Summary: An early snow and bitter cold has Ben Cartwright feeling his age, but there is more than just the dreary season behind his winter woes. (Part of the Ties That Bind series but can stand alone)
Rating T 6842 words
Ties That Bind series
Ties That Bind
A Pearl Without Price
A Piece of Cake
Something About Amy
Guarding the Henhouse
When Angels Cry
When Worlds Collide
No Ordinary Day
Winter of Discontent
Gently, Full of Grace
Author’s Note: For those following the series, this story takes place just a short time after No Ordinary Day, so chronologically it is #10 even though it is posted out of order.
WINTER OF DISCONTENT
Ben Cartwright was not a man given to morbid moods, at least not until lately. The Ponderosa lay under the shroud of an early winter, and its bleakness seemed to have crept into his soul. Aching joints and restless nights had him feeling older than his age; or perhaps it was just the years catching up with him. A trip to St. Louis at the end of the summer with two of his sons had taken more out of him than he cared to admit. Maybe it was time to turn things over to the boys.
Not boys, he reminded himself, flexing his stiffening hands in front of the fire. They were grown men, even Joe. It had been three years since he had left the classroom roll and joined the Ponderosa payroll, becoming heady with manhood in the process. Yet at nineteen there was more of the boy left in him than in either of his brothers at that age. It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. They had all three run their fair share of interference for him, whether Joe liked it or not. It was part and parcel of being the youngest son, and everyone knew it.
Ben’s thoughts turned from his sons to the daughter in San Francisco. To his delight, Jilly had spent the entire summer on the ranch after nearly four years away. In no time, he’d grown accustomed to the lovely and lively addition to his household, relishing the laughter of all four of his children together again. He leaned his head against the mantel, smiling at the memory. It was bittersweet, for such moments had been too few and far between.
Jilly’s departure in September grieved him more than he had expected. One more year, they both agreed. If she had wavered in the least, he would have gladly pulled her trunk off that stage in a heartbeat and brought her home to stay. But he knew she wouldn’t. There were days since when her absence was almost a physical pain in his gut. Today seemed to be one of those days. Or maybe he was just getting to be a sentimental, doddering old man.
The door blew open with a gust of wind and all three of his sons, back from town.
“Sure is gettin’ cold out there,” said Hoss. “I hate this weather.” He didn’t bother removing his coat before moving to the fire next to his father.
Joe joined them. “We brought something that might cheer you up, Pa.”
“What makes you think I need cheering up?”
Adam smiled and handed him a letter. “It’s what you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?”
Ben would have recognized the polished script even without the San Francisco postmark. His face creased into a grin. “Well, it’s about time.”
“You can blame it on the weather,” said Hoss. “Did I mention I hate it?”
“Only about a dozen times today,” said Joe.
Ben retrieved the letter opener from his desk and slid it under the seal, exercising considerable restraint considering how hungry he was for any news from his youngest. His grin became a frown as he began reading.
I trust this letter finds you and my brothers well at home. I regret that I cannot say the same for us here. Not to worry, I am fine, but I have terrible news about Aunt Margaret. If you could see her now you would be as shocked and distressed as I was upon my return. In fact, it is hard to imagine her as the same woman who sent me off to you a few short months ago. She has given up any care for her appearance and would willingly wear the same clothes for a week at a time if no one intervened. Her failing memory makes meaningful conversation nearly impossible, as she repeats herself and asks the same questions over and over. But the worst part is the fact that sometimes she doesn’t seem to recognize anyone, even Uncle Miles. The doctors say she is losing her mind, and there is nothing that can be done.
Of course, I understand there are things she would rather not remember. As one who has endured more than your own share of tragedy, you must surely have empathy for her losses. Not being a mother, I cannot imagine the sorrow of losing a child, much less all four of my children. Obviously her fragile soul could not bear such a cruel blow, and so her mind has spared her the truth, allowing her daughters to live on out of sight. All except for one, it seems. To Aunt Margaret, I am Claire, even though I am far from ten years old. I don’t have the heart to correct her, especially when it seems to give her comfort, of which she has so little now.
Bless Uncle Miles! He is so calm and patient with his “dear one” as he calls her, and yet I know his heart is breaking under the strain. I worry that he may not be well either. In addition to his burden at home, I suspect something is amiss at the bank. A man came to see him the other night, and it was clearly not a pleasant meeting. Uncle Miles seemed agitated after he left, though he brushed it off and assured me it was just business.
