Summary: What happens between the eleventh and the twelfth stroke of the clock on All Hallows Eve? Beware! Twelve-year-old Little Joe and his big brother Adam are about to find out. Written for the 2021 Bonanza Brand Boo-nanza challenge.
Rated: PG for spookiness
Word count: 6,574
Twenty-four year old Adam Cartwright scratched his head. Then he pulled at his chin, regretting – not for the first time – that it was hairless. The action of tugging one’s beard seemed to him a far more fitting expression of frustration and bewilderment than swiping fingers over bare skin. He’d recently toyed with the idea of growing a goatee. His current flame, Linda, encouraged him. She was of the opinion that it would make him appear ‘dashing’.
His father was not – of that opinion, that was.
Now Pa was a man among men, but when it came to the subject of hair there was something about the older man that was, well, a bit odd. He could hear his father’s stentorian tone resounding from the ranch house rafters even now.
‘Adam, son, you need a shave.
‘Hoss, have you forgotten your pomade?
‘Joseph, get a haircut. You look like a river boat gambler!’
Adam sighed. ‘But I digress….’
His attention once more on the matter at hand, Adam’s gaze returned to the one whose actions had prompted that digression – namely, his twelve-year-old brother, Little Joe. The kid was supposed to be cleaning out the barn. Instead – lantern in hand – Joe was moving between the stalls, leaving a trail of heartfelt sighs behind him. Now and again he would stop, stoop, and shift the straw as if he’d spied whatever it was he was looking for. Then, with a shrug of his narrow shoulders, he would rise and move on.
Adam’s keen gaze moved from Sport to Chubb and then onto Cadfan, his youngest brother’s current ride. Whatever motivated Joe’s quest, the kid’s edginess was rubbing off on the horses. The one in the stall next to where Joe was kneeling snorted and shied.
Time to intervene.
Adam called his brother’s name. When that failed to elicit a response, he cleared his throat and tried again – only louder this time.
Joe jumped and shrieked. So did the horse. Thank God the two went in different directions!
Adam waited. Silently, he counted to three.
As expected, the explosion came on four.
“For gosh sakes, Adam! What do you mean scarin’ me like that?! I could have dropped the lantern and set the barn on fire!!”
Or gotten stomped on by a horse.
Adam studied his brother. Joe’s eyes were wide, his nostrils flared and his curly hair standing on end. The kid was really spooked! Why, he wondered? Then he remembered that his other younger brother – the eighteen-year-old he’d left in the house – had been equally on edge. He’d asked Hoss about it, but the teenager had steadfastly refused to ‘give’. In fact, it had taken Hop Sing to clear up the mystery. The Asian man came out of the kitchen carrying a tray of fresh cookies. When Hoss went to take one – or four – his reward was getting his fingers smacked.
‘You no eat! Cookies for ancestors!’ Hop Sing proclaimed indignantly. “You want they watch over family tonight or let spirits carry them away?!’
Adam suppressed a sigh.
It wasn’t only Hop Sing. By midnight, there would be plates of goodies gracing wooden thresholds and causing people to stumble on steps all over the settlement – and not only in China Town. Before heading to the barn, he’d done a little research. The superstition of putting out sweets to appease the spirits was actually more Occidental than Oriental, tracing its roots back to the British Isles. Hop Sing’s people did, however, celebrate several festivals known as the ‘Days of the Dead’.
Apparently a little cross-pollination had taken place.
Tonight was All Hallows Eve. The night of spirits.
“I’m grateful you didn’t set the barn on fire, buddy. So are the horses,” he replied. The black-haired man inclined his head toward the stall Joe had vacated. “What were you looking for?”
The kid’s green eyes narrowed and he looked away – both sure signs that what he was about to say was anything but the truth.
“I…er…dropped my knife.”
“I saw you searching the other stalls earlier. Were you in all of them tonight?”
“Sure I was!” Joe’s pert nose twitched – more evidence. “I had to clean them all, didn’t I?”
