrung out, but Joe knew he couldn’t stay there. He lifted a hand to his head, and felt the dried blood near his hairline. With a great effort of will, Joe managed to climb into the saddle.

It was obvious that Cochise wasn’t going to be going anywhere very fast. At a gentle walk, Joe and the pinto headed towards home. Joe drifted and he relived a lot of his times with Julia. How could he have doubted that she loved him? All the signs were there. Joe’s thinking, which had been so muddled, was clearer now. He could see that she had loved him. What difference did it make to him if she had loved his father a couple of years before? They weren’t together, and Julia was older than Joe was, and had had other lovers before him. Julia had been quite candid about that fact. They didn’t matter. They were in the past. Even Ben was in the past.

“I over-reacted,” Joe said aloud. “How could I have done that? Oh, what an idiot I am!” He started to cry.

*****

“There’s Cochise!” Adam exclaimed and the relief in his tone was evident. He touched his heel to his horse and all three Cartwrights hurried towards the pinto horse.

“Joe!” Ben flung himself from Buck to kneel beside his youngest son who lay face down on the ground. Carefully, Ben gathered Joe into his arms, wincing at the gash along his hairline. “Joe, can you hear me?”

“Pa?” Joe mumbled. His eyes slit open. He looked confused. “Pa?”

“I’m here, son,” Ben assured him, blinking back tears of relief. “We’ll get you home.”

“Pa,” Joe repeated and Ben looked down at his beloved child, cradled so protectively in his arms. “Pa, I’m sorry,” Joe went on. “I was wrong.”

“Hush,” Ben soothed. “It doesn’t matter, Joe. It doesn’t matter at all.”

“Yes, it does,” Joe insisted. “I was…stupid. I acted like…a child.” He swallowed. “I was jealous. Sorry. Can you…can you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Ben replied. “Nothing. It’s all forgotten.” He beamed up at his other sons. “Help me get Joe home,” he requested.

*****

The dizziness that Joe had suffered turned out to be a combination of no food and no water. The bump on the head had caused the nausea and Ben was mightily relieved at the diagnosis. Joe was fed, put to bed and slept for several hours. This time, his sleep was peaceful and he felt the benefit of it.

At the same time, Ben also took a nap, since he had had almost no sleep the night before, worrying about Joe. He was surprised to discover that telling the boys about his relationship with Julia had lifted a huge weight off his shoulders – a weight he didn’t realize he’d been carrying.

And over the next months, Joe and Ben grieved for Julia together. “She was beautiful, wasn’t she Pa?” Joe asked, one night, when it was just the two of them together in front of the fire.

“Yes, she was,” Ben agreed. “Everyone thinks their loved one is beautiful or handsome. Congreve said it in a play. ‘Beauty is the lover’s gift’.”

“I thought Julia was beautiful when I first saw her,” Joe replied.

“She was,” Ben nodded. “But love made her even more beautiful.”

“The most beautiful woman in the world,” Joe mused. He knew she would forever hold a special place in his heart.

***End***

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.  Marmion by Sir Walter Scott,1808.

Beauty is the lover’s gift. William Congreve, The Way of the World, act 2, sc 4, 1700.

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