Louise (by mcfair_58)

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SUMMARY:  Joseph Cartwright is a haunted man. He can’t forget the woman he met in Martinville. Little does he know, she remembers him as well and has made a pact with the Devil to make certain he will be hers for eternity. A WHN for the Bonanza episode Twilight Town.  The characters of Nicholas, Janette, and Lucien LaCroix were originally created by Barney Cohan and James D. Parrott for the TV series Forever Knight.

Word count: 38,844

Rated: PG-13

Louise

Prologue

Little Joe Cartwright sat bolt upright in bed; his well-muscled form wrapped in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets.  He remained still for a moment, and then ran a hand through his sodden curls before casting his covers off and rising.  Standing was almost too much.  Joe stumbled as his feet hit the floor; a trembling hand shot out to catch hold of the bedside table.  He waited – breathing, gathering strength – and then pressed off, passing his fingers over the bedside tray that held his untouched supper and the sterling silver cutlery that lay beside it.  Slowly, like one still caught in a dream, the young man padded on bare feet across the floor until he came to the window where he halted.  It was late October.  The sky was black but the moon was full and high.  Its argent light reached through the glass panes like an amorous lover, caressing his glistening skin; urging him to turn the latch and throw open the window.  He had a thought to resist.  It was far back and deep within him.  Contained within that thought was all that he was and all that he hoped to be.  It contained everything he had ever been taught – each and every piece of wisdom and good advice imparted to him over twenty-two years by his beloved Pa and brothers.

It meant nothing.

There was nothing.

Nothing but her.

She stood in the yard, her arms outstretched; her pallid beauty as powerful a drug as he had ever known.  She called to him without words, willing him to step through the window and onto the roof – and then off of the roof.

She wanted him to die.

As he hesitated, Joe shoved a handful of curls off his forehead and then ran his hand along the back of his neck.  He prided himself on being a strong man with a sense, not only of himself, but of an easy confidence in who and what he was.  He might not be as smart as Adam or as even-tempered as Hoss. He knew he could never be the man his father was.  But he was Joe Cartwright.  Or he had been Joe Cartwright.

Now he was…what?

Joe’s eyes, emerald-green in the moonlight, returned to the woman who waited.

Hers.

That’s all he was.

Just…hers.

A sudden gust of wind and the soft, subtle touch of silk curtains against his fevered skin alerted Joe to the fact that he’d opened the window.  He looked down in surprise to find his fingers clenched and white as the sash they clutched.  Beads of sweat dropped from his spiraling curls, wetting his bare skin as they traveled the length of his chest to the rolled waistband of his night-trousers, chilling him.

Before he was aware of it, he was halfway out the window.

Then, like Mr. Poe’s insistent raven that older brother was so fond of, there came a rapping, a regular and constant tapping at his chamber door.  It was tentative at first and then grew in both intensity and volume, as if the one who knocked had grown desperate.  There was a flash of a man’s face in his mind – a baby face with blue eyes that were pale as the moonlight maiden who called him.  A man who cared about him.

A man he cared about.

But not enough.

As Joe’s other foot found a precarious purchase on the shingles there was a sound – one such as he had never heard.  He turned to look and found that his three-inch-thick door had been torn from its hinges.  Splintered wood and twisted metal lay scattered across the floor of his bedroom.  Someone stood in the midst of the chaos.  It was the blond man; the one with the cherubic face.  But something was wrong.  His eyes were no longer blue.

They were the sickly yellow of the wolf.

“Joseph, no!” the man cried as he flew across the room.

Joe flew too.

Right off of that roof and straight into Louise’s arms.

 

 

Chapter One – Before

A strong tug on the back of his brown leather belt told Little Joe Cartwright he’d been found out even before his older brother spoke.

“Where do you think you’re off to, little brother?” Hoss demanded.  “Pa ain’t gonna take kindly to you disappearin’ with the autumn drive comin’ on right quick.”

He’d been halfway in the saddle.  Now he was halfway to the ground and hanging just about two feet above it.

“Let me go, you big ox!” Joe shouted as he twisted and turned in an attempt to gain his freedom.

His giant of a brother was unimpressed.

“Now, Jo-seph, don’t you know it ain’t polite to call a feller names?” Hoss made a face – kind of like he’d sucked rhubarb.  “How’d you like it if’n I called you a skinny little runt?”

“You do call me a skinny little runt!”

With his free hand, Hoss scratched his head.  “I guess I do at that.  Sorry, little brother.”

A second later Joe got what he wanted – released.  Or what thought he’d wanted before he ended up eating dirt.

Momentarily a big beefy paw appeared before his nose, palm open.

“No hard feelin’s?”

Joe eyed the hand with a sigh.  Then he gripped Hoss’ wrist with both hands and thrust his smaller frame between his bigger brother’s legs, using the momentum to flip Hoss over and onto his back.  Rising to his feet, Joe planted his hands on his hips and stood there, nostrils flaring, breathing fire, as Hoss climbed slowly to his feet.

“Okay, little brother, bring it on!” the big man said with a smile.

It was only a matter of seconds before the two of them were kicking up a dust storm worthy of a dry Sunday in Arizona.  It had been a long time since he and Hoss had fought a mock battle and in the mood he was in, Joe was more than ready for it.  He dove in headfirst.  In no time at all both he and Hoss looked like they’d been washed in sand and dressed in dirt.

It took the drawn-out long-suffering sound of a throat being cleared and a stentorian baritone bellowing ‘BOYS!’ to bring them back to their senses.

Which was probably a good thing since Hoss was holding him high over his head and that ground that he’d hit earlier was looking even harder now.

“Hey, Pa,” Joe said with a wiggle of his fingers.

Pa’s arms were crossed and his toe was tapping, which was never a good sign.

“And just what do you two think you are doing?”

Hoss looked up just as he looked down.  Joe wrinkled his nose and thought furiously.

“Well, you see, Pa, Hoss here was tellin’ me how he wanted to win that contest at the harvest dance – you know, the strong man one?”  He was nodding like an idiot.  “Ain’t that right, Hoss?”

His brother was staring at him.  Hoss looked puzzled – like he was trying to figure out how he’d ended up in trouble.

“Yeah, sure….”

“I told Hoss that I weighed more than the barbell they’d be using and if he could lift me a couple of dozen times over his head without panting, then I was sure he…could….”

Pa was pinching his nose and shaking his head.

Which was even worse.

Joe winced and waited.  He’d expected the comment about how it was no wonder that Pa’s hair had gone white and it was all because of him, but that wasn’t what he got.  Pa drew a deep breath.  He looked up toward Heaven and then down, and then said, his tone as measured as a man’s steps toward a grave.

“Hop Sing sent me to tell you that supper will be ready in a half-hour. I would advise the pair of you to go inside and clean up before he mistakes you for the main course!”

Now, brother Hoss, he had a way of missin’ when Pa was ready to explode like a jostled bottle of nitro.  Middle brother’s beefy face lit up bright as a struck match as he exclaimed, “Does that mean we’re havin’ roast pig?”

Pa was not amused.

“There are times,” Pa said, “and they are many, I can tell you, when I wish the pair of you were still small enough to turn over my knee!”

“Pa, you know I ain’t never been small enough to turn over your knee,” Hoss replied matter-of-factly.  “Now, Shortshanks here, on the other hand….”

Joe drew a breath to shout – and just in time because all the air in him was driven out as his brother swung him in a wide arc and deposited him bottom-first on the ground.

“…dang, if he ain’t still little enough to fit!”

His fingers formed fists of their own volition.  “I’ll show you who’s ‘little’!” he declared as he scrambled to his feet.

“JOSEPH!”

Joe’s nose twitched.  He hated it when it did that, but he didn’t have any more control over it than he did his temper.  Unclenching his fists, he thrust his hands into his pockets – where they’d keep out of trouble.

“Sorry, Pa.”

His father was staring at him.  Well, ‘glaring‘ really.  Then he said the words he dreaded.

“Hoss, why don’t you go on inside and clean up?  I’d like to talk to your brother.”

“Don’t you think I need to…clean up too?” Joe asked, hopeful.

“This will only take a minute.  You’ll have plenty of time.”

His father started toward him as he spoke but stopped a few feet short, which puzzled him.  If there was one thing Pa was, it was a toucher.  For a moment Joe thought he was in real trouble, but then he realized that his pa had already dressed for supper.  He watched as the older man considered – for just a moment – what embracing him in his disheveled state would cost.  Then, apparently, Pa decided he had time to change too as he came to his side, wrapped an arm around his filthy shoulders, and drew him in close.

“Joseph, I want you to tell me what’s wrong.”

Pa felt him tense.

There was more than one purpose to that tightly wrapped arm.

“W-wrong?” he stuttered.  “Nothing’s wrong, Pa.  Really.  I mean, what would make you think something is wrong?”

“Other than what you just said?”  The older man indicated his saddled horse with a nod.  “And just where were you planning on going, young man?”

Joe swallowed over the big lump of the lie he was telling.  “Just out…for a ride.”

“With several days provision?”

His father tightened his grip and turned him so he was looking at Cochise.  His horse’s back end was laden with fat saddlebags, a bed roll, a slicker, and a half-dozen other things needed to set up camp.

“A…long…ride?”

His father’s anger faded to concern.  “Joseph.  Tell me the truth.  Does this have to do with that young woman?”

Joe dropped his head, which was the wrong thing to do since Pa knew what that meant.

“What…’young woman’?” he muttered.

He loved it and hated it; his father’s fingers on his chin, lifting his head so he had to meet his gaze.

“Joe, it’s been over a month,” Pa said.  “You have to let it go.  You have to let…Louise…go.”

How?

How did Pa always know what he was thinking?

“Pa, I…can’t.  Don’t you understand?  I have to go back.  I have to…see for myself.”

His father shook his head as he released him.  “After we found you in the desert, half out of your head, your brothers and I went back to Martinville with you, son.  There was nothing there.  You did ‘see’.  What else can you possible hope to find?”

“I don’t know.  Something.  Some proof that….”  Joe sucked in air.  This was it.  “Some proof that I’m not crazy.”

“Joseph…  Son. You were bushwhacked and struck viciously on the head.  You spent days wandering in the desert in the late summer heat with no water.  It’s a wonder that you’re alive.”  Pa’s voice choked as he reached out with his hand to brush the curls from his forehead.  “Any man who went through such an ordeal would be expected to see things that weren’t there.”

“But she was there!” he shouted like a stupid little kid.  “Louise…was there.”  Joe hesitated.  He knew how ridiculous it sounded, like he was a schoolboy with a crush. “Pa, there was something….  Something special…about her.  I can’t forget her.  I need to….”  He wet his lips.  This sounded even more ludicrous.  “I have to find her.”

His father was staring at him, not dismissing what he said – which scared him a little.  After a moment, the older man said, “Joseph, I understand that this is important to you.  Do you believe me when I say that?”

He hesitated only a second before he nodded.

“Then you have to believe me when I say that I promise I will help you get to the bottom of this – but not now.  Now is not the time.  I need every man with his wits about him to help with the upcoming drive.”  The older man paused.  “No, not I – ‘we‘ need.  This drive is as important to you and your brothers as it is to me.  Last season’s drought hurt us.  Between the destructive fires, the livestock that died of thirst, and the families that pulled up stakes, it’s cost us.  Joseph, it’s going to be a long, hard winter and an even harder spring.  The money from the drive is what will see us through.”

It was true.  Though rain had returned to the Nevada Territory – even without a real rainmaker – the drought had devastated Virginia City and its surrounds.  The resources on the Ponderosa had preserved enough of their beeves to meet the contract brother Adam had negotiated, but others hadn’t fared as well.  People had gone back East.  They’d lost a lot of ranch hands.

He didn’t know what he’d been thinking.

“I’m sorry, Pa.  I was being selfish.  I….”

“No more need be said,” Pa replied with a smile.  “How about you and I go back to Martinville when we get back from the drive and see what we can find?  Weather permitting, of course.”

Joe gave his father a limp smile.  He wasn’t so sure he wanted his Pa along when he went to find Louise, but he knew better than to argue.

“Sounds, great, Pa.  Now, I guess I better get inside and get cleaned up.  Otherwise, knowing Hop Sing, dust is all I’ll get to for supper tonight!” Joe said as he started to move.

His father caught him by the arm and stopped him.  Cupping his face in his hand, he forced him to meet his gaze.  “You know I believe you, son.  Don’t you?”

Joe opened his mouth to reply, but the sound of footsteps stopped him.  It was an unusual sound since most everyone who visited the Ponderosa rode into the yard.  Pivoting on his heel, the curly-haired man turned around to look.  The sun had set while they talked, but enough light remained to illuminate the slender figure that approached them.  It was a man; neither young or old.  From the look of him, he was probably around Adam’s age, or in his thirties.  Joe noticed immediately that he and the man were close in height and build, though the stranger topped him by maybe an inch and was slightly more solid.  It was hard to see the man’s face since what was left of the sun was behind him, but there was no mistaking the color of his curls – they glistened like gold in the dying light.

Joe noted how his father instinctively stepped between him and the stranger.

“Howdy,” Pa said.  “Can I help you?”

“Perhaps,” the man replied.  “I’m looking for Benjamin Cartwright.  Would you happen to know where I could find him?”

Joe knew his pa.  The older man was sizing the stranger up.  He didn’t look much like a ranch hand, though the newcomer was dressed like one in a pair of tight-fitting jeans stuffed into well-worn brown boots, and a pale blue shirt over which he wore a calfskin vest.  Joe’s gaze instinctively went to the man’s hands.  They didn’t appear to be callused.

Another indication that there might be something more to the stranger than met the eye.

“What do you want with Mister Cartwright?” Joe asked as his father’s gaze flicked to him before returning to the blond man.  They’d played this game before, pretending they weren’t the owners of the ranch.  “Are you looking for work?”

The stranger smiled.  It was what the preacher would have called a ‘beatific’ smile; the kind that assured you that its owner was among the saints.

“I am.  I was told that Mister Cartwright was in need of hands to help with the autumn drive.”

His pa looked as skeptical as he felt.  “You’ve…worked drives before?”

The stranger’s smile broadened.  “Friend, I can honestly say that I have done just about everything and anything you can name, including driving beeves.  My last employment was on a ranch in Argentina.”

Pa looked surprised.  “May I ask what brings you to Nevada then?”

For a second there was something.  It entered the man’s eyes but fled almost as quickly, as if he had willed it to disappear.  Joe sought to name it.  It wasn’t fear, though there was something of fear it in.  Nor was it dread.  It contained determination and a bit of rage as well.

“Wanderlust,” he replied at last.

“So you’re not one to stay put in any place for long?” Pa asked.

“Long enough to get the job done,” the stranger answered.  With that smile plastered firmly in place, he added, “Well, Mister Cartwright, do I have the job?”

Pa sputtered a moment and then laughed.  “You found me out.  How?”

The reply was instant.

“Keen perception and amazing deductive skills.”  The stranger chuckled at their startled expressions.   “Plus I asked around before I came here and was given a rather…er…detailed description of you by a charming mature Englishwoman who goes by the name of…Clementine?  She was quite smitten with you, sir.  I believe she waxed the most poetic about your ‘velvet brown’ eyes.”

Pa didn’t cuss very often, but he did now.  “Good Lord!”  When he had sufficiently recovered, his father held his hand out.  “You guessed right.  I am Ben Cartwright.  And you are?”

The man hesitated only a second before taking the offered hand.  “Nicholas. Nicholas Knight. But you can call me Nick.”

“Nick it is, then,” Pa replied.  “You’ve actually come at a fortuitous time, Nick.  We’re short-handed and can use any good man we can get.”

It was out of his mouth before he could stop it.

“Are you?”  Joe heard himself ask.  “Are you a good man?”

Unlike Pa, who was staring at him as if he’d just walked a two-dollar hussy into church, Nick Knight appeared unruffled by his question.  The blond man turned toward him.  Nick held his hand out and waited until he had taken it before he replied.

“Good or bad, Joseph Cartwright,” their new hand said as he met and held his gaze, “I’m the man you need.”

 

“Adam Cartwright, you old dog!  Where’ve you been keeping yourself?”

He knew that voice.  It was one he hadn’t heard in a while and it took him by surprise.  Adam placed his beer on the counter and turned to look into the large open room that was the common area of the Bucket of Blood.

“Viney?” he asked.

“In the flesh,” the older woman replied as she sidled up to him.

Viney was as much of an institution in Virginia City as the Bucket itself, or had been until she’d skipped town a few months back.  Adam had to smile as she brushed his hand with her fingertips.  Viney was the ‘scandalous’ woman of his past.  Not that he’d had a relationship with her, though they were friends, but she was that ‘woman of the evening’ the church ladies had warned him in his youth, telling him he’d better walk on the other side of the street lest he be caught in her snares and ruined.

So, of course, he’d made it his business to make her acquaintance as soon as he could.

He didn’t know her real name.  Everyone just called her ‘Viney’.  She was somewhere around forty, though she appeared a good bit older.  Life had used her hard, burning twenty years into her features for every ten she had lived.  He didn’t know her entire history, though she’d shared bits and pieces of it with him over the years, handing out meager morsels as if they were prizes that had to be earned by trust.  Ironically, she’d been born in Boston and had left the East for the West at a young age just like him.  Her story was the usual one.  Once out West she fell on hard times and fell into prostitution as the only way to survive.  At the time of the church ladies’ warning he’d been fifteen and she’d been a stunner in her early twenties with full breasts, long legs, and a mane of luscious ebony-black hair.  Viney’s eyes were ice-blue and set in a face pale enough to rival the Parian flesh of any of Michelangelo’s marble maidens.  Adam pursed his lips as his eyes narrowed and took her in.  A vein of silver had crept into that black mane since last he’d seen her.  More than one in fact.  The widest started just above her left eye, which was narrowed from a hard slap one of her customers had given her years before.  The man’s ring caught the edge.  It healed wrong.

The resulting scar and the sultry dropped lid it engendered had raised her price.

“How about a beer?” he asked her.

“I’ll take a whiskey,” Viney replied as she fingered his collar.  “And some company.  Meet me at my table?”

Her usual table was the one in the back – or it had been up until the time she left.

“I take it you’re back…permanently?” he asked.

Viney’s silver-streaked ebony-black hair was wound up and pinned in place with an ivory comb.  As she tilted her head, a fan of it broke loose to mask her gaze.

“As permanent as it gets, sugar.  See you at the table.”

Adam sipped his beer as she moved away.  Viney had a way of walking that made a man pay attention.  He watched her until she took a seat and then turned to take the whiskey from Sam.

Who held onto it and said, “Watch yourself with that one, Adam.”

That made him blink.  “Viney?  What for?  I’ve know her as long as I’ve known Little Joe.  If she was going to try something, she would have done it before now.”

“She ain’t…the same.”  The big burly man released the glass with a shudder.  “I’m not saying she’s dangerous.  Just…different.”

Sam was a man as anchored to the Earth as they came.  The bartender had seen just about everything in the time he’d lived and worked in Virginia City’s various establishments.  Nothing shook him.

Until now it seemed.

When he turned back, drinks in hand, Adam noticed Viney wasn’t alone.  A slender dark-haired saloon girl dripping crimson cloth and black lace stood next to her.  She had one hand on the chair-back and the other on Viney’s shoulder.

To say that she was striking was a lollapalooza of an understatement.

Looking over his shoulder at Sam, he asked, “Who’s the new girl?”

“Friend of Viney’s.  She vouched for her.”

There was an undercurrent of disapproval to the bar-keep’s tone.

“You don’t like her.”

Sam snorted as he reached for a glass to wipe it out.  “She’s a bit high-handed for my taste, but that’s not it.”

“Oh?”  Adam looked again.  The young woman had turned and was looking toward the bat-wing doors as if expecting someone.  A pale beam of moonlight struck her where she stood, painting her white skin a cool blue, and her deep brown hair the shade of midnight.  Her eyes were large with painted brows above; her nose straight and slightly patrician.  Her lips were full, sensual – and an open invitation for kissing. She had a long slender neck reminiscent of an ancient Greek statue and bore herself with the confidence and surety of a woman who knew who and what she was.

And exactly what she wanted.

A second later she turned and caught him watching.  Their eyes locked for a moment and she smiled. Then she bent down and said something to Viney who laughed before beckoning him over.

Women.  They were a whole different world.

As he sat the whiskey down on the table top, the older woman smiled and said, “Always the gentleman.”

Adam smiled too as he sat down.  Then he nodded toward the younger woman.  “Are you going to introduce me to your friend?”

Viney brushed the black veil from her eyes before looking at her companion.  “Is that what we are?  Friends?”

“That is un name for it,” her companion chuckled.

“You’re French,” Adam remarked, noting her accent.

Those full lips twitched with mischief.  “That is un name for what I am.”

For a second – just a second – she reminded him of Marie.  His stepmother had often had imps in her eyes and loved to tease him.  Marie’s eyes would light up, her lips would twist at the end, and then she would say something calculated to crack his self-imposed and carefully constructed shell of disaffection.  This woman was a tease, like Marie, but she was…something more.

With a glance at Viney, who was watching their interchange closely, Adam extended his hand and said, “Adam Cartwright.”

“Of the Ponderosa?” the young woman asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, messier! I have heard much of you and your most charming brothers and father from the local inhabitants.  I was hoping to meet you.”  Her smile, when it came full-on, was intoxicating.  “I am Janette,” the woman breathed.  “Janette DuCharme.”

At that moment Adam became aware of a sound.  It was the beating of a heart – slow, low, and loud.   His heart.  Pounding in his ears.

His blood pulsing through his veins.

The woman’s fingers trailed along his jaw-line to his throat where they stopped, poised just over his jugular.  “You are a handsome one, mon cher.  So strong. So vital.”   She smiled at him as she leaned in for a kiss.  “So…alive.”

“Leave him alone!”

It took Adam a moment to come to himself and realize it was Viney who had shouted.  Janette shrugged and moved to the other side of the table.

“Not to fear,” she laughed.  “This one is not to my…taste.  He is too old!

Adam swallowed hard.  He didn’t know whether to be insulted or relieved.

A second later the thought came into his head that he had better keep Little Joe out of town.

As Janette crossed to another table and began to work her wiles, Adam turned his attention back to Viney.  She looked unsettled and, if he had to put a name to it, somewhat unwell.  Reaching out, he placed his hand over hers and was as startled when she jumped.

“Janette,” he said.  “Who is she?  Why is she here?”

“She needed a job.  I got her one.”  Viney pulled her hand clear and rose to her feet.  There was little emotion, and even less affection behind her words as she went on.  “Janette is in the area looking for a friend.  All I can say is that I hope she finds him and leaves quickly.”  The older woman paused by his chair to place a hand on his shoulder.  “Adam,” she said, her words low, “take care on your way home and once you get there, stay put!”

A heartbeat later she was gone.

 

When Joe exited the barn after his evening chores were completed, he noticed a lone figure leaning on the fence beside the bunkhouse, staring off into the distance.  He noticed him because the man’s compact form was silhouetted against the risen moon.  Joe considered his choices and then strolled over to join the stranger he had been introduced to only that evening as Nicholas Knight.

“Not comfortable in the bunkhouse?” he asked.

Nick didn’t start.  In fact, he acted as if he had known he was there all along even though his back had been to him.  “I have to admit I am a bit of a loner,” the newcomer said as he turned.  “Crowds make me nervous.”

“You better rethink working for us then,” Joe said as he too leaned on the fence.  In the distance he could hear the cattle bawling.  “A thousand beeves is quite a crowd.”