Adam winced. Hoss couldn’t help Joe because Hoss was in the house laid up and it was his fault. Older younger brother had gone with him – against Pa’s wishes – to rope and bring in a wild horse he’d become…well…obsessed with. The magnificent dove-gray stallion had appeared from out of nowhere and was simply the most striking thing he’d ever seen. Hoss understood and Pa didn’t, because Pa couldn’t think about anything other than the fact that one of them might get hurt while trying to capture it. Voices and tempers flared and, in the end, Pa forbid either of them to go.
That didn’t stop him, of course.
He’d laid in his bed fully dressed until his father went to sleep, and then crept down the stairs and headed for the door. He shouldn’t have been surprised – but he was – to find middle brother waiting for him there. Things went well. They almost had the stallion when an unexpected sound spooked the feral creature, causing it to rear and strike out. A hoof caught Hoss high on his leg. Paul Martin said the wound wasn’t too bad and that Hoss could do light work around the yard, but Pa would have none of it. Pa forbid Hoss to leave the house, saying he was worried about infection.
Adam chuckled. Imagine that, Ben Cartwright worried.
“What are you laughin’ at?” Joe demanded, his jaw rigid.
Joseph Francis Cartwright was a handsome kid. Already – at twelve, for God’s sake! – he had women trailing after him. Joe was smarter than he thought and about as able-bodied as they came. Though small in stature, he could take on a full grown man in a fair fight and come out the winner. Yes, Little Joe had everything going for him – with one exception.
Belief in himself.
“Sorry, Joe. It’s nothing to do with you.” At his younger brother’s dubious look, he continued, “Really. I was thinking about Hop Sing. He’s been baking cookies all day so he can put them out to appease the ancestors.”
Joe frowned as his gaze moved to the barn door.
Adam noted the crumbs driven into the dirt just past the threshold. Had he trounced the baked goods when he came in?
“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “Not here too?”
“Yeah. At both doors.” The youngster grinned. “Those are gonna be some mighty happy ancestors.”
“Am I right to guess that the ‘ancestors’ are going to get a few less cookies than Hop Sing put out?” He pointed. “How many did you pinch?”
“Who me?” Joe asked while brushing a crumb from his lips.
Adam leaned on the barn wall and crossed his arms. “Fess up, Kid. And not just about the cookies. What were you really looking for?”
His brother’s demeanor changed in an instant. The kid frowned, glanced around, and then moved in closer. “You ain’t…haven’t seen any…strange cats around here lately, have you?”
The black-haired man smiled at the grammatical correction. Perhaps his constant nagging was having an effect after all.
“Stray cats? Of course, I have. There’s always one or two in the barn. That’s why we don’t have mice, buddy. Is it a big one?” Adam looked around. If so, the animal presented a danger not only to the horses but to them.
His brother sighed. “You aren’t listening, Adam. Like usual. I didn’t say a ‘stray’ cat. I said ‘strange’.”
“You’re gonna laugh.”
Adam crossed his chest with a finger. “Promise. I won’t.”
“Well….first off, she’s black.”
He waited. “Yes?”
Joe’s lips screwed from side to side. “You know what they say about black cats.”
Baby brother shrugged. “Everybody.”
Adam resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Everybody being your friends at school, the local yokels, and….” The sigh came out. He couldn’t help it. “Hop Sing.”
It was a fact that, as the youngest member of the family, Joe had spent far more time with their Chinese housekeeper than the rest of them. When Hoss was in school – and he and Pa were working – Little Joe spent his days peeling potatoes and chopping vegetables, all the while chatting incessantly with the Asian man. He remembered how surprised he’d been one day to discover – during one of Joe’s notorious temper tantrums – that the kid knew fluent Chinese!
It seemed little brother had picked up some of Hop Sing’s rather unconventional beliefs as well.
“Look, Joe,” he said in a reasonable tone, “you’ve got a good mind. A cat is a cat, black or white. People are afraid of the dark, and that translates to being afraid of anything that is dark. Black cats are no more harbingers of doom, or witches, or witches familiars, than you or I.”
“But Hop Sing said….”
He placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I love Hop Sing. He’s a smart man in many ways. The trouble is, he comes from a country steeped in superstition, with belief in mythical creatures and –”
“A country that is thousands of years older than our country!” Joe countered sharply. “How come we’re right and he’s wrong? Maybe the Chinese know more than we do! You ever think of that?”
Little Joe was fiercely loyal to anyone he loved. It was one of his best qualities – except when it led to blind faith.
“All right. You tell me then. This ‘strange’ black cat, what do you think it is?”
That stopped him.
“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. “I just keep seeing her – like she’s following me around. Everywhere I turn, she’s there!”
Adam looked again. The barn was empty except for the two of them and a half-dozen horses.
“So, where is she now?”
His brother regarded him as if he didn’t have a brain in his head. “I don’t know! Why do you think I was looking?!”
“Are you sure it’s not just your imagination? That you’re not simply ‘spooked’?” he asked. “After all, it is All Hallows Eve.”
The look on his young face testified to his sincerity. “Oh, no! I saw it clear as day!”
“When did you see the cat for the first time?”
“Last night when I came out to check on Cadfan. It was in his stall.”
He’d been with his brother when Joe did his last ‘check-up’ on Cadfan or so he’d thought. “And just what time was this?”
Joe swallowed. “After midnight. Don’t tell Pa I was up! You know Cadfan hurt his leg the other day. I wanted to make sure he was all right.”
Adam dismissed his brother’s concern with a wave of his hand. “So, you saw the cat last night after midnight, and….?”
“She was there – here – everywhere. She has been all day long! It doesn’t matter whether I’m mending fences, white-washing the shed, or cleaning out stalls.” Joe shivered. “That cat’s always there, watching me.”
“So you think it’s here now?”
“I know it is!”
“Then why can’t we see it?”
Again, that look – like he was an idiot. “The cat’s black, Adam! All she’s got to do is shut her eyes and she’s gone!”
“Like I said, Joe, a cat is a cat. Nothing more. Nothing less. You know it and I know it. And as to your mysterious feminine friend being black….” He smiled. “Did You know that some Chinese actually believe black cats are lucky? So you can see how ridiculous this is. Listen to your older brother. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
As he watched the kid process what he’d said, Adam tried to remember what it was like to be twelve. It was a stretch. Pa was already hard at work establishing his empire. Hoss was six and Marie was with child – ‘with’ Little Joe. The black-haired man started as he recalled catching the beautiful woman hanging a mirror outside of the front door on All Hallows Eve. When he asked her ‘why’, his Creole stepmother explained it was for Satan. ‘When the Devil looks into the mirror,’ she said, ‘he will be so caught up with his own vain-glorious image that he will stay outside!’
The black-haired man ran a hand over his eyes.
Maybe Joe inherited it.
“So,” Adam asked his brother, “do you still need to look for the cat?”
Joe kicked a clod of dirt with the toe of his boot. “I guess not.”
“Because a cat is just a cat, right?”
The kid’s gaze returned to the stalls. “Okay,” he said with little conviction.
On a very still night such as this, from the barn you could hear the tall case clock in the house chiming out the hour. Adam heard it strike eight. Only four hours to go and it would be All Saints Day, and all of this nonsense would be over for another year.
Adam circled his little brother’s shoulders with an arm. “I happen to know that Hop Sing has another batch of those cookies just about ready. How about we sneak into the kitchen and snatch a handful before he commits them to the dirt?”
For just a second Little Joe looked afraid – then he beamed.
“Sure thing! I never could understand how a spirit could eat a cookie anyhow.”
Joe’s bedtime this time of year was around nine. He’d argued up and down with his pa about it, but it got him nowhere. If he had school the next day, it was even earlier. ‘You have a four hour ride into town, young man, and you need your sleep!’ Pa would say in that stern voice of his. Of course, since they lived on a ranch he had a good two hours work to do before he could take that ride into town, so that meant getting up before the rooster crowed. The kids in the settlement – and the ones that lived close by – had no idea how good they had it.
He’d put in a whole day before the new day had even begun!
Joe yawned and turned over in his bed. As he lay there, thinking, he heard the tall case clock by the door strike ten. After playing a couple of games of checkers with Hoss, he’d come upstairs, put on his night shirt, and dropped into bed. He fell asleep right away.
