Summary: Did you ever wonder why Joe was obsessive about hunting creatures of the night in the episodes My Brother’s Keeper and Marie, My Love?
Word Count: 2500
“Little Joe?” Ben Cartwright called as he exited the ranch house. “Joseph, where are you?”
“Up here, Pa,”
Up? Ben walked out into the yard and turned to look back at the house. On the roof, shirtless—his chest gleaming with sweat—stood his sixteen-year-old son, hammer in hand.
“Joseph, what are you doing?”
“I figured I’d take advantage of Indian Summer and fix that leak above my room.”
“How much longer will you be? I need to catch that noon stage.”
“No need to wait on me, Pa.”
“I don’t want you up on that roof alone with no one here. I left a list of chores that will keep you on the ground until Hop Sing gets home tomorrow. And your brothers will be back from the drive the following day; you can finish the roof then.”
Joe sighed, knowing there was no point in arguing. “Five minutes, Pa,” he said, picking up the next shingle and hammering it in place.
“You have until I saddle Buck, no more.” Ben shook his head and headed for the barn. He got as far as the door when a loud “Aaugh!” followed by a sickening thud brought him up short.
“Joseph!” Ben cried as he saw his son lying still on the ground.
By the time Ben got to him, Joe was sitting up, a hand on the top of his head. “Oh, my head!”
“Let me see.”
“You’ve got quite a knot coming up. What happened?”
“I hit my thumb with the hammer and then bumped my head on the eaves, lost my balance, and slid down the roof. Mmmm,” Joe groaned, sucking on his right thumb and moving his left hand to his back. Ben looked over Joe’s shoulder and saw the welts that were already rising.
“You’ve scraped your back pretty good. Let’s get you cleaned up in the kitchen. Can you stand?”
“Yeah,” Joe said grabbing the hand his father offered and hauling himself upright.
“Now you see why I didn’t want you up there all alone?”
Joe closed the front door behind his father and rubbed his hands with glee. It was rare that he was ever left alone at the ranch and having the house all to himself was liberating somehow. He could read his dime novels without enduring his brother’s caustic comments; do his chores on his own timetable; eat as much or as little as he wanted—and whatever he wanted—without Hop Sing’s scolding; and put his feet on the table without reprimand.
Ignoring his aches and pains, Joe tackled the long list of tasks his father had left for him with far more alacrity and attention to detail than either Hoss or Adam would have believed and – in a moment of charity – he even finished off some of their chores to boot.
It was nearing dusk when Joe realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Satisfied with his work and feeling pretty good about life in general, Joe launched into a rousing rendition of Sweet Betsy from Pike as he sliced a loaf of Hop Sing’s freshly-baked bread and set about making a stack of liverwurst and pickle sandwiches. He took a bite of one and frowned. Something was missing. He searched several cupboards and the larder until he found what he was looking for: salami and horseradish.
Joe added the remainder of the chocolate cake from lunch to the stack of sandwiches and grabbed a jug of milk on his way into the great room to settle down for a long evening with his latest novel. Three sandwiches and two chapters later Joe realized he had read this book before. “Drat!” he said out loud. “Now what am I going to read?”
The bookcase in his father’s alcove held nothing worthy of his attention. He was beginning to despair at the ruination of his evening when he remembered Adam had just received a shipment from his favorite bookseller in San Francisco. Sure enough on the floor by the blue chair were four books. Two were engineering texts and the third was a book of poetry, but the fourth looked promising:
The Book of Were-Wolves
by Sabine Baring-Gould
Joe flipped through the pages and found pen and ink drawings of werewolves from Europe, Egypt and China—images going back thousands of years. He whistled in appreciation at the graphic illustrations and then grinned as he crossed the room and sank into his father’s red chair, its rich leather smelling of bay rum and the smoke from Pa’s pipe. Wait until I tell Mitch . . . this is going to be fun.
At the stroke of midnight, Joe awoke shivering and wondered briefly why the fireplace was stone cold. It took him a minute to recall that the day had been exceedingly warm and there had been no need to start a fire even when the sun went down. His eyes widened when he looked at the chiming clock and saw what time it was. Forgetting how cold he was, he jumped out of the chair and ran for the barn. Cochise!
Cochise heard her boy enter the barn and snorted in irritation at not being fed on time. Lonely without her stable mates and unaccustomed to such neglect, the paint was further disturbed by the preternaturally cold air that followed Joe into the barn. Suddenly the night was filled with the blood-curdling howl of a she-wolf. Stamping her forelegs and tossing her head, Cochise shied away from Joe’s touch and looked at him with wild eyes.
Joe spoke soothingly, more to calm himself than his horse, for he, too, felt nervous and on-edge. He tried to whistle a tune, but couldn’t put his lips together for all the chattering his teeth were doing.
Cursing himself for not grabbing a jacket, Joe forced himself to concentrate on measuring out the right amount of oats and mash. He gave Cochise a quick brushing and then settled a blanket across her back. The warmth helped settle her down, but she refused to eat.
“Well, you’ll be hungry later, girl. Brrr. I’m going back to the house. See you at breakfast, Cooch. I’ll bring the coffee,” Joe said as he closed the barn door and latched it.
As the bar fell into place, Joe felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise like a porcupine’s quills. The air was so cold his lungs ached. Another howl pierced the silent night and without another thought Joe ran like the devil was after him back to the house.
He burst through the open door and slammed it shut mightily behind him, throwing the bolt with both hands. Joe leaned his cheek against the grain of the wood and fought to get his breathing under control. This is crazy. Get a hold of yourself, Joe. You’re inside; you’re safe now. Light a fire. Light a fire and get warm.
