From Ghoulies and Ghosties (by Rona)

Summary: Something Adam says while he’s telling ghost stories to Joe and Hoss triggers an amazing experience for Joe. Was it real? Or did he dream it? Anything’s possible at Halloween.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: T
Word Count: 5,780


The wind howled outside the sturdy ranch house of the Ponderosa. It was October 30th, and Adam Cartwright was telling his two brothers ghost stories. The large room was lit only by the flickering fire, and this lent an eerie atmosphere to Adam’s tales. Joe and Hoss, both long past the wide-eyed child stage, sat wide-eyed and silent, totally enthralled.

It was late, and they were all tired. But somehow the talk had come round to All Hallow’s Eve, and Adam, bookworm of the family, had told them how it came by its name.

“In pagan times,” Adam explained, “the festival was called samhain (pronounced sow-in) and was the end of the old year. November 1st was New Year’s Day. It was a Celtic festival. When the Christians arrived, they decided to make it a Christian festival, and made November 1st All Hallow’s Day.”

“So what is All Hallow’s Day?” Joe asked, interested despite himself.

“All Saints Day,” Adam replied, pleased that Joe was listening for once. “In the Catholic religion, each day has a certain saint or saints associated with it. But, to make this pagan festival special, they created a day for all the saints. Like placing Christmas on Mid-winter’s Day.”

“Dadburnit, Adam, how d’you remember these things?” Hoss enquired.

“It’s a natural gift,” Adam replied, modestly, which set his two brothers hooting. He ignored them, and carried on with his story. “On samhain, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead are said to blur. Ghosts of the dead can come back and walk the earth.”

Involuntarily, Hoss glanced over his shoulder. Joe, noticing, started to chortle. “Expecting company, brother?” he teased. He ducked as Hoss threw a punch at him. Joe’s infectious giggle made the whole family smile.

“Well, if you boys are going to tell ghost stories, I’m going to bed,” Ben Cartwright said, firmly. “Good night, boys.”

“Night, Pa,” they chorused.

As Ben mounted the stairs, Adam rose and turned off the lights. Hoss brought the bottle of brandy over and poured each of them another drink. Hoss and Joe settled themselves on the settee together, and Joe propped his booted feet on the table. Adam raised an eyebrow at him, but Joe pretended not to notice, and Adam decided to let it go, for once.

“It used to be that the pagans sacrificed to the dead on samhain, so that their crops would grow the next season, and that their children would live through the winter. They blamed the spirits for diseases and plagues, for floods and droughts. They thought spirits caused everything.”

“I’m glad I’m not a pagan,” Joe commented, which comment derived a snort from Hoss.

“The way you twitch during church each Sunday, I wouldn’t be surprised if’n you were a pagan,” Hoss declared. Joe’s restlessness in church was a thorn in the family’s side.

That set Joe off again, and he giggled for several minutes before they were able to go on talking. Adam was a natural storyteller. His deep baritone voice added to the drama of the things he said. “There’s a castle in Scotland,” he said. “Its called Craigievar, and its near Aberdeen. They have a ghost, which has been seen regularly. The ghost is a woman, and she wanders through the nursery, looking for her murdered child. She seems to be quite a nice ghost, for she doesn’t bother anyone. She just walks right through them.”

Hoss moved uneasily, and slunk down lower on his seat. Joe was still grinning, but his smile looked a little fixed now. Adam kept his own face solemn. “There are a lot of ghosts in Scottish castles,” he went on. “It must be all those years of war. They do say herds of phantom cattle haunt the borderlands, driven by ghostly reivers.”

“What are reivers?” Hoss asked, apprehensively.

“Rustlers,” Adam answered, laconically. He saw the look on Hoss’s face and elaborated, “Scottish or English rustlers who stole cattle from each other over the border.”

“Phantom cattle,” mused Joe. “I wonder if they are easier to herd than real ones?” He began to laugh again.

