Word Count 25,470
WARNING – Please be aware this story contains violence, and references to various magical practices which may offend some readers.
Ada Shipton is named for “Mother Shipton.” Ursula Shipton, who was a real character according to English folklore, and apparently lived during the reign of King Henry V111. She was famous for her prophecies, which included the deaths of Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Percy, and the execution of Catherine Howard. The prophecies are on going, and include “The Plague”, “The Fire of London”, and various other incidents in English history. There is no actual proof she ever really lived, and her most spectacular failure was foretelling that the world would come to a fiery end in 1881.
The “Sluagh”, pronounced Slooa, are the host of the unforgiven dead. They are the most formidable of the Highland Faery people, and are considered to be the spirits of mortals who have died after committing major wrongs whist on Earth. They travel in a host around midnight, and kill livestock, pets, and even men foolish enough to be abroad when they are about. Faery hosts traditionally rush through the air like great flocks of birds, and can be mistaken for the wind in the trees.
All that remains now is to apologise for the bad rhyming, and to issue a quick warning not to try any of this at home. (lol)
“Some moment when the Moon was blood
Then surely I was born.”
G.K Chesterton 1874-1936
“Alive you shall be, alive you shall be
Image of wax and image of clay.
Alive shall you be, a poppet of he
To feel as he feels, to make him pay.
To know as he knows, with the pin in your vein
So he feels all you feel, with the pin comes the pain!”
The candles guttered in their holders. Twisting the brooding shadows on the walls of the darkened room, as she poured the molten wax into the gingerbread man mould, and lifted the knife.
A lumbering figure detached itself from the dim corner and shuffled across the room towards her, his eyes dull and flat as he held out a wrist.
“Don’t hurt me, Ma.”
Her face glittered with fevered darkness. “After tonight my precious, my son, no-one will ever hurt you again.”
One swift slash, and his skin blanched white before the cut flushed red. She held it over the mould and watched as his blood dripped into the wax.
“Your blood to his blood
His blood to yours,
Bring life to my poppet
Give life to my pet,
He shall pay it in blood
He shall pay the debt!”
With the tip of the knife, she stirred the blood into the wax and watched with satisfaction as it pinkened, a smile growing on her face. “There Ezekiel, isn’t he the pretty one?”
Ezekiel scowled, the blood still running down his hand. “Ezekiel not pretty anymore.”
Binding his wrist, she lifted her fingers up to his cheek and the malevolence gleamed brightly in her eyes. “The Pretty One stole my baby’s handsome looks, but there Ezekiel, you shall have them back again. We must be patient now. . .”
She moved her fingers down the hideous scars that pulled and puckered across the empty eye-socket. Caressing the damaged and disfigured skin that stretched back over his dented skull, the wisps of stunted hair.
“The Pretty One tried to hide from us. The Pretty One changed his name. But we have found him now, Ezekiel, and we will make him pay. When the blood is on the moon, we will make him pay.”
“Ezekiel will be pretty again?”
She pressed her lips to his wizened scars, and clasped his terrible, balding head to her breast. “You shall have the Pretty One’s body my son, a mind that works again. What better revenge is there than that?”
The wax was set in the gingerbread mould, and she turned it out with a brisk tap onto the table. Ezekiel peered over her shoulder intently, shaking his head in disappointment.
“He ain’t like the Pretty One, Ma.”
“Hush Ezekiel, he will be.”
She picked out a shirt from the basket on the floor and held it up to the candlelight. “A fancy shirt for a Pretty One, how fine you’re going to look, my son.”
And stabbing the knife down through the fabric, she ripped it into savage shreds and pulled out a needle and thread. Five minutes later, the poppet was dressed in small black pants and a blue floral shirt. As a final touch, she pressed two blue glass beads into the little wax man’s face, for eyes.
“What do you think of him now, Ezekiel?”
Ezekiel blinked his own remaining eye, slack mouth widening in a happy grin. “Oh he’s the Pretty One now ain’t he. . .?” His voice faded and became confused. “I remember the Pretty One’s eyes – the last thing Ezekiel saw. . .”
She placed the effigy on the table and rocked him in her arms again. Crooning to him like he was a baby as she patted his puckered head.
“And he’ll remember yours, Ezekiel. You just trust your Ma!”
**** **** **** ****
“Finished loading the wagon, little brother?”
“Yeah,” said Johnny. Raising a pertinent eyebrow at the tall fair-haired man stood leaning casually against the pillar outside the General Store.
“I’m . . .” He emphasised the “I’m”, and thrust his hands accusingly onto his slender hips. “I’m just about done. Would it be too delicate a question to ask just where you got to, while I was out here breakin’ my back in the noon-day sun?”
Scott grinned and jumped down into the street. “As a matter of fact, delicate isn’t quite how I’d describe Mercedes. Now if you’d said voluptuous then I’d be forced to agree . . .”
Johnny shook his head good naturedly, and stuck his thumbs through his belt loops. “The only thing I may force you to agree on right now, is you owe me a beer.”
Scott tipped his head, pretending to consider for a few seconds before picking Johnny’s hat off the stack of grain sacks, and slinging it over his shoulder by the string.
“Well come on then, what are you waiting for, slacker?”
“Slacker? I’ll give you slacker . . .!”
Johnny lunged at him as the store doors swung open. A little old lady struggled out, leaden down with numerous parcels, and a shopping basket. Johnny saw her, and tried desperately to check in time, missing her by a hair’s breadth as he reeled sideways. Shoulder-barging the wall of the General Store instead.
The old lady jumped in fright and stuttered backwards. Parcels and possessions flying in all directions, as she pressed her hand to her breast in agitation.
Scott caught hold of the horses, as the wagon lurched drunkenly forward. Calming them quickly with a few soothing words, as a bag of apples bounced beneath their dancing hooves.
Johnny was up on his feet in an instant. Face red with embarrassment and shame, as he took her arm impulsively and checked to see she was all right.
“I sure am sorry Ma’am. Are you okay?”
She looked at him anxiously and patted his shoulder. “Yes . . . yes, I think so young man. Oh . . . you did give me a start! I thought for a minute, you might be indulging in a bout of fisticuffs.”
“Er.no Ma’am. This here’s my brother. We were just . . .”
She smiled at him fondly. “I think I understand. I had boys myself along time ago, and they were devils for horseplay. Oh dear, look at my shopping.”
“Here, let me.”
Johnny collected up her parcels, and bent down to retrieve her groceries, trying to avoid Scott’s eye as he did so. Bundling them back into the bag and thanking his lucky stars that Murdoch was no-where around to witness any of this.
As he straightened up again, she reached down simultaneously and his hair caught fast on the buttons of her old-fashioned, leg-of-mutton sleeves. “Hold on young man . . .”
But the more he pulled away, the more viciously his hair got tangled. His face grew red, as Scott choked with laughter. Turning it hastily into a cough as he met his brother’s icy glare.
“It’s okay.” Johnny wrenched his head away and felt some of his hair leave his scalp by the roots. An act that brought tears to his eyes as he scrambled hastily to his feet, and smoothed it down again.
“Oh I’m just so sorry, are you alright Mr . . .?”
“It’s Lancer. John Lancer, Ma’am. And yes thank you, I’m fine.” He helped her re-pack her bags, and placed them over his arm. “Let me carry these for you. It’s the least I can do.”
She smiled at him kindly. “Oh, there’s no need Mr Lancer. I haven’t far to go. I’m new to this little town – in the old Campbell house. I was buying the ingredients for a chocolate cake as a matter of fact. Perhaps you and your brother would care to drop by in a day or so – when I’m a bit more settled, and sample a piece?”
Johnny grinned back, trying his best to ignore his brother’s twinkling eye. “Well if you’re sure, Ma’am.”
“I’m sure John. May I call you John – or is it really Johnny?”
“It’s mostly Johnny.”
“Well, you’ll be mostly welcome then, Johnny. And my name’s Ada. Ada Shipton. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”
She patted his arm for one last time. Reclaimed her parcels from him, and moved off down the boardwalk after nodding benignly at Scott. He waited until she was out of earshot, shook his head and laughed out loud.
“What is it about you little brother, they can’t resist you can they? Not even when they’re over sixty.”
But Johnny was momentarily distracted, watching the departing figure with a slight frown on his handsome face.
“Hey – catch!”
Scott spun his hat at him, and Johnny caught it reflexively. Reactions fast and honed as lightening, as he jammed it back on his head and turned with a slight grin.
“You may as well give it up, Boston. You ain’t never gonna catch me out.”
“No,” agreed Scott ruefully. ” Not yet I haven’t. I will one day, though.”
“In your dreams,” retorted Johnny scornfully, refusing to acknowledge the threat. It was a game they often played. Scott would try to beat his quicksilver reflexes by throwing something at him when he wasn’t expecting it. He’d never lost yet, or missed the catch. If truth were told, it was more than just a game to him. The day he lost, was the day he’d become too soft – too complacent. The day he’d lost his edge.
They began to stroll along towards the Cantina and looking at Johnny out of the corner of his eye, Scott saw that he was frowning again. He sighed.
“Okay okay. Are you going to tell me what’s on your mind, or do I have to guess?”
“It’s that name.”
“Shipton. The old ladie’s name.”
“What about it, Johnny?”
“I took a man down once – in Abilene. His name was Shipton. Zeke Shipton. I took him down fair and square with a shoulder shot, but he came up at me again . . . I remember he had a gun in his boot-strap. Clipped me in the thigh, but I managed a spin shot.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Yeah,” Johnny’s voice was sullen, quiet. “Damn near blew off half his face. But I had no choice, Scott, he had five shots left . . .”
“Hey,” Scott stopped, and draped an arm across Johnny’s shoulders. “Sounds to me that you’re lucky to be alive. You did what you had to do, to survive.”
But Johnny shook his head stubbornly. “I staggered, my aim was off.”
“You had a bullet in your thigh.”
“But you shoulda seen his face, Scott. The bullet went straight through his eye and split his skull . . .”he shuddered, and Scott felt a tremor run through his muscles. “It was real bad. A real mess.”
Trying to hide his own shiver of revulsion, Scott sighed heavily. “Stop it Johnny. What were you supposed to do, let him kill you?”
“I guess not.”
Scott turned to face him. Eyes filled with sympathy and compassion. “It was a lifetime ago. Things are different now – you’re different now. I’m just grateful you made it, that you’re the one who survived.”
Johnny swallowed hard and looked down at the toes of his boots. “Grateful enough to buy me un cerveza grande?”
Scott pretended to consider. “Hmm . . .maybe not that grateful.”
Johnny grinned, and the mood was broken as Scott recognised the gleam of mock-anger in his brother’s blue eyes. He began running for his life towards the Cantina with Johnny hot on his heels.
**** **** **** ****
“And life you shall have
With the flesh of his skin.
And pain he shall know
With the prick of this pin!”
Past her stirring skirts there went a rustling darkness, and the smoky red of the hearth fire flared up for a moment, and faded again into dullness. She looked tenderly at the effigy in her hand, adding the strands of soft black hair to its head with infinite care, and a droplet more of molten wax.
“There my little man. It won’t be long now.”
And humming cheerfully to herself, she laid the poppet on the table. Sprinkling a circle of salt around him with gnarled and practised hands. Criss-crossing a packet of silver pins inside the circle with him, so that they caught in the firelight’s gleam.
“Pretty pins to do my bid,
Into his flesh this pin is slid!”
She smiled almost fondly at the miniature waxen man, and picked up the longest silver pin. Holding its tip over the candle-flame until the metal glowed red-hot.
“By the tip of this pin that is fiery red
The poor little manikin’s hurt his head!”
Looking at it for one last gloating moment, she turned to the poppet and plunged the pin into the top of its head.
**** **** **** ****
Johnny grinned good-naturedly around the supper table as the laughter rang-out at his expense. “Yeah, yeah. It’s all very funny now. What Scott didn’t tell you is ,she was so taken with me, she’s invited me over for chocolate cake once she’s settled in.”
Murdoch groaned, and shook his head. “I swear Johnny, sometimes you get away with blue murder.”
Teresa smiled. “I knew the Campbell house had been sold, but she must have moved in kind of suddenly. Why, it was still empty last week when I was in Morro Coyo.”
“It sounded like she’s still unpacking,” said Scott, tucking into his steak. “It’s a bit unusual though . . .”
“What is?” Teresa’s voice was a little abstracted.
“Why on earth would an elderly widow choose to come and live in a town like Morro Coyo, of all places?”
“It’s not so bad now,” said Teresa loyally. “Not now the valley’s clear of men like Pardee . . .” She paused, her mind working furiously. Murdoch recognised the signs, and dropped both his sons a slow wink.
“Maybe I should get one of the men to run me into town tomorrow. I should think she’ll need a hand to unpack . . . and then of course, she’ll want to know about the Ladies Guild – and perhaps I can introduce her to some of the townsfolk . . .”
She looked up into their grinning faces, and made a moue of mock chagrin. “Oh you four. I don’t know why I bother. I was only thinking of being neighbourly.”
“Nothing to do with being curious of course,” teased Scott, his smile widening.
“Or even downright nosey,” agreed Johnny, as he enjoyed the gleam of battle he saw lighting in her eye.
“Now, now . . .” said Murdoch hurriedly. “Teresa’s quite right, but let’s give the poor woman another couple of days to move-in properly. Maybe then, it would be a nice gesture to invite her out here for supper.”
“Yep,” nodded Johnny innocently, his imp of mischief really roused now as he glanced across at Jelly. “Good lookin’ widow woman. You never know Jelly. . .”
“Uhhh. . .?” Jelly looked up with a start, dropping his fork with a clang. The expression of alarm on his face so comical, that Murdoch nearly choked.
“Johnny. . .!”
He shot his youngest son his best reproving glance, and then turned back to Teresa with a hurried change of subject. “Any luck with the mysterious disappearing laundry, honey?”
“No.” She frowned and shook her head. “It really is very odd. I’ve looked everywhere. Even checked to see I hadn’t already put them away, and forgotten about it.”
“What’s this?” Scott looked up, having been the first one to master and smother his laughter at poor Jelly’s expense.
Teresa shrugged perplexedly. “I’m afraid the only conclusion I can draw is, someone helped themselves to the washing I hung out on the line a couple of days ago.”
She couldn’t quite bring herself to say the word “stole”, but the implication was clearly there, and Scott raised a surprised eyebrow.
“What was taken?”
She spread her hands. “Oh nothing much. In-fact not much at all. Just a couple of shirts . . .” she looked across at Johnny sympathetically. “Yours I’m afraid, Johnny.”
“Not the blue?”
She nodded regretfully. “I know it was one of your favourites. I thought I might see if there’s another one the next time I go into Spanish Wells. Whoever it was, took a white one as well.”
“Well there’s one thing ’bout it,” grunted Jelly slyly, not missing the opportunity to get a little of his own back. “We jist gotta look out fer someone with a terrible taste in shirts. Aint hard ter miss thet blue flowery thing – aint exactly understated is it?”
Even though he joined in the general round of laughter again, Johnny couldn’t help the small frisson of unease that persisted inside him. It was ridiculous to feel this way about clothes, but he was aware of a huge sense of relief it hadn’t been his favourite salmon shirt.
That shirt was part of who he was, of who he had been. When he’d first come back to Lancer he’d had two of them. But one had been cut off his unconscious body, and the one that remained had been darned by a quietly understanding Teresa more times than he could remember.
