Dedicated to the memory of Amanda M'Kittrick Ros, widely regarded as the worst writer of the English language.
Little Joe Cartwright lay in bed, propped up on pillows, the oil lamp burning on the table next to him giving off just enough yellow light for him to read by. His nose was inches from the pages, his lips moving slowly, his eyes wide as they took in the text. He'd picked up the latest dime novel in town earlier in the day, and, despite the lateness of the hour, simply couldn't stop until he'd finished it.
Suddenly someone spoke from the door, and the book went flying from his hands, a squeak of terror emitting from his throat. He turned to see who had called his name, and frowned as he saw his tousle-haired older brother Adam standing in the doorway, a look of mingled amusement and exasperation on his face.
Joe glared. "Don't you know how to knock?" he asked angrily, scooping the book up from the floor and retrieving his place.
"I did. Three times," Adam replied mildly. "Then I assumed you'd gone to sleep with the light on, and came on in. Do you have any idea what time it is?"
Joe looked annoyed. "No. What do I care?"
"Well I care," Adam snapped. "It's two-o'clock in the morning. Just because Pa's gone, that doesn't exclude you from your chores. The idea is that the ranch is supposed to run in his absence exactly as though he were here."
Joe shot his bossy brother a nasty look. "Yeah, and I'm sure you'll see that it will. Now will you let me alone to finish this?"
Adam walked over to the bed and took the book from his brother's hands. He rolled his eyes as he took in the name. "The Curse of the Faceless Fiend," he read aloud. He handed the book back to his brother, looking as though he'd unexpectedly sucked on a lemon. "Why do you waste your time reading that junk? I have a library full of wonderful literature and instead you insist on..."
"Give it a rest, Adam," Little Joe interrupted. "I ain't readin' that stuff you call literature and everyone else in the world is man enough to call cow droppings. I had more than enough of that from ol' Jonesy. I'll be up to do my chores same as you. Now go away."
"You'd better be," Adam warned him, as he left the room and closed the door behind him.
The next morning Adam grumbled loudly to Hoss as they cleaned the barn together. "Our brother certainly knows how to get out of work."
"I done tried gettin' him up, Adam, but he just wouldn't budge," Hoss mentioned, apology clear in his voice as he tried to soothe his grumpy older brother. "Said he'd had a late night."
Adam entertained the duo for the remainder of the time it took to complete the chores by listing all the numerous things he'd like to do to Little Joe. Privately, Hoss figured that if Adam ever got around to half of the stuff he'd mentioned, Joe would likely be dead ten times over. But he knew his brother well enough to know that Adam was just as protective of their little brother as he was, and before breakfast was over, Joe would have charmed his way right out of trouble. Hoss shook his head, wondering how Joe was able to do that. Certainly was a useful skill.
The two entered the house and sat down at the table for breakfast. Little Joe still hadn't appeared, and Adam was getting increasingly annoyed. There was too much work to do to be lying in bed sleeping the day away. He sent his very best glare towards the upstairs landing. "If Joe isn't down here in two minutes..." he began.
Suddenly a commotion from the second floor of the ranch house startled the brothers. They stared at one another in astonishment. Then a steady stream of words that would never have been heard had Pa been home came streaming down the stairs in Little Joe's voice. Hoss' lower jaw fell open in pure amazement. Almost despite himself, he was impressed with his little brother's language skills. He wasn't sure he'd even heard some of those words, and certainly didn't know what they meant. He wondered briefly where Little Joe had picked them up. Without warning, the youngest of the Cartwright brothers appeared on the stairs.
"Which of you took it?" he demanded hotly.
Hoss and Adam looked at their brother in confusion. "Took what?" Hoss asked, somewhat tentatively. He was still a bit awed over Joe's easy volubility.
"You know very well what," Joe said, rounding on him. "Where's my lucky green jacket? You took it, didn't you?"
Hoss dismissed his brother and returned to his plate. "I ain't took yer jacket, Joe. What would I want it for, anyhow? It wouldn't even fit Adam. What would I do with it?"
