Word count: 59,905
Murdoch grunted and the horse blew out a weary breath as they plodded along the rutted road. The trip to Green River and back had added more misery to his overworked and tired body. The journey had been worth every bone-jarring bump along the way, though, because, safely tucked in his coat pocket was a letter containing some welcome news that couldn’t have come at a better time. The past few months had been extremely rough on Murdoch and even more so on his sons.
The main problem had been the dismal weather. Too frequent rains had lasted for days, leaving behind vast destruction in the form of washed out bridges and flooded fields. Cattle had gotten stuck in the deep mud left behind and it took every man he had to pry them out. On top of that, the men were getting ill from traipsing around in the wet to do their jobs, so sick that Sam refused to let them work. This meant that Johnny and Scott had had no choice but to pick up the slack.
It had been one disaster after another before everything had finally gotten back to normal. He and his boys were on the verge of collapse and ready for any break they could get. There had not even been time for regular visits to the saloon to enjoy downtime and wash away the troubles of the past few months. A man could only take so much and the Lancer men were at their limit. Johnny and Scott had become increasingly annoyed with each other and even more annoyed with their old man whenever he suggested another chore that needed to be done. Of course, Murdoch hadn’t been too happy, either, when his sons rebelled or refused to do what they were told.
Arriving home before his boys, Murdoch waited anxiously for their return from Spanish Wells, eager to inform them of the good news. Sitting back in his chair, he stretched his long legs out and took the letter out of his coat pocket and read it again. Lost in his friend’s joyous words, his trance was broken by the loud jingle of Johnny’s spurs coming from the direction of the kitchen, accompanied by the boys’ raised voices. He stood to greet his sons, the letter in hand.
“No, Scott!” Johnny exclaimed as he and his scowling brother entered the great room. “I’m not going on a double date with you! I told you once and I’m telling you again, I don’t care for those fancy dances!” he added as he walked past his smiling father and flopped down in the leather chair by the fireplace.
“But the only way Cathy will go out with me is if I find her cousin a date,” Scott declared. “Okay, how about this, what if I teach you a few of the proper steps? Then will you go?” He asked desperately as a last resort.
“Come on, Johnny, do it for me, your brother.” Scott softened his tone as he pleaded with his mule-headed sibling. “Her cousin is only in town for a few weeks and she promised she would show Sissy a good time. And with this dance coming up, I thought it would do us some good, too.”
“Sissy? What kind of name is that?” Johnny frowned. “Look, Scott, I don’t like my fun organized, you ought to know that by now. Besides, the last time you talked me into something like this I was almost killed!” Johnny shook his head adamantly. “No sir, no more, once is enough for me.”
Frustrated, Scott was about to open his mouth in another attempt to convince his brother when they both heard a loud harrumph coming their father. Barely containing his mirth, Murdoch seemed to be vibrating with excitement.
“What’s so funny?” Johnny grumbled, not the least bit amused at the ridiculous grin on his father’s face.
“You boys!” Murdoch chuckled.
“Murdoch, would you please try to talk some sense into Johnny?” Scott beseeched his father. “It’s been a long four months with everything that has been going on. Now we finally have some time to enjoy ourselves but he refuses to help me out here.”
“Yes, Scott, I couldn‘t agree with you more. However, I don’t think you and your brother will be able attend that dance, even if I could convince him to go,” Murdoch pointed out with cryptic glee, keeping his face straight.
“Don’t tell me that something else has happened? I don’t think I can pick up another axe or shovel. My arms still ache,” Johnny groaned, rubbing his bruised shoulder.
“No, son, nothing else has happened,” Murdoch announced. “But see this?” He held up the letter.
“Yeah, it’s a letter,” Johnny acknowledged. “So?”
“Who’s it from, sir?”
“This is from my old friend, Ethan Dunlop,” Murdoch stated fondly and then smiled. “We grew up together in Scotland. He came out here a few years after I did and we’ve kept in touch through letters.”
“It’s not bad news, I hope?” Johnny frowned.
“No, just the opposite, it’s great news for him and us,” Murdoch replied. “You see, Ethan was never one for the rough cowboy life, as he called it,” he chuckled, “so he settled in New Orleans and opened a successful shipping company. Then a couple of years later he met a beautiful Cajun woman by the name of Margot. I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the wedding but he has sent a picture or two of his wife and their two daughters.”
“How is that good news for us?” Scott questioned, giving his brother a perplexed look.
“Well, his youngest daughter, Paulette, is getting married. I promised years ago to be there when either of his girls wed, no matter what it took.” Murdoch paused and studied his weary boys, and then continued, “And that’s in a few weeks and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“Better for you,” Johnny snorted.
“No, for the three of us, John,” his father clarified. “I think that after the last four backbreaking months, we all deserve a vacation to New Orleans. So what do you say?” Posing the question to his quiet sons, he stood, anxiously awaiting their response.
“Are you sure, it’s okay for the three us of to go?” Scott asked, the specter of hope creeping into his voice.
“Sure it is, the hardest part is over with. Knock on wood,” Murdoch replied, rapping his knuckles on his oak desk. “Frank, Cipriano and Jelly can handle things around here. We’ll only be gone for a couple of weeks, three at the most. Since you’ve been there a few times, Scott, you can show your brother around while Ethan and I visit.”
“Well, I’m all for it, but I’m not so sure about Johnny,” Scott retorted, winking slyly at his father. “After all, he did say he doesn’t like his fun organized.”
“Hey now, don’t go talking for me,” Johnny warned as he shot out of his chair. “In this case I’ll make an exception. It might fun at that,” he added, warming to the idea.
“Sure it will.” Murdoch boasted. “There is plenty to see there, right Scott?”
“And don’t forget the food. Why, with your cast-iron stomach, little brother, there are some dishes that are right up your alley. Some of that Cajun food is very spicy.” Scott grinned, slapping his brother’s midsection with the back of his hand.
“Really? Well, that sounds rather tasty to me,” Johnny quipped and returned the gesture, only a little harder, and then crossed his arms over his belly to guard his lean form just in case Scott decided to retaliate.
“So, is it a go, boys?” Murdoch asked.
“Sure, why not?” Johnny agreed.
“Good, I’ll go into town tomorrow and make the arrangements and we’ll leave on the next stage to Stockton to catch the train. I suggest you boys get packing and let’s go over the details of what needs to be done with Frank and Cip.”
“Right, sir. Come on, Johnny, let’s go find the men.” Scott urged his brother out the door as their father looked on with a wide grin.
Murdoch was relieved to see their spirits picking up already. He chuckled as he considered this could be really interesting; they had never been on vacation as a family.
“Hey, Scott, hold up!” Johnny shouted, halting his brother’s steps as he hurried across the yard from the house. “I was thinking, maybe we can hop aboard one of those river boats and take a ride up the Mississippi towards St. Louis and look for that house.” Johnny grinned at his puzzled brother.
“You know, the one Glory described, with the white marble columns and black hickory,” he explained, only to receive a weary glare from Scott. Realizing, Scott was not amused, he lowered his eyes and apologized, “Sorry, brother, I…I didn’t mean to touch on a sore spot.”
“It’s quite all right. I’m well over her,” Scott stated, though with a hint of sadness in his voice. “Considering all the lies she told, I highly doubt that house even exists. But if it does, I have no desire to go looking for it,” he asserted as they both continued towards the barn.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. No need to dwell on the past. I ought to know that by know.” Johnny sighed. “Sorry I brought it up.”
“Don’t worry about it, little brother.” Scott assured him with a smile. “Besides, I doubt we’ll have time for a boat ride. I know quite a few places of interest that I think you’ll enjoy.”
“Yeah, do they have pretty girls in these places?” Johnny asked slyly.
Scott shook his head and chuckled. “Yes, brother, there are pretty girls, along with good music and food.”
“Hot dang, I can’t wait to get going!”
“Johnny, there are plenty of pretty girls right here. What’s the difference?”
“Oh, come on brother, don‘t give me that. You, of all people, should know how fun it is to explore new places and meet different people…..especially girls.” Johnny winked, jabbing his brother’s arm with his elbow. “I’ve never met one of those Cajin women before, should be interesting.”
“It’s Cajun and I see your point.” Scott smirked. “I guess when I was there, I never thought of it like that. I was basically there to visit friends.”
“That’s because you don’t know how to have fun like I do. You didn’t bother to come to Josh’s bachelor party and you missed one hell of good time.” Johnny snorted, “And we didn’t need no fancy dance to have fun.”
“For your information, little brother, I’ve been to a few parties in my time, back in Boston. I don’t mean the ones my grandfather organized, either, so don‘t worry about me, I do know how to have a good time.” Scott explained to his grinning brother.
“Well, that’s good to hear because I was starting to worry about you.”
Scott ignored his brother’s snide remark, and then pointed towards the barn. “There’s Cipriano now,” he announced when he spied the old Segundo coming out looking a bit winded. “We’ll inform him of what needs to be done and he can relay our orders to the rest of the men.”
“I sure hope he’s up to it. I mean he was pretty sick there for awhile,” Johnny said with deep concern for his amigo. “With us gone, he’ll have a lot of responsibility on his hands.”
“Sam says he’s just fine now. Don’t worry, Frank and Jelly will be here to help out,” Scott softly assured his frowning brother. “If it will make you feel better, I’ll instruct them both to keep an eye on him. If they think he’s over doing it, then they’re to make sure he rests.”
“If he will,” Johnny huffed. “It took Sam, me, Murdoch and Maria to convince him to stay in bed. I never saw a man so stubborn, except for Murdoch when he gets a notion. He won’t rest until it’s done.”
“I know of one other person,” Scott vowed, glaring at his brother.
Johnny blue eyes widened with a mischievous sparkle as he pointed to himself. “Me? Now where did you get an idea like that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess maybe all those times we had to fight YOU to stay in bed when you were sick or wounded might have given me that impression.” Scott stated.
“Yeah, well, I do recall a certain Boston dandy crawling out of bed and chasing after Dan Cassidy, after HE was instructed to STAY in bed,” Johnny retorted, loudly emphasizing several words to make his point.
“Point well taken, brother,” Scott conceded after Johnny graced him with one of his incorrigible smiles. He turned his attention to Cipriano as they approached the corral. Scott was just about to call him over when Johnny let out a sharp whistle to get the man’s attention. “Johnny, must you?”
“You’re just jealous cause you can’t whistle like me,” Johnny teased as he waved to his friend, who was headed towards them. “Well, go on, I got his attention for you.”
The old foreman acknowledged the whistle and waved back, marching quickly towards them. “Juanito, Senor Scott, is there something I can do for you?” he greeted the boys.
It amazed Scott, how he was always addressed as Senor Scott but Johnny was always called Juanito by Cipriano and some of the other Spaniards who worked for them. Scott smiled at the fondness they felt towards his brother. Maybe one day he would just be called Scott, but for right now the respect they showed him was all any man could ask for.
“Yes, there is, Cip,” Scott stated. He proceeded to explain the details as the man listened carefully.
Johnny motioned that he was going into the barn to relay his own instructions to Pedro, about how he wanted Barranca handled while he was gone.
His mind was filled with all kinds of wondrous thoughts of New Orleans, a place he had considered visiting when he was still making a living as Madrid. A place where he could get away and no one would know him, a place he could be somebody else.
Now, he was getting that chance with his family; an adventure Johnny was looking forward to. He was sure it was one he would not soon forget.
It took Johnny as long to clarify the detailed care he expected for his beloved horse as it did for Scott to review the chores and tasks that would need tending while they were gone, along with a few contingency plans.
Once they had finished going over their instructions with Cipriano and Pedro, the brothers headed back towards the main house. They were in high spirits due to the anticipation of their first family vacation and it showed in their playful actions.
Johnny gave in to the uncontrollable urge to unleash his pent up enthusiasm by playfully jabbing his brother’s arm and Scott was only too happy to return the gesture. The brothers snickered as the play escalated into a shoving and pushing game that lasted all the way to the front door. They were still giggling like schoolboys as they entered the house. After answering their father’s questions about the instructions they gave the men, the rest of the day was spent indoors preparing for the long journey ahead of them.
While in his room packing his suitcase, Scott decided to look over his selection of novels and chose one to read along the way. He then recalled how fidgety his brother could get, so he found a book he thought might be of interest to Johnny and stuffed both in his saddlebag. Hopefully, he could encourage his brother to read it since there would be precious little to do during the ride. He felt it was his job as the older, wiser brother to expand Johnny’s horizons.
Meanwhile, Johnny was more concerned about something to drink on the long dusty stage routes than he was with entertainment. There was no way he was going to be stuck out there with no liquid substance. He grabbed a canteen from the kitchen, filled it with cool water and hung it by his hat, so he wouldn’t forget it.
He was also dreading the possibility of being squeezed in the seat next to another fat lady drenched in smelly toilet water, like he had been once before. If that should be the case, he’d make damn sure that his brother received the pleasure of sitting next to her.
Early the next morning, Murdoch informed his sons of a decision he had made during his sleepless night. They would be leaving for town shortly to wait for the noon stage, and, to his delight, he didn’t get any arguments from either one of his boys. They were just as anxious to begin the family adventure as their father. As a matter of fact, they already had their bags downstairs ready to go. After some last-minute instructions, they bid the ranch goodbye and were off to catch the stage for the first leg of their trip to New Orleans.
Several hours later, they were on the trail and Johnny was already showing signs of boredom. Scott watched him fidgeting until he could take it no more. Pulling out the book he had chosen for Johnny, he handed it to his brother.
“Here you go, little brother, I think you might enjoy this.”
“A book? You know I’m not much of a reader, Scott,” his brother snapped irritably. He glanced around, even though there were only the three of them on the stage.
“I know, you told me that a few times already but you seemed to enjoy the previous ones I selected for you,” Scott pressed earnestly.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Johnny admitted, as their father looked on smiling. He took the book, looked it over and noticed that it was not as fat as the books Scott usually read. “It’s not very long, is it? What’s it about?”
“It’s short story by Mark Twain.”
“Mark Twain, an excellent author, who wrote about his life and experiences around New Orleans and on the Mississippi River,” Scott explained happily. “He has written many wonderful stories, and this one is a short tale about his views on an old Spanish fort. I believe it is on the west end of town.”
“Spanish fort, huh? Down around New Orleans?” Johnny asked, his face animated with interest.
“Yes, John, there were many Spaniards who settled in New Orleans, along with the French and Negroes; it’s all a part of their history. If my history is correct, it was the Spanish who built most of the structures you will see,” Murdoch added to the conversation.
“Back before I was even born, there was a notorious pirate by the name of Jean Lafitte who fought the Spanish, possibly at that same fort. He had a fleet of ships and waged war on Spanish rule. He also had an uneasy alliance with them that turned sour, and well, it s long story. ”
“A pirate, huh? Well, I guess this is gonna be an interesting trip after all. I can’t wait to find out more about New Orleans,” Johnny exclaimed holding up the book.
“Starting with this, thanks brother. I‘ve seen many Mexican forts before, from the outside, that is, but never one that fought off pirates.”
“I think there might be a drawing of the fort in there somewhere,” Scott replied, gesturing to the book. “It also discusses the many festive traditions they have as well.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“Oh, like Mardi Gras for one,” Scott answered giving his father a sly wink.
Johnny surprised them both by saying, “Yeah, I heard of that!”
“You did?” Murdoch asked in awe. He was pleasantly surprised at this bit of information as Johnny was always so hush-hush about his past.
“Yeah, like Scott, I do have friends out there, you know.” Johnny retorted. “I don’t know if he’s still alive, but I knew a fella, name of Dillon. We crossed paths a few times while he was on his travels. You see, he’s a salesman, a traveling gunsmith. His journeys took him down to New Orleans once, and he told me about this festival he saw there, called Mardi Gras.”
“And what else did he tell you about it, brother?” Scott asked, intrigued by his brother’s admission.
“Oh, I recall him saying something about the fancy masks and beads they wore and how they dressed up in colorful clothes and danced in the street.”
Johnny thought back, laying the book on his lap. Scratching his head, he added, “He said it was pretty wild and got ugly a few times. I guess there’s a lot of drinking there that can get out of control. But he said it was something to behold.”
“Sounds about right,” Scott confirmed. “We just might get a chance to see it, if the timing is right.”
“Scott, if we want to see a drunken brawl, all we have to do is visit the Green River saloon on a Saturday night!” Johnny remarked sarcastically, flashing his brother one of his incorrigible smiles.
Murdoch shook his head in amusement. “Let’s sit back and enjoy the ride, boys, we have at least a couple hours before we get to Stockton.”
“Still?” Johnny whined, rolling his eyes. “I swear these trips are getting longer each time.”
“Well, brother, start reading, it will help pass the time.”
