Poltergeist (Kathleen)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,500


 

“Please, Mister Simpson?”

Titus Simpson gazed down into the young boy’s face, looking up at him, begging so earnestly. “Oh, alright, Joe,” he gave in with an indulgent smile. “I don’t suppose there’s any harm in showing Miss O’Toole here.”

“Now, Lotus, you have to promise not to tell anybody . . . at least not until after Pa’s birthday next month.”

“I promise! I won’t tell anybody about it, Joe, not a soul.”

Titus reached under the counter and pulled out a small card, with the words: “Closed. Back in 10 minutes,” hand painted, all caps, in big, bold, block letters. He strode briskly over to the door and hung the sign outside at eye level, then closed it. “This way,” he said, motioning for Joe Cartwright and Lotus O’Toole to follow.

Joe, himself, had not so long ago celebrated a birthday. His thirteenth. Right from the day he blew out the candles on his cake, he had been living in the states of hopeless confusion and seemingly endless bewilderment. All of a sudden, he was too old to be doing half the things he wanted to do, and too young yet to do the other half. Most of the girls he had known his entire life had changed almost overnight into fearsome, alien creatures, with rounded hips and subtly curving breasts. Talking with them was so easy before. NOW he found himself tongue tied, without the slightest idea why.

And if all that wasn’t enough, his own body betrayed him with changes of its own. The cherubic, slightly pudgy, wholly adorable little kid everyone loved and doted upon, almost overnight turned into a fat, surly adolescent with an oily face full of pimples and a voice that sounded deeper than the waters of Lake Tahoe one minute, and squeaked the next.

“Here it is, Joe . . . Miss O’Toole,” Titus said beaming with pride. “It’s my best piece of work, if I do say do myself.”

Titus Simpson held out a brand new, custom made rifle for their inspection. The inlaid wood handle was a true work of art. Ben Cartwright’s initials, painted gold, were set in a field carved from dark mahogany. The dark mahogany was separated from the hard oak wood, stained cherry, by a delicate border of leaf, vine, and even the familiar Ponderosa brand.

“It’s beautiful,” Lotus gasped. She looked up at Titus, completely awe struck. “Mister Simpson, may I . . . may I touch it?”

“Certainly,” Titus readily gave permission.

Lotus stroked the wood handle reverently, savoring the near silk like smoothness of the wood. Even the inlaid sections flowed from one to the other seamlessly, with no telltale bumps or ridges to mar the surface. “This is a gift . . . for your father?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied. “Adam, Hoss, and I kinda chipped in and went together on it.” He didn’t tell her that it was mostly Adam and Hoss. Though he had chipped in what he could spare from his weekly allowance, it seemed like a pitiful drop in the bucket compared to what his older brothers earned in wages.

“I’d better get back out front,” Titus said courteous, yet pointed.

“Sure. Thank you for showing it to us, Mister Simpson,” Joe said. “Come on, Lotus, we’ve gotta get going, too.”

Lotus nodded. “Thank you for letting me see, too, Mister Simpson.”

“It was certainly my pleasure,” Titus replied with a grin.

*****

Joe Cartwright and Lotus O’Toole left the shop Titus Simpson had shared with his closest friend and business associate, Phineas Burke, from the better part of the last eighteen going on nineteen years. They stepped out onto the sidewalk, mightily resisting the urge to run, to race down the length of board sidewalk between Titus Simpson’s shop and the laundry run by Lotus’ maternal grandparents. They were all of thirteen years old after all, Joe as of a month ago, Lotus two and a half months before that. They were practically adults now, and it was high time they had begun acting like it.

Lotus and Joe slowly turned their heads, her dark brown eyes meeting his hazel ones.

“Last one to the laundry is a rotten egg,” Joe challenged, then took off running as fast as his legs could carry him.

“First one there’s gotta eat it!” Lotus shouted back, as she raced to catch up.

Joe reached the laundry at the end of the walk, less than a second before her. “I win!” he declared triumphantly.

“You do not! You cheated!”

“I did not!”

“You did so!”

“Did not!”

“Did so!”

“Not!”

“So!”

“Not!”

“So!”

They glared at each other for a long, silent moment, before dissolving into a fit of the giggles. Joe marveled how easy it was being with Lotus, and talking with her, and wondered again, why it had become so hard with nearly all the other girls he knew.

“Hey, LITTLE Joe.”

Joe turned and saw his most despised nemesis, Billy Caine standing in the street facing him. Lean and lanky he stood a whole head and a half taller to Joe’s short and chunky. Billy had thick, straight hair, the same shade of light brown as a new born fawn’s coat, that always seemed to be hanging down in his eyes, and a face generously strewn with acne pimples.

“Whaddya want, Billy Boy?”

“I hear MISTER CARTWRIGHT’S birthday’s coming up.”

“So?”

“Well, from what I hear, you don’t hafta buy MISTER CARTWRIGHT a present.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, LITTLE Joe, that a kid buys his PA a present on his birthday.”

“I KNOW that, Billy BOY.”

“Adam and Hoss gotta get him a present,” Billy said with a malicious grin. “But, YOU don’t!”

“What kind of crazy talk is this, Billy Boy? Sound’s like you’re trying to tell me my pa’s NOT my pa!” The idea was so ridiculous, Joe laughed in his face.

“Think that’s funny, do ya, Little Joe? Well let’s see if ya find THIS funny! Your ma was a loose woman, who ran around after everything that wore a pair of pants the WHOLE TIME she and MISTER CARTWRIGHT were married. She even went after MY pa!”

“That’s a lie!”

“No it ain’t. My pa says so. You can ask him if you’d like.”

Joe, leaping with the lightening swiftness of a cougar, wrapped his arms tight about Billy’s waist, slamming him hard against the packed dirt road. Both boys were rolling in the dirt less than a second later, pummeling each other with their fists and screaming obscenities at the tops of their lungs.

Lotus, her face grimly set, turned and bolted into her grandparents’ laundry. “Grandfather! Grandfather! They’re fighting!”

“Who’s fighting, Lotus?” It was Roy Coffee. He had apparently stopped in a few moments before to pick up the shirts he had left last week.

“Joe Cartwright and Billy Caine!” Lotus answered breathlessly.

Roy groaned. “Again?”

“Hurry, Sheriff, please! They’re killing each other!”

“I’ll take care of it.”

Roy Coffee walked right out of the laundry and into the midst of the fight, his posture erect, his face set with grim, even angry determination. He seized the young combatants by their shirt collars and forcibly separated them. “Now you boys settle yourselves down right now!” he ordered sternly.

The boys glared murderously at each other, but remained in place.

“Now what’s this all about?” Roy asked, letting go of their shirt collars.

“HE started it!” Joe declared heatedly, thrusting a pointing finger in Billy’s direction.

“You hit first, Little Joe Cartwright, because you’re too much of a coward to hear the truth.”

“Why you little son of a…” Joe charged his tormenter like a hurt, angry bull against a bull fighter.

Roy quickly interposed himself between Joe and his intended target. “That’ll be enough!” he growled, seizing hold of the two boys once again. “You’re coming with me of the city jail, the BOTH of ya.”

“You can’t throw me in jail!” Billy declared with all the cock sure arrogance of a strutting bantam rooster. “You do, my father will have you removed from that sheriff’s job.”

“Son, the ONLY ones that can remove me from my job as sheriff is the VOTERS,” Roy returned stiffly, “and elections ain’t for another whole year and a half.”

Roy dragged Joe and Billy into his office and seated them in chairs over next to the wall, lying to the right of his desk. They were placed far enough way so as not to get at each other, yet in a place where the sheriff could keep a close eye on them as he worked.

“I’ve sent Clem to fetch both your pas,” Roy said sternly. “In the mean time I want ya both to sit over there, and keep quiet. I gotta lot of work to do.”

*****

“SHERIFF COFFEE! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MEANING OF THIS OUTRAGE?” Judge William Caine demanded at the top of his voice. He strode briskly into the sheriff’s office, posture straight, a scowl on his face meant to kill.

Ben Cartwright followed silently. Joe knew at once his father was doing a slow burn, from the dark, angry glare on his face.

“Judge Caine, this is the third time in a month I’ve caught your son brawling with Joe Cartwright here,” Roy pointed out in a very reasonable tone of voice. “If it happens a FOURTH time, I’m gonna hold the pair of ‘em in jail ‘til they get some sense in their heads.”

The judge whirled in his tracks. “Mister Cartwright, if you don’t take that boy firmly in hand, and soon…”

“You’ll WHAT?” Ben snapped. “It takes TWO to fight, Judge Caine.” With that, he took Joe and walked out, leaving Judge Caine staring after him, open mouthed with shock.

*****

“Bad enough you let that hot temper of yours get the better of ya in the school yard, boy,” Ben had admonished Joe severely, as they made their way out to the waiting buckboard. “But, I’m NOT going to stand for this business of you brawling out on the public streets like a common thug.”

“Yes Sir.”

“What happened?”

“Billy Caine started it, Pa.”

“I asked you, WHAT happened?”

“I SAID Billy Caine started it!” Joe snarled, on the edge of tears. He wanted to tell Pa . . . this man he had KNOWN as Pa all his life . . . the whole story, but he just couldn’t bring himself. “That’s all there is to it!”

“If you want to talk about it later… ” Ben offered in a gentler tone.

“There’s nothing to talk ABOUT!” Joe snapped. “Billy Caine started it! Period! That’s ALL! Now can we just drop it?”

“Alright.”

Although Joe knew full well that his father never pressed either himself or his brothers to talk before they were ready to do so, that ‘alright,’ sounded cold in his ears, impersonal. Could Billy Caine have spoken true? For the first time in his entire young life he felt like a ship, set adrift from its moorings.