Regaining control of the conversation, Adam went on. “When I was at college, I heard about a family who’d been killed when their coach horses ran away. The coach crashed into the parapet of a bridge, and the family were thrown into the river and drowned. On the anniversary of the crash, the locals say you can hear the horses galloping down the road, and the screams of the family. One or two people have even met the coach on that bridge.” He eyed his brothers, who were both wide-eyed again. “And you’ll have read in the paper about the Fox sisters in New England, who can talk to the spirits of the dead?”

Looking apprehensively towards the stairs, in case Ben re-appeared, Hoss mumbled, “Pa don’t like us talkin’ about such things, Adam.”

“Its all tosh, anyhow,” Joe asserted, in a less than convincing tone.

“Sure,” agreed Adam, who sat there, looking like the cat who’d had the cream. “Whatever you say, fellows.” His tone was so agreeable, that both his brothers instantly began to wonder about what they’d said. “I heard about a theatre that has a ghost. It comes out every now and then, and walks along the upper most tier of seats. Workmen regularly report their things being moved when there is no one around. One man thought the ghost was his mate, until he saw it walk through a wall!”

Sitting in the darkened room, the fire nearly out, the two younger Cartwrights felt shivers running down their spines. The howling wind outside only added to the tense atmosphere. It was only too easy to believe in ghosts.

“Well,” Adam rose to his feet and stretched. “we’d better hit the sack, as we’ve an early start in the morning.” He strode off towards the stairs without a backward glance. “Night, fellows.”

In total unison, Joe and Hoss rose and followed Adam closely upstairs. At the door of his room, Joe hesitated uneasily. Adam gave him a questioning glance, and Joe hastily propelled himself into his room. He was soon snuggled under the covers, but it was a long time before he slept.

*****

The next morning dawned like Indian summer. The sky was a cloudless blue and the air was warm. The slight breeze had a bitter edge to it, reminding them that winter wasn’t far away. The Cartwright sons set off for the various jobs they had lined up for that day. Adam still looked rather amused, because his brothers both looked tired. Neither admitted to anyone how badly they had slept. Ben had looked at them with silent disapproval, but they were men grown, and didn’t need him to tell them that they hadn’t had enough sleep.

Down at the corrals, Joe was able to take his mind off the stories as he spent the day bronco busting. These were the last of a string of remounts for the army. There would be no more contracts until the spring. After they finished, and were putting away the gear, Joe listened to the men talking about Halloween, and witches, warlocks, ghosts and goblins.

“From Ghoulies and Ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, may the good Lord deliver us,” Joe whispered.

“What was that you said, Boss?” Jeb asked, but Joe shook his head.

“Oh, nothing important. Enjoy Halloween.” He walked back across to Cochise, and mounted up. He rode home, his mind still playing over what Adam had told them. It wasn’t the ghost stories that he thought about however. He was caught up with the idea of the boundaries between living and dead being blurred. He wondered what it would be like to meet a ghost. Would you realise it was a ghost? Would it be someone you knew? Someone you loved, or someone you hated? The idea appealed to him, and he mulled it over as he rode home.

There wasn’t much talk at the dinner table. After they had finished, Joe stretched, and said, “I think I’ll go into town for a while.”

Frowning, Ben said nothing. Joe correctly interpreted his father’s look, and said, “Pa, I won’t be late. I’m just restless, that’s all. I don’t feel I can settle to an evening by the fire.”

“Very well, Joseph,” Ben agreed. “Just keep an eye on the weather. The fog is starting to close in.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” Joe assured him. “I’ll be careful.”

*****

The Bucket of Blood saloon wasn’t terribly busy that night. The fog was settling in, and it was cold. The Indian summer seemed well and truly over. Joe had a couple of beers, and played a hand of cards, but his heart wasn’t in it. Barely an hour after arriving, he set off back home.

The fog had thickened dramatically since Joe had arrived. In town, it wasn’t too bad, broken up as it was by the buildings. But as Joe left the safety of the streets, he pulled Cochise up, wondering if he would be better to stay the night. The night had an eerie feel to it, and Joe decided he’d rather be at home with his family, and urged Cochise on.

