Jeb Carter’s Ghost (by Jules)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  28,000


 

The night was hot and stuffy. All were asleep in the homestead on the Ponderosa. Everything was very still. Not even a breath of wind blew in the trees on the vast ranch expanse.

Inside the house, the family slept peacefully and undisturbed.

The head of the household, Benjamin Cartwright, was in a fitful doze. He had retired about ten o’clock that night after checking on his two youngest sons.

Adam Cartwright, the eldest son, was still reading a book of poetry.

In the next bedroom, Hoss Cartwright, the largest of the boys was spread eagled on his bed. No too many things would wake the sleeping giant until morning.

In the bedroom at the end of the hall slept the youngest member of the family, Joseph Cartwright. Like his brothers and father, he slept on top of the bed clothes but was sleeping on his side. His dark and soft unruly curls fell over his forehead in a messy clump.

Joe Cartwright had only been asleep for a short while. His father had checked on him earlier in the night, but he had snuck out shortly thereafter to have some fun at the Bucket O’ Blood saloon in Virginia City. The trip had been mostly uneventful. He had chatted to the pretty bar maids and even won himself $100 dollars in a poker game during the night. But now the alcohol that he had consumed in the form of four beers were lulling him into a deep repose.

The boy was dreaming and smiled at something he was seeing in his mind. Perhaps another pretty girl or maybe riding his horse Cochise. There were many things in this youth’s life that brought pleasure.

The clock was about to strike midnight. The date was October 25th 1859.

*****

Joe awoke to the feeling that the house was falling apart. The bed underneath him shook violently and felt like it was going to fall into pieces. He jumped up off the bed in case his fears became reality and the bed did indeed collapse in on him.

The walls were shaking and things attached to the wall such as photographs and souvenirs began falling onto the floor. Joe managed to grab a much cherished picture of Cochise before it shattered into a million pieces.

For a moment Joe wondered whether he was in fact in his own bedroom on the Ponderosa. He thought somehow that he might have been in San Francisco and this was actually an earthquake.

The deafening noise became louder and louder. At some point he thought he could distinctly hear a whistle or horn blaring in the distance.

The shaking got worse the louder the noise got. What the hell was it. Joe had at first been still half asleep, but now with everything threatening to tumble down around his ears, he was alert and scared.

Little Joe could hear himself through the noise yelling to his father and brothers. The deafening noise prevented him hearing any response. He was about to dive towards the door to the room. He surveyed the shaking room around him and retrieved a photo frame from the bedside table and clutched it to his chest before running.

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss had not heard any of the noises Joe supposedly heard. They all awoke to the sounds of Joe’s terrified voice. All three of them leapt out of their own beds, trying to see the adversary who was attacking the youngest member of the family.
Ben made it to the hallway outside Joe’s bedroom just in time to see his youngest come from the other side of the door in sheer panic. He was holding something to his chest and look as though he was running for his life.

When Joe made it outside, he leant up against the wall for support. His breath was coming in ragged gasps and his face was pale and sweaty.

Adam tried to put his arm on his younger brother to see if he was alright. Big mistake. The effect was immediate and devastating. Little Joe let out the scream of his life and almost fainted on the spot, threatening to take Adam to the floor with him.

“Whoa, little buddy, take it easy,” Adam said as he tried to hold onto his trembling brother. All three were at a loss as to what or who had scared Little Joe so much.

Hoss and Ben checked out his room, ready to pulverize anything or anyone they found inside. They found nothing. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. They could see no strange person inside. A few things might have looked out of place, but that didn’t mean anything, Joseph wasn’t the tidiest person in the world.

Ben walked back to his youngest son. He had a questioning look on his face. “What happened, Little Joe?” Ben asked softly “Please tell me what’s got you so scared.”

“You mean you didn’t feel it, Pa,?” Joe asked incredulously “Or hear it?” Little Joe couldn’t believe that nobody else had felt the house tremble like he had or hear the dreaded noise coming towards him from outside.

“Hear or feel what, little brother?” Hoss asked Joe.

Joe just continued to stare with disbelief at his family. Could it all have been a terrible dream. “I don’t know how to describe it” “It was like the whole house was shaking. I thought it was an earthquake or something.’’

“Earthquake,” Adam and Hoss said together and then burst into laughter together. “How many beers did you have tonight, buddy?” Adam asked. He could smell some alcohol on his brother’s breath and assumed that there had been some extra curricular activities after they had all retired for the night.

Joe looked back angrily at his eldest brother now that his secret was out. “I didn’t have too much to drink tonight, Adam.” He immediately regretted the statement as he looked at the expression on his father’s face. He hung his head in shame as he knew he’d been found out.

Ben just stood there for a moment, not sure how to handle finding out about his son’s little adventure into town. He knew he should be furious tonight. But he was still coming to terms with the frightened look he had seen on Joe as he came running out of his bedroom. He doubted that any alcohol from the saloon had caused such a drastic reaction in his youngest son.

“Maybe it was just a dream, son,” Pa said soothingly as he tried to douse Little Joe’s fears.

he boy had stopped trembling, but still looked very pale and was looking very around very nervously.

“Yeah, Pa, maybe it was” Joe said finally. He didn’t have any other credible answer at the moment. He felt embarrassed at having showed such weakness in front of his family. He normally prided himself on his independence and fought long and hard against any coddling that was dished out by his father and brothers.

“I think I’ll go back to bed now, Pa,” Joe said. He made sure his feet were firmly placed on the ground and he walked back into his room with all of the confidence he could muster.
Everyone else just watched Joe head back into his room. They shook their heads whilst having a similar question in each of their minds. What or who had scared Joe so much?

*****

The next morning saw three people sitting at the breakfast table as normal. Adam Hoss and their father sat idly chatting about anything but the strange events of last night.
Ben had told his two older sons to let Joseph have a little lie in this morning. It was Saturday. There would be plenty of time to complete the work load tomorrow.

All suddenly looked around in surprise at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Little Joe was making his way down. His hair was still all mussed up. His eyes looked bleary and he still looked very tired.

The truth of the matter was that Joe hadn’t gone back to sleep last night. He laid awake listening to every creak and groan from the roof. Every cricket that sang it’s nightly serenade and any other noise that could be heard in the dead of night.

Joe tried to carry on as normal. He wanted to put the images and sounds from last night behind him. He greeted his family with a cheery ‘Good Morning’ and sat down ready to start the day like any other day.

Ben knew what the game plan was. He knew that Joe wouldn’t appreciate him voicing his knowledge of the situation. So he told the boys what their allotted tasks for the day were. He left the lightest and easiest jobs to Little Joe. Adam and Hoss would normally have protested at these suggestions of lighter work for their younger sibling, but today, both could see just how peaked Joe was looking. He really did look tired.

The rest of the day seemed to carry out without incident. By lunch time Ben had returned from Virginia City and Adam and Hoss were returning from further out on the ranch to a much deserved hot meal and bath.

Joe had kept himself busy throughout the day. He had filled Hop Sing’s wood pile twice, he had hauled more water to the kitchen than he wanted to remember. At least the work kept his mind from wandering.

By supper time, Joe walked very wearily into the house. Everyone else inside felt a little sorry for the youngest Cartwright. Hoss and Adam even stood aside for the time being and let Joe enjoy the hot water of a steam bath to get some of the kinks out of his aching muscles.

Dinner went well. The topic of conversation was much the same as it had been earlier that morning. Everyone was talking quick glances at Joe whilst trying to hide the fact. Hoss and Pa settled in for the first game of checkers for the evening. Adam sat in is allotted chair and read his book again. Little Joe had sat on Pa’s blue leather chair.
Ben had walked into the kitchen to get a refill for his coffee cup. Upon returning to the living room, he could see from behind that Joseph had his feet on the coffee table again. It never ceased to amaze him that no matter how many lectures he gave about the proper care and respect of furniture, almost every day he would need to remind Joe again.

Ben was almost to bellow at his youngest son for the hundredth time this month, when he spied the look on Hoss’s face. Hoss was holding his fingers to his lips in a SHUSHING motion.

Ben crept up silently beside his chair and gazed down at the occupant. His heart melted immediately and he felt all of the love he could find gather in his heart. Sitting slumped in the chair, eyes closed, breathing even and regular was his youngest son, sound asleep. The day and previous night had finally caught up with him and now held out the waiting arms of rest. Joe had not protested in the slightest and slipped into a deep slumber without even knowing it.

Adam and Hoss looked at their younger brother also. It was times like this that they all wondered how they could ever had been cross or angry at Little Joe. The angelic features poised in slumber and the handsome image of his mother reminded them of how much they really did care for this most willful person.

Ben hated the idea of trying to wake Little Joe while he was resting so peacefully, but decided that Joe would be a lot better off in the comfort of his own bed. He tried to wake Joe gently at first. He shook his shoulder and whispered his name into his ear. No response. He tried a little harder and a little louder. Still no response.

“Don’t think he wants to wake up now he is finally asleep Pa” Hoss said. “Let me take him.”

Little Joe was no match for his big brother. At 120 pounds Joseph caused Hoss barely a grunt as he was hoisted in the huge arms and carried upstairs.

Ben had followed and helped Hoss get Joe ready for bed. They removed his shirt and pants and replaced them with a clean night shirt from the chest of drawers. They jostled him in and out of his clothes, but Joe never stirred once. His face remain so calm and serene to watch.

Hoss laid his younger brother’s curly head down on the soft white pillow and bid him good night. Ben also bid his youngest good night and caressed his curls through his fingers before exiting the room. Ben felt relaxed and thought that all was fine with his son tonight. It was 10.08 pm and it looked as though the events of last night were long forgotten. This was to be short lived.

*****

Ben and his two other boys retired soon afterwards. They thought they could all use a restful night of unbroken sleep.

At the stroke of midnight the peace and tranquility of the night was shattered once again by the piercing and terrified screams of Joe.

Joe had been, up until a few minutes ago deeply asleep, but as the grandfather clock downstairs struck twelve o’clock the events of the previous night repeated themselves.
Joe didn’t jump off the bed this time. He did exactly the opposite this time. The bed began to creak and shake, the walls were vibrating and threatening to topple over again. Joe cowered underneath the blankets and quilts for protection.

Even through the layers of bedding, his frightened screams could still be heard.
Ben and his sons had again jumped out of bed and raced towards Little Joe’s room. They all looked around the room and then noted the trembling lump underneath the sheets.
Joe had momentarily stopped screaming when the walls seemed to stop shaking and the bed no longer rocked about. He peaked his head out from underneath his safe haven just in time to hear the whistle sound he had heard the previous night. Tonight it sounded even closer and louder if that were possible. It sounded right outside his window.

Joe gave another strangled cry of fright and dived back under the covers to shield himself. Ben, Hoss and Adam had not heard the whistle, nor felt the tremors of the building. They couldn’t understand Joe’s behavior at all.

Ben sat down on the bed and tried to pry Little Joe out from his hiding place. It was very difficult. When he eventually did appear, Joe just curled up in a shaking ball in his father’s embrace. He was looking for something to protect him and knew that his father had always been there in times of need.

Adam and Hoss began to talk quietly amongst themselves. “Maybe he’s getting sick,” Adam suggested. “He might he getting a touch of fever and having delusions as a result of the high temperature. His theory was shot to pieces when Ben felt his youngest’s forehead. He found exactly the opposite. Where they suspected there might have been a temperature, the skin felt cold and clammy. He was sweating but so were they all, it was a terribly hot night. Ben had an idea that most of Joe’s perspiration was due to another cause other than humidity.

Joe had stopped trembling and the tiredness from earlier returned. He soon fell back asleep in his father’s lap. Ben managed to move without waking him. He didn’t know what to do. Maybe he should take Little Joe to see Paul tomorrow. Maybe Adam was right; Joe might be getting sick or something.

The remaining three family members returned to their own beds but tonight it was them that couldn’t return back to sleep. They kept listening out for any signs of Joe waking up screaming again. They all dozed with one eye open and ready to run to Joe again if necessary.

*****

Breakfast the next day was totally different. Every one sat in silent while they ate a sparse meal. Little Joe just moved things around on his plate. He looked even worse than yesterday. His eyes now held an almost haunted look and they were very bloodshot from lack of restful sleep.

Ben told Adam and Hoss that he would keep Joe around the yard again today. Both brothers had no problem with this plan. Both were very concerned for Little Joe.

Adam, Hoss and Ben moved towards the front door out of hearing range of Little Joe. Ben told his sons that he planned to take Joe to see Doc Martin this morning. He would suggest a trip into town and stop of at the doctor’s clinic before coming home. He knew that he would have to drag his youngest kicking and screaming otherwise.

Adam and Hoss told their father where they were planning to work today, just in case he needed to get them urgently. Ben assured them that he and Joseph would be fine.

Ben returned to the dining room to find Little Joe asleep at the table. He had pushed his plate aside and now softly snored with his head resting on the table. He hair fell in his eyes yet again. Ben wasn’t sure how to tackle the current problem. He didn’t even know what the problem was.

Ben had tried to wake Joe like last night, but found the same result. Little Joe was always a source of never ending energy during the day, but when his body did sleep, it slept hard.

This time he moved his youngest over onto the settee to be more comfortable. He was intending to tackle some paperwork and needed Joe somewhere close to keep an eye on him. Ben told himself that he would need to get his son a haircut when they went into town today. Joseph’s curls were longer than he would have liked and he started to tell himself that no son of his was going to go around looking like a ‘River Boat Gambler’.
Ben let Joe slept until almost lunch time. He had gotten the buck board prepared and was ready to head into town before he woke Little Joe.

Joe woke a little easier this time, but looked around for a moment, wondering why he was asleep on the settee. “How long have I been here, Pa?” he asked honestly and stifled back a huge yawn.

“You, young man, fell asleep at the breakfast table,” Ben said in mock sternness. He was trying sound annoyed at his youngest, but every time he looked at those every so long curls and those expressive emerald green eyes, he saw his wife Marie. The boy was so much like his mother it hurt. Ben always felt the pull of a heart string when he looked at Joseph and remembered how much he had missed out on with Marie.

“You mean I have been asleep for nearly five hours?” Joe asked skeptically. He felt like he had been asleep about an hour at the most.

“Yes, you have, but if your ready now, you can help me get some supplies in town” Ben said. He deliberately left out the last little stop he intended to make before heading home.
“Sure, Pa,” Joe said. “Just let me get a fresh shirt on and feel a little human again for a minute.” Joe gave another huge yawn and forced himself to get off the settee and go about getting dressed for the day.

*****

The ride into town was happy enough. Ben talked to his son about the string of horses that he had intended to buy and get ready for the army in a few months time. He was trying to get his son to talk and get his mind off whatever was bothering him.

They had attended at the general store and filled the list from Hop Sing and gathered the sacks of grain and flour they needed. Joe was just about to climb back into the buck board when his father spoke to him.

