Summary: On the night of a black moon, the three Cartwright brothers venture out for what should be a night of fun, merriment, and pretty girls. But when the moon’s shadow faces the earth, it’s never wise to leave the sanctuary of a warm home. For the youngest Cartwright, the night turns into a terrifying experience beyond his wildest imaginings. And one that only a trusted friend can help him overcome.
Rated: T (7,217 words)
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement is intended.
Dead Moon Rising
“Joe! Hey, Joe! Get a move on, would yer, we’ll be late for the dance.”
Adam’s voice ricocheted off the walls—and Little Joe Cartwright—as he bounded down the stairs.
“Shout any louder, Older Brother, and you’ll wake the dead.”
“Haha, just hurry it up. Hattie Donovan has promised me first dance and I don’t intend to miss it.”
Adam and Hoss were already by the front door, dappered-up in their best suits, string ties in place, and boots so polished Joe was sure he could see his reflection in them. Adam’s hand was on the door handle, his foot tapping as he waited impatiently.
“Hey, Pa, you sure yer don’t wanna come?” Hoss was patting down his flyaway hair for the hundredth time.
With one arm outstretched against the stone fireplace, Ben Cartwright stood looking into the gently crackling fire. He turned at Hoss’s voice.
“Not this time, son. These old bones are feeling a little weary tonight.” He left the warmth of the flames to stand by his boys. “You go, have fun.”
Their three horses were already saddled and ready to go, and on the arrival of his youngest brother, Adam had the door open and was striding towards his mount.
Their father followed them into the cool fall night. “Don’t be late. There are still plenty of chores to be done before church tomorrow.”
“We won’t. See yer later, Pa.” Joe vaulted into his saddle and urged his paint into action.
Ben raised a hand in farewell, but his boys had already skirted the edge of the barn and were out of sight. He stood for a moment savouring the sudden peace, but then a chill breeze crept across the yard and Ben shuddered with the unexpected drop in temperature. He didn’t envy his boys their journey to town tonight and pushing his hands deep into his pockets he returned to the house.
Joe could still see the lantern-bright windows of the ranch when he caught sight of an elderly Mexican leaning lopsided on a fence and staring up at the clear starry night. His brothers were ahead of him, and probably complaining about his dawdling, but he reined a jittery Cochise to a stop.
The old hand dragged his eyes away from the stars.
“What are you doing out here? You’re not going to the dance?”
Arturo sniffed and staggered over to Joe, hanging on to Joe’s thigh to keep himself upright. “No, señor Joe. The air grows cold. I prefer to warm myself with the fermented sap of the agave.” He swung his arm up to reveal a pitcher from which he slurped a mouthful. He shivered. “I stay near the fire tonight. And on a night such as this, you should too.”
Cochise danced impatiently and Arturo took a wobbly step back away from the powerful animal. Gripping the reins tighter, Joe looked down on the befuddled ranch hand. “What’s so special about tonight?”
“The moon, she is a black moon.”
Joe glanced up at the stars, his brows closing in a frown despite the smile he wore. “The moon’s female, huh? Anyway, don’t let my pa see you drinking.”
“On this night, señor Ben will let me have my way.” The old man dropped the pitcher in the dusty ground and his hands scrabbled at Joe’s coat. “Do not go, amigo. Tonight, los muertos walk the earth.”
The old man appeared to sober as he captured Joe’s gaze with his own. “The dead.”
Joe patted his arm. “I think that agave juice is messing with your mind, my friend.”
Arturo backed away as Joe wheeled Cochise around to face in the right direction and grinned down at the old Mexican.
“Don’t worry about me. There’s nothing out there that a soft pair of arms and a pretty smile can’t fix.”
And with a laugh, Joe waved a hand in goodbye and galloped after his brothers.
“Dagnammit, Joe, what’s holdin’ y’up?”
Hoss and Adam had pulled their mounts to a halt yet again and twisted in their saddles to find out what was keeping him. Joe wasn’t concentrating on the road ahead of him. Instead, his eyes were fixed firmly on the sky.
Hoss followed Joe’s gaze. “There ain’t nothin’ up there but a whole bunch of stars. Now hurry it up, will yer, and quit yer dilly-dallyin’.”
Adam tugged his jacket closer around him. “And the temperature is dropping too. I for one need warming up.”
“In the arms of Hattie Donovan, hey, Adam?” Hoss wore a large gap-toothed grin.
