Thanks to KC and Maureen for their betas.
Word count: 35,790
Jelly carefully closed the kitchen door behind him and manoeuvred his way through the dark kitchen. He passed by the great room, the warmth from the fire easing the ache in his old bones. The October nights had turned cold earlier than usual. Even the horse troughs had a coating of ice on them in the mornings. He shuttered at the thought, bringing to mind the bottle of Murdoch’s fine whisky sitting on the table near the fire, just waiting for him to ‘inspect’, but there were other more important things to think about tonight. He creeped up the staircase to the second floor and counted doors until he came to the door he wanted.
Ever so cautiously, he entered the room, tiptoeing over to the bed. Johnny lay beneath a mound of blankets, his breathing soft and even. Jelly could remember a time when he could never have gotten this far into Johnny’s room without the boy startling awake, ready to pump a slug into his heart. But time and the love of family had eased Johnny’s mind, and for the first time in his life he began to sleep soundly, knowing he was safe. But just in case old habits didn’t die hard, Jelly eased the gun from the holster slung over the headboard before leaning down over Johnny’s ear and whispering, “Johnny, wake up.”
Johnny startled awake, reaching for his gun.
“It’s me!” Jelly hissed, grabbing Johnny’s arm.
“What the …”
“Shsss….keep your voice down. I want ya ta come with me.”
Johnny yanked his arm free from Jelly’s grip and sat up, looking around the room, still muddled from sleep. “What time is it?”
“I said, keep your voice down,” Jelly hissed. “It’s just past two. Come on an’ get dressed. I got ta show ya somethin’”
“Can’t it wait ‘til morning?”
“No it cain’t.” Jelly jutted out his chin. “Now are you comin’ easy like, or do I have ta drag yer sorry rear end outta that bed?”
Johnny grabbed his gun from Jelly’s hand and slid it back in its holster. “What’s this all about, Jelly?”
“I’ll tell ya when we get outside.”
“Outside? Jelly it’s freezing out there.”
“Sure is,” Jelly snapped, snatching Johnny’s shirt and pants from the floor and dumping them in his lap. “Get yerself dressed unless ya want ta prance around neked as a jay bird. Now hurry up, we ain’t got all night.”
Johnny dressed quickly and grabbed his gunbelt and jacket. He followed Jelly down the hallway to the door leading to the outside stairs when he suddenly remembered the squeak in the top hinge. He tapped the old man on the shoulder and motioned for him to take the inside stairs leading to the kitchen. Jelly nodded, the moonlight shining in through the window in the door highlighting his grin. The old codger was enjoying himself, Johnny thought.
They made their way to the stables and Johnny was surprised to see Barranca already saddled and waiting impatiently.
“You gonna tell me what’s going on?” Johnny asked, again surprised to see burlap sacks wrapped around the hoofs of their two horses.
“Cain’t tell ya. Ya gotta see fer yerself. Now, come on, I wanna be back before anyone wakes up.”
Johnny shrugged his shoulders and followed Jelly out of the stable. He was wide awake now and he might as well see what that old handy man thought he found. Knowing Jelly, it could have been anything.
Once they had walked the horses far enough away from the house not to alert anyone, Jelly untied the burlaps sacks and waited until Johnny did the same for Barranca and then headed north toward the hills.
There was only a half moon, but there was enough light for Jelly to lead them unerringly toward a thicket of apple trees, their leafless branches gnarled and twisted in the moonlight. Johnny had the uncomfortable feeling that those limbs could come to life at any second and wrap themselves around anything or anyone who was foolish enough to get too close.
“Dios,” Johnny muttered to himself, he must still be half asleep if he let thoughts like that play with his mind.
The temperature had dropped steadily as they climbed higher into the hills. Johnny patted his arms trying to warm himself in the cold night air. It seemed colder than it should be, seeping into his bones. “Jelly, you mind telling me where we’re goin?” he called. “Cause if you ain’t, I’m heading back. I’m cold and I’m tired and I don’t want to play your game anymore.”
“It ain’t no game, Johnny, believe me. Now quit yer bellyachin’, we’ll be there soon enough.”
Another fifteen minutes and Jelly pulled to a stop. Johnny watched the old man, his shoulders sagging and his chin nesting on his chest.
Alarmed, Johnny sided up against Jelly’s horse and grabbed Jelly’s arm gently. “You all right, Jelly?”
Jelly nodded, sighing deeply. “Just wonderin’ if I’m doin’ the right thing showin’ this to ya. I was all excited at first, but now…I just don’t know.”
“What is it?”
Jelly shook his head.
“Is it around here somewhere?”
Jelly’s reluctance to answer told Johnny that is was.
Curiosity got the better of Johnny and he climbed down, his feet crunching too loudly on the brittle twigs and branches covering the ground. A strong breeze picked up, sweeping the dead leaves against the darkened tree trunks. Johnny had spent many a night on the trail, most of the time with only a horse for company. But he couldn’t remember ever feeling as edgy as he did here. There was something in the air, something he couldn’t quite grasp that licked at his skin and sent shivers down his spine.
He was about to turn back to Jelly when something shiny caught his eye, then winked out. “What was that?” he asked, approaching a dark object nestled beneath a tree a few feet from him. In the darkness he couldn’t tell what it was until he was nearly on top of it.
Jelly stayed his ground. “I changed my mind, Johnny,” he said. “Git back up on your horse and let’s get out a here. This place ain’t fit fer man or beast.”
Johnny looked down at an old chest, sunk mid way into the ground and surrounded by dead leaves. He searched in his pocket for a match and lit it, cupping his hand over the flame to protect it from the wind. In the faint light Johnny could see the trunk was old, the metal straps crisscrossing the top and the hinges rusted. The match burned down to his fingers and he cursed as he instinctively dropped it into the dry leaves. He quickly kicked the leaves away before they could catch fire and lit another one.
“Johnny, come on. I’m cold. You kin come back tomorrow when it’s light an’ see what that thing is.”
Johnny crouched down and fingered the old rusted padlock on the lid and noticed there was a circle of bright unrusted metal in the center of the lock.
“You opened this Jelly?”
“Ain’t nothin’ ta see. Now let’s go.”
“It was enough to wake me up in the middle of the night.” Johnny pulled the lock and felt it snap open.
“I ain’t foolin’ ‘bout this now, Johnny, we got ta get out of here. Somethin’ ain’t right…”
Johnny nodded, he felt it too. Since they rode up…but he felt an overpowering urge to see what was inside. He pulled the padlock free of the lock and set his hands on the lid.
Suddenly he felt overwhelmingly tired, as if his strength ran out through his fingertips. He sank to his knees and his arms dropped to his side. He heard Jelly’s alarmed voice behind him but could not respond. He felt on the verge of passing out, but still he had to know what was inside.
Then Jelly was by his side, stamping out the match he had dropped. “Come on.” He heard Jelly say, the old man wrapping his arms around his chest and grunting in an effort to lift him.
“Open it,” he whispered, trying to push Jelly’s surprisingly strong arms away.
“We’re getting’ out of here right now, boy.”
“Open it,” Johnny demanded. “Or I ain’t leaving.”
“Of all the fool, pig headed…” Jelly shook his head and leaned over to once again open the chest.
“Oh no…” Jelly gasped.
The stench of death and decay spilled from the chest. Johnny reared back, the smell assaulting his nose and his stomach.
Jelly stood up slowly, his eyes locked on the empty chest. “It…it was here this afternoon…” he said, his voice wavering. “I seen it.”
“Seen what?” Johnny raised a shaky hand to his face and covered his nose and mouth.
“Oh Lordy…I don’t like this. I don’t like this a’tall. There was a skeleton in this chest…clean and shiny as Teresa’s special bone china. And it was holding a knife. Not any knife mind ya…it was like one of them knives Scott showed us in his book. That pirate book. It had a ivory handle and stones set in ta it. It was as beautiful a knife as I ever saw.”
“You sure you weren’t drinking some of your own ‘coctions?”
“No, I weren’t drinkin’ none of my ‘coctions. It was here, Johnny. I swear it. Just like I’m standing here lookin’ at you…I was standin’ here lookin’ at that skeleton.”
“You think this skeleton of yours just climbed out of here and walked off?” Johnny snickered. But in truth he found no levity. Something was wrong here.
“No I don’t think that,” Jelly snapped. “I just know something’ ain’t right.”
“Well, there’s nothing more we can do tonight.” Johnny struggled to his feet. He felt stronger then he had, but still too weak. Maybe he was coming down with something. Maybe all this was some kind of hallucination brought on by a fever. Maybe he would wake up in the morning with Teresa or Scott hovering over him…Never before had he wished to be sick. “We can come back tomorrow in the light,” Johnny promised. “Somebody else probably found it. If they did we’ll see the tracks and that will be it.”
Jelly backed up toward his horse, not taking his eyes off the chest. “Ya, that’s what probably happened.”
It took Johnny three tries to launch himself into the saddle. On the fourth try he had to sit and wait for the dizziness to stop, and prayed that he wouldn’t fall out of the saddle. He didn’t think he could make it a fifth time.
Slowly he nudged Barranca into an easy walk, and Jelly followed…turning back until the trees merged into the blackness of night.
“Hey, you planning on sleeping all day, or are you going to put some work in too?”
Johnny opened his eyes and saw the concerned look on Scott’s face. “It’s past noon, brother,” he informed him. “You’ve got Murdoch ready to haul Sam out here.”
Johnny took a deep breath…relieved. It was all just a dream. He was sick and it was all a nightmare brought on by fever…the early morning ride, the chest, the missing skeleton…but he didn’t feel overly hot, or headachy or any of the other things he felt when he awoke from a fever…just incredibly tired, as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. “I’m just dead tired. I’ll be up in…”
“Stay there.” Scott smiled looking back toward the door as it opened. Teresa walked in carrying a tray. “I just woke you so you could eat something, then you can go back to sleep.”
“How long have I been sick?”
“You feel sick?” Teresa rushed over to his bedside, feeling his forehead. “I thought you were just tired.”
“No, I’m not sick Querida, just tired like Scott said. I’ll be fine tomorrow.” Johnny closed his eyes. Damn, I wasn’t sick…it really happened. Then why am I so tired? I can barely move a muscle.
“Yes…well,” Teresa said, not entirely assured. “If you don’t feel any better by tomorrow morning Murdoch is sending for Sam. Now you eat and get some more sleep.”
Scott waited silently until Teresa finally left the room, her skirts swishing behind her. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself, brother?” Scott dragged a chair over to the bed and sat down while Johnny struggled to sit up. “That was a pretty dumb stunt you pulled last night.”
“You know what.” Scott set the tray on Johnny’s lap but he could only stare at it. He wasn’t hungry. It seemed the only thing he was, was tired. “Jelly told me all about your little hunt for treasure last night. You’ll be lucky if you don’t catch pneumonia. I can’t believe you fell for one of Jelly’s wild tales.”
Johnny lowered his eyes. “We found the chest, and…and something didn’t feel right out there. I couldn’t put my finger on it…it just…”
“You just got pulled into one of Jelly’s fantasies. It’s easy you know. It happens to everyone once in awhile. It was dark, and probably a little spooky.”
Johnny snapped his head up, his eyes flashing. “I don’t get spooked for nothing, brother. There was something out there, I don’t know what, but I aim to find out.”
“Not today you won’t,” Scott said, lifting the tray off Johnny’s lap. “You’re to stay in bed all day and rest. Murdoch’s orders. Maybe this evening if you feel up to it you can come down and meet Murdoch’s friend.”
“Didn’t Murdoch tell you?” Scott raised an inquisitive brow until he remembered that the day Murdoch had announced the arrival of Simon Dunkett, Johnny was overseeing the restocking of the line cabins along the north boundaries and had been gone for most of the week. “Simon Dunkett, he’s an old friend of Murdoch’s. I guess they first met when Murdoch landed in Boston after leaving Inverness. They’ve kept in touch all these years and this will be the first time they’ve seen each other since Murdoch left Boston. He’s supposed to be here sometime this afternoon. He’s going to spend a few days here on his way to San Francisco.”
“Well maybe it’s a good thing I’m tired today.” Johnny slipped down under the covers again and turned on his side. “It’ll be a lot easier for Murdoch to entertain his friend if I’m not around.”
“Johnny, that’s not true and you know it. You’re just being surly because you’re tired. Get some sleep. Jelly and I are going out and see if we can find that chest.” He hesitated at the door before grinning broadly. “I can’t wait to see what spooked two grown men, especially Johnny Madrid.”
Johnny’s voice turned cold as he looked back toward Scott. “There isn’t always an answer for everything, Boston. Some things you just have to accept and walk away. You stay alive that way.”
Scott sat beside a silent Jelly Hoskins. That in itself seemed unsettling. There were very few times when Jelly didn’t have something to say about just about everything. Today he seemed lost in his own thoughts. The old handyman was not happy when Scott told him they were going to take the buckboard to the spot where he and Johnny had supposedly spotted the chest last night. After thinking about it the rest of the night, Jelly was of a mind to let it be. There was something unearthly about that chest, and it was best left alone.
But Scott was determined to prove that there was nothing unusual about the chest, except perhaps its age, if it was indeed as old as Johnny and Jelly thought it was.
Jelly pulled the team to a stop and Scott looked at a stand of apple tress, the ground beneath them covered in a blanket of dead leaves. Scott had to admit that the tree trunks looked strange, gnarled and twisted as if some force had contorted them as they grew. He could only imagine what they looked like at night, lit by the meager light of a quarter moon.
“I never noticed this stand of trees before,” Scott admitted. They were not that far from the house; he was sure he would have noticed them before this. But he had to admit that imagination was a powerful thing and Jelly and Johnny had him off center just enough that the usual became unusual and took on a sinister slant.
“Me neither. That’s how come I decided ta check ‘em out and found…”
Scott smiled weakly. He was letting Jelly’s over ripe imagination get the better of him. And still, he had to admit that he did not feel comfortable here. “Let’s see about this chest, if there is one.”
“Oh, there is one,” Jelly said emphatically. “Ya just wait. An I’ll tell ya…it’ll turn yer knees ta wobbling.”
Jelly clicked his tongue and the wagon moved closer to the trees.
Even though it was late afternoon and the sun was still bathing the valley in the last vestiges of warm days before the full onslaught of fall, Scott couldn’t deny that the air felt considerably colder here. He wrapped his arms around his chest and wished he had a coat. But who would think they would need a coat this early in the day. He shivered at the thought that it must have been near freezing last night when Johnny and Jelly were here.
As they drew closer to the trees he saw the horses began to lag back. Jelly coaxed them on a few more steps then called a halt. The old handyman jutted his chin out triumphantly as he pointed to the old chest buried amid a blanket of dead leaves.
Scott wasn’t sure if he was truly seeing what he thought he saw. A cold shiver went down his spine despite the surge of curiosity that led him off the wagon like a moth to a flame.
It was every bit as old as Jelly said. Perhaps even older. The intricately carved lid was dry and splitting from age. The iron straps encircling both ends of the chest were rusted and pulling back from the rotting wood. An iron latch in front seemed to be the most solid part of the box. As he walked closer he felt an odd lethargy spill over him. “What’s inside?” he asked.
“Nothin’ now,” came the clipped answer.
Scott looked back to see Jelly sitting stiff as a board on the wagon seat, his eyes glued to the chest.
“What was in it?”
Jelly shook his head. “Ain’t nothin’ important.”
“What was in it, Jelly?”
“When I opened it yesterday afternoon it had a skeleton holdin’ one of them old knives you got pictures of in yer books. But when we got here last night an’ Johnny opened it…it was empty.”
“One of the hands must have found it. I wonder why anyone would take just the skeleton?”
“And the knife,” Jelly added.
Scott stared at the chest. “Are you sure there’s nothing else in there?”
“Cain’t be certain, it was dark last night…but there sure weren’t no skeleton.”
Scott took a few steps closer and Jelly’s warning voice stopped him in his tracks. ”Johnny opened it last night and now look at ‘em. He was still in bed when we left.”
“Are you trying to say that Johnny is sick because he opened this chest, Jelly?”
“All I’m sayin’ is I don’t know, I don’t want ta be knowin’. Let’s go back home. Someone else kin find it and…”
“You’re letting your imagination get the better of you, Jelly.”
Scott leaned down and brushed his fingers over the old wood. It felt so cold to the touch that it stung his fingers. He saw the padlock lying on the ground and the latch pulled up where Johnny had opened it. Taking a deep breath he lifted the lid. Stale air washed over him and he felt a moment of dizziness, but it passed so quickly that he chalked it up to nerves.
“Anythin’?” Jelly asked nervously.
A layer of white sand dusted the bottom but nothing else. “No, it’s empty.” Scott reluctantly closed the lid and looked back at Jelly. “Help me lift it into the wagon. We’ll store it in the barn until we figure out what to do with it.”
“Oh no…you ain’t gonna get me ta touch that thing again.”
“Come on, Jelly, don’t be ridiculous, it’s just an old empty box.”
“It’s more ‘in that, Scott. Leave it be. Somethin’ like that should be left alone.”
Scott lifted the iron handle on the side and tested the weight. “Come on, Jelly, this thing weighs a ton. You want me to have to drag Murdoch out here? Because one way or the other I’m getting this back to the ranch. This could be worth a fortune.”
“If it’s as old as I think it is…yes. To the right collector it could be worth thousands of dollars.”
Jelly perked up. “An’ I found it first.”
Scott nodded. “Yes. Now help me.”
Jelly jumped own off the wagon, but even the prospect of the money didn’t dispel the uneasiness he felt as he got closer to the chest. “I’m thinkin’,” Jelly said. “Money or no money, this is a bad mistake.”
Scott draped a blanket over the chest and with Jelly’s help set a bale of hay on top of it and in front. “That should do it.” Scott stood back and made sure the chest wasn’t visible from any angle. “We’ll keep this to ourselves until I’ve had a chance to do some research.”
“I don’t like it, Scott. I don’t like it atall. That thing should a not be here. Somethin’s not right about it. It gives me the willies.”
“Everything gives you the willies, Jelly.”
“And what about Johnny?”
“What about him?”
“He’s up in his room too tired to lift a finger, all a count of goin’ out ta see that chest.”
“He probably caught something last night. It must have been freezing out there. I’m sure Johnny is going to be just fine. I’m going to go talk to him in a few minutes, tell him what we’ve done.”
“Where do ya think it came from, Scott?”
“I’m sure it was originally from a galleon…an old ship from the 16th century.”
“Ya mean it could a belonged to a pirate?”
“Maybe. And if we’re lucky we might even find out who originally owned it.”
“How ya gonna do that?”
“There are books that have detailed descriptions of the cargo those ships carried. This chest has some distinctive woodworking in the lid.”
“And the skeleton?”
Scott snorted. “I’ll leave the skeleton to you, Jelly. If one of the hands found it they’re bound to start boasting. Keep your ears open. Unless of course it walked away on its own.”
“That ain’t funny, Scott Lancer.” Jelly harrumphed.
Murdoch slipped out of Johnny’s room. His son was sleeping soundly…too soundly. He had been asleep throughout the entire day, something that was very worrisome. Murdoch would give him the night, and if he was not feeling like himself by the morning he would call for Sam.
He knew that Johnny and Jelly had gone out on some early morning expedition, but so far Jelly had been able to avoid him. Sooner or later he would get to the bottom of it. But for now he had a guest who would be arriving at any moment.
Of all the times for Simon Dunkett to make an appearance. He hadn’t laid eyes on the man for twenty seven years. Not since they had met in the back alley of the Sea Dragon Saloon on the seedy side of Boston’s Port- of -Call. If not for Simon Dunkett he would have been shanghaied and spent the next six months on a ship to the Orient.
Murdoch smiled at the memory of the slight red haired man. Murdoch towered over him in height and bested him by seventy pounds in weight. But Simon was a scrapper and between the two of them the would- be kidnappers had fled in fear.
They had kept up a correspondence, two letters a year ever since. Murdoch wrote of the new land he found out west and of his marriage to Catherine and her tragic death. He had often told Simon more than he had any other human being…his despair at not having Scott with him, his devastating loss of Johnny.
In turn Simon had wrote of a burgeoning career as a columnist at the Boston Herald. Soon he was branching off from journalism into writing novels. When Murdoch received Simon’s first published book “The Endeavors of a Wayward Man”, he was both amazed and delighted by his friend’s talent. More books followed. One a year. Then he seemed to drop out of sight. The last letter was four years ago and then the sudden announcement that he would stop on his way to San Francisco if Murdoch would have him. Murdoch replied immediately, chastising his old friend for even thinking that he would not be welcome.
He just wished Johnny was feeling better so he could introduce his entire family at dinner tonight.
He was pulled from his reverie by the sound of a wagon downstairs in the courtyard. He made it to the back door window just in time to see Scott and Jelly pull the buckboard into the barn and then closed the doors behind them. Curious, he was about to head for the barn when he saw yet another wagon drive beneath the Lancer arch.
It took him a moment to realize that the rather copious man sitting beside Ernie, Morro Coyo’s stable boy, was Simon Dunkett. The dead give-away was the bushy red hair.
He made it downstairs as quickly as he could with his aching leg. For some reason the pain in his back and leg seemed to come to life today with a vengeance. He noticed it as he walked into Johnny’s room.
“Simon!” he called, waiting for Ernie to pull the wagon to a stop in front of the hacienda. “It’s good to see you. How many years has it been?”
“Too many,” Simon huffed as he climbed down from the wagon, his face reddened by heat and exertion. “When this young fellow here told me it was only a few miles from town to your ranch I had no idea a few miles was half way across the state of California.”