“Yeah, if I can hold the book still long enough to read the blasted words,” Johnny grumbled as the stage hit a bump and the book went flying off his lap. By happenstance the book landed open to the page that had the picture of the Spanish fort. “Will you look at that,” he grinned as he picked the book up. “Hey, now, that is one fancy fort.”
“Impressive, maybe we can hire a guide to take us there and get a close view of it, from the outside that is,” Scott teased.
“Maybe, we‘ll see. Now, I’m gonna read this book and try to forget the pain in my behind from this seat,” the youngest Lancer griped.
“And then when we get home I’m gonna file a complaint with the stage company and maybe they will put in new ones. My saddle has more padding.”
The older Lancers had to laugh at Johnny’s boyish complaining, as he squirmed about on the hard seat. Since he was the only one occupying it, he swung his legs up on the seat with his knees bent. Resting the book on them, he began reading. They tried not to stare and make him uncomfortable but as Johnny read, the expression on his young face morphed between serious and comical. They even heard a slight chuckle escape his lips.
“He does have way with words, doesn’t he?” Scott couldn’t help but comment.
Johnny nodded and smiled, his eyes glued to the text.
“Enjoy, little brother,” Scott whispered, opening his own book as their father watched with great joy.
Much to the delight of the Lancer men, the trip from Stockton to Sacramento was uneventful and even somewhat relaxing despite the few rough spots they hit and Johnny’s grumbles about his sore rear.
From there, they were lucky to book passage on the southbound train to New Orleans that was scheduled to leave in a few hours. They took this welcome opportunity to rest up a bit and indulged themselves with a hearty meal and a few drinks before boarding the train. Johnny was greatly relieved when he found out the route to New Orleans would bypass the Mexican border completely, heading towards Kansas and then down to Louisiana. The last thing he needed was to run into some old foes with a grudge against Madrid, which would ruin his trip with his father and brother.
The train chugged on through open land; territory that was once been blazed by wagons full of hopeful settlers. Those brave souls had traveled the vast green ranges in search of new homes and better lives. As the miles slipped past, the Lancers noticed that parts of the terrain was turning from lush green grassland to brown, arid and barren wastes. The once tall grass now lay withered and flat, exposing cattle skulls and old forgotten graves now identified only by rotted wooden markers or rocks with faded writing. All were sad remembrance of the hard times the pioneers had endured, with only the strongest moving on.
Johnny sighed and shook his head. “Must have had a bad dry spell here lately?” He commented as he gazed out at the desolate land. “Kind of reminds me of those dry times down in Mexico.”
“Yes, one good spark could set it off to burn for miles on end,” Murdoch added grimly. “It’s sad to see such beautiful land dry up and blow away like this.”
“Not to mention the sickness that goes with it,” Johnny glumly recalled, then explained to his frowning father. “Down in Mexico, when it got as dry like this, the winds blew in not only the dirt from the desert but the bugs and diseases. I watched many good people die a slow death and with no money for a doctor. Hell, most of those villages had no doctors,” Johnny added bitterly.
“There must have been some around there somewhere,” Scott exclaimed.
“Yeah, but only in the rich parts of town. You see, Scott, down there, if you didn’t have money, it was like you didn’t exist. Only the rich land barons or ranchers had their own doctors. The poor had to fend for themselves with only homemade remedies to cure what ailed them. Some worked and some failed.”
“Well, that was certainly harsh and uncalled for.” Murdoch objected. “I mean, keeping a doctor from helping the less unfortunate.”
“Well, uncalled for or not, Murdoch, that’s the way it was and still is,” Johnny stated with a sour expression. “There were a few doctors with scruples, who would help the ones who really needed it. But later, they found themselves banned from the higher paying patients, forcing them to move on to make a living.”
Scott shook his head in astonishment at the injustice of it. He could see the pain and anguish in Johnny’s eyes as he spoke. This was supposed to be a happy adventure, so he thought he had better lighten up the mood.
“I know of one doctor who would never stand for such things, Sam.” Scott declared.
Johnny’s face lit up at the mere mention of his old friend. “Yeah, old Sam wouldn’t put up with that, now would he? I can hear him now, just laying into one of those fancy dressed senoritas for having her corset too tight. Or gently setting the broken arm of a small niño, who had had a run-in with a couple of street bullies,” Johnny reflected fondly about old Sam Jenkins.
“Yes, that does sound like Sam.” Murdoch smiled wearily and looked out the window. His heart ached with the surety that Johnny was probably the niño with the broken bone. “It will be getting dark in a couple of hours and I’m getting hungry, so I suggest we head to the dining car for dinner.”
“Sounds good to me,” Scott agreed eagerly. “By the way what is our next stop?”
“Whichita. There we have an hour layover while the train restocks.” Murdoch informed his sons as he scooted out of the seat.
“Whichita, huh? I haven’t been there is a coon’s age,” Johnny revealed. “I had a few good times there with some old buddies, you remember…” he started to relate the tale, then stopped. He didn’t want to spoil the mood with thoughts of the last time he met up with the same old friends. It had eventually led to Lucy’s death.
“What were you going to say, brother?”
“Nothing, it was nothing. Let’s get something to eat, huh?” Johnny said as he followed his father and brother towards the dining car. He was mentally kicking himself for having such morbid thoughts when this was supposed to be a happy occasion.
“Sorry for bringing up a sad subject, I mean Mexico. It‘s just…” he whispered as they walk among the cars.
“It’s okay, son. Sometimes a person sees or hears something that sparks a memory, bad or good. It helps to talk about it, if you feel the need to. Remember that, okay?”
“I’ll try to, Murdoch, I’ll try,” Johnny remarked as they reached the dining car. “Mmm, something sure smells scrumptious.”
“Scrumptious?” Scott asked, raising his eyebrows, giving his brother a curious look.
“Yeah, ain’t that one of those fancy words you use for tasty?” Johnny quipped.
“Come on, boys, let’s sit down and enjoy a good meal. It does smell…tasty,” Murdoch teased with a wide grin.
The meal in the dining car was both entertaining and filling. During their scrumptious dinner, Johnny, being a rascal, continued taunting Scott with his use of fancy words, some of which made no sense. The youngest Lancer then took great delight in listening to his Harvard-educated brother try to define the nonsensical words.
Murdoch watched his sons with joy as their excitement manifested in high spirits. All in all, despite Scott becoming a little annoyed with his baby brother, it was a pleasurable evening that ended too soon.
The three of them returned to their seats early in hopes of getting a good night’s sleep. Luckily, Murdoch and Scott were able to drift off within a matter of minutes but Johnny sat there, staring out into the vast darkness and pondering his good fortune in finally having a family. Eventually, his eyes started to close and he finally nodded off.
It was late afternoon the next day when the train pulled into the growing town of Wichita. Before they disembarked, word came from the conductor that instead of a one-hour layover, there would be a two-hour delay. Due to the unforeseen circumstances, no meals would be served until they were underway again. Disappointed by this turn of events, Murdoch turned to his youngest and inquired if he knew of a good place to eat. By chance, Johnny did know of a splendid café, one that served food both his father and brother could eat without experiencing too much indigestion, as well as his beloved Mexican fare.
This gave Scott the perfect opportunity to poke fun at his brother’s eating habits and cast-iron stomach, payback for the night before. Scott’s teasing escalated and after a few more fancy words, he received a hot pepper stuffed in his mouth by his mischievous sibling.
The pepper’s heat scorched Scott’s tongue and the look on his face was priceless. Murdoch had never seen his son so beet red, let alone with his eyes bulging out. A loud, hearty laugh burst from the rancher’s mouth, shattering the tranquility of the small café and turning curious heads.
All the while, Johnny sat there with a wide and devilish grin. That will teach you, big brother. Finally figuring his brother had suffered enough, Johnny poured him a tall glass of milk to help cut the burning in his throat. Scott drank it down in one long gulp, at the same time hurriedly motioning for another. Once he could speak, he vowed to never tease his brother about his taste in food again.
Murdoch chuckled softly as he looked out the window of the elegant carriage carrying them along the quaint cobblestoned streets of New Orleans even as he reflected fondly back on the hot pepper incident. The street they were on, Canal, was handsomely outlined on one side with establishments of all varieties; one could easily spend a day exploring them. On the other side, rows of trees lined a boardwalk lined with benches where a person could sit and watch the Mississippi rolling gently by.
The Lancer men took in the wondrous sights, awed by the beautiful tall, old buildings that had so much history engraved on their wood and brick walls.
“Well, boys, what do you think?” Murdoch asked anxiously, pausing to inhale deeply. “Just take a whiff of the fresh river water, reminds me of my days trapping in the Rockies,” he laughed, “when I saw my first steam engine.”
“You thought it was the devil himself.” Johnny added gleefully, remembering the talk his father had had with Chad. “Yeah, it’s a sight to behold all right. I never saw so many old buildings still in good shape.”
“Well, this is an old town, brother. Most of these establishments are made out of brick, to withstand the harsh storms they get down in this area,” Scott explained. “Not to mention the battles these building have stood through.”
“Yeah, like that pirate, Jean Lafitte, I reckon,” Johnny stated. “I’d sure hate to meet up with somebody like him. I’m good with a gun, but not too handy with a sword,” he grinned, waving his arms about as though he had a sword and feigning mock jabs at Scott.
“I guess not, John, but they did have guns, too.” Murdoch commented.
“Well, in that case, if I do meet a pirate, I’ll be ready,” Johnny quipped.
“I have no doubt you will, little brother, however, these are peaceful times. Though you might meet other interesting characters this town has to offer,” Scott replied with an impish grin of his own.
Johnny looked at his brother‘s smug smirk and snorted, “Somehow, I’m not too thrilled about that remark, brother Scott.”
“Don’t worry, son, your brother is just pulling your leg,” Murdoch assured him, sitting up straighter as he noticed that they were heading into the residential part of town. “It looks like you’ll soon be meeting Ethan. He said his home was not too far from town.”
“It was sure nice of him to have his carriage waiting for us, when we got off the train,” Johnny commented gratefully. “With all those people milling about looking for rides, I was afraid I’d get lost and I didn’t have a notion where to go.”
“Yes, Ethan is generous man. You’ll like him, boys.”
“I’m sure we will, sir.”
The men enjoyed a few more minutes of sightseeing as they continued from the waterfront to the beautiful elegant homes with their huge trees standing guard in front of the houses, branches overlapping onto the rooftops. Rolling green lawns were dotted with splotches of color by lavish flower gardens.
The carriage began to slow, then turned sharply up a wide curved pathway leading up to a big picturesque brick house. It was partially hidden from the street by massive canopies of foliage draped in tendrils of Spanish moss. The conveyance stopped right by the front door.
“Whooee, would you look at that house!” Johnny stated with awe as he stepped out the carriage, followed by his brother and father. “I’d say your friend did well for himself, Murdoch.”
“Yes, he sure has.” Murdoch smiled widely, impressed with what he saw.
The double doors opened and a well groomed middle-aged Negro man stepped out.
“Mr. Lancer, I presume,” he greeted them politely.
“Yes, I am, and these are my sons, Scott and John,” Murdoch replied.
“Very good. Master Dunlop has instructed me to show you to your rooms upon your arrival so you may freshen up before dinner,” the butler stated with poise. Johnny wasn’t thrilled to hear the word, Master, being spoken. In a way, it made his skin crawl.
“Is Ethan home?” Murdoch asked.
“No sir. He, Mrs. Dunlop and their daughters have gone to the church to go over the details of Mistress Paulette’s wedding,” the man informed them. “He said to make you as comfortable as possible and he’ll be home shortly. This way, gentlemen,” he instructed, waving his hand to indicate that the Lancers should follow him into the large foyer. “Please gentlemen, wait here while I help the driver with the luggage.”
“Let me help!” Johnny offered earnestly.
“No, Master John, you are our guest. It wouldn‘t be proper for you to carry your own luggage,” the butler said with a smile as he exited the house.
“Master John,” Johnny snorted under his breath.
“Does that bother you, son?” Murdoch asked noting the frown on his younger son’s face.
“Yes, it does. To me, no man should call another man ‘Master’. It’s not right,” Johnny retorted in a soft voice, “but I guess it’s how things are here, right?”
“Yes, brother, here and all over the world,” Scott replied. “It’s just the way of things.”
“Yeah, I guess so, but I still don’t like it.” Johnny sighed, flashing them a weary smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t let that ruin things for you,” he promised.
“Good, son, because there are things we just can’t change,” Murdoch pointed out, patting his boy’s arm.
“Gentlemen, please follow us,” the butler said as he and the driver returned with their suitcases. He proceeded to lead the Lancers up a beautiful long and winding oak staircase. “Your rooms are right over here. This is your room, Mr. Lancer, and the young Masters are right next to you.”
“It’s Samuel, sir.”
“Well, thank you, Samuel.” Murdoch said graciously as the butler opened the door to the huge and elegant bedroom. “This is nice, very nice. A man could really lose himself in here.”
“Yes, nice indeed,” Scott echoed as he gazed around at the wonderfully decorated walls and lavish draperies. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s see what our room is like. Please continue, Samuel.”
“Yes, Master Scott, this way.”
“After you, brother,” Johnny announced, respectfully waving his hand in front of him. “Age before beauty, I always say,” he teased, being rewarded with Scott’s elbow right in his ribcage. “Was that pay… back for that hot pepper you tasted?” he wheezed as he caught his breath, then gingerly followed his grinning brother.
“Here you go, gentlemen, I hope this meets with your approval.” Samuel said as he put their bags down on a chair in the corner of their room.
“Yes, sir, nice indeed,” Johnny whistled, scanning the elaborate bedroom that held two beds, both covered with stunning handmade quilts. Without even asking which bed Scott wanted, he walked over to the one closest to the wall, sat down, slipped his boots off and sprawled out on the bed, sinking into its soft mattress. “Oh, this is what I call heaven.”
Scott shook his head and smiled at his impetuous brother, then excused the attentive butler. “Thank you, Samuel, that will be all.”
“As you say, Master Scott. Dinner is at six,” Samuel replied. Bowing, he turned and left the room, leaving the boys to get settled in.
“Don’t get too comfortable, Johnny, we have to get ready for dinner, which is about an hour from now.”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” Johnny grunted as he pushed his tired body off the enticing bed. “Before you ask, yes, I packed a couple of white shirts to wear for dinner and my other pair of good pants. I still don’t know what’s wrong with my normal clothes!”
“They’re fine for walking around town, matter of fact, you’ll blend nicely with some of the locals but for dinners and the wedding, proper attire is required.”
“Yes, says me, now let’s get unpacked and ready to meet our host,” Scott urged.
While Scott and Johnny got settled, Murdoch was doing the same. He, too, tested the mattress on his king-sized bed. Then he washed up, shaved and changed his dusty clothes, smiling in anticipation of meeting his old friend again after all these years.
Forty-five minutes later, as Samuel welcomed his employer and his family home, he was very pleased to inform them of their guests’ arrival and the fact that they were settled in their rooms. Earning quick praise from Dunlop, Samuel hurried upstairs to tell Murdoch and the boys that he was there to escort them to the sitting room.
“Thank you, Samuel, I’ll get the boys. Please wait here, we’ll be right behind you,” Murdoch said as he walked over to the boys’ room and knocked softly on the door.”
“Yes, sir,” Samuel replied, waiting by the stairs.
“Come in, Murdoch, we’re decent,” Johnny answered.
Murdoch opened the door with no doubt that Scott would be properly dressed for dinner. He was pleasantly surprised to see his youngest also attired that way as well. Johnny was wearing a white pressed shirt and pleated black pants that looked stunning on his trim frame. Murdoch’s chest swelled with pride, realizing what it must have taken for his son to shed his normal clothes just to please his old man.
“I must say you two look mighty handsome,” Murdoch praised his boys. He noticed Johnny was favoring his right thumb. “What happened to your thumb, son?”
“I burned it, ironing my shirt,” Johnny grumbled. “Scott insisted that it had to be pressed just right and that I should ask Samuel to do it. But I said I would, the poor man has enough to do around here without having to iron my shirt,” Johnny added, popping his stinging thumb in his mouth and wetting the injured appendage.
“So Johnny went downstairs to the laundry room but it seems my brother is not used to wielding the iron,” Scott smirked.
“Yeah but I got it done now, didn’t I?”
“Okay, boys, Samuel informed me that Ethan is home and wants us to meet him downstairs,” Murdoch explained. “So let’s go, we can’t keep our host waiting. And John, you did a good job with the shirt.”
“Thanks!” Johnny crowed, wiggling his thumb at Scott.
“This way, gentlemen.” Samuel said, leading the Lancers down the sweeping staircase. “My wife, Mabel, has a special salve to take the sting away, Master John,” he offered over his shoulder.