He had plenty of others – newer, similar. But this was all that remained of John Madrid, and it would hurt out of all proportion to lose it.
Looking up again, he caught Teresa’s eye and realised she’d guessed what he was thinking, as she gave him a small supportive smile. She knew for exactly the same reason she patiently darned every rip and tear in that self-same salmon shirt, even though it would have been far easier to consign it to the duster-bin by now and give it up for lost.
Their eyes held for a second, as he tried to convey his gratitude. Oblivious to the fact that the conversation all around them had moved onto another topic.
Pain . . .
Shocking and agonising, as a spear lanced down through the top of his head and drove him to his knees beside the table. The room spun and faded into a kaleidoscope of whirling colours, as he reached out blindly for help, and the walls receded and contracted about him.
Someone moaning softly as the pain threatened to split his skull asunder – someone catching tight hold of his hands and calling out his name. White-hot shafting torment as he clutched at his head. Someone moaning . . .
Was it really him?
And then he was flat on his back. The flagstones cool against his skin. The darkness engulfed him and all sensation faded, as it carried him into the blessedness of the void.
**** **** **** ****
Teresa met Johnny’s eyes with sympathy. Strange that the others – and yes, even Scott, should be so unaware of how much the few meagre possessions he’d brought to Lancer still meant to him. It was as though he held onto them to keep grounded. To remind himself of everything he’d gained, everything he’d lost.
She was the first to realise there was something wrong as his expression changed. His hands flying convulsively up to his head.
Pushing back her chair, she jumped to her feet as time seemed to spin and hang suspended in slow motion. She was vaguely aware of Scott and Murdoch’s expressions of dawning horror as Johnny staggered and then fell forwards onto his knees – clawing desperately at the crown of his head as he swayed there for a second, on the floor.
She flew to his side. Closely followed by Murdoch who caught him tightly in his arms and lowered him gently onto the tiles. Taking both his hands in hers, and calling to him frantically.
“Johnny what’s wrong – can you hear me?”
“Son . . .” Murdoch looked across at her helplessly, as Johnny began to sag limply against him. His battle with consciousness lost.
“What in God’s name is wrong with him, Scott? Did he hit his head today, is there anything you’re not telling us?”
“No,” said Scott. Face almost as pale as his brother’s as he knelt beside him on the flagstones. “Nothing at all. Although . . .”
Something flickered guiltily inside him. “He did load the wagon on his own in the hot sun. Maybe he picked up a touch of sunstroke.”
Teresa took a pile of napkins and the pitcher of water from the table. Placing a cool compress across Johnny’s brow, as Jelly bustled across to the door, face tight and strained with worry.
“I’ll send someone into town fer Sam.”
“Thank you Jelly,” said Teresa. Taking charge despite the painful thumping of her own heart. “Come on, let’s get him up to his room and make him comfortable.”
She didn’t miss the guilt and conflict in Scott’s eyes, and although it tore at her, she had no time for it now. Standing back to watch, whilst Murdoch lifted Johnny easily against his chest. Striding grim-faced up the staircase – the dark head of his son flopping over his arm.
**** **** **** ****
Confusion, softness . . .
The cool sharp scent of lavender and the smoothness of his pillows. A memory of pain. Johnny opened his eyes cautiously. Terrified the pain would return if he moved too quickly or suddenly. The mind-numbing agony of it still too fresh in his memory.
It was Teresa. A smile of relief in her voice, as she sat beside him on the bed and removed the compress from his forehead. He frowned at her, eyes crinkling in confusion.
“What happened to me?”
She shook her head at him reprovingly. “Sunstroke we think. What were you doing – loading the wagon by yourself in the noon-day sun with no hat on?”
His forehead creased again in perplexion. “I’m half Mexican, Teresa. I’ve never had sunstroke in my entire life.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”
“Tal vez . . .” he murmured, still decidedly unconvinced.
Scott detached himself from the window-seat and moved across to stand at Teresa’s shoulder, a troubled look on his face. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let you do it alone . . .”
Johnny raised a wry eyebrow at him, and smiled softly. “It’s never bothered you before, Boston. Just like all the times it never bothered me when it was my turn.”
Their eyes locked for a second. Stubborn blue on dogged blue, as they battled without words. Teresa watched with interest to see who won. Round one went to Johnny, but she suspected it was only because he had a temporary advantage as the invalid.
A rumble of voices on the stairs heralded the arrival of Sam Jenkins. Both Scott and Teresa grinning in-spite of themselves, at the expression of comic dismay on Johnny’s face once he realised who it was.
“Sorry baby brother.” Scott had recovered some of his guilt-ridden equilibrium by now. “It just had to be done.”
“No it didn’t,” grunted Johnny disconsolately. Closing his eyes again to shut out their smiling faces.
“Oh yes it did.” Teresa agreed with Scott, not wanting Johnny to have things entirely his own way, as the bedroom door opened and Murdoch ushered Jenkins into the room. She caught quick hold of Scott’s elbow, and the two of them left Johnny to his fate.
Forty minutes later, Jenkins came back down alone and put their slightly anxious fears to rest by smiling broadly at them. “Nothing too serious to worry about this time. Is that some of your good coffee I can smell, Teresa?”
“I’ll get you a cup,” she replied a trifle ruefully – unable to miss the inflexion he placed on the words ‘this time,’ and reflecting that unfortunately, he was quite right.
Johnny had used up more than his fair share of Sam’s time during the last couple of years, and on a few desperate occasions, the physician had been forced to put up quite a fight for his very life.
“Thanks.” Jenkins sat down and took a grateful sip. “That’s just what the doctor ordered . . .”
Scott smiled politely at the hackneyed old joke, and tried to avoid Teresa’s eye as he got straight to the point. “Was it sunstroke?”
“Well I’ve examined Johnny really thoroughly. There’s no other explanation for it, if he didn’t bang his head. He doesn’t suffer from migraine headaches – although this could be a first time attack I suppose . . .but no. I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure he has sunstroke.”
“No. He definitely didn’t bang his head.” Scott wrinkled his brow. “But the pain was so intense, Sam. You know Johnny as well as I do. It takes a lot to get that kind of reaction from him; he must have been in agony.”
Sam shrugged. “Sometimes the headaches that accompany a severe case of sunstroke can hurt like hell. You know, you’ve suffered from it.”
But Scott was suddenly unconvinced. “Yes, but I’m fair. Johnny’s used to the sun. To being bareheaded. Why should he get a dose of it now?”
“Oh lots of reasons. He could have been dehydrated . . .” Sam coughed delicately. “If he’d been drinking alcohol perhaps?”
Scott remembered the couple of beers they’d had in the Cantina, but it still didn’t seem to tie in with the amount of pain he’d seen his brother in. He had a sudden vision of the supper table again. The look of supreme agony on Johnny’s twisted face as he’d fallen to his knees and clutched at his head.
Teresa touched his arm gently, as though she’d read his mind. He turned to her gratefully and relaxed a little. Sam Jenkins was a good doctor. Better than good in-fact, and he’d saved Johnny’s life at least once in the past. If he said he’d examined him thoroughly, then that ought to be good enough for Scott.
The coils of tension that had gripped him since the beginning of the whole incident began to uncurl in his gut. Releasing their insidious hold, as he was flooded with a wash of quick, overwhelming relief and thankfulness.
It wasn’t anything serious. Johnny would be all right.
**** **** **** ****
“Thanks be, little pin
Your work now is over.
Take you out with a pull
And make room for another.”
She removed the pin with a chuckle, and discarded it into the smoking fire. Holding the poppet up to the candle flame, and examining the tiny hole in the top of it’s head.
“My my, Ezekiel. That must have been a painful one.”
He shuffled forwards. Single eye eager, as he reached out a hand. “Want to see the Pretty One . . .”
She smacked his fingers away, and his lips trembled with pain and shock.
“Ezekiel only wanted to look.”
“There, there, son.” She pulled him closer, and held the effigy out towards him. “Look at his head. Now he has a hole in it – just like the one he gave to you.”
“No,” scowled Ezekiel sulkily. “He’s still pretty. Ezekiel not pretty anymore.”
Her eyes flashed briefly with fury, but it wasn’t directed at him as her grip tightened on the poppet, fingers choosing another pin. “It cannot be rushed. We must wait for the blood moon – and yet . . .” her hand hovered, as her face twisted with hatred.
“Do it Ma, do it!”
She caught herself up with a reluctant sigh. “No. It must wait until the morning. We mustn’t rush it now, not when we are so close. It must be done just right. Now think, Ezekiel, think . . .When you shot him, where did it hit?”
Ezekiel bowed his head and frowned with concentration. Straining with the effort of remembrance. “Ezekiel shot the Pretty One . . .”
But where did you shoot him? Now think hard – it’s real important. Think!”
Ezekiel clapped a hand to his thigh. Looking at her in triumph, as the mists cleared in his scattered and hazy recollections. “It were his leg Ma. I shot him in the leg and he fell down.”
A mirthless smile stretched tightly across her lips, as she nodded slowly and patted him fondly on the head.
“The gunfighter dips and draws
The gunfighter draws and dips.
And he turns away to the side,
With a swivel of his hips!”
She laughed out loud.
“The Pretty One is a right-handed gun,
He’ll perform a right-sided spin,
And Ezekiel’s bullet would hit in the left
And burn its way right in!”
She moved across to the window, and stared at the moon through the glass. The night was dark and starless, and thin wisps of cloud danced across the sky like smoke. There was a slight red halo around the waning moon, and she nodded her head as she watched it.
“Blood on the moon
Blood on the moon.
The time of the reckoning
Will be with us soon.”
And turning back to Ezekiel with an expression of motherly concern, she chivvied him over to the door in the corner of the room and placed her hand on the latch.
“Back down to the cellar for you, my boy. It’s way past your bedtime, and it’ll soon be getting light. We don’t want anyone from this nasty little town to see you now, do we?”
He made a face and hung his head, as he shuffled through the door and lingered at the top of the stairs. “Ezekiel don’t like it in the cellar.”
She took the keys from the chain attached to her belt, and tilted her head at him fondly. “It won’t be for long now, my son. And then you’ll be free of the cellar for ever. Free of the cellar, and free of the prison the Pretty One condemned you to, when he put his wicked bullet in your brain. Think what we’ll be able to do, Ezekiel. The places we’ll be able to go, the thing we’ll be able to see . . .”
“And Ezekiel’ll be pretty again?”
“Yes.” She ushered him down the steps. Back to the engulfing blackness, watching as it swallowed him up. “Ezekiel will be pretty again.”
**** **** **** ****
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Johnny jumped guiltily. Spinning on his heel at the sound of Teresa’s accusatory tone. Putting on his best wheedling smile, he tilted his head at her, and looked at her pleadingly.
“Aw come on Teresa – there’s nuthin’ wrong with me, you heard Sam say so. I’m hungry, so I thought I’d save you goin’ to any trouble, and that maybe I’d . . .”
“Go back to bed.” She finished for him, as she put her hands on her hips and wagged a finger at him. “Sam said you had sunstroke. If you’re hungry, I’ll bring you up a tray in ten minutes or so. But for today, you’ll do as you’re told and stay in bed. And that’s an order.”
“But . . .”
“Back to bed now. Poco pronto!”
He looked back at her stubbornly. All trace of entreaty gone now, as for a second or two, their eyes locked together in a fierce battle of wills. His were the first to fall.
“Tyrant. Tirana . . .”
“What did you say, Johnny dear?” She twinkled at him innocently. Watching as he leant on the doorframe, and broke into a heart-stopping smile. The smile widened.
“I said – Teresa, Teresa, how pretty you look this morning. And by the way, is that a new skirt you’re wearing?”
Her face melted, shaking her head at him gently. “Nice try, but it doesn’t change a thing. Get back up to your room, and I’ll bring you some eggs in a minute.”
He sighed disconsolately, but knew when he was beaten as he turned to leave the room. Pausing for a second, as he looked back over at her.
“Teresa, about the shirt . . .”
She picked four big, brown eggs out of the rack, and reached across for a bowl. “I understand.”
“I just wanted to say gracias.”
She smiled, but continued cracking the eggs into the bowl as she waited. “There’s no need.”
“Yes there is,” he answered softly. “There’s every need, and I wanted you to know it.”
He grasped the door-handle as she picked up the whisk. “Oh, and by the way, that really is a fetchin’ skirt, and you really do look pretty this mornin’.”
She heard his cat-like tread in the passageway, and then he was gone. Putting the whisk carefully into the bowl, she looked down at her brand new, blue skirt. Trust Johnny to be the only one to notice. She’d already sat down to breakfast with Murdoch, Scott and Jelly, and not one of them had said a word.
She sometimes wondered if any of them would even notice if she wore a feed-sack one day – just so long as she served their eggs. Chuckling quietly to herself, she began to set a tray as the eggs fluffed up nicely in the pan.
Now that was a novel thought, and she expanded on it a little in her mind. Cheeks reddening, as she recalled the story of Lady Godiva who’d ridden naked through the streets of Coventry to save her husband’s life. No question of Johnny not noticing if she did that, but she still had her doubts about the others.
The roses at the kitchen window caught her eye, and as a quick afterthought, she popped outside to pick one. Placing it onto Johnny’s tray as a reward for good behaviour.
**** **** **** ****
Johnny walked slowly along the landing to his room. Absentmindedly un-doing his shirt buttons, as a pleasing confliction of thoughts waged war inside his head.
On the one-hand, a nagging frustration at his sudden, unexpected confinement still lingered. On the other, he felt a warm feeling of pleasure at the thought of going back to his cosy bed. Of being spoilt rotten by Teresa and Maria for the rest of the day. Maybe Teresa would let him sit down on the veranda after lunch. There was nothing to stop him from taking it relatively easy under the canopy of jasmine and curling grapevine, and she’d be able to keep him company so he wouldn’t have time to get too bored . . .
The exquisite stab of pain took him totally by surprise. It lanced through his thigh like a knife, forcing him down to his knees as he caught hold of the banisters, and took a series of ragged breaths. Holding on tight for dear life. It felt like someone had spiked him with a red-hot skewer. The agony almost unbearable, as beads of sweat broke out across his upper lip, and he fought against the dizziness and torment.
For a gut-clenching moment, he thought he was going to pass out, as wave after wave of giddy nausea swept over him like the tides. It was all he could do not to succumb and slump into a heap upon the floor. Only the realisation it would be Teresa who found him, helped him sustain a grip on reality. And gritting his teeth hard, he took another, deeper breath. Forced his head to clear slightly.
He braced himself against the smooth wooden banisters. Waiting for the oxygen to begin circulating through his veins again, before beginning to haul himself, hand over agonising hand, towards his bedroom door.
Somehow – God alone only knew how, he made it to the relative sanctuary of his room. But he didn’t get as far as the bed. One particularly vicious wave of pain sinking him down on the rug beside the night-stand. He lay there shaking. The sensation that someone was twisting a spear against his thigh-bone, the only way he could think of describing the pain that abraded his shrieking limb.
He rode with it for a few more stomach-churning moments, and just when he was beginning to despair of his ability to endure anymore, the pain was gone as suddenly as it had come.
Closing his eyes in relief, he lay on the floor as he was for a minute or two, feeling dizzy and light-headed. Part of him still too terrified to move in case the agony came screaming back again.