“Maybe I should have said crowds of hu…people.”

Joe looked at the blond man.  He seemed a decent enough sort, even if he was a bit odd.  They’d hired plenty of loners and most of them had worked out all right.  Still, a man had to fit in to function on a ranch.  There were too many times when they had to cover each other’s backs.

Turning so his back was resting on the fence, Joe said, “You sound like my brother Adam.  Seems to me sometimes that he likes books better than people.”

“Books are trustworthy.”

“And people aren’t?”

Nick looked right at him.  His pale eyes shone in the moonlight like a wolf’s.  “People are like shadows. There’s what you see, and there is what lurks underneath.”

“You mean you think everyone is hiding something?”

“Not necessarily.  Sometimes it is, rather, that something is hiding within them.  A longing.  A desire.  Perhaps a need; a need that, one day, may well prove their undoing.”  The blond man stared at him for several heartbeats before pushing off the fence and coming to stand before him.  “I sense in you such a need.”

“Me?” Joe snorted and blew him off.  “The only ‘need’ I have is for a good night’s sleep.  Pa’s got plans for the morning and they start before the cock crows.”  Shifting off the fence, he started to move away. “I’d suggest you turn in as – ”

“Joseph, look at me.”

The words were spoken softly.  They were just as compelling as if they had been a command issued from his father’s lips.

Something in Joe fought against their power.

It lost.

 

 

TWO

Nicholas Knight held the gaze of the young man before him.  He was a handsome specimen, lean and muscular with a quick smile and charisma that oozed from every pore.  Joseph Cartwright was a child of wealth as his clothing and bearing attested, but – from the little he had learned so far – like his father and older brothers, was not one to count it as his right, but rather as a blessing.  The thick crown of curly brown hair that adorned his head set off his large eyes, which were several shades of green, depending on the light.  His face was angelic.  There was a sense about him, not of naïveté – or even innocence – but of an inner beauty.  This was a good man,

This was a man in peril.

But then, all of the Cartwrights were in peril.

It had been his hope that LaCroix would not remember, but he knew it to be a vain hope at best.  The nearly two-thousand-year old vampire never forgot an insult or a grudge.  They had been in San Francisco with the intention of boarding a ship bound for France, when LaCroix announced he was leaving them to travel east to pay a visit to an ‘old friend’.   He mentioned it casually over dinner.  Even though they had their own…means of survival, money was required for everyday expenses, and it was not unheard of for LaCroix to go off alone to attend to business.  One simply couldn’t move into the grandest hotel in the Golden City and expect to be treated like royalty unless you flashed abundantly large sums of cash at regular intervals.  For LaCroix, nothing would do but the best.  When asked where his money came from, the older man assured those asking that he had come by it quite legitimately.  As he gestured with his hand, La Croix’s teeth would flash in his face with nearly the same glint as the silver adorning his fingers and wrists.  Here, such a man was called a ‘silver baron’, otherwise known as the nobility of the New World.

Amusing.  LaCroix.

Noble.

With a sigh, Nicholas returned his attention to the young man who stood mesmerized before him.  Joseph hadn’t moved or made a sound and he wouldn’t until he released him.  So far he had met only two of the four Cartwrights.  He couldn’t know which was the most vulnerable.  It could be any of them.  Still, he sensed something in Ben’s youngest.  Joseph was not untouched by the night.  There was a stain on his soul.

He needed to know who had left it there.

A he reached out to touch the young man, the sound of pounding hoof beats altered his intention.  Nicholas frowned as he looked in their direction.  His sight was keen and his ears sharp.  It was a man; a strong man of presence who sat his rust-colored thoroughbred like a prince.

A slight smile curled the blond man’s lips as his eyes returned to the young man before him.  Another prince.

Another Cartwright.

“Joseph,” he said softly.  “It is time to wake.”

For a moment Little Joe Cartwright remained as he was.  Then he shuddered.

And then, he fell.

Nicholas caught him just before he hit the ground.  Less than five seconds later the strong presence was at their side, reaching out.

“What happened to him?” the man demanded.  “And who are you?”

Ah, yes.  A prince indeed.

“Your brother and I were talking.  He seemed to suddenly grow faint.”

“Little Joe.  Joe?  It’s Adam.  Can you hear me?”

There was a gentleness in his touch.  Adam.  The older brother.  The protector and defender.

A man to take account of.

Joseph moaned.  “Adam, I don’t…feel so good.”

Adam had his arm around his brother’s shoulders.  With his free hand he felt Joseph’s forehead, seeking for a sign of illness.  His strong form relaxed when he found none.

A moment later Adam’s gaze returned to him and he demanded again, “Who are you?”

“Nick Knight,” he answered easily.  “Your father hired me tonight to help with the drive.”

“A drifter then?” the elder prince asked with suspicion.

He couldn’t help it.  He smiled.  “‘I am that merry wanderer of the night.  I jest to Oberon and make him smile’.”

All proper princes were, of course, acquainted of Shakespeare and A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

Adam’s guard did not go down, but he abandoned his soldier stance and stood at ease.  “Over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier, over park,” he quoted Puck, “over pale, through flood, thorough fire, I do wander everywhere, swifter than the moon’s sphere….’

Nicholas laughed.  “Yes, ‘And I serve the fairy queen’.”

Another moan brought their attention back to Adam’s young brother.

“Would you two speak English?” Joseph groaned.

Adam chuckled.  “I am afraid my little brother’s idea of culture is the stage show at the Palace.”  A second later, he turned serious.  “Joe, can you tell me what’s wrong?  Are you ill?”

The young man shook his head.  “Just…got dizzy.  Don’t know why.”  He blinked and for the first time Joseph’s attention returned to him.  “Nick?”

“We were talking.  You suddenly felt unwell.  I –”

“Hey!  Adam?  What’s the matter with Little Joe?”

Ah, the last of the princes’, Nicholas thought as he turned.  Then he had another thought.  ‘And what a prince!’  This one was of the stature of King Edward the Fourth; tall and broad as a mountain.

“You all need to…stop fussing,” Joseph groused.  “Help me up.  If Pa…gets wind of this, he’s gonna call Doc Martin….”

The mountain of a man pursed his lips and lifted his brows. “I hate to tell you this, little brother, but Pa was right behind me.  He was throwing a fit that you wasn’t in the house yet and – ”

“Joseph?”

All three brothers winced.  Adam was the first to speak.  “It’s okay, Pa.  Joe just felt a little dizzy.”

“Did you fall or hit your head?” the older man asked as he descended on the trio.

“No, Pa, I –”

“Then, why in the world would you feel dizzy?”  The older man’s hand found the young one’s head.  “You don’t have a fever.  How do you feel?”

“Fine, Pa.  I’m fine.  Adam…help me up.”

Sadly, for Joseph, he wobbled a bit as he found his feet.

“Hoss, go get Paul,” Ben Cartwright ordered.  “I’d like him to check your brother out.”

“Pa!  I said I was fine!” Joe protested, and not too meekly.

“And I say you are not!” the older man shot back.  “Or perhaps you’ve some medical knowledge I am unaware of?  Would you care to explain to me why a perfectly healthy young man would suddenly feel dizzy enough to lose his footing?”

Nicholas felt Joseph’s gaze fall on him.  There was a smidgen of suspicion in those green eyes.  Then, just as quickly, it disappeared.

After all, what could he have done?

“Just let me sleep on it, Pa,” the young man pleaded.  “If I feel dizzy or sick in the morning, you can send for Paul.  Okay?  You don’t want to drag him out here tonight for what’s gonna turn out to be nothing.”

There was about Ben Cartwright an air of authority he had only seen once or twice in his life.  General Washington had been such a man.  The Virginian’s very presence commanded attention and it took a man of strong character to challenge him.

There were three such strong men standing before him.

“I’ll take little brother up and tuck him in bed, Pa,” the giant among them said.  “I’ll even sit with him if you want me to.”

Before Joseph could protest, Nicholas interrupted.  “Mister Cartwright?”

“Yes?”

“I have some…experience with the medical arts.  An illness can come upon one with the silent swiftness of a mountain cat.  It wouldn’t hurt to have someone watch over Joseph tonight.”

Joseph started to object.

A look silenced him.

Ben was pulling at his chin.  “Yes.  I agree.  Hoss, take your brother inside.  Adam and I will make certain everything is shut down for the night.”  The older man paused as he watched the pair start toward the house and then turned once again to him. “Thank you for helping my son.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

“I’m going to go check the barn, Pa,” Adam said.  “Good night, Nicholas.”

“Good night.”

“Did you find the bunkhouse comfortable?” Ben asked after his son disappeared.

“I was only in it briefly, but it appeared more than adequate.”

“The men didn’t give you any trouble?”

Nicholas shook his head.  Then he squared his feet and met the older man’s slightly puzzled stare.

This was the tricky part.

“Actually, sir, I meant to speak to you.  If you don’t mind, I prefer working at night.  I have a…condition.  The sun causes me great pain.”

“And you want to be a ranch hand?” Ben asked with surprise.

“There are always the jobs no one else wants – riding the herd in the dark, keeping the midnight watch.”  He laughed.  “I’m always popular.  Wherever I work, everyone else gets to sleep.”

“You might have told me this before.”

“Yes, and you might not have hired me and I need the work.”

The older man ran fingers over his chin.  “So you would be willing now to go and relieve the man watching the cattle?”

More than willing.”

Ben’s brow was furrowed.  “It’s rather unusual, but then…I sense you are a most unusual man.”

“Mister Cartwright, I know you have no reason to believe me, but I am here to help.  I wasn’t entirely honest before.  I asked around town a lot and was impressed by what I was told about you and your sons.  I want to be a…part of the Ponderosa.  I feel, well, it is worth preserving.”

It was hard to say enough without saying too much.

“That’s…kind of you.”

“It is my duty, sir.  And my privilege.”

He was frowning now.  “Are you a soldier?”

“I was,” Nicholas answered honestly.

The older man nodded.  “So was I.  I…think I understand.  You’ll find the herd in the north pasture.  Tell Jim I sent you and that he’s to rouse Thom and tell him to relieve you just before dawn.”

“I will.”

“Good night, then, Nick.  Thank you.”

As Ben Cartwright turned to go into his house, he couldn’t help but call the older man back.

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“One word of advice.  The night is chill.  I would…advise you to tell your son…Hoss, is it?”

He nodded.

“Tell Hoss to keep the window to Joseph’s room closed.  You wouldn’t want the night air to get in.”

“Oh.  Yes, I will.   Thank you for the reminder.”

Nicholas Knight watched until the rancher had entered the house and closed the door.  Then he sighed.

“The night air or anything else.”

 

The moon was cloaked in an inky garment of clouds.  Here and there its pale beams struck the deserted streets of Martinville, illuminating the abandoned mercantile, the empty saloon; passing through the wrecked stain-glass windows of its long-forsaken church to cast multicolored shadows on its wooden floor.  There was no excuse for any other kind of light.  Martinville’s inhabitants were at rest at last, released from their decades old curse by a young man named Little Joe Cartwright who had stumbled into the town half-dead and taught its citizens the meaning of valor.

And yet, there was a light.

Its unhealthy luminescence shone through the window of the late Sheriff O’Brien’s office – an unhealthy luminescence that waivered as someone – or something – walked past.

Some…thing.

Or someone.

Someone who moved to the window and drew the ragged curtains back so they could stare at the deserted street beyond.  If there had been someone else there to see, they would have noted the woman’s stick-straight ebon hair drawn back painfully into a tight round bun.  They would have seen her dark eyes dart from one side of the street to the other and, perhaps, chuckled at the expression that crossed her face – an expression so severe it was almost comical.  She was a tall woman, dressed in garb that hinted of an exotic birth.  Her name was Kate O’Brien.  She was the late sheriff’s widow.

She was also a witch.

With a small sigh Kate released the curtain and let it fall back into place.  The one she awaited had promised to appear before the sun dawned in the sky, and still she had seen no sign of them.  Perhaps they had changed their mind.  Perhaps they would not come.

Perhaps, she would not have to pay.

Kate rested her hands on the windowsill and leaned her weight on them.  So many choices.  She had made so many choices in her youth that she’d lived to regret.  Marrying Tom O’Brien had been the only good one.  This office in a small town of even smaller nobodies had been an oasis of peace in a life marked by storms.  It had been, for a few brief years, until the nobodies sacrificed her husband on the altar of their cowardice.  Kate’s knuckles went to bone where they gripped the sill.  Spineless damned villains!  They deserved what they got, every one of them!  She’d made them pay.  The older woman’s right eye twitched as her lips flattened into a line of steel.

Or she had until that child had come.  The one who put an end it.  That unexpected boy who had released those she’d cursed from what should have been their eternal damnation.

Little Joe Cartwright.

A shift in the shadows that occupied the back corner of the office returned Kate to the present.  The steely line curled into a forced smile.

“Welcome back, my dear,” she said.

“Back?” a light voice asked.  “Where…where did I go?”

“Only to sleep for a while.  But the time has come to wake.”

The shadows stirred again, yet no form appeared.  “I was dreaming. Such wonderful dreams.”

“Of that boy, I imagine,” Kate smirked.

“Yes.  When will I get to see him again?”

The tall dark-haired woman pushed off the window and moved across the room.  “It will not be long now.  A…man is coming.  He will make a way.”

The girl’s hands were visible now.  Soft, small hands.  The kind a man loved to clasp.  Her pale blue gown shifted, catching the ascending light that cascaded in the window, announcing that today would not be the day.  The man she awaited would not come.

He was no friend to the light.

Kate bit off her disappointment.  “But not until tonight. You should rest again, my dear.”

“No!  I want….  I want to see him today!”

The enchantress snorted.   Such spirit.  It was what had allowed this one to remain after all the others had gone to their eternal rest.  That and…love.

Kate’s mouth watered.  Not with desire but with distaste.

The severe woman opened her lips to respond, but instead let out a small, startled sound as the office’s heavy wooden door was thrust in and a tall, commanding figured dressed in the costliest finery San Francisco had to offer entered the room.  In spite of crossing the desert, not a speck of dust clung to him.  His clothing was immaculate.  His crisp, white hair stood martial straight and unblemished upon his head.  The man’s face was long and lean as a jackal’s.  It held a pair of eyes pale as his hair, but tinged with a sickly-blue the color of the lips of a drowned man.

Lucien LaCroix paused just inside the door, and then – upon seeing her – sneered.

Just like that jackal before the kill.

“I am so sorry that I am late, my dear,” the ancient creature remarked casually, as though he had missed a date to share a cup of tea.  “Did you think I wasn’t coming?”

What should she say?  She had hoped he wouldn’t, but longed that he would?

“I thought perhaps…tonight….”

The white-haired man looked behind him.  “Oh, the daylight?  It’s a bit of a bother, but after several thousand years you grow used to it.”  He paused.  “Know this, Kate O’Brien, nothing keeps me from my business.  Nothing.”

She was his business, in a way.  But then, so was the pale girl who clung to the shadows.  Maybe even more so.

La Croix removed his cloak and tossed it over the back of her late husband’s chair before crossing over to her and taking her chin in his fingers – forcefully.

“I see the years have not been kind to you,” he remarked.  “Pity.  I once offered you another way.”

He had, and she had refused it.

Without flinching, Kate replied, “I didn’t need to be twice damned.  Once is quite enough, thank you.”

She’d made her choice before she met him.  Her father had been in the spice trade.  As a young girl she’d traveled to the West Indies where she fell in love with a man who was a Houngans, a priest of Vodou.  Being young – Kate’s eyes flicked to the corner where the shadows had grown still – she’d made a young woman’s choice to become a part of his world.

To become a mistress of the dark arts.

“I heard reports of your work here.  Quite well done.  A whole village suspended in time with their knuckles an inch short of rapping on the pearly gates.”  LaCroix chuckled.  “Yes, quite well done.”  Then he sobered.  “What happened?”

He knew.  She had told him in a letter.

“Joseph Cartwright,” she growled.  “Joseph Cartwright happened.”

“Oh, yes.  The young man of impeccable character and great moral strength.  Sounds just like poor Nicholas.  I have yet to curb his penchant for…good.”  He spat the word out.  “Are you sure your young woman knows what she is asking?”

It was all a part of his plan.  She had told him of the girl and her desires; of how her love for the one called ‘Little Joe’ had kept her from passing over with all of the other nobodies and bound her to this place.

Of how he could use her in his plan to destroy Benjamin Cartwright.

“She knows.  She believes her love will be enough.”

LaCroix blew out a breath.  “Ah, young love.  So precious.  So beautiful.”  His lips curled in a feral snarl.  “So easily crushed.”

A small sound, like a frightened animal ready to take flight, drew LaCroix’s attention.  He released her and turned so he was facing the corner.

“Come into the light.”

There was a moment’s hesitation and then the girl appeared, slender as a sapling and pallid as a dream; her dark blonde hair flowing over the shoulders of her billowing gown in a wave.

“What is your name?” LaCroix demanded.

“Louise Corman.”

“And what do you want?”

“Little Joe.”

LaCroix moved in closer, until he hovered over the child like a predatory bird.

“And what are you willing to do to have him?”

There was no hesitation this time.

“Whatever it takes.”

 

It took a moment and then the sound of his brother’s voice penetrated the fog he was in.

“Joe?  Are you listening?”

Blinking, Joe looked up.  “Sorry, Adam.”

“You looked like you were a million miles away.”

His face twitched.  “I guess I was.”

Before he could stop it, his brother’s hand was on his forehead – just like it had always been when he was a kid and was hiding how he felt.

“No fever,” Adam pronounced as he removed it.  “I’d guess it was a girl if it wasn’t for that little incident before.  Are you still dizzy?”

Joe’s green eyes narrowed with terror as he glanced toward the kitchen.  “Shh!  Pa will hear you!  You know him, if he thinks something’s wrong, he’ll go to town and bring Doc Martin out here no matter how late it is!”

His brother had one eyebrow arched.  “So you are dizzy.”

It was almost morning.  The light was dawning outside.  He’d been sitting up half the night thinking about…he wasn’t sure what.  And while he wouldn’t say he was ‘dizzy’, he did feel a little…odd.

“I’m fine.”

“Joseph Francis Cartwright’s famous last words!” Adam laughed as he headed for the kitchen.

Joe shivered.  “Whatever made you say that?!  I am fine!  It’s not like I’ve got one foot in the grave or something!”

“Joe.  Take it easy.” His brother said as he turned back into the room.  “It was just a joke.”  Adam paused.  “Maybe I should check you for fever again.”

“Why?” he demanded defensively.

“Well, for one thing your attitude.  For another,” Adam indicated the blazing fire, “unless I‘m mistaken, you seem to be trying to bake something out.”

He was cold.  Ever since he’d passed out, he’d been that way.  He’d even donned his red and black checked flannel shirt, which was a rarity.

Maybe he was sick.

“You catch a chill, little brother?” a jolly voice asked.  Hoss was coming out of the kitchen with a plate of sandwiches in his hand.  When middle brother saw him looking, he winced.  “Now, don’t you go tellin’ Hop Sing I made myself an early morning snack.”

There were about a dozen sandwiches on the plate.

“Just so you don’t tell Pa I took a chill,” Joe countered.

Hoss put the plate down on the table before the fire.  He raised up and crossed himself.  “You got my word,” the big man said. “Lessen you get worse, of course.”

He couldn’t win.

“How come you two lugs are up so early?” Joe snarled as he swung his stockinged feet up and onto the settee.  “Don’t you need your beauty sleep?”

Adam shrugged.  “Same as you, I guess.  I couldn’t sleep.”

“As for me, I got myself up nice and early so I could take care of your horse, little brother,” Hoss replied as he sat and reached for a sandwich.

Joe winced.  Damn!  Pa had whisked him into the house so fast after he came to that he’d forgotten about Cochise.

“Is Cooch okay?”

“He’s fine.  Just plain tuckered out from carrying that load all night.”  Hoss munched a moment and then asked, “Where was you goin’ anyhow?”

Joe folded his arms.  “None of your business.”

“Oh!”  The big man’s brows popped up toward his thinning hairline.  “It ain’t, eh?  But takin’ care of your horse is?  You know, little brother, sometimes I just want to pick you up, dust you off, and plant a hand on your backside.”

Joe swung his legs over the side of the settee and rose to his feet, fists ready.   “Oh, yeah?  Well, you just try it!”

Hoss munched a moment more before addressing Adam.  “Touchy, ain’t he?”

“I’ve always thought so,” the eldest among them remarked as he reached for a sandwich.

Joe was looking from one to the other.  It was never easy with the two of them to tell when they were serious and when they were pulling his leg.  When neither of them took him up on his offer to duke it out, the curly-headed man dropped his fists.  He stood there a moment, shuffling his feet and thinking about what to say.

“Sit that skinny hiney of yours down, little brother,” Hoss said, offering him a sandwich. “Stuff this in that mouth of yours.  It’ll keep you from puttin’ your foot in it for a while.”

It was before breakfast.  Hop Sing was going to kill them.

Joe took the sandwich and sat down.  Then he stared at it.

He really didn’t have an appetite.

After a moment he asked, as casually as he could, “Say, what did you do with the stuff Cooch was carrying?”

Hoss eyed him before answering. “It’s all there in the tack room. Why?  You thinkin’ of takin’ off again?”

“Taking off?  What’s this all about?” Adam asked.

Double damn.

“Nothing,” Joe replied.  “I was gonna take a ride.”

“A long ride,” Hoss inserted.

Brother Adam was staring at him.

“What?!” Joe demanded.

“I was right before.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Patterns, baby brother, patterns.  You have them.  I have them.  So does Hoss.”

Hoss was nodding.  “Yeah.  Starin’ off into nowhere.  Not eatin’.  Grouchy as a grizzly with a stubbed toe.”

“A mysterious ride.”  Adam was nodding.  “Definitely a girl.”

Joe thrust the untouched sandwich back onto the pile.  “Shows what you two know!  There isn’t any girl.  How could there be a girl?  I haven’t been to town in over a month!”

Adam was frowning.  “That’s right.  It has been a month.  So what happened a month ago?  Let’s see….”  His brother’s eyes went wide.  “Joe.  No.”

Hoss had picked up his fourth sandwich.  “Huh?  ‘No’ what?”

Older brother’s eyes had narrowed and he was shaking his head.

How did he do it?  How did Adam know?

Louise.

 

 

THREE

Adam Cartwright let out a sigh as he turned to look at the stairs.  Joe had just gone up them.  Hoss was in the barn.  Hop Sing was in the kitchen, and all was right with the world once again.

Well, almost.

It had started about ten minutes before.  They’d received a fairly inflammatory dressing down from their  housekeeper when he came into the great room and found them already up – with two of them still in their night clothes, and eating yesterday’s food.

Hop Sing’s string of rather irate Cantonese words still rung in his ears.

In response, Hoss – the coward! – had snatched up the last of the sandwiches and stuffed them in his pockets and made good his escape by explaining that he had work to do in the stable.  That left him to do his best to calm down their Asian housekeeper.  He did so by assuring Hop Sing that they would eat everything he cooked throughout the day – cross his heart and hope to die – everything!  Throughout this tempest and the chaos of a typical Cartwright morning, youngest brother had done nothing.  Little Joe remained seated, staring off into the distance, as if completely unaware of what was happening.  It had taken a hand on Joe’s shoulder and a gentle nudge to get the kid to head upstairs to change his clothes.

‘Preoccupied’ didn’t begin to define it.

He’d just about made his mind up to follow Joe up those stairs and question him about it again, when Pa appeared at the top and started down.  Joe didn’t acknowledge their father’s greeting as the pair passed.  By the time the older man got to the bottom, he was staring back up to the top.

