A Cort, Ben, LizzieBess story, follow up to The Heart of God

(NOTE: Before you read this you really need to have read not only The Heart of God, but also The Hand of God,

and One Day At 14, which is about how a rattlesnake leads Cort to his first meeting with Herod.)

 

By Jo  (Dedicated to Darcy...because she knows)

 

Elizabeth Wells watched her husband check the cinch on her saddle, her lips twitching in

a little smile.  They'd been married a dozen years now and still Cort never let her ride out

without checking her cinch.  Not that he thought her incompetent to saddle her own horse,

just that her safety was always paramount in his mind. 

 

She studied his profile as he leaned to the task, his tanned face still every bit as handsome

as it had been from the day she'd first seen him in Redemption, maybe more so.  He'd been

a man lost then, a man cut off.  Twelve years of pretty much steady happiness sat well on

him.  He wore his hair the same, waving just over his ears.  He was still slender, too, hadn't

filled out over the years like Ben had. Perhaps it was the constant work he did managing

their ranch that kept him trim.  Her eyes turned inward a moment, thinking of the

comparison with Ben Wade.  Ben had spent a great deal of his life either in the saddle or

some saloon. She grinned. Outlawry wasn't as much exercise as ranching. Cort was getting

close to the age Ben had been when he'd fallen through her door some twenty years ago.

Twenty years. How could it have been that long?

 

 

Closing her eyes, Ben's face was instantly there.  She'd known the image of it would never dim

for her and it hadn't.  He'd settled down inside her in the special place she reserved for him,

a place he'd earned both with his love and with his death.  Cort had come eight years after

Ben had died for her and he'd healed something broken inside her.  She loved Cort intensely, fiercely, gently, comfortably, and her memory of Ben took nothing away from that. Ben was, well, Ben and once you had known him as she had known him, once he'd blown into your life, larger than life itself, he was always a part of you.  She was glad of that, treasured the fact of

it.  Now her thoughts of him were quieter, tempered by time, framed in gratitude for what

he'd been to her, all he'd done for her. She loved him still but her soul could smile at the memory of it instead of splinter as it had for so long.

 

She had spent only days with him, only days, but they had been hinge days for her and her

whole life had turned upon them.  You could simply never get past a man who in days had

come to love so much that he gave his life for it.  And the manner of his death was something

that had marked her for always.  She'd had her lips on his as he died and his last sighing

breath had come into her mouth, where she'd held it and then swallowed it, taking him into

herself in the only way left to her.

 

And, too, there was Benjamin, Ben Wade's son. Benjamin, who had come to Redemption

with her, inside her, though she was unaware of him at the time. Benjamin was twenty now

and off at school in New Orleans. Next year he'd be done, be coming home. She looked at

Cort again. He'd been the only father Benjamin had ever known and shortly after she'd

married Cort, Benjamin had started calling him Dad. He'd wanted a father desperately

and Cort was there. It was natural and somehow she didn't think Ben would mind.

 

 

She and Cort had two daughters between them, Ann, her own middle name, and Bethany. 

Ann, whom he called Peaches more often than not after his grandmother, was ten and

Bethany eight.  Redemption had a school these days and both girls were there today. 

 

He stood now, his right hand resting on her saddle, as he turned to look at her. He used that

hand constantly in his work, but she knew it ached a lot, once in a while a sharp pain shooting

through it.  It had just been so crushed by Ratsy's gun butt that night.  She thought of how

when he'd come, she'd put salve on it, had wrapped it for him, how with his wounded hand

holding her, her inner being had been able to let go of so much pain. Her heart still filled at

the mere sight of him and she took the seven steps to come up in front of him.

 

"I love you," she said, her eyes alight with the truth of that.

 

He kissed her then cupped her chin with that hand. "Take care of yourself, Lizzie," he said

softly.  He was heading out to ride the fence line along the higher slopes of the west section

of the ranch and she was going to scout downstream from their water wheel to see why the

flow had lessened a bit this week.

 

"I'll let you know what I find," she smiled, "then you and Tom can take care of it."

 

"Like the day before our weddin'," he said, "when the cottonwood snag had dammed the

stream?"

 

"Well, whatever it is, it's not that bad because the water's still flowing."

 

"You could wait till tomorrow then I'd be able to go with you."

 

"I'll be fine. I'm just going to ride along the stream, not try to move a tree by myself."

 

"I know you, Lizzie. You might decide to do just that."

 

"I promise," she chuckled. "I'll be good. Meet you back here before supper, all right?"

 

"I don't like you goin' alone, Lizzie. I could put off ridin' fence until another day."

 

"Not a good idea. You know that. Fence posts up there are getting old and leaning too

much. Cattle getting through. That whole section should be replaced."