Pa, I am writing you these things not to worry you but because I am certain you would want to know. Uncle Miles and Aunt Margaret have been more than good to me, and I do love them so. Please pray for them and also for me as I try to do whatever I can to help them. I wish you were here so you could tell me what that might be. And even if there is no good answer, it would help just to feel your arms around me, because that always makes me believe that somehow things will turn out right. I love you and miss you so very much.
Your faithful daughter,
“What is it, Pa? Is something wrong?”
“I’m afraid so. Margaret is very ill.” He handed the letter back to Adam.
It was difficult for Ben to imagine the fastidious, articulate Margaret Hightower as the woman Jilly described. But in the past four years she had lost her three daughters, two within weeks of each other. Alice Ann died of childbed fever following a stillbirth. Barbara and her husband perished in a fire late last winter. Trudy succumbed to pneumonia shortly after. (A fourth daughter, Claire, died before Jilly was even born.) Such an immense burden of grief could exact a toll on even the strongest mortal.
Adam relinquished the letter to Joe, who had been reading over his shoulder. “Well, it certainly has been a year of bad news for the Hightowers.”
“Poor Miles, he’s lost all of them now.” Ben wondered how he might fare in his place. Even though he had been widowed three times, he’d never had to bury one of his children and prayed he never would.
“Poor Jilly, it must be hard on her too. I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes.” Joe passed the letter to Hoss.
A few moments later Hop Sing entered from the kitchen, breaking the silence by announcing supper.
“That stew sure smells good,” said Hoss, finally shedding his coat. “I’m half-starved.”
“Miss Annie’s mulligan recipe. You eat while still hot.” The cook set the tureen on the table to murmurs of appreciation.
After the meal, the Cartwrights settled near the hearth in the great room, where the blazing fire barely managed to keep the chill at bay. With Hoss snoring beneath a blanket and Joe absorbed in a new dime novel, Ben faced Adam across the chess board, though his mind was hardly on the game.
“It’s your move, Pa.”
Careless execution cost him his queen, prompting raised eyebrows from his oldest son.
“You wanna talk about it?”
“Whatever’s bothering you, though I’m sure I know.”
“I was just thinking about Miles, and how we take so much for granted. And tomorrow is Jilly’s birthday.”
Joe looked up from his book. “It is, isn’t it?”
“Sixteen,” Adam confirmed.
Ben thought of all the birthdays and Christmases they’d spent apart since she left. “I suppose it’s selfish of me to want her home when he and Margaret are in such dire straits. They need her more than we do.”
“It’s not selfish to want to be with the people we love. It’s only human. We all miss her.”
“Adam’s right,” said Joe. “I remember how hard it was when she first went to San Francisco. All I could think about was how much I missed her. I know now it was a lot harder for you. I remember you telling me that sometimes we have to give up what we want for what’s necessary. You’re a lot of things, Pa, but selfish isn’t one of them. ”
“Hey, can you keep it down? I’m tryin’ to get some sleep,” Hoss complained.
“What do you mean, tryin’?” Joe protested. You’ve been sawin’ logs for the past two hours!”
Hoss scrunched his face toward the clock. “No wonder I’m so tired. It’s past my bedtime. I’m gone. Goodnight.”
Weary but unable to sleep, Ben trudged downstairs to his desk shortly after midnight, lit the lamp and took out paper and pen.
It was wonderful to receive your letter and to hear you are well, though your news about Margaret was most distressing. It grieves me not to be there with you, but you must remember you are not alone. God is always near. I know it is hard to trust when things look bleak, but I’ve always believed there is a reason for the lives we live, even the sorrows we are sometimes called to bear. You may not understand why God has put you where you are, but be confident in His wisdom, and don’t be afraid of doing the wrong thing as far as Miles and Margaret are concerned. Just love them as you always have. That is the greatest gift you can give them.
The winter seems colder than usual, or perhaps your Pa is just getting old. I look forward to the spring, not just for the weather but for the joy of your homecoming, which I pray will be for good. Your empty place at our table makes me miss you even more, especially on your birthday, which we have celebrated without you for the past five years. I can scarcely believe you are sixteen. I am so proud of the young woman you have become. Your mother would be proud too.
Lately I’ve been thinking of that morning in May when we tended her grave and planted the flowers. Watching you, I was reminded how much of her lives on in you. It brought me great comfort then, and the memory of that day warms me even now.
