Summary: A tale for Halloween
Word Count: 9200
Although it was the end of October and winter was but a breath away, late autumn was unusually mild with an unseasonal lack of early snow covering the mountains and valleys of Nevada in the year of ’59.
It was amazing what a difference a year made, Joe mused as he made his way home from the north western border close to the Oregon territory after successfully negotiating his first ever sale of top rate cutters and ropers from the Ponderosa’s ever expanding herd of quality bred horses. Last year his Pa would have thought him far too young to take on such an important business deal, but twelve months on and at last deemed a man, Joe had been allowed to negotiate one of the Cartwright’s most lucrative contracts with the largest spread in the area, and more importantly, by himself.
Yet though it had taken months of heated debates to persuade his family he was old enough and more than capable of such a task, Joe still could sense his Pa had doubts…and fears…as he finally approved his youngest son’s request. Nevertheless the deal had been very profitable, exceeding all expectations, and the boy still inside the youngest Cartwright couldn’t wait to boast to his Pa and brag to his brothers about his success.
And so it was for this reason Joe was eager to get home as quickly as possible and decided to return to the Ponderosa taking a hardly used trail his family had told him repeatedly not to take for safety’s sake. For, though due to the lack of snow, it took nearly 20 miles off his journey – a full day’s ride. It was a well known dangerous route and Joe was more than relieved his father was unaware of the risk he’d decided to take. Had he been, no doubt words would have been said, Joe silently pondered, shuddering at the thought; harsh words indeed!
However, to his dismay, after only a couple of hours, Joe soon realized the trail was more difficult than expected and he would take longer than planned.
This was a bad idea; the worst idea I’ve ever talked myself into, Joe brooded while weaving his way perilously close to the edge of the mountain side and more than once grateful his horse was sure-footed on the shingle-laden terrain; as the hours passed, visibility worsened and night drew closer.
Then, after the autumnal sun began its spectacular descent in the west, sinking lower and lower behind the mountains until it finally disappeared from view, darkness finally overwhelmed the landscape. The Ponderosa was now tantalizingly close – only two to three hours away – but with a deep sigh of resignation Joe knew he couldn’t continue on his journey any longer without risking both his life and that of his beloved Cochise.
However, as luck would have it, as the gloom of evening twilight engulfed the pair and Joe peered into the shadows in front of him, his keen eye suddenly made out a small clearing a short distance away, protected on three sides by the tightly packed forest of trees – the ideal place to make camp for the night.
“Come on, Cooch,” Joe instructed, cautiously urging his mount slowly forward down the steep and at times treacherous incline until moments later he arrived at the site and with a sigh of relief. He reigned in and dismounted.
Looking around, he could just make out a generous quantity of fallen branches, twigs and leaves, all scattered haphazardly on the ground – more than enough for his immediate needs. Quickly he gathered sufficient debris together to build a fire, then stacked another large pile of wood to the side to keep it replenished during the night.
Taking out a couple of small pieces of flint from his pocket and carefully following his brother Hoss’ instructions, Joe struck them together in an attempt to produce a spark close to the dried out kindling. Though it took a few minutes of effort and quite a lot of cursing on his part, eventually it caught alight and, after a few moments, the fire began to glow red.
Sitting back on his heels, Joe surveyed his handiwork with some degree of satisfaction then turned his attention to his horse, unsaddling then pouring water from the canteen into his hat and offering it to Cochise who gratefully drank his fill.
With his Indian pony now as comfortable as he could make him, Joe pulled out a dented mug and battered old coffeepot from his saddlebags and filling it with all the remaining water, and hung the pot by the handle on a thick forked limb within the fire. He then sat down disconsolately, huddled close to the warming flames with a blanket pulled tight around his shoulders while chewing on the only food he’d found while rooting around in his bags – a single piece of jerky.
Once the water boiled, Joe poured out his drink and gave a deep sigh of misery at his self-inflicted sorry predicament as he sipped at his black coffee. He grimaced at the bitter taste but even so couldn’t help but give an ironic chuckle as he raised his mug in a mock toast.
“Well, happy 18th birthday, Joe. But if you’d had more sense and gone the route you’d been told to go, there’s a good chance you’d be home by now, all warm and comfortable in your own bed,” he chastised out loud. Then, as if on cue and to pour more salt into his wounds, Joe’s stomach rumbled loudly. “To think I could have celebrated on the Ponderosa tonight with one of Hop Sing’s specially prepared birthday dinners and then had a few glasses of Pa’s best brandy. Instead I’m alone, cold, hungry and sober!”
The thought depressed him but as Joe looked over at Cochise, who’d shaken his head and given a disgruntled nicker towards his master as if in agreement, the young man couldn’t help but smile. “I know, Cooch. You hate me at the moment for keeping you from your warm stall. But don’t worry, boy. Soon as we get home, I’ll make sure you have extra oats for putting up with my foolishness.”
With the temperature tumbling, Joe’s mind now focused on the hearth undoubtedly blazing with warmth inside the Ponderosa ranch house; he picked up a couple of the largest logs within reach to add to his dwindling fire and watched mesmerized until they caught alight. Yet for the next few hours, he still couldn’t settle, shivering and nearly chilled to the bone as he shuffled uncomfortably on the hard, uneven ground, a far cry from the soft feather filled mattress he was used to and, at that moment in time, what he craved for the most
Now swathed in the glow of a full moon shining brightly in a cloud free sky, Joe studied its position for a moment and guessed the time to be around midnight. It was going to be a long night, he sighed, and resigned himself to the fact he wouldn’t have much sleep. Only expecting to fitfully doze away the next few chilly hours until dawn, Joe rested his head on his saddle and pulled his blanket even tighter around his body, with his Stetson placed tight over his face.