But he couldn’t stay asleep.
Something kept waking him up. This last time, instead of falling back to sleep, he’d stayed awake. He didn’t know what it was unless, maybe, it was the fact that midnight was approaching. Hop Sing had explained how, on All Hallows Eve – between the eleventh and twelfth strike of the clock – there was a magical moment when it was neither today nor tomorrow. At that ‘moment’ a door opened between this world and the next and the spirits of the ancestors could slip through. That moment happened twice, according to his friend, at the stroke of midnight on the 30th and then again on the 31st , right before it became All Souls Day.
In other words, tonight.
Joe’d pondered long and hard, thinking about why an ‘ancestor’ coming back would be a bad thing. After all, weren’t ancestors kin? When he asked Hop Sing, his friend told him the trouble was that an open door went both ways. There were bad, dark spirits who lurked in the shadows, waiting to take advantage of that magical ‘moment’ so they could pass into this world to work their mischief and cause harm. That’s why the Asian man baked cookies and put them outside all of the ranch house’s doors – to appease the bad spirits and protect his family.
He wondered if maybe you never got anything to eat in the other world except things like cabbage and prunes. Maybe that’s why those old spirits were so tempted by cookies.
Joe sighed. He punched his pillow and turned back onto his other side – only to be greeted by a pair of wide green eyes round as the harvest moon hanging outside his window. The twelve-year-old sucked in air and held still. It was the black cat! She was sitting on the table in front of his window, staring at him. As he watched she rose, stretched, and then jumped onto the bed. Each soft fall of her padded feet as she crossed the coverlet echoed one ponderous beat of his heart.
When the cat stopped they were nose to nose!
“Hhhh….” Joe cleared his throat and tried again. “Hhhh…hi.”
The cat cocked her head in reply.
“Can…can I help you…with something?”
The cat’s emerald eyes narrowed as if in comprehension. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. Joe stared at her perfect white, pointed teeth, wondering if he was about to feel them sink into his skin. Instead, the cat turned and walked the length of the bed. From near the footboard she eyed him again, and then leapt effortlessly onto the windowsill.
Which was open.
“Huh?” Joe sat up. He was sure he’d closed the window before he went to bed. It was cold outside and Pa would have skinned him if he didn’t! “Did you…?” He paused. Nah. A cat couldn’t open a window.
The cat was staring right at him. She opened her mouth and this time made a noise. It was a low, guttural cry with a sense of urgency.
He swallowed again. “You want me to…go with you?”
That look he gave Adam – the one that questioned every ounce of that learnin’ older brother’d got back East? The cat was giving it to him now.
“Okay, okay, I get it.” Joe tossed his covers aside and climbed out of bed – on the side opposite from the black cat. “I gotta get dressed first.”
As if it understood, the cat left the window and settled on his table as he headed for his dresser. Joe glanced at her several times while he pulled on his socks and pants, shirt, and boots. As he thrust his arms into a second heavier shirt – after all, it was cold outside and he couldn’t exactly go downstairs for his coat – everything Adam said came back to him. He had to admit, none of it really made sense. At supper tonight Pa’d mentioned the fact that sailors thought a black cat was good luck. His father said some seamen believed black cats had miraculous powers that could protect their ships from dangerous weather. A few even thought they could start storms with the magic stored in their tails!
It was just an old cat. He was just about as silly as those sailors for getting up, getting dressed, and following it out the window.
Which he’d just done.
Ben Cartwright paused near the hearth to look at his middle boy, who was laid up with a an unnecessary leg injury. He was angry and rightly so, but Hoss didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of it.
That privilege belonged to his older brother.
“How are you feeling, son?” he asked gently.
Hoss looked up from the book he was reading. “I’m fine, Pa. It smarts some, but it ain’t no nevermind.”
“I’m worried about your older brother,” the rancher said as he took his place in his red chair. “I knew the moment Adam told me about that animal that it would mean trouble.”
The teenager put the book down. “Ah, Pa. Adam knows what he’s doin’. He ain’t about to try somethin’ unless he’s sure he can do it.”