But all that remained was a dull, bruise-like ache. Throbbing in time to the rhythm of his heart-beat. An insidious reminder of the ordeal he’d undergone. Hovering like a threat, and promising to punish him again.
He set his jaw in stubborn determination, and opened his eyes. Relieved to see his room was no longer spinning. Hauling himself to his feet again, as he undid his pants, and perched warily on the edge of the bed to examine his left thigh.
The throb seemed to have localised to a small, uneven area over the outer aspect of his left hamstring. A pink, slightly puckered patch of scar tissue that made a telling contrast against the surrounding golden skin.
He placed his finger over it slowly, and suddenly went cold as he remembered the man who had put it there. Zeke Shipton. By a macabre coincidence, it was Zeke Shipton. An image of the man’s face came flooding back to haunt him all over again.
Shipton had been a good looking man, and vain enough to know it. Tall and dark-haired. An arrogant son of a bitch, who fancied himself an expert with the ladies and his gun. He and Johnny had crossed paths on a couple of occasions during the time he’d hired out along the borders, but they’d always been on the same payroll at first. When they’d met for a third time however, they’d been hired by opposing sides and Johnny sensed Shipton was glad of it. It was an opportunity for him to pander to his vanity. To prove he was the better man. The quicker draw, the faster gun.
Except he’d failed spectacularly to do all three, and Johnny could still remember his own feeling of vague surprise at the ease with which he’d beaten Shipton.
He’d even had time to allow himself the luxury of a shoulder shot. A mistaken sense of altruism deluding him into believing they could settle it and walk away alive.
To this day, he’d never known what made him aware it wasn’t over. Recalling the shiver of sixth sense that had made him spin again, as the bullet slammed into his thigh. The indefinable instinct that had saved his life as he’d crouched and swivelled. The colt leaping back into his hand, as Shipton shot him with the second gun he wore concealed in his boot.
But the wound had made him stagger, and his usual flawless aim was high. His bullet took Shipton right in the left eyeball, and split the man’s skull apart.
The horror he’d felt on the day was as fresh and hideous now. Assailing him again, with a nightmarish vision of Shipton’s face.The thick pool of dark, viscous blood spreading slowly round his mangled head – the stark ivory contrast of the bone fragments and exposed skull. Gelid mass of splayed eyeball staring accusingly up at him from the shattered cheekbone.
Johnny shuddered helplessly. Closing his own eyes to blot out the images, aware he was trembling all over. But whether from the aftershock of pain or the horror of his memories, it was difficult to hazard an accurate guess. The two had merged into a tangle of twisted thread.
A quick, light tread on the stairs heralded Teresa’s imminent arrival. Pulling himself together, Johnny peeled off his pants and made it under the covers with only seconds to spare, before he heard her gentle tap at the door.
She was in a particularly good mood when she came in – her new embroidered skirts swishing about her ankles like a bell. Gratified and slightly surprised to find him actually being so compliant and doing what he was told for a change, as she gave him a sunny smile, and promised to come-up and play cards with him later.
He looked at the plate of eggs. Fluffy and golden just as he liked them, and cooked he knew, with infinite care and attention. But all he could see was a vision of Zeke Shipton’s pulverised face superimposed on the plate. And he discovered very quickly, his appetite had long-since fled.
**** **** **** ****
“I’ve told you,” said Johnny, with measureless patience and a tiny sigh. “There is absolutely nuthin’ wrong with me anymore. Other than an unholy desire to kick your sorry . . .”
“I get the message.”
Scott threw his hands up hastily, grinning in spite of himself as he regarded his younger brother critically, and reflected he probably was over-doing the mother hen bit slightly.
“We’ll make a deal.”
Johnny smiled back at him sweetly. “We might. Depends on the deal.”
Scott ignored this, and cleared his throat. “As I was saying before being so rudely interrupted, we’ll make a deal. Seeing as you’re the one who’s been so bored the last two days, you get to ride into town with those papers for Murdoch. I get the fencing with Jelly.”
Johnny stared at him enigmatically, his blue eyes deceptively soft. “Still babyin’ me, Boston?”
“So indulge me,” said Scott lightly. “I thought you hated fencing.”
“I do, but what about Mercedes? She’s gonna reckon you’re losin’ interest.”
Scott swallowed hard. Valiantly hiding the quick pang of regret as he fought off the brief image of a dimpled chin, gently curving hips and flashing eyes . . .
“There’ll be another time.”
“I could always drop by and see her,” offered Johnny innocently, a tiny spark of devilry dancing in his smile. “Give her the message in person.”
Scott’s expression remained bland. “You do, baby brother, and I’ll be the one kicking your sorry . . .”
“I get the message,” mimicked Johnny. Grin wide now, as he lifted his hat onto his head and tightened the string beneath his chin. Unable to help himself, Scott nodded in approval.
“See you keep that on your head this time.”
“Scott . . .” Johnny’s warning growl came to an abrupt halt as Jelly and Teresa joined them at the hitching rail, and she gave him an encouraging nod.
“Glad to see you have your hat on, Johnny. Now make sure you don’t push things too hard today, and no stopping off in the Cantina when you get to town.”
“No, Teresa,” he said obediently. More than aware of Scott’s sudden inexplicable fit of choking behind him.
“Or if you do,” she continued abstractedly, “ask Mose to let you have some milk. You should drink something, but not beer of course. Remember what Sam said.”
She stopped and looked at him suspiciously. “Is that no you won’t, or no you will. Yes you do, or yes you don’t?”
He grinned, and bent to plant a soft kiss on her cheek. “It’s yes I might, and no I may. Don’t worry about me Chica. I’ll be fine . . .” and with that, he vaulted neatly over the rail and strolled across to the stables. “Enjoy the fencin’ fellas. Oh and Scottie . . .I’ll give Mercedes your love. Hasta luego.”
A couple of minutes later they watched him ride away on Barranca. The palomino’s coat glowing golden in the sun. Even from this distance, Scott could almost feel the sense of freedom that seemed to emanate from his brother. The way the kinks were rolling out of his system as he arched his spine in pleasure, lifting his face to the skies.
Scott couldn’t help smiling slightly as he watched them go. The phrase “free spirit” could have been coined especially for Johnny, and it even suited the horse he’d chosen to ride. Both of them were just a little wild with that indefinable vital spark. Each full of sand and mettle, essence somehow tantalising. Slightly out of reach.
Teresa sighed beside him. Eyes on Johnny too, as she put her arm on his in a small, comforting gesture. “There’s something so evasive . . .”
“I know. One day . . .”
She sighed again, but this time with frustration. “Why is it I know he won’t take any notice of a single word I just said to him?”
Jelly snorted, and Scott smiled with gentle exasperation. “This is Johnny we’re talking about, Teresa honey.”
“Yes,” she watched him disappearing into the distance, and shook her head a little soberly. “I just wish he’d take better care of himself, Scott.” She paused; “or maybe I just wish he thought he was worth taking better care of.”
And with that, she turned abruptly on her heel and headed back towards the hacienda, leaving the rest of her sentence loudly unsaid. Scott watched his brother fade off into the distance. Both horse and rider a tiny vanishing speck on the horizon now. He was filled with a sudden, inexplicable feeling of unease as he saw them swallowed up totally by the sense of space.
One minute there, one minute gone. As though they had never existed at all.
**** **** **** ****
Humming happily to herself, she melted the grated chocolate over a bowl of hot water and smiled secretively as she added the sugar. Watching it dissolve into the thick, sweet-smelling mixture.
“I know it’s your favourite, my Pretty One . . .”
She gave it one last stir. Dipping her finger in for a taste. The sun had risen clear and bright outside, as the morning stretched onwards into a searing day. So hot, that the heat rose up off the ground in silver shimmers of haze.
But inside the house, it was dark as a cave. The curtains pulled against the light, overwhelming sense of gloom so strong, it seemed to pervade the very air itself with dark and dampening fingers.
She paused suddenly, and lifted her head as if listening for a far off sound. “I hear him my pretty little man, oh yes, I hear him.”
Whipping the melted chocolate into the cake mixture, she began to beat it firmly together. Sniffing appreciatively, as the rich warm aroma of the chocolate filled the little kitchen.
“On this bright day
He rides this way,
He will not wait
To meet his fate!”
And tapping the mixture into a metal cake-tin, she ran the spatula round the sides of the bowl so as not to miss a drop. Smoothing it down with a flourish, and then popping it into the oven with a satisfied sigh.
Straightening up, her eyes lit on the figure of the effigy lying there in his circle of salt and pins. Her demeanour changed subtly as she approached the table again, and lit the waiting candle. The flame leapt upwards, bright and strong as a spear, and she stilled, gazing into it for a moment as it illuminated the planes and hollows of her face with rifts and dancing shadows.
For a fleeting second the malevolence vanished. All the cleansing light revealed was the face of an ordinary woman. Careworn and submerged by her grief, lined with the telltale touch of time and hardship, travail and strife.
But the image was illusory. Gone as suddenly as it had come. Whilst the flame guttered, and the evil glittered in her eyes once more. Fingers hovering over the pins.
“A pin in his head
To us he is led.
A pin in his arm
To do us no harm.”
Picking up the poppet, she regarded it fondly. Fingertips lingering caressingly on the top of its head, as she selected a long sharp pin. Stabbing it down through the crown as hard as she could. She chose another pin – pushing the blunted end into the effigy’s right arm and grinding it round with relish.
“The pain in his head will make him groan,
The fall from his horse will snap his bone!”
And then she replaced it into the circle with infinite care. Taking tender pains not to dislodge the silver pins as they gleamed in the light from the candle flame.
**** **** **** ****
Johnny sat back loosely in the saddle. Enjoying the warm sense of freedom that crept insidiously through his veins as he admired the view. Rolling his shoulders from sheer pleasure at the feeling of hot sun on his back.
He was five minutes or so from Morro Coyo, and surprise surprise, he’d made it this far without a single mishap. Shaking his head slightly, he thought of his family with fond exasperation and a faint, underlying thread of astonishment. It was still hard for him to believe anyone could care for him so much. It made him smile all over again.
It felt novel. Infuriating at times to say the least, after all the solo years. The years of being alone and drifting wherever the breeze blew him.
And he was the first to acknowledge that in the beginning, it had felt restrictive. Suffocating almost. A feeling of being bridled and hemmed-in for the first time in his life, which had almost choked him. But that was in the early days, and things were different now. They’d changed beyond all recognition, just like his life. He was honest enough to admit he could still hardly believe his luck.
He’d been so lonely.
So alone, he’d resigned himself to dying young and unmourned. It never really bothered him. It was part of what he was. An occupational hazard. Living flat out, in a brief burst of glory, only to fade like a dying sun.
No more and no less than he’d expected. No more and no less than he’d deserved. But then fate had intervened, changing everything forever. A few seconds later and he would have been dead. Unknown and ungrieved for – the pathway he’d followed all his life weaving to its meaningless, inevitable end.
He thought of it every time Teresa nagged him. Every time Scott looked at him in that particular way of his and sighed his “Johnny” sigh . . .
He could even understand a little better why the Old Man got so irritated with him sometimes. He knew it was just a way Murdoch coped with showing his concern. And that’s why he’d learned to bite his tongue most of the time. Why he’d behaved himself for Teresa over the last couple of days – put up with her fussing over him.
He still couldn’t accept he’d had sunstroke. He’d run around this country bareheaded the whole of his life, and never had a problem before. Now if it had been Scott again, like the time when he’d got lost and had been so sick . . .
Or even the Old Man who’s hair was, to put it delicately, not quite as abundant as it had been once . . .
And besides, it didn’t explain the pain in his leg. Perhaps if he had been dehydrated, then maybe he’d had a severe form of cramp and it was just a bizarre coincidence the pain had localised in that particular old scar. Perhaps – but then again, perhaps not.
All of a sudden the warm glow faded, and he shivered slightly at the uncannyness of it all. At the grisly recollection of Zeke Shipton’s face. The memories came crowding back once more, blotting out the beauty of the scenery.
And then it hit him again.
The red hot poker in his brain. Piercing his skull with waves of throbbing agony. Stealing his will to think or even function . . .The sickening stabs that made him lose his grip on the reins. Slumping nervelessly forwards across Barranca’s neck, unable to help himself as a low moan of pain issued forth from between his lips.
All of a sudden he was sliding sideways. Too weak and traumatised to keep hold of the reins. Barely aware of the burn of the leather as his strength left in a rush of heat and cold, and he knew in one terrible moment he was falling from the saddle. The hard ground coming up at him.
He hit and twisted sideward. Stunned by the impact. Lost in the dust and agony that lanced through the skull-splitting, spine-shaking, muscle-agonising pain, as he crushed his right arm beneath him and heard the ominous crack of his own bones.
Through the dust and the darkness, he could make out Barranca’s hooves dancing backwards – the hard prickle of rubble and small stones against his cheek, and then the light seemed to be receding as the sky faded to a pin-prick of blue and vanished completely. He knew nothing more.
She waited awhile. Watching his struggles dispassionately until he’d lain immobile for at least five minutes. The handsome palomino standing over him nervously and rolling his eyes.
Clicking her own horse on, she moved the wagon out of the concealing rocks and trundled down towards him. Ezekiel swaying like an eager child beside her, trembling with barely suppressed excitement. Pulling the wagon to a halt, she put a restraining hand on Ezekiel’s arm before climbing down first, and making her way across the rocky ground towards Johnny.
As she approached him, Barranca snorted. Spinning away from her with a toss of his golden head, and galloping off in a cloud of dust. She barely spared the horse a glance. All of her attention was focused on the figure lying at her feet as she crouched laboriously over him, and rolled him onto his back.
He offered no resistance. Muscles soft and slack with inertia. Face pale beneath it’s tan, and she nodded in satisfaction as she peeled back an eyelid and regarded the dilated pupil.
His right arm was twisted at an impossible angle, and for the first time since she’d observed his fall, her lips stretched back into a vindictive smile as she removed his gun from its holster.
“Where’s your power now, my Pretty One? Now that you’ve lost your gun and the means to fire it.”
“Ma!” Ezekiel called impatiently from the wagon, his voice truculent and short-tempered. “Can I see him now Ma, can I?”
“May as well get used to looking at him Ezekiel, because soon it’ll be just like looking at yourself. Here, help me get him loaded into the wagon. Cover him up with that tarpaulin. We don’t want anyone seeing us on the way back into town.”
Ezekiel stared down at his nemesis. The Pretty One. A jumbled mess of memories chasing hazily through his mind. The envy and resentment at his prowess and success with the women. His youth and brazen confidence, the contempt that had sparkled in those bright blue eyes.
Ezekiel could no longer name those emotions, but the feelings they evoked came back to him with a vengeance – all of them triggered by the sight of Johnny in the flesh. Unable to control himself any longer, he lashed out with his foot.
“Ezekiel. No. . .!”
She grasped his arm urgently. Pulling him away with difficulty, as he turned to gloat at her. A kind of blind madness in his eye. “Let me be. Let me be . . .”
“Stop it now!” Her temper flashed out at him. “You do as I say – he’s no good to us dead.” She knelt down and rolled Johnny onto his back. Running her hands along his ribcage in anger and dismay. “You’ve gone and bust a rib or two. You and those great big feet of yours. You’d best hope you haven’t hurt him too bad. It’s you that’ll feel the pain once we’ve made him pay.”
Ezekiel hung his head shame-facedly. “I’m sorry, Ma.”
