The Stronger Bond (by bahj)

Summary: The Cartwright brothers fall under a powerful spell that threatens not only a life, but also loyalty.

**Halloween Story**

Rated: PG / Word count: 3290

 

The Stronger Bond

It was the time of night when all the good and decent people of Virginia City were asleep in their beds. A cold October wind blew its way stiffly through the sparse limbs of poplar trees, shaking loose any tenacious leaf that had dared not to fall. Down on the ground a crooked black cat sprang from its crouch to end the life of a screeching mouse, then taking the mangled corpse in its mouth quickly darted out of the road. A coach was making its way swiftly down the dusty trail that led into town. Two dark horses pulled the plain, black carriage along so quietly that a drunk shivering in the ally could have sworn it was only the wind he heard passing by. When the carriage finally stopped, it was in front of a large two-story home that had been lying vacant for over a decade. A gangly, unkempt youth jumped from the tail end of the coach and timidly opened the door, then stood back as the passengers emerged. A few moments later, three solitary figures stood and watched as the carriage disappeared into the night then with purposeful strides walked up the rickety, old steps and opened the door.

“Quickly now,” said the oldest. “Get the fire going. We’ve put this off far too long and time is growing short.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hoss Cartwright tucked his chin further down into his scarf and pulled his hands up under his arms as he stamped his feet against the boardwalk. “Joe, would you hurry up, dad-blame it? It’s freezin’ out here and I’m ready to go home.”

“Ah, Hoss, it ain’t that cold, and besides we can’t leave until Adam finishes over at the bank.”

“Well, he better hurry up or I might just leave him here,” Hoss grumbled.

Little Joe ignored his bigger brother as he shuffled through the letters in his hand. He, Adam, and Hoss had made it to town just in time as most of the businesses were getting ready to close. Adam had run across to the bank, while Little Joe took the post office, and Hoss had gone across to the livery. Hoss had finished first and the livery owner, anxious to get home before it got dark, had pushed Hoss out the door. Even though it was late October, it was unusual for it to be so cold.

Little Joe happened to glance up from the mail as a young woman emerged from the local dress shop. Just that one glance and the letters were forgotten lying scattered in the street as he crossed in a dazed stupor.

“Little Joe, what in the world are you doin’?” Hoss asked, jumping from the wagon seat to scoop up the mail, but Little Joe’s eyes and ears were attuned only to the women making her way slowly down the boardwalk. She was unlike anyone Joe had ever seen. Her silky black hair shone in dark contrast against her pale skin and hung in loose waves down her back. As Little Joe approached, she turned her large sparkling green eyes in his direction, and her full lips came together delicately as she smiled. Little Joe was so mesmerized by the woman’s porcelain face that he took no notice of the fact that she was wearing little protection from the cold other than a long green cape. He didn’t stop until he was standing in front of her, lost in the euphoria of her beauty. A moment later, he thought his heart would burst as she exhaled the words. “Hello, Little Joe.”

Joe grinned stupidly as the scent of roses washed over him.

“Tomorrow night,” she said, gently taking his hand and closing it over a small note. A tingling sensation coursed through his body as the soft brush of her fingertips left his hand.

He continued to stand in a daze until finally Hoss came up beside him and clapped him on the
shoulder.
“Joseph, dad-blame it, have you lost your senses?”

“The . . . did you see . . .” Little Joe swallowed loudly. “Did you see the girl . . . so beautiful.”

“Joe, there ain’t nobody out on a day like this except for us two idiots. Now come on.”

Little Joe, pushed Hoss’s hand from his arm as his eyes flicked up and down the empty streets. “Not just yet, Hoss, I want to see if I can find her.”

Hoss watched in confusion and defeat as Little Joe took off at a brisk pace, looking in shop windows and ducking into alleys. The large man vigorously rubbed his hands up and down his arms and tried not to shiver against the cold. He was about to cross the street when a tantalizing smell filled his nostrils. He turned expectantly and noted the open door to a shop just a short distance down the boardwalk. He didn’t remember every seeing a bakery there before, but he was sure glad there was one now. He followed his nose until he entered the small shop filled with more good things to eat then he had ever seen in his life. The little room was warm and his insides slowly began to thaw as he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. He was about to start making his selections when the slight sound of a skirt brushing across the floor drew his attention. What he saw caused him to forget all about the delectable assortments surrounding him. A tall, slender young woman with long radiant blonde hair stood before him. The flowing blue robe that encircled her seemed to intensify the icy blue of her eyes, and Hoss could feel his hands growing warmer as his throat suddenly went dry. She drew toward him until she was so close he thought he could hear her heart beating, or was it his?

“Hello, Hoss,” she whispered, and the scent of sweet, sugary icing set his stomach to growling. The slow, easy smile that spread over her face nearly caused his heart to stop beating, and as her hands touched his chest to put a letter in his pocket the fire inside him quickly spread to the tips of his toes.