 

"I plan on that soon's I can. I wish I knew what the delay is with that shipment of posts

that was supposed to arrive last week. All I can do now is straighten up the ones we got."

 

She mounted and he laid his palm on her leg, looking up at her. "You be careful."

 

Leaning down, she kissed him again. "You, too, Cortland Wells. You, too."

 

He watched her ride away, across the wide, flat plain toward the stream, then finished

saddling his own horse and headed toward the hills.  He liked being up in them, liked that

he could see so far from up there. There was one particular spot that gave him a view of

nearly the whole ranch.  He'd even be able to see Elizabeth in the distance from there as

the stream made a long curve toward the hills and by the time he got there, she should be

close enough then to catch sight of her.  Yes, that would be good.  Too far to shout, but

still close enough to see.

 

The sky above him this morning was a brilliant blue as he rode, but low behind the hills it

looked like some dark clouds might be gathering.  He hoped Elizabeth got home before it

rained. He didn't like the idea of her alone out in bad weather. Thinking of her, he smiled.

She was about the most capable woman he'd ever met. She'd run this huge ranch for eight

years before he came. He shook his head, feeling silly for worrying about her. Love did that

to you, though. He knew all too well that when one was totally invested in love, it could be

snatched away in the blink of an eye. His past had taught him that. He blew out a long breath.

He and Lizzie had had twelve years now of happiness. Other than being worried out of his

mind both times she'd been birthing, life had been fairly smooth for them. He tried to rest

himself in that, tried not to think of how everything had changed when his grandmother had

died, changed again when he'd had to kill the priest, and again when his mission had been

burned.  Life was good now, really good, and he tipped his chin up to the blue, grateful for

it.

 

For three hours he rode the high fence line, dismounting when he'd come across an area of

weak fencing, sweating, getting dirty as he repaired the post or the wire. It wasn't easy work

and his right hand soon began to ache constantly. Pausing, he took off his thick leather glove

and rubbed the thumb of his left hand back and forth across his right. Sometimes that eased

the ache a little, but not all that much on days when he used it like he was doing today. At

home later this afternoon, Elizabeth would pour warm water in a basin and he'd soak his

hand. Yes, that would be good. He thought of how tenderly she'd cared for it, for all of him,

when he'd first arrived.  He'd never been touched in such a gentle way by a woman until

then.

 

Another hour and he was at the top of the high point. Sitting in the saddle, he could now

clearly see far to the west. He frowned as he studied the dark cloud. It looked now more like dust to him than rain and suddenly seemed to be coming up hard and fast.

 

Elizabeth!

 

Quickly he turned in the saddle, looking down the long slope toward the nearest section of

the stream.  Where? Ah, there she was, just coming out from behind some thick scrub and

riding along beside a rocky ledge. Standing in his stirrups, he waved his hat, hoping she

might look up.  He needed to warn her about the storm, still mostly concealed from her

behind the hills. Even knowing she couldn't hear him, he shouted her name several times.

 

Frustrated that she didn't look up, he watched for a couple of minutes as she continued

along the ridge, studying the stream to her left, obviously concentrating on it. Suddenly

her bay mare reared high, almost pivoting on its back hooves. Eyes wide with horror, he

watched her lose her seat and fall backwards over its tail. What...? His vision sharp as

ever, he saw it then, the rattler coiled on the path.

 

 

"Oh, God...Lizzie! Don't move! Don't move!" he screamed uselessly, already starting to

guide his horse down the rocky hill. His eyes darted from the difficult route he had to

traverse, to her, back and forth.  She'd fallen with her arms curved up around her head

and wasn't moving. Was she aware of the snake? Was that it? Please, please let that be it!

 

She'd tied a long white scarf around her neck this morning and as she lay there, the wind

began to pick up and the scarf fluttered in it, rippling over her right arm. The rattlesnake

had nearly been stepped on by the horse and was in full defensive mode. It coiled, lifting

its triangular head, watching the scarf, feeling threatened.

 

"No!" Cort gasped. "Oh, my God...NO!"

 

He would never get there in time so he stopped his horse, pulling out his rifle. The snake

was between him and Elizabeth, the back of its head toward him. He was still quite a long

distance away. Pressing his lips tightly together, he held his breath, taking aim.

 

It all happened in a split second. The rattler struck at the scarf, its fangs sinking into the

flesh of her lower arm beneath it just as Cort's bullet nearly severed its body in half. He

saw it fall limply into the dirt, sank his spurs into his mount and galloped down the slope,

rocks and holes be damned. He didn't know...he couldn't tell...had he gotten the snake...

before?

 

When he reached the path by the stream, he dismounted at full run, kicked the remains of

the rattler away and flung himself to his knees. "Lizzie?" His heart was pounding in his ears.

"Lizzie?"