Slowly the gentle breeze of late evening strengthened, the wind first whispering then screeching noisily as it snaked its way through the myriad of trees on the mountain side. An owl above Joe’s head began to loudly hoot to a companion on a neighboring branch, while in the distance a timber wolf yapped and persistently howled until its pack joined in, all working up to a shrilled frenzy of blood-curdling excitement.
However, within the confines of the camp, Joe remained motionless, totally oblivious of the constant din and threat from the canine choir as he fell instantly asleep and into a deep and untroubled slumber.
He was also unaware of the soft tread of footsteps as a slender young woman wearing a silk dress the color of snow made her way into the clearing and after staring down at him settled noiselessly on the ground by his side. From her delicately formed fingers something fell without a sound onto the leaf strewn forest floor, and then as she tenderly stroked the length of the young man’s arm, a gentle smile quickly appeared on her smooth skinned face as Joe slowly stirred and opened his eyes.
The next morning was bright and crisp when Joe finally awoke, and as he stood up, stretching out the numerous kinks and cramps in his back and arms, he raised his gaze skyward and surprise showed on his face. For judging by the height of the sun, he correctly deduced it was way past dawn, in fact probably around 8am. He could hardly believe it! How had he managed to sleep so long and so soundly in such uncomfortable conditions?
But he had been asleep – Joe knew that for sure – and for a moment stood stock still, suddenly lost within the memory of a dream that only ended as he awoke. A dream so vivid he could still recall every single moment as he closed his eyes tight, once more bringing into focus her warm smile, her gentle laughter, the reflection of the flames dancing in her twinkling hazel-colored eyes as they’d talked together by the side of the camp fire. Then drawing in a deep breath, Joe could almost imagine the sweet aroma of her perfume swirling around him…so strong he could nearly taste it. So strong that as he opened his eyes Joe truly expected and hoped to find her still sitting beside him.
But to his immense disappointment, he was well and truly alone. She had only been in his dream – granted a more realistic dream than he’d ever had before – but a dream nonetheless. Yet though a tiny voice in his head repeatedly told him not to be so stupid, that no-one was within miles of his camp, Joe still couldn’t shake of the feeling that she was still near, watching him closely as if waiting for something to happen.
Then out of the blue and totally without warning, a feeling he’d never before experienced gripped Joe’s chest. With his dream instantly forgotten, Joe gasped for air as he bent over double and fell to his knees in agony for several seconds, his suffering coming in rippling waves. It was as though part of his heart and soul was being ripped from his body, little by little, piece by piece. Then after a few moments, to Joe’s relief, as quickly as it started his misery ceased and the pain was gone.
Joe remained motionless, hardly daring to move in case the excruciating sensation returned. But as the minutes passed by there was no repetition, he warily struggled to his feet, his head swimming as he slowly moved towards his horse. However, with his legs now wobbling like jelly, he staggered and lurched as though drunk, falling against Cochise and grabbing his mane tightly for support as a pair of soft brown equine eyes regarded him curiously.
Clinging on grimly for a short while until slowly his strength returned, Joe tentatively straightened and stroked his horses’ soft white muzzle. “Guess it serves me right, Cooch. Pa did warn me against drinking too much of that homemade gut rot Mr. Watkins gave me the other night,” he murmured by way of hopefully explaining the unexplainable to both himself and his mount.
Now fully recovered and keen to make a start for home, Joe quickly collected his belongings and had just re-saddled his horse when his gaze fell on an object lying by the edge of the burnt out fire. With his eyes widening with surprise, Joe stooped down and picked it up. He stared wonderingly at it for a minute or more. ‘How on earth and where on earth did that come from?’ he silently questioned as he turned it over and over in his hand. He hadn’t noticed it there last night but then again it had been dark he reasoned, and could have easily been hidden by the leaves which covered the camp site.
With his stomach grumbling loudly to remind him how hungry he was, Joe absently placed his find into the top pocket of his jacket in readiness to heave himself onto Cochise’s back. But for a fleeting moment as the sun shone directly into his eyes and he shaded them with his hand, Joe fancied he saw a flicker of movement to the side.
Fearing an attack from either man or beast, he turned with his left hand hovering above his side-arm ready to protect himself, but immediately froze; hairs standing up on the back of his neck and his face suddenly contorted with a combination of shock and bewilderment.
With his heart pounding erratically and beads of sweat running down his face, Joe heard a startled cry of fear in the stillness and quiet of the morning and suddenly realized the voice was his own. For only feet away stood the girl from his dream, only this time her hazel eyes looked haunted and unspeakably somber as she gazed towards him for a few brief moments and then raising her hand as if in a painful, final farewell she slowly vanished into nothing like a swirling mist at sunrise.
Joe wiped a sleeve across his moist and clammy brow then rubbed his eyes. What was going on? Was he going crazy?
No longer feeling threatened, Joe continued to stand for several long minutes and concentrated his gaze on the clearing as the burnt-out ashes from the ruins of the fire were blown in every direction by the morning breeze. And though there was nothing else to indicate another’s presence except his own, Joe’s bemused brain tried hard to make sense of what he’d just witnessed. Could it be possible he’d seen a ghost?
