Tempt Not the Stars
A Bonanza Fanfiction
The deep, unmistakable tones of Ben Cartwright reverberated throughout the house, easily travelling up the staircase and permeating though the stout wooden door of his youngest son's bedroom. Lying sprawled across his bed in unorthodox fashion, with his feet hanging uncomfortably over the edge, Joe gave a reflexive twitch and managed to summon up just enough energy to crank open an eyelid. The light pouring through a crack in the curtains told its own story.
This time, Joe was conscious enough not only to hear his father's voice but also to recognise the irate tone. Only Ben Cartwright could invest such dread meaning into a mere two syllables. Suppressing a groan, Joe managed to pull himself up into a sitting position and then, with considerable effort, he walked slowly towards the door.
Hearing the sound of footsteps, Ben suppressed a knowing smile and reapplied himself to his breakfast. After all, he had successfully navigated the choppy days of young manhood with his two elder sons, not to mention the various storms, gales and doldrums they presented him with. He had even survived the childhood and adolescence of his youngest son, which was in itself no mean feat. These past achievements had led Ben to honestly believe that there were few surprises left for him to encounter as a parent. Perhaps it was the early hour of the morning, or the fact that Ben had an uncomfortable stomach-ache that caused him to think so complacently and yet so totally erroneously. While both Adam and Hoss had presented him with their fair share of challenges, neither had the same exuberant, exhilerant approach to life as their younger brother. There were times when even the most charitable person could only describe actually living with Joe as a challenge.
Running a hand through his tousled curls and plastering a suitably apologetic smile across his face, Joe was not quite prepared for the sensation his rather belated appearance at breakfast would produce. The murmur of early-morning conversation ceased completely as he descended the bottom flight of stairs and Hoss actually stopped chewing a succulent piece of Virginia ham, his jaw hanging slack as he surveyed his brother. A gleeful smile, containing more than a hint of amused recognition crept across Adam's dark features as he stirred his coffee with considerably more vigour than required. And Ben? For once Ben Cartwright was lost for words and could only shake his head in mute resignation.
Finally, after a silence that seemed almost interminable, Adam cleared his throat. "From the evidence presented before us, I would say a good time was had by all, eh little brother?"
Bemused, Joe regarded him blankly. "Yeah, I had a good time," he agreed, rooted to the spot at the foot of the stairs. His mind raced wildly, wondering what on earth was going on. After all, it was not entirely unusual for him to be slightly delayed for breakfast. But why on earth was his family acting so strangely this morning?
"Forget something, son?" Ben asked. Joe thought his father's tone of voice was pleasant enough, but then he conveniently managed to ignore the barbed edge to the query. Just as he opened his mouth to respond, a chorus of hearty laughter from his brothers effectively drowned any words out.
Ben beckoned imperiously, a certain familiar and reproving cast settling across his features and Joe walked slowly towards the table, dread informing every step. "In this house, young man, we have certain standards," Ben stated, his voicing rising slightly. "Not least of which is appearing punctually at meal times and…" He paused dramatically, ratchetting up the volume to impressive levels, "Dressing presentably!"
It was at this point that Joe suddenly realised he had merely pulled his boots out from underneath his bed and had not actually stopped to put them on before coming downstairs. He flinched slightly as the offending objects fell from his nerveless fingers to land on the floor with a loud thud and only just managed to suppress a groan when his tan-coloured shirt followed them, floating downwards to drape itself gently over the boots in an artistic manner. Tired as he was, even Joe realised that arriving at the breakfast table bare-chested and bare-footed was not the best start to the day. He started gabbling wildly, in a desperate attempt to get back into his father's good graces.
"Sorry, Pa. I didn't want to keep you all waiting and …
"Quite like old times, isn't it?" Adam interrupted smoothly, watching as Joe buttoned his shirt and sat down, slinging one foot onto the opposite to pull on his socks. "Being treated to the sight of Joe's toes at the breakfast table, I mean. Reminds me of when he was a baby, sitting over there in his high chair and burbling merrily away." Safe in the superiority of being both fully dressed and on time, Adam flashed his sibling a brilliant smile, earning a sour look in response. With great presence of mind and exercising huge amounts of restraint, Joe managed to refrain from wiggling his bare toes in Adam's face.
"What time did you get home last night?" Ben demanded, as Joe stamped his feet into his boots and then gratefully gulped down a mouthful of coffee.
"Not late, Pa," Joe assured him, with a seraphic smile. "Adam hadn't gone to bed yet."
The expression on Adam's face changed quickly. "Don't lie, Joe," he advised curtly. "That's no way to get out of trouble."
"Oh, I'm not lying," Joe assured him earnestly. "You were snoring away by the fireside, sound asleep, so I was real quiet and careful not to wake you. I know how tired you can get after a hard day's work, older brother."