Your brothers promise to write soon, though I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you; perhaps two out of three, if you’re lucky. Of course, you know you can always count on Adam.
I love you, my dearest girl. May God bless you and keep you safe.
Your devoted father,
Adam penned his letter later that day.
Today is your birthday, and though you won’t get this letter for a while, at least when you read it you will know someone was thinking of you on your very special day.
Darling girl, it doesn’t seem possible that you could be sixteen, and yet from our time together this summer I know it to be true. In some ways you seem even older. But honestly, when I think of you in absentia, I see the girl in the moonlight, and I suppose I always will. Do you still have the poem? I confess I haven’t written another one since.
I was truly sorry to hear about Margaret. It is hard to imagine what it must be like for Miles, and for you. He is lucky to have you there, not only because you can be helpful but because you are the only family he has left, even if not by blood. But just know there is only so much you can do, and don’t drown in the process. Take care of yourself, too.
Though I don’t wish to add to your worries, you should know Pa has not been himself lately. He insists he is fine and doesn’t need to see Dr. Martin, but I think I might ask Paul to drop by for a friendly visit, if you know what I mean. I’m not even sure it’s physical, though. Pa thinks he is getting old, and when a person gets something like that in his mind he sometimes starts acting that way. Of course, he misses you (and I wish you could have seen his face light up when I gave him your letter). Winter has never been his favorite season, and the early snow seemed to put him off. Maybe that’s all it is.
It has been far too long since I’ve been able to wish you a happy birthday in person. When you come home in the spring we’re going to make up for it, I promise. In the meantime, your letters are a treasure to all of us even if the favor is not returned. Know that you are always in our hearts, sorely missed and dearly loved.
Ever your affectionate brother,
This was from Hoss:
I started writing you a while back but I don’t know what happened to that letter, and here it is your birthday already. I wish you were here so I could just give you a big hug instead. I know it’s not a happy time with Mrs. Hightower being so sick. She’s such a nice lady and it makes me sad to think of her that way. I know you’re helping to take good care of her, and I’m real proud of you for that.
The barn cat had a litter of kittens, three but only two survived. They are gray tabbies, both girls. I call them Molly and Dolly. You would love them. Coyotes got a few of Hop Sing’s chickens but their hunting days are over now. Other than that, not much is new around here.
It has been mostly quiet since you left. I reckon we got spoiled having you home over the summer, because the house feels a little lonesome now. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t cooped up so much of the time. I don’t know how it is in San Francisco, but the weather has been plumb awful here lately. I hate the cold and it hates me. Sometimes I wish I was a bear so I could just hunker down in a nice warm cave and sleep through the winter.
I guess that’s all for now. I know I haven’t been too good about writing, but I’ll try to do better. I love you and wish you a very happy birthday.
Your big brother,
Finally, one from Joe:
Don’t faint. Yes, it’s a letter from me, proving I actually do know how to write one. Well, it is your birthday after all, and this will have to be your gift, even though you’re getting it late. Some gift, I know.
Hope Sing made a cake in your honor today. I had two pieces, so don’t worry, I took care of your share. It was chocolate, just like the one you smeared on me the day Andy and Deke were here. I know you won’t forget that and neither will I. It was fun having you back home. I miss you. (Mitch does too, in case you’re interested.)
It can’t be much fun in San Francisco but I guess that’s where you are needed right now. I feel very sad for the Hightowers. They’re good people. But like Pa says, bad things happen to good people all the time. We never know what’s coming for us. I guess that’s a good thing, because if we did, we’d be too worried to ever enjoy anything.
I don’t know what it is about winter, but Pa and Hoss have both been grumpy lately. Adam is his usual grumpy self but at least he’s predictable. It must be the cold. I don’t mind it so much, as long as I keep moving. And you know me; I can’t sit still for long. I took Black Star out for a run the other day before the snow, which was good for both of us. I think he misses you, too.
My hand is starting to cramp so I guess I’ll stop here. You might want to frame this letter because it could be the only one you ever get from me. I’m kidding, of course, but no promises. Deep down, you know I love you more than my saddle. In fact, you’re right up there with Cooch.
P.S. The last line was supposed to make you laugh. I hope it did.
A few weeks later, another letter arrived.
My dearest family,
Receiving your letters all in the same day was honestly the best birthday present I ever had, and well worth the wait! No one would have thought so if they had seen how much I cried. I could not help it, but I was careful not to reveal my tears to anyone except the angels. Heaven knows I wouldn’t want to do anything to further upset things around here.