And sighing.

“That boy. What am I going to do with him….”

“Trade him in for a more sensible model,” he suggested.

His father turned to look at him – and laughed.  “One bred of New England stock instead of New Orleans?”

“Solid sturdy stock, those northerners.”

“Unlike the hot, tempestuous southerners, eh?” Pa asked.   Another sigh escaped him.  “Joe is so like his mother.”  Pa’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “As are you.”

“Like my mother, or solid and sturdy?” he asked with a grin.

“Both!” Pa declared.  Then he turned back toward the staircase.  “Is this about Martinville?”

“I think so.  Pa, I know Paul Martin hinted that a man who became badly dehydrated could be affected deeply – that there might be permanent damage – but I thought he said Joe was okay.”

Pa nodded.  “He did, but you have to remember your brother was also attacked.  Little Joe took a severe blow to the head.  The combination….  Well, Paul said we should watch him for a while.”

“He did?”  At first he was surprised, but then Adam nodded.  “That’s why no trips to town since….”

Since Martinville.”

“And why his passing out concerned you so.”

“Yes.”  Pa took a seat in his chair before the fire.  “It’s the first physical sign I have seen that something could be wrong.  As you know, in other ways, your brother has not…been himself.”

“I heard about him packing up for a ‘short’ trip,” he said as he too sat down.   “Heading back there?”

“He can’t seem to let go of that girl.  He thinks she was….”

“Real?”

Pa nodded – and sighed again.

Adam thought a moment.  “Pa, I don’t know what you’ll think about this….”

“Yes?”

“I think I should take Little Joe back to Martinville.”

“Adam, no. We have the drive to think about. A million things…”

“Pa, Joe was packed up and ready to go on his own.  I saw his eyes when Hoss said the items he’d gathered were still in the stable.”  He met his father’s gaze.  “He’s thinking about going again.  Better he go with someone than alone.”

“I offered….”

“Pa, no offense, but you’re well….you’re ‘pa’…if you know what I mean.”

“Too old to understand about an obsession with a woman, you mean?” the older man asked with a wry twist of his lips.

Adam chuckled.  “Maybe.  But more, what I meant is this, Joe isn’t going to be as open with you about his feelings for this girl – about the whole thing – as he would be with Hoss or me.  He doesn’t want you to….”  The black-haired man paused. This was tricky territory.  “He doesn’t want you to think less of him.”

“I would never – “

I know that, Pa, and you know that, but Little Joe doesn’t.  He won’t want to admit to any weakness.  If there is something…physically…wrong with him, he’s more likely to tell me, and he is even more likely to do it if we are on the road alone.”

It was that way with them.  Fight like a jackal and a cougar and then turn around and face the grizzly together.  He loved Joe.  He loved him fiercely.

He was concerned for him.

“I’d hate to think that your brother doesn’t feel confident in speaking to me,” Pa replied as he knew he would.

“He does, Pa.  About most things.  Just not about girls.” Adam grinned.  “Did you talk to your father about girls?”

Pa’s black eyebrows peaked.  “Point taken,” he said softly.

“Mistah Cartwright,” a soft voice called out unexpectedly.

They both looked to find Hop Sing had come into the room.

“Yes, Hop Sing.”

“Father, son, talk.  Not hear.”

“Not hear what?” Adam asked as he rose.

Their cook pointed toward the door.  “Carriage roll into yard.  Someone come.”  He smiled.  “Someone pretty.”

Apparently Hop Sing had peeked out the window in the kitchen door.

Pa rose too. “A woman, visiting this early?  I wonder who it is.”

“I’d advise opening the door, Pa.  It’s the only way to find out.”

His father laughed as he did what he suggested. When the door opened, it was to reveal a woman in her mid-to-late fifties, or so he would have guessed.  She was a handsome specimen – sturdy like Pa’s northerners – in that she was tall and erect of bearing and had a no-nonsense manner about her.  She put him in mind of the only woman who had taught at the college he attended.  Her hair was coal black with lightning streaks of silver at the temples.  She wore it pulled back in a bun, but not a severe one, which meant there was hope that she knew how to smile.  Another hopeful sign was the deep crimson suit she wore that was edged with an expensive black lace which here and there sparked with gold.  Obviously, she was willing to spend a little extra money on herself.  Adam’s lips curled with a smile.

Maybe she had a little ‘Southern’ blood as well.

The stranger looked at Pa.  “Are you…Benjamin Cartwright?” she asked.  Her voice was soft, with a light English accent.

“Yes, that’s me,” Pa said. “Won’t you come in?”  As she complied, the older man turned to Hop Sing. “If you would get our guest a glass of water?”

“Thank you,” the woman said as she stepped into the house.  “It was a long and rather dusty trip.”

“Twenty miles,” Adam confirmed as he held out his hand.  “Hello.  I’m Adam.”

“The son,” she remarked oddly as she took it.

“One of them.”

Their visitor looked slightly startled.  “There are more of you?”

“Several,” he replied.

“Oh, dear,” she muttered, and then seemed to choose to brighten her tone. “It’s hard to imagine Benjamin as a father – to even one boy.  He, well….  As a young man he had….”

Obviously she had known his father when younger.  This was getting more interesting.

“…a wild and misspent youth?”

The woman laughed.  “That, and a temper.  We used to call him ‘Vesuvius’, he erupted so often.”

A noise drew his attention.  Adam turned to find his father standing at the edge of the great room, glass in hand and mouth gaping wide.

“Sephora?”

“Benjie, why so formal?”  At his father’s horrified look, she laughed.  “I suppose you don’t use that anymore.”

His father had placed the glass on the sideboard and was headed their way.  He wrapped the woman in a bear hug and then pulled back saying, “As I imagine you don’t use ‘Sapphire’.”

Her lips quirked.  “Don’t I?”

Adam watched the two of them for a moment and then cleared his throat. “Er, Pa….”

“Oh!”  His father chuckled.  “Sorry, son.  Sephora, this is my eldest son, Adam.  Adam, this is my cousin Sephora Cartwright from England.  One of my elder brothers’ girls.”  Pa paused.  “No, it’s probably not Cartwright.  It’s been what?  Over thirty years?  I’m sure you married.”

“As did you.” Sephora looked around.  “Where is your wife?  I remember Elizabeth from the wedding.  She was so lovely.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Pa said as their cook silently entered bearing a tray with tea and biscuits.
“Sephora, why don’t we move to the settee?”

“Saph,” she said.  “It’s what my friends call me.”  As she complied, moving and taking a seat on the sofa, Pa’s cousin said, “Adam mentioned you have more children?”

Pa pursed his lips as he sat down.  “Yes, but not by Elizabeth.  She died long ago. I’ve been married two other times and each wife left me a son.”

“All dead?” she squeaked.

His father nodded.  “Yes.  Elizabeth died in childbirth.  Marie and Inger, well, let’s just say the West took them.”

Sephora had knit her hands in her lap.  She stared at them for a moment before looking up at his father.  “Then, I am too late.”

Pa leaned forward.  “Too late?  I don’t understand.”

The Englishwoman drew herself up.  “You will once I explain.  I am sorry…Ben,…you should have been told before.  We all thought it impossible, and Papa forbid us to mention it.”

“What?  Mention what?”

The woman’s eyes flicked to him and then back to his father.

“The Cartwright curse.”

 

Ben Cartwright sat in his chair chewing on – and trying to digest – the information Sephora had given him before heading upstairs with Hop Sing.  He’d sent one of the ranch hands into town to fetch her things from the International House.  She’d protested, as he knew she would, but Saph – as she liked to be called – was family and he would not conscience family staying anywhere but at the Ponderosa.  Sephora was four years older than him.  As a small boy he and his father and brothers had sailed to England to visit the Cartwrights who had remained in the old world.  They had come to know one another then.  She had come to his wedding, but after that time – and tide – had literally come between them.

It had been decades since they had had any contact.

The older man rose and walked to his office.  Once there, he gazed at the portraits of his three wives for a moment before moving to the window and looking out on the hustle and bustle of the new day.  Sephora had requested they speak alone.  Adam wasn’t happy about it, but he acquiesced.  The boy knew he would fill him in later if need be.   He was outside now talking to one of their younger hands.  Hoss was gone.  His middle boy had traveled to town along with the hand to help secure Sephora’s belongings, as well as to gather up a few last minute supplies they needed for the drive.

Joseph was nowhere to be found.

Ben shifted so he could look out the window to the left.  The woodpile remained untouched as did the bucket used for hauling water to the kitchen.  Hop Sing’s irate words still rang in his ears.  His cook had let him know in no uncertain terms that if he had no firewood or water, there would be no food!  The rancher ran a hand over his chin and sighed.  Since the incident in the desert, he’d mostly confined Joseph to household chores, wanting to keep the boy close in order to keep an eye on him.  His son had chafed at being assigned what he referred to as ‘childrens’ tasks, but complied without too much complaint.  Little Joe should be out there chopping wood right now and he wasn’t.

Maybe he should go look for him.

But no, Joseph could simply be in the stable or helping one of the hands in the field.  There was no reason to suspect anything untoward had happened.

Other than Sephora’s words.

It all seemed too much of a fairy tale – an ancient enemy, a curse – and yet, there were his three dead wives and his sons less than lucky love lives.  If one took only Joseph into account, in the last few years there had been Laura and Amy, as well as Julia Bulette – all beautiful, spirited women, rich with the hope of a long life and a future that held both daughters and sons.

All dead.

Leaving the window and his worries behind, Ben moved to his desk.  Once he was seated, he took the key from his pocket and opened the lower right-hand drawer and drew out a small book.  Sephora had given it to him and he’d placed it there until he had time to peruse it.  The volume was bound in leather and edged with gilt and was obviously old.  A second key opened the lock that kept its contents private.  Ben sat for a moment with his hand on its worn cover, thinking, and then eased back in his chair and opened it.  The script was fine.  Whoever had kept the journal had obviously been well-educated, but nearly a century separated him from their style of writing.  The long S alone would make it difficult to read.  And yet, read it he must – his cousin asserted – if he was to understand.

And to be armed against what was coming.

The journal had been kept by his great-grandfather, whose name had been Benjamin as well. It dated to the late 18th century, around the time Britain had gone to war with her colonies.  His father’s side of the family had never been one to dwell on the past and he knew only a little bit about them. They had originated in England.  His great-grandfather had been a seaman like him, and then settled in Bath, starting his family at a late age.

Wetting a finger, Ben took hold of the fragile end-paper and turned it and began to read.  As he did, the front door opened and his eldest son walked in.  Adam looked around for him and then, upon spotting him, came over to the desk.

“Have you seen Joe lately, Pa?” he asked, his tone concerned.

Ben closed the journal and laid it on the desktop.  “Not since breakfast,” he admitted. “Why?”

Adam let out a sigh.  “I was afraid of that.  His gear is gone.”

“What about Cochise?”

“He’s in his stall, but that black gelding – Gunpowder – he’s missing.”

The rancher glanced toward the window and then back to his son.  “You think your brother is headed for Martinville?”

“I’m sure he is, Pa.  In fact, that new hand we have – the young one named Jess – he was pretty sure he saw Joe ride off mid-morning.”

“Pretty sure?”

“Jess has only seen Joe a few times.”  Adam chuckled.  “He said he recognized his hair.”

That head of spiraling curls was pretty unique!

Ben rose and came around the corner of the desk.  “Tell one of the men to saddle up Buck.  I’ll join you.”

Adam caught his arm.  “Pa, I think you should stay here.  And not only for the reason I cited before.”

That ‘reason’ being his brother would be more open with him than he would with his father.

“What else, then?”

Adam’s eyes landed on the small leather book, and then went to the stair.  “I can only call it an intuition, Pa, but I think there’s more to your cousin’s visit than she’s letting on.  This whole ‘Cartwright curse’ thing is absurd, of course.  There has to be more.”

Ben’s nod was slow.

Adam was staring at him.  “Pa, surely you don’t believe the family was cursed for something your great-grandfather did over one hundred years ago?”

He was an educated man. Of course, he didn’t believe it.

Mostly he didn’t believe it.

“I should go after your brother.  Maybe I can talk reason to him.”

“Pa, you’ve tried that before.  Little Joe won’t listen. Whatever…hold…this town, this ‘Louise’ has on him, it goes beyond reason.  You know how Joe is.  Remember those nightmares he had as a kid?  The ones where the black shapes in his room came alive and wanted to carry him away?  Nothing any of us said could convince him that the shadows in his room were just that – shadows – and they had no power to take him anywhere.”  Adam sighed. “Once Joe gets something in his head, he’s the only one who can get it out.”

In spite of everything, Ben chuckled. “Like the day he grew old enough to realize that all he had to do was turn the thumb wheel and increase the light in his room, and the shadows would disappear?”

Adam laughed too.  “Exactly.”

Ben returned to the window and looked out.  “How long did Jess think Joe had been gone?”

“Only an hour or so.  If I get right on his tail, I should catch him up by nightfall.”

Something shivered through him.  “Not before?”

“I can ride hard, but Martinville is a good ways away, Pa.  I doubt I can make it before then.”

He thought a moment.  “All right.  You go.  One of us is needed here to continue to prep for the drive anyhow.”  Ben glanced at the slender volume on his desk.  “As well as to explore the mystery of cousin Sephora’s visit.”

“Have you read any of the journal yet?” his son asked.

“No.  I haven’t had time.  Maybe later tonight.”

Adam chuckled.  “Well, just think of me when you’re seated in your chair by the fire sipping brandy and reading a rousing bit of speculative fiction.  I’ll be nurse-maiding a lovesick kid.”

A lovesick kid in love with a girl who never existed.

Ben felt that shiver again.

Only this time, it felt like someone walking over his grave.

 

The day flew by at a stallion’s pace, moving on fleet feet, and was over almost before it had begun.  Adam had taken an hour to prepare, and then his eldest had been held up further when he had to deal with a disgruntled employee.  About the same time Hoss returned from town.  He wanted to go with Adam, but after a family discussion, they decided it was best that his eldest go alone.  If the two of them went, Joseph – most likely – would feel ganged up on and his defenses would go up.  Alone, Adam had some hope of talking to his volatile younger brother and making Little Joe see reason.   In his life he had experience of young men who had seen visions and sworn an oath upon the Good Book that they were real.  One young sailor believed that he’d been visited by a mermaid and had even tried to leap overboard to join her.  Another had seen a wandering woman in white on one of the West Indies’ isles.  He had been certain she was real; so certain that in following that vision he had found his death by plunging over a cliff in pursuit of her.

Paul Martin had pulled him aside that first day, after they’d returned from Martinville and the physician had examined Joseph.  His son had been battered, bruised, burnt, and badly dehydrated – on top of the fact that he had taken a vicious knock to the head with the business end of a pistol.  His friend assured him that they had found Little Joe in time and that his son would recover from his ordeal in the desert.  Paul, however, had been concerned about the blow to the head.  It had been a bad one.  Joseph had a concussion and a severe one.  The physician put down his son’s vision of Martinville and its damned inhabitants to that.  In time, Paul said, Little Joe should heal.  Then, there was a hesitation.  A…but.  ‘But,’ Paul said, ‘I would keep a close eye on him for a month or so just to be sure.  We are only beginning to understand the brain, Ben, and how it works.  There could be damage unseen and unknown.’

Unseen.

Unknown.

Ben’s gaze went to his great-grandfather’s journal where it lay on the table beside his hearth-side chair.

Yet another ‘unknown’.

Just as the rancher made up his mind to begin reading again, a knock sounded at the door.  With a grunt, Ben turned and headed for it, wondering who might come calling so late.  As he passed the tall case clock, he noted it was after eight.  The sun had been bedded down for several hours and most of the hands were in the bunkhouse.

Most, but not all.

It was Nicholas Knight.

“Good evening, Mister Cartwright,” the young man said.  “I apologize for disturbing you.  I was looking for Joseph and Jess told me he thought he had seen him ride out earlier in the day?”

There was an edge to his voice, as if this was more than just a social inquiry.

“Yes.  Little Joe did ride out,” he replied.

To describe the loner’s face as cherubic was an understatement.  With his head of tousled blond curls and bright blue eyes, Nicholas Knight had the appearance of an angel. But there was something about his eyes.  Something…

Wrong.

“You did not let him ride out alone,” the blond stated flatly.  Then, he seemed to think better of what he had said.  “Forgive me.  The fainting incident.  It…concerns me still.”

Ben shivered as a gust of the late October air pushed its way past his new hand.  “Nicholas, why don’t you come in?”

“Thank you.  I will for a moment.  Oh, and remember?  It’s just plain Nick.”  He beamed.  “To my friends, that is.”

“Nick, yes.  Come over to the fire and warm yourself. ”  As he said it, Ben noted that the other man was dressed only in a thin shirt and jeans.  He wore no coat, gloves, or hat.  “Or maybe not?”

“One of the side effects of my…illness.”  Nick shrugged.  “I rarely feel the cold.”

“That’s an admirable attribute on these long wintry nights,” Ben said as he indicated the settee with a hand.  As he did, a pang of loneliness struck him.  Hoss had gone ahead to prepare the camp for the first stage of the drive and was not expected to return.  Adam and Joe were in or nearing Martinville.  It was only him, Hop Sing, and Sephora rattling around the ranch house right now.

And his visitor.

“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” Ben said as he sat down.

“Oh, there’s not much to tell really.  A young lad who went off to war and found more than he bargained for.”  He smiled again.  “He ran away and has been running ever since.”

“Are you American?”

“No.”  Nick leaned back.  “I was born in Belgium.”

Hence, the slight accent.  “What brings you to the West?”

The other man hesitated.  “I have a…friend.  Well, more than a friend, but…less.  I was traveling with him and another friend.  A woman.  My friend – the male one – became embroiled in some business dealings that were less than…above-board.  I decided to seek other work.”  Nick paused and those pale blue eyes met his.  “Honest work.”

“This ‘friend’, does he know you are here on the Ponderosa?”

“I don’t think so.”  Nick hesitated and then the grin reappeared.  “I am pretty good at leaving no tracks to follow.”

“I see.”  Ben hesitated too, and then plunged ahead.  “This ‘business’ of your friend’s, does it involve my family?”

Nick’s pale brows popped upward toward those curls. “What makes you think that?”

Ben shook his head and let out a sigh.  “I am grasping at straws, I guess.  My cousin came in last night.  I am afraid she has me rather unnerved.”

“A woman will often do that.”

“What?”  Ben laughed. “Oh, yes.”

“But it’s more than that.”  Something in Nick’s voice changed.  The tone became melodious – leading.  “Tell me what.”

Ben fought it, but found he had no will to resist.  “She came carrying a tale of a curse laid on the Cartwright family over one hundred years ago – a curse that would fall upon the head of any descendant bearing a certain name.”

“Benjamin.”

“Yes.”  The rancher blinked.  He was feeling drowsy.

It must be the fire.

“Go on.  What curse?”

“That any son of the Cartwright family named ‘Benjamin’ with die without descent.  His wives… his children…would pass before him.”  The older man shook himself.  “It’s all nonsense, of course.”

“Of course.”  The blond man stood and looked around.  “Where are Adam and Hoss?”

For a moment he couldn’t answer.  It was like he was coming out of a dream.  When the fog cleared, the rancher said, “Hoss has gone on to the camp.  Adam went after his brother.”

His new hand seemed to visibly relax.  “Adam and Little Joe?  They’ve gone to Virginia City then?”

“No,” Ben said as he too found his feet and joined the other man.  “A place called Martinville.  Little Joe has something there he needs to – ”

A hand clamped on his arm. The grip was fierce.

“Martinville?  What in the name of all that is unholy are they doing there?”

Again, Nick acted as though he were the one in command – and for some reason, he let him be.

“What does it matter?  It’s just a…dead town.”

The blond man sucked in a breath,  His jaw tightened.

“That ‘friend’ of mine?  The one I mentioned running from?

“Martinville is his business.”

 

 

FOUR

Joe Cartwright stood at the edge of Martinville, staring at the empty buildings as twilight descended, suddenly uneasy.   He had no idea why.   He’d ridden hard and fast from the Ponderosa with every intention of making it to the town before dark so he could begin his search, but now that he was here, something held him back.

A nameless dread.  An unknown fear.

He felt like a fool.  The worst thing possible was that his pa and brothers were right and Martinville was a used-up old ghost town with nothing in it but dust and forgotten hopes.  The best thing would be that he was right and that there was a village of living breathing people here who – with his help – had finally found their courage and slain their dragon named Felix Matthews.

Staring at the darkened, empty buildings with their faceless signs flapping like bats’ wings in the autumn wind, Joe had a feeling he knew who would win the argument.

The wind lifted his chestnut curls as he stood there, tossing them onto his forehead and into his eyes.  It was a warm wind for a cold night.  It blew up the main street of Martinville, propelling tumbleweeds and other debris before it, and rolled out of the town inviting him to enter.  He remembered halting on Cochise at about this spot that day his pa and brothers had found him in the desert and rescued him.  He’d stopped and pointed out the overturned wagon to his father – the one he had put there during his stand against Matthews and his thugs.

It wasn’t there now.

Of course, some drifter could have come along and moved it.  He was sure in the month he had been away that more than one poor soul had wandered into Martinville looking for a safe haven.  Still, it made him wonder if he had ever seen it.  Maybe Pa and the others were just humoring him.

Maybe the whole thing had been nothing but a fevered dream, brought on by the blow to his head.

He could accept that.  At least, he was pretty sure he could.  He just needed to take one final turn through the town.  He needed to inspect every nook and cranny, to open all the doors and look into every cellar and attic.  He needed to go back to the mercantile, the one run by the Cormans.

He needed to exorcise Louise.

She haunted him.  He saw her each and every night standing here, at the edge of the town, reaching out with her pale, white arms – calling him in her childlike voice.  Her honey-colored hair whipped in a phantom wind about her face, sometimes masking her hazel eyes; at other times framing them and setting them off so they flashed and pierced his heart with longing.  His longing.

Her longing.

She still needed rescued.  He knew it.

He just didn’t know how.

Joe remained where he was for a moment, considering his choices.  It was too late to begin his inspection of the town and he really had no desire to hole up in one of its deserted buildings overnight.  Looking up, he noted the crisp clear sky with its bloated moon and array of a million stars.  There was something immense – something eternal about it – and it called him back into the desert.  He’d return tomorrow.  He’d explore in the daylight and then, he would go home.

With Louise or without her.

He’d dismounted earlier and was on foot.  Gunpowder, the black gelding he’d ‘borrowed’ from the stable, had grown skittish as they approached Martinville’s perimeter and so he had left him tethered to a bent-over old crone of a tree a good half-mile out.  He couldn’t blame him.  There was something unsettling about a place where people had lived and thrived that had died.  And that’s what Martinville was.  A dead place.

Why had he come here?

As Joe turned to leave, he had his answer.  It was carried on the wind.  Both struck him at the same instant, sending chills along his spine.

The wind and two words.

‘Little Joe.’

 

“And so it begins,” Lucien LaCroix remarked as he dropped the curtains and turned back into the late Sheriff O’Brien’s office.

“Really, LaCroix, is this necessary?” the sheriff’s wife asked.

“Let us just say,” the ancient vampire replied with a twitch of his upper lip, “I know how to hold a grudge.”

“A grudge born long before this boy’s father was.”

“Do you question my choice?” Lucien snapped.

“No. I have no right to.  You may do as you wish.  You…own me.”

Yes, he did.  And he had for over one hundred years.