Hoss put his head down and devoted his full attention to his meal, anxious to keep out of the brewing argument. Adam just could not seem to help taunting Joe about his youth, while lately Joe had taken every possible opportunity to remind Adam that age had certain penalties, as well as privileges. Well and truly caught in the middle, Hoss wanted no part of their petty bickerings.
"Where were you anyway?" Ben asked, trying to steer the conversation into calmer waters. He could already feel a slight twinge of indigestion.
"At the Silver Dollar," Joe answered, helping himself to scrambled eggs. "Had a couple of beers and played cards with the guys. You know."
"Oh, we know," Adam said, unable to resist the challenge he felt was evident in Joe's voice. "I don't suppose you happened to talk to any of those pretty little saloon girls, did you?"
Joe chewed carefully and swallowed before answering. "Do you know, I did chat to one of them! And she sure was pretty, just like you say. In fact, she gave me a message for you, Adam. Said you left a bandana up in her room last week and she was wondering when you'd be over to pick it up! She sounded real keen to see you again."
Ducking his head down and glancing up from underneath his eyelashes, Joe could see a dull, angry colour suffuse his brother's face, while simultaneously his father's brows drew together in foreboding disapproval. His barbs had hit home with a vengeance! Deciding this was the point at which discretion definitely became the better part of valour, Joe applied himself heroically to the remainder of his breakfast, contented that this was one battle of wits in which he had definitely emerged the victor.
Ben sat up a little straighter in his chair, hoping that this would help to ease the discomfort under his ribs. He took a sip of coffee and just managed to stifle an exclamation as his stomach protested. "I'm taking the noon stage to Sacramento," he announced and derived a small amount of pleasure at the surprised looks that greeted this statement. As he thought, the squabble between oldest and youngest sons was abruptly halted in its tracks.
"Business, Pa?" Adam asked, wondering why this was the first mention his father had made of the trip. Such journeys were normally planned out well in advance.
"Just some matters that need my personal attention. Some dividends have matured and I'm considering re-investing them in a delivery company that could prove very useful for our timber operations here, allowing us to expand into new markets. I'm meeting some of the stockholders and managers of the company next week to discuss matter further and then I'll make a decision."
Adam nodded, instantly appreciating the new business opportunities this could bring. "Perhaps I could join you?" he offered, trying to appear diffident.
All other things being equal, Ben would normally have invited Adam to accompany him as a matter of course. After all, Adam supervised the timber workings and plantation operations on the Ponderosa, in addition to being the proud owner of a fine business brain that was an asset to any negotiation. But there was another reason for Ben's visit to the California State Capitol, one that he was not about to share with any of his sons. For some weeks, Ben had been bothered with persistent stomach pains, which were not getting any better. The local doctor, Paul Martin, had been unable to alleviate the symptoms and had therefore arranged for Ben to meet with a specialist for a consultation. Secretly dreading the worst, Ben was determined not to worry any of his sons unduly and would therefore make the trip alone. If there were bad news to break, he would do it here, in the surroundings that he loved, with the people he loved most near him, not in some cold, impersonal city hospital.
Joe touched his arm gently, jerking him back to the present. "Want me to come along, Pa?" he asked softly, sensing there was something wrong. Smiling tenderly, Ben took hold of his smooth, young hand for just a second. That touch was enough to make Ben realise that he could not bear this, the physical contact coming perilously close to dissolving his self-control. He could not do this - he would not do this to his boys! He shook his head, patted Joe's hand briefly and stood up.
"And what exactly do you know about timber operations, freight delivery or stock options?" Adam enquired, inadvertently stepping into the breach.
Joe shrugged his shoulders impatiently. "I could learn." He gave Adam an impudent grin. "Same way you did. After all, it can't be that difficult, can it?"
Taking a deep breath, Adam clamped his hand down firmly on top of Joe's head, pressing him into his seat. "Any time you want to learn more, just say the word and I'll be delighted to teach you," he said with grim delight, as he envisaged introducing Joe to the delights of limited stock options and bearer bonds and all other manner of fiscal delights.
"You'll be the first to know," Joe said fervently, squirming away. Adam laughed and then grabbed his custard-coloured coat as the three brothers clattered outside to complete their chores before accompanying their father to Virginia City.
A smile crept over Ben's face as he went upstairs to begin packing. He'd brought his boys up well – they were strong, independent young men and while they might have their differences, they also had a deep and abiding love for one another. That would see them through, if…. Sitting down on the edge of his bed, Ben paused for a moment. Was it enough? Had he done all that he should, all that he could to prepare his boys? He sighed softly. He'd done his best: that would have to suffice. A line from a poem sprang into his mind, "Tempt not the stars, young man. Thou canst not play with the severity of fate."