It was a slow journey. Visibility was poor, and Joe didn’t dare push Cochise faster than a trot. He trusted as much to the horse’s instincts to guide him, as the usual landmarks were obscured. The mist was cold and dank, and Joe soon wished he’d worn a warmer jacket. His green cord jacket had been too warm all day, but it wasn’t warm enough now. Joe clutched the collar round his neck, and was thankful that he’d had gloves in the pockets.

Joe thought he was about half way home when he first saw the indistinct shape moving in the fog ahead. He peered into the mist, but couldn’t see anything. Then, as he relaxed, the movement came again. “Hello!” Joe called. “Are you lost?”

The fog absorbed his words and echoed them back at him. Joe screwed up his eyes, as if that would help him see, but the shape remained just beyond his reach. Frowning, worried that some hapless traveller was lost, Joe urged Cochise to a faster pace.

Even moving faster, Joe seemed no nearer the elusive figure in the fog. Sometimes, he heard hoof beats, but he wasn’t sure if it was another horse, or echoes from Cochise. Again he called out, but again his words were thrown back to him, distorted by the eddies of fog.

Suddenly, it occurred to Joe that he had no idea where he was. He pulled Cochise to a halt, and stroke the silky neck in front of him. “Okay, Coochie,” he said. “Where’s home from here?” They seemed to be in a particularly thick patch of fog at that moment. Joe could see nothing but the bit of road in front of him. There were no trees, no hills, nothing he could recognise.

Shivering, Joe realised that he couldn’t just sit there. He urged Cochise into a walk, and let the horse choose its own path. Eventually, they would get back to the barn, although they wouldn’t necessarily follow the road to get there. But Cochise seemed unsure, too, and Joe wondered if the horse was picking up on his own unease. “Let’s go home,” he said, hoping Cochise would be reassured by his tone.

But Cochise was definitely uneasy now. He whickered, and stopped, his ears flickering backwards and forwards. He pawed the ground, as though being held by a check on the reins. Joe looked around, trying to see what Cochise could either see or smell. His left hand drifted towards his gun. “Let’s go, Cochise,” he said, and urged the horse on.

Cochise resisted. Joe urged more strongly, but still the horse balked. Truly concerned now, Joe snatched off his hat and brought it down on the pinto’s quarters. Cochise flinched, but still wouldn’t move. Worried now that Cochise smelt a predator, Joe drew his gun and fired a warning shot. It didn’t occur to him that Cochise would be startled. After all, the horse heard gunshots almost every day.

Perhaps it was the echo. Perhaps it was Joe’s nerves. Cochise reared up. Joe leaned forward, surprised, but unconcerned. He threw out his left hand, still clutching his gun, for extra balance, and a ghostly white hand grabbed his arm and pulled. Caught completely off guard, Joe tumbled to the ground!

*****

“Jist look at that fog!” Hoss exclaimed, peering out of the door. “Why, you can’t hardly see the barn!”

Joining Hoss at the door, Ben looked worried. “I hope Joe didn’t decide to come home in this,” he commented.

“Then I think its likely that he did try to come home,” Adam commented, dryly, coming to look out, too. “Joe is nothing if not perverse.”

Glaring at his oldest son, Ben peered out into the fog again. “Well, until he arrives, we won’t know one way or the other. Close the door, Hoss, its cold out there.” They all returned to the fireside, but none of them made a move towards bed. They would wait until they knew what had happened to Little Joe.

*****

Landing on his back, Joe pulled sharply back on his arm, and he freed himself instantly. He pushed to his feet, his gun raised. A tall, cadaverous man was glaring at him drunkenly. “Now, see here,” he said, in a strong Irish brogue. “Its ain’t polite to go round shootin’ at people.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe apologised, holstering his gun. “I thought my horse could smell a cougar or something. I did fire into the air.”

“To be sure an’ you did, son,” the man agreed, and gave Joe a drunken grin.

“What are you doing out here?” Joe asked. He caught hold of Cochise’s rein, which dragged on the ground beside him. “Are you lost?”

“Me? Lost?” The man began to laugh. “No, me boy, Seamus Finnigan never gets lost! I’m the guide, you see. I never get lost. Oh dear me!” And he was off again.