Murdoch laughed, shaking hands warmly. “Actually Morro Coyo is the closest town to Lancer. When you have traveled it enough times it does seem to be close. Now, why don’t you come inside, it’s much cooler in the hacienda. A glass of cold lemonade waiting for you, or if you wish I have something a bit more substantial.”
“I will take the lemonade now and gratefully accept the more substantial a little later.”
“Lemonade it is then.” Murdoch took note of the half dozen suitcases and bags in the back of the wagon. “I’ll have someone bring your bags…” Just then Scott and Jelly walked out of the barn. “Scott, Jelly…come over here I have someone I want you to meet.”
“You must be Simon Dunkett.” Scott offered his hand. “Scott Lancer. Murdoch was quite anxious to see you again after all these years.”
Simon looked from Scott to Murdoch in confusion.
“Yes, he is my son Scott,” Murdoch announced proudly. “He and Johnny both came back to me about three years ago.”
“Johnny too? You found Johnny?”
Murdoch nodded. “We all have an equal share in Lancer now.”
“Well I am very happy for you, Murdoch. I really thought you were throwing your money away paying those Pinkerton men. But…”
“It paid off for both my boys. Now why don’t we get inside where it’s cooler and we can do some serious recollecting.”
Johnny couldn’t figure out why he felt so cold. And it wasn’t just a surface cold, it seemed to be chilling the very marrow of him. And it was colder now. As if someone had opened a door letting in the frigid air. He tugged the covers up around his neck and scrunched deeper into the mattress, pulling the pillow down with him. He knew he should be up, he had spent the entire day lying here…but he felt like he was still too tired to move a muscle. And suddenly he froze. There was someone in his room. He felt the hairs on his arms and neck stand straight up. He lay perfectly still not changing his breathing, just waiting. And the intruder waited too.
Johnny had never lost the instinct to listen, to feel, to catalog everything he saw and heard. As Johnny Madrid it had saved his life more than once. He took pride in the fact that he could tell when Murdoch was near, or Scott or Jelly. He could recognize them by their breathing, their foot falls…even the shampoo they used on their hair.
But he didn’t recognize anything now…he waited and heard the faintest of sounds…it was moving nearer to the bed…a musty dank smell filled his nostrils and he fought back a sneeze that tickled his nose. A current of air moved, just a wisp, telling him that something was hovering over him.
Fear gripped him…pulled him into its grasp. Logic screamed at him to open his eyes, to see what it was that was standing so close to him now that he could feel the air around him throbbing with its presence.
“Madre de Dios, please make it go away,” he prayed.
He laid there for what seemed like an eternity. Common sense finally overcame baseless fear and he opened his eyes.
His room was bathed in deep shadows as day had turned to dusk. It would be dark soon and he felt an uncontrollable fear of the coming night. He searched the room with his eyes, still too scared to move. This unabashed fear frightened him. He never let fear control him…he controlled it. That’s why he could face a man in the street, why he lived when others died.
Slowly he sat up, his eyes piercing into every shadow in the room. It was empty. It had been a dream, the end of a nightmare. He ran his hand through his hair and noticed he was shaking. This had to stop. He threw the covers off and swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up.
Overwhelming fatigue robbed him of his physical strength and he felt himself spiraling to the floor, unconscious before he hit the ground.
He didn’t notice the line of white sand that trailed from the window to his bed.
“I can’t believe you found Johnny after all these years,” Simon said as he passed the bowl of mashed potatoes to Scott “You know I kept an eye on you, Scott, as you grew up.”
Scott froze with a serving spoon of potatoes in his hand. “Sir?”
“I lived in Boston so I make it a point of stopping by and seeing your grandfather from time to time on the pretext that it was business. He didn’t know I knew your father of course.”
“I had no idea.”
“I know.” Simon grinned, his round cheeks turning ruddier. “Your grandfather is a mastermind in business…I’m sure you have been a great asset to your father.”
“That he has.” Murdoch glanced at Scott and nodded imperceptibly. “He’s bright but not conceited. He is just as willing to learn as to teach.”
Scott bowed his head and realized he was doing the same thing he always called Johnny on.
“And Johnny…I thought for sure you would not set eyes on that boy again. By the way, where is he? I would like to meet him.”
“He’s upstairs in his room. He’s feeling a little under the weather. I’m sure he’ll be fine by morning.”
“I hope it is nothing serious.”
“So do I.”
“So tell me, what is he like? What has he been doing all these years?”
“That’s a long story, Simon, one that would be better told over something stronger than coffee.”
Simon chuckled. “That something more substantial you promised me this afternoon. I look forward to it.”
“And what have you been doing with yourself, Simon?” Murdoch watched with surprise as Simon refilled his plate with another heaping serving of everything.
”Murdoch, you must tell your cook that she is has prepared an excellent dinner, one of the best I have had in a long time.”
“Maria will be happy to hear that. Now tell us, what have you been up to the last four years.”
“Ah…another story best old over a good glass of bourbon. I can tell you that…”
A sudden loud bang from upstairs drew everyone’s eyes toward the ceiling.
“Johnny…?” Scott whispered.
Murdoch was right behind Scott, taking two steps at a time. Simon followed as best he could, panting as he hit the landing after Scott and Murdoch had already disappeared into a room down the hallway.
Scott spotted Johnny struggling to his knees, grabbing onto the loose blankets hanging over the side of the bed and falling back again.
“Hey, what happened?” Scott tried to wrap his arms around Johnny’s chest to lift him but his brother flayed wildly.
“Leave me alone.” Johnny’s voice sounded desperate.
“It’s ok, Johnny, you were just having a nightmare.”
“Leave me alone!” Johnny tried to lunge for his gun belt draped over the headboard.
“No!” Scott pulled him back. He could feel how cold his brother’s bare chest felt. “Take it easy. It’s just a dream.”
Murdoch grabbed a blanket and leaned over both of his sons, wrapping the blanket around Johnny. “Why is it so cold in here?” he asked, seeing the bluish tinge to Johnny’s skin.
Simon stood in the doorway watching the scene play out. He took an involuntary step back into the hallway…the room did seem unnaturally cold. “Bring him downstairs next to the fire,” he said, stepping aside as Scott and Murdoch pulled Johnny up between them and guided him out of the room. Simon closed the door behind him and mumbled a prayer he had not thought of in years.
“Thanks…” Johnny handed the empty crystal tumbler back to Murdoch, feeling the fiery bourbon settling in his stomach. He shivered and moved a little closer to the roaring fire. He thought he would never again feel truly warm. Scott had brought down his shirt and pants and an extra pair of socks, and now he looked sheepishly around at the worried faces that huddled near him. “Sorry,” he said. “I guess that was some nightmare.”
Scott nodded, his concern still etched deep in his face. “You’ll have to tell us about it someday.”
“Ain’t nothing to tell. I can’t remember anything except…” Johnny’s face turned dark. “Except being scared. More scared than I’ve ever been before.”
“Well, it seemed like more than a nightmare to me,” Murdoch decided. “I think Sam should have a look at you in the morning.”
“No need.” Johnny smiled. “I feel better all ready. In fact I…” Johnny noticed Simon Dunkett sitting on the couch behind Murdoch and Scott. “We got company?” he asked, his voice suddenly cold.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.” Murdoch moved aside so Simon was in Johnny’s full view. “You were asleep when Simon arrived this afternoon and in all the excitement…”
Simon stood up, offering his hand. “I am on old, old friend of your father’s. Simon Dunkett.”
Johnny shook his hand and was impressed by the strength and assuredness of the handshake. “Sorry for all the commotion.”
“Nonsense, boy. Things like this happen. Dreams can be powerful things.”
Johnny nodded. “Can be.”
Simon smiled. “You know, sometimes the best sleep a man can get is sitting in front of a roaring fire with family close at hand.”
Johnny wasn’t sure what to say to this stranger. He seemed to know how much he needed to rest, and how afraid he was to return to his room. This nightmare had been all too real.
“In fact,” Scott said, pulling Johnny to his feet. “I know from personal experience how comfortable this couch is for sleeping. You still look like you could use a good night’s sleep.”
Johnny allowed Scott to settle him on the couch, the nagging feeling of fear left over from the dream slowly melting away. He would sleep for a few hours than be ready for a full day in the morning.
“Good night, son,” Murdoch called, motioning Simon to follow him out of the great room. He knew that Scott would sit vigil over Johnny until he was certain his brother was sleeping peacefully. He wondered idly if he would get any sleep himself tonight. Johnny’s nightmare had unnerved him more than he would care to admit even to himself.
Johnny felt himself drifting away into a contented sleep…
The scream ripped through the house and Johnny shot to his feet, confused at first as to where he was. Then he saw the last embers of the fire in the fireplace and Scott’s wide eyes staring at him from the chair facing the couch.
The scream had come from the kitchen, from Maria.
Johnny raced for the kitchen in stockinged feet, Scott right on his heels.
He skidded to a stop on the tiled floor…Maria stood stone still, her hands to her mouth, her eyes as round as saucers. She was staring at sacks of flour and rice that had been ripped open, their contents spread across the kitchen floor. Jars of preserves and pickled vegetables lay open, mixing with the flour and rice. Thick maple syrup dripped from a hole in the bottom of the can, slowly making its way toward a mound of dry oatmeal. Maria’s best carving knife was driven nearly to the hilt in the solid oak chopping block.
Johnny grabbed Maria and pulled her close, holding her tight as she sobbed into his shoulder. “La mal ha entrado esta casa.” (Evil has entered this house.)
“That’s nonsense. Someone must have broken in while we slept. It’s someone’s idea of a joke. Well, when I find who is responsible they won’t think this it is much of a joke.”
“No, Senor. It is advertencia – a warning. You feel it, don’t you? The cold?”
Scott nodded. “Like Johnny’s room.”
“Scott! That’s enough. That’s ridiculous and you know it. Now help Maria clean this up before Teresa gets home. News of this will be all over the estancia by noon as it is. I don’t want her scared by all this nonsense.”
“No! Por favor yo no puedo permanecer. Perdóneme patrocinador, pero hay malo aquí. Tómeme en casa.” Maria’s voice verged on hysteria. (Please I can not stay. Forgive me patron, but there is evil here. Take me home.)
Murdoch saw Johnny nod.
“Si, Senora. Johnny, will you see that Maria gets home safely?”
Johnny nodded, carefully guiding Maria out of the kitchen.
“Usted debe salir también,” she implored. “There es mucha mal aquí. Devorará su Alma.” (You must leave also. There is much evil here. It will devour your soul.)
They listened as Johnny spoke soothingly to Maria until his voice was lost in the silence that hovered over the kitchen.
“You might do well to listen to her,” Simon said softly.
Johnny returned a few minutes later assuring Murdoch that he had found someone to escort Maria home safely.
The old grandfather clock in the great room ticked away the minutes, too loud in the silence that surrounded the four men as they looked at the wanton vandalism before them.
“Why?” Scott asked, his voice husky with rage. “Why would someone do this?”
“You two didn’t hear anything this morning?” Murdoch asked. He knew that Johnny, under most circumstances, was a light sleeper. Fatigued as he was, he might have slept through it…But what about Scott? He had slept in the chair next to Johnny…surely he would have heard something like this.
Scott shook his head. “I didn’t hear anything until Maria screamed.”
Johnny glanced at Simon who stood at Murdoch’s side. No one knew anything about him other than he was Murdoch’s friend. A friend who had disappeared for several years. Scott didn’t miss the look and shook his head imperceptibly. This was not the time.
“What are we going to tell Teresa?” Johnny asked instead. “She’s gonna want to know where all her food went. And…” Johnny’s eyes were drawn to the knife embedded in the butcher’s block, “what are we going to say about that?”
“I don’t know. But we had better get it cleaned up before she gets home. Simon, would you mind lending a hand?”
“Of course. I insist.” Simon lifted a partially empty flour sack releasing a cloud of white dust. “Such a pity. I’m sure this flour was earmarked for a delicious cake.”
“Yeah,” Johnny grumbled. “Chocolate.”
“Johnny.” Murdoch studied his son for a long moment, noting the dark circles beneath his eyes and his still haggard look. He couldn’t help but wonder if what was bothering Johnny had a connection to what happened here this morning. A ridiculous thought, he admitted, but one that kept nagging at him. “Do you think you feel well enough to look around outside? You are the best tracker we have. See if you can pick up anything around the house. With all this flour and sugar on the floor there should be a trail of some kind.”
Johnny nodded, glad to be out of kitchen clean-up duty. “I already looked around a little while I was with Maria, didn’t see anything then, but I’ll keep looking.”
“Good. Teresa is supposed to be home around noon so we only have a few hours.”
Johnny searched the grounds for any signs of an intruder. He found nothing. He looked at every entrance…doors, windows, even the ground beneath the second story windows. The only footsteps he found leading into the house were Maria’s, and the only ones to exit were hers and his. All the other footprints stayed well beyond the house in the courtyard.
The only answer was someone inside the hacienda.
He made his way back into the kitchen and shook his head to Murdoch’s unspoken question.
The three men had the room looking almost normal, except for the knife embedded in the butcher’s block. Johnny wrapped his hand around the hilt and tried to draw it out. There was not an inch of play.
“Scott, get some men to come in and remove this.” He pointed to the butcher block. “We’ll order a new one from Baldermeno’s. And,” Murdoch added, “tie something over the top. I don’t want the gossip flying any sooner than it has to.”
Johnny removed his hand and rubbed it against his thigh as if he were trying to warm it up. Murdoch noticed that Johnny had buckled his gun belt on, but he also noticed that Johnny was still in stockinged feet. “You went outside without your boots?” he asked.
Johnny shrugged. But Murdoch saw his eyes dart up toward his bedroom on the second floor and he saw a flicker of something he had never seen before in his son’s eyes…abject fear.
“Didn’t want to waste the time,” Johnny answered.
Simon Dunkett saw the look too. The boy was frightened. No doubt enhanced by his Mexican heritage and all their superstitions.
“Gentlemen…I don’t know about you, but I am starved.” Simon chuckled, patting his rotund belly. “I believe there are enough odds and ends left, and I’m sure a henhouse full of eggs, to make a decent breakfast.”
“Sounds good to me,” Scott agreed. “I’m going upstairs to change. Johnny, I’ll bring down your boots and…”
“No need,” Johnny snapped. “I’ll get them myself.”
“You still look a little tired, Johnny… I can…”
“I said no need, I can get my own boots.”
“We’ll be right down,” Scott bristled. Johnny could be the most stubborn man he had ever known…
Johnny stood before his door and waited. He felt his heart beating in his throat, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. There was no reason for this unfounded fear, and yet it was too strong to ignore. Should he give in to it? Ask Scott to get his boots, or face it and prove to himself that it was just the remnants of another nightmare. He tensed and his fingers trembled on the knob.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to take a step inside. The room looked the same, just colder. He spotted his boots, thrown carelessly on the floor by the chair beneath the window where he had left them. The bedcovers lay on the floor next to the bed. Instinctively his right hand curled around his gun. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched, studied like he studied an opponent. His every move scrutinized.
He took another step and the door banged closed behind him. Johnny whirled and drew at the same time, his gun suddenly so heavy that he couldn’t hold onto it. He heard it drop to the floor as a wave of dizziness drove him to his knees. Every ounce of strength seemed to be sucked out of him and he couldn’t move. He was helpless to break his fall and he hit the floor hard.
He heard Scott banging on the door, shouting to let him in. He couldn’t move. It was so cold. His arms and legs were numb. The air was heavy on his chest and he tried to breath but couldn’t do that either and he knew-he was dying.
As Teresa opened the massive oak door she was greeted by the aroma of spices she was unfamiliar with. She knew Maria’s cooking, her spicy Mexican heritage always present in everything she cooked. But this was different and she entered the kitchen apprehensively.
She stood in the doorway taking in everything at once; the door open to her nearly empty pantry, the missing butcher block, and the most amazing sight of all…Murdoch wearing an apron holding a stirring spoon in one hand and a steaming pot in the other. Standing beside him was a man she did not recognize, but he too wore an apron and he was furiously whisking a bowl of eggs.
“Teresa!” Murdoch suddenly noticed her standing there. “What are you doing here?”
Teresa smiled crookedly. “I live here. Or at least I think I do. What’s going on here? Where’s Maria? What happened to my kitchen?”
“I…we can explain…” Murdoch’s smile was forced. “How did you get here?”
“The stage was early and Jelly picked me up. He said he spent the night in town…wouldn’t say why, good thing too, we were an hour ahead of schedule. But he was acting very strange…hardly spoke a word. It’s just not like Jelly. You two have a falling out or something?”
“Hello, my dear,” Simon smiled, stepping in front of Murdoch. “You are just in time for breakfast. I hope you are hungry.”
“Yes. I’m starved. But…”
“I am an old, very old, friend of Murdoch’s and I have been looking forward to meeting you for a very long time. Simon Dunkett, at your service. You are as lovely as Murdoch described you in his letters.”
Teresa blushed. “Mr. Dunkett…”
“Please call me Simon…breakfast will be ready in just a few minutes. Why don’t you freshen up after your long trip and we will take care of everything here.”
“Are you sure?”
“You had better take advantage of the offer.” Murdoch winked. “You many never get one like it again.”
“In that case…” Teresa turned hesitantly; they were hiding something and it had to do with the empty pantry. “I guess I had better enjoy it while I can.”
As Teresa walked up the stairs she couldn’t help but wonder what had gone on here while she was gone. The empty pantry, Murdoch’s obvious nervousness, Jelly’s silence. And there was Simon Dunkett…A shiver went down her back. There was something very wrong here.
She heard a bedroom door slam shut and the sound of feet shuffling across the hallway and another door slammed shut. Her first instinct was to check on Johnny. If someone was hurt or sick it would most likely be Johnny.
But she was tired and she needed to change for breakfast. She would talk to him later if he wasn’t there for the meal.
Scott half carried, half dragged Johnny from his room and slammed the door closed behind them. He managed to get him across the hallway to his room and settled on his bed just as he heard the swish of Teresa’s skirts coming up the stairs. He didn’t know how to explain to her what he didn’t understand himself.
“What happened?” Scott demanded as he added a second blanket to his shivering brother. He didn’t like the looks of Johnny’s blue tinged lips or the dark circles around his eyes.
“I don’t know…”
“You’re as cold as ice again.” Scott rubbed Johnny’s arms and chest briskly. “You need something to warm your insides up. I’ll get you some hot tea.”
Johnny grimaced at the thought. “How about a shot of Murdoch’s good whiskey?”
Scott nodded. “One shot coming up. Then we’ve got to talk about what’s going on here. Teresa just got home. I don’t want her involved in any of this.”
“Maybe Murdoch should send her away for awhile.”
“Might not be a bad idea. I’ll talk to him. Meanwhile you get some rest while I get you that whiskey.”
“Make sure no one else goes in my room…Something…something’s wrong in there.”
“I’ll make sure the door’s locked. Now, you try and get some rest and I’ll get you that whiskey.”
“Scott, can you make that two shots? I’m mighty cold.”
Scott grinned as he closed the door. “Two shots coming up.”
Johnny watched Scott close the door behind him and closed his eyes. He didn’t mind admitting to himself that he was plenty scared. Snippets of stories raced through his mind…strange tales told to him as a boy by superstitious old brujas…stories he tried not to believe. Stories of the walking dead…
Teresa changed her clothes and freshened up and decided to check on Johnny before heading downstairs. Something had happened while she was gone and she was determined to find out exactly what.
She rapped on Johnny’s door gently but before she could open it, Scott’s door opened and Johnny was by her side grabbing her hand. She snatched her hand back. His touch was so cold.
“No, querida, don’t go in there.” There was a quality to his voice that she didn’t recognize and it brought her an uneasy feeling. “It’s a mess,” he covered quickly.
“And when has that ever bothered you?” she grinned awkwardly.
“Just let me straighten it up first, ok?”
Teresa nodded. But her curiosity was piqued and she would get a look inside whenever she got a chance. But there was more than just Johnny’s room. There was a feeling that everyone was unsettled in the house. “Johnny, something is going on here…the kitchen…you.”
‘Mostly you’, she thought. He looked haggard. Dark circles beneath his eyes attested to a lack of sleep, his shoulders were slightly slumped as if he didn’t have the strength to stand up straight. Everything about him looked like he was near exhaustion. And his gun. He never wore his gun in the house.
“I’m just tired,” he said, a weariness to his voice that made her even more uneasy. “We should go down to breakfast.”
Teresa allowed Johnny to escort her down the stairs, but she could not help but notice that he seemed to hold onto her a little too tightly, as if he wasn’t sure he could make the stairs alone. She was going to have to have a talk to Murdoch and Scott about Johnny seeing Sam. Something was definitely wrong.
“This is very good, Mr. Dunkett…” Teresa spooned a second helping onto her plate.
“Simon, remember? As you can see, I like food…” Simon patted his sizable girth, “and I found at times the only way to get a good meal was to cook it myself.”
She noticed that Johnny had simply moved his food around on the plate and had hardly taken a bite. “It is really quite good, Johnny,” she prodded gently. “You should eat something.”
“It’s good. But I just ain’t hungry.”
Concerned, Simon raised an imperceptible eyebrow at Johnny’s lack of appetite.
“You don’t look well, Johnny.” She reached over to feel his forehead for fever and was startled at how cold and clammy his skin felt. Alarmed, she grabbed his wrist and counted his pulse just like Sam had taught her to. “Your pulse is much too slow. Murdoch, we need to send for Sam…”
“No!” Johnny snapped, and immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, honey, I’m just tired is all. A good night’s sleep is all I need.”
