Written for a Halloween story challenge where the author was given three prompts. Mine were Hoss as the hero, a goblin as the villain, and fire as the plot element.
Summary: That baby brother of his, he could talk him into anythin’. They shoulda been home, but instead they ended up campin’ out near 13 year old Little Joe’s little gal’s house. All would have been well and good if’n only Joe’d have stayed put. But this was Joe and he didn’t. When he asked him how come, his baby brother said he didn’t know.
Was it a nightmare, Hoss wondered, that called Little Joe out into the mist and got him nearly drowned?
Or was it somethin’ else?
An appropriate 7, 666 words!
The Bonanza characters do not belong to me and I am grateful for the chance to use them along with my original characters. I gain nothing other than the satisfaction of giving people pleasure.
The Lantern Man
Plot Element:- Fire
First he had an itch.
Then he had to scratch it.
And then he was dang sure there was somethin’ that wasn’t supposed to be there crawlin’ between his tan shirt and skin, maybe tryin’ to make a nice nest for itself in his chest hair. He’d been accused of bein’ dumb as an ox and bigger than a grizzly, but at the moment he was all jackrabbit.
Throwing his covers aside, Hoss Cartwright jumped up off the ground and did a little dance, wigglin’ and jigglin’, tryin’ his best to shake his uninvited visitor loose. By the time he’d done it, his unbuckled pants had shinnied down onto his hips and his shirt tail was flyin’ in the breeze. As one eye closed and his lips pinched tight, he waited for it. He knew it was comin’. Had to be any minute.
When the leafy glade that he and his little brother had bedded down in an hour or so earlier remained quiet as a sick cow in a snowbank – when he didn’t hear that high-pitched girly giggle explode like black powder – Hoss opened his eye and cast both it and the other one around the patch of soft grass they’d chosen to toss their bedrolls on.
Little Joe weren’t nowhere in sight.
“Dang his ornery hide!” the big man growled as he hauled up on his belt loops and then fastened the buckle on his belt. “I swear, when I get my hands on that little son of a….”
Well, he didn’t really know what he’d do. He did love that ornery little son of a so and so after all, so’s he wouldn’t want to hurt him.
Not much, at least.
“Joe!” he called out.
The night was still, but it hung heavy with fog. It was late October and they’d had a long hard dry spell followed by a couple of days of torrential rain. The mist had started risin’ before they laid down and, while they’d slept, it’d crept in, cuttin’ the glade off – or so it seemed – from the rest of the world. It was sort of like the little plot of land he was standin’ on was floatin’ in the midst of a sea of gray.
And out there, somewhere, swimmin’ in it, was his thirteen year old brother.
“Joseph! Little Joe!” he tried again. “Boy, you answer me and you answer me now!”
“Can’t a feller take care of his business without bein’ shouted at?” Little Joe’ voice came from out of nowhere. It sounded like his brother was approachin’ the camp, maybe from a good distance.
“What’d you do, go back to the ranch house to use the water closet?” Hoss proposed.
His little brother made a sudden appearance, risin’ out of the mist like one of them there ghosts in those stories Adam liked to spin about dwarves and hobgoblins when they sat ‘round the fire. As he approached, Hoss noted the boy was soaked to the skin. Water dripped from Joe’s dark curls, runnin’ onto his white shirt that was several shades of mud.
“What on God’s green earth you been doin’, boy?”
Joe scowled at the use of the word ‘boy’, but kept his mouth shut. “If you gotta know, I woke up and had to take a leak and…whatever, so I went into the trees to do it. Ain’t Pa always shoutin’ about us not bein’ modest enough?”
Pa sure ‘nuff did, which was kind of funny when you took into account the fact that there weren’t no females in the house.
“You could of done that two feet out.”
“I was two feet out!” Joe snapped. “I got done doin’ what I had to do and was headin’ back to camp when I seen it.”
He noticed a change in his little brother’s voice. Joe was usually as gritty as eggs rolled up in sand. It kind of surprised him to hear him soundin’, well, skeered.
“What’d you see?”
Joe looked over his shoulder and then turned back before speaking. “That’s the problem. I can’t rightly say. “
“Somethin’ must of made you go near the stream.”
His little brother’s mobile brows leapt up and then gathered in the middle like wagons circlin’ to protect a group of settlers. “I didn’t go near the stream.”
“Now, Joseph, you ain’t got no cause to lie to me. You – “
“I ain’t lying! Gosh, Hoss, I know how dangerous that stream is.”
Hoss bit his lip. Little brother should. He’d done gone swimmin’ in it once and been carried nigh onto a quarter of a mile downstream afore they caught him. If Adam hadn’t of walked out on an old dead tree trunk like one of them there acrobats and took hold of his collar, that cute little curly-headed six year old would have made it clear to Hop Sing’s China before anyone found him.