*****

“Hey, Shortshanks, you’re awfully quiet tonight,” Hoss observed off handedly as the family sat down to supper that evening. “You feeling alright?”

“Fine!” Joe snapped.

“He got into a fist fight with Billy Caine this afternoon,” Ben said disparagingly.

“Oh yeah?” Hoss frowned. “What about?”

“Nothing!”

“It had to be something,” Hoss pressed. “I know you gotta quick temper and all, but even YOU don’t get to out and out brawling unless it’s something!”

“I SAID it was nothing!”

“Alright, Li’l Joe. If y’ don’t wanna talk about it, just say so. Y’ don’t hafta take my head off.”

Joe slammed his fork known on the table hard enough to rattle all the dishes and utensils. “Look! I don’t wanna talk about it because there’s NOTHING to talk about! Alright?”

“Joseph, that’s ENOUGH!” Ben said severely. “If you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the table and go to your room.”

“OK, fine!” Joe shot out of his chair so fast, his body’s momentum toppled it over. “You don’t want me around, I’ll go to my room!” A strangled sob punctuated his words as he left the table and fled to the safety and relative privacy of his room upstairs. His father and two older brothers stared after him, stunned.

*****

Joe spent the entire evening, hour upon hour, staring hard into the mirror on top of his dresser searching diligently for something . . . anything that bore even the slightest resemblance to Ben Cartwright. He saw plenty of his mother in his thick wavy hair, his nose, the shape of his face. She had probably had the same color eyes he did, too. But there was absolutely nothing of his father . . . rather the man he had been led to believe was his father.

He finally turned away from the mirror, sick with despair. It took every ounce of will he possessed to walk the short distance from dresser to bed, and collapse. Joe buried his face deep in his pillow and cried himself to an exhausted stupor.

A soft knock on his door, roused Joe to a state of torpid wakefulness. He opened his mouth to respond, then snapped it shut.

“Joe? It’s Pa.”

Joe squeezed his eyelis shut and forced himself to lie still, taking slow, deep, even breaths.

“Joe? Are you awake?”

“Go away!” Joe begged silently. “Please, just go away!”

The door opened. Ben crossed the room from the door to Joe’s bed, noting that the boy hadn’t even bothered to change from his clothes to his nightshirt. He sat down on the edge of the bed and gently touched his youngest son’s shoulder. “Joe?”

Ben’s touch startled, and nearly sent Joe jumping right out of his skin. He focused hard on keeping his breathing slow and even, in . . . out . . . in . . . out.

“Joe, just in case you’re not completely asleep,” Ben said knowingly. “I know something’s eating away at you, and I want very much to help you. Even if it’s something I can’t do anything about, I can still listen.”

Joe would have given anything in the world to just blurt out to this man what was bothering him. But, he couldn’t. Not now! Not ever again! He had no right.

Getting no response, Ben finally rose, and covered Joe with the quilt lying folded across the foot of his bed. “Good night, Joe,” he whispered, before leaving the room.

*****

“He OK, Pa?”

“He’s sleeping, Hoss. I thought it best not to wake him.”

“Y’ gotta talk to him, Pa,” Hoss, ever the family peacemaker, begged. He and Ben stood out in the hall, right in front of the fast closed door to Joe’s room. He could hear just about every word they said. “Somethin’s chewing that boy up inside.”

“I think talk at this point is useless! What that boy REALLY needs is a good swift kick on that portion of his anatomy upon which he’s accustomed to sitting,” Adam said severely.

“Adam, don’t you remember having been thirteen once?”

“Sure I do, Pa, but . . . Wait a minute! You’re not saying I was anything like… ”

“No, son, you and Hoss were different . . . not only from Joe, but from each other too. What I’m trying to say is this time of life’s not easy.”

“You’re right, Pa. I’ll try to be patient.”

“I know you will, son. In the meantime, I’d suggest we all turn in. We’ve got a long hard day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Joe suddenly realized that not once did Ben refer to HIM as son just now. He called Adam and Hoss that, but not him. Further, neither Hoss nor Adam had ever, not even once, referred to him as brother. It was either Joe, the boy, or THAT boy.

“Billy Caine was RIGHT!” he murmured as fresh tears once more stung his eyes. Joe buried his face hard against his pillow to muffle the sounds of his weeping. Never, in all his entire life, brief though it was, had he ever felt so totally and completely alone. “P-Pa . . . I mean, M-Mister C-C-Cartwright’s NOT my pa…”

*****

Hop Sing stood at the bottom of the steps watching as Joe Cartwright slowly and very reluctantly descended. The boy’s hair was mussed, and his clothing criss-crossed with a myriad of wrinkles and creases. The shirt was missing a couple of buttons and there was a large hole in the pants slightly above Joe’s right knee.

Hop Sing glared at the torn pants. A string of terse, clipped syllables escaped past his lips.

Joe paused at the second landing. “What?” he demanded belligerently.

“You not go to school like that!”

“Like WHAT?”

“Clothes look like Little Joe sleep in them!” Hop Sing declared, his voice and his ire rising. “You change clothes after breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Little Joe growing boy. Growing boy must eat!”

“I SAID I wasn’t hungry.”

“Go sit at table. Hop Sing have breakfast ready.”

Joe exhaled a short, curt exasperated sigh, then trudged over to the dining room table. He was mildly surprised to find that there was only one place set. “Hop Sing? Where IS everybody?” he demanded with a puzzled frown.

“Out pasture. Herd cattle, brand calves,” Hop Sing replied as stepped out of the kitchen, carrying a single plate in one hand, with two eggs, fried, over easy, six pieces of bacon, fried potatoes, and two biscuits. In the other hand, he carried a glass of milk. “Eat food now, while hot.”

Joe picked up his fork and stabbed at the eggs, breaking the yolk. At first, he was relieved to discover that Ben, Adam, and Hoss had left bright and early for the pastures to begin the yearly chore of calf branding. “Hop Sing, they didn’t tell me!”

“No chance to tell Little Joe.”

“Why? They always tell me when they’re not going to be here for breakfast. Always! Why didn’t they tell me THIS time?”

“Little Joe leave supper table, go to bed early,” Hop Sing said acerbically. “Papa have no chance to tell Little Joe.”

He shoveled a fork full of yolk stained fried potatoes in his mouth, chewed, then tried to swallow. The food seemingly stopped mid-way down his throat. He coughed vigorously, while reaching for the glass of milk sitting just to the left of his plate.

The sounds of his forceful coughing brought Hop Sing running from the kitchen, with a glass of water in hand. “Here! Little Joe drink this!” he said, shoving the glass into Joe’s hands.

Joe raised the glass and drank. Gradually, the dry tightness in his throat eased. He dutifully drained the glass, then handed it back to Hop Sing.

“Little Joe drop fork,” the Cartwrights’ chief cook and bottle washer stated, shaking his head.

Joe turned and glanced down at the floor, on his left. His fork was there, just as Hop Sing had said. He frowned, trying to remember when he had knocked it off the table.

Hop Sing bent down and retrieved the fork. “Hop Sing get clean fork from kitchen,” he muttered.

“Don’t bother! I’m not hungry!” Joe said in a sullen tone, as he pushed his plate away.

“How Little Joe supposed to grow big and strong if Little Joe not eat breakfast?” Hop Sing demanded indignantly.

“Eat? What for? I’ve probably got enough stored up right here in fat to last me a whole year!”

“That baby fat!”

Joe groaned, secretly grateful Billy Caine hadn’t heard Hop Sing say that.

“Baby fat disappear when boy grow up,” Hop Sing said knowingly, then frowned. “Now Little Joe’s spoon on floor.”

Joe turned and looked down in the direction Hop Sing pointed. This time, the utensil lay on the floor, behind his chair, just to the left. The only way it could have possibly gotten there was if he had removed it from the table and dropped it over his shoulder. “I . . . I didn’t do it, Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing go get clean fork AND spoon.”

“No!” Joe rose from the table. “I said I wasn’t hungry.” With that he abruptly left the table and started walking resolutely toward the stairs.

“Slave over hot stove fixing breakfast, boy not hungry, food end up in garden!” Hop Sing muttered angrily as he cleared Joe’s breakfast dishes from the table. “All Hop Sing do in Cartwright house! Cook food, then throw food in garden! Every day, cook food, throw in garden! Hop Sing quit!”

The sounds of someone angrily stomping up the stairs stopped Hop Sing dead in his tracks. “Boy have no respect!” he muttered as he set the dishes in hand back down on the table. “No respect for Papa, no respect for brothers, no respect for Hop Sing! Boy learn respect for Hop Sing.” He strode briskly out into the great room, fully intending to give Little Joe the dressing down of his life.

As Hop Sing rounded the corner and came within view of the stairs, the stomping sounds abruptly ceased. Little Joe was nowhere to be seen. He muttered something in Chinese, threw up his hands, then returned to the dining room for the dishes.

*****

Joe’s school day was surprisingly and mercifully uneventful. Billy Caine, miracle of miracles, kept his distance. There was a stern reprimand from Miss Gibson for not having done his homework the night before, but apart from that, she, too, had left him alone. Not once did he have to work out arithmetic problems at the blackboard in front of the entire class, nor did she call on him to give answers. His classmates pretty much avoided him also.

“Joe?”

It was recess. He glanced up and saw Lotus O’Toole standing over him, gazing down into his face anxiously. “Are you alright?”

He opened his mouth to say yes, only to snap it shut upon thinking better of it. They had been best friends since the first day they started school at the age of five. Lotus knew very well that he was distressed. No amount of lying or protestations was going to convince her otherwise. “Lotus, it’s . . . it’s something I have to work out myself,” he said quietly.

“Joe, don’t tell me you actually believe those lies Billy Caine told you yesterday,” she said severely.