Adam’s face quirked into a half-smile. “Now you’re talking, brother.” He twisted back again to look at Joe. “What on earth are you looking at?”
Joe pulled in next to his brothers. “Nothing on earth, Adam. The moon. I’m looking for the moon.”
Adam and Hoss mirrored their brother and craned their necks upward. But just as quickly Adam looked down. “Wait a minute, it’s a new moon tonight, that’s why you can’t see it.”
“But there’s already bin a new moon this month, Adam.” Hoss was still searching the sky for the missing moon. “You sayin’ there’s another one?”
“It’s called a black moon.” Joe’s voice was a murmur.
“Since when did you become so knowledgeable about all things astral?” Adam gathered his reins. “Whatever it’s called, I’m getting cold and we’re gonna be late. Let’s go.”
He urged his horse into movement, with Hoss close behind. Joe was so engrossed in gazing up at the starlit sky that it was only when his brothers were disappearing into the dark did he start to follow.
A sudden pocket of mist swirled up on the mountain road ahead of them. The horses shied, startled by the unexpected haze.
“This is all we need.” Adam couldn’t keep the irritation from his voice as he pulled Sport to a stop. He reached into his saddlebags for a pair of gloves and turned his lapels up around his ears. “Why’s it so cold all of a sudden?”
Hoss freed his coat from where it was tied behind his saddle. “Look, Adam, the road is nigh on straight from here ta town, and the horses have ridden it enough times ta know the way blindfold. Let’s keep goin’.”
Adam nodded. “Stay close.”
The brothers walked their horses into the mist.
They didn’t get far.
Hoss could feel a cold sweat between his shoulder blades to match the chill of the air.
Despite the blackness of the night, the mist was a white swirling mass around them. It stirred like an uncoiling snake across the ground, winding around the horses’ hooves and inching up their legs like cold fingers. Chubb stopped in his tracks and none of Hoss’s urgings could make him move forward. The animal reared slightly, and Hoss caught sight of a white panicked eye. He looked over to Adam, but his brother was lost in the cloud of mist.
“Adam! Hey Adam! I cain’t see yer.”
“I’m here, Hoss.” Adam’s voice was muffled.
Hoss pulled his jacket tighter around him. “And I thought it were cold before. It’s freezin’ in here.”
He looked all around him. The mist was creeping past his knees, entwining around his arms. He felt a feather-light touch stroke his cheek and flinched, knocking the misty tendril from his face. The fingers of mist sucked back exposing Hoss and Chubb in a pocket of clear air, and for a short moment he saw Adam knocking the mist away from where it snaked around his torso.
It was only a temporary respite, however. Soon the roiling whiteness was edging close again, blocking his brother from view. A thin wispy trail slithered past his ear. There was a whisper. Words. He couldn’t make them out. Another strand wrapped around his neck and voices breathed close by.
“Who’s there?” Hoss shouted into the mist. “I can hear yer, whaddya want?”
A voice whispered into Hoss’s ear. “What the—” He recoiled, frantically waved his arms around his head and body, batting the white wisps off his legs.
The mist pulled back but this time it returned at speed, swathing Hoss in a cloud of white. It curled around his limbs, slithered up his arm sleeves and down his collar. He could feel cold fingers sliding over his skin. And the whispering voices, they were angry now. Harsh tones hissed in his ears.
Hoss pulled his hat from his head and flapped it at the whiteness, his breathing fitful and laboured. Twisting to and fro in the saddle, he desperately waving his hat at any tendril of mist that came close. But it was no good. As soon as one wispy trail had evaporated into nothingness, another was taking its place.
And suddenly Hoss knew he wasn’t alone. There was something else here in the mist along with him and his brothers. And it wasn’t willing to give up its prizes.
“Adam! We gotta move. Adam, can yer hear me?” He flung himself around in the saddle. “Joe, where are yer?”
“Hoss!” It was Adam. A feeling of relief coursed through Hoss’s veins. Thank God, his brother was near. But Hoss had never heard such a high shrill tone in Adam’s voice before.
“We gotta move, Adam, come on!”
He grasped Chubb’s reins tight and kicked a hard boot into the animal’s side. Chubb skittered; wild eyes white with terror. Hoss kicked again, harder. “Move, you ornery piece of crowbait, move!” One more kick and the horse leaped forward.
