Under a blanket of dark clouds, heavy with the threat of rain, two riders pushed doggedly toward home. The wind howled around them as they hunched in their saddles, trying vainly to escape its chilling touch. The younger of the two swore sharply as a swirling gust snatched his unsecured hat right off his head. Just managing to catch it with the tips of his fingers, he jammed it down hard over his wildly whipping brown curls. "I can't wait to get done with this weather," he griped. "Whatever happened to that spell of Indian summer Hoss swore we were gonna have? So far the whole month has been nothing but cold, miserable rain."
Squinting up at the fast-moving clouds, the other man nodded. "It won't be long now before it starts. Feel that tingling in the air? I expect we'll have lightning before the night's out. More than likely within the hour." As if in answer a low rumbling came from off in the distance.
"I know. It's gonna be even money to see which comes first. Guess you were right, Pa. We should've stayed an extra day in Placerville. If I hadn't been in such a rush to get home before Saturday night, we would've been a lot better off."
"It's too late to worry about it now, Joseph. Besides, I was just as anxious to get home as you were, even without the extra incentive of trying to steal a kiss from Tilly Kennedy at that dance."
Joe chuckled at the knowing raise of his father's eyebrow. The gesture reminded him that Ben Cartwright had been a hot-blooded young man once himself. "Actually, I'm not going with Tilly anymore, Pa. She's seeing that new clerk over at the bank now, and I haven't had the chance to ask anybody else. I was just planning to go stag this time around." A huge drop of cold rain plopped right into Joe's eye, distracting him. Knuckling it away, he grimaced at the sky as more drops began to fall. "Maybe we shouldn't have mentioned rain. Here it comes again."
"Better put on your slicker, son," Ben advised. "We're likely to be riding wet a long while before we find anyplace to wait the storm out."
Halting his horse, Joe rummaged through his belongings and fished out the greased leather slicker and a scarf to tie his hat down as the thieving wind made another try for it. His father had long since secured his own weather protection, but was kind enough not to say 'I told you so' as he watched Joe struggle against the wind and increasingly heavy rain trying to get his in place. As soon as Joe was ready they moved out, riding as hard as they dared in the increasingly heavy downpour. Finally they were forced to slow down to little more than a walk to preserve the horses as the ground grew increasingly soft, and full dark closed in around them.
Icy trickles of water persistently snuck past the protection of the slickers to run down their necks. Pant legs, boots, gloves and scarved hats were soon drenched as well, and both men were shivering by the time Ben finally pulled to a halt, cupping his hand around his mouth to be heard over the wind, "Joe, hold up a minute! Am I seeing things or is that a house over there?"
A grin lit Joe's face as he followed his father's pointing hand toward two large dark shadows not more than a quarter mile's distance away. He opened his mouth to speak, only to have the words lost in a booming crash of thunder, which accompanied the spectacular presence of a huge multi-fingered bolt of lightning. Cochise and Buck pranced nervously in place at the racket, but were well trained enough to stay put when they felt the tightening reins and soothing stroke of gloved hands on their necks. "Easy, boy," Joe crooned. Had he been at home, Joe knew he would have been glued to a window enjoying the display, but being out in the open right underneath it was something else and he sympathized with Cochise's displeasure. "We need to get under cover fast," he yelled, again pointing toward the shadowed structures. "Any idea who might be living around here?"
As the rumble began to fade Ben answered, "No idea, but whoever it is, I hope they're prepared to have visitors tonight."
As they approached the shapes, which they were now close enough to see were a small cabin and barn, the wind abruptly changed direction, blowing straight into their faces so hard it was all they could do to keep moving forward. Repeated crashes of thunder and lightning and the frightened whinnying of the horses made conversation impossible and both men were panting by the time they reached the first building, a half collapsed heap of splintered logs.
"So much for the barn!" Joe shouted. Shadowing his eyes against the driving rain, he gestured toward the cabin. "House looks okay from what I can see, but if this is anything to go by it's probably deserted."
Ben called back, "Well, at least there's nobody to object to our bringing the horses in to spend the night. There's no way we can leave them outside in this!"