“It’s not that, it’s something else.”

Lotus glared at him long and hard. “Alright.” She finally decided not to press. At least not yet. “But if you want to talk to me, I’m willing to listen,” she said. “Don’t you dare forget that, OK?”

Joe looked up at her and smiled, despite his misery. “I won’t, Lotus.”

“See that you don’t.”

With that, she respectfully withdrew to allow him the space he needed.

*****

Ben, and his two older sons sat down to supper that evening, thoroughly exhausted after having spent the day moving cattle, chasing down the calves, roping and branding them.

“I don’t know about YOU boys, but after we finish supper, I’m all for a hot bath, then bed,” Ben sighed wearily.

“You’ve got the energy for a hot bath?” Adam teased.

“Pa spent most o’ HIS time on horse back, herdin’ the cattle,” Hoss pointed out. “You, me, ‘n Hank were doin’ all the runnin’ around, chasin’, hog tyin’ them calves.”

“Ages has its privileges, Hoss,” Ben said.

Joe bristled as conversation turned from fatigue and aching muscles to plans for tomorrow and the next few days following.

“Hey, Shortshanks, y’ gonna eat them mashed potatoes, or push ‘em around on your plate?” Hoss asked, suddenly noting that Joe’s plate remained full.

“What’s it to ya?” Joe growled.

Ben closed his eyes and forced himself to count very slowly to ten.

“I don’t know what burr’s worked its way up under your saddle, Li’l Joe,” Hoss responded, hurt, angry, and bewildered by his younger brother’s attitude. “If ya don’t wanna talk about it, fine! But, I’m gettin’ dadburn sick ‘n tired o’ you takin’ it out on the rest o’ us.”

“Alright, fine!” Joe snapped. “I’ll leave!”

“Joseph, sit down,” Ben ordered in a quiet voice that carried in it the calm before a vicious storm.

“Why? So I can sit here like . . . like some kinda bump on a log, listening to the three of you go on and on about what you did today, and what you’re going to do tomorrow . . . like I’m not even here?”

Ben sighed. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he apologized. “Supper IS supposed to be the meal where we ALL sit down together as a family.”

“How was school today, Joe?” Adam asked.

“Alright,” Joe mumbled.

“Anything new or unusual happen at school today?”

“No.”

“Hey, Shortshanks, y’ dropped your spoon this time,” Hoss said, as he bent down to retrieve it.

Joe frowned. “That’s odd! I don’t remember knocking it off . . . . ”

Hoss dutifully wiped the spoon on his napkin and handed it over to Joe.

“Thanks.”

“What did you learn in school today, Joe?” Ben asked.

“Nothing,” he muttered, wishing they would go back to talking about the day’s happenings and tomorrow’s list of things to do.

“Nothing?” Ben echoed.

“Yeah, you know… Same old, same old.”

“Hey, Joe, your knife’s on the floor this time,” Hoss said with a puzzled frown.

“I see! We’ve gone from being an unmitigated pain in the gluteus maximus last night to being all thumbs tonight,” Adam remarked sardonically.

“Adam, you’re not a king and you’re not pregnant,” Joe snapped, borrowing that line from Miss Gibson. “Those are the only kinds of people who have the right to refer to themselves in the second person plural.”

“That’s FIRST person plural,” Adam retorted in that blasé, condescending tone of his that was always guaranteed to set Joe’s teeth on edge.

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

“Joseph, that’s enough!” Ben said in a tone that brooked no argument.

“Me?” Joe hotly defended himself. “What about Mister Big Mouth over there who’s… ”

“JOSEPH!”

Joe lapsed into sullen silence.

Ben, seated at the head of the table, glared at his eldest son, then his youngest. “Is it too much to ask that the four of us sit down at the supper table together for a pleasant meal?”

“It WAS pleasant until HE had to go and shoot off his mouth,” Joe groused. He could feel the hurt and anger rising within him building to an explosive pitch.

“Joseph, and you, too, Adam. I want you both to apologize,” Ben ordered.

“Alright . . . Joe, I’m sorry for being so sarcastic just now.”

Ben glared over at his youngest son expectantly. “Joseph?”

Joe opened his mouth with every intention of telling Mister High-and-Mighty-Adam Cartwright where he could stuff his apology. Suddenly, a biscuit flew up out of the bread basket and bounced off Adam’s forehead.

“That hurt, Shortshanks!” Adam growled, as he angrily threw his own napkin down on the table. He rose. “Pa, I’m going into town. Maybe there, I can sit down and have a bite of supper in peace, without some immature little brat trying to attack me with the biscuits.”

Joe was stunned to discover that his anger had suddenly evaporated, as if it had never been. “I-I didn’t do it,” he protested.

“Well who DID?” Adam snapped. “The tooth fairy?” With that, Adam turned heel and walked resolutely toward the front door.

“Joseph, that was totally and completely uncalled for,” Ben reprimanded Joe, his own voice tight with anger.

“I didn’t do it, I swear I didn’t.”

“Pa, I think Li’l Joe’s tellin’ the truth,” Hoss said quietly. “He was sittin’ there like he is now, with his hands in his lap when that biscuit hit Adam.”

“Are YOU going to blame it on the tooth fairy?” Ben turned his pent up exasperation on his biggest son.

“No, Sir,” Hoss maintained quietly. “I don’t know how that biscuit got from the basket t’ Adam’s head, but I’m pretty sure Joe didn’t help it along.”

Ben, not quite knowing what to say, rose. “I’ve got a lot of paper work to do this evening,” he said stiffly. “I’d appreciate some peace and quiet around here.” He directed a meaningful glare at Joe.

“Y-Yes, Sir.” Joe had stammered.

“Come on, Shortshanks, why don’t you ‘n me sit down to a friendly game o’ checkers?” Hoss invited.

“OK,” Joe nodded eagerly. He rose from the table and followed along behind Hoss like an eager little puppy.

Ben stared after his two younger sons, completely nonplused. A few moments ago, the younger of the two was snarling like an enraged lion. Now, he trotted along behind Hoss, meek as a lamb. He raised his face to the heavens. “Dear Lord,” he prayed silently, earnestly, “please help Joe and me make it to his FOURTEENTH birthday without the two of us killing each other…”

“What color y’ want, Li’l Joe?”

“I dunno . . . black, I guess . . . NO! Make it red!”

Hoss quickly divided the pieces.

“Hey, Hoss?”

“Yeah?”

“Why don’t we make this game more interesting?”

“Let’s not ‘n say we did,” Hoss said, as he began to set up the black pieces for their first game.

“What’s the matter? You chicken?” Joe taunted.

Hoss bristled. “No, I ain’t chicken,” he growled back sotto voce. He cast a quick glace over his shoulder at his father, now seated behind the desk, working diligently. “Truth is I’m broke after spendin’ most o’ my money on….” He inclined his head toward Ben, “…you know.”

Joe frowned. “Are you sayin’ I’m some kinda cheapskate because I didn’t put in as much as you ‘n Adam?”

For a moment, all Hoss could do was sit there, open mouthed, his eyes round as saucers, staring.

“Just because my allowance isn’t as big as yours ‘n Adam’s wages….”

“Would you keep your voice down?” Hoss finally hissed. He cast another furtive glance over his shoulder toward Ben, and was relieved to find him still working, his thoughts focused on the papers spread out on the desk in front of him. “That’s s’posed t’ be a surprise!”

Joe lapsed into an angry, brooding silence.

“Sorry, Li’l Joe,” Hoss said taking care to keep his voice low. “I know you’re chippin’ in all y’ can, just like Adam ‘n me.”

“Can we just drop it?” Joe snapped.

Hoss sighed softly. “You wanna go first?”

“No, YOU go first.”

Hoss made his first move.

Joe countered, trying his best to ignore his stinging conscience. Maybe their older brother, Adam . . . make that HOSS’ older brother, Adam, might have maliciously inferred that he was some kind of cheapskate, but NEVER Hoss. He knew that, just as surely as he knew the sun was going to rise in the east tomorrow morning. Why had he been so nasty to Hoss just now?

“Li’l Joe?”

“Yeah, yeah, in a minute,” Joe mumbled.

“It’s . . . YOUR move.”

Joe glanced up sharply, favoring Hoss with a glare so intense, the latter visibly flinched. “Damn it, I KNOW it’s my move! Can’t a guy take a minute to work out a little strategy?”

Joe’s outburst drew a warning glare from Ben. “Joseph, I said earlier I wanted it QUIET.”

“I WAS quiet,” Joe shot back.

Ben exhaled a sigh born of exasperation and frustration.

“Why the hell are you always picking on ME?” Joe demanded, in his heart knowing the answer full well. “I was sitting here nice and quiet, until HE….” Joe pointed an accusing finger at Hoss, “…opened his mouth!”

“Joseph Francis Cartwright, I will NOT stand for you or any son of mine using that kind of language when speaking to me,” Ben said, rising from his seat, slowly.

“You OR any son of mine!” The words echoed and reverberated through Joe’s thoughts with a cruel persistence, making clear the truth of the matter.

Hoss’ attention was drawn from the escalating argument between Joe and Ben to a strange ticking kind of sound that seemed to be coming from the coffee table between himself and his brother. Three of the wooden red pieces seemed to be vibrating against the wood playing board. As he watched, one of the black pieces began to vibrate. Hoss could feel the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

“Why don’t the two of you admit it?” Joe’s angry tirade continued. “You hate me! You BOTH hate me because . . . because . . . . ” He had ALMOST blurted out “because I’m not your son or your brother.”

“Hate you, Li’l Joe?!” The words, and the terrible anguish by which they were spoken, immediately drew Hoss’ attention from the game board and checkers. “Where’d you EVER git an idea like that?” he asked, thoroughly baffled.