Chubb didn’t need any encouragement once he’d found his feet. The animal pounded along the road, his neck stretched forward and mane flying high. Hoss swatted at the grasping white tendrils as he and Chubb flew, his faith in his horse to outrun the mist the one thought driving him forward. He knew Chubb would get him away from the angry whispers, away from whatever was so eager to keep him locked in an icy white netherworld. The mist grabbed but fingers slipped, unable to gain purchase on the speeding horse and rider. Then, with a flying leap, Chubb soared out of the white haze and into the dark of night. Hoss didn’t stop or look back. He was aware of pounding hooves behind him and it was only Adam’s shout that made him pull his heaving animal to a stop.
Gasping for breath, he saw Adam was at his side. They looked around at the mist in the distance. It hadn’t moved. But then a blast of wind blew down the mountainside, so fierce Hoss had to hold onto his hat and tuck his chin into his chest, squeezing his eyes closed against the air’s fury.
When the wind died, he looked up and saw the mist had gone.
He blew out a breath and dropped his head in relief.
“Hoss, where’s Joe?”
Hoss’s head rocked back up. “He was right behind you.”
They exchanged a look and then swiftly rode back to where the mist had been, they carried on a little farther. There was no sign of their little brother.
“Joe!” They shouted in unison.
But there was no reply. The mist had gone. But so had Joe.
He’d followed his brothers into the mist. Cochise had been wary and baulked at entering the bank of white that blocked the road.
“It’s okay, Cooch.” Joe soothed his animal with a pat on the neck and Cochise had half-walked, half-loped into the whiteness.
He’d tried to spot the wide back of Hoss ahead of him, or the creamy yellow of Adam’s jacket, but all he could see was white. Cochise had come to an abrupt stop, his head up and ears swivelling all around, on full alert. But Joe was transfixed by the mist. It circled him, covering him like a shroud. It was soft, almost comforting, and Joe laughed at the velvety touches, like gentle fingers caressing his skin. A whisper on an exhaled breath warmed his cheek. “Look to me…”
Joe’s smile faded. “Who’s there?”
His words were met with silence. Joe’s fingers tightened around Cochise’s reins as he sat bolt upright, not moving, not breathing, straining to hear the slightest sound. But there was nothing, no reply, no whisper. Joe took a breath.
The mist spiralled around horse and rider, enveloping them in a cloak of feather-white down. Cochise pranced, whirling on the spot. The voice whispered again. “Look to me…”
Joe startled and squinted into the mist. But again, all was silent. He shook his head and berated himself for he was clearly hearing things. He raised Cochise’s reins, preparing to urge him forward.
A breath stirred. “Tell me thy name?”
And Joe wanted to. He opened his mouth to answer, but paused. What was he doing? There was no one there. He would be talking to thin air.
“Thy name?” The voice was a sigh.
Without thinking, he spoke. “Joe.”
The mist swirled intimately around him and Joe felt himself mesmerised by its soft, soothing touches and the enticing voice which was whispering in his ear. Feeling warm and lethargic, he relaxed back into his saddle.
Words formed on the air. “Close thine eyes, Joe.”
And so, he did.
Ben woke with a start, his eyes flashing open as he rocked forward in his chair. He gazed around the shadowy room, half expecting to see his sons shedding their coats and gun-belts having returned from the dance. But the room was still and silent. He stood up and stretched, before leaning over the fire and stirring the dying embers back into life.
The clock chimed and Ben walked out of the circle of firelight to stare up at the clock-face. It wasn’t late. His boys wouldn’t be back yet. So why did he feel as though something was amiss? A feeling of unease had settled upon him. He wrapped his arms around his body, aware of a chill crawling down his spine. It was nothing more than a foolish old man’s suspicions, he told himself. Those boys were old enough to take care of themselves.
He turned his back on the clock, ready to return to the light and warmth of the fireside. But he couldn’t help himself. With a single stride he was at the front door, yanking it open and staring out into the night. A mist had risen and was creeping around the trees, hovering low above the ground. The night seemed too quiet. There were none of the customary sounds of creatures rustling in the bushes, or birds’ spine-tingling nocturnal cries in the trees. He shivered. He wouldn’t sleep soundly until his boys were safely home.
Ben retreated to the solidity of the house. The four walls may keep out the elements, but they wouldn’t prevent a parent’s sixth sense from niggling at him. He sat in his chair and reached for the book he’d been reading. But the words were meaningless markings and after he’d read the same page several times, he threw the book onto the table. With a heavy sigh, he stared into the fire. It was going to be a long and restless night.