Elizabeth had loved "The Broken Heart," by John Ford and adored it when Ben would read the play aloud to her. How strange that particular line should spring into his head now, after all these years! There was very little on the Ponderosa to cause a resonance of Elizabeth, other than her the heritage of her son. Elizabeth belonged to another time, far away and long ago, when they were both young and innocent, Ben thought wistfully. And now he was white haired and middle-aged and weary, while Elizabeth was forever youthful, forever young and smiling. He realised that it was increasingly difficult to recall more than the most fleeting details of her memory, almost impossible to recollect the nuances of her voice. She belonged to another time and another place. What would Elizabeth have thought of this life and the man her son had become?
"I did my best, my love," he whispered, picking up her portrait and tracing the line of her chin with a gentle finger. "And he's grown to become a fine man. You would be so very proud of him – I know I am."
Ben picked up the other two portraits on his dresser and carefully wrapped them within the folds of his clothing, protected from any buffeting the journey might produce, tucking them into the interior of his carpet bag for added protection. Looking out of the window, he could see his sons in the yard below, readying the horses for the ride into town. The house was quiet and empty and the silence seemed to mould around his body like a soft, velvet cloak of acceptance. As he locked the door behind him, Ben felt a strange sense of foreboding. Was this the end to another chapter of his life? For a moment, he hesitated, then smiled with resignation as he looked out at all that he had achieved, laid out before him– this house, the whole of the Ponderosa, and most of all, his sons. It was a fine legacy. No man could ask for any more. Squaring his shoulders, Ben walked steadily across to the hitching rail, where he gave Buck a pat on the neck and then swung up into the saddle.
"Let's ride!" he called and wondered if it were just his imagination or if his words were imbued with a hopeless sense of finality and resignation. But no one else seemed to notice. Ben could not quite decide if that were a comfort or another source of misery.
Joe and Hoss rode along the road together, leaning their heads in towards one another. From the snatches of conversation that flew back, Ben surmised that Hoss was experiencing some slight difficulties with his girlfriend, Bessie Sue and that Joe was offering advice in his own inimitable style.
"Blue hair-ribbons!" Joe said confidently. "You simply can't go wrong. I've never met a girl who wouldn't like a nice gift like that. Not too personal, or even too expensive, but it shows you've put some thought into the present. Girls like that, you know. And you can tell Bessie Sue you chose them especially to match her be-yooo-tiful blue eyes!" His voice rose in a high falsetto and he batted his eyelashes in a becoming manner, before dissolving into wild cackles of laughter.
Hoss guffawed appreciatively and reached out a meaty hand to clap Joe affectionately across the shoulders. Even from a distance, Ben could see Joe lurch forward in the saddle at the unexpected impact.
"I guess Bessie Sue is determined to lead Hoss on a merry dance," he remarked to Adam. "She's quite a girl!"
"You know Hoss – he likes a girl who knows her mind!" Adam joked. "They seem a good match though – Bessie can be a bit flighty, but Hoss brings her back down to earth. I don't think Hoss needs to worry about anything though – I mean, have you seen the way she looks at him?"
Ben chuckled. "I surely have! Like he's good enough to eat!" How glad he was that Hoss, in many ways the quietest and most reserved of his sons, had found someone like Bessie Sue. A kind-hearted, fun-loving girl, she had set her cap at Hoss, recognising and appreciating his many fine qualities. "And somehow I don't think it has escaped Hoss' notice that he's got himself the best pie-maker in the whole of Virginia City!"
The peals and whoops of laughter caused Joe and Hoss to turn in their saddles and regard them quizzically.
"Ain't no accountin' for some folks," Hoss said sagely as they jogged sedately into town. Joe shrugged, having long ago decided that there was no sense in dwelling upon the unfathomable strangeness of people. It was best just to accept folks for what and who they were.
The stage was waiting when they rode into Virginia City and so their farewells were foreshortened. Ben gave each of his sons a hug, gazing deeply into first into mid-brown eyes, then into clear, guileless blue and finally into sparkling green, before forcing himself up the steps and into his seat. As the stage pulled away, he could hear Joe cry out "Have a safe trip, Pa, and come back soon!" and he leant out of the window, hungry for one last, precious glimpse of his boys.
Joe was standing between his brothers, their larger, stockier builds emphasising his slenderness and youth. He was literally bouncing up and down, waving his hat wildly in the air. While Adam tried vainly to restrain Joe's antics, Hoss just threw his head back and laughed. Ben pulled off his own hat and waved it in response, calling out "Goodbye!", before slumping back into his seat and whispering "God be with you all," so softly that the sound scarcely amounted to the merest breath of a whisper.