Hoss looked him up and down. Joe was wearing his gray pants and a white shirt. Pa’d kill him if he’d knowed he brung one of his best shirts along. Joe’d hidden it in his satchel. Today on their way home he made him stop at the Anderson ranch for a couple of hours so he could spark with his current girl, Bekah. Danged little scamp left him alone with the Widder Anderson. Maybelle was twice his age and about half his size and Lord Almighty could that woman talk! Hoss touched his belly and gave it a little jiggle.
She sure could cook too. He thought Maybelle might just be the best cook this side of Eagle Station.
Hop Sing excluded, of course.
“So’s how’d you get all wet?”
Joe scowled. “I ain’t tellin’.”
“Why ever not?”
His brother’s green eyes peeked out from under the fringe of dark curls danglin’ off his forehead. “‘Cause you’ll laugh at me.”
“Now, Joseph, you know I won’t laugh at you.” He paused. “Unless, of course, you done somethin’ funny.”
“Ha, ha,” Joe said, wrinkling that pert little nose of his and waggin’ his head from side to side in the way he had. Then his little brother glanced over his shoulder again – almost like he was waitin’ for someone to appear. A second later a shiver ran the length of his whole skinny body.
“Dang it, Little Joe. You gotta get them clothes off and dried out. You’ll catch your death.”
Joe shivered again. “I am kind of cold.”
“Come on, let’s get that fire goin’ again. You got some other duds in your saddle bags, don’t you?”
“I got me a shirt, but I ain’t got no more pants,” his brother admitted dismally.
Hoss shook his head. “You mean you didn’t bring those fancy brown pants Pa just bought you to go with that fancy white shirt to spark Bekah Anderson?”
Joe stared him down. “You gonna stand there makin’ fun of me and watch me die of pneumonia, or get that fire goin’?”
He felt lower than a snake’s belt buckle.
“Sorry, Little Joe. I’ll just go get you that extra pair of britches I got.”
“And have me do what? Put both legs into one of the pants?” He snorted. “You just turn your back and I’ll pull off my own britches and pull on a blanket.”
Hoss hesitated. “Now, Joseph, you know you ain’t got anythin’ I ain’t seen before. I used to powder that cute little hiney of yours.”
He managed to duck just as the coffee cup came flyin’ at him. Trouble was, he forgot how short Joe was and he ducked just so it smacked into his nose.
“Serves you right. A feller’s…hiney…is his own business!”
Hoss sighed. A little smile curled his lips.
Little Joe sure was gosh darn cute when he got mad.
About a half hour later they was sittin’ around the fire. He had it goin’ good and he’d even made some coffee so’s Joe could warm up on the inside as well as the outside. Little brother had been awful quiet. He hadn’t asked him again about what happened, but he figured it was time.
“You gonna tell me how you ended up lookin’ like a drown-ded rat?”
Joe sniffed. “I guess I was kind of stupid.”
Wouldn’t be the first time, the big man thought, but he kept that to himself. “How was you stupid?”
“Well, you know, I was out there with my britches down when all of a sudden I saw this light.”
“What kind of a light?”
Joe shrugged. “How would I know? It was off in the mist. It kept…moving around.”
“Like someone was walkin’ or ridin’ by?”
His brother was suddenly very interested in the contents of his coffee cup. “Not…exactly.”
“Well, how was it ‘exactly’?”
Little Joe squirmed. “Kind of like a grasshopper.”
“Yeah, a grasshopper! Didn’t you hear me the first time?” Joe tossed his cup aside and rose to his feet.
Then he remembered he didn’t have any pants on.
It was about all Hoss could do, but he managed it. Wouldn’t do no good to go laughin’ at the boy in the mood he was in. He waited until Little Joe had picked up the blanket and wound it around his still cute little hiney and sat down again before he spoke.
“You mean it was jumpin’?’
Joe nodded. “Kind of. It kind of flickered in and out. I’d see it one place and then it’d be gone. Then it appeared a little farther out. “
He had a picture now of why his brother had been soaked. “Now, you didn’t try to follow it, Little Joe, did you?”
He shook his head, his nose a’scrunchin’ again. “No,” Joe said firmly and then amended it. “Yes.”
“But you didn’t fall in the stream?”
That curly head shook again. “No way. It was more like, well, you know that salt marsh near Humboldt? Where the land’s all wet? It was something like that.”
“There ain’t no marshes ‘round here, Little Joe.”
“I know that. You think I was born yesterday!? I know it couldn’t be there, but it was! And there was this weird flickerin’ blue light right in the middle of it.”
“You must of know’d it was wet afore you went in. How’s come you did?”
‘Cause I…. I….” Little Joe blew out a breath that took about half the length of him with it. “I don’t know why. I…I kind of had to.”
“You had to?”
Joe looked up. His face was pale in the moonlight. “It was,” he swallowed hard, “like it was calling me.”
Now he’d heard men say strange things before, but it was usually after they’d spent a day at the saloon or a couple in the desert without a hat.