Having been just about to suggest the same thing himself, Joe quickly agreed. "We better see what kind of condition the place is in before this weather gets any worse. I've got a funny feeling the storm has just been clearing its throat up to now."
Dismounting, Joe strode quickly toward the door hanging crookedly from a single hinge, grunting as he lifted and pushed it aside. He nearly fell as he stumbled over something in the dark entryway. "Damn," he grunted. Mentally chided himself for his lack of foresight, he went back out and shouted. "I can't see a thing in there! Hand me a lantern, will you?" Ben had brought the horses as close to the cabin as possible, using the heavy logs as a windbreak. Waving a hand to indicate that he had heard, he pulled free one of the two small lanterns they had been carrying tied to their saddles, and a small covered packet of matches, which he handed to his son.
Now that he had some light, Joe could see that there were remnants of broken furniture and several moldy, moth-eaten blankets strewn all over the floor. The mud-plaster in the walls had rotted away here and there, allowing the wind to whistle coldly through and rainwater trickled down through the ceiling in at least two places. The interior of the cabin was nearly as damp and cold as the outside but it seemed solid enough, and with a little work, it would be do for the night. Sticking his head back outside he said, "It's not much, but at least we'll have some shelter for the night. Come on in, but watch your step!”
There was no need to ask what Joe meant as Ben got his first good look inside the place. "What a mess! Looks like a hurricane blew through here."
Lighting the second lantern and a couple of tallow candles he pulled from his saddlebags, Joe spaced them about the room. Each additional light seemed to further emphasize the disordered state of the room. "I haven't seen anything like this since I the last time I called on Jenny Perkins," he decided, shaking his head in disgust. "Those little twin brothers of hers were throwing a tantrum that looked a lot like this."
Ben laughed. Though he had never openly admitted the cause, Joe's family had all noticed that his avid interest in courting pretty Jenny Perkins had ended abruptly after spending an entire afternoon helping her baby-sit her two little hell-raiser brothers. "We'd better get this cleaned up so we can settle in," he reminded, smiling as he began kicking aside pieces of debris, aiming them toward an empty corner. "The animals need to be taken care of before they catch a chill."
"No argument here. The sooner we get them taken care of, the sooner we can warm up. I don't know about you, but I'm freezing." Adding another pile of trash to the corner, which cleared a large space next to the empty back wall, he nodded to himself in satisfaction. "I think that ought to do it. The horses will be fine over here once we get 'em covered up and fed. Won't be too fresh in here come morning, but if you and I bed down next to the fireplace I think we can all sleep without anybody getting trampled."
Another deafening crash sounded overhead, making them both jump. Ben shook his head, handing the reins in his hand over to Joe to unsaddle and care for the horses. "Glad to hear it. We're lucky enough to not be fighting for floor-space with any wild animals. I'd just as soon not spend the night avoiding being stepped on by Buck as an alternative."
A strange expression crossed Joe's face. He unfolded one of the ragged blanket scraps he had grabbed to use in wiping down his horses. "Funny that you should mention that." At his father’s questioning look, he gestured around. "When I saw all this broken stuff, my first thought was that animals had done it, but now I'm not so sure."
Catching his meaning, Ben looked around and concluded, "There's no sign of animals having been living here at all, is there?"
"No, and that door was open far enough that a lot of them could have gotten in and out," Joe continued. "I'm not saying they never came in but there's sure no sign that they stayed long. No nests, no droppings, no territory markings; nothing. You s'pose there's something about this place they don't like?"
Ben caught his son nibbling the edge of his lip and shooting a thoughtful glance at the door, obviously wondering if they should rethink their decision to spend the night. "I'm sure there's a logical explanation, son," he told him. "You said yourself earlier that there's been a lot of rain this month. We probably aren't the first to hole up in here. Maybe whoever it was didn't stay the night, but just long enough to dry off and leave a trace of human-scent behind."
With a laugh at his own nervousness, Joe shook off his fit of jitters. "You're right. I'm sure it's got to be something like that. Guess I was letting all this, uh, atmosphere, get to me for a minute."
"Right. Now, lets see about getting this place cleaned up a mite."