“Got one more errand before we head back, Joe,” Ben said.

Joe didn’t ask where they were going. He was happy just to follow his father for a moment. But upon getting closer to doctor’s office, he wanted to back peddle.

“What are we going here for, Pa” Joe asked nervously. He tried to move away, but his father held firmly onto his upper arm and steered him into Paul Martin’s waiting room.

“I just want Paul to check you over, Joe,” Ben explained. “You haven’t been sleeping well the last two nights and have woken up scared to death. I just want to make sure that you’re not coming down with a virus or anything.

“I feel fine, Pa,” Joe said a little annoyed “So lets go home”. Too late. Just as the words left his lips, the person he feared most walked out into the waiting room and came up to his father and shook his outstretched hand.

“Hello, Ben” Paul said. “I didn’t expect to see you here. What seems to be the problem? Hi, Little Joe.”

Joe mumbled a barely audible hello before telling the doctor he was fine and there was nothing wrong with him no matter what his father thought.

“Well, let’s just take a look at you shall we, and I will make the diagnosis,” Paul said with a grin. He knew that this was the last place Joe wanted to be. But he also knew that Ben rarely sought his advice for trivial matters.

“What seems to be the trouble, Ben” Paul asked his old friend as he began to do the usual examination on his still protesting patient. He thought he had better get the whole story from Ben as Little Joe was likely to tell him nothing or leave giant chunks of relevant information out in his explanation.

“Little Joe hasn’t been sleeping well the last few nights, Paul,” Ben started. “Both nights he has awoken screaming and tell us that it felt like the house was shaking and trembling. He said it felt like an earthquake was hitting the Ponderosa.”

Paul was about to laugh at Ben when he noted the less than funny look on his friend’s face. Ben was far from laughing. He really believed every word he was saying.

“What about, Joseph?” Paul now asked his patient. “What have you got to say about yourself?”

“I feel fine, doc,” Joe said without hesitation “I feel fine and I want to go home now.”
Paul continued his examination and mentally noted his findings. Reluctantly to say, he couldn’t find anything wrong with Little Joe. The boy looked a little tired. But if he hadn’t been sleeping well for the past two nights, that was to be expected.

“Okay Joseph, you can pull your shirt back down now,” Paul said. “I am just going to have a quick word with your father, then you can go home, okay?”

Joe didn’t reply, he just put the biggest scowl on his face he could make. He tried to tell them nothing was wrong with him. Why wouldn’t his family listen to him sometimes. He should know, it was his body. He couldn’t explain the events of the last two nights, but put it down to something else than a physical thing. Maybe he just dreamed up the whole thing two nights in a row.

Ben walked a little away from his son to talk to the doctor in private. “Well, Paul, what’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know what to tell you Ben,” Paul said honestly. “I done a complete examination on the boy and other than looking slightly weary, everything’s normal.”

Ben just sighed in defeat. He didn’t blame his friend, but thought he might have been able to come up with a medical reason for his son’s behavior.

“Tell you what, just see how he goes tonight, Ben,” Paul explained. “If he still continues on the same tonight, I will come out tomorrow and examine him again. I might be able to prescribe some strong sleeping powders for a couple of nights or so to let his body get back to normal. I don’t like the idea of using them on somebody so young, but I will if it becomes called for.”

“Okay, Paul” Ben said and shook the doctor’s hand in readiness to leave. “Thanks for your help anyway.”

They both walked back over to Little Joe who still had the scowl on his face. “Finished your little discussion about me now have you?” he said angrily.

“You mind your manners, young man,” Ben said firmly back. “Just because you feel a little tired and cranky, doesn’t give you an excuse to be rude.”

Joe got up and ignored the remark. He pouted his lips and continued this stance all the way back to the buck board. He climbed back into the wagon and intended to keep the conversation to a minimum on the way home.

About half way home, the tiredness Joe felt from lack of sleep again returned and Ben felt his son’s curly head rest upon the back of his shoulder as he guided the team home.
He was genuinely worried about Little Joe. He knew something was wrong, and it pained him to not be able to help his son when he needed it. He hoped that tonight would be different.

*****

Joe had woken when the wagon came to a stop at the homestead and he helped unload the buck board. He had been thinking about the doctor’s suggestion and wanted to ask his father about something, but was a little nervous about it.

Once the unloading was done. Ben and Joe sat down in the living room with a cup of coffee, waiting the return of Adam and Hoss. Joe decided to pluck up the courage and discuss his idea with his father before his brothers came back.

“Pa…..” he began, “I was thinking about what’s been happening. Do you think you could stay awake with me tonight down here and see if you can hear the sounds I have been hearing or feel the house shake like I have been the last two nights.”

“Sure Little Joe, if that’s what you really want,” Ben told his youngest.

Whilst Joe was washing up for dinner that night, Ben told his two eldest son’s about Joe’s request. Adam and Hoss decided that they would stay up to try and help their brother as well. The boy was only seventeen years and although he often showed a wild streak, it was nearly as often that he demonstrated a more vulnerable side to his cheeky personality.

Dinner went just as well as the night before. Joe ate a little more tonight and his father was pleased with the informal nature of the conversations and all tried to relax just a little for the evening.

*****

Hoss and Joe had started an endless round of checkers. Joe won almost all of them, but deliberately let his big brother win on a few occasions just to keep the game interesting.

It was almost 11.55pm went Ben decided that nothing would happen tonight. Joe had fallen asleep again on the settee this time. Adam was sipping at his hot coffee and trying to stop himself from nodding off.

Ben normally didn’t allow his son’s to stay up much past 11.00pm, but he had wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery of the last couple of nights, for Joe’s sake as well as his own sanity.

Ben had shaken Little Joe awake enough to get him to stand on his own two feet. The boy was still half asleep and walked clumsily towards the staircase and his soft bed that awaited him.

Joe had made it half way across the living room floor when he turned to bid his goodnights to his family.

“Night’ all,” he mumbled through half closed eyes. The words had just fallen off his lips when he heard the sound of the whistle. It was loud and very close. If Joe had been asleep before, he was now wide awake at that eerie noise. It almost sounded to be outside the dining room window.

Joe stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the large glass window with fear and anticipation written all over his face. He clutched at the back rest of the chair in front of him to steady himself. He could not believe what was about to take place.

The whistle sounded again and this time he could see some sort of shadow at the window sill. He tried to take a step back, but absolute fear held him frozen to the floor. His feet just wouldn’t obey his minds demands. His heart was pounding in his chest like it was about to explode. He held his breath as he saw the dark shadow loom closer.

Without warning, the shadow not only got closer to the window, but came right through. Joe blinked his eyes to clear his vision, but the same image was there.

Coming through the dining room window was a train. It looked strange as it was illuminated by a green hue. It was this same light that enabled Joe to look right through the train and carriages. The train had a translucent quality about it. It seemed to glow in the darkness of the room. The dark black smoke billeted out of the stack in front and trailed behind the engine. Joe could smell the thick black ash from the burning of coal. It was almost choking.

Ben and the boys couldn’t see the ghostly image of the train. What they could see was the trembling body of Little Joe who seemed to stand transfixed to the one spot. At some point Joe thought he could hear voices talking to him. He shook his head to clear his mind and the voices faded away.

What seemed like five hours, was in fact about 3 minutes. The train engine and it’s three carriages had rocketed their way through the Cartwright family home. Joe’s gaze followed after the train and he turned around and was just in time to see the back end of the carriage disappear through the eastern wall of the house and out into the darkness of the night.

His mind was trying to take in what had just happened. Had he really seen a whole train just come through his house. He was looking at his father and brothers for answers to an endless number of questions.

Joe looked at this family with his mouth agape and his arm extended with a pointing finger towards the ghostly image he had seen He tried to use his voice but nothing would come. His mouth moved but no sound escaped his vocal cords.

Although he showed some signs of weariness earlier, his skin color had been good and he appeared to be healthy enough. Now looking at the pasty white skin that was sweating and clammy in the touch, Joe’s family were now truly concerned about Joe’s state of mind and health.

Joe swallowed hard and looked at his father with pleading eyes What just happened here Pa? Why am I so scared. Why did I see that train? He was still trying to get a sound from his voice, he tried with all of his might to say something. With all of his concentration and all of his effort he managed to say but one word to his family.
TR……. TR…… TRAIN.”

His mind decided that enough was too much and he lost what ever pallor he had left. Little Joe felt his legs underneath betray him and loose all of their strength. They now felt like jelly and no longer had the strength to hold him up. Joe felt himself start to topple forward but couldn’t prevent the descent. Adam and Ben could see what was going to happen and only just managed to grab a hold of Joseph before he fell unconscious on the floor.

Hoss had gasped and now looked into the face of his youngest brother with fear of his own. He couldn’t explain what was wrong with little brother, or what had been apparently happening to Little Joe over the last three nights, but he wanted to protect his brother and let him know he was safe.

Ben had scooped Little Joe’s unconscious form into his arms and raced upstairs with his precious burden. Adam had gone into the kitchen looking for a basin to fill with cool water and a cloth. Once obtained, he followed in his father footsteps to Joe’s room.

Hoss had gone outside to get one of the ranch hands to go get Doc Martin. The man quickly scurried to the barn and rode away on one of the many Ponderosa horses towards Virginia City.

Ben just looked at his son unconscious on the bed. He didn’t know what to do. He had seen Joe’s behavior turn very strange over the past three days. He had seen Joe more scared than ever. He knew something was out of place but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Joe was unconscious for about an hour and was only beginning to regain consciousness as Doc Martin came through the front door to the homestead.

“Came as quickly as I could, Ben,” Doc Martin said. His eyes quickly turned to the patient laying on the bed. Joe was showing signs of waking up. Hoss had filled in the doctor downstairs of the events of the evening. He told him how Joe had reacted just as he was going upstairs to bed.

Doc Martin sat down on the bed and tried to gain Little Joe’s attention. He lifted the boy’s eyelids to see the response to bright light, there was some. He felt the boy’s steady heart beat by checking his pulse using his wrist. Joe still looked very pale.

The doctor couldn’t find anything else wrong with Little Joe. “I don’t know what to tell you again Ben. It’s just like yesterday, no fever, no sickness, no injuries that I can see. I just don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

“The only word he said downstairs Paul was TRAIN,” Ben said “Then he fainted. Why would he say the word TRAIN at twelve o’clock at night?”

“The only thing I can suggest is that maybe all of these incidents have been brought on by stress. Stress that is causing physical symptoms within him. He still looks very tired and you said he has been waking up at odd hours the last three nights. Has there been anything that has been bothering him lately?”

“I don’t remember him saying anything in particular, Paul,” Ben said honestly. He was trying to think back over the last week. Was there something bothering Joe enough to be waking him up at night and making him sick? He looked at his two eldest for answers.
“Adam? Hoss? Has Joe told you about anything he is worried about?”

Hoss tried hard to think. Joe had seemed his normal self. He had chatted happily enough when he and Hoss had been fence riding or working about the ranch.

Adam was poised deep in thought also. “Can’t say as I remember him mentioning anything, Pa,” he said. “Not unless you take into account him worrying about which girl he was planning to take to the local dance next Saturday night.”

“I don’t think Joe has any genuine concerns about whether or not he will have a date or not, big brother,” Hoss replied “Having a pretty girl on his arm is the last thing our little brother here would be worried about. Maybe he was worried about how many he would have to dance with,” Hoss said trying to inject a little abject humor into the conversation.
Doc Martin and Ben both chuckled a little at Hoss’s view of Little Joe. Both sobered up immediately as they came back to reality and needed to come up with a solution.

“Maybe I could send a few telegrams to associates in San Francisco, Ben,” Paul said. “I have a few friends who deal specifically with patients who seem to have psychological problems or are have other problems that are not physical in nature.”

“You mean that all this behavior might be in Joe’s mind?” Ben asked incredulously. Over the seventeen years of his son’s life there had been various injuries. Childhood type ailments, gunshot wounds and other afflictions. Ben had never considered that there would be a time in any of his son’s lives that their mental capacity would be doubted.
Adam and Hoss just looked at the doctor with disbelief. They too had never given the idea of their brother being affected by a illness or injury of the mind.

“I don’t know Ben,” Paul answered “I am not trained enough in the field. That’s why I thought it would be good to talk to a few colleagues that are familiar with cases like Little Joe’s.”

Ben closed his eyes and shook his eyes. He didn’t like the phrase “Cases like Little Joe’s”. This was his son. This was his youngest son and he felt more protective towards him sometimes.

Paul could see the raging emotions written all over his friend’s face about Little Joe.
Before Paul could utter any words of comfort to the Cartwright men, Joe gave a few small groans to signal he was waking up.

“Uh…….” came the response from a very groggy Little Joe. At once Ben was there holding his hand, talking softly to his son.

“Pa……….. is that you?” Joe whispered. He opened his eyes and looked about the room. He eyes surveyed the room and finally came to rest on the one face he had trusted all of his life. His father.

“Yes, son,” Ben answered almost with a choked voice. “I’m here Little Joe. So are your brothers.” He let Joe get his bearings a little more first before asking him too many questions.

At first it seemed that Little Joe remembered very little of his ordeal downstairs. He was looking questioningly at Doc Martin being in the room. “Why are you here, Doc?” he asked. Then with frightening speed, the images from downstairs came racing back into his mind. He put his hand up to his mouth to hide the scream that was caught in his throat. He immediately sat upright in bed, looking around the room with darting eyes. He was looking for any evidence of what he had seen.

Ben had been holding his hand as he woke and now struggled to get Little Joe to lie down.

The movement of sitting up too fast only made Joe’s head spin. He put his hands to his temples and tried to stop the merry-go-round his brain was on. The dizziness was powerful and he had to calm down just a little in order to remain conscious.

Adam and Hoss sat down on chairs in the room, trying to give Little Joe some much needed space. Doc Martin waited a few minutes until he was satisfied that his patient could withstand any questioning as to his health.

“Little Joe,” Doc began slowly and quietly “What do you remember about tonight?”

What do I remember, Joe asked himself sarcastically How do I tell them that I saw a locomotive engine and three carriages come through the dining room wall downstairs and pass through the other side? “You will think I am nuts, doc,” he finally answered.

“Little Joe,” Ben said softly “We won’t be upset with you, we’re trying to help you. Do you remember what you saw?” A slow nod was the only response. “Can you tell us what you saw?” A shake of the head signaled a negative reply. “Do you want to talk about it and share it with your family?” Another negative reply. The questioning was getting nowhere fast.

Doc Martin could see that his patient was going to be very difficult indeed, even more so that usual. They were probably not going to get any answers by asking him directly. They would have to wait until Joe decided he wanted to share it with his family.

