Summary: Ben and Joe stop at a hotel on the way home from Stockton.
Word Count: 13,670
Ben Cartwright stood in his stirrups and surveyed the distance. The wind had picked up to almost gale force and his horse, as well as his son’s pinto, had both started to rebel against pushing onward. Huge dust clouds up ahead whirled in strange configurations warning the weary travelers that they might be hit by a dust storm long before the rain fell.
“We’d better find some shelter fast, Joe,” Ben shouted, trying to rise in pitch to be heard above the whipping winds.
“I’m for that and all, Pa—-but where? Don’t see nothing round here!” Joe replied as he gazed off into a desert of nothingness. “Guess we should’ve stayed over in Stockton an extra day.”
“What’s that over there—-do you see it?” Ben asked as he pointed. He had caught a glimpse of an outcropping of buildings to the east.
Joe attempted to wipe some of the dust out of his eyes as he looked over to where his father had indicated. “I don’t see anything!”
“There—-look just past that bunch of cactus—-looks like a town in the distance!”
Joe moved his mount so that it was closer to his father’s horse, hoping to see what Ben was trying to show him. He was starting to believe that too many hours in the saddle was playing tricks on his father’s eyes, when suddenly the remote buildings came into view.
“Let’s go!” Joe shouted and sent his horse forward.
It was a rough couple of miles to get to the outskirts of the small town that stood out in the middle of nowhere. Both Cartwrights stopped just outside of the town limits and stared down at the overturned wooden post. Joe dismounted and knelt next to what was a weathered sign.
“Hellbent—population ninety-eight,” Joe called to his father as he read what was carved deeply into the wooden plank. He then shot his gaze towards the town and shook his head. “Well if there’s ninety-eight here—-they must be hiding pretty darn good!”
Ben nodded as he also surveyed what was basically a ghost town. There were no signs of human inhabitants anywhere. Joe swung back into his saddle and followed his father into the town. Before them stood many buildings, not unlike the town of Virginia City. As they made their way down the main street they could see what had been the local saloon, the bank, the livery stable, the mercantile, the jail, the hotel, a barber’s shop, a church and a funeral parlor. Though the signs that were still very visible above each of the buildings indicated their identity, no-one remained to tell the story of what had happened to the citizens of Hellbent, population ninety-eight.
Ben and Joe dismounted and tied the reins of their horses to the hitching post in front of the mercantile store. Without words exchanged between the father and son they stepped up the stairs and walked cautiously inside. The shelves were remarkably well stocked with various supplies. There were mason jars full of an array of vegetables and other food stuffs. On top of each of the jars, however, was a good two inches of dust.
Joe made his way behind the customer counter and rang open the register. He was surprised to find the drawer to be full of money.
“Hey, Pa—come check this out!” Joe called to his father as he held up a good-sized wad of dollar bills.
Ben strode across the store, taking in the large inventory of items with his eyes. He was soon standing next to his son and the young man handed the money to him.
“That’s odd—-wonder why the store owner would leave that kind of cash in here?” Ben asked as he placed it back inside the drawer.
“Yeah, well it don’t look like he had to worry about anyone stealing it. This store looks like it hasn’t seen a human in a long time,” Joe replied.
“Well, let’s get some grain for the horses and find a stable for them before that storm starts up,” Ben returned as he opened his wallet and withdrew the money to pay for whatever supplies they were going to take with them.
“Huh? Why you paying for the stuff, Pa? I mean—no-one’s here!”
“Well—maybe—somebody will eventually come back—I wouldn’t want to think I took advantage of this strange turn of events,” Ben insisted as he stuffed the money into the cash register and turned from the counter.
Joe gathered up a few things that he thought would come in handy on their one night layover. He also hefted a sack of grain over his right shoulder and proceeded out of the store along with his father.
“Looks like there’s a livery right across the street here—-let’s settle the horses in for the night, Joe.”
The two men made sure that their horses were well fed and out of the elements and then decided it was time to see to their own needs. Three buildings down the street from the livery stood the Imperial Hotel, and that’s where they headed next. Ben had wondered what happened to the citizens of Hellbent, but it didn’t concern him to the extent that it was weighing on his son’s mind. From the first moment Joe had stared down at the sign, he began to have second thoughts on staying there over night. With a large storm coming in fast across the desert, there wasn’t another option, but still, Joe felt uneasy as he walked with Ben into the lobby of the hotel.
The hotel wasn’t quite as large as the lavish International House in Virginia City, but it was very expensively furnished. Both men gazed at the opulent decor and wondered how a town so far out in the middle of nowhere could sport such a fancy hotel. In spite of the delicately crafted items, there were also huge cobwebs that stretched across every threshold in the place. That gave them both the indication that, just like in the mercantile, the hotel hadn’t been occupied in a long time.
Joe walked over to the front desk and his curious nature took over where his fear stopped. He swung around the registry book and stared down at all the entries.
“Hey, Pa—come here—-look at this!”
“Joseph—-what are you doing? Let’s just make some grub and get to sleep,” Ben sighed.
“NO–really you got to see this!” Joe protested staring over at his father.
Ben knew his youngest son and how he would pester him until he got his own way, so he headed over to the boy to see what had captured his imagination this time.
“A registry book—-very nice—now let’s go get some things done before that storm is on top of us!”
“Yeah—-but look here—there’s ninety-eight people who have signed in on these pages—the last entry—it says March second, eighteen hundred and fifty-seven. That’s three years ago—almost to the day, Pa! Isn’t that weird?”
“Tomorrow is the second of March–yes that’s true—but I wouldn’t exactly say that is weird. No weirder than anything else I’ve seen.”
“Oh yeah? Well, how do you explain that everyone just suddenly disappeared, huh? And, how do you explain that the storekeeper never even took his supplies or his money before he left? And—this book here—-it’s got ninety-eight entries—-the same amount of folks who supposedly lived here!” Joe continued to make his case, and rather loudly.
Ben shook his head, half amused at his son and half exasperated with the boy’s need to read supernatural events into everything. However, Joe was eighteen years old, and Ben tried to understand the mind-set of someone his age.
“Well–here—I will fix everything!” Ben laughed and turned the book around. He licked the end of the quill pen that sat in an ink well, whose contents had all but dried up. With a hasty flick of his wrist, Ben signed both his name and that of his son’s in the registry book. “Now—there’s an even one hundred—end of strange coincidences, okay?”
Joe frowned and stared over at the book. He wasn’t very happy to see his name in there and showed his displeasure as he looked back up at his father, “Wish you hadn’t done that, Pa. This place creeps me out!”
Ben patted his son’s shoulder and laughed. “Come on—you are letting all this spur that terrific imagination of yours! Let’s go get settled in!”
“You mean up there?” Joe asked, his voice taking on a higher octave. He pointed towards the long staircase and the abundance of cobwebs, which covered the assent to the guest rooms.
“Yes I mean up there—let’s go—a few cobwebs never hurt anyone!” Ben replied as he spun Joe around by his arm in order to take him along towards the stairs.
Joe pulled his hat from off his head and used it as a weapon to push aside the vast spider webs as he walked up the staircase, making sure to stay right behind his father. Pa was doing his best to remove all the webs he could, knowing that his son wasn’t too happy to be climbing the stairs. Just as soon as both Cartwrights made it up to the second story of the hotel, the registry book, which still sat on the front desk, slammed shut, unaided by human hands.
Ben looked down the long corridor and noticed the window at the very end was opened and the wind was flapping what was left of the gingham curtain. Then there was a loud crash of lightening and one by one each of the guest room doors suddenly flew open and just as quickly slammed closed.
“What the heck?” Joe called out.
“Just the wind, Joseph—the windows must all be open. Let’s get to closing them!” Ben replied and first headed towards the window at the end of the corridor. Closing it tightly, Ben turned towards the first bedroom and called over his shoulder at his son, who hadn’t budged an inch. “You get those bedrooms on that side—I will get these!”
“Maybe we should do it together?” Joe asked meekly.
“Just get them closed, Joseph!” Ben hollered and headed inside the first room.
“Dadgum spooky hotel anyway—-I’d just as soon sleep in the livery than up here!” Joe protested to himself and began to do as he had been instructed.