Johnny looked at him oddly. “Thanks anyway, Samuel, but it’s feeling better now.”
“As you wish, sir.” Samuel replied, nodding for them to follow him to the spacious and elegant living room where Ethan, his wife and daughter were waiting.
“Murdoch Lancer, you old scoundrel! My God, it’s been such a long time,” Ethan Dunlop said gleefully as he walked over and shook Murdoch’s hand before playfully slapping him on the arm.
“Yes, it has, old friend. Ethan, how are you?” Murdoch smiled widely as he pulled his childhood friend into a manly embrace.
“I’m just fine, now that you’re here,” Ethan said looking past Murdoch. “And I suspect these two fine-looking young men are your sons?”
“Yes, indeed. This is Scott Lancer and my youngest, Johnny Lancer.” Murdoch introduced his sons proudly.
“Boys, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last.” Ethan greeted the boys joyfully, extending his hand to each of them in turn.
“Likewise, Mr. Dunlop.”
“It’s a pleasure, sir.”
“Thank you, boys, and this is my wife, Margot,” Ethan added as he introduced them to his wife, a stunning woman of Cajun heritage. The boys smiled sweetly, nodding to her politely. “And this is my youngest daughter, Paulette, the bride-to-be.”
The Lancer men stared in awe at the beautiful young lady before them. With long dark hair and eyelashes, she wasn’t much older than Johnny.
“Gentlemen, it’s pleasure to meet you and thank you for coming. I’m honored.”
“No, we’re honored, Paulette,” Murdoch corrected her politely, then looked around the room. “And where is your other daughter, Ethan?”
“Monique? Oh, she’s still freshening up, she’ll be down soon. In the meantime, let’s have a drink to celebrate your arrival while we wait for dinner to be served. Come, sit and make yourselves comfortable.”
As they walked over to the sitting area, which held a marvelous set of furniture of brilliantly polished, hand-carved wood with plush cushions, a pair of brown eyes watched from the shadow of the hallway arch. Their owner carefully inspected the three visitors. One caught her full attention–the dark-haired young man sitting next to his father.
While enjoying idle conversation with his host and father, the strangest, eeriest feeling kept nagging at Johnny; it felt as though someone was watching him.
The hairs on the back of his neck tingled something fierce. He shivered from the icy chill that ran right down his spine. He felt agitated and uncomfortable in his seat and true to his nature, Johnny began fidgeting. He rubbed the back of his neck so much, he gained his father’s worried attention.
“Are you okay, son?” Murdoch asked softly. Leaning over, he placed a gentle hand on his son’s knee.
“Yeah, I’m fine, just tired, I guess,” Johnny assured his father with a weary grin.
‘’I’m fine, don’t worry,” he repeated after his father gave him that *are you sure* look.
“All right,” Murdoch replied, turning his attention back to conversation Ethan and Scott were having.
The youngest Lancer tried to take his mind off the troubling sensations by joining in the discussion. However, his well-honed survival instincts would not be denied and his wary gunfighter’s eyes scanned the room for the source of his discomfort.
Finally, from the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of something black moving back and forth by the archway. Intuition told him that he should get up and investigate but he didn’t want to be rude to the Dunlops, so he settled for intense observation from his chair.
When Johnny wasn’t looking, a set of deep brown eyes peered around the corner again, intently inspecting every inch of him. The intrigued woman let her hungry eyes move slowly from the top of his dark head to his muscular thighs.
Licking her plump lips, the stranger thought to herself what a magnificent specimen of a man he was. She couldn’t wait to meet her father’s guests, especially the dark-haired one. Taking the time to compose herself, she casually made her entrance, discreetly coughing to get their attention.
“Monique, honey, it’s about time you showed yourself,” Ethan commented brightly as his older daughter strolled over to them.
“Sorry, father, it took me longer to freshen up than I realized,” Monique politely apologized. “It won’t happen again.”
“Monique, dawlin, why must you wear those drab clothes?” Her mother frowned at the dowdy attire her daughter had chosen to wear. The girl had on a dark red ruffled blouse and a black skirt with a black shawl draped over her slender shoulder.
“Really, this is a joyful occasion, with the arrival of your father’s friends. You should have dressed more appropriately in something cheerful.”
“Mother, you know very well that is not my style,” Monique objected. “There is nothing wrong with my clothes; they’re just not as bright as my sister’s.”
She sneered at her younger sister, who was giving her a look of disapproval.
“Very well, have it your way,” Margot said, shaking her head. “Now’s not the time to air our differences but I will have a talk with you later.”
Slightly displeased with his wife and daughter’s discourteous behavior before he even had a chance to properly introduce the girl, Ethan apologized, saying, “Please excuse my family’s rudeness, gentlemen. This is my oldest daughter, Monique.”
“Monique, what an enchanting name, my dear. I‘m pleased to meet you,” Murdoch said gracefully. “And these are my sons, Scott and Johnny.”
“Gentlemen, my pleasure,” Monique stated, smiling sweetly at the boys. In a very forward manner, she casually walked up to Johnny and tried to gaze into his eyes but he turned his head away. “My, you two are as different as night and day, one so dark, and one so light,” she observed.
“Monique!” Her sister admonished, “That’s simply none of your business.”
“It’s quite all right, ma’am,” Johnny assured. “And to answer your question, Scott and I have different mothers, mine was Mexican,” he politely clarified for the girl.
“Intriguing,” Monique cooed as she walked away and stood by her father. “I do recall my father saying something in that regard.”
“I’m sure he has.” Scott smiled.
Samuel entered the room and announced, “Dinner is now being served.”
“Thank you, Samuel,” Margot answered. “I had the cook prepare a feast for our guests. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted some old-fashioned Cajun food, gentlemen.”
“Well, in that case, Mrs. Dunlop, please lead the way,” Murdoch insisted eagerly.
“Please, it’s Margot.”
“Margot it is.” The tall rancher nodded.
“This way, gentlemen, our dinner awaits,” Ethan instructed, waving his hand towards the dining room, where a bountiful spread of delicious delights awaited them.
Unlike the others, Johnny found it hard to enjoy his meal, growing increasingly quiet as it progressed. Monique was making him extremely uncomfortable with her relentless staring. Every time he looked up from his plate, she was eyeing him like a hungry lioness on the prowl. It gave him the jitters.
Something about this girl was just not right. Unable to stand it any longer, Johnny excused himself politely, saying he felt a little ill and needed to lie down. Turning, he headed quickly up to the room he shared with Scott.
“I hope he’ll be okay, that was very sudden,” Ethan worried out loud.
“I’m sure he will,” Murdoch stated. “Johnny was just getting over a bad cold before we left and with all the traveling we did, he’s probably overly tired.”
“That, and the fact the last few months have been extremely busy at the ranch, with very little time to come up for air,” Scott added. His father nodded in agreement.
“That’s understandable; a good night’s rest will do him a world of good. I surely hope you will enjoy yourselves here and don’t worry about the ranch, it will be dere when you get back,” Margot told them, her charming Cajun accent overlaying her words.
“Well, gentlemen, shall we retire to the sitting room for an after-dinner drink?” Ethan suggested.
“By all means, let’s. Margot, the dinner was exquisite, my compliments to the cook,” Murdoch said, cheerfully conveying his appreciation for the fine meal.
“That would be my wife, Mabel, sir,” Samuel announced proudly as he entered the room to start clearing the dishes away. “I’ll express your thanks for you.”
“Please do, Samuel. Those were the best crawfish, I’ve eaten in years,” Scott praised as he stood up. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I’m going to check up on my brother. I’ll join you for a drink later.”
“I hope Master John is not coming down with the grippe. My Mabel can brew up a tea to help settle his stomach,” Samuel offered.
“I’m sure he’ll be just fine, Samuel. Like my father said, he’s probably overtired and needs to rest but thank you anyway.” Scott told the old butler. Turning, he, too, headed upstairs.
“As you wish,” Samuel said, bowing as he returned to his chores.
“This way, old buddy, we have a lot to talk about,” Ethan instructed as Margot took her husband’s arm, escorting him to the sitting room.
The two sisters lingered behind, whispering between themselves.
“I know why Johnny left the table so abruptly, dear sister, it’s because you were making him uncomfortable with your constant staring. Must you always be so forward? It’s no wonder you never found a man to settle down with, it’s not ladylike,” Paulette scolded her older sister.
“Sister, dear, I can’t help it if I find young Mr. Lancer so intriguing. Those blue eyes complement his deep olive skin… such masculinity for a half-breed.” Monique said, licking her lips. “I’m sure he has many young ladies falling over him.”
“Yes, I’m sure he has but he has never met the likes of you.” Paulette hissed. “And I think he doesn’t know what make of you,” she continued sarcastically.
Receiving no reply, Paulette shook her head and continued towards the sitting room, not noticing that Monique had slipped away.
“Paulette, dear, where is your sister?” Her mother asked.
“She was right behind me, mother,” Paulette answered, twirling around. She was not in the least surprised find her sister gone.
“Well, I guess she’ll be along shortly, most likely she had to powder her nose again,” the girl said, joining her mother on the sofa.
Upstairs, Scott carefully opened the door so as not to disturb Johnny. He was surprised to find his brother sitting on the bed staring at the wall.
“I thought you were going to lie down? Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah and before you ask, I was feeling ill because of Monique and the way she was staring at me,” Johnny groused. “I don’t know about you but I think there’s something about her that’s not right… it’s creepy.”
“Creepy, brother?” Scott chuckled. “I admit she’s a little different.”
“A little different, did you notice the outfit she was wearing? I tell ya, Scott, she’s not right in the head. I intend to stay as far as away from her as possible,” Johnny declared firmly.
“It’s not going to be as easy as you think, brother. After all we’re guests in her home,” Scott said, pointing out the obvious. “So let’s just make the best of it, shall we? Since when have you ever been afraid of a pretty girl?”
“There’s a first time for everything, Scott. And this is one of those times,” Johnny snorted. Flopping backwards on the bed, he blew out a deep breath and settled his lean form into the plush mattress.
“Well, I expect you to show some manners when you’re around Monique,” his brother admonished. “Are you coming back downstairs to join our father and hosts?”
“Of course, I’ll be the gentleman, I’m no rogue,” Johnny retorted, rolling onto his side. “Just give me a few minutes, will ya?”
“Sure, little brother. And for your information you’re no rogue, far from it,” Scott exclaimed. Departing, he left his brother alone to ponder.
A few minutes later, Johnny emerged from his room and hurried downstairs for a much-needed drink, unaware that Monique was lurking in a dark corner of the hallway.
She had been waiting for him to leave so she could continue observing him. Her eyes devoured Johnny’s slender form as he descended the staircase. The man simply took her breath away.
Once he was out of sight, she crept into his room, looking for something personal of his, something he wouldn’t miss. She found what she was looking for on the dresser. Plucking a few loose dark hairs from Johnny’s comb, she glanced around for witnesses before stuffing them into a folded white piece of cloth. Smiling wickedly, she dashed out of the room before she was seen.
“Ah, John, how are you feeling? Better now, son?” Murdoch asked, concerned, as his son sauntered back into the room.
“Oh, much better, thanks. I just needed to rest my eyes for a few minutes, I’ll be fine,” Johnny informed him with a smile. Scanning the room cautiously, he was relieved to see that Monique was not present.
“Well, you had a long trip, young man. Your brother tells me that the last few months have been very hectic,” Ethan stated, handing Johnny a glass of brandy.
“To say the least,” Johnny agreed. “Every time we thought we had things under control, something else popped up. It was enough to make you want to jump on your horse and run for the hills,” he chuckled. “I’m sure glad it’s over,” he added, slowly sipping the fine brandy.
“It sounds like an awfully crude way of life. How do the women out there handle such harshness? I mean that way of life must be hard on them as well.” Paulette remarked.
“For some, but you’d be surprised at how many rancher’s wives, daughters and sisters pitch in with the chores and still manage to cook, clean and take care of their families. ” Murdoch said, the deep admiration for the good women he had encountered over the past twenty-five years filling his voice.
“Simply amazing,” Margot gushed. “I guess if they love the land as much as their husbands, they’ll do anything to stand by them.”
“Yes, you are so right, Margot,” Murdoch agreed though with a hint of sadness in his voice. It didn’t escape Ethan, especially as he knew the whole story of Catherine and Maria.
“Well, shall we talk about something the boys would enjoy, like visiting the local spots our quaint town has to offer?” Ethan suggested.
“By all means, I have already explained to my brother that New Orleans is a fascinating city to explore,” Scott replied.
“As long as you don’t take me to places that might make me want to stay here, brother. I mean, what would you and Murdoch do without me?” Johnny said with a cocky grin.
“Oh, if that happens, I think we can manage. We just might enjoy the quiet,” Scott teased, abruptly receiving a whack across the chest with a small plump pillow.
Johnny’s juvenile antics had everybody laughing, the loud merriment reaching the kitchen where Samuel and his wife were preparing a light dessert.
“It sounds like Master Ethan’s guests are enjoying demsleves,” Mabel stated.
“Yes, dis is a happy occasion for Miss Paulette. I hope dat Mistress Monique does not ruin it for her sister,” Samuel replied, dropping the proper language he employed when in the company of guests and his employers.
“I fear dat she has her sights on Master John and dis might be trouble.”
“Dat child is not right in the head. I seen it da day she was born. The devil has her soul and it scares me. I’m scared for Master John, too.” Mabel said, shuddering.
The increasingly bizarre behavior of the Dunlop’s older daughter greatly concerned Samuel and Melba; especially since they did not feel it their place to voice those concerns to her parents. They had been with the Dunlops since the birth of the sisters. They had been treated well and shown the utmost respect; the same kind of respect they returned to their employers.
This latest development with Monique made it hard to stay quiet without jeopardizing that relationship. All they could do was hover nervously in the background and pray that the girl wouldn’t do anything harmful to her family or the Lancers. The couple continued to clean up in the kitchen after everybody had gone to bed. All except for one, who walked in and cleared his throat softly.
“Hello,” Johnny said, standing by the door.
“Oh, Master John, I thought you went to bed,” Samuel sputtered in surprise.
“I did and please, it’s Johnny,” was the polite reply. “I know you have to address others that way but when it’s only us, please, it’s just Johnny,” he added, flashing the couple one of his incorrigible smiles.
“What can we get you, John?” Mabel asked kindly as she walked up to the young Lancer, peering up into his blue eyes.
“Well, if it isn’t too much trouble, I was hoping for a cold glass of milk and a sandwich. I didn’t eat much at dinner. I guess I wasn’t too hungry then,” he replied, looking through his long lashes and toeing the floor with his boot, like a little kid asking for a treat.
“It’s no trouble at all, please have a seat,” Samuel replied and pointed to a small round table in the corner on the kitchen.
“It’s not often we’s get such welcome company in my kitchen like you, young John,” Melba stated pleasantly.
“Well, back home we normally eat in the kitchen for breakfast and lunch, unless we have company. Supper is when we eat in our dining room,” Johnny explained as he sat down at the table.
“I bet you have a splendid home,” Samuel commented as he poured a tall glass of milk and set it down in front of Johnny.
“It’s big, with lots of land to get lost in, too,” Johnny answered. He continued describing in great detail the green rolling hills and lush hillsides. His young face beamed with every word, as the captivated couple listened.
“My goodness… so much land. I would love to see it one day,” Melba expressed wistfully as she finished preparing his sandwich.
“How long have you been here?” Johnny asked, observing her with sad eyes. He couldn’t help but noticed how the years of hard labor had aged this kind lady beyond her years.
“For a long time, John,” Samuel replied “We’s be freed slaves before we came to work for Master Dunlop. And our last employer was a…”
“Couyon!” Mabel snapped.
“Couyon?” Johnny repeated, noting the anger and disgust of the two older people.
“It means stupid person,” Samuel clarified for the young Lancer.
“Yes! He would get himself in a drunken state and he would beat us for no good reason. My Samuel has the scars to show for it,” Mabel added with deep contempt as she put the plate down on the table.
“What happen to him?” Johnny inquired as he munched on his tasty beef sandwich.
“He was a copon… a coward, did not know his business well and soon went broke. Then he had no use for us and had no other choice but to let go as freed slaves. Dat when Master Dunlop hired us and we been here ever since,” Samuel explained
“So you can leave anytime you wish, right?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, but we are happy here. Dis is our home now and we are treated well,” Mabel stressed.
“My wife and I ain’t as young as you and we don’t have nowhere else to go. So we choose to stay.”
“I see your point,” Johnny whispered, understanding. He finished off the glass of milk and stood up.
“Well, I think it’s time to turn in. Thank you for the sandwich and milk. I’ll be able to sleep like a baby now.” He smiled sweetly for the couple.
“It was our pleasure. You come and visit us any time you wish,” Melba offered genially.