Paul got up and dug around in his little black bag. He tried to hide his actions from his patient as best he could. He poured a teaspoon of white powder from a small drawstring bag into a glass and then used the pitcher beside him on the table to fill the glass with water. The water turned a milky white in color. The doctor tried to dissolve as much of the powder as possible to hide the contents of the glass from his young friend.
Joe still had a frightened look on his face. He was still remembering the train from downstairs. He wanted to tell his father about what he had seen. But again his mind was telling him that nobody would believe him. When the glass of water was offered to him, he gladly drank the contents to take away the dryness of his mouth.

Paul took the empty glass from him and told Joe to lay back down and get some rest. He told Little Joe that he was fine and just needed some extra sleep tonight.

Joe’s eyelids began to flutter from the sleeping powder and he soon drifted off without any further explanation of what had happened. Ben continued to hold his hand and stroke his face as Little Joe fell asleep. He hoped that by just touching his son, Joe felt safe from harm.

Now that Joe was deeply asleep, there was no need to talk softly. He wouldn’t be disturbed easily tonight and would probably sleep well into the next morning.

“Just let him get the rest he needs, Ben,” Paul suggested. “I will contact these colleagues, but it may be a few days before I get a response. Until then, give him a few days off his normal routine. Let him do what he wants to do. Let him go into town and relax a little. If he wants to sleep, then let him sleep all day. That is the best medicine I can offer at this point in time. Maybe a change from day to day activities is just what he needs right now.”

*****

The next morning Ben did exactly what the doctor ordered. He let his sons have a few days off from their normal work schedule. Adam and Hoss were surprised that their father had given them any time off, but suspected that they would be needed for other task concerning their younger sibling.

Ben planned a trip into town to try and get Joe to relax a little. Maybe a vacation was just what Little Joe needed. Ben had discussed the ideas he had with Adam and Hoss at the breakfast table. They were in no hurry to got to town. Ben had let Joe sleep in as long as he liked this morning. He had checked on the boy a number of times during the night as had Adam and Hoss. Joe had been peacefully sleeping on each occasion.

It was about 11.00am before Joe started to stir from his drug induced slumber. Joe rubbed at his eyes and yawned widely. He looked at the sun streaming through the window and decided that it was very late into the morning. He went about washing his face in a bowl of water to revive himself a bit more. The effects of the sleeping powder were still present. He pulled on his trousers and a clean shirt and opened his door ready to go downstairs for the day.

“Good Morning, Joseph,” came the cheerful greeting from Ben.

“Morning, Pa,” Joe mumbled. He headed straight to the kitchen table and poured himself a black of Hop Sing’s strong black coffee.

“Hey Short Shanks,” Hoss bellowed as he and Adam came through the front door from outside.

Joe just looked up at the cheery face of his big brother. He didn’t feel like being happy this morning. He felt terrible. He had the beginnings of a slight headache and his mouth felt like old cardboard. He managed to talk Hop Sing around into giving him some breakfast. At first the little Cantonese man had Hoss and Adam just stared in amazement. Normally they would get a stern argument if either of them were late to the table and requested something after the dishes were cleared. But this morning, after Joe was approximately four hours late to the table, Hop Sing came out with a plate that would have made Hoss’s heart swell with happiness. The little man even had a few words of kindness to go with the hearty meal. No matter what he did, Little Joe always seemed to turn most situations to his advantage. He could wrap almost anybody around his little finger in a fraction of a second, like Hop Sing and his father. Ben was probably the more guilty of all.

“Joe, how would you like to go into Virginia City with us shortly?” Ben asked. “We can spend a little time relaxing and even enjoy a beer at the saloon, if you are agreeable?”

Joe spluttered his mouthful of coffee at his father’s statement. His father was not an unfair man, but Joe had rarely seen his father offer to give anybody the day off and spend it socially at the Bucket O’ Saloon in town. He secretly sensed what the reasons behind the offer were, but on assessment, he wasn’t about to argue with an offer for a day off.

 

Everything seemed to be okay once they got to Virginia City. They had gotten a few small supplies just to keep up appearances. Ben had gone to the bank to do some business and the post office after that to check the mail. Joe had found himself in the Saloon. He was none to happy about the pair of wet nurses that were assigned to follow his every movement, but he grinned and bared it. After two beers he was even starting to relax a little. He was talking to the barmaids in his usual cheeky manner and getting some furious looks from some of the other men in the bar.

Adam and Hoss almost believed that their little brother was back to normal. The short period of relaxation had done wonders. It wasn’t until they were mounted and ready to head back to the Ponderosa that they were given a clue as to something still being wrong.
Just as they were ready to ride away, the whistle of the weekly train service from Virginia City through to San Francisco and all points between sounded time to depart.

Little Joe just about jump out his skin at the noise. He kicked Cochise in the flanks and galloped her all the way down the main street back towards the ranch at a very fast pace.
Ben was looking at his other two sons for answers. All were looking questioningly at each other. Why was Joe scared of a train whistle. As a small boy, Joe had been fascinated by the machines. He took every opportunity available when in town to sneak off to the train station and watch the locomotives.

Ben saw this as another huge piece to the jigsaw that was scattered about. The pieces were beginning to accumulate, but for the moment, they were so jumbled that it was hard to see any sort of picture forming. Ben and his sons had heard Joe utter the word train the night before and now, a the sound of a train’s whistle, Joe runs in the opposite direction.

When Ben, Adam and Hoss reached the ranch house, Joe had calmed down sufficiently to try and cover his tracks. He was sitting outside on the porch in the rocking chair as nothing at all had happened.

Adam and Hoss approached the verandah cautiously, “Why did you do that, Joe?” Adam asked for his family.

“Do what, big brother?” Joe said trying to sound as if he didn’t know what they were talking about.

“You rode out of town like someone was after you heard that train whistle,.” Adam said losing his patience slightly.

“Oh, there was a train whistle?” Joe said uncaring. “I was just trying to race you all home,” he said and added his best cheeky grin at the end of the sentence.

Everyone knew Little Joe was trying to avoid the subject, but they all asked the same question in their heads WHY? WHY WOULD LITTLE JOE DENY HIS FEAR ABOUT THE TRAIN WHISTLE? WHAT WAS IT ABOUT TRAINS THAT SUDDENLY HAD THE YOUNGEST CARTWRIGHT SPOOKED AT THE DROP OF A HAT?

*****

Ben decided to take the sleeping arrangements for the night into his own hands. He had Hop Sing make a large meal for everyone that night. He told the boys to wash up and get ready for supper.

Ben directed the conversation tonight. Talking about everything and anything to keep the mood happy. Joe had eaten a small helping of food. Hoss thought he was about to burst he was so full. Adam also felt full and happy with the evening meal. Hop Sing brought out desert. Hoss just looked at the apple pie with bulging eyes. He would just have to squeeze some of that pie in. Joe just groaned at the thought of having to eat another morsel of food.

“Pa, if you make me eat anymore tonight, I will need to borrow some of Hoss’s clothes tomorrow,” Joe said. Everyone laughed at the thought of Joe dressed up in his big brother’s oversized clothes.

“That’s okay Little Joe, you don’t have to eat anymore if you don’t want to, but finish up that glass of milk, please,” Ben said sternly. He was hiding the real truth about the milk for the time being. He smiled inwardly to himself as he saw his youngest son obey his request and saw that the glass was almost empty when placed back on the table. “Now Little Joe, would you like to go upstairs and grab your bible from your room, we can all sit down and listen to Adam read tonight.” Hoss and Adam looked at their father with a little bit of interest. Their father was up to something, but what?

Little Joe also thought it was strange but did what his father requested and started to head upstairs to his bedroom. The bible Ben was talking about was a present he had received from his mother Marie when he was about 4 years old. He kept in the top drawer of his bedside table and pulled it out every now and then just to capture her smell that was encapsulated in the leather bound book. It made it seem that she was still with him sometimes.

Adam saw his brother’s curly head disappear upstairs and immediately turned to his father to ask what was going on.

Ben saw the look from his eldest. “Don’t worry son; he won’t be coming back downstairs tonight” and smiled a little guilty smile.

“What did you do, Pa?” Hoss now asked.

“I put some of that sleeping powder Doc Martin give me in his milk at supper time,” Ben explained. “It should be working, right about now. We all need to catch up on some much needed rest, Joseph especially. Perhaps it’s a little earlier tonight, but with the help of that sedative, maybe Joseph won’t be disturbed by dreams of any sort tonight.”

Just to make sure his theory was correct, Ben tiptoed up the stairs followed by Adam and Hoss. Sure enough, Joe was sprawled on top of the bed clothes, sound asleep with his bible in hand. He was still in the shirt and trousers he had on downstairs, but he looked peaceful and deeply asleep. Ben and Adam went about put on his night clothes. They didn’t bother with the covers as it was still warm enough in the room tonight. Ben caressed his son’s curly head “Sleep well son”. All left the room hoping that the night would be a quiet one.

*****

Ben had woken himself twice before midnight to check that Joe was still sleeping peacefully. On both occasions he was satisfied that every looked okay.
Once again the problems started upon the twelfth stroke of the grandfather clock downstairs.
The first thing that Little Joe felt was the temperature change in the room. He didn’t understand how he came to be on his bed dressed in his nightshirt. His addled mind did not have the answers to the questions he tried to form in his mind. He could remember going up to him room the get the bible his mother gave him, after that everything was a blank.

It was the coolness that woke him. When he had gone upstairs the evening predicted to be a hot and sultry one as the last few weeks, but now he found a unique coolness filling the room.

He lay still with his eyes closed and turned on his side on the bed. He was about to go back to the land of nod when a strange feeling of something else being in the room came over him. His fears started gathering in great numbers and his mind was telling him that it wasn’t his father or brothers in the room this night.

Against his better judgment he opened his eyes a crack and looked about. His gaze never altered from its position of straight in front of him. He could not believe what his eyes were telling him he was seeing at this moment. His voice was once again deserting him. He wanted to scream, he wanted to scream until he could scream no more. Of all of the events that had happened over the last three or four days, this one left him numb all over.

He closed his eyes again, hoping the image would go away. He reopened them and for the second time he was telling himself to scream.

Laying beside him, on the same bed, not more than a few centimeters away was a dead corpse of a man. The body seemed to be clad in some sort of rags that fell over the skeletal frame like long tendrils. His eyes made him start from the feet and work their way up, forcing him to make a mental note an entire description of what he could see. The feet were housed in a pair of beaten up old boots. There was a hole on the right one where the big toe should have been. There was no big toe protruding out. The legs were nothing more than skin and bits of flesh clinging to them. The arms were in a similar condition with very little remnants of muscle or sinew attached. Most of the man’s chest seemed to be missing. There few a few shards of bone that indicated a rib cage, but there was no evidence of any internal organs. The lungs were dried up and withered and half their normal capacity.

Joe tried to stop himself looking and staring but he could not.

Lastingly his gaze rested upon the head and face of the corpse. The hair was straggly and hanging in knots. He couldn’t be sure but he thought he saw something moving around in that mess of hair.

He looked at the face with bemused horror on his face. The eyes were devoid of eyelids or lashes and seemed to bulge out of their sockets as they stared directly at Little Joe. There was only a small bony point that indicated a nose was once in place. The mouth was drawn back in a toothy grin. The teeth themselves were yellow and stained. The odor that came from the teeth made Little Joe gag. He fought back the feeling of nauseous with great effort. The corpse continued to grin and stare at him. A worm now broke through the paper thin waxen skin on the man’s hollow cheek and peered out from its look out point on the man’s face.

“Hello,” he corpse said in a eerie sounding voice. That was the last straw. Joe had found his voice all of a sudden and now scrambled off the bed and backed himself into the corner of the room whilst screaming for everything he was worth. Unfortunately he had backed himself in the farthest corner of the room and behind the bed, so he would have to make it past the dead person to make it safely to the other side of room and to his father and brothers in the other rooms.

Ben Cartwright almost fell out of bed at the scream that radiated through the house. It was unlike any scream he had ever heard. It was full of terror and on the verge of hysteria. He almost pulled the door of his room from its hinges and he thought of his son in danger. Danger, too he told himself, that had to be it, Joe wouldn’t scream like that unless his very life was threatened.

Adam and Hoss had gathered in the hallway and had their own fears for Joe written on their faces. They had never heard their brother scream like that, never in absolute and sheer terror.

Ben tried to open the door. It wouldn’t budge. The door was locked. They doubted that Joe had locked himself in. Whatever or whoever was attacking Joseph wanted outside help to remain on the other side.

Joe continued to scream. The corpse had remained on the bed and not moved a muscle. Little Joe was now sitting on the wooden floor with his arms held up trying to fend off his attacker.

Ben was making no more progress with the door. “Stand aside, Pa,” Hoss demanded.
Hoss took a running start and barreled into the wooden door trying to break the lock. The first attempt failed. As he backed up to take a second go, they heard Joe yell at someone inside.

“GET AWAY FROM ME!!! STAY AWAY FROM ME!!!! PA, HELP ME PLEASE! ADAM, DON’T LET HIM HURT ME!!!” PAAAAAA! ” Joe resumed his screams at the sight before him. He had never seen anything so hideous in all of his life. He had read a few horror stories in his time, even seen some terrible injuries inflicted upon a man’s body to disfigure him. But nothing he had ever seen or had read could prepare him for this. This was like the devil coming and trying to take his very soul away.

Ben and his boys on the other side tried in vain to break down the door. Their hearts were almost bursting from the pleas the youngest Cartwright was yelling through the other side. They were sure now that at least it seemed that someone was involved rather than something. What was that person doing to Joseph to make him so afraid?

“Get that door open now,” Ben roared at Hoss. Hoss took an extra step back and was about to put all his strength behind this effort. Adam had been banging on the door in between assaults by his larger brother, but now he stood back and let Hoss take aim.
The corpse could hear the noise on the other side of the door. He looked at the young man cowering in the corner trying to disappear from view. He knew that he wouldn’t be talking to the boy tonight like he wanted to. He would have to change his tactics a little more next time. Each attempt he had made to make contact had only ended up in scaring the young man half to death. With that thought his image now vanished and Joe’s bedroom was empty again except for himself. He had yet to notice that the corpse had gone. He was still in the corner with his head between his knees and his arms over him. He was now trembling very badly and his breathing was very shallow and coming in large gulps.

*****

On the last attempt, Hoss managed to break the latch on the locked door. The door was thrust open with his full weight behind it. Adam and Ben followed him into the room trying to look for any other person present in the room.

They had heard Joe calling out for someone to stay away from him and assumed that another physical body had to have been in the room. For a moment their eyes scanned the bedroom without seeing Little Joe.

Upon more careful observation, Ben could see the trembling figure curled up in the furthest corner of the room. His head was still bent down towards the floor boards and he gave no real indication of having heard his family enter the room or attempting to break down the bedroom door.

Adam and Hoss could see that their efforts would not be of much benefit for the time being. The state their brother seemed to be in was more than either of them was capable of handling. They let Ben go to his youngest son with all of his fatherly wisdom.