Never a great believer in the existence of things supernatural and shaken and more than a little scared at what he was considering, Joe took a deep calming breath and backed towards his horse, taking hold of the reins and swiftly mounting.
It felt good to be back in the safety of the saddle again, and giving the eerie camp site one last mystified glance, Joe gently dug in his heels and turned Cochise in the direction of the Ponderosa and home.
True to his word when arriving at the ranch just before midday Joe straightaway led his horse into the barn, and after unsaddling and rubbing him down, dished out two large portions of oats to mix in the manger of corn, leaving Cochise happily munching as Joe made his way across the yard.
Although still baffled and more than a little perturbed about his unexplainable ghostly visitation, Joe’s few hours on the trail had been ample time for him to compose himself before he entered the house. One thing he didn’t want was his family to see him in such a troubled and confused state of mind; it would be just the excuse Ben could use to keep him tied to the Ponderosa for maybe another year!
So hanging up his hat and jacket on a peg by the door, Joe put on a brave front and beamed cheerfully as he walked over towards his father and brothers who were seated at the dining table, sipping coffee and eating from a large plate overflowing with a selection of mouth-watering sandwiches.
“Hey, Little Joe! Am I glad to see you! I was wonderin’ how long it’d be before you showed up today,” Hoss cried as he swallowed down a piece of chicken and a broad grin formed on his face. “Hop Sing can’t wait for ya to try a slice of that there chocolate birthday cake he’s made ‘specially for the occasion.”
Adam put down his cup and glanced over his shoulder, winking good naturedly towards his little brother. “I think what Hoss means is he can’t wait to try a slice Joe…a big slice!” he smiled.
Hoss grinned sheepishly. “Aw shucks, Adam. You know how I don’t like good food to go wastin’.”
Although he’d promised himself he’d keep his true feelings hidden, Ben couldn’t stop the relief he felt at his son’s safe return from showing as he gazed over welcomingly. “Good to see you back, Joseph. How was your trip? No problems I hope?”
Pulling out an empty chair by his father’s side, Joe took out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it over to him. “Couldn’t have gone better Pa,” he announced, unable to keep a slight degree of smugness from clearly showing on his face.
Ben stared down at the bank draft and his eyes widened with both surprise and delight and he passed it over to his eldest son. Adam also nodded approvingly. “You’ve done well, very well indeed, buddy,” he agreed.
Joe happily acknowledged the compliment he grabbed a sandwich from the pile. “I’ve never felt so ravenous,” he declared as the ham and bread disappeared into his mouth. “I may have missed my birthday supper last night, but to a starving man, this is just as good as.”
Hoss stared at him. “But you ain’t missed your special dinner Joe. Hop Sing’s been in the kitchen all mornin’ preparin’ it. And like I told you he’s already made the…. ”
“Hold on, Hoss,” Joe interrupted with a frown of puzzlement as he poured himself a cup of coffee. “You mean today is my birthday? Are you sure?”
Ben placed a hand on his son’s arm and patted it affectionately. “I can assure you it’s the 31st, Joe, so let me be the first to wish you happy birthday.”
“Yeah, happy birthday, little brother,” Hoss and Adam chorused.
Joe nodded his thanks then helped himself to more food. “I must have lost a day somewhere, as I was sure it was yesterday, but I’m glad I was wrong if it means I haven’t missed one of Hop Sing’s feasts,” he said between mouthfuls. “Besides I’ve never been away from home before on my birthday and it wouldn’t seem right to celebrate my special day without you all.”
Then to his family’s amazement, Joe proceeded to demolish several more sandwiches one after the other with unparalleled gusto.
“My word, Joseph, you really are hungry,” Ben remarked with astonishment as he watched him. “I take it you haven’t eaten much since leaving the Watkins place?”
“No, Pa,” Joe replied as he swallowed down his food. “Mrs. Watkins gave me a pack of provisions to bring back but I was feeling a little hung over from their hospitality the previous night and forgot to pick it up when I left. So I’ve only had a piece of jerky since yesterday morning.”
Hoss gaped at his brother sympathetically. “It’s a wonder you didn’t faint away on the trail with hunger, Joe,” he declared with some degree of authority on the subject. “I know I couldn’t survive on only one piece of jerky for over a day and that’s a fact!”
Joe gave him a sideways glance and rolled his eyes. “We all know you’re worst than a hungry grizzly and can’t survive an hour without food of some sort,” he told him with a laugh.
Ben chuckled to himself then a thought suddenly came to him. “I hope you didn’t over indulge with Matt’s hospitality to the point of making a fool of yourself, Joseph?” he queried sternly. “I distinctly remember telling you he always makes a stronger brew than you’ll have ever tasted before and you were to only drink it in moderation.”
Joe shook his head. “Heck no, Sir! I was real careful and only had a couple of glasses. Well, maybe three,” he confessed with a grin. “But I understand now why you gave me that warning, Pa. Don’t know what was in that concoction but it was enough to leave me feeling queasy and light-headed, even this morning! For a time, I wondered if I’d even get off the mountain I was feeling so bad.”
At this point Ben gave his youngest a more thorough concerned stare and suddenly noticed how his features looked unusually drawn. “I must admit you do look a little pale, Joseph, like you’ve seen a ghost. How are you feeling now?”
