September 10, 1870rnrnrnBen was growing impatient. He had been standing around the general store for quite some time now, waiting for Adam to finish his business at the bank. Joe and Hoss had long finished loading the supplies into the wagon. They had gotten tired of waiting and had wandered down the street to the Silver Dollar, despite the pouring rain.rnrn“Hey there, Ben!” rnrnBen looked around at the sound of his name. He spotted his neighbor, Sam, sitting in one of the chairs by the stove.rnrn"Pull up a seat and join me for a spell,” he said, motioning to the empty chair beside him.rnrnBen glanced out of the window. His three sons were nowhere in sight. "Don't mind if I do, Sam," he grinned. These old bones of mine are really aching today."rnrnSam laughed, "So are mine, Ben, so are mine. Don't tell me those boys of yours ran off and left you again?" rnrnBen merely smiled and rolled his eyes. He settled into the chair and made himself comfortable. rnrn"So, I hear that you are finally going to give 'em a vacation.” The tall, thin man stretched out his legs, with a groan. “About time, I'd say."rnrn"It will be more like a working vacation, I’m afraid,” Ben laughed. “One of my old friends in San Francisco has offered Adam a month’s internship. He will be working in the business office, learning how things are run.”rnrn“Adam will enjoy that, I’d expect. But, what about Hoss and Joe?”rnrnBen sighed. “I let those two talk me into letting them go along—probably against my better judgement. They reminded me that things are pretty slow around the ranch in October. I suppose they have earned a little fun. I guess I’ll be getting a little time to myself, for a change. Even Hop Sing will be leaving. He is taking some time off to visit his Number Seven cousin, up in Bodie.”rnrnSam gave Ben a sly grin. “I guess you are going to have to eat your own cooking for awhile, eh?” rnrn“It would seem so,” said Ben laughing. rnrnJust then, a short, middle-aged woman walked into the store, carrying a covered basket. The two men rose. Ben tipped his hat and greeted Sam's wife.rnrn“Good afternoon, Betty. I see that Sam has left you to run the errands, today.” rnrn“Oh, hello, Ben. It’s good to see you. I do hope that my husband hasn’t been talking your ear off.”rnrn“Not at all, Betty. Frankly, I’ve been grateful for the company. It seems my sons have abandoned me for the saloon,” he laughed. rnrn“Well, Ben, it looks like the missus is ready to go home. Now, don't you go worryin' about those boys of yours. They'll be fine." rnrnBen looked down. “That remains to be seen. It was nice talking with you, Sam. I’ll see you next week.” He nodded to the woman and grinned. "Now, you be sure to keep him in line, Betty!"rnrnThe two took their leave. Ben gazed out the window and watched, as the couple dodged the puddles that had formed on the wooden sidewalk. It was raining harder, now. He glanced at his pocket watch and wondered what could be detaining Adam. Ben sighed and absent-mindedly reached over and picked up a catalog from the top of the barrel next to the stove. On the cover was an unfamiliar name. He looked inside. It was a publishing house, located in New York City. It was evidently new. He made a mental note to tell Adam about it.rnrnBen opened the slim volume and began thumbing through the pages. An odd feeling came over him. He detected the faint smell of perfume. It was an intoxicating scent. He looked around, expecting to see a female customer, but he was the only one in the store. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the clerk staring at him.rnrnBen changed positions in his chair. He thought back to his conversation with Sam. He suddenly felt empty. He shouldn’t have told both Hoss and Joe that it was okay to ride to San Francisco with Adam. He wondered what was he going to do with himself for an entire month. His fingernail caught on the edge of one of the catalog’s pages. It had been dog-eared. Turning it, he spotted a curious title—one that seemed to call his name. According to the description, the book had a black leather-bound cover, ingrained with intricate gold-leaf scrollwork. The story inside promised to be highly interesting. Now, Ben knew what he was going to do with the spare time he was going to have on his hands. rnrnBen walked up to the counter and cleared his throat. The clerk looked up and smiled.rnrn“May I help you, Mr. Cartwright?”rnrnBen handed him the open catalog. “Does this company fill its orders promptly?” he said. The clerk looked at the cover page.rnrn“I can’t say, Mr. Cartwright. We don’t know how it even got here. We didn’t order it.” The short, stout man wiped his hands on his apron. He took a pencil from behind his ear and carefully wrote down the title of the book Ben pointed out to him. The clerk gave him a sidewards glance, but said nothing. rnrnBen pretended to study a display of fabric on the counter. For some reason, he was feeling uneasy. ”When do you expect it to arrive?” he asked the clerk, anxiously.rnrn"Oh, it should be here in about a month, Mr. Cartwright. It says here that it sends out its orders immediately, upon receipt." rnrnBen was startled at the sound of a voice behind him. "Hey Pa, are you ready?" rnrn"Of course, I am," Ben boomed. But, he wasn't really angry. He had a treasure coming, in one month. rnrnrnrnOctober 31, 1870rnrnBen stood at the stove, stirring the soup. The house seemed so quiet, with the boys away. Roy had stopped by for a visit, earlier. He had brought along a package from the general store. Ben had laid it on the