“Well, I’m not so sure that is all you need…”
“Teresa, I’ve insisted that Johnny take it easy today. If he doesn’t improve by tomorrow then we will send for Sam. Is that understood Johnny?”
Simon chuckled lightly and every eye was on him. “Forgive me,” he said, “I was not laughing at you my boy, I was laughing at Murdoch. You have perfected the worried father rather quickly.”
Murdoch smiled and looked at Johnny and Scott. “I have had plenty of practice the past three years. But what about you, Simon? What have you been doing the past four years?”
Simon finished the last morsel on his plate and dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Yes…I’m sorry for not keeping in contact, Murdoch. I’ve been traveling extensively gathering information for my latest book.”
“Where have you traveled?” Scott asked, his interest aroused.
“All over the world actually. South America, Africa, Europe, Spain, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. I’ve spent more than three years onboard one ship or another.”
“Scott’s done some traveling,” Johnny said, a touch of pride in his voice.
“Where to?” Simon asked.
“Well, nothing like you, Simon. I’ve been to France and England.”
“That says a lot for someone so young. We must swap stories sometime.”
“I would be honored, sir.”
“What’s this book about?” Johnny asked.
“I was hoping someone would ask. I have a manuscript in my suitcase if anyone would be interested in reading it.”
“That would be so exciting,” Teresa exclaimed. “To read a book before it was published.”
“Then I will bring it down this evening so…”
The front door suddenly burst open and Jelly ran in, his face as white as a ghost.
“Where’d ya put it, Scott?” he demanded.
Scott scooted his chair back from the table. “Put what?”
“Ya knows what. Ya shouldn’t a moved it.”
“What’s he talking about?” Murdoch looked from Scott to Jelly.
Johnny stood up, swaying a bit. “You brought it here…to Lancer?”
Jelly nodded his head. “We hid it in the barn.” He looked toward Scott. “But it ain’t there no more.”
“Well, it didn’t just get up and walk away by itself. Someone must have found it and hid it somewhere else.”
“Would someone mind telling us what this is all about?” Murdoch demanded, his voice booming in the dining area.
“It’s nothing, sir.” Scott smiled sheepishly. “It seems that Jelly found this old chest in the woods and he took Johnny to see it late that night. He took me the next day. I told Jelly it might have been an old pirate chest…”
“You mean it ain’t?” Jelly looked like his world had collapsed around him.
“I don’t know what it is…was…it was old is all I know.”
“A pirate chest?” Murdoch looked from Jelly to Johnny and a smile twitched his lips.
“I have heard of far stranger things in my travels,” Simon offered. “I wouldn’t mind seeing this ‘pirate chest’ when you find it again.”
Johnny pushed his chair away from the table, throwing his napkin on his barely touched food. “No one’s finding it, cause no one’s gonna look for it.”
“Johnny.” Scott looked at his brother, realization dawning on him. “You can’t possibly think that all that has happened here is because of that chest?”
“Believe what you want,” Johnny snapped. “I just don’t want it anywhere near the house.”
“All that’s happened here?” Teresa looked around the table, the color draining from her face. “What has happened here?”
“There, you see, you’ve scared Teresa. Are you both happy now?” Scott yelled.
“I’m not scared,” she yelled back. “I’m mad because you think I’m some kind of little girl who…Oh, I don’t know what.” She stood up and stacked as many plates as she could and hurried into the kitchen.
“Well, I hope you three are satisfied…” Murdoch began when there was a huge crash of plates hitting the kitchen floor.
“Teresa!” they said in unison and ran for the door.
Johnny reached the kitchen first, punching the door open and skidding to a stop on the tile floor in his stocking feet. A blast of cold air blew past him, smelling of dankness and decay. It instantly conjured up memories of his frigid bedroom and the all-consuming fear that had engulfed him.
Teresa sat on the floor, her skirts billowed up around her, broken dishes and food scattered across the floor. She looked up at him, her face as white as a sheet, her brown eyes nearly black with fear.
“What happened?” Scott demanded, nearly knocking Johnny over in his haste to see Teresa.
“Something touched me…” Teresa shuddered, her voice tiny and lost. “Right here…” She slowly raised a trembling hand to touch a bruise on her right cheek. “It suddenly got so cold…and my legs, I didn’t have the strength to stand…and…”
“Oh Lordy…” Jelly squeezed in between Murdoch and Scott. “Oh Lordy…this ain’t right. This ain’t right atall…”
“Jelly shut up.” Murdoch pushed his way into the kitchen, his boots crunching on the broken dishes, and gently lifted Teresa in his huge arms. “I was so scared,” she whimpered, hiding her head against Murdoch’s chest.
“It’s all right, sweetheart, you’re safe now.” He rushed her toward the great room. “Get a blanket,” he ordered. “She’s as cold as ice.”
Murdoch settled her on the couch and Johnny poured a shot of whiskey. “Here, querida, take this.”
“No, Johnny,” her voice sounded so weak. “I don’t like…”
“Drink it anyway,” Johnny ordered. “It’ll warm your insides.”
Teresa sipped at the whiskey and coughed as the fiery liquid went down her throat.
“I was so scared,” she whispered.
“I know,” Johnny said, his voice haunted by the memory of his own fear. “We’ve got to get her out of here. It’s not safe.”
“It ain’t safe fer none of us,” Jelly huffed. “It ain’t safe ‘til we find that chest and take it back ta where it belongs. I never should have touched it. Me and Scott never should a brung it here.”
Simon looked at Jelly, fear and rage shinning in his eyes for a split second, then it was gone as if it had never happened. “Where did you find it?” Simon asked calmly.
“A couple miles from here in a stand of apple trees. Funny thing is, I never noticed them trees looking so old and twisted before. I should a known somethin’ wasn’t right.”
“Jelly, enough about that damn chest,” Murdoch bellowed.
“Murdoch, he may be right,” Simon said calmly, handing Johnny a shot of whiskey. “Take this, son,” he ordered. “You’re nearly as pale as Teresa.”
Johnny took the glass of whiskey and downed it in one gulp, not denying that he was nearly too tired to stand up. Just a moment in the coldness of the kitchen had sapped his strength again.
“Tell me about this chest.” Simon turned to Jelly.
Jelly raised an eyebrow toward Murdoch.
“Tell him and be done with it.”
“I found it a couple days back,” Jelly began, his voice filled with guilt. “I wish I’d never set eyes on it. I wish I never woke Johnny up to see it neither.”
“What did it look like?”
“Old,” Scott said. “Very old. The woodworking on the lid was intricate, the iron straps were rusted and separating from the wood.”
“Was there anything inside?”
Jelly looked around the room. All eyes were on him. Maybe he didn’t see what he thought he saw. Maybe he did let his imagination get the better of him. Maybe …“I ah…I didn’t see nothin’.”
“That’s not what you told me,” Johnny said softly.
“Me either,” Scott added.
“Well, ya both…ya thought I was loonier than a jackass braying at the moon. But I was right, wasn’t I? There was something in that chest.”
“What did you see Jelly?” Simon prodded.
Jelly cleared his throat, looking down at the ground. “I, ah…I saw a skeleton and it was holding a knife. One of them fancy knives Scott showed me in one of his books.”
“And this skeleton was not there when you showed Johnny the chest?”
“Oh come on…” Murdoch raised his hands in exasperation. “You can’t possibly believe in nonsense like this.”
“I’ve learned to keep an open mind Murdoch. You would do well to do the same. Johnny, what happened when you opened the chest?”
Johnny shrugged. “I got dizzy.”
“Nearly passed out on me. He ain’t been the same since. Look at ‘im. He’s still white as a ghost,” Jelly said.
“He was coming down with something. Just coincidence,” Murdoch countered.
“And in your room?”
“I don’t know, I just…”
“He was cold…like Teresa, only worse, and disoriented.” Scott took a step closer to Johnny, who swayed for just a moment. “Simon, do you know what’s going on here?”
A loud knock on the front door made everyone jump. Teresa cringed deeper beneath the blankets. “Who’s that?” she asked meekly.
Silence hung in the room for a long moment.
“Cain’t tell ‘til someone opens the dang door…” Jelly snapped, but didn’t move.
“I’ll get it,” Scott said.
“No, you stay with Johnny,” Murdoch ordered, but both Scott and Johnny were on his heels as he crossed the room.
As he opened the massive oak door he was surprised to see Pedro and Joe in the portico with most of the ranch hands and their families gathered behind them.
“Senor Lancer, forgive us por favor…but we must leave,” Pedro stuttered.
“What?” Murdoch looked out on a sea of frightened faces.
“Senor, we have heard what happed to Maria and Juanito …we are afraid of the fantasma…”
“I’m sorry boss.” Joe stepped forward. “The rest of the men feel the same way. We’d stand behind you if it was land pirates or anything…but this…how do you fight what you can’t see?” Joe looked past Murdoch to Johnny. “One look at Johnny and you know there’s something awful wrong here.”
Murdoch nodded. “I understand. When we have this settled…whatever it is, I’ll expect you all back at work.”
“Senor, por favor. Via con Dios…”
Murdoch slowly closed the door.
“Why did you let them go like that?” Scott shouted.
“They’re scared, Scott. Once we get this nonsense straightened out they’ll be back.”
“I hope you’re right,” Johnny said as he watched the last buckboard filled with the wives and children of the workers pull out of the courtyard. “Because we’re all alone here now.”
Murdoch closed the door slowly. He was not about to buy into the ridiculous notion that the chest Jelly had stumbled upon was possessed by evil. He would not allow himself to succumb to the old ideas he had heard as a child in Scotland…a land that was filled with stories of ghosts and spirits. But none were as dark as the superstitions that Maria had told him, the stories she had been raised on and passed on to Johnny. Stories he must have continued to hear after Maria was gone, when there was no one he could turn to ease his fears and comfort him with the truth.
Murdoch remembered those cold dark nights when he sat in front of the fireplace as his father told him and his brother’s tales of the old spirits that roamed the land. He remembered shivering in fear, only to have his mother wrap her strong arms around him and assure him that they were only tales, told to frighten and entertain the little ones and the believers.
He walked back into the great room and watched for a moment as Simon led Johnny to the sofa where he sat down beside Teresa. Scott stoked the smoldering fire in the huge fireplace back to life. Whose strong arms had held Johnny in the darkness of night when his head was filled with phantoms and spirits? Who told him that those tales were just to frighten and entertain? Sadly, Murdoch knew there was no one.
“Cain’t blame ‘em,” Jelly said crossly. “I’d be gettin’ too if…”
“If there really was something to be afraid of,” Murdoch finished. “We have a prankster among us, and I for one do not find his antics funny.”
Simon looked back at Murdoch. “You can’t really dismiss all this as a prank?”
“Notwithstanding the alleged skeleton in the chest…”
“What do ya mean, alleged?” Jelly squared his shoulders defiantly. “I know what I saw.”
“I’m sure you do, Jelly. But so far you are the only one to have seen it. But…three people have seen the chest.”
“Yes, and three people opened it.” Scott added. “But only Johnny got sick. What about Jelly and I? And how come Teresa has been affected…she didn’t even know about the chest.”
“Teresa could feel the tension when she walked in here.” Murdoch countered. “She might have overheard something you said about Johnny…”
Murdoch studied Johnny for a long moment. His complexion was ashen white, his face drawn. “Johnny let his imagination get the better of him. He was scared…”
Johnny jumped to his feet. “I ain’t scared of nothing, old man,” Johnny growled, his eyes turning dark with anger. “What happened up there in my room really happened. And what happened to Teresa really happened.”
“There is no doubt something manifested itself in Johnny’s room and the kitchen,” Simon agreed, gently easing Johnny back down on the sofa.
“Well, I think we should all leave. Right away,” Teresa said. “Before someone really gets hurt.”
“I won’t be driven from my own house!” Murdoch shouted. “If anyone wants to go, you go with my blessing, I won’t keep you here. But I won’t leave.”
“Neither will I,” Scott agreed. “But I think Johnny and Teresa should.”
“I’ll get the wagon hitched.” Jelly scurried toward the door.
“Only one will be going with ya, Jelly,” Johnny called. He looked up at Murdoch. “This is my house too, and I won’t be run off either.”
Teresa pulled the blanket tighter around her. After she left this house, would she ever see any of them again?
Scott followed Teresa upstairs. There were a few things she needed to take with her. She would stay with Millie Monroe in town. Millie lived alone and always welcomed company. It would also give her a chance to talk to Sam and have him come out and examine Johnny. She didn’t like the way he looked. If only she could have persuaded him to come with her. Maybe she would have Val come out too.
“How long do you think I’ll be gone?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Not long I hope.”
There was a timber to Scott’s voice that she had seldom heard before. He was scared. Truly scared. How could she leave them when they needed her?
“Maybe I should stay. I…”
“No. You get out while you can. I don’t know what’s going on here…but you and Johnny seem to be affected the most.”
“Then Johnny should come too.”
“I know that, and you know that…and Johnny knows to, but he’s just too stubborn.”
“I wonder where he gets that from?” Teresa asked with a smile…but the smile was hollow.
Scott nodded. “Hurry now,” he ordered. “Jelly will have the buggy hitched by now.”
Ten minutes later Teresa and Scott were downstairs waiting for Jelly. She stood looking at the door, holding a carpetbag filled with clothes and personal items, wishing Jelly would hurry because she couldn’t stand to stay in this house another minute, but still she didn’t want to leave her family behind. Johnny needed her…but she just couldn’t bring herself to stay.
She nearly yelped with fear as Jelly barreled through the door, huffing to get a breath of air into his lungs.
“They’re…gone…” he managed between gasps.
“What’s gone?” Murdoch demanded.
Jelly looked at all the faces that were looking at him. “The horses.”
“All of them?” Scott asked incredulously.
“Barranca?” Johnny asked.
Jelly nodded. “Every last one of ‘em. I checked everywhere.”
Tears welled up in Teresa’s eyes. “We’re trapped here.”
A coldness descended over the great room that even Murdoch felt.
“Whatever it is, it’s making sure we stay put.” Johnny said softly.
“What are we going to do?” Teresa cried.
“First, we are not going to panic.” Simon said calmly. “That’s exactly what it wants.”
“You make it sound like it’s alive,” Johnny said softly.
“It is…in a way. Just not in the way you would think.”
“You seem to know a lot about what’s going on here, Simon,” Murdoch said.
“I told you, I have traveled extensively. To places that don’t even have names. I have seen things that can not be, yet are. I’ve heard stories that are far fetched…but true.”
“And here, in this house?” asked Scott.
Simon looked at Johnny. “I know the only way to fight this is to believe in it.”
Scott looked at Johnny and saw his hand slide off the butt of his gun. Bullets would not stop this…
Scott pulled Teresa closer to him, feeling her tremble in his arms. If truth be told, he couldn’t hold a steady hand himself. “For now, I think we should all stay together. There are six of us here. If we need to separate for any reason we should always stay in groups of three. No one goes anywhere alone for any reason.”
“Agreed,” Murdoch conceded reluctantly. “I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits or whatever you want to call them, but I do believe we are under attack from someone. So we treat it as the enemy. We sleep down here tonight. Simon, you Scott and I will take turns standing watch.”
“You forgetting me?” Johnny spat.
“No. But you’re in no condition to stand watch.”
“I pull my own weight.”
Murdoch turned toward his younger son. “You will do as you’re told. I won’t risk everyone else’s lives here because you are too stubborn to admit that you are sick.”
Scott stepped between the two. “It won’t do any of us any good if you are on each others back. Johnny, admit it, you’re sick. Now, go sit down before you fall down. And Murdoch, whether you want to believe it or not, we are dealing with something that we know nothing about. If it turns out to be a practical joke, I’ll kill the man who thought it up.”
“An’ I’ll be in line right after ya.” Jelly harrumphed.
“We’ll need bedding.” Teresa slipped her arm around Murdoch’s. “And we should bring in more firewood. Whatever food we have left should be collected. Eggs from the henhouse and meat from the lauder. I have extra spices stored in the barn.”
“We should also have an extra supply of candles and lamp oil. It could be a long night,” Scott added.
“Excellent. Make sure there are extra candles in every room in the house…that includes closets.”
“And matches,” Johnny added.
Teresa nodded toward a low china cabinet by the kitchen door. “Maria keeps a supply of extra matches there.”
Simon checked his watch. “It’s nearly one o’clock. That gives us several hours to get ready.
“All right, Jelly, you and Teresa come with me. We’ll get the wood and the extra supplies from the barn,” Murdoch ordered as he strapped on his gun belt at the front door. “It shouldn’t take us long.”
Scott eyed the gun.
“I’m just following my son’s lead,” he smiled at Johnny, but there was only worry in his eyes.
“We’ll take care of the bedding and candles.”
The sound of the door closing sounded overly loud in the house and Scott couldn’t help but wish he had strapped on his own gun. Whether it would help or not, it would make him feel more in control.
He turned to Johnny. “You feel like you can make it upstairs while we collect the bedding? If…
Suddenly a moan so low it was barely audible floated through the room, sending chills down the three men’s spines.
“What was that?” Johnny whispered. He had heard something. Scott and Simon had heard it too; he could see it in their eyes.
The temperature in the great room plummeted. The fire in the fireplace burned, but there was no heat.
Then the house shook. The impact loud and solid.
“It came from the kitchen,” Scott hissed. “You stay here with Johnny.”
“No!” Simon grabbed Scott’s arm. “That’s what it wants…to separate us. We can’t leave Johnny alone.”
A blanket of cold wrapped itself around Johnny and his body suddenly felt like it had turned to liquid, melting away like ice on a hot day. He spiraled toward the floor on boneless legs.
Simon was by their side, moving fast for such a big man. They hefted Johnny between them, the coldness was feeding off Johnny, making him weaker by the moment.
They reached the door and waited and listened. Silence. And there it was again. Something heavy seemed to hit the kitchen wall and the house rocked.
The floor bucked beneath them and Scott yelled, “Earthquake!”
Simon barely kept his feet. His ruddy face turned white as a ghost. Again the house shook, rattling windows and sending books and brick-a-brack smashing to the floor.
The front door flew open.
Murdoch rushed in, Teresa and Jelly on his heels. He stopped, stunned by the bedlam, alarmed by the numbing cold. “What happened?” he shouted.
“Earthquake!” Scott adjusted his hold on Johnny. “We’ve got to get out of here before…”
“There was no earthquake.”
“That’s impossible. Look at this place.”
“We didn’t feel a thing outside,” Teresa said, her voice trembling. “We just heard this terrible noise and it came from here…inside the house.”
Johnny fought to regain his feet but the cold was draining his strength.
Simon grabbed Johnny’s free arm and began hurrying toward the front door. “Murdoch, we have to get out of here. Your son is in grave danger.”
But the front door slammed closed with a resounding bang.
Silence settled over the house – the only sound the ticking of the old grandfather clock.
“What are you talking about?” Murdoch demanded.
“There’s no time.” There was desperation in Simon’s voice.
Simon could feel Johnny weaken as he and Scott tried to hold him up. He had to get him out of this house before it was to late. “Philippe,” he whispered as if the walls could hear. “I have been tracking him for four years.”
“Who is Philippe and what does he have to do with Johnny?” Scott shifted Johnny’s weight away from Dunkett.
“There isn’t time,” Simon pleaded. “We have to get Johnny out of this house.”
“Make time!” Murdoch hissed.
“The chest you found…Philippe Barfleur…he pirated the Spanish galleon El Subio del Mar in 1598. He placed a curse on all the decedents of the crew who locked him in that chest alive and tossed it overboard before the galleon sank.”
Murdoch looked at him in astonishment. “Simon, you can’t expect us to believe…”
“This is crazy!” Scott snapped. “Johnny’s sick. We need to get him into town so Sam can take a look at him. We can…”
Suddenly a deafening bang hit the side of the house, something so large and so heavy that it nearly knocked the house off its foundation.
Teresa screamed in terror as the floor began to undulate beneath their feet.
“You believe me now?”
“I’m not taking any chances with my son’s life. Let’s get out of here,” Murdoch yelled.
They staggered toward the French doors. The house creaked and groaned and floorboards snapped beneath the carpeting. Johnny tried to wrestle his way free of Scott and Simon’s grip, confused, but they kept dragging him along.
Murdoch flung the French doors open.
“Hurry!” He shoved Teresa after Jelly. Scott and Simon made it through the doorway just as a rush of cold air seemed to reach out for them, enveloping Johnny, trying to pull them back. There was a low angry moan from Johnny as he became semi aware of what was happening and began to fight his way toward the courtyard.
Something massive struck Johnny in the chest, breaking Scott and Simon’s grip and hurling him back into the house. He hit the floor hard, nearly smashing into Murdoch’s heavy desk. Teresa screamed in sheer terror as she landed beside him. He tried to sit up but something heavy pressed against his chest, holding him down, pushing the air out of his lungs. A foul stench filled the air. Something grabbed his hair and began pulling him across the floor. He tried to beat at it with his hands but he felt only empty air. He was picked up as if he weighed nothing and hurled across the room, slamming into one of the legs of the massive dinning table. He felt the bone in his left arm snap in excruciating pain. He slid down to the floor in a heap, his arm dangling at an awkward angle. Again he was picked up, his broken arm whipped against the table. He screamed in agony and disbelief. The stench filled his nostrils, making his stomach heave. He heard the French doors slam closed. They were trapped inside. He tried to lift his head but the pain in his arm was overwhelming. He thought he heard Teresa somewhere close to him, crying hysterically. He had to get to her. He couldn’t leave her alone. The coldness descended upon him until he knew no more.