Joe momentarily stiffened and lowered his gaze quickly; his usual light-heartedness suddenly disappearing. “Oh I’ve felt better. But I’m sure I’ll be fine now I’ve had something to eat. Pa,” he replied a little too quickly before reaching for the coffee pot and pouring out a second cup.
For a moment. Adam studied his little brother closely from across the table. There was something about Joe’s voice, his manner that made him intuitively sense all was not quite right. “Joe? Did something happen you’re not telling us about?”
It took Ben and Hoss a second to register what Adam had asked and both looked questioningly towards Joe, who’d paused, the cup hovering in his hand inches from his mouth. “Like what?”
Adam raised a questioning eyebrow, his eyes riveted on his youngest sibling. “You tell me.”
The silence in the room was practically tangible as Joe continued to hold his elder brother’s gaze for a few moments. Shrugging his shoulders, he then sighed. He never could fool Adam, and heaven knows he’d tried hard enough over the years. “Well…well, if you must know I did have the weirdest of dreams last night that left me a little confused….”
Joe’s voice trailed to nothing and he took a long swallow of coffee.
“Can you remember what it was about?”
Joe chewed at his lip for a moment, inwardly unsure whether it would be wise to share the contents of his reverie. But with three pairs of eyes staring expectantly at him, he realized he had no choice. He gave a hardly discernable nod. “That’s the odd thing, Adam. It was about someone, someone I’ve never met before, but the strange thing is I can still remember everything so clearly, as if it truly happened.”
Hoss frowned enquiringly. “This someone, who was he?”
Joe continued to sip reflectively at his drink for a few moments. “He weren’t no he, Hoss…he was a she.”
“A female?” Hoss threw his head back and gave out a booming laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Joe, you’ve been dreamin’ about gals since you was knee high to a grasshopper! What’s so strange about that?”
Joe blushed in embarrassment. “No, Hoss…it weren’t that sort of dream, or those sort of girls,” he said, replacing his cup in its saucer and shuffling uneasily on his seat while fiddling with the bread on his plate. “This girl seemed to be like…well, more like a really close friend. And all we did during my dream was sit by the campfire and chat all the time, though to be honest if I recollect correctly most of our conversation was about me.”
Adam was unable to stop from cracking a smile. “Well, that must have been an overwhelmingly enthralling tête-à-tête for your lady friend,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “You sure you didn’t bore her to tears?”
Joe pursed his lips tight and made a face towards his brother. “No, I didn’t Adam!” he responded a little too sharply than he’d intended. “She seemed really interested in everything I told her and I felt so at ease, comfortable, like we’d known each other for years. And she kept begging me not to stop talking to her but then…then I woke up.”
Seeming to suddenly lose his appetite at this point, Joe pushed back his chair and walked over to the hearth where he threw the remainder of his half-eaten sandwich into the blazing fire and stared despondently into the flames. “Anyways, it was only a dream, just a silly dream,” he murmured under his breath.
The sudden change in Joe’s mood caused an uncomfortable silence for a few moments and Ben studied his son, his fatherly instincts telling him something was bothering his youngest. “What’s the matter, Joseph?” he gently asked. “Is something wrong? Only you seem a bit on edge all of a sudden.”
Joe drew in a deep breath of inevitability and returned to sink back down onto his chair. He licked his lips that had suddenly gone dry. “I wasn’t sure whether to say anything as I could hardly believe it myself, but….”
He paused and eyed them all nervously. “Just before I headed home this morning…well…well, I saw the same girl from my dream again, only this time she was standing in the clearing not five feet away from me and looking so unbelievably sad, like as if she didn’t want me to go. It was so…so real. I could even see tears rolling down her cheeks, could almost touch her. Then she…she just disappeared right in front of my eyes.”
Hoss’ mouth dropped open. “You tryin’ to tell me you saw one of those there ghostly apparitions?” he asked as he stared in wide eyed amazement. “You sure you ain’t been smokin’ some of that there loco weed, little brother?”
Adam grinned. “Or did you squirrel away a bottle of Mr. Watkins special recipe and have it for breakfast?”
As both Hoss and Adam began to laugh, Joe shrugged his shoulders in defeat and stared glumly into his cup, an injured expression covering his face. “I don’t know why I bothered. I should have known you two wouldn’t take me serious and turn it into a big joke.”
Adam leaned back in his chair and linked his hands behind his head. “Ah, come on, Joe, what do you expect with a story like that?” he asked, clearly disbelieving. “I know, though I’ve never seen him, I still accept there’s a God, but when it comes to ghosts, ghouls, specters and the like, I wouldn’t even consider they really exist unless I saw one for myself. And I’m betting that goes for most folk as well.”
With his expression changing rapidly Joe narrowed his eyes and threw over a furious look. “So what you’re saying is you think I’m lying, is that it, Adam?” he snapped bitterly as he noted his brother’s most stubborn, I-know-everything-and-I’m-always-right look he’d grown to recognize over the years. “Just ‘cause you’re the biggest doubting Thomas in the territory don’t mean everyone else has got to think the same way. I know what I saw and I saw her disappear into thin air and nothing you say will make me believe otherwise!”
With his chair making a loud jarring sound as he pushed it back on the oak planked floor, Joe was about to leave the table in a huff when suddenly he felt his father’s calming hand on his arm. “Don’t take what your brother said too personal, Joseph. I seem to recall you used to think just the same way as Adam, but if you really believe what you saw today was true, that’s good enough for me…for all of us. Now why don’t you sit back down?”