“Usually, but this time I’m not so sure.” Ben sighed as he glanced up the stairs. They’d had words again, and his eldest had gone to bed shortly after his little brother. “It’s almost like he’s obsessed.”
“Older brother thinks that horse will make a good stud.” Hoss smiled his gap-toothed grin. “He says he’s got some fire in him.”
Of course, he did. His eldest had a propensity for high-strung, independent, and frequently unpredictable animals.
“Your older brother chose Sport. I think that’s enough said.”
“Sport’s a good horse, Pa. You know that.”
“Yes, he is, but only for Adam.” Ben straightened in his chair. “Son, I’ve spent enough years working with horses to think I know best. I admit your brother has a talent for judging horse flesh, but Adam is young. With the young, beauty often wins out over brains.”
Hoss whistled. “That horse sure is a beauty.”
The wild gray stallion that had taken a chunk out of his middle boy’s leg had been dubbed ‘Lion’, short for ‘Hellion’; a name given to it by the men who had first encountered it. He’d forbidden his eldest to try catching it again after what happened to Hoss. Still, he knew Adam wasn’t about to give in that easily.
“I agree he is superb, but no horse is worth….” Ben’s voice trailed off as Hop Sing entered the great room bearing yet another tray laden with cookies and headed for the stairs. He let out a sigh as the little man turned the corner at the top.
“I wish my belly was as full as those ancestors must be,” his son sighed. “Hop Sing’s been so busy bakin’ cookies, he ain’t remembered he’s growin’ boys to feed!”
Ben chuckled. “I don’t think you’ll starve, son.”
Hoss shook his head. “I ain’t so sure.”
The older man let out a sigh. “Really, I’m concerned about the influence of Hop Sing’s beliefs on Joseph. Your younger brother spends a great deal of time with him and is very impressionable.”
“Don’t you worry about Little Joe none, Pa. What Hop Sing believes ain’t ever stopped baby brother from comin’ with me to round up those cookies and give ‘em a good home!” The boy rubbed his belly for emphasis.
Ben laughed out loud.
Dear Lord! What next?
A second later he knew. Hop Sing came flying around the corner fast as a fox caught in the chicken coop and threw his empty hands in the air.
“Mistah Cartwright! Mistah Cartwright! Little Joe not in room!”
She was pretty friendly. The black cat, that was. She led the way but, every so often, would come back to wind between his legs. It was kind of reassuring when she did that – when he felt her sleek, shining form rub against him. Up until then he’d thought, maybe, she was an illusion or a spirit like Hop Sing believed.
But she was just a cat after all.
Which begged the question of why he was following her.
Animals were smart. He’d spent enough time with them to know that. Hoss said it had to do with all the thousands of years their ancestors had lived and survived in the wild. Just like his pa said he’d inherited things from his ma – like his green eyes and his temper – animals knew things they couldn’t know because they got them from the ones that came before.
Hoss called it ‘instinct’ and he’d taught him to listen to it.
That’s why he was following the cat.
They’d left the yard behind and were headed through the field behind it. Above his head the harvest moon hung pregnant as any woman, big bellied and white; shining her light on the knee-high grass and gorse he passed through. When he climbed out the window, he’d heard the clock in the front hall chime eleven, so it must be going on midnight now.
Midnight. The ‘magical moment’ when that door opened and the real world and the world of the ‘ancestors’ collided.
“Midnight,” Joe said out loud. He laughed when the cat turned back to look at him. Maybe that was its name. After all, didn’t nearly every kid who had a black cat name it ‘Midnight’? “You like that name, girl? Midnight?”
The cat cocked its head and its green eyes flashed in the darkness. Then, it nodded.
Really, it did. It nodded.
“Okay…Midnight.” Joe laughed. “Since you’ve started talking, can you tell me where we’re going? Please?”
The cat blinked, turned away, and started walking again.
Joe shrugged, sighed, and did the same.
