Summary: Adam goes looking for his little brother in the woods on All Hallows Eve and finds more than he bargains for.
Word count: 2497
When the Autumn Moon is Bright
Little Joe was nowhere to be found.
Adam Cartwright pulled up on the reins of his mount and halted at the edge of the forest where his youngest brother’s tracks had taken him. He shoved his gray hat back and let out a sigh as his eyes surveyed the dense, tangled mass before him. If the truth were told, he had volunteered to go looking for the thirteen-year-old for one reason and one reason only.
He wanted to ring his neck.
It was autumn and the chores were never-ending. All of the signs of nature pointed to a hard, if not brutal winter to come. Just laying in sufficient firewood to make it through to March should have been enough to keep the kid busy from dawn to dusk. Pa had specifically told Joe that he was to finish his chores before he took off to join his friends. It was October 31st, All Hallows Eve, and the church in the settlement had sanctioned a dance in hopes of warding off the spirits of the air – as well as any childish shenanigans. It was all nonsense, of course, occasioned by ignorance and superstition. America was a new country with new ideas, but those who peopled it brought many things with them from the Old including their traditions. Pa’s people had come from England. He remembered, as a young boy, his mother having him put food out on the doorstep to keep the Devil away. His own step-mother, Marie, with her French Creole background, had been prone to…shall we say…rather fanciful notions as well. He remembered one All Hallows Eve catching her outside with Little Joe in hand, standing beside a bonfire. She told the kid it was meant to light the way for wandering spirits to the afterlife.
Adam’s eyes returned to the woods.
They weren’t on fire.
Rising up in the saddle, he called out, “Joe! Little Joe! If you’re in there, answer me!” The black-haired man waited a moment and then tried again – using his ‘Pa’ voice this time. ”Joseph Francis Cartwright! If you are there, you’d better answer me!”
Adam snorted as he settled back in the saddle. No. He didn’t believe in superstitions.
Just in the power of names, it seemed.
He’d gone to the settlement first , expecting to find the boy there, off in some corner kissing girls. When the corners proved vacant, he’d moved on to the area where the attendees were playing games. Spin the Bottle, Blind Man’s Bluff, and bobbing for apples provided ample opportunities for kissing girls as well.
Little Joe wasn’t there either.
Next he sought out Hoss. Big little brother was doing his own fair share of sparking, with a girl on each arm. But, ‘no’, he hadn’t seen Little Joe since the boy had gone over to join a cadre of his friends who were huddled outside under a pole embellished with Jack O’ Lanterns.
Apparently holding the dance under the watchful eye of the current reverend wasn’t enough to exorcise the dreaded but anticipated, ‘shenanigans’.
He doubted it did much to stop the ‘spirits of the air’ either.
Adam stifled another sigh as he dismounted. He ground tethered Sport and gave his friend’s velvet nose a sociable pat before walking straight into the trees. The spot was not unknown to him. There’d been a blight about the time Little Joe was born and it had twisted the trees in this particular area until they resembled a bale of barbed wire picked up and put down by a cyclone. The thing that puzzled him was that Joe hated this place. Once upon a time – when he’d been the unruly and slightly unprincipled teener – he’d left Little Joe on his own here. The poor kid had been terrified.
So why, he wondered, come here now?
Peer pressure, most likely, was the answer. Joe was thirteen. He was at that age where you grew from a boy to a man, and a big part of that growing was learning to stand on your own. Adam chuckled. He remembered when he’d been that age. Even though he had a man’s responsibilities, he was still a kid. Come to think of it, he’d done something pretty stupid one All Hallows Eve. It involved a pretty girl, a bonfire, a barn dry as kindling, and a more than irate father.
That being his father.
He didn’t sit down for a week.
So, he supposed he’d better go easy on the kid when he found him. Not that he was about to let Joe know why, but –
Adam halted. He’d heard something. It was a strange sound, like someone laughing and crying at the same time.
His fingers moved of their own volition, releasing the strap that held his pistol.
“Little Joe? Joe, it’s Adam. Answer me!”