After Ben had completed his task of closing the guest room windows, he walked to the other side of the hallway to see how far Joe had gotten with securing the other ones. Joe was still in the first room when his father walked in.
“What, may I ask, are you doing?” Ben called over to his son.
Joe was standing by the window gazing out over the town below. “Those storm clouds, Pa—don’t think I’ve ever seen nothing like them!”
Ben moved in closer to get a look at what his son was talking about. There were huge thunderheads looming off towards the end of town and they appeared to be just hanging in the sky and not advancing.
“Sometimes these storms spring up out of nothing—especially in the desert. I’ve seen clouds like that before!” Ben tried to reassure his son.
“Yeah–when?” Joe cast a suspicious look his father’s way.
“Well—I can’t remember—but I know I have. Now—let’s get the rest of these windows down before the rain starts in on us. Then we’re gonna need some lanterns lit!”
Joe took one last long look at the strange pattern in the sky and shook his head. “Well, I ain’t never seen nothing like this before,” he muttered as he followed Ben out of the room.
Ben and Joe secured all the windows on the second floor and descended the staircase in order to get everything ready for their night’s stay. Ben walked back to where he had set the two saddlebags, which contained normal supplies along with what they had procured from the mercantile.
“There’s plenty of lamps upstairs and down here, Joe, but we need to get some more kerosene for them. Why don’t you head back over to the mercantile and get a few bottles?”
Joe was not paying any attention to his father’s words; instead he had made it back over to the front desk. There was the check-in registry and it was closed.
“Pa? We didn’t close this—-look!” Joe called to his father, his suspicions getting him more nervous now.
“Would you forget about that thing!” Ben replied exasperated. “Did you hear what I said about the kerosene?”
“Pa—you didn’t close this book—and I didn’t—so you wanna tell me how it’s sitting here like this now?” Joe continued.
Ben made it over to his son and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He had noticed the same thing that Joe had, but thought little about it.
“You know how gusty that wind was a little while ago—-probably a gust of wind did it. Now will you get to business and go get us some kerosene?”
“Gust of wind? All the windows are closed down here. Come on, Pa—there’s got to be someone here—or SOMETHING here!”
Ben opened the registry book and turned back towards his son and said, “There—now you go on about your assignment and I will keep my eyes peeled. If any ghost stops by I will catch it this time!’
Joe shook his head, unamused by his father’s sarcasm at the time. He also wasn’t too keen on the idea of going over to the mercantile.
“Why don’t we BOTH go over to the mercantile—that way we can get a lot more kerosene!”
“Why don’t YOU go and not act like a little kid about this? Hellbent is a ghost town—but that just means no one lives here—-it has nothing to do with the supernatural! Honestly, Joseph, sometimes you can be aggravating!”
“All these people just vanished—never taking nothing with them—and things aren’t right in this creepy place. If you weren’t so set in your ways, Pa, you would see that something strange is going on!” Joe fired back.
“There was probably a boom time for this town—-there’s silver mining claims all around this area. The mines probably played out and folks left. I don’t see anything strange about that, no more than I do about seeing cobwebs or hearing doors slamming. Now—will you please do as I’ve asked you?”
“Don’t know why I gotta go out there…” Joe mumbled but then stopped when he noticed the stern expression on his father’s face. “Okay–well—you’d better be standing right here when I get back!”
Ben laughed and patted his son’s back as the boy turned to leave, “Lord willing—I will be right here!”
Joe left the hotel and headed down the street to once more do a bit of shopping at the vacated mercantile. He kept a wary eye out for anything that might be out of the ordinary as he headed down the creaky wooden planking of the walkway. Joe stopped short of the mercantile when he noticed the church there next to it.
“There’s the church…” Joe spoke to himself as he stepped off the boardwalk and took a good look at the run down building. His eyes trailed up to the roof and spoke again, “There’s the steeple…” Joe grinned to himself as he walked up the stairs leading to the front of the church. “Open the doors…” Joe began again and pulled open the two entrance doors. He stared inside at the bare walls. “Where’s all the people?” Joe asked himself as he looked around. There was no sign of life, so he turned and walked back outside.
Ben began to set out a meager meal of hardtack and beef jerky and waited for Joe to return so they could get some lamps lit before eating. Checking his pocket watch, he shook his head wondering what was keeping his son. Joe had left more than thirty minutes ago, and Ben figured he would be right back.
Pulling the front door of the hotel open, Ben stared down the street hoping to catch a glimpse of his wayward son. Joe finally appeared coming down the street, his hands loaded down with kerosene. He had just made it within a yard from where his father was standing when a loud crash of lightning lit up the town and then the sky opened up like a deluge. Joe ran up under the shelter next to his father.
“That was close—-guess the clouds finally moved, huh?” Ben smiled and helped relieve Joe of some of his bottles of lamp oil. The two Cartwrights made it inside the hotel and secured the door behind them. “Just set those bottles over here—I’ve got your dinner ready—even found some old brandy for a nightcap—so you should be happy!”
Joe placed the bottles next to the meal his father had laid out and then stared yet again over to the registry book. “Very funny, Pa—very funny!” he remarked.
“Huh?” Ben asked.
“The book—-you closed it again—trying to spook me! Now I know where Adam and Hoss get their talent for teasing me. I guess I expected better from my own father!”
Ben walked over to the registry and his face took on a confused expression. He thought on how the book could have possibly closed during the time he had been outside waiting on Joe. Ben knew he had closed the door behind him, and as Joe has earlier stated, the windows downstairs were shut tight. If it had been a wind gust of some kind earlier from the draft upstairs then that was not an option now. There was not an opened window in the entire hotel.
“Pa? You did close it, right?” Joe asked warily. He had noticed his father’s furrowed brow and was starting to have second thoughts as to who had closed the registry book.
“Well–no–no I didn’t actually. That thunder a minute ago–maybe…” Ben stopped his statement, knowing it was just as farfetched as his son’s ghostly suggestions earlier. “Let’s just eat and get to bed, Joe.”
“There’s something awfully weird in here—and you know it! Let’s go sleep in the livery!” Joe insisted loudly.
“We are NOT sleeping with the horses when there’s perfectly good rooms with nice comfortable beds upstairs.”
“We aren’t alone in this place Pa! Now—whether it’s people—who are hiding–or ghosts–well I ain’t got a clue. But, I still say it’s a whole lot safer with our horses than in here!”
“Help me get these lamps lit,” Ben called over his shoulder as he moved towards the table where they had left the kerosene.
Joe followed his father, knowing good and well that the other man was not about to listen to his protests any longer. One by one they poured the kerosene inside the three lamps that Ben had set aside. Soon they had them all lit, and in the nick of time. Darkness was falling over the town rapidly and the assault of raindrops became louder. The hotel did seem to be cold, but no breeze could be the cause of it at that point. Ben poured two good shots of brandy and sat down at the table with his son.
“Pa? I was just wondering…” Joe began as he crunched down on his beef jerky. He stopped speaking long enough to figure out how to pose his question to his father again. Pa appeared to be avoiding the obvious, as was his nature. But, Joe was not about to settle for the silence, which had fallen between him and his dad. “Is it that you don’t want me to get scared, or is it because you REALLY think there’s nothing to this stuff that makes you discount everything I’ve pointed out since we got here?”
“Eat your supper, Joseph,” Ben replied gruffly. At that point in time all the weary father wanted was to eat and go to sleep and hope dawn would come quickly.
“Not till you answer me. Come on!” Joe whined, hoping the tone of his voice would force a response.
“Everything in life has a logical explanation, son. It’s very easy to get caught up in mysteries, but when you stop and reason them out, they are after all merely coincidental happenings and nothing more,” Ben replied and felt secure that his vague answer would keep his youngest son thinking long enough to allow him to finish his dinner.
“Okay—let’s see then. The book over there… Joe began.
“That’s it—no more talk of that book–got it?” Ben fumed.
“So it’s got you stumped too, hasn’t it, Pa?” Joe smiled smugly.
“The wind from upstairs gusted down the stairs and closed it earlier—later it closed due to the thunder that shook the place. End of logical explanation. Now, eat your dinner and drink your brandy and let’s turn in.”