She softened immediately. “I understand why you did it son, I understand how you feel. But you have to do as I say and trust your Ma on this one. Now, get him under the tarpaulin. There’s not much longer to wait anymore.”
And looking up, she smiled in anticipation at the sky.
“Blood on the moon
The time is now right.
The time of the reckoning
Is with us tonight!”
**** **** **** ****
Standing on the second rung of the corral fence, she strained her eyes into the distance beyond the sweep of the green lawns. Past the shade of the oak trees and out towards the protective swell of the mountains, as she sighed, and knew she searched in vain.
Instinct – the tiny voice inside her, dancing on the fringes of her consciousness all day had warned her of this. Intuition, sixth sense, call it what you will. She wished with all her heart she’d paid more heed to it this morning as she’d watched him ride away . . .
There were a million tangled threads of confusion in her mind. All her anxieties warring for attention, as each successive worry chased after the next. She continued to scan the mellowing horizon for any sign of life.
It was nearly six o’clock and Johnny still hadn’t returned from Morro Coyo. She’d expected him after lunch at the latest, and he’d promised her he’d be on time. In fact, he’d given her his word of honour. She couldn’t rid herself of the feeling something was very wrong.
“Teresa?” Scott’s hand fell on her slender shoulder.
“He’s not coming, Scott.”
“There has to be a good explanation, you know what he’s like . . .”
“Please go after him.”
He stopped. A little surprised at the vehemence of her tone, as he pulled her down off the rails, and swung her round to face him.
She hesitated for a second. But when she looked up at him, he saw her eyes were huge and dilated with fear, and his heart gave a leap of unease as something primal inside him responded to the unspoken anguish in her soul.
“Teresa . . .”
She shook her head with bleak bewilderment. “There’s something wrong. Something threatening him. Something awful, dark . . .”
She shivered violently, the anxiety growing ever stronger. The fear inside her undiminished. “I can’t explain it Scott. And the more I try, the more irrational it sounds. It’s just a feeling, and it’s getting worse and worse with every hour that passes.”
His hand tightened fleetingly on her shoulder, as he sought to reassure her. To give her some degree of comfort. “Like I said before, you know Johnny – he’s not exactly the clock watching type. And he’s been so bored the last couple of days he’s prob . . .”
“Scott . . .look . . .”
And he realised then, she hadn’t heard a single word he’d said. Eyes wide and round with horror, mesmerised as she watched the riderless horse canter towards them. The evening sun reflecting off the patina of his golden coat.
He vaulted the fence and moved to intercept the palomino. Forcing himself to approach the nervous pony as calmly as he could, even though every instinct in his own body was trembling with urgency now. He took a firm grip on the bridle as Teresa reached his side. Face pale and grim with acceptance, as she waited whilst he made a cursory examination of the horse.
“He doesn’t appear to be hurt in any way. Saddle’s intact, girth’s okay. There’s no sign of any . . .” he paused, and swallowed hard. The word sticking firmly in his throat.
“No sign of any blood,” she finished calmly. Stroking Barranca’s nose soothingly, and trying to quell the agitation fluttering in her own breast.
Scott heaved his shoulders uneasily. “Maybe he just broke lose and came home by himself.”
He was clutching at straws and he knew it, as she gave him a slightly scornful glance, and repeated the words she’d said to him earlier.
“Please go after him.”
But he’d already made up his mind to do just that, as Murdoch and Jelly appeared suddenly beside them.
“Is the horse alright?”
Scott spun round with a flash of unaccustomed anger. “The horse is fine. How about we go look for Johnny?”
“Son,” Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder. “That’s not what I meant . . .”
“I know.” The flash was doused as soon as it flared. “I apologise. I’m just a little worried.”
Murdoch nodded, his lips tight. “Jelly, take Barranca back to the barn and look him over properly for me. You know how fussy Johnny is about that pony.”
Taking the reins from Scott, Jelly hesitated for a moment. “You two’s goin’ off ter find him?”
“Yes.” Murdoch’s tone was grim and final. “We’ll have him back before you know it.”
“Well that’s good.” Jelly blinked fiercely. “And you tell him from me, he oughta take better care of his horse next time!”
“They will, Jelly,” said Teresa gently. Linking her arm through his, as she began to lead him across to the barn. She looked back over her shoulder at Scott for one last time, pledging him to remember her words with her eyes.
But there was no chance of him forgetting them. They stuck in his mind and refused to budge, along with the image of her frightened face. The unpleasant mental picture conjured up by what she’d said.
” . . . something awful, dark . . .”
He shook himself. Trying to pull himself together – knowing he’d be no use to Johnny if he got into a state of gloom, and aware of Murdoch watching him with a strange expression on his face.
“What is it, son?”
“There’s something about all this that doesn’t feel right. That hasn’t felt right for a while . . .I just can’t quite put my finger on it.”
Murdoch looked up at the sky. Quickly gauging the position of the sinking sun, and how many hours of daylight were left to them. “We need to get going for Morro Coyo now if there’s any hope of using the light, Scott.”
“I know. I’ll go saddle the horses right away.”
Their eyes met, and for a moment, each caught a glimpse of the deep anxiety that lay just beyond the surface in the other man’s soul. Although neither felt able to articulate their feelings into words.
**** **** **** ****
Johnny fought and struggled his way up through a nightmarish jungle of scattered images. His body rocked and heaved. Everything spinning frantically like a pinwheel. Despite the fact it was dark, and his eyes remained firmly closed.
He felt desperately sick. Stomach clenching and unclenching on nothing, as he lay in total misery, trying to calm the volcano that insisted on erupting in his head.
He was lost and totally confused. Disorientated, without a single clue as to where he was or what had happened. Pain stabbed behind his eyes, and a dull grating shift in his chest caught him every time he took a careful, shallow breath.
But the worst by far, and the one thing that scared him the most, was the sickening burn in his right arm. Slowly and gradually the memory of falling returned. He recalled with a quick stab of dismay, the crack and crunching of his bones.
Oh God, his arm. His right arm!
The sheer panic blanked out every other aspect of his predicament from his mind. Trying to flex his fingers, he discovered they were as swollen and useless as bloated sausages. His breath came in short, staccato bursts of alarm. The sudden attack of hyperventilation hurt his ribs and sent a ripple of pain through his side that he hardly even noticed.
His arm – his right arm. His gun arm!
He tried to force himself to stay calm. To remain composed. But for an unaccustomed, alien moment, the fear kept threatening to overwhelm him. His arm, his gun . . .
It was who he was, what he was. The one thing in the whole wide world that defined him. That set him apart from other men. The ability – be it gift or curse that had raised him out of obscurity. Saved his life and brought him renown. It had blessed him and damned him all at the same time. A small view of heaven, a large view of hell. Oh God . . .
He fought to regain control of himself. To push aside the smouldering blanket of darkness that threatened to engulf him. To steal his ability to think things through – to hold on to any vestige of clear-headedness.
Where was he?
It was pitch-black and he couldn’t see a thing. His head ached with a vengeance. Trying to rub his forehead with his good hand, there was a heavy rattle of metal and he suddenly realised he was chained to the narrow pallet he was lying on.
He tried to move again. Twisting in vain against the restraints he discovered were attached to his ankles as well, and despite his resolution, sheer panic surged through him as he found out he was very effectively trapped. Totally at the mercy of whoever it was had brought him here.
He lay back and swallowed hard – forcing himself to remain as cool as possible as he tried to assume the mantle of dispassionate neutrality that had so characterised Madrid in the build-up to a gunfight.
It had been one of his particular trademarks. The ability to disassociate himself so totally from his surroundings, to focus with a singular and deadly clarity on the man he was to fight. It had been effective too. To the occlusion of almost everything else, until it was all over and he walked away alone.
He tapped back into it now. Summoning up all his fragile mental reserves. Not an easy feat whilst he was lying here a prisoner in the dark. Chained and hurting – helpless and broken.
Where was he? Who had brought him here and why?
He could remember falling. The terrifying pain in his head striking him down again. Robbing him of his senses as he hit the ground with an almighty jar. The uncompromising crash of his body against the earth, and the last, fleeting certainty that his arm was broken before he’d lost consciousness.
He’d been less than five minutes ride from Morro Coyo. Five minutes from the busy little town with it’s bustling sidewalks and it’s relative safety. Which brought him back round to the beginning of the circle again.
Where was he? Who had brought him here – and why?
He ran through the last couple of months in his head. The people he’d met, the places he’d been . . . Anyone or anything he might have come across or done to piss someone off, anything at all . . .
But for once in his life, things had been relatively quiet for quite a while now. He’d been living what he guessed was a normal sort of life for most people. Working the ranch, enjoying his family life, spending his social time with his brother and his other new found friends. Truth was, he kinda liked it.
The feeling of tired satisfaction that came at the end of a hard day’s work. The calluses on his palms. The dirt, his dirt underneath his nails, the food on the table all produced at Lancer.
The vegetables from the garden, the meat and poultry from their own stock, the honey from their bees. For the first time in his drifting, rootless existence, he felt grounded. Like he had a home – a proper home at last. So yeah, he kinda liked it.
There was nothing recent he could think of, which left the usual heart-sinking alternative in its place. Something that had happened before Lancer. Yet another ghost from his damned, be cursed past. Risen like a spectre to haunt him once again.
Gritting his teeth hard, he braced himself against the manacles but they held fast and he realised it was futile. Whoever had shackled him here had not meant him to escape. He raged internally at the strange twist of fate which had led him into this predicament. Wondering uneasily, just what was in store for him next.
A footstep up above him. The creak of a wooden stair. Suddenly, he knew he wouldn’t be waiting much longer to find out. Perceiving the flickering light of a lantern shining underneath the door.
His heart sank as the footsteps grew nearer. He heard the ominous clank and rattle of a bolt being drawn back. A pair of shoulders made huge by the shadow of the lantern filled the doorway for a second, and he took a deep breath, forcing his voice to remain calm and cool.
“‘Bout time you decided to show up. You gonna step forwards, let me see your face?”
The shadow man chuckled, but there was something odd about his laugh. Something inappropriate and wild. More than a little off kilter. Johnny frowned suddenly as a ghostly trail of memory drifted tantalisingly through his mind.
That laugh, it sounded familiar . . .
Afraid now, he tried to raise himself up on the pallet. Flinching back sharply in agony, as the fire caught him in his chest and his arm lay numb and heavy at his side. The movement caused the chains to rattle futiley, and he strained against them with a flash of anger.
He uttered the words, then wished he hadn’t as the figure shuffled forwards and held the lantern high. The beam from the soft, yellow light revealing him for the first time since he’d entered the cellar.
Johnny’s heart went cold. He recoiled in sudden horror, and found himself confronting the object of the nightmares that had plagued him the last few days.
The ghastly dragged down face. The misshapen stoven skull with its few, pathetic wisps of hair . . .but worse – oh infinitely worse of all, the empty accusing eye-socket with its twisted mass of knotted tissue, and livid lumps of scar.
“Shipton . . .”
The word was a dragged out whisper as Johnny fought to tear his gaze away from the man, but found he was unable to look away. His own eyes drawn back with a horrid fascination to the parody of a face. The remnant of what had once been a handsome man. He was responsible for this, he alone had done it. He knew now, he was going to have to pay!
**** **** **** ****
“What do we do now?” Scott dismounted dispiritedly. Unable to keep the edge of unease from his voice as he tied Charlie to the hitching rail outside the Cantina.
They’d ridden to Morro Coyo through the fading light. Taking the route they always took, the route Johnny would have taken earlier that day for sure. Side by side in silence, as they’d scanned the roadside all the way into town.
But there had been no sign of Johnny. No sign of anything untoward. No clue of any kind as to his whereabouts, and Scott had become more apprehensive with every mile they’d ridden.
He couldn’t help remembering that last, involuntary image he’d had of Johnny this morning. Riding away into nothingness, and swallowed up by the void. And now it looked as uncannily though his premonition had come true. Where in the hell was his brother, where the hell was Johnny?
Murdoch looked up and down the street, his face expressionless and stony. “We ask questions, is what we do. We’ll start at the Cantina. Liquor tends to loosen tongues.”
But they learned nothing there.
No one had even seen Johnny that day, and once they’d discerned that he hadn’t even dropped off Murdoch’s papers, Scott seriously began to doubt whether or not he’d ever made it into Morro Coyo at all.
The same thoughts were chasing through Murdoch’s head as well. In his mind, he was already mobilising people like chess pieces and planning his next move, Where to send out search parties, who to contact when it was light again, what he was going to tell Teresa when they returned to Lancer empty handed.
But never once did he allow his feelings to show. Nor did he reveal the deep sense of foreboding that clutched at his own heart when he thought about his younger son. His fortitude gave Scott a curious sense of reassurance, even though he was really afraid for Johnny now.
Morro Coyo was a small town. It didn’t take them long to confirm what they already knew deep inside, as they stood at the end of the main street, and Scott looked uneasily up at the sky.
It was a strange, almost unearthly night. The Harvest Moon was waning in the starless sky. It’s outline smudged and nebulous as it bled into the firmament. Murdoch followed his gaze.
“Back in the Old Country, we used to call it, “Blood on the Moon. Folks used to stay indoors on nights like these because they believed there were spirits abroad.”
“Yes. Grugachs and Bogles. The Sluagh.” He pronounced it, The Slooa; “People used to believe they would be spirited away.”
He smiled slightly at the incredulous look on Scott’s face, and shook his head. “You have to remember it was an ancient land, Scott. With ancient legends and deep folk beliefs. Faery-folk and Druids. The little people, the old-lore. There are sites and standing stones back over there, that pre-date history itself. That have stood alone in time for thousands of years. There aren’t all that many self-respecting Scots, English, Irish or Welshmen, that
don’t feel the pull in their blood when they look up at the moon.”
If it had been another time, another place, Scott might have laughed and scoffed to hear his usually pragmatic father talk of such things, but tonight it only made him shiver for the sky truly was eerie. The moon did look uncannily as though it had been dipped into a pail of blood. He raised his eyebrow, and nodded instead.
“I’m feeling a little of that pull myself, tonight.”
Murdoch put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “He hasn’t been stolen by spirits, Scott. There has to be a practical explanation for this . . . my guess is, he was taken ill again.”
Scott exhaled ruefully. “Why don’t I feel better?”
Murdoch’s hand tightened fractionally; “We’ll find him, son.”
The sound of footsteps on the boardwalk made them both jump and eye each other a little sheepishly, as Jake O’Mahoney stumbled drunkenly into view. Customary bottle clutched firmly in his hand.
“Well he’s real enough,” said Scott with a hint of irony. Watching Jake’s erratic progress towards them, and aware his stomach was still fluttering wildly.
‘This is ridiculous.’ He thought half-angrily. ‘I’m spooked and scared like a child in the night.’
And almost, he laughed at himself. But then a wave of misery all but drenched him, as he remembered Johnny was lost. Most probably taken ill again, and the anxiety came gnawing back at him with a vengeance.
“Evenin’ Murdoch, Scott . . .”
Jake was level with them now. Swaying on his feet and blinking at them blurrily as he leant against the wooden rail beside them. Scott could smell the cheap Rye from a couple of feet away, and he turned aside with a faint feeling of distaste. Impatient to get on with the search for Johnny. But Jake seemed to have other ideas.
“Ole red-eye moon tonight.”