Joe thought for a moment, envisioning the six-foot four man trying to squeeze his way into a coat designed for the smaller, slimmer Joe. "Yeah, I suppose you're right." He turned his attention to Adam. "It was you," he said, pointing at the black-haired man. "You've got it! Now give it back."
Adam irritably slapped Joe's finger out of his face. "I wouldn't wear anything of yours to please a dying grandmother." He glanced over at the settee and rolled his eyes. "There's your jacket, Joe. Right where you presumably left it when you got home from town. Without putting the supplies away, I might add. And while we're on the subject, I notice you didn't show up for morning chores."
Joe dismissed his brother's useless ramblings and went over to his jacket, his pleasant, boyish face pulled into a frown. "But I didn't leave it here. I took it off in my room. I remember distinctly."
His brothers ignored him, and, smelling breakfast, he put the thought of his wandering jacket out of his mind. He had been intent on starting on the book when he returned from town. Perhaps he just remembered wrong.
Hours later Joe and Hoss faced each other outside the barn with twin looks of fury on their faces, a new argument under way.
"Look, it ain't here, so you've obviously misplaced it." Joe was getting tired of the conversation, and wished Hoss would just shut up.
"When have I ever misplaced a tool?" Hoss asked his brother sarcastically. "You're the one always misplaces everything. Now where is it?"
Joe glared up at his much-larger brother, the look on his face making it clear that whatever he lacked in stature was more than made up for in pure stubbornness and guts. "I didn't do it! Maybe Adam took it."
"Why would Adam want the brandin' iron? He ain't doin' the brandin', is he? And you tell me one time when ole Adam ever lost nothin'. It was you. Just admit it, and tell me where it is. I need that one. You know I made that one special, just for jobs like this."
"Look I didn't take it, I don't know where it is, and I'm sick and tired of you blaming me, just because that fat-headed brain of yours don't work right!"
Hoss glared. "Little Joe, I'm gonna pummel you one, and when I pummel a fella, he stays pummeled!"
"You just try it ya big galoot, and I'll..."
"I don't suppose you gentlemen could be persuaded to stop arguing and do some work? This is a working ranch, after all. Or hadn't you noticed?"
Adam's arrival had gone unnoticed by the bickering brothers and now they turned to him, complaining in unison.
"Joe's gone an' lost that special brandin' iron of mine, and he won't admit it! He's sayin'..."
"Everyone always blames me for everything around here. Just because I'm the youngest, I always..."
Adam held up his hands. "I don't care. I'm trying to do the books, and it's proving impossible with you two arguing loud enough to be heard in Virginia City. I don't care when and how you do your chores, so long as they're done, and they're done QUIETLY!" He shouted the last word, and looked and sounded so much like their father as he did it, that it stopped the arguing immediately. Giving each of his brothers one last glare, he turned and walked back across the yard, disappearing into the house.
For a moment, neither Hoss nor Joe uttered a sound. Then, by mutual agreement, they abandoned their disagreement. Adam could be a little scary when he was in one of his tempers.
"I'll help you look for you iron, Hoss," Joe offered.
The two poked around the barn for a while before Hoss happened to glance over at the corral. There, sitting smack in the middle, lay the missing iron.
"Well there it is," he told Joe is surprise. "How'd it end up over there?"
Joe shrugged and the two moved over. Hoss bent and picked it up. "Ain't damaged. Just moved a bit," he said in confusion.
Suddenly Joe's eyes widened. "Hoss, I just realized!"
"First my jacket, now your iron. This is just how it started at Deverill Hall!"
"How what started where?" Hoss asked, confused.
"Right here in my book!" He pulled the dime novel out of his pocket and showed it to his brother. "See everything was goin' along right as rain, then this guy Baron somebody or other noticed things started missing. Only they'd turn up again, in a different place. Nobody could figure out how it was happening, 'cause it was all the work of the Faceless Fiend!"
Hoss blue eyes widened. "Faceless Fiend?" he repeated in a hoarse whisper. He wasn't sure he liked the sound of that.
