The night was cold and, even with the full moon, darker than most nights, Hoss could have sworn, with shadows that seemed to warp into odd humanoid shapes, becoming more and more threatening as the two brothers hesitantly made their way toward the front door of an old abandoned cottage.
Standing in front of the dilapidated house, the two stopped to gawk at the horrendous shape the cabin was in, with the caving in roof, its peeling walls, what appeared to have once been a door was completely destroyed, and the windows were now nothing but gaping holes of darkness.
“We can still turn back,” Hoss whispered.
But Little Joe shook his head, and, taking in a deep, quivering breath, he stepped forward and grabbed a piece of wood that stuck out from the broken down mess that had once been a door and pulled what was left of it open. That was when the roof collapsed.
“Dad-burn it!” Hoss exclaimed, catching Joe as he flew backwards at Hoss in surprise. “That’s our sign it’s time to go!”
“No!” Little Joe wrestled out from his brother’s grasp. “That’ll prove we’re chickens!”
“Wrong! It’ll prove we’re smart!” Hoss hissed back, pointing his finger at Little Joe as he spoke. “Adam warned us we shouldn’t have come.”
“What does he know? We don’t even have to stay long.” Joe turned back to the house and started climbing over the broken pieces of ceiling as he entered. “We just have to grab something as proof we were here. Come on!”
Hoss stole a glance behind himself at the horses and Chub seemed to shake his head in warning, sending chills up his rider’s spine. Nonetheless, Hoss followed after his brother, clambering clumsily over the weak wood and into a tiny room where the only source of light was that from the windows, from which the full moon was visible.
“Hurry up and grab somethin’,” he hissed, looking around nervously. “This place gives me the creeps.”
“Help me find something, then! It can’t be something we could just pick up anywhere.”
Almost as soon as the words left Joe’s lips, both brothers saw it; a small, velvet pouch lying on the ground, half under a rotted piece of wood. Hoss and Joe crept toward it slowly, careful not to trip on anything in the darkness. The pouch seemed to glow with a faint light, drawing the boys closer with curiosity, while causing a great sense of dread to wash over them. Hoss grabbed Joe by the arm when he felt this and suggested they leave, but Little Joe bent forward and snatched up the little pouch. But as he stood, the pouch lost its glow.
Maybe it was just the moonlight reflecting on it, he thought to himself, and, to Hoss’s great relief, they climbed back out of the house.
“I ain’t never doin’ somethin’ like that ever again, yeh hear me, Lil’ Joe?” Hoss stated and patted Chub’s snout. “Nev–“
But he never finished the sentence, as he was interrupted by a low rumbling sound which at first sounded far away, but then came closer until the brothers could feel it beneath their feet and the tiny, broken down house that stood before them mended itself, grew in height, and bent itself so it was above them. Neither could do anything but stare, mouths dropped open.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the house went back to its original shape and caved in entirely, leaving nothing but a pile of rotten rood and some shards of glass.
The air was still then, and Little Joe and Hoss slowly glanced at each other. Neither said a word, but they both scrambled onto their horses and rode away from the little house as fast as they could.
Barely had Hoss and Little Joe stopped their horses when they jumped off their mounts’ backs and put them safely in the stables– doing a very poor job of putting away the supplies in their hurry– then ran to the house as quickly as possible, slamming the door shut and locking it behind them.
Panting, Little Joe slumped his back against the door as Hoss rubbed his face. Finally facing the living room, Joe saw Adam and Ben staring at them.
He tried to greet them, but when he opened his mouth, only a squeak came.
“What’s the matter?” Ben asked and stood, his brows furrowed in concern.
“You two look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Adam noted.
Little Joe stared at Adam for a long moment, smiling a smile that lacked any trace of happiness, but, instead, a sense of dread that told both Ben and Adam that the newcomers had just experienced something unpleasant at the very least, while Hoss busied himself with putting his gun holster away.
Finally, Little Joe stiffly made his way over to the settee and sat down, tightly clutching the small pouch he had picked up in the now gone house. He clutched it so firmly that a hard something in the pouch began to dig into his palm and brought him back to his senses. He looked down at his hand and relaxed his fingers to reveal the pouch. Vaguely aware of his entire family watching, he pulled the pouch open and peeked inside. Something glittered and he dumped the contents into the palm of his hand, revealing more than a dozen shiny gold coins.
