Summary: Each of Ben Cartwright’s sons had a meeting with Old Daniel. Only Hoss realized the danger they faced when they did. This is my submission for the October Halloween Challenge.
rating T word count 3126
Daniel Cooper understood anger. He had lived his life as an angry man. Anger had come in childhood and never departed. He had grown to respect its power above all else. Ole Daniel had met each of Ben Cartwright’s sons in turn though only one had learned Daniel’s secret. Hoss had kept what he learned to himself. Adam would have dismissed what Hoss learned out of hand, reasoned it away with confidence and distain. Little Joe would have laughed and then been haunted in his nightmares. Hoss decided folks were right when they declared “ignorance is bliss” at least in cases like this, and therefore kept his own council. He never forgot though and kept a subtle watch. When Ben Cartwright acquired a fourth son, a son in whom a deep anger simmered, Hoss focused his vigilance. Ole Danial was attracted to anger, and Jamie was far more vulnerable to the danger Ole Daniel represented then Ben’s other sons. Hoss knew warnings would accomplish little, so he offered none. Watching the boy every hour of every night was impossible, but he would know if and when the meeting had happened, and Hoss was prepared to prevent calamity. He was confident in his ability, perhaps too confident. Ole Daniel, after all, had a great deal plus the devil on his side.
Hoss was not sure what had set the boy off this time, but he knew that the anger simmering in Jamie was akin to that which had precipitated his and his brothers’ meetings with Ole Daniel. Hoss had been too young to understand Adam’s anger when Pa had returned from New Orleans with a new wife. His new mother laughed easily, gave hugs and kisses freely, and had a temper that was more bark than bite. More importantly she made Pa happy in a way that Hoss had never known. Still, from the beginning his older brother had been filled with anger. At first, it had spilled out in disrespectful words and defiant actions. When Pa had taken Adam in hand, elder brother’s anger had become more hidden but not any less powerful. Hoss’s childlike attempts to turn his brother’s heart from wrath had only resulted in Adam pushing him away for the first time in his life. The gulf between them had kept Hoss from reading his brother as intuitively as he always had before. He had heard most of Adam’s fight with Marie, but he had not gone to his brother. He had not known when Adam slipped into the night with the intention of never returning, but he had seen his brother sneaking back in the morning.
“Adam! Where you been? Pa and Mama are looking for ya.”
“Never mind where I’ve been. Uh, when did they start looking?”
“Why? Was ya gone all night? Ya was; weren’t ya?”
“Do they know?”
“They think ya went out early this morning, but they’s mad ya didn’t tell no one where ya was going. You know ya is supposed to. If Pa…”
“Never you mind about what Pa is never going find out. I just went out riding early and came back a little late.”
“Breakfast was most an hour ago.”
“So I’m late to breakfast. That’s all, and don’t you say any different.”
Hoss had held his tongue, and Adam had managed to avoid any punishment more severe than a scolding and extra chores. Hoss studied his brother throughout the day, and after everyone had settled into bed he had slipped through the dark and settled onto the bottom of Adam’s bed. Adam had not been asleep and was ready for his younger brother to resume the role of confident. For so many years, Hoss had been the only one available to fill that role, and Adam had convinced himself it did not burden Hoss for he was too young to understand or judge a great deal of what he heard.
“I was, well, I was thinking of running away. I’m not though, not now.”
“I’m not, so never mind that.”
“Well, I made camp, and I was thinking. Then I heard something, and a man came walking into my camp.”
“A man? Who?”
“Nobody you know. He was old, and he said his name was Daniel. He was a prospector maybe.”
“Did he have a mule?”
“No, what does a mule have to do with anything?”
“Most prospectors have a mule.”
“Well, he didn’t, not that I saw. Maybe he was a hunter or a trapper.”
“Didn’t ya ask?”
“I just didn’t! Anyway, he didn’t stay all that long, and he was asking most of the questions.”
“Was ya answering?”
“Yeah, I don’t know it just seemed when he asked me something I just told him even though, well, I told him some things I don’t think, well, that I wouldn’t have told most folks, anyone else really.”
“But ya told him?”
“Yea. I… I told him about fighting with Marie, and how, well, how I feel about her and, well, about Pa marrying her.”
“Ya told him you was mad?”
“I… yeah, I did.”
“And what did he tell you?”
“That I had a right to be. A real good right. He told me some about when his ma married after his pa died. He was a real mean man, and Daniel said he hated him. He said he should have done something to him, his stepfather, you know, but he said instead he let his stepfather run him off. He ran away when he was fourteen. He said he shouldn’t have run. He said… well, he said he should have done something to his stepfather instead.”
“Marie ain’t mean, Adam.”
“I…I know. At first I kind of, well, listened and thought maybe he, uh, sort of had a point, but the more Ole Daniel talked… Well, what he was saying just wasn’t like us at all, and what he was saying to do… He was wrong. When I told him I didn’t think I…, well, that I wasn’t going to run away or … or anything, he just kind of left.”