Aunt Margaret continues to decline. On rare occasions I still see the woman she used to be, and it makes it that much harder to watch her slip away. When she is awake she is sometimes difficult to contain, which is now necessary for her own health and safety. I cannot write it all in a letter. You would need to be here to understand. Someone must be with her at all times. The doctor suggested moving her to a hospital, but Uncle Miles said no, he had seen those kinds of ‘hospitals’ and he would not send his wife there. He is truly a devoted husband.
Poor Uncle Miles seems to have aged greatly these past few months. He no longer goes to the bank every day. A federal marshal was here to see him yesterday, a formidable and stern-looking man named Ross, and they talked for a long time. Uncle Miles said it was nothing for me to worry about, but I fear he may be in trouble. I pray I am wrong.
Pa, I hope you will not be angry, but I have made arrangements with the school to home study for the remainder of the year. I am eligible, being sixteen and in good standing. Uncle Miles was against it at first but I persuaded him that it is for the best, in light of the situation. I can be much more helpful with Aunt Margaret now, and as long as I pass my exams at the end of the year I will still graduate with my class. I am very confident in my decision and hope you will understand.
There are no words to tell you how much I love and miss all of you. To be truthful, some days I am restless for home, but other than that I am well and pray you are too. Christmas will soon be here, and I hope for more letters from you, and that means you too, Joe. I would be most happy to frame a matched set.
There were amused expressions at the ending, followed by silence.
Ben frowned. “I don’t like it. She’s taking on too much responsibility. It sounds like the situation is getting out of hand, and if Miles is in trouble…I have a good mind to go to San Francisco and bring her home.”
“It would be nearly impossible to get to San Francisco now, dangerous in weather like this,” Adam reminded him. “And even if you could get there, you might not be able to get home for who knows how long.”
“Yes, but at least I’d be there with her.”
“Pa, I know you’re concerned, but Jilly has committed herself to helping Miles and Margaret, the best way she knows how. She’s a mature young woman and I think this was her decision to make. We should respect that.”
“She’s barely sixteen.”
“Yes, but I think she deserves a little more credit. And like it or not, she has a life apart from us. Suppose you could get to San Francisco. How do you think she would feel if you went up there and ordered her home?”
“You think I’m wrong?”
“You’re not wrong for feeling the way you do. But maybe you should sit with the idea for a while.”
“I just wish I had a clearer picture of what’s going on there, what Miles is mixed up in.”
“Maybe it’s nothing. There’s no need to borrow trouble by speculating.”
“I don’t need any lectures, Adam.” Ben’s tone carried an edge that no one missed.
“I’m sorry; it wasn’t my intention to lecture. I’m just trying to look at things reasonably.”
“Oh, so now you think I’m unreasonable?”
“No,” Adam answered slowly. “But you’re obviously upset, and I have to believe it’s more than just this letter. Is there something you want to talk about, Pa?”
“No.” Ben took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m sorry. I…I think I’ll ride into town for some air and a change of scenery.”
“Do you want some company?” Joe offered.
“No, thank you. I believe I’m still capable of making the trip by myself.”
He left his sons staring after him.
With no particular destination in mind, Ben wound up at Paul Martin’s door.
“Ben, come in. What brings you to town? I saw Adam and Hoss in the mercantile this morning. I trust the boys made it home okay.”
“Yes, they did. I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“No, it’s been a quiet day, not that I’m complaining. I was about to have a cup of tea. Would you care to join me?”
“Thank you, yes.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, is this a professional visit or merely a social call?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure why I came.”
“Why don’t you let me take a look at you? It’s been while, you know.”
Ben agreed, though somewhat reluctantly, allowing Paul to listen to his chest and take his pulse.
“Any unusual pains?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Just the aches of winter, I guess you could say.”
“It came early with a vengeance, didn’t it?”
His reply was a grunt.
Paul finished his examination and leaned back against his desk. “Ben, your heart is as strong as a man half your age. Your lungs are clear, your coloring is good and your reflexes are all normal. What else can you tell me? How’s your appetite?”
“You look a little tired. Trouble sleeping?”
“If it’s not pain, then there must something else keeping you awake at night. I could give you something for the symptom but it won’t address the cause. If it’s something you’re willing to share I’d be happy to listen, not just as your doctor but also as your friend. Could that be the real reason you came?”