“BECAUSE IT’S TRUE!” Joe shouted. As his rage grew, the number of checkers vibrating steadily increased. “DON’T TRY TO DENY IT! YOU BOTH HATE ME! YOU HATE ME, YOU HATE ME, YOU HATE ME!” Joe was aware of a soft popping sound, felt rather than heard. Suddenly, his anger and fury evaporated, like a drop of water on the burning sands of the desert.

Less than a second later, the checker board leapt into the air, as if someone had vigorously kicked it. The wood pieces exploded off the board flying in all directions. Hoss and Joe instinctively covered their faces, particularly their eyes.

“If you can’t play in a quiet civilized manner, then don’t play at all,” Ben said very slowly, barely containing his own escalating fury. “Joseph, I want you to pick up every last one of those pieces….”

“B-But . . . I didn’t d-do it,” Joe protested.

“Joseph Francis Cartwright, I’ve had just about all….”

“I didn’t do it! Honest, I swear! I didn’t do it!” Joe protested vigorously, on the edge of tears. “You NEVER believe me! Nobody ever believes me!” He abruptly turned and bolted for the steps.

Joe ran up the stairs, as fast as his legs could carry him, leaving Ben and Hoss staring after him anxiously. They could hear his footsteps thundering down the hall upstairs, like the hooves of a stampeding herd of buffalo, followed by the sound of his bedroom door slamming hard enough to reverberate through the upstairs. An uneasy silence settled over the remainder of the evening like a pall.

*****

Upstairs, Joe threw himself down on his bed and buried his head in his pillow. Of COURSE, Pa, Mister Cartwright, never believed him. Why should he for heaven’s sake? More to the point, why should he believe him over Adam and Hoss? After all, THEY were his sons, not him. He was lucky Mister Cartwright allowed him to live here at all, seeing as how shabbily his own mother had treated him. It was so hard to believe that only yesterday, he was part of the Cartwright family. Mister Cartwright was his father, Adam and Hoss his brothers. Now….

The pain of loss pierced his heart like a thousand, thousand knives. Joe pushed his head and face deeper into his pillow, and pulled up its edges close around his head for good measure, before giving way to heart wrenching weeping.

*****

Adam returned home shortly after midnight. As he rode Beauty into the yard, he glanced over at the house and noted, to his surprise, that a light still burned in the area where his father’s desk was. He quickly stabled Beauty for the night, then walked briskly toward the house.

Inside, Adam found his father, still dressed, seated at the desk, resting his head in both hands, staring morosely at the untouched papers lying on the desk before him.

“Pa? What are YOU doing up?”

Ben glanced up sharply. “You’re coming home rather late,” he growled. “What did you do? Stop by the Silver Dollar for a few beers after dinner?”

“No, and I can’t say I ate much in the way of dinner, either,” Adam said crossly. “I ordered the biggest steak on the menu, only to find out I wasn’t hungry when it came. For your information, I’ve spent the better part of the last five hours just riding around, trying to make some kind of sense of things.” He slammed his hat and gun belt down on the credenza and started walking resolutely toward the stairs. “Good night!” he said, his words, terse, clipped.

Ben rose. “Adam, I’m sorry,” he said in a kindlier, if weary tone. “I’m worried sick about Joe, but I have no right to take my worries and frustrations out on you.”

“ ‘S OK, Pa. Apology accepted,” Adam said, as he turned and walked over toward the desk. “I’m worried, too.”

Ben favored his oldest son with a wan, knowing smile, and nodded.

“Pa, you think maybe a visit to Doc Martin might be in order?” Adam asked.

“I’ve thought about that,” Ben replied. “Probably wouldn’t hurt, all things considered, but my gut feeling tells me Joe’s sickness, if you will, is of the heart, not the body.”

“Were you able to get anything out of him this evening?”

Ben ruefully shook his head. “Tight-lipped as ever.”

“Well, I’m going on up to bed, Pa. I’m exhausted. You coming?”

“Not just yet, Adam.”

Adam nodded. “Good night, Pa.”

“Good night, son.”

*****

Joe, meanwhile, after coming to the place where he had no more tears left to shed, lay sprawled on his bed, face down, physically and emotionally spent. For all the energy spent weeping, his grief remained, every bit as excruciating and raw as a festering open wound. He had no idea low long he had lain there, unable, unwilling to move.

“What’s to become of me?”

The question appeared spontaneously within the turmoil of his troubled thoughts and churning emotions.

“Where will I go now? What will I do?”

Joe’s entire body tensed.

Would Pa . . . NO! Would MISTER CARTWRIGHT allow him to continue living here? Would his sons, Hoss and Adam? Would any man allow a boy to live under his roof, when that boy would only serve as a reminder of how cruelly his wife had betrayed him? Joe knew the answer to that.

But what would he do? Where could he possibly go? His mother was dead. She had no relatives left, none that HE knew of anyway. Though he had always prided himself on his independence, the harsh truth was, he had no idea in the world as to where or how to begin fending for himself. Trembling with the terror now gripping his heart in its vice like squeeze, Joe turned on his side, drawing his legs and arms in close, wishing with all his heart that he would just plain and simply die right then and there . . . and be done with it.

“NO!” An angry voice screamed in his thoughts. Joe was out of bed like a shot, racing across the room to the mirror on his dresser. There HAD to be something of Ben Cartwright in his face, there just HAD to be. Once again, he stood before the mirror, searching diligently, hour after hour after hour, for that something, that anything he had missed the night before. The only person he ever saw staring back was his mother.

“I hate you,” he whispered, his eyes glued to his own reflection. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”

He shivered, as the heat withdrew from his room.

“I hate you. I hate you. I . . . . ”

The words caught and strangled in his throat as a thin layer of mist appeared on the mirror, dead center over his face. Joe watched with mounting dread as the mist spread slowly, until it completely covered his face. He quickly shifted weight to his left foot, moving away from the center of the mirror. The mist moved with him. He moved right, left, right, feint left, hard to right. No matter which way he moved, the mist also moved, keeping his face obliterated from view.

Terrified, Joe tried to move, to back way. Neither his feet nor his legs would budge. He felt something, tugging at him, pulling him back toward the mirror. He tried to turn his head, but couldn’t. All he could do was stand there helplessly, and watch in morbid fascination as the mist shifted, and moved from its place in the mirror out into the room, toward him. Somewhere, from a place far distant, someone screamed.

The sound of someone pounding on his bedroom door rudely jolted Joe from his dreadful reverie. He gazed around the room in a befuddled daze, not quite sure where he was, shivering, his entire body drenched in sweat.

“Joe, open up! It’s Pa!”

“C-c-come in,” Joe barely managed to get the words out past his chattering teeth.

The door opened, and Ben Cartwright bounded into the room, the hem of his loose bathrobe flapping in his wake. “Joe, what’s wrong? I heard you scream.” The sight of his own breath startled him. “What the…?! It’s FREEZING in here!”

Ben immediately removed his robe and wrapped it around Joe’s shivering body. He noted the beads of sweat dotting Joe’s forehead, and his sodden nightshirt. When he took Joe’s trembling hands in his, they were cold as ice.

“You got a window open in here, son?” Ben asked, as he vigorously rubbed Joe’s cold hands in his own.

Joe numbly shook his head.

Ben walked over to the window, just to make certain. Much to his astonishment the window was closed and locked. “There must be a draft somewhere,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Come on, Joe….”

“Wh-Wh-Where . . . where are w-we g-g-going?”

“My room. It’s warmer in there. I don’t want you getting sick . . . . ” Ben was half afraid the boy was already seriously ill. He made a mental note to check Joe’s room from stem to stern to determine where that draft was coming from.

Ben took his youngest son down the hall to his room. He removed Joe’s drenched nightshirt and slipped a warm, dry one on over the boy’s still shivering body, before putting him to bed in his own. Joe dropped off into an exhausted, deep slumber almost before his head touched the pillow. Ben pulled up the covers, tucking Joe in, then settled himself in the easy chair and ottoman facing the bed.

*****

“Pa, I’ve been over it ‘n over it!” Hoss declared, shaking his head in bewilderment. “Near as I can see, this room’s tighter ‘n drum.”

“I don’t understand it,” Ben declared, anxious and frustrated. “When I came in here last night, it was so cold, I could see my breath. There was ice on his windows.”

“I’ll check it again, if you want me to,” Hoss offered.

Ben shook his head. “That won’t be necessary, but . . . I just don’t understand it.”

“You sure he didn’t have the window open? It still gets pretty chilly at night.”

“I’m sure. I checked.”

“How’s Li’l Joe doin’ this mornin’?” Hoss asked, as he and his father stepped from Joe’s room into the hallway.

“Still asleep,” Ben replied. “The fever from whatever’s ailing him broke during the night, but it sure knocked the stuffing out of him. I’m glad I kept him home from school today.”

Hoss nodded. “Y’ know, that could be why he’s been so cantankerous f’r the last couple o’ days. He must’ve been comin’ down with . . . what ever he came down with.”

“I hope you’re right, Hoss.”

“You think maybe we’d better wake him up? It’s near dinner time now, an’ seeing as how he slept through breakfast . . . . ”

Ben nodded. “I guess I’d better.”

*****

“Joe? Joe, wake up.” Ben, sitting on the edge of his bed, gently jostled his sleeping son.

Joe opened one eye, then the other.

“You’d better rise and shine, son…”

Joe winced when Ben called him son.

“…it’s almost dinner time.”

Joe pulled himself from a prone to a sitting position. “Hunh?” he grunted, upon noticing his surroundings for the first time. “Where am I?”

“You’re in MY room,” Ben said quietly.

“How’d I get HERE?”

