Golden Years

A Bonanza Fanfiction in five parts.

Part 1: Et In Arcadia Ego

"Oh Ben! I'm so glad you're home!"

As Marie flung herself into his arms, Ben felt absurdly gratified. How many men came to such a beautiful young wife who greeted them with such a rapturous welcome? Stealing a surreptitious glance at the clock, he realised there were at least two hours before his older sons arrived home from school and a smile of anticipation crept across his face. Ben's eyes sparkled with a deep joy as he enveloped her within his arms and dipped his head down to bestow a tender kiss upon her delicately fragranced neck, glorying in the unexpected delight of being completely alone.

Marie sighed happily and curved her body in towards his. She stood on tiptoe and entwined her fingers around his neck, smiling beguiling upwards. At that precise moment, Ben reflected, she could ask for the sun, the moon and all the stars and he would rush outside to gather them and then weave them into a necklace to drape adoringly around her neck. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the entire world was too good for his darling Marie. He would move oceans, just to please her, just for the possibility of seeing a smile upon her lips.

"Ben?" The whisper of her breath sent shivers up and down his spine, as he began to plan various delightful pleasures, those seldom afforded to a young couple who rarely had the pleasures of an almost-empty house at their disposal in the middle of the afternoon. Ben tightened his grip around Marie's waist and he angled his head slightly until his lips touched hers.

"Mmmm?" he murmured happily, savouring the scent of lily of the valley that floated tantalisingly from the curls clustering at the nape of her neck. The heady aroma made his senses swim with delight. Moving with a volition entirely of their own, Ben's hands eased upwards to caress the curve of her breasts.

A sigh of delight greeted his touch. Frantically striving to keep her emotions under control, Marie forced her mind to concentrate and she struggled to enunciate the words that had to be spoken.

"I have to go away."

Ben jumped backwards, an expression of shocked bemusement on his face. "WHAT?" he demanded indignantly.

Marie winced slightly at the volume. "Only for a few days," she offered in mitigation. Ben did not look noticeably appeased and she tried to mollify him, explaining that her beloved Tante Polette would be visiting San Francisco for a few days. "And it has been oh! so very long since we last met. It would mean so much to me." She took hold of his hand and gazed upwards; secure in the knowledge that Ben would find this particular mixture of adoration and supplication hard to refuse.

Fighting a desperate rear-guard action, Ben struggled to find a reason to tell why Marie such a trip should not be undertaken, why it was both impracticable and impossible. The truth was, he hated the mere idea of climbing into an empty bed at night, of returning home and not receiving the bewitching smile and warm embrace that made the long hours and hard labour worthwhile. Marie so seldom asked for anything for herself, he thought, and Tante Polette was her favourite aunt, after all.

But how will I cope without her?

"What about the boys?" he asked.

Marie smiled brightly. "Oh, I couldn't possibly take a tiny baby all that way for just a few days!" she said, in a tone of eminent reasonability. Her assurance did not greatly console Ben, who remembered all too well the amount of work involved in looking after a small child. "Besides," Marie continued blithely, "Routine is so important to a baby. It will be much better for everyone concerned if Little Joe stays safely at home with his father and brothers."

It was not often that Ben Cartwright was rendered speechless, but he was still struggling for words when an unmistakable squall announced that the topic of conversation was awake and demanding urgent attention. Disentangling herself from her husband's slightly frenetic embrace, Marie hurried upstairs, leaving Ben to sink into his armchair and regard the floor with an increasing sense of disbelief. It was not that Marie was especially forceful or particularly stubborn – well, no more so than most women! It was just that she somehow managed to turn a situation to her own advantage. And the galling thing was that she did it with such charm…. Ben steeled his soul, determined to have one last attempt, while tacitly acknowledging the battle had been fought and won before he even put one foot inside the door.

He scarcely had time to marshall his rumpled thoughts before there was a familiar step on the staircase, answered by a slight creak of the steps and Marie appeared, cradling the youngest member of the family in her arms. Still half-asleep, Joe was making little, fussy noises, as when his mother sat down and began to soothe him.

Ben gave her a reproachful look. "How can you possibly go away, when Joseph still needs you?"

It was difficult to imagine that a look of such dark disdain could shoot forth from Marie's green eyes. "As you know very well, Joseph has been taking a bottle for weeks now. Or had you forgotten?" Chagrined, Ben sat back in his chair. Was it his imagination, or was Little Joe glaring back at him with equal intensity, from eyes the colour of peridots?

At first, Marie had fed her baby, but it soon became apparent that she could not keep the child satisfied. Joe seemed to be constantly hungry and made his discomfort known to the whole household with considerable verve and vibrato for one so young. Despite Paul Martin's assurances that this was a common problem among mothers and that supplementary feeds from a bottle would solve the problem immediately, Marie felt inadequate. The situation was not improved when Ben reminded her that Adam had been bottle-fed and thrived on it. As Adam's mother had expired in childbirth, this was not the most tactful of remarks, nor did it greatly console his tearful wife, who regarded her screaming child with mournful resignation, before despatching Ben into town to purchase the necessary equipment. Given the increasing volume of his son's screams, Ben was grateful to escape, and then felt a twinge of guilt as he thought of Marie pacing up and down the room, trying to pacify her fractious child.

The initial attempts at bottle-feeding were not an unqualified success. First, Joe resolutely spat out the teat of the bottle every time it was offered to him and then, when he finally deigned to accept it, he refused to suckle. Ben marvelled at the obstinacy of his son, even as he silently cursed his wilfulness, but eventually, hunger won out and Joe reluctantly drank the contents of the bottle. And then promptly regurgitated the contents, clear across the living room. It was an impressive, if unwelcome and disturbing spectacle.

