Summary: Ben is compelled to defend Marie’s honor. A prequel written for the Mother’s Day Challenge. Events and people occuring in the episode Marie, My Love (Season 4, Episode 20) are referenced.
Word Count: 1900
Jack Frost’s paintbrush had already colored the eastern Sierra autumnal foliage red, purple, and orange by the time Indian Summer arrived, but instead of bringing hot, dry days, the weather was as humid as a bathhouse in August and just as thick. The Cartwright’s one-story log cabin home still retained the heat of the day and there was no air movement in the alcove of the great room that housed Ben and Marie’s bed.
In her third trimester, Marie was beyond uncomfortable. It was not that the circumference of her womb was too great; in fact if anything, she was mildly concerned that she was smaller than usual at this stage of pregnancy. With her first child, she had been as big as a house nearly halfway through her term, but now at nearly eight months she had let out her waistband no more than a couple of inches. No, tonight it was not size that was troubling; it was that she was hot, sticky and ludicrously swollen.
Try as she might, sleep would not come. Absentmindedly, she traced small, concentric circles on her abdomen with both hands as she ruminated that Jean, her first husband, had been a large man and his son would no doubt have taken after him if he had lived. But Ben was also tall, and it stood to reason that his child would be big also. Just look at Hoss! Marie shuddered at the very thought, wondering how Inger had ever survived out on the prairie with no doctor at hand. Mon Dieu!
The baby answered her plea with a swift, Herculean kick. Petit mais fougueux! Small but feisty!
Cradling her stomach with both hands she rolled to her side, curling into herself and panted until the spasm was over. Je vous salue Marie, pleine de grâce. Hail Mary, full of grace. When the pain eased, she raised her chin toward Ben and shifted her position slightly in order to watch the rise and fall of his barrel chest. Gently, she wove her fingers through the mat of black curls adorning his torso and, closing her eyes, matched her breathing to his.
At some point she must have dozed for when she awoke, Ben had already left their bed to do morning chores. She pulled on her robe and walked barefoot towards the kitchen, stopping to check in the small bedroom to check on the boys. Adam’s bunk was empty, but Hoss was still sound asleep. She untangled his legs from the light summer quilt and rolled him over to stop the soft snores.
Hop Sing had left the coffee pot on the dining table along with a pictogram of a crudely drawn tree and a basket. She poured a cup and nestled in the blue wingtip chair by the fireplace drawing her feet under the folds of her robe.
Without warning, Ben burst into the house slamming the heavy front door into the credenza and stomped through the great room to where his desk was, oblivious to her presence. Since their marriage, Marie had rarely seen her husband in such a fury. The energy with which Ben tore at the desk was so forceful that he upended a drawer causing its contents to drop to the hardwood floor with a thud. Furious, he flung the drawer to the side, picked up a rosewood box with both hands, and placed it in the middle of his desk.
Shaking with rage, Ben opened the lid and beheld its contents.
Marie closed her eyes, visualizing the two French dueling pistols nestled in the purple velvet lining along with a powder horn and a bullet mold.
“Marius,” they whispered in tandem, although neither heard the other over the shouts coming from Adam has he ran into the house.
Ben snapped the lid shut and tucked the box protectively under his arm. “Get out of my way,” he growled, pushing past his eldest son and continuing out the door, blind to the fact that his actions caused the tall, lanky twelve-year-old to topple.
“Pa, you can’t do this!” Adam yelled, his arms windmilling in a vain attempt to regain his balance before landing on his backside.
“Oh, but I can, and I will!” Ben’s voice drifted through the open door as he mounted and spurred his horse into a gallop without so much as a backward glance.
Marie unfolded her legs and moved quickly to her stepson’s side, helping him stand. “Que s’est-il passé? What happened?”
Adam, embarrassed by his outburst started to turn away but when he felt his stepmother sway, chagrin turned to concern, and his hands reached out to steady her. “Are you all right?”
“Je me suis levé trop vite. I stooped quick.”
Adam chuckled. “I think you meant you stood up too quickly.”
“Oui,” she said again, drawing a large breath and letting it out slowly. “We teach each other, yes?”
“Oui,” Adam said. “Come sit down. Do you want some water?”
“Il fait chaud, n’est-ce pas?”
“Yes, it is very warm. I’ll be right back. Ah.. Je reviens tout de suite?”
“Bien.” Marie continued to breathe in and out slowly only opening her eyes when she felt a glass pressed against her hand.
“Merci, mon fils,” she said after taking a long drink of cool water. She set the glass down on the low plank table hand hewn by her husband. Marie stroked the smooth finish with her fingertips marveling at the depth of color he had achieved with walnut and linseed oil. She sighed and sat upright with her back straight and her hands folded in her lap.