“It is that,” Murdoch nodded in agreement as Scott caught hold of his elbow. “Take care, Jake . . .” And then as almost an afterthought; “You don’t happen to have seen Johnny anywhere about today?”
Jake stopped and swung unevenly back to face them. “Thought that was why you was here, ain’t you come fer him?”
Scott looked up suddenly, and felt Murdoch tense beside him.
“Where is he, Jake?”
“Why, he’s over with the widder what’s bought the old Campbell house. Saw her and thet poor son of hers take Johnny in through the back this mornin’ . . . looked in a bad way, I thought. What’s he done, fallen offa thet fancy pony o’ his?”
“Wait a minute,” Scott put up a hand and interrupted before Murdoch could ask any more questions. “What do you mean, that poor son of hers, I thought she was living here alone?”
“Seem like most folks do, hic . . . !” Jake grinned at them, and shook his head. “Oops, sorry. Manners . . .”
“About her son,” asked Scott impatiently. “You were saying?”
“Well, helped her move her things in on the day she arrived in Morro Coyo, an’ she never made no mention of a son the whole danged time. Paid me in cash, too . . .”
“Sorry Murdoch. Well as I was sayin’, figured I might hang around agin thet evenin’ – seein’ as she was all by herself. She mighta needed some more help movin’ the furniture around, and she paid me so good the time before. But anyways, soon as it got dark, she hitches up her wagon and rides on outta town. I went on back to the Cantina and thought I’d try again next day . . . But on my way back ter the livery thet night, I seen her comin’ back and he was with her.”
“The son?” Scott’s haste was beginning to get the better of him now, working his way through Jakes drunken ramblings with a sinking feeling inside him.
“Yup, poor sap. Plumb chuckle-headed fer all he’s as big as a grizzly bear, and thet face of his fair gave me the fright o’ my life!”
Scott’s lips set into a straight line as he began to put two and two together. He had a very bad feeling about this. “What was wrong with his face?”
Jake sighed, and shrugged his shoulders with a slight shiver. “Seemed like half o’ it was missin’. Plumb stove in like somethin’ sliced right through it, an’ only a hole where his eye shoulda bin!”
Scott couldn’t help flinching as his heart flipped over, and all his worst suspicions began to be recognised. He knew where Johnny was now, and he knew why. The story his brother told him right here in Morro Coyo the other day came flooding back with particular clarity, as the words replayed in his head.
“But you should have seen his face Scott, the bullet went straight through his eye, split his skull . . . “.
As usual, Johnny had been right to trust his instinct. Right that something was off-beam. Apparently Zeke Shipton had not died. It had to be more than a coincidence he’d come here to Morro Coyo. Suspicious that he’d kept so out of sight . . .
There had to be a reason, and Scott knew just what that reason was. Revenge, vengeance, retribution. Call it what you liked, it didn’t bode that well for Johnny. And to make things worse, they had him where they wanted him. Helpless, and what was it Jake had said?
“Looking in a bad way . . .”
Murdoch’s voice was gentle but troubled. Sensing the turmoil going on inside his elder son by his body language alone. Sympathetic but practical, as he began to ascertain time was of the essence. That it might not be on their side.
Scott sighed. Watching as O’Mahoney lumbered off, before turning back to Murdoch and telling him all he knew.
**** **** **** ****
As Johnny stared in helpless horror at the face that had haunted his dreams, another figure slipped out of the shadows into the halo of light from the lantern, and regarded him malignly.
A figure, that up until now, he hadn’t even noticed. He’d been so intent on the contorted man who had once been Zeke Shipton. It was the old woman from the General Store of course. But this time, there was nothing benign about either her aspect or expression, and Johnny almost flinched away from the sensation of balefulness that emanated from her.
His voice was soft and questing. But it had taken him less than a minute to realise despite Zeke’s frightening appearance, the appalling injuries to his
head had deprived him of so much more than his physical appearance. That the man was barely aware of reality any longer.
Johnny tried again. Forgetting his own pain and predicament with the feeling of dismay and guilt that flooded through his body. He’d done this. He was responsible for it. The agony of his arm and the dull ache in his ribs were nothing, as he was overwhelmed with pity and compassion. The ghost of his past as Madrid coming back to haunt him once again.
When would it end? When would it ever end?
When would the darkness cease to dog him, to harry at his heels? Things he’d done so casually. Lives he’d taken, people he’d affected. Jobs accepted with indifference then, risks he’d taken with such nonchalance . . . How could he have been so blasé about it, how could he have been so blind?
In his defence, he’d been alone. No one to help him, no one to guide him. Young and dangerous, with a heart-stopping talent and a fire in his soul as he’d drifted where the wind blew him. Built his reputation as a gun.
But life had a way of exacting a price, and sometimes it seemed like he’d been paying it steadily ever since the day he’d come back home. Offered redemption with one hand, having it snatched away with the other. It wearied him sometimes. Ground him down with the fatigue of justification, of proving to himself and his new family that he did indeed deserve it!
Or did he?
Sometimes it got so muddled, it was hard to know for sure. That’s when the grisly nightmares took him. When he began to see the faces of the dead.
“He’s not a pretty sight is he?”
Her voice was soft and disconcerting, an uneasy contradiction to her glittering, hate-filled eyes. He looked up at her steadfastly, slowly.
“I’m sorry . . .” and there was really nothing more that he could say.
“You did it.”
“Si . . .” His voice caught dustily in his throat. “Si, I did. But I thought I had no choices then . . .”
Her lip curled. “Well you certainly don’t have them now!”
He shifted slightly. Grimacing as the pain caught in his chest. “You gonna kill me because of what happened to Zeke?”
But she laughed and stepped closer. Running her hand caressingly down his cheek. Her skin was as dry as an old snakeskin, and curiously cold. He shrank from her touch instinctively as she caught tight hold of his chin.
“My. You are such a pretty one, Johnny Madrid. It doesn’t quite seem fair now does it?” She caressed his cheek, as he shrank from her touch.
“At the blood of the Moon
Then all shall be done.
Ezekiel shall be the Pretty One.”
He shivered, and hated it that his teeth were chattering. “What are you talkin’ about, what do you mean?”
Her grip on his jaw tightened until her nails dug into his flesh. “Who do you believe in Johnny Madrid? God and the Angels? Or did you sell your soul to the Devil in exchange for your gift with a gun?”
He forced his voice to remain calm. Staring defiantly into her eyes, his own unwavering and controlled, despite the pain in his body. And to his immense surprise, she did. But only to rummage in the pockets of her apron.
“Look at him Johnny, look at him.”
She thrust the poppet into his face, and sick, he shut his eyes. He knew what it was all right. He’d seen enough folk magic in the villages of his youth. Amongst the old Mexican women with a leg in both camps. Devout Catholics on one hand – attending Mass and going to church every week. But resorting to the old charms and potions of their ancestors as back-up, at the drop of a hat. Some of that magic went back along way, and he remembered his own mother being wary of it. Keeping a river-washed pebble with a hole through the middle as an amulet to ward off evil.
But it sure hadn’t helped to save her. Nothing had when it came to the crunch. He’d lost his own faith in the wake of her death. Along long time ago.
“There are older Magicks than God or the Devil. Magicks handed down through time by word of mouth. From mother to daughter, from father to son. They are the real Magicks, the true Magicks. Look at him, Johnny.”
Against his will, he dragged his eyes open again, and regarded the poppet impassively. “What, a doll . . . you expect me to be afraid of a doll?”
And almost for a moment he laughed. Part of him reflecting that at least he’d solved the mystery of Teresa’s disappearing laundry, as he noted the scrap of fabric on it’s miniature, waxen body.
His blue shirt. His blue abomination of a shirt, as Jelly always called it. He always wore it when the two of them were off some place together, just to rile the old man up. He shook his head at her softly. Unable to miss the growing anger on her face, as she guessed at his reaction.
“I don’t think you quite did me justice there, Ma’am. He may have my shirt on, but he don’t really have my eyes.”
Leaning across him, she thrust the doll close to his face. “Look again.” She smiled.
“This poppet is forged
By the Moon on the wane,
He is flesh of your flesh
And you shall feel his pain!”
And he was afraid then. Really afraid, as she reached into her pockets, and pulled forth a pin. Running it gently down his cheek so he could feel its sharp little point, but never once piercing his skin. He took a shallow breath as she held it poised above the effigy, for the first time he saw it’s warped, contorted arm.
“Ma’am . . .”
“What?” Her voice was sharp, victorious. She seemed to crackle with energy and sparks.
“Don’t . . .” he said feebly. Horrified, yet fascinated as she shook her head at him. Scouring the pin vindictively down the poppet’s waxen chest.
**** **** **** ****
PART SEVEN .
Murdoch took a deep breath, and looked across at Scott as he raised his hand to rap at the door. Scott’s face was grim, even in repose, and just as Murdoch was about to knock, the unearthly cry of a Screech Owl made them both jump out of their skins.
“What the hell was that?” Scott pressed his hand against his pounding heart, and raised an eyebrow at his father.
“A Screech Owl.” Murdoch’s voice sounded as shaky as he felt, and had the situation been any different, Scott might have laughed at them both.
“Didn’t sound like any Owl I ever heard before,” he muttered as the night bird called again, and he strained his eyes into the gloomy branches of the nearby tree in a fruitless attempt to locate it. He let his fingers trail down his thigh until they reached the comforting wooden handle of his gun. Grasping it tightly, and holding it fast.
It was a curiously Johnny-like gesture, and it gave him a modicum of reassurance, as it seemed to bring his brother a little closer in spirit. Scott tried reaching out to him in his mind. Hoping Johnny would know they were looking for him.
“Hold on Johnny, just hold on.”
He looked back at Murdoch and nodded curtly. Bracing his shoulders automatically, as the big man rapped loudly at the door. After thirty seconds or so, Murdoch tried again. Forehead beginning to crease into a frown, as there was no response. Not even a glimmer of light from behind the thick-panelled, wooden door.
Impatient now, Scott moved stealthily to the window at the side of the house. Pushing aside the wealth of overgrown foliage that obviously hadn’t been cut or pruned since old Mrs Campbell had died. He tried to get a glimpse in through the shuttered windows. But it was hopeless. The shutters were slatted and locked to keep out the dust, and try as he might, Scott couldn’t see a thing.
He didn’t even know why he bothered asking, because whatever Murdoch said, he was breaking in.
“One last try.”
Murdoch knocked again. Even more loudly this time. Scott heard the sound echo hollowly through the old house and into the night. It was inconceivable anyone inside should fail to hear it, and just as he was about to set his shoulder to the door, Murdoch placed a restraining hand upon his arm.
Sure enough, as he looked now, Scott could see a dim band of light around the outline of the door. Brightening in intensity, until he heard the footsteps that accompanied it. There was a sound of heavy bolts being withdrawn, then suddenly, the door was opened, and the dark garden flooded with light.
“Who’s there? Can I help you?”
It was Ada Shipton. Voice fearful and quavering, and as he regarded her framed in the light of the doorway, Scott was assailed with an onslaught of doubt. She looked so frail, so helpless. The epitome of a little old Grandmother, in her plain blue dress with it’s big white apron and . . . Blood!
On the corner of one of her apron pockets. A dime-sized splotch of bright red blood!
His breath froze suddenly in his throat. He found himself barging past her into the hallway, sensing Murdoch’s surprise behind him, as he had no option but to follow him in.
But he didn’t care. Not if Johnny was in danger, not if Johnny was hurt. He had a horrible feeling deep down in his soul, that his brother was in need of him badly.
“I’m sorry to disturb you Ma’am . . .”
“Who are you, what do you want?”
Scott whirled as he reached the kitchen door. “Don’t you remember me Mrs. Shipton? My brother and I met you just the other day. Outside the General Store.”
She looked at him short-sightedly. Expression wide with fear and trepidation until recognition began to dawn slowly. “Why yes, it’s Mr. Lancer. Your brother nearly ran me down . . .”
“My brother is missing!” Retorted Scott grimly. Keeping his eyes fixed firmly on her face as he searched for a reaction. “We’ve been tearing the town apart looking for him, and we wondered if you’d seen him?”
She blinked in bewilderment and shook her head at him slightly. If she was faking it, then she was good. ,’She was very good,’ he reflected.
He moved on into the kitchen. Scanning quickly around, as she bustled in beside him. The picture of outraged womanhood. “Mr. Lancer, really. I don’t think you’re going to find him in my kitchen. And who’s this with you, what are you doing?”
“Mrs Shipton,” Murdoch put a restraining hand on Scott’s arm. His fingers bruisingly tight. “We’re sorry if we’ve alarmed you. My name is Murdoch Lancer. I’m Scott here, and Johnny’s father. We’re looking for Johnny, and we wondered if you’d seen him?”
“Well . . . ” she relaxed at the calm tone of his voice. Feathers less ruffled as she met his politely charming look, and accepted his out-stretched hand.
“I haven’t seen him, Mr Lancer, and I hope that you find him. I know what it’s like to lose a son. My eldest died at Shiloh, and my youngest . . . “
“Yes?” said Scott suddenly. “You were saying?”
She looked back at him obliquely. “My youngest son was taken from me, some years after that.”
Murdoch’s grasp on his arm tightened even more, as Scott nodded brusquely. Eyes sweeping round the dimly lit kitchen in search of something, anything, that might help him to locate Johnny. Johnny . . .
For the first time since he’d shouldered his way into the room, Scott took proper notice of his surroundings, and his sense of unease grew. There were bunches of herbs drying on a rack above the fire, and a dead, black-feathered broiling fowl lying with it’s neck wrung on the table.
He listened with half an ear to Murdoch apologising for barging into the house. Part of him desperate to throw all caution to the winds. To just search it from top to bottom for any trace of his brother. But he knew Murdoch well enough by now to realise the big man must have a plan, and he was sensible enough to play along with him whilst he executed it.
The fire crackled. He jumped slightly as one of the cedar logs spat, drawing his gaze back across to the hearth. Then he froze. A trickle of ice-water running down his spine as he saw it there, laid on the stones in the fireplace. A grotesque little doll in a circle of something. The size of a gingerbread man.
But it wasn’t the sight of the doll that alarmed him, nor the fact he knew what it was. Even in the dull light of the dimly lit kitchen, he could see it was wearing Johnny’s blue shirt. The riddle of the missing laundry was solved, the malicious intent behind it, clear.
She had tried to hurt Johnny spiritually, and she and her son had almost certainly hurt him physically. Scott just needed to find his brother and fast. But Murdoch was leaving now. Shaking Ada Shipton’s hand, as he pulled Scott along with him. Back out into the passageway towards the front door again, as she followed them out. Skirts swishing on the wooden floorboards, eyes glittering uncannily by the light of the candle she carried.
Scott spun involuntarily as she slammed the door behind them. Part of him driven by an instinct so primal, it almost betrayed him into blocking the doorway open, and rushing back into the house. Only the pressure of Murdoch’s hand on his forearm stayed him. Only the air of stalwart solidity his father projected, provided him with a sense of reassurance and encouragement. Stopped him from breaking down the door, and fighting his way to his brother’s side.
He knew Ada Shipton had Johnny. As the Screech Owl called mournfully above their heads, he tried to push aside the totally irrational fear the bird was somehow mocking them. Its cry an omen of terror and death.
