Word count: 4,770
“Johnny, you’ve done some dumb things, but this takes the cake. What the hell were you thinking?”
Johnny looked up at Scott, trying not to bust out laughing.He knew his brother had a right to be mad. Hell, if Boston had pulled a fool stunt like he did today, Scott would get more than a tongue lashing. Still Scott looked pretty funny, his hair sticking up in every direction from just coming in from the wind and the rain. A comb would have helped.
“It’s not funny,” Scott yelled in exasperation. “You could have broken your neck!”
“I know. I know.” And Johnny did know. He knew it when he began to slip on the wet shingles. He knew it when he began to slide off the top of the barn, and he knew it when the last shingle made a terrible cracking noise and split in half. And boy oh boy did he know it when he landed on the ground. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to get that hole patched before the rain. It was right over Barranca’s stall.”
“Did it ever occur to you to just move Barranca until the weather cleared?”
“Barranca likes his stall. How would you like it if I made you move out of your room because there was a hole in the roof over your bed?”
“For one, I’d understand that moving for a few days was better than having my stupid brother climb up on the roof to patch the hole!”
“You said ‘for one’. Usually that means there’s a ‘for two.”
Scott stared down at Johnny, his face getting redder by the second. “Two? You want two? Alright, how’s this? You’ve got two broken ankles, bad breaks Sam said, and you’re going to be stuck in that bed for three days, or as long as it takes for the casts to harden. Then after that you’ll be in said casts for another eight to twelve weeks. I’m betting on twelve. And…”
Johnny held up three fingers. “You’re going for a third?”
“Damn it, Johnny, this isn’t funny. You being laid up means everyone is going to have to work harder to take up the slack. It means that you can’t break any horses for at least four months. And it means that you scared everyone here half to death. When will you learn that you have responsibilities when you have a family? Your life doesn’t belong to just you anymore. We have a stake in it too.”
Johnny looked up defiantly. He knew what he had done was stupid, and he was willing to lie here and take his punishment, but only to a point. “I know how much me lying here costs the ranch. You’re not the first one to tell me. Murdoch laid it out in spades. And I know how scared you all were. Especially Teresa. And I’m really sorry about that. But I didn’t do it on purpose and I thought I had enough time to patch that hole and get back down again, but the wind picked up and the storm came in faster than I expected. So all your hollering’s not gonna make me feel any worse.”
Scott sighed and sat down on the chair that had been moved over next to his bed. He looked tired. “Johnny, I just want you to be more careful. You do things and never think of the consequences.” Johnny was startled when Scott reached out and grabbed his hand. He almost pulled it away. But not this time. “Johnny Madrid may not have cared what he did because he didn’t feel like his life had much purpose. But Johnny Lancer does. So please, think before you do something foolish next time.”
Johnny saw the smile quiver Scott’s lips, then take hold of his mouth and kidnap his whole face. “There will always be a next time. Now, do you want anything before I go downstairs?”
Johnny looked toward the drapes drawn across the window. “Yeah, could you open those drapes? At least I can look out at the world.”
Scott patted him on the shoulder and walked over to the window. “Three days, then those casts will be hard enough for you to be moved. We’ll get you downstairs then, so you can join the family.”
That meant being carried downstairs and told to stay on the sofa. He was going to have plenty of time to regret his decision. Damn, he should have moved Barranca.
“And you won’t be alone for long,” Scott continued. “I saw Murdoch looking through the bookcase. I’m sure he’s looking for something to read to you.”
Johnny tugged at the blanket and pulled it up around his chest. They’d made him wear a nightshirt. He hated nightshirts. “Just as long as it’s not that fella Homer. Can’t understand half the words. Besides, I can read you know.”
“Yes, we both know. But I doubt you could read much with that new medicine Sam gave you for the pain. Besides, it’s something that Murdoch wants to do. Something he missed all those years when you were growing up.”
Johnny nodded. He had to admit that he didn’t feel much pain, and he did feel kind of dopey, but not in a bad way. “I guess if it will make the old man happy…”
“It will. Now get some rest and he’ll be up soon.”
Johnny watched Scott walk out, leaving the door open. Closing his eyes, he mumbled, “I really did it this time.”
“Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaens. Many a brave souls did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled and the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another…”
Murdoch’s soft baritone glided in and out of Johnny’s mind. He heard the words, might even remember some later, but mostly he just liked hearing his father’s voice. It brought him a sense of comfort, something he’d never had when he was ill or hurtwhen he was Johnny Madrid.
“And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with…”
“What was that?” Johnny asked, looking toward his father.