With the atmosphere now charged with emotion, the question was more an order than a request and Ben then gave Adam a silent warning look not often seen but one all three sons knew not to argue against; the subject was now well and truly closed!
Joe sighed deeply, half- hesitating for a fleeting second, then did as he was told and wearily slumped back down in his seat. He glanced over towards his brother apologetically.
“Sorry, Adam. Guess I left my sense of humor on the mountain last night,” Joe admitted ruefully, giving out a weak smile as he raked his hand through his hair. “Maybe I saw something…maybe I didn’t. After all the sun was bright in my eyes at the time and I was still suffering from Mr. Watkins’ head-splittin’ mixture. Anyhow it certainly ain’t worth having a fight over, especially on my birthday.”
Adam nodded. “That’s okay, Joe. And you never know; one of these days I might just learn to keep my personal opinions a little less opinionated for all our sakes.”
Ben inwardly breathed a sigh of relief, happy to see calm once more restored as Joe swallowed the remainder of his coffee and then tried hard to stifle a loud yawn. He failed miserably, however, and eyed his father apologetically. “Sorry Pa. Don’t know where that came from.”
“Shouldn’t be as I was asleep for hours but I now feel as though I haven’t slept a wink all night. Must be all that fresh mountain air I’ve been experiencing over the past few days.”
Ben nodded. “Tell you what, Joe. Why don’t you go upstairs and have a lie down for a little while,” he suggested. “Your brothers can finish off the chores and I’m sure a short rest will put you in a better mood for your birthday meal this evening.”
Joe’s face lit up. “Thanks, Pa, think I will. Then maybe I’ll even let Hoss loose on my birthday cake before he busts a gut in anticipation!”
As Hoss’ eyes widened with delight at the thought, Ben chuckled and watched with an amused smile as Joe stood up and walked over to the front door where he unbuckled his gun belt and laid it down on the credenza. Then as his hand brushed against his jacket a thought suddenly came to him. Pulling out an object from the top pocket, Joe returned to the table where he placed it by the side of his elder brother’s plate.
“Found this by the ashes of the fire this morning but I have no idea how it came to be there. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing anyone would expect to find on a desolate mountain track. Do you reckon it’s worth anything, Adam?”
Without giving him chance to respond, Joe walked swiftly up the stairs towards his room, leaving three pairs of eyes staring at a baby’s silver plated christening spoon with mother of pearl handle and an ornately decorated rattle fixed on the end. Adam picked it up and gave it a thorough interested inspection and was about to pass it over to his brother when Ben, whose face had slowly drained of all color, took it from his son’s grasp with a shaky hand and stared down at it intently.
Straightaway both brothers noticed their father’s pale pallor and gave each other an anxious glance. “Pa? It looks like Joe’s not the only one who thinks he’s seen a ghost today. What’s wrong?”
Ben remained silent, ignoring his eldest son and continuing to gaze at the object lying in the palm of his hand.
“Pa? You’ve got me real worried now,” Hoss quickly added with a concerned frown. “Are you feelin’ all right? You want me to fetch the doctor?”
With his heart pounding hard, Ben shook his head. “It’s nothing…I’m fine, Hoss. Really I am.”
Unused to such behavior from his father, Hoss grated his teeth and slapped his hand down hard on the table, making the cups rattle noisily in their saucers. “Dadburnit it, Pa, I’m not stupid! It’s clear to both me and Adam you’re far from fine! Now you gonna tell us what’s goin’ on?”
Still Ben said nothing, just staring down as if in a daze. The sight of the christening spoon had reopened a gaping hole in his heart, bringing back in the blink of an eye a heartbreaking memory he’d tried so hard to push to the far corners of his mind over the years.
Suddenly he felt fingers gently squeezing his shoulder, bringing him out of his trance, and he stared across into the face of his eldest.
“Pa, you’ve always been here for us when we needed someone to confide in, so let us return the favor for once. Please tell us what’s bothering you so we can help.”
With tears welling, Ben eyed them both apologetically in turn for several long moments then took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, boys. It’s just I never thought the day would come, but maybe it’s for the best you finally know,” he admitted in a hoarse whisper and then his eyes travelled towards the stairs.
“But Joe….you must promise never to tell Joe anything of what I’m about to say to you. Please understand it’s for your brother’s sake, not mine. The pain I’m feeling is nothing I’m sure to the pain he would feel if he knew the truth.”
Hoss and Adam exchanged puzzled gazes. Keeping family secrets from one another had never been the Cartwright way, but they could sense this was far too serious to argue the point so they both nodded and Ben settled back in his chair.
“Funny how something so small and innocent can bring it all back when you least expect it,” Ben mused, his voice lowered to barely a whisper as he stroked his fingers up and down the spoon’s smooth handle. “How much do you remember about the time Joe was born?”
Hoss moved chairs to sit closer to his father and cleared his throat. “Not much seein’, as I was only six,” he answered quietly, frowning hard in recollection. “I vaguely remember me and Adam goin’ over to stay at the Milford’s ranch and Cora fillin’ me with so much food I thought I’d burst. Then when we came back to the Ponderosa, little brother had arrived.”