**** **** **** ****
Waking with a jump from a scatter of threatening dreams, it took Johnny awhile to remember where he was. His mind tried to hold onto the thread of fragmented images and memories that taunted it. Straining futily against the chains and manacles that held him. The pain in his chest superseding the tormenting burn of his fractured arm. Struggling to catch his breath, as the sharp stab of his broken ribs snagged him with every inhalation.
Where . . . ?
The fog cleared and with that, the nightmare returned. He began to recall what had happened, who had brought him here and chained him like an animal.
Zeke was alive. But he might as well be dead for all that was left of him. Maimed and deformed. A half-man with a parody of a life.
The waves of pain and shame washed over Johnny once more, and he relived the day in Abilene again. Was there anything he could have done differently? Could he have even avoided the fight in the first place? After all, he and Zeke had nearly been friends at one stage. Nearly been friends.
There had always been something in the way of true friendship. The older man’s jealousy of the upstart Johnny Madrid. His brilliance with a gun, popularity with the ladies. The fact it all came effortlessly to Johnny whereas Zeke had always struggled for it – was always second best.
Johnny had known it even then. Had been uncomfortable but helpless to do anything to change it. To be Zeke’s friend would have been to deny himself. To be less than he was. He’d been a lot more arrogant in those days . . .
Footsteps . . .
The rattle of the bolt on the cellar door. For a moment he blinked, as she held the lantern directly in his face, blinded his eyes. “Sorry to keep you waiting Johnny,” she looked down at him with a smile. “But we just had a couple of visitors. A Mr. Murdoch Lancer. His son, Scott.”
“Ma,am . . . ” Johnny’s voice was a harsh croak. Trying to calm the sudden surge of panic that she might have harmed Scott. Or even hurt his father. “Por favor . . .”
The words died hoarsely away. Her smile broadened and she withdrew the poppet from her pocket again, and this time, he couldn’t help himself. He cowered back against the pallet. Fighting to control the cold clutch of fear as his teeth began to chatter. A rash of icy sweat breaking out across his forehead at the remembrance of pain. As if to reinforce it, she ran her finger gently down the effigy’s chest. The wounds on his own chest burned in sympathy, his flesh shrinking in terror all over again.
“You know I can hurt them too, if I want to Johnny. It’s best they don’t get in my way.”
“I know,” he said softly. “But it ain’t them you want, it’s me.”
Cocking her head sideways at him, she continued to regard him as he held his breath and watched her face. Aware he was trembling with desperation as he thought of his family. The thought of this happening to Scott or Murdoch because of him. To Teresa . . .
He looked up at her again, trying to keep his voice even as possible. “You got me. You don’t have to worry about them.”
“Let’s hope not,” she gave the poppet a final pat. Placing him back in her pocket. “For their sake. Especially that pretty little Teresa. You like her don’t you, Johnny?”
He stared back at her even more stubbornly. Face elusive and impossible to read, as he fought to hide his thoughts from her. To protect the ones he loved.
But suddenly she laughed out loud. The sound sending a chill to the deep recesses of his soul. “Perhaps Ezekiel will be able to do something about that after tonight. Perhaps your little Teresa would prefer a bolder man . . . “
“No!” He strained hopelessly against the chains. Raging at his helplessness, as the movement caused a ripple of pain that really took his breath away. A fiery stab of agony that robbed him of his senses.
“You got me, that I understand. But they’ve done nuthin’ to you or Zeke. You got no call to hurt them.”
“No call at all,” her eyes gleamed maliciously. “Except it’ll cause you pain, Johnny Madrid.”
He cursed himself for stepping so neatly into her trap. For yet again being the source of harm to those he loved. Eyes fluttering closed in despair, as he felt her hands on his body. Wrenching open the buttons of his shirt, his favourite salmon shirt, and baring his chest.
She set down the lantern on the table next to the pallet, and he heard her vanish for awhile. Leaving him shaking with cold and covered in goose bumps, more afraid then he’d ever been before in his life.
But she wasn’t gone long, and when she returned, she wasn’t alone. He recognised the heavy, shuffling footsteps immediately. Twisting his head round, and noticing for the first time that there was another pallet in the room. Zeke stood by patiently, letting his mother remove his shirt as well. Waiting stolidly, while she laid the carcass of a dead black fowl across the table.
Johnny shifted once more against the imprisoning chains. “What’s happenin’, what you gonna do?”
Zeke switched his lifeless eye across to him. As though noticing for the first time, he was still here in the cellar. “Won’t be long now Pretty One . . .”
“Long before what?” Johnny watched uneasily as Ada helped her son get settled on the pallet. Hand lingering fondly on the tattered remnants of his hair.
“Blood on the Moon
The time is right.
The time of the reckoning
Will be tonight!”
Ezekiel intoned the words with difficulty. Looking at his mother in undisguised triumph. “See Ma, I remembered it, Ma. Ezekiel remembered the words.”
“Yes you did.”
She began to set the table between the two pallets with candles and a shallow mettle dish. The light gleamed on the curved blade of an ornate knife, and Johnny watched, sickened, as she sliced quickly and expertly into the neck of the black chicken. Collecting it’s blood in the bronzed bowl.
He strained against the chains yet again. Regardless of the pain now, as a sense of something cold and ancient began to pervade the cellar. She lit some incense. The scent began to close his throat and choke his lungs. It was heavy and cloying. The perfume over-powering and somehow corrupt, as his head swam, and it was hard to maintain a grip on any kind of reality.
This was like a nightmare. Clogged and clotted with the oldest kind of evil that seeped and leeched into his soul with gnarled fingers. He felt her hands on his body again.
“No . . . ” he tried to twist away from her. But his injuries and the imprisoning fetters held him where she wanted him, as she began to paint the symbols on his chest in blood.
“I call on the Old Ones
That are with us tonight
At the Blood on the Moon,
When the omens are right.
I call on the Old Ones
That bide in the earth,
That walk with the stones,
At the time of re-birth.”
The words became at one with the darkness and the flickering candlelight. He began to lose all sense of time and place, her face spun before him in a hypnotic dance of depraved triumph.
Closing his eyes, he tried to call forth some counter-magic of his own. Everything that mattered to him, all that he held dear. The way he and Scott could communicate without words. The touch of Murdoch’s huge hand on his shoulder. The dimple at the side of Teresa’s mouth . . .
He felt a heavy, creeping numbness, as if his blood were turning to lead.
The sunlight on Barranca’s golden coat. The way Jelly always scolded him, too awkward to say he loved him. The fragrance of the jasmine cascading over the walls of the hacienda . . .
He could feel the labouring of his heart, but, sick and dizzy, it seemed no blood was reaching his brain anymore.
Feeling safe enough to sleep before the fireplace with his family. Stealing biscuits from Maria and knowing that she knew. The sweetness of Teresa’s smile . . .
But then the darkness seemed to claim him, and he spun down to its depths. Images warring within his head as he called to them to save him, and cried out in despair.
**** **** **** ****
“What are you doing, Johnny’s in there!”
Scott turned to Murdoch the minute they closed the gate behind them and stepped out into the street. Face strained and taut with grim anxiety.
Murdoch set his jaw, and began to walk away from the Campbell house. Half-turning, Scott saw the curtains flutter slightly at the window. He took a deep breath and followed Murdoch down the street, aware the entire time of her presence in the darkness. Of her eyes boring into his back.
“Where are we going?”
“Not far.” Murdoch pulled him round the corner, and thrust him up against the wall. “Keep it cool Scott, for God’s sake. We can’t afford to lose our heads now.”
Yanking his arm away, Scott dashed his hand across his face. Knowing Murdoch was right, but desperate to get back to Johnny. “He’s hurt Murdoch, he needs us. You saw the paraphernalia in that kitchen. Ada Shipton thinks she’s some kind of witch, and she’s been casting spells on Johnny.”
Murdoch placed a slightly unsteady hand on his shoulder. “I saw it, but frankly, that’s the least of my worries. He’s at their mercy in there. All the time we were with her in that kitchen, Johnny must have been with the son. He’s vengeful and damaged Scott. It’s not the hocus-pocus that scares me.”
Scott shivered. Looking up at the blood red moon, as all of Murdoch’s earlier tales came back to haunt him. Murdoch tracked his gaze, and shook his head regretfully.
“I shouldn’t have said those things before. It’s a bizarre coincidence about the Shipton woman . . .”
“Oh come on Murdoch. Even <you> have to admit it’s more than a little strange. More than random chance.”
“I’ll admit to no such thing. There’s no doubt the woman is wicked. But it’s base revenge she’s after. Human and simple, revenge.”
Scott nodded grimly. “Talking of which, excuse the pun . . .”
“We need to find Jake O’Mahoney,” finished Murdoch. Wondering if he’d been successful in hiding his own rampant unease and superstition.
O’Mahoney wasn’t too difficult to find. The man usually slept off the night’s libations at the livery stable in a pile of nice warm hay. Tonight was no exception, as the thunderous snores attested to, the minute they entered the stables.
Flashing each other a brief, weary look, it was Scott who, mindful of Murdoch’s bad back, bent down and hauled the man awkwardly to his feet.
“Wha . . . whadya want . . ?”
“Jake,” Murdoch moved in closer to the drunk, and stared compellingly at him. He grasped the man’s shirt-breast. “Jake, I’m sorry we had to wake you, but we really need your help.”
O’Mahoney exhaled foggily. And to his credit, Murdoch didn’t so much as flinch or reel backwards as the blast of whisky-sodden breath hit him in the face.
“Johnny’s in trouble, Jake. Bad trouble. But I think you can help us save him.”
“Johnny in a bind?” The old man looked up quickly, a flash of concern in his rheumy, old eyes. “Thought he din’ look too good this mornin’. He’s a good boy that son o’ yours Murdoch. Don’t preach at a man, nor talk down at him fer bein’ a drunk. Allus slips me a dollar or two fer waterin’ the palomino, if’n he’s in town.”
Murdoch swallowed hard. The livery blurred suddenly, as he considered O’Mahoney’s words. There was so much that was good in Johnny. How like him not to patronise the town drunk. To earn the old man’s respect and even affection, with a few simple acts of genuine kindness.
“Murdoch . . .”
Scott’s voice was full of understanding, and their eyes met briefly for a second. Clinging for strength and reassurance. Both reliant on the other’s presence for comfort and encouragement, as they reflected on the man they were fighting to save. A brother to one, a son to the other. A man who meant so much to them both.
Murdoch took a breath and pulled himself together. This was no time to lose his sense of focus. Johnny was depending on them to get him out of this. He wasn’t about to let him down.
**** **** **** ****
Take it out, smooth it down, fold it up. Take it out, smooth it down, fold it up . . .
She intoned the words to herself automatically. Taking the items of washing out of the basket, and sorting them into piles of ironing. Trying desperately to take her mind off her worries. To forget for just five minutes, that neither Murdoch Scott nor Johnny had come home yet.
During the early part of the evening, she’d baked two batches of biscuits. Wandered her garden in the twilight, deadheading her roses, and tidying up her flower borders.
She’d tried reading, tried sewing, and now she’d resorted to sorting out the laundry. But none of it was really working. She felt small and cold with nameless dread.
Sighing distractedly, the Moon caught her eye through the laundry room window. She stared at it uneasily for several minutes, and wondered at its eerie, unusual colour. A red Moon. She shivered suddenly, it reminded her uncannily of blood.
For a moment, her hands hovered over the next item in the washing basket. A shirt, one of Johnny’s. Lifting it out, she buried her face in the crisp, cotton fabric, and breathed in the fragrance of sunshine and fresh air that clung to it. The faint underlying scent of his skin.
Where were they, what had happened to him?
She remembered the way that he’d teased her this morning. Kissing her cheek and vaulting over the hitching rail. The desire for freedom so strong in him, it was almost palpable, as he’d bidden them “hasta luego.”
It was something she’d always felt about Johnny, from the moment he’d first arrived home at Lancer. Even when he was close, he was elusive. There, but not quite there. Ephemeral almost, as though one day, he might simply disappear.
He’d told her once, in a rare and precious moment of candour, he’d never expected to reach his twenty-fifth birthday. That he looked on each day since then as a bonus, a true gift.
It had made her blood run cold to hear him say it quite so matter of factly. With quite as much acceptance. As though it were inevitable, and there was nothing he could have done to change the deck. But she had to acknowledge she felt it too. And she knew now, the fear the feeling always generated in her heart.
Johnny burned so brightly. She was terrified the flame might, one day go out.
**** **** **** ****
“Together, together, are you to be.
For precious, precious, he is to me,
And precious, precious art thou to he.
I bind you son of Murdoch.
I bind you son of Maria.
Your very being is bound to he-
Thou to he, and he to thee!
And as I will, so mote it be!”
The nightmare went on and on. Her voice a blur with the darkness and shadow. The pain like a knife in his chest, in his arm – as the candlelight flickered like wraiths on the walls.
The worst of it, was that she touched him. Ripping the gold medallion from his neck, and smearing the blood from the black chicken across his skin. Fingers as cold as the hand of death.
His head spun and swam. But he had the presence of mind to try and wrench his left arm away from her as she grasped it, a long, wickedly curved dagger poised above the soft skin at the base of his thumb.
She paused, her mouth drawn down in malice, as she looked at him, her eyes round and hard. Staring straight into his.
“Ezekiel!” She raised the knife and pointed it at his face. “Ezekiel!”
“Not . . . Ezekiel,” he gasped. Trying fruitlessly to clear the heaviness from his befuddled mind. “It’s John.”
And incongruously, he remembered their first meeting on the boardwalk outside the General Store. Was it really only a couple of days ago? “Mostly Johnny . . . “
Fear shuddered in waves down the back of his neck, and malevolence poured from her. Washing over him, making his heart pound with dread. He felt a dull, creeping numbness. As if his blood was turning to lead in his veins.
“Not anymore.” She smiled then, a victorious knowing smile. “But it doesn’t matter what you say anymore. You shall be to me as Ezekiel was.”
Grasping his wrist, she sliced it open just above the manacle’s iron cuff in one shocking motion. Holding it aloft immediately, as the blood ran down his arm, and dripped and mingled with that of the fowls. And lifting Ezekiel’s right arm from the pallet beside him, she did the same. Mirroring the gesture, and ignoring her son’s stricken howl of pain.
“Bound you shall be,
Bound you shall be!
Thy blood to Ezekiel
And his blood to thee!”
She pressed their wrists together hard. Binding them tightly in a criss-cross fashion, with a length of scarlet cloth. Johnny’s struggles as insignificant to her as a moth in the milk basin. The blood throbbed and thrummed in his head with an ancient primal rhythm that both horrified, and beguiled him, as it began to overwhelm him with it’s allure and complexity. He twisted again on the pallet. The clank of the chains a mockery, as he knew he would never escape this. He was totally at her mercy.
“Johnny, It’s Johnny . . . !”
Instantly, she spun to face him. The venom in her eyes like a bright blaze of evil. The wall of hatred and power hit him like a lightening strike, and he almost rolled his head away from her glittering gaze. But somehow he knew he had to force himself to defy her. To call upon the last dregs of his strength, as he stared back up at her, the flame from the candles reflected in his clear, blue eyes.
“Mi nombre es John Lancer. Valgame dios!”
She laughed then. Soft and deadly as a serpent, and contemptuously, she freed him from the chains. Any trace of little old lady had vanished forever, as she arched above him in the half-light. Eyes black with sparks and almost primordial. He knew he was in the presence of something he had no comprehension of. Something that had skirted on the edges of his nightmares, but never crossed the veil before. Something everybody knew was there, but everybody hoped was not!