It was a crisp October night. Joe smiled as the brown leaves crunched beneath his feet, foreshadowing the hard crusts of ice on the snow to come. He loved October for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it meant school was almost over for the year. November was a time of preparation and most kids were needed at home, so no more book learning until spring. October was also the month of his birth. Because of Hoss being injured, their celebration had been kind of quiet this year – just him and the family, including Hop Sing. That was okay. He didn’t need a party. He’d learned after his mama died that the best present he could ever have was his family. The twelve-year-old grinned. Still, he sure didn’t mind getting that new saddle Pa and his brothers had gone together to buy for him! Joe halted and looked around him. There was another reason he loved October, but he had a hard time putting it into words. He’d tried once with Hoss, but couldn’t make it come out right. October was when everything died – but, well, its death was beautiful. All around him burnt orange, deep crimson, and golden leaves punctuated a landscape ever green. It reminded him of what his father had told him about his ma’s passing when he was old enough to understand; that death wasn’t an end, but a new beginning.
A nip on his finger brought Joe’s attention sharply back to the present. The cat dropped from his thigh to the ground and gave him a scolding look before she moved forward again. The twelve-year-old put his finger in his mouth and sucked blood as he followed. They were in a clearing. A circle of tall pine trees stood sentinel about it, backlit by the bloated moon. Its heart was a sea of shadows.
“What is it, Midnight?” Joe asked – and yet, even as he asked, he knew.
It was midnight.
The time of the spirits.
A second later he was startled by a piercing cry. At first he thought it was Midnight, but he could see her and she wasn’t moving. So if it wasn’t the cat, then who…?
It was his brother.
Adam was screaming.
“What Mister Ben think?” Hop Sing asked as he joined him on the porch. “Where naughty boys go?”
On the off-chance, he’d checked Adam’s room before coming outside. As he suspected, his eldest had gone missing as well. Ben frowned as he pulled on his gloves. He didn’t know about ‘where’, but he had a pretty clear idea of ‘why’ Adam had left. That boy! He’d made it perfectly clear he was to leave that wild horse alone!
But then, he knew how stubborn his oldest could be.
“You think Adam went after that stallion, Pa?” Hoss asked as he hobbled up beside them.
“I fear it.” The older man admitted. “But to take Joseph with him? I can’t see Adam putting your younger brother in that kind of danger.”
“I bet he didn’t. I bet Little Joe saw Adam leavin’ and went after him.” Hoss winced at his look. “You know Joe and horses.”
Yes, he did and, at times, he feared for the future.
“But where did they go?” Ben demanded. “That horse could be anywhere….”
A touch on his arm made him turn toward Hop Sing. He met the his cook’s gaze, and then followed his extended finger to a large black cat.
The Asian man’s voice was hushed.
Joe ran for all he was worth. He’d passed the cat long before and left it in his wake. They didn’t let him too near the wild horses yet, but he’d been on the edge of the group watching as Pa, or Adam and Hoss drove them into the corral. He had to admit. There was something in the cry of a wild stallion facing capture that stabbed your heart. If there was such a thing as freedom, then these horses knew it and they were willing to fight to keep it.
Joe halted and cried out, terrified for his brother. “Adam? Adam, where are you?”
His brother’s answer was weak – and expected. “Joe, no! Little…Joe, keep back!”
Right at that moment, that old bloated moon? It crept between two trees and lit up the night. What Joe saw by its light stopped him in his tracks. His brother lay on the ground with one arm raised. Above Adam loomed the giant form of a horse; its hooves deadly and poised to strike.
There was only one way he knew of to save his brother.
Waving his hands, Joe shouted, “Hey! Hey, big, gray and ugly! I’m over here!”
The horse shrieked and its hooves struck the ground like thunder, barely missing his brother. Then it turned toward him.
“Joe! No!!” Adam shouted as he tried to stand. He couldn’t though. One leg was twisted under him and he fell back to the ground. “Dear God, Joe! Run!”
Mesmerized. That’s what they’d called it back in the spring when he saw the fortune teller doing their act at the carnival. He was mesmerized.
The horse came closer. It stopped a few feet away, snorted, and then lifted its great head and stared at him. Something in him told him to stare right back. Remembering the black cat with her emerald-green eyes and how they held you in place as if with a spell, the twelve-year-old planted his feet and stood his ground.