“That’s right,” Adam agreed. “Though I never quite understood why we were sent away in such a hurry. I remember Marie had been in labor for a couple of days and I was keeping Hoss entertained and out of the way like she’d made me promise. But before I knew it, Hop Sing was waking us up and taking us both over to the Milford’s ranch in the dead of night, telling us the doctor said we’d have to stay there till the baby was born.”
Ben nodded. “Paul realized late on that evening there may be complications, dangerous complications, for both Marie and our child. That’s why he thought it best you two should be taken out of the way in case something went wrong. And unfortunately he was right. Something did go wrong.”
“But you never told us that when we came home Pa. You just said everything had gone well with Joe’s birth, and even Marie told us she hadn’t had any problem.”
Ben eyed Adam forlornly. “I’m afraid those were little white lies, son, but necessary white lies in the circumstances. Things didn’t go well…they didn’t go well at all.”
“But we didn’t lose Marie or Joe, Pa?”
A ghost of a smile hovered around Ben’s lips. “No we didn’t, Hoss, but it was a close call.”
He momentarily pursed his lips in thought. “After you two left with Hop Sing, there was still no sign of Joe being born that night but Marie was by now exhausted and barely conscious and Paul could see she was failing fast. He knew he had to do something drastic so decided he’d have to try and help hurry the birth process. He had to use forceps, something a doctor never wants to do, but Paul had no choice; it was the only alternative. So with my blessing, he went ahead and finally shortly after midnight Joe was born.”
Ben’s eyes suddenly glazed at the memory. “Your brother was barely breathing after all the trauma he’d gone through, but thankfully after a few minutes Paul managed to blow life into him and he started to cry. He was just a scrawny little thing, but by heavens, he could yell, and knowing he had a healthy pair of lungs, it was obvious to us all from that moment he was going to be all right.”
Ben glanced quickly between his sons who were watching him attentively, both totally engrossed by his tale.
“Paul wrapped Joe in a shawl and gave him to Marie to nurse,” he continued, his voice now thick with emotion. “But suddenly she started moaning again and writhing in pain, so I took hold of Joe while Paul checked Marie over, and it was then he could see there was another baby on the way.”
“Another?” Adam repeated incredulously as Hoss gaped in surprise. “You mean Joe was a twin?”
Ben nodded wearily. “We had no idea Marie was carrying two. Paul thought the baby had probably lain behind Joe all the time and that’s why he hadn’t been able to detect it.”
Adam took a deep sad breath. “So the baby was born dead?”
Ben shook his head. “No, Adam. Paul needed my help so I laid Joe in the crib and helped to eventually deliver my daughter alive…but only just.”
There was an audible gasp from Hoss. “A daughter? Joe had a twin sister? We had us a sister?”
Ben gave a gentle nod. “She was tiny, even smaller than Joe, and so terribly sickly looking, but to me, she was the most beautiful baby girl I’ve ever seen,” he admitted with the saddest of smiles at the memory. “Paul told both me and Marie straightaway she had a very weak heart and wouldn’t have but a short time to live. He explained most of the nourishment that should have made her healthy and help her develop had for some reason been diverted to Joe during the nine months; otherwise, he would have had no chance of life either. It was as if Mother Nature had played a cruel joke by blessing us with two children in the womb but only allowing one to survive for the sake of the other.”
For a few moments Ben couldn’t go on, his face stricken at the recollection.
“I cradled her in my arms for a while and stroked her tiny cheek. And not once did she make a sound…not a whimper…not a cry as she stared up at me. Joe was still screaming his head off, though, and as Marie was far too weak to take him at that point, Paul suggested to try and quiet him down I should place my daughter in the crib and wrap her in the shawl with him. So I did as he advised, and as soon as he felt his sister by his side, Joe calmed and they both fell asleep together. But because of having such difficult double births, Marie was now fighting for her life and in danger of dying herself. I could hardly believe it. I thought I was going to lose her…just like I’d lost Elizabeth!”
Ben then exchanged a poignant gaze with Adam.
“But Paul worked on all through the night, until eventually around 8 in the morning, he was able tell me with some degree of confidence that Marie was over the worst and was going to be fine. And though after the longest night of our lives Marie was totally spent and still in a lot of pain, she insisted she hold her sleeping babies for a while. So I lifted them out of the crib and placed them both in her arms and immediately my daughter awoke and looked directly at her. I can remember clearly as if it were yesterday Marie gazing over at me with tears in her eyes at our daughter’s condition, but unable to stop from smiling with pride. ‘Look at her, Ben. She’s looking right at me as if she knows I’m her mother.’”
A tear suddenly appeared and slowly ran down Ben’s cheek. He brushed it away and his voice faltered. “Paul said it was a wonder she’d lasted as long as she did, but…but it was as if she was waiting for Marie to hold her for the first and last time because…because then our daughter passed away and immediately Joe woke up and started crying again…as if he knew.”
Ben paused for a moment and cleared his throat.
“Anyway, with your brother now demanding to be fed, Marie gave him all her attention and nursed him as best she could while I held my daughter again and just stared down at that tiny angelic face. It was all I could do to stop myself from breaking down in tears after the shock and heartbreak of having her taken from us so quickly but I knew there’d be time for weeping later and I had to be strong, for Marie’s sake. So I just imagined she was really sleeping rather than accepting she was gone, and then when Joe had finally had his fill and settled down again, Paul gave Marie a dose of laudanum to ease her discomfort and help her rest. And thankfully after a few minutes, the drug took effect and Marie fell asleep, so it was left to me to do what had to be done.”