“You took sick in the wee hours of the morning,” Ben explained. “Don’t YOU remember?”

Joe wordlessly shook his head.

“In any case, I think the worst of what was ailing you last night’s over,” Ben said. “Why don’t you g’won back to your room, get dressed, and I’ll see you down stairs.”

“O-OK . . . . sure.”

Smiling, Ben gave Joe’s shoulder a gentle reassuring squeeze, then left the room.

Joe rose, and trudged his way down the hall, back toward his own room, thinking that Mister Cartwright’s kindness was a thousand times worse than his anger. He was hardly deserving, not after the way his mother had betrayed him. Feeling the acrid sting of tears welling up in his eyes, he bolted down the hall to the safely of his own room. He darted inside and frantically slammed the door shut.

For a moment, Joe leaned hard against the door, with his eyes squeezed shut, taking deep, even breaths. In . . . out . . . in . . . out! He was bound and determined not to fall apart in front of Mister Cartwright and his sons.

At length, he opened his eyes and glanced around the room. The very first thing that caught his eye was his dresser and mirror. Suddenly all the terror of the night before slammed into him harder than the powerful kick of a stubborn mule. His hands trembled, and he could feel his heart slamming hard against his chest, so hard, Joe half feared it would literally pound itself into a bloody pulp against his rib cage and breast bone. He squeezed his eyes shut, and forced himself to take a deep ragged breath.

“HEY, SHORTSHANKS!” It was Hoss. “DINNER’S READY!”

Joe’s eyes flew open. He glanced around the room desperately seeking something, anything….

“MY QUILT!”

He bolted across the room toward his bed. There he grabbed the edge of the quilt in both hands, and removed it from the bed with a vicious, desperate tug. The mirror on his dresser seemed to glare at him menacingly, taunting him to do his worst. Joe swallowed nervously, then holding the quilt up before him in trembling hands, he hesitantly advanced toward the baleful mirror.

“HEY, BUDDY, COME ON! DINNER!” That was Adam.

“C-COMING!” Joe shouted back. He took a deep, ragged breath, then resumed his advance. Upon reaching the dresser, he threw the quilt over the mirror with an explosive thrust of both arms. He then pulled the top drawer open with one hand and scooped up a handful of underwear and socks with the other.

“G-gotta get outta this room! Gotta, gotta, gotta!” He pivoted. Three running giant steps landed him in front of his wardrobe. They threw open the door so hard, it banged loudly against the adjacent wall.

JOSEPH? WHAT’S GOING ON UP THERE?” Pa. Mister Cartwright.

“COMING!” Joe shouted back, terrified. He reached in, and grabbed a pair of pants neatly folded on one of the side shelves. In his haste, combined near blind terror, he ended up yanking a half dozen pair of neatly folded pants off the shelf. Hop Sing would have a fit when he saw the mess, but he couldn’t worry about that now. He had to get out of this room. He grabbed hold of a shirt, his brand new green cotton, never as yet worn. He pulled, then pulled again. It was stuck somehow. He pulled a third time, harder. “Come on, COME ON!” he urged, overwhelmed and blinded now by his rapidly escalating panic. “COME ON!

“Joe?”

Joe started violently at the sound of Ben’s voice, and screamed.

“Joe? What is it?” Ben noted Joe’s face, white as a sheet, the heaving chest, and eyes round with terror.

Joe exhaled a strangled gasped, then pushed past Ben and bolted out of the room.

Ben stood, rooted to the spot, staring after his youngest son’s retreating back in shock and dismay.

“Pa?”

Ben shook himself from his immobilizing shock, and found himself staring up into the bewildered, anxious face of his middle son.

“What’s spooked Shortshanks? He was runnin’ down the hall just now so hard ‘n fast, he pert near bowled me over.”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Ben murmured, noting the quilt hastily thrown across the face of the mirror on Joe’s dresser. “Did you happen to see where he went?”

Hoss nodded. “He tore into the guest room across from yours, Pa, ‘n slammed the door.”

“You g’won back downstairs, Hoss. I’ll see to Joe.”

*****

Joe, meanwhile, leaned heavily against the door of the guest room. There was a loud knock on the door behind him.

“Who . . . who is it?” Joe queried, breathless and wary.

No answer. A moment later, there was a second knock, louder and harder than the first. Joe, much to his horror, felt the door vibrate under him.

“Oh, God, no!” he whispered, terrified. “It’s in here! It’s in here!” Clutching his pants, underwear, and socks close to his chest, he began to back away from the door, his entire body trembling. “Oh, God, no, please!” he begged. “Please….”

A third knock followed, then a fourth.

“NO!” Joe shouted, as fear and terror pushed him to the edge of tears.

There was a fifth knock, then a sixth.

“GO AWAY!”

A seventh, followed close on the heels by the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh.

“GO AWAY!” Joe shouted, with tears streaming down his face. “GO AWAY! GO AWAY! GO AWAY!”

A series of staccatoed knocking followed, rapid fire, one after the other. They seemed to emanate from the door and within the four walls surrounding him.

Out in the hall, Ben and Hoss heard the rapping sounds. They looked over at each other, perplexed and alarmed.

“It’s comin’ from the guest room, Pa.”

“Come on!”

Ben tore headlong down the hall, with Hoss following in hot pursuit. The guest room door was closed, and they could hear Joe inside, screaming, on the edge of hysteria. The knocking sounds steadily increased in volume, number, and intensity.

Ben balled his fingers into a tight fist and pounded on the door. “JOSEPH! JOSEPH, WHAT’S GOING ON IN THERE?” he yelled, hoping to be heard above the racket of all the pounding.

“GO AWAY!”

Ben threw the door open and bounded into the room. He found his youngest son standing in the center of the room, still clad in his nightshirt, clutching his clothing tightly to his chest, his eyes round with terror.

“MAKE IT STOP! PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!”

Ben, terrified for the boy’s sanity, rushed into the room and gathered his trembling, weeping son into his arms and held him close. He could feel Joe’s arms encircling his waist and grabbing tight, clinging for dear life. All around them the pounding continued, shaking the walls, window panes, vibrating furniture and loose bric-a-brac.

“PLEASE! MAKE IT STOP! PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!”

“Joe, get hold of yourself!” Ben admonished him severely, while trying to hold down his own rising fear and panic.

“MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP!”

Not knowing quite what else to do, Ben slapped his son hard across the face.

For Joe, the pain acted as a bucket of ice water dashed in his face. The fear, the terror, and blind panic were suddenly and completely gone. There was one more loud knock, then silence reigned.

Joe stared up at Ben, dazed. “Pa?” he said, without thinking. Upon belatedly realizing his error, he hung his head in shame.

“Joe, are you alright?”

“I-I don’t know . . . I g-guess so.”

“Why don’t you get dressed, then come on downstairs? Dinner’s ready.”

“Sure….” Joe stopped himself this time before calling Mister Cartwright Pa.

Ben managed a wan smile, and a reassuring shoulder squeeze, before wearily leaving the room.

*****

Ben saw his older sons and Hop Sing grouped together at the bottom of the stairs, each face an identical mask of anxiety and grave concern.

“Pa, what in the world was he doing up there?” Adam asked, his own voice unsteady and complexion a few shades paler than normal.

“He was terrified, but . . . I couldn’t see that he was doing anything that would make all that racket.”

“Angry spirit,” Hop Sing declared.

“That’s not funny, Hop Sing,” Ben growled.

“Hop Sing not make joke. Angry spirit come to children. Children like Little Joe. Throw things, make racket.”

“Poltergeist, Pa,” Adam said, drawing a sharp glare from his father. “German for noisy ghost. Like Hop Sing’s angry spirit, the poltergeist attaches itself to kids roughly the age Joe is now.”

“Aw, come on, Adam. You don’t believe in ghosts, ghoulies, ‘n stuff that goes bump in the night . . . do ya?”

“No, Hoss, I don’t. Most of the time, there’s a simple, logical explanation for so called ghosts,” Adam said. “Usually, in the case of the poltergeist, the child in question is a troubled youngster, on the edge of adulthood. It generally turns out that the child is making the so called odd things happen to get attention. We covered that in the psychology class I took at Harvard.”

Hoss frowned. “Joe ain’t what I’d call a troubled young ‘un.”

“Perhaps not, but SOMETHING has been troubling him deeply,” Ben said quietly. “Ever since that last brawl with Billy Caine.”

“Has he ever said anything about that?” Adam asked.

Ben shook his head.

“Hop Sing still say angry spirit.”

“We’ve got enough going on here without worrying about spirits, angry or otherwise,” Ben said firmly, “unless you’re referring to the ones that come in bottles.”

*****

A fragile peace reigned over the Cartwright household. Ben kept Joe home from school for another two days, and took time off from his own daily chores to be with his youngest son. Hop Sing prepared Joe’s favorite dishes at meal times. Hoss, a patient man by nature and much slower to anger than either his father or older brother, made a special point of spending time with his younger brother, waiting on him occasionally, and helping him along with the chores. Adam made a genuine effort to keep his own anger and frustration under wraps, as he had promised Pa, and made a special point of rising early and taking care of the morning chores himself.

“Hey, Li’l Joe, tomorrow’s Saturday,” Hoss said late one afternoon, as he helped his younger brother with the dreaded chore of mucking out the horse stalls. “Y’ up for a day o’ fishin’?”

“Why can’t they just leave me alone?” he groaned in silent despair. For three days now, everyone had been so nice to him. Why? By all rights, they should despise him.

“I can ask Hop Sing t’ make up a picnic lunch,” Hoss blithely rambled on, in blissful ignorance of Joe’s ever growing misery. “How does ham sandwiches with some o’ that mustard Hop Sing makes sound t’ you?”