Over the next half-hour, the two Cartwrights distributed their belongings and cleared back the rest of the clutter. A rusty old coffeepot, a bucket and a battered wooden bowl were soon put to use catching rainwater. The blankets that had decorated the floor were used both to sop up the puddles left by the leaky roof, and as stuffing for the many drafty chinks in the walls. The door still hung somewhat crookedly, but together they had managed to brace it, stuffing more rags into the gaps to keep out the cold.
After checking to make sure nothing blocked the chimney, Ben managed to start a small blaze in the hearth of the cabin's small stone fireplace. As he tossed in a few extra sticks of wood from a broken chair, he joked, "Well, one good thing about this mess. There's no shortage of kindling."
Joe gestured toward the table. "No lack of water either. That bucket you put out is darned near full already. I think next time the wind dies down, I'd better go see if I can cover those holes up or we're liable to float away before morning comes."
"I'm not so sure that's a good idea, son," Ben told him, grimacing as another blast of wind slammed into the cabin wall next to him. "You don't know how strong that roof is, not to mention the possibility of getting blown right off it or struck by a stray lightning bolt."
Rolling his eyes covertly at his father's overprotective attitude, Joe peeked through the slats of two boards nailed over the cabin's only window. "I haven't heard any thunder for quite awhile. Storm seems to be letting up for the moment. This might be my only chance to cover those holes before it starts again. Don't worry, Pa. I promise I'll be careful."
"And just what do you propose to use to fix the roof with?" Ben demanded, still not entirely happy with his son's plan.
"My slicker," he replied promptly. "It's good strong leather and if I lash it down to the roof poles good and tight it should do fine. If you'll let me borrow yours too, I can probably cover all the bad spots."
Ben protested, "You'll be soaked clean through in seconds without that slicker."
Smiling sardonically, Joe plucked at the still-wet material clinging to his thighs. "I'm halfway there anyway, and I'd just as soon get it done before I change into my spare clothes. No point in getting everything wet. Besides, the only alternative is for you to go out there and fix it while stay inside and fix supper."
Joe's poor cooking was a thing of legend within the family and Ben smiled, forcing himself to relax a bit. "Now, now, there's no need for threats. Much as I hate to admit it, you're probably right." Turning, he rummaged through his belongings in search of food and coffee, trying to hide the worry he felt behind a casual tone as he asked, "Sure you don't want me to come out and hold a lantern? It's black as pitch out there."
"I don't think it would much good. Lantern would probably stay lit about two seconds in this wind. Besides, I'm sure I'll be able to see well enough to lash a few ropes into place. I'll test anyplace I need to lean on before giving it my full weight and with any luck, I'll have the roof patched and be back in here before you even have time to notice I'm gone."
Ben gave his optimistic son a pointed glare. "Just be careful. I mean it."
Coming closer, Joe patted his father's shoulder. "I will." He pulled his discarded green jacket on and tied his hat securely in place, opening the door carefully as he peered out, trying to gauge the strength of the storm. The rain was still falling heavily but the wind was no longer battering at the walls. Nodding once to himself, he grabbed everything he thought he might need, took a deep breath to brace himself, then slid out the rest of the way.
"Be back before you notice I'm gone,' he says," Ben grumbled. The sounds from overhead were enough to tell him that his son had made it up safely and was hard at work, but it seemed as if he had been up there for ages. Ben had made abortive motions toward the door several times, but had held himself back each time. There was nothing he could do to help and he didn't want to distract Joe into a careless move by trying to hurry him along. So, instead he laid out the bedrolls and his son's spare clothing to warm and set about fixing supper.
One leak had stopped completely and the second was reduced to mere dripping by the time the coffee was ready. More sounds from above told Ben that Joe was on his way back down and he moved to the door with a sigh of relief.
Suddenly, there came a startled yelp, followed by a thud and the scrape of a body sliding downward. Before Ben could do more than yank open the lopsided door, Joe came hurtling over the side of the roof to land on the muddy ground at his feet. "Joseph!" he cried, rushing forward. "Are you all right?"
Joe staved off his father's frantic search for broken bones by laying a hand on his arm. "Fine. I think," he wheezed. "Just knocked – the wind – outta me."
"Can you stand?"