"Yeah. I should have realized when I noticed my jacket had been moved. Hoss, the Ponderosa is haunted!"
Hoss looked worried. "Naw...not the Ponderosa. That's just a dumb ole book. It don't mean nothin'."
"But it all fits, Hoss. Listen." Joe opened the book and found the page he was looking for. "'Baron Wembsley-Phipps knew he hadn't left the hunting rifle on the drawing room carpet, yet there is sat, nevertheless,'" Joe read aloud. ""This is the third thing in as many hours,' Wembsley-Phipps noted to himself. It can only mean one thing. Now that my family has regained the title to the home, the ancient curse of Deverill Hall has been reawakened.' See, Hoss, it's the same as with us. Things goin' missin' then turnin' up where they ain't s'posed to be."
"But there ain't no curse on the Ponderosa," Hoss objected. "Why would the Faceless Fiend come here?"
Joe thought a moment. "Well, maybe it's a different Faceless Fiend. Or maybe..." A light dawned in his eyes. "At the end of the book, this Baron guy's wife gets a Voodoo High Priestess to cast out the Fiend from the Hall, and overturn the curse, so that it wouldn't be visited on her son. Maybe there's an old Indian curse on this land, so when the Fiend couldn't stay at the Hall no more, he came here!"
Hoss' eyes grew more round. "Ya think?" he asked slowly. It was hard to swallow, but there was no denying the misplaced branding iron in his hand.
"Only one way to check. We'll see if Adam and Hop Sing have been missin' anything. The Fiend is real democratic. He takes stuff from everyone."
"Well, let's go," Hoss said, bolting across the yard to the side door and entering the kitchen. He opened his mouth to ask Hop Sing whether he'd missed anything, when Hop Sing shut his mouth with one of his famous glares.
"No come for doughnuts. Hop Sing trying make suppah, big knife go. Big boy best go too, if know what good for him."
"Your knife is missing, Hop Sing?" Hoss asked, his tone anxious.
Hop Sing glared. "You take Hop Sing knife?" he demanded.
"No, it weren't me, Hop Sing. Honest." He looked at Joe and then back to Hop Sing. "We think it was the Faceless Fiend," he said dramatically.
Hop Sing looked astonished. "Who Faceless Fiend, and why take knife?"
Joe showed Hop Sing the book. "It's all right here in this book, Hop Sing. The Ponderosa is haunted."
"Oh for crying out loud!" Adam had walked into the kitchen just in time to hear Joe's pronouncement. "I did not just hear that. Not even from you, Joe."
Joe turned on his brother. "It is, so haunted, Adam. Just like in this book I read yesterday."
Adam sniffed in derision. "I cannot believe anyone of even mild intelligence would believe anything they read in a book called The Faceless Fiend. It's a novel, Joe, and a bad one at that. Now, would someone care to explain to me why they've taken my ledger and replaced it with a kitchen knife?"
Adam held up the long, sharp knife and it glinted in the light. Hop Sing's face lit up in delight. "Mistah Adam find Hop Sing knife."
"Yeah, well it wasn't hard. It was sitting on the desk where my ledger used to be. I leave the room for two minutes and this is what I find when I return. You know, if you two don't want to do your work, that's all well and good. You can explain when Pa gets back why your chores aren't done. But I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't prevent me from doing mine."
"It weren't us, Adam, it was the Fiend."
Adam looked pained. "Oh, Hoss," he said reproachfully. He glared at Joe. "Now see what you've done? You've got Hoss believing in your asinine specter. "
"It ain't asinine, Adam, less'n asinine means scary. Look, it all fits. The Faceless Fiend is the phantom of the long-dead Duke of Coverston who was pushed to his death from the top floor of Deverill Hall in a jealous rage by Percy Wembsley-Phipps when he discovered that the Duke was going to marry the love of his life, the Hall parlormaid, Alice. With his last dying breath he cursed the Hall and all its inhabitants, and vowed never to give them a moment's peace as long as a Wembsley-Phipps owned the place."