“Kind of left?”
“He left, and I came home. That’s all there is to it. I’m not going think about what he said ever again, not ever. Go on to bed now. I mean it, Hoss. There’s no need to worry; I’m never going to think about it again.”
Hoss did not know if Adam had thought of his encounter with Ole Daniel ever again, but he did know that neither of them had ever spoken of it to the other. Hoss had formed no opinions at the time about the old man who had encouraged Adam to do wrong, and his knowledge of the encounter had cast no shadow on Hoss Cartwright’s mind over the following years. Still, Hoss had never forgotten what Adam had told him either. Seven years later he knew almost immediately that what he encountered was the same.
He had been angry with Caleb Harper. He had been angry with Caleb almost from the first minute they had met. Caleb had wanted Hoss angry. He took a perverse pleasure in prodding Hoss to anger in subtle ways and in places and situations where he felt sure Hoss would not retaliate. Caleb was a runt of a boy with a clubbed foot. Hoss tried mightily to see Caleb as a poor unfortunate twisted by the terrible hand the world had dealt him, but when Caleb had targeted Little Joe for humiliation as well the only choice left to the thirteen-year-old was to run from the temptation to break Caleb Harper’s neck or at least some less vital portion of his anatomy. Hoss had run- as he always did- to the comfort of the deep woods. Sitting amongst the pines, he had struggled to let go of his anger. He smashed his hand repeatedly against the ground until his knuckles split. He watched the sunset, and told himself that his pa would know he needed time. He made no camp and had every intention of returning to the ranch house before his pa’s understanding turned into fretting. Then he heard something, turned, and saw the old man.
“What you doing there, young fellow?”
The old man spoke as if Hoss was the intruder, and the land they stood on was the old man’s property. Hoss answered automatically and truthfully each of Ole Daniel’s queries. If he had ever related his encounter to any other person, Hoss would have declared that he felt compelled both to answer and to listen as Ole Daniel justified Hoss’s anger and suggested, then urged, him to seek vengeance on Caleb. Later, whenever someone referred to a devil whispering in an ear or sitting on a shoulder, Hoss pictured the devil with Ole Daniel’s face and voice.
“It wouldn’t be right.”
“Justice is always right. It’s just that the likes of him is made to suffer.”
“He’ll see it was the only way. Or…it could be done so no others need be aware. You need not fear being held to account.”
Hoss had wanted to nod his head, to agree with Daniel, to plan revenge. Most of all, at that moment, he had wanted to see Caleb Harper writhe in pain, but those who spoke of a devil on one shoulder often spoke of an angel on the other. The angel on Hoss’s shoulder had whispered with Ben Cartwright’s voice. Hoss had closed his eyes, drew in breath, and screamed out one word.
When he opened his eyes seconds later, Ole Daniel was gone. He sat there in the dark until the shaking stopped. Then he went home. He returned the next day though and searched the area. He found no trace of anyone except himself. No sign that another had come or gone from the spot. He returned home and considered sharing his story with his elder brother if not his father, but he did not. He did ask questions of others though, not as many as Adam or Little Joe would have but enough that he learned that Daniel Cooper had been an early resident of the area, that Ole Daniel was disliked by everyone who remembered him, and that he had disappeared a year before the Cartwright’s had settled on the Ponderosa, and that everyone believed him dead. It was not until after Little Joe’s encountered with Ole Daniel that Hoss found the bones.
Little Joe had not left his bed that night angry. He had in fact been in a very good mood and filled with excitement over the mischief he and his friends had planned. Kendall Ames was a prig and the school tattletale, so plotting his comeuppance held no anger for the boys only a little nervousness at the thought of getting caught out and being given their own comeuppance at the hands of their fathers. If things had gone as planned the only angry boy would have been Kendall, but Elsie Hawkins’s eavesdropping had turned the tables, and Little Joe had decided to head deeper into the woods. He was angry then, and the portion of his anger focused on Elsie burned with the heat of aged wood made all the hotter due to the fact that Elsie was protected from most forms of retaliation by her status as a girl. It was simply fatigue that made Little Joe stop in a glade in the woods. When, as Mitch would latter phrase it, “all capital H broke loose”, Little Joe had run. He had run fast, hard, and long. Then he had waited, contemplated his father’s anger, retrieved his horse, and rode into the woods. It was past three before he stopped, slipped to the ground, and simply sat down to rest. It was only minutes before a sound caused him to turn his head and see the old man.
“Are ya running to or from, boy?”
At that moment Little Joe had not found the man’s sudden appearance or his question strange which was perhaps the strangest thing of all. He had answered that first question and each one that followed. Furthermore, he had listened as Ole Daniel’s tales and urgings had fanned the fires of Joe’s anger. Little Joe’s head had nodded; Ole Daniel had smiled, and when the boy found himself alone again he had fallen asleep from exhaustion right there on the ground.