Ben walked very softly and quietly over to the corner where Little Joe was squished into. He didn’t want to startle his son and cause anymore fright or stress. He was a little scared himself at the state he could see Joe in. Joe was still trembling very badly, his fists were clenched and encircled tightly around his drawn up knees.

Ben knelt down and put a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. At first, Joe made no effort to communicate with his father. He just wanted the floor to swallow him up. He was both angry and afraid. Angry at the weakness he showed to his family and afraid of the situation he still couldn’t describe, even to himself.

Slowly Joe turned his face up towards his father. He couldn’t hide the tears that streamed down his face.

“Don’t let him get me, Pa,” Joe managed to say between sobs. “Don’t let him touch me.”
Ben’s heart almost broke into two pieces at his son’s sorrowful look. At the same time he was very perplexed about the statement Joe made.

Ben now sat down on the floor beside his youngest son. He waved Adam and Hoss away to leave the two of them alone. He knew that Little Joe wouldn’t appreciate an audience. He pulled his son a little closer into his embrace and tried to ease the fear.

“Who was in the room with you, son?” Ben asked softly. “Your brothers and I were worried about you when we could hear your yelling at someone through the door. We thought somebody must have been hurting you.”

Joe looked up at his father’s question with disbelief and now scanned the room himself looking for the horrible looking corpse that had been on his bed when he woke up.

“But ……… but……….. he was right there, Pa,” Joe stammered. “He was right there on the bed.” He pointed to the bed where he had seen the disfigured remains and shuddered at the memory it induced. “It thought he was going to reach right out and touch me, Pa”. He felt another cold shiver go through his spine at this thought. He could still visualize the site and smell the stench that had invaded his nostrils and sinuses.

Joe’s emotions now got the better of him. He felt as though no one would believe his incredible story of the dead man on his bed. He leant his curly head on his father’s shoulder and just cried out of frustration. Frustration at himself, frustration at the rest of the world. How could he describe what he saw, who would believe him?
Ben was at a loss to what was going on in his young son’s life. His son was talking about things that the rest of the family couldn’t see or hear. He was scaring himself to death every night. He was scaring his family. He would protect Little Joe with everything he had if he knew what or who the adversary was.

Joe cried long and hard. Cried until there was nothing left inside him to give. He felt this emptiness inside him knowing that he was seeing things and hearing things that others could not. He needed to feel that his family was there to help him as much as possible.
He snuggled closer into Ben trying to escape his memories and thoughts. He wanted to forget everything he had seen or heard over the last three nights. He just wanted to forget and get back to a normal existence.
The room temperature had returned to normal. It was now comfortably warmer. Ben rubbed Little Joe’s back, trying to stem the steady stream of hiccups and tremors that still racked his body. The residual effects from the sleeping powder were still present and it didn’t take them long to start slowing down Joe’s actions and thoughts once again. Whilst he didn’t really feel totally relaxed, he felt that his family would be there for him. He let himself drift off and fall into the waiting arms of sleep.

Ben sat on the floor in the corner of the room with his son close to him for another good twenty minutes. He wanted to make sure that Joe was truly asleep. He was trying to come up with a solution to Joe’s problems.

Adam had poked his head into Joe’s bedroom, worry written all over his face about his youngest sibling. Adam wasn’t one to normally wear his emotions or feelings out in public, but Ben could evidently see that all of these events that were affecting Joseph were affecting his eldest son too.

Adam could see that Joe had drifted off to sleep. He could see the awkward position Ben was sitting in on the floor. He moved to try and help his father move the slumbering Joe back to his bed. Adam carefully picked Little Joe up and noted that although he was asleep, there were a few small tremors still running through his body at times. He laid Joe back on his bed and made him as comfortable as possible. He gazed down at his brother for a few minutes. Joe was desperately seeking his family’s help with something that was bothering him, but none of them seemed to be able to do anything positive to help him.

“What do you want us to do, Little Joe?” Adam said to an unlistening Joe. “We want to help you, let us in, please” The last word was almost a plea from Adam to his youngest brother. Ben heard the words and saw the mix of emotions raging in Adam’s heart. He put a comforting arm around his oldest son’s shoulder now. They all needed to help each other at the moment it seemed. None of them seemed to be immune from the symptoms effecting Joe. They needed to discover what the cause was before all of them were screaming in fear like him.

Ben and Adam walked out of Little Joe’s bedroom. They planned to have a family meeting downstairs minus Joe. They needed to come up with some sort of strategy or plan of action for the next few days.

*****

The next morning, Ben and his two eldest boys were still discussing the problem around the dining room table at breakfast. None of them had assumed that Little Joe was awake yet.

Little Joe had only been awake a few minutes. If you could call it awake. His mind was not doing anything involuntarily at the moment. Joe had to make all of the conscious decisions just to make it from his bed to the door of his room. He had not forgotten the previous nights events. They were still very vivid and very real to him. As he walked on unstable legs towards the door, he had to be careful not to succumb to the dizziness that threatened of overtake him.

He opened the wooden door very quietly so as not to alert his presence to those downstairs. He stood out of sight but close enough to hear the conversation taking place at the table.

“What are we going to do today, Pa?” Adam asked honestly.

“For the time being, nothing,” Ben replied. He saw the reaction this statement brought in his two boys. Before they got to utter their words of protest he continued his sentence. “I don’t know what to do boys, so for the time being and today especially I going to do nothing. Maybe when Joe wakes up he can shed some more light on what has been happening to him. Let’s just carry on a little normally this morning as though nothing occurred last night and let Joseph decide when he wants to discuss the matter with his family.”

Hoss and Adam were not very happy with the response, but they too had drawn a blank as to what to do. The three of them had laid awake for a good number of hours after retiring last night to come up with a plausible suggestion. All turned up to the breakfast table this morning empty handed.

Little Joe had heard his father’s words. He didn’t blame his family for feeling helpless. He didn’t have the answers they sought from him. He barely believed what he had seen himself over the last few days. How could he tell them what he had seen without them thinking that there was something wrong with him.

It was at that moment that Joe decided that he needed to seek out the companionship of somebody else today. He loved his father and brothers more than words could say, but it was at these times of helplessness and when he was looking for an answer to a very difficult problem that he sought the wisdom of another Cartwright entirely.

He closed the door as silently as he had opened it. He pulled on his clothes and boots. He walked over to the window in his bedroom that led out onto the roof. He would not make his appearance downstairs just yet. His family thought he was still asleep and for the moment he was happy enough for them to believe that. He lifted the window and crept out onto the roof . He did not bother closing the window. He walked silently along the back section of the roof and climbed down the drain pipe just outside the rear kitchen door. He landed with a soft thud in the dirt and picked himself and dusted himself off.
He walked around the back of the house and made his way over to the barn and his horse Cochise. The mare gave him a soft whinny in greeting. Joe shushed her and told her to keep quiet. He quickly saddled her and let her out of the barn before they could be noticed. He didn’t mount her until they were out of sight of the ranch house. Once mounted he directed the pinto towards Lake Tahoe and his intended spot of solace.
He reached the spot of his mother’s grave and dismounted. He made sure Cochise was securely tied within distance of a soft patch of green grass. He knew he would be here for more than a few minutes. He gave the horse a friendly pat and then walked over to his mother’s resting place. Before he sat down he removed a few small branches and leaves that had fallen across the grave site. He didn’t have any flowers to bring today. He kicked himself as he thought he could have taken a few extra minutes to pick a few roses from Hop Sing’s garden before coming here.

“Sorry, Mama,” he whispered. He didn’t know why he was talking so softly, but assumed that it was better to speak in a quieter voice at this particular place. “I promise I will bring you some flowers tomorrow.“

Marie Cartwright had been Little Joe’s mother for but a few short years in his young life. He had barely time to get to know her before she was cruelly taken from him and the rest of the family. Sometimes he felt that he was losing grip on her memories. He couldn’t remember all of the times they had been together and that just made him sadder. He wanted to remember everything about her. Her smile, her eyes, her scent. He often looked at the photograph on his beside table and the one his father kept downstairs on the mantel piece and reminded himself about how much he really didn’t know about her. Sure he looked like her, they had been telling him that all of his life. But he needed something more material to hang onto. He felt even sadder with the thought that one day he try to recall what his mother had been to him and he wouldn’t be able to remember.

Little Joe made himself a little bit more comfortable by leaning up against the rocks that were behind his mother’s gave. A slight and cooling breeze blew over the soft green grass from Lake Tahoe. It ruffled his hair as though it were his mother’s fingers caressing his unruly curls. He closed his eyes and tried to think back. He felt content for the first time in a few days. He felt like he could tell his mother anything and everything. Here he didn’t need to remember who he was or worry about the Ponderosa. When he came to his mother’s grave, he was just Little Joe Cartwright, son of Marie. He felt a soft tear fall down his cheeks but he didn’t attempt to wipe it away. He would always cry for this woman he barely knew. Joe didn’t feel himself drift off to sleep in the soft grass. His body relaxed completely and he dreamt of nothing.

*****

Joe felt as if his body was floating on the wind. He felt the breeze through his hair and felt the soft kiss of the leaves that blew into his face.

When he finally came to rest from his journey, he found himself sitting on a rock overlooking the lake. He turned his head and knew he must be dreaming. He could see his own sleeping body just as it lay beside his mother’s grave. Was he dead? Had he been brought to the next life?

He heard the sound of footsteps behind him and turned expecting to see the face of God. Instead what he saw was the face of a man approximately 50 years old. He looked at the man. He seemed to be wearing overalls and a strange looking hat. He gave a small wave and came up closer to sit right beside Little Joe. Joe could help but think he had seen this man somewhere before. He couldn’t remember when.

“Hello, there young man,” the stranger said. The sound of his voice was also familiar to Little Joe but right now his identity escaped him. Had they met somewhere before; if they had, where?

“Hello,” Joe replied out of kindness. “Who are you and where am I?”

“You are asleep at the moment, Little Joe,” the man answered. “You can see yourself asleep over there by those rocks. I am merely an image to your sub-conscious.”
“How do you know my name,” Joe asked with a little hesitation. “Have we met somewhere before?”

“I have been trying to talk to you for the last four days now, but it seems all I do is frighten you,” the man said.

It suddenly dawned on Little Joe who this person was. He looked over the face again. He recognized it. It now was a normal color and seemed to be intact. The last time he had seen it, the face and body seemed to be only remnants of what was now standing before him. He couldn’t hide his surprise and shock at who this man was.

“Ah, I see you now recognize me. Last time we met, I was how could you say, not entirely all there,” the man stated.

“How come you appeared to me like a dead corpse?” Joe said and he tried to settle his nerves. “If you wanted to get my attention, you certainly did that, but you could have done it without scaring me half to death.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” the man said with honestly in his voice. “I’m sorry about the other nights as well. I have been trying to get somebody’s attention for over a year now. The only time I seem to be able to make contact is when people are asleep.”

Joe thought back. The man was right. On all of the occasions that something had happened, Joe had either been asleep or falling asleep. A definite pattern was beginning to emerge out of all of these strange happenings.

“Why haven’t you been able to make contact with anybody else?” Joe asked the man.
“I’ve tried, believe me I have tried,” the man said. “More than you know, but it’s like with you, every time somebody sees me or hears my train whistle, they just run scared. I don’t want to frighten people, I want some help.”

“Help?” Joe asked now interested in the man’s tale of woe.

“I’m trapped on this plateau between this world and the next,” the man explained. “I can’t get to my next destination until I can clear my name”

”Clear you name?” came the question again. “You’d better start from the beginning and tell my the entire tale. Don’t leave anything out.”

The dreaming Joe made himself a little more comfortable in the other world as he had done so beside his mother’s grave. He leaned back and prepared to listen to the tale that was about to be told.

“Okay, here goes,” replied the ghost a little uneasily.

“My name is Jeb Carter. Up until twelve months ago, I was a train driver for the San Francisco train line. Everything was going fine until that fateful night. I was due to retire soon, even had a nice little lump sum waiting for me from the train company. It wouldn’t be much, but enough to see me through my final years. I am fifty now so I didn’t plan on living indefinitely.

Anyway, like I said, everything was going fine until my last trip to Carson City. The line runs between San Francisco and Virginia City. Carson City is one of the fewstops on the way. One stormy night about 20 miles outside the City something went wrong and the train went off the tracks. I tried to stop in time, but the locomotive just had too much power behind her to stop in a hurry. We hit the dirt and the carriages overturned. Everybody on board was killed that night. 

The ghost looked up after reading that story and Joe could see the pain written on the face of the man who felt responsible for other’s suffering.

“How many people, Jeb?” Joe asked cautiously. 

“About fifteen in all, seven ladies, seven men including me and one child,” the ghost accounted. “Couldn’t save but one of them,” he said in bitterness.

“Why do you need my help, Jeb?” Joe asked. He didn’t know what he could possibly do one year down the track, but he would do what he could. The man’s ghost was obviously hurting greatly at the other people dying on his train.

“I need somebody to travel back with me to that night, Joe,” the man answered somberly.

I need somebody to help clear my good name. Somebody else had something to do with causing that accident that night. Up until now, nobody else has stayed around long enough to hear my story. I have been trying to contact somebody for a whole year now. I tried your father and brothers at first. That father of your certainly seems like a worthy man, but like your brothers when I tried to appear to him, all I saw was doubt and skepticism about ghosts and so forth. When I tried to tap into your subconscious, I got a different message. I could read your fear and nervousness. But I could also sense your belief in things that weren’t necessarily visible to the naked eye. You seemed to be able to see something for what it might be other than the way it was shown to you. Something like being able to judge people from the inside and not the outside.”

“I came across your presence on the other side a few nights ago and felt like you would be someone willing to help me” the man continued. “I tried to appear to you at first by using the actual train, but only resulted in scaring you away like all the rest. If you can use this plateau between your world and mine, maybe we can go back in time to that night and see who else was around.”

“You’re just lucky that I can judge people from the inside, Jeb,” Joe said trying to add a little laughter to the strange meeting. “If I believed in first appearances all the time, you would have killed off any help I might have given you when you appeared to me like a dead corpse. I don’t usually make comments about people’s outer appearance, but you just looked plain scary.” The ghost seemed to laugh at the fun being poked at him.

“Why do you think someone else was around, Jeb?” Joe asked “Could be that the train came off the tracks through no fault of yours at all. There might have been something wrong with the track.”

“I can’t be rightly sure, Joe,” the man said, “But right before we derailed, I remember seeing something or somebody standing on the track just ahead of us. The lightening and thunder were pretty ferocious. When on of the lightening bolts lit up the track, I could see two or more men standing near the track. There looked to be something in the middle of the track blocking our path. I tried to put on the brakes in time, but we were just going too fast to be able to stop in time. And you now know what happened next,” he said sadly. “The next thing I knew was that we were coming off the rails and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The real body of Joe Cartwright seemed to be waking from his slumber. The image of the ghost in front of the dreaming Joe flickered a little and seemed to lose distortion briefly. “Looks like my time may be cut a little short, Joe” the man said with a hint of sadness. “Will you help me out, son?”