“Tomorrow night,” she said and then walked past him out the door.

When Hoss finally turned and left the shop he didn’t even notice as the door closed itself behind him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Come on, Harvey,” Adam tried again relentlessly. “Pa’s gotta have the full amount. He promised some of the men bonuses and you know how he is about a promise.”

The frustrated bank teller yanked at his tie, yet again. “Adam, please, the manager is about to leave and he isn’t going to want to open up the safe, and besides that, he was going to let me go home early tonight.”

“Harvey,” Adam said and, leaning against the counter, gave the man a pleading look.

“Aw, come on, Adam, l . . .”

“Harvey.”

“But . . .”

“Harvey.”

“Oh, all right. Wait here.”

Adam grinned as the man stalked off to the back room then turned, resting his elbows on the bar behind him. That’s when he saw her. The tinkling of the bell above the door hadn’t sounded and yet here in front of him stood a creature whose beauty was unlike any he had ever seen. Her dark auburn hair hung in soft curls around her face and her violet eyes stared at him so intensely that if he hadn’t been leaning against the bar he felt surely he would have slipped to the floor. Her long purple robe swished intoxicatingly around her tight gown as she drew closer to him.

She opened her mouth to speak and suddenly the room was filled with scent of lavender. “Hello, Adam.”

He felt his legs begin to tremble beneath him as her hand moved toward his hip pocket, placing a letter inside.

“Tomorrow night,” she said, leaning so close that her lips nearly brushed his own.

His eyes followed her as she turned and made her way out the front door, and several minutes later, a very confused and irritated teller made his way back into the now empty bank.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

An eerie soft light spilled from the windows of the two story home at the edge of town as inside, three young woman moved about in fluid motion, preparing for the ritual to come. Each one had chosen her mark and cast her spell with the letter left on their person. The powerful incantations written inside would do their part in luring the men. The oldest curled her lips into a smile as she lifted the golden box from the mantel of the fireplace and brought it to the long, smooth table in the center of the room. The blonde one stepped forward and opened the ancient lid revealing three silver daggers, each with a deadly twisting blade. The three moved as one to remove their weapons, then turning the razor sharp point to their own hand, sliced deeply across their open palm. The wounds flowed freely as they moved across the room toward a shallow silver dish and they held their hands above it until it overflowed. The oldest took up the dish and drank, then held it for the other two as they also partook. When they were done, they lifted their faces stained with blood and began to sing. Low and deep at first, their voices blended together and continued to rise in both pitch and volume until outside in the street, a mangy dog passing by tucked its tail and ran.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Let me get this straight,” Ben said. “All three of you met a woman in town yesterday?”

The brothers paused from where they were gathering their hats near the door, dressed in freshly laundered suits, elegant string ties, and polished boots, then gazed at their father through glassy eyes and nodded.

“And all three of you are going into town tonight to meet with them?”

Again three heads waggled their affirmation.

“And I’m the only one that thinks that is a little unusual?”

There was no answer other than a couple of sheepish grins and a shrug, then his three boys headed out into the dark, frosty night.

Ben pursed his lips in puzzlement, then shaking his head, turned toward the dining room. It appeared he would be eating alone tonight. As he entered the kitchen he shuddered against the cold and cursed himself for letting the fire in the stove go out. With Hop Sing being away, this was the third time he’d let the fire die in less than two days.

“Guess it will be cold sandwiches again,” he grumbled to himself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The flickering glow of candlelight emanated from the house as the three approached. The oldest licked her lips in anticipation. The passage of time had left them wanting—had left them hungry. Long, delicate fingers reached out to turn the knob and the door opened easily. The house itself seemed to shudder as they stepped inside and the flames from the fire slowly turned to an eerie green. A soft mist followed them into the house and crept across the floor and up the walls. As one they stepped toward the center of the room and the intoxicating scent of sweetness filled the air around them.

The blonde one lifted her head and sniffed the air. “He’s here.” Then together, with narrowed eyes they turned toward the kitchen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Through the dense fog, the brothers continued on oblivious to all surrounding them, only one all-consuming thought in their minds. Adam’s horse took the lead, guiding them toward Virginia City—away from home. There had been no instruction on where to meet, but that didn’t matter, for they followed the yearning in their hearts. In their minds floated images. White skin, soft lips, a gentle caress, and in unison they picked up their pace.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
“What do you want with me?” Ben Cartwright demanded.

The oldest stepped forward as her mouth twisted into a wicked smile. “To feed,” she answered. “We’ve waited a long time for a soul like yours.”

Ben fought desperately against the ropes that bound his hands and feet, but it was useless. Even if he could break free these three women were far more powerful than he was. They had called the chair he was tied to across the room just by waving a hand, and the ropes that held him securely fastened, had appeared at a single command.

“What do you mean?” he asked, trying to forestall whatever was coming. “What’s so different about my soul?”