“I thought…. It sounded like Pa.”
“Now, Little Joe, don’t you go gettin’ mad at me, boy, when I ask this…”
“You didn’t sneak none of Pa’s whiskey out of the house and bring it with you?”
Joe was shakin’ his head. All of the sudden he wasn’t angry anymore. It was like the boy was tryin’ real hard to tell him somethin’, but he couldn’t put it into words.
“I saw the lights, Hoss, and honest, I wasn’t gonna follow them. Then I heard a man talking. You know how Pa is when he’s tryin’ to make you feel better? He says the same things over and over. ‘It’s all right, son. There’s nothin’ to be afraid of. You just do what I say and you can rest.’ Things like that.”
“Is that what this here voice was sayin’?” He was beginnin’ to suspect he knew what had happened. Joe’d gone off to do his business and fallen asleep and had one of them nightmares of his.
Joe nodded. He looked frightened. “Sure was.”
“Now don’t you think it might of been Pa?” As Little Joe shook his head, he added, “In one of those gosh awful dreams you’re always havin’?”
At first Joe looked angry. Then he looked relieved. “You mean, you think I went out there to…you know…and fell asleep?”
“Could of done. It would explain the lights and the voice. Wouldn’t it?”
“I…suppose.” Joe looked down at his bare legs. “And I got all wet and muddy ‘cause I was layin’ on the ground?”
“Probably was by the stream and you just didn’t know it.” He indicated the fog. “Even the best tracker ain’t gonna be able to keep tabs on where he is in a mist like this.” Hoss grinned. “I know I couldn’t have done it.”
“Sure you could,” Little Joe said, soundin’ like his brother again. “You’re the best tracker there is.”
“I thank you for that, Joe.” As he said it, his brother yawned. Hoss looked up. The mist was just as thick as before, but it seemed the moon was slidin’ toward its bed. “Ain’t too long ‘til mornin’. What’s say we try to catch us a few hours of shut-eye afore we leave for home?”
“Sounds good to me, brother.” Little Joe rose and went over to his check on his pants. “They’re a little damp,” he said, “but with the blanket it’ll be okay.” It took his little brother only a minute to wiggle into his trousers and shinny back under the covers.
“How come you’re leavin’ the top button open?” the big man asked when he noticed he had.
Joe cocked one eyebrow and grinned. “In case I gotta go do my business again ‘fore it’s light.”
“You ain’t got no business doin’ that there business alone,” he ordered. “You hear me? “
His brother looked puzzled. “What you gonna do? Help me?”
“No.” He scowled. “But I wanna know if you leave this here camp. Now you promise me you’ll wake me if you gotta…well…you know, go.”
“Sure thing, brother. I promise,” Little Joe remarked as his curly head disappeared under his blanket. “I sure hope you remembered to bring that powder for my hiney.”
Of course when he woke up three hours later Little Joe was nowhere in sight.
The funny thing was, he could tell by the light that the sun was up – but the thick fog wasn’t gone. It clung to the land like moss on a stone, only now it was an eerie golden-gray that put him in mind of a lantern’s light on a cave wall way down deep in a mine. Growling, Hoss tossed his blanket aside and rose to his more than impressive height and shouted.
“JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU, BOY, YOU AIN’T GONNA BE ABLE TO SIT DOWN FOR A WEEK!”
Then he congratulated himself. That was a dang good impression of their pa!
‘Course if he’d been Pa, Joseph Francis would have called back by now.
“Joseph! You answer me!”
That boy could make him mad enough to kick his own dog.
Though it was mornin’, Hoss went to the fire and kindled a match and lit a lantern before he headed off into the oddly thick mist.
“Joseph! Little Joe!” he called as he walked blindly forward, whistling now and then like he was tryin’ to bring Chubb into the stable. “Little Joe, come on boy, you’re scarin’ old Hoss. Answer me!”
Ahead of him – maybe ten, fifteen yards – he had a sense of movement. Not that he really seen anythin’, but , well, it was kind of like when someone tossed a rock in a pond – you might not see the rock sink, but you knowed it was there ‘cause of the ripples. A chill of fear ran through him. So much so the big man actually made a grab for his gun – that wasn’t there. Dad-burn it! It was layin’ back in the camp! Drawing a breath, Ben Cartwright’s middle son began to inch forward. As he did, he noted the ground under his feet growin’ wet.
Marshy, you could say.
Hoss wanted to call out for his brother again, but that sense of fear bridled his tongue. The big man let the breath he’d drawn out and drew a new one and held it as his heart began to pound with real, true, unadulterated fear.
A few more steps. Just a few more.
A few more and his boots were ankle-deep in brackish water. A few more and a tree popped out of the mist so suddenly he sucked in air and let out a yelp.
Then he saw him. His baby brother.
Layin’ face down under that there tree in ankle-deep water.