“Maybe it is. I don’t know.”
“Does it have anything to do with Jilly?”
The question surprised him. “Why would you ask that?”
“When I spoke with Adam this morning, I inquired about her, as I always do. He told me about the situation with the Hightowers, and how you were concerned about her, naturally.”
“I always felt I had done the right thing in sending her there, but now I’m not so sure.” Ben rested his chin against his fist and expelled a long sigh. “In some ways I feel as though I’ve failed her.”
“In what way? It seems to me you’ve given the girl everything.”
“Everything except myself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I let someone else raise her. Now when she needs me I can’t even be there.”
“You did what you could, what you believed was best for her. She has grown into a fine young woman because of that, and I think she’d be the last one to say you failed her.”
“She wouldn’t say it in those words.”
“Ben, it seems to me you’re feeling guilty for circumstances beyond your control, and that doesn’t sound like you. You’re normally one of the most pragmatic men I know. Don’t you think you’re overreaching a bit?”
“You think I’m borrowing trouble? That’s what Adam suggested.”
“Aren’t you?” Paul’s eyes were kind.
“I don’t know, maybe. Or maybe I’m just an old man feeling sorry for himself.”
“You’re not that old, my friend.”
Ben dropped his head. “I miss my girl. I just want her home.”
Paul placed a hand on his shoulder. “That’s the first thing you’ve said that makes sense to me.”
After his visit with Paul, Ben stopped at the jail to see Roy, and following a game of checkers and some of the sheriff’s notoriously bad coffee he was nearing home in the murky twilight, feeling more like himself in spite of the cold. The trip into town had lifted his perspective. He was still thinking of Jilly, though, and of something she’d said that morning after they had returned from Marie’s grave.
He couldn’t even recall what prompted it, but in reference to her brothers she’d said it, plainly and calmly.
“You don’t love me the way you love them.”
The pronouncement was neither accusation nor judgment. There was no self-pity, no reproach; no regret. It was merely an observation, delivered as dispassionately as one might comment on the weather or the market price of beef. Still, the quiet force of her words staggered him, their weight on his heart crushing.
Every parent knows that all children are not created equal, but he had never valued one of his over the others. It wasn’t even within his power to do so. Yet nature had drawn its own dividing line between them. His youngest seemed more aware of that than he was.
In response, he did what any father in that situation would do. He denied it.
The smile he received was meant to reassure him that he had not failed in his duties, and yet he couldn’t help but wonder if indeed he had.
On one hand he counted among his blessings three wonderful sons, each different from the other and yet like him in so many ways. On the other hand was one lovely daughter he’d never known quite what to do with, who even now was an enigma.
The world recognizes the worth of sons as bearers of a man’s name and legacy for future generations. They are a testimony of his strength and longevity, a sign that he will not perish from the earth. So while sons are celebrated, daughters often grow up in their shadows. It was not an intentional neglect or a lack of love; it was more a matter of circumstance and social order.
Looking back, perhaps his biggest mistake was not in loving her less, for that he could never do, but in assuming she understood that different measures were still equal. It pained him to think she might have grown up not just believing but willing to accept the fact that her brothers had more of a claim on him than she did. If that was the case, then he had failed.
Hunched in the saddle, his head lowered as a shield against the raw winter wind, Ben hadn’t noticed when the snow first began. The heavens seemed to open all at once, swirling a torrent of flakes around him, thrusting him into the center of a white abyss. Suddenly he couldn’t see five feet in front of him.
He’d left his usual mount at home in favor of a new acquisition in need of exercise. It was a decision he now regretted. The horse shied and whirled beneath him, something Buck would not have done. He lost a stirrup as the animal bolted, and seconds later he met the ground.
It was a jarring introduction, but he didn’t have long to think about it.
Joe peered out the window. “Don’t you think he should have been back by now?”
“Not necessarily. It isn’t that late. I’m sure he’ll be home soon.” Adam tried to sound reassuring.
“Yeah, but it’s snowing again. Right now It’s coming down pretty hard.”
“Maybe he decided to stay in town,” Hoss ventured. “He might have.”
“Maybe,” murmured Joe.
Not one of them believed that.
A horse’s whinny broke the silence.
“There he is,” said Adam. “What’d I tell you?”
“Guess you were right,” said Hoss.
“No.” Joe turned from the window to retrieve his coat and hat. “It’s not Pa. It’s just his horse.”