Her rich laughter reminded him of bells at Christmas, but there was no merriment in the smoldering violet eyes that turned to him. “Your suffering has set you apart,” she answered coldly. “All that you’ve endured in a lifetime has made your soul strong. We could feel its pull even across the ocean.”

“We’ve been waiting a long time,” said the blonde one as she approached. Ben turned his face away as she reached out a hand toward him and gently traced the outline of his jaw with her finger.

“Why?” he asked calmly, forcing himself to look her in the eye. “Why now?”

She didn’t answer, but gracefully swept aside for the eldest to speak.

“You’ve been protected,” she answered.

Ben tried to focus on what she was saying but his gaze was drawn to the other two, who had just opened a golden box.

“The bond you share with your sons is powerful,” the eldest continued, and Ben’s eyes quickly snapped back to her. “Their love for you is stronger than any other in their lives, and it has protected you . . . until now.”

“Until now?” Ben said, trying hard to stay focused. He’d seen the silver daggers as they’d been drawn from the box. “What do you mean? What have you done to my sons?”

The eldest leaned in close and lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “We’ve given them a stronger love.” She stepped back then and laughed, a sound so beautiful that it brought tears to Ben’s eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Something continued to pull relentlessly at the fringes of his consciousness. Something wasn’t right. He’d felt it all along, but the farther they went, the stronger it grew. Slowly his mind was starting to become less fuzzy, and for the first time since leaving the house, Adam began to look around him. What was it that was bothering him? A bad feeling, a sense of foreboding. There was a danger. No—someone was in danger. Instinctively he looked back toward the ranch.

Pa’s in trouble.

The reality came to him then, and he knew without a doubt that his father was the one in danger. He had to get home.

“Hoss, Joe,” he yelled at the two still making their way along the winding road. “Hey, we’ve got to go back. Something’s wrong.” His alarm increased as they ignored him and continued on, but there was no time to wait. He had to go now, and turning his horse around he galloped toward home, the thudding of his heart matching the steady beating of the horse’s hooves.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The blade glistened in the firelight as it was held high above Ben’s now exposed chest. He closed his eyes in anticipation then quickly opened them again when he heard a gasp. The knife clattered to the floor as the eldest grabbed at her chest.

“No,” she said, gasping the words as if in pain. “It can’t be.”

Ben watched in horrified fascination as the woman in front of him screamed and then disappeared in a burst of red hot light. The other two shared a desperate glance and then the blonde one quickly stepped up to him clutching her blade tightly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A voice in the distance kept calling him. At first he pushed it aside, but it only grew louder. Finally, the sound penetrated the invisible wall surrounding his mind and he recognized his brother’s voice.

“Pa’s in trouble.”

Hoss turned his horse and raced back the way he had come, only minutes behind his older brother.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ben didn’t understand what was happening when another sudden burst of light evaporated the woman who’d been about to strike, but he knew there was now only one left. He turned to her and watched her warily. This one seemed even deadlier than the first two. There was an assuredness about her, a calmness that caused his heart to slowly sink into the pit of his stomach.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Little Joe also heard the call, but it wasn’t strong enough to fight off the image of the young woman with dazzling green eyes. He shivered again as he remembered her touch and the gentle hum of her voice. Just a little further and he would be with her again.

“Forever,” he thought, but then something tugged at his heart.

There was someone else—someone else that needed him. His body betrayed him by continuing on, yearning for the woman inside his mind, but then a face came into focus.

“Pa?”

He pulled his horse up short, as he fought an inward battle. His head continued to dart back and forth between Virginia City and the Ponderosa. The pull was agonizingly strong in both directions, and he knew that if he didn’t make a choice he would soon be ripped apart.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ben’s heart leapt for joy when his two oldest sons burst through the front door. They quickly headed toward him, but the woman turned and holding out her hand sent them both flying into the wall behind them.

“They can’t save you,” the woman said with a hiss and her eyes began to glow. “Only the boy can do that, and his heart belongs to me.”

There was a quick flash as the dagger came down, and Hoss and Adam called out as Ben turned his head away. Then all was quiet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next night a thick, rolling fog surrounded the solid log home. Inside four men lounged around a brightly burning fire, drinking hot beverages as they engaged in their nightly rituals . . . reading of the paper, a game of checkers, and an intricately drawn sketch. Ben looked up for a moment as a hand came to rest on his shoulder.

“Going to bed, son?” he asked.

“Not just yet,” Little Joe answered. “I just wanted you to know that . . . well I . . .”

“I know, son,” Ben answered then glanced around the room, taking in his three boys, “me too.”

Eventually, the lamps were put out, the fire stoked, and all four men went to bed. Their memories of the night before were quickly diminishing and, by the next morning, would be faded into nothing more than a distant dream. The only remainder from that night was an empty golden box—a box that gave evidence to the fact, once again, that no woman mortal or otherwise was strong enough to hold the love of the son above the father nor to break the bond between the father and his sons.

The End

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