“Thank you, I just might take you up on it.” Johnny nodded gratefully, and then proceeded to leave to kitchen. His keen hearing picked up Mabel faintly whispering to her husband, something that distressed him.
They lost a son is what he thought he heard but it wasn’t his business to pry into the couple’s past. Exiting the kitchen, Johnny hastened along the dark, narrow hallway, a little bothered both by what he had overheard and by the uneasy feeling that was gnawing at him again.
He practically bowled over Monique when the lurking girl abruptly appeared from the shadows. With quick cat-like reflexes, Johnny was able to stop himself from knocking her down by bracing his hands against the wall just as they came chest to chest. Shamelessly, Monique leaned in closer, pressing her soft bosom into Johnny, who respectfully backed away from the brazen girl.
“I’m…I’m sorry ma’am, I didn’t see you there,” Johnny uttered, somewhat put off by her cheeky behavior.
“It’s quite all right, Mr. Lancer. I was getting my coat and was about to go for a refreshing moonlight walk,” Monique stated with cool poise. “And since I see you’re still up, would you like to join me?”
“No, ma’am, I’ve had a long day and I really must get some sleep.” Johnny replied politely. “So if you will please excuse me.” He smiled as he tried to pass her but she boldly jumped in front of him.
“Oh, but the night air will do you wonders. The fresh, cool breeze that comes off the river is heaven,” Monique purred seductively, batting her eyes.
“Sounds tempting, ma’am but not tonight,” Johnny stressed, then felt compelled to add, “I don’t think it’s wise for a young woman to be walking around at night, it can be dangerous.”
“Then maybe you should escort me on my walk,” she coyly insisted.
“Again, no thanks, ma’am. But I still think it’s not a good idea for you to be going out alone.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me, Mr. Lancer. I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself, thank you!” she announced curtly. “Well, don’t let me keep you from your slumber, goodnight.” she sneered scornfully and walked towards the front door.
“Night, ma’am,” Johnny called softly as he headed up to his room.
Monique was completely shocked with the disinterested reaction from Johnny. Most men she encountered were intrigued by her abrasive, womanly ways, despite her sister’s opinion of them.
This cool rejection by the youngest Lancer was not something she was used to–she always got her way. Monique watched, listening to make sure Johnny was out of sight. Instead of going for a walk, she decided to finish something she had started earlier.
Monique crept quietly back down the dark hallway to the large coat closet. She opened it and pushed aside a few jackets, exposing a narrow door with a small padlock on it that only she had the key for. Unlocking the door, she quietly squeezed through into her own secret hideaway. Once inside, she lit numerous candles of different shapes and colors. Multiple flames flickered causing the shadows to undulate and dance within the tomb-like space, the air crackling with an essence of evil.
Monique removed her coat and threw it over a chair in the corner, then proceeded to walk over to a small table laid out with juju charms. Books filled with spells and other sinister ingredients were spread out in the room. She had everything a voodoo witch would ever need to torture some poor soul, gain control of their mind or even cause their death, if she so desired.
The girl picked up a small doll made of straw and pieces of cloth. Its head was covered with the dark strands of Johnny’s hair she had collected while snooping around his room. She caressed it, gently at first and then her eyes narrowed demonically.
“So, Mr. Lancer, what you meant to say is that you don’t find me desirable, right? And what’s this excuse of being too tired? A fine physical specimen like you should never be too tired to enjoy the company of a warm, lustful woman such as myself. Well, I do not think you’ll be getting much rest tonight,” she hissed menacingly, glaring at the doll. An evil aura descended on the secret room as she began to chant and manipulate her creation.
Entering his room, Johnny tiptoed quietly over to his bed so as to not wake Scott up. Shucking his dinner clothes, he let them drop where he stood. Reluctantly, he slid a nightshirt over his slender shoulders. His father had insisted it would be bad manners for him to sleep naked in his host’s house, like he did at home.
“It’s not proper,” Johnny mocked his father’s words while sliding under the sheet, sighing that he wouldn’t be able to feel their cool smoothness on his bare skin. He adjusted the confining sleepwear, laid his head on the soft pillow and closed his eyes. Johnny was just beginning to drift off when an odd sensation gripped him.
“What the hell?” he muttered in confusion and shot straight up in bed. He grabbed his forearm, cringing at the sharp pain that vanished just as fast as it occurred. He slowly took his hand away to find no blood, or anything to indicate that could have caused the ache. Shrugging it off as a result of just being overly tired, he laid back down.
A few moments later, Johnny suddenly threw the covers off and jumped out of bed. Taking one step, he instantly fell backwards onto the bed. His legs refused to work, it was like they were restrained, bound tightly together.
Johnny tried to call out to Scott but found he had no voice, which scared the hell out of him. To make matters worse, his feet began to burn as though they were on fire. He tried to roll to the head of the bed to grab the pitcher of water off the night stand and pour it on his legs to cool them down when suddenly, the burning sensation was gone.
Totally dumbfounded by the scary and painful experience, he slowly stood up and looked over at his brother’s sleeping form. “What the hell is going on here?” Johnny whispered fearfully.
Sitting down on the bed, he broke out in a cold sweat. All at once, on his entire body began to tingle, slightly at first. The spasms of pain intensified until he went numb. “Holy Madre,” he groaned as his limbs fell useless. Panic set in but again the terrifying experience stopped and all his feeling came back. Johnny flexed his hands and wiggled his toes to make sure they still worked. Completely drained, he flopped back on the bed breathlessly.
Rubbing his tried eyes, Johnny seriously thought of waking Scott and telling him what had just happened. He figured his logical brother would probably come up with a reason he wouldn’t be able to comprehend, so he climbed under the covers and drifted off into a deep slumber instead.
In her sinister chamber, Monique laid the doll down next to the pins and the burnt matches she had waved under the doll’s singed feet. Smiling evilly, she lit a couple more black candles and began softly chanting and talking to the dark spirits she worshipped faithfully, seeking their approval.
Satisfied that she had caused Johnny considerable discomfort for the night, the girl blew out the candles, slipped her coat back on and left the room. She paused long enough to make sure the door was locked and the coats moved back into place to hide the entrance.
As quietly as possible, Monique proceeded to leave the house to go on the walk she had asked Johnny to join her on. She was unaware that watchful eyes were peering out the side window as she disappeared into the darkness.
“Child, what are you up to?” Mabel whispered. Her nose pressed to the cool glass she shook her head.
“Is Mistress Monique out for one of her walks?” Samuel asked.
“Yes and I have a feeling she’s up to no good, no good at all, my husband.” Mabel shivered. “She was such an odd child. Now I fear dose who worships the dark spirits has drawn her into their world.”
“If so, my wife, it’s not our place to say,” Samuel warned regretfully. “All we can do is watch out for our new guests.”
Mabel spun around and glared at her husband. “What do you mean?”
“I have a feeling she has an eye on Master John,” Samuel announced with an air of dread.
“Do not tell me dis!” his wife admonished. The woman felt weak in the knees and had to sit down. “No, not Master John, he is too good a man to be drawn into her web, like our Joseph was,” she whispered sadly.
“Our Joseph was a child, unlike Master John, who’s a man and can take care of himself.”
“Yes, but do not underestimate the powers of the darkness, she will hurt him,” Mabel warned.
“But we can do nothing, we are but hired help, with no say so. They will not listen.”
“Do not remind me. That is why our Joseph is dead!” Mabel stammered as tears welled in her dark eyes, “They’s good people, but did not listen when we warned dem of her evil mischief as a child.”
Samuel hung his head and tried not to think back to those sad days when his son was alive and the one friend he had to play with was Monique. She had befriended the boy, only to lead him on a troubled path that eventually led to his untimely demise.
Sadly, there was no justice for those who were just servants and everything was judged an accident in the case of Joseph’s death. He was a heartbreaking memory, one that his parents pushed into the back of their minds, bravely going on without their son.
“For Master John’s sake, I pray we are wrong. I will keep an eye on the Mistress when they are here in this house, but I cannot watch her when she is not here,” Samuel exclaimed.
“That what’s worries me, my husband. What she will do to him while outside this house if she does try to harm him for any reason.” Mabel stressed.
They stared at each for a few moments, then Samuel took his wife in his arms, giving her a comforting hug. “Come, it’s late, we need our sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow,” he whispered lovingly in her ear.
“How can I sleep, with dis worry on my mind?” Mabel asked as Samuel led her out of the kitchen and to their small living quarters.
“Try, my wife, try. It’s all we can do.”
Samuel and Melba retired to their room with heavy hearts. They didn’t speak as they prepared for bed, their minds occupied by their anxiety over Monique and the trouble they feared she might cause. However, as worried as they were, their tired bodies soon won the battle for the physical need to sleep. They finally drifted off, wrapped in the comfort of each other’s arms; their last thoughts were of Johnny and his safety. While they slept soundly, Monique returned home sometime between midnight and dawn.
After making sure she was not being observed, Monique crept as silently as a shadow up the staircase, taking a detour to the Lancer brothers’ room. She stood by the door, her eyes dark with the forbidden desire running through her twisted mind.
“Later, my love, sleep tight,” she whispered seductively. Blowing a kiss through the closed door, she proceeded cautiously to her own room and began to indulge in her fantasies of Johnny.
Daybreak lit the sky and then the rooms of the Dunlop manor, chasing the nocturnal chill away with its warmth. A gentle breeze drifted in off the Mississippi.
Johnny’s long dark lashes slowly fluttered open. He blinked a few times to clear the cobweb and focus his bleary eyes. Throwing off the covers, he stretched his stiff limbs, groaning in distress. He was sore in places he shouldn’t be.
Every ounce of him felt like it had been trampled by a herd of wild horses. In addition to that oddity, his recollection of last night was a compete puzzle. Was it real or just one of the nightmares he had experienced before?
The youngest Lancer sat, quietly absorbed by his deep thoughts until he was startled by the heavy sigh and a jaw cracking yawn from his brother. Johnny turned around, watching as Scott energetically flung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up.
Scott looked over at his glaring brother, and, through another hard yawn, said, “Now that was one good night’s sleep! Morning, brother.”
Johnny frowned at Scott. “You mean to say, you didn’t hear nothing last night?”
“No, not a sound, should I have?” Scott asked he took a long look at the bewildered expression on his sibling’s face. “By the looks of you, I suspect that you did not sleep well?”
“No, I did not!” Johnny huffed. “I can’t really explain it, even if I tried. And you’ll probably think I’m crazy, but something weird went on here last night and it only affected me,” he complained rubbing his tender forearm.
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I tried but I couldn’t get the words out. I don’t know if I was dreaming or not. It felt so real and I have sore spots that were not there when I went to bed,” Johnny explained.
“Well, it could be you had one of those nightmares,” Scott offered.
“I know they had you falling out of bed once,” he added, recalling an incident from one night they had spent together in the north line shack, while doing inventory for their father.
“That could explain why you’re sore.”
“Yeah, could be, but it felt unnatural to me,” Johnny replied, shrugging his tense shoulders. “It was like I had no control over my arms and legs.”
“The mind is a powerful thing, brother. It can play tricks on you even in your sleep. We had a long trip and you were just over- tired.” Scott soothed in a calm voice. “Let’s get dressed and after breakfast, I’m going to show you some of my favorite places, I know you’ll love them.”
“Yeah, well, I’m going to pass on breakfast. I have no hankering to be stared at by Miss Monique. There is something about her that spooks me. It even troubles Samuel and his wife, they told me so.”
“Really? Since when did you talk more with Samuel?”
“Last night. I was hungry and I went down to the kitchen and they kindly made me something to eat. We talked some and I really like them both. They’re good people and I hate to see them hurt more than they have been already.” Johnny informed his brother, smiling fondly at the memory.
“I guess you did have an interesting conversation with them, to arrive at that conclusion, brother.” Scott smiled.
“Yeah, we did. Before you can say it, no, I didn’t eat anything to give me nightmares, Scott.” Johnny snorted, knowing what his brother would say next.
“The thought never crossed my mind, brother,” Scott said with a sly smirk. “But I do think it would be rude if you didn’t make an appearance this morning for breakfast.”
‘I guess you’re right,” Johnny agreed with a heavy sigh. “Don’t you think that she’s a little odd?”
Scott rubbed the sleep out of his eyes as he pondered Johnny’s question. “Well, she does strike me as a little different from the rest of the family,” he admitted.
“I tell ya, Scott, I’ve been around different kinds of females before, but not one like her. I hate to say this but in my opinion, she’s not right in the head.” Johnny shivered. “The further I stay away from her the better.”
“Let’s just get through these next few days, for our father’s sake, okay? This wedding is just as important to him as it is to Mr. Dunlop. You know how much he was looking forward to this trip,” Scott advised.
“And as I said before, today, I’m going to show you some interesting places, that’ll help you take your mind off of things for a while,” Scott added. “We just might take a look at that fort I told you about.”
“Now, that sounds like a plan, brother,” Johnny quipped eagerly, beginning to wash up and get dressed.
Scott smiled and shook his head as he watched his younger sibling whirl about. He chuckled silently as he thought about just how much he looked forward to waking up every day and working side by side with his brother…the brother he never knew he had until a year ago.
During the ensuing time, he had come to know Johnny well–well enough to realize that if he had a worried feeling about something, it should not be taken lightly. Johnny’s intuition had been proven right numerous times so Scott promised himself that he’d keep an eye on Monique.
Quickly shaving and dressing, he followed his brother downstairs just as the rest of the family started to gather around the dining table.
Just as Johnny had predicted, Monique glared at him from across the table, her dark and intimidating eyes never wavering from his face. The unwanted attention made him fidget and he found it impossible to enjoy the bountiful meal. She would smile at him when nobody was looking in a way it made his skin crawl.
Swallowing his eggs, Johnny choked out, “So, brother, how far is this fort you were telling me about?”
“Oh, it’s on the other end of town, a quick cab ride should get us there in no time. Wouldn’t you say, Mr. Dunlop?” Scott asked politely.
“Why, yes, Scott, but if you boys are interested in seeing more than the fort, I suggest you go walking about the town first, before hailing a cab,” Ethan advised.
“Yes indeed, sir, we are going to visit a few establishments I know of, I’m sure my brother here would be very interested in them.”
Ethan chuckled, “Why yes, we do have a most colorful town here. From what your father tells me, Johnny, you’re used to spicy food, right?” Johnny grinned and nodded, trying to avoid Monique’s glare. “Then you’re going to like some of the dishes our Cajun cafés have to offer.”
“I don’t doubt that, sir. I grew up on what my brother would call piquant food,” Johnny retorted, winking at his brother.
Scott smiled at the teasing remark but his grin quickly faded when he noticed his little brother‘s relaxed demeanor had become rigid and that he was quiet again.
Alarmed by the mood change, Scott glanced over at Monique and didn‘t like what he saw next. The girl had quietly excused herself and coyly strutted behind Johnny, faintly running her fingers along his backside as she passed by into the other room.
Knowing how this had shaken Johnny, he came to the conclusion that now was the time to take that tour around town he had promised.
“Well, Johnny, there’s no time like the present, so if you’re ready, I have a lot to show you,” Scott announced as he wiped his mouth with the fine cloth napkin before placing it on his empty plate.
“Just lead the way, brother,” Johnny said eagerly, following his brother’s lead. He politely excused himself, “If you’ll please excuse us.”
“Okay, boys, but don’t take all day. We don’t want to be rude to our host, and not be sociable,” Murdoch reminded them.
“Murdoch, let the boys take all the time they need. We’ll have plenty of time to socialize when they get back and also at the wedding,” Ethan declared. “Who knows when they’ll get a chance to visit New Orleans again?”
“I guess you’re right, old friend,” Murdoch sighed. “Well, what are you boys standing there for? Get going and have a good time. BUT stay out of trouble, you hear?” He stressed to both of them, while looking straight at his youngest.
“We will, sir,” Scott promised, ushering his brother out of the room. The boys grabbed their coats and Johnny his gun belt. “Do you really need your gun here? It’s not the Wild West, brother,” Scott remarked, raising his eyebrows.
“It may not be the Wild West but I’ll feel much better with it on, Scott,” Johnny replied.
“Yes, I guess you do. Well, at least you’re not wearing those leather pants of yours, though I’ll admit, you’d fit right in if you did,” Scott teased noting the plain brown pants Johnny had chosen to wear with his white shirt.
“I thought my brown pants would be suitable for sightseeing, brother. After all, we are tourists, aren’t we? No need to dress fancy for that.”
“That we are, little brother, that we are,” Scott grinned, giving Johnny’s arm a slap. “And you’re very right, so shall we?”
The boys left, unaware of Monique lurking in the shadows by the stairway as she waited for them to leave. In her warped mind, she was bound and determined to have the dark-haired young Lancer for herself, no matter what it took.