He gulped as he realized his head didn’t come to the stallion’s withers.
“Joe! Please, Joe… Get out of there!”
Adam’s voice faded as the one in his head increased. This was it, the ‘moment’ Hop Sing had talked about – that moment when one day turned to the next and the spirits were able to slip through. Some were good, like Midnight. Some were bad.
Like the one that wanted to kill his brother.
Joe’s jaw grew tight. His fingers formed fists.
“No,” he said aloud. “You’re not taking him! You can’t have Adam!”
If anyone passed through that door tonight, it was gonna be him.
“Mister Cartwright, make much hurry! Come now!’
Ben’s heart pounded hard against his breastbone, partly from running, but mostly with fear. It appeared Adam had gone against his wishes after all and gone looking for that wild gray horse he was so enamored of. As he ran, the older man couldn’t help but think that if his youngest had not followed, causing them to search for him as well, his eldest might….
No. There was no reason to suspect that Adam was in any danger.
No reason but the feeling in his gut.
A tug on his shirt brought Ben back to the present. “Come! Ancestors need you to hurry!”
The rancher’s gaze fell on the large feline that doggedly led them forward. She was a black blot on a field of tall prairie grasses bleached white by the light of the full moon. She’d led them from the yard toward the place where his eldest had first sighted the stallion. The men had brought in some of its brood mares and put them in the corral. It only made sense that it would linger nearby. Always in the West, there was a balance of need and danger. He understood that – just as he understood how easily that balance could be tipped.
But did his son?
Joe hadn’t moved. The horse stared at him and he stared at the horse. Something passed between them as they stood there. Something without words. He wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but he knew it was important.
“Joe…. Please…move away!”
Joe was worried. Adam’s voice was hard to hear. He wanted to look at him, but he was afraid to tear his eyes away from the stallion’s.
“Well,” he said, shifting a bit, “here I am. Do your worst!”
The horse blew air out of its nostrils and shook its thick mane. It was in the silence that followed, that Joe heard a sound – an impossible faraway sound. One he shouldn’t have been able to hear.
The twelfth stroke of the tall case clock back in the ranch house.
“Midnight,” Joe breathed as the black cat suddenly reappeared, rising as if from out of the ground midway between him and the stallion. She cried out sharply. The sound startled him enough that he broke contact. Unbidden, Joe’s gaze flew to Adam.
When he looked back, the stallion was gone.
Adam groaned and opened his eyes. It took him a moment to realize he was in his bed and not on the ground outside, and a moment longer to notice that he had a caretaker. Little Joe was curled up in a chair pulled close alongside the bed. His brother’s curly head was thrown back against the upholstered cushion and he was softly snoring. Someone had tossed a light coverlet over the kid’s lean form and tucked it in around him.
“Boy tired. Sleep deep,” a quiet voice remarked.
Adam turned his head to the side. Hop Sing stood in the doorway; tray in hand. Adam idly wondered just which ‘boy’ the Asian man was talking about.
“What happened?” he asked as he shifted and looked down at his body, noting the casts on his left leg and arm with surprise.
“Ancestors come,” the Asian man said, his voice filled with wonder. “Hop Sing not keep them away.”
It was all nonsense, of course. But then, he didn’t want to offend Hop Sing. “What did they want?” he asked with a wince as he shifted up on his pillows.
“Ancestors want you.”
He looked at their cook. Hop Sing was dead serious.
“What are you talking about?”
“Gray horse bewitch Mistah Adam. Want Mister Adam to ride him into other world.”
He resisted rolling his eyes, but he couldn’t quite manage to keep his eyebrows in place.
“He’s right, Adam,” a soft voice said. “The ancestors came and it’s a good thing they did.”
Joe was awake and sitting up in the chair. Adam looked from him to Hop Sing. “My head hurts. Would one of you take pity on me and try making sense?”
Hop Sing huffed, then he puffed, and then he slammed the supper tray down on the nightstand with a clang!