Two pairs of eyes stared at Ben…stunned. “So…so what did you do Pa?”
Ben stared blindly towards Hoss for a moment, his heart missing a beat before he gave him an answer. “I wanted everything to be done right and true respect shown so I dressed my daughter in the silk christening gown Marie had made especially for our first child.”
Ben then looked down to his hand. “And I placed a christening spoon I’d bought while in San Francisco a few months before – identical to this one – in her tiny hand. Then while Paul stayed behind to keep an eye on Marie and Joe, Hop Sing and I took her up to the lake, near to where Marie is now buried, where I dug a tiny grave and after saying a few words laid her to rest.”
“But why didn’t you tell us what had happened years ago, Pa?” Adam inquired softly. “Why keep all that pain and suffering to yourself? It’s not as if you’d done anything wrong.”
Ben sighed sadly, his face still etched with grief. “Once I returned and Marie awoke, both of us agreed we couldn’t bear the thought of Joe going through life knowing he’d had a sister who’d died so he could live. And as you two were due back the next day, we both decided it would be best if we kept what had happened a secret from you all…and Paul and Hop Sing happily went along with our decision.”
“But you can’t blame Joe. It weren’t his fault his sister died!”
“Oh we all knew that, Hoss!” Ben exclaimed, horrified at such a notion. “And I can assure you it’s never crossed my mind ever to blame him.”
“Then don’t you think he has a right to know now he was a twin?”
Ben’s face filled with remorse. “After a few months, when Marie was well enough and we were both able to think coherently again, we realized we’d made the wrong decision and decided to tell you all the truth when Joe was a few years old and could understand better what had gone on. But then when the time came to share our secret, there was the accident and Marie was suddenly taken from us. After the anguish we all went through at that time I knew I couldn’t raise the subject on my own after that, especially as Joe has told me more than once over the years he still feels in a small way responsible for his mother’s death, knowing she was rushing back from town that day to give him the cough medicine he’d needed so badly.”
“But Joe wasn’t to know his Mama’s horse would stumble as she galloped into the yard and fall on her. He ain’t got nothin’ to blame himself for!”
“I know, Hoss, but you try and convince your brother of that! And can you imagine the effect it would have if I also told him now about his sister and the reason she died?”
There was quiet for a few minutes as silence gripped the room; each man intuitively knowing the answer.
“Did she have a name, Pa?” Adam then quietly asked. “Did our sister have a name?”
“Yes. Yes, she did, son,” Ben smiled distantly. “Marie knew she couldn’t come with me to bury our daughter so she asked that I say a prayer over her grave and name her Miette Angelique – our sweet little angel.”
“That’s a beautiful name, Pa,” Hoss choked, wiping his sleeve across his eyes.
Ben sighed, placed the spoon on the table, then rose from his chair and stood for a moment in front of the window, staring out before turning back to face his sons.
“Ever since their birth, I can’t count the number of times I’ve cursed the fact my daughter and Joe never had an opportunity to know each other, that none of us ever had the chance to watch her grow. And you can’t begin to realize how much shame I felt for letting you all down by not having the courage to tell you the truth.”
Ben shook his head dejectedly. “But believe me, I only did what I did for the best of reasons and I just hope you can understand and forgive me for keeping my silence for so long.”
Quickly there was a shuffling of feet as Hoss stood up and walked to stand by his father’s side. “Pa, don’t you say another word,” he ordered gently as he placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “You’ve never let us down nor done nothin’ that needs our forgiveness, and that’s a fact.”
“Hoss is right, Pa,” added Adam quietly. “You did what you thought was right and best for your family, just as you’ve always done. We could never ask any more of you and never will.”
Ben blinked hard and sniffed, then felt Hoss’ hand tenderly take hold of his arm, guiding him back to his seat. And as his son sat down again beside him. Ben’s tear-filled eyes focused once more on the spoon.
“You goin’ to be okay. Pa?”
Ben blew into his kerchief and the answer was a long time coming till he finally gave a thin-lipped smile. “I will be, Hoss. I will be. It was a shock having all those memories flooding back so unexpectedly, but I’m glad it’s all out in the open now and I feel much better for sharing it all with you two at last, much better.”
For a while, not a word was said between the three of them as both brothers watched their father out the corner of their eyes and exchanged frequent concerned glances. Obviously deep within his own private thoughts, Ben was unaware to their close scrutiny, only giving out a few deep heartfelt sighs of gloomy melancholy as the minutes passed.
“You know,” Adam finally said, breaking the silence. “I’ve been thinking. Everything Joe told us earlier is beginning to make sense. Maybe he was right after all.”
Both Ben and Hoss cast a glance at him. “Right about what, son?”
“About actually seeing a ghost, Pa,” Adam replied with an edge of excitement in his voice. “First he dreams about a girl and then he sees her as a ghostly vision.” Adam looked down on the table. “He finds this spoon at the camp site.”
Hoss rubbed the back of his neck while he thought about it, then shook his head. “Sorry, brother, you’ve lost me.”
Another few moments went by then enlightenment seemed to flow across Ben’s face. “You don’t mean? Surely not, Adam. It just isn’t possible!”
Hoss looked between the pair and shook his head with slight agitation. “Would somebody like to tell me what you’re talkin’ about?”