Coughing a little, the younger man nodded and took a grip on his father's shoulder. Sliding a supporting arm under his back, Ben carefully pulled. He was relieved to see Joe rise with no apparent difficulty, and though moving a bit shakily, he was not favoring any particular area.
There was a splintery, mostly intact bunk built into one wall of the cabin and Joe gratefully sat down on it, letting his father take care of closing and re-insulating the door. By the time Ben had finished, Joe was able to take deep breaths again and a quick self-inventory revealed nothing worse than a few scrapes and bruises. "That was a close one," he said cheerfully. "Good thing the ground is so soft or I might’ve been really sorry."
His good humor abruptly faded as his father turned slowly to face him, unmistakable anger burning in his dark eyes. "Just what did you think you were doing?" he grated. "Didn't I specifically order you to be careful up there? One simple request, but of course you have to hurry through the job and look what happens! I don't even know why I bothered warning you at all! Of all the clumsy, heedless-"
"Pa!" Joe interrupted, eyes wide with surprise at the tirade. "It wasn't like that at all. The wind came up real suddenly just as I was starting back down. I slipped on one of the wet logs and lost my balance. It was an accident!"
For a few seconds, Ben looked even more outraged, then abruptly his dark mood faded. "I - I know that, son. I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me just now. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm just fine, Pa," he soothed, feeling bad as he realized how worried his father must have been. "Sorry I scared you. I don’t know what happened. Everything was going great; the wind had died down and I got the slickers secured without much trouble, but then I started to get down and this big gust of wind came up out of nowhere. Pushed me right off the roof like I didn't weigh any more than a leaf! I'm just lucky the ground was so muddy, or I'd probably be in a lot worse shape right now."
"Yes, I suppose," Ben responded vaguely, brushing a hand across his forehead as he turned to look around the room. "Does it seem awfully hot in here to you?"
Joe frowned. "It does, now that you mention it. I thought it just the contrast to outside, but it's like an oven in here." A quick glance at the fireplace revealed that the blaze on the hearth was not much higher than it had been when he left; just built up enough to heat the small iron cook-pot suspended above the flames. The candles he had lit earlier were still burning brightly, their added light helping to dispel the gloomy atmosphere of the room, but surely the presence of those tiny flames couldn't be enough to account for such heat. The animals? He shook his head, voicing the rest of his speculations out loud. "The horses might be providing a little extra warmth, but not this much! Especially since the door was just standing open."
Almost before he could finish the thought, the room began noticeably cooling. In seconds the air was again frigid and clammy. "What in blazes is going on here?" Ben muttered.
"I don't know, but I'm starting to get a funny feeling that all those animals had the right idea about avoiding this place," Joe replied nervously. "Look at Cooch and Buck."
The two horses were shifting in place, leaning close to each other as they pulled uselessly against the ropes holding their bridles securely to an iron bolt, inserted for who knew what purpose, in the wall. Their ears twitched and moved constantly, clearly showing their upset.
"They sense something," Ben noted, watching nostrils flare and breathing quicken as the animals tried to catch a scent. He moved to them, hands openly displayed, his deep voice low and soothing. Both horses seemed to respond to the familiar voice, butting against him with their noses as though urging him to untie them and go. He suspected that the latter suggestion was more from his own subconscious mind as a loud clap of thunder quickly put a damper on any notion of leaving. The rain had picked up again, clearly audible even through the thick log walls and the sounds immediately undid what little soothing Ben had managed to give the horses. With a patient sigh, he started all over again.
"It's almost like the storm doesn't want us to leave," Joe mumbled, wrapping both arms around himself and chafing his arms as the cabin seemed to grow even colder.
"Doesn't want to?" Ben repeated, raising an eyebrow at the comment. "You make it sound as if the storm were alive. It's just weather. No doubt we missed someplace when we were securing the walls against that wind and that's why it's so cold in here. The horses are just nervous because of all the noise."
It was on the tip of Joe's tongue to challenge his father's attempt at reason, to point out that he had given no explanation for the momentary heat wave they had experienced, but then he decided to let it go. They were stuck here until morning, and if his father wanted to pretend everything was fine in an attempt to make that stay more bearable, Joe was willing to humor him. Hoping that some normal activity might shake loose the feeling that there were eyes boring into the back of his neck, he offered, "Smells like something's burning a little. I'd better stir whatever you've got cooking over here."