Murdoch slipped his glasses off, looking at Johnny.
“What was what, Son?”
Johnny looked around the bed as much as he could see from his position lying flat on the mattress. “Something hit the bed.”
He levered himself up on his elbows, surprised at how weak he felt. The room was already cast in shadows, the dull rainy day giving way to darkness all too early.
“You were probably just falling asleep, Johnny. I didn’t touch the bed and as you can see no one else is in here.”
Johnny nodded, feeling uncharacteristically nervous, pushing back the feeling that he was just not comfortable in his own room tonight. Maybe it was because he was trapped in bed. Sam had made sure he wouldn’t go anywhere and the casts covered his legs from his toes to his knees. But there was more to it; there was a heaviness to the room.
Murdoch was hovering over him now, glass of water in hand and the sympathetic look that Johnny hated. Comfort was one thing, sympathy was another.
“Here.” Murdoch handed Johnny the glass, but it was clouded with the medicine Sam had prescribed.
“I don’t like that stuff.” Johnny pushed the glass back. “It makes me feel funny.”
“Sam told you it might. But you need it. You have to lie as quiet as you can for those casts to set, and look at you, already bouncing around.”
“Something hit the bed. I felt it.”
“Nothing hit your bed, Johnny.” With a heavy sigh, Murdoch made an exaggerated production of dropping to his knees and looking under the bed. “Nothing but a little dust, and….” Murdoch held up a dirty sock. “I bet Teresa was looking for this on wash day.”
Johnny looked away sheepishly. He must have been half in and half out of a dream. And he had to admit the little bit of movement was awakening the pain in his ankles. Reluctantly he accepted the glass and drank down the medicine.
“Good.” Murdoch eased himself back down into the chair and picked up the book. “Now where were we?”
Johnny watched him turn the lamp light up as the shadows grew heavier, skimming the last page he’d read to find his spot.“For he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people, because the son of Atreus had dishonored Chryses his priest. Now Chryses…”
Johnny’s eyes snapped open and he shoved himself up on his elbows.
“Johnny! What are you doing?”
“You didn’t feel that?” Johnny asked in amazement. Something had hit the mattress from beneath the bed with enough force that he felt his back throbbing.
“No, I didn’t. Now, will you please lieback down like you’re supposed to?”
“If this is some kind of joke, Murdoch…” Johnny warned.
“It most certainly is not a joke. Do you see me laughing?”
Johnny allowed Murdoch to settle him back down on the bed, drawing the covers up over his shoulders and taking the time to tuck him in.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
“I know you are, Son.” Johnny felt Murdoch’s fingers combing his hair. Despite his father’s powerful hands, his touch was light and Johnny didn’t flinch. Normally he hated to be fussed over. But tonight…tonight he needed the closeness. He just couldn’t tell his father how unnerved he really felt. “A little more Homer?”
Johnny nodded. “A little.” Truth be told, he needed to hear his father’s voice. The heaviness in the room was getting worse. He could feel it in his lungs as he breathed in and out. Why couldn’t Murdoch feel it?
Sitting back down, Murdoch found his page and began reading again.
“Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the scepter of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath…”
Murdoch’s voice faded away and Johnny looked over to see his father’s chin slowly come to rest on his chest. The heavy book would have slid off his lap if his huge hand hadn’t been lying across the page he was reading. Debating whether to wake him or let him get some rest, Johnny decided to let him sleep. He knew his father wouldn’t get much sleep tonight anyway. It was amazing how he could worry. Was it because he had so many years to catch up on? Or was this just what a father did?
Despite the heaviness in the air and the bumps beneath his bed, Johnny slowly let his heavy eyelids slide shut. It was just his imagination. There was no other explanation.
He was almost asleep when the bed rocked so violently that he had to dig his fingers into the mattress to keep from being tossed onto the floor.
He snapped his eyes open. Murdoch must have heard that. But his father’s chin still rested on his chest, the sound of his soft snores the only sound in the room.
Madre de Dios! Was he going crazy? With a shaky hand he tried to reach for the lamp to raise the wick to chase away the dark shadows in the corners of his room. But the damn casts were too heavy to drag his body up to a sitting position.
“Murdoch!” he hissed. “Murdoch, wake up.”
Not even a flicker of an eyelash. Murdoch was sound asleep.
He thought about calling out to Scott, to anyone in the house. But how foolish would he look when he told them something was under his bed. It had to be what Murdoch said; just a dream. And yet he knew it wasn’t.
He levered himself up on his elbows to get a better view of his room. His room. The only room he had ever called his own. He knew every inch of it. But tonight the corners seemed darker, the outline of his dresser sinister. Even the deep brown comforter draped over the comforter stand taunted him.