credenza. He would open it later, once he was alone. He suspected that it was the book he had ordered. The two friends had sat on the porch most of the afternoon, enjoying a few cigars and talking over old times. Ben had invited him to stay for supper, but Roy said that he needed to get back to town, just in case any of the schoolboys got carried away with their Halloween pranks. It was the night of the full moon, a time when the saloongoers were usually at their rowdiest. Roy would certainly have his hands full, tonight. Ben was secretly glad that he had declined the invitation; he was anxious to get at that book… rnrnBen cut up a few scraps of meat and placed them in a bowl. He opened the kitchen door and scanned the yard. rnrn“Esmerelda, come and get your supper!” The sleek black cat shot through the door. She whizzed between Ben’s legs and into the kitchen. He sat down and watched her while she ate. As much as he hated to admit it, Clementine was right. Esmerelda was a comfort to him. He missed Adam, Hoss and Joe. She was good company. He almost dreaded the thought of returning her to her owner. The boys wouldn’t be home for another two weeks. She was his, until then. While she was licking her paws, Ben cleaned up the kitchen. She followed him into the great room. Once she was satisfied that he was going to stay, Esmerelda jumped into the blue chair and curled up, content to enjoy the warmth of the fire.rnrnSavoring his solitude, Ben settled down into his favorite chair. He picked up his brandy and opened the package that Roy had brought over. It was the book he had been anxiously awaiting. It was by a new author, who wrote in the style of Edgar Allen Poe, according to the description he had read in the catalog. He began reading.rnrnThe room suddenly turned chilly. Ben looked around, to see if he had left window open. He saw that the door was ajar. He got up to shut it. Outside, pine needles were dancing in circles, blown by unseen winds. He could hear their gusts, howling through the pines. The house shuddered. He was in for a rough night, he knew. Ben picked up the fireplace poker and stirred the glowing embers. A chill ran through him, despite the warmth. He added a log to the fire, then walked across the room to pour himself another glass of brandy. Pulling his chair closer to the fire, he resumed reading. rnrnHe was so engrossed in his tome that he didn’t see the shadow, creeping across the floor. If he had bothered to look up, he would have seen a veiled woman, staring at him with amber-yellow eyes. But Esmerelda saw her. If only cats could speak. rnrnMaybe it was the warmth of the fire. Perhaps it was the brandy. Ben suddenly felt as if he had been drugged. His eyes closed and he nodded off. He awoke to the strange sound of singing. He sat up, wondering where the sound was coming from. It was intriguing, drawing him from his chair and over to the credenza. He saw something out of the corner of his eye. A cool mist floated into the room, from underneath the door. The blue vapor was enticing him… The music was haunting. It seemed to come from somewhere, far in the distance. Slowly, the door swung open on its own. Despite his better judgement, Ben stepped outside. The mist was outside now, beckoning him to follow it. He obeyed, as if in a trance. Long-forgotten feelings stirred within him. Feelings he hadn’t had since Marie’s death. Sensations that he had never dared feel again. But now…rnrnBen followed the blue mist, further and further away from the Ponderosa. He should have been tired, but somehow, it energized him, gave him life. He should have been afraid, but he wasn’t…rnrnEvery once in awhile, he thought that he was catching up to it. But when he reached out his hands, it just slipped through his fingers. Ahead it would skip, as if mocking him.rnrnThen a dog began to howl somewhere in a farmhouse far down the road, a long, agonized wailing, as if from fear. Sometimes dogs know what people don’t… rnrnThe mist disappeared. Ben panicked. He searched wildly in the dark. He stumbled upon a graveyard, one that he had never seen before. rnrnSomething was wailing in the distance. He felt drawn to the sound. He hurried past cold, white headstones, gleaming in the moonlight. His shoulder brushed up against a skull, perched on the point of a stake. He jumped in terror, knocking it onto the ground. The skull grinned up at him. He could see that it was mocking him. rnrnBen looked up the moon. The clouds had cleared a bit, allowing him a better view. It was a harvest moon, hanging low in the sky. Its huge presence startled him. It gave off an eerie, orange-like glow, through the mist.rnrnHe finally caught sight of her—or it. Elated, he quickened his pace, following it to the end of the path. Suddenly, he was engulfed with pain. He suppressed a scream, as black talons tore into his skin. Massive black wings enveloped him, swiftly drawing the creature’s face to his, rendering him helpless. Her greedy lips kissed him. He could not resist. The siren fixed her amber, glowing eyes on his. She wrapped her dark, orange-hued veil around his legs. He tried to step back, but couldn’t. She drew him towards a gaping hole in the earth. It was a freshly-dug grave. His grave. She pushed him. He fell downwards into the hole, arms flailing. rnrnSuddenly a shot rang out. The siren fell to the ground. Strong hands reached through, into the underworld, pulling him to safety. rnrnJoe took his trembling father into his arms and gently rocked him. Neither one spoke.
Characters: Sheriff Roy Coffee