Hoss started for Little Joe and then, to the day he died, he’d never be able to tell anyone what really happened next. A dark substance wormed its way into the fog. It swirled like chocolate added to white cake dough for a few seconds, and then somethin’ – somethin’ about five feet high with bug-eyes and a great big gapin’ mouth, and all covered with dark hair like a bay horse – stepped out of it and stood between him and Joe.
Dang it! It didn’t go away!
The two of them stood there eying one another for a couple of heartbeats before Hoss could even think of takin’ another step. When he did, that there critter raised its hands and all the sudden its fingers burst into flame. And then – then – it began to slowly move those bright blue burnin’ fingertips in a circle.
It was kind of – well – mesmerizing’.
The creature’s lips peeled back like an onion in a hideous smile as it took a step back. ‘It’s all right, son,’ he heard it say in somethin’ like his father’s voice. ‘Come with me.’
He would have done it too, if little brother hadn’t chosen just that moment to moan.
Somethin’ snapped in him like a twig underfoot at that pitiful sound. Roaring, Hoss took the lantern he carried and swung it at the creature. It didn’t hit nothin’. He ended up spinnin’ in a circle and when he was done turnin’ like a top.
It was gone.
At that moment, if someone had asked him, he wouldn’t have knowed which end of the cow quit the ground first.
The sound of someone splutterin’ brought him back to his senses. When Hoss remembered it was his beloved little brother, it got him on the move right quick. Droppin’ on the ground next to Little Joe, the big man caught his brother’s arm in his big hands and turned him over.
“Joe! Little Joe! You okay, boy?”
Little Joe drew in a ragged breath. Feebly his fingers clutched his shirt and pulled at it. “…sorry….”
“This ain’t no time to worry ‘bout that, boy. You drink much of that there water?”
Joe shrugged. He gave him a feeble little smile.
And was out.
With his brother in his arms, Hoss rose to his feet. He looked around for a sign of what he thought he’d seen, but there was nothin’ other than fog and the bare outline of a few trees. He looked up to see the sun shinin’ overhead. Sure enough, it would burn the thick gray stuff off in an hour or two. Then they could head for home.
Hoss glanced down at his little brother and drew him close to his breast, sensin’ somehow that it wasn’t over – that he needed to protect Little Joe against….
Pa’s eyes were on him. He could feel it. Weren’t nothin’ like those black eyeballs borin’ a hole through you like shot out of a cannon. Pa hadn’t said much when he’d walked Little Joe through the door soaked to the skin and shakin’ like a leaf in a strong winter wind. He’d been too worried about little brother catchin’ his death.
He was worried too, but about death catchin’ his little brother.
The big man couldn’t explain it. Durin’ the time it had taken to get Little Joe bundled up and in front of him on Chubb, with Joe’s pony hitched up behind, he’d just about convinced himself that he didn’t see, well, what he saw.
Couldn’t have. Weren’t no way.
Still, he couldn’t get the picture of them burnin’ fingers out of his mind, whirlin’ like Ezekiel’s wheel in the Good Book, ‘cept there weren’t nothin’ that was good about them. He’d never seen no fire like that – pure blue with no other colors in it – nor felt anythin’ like it made him feel. Like he didn’t have no control over hisself. Like he could of walked off the end of a pier or right into a stream or….
Ended up face down in the water like little brother.
He looked up and tried not to look guilty. “Yeah, Pa?”
“I know you’re worried about your brother, but Paul says Joseph should be all right. He swallowed a little water, but it seems you came on him soon enough. The doctor says he doubts there’s a chance of pneumonia.”
“That’s right good, Pa.”
His father put the paper he was reading down and came to sit beside him. He put a hand on his shoulder. “Son, I know you blame yourself for what happened to your brother, but we all know Joseph. To say he has a mind of his own is putting it mildly.”
He managed a smile. “That dang little cuss sure can be ornery when he wants. But you know, Pa. I don’t think Joe was bein’ ornery.”
“Then what do you think happened?”
He stood up and began to pace. “I ain’t right sure. The first time Joe went out into that mist was just plain stupid, but I asked him not to do it again and he told me he wouldn’t. You know, Pa, he promised me? Now, Joe, he don’t go back on his promises.”
His father’s smile was affectionate. “Not usually. Do you think he could have been sleepwalking?”
The big man turned back toward his father. “What?”
“You may not remember, son, but after Joseph’s mother died – for a while – he used to sleep walk. I’d find him down here in front of the fire playing with his wooden horses just like he was awake, only he would be sound asleep.” Pa leaned back on the settee. “It’s been quite a while, but it might explain him wandering and why he thought he heard my voice.”
“I done thought he might of been a havin’ dream,” Hoss replied.
“I think it’s the most likely explanation.”
Would be, if it weren’t for that five foot, bug -eyed, hairy, fiery-fingered critter he seen.
‘Course he hadn’t mentioned that to either his pa or Adam.