Joe frowned, unimpressed with his father’s logic. He did as told, afraid that he might be pushing his father a little too far with his endless questions. Joe wasn’t at all happy to finish his meal, as he knew it would mean going back upstairs. The first trip up there had made all the hairs stand up on his arms, but Joe never mentioned it to his father. Pa would just assume he was a scared little boy, and not the eighteen-year-old young man that he was.
Ben stood from his chair and grabbed his saddlebags and a lamp. “Get your gear and a lamp—we’ll leave that other one down here in case we need to come down for something,” Ben instructed his son.
“Yeah in case we have to run for our lives or something,” Joe muttered to himself and took the lamp in his hand. He threw his saddlebags over his right shoulder and followed his father to the staircase.
“Won’t be so bad this time, Joe,” Ben chuckled as they started to ascend to the second floor, “we’ve knocked most of those nasty cobwebs down already!”
“Goodie,” Joe replied under his breath. He couldn’t help feeling as though he was heading towards doom.
Ben stood at the end of the corridor opposite room number seven and looked over at his son. “I’ll take this one—you take the one across the hall,” he said and pointed to room number six.
“Across the hall?” Joe asked in disbelief. “You mean—in a different room from you?”
“You’ve been sleeping in your own room for eighteen years, Joseph—-you should be used to it by now,” Ben laughed at the look on his son’s face.
“Yeah—but—well—-this isn’t exactly the Ponderosa, you know? We could bunk together—couldn’t we?”
“Goodnight, Joseph—sleep well. Just pull the covers over your head if it gets too bad,” Ben winked and stepped into his own room.
“Hey!” Joe shouted, and got his father’s attention.
“What now?” Ben asked, exhausted and not happy to see his son stalling.
Keep your door open—okay?”
“If I MUST,” Ben sighed and headed towards his bed.
Joe stepped into room number six and held the lamp high enough to get a good look at the objects in the room. He wanted to make sure that no one or nothing was in hiding. Joe went so far as to open the wardrobe to make sure there wasn’t a body inside of it. Once he gave the room a thorough going over, he headed over to his bed and sank down onto the down-filled mattress. Joe had to admit to himself that it did feel good, but refused to take off his clothes or boots. He had not forgotten all the strange things that had happened and wasn’t about to go running into the night half dressed.
Debating on whether he should at least remove his holster, Joe finally unhooked the buckle and set it on the nightstand nearby. He made sure that he could reach the Colt forty-five from where he placed his body on the bed. Once satisfied that he could, Joe sank back down against the pillows and pulled up the blanket at the bottom of the bed.
He laid there for a long time unable to close his eyes due to his mounting apprehension. Joe stared over at the two large pictures hanging on the wall across from the bed. One was a picture of an old lady, her hair pulled on top of her hair with a huge hair-clip in it. She looked like a grandmother type, or so Joe tried to tell himself in order to relax. The picture next to the woman’s was a man, he was dressed all in black and his eyes seemed to stare directly over at Joe. The man had a long beard and big bushy eyebrows. Joe forced himself to look back at the picture of the old lady to break the mesmerizing stare of the other one. Slowly, Joe’s eyelids began to droop and his breathing relaxed and he could feel himself slipping under the cover of sleep.
Ben had little trouble settling in, in spite of the many questions his youngest son had raised with him all day long. Like Joe, however, he decided not to slip into the nightshirt, which was tucked away inside his saddlebags. He did remove his holster, as Joe had done also, and found his bed very comfortable. Ben assumed that first thing in the morning the two of them would leave the town of Hellbent and would make it a point never to end up there on any other trip. Soon Ben was deep in slumber and the only sound in his room was his snoring.
Joe awoke abruptly from a terrible nightmare, his heart felt as thought it was securely lodged inside his throat. He had dreamt that something had been chasing him and sweat covered his forehead when he sprang up in the bed. It took a few minutes for Joe to remember where he was and what he was doing there, but as he stared over at the dying flame of the lamp it all came back to him. It was then that his eyes slowly drifted to the pictures on the wall. That was all it had taken to make him grab his holster and run blindly out of the room and into where his father was sleeping peacefully.
“Pa!” Joe shouted as he pounced on the bottom of the bed, sprawling across his father’s legs.
“Joseph!” Ben boomed as he was abruptly pulled from slumber. “What are you doing?!”
“Pa—the pictures on the wall—-they’re changed—-I’m not kidding—someone must’ve come into my room while I was asleep!”
Ben reached for his pocket watch on the nightstand and squinted towards the lamp to see what time it was. “You just went in there a half an hour ago—-you probably had a nightmare,” Ben tried to quiet his son’s worries. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t spent many nights helping the boy out of violent dreams, but at least those rarely happened outside of the confines of home.
“Pa—I was NOT sleeping—the pictures—go on in there and see for yourself!”
Ben muttered a few choice words under his breath, which though they were not discernable, Joe could figure out that his Pa was not happy. Both Cartwrights made it across the hall with the lantern from Ben’s room held out in front of them.
“The picture that was here—it was of an old woman—-the other one was of a man who looked real evil. Now look!” Joe explained and pointed at the two still life pictures that were mounted on the wall.
“Maybe you are confusing them with pictures in one of the other rooms?” Ben suggested.
“No—-I SAW them—-with my own two eyes!”
“Joseph—–it’s late—-will you do your father a favor and go to sleep?” Ben asked yawning as he leaned against the wall.
Joe didn’t reply, he just turned and headed back into his father’s room. Ben followed behind his son, all the while shaking his head. Joe made it over to the bed and plopped down on it. He folded his arms across his chest to show that he wasn’t about to budge.
“Now what are you doing?”
“I am NOT sleeping in that room—-someone or something’s been in there!” Joe insisted loudly.
“Okay–fine!” Ben yelled and grabbed his holster and saddlebags and headed towards the doorway.
“Hey! Where you going?”
“I’m going to sleep in the other room!” Ben answered hotly.
“No need for that—-there’s plenty of room on this bed—heck there’s enough room for you and Hoss let alone you and me. You don’t need to go in there, Pa!”
“I would rather be in there with your ghosts than to listen to you—now trust me—Joseph—DO NOT WAKE ME AGAIN!” Ben advised sharply and headed into room six.
“Just can’t talk to some people,” Joe sighed and pulled the blanket up over his shoulders. He looked around the room and was pleased to see no pictures hanging on the walls in his new room.
Joe somehow managed to fall to sleep in his father’s room. His dreams were not troubled ones and he had curled up under all the blankets and was finally completely relaxed and unaware of his surroundings. That lasted for an hour and then he felt the heaviness of something next to him on the bed. He sprang up again, trying to reach for his gun in the same swift move.
“Don’t shoot!” came the voice on the bed next to him.
Joe blinked his eyes and stared over at his father. “Pa? What’re you doing in here?”
“Well—-I got to worrying about you…” Ben began, forcing a calm to his voice.
“Yeah, sure,” Joe smiled as he stared at his father’s face. “It wouldn’t be because some pictures changed would it?”
Ben cleared his throat and replied, “Just the power of suggestion—-that’s the only logical reason—-we didn’t get a real good look at those pictures in the daytime.”
“I did—-and YOU did too! You seen the old man and old lady’s pictures didn’t you?”
Ben leaned back against the headboard and stared over at his son’s questioning eyes. “Joseph—-we are leaving at daylight—-let’s just get some sleep, okay? We were on the trail a long while today—-and I think a whole lot of these things appear to be happening just because we are tired.”
“I’m wide awake!” Joe insisted. “You know it’s not too late to go join Buck and Cochise over in the livery stable.”
“Go to sleep—-please?” Ben sighed as he slipped under the covers and rolled onto his left side to avoid his son’s gaze.
Joe frowned and slowly eased into his holster. He buckled the gun belt and let his left hand ease down alongside his body. No matter what would happen next, he promised himself he would be ready for it.
“Joe?” Ben called over to his son, after a few minutes of silence.
“Yeah, Pa?” Joe whispered, sure that his father had finally decided to concede defeat and agree to go to the stable.
“Are you wearing your holster?” Ben asked, still positioned on his side facing away from his son.