"I'll do it," Ben said quickly. The horses were about as calm as any of them were likely to get this night, and he too welcomed the idea of distracting himself with mundane matters. "You get yourself out of those wet clothes before you catch pneumonia."
With a shrug, Joe picked up his spare clothing from its place by the fire and began to peel off his shirt, cold fingers fumbling repeatedly with the buttons. Grunting at the effort it took, he pried his wet boots off, swiftly exchanging soaking wet pants and socks for dry ones, then after a moment's hesitation, pulled the boots back on. Maybe it was a little silly but he felt less vulnerable fully dressed. Moving closer to the fire, Joe set his wet things around it then leaned over to check the pot his father was stirring and quipped, "Say, that almost smells fit to eat!"
The spoon was yanked from the pot with a clang and thrown violently down on the hearth, surprising Joe, who had expected a return of playful sarcasm. That was the usual response to a joke he and his father had been trading since the very first time they had gone on a hunting trip together.
"First you're moaning about the cold and now it's the food!" Ben shouted. "You'll eat what I fix and like it, boy, because if you don't, I won't hesitate one second to toss your sorry carcass out into the rain and let you go hungry!"
Before Joe could do more than stammer out the beginning of an apology, Ben had spun around and shot a hand out to capture his left wrist in a grip so tight that he involuntarily gasped. The look of anger his father had worn earlier was back; far more pronounced this time. The light from the flames glinted strangely in his dark eyes, and Joe had the sickening impression that he was looking into the face of a stranger. He tried to pull away, but Ben tightened his grip even more, squeezing ruthlessly. "Pa," he gasped, falling to one knee with the pain as he felt the bones creak from the pressure being exerted on them. "Pa, please, stop!"
"You, worthless, ungrateful whelp! Maybe I ought to just let you starve. It's no more than you deserve, and I'd have one less smart mouth to feed."
There was a glassy look in Ben's eyes and a slurred quality to his words. Joe had not seen his father take a drink of whiskey since they had toasted a new timber-sale deal two days before, but suddenly he was aware of a strong alcohol scent on the air. Sweat broke out all over his body as he also realized that the room was once again growing stiflingly hot. Trying to sound calm, he said, "Pa, let go. You're hurting me."
Ben snarled. "You think this is pain? This is nothing! You're nothing! A sniveling little weakling, with no guts. Gotta have me do everything for you. You think it's been easy raising a kid all alone? Especially a worthless, lazy brat that probably ain't even my own get! You never been satisfied with anything I done for you. Always complaining; never giving anything back for what I give you. You think you're gonna run out on me too, is that it? Think you're gonna take your chance, grab whatever you can get your thievin' hands on and take off just like your worthless whore of a mother did?"
"Pa, stop it!" Seeing no sense or recognition in those dark eyes, Joe knew he had no choice. Hating himself for what he was about to do, he pulled his free arm back and struck his father in the jaw as hard as he could.
Ben fell back, his unsteady motion again making him appear very drunk. The sudden release of his arm sent Joe sprawling, and he crab-crawled back until he was stopped by the edge of the bunk. Wild as the notion seemed, there was no question in his mind that it had not been Ben Cartwright attacking him and shouting those terrible words just now. His father had never laid a cruel hand on him in his life, and even if he were to inexplicably start now, Joe believed to the core of his soul that Ben would never say such things about any of his late wives.
Surprising himself with the instinct, Joe looked toward the ceiling and shouted. "Let him be! Whatever you are, leave my father alone!"
In response, the cheap whiskey odor became even stronger and the heat still more intense. The horses screamed in alarm, fighting against their restraints as a feeling of intense rage crackled through the air. Joe hissed through his teeth as his aching wrist began to throb, needles of fire lancing through it. The raw scrapes on his back likewise began to smart as sweat trickled into them. The heat and pain were so overwhelming he could barely breathe and he dragged his still-unbuttoned shirt off, unable to stand its touch. Suddenly, he shivered hard as a blast of icy air cut through the heat swirling around his body.