With them leaving the safety of her home, the chance to put her deceptive onto play had arrived. Waiting a few minutes to give the boys time to depart the grounds, she flung her black cloak around her slender shoulders and hurried out the back door, heading in the opposite direction.
Just around the corner, a few blocks down from the Dunlop’s home, lay the Mississippi River. It was the same body of water that Mark Twain wrote about in his books and that had intrigued Johnny so much. Walking towards the muddy bank, the sight of a beautiful river boat chugging lazily down the waterway caught the young men’s eyes.
Its beauty was enhanced by its own shimmering reflection off the water. Before Scott could say a word, Johnny, like a little kid, had dashed over to the elegant fence spanning the river walk.
“Hey, Scott, will ya look at that?” Johnny shouted to his winded brother. His smile grew wider as the boat got closer and he could hear the faint sounds of music coming from it.
“I heard there is a lot of gambling and shows on the boats. Am I right?”
“Yes, you are, high-stakes gambling as a matter of fact. You’ll have to have lots of money in order to join those games and you’d be lucky to leave with any,” Scott proclaimed.
“Are ya talking from experience, brother?” Johnny asked, poking his finger at Scott’s midsection.
“Well, I had my share of winning hands but I also learned when to fold and save my neck,” Scott admitted sheepishly.
“As much as I’m enjoying the conversation, I think we better hail a cab and get going.”
“Why can’t we walk?”
“We have a lot to see and I don’t want to waste time. A cab will get us there sooner,” Scott pointed out firmly, then waved his hand to the one-horse cab moving slowly up the cobblestone street.
“It’s your call, brother.” Just then, the whistle on the river boat blew loud and clear. Swinging around, Johnny said wistfully, “I sure would love to see what it’s like traveling on one of those down the river.”
“Well, maybe one day we’ll get back down here and we can, when we have more time that is.”
“Oh, come on, with the way things have been at the ranch, Murdoch would have our hides if we tried to take off for a week or so,” Johnny stated.
Scott looked at the peevish expression on his brother’s face and remarked, “I bet you miss those days of going where you please, when you please and doing whatever you want, right?”
“Yeah, sort of, but those were lonely days too, Scott.” Johnny muttered softly. “Where I went and what I did, I had to go it alone. If you know what I mean?”
Scott smiled and placed an understanding hand on his brother’s shoulder, “Yes, I do get your meaning. What about now?”
“Now, well, I’m here, aren’t I? It’s kind of fun traveling with my old man and bossy big brother,” Johnny teased.
“It’s sure not lonely or boring, most of the time,” he added with a mischievous look as the cab pulled to a halt in front of them.
“Get that look off your face, little brother, and climb aboard,” Scott ordered as he held the cab door open. “Your bossy big brother is in charge and wants to get this show on the road, so to speak.”
“With pleasure, I’m anxious to see that fort you were talking about.”
“All in good time, there are a few stops I want to show you along the way,” Scott replied as he boarded and shut the door behind him.
He poked his head out the window, “Driver, is Ma Belle’s café still open for business?”
“Yes, sir,” the driver confirmed.
“Good, then that’s where I would like to go first.”
“Yes, sir, right away,” the driver called down and with a quick snap of the reins, the cab took off with a jerk.
Johnny gave his brother a confused look. “We just had breakfast, Scott. I don’t know about you but I’m not ready for lunch.”
“Ma Belle has the most delicious tasting Cajun pastries. I’ve been craving them since we arrived in town. Once you bite into one, you’ll know what I mean,” the blond Lancer explained, his mouth watering just thinking about the delightful treats.
“Well, if you put it that way, I guess I have room for a sweet or two.” Johnny announced, not admitting that Monique had ruined his appetite this morning.
“Believe me, brother, you’ll not be sorry.”
As the cab pulled away, menacing eyes watched from the shadows of the park’s trees where two strangers waited to make their move.
While traveling in a leisurely manner along Canal Street and enjoying the sights, the brothers still did not realize that they were being watched by two pairs of shifty eyes. Their carriage was going slowly enough for the stalkers to keep up with it on foot, ducking into any handy dark corner whenever one of the boys popped his head out the window.
With a mission to fulfill, the two hoodlums used extreme caution; they couldn’t afford to be apprehended by locals questioning their actions. The two stalkers watched from the shadows as the cab pulled up to Ma Belle’s Café. Also known as Café Du Monde, it was located right beside the French marketplace.
The carriage doors opened and Johnny jumped out, followed by Scott who took the lead. Grabbing his brother’s arm, he escorted him up to the inviting door.
The second the boys stepped through it, their mouths watered as the delightful, enticing aroma of freshly made beignets, a light pastry filled with fruit and covered in sweet frosting, called to them. A favorite delicacy in New Orleans, no man or child could resist, as Scott had discovered on his last visit.
Scanning the room for a vacant table, Scott spotted one in the back. Pushing his eager brother along, he hastily flopped down in the vacant chair and waved to a nearby waitress.
“What can I get for ya, gentleman?” the pretty, middle-aged waitress asked as she approached the table.
“I…we would like a couple of beignets and two hot cups of coffee.” Scott answered with a sweet smile for the woman.
“Very good, I’ll be back shortly.” She complied humbly and hurried off to the kitchen.
“Wait until you take a gout of those beignets, brother.” Scott said with a sly grin.
“A what?” Johnny snorted confusedly.
“Gout, it means taste.” Scott clarified, amused by the dumbfounded look on his brother’s face. “One of the few words I picked up back when I first visited here.”
“Well, I’ll appreciate it, if you speak English, thank you.” Johnny grumbled. “Spanish, yes, Cajun no, nor French for that matter! At least use words I can understand.”
“Oui, le frere, n`importe quoi vous, dites.” Scott smirked.
“Well, excuse me, brother. But as they say, ‘when in Rome’.” Scott informed his brother sheepishly. He was getting a kick out of annoying Johnny, a sort of payback for all the times his brother had annoyed him with little Pranks.
Johnny shot his glowing brother a hard, cold look, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Immensely!” the blond laughed. “And so will you once you bite into one of these,” he added blissfully as the waitress set down the tray of coffee and pastries before filling their cups with the hot brew.
“Gracias.” Johnny graciously thanked the woman and was taken by surprise when she answered back.
“De nada. Senor.” She replied with a wide grin. “Is dat all for ya?”
“Yes, for now. Thank you.” Scott answered for his speechless brother as the waitress left the table.
“Don’t be surprised if you hear them speaking a Spanish word here and there, Johnny. After all, remember there were and still are Spaniards living here.” He picked up a beignet, adding, “Eat up, we have a lot to see.”
Johnny took one bite and his eyes lit up. “These are good! Very good. I think we better come back and take a few with us for the trip back home,” he chuckled around a mouthful.
“Good idea, brother, good idea.”
As the boys finished gorging themselves, devious eyes watched from outside, their owners’ noses pressed against the glass as they waited for the Lancers to leave. What they had to accomplish couldn’t be done in a crowded public place; it had to be done when the brothers were alone.
Scott and Johnny suddenly got up, causing the stalkers to step back hastily from the window and hightail it around the corner only seconds before the brothers exited the café. Once again leading the way, Scott pointed down the street to the businesses he had enjoyed shopping in during his last visit and which he knew would interest Johnny.
Along the way, they took in the colorful scenery by the banquette, which, Scott happily explained to his brother, meant a walkway that ran along the riverbank. It was separated from the river by a stone-pillared, chain-link fence.
With shops and other establishments on one side of the road and the Mississippi on the other, Canal street was one breathtaking walk for those who had never been here before. The young Lancer’s eyes brightened again when they entered a quaint little shop filled with all kinds of trinkets and clothing, a real tourist haven. Johnny peered around in amazement, his curiosity heightening as he spied many weird masks, of different sizes and forms.
“What the heck are those for?”
“The Mardi Gras, Brother. Remember I told you about a festival they have every year?” Scott quickly reminded. “They wear those masks, along with the distinguished-looking clothing you see around you.”
“Yeah, I remember now. And I don’t call this..…,” Johnny said and held up a ridiculous purple shirt with beads and other baubles sewn on it, “distinguished.” He snorted. “If I wore this back home, Barranca would buck me off so fast and then run for the hills, laughing at me. And I can just hear Jelly’s wise-cracking mouth now.”
“Well, when it comes to the Mardi Gras, anything goes.” Scott explained in a hushed tone as the owner of the store looked their way. “And you don’t have to buy any.”
“Good, ’cause I don’t intend to,” Johnny huffed, looking about the room. He smiled.
“Now there is something I know Murdoch would love, and, as I recall, is running low on.” Johnny exclaimed as he walked over to a display table filled with cigars. “Are these real Cuban cigars?”
“I’m guessing they are.”
“Well, let’s see.” Johnny whispered as he picked one up from the wood box, and slowly ran it under his nose, slightly sniffing the elegant fragrance that only a true Cuban smoker had.
“Yep, they’re Cuban all right. And I’ll take a box.”
“Are you sure, brother? They’re very expensive.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Murdoch could use some good cigars.” Johnny was very resolute. “Besides, I don’t see anything else that I‘m willing to buy.”
“Okay, then pay for them and let’s get going.” Scott urged.
Johnny paid for his purchase, then he and Scott continued up the street, window shopping until they decided to stop at a local bar for a cool beer. Heading out again afterward, they came across the creepy- looking mercantile at the end of town, practically hidden by a huge tree. And what Johnny saw, he didn’t like.
“What kind of place is that!”
“That, my brother is a Voodoo, otherwise known as a black magic supply business.” Scott answered, a little hesitantly. “Which I’m afraid is very big around these parts.”
“Black magic, you say.” Johnny commented softly as he peered through the window for a closer look. He frowned at the dark attire and unusual grim things he saw hanging. Juju beads, charms, handmade dolls of straw with no faces and clothing, all of which he thought a bit odd. There were black candles, too, of all shapes and sizes and different kinds of small bags filled with God only knew what.
Johnny shook his head. A troubling thought came to him.
“Ya know, come to think about it, maybe what I experienced last night has something to do with this black magic.”
“Now, why would you say that?” Scott asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Because I can’t explain what happened to me, that’s why. And the fact you didn’t hear a damn thing.” Johnny snarled as he took his brother to the side. “I have a strong notion, too, that Miss Monique had something to do with it. The girl is not right in the head.”
Scott rubbed the back of his own head as he thought.
“I have to admit, she does strike me that way, too. But we just can’t assume she has anything thing do with black magic or what you thought had happened to you last night,” he tried to reason with his flustered brother.
“It did happen, Scott. I’m not crazy.” Johnny growled, “My arm still hurts some from being yanked and poked at. It was unnatural, I tell ya.”
“Well, enough of this witchcraft talk. Let’s go see that fort I told you about.”
Scott whistled for a cab, saying, “We’ll take a cab there, it’s faster that way, so we can get back before nightfall.”
“Sounds good to me, the sooner I get away from this place the better,” Johnny shivered.
Within a few minutes, the cab pulled up in front of the boys. Hustling aboard, they were off.
The same watchful eyes that had watched their progress so far also noted the direction in which they headed. Then, with a swift wave of his hand, the bigger of the two thugs motioned to a nearby wagon waiting in the shadows. Once aboard, they followed the slow-moving cab at a safe distance.
The further away from town they got, the more the brothers thoroughly enjoyed the enchanting scenery around Lake Pontchartrain, located at the west end of town. Like little boys on a joy ride, they stuck their heads out of the carriage each time something interesting came in view.
It was here that Johnny got his first real look at an old Spanish battleship, left over from the days of the pirate Jean Lafitte. It was badly damaged but still afloat, anchored close to shore, where it formed a symbolic reminder of those deadly times. The young Lancer was awed at the craftsmanship that was still visible in numerous parts of the ship.’’
“Hey, driver, please stop here, will ya?” Johnny called up to the man, before turning to his curious brother. “I just want to get a closer look, that’s all. We have time, don‘t we?”
Scott smiled, “Yes, little brother, we do.”
“Good!” Johnny said gleefully and in one smooth catlike move, he hopped out of the cab, making a beeline for the shoreline where the ship rested. Scott was right behind him.
“Well, brother, what do you think of that?” Scott asked eagerly , as they stared at the ship.
“It’s something, I tell ya. Look at all that work that went into it, just like those riverboats. And to think this was a war ship at one time, those cannons are huge.” Johnny said genially, taking in every detail of the vessel, from the shredded sails to the Captain’s post on the second deck, now just a sunken hole.
“A lot of firepower is right. They pack more punch then the small one we have back home, three-fold.” Scott replied quickly. “You had to be a true seaman to sail the seas like they did and handle these magnificent ships.”
“You can say that again, brother.” Johnny agreed, and then faced his sibling. “Did you ever sail those seas, I mean, living in Boston like you did?”
“Not like you think, however I did travel by sea once to get to New York, to visit a friend.” Scott informed him.
“New York? Boy, you sure did get around, didn’t ya?”
“Well, I did have to help Grandfather out with some business ventures. So I did most of the legwork for him, after I got out of the army, that is.”
“Lucky you. Well, treasure those *ventures* you took, big brother, cause now you’re a rancher far from the ocean, where all ya see is nothing but cows and dust.” Johnny smirked devilishly.
“And loving every minute of it too, little brother.” Scott said with a grin, giving Johnny a brotherly punch to the arm. “I say we continue on, still lots to see, with little time left.”
Johnny sighed, “Yeah, you’re right.”
He took one last look at the old Spanish vessel, a piece of his own heritage; he wished he had learned about them as a child. It would have been more interesting than the other things he’d had to watch and learn as his mother had dragged him from one dirty village to another.
Hurrying back to the waiting cab, the boys climbed in. With a quick jerk, they were off, the watching strangers following close behind. A half hour later, they were finally at their destination, the old Spanish fort, standing empty at the edge of the bay. Scott instructed the driver to pull up to the main gate and wait for them while they investigated the haunting ruins.
“There it is, brother, the same fort where Jean Lafitte fought the Spanish, still standing tall, and from what I see, it’s been rebuilt in a few places. I guess it has suffered some major damage.” Scott said, all in one breath.
“I guess so. It’s something, all right.” Johnny replied, a little overwhelmed, “It’s a wonder it’s still standing, with all those cannons firing at it back then.”
“Well, shall we go in and take a look around?”
“Lead the way, big brother.”
As the brothers hurried into the fort, the strangers pulled up just out of their view, with ropes and weapons ready. They were not going to take any chances of their prey getting away, or gaining the upper hand on them. Now it was just a waiting game, until it was the time was right.
“Well, when do we do this?” The shorter of the two asked.
“I’ll know when it’s time, all I have to do is watch for the signs.” The burly man snorted.
“So we wait.”
The two thugs patiently waited in the shadows just outside the fort’s walls while the brothers explored the empty building, boyishly darting in and out from one room to another.
It was massive, bigger then Johnny could have ever imagined. The young Lancer slowed down just long enough to admire the sturdy brick and wood framing that had held the walls solid during those long-ago battles, with only the weakest structures caving in under pressure. He noticed small and large bullet holes, enhancing the textures, visual proof of the terror and pain these people had endured.
Next to catch his eye were the huge cannons that had protected this grand old fort. They were just as big as the ones he saw on the ship, packing more power then he could fathom.
Then, just like a little boy with too much pent-up energy, Johnny scurried up one like it was nothing and peered out the hole in the wall on which the top rested.
“Oh, boy, what a view, you can almost see across the lake from up here!” He called down to his laughing brother. “Hey Scott, come on up and take a look for yourself.”
“No thanks, I’ll take your word for it.” Scott quickly refused the offer. “Now come on down before you fall and break your neck.”
Johnny shot his older sibling a cranky look, blew out a breath, then, in one easy motion, slid down the cannon’s neck almost as if he were sliding down a banister, only this time, he came down on his belly.
“That was fun….haven’t done that in a while.” Johnny informed Scott, a little out of breath. “This place is something, did it house any families? I mean the ones I visited back home had families that stayed there while their men served.”
“Might have. Although, being a sea-based fort, with homes close by and a town, I would think that it mainly housed only the soldiers.” Scott said as he thought back to what he had learned. “Fighting Indians and seafaring pirates are two different things. This fort was to protect the whole town.”
“I reckon you’re right.” Johnny agreed softly, taking a deep breath in and slowly blowing it out. “Man, smell that air. Besides fighting pirates, I bet they had a good old time just fishing and swimming, huh?”
“In between times, I guess. It also has an outstanding view, too, right beyond those walls.” Scott informed him eagerly, pointing to the far north wall. “So, little brother, follow me.”
Back home, hidden in her secret room, Monique took hold of the straw doll in one hand and sprinkled some kind of white dust over it with the other while chanting and humming an eerie tune. She continued this ritual until she was certain she had completed the spell, then stuffed the doll and other items in a bag.