Joe’s eyes fluttered open. He was lying on his back on a bed of pine needles and for a moment he didn’t move but lay staring up at a starlit sky ringed by a canopy of tall pines. What had just happened? Confusion blanked his memory. But then he recalled the mist and the voice and in a scramble he shot to his feet, one hand dropping to his six-shooter. Slowly turning on the spot, he realised he was nowhere near the road anymore. Instead, he was in a forest clearing, on a sloping needle-clad hillside. But who had brought him here? Joe searched amongst the shadows for his abductor but there was no sign of anyone. He was alone. And where was Cochise? Darn, they must have knocked him out, dumped him here and stolen his horse. Yet, a mental check of his body revealed no aches, no throbbing head; rather, he felt like he’d woken after a long night’s sleep.
The sound of lapping water drew him down to a break in the circle of trees. Below him, black water sparkled with the reflection of a million stars. Joe leaned one shoulder heavily against the trunk of a tree. It was the lake, and Joe was standing at the edge of a low rocky cliff. How, in heaven had he ended up here?
“You’re the one they call Joe.”
Joe jumped, a brief involuntary yelp sounding from his lips. It was a woman, right behind him. He spun to face the owner of the voice, but there was no one there. He took a step forward, peering all around him but the only person in that tiny sloped clearing was him. What breeze there was had died away, and all was silent except for the rapid thump of his heart and his broken breathing. Perhaps he had been knocked out—Joe pressed the heel of his hand to his head—maybe this was all a dream and he was lying in the road somewhere having fallen off his horse.
“It is no dream.”
Joe’s head jerked up as his hand once more grasped the handle of his gun. “Who are you?” What do you want with me? Show yourself.”
His words were met with silence.
“Where are my brothers? If you’ve hurt them, I’ll—”
Joe frowned. “The men I was with, they’re my brothers.”
He could feel his heart hammering against his ribcage.
“They are unharmed.”
Joe took an exasperated breath. “I asked who you are. Why are you hiding from me?”
“I do not hide.”
A movement above him drew Joe’s gaze up the slope. Standing where the shadows began was a young woman in white. Joe drew in a rapid breath. Bathed in an icy blue glow, the woman’s body was swathed in a delicate gauzy material that floated around her body, lazily drifting in the non-existent breeze. Long black hair hovered around a face of such exquisite loveliness Joe knew she couldn’t possibly be real. All his senses began to scream at him to move, to run, to get away. But Joe was frozen where he stood, fear making the hair on his arms stand on end, in thrall to her otherworldliness.
He found his voice. “Why…” he gulped. “Why have you brought me here?”
The woman began to descend the needle-clad slope. She was barefoot, one long slender foot placed carefully a step at a time as she moved noiselessly over the pine needles.
“You came freely.”
“I don’t think I—” But Joe’s words stuck in his throat, for as she grew closer, he could see it wasn’t the material of her dress that was floating, but an ever-undulating coat of mist which circled her body like a thousand twining snakes. Joe stumbled back but his route was blocked by the trunk of a tree.
The ghostly figure approached him like a cat stalking its prey. And when she raised her eyes to his, Joe gasped, for her pupils were the colour of silver dollars, ringed with steel grey. She lifted a long finger and ran it softly along his jaw. Joe shuddered, for her touch was as icy as a north wind on a March morning.
“Your brothers are handsome, but you, you are beauty.”
At any other time, Joe would have snorted with derision and corrected her. Men were never beautiful; men were only ever handsome. But right now, it felt like the blood coursing through his veins was ice water and disputing her description of him was the furthest thing from his mind.
“What…what…do you want with me?”
She blinked languidly as she studied him, her eyes tracing the contours of his brow and temples, the curve of his cheekbones and the cleft in his chin. Joe was trapped against the tree as she floated closer to him. He turned away sharply and sucked in his breath as she lowered her head and sniffed at his neck.
“You are untouched.”
Joe blushed, despite his fear. “I, I’m not untouched, I’ve kissed lots of girls.”
Her lips tilted upwards in an amused smile. “How old are you?”
Large silver pupils ensnared his gaze in her own. “As I said, you are pure. Thy brothers are tarnished.”
“What?” Joe’s laugh was forced. “Even my brother Hoss?”
“Even thy brother Hoss.”
Her finger traced a cold, delicate line along Joe’s jaw, up to his ear lobe and, with intense concentration, down his neck. Joe’s breath shook, catching in his throat.
“What has my… what has that got to do with anything?”