“Your gun butt is jabbing my spine!” Ben answered angrily.
“Oh—sorry—I’ll move over a bit,” Joe replied meekly.
“Take that dad blasted thing off before you shoot me in my sleep!”
“But…” Joe started to protest when he felt his father’s hand come around and smack his wrist.
“No buts—no gun butts—no buts of any kind—-except YOUR butt if you don’t take it off!”
“Yes, sir,” Joe sighed and unbuckled his holster and set it once again next to the bed.
“Now can we please get some sleep?” Ben asked harshly.
“Hey. YOU were the one talking, not ME!” Joe reminded his pa.
“Next time I take Hoss—-next time you stay home,” Ben replied with a yawn.
“Well I never would’ve pestered you to go to Stockton if I had known we were gonna stop by spook central on the way home,” Joe argued.
“Joseph—-no more speaking—no more sounds of any kind, got it?”
“If that means no snoring—remember it’s not me who snores around here.”
“I am going to toss you into room six if you say one more thing!” Ben warned.
Joe rolled onto his side, afraid that his father meant business. He sure didn’t want to go across the hall so he decided not to make another sound until daylight. Soon he was hearing the typical sound of his father sawing logs. Great, HE can sleep—I’ve got to contend with ghosts AND his snoring, Joe thought to himself.
Joe was finally able to ignore the sounds of both his father’s snoring and the rain pelting the roof of the hotel. He fell into a deep sleep and the nightmares did not plague him again. After an hour of perfect peace for both Cartwrights, suddenly the door to their bedroom slammed shut; its impact shook the walls of the room and roused both men from their slumber. Rattled and terrified, Joe grabbed for his six-gun, and at the same time, his father followed suit. There they were, Ben and Joe Cartwright with loaded Colt forty-fives pointed towards the closed door, waiting for another assault to their senses.
“I TOLD you someone was here!” Joe whispered to his father.
Ben pushed his son’s gun away from his own weapon. They had actually clinked gun barrels when they both drew as they sat up on the bed. Forgot the kid was left-handed, Ben thought to himself. “Just calm down,” Ben replied, never taking his eyes off the door.
“Calm down? Look at the end of your gun, Pa—it’s shaking as bad as mine!”
“Probably just the storm,” Ben muttered and tried to get a firmer hand on his weapon.
“No windows opened in here—-gonna have to do better than that this time. YOU know we aren’t alone—-so stop with that logic will you?”
Ben reached over to the nightstand with his free hand and opened his pocket watch. It was dead up midnight. He didn’t want to mention that fact to his son. He knew what the boy would say.
“What time is it, Pa?”
“An hour after we last went to sleep,” Ben gave his vague answer.
“It wouldn’t be midnight would it?”
“Just be quiet.”
“Oh then it is—-and now it’s the same day as that last entry in that registry. Thanks a whole lot Pa for putting our names in that book!” Joe fussed.
“Well—-if it’s just coincidence then why are you still pointing that gun towards the door, huh?” Joe persisted.
“Because if I pointed it at YOU, I would get arrested for murder. Now cut it out—put your gun away—and I’ll put mine away too.”
Before Joe could make another wisecrack, a loud scream penetrated the room. It was like the shriek of someone being killed violently.
“Your coincidence is getting louder,” Joe muttered as he pushed himself back against the headboard, still pointing his gun.
“Well—someone is obviously out there—let’s go check it out,” Ben replied and stood from the bed and strapped on his holster.
“Heck no! I ain’t gonna go out there–no telling WHAT’S out there!” Joe protested loudly.
“Suit yourself, Joe—but I’m going to check it out,” Ben stated moving cautiously towards the bedroom door with the lamp in one hand and his gun in the other one.
“Wait!” Joe yelled scrambling from the bed. He quickly strapped on his holster and said, “I ain’t staying here by myself!”
Ben turned and looked behind him where Joe was evidently planning to use his father as a shield. “You pull the door open!”
“Me? Why me?” Joe question came out high-pitched.
“Because I have my hands full—now go on open it slowly.”
Joe mumbled a few words that were not clear enough to get him in trouble with his father but he did as he had been told. He slowly turned the doorknob and pulled the door towards them. Ben made the first move into the hallway, holding the lamp out in front of them both. Joe went back to his battle position, flanking his Pa.
“Maybe you were right —maybe it’s just the storm, Pa—let’s go back to our room, okay?”
“No—all day and half the night you have been pestering me to find out what’s going on in this hotel and we’re gonna find out here and now!” Ben said harshly as they made it to the top of the staircase.
“I don’t really want to find out…” Joe started but stopped when he saw a flash of light down at the bottom of the stairs. “Did you see that!”
“Yes—let’s go see,” Ben whispered and carefully descended the stairs with Joe right behind him. They made it to the bottom and again noticed a bright flash that disappeared around the corner to the lobby. “Joe?”
“Yeah, Pa?” Joe whispered.
“That’s not the barrel of your gun I feel in my back is it?”
“Sorry…” Joe mumbled and lowered his weapon.
“You are going to shoot your father!” Ben fumed as he walked towards where the light had gone.
There became a loud groaning sound that grew in volume as the two men made it to the kitchen area of the hotel.
“That don’t sound like a human to me, Pa—let’s go back upstairs—or better yet–let’s go to the livery!”
“It sounds like it’s coming from behind that door over there—-probably leads down to the basement,” Ben said, ignoring his son’s request to retreat.
“Well–how about I go over to check on the horses– and YOU stay here to find whatever the heck is down there?” Joe offered.
Ben spun around and held the lamp in front of his son’s face. Joe had never noticed how spooky his father looked by lamplight before. “Now listen to me—we are going down there to see what’s going on. You stay close to me—but keep that dadblasted gun in your holster! If I trip and end up shot by my own son, it’s not going to be easy for you to explain to your brothers!”
“I’ll never see my brothers again anyhow,” Joe replied grimly.
“Let’s go—open the door!”
“Again with the door opening!” Joe whined and pulled the door open to the basement.
Subconsciously Joe counted the stairs on the way down to the darkened sub-floor of the hotel. There were exactly thirteen stairs. Figures, Joe thought to himself when they finally had reached the bottom. Ben held out the lamp at arm’s length to get a good look at their surroundings. It looked as though it was just a storeroom of some kind with jars and packages and tools on the shelves. It was just as Ben was starting to turn, in unison with his son towards the stairs again when the door to the basement slammed shut.
“Great!” Joe shouted. “It has us trapped now!”
“Nonsense—-we’ll just go up there and open it,” Ben replied and ascended the steps. He handed Joe the lamp and then tried to get the door opened. The more Ben fought with it, the more it resisted. “Back up—I’m gonna shoot that lock!”
“Um—Pa?” Joe asked weakly.
“Do you have your hand on my shoulder?”
“Now how can I have my hand on your shoulder—I am a step higher than you!”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Joe said and spun around with the lamp and stared into the eyes of a man dressed in black. Screaming, he reached for his father to get his attention. Ben turned in time to see Joe fall down the stairs.
“Joseph!” Ben shouted as he watched the lamp and Joe tumble to the ground. He hurried down the stairs in the dark and came upon Joe sprawled out. “Joe? Joe, you okay?” Ben asked as he reached around for his son’s head.
“Pa? Is that you—or that man?” Joe asked trying to sit up, while rubbing the back of his neck.
“That man from the picture—he had his hand on my shoulder a minute ago—then all of a sudden I fell!”
Ben felt around for the lamp and could tell from the feel of it that it had been busted. “You saw a man? You sure?”
“Hell yeah I’m sure!” Joe insisted and soon felt another hand on his arm.
“It’s me this time—I’m trying to pull you up,” Ben explained.
“Hey—don’t do nothing without telling me from now on—geesh it’s dark down here!” Joe said as he stood next to his father.
“I think I’ve got some matches in my vest—just a minute,” Ben said searching in the dark for matches. He found one and felt around for something to strike it on. He found a wooden post and soon had the end of the match lit. “You okay, Joseph?”
“Oh yeah—I’m fine—just about broke my neck on the stairs—and some spook attacked me–but I am FINE!”