The preoccupied girl then hastily left the room, carefully locking the door behind her. Placing the key in her coat pocket, she was unaware that it dropped out, landing unheard next to the door. Then she sneaked out the back door, on her way to meet up with her unwitting victim.
The faint sound of the back door closing alerted Mabel, who stepped out into the hall from the kitchen, thinking it was her husband returning from the market. To her dismay, Samuel was nowhere to been seen.
Turning to leave, she caught a glimpse of something lying on the floor. The cautious maid moved closer to the object and picked up the key. Looking around, she wondered whose it could be and what it would open. Curious, Mabel decided to try the closet first. Pushing aside a few heavy coats, she was utterly shocked to see a hidden door within the closet. Dreading what she might find, the woman took a deep breath and daringly placed the key into the lock. The door swung open, exposing a dark room that reeked of evil.
“Oh, child, what are you doing?” Mabel whispered, her heart sinking in despair.
Scott led the way towards the entrance of the Fort with his brother gradually lagging behind. Johnny, who was always light on his feet, was having a hard time keeping his legs moving. It was like somebody had tied weights around his ankles. With every step he took, they felt heavier by the second and the extra exertion was sucking the energy right out of him. Finally, he had no choice but to stop and catch his breath.
“Scott… Scott… will ya hold…up a …minute?” He called to his hurried brother, puffing and sweating, as he stumbled over to a nearby barrel, flopping down on it. “I need…to sit… down a second.”
Scott halted his quick steps at the edge of the huge gate and turned to face his panting brother.
“Are you okay? You don’t look so good.” he asked, concerned.
“Yeah, I think so, just had to catch my breath for some reason,” Johnny lied. Truth was, he felt like a wrung-out old dishrag, “Go on, I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes.” he informed tiredly Scott through the jaw-cracking yawn that suddenly overcame him.
“Are you sure?” Scott questioned. Johnny just nodded.
“All right, I’ll be over there.” Scott said, pointing towards the lookout point on the far walls of the fort.
Still yawning, Johnny simply waved Scott on his way. Hesitantly, his brother took off, leaving his younger sibling sitting there alone.
Scott felt that Johnny was simply overwrought from the day’s activities and just needed to take a break. But this was far from the truth, as, a few moments later, Johnny’s vision started to blur, a familiar sensation he had experienced when Durham had drugged him.
The young Lancer rubbed his clouded eyes, stood up on wobbling legs and proceeded to take a step forward. Without warning, the ground came rushing up at him, just as everything grew dark.
The two lurking thugs watched from the cover of the shadows as the fidgety cab driver jumped off his seat and headed towards the nearby clump of trees, holding the crotch of his pants. Now they had the opportunity to make their move.
“Say, Jimbo, do ya think it’s time?” The smaller one asked.
“Dunno, Zack, though the boy didn’t come with his brother.” Jimbo, the heftier of the two, snorted. “Could be mistress has done her mojo by now.”
“Well, what are we waiting fer? We’s got to hurry before dat driver comes back.” Zack warned, peering towards the trees.
“Yeah, come on, let’s go. Can’t keep the mistress waiting.” Jimbo agreed hastily. Sliding off the seat, he leaped to the ground. He walked a few yards towards the carriage, looked around, then waved to his partner.
Leaping off the wagon in one swift movement, Zack hurried to where his friend was standing. Moving together, they kept to the outer walls, ducking and weaving in and out of the shaded areas until they reached the entrance.
Zack crept around the corner where he spied Scott standing, eyes focused on the majestic beauty of the bay, as he patiently waited for his brother to join him. Unknown to the elder Lancer, his brother was about to be kidnapped by the two thugs, as he lay unconscious on the ground.
Jimbo silently motioned to Zack to keep watch by the entrance while he handled Johnny. The hulk of a man leaned over the younger Lancer’s limp torso and smiled.
“You’s sure are purty, no wonder, mistress has been wanting ya.”
With no effort at all, Jimbo grabbed Johnny by the arms and threw him over his shoulders like a sack of flour, surprised at how light the younger man was.
“Sure ain’t nothing to ya, boy. Well, I’m sure mistress will fix dat!”
Jimbo swiftly swung around , the movement causing Johnny’s limp legs to sway back and forth. His silver spurs clanged together, inadvertently sending out a musical plea for help. However, the tiny sound was all for naught, drowned out by the incoming tide crashing violently against the banks. It’s roar blocked out any other sounds from Scott’s preoccupied ears and mind.
The thundering roar of the waves continued redundant, making it easy for the abductors to flee without being either heard nor seen by the cab driver, who was slowly emerging from the trees.
Spying the movement of the branches, Jimbo and Zack knew they had better hightail it out of there and fast. The two made haste, running as quickly as they could, with a helpless Johnny arched draped over the brute’s huge shoulders. Once they had reached the hidden wagon, Jimbo threw Johnny in the back and led the horses out on foot, taking a different direction from the one they had taken in.
Just then, the driver climbed aboard the carriage again and sat waiting for the Lancers.
Standing there, enjoying the refreshing cool misty air against his face, Scott suddenly became aware of the fact that too much time had past since he left Johnny alone. He began pondering what could be keeping his brother from joining him. As anxious as Johnny had been to see all this, Scott was now sensing something was wrong. Turning, he hurried back into the fort.
“Johnny, what is…” Scott’s words trailed off when he saw that his brother was not where he left him. “Johnny, where are you?” he called out apprehensively, his deep voice echoing off the walls. “Come on, Johnny, this isn’t funny!”
The elder Lancer waited for an answer, willing a wisecracking remark from his sometimes trickster sibling, the one with the knack of pulling off ridiculous pranks and then showing up later wearing one of those mischievous grins of his.
But when no reply came, the uneasy feeling nagging at Scott intensified tenfold, prompting him to begin searching. Scared, he raced about the empty The old Spanish Fort, darting in and out the rooms, frantically calling Johnny’s name. Finding not a single hide nor hair of his brother, Scott rushed over to the waiting carriage, alarming the driver.
“My Lord, sir, what is the hurry?”
“Did…..you…see my….brother come out?” Scott asked breathlessly, leaning against the bumper of the carriage.
“Why, no, sir, I did not,” the cabby, whose name was Miles, replied truthfully. “Though I did leave my seat for a few minutes. He could have left while my back was turned,” he offered.
“Where is he?” Scott whispered worriedly. “I left him sitting there because he needed a few minutes to rest and now he’sgone, but where?”
“Perhaps your brother misunderstood you and took off that way,” Miles suggested, pointing towards the opposite direction from where Scott had been.
“No, he knew which way I went, I pointed it out before I left him.” Scott corrected nervously. “This not like Johnny, he has pulled some daring stunts before, but nothing like this.”
“What should we do, sir?” Miles asked, concerned for his troubled passenger. “Should we look around? Could be he’s hurt or sick? You said he needed to rest.”
Scott took off his hat and ran his long fingers through his hair, needing to think. But one thing was certain in his mind.
“No, I don’t know why, or how, but my gut is telling me that Johnny was abducted and from right under our noses,” he snorted angrily, quickly boarding the carriage.
“But who would do such a thing?” Miles questioned.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell going to find out.” Scott said with strong conviction, “Now, please take me back to town, and hurry. My father is not going to be happy when I tell him that Johnny is missing,” he said, shaking his head and dreading the thought of giving Murdoch this disturbing news.
“Yes, sir.” Miles said. With a quick snap of the reins, he turned the horses in a flash and began was urging them along. Huge hooves pounded the ground, matching the rhythm of the beating waves and Scott’s own frantic heart.
Zack’s dark eyes darted back and forth, scanning the thick trees and open areas for possible danger as Jimbo carefully maneuvered the wagon up the long and winding road. The sun would be down in an hour and they had to make haste in delivering their cargo to their mistress who waited for them beyond the edge of the woods.
It was a place where death and dark forces lurked in the shadows, waiting for unwitting strangers who happened to pass by or worse, who were brought here for a reason.
Spying the huge, sinister-looking mansion in the distance, its décor of dead trees and rotted wood fences outlining years of abandonment, Jimbo shuddered as he always did whenever he laid eyes on the once-lively home. About half way there, he turned around, checking on the sleeping Lancer.
“Mistress mojo sure is powerful, he hasn’t stir once since we’s left the Fort,” he said in awe.
“Good thing, too, from the looks of him, I bet he’s handy with this here gun.” Zack commented, holding up the gunbelt he’d slipped off Johnny’s slim waist.
“He’s not gonna need these for a while, not after Mistress gets done with him.” Foolishly, Jimbo tossed the belt over the side of the wagon, where it landed in a pile of dead leaves.
“Well, if he don’t do as she says, then he’ll wish he had those guns, to end his misery.” Jimbo chuckled as he pulled up to the front of the ghastly mansion. “Here we are, boy, your home from now on, if ya don’t mind your manners. The Mistress don’t take kindly to those who defy her.” he warned, his words falling on deaf ears.
The huge flunky grabbed Johnny out of the wagon and threw him over his shoulders again, motioning for Zack to follow him up weed-infested walkway, their heavy footfalls crumbling the dried foliage under their feet. The withered floor boards of the porch didn’t fare much better as Jimbo took one step up, his weight combined with Johnny’s, making them creak and moan painfully. Placing a hand on the rusted door handle, he turned it, took a deep breath and entered the dark, damp house.
On the far side of town, miles away from the mansion, Scott Lancer was experiencing the same overwhelming sensation of apprehension that Jimbo was suffering. Trying desperately to calm his heart and gather his thoughts before walking through the front door of the Dunlop home, Scott swallowed hard. He dreaded facing his father and informing him of Johnny’s unexplained disappearance.
Though his brother was a grown man and well equipped to take care of himself, the elder Lancer took his role of big brother and the responsibilities that came with it seriously. He was baffled and terrified by the sudden turn of events. If they were only back home, it might be different, but as strangers in this mysterious and deadly land, everything was changed.
“Well, here goes.” Scott muttered. Giving the cab driver a distressed glance, he placed a shaky hand on the doorknob.
Miles, who normally dropped off his passengers and went on his merry way, jumped down suddenly from the carriage and hurried to Scott’s side.
“If ya don’t mind, sir? I would like to be with you when you tell your father.” Miles asked, a concerned tone in his voice.
“Thank you.” Scott smiled wearily. “I’m going to need all the support I can get. This is not going to sit well with my father.”
“I know, sir. As a father of two, the news of a missing child, no matter what age they are, is never easy to hear.” Miles sympathized.
Scott only nodded, then slowly opened the door, to be greeted by the sound of loud laughter coming from the living room; laughter he knew would cease once the occupants saw their dismal expressions. The two men looked at each other, letting out heavy sighs. Reluctantly, they emerged from the foyer and stood by the huge archway leading into the living room. Seeing Ethan seated on the couch by the fireplace and his father standing by the wall, both talking to Mrs. Dunlop and with their backs towards the new arrivals, Scott mustered the courage to speak.
“Scott, you’re back!” Murdoch exclaimed cheerfully, spinning around on his heels, “Did you both have a good time?”
Glancing over Scott’s slumped shoulders for Johnny, he spotted only Miles, with no sign of his youngest.
“Where’s Johnny? And who is this?” he added, confused, pointing a finger at the cab driver.
“Miles, sir. I’m the carriage driver who’s been escorting your sons around town,” the cabby introduced himself politely.
“Fine and dandy, but where’s Johnny now, Scott?” Murdoch questioned again, getting bad vibes from his too-quiet son. “Scott?”
Scott searched his soul for the right words to break the news, but there weren’t any–none that made any sense, that is. There was no choice but to come out and say it.
“Well, sir, that’s what I want to talk to you about.” he blurted out, “There’s no way to say this but to say it. Johnny’s missing, Murdoch.”
Murdoch just stood there motionless, trying to fathom what his son was telling him. Once Scott’s disturbing words sank in, his face turned white as a ghost and his heart began racing faster than a rushing river. When he could finally speak, Murdoch glared at his son and snarled. “Did…did I hear you right?”
“Yes sir, you did.” Scott answered regretfully.
“How? Where?” Murdoch growled nervously.
Scott walked slowly over to the plush sofa and flopped his weary body down, then looked up at his seething father. “At the old Spanish rort, Murdoch, and I don’t know how.” He informed his father, distressed. He went on to explain all that had happened. “Everything was going well, we were having a great time. Then suddenly Johnny felt ill for some reason and had to sit down to rest…..and…”
“And…. that was the ….last time I saw him.” Scott admitted hesitantly.
Murdoch shook his head, sneering down at his son, his nostrils flaring, “Let me get this straight, are you saying you left your brother sitting there alone?”
“Now, Murdoch,” Ethan quickly intervened when he saw the heartbreaking look of guilt Scott was sporting, “ don’t go off half-cocked. Give Scott a chance to explain.”
“That’s just it, Mr. Dunlop. I don’t know what happened to my brother.” Scott stated “He told me to go on and that he’d catch up with me. I hadn’t gone that far, just down by the shore. But truthfully, the tide was coming up and it was getting harder to hear if he was calling to me or not. And when he failed to show up, I returned to see what was keeping him, and he was gone.”
“Did you look around the grounds? Maybe he was disoriented and wandered off; perhaps he fell down, and rendered himself unconscious. Or he simply didn‘t hear you call for him,” Ethan offered as a explanation.
“I….we did look for him! There was no sign of him, in the bushes, along the shore. He‘s simply disappeared.” Scott huffed, in distress.
“It’s not that simple, Scott.” Murdoch spat, “You know your brother as well as I do and something drastic had to happen in order for something or someone to overtake Johnny so easily. Somebody had to be watching you, waiting for the right time to grab him.”
‘But who, Murdoch? Johnny is a stranger in these parts. Why would anybody want to cause him harm?” Scott questioned his father anxiously.
“ I don’t know, son. I don’t know.” Murdoch snorted dismally.
Although not meaning to eavesdrop, the mere mention of Johnny’s disappearance had stopped Mabel, on her way to the kitchen, in her tracks. She stood in the hallway, listening to the heartbreaking conversation. In the short time she had known Johnny, she had come to care for the boy and this news was like a knife in her heart. She could not sit by and not help her employer’s friends in any way she could. Mabel took a step towards the living room when the firm hand of her husband held her back.
“Where are you going, wife?” Samuel whispered in her ear.
“To help Master Lancer. Young John is missing.” She informed him.
“Master Johnny is gone?” Samuel gasped.
“Yes, I have a good notion who done dis,” the woman hissed. “Now, husband, we must help dem, so he don’t wind up like our boy….dead.”
Samuel loosened his grip on her arm and nodded. Though it was not their place to interfere, his wife spoke the truth. If they didn’t speak up, Johnny might never be found..
“Go, wife, and tell them what you know.”
Mabel sadly smiled, patting Samuel’s arm. “Come Samuel, we’ll tells dem together.” she said, taking her husband by the hand. They walked slowly towards the living room. Stopping by the archway, she cleared her throat. “Master, Dunlop, I….er….might be able to help.”
“Mabel, do you know something?” Ethan asked suspiciously.
“Yes, Master Dunlop, I think I know who took young John.” she answered hesitantly, knowing that what she was about to tell them was not going to set well with her employer. “And you’re not going to like the answer, sir.”
“What do you mean?” Margot questioned anxiously as she shot out of the chair she was occupying.
“Yes, please speak up.” Murdoch demanded, “Who has my son?”
Mabel took another step closer to the huge man before her and looked up into Murdoch’s desperate eyes, her own heart sinking further still.
“I fear it was Mistress Monique.”
“What? Why, that is preposterous.” Ethan admonished.
“My wife does not lie, sir.” Samuel bravely defended her, then turned to his shaking spouse, placing a gentle hand on her thin shoulder. “Can you tell us how you know this?” He asked gently.
The petite woman nodded. “Mistress Monique, I fear, has a unhealthy attraction for young Master John. And will do anything to obtain his attention. Come, I’ll show you.”
Motioning for them to follow her, with Samuel beside her, she led the fearful group to the cleverly concealed door within the closet. Inserting the key that Monique had dropped into the tiny keyhole, Mabel slowly pulled the door open, then stepped back, allowing Ethan to enter the darkened room.
“I never knew this was here!” He exclaimed, puzzled.
“Apparently your daughter kept a few things from you,” Scott answered a little too harshly, earning himself a look of disapproval from his frowning father.
“It’s all right, Murdoch.” Ethan assured them as he lit a candle, exposing the eerie décor of the room. It was cluttered with voodoo bits and pieces spread out around the small space and hanging on the walls, things that would send a chill down even the strongest man‘s spine. Loud gasps escaped their mouths and jaws fell, when the cold hard reality hit them.