“Yeah, I’ll help you out,” Joe responded. He didn’t know what drove him to say this. He still had the fresh feelings of fear and dread from the events of the past few days, but at the same time he felt an unavailing sense of urgency to help the stricken man reach his destination in the next world. “What do you want me to do, Jeb?”

“Well, it looks as if the only time you are going to see me or be able to help is when you are asleep,” the man said candidly. “We need to make sure that the next time you appear to help me, that you will be asleep for a time long enough to accompany back to that accident night.” Joe could feel himself waking up again and knew that the man’s image would not remain much longer.

”How about I go to this site where the accident was?” Joe explained. “I can try and go to sleep at the actual scene. It may help to keep me asleep longer and we might not have to travel too far at all.”

“That’s a great idea Little Joe,” the man replied “But what would your family say?”

“I will have to travel without telling them for the time being,” Joe said. “If they found out I intended to got to Carson City on my own, they would never let me out of the house. I know that the doctor gave my Pa some sleeping powders the other day, that’s why the real me is asleep now. Until this morning, I didn’t know why I had felt so tired. But I overheard my family talking at the breakfast table this morning. They mentioned that they thought the powder that Pa used in my milk last night must still be working. The effects still haven’t completely worn off . If I can get a few more of them, then I could take them when I get to the accident site. They will ensure that I stay asleep long enough to help you with your problem.”

“I don’t know about them sleeping powders, Joe,” the man said. “Do you know how many you would need? Any what if you stay asleep too long.” “Maybe we had better come up with another idea. I appreciate your help, but I don’t want anybody else, especially somebody still living to get hurt because of me again.”

“It’s okay, Jab” Joe answered. “I doubt that I would be able to sleep long enough without some sort of aid. I normally sleep quite well at night, but the events over the past few nights have my nerves on edge. I am afraid without them I could wake up at any time before solving the mystery. Don’t worry, I only intend to take two of them. Pa gave me only one and that was enough to knock me out for quite a number of hours. If I take two of them together, then they will work longer. Two couldn’t do too much harm except keep me asleep longer than normal”

“I don’t know how to thank you yet, Joe,” the man said and extended a hand to shake. “There is an old tree about 20 miles this side of Carson City, you can’t miss it. You go there, make camp and go to sleep and I will see you then.”

Joe smiled and went to shake the man’s hand, just as his hand reached the ghost’s he felt himself floating again.

Joe thought he could feel himself shaking the man’s hand. When the real Little Joe awoke beside Marie’s grave, instead of seeing the ghost’s outstretched hand, he saw that his father, Ben Cartwright had hold of his sleep limp hand.

He looked up and saw the worried faces of his family looking down at him. He tried to give them his best “Sorry” grin. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep in the grass like that. He remembered the conversation he had with Jeb Carter.

Little Joe felt himself being pulled into a standing position by his brothers and father. He swayed slightly from the sleepiness his body still felt. He let his father and brother’s guide him wherever they wanted to take him. For the moment, his sleep addled mind was going back over the conversation he had just had with the ghost. Somehow he had to get to Carson City and the accident site by tomorrow.

Ben and his boys could see that Joe was not fully awake. They held onto his body firmly to avoid him falling out of their grasp. They had a brief discussion between themselves about how they should get the youngest Cartwright home. They knew nothing about the mysterious man Joe had spoken to or the imminent trip Joe planned to take to Carson City.

Finally Ben decided it best that Joe ride with one of them home. They had tried to get Joe to mount Cochise in order to ride her home, but once in the saddle, Joe had just slumped over her neck, apparently lacking the strength to hold himself upright.

They rearranged the situation and placed Little Joe in front of Adam on Sport. Adam looped his arm around the slim waist of his little brother and held him firmly against his own body. Joe’s head had once again bowed in sleep and now rested softly against Adam’s broad chest.

On the ride home, all three awake Cartwright were lost to their own thoughts.
Hoss couldn’t help but worry about his youngest brother. He had been the one to find Joe missing this morning. He had gone up to his room and knocked briefly at first. He didn’t know why he knocked, Joe was supposed to be still sleeping. He opened the door expecting to find Joe sound asleep from the night before. He let out a loud gasp when he spied the open window and the vacant bed.

Adam felt comfortable with the thought that at least physically he could help his brother at the moment. With Joe securely in his grasp, he could protect the boy. He had been protector ever since Marie died and that wasn’t about to change now. He just wished there was something more he could do. He sighed and looked down at the sleeping form of Joe in front of him. He realigned his arm making sure that he couldn’t lose hold of his passenger in case he woke with a start.

Ben’s thoughts were also of his youngest son. He saw Little Joe sittings snugly in front on his brother Adam. When Hoss had cried out earlier that Joe wasn’t in his bed, all sorts of worries and fears and appeared in Ben’s mind. With Joe’s current state of mind and the fact that he hadn’t been sleeping too well, possibly getting sick and just plain scared, he had no hesitation in ordering the boy’s to saddle their horses and go searching for the missing boy. At first they didn’t know where to look. It was only by pure chance that they checked Marie’s grave site before heading out any further. Ben’s heart had eased a little at the sight of his son sleeping beside his mother’s grave. It pained him to think that Joe thought this was the only place he could sleep in peace and seek some comfort at the moment.

When they arrived back at the house just before lunch, Ben dismounted and took the sleeping Joe from Adam and carried him inside. When they got inside, Ben decided to lay Little Joe on the settee in the living room. At least they could keep a close eye on him down here. He didn’t want Joe waking up again and taking off again until he was sure his son was okay.

*****

After a few more hours of restful slumber, Joe Cartwright began to awaken on the couch. His movements didn’t go unnoticed by his father Ben who was at his desk occasionally writing, but for the most part just watching his youngest son. Joe looked ever so young when his face was poised in sleep. He lost any firmness he had in his cheeks and his face looked almost untouched. His long eyelashes sat softly over closed emerald green eyes. His skin was smooth and wrinkle free. Ben could almost believe that he didn’t have a care in the world. But sadly, Ben knew there was still something troubling him.
Ben got up and walked over to the couch were Joe was. He sat on the edge near Joe’s feet waiting for the boy to wake in his own time.

Joe rubbed his eyes and looked up. He vaguely remembered about being at the lake beside his mother’s grave and being brought home by his family. He looked at his father and thought that he was in for a good stern lecture about going out without telling anyone where he was going.

“Sorry, Pa,” came the whispered response. He shifted his gaze towards the floor, trying to avoid any piercing stare from his father.

Ben was confused at first, but then guessed at what the apology was for. “What have you got to say for yourself young man?”

“Sorry Pa,” came the repeated answer. “I really am, Pa. I just needed to see Mama for a little while”. He was on the verge of tears and had to chew his bottom lip to prevent the inevitable cascade.

Ben’s heart immediately softened. He couldn’t be stern with the boy when he started speaking about his mother. Ben knew that Joe missed his mother terribly. He put his arm around Joe and gave him the emotional support he needed right now.

“I am not angry with you, Joe” Ben said “Not really, just plain worried. When Hoss came down and told us your bed was empty, I was scared for what might have happened to you.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you, Pa,” Joe continued. “It’s just that I have had a lot on my mind the last couple of days and I wanted to talk to Mama for a while”.

Ben just smiled at his youngest “Maybe next time you will ask me to join you, huh. I miss your mother very much, Joseph”.

“Yeah, maybe next time, Pa” Joseph said without much emotion in his voice. He knew that his father was trying to improve his dark mood. It wasn’t working. Somehow tonight Joe had to work out how to escape the watchful eyes of his family again to start his journey towards Carson City. Even before that, he needed to sneak up to his father’s room and take the small bag containing the remaining sleeping powders.

Joe made an effort to sit up on the settee and looked as though he was going to get up. “Just going to out and tend Cochise, Pa,” he said. He knew that his father would not let him do too much that would over tax him today, so he decided on an option that would please them both. Ben would be pleased enough that Joe was doing something useful but easy and Joe could go about working out his plan in his mind without someone watching over his shoulder.

“See you in a little while, Pa,” Joe said as he closed the door gently behind him. Ben just gave a small wave, signaling that he had complete trust in his youngest. His fears and worries were not completely at ease but he tried his hardest to put on a normal face.

*****

By supper time that night, Joe had worked out his feeble plan. He was going to spend the night sleeping in the barn with Cochise after everyone else though he was asleep in bed. He wanted to be sure he awoke early enough and wouldn’t be seen by his family before he could make his escape.

The biggest problem he faced was trying to slip into his father’s room so he could get the small bag of sleeping powders. He knew it would be best to attempt this little deception without his father being in the room. His father was a notoriously light sleeper and he doubted he would be able to walk into the room undiscovered.

Whilst his father was out at the barn for a brief period that evening and just before Adam and Hoss returned from their chores, Joe make his move. He slipped into his father’s vacant room and quickly removed the small white bag from the medicine chest. He slipped it into the pocket of his trousers and walked out. Before he went back downstairs, he made a stop at his own bedroom and hid the little bag in a niche of the bedroll he had prepared earlier. When everyone else was asleep that night, he would slip out into the barn with the bedroll and be ready to quickly saddle Cochise first thing in the morning and start his journey. With any luck, he would reach his intended destination about mid afternoon. He felt a little guilty at having to deceive his family this way but he couldn’t think of any other way round it. Nobody was going to believe his tale. This was just something he had to do on his own. He intended to write a note to his family before he left, telling them where he was going. He didn’t want to worry them any more than they already were, but hopefully by the time they found the note he would be many miles away.

*****

At first everything seemed to go according to his calculations. He managed to make the usual protests when told it was time to retire for the night. He needed to keep up the normal appearances as much as possible. Once everyone was asleep, about 11.00 that night he crept silently out the front door and bedded down for the night in the hayloft in the barn.

Morning came around very quickly to his dismay and he found himself forcing himself to get up and start saddling Cochise. He had on his green jacket but the morning air was a little cooler than he expected. It looked like rain today after the continual hot dry days. Clouds made by sultry moist air were beginning to cover the sky. After suffering from the heat of the last few night, he hadn’t thought about needing any warmer clothes for his journey. There was no time to go back and get a warmer one. He just hoped that the day would warm up sufficiently, but one look at the sky threatening with a thunder storm and he doubted his wishes would be met.

Once ready he once again led Cochise out of the barn. His mind was on other things and instead of waiting for them to be past the ranch house, he mounted the pinto and started riding away. He was unaware that his actions could be heard inside.

 

Adam Cartwright was on the verge of waking up when he thought he heard a noise outside in the yard. He listened carefully trying to hear the noise again just to confirm he had heard something. The sound didn’t repeat itself and Adam thought that it was just the storm outside this morning. He got himself out of bed and washed his hands and face ready to start the day. He didn’t think about the noise again.

Some half an hour later, Ben and Hoss made their own way down to the breakfast table to join Adam.

“Good Morning, Son,” Ben said without surprise. It was very rare that Adam wasn’t the first one down to the table in the morning. He noted with an equal lack of surprise that it was his youngest son that was last to the table again.

“Mornin’, Adam,” Hoss said as he prepared to eat his breakfast and make a start on the morning chores. It was cooler outside, but if he didn’t make a start now he would just get further behind.

“Have you seen your younger brother yet?” Ben asked just for the sake of asking.

“Not yet, Pa,” Adam said. “His door was still closed so I didn’t check on him. Want me to go and check?”

Ben digested the idea in his head for a minute. “No, let him sleep for a while,” he said finally. “Like the doctor said, if he wants to sleep, just let him. I’ll check on him after you boys have left for the day.”

The rest of breakfast was uneventful and Adam and Hoss got up from the table and prepared to go about their morning duties. Hoss was the first one out to the barn that morning. He looked at the stalls and knew instantly that something was wrong. Cochise was missing.

“Pa……….. Adam ………. Pa!” Hoss shouted as he ran towards the house. He was almost breathless by the time he reached his father and Adam who were opening the door at his frightened yells.

“Cochise is not in her stall,” Hoss stammered. He didn’t think he needed to add the details of what was forming in his mind. He was sure that his father and brother were astute enough to make their own conclusions.

“Oh no, not again” Ben now said as he ran up the stairs towards Little Joe’s bedroom. When he opened the door, instead of the image of his sleeping son that he wanted to see, he only saw an empty bed. He walked over to it, hoping for some miracle that his eyes were deceiving him. The only thing he saw on the bed clothes was a folded white piece of paper. This only made the fear in his heart grow about where his youngest son might be.
Adam and Hoss had reached the door about the same time as their father picked up the note from the bed. He looked at them with worry etched all over his face.
He opened the letter. There was no mistaking that the author was Joseph. The backward slant from his left-handed writing left little room for doubt. He started to read the contents out loud:

PA, ADAM AND HOSS
BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS NOTE I WILL BE GONE. 
I MADE A PROMISE TO SOMEONE TO HELP THEM OUT AND I HAVE TO KEEP IT.
YOU ALWAYS TAUGHT ME TO KEEP MY WORD, PA. I CAN’T LET HIM DOWN.
I AM RIDING TOWARDS CARSON CITY AND SHOULD BE BACK TOMORROW OR THE NEXT DAY. DON’T WORRY FOR ME – I WILL BE ALL RIGHT.

PLEASE DON’T FOLLOW ME – I NEED TO DO THIS ON MY OWN. 
YOUR LOVING SON AND BROTHER – JOE CARTWRIGHT.

Hoss and Adam looked stunned. They could see the worry and fear crawling across their father’s face like a stain.

“You not seriously thinking about letting him go on his own, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben looked at his son “You bet I’m not. No matter what that young scamp thinks, we are his family. If he has a problem to sought out, we are going to help him.”

“What could be so important in Carson City, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know Hoss, but we are going to find out,” Ben said adamantly. “Hoss, you get the horses saddled and tell Charlie that we are riding out after Little Joe. Adam, you get some supplies ready and meet me out the front of the house.”

Half an hour later, Ben and his boys were ready to start off on their rescue mission. The ground was slightly hard, but not hard enough to prevent some tracks being left behind by Cochise. Hoss was bent down over the neck of Chubb, looking for any and all signs of Joe’s intended route.

Joe had nearly two hours heard start and they would need to make up time as quickly as possible to catch up to him.

*****

The trail was tough going for Little Joe. The wind had picked up some along the desolate plains and whistled through the thin fabric of his coat. He really was wishing he had gone back to get a heavier coat. He dreaded how cold the night would become if it did rain due to the storm overhead.