There was a growl – and then the sound of something falling into water. Next a wind gusted through the trees, blowing leaves and bracken about his feet and dust into his eyes. A dark shadow rushed past him, nearly knocking him down, and then he heard it – a cry.
“Joe!” he shouted, already on the move. “Where are you? Joe?”
“By the…stream. Adam…God….”
The moon was high, but the trees hid it; their jostling branches casting weird shadows on the forest floor that danced with a life of their own. He could only assume the sound of something falling in the water had been his brother. Normally that wouldn’t have scared him, but they’d had a lot of rain and the stream was running high.
It’s rushing voice was nearly loud enough to drown out the frantic beating of his heart.
As he broke through the trees Adam halted, his eyes scanning the sheltered area before him. It took a second or two, but he spotted him. Little Joe was clawing his way up the bank. He was covered with mud from his curly head to the toes of his now ruined dress shoes.
Dropping beside him, Adam asked, “Joe, what happened? Are you all right? For God’s sake, what are you doing out here?”
His brother’s giant green eyes fastened on his face. Joe’s mouth opened and closed two times before any sound came out.
“…stupid,” Joe said, and then again, “…stupid.” A shudder ran through his brother’s lithe body, more than a shiver – almost a tremor. Little Joe’s fingers clawed at his shirt.
The ride home was a silent one. Joe stubbornly refused to answer any questions. For a while the kid sat up, and then he slumped against him and rested his head against his chest. As they plodded along, with the autumn moon full above their heads, his brother fell asleep. Apparently Joe’s subconscious was less reticent, because the moment he did, he started to talk.
“No. Hank…no. I can’t… I won’t….”
It was a dirty trick. The kid was exhausted.
“Can’t what, Joe?” he prompted. “What won’t you do?”
Adam blinked. Was that what this was all about? Teenage boys imbibing in the woods? But no, he hadn’t smelled any liquor on Little Joe’s breath.
“Drink what?” he asked.
“Drink…no. No! Wolf!”
Joe sat up so quickly he almost unseated them both.
“Turn around, Adam!” his brother shouted as he began to squirm and tried to climb down. “Turn around!” Panic entered his voice and Joe began to flail, frightening both him and Sport. “Don’t! I can’t go home! No! Adam! Let me go!”
He did it for his own good. It would haunt him until his dying day.
He hit the kid so hard he put him out.
He didn’t tell Pa the truth, of course. How could he? When they arrived home, he told the older man that Little Joe had gone into the woods with his friends, they’d been fooling around, and Joe’d fallen and hit his head. Pa had given him that ‘look’, but he hadn’t questioned him – at first. When he insisted that he be the one to keep watch, then Pa asked the questions. He fessed up – lied, really – that he’d been partially responsible. He’d come upon the kids and frightened them, he said. He felt guilty.
What he really felt was scared.
Little Joe had been like a madman and it seemed the catalyst was home. He was standing by Joe’s bedside now – hovering over it, really – pondering that and waiting for the kid to wake up so he could question him.
‘No. Can’t. Won’t. Drink. Wolf.”
What the Hell was that about?
It was after midnight and the moon was high. Its light shone through the window of Little Joe’s room, striping the coverlet he had thrown over his brother. As it touched Joe’s hand, his brother moaned and shifted.
He sat beside him. “Joe. It’s Adam. Can you hear me?”
Joe moaned again. His eyes opened without focus, closed, and then opened once more as he licked his lips and asked, “Adam? Where…am I?”
The black-haired man winced. He hoped that punch hadn’t been too hard.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
Joe’s eyes roamed the room and then, just as before, he began to panic. “Adam! No. You didn’t bring me home!! Nooooo….”
He gripped his brother’s arm. “Calm down. Look at me. Joe, look at me!” When his brother did as he was told, Adam demanded, “What is this all about?”
Little Joe grimaced. “Adam,” he said, his voice hushed, “I can’t stay here. I’ll…hurt someone.”
“Hurt someone. You. Or Hoss…or Pa.”
“Joe. Make sense. You would never hurt any of us.”