The frigidity was even more painful than the heat had been, seeming to fill Joe's very veins with ice, and centering even more intensely on any area that sported a scrape or bruise. A strange fog filled his brain, leaving him nothing except blind emotion. He felt fear, rage, and a level of hatred that matched, if not surpassed, what he had seen in his father's eyes.
"You did this to me," he howled, holding his injured arm up for his father to see. "Just like before. Just like every damn time before! And I'll bet you're thinking to do worse, ain't you? You think I'm just gonna beg and plead and let you do it to me again? Well, I ain't, you hear me? Never again!"
Having regained his feet, his father laughed a cruel ugly laugh. "So, you do have a little bit of guts after all. You think you can take me, boy? You think you're man enough?"
The ice in his veins turned to quicksilver, thrusting him forward with an animalistic howl of rage. The fist he aimed at his father's smirking mouth flew wide of the mark, just as if he had never thrown a punch in his life and didn't know how. His father caught him easily by his injured wrist and twisted it up behind his back, laughing again as he yelped at the pain. Abruptly, he was thrust away to sprawl clumsily on the floor. He flipped quickly onto his back, the bravado he had felt a moment before draining away in a rush of pure gut-clenching fear as he watched his father stagger towards him, a glitter of malicious pleasure in his bloodshot eyes as he pulled his belt free and doubled it up.
The whiskey scent was overwhelming and was now accompanied by the sickly metallic sweetness of blood.
Wanting to run away or fight back, the terrified young man did neither; simply staring with the fascination of a snake-charmed rodent as the belt was snapped through the air near his face. His bare flesh crawled with anticipation and he let go an involuntary whimper, shrinking away and dragging himself backward, hands pulling his frozen body a few inches at time, the pain in his wrist forgotten in the expectancy of greater pain.
Just as he had reached the wall and could go no further, his groping fingers fell upon a stout round piece of wood. Risking a quick glance away from his advancing sire, he felt hope flare in his chest. His last beating had come as a result of his carelessness in allowing the ax he used to chop wood every morning to fall into disrepair. Could it be that the same broken wooden handle would now become his salvation? Abruptly the fear left him; a surge of pure vengeful triumph taking its place. He scrambled to his feet, swinging the handle with all of his strength just as his father struck out with the belt. The two weapons hit each other and the older man cried out in shock and pain as the belt was ripped from his hand, the buckle scoring a deep gouge in his palm.
"No!" he cried, fear leaping into his eyes as his son desperately swung again, catching him in the side and knocking him to the ground.
"Yes! How does it feel, you bastard? How do you like being the one who's afraid for a change?"
Without waiting for a reply, he pulled back and struck his father again, the wood catching him in the back this time. At his grunt of pain, the blood-smell in the air became even more pronounced. A scream sounded loudly, and at first the young man thought it had come from his father, but then it sounded again and he realized it was a horse he had heard. Horses, inside the cabin? Confused, he brandished the handle threateningly at his father. "You're trying to confuse me," he growled. "Trying to distract me so you can hurt me again. Well it's not gonna be that way. You've whomped on me for the last time!"
He pulled back to deliver another blow, knowing that this time he would not stop swinging until the last breath of life was gone.
Gritting his teeth, Ben rolled instinctively away as he saw the object come sweeping toward his head. When it struck the floor instead of his flesh, a bellow of frustrated rage came from the one wielding it. Ben was not sure what was going on. He'd been stirring the beans over the fire when he had suddenly grown so hot that he'd blacked out, only to be awakened by pain as multiple blows had come raining down upon his body. What had truly horrified him, though, was realizing that it was Joe who held the weapon, a busted chair leg by the look of it. There was a terrible, rabid-animal fury in his eyes; the pupils dilated so far that the green irises were nearly invisible. He looked almost inhuman, his color dead white but for two blazing spots of color on his cheeks, and the livid red and black of fresh bruises. Joe's breath was sobbing out in great frozen puffs with each constriction of his lungs, his lips peeled back so tightly over his clenched teeth that the lower one split, sending a shockingly bright rivulet of blood running down his chin. Ben felt his stomach flip at the sight.