 

 

His hand trembling, he pushed the white scarf away, biting his lip when he saw the two fang

marks, blood dripping from them. "Oh, Lizzie...no!" he moaned.

 

Instantly the memory of the bite on his grandmother's leg was all too clearly there, so real

it almost overlapped that on Elizabeth's arm.  She died so quickly, his grandmother had, and

in his arms.  As he gathered Elizabeth to his chest, he remembered the size of the rattler that

had been behind the grain sacks in the barn. It was huge, at least seven feet long. His eyes

shot to the side. This one was smaller, a lot smaller, maybe only two feet. It was young, carried

less a load of venom, though he knew now young rattlers had more potent venom than older

snakes. Perhaps he'd killed it before it could deliver its full load?

 

He didn't cut her, though, not like he had his grandmother. During his years at the mission

one of the older children had been bitten and the wise old woman who'd cared for him had

explained to him that cutting across the bite did not help, but made things worse. She'd tied

a rag loosely above the bite, loose enough to slide a finger under. He whipped off his bandana

and tied it around her arm. What? His mind was racing. What had the woman done next?

The boy's leg had swollen. It had swollen terribly and they'd taken off his shoe, slit open his

pants leg.  He tore at the sleeve of her shirt, ripping it apart with his bare hands. She was

wearing a silver bracelet and he removed that, sliding it into his pocket. The boy had lived.

He'd been very sick, but he'd lived. The old woman had kept cool compresses on the bite.

He remembered how he'd prayed. He'd prayed and prayed as the leg swelled and turned

colors. But the boy had lived.

 

He needed his canteen, needed to soak some cloth in water to make a compress. He lay her

gently back, rising and turning to go to his horse to get the canteen. His mouth dropped open

as the sandstorm cleared the top of the hill.

 

 

Looking frantically around, he saw the rocky ledge had a narrow, almost canyon-like break to it. Yes...yes! He remembered now! Back in there was a deep depression, made by ages of flash flooding and wind-blown sand.

 

Scooping up his wife, he dashed toward the shelter of the cave, laying her down, then

sprinting to lead his horse and hers into the canyon, taking his canteen and bedroll before

he returned to her.  There were some old, broken branches in the canyon and using them,

and some large rocks, he made some sort of cover over the small entrance to the cave with the bedroll.  He didn't like leaving the horses outside, but there was only crouching room in

the cave and at least the canyon was at right angles to the direction the wind was blowing

and would offer some shelter.

 

He propped Elizabeth a bit, recalling something about keeping the bite lower than the heart.

Taking off her scarf, he folded it, wet it and pressed it to the wound. Sliding his left hand

under her head, he found a large lump. She'd hit there when she'd fallen. Sand was sifting

in around the edges of the blanket. One corner of it came loose, flapped up, letting more

sand in. He dived for it, grabbing more rocks to hold it down, to prop up the branches.

 

Crawling back to Elizabeth, spitting sand out of his mouth, he pulled her into his lap, letting

her arm hang down, pressing the wet scarf to it. He checked it every few minutes. The blood seeping out didn't seem to be stopping. The old woman had told him there was something in

the venom that kept it flowing. Her skin near the bite was already changing color, as though she'd been bruised, and her arm was beginning to swell.

 

"Not like this!" he gritted. "Please...please...not like this!"

 

 

In his desperation, he rocked back and forth with her in his arms. He'd done that with his

grandmother, too, hadn't he? And it was minutes, mere minutes before she'd died. His left

hand curved around her neck and he could feel her pulse racing. Her breathing seemed off

to him, too. He felt himself cracking apart inside, as though someone were taking a hammer

and chisel to his heart, breaking pieces of it off.  This was worse, worse than everything in

his life that had gone before.  He was making little moaning sounds deep in his throat as he

rocked her. 

 

"Please, Lizzie, please...oh, God, please...don't go! Please don't go!"  Such big pieces were

breaking off his heart that he knew, everything in him knew, that if she went there would be

nothing left of it. 

 

There was nothing more he could do for her and his helplessness nearly overwhelmed him.

The wind howled at his feeble blanket door and in the dim light he stared at her face, not

knowing if she were dying from the snake or the fall. She was there, right there in his arms,

yet somehow she felt removed from him. He held her more tightly.

 

"I won't let you go, Lizzie," he moaned. "I can't! I can't let you go!" He began to pray,

almost fiercely at first he prayed.

 

"Hello, LizzieBess."

 

"Ben?"

 

It was dark, an odd kind of dark, and she couldn't see him. "Ben?" she asked again.

 

"Right here, darlin'." 

 

How familiar, how dear his voice was. "Ben!" she called. "Where? Where are you?"

 

His fingers brushed her cheek. "You ain't supposed to be here, LizzieBess. What you gone 'n

done to get you in this place?"