Adam snorted. "I see. And he forever terrified the populace by moving kitchen knives to the tops of desks, is that it? What an utterly terrifying ghost."
"No, no. It just started that way!" Joe looked dramatically around the room. "Then, one day, this Baron guy opened the broom cupboard and there stood the Faceless Fiend, dressed all in black, his arms raised over his head, and the Fiend suddenly shrieked at him, and the Baron fell over dead as smelts. It happened to every male Wembsley-Phipps who dared to own Deverill Hall!"
"Oh? And just how did the Fiend shriek if it didn't have a face?"
"Well, it does actually have a face. It's just that it's hidden behind a black veil, 'cause the Duke of Coverston landed on his nose when he fell, and he didn't look too hot after that. So when he came back to life, he naturally had to cover up the damage."
"Yeah, wouldn't want to scare to death, the fella that he was trying to scare to death," Adam pointed out sarcastically.
Joe looked momentarily confused, then dismissed it. "You have to admit, it all fits. After the Voodoo Priestess cast the Fiend out, it had to go somewhere."
"So, suddenly finding itself homeless, it trotted across the sea, hitched a ride on a stagecoach, and showed up on the Ponderosa. Is that the general idea?"
"Why don't you ever believe anything?" Joe pouted.
"I believe lots of things. For example at the moment, I believe you're trying to pull a fast one to somehow get out of work. Well, we've all heard your charming little fairy tale. Now if you don't mind, I see my ledger sitting over there in the bowl of beans, and I'd like to get back to what I was doing." Adam picked up the missing ledger, tucked it under his arm, and departed without a backward glance.
Hoss, Joe, and Hop Sing looked at one another. Hoss was the first one to speak.
"Do you really think that's what happened, Joe? We're bein' invaded by the Fiend?"
"Well, you have to admit, it makes sense. Why else would our stuff be disappearin' the way it is?"
Hoss mulled over the argument, and found it reasonable. "Well, what do you think we should do?"
"We'll have to get rid of it, or it'll keep hauntin' us."
"How we gonna do that?"
"Well, Mrs Wembsley-Phipps went to a Voodoo High Priestess. You know any of them?"
"Nope. What about you, Hop Sing?"
Hop Sing shook his head. "Voodoo not Chinese. Maybe Mistah Adam know where to find."
"Yeah, but he don't believe in none of this."
Hop Sing frowned. "Mistah Adam velly smart. But sometimes not smart to be too smart. Not believe in what not see."
"Well," Joe proposed. "Let's try to remove the curse ourselves. Then, if that doesn't work, we'll go looking for a Voodoo lady."
"Good idea, Joe. How's it work?"
"Hmm." Joe consulted the book. "It says here that at midnight is when the line between good and evil is blurred. So we have to go to the broom cupboard and do the spell then."
"What's a broom cupboard?" Hoss asked, confused.
"Well, that's English, Hoss. Probably means like, the storage shed."
"Okay. So what do we do when we get there?"
Joe read from the book. "'The High-Priestess hid in the broom cupboard, knowing that as the clock struck twelve, the Faceless Fiend would appear to work his evil magic against Reginald Wembsley-Phipps, now the owner of Deverill Hall. She clutched in her hand the amulet that would protect her against evil, as well as the charms that would force the Fiend forever from the face of the cursed land.
"'The clock struck twelve. The Faceless Fiend, in all his black glory, suddenly rose before her like a winged demon, shrieking horribly as he ascended from the bowels of the earth to do his depraved sorcery. Her purity tested to the utmost, the Voodoo High-Priestess chanted the incantation that froze the Fiend in his flight, and she flung the foul Fiend to the Four Winds.'"
Hoss listened with wide eyes. "Wow. That's good writin'," he said admiringly. "Strong."
"Yeah. Well, I like good literature. Now the problem is, this guy don't tell us what the stuff is we need to use, or the words we need to say."
"We're just gonna hafta find one of them Voodoo women, then Joe. We can't do it on our own, if nobody'll tell us how."