Kate O’Brien was tall for a woman, but he was taller and he used his height to loom over her.  One hundred-odd years before – the blink of an eye to him, a creature of nearly two thousand years – he had taken her under his wing.  Kate was skilled in the ways of the witch, but it had taken more than the skills of an enchantress to capture and hold an entire town’s population on the brink of damnation.  He and his children, Janette and Nicholas, had been traveling in the colonies.  The war was raging. The Americans stood on the verge of destruction.  Wars were a balm to both his days and his soul.  So much destruction and death.  So many battles.

So many chances to feed unawares.

Kate had spent a portion of her life in the West Indies and tied herself to a man there who had taught her the dark arts.  She had played with them, as most humans did, never fully understanding what she played with – like a child who lights a match only to be surprised when they are burned.  She was nearly hung.  It was Nicholas who saved her from the noose, but he who preserved her – for his own uses.

One never knew when a witch would come in handy.

Her last husband had been unaware of her clandestine activities.  Thom O’Brien thought his wife a handsome woman in her middle thirties – fit for America’s rough and tumble frontier.  LaCroix glanced out the window at the endless parade of dust and debris passing by.  God, how he hated it!  How he detested its brash honesty and overly pious pioneers, its zealous sheriffs and their eternal quest for right through might, and – most of all – its self-made men.  In the Old World a man knew his place.  There were ancient lines and ancient loyalties that took precedence.

As well as ancient debts.

“Lucien….”

He had strayed,  Oh dear.  He had a tendency to do that.

“Yes?”

Kate sucked in a breath.  “I’ve delivered the boy.  Am I….  Is my debt paid?”

He glanced at the window again.  Beyond human vision, the girl was leading Benjamin Cartwright’s son through the deserted streets to his fate.

“When the deed is done, we shall see,” he replied.

“Why…” she began, but halted.

“Why what?”

“Why this boy?  Why not one of his older brothers?   The curse….”

Kate had been with him on that island in the West Indies.  In fact, it was she who had woven the spell.  The curse that said, in so many words, that Benjamin Cartwright – any Benjamin Cartwright – would end his life in sorrow, bereft, and alone.  LaCroix let out a little sigh.  He was not a cruel man.  Not really.  Nor a greedy one.  He’d watched as John and James and Samuel and William Cartwright flourished.  He’d even attended a few weddings and christenings.  He’d been content to leave the family alone so long as they remembered, as he remembered, the moment when one of their own had overreached his bounds. After the war ended, his own interests had taken him and his children many places – to France, Ireland, and England.  It was when they returned to the Colonies, to what was now known as the Wild West, that he had heard there was a new patriarch of the Cartwright clan.

Named ‘Benjamin’ Cartwright.

How dare they!

“You wonder why it is not the oldest son I choose to use as my weapon?” he asked her.  As she nodded, Lucien went on.  “The oldest has wanderlust.  He will soon be gone, never to return.  The middle son, his heart speaks of an early end.”

He had not been idle.  He had flown – literally – from Virginia City to the Ponderosa and spent time observing Benjamin Cartwright’s three sons.  One as ancient as him could see the mark of death.  The middle boy was not long for this world.

“It is in the youngest that this Benjamin Cartwright places all his hopes.  His petit Joseph is the heir to all his dreams – to his ‘Ponderosa’.  He is the one who will carry on the name.”  LaCroix snorted.  “Or he was.”

Kate’s hand had gone to her throat.   “Would it not be kinder to kill him?” she asked.

The ancient creature pursed his lips. “Kinder?” he asked.  “Oh, I suppose.  Still,” LaCroix said as he returned to the window and drew the curtain back again, “Janette and Nicholas can use a new companion.  From what I have seen, the boy has potential.

“And this way, it will be so much more fun!”

 

It was almost dark and he almost missed him.  He’d been flying fast and a black horse on a black night was a hard thing to see.  If Gunpowder hadn’t shifted and whinnied at his approach, he would have ridden by without noticing him. As it was, he’d had to backtrack and dismount and approach the gelding slowly.  The horse was uneasy.

So was he.

Adam tethered his own horse beside the black and then turned to look at the town that had become a bone of contention in their family.  They didn’t want to make Little Joe feel foolish, but it was nothing but a ghost town.  Martinville had been deserted long before Joe was born.  Maybe before he was born.  It had been one of the first settlements that grew up with the hope of a strike that would make the town rich. Sadly, it died along with that hope.  He supposed the people had deserted it slowly, one family or two at a time, until at last there was nothing left to occupy its shops and streets but brush and the occasional wild animal.  It certainly wasn’t the home of a lovely young woman named Louise.

Adam snorted.  Typical of his little brother that if he conjured up anything, it would be a beautiful girl.

Adam stood with his hands anchored on his hips.  He had a choice to make.  He could camp here and keep an eye on the horses through the night, or go into the town and look for his brother.  Most likely he would find Joe asleep on some moth-eaten, desert-dry old bed frame in what was left of the town’s hotel.  That was a concern, both for him and for his brother – the age of the place.  The buildings might look sturdy – somewhat – but with how long the town had been empty, it was likely a good many of the structures were rotten.  The floors could cave in easily.  Joe could have fallen.  He might be hurt.

His brother could need his help.

Adam sighed.  It had been a long, hard-pressed ride.  All he wanted to do was lay out his bedding and crawl into it and sleep until Sunday.  He glanced at Sport who seemed to sense what he was contemplating.  His old friend nickered and then shook his head.

Smart horse.

Still, he couldn’t abandon Joe.  Obviously his little brother was not entirely in his right mind.  Pa had explained what Paul Martin said about the blow to the head Joe took.  It had been vicious.  There was such a thing as a post-concussion pattern.  With some people, the effects lingered for months or even years.  Paul had told Pa to watch out for certain signs that might indicate a build-up of pressure in the skull.

Signs like Little Joe passing out without reason.

With a sigh, the black-haired man approached the horse his brother had taken from the stable.  Gunpowder was young and had a disposition to go with his name, and that meant that – after several hours of inactivity – he was ready and raring to go.  Unlike Sport who was ready to call it a night.  Crossing to the animal, he told him they were going to go look for Joe and then mounted up.  After walking Gunpowder in a few circles, giving him time to make his acquaintance again, Adam turned the gelding’s nose toward Martinville and gave him his lead.  It wasn’t far.  At the pace they were moving, it would take no more than fifteen minutes to reach it.  As he rode, Adam considered his brother’s reaction.  Little Joe would be angry to see him and then – he hoped – grateful for the company.

Ten minutes later, Adam came upon the access to the high ridge where they’d found his brother unconscious next to the man who had bushwhacked him.  There was no reason to stop, except that he felt drawn to the place – as if he might find something there that would clear away some part of the mystery.  Upon attaining the summit, the black-haired man ground tethered Gunpowder and worked his way up and into the rocks alone.  As he reached the top, Adam turned and looked toward the town – and was surprised to see a cloud of dust rising between him and it.  It took a moment to recognize the sound of horses’ hooves pounding the desert floor.

It took only a second longer to recognize the feel of cold steel on his skin.

“You looking for something, mister?” a man drawled.

Adam’s hands went up.  “I’m certainly not looking to cause any trouble.”

“What are you looking to cause then?” a second man asked as he stepped out of the shadows.  He was of medium height with non-descript brown hair.  His wide-brimmed tan hat hid most of his face.  The light that managed to creep under it to strike his eyes, or the area where his eyes should have been, revealed nothing but needle-thin slits.  “Trouble, maybe?”

“No, not trouble,” he answered as the barrel of the pistol pressed into his flesh.

“Ain’t nothing around here for miles but Martinville.  You paying someone a visit?”

There was something about the second man – a self-importance that smacked of arrogance and a need for control.  Adam noticed that the first outlaw deferred to him, letting him do all the talking.

He wasn’t normally one to let others know his business, but he couldn’t think of anything else but a portion of the truth.  “I’m looking for my kid brother.  This is his horse.  I found it tethered out a ways and figured he might have walked into the town and holed up for the night.”

“Skinny kid?  Lots of curls?”

The black-haired man sighed with relief.   “That’s him.  Have you seen him?”

“Yeah, I saw him, about a month ago,” the second man said as he approached.  “He was standing at the edge of town behind an overturned wagon. “ The man jabbed two fingers into his chest. “The kid was in my way just like you’re in my way now.”

Joe had mentioned the wagon.  He said he’d overturned it to create a barricade to stop the men who terrorized Martinville from gaining access.

These men.

“You must be – “

The man pushed his tan hat back, revealing an ugly mug and a smug, self-satisfied sneer.  “Felix Matthews, at your service.”

Adam knew it was coming, even before he felt the steel shift and the gun butt make contact with his head.

“Welcome to Hell.”

 

He’d seen her.  He knew he’d seen her.  She was here.  Louise was here….

Somewhere.

Louise had seemed no more than a dream, standing there – pale and beautiful – in the same spot where he’d last seen her.  She’d had that smile on her face, the one that lit it up like a kid at Christmas.  He’d hesitated – only a few seconds – and in that time she had disappeared, playfully looking over her shoulder as she ran around a corner to hide from him, like a little girl playing hide and go seek.  When he’d rounded the corner, there’d been no sign of her, but there had been a sound.  He heard her laughing. The light, lilting sound of it called him forward along the main road, into an alley, and then deeper into the shadows that lined the empty streets of Martinville.

Louise led him along them and through them for some time, into and out of buildings, up and down stairs until at last they came to the town’s mercantile.  Would her father be waiting within, Joe wondered, his haggard face furrowed with fear and wrinkled with worries as it had been before?  Would the other inhabitants of the town be there, waiting – perhaps to surprise him?  If Louise was real, then they must be too.  He had lived among them; helped them.  In a way, he had saved them by forcing them to remember who they once had been – strong men and women of sterling character.

They were real.  It was all real.

He wasn’t crazy.

As Joe hesitated outside the mercantile’s door, a single light flickered into existence within.  Its pale glow passed through the plate glass window and fell to the ground, illuminating the dry dusty boardwalk he occupied.  He stared at it for a moment, noting how the planks were jagged and broken through here and there, and how the dust was a good inch thick where it clung to their jagged ends.  It gave him a moment’s pause, but only a moment’s.  Martinville was in the middle of nowhere.  There was nothing to protect the town or its buildings from the relentless rays of the sun.  Wood dried out.  It rotted.  Dust rolled and took hold.  There was nothing strange here.  Nothing to fear.

Nothing.

The wind brushed his cheek and lifted the curls from his forehead.  With it came words.

“Little Joe, I’m waiting.”

Joe wet his lips.  Still he hesitated.  Why?  Why?  Now that he was so close….

The door opened several inches.  A pale hand appeared.

“Little Joe, come inside.”

He knew her voice.  It was her and yet….not.

“Louise, are you okay?” he asked, and was surprised to find his voice trembled a bit as he did.

“I’ll be fine once you come in.  I’ve missed you, Little Joe.  I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve…I’ve m…missed you too,” he stammered.

“You remember?  You said when you came back you wanted to see me standing right where I was.  I was there.  Now, I’m here.”

He had said that, and for so long he had wanted nothing else.  Joe glanced at the sky, at the empty streets, and then he summoned everything that was in him and reached for the handle and pushed in the door.

The room was empty.

“I’m in the back,” Louise said.  “In your room.  Remember?”

He remembered.  He’d wakened there to find her looking down at him – watching over him.

Joe fixed his eyes on the inner door, willing himself to pay no attention to the empty shelves, to the untouched dust on the floor, or the multiple layers of cobwebs in the corners.  None of it mattered.  Only Louise mattered.

He’d sought her and he’d found her and, now, they could be together.

As Joe stepped into the back room, he saw her.  She was standing in the far corner, bathed in the pallid moonlight that spilled through an open window.  The moonlight was mesmerizing.  It turned her honey-blonde hair a pastel shade of blue and shone through the gossamer gown she wore, revealing her shapely waist and slender legs.

“Come to me, Little Joe,” Louise said, her voice thick and husky.  “Come to me now.”

He couldn’t disobey.

Like a sleepwalker, Joe Cartwright made his way across the room; his gaze fastened on his object of his desire – his ears attuned only to her voice.  So much so that when an ominous ‘crack!’ sounded beneath him, he paid it no mind.

Then the floor was gone and he was flying, but only for a moment.

The landing was hard.  It drove the air – and nearly the life out of him.

Joe Cartwright blinked away blood and looked up.  The beam of moonlight had followed him into the chasm created by the floor’s collapse.  Louise was riding it, down, down, down to where he lay, broken, on the stones of the store’s root cellar.

“You’ve hurt yourself,” she said as knelt beside him.  A finger passed over his lips and came away bloody.  “Poor boy.  Let me kiss it and make it better.”

Louise smiled as she said it.

It might have been the pain causing him to see something that wasn’t there, but if someone had asked him, Joe would have sworn that it was with the feral delight of a wolf moving in for the kill.

 

Adam Cartwright scowled and tried the bars of his prison window one more time.  You’d think in a town practically gone to dust, that the walls of the jail would be something less than trustworthy, but so far they had proven to be as solid as the rock beneath his feet.  Felix Matthews, or whoever it was who had taken him, had waited until he’d awakened within the cell and then walked away, leaving him alone with no guard and no way out.  The black-haired man had gone to the window and watched as the outlaw and his men moved into the street, where they met with a white-haired man wearing a gray frock coat.  While they talked, a wind swept through the town raising dust and momentarily obscuring them. When it dissipated, Matthews and his men were gone.

What in Sam Hill was going on here?

With a sigh, Adam released the bars and turned back into the cell.  Anyone who knew him would tell you that he was a man with his feet rooted firmly to the ground.  This time of year with its talk of ghosts and ghouls and things that went bump in the night had one of two effects on him – it either amused or annoyed him.  Oh, he’d told his fair share of ghost stories, mostly to terrify his younger brothers, but he’d never believed there was any truth behind any of it.

Adam’s gaze returned to the empty street.  The men had been there and then – not.  They could have moved away under the cover of the dust, but if they had, they’d done it faster than a bee-stung stallion.  He’d done no more than blink.

“I sense you are puzzled, Adam Cartwright.  Perhaps there is something I can do to lift the veil of your befuddlement.”

Adam pivoted and came face to face with the man in the frock coat.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Tsk, tsk. Such a lack of manners.  I would have expected more from a Cartwright.”  A sneer lifted one corner of the man’s full lips.  “But then, these are not ordinary circumstances, so I suppose one must make exceptions.  My name is LaCroix.  Lucien LaCroix.”

A name as odd as the man.

“Let me out of here!” he demanded.

“Again.  Goodness, didn’t your father teach you how to behave in polite society?”

He had a manner, this one.  Cold.  Insouciant.

Disquieting.

Adam sucked in his outrage and managed, “Sorry.  Your men….  I assume they were ‘your’ men?”

“Those ruffians?  Pish tosh!  Their own mothers wouldn’t claim them.”  The white-haired man chuckled. “I do, however, find them useful from time to time.”

“One of them struck me in the head.  Must have knocked a few marbles loose.”  Adam forced a smile.  “It seems a mistake has been made.  I’ve done nothing wrong.”  He’d noted the keys hanging on a hook just beyond his reach.  “Let me out of here, will you?”

“Ah, well.”  Lucien pursed his lips.  “I might consider it did I not know of the penchant of older brothers to protect their younger siblings.  I’m afraid such a thing would interfere with my plans, and that’s something I just simply can’t allow.”

He’d wagged his finger on the last words like a father chiding a child.

Adam’s hands gripped the bars.  “If you’ve done anything to my brother….”

“You’ll what?  Take me by the throat, throttle me, and toss me out with the rubbish?”  LaCroix looked him up and down. A unnatural light entered his eyes.  “I can guarantee you – should I let you out – the exact opposite would occur.”

There was a game afoot here.  He had no idea what it was or why it was, but obviously it had something to do with Little Joe.  Maybe with all of them.

“You told me your name,” he said.  “But not who you are.”

“Ah, a lover of words.  It is true they can have many meanings.  Suffice it to say that I am your worst nightmare.”  He shrugged. “Or perhaps, to put it more succinctly, your dear father’s.”

“What do you have against my father?”

“Nothing.  I don’t even know him.”  Lucien LaCroix came closer.  He didn’t want to, but Adam took a step back, so strong was the stranger’s presence.  “I did however know another Benjamin Cartwright and that…association..left a rather bad taste in my mouth.”  He chuckled again as if what he’d just said had some humor in it.  LaCroix reached up and unfastened the top button of his crisp white shirt and pulled the fabric back to reveal a long, jagged scar just above his heart.  “For one thing, he owes me for this!”

“My father, or the other Benjamin Cartwright?”

“All Benjamin Cartwrights, for all eternity!”  LaCroix’s voice had grown guttural.  It howled through the small cell with the rage of a rabid wolf.  Then, abruptly, he fell silent.  The silence was followed by a shrug.  “The sins of the father and all that, you know?”

It was obvious he was treating with a madman – a madman who held a grudge against his father.  What he couldn’t understand was why he’d gone for Joe?  He was the oldest – the heir.  If the sins of the father were visited upon the next generation, they should have been visited upon him first.

“Let my little brother go.  I’ll stay.  You can do whatever you want with me.”

LaCroix scoffed.  “My dear chap!  I can do whatever I want with you now.”

“But I’m the oldest!  If you want to take revenge – ”

The white-haired man drew closer.  His voice altered again, this time taking on the tone of a seer.  “I will have it.  In the end Benjamin Cartwright will be left bereft and alone.  You will desert him….”

“No!”

“Yes.  You know it in your heart.  Close your eyes, Adam Cartwright, feel the call of distant places, of the unknown, and of being your own man.”

He could feel it.  He always had, just as he had always known that one day he would go.

“Pa will have Hoss…and Joe.”

“Benjamin Cartwright’s second son will feel his own call.  And as for the young one….”  LaCroix gripped the bars and leaned in so his face was caught between them, the skin pulled back to bare his teeth like a wolf’s.

“He is mine!”     

 

 

FIVE

His companion was prowling like a caged lion.

Ben sighed as he watched Nicholas Knight walk off his frustration.  He had insisted on coming along with the other man, and his new hand was not happy about it.  Nick said he could travel faster alone and that reaching Martinville as quickly as possible was imperative. While the blond man was probably right, he hadn’t been comfortable agreeing to it.  They were going to find Joseph and Adam and sadly, he didn’t trust the man,

And he did.

It was, to put it mildly, complicated.

Ben knew little about Nick other than the facts he had given – that he had been a ranch hand in South America and that he had a condition that kept him out of the sun.  It was night now.  They had taken off shortly after the conclusion of their conversation and flown like the wind.  Nick had to admit – grudgingly – that he sat a horse well.  The comment made Ben chuckle.  He’d been ‘sitting’ a horse longer than the young man had been alive.

“Ben, we should move,” his companion said.  “The dawn is fast approaching.”

The rancher looked at the fire they had kindled.  Nick’s portion of their supper still lay in the pan.  “You haven’t eaten anything.”

The blond man shrugged.  “I have no appetite.  Save it for later.  Your sons may have need of it when we find them.”

“A man can’t think clearly on an empty stomach,” the rancher said as he gathered up the biscuits and placed them in a red kerchief.  “He makes mistakes.”

“I have my own…sustenance.  I ate before we left.  Perhaps…later.”

Ben walked over to his horse.  He opened his off-side saddlebag where he stowed the biscuits and remnants of fried rabbit.  “Do you need to relieve yourself before we set out?”

“No.  I….”

“I suppose you did that before we left as well.”

There was something odd about Nicholas Knight.  He couldn’t put his finger on it, but it was there.  The blond man had an easy surety about him and yet, a shy reticence as well.  It was almost as if he was afraid to grow too close – to become too involved or too at ease.

“You know, Nick, I asked you before we left what your investment is in this and you never replied.  If what Joseph said about Martinville is true – if it isn’t a ghost town – there is a band of marauders guarding it.  They are dangerous men. Why put yourself in harm’s way? You barely know me or my sons.”

“You are wrong, Ben.  I do know you.  You are good, honest men who will not countenance evil.”  Nick sighed.  “In turn, evil will not tolerate you.”

“This man you mentioned who is in Martinville, this Lucien LaCroix.  You believe he has my sons.”

“I know he does, Ben.”  The blond man hesitated.  “I have not been completely honest with you.”

Here it came.

“Oh?”

“Lucien has a grudge against you.”  Nick’s gaze settled on him; his pure blue eyes unsettling.  “It is his objective to destroy you.”

“I have never heard of the man before.”

“Ah, but he has heard of you – or of another of your name.”

Ben thought a moment before shifting to the other side of his horse.  Opening the saddlebag, he drew out the journal Sephora had given him.  She had asked him as he left if he had read it and when he said he had not had time, she had urged him to do so – all the while eying Nick as if he was a snake in the grass.

“The last Cartwright with the name of ‘Benjamin’ was my great-grandfather. This is his,” he said, giving a nod to the leather book.

Nick took a step forward.  He held out his hand.  “May I?”

He’d expected the blond man to open the journal.  Instead, once it was in his hand, Nick closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate.  He drew in a breath and released it slowly before opening his eyes.

“I see a tall man,” he said, “imposing in height and mean.  A man of action with a high moral sense – and a dark secret.”

“You can tell all that, just from touching the journal?” he asked, dubious.

Nick smiled. “As your oldest son is fond of quoting, ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Ben, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“Can you tell as well what lies within it?”

“A tale of an erroneous choice and of the price exacted for that choice.”  Nick handed the journal back.  “If we do not hurry, it may well cost the lives of your sons.”

“I don’t understand.”

Nick reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Let us hope, Benjamin Cartwright, that you never do.”

 

Joe Cartwright woke to the sound of singing.  It was low and gentle as a lullaby.  For a moment it made him think of his mama, but only for a moment.  The melody was woven together with an all too-familiar touch.  Fingers playfully unbuttoned his shirt and stroked the exposed skin of his chest.  They shifted the flannel fabric off his tanned shoulders and then, with purpose, moved to take hold of his neck.  Soft, supple lips followed, kissing his throat.  As they did, the melody jangled and went out of tune.  Pleasure became pain, and then pleasure again.  It was almost more than he could bear – and would have been – had soothing words not been immediately applied as a balm.

“Patience.  Patience, child.  That is enough for now.”

“But I want him,” a woman replied, her voice husky and deep.  “I want him now.  You promised!”

“And I always keep my promises.  But, the time is not now.  We are about to have visitors.”

Joe felt the hands take hold of him.  “No!” the woman shouted.  “They will not take him away from me!”

He struggled to open his eyes, but found he didn’t have the strength.  It was as if that kiss had taken everything out of him, like a feather pillow punched with two fists.

“Ah, the folly of youth.  When you have lived as long as I, you will find the premium pleasure is to be had in the pondering of something.”  The man made a tsking sound low in his throat.  “Haste makes waste.”

“But….”

“It must be slow, child, and you must have his consent or death will follow.  There is no hurry.  You have all the time in – and out – of this world.”  There was a pause and then the unseen man added, “Good.  He’s fighting!”

If he meant him, ‘fighting’ wasn’t exactly the word he would have put to it.  It was more like he was caught in a strong undertow and was barely managing to hold his own.  Any second he expected to be pulled under and swept away.  Joe managed to wet his lips.

He spoke.

“Who’s…there?”

A hand gripped his. The fingers returned to his throat.  “It’s me, Little Joe.  Louise.”

“…Louise?”

“Yes.  You found me.  Soon we can be together forever.  That’s what you want, isn’t it?  To be with me no matter what?”