“God, this can’t be!” Margot cried out, her eyes tearing.
“For the love of God!” Ethan muttered, his face riddled with utter shock. “I had no idea that she was this far gone. I knew she was a little….different…..then Paulette, but this?”
“This voodoo is powerful magic and she must use it on young John to persuade him to her side. And those who follow her, had to help take him.” Samuel explained, “I fear for his life.”
“That explains why all of the sudden he felt weak and had to sit down.” Scott stated the obvious, putting aside his rational college education and going by what his common sense told him now. “What else can she do to hurt my brother?”
“I don’t want to thinks about it.” Mabel muttered. “We must find them and soon,” was all she said before hanging her head in distress and silently saying a prayer for Johnny.
“Well, where in the hell would she take him?” Murdoch growled loudly, unsettling Margot’s nerves still more.
“That, my friend, I do not know.” Ethan sadly informed him. “Louisiana is a big state. There are many hiding places I don’t even know exist.
“Well, I say we wait until she comes home, then get her to tell us where she has my brother.” Scott recommended.
Shaking her head in denial, Mabel informed him regretfully, “No, master Scott, she will not return. Now that she has young John, she must stay with him, until….” Her voice trailed off.
The look of despair on their faces told the woman she had not better say what was really on her mind, lest it throw them into a panic–exactly what they didn’t need right now.
“WELL, DAMN IT ALL!” Murdoch boomed. Turning, he bolted out of the room, making tracks for the front door.
“Don’t worry old friend, we’ll find Johnny. I promise you that.” Ethan vowed, chasing after the furious rancher. “I’ll call my markers in, somebody’s bound to have seen them,” he added, grasping at straws.
“I say, we head back to that fort and start from there.” Scott snarled impatiently, then grabbed his hat and chased after them.
Just as he reached the foyer, Murdoch halted his hurried steps and turned to face his eldest.
“Good idea, son. But I think that we’ll have no choice but to wait until morning. By the time we get there, it will be pitch black and we could get lost ourselves. “ Murdoch advised after giving it a second thought.
Not liking this proposal at all, Scott threw his hat down, hissing “So, we just sit back and wait, doing nothing? While my brother is out there somewhere, in God knows what condition?”
Murdoch walked over to his distraught son and placed a gentle hand on Scott’s slim shoulder in understanding.
“I know how you feel. If only she’d come home, but that is not the case. And running around like chickens with our heads cut off, in the dark, will not help Johnny one bit. Or make us find him any sooner. ”
“Your father is right, Scott. A good night’s sleep, then we’ll start looking in the morning.” Ethan promptly agreed. “I do know my daughter well enough to know that she’ll not harm him in the way Samuel and Mabel think. She can’t be that far gone,” he reassured them.
“For her sake and my son’s, Ethan, I hope you’re right.” Murdoch warned, a hard look of concern etched on his brow.
The house suddenly went as quiet as a tomb. Stares of doubt were exchanged as its occupants’ apprehensions and fears grew. From what was commonly said about black magic and voodoo worshippers, all of them knew that in the wrong hands, the practice could be as deadly as a gunfight. The Lancers knew Johnny could handle himself in those kinds of battles, but this was something beyond their comprehension.
How could he fight the unknown?
Troubled minds wandered endlessly that night. The rustling of sheets and creaking beds were the only sounds to be heard in the Dunlop house as each occupant there struggled with their fears. Miles away, hidden in the dark, forgotten mansion, Monique lay snuggled in her own small bed.
The girl was lost in her own dreams filled with sexual, steamy visions of the young man she had shackled two floors below. Indulging her fantasy, she began to moan and squirm, legs becoming entwined in the sheets even as her hands rubbed and grabbed at her own body. Her small tight bosoms tingled with excitement as she become more aroused and ecstasy was close.
Below her, in the basement, Johnny’s dreams were not filled with pleasurable thoughts like Monique’s. Rather, they took the form of nightmares that had him twitching and jerking uncontrollably as he fought desperately to wake from them. Lying alone on the damp, dirt floor, in a heavy spell-induced slumber, he struggled to free his hands from their invisible bonds. But to no avail, and his unconscious anxiety deepened. Feeling helpless as a lost child, he cried out.
“Pa….where are you?” he pleaded as his nightmare worsened. Horrid visions appeared, quickly morphing into ghostly skeleton figures. Unable to ward off their ghastly, bony hands as they reached for him, Johnny cried out again , “No! No….go away. Papa, help me, please!”
Once again, he searched for the light that had always brought him back from limbo but this time it was not to be found. Johnny slipped deeper into the terrifying darkness. The bleak blackness filling his soul matched the inkiness of the night sky outside as sudden thunderclouds loomed over the town.
Freak lightning lit up the night sky like a roman candle, followed by booming thunderclaps that made windowpanes rattle and caused small children to run to their parents’ bedsides.
Alone in her bedroom, however, the haunting resonance was music to Monique’s ears as she lay quietly, exhausted after giving in to her fantasies. Soothed by the storm’s violence that was so dismaying the townspeople, the woman fell into a deep sleep, never twitching a single muscle.
Abandoning the idea of getting any shuteye, Scott sat in the chair beside Johnny’s empty bed, staring at it with a drink in one hand and a look of utter defeat on his face. With every lightning strike, hearing the heavy rain beating against the window, he knew that by morning any tracks left by his brother’s kidnappers would be washed away, making their chances of finding Johnny harder with every passing second.
In the next room, Murdoch was thinking the same thing. Also nursing a stiff drink, he offered up prayers for Johnny’s safety. Despite the storm that raged outside, he doubted that he could get any rest until he found his youngest. The distraught father could not fathom why these things kept on happening to his son.
“God, why do these things happen to my boy? Why?” He asked despondently .
“I’ve asked that same question, myself.” Scott muttered softly, easing the ajar door open and walking in. “It was open, so I didn’t bother to knock. Sorry if I startled you.”
“It’s quite all right, son. Come on in. Couldn’t sleep either?”
“No, not with that storm out there. And truthfully, it has me worried.” Scott stated dismally, flopping his tired body on his father’s bed. “You know it’s not going to be easy to find tracks, if any, by whoever took Johnny?”
“Yes, I know, but we have to have faith. There’s bound to be some kind of sign that will lead us to him.” Murdoch said expectantly.
“I sure hope so,” Scott sighed, disconsolate. Pushing himself off the bed, he walked over to the table where the bottle of brandy sat, pouring himself another glass. “ Johnny tried to warn me about her.”
“Yes, but I just thought he was over-reacting.”
Scott took another healthy swallow of his drink and looked at his frowning father.
“Johnny felt uneasy around her from the start. And the other night, he had a bad unexplained experience, said he swore that somebody had taken over his body. He said he had no control over his arm and legs. And that he even cried out for me, but I didn’t hear a thing. I just thought it was one of those nightmares he has….but now I’m not so sure,” he finished with a heavy sigh.
“Scott, we can’t be too sure that Monique has anything to do with this. Despite what we saw in that room.” Murdoch advised, though he wasn’t exactly convinced himself.
“Murdoch, with all due respect to your friend, I have to admit, that I, too, find his daughter a little…..odd.” Scott stated with conviction. “And we really can’t dismiss the idea that black magic is just a myth. Stranger things have happened.”
Murdoch slumped further back in his chair, pondering his son’s words.
“Yes, stranger things have happened. I also noticed she was a little different but to use voodoo…”
“Sir, obsessed people will take extreme measures to get what they want. Johnny would tell you that!” Scott hissed. “I have no doubt that she has my brother, and God only knows what she will do to him to keep him.” Falling silent, the blond shuddered at the thought of Johnny’s fate.
“I’m trying not to think about it.” Murdoch cringed as another lighting flash lit up the sky, followed by ear-shattering thunder claps, one after another. “God, when will this blasted storm ever end?”
“Try to get some sleep, sir.” Scott urged, concerned for his father’s health. “We’re going to need all our strength when we going looking for Johnny. And we will find him!” he proclaimed.
“You do the same, son. And don’t worry about your brother. He’s a Lancer, and we Lancers are strong, with the drive to go on. Johnny proved that way back when, down in Mexico, staying alive like he did, so he could come back… to us,” Murdoch added, still counting his blessing that he had been able to bring his youngest home.
Scott set his empty glass down on the bed stand, and walked slowly over to the door, turning to face his father with a weary smile.
“On that, sir, you are so right. He knows we’ll be coming for him, so he’ll tough it out until we find him.” Scott said with outward assurance, while inwardly trying to make himself believe his own words. Though he knew his brother’s resilience well, the unknown still scared him. “Night, sir.”
“Night, son.“ Murdoch smiled as his son left the room. Then the big Scot pushed himself off the overstuffed chair he’d occupied for the last hour or so and walked sluggishly over to the bed, flopping his huge form down. Removing his slippers, he put his throbbing head on the pillow, pulled the covers up and lay there, staring up at the ceiling. Closing his eyes, he willed sleep to come while the storm continued to rage outside.
His words were barely a whisper as he closed his tired eyes.
“God, watch over my son tonight.”
After a violent night of vicious storms pounding the earth, New Orleans residents awakened to clear blue skies. A bright rainbow hovered over the sleepy city, reminding its weary occupants that there was always a light at the end of the dark, dismal tunnel, in the place where hope and faith lie.
While the townspeople were still pulling themselves out of bed, Monique was already up and dressed. Feeling well rested, she prepared for the day’s events that she had planned for her captive downstairs. She hoped they would cause him to see the light and succumb to her womanly charms.
Grabbing all the items she needed to apply her persuasion, she stuffed them neatly into cloth bags, then proceeded toward the door. Stopping at the faded mirror long enough to take one last look at herself, the girl made sure she was presentable.
“Stunning, dawlin, just stunning.” she said coolly, admiring her own looks, “I can’t see how Mr. Lancer could refuse you.” she boasted smugly, smacking her painted lips. “Well, we shall see.”
With one last quick glance in the mirror, she hurried out the door and flew down the old, withered staircase. Like a banshee’s cries floating on air, her giggles of excitement sounded like the cackling of a witch as they echoed throughout the house.
She scurried along a narrow hallway that led to the door of the basement where Johnny lay, still in a deep sleep and shivering from the damp, cold floor. Monique hurried over to her prey and knelt down. Placing the bag by his limp form, she lustfully took in his masculine features, so pleasing to her eyes.
Opening the bag, she pulled out the doll she used for controlling him with her voodoo magic and a tin full of white powder. Taking a pinch of the substance, she sprinkled it over the doll’s head.
“Time to wake up, my love,” she whispered in his ear, waiting for Johnny to rouse from the endless slumber she had him in.
Within seconds, Johnny long black eyelashes fluttered open. As his senses awakened still more, he groaned in sheer agony from the soreness of his shackled hands.
“Where….where…..?” he choked out weakly, blinking rapidly to clear the cobwebs out of his head, while trying to focus on the unfamiliar surroundings. “Where….is?”
“You’re in my humble hideaway, my love.” Monique cooed.
Johnny’s clouded head shot towards the sultry voice and his face grew dark “You….why?” he whispered through a dry, scratchy throat. “Water, please.”
“Why, my love? Why, it’s simple. You’re mine now, forever. This is your new home.” Monique informed him, holding a canteen to his parched lips. “Easy love, don’t make a pig of yourself.” she commanded as Johnny took frantic gulps of the cool water.
Catching his breath, he glared up at Monique.
“Don’t call me that!” he spat angrily, trying to grab her with his bound hands. “Let me go, you crazy witch.”
Monique paid no mind to his heated demand. Instead, she leaned in closer and cupped her hand under his chin, lifting his head so he could gaze into her steel blue eyes.
“Don’t you find me attractive, lover?” she asked saucily. She ran her other hand slowly down the side of his face, gradually making her way to his heaving chest.
Johnny sneered coldly at the girl. “No, I do not!” he snarled through his teeth, seething at her familiarity. He was rewarded with a hard slap across the face. “I didn’t need that.” he added through the stinging in his cheek.
“Perhaps I was a little too rough. Maybe this is what you need, my love.” Monique cooed. Grabbing Johnny’s head, she planted her hungry lips on his, giving him a wet, long and seductive kiss.
When she finally pulled away, Johnny spat out the vile taste she had left.
“Don’t ever kiss me like that again…..or I’ll…” he growled, then groaned in agony as he tried to move his stiff, sore torso.
“Or you’ll what, lover?” Monique snorted bitterly. “You’re in no condition to make any threats. I have total control and you can’t do a damn thing.”
“Pretty strong language there for such a refined lady, as you claim you are.” Johnny remarked snidely. “And you’ll never get me to love you, never! Black magic or not!” he vowed.
His last harsh statement cut through her like a hot knife through butter, hurting not only her womanly pride but making her downright furious. Needing to show him that she meant business, the self-proclaimed sorceress took a long straight pin from the bag, waving it over the doll’s straw leg.
“This is going to hurt you more then me.” she taunted, then jabbed the pin unhesitatingly into the doll’s leg.
Johnny was totally unprepared for what came next–the excruciating, burning sensation of something sharp piercing his upper left thigh. He tried with all his might not to scream but the torture was too much and he yelled in pure agony . His eyes filled with tears as he tried to control the pain by slowing his rapid breathing down to a slower pace, but no avail.
Not ready to stop her wicked lesson yet, the witch sadistically stabbed the pin deeper. Her blue eyes glowed with satisfaction as Johnny jerked and moaned, biting his lower lip to keep from crying out again. So strong was his effort, he drew his own blood, which trickled down his quivering chin.
“Please, stop……I.” Johnny gasped.
“What did you say, lover? I didn’t hear you.” Monique said callously. “Oh, do you mean this?” Then she quickly pulled the pin out of the doll, but just as quickly, jabbed it back in again, this time in the lower thigh. Sadistically, she twisted and probed while Johnny’s body stiffened, tears running down his dirty, sweat-beaded face.
“Had enough, my love?” she whispered in his ear, running her finger over his bloodied lip, then licking it like a hungry animal. “If you do don’t what you’re suppose to do, then I’ll have to hurt you some more.´´
“Ne….ver……you…..witch!” Johnny spat out, spraying dribbles of blood on her scowling face.
“Oh, we’ll see about that. A man has his limits, and this was just a taste of what I’ll do if you don’t behave,`´ she warned viciously.
“I doubt I can do much, chained like a animal.” Johnny reminded her cynically, his breathing a little calmer as the pain started to subside, Monique having pulled the pin out. He looked down at his leg, shocked to find no blood soaking his pants.
“Whatever you’re doing, I can’t fight, so if you could let my hands free.…” he tried to reason with the gloating woman.
“Nice try, lover, but no dice. I’m not going let you go and chance you running off.” Monique declared.
“So get used to your new home. I have delicious plans for us.
“In this hellhole?´´ Johnny grumbled loudly. “I’ve seen better in those old rundown whorehouses down in Mexico. I have no doubt you have visited a few around here, too, so you know what I mean,´´ he added harshly, receiving another hard slap across the cheek.
“I’m no whore, I’m a lady!!!´ Monique snarled in defense of her honor.
“Then prove it, and let me go,” he demanded angrily. “No lady would kidnap a man so she can have him as a pet.”
Monique giggled. “And a mighty handsome pet, I may add.” she said, running her long fingers through his dark, thick hair, as though she was stroking a dog’s head. “Now rest, my pet, and I’ll see if I can find you something to eat. I bet you are hungry after that long nap you took.”
“I lost my appetite, so don’t trouble yourself on my account.”
“Now my love, I can’t let you wither away, can I? I need you well, fit, and able,” she giggled coyly, “So just relax and I’ll be back as soon as I can with something tasty to eat, besides myself, that is.” the girl informed him. Turning, she hurried up the stairs, feeling quite full of herself.
“LET ME GO, WITCH!” Johnny hollered to deaf ears. “God, please, let me go.”
While the gloating, self-proclaimed witch went about mustering up some hot grub for her reluctant guest so cruelly chained in the basement, Murdoch and Scott were dressing in clothing fit for rough traveling as they carefully prepared to venture out out to look for their missing sibling.
They were well aware that last night’s brutal storm had undoubtedly washed away any tracks left by Johnny‘s captors at the old fort, the last place Scott had seen his brother. Their only hope, if it came to that, was to seek out help from the girl’s friends and any local townsfolk who might know where she could have taken Johnny. With this in mind, they headed downstairs to a waiting Ethan, who was also ready and able to lend a hand in finding Johnny.
“All set, Murdoch?” Ethan asked tiredly, letting out a long yawn.
“I see we’re not the only ones who got little sleep last night.” Murdoch observed.
“With that storm, and worrying about my daughter out there, and what’s she’s doing, I barely slept a wink.” Ethan admitted. Scott shook his head.
“You mean what’s she doing to my brother,” he assumed bitterly.