Hoss knew darn well ham sandwiches with Hop Sing’s mustard were his absolute favorite. Joe felt tears welling up in his eyes; he turned away, bound and determined not to let Hoss see him cry. He forced himself to take deep, even breaths, wishing with all his heart that Hoss WAS his brother.

“Well, Li’l Brother?”

No answer.

Hoss frowned. “Joe?”

Still no answer.

Puzzled, and a wee bit apprehensive about Joe’s apparent obliviousness, Hoss walked over to where Joe stood, leaning heavily on his shovel.

“Hey, Li’l Joe, I asked you a question,” Hoss said gently, as he reached out to touch Joe’s shoulder. He frowned as the soft, unmistakable hiccupping sounds of someone sobbing reached his ears. “Joe?”

Startled, Joe whirled in his tracks.

Hoss was shocked to see his brother’s face wet with tears. Judging from the angry red, swollen eyelids the boy had apparently been crying for quite some time. “Joe? Wh-What IS it?” he stammered, as shock quickly gave way to loving concern.

“Nothing!” Joe spat, furious with himself. He immediately turned away from Hoss, and moved a few steps deeper into Dixie Belle’s empty stall.

“Joe, SOMETHIN’S botherin’ ya,” Hoss said gently. “Whatever it is, it’s been eatin’ ya alive.”

“J-just leave me alone!” Joe sobbed. “Just . . . just leave me the hell ALONE!” With that, he pushed angrily past Hoss and fled from the barn.

Hoss stared after him, open mouthed with shock.

“Hoss?”

He turned toward the open door slowly, and saw his father and Adam standing their, holding the reins of their horses. Their faces were twin mirrors of the bewilderment Hoss felt within.

“Was that Joe?” Ben asked.

Hoss nodded.

“What happened?”

“Pa, I wish I knew!” Hoss said with a helpless shrug. “We were just finishin’ up in here, when I suggested that tomorrow bein’ Saturday, we might take a picnic lunch ‘n spend the day fishin’.”

“That’s all you said to him?”

Hoss nodded.

“Just when I was beginning to think he was over . . . WHATEVER this is!” Adam muttered disparagingly. “Pa, maybe it’s time to think about applying the ‘board of education’ to Little Joe’s ‘seat of learning.’ ”

“Adam, that boy needs understandin’ and patience, not a spanking,” Hoss said firmly, favoring his older brother with an angry scowl.

“Three days! For THREE DAYS, we’ve BEEN patient, while HE’S grown moodier and more volatile by the second!” Adam exploded in a rare burst of temper. “Well I’ve had it! So help be if he throws one more temper tantrum just because I happened to inadvertently look at him cross-eyed, I’m going to throttle… ”

“Dadburn it, Adam, you’d better leave him alone, or so help me… ”

“You’ll WHAT!” Adam rounded furiously on the handier target.

“Adam, Hoss, that’s enough!” Ben snapped. “I don’t need to cope with the pair of YOU at each other’s throats.”

“Sorry, Pa,” Hoss apologized at once.

“What are you going to do?” Adam ventured cautiously.

“First, I’m going to find Little Joe,” Ben said grimly. “Then I’m going to get to the bottom of whatever it is that’s been bothering him.”

“Pa, please . . . don’t be too hard on him,” Hoss begged.

Ben placed a paternal hand on Hoss’ shoulder and gave it a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “I’ll try NOT to be, son,” he said quietly. “But, Adam’s right, too. We’ve all been patient and now, we’re quite frankly at the end of all our ropes.”

*****

Ben left his horse with Hoss to be tended and stabled, then walked toward the house, determined to get to the bottom of whatever had been upsetting his youngest son for the past three days. He briskly walked up the stairs and down the hallway to the upstairs guest room, where Joe had insisted on taking up residence after that night he was taken sick with that mysterious illness. He raised his hand and knocked insistently on the fast closed door.

No answer.

Ben knocked again. “Joe? You in there?”

Still no answer.

He exhaled a short, explosive exasperated sigh, closed his eyes and forced himself to count ten very slowly. He knocked again. “Joe, it’s Pa,” he said, taking care to keep his tone even. “I want to talk with you.”

Still no answer.

Ben, his mouth tightening with anger opened the door. “Joseph?” He paused, just inside the room and glanced around. He was surprised to find the room empty. “Joe?”

No answer.

Ben opened the wardrobe and checked under the bed. No sign of Joe whatsoever. He stepped out of the guest room, then walked to Joe’s bedroom at the end of the hall. Ben found the door standing open, the quilt still over the mirror where Joe had thrown it three days ago.

“Joe? You in here, boy?”

No answer.

Ben entered the room, checking inside the wardrobe and under the bed. He saw neither hide nor hair of his youngest son.

Perplexed and anxious, Ben went back downstairs, where Adam and Hoss waited.

“That . . . went better than I thought it would,” Adam said slowly.

“That’s because Joe’s not upstairs,” Ben said anxiously.

“He ain’t? I though SURE he’d ran into the house when he left the barn.”

“Well he didn’t,” Ben said morosely. “Did you unsaddle my horse?”

“I did, but we can just as easily saddle him again . . . ‘n ours too,” Hoss said grimly.

“HOP SING!” Ben bellowed.

Hop Sing appeared at Ben’s elbow, looking anxious.

“Hop Sing, Little Joe’s not upstairs . . . in the guest room or his own room,” Ben said. “Have you seen him?”

Hop Sing dolefully shook his head. “Not see Little Joe since he and Mister Hoss go clean out barn.”

“The three of us are going to go out and look for him,” Ben said. “I’d like you to stay here, and keep an eye out for him. If he comes while we’re out, don’t let him leave.”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright. Hop Sing keep watch for Little Joe.”

Ben strode briskly out of the house, back to the barn, with Hoss and Adam loping along at his heels. Suddenly he stopped. His older sons barely stopped short of a three way collision. “Dixie Belle! Hoss, is Dixie Belle in the barn?”

“No, she ain’t in the barn; she’d be out in the corral. Joe was cleanin’ out HER stall when . . . . ”

Ben turned and ran over to the corral next to the barn. He half stepped, half jumped up onto the first slat of fence and scanned the horses within the enclosure. There was no sign of Dixie Belle.

“Pa!” That was Adam. “I just looked in the barn. Joe’s saddle and bridle are gone.”

“I’ll ride down to the old fishin’ hole and check out the woods beyond it,” Hoss volunteered, as the three ran into the barn. “There’s several places there Joe likes t’ go when he wants t’ be alone.”

“I’ll check out Ponderosa Plunge and surrounding environs,” Adam said, as he placed the blanket over his horse’s back.

“I’ll ride down to where Mama’s buried,” Ben said. “If either of you find him, bring him back to the house, even if you have to hog-tie him and throw him over your saddle. We’ll meet back here.”

“Right, Pa.”

Adam nodded.

*****

Ben reached the place where Marie Cartwright, Joe’s mother, was buried just as the sun began its descent behind the line of mountains on the other side of the lake. He dismounted, tethered his horse, and walked to the grove of aspens surrounding Marie’s final resting place, pausing briefly to remove his hat.

“Joe?” he called softly.

No reply.

Ben knew immediately that Joe was not here. He entered the grove of pines surrounding Marie’s final resting place, with a heavy heart and sat down next to the headstone. The air was still, and the surface of the lake beyond smooth as glass. Ben leaned forward, resting his arms heavily on top of his knees. Not even this place, this sanctuary of peace, could ease his anxious thoughts.

A gentle breeze wafted through the leaves.

“Hello, Marie,” Ben murmured softly. A weary smile spread slowly across his lips. She loved coming here, to this grove of trees. Most often alone, occasionally with him, or Joe, when he was a baby.

“It’s so beautiful . . . so peaceful here,” Marie had said the first time he brought her to this spot. “If I keep still and listen, I can almost hear the spirits of the land talk to me, like they do to Hoss.”

Following the sudden, tragic death of Little Joe’s best friend, at the age of five, Ben overheard her as she sought to comfort and reassure their frightened young son. “ . . . . if I SHOULD die, Little One, I’ll always be with you,” she had eagerly promised, “as your own personal guardian angel.”

“Yes, Mama, but….”

“But, what, Little Joe?”

“But, if you die . . . I’ll never, ever, be able to hear you sing to me again.”

Marie hugged her young son close and quietly held him for a long time. “Yes you will,” she said quietly. “You go to that place where I like to go down by the lake. You know where it is.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“You go there, be very quiet, and listen. Then you’ll hear me sing to you on the gentle breezes as they stir the pine needles and the aspen leaves…. ”

A few days later, Marie herself was dead, killed instantly when the horse on which she had been riding, stumbled. She died as the result of a broken neck. . . .

*****

The yellow light of day gradually deepened and mellowed into a golden rose, drenching the surrounding trees, the earth, lake water, and even the white marble of Marie’s grave marker in a luminous pink glow. The relentless churning within Ben’s anxious mind steadily lessened, easing gently to a peaceful stillness. He remained for a time, unmoving, seated on a carpet of pine needles and what remained of last year’s aspen leaves, drawing a measure of strength and comfort in his memories of Marie, and the love they once shared.

“Marie,” Ben at long last broke silence, speaking her name very softly, “please tell me . . . where I can find our son.”

As the remaining light of day faded into the silvery gray of twilight, a gentle breeze stirred pine boughs and aspen leaves.

Go home.

Go home, wait.

Ben rose, and dusted the pine needles and dried leaves from his clothing. It was time for him to leave. He also knew deep within himself that wherever his angry and troubled young son had gone, that he was, for the time being, safe under the watchful, loving eyes of his very own guardian angel. He knew not through words spoken aloud or in the silence of thought, but rather through the deep language of heart.

*****

“Pa! Thank goodness! We were beginning to worry!”