“At least we got some money outta that,” Hoss grumbled at the sight of the coins.
“Out of what?” demanded Ben, looking between his younger sons.
Little Joe sent a sharp glare in Hoss’s direction, then turned back to his pa. Ben was expectantly watching him, arms crossed.
“We, uh…” Joe began.
“It was Lil’ Joe’s idea, Pa! I tried to talk him outta it!” cut in Hoss desperately.
“Of what?!” Ben looked between his two sons and threw his hands out, exasperated.
Adam watched the drama unfold with amusement. This didn’t go unnoticed by Joe, who glared at his older brother before being nudged in the back by Hoss.
“Um, we, uh…”
“Well?” Ben raised an eyebrow.
Taking a deep breath, Little Joe explained everything he could.
A silence followed that seemed eternity where Hoss and Joe watched their father, enduring the terrible feeling of dread the silence draped upon them.
After another pause, Ben sighed, turned and sat down in his chair, then, looking back up at the two, he said, “Don’t you think it’s getting late?”
Neither of them hesitated. Hoss and Joe ran upstairs as fast as possible, practically trampling each other in order to do so.
Ben shook his head and looked at Adam who was smiling.
“Do you find this amusing?” Ben asked his eldest son.
Dropping his finger from his lip, Adam looked up at Ben to see a quizzical look on his pa’s face.
“I think I’ll go to bed,” he said and left Ben on his own.
He wasn’t really awake yet, but he uncovered himself enough to peek his head out from under the blankets.
“Little Joe…” The voice was louder now, but it was still low.
Joe opened his eyes to see the pouch of coins on his bedside table.
“Yeah, Hoss?” he murmured.
“Open the door.”
“You open it.”
Hoss’s tone sounded oddly flat, or maybe Joe was just imagining it, but it sent a shiver up his spine and gave him the desire to stay in bed and hide from his usually friendly brother.
“Joe!” Hoss hissed from the other side of the door. “Open up!”
As the words reached Joe’s ears, he felt a strange tugging sensation, as though he was trying to get out of bed. But that couldn’t be; he didn’t want to move. Nonetheless, he felt the tug again, then again more strongly and he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Confused, he strode over to his door and eased it open, letting his larger brother step inside.
“Where’re the coins?” Hoss asked flatly.
“They’re–” Joe began, but stopped. A lump formed in his throat when he looked into his brother’s eyes. There was an emptiness like that of a corpse within the typically vibrant eyes.
“Where are they?”
“H-Hoss…? Are you feeling okay?”
No answer came, but, instead, Hoss turned and began searching the room. Uneasily, Joe slipped back to his bed and snatched up the coin pouch, which he then slid into his nightgown’s pocket. It was a bad idea.
Hoss turned when he heard the noise and regret filled Little Joe’s very soul.
“Hand them over, Joseph.” Hoss held out his hand.
Everything seemed to freeze. Joe felt ready to panic. What was wrong with Hoss? What could he do? The only thing he could think to do: Run.
As fast as he could, he ran for the door. Luckily, Hoss wasn’t nearly as fast as he was and he slammed the door shut behind him and held it shut tight. He knew he wouldn’t be able to hold it long with Hoss pulling– hardly anyone could match his brother’s strength– so, he held it and let Hoss pull, then, when he felt the third tug, he let go, and Hoss fell backwards, buying Joe enough time to make a break for it. But, when he turned, he let out a scream.
A hand roughly clamped his mouth shut and relief flushed through his veins.
“What is all the ruckus about?” Adam questioned, his eyes drooping with fatigue and irritation as he took his hand from Joe’s mouth.
“There’s something wrong with Ho–“
At that moment, Hoss came barreling out of Joe’s room. “Give me the gold!”
Adam’s eyes went wide and Joe scrambled away, down the stairs. Adam, on the other hand, was slammed into the wall as Hoss pushed past him and he slid down the wall.
Joe hopped down the last three stairs in one leap and charged for the door, but his heart sank when he felt a huge, strong hand grab hold of his collar, and he was brought to an abrupt stop.