After about eight solid hours in the saddle, Joe reached what he thought was the rendezvous place. There was a tree in the distance that look suspiciously like the one Jeb had described. Unfortunately, the area was as barren as a desert. Except for the railway track and the tree that was nearby, there was no other landmark to speak of. The whole place was eerily silent.

Joe had to pry himself out of the saddle after sitting so long. He was normally a fit rider, but because of his lack of exercise over the past few days, his muscles had become slightly slack. They protested as he made them work in the cool air.

The first item of business was to make a campfire. Joe hunted around and tried to gather a few rocks to shelter the fire but the were very few if any rocks to speak of. The fire would remain a small one due to the constant battering from the wind. It blew through the area in small unchecked thermal and make an ominous sound against the setting sky. The horizon was a brilliant blush pink on dark gray clouds and signaled that the night would be a cold one.

Joe made sure that he tended to Cochise next. He unsaddled her and rubbed her down as best he could considering the humble conditions. He had two blankets in his bed roll. Now noting the coolness in the air beginning to pick up due to the setting sun, he sacrificed one of them for his best friend and draped the warm material over the rump of Cochise. He went back and stoked the meager fire again hoping to secure some more warmth for himself.

Just as the last daylight faded, Joe went about making some coffee and a small meal from his limited supplies. It wasn’t going to be much tonight. At least the coffee would be hot to drink.

Joe reached into his coffee cup and pulled out the still sealed white bag of sleeping powder. He looked at it for a minute and almost changed his mind about it. He did want to help this lost soul he had just met, but he was a little apprehensive about the effects of taking too much of this substance. He could almost here the berating words of Doc Martin now about taking unprescribed medications. Usually he was one to avoid such things. This was evidenced by the fact that his father had snuck some into his milk the night before in order to disguise it from him. But sighing and beginning to unlace the draw string tie, he knew that there was no other way to reach the higher plateau in the other world he needed to travel to. Jeb would be waiting for him. He had given his word and just as his note said, he had been taught all his life to keep his word, no matter what the circumstances.

Joe went about pouring about what he considered two teaspoonfuls of powder into the tin coffee cup beside him. He proceeded to fill the cup from the billy that was positioned over the campfire. He watched the crystals dissolve into the pitch black liquid and before he could change his mind, he drank the contents in one swallow.

Now he laid back against the upturned saddle and placed the blanket over him. He wouldn’t have to wait long until the powder began to work. He was tired from the journey to begin with. He was just about to close his eyes and wait for the sleeping powder to take him away when he heard the sound of horses approaching.
His eyes were growing heavy and at first he thought he must already be asleep and dreaming. It looked as though the people coming towards him were his very own family. But it couldn’t be.

Ben was the first to dismount and almost ran over to his youngest son with relief that he was safe. He put his hands on both of his son’s shoulders and stared intently into his youngest’s face, waiting for some sought of explanation. What he saw wasn’t those normal happy dancing eyes of Little Joe. The eyes he looked through were bloodshot, glassy looking and very heavy from lack of sleep it appeared.
“Are you all right, son?” Ben asked. Something was still wrong. He expected his son to be trying to dodge the question and be coming up with all sorts of reasons, instead he just saw those heavy bloodshot eyes.

Ben glanced about quickly at the meager campsite and noted the small fire, the coffee billy and the tin cup beside the saddle. What really caught his attention was a flash of white. For a moment it didn’t really hold his gaze, but upon closer observation, he gasped with horror as he recognized the tie-string bag. He let got of Little Joe and made a desperate grab for the small bag. He picked it up and noted that the contents were only half of what they should have been. He looked back at his son and now knew why his son looked so tired. He couldn’t hide his naked fear. The amount that was missing from the bag was definitely more than one dose.

“Why son?” Ben asked in hurry. “Why would you do something like this?”

Adam and Hoss walked up beside their father and looked questioningly at the scene before them. Little Joe looked a little worse for ware. He looked very tired. Maybe he was truly getting sick like they had first assumed. They knew it must have been a long hard ride for their young brother to reach this spot in the time he had. They had been following at a neck breaking pace themselves. Barely stopping in case they lost track of the youngest Cartwright.

Ben now noticed his other two sons and answered their unasked questions. “Your brother here has taken just about the entire contents of this white bag.”
Hoss and Adam now gasped in surprise of their own. They knew what had been in the bag. They had been there when Doc Martin had given it to Ben with the relevant instructions.

“Sorry Pa, I promised a friend I would help him,” Joe said in a very thick voice. “The only time I seem to be able to make contact with him is when I am asleep. I need to help him, I promised I would. Please understand. “

Before Little Joe could continue his explanation, the white powder finally took over his body. Without so much as another word about who he was helping and why, he began to sway whilst standing on his feet.

Hoss reached out to steady his young brother, but before he could truly grasp him properly, Little Joe starting falling towards the ground. He was now fully asleep and he couldn’t stop his body’s descent to the cold ground. Hoss managed to get one huge hand under his head before the rest of his body hit the dirt.

“JOE!” all three of them shouted in union. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. Joe had taken a very strong dose of powder and now looked as though he would not wake up for a very long time.

Ben was stroking his son’s face gently, calling his name and trying to get him to come around. He would forget all about his son going off on his own if he would just wake up and tell his family he was alright.

Ben and his boys had time this morning to grab their warmer coats from the closet upstairs before starting out after Little Joe. Now with his son so still in his arms, Ben could see Joe’s body start to shiver slightly from the night air.

“Adam, get me that blanket over there,” Ben said without looking up. “Hoss, see if you can find some more wood for this fire.”

“OH JOSEPH, why won’t you let us help you,” Ben said softly to his son that didn’t give any sign of hearing his father’s voice. Ben grabbed Joe’s blanket from the ground and wrapped it around his son tightly. It would be a few hours before they could start heading back to the ranch and help from Doc Martin. The horses had been ridden hard and needed to be rested. They all needed to rest before starting back again.

Joe remained deeply poised in slumber whilst his father and brothers filled their bellies with his coffee and talked about how to get Joseph home again.

It was agreed that they would travel back as soon as possible to seek the Doctor. Ben knew that Joe had ingested a quite large dose of sleeping powder and needed to know what the effects might be for his young son.

Ben decided that he would have Joe travel with him on the journey back. Once they got within reach of the ranch, they would send Charlie or one of the hands to get the Doc from Virginia City.

Hoss’s mind just tormented him. He hated to see any living thing sick or injured. This was his brother. His young brother Joseph, who he treasured almost above all others.

“Why, Pa”,” Hoss thought aloud. “Why would he do something like this?”. He was one who normally didn’t show much emotion, but right now he felt very helpless. His brother was laying sleep, deeply sleep thanks to a large dose of sleeping powders he had given himself. He had heard his brother’s explanation about helping somebody and that he could only help by being asleep. This just didn’t make any sense to Hoss or his family and he just felt more frustrated the longer they sat there without help for Joe.

“Don’t worry, Hoss,” Adam said trying to ease the fears of his larger but younger brother. “We’ll help get him through this. You just have to be positive. For Joe’s sake.”

*****

At first, Little Joe’s sleep was dreamless. It was almost as though the powders weren’t going to work.

Ben and his boys allowed the horses the minimum amount of rest before heading back to the ranch. Hoss was leading Cochise behind Chubb. Adam rode beside his father’s horse leading Buck. Ben had both arms wrapped securely around Joe’s waist. They had wrapped Little Joe up in two blankets before placing him on the saddle in front of his father. The ride home was going to be considerably slower and the wind was still whistling across the open plain. With Joe unconscious, they needed to keep his body temperature monitored as much as possible. If he got too cold, it would only add to the problems caused by the sedative.

For the first few miles, Ben continued to try and get through to Little Joe without success. Joe’s face was poised in the deep slumber that caused his face to look so young and innocent. The skin was soft and tan and completely relaxed. There wasn’t a single wrinkle from worry or the sun etched upon it. Ben shifted his son’s position a little in the saddle so that he was leaning against his father’s chest. His curly head lay upon his shirt and tan vest. They had taken his hat and packed in on Cochise before setting out. This only seemed leave his face looking that much younger.

*****

At some stage during that ride home, Joe’s soul made that journey from this world to the next. He felt himself floating again and the sensation of being upon a higher plain.
He was looking out over the plain were he had set up camp. He felt the presence of someone behind him and turned to see Jeb Carter standing there.

“Hi, Little Joe, ” Jeb greeted him. “Wasn’t sure you’d keep your promise.”

“I said I would,” Joe replied. “It still feels strange, though.”

“At least your idea worked,” Jeb continued. “We are almost at the right spot. The train should be right over there.”

Before either of them could say anymore, they heard the unmistakable sound of a train whistle. It was long and deep. Upon closer inspection of the area, they could just make out the shadow of the engine. Thick black smoke billowed behind the locomotive like a long uncoiling snake.

“How do we get down from here, Jeb?” Joe asked honestly. He didn’t know if they walked on the other side of heaven.

“Leave that to me, Joe,” Jeb said with a slight smile. He knew that what they were about to attempt was more than Joe Cartwright had ever experienced in his entire life. “Grab hold of my hand and I’ll do the rest”.

Although Jeb appeared to be whole again this time, Joe was a little hesitant about holding the man’s outstretch hand. The night in his room, that hand had been nothing more than dried up old skin over brittle sticks for bones. He grasped it, but not very firmly. He was thankful that he had worn his gloves today.

Before Joe could pull his hand back, Jeb enclosed his own over Joe’s gloved hand and they started their journey. Joe found himself floating again but this time he could see their souls moving towards the train. The sensation of moving around in this high plateau was quite different.

The train seemed to be continuing on it’s merry journey, oblivious to the fate that awaited it down the track. Just before they reached the train, Jeb seemed to stop a minute.

They were nearing an area that was housed a little by large rocks that formed scraggly outcrops along the railway line. The formations would make a good hide out for any unsavory characters trying to keep from view.

“You wait out here, Joe,” said Jeb. “We are almost at the accident sight so I want you to take a good look at things out here and see if you can see anything blocking the track. I’ll wait inside the carriages for you. Let me know if you see anything.”

Joe just nodded his head and took his position up on a small ledge overlooking the track. He could still hear the train approaching and knew he wouldn’t have to wait long.

Just as he saw the train take a small curve in the track and head towards the rock, he saw something else out of the corner of his eye. He thought he saw two dark images emerge from a small niche in the rocks and come out onto the track. They seemed to be saying something to each other as the train got closer. Joe crept slowing a little closer to the two men. He didn’t know if they would be able to see him or not and didn’t want to take the chance that they could.

As he got within a few feet, he pushed his slim frame into a small nook within earshot of the two men and listened to the conversation taking place.

“Angus, you get up there on that ledge and push some of them big boulders down onto the track here,” the first man said.

“Sure Walt, but is this going to work?” the second man asked the first.

“Just do it; I told you I got everything under control,” Angus Coleman hissed. “I want what’s on that train and nobody is here to stop us. A few of them rocks on the track and that train will stop dead in its track. We take over the driver and force him to open the rear carriage. If your lucky I’ll even let you search some of them people in the first few carriages and see what little trinkets they have on them. Just be quick about it, the train is almost here.”

Walt Bishop got up onto the outcrop like he was told and used a long metal bar as a lever to shift some of the boulders. With a rumbling sound, a few of the rocks started to move and slide down the hill. Soon a small avalanche of boulders was cascading down the side of the hill and out onto the train track.

Joe felt anger at this. He clench his fists at the thought of such callousness from people. Without thinking he jumped out from behind his hiding spot and began threatening the men and trying to stop their evil actions. It was only after a short barrage from him and no response from the two men that highlighted the fact to him that the two men couldn’t see or hear him. His shoulder’s slumped a little in defeat. He wanted to make a small difference. He wanted to try and help those poor doomed souls on the train, but the pages of history had already be written.

Soon the sound of the locomotive was very close. He looked to his left and he could see the large bright headlamp on the front of the engine. It was only a short distance from the rocks that were strewn all over the track. Apparently, the train didn’t see the danger yet.

It didn’t take long though and Joe watched with bemused horror and he saw the engine start to brake heavily. Now the driver, Jeb Carter had seen the danger on the tracks and tried to stop in time. Sparks flew and there was a horrible screeching noise of metal wheels on metal tracks as the two of them joined forces. The sparks continued to fly and got considerably louder. Without warning the train suddenly lurched to one side and the carriages lurched to the other. It was too much for the engine. The great forces involved of the engine pulling one way and the carriages the other were just too much. The engine and the three carriages parted company and toppled over.

Joe put his hands over his ears and looked away from the sight as he could hear the screams from the passengers inside. He could hear their screams of death. He could smell the smoke from the friction on the tracks. It sounds were deafening and too much. “NOOOO” was the only sentence he seemed to be able to utter.

Then just as quickly as the accident had began, it was all over. Joe looked up and saw that the train was eerily silent. He couldn’t detect any more screams from the passengers. They were all gone.

Joe looked further down the track and saw that the two men who had caused the accident were rummaging around in the last carriage that was overturned some distance away. He walked over to where they were to see what they were doing. He knew that they couldn’t see him now. That didn’t quell the anger burning within him at this horrible act. There were many dead or dying people inside and all these two were worried about was finding what treasure was to be stolen.

The two men seemed to be struggling with some sort of large metal box. They were grunting from the obvious heavy weight involved.

Joe took a closer look and noted a few words written on the top lid of the box.

PROPERTY THE U.S. ARMY”. The box looked to be very strong and had a large padlock on the front of it.

Angus Coleman now made a comment to his partner in crime “Gee, I didn’t think this gold shipment would be so heavy” and let out another grunt from exertion.

“Yeah, this shipment might have been secret, but what a haul,” Walt Bishop added. “We let this stuff lay low for awhile until the heat settles down and we will be filthy rich”.

“Yeah, it just a damn shame we have to wait so long,” Angus said with disgust.

“Pure luck that we came across that drunken Army solider in that cantina the other night, hey Angus,” Bishop commented.

Joe now reorganized the conversation in his head. ‘So that was it. A gold shipment. They planned to hide the gold for a while and come back later to get it.’ By the look of the size of the box, Walt Bishop was right, it was a sizable haul indeed.

Little Joe felt another presence behind him and turned to see Jeb standing beside him again. He could see the despair and sorrow written into the man’s face.

“Now you know why I asked for your help, Joe,” Jeb said. “That gold shipment was so secret that even I didn’t know about it. Come on I show you what these animals caused”.
Joe reluctantly followed the driver’s ghost. He wasn’t usually one for stomaching such sites. Sure he had seen men die before, lots of time, even horribly before, but it was never something you got used to.

He grasped the handle on the outside of the first carriage and pulled himself aboard the locomotive.