It took effort, but he opened his eyes.  Louise was there, hanging over him, her face pallid as a new moon; her eyes cradled in an eclipse of shadows.

“I knew the first day I saw you that I loved you,” she said.  “I wanted to be with you so badly that when everyone else went away, I refused to go.  Heaven would be an empty place without you.  I chose…. “  A small strangled sound escaped her.  “I chose to remain, but Little Joe, I wasn’t real.  I couldn’t touch you.  I couldn’t be with you.  LaCroix has made it….  Now I can.”

The lips returned to his neck.  He felt the nip of her teeth this time.  With effort Joe lifted his hand to touch his skin and found blood trickling down.

Louise caught his hand and sucked his fingers clean.

“Now we can be together.

“Forever.”

 

Nicholas Knight had grown increasingly agitated as they approached Martinville.  For the moment the sun lay behind the mountains, smothered in the remnants of the night, but soon it would rise and the new day would dawn.  There was an urgency to his movements that suggested there would be dire consequences should they fail to reach the town before the sun topped their peaks.

He had no idea if those consequences would be for his sons or for Nick himself.

As they approached the ghost town a wind had arisen, driving dust and debris before it almost as if seeking to bar their way.  They’d decided to wait it out and had taken up a position behind a tumble of rocks on the lower part of the hill where he and Joseph’s brothers had found the boy half-dead slightly over a month before.  As the dust cleared, they became aware that it was being used as a smoke-screen for a group of men wearing long coats and carrying rifles who appeared to be patrolling the perimeter of the town.  He could only assume that this was Felix Matthews and the other bullies Joseph had spoken of.   More and more it appeared his son had not been hallucinating.

Still, that didn’t explain the empty town they’d found when they rode in that day.

“How many do you count?” Ben asked.  The men had left the dust cloud behind and were approaching then.

“A half dozen.  They will be here any moment.”  Nick turned to look at him.  “Benjamin, do you carry a cross?”

The rancher started.  “What?”

“A cross.  Do you wear one?”

“No.”

The blond man scowled.  He thought a moment and then snapped his fingers.  “The journal!  There is one within its pages.”

“How could you know?” Ben asked.  “You didn’t open it.”

Nick had shifted so he had a clear view of the area before them.  “Your namesake became a man of great faith.  It sustained him in his twilight years as yours must sustain you now.  That Benjamin’s trial is over.  Yours is just begun.”

He was growing tired of whatever game Nick was playing.  “You talk in riddles.  Speak plainly, man!”

Nick met his angry gaze.  “There is no time now.  They are coming!  Quick!  Go get the cross!”

Ben looked.  The blond man was right.  The men were there, like a dark blot on a light sea of sand.

“You’re closer,” the rancher said as he pulled his weapon from its holster and took aim.  “You go get the journal if you believe it so important!”

The blond man placed a hand on his wrist.  “Ben, weapons will not prevail against such an enemy. These are the very hounds of Hell who have been sent to delay and deter us.”

It made no sense.  A ghost town with no ghosts.  Dead men who walked.  A girl who never lived who enticed his youngest son with such a siren call Joseph could not resist.

Nick rose and took a step toward the men.  “It is your strength, Benjamin Cartwright,” he said as he flashed a grin.  “Mighty is the word!”

Then he charged.

He no more than blinked and the blond man was on them.  Nick fought with the strength of ten men, tossing the first of the marauders he encountered aside as if they were small children holding pop guns.  There had only been six of them, but it seemed each time one fell another arose to take his place .

It was as if Felix Matthews had an infinite number of malevolent soldiers at his command.

“Ben!  Hurry!  I cannot hold them off forever!”

The rancher turned to look and watched Nick go under.  Ben hesitated and then took off at full speed for his horse.  As he did, Felix Matthews appeared out of the dust storm not twenty feet from him.  Ben’s fingers fumbled as they fought with the leather strap that bound his saddlebag closed.  He had retied it tightly after returning the journal to its leather bed.  The knot came free just as Matthews reached the camp.  Grasping the leather tome, the rancher pulled it out of the saddlebag.  He broke the lock and opened it and, as he did, something golden fell to the ground.  It was at that very moment that the sun topped the mountain range and sent a single ray of light out forward, across the desert sands.  The light struck the cross that lay at his feet, creating a blinding flash.

When Ben opened his eyes, Matthews and his men were gone.

 

Adam Cartwright had been standing by the window in his jail cell, staring in frustration at the deserted main street of Martinville, when a sudden blast of light drove him back and into the shadows.  After a moment, during which he fought to  regain his vision, he returned to the window and looked out and saw two bedraggled figures stumbling into town – the one leaning on the other.  They made for the shadows cast by the derelict buildings lining the right-hand side of the street.  As the larger of the pair lowered his companion to the boardwalk, Adam gasped.

He recognized him.

“Pa!” the black-haired man shouted as he rattled the bars.  “Pa!  Over here!  I’m here!”

He watched his father’s head come up.  The older man took a step away from the walk and looked around.

“Adam?” he called back.

“In the jail, Pa!  I’m in the jail!”

Pa bent to speak to the other man and then began to run.  It was only a matter of minutes before the older man appeared.

Pa was winded and, well, he looked like he’d seen a ghost.

“Adam, are you all right?” he asked as he stepped into the room.

“I’m fine, Pa.”  Shoving his fingers through the bars, Adam pointed. “The key ring.  It’s over there.”

“I see it.”

A few seconds later he was free.

“Was that Joe I saw with you?” Adam asked as he left the cell behind.  He’d not been able to see his face, but he had discerned a halo of curls.

His father looked around, seeming to note for the first time that the other cells in the jail were empty.

“Little Joe isn’t with you?”

“No, Pa.  Matthews and his men surprised me at the edge of town.  They knocked me out and brought me here.”

If his father had been pale before, he lost all of his color now.  “Good Lord! Adam, we have to find your brother – and quickly!”

“Pa.”  He caught the older man by the arm as he headed out of the room. “What’s wrong?  You look…dazed.”

His father looked down, as if he had something in one of his pockets.  Then he shook his head.  “There’s no time now.  We need to find your brother.  There’s a man who intends him harm.”

“LaCroix?”

Pa seemed surprised.  “You’ve met him?”

“Sorry to say.”

“Did he mention your brother?”

“Not by name.”  Adam paused.  “Pa, for some reason LaCroix wants to destroy you.  I think he means to do it by using us.”

“If he hurts your brother, I will hunt him down like the animal he is.”

It was a promise, not a statement.

Adam moved to look out the window.  “Pa, if that wasn’t Joe, then who’s with you?”

“Nick Knight.  Why?”

The black-haired man sighed.  The boardwalk was empty.

Their mysterious ranch hand was gone.

 

“Nicola, it is no use.  You are too late.  It is already begun.”

Nick pivoted on his heel, searching the shadows that lined the main room of Corman’s mercantile.  “Janette?”

“I am here, you foolish boy.  I have come to save you from yourself…as always.”

“Janette.  These are good people. They deserve better than to be used as LaCroix intends.”

“They deserve death.  It will claim them all in time, est-ce pas vrai?”  Nick took a step back as his soul-sister and one time lover left the shadows and advanced toward him.  “You have never understood, Nicola.  LaCroix is no beast.  He is kind.  It is a ‘gift’ he wishes to give the young Joseph Cartwright.”

“A gift?” Nick spat.  “You call eternal damnation a gift?”

“Non!  It is eternal life!”

Nick crossed the room – careful to avoid the shaft of light that fell through an opening in the ceiling – and took her by the arm.

“Have you never felt it?” he demanded.  “Don’t tell me that you haven’t!”

“Felt what?” she pouted.

“The grief!  The…guilt for what you have done.”

“And what have I done but preserve that which cannot be preserved?  Youth and beauty are fleeting in this world, Nicola, but not in ours.”  She lifted at hand to his cheek.  “My poor Nicola, so tormented.  Tell him, my children.  Tell him how happy you are.”

He had not been aware of the others until they stepped out of the shadows and into the waxing light.  One was an older woman, past her prime in life, but restored to near perfection now.  She was dressed as a saloon girl and had fed recently, he could tell.  No doubt on some poor soul who had wandered into the establishment where she worked.  A saloon was fertile ground with drifters coming and going and no one to care when they went missing.  The other was a young woman – a girl, really.  He sensed in her an innocent, somehow enticed by LaCroix to choose the path to Hell.  This, no doubt, was Louise, the woman Joe Cartwright loved and the explanation for the darkness he had sensed in the youngest Cartwright that day they met. Louise had been blameless, but she was one no more.

The blood in her veins was fresh and it was not her own.

“Where is he?” he growled.  “Where is Joseph?  You have not brought him…?”

“LaCroix would not let me,” Louise pouted.

The relief he felt was palpable.  “Then he is alive.”

“LaCroix would make him one of us,” Janette explained.  “You know how it is, Nicola.  He must come of his own accord.”

He knew how ‘it’ was.  It had been the same way with him.  His own ‘accord’ had been a choice made at a time when he was weakened and had been seduced and lied to.

It was a choice he had regretted for nearly six hundred years.

“No,” he said.  “No.”

Janette came closer.  She was stunning as always, and just as deadly.  “And what will you do to stop LaCroix, Nicola?  Have you ever stopped him before?”

She had not been there.  Janette did not know.

He had.

And he would do it again.

 

“Where do you think we should look first?” Ben asked as he and Adam headed out of the jail and into the street.  Looking at the derelict buildings, he despaired.  “He could be anywhere.”

“Joe or Nick Knight?”

The rancher turned to look at his son.  “I have a feeling, when we find the one, we will find the other.”

Adam was squinting into the light.  “Do you think we can trust him?  Nick, I mean.”

They were walking now, moving down the street, peering into buildings and seeking to penetrate the shadows that cloaked their interiors.

“Yes and no,” Ben replied.  “I believe Nick wants to help, but I’m unsure of his motivations.”

“Do you think he would hurt Joe?”

He stopped.  Did he?  He was aware that Nick was not what he seemed to be – a simply ranch hand – as much as the ghostlike army of Felix Matthews had been something other than they appeared.

“I think Nick has your brother’s best interests at heart.  My main concern is that he seems…close with this man, this LaCroix.”

“He’s a sick devil, Pa,” Adam sighed.  “I think LaCroix is delusional.  Like I said, this Lucien LaCroix holds some grudge against the Cartwrights.  I think it has to do with one of our ancestors.”

Ben nodded.  “The first Benjamin Cartwright.”

“You know what this is all about?”

Ben thought of the journal, safe once again within his saddlebag.  The golden cross it had contained was even safer in his pocket.

“No, but I intend to find out – just as soon as we locate your brother and get him home.”

Adam touched his arm.  “Pa.  Look.”

The rancher followed his son’s nod and saw, just within the doorway of the town’s mercantile, a tall man in a gray frock coat.  Or he thought he did.  The sun flashed as it rose above the mountains and the man was gone.

“An apparition?” Adam asked.

That.

Or an invitation.

 

 

SIX

The sight that greeted them as they entered the back room of the Corman’s store was chilling.  Nick Knight had been bound hand and neck to the footboard of a four-poster bed in such a way that his upper torso was exposed to the light that cascaded in from the floor above.  His exposed skin was blistered.  It looked as though he had spent a day in the desert under the sun with no protection.  Nick was moaning and writhing and trying to escape, but with little success.  Between them and him was a gaping hole.  The floor was gone.  It had caved in and fallen through to a lower level, which appeared to be a root cellar or larder.

At its heart lay his son.

“You go to Joe, Pa,” Adam said, his voice tight in his throat.  “I’ll go outside and then climb up to this level and free Nick.  I can come in the window.”

Ben continued to stare in horror at his new hand.  He had never seen such a thing.  It was almost as if the man’s skin was melting.

“Hurry, son.  Nick seems to be in a great deal of pain.”

Adam nodded, even as his eyes went to his brother where he lay below.  He didn’t say it, but Ben knew what he was thinking.

Joe wasn’t moving at all.

It took the rancher far too long to find the stair that went down to the lower level, and five even longer and more painful minutes to work his way through the collapsed hallway so he could force open the door that led into the root cellar.  It was blocked by fallen debris.  All the while he worked to free it, Ben called his son’s name, hoping that Joe would hear him even if he couldn’t answer.  The door proved as stubborn as a Cartwright, and in the end the older man had to pop a few buttons in order to slip through the small opening he made.  By the time he had, the sun had risen high in the sky and the shaft of light from the hole above had moved so it illuminated the lower half of his son’s body.  Ben was careful in his approach.  Even though the stone floor was firm, the wreckage of the upper level hung like a storm above him and his boy.  He didn’t want to chance disturbing it and harming Joseph anymore than he had already been.

Even from the distance he was at, he could see the blood.

“Pa?” a worried voice called out, startling him.

Ben looked up to find his eldest looking down.  “How is Nick?” he asked.

Adam glanced behind.  “He’s recovering.  I got him out of the light.  How’s Joe?”

“I don’t know yet.  Give me a moment.”  The rancher took his time, though it nearly killed him.  He moved through the debris with great care until he reached his son’s side.  Once there, Ben knelt and placed two fingers on Little Joe’s bloody throat.

He uttered a quick prayer of thanks before he called out to his eldest child.  “Your brother’s alive!”

Adam started to answer, but turned back and disappeared into the shadows.  When he reappeared, it was with a puzzled look on his face.

“Nick wants to know if the light is touching Joe.”

Ben was mystified as well.  “Yes. It’s….”  As he spoke, the light reached Joe’s face.  The boy shifted as if in pain, groaned, and then turned his face into the darkness.

“Pa?”

Ben glanced up at Adam, but didn’t answer.  Instead, taking Little Joe’s chin in his fingers, he turned his face back into the sun.  Even in his weakened condition, the boy began to struggle to escape.

“Little Joe, it’s Pa,” he said.  “Your brother Adam and I are here.  Joseph!  Can you hear me?”

“…Louise….?”

Ben sucked in a breath.  The girl again.

“No, son.  It’s your father.”

Little Joe’s eyes shot open and then closed just as quickly.  He whimpered and then said, “Can you…turn out the…light, Pa?”

The older man sighed with relief.  “Son, you’re not in your bed.  Don’t you remember?  You’re in Martinville.”

At that the boy grew agitated.  He struggled to sit up.  “Pa!  Louise!  She…was here.  I saw her!  Pa, you have to…believe me.”  Joe sucked in air as he slumped against him, using his hand to clutch the fabric of his shirt.  “Pa, I don’t…feel so good…”

Whether or not Joe had actually encountered the young woman was a question for another day.  What mattered now was getting his son out of this God-forsaken town and to safety.

“Pa.”

He looked up.  “Yes, Adam?”

“I found some medical supplies in a closet.  Do you want me to bring them down?  I figured you wouldn’t want to move Joe until we know what’s wrong.”

Ben looked at Little Joe where he lay on the cellar floor, breathing hard; ghostly pale.  It seemed the wisest course – to be sure Joseph was stabilized before they moved him.  No matter how much he wanted to go home, it was a long journey back.  It would be hard, not only on Joseph, but on Nick as well.  “I think that would be best,” he called back. “Can Nick make it down here?”

“I can.”  The blond man appeared behind Adam.  He looked haggard, but appeared somewhat recovered.  “I have some knowledge of medicine as I said.  Perhaps I can help.”

It was another five minutes before the pair appeared.  Nick was winded by the time they arrived, but determined.  He bent beside Joseph and began to examine him immediately.  Adam disappeared and then reappeared a few minutes later.  His eldest had managed to scrounge up a basin from somewhere and filled it with cool, clean water.  He also brought a stack of cloths, some for cleansing his brother’s wounds and others to strip into bandages.  Adam handed them to Nick before he disappeared again, heading out in search of food.  The blond man dipped one in the water and began to wipe the blood away from Joseph’s neck.

He cursed at what he found.

It brought Ben’s attention to the wound.  If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought his son had been spooning.  There was a small blister just beneath Little Joe’s jaw, like a love bite, with two small holes in the center.

It was from these the blood was flowing.

“Is something wrong?” the rancher asked as he exchanged a bloody rag for a clean one.

Nick glanced at him as he continued to work.  “No.  I am just concerned about infection.  The wound is not entirely clean.”  While Ben watched, the blond man lifted Little Joe up and slipped an arm behind him.  Then he took a clean strip of cloth and wound it around his son’s neck and tied it, covering the mark.  “It’s a small wound.  It should heal quickly.”

He didn’t sound convinced.

“How do you think he got it?”

Nick laid Little Joe down and then rocked back on his heels.  “Perhaps from a loose wire or some such thing that he encountered in the fall.”  His new hand turned toward him.  “Be at ease, Ben.  No harm will come to Joseph.  I will see to it.”

There was a surety in the man’s words, something like Paul Martin had when he pronounced that everything would be ‘all right’.  But it went deeper.  Nick’s words were meant not only to soothe, but to convince.

They almost did.

“What aren’t you telling me?” the rancher asked.

Nicholas Knight snorted.  His lips curled in a half-smile.  “Imposing, indeed,” he said softly.

“Pa, I found a clean room with a solid floor,” Adam remarked as he reappeared.  “It’s in the shop next door.”

He turned to Nick.  “Is it safe to move Little Joe?”

“I believe so.”  Nick rose to his feet and then stumbled.  “Forgive me.  I am not quite…recovered yet myself.”

The man’s skin had almost returned to normal, though here and there it was marked by red rings indicating where the blisters had been.  He was pale, but then that was a description of Nicholas Knight.  The main indication that something was wrong was in how he held his body – like a man who had been strung up and whipped.

Adam favored him with a smile.  “There are two beds, Nick.  Pa and I can take turns keeping watch while you and Joe sleep.”

Ben rose to his feet.  He put his hands on his hips and looked up through the opening in the ceiling. The sun was already high into the sky.  He glanced at Nick.  From what he had seen, there would be no travel during daylight hours.

“You’re right, Adam.  I think it’s best we wait until the sun goes down to head home.”  The rancher looked directly at the blond man.  “You weren’t making light of your condition.”

“It’s both a curse and a blessing,” Nick replied.  “Come nightfall, I will be at my best.”

“I imagine the road home will be uneventful,” the rancher said as he bent to lift his son.  Once Little Joe was in his arms, Ben turned back to the other man.  “Thank you, Nick.  You certainly have been a godsend.”

The other man looked nonplussed.  “Ben, I…truly doubt God had anything to do with it.”

“I don’t,” he assured him as he followed Adam out of the cellar. “Nicholas Knight, you’re a good man.”

 

A good man.

A good.

Man.

Sadly, he was neither.  What he was, was cursed.  He had been ever since that portentous day when he made the fateful – and self-serving – choice to become a vampire.  If he could take it back, he would.  He’d tried.  God, he had tried to return to the mortal world, but every attempt failed either through his own inadequacy or by LaCroix’s design.  It was nearly more than he could bear.  There was something within him – perhaps it was the ‘goodness’ that Ben Cartwright sensed – that pierced his heart each time he or another of his kind had to kill to continue their own existence.

Nick was leaning on the window frame.  He turned to look at Joseph Cartwright where the boy lay, tossing uneasily in his bed.  It would be the same with this one, only more so.  LaCroix had hopes of turning Ben Cartwright’s youngest son into another of his ‘children’.  It was part of his plan of vengeance against the rancher and his ancestor.  There was another reason.  LaCroix was attracted to youth and to charm, and Joseph Cartwright had both.  It was an irony, that Lucien chose young men and women of strong character to become his children.  That very character denied his desire for dominance over them.

Little Joe would not accept his fate.  He would fight it, and in the end choose non-existence.

He had to stop LaCroix.

Which meant, he had to stop Louise.

Nick’s gaze returned to the yard outside the window.  He’d seen her appear just as they settled Little Joe into his room – as the morning sun kissed the sky – and then watched her fade into the shadows.  Louise had come for Ben Cartwright’s son.  As the young woman from Martinville was now his kindred, she had sensed him as well.  He let her know the boy was guarded.  He was supposed to be riding the herd, but – after feeding on one of the Cartwright’s beeves – had doubled back and come through the window into Joseph’s room to stand as sentinel.  Each time one of the family came in – and the times were many – he melted into the shadows, becoming one with them.  As he watched Ben and the boy’s brothers come and go, he understood LaCroix’s desire to destroy them.

They were good.

The Cartwrights were really and truly good men.

It had become his mission to make certain they remained so – all of them.  In the short time he had been with the Cartwrights, he had come to see that the youngest among them was the heartbeat of the family.  Its patriarch would not survive Little Joe’s loss.  LaCroix knew this.  His mentor knew he need do nothing more than bring Joseph across and he would have his revenge.  The family would grieve and then drift apart and then, wither away to nothing.

And so, here he was, keeping watch during the hours of darkness.  Louise was newly undead.  She could not bear the sun, even for a few moments.  The day was safe.

Not so the night.

A sound from the hallway caught Nick’s attention.  Light footsteps informed him that someone was coming.  His sense told him it was a woman.  Quickly moving away from Joseph’s bed, Nick returned to the shadows and drew them as a cloak around him.  As he was enfolded, the door opened.  An older woman stopped in the doorway for a moment before stepping in.  She was tall for this time, with straight black hair that hung loosely about her shoulders.  She had an air that spoke of strength and resolve.  The woman walked straight over to Joseph’s bed. She stood there for a moment staring at him, before reaching out and placing a hand on his arm.

Then she said, “I know you are there.”

Nick frowned.

No.

How could she know?

“I know as well what you are and I am not afraid…Nicholas Knight.”

Nick hesitated, and then surrendered the shadows for the pale light of the room.  “How do you know?” he asked.

The woman remained still for a moment.  When she looked at him, she said, “Benjamin Cartwright’s journal.  The name may not be the same, but the man in it is you.”

He had used a different one then.  Nicola Chevalier.

“You are Sephora,” he said.

“Yes.  Do you know me?”

Nick shook his head.   There was a sense, but…no.  “Should I?”

Sephora left Joseph’s bedside.  She moved to the window and turned so the rising light struck her face and frame.

“Now?” she asked.

It struck him then.  He knew not this woman, but the one she carried within her – the one in her blood.

“My great-grandmother was very old and I was very young, but I remember.  I remember the tale of the young man with the face of an angel who saved Benjamin Cartwright’s life.”

He smiled and cast into that smile all of his power.  “It could not have been me.  The occurrence you are speaking of took place over one hundred years ago.”

“I know,” Sephora said as she crossed back over to the bed and looked down at Joseph who tossed and turned, deep in the throes of a growing nightmare.  “The British Isles, as you well know, are considered a gateway to worlds unseen.  I am…open to them…and have learned that there are things that appear unreal, which are real – things that are not spoken of unless circumstances demand.” The older woman turned and looked directly at him.  “Things like the Vampiri.”

So it hadn’t worked.

“You are mistaken.”

“I am not,” Sephora countered.  “My great-grandmother was a sensitive, as am I.  I can sense your turmoil.  You bear a great load, Nicola Chevalier, one that will crush you if you do not share it.”  She paused and then added quietly.  “Though you could not save the youngest of Ben Cartwright’s sons then, you will now.”

He scoffed.  “Do you mean to tell me that you believe I am over one hundred years of age?”

“Older.  Much, much older.”  Sephora’s jaw tightened.  “As is the one you must stop.”

He wanted to deny it all, but it seemed of little use.  Still, her knowledge put her in danger.  “I could make you forget,” he said, his tone darkening.