Bitter, bone numbing, flesh stinging cold assured him he was still alive. Icy flakes encrusted his eyelashes as he raised his lids to the fuzzy lateral view. Lifting his head to shake the snow from his ears, a jolting pain in his shoulder drove him back down. He rolled on his back, then to his other side so he could push up to a sitting position. His hat was missing, but at least he had his scarf and gloves.
The fall had knocked him out, but for how long he couldn’t tell. The dull ache in his head pounded with every heartbeat. That fool horse had disappeared but if he managed to find his way back to the ranch without a rider (which seemed doubtful), the boys would be out looking for him. In the meantime, he’d just have to start walking.
Ben tied his scarf around his head and lumbered to his feet, swaying a little at first as the upright world came into focus. Still dazed from the fall, he struggled to get his bearings in the dark. The snow had picked up and so had the wind, making it even harder to see. He’d have to trust his instincts. One foot in front of the other…home couldn’t be far….
Apparently, it was farther than he thought.
His head and shoulder both throbbed, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, he was beginning to feel dizzy. The pain and darkness were disorienting, clouding his thoughts. He steadied himself next to a tree and caught a ragged breath. He should have been close to home by now, but nothing looked familiar. Squinting in an effort to better view his surroundings, he thought he saw a light. Was it really there, or was it merely the trick of a frantic mind?
Before he could be sure, a wave of nausea doubled him over, making him retch. The light exploded into a thousand pinpoints peppering his vision before his knees gave way and everything went black.
The snow continued to fall, but he no longer felt the cold.
He felt the salt spray on his face, like in the old days. He’d been a younger man then, with the world in front of him, before his sons were even a gleam in his eye. They were waiting for him now. He’d sailed to New Orleans with hopes of a lucrative profit from the sale of his furs, but he was returning with so much more.
His new bride stood next to him. It had been a tenuous voyage, but she had weathered it stoically, in spite of recurrent bouts of sea sickness. He put his arm around her, and she smiled up at him. How young she looked, younger even than the day they met. He hadn’t known it then, but Marie DeMarigny had already captured his heart, and in spite of all the reasons why he should not have married her, he knew he could not leave the city without her.
It almost made him weep when she came to him. He had been so long without the comfort of a woman he had forgotten how good it felt just to lie next to someone, flesh against flesh, hearts beating as one. She was no stranger to sorrow herself. They drank deeply of one another’s loneliness, where hungering love took root and blossomed.
A new wife, a new life, and soon after, another son…
We’ll call him Joseph, after your father, she’d said, and we’ll have a dozen more if God wills. He remembered her smile when she said it. She was willing then, even if God was not.
Being a good mother seemed to come naturally to her. Being a rancher’s wife was much harder. He hadn’t known how difficult it would be for both of them. She was restive and stubborn, almost as stubborn as he was, and that was something he wasn’t used to. Heaven knew he loved her, but at the same time Marie vexed him as no woman ever had before.
By the time Little Joe was two years old, it seemed pretty well established that those “dozen more” were not going to happen. What followed was a cold winter in more ways than one. He would not beg her favors. They were polite but avoided each other’s eyes much of the time. How could two people who claimed to love each other end up in such a state? They seemed to be living the proverb “marry in haste, repent in leisure.”
Passions unearthed are sometimes hard to completely bury again, and a spark still remained near the surface. It caught fire one night, unexpectedly. The next morning, it was as if the night had never happened. If she wanted to leave, he wouldn’t stop her. But she would not take his son. He didn’t have to tell her that; she knew. And if only for that reason, he knew she would stay.
The pregnancy was a surprise to both of them. She gave him the news with hardly any emotion, unlike the first time, and he didn’t know what to say. It was what they had both wanted, once—but then…they just looked at each other in silence. When she started to cry, some of the pride in which he’d wrapped himself ebbed away. That was the day they began to find their way back.
A broken road is hard to travel; but slowly, purposefully, sometimes painfully, they did it. The love they gained in the process was stronger than what they had before because they both fought to earn it. And when he held their baby girl for the first time, he couldn’t help but think, “if not for you…”
God works His will in mysterious ways, giving, and then taking away. He had long ago accepted the fact but never pretended to understand.
“I did the best I knew how without you, Marie.”
“Of course you did, my love. And that’s the most anyone can do.”
“But was it enough?”