His father rose as well and walked over to him. “Now, you just let go of that guilt you’re feeling, all right?”
“After we eat, why don’t take your brother some supper? Hop Sing tried with dinner, but had no success. Joseph needs to eat to keep up his strength. In spite of what the doctor said, with your brother’s constitution – and luck – pneumonia is always a possibility.”
A half hour later he was headed up the stairs carryin’ a tray laden with soup and a sandwich. With his toe, Hoss carefully opened his little brother’s bedroom door, fearful Little Joe might be sleepin’ and he’d wake him. Instead, he found Joe out of bed, still in his nightshirt, standin’ at the window and starin’ out into the night.
“What’re you doin’ out of bed, Little Joe?” he asked as he sat the tray down. “Pa’ll skin you if’n he sees you!”
“Couldn’t sleep,” little brother muttered. “Kept coughing.” Little Joe turned a face like paste toward him. There were big dark circles under his eyes. “Kind of thought I might take a walk outside.”
“What’re you? Crazy? Why’d you want to go outside? It just got done rainin’, Joe, and it’s cold and wet out there.” He paused, rememberin’ that phrase that he was comin’ to hate about someone catchin’ their death. “You gotta stay inside, little brother, where you’re…warm.”
He’d almost said ‘safe’.
Joe ran a hand through his tousled brown curls and yawned. “Yeah, I know. But you know how it is sometimes. There’s like this…call…to be outside.”
Hoss walked to the window and looked out fully expectin’ to see two wheels of blue fire lightin’ the night.
They wasn’t there.
He took Joe by the shoulders and aimed him toward his bed. “Now, you just get back under those covers, little brother. I brought you some nice hot soup for your tummy. You eat it and I bet it’ll make you sleepy for sure.”
Joe gave him a lop-sided smile as he slipped beneath the sheets and coverlet. He took the soup and sandwich and while he ate they talked about everythin’ under the sun except what had happened. With about half the sandwich left, Joe pushed the tray away.
“I’m full. Can’t eat a bite more.”
“You sure?” he asked, eying the leftovers.
Little Joe leaned back on the pillows and gave him a smile. “Sure, I’m sure. You eat it, brother. You look puny enough to push over with a feather.”
Hoss gave a little nod of thanks and picked up the leftover sandwich. He took a bite and as he chewed, had a thought. “Joe, about the other night.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Now, why didn’t that surprise him? Little Joe was like one of them bottles you couldn’t get the cork out of when it came to talkin’ about anythin’ he didn’t want to talk about.
“I ain’t gonna scold you, boy, or anythin’ like that. I just wanted to ask you one question. Just one. Now, it’s gonna sound mighty strange….”
“I didn’t see anything.”
Hoss’s reddish brows popped. “Now, how did you know that was what I was gonna ask you?”
Little Joe’s pout mushroomed. “I didn’t.”
The big man thought for a moment. “Okay. Can you tell me about what you ‘didn’t’ see?”
That made little brother smile.
“It’s true, Hoss. I didn’t really ‘see’ anything, but I….” He actually shivered. “There were those lights, hoppin’ around like a grasshopper, moving and shifting, always gettin’ farther away. Sometimes….”
Little Joe looked right at him. “It was like they were whirling, you know? Like –“
Joe’s eyes went wide. “Yeah.”
They both sat in silence for a moment. It was broken when brother Adam yelled up from the bottom of the staircase.
The big man went to the door. “What you need, Adam?”
“It’s Pa. He’s got a question about supplies for the drive.”
“Comin’.” Hoss turned and looked at his little brother and then went to sit beside him on the bed. “Now, Joseph, I need you to make me a promise afore I can leave you.”
Little Joe’s lips twisted and his brows wrinkled before leapin’ toward his chestnut hair. He swore, sometimes it seemed those brows had a language all their own.
“You look mighty serious, brother,” Joe said. “You worried I’m gonna steal your girl?”
“Don’t you go tryin’ to change the subject,” he growled. Then he held out his hand and made a fist.
At that, Joe sat up takin’ notice. His little brother rounded in the bed so he faced him and held out two fingers, formed into a ‘V’.
Hoss placed his fist on top of the fingers and then Little Joe did the same. “Swear?”
Little Joe nodded solemnly. “I swear.”
It made him feel a little better. That was the secret handshake they’d used as kids when somethin’ was so gosh-darned important that they knew neither one of them dared break the promise they’d made – like that time they got to wrasslin’ and Joe knocked him back into the gate and it opened and half a dozen horses got out.
To this day Pa thought he’d forgot to fasten the latch.
The big man scowled. Seemed brother Adam never did learn that kickin’ got you nowhere lessen you was a mule.
“On my way!” he shouted back.
That was quickly followed by their father’s voice. “Will you two stop shouting? I’m trying to work on the supply list for the drive!”
Hoss looked at Joe. His brother was grinning.