She shook her head.  “No.  Your powers do not work on me as you have seen.  I was blessed by a priest my nana brought to the house and entrusted with the story of Benjamin Cartwright, so it would not be forgotten.”  Sephora sighed as she leaned down and touched the bandage covering Joseph’s neck.  “So this would not happen again.”  The woman glanced up.  “Is there hope for Joseph?”

He nodded.  “Yes, though it is slim.”

She approached him.  “You must let me help.  I will keep watch when you cannot.”

“I need no help.  I am…old.  So long as I stay out of the light….”

“Even you must rest.  Even you must feed.”

“I do not kill…men,” he said.

“I am not surprised.”  Sephora reached out to place her hand alongside his face.  “There is a light about you, Nicola Chevalier.  One you cannot see.  I can.  And I believe that one day you will be redeemed.”

Tears entered his eyes.  He placed his hand over hers.

“Thank you.”

“Now, go,” she said, releasing him.  “I will keep watch over this precious young man.”

Nick glanced out the window at the rising sun.  “I will return with the night.”

Sephora smiled.  “I will be here.”

The blond man  walked to the door and then stopped and turned back.  “There is a young woman – pale, with hair the color of Tupelo honey.  Should I be delayed and should she appear, do not let her in.”

The woman indicated Little Joe.  “She desires him.”

“She has already…fed once.  He will not be able to resist her call.  We must resist for him.”

Again she asked, “Can he be saved?”

There was a way, but it meant the exchange of one life for another.

“If it is in my power, he will be,” Nick vowed.

He started to go again, but Sephora called him back.  “Nicola.”

“Yes?”

“I thought you should know.  Benjamin is reading the journal.”

 

Ben leaned back in his chair and gazed at the fire.  The day was nearly done and he was worn to a nubbin.  In spite of everything, he had had to deal with the drive and had sent Hop Sing to join Hoss.  He’d thought about calling the boy back, but in the end, decided against it.  Having Adam and Little Joe to worry about was more than enough.  Adam had spent some time with his brother in the afternoon.  He had hoped the special bond between his boys would be enough to call Joseph back from wherever he had gone, but it had not. The boy tossed and turned and muttered and cried out as if in pain.  At times he called for him.  Once or twice he had mentioned his mother.  But the name on Little Joe’s lips more often than not was ‘Louise’.

He seemed almost possessed….

The rancher turned from the fire to look at the bound leather volume that lay on the table beside him.  After reading it, he’d considered tossing it in the fire.  The horrific images its pages had conjured were still with him.  There was a current vogue – occasioned by what he knew not – of speculative fiction regarding the undead.  Tieck’s Wake the Dead, Poe’s Ligera, and Fitz-Joyce O’Brien’s What Is It? all purported to tell true tales.  He’d even seen Adam one night with a stack of books under his arm and the top one had been Varney the Vampire.

Vampires?  Good Lord!  Could anything be more absurd?

And yet, there was his great-grandfather’s journal.

He wanted to dismiss it – to believe that, perhaps, his great-grandfather had been ahead of his time and the journal was nothing more than fantasy – but he found it impossible.  The characters within its pages were all too real.  More than that, he knew them.  Sephora was there, though he supposed the woman who was mentioned to be a joint-ancestor of theirs.  It was not so easy to dismiss the tall white-haired Lucien LaCroix, or Nicola Chevalier with his blond curls and cherubic face.

Nicola Chevalier.

Nicholas Knight.

“You have questions.”

Ben started and looked up.  Nick was standing behind Adam’s chair.  The blond man had appeared out of nowhere.

Or so it seemed.

The rancher picked the journal up.  He stared at it a moment and opened his mouth to speak, but ended by shaking his head.

“You are a man of faith, are you not?” Nick asked as he rounded the chair.

Ben nodded.

“Does the Bible not speak of demons as real?  Did Jesus not talk with them and cast them into the pit?”

“Yes, but….”

“Is there not a war between good and evil?  An eternal one, fought in the heavenly places?”

“But we are not in Heaven,” the rancher countered.  “We are on the earth.”

“Where Satan prowls like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.”

“You know your Bible.”

Nick shrugged.  “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” he quoted. “An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek; a goodly apple rotten at the heart.”

He knew the words.  They were Shakespeare’s.

Ben studied the man before him.  He had always prided himself on being a good judge of character.  He sensed no evil in him.

“So, what are you saying?  That you are rotten at heart?”

The blond man indicated Adam’s chair.  “May I?”

He nodded.

Nick sat down.  He waited a moment and then leaned forward and linked his hands, dangling them between his knees.  The blond man stared at the fire for a moment before looking at him.

“I would tell you a tale, Benjamin Cartwright.  Will you listen with an open mind and heart, and hold judgment until the end?”

He shifted back in his chair.  “Do I have a choice?”

Nick snorted.  “Ben, there is always a choice.”

“Very well.”  He settled in.  “Go on.”

The flames had not entirely left Nick’s eyes even though he had looked away from the fire.  They sparked with something – a longing perhaps – as Nick drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “Once, many years ago in a foreign land, there was a young man whose only desire was to do good.  He left his home and set out into the world with one desire – to become a knight.  This young man believed in humankind and its inherent goodness.”  The blond man stirred and sat up.  “He was a fool.”

“I might use the word ‘naïve’,” Ben remarked softly.

“Perhaps they are one and the same.”  Nick sighed.  “As you would expect, he was betrayed and that betrayal was a sword thrust through his heart.  He began to see life as it was and not as it should be.  He…lost himself.”

Ben knew Cervantes and especially that quote. It was one he had used himself.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?  Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be.”       

“Madness.  Yes,” Nick agreed, “it was a kind of madness.  There was a woman – a beautiful woman.  She wanted the young knight and he desired her, but she was not what she appeared to be.  She promised him eternal life, but delivered eternal damnation.”

“Janette?” Ben asked.

Nick’s eyes flicked to the journal and back to him.  “You have read it then.”

“Yes.  I find it…impossible.”

The blond man smiled.  “Perhaps.  But then, is it not also impossible that a man was born to a virgin and then raised from the dead?  And yet you accept this as reality.”

“Nicola Chevalier – Nicholas Knight – is in my great-grandfather’s journal too.”   Ben drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “Are you asking me to believe that you are the same man?  That you are over one hundred years old?!”

“It matters little whether you believe I am or not,” the blond man replied.  “What matters is that you believe the words of your ancestor.  Consider this. Why did the name ‘Benjamin’ go unused in your family for nearly a century?  Is it not common for a man to give his first son his name?  And his son’s son?”  Nick held his dubious gaze.  “A curse was placed upon that name at the behest of Lucien LaCroix.  He swore that – if it was ever used again – the same fate would befall the namesake.”

“My great-grandfather lived.”

“As a broken man, bereft of all.  Like your Bible’s Job, he accepted his fate.”

“It makes no sense,” Ben declared, his anger rising.

“If that Benjamin Cartwright lost ‘all’, then how am I here?”

 

 

SEVEN

The story that unfolded within the pages of the journal was one almost past belief.  His great-grandfather lived in England.  He was a sea-faring man and for many years enjoyed great success as a first mate, and then as captain of his own ship.  The original Benjamin Cartwright had been a striking man – strong, capable, and true to those he loved.  Sadly, he had a secret vice.  He was a gambler.  One night, when his ship was laid up in a harbor in the West Indies, he entered into a game.  Times were hard.  He could ill afford to lose any money, and lose he did.  When the game ended, Benjamin followed the man who had won and accosted him. Taking the money, he returned to his ship and sailed away.  There was no way the man could follow him.  No way he could find him.

Or so Benjamin thought.

As the days progressed and the ocean opened up before him, wide and deep as God’s grace, Benjamin’s conscience overcame him and he repented of what he had done.  There was nothing he could do to make recompense to the man he had cheated,  and so his ancestor vowed he would become a better man and spend the rest of his life – and what fortune he accrued – doing good.  He was true to his word and, as he prospered, became a benefactor to his town and to its poor.  At the age of forty-five he married – a beautiful young woman in her twenties named Sephora.  Ironically, they had three sons.  Benjamin, John, and Joseph.

Joseph, the youngest son.

For a time it seemed Benjamin Cartwright and his family were blessed.  His business prospered as did his sons.  The eldest married well.  The middle boy followed in his footsteps and went to sea, becoming the captain of his own fleet.  And the youngest?  Joseph was a handsome young man, charmed and charming.  Great things were expected of him.

Until she came.

She was not the ‘right’ kind of woman.  Joseph’s father accepted the boy’s interest in this mysterious older woman as an infatuation and humored him – for a time.  Then, he forbid him to see her.  The woman had an ill effect on the boy.  Joseph grew pale.  He lost weight.  His manner changed.  Where before he had been a blithe and happy child, he became surly and withdrawn.  His brothers were called home to talk to him, but nothing could persuade him to give the woman up and Joseph left home.

Her name was Janette.

After that a sadness – a malaise – overcame the family. They quarreled among themselves.  Benjamin’s business suffered.  His health began to fail.  His oldest son died of a sickness and the middle boy was lost at sea.

Then came the fateful night – the one when he discovered the source of all his woes.

Benjamin decided to go to town and seek out his youngest.  He followed Joseph into the woods and discovered the dark world of which the boy had become a part.  This was the point where another name he had heard entered the tale.

Kate O’Brien.

The wife of the sheriff of Martinville.

According to Benjamin’s journal, Kate was a witch and the head of a coven of witches.  She had been recruited to curse him and to wound him deeply by destroying his sons.  But that was not the worst of it.  Joseph, his youngest, was not only to be destroyed but transformed into something evil.  Within the circle of the witches was Janette, but she was not a witch.  She was something else….something unholy…as was the man behind Joseph’s fall.

Lucien LaCroix; the man Benjamin had cheated in the West Indies and left for dead.

A man who could not die.

“Your great-grandfather had great courage,” Nicholas said softly.  “He stepped into that circle of wickedness and offered himself.  He begged that his boy be spared.  But Janette wanted Joseph and it was LaCroix’s delight to see Benjamin Cartwright not only destroyed but devastated.  He ordered Janette to bring the boy over – to make him one of the Vampiri.”

Ben drew in another breath.  He held it.  He couldn’t believe what he was about to say.

“And that is where…Nicola Chevalier came in.”

Nick nodded.  “That is where I came in.”  He returned to the fire and stared once again at the flames.  “It seems that seeing life ‘as it is’ was not enough.”

“You saved Joseph.”

Nick’s jaw tightened as he looked at him.  “Did I?”

“Yes.  By killing him.”

The sun rose and the witches scattered, taking with them Janette and LaCroix.  Benjamin Cartwright bore his youngest son home.  The boy had been left behind, his throat torn open; near death.  Once they had him home, the boy’s mother and father took turns watching over him.  It was to no avail.  The boy woke that night to Janette ’s call.  He escaped the house to be with her.  Benjamin Cartwright left his home armed with Holy Water and the Good Book, bearing his golden cross and several white oak stakes.  Little did he know that Lucien LaCroix was ancient and these things meant little to him when wielded by human hands.  A battle ensued.  Benjamin fought long and hard, but he was too late.

His youngest rose as one of the undead.

Nicholas Knight spoke as if he saw it happening before him.  “LaCroix ordered Joseph to kill his father.  I…could not stand by.  The man had lost everything and for nothing more than stealing a few coins Lucien had no use for.  I took one of the stakes from him, thrust it into the Holy Water, and then drew it across the skin above LaCroix’s blackened heart.  I knew I could not kill him, but knew as well the wound would stop him for a time.  Then…”  Nick’s voice faded away. “Then….”

“You thrust the stake through Joseph’s heart.”

Nick closed his eyes.  He nodded.

“You saved him.”

The blond man’s eyes shot open. There was a feral gleam in them, reflecting the fire’s dying light. “No!  I failed him!  I should have been able to prevent it!  I knew of LaCroix’s evil and of his schemes.  I – ”

“Nick.” Ben waited until the other man looked at him.  “You are not God.”

The blond’s jaw grew tight.  “What if it is your God’s desire that your son die the same way?  And that his brothers precede or follow?” he snarled.  “What if it is you who is left bereft and alone?”

Ben reached out and took hold of the journal.  He thought of his ancestor and what he had faced – and of the life he had been forced to endure after the tragic events of that night.

“What do I say?” he asked quietly.  “I say God’s will be done.”

“You cannot mean that!”

“I can and I do.”  Ben rose to his feet.  “Nick, I believe this moment is an answer to prayer.”

“Prayer?” the other man scoffed.  “How can you believe that?  Your sons are under threat –”

“Not my prayer, Nick,” Ben said softly.  “Yours.

“God has given you a second chance.”

 

Sephora Cartwright jerked awake.  In spite of her best efforts, she had nodded off.  Her first impulse was to look for Joseph, and she was relieved to find the ailing boy still in his bed.  Outside the window the day was dying.  The sunlight that remained was tepid, with little power.  It gripped the Ponderosa with feeble fingers.

Her nana would have called this the ‘witching hour’.

As a young girl she had sat enraptured at the ancient woman’s knee, listening to her speak in her heavily accented voice of witches and warlocks, and of the Vampiri.  Her nana had been born in Scotland and knew of the ancient ways.  Others thought the old woman mad, but she knew better.  She had seen dark spirits outside the window looking in, and watched them turn from men and women into wild things.  They looked, but they did not enter for her nana had Benjamin Cartwright’s golden cross nailed above the door.  Before the old woman passed, she had given it and her great-grandfather’s journal to her.

From the journal she had learned the secret of their past.

A pact had been sealed the night Joseph Cartwright was released – a promise made between the darkness and the light.  Her nana had witnessed it.  As Sephora and Benjamin sat in their home, their hearth as cold as their broken hearts, a knock came at the door.  The older woman had been the one to open it and she had stumbled back in surprise as a tall white-haired man stepped into the room.  Nana said his chest, where it was bared, sizzled; the pale flesh rippling and peeling back from a scar near his heart the length of a man’s fingers spread wide.  At first they feared the vampire, LaCroix, had come to take her as well.  It was then Nana saw there was a man behind him – a young man with blond curls and the face of an angel.  LaCroix snarled like a rabid wolf.  Each word he spoke was bitten off like a mongrel dog chewing a bone.

“I have not forgotten, Benjamin Cartwright, or forgiven!”  A sound from behind made the immoral creature wince.  “However, let it never be said that Lucien LaCroix is not a fair man.  I have come to make you a bargain.”

Her husband stepped in front of her.  “I will not bargain with the Devil!” Benjamin declared.

“I’ll be sure to let him know next time I see him,” LaCroix replied with a sneer.

Her Nana was not afraid.  “What is your offer?” she asked.

“Ah, a woman of reason,” the vampire said.  “You see, my dear, I do not like to lose.  In fact, I will not tolerate it.”

“Have you not won already?” her husband asked.  “Our sons….”

“Paid the price of your greed – and so they shall until eternity should you not do as I demand.  You will not…ever…employ the name of Benjamin within this family again.  It is cursed from this day forward.  If I should ever hear of a child of that name in your line, you can be assured that I will return and the sins of the father will be visited upon the next generation!”

Sephora sighed.

Amazing that a man who had all eternity before him  would prove as petty as a child.

“You look like her, you know?” a snide voice remarked.  “Though I believe the double-chin is an addition.  Your beloved ‘Nana’ had little meat on her bones.”

Sephora shot to her feet.  She had let her guard down.  Night had fallen.  Even though she couldn’t see him, the ancient creature’s evil presence was palpable.

“You will not touch him!” she declared as she moved between the vampire and Ben’s son.

“I have no intention to.  I just popped in to see an old friend.”  LaCroix’s voice darkened as he moved away from the window.  “Where is Nicholas?”

“I don’t know.”

It was the truth.

“I’m afraid my dear boy was a bit…under the weather the last time I saw him.”  The vampire made a tsking sound with his tongue.  “What can you do?  I tried to talk Janette out of it, but you know women and their idea of fun.”  As he spoke, LaCroix moved into the shaft of moonlight that streamed in the window.  His lips peeled back as he demanded, “Now, where is Nicholas?”

“I told you I don’t –”

Lucien LaCroix’s hand came up silencing her.  He bent two fingers.  Sephora resisted, but found she could not stop herself going to him.  He was too old – too powerful.

LaCroix sneered as his fingers closed around her throat.  “You are a resistor, but you have not come across one such as I before.  I am ancient as the Earth and strong and resilient as its bones.” Sephora gasped as his fingers tightened, cutting off her air.  “Now, you will tell me what I want to know or I will – “

“You will let her go, LaCroix.”

The vampire turned toward the door.  “And who do we have here?”

She knew who it was even before he entered the room.  As did the man who held her.

“My name is Benjamin Cartwright.”

The vampire’s pallid face twitched.  “Yes.  Of course, you are.  You look like him – and smell like him.  There’s nothing quite like the scent of pride and false piety.”

“You will leave son’s room and my house,” Ben said.  “And you will not return.”

“Ooh,” LaCroix snorted.  “Rude as well.  Perhaps there is hope for you yet.”

From behind Ben, who remained close to his son’s bed, came another voice.  “LaCroix,” Nicholas Knight said as he moved in front of the older man.  “Will you not let this go?  This man did you no harm.”

“Why, of course, he hasn’t!  That’s not what this is all about, you silly boy.”  Sephora gasped as she felt the ancient creature’s steely fingers close on her throat.  “Do you think I really care that some puny worm of a human beat me out of a few guineas one hundred years ago?  This is not about Benjamin Cartwright then or now.  It is about you!”

Nick faltered.  “M…me?”

“Life as it should be…bah! This is life as it should be!” LaCroix declared as he lifted her feet from the floor and the world began to blacken  “Evil taking good by the throat and squeezing the life out of it, all the while taking pleasure as the spark dies and slips away.  One day you will learn to cherish it, Nicholas, but until then….”

He released her.  As she fell to the floor, gasping, Lucien LaCroix moved to the open window and stepped out.

“…school is in session.”

 

Adam Cartwright sighed as he put down the curry comb and patted Cochise’s back.  The paint horse missed his brother.  It had been days since Joe had been to the barn, and even longer since he had ridden.  The two of them had a special bond.  Cochise was worried.

So was he.

He’d gone up to see Joe before coming out.  His brother still had not awakened.  Little Joe had tossed and turned in the depths of nightmare, calling out for him, for their father, even for their mother at times.

And for Louise.

He sure wished he knew whether or not Louise was real.  Of course, it didn’t really matter.  Joe believed she was real.  Still, if she was a flesh and blood woman then maybe he could find her and bring her to the Ponderosa and then, maybe, they could get to the bottom of this mystery.  Perhaps, if Joe could talk to her – if she became a real presence in his little brother’s life – Little Joe would find some peace.

They all needed that.  Peace.

Life had been hell ever since Joe had wandered into Martinville.

He’d thought about going back.  In fact, that was part of the reason he had come out of the house and to the stable.  Still, Martinville, well, while it didn’t scare him, did unnerve him. There was something in the town – something wrong.  You could feel it when you crossed the border between the desert and the deserted buildings.

If he had it his way, he’d burn it to the ground.

Reaching up, Adam took a saddle blanket from the stall wall and tossed it over Cochise’s back.  The night was cold and, whether the horse was cold or not, it gave him something to do. As he did, he sensed movement behind him.

You could have knocked him over with a feather.

“Hello, Adam.”

She was half-masked by the shadows, but he knew her.

“Viney, what are you doing here?”

“I…. I came to warn you.”

He put the blanket down and took a step toward her.  “Warn me about what?”

“No!  Don’t come closer.  Don’t…tempt me.”

Her voice shook as she spoke.  She was afraid.

“Viney, what’s wrong?  Can I help?”

The saloon girl’s eyes were visible.  They were the picture of sorrow.  “No.  No one can help me.  I have written my own epitaph in other’s blood.”

He frowned. “Does this have to do with that woman – with Janette?”

It took a moment before she answered. “Adam, you have been a good friend to me.  You didn’t care what I had to do or what I had become.  I have…become something else now.  Something evil.”

“You could never be – ”

“But I am!  I was getting old.  When I looked in the mirror, I saw a woman past her prime.  The cages were all I had left to look forward to – to the rough hands and rougher ways of down-trodden, dirty men who would use me for their pleasure and toss me away.”  Her voice was thick; heavy with both regret and longing.  “Janette  offered another way.”

Adam blinked.  He swallowed hard.  His heart was pounding in his chest like before, in the saloon, and he was finding it hard to think.

“What…way?”

Viney drew a breath as she stepped out of the shadows.  He didn’t know what he’d expected to see, but it wasn’t what he saw.  She was young. The silver had left her black hair and the lines around her mouth and forehead, followed.  Her skin was smooth as silk and white as alabaster; her lips, the color of a red rose in full bloom.

She was beautiful.

Viney had always sashayed, her stiffened skirts making a noise like a crackling fire as she walked.  They did so now as she crossed the straw and debris-strewn floor.  When she reached his side, she halted and lifted a hand to touch his face.

“I have always loved you, Adam.  You know that, don’t you?”

“I…”  He blinked again and swallowed over his inability to link words together.  “I…know.”

Her hand moved to his throat.  “I want you.  So badly I can…taste it.”  Viney’s tongue darted out of her mouth to wet her lips.  “But I would never condemn you to what I have become.”

“And what…is that?”

Her smile was rueful.  “Once I was a lady of the night.  Now, I am a creature of it.”

“What does that mean?”

Viney’s hand clasped the back of his neck and she pulled him into a kiss.  Then she released him and stepped back.

“I have come to warn you.”

His head was spinning.  Adam reached out for balance, catching the rail of the stall.  “Warn me about…what?”

“She is coming.”

“She?”

Viney glanced toward the door.  “Louise.”

He frowned.  “Little Joe’s…Louise?”

“You must stop her.  She will make your brother what she is – what I am.  Tonight, do not leave Little Joe unguarded for a moment.  He will do whatever it takes to respond to her call.  You cannot trust what he says.  He will lie.  He will cajole.  He will betray you.”

He shook his head. “Not, Little Joe.”

“She is right, Adam,” a soft male voice remarked.  “Hello, Viney.”

Adam turned to find Nick Knight entering the stable.  As he broke contact with the saloon girl, sanity seemed to return and he was able to think more clearly.

“I meant no harm,” Viney pouted.

“I imagine not.  Still, it would be best if you go.”  The blond man looked around.  “Is Janette with you?”

She shook her head.  “No, she is with LaCroix.”

Adam shivered.  Viney knew that madman?

What was going on?

Nick spoke with an authority he had not heard before – as if Viney somehow owed him.  “You will return to Janette,” he said.  “You will tell her that I will come and speak to her soon.”

“I will tell her.”

As Viney started to move away, Nick reached out and caught her arm.  “And you will leave this one alone.  Is that understood?”

Viney gazed at him longingly before nodding.

“Very well.  Now, go.”

She took a few steps, entered the shadows, and then seemed to disappear.  Nick stared at the spot where she had been for a moment before turning to face him.

“You came very close tonight,” the blond man said.  “Do not speak with her alone again.”

Adam thought of all the things he had seen and heard since the day Nicholas Knight had come to stay.  There were signs – things he recognized, but could not – or would not – believe.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“You know who I am.”

“Then….”  Adam swallowed hard over his disbelief.  “What are you?”

The blond man came to his side.  He placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Adam Cartwright, whatever you may suspect, this one thing you can know for certain.  I am your friend.”

Adam’s eyes returned to the point where Viney had vanished.

“She said Little Joe was in danger.  That…Louise would come for him tonight.”

Nick nodded.  “That is why I sought you out.”

“Why?” Adam asked. “What do you mean?”