It had him within its grasp now, this something awful, something dark. Coming for him out of the shadows, like a river flooding it’s banks. And it was trying to engulf him. Swirling all around him, and cutting him off from everyone and everything he loved. He was drowning in it. The blackness of it creeping up over him, down into his lungs, and sucking him under and out of his own body.
“Dios . . .”
But the fight was draining out of him, like the blood that flowed from his wrist. Like the weakness that filled his trembling limbs, as he wondered then, if this was it?
A final retribution for the way he’d lived his life. For all the lives he’d taken. For the hurt he’d left in his wake as he’d blown across the borders like a prairie wind. Too wrapped up in his own pain to think about the consequences of his comet-like existence, the bright burn of his flame. She was chanting again. The words building to a crescendo as he began to float away on the tide. Trying his best to cling to the images of those he loved, and knowing instinctively they were his only hope. But it was no good. They were inexorably erased from his mind. Fading for good, and any chance of his salvation along with them.
Murdoch, Scott. Scottie – his brother . . . Jelly. Teresa – Teresa . . .
And they were leaving. Stolen from him forever, as he spiralled into the vortex, and then she rose to claim him as her own. His exhausted, stuttering heart breaking with pain and sorrow.
In the distance, there was a thundering. A persistent banging hammering. As he fell into the darkness, it was the last sound he thought he’d ever hear!
**** **** **** ****
Scott looked across at Murdoch, hardly able to see his features by the grainy light of the coppery moon. They stood half hidden in the thick foliage of the Campbell garden. Concealed amongst the leaves and bushes.
Scott chaffed with impatience. The fear in his heart growing stronger and stronger with every second that passed.
“Steady.” Murdoch nodded towards the gate, and they both watched as O’Mahoney ambled unsteadily up the garden path and came to a halt outside the front door. “Right on time,” whispered Murdoch with satisfaction.
Scott looked up at the back of the over-hang, and mentally gauged the distance he’d have to climb in order to reach the bedroom window above it.
Bang – bang – bang
O’ Mahoney hammered loudly at the door and leaned in close to it.
“Miz Shipton, Miz Shipton . . . you in there?”
He knocked again, if possible even more loudly than before. Keeping it up almost continuously, as he shouted and called through the letterbox. Murdoch smiled with grim appreciation, as cupping his hands, he boosted Scott up onto the ledge above him. Watching as his long-limbed son pulled himself up with easy grace, eventually vanishing from view.
Once he’d seen Scott disappear, Murdoch made his way cautiously around the side of the house until he reached the back door. Trying the handle as quietly as he could for good measure, but knowing in his heart it would be locked. As indeed it was.
From his concealed position amongst the bushes, he could hear O’Mahoney’s virtuoso performance loud and clear. There was no doubt in his mind half the sleepy town would as well, which meant that sooner or later, and he sincerely hoped sooner, there would be a nice little gathering of outraged townsfolk outside the Widow Shipton’s house.
And that of course, was just what he wanted. But first they had to get to Johnny. To find him and remove him to safety with a minimum of trouble, and hopefully, no one else getting injured.
Murdoch tried not to dwell on how hurt his son might be. He’d done a good job, so far, of pushing that well to the back of his mind. It wouldn’t be of any help to Johnny if he was anything less than clear-headed when he and Scott got into the house.
A soft rattle of bolts on the other side of the door. Murdoch stepped back quickly into the concealing gloom and held his breath. But it was only Scott. Opening the back door a few inches, and calling quietly out into the darkness.
Within seconds, they were both in the deserted kitchen, and Murdoch raised an eyebrow as O’Mahoney’s drunken racket echoed and shook through the whole house.
“There’s no one upstairs,” whispered Scott grimly. “And I unlocked the front door just in case we need to make a fast exit.”
“Well that only leaves one place,” said Murdoch. Eyes drawn inevitably to the cellar door.
Scott nodded. Unable to stop himself looking towards the hearth-place. A cold jolt of fear surging through him, as he saw at once, the wicked little doll had gone.
“Come on son,” Murdoch led the way determinedly. “Age before beauty.”
“Oh no you don’t.” Scott nipped round him with lithe agility. Carefully opening the cellar door. He peered into the darkened depths. Almost choking on the clouds of incense and evil that seemed to emanate from within the very bowels of the earth itself.
**** **** **** ****
For a small house on the edge of a small town, some detached part of Scott’s brain was amazed by the depth of the cellar steps, as he and Murdoch descended into the darkness.
The shadows jumped and flickered on the part-earth, part stonewalls. And as they reached the bottom of the staircase, Scott couldn’t help emitting a small gasp of horror at the sight that met his eyes.
Ada Shipton stood surrounded in an unnatural swirl of smoke and blackness. Dressed in some kind of outlandish robes, incanting words in a language that neither man had ever heard before, and despite the fact that the cellar was filled with the choking stench of burning incense, the air seemed dank and icy-cold as a mausoleum.
But for all the fear, all the horror, the thing that struck most terror into both men’s hearts, was the sight of Johnny. Motionless and covered in blood on the low pallet at Ada Shipton’s side. Scott started forward in spite of his resolution to be cautious. All sense of prudence cast to the four winds, as he moved towards his brother.
Ada turned with the speed of a striking snake. Eyes gleaming coldly by the light of the guttering flames, as they fixed balefully on the two Lancer men.
“You’re too late!”
Scott tensed, his body taut as whipcord.” What do you mean? Johnny?”
Murdoch stepped up beside him. Dragging his gaze away from his son, and back up to her face. “Mrs Shipton, this stops now. It’s over. Let me take my son.”
But she looked at their guns with contempt, her lips curled in a twisted smile. “Do you really think I’m afraid of those toys, that they’ll be any use against me?”
“Don’t let’s have to find out.” Murdoch’s voice was soft, but implacable now, as he watched her and realised she was way beyond any sense of rationalisation.
Her smile grew, as she shook her head at him, and began to sway;
“Open to me the gates of fear,
Open to me, and let them see,
Caught in a well of pain and tears!
Here art they, blind and unwary
But here, I catch them in my snare,
Let their worst nightmares be my quarry!”
She stretched her fingers out towards them, and Scott suddenly began to feel dizzy. As if he were wading chest-high through deep water but getting nowhere.
He tried to focus and lift his gun arm towards her again. To warn her to stop, as the insidious chanting began to suck him remorselessly into a spiral of memories.
Fear and chaos. The bone-shattering flash of the cannon and scream of the dying horses all around him. A jolt of pain and grief as his horse crashed down to its knees, a foreleg shot completely away. The terror that he would be trampled, ground down into the blood and mud like some of the men around him, faces frozen forever into a rictus of agony . . .
Murdoch looked across at him, stricken with horror. Watching as his eldest son sank slowly to his knees, expression a glazed and mask-like parody of its usual mobile self.
“What have you done?”
He took one step forward. But then the dizziness took him, and his head began to reel, as though all his sense of balance had been stolen.
Johnny on Barranca. Soaring over the boundary fence like a golden meteor as he tried to make it home. The deadly volley of shots ringing out like a fusillade of doom. His son’s body tumbling and rolling onto the ground. The self-same ground he’d told him, only a day or so before, meant more to him than anything else alive. And now his son had died for it. For Lancer, and for him.
And Scott, his eldest. His beloved Catherine’s son. He was younger, so much younger. Stood beside two lonely graves on a patch of strangers land. One of them hers, his merry blue-eyed Catherine. And the other, a tiny heart-rending pile of earth beside it. A premature baby boy, born several weeks too early, too far from medical help. Johnny dead because of him, Scott dead because of him. Both his children gone. A lonely, bitter old man with a vast, but heirless empire. All because of his stubbornness, his damned, infernal pride.
Johnny fought his way up from the pit of smothering jet that claimed him, and felt as though a sudden beacon of light had pierced his nightmare. Scott . . .
He heard his brother call his name, clung to it like a lifeline. A fine chain flung to save him, to haul him from the darkness.
Struggling up on the pallet, he remembered with a mighty surge of relief, that she had loosed the shackles. But something still bound him, and looking down, he realised he and Zeke were tied wrist to wrist. The brief movement was almost too much. His ribs and reality shifted. Cold air shimmying around him with a rush of alien memories. Memories that were not his, had never been his, but were somehow now in his head.
He was in a garden with another dark-headed boy. Both of them laughing on a double swing. There was a woman who was clearly his mother, but her hair was fair and not black. He fought to push them away. To push them aside and reclaim his own. But the woman in the memory turned to smile at him, and with a rush of fear, he saw it was her. A younger Ada Shipton.
“No.” The lone word broke from his lips with unbridled emphasis, and the mists in his head began to clear. “Scott – help me, Boston!”
Something flickered on his brother’s face before the pallid mask fell again. But Johnny was desperate. Cold and afraid, as Ada turned back to him slowly.
“Scott, por favor. Please!”
Scott struggled to his feet. Shaking away the illusions, as the dear reality of Johnny’s voice filled his consciousness instead. He was filled with incredible joy. Johnny was alive.
“Hang-on baby brother!” he lurched across the room. Ada Shipton raised an arm towards Johnny, and Scott saw the gleam of a dagger blade. “No!”
Flinging his own arms round her body, he held her as firmly as he could. Amazed by the sinuous, feral strength that seemed to flow through her, as she arched and fought against his grip.
“No you don’t.” He was determined to keep her arms pinned down to her sides. Desperate to avoid looking into her eyes, as they stumbled bodily into the make-shift altar, and a lantern crashed and shattered on the flagstone floor.
The oil spilled, and flame flickered quickly up the sides of the altar-cloth. Catching rapidly at Ezekiel’s wicker pallet, and waking the big man up from his stupor, with a roar.
Scott called urgently to his father. But the big man still sat slumped on the floor at the bottom of the staircase, totally oblivious to the drama around him. Ezekiel sat bolt upright on the pallet. Tugging crudely at his restricted arm, and making Johnny cry out sharply in pain.
Ada’s voice was shrill with fury, as she twisted futily in Scott’s firm grip. The knife still clutched in her hand. “Help me Ezekiel!”
The fire had quickly established itself, and the cellar was filling up with choking coils of thick, black smoke, as it caught hold of a pile of old feed sacks in the corner.
Sweeping the heavy metal candlestick from the burning altar, Ezekiel dragged Johnny to his feet, and swung it clumsily at his head. Ducking awkwardly to one side, Johnny nearly passed out as his arm and rib-cage screamed in agony. He pulled hopelessly against the scarlet bindings tying him physically to the man he would be forever tied to mentally.
The candlestick missed him by a whisper, and he knew he wouldn’t be as lucky again. Knees buckling, as a wave of nausea forced him to the floor, and Ezekiel raised it to strike a second time.
Scott watched in horror. He hadn’t come this far to lose his brother now. He shifted Ada’s weight slightly. Releasing his right hand enough to re-balance his grip on his gun, and praying Johnny would guess what he was about to do.
“Hey Johnny, catch!”
He spun the colt across the room. Hoping against all hope, Johnny wouldn’t let him down. That this wouldn’t be the first time he lost the game. Johnny saw the quick flash of the gun out of the corner of his eye, and acted purely out of instinct. Reflexes responding as they always had in-spite of the pain in his broken arm.
For a brief second, the reassuring thump of wood and metal into his palm far out-weighed the shock of agony that blazed up his arm, and threatened to overcome him. Every ounce of survival in his body had been activated now, and twisting awkwardly from his semi-kneeling position on the floor, he swung the gun towards Ezekiel, and thumbed back the hammer.
“No!” Ada screamed in denial, and Johnny froze and paused. Looking up into her son’s puckered face. Lips slack with fear and bewilderment, as he stared down the gun barrel with a fragment of comprehension in his one, remaining eye.
“J . . . Johnny Madrid?”
Time stood still for Johnny as he nodded slowly. A long sigh escaping him. “Put the candlestick down, Zeke. Nice and slow.”
The colt began to shake in his hand. He wondered if he was capable of pulling the trigger even if he wanted to, as his arm trembled with pins and needles, and started to lose all semblance of sensation.
“Johnny?” It was Murdoch. The big man restored now, and looking uneasily at the spreading flames.
“Put it down Zeke.” Johnny’s voice was shaking as much as his hand, and Scott met Murdoch’s anxious eyes above the now motionless Ada Shipton.
And then it was all over. The candlestick fell to the floor with the clang of metal on stone, and Shipton clutched convulsively at his head as he collapsed on the ground beside Johnny.
“The bindings,” gasped Scott, with sudden comprehension. “Murdoch, cut the bindings!”
Ada screamed; “No. You shall not save him!”
She came back to life with a vengeance. Twisting free from his arms, and withdrawing the wax poppet from the depths of her gown. Scott froze as she held the dagger to its heart. Laughing softly, the sound of it chilling as Scott ever heard.
The smoke was almost unbearable now, his eyes had begun to water as it caught at the back of his throat. They had seconds rather than minutes left, and he knew they had to get out now.
Murdoch knelt on the floor beside the two prone bodies, and sliced through the tight, scarlet material. Swallowing hard at what he could see of Johnny’s abraded wrist.
“I have him, Scott.”
“No,” hissed Ada. Spinning to face them all again, as she backed across towards her son. “I have him!” She caressed the manikin lovingly; “I have him here in my hand!”
“Give it to me,” Scott stepped cautiously towards her. Watching out of the corner of his eye, as Murdoch lifted Johnny into his arms and edged towards the stairs.
She smiled again, and raised the dagger. Plunging the tip of it through the scrap of blue cloth, and into the poppet’s heart with a cry of triumph!
Murdoch felt Johnny convulse once against his chest. Then his whole body went limp. Unnaturally still. Ada flung the doll mockingly at Scott’s feet, and stumbled back to her son.
“Johnny . . .”
Scott’s voice was torn with anguish as he staggered towards the staircase after his father.
“Come-on!” Murdoch turned and began to carry Johnny up towards the kitchen. His head in denial, his heart still in shock.
Scott placed a foot on the bottom step, but something made him turn back into the maelstrom. He could barely discern the figures of Ada Shipton and her son through the flames and sulphurous smoke, but he scooped the softening effigy up off the cellar floor, and followed his father up the stairs to safety.
**** **** **** ****
Senor Baldemero met him at the front door. Leading him out of the house, into the now crowded street. Turning slightly, he could see the flames had dogged them up the cellar steps into the kitchen, and the whole house seemed to be going up like matchwood kindling.
Scott coughed. Leaning for a second on the kindly storekeeper’s shoulder, as he fought to catch his breath. “My father, Johnny?”
“Aqui estan. Here they are.”
“Scott,” it was Gabe. Beckoning him over to the other side of the street. Murdoch was kneeling in the dirt next to Jake O’Mahoney, and thankfully, Sam Jenkins. Johnny lay on the ground in the centre of the group. Scott could see he was flat on his back, and he wasn’t moving at all.
“No!” The exclamation tore from him, as he half-ran, half-stumbled over. Skidding to his knees in the dust beside his brother. “Oh God, Johnny?”
He watched as Jenkins searched for a pulse. Face becoming grimmer with each second, as his fingers rested inertly on Johnny’s throat. He shook his head, lifting his head up to their frightened entreaty.
“There’s no pulse. He’s not breathing. I’m sorry Murdoch . . .”