“Guess I best get goin’.”
“I’ll be okay, Hoss. Don’t worry.”
The big man nodded and then rose and went to the door. By the time he turned back, Joe had sunk under the covers. Hoss watched him for a few seconds and then stepped out into the hall and headed for the stairs.
Little brother seemed to mean what he said.
He sure wished he’d had time to nail Joseph’s window shut.
When the list was done Hoss went back up to check and found Little Joe softly snorin’ in his bed. The sight made him right happy and so he went back down and got a snack and came into the great room to eat it. Brother Adam was there by then, sittin’ by the fire in his blue chair and strummin’ his guitar. Adam played a few chords and then looked up as he parked himself in their father’s chair.
“Sleeping beauty still sleeping?” Adam asked as he put the guitar down and reached for the drink beside him.
“He sure nuff is. Probably sleep right through ‘til mornin’. Poor little feller.”
“If that ‘poor little feller’ had done what he was supposed to do, he wouldn’t have ended up half-drowned.”
“Now, Adam, that ain’t fair. You didn’t see that mist. A feller could have known his own door was a foot in front of him and, even though his hand on the latch, got lost.”
Adam took a sip and smirked over his cup. “Sounds mystical.”
“Magical. Otherworldly. You know, like the Brothers Grimm tale where that sudden fog comes up and a bird flies out of it?” Adam put his glass down and leaned forward, warming to his topic. “In other climates with dense forests – especially the British Isles – heavy mists come up so suddenly that men have given them mystical, magical properties. In fact, with All Hallows Eve so near, I’m sure you remember the tale of the Lantern Man. Don’t you?”
Hoss had only been half-listening. The word ‘lantern’ brought his attention back to his over-educated brother.
“The Lantern Man?”
“Maybe you remember it as the Will o’ the Wisp, or as the slaves in the South say, ‘Jack-muh-Lantern’.”
He scowled. “That there Jack-muh-Lantern, he was supposed to be about the size of a boy, wasn’t he?”
Adam nodded as he picked his glass up again and took a sip. “About four or five feet tall. Jack or the Lantern Man was what the British call a goblin. A creature that likes to play tricks, and those tricks sometimes prove deadly. Most often he tries to lead someone to their death by lulling them and leading them into a marsh where they drown.”
Now he remembered. Adam had used to tell them that story just about this time of year. The slaves in the South were kind of superstitious. ‘Course a lot of folks were. They believed there was a critter, tall as a boy, that was stronger than any man and faster than any horse. They was right skeered of it and told their young’uns to stay inside on nights when it was foggy ‘cause old Jack might just call them and lead them to their….
Hoss’ eyes went wide. He stood up so fast it made Adam drop his glass. As the crystal crashed to the hardwood floor, the big man bolted up the steps and rounded the corner and ran down the hall and – not carin’ whether Little Joe was asleep or not – threw open his brother’s door and ran to the bed.
And found it empty.
The window was open.
Little Joe was gone.
Adam hit the floorboards a second after him. By that time Hoss had made his way to the window and was lookin’ out. There was no way of knowin’ how long Joe had been gone. Maybe he’d be in the yard. Maybe he’d come to his senses and was walkin’ back toward the house.
Maybe he was danglin’ from the arms of a hairy, bug-eyed critter about five feet tall.
The critter looked up as the big man looked down. Their eyes met and what he saw sent a shiver up Hoss Cartwright’s spine cold as a witch’s caress.
It weren’t human. It just plain weren’t human.
Even as Adam spoke, the creature removed one hand from his brother’s unconscious form. Instantly a spiraling blue flame ignited each of its fingertips. As the fires began to whirl, the creature’s mouth gaped open in a toothless malevolent smile.
Then it set the barn on fire.
In the chaos that followed, it was easy for him to slip away. Pa and Adam and Hop Sing and all the hands from the bunkhouse were too busy tryin’ to put out the fire – which burned with an eerie blue glow – to notice. They’d miss his strong arm soon enough, but it’d be a while before they even thought about where he’d gone or ‘fore Adam had time to tell Pa that Little Joe was missin’.
It was up to him.
He had to save his brother from the Lantern Man.
The horses had been let out of the stable, so it weren’t hard to mount up and ride off. He didn’t bother grabbin’ his brother’s pony – he had a feelin’ when he found the boy that he wouldn’t be able to ride on his lonesome. As he rode fast and hard Hoss tried to remember everythin’ else Adam used to spin in those yarns of his about goblins. Seemed to him there was somethin’ about them dancin’ around marshy ground. Seemed too, sometimes they made their own marshes. They was mean cusses who wanted nothin’ more than to kill a man by leadin’ him astray so’s he’d fall into the water and be drown-ded dead. As more and more of Adam’s tale came back to him, Hoss realized he’d made a couple of whoppin’ big mistakes the last time. You wasn’t supposed to carry a lantern ‘cause them hairy critters would be drawn to it. Or whistle. They didn’t like whistlin’. He’d done both last time while lookin’ for Little Joe. If you got caught in their light you was supposed to draw a breath and not let it out so’s they couldn’t suck it in and take away your willpower.