Joe turned away from the door and was greeted with a menacing growl.
Neither Joe nor the wolf moved for what seemed an eternity. Okay. Okay. All I have to do is get outside and get Cochise and ride away. I can do that. I can. I can.
Joe tried to move the bolt back with his shoulder, but he couldn’t. So he started to move to his left so he could work the bolt with his right hand, but the wolf growled louder. Standing on the table she had a good view of him and she shifted her weight to match his movement.
Joe moved to the right; she moved to his right. He moved left; she moved left but in doing so, she had knocked over the jug and milk was running off the table onto the oriental rug. Oh, great. I’m gonna catch heck from Hop Sing for that.
Brazenly, Joe stepped forward and was surprised when instead of stepping backward in tandem, she also stepped forward, increasing the tenor and pitch of her growl and baring her fangs which were dripping with saliva.
Okay. Okay. So much for dancing. But as Joe stepped backward into place, he was able to release the bolt. Now all he had to do was reach behind him slowly, unlatch the door, and break for the barn.
As if sensing what he was about to do, the wolf sprang from the table, clearing the settee and landing at Joe’s feet. He tried opening the door, but she was in the way snapping at his legs. Panicking, Joe looked frantically around for anything he could use to beat the wolf away. The guns were on the other side of the room by the stairs and he would never reach them. Outside. Get outside. Now!
Clasping his hands together and swinging his arms like a club, he struck at the wolf’s head, but he just made her even angrier if that was possible. Her eyes glowed red and her hot breath smelled of carrion. Joe kicked at her underbelly with all his might and succeeded in buying a few seconds to get the door open before she launched herself at his back, clawing furiously.
Once outside the door, Joe scrambled to his feet, grabbed a small log from the wood box, and thrust it between the jaws of the wolf as she went for his throat. Once again they were tumbling together in some sort of lunatic wrestling match and it was only by luck that Joe was able to wedge his knees under the wolf and once again deliver a kick that propelled the wolf a good ten feet away.
Ready to run for the barn, his heart nearly stopped at what he saw next. There in the yard not thirty feet away were four more wolves—larger and more vicious—advancing on him.
Without thinking, Joe did what any hunted animal would do—head for high ground. He leapt to the top of the rain barrel and shinnied up the drain spout to the roof above the kitchen. Joe collapsed on the shingles for only a moment because—without understanding how—he saw one of the wolves trying to jump from the rain barrel to the roof just as he had done.
Gulping for air, Joe worked his way along the slanted roof toward the porch overhang. The pitch was steeper there and several times he lost his footing and slipped, but he managed to find purchase somehow and crawled his way up to his window ledge. Please let it be open. Please.
As Joe raised the window and lowered himself over the edge of the window sill, he saw that two of the wolves had made it onto the roof and were scrabbling along the same path he had taken. He slammed the window down and looked frantically around the room. The bed. The headboard of his bed was high enough to block the window.
Joe grabbed the bottom post and pulled with all his might. At first it wouldn’t move and his boots kept slipping on the rug. With a cry, Joe ripped the rug away and dug his heels in. When he had finally managed to pivot the bed he dove across the mattress to the other side and began pushing against the end to move the headboard toward the window.
Suddenly the savage face of a maddened wolf appeared at the window barking furiously. With everything he had left, Joe managed to push the headboard tight against the window and he slid down to the floor shaking in terror.
Joe tried to block out the snarling by covering his ears with his hands, but met with little success until he heard the most frightening sound of all. Silence.
Silence followed by the sound of claws on wood. He had left the front door open!
Half running, half crawling across the room he managed to turn the lock just as a trio of wolves rounded the top of the stairs at full speed and attacked the door. With a blood-curdling scream and the last of his strength, Joe pushed his dresser against the door and collapsed in a dead faint.
It was the end of a beautiful fall day when Ben Cartwright returned home. The last of the leaves had fallen from the deciduous trees and another Indian Summer was history. The air had a clean crispness about it; a sure promise that frost—if not snow—was not far away. He and Adam were riding in companionable silence enjoying a spectacular sunset, but when Adam had slowed Sport to a walk, Ben knew there was something on his mind and he let Buck fall in beside his stable mate.
Adam filled his father in on Joe’s version of events and Ben told Adam about Joe’s fall from the roof. They continued to walk the horses as they each digested what had happened.
“One thing’s for certain; he was terrified when we found him,” Adam said.
“Do you believe his story?”
“I don’t know, Pa,” Adam said. “His back was covered with welts. Could be from claws.”
“Yes. Could also be the marks he got when he slid down the roof after hitting his head.”
“You know what a fertile imagination he has. He was reading that book on werewolves when he fell asleep.”
“You think he dreamed the attack?” Ben questioned.
“Could have been a combination of things . . . the book and what he had eaten for dinner, plus the knock on the head when he fell,” Adam surmised.
“Could have been,” Ben agreed.
“Except . . .”
“Except what?” Ben said, pulling up on Buck’s reins.
Adam pulled Sport around stopping next to his father. “Except for this,” he said, reaching into his pocket and handing Ben a wolf’s claw.
“I found it imbedded in Joe’s window sill when I went up to finish patching the roof. There was dried blood on the sill, too.”
Ben fingered the claw thoughtfully and then put it in his vest pocket. He and Adam looked at each other for a long while before Ben said, “Terrified?”
“Well, one thing’s for certain.”
“What’s that, Pa?”
“This isn’t over.”
And as darkness fell on the Ponderosa, a wolf howled in the distance.
Authors note: The Book of Were-wolves is a real book published in 1865 (a few years after the time frame of this story). It can be found at http://www.forgottenbooks.org.