She cupped his cheek in her palm. He flinched away from her freezing touch. “You are a prize. Purity and such beauty in one body. I have had many lovers, but none such as thee.”
Joe gulped as a feeling of dread threatened to overwhelm him. “Wh..what happened to them?”
The entity halted her inspection of his face and let her fingers draw a long slither of mist away from where it skimmed across her body. The tendril coiled around her hand and up her arm as she gazed down upon it lovingly. Her voice was soft. “They are part of me, always.”
Joe gasped, for he understood. Each spiralling thread of mist was a spirit, a past lover, a prisoner.
With a flick of the ghost’s wrist, the spirit was dismissed. It dissolved back from whence it had come, doomed to mingle with its companions for all eternity.
“Whadda we tell Pa?”
“Exactly what happened: we rode into a dense pocket of mist and Joe got lost.”
“You know as well as me, Older Brother, that ain’t what happened.”
Adam reined Sport to a halt and glared at Hoss as he pulled in beside him. “Joe didn’t just disappear into thin air.”
“You heard them voices, and that weren’t like no mist I ever seen before. It had a life of its own, clawin’ and grabbin’ like it was. It weren’t natural, Adam, and you know it.”
Adam looked out into the night. They’d been searching for hours, riding up and down the same tracks, traversing the same slopes. It was an impossible job in the dark, but there was no way either man was going to return home without finding any trace of their little brother. They thought they’d hit pay dirt when they found Cochise standing on the side of the road to Virginia City. But despite searching on foot and using every spare match they had, Little Joe was nowhere to be found.
“As far as I’m concerned, the animals got spooked and it put us on edge and, well, we got disoriented, that’s all. The mist did funny things to the sound; we only thought we heard voices.”
Hoss snorted. “You tell yourself that, Older Brother, and maybe you’ll start to believe it.” He gathered up his reins. “I’m going back home. We ain’t gonna find Joe because he ain’t anywhere…natural.” He rode ahead, tugging Cochise into a trot behind him.
Adam watched him go until the darkness swallowed him up. Fear for Joe was making Hoss belligerent, and it was making Adam stubborn. He didn’t believe in ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. But he didn’t believe his explanation any more than Hoss did. What had happened to them in the mist had scared Adam more than he’d ever admit, especially to his brothers. Acknowledging that the mist, or something in the mist, had taken Joe went against all logic and reason. He couldn’t explain any of it, and that frightened him most of all.
And Hoss was right, just what could they tell Pa?
Joe’s legs were weakening. The ghost had, in one deft movement, stripped Joe of his tie and popped the top buttons of his shirt, slipping her hand beneath the material to press it against his heart. He watched with horror as her head fell back with closed eyes and her mouth opened to relish the warmth she sucked from his flesh. The icy chill of her touch made Joe’s knees buckle and he gritted his teeth against the burning pain. His beating heart slowed as the cold spread like a stain through his limbs and organs. Pinned by the ghost against the tree, he managed to turn his head towards the lake. The once clear water was clouding over with a steadily approaching layer of white mist. There was no escape. He closed his eyes, his hope fading along with his strength.
“Sweet boy, I can give thee forever.”
“Don’t…don’t want forever.”
She angled his head back to hers and Joe felt cold lips brush his own. Her breath made the back of his throat burn. Yet despite his fear and weakness, he responded to her kiss. She sighed and Joe forced his eyes open to see her eyelids fluttering as she relished the lifeforce she consumed. She was so beautiful, and he was so feeble, that when she lowered her lips over his once more, he yielded. Hot breath merged with cold, and all Joe’s vigour ebbed away. He slid down the tree trunk, his legs crumpling beneath him. Raising his hands before his eyes he saw, in the light of her spectral glow, that his bronzed skin was bloodless and his nails ringed with blue. Through the cloud of vapour from his breath, he groggily watched the entity float before him, her eyes closed in an ecstatic reverie.
“So…so…so…c…c…cold,” he stammered and slipped to one side. As he lay there, he wrapped his arms around his body, and thrust his hands into his jacket pockets.
The backs of his fingers touched something. He felt deeper into his pocket and pulled out a tiny palm-sized figurine. It was made of straw, shaped with two arms, two legs, a head, and clothed in what felt like snakeskin. He held it up; half-closed eyes staring curiously at what hadn’t been there before.
The ghost screamed, an unearthly wail that cut through Joe like a knife.