Hoss Cartwright always believed it was divine intervention that led him to find the boy before Joe woke that morning. He and he alone of the searchers knew the significance of that particular wooded glade, and few others could have gotten the full tale from the boy. The blood ran cold in Hoss’s veins as Little Joe recounted his conversation with Old Daniel. His own conversation with his little brother lasted hours before Hoss risked taking the boy home. Even then, Hoss was unsure that his words would be enough to break Ole Daniel’s hold on Little Joe, but Pa had been of unwitting help. Little brother’s comeuppance for his part in the schoolboys’ escapade gave Joe no opportunity for revenge on Elsie, Kendall, or anyone else for some weeks, and Hoss played angel on Joe’s shoulder the whole time. He knew when Ole Daniel’s influence had faded away, but still he repeatedly searched the glade in the full light of day until he found them, the unburied bones of a man. He buried them, prayed over them, and hoped evil had been laid to rest, but he was never sure. For the only time in his life, Hoss Cartwright remained skeptical, and when Jamie’s buried anger reminded him of Adam’s when Marie first came Hoss readied himself to battle Ole Daniel one more time.
Jamie was not as skilled as either Adam or Little Joe at exiting the ranch house without rousing any of the other occupants, and part of Hoss’s unconscious mind was listening, so it was not really surprising that Hoss roused from sleep and went directly to Jamie’s room. Upon finding it empty, he had hurried to dress, and then went to the barn without even searching the house. Jamie’s horse was not in his stall, so Hoss saddled Chubby and set out after the boy. It did not take long for Hoss to catch up to the runaway, but it was long enough for Hoss to decide that perhaps it would be best to follow the boy for a time. There was a sense of inevitability about Jamie meeting Ole Daniel, and it would be best if the meeting came when Hoss could intercede. Therefore, he simply trailed the boy. When Jamie stopped and slid from his horse, Hoss stopped just out of sight in the shadows. He watched the boy build a small fire, and he waited. He did not have to wait long. Jamie and Hoss both heard a sound and looked to see an old man walk into the circle of the firelight. Ole Daniel looked not a hair different than when Hoss had first met him. He spoke to Jamie with the same commanding tone and elicited the same automatic answers. At first Hoss listened; he needed to know the current focus of Jamie’s anger. It was simple enough; some boy at school had been bedeviling the newest Cartwright about his past, his unworthiness, and his position as an object of Ben Cartwright’s charity and pity. When Ole Daniel made the first suggestion that Billy Danvers deserved to suffer at Jamie’s hands, Hoss stepped forward placing himself between Jamie and the evil confronting him. Ole Daniel’s attention immediately went to the big man.
“So, you have come.”
“He won’t be listening to anymore from you.”
“You sure he ain’t heard enough. I’m thinking the seed’s been planted in fertile ground.”
“He’s a good boy. He knows right from wrong.”
“He may not think giving some of his own back is wrong. Iffen you are poked in the eye, ya have the right to poke out the eye of him who done it.”
“If that were true, the whole world would soon be blind. You can go. My brother won’t be heeding anything you say.”
“Are you so sure on that?”
Hoss had kept his eyes focused solely on Ole Daniel even when Jamie stirred behind him. “You think you have a hold on him?”
“I know I do.”
“Holds can be broken.”
“You thought you could bury me along with them bones, but I am right here.”
“So am I, and I’m betting my hold, Pa and Joe’s hold, and most of all the Lord’s hold is a hell of a lot stronger than yours.”
“Can connive, twist the truth, beckon, deceive, and manipulate, but he can’t force, now can he? He can’t take away the choice. Iffen he could, I would have snapped Caleb in two. Besides, if he could control the boy, he wouldn’t need you and your mouth, now would he?”
Hoss saw the anger in Ole Daniel burn hotter until the old man seemed to glow with internal flames. He spoke softly then to the boy behind him. “Just tell him no, and then we’ll be going home, little brother. Just tell him no.”
Jamie’s voice had been barely a whisper, but it was enough. Ole Daniel was gone seconds later. Hoss had turned, sat down, and pulled his brother into his arms. He held the confused boy and spoke to him of love and family and right. Jamie had not asked how Hoss came to be there or why he seemed to know the old man, he had simply accepted that when Hoss called him brother, Hoss had meant it in every way that was important. They were home before the household rose that morning, and once again Hoss kept his own council. He and Jamie never spoke of that night as there was no need. Jamie remembered from then onward that he had a family who loved him and a brother that could fight even a devil and win. Hoss pondered what to do about Ole Daniel and worried who might confront evil some night in that glade. He took a cross and a Bible one morning to the place where he had buried the bones. He read scripture aloud, prayed, blessed the place in the Lord’s name, and placed a cross upon a tree above the grave. Beneath the cross, he carved these words: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Then he stood in the glade, looked upward, and made the choice that gave him peace. He left the matter of Ole Daniel in God’s hands.