Murdoch tackled Scott, driving him to the ground. He grabbed Scott’s legs pulling him back. “No!” he yelled. “You can’t help them by getting trapped yourself.”
“Let me go!” Scott tried to kick his legs free of Murdoch’s strong grip.
“Listen to him!” Simon yelled. “He’s right.”
Scott kicked his way free and charged Simon. “Why the hell didn’t you tell us what was going on?” He grabbed his shoulders. “Why didn’t you tell us Johnny was in danger?”
“Scott!” Murdoch tried to drag him off.
Murdoch grabbed Scott’s arms from the back and hauled him away from Simon. “That’s enough!”
“No it’s not.” Scott jerked his arms free. “That’s my brother and Teresa in there. I’m sure as hell not going to stand by and do nothing.”
“There’s nothing you can do. Not yet.” Simon said.
Murdoch grabbed Simon’s arm and yanked him around until they were standing face to face. “Damn it, Simon. I want to know what’s going on here. Everything.”
“Not here. It can hear us.” Simon nodded toward the barn. “In there.”
Scott looked at the building across the courtyard suspiciously.
Simon’s voice turned cold as ice. “You want to save Johnny and Teresa, you’ll do as I say.”
“Watch the house,” Murdoch ordered Jelly. “Let us know if there are any changes.”
“I don’t like this, boss. I don’t like this a’tall …Scott’s right, Simon here’s known all along. Why didn’t he say something?”
Murdoch looked toward the house. The house he had built with his bare hands. Built strong to keep danger out. Now the danger was within. And the fortress of his own making might cost him his son and Teresa.
“Let’s go,” Scott urged. “It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. We don’t want Johnny and Teresa in there alone overnight.”
Scott slammed the barn door shut and leaned against it, fighting to catch his breath. What had just happened wasn’t possible, but there was no denying that it was all too real. He would never forget that look of surprise and terror on Johnny’s face as he was hauled back into the house. Then Teresa was gone too, her expression mirroring Johnny’s. He squeezed his eyes shut. It couldn’t be, but it was.
He heard a loud groan and watched Simon ease his copious weight down on a hay bale, his breathing labored, his ruddy complexion nearly purple from exertion. All this seemed to lie at his doorstep and Scott fought back the urge to strangle the man.
Murdoch paced the floor behind Simon like a caged animal, his fists clenching open and closed. They had all witnessed the impossible…but for the man who only saw things in black and white, this was hardest on him.
“All right, Simon, what is going on here?” Murdoch demanded. He stopped pacing and dragged a bale of hay closer to Dunkett and sat down himself. “What just happened to my son?”
“And why didn’t you warn us?”
Simon ran his hand over his face, wiping away the sweat. “Would you have believed me? Even now, you are having a hard time accepting what you saw.”
Murdoch eyed Scott then nodded toward Simon. “Just tell us…everything.”
Simon took a deep breath. This was the first time he told to this to anyone and he hoped he didn’t come across as a raving lunatic. But the proof was only a few yards away in the main house. “Four years ago I was involved in the salvaging if a 16th century Spanish Galleon off the Boston Harbor in Dorchester Bay.”
“I read about that,” Scott said. “It happened shortly before I left Boston for here.”
Simon nodded. “When the salvage was done six of us broke off from the main group and continued to explore. We found a chest, nearly buried beneath two hundred years of ocean silt three hundred yards from what was left of the ship’s bow. God help us…we brought it up.”
“What was inside?” Murdoch asked, intrigued, in spite of himself.
“We should never have opened it…we had read about the curse…”
“What did you find?” Scott prompted.
“We found nothing…” Simon said with a strange timbre to his voice. “…It found us.”
“That’s enough.” Murdoch exploded. “I don’t have time to listen to stories of buried treasure…”
“No, listen to me, Murdoch,” Simon pleaded. “You asked for the truth and now you are going to hear it. Three men were dead within an hour of opening the chest. Another man died two days later.”
“From what?” Scott asked.
“No one knew. The doctors were baffled. It was the middle of summer yet the men seemed to have died from extreme exposure to the cold.”
“That leaves two men…” Murdoch urged. “You and…”
“Thomas Hazelton. He knew we had found something we should never have found. We researched the ship together, knew the curse of El Subio del Mar…”
“The Rose of the Sea,” Murdoch translated.
Simon nodded. “According the maritime records, she was boarded by pirates and sunk in 1598. Seventeen crewmen survived. Tales were told of a pirate locked in a chest, the lock anointed with the blood of the dead crew of the El Subio del Mar and the chest thrown overboard before the del Mar sank. It was said that the pirate cursed every man on board and all his descendants.”
“That doesn’t explain why the chest is here, or how it got here.”
“Thomas didn’t die that day four years ago…but he hasn’t lived since, either.”
“This is ridiculous!” Murdoch growled. “Time is wasting.”
“Murdoch please, hear me out. I have been following Thomas Hazelton for four years. He spent three years in Europe then headed for the states. He has been making his way cross country for the past year seeking out the male descendents of every man who locked Philippe Barfleur in that chest.”
“And you followed Thomas Hazelton here?” Scott looked from Simon to Murdoch, an uncomfortable smile of disbelief spreading across his face.
“Hazelton was spotted in Baton Rouge Louisiana and Lovett Texas. The man killed in Baton Rouge was ignored, a vaquero who wandered from one ranch to another making just enough money to play cards and buy a couple drinks. Arturo Valencia was the town’s only doctor…well respected. He was found dead in his house…apparently from extreme exposure to the cold. It was mid July in Texas.”
“You’re trying to tell us that your ghost, this Philippe Barfleur, killed those two men?”
“And more. Sixteen between Europe and the states.”
“And now he’s after Johnny…?”
“A rigger for the El Subio del Mar was Alejandro Salcedo.”
Murdoch’s stomach plummeted. “Salcedo?”
Simon nodded. “I recognized the name the moment I read it.”
Scott looked to both men for an answer.
“Scott,” Murdoch said, his voice catching. “Johnny’s mother …Her mother’s maiden name was Salcedo.”
Silence hung heavy in the barn, both Lancer men trying to come to terms with what they had just heard. Neither man wanted to believe, but there was no denying what had just happened inside the house.
“What can we do?” Murdoch asked, breaking the silence.
“Barfleur won’t let them out of the house. He needs Johnny’s strength until he can return to the chest.”
“If he just needs Johnny, why has he taken Teresa?” Scott asked.
“To control Johnny, I suspect. He has tasted Johnny’s strength and learned his weaknesses.”
Scott nodded. “Johnny would fight to the death without compunction if it were only him. But with Teresa…”
Murdoch turned on Simon, anger burning in his eyes. “How could you let this happen? Why didn’t you tell us right away? We could have gotten Johnny to safety…”
“Would you have believed me? You thought I was crazy up until the time you felt Philippe Barfleur’s power yourself. I could do nothing but pray that I found the chest before it was too late.”
“That chest, that damn chest…” Scott ran over to the bales of hay where he and Jelly had hidden it…frantically shoving the bales aside, but there was nothing, just a dusting of white sand where the chest had been. “We hid it here…” he panted. “Right here. No one saw us.”
“We have to find it. It is the only way to save Johnny and Teresa.”
Murdoch looked back at the house. Would he ever be able to call it home again? “They must be scared to death in there.”
“Johnny will keep his head,” Scott said, his voice over confident.
“How do we get them out of there, Simon?” There was a sound of desperation in Murdoch’s voice that Scott had never heard before.
Simon Dunkett sat back down heavily on the bale of hay and sighed deeply. “I don’t know,” he said. “God forgive me, I don’t know anymore.
Johnny watched as Teresa carefully set everything she needed on the floor next to him. She worked silently, her eyes darting to every corner, her fear palpable. She sat down, tucking her skirt beneath her to get it out of the way. “Here, take some of this.” She ordered, putting a small brown bottle in his right hand.
He shook his head. “No. It’ll make me too groggy. I’ve got to keep…”
“Please Johnny, take the laudanum. This is going to hurt and…” She looked at the supplies she had collected; a pan of steaming hot water and another filed with cold water, stacks of towels and bandages and a needle and thread. “Johnny, it would make it easier for me.”
Johnny studied her face. She was trying to keep her fears hidden for his sake, but he could see the terror in her eyes. He would do anything to take that fear away and make her safe again. She raised her hand to push a strand of hair that had escaped the barrette holding her hair back and he saw a large red welt on the back of her hand. “What happened?”
“I tried the kitchen door. It…it slapped my hand.” She stared at the welt and her shoulders sagged. “It’s not going to let us out of here, Johnny.”
“We’ll find a way,” he whispered with a confidence he didn’t feel inside. “I promise.” He took the laudanum in a dose large enough to ease what he knew was going to be excruciating pain. He handed her the bottle back. “Now, let’s get this done.”
She nodded. “It will take a few minutes for the medicine to take effect.”
Scott tapped his fingers against his holster as he stared at the empty courtyard. He couldn’t remember it ever being this still. The silence was deafening. The corrals were empty. The cows had wandered out into the pastures away from the house. The hens were quiet. Even the birds had disappeared from the trees. Nothing moved except Jelly as he paced silently in front of the house, his eyes glued to the window he had seen Teresa look out of two hours ago.
“We’re waiting for an answer,” Scott said, without looking back at Simon.
“I don’t have one,” came Simon’s anguished voice.
Scott turned slowly, his eyes burning into Dunkett. “You could have prevented this. You could have warned Johnny.”
“I didn’t know he was here until I arrived. I didn’t know the two of you had come home. I thought Johnny was still in Mexico…still safe from Barfleur.”
“Simon, what will happen if we don’t find that chest?” Murdoch asked. He stood in front of Barranca’s stall. He felt so helpless. They were so close to Johnny and Teresa, and yet they couldn’t reach them. Memories of stories he heard as a child rose to the surface again and he panicked inwardly. He had fought all his life not to believe in ghosts and spirits…but now…
“Barfleur needs the chest to regenerate his strength. Without it he will weaken and die.”
“Johnny and Teresa?” asked Scott.
“He will use Johnny as his source of strength until…but he will do it slowly. He knows he needs to keep Johnny alive as long as possible.”
“He can only gain strength from a descendent of the ship’s crew. But he will keep her alive…it will be the only way he can control Johnny.”
Scott looked back at the house. “We have to get them out of there. They can’t spend the night….”
“I’m afraid there is nothing we can do tonight. He will not let us near the house. Understand this gentlemen, he will not kill Johnny right away because he needs him. And he will not kill Teresa because he needs her as his bargaining tool. But he needs none of us.”
Scott met Murdoch’s eyes and he had to look away from the anguish he saw there. Dunkett was right…they would have to wait until morning…and then how long after that?
“Are you ready?” Teresa asked.
She had helped Johnny slide backwards on the floor until his back rested against the wall. She sat down beside him and took a deep breath.
Johnny nodded. “Let her buck.”
Teresa cut away his sleeve as Johnny turned his face away, steeling himself for the pain.
“I’m sorry Johnny.” She planted her left knee against his chest and her right foot against the wall for leverage then grabbed his wrist firmly and, with one strong yank, pulled the bone back into place. A scream gurgled deep in Johnny’s throat and he collapsed. She quickly cleaned the wound then stitched it closed. Satisfied that the bleeding was now under control, she set two splints in place and wrapped them tightly with gauze.
There was a shallow groan, from somewhere, everywhere. She felt the floor beneath her tremble then all was quiet again. Tears filled her eyes and she shook Johnny gently. “Please wake up, Johnny. Don’t leave me alone here.”
Jelly paced the courtyard. The sun was dipping behind the mountains. Soon it would be dark. He couldn’t stand the thought of Johnny and Teresa being in that house with Barfleur. He had heard Simon Dunkett and believed every word. There was evil in that house and he was the one who brought it to them. If only he had left well enough alone…if he had not touched that chest…Why did he bring Johnny to it? Thinking back on it now, it was almost as if he hadn’t had a choice, like something had compelled him to act without thinking. But that didn’t make him feel any less guilty. “Johnny…I am so sorry. And you too Teresa…”
He looked back at the barn. They were in there just talking…just talking while who knew what was going on in that house… “Well,” he squared his shoulders and jutted his chest out, “I ain’t gonna leave you youngin’s in there alone…”
Jelly moved toward the house slowly, every nerve on fire. The sky turned fiery red as the sun began to set, reflected back in the windows. How many times had he looked at that sight and been pleased…now it taunted him, kept him from seeing inside the house. Reminded him that darkness was close behind.
He reached the patio outside the great room. The French doors were closed…there was a coldness emanating from the house…he fought back the instinct to run. Johnny and Teresa needed him.
The terra cotta tiles began to tremble beneath his feet. His heart beat so fast he thought it would burst his chest open. He cried out in fear as the ground began to shake violently.
Strong hands were wrapping themselves around him and he knew he was going to die.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered as he fell into a black void. “I only wanted to make right what I done wrong…”
Scott spotted Jelly approaching the house, his steps halting as he got closer to the patio outside the French windows.
“Jelly, no!” he yelled, but the handyman didn’t stop.
Murdoch rushed over to stand beside Scott. “What does he think he’s doing?”
“He’s doing what we should be doing.” Scott growled. Guilt that he had run, that he had not gone back for Johnny and Teresa ate at him. Now he hid in this barn, his heart in his throat, feeling more scared than he had ever felt before in his life.
“Stop him,” Simon warned. “Barfleur will kill him.”
Scott knew it was true. He had smelled it in the house as they escaped. The smell of death.
“Jelly!” He raced across the courtyard, Murdoch at his side. Jelly was nearly at the door, his hand outstretched to grab the handle.
Suddenly Jelly began to stagger, the floor beneath his feet came to life, each terra cotta tile dancing like kernels of corn in a hot frying pan. His knees buckled and he sank toward the ground.
Scott reached Jelly. The patio was enveloped in a mind numbing chill, the dank smell of rot and mold assaulted his nostrils. He wrapped his arms around the old man dragging him away from the patio. He tripped and fell backwards, Jelly landing lifelessly on top of him and suddenly there was dead silence.
He looked back up at the French doors and froze. Standing on the other side he saw Teresa looking out. There was a look of hopelessness and fear on her pale face.
Murdoch was at his side, carefully lifting Jelly off him.
“Son,” he stood with Jelly in his arms, staring at the French doors. “We can’t help her now.”
“We can’t leave her,” he said miserably.
“We can’t fight what we don’t understand.”
Scott climbed to his feet and his heart broke as he saw Teresa step away from the window.
“We’ll get you out of there,” he promised. “Both of you.”
Johnny cracked one eye open. A face wavered above him.
“It’s about time you woke up,” it said.
Confused, he closed his eye and waited. Strings of foggy memories started forming. Things that made no sense.
“Don’t sleep!” The voice pleaded. Wake up. Please . . .”
Johnny concentrated and cracked both eyes open. Teresa was leaning over him wiping his face with a cool damp rag, soft candlelight playing with the shadows above her on the ceiling.
“You had me worried. You’ve been asleep for so long.”
Throbbing pain registered in his left arm, making him nauseated. “Lay still,” she warned.
He glanced down to see his left arm set in splints held in place with a sling. Teresa had wrapped a bandage around the sling and his stomach immobilizing his arm. He dropped his head back against the wall.
“What happened?” he sighed.
Teresa laid her hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder, realizing the laudanum had left him confused. “I don’t know…something pushed us back in the house…It threw you against the table…”
Suddenly everything came back to him. The fear, the cold, the malevolence that held the house in its grasp. He remembered the helpless feeling as he was dragged across the floor and flung against the table.
Teresa pushed a strand of hair off Johnny’s forehead and said softly, her voice shaking, “Johnny, a couple of hours ago Jelly tried to get into the house.”
Johnny stared at her, saw the pain in her eyes…”No…” he whispered,
“Scott and Murdoch carried him away. I don’t know Johnny, I couldn’t tell…”
Johnny closed his eyes. That old man meant everything to him.
“But, they saw me. Scott and Murdoch saw me and they know we’re alive. They’ll find a way to get us out of here. I know they will.”
Johnny reached out and pulled her toward him until she was leaning against his right side, his arm folded around her. “We’ll get through this, querida.” He kissed the top of her head, the fragrance of her shampoo lingered in her hair. “I promise, we’ll get through this.”
As she rested against him he tried to look around the room. Teresa had set a ring of candles on the floor around them, but there was total darkness beyond. He wanted, no needed, more light. He couldn’t stand the blackness. Somewhere, something was watching them…he could feel it.
“We need more light,” he said, a hint of desperation in his voice. He tried to sit forward and nearly passed out.
“No, stay still, just a little longer. Here,” she reached behind her and grabbed the bottle of laudanum. “Just a little, just enough to ease the pain a little. I don’t want you passing out again from the pain…I couldn’t stand it, sitting here in the dark, alone. I thought I would go crazy. I was afraid you…I was afraid that you would never wake up and I would be in this house alone for the rest of my life…Oh, Johnny, I’m so scared. I want this to end.”
“I know,” he whispered, pulling her back down against him. “Listen to me…you said Scott and Murdoch saw you, right?”
“Then they’ll be working on a plan to get us out. We just have to stay strong until they do.” He took the bottle from her and swallowed the vile tasting medicine. “There now, I promise I won’t pass out on you again.”
She sniffed back a tear. “Promise?”
“Promise.” Johnny felt her relax against him and he held onto her. He didn’t tell her that he saw a shifting of the darkness by Murdoch’s desk or that the room had suddenly gotten a degree colder.
Scott stood at the barn door and looked across the courtyard at the house. Dusk had turned to night and heavy clouds had moved in, obscuring the quarter moon and the stars, plunging the land into an inky blackness.
Guilt, like a cancer, ate at Scott as he watched the light of a candle flicker dimly through the great room windows. Why had he moved that chest? Jelly had tried to warn him, but he wouldn’t listen. He had carried it right to their door.
He looked down at Jelly, laying on a bed of soft hay, wrapped in blankets gathered from the bunkhouse, his heart barely beating. He almost envied the old handyman the bliss of unconsciousness. In his forced sleep Jelly was at least safe from the torment Scott now suffered –being torn apart by the memory of Teresa’s face as she stared out the window…fear, shock, desperation haunting her young face. And where was Johnny? They’d not seen even a glimpse of Johnny since being forced from the hacienda.
“How do you fight an enemy you can’t see?” he asked as Murdoch walked up behind him. Scott reached down and felt the gun at his side. Even that would not help this time. “Did you see the look on Teresa’s face?”
“Damn it!” Scott slammed his hand against the wall. “I feel so helpless. They’re right there, less than a hundred yards away, but they might as well be a hundred miles away. There’s got to be something we can do.” He whirled around to face Simon. “You know this thing. Tell us what it’s doing.” A horrible thought came to mind. “Will it hurt Teresa? Will it…?” His voice caught in the asking.
Simon shook his head. “I don’t know. Barfleur has never haunted a woman before.”
Scott took a deep breath and closed the barn doors. He pointed to a bale of hay. “Sit,” he ordered Simon. “Tell us everything you know.”
“I have already told you everything…”
“You haven’t told us how to get them out of there…” Scott growled. “I want to know everything. Every detail.”
Simon took a step backwards and fell awkwardly onto a hay bale, stunned by the vehemence in Scott’s voice. “I…I don’t know where to start.”
Murdoch sat down on a hay bale next to him. “Start at the beginning. How did you find out about El Subio del Mar?”
The pain was manageable now. Teresa helped Johnny to his feet. He swayed for a moment, leaning heavily against her until the room stopped spinning. The laudanum and damage to his arm left him weak, and compounded a constant feeling that his strength was slowly being sucked out of him by the lingering cold that filled the entire house and seemed to be following him everywhere.
“Can you make it to the kitchen?” she asked. “You should eat something.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I know, but you have to eat anyway. Johnny, I did what I could with your arm, but there is bound to be infection where the bone broke the skin. You have to keep your strength up.”
Johnny nodded. “But I want to take a look around first.” There was just a hint of a smile playing at his lips. “See where our boundaries lie.”
“Johnny, please don’t play with this thing…”
“I’m not playing, querida,” Johnny answered softly. “Just gonna see what the rules are.” He pushed away from Teresa just a step or two and called out. “You hear me…”
“Philippe Barfleur,” Teresa whispered. “I remember Simon saying his name.”
“Philippe Barfleur…” Johnny grinned. “So you have a name. Can’t say its a pleasure to meet ya. So what do you want with me Philippe Barfleur? Did I meet you in a gunfight somewhere?”
Johnny heard a rustle of sound in the darkened corner by the front door. It was there, watching, listening. The temperature in the room dipped a degree.
“Barfleur…don’t sound much like a gunfighter…”
“He was a pirate,” Teresa whispered again.
Johnny chuckled, “A pirate? Like Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum?” But inside he was trembling. Was he doing the right thing in showing no fear to this thing…this ghost…or should he capitulate to it? The wrong move could cost him his life… or worse…Teresa’s.
He felt something brush by him and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. A current of cold musty air drifted by and he felt Teresa seek out his hand and hold onto it desperately. The candles on the floor danced wildly for a moment as the current of air passed them, shifting the shadows on the wall and ceiling. Johnny felt the coldness descend over him again for just a moment, draining more of his strength. Then it was gone.
“Johnny…?” Teresa whispered.
“I don’t think he liked my joke,” Johnny whispered back. But there was no humor in his voice.
“What are we going to do?”
Johnny looked around the room. This room he knew so well. How often had he walked down here when a nightmare had driven him from his bed, seeking its sanctuary? Comforted by the smell of the fireplace, the last of the embers glowing red in the fireplace, the smell of Murdoch’s pipe tobacco and the peaceful sounds of the night just beyond the French doors?