He lay back down, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. It was only his imagination running wild. Like when he was a barefoot kid, believing in superstitions and fearing the local brujas. But as an adult he knew they were just stories to keep the little ones in line. But tonight…tonight he wasn’t so sure.
He just had to get through this night. It would be November first tomorrow, when everyone began preparing for the winter ahead. He thought about things that needed to be done, anything to keep his mind off the flickering shadows on the walls. The herds needed to be moved from the areas known to flood…Johnny heard a sigh, so low he strained to hear it again…check the streams for debris…a name, his name spoken close to his ear…line shacks checked and supplied for anyone caught out in a storm who needed shelter…a breath of cold air on his cheek…firewood cut and stacked before the hard rains came…Exhaustion pulled Johnny toward sleep, deeper into a black void he knew he shouldn’t enter.
Suddenly something heaved the right side of the mattress up with such force that Johnny was thrown off the bed, landing face down on the floor, his heavy casts thuddingon the carpet. His heart raced in his chest. Fear enveloped him like a shroud. He could feel it. He could taste it. He could breathe it. Something shifted beneath the bed and he turned his head. Something beckoned him toward the blackness …
Hands grabbed him and he tried to fight them off. Then more hands and anxious voices, and the softness of the mattress beneath him again. No.
“Johnny!” That was Scott. He wanted to tell him he wasn’t crazy. There was something under the bed. How else could he have landed on the floor?
“Johnny!” That was Teresa, her hands caressing his face. He didn’t want to scare her. But there was something very wrong.
“Johnny!” That was Murdoch. Was that worry or anger he heard in his voice. “What the hell was he trying to do?”
Johnny pried his eyes open. Candles were added to the lantern and his room was blessedly filled with light. Murdoch’s worried face looked down on him, and he saw the worry turn to anger.
“What kind of fool stunt was that?”
Johnny tried to reach out to grab Murdoch’s arms, but the sheet was stretched across his chest and tucked tightly beneath the mattress. “It wasn’t…I didn’t try to get out of bed, something threw me off.” Even to his own ears, it sounded preposterous.
“Johnny, you were dreaming again.” Scott leaned over him, patting him on the shoulder. He saw him look up at Murdoch. “Maybe it’s the new medicine Sam has him on. Maybe we should just give him laudanum when he needs it for the pain.”
“No!” Johnny knew if he went to sleep again, whatever was beneath the bed would claim him the next time. How could he make a crazy thing sound rational? How could he convince them when he wasn’t sure himself? But he did know his life depended on him staying awake.
Something nudged the mattress beneath him just to tell him it was still there.
“I’ll have one of the men ride into town and get Sam first thing in the morning. Meanwhile,” Murdoch looked down at Johnny, “you stay perfectly still. Who knows what you did to those casts. And if it will make you feel any better, both Scott and I will stay with you tonight.”
Johnny’s anger rose. He didn’t like being patronized. “Just leave me alone,” he snapped. “I ain’t going nowhere trussed up like this.” What was he saying? He wanted them to stay. He didn’t want to be alone, not with…with what? His imagination going crazy?
He needed his gun. No matter what…he needed his gun. But that’s the last thing they would give to a crazy man. Was he crazy? The thought scared him even more. Only crazy people felt things beneath their bed.
“No one is leaving you alone, Johnny,” Scott said. “We think that new medicine Sam gave you might be giving you nightmares. It happens sometimes.”
Murdoch reached down and brushed the back of his hand over Johnny’s cheek. As much as he wanted to move away, Johnny felt compelled to feel his father’s touch. Dios! He was losing his mind.
“Teresa and I will be downstairs if you need anything. I’m sure Scott won’t mind picking up the story where I left off.”
“Not at all, Sir,” Scott smiled. “I happen to like the Iliad very much.”
Johnny watched Teresa snuff out the candles, leaving the room in darkness beyond the light of the lamp, and follow Murdoch out the door. Scott rubbed his hands briskly along his arms. “It’s cold in here. Want me to start a fire?”
Johnny glowered at him. “It’s hard to be cold with these covers strapping me down.”
“Sorry about that, Brother, but until we have Sam take a look at you, we’re taking no chances that you’ll have another dream and fall out of bed again. I think I’ll get a warmer shirt. But I’ll back in a few minutes.”
Johnny wanted to shout out at Scott not to leave him alone. But that would just prove how crazy he really was. He could feel the sweatforming on his face. Scott opened the door and stepped into the hallway, leaving the door ajar.