He walked into the first door and started opening the first set of doors to the passengers. The first thing that hit him was the stench. It could only be one of death. It was overwhelming and Joe felt himself fighting the urge to gag at the foul aroma.
Something was triggering in the back of his mind. Something was pulling at his senses. He could feel the tug and for a brief instant before he could survey the damage from the accident, he felt himself floating again and leaving that higher level of existence.

“Sorry Jeb, doesn’t look like I can stay here anyway,” Joe heard himself say. The only thing that was still churning inside his mind was the yellow crusted smell of decay.

Joe felt his real body under something soft. He tried with all is might to open his eyes and take in what was going on. Instead of seeing the broken and twisted bodies from the passengers of the train that was responsible for that awful smell, he saw a white haired man peering into his face with a look of worry.
“Hello, there young man, welcome back,” came the words from the man before him.
The face was almost too close. Joe felt himself moving his head from side to side trying to clear his vision a little.

Now that his sight was a bit more clearer, he could see that it was Doc Martin that had been hovering over him. He could see that the Doctor had what looked to be a vial of smelling salts in one hand. He had obviously been using it to bring him back from his unconscious state. What he actually smelt instead of decay and macabre was the equally acrid smell of the vial the doctor was holding.

Joe looked about and suddenly realized that he was back in his own room. Standing right behind the doctor was his very worried father and his brothers, Hoss and Adam.
Ben tried to give his best smile to his son but could only manage a half-hearted effort. He couldn’t hide his genuine worry.

It had taken most of today from late last night to bring an unconscious and unresponsive Little Joe back home. On the journey back, Little Joe had uttered very little. He just remained deeply asleep from the sleeping powders. On one occasion when Ben had been talking softly to his son, trying to rouse him, he thought he heard Joe say “NO” but he could have been mistaken.

Joe was trying to say something, but his mouth was very dry. The effects of the sleeping sedative and the black coffee the night before left Little Joe very thirsty. He gestured for some water and immediately saw Adam hand a small glass of water to the doctor and put it to Joe’s lips. Joe drank greedily and thankfully. When he had had enough, he pushed the glass away.

He tried to sit up a little. The mattress underneath him did feel very good. He felt Hoss helping him a little and propping the pillows up behind his back. He got a little more comfortable and looked at his family and the doctor standing around him. He could see that they were all very concerned.

“Sorry, Pa,” he said sheepishly, trying to avoid his father’s gaze.

Doc Martin grabbed him firmly but gently by the chin and said stiffly “Do you know how worried your family and I have been about you, Joseph?” He saw the immediate reaction from his young patient. He hadn’t meant to be that harsh, but he couldn’t forget the faces of the Cartwright family when he arrived at the house a short time ago.

Doc Martin had been in his office in town when Charlie, one of the Ponderosa ranch hands came charging into his office saying he was needed urgently to tend to the youngest member of the family yet again. He grabbed his medical bag and raced to the ranch with Charlie dreading what injury he would find this time.

When Ben Cartwright had opened the door, Paul thought that Joe must be almost at death’s door. He would never forget the distraught and helpless look he saw on his old friend’s leather tanned face. He held his breath in until Ben told him what had happened the night before and how they had found Little Joe at the campsite.

Little Joe looked back up at his father and brothers with tears in his eyes. He hadn’t meant to hurt his family that much. Doc Martin released Joe and moved off the bed to allow Ben to take his place. He couldn’t be angry at his favorite patient, but feared he would have a few more grey hairs after today.

Ben couldn’t be angry when he saw that face either. He had tears of his own running down his face as he gathered a sobbing Little Joe into his arms. “It’s okay, Joe,” Ben whispered softly “Oh Joseph.” Ben could hardly hold himself together. He was supposed to be being strong for his young son, but he was finding it rather difficult.

Adam and Hoss had not been able to hide their fears either and without further invitation managed to find their own places to sit on the bed and give a comforting arm to their younger sibling. Adam was stoic in look, but inside his heart was still recovering from the heavy blow it received. Hoss on the other hand was more open and had tears of his own streaming down his face to match those of his father and brother Joe.

Little Joe had been crying. All his emotions inside were mixed up. He felt angry that he had to deceive his family like he did. He felt sorrow for Jeb and the passengers he had seen lose their lives in the train accident. He felt a little solace from the fact that he had been able to work out the cause of the accident. It hadn’t been Jeb’s fault at all. Somehow he was going to have to prove this to the railway company.

Joe didn’t feel himself drifting back to sleep again whilst being hugging firmly by his family. He had been thinking about too much. A lot of it he probably wouldn’t remember the next day when he woke again.

Ben and the boys released their embrace on Joe and now sat back on the bed. All were a little embarrassed about having displayed such open emotion. All had to chuckle to themselves, including Doc Martin when they took a closer look at Joe’s face.

The feeling of being loved and wanted had been enough to let Little Joe relax again They were just in time to see his eyes flutter closed and he was under the power of the sedative again.

Doc Martin gave another examination of Joe’s pulse and breathing as his young patient slept. Paul told them this reaction was expected. The dose Joe had taken was a large one and due to the amount he had over the last couple of days, he was satisfied that Joe would probably sleep on and off over the next two of three days at least. He sadly noted that he still had no real leads to extend to the Cartwright family about Joe’s behavioral changes.

“I’ll be back in day or two, Ben,” Paul said on his way out the door. “Until then, just keep him quiet as much as possible. He can get up and move around the house a little, but I wouldn’t suggest letting him going riding or out on his own for a while.”

Ben gave a hearty handshake and bit the doctor Goodnight. He knew that the family physician was doing his best to help Little Joe. They all were, but nothing seemed to be working at the moment.

*****

Joe awoke very late again the next morning. His body felt particularly heavy due to the residual effects from the sleeping powders. He had trouble getting his clothes on without feeling slightly dizzy or light headed.

Ben had heard his son moving about upstairs and went to check to see if he needed anything. Ben just chuckled silently to himself as he watched his young son from the bedroom door to struggle into his clothes. Joe’s face was a colorful mixture of expressions from the frustration he felt at being so helpless.

Ben suddenly bore the brunt of Joe’s anger “What are you laughing at, Pa?” he said with a little bit of sarcasm.

“Uh-hum, nothing, Joseph,” Ben said still trying to stifle back the giggles. He knew that his son was feeling particularly vulnerable at the moment and needed his family around him to support him instead of jeer at his misadventures. “Just came up to see if you were all right, Joe,” Ben said trying to cover his tracks.

Ben now changed the mood of the conversation entirely and gave his best pleading look to his youngest son “Please tell us what happened yesterday, son” he said softly. He tried to put all his energy and feeling into his question.

Joe looked up and noted the look on his father’s face. Once again he felt increasingly guilty at what anguish he had caused to his family.

“You will think I am nuts, Pa,” Joe said. He couldn’t hold it in any longer. If he didn’t share his story with somebody, he would burst at the seams.

“Joe,” Ben said and walked close enough to his son to put an arm around his shoulder “We are your family, we love you. We will understand.”

“Okay,” Joe sighed somberly. “Tell Adam and Hoss if they want to here a good laugh from their brother to meet me downstairs in a few minutes. Pa…….. he began slowly, “promise you won’t laugh at me!”

Ben had never felt more serious in his life “I promise nobody will laugh at your story, Joseph”.

Ben left the bedroom and allowed his son a little time to dress himself and gather his confidence. He had told Adam and Hoss what was about to talk place and gave them a threatening look when he told of his promise no to laugh at Joe’s story. He doubted that his son’s would be so unfeeling towards Joe at the moment, but he needed to be sure.

Joe placed himself on the settee. Ben sat in his high-backed blue leather chair. Adam sat in the other arm chair in the room. Hoss sat on the opposite end to Joseph on the settee. He knew that his brother was looking for a little breathing space right now, so he didn’t get too close.

Finally, slowly and very apprehensively, Joseph told his fantastic tale to his family. He didn’t leave anything out. He told them about what he had seen on the nights that the house felt like it was shaking. He told them about the first time he saw Jeb Carter as the hollowed out corpse on his bed. He spoke of the floating sensation and his journey to the other side. He gave all the vivid details of the horrific train accident he witnesses and how he had felt so powerless to help the passengers on the train.

He had told his story whilst looking at the floor the whole time. It was only when he had finished his story. He looked up to gauge what his family were thinking.

Ben wanted to believe his son. The story was more fantastic that he could have ever thought explained. Some of the details now made more sense, like the uttering of the word TRAIN and the reaction to hearing the whistle of the train whilst in Virginia City. He wanted more than anything to believe in Joseph, but something ate away at his sense of rationalization.

Adam had been thinking alone similar lines but what trying his best to hide his true feelings from his younger brother. He really couldn’t bring himself to believe a story like that, even if Joe swore it was true.

Joe looked at his father and older brother and felt his own sorrow at their open expressions. He could see that they wanted to believe him, but just the same he could see that they didn’t believe. He felt that same sense of hopelessness starting to descend upon him again that he had felt whilst watching the train accident.

When Little Joe gazed at his big brother Hoss’s face at the other end of the settee, he saw a completely different expression. Hoss didn’t show any sign of not believing him. The only emotion he saw on his brother’s face was love. Love, unconditional, unforgiving, and without hesitation, Love. He reached out and thanked his brother with all of his heart for believing in him. He could always depend on Hoss in his time of need.
Ben tried to lighten the mood in the room again. “Let’s all go into town and get a beer this afternoon”.

It wasn’t only Joe who looked at his father with astonishment this time. Twice in one week, Ben Cartwright had made the suggestion of going into town with the sole purpose of socializing and relaxing.

Joe and his brother’s readily agreed. Joe had alterative motives going around in his head about what he wanted to do when he got to Virginia City. But for now he kept those thoughts to himself.

*****

Just as the Cartwright family were making their way to the Bucket O’ Blood saloon, their were two other men hitching their horses to the railing of the saloon. Walt Bishop and Angus Coleman then walked into the barroom and selected a table at the back of the saloon.

Both of them saw the family walk in but took no particular notice of what they were doing. They had no reason that they were suspected of doing anything illegal. Joe didn’t seem to notice them either. The two men were close enough to overhear any conversation that was between the Cartwright’s.

“Why do you want to go over there for, Joe?” Adam asked a little impatiently. He loved his brother dearly, but this story about the train was beginning to wear a little thin on him. He just wanted things to get back to normal again.

“What are you going to ask the Station Master, Joe?” Ben asked honestly. “He may not know anything about this train derailment you told us about.” Ben and his family failed to see the sudden interest the neighboring table had at hearing this sentence. The two men now were a little nervous to be hearing this from complete strangers. Did these four men know what they had done almost a year ago.

“I’m going to find out if he knows about it, Pa,” Joe said a little heatedly. He was beginning to get his temper up at having to explain his every little thought or movement since coming back from the campsite at Carson City.

All three older Cartwright’s noted the edge in Joe’s voice and knew that the youngest was getting a little steamed. They had brought Joe to town to relax, but it certainly wasn’t panning out that way at all.

“Do you want me to go with you, Short Shanks” Hoss asked. He was trying to defend his little brother but felt like he was fighting a losing battle.

“NO!” Joe yelled as he got up from his chair riled a little more. “I am not a baby so stop treating me like one. I know this doesn’t make any sense to you. But I made a promise to someone and I aim to keep it. I am only going over to the train station. I will be back in a few minutes. Then you can get me home then before you think I will embarrass you further.”

Joe walked off in a huff. He was angry at his family, angry at himself for being angry with his family. He walked towards the train station ready to find out some details from the local Station Master about Jeb’s train.

All the Cartwright’s including Joe failed to note that the table next to them that had been occupied a few minutes ago was now vacant. The two men had gone out the back entrance and tried to tail the youngest Cartwright without being spotted.

Joe knocked on the door that read ‘Station Master’ and waited until somebody answered the door. There was a small window on the far end of the office. The two shady characters outside of Walt and Angus positioned themselves just under the window sill so they could eavesdrop on the young man and the Station Master.

Little Joe was nervous at first about telling his strange story to a complete story. His own family barely believed him. He told the middle aged man about the conversation he had with the driver, the images he saw of the accident and lastly about the gold shipment he had seen the two men handling from the rear carriage.

The Station Master had listened to the conversation without interrupting. He was skeptical about the story about the ghostly images of the driver and some of the other things Joe Cartwright mentioned. There was one thing he knew for certain but kept it to himself for the time being.

“Well, Joseph,” the man began “I’ve told you all I know about that accident. I always knew there was something suspicious about it, but we couldn’t find evidence to point to an act of sabotage. In the end people were so eager to blame somebody, that they blamed the first person they could, Jeb Carter and he wasn’t able to defend his reputation or put his side of the story forward. We’ll talk again in a few days after I have spoken to some people from Carson City. I am sure that somebody knows something about these two men you mentioned.”

Joe got up and shook the mans hand and thanked him for at least listening to his story. He left feeling like he had at least made a little progress. It was if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

Joe walked casually back towards the saloon and planned to apologize to his father and brothers for being so irritable. He took the shortest route and started to walk down the alley way towards the back door. He never made it halfway.

Before he had time to yell for help, he felt himself dragged back roughly by two pair of hands. One pair held his arms tightly to his chest so that he couldn’t move them or struggle against his captors. The other pair were around his mouth and nose, cutting off any hint of noise he might have been able to get out to call for help.

He tried desperately to gain the attention of his brother’s and father seated inside at the table. The hand over his mouth increased in pressure and his eyes started to see black spots dancing before them. He was about to pass out from the lack of oxygen.

*****

Ben Cartwright had been sharing a quiet conversation with his eldest two boys when a young barmaid came running in from the kitchen area shouting at him.
‘OH MR. CARTWRIGHT, YOU GOTTA COME QUICK, YOU GOTTA COME QUICK!” the girl said on the verge of tears.

Ben grabbed the young girl gently but firmly and tried to get her to calm down enough to repeat her sentence.

“What’s wrong miss?” Ben said, something was in the pit of his stomach starting to churn at the tone of her voice. Something was wrong, very wrong.

“OH MR. CARTWRIGHT, I JUST SEEN TWO MEN GRAB YOUR SON LITTLE JOE AND DRAG HIM INTO THE ALLEY WAY BEHIND THE SALOON. OH, MR CARTWRIGHT THEY ARE GOING TO HURT HIM, YOU GOTTA COME NOW!” the girl yelled into his face.

Ben let go of the girl and forgot all about her instantly. Adam and Hoss were ahead of their father and all three raced through the bar room doors and out into the street of Virginia City. Ben was truly worried about his young son’s welfare. On any other day, he knew that Joseph would put up a good fight against anyone who tried to do him harm. But today, with his mind and body still recovering from these strange events, he wasn’t so sure that his son could adequately defend himself.

They didn’t have to wait long. They looked down the alleyway and noted with shock and anger that somebody was indeed dragging Little Joe into the darkness. Two men each had hold of him. One grabbed him around the middle and was pinning his arms to his side preventing him fighting them off, the other had his hands over his mouth stopping him from yelling for help.