“Didja find him, Pa?”

Ben looked into the anxious faces of his two older sons, as he stepped into the house, and shook his head.

“Damn!” Adam swore, consumed with pent up rage, frustration, and grief, unlaid by a deep abyss of all pervading, all consuming anguish. “Where in the world could he BE?”

“He’s safe for now,” Ben said quietly.

“I thought y’ said y’ didn’t find him, Pa.” Hoss said, frowning.

“I didn’t.”

“Then how do y’ know he’s safe?”

“I . . . know, Hoss. He’s got his very own guardian angel looking out after him.”

*****

He opened his eyes, as the grandfather clock in the living room downstairs sonorously chimed the half hour. A gentle breeze wafted through his open window, billowing the curtains like the sails of a clipper slip, moving across the surface of the ocean at full speed. He sat up and glanced out the window. Blue skies, warm sunshine, birds singing. It was shaping up to be a real pretty day. He threw aside the quilt with a joyous abandon and whipped one leg, then the other over the side of the bed. His eyes happened to fall on the carriage clock sitting in the middle of his dresser.

Eight-thirty.

“Eight-thirty?!” he yelped. “EIGHT-thirty?” He should have been at school half an hour ago. Miss Gibson warned him about what would happen the next time he was late. Why hadn’t Pa or Adam or Hoss awakened him? With heart in mouth he jumped out of bed and ran to the wash basin. He found, to his surprise, the pitcher was empty. Given the accumulation of dust and lint in the bottom, it had not been used in quite some time.

He backed away, filled with a nebulous sense of foreboding. He found a pair of pants and a shirt lying across the foot of his bed. He quickly pulled his nightshirt off over his head and put on the shirt, then the pants. With heart in mouth, he tore out of his bedroom and ran down the stairs.

Pa, Adam, and Hoss were already up, dressed, and seated at the breakfast table.

“Hoss, you and Hank take half dozen men and replace that fence along the north pasture,” Pa said. “That storm last week ripped up an entire section.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

“Adam, how’s the branding?”

“We’ve moved two-thirds of the herd now, Pa. I counted fifty-three calves.”

“ ‘Morning, Pa! ‘Morning, Hoss . . . you, too, Adam.”

“Fifty-three calves. Excellent. This promises to be a very good year.”

“If last years market prices hold, I see us clearing at least thirty thousand dollars, give or take a few,” Adam said.

Hoss finished the remaining food on his plate, then rose. “If I’m gonna get that fence in the north pasture fixed, I’d best git. See ya at supper.”

“See you, Hoss,” Ben said.

Hoss left the table walking at a surprisingly fast clip. He suddenly realized his biggest brother was moving on a straight path straight toward him. “Hoss? HOSS! HOSS, STOP!” he screamed.

Hoss continued.

“HOSS!”

Hoss continued, as if he had not heard. He jumped aside and the last possible second, landing in an ungainly heap on his hands and knees.

“WHY DON’T YOU WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING, YOU BIG LUMMOX!” he yelled after his brother.

 

Hoss marched over to the front door, grabbed his hat and gun belt, then went outside.

 

He rose unsteadily to his feet, wondering what in the world could have gotten into Hoss. Surely he heard him screaming. Even if he hadn’t, Hoss still had eyes to see. Why did he almost walk into him as if he weren’t even there?

“Pa! Did you see that? Did you see what that big overgrown elephant almost did?” he demanded, as he marched angrily over toward the dining room table.

Pa and Adam continued to talk about the branding as if he had never even spoken.

Bewildered, put out, he stepped up to the table. “ ‘Morning, Pa.”

No answer, not even an acknowledgment of his presence.

“Pa?”

Still no answer.

“Pa! Adam!”

Still no answer.

He walked over to his chair, and pulled it out to sit down. He was horrified to find no place setting at his chair.

“Pa! Adam! Is this some kind of joke?”

Pa rose, draining the last of his coffee from his cup. “Come on, Adam. You and I need to be moving along, too.”

“Right with you, Pa.”

He watched as Pa and Adam left the table and walked toward the front door.

A few moments after Pa and Adam left, Hop Sing entered the dining room and began to clear the table.

“Hop Sing!”

No answer. Hop Sing moved around the table gathering up the dishes, balancing, stacking them neatly on the crook of his left arm.

“Hey, Hop Sing, don’t I get any breakfast?”

Hop Sing gathered the last of the dishes and dutifully carried them back to the kitchen. He stood, staring after the Chinese man’s retreating back, stunned.

A cold hard lump of dread coalesced deep in the pit of his stomach, as he ran out to the barn to find Dixie Belle. Somehow, the stalls seemed to stretch in a straight line that went on forever. He glanced into stall after stall, some occupied, others empty. There was no sign of Dixie Belle.

A strange clacking and whirring sound caught his attention. He looked up and saw, much to his amazement, a cuckoo clock hanging on the wall above his head. The big hand pointed straight up, the little hand was lost in a strange kind of mist that shifted and pulsated in front of the clock face like a living thing. The door opened, the bird came out.

Koo-koo!

Koo-koo!

Koo-koo!’

In and out, in and out, in and out.

He stared up at the cuckoo clock through eyes round with terror. The clock was evil. He had to get away before it finished striking the hour.

Koo-koo!

Koo-koo!

Koo-koo!

He tried to turn, to run, but his body would not move.

Koo-koo, koo-koo, koo-koo, in and out, in and out. Thirteen times.

Then he heard music. It was the wedding march. Somewhere above the door where the cuckoo bird had come out, another door opened. Out came a bride with face, eyes, and wavy brown hair, so like his own. A groom, with silver white hair, dark eyes, and thick, bushy eyebrows came out along side the bride. On the other side, a third door opened. Out came another man, his face hidden in the same mist that obscured the clock face. He met the bride and groom in the middle. The bride left the groom and went with the other man through the door on the other side. The groom moved backwards, re-entering the clock by the same door he had come out.

He tried to scream.

“Hey, boy!”

He jumped.

“You! Boy!”

It was one of the ranch hands. That new guy, who signed on with the bunch hired to help with the branding.

“What do you want, boy?”

“My horse! I’m looking for my horse.”

“Your horse ain’t here.”

“Of course she is! She’s gotta be.”

“No she ain’t.”

“She’s a roan, named Dixie Belle.”

“No horse named Dixie Belle here. Adam wouldn’t allow it, him being from New England ‘n all. Y’ better skeedaddle on home, boy.”

“Whaddya mean I’d better skeedaddle on home? Don’t you know me?”

“Should I?”

All he could do was stare at the man, mouth open, gaping. Panic rose within him, swift and fast, like the raging spring floods through the dry river beds in the desert.

“Y’ better git on home, boy. Mister Cartwright ‘n his two boys don’t cotton much t’ trespassers.”

“I’m NO trespasser! And Mister Cartwright has THREE sons, not TWO.”

“Nope, only the two. Adam ‘n Hoss. Go see for your self.”

He turned and bolted from the barn, back across the yard and into the house. He tore up the stairs, taking them two, three at a time. This was a dream. A horrible, horrible dream! It HAD to be! He ran down the hall to his own bedroom. The sooner he could get back in bed, go back to sleep . . . . He threw open the door. . . .

The room was empty. His bed, his dresser, the stand with wash basin and pitcher, all of his personal belongings, were gone.

Then, he heard horses out in the yard. He bolted from the room and tore down the steps, two and three at a time. There, with his father and older brothers, he saw a rider mounted on his own beloved mare, Dixie Belle.

“HEY YOU!” he shouted, as he rushed from the house to confront usurper. “GET OFF THAT HORSE!”

The rider turned and smiled down at him maliciously. He saw, much to his horror that the rider was none other than Billy Caine. “Toldja! I toldja, Little Joe. You ain’t Mister Cartwright’s son . . . . ”

*****

Joe was rudely awakened by the sound of his own anguished screaming. For a few brief horrifying moments, the hayloft, illuminated by the silvery light of the moon, nearly full, a place he went to for solace and refuge, seemed frighteningly strange. The play of light against deep shadow turned all that was familiar, into shapes unfamiliar, even menacing.

A shaft of moonlight shining in through the open window illuminated a rectangular patch of hay. The light seemed to be growing brighter somehow, less transparent. Joe felt a chill shoot up the entire length of his spine. Thin tentacles of fine gossamer snaked out from the shaft of light, rising, curling like wisps of smoke.

The mirror.

The mist.

“N-no…. ” Joe stammered, taking one step backward, then two. “No! Go away!”

In the stalls below, the stabled horses neighed anxiously.

*****

Ben’s eyes snapped wide open. The very first thing to intrude rudely upon his waking awareness was the frantic neighing of frightened horses. Heavy footsteps pounded hard against the wood floor in the hallway beyond his closed bedroom door.

“Pa? Pa, wake up!” It was Hoss, pounding urgently on the door to his bedroom.

“Coming, Hoss.” Ben scrambled out of bed and flew across the short stretch of space between his bed and the door.

“Pa, the barn’s on fire!”

“GET THE HORSES OUT!” Ben shouted, as he snatched his bathrobe from the hook on the inside of his bedroom door. He heard Hoss running down the hall toward the stairs. Ben quickly donned his robe and bolted from the room, pausing before the door to his oldest son’s room. “ADAM!” he yelled as he pounded on the door. “ADAM! WAKE UP! THE BARN’S ON FIRE!”

“COMING, PA….”

Ben tore down the steps and out into the yard between the house and barn. Hank and the men had already formed a line between the water trough and the fire. Ray Sherrill, a man nearly the size of Hoss, dutifully manned the pump while the others passed buckets back and forth.

“Pa, it’s spreadin’ fast,” Hoss reported tersely. “Hank, Mitch, ‘n I got all the horses out….”