"Son, don't!" he cried, forcing himself to his feet narrowly in time to avoid the blow as Joe snarled and swung at him again, staggering a bit with the force of it. Realizing that in his present state of mind, Joe might very well be the stronger of the two of them, Ben used the only advantage he had and leapt forward, ramming his shoulder into his son's body and slamming him back against the wall.
Joe grunted in pain but did not relinquish his hold on the weapon, struggling desperately to hang on to it as his father's fingers wrapped around it, trying to wrest it away from him. An expression of terror leapt into the young man's maddened eyes as he began to lose control of the situation and fought even harder, repeating over and over, begging almost, a single word. "No!"
"Stop this! You don't know what you're doing," Ben pleaded. "Please, Joseph, stop!"
It happened so fast that Ben didn't even time to react. One moment, Joe was fighting with all that was in him. The next, he was dropping to the floor like a marionette whose strings had been severed, his grip on the chair leg forgotten.
As his worried father knelt beside him, reaching out to touch his face, Joe's eyelids fluttered closed then blinked open again. "Pa, what happened? I heard you call me," he said tentatively. Then with a gasp, he sat up and stared hard into Ben's eyes, feeling weak with relief when he saw nothing but deep concern in them. "Pa, are you okay? Is it gone?"
Ben was likewise relieved to see the return of sanity in his son's gaze. That last worried question told him all he needed to know about his own short blackout period. "It's gone," he told him.
A crash made them both nearly jump out of their skins, and Ben realized that he might have spoken too soon. Buck and Cochise were going mad with fright, their ear-piercing squeals making it impossible to believe that neither human had heard them before this moment. They were struggling hard against the ropes securing them to the wall and the ring bolt had nearly been ripped free.
The feeling of malevolence still hung in the air, nearly choking the two men with its sensation. It was no longer part of either of them, but they were nonetheless trapped by it. The very walls seemed to bulge outward, as if there was not enough room in their narrow confines to hold the expansion of the hatred boiling through the room. The cups and plates Ben had set out earlier, intending to have supper, began to rattle and dance in place and the candles and lanterns Joe had set out leapt from their places, crashing to the floor below. One of the lanterns broke; sending flames dancing outward along the trail of kerosene it spilled. With a shout, Ben leapt forward, stamping out the flames before they could spread. "We've got to get out of here," he said urgently. "Quickly, grab whatever you can get your hands and let's go, before-"
He cut himself off, and Joe swallowed hard, mentally filling in the blank. Before it's too late. Before we're both killed. Before one of us gets taken over again. It had taken no more than a few seconds for him to realize that the same thing had happened to him that had happened to his father. Joe had no wish to give whatever had possessed him the opportunity to do it again. Though it hurt to move, he forced himself to get up, flinging his discarded shirt on, then his jacket and hat, not taking the time to fasten either garment as he ran over to the horses.
Astonishingly, considering their behavior of a moment ago, both animals stilled except for some nervous stamping and pawing of the floorboards, as the humans approached them. It was as though they understood the need for cooperation and were urging their owners to hurry up and saddle them.
"Get the door," Ben ordered, giving his cinch one final quick tug and freeing the horses from their rope harness. The animals surged forward the instant they were freed, clearly just as eager to leave these unnatural surroundings as the men were.
Joe yanked hard on the door, then pulled again, his eyes going wide when it did not budge. "It won't open!" he croaked. A loud whoosh sounded behind him, and he spun around, a shout tearing from his throat as he saw the flames from the fireplace leap to an impossible height, arms of fire reaching toward them. Frantically, Joe tried the door again. There was no earthly reason why the loosely hanging object should stay so tightly in place but it resisted every effort to move it. "They're trying to keep us in!"
An idea struck Ben. "Stand back," he shouted. As soon as his son was away from the door he slapped Buck hard on the rump, praying that the animal would do what he was mentally urging him to. Sure enough, the big buckskin leapt forward, rearing on his hind legs and striking at the stubborn door with iron-shod front hooves. The half-rotted wooden boards splintered under the powerful onslaught, and the door flew outward as the last remaining hinge snapped off. The Cartwrights ran, swinging into their saddles the second the horses had squeezed past the threshold.