Ben looked around and found a small lamp on one of the shelves. He was glad to see that it had some kerosene still inside and went about to getting it lit. Soon they again had light.
“Let’s go get that door open and get out of this place!” Ben called to his son as he turned back for the stairs. “Stay closer to me this time!”
“How about letting ME go up first—-I don’t like having someone behind me trying to kill me!” Joe protested as he moved in front of his father.
“Oh really? Maybe now you know how I feel!” Ben replied sarcastically and let Joe move to the lead.
Once on the top step, Joe drew out his gun. “Hold the light a bit higher so I can see where I’m shooting, Pa!”
“Go ahead—just be careful—don’t need a ricochet to get either of us!”
Joe took aim at the door and blasted it with a bullet from his Colt. He reached over and saw that the bullet hadn’t even budged the doorknob. “Damn–what’s this thing made out of?”
“Language!” Ben reprimanded.
“Um—Pa—-I could’ve said a whole lot worse than that! Now what’re we gonna do?”
“Move back here and let me try at the door.”
“You mean—get behind you again?”
“Joseph—do you want to get out of here or not?”
“Okay–but hurry up, will you?” Joe replied and changed positions with his father.
Ben fired a bullet into the door and it seemed to just vanish into the wood, not even leaving a hole where it had penetrated. He tried another time and gave up. Ben knew he might need his bullets for other things so he turned back towards his son and sighed.
“That man—the one you said was behind you—-he had to have gotten out somehow—maybe there’s another door down below?”
“Pa—that was no MAN; that was a GHOST—and we all know that they can vanish through walls!”
“Not logical—-he was just someone who wanted to frighten us for some reason.”
“Well he got his wish–now why won’t he let us outta here?”
“Let’s go down again and check around,” Ben said and walked back to the bottom with Joe close at his side.
Holding the lamp to eye level Joe searched the walls around the basement hoping to spot an exterior door. He came up empty and turned back towards his father.
“Let me see that lamp a minute!” Ben called and Joe handed it over to him. Ben looked around on the shelves and noticed there were a pickaxe and a hatchet and several other tools. “This might do the trick—if we can find a weak board somewhere,” Ben announced holding the pickaxe as he holstered his gun. He walked over to the left of the staircase and chose a spot and lifted the pick high in the air and struck at the wall. At that very moment, another loud shriek echoed in the basement and Joe jumped back and plowed into his father, knocking him to the floor.
“You almost broke that lamp!” Ben shouted. “Be more careful.”
“Sorry—something about hearing maniacal ear piercing screams does funny things to me,” Joe replied sharply and pulled himself off of his father.
Ben stood and shook his head wondering if the night would ever end. He gained his composure and struck the wall again, but it seemed as though behind the wood planking was a solid brick wall. “Let’s try over there!” Ben pointed to the opposite wall.
“Ever hear a sound like that scream before, Pa?” Joe asked, his voice trembling.
Ben thought for a moment as he walked with his son to the other wall. “Well–no—don’t think I have.”
“What’s your logical explanation for this one? I mean there’s screaming coming from nowhere and no one—-you gonna blame the wind?”
“Just hold the lantern so I can try to get us out of here!”
Joe lifted the lamp higher and Ben took one mighty swing and the wood finally gave way leaving a large hole in the wall. The two men knelt down and held the lantern close to the hole and peered inside.
“Well—-looks like an exit of some kind—-not very high though,” Ben explained as he examined the tunnel. “Maybe it’s an old coal shoot?”
“Well—what do you want to do? You want to stay here and wait for impending death or crawl on our hands and knees into a hole that may lead to Hell?”
Ben looked over at his son and was just about ready to respond to his bizarre question when he spotted what appeared to be a man across the room from them. He sprang to his feet and shouted, “You there! What’s the meaning of all this?”
Joe turned and saw the man for a split second and then he dematerialized before their eyes. Joe grabbed his father’s arm and said, “Okay—now what’s your logical explanation for that one, Pa?”
“Let’s get the heck outta here!” Ben yelled and soon he and Joe were tunneling through the hole in the wall on their hands and knees.
Joe stayed as close to his father as the tunnel would allow. He had the lamp clutched in his left hand as they continued to crawl endlessly further and further into the bowels of the hotel.
“Ouch!” Ben yelled.
“What?’ Joe asked, petrified as to what had grabbed his father to make him yell so loudly.
“Hand me that lamp!”
“Huh? Why? You see something?”
“No—I don’t see anything—-but you just burnt the seat of my pants with the danged thing. Now hand it here before you totally set me on fire!”
Joe passed the lamp over to his father. “It’s too dark without it, Pa!”
“Just keep a hand on my pant leg—believe me you won’t get lost. Now let’s get moving!”
The two Cartwrights crawled for what seemed to be miles and finally reached what they believed was the end of the dark tunnel. It emptied out into a larger room, one where they could stand erect. Ben reached for his son’s hand and pulled him up.
“Where do you think we are now?” Joe asked as he watched his father walk around the narrow room.
“I have no idea,” Ben sighed and then noticed something written on the wall, apparently with red paint. “Ninety eight—need two more,” Ben read the message scrawled across the side of the room.
“Just great! I told you! We are the last two—and all because you wrote our names in that book, Pa!” Joe fussed.
“Calm down—-there’s got to be a way out of here!” Ben answered and further inspected their surroundings.
“Should’ve brought that pick axe with us!”
“Oh–you want to go back there and get it, Joe? I’ll wait for you!” Ben asked sarcastically.
“No thanks—-hey—what’s that?” Joe pointed towards the opposite wall. There was a huge tapestry hanging, as if suspended in mid air.
Ben brought the light over to the wall hanging and they both stared at the image of a man dressed all in black. He had a long beard and big bushy eyebrows.
“Oh oh—-seen him before haven’t we?” Ben asked.
Joe reached towards the tapestry and behind it he found a door. “Do we want to know what’s behind this thing?” he asked helplessly.
“Well–we can’t go back—-not now—open it up!”
“NO –not this time—you hand ME the lamp—and YOU open this one. I’ve been opening doors all night!”
“Here,” Ben groaned and handed the lamp to his son. He slowly turned the doorknob and pushed his way into an even larger room.
“Smells funny in here, Pa—almost smells like–” Joe stopped himself as he felt the grip of a hand on his shoulder. “Pa—-help!” he was barely able to get out the words.
Ben turned and saw an old woman with her hair on top of her head, and she was gripping his son’s shoulder. Ben yanked the boy away and the woman vanished. Spotting another door on the other end of the room, Ben grabbed Joe’s hand and screamed, “Move!”
The two Cartwrights ran as fast as they could and made it through another door, which opened into a long corridor. Joe was as close to his father as he could manage without occupying the same space.
“Well—-see that! What’s your logical explanation for that one, Pa?” Joe screamed as they both raced down the hall.
“The logical explanation…” Ben started but paused momentarily. His ribs were aching from the sprint down the corridor and he fought to catch his breath. He finally pulled to a stop and leaned against the wall to rest for a minute. “As I was saying—-the logical explanation is…” Ben stopped again as he suddenly spotted two more apparitions closing in on them both.
“The logical explanation is WHAT?” Joe asked, sucking in air.
“The logical explanation is that this place IS SLATHERED IN GHOSTS! RUN!” Ben screamed, grabbing his son’s hand and heading back down the long corridor staying just a few steps ahead of the ghosts who were in close pursuit.
Joe had not seen the pair of apparitions that his father had, but he could tell by the way he was being pulled along by the man, that something was very wrong. He tried his best not to let curiosity get the better of him for fear of what he would see if he looked behind him. At the end of the long hall were two other corridors, one going to the right and one to the left. Ben had to make a quick decision and took the one on the right. It seemed as though that one was endless, and neither Cartwright could tell how far they had jogged, but their bodies were winded by the time they came to the end. Ben and his son collapsed onto the ground trying to catch their breath.
“What was it, Pa? What did you see?” Joe asked coughing from the long run.
“You don’t want to know. But I don’t think we better stay here much longer,” Ben replied and checked the chambers of his gun.
“What’re you doing?”
“Seeing how many bullets I have left.”
“Pa…” Joe began and touched his father’s wrist, “What difference does it make?”