‘If the Lantern Man be upon ye, throw yourself flat on your face and halt ye breathing,’ older brother would say, usin’ a waverin’ tone that sent chills down their young backs.
That’s why the critter escaped time before this. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Problem was, even if he held his breath and looked that there murderous critter in the eye, he had no eye-dea of what to do to stop it. Adam never got that far. Him and Little Joe would have their covers over their heads a long time afore the end and be beggin’ big brother to stop.
Hoss looked down. He didn’t have a gun, but he had his hands. Didn’t matter what Adam or them slaves in the South said about that there goblin or whatever it was bein’ stronger than any man.
There weren’t nothin’ stronger than his love for his little brother.
The fog sure ‘nuff was one of them kind Adam called ‘mystical’. It was thicker than Hop Sing’s pea soup and kind of smelled like the bottom of a well. It raced ahead of him, spreading out like a blight. He’d traveled so far he was pretty sure he was gettin’ close to the edge of the Anderson’s land, just where they’d been camped the night before.
Once or twice Hoss thought he caught sight of the critter, draggin’ Little Joe behind, but then he’d lose it in the swirling gray haze. As Chubb snorted and slowed down, draggin’ his feet against the grass and sinkin’ in, the big man knew they’d come to the end.
Must be the critter’s home.
Dismounting, Hoss followed what appeared to be a shadow movin’ through the fog. He’d caught his rope from the saddle, meanin’ to hog-tie the dang thing no matter what it was. As he moved into the mist – tremblin’ in his boots – his pa’s strong, confident voice rang in his ear, quoting from the Bible.
‘Ye, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’
Hoss stopped. He shivered and then bent to search the ground. After a few heartbeats he rose, stick in hand. Carryin’ it, he began his journey again, usin’ the stick to prod the wet ground before him and to remind himself of God’s promises.
That critter that done had Little Joe belonged to the Devil and weren’t no way him or God was gonna let that Lantern Man win!
The big man hadn’t gone ten more feet when the mist parted and the critter was standin’ there, starin’ him down. Hoss paid heed to Adam’s tale. He wasn’t about to lay flat on the ground, not with Little Joe layin’ in a crumpled heap at the critter’s feet, but he closed his eyes, sucked in a breath, and listened to his Pa’s voice and God’s promises –
And went in swingin’.
It weren’t one more heartbeat before he made contact with somethin’. It was kind of marshy like the ground, but solid at the same time. A terrible screech went up, like to tear his ears, as he continued to use the stick to hammer away at the unknown assailant and drive it back and away from his brother. As he continued to attack and it retreated, the land around them changed. Somethin’ was different. They was on dry ground. In a field, maybe. Maybe one filled with corn. There were rough cracklin’ noises and suddenly, smoke filled the air. And then he heard it – a sound he never would in all his born years forget – a shrill scream, higher-pitched than an eagle and lower than a bull’s roar, mingled with the death of somethin’ livin’.
At last Hoss opened his eyes. Before him stood the goblin – five feet tall, hairy, bug-eyed and sneering no more. It looked like a shriveled up husk.
Then it turned to ash and was no more.
Their pa and brother were near half out of their minds by the time they got back the next mornin’. There weren’t no reason to think it – ‘specially not with Little Joe bein’ already out of bed and him comin’ down the steps with Adam – but they’d done near half-convinced themselves that the two of them had been burnt up in the barn when it went down. Pa’s knees had actually buckled when he saw them come into the yard ridin’ double on Chubb, all muddy, soaked to the skin, and covered with ash from the fire the goblin had set. Adam and Pa came right over to the horse and started askin’ a million questions. Joe smiled at Pa and began to slide off the saddle and that put and end to that.
Pa and Adam was starin’ at him. Adam’s arms were crossed over his wine-colored shirt and Pa’s hands were on his hips and his toe was tappin’. They suspected he was keepin’ somethin’ back from them, only, gosh Almighty, they couldn’t have any idea of what!
Trouble was, he was still tryin’ to convince himself that what had happened had, well, happened.
“I’m waitin’,” Pa said in that voice that said his waitin’ was about done.
Hoss chewed his lip. He thought a moment. “You see, Pa, after I found out Joe had gone outside I figured what you said was right.”
“And which ‘what I said’ was that?”
“About Little Joe sleepwalkin’ again, like he done when he was a little tyke.”
Adam made some kind of noise, halfway between soundin’ like he’d liked supper and bein’ sick. “I do remember Joe sleepwalking, but it was only for a few months. Most doctors believe some kind of trauma brings it on…” He paused to glance at Pa before continuing. “…something like Marie’s passing. I don’t remember anything traumatic in Little Joe’s life of late.”