Adam drew in a careful breath before speaking. “Today is Joe’s birthday and it’s also Halloween, the one day in the year when it’s reckoned it might be possible to see a mystical being from the spirit world. Right?”
Hoss nodded. “I’m with you so far brother.”
“Joe has a strange dream about a girl and he finds this spoon, one that is identical to the spoon Pa buried with his twin sister 18 years ago to the day. Then he sees the same girl clearly in the clearing before she disappears in front of his eyes. Can’t you see the connection?”
Hoss didn’t say anything for a minute as he tilted his head slightly and his eyes flittered between the two faces which seemed to be waiting expectantly for his response. Then his jaw sagged as the penny finally dropped. “You don’t mean you think the ghost was…”
“Yes, Hoss, I think I do,” Adam interrupted in a reassuringly confident tone.
“But you and Pa are the biggest skeptics around regardin’ that sort of thing, Adam. I mean, you’ve always said you’d never believe one of those there apparitions existed unless it came right up to you and poked you in the eye!”
“Well, I’ve changed my mind, Hoss. And it sure is a comfort to think Miette Angelique and Joe finally got to meet each other, if only for a short while. Ain’t that the truth, Pa?”
Hoss stared dumbfounded towards his brother for a few moments and then shook his head vehemently. “Nah…don’t believe it, Adam. There’s no way…..”
Suddenly Hoss was silenced as from under the table he felt his brother’s leather boot slam hard against his shin in the time honored Cartwright brotherly fashion which meant ‘shut up’. Hoss frowned but complied with the silent order.
However, unaware of what was going on between them, Ben continued to stare blankly with his elbows on the table and his chin rested on his hands as he mulled over what Adam had said. After all these years of silent mourning and anguish, he wanted to believe so badly…it would be so easy to consider it was true for his own peace of mind, if nothing else. And surely if Adam could think it possible, of course he….
Then a slow smile of understanding touched Ben’s lips. “I nearly fell for it,” he admitted with the faintest of chuckles as he sat back in his chair and studied his eldest son. “I don’t think you don’t really believe Joe saw a ghost today, any ghost. And as for the spoon, well, that turning up was just a pure coincidence, no more, no less. Now that is the truth, isn’t it, Adam?”
Adam cleared his throat and swallowed hard. “Don’t know what you mean, Pa. Of course I believe…”
Then Adam hesitated as his father’s penetrating gaze bore into him. Under that stare, no man could lie, least of all a Cartwright son! He hung his head and stared down at his hands in obvious discomfort, and for the first time ever, felt like a ten year old child, scolded after being caught dipping his hand in the biscuit barrel. “Guess I messed up. Sorry, Pa. It’s just I thought it might give you some comfort thinking Joe and his sister had finally met.”
Hoss nodded in agreement. “Please don’t give him a lecture, Pa,” he added in support of his brother. “Adam didn’t mean no harm by his deception. He was only thinkin’ of you.”
Ben shook his head slowly. “There’ll be no lecture, Hoss,” he responded kindly. “I know Adam only did what he did with the best of intentions. And I appreciate the gesture, more than either of you will ever know. But I think it’s safe to say none of us have ever believed in things ghostly and it’s too late to start now, whatever the reason.”
With Ben now like his old self, there was a more noticeably relaxed and companionable silence between the three men as a new family bond was forged between father and sons. A bond born from the unhappy memory they now shared; each in thought for the next few minutes about a tiny baby who’d died all those years ago so another might live….
Suddenly above their heads came the sound of a door being slammed and seconds later a whistling Joe emerged, his low spirits obviously lifted as he bounded down the stairs in his usual energetic manner
He looked over in surprise. “You all still here? Ain’t you got no work to go to?” he joked as he made his way directly towards them.
Failing to notice the slight degree of tension in the air or three pairs of eyes which looked surprisingly moist, Joe walked behind Hoss and slapped him on the back. “You ready for some of that chocolate cake brother?”
Keen not to let Joe suspect the drama that had unfolded around the table over the past hour, Hoss nodded with a forced out smile. “Sure, Joe. Sounds just what the doctor ordered.”
“I take it you feel a whole lot better after your nap,” added Ben, and fearing tears were still evident averted his gaze from his youngest.
“Sure do, Pa,” responded Joe, and spying the christening spoon resting on the table, he bent over his shoulder and picked it up then looked over towards his elder brother. “Did you figure if this is worth any money, Adam? I ain’t ever seen one as fancy as this before, though it sure is a mystery how it got on the mountain.”
Adam exchanged a quick glance with his father. “Oh, we figured it was only worth a few dollars and is probably more of sentimental value than anything else.”
Joe nodded, accepting his answer without comment and placed it back down. “Anyways, I’ll go check Hop Sing put the right number of candles on my cake before I blow them out. I wouldn’t want to be younger or older than I am!”
He made to walk towards the kitchen then slowed. “Oh, I forgot to tell you. There’s something I’ve just remembered about the girl in my dream. She told me her name and though it was one I’ve never heard before, if I ever have a daughter she’s gonna be called it and no mistake.”
“And what name would that be?” Adam heard himself ask.
Oblivious to the looks of incredulity that suddenly formed on his father and brother’s faces or the chills that rippled in unison along each of their spines, Joe continued into the kitchen and shouted out before disappearing from view. “Miette. Miette Angelique. Ain’t that just the prettiest name you’ve ever heard?”