“Johnny . . . ” Scott’s head fell forward in stunned despair, as his hand reached out blindly towards Johnny’s shoulder, touched the smooth but icy skin. This couldn’t be, it couldn’t be happening. Not Johnny, he couldn’t believe it. His brother was invincible wasn’t he?
He forced himself to look up at Murdoch, astounded by what he saw. His father’s face was ashen. His father’s granite, iron-hewn features had crumbled like a broken biscuit, as he moved forward like a dreamer and took his son into his arms.
Scott watched with tears streaming down his cheeks, as the two heads nestled close together. One bowed and white-haired. One broken. Hair black as a raven’s wing.
His fingers brushed against something in his belt as he leant back on his heels. It was the effigy. He realised he’d tucked it there, as he’d stumbled from the burning house.
Pulling it into the palm of his hand, he stared at it in revulsion. Looking down at it’s broken arm and scoured chest, as he tried to control the tremors racking through his own body. The wax was still soft from the heat of the fire, and he frowned down at it. Tears blurring his eyes as he regarded this thing, this parody supposed to represent his brother.
The best man he’d ever known. A man who, in spite of the adversity that had dogged his own life, had not pulled the trigger on Zeke Shipton a second time.
No more Johnny, no more laughter. It was as though a bright light had been extinguished in his life, and Scott wondered if Murdoch would ever recover,
as he sat and watched his father rock Johnny’s body against his chest.
He looked down at the poppet again. Absent-mindedly smoothing his thumb across the knife wound in its chest. Part of him thinking with bitter mockery, that if such a thing could be forged of hatred, then surely love should be able to heal it. That love should have a power of its own. And Johnny was surely loved.
The thought of life without him was nearly insupportable. Suddenly the years stretched on ahead, long and oh, so cold. A vital flame snuffed out forever, burnt out with those vivid eyes.
Scott’s hand trembled, as he wished every ounce of love he possessed into the waxen body. Suspending reality, and deferring all belief for a few breathless seconds, as he back-tracked through all the precious memories and emotions in his heart.
The initial astonishment of discovering he had a brother, and what a brother. A hard place to his rock. Troubled water to his oil. A hectic mixture of innocence and cynicism, shamelessness and nobility. Heart-achingly vulnerable, the toughest man he’d ever known. Bubbling over with life and vitality when he had every reason to damn it all to hell. Strong, gentle, funny, sad. His elusive, paradoxical Johnny. How he loved him, God how he loved him. He just prayed Johnny had known.
Murdoch’s voice was strangled with hope. Scott raised his head sharply in time to see a massive convulsion arch through his brother’s half-naked body, as he jack-knifed in Murdoch’s arms. Muscles rippling over his ribcage, as he gulped agonisingly for air. Scrambling closer, Scott watched in disbelief, as Johnny began to sigh in and out, and Sam Jenkins placed his fingers once more on his throat.
“Sam?” It was Murdoch again. Trembling with agony and hope.
“Well, I’ll be . . .” Sam looked up at them with amazement. “His heartbeat’s irregular, but strong. I can’t quite believe it!”
“Believe it!” Whispered Scott. Willing to believe anything this night, his eyes meeting Murdoch’s in broken relief and total understanding. Reluctant to relinquish him, Murdoch had to have Johnny prised out of his arms by the still incredulous doctor.
“There’s some respiratory damage,” said Jenkins, running his hands gently over Johnny’s blood-smeared chest, and pulling out his stethoscope. “Hmm. Some crepitus on the right hand side.”
“He’s a fighter,” said Murdoch. Stronger now, as he moved across to Scott, placing a firm hand on his shoulder. But it was still horrible. Kneeling there, and listening to Johnny’s agonised breathing, even though each laboured gasp lit another spark of hope in their battered hearts.
“Let’s get him over to the Surgery, away from all this smoke.”
Jenkins removed his jacket, and draped it over Johnny’s naked torso, as Murdoch, regardless of his own bad back, stooped and lifted his son into his arms. Looking down at Johnny’s dark head as it flopped against his shoulder, his heart contracted with love and anguish as he saw the black lashes flutter on the high-angled cheekbones. The blue eyes open with a bewildered gleam.
“M . . . Murdoch?”
“Hush son, don’t try to talk.”
“The doll . . . “
“It’s over. You’re safe now.”
“Safe . . . ” Johnny’s eyes closed again, as Murdoch strode determinedly along the street away from the burning house. Scott followed more slowly, his own eyes drawn irresistibly up to the sky. The Moon stared back down at him. Implacable and pure. A shining virginal silver now, chased over by a few wisps of cloud.
**** **** **** ****
“I’ll take one of those if it’s going spare.” Scott indicated the open box of cigars at Murdoch’s elbow, and bent to draw a taper from the fireplace.
And he did. Puffing away on the cigar until the end glowed red, and the room filled with clouds of aromatic smoke. Watching his father’s grim and introspective face for a few moments, he sighed with a tinge of humour.
“Teresa’s to have our hides for smoking in the house again.”
“Hmm . . . ” Murdoch continued staring into the fire. Scott knew he hadn’t heard a single word, as he watched the spit and crackle of the cedar wood logs.
“Murdoch,” Scott’s voice was softer, but more compelling now, as he reached across and flipped down the lid of the cigar box. “He’s going to be just fine.”
Murdoch was motionless for a couple of seconds before his eyes flicked over to Scott’s face. “Is he?”
“Sam wouldn’t have let us bring him home if there was any danger, physically. You know how cautious he’s been about the injuries to Johnny’s ribs, the lung damage…”
“I know. But it’s not his physical injuries that worry me, although God knows, they were bad enough. It’s this whole damn episode, Scott.” He shook his head. “As a Scot, with all this Celtic and Gaelic blood in my veins, part of me has always accepted the existence of another layer, if you will. An area in our lives we have no understanding of. Call it magic, call it superstition, call it what you like. Back home, in the Highlands, it’s just accepted it exists.”
“We’re still discovering so much about this world we live in,” agreed Scott slowly.
Murdoch sighed. “Some might argue we’ve forgotten it.”
“Some might,” Scott paused, and took a deep breath. “About the doll . . .”
“What about it?” Murdoch looked up immediately. Voice harsh and uncompromising, as he regarded his eldest son with a furrowed brow.
Scott puffed on his cigar, and wafted the smoke away with his hand. “I’ve been doing a little research. Speaking to Father Alvarez, asking some of the vaqueros’ wives.”
“And they all say more or less the same thing. The doll should be blessed, then burned by either it’s representative, or someone who has the representative’s interest at heart.”
Murdoch nodded with total comprehension. “Someone like us, you mean.”
“I got Father Alvarez to bless it for me before we brought Johnny home.” Scott removed the doll slowly from inside his waistcoat pocket, and stared down at it. Part of him, the Boston part of him, was still incredulous, as he shook his head slightly. “Do you want to do the honours, or shall I?”
Murdoch got to his feet, and held out his hand in silence. Stepping across to the fireplace, and crouching down before it. Scott joined him, and taking the poker, stirred the flames into new and vibrant life, as he shifted the logs and watched as they caught afresh.
He heard Murdoch draw a breath beside him, and watched as he stared down at the poppet in his mighty hand. Scott could guess exactly what he was thinking. How was it possible someone could create such pain and harm by the use of so-called sympathetic magic. By the manufacture of such a crude little image?
There was no easy answer to that question. Ada Shipton had done it though, and Scott shivered, as he remembered being touched by it himself.
The memories of battle. The viscous, living terror – the trailing fingers of power that had twisted and coerced his unwilling mind. She had done it, and he wanted to forget the sense of it. The vestige of something ancient, old, and reaching back beyond time, she had brought forth and awakened.
He sucked in air, and looked across at Murdoch. Breaking out of his reverie with a tiny jolt. “Do it!”
Murdoch nodded, and placed the effigy onto the logs. The fire caught it with a sibilant hiss, and the wax began to sizzle and melt as the blue flame devoured it hungrily. Eating the scraps of fabric Ada had stolen from Johnny’s shirt.
“Ironic . . . ” murmured Murdoch softly, a tinge of sadness in his tone.
“Yes.” Scott could not find it in him to be quite as sympathetic. “One could also say poetic.”
And poetic it was. The fire had destroyed the old Campbell house in a matter of savage minutes. Turning the place into a raging inferno from which no one else had escaped, once Scott had made it through the door. There had never been a fire like it in Morro Coyo. Even the adobe stonework had cracked and disintegrated with the heat. No bodies had been recovered, and with temperatures that high, it seemed unlikely they ever would be.
Of the townsfolk, only Jake O’Mahoney had a hazy idea of the truth, and Murdoch had left it that way. Merely saying Johnny had fallen from Barranca. That they ‘d gone to the widow’s to fetch him home, just before the fire had broken out.
There was nothing left of the effigy now except a hissing sound on the logs, and the two, charred, blue glass beads Ada had given it for eyes.
“What about those?” Murdoch indicated them. Watching as they dropped through the iron grating onto the pile of hot ash in the hearth.
“Sweep them out with the ashes!” Scott’s voice was uncommonly hard, and as if of one accord, the two men rose to their feet and looked towards the doorway. Both driven by the self-same single thought, as they made their way upstairs to check on Johnny.
**** **** **** ****
Stepping out onto the veranda, a tea tray in her hands, Teresa paused and watched. Thinking he was unobserved, Johnny slid the Colt out of the inner pocket of the ridiculously incongruous silk robe Scott had leant him.
She bit her lip slightly as he balanced it with difficulty in his right hand. Beads of pain and effort breaking out on his forehead for all the hurt it caused him.
But he persisted. Tightening his hold, and hefting it in his palm. Shutting his eyes in relief, as his fingers closed round it with a familiar grip.
For a moment she stood there, half hidden in the shade of the pillar. She found herself wishing fervently, hoping with all her heart his fingers wouldn’t work – that he’d never be able to hold the damned thing again. Her gut wrenched with something akin to pain itself, as she saw his forefinger tighten on the trigger. The look of profound relief cross his tense features, as he sank back on the recliner and closed his eyes again.
Rattling the tea cups loudly to herald her arrival, she gave him a couple of seconds before stepping determinedly over towards him, with a bright smile on her lips. Voice deliberately brisk, even if her eyes were damp with tears.
“I’ve come to keep you company and watch you drink your tea.”
And just as she’d known there would be, there was no sign of the gun, as he looked up at her with a soft smile of pleasure. Watching as she set down the tray.
“Time does seem kinda slow.”
She nodded sympathetically. “I know how much you hate having to take things easy, but it’s for the best Johnny.”
“Lo se, I surely know.” He paused and bit his lip, dipping his head in thanks for the tea she’d poured him. “It seems so stupid, after everythin’ that happened, but I know you’ll understand this . . .”
“Yeah, she went and ruined my shirt.”
She met his eyes, and swallowed hard. She’d been expecting this, or something like it, and her heart bled for him. She knew it was the way he dealt with things, how he coped with the major issues. It was the little things he spoke about, all the apparent trivia. It was just the way he was.
“I’m sorry Johnny, but at least she didn’t take you. That’s really all that matters.”
“Thanks to all of you.”
She shivered hard, but forced some lightness back into her tone. “Call it a team effort. I had a feeling there was something wrong. Barranca raised the alarm, and Scott and Murdoch raced off to the rescue, while Jelly and I held the fort.”
He nodded again slowly, a sudden arrested look on his face. “A team effort. I like that, it sounds – nice.”
She dropped two lumps of sugar into his tea for him, watching carefully as they dissolved. “It’s how a family works, Johnny. People who love each other do things for each other. Take risks for each other, work together as a team.”
“I’ve always been alone, Teresa. Y siempre solo.”
“Not anymore,” she said fiercely, “and never again. You have a family now. You have us and we have you. Nothing can ever take it away from you again.”
He smiled slightly at her ferocity. Her warmth beginning to wrap itself around him, as he felt calmer then he had done for days. He could hold his gun, and although his arm still hurt like the devil, his grip had not been impaired.
His arm would heal like his ribs were healing, it would take some time, but his bones would heal. It was just his memories he wasn’t so sure about . . .
The time in the cellar was a hazy blur for the most part. The pain, the smoke and the darkness had merged and blended it all into one long nightmare. One twisted dream.
But some things stood out with peculiar clarity, frightening lucidity. The monstrosity of Shipton’s face, the malignancy of Ada’s. His own disproportionate feeling of anguish at the loss of his Johnny Madrid shirt. The terror as his memories began to shift and unravel, replaced by others, unknown and alien – memories not his own!
He shivered suddenly, cold again, despite the late afternoon warmth. Despite the sun that dappled down on them through the tracery of vines and jasmine curls, chasing each other round and round the portico overhead.
She saw it, and didn’t wonder.
The disjointed story both Murdoch and Scott had told her, the parts that she’d filled in by herself. Whoever, or whatever Ada Shipton had been, whatever power she’d conjured – the fact was, both she and her son had almost deprived them of Johnny. Teresa couldn’t help feeling relieved they’d perished in that awful fire.
He was having trouble stirring his tea. Instead of reaching over to him, she got swiftly to her feet, and moved round to his side. Taking the spoon from his nerveless fingers and doing it for him. She was determined to irritate him. Desperate to annoy him, anything to get a typical, stubborn Johnny retort from him . . .
But there was nothing. Not even a sarcastic raised eyebrow, and instead, he leant in softly against her shoulder, as she put the spoon down carefully.
“Do you know what kept me focused, kept me going down in that cellar?”
“Tell me.” Her fingers ached to smooth his hair, but she didn’t dare. He sighed gently, and she felt him smile, even though she couldn’t see his face.
“Oh, the thought of what you just said to me. How p . . . angry Murdoch would be, how much it would hurt Scott.” He shook his head slightly; “How Jelly wouldn’t have anyone to yell at anymores.”
She smiled in tacit acknowledgement, reflecting if Jelly ever loved anyone, he truly did love Johnny. It showed in the way he grumbled and griped at him all day long. Trust Johnny to see beyond all that, to see right through the cantankerous old façade.
But she didn’t say any of that, merely nodding as he took a still painful breath, then continued. “And then of course, there was you, querida.”
Her eyes dipped in sudden confusion, as she waited to hear what he’d say next. But the thud of horses hooves made them both look up with a slight start, as Scott and Murdoch cantered up to the corral fence. Hot and tired, covered in dust after a long, arduous day on the range.
As she moved back to her chair, she didn’t miss the way both men shot Johnny a quick, anxious look of appraisal as they clattered onto the veranda. Nor the gratitude she saw reflected in all three sets of blue eyes.
Her own heart swelled, and even as she smiled along with Scott as he pulled Johnny’s leg about the swanky, silken robe, she gave silent thanks of her own for them all. The three of them so different, but all three so alike. The three men she loved best in all the world. Suddenly, the future seemed full of light and promise as the dark clouds rolled away. She smiled happily at her family. Brown eyes brimming with unshed tears, as she looked across and caught him smiling back at her, in that ridiculous, blue silk robe.
“She’s right as always,” he thought, as the weight of the secret Colt pressed into his hipbone. This was what mattered, the warmth and heart of his family, being a member of this team.
He didn’t need a shirt to define, or remember who he was today. Maybe one day, he wouldn’t need a gun either. Not today, and not even tomorrow.
But maybe one day . . .
Lisa Paris 2002.
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