Ben looked through the open door at the tell-tale reddish orange glow, moving relentlessly through the dry hay. Then, suddenly, revelation slammed against his mind, his thoughts, and most of all his heart, like the hard blow of a sledge hammer against his solar plexus. He could feel the blood draining right out of his face, his knees suddenly turning from firm bone and muscle to rubber. His balance began to give way . . . .

“Pa?” It was Adam, reaching out to steady him.

“Joe!” Ben gasped. “Joe’s in there!”

“Pa, I didn’t see anybody . . . .”

“Let go of me!” Ben snatched his arm from Adam’s firm grasp, then bolted toward the barn.

“JOE?!” Ben yelled frantically, as he dashed into the burning barn. The fire had already spread across the entire length of the back wall. Tendrils of black smoke rose, pooling against the low ceiling created by the overhead loft, then snaking back down again to the floor. “JOE! ANSWER ME!”

“Ben!” Hank suddenly appeared at his elbow. “Come on, Ben. You’ve got to get out of here!” He took hold of the Cartwright clan patriarch’s arm, intending to escort him toward the door. “The horses are out….”

“Is my son out?” Ben shot back.

“Y-your son?”

“Joseph! Is Joe out?”

“I didn’t s-see him…. ”

Ben freed himself from Hank’ strong, vice like grip and plunged headlong deeper into the structure. “JOSEPH! ANSWER ME, BOY!”

“Go ‘way….” A strangled sob, above his head, so soft, it had nearly drowned against the growing roar of the fire.

Ben, his face set with fierce, stubborn determination, quickly located the ladder leading up to the loft, and climbed. There, he saw Joe, his face a mask of unspeakable terror, backed up against the far wall, arms extended as if to shield himself against someone bent on hurting him. Ben ran the length of the narrow loft, his thoughts focused solely on Joe.

Joe turned, their eyes met. “H-help me, please . . . Mister Cartwright! Don’t let him t-take me, please.”

Ben’s eyes were slowly drawn to the glowing mist that seemed to emanate from the shaft of moonlight shining in through the window. We watched in rapt, morbid fascination as the mist shifted, and moved, taking the shape of something vaguely human.

“NO! STAY AWAY!”

The sound of Joe’s terrified screaming swiftly galvanized Ben to action. Three brisk running giant steps placed him between Joe and the misty being forming in the moonlight.

NO! Ben shouted with all the power, strength, and authority of an Old Testament prophet about to speak forth the word of the Lord. “YOU CAN’T HAVE MY SON.”

The mist paused, wavered.

“I WON’T let you have him.”

Ben sensed anger emanating from the mist, like a solid, palpable thing.

“I won’t let you take MY SON.” Keeping his eye on the mist-being, Ben reached back and drew Joe into the safety of his strong, loving embrace. “I won’t let you have him.”

“Get out of here, Mister Cartwright, or it’ll kill you, too.”

“Joe, what’s with the Mister Cartwright?”

“I . . . I know the truth, Sir. About y-you . . . about m-my mother!”

The mist being began to solidify again.

Ben pulled the sobbing boy closer, and held on for dear life. In the barn below, tongues of flame began to lick the supports holding up the loft.

“M-Mister Cartwright, please! S-save yourself,” Joe sobbed heart wrenchingly.

“Why do you keep calling me Mister Cartwright?” Ben demanded, noting that each time Joe did, the mist being and the flames below seemed to gain more and more strength.

“DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?” Joe screamed. Tears, borne of all the fear, anger, and grief he had kept bottled up for so long, flowed like rivers down his cheeks. “I KNOW! I KNOW THE TRUTH! I KNOW . . . YOU’RE NOT MY FATHER . . . YOU’RE NOT MY F-F-FATHER . . . . ”

Ben was clearly taken aback. “Where in the world did you get an idea like that?”

“Billy . . . Billy Caine! He told me about my ma, about how she . . . how she . . . oh dear God, about how she r-ran around, how y-you’re n-not really my pa . . . . ”

Ben felt the floor beneath his feet shift and sag. It was growing more and more difficult to see through the gathering haze of deadly gray smoke, now filling every square inch of open space. Yet the mist-being continued to grow brighter. Tentacles of mist spun together, forming arms. Arms to reach out . . . .

“Joe, I want you to listen to me!” Ben’s voice was gentle, yet very firm. He held his youngest son a little apart from him so that he might look into the boy’s face and eyes. “You ARE my son, I AM your father.”

Joe stared up into his face, shaking his head.

“Say it, Joe. You’ve got to say it!”

“I . . . I c-can’t.”

“You must! It’s the truth!”

“I . . . can’t,” Joe sobbed; he could feel the panic rising inside him again. “I can’t!”

The mist being turned its attention from Joe to Ben.

“Joe, say it! You’ve got to say it! I AM your father! YOU are my son! SAY it!” Ben pleaded. A fine filament of mist spiraled out wrapping itself around Ben’s throat. “Joe . . . say it! Say… ” His words were swallowed by a strangled gasp.

Joe turned, and saw the mist being wrapping itself around Ben’s throat, tighter, ever tighter . . . .

“Say it, Joseph!” Ben gasped, his voice hoarse from the tightening cord around his neck and the smoke. “Say it, son.”

“N-no….” Joe whispered, horrified. “No! Leave him alone! Leave him alone!”

The mist being paused, turned.

“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” Joe shouted, as the rage and fear grew within him by leaps and bounds. “LEAVE HIM ALONE!”

Joe heard Ben gasping for air. He collapsed to his knees, his hand clawing frantically at the intangible mist encircling his neck.

“STOP IT!” Joe screamed. “LEAVE HIM ALONE! LEAVE HIM ALONE!”

He saw Ben’s eyes roll back in his head, his body go slack and topple forward.

YOU LEAVE MY PA ALONE!” Joe shouted at the top of his voice. Suddenly all the rage and fear that had been churning and growing inside was gone, and with it the mist being and the fire.

Joe scrambled to his feet and ran to his father’s side. “Pa?” He shook him gently. “Pa, please . . . please, be alright.”

Ben stirred.

“Come on, Pa, wake up. P-please . . . wake up.”

Ben’s eyelids fluttered, then opened. “Joe?” he gasped, his voice still hoarse.

“I-I’m alright now, Pa,” Joe sobbed with relief as he helped Ben sit up.

Ben took a deep ragged breath, then slipped his arms around his youngest son. Joe buried his head against his father’s shoulder and released all the pent up pain, rage, anguish, and grief he had kept bottled up for so long.

“PA?”

“PA, WHERE ARE YOU? IS JOE WITH YOU?”

That was Hoss, then Adam in the barn below.

“UP HERE!” Ben responded, his voice still hoarse “JOE AND I ARE UP HERE.”

Moments later, Hoss and Adam were in the hayloft as well.

“Pa, is Li’l Joe gonna be alright?” Hoss asked anxiously.

“He will be, Hoss,” Ben replied, pulling Joe even closer. “He will be.”

*****

EPILOGUE:

“That was the doggondest thing!” Hoss muttered, shaking his head.

They were in the house. Ben and Joe on the settee, Adam in the red chair, Hoss in the blue.

“One minute, that barn was ready t’ collapse, the next . . . the fire’s gone, an’ nothin’s so much as scorched.”

“Pa, what WAS that thing anyway?” Joe asked, his voice still unsteady.

“Hop Sing’s angry spirit, Adam’s poltergeist,” Ben said quietly, still cradling his youngest son in the safety of his arms.

“How did it get there?”

“It was drawn by your feelings of rage and fear,” Ben replied. “That much I’m sure of. Anything else . . . I just plain don’t know.”

“Hey, Shortshanks, where in the world did y’ get the idea that Pa . . . wasn’t your pa?”

“B-Billy Caine,” Joe said contritely. He haltingly told his father and brothers everything Billy Caine had told him.

“Dadburn it, that Billy Caine oughtta be taken out ‘n horsewhipped!” Hoss muttered angrily.

“I’m sorry for being so angry with you, little brother,” Adam said contritely. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I couldn’t,” Joe said, his voice breaking. “First thing I d-did? I looked in the mirror, and I c-couldn’t see anything of Pa in my face. Nothing!”

“You DO favor your mother,” Ben said gently.

“That’s one o’ the reasons Pa loves ya so much, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, “an’ I think it’s one o’ the reasons I love ya, too. I don’t remember much about MY ma, seein’ as how she died when I was a baby. All I know is what Pa’s told me over the years. YOUR ma’s the only ma I ever knew. When I look at you, I can see HER face, too, an’ that way, I kinda feel like I got a part o’ her still with us.”

Joe, barely managing a wan smile through the tears still streaming down his face, took Hoss’ hand in his own and squeezed it affectionately.

“Joe, when I first met your mother in New Orleans, she had been unjustly accused of murder. I worked to clear her name as a favor to another man, with whom I’d made friends, and ended up falling in love with her in the process,” Ben said quietly. “Unlike Elizabeth and Inger, your mother had been married before, then widowed. She and her first husband had a baby, who was stillborn.

“But she was NOT a loose woman. There’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that your mother was as faithful to me, as I was to her. No one else could possibly be your father except me. As for Judge Caine…. ” a dark scowl deepened the creases in Ben’s brow, “he DID ask her to be his mistress, but she adamantly refused.”

“H-how do you know that, Pa?”

“Because your mother told me,” Ben said. “She loved . . . and trusted me enough to come to me.”

“Well, Little Buddy, seeing as how HE’S really your pa, that makes Hoss and me your brothers,” Adam said gently, with a smile. “I’m afraid you’re stuck with us.”

“Adam, I wouldn’t want to be stuck with anyone else!” Joe declared with deep, heartfelt sincerity.

***The End***

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