“We must return to Martinville, you and I.  That is where the snake makes its nest.”  The blond man’s pale eyes narrowed.  In them was the gleam of a wolf considering its prey.

“You and I must cut its head off before it can strike.”

 

 

EIGHT – Now

Ben Cartwright sat beside his youngest’s bed.  Night was once again upon them and, though he was still not certain what he thought of his great-grandfather’s journal and Nicholas Knight’s assertions, he did know that the night was the gathering place of dark and evil things.  Joseph had been tossing and turning when he came in with a tray containing his supper.  The boy had eaten nothing and continued to be restless.  He and Adam were due to leave within the week to join their men on the trail.  Their livelihood was at stake.  Their very survival.

But he couldn’t leave.

He would not desert his child.

Dan Tollivar had offered to take over for him on the drive.  He’d accepted and made sure his old friend knew just how grateful he was.  Dan was growing old, but he was still sharp and he would keep the young hands in line as they drove the beef to the fort where it was to be delivered.  Ben leaned forward and reached out, brushing sweat-soaked curls from his son’s forehead.  It would matter little whether they had the money or not if something should happen to Joseph.

Or either of his brothers.

Ben pivoted in his chair to look at the window.  It was closed and locked.  Nothing could get in unless it was invited.  He remembered the tales he had been told as a child – tales spoken in whispers around the embers of a fire burnt low; meant to chill as much as to entertain.  Some had touched on the Vampiri – evil creatures as ancient the planet they trod, whose sustenance was the life-blood of the living.  He had never put any stock in such tales, supposing them to be the children of unsophisticated and unschooled minds.

Until now….

A touch on his hand surprised him.  Ben looked down to find his son’s eyes were open.  The emerald orbs shone fever-bright within a frame of shadows.  Little Joe had consumed nothing for several days and the boy had lost weight.  He looked like a consumptive; like one who was slowly wasting away and had but a short time left to walk this earth.

Little Joe’s fingers clawed feebly at his own.  “…Pa…?”

“Yes, son,” he said as he gripped his son’s hand.  “It’s me.  Your pa is here.”

“What…what’s wrong with me?”

Ben touched Joe’s cheek.  “You’re sick, son.  You have a fever.”

“Feel…strange.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“I was…dreaming, Pa.”

“Oh,” he said, forcing a smile. “About what?”

Little Joe smiled too.  “Mama.”

His son missed his mother so.  He had been so young when Marie had been taken away from them.

“What did you dream about her?”

“I was…in a dark place.  Felt…like I was drowning.”  Joe winced as he shifted his partially unclothed body, as though the touch of the sheets was painful.  The poor boy was covered with cuts and bruises from his fall – and then there was the wound on his throat.  “I saw Mama on the shore.  She..reached out for me.”

“I am sure your mother is looking out for you,” Ben said, and meant it.

“Louise…was there too.”  Joseph frowned.  “Mama doesn’t like…her.”

Again, Louise.

“Joseph,” Ben clutched his child’s hand tightly. “Son, Louise isn’t real.  She’s a part of your fever.  A part of the nightmare.”

He’d expected the boy to protest.  Instead Joe’s eyes rolled over to look at him.  “She’s here,” he said.

Ben frowned. “Little Joe, there is no one is in this room but you and me.”

“Louise is…outside.  I can hear her…calling me.”  His son blinked several times and then his eyes closed. Just when he thought Joe had fallen asleep, he stirred again and looked right at him.  “I don’t…want to go, Pa.  I want to stay with you.”

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, son,” Ben replied.   “You’re safe here.  You’re in your own room, in your bed.  I’m here to watch over you.”

“Mama…wants….” Joe said unexpectedly.

Ben often felt the women in his life hovering over him, watching out for him and their children.  He did not dismiss what his son said.

“What does your mama want, Joe?  To tell me something?”

His son frowned.  He shifted again and winced.  “Not…my mama.”

That surprised him.  If not Marie, then who?

“Adam’s mama,” the boy said.  “She’s worried.”

Elizabeth?

“Your brother is in the stable, son.  He’s fine.  He’s taking care of Cochise for you.”

Little Joe smiled at the name of his horse, but sobered quickly.  Then, as clear as a bell, he said, “You have to  go with Adam, Pa.  He’s going to Martinville.  He needs you.”

With that, the boy’s eyes closed and he lapsed back into unconsciousness.

Ben remained as he was for a moment, holding Joe’s hand and staring at his son. Then he started and turned as a hand came down on his shoulder.

No one was there.

Shaken, Ben rose and went to the window. Sure enough Adam was there, standing by his horse, talking to Nick Knight who was already mounted.  Sport was kitted out to ride.  The rancher looked back at his ailing son and hesitated.  If he went after Adam that would leave Little Joe alone.  He could rouse Sephora, but she was exhausted after her ordeal.  Still….  Surely, Joe would be all right for a few minutes.  After all, the window was locked and the boy was unconscious.

Joe had made the choice for him.  He had to stop Adam.

Quickly crossing the room, Ben stepped into the hall.  He turned back, locked the door, and then flew down the steps and out of the house…too late.  Just too late.   He exited just in time to see Adam and Nick ride out of the yard.  Again, the rancher hesitated, thinking of Little Joe, but then quickly came to a decision.  Running to the rail, Ben unhitched the first horse he found and, mounting it, flew out of the yard after the pair.

 

As he did, a pale figure stepped out of the shadows that lined the yard.  She moved with a sylphlike grace to the area beneath Little Joe’s window and looked up.

Tonight.

Tonight, the handsome young man with the curly chestnut hair and the wide, beautiful green eyes would be hers.

 

“Adam!  Adam, wait!”

He almost didn’t hear the call.  He and Nick were, to put it mildly, hell-bent toward reaching Martinville before daybreak.  Nick had explained that the deserted town was Lucien LaCroix’s base of operations. He’d also explained how the one thing that would stop the ancient creature was fire.  It would not destroy LaCroix, but should he burn, it would take the vampire weeks – if not months – to gather enough strength to renew the human form he wore.  It had happened before and Nick believed it was their only chance .  They must trap LaCroix, and then set him and Martinville on fire and let them burn.  There were risks to Nick, of course. He could no more withstand fire than his mentor.  Nick was a creature of the night – a vampire – as was LaCroix.

Yes, he had come to believe.

As he reined in his horse, Adam noticed that Nick did as well.  The blond man glanced at him and then urged his mount forward toward Pa.

“Who is with Joseph?” Nick demanded as the older man drew to a halt.

His father looked somewhat ill.  “No one.”

“What?!  You left him alone?”

Pa’s tone was grieved, but firm.  “I made certain the window was locked and I locked the door behind me as I left.  There are men watching in the yard as well.  I..didn’t want to leave him, but Little Joe woke up.  He sent me after you.”  The older man looked at him. “Adam, your brother said you were in danger and that I needed to be with you.”

Nick was frowning.  “How would Joseph know?  It must have been a dream.”

“Pa?”

His father looked odd.  “Little Joe said your mother told him, Adam.  It was Elizabeth who sent me after you.”

Vampires and witches.  Ghost towns.  And now, the dead talking.

Why not?

Nick spoke up.  “Ben, am I to understand that Joseph told you that you were needed in Martinville?”

Pa nodded.

The blond man considered it.  “Perhaps that means that I am needed at the Ponderosa.”  Nick pulled up hard on his mount’s reins and turned its nose toward home.  “You have everything you need, Adam.  Do you remember all I told you?”

Nick had given him instructions on how to catch LaCroix unawares.  He wasn’t too sure about their efficacy, but there was little choice other than to try.

The amoral creature had to be stopped.

“Yes.”

“And Janette?”

There was a bond between the blond man and the dark and beautiful French woman he had met at the saloon.  It was Nick’s wish that she be spared what was to come.  He understood.  From what he had learned, in some ways Janette was as much LaCroix’s victim as Viney.

As his brother might become.

“Then, I must fly.”  Nick gave his father a nod even as he urged his horse forward.  “You may rest assured, Ben, that if it is within my power, no harm will befall young Joseph tonight!”

They said not a word as the blond man pulled away and disappeared into the night.  Pa was the first to break the silence.

“Young Joseph,” he muttered.  “Nick can’t be more than a few years older than your brother.”

Adam pursed his lips.  He winced.

“Pa, there’s one or two things I need to explain….”

 

Little Joe Cartwright sat bolt upright in bed; his well-muscled form wrapped in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets.  He remained still for a moment, and then ran a hand through his sodden curls before casting his covers off and rising.  Standing was almost too much.  Joe stumbled as his feet hit the floor; a trembling hand shot out to catch hold of the bedside table.  He waited – breathing, gathering strength – and then pressed off, passing his fingers over the bedside tray that held his untouched supper and the sterling silver cutlery that lay beside it.  Slowly, like one still caught in a dream, the young man padded on bare feet across the floor until he came to the window where he halted.  It was late October.  The sky was black but the moon was full and high.  Its argent light reached through the glass panes like an amorous lover, caressing his glistening skin; urging him to turn the latch and throw open the window.  He had a thought to resist.  It was far back and deep within him.  Contained within that thought was all that he was and all that he hoped to be.  It contained everything he had ever been taught – ach and every piece of wisdom and good advice imparted to him over twenty-two years by his beloved Pa and brothers.

It meant nothing.

There was nothing.

Nothing but her.

She stood in the yard, her arms outstretched; her pallid beauty as powerful a drug as he had ever known.  She called to him without words, willing him to step through the window and onto the roof – and then off of the roof.

She wanted him to die.

As he hesitated, Joe shoved a handful of curls off his forehead and then ran his hand along the back of his neck.  He prided himself on being a strong man with a sense, not only of himself, but of an easy confidence in who and what he was.  He might not be as smart as Adam or as even-tempered as Hoss. He knew he could never be the man his father was.  But, he was Joe Cartwright.  Or he had been Joe Cartwright.

Now he was…what?

Joe’s eyes, emerald-green in the moonlight, returned to the woman who waited.

Hers.

That’s all he was.

Just…hers.

A sudden gust of wind and the soft, subtle touch of silk curtains against his fevered skin alerted Joe to the fact that he’d opened the window.  He looked down in surprise to find his fingers clenched and white as the sash they clutched.  Beads of sweat dropped from his spiraling curls, wetting his bare skin as they traveled the length of his chest to the rolled waistband of his night-trousers, chilling him.

Before he was aware of it, he was halfway out the window.

 

Nick flew into the Ponderosa yard – literally flew.  He had abandoned his mount as quickly as possible after leaving the company of Adam Cartwright and his father, and taken to the air in the form of a bat.  Moving as a creature of the night, he’d covered the distance to the ranch house in mere minutes.  It was a good thing, he had.  Upon his arrival he noted two things – a young woman, standing in the yard.

And Joseph Cartwright stepping out of his window.

Nick thought about landing on the shingles before him, materializing and assuming his human form, but remembered that the young man had no inkling of what he really was.  His abrupt appearance might startle Little Joe, causing him to plunge off the roof to his death – either from breaking his neck or falling into Louise’s arms.  And it was Louise; the young woman LaCroix had recently brought across.

The nascent vampire whose only desire was to make Joseph Francis Cartwright like her.

Coming to ground in mid-transition, Nick took a moment to find his footing – and to gather his wits – and then dashed into the Cartwright’s home and up the steps.  It took no more than a few seconds to race down the hall.  Already he was pounding on Joseph’s door.  When his urgent shouts brought no reply, Nick hesitated only a moment before calling upon the dark creature within him and surrendering to its control.  With the strength of the Krakken of old, he took hold of the thick wooden door that barred him from the young man he had come to care deeply for and ripped it off its metal hinges.

Nick halted as his foot crossed the threshold.  Joseph was in the window, or more particularly half in and half out of it.  He turned and looked at him, his aspect languid; his eyes those of a sleeper just awaking from a dream.

“Joseph, you must obey me,” Nick said quietly, exerting the supernatural power at his command.  “You will step away from the window – now!”

Nick could hear Louise’s siren call, coming from without even as his came from within.  She urged Joseph to come to her, to step out and fall to his death.  He countermanded her, ordering the boy to leave the window and come back into his room – to embrace life and leave the illusion of love behind.

Unfortunately, Louise had tasted Little Joe’s blood and her call was the stronger.

“Joseph, no!”  Nick cried as he flew across the room.  “No!”

Too late.

Too late to stop him.

Joseph flew too.

Straight into Louise’s arms.

 

The wind chafed their faces as they rode, faster than two men had any right to.  His borrowed mount carried Ben Cartwright forward with the fortitude of a steed carrying a knight into battle.  The stakes were high.  From what little Adam had told him, they were fighting not flesh and blood but demons and principalities, and though everything that was within the rancher rebelled at such a notion, what Nick had said was true – if he believed the Good Book, it was real.

Evil was real and its name was Lucien LaCroix.

They’d stopped once on their journey, long enough to relieve themselves and little more.  During that time Adam had filled him in on the plan he and Nick had concocted.  It seemed pure madness, but if demons were real, then perhaps the time-honored ways to defeat them were real as well.  It seemed the Vampiri could not abide the touch of silver or the scent of garlic.  Anything holy and dedicated to the God of Israel could stop them.  They could not cross running water.  According to his son, these undead creatures could be killed in only three ways – by decapitation, a white oak stake through the heart, or by fire.

It was the last they intended to use to defeat this horror that had come into their lives.

As their horses’ hooves continued to pound the hard packed earth of the road to Martinville, Ben glanced at his eldest son.  Adam had told him another fantastic thing, almost beyond credence.  He said the young woman from the ghost town – Louise Corman – had become one of these creatures and that she….  The older man drew in a disbelieving breath, held it, and then let it out with his doubt.  Adam explained that Louise had bound Little Joe to her through supernatural means, and that it was her intent to make his youngest son one of them.  Ben knew of demon possessions.  They were spoken of in the Bible and therefore were true.  He supposed this was something like that.  He supposed it, but he knew it was something else.

He had to save his son.

“Pa!” Adam called over the fury of their horses’ hooves.  At the same time, his son reined in Sport and drew the horse to an abrupt halt.

“What is it?” Ben asked as he did the same thing.

Adam was pointing.  “There, Pa. There’s someone there.”

They were about five miles outside of Martinville, in the middle of the desert where no woman had a right to be.  And yet, there she was, strolling as if the sun and wind and inclement weather meant nothing to her.  A storm had begun to brew as they rode.  They’d watched it crawl across the desert sands, winding sideways like a dark-gray snake, driving dust and debris before it.  The woman’s hair was dark as that storm.  She wore a brightly colored shawl over the shoulders of her white blouse.  It flapped in the wind like a bat’s wings.  Her hair had broken loose from its fastening and portions striped her face like prison bars.

“Who is she?” Ben asked.

Adam pursed his lips.  “I think it’s the woman Joe talked about – Kate O’Brien, the wife of Martinville’s sheriff.  At least she fits her description.”

The rancher hesitated and then dismounted.  He waited until Adam had done the same and, together, they approached the woman. She had halted and was waiting for them.

The rancher opened his mouth to introduce himself, but Kate O’Brien beat him to it.

“You are Benjamin Cartwright,” she said.

“Yes.”

The woman’s solemn gaze moved to Adam.  “You are the eldest son.”

His son tipped his hat.  “Yes, ma’am.  My name is Adam.”

Kate O’Brien glanced over her shoulder, toward the dead town, before speaking again.  “That young man – your brother, your youngest son – is in grave danger.”

“We know.”  Ben took a step toward her.  “Tell me.  Do you know where Lucien LaCroix is?”

“Why do you want to know?”

He exchanged a glance with Adam. “Because we have come to destroy him.  Please, we wish you no harm, but you must get out of our way.”

A muscle in Kate’s face twitched.  “Lucien is ancient and evil beyond your imagining.  He will toss your crucifixes away, drink your Holy water, and laugh at your feeble attempts as he drinks your blood!”

“We have…knowledge,” Adam said.  “We have been told what to do.”

The woman thought a moment.  “Ah, Nicola…”

“Yes,” Ben replied, his tone urgent.  “Now, I ask you again, please get out of our way – ”

“I will not,” Kate said.  “Neither will I let you pass unless….”

“Unless?” Adam asked.

Kate O’Brien’s face had been beautiful once upon a time.  It was flinty now; hard as the backbone of the Sierras and sharp as the picks that tore into their guts.

Her smile was as unnatural as the night.

“Unless you take me with you.  I would see that bastard burn!”

 

He was almost too late, but Nick managed to halt the youngest Cartwright’s fall.  He dove out the window and came in underneath Little Joe just as a fist of earth rose up to strike the boy’s tender bones.  Even he – powerful as he was – had the wind knocked out of him as he struck the hard-packed ground.  It took five or six seconds to recover.  In that short time Joseph managed to roll away from him and find his feet.

A heartbeat later he was headed toward Louise, who awaited him with open arms.

Nick headed for the pair, intent on capturing Little Joe and bearing him away.  As he did two figures abandoned the dark shadows cast by the Cartwrights’ sizeable stable and moved to block his way.  He recognized them instantly.  The first was his former paramour, Janette .  The second, the saloon girl Janette  had brought across shortly after her arrival in Virginia City.

“You cannot win, Nicola,” Janette said, her tone silken and sultry.  “You have tried before to defeat LaCroix.  It cannot be done.”

“It can be,” he declared.  “It will be!”

“You are wrong.  Joseph is mine,” Louise Corman pronounced as she wrapped her arms around the youngest Cartwright’s shoulders.

“If you believe that, you are a fool!” Nick spat as he faced her  “LaCroix cares nothing for you or your desires.  He is using you!  Louise, listen to me.  Lucien’s only aim is to destroy the Cartwrights. You are just a tool!  As soon as the boy has been brought across, LaCroix will abandon you.  He will take Joseph and leave you with nothing!”

“No!” Louise countered.  “No!  LaCroix has promised me –”

Nick shook his head.  “I have known LaCroix for half a millennium.  He cares for no one but himself.  Promises are nothing to him. They are made only to be broken.  He will betray you.”  The blond man paused.  His gaze went to Janette.  “As he has betrayed us all.”

Louise’s arms tightened around Little Joe.  “Then we will go away together!” she declared.

“He will pursue you.  LaCroix will find you and he will destroy you, and then he will take Joseph for himself.  I know.”  Nick sighed.  “It is my story.  Think, Louise!” he demanded as he moved toward her.  “Is this what you want for the man you love?  Eternal damnation?  Eternal Hell on Earth?”

“He has chosen, not me!” she replied angrily.

Nick looked at the boy.  Joseph’s eyes were empty.

“No.  It is you who have done this.  You chose this path, and now you choose it for Little Joe!”  Nick had grown angry as well.  “LaCroix made me believe I had a choice, but I had none! I was tricked.”

“Nicola,” Janette said, her tone warning.

He was not to be put off.  “It is the truth, Louise.  If you love this man, you will release him and return him to his family.”

“She had partaken of Joseph’s blood, Nicola.  It is too late.  You know that,” Janette said as she came to his side.  Leaning in, his former lover whispered, “What you are asking is too much!  You know the only way the boy can be released is if Louise is destroyed!”

It was true.  Joseph would cross over or he would die, unless the one who had bitten him was no more.

Nick looked at Louise.  She might be young, but she had the Vampiri’s ears.

She had heard.

“Greater love hath no one than this,” he paraphrased softly, “that they lay down their life for someone they love.”

“Do not listen to him!” Janette snarled.  “You can be together – as Nicola and I have been together!”

“As we are no longer,” he countered.  “Five centuries is more than enough time to kill love.  You will tire of each other.  You will leave him or Joseph will leave you.  In time, he will regret his choice.  He will become like me.  Or worse….”

“What do you mean?” Louise asked.

Nick moved to stand in front of his friend.  Little Joe was staring ahead, his eyes blank; his face lifeless, slack.  “This is a Cartwright, Louise.  Though you may bend him to your will, you will not break him.  In his bones and in his blood there is strength and there is good.  If you force him to become one of us – to kill to survive – you will doom him.  I believe he would chose eternal damnation rather than to feast on another’s blood.  I -”

Nick gasped as a sudden strong pain shot through him.  He stumbled back and looked down – and found the handle of a sterling silver knife sticking out of his thigh.

Joe Cartwright released the handle and stepped back as Louise came to his side.  She wrapped an arm around his waist before speaking.

“You’re wrong,” she said.  “Little Joe will do anything to be with me.”

“Poor Nicola, so noble.  So trusting,” Janette chided as she knelt beside him.  “Will you never learn?”

And then, in a puff of smoke, she and the others were gone.

 

 

NINE

Kate O’Brien led them to the edge of Martinville.  They waited there, hidden behind a clump of gorse, until Felix Matthews and his band of unearthly marauders passed by.  Kate admitted that the men’s return had been her doing.  Lucien LaCroix had forced her to use her witchcraft to call the outlaws back from Hell.  She regretted doing so, as she regretted ever making a bargain with the man.  Her unreasonable hatred of the inhabitants of Martinville has driven her to the ancient creature.  The power it would take to preserve and hold a town of over 200 souls an inch away from eternity was more than she possessed.  In so many words, Kate sold her soul to see vengeance done.  When Little Joe came to the town – when his son’s courage and decency roused its people to fight back and they were freed from her curse – Kate became incensed.  She was well aware of LaCroix’s animosity toward his ancestor.  She wrote to him and told the ancient creature about them – where, and how they lived – and promised to deliver up his youngest son as a sacrifice on the altar of the man’s evil in exchange for the erasure of her debt.  LaCroix, as might have been expected, had reneged on his word.

Kate O’Brien was out for blood.

Ben closed his eyes as he ran a hand over his stubbled cheeks.  The more he heard, the more like madness it seemed, and yet the rancher knew that, if he pinched himself, he would feel it.

It was all too real.

“Are you all right, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben looked at his son.  “Let’s just find your brother and get out of here.”

“You will need to find Louise and destroy her along with LaCroix,” Kate O’Brien declared, her tone sharp as a hunter’s blade, “otherwise your son will remain enslaved.”  At his look she added, “You must not think of her as human.”

A beautiful young woman – one his son apparently loved.

How could he do otherwise?

“Where will we find him?” he asked.

“Lucien LaCroix, or your son?”

Ben exchanged a troubled glance with Adam.  Little Joe was safe at home.  Nick had made a promise.

Or was he?

Could they be certain of anything?

They had continued moving as they talked and were abreast the mercantile now.  Ben hesitated as he recalled finding Little Joe there only a few days before.  In the time they had been away from Martinville, the building had collapsed in upon itself.  He regarded the decaying structure, and then looked beyond it to the rest of the moldering town.  One spark, that was all it was going to take.

One spark.

Adam came up beside him.  His son’s hand fell on his shoulder.

His eldest knew what they would find as surely as he did.  What they didn’t – and couldn’t – know was what they would do when they found it.  If, by some twist of fate Joseph was here, the action they were contemplating could mean his death.  Still, the boy would die if they failed to take the chance.

LaCroix or Joseph, Kate had asked.  Which did he expect to find?

“Both.”

 

Adam Cartwright hugged the darkness just outside of Martinville’s saloon.  Above his head a bloated moon rode the clouds toward morning – a morning that would come all too soon.  A few minutes before he and his father had split.  They had their missions.  Both were dangerous, but his held a personal level of peril.

He was looking for Viney.

He didn’t exactly know where to look for her, but then he figured he didn’t really have to.  Once she realized he was in Martinville, Viney would find him.  He’d have to be wary.  He was placing his own life in jeopardy.