The rain continued to fall in a steady downpour. Joe hunched in the saddle, clutching his open shirt and jacket together with one hand and wishing that he had not been so quick to cover those holes in the cabin roof with his slicker. Part of him wanted to turn back and look behind him, while another part urged him to simply ride, letting the horses run all the way home if they so desired. Finally, he could stand it no longer and pulled up, noticing that his father was doing the same. The cabin was alive with red and yellow flame, seeming to be completely unaffected by the rain sluicing down upon it. The two men silently watched it burn, each pretending to himself that the faint sounds of shouting and screaming they could make out were nothing but the whistling wind.
"Let's go, son," Ben said at last, his voice shaking slightly.
"Where?" he replied faintly.
After a moment's silence, Ben decided, "Home. We'll go slow to be safe, but I want to ride just as far as the horses are willing to take us tonight."
Joe had been dreading that his father might suggest finding another place to wait out the rain, and he let go a breath he had not realized he was holding. "Fine by me."
a single glance back at the burning cabin, Ben and Joe Cartwright turned
It was first time they had been back this way in over a month. Neither had been able to bring themselves to talk much about the strange night they had spent in the spirit-filled cabin in the woods. In the light of day it had all seemed so impossible, certainly not something that their family or friends would have believed, and in the dark of night it had seemed more like a fragmented dream. It was only the fact that they had shared that particular nightmare that allowed Ben and Joe to believe it had really happened, but beyond filling each other in on the details of their respective blackouts, they'd had no desire to speak of the event again. Until now. When business matters had necessitated that Ben make one last trip to Placerville before winter set in; he had not needed to ask whether Joe would be accompanying him. One look across the dinner table at Joe as he announced his plans and they had both known that he would.
"I had to see it to know for sure," Joe said finally after a long period of silence, in which they had simply sat, staring at the burnt out remains of a stone chimney. The logs themselves had burned down to nothing but ashes in the intense heat of the flames, and the driving rain had destroyed even that. "I kept telling myself that either it would still be standing there, untouched, or it wouldn't be here at all."
Shaking his head ruefully, Ben admitted, "I almost wish it had been one of those things. Maybe then I could have gone on telling myself we had let our imaginations get the better of us." Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out a folded piece of paper and silently handed it to Joe.
"When we got off the stage yesterday, I went to the newspaper office and did a little reading", Ben told him. "I thought you might be interested."
Strangely reluctant, Joe stared at it for a moment before slowly unfolding the scrap of newsprint and reading the headline out loud. "Murder - Suicide claims Father and Son". Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Joe glanced at his father, then read on. "In one of the most bizarre incidents the town of Placerville and its nearby inhabitants has yet experienced, the bodies of Zachary Gaines - 40, and his son Gideon Gaines- 17, were found dead on their property Tuesday, October 5th. The senior Gaines was found bludgeoned to death inside his homestead cabin, a broken ax-handle lying next to his body which is believed to be the murder weapon. Sheriff George Buckley discovered the second body a short time after the first at the bottom of the family's well. Buckley speculates that young Gideon, having murdered his father, was attempting to flee the scene of the crime when he got turned around in Tuesday's fierce rainstorm and tripped, falling to his death. Others believe that the young man became so overcome with remorse for his violent actions, that he committed suicide. Both bodies were buried on the Gaines property today. No mourners were present."
"There was nothing more to the article, I looked through the newspaper archives for that entire year," Ben said, filling the shocked silence his son had fallen into after reading the last word. "They just shrugged it off and went about their lives as if those two had never existed."
"And Zachary and Gideon just, stayed here? Hating each other just as much as they had when they were alive?" Joe asked, his voice cracking slightly on the last word.
Ben nodded. "I suppose so. How, I don't know."
Joe stared at the ruins of the cabin for a long moment. "Do you suppose it's over now? Are they gone now that the cabin is destroyed?"
After a long pause, Ben said, "I wish I knew. Come on, son. We'd best be getting back. We've got a stage to catch in the morning."
Turning his horse to follow, Joe paused. He thought he heard the faint sound of someone laughing, and a shiver ran down his spine. Kicking his rented horse into a gallop, he allowed the newspaper clipping to fall from his fingers and float away on the breeze. If Ben noticed anything, he didn't say so, but he too urged his horse to greater speed. This time, neither man looked back.
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