Something moved beneath his bed – slowly, from the head of the mattress, past his shoulders…past his hips. He could see his legs lifted as the mattress was pushed up.
The blankets were tucked in too tight and Johnny couldn’t move. He was trapped. He heard the door click shut. No…This was just his imagination. Nothing was happening. If he willed himself not to believe, it would go away. He closed his eyes. “Go away!” he shouted silently. “Go away.”
Johnny felt something tug at the bottom of the covers. He couldn’t look. The heaviness in the air made it hard to breathe. He couldn’t look. But he had to.
A dark formless shadow rose up at the foot of his bed and hovered there.
“I’ve waited a long time, Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny froze. The voice came from inside his head.
“Who are you?” Johnny demanded, knowing he was talking to himself, yet needing answers. Was this just further proof that he was crazy?
“You don’t recognize me?”
Johnny saw the shadow take shape, coalescing into human form. It could have been anyone. But the Texas accent was unmistakable. Tyler Gates, the first man he had killed in a true gunfight. He remembered the man’s swagger, his contempt as he looked at Johnny, just a no account mixed Mexican. He’d made the Texan take back the words as he lay on the ground, bleeding from the hole in his chest.
“You surprised me, Johnny Boy. I thought you’d be with us long before this.”
Johnny closed his eyes, willing the nightmare to go away. “You’re not real.”
“You think I’m not real?” The shadow looked toward the door. “Your brother will be returning in a few minutes. Do you want me to prove how real I am?” A shadowy hand reached for Johnny’s left ankle and squeezed. The pain shot up his leg, enveloped his heart until he thought his chest would explode.
“I can make your brother suffer…for as long as I want. Do you want him to pay for your no account hide?”
“No…” Johnny gasped.
Tyler laughed, the sound echoing in Johnny’s head. “Johnny Madrid, a rich rancher’s son. Never would a believed it.”
“I go by Lancer now.” The words were out of Johnny’s mouth before he could stop them.
Cold putrid air rushed over Johnny, chilling him to the bone.
“Do you think just because you took the name of your rich daddy that makes you any better than you were? You’re still a half breed killer with a tramp for a mother.”
Anger, stronger than fear, rose up from Johnny’s gut and he lifted his head to look straight at the shadow. “At least I had a mother. I heard you were born in a pigsty with the rest of the pigs.”
The shadow shuddered, losing its form. Johnny knew he had said too much. The blanket tightened across his chest until he couldn’t take a breath. The putrid smell of decay filled the room. The thought that this was only a piece of the hell he was heading for scared him beyond measure.
Slowly the blankets eased their hold on him and he gasped for air.
The shadow took form again. “Got to hand it to you, Madrid, you got cojones. I’m gonna like having you around.”
“Where the worst of humanity ends up. You must have known that we would be waiting.”
Suddenly the doorknob turned. Scott!
“You want your brother to join us?” Tyler taunted.
“No. Leave him be, he’s got nothing to do with this.”
“Johnny? Why is this door locked?” Scott demanded from the other side of the door. “Johnny?”
“He could take your place, you know. One word from you and we take him.”
“It’s an offer I won’t give again. You could die an old man. Once your daddy passes on, all this could be yours. Think about it, Johnny Boy.”
Fear of the unknown nearly paralyzed Johnny, but Scott and Murdoch were the only real good things to happen to him in his life. They were worth everything to him. Worth giving up everything, including himself.
“Think about it, Madrid.”
“I don’t have to think about it.”
“Then you’ll come with me, willingly?”
“You’ve got to say it, Johnny Boy. You’ve got to say it out loud. Will you come with me willingly?”
The words stuck in his throat. He was going to hell, but wasn’t that where he was always headed? “I’ll come willingly.”
Tyler’s shadowy hand reached out again and Johnny could feel his leg begin to sink into the mattress.
“No!” Absolute fear engulfed Johnny.
“I can’t take you, Johnny. You have to come with me freely.”
The doorknob rattled.
“I can still take Scott.”
“Leave Scott alone.”
“I gotta bring someone back with me. How about your father, or that pretty little thing? Teresa right?”
“Then what will it be? I gotta know now.”
Johnny felt his other leg began to sink. Was this how it felt to die? No, this was not just death…this was the way to hell. There was no one else in this house who deserved hell like he did. Johnny always knew he would have to pay for his sins. But he thought he’d done enough. That he had turned his life around in time.
“Leave my family alone.”
“Are you sure, Johnny Madrid? You will never return.”
Scott knocked on the door. “Johnny…Johnny are you alright?”