But then, what kind of a life would he have if he let the powers of darkness consume his little brother?

“What are you doing here?”

Adam glanced around.  He couldn’t find her.  “Come out of the shadows,” he said.

“You don’t want me to do that.”

The black-haired man sucked in his apprehension.  “Yes, I do. I need to talk to you.”

It was all Adam could do not to gasp as she appeared.  Viney appeared even younger than before.  Her hair was pure black and cascaded in a wave to her waistline.  All of her wrinkles were gone.  In fact, she looked just like the young temptress the old ladies at the church had warned him against when he was a teener – except for her eyes.

Viney’s eyes were immeasurably old.

“I can’t give you what you want, Adam Cartwright.  It’s too late.”

“I won’t accept that.  Little Joe is still alive.”

Viney shrugged.  “He has tasted death.”  She chuckled softly. “Or, maybe, I should say that ‘death’ has tasted him.”

“Joe is innocent in this.  How can you conscience what has happened – what might happen?!”

Her lips flattened into a hard line.  “I have nothing to say about it.  What is done is done.”

It probably wasn’t wise, but he dared it.  Adam walked up to her and took her by the arm.

Viney’s skin was ice.

“Viney, look at me.”  She’d looked away, as if ashamed.  Adam waited until she turned back.  “You told me once that you loved Little Joe, remember?  He was about eight and had snuck into the saloon.  I’d told him about you, about how much I liked and admired you, and he wanted to see you for himself.  The bouncer had him by the scruff and was going to toss him into the street….”

A light entered those dead eyes.  “I stopped him.”

“You did more than that.  You took Little Joe up to your room and had one of the girls bring him milk and cookies.  Then you sent for me.”

“I….”  Viney’s hollow eyes settled on him.  “It is you I love, Adam.”

He nodded.  “I know it.  I always have.”

“You were so young….”  Viney smiled.  He noted how the pointed tips of her teeth showed snowy-white against the crimson flesh of her lips.  Her fingers brushed his cheek and then dropped to his throat.  “You are not so young now.”

Adam felt the ‘tug’.  She was doing something to him – enchanting or mesmerizing him.  He closed his eyes and steeled himself against it.  He’d been at carnivals before where someone had tried to hypnotize him.  It didn’t work.  He’d been able to resist.

God, let him be able to resist now!

He opened his eyes and reached up.  Catching her wrist in his fingers, he pulled her hand away.   “Viney, I wish we could be together, but we can’t.  I’m warm. I’m alive!  You’re cold and….”

“I am alive forever,” she intoned.  “Join me.  We can share eternity.”

Adam released her.  “No, Viney.  You’re dead.  This,” he indicated her much-changed form, “is but a pretense of living, and it comes at the cost of that little boy who sat in your room with cookie crumbles in his hair and a moustache made of milk.”

I have not harmed your brother!” she snarled.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for a good man – or woman – to do nothing,” he quoted softly.  “Which one are you, Viney?  Good?  Or evil?”

Viney glared at him.  For a moment he thought he was doomed.  Then she said the words he hoped to hear.

“What do you want me to do?”

Adam took her hand in his.  Despite the danger, he reached out to touch her cheek.  “I want you to save yourself.  I want you to…find your way to Heaven.”  As her cobalt eyes shone with tears and, perhaps, a smidgen of hope, he added, “I need you to take me to Lucien LaCroix.”

 

Kate O’Brien led Ben on a circuitous path through the town of Martinville, stopping only as they reached the edge of it.  Before him was a tall, steepled building.  Like all of the other buildings in the town, it had been abandoned decades before and fallen into ruin.  Nearly all of its brightly colored windows had been shattered, including the great round one above its entry.  The double-arched doors below were battered; their paint worn to nothing.

“Here?” Ben asked softly.  “He means to do it…here?”

Kate O’Brien left his side and ascended the short stair that led up to the double-doors.  Above the doors there was a cross.  It had broken loose of its moorings and hung upside-down, its jagged metal arms scraping like fingernails across the rustic boards of what had once been the doorway to Martinville’s only sanctuary.

“Long before I cursed them, the weak-minded inhabitants of this God-forsaken town deserted their faith,” Kate said.  “Had they not, my magic could not have triumphed.  Felix Matthews is a devil now, and he was one then.  For a time he let the pious citizens of Martinville play at piety; then, he forbid them enter.  His men circled this place like vultures. They inhabited its tower.  Any who approached were dropped where they stood, perishing while the fiend laughed.  In the end, Martinville’s populace abandoned God, and then God abandoned them.”

Ben’s eyes were on the cross.  “God abandons no man.”

Kate scoffed as she descended the steps. “Tell that to the late citizens of Martinville.”

The sheriff’s wife had brought him here for a reason.  It was here, she said, that Lucien LaCroix intended to bring his youngest son ‘over’ to the world of the undead.  While it was true there was no place quite as forsaken as a temple from which God had removed his Shekinah glory, that did not mean He had forsaken the men within.  His God was a God of mercy and compassion; of second chances.

Of a thousand second chances.

“Is LaCroix inside?” he asked.

Kate had no need to answer. The tall, white-haired man in the gray frock coat opened the door and stepped out.

“Ah, Benjamin Cartwright.  How nice of you to come,” LaCroix said as he moved forward.  “Is it your intention to pay the debt you owe me?”

Ben could feel the man’s evil radiating off of him, strong as the evening tide under a full moon.

He withstood the pull.

“I owe you nothing.”

“Oh, but it is there you are wrong!” the ancient creature snarled.  “Your great-grandfather – ”

“Was not me.  Nor am I him.”  It was like walking upstream, but he managed it.  Ben moved a step closer.  “LaCroix, you and I are intelligent…men.  Why not drop this pretense?”

“Pretense?”

“That you wish me harm because I’m named after a man who cheated you at cards.”   The rancher paused.  “We both know better.”

“Such an astute mortal!”  LaCroix raised a finger and pointed it at the cross dangling above his head.  “Amazing that your mere fifty or sixty years of life has allowed you to know the mind of a creature who walked the Earth but a few years after your Christ was born!”

“I know your kind,” Ben countered.  “You are evil, and evil seeks to destroy good.  That’s all there is to it.”

LaCroix sucked his teeth.  The, he shrugged.  “You’re right, of course.  Nothing pleases me more than proving what a weak and feckless thing is a good man – or boy.”  The ancient creature snapped his fingers.  Something moved in the depths of the abandoned church.  A moment later his worst fear was realized.

Joseph stepped out.

His son stood hand in hand with a pale young woman.  Little Joe appeared to be dazed, or maybe drugged.

“Let him go!” Ben demanded.  “Let my son go!  Take me instead!”

LaCroix’s pale brows climbed toward his forehead. “You?  Ha!  What would I want with an old man like you?”

In spite of the fact that he was fighting that tide, Ben managed to place his boot on the first of the sanctuary’s steps.

“Joseph is young, with few sins upon his head.  I have many.”

“The sainted Benjamin Cartwright?  Sins?!”

“Saint and sinner,” he replied.  Ben’s eyes were on his son.  Little Joe gave no sign that he saw or recognized him.  How had the boy come to be here?  Where was Nick?  What had happened to the blond man?  Had his son betrayed his friend?

Was Joseph already lost?

“I sailed the seas, LaCroix,” the rancher said as he took another step.  “A man makes choices – mistakes.  My youth was wild and misspent.  My sons are innocents compared to me.”

“Perhaps that is what I require.”  The white-haired man ran his fingers under Joseph’s chin.  “An innocent.”

“Is that why you chose me?” someone asked.

Ben turned to find Nick Knight emerging from the shadows. The blond man was limping and in obvious pain.

“Let the boy go,” Nick said, his voice defeated.  “You have won.  I will return to you.”

“My penitent boy,” LaCroix clucked.  Then he shook his head.  “I have heard it before.  I will give you a new ‘brother’ to educate and advise.  That way you will feel compelled to remain with me!”

Ben retreated and allowed Nick to move in.  It was obvious he and LaCroix were of long acquaintance, though sanity forbid him to consider how long.  As he fell back, the rancher noticed movement above the madman’s head.  A shadow had passed across the face of the large stained glass window set in the church’s steeple.  He frowned, trying to make out who it was, until a shout returned his attention to the ground.

It was Nick.  The blond man was pacing in front of the church.  His hands were jammed deep into the pockets of the heavy coat he wore and he kept his head down as he moved.

“I understand now,” Nick said.  “This was never about the Cartwrights.  It was about me – and you, LaCroix!  You have used this family to teach me a lesson, as you have used others so often in the past.”  Nick halted and turned toward the other man.  “I cannot escape you.”

“You are my child,” LaCroix said, his lips curling in a satisfied sneer, “as is Louise.”

“As are we,” a French beauty with ebon hair who wore a crimson dress said as she emerged from the shadows.  There was another woman with her.  Ben recognized her as one of the saloon girls Adam knew.

Viney?

The dark beauty headed for the steps.  Nick altered his path at her approach.  He turned sharply to block her way.  The blond man shook his head.

It was at that moment that Ben realized something was afoot.

“These beauties are mine, as are you, Nicholas!” the ancient creature crowed.  LaCroix moved closer to Little Joe and circled his boy’s shoulders with an arm.  “As your petit Joseph shall be!”

Nick stopped moving.  He straightened up.  Then he turned to face LaCroix.

“No,” he said and then looked up.  “Adam, now!  Do it!  Now!”

Ben looked up as well to find his oldest leaning out of the stained glass window.  In his hand was his revolver.  His son caught his eye, nodded, and then fired a single shot toward the ground.  It was at that moment that it registered – what he’d been smelling.

Kerosene.

Ben’s eyes went to the grass in front of the building and noted a dark path.  As he paced, Nick had been leaving a trail of the volatile liquid behind.  Adam’s shot had ignited it.

The stairs leading up to the church were ablaze.

Lucien LaCroix snarled like a trapped animal as the flames advanced.  He appeared to be afraid but then, unexpectedly, his thin lips curled with a sneer.  A heartbeat later, he laughed.

It was only then Ben realized Adam and Nick’s mistake.

Joseph was on the wrong side of the fire.

LaCroix howled in triumph as he grabbed Joseph by the arm and began to drag him back and into the abandoned sanctuary.  It was at that moment, when he thought all was lost, that Ben found a ray of hope.  There was a second shot and a wave of fire arose within the church’s interior, halting LaCroix’s progress.

The rancher started forward, determined to enter even at the cost of his own life.

Nick caught his arm and held him back.  “No!  You would not survive!”

Ben’s gaze was fastened on the church.  He could just make out Little Joe’s lithe frame.  The boy was nearly engulfed by the billowing smoke.  Adam was still inside.

“But, my sons!”

“Trust me,” Nick said, pointing up.  “And if not me – then trust your God!”

Ben looked.  The window was empty.  Adam had left it and was on the sloping roof of the church.  His son flashed a grin before curling into a ball and rolling off.  Just before he would have hit the ground, Viney appeared and caught him.

Actually caught him!

At that same moment, Ben heard a startled cry.  He steeled himself and looked, sure that he would find his youngest on fire.  Joseph was there – his handsome figure cast in silhouette against the rising flames.  LaCroix was reaching for him.

“Joseph!  Son!  Run!” Ben shouted as he began to move.  “Little Joe, jump!”

The flames continued to rise.

Little Joe didn’t move.

But someone did.  Someone stepped between his son and the man who would destroy him.  The rancher heard a voice.  Fearful.  Desperate.

Resolved.

“I love you, Little Joe.  I always will!” Louise Corman cried as she took hold of Joe’s shoulders and shoved.  “Go!”

A second later his son was laying on the ground.

Two seconds after that Louise turned and took hold of Lucien LaCroix and drove the snarling creature back into the flames.  As the pair disappeared a howl went up to wake the dead, and from the wreck of a church a dark shape arose. It hung for a moment, as if the spirit it contained refused to admit defeat, and then dissipated on the wind.

Ben remained where he was for several heartbeats, stunned, and then moved to Little Joe’s side.  Once there he dropped to his knees and reached out to place a hand on his son’s chest.  Joseph’s clothes were singed.  His hair was smoking.  And he was still.

Deathly still.

“How is Joe?” Adam asked as he came alongside them.

He didn’t know.  Little Joe’s heart beat beneath his hand, but it was slow.  The boy’s color was off; his breathing labored.

Without warning, another hand appeared beside his.  Looking up, Ben found – as he suspected – that it was Nicholas Knight.

“Joseph will recover,” Nick said as he turned to Adam.  “Are you all right?”

Adam’s clothes were gray with ash, and his face black with soot.  He looked over his shoulder at the ruins of the church before replying.

“I have to admit, I feel a bit like one of Hop Sing’s roast pigs.”

A cracking noise made them all jump.  A moment later what remained of the stained glass window crashed to the ground.

“We should move back,” Ben said.  “It’s going to collapse.”

He started to pick up Little Joe, but Nick insisted he be the one to do it.  The blond man lifted his son and cradled him in his arms like a babe.

“I made you a promise, Ben Cartwright, and I mean to keep it,” he said enigmatically.

Ben started to question him, but a series of shouts and the sound of wagon wheels rolling stopped him.

“Ah, there they are!” the blond man remarked with a smile.  “Before I left the Ponderosa, I advised your men to follow and to bring supplies.”

Ben glanced at his youngest.  Joe would have need of a wagon.  Perhaps Adam as well.  As his men called out their names and began to dismount, Ben turned to look at the town of Martinville.

A steely resolve took hold.

“Adam, go with Nick.  I need you to look after your brother.”

His oldest frowned.  He saw it in his eyes.

“Why, Pa?  What are you going to do?”

The rancher headed for the smoldering remnants of Martinville’s church where he picked up a fragment of one of the fiery beams.

“Burn this god-forsaken town to the ground.”

 

EPILOGUE

Little Joe Cartwright opened his eyes.  He laid for a minute with them open and then closed them again, sure that waking up had been a mistake.

He felt like Hell.

“It is not Hell you feel, my friend, but the touch of Heaven,” a soft voice remarked.  “You must be thankful you are alive.”

It took about everything that was in him to open his eyes again and roll his head to the side.

“Nick?”

“Yes,” the blond man replied as he moved into his line of vision, “I am here.”

Joe wet his lips.  He looked at the bedside table.  “Could you…?”

Nick picked up the cup that rested on its surface with one hand.  With the other, he lifted his head and then placed the vessel against his lips.  “Drink your fill, my friend.  You are dehydrated.”  As he returned the cup to the table, he added, “You have been very ill.”

Joe thought a moment.  He kind of remembered it.  Feeling like he was on fire.  Screaming at the top of his lungs.  Hands holding him down.

His father’s voice.

“Pa?”

“Ben left only a moment ago.  Would you like me to get him?”

“Maybe later.  I’d like to talk to you first, if that’s all right.”

Nick pulled a chair close and sat down. “You have questions.”

His lips curled with a wan smile.  “About a…million…”

The blond man drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “Consider this, my friend.  Do you truly want the answers?”

Joe chuckled, and then sucked in air.  His hand went to his throat, only to find it bandaged.

It was strange, but it hurt to laugh.

“Pa told Adam once…he didn’t have anything…against education….”  Joe said as he painfully shifted his body up on the pillows.  “…so long as it didn’t…interfere with his thinking.”

“A wise man, your father.  I am glad I came to know him.”

There was something in Nick’s tone.  A kind of finality.

“You’re leaving…aren’t you?”

“Soon.”

“Nick…”  Joe steeled himself.  “Who or…what are you?”

“Who I am is your friend,” Nick replied with a smile.  “As for ‘what’ I am, does it really matter?”

Yeah.

It did.

It was hard to explain ‘why’ other than the fact that he suspected Nick was a part of another world – a world he still had one foot in.  He’d fought them when he woke up in the back of that wagon.  Adam told him so.  Older brother said he was like a feral cat someone tried to catch and hold; he’d left them all over scratches and bites.  It was vague now, but he knew why he’d done it.  He’d had a sense that he’d lost something important – something he had to find.  When Pa asked him what it was, he told the older man whom he loved more than life that he had no idea.

He lied.

“You are thinking of Louise.”

Joe sniffed back tears.  “I feel like…an idiot.”

“For loving someone?”

“For falling in love with a ghost!” he snapped.

“Is that what Louise was?”

Joe considered the question.  He snorted.  “That, or a figment of…my imagination…which means, I’m nuts.”

Nick’s hand gripped his.  “You are not crazy, my friend.”

“No?”

“Louise loved you.  That love kept her…here beyond her time.”

He had vague memories – of her face close to his; the touch of her lips on his skin.  He could feel her arms around him, hear her whispering his name as she….

“She tried to kill me.”

“Yes.”  Nick released his hand and leaned back.  “But in the end, she chose to save you.”

“Is she…was Louise what you are?” he asked.

The blond man stared at him.  “That question is best left unanswered.”

“Nick, I need to….”

“There is only one need, ” his friend said, his words even; his tone, commanding, “and that is for you to sleep.”

“No!  I need to know….”

“You do not.  Such an…education…will interfere with your thinking.”  Nick smiled again as he pulled the covers up to his chin.  “It is better if you rest, and best if you forget.”

Joe shook his head even as his eyes grew heavy and he blinked back sleep.  “No.  I…don’t…want to….”

Nick’s hand touched his forehead.

“Joseph,” he whispered. “Forget.”

 

Nick Knight lifted his hand.  He turned toward the man occupying the doorway.

“He will sleep now.”

Ben Cartwright stepped into the room. The older man appeared exhausted.  It had been less than twenty-four hours since Lucien LaCroix had been vanquished – thanks to this man and his sons.

Thanks to Louise.

“Thank you,” the elder Cartwright said.  Ben came close and laid a hand on his sleeping son’s curls. “And thank you for my son’s life.”

“It was not my doing alone,” Nick responded.

Ben let out a sigh.  “I know.  The pair of you nearly gave this old man apoplexy.”

It had been their plan before they parted, his and Adam’s.  Once in the town Adam would canvas it, making certain there were no innocents within its walls who would be harmed.  While Ben’s eldest did this, he was to go to the abandoned church and douse it liberally with kerosene.  After that, they would exchange places and, while Adam took up his position on the second floor, he would locate LaCroix and draw the ancient creature to the abandoned structure and trick him into entering.  Nick ran his knuckles along his thigh.  With Joseph’s attack, the plan had changed.  The silver knife thrust into his flesh had not harmed him irreparably, but it had slowed him down.  It was with great effort that he managed to pull the blade out and toss it away.  As soon as he’d recovered, he flew like the wind to Martinville, located the store of the volatile liquid and filled several fragile vials with it, and then placed them in his pockets.  It was a risk, igniting the fire while the eldest of the Cartwright sons remained within the abandoned structure, and yet, so strong was Adam’s presence that he knew the black-haired man’s choice without asking.

They were of one heart, Ben Cartwright’s sons.

“You have not said,” Nick remarked.  “Did you ever locate Kate O’Brien?”  The darkly stern woman had gone missing in the chaos of the fire.  They did not know if she survived or perished.

The rancher shook his head.  “No, but we didn’t find a body either.  Perhaps she went off with your Janette.”

Nick chuckled.  ‘His’ Janette.

“Perhaps.”

“I sent Hoss a letter this morning by way of one of the men,” Ben said as he sat on the bed by his sleeping son.  “He should be home tomorrow.”

“What will you tell him?” Nick asked.

Ben glanced at him.  “The truth.”

“Is that wise?”

The older man sighed.  “There is no other way.  I won’t lie to my son.”

Nick felt a pang of sadness.  How many men had he come to know – good men he admired and counted as friends – and how many had he been forced to leave behind?

“You are wrong,” Nick said.  “There is another way.”

 

Adam Cartwright removed the saddle from his mount and placed it on the saddle block.  He’d just returned from escorting Paul Martin home.  He’d known it was unnecessary and yet, the events of the last few days were still with him and he’d been uncomfortable allowing the older man to travel the twenty miles back to Virginia City alone.

To put it mildly, he was on edge.

Picking up the curry comb, he began to brush Sport.  The rhythmic action helped, but did nothing to allay his discomfort with what he had seen and experienced.  He would never say science was his god.  He had a God and a good one too – the God of his father.  Still, a belief in the practical and predictable nature of things brought a certain balance to the world.  Everything made sense.

Or, at least, it had until two days ago.

“Adam.”

The black-haired man closed his eyes and drew a steadying breath before turning around.  She was there, in the shadows.

Viney.

“I came to say goodbye,” the dark beauty said as she stepped into the moonlight that spilled in through the stable door.

He put the comb down and approached her.  “Where are you going?”

“With Janette.”

Nick had been clear.  Janette was not to be harmed when they…disposed of her master.  The blond man was fond of her as he was of Viney.

“I’ll miss you.”

She reached out a finger and trailed it down his throat.  “You could still come with me.”

Adam caught her hand and pulled it away.  “No, thank you,” he said with a shake of his head.  “I’ve never been much of a night owl.”

“Samantha,” a soft voice said, “he is not for you.”

Viney turned to look.  “Hello, Nick.”

“Janette is waiting.  It is time for you to go.”

“Samantha, eh?” Adam asked with a grin.

She shrugged.  “It’s the name my mother gave me.  I left it behind when I became…what I became.  Now, it is mine again.  A new name for a new life.”  Viney leaned in to kiss him on the lips.  “I love you, Adam Cartwright.  I will never forget you.”

A moment later, she was gone.

“Will she be all right?” he asked.

Nick Knight moved into the light as well.  The blond man stared after Viney for a moment before answering.  “She will survive.”

“As you have survived?”

He nodded.  “Even so.”

“How is Little Joe?”

“Your brother is sleeping…” Nick replied as he crossed to Sport and ran his hand down the thoroughbred’s nose.  “…with your father by his side. When they wake, the events of the last few days will seem no more than a dream.  Martinville, Louise, LaCroix…me.”

“You’ve made them forget?”

Nick turned to look at him.  “I can do the same for you.”

Adam thought about it – considered it, really, with some relish.

“No.”

“No?”

“As a great man once said, ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’.”

Nick held his gaze.  “Such knowledge, my friend, is hard to live with.  It changes a man.”

“To know that the things that go bump in the night are real?”  Adam snorted.  “Perhaps.”

Nick left Sport and approached him.  He studied him a moment before speaking.  “Do you remember LaCroix’s prediction?”

It took a moment.  “That I will wander far away from home? Yes.”

The blonds’ pale eyes were fixed on him.  “Is that all?”

Adam frowned.  There was something else.  Something…awful.

“LaCroix spoke of Hoss too.  That his life would be cut….”

Adam started.  Nick’s fingers were touching his temple.

“Be at peace, my friend,” the vampire said.  “Forget….”

 

Nick Knight halted at the end of the yard and looked back at the Ponderosa.  His leave-taking came with deep regret.  These were men who valued the truth and who had the strength to withstand it – but they were also men.  Men whose brief lives were to him no more than a single page in a book.  He could not leave them with such grief and yet, in order to allay it, he was forced to take much of what he had shared with them away.  Little Joe had been weak.  Though he fought, the boy had not the strength to resist.  Ben Cartwright?  The older man wanted to forget.

Adam Cartwright’s spirit was indomitable, but it was not unassailable.  Though it took nearly every iota of the power he had gained over 500 plus years to overcome the eldest son’s will, still he managed it.

Adam would remember, as would his father and brothers.  They would remember the visit of a stranger; a ranch hand who remained with them for a few days and then moved on.  They would, each year upon the anniversary of his coming, feel not a dread, but a sense of ease.

Nicholas Knight was watching.

 

 

 

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

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