There was no warmth here now, no sanctuary from the nightmares of a dream, instead they were caught in an all too real nightmare.
His arm was beginning to make itself known again and he knew he had to get off his feet soon or land on the ground.
“Let’s see if the kitchen is off limits,” he suggested. “How about it, Barfleur? Kitchen ok?”
The kitchen door behind them squeaked ever so slightly in the dead quiet. “Been meaning to oil that hinge.” Johnny whispered.
“We knew we shouldn’t have opened that chest…” Simon sat between Murdoch and Scott, his voice struggling to stay even. “But curiosity is a dangerous temptress.”
“You knew what was inside?” Scott asked.
“We had read the accounts of the curse when we researched the ship. But no one took it seriously. Except Thomas Hazelton. He warned us. He said he could feel the evil trying to escape from within. We all laughed at him.” Simon looked down at Jelly. “No one is laughing now.”
“I don’t remember much. There was a terrible odor, so foul we all became sick. I saw the skeleton with the knife in his hand for only a second before I passed out. It must have been a horrible death.
“When I came to several hours later, three men were dead and Hazelton and the chest were gone.”
“And the sixth man?” Scott asked.
“He died several months later in a crude clinic in Viana do Castelo, a small village in Portugal. He sent me a letter and I arrived a day before he died. He said he had been traveling with Hazelton, and that the curse was real. I didn’t believe him at first, of course. But I was soon convinced that it was all too real…and I have been following him ever since.”
“Johnny?” Murdoch asked, his voice gruff. He didn’t want to believe…he wanted an enemy he could fight. Not some insane curse.
“I found the names of all the crewmen in a maritime library in Portugal. When I saw the name Alejandro Salcedo I knew we would be meeting again.”
Scott caught his breath as he saw the pain of guilt in Simon’s eyes. “I thought…I thought if I could find Johnny’s relatives in Mexico I could warn him somehow. That’s why I came here. I never expected to find you,” he nodded toward Scott, “ or Johnny here. God help me…I’m too late again.”
Teresa picked up a candle from the floor and lit their way into the kitchen. The smells she associated with this most familiar room were gone. Instead a cold dank smell filled every crevice. She shivered, not from the cold, but from the sense of malevolence that hung in the air.
“Maybe,” she said, “I can get a little warmth in here.”
She banked the cold ashes in the stove and added kindling, then struck a match. The match blew out with a tiny puff of smoke. She tried again, and again the match flickered and went out.
“It looks like Barfleur doesn’t like the heat,” Johnny said dryly. “You got something cold we can eat?”
She nodded, unwrapping the leftover meat from dinner. It seemed that someone had thought to put the food away. Scott perhaps, or Simon.
Johnny sat at the table, his arm throbbing. Soon he would have to take more of the laudanum.
They ate in silence, neither one hungry, but both knowing they had to eat. Teresa kept her head down, her eyes fixed on her plate, the darkness beyond the candlelight harbored too many unknown shadows.
“What do you think Murdoch and Scott are doing right now?” Teresa broke the silence.
“Trying to figure a way to get us out of here.”
“Do you think they can?”
Johnny reached across the table and drew her hand into his. “Yes I do.”
Suddenly something tugged at Johnny’s chair and it was yanked out from beneath him. He hit the floor hard, the impact jarring his arm, sending waves of pain from his fingertips to his shoulder.
“No!” Teresa cried. “Don’t hurt him anymore.”
Johnny rocked back and forth, trying to control the pain.
“You have us trapped here, isn’t that enough?” she screamed. “Leave us alone!”
Teresa felt something cold brush her cheek and she whimpered softly. “Please leave us alone.”
The kitchen door slowly closed, that damn hinge sending a shiver down Teresa’s back. The cold that had seeped into her bones blessedly drifted away.
Teresa hurriedly retrieved the candle from the table and placed it on the floor and sat down next to Johnny, pulling him close to her. There was nothing left to do but wait. “Rest now,” she whispered, “I think he’s going to leave us alone for awhile.” And she felt his body relax against her, pain and exhaustion pulling him down into a fitful sleep. She brushed his cheek gently, worried by the feel of his still cold and clammy skin. Soon he would be hot with fever she knew…then what would they do? What would Barfleur do? Tears tracked down her cheeks and she had the horrible feeling that they would never get out of this house alive.
Scott crawled silently across the courtyard, each movement slow and deliberate. Crouched low, on his hands and knees, he moved forward, stopped and listened…moved forward, stopped and listened. The night was cold and getting colder. The moon and stars were hidden behind a canopy of clouds. Around him was nothing but total blackness. Only the flickering light from a lone candle in the kitchen steered him toward the house. He imagined where he was, the corral behind him to his right, the bunkhouse to his left. The barn behind him now hidden in the blackness. Murdoch would be standing by the door, watching and waiting.
He wondered if Barfleur could hear his heart beating in his chest, or each breath he took, echoing so loudly in his own ears. Would the ghost sense the fear that clamped his heart in a vice grip so tight that it hurt. He couldn’t remember ever being so scared. Even during the war, when fear was a constant companion, when his stomach was knotted so tight it ached, he had not felt this all-consuming terror.
Scott couldn’t even imagine what Johnny and Teresa were going through inside the house. His mind was awash with the horrible image of Johnny being dragged back into the house and Teresa…her eyes wide with fear looking out at him through the great room window, pleading for his help.
Move forward, stop, listen…
The candle had been moved from the great room to the kitchen an hour ago. The rest of the house stood in darkness…disappearing into the blackness of the night.
He didn’t plan to enter the house, just get close enough to hear a voice, to somehow let them know that they were not alone…that help was just on the other side of the door.
Move forward, stop, listen…
He was only a few feet away now. The stench of death and decay hovered over the house, cold malevolent fingers reaching out into the blackness.
His stomach ached with fear. His instinct screamed at him to turn and run. But Simon’s words droned in his ears. The three years he had spent chasing Hazelton…South America, Africa, Europe, Spain, lands steeped in superstition…The Middle East, Asia, Australia, each time arriving too late…Hazelton and the chest already moving on to the next victim, another innocent descendent tied to a grizzly death two hundred years ago.
Of all the ghosts that could have haunted Johnny Madrid, Barfleur would be the unlikeliest.
And Scott could not dismiss the role he played in this drama. He had brought the chest here to Lancer…if he had only listened to Jelly.
He felt the first terra cotta tile of the patio and skirted the portico, slowly moving toward the kitchen.
Soft light from the flickering candle created a kaleidoscope of color in the kitchen window. He settled down on the ground, and lay perfectly still… waiting.
Suddenly Scott heard a sound from within. He froze…listening, waiting… a low painful moan, followed by a soft feminine sob and he knew that Johnny and Teresa were together.
He had to do something, had to let them know that they were not alone. He thought about everything Simon had said. Barfleur’s power was finite. The ghost had proven that tonight. The spirit’s power was limited to the house and a few feet beyond or else Scott could have never gotten this close.
Slowly Scott moved back until the oppressive cold lessened and he knew he was beyond Barfleur’s reach. Here is where they would make their stand. Here is where they would let Johnny and Teresa know that they were not alone – that somehow, some way – they would beat Barfleur.
He cupped his hand over his mouth and whistled a bird call he had taught Johnny. At the time he had thought it was so foolish…and now…now it could mean the difference between life and death…heaven or hell.
Teresa raised her head, listening. The faint sound she heard from outside was so familiar. The sound teased her memory until she suddenly knew what it was and she shook Johnny gently.
“Listen…” she whispered, then watched as Johnny’s heavy eyes opened and the faintest of smiles played at the corners of his mouth.
Memories of a warm summer afternoon came back to her. It had been Johnny’s idea to stop on the way back from town to sit by the lake. She remembered feeling a guilty pleasure as she dangled her feet in the cool water knowing there were chores still to be done at home. And then she had laughed until she cried as Johnny and Scott tried to outdo each other with birdcalls. Some were surprisingly good, and others were so bad she could only groan. Then Scott whistled one that Johnny didn’t recognize.
“A Scarlet Tanager,” Scott had grinned. “You won’t find one around these parts.”
“Then how do I know you done it right?” Johnny asked.
“Well, brother, I guess you have to trust me.”
Johnny shifted his head in her lap, and she brushed an ever present lock of hair from his eyes. The candle had burned down to a mere puddle of wax on the floor but she had been reluctant to disturb him as he slept, even though the dark shadows deepened in the kitchen. His forehead felt too warm now. The fever she had expected was beginning to rise.
“A Scarlet Tanager…” he whispered.
“I know,” she whispered back. “I remember. I’m going to get some more candles,” she said, lifting his head gently from her lap. “Will you be all right alone for a minute?”
He nodded, settling his head back on the floor. “Be careful.”
Johnny heard the rustle of her skirts then the squeak of the door as she walked out of the kitchen.
The darkness closed in around him again as the candle flickered and finally died out. But there was now a light in his heart, knowing that Scott was just outside, signaling to them that he was there, reassuring them that they were not alone…
Teresa heard the door close behind her. She listened for a sound. The silence was absolute, as if the world had stopped within the walls of the house. Even Scott’s Tanager had faded into the distance. Had he stopped on his own, or had someone – something stopped him?
Stumbling through the darkness Teresa found the candles on the floor where she had set Johnny’s arm. It was a nightmare she would never forget. She dropped to her knees, running her hands over the floor searching for the box of matches. Fear broiled up within her. If she couldn’t find the matches then they would be left in the dark. She thought she heard a sound behind her, the squeak of a floorboard. She searched faster, finding all her medical supplies…everything but the matches. She fought back the tears, so scared she could barely breathe.
At last she found them. Her hand shook as she opened the box and struck the match to life. She hurriedly lit one candle then another and another until she had pushed the blackness away.
“God…” she breathed, this couldn’t be happening. She got to her feet. Holding two of the candles and slowly walked over to the French doors, expecting the candles to be snuffed out or a hand pulling her back into the darkness. But neither happened. She held the candles to the window, the temptation to open the door screaming in her mind…but she couldn’t leave Johnny…
She tried to see beyond the patio but there was just inky blackness. The Tanager whistled and she turned away from the door…there was hope now.
Scott made his way back to the barn quickly. Teresa had looked scared but unhurt. He felt confident that Johnny was still alive or she would have been inconsolable. By the time he got to the barn door more light splashed out onto the patio from the great room. Perhaps they were learning a thing or two about Philippe Barfleur too.
The barn door opened and Murdoch pulled Scott inside. “Well?” he demanded.
“I saw Teresa. She looks as well as can be expected under the circumstances. You were right, Simon,” Scott began lighting the lanterns. “Barfleur’s power extends only a few feet beyond the house. That means he can’t stop us if one of us heads out tomorrow at first light.”
Murdoch nodded. “Armstrong’s ranch is closer but the trail is rougher. Morro Coyo might be faster.”
“And there’s the possibility that you may meet up with someone on the road.”
“Me?” Murdoch shook his head.
“Sir, I brought that chest here…I am responsible for creating this nightmare. I can’t…I won’t leave them.”
“And neither will I.”
“Murdoch,” Simon pushed himself up from the hay bale with a heavy sigh. “I would go gladly, but I’m afraid I’m a bit out of shape for a long hike. And not to be callous, but I believe you are too, old friend. I think it should be the boy who goes.”
Scott stood toe to toe with Murdoch. He didn’t question his father’s authority often, but he would not back down on this. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t do that.”
“I think we wait it out here together. Word is bound to get out from one of the hands…people will be curious enough to want to check this out themselves. Divide and conquer…that’s the best way to lose a war.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Simon,” Scott turned toward Dunkett, “you are the only one who knows what is inside there with Johnny and Teresa. Give us something we can fight with.”
“I’ve never been this close…not since we opened the chest. Hazelton has always been once step ahead of me. I never know where he is going to strike next…I can only follow. Names have changed in two hundred years. This time…This time I thought I could beat him at last.”
“You knew he was after Johnny.”
“Yes. When I saw the name Salcedo, I knew. But I couldn’t figure out why he was headed here. Johnny had not lived here since he was two…”
“Ah Simon,” Murdoch signed, “if you had only told us in the beginning. I know we wouldn’t have believed the entire story, but we would have protected Johnny…somehow.”
“No Murdoch…Johnny’s fate was sealed the moment that chest was found.”
Scott slammed his hand against the barn wall. “Damn that chest. If Jelly hadn’t…” He suddenly stopped and turned back slowly to look at Simon. “How did that chest get here? On Lancer property. How did the chest get close to any of the victims?”
“Hazelton, of course. He would ship it by boat or rail then by carriage. It is a distinctive chest, there was always someone who remembered seeing it. That’s how I trailed him.”
“And Hazelton…what does he do while Barfleur is enacting his retribution?”
“I don’t know. I have never been this close.”
“He is most likely waiting somewhere close by to get the chest again…right?”
“What are you getting at, son?”
“Hazelton probably has the chest hidden. I think Hazelton left the chest by the apple trees with the intention of sneaking it into the house so Barfleur could seek his revenge on Johnny. But Jelly found it first, and we brought it here to the barn. We did half his work for him. Simon, how close to the house did he have to get the chest for Barfleur to make his move inside?”
“Close. A few feet. The same when he returns to the chest.”
“So he can’t leave the house until Hazelton returns with the chest.”
“He’s trapped then,” Murdoch said.
Simon nodded. “And he uses Johnny’s strength to survive.”
“How long?” Murdoch asked.
“How long can Johnny last?” Simon looked toward the house. “As long as his strength holds out …another twenty four hours at most.”
Johnny moaned and tried to shift in his sleep but the pain was growing worse by the minute.
Teresa stirred a spoonful of laudanum in a glass of water until the dark liquid disappeared. She knew how much Johnny detested the medicine, but she could tell his pain was becoming unbearable without it. Even if it meant that he would slip back into a drugged sleep, she could not stand to see him in so much pain. Perhaps she could cope by herself. Perhaps she had the courage. Johnny would be brave for her.
And so far Barfleur had left her alone as she lit candles and lanterns throughout the first floor. But he was there, always there, and if she drifted too close to a door or window she would feel a cold hand touch her shoulder.
“Johnny…?” She kneeled down beside him and stroked his forehead pushing aside his fringe of bangs. The tinge of red in his cheeks had grown deeper as his fever rose. She needed to get his fever under control, but her supply of herbs and medicines like cone flower for infection and willow bark tea for fever were lost when the pantry was destroyed. Thankfully the laudanum was spared.
His eyes fluttered open and it took him a moment to focus before a small smile played at the corners of his mouth.
“Did I ever tell you how pretty you look in candlelight?” he whispered.
She couldn’t help but blush and that brought a wider smile to Johnny’s face.
“Do you think you can sit up?” she asked. “I think you would be more comfortable on the couch in the other room.”
He nodded and slowly sat up, gritting his teeth as a spasm of pain ripped along his arm.
“Here, drink this,” she ordered. “It’s just enough to ease the worst of the pain,” she cut him off before he could protest.
He took the glass and raised it to his lips, his hand shaking. As if it were the most natural thing to do, she took the glass from his hand and held it to his lips. “It will take this a few minutes to work, then we’ll get you on your feet.” She looked at his legs sprawled across the tiled floor and realized he never did make it back to his room to get his boots. That saddened her more then she could imagine. Johnny was never without his boots, and he had been scolded more than once by her and Maria for resting them on the coffee table. Actually, they’d considered it a victory when they had finally convinced him to take his spurs off indoors. If . . . no, when they were released from this nightmare, Teresa swore she would never scold Johnny again – for anything.
Johnny closed his eyes waiting for the effects of the laudanum to dull the throbbing in his arm. He wasn’t sure if he could even stand once he was on his feet, but he would try like hell…he couldn’t leave Teresa in here alone again.
“Did the Tanager fly away?” he asked. And he felt her squeeze his hand.
“It saw me in the window and flew back to its nest.”
Johnny didn’t react outwardly, but inside he felt like laughing. Scott was a sly one.
“Help me up?” he asked a few minutes later. It took several attempts before Johnny could struggle to his feet, but once there he stood and balanced himself, Teresa holding onto his right arm to support him.
“I’m all right,” he said, but his voice didn’t sound very convincing.
Slowly they made their way into the great room and Johnny was surprised at the number of candles Teresa had lit. There was not a shadow left in the room. But as they moved toward the couch, one by one, the candles began to flicker and die out. The smell of candle wax and smoke vied with the ever present stench of decay and the darkness moved in on them until only one candle remained lit, the one clutched tightly in Teresa’s hand. They stood huddled together in the meager circle of light of the lone candle and Teresa couldn’t hold back the tears that began spilling down her cheeks.
Scott paced, looking at the house each time he passed the open barn door. For a short time the great room and kitchen were awash with light. The warm glow of the candles and lanterns spilling out into the courtyard almost felt inviting. But the cold lump of fear that sat in the pit of his stomach reminded him that there was no warmth coming from the house, only evil.
He turned on Simon as the rotund man sat on a bale of hay, plucking at the straw and dropping it on the floor, forming a small pile.
“We’ve got to do something,” Scott growled. “We just can’t sit here and wait.”
Simon looked up. The man had aged in the past twenty-four hours. This was not the same man who sat at their table and reminisced with Murdoch about the good old days. This man was haunted, and overwhelmed by grief. But why the sudden turn around? If he had been chasing Barfleur for more than four years, why should this encounter affect him so deeply? Was it his friendship with Murdoch, with his son at risk? Or was it more deeply rooted?
Simon shrugged. “There is nothing we can do.”
“I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that for a minute.”
“What do you suggest? We can’t get inside and they can’t get out.” Murdoch asked, the helplessness in his voice a stark reminder of what they were facing. What Murdoch was losing.
Simon heaved himself up off the hay bale and walked to the barn door. “This was my last chance, you know.”
“Last chance?” Murdoch snapped his head up, the bridle he had been worrying in his hands, forgotten. “What?”
“Johnny’s ancestor was the last of the seventeen men who trapped Barfleur in the chest and threw it overboard. The curse will die with Johnny’s death.”
“Then what?” Scott asked.
“Hazelton will return the chest to the ocean and Barfleur will be released from the curse. But he will remain trapped here for eternity, between worlds, if the chest is destroyed before it can be returned to the sea.”
“Then we have to kill Barfleur first.” Scott opened the barn door and the warmth and safety of the light inside spilled out around him…and he shuttered. He had seen the candles and lanterns flicker out one by one, leaving only one small candle burning faintly in the great room. Johnny and Teresa were once again plunged into the darkness and he could only imagine the terror they faced in there.
Silence drifted over the three men…were they facing the impossible?
Johnny felt himself drifting away from Teresa. He fought so hard to keep his heavy eyelids open, but the combination of pain and fatigue mixed with the laudanum was too much for his weary body and mind.
They sat huddled together on the couch, a small oasis in a sea of blackness that was growing ever smaller as the lone candle sitting on the coffee table burned toward extinction.
“Stay with me, Johnny,” he heard her whisper close to his ear, her warm breath brushing his cheek, her hand clasped too tightly around his right arm. He could feel her tremble beside him, but didn’t have the strength to pull her in closer.
“I’m trying.” Even to him his words sounded thick and slurred.
He felt his body sinking deeper into the soft cushions of the couch and he had to fight harder to stay with her. He couldn’t leave her alone.
“What do you think it wants?” she asked, her voice tremulous, on the very edge.
There was a shifting in the blackness near the fireplace and Johnny knew they were being watched.
“I don’t know,” he answered, his voice over loud. It was not his way to meekly crawl into a corner and wait.
The candlelight flickered for the barest of moments, the air displaced as something passed by the table.
“I’m guessing you want me, right?” he asked, and he cringed at the worsening stench that filled his nostrils.
Johnny felt Teresa shudder beside him, and her voice filled with so much fear as she whispered, “No, Johnny, don’t”
He squeezed her hand and nudged her with his knee, pushing her away until only their hands touched.
“Seems to me,” he said into the blackness, “it’s me you want. You don’t need the girl.”
“Let her go.”
Something heavy scraped along the top of Murdoch’s desk and Johnny could hear the wood splinter in the silence, then it fell to the ground, the sound echoing in the blackness.
Teresa gasped and her hand tightened around his. He could feel her pulse throbbing in her fingertips.
“Whatever it is you think I did, she had nothing to do with it. Let her go.”
Something else slid from the desk and clattered to the floor. The smell of Murdoch’s pipe tobacco filled the air for a moment before the stench overpowered it.
Johnny suddenly felt profoundly sad…Scott and Murdoch were on the other side of that door…and he might never see them again.
Fear and anger exploded inside him and he blurted out the words before he could snatch them back. “Only a coward hides behind a woman’s skirts.”
Excruciating silence followed. Then the candle flame sputtered and winked out.
Suddenly the couch quaked beneath them and Teresa screamed. The temperature plummeted. A roar like a freight train sped through the great room and Teresa’s hand was ripped from his and he was dragged over the back of the couch. His left arm hit the ground and there was a firebrand of agony, then numbness. Teresa’s terrified screams rose in pitch as the couch bucked beneath her.
Something heavy pounced on him, pinning his shoulders against the floor. The stench grew until he could barely breathe. The air grew thick and heavy, viscous, like ice cold mud. It oozed up around him, covering his legs, his arms. It seeped into his ears and Teresa’s screams were silenced. He tried to struggle but his strength was being sucked out of him. It flowed over his neck and crept toward his nose and mouth. He tried to seal his lips but a fist slammed into his stomach. He gasped in pain and surprise and the putrid stench spilled into his mouth. It filled his nose and covered his eyes. He sank deeper into it. He was drowning. He could feel it slide down his throat into his lungs and he couldn’t breathe. The world was slipping away from him. “Dios…help me…”
Scott barreled through the barn door out into the courtyard. He had heard the cacophony of sound followed by Teresa’s terrified scream as the meager light from the one remaining candle disappeared and the house was plunged into blackness.