 

"I...I don't know. Ben? I...where?"

 

"Not any place zactly, LizzieBess. Sorta between, I guess you might say. I heard you was

here and I come to see if it was true."

 

"You...heard?"

 

"I sure have missed you."

 

"You...you've missed me?"

 

"Not zactly like I thought I would. Kinda different."

 

"How...how did I...?"

 

"What was you doin', LizzieBess? You remember that?"

 

"I...I...think I was looking for something. In the stream. I was looking for something in the

stream."

 

"You find it?"

 

"I...I don't know. I don't think so." She remembered something she'd wanted him to know.

"Oh, Ben, I built your water wheel. On the stream. There's been a water wheel for years

now. Brings water right up to the house."

 

"You done good, LizzieBess. I always knew you would."

 

"You...do you know about the water wheel?"

 

"I know lotsa stuff." She could hear the grin in his voice.

 

"You told me, I know you did, when I was waiting for Cort to come back and he was gone so

long that Saturday...you told me he wasn't with you. Didn't you?"

 

"He wasn't here. That's right."

 

"And the ring. You let me know it was ok to use that ring for my wedding band."

 

"Ring's gen'rully got some meanin' to 'em."

 

"You...you didn't...mind? About him, I mean. You didn't mind about Cort?"

 

"You love me, LizzieBess?" She was beginning to be able to make out his face.

 

"Oh...I see you!" she gasped.

 

"You love me, LizzieBess?" he repeated.

 

"I'll always love you, Benjamin Wade."

 

"Then I ain't got no reason to mind, do I?"

 

"I love him, too, Ben...but different. We've been married twelve years now. He's...he's so

good to me, Ben. He'd do anything for me."

 

He chuckled. "I know a bit about that."

 

She saw him clearly now, like there was a bit of light on his face. His head was tipped down

and he had that closed-mouth smile she loved so much, as though he knew things he couldn't

tell her.

 

 

"You...you're all right, Ben?"

 

"You made sure of that, didn't you, LizzieBess."

 

"I...I...it was important."  Oh, it was so good to SEE him! "We...we have a son," she

whispered.

 

"Benjamin," he said, his smile widening as he lifted his eyes to hers.  "You ain't plannin' on

leavin' the boy just yet, are you?"

 

"Leaving?"

 

"And that husband of yours. You think he might need you 'round some more?"

 

"Cort?"

 

"Listen, LizzieBess. Just listen a spell."

 

She began to hear a voice, a dear, familiar, much-beloved voice. "Cort?"

 

"Listen, LizzieBess."

 

Cort was fighting for her life, fighting in the only way he could. She listened to his prayers,

hearing the desperate ring to them. They seemed to go on and on. He wasn't giving up. Their

tone changed after a long while, grew quieter, came from some even deeper place in him.

 

 

"What's he doin'?"

 

"He's...wait...he's setting me in God's lap."

 

It was Cort's last resort as he felt her slipping away from him. Everything in him that made

him a spiritual man, simply picked her up and carried her up to God and laid her in His lap.

Then he stood there, broken, and waited for God's decision.

 

"He's waiting," she whispered, amazed.

 

"What's he waitin' for, LizzieBess?"

 

"Oh!"  The fullness of what he was doing surrounded her, invaded her cells, her soul, her

mind, her spirit.

 

She looked at Ben. "I think I have to go."

 

He smiled widely again. "I think maybe you're right."

 

"It's...it's ok if...if I do?"

 

"I ain't far, LizzieBess. Ain't never been." His fingertips fluttered down her cheek again.

"It's ok, LizzieBess. You go now. It's ok."

 

She couldn't see his face any more, felt some sense of strange movement, then awareness

of a piercing pain in her arm. She let out a little cry in response.

 

"Lizzie? Lizzie? Oh, God...Lizzie!!"

 

Kisses rained all over her face, and something wet...like tears.

 

"C...Cort?"

 

"I'm here, my darling. I'm right here." He could barely talk because of the gasping sobs

rising up through his being. "You didn't leave! Oh, God, Lizzie...you didn't leave!"

 

She felt terribly thirsty and her head ached like blue blazes. Her arm was being eaten by

fire ants, but she opened her eyes a slit and murmured, "Not leave you." She had to stop

and breathe through the pain, then looked up at his dear, wet face. "Love...not let go."

 

She had no idea what had happened, but she rested her cheek against his chest with a long

sigh, feeling oddly like she'd been somewhere but had come back, feeling like she knew

something about love that was far too deep for words, only that it was always there...

wherever...and that it remained, it linked us one to the other...forever.

 

"Love you," she whispered to her husband, his tears still falling on her.

 

..."And that's mighty fine, LizzieBess, mighty fine."

 

 

 

 

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