“Dites-moi pourquoi ton père était en colère ce matin. Tell me why your father was angry this morning.”
Adam’s lips parted, and his eyes darted from side to side, but he remained rooted to the spot.
“Is it because of what happen at the Gathering?” she asked, watching, slightly bemused, as Adam weighed his words. She’d seen the same concentration on her stepson’s face when he played chess—hovering his hand above each piece thinking four or five moves ahead in order to determine the best course of action.
“I don’t know what he was thinking,” he said at last, placing the onus on himself rather than betraying his father.
But Marie knew exactly what her husband had been thinking. Marius and that damn southern culture of honor. Hadn’t they agreed to leave that all behind when Ben asked her to come west with him?
On the way home from the Gathering she had told Ben about the incident only in passing, commenting that it was the last time she would attend until after the baby was born. Held on the first Saturday of every month at Washoe Lake, the mountain men, trappers, Paiutes, Shoshoni, and the few settlors in the area gathered to shares news and gossip, and trade goods. With no towns within 100 miles, it was the only means of procuring the supplies needed for the long winter ahead.
She omitted the way the trader named Bouchard had treated her. Never mentioned she was charged more than others. Never told Ben the names he called her behind her back. Of course, the trader wasn’t the first person to cast aspersions about her character or to utter vicious insinuations about her pregnancy to anyone with earshot—or beyond.
The problem yesterday was that Bouchard had done so within Hoss’s hearing. At age six, the boy hadn’t fully understood the meaning of the words spoken, but he had heard the snickers, had seen his big brother’s red cheeks and balled fists, had seen her wipe hot tears from her cheeks, and he had clung to her side the rest of the day.
When Ben demanded to know why Hoss had been so upset, Marie spoke only of rude behavior, but left out specifics.
They had arrived home well after dark and there was stock to be tended, food to prepare, and baths to be taken, so the subject was forgotten. Or so Marie had thought.
“Adam? Is there more?”
“I-I told Pa.”
“While we were doing chores. I couldn’t lie, Marie. He asked me straight out and … and I told him.”
“That Bouchard called you … a whore.”
“Mon Dieu!” Marie wrapped her arms around her torso and rocked forward and back. “Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, priez pour nous.”
“Marie?” Adam asked, unsure why his step mother was asking for the Virgin Mary to pray for her. Was it because of what he had said, or ….
“Mama! Are you all right? Is it the baby?”
“J’irai bien. I’ll be fine. Find Hop Sing. He’s in the forest collecting roots and bark.
“I can’t leave you alone!”
“I am not alone. Hoss is here.”
It was late afternoon before Marie heard Ben ride in. Relieved, but nevertheless apprehensive, she sat up in bed and awaited his entrance. She smiled as Hop Sing immediately assured him that she and the child she carried were fine.
“Baby come own time. Stubborn like parents,” he said before returning to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.
Ben grumbled something she couldn’t hear and hung his hat and coat on the hook before striding firmly, if somewhat hesitantly, toward her. When he reached the bed, he stood over her, his brown eyes staring intently into hers. She matched his gaze and did not flinch. He drew a stool near and took her hand.
“More than well … Adam called me mama today.”
“Did you duel?”
“No. I came to my senses before I reached the Washoe.”
“I see. Am I not worth defending?”
“I was not reluctant to defend your honor only unwilling to leave you a widow.”
“Could you not have defeated Bouchard?”
“Those pistols Marius gave me haven’t been cleaned in years.”
“I could have lent you my epee,” she teased.
“I would have needed a broadsword like that young attorney we read about. What was his name?”
“Yes, that’s it. Abraham Lincoln. From Illinois. When he was challenged to a duel last month, he chose broadswords instead of pistols.”
“He was taller than his opponent, yes?”
“By more than half a foot! He cut down an overhead tree branch with one swing of the sword to demonstrate his reach. After that, his opponent withdrew.”
“Bouchard is taller than you?”
Ben nodded. “Not seven inches taller, but enough so to give me pause.”
“La discrétion est la meilleure partie de la valeur.”
“I don’t know how valorous I am, but your husband is most discreet.”
Ben leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on her forehead whereupon she put her hands behind his head and pulled him into an open-mouthed, decidedly unchaste and passionate kiss.
“Where are the boys,” he gasped, unbuckling his belt.
Ben wasted no time in removing the rest of his clothing and sliding into Marie’s arms. “Remind me to finish that upstairs bedroom.”
“But not now.”
“Definitely not now, my love.”
Author’s Note: Any misspelling or wrong use of the French words is unintentional. If you are a native French speaker, please email me with corrections. Thank you.
The Abraham Lincoln incident is true.