“What’s happening in there?” he yelled as Murdoch ran up beside him, lantern in hand. The flickering light played with the shadows across his father’s face and for the first time he saw absolute fear in the old man’s face.
Scott had never felt so helpless. He ran toward the house, shirting the perimeter, just outside the curtain of cold air, just outside Barfleur’s reach. The sounds emanating from the house shook the ground beneath his feet. The air itself seemed to vibrate.
He fought back the urge to run into the house. It would either be suicide or he would be just another prisoner of Barfleur. He had to stay smart. Use his training…use his head. They were half way through the night.
Murdoch started to run past him and he reached out, catching his father’s arm and dragging him back. “No! You’ll end up like Jelly.”
“We’ve got to do something!”
Teresa’s screams were bordering on hysteria.
But not once did he hear a sound from Johnny.
“Distract him.” Both men turned to see Simon standing behind them, silhouetted by the light streaming from the barn.
“Distract him,” Simon yelled over the din.
Scott pulled his gun and aimed for the upstairs bedroom windows.
Silence suddenly filled the courtyard except for the echoes of the three shots as they disappeared into the darkness beyond.
“Teresa?” Murdoch whispered. Her silence scared him more than her screams.
The three men stood huddled in the light from the lantern and watched and waited for a sign, any sign, that Johnny and Teresa had survived Barfleur’s wrath.
The first rays of the sun gave a pink tinge to the cumulus white clouds slowly being pushed toward the Sierras on a light wind. But there was no warmth in the air, no anticipation of the day ahead, only a cold perverse silence. Gone were the sounds that heralded the coming day; birds and katydids singing in the trees, cows lowing in the pastures, the horses nickering in the corrals…
Scott stood motionless in the center of the courtyard, his eyes glued to the windows of the French doors leading into the great room. The drapes were torn to shreds, the curtain rod sagging in the center of the window. He wondered what the rest of the room looked like, but the sunlight reflected off the glass and he only saw himself standing there.
The horror of the night left him shaking inside. His eyes slowly moved up to the second floor, to the shattered window in Johnny’s room. The sheer white curtain Maria had hung only days ago, now peppered with three bullet holes, hung perfectly still despite the breeze that ruffled his hair. Johnny had complained about the delicate material always fluttering away in his room with the slightest breeze. Maria had promised to replace them as soon as she had time. So why was it now perfectly still?
He turned and slowly made his way back to the barn.
He had an inkling of an idea and a question for Simon.
Johnny heard a strange murmuring sound off to his right, such a sad, lost lament. Slowly he forced his heavy eyelids open, slamming them shut again against the sunlight streaming in the window. Was it just a terrible nightmare? “Dios…” he whispered, “let it be a nightmare.” He opened his eyes again, letting them adjust to the light and he knew, with an inescapable truth, that it was all too real. He swallowed back the fear rising in his throat. It was the only thing he could fight right now, the only thing he could control.
Slowly he turned his head, the effort sending black pinwheels in front of his eyes, and found Teresa huddled in the center of the room, her arms encircling her knees. She slowly rocked back and forth, humming softly. Her eyes were open but there was no light of recognition in them. Her face was expressionless. She hadn’t been able to cope with the fear.
“Querida.” Johnny called carefully. But there was no sign she had heard him. She continued to hum softly to herself.
Slowly he struggled to sit up, his body trembling from the exertion. His left arm hung awkwardly at his side, the splints cracked and useless now. A thin line of blood trickled down his hand and dripped from his fingertip.
The sunlight spilling in through the windows revealed the carnage left behind by Barfleur’s rampage. The massive couch tilted upside down on the edge of Murdoch’s desk. It had taken four strong men to carry it into the house. The heavy brocade red drapes covering the picture window behind the desk were torn to shreds. The coffee table was split in half and was wedged in the fireplace. The dining table lay on its side, its legs snapped like kindling. Chairs were shattered where they had been smashed against the walls. The floor was strewn with books and papers. Broken glass from oil lamps and picture frames glinted in the sunlight. The only thing that escaped destruction was Murdoch’s sailing ship. It sat on its stand, not one sail out of place, not one piece of rigging touched.
Slowly he struggled to his knees and crawled over to Teresa, his left arm pulsating beneath the bandage. All of Teresa’s tender ministrations were lost in Barfleur’s frenzy.
“Teresa…?” He gently pushed the hair back from her face but she didn’t even flinch. She was inside her own little world, perhaps the safest place for her now, Johnny thought sadly. Carefully he checked her for injuries. Remarkably amid all the chaos she had come through without a single new bruise or scrape. Barfleur obviously wanted Johnny Madrid and not Teresa O’Brien.
“You rest,” he whispered to her and tried to climb to his feet, but the effort was too much and he keeled over, his right arm coming to rest against Teresa’s feet.
But she didn’t notice, she just she continued to rock and hum.
Scott rushed into the barn and found Simon lying in a pile of hay, snoring loudly. He kicked his boot impatiently. “Wake up!” he yelled.
“Scott?” Murdoch approached quickly, alarmed by Scott’s outburst.
“We’ve got to talk. Now! I couldn’t see very much inside, but I did see enough to know that it looks like a tornado hit the great room.”
Simon struggled to his feet, running a hand through his thick red hair.
“Did you see them?” he asked, still groggy.
“No. Everything is quiet. Simon, how did you know that distracting Barfleur would stop his rampage?”
“You said you have never been this close before. How did you know?”
Simon shrugged. “I took a calculated guess.”
“No.” Scott took a menacing step closer to Simon. “That was not a calculated guess. You were sure of it. It was in your voice. How much more do you know about Barfleur that you’re not telling us?”
“Scott, believe me, I have told you everything I know. Don’t you think I want this to end too? Not just for Johnny and Teresa, but for me also. I’m tired of the hunt. Four years of chasing a ghost, arriving again and again just a day late.”
Murdoch stepped forward. “If you know something, Simon…”
“Tell me how to get into the house.” Scott demanded. “How can we distract Barfleur long enough for me to get inside?”
“What if something happened to Hazelton? What if he never comes back?”
Simon sighed heavily. “Johnny will die and Barfleur will be caught between both worlds, in limbo for eternity…unable to make contact with either world.”
“Johnny’s not going to die. Now, you’ve got an hour to come up with an idea. Murdoch, we’ve seen Teresa at the window twice now…I’m guessing that Johnny is hurt or restrained somehow.”
Murdoch nodded. “Scott, our first priority has to be to get Teresa out of there. It’s what Johnny would want.”
Scott looked back toward the house. “I’m going to get both of them out of there. Now I have an idea about Johnny’s room.”
“The answer’s here,” Scott yelled. “It’s right under our noses and we can’t see it. Damn it. Think!”
Murdoch watched Scott pace, his anger broiling, near to exploding. He was blaming himself and it was shoving him to the very edge. Murdoch feared he would lose Scott as well as Johnny if they didn’t get his younger son out of there. He could still feel the ground tremble beneath his feet as they stood outside the house listening to Teresa’s screams…furniture crashing, glass breaking…a thunderous cacophony of noise. It was a nightmare he would not forget until his dieing breath.
“I saw you out there Scott…you saw something…what did you see?”
“The window,” he said. “The curtain…”
“The curtain…What about it?”
“It wasn’t moving.”
“The curtain. Johnny complained about it fluttering in his room when the window was open. But today it just hung there.”
“What does a fluttering curtain have to do…”
“The breeze should have moved it.”
“For God’s sake Scott, what does a fluttering curtain have to do with Johnny and Teresa trapped in that house?” Murdoch growled.
“I don’t know…The air felt cold and heavy, the stench smelled like death…” He spun on Simon. “Damn it… It smelled like the chest. The stench…The chest is in the house. In Johnny’s room. ”
“Johnny’s room…” Murdoch looked up at the broken windowpane. He remembered the dead silence after Scott shot the window out. Teresa’s screams still echoed in his mind.
Simon shook his head. “We searched the house, we didn’t…”
“Think about it. How hard did we search Johnny’s room? How many people actually went in there? And those who did…how long did they stay? The cold and the smell drove us out. You said it yourself, Simon, Johnny’s room was the center of the disturbance. We all thought it was because of Johnny. But I think it’s because the chest is hidden there. I think Hazelton left the chest by the apple trees with the intention of sneaking it into the house so Barfleur could seek his revenge on Johnny. But Jelly found it first, and he and I brought it to the barn here. Don’t you see…that is why Johnny’s room was so cold. I remember how cold it was by the apple trees when we first found the chest…numbing cold like Johnny’s room. And the smell…death and decay. That’s why Johnny couldn’t stay in there. The combination of the chest and Barfleur nearly killed him that first night. Why didn’t I see it before this?”
“Johnny was stronger when we got him downstairs,” Murdoch admitted.
Scott slammed his hand into the barn wall. “It was right under our noses all this time. Why didn’t I see it?”
Murdoch turned back to face Simon. “Well Simon?”
“It is a possibility. It would explain a lot of things. But how would Hazelton get it into the house?”
“Up the back stairs to the second floor.” Murdoch suggested. “He didn’t have to carry the chest far. From the barn to the house.”
“But it would be too heavy for one man to carry alone. It took both Jelly and I to lift it into the buckboard.”
“Hazelton is a big man, he would be able to carry it for a short distance. He has for the past four years.”
“But what about the skeleton and knife Jelly saw when he first opened the chest?” Murdoch asked.
“I’m not sure.” Simon said. “I think perhaps Jelly took Barfleur by surprise. I think he can hide, become invisible when he needs to.”
“So the skeleton and knife are still in the chest?”
Simon shook his head. “He would be wandering the house at will now.”
“And neither Johnny or Teresa can see him?” Scott asked.
“Not unless he wanted them to. But unless Hazelton returns soon, Barfleur won’t have a choice. As the chest weakens Barfleur will no longer have the strength to remain invisible.”
Scott turned back to look out the door. The house was bathed in the morning sunlight, and what should have been warm and comforting was now grotesquely evil. He wondered if they could ever call this place home again. Would any of them ever get past this nightmare?
“My God…” Simon looked at Scott in disbelief. “I think you are right. It all makes sense. And I think we may have just found the way to distract Barfleur long enough to get Johnny and Teresa out of there.”
Scott and Murdoch turned in unison. “How?”
“The chest is in Johnny’s room. Without it he can’t be transported back to the ocean where the curse will finally end. He knows he will be stuck in limbo for eternity without it. He has to protect it. When you shot at Johnny’s window last night Barfleur rushed to see if it was safe.”
“The distraction we need.” Scott smiled for the first time since he found Johnny near death in his room. An eternity ago.
“And he can’t hurt us outside the house, we know his power is limited.” Murdoch said.
Simon nodded. “We get Johnny and Teresa out of there then we stop Hazelton from taking the chest.”
“I don’t think we have to worry about Hazelton. I don’t think he’s coming back.” Scott slipped his gun out of the holster and began reloading. “He knows what will happen when he takes that chest back to sea. He has been Barfleur’s puppet for four years…he won’t let him just walk away. Hazelton is a dead man if he comes back.”
“But why hasn’t he left before this?” asked Murdoch.
“The curse is nearing its end. Simon said that the chest was losing its power to protect Barfleur…and I’m betting that Barfleur is losing his power to control Hazelton.”
“Gentlemen, if you are right, and I think you are…then we have very little time left. The chest will be useless to Barfleur soon. He’ll turn to Johnny then. I’m afraid in the end the curse will be all too powerful for Barfleur to ignore. He will kill Johnny as his last act before he slips from this world.”
“Then we had better move fast. Scott, how many rounds do you have?”
“Five in the cylinder and seven on my belt.”
“I have five in the cylinder and a full belt. Jelly has a shotgun in the tack room, won’t do much more than make a lot of noise.”
“I’ll take anything I can get.”
Simon grabbed Scott’s arm and squeezed it with surprising strength. “We only have one chance. If you get caught in there Barfleur will have no reason to keep you alive.”
“Then I won’t get caught. You just worry about distracting Barfleur.”
Murdoch nodded. “Let’s get them out of there. Scott…you be careful. I lost both of you once…I don’t want to do it again.”
Johnny awoke slowly. Every inch of his body ached. But nothing could compare with the pain in his left arm. With each breath he could feel the bones grating together. Barfleur had re-broken his arm.
He lay there very quietly, eyes still closed, listening to Teresa’s faint humming. He’d heard that song before…how old was he…seven, eight at the most, watching a woman sitting on her porch, rocking her baby in her arms. “Hush little baby don’t you cry…” the woman’s voice was sweet and tender. And he remembered the tears welling up in his eyes…he had wanted to be loved like that so badly.
“I’m sorry, Teresa,” he whispered. “I’m sorry you had to get caught in all this.
Johnny opened his eyes cautiously, allowing them time to adjust to the sunlight. Carefully he levered himself into a sitting position, his left arm wrapped tightly against his chest. He saw blood staining the bandages and knew he was in deep trouble.
The ever present headache behind his eyes and the drone in his ears told him his fever had risen. He needed water and laudanum. He detested the medicine, hated how it made him feel separated from his body…but he needed it desperately. He had more than just himself to think about. He had to get Teresa out of here somehow.
Measuring his energy, he maneuvered onto his knees then pulled himself to his feet, using the back of the upended couch. Swaying like a drunkard, he held onto to the couch until the dizziness passed. The pain in his arm was exquisite. Each beat of his heart sent tendrils of pain throughout his body.
He remembered the laudanum was in the kitchen and hoped that Barfleur had left it sitting on the table. With legs shaking like a new born colt’s, he staggered toward the kitchen…Teresa’s soft humming following him, adding to the surreal images he saw as he moved across the great room. Everything was smashed and broken…heavy furniture thrown about like it was kindling. He heard glass crunch beneath his stocking feet and he longed for his boots.
The stench of death and decay hung heavy in the room. The sunlight streaming in the window held no warmth; nothing escaped Barfleur’s evil presence.
Johnny moved slowly, too weak to lift the shattered chairs that littered the room, he had to walk around them. He couldn’t avoid the glass and felt shards of it cutting his feet.
He reached the kitchen door and cringed at the sound of the squeaky hinge. He would oil it first thing tomorrow. Johnny almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of it. Worrying about a squeaky hinge.
He found the bottle of laudanum sitting on the table and felt a flood of relief when he lifted it up and found that it was still half full. Pulling the cork out with his teeth, he took a large swallow of the vile tasting liquid and set the cork tightly back in place. He would need more before this day was over.
Johnny eyed the kitchen chair, so inviting, but he knew if he sat down there was a good chance he would not be able to get back up again. Instead, he walked back into the great room. It looked so different in the light of day, but the light couldn’t warm the dank air or chase away the putrid smell that seeped into every inch of the room.
He heard a shuffling noise behind him and spun around, nearly losing his balance…but in that instant he saw a flash of something solid…a figure.
“Come to see your handy work?” Johnny’s voice sounded raw, even to him.
There was the slightest tremble beneath his feet and Johnny backed off. He was in no condition for a confrontation with Philippe Barfleur.
He turned back and looked out the window. Maybe the best thing to do was to ignore a ghost.
Scott felt his heart beating in his chest. He had faced fear before. On the battlefield, in the hell hole of a prison, on a cattle drive amid a thousand head of frightened cattle, but he had never experienced this kind of numbing fear. He could barely put one step in front of the other.
Now he stood before the house, searching for any sign of Johnny or Teresa through the great room window, and his hands shook like a man in the grip of a great fever.
“Are you ready?” he heard Murdoch whisper from behind.
“Yes…” he whispered back. But he wasn’t, not really. The specter of the house loomed in front of him and he swallowed hard. This was the single most difficult thing he had ever done in his life.
“Now!” Murdoch shouted, and a barrage of bullets hit Johnny’s bedroom window.
Pushing his fear aside, Scott ran for the patio. He felt the cold envelope him as if he had walked through a curtain, one side warm and filled with life, the other side cold and haunted by death. But it was not overpowering this time. He reached the front door and turned the knob. A blast of putrid air assaulted his nostrils and he was pushed backwards by the intensity of it.
Panic filled him and he wanted to turn and run, but Johnny was in there…He lunged through the door and nearly collided with the old grandfather clock leaning against the archway into the great room, upside down.
Scott was not prepared for the carnage he saw before him. The room was destroyed. Only Murdoch’s ship seemed untouched.
Outside he heard the barrage of gunfire. Murdoch and Simon would use half their ammunition on the first volley then wait ten minutes before they started firing the second volley.
Scott moved into the great room slowly. He didn’t see her at first, huddled on the floor, near the overturned dining table, rocking back and forth.
Suddenly the gunfire stopped and Scott stood as still as a statue, his ragged breaths drawing the foul air into his lungs. Then he heard something else…a soft humming. It seemed so alien in here, amid the malevolence that hung so heavy.
“No…” he breathed. His heart sank as he spotted Teresa sitting on the floor, her arms huddled around her knees, her straggly hair falling across her face. She seemed oblivious to his presence…she simply hummed her little song…lost to this world…safe within her own mind.
He maneuvered across the debris and kneeled down next to her, afraid when he touched her she would cry out in surprise. But she didn’t make a move…not a sound other than the soft haunting lullaby. He gently picked her up and carried her toward the front door.
His heart was in his throat…would Barfleur allow him to take her out of the house? He reached the door and he saw Murdoch and Simon standing just beyond the patio.
He held his breath and ran through the door practically throwing Teresa into Murdoch’s waiting arm.
“Johnny?” Murdoch asked, his eyes filled with fear as he clutched Teresa in his arms. She still hummed softly.
Scott shook his head and turned to go back inside.
“Don’t…” Simon pleaded. “You will never come back out alive.”
“I don’t have a choice. I won’t leave Johnny in there alone.”
Murdoch said nothing…there were no words that could express his feelings. He knew nothing would stop Scott from going back in. He would lay down his life for his brother, just as Johnny would for him.
“Take care of her,” Scott said, his voice faltering.
Scott turned and stepped back into the house. The door closed behind him on a current of putrid air. Barfleur knew he was here.
Johnny jerked awake and he gasped as pain surged through his arm. He had fallen asleep at the table, his head resting on his right arm. He didn’t remember walking back into the kitchen.
He listened, his mind muddled by pain and fatigue and the laudanum. Gunfire…lots of gunfire. It was hitting the walls of the second floor…his room.
Galvanized into action by fear and curiosity, he struggled to stand, levering himself up with his right arm against the table, but his legs gave way and he collapsed back into the chair, his left arm striking the tabletop and he nearly screamed in pain.
Then all was deathly still. The gunshots had stopped. The only sound was his own labored breathing. He couldn’t hold on any longer. He felt himself sinking into a black void…where each breath sounded hollow and drifted further away.
He moaned in defeat as he felt Barfleur wrap his arm around his waist and heft him out of the chair.
“Dios…don’t leave me now…”
Scott made his way across the great room. There was no sign of Johnny. He stepped carefully, his boots crunching on broken glass. What had happened in here? What sent Teresa into a near catatonic state? The destruction was overwhelming, testimony to Barfleur’s strength and rage Every piece of furniture lay in ruins. Except Murdoch’s beloved ship.
By the dining table where he had found Teresa he spotted a cluster of blood spots on the floor. Johnny was hurt. He followed them, their path erratic as if his brother had staggered wildly as he made his way toward the kitchen. Scott stood a moment, staring at the door. What would he find? With his heart pounding in his throat he turned the knob and pushed the door open. He cringed at the sound of the squeaky hinge and wished he had fixed it for Maria. She had asked often enough.
But all thoughts of squeaky doors and promises not kept were forgotten the moment Scott saw Johnny hunched over the kitchen table, his head resting on his right arm, facing the door.
His face was as pale as a sheet, but his cheeks were brushed red with fever and his unruly black hair hung limply around his face, heavy from the sweat that glistened on his face.
But it was the look of sheer exhaustion that sent a chill down Scott’s spine. Johnny’s cheeks looked hollow, his eyes sunken and rimmed with dark circles. A bottle of laudanum sat in the center of the table just beyond Johnny’s outstretched hand. He must have been desperate to turn to the medicine he hated so much.
He walked back behind the chair not wanting to frighten Johnny. He could see that his left arm was wrapped tightly against his chest, the bandages bloodied.
“Johnny…” he whispered, but there was no reaction.
Carefully he shook his right shoulder and still there was no response. Leaning down he brushed the hair from Johnny’s forehead and felt for the fever he knew was there. “You’re burning up boy,” he said. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Gently he lifted Johnny’s right arm and wrapped his arm around his waist and hauled him up out of the chair. Scott’s heart nearly stopped beating as Johnny moaned softly…”Dios…don’t leave me now….”
“It’s ok, Johnny, it’s me. It’s Scott,” Scott hushed him. “I’m getting you out of here.”
Johnny lifted his head, his eyes meeting Scott’s. Pain and fear turned to recognition and the barest of smiles kissed his lips. “What took you so long?” he whispered.
Scott grinned sardonically, “The doorman wouldn’t let me in.”
Johnny clamped his right hand on Scott’s shoulder, letting his brother support his weight while he fought to gather his wits and his strength. “Teresa?” he asked, and his voice caught, the memory of her humming echoing in his head.
“I got her out. She’s with Murdoch. Now, let’s get you out. What happened?” Scott nodded at Johnny’s left arm.
“Broken. Teresa set it, but I think it’s broken again.”