“I want to be ready if they pop up again!” Ben insisted and holstered his gun.
Joe laughed and replied, “Like those bullets are gonna help you! Or me for that matter! Pa, um as far as I know—ghosts are already dead—-so you can’t kill them! Get it?”
Ben grumbled and pulled himself to standing. “Maybe it will scare them off!”
Joe looked down the corridor and noticed the advancing of two bright lights coming closer. “I don’t think so! Let’s go!” Joe shouted and searched for a way out. The lamp was almost out of fluid, but Joe took it from his father’s hand and held it high in the air. “Look—-there’s an opening—maybe it’s another tunnel?” Joe pointed at a hole in the wall, which appeared to be about four foot by five. “Boost me up there and I’ll check it out!”
Ben frowned but his gaze trekked down the hall and he knew they didn’t have much time so he held out his hands in order for Joe to plant a boot heel in them. He helped lift Joe up into the small opening. Joe held the light inside the tunnel.
“Yeah—looks like another long one, Pa—-let me set the lamp inside and then I will try to pull you up!”
Ben saw the two specters coming closer and yelled to his son, “Hurry up will you?”
Joe set the lamp down on the base of the tunnel and turned back and held out his hands to assist his father. He never wished he had the strength of his brother Hoss more than he did at that moment. Joe strained with all his might, and finally his father was up inside the dark passageway next to him.
“Thanks, Joe—never knew you had that kind of strength!” Ben smiled and patted his son on the back.
The two men stared back towards the hall below and the image of the two ghosts stood right below them. “Yeah—amazing the things you can do when you are terrified! Let’s go!” Joe replied and started crawling down the tunnel.
They crawled for a good distance when the tunnel abruptly stopped and channeled off in two directions. Joe was still in the lead with the lamp and he called back to his father.
“Okay—which one you wanna try this time?”
“I am getting the awful feeling that it won’t matter, Joseph—just pick one and I will follow.”
Joe moved to the left and Ben stayed close all the way to the end where there was another opening. Joe held the lamp down and looked into the darkened room.
“Guess I will climb down–here hold the lamp for me so I can turn around and go feet first, okay?”
“I’ve got it—be careful!” Ben warned.
Joe slowly lowered himself down into the room below and called up to his father, “Hold that light down so I can see what’s in here!”
Ben crawled to the edge of the tunnel and held the light right above his son’s head. Joe was still facing his father and not the room when Ben saw the image of a man in a dark suit coming up from behind his son.
“Joe! Get back up here!” Ben shouted and reached his hands down for the boy.
“Huh?” Joe called up, confused by the intensity on his father’s face. “Why? I don’t…” Joe stopped his statement when he felt the strong arms of something grabbing him around his waist. He struggled to break free of the hold. Ben grabbed his son’s wrists and yanked as hard as he could until Joe was pulled from the clutches of the ghost. Making his way back inside the tunnel, Joe followed right behind his father as they sought the safety of the passageway once more.
“Was it—was it that man again?” Joe asked, breathing hard and feeling quite faint from the harrowing experience.
“Yeah—-that ghost—-the one with the evil eyes!” Ben responded as they came upon the other side of the tunnel. “Guess we will go right this time—no other avenue.”
“I don’t know about you, Pa—but I’m worn out from all this running—and crawling for my life. Hope this one doesn’t end up inside another ghost room, I could use a break!”
“We’ll know soon—-I can see the end—we’re coming up on it now,” Ben called and stopped as soon as they reached the end of the passageway.
Joe scrunched down next to his father and looked at him with a face full of fear. “Okay–well I climbed down last time—–guess you get to do it this time, huh?”
“You’d better be able to pull me up, Joseph!” Ben warned as he handed the lamp to his son and slowly lowered his body down into the room below.
Joe held the lamp with a very shaky hand, so that he could see down into the room. “I don’t see nothing behind you, Pa—-here—take the lamp and I will climb down with you!”
Ben reached for the lamp and watched as Joe jumped out of the opening. They slowly began to survey the room. This one was different from the others that they had been inside of during their long night of terror. It looked like a regular den of some sorts. There were huge bookcases on one wall and strange paintings on another. There didn’t appear to be a door anywhere. Defeated, the two men sat down on the floor and tried to regroup.
Sitting in silence for a long while, both Joe and his father tried to come up with a valid plan that would free them from the room and hopefully the haunted hotel as well. Joe spotted some strange figures hanging on the wall behind them. He held the lamp above his head to get a good look. The figures appeared to be small dolls, some dressed as men, some as women. They were fashioned with twigs and rope and the clothes they wore had been made from burlap.
“One—two—three—” Joe began counting out loud.
“Don’t bother—–I already did,” Ben muttered. “There’s ninety-eight of them.”
Joe frowned and lowered the lamp next to his side. “Well–maybe the ghosts are busy right now—they’ve gotta make two more dolls!” Joe quipped.
“What’s this?” Ben asked as he spotted a book on the bottom shelf of the bookcase next to them. He crawled over to it and then sat back down next to Joe. Holding the light so that he could read, he began to speak. “Hellbent, established in seventeen hundred and sixty. Founding father, Lucious Deville. Hey—this is all about this town!”
“You know Pa—-if I wanted a bedtime story—it sure wouldn’t be the one you’ve just started to read!” Joe protested.
“Well, maybe it will give us some insight into what’s happening here!” Ben insisted and started thumbing through the book.
“Insight! You want insight? I can tell you—-YOU put OUR names in that book up in the hotel—-you made it an even hundred—-and now they are gonna take our souls!”
“Nonsense—no-one can take your soul, Joseph!” Ben reprimanded.
“Okay—so why have we been running all night then? If they can’t hurt us—well let’s just crawl back in that tunnel and meet back with the spooks and invite them for tea!”
Ben’s hand found his son’s leg and he squeezed it, “Just because we are having a rough night doesn’t mean you can smart off to me!”
“Well—I’ll apologize to YOU when you apologize to ME for writing my name in that book!” Joe replied.
Ben shook his head and continued to read some of the printed articles about the town. “Seems like they were a religious sect at first—-they founded the town—-and were hoping to bring in one hundred citizens to help run it. Lucious—oh and his wife—Shandria—built the hotel and then sent for some of their relatives from the old country.”
“Old country? And which old country would that be?”
“A town in France—according to this…” Ben stopped when he spotted the name of the city.
“I’ll bite—what’s the name?” Joe persisted.
“Never mind—let’s just try to find a way out!” Ben insisted and closed the book. He had read enough.
“Wouldn’t be Hell or anything?” Joe asked again, raising his eyebrows.
“Then—what was it?”
“Well—it was—-Hades—actually,” Ben finally answered the question.
“Hades—um—Hell—same thing–so they were Hell bent on coming over here—started a weird religious sect–they needed one hundred folks, never got enough—and now they are waiting to kill us. Guess that’s about the size of it, huh Pa?” Joe asked as he stood and started to flail his arms in the arm, totally panicking.
“Get a grip—-no time to lose control!”
“Oh I lost control a long time ago, Pa!” Joe laughed.
“You check over there—-see if you can find a door—a tunnel or anything—I will take out the books off the shelves—there might be some secret entranceway behind them!”
Joe moved over to the wall across from where they had been seated. Ben set the lamp in the middle of the room so that they could both have some light as they searched for a way out. Running his hands along the wall, Joe tried to see if there was a loose board somewhere as his father threw the many books down from the shelves.
“I think I’ve found something!” Ben called to Joe. He reached over and pulled the lamp closer to get a good look at what he was feeling on the inside of the bookcase. Joe started to turn to move back over to his father when Ben’s hand hit on a lever. Suddenly another wall slid across the room separating the two Cartwrights.
“Help!” Joe screamed as he hugged up against the newly formed barrier.
Ben tried to pull the lever back but it would not budge. He grabbed the lamp and headed over to the partition separating him from his son.
“Joe? Joseph—can you hear me?” Ben yelled through the wood.
“Get me out of here!” Joe screamed as his hands pounded on the planking.
Ben was able to find a small knothole in the wood and with his pocketknife pushed it out so that he could get a look into the room that housed his son.
“Joseph?” Ben called through the knothole and held up the lamp.