“I’m Joe Cartwright,” Joe offered. They shook hands. “Mr Finnigan, do you live nearby?””

“Oh, to be sure an’ I do, boy. I live near by to everywhere.”

Resisting an urge to roll his eyes, Joe nodded as though he understood. He didn’t. He didn’t understand where this man had come from; he didn’t understand why he was still there talking to Finnigan, instead of heading for home. However, when Seamus sat down beneath a tree, Joe sat beside him. It occurred to Joe that he didn’t feel as cold now, but he was more interested in his companion than the weather.

“I live near everywhere,” Seamus repeated. “I move around a lot, to be sure. I’m here now, but I might be gone tomorrow. Here, young fella, have a drink.” He passed Joe a bottle, and Joe drank obediently.

“I’m going home,” Joe told the man, although a tremendous desire for sleep was sweeping over him.

“To be sure, you are, me boy. But you have a wee sleep first, afore you go home.” And Joe curled up on his side and fell asleep.

*****

He woke a short time later, totally disoriented. He was still by the tree, and Seamus was sitting a little distance away, singing an Irish song to himself. But all Joe’s attention was focused on the woman sitting next to him. He had never met her before, but he knew who she was, for he’d seen her picture many times. She was Elizabeth, Adam’s mother!

“We haven’t met,” she said, in a soft voice. “But I know who you are. Please, take a message to my beloved Adam for me. Tell him how proud I am of the man he’s become. I wish I could have had time to spend with him, but I’m watching over him, all the time. I can see that he’s suffered through not having a mother, and I wish I’d been strong enough to live. But the past is past, and can’t be changed. Joe, tell Ben that I love him, and I’ve rejoiced in his happiness, and grieved for his sadness.” She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Thank you.”

Aware that his mouth was hanging open, Joe pinched himself savagely to see if he was awake. The pinch hurt, so he decided he must be. Elizabeth was gone, and Joe gulped. He remembered wondering if you’d know the ghosts you met. Well, apparently not, in his case! He turned his head to see if Cochise was still there. The pinto stood slumbering at the end of the rein, which Joe clutched tightly in one hand. Cochise seemed unaware of the spirits nearby.

*****

Sound asleep in his bed, Adam stirred slightly as a hand brushed across his head. He snuggled deeper under the covers, and dreamed of his mother.

*****

The fog swirled round Joe, and he rubbed a gloved hand over his face. He was still reeling from his encounter with Adam’s long-dead mother. So in a way, it was less of a shock to turn his head and find Hoss’s mother, Inger, sitting next to him.

“Inger,” he whispered, unaware he had spoken aloud.

“Yes, I am Inger,” she replied, and Joe could hear her Swedish scent. “I so wish to tell Eric that I love him. He was such a big baby, and it was so hard for me when he was born. And Adam. What a sweet little boy he was. So helpful, so loving. How hard it must have been for him to lose another mother. Please tell them both that I love them.”

“I will,” Joe promised.

“And your father. What a man he was! I loved him dearly. Our time together was one of great joy for me. I am so glad he found another to love after I was gone. I am so glad Eric loves his brothers. This is so important to me. Tell them I love them all, please?”

“Of course,” he replied, now more accepting of the situation.

*****

Snoring so loudly that he almost woke himself up, Hoss Cartwright turned over in bed with a creaking of springs. His hand groped for the covers, but they eluded him. Then someone tucked the covers around him, and he murmured “Thanks, Pa,” without ever wakening to see that there was no one in the room.

*****

Coming awake with a jolt, Joe realised he’d slept again. Cochise was still dozing at the end of the rein. Seamus was still singing the same song over and over. The fog was thicker, for Seamus’ figure was less distinct than before. Joe sighed, and sat up. He thought he ought to try and get home, but he was so tired. Stifling a yawn, he snuggled down at the bottom of the tree, and half turned over.

It was no surprise to see a skirt on the ground beside him. Raising his eyes, Joe looked at his mother. For a second, he couldn’t believe it, then he lunged at her, throwing his arms round her neck, as he’d done when he was a child. “Mama,” he sobbed. “Mama.”