"Wow!" Even worldly-wise Adam was impressed at both the trajectory and sheer distance his baby brother could achieve. "You wouldn't think such a little drop of milk could go so far, would you?" He stared at the milk-spattered wall in evident awe.

Not quite sharing his son's enthusiasm, Ben occupied himself in collecting a bucket of hot, soapy water and some cloths. While he endeavoured to scrub the wall clean, Marie paced up and down, rubbing Joe's small, heaving back as he sobbed out his misery and hunger against her shoulder.

"Funny how something so small can make so much noise and mess, isn't it?" Adam continued conversationally. Marie glared at him and reflected how fortunate it was that both her hands were fully occupied. She wondered how long it took for a baby to starve to death and then had to stifle her sobs. Her agitation conveyed itself to Joe, who began to howl with increased vigour.

"I don't think Little Joe likes that milk," Hoss said slowly.

"Really?" Ben replied gravely, swabbing down the wall. It would definitely require a fresh coat of whitewash to cover the stains, he thought. Marie clutched Joe tightly and he yelped in protest. Looking at his wife, Ben saw that she could no longer hold back the tears and beckoned her over to his side.

"Everything will be fine," he reassured her. "Joseph will be alright. Don't worry about a thing." He stroked the baby's downy golden curls in supplication, praying that he was right. "Adam, ride over to the Richard's and ask if we can borrow their nanny-goat. Tell them your little brother has decided to be awkward and develop an aversion to cows milk, so we want to see if goat's milk sits any easier on his tummy." He eased the child into his arms and flashed Marie what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "I've heard people say it's easier to digest, so we'll see how he likes it, shall we?"

Anxious not to be left out of the discussion, Hoss tugged at his elbow. "He sure can puke though, can't he, Pa?" he asked proudly

At last this new brother was able to do something useful and entertaining. Initially intrigued by the novelty of having a baby in the house, Hoss had rapidly discovered that tiny infants are extremely demanding, while simultaneously offering little in the way of entertainment for their energetic older brothers. When Joe's eyes started to change inexorably from blue to green, Hoss could barely restrain his disappointment. Once again, he was the only person with blue eyes in the family: Mama and Little Joe had green eyes, while Pa and Adam had brown eyes. This did not strike Hoss as fair and it certainly did not endear him towards his baby brother. However, this new trick of regurgitating the contents of his bottle with force was certainly impressive and Hoss began to wonder if Joe might produce further novel forms of entertainment.

Ben pondered the situation. Perhaps it would be safer to feed Joe outside on the porch in future, where any future demonstrations would have less disastrous effects, should he just invest in a large supply of whitewash? Looking at the frantic expression on Marie's face, he decided the latter option was the safer bet.

Oh well, he thought philosophically, a bit of light painting won't do Adam any harm!

Ben handed Marie the feeding bottle and watched as Joe's eyes lit up eagerly at the sight of it, his small hands reaching upwards to grab onto it. Silence, punctuated only by the sonorous ticking of the grandfather clock and the eager sucking noises coming from the baby, descended for a few blissful moments.

"Can I go then?" Her voice was low and pleading, with a certain husky undertone that thrilled Ben. He could almost swear that the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. How could this woman possess so much power to unman him?

Because I gave you my heart and soul the moment I first saw her, he thought. And now I belong to you, forevermore.

Ben looked at Marie, intently gazing at her baby, absorbed in his needs and thought that the purity of her profile had no equal in the world.

Had I truly known love, before I met you? Ben wondered. He had been in love, of course he had, and both Adam and Hoss were the living embodiment of that, but both of these relationships had been fleeting and transitory, cruelly foreshortened, with no time to develop the deep bonds that had grown between him and Marie. Ben cherished the memories of both Elizabeth and Inger, but he knew that they paled into insignificance when compared to the passion and resonance of his love for Marie. He had not begun to comprehend what true love was before Marie came into his life. She was his entire reason for existing.

Her voice broke into his thoughts. Ben snapped his jaw shut suddenly aware he was gazing at his beautiful wife with open-mouthed admiration, a stance that was less than conducive to advancing his position.

Marie struggled to keep a sombre face, knowing she would be travelling to San Francisco very soon. "Surely you could look after Little Joe for a few days? After all, you're always telling me how involved you were with Adam and Hoss when they were babies, but you hardly seem to spend any time at all with Little Joe. Don't you want to be with him?"

And don't you realise how much I could do with a break sometimes? Just a few moments to draw breath?

"Things have been very busy," Ben protested weakly. She did have a point, he admitted. When Adam and Hoss were babies, he had spent nearly every waking hour with them, but this time around it had been different. The fact they were not living in a covered wagon, but in a comfortable house, plus the sheer amount and volume of work that had to be done on a ranch the size of the Ponderosa meant that he tended to only see this new son in the mornings and evenings. Still, Marie was right. He should spend more time getting to know Little Joe. The halcyon days of babyhood lasted for such a brief time and he realised that he did not want to miss out on this precious time.

"You go," he announced. "You go and have a wonderful time. And I'll look after the boys. We'll all be perfectly fine. As you say, I've looked after babies before! There's no need for you to worry about us at all."

Marie said nothing more, but she suspected that the sight of a helpless (and handsome) young widower, with a young child had melted more than one heart on the trail and attracted many offers of help. Certainly, the first time Ben had attempted to change Joe's diaper, it had been an unmitigated disaster, with both parties emerging red-faced, bad-tempered and definitely disgruntled. It would do father and son good to spend some time alone together, she thought. And it would certainly remind Ben of just how demanding a small baby could be. Marie began to look forward to her trip with renewed vigour.