The two men noticed with dismay that things hadn’t exactly gone to plan and they now had an unwelcome audience.

Stop right there!,” Ben Cartwright roared at the two of them. “Let him go–RIGHT NOW!”
Walt Bishop spoke up for the two of them ‘No, you stop there, mister.” He grabbed Little Joe roughly again for emphasis. “You people back off unless you want to see this kid’s blood spilled.”

“That’s my son, you animals!” Ben shouted again “Let him go – now. If you so much as harm one hair on his head, so help me I’ll ……”

Through all of this going on, Joe had managed to get a good look at his two captors. His eyes widened in surprise as he realized who the two men were. They were the two men who had caused the train accident. They knew what happened. If he could only get out of this bind and make them tell the truth to the sheriff and his family, then he could get them to confess to causing the accident. His mind was now whirling from the thoughts about his two captors as well as the looming darkness from asphyxiation.

Walt Bishop had been shouting back at Ben Cartwright had momentarily let his grip over Joe’s mouth loosen. This was probably the only chance he was going to get for the near future Joe decided glumly. He would need to make this count.

Joe drew in a hurried breath and starting shouting something back at his family and the people who had gathered to watch the incident in the alley way.

‘Pa…..These are the two men that………,” Joe managed to say. Before he could finish the phrase he felt a stabbing pain in the back of his head and crumpled to the ground in a heap. He was now laying unconscious on the dirt in front of the two outlaws. Blood was oozing from the cut on his head.

Ben had felt a stab to his heart as he saw Angus Coleman bring the butt of his pistol down on Little Joe’s unprotected skull. He now saw that his youngest son lay very still on the ground.

Adam and Hoss had roared with anger too at the sight of their brother being beaten senseless. Hoss and his family had started to walk towards the two men when they saw that Walt Bishop was holding a loaded gun to the young man’s curly head.

“Just try it,” Walt said menacingly.

For a moment the entire scene looked to be moving in slow motion. Ben , Hoss and Adam were standing in the one place but itching to rip apart these two men who had harmed Little Joe.

Little Joe remained oblivious to the outside world. He dreamt of nothing and knew no pain at the moment.

Walt Bishop now grabbed the back of Joe’s collar and started to drag the inert young man further down the alley way. They wanted to get away from the main street. They intended to take their young hostage with them. Using Little Joe as a shield they would be protected from any threats the mob was willing to carry out. They had to get away and make sure that this boy never told anybody about what they had done to the train.
Ben and the others tried to follow to help Little Joe but were soon pushed back by Walt Bishop cocking the loaded gun and placing his finger on the trigger of the pistol. He wanted to let them know that he had no misconceptions about shooting the unconscious youth if he had to.

The two men had managed to drag Little Joe sufficiently into the alley way so that they were protected from the angry mob out front. They were about to try and get the young man tied to a horse ready to ride out of town when they felt a strange breeze blow through the alleyway.

The wind was cool and eerie. It felt as though it almost had weight to it instead of being the flightless wonder that it usually was.

Walt Bishop and Angus Coleman felt somebody tap them on the shoulder. Walt Bishop released the unconscious Little Joe and turned around ready to fire his gun at the person behind him.

When both men turned around, they dropped their guns in sheer terror. Just like it had been for Little Joe in his bedroom that night, they couldn’t believe the sight that stood before them.

It was Jeb Carter. But it was Jeb Carter as he had first appeared to Little Joe. He was once again the eaten out corpse with remnants of muscle and tissue hanging from his bones.
Walt Bishop and Angus Coleman wanted to scream just like Joe had, but they couldn’t find the words. The ghostly figure now spoke to them:

“You will turn yourselves in and tell them everything you have done,” Jeb cried out to the two shaking men. “You will let this boy go and confess your crimes and take your punishment. If you do not, you will come with me and dwell forever in eternal damnation.”

Jeb Carter’s voice had stopped, he thought he had almost done enough to scare the men enough to leave Little Joe alone. Just for emphasis, he held up his skeletal looking left hand and without warning let the entire hand drop from it’s rightful position on his arm onto the ground in front of them. The hand at first was unmoving, but then it began to crawl towards the two men huddled up against the wall. Both of them watched with eyes as big as saucers and couldn’t keep from screaming at the hideous looking sight.

Ben Cartwright, his boys and Sheriff Roy Coffee were just about to storm into the alley way to rescue Joe when they heard the God awful screams. All stopped dead in their tracks and looked at one another.

Ben and his boys knew they had heard screaming like that before. They were certain it wasn’t Little Joe’s voice this time, but the screams still made their blood run cold. What caused men to scream like that?

Without too much more warning, Walt Bishop and Angus Coleman came running out of the alley way, looking deathly pale. They were still screaming when they both fell at the feet of Sheriff Roy Coffee.

“Please Sheriff, lock us up,” Walt Bishop began sobbing “We’ll tell you everything, including where the gold is if you just keep that thiinnggg away from us. PLEASE!”

Roy Coffee just looked stunned. He had seen a lot of strange things in his life, but he had never had people beg him to lock them up before. He shook his head and herded the two men towards the jail cell just like they wanted. He would get to the bottom of this later. He really wanted to get back to help Ben and see that Little Joe was alright.
By now, Ben and his boys had paid their attention more to finding Little Joe than to the two screaming men. They didn’t know what it was they were screaming about and at the moment they didn’t care.

They found Little Joe at the end of the alley way, just as he had fallen after bring dragged by Walt Bishop. He was still unconscious. The bleeding on the back of his head had slowed considerably. His curls were now matted together by the congealed, dried blood.

Ben took of his bandana and dunked it in a nearby water trough to wet it. He wrung most of the water out of the material and then placed it gently onto the open wound on Joe’s head.

The reaction was slow as first. The coolness of the water and the sting from the wound hit Joe all at once. He winced and tried to grab at whatever was hurting the back of his head.

“Joe?” Ben said softly as he gently grasped his son’s flailing arm. “Are you all right, son?” Joe looked up at his father trying to comprehend what was being said. He could see his father’s mouth moving, but nothing was making sense. He grabbed at his aching head and winced even louder. There was a deafening roar between his ears.

Joe suddenly remember his two captors. He turned his head and started looking for his attackers. He couldn’t see them. The only thing he noted was that the dull ache had now turned into a thunderous wave of pain from the movement. He knew that he might not be conscious much longer. He had to make sure his father understood who the two men were before he lost his senses again.

He started to sit up slightly to get his message across, but Adam and Hoss were there with worried looks on their faces, telling Joe just to lay still for a minute so they could check him over.

“Got to tell you Pa…….,” Joe managed to say. It sounded somewhat slurred, but he kept going anyway “Got to tell you about those men……. those men, Pa,.” he felt himself starting to drift off again “…those men are the two that caused the train ……. accident.” With the last of his residual strength gone and the last of his adrenaline preserved dried up, Joe went limp in Adam and Hoss’s arms and his head now lolled to one side.

Adam and Hoss now paired up and helped carry their injured brother to Doctor Paul Martin’s office. They had all heard what Joe had to say, but for now they needed to attend to his injuries. There would be time to talk about trains and men later on.

*****

Little Joe lay on a small bed in the doctor’s examination room. Paul had checked him over and told Ben that the head wound was mostly superficial. It wouldn’t require any stitches but he wanted him to remain there for a little while just to keep an eye on him.

Ben had been sitting beside his sleeping son in the doctor’s office when Sheriff Roy Coffee and the Station Master knocked on the door. They had been both walking back to tell Ben about the incredible revelations they had discovered.

Paul Martin ushered everyone out of his office where Little Joe remained sleeping before they could disturb him. He asked Hoss to remain in the room with his brother and promised that the discussion would be shared with him later.

“And that’s about the size of it, Mr. Cartwright,” the Station Master finished off. “When your son came to me and first started talking about seeing ghosts and dead people, I thought he had been pulling my leg. But when he mentioned that gold shipment on the train, I was convinced he was telling the truth.”

Ben asked the Station Master a rational question “Couldn’t have Joe heard about the gold shipment somewhere else, Bill?”

“No, Mr. Cartwright, that’s what really makes me believe Little Joe’s story. He couldn’t have possibly known about that shipment. It was supposed to be an army secret. Not even the driver knew it was on board his train. It was supposed to be traveling to Carson City and off loaded to some undisclosed destination. It was supposed to be funding the Civil War.”

“I couldn’t make heads of tails of what Little Joe was saying at first either, Ben,” Sheriff Coffee added, “but when I talked to Bill here and from what those two men confessed to doing over in the jail house, I really believe Joe saw that accident. I don’t know how, but he saw it. Those two men were so scared from whatever they saw in the alley way that they even told me where they hid the strong box after the accident. I am going to take a posse out tomorrow morning and search for it.”

Ben and Adam just looked dumbfounded at the others. Little Joe had been telling the truth the whole time and now it seemed that there was actual physical proof of it. There was even two witnesses to vouch for it. Maybe uncooperating witnesses at first, but witnesses none the less.

Ben and his family just wanted to put this whole messy business behind them and take Joseph home so he could rest in peace and quiet. Ben started to go back into the doctor’s office and ask him about this diagnosis about a time to travel back to the Ponderosa.

Paul was standing over his young patient once again. He hadn’t moved at all during the conversation taking place outside. Ben had told Hoss what had been discussed and the big man now just looked down with a little sorrow in his heart at ever having doubted his brother in the slightest.

Doc Martin took Joe’s pulse and check his over thoroughly before making his final decision. “I know you want to take him home this evening, Ben, but I must warn you will have to keep a good eye on him until the morning. With his body receiving so much punishment over the last couple of days and his mental unstableness, that blow to his head was the last thing he needed. I will let you take him home in a padded wagon, but only if you promise me to follow my directions to the letter.”

Ben promised the Doctor that anything he said would be strictly adhered to. He just wanted to take his young son home and let him feel normal again.

“Remember, Ben, plenty of rest and Hop Sing’s good cooking and he should be back on his feet in no time,” Doc Martin said. “Keep him in bed until at least tomorrow morning and even restricting his movements to the house for the next day or so wouldn’t be a bad idea. He is likely to have a few headaches from that wound on his head.”

Ben took all the doctor’s words to heart and told Hoss and Adam to get the wagon ready for the journey home.

It was completely dark when the wagon started on it’s route back to the Ponderosa. Joe had slept through being moved from the Doctor’s office to the padded buck board. Ben was still a little worried, but Paul had assured him that the best thing for him now was rest. It would help him to heal physically as well as get his mind back on the right track. The ghost train would soon be forgotten and he would be the Little Joe Cartwright they all adored and loved.

It was eleven o’clock by the time they reached the homestead. Hoss jumped down from the wagon and helped a barely awake Little Joe from the wagon. The bumps from the ruts on the road on the way back had caused him to wake as they arrived home. Joe leant heavily against his big brother and let him do all the walking to the front door.

Once inside, Ben was about to instruct Hoss and Adam to take Little Joe upstairs and get him settled in his own bed for the night, but Hop Sing had been bustling around and changing the bed and stoking the fire place in the room. He was giving a barrage of Cantonese mixed with English when he told the family they would have to wait until the room was ready before taking Joe up there.

Ben was about to argue this point with the little Chinese man, but Hop Sing disappeared back into Joe’s room before he could get a word in.

Ben now noted that Joe had made his own decision and was now seated on the settee, leaning back against the head rest with his eyes closed. Ben was just so glad that everything had worked out okay. His son had been returned safely although a little battered. He couldn’t find the words to say out loud, so he looked up and just whispered a slight prayer.

Hop Sing came out of Joe’s room and yelled from the balcony that the bed was ready for it’s sleepy occupant. Joe got up on his own steam and started to walk to the staircase. He was holding his head slightly at the dull ache that was beginning to form.

The next thing Joe heard made him jump again slightly. He heard the train whistle he had heard the previous nights. Again it sounded close and just outside the house. This time he was not frozen to the spot in terror as he had been the first time, it was almost as if he expected it now.

Joe was too busy watching the window on the other side of the dining room table to notice that he wasn’t the only one to hear the sound this time. Ben and his boys stood a few feet behind Joe with their mouths agape. Could this be the same thing that Joe had been hearing all this time? There wasn’t a train track near the ranch for miles.

Then, just as it had done the first night, the translucent and green hue of the train rumbled through the far window and proceeded to come into the house. Instead of going right through this time it stopped just short of Joe.

Joe was too caught up in the moment to be looking at the expressions and actions of his family behind him. He stepped forward towards the engine and looked up at the ghostly image of the driver. It was Jeb Carter.

The ghostly driver started to climb down from the locomotive and got off the train and took a step towards Joe. He held out his hand and tried to shake it with the young Cartwright. Unfortunately this occasion was unlike their other meetings and due to them existing on two different planes at the moment, physical contact was impossible and Joe’s hand just passed right through the ghostly looking one of the train driver. For the first time since meeting Jeb Carter, Joe noticed that the driver appeared just as he would have in real life. Although his appearance was almost translucent, his skin was normal looking. He even had a few wrinkles that could have been called laugh lines on his face. His receding hair line was combed neatly and looked clean. Lastly, his eyes held a special sparkle within them as he smiled at Little Joe.

Jeb Carter had gained his passage through to the next world. He would enter the next world with a hearty handshake and a grin on his face. His reputation as well as his earthly abode had been restored.

Ben, Adam and Hoss couldn’t believe their eyes. All stood in bewilderment at what was playing out before them. They all had lost the power to speak at the moment.

“Time to be moving on, Joe,” Jeb said to his friend. “I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Does this mean you will be moving onto the next place, Jeb?” Joe asked the man.

“Yeah, I guess it does at that,” the ghost replied. “Maybe someday I come back and visit you again.”

“Just give me a little warning next time, Jeb,” Joe said. “My heart can’t too much more scaring at the moment.”

“You take care of yourself, Little Joe,” Jeb said and then climbed back aboard the engine. “You’re all right in my book.”

He gave an almighty blast on the train’s horn and the train starting moving through the house again. Within a few second, the last carriage was passing through the other side of the house and Joe could see the extended arm of the driver waving it him in the distance.
Joe had a content smile on his face when he turned around to look at his family. It was only now that he noted that they must have been able to see everything he had been telling them about for the first time. He was sure that his brother Hoss looked somewhat paler.

Ben and Adam found their voices but failed to find the words to use them.

Hoss spoke for all of them when he said,”Little Joe, I will never doubt anything you tell me again”

Joe just smiled back at his family. He finally felt safe again. He knew that his sleep would be peaceful. Just as he reached the top of the stairs, he looked back down again at his family who were still trying to comprehend what they had seen.

The grandfather clock in the living room began to strike the hour. It struck twelve times to signal it was 12 o’clock midnight – 31st October 1859 – Halloween………….

***The End***

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