For a second Joe saw a withered sunken face more terrible than any nightmare. He clamped his eyes shut to block out the sight that had instantly burned into his conscious. When she had quieted, he braved a look and saw she once again bore the mask of beauty that had so tempted him. And he knew then her beauty was nothing more than a tool, the means by which she tempted the unwary and unguarded.
She was floating a short way up the slope, a hand thrown up before her face. The misty spirits whirled in a frenzy around her, protecting, shielding, comforting. After a moment she peered out behind her hand and Joe saw fearful silver eyes look towards him.
There was an instant, an infinitesimal moment in time when Joe wanted nothing more than to go to her and take her in his arms. All she wanted was for him to love her. And he could so easily love her.
But Joe was stronger than the ones who had gone before. He had seen her true nature; he wouldn’t give her what she so desperately craved. And he knew those mournful eyes were nothing more than a trap.
The figurine was still held fast in his fist and with a burst of effort he thrust it high before him.
The ghost screamed again and threw her hands up in front of her face. She flew back, her dress and the mist billowing around her.
She screamed once more, that same ghastly shriek, so unearthly he curled one arm around his head as a shield. Somehow, he kept the figurine held aloft.
“Go away!” Joe croaked, his voice failing along with his strength.
The mist drew back from her face, and Joe saw her beauty tainted with an expression of such rage, that he quailed before her. She rose, high above an earth suddenly filled with clouds of mist rolling in from the lake. She pointed a long, pointed finger down at him.
“You would deny me?” she roared.
Joe cowered, but then his hand tightened around the figurine which had slipped from his grip. With what little strength remained he held the straw doll high. A savage blast of air sped across the ground blowing the mist and the ghost before it with such ferocity Joe clamped his eyes shut and pulled his legs to his chest, gripping his knees tightly to withstand the immense power of the wind.
Her scream faded into the night.
Joe stayed curled up against the tree for several moments before lifting his head and opening his eyes. The world was black once more, the air still and quiet. He could hear water slapping against the cliff below him. Gripping the tree trunk, he pulled himself to his feet and steadied himself on wobbly legs. But then he looked down at the white-blue skin on his hands and saw his breath condensing as he exhaled. He began to gasp for air, the shock of what had happened starting to take hold. And he was still so cold; it was freezing him from the inside out. Tucking his hands under his armpits he took a single, unsteady step.
“Somebody…” His voice was raspy, weak. “Please help me.”
But no one came. Joe collapsed to the ground, his eyes closing over tears trickling across his nose as his thoughts turned to his brothers. What he would do to see Hoss’s gap-toothed smile, or hear Adam berating him for some misdemeanour? As for his father. Joe’s heart broke. He could see his father standing at the ranch door, looking out anxiously. And Joe’s last thought was one of guilt. For his pa was waiting for him.
But he was never coming home.
Arturo was rooting around in the pine needles and as he straightened up, he held an object in his hand. Joe took the proffered item – a sodden straw figure wrapped in a snakeskin. He shook the wet off the figure and carefully thumbed away some dirt. For a short time he said nothing, only looked down at the figurine, turning it over in his fingers.
“You slipped this into my pocket.”
“Si, señor Joe. You need protection when the dead moon rises.”
Joe continued to stare at the innocuous little figure, swallowing his bottom lip.
“You saved my life.” His voice caught.
“No.” The old man shook his head. “La muñeca escudo, she saved your life.”
It was a week since Joe had been found by an old trapper lying cold and still on the slope above the lake. The man had believed Joe to be dead, so blue was his skin, but a low murmur from the boy had alerted the trapper to Joe’s stubborn will to survive. He’d built a fire and wrapped him in his thick coat and after several hours had been relieved to see colour in the boy’s skin once more. And when Joe had briefly opened his eyes and shared his name, the trapper had ridden as fast as his old mare was able to the Ponderosa and help.
Upon waking in the warmth and comfort of his bed, the first face he’d seen was his father’s. Ben had half risen from his chair to perch on the mattress, and Joe, unable to keep the tears from his eyes, had flung himself into his father’s arms and wept.
His brothers had sat with him, and after all small talk had been exhausted, an awkward silence had fallen. None of them could explain what had occurred on the night of the black moon, and an unspoken agreement was made to never mention it.