Patting her son on the back, Marie Cartwright held him for a moment before gently disentangling herself. “Joseph! My darling, what a man you’ve become.”

“Oh, Mama, I’ve missed you,” Joe confessed. “Sometimes I can hardly remember your face without a picture. Why did you have to die?”

“It was God’s will, my darling,” she replied. “We can none of us know what is in store for us. We just have to accept it, and go on with our lives. Joe, I never stopped loving you or your brothers, or your father. They were so dear to me. I know that Adam thought he was too old to have a mother, and he resented me when your father brought me back. But he never really meant it. He was just scared to love, as he’d learned, too young, that even people we love can die. But Adam does love you, despite all your quarrels.” She smiled. “And Hoss! What a dear boy he was. How easy he was to love. I loved both your brothers as if they were my own.”

Drinking in his mother’s words, Joe’s eyes remained glued to her face. She smiled at him. “Joe, my time with you here is short. We came because it is samhain. The chance will probably never come again. Remember that I love you. I see so much of myself in you. I will try to guide and protect you whenever I can.”

“I want to come with you, Mama,” protested Joe. “Don’t go away again!”

“Its not your time, yet, Joe,” Marie replied, enigmatically. “Stay here, and pass on the messages you’ve been given. Such a chance comes only once in a lifetime. You’ve been granted a great privilege, and I am so proud of you. Tell your father I love him, still. I love you, Joseph Francis Cartwright. Good bye, my son.”

Bursting into floods of tears, Joe lay on the cold ground, bereft. His mother had simply vanished, and he was left alone.

*****

Dozing in the chair by the fire, Ben Cartwright jerked awake. He had been dreaming, and for an instant, he thought he saw his three wives standing by the fireplace. He blinked, and the image disappeared. For a moment, he was swept by a wave of grief for his wives. “Elizabeth, Inger, Marie, my loves,” he whispered. “How I miss you all. How blessed I was to know and love you, and to receive the gifts of three fine sons, which you left to me. Thank you all.”

Pacing to the door, he saw that the fog still lay thickly around the ranch house. Dawn was a few hours away. Admitting to his exhaustion, Ben slowly climbed the stairs. Out of habit, he checked on his sons. Joe’s room was, of course, empty, but the atmosphere was somehow expectant. Adam was sleeping all curled up, with a happy smile on his face. Hoss was sprawled on his back, snoring with vigour, but also smiling.

Whatever his sons saw in their dreams, Ben hoped that the reality facing them when they woke wouldn’t have cause to negate those happy feelings. He went to his room and lay down on the bed. He was asleep in a moment, and dreamed of his wives.

*****

As his sobs subsided, Joe became aware of a hand on his shoulder. Lifting his tear stained face, he saw Clay, his dead brother. The last time Joe had seen Clay, they had both been beaten by a man whose son Clay had killed. There were no signs of any bruises on Clay now. He looked, in fact, exactly like he had the first time Joe had ever seen him.

“Joe, I’m so glad I was able to keep you safe that day,” Clay said. “I didn’t mean to get you involved in my troubles. Trouble had followed me all of my life, and I wasn’t sorry to give it up, not once I knew you would be all right.”

“I wish you hadn’t died, Clay,” Joe said, brokenly. “I miss you.”

“I know,” Clay said. “But I’m with our mother now, Joe. I never had any time with her before, not like you. Its not the same, but both my folks are with me. Its like having a real family again. Its not your time to be with us, Joe, but we’re waiting for you.”

“Clay,” Joe cried, but his brother was gone. Sitting there instead was Katherine, his lost bride. “Kathy!”

“Joe!” she exclaimed, and joy leapt in his heart. “Beloved, I wish I could stay longer, but I can’t. Please know that I love you, and be happy without me. Tell Kelly you saw me. She’ll understand. Our life together would have been wonderful, I’m sure. But it wasn’t to be, and someday you’ll meet a wonderful girl, and get married and have children. Joe, this is a wonderful place, and you’ll love it when your time comes to be here.”

“Everyone keeps talking about my time. What do you mean? Where is ‘here’?” Joe’s senses were reeling.