Joe considered this for a moment. "I reckon you're right. Come on, let's ask Adam."
The three trooped into the great room and found Adam studiously at work on the ranch accounts. He looked up as they approached him. "May I help you?" he asked politely.
Hoss squirmed. "Adam, where would you find a Voodoo High-Priestess?"
"I wouldn't find one at all, because I wouldn't be looking for one. Hop Sing, you're not buying into this nonsense, too, are you?"
Hop Sing shook his head at Adam. "Mistah Adam plenty smart. But Hop Sing know thing from China that Mistah Adam not believe."
Adam closed his eyes with his fingers to the bridge of his nose, and then looked up at Joe. "You know, I expect you to get Hoss involved in your stupid schemes, but I wish you'd leave Hop Sing out of it. What'd he ever do to you?" He looked back down at his work and picked up the pen, dipping it into the ink well. "I'd suggest Haiti or Jamaica if you want some Voodoo practitioners. Now, go away and let me get back to work."
The three left Adam to his numbers, and regrouped.
"Well, I don't know where Haiti or Jamaica are, but I'm guessing they're somewhere outside Nevada Territory. Maybe back East," Joe said. "So I don't think we can get there before Pa gets back."
"What's it matter if we don't do it before Pa gets back?" Hoss asked.
"Well, think about it. Pa owns the Ponderosa. So the Faceless Fiend will naturally go after him."
"Oh, yeah. Then when he's gone, the Fiend'll go after Adam."
Joe brightened for a moment at this thought, but decided he there was the slightest chance he might miss his big brother if he dropped dead. Besides, he couldn't just stand around and let Pa croak.
"Okay. We'll just have to do it ourselves. Tonight, we meet at ten minutes to midnight in the storage shed."
"What'll we do then?"
"The Fiend has to appear at midnight. So when he does we'll just scare him and send him packing."
"I don't think the Fiend scares so easy, Joe."
"Well, we gotta try, Hoss. Are we all in this together?"
Hoss and Hop Sing nodded their agreement.
"Hop Sing make Chinese charms. Help protect us from ancient evil."
"Good thinking, Hop Sing. All right. Tonight. Ten 'til midnight."
It was a quarter 'til midnight. Hoss and Joe sat in the great room, staring at the checkerboard that neither of them was paying the slightest attention to. Adam had gone to bed hours ago and the closer it came to midnight the more nervous the two of them became. Although neither of them would admit it, they both wished their big brother believed in the Fiend. They didn't like the idea of a fight against evil without Adam at their side.
Finally Hop Sing walked in and handed each of the boys a small figure of a dragon.
"Strong protection," Hop Sing told them. "Keep close."
The three clutched their dragons firmly and made their way to the storage shed. They secreted themselves behind some baskets and other clutter, and glanced around anxiously.
Hoss looked over at his brother. "You sure the Fiend's comin'?" he asked.
"Got to. Says so in the book," Joe whispered. "Now keep quiet."
They waited in stressful silence as the minutes ticked slowly by. Every second the tension got thicker until suddenly, as the sound of the tolling of grandfather clock in the house came floating over the air, a figure rose from the corner of the shed. It was clad in black, a veil covering its Fiendish Face. It raised its arms over its head, and the shriek of a banshee came roaring out of its hidden mouth.
After one long frozen moment, Hoss, Joe, and Hop Sing screamed and ran terrified from the shed. They crossed the yard and disappeared behind the barn, heading as far away from the ranch house as quickly as possible.
After watching the three run pell-mell from the area, the Faceless Fiend walked out of the shed. He raised the veil, and Adam Cartwright's face, lit with absolute glee was revealed. Oh, it had been difficult moving the items around the house without being caught. It had been torture reading that stupid book to find out how to act. And it would be torment trying to explain to his father why their cook and his two brothers were missing and probably off somewhere, scouring the land looking for a Voodoo priestess. But the look on their faces. Adam dissolved into helpless laughter as he walked back towards to the house. It was all worth it. Priceless, he thought to himself. Absolutely priceless.