“Well, who’s to say what’s ‘traumatic’ to a little feller like him?” Hoss tried hopefully. “Maybe someone is bullyin’ him at school. Maybe that there little gal at the Anderson’s turned him down.”
“Turned Joseph down for what?” Pa snapped, instantly suspicious.
Heavens if the man weren’t worse than a parson’s wife!
“I didn’t mean nothin’ by that, Pa. Honest.” He swallowed. “I meant, like goin’ to the October dance or somethin’. Maybe she’s goin’ with one of the bully boys instead?”
“That’s an awful lot of ‘maybes’,” Adam said.
His father came over and sat directly in front of him on the table before the settee. “Tell me again, son, what happened.”
Hoss drew in a breath and let it out real slowly. “Adam was talkin’, Pa,” his eyes flicked to his skeptical brother, “about that there Lantern Man they believe in down south. I remembered me that Joe and I was sittin’ around the fire tellin’ each other scary tales afore he got up and vanished the first time.” Hoss licked his lips as he warmed to his made-up tale. “I got me to thinkin’, maybe Little Joe’s, what you call it, eh, sunk-conscious got to workin’ on that and he done sleep-walked ‘cause he thought he was followin’ that old Lantern Man.”
His father’s dark brows had popped up.
Adam’s had shifted down a notch.
“And you think that’s why Joe got up and left the house last night as well?” Adam asked. “His sub-conscious made him?”
Hoss nodded. “It’s All Hallows Eve tonight. Ain’t it? Ain’t we all got ghosties and ghoulies on our minds?”
Adam gave him one of those looks. “Well, I know I at least for one certainly do!” Then he snorted.
“There you see, Pa?” he asked with anticipation.
“Go on. About last night,” the older man said, obviously not convinced.
“When I got up to Little Joe’s room last night he was standin’ by the window – “
“He was what?”
Hoss winced. Mentally, he apologized to his little brother before going on. “He was by the window, Pa, lookin’ out and…” Here it came, God forgive him for bein’ a sinner. “…Joe was talkin’ about that Lantern Man and how those lights he thought he seen must of been him.”
Adam made that noise again. “Makes sense, Pa. If it was on Joe’s mind, it could have influenced his dreams.”
“All right. So that explains how your brother got lost, but how did you find him?”
He shrugged. “You know Little Joe, Pa. I just added a girl and figured he’d headed for the Andersons. He’s right taken with that little gal, Bekah.”
Pa’s voice went up another notch, just like Adam’s brows.
“So much so that he thought the Andersons – or maybe Bekah – might stop this, boogey-man?”
“Goblin, Pa,” Adam prompted. “It was a goblin.”
His father rolled his eyes.
“Maybe Little Joe just headed for somewhere he felt safe. You know how old Maybelle…” He stopped dead at his father’s look. “…how the Widder Anderson just loves little brother.”
Pa rose to his feet and looked down at him. “So you found your brother asleep in a dry corn field that just happened to be on fire.”
“Must of been that same dang sneaky lightnin’ that got the barn, sir,” he replied. Pa had concluded that was the only explanation for a barn bustin’ into flames without any explanation.
“Could be,” his father admitted.
“Either way, we’re lucky Hoss figured it out, Pa,” Adam said, givin’ him that look. “Little Joe’s safe. I guess we’ll just have to be content with that for now. And lock the kid’s door for the foreseeable future.”
Heaven help him next time brother Adam got him alone!
“Is it okay if I go up and see Little Joe now, Pa?” he asked.
His father nodded. “Keep him in his bed this time, will you please?”
Hoss flinched. “Sure will, Pa.”
Joe answered right away when he knocked on the door. Little brother was sittin’ up in bed all wide-eyed. It was plain as the pert little nose on his face that he’d been waitin’.
“So, did Pa believe you?”
Hoss sat heavily on the bed and stifled a grin as Joe bumped on the wave. “I ain’t sure Pa bought it entirely, but I think he did.”
Little Joe sobered. “Hoss?”
“You did…see what I saw, right? I mean…I’m not crazy?”
He shook his head. “You ain’t crazy, little brother. I seen it.”
Joe’s curly head bounced. “Okay, so it’s just between you and me. Right?”
He was fine with that. “Promise.”
Little Joe turned square to him and held out two fingers. Hoss laid his fist on them and then his little brother capped it off with his other hand.
“Promise,” Joe pronounced solemnly.
They both rocked back, considerin’ all they had seen and what they’d just done.
“You remember that gate we knocked off its hinge when we was tusslin’?” Hoss asked his brother.
“You mean the night the horses got out? Sure do.” Little Joe’s sober face brightened with a smile. “Pa still thinks he left the latch open.”
Someone cleared their throat.
They both pivoted toward the door.
“Now, what is this about a latch?” Ben Cartwright demanded.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, SJS
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