Johnny looked from the door to the shadow. “I’m sure. Just leave my family alone.”
Tyler Gates’ laughed filled the room. “It’s time then.”
The shadowy form lost its shape and began to spread. It slowly covered the bed like a blanket and Johnny felt himself sinking deeper into the mattress, a coldness seeping into his blood, moving through hisbody, replacing life with death. There was no more air to breathe. The lantern light drifted away…Dios! No…
Something grabbed his wrist and stopped him from sinking.
“He isn’t the man you want.” A woman’s voice filled Johnny’s head. “You want Johnny Madrid. This is Johnny Lancer.”
“He belongs in hell for what he did to me.”
“That was another man. Mi hijo has chosen another path.”
“He is mine!”
Johnny felt Tyler wrap his arm around his waist, pulling him down deeper into the blackness. His heart grew colder, slowing almost to a stop.
The hand around his wrist tightened. “I will not let you take him.”
“Doesn’t matter what you want. He agreed.”
Another hand suddenly wrapped around his other wrist and he was pulled up toward the lantern light. Tyler pulled him back down. His body was growing weaker, his blood, cold as ice, was coursing toward his heart.
“I am proud of you, my son, for what you have done. You’ve made a good life despite my foolishness. Fight for me, hijo. Fight for your father and your brother and everyone else who loves Johnny Lancer. I beg of you, don’t give up.”
“The slut can’t help you now, Madrid. She gave up that right years ago.”
The hands around his wrists faltered and Johnny sank deeper into the black void. He heard the cries of lost souls beneath him. Icy fingers curled around his legs, drawing him deeper.
“No! You cannothave him,” his mama screamed, his wristsslipping through her hands.
“He’s already mine. You gave him up.”
“Noooooo!” The scream pierced through the darkness and Johnny saw the distant flicker of light high above him.
“You’re not strong enough, bitch!”
“Fight, Johnny. Everyone is here for you.”
More hands grabbed his arms, warm and strong, stopping the ice cold blood from silencing his heart. Tyler’s arm weakened around his waist, his fingernails clawing across Johnny’s belly, refusing to relinquish his hold. The scream of lost souls raged below him.
Johnny heard his mama’s voice drowning out all other sound. He was being pulled up, the lantern light growing brighter.
More hands pulled him toward the light. The mattress felt solid beneath his back again.
“Mi hijo,” his mother whispered.
“Hush, Johnny. You are safe now. Your papa is a good man. I was wrong to take you from him. Perhaps now I can be at peace.”
Johnny felt the soft touch of her lips on his forehead and he felt the tears well up in his eyes. “Don’t go,” he whispered.
“I must. Know that I go to a better place now, because of you. I will be waiting when you are old and have many grandchildren. Go with God, mi hijo. I love you.”
“I love you,” he whispered back.
Voices he recognized floated around him and he drifted toward a safe and warm sleep.
“Welcome back, brother,” Scott said. “You gave us all quite a scare.”
“That you did, young man.” Sam squeezed his way between the bed and Scott, reaching for Johnny’s wrist. “But I believe the worst is over.”
Murdoch moved into view. He looked so tired. Johnny wanted to ask what had happened, but he didn’t have the strength to utter even one word.
Seeming to know what Johnny wanted, he brushed the hair from Johnny’s forehead. “That cold you ignored for the past week turned on you. You had quite a fever. If Sam had not been here…” Murdoch’s voice faltered.
Johnny looked at him, confused. “I…I didn’t…off the roof?”
“You mean fall off the roof?” Scott chuckled. “Even you would have sense enough to stay off the roof in weather like this.”
Sam leaned in and lifted Johnny’s eyelids one at a time. “No, my boy, you didn’t fall off the roof and you didn’t break your ankles. You’re just a little confused right now. Everything will make sense in no time.”
Johnny tried to reach for Murdoch’s hand and his father took it. “Mama…she…she saved me.”
“I know, Son.” Murdoch squeezed his hand. “You called her name while you were delirious.”
She’s in…in a …good place now.”
“I’m sure she is.” Murdoch smiled.
“How about you?” Sam asked. “How do you feel?”
Johnny was only aware of one thing bothering him. “My…my stomach burns…”
“Your stomach, huh? Well let’s take a look.” Sam pulled the covers down and lifted Johnny’s nightshirt.
“Sam, I don’t understand.” Scott’s voice faltered. “Where did those scratches come from? They weren’t there this morning and Johnny couldn’t have done this to himself.”
“What in heaven’s name…?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny grimaced. “Heaven ain’t got nothing to do with it.”
Happy Halloween 2008
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