“Make sense! Make sense? Boy no make sense! Why you go out in the dark to find horse? How Little Joe find you? How father and Hop Sing know where you are? Doctor say you lay out all night in cold with leg bone through skin, you go join ancestors quick!” The Asian man threw his hands in the air. “But what Hop Sing know? He just superstitious China man! He just cook and clean. He no go to big school back East like boy, so he know nothing!”
With that – and a long train of Cantonese curses – Hop Sing returned downstairs.
Joe stretched and then rose and went over to the tray. He grabbed a sandwich, offered him half and, when he refused, returned to the chair to consume it.
“I think you made him mad,” his brother said as he munched.
“I don’t think, I know!” Adam sighed. “But how any reasonable, intelligent individual can believe in such nonsense is – “
“I believe it.”
He rolled his eyes. “Joe, no. I was stupid, I admit that. I knew better than to go out after that stallion, but I – “
“So why did you?” Joe swallowed and reached for a glass of water on the bedside table. “I mean, I’m the one you’re always saying doesn’t think things through.”
“I….” Adam hesitated. Why had he, when he knew better? What reasonable, intelligent answer could he give? “I guess I…. I couldn’t help myself.”
Silence fell in the room and lasted for a full dozen heartbeats.
“It was Midnight, you know?” Joe said, finally breaking it.
“Midnight? What? The time when you found me, you mean?”
Joe shook his head. “Midnight who found you. The black cat I kept seeing. She led me to you.” His brother took another bite and chewed for a moment. “Hop Sing says she’s one of the ancestors.”
“Hop Sing said the stallion that wanted to kill me was one of the ‘ancestors’,” he countered sharply.
Joe let out a sigh. “You just don’t get it, Adam. That’s what All Hallows Eve is about. The moment when the two worlds – real and spirit – collide. A door opens and anything or anyone can slip through.”
“I didn’t see any spirits out there in that field – just you and me and that blasted horse!” He sucked in a breath as the image appeared before his eyes – his baby brother, staring down that devil. “Dear God, Joe! Don’t ever do anything like that again. You frightened me out of ten years of life!”
“Better than you losing it,” Joe said as he brushed crumbs off his lap and rose. “That horse – Hellion – he was gonna take someone back with him through that door and it sure as shootin’ wasn’t gonna be you!” The kid paused. When Joe continued, his voice was tinged with awe. “Just like Midnight sure as shootin’ wasn’t gonna let it be me.”
“Midnight. The cat.”
Baby brother was near the door now. “Think about it, Adam. Midnight? Midnight with her great big green eyes….”
“So?” he demanded. “Lots of cats have green eyes.”
Joe shook his head. “You know, older brother, for someone with a college education you can be just plain dumb at times.” Joe picked up a cookie and tossed it to him. “Maybe you should chew on it for a while.”
Left alone in his room Adam did just that while he munched on the chocolate chip cookie. He thought about everything from Hop Sing’s ancestral beliefs to the professors who had debunked them, to his own out-of-character actions and the heroic ones of his young brother; to the strange outcome of the night before. All that thinking wore him out and got him no closer to a solution, so he finally scrunched down in the bed and closed his eyes. After a few moments his breathing evened out and he fell into a light sleep – so light that he was awakened by the soft fall of padded feet on the coverlet. Cautiously – lest her frighten her away – he opened one eye and then the other, and then stared at this mysterious creature that his younger brother was certain was one of their ancestors come to call.
The cat came right up to him. She cocked her head and then placed a paw on his cheek, almost seeming to smile. Then, with a sharp ‘merow!’, she bounded off the bed and disappeared through the open window.
‘Think about it, Adam. Midnight? Midnight with her big green eyes.’
God help him! He knew those green eyes. They’d looked at him with love for five years.
Adam blew out a disbelieving breath.
She’d come at midnight. Just in time to save him.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Secret Ingredient (by mcfair_58)
- Never Frighten the Cat – Little Joe’s Wardrobe Challenge (McFair_58)
- Be a Candle (by mcfair_58)
- A Warrior’s Tears (mcfair_58)
- When the Autumn Moon is Bright (by McFair_58)