The fading handprint on Joe’s chest was harder to ignore, especially for Ben. So Joe made up a story of a violent confrontation with a robber who’d knocked him out and left him for dead. He had to trust that his lie would placate his pa. He knew he wasn’t believed, and he hated lying, but better that than the truth. The deceit played on his mind and Joe found himself snapping at his father and brothers over the most insignificant of misunderstandings. The nights were worse though. His troubled mind would replay his ghostly encounter, and he’d be shaken awake by Adam or his father, soaked to the skin with sweat, to learn he’d been shouting and hitting out at thin air again.
Now after several days enforced bed rest, and of feeling increasingly restless, Joe had left his nervous father and ridden back to where it had all happened. The only person he had wanted by his side was Arturo. The ground and air were wet from a persistent drizzle, and the opposite side of the lake was hidden in a shroud of white cloud.
Joe turned away from Arturo and trod through the bed of pine needles to the tree beneath which he had collapsed.
“Why was she so scared of this little thing?” Joe’s voice shook with emotion.
Arturo thrust his hands into his pockets as he watched Joe’s back. “La muñeca may be made of nothing more than straw but she is bound by powerful spells. Mi madre cut the straw from our home village, bound it in the skin of a rattlesnake and recited incantations to give la muñeca power.” The old man became silent as he recalled his mother and how she had placed the figurine into his young hands the day he’d left to travel to the land north of the border. “If you press the body you will feel la muñeca’s heart. She has a heart of amber.”
“Arturo, I don’t understand, I don’t understand any of it. About this…” He lifted the figurine so Arturo would see it. “About the…ghost.” He sighed. “How can any of it be true? Perhaps I dreamt it all.”
“Come.” Joe turned to see Arturo trudging a short way up the slope to where two spades were leaning against a tree trunk. He threw one down to Joe who deftly caught it with one hand. “Time to dig. The spirit brought you here, this is where she lies.”
And so they dug. Together the two men buried beneath the surface needles to the dark earth beneath. Their labours were fruitless. For several hours they turned over the earth on the sloping bank, widening their search into the trees beyond. With his sleeves rolled up to his biceps and shirt open to the waist, Joe was wet from sweat and rain and covered in dirt. His frustration was beginning to turn to anger when there was a shout and he turned to see Arturo standing with his hands on his hips, looking down. He stumbled across the upturned ground to the old man’s side.
Arturo had unearthed a low stone border, roughly the size of four barn stalls. He looked over to Joe. “This is it, a graveyard. There’s enough room to bury several bodies.”
Joe let out a long breath, and without a word the two men stepped over the border and began to dig. The earth was soft and pliable from the rain and it wasn’t long before the pine needles and several inches of soil had been thrown out of the plot and onto the surrounding ground. They dug until their backs and arms ached and the sweat trickled between their shoulder blades.
It was as the sun began to slant behind the distant mountains that Joe’s spade connected with something solid. Kneeling, he used his hands to scoop away the surrounding soil. He slowly rose to his feet, looking down at what appeared to be a long human thigh bone. Arturo abandoned where he’d been digging in a far corner and joined Joe in carefully unearthing the skeleton of a woman, for Joe knew deep in his heart these bones belonged to the ghost that had so terrified him. They stood back and looked down at her.
“Only one body,” murmured Arturo. “She must have been someone of importance to have had this whole area for herself.”
The woman had been buried lying on her back with her arms by her sides. She looked so…harmless. Nothing but a pile of bones.
“I wonder who she was, what happened to her.” Joe couldn’t help but feel pity. “How did she end up here?”
Arturo knelt beside her and reached out, his fingers hovering over the skull without touching. “That we will never know.” He climbed awkwardly to his feet. “But she is dangerous. She will rise again at the next black moon and stalk another victim to spend eternity with her.” The old man’s face was resolute. “She must be stopped, once and for all.”
“What can we do?”
The old man retrieved his coat which he’d hung over a low-lying branch and rooted in a pocket. He pulled out a small tied pouch and held it in the palm of his hand. “Mi madre is not the only one who knows powerful spells.”
Joe’s mouth quirked. “How do you know all this?”
“In my culture, we do not fear death, we celebrate it as part of life. We invite the spirits into our homes; they are our ancestors, why should we fear?” He untied the pouch and scattered what looked like herbs over the skeleton. “But mischievous spirits,” he glanced up at Joe, “or worse, will play their tricks.” He threw the now empty pouch to one side. “We have to know how to deal with them.” He nodded his head to Joe. “Stand back.”
Arturo began to mutter words Joe did not understand. The old man trod carefully around the bones, his words flowing as he recited incantations and spells. Stopping at the head of the skeleton, he turned his face to the sky, his eyes closed, and his hands held palm up in front of him. He stopped his murmurs and stayed in that position for a few moments before looking back to Joe.