“Here is heaven, Joe,” Katherine said, gently. “And though you’re hurt, you’re not going to die yet. Remember what everyone has said to you. The dead go on loving the living, no matter what. As long as one person remembers us, we stay alive. Don’t grieve too much, darling. Live your life as God intended.”

As Katherine disappeared, Joe started to cry again. They weren’t all tears of grief. They were tears of confusion and tears of joy. He didn’t understand how he’d come to talk to these loving ghosts from his past, but he did understand the privilege he’d been granted.

*****

A cold wind began to blow as the dawn broke. Mounting Buck, Ben sniffed the air, and felt the metallic scent of snow on the wind. “There’s a storm coming in,” he said. “We’d better hurry.”

Without replying, Adam and Hoss mounted their horses, and the family rode out. Quite when they had become convinced that Joe had become lost riding home in the fog, none of them could say. But they didn’t believe Joe had stayed the night in Virginia City.

As they rode, the wind picked up in strength. The fog was blown away as though it had never been. Huge, fat, snow clouds began to roll in over the mountains, and shortly, flakes of snow began to fall. “What weather!” Adam commented. “Indian summer yesterday, and winter today!” Ben cast Adam a glance that was loaded with worry, and Adam wished he’d kept his mouth shut.

A whinney sounded from a stand of trees just off the road, and all three Cartwrights drew rein. Chubb neighed back. “Could be Cochise,” Hoss offered, already urging his horse towards the call.

Indeed it was Cochise. The pinto was standing close by Joe, who lay unconscious on the ground. Ben spurred Buck forward, alarm flaring through his gut. He leapt from his horse to kneel by his prostrate son. “Joe!” he said, urgently. “Joe! Can you hear me?”

There was no answer. Joe was cold to the touch, and it appeared that he’d ridden into a low-hanging branch of the tree. There was a line of dried blood along his hairline. Ben started to unbutton his thick coat, but Adam beat him to it. “Here, Pa, take my bedroll.”

“Thanks, Adam,” Ben replied, and wrapped Joe in the blanket. “Adam, go and get the doctor. Hoss, help me get Joe back to the house.”

They needed no further bidding. Adam mounted Sport, and galloped off. Hoss gently lifted his brother, and handed him to Ben, who was mounted on Buck. Hoss took Cochise’s reins and led the pinto. “Dadburnit, pa, that’s queer,” Hoss said. “Joe was hangin’ onto them reins somethin’ fierce. How’d he do that when he rid into a tree?”

“I have no idea,” Ben replied, most of his attention fixed on his youngest son, who was in trouble once again.

*****

The warmth of Adam’s bedroll, and Ben’s body heat helped to revive Joe on the ride home. He had briefly opened his eyes, sighed, and closed them again. Ben had been unable to get him to respond again. Paul examined Joe thoroughly, and finally got the youth to waken. Joe was dazed, and Paul diagnosed concussion and slight exposure. “ Given how cold it was last night, and how long Joe must have lain there, I’d say he was pretty lucky! Just let him sleep, Ben,” Paul advised. “That’s what he needs.”

Sitting by Joe’s bed, Ben watched his son sleep. After a time, his disturbed night caught up with him, and he slept, too. Joe’s tired voice woke him. “Pa?”

“Its all right, Joe,” he said, shaking off the sleep. “You’re home, son.”

“Pa, I had the weirdest experience last night, coming home.” Joe’s eyes, always the mirror for his soul, were glowing with an inner light. “Pa, please get Adam and Hoss. I need to tell them, too. Please?”

Reluctantly acquiescing, Ben summoned his other sons. While they were coming up stairs, Ben helped Joe sit up, and gave him a drink of water. When they were all gathered, Joe gave them a smile. “Last night, when I was coming home, I met an Irishman called Seamus Finnigan. He told me he lived near everywhere, and that he was the guide. He was drunk. I sat with him a while, and I had a drink with him. Then I fell asleep.”

Fixing his gaze on Adam, Joe gave him a special smile. “When I woke up, your mother was there, Adam.”