His brother turned his face into the light. It was pale as the full moon; his eyes shadowed by clouds of fear and pain. Joe swallowed hard. He shuddered.
“I may not have any choice.”
Adam Cartwright pulled up on the reins of his mount and halted at the edge of the forest. He shoved his gray hat back and let out a sigh as his eyes surveyed the dense, tangled mass before him. If the truth were told, he had come here for one reason and one reason only.
To prove his little brother wrong.
The tale Joe told was a fantastic one, worthy of the Brothers Grimm. There was a new boy in town. His name was Hank. Joe didn’t like him, but he was popular with the other boys, mostly because he was trouble. At the dance a group of them had gathered around Hank. Seth had been among them and he’d roped in Little Joe. Hank dared them to follow him into the woods. He said he had something extraordinary to show them. When Joe said they shouldn’t, Hank made fun of him and the kid had caved. The new boy, it seemed, had a book of his father’s; one that contained arcane knowledge. Once in the woods, Hank drew a pentagram on the ground. He spoke a spell and told the boys to step into it. Joe did – thinking Hank was joking. Little brother hadn’t panicked until the older boy brought a wolf out of the woods on a leash and made it drink at the stream, and then told him to do the same. In this way, Hank said, he would become a wolf too, like him and his father, and know great power. That was enough for the other boys, they ran. Joe, being Joe, held his ground, hoping to talk some sense into Hank. A fight ensued. Hank got the better of Little Joe. The older boy caught him and shoved him into the water and made him drink.
Adam passed a hand over his face.
And then, Joe said, Hank turned into a wolf and ran away.
He was standing now on the spot where the dark shadow had passed him, considering his options. He was fairly certain Joe hadn’t seen what he thought he had. The kid was scared, under duress, and half-drowned. And yet, he couldn’t dismiss what he said entirely. On his way back to the forest he’d run into one of their neighbors. The man had formed a posse of sorts. A pair of wolves had appeared out of nowhere just before midnight and decimated his herd.
Adam drew a breath and let it out before reaching into his pocket and drawing out a sterling silver medallion. On its front was the face of Christ. On the back, the words ‘je suis’.
The medallion was one of a pair gifted to him by his ‘fanciful’ stepmother. Marie told him that the silver had been blessed. It was ‘sacré à dieu’, or sacred to God, and one day he might have need of it. He remembered looking at her, one skeptical eyebrow pitched upward toward his black locks.
Then she quoted Shakespeare.
‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Adam, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
Adam ran a hand over his stubbled chin.
He might just prove Shakespeare – and Marie – right tonight.
Medallion in hand, Adam moved into the trees and toward the stream where Joe had fallen. He saw the wolves almost immediately. They were waiting for him; their slavering jaws dripping, their eyes red as blood. His own library was extensive and contained books he knew his father would not approve of. Among them was one of secret knowledge – maybe the same one Hank’s father had. He wasn’t entirely sure he believed the creatures before him were transformed humans, but he was sure of one thing.
Joe believed it.
For several heartbeats they faced one another – silent, unmoving – and then the larger of the pair charged; the younger only a few feet behind. Two shots rang out. Two bullets formed from the molten metal of Marie’s second medallion flew. Two unholy cries split the night as the wind rose and carried away with it the insubstantial shapes of a man and a boy.
A boy. Just like Little Joe.
By the time he reached home, the sun was up and streaming in Little Joe’s window. Adam dropped wearily into the chair beside the bed and reached for his brother’s hand. Opening Joe’s fingers, he placed the remaining silver medallion in it.
“Thank you, Marie,” he sighed.
Little Joe must have heard him. His brother’s eyes opened. “Are they gone?” he asked.
“So, I’m free?”
The book made it clear. If the lycanthrope who had infected another was destroyed, they were liberated from the curse.
“Yes, Joe. You’re free.”
His brother stared at him for nearly a minute, as if to divine the truth of his words. Then he snorted.
“What is it, Joe?”
“I guess you did what’s best.”
Little Joe shrugged as he pulled the linens up to his chin and rolled over. “I don’t know. It might have been kind of fun being a teenage werewolf.”
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