“What’s all the noise?” boomed Ben’s voice from upstairs and he appeared at the top of the staircase, his hair a mess and looking displeased by his rude awakening.
After staring at his sons for a good, long moment, he said,–
“How many times do I have to tell you? If you want to play rough, do it outside!”
Adam appeared behind him, rubbing the back of his head.
“And, what are you even doing up at this hour?” Ben added, leaning on the banister and glanced at the clock. “It’s two in the morning!”
“Hoss,” Little Joe croaked, still being held up by the collar. “Hoss started it, Pa.”
“I don’t care who started it! I want both of you back in bed!”
But Hoss didn’t budge.
“Hoss,” Joe hissed, “put me down!”
“Give me the gold.”
Suddenly, the room seemed a whole lot colder than it had before, and everyone but Hoss appeared to take notice.
“Hoss,” Ben said, and slowly made his way down the stairs.
The quick jerk to the side Hoss’s head made caused Ben to flinch, and then the two stared at each other for a long moment. Ben’s eyes went wide with horror and he opened his mouth to say something, but the stairs beneath him turned into a slope and he slid down at an alarming speed.
“Pa!” both Adam and Joe shouted.
Adam slid down the newly formed ramp in a hurry, but with a sense of grace awareness gave him, and knelt by his father’s side while Little Joe tried to free himself from his brother’s grasp. He ultimately failed and practically strangled himself in the process.
“What’s going on?” Adam demanded and looked at Hoss. “Wh–“
“Adam,” Ben groaned, grabbing hold of Adam’s forearm and pulling himself into a sitting position. “That’s not Hoss.”
“Who are you?” Ben questioned Hoss.
There was a pause in which Hoss stared at Ben with his empty gaze, then, in the same flat-toned voice he said, “I am Harland Smith, and this one–” he held Little Joe up. “– stole my gold.”
“I understand,” said Ben. “But he can’t give you your gold back if you choke him to death.”
He dropped Joe to the ground, and the young Cartwright scrambled over to his father and older brother.
“Return the gold, or your son’s body shall be returned to you lifeless,” Harland Smith said through Hoss, then turned and opened the front door. “Don’t try to follow, or I’ll kill the one you call Hoss now.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come?” Adam asked as Ben slung his left leg over his horse’s back.
“The fewer of us go, the better,” Ben replied. “The only reason I’m taking Joe is because he’s the one that took the gold.”
Adam nodded and watched the other two ride off.
When Ben and Little Joe arrived at the old cabin, the hairs on the back of Joe’s neck rose, for the cabin that had been destroyed earlier in the night was now standing, looking as good as new.
“Give me the gold,” Ben said to Joe and Joe’s eyes went wide with fear. Ben added, “No, I’m not possessed! I’m going to return the money.”
“I got us into this mess, I’ll return the money,” Joe protested.
“Not this time. We’re dealing with something out of this world, and I’ve had more experience in life, so I think I stand a better chance.” He smiled reassuringly.
Reluctantly, Joe handed his father the pouch of gold and watched as Ben made his way toward the cabin.
Once inside, Ben looked around, making sure there was no threat. Satisfied by the fact that there was no place to hide for any normal sized man but behind the door, he walked over to a little table in the middle of the room on which he placed the pouch.
The wind blew. Only it couldn’t be wind. Ben felt it on his face and had to hold his hat on his head, the wind was blowing so hard.
Thank you, the wind whispered.
“Pa!” came Little Joe’s panicked voice.
“Don’t come in here!” Ben shouted back.
The wind ceased. A quiet creek could be heard. Then there was a rumble. A rumble so great that it shook the ground beneath Ben’s feet and bits of wood began to fall from the ceiling.
“Pa, get out of there!” Joe screamed, remembering all too well what had happened the last time he came here.
Ben ran, dodging falling wood, and practically flew out the door. Little Joe ran over to him and he turned back to the tiny house. Together, they watched as the cabin tumble and collapse before being entirely absorbed by the earth. The moment it was gone, a moan came from behind, making both father and son jump and turn to see who– or what– the moan belonged to.
The leaves of a bush rattled as the two slowly crept towards it. There behind it lay Hoss, rubbing his head. He looked up at his two family members, the old twinkle in his eyes and Ben smiled.