“Trust me, it was more than enough. You gave her deep roots and strong wings, just like your sons.” Her voice was soft and warm, like the darkness that enveloped him, and he felt her hand on his shoulder. “But you must wake up now, or they won’t find you in time.”
“Ben, wake up!”
Gasping for breath, he woke up face down in the snow. It took every ounce of his strength to push himself up again, his left arm mostly useless. He staggered back to the tree. The snow was blinding now. No doubt his sons were looking for him, but any tracks he’d made had likely been covered. And he had the unsettling feeling that he’d been walking away from the ranch house instead of toward it.
He sank to the ground, propped against the trunk, too weak to go on. His fingers, though nearly numb, found the gun on his hip, and he slid it from the holster. It was a slim chance, but it was his only hope. The best he could do.
Three shots, before his hand went limp.
A light touch on his brow, warm… Marie? No. It was a man’s voice that roused him.
“I believe he’s waking up, boys.”
Ben opened his eyes to the welcome sight of his three anxious sons at his bedside.
“How do you feel?” Adam asked.
He managed a smile in spite of the pounding in his head. “Blessed.”
“You should, because you are,” said Paul, packing up his bag. “If your boys hadn’t found you when they did you wouldn’t be here. You must have had a guardian angel looking out for you. Again,” he added with a smile.
“I’d have to agree with you.”
“Even so, you’re weak, and in addition to that shoulder I suspect you’ve got a concussion, so you’ll be staying in bed for the next few days. Understood?”
He hadn’t the strength to argue. “Yes, doctor.”
“We’ll see to it,” Adam promised.
“Good. I’ll show myself out. You know where to find me if you need me.”
“Thank you, my friend,” said Ben, “for everything.”
Paul pressed his hand reassuringly. “You’re more than welcome. I’ll look in on you next week.”
Ben watched him go, and then turned toward his sons. “I’m sorry for being such a cantankerous old fool lately.”
“Aw Pa, you’re not that old,” said Joe, grinning.
“This weather’s got everybody cranky,” asserted Hoss. “Did I mention I hate it?”
“YES,” Joe and Adam chimed together.
“I know how you feel, Hoss. I let it get the best of me too,” Ben admitted. “But we have to remember, it’s only for a season. This too shall pass. Besides, we really have nothing to complain about, do we?”
His middle son’s expression turned sheepish with a small grin. “No sir, we sure don’t.”
“Well, I intend to stop feeling sorry for myself and remember to count my blessings. From this day on you boys are going to see a new Pa, I promise you.”
“We’ll just settle for the one we know and love.” Joe edged in closer and touched his father’s arm, his eyes bright with tears.
Ben covered Joe’s hand with his, waiting for the lump in his throat to subside enough for him to speak. “I know I don’t say it enough, but I’m so thankful for you three, and proud of the men you’ve become. You’re everything a father could want. I knew you’d be looking for me; I just prayed you were close enough to hear my signal.”
“Signal?” Hoss looked confused.
“Three shots, like always.”
“We didn’t hear a signal. Joe said he saw a light and took off after it. We just followed him.”
“I thought it was a light, but I could never figure out where it came from or where it went,” said Joe. “Anyway, it was the right direction, because there you were.”
“Your gun was out of your holster, but it hadn’t been fired,” said Adam.
Now it was Ben’s turn to look confused. “But I fired three times. At least I thought….”
“Sometimes the mind can play tricks on a person under duress,” Adam volunteered.
“I suppose you’re right….”
The brothers exchanged glances before Hoss spoke. “I think I’ll go down to the kitchen and ask Hop Sing to warm up some broth for you, Pa.”
“I’ll go with you,” offered Joe. “We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Adam waited until they were out of the room. “Pa, I know you’ve been worried and upset lately…”
“And I’ve been wrong,” murmured Ben. “I know that now.”
“What happened? Did you have an epiphany out there in the snow?”
Ben met his son’s bemused expression with a faint smile. “Perhaps I did. I know I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve always tried to do the best I could for my children, give them what I felt they needed to prepare them for the world. I just have to trust that it was enough.”
“It was more than enough—you can ask any one of us.”
“She said the same thing.” His eyelids suddenly felt like lead weights.
Deep roots…strong wings…
Sleep claimed him before he could answer, but she was waiting for him in his dream, where the world was new and love had no end. They danced beneath a moon that outshone the stars, and spring came once more.
For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
Song of Solomon 2:11