At his brother’s horrified in-take of breath, Joe rushed on. “No, listen, please! I’m not crazy! She came from heaven and spoke to me. She said I was to tell you how proud she is of you. How much she loves you. Adam, your mother is beautiful. She looks just like she does in Pa’s photograph.”

Sensing the disbelief surrounding him, Joe elected to carry on talking, to try and make his family understand. “Hoss, I saw your mother, too. She said she loved you, and is proud of you. Inger sent a message to you, too, Adam. She said that she is proud of you, as well, and loves you. Then Mama came, and she said the same things. She talked about how you tried not to love her, Adam. Mama said she loved both you and Hoss as if you were here own.”

Tears were pouring down Joe’s face, as he struggled to make his family believe him. “Then I saw Clay and Katherine. Katherine said they were in heaven. Clay said he was with Mama and his father now.” Looking at the faces surrounding him, Joe saw that they still didn’t believe him. “Its true!” he insisted, angrily. “I don’t tell lies! I don’t!”

“Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben said, taking his distraught son into his arms. “Joe, these people are all dead. How can you have talked to them?”

Joe’s reply was muffled against his father’s chest. “What?” Ben asked.

“It was samhain,” Joe sobbed. “When the boundaries between the worlds blur. Mama said so.”

Frowning, Ben opened his mouth to speak, but Adam forestalled him. “Pa, Joe may have something there.”

“What?” Ben repeated, wondering if this madness was contagious.

“I dreamed of my mother last night,” Adam admitted. “She said I was scared to show my love, because I’d lost her, and Inger and Marie.”

“She said that to me, too,” Joe insisted. “She said she wished she’d been strong enough to live.”

“Yes,” Adam whispered. “Mother said those exact words to me.” Joe smiled at him.

“Er,” Hoss cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I kinda had a dream like that last night, too,” he mumbled. “I saw my mama standing by the door in my room, and she was smiling at me. I didn’t hear her speak, but I knew she was proud o’ me. I ain’t never seen her in a dream afore.”

“Pa,” Joe said, twisting to look at his father’s face. ” Mama and Elizabeth and Inger all told me to tell you they loved you. Inger said she was glad you’d found happiness after she died. So did Elizabeth. And Mama said she loved you still.”

There were tears in Ben’s eyes. Joe looked at his shaken brothers, wondering if they all thought he was crazy. “I dreamed of them,” Ben whispered. “I woke up, downstairs, and thought I saw them standing by the fire.”

There was silence for a few moments, all of them thinking about what Joe had said. Joe himself, after the first euphoria of telling his story, was beginning to feel unwell again. He sagged back into his father’s loving embrace. There was one last thing he had to say. “Mama said that an experience like mine comes only once in a lifetime, and I was privileged to have it. I know I was. Pa, it was incredible! All that love, from all those people.” A yawn shook him.

“You rest, Joe,” Ben said, and pulled the covers up. Joe closed his eyes, and was asleep within moments. Silently, Ben, Adam and Hoss left the room.

Once more gathered by the fire, the Cartwrights exchanged glances. “Do you really think Joe saw all them folks?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, reluctantly. “We know he had a bad knock on the head. And as for the Irishman Joe says he met –well I never heard of him. A guide, Joe said. A guide for what?”

Lifting his head, Adam rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “ Or for whom? You know, Pa,” he said, slowly, “I can’t help thinking about what Shakespeare said. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in our philosophy.’”

There was a long silence then, as they each thought about the messages they had received. It was Hoss who finally spoke. “I don’t reckon it matters if’n Joe really saw them folks or not,” he said. “The most important thing is we got them messages they wanted to send us, through Joe and through our dreams. Love never dies, does it? And the bible says that with God, all things are possible. I reckon Joe had his own little miracle, Pa. Them folks protected Joe with their love, or he would’ve died out there. And I believe him!”

Wonderingly, Ben looked at his middle son. Hoss was so big, and so good-natured that people often thought him slow. But Hoss had as many gifts and talents as his more obviously favoured brothers. And one of his talents was wisdom far beyond his years. Ben knew how blessed he was, and for an instant, felt the presence of his wives. He smiled.

“I believe him, too, son.”

*****End*****

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