Joe moved towards the small shaft of light. He positioned his eye in the knothole at the same time that his father had. When Joe saw the huge brown eye staring back at him he screamed and jumped back.
“It’s me—Joe it’s me!” Ben shouted through the small opening.
Joe dusted off his backside and walked back towards the light. “You scared the hell out of me, Pa! Now get me outta here will you?”
“I have to figure out how to work that lever—-gonna try again—just relax.”
“Relax!” Joe screamed. “I am in here—in the dark—-with God knows what alongside of me—while YOU are in there with the lamp.”
Ben shook his head and sighed and left Joe at the knothole to yell to himself awhile. He went back to trying to move the partition back out of the way. The lamplight was fading fast as Ben ran his fingers up and down the interior of the bookcase hoping to find another lever that might move the wall that separated him from his son. He stopped his search when a loud scream filled the air.
“Joseph! Joe, you okay?” Ben asked as he moved back over to the wall.
“No I am still behind here, Pa!”
“I heard a scream—-sounded like a woman’s this time,” Ben called through the knothole. “Did you hear it?”
“Um—well—that was not a woman—actually that was me,” Joe replied with heavy embarrassment.
“Well–cut it out—I’m trying to get you out of there!” Ben called into his son and turned back to the bookcase again.
Joe sat on the floor, his face pressed up against the wood barrier. He stared one-eyed in towards where he could see the back of his father. It was then that he felt the hairs at the nape of his neck move. It was as if someone or something was breathing on him.
“Pa!” Joe screamed.
“Leave me alone—I’m trying to save you!” Ben fumed, never turning around towards his son’s voice.
“Well you better hurry up—-something’s in here with me!” Joe shouted and then felt hands grab him around his neck. “Pa—-help!”
Ben began to bang with his fists on the bookcase, hoping to jar something loose and free his boy. Just as Joe’s screams started to become more muffled, the wall slid aside and Ben stood terrified.
“Let go!” Ben screamed and lunged towards the specter who held his son. By the time he was to Joe, the ghostly figure disappeared again. Joe sat on the floor coughing as if he was still in the grips of the evil force.
“It’s okay, Joe, I’ve got you!” Ben encouraged as he pulled his son to his feet and dragged him towards the bookcase. It was in the nick of time too, as the wall automatically closed once more.
“Get us out of here—–there’s got to be a way!” Joe pleaded and started to kick and punch at the bookcase. Suddenly the back of the shelving gave way exposing another door. Ben lifted the light to take with them. The kerosene inside of it was almost played out, but both men hoped it would help them find their way.
This new door that had been hidden behind the bookcase opened out into yet another room. As Ben held the lamp out at arm’s length the terrible sights took form around them both. There were stacks and stacks of bones lining the room. Set into the man-made rock wall were many sets of manacles, revealing the fact that the room had been used for torture and later for the deaths of the many inhabitants of the town of Hellbent.
“Great—the spooks led us right to the scene of the crime!” Joe yelled as he took a look around at the gory scenery.
“Those poor souls—-left in here—to die such a horrible death,” Ben sighed wearily.
“Yeah—well I’m sorry for them and all, Pa—-I mean rest in peace and all that–but we are numbers ninety-nine and one hundred—so unless you want to wait for the head ghosts to grab us we’d better find a passage back to the place we were before.”
“Look here!” Ben replied and held the lamp up against one of the walls. There in either red paint, or blood, were the words “Surrender Cartwrights—no turning back now”.
Joe read the warning and turned in time to see the man in the black suit, and evidently his lovely wife Shandria coming up from behind.
“Run!” Joe screamed and grabbed his father’s arm, pulling him along with him.
Ben and Joe were able to circumvent the two apparitions and ran back through the opening in the bookcase. However that was not going to stop the spirits from their pursuit. They floated across the room and stayed just inches behind both Cartwrights as they tried to crawl back up into the passageway they had used earlier. Ben made it up first and turned to grab his son’s hands to pull him into the opening. Joe was then engulfed in a tug of war between the spirit world and his father. He cringed when he felt both sets of ghostly hands groping at him, trying to pull him back into the room and steal him from his father’s grasp. Cold slimy ectoplasm soaked into Joe’s shirt and splashed onto his face as he fought with all his might to escape. Finally, with one last tremendous tug, Ben was able to pull his son to freedom. Joe sat momentarily inside the narrow passageway and tried to catch his breath.
“That was intense—” Joe muttered and then felt his father’s hand again.
“Let’s get out of here—the light is going out—-just stay real close in case it doesn’t make it to the end of this tunnel!”
“Hope we’re doing the right thing!” Joe called to his father as he crawled behind him.
“If they’re gonna kill us—-at least we are making it hard on them! Maybe even ghosts get tired!” Ben mused as he turned down the main tunnel heading towards the basement where they had originally started their flight for life.
It seemed as though hours had elapsed since they first entered the tunnel that night to the time they finally came out at its end. But, at last, Ben was able to see the exit and lowered himself down and reached to help his son. There they stood, in the basement of the hotel and watched the last flicker of their light die out.
“Great—now we can’t even see what’s haunting us!” Joe fussed as he held onto his father’s vest.
“Going to try to go up the stairs and force that door, Joe—follow close.”
“Any closer and I would be you, Pa,” Joe laughed and started up the staircase. “That’s thirteen steps—we have to be at the top.”
Ben fumbled around for the doorknob and soon had it in his hand. “When I say go—push with me on the door. Maybe a good charge will work this time?” Ben instructed.
“Count to three—-works better that way for me—if you just yell go—I might not be ready.”
Ben sighed and shook his head at Joe’s remark. “One…”
Please let this work, Joe thought to himself.
“Two…” Ben continued.
Hope there aren’t more ghosts on the other side–but with our luck there will be…
“Three!” Ben yelled and went for the door.
Joe hurled his body towards the door and his father. At that very moment the door opened all on its own and the two Cartwrights went flying across the kitchen floor landing one on top of the other.
“They sure have a great sense of humor around here,” Joe muttered as he tried to get off the floor.
“Well—at least we know where we are now. Sure could use a lamp though,” Ben replied.
“Got any more matches, Pa?”
Ben felt inside his vest and came up with a solitary match. “Last one—let me feel around to find something to strike it on.” Ben searched until he came upon a doorframe and stuck the match and there was light once again.
“Achooooooooooo!” Joe sneezed, and the impact of it put the match out.
“Very good, Joseph!” Ben fussed.
“Hey—not my fault—probably from all that slime that is still on my face!”
“Well, now we have no light and have to try to get out of here in the pitch dark.”
“Could’ve at least said God bless you,” Joe mumbled as he turned with his father trying to figure out in which direction to go next.
“I think the lobby is this way—-give me your hand—I can’t see you.”
“I’m holding your hand already, Pa,” Joe replied.
“No you’re not!”
“Well—if it’s not YOUR hand then—oh no!” Joe screamed as he felt something pulling him from behind. “It’s got me again!”
Ben reached out in the darkness until he hit on something solid. It was Joe’s outstretched arm. “Let go of my boy!” Ben screamed.
“Great—another tug of war!” Joe replied as he felt his body being pulled on by both his father and some unseen ghost.
“Can you feel my hand, Joe? Do I have you?”
“I feel about a hundred hands at the present time—-pull harder!” Joe yelled.
Ben pulled with all his might and Joe’s body was free again and he went sailing across the room knocking them both down to the floor once again.
“Joe? You okay—it is YOU, isn’t it?” Ben asked as his hands searched for his son’s arm.
“I hope so,” Joe answered and felt the leather of his father’s vest.
“If we can just make it out to the lobby—-we can get outside!”
“Let’s go—but first—squeeze my hand two times if it’s really YOU this time—and well–three times if it’s not!”
Ben pulled his son up and squeezed the boy’s hand twice. “Satisfied?”
“Achooooooooo!” Joe sneezed loudly.
“Every time you sneeze, the spooks appear—stop doing that!” Ben insisted and began to pull Joe along with him.
“What’s it take to get a simple God bless you around here?” Joe fussed and walked in unison with his father towards the lobby.