Scott grabbed the bottle of laudanum and stuffed it in his pocket. “Just in case.”
They moved away from the table. Johnny’s legs buckled and Scott nearly dropped him. They shuffled toward the door together.
“Listen to me,” Scott whispered. “In a minute all hell is going to break lose again. We’re going out the front door…can’t take a chance with the French doors, they could shatter.”
Johnny nodded then stiffened. The temperature plummeted. The bright sunlight streaming in through the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk turned gray and heavy. The foul stench rose up around them.
“No…” Johnny breathed.
Scott clamped his arm tighter around Johnny’s waist and started running for the door, half dragging the near unconscious man across the littered floor. The house shook violently and Scott lost his footing. He slammed into the overturned desk and he lost his grip on Johnny’s belt. Johnny gasped in surprise as a strong hand gripped his right ankle and yanked him off his feet. He was dragged across the floor, the shattered glass ripping at his shirt.
“Johnny!” Scott yelled and dove across the floor, catching Johnny’s right wrist. Johnny thought he would be pulled apart as a tug of war ensued. The house shook harder and harder until cracks appeared in the walls. Plaster dust filtered down like snow. The heavy couch leaning precariously against the desk started to shift and then fell. Scott barely managed to whip his legs away from the massive sofa as it crashed to the floor in a resounding thud. Shattered glass danced on the floor like water in a hot skillet and Johnny felt the shards cutting his face and hand.
The air temperature dipped toward freezing and Scott felt his grip on Johnny’s wrist faltering.
“No!” he cried out, as Johnny’s hand slipped through his and he saw his brother dragged toward the archway to the stairs. Scott knew instantly that Barfleur was taking Johnny to his bedroom, to the chest.
He scrambled to his feet but the house lurched again violently and he fell back against the desk, the impact splitting the already stressed wood and the drawers collapsed, upending their contents onto the floor.
Johnny clawed at the carpeting with his right hand trying to stop himself from being dragged toward the stairs. The hand clamped around his ankle tightened and he knew that his ankle bone would snap any minute.
Suddenly another sound filled the house. The shaking stopped, and Johnny recognized the sound of gunfire. He saw the air waver around his ankle and for a split second he saw a skeleton hunched over him then disappeared and his ankle was released.
Scott scrambled to his feet; this was their only chance. But before he could take a step he was paralyzed with surprise as the skeleton materialized for just a second, leaning over Johnny, its skeletal fingers wrapped around Johnny’s right ankle. Then the only thing that remained were the shots from outside aimed at Johnny’s room.
Pushing past the shock, Scott ran across the room and scooped Johnny off the ground and ran for the door. Johnny was heavier than he looked, but Scott was hardly aware of it, he just knew that this was their only chance.
The grandfather clock had shifted when the house shook and now blocked the archway leading to the front door. They had to crawl under it.
Johnny seemed confused. Pain and fatigue paired with shock left him dazed. Scott crawled under the clock and pulled Johnny after him.
Suddenly the floor seemed to plunge beneath them and the clock began to slip. Johnny’s head and shoulders were beneath it. Scott made a split second decision. He leaped over the clock and grabbed Johnny’s ankles and dragged him back just as the clock crashed onto the floor.
The cold stench intensified and Scott was forced to crawl back into the great room, dragging Johnny with him.
Everything was deathly quiet now. The gunshots had stopped outside, the heavy putrid air hung heavy as death.
They were trapped.
Barfleur had won yet another round.
Johnny lay on the floor, his head cradled in Scott’s lap, his chest heaving to get air into his starved lungs. His fever robbed him of what strength Barfleur hadn’t stolen. Scott closed his eyes…they had almost made it.
“I’m sorry…” Johnny grated. “I got you into this…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Scott schussed him. “We’re still going to get out of here. You rest for a few minutes then we’ll figure a way out of here.”
Johnny nodded and his eyelids slid closed.
Scott sat in the stillness, Johnny’s breathing and his own heartbeat the only sounds to intrude on the quiet.
This was not the end. He would not give up when they had almost won. He would give Johnny a few minutes to rest then they would try again.
He heard a whisper of a sound by the archway leading to the stairs and saw the faintest of figures standing there watching them. If Simon was right, Barfleur would no longer be able to remain invisible. There was a ray of hope.
Scott looked down at his brother and brushed the hair from his forehead. “We’ll get out of here brother,” he promised.
From somewhere, everywhere, a low growl filled the house, and for the fist time in his life, Scott felt pure unadulterated fear.
Scott carefully repositioned Johnny on the floor, placing a pillow from the ruined couch beneath his head and another by his left side to support his arm.
The house was still now. The overpowering cold and stomach churning smell had receded to the background…but was still there…still telling Scott that he was trapped.
Taking a chance, Scott began to walk around the room. It didn’t take long to find out where his boundaries lay. It appeared he could go anywhere in the great room except the windows and the doors.
Knowing that Johnny needed water if he were going to get his fever down, Scott slowly walked toward the kitchen door. It appeared the kitchen was within his boundaries. It made sense. If Barfleur needed Johnny to keep up his strength then it behooved him to keep Johnny as healthy as he could…for now.
He quickly filled a bowl with water and grabbed a towel, then filled a glass with water and returned to Johnny.
As gently as he could, he lifted Johnny’s head up enough for him to drizzle a little water over his lips. Slowly Johnny’s senses came back to him and he drank the water thirstily.
“Easy,” Scott warned, “you don’t want to drink too much.”
“What happened?” Johnny asked.
“Things didn’t work out exactly as planned. It looks like we’re stuck here for awhile.”
Johnny closed his eyes as Scott wiped his hot face and neck with the cool towel. “You’ve got quite a fever, little brother.”
“I think my ankle is broke,” Johnny sighed.
Scott crawled down to his brother’s ankle and gentle lifted his stockinged foot, noticing the speckles of blood from the shards of broken glass on the floor. He probed with his fingers as easily as he could, then nodded. “I’m afraid you’re right. I’m going to have to splint this.”
“Scott…what I saw…”
“I know. I saw it too.”
Scott crawled back to sit next to Johnny’s head, wiping his face with the cool rag. “I’m not sure myself…”
Murdoch carefully laid Teresa on a bed of straw in the barn and covered her with a blanket. It broke his heart to see her like this. She still hummed softly to herself. Her eyes open, but they saw nothing.
Next to her Jelly still lay perfectly still.
“You shouldn’t have let him go back in…”
Murdoch stiffened at the sound of Simon’s voice. He stood up slowly, his tall frame towering over Simon. “Scott is doing what he has to do,” Murdoch said. “If you had been honest with us in the beginning, maybe Scott wouldn’t be risking his life to save Johnny.”
Simon shook his head. “There was nothing you or any of us could do…Barfleur will kill Johnny because that is why he exists. The curse is stronger than you or I or anyone. Those men on the El Subio del Mar sealed Johnny’s fate two hundred years ago.
“I’m sorry Murdoch, but there is nothing more we can do. As much as it pains me to say it, the best thing for us to do now is leave until Barfleur has claimed his last victim. In a week maybe two…”
“You listen to me….” Murdoch reached out and grabbed Simon by the lapel nearly jerking him off his feet. “I’m not leaving either one of my boys behind. And neither are you. We’re going to get them out of there. We are going to figure out another diversion, big enough to get both Scott and Johnny out of there. Do you understand?”
Dunkett stripped Murdoch’s hands from his jacket. He looked toward the house and shook his head. “You’re a fool, Murdoch. Barfleur is getting weaker…he’s becoming desperate. He knows he’s lost his hold on Hazelton. He’s running out of time. Nothing will stop him from fulfilling that curse. If you don’t leave now you will be as dead as Johnny.”
“Then I’ll die trying. But I won’t leave them behind, and neither will you.” Murdoch looked down at Teresa and Jelly. “As God is my witness…” he promised, “we will be a family again.”
Scott fell silent as he watched Johnny absorb everything he had just told him. If he had not experienced it himself he would never have believed it. And, as he sat there, surrounded by all the destruction, he still had to wonder if it were really happening. It defied logic. And yet…
“El Subio del Mar…The Rose of the Sea…” Johnny said faintly. “I got a lot of ghosts chasing me, never thought it would be a pirate that…”
“We are getting out of here, Johnny.”
Johnny let his chin sag to his chest, it was all too overwhelming. He just wanted to wake up and have it all behind him.
“Those men who tossed Barfleur overboard, all their ancestors are gone now?”
“According to Simon…you are the last one.”
“Lucky me.” Johnny snorted, and looked up at Scott. “You got a plan on how to get us out of here, Boston? Cause I’m not going to be that skeleton’s last victim.”
Scott nodded. “I’m thinking on it. But right now we have to set that ankle and get you ready to move when the time comes.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be ready.”
Scott used three slats from a broken dining chair for splints and wrapped them around Johnny’s ankle and secured them in place with his belt.
He eyed Johnny and saw the pain registering on his brother’s face. He fished the bottle of laudanum from his pocket and tossed it to Johnny. “Take a good swig of that.”
Johnny caught it with amazing dexterity, even in pain and wracked by fever, his reflexes were quicker than any man’s Scott had ever seen.
“No.” Johnny shook his head. “I don’t want…”
“It’s not a matter of what you want, Johnny. It’s a matter of what you need. Take it. You’ll be no good to me if you’re in too much pain to move.”
Johnny acquiesced and took a sip of the vile liquid and tossed it back. “Happy?” he asked sarcastically.
Scott smiled. “Ecstatic.”
Scott sniffed at the air. “I don’t think Barfleur is down here right now. He’s probably upstairs with that chest. If Simon is right, the chest is losing the power to keep Barfleur alive.”
“That means that chest is the key,” Johnny said. “We destroy it and…”
“And the minute we do Barfleur will come after you. We have to figure a diversion…”
Scott absently slid over to the overturned desk, intrigued by a large book, nestled amid the contents of Murdoch’s desk. He had not seen it before.
“Scott…” There was something in Johnny’s tone that caught Scott’s attention and he looked back at his brother. He could not remember seeing him in worse condition. Even if they could defeat Barfleur, he wondered if they were in time.
“Barfleur wants me right?”
“He ain’t interested in you, except for the fact that you barged in here uninvited.”
Scott nodded again.
Johnny looked at Scott and Scott saw guilt added to the pain on his brother’s face. “I want you to get out of here, Scott.”
“Shut up and listen,” Johnny snapped. “My mama believed in fate. So do I. There ain’t nothing that’s gonna change what is meant to be. Only thing that will happen is you will die when you’re not supposed to. Please, for me…go. Before it’s too late.”
“You were right,” Scott snorted. “You shouldn’t have taken that swig of laudanum, it’s addled your brain. If you think for one second that I’m going to leave you here alone…” Scott’s voice softened. “Rest while you have the chance. We’ll be getting out of here very soon and I want you ready to move. Understand?”
“Rest while you’ve got a chance.”
Johnny sighed and closed his eyes. If there was one thing he learned about his brother, it was that he could be as stubborn as himself, and that was one hell of a stubborn man. He just prayed that they were both not signing their death warrant.
Scott ran his hand over the embossed leather cover. El Subio del Mar. An uneasy feeling settled over him that had nothing to do with his surroundings. In small letters in the bottom right corner was the name Simon Dunkett.
Inquisitiveness battled with apprehension, but in the end he opened the book.
It was an unpublished manuscript. The penmanship was clean and precise. As he began to leaf through the pages he realized it was an accurate account of the salvaging operation of the El Subio del Mar. Facts and figures were peppered with Simon Dunkett’s own observations. He wrote in detail how he first learned of the ship’s location, the cargo manifest and a list of all the souls aboard.
Scott turned page after page, skimming over the details…Dunkett’s search for the right crew…including Thomas Hazelton and the search for the right ship. They left the port of Boston on June 14th, amid an unusually strong summer rain storm. The hopes for a successful salvage operation seemed fraught with disappointment from the outset. The weather was against them, the crew was young and inexperienced, and more than one of the young men on board believed the legend of Philippe Barfleur.
When the salvage was complete and no treasure chest was found, the crew, according to Simon’s account left and he, along with five other crew members, went looking for the pirate chest.
Scott glanced over at Johnny. Exhaustion and the laudanum had finally taken its toll and his brother dozed with his back propped up against the overturned desk. The blood saturating the bandages wrapped around his left arm and torso had turned hard and almost black. Scott didn’t like the grayish look to his skin. The infection was gaining ground as quickly as Johnny was losing ground. He had to wonder if he would ever get him out alive.
Barfleur remained quiet for the moment. The stench was a mild annoyance compared to the overpowering odor when he was near. Perhaps now was the time to try their escape. If he was getting weaker as Dunkett said, then…a low rumble shook the floor and Scott scrambled back to Johnny’s side, carrying the manuscript…was that just a coincidence, or could Barfleur read his mind?
If that was a warning he would heed it, for just awhile longer, until the laudanum had time to take its full effect on Johnny’s pain. He couldn’t move him now, not hurting as badly as he was.
Like a moth to a flame, he was drawn back to the manuscript. At page 117 Scott’s hand froze as he turned the page.
Murdoch pulled all the tackle off the pegs on the barn wall and threw them into the back of the buckboard. Everything he could find that was light enough to hoist into the wagon was thrown in.
Simon reluctantly worked by his side, sweating profusely from the unaccustomed hard work.
Satisfied that everything they could find in the barn was now in the buckboard, Murdoch signaled for Simon to join him.
“You can’t be serious!” Simon shouted, watching Murdoch heft the heavy wagon tongue.
“Put your back into it Simon, or you’ll be the first thing that goes sailing into that house.” Murdoch warned.
“It won’t work, Murdoch. You have to believe me…we must leave now, with Teresa and Jelly, or we will all die. That’s not what Johnny would have wanted. Please, listen to reason.”
“No, you listen to me…no one is leaving here until both Scott and Johnny are out of that house. Our diversion worked once…let’s just hope that Scott can get Johnny out while Barfleur is busy on the other side of the house. Now, put your back into it Simon, or so help me you will wish you were in there instead of out here.”
Simon looked at the house and pure fear gripped him. He felt the weight of the wagon tongue settle into his hand and before he knew it he was pulling the heavy load alongside Murdoch. He could not step foot into that house…he would die first.
‘I awoke with a splitting headache and the sun shining down on me from directly above,” the passage read. “I was completely disoriented until I felt the slimy wet wood of the chest next to my shoulder. I stood up slowly…a gasp at the sight before me. Five men lay on the ground around the chest, their faces frozen in terror. Their deaths must have been horrifying. I wondered why I had been spared as I looked down at Thomas Hazelton, a man I had grown to admire…his death pained me more than the other four combined.
‘I don’t know what happened next. I awoke in a run down room for rent next to the pier. I know I must find the chest…I feel driven to do so. I feel my thoughts are no longer my own. I must find the chest and destroy it before it destroys me…or worse, destroys all the descendants touched by Philippe Barfleur’s curse.’
Scott turned the page and realized that was the last entry in the book.
“Johnny…” Scott shook his brother’s shoulder gently. “Johnny, wake up…we’ve got to move.”
Johnny opened his eyes, his mind muddled from the laudanum.
“Johnny…we have to hurry.”
“Listen to me…” Scott kneeled close to Johnny. “I just read Simon Dunkett’s book…the manuscript he told us he was writing. It’s a chronicle of what happened when the El Subio del Mar was salvaged. Johnny, only one man survived the first encounter with Barfleur. Simon Dunkett. Thomas Hazelton was killed right away.”
“You mean Hazelton is Dunkett?”
Scott nodded. “He’s the one who’s been under Barfleur’s spell.”
“But he helped you get Teresa out.”
“I think Barfleur’s strength is weakening enough for Dunkett to fight him…but I don’t know if he is strong enough.”
“Scott.” Johnny grabbed his hand. “If you can’t get me out of here…”
Scott nodded slowly, words were not needed to sign the silent pact.
“Johnny, the key is the chest.”
“You said it was losing its power to keep Barfleur alive…just let the thing die on its own.”
“We don’t know how long that will take. We can’t just sit and wait. Barfleur will be after you anytime now. Johnny, I need a distraction so I can get upstairs.”
Johnny gave Scott a brittle smile. “You want me to see if Barfleur wants to come out and play?”
Scott nodded. “Just for a few minutes. Johnny, I know I’m asking a lot.”
A low rumble echoed through the house…
Johnny closed his eyes and took a deep breath…
Johnny looked up at Scott, a flash of the old Johnny in his eyes… “Let her buck, brother, before I lose my nerve.”
Scott looked out the picture window behind Murdoch’s overturned desk, surprised to see his father and Simon pulling the buckboard slowly past the house. His father’s face was strained by the effort but he kept a steady pace.
Whatever they had planned, he had to alert Murdoch that Simon was the missing Hazelton. Why hadn’t he seen it before? Now that he knew, he could see all the clues.
For now, though, he had to concentrate on getting Johnny out of the house. His plan was a dangerous one, for Johnny especially…but he didn’t know what else to do. To just wait for far worse?
Quietly he settled back on the floor and sat Indian style studying his brother for a long minute. Johnny had very little left in him…Scott knew that one way or the other Johnny would leave this house today. And…he had made a promise…one he was determined to keep, no matter how hard it would be to carry out. Barfleur would not win.
Scott tapped Johnny on his knee and asked if he was ready…words were not spoken, they were not needed. The brothers knew each other as well as they knew themselves. Scott handed Johnny a nasty piece of broken glass, shaped like a dagger, the wide end wrapped in cloth to protect his hand.
Johnny nodded and Scott slipped away behind the overturned dining table. Scott was sure that under most circumstances Barfleur would detect him there, but he was counting on the ghost’s diminishing strength and his need to keep Johnny alive as long as possible while he waited for Hazelton’s – no, Dunkett’s – return. It was nearly over. The curse that had sent Simon and this ghost across two continents would end here, today, at last. But Barfleur would only win if he killed Johnny and was returned to the sea in his chest. Scott was determined to see that neither happened.
Scott watched Johnny take a deep breath and grimace at the simple movement. He knew that Johnny was in terrible pain, but there was no other way.
With a voice stronger than either man expected, Johnny yelled out, “Barfleur…we gotta talk. I’m tired of playing your game.”
Johnny waited, keeping his eyes trained on the archway leading from the great room to the stairs. Everything hinged on Barfleur not spotting Scott hiding behind the table.
Something heavy slammed against the house and Johnny thought it would be knocked off its foundation. The wood, adobe and brick seemed no match to the power of the angry ghost. Johnny had a fleeting thought that Barfleur was not as weak as Scott thought, then he was surrounded by cold dank air.
The stench descended on him like a heavy cloud.
The air shifted and he knew Barfleur was standing next to him.
“I’m tired,” Johnny said, morosely.
The air wavered, like water rippling, and a faint outline of Barfleur materialized.
Scott watched in horrified fascination as the air seemed to grow denser around Johnny. He didn’t want to leave his brother, but their only chance was the destruction of that chest.
Carefully he moved from behind the table and scrambled silently through the archway, looking back one last time. Johnny had the dagger-like piece of glass pressing against the bandages criss-crossing his chest…ready to plunge the make-shift weapon into his heart.
Scott said a silent prayer that their plan would work and he headed up the stairs, wondering if he would ever see his brother alive again.
Murdoch pulled the buckboard to a stop behind one of the downstairs guest bedrooms. His plan was to pummel the house with all the tack and gear he had piled into the back of the wagon. Hopefully, Barfleur would forget Johnny and Scott just long enough for Scott to get Johnny out.
Simon dropped the wagon tongue, panting from the exertion. “Murdoch, please…this is foolhardy, it won’t work.”
“It worked once, it’s going to work again.” Murdoch jumped in back of the wagon and reached a hand down to Simon. “I can’t stand around and do nothing, Simon. You can be the friend I remembered, or you can walk away. Either way, I’m doing this.”
Simon looked at the house, indecision on his face.
Scott made it to the top of the landing, his shirt clinging with sweat, his heart beating so fast he thought it might seize up any second.
Johnny’s bedroom door stood half open. The light spilling out of the room into the hallway seemed strangely heavy, like dense fog. As he walked closer the temperature dropped and his damp shirt felt cold against his skin.
Fear broiled up inside him as he pushed the door open and smelled the thick putrid air. Taking a deep breath he stepped inside.
The room was ransacked. The mattress was pulled half way off the bed, the bureau and drawers were overturned, Johnny’s meager belongings strewn across the floor. Large gouges rent the walls. The sheer white curtains hung motionless. The light breeze that should have fluttered the curtains through the broken window pane stayed on the outside, forbidden to enter past the blasphemous air.
Scott searched the room with his eyes, looking for a sign telling him where the chest was. And there, in the corner, to the right of the door, the walls looked black, as if a cancer were eating at them.
He carefully righted the bureau and reached inside where the top drawer should have sat. Feeling around with his hand he felt the cold steel of Johnny’s extra gun and pulled it out.
He whirled around, cocking the trigger for a shot at the chest…
Johnny saw an outline of Barfleur standing above him. The air was so thick it was hard to breathe. He held the glass to his chest and pushed, feeling it nick his skin. A spot of blood oozed up through the bandages.
“I’m not playing your games anymore. If I die before you kill me then you will rot in hell for eternity.”
Johnny felt the ground beneath him shake and the translucent outline of the skeleton hardened.
He felt the air thicken around him like before. Fear gripped him, tightening around his heart. He remembered the last time…when he felt himself drowning. But he had to fight it. Scott needed every precious second he could give him.
Johnny pushed the glass dagger just a little deeper into his chest, the laudanum keeping the pain down.