Joe waited. “Is that it?”
“Si, that is it.”
“You thought there would be a great puff of smoke, that the ground would break apart and her bones would crumble into dust?”
Joe’s lips toyed with a smile. “Yeah, something like that.”
Arturo shook his head. “No, amigo, but there is one last thing to do and she will not rise again.” He pointed at the figurine which Joe had placed on top of his coat. “La muñeca is mighty for she is imbued with the power of a mother’s love. The ghost fears this love for it is more powerful than she. My spells have weakened her; place la muñeca amongst the bones and the ghost will be subdued forever.”
Joe picked up the straw doll. “But she’s yours, Arturo, your mother gave it to you for protection.”
Arturo smiled. “I am old, señor Joe, I have lived a good life. I do not fear whatever is to come. I go…” he pointed upwards. “And I see mi madre again.” He gestured to the grave. “Do it.”
Joe straightened one of the figurine’s arms and knelt next to the bones. He leaned forward and placed la muñeca between the skeleton’s ribs. There was a sudden chill in the air, and a fleeting vibration across the earth. A breath whispered across his cheek and Joe knew the ghost was no more. He felt unexpectedly sad.
“What about the rest of them, the spirits?”
“Now she is gone, they will be free.”
Joe nodded and rose to his feet and the two men filled in the grave, covering up the evidence of a body buried there.
The shadows were encroaching by the time they had finished. Joe stretched out his back, all at once feeling older than he was. He had lived on this earth for seventeen years, but this experience made him aware of his own mortality. His death, no matter when that may be, seemed a lot closer all of a sudden. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Arturo by his side.
“Do not be sad, amigo, you have many years and many adventures ahead of you.” And Joe wondered at how Arturo knew what he’d been thinking.
“Not all questions can be answered, not all riddles solved.” The old man smiled. “Enjoy the mystery, Little Joe, it makes the world a more… invigorating place.”
Arturo squeezed Joe’s shoulder and then walked up the slope to where the horses were tethered. Joe watched him until he was consumed by darkness and realised, with a start, night had almost fallen. He looked up at the handful of stars coming to life and was reassured to see the crescent moon shining like a beacon in the heavens. He breathed a sigh of relief, gathered his coat and tools and headed for the horses, and home.
Joe rode into the yard to see his pa standing in the doorway. The welcoming light from the house shone out across the wooden decking and illuminated Joe as he dismounted.
“Did you do what had to be done, son?” Ben’s eyes fixed his with a concerned look.
“Sure, Pa.” Joe smiled. “Everything’s okay now.”
Adam and Hoss hovered behind their father and grinned at Joe’s return for they could see he had shrugged off the demons that had dogged him for the last week.
“I’ll tell Hop Sing he can heat the chicken an’ dumplings now,” said Hoss, rubbing his hands together with glee.
“And I’ll, um, fill up the bath,” said Adam with a raised eyebrow and a dimple showing in amusement.
Joe laughed. “Yeah, I must look a sight.”
“It doesn’t matter how you look, son, as long as you’re okay.”
Joe nodded. “I am okay, Pa, honest I am.” He began to lead Cochise to the barn but stopped and turned back.
“Hey, is Arturo back yet? He rode on ahead of me from the lake.”
Ben frowned. “Arturo?” He shook his head, looking perplexed.
It was Joe’s turn to frown. “You know, Arturo? The old Mexican? Ranch hand.”
Ben laughed. “There’s no one here by that name. And I think I’d remember a Mexican.” A look of concern clouded his expression. “I’m not sure you should have been up and about so soon after what happened. Go inside, son, I’ll look after Cochise. I think you could do with a couple more days’ rest.” Ben took Cochise’s reins and headed for the barn.
Joe watched him go and then looked towards the lane where Arturo had told him about the black moon. He suddenly realised he couldn’t recall the old Mexican at any time before that encounter. “But I knew him, it was like he’d always been here,” he murmured. He stood there, scratching his head, his gaze finding the night sky. As he did, a shooting star burned a streak of light across the atmosphere and was gone in the blink of an eye. Joe’s face lit in wonder at the brief display.
And then he understood. Not everything in the world could, or should, be explained. The mystery was there to be enjoyed. “Adios, amigo,” he whispered to the night, and turning, he walked to the light and warmth of the house.
Tags: Family, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, JPM
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