As soon as both of the Cartwrights cleared the kitchen and started into the lobby there was a bright flash of lightning and thunder, which almost tossed them to the floor. Then the room seemed to be alive with floating white balls of light that hovered all around them. The glow they gave off was just faint enough to light the path towards the doorway. Ben hurriedly pulled Joe with him until he was standing at the front door to the hotel.
“Wait!” Joe yelled and let go of his father’s hand.
“What? Where are you going?”
“That book—-it’s still got our names in it—–and I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave it that way. I’m gonna go get that page and rip it up!” Joe yelled and hurried over to the front desk.
“Joseph! Get back here! We’ve gotta get out while we still can!” Ben argued.
Joe was able to fumble around on the counter until his hands set on top of the registry book. He tried with all his might to pull it open but could not. Finally, he decided to take it with him and get rid of the entries once he and his father were safely outside. It was at that moment that the orbs of light all darted directly towards Joe. He ducked and screamed trying to avoid them but they surrounded him.
Ben had seen what was going on and he ran to assist the boy. He dodged the balls of light and soon was huddled along with Joe on the floor next to the front desk.
“What do they want? They won’t let us go!” Joe asked his father, clutching the book to his chest.
“Get rid of that book right now!” Ben yelled.
“How am I supposed to do that? These ghosts have us surrounded!”
Across the room stood a huge fireplace, and the strange orbs of light suddenly formed a procession over to it. When the lights were all there somehow they ignited the old wood embers and a brilliant flame erupted.
“I guess they are telling you something, Joe!” Ben replied staring over at the crackling fire.
“Here goes nothing!” Joe yelled and charged towards the fireplace with the book in his hands. With one swift throw, he hurled the registry book into the flames. One by one, the bright orbs disappeared, as if they were finally freed from their bondage there in the hotel. Joe ran back over to his father and smiled. “Hey—I think I did it! I think we are finally safe!”
“Good job, son—now–” Ben started and was cut short by a loud demonic voice coming towards them.
“You let them go! You will die for that! Now I have to find ninety-eight—but I will have the two of you!” the strange voice hovered in the air above Ben and Joe.
“Head for the door!” Ben yelled and sprang to his feet, hoping Joe was right behind him.
Joe started to run but he felt the hands reaching behind his body pulling him away. Then he began to sneeze. “Achooooooo—um—-Pa?”
“I know, I know—it’s got you AGAIN!” Ben sighed and headed back to once again free his son.
“There’s no escape for you!” the voice was joined by a loud sadistic laughter filling the air.
“Let him go!” Ben screamed as he continued to tug on his son.
At that moment, the one last ball of light darted across to where Joe was being held and encircled the demon who was pulling at the boy. Ben was able to set Joe free while the orb was dancing across the devilish face of Lucious Deville.
“Move!” Ben shouted and pulled Joe along with him.
Joe stood there against the door as his father tried to pull it open. The screams that emanated through the hotel were enough to set both men’s hair on end. Ben fought with all his might to pull the door open when he spotted both Lucious and the ghostly apparition of his wife moving towards them.
“Come on, Joe—-one…” Ben began the countdown.
Here we go again, Joe thought to himself.
I’m so tired I’m ready to turn over my soul for some shut eye.
“Three!” Ben screamed and he and his son charged the door.
The door to the hotel gave way and Ben and Joe made it to the front porch just as another flash of lightning lit the sky. They both screamed when they saw the huge form of a man standing in front of them there. It was bad enough that they had to do battle with the spirit world inside the haunted hotel, but now they would evidently have to contend with evil beings in the town itself.
“Pa? Joe?” came the voice of the man wearing the black slicker. “What’s going on?”
“Hoss!” both Ben and Joe gasped in unison.
“How ‘bout letting me in—-I’m soaked to the bone?” Hoss asked as he pulled his lantern closer to the faces of his family members. He was surprised to see terror in their eyes and wondered what was going on.
“Let you in!” Joe shouted and hurried down the porch steps with his father right behind him. “Hell—we’ve been trying to get OUT all night!”
“Just follow us to the livery, son—-we’ll tell you all about it!” Ben urged and Hoss trailed along behind his father and little brother.
Once the three Cartwrights were safely inside the warm and ghost free environment of the livery stable, Hoss searched around for something to give to them both to dry some of the rain from off their clothes. As he went about his task, Ben and Joe huddled closely trying to get their story straight.
“And—another thing, Pa—don’t tell him I screamed like a girl neither!”
“I won’t—relax!” Ben chuckled, amused that all of a sudden Joe had turned back to the brave soul he had been prior to the night of terror.
“You CAN tell him that YOU got US into this by signing that damn registry book though,” Joe mentioned with much sarcasm in his tone.
“Pa? You think it worked?” Joe asked quietly, still watching his big brother across the room and wondering how the heck he had found them both so soon.
“You know–tossing the book in the fireplace. You think it freed us—and the rest of those souls? That one kinda helped us there at the end you know!”
“I surely hope so, Joseph. It’s a night I will never forget—I can tell you that!”
“Here you go!” Hoss smiled and handed his father and brother two horse blankets he had shaken the cobwebs off of. “Wrap these around you to ward off the chill.”
Hoss settled down on his bedroll and stared over at his family. He wondered why they both looked so strangely. Hoss had also heard them mumbling things that didn’t make sense.
“Thanks, Hoss—so glad you came when you did! By the way—-what brought you out this way?” Ben asked.
“Well—-with you being two weeks late and all—after I checked in Stockton, I had a heck of a time finding this place!”
“Two weeks LATE!” Ben boomed. “No—we just left Stockton yesterday!”
“No—you couldn’t have. The manager at that hotel said you left on the first of March.”
“We did leave on the first of March—-and today is the second!” Ben argued.
Hoss looked back and forth between his father and brother and shook his head perplexed. “I hate to tell you this—it’s the sixteenth of March. And if’n you don’t believe me–I picked me up a paper in Stockton—date’s right on it if you want to see it!”
Ben and Joe exchanged confused expressions and then shrugged their shoulders.
“Well—it DID seem like days —the whole time we were running from those ghosts, Pa,” Joe nodded.
“Yes—-no telling how long those tunnels were—and we crawled for ages!”
“Huh? Ghosts? Tunnels? What are you talking about?” Hoss asked, wondering if his father and brother had been drinking or something. His brother Joe he could understand —the kid was always telling whoppers, but his Pa would never do such a thing!
“Long, long story—and we will fill you in on the way home, Hoss. Right now—I’m sure Joe is as exhausted as I am. Let’s all get some shut-eye.”
“Still don’t figure why we’re sleeping out here with the horses when there’s a perfectly good hotel across the street!” Hoss protested.
“Yeah—that’s what YOUR father said to start this whole thing!” Joe threw in.
“Well–at least I screamed like a man!” Ben countered and saw Joe’s face flush with embarrassment.
“Yeah—well how many times did those ghosts grab you? They got me again and again!”
“Well—WHO saved you again and again?” Ben reminded his son.
Hoss sat across from the on-going argument and tried to piece together what they were saying.
“Hold on! You two are telling me that there are ghosts in that hotel? You’re telling me that they chased you for like—two weeks?” Hoss blurted out.
“Well—yeah—guess that’s about sums it up,” Ben nodded.
“Not quite, Pa—-didn’t tell him about that registry book!”
“Stop mentioning that damn book will you!” Ben fumed.
“Language!” Joe grinned over at his father and they both started to laugh.
Hoss felt like he was lost. Here his brother and father were at each other throats one minute and laughing the next. He decided to not question what had happened any further that night. All he wanted was a good night’s sleep and he would get the rest of the story on the way back to the Ponderosa.
“I’m turning in—-tell me about this tomorrow,” Hoss said, fighting back a yawn.
“Okay—get some rest—both of you!” Ben said to his sons and settled back against his saddle to rest his head.
“Achoooooooooo!” Joe sneezed.
Ben pulled himself back up and stared at his youngest son. He recalled that every time the boy had sneezed while they were fleeing the hotel that a ghost soon appeared.
Joe noticed the spread of panic on his father’s face and laughed and reached across and patted him on the shoulder. “Just the hay this time, Pa!” Joe winked.
“God bless you!” Ben grinned and settled back down.