“All these years,” Johnny said, “all those men…and you lose in the end. How does it feel, Barfleur? All those years waiting at the bottom of the ocean…”
At last the skeleton became corporeal…at last, he had an enemy he could see.
Johnny took a deep breath; the smell of death filled the room. The sunlight filtering in through the windows turned gray. A knife appeared in the skeleton fingers, pearl handled and studded with gems. The one Jelly had described so long ago.
Barfleur raised the knife, the black holes where his eyes should have been turned black as coal.
“It’s too late,” Johnny said, his energy draining as the cold intensified. “We know about Hazelton and Simon Dunkett. Hazelton doesn’t exist and Dunkett won’t lift a hand to help you. It’s almost over. You feel it?”
Suddenly the skeleton reeled back. Barfleur looked toward the archway leading to the stairs. A mind numbing roar filled the house and windows began to shatter. Johnny knew without question that Barfleur knew Scott had found his chest.
He had to give Scott time to destroy the chest.
“You’re going to hell!” Johnny yelled, and pushed the glass dagger deeper into his chest.
Scott aimed at the chest and pulled the trigger. He hit the lock and the latch disintegrated into a pile of metal dust on the floor.
The floor lurched. The walls sagged inward as if they were going to implode. The temperature in the room plummeted below freezing. Scott could see his breath turn into puffs of vapor.
He aimed and fired again, his hand shaking from the cold and the fear that nearly overwhelmed him. Instinct screamed at him to run. Reason told him this could not be happening and guts made him stay his ground…it was Johnny’s life he was fighting for.
The second bullet hit the lid of the chest and the old wood cracked and splintered open. The house shook again…
A wail of anger roared up from the great room quickly followed by the sound of something crashing below. Scott’s heart skipped a beat. What was happening to Johnny?
Scott aimed again and a cloud of dust rose up from a gaping hole in the chest. He felt his knees nearly buckle at the stench that billowed out with the dust.
Johnny felt the blade of glass sink an inch into his chest and felt a moment of insane accomplishment as Barfleur staggered backwards.
He heard Scott’s second shot. The walls shuddered and the floor bucked beneath him.
Barfleur heard it too. He jerked his head up to look toward the second floor. Traces of bone dust sprinkled to the floor like powder and a malevolent wail of anger and pain filled the house.
“It’s almost over,” Johnny hissed. He struggled to his knees. Blood soaked the bandages wrapped around his chest. He nearly blacked out from the effort, but he needed to distract Barfleur for a little while longer.
A third shot rang out and Barfleur staggered back again…more bone dust sprinkled off him.
“Simon Dunkett is standing outside, waiting for you to die,” Johnny yelled. “He left you here. He only had to come back for the chest, but he watched and waited. He’ll be a free man and you’ll be trapped for eternity between heaven and hell. How does it feel? The curse is on you, Barfleur.”
Johnny sank back against the overturned desk, his strength played out.
Barfleur exploded in a fit of anger. He grabbed the desk and flung it across the room as if it weighed nothing. It crashed against the far wall and broke into a dozen pieces.
Johnny tried to scramble away, but his legs weighed a hundred pounds each. Barfleur reached down for him, his skeleton fingers wrapped around Johnny’s arm and the injured man’s body followed the path of the desk, as he too was flung across room He crashed into the ruined desk, pain exploding in his left arm and right ankle.
He gasped and the stench nearly gagged him. Johnny fought it down, he had to give Scott more time.
“You kill me and even hell will shut the door on you.” Johnny grinned.
Barfleur charged across the room, but another shot rang out and the ghost staggered for a moment before he leaned down and grabbed Johnny by the wrist and ran toward the stairs, dragging Johnny behind him.
Johnny’s strength was gone. His left shoulder hit the first stair and his world collapsed into blackness.
“I can’t let you do it…” Simon cried, pointing a derringer at Murdoch’s stomach. “I’ve spent the last four years in hell, now’s my chance to escape.”
“I can’t leave my boys in there,” Murdoch growled.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch. But I told Scott not to go back in there. Johnny is my only way out. When I saw Salcedo, and I remembered the name, I knew I had finally found a way to destroy Barfleur and the curse.
“Please forgive me, Murdoch. I thought Johnny was still missing. I thought I would bring Barfleur here and then leave…Barfleur could ‘smell’ his victim…he knew when he was close. He would have ‘smelled’ Johnny, even as a baby. He would have stayed here until Johnny returned or the chest lost its power. I would be free at last.”
“You unleashed a monster like that on us…on Teresa?”
“Johnny was not supposed to be here. He wouldn’t have hurt anyone. He would have just waited.”
Murdoch saw Simon’s unsteady hand, saw the terror in his eyes, and knew he was serious. Dunkett would shoot him. He had no choice but to wait.
The sound of a gunshot from Johnny’s room rang through the air…
Murdoch looked up toward the still window. “It’s started….”
Scott felt the cold seize his hand and he could barely pull the trigger. The sound of Barfleur’s rage rocked the house. He heard the sound of something hard thumping up the stairs and he turned back to take another shot at the chest.
The chest was on the verge of disintegrating. The room grew still colder…he spotted Johnny’s jacket draped over the chair by the window and hurried to put it on. It did little to ward off the bone numbing cold.
He had two shots left…one he would keep in the chamber in case he needed it. He had a promise to keep.
The floor suddenly buckled beneath him and he leaped to his right just as the sound of splitting wood heralded the collapse of a six foot section of floor. A gaping hole looked down into the first floor.
The stench grew thicker and he knew Barfleur was outside the door.
He took his last shot at the chest, praying he would not have to use the last bullet in the chamber. The chest exploded, rusty hinges clattered to the floor and wood flew everywhere.
The door crashed open and Scott only had a moment to see Barfleur dragging Johnny into the room before his brother’s limp body was tossed across the room as if it were a rag doll. Scott collapsed beneath Johnny’s weight and the floor gave way beneath them both.
He felt himself falling and they landed in a tangle of arms and legs on a pile of sofa cushions next to the overturned couch.
Dazed, Scott looked up to see Barfleur’s skeleton looking down at them through the hole in the ceiling.
The chest was destroyed. Barfleur was now the victim of his own curse. The only thing he had left to do was kill the last living descendent of El Subio del Mar.
Scott scrambled to his feet. There was a new feeling to the room…a malevolence that hung heavy in the ruins that used to be the great room. The putrid air stung his nose and stabbed at his throat as he tried to suck in what little oxygen there was left.
He looked down at Johnny lying motionless on the floor. The cushions had broken some of his fall, but his arm and leg had still suffered. And a new wound seemed to be leaking more of his blood onto the bandaging that wrapped around his chest to immobilize his left arm.
Scott knew time was running out. He had destroyed the chest. Now all that remained was a pile of old wood, rusty hinges and a mound of ocean sand. Barfleur’s haven was gone. Soon he would be ripped from this existence to a world between worlds. The curse would prove his own undoing.
Johnny moaned and his head lolled to the right. Dull blue eyes opened and struggled to focus, at last finding Scott kneeling beside him.
“The chest?” Johnny’s voice was a mere whisper.
Johnny’s eyes widened. “Barfleur…”
“He’ll be here any minute. We’ve got to get you out of here.”
“No…” Johnny turned his face away. “I can’t. You go while you can.”
“You know that’s not going to happen,” Scott said angrily. “We’re getting out of here together.”
“Scott,” Johnny turned back to look up at Scott with a resigned look. “It’s too late. I’m hurt inside. I can feel it.”
“It’s nothing Sam can’t fix. You know him…” Scott gently pushed back the hair off Johnny’s forehead feeling the heat from fever warring with the coldness of shock, each battling for supremacy. If either one won, Johnny would lose.
“Not this time, Boston.”
A low rumble vibrated the floor and blue eyes met blue eyes…”Hermano, por favor. Go…”
The room shuddered and the corners darkened until they were as black as a starless night sky. And to Scott’s utter disbelief, the blackness was slowly marching toward them.
Murdoch heard the last gunshot echo from Johnny’s room and an explosion of sound ripped through the window. Then silence.
He looked at Simon who still had the derringer aimed at his heart. “Simon, please.”
“I can’t, Murdoch.” Simon’s hand wavered.
“You can help them, Simon. The man who saved me from being shanghaied in Boston all those years ago would.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I’m asking for my son’s lives. You brought that chest here…you put them in danger…”
“No,” Simon yelled. “I didn’t. It was Barfleur. He…”
“You sat at our table, ate our food while Johnny laid upstairs, already infected by that damn curse, and you did nothing.”
“I couldn’t. You don’t understand the power…”
“And now that power is almost gone. Damn it, Simon, be a man. Fight him. Help me save Johnny and Scott.”
Simon shook his head.
“If you walk away from here now, the memory of my sons’ deaths will haunt you for the rest of your life. You will replace one curse for another…the curse of your own cowardice.”
“You don’t understand.”
Murdoch looked up at Johnny’s window and saw the sheer curtains flutter in the light breeze. The chest was gone. The nightmare was almost over.
“No, you don’t understand. I lost my sons for over twenty years…I won’t lose them again. If Barfleur has left you with one ounce of compassion…use it now. Don’t let him win. Help me get Johnny and Scott out of there.”
Simon lowered the gun and his shoulders sagged. “It may already be too late for Johnny.”
Murdoch shook his head. “No it’s not. It can’t be.”
Simon handed the derringer to Murdoch. “There are two shells in there,” he said with a tremble in his voice. “If things go wrong in there…you can’t let Barfleur kill Johnny, your son’s soul would never rest.”
Murdoch felt the weight of the small gun in his hand and it felt like it weighed fifty pounds. But he nodded in understanding.
A low rumble like distant thunder came from inside the house and Simon took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “It’s beginning. We haven’t much time left.”
“Do you have a plan?”
Simon nodded. “Give me two minutes to get in position in front of the French doors, then start throwing that tackle at the house like you planned. Hopefully that will give me enough of a diversion to get into the house.”
“Two minutes,” Murdoch agreed. But he saw a fleeting look in Simon’s eyes and he knew his old friend was lost to him.
Simon turned to walk away.
When Simon turned to look back he was shocked to see Murdoch toss a wagon harness at him. The heavy leather landed on top of him driving him to the ground.
“I’m sorry, Simon.” Murdoch ran the short distance to the struggling man and dragged him to his feet. “We’re going in that house together.”
“No! You don’t know what you’re doing. No!”
“I’m saving my sons.”
“He’ll kill us.”
“That’s a chance I’m willing to take. Now move!”
Murdoch pushed Simon toward the French doors. He felt the cold air and smelled the putrid stench, and they stepped through the invisible curtain into Barfleur’s lair.
The air was growing so dense that Scott found himself gagging on the thick stench.
The blackness in the corners was moving toward them, eating up the light like a hungry monster.
He tried to lift Johnny, but his own strength was being drained by the encroaching blackness.
Suddenly everything became deathly still. Scott looked down at Johnny and saw his chest heaving for air.
“Go…” Johnny gasped.
“Forget it.” Scott tried to heft Johnny up again but his knees buckled under the strain.
A movement caught Scott’s attention and he looked toward the stairs. Johnny looked too, his eyes widening as he saw Barfleur standing three steps from the bottom of the stairs, his dagger in hand, watching them. His bones, solid just a few minutes ago, were now beginning to crack and splinter. As he walked down the three remaining steps, powder from his bones sifted to the ground leaving a trail of dust and ocean sand.
Scott felt Johnny struggle to sit up, his right hand grasping Scott’s shoulder. The effort weakened both men. Together they held each other up.
Suddenly a low rumble like distant thunder rose up from beneath them and a four-foot section of the floor opened up like a malignant sinkhole, floorboards and a broken chair disappearing into the open pit.
Barfleur jumped back, bone dust sifting to the ground. He studied the black cavity then slowly turned back to look at Johnny.
Scott wrapped his arms tighter around his brother, ignoring the gasp of pain as his embrace squeezed Johnny’s broken arm. He knew the gesture was useless in his weakened state Barfleur was much stronger than him, but it was instinctive, this need to protect his brother.
The hole widened in front of them as the blackness crowded around them.
Barfleur skirted the abyss and stood above Scott and Johnny. As he raised the dagger, a horrible wail of fury shook the room.
“No!” Johnny yelled breathlessly. “It’s me you want.”
Barfleur threw the knife and it sliced across Scott’s arm. Scott cried out in surprise and pain, realizing too late that he had relinquished his hold on Johnny. The ghost grabbed Johnny’s splinted ankle and began dragging him toward the hole.
Johnny desperately clawed at the polished floorboards trying to dig his fingers into the wood, but he was dragged inexorably toward the gapping fissure.
The blackness continued to eat up the room.
Scott held his bleeding arm, unable to move.
Barfleur reached the hole and dropped Johnny’s ankle. There was the sound of cracking and splitting wood and the fissure grew wider.
Johnny, his eyes wild with fear, grabbed onto a throw rug, anchored by the overturned dining table, and held on as the floor opened up beneath him.
Murdoch flung Simon at the French doors and the portly man crashed through the glass and wood, to land unceremoniously on his stomach, inches away from Scott. Murdoch followed him in, stunned to see the scene being played out in the great room.
It was almost too much to take in all at once. The stench was overpowering. The air felt heavy and he found himself on his knees, his strength spilling out of him like blood from a cut.
He saw Barfleur for the first time, the skeleton standing at the edge of a huge hole in the floor. And then he saw Johnny, holding on desperately to the corner of a throw rug, his legs dangling inside the hole.
“Johnny!” Murdoch cried desperately.
“Murdoch!” Scott gasped.
Murdoch spotted Scott to his left and scrambled over to him as fast as he could. Scott sagged against his father’s huge chest, his fingers covered with blood as he tried to staunch the flood of blood from his bleeding arm.
“Help him…” Scott pleaded.
They watched in horror as the hole widened beneath Johnny and he fell deeper into its blackness.
“Simon!” Murdoch roared as he turned around to see his old friend slowly climb to his feet, stooping to stay below the growing blackness that consumed the room.
Simon moved over to them, his face white with fear.
“Tell us what to do, Simon,” Murdoch ordered.
“I don’t know.”
“You’re the only one who does.” Murdoch looked back at Johnny. “You can’t let him die like this.”
Simon nodded slowly. “I’ll distract him while you get Johnny.”
“How?” Scott rasped.
“I don’t know yet.” Simon looked over at Murdoch and smiled. “Make sure you add this to my manuscript. It’ll make one hell of an ending.”
“You can write it yourself when we get out of here.” Murdoch pulled his belt off and nodded to Scott to do the same. Threading Scott’s shorter belt through the buckle of his own he began crawling on his belly toward Johnny.
“Barfleur!” Simon yelled. “We come to the end at last.”
Barfleur spun around, the act sending bone dust into the air.
“Four years,” Simon said. “Four long, hellish years. All to appease a curse that I should never have unleashed.
Barfleur took a menacing step toward Simon, Johnny forgotten for the moment.
Murdoch reached Johnny just as his hand began to slip from the rug. He started to slide down into the hole. Johnny could feel his stocking feet suddenly submerged into in a liquid so cold that it burnt his skin. He tried to raise his feet out, but he had no strength left.
Murdoch’s strong hand suddenly grabbed his, but even his father could not pull him up out of the muck. It began to rise, numbing his legs, his waist. He looked up and saw the horror in his father’s eyes. He was dying and he knew it…
Barfleur was enraged. Simon Dunkett had betrayed him. He was responsible for the Hell he was committed to for eternity.
Simon took a step backwards and Barfleur followed. Bone dust fell off the skeleton like snow. He raised his head toward the ceiling and roared with a fury that shook the house.
“You lost, Barfleur,” Simon mocked him. “You weren’t as strong as you thought. You couldn’t fulfill the curse. How does it feel to have lost the ultimate battle?”
The slime oozed up around Johnny’s chest. He was losing the fight to stay conscious. . He heard a faint voice and recognized Simon, his voice shrill and taunting. Murdoch’s strong hand held his wrist like a vice, but still he slipped further into the hole.
“You’re weak, Barfleur…” Simon mocked, taking another step backwards. “You’re nothing anymore. Even Death turned its back on you. The crew of El Subio del Mar did the world a favor when they sealed you in that chest. If not for me you would have continued to rot, festering in your own evil curse.”
Murdoch could feel himself slipping, Johnny’s weight pulling him over the edge of the hole. He frantically tried to dig the toes of his boots into the floor. Sliding his hand down Johnny’s arm just a bit, he slipped the belt loop over his son’s hand and cinched it tight around his wrist.
The slime oozed up, covering Johnny’s chin. He gagged on the stench.
He couldn’t feel anything anymore. Even the panicked beating of his heart seemed to stop.
“Lo siento…” he whispered as his face disappeared beneath the bog.
“No!” Murdoch yelled. Johnny’s head was completely submerged. He felt his hand go limp. His son was dying. Barfleur was winning.
“You were an incompetent pirate when you were alive,” Simon continued to taunt. “And now you can’t even carry out your own curse. You were incompetent then and you are still incompetent now. You’re a failure Philippe.”
The slime continued to rise. Tendrils of black smoke rose up and swirled around the hole like a small eddy.
Murdoch tried to pull Johnny out, but the suction of the slime was too strong. He was being pulled in himself.
Scott dropped down beside Murdoch. He saw the belt wrapped around his father’s hand, the other end pulled taut beneath the surface. Johnny was gone. He reached into the slime and hissed in pain. It felt like it was eating at his flesh, freezing his bones. He searched with his fingers until he felt Johnny’s shirt.
“Pull!” he yelled and slowly the slime gave up its victim and Johnny’s head appeared above the surface.
Simon saw Murdoch and Scott drag Johnny’s unconscious body from the pit. They rolled him onto his stomach, heedless of his broken arm, and started pounding on his back, forcing the slime from his lungs. Johnny coughed and sputtered and took a huge lungful of air.
A tendril of slime oozed out of the pit and snaked along the floor catching Barfleur’s ankle and pulling him back toward the pit.
Barfleur roared in anger and fear. He fell to the floor and was dragged into the pit, leaving behind a trail of bone dust and ocean sand. His skeletal face disappeared beneath the thick black slime and the hole slowly closed up.
Murdoch and Scott helped Johnny to turn over and Johnny rested against Murdoch’s chest, watching as the hole disappeared. The blackness that had nearly consumed the great room slowly withdrew. Sunlight poured in through the picture window. The stench disappeared.
Simon crawled over to the three men. “He’s gone,” he panted.
He reached out and touched Johnny right arm, the belt still strapped to his wrist. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I never wanted to see you hurt.”
Johnny closed his eyes and turned his head away.
“Get out of here, Simon,” Murdoch ordered.
Simon got to his feet and slowly made his way through the demolished room and out the French doors.
“It’s over,” Scott sighed.
Murdoch nodded. “Let’s get Johnny settled in the barn then you can walk into town and send Sam out here. Then you can go look for our horses.”
“Ain’t necessary…” Jelly said from the doorway, a big smile plastered across his face. “They all come back, just as pretty as ya please.”
“Jelly!” Scott grinned. “Thank God you’re all right.”
“A course I’m all right. Why shouldn’t I be?”
“And I’m all right too,” Teresa said pushing past Jelly and kneeling in front of Johnny. “We need to clean you up before we do anything. Jelly, would you heat the water in the bathhouse please.”
“Consider it done,” Jelly grinned. “Then I’ll head into town and fetch ole’ Sam.”
“Querida,” Johnny reached out for Teresa with a shaky hand. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine now. And you will be too, soon.” She looked around the house and cringed. “I think I’ll help Jelly with the water.”
“She went through a lot,” Johnny sighed sadly, watching the young girl retreat from the demolished room.
“We all did,” Murdoch said looking around at the once beautiful great room. The destruction was mind numbing. He wondered if they would ever be able to call this house a home again.
But no matter what happened, whether they repaired the damage to this house or built a new one, the important thing was that they had all survived.
Barfleur and his curse were history.
A low rumble shook the house…
“Earthquake?” Scott asked.
Johnny and Murdoch both nodded. “Earthquake.”
Murdoch chuckled as he turned the last page. “That was quite a story, Simon.” He grinned.
“Yes. Quite a story, indeed.” Scott threw an extra blanket for Johnny to put over his shoulders. “Perfect story for a stormy Halloween night.”
“I had help,” Simon said nodding toward Johnny. “I picked Johnny’s brain for the necessary background on all of you and this house.”
“I have to tell you Sir, I was a bit surprised when Murdoch told me you two were good friends,” Scott laughed. “I have read all your books and enjoyed them immensely.”
“Thank you Scott. I only intended to visit for a day or two…but fate had something else in mind.” He tapped the heavy cast encasing his right leg. “
Thunder rumbled overhead, shaking the house. The flicking fire roared in the fireplace casting deep shadows over their faces.
“You didn’t like the story?” Simon Dunkett looked toward Johnny who sat huddled under a mound of blankets. The story did nothing to improve his sour disposition. Stuck in the house for over a week, most of it in bed with a nasty cold, he didn’t find much humor in it.
“Why couldn’t Scott’s ancestor be one of the men to throw Barfleur, or whatever his name was, overboard?”
Simon laughed “I had to pick one of you…you just happened to be the lucky one.”
“Lucky me,” Johnny grumped.
“Well I liked the story,” Teresa jumped up. “Would everyone like a hot cup of cider?”
Another huge clap of thunder shook the house and the candles flickered as a draft of air blew through the house.
“Where did that come from?” Scott asked.
Teresa looked toward the darkened kitchen and sat back down. “Maybe one of you would like to get the cider,” she said. “I think I’ll stay next to the fire if you don’t mind.”
No one minded. In fact they all moved in just a little closer to each other.
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