“Scott!” Murdoch scolded as he fastened his gun belt, “Now’s not the time to point fingers. We have to concentrate on finding Johnny.”
Scott bowed his head and apologized softly, “I’m sorry, it’s just…..”
“I understand, son, and if my daughter truly has anything to do with John’s disappearance, I’ll make sure she is properly punished for her actions.” Ethan promised.
Scott’s head jerked up as he gave the man a dumbfounded look. He couldn’t believe his audacity. Dunlop had seen with his own eyes what his precious daughter was doing right under his very nose, yet he was still so dense as to think she was not involved. The blond wanted to say something more, but for his father’s sake, he bit back the choice words he had for Ethan.
“Are we going to look by the fort first?” Scott asked turning his attention back to his father.
“Yes. And if we don’t find anything, which I doubt we will after that storm last night,” Murdoch said apprehensively, “we start asking questions.”
At that moment, Samuel entered the room with Ethan’s coat and hat. Overhearing their conversation, he thought he should inform them of an important issue.
“Pardon me, gentlemen, but I think you should know that asking about Mistress’s whereabouts from her friends will not get you anywhere.”
“Why’s that?” Murdoch demanded.
“Because those who follow the way of the Magus….voodoo priest… will not give up information to strangers, or to those who do not believe. It’s bad mojo and traitors are liable for punishment.” Samuel cautioned.
“Not even for money?” Ethan huffed.
“No, sir. They are a close family, and money will not open their mouths.”
“That’s because they are copons…cowards….they have no backbones. They’re puppets of this Magus.” Mabel mumbled loudly as she cleared the morning dishes.
“Hush, woman!” Samuel admonished.
“And where do we find this Magus?” Murdoch hissed. He didn’t like what he was hearing–more discouraging information that could hamper the search for his son.
Mabel stood up straight, juggling the few dirty plates in her arms.
“No one knows, not even those who worship him. He comes when he pleases, or is called. And he knows all that his *puppets* are doing, good or bad–that’s why they are afraid of him,” she shuddered.
“Talk about brainwashing.” Scott snorted dismally, wrapping his gun belt around his slim hips.
“No, Scott, it’s more their strong belief of the supernatural and what it can do, that makes them so susceptible to this priest. It goes way back to medieval days, where sorcery, black magic, voodoo, whatever name you call it, made people feel invincible, powerful. They will do anything to keep the feeling.” Murdoch recalled what he had been told as a child back in Scotland, unreal as it now seemed.
“You of all people should know that.”
“Well, they didn’t teach me much about black magic in Harvard. But from what I’ve heard and now seen,” Scott acknowledged, pointing to Monique’s secret room, “I’m more afraid for my brother’s life now than I was before. And if they will not talk, then there’s always brute force,” he added angrily, his nostrils flaring.
“No, son, not unless we have to. There will be no roughhousing these people.” Murdoch was anxious to be very above board about this. “Who knows, we just might find, a non-believer who knows where we can find your brother….hopefully alive.”
“I sure hope so, old friend.” Ethan sighed apprehensively, concerned that he was now doubting his own faith in his daughter’s state of mind. Though he hated to admit it, Monique had been a little off ever since she reached a certain age.
He and his wife had hoped she would grow out of it by now. But these recent events proved that Monique might have already reached the point of no return instead. “I suggest we get moving and go find your son, Murdoch,” he said hastily.
“Just lead the way, Ethan, we’re right behind you.” Murdoch called to his fast-departing friend.
Desperate to free himself of his bonds, Johnny stretched his long fingers out and squeezed his hand as tight as he could, then tried with all might to slip his hand through the steel cuff. He did this over and over until his wrists were rubbed raw, finding it futile to keep trying. Then he groaned in sheer agony as the cold, coarse metal dug into his tender flesh each time he moved.
The rest off his body was an even worse story. He had no feeling in his buttocks after sitting for so long, nor in his legs. Johnny began to jiggle his limbs up and down, trying to get the circulation back. The more he did so, however, the more painful the pins and needles sensation that it caused. Squeezing his eyes shut, he waited for it to pass.
“What’s wrong, lover?” Monique asked as she reappeared carrying a tray. Setting it down next to Johnny’s trembling body, she continued. “Cold? Well, I have something here to warm you up.´´
As she uncovered a steaming plate of eggs and warm bread, he detected a coffee-like aroma but was unable to tell if it was the real thing he craved so badly.
“Damn right, I’m cold…. at least you…. could have given me a blanket.” Johnny stammered, shivering with each word. “And I’m not hungry.”
“But you have to eat, to keep your strength up.” she taunted as she held up the plate to his face, smiling when she heard the rumble of his empty belly. “Oh, but your stomach betrays you,´´ she giggled, running her finger down his chest.
Johnny sneered at her, “And how do you expect me to eat with my hands bound?”
“I will feed you myself, of course,” she answered wickedly. Scooping up a forkful of eggs, she held it to his lips. “So open up.”
Johnny turned his head away, hissing, “I’m not a baby, I can feed myself.”
The woman frowned and snapped back, “You’re a persistent one, are you? I told you I’ll not chance you escaping by freeing you. Now open up and eat, my love.”
“Stop!” The minute he spoke. she shoved the fork into his mouth. Johnny’s first instinct was to spit it out but between the rumbling in his gut and the taste of fresh cooked eggs tickling the roof of his mouth, he had no choice but to chew and swallow.
“There, are you happy now?” he sputtered.
“Yes, I am.” Monique smiled, as she continued to force-feed Johnny. Her eyes traveled up and down his lean body as she lusted for his touch. But first she needed to win his affections, no matter what it took.
“There now, don’t you feel better?” she cooed as she poured a cup of coffee and placed the cup to his dry lips.
Johnny took one sip and spit it out, gagging at the bitter taste. “You call that coffee?” he spat in disgust. “For all I know it could be some of your witch’s brew.”
“Why, you flatter me.” Monique blushed.
“It wasn’t meant as a complement.” Johnny corrected icily, once more receiving a hard slap for his snide remark.
“You mark my words, lover boy, unless you come to realize that you’re mine, I’ll show you black magic that will make your skin crawl,” she reminded him irately.
With no warning, she grabbed his head and planted her lips on Johnny’s. Momentarily forgetting his hands were bound, he reached for her face to push her away, hurting his sore wrists. The movement caused him to grunt in utter misery and the girl pulled back.
“Oh my, what have you done yourself?`´
“What do you care?” Johnny said, glaring into her dark, cold eyes. “And for the last time, stop calling me lover! I’ll never be yours.”
“Well, we shall see about that.” she snapped, standing up.
Walking over to a small stand, she grabbed a dusty blanket, strolled back over to Johnny and threw it over his shoulders. “There, that should keep you warm. Or you could warm up in my bed upstairs,” she offered coyly, licking her lips.
“When hell freezes over.”
“Okay, have it your way,” she harrumphed, storming over to where her bag sat. Kneeling beside it, the girl pulled out first the white powder and then the doll.
“What…what are you going to do now?” Johnny demanded, not liking the malicious look on her face.
“I have things to do, so I must leave you. And since you’re so miserable while awake….you must sleep now until I get back,” she informed him. There was an evil glow about her as sprinkled a pinch of the powder over the doll.
“Sleep, that’s…..all…I……did……” he started to say when his eyelids began to droop, and his body slowly went numb. Before he knew it, he was fast asleep.
Monique stood watching as Johnny slipped into another deep sleep. Returning to his side, the girl made sure he was well covered up, wishing she had given him a blanket last night. He looked a little peaked and the last thing she wanted was her prize getting sick on her.
Thinking that some hot broth might help him, she made a mental note to send one of her lackeys out for some more supplies. Exiting the damp basement, Monique hurried upstairs to the main living room of the mansion, yelling for her hulking manservant.
“Jimbo, Jimbo, where are you?”
His booming voice answered as he ran in from the pantry. “Right here, Mistress. What can I do for you?”
“I want you to run to town and get more supplies. And be very careful you’re not spotted,” she instructed. “And most of all, do not tell any of our friends about my guest downstairs. Understand?”
“Yes, I will, Mistress. What about your family? They will be´s lookin’ for ya.” Jimbo reminded the brooding girl.
“Oh, they’ll be so busy with my dear, sweet sister’s wedding, they won’t worry about me,” she said callously. “She has her man and now I have mine. So there is no need for me to hurry home.”
“They’ll be looking for him, too.”
“I’ll worry about that if and when they ever find us,” she snapped harshly at the man. Handing him a wad of cash, she continued. “Now get going, and don’t take all day.”
Nodding, Jimbo rushed out the door, anxious to do her bidding.
Shortly thereafter, Monique scurried over to the buggy she had used to get to the mansion. Jumping aboard, she paused before heading off to a secret location only she knew about. Smiling wickedly, she chanted a special spell over the voodoo doll, confident it would soon do as she wished.
Down in the basement, still deep in a spell-induced slumber, Johnny’s head started to twitch back and forth as though he was being slapped across the face repeatedly. His eyelids squeezing tighter with each whack, he began to whimper softly, like the little boy he had once been, hiding in a corner of a dark room as he tried to flee from those evil beings who had sought him out as a child.
But this time, Johnny was helpless to either hide from or to fight the particular monster, the Chauchemar, the nightmare witch, that Monique had summoned. The deeper he slipped into the darkness, the stronger the evil being got as she worked her magic.
Suddenly Johnny’s jerking limbs grew stiff as a board. Unable to move a single muscle, his soft voice stifled, he was completely at the witch’s mercy. And the Chauchemar showed him none.
While the nightmare witch continued her unmerciful torture of Johnny, his family was walking the streets of New Orleans, desperately searching for their beloved sibling. Civilly but persistently, they questioned those they encountered, asking if they had seen a dark-haired young man wandering about looking disoriented or ill. To their dismay, all they received were firm denials.
By the time the search party had retraced the boys’ steps from the time they had left the house to the time Johnny disappeared, it was mid-morning when they reached the old Spanish fort.
Each man searched a section of the huge fort, room by room, in hopes that Johnny could have made his way back here and found a safe place to spend the night. Again, disappointment reared its ugly head as they found no indication that Johnny had been there at all.
Murdoch emerged from one of the lower rooms and began scanning the uninhabited courtyard for anything, a sink hole maybe, that might hold a person, but found nothing. He was about to find a place to sit and ponder when a sudden dull noise as of something hitting wood startled him and he spun around on his heels.
“Did you find anything?´´ Murdoch asked glumly, noting his eldest was rubbing his fist, after slamming it against a post out of frustration.
“No, damn it!” Scott hissed, distraught.”
“I found nothing either, Murdoch.” Ethan informed them regretfully, proceeding to take out a fancy handkerchief and wipe his sweaty brow.
“DAMN IT!” The rancher boomed, his deep, loud voice echoing off the empty walls. “This is a dead end. If Johnny did come back this way, we would have seen him by now. And that blasted storm last night washed any tracks left by man or animal.”
“I don’t want to be reminded,” Scott scowled.
Ethan hated to mention it but there was another possibility as to where Johnny could be, something he seen happen a few times in the past. Distressing as it was, it had to be said, so he took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Ah…Murdoch, we haven’t checked the beach.”
“No, we haven’t,” Scott muttered grimly, “that tide was pretty high when I left…and.. if he did make it back here looking for me, and maybe slipped and fell in,” he paused, swallowing the lump in his throat. Forcing himself to speak the dreaded words, he added, “It would take him back out to sea.”
“If so, your brother is a good swimmer, Scott.” Murdoch emphasized strongly, though his heart was beating faster than a racing horse. “He could have swum to shore someplace else, we have to believe that.”
“Yes, unless… he’s hurt or unconscious , Murdoch.” Scott pointed out the obvious, frightening as it was. He knew very well what kind of swimmer his brother was, but he also knew how strong the tides were. Johnny would be no match for it if he was incapacitated in some way.
“Well, it can’t hurt to look along the shoreline, just in case.” Murdoch encouraged them stubbornly, shooting his son a look of apprehension .
“Then if we don’t find…..anything…. we start asking more questions,” he ordered through silent tears.
Ethan looked at his friend and his son‘s despondent faces, thinking he better give them a few moments before speaking. “
I say we start looking and if we do find him, we’ll have to get him back to town pronto. A night out in that storm, well..…” he stifled his words as Murdoch shot him a look of repulsion.
“My son is a resourceful man! If he were able, he would have found some kind of shelter.” Murdoch informed his doubting friend. Then without another word spoken, he bolted out of the huge gates of the fort and led the others towards God knew what.
They began down by the shoreline where Scott was standing last, then proceeded up the shore, scanning every inch of the basin. They searched for anything resembling footprints, handprints, pieces of clothing that could have washed ashore.
Nevertheless, to their dismay, they found only broken small branches, seaweed and dead tiny sea creatures on the beach sand.
They continued on as the Dunlop’s carriage driver followed their progress. Finally they ran out of both steam and safe land to travel on. Murdoch’s aged legs throbbed miserably from tracking through the wastes of sand and shrub.
“The is useless. How far do we have to look?” Murdoch grunted, trying to catch his breath.
“I don’t know how far, but it seems endless at this rate.” Scott huffed, he, too. feeling the aches and stress of this long jaunt that had gotten them nowhere.
“He’s right, it will take us days to search this whole shoreline, Murdoch. And as you can see we‘ve reached a point where we can‘t do this on foot anymore.” Ethan informed his friends. “We should go about this a different way if we‘re going to get results.”
“Yes, like getting some horses like we should have done in the first place, split up, and find some help.” Murdoch grumbled. “How about the law around here, is it reliable?”
Ethan shrugged his shoulders. “As reliable as it gets, I guess. He’s a crude sort but fair.”
That was all Murdoch needed to know. Before the other two could get a word in edgewise, the tall rancher had scaled the sandy beach up towards the grassy knoll. He stopped there, urging the others to follow by waving his hand. Ethan and Scott raced upward to the waiting carriage, arriving just as Murdoch was flopping his huge form down on the soft seats.
“Well, let’s go see this sheriff of yours. And see if he can lend a hand in searching for my son.”
“I’ve got to warn you, Murdoch, though he’s the law here, he is a little skittish when it comes to these voodoo followers . He had a bad experience once with one of them and the outcome was not good. ” Ethan warned
“Let’s say he awakened one morning with whip marks on his back, and bruises he couldn’t explain. This was after he tried to stop a vicious ritual in the woods. Some of them didn’t respond to that very well.” Ethan stated quickly. “
You see, he was new to our town, and once we got to know him, we felt he would make a good sheriff. Since the last one, well, disappeared one day.”
“Let me guess, he, too, had a run in with these voodoo supporters?” Scott snorted.
“That’s what we think, and after Foster’s experience, it took a lot to get him to stay.”
“Well, he’s going to have to put aside his fears, because as sheriff, it’s his duty to help find Johnny.” Murdoch angrily proclaimed. ´´My son’s life is at stake here.”
“And time is wasting away just talking about it.” Scott reminded impatiently, beginning to walk away from the others.
Before boarding the carriage, Scott took another quick look back towards the old fort. What had started out as a fun-filled day with his brother had turned out to be a nightmare.
He was so captivated by the sound of the beach and the seagulls as they flew by, that it immediately took him back to Boston and the pleasure-filled days he had spent looking out over the harbor. So wrapped up in his thoughts was he, he totally forgot about his younger sibling for those few minutes; precious minutes that might have cost Johnny his life.
Sensing the guilt Scott must be feeling about this whole unbelievable situation, Murdoch climbed out of the carriage and walked over to his brooding son. He placed a strong, assuring hand on his son’s slumped shoulder, giving him an understanding look.
“This may be a dead end for now, Scott. But we’ll find your brother. I’m not leaving this place until we do.” Murdoch had come to realize that Scott had taken his *older brother* role a little to seriously and was now feeling he had let Johnny down. “He’s a grown man, son, you can’t watch him all the time,” he assured his eldest.
“I know…..it’s just that…” Scott muttered, hanging his head.
“Just what, son?”
“It’s just that, well, Johnny is as you said, a little too self-sufficient and sometimes that scares me. I mean, I don’t know what I’ll do if…..if we should ever lose him, after we just got to know each other.´´ Scott admitted fearfully.
“I know what you mean. When it comes to your brother, I have those same fears.” Murdoch agreed. “Well, lets’ go find him then, shall we?” he added, patting Scott’s arm.
Scott nodded, then he and his father joined Ethan in the carriage and headed for town, planning to round up a few horses before they paid the sheriff a visit. The man had better take heed, Scott thought, or he’ll have hell to pay. Hell in the form of Murdoch Lancer.
While the search party went to implore the help of the district law, Jimbo had already slipped back into town by way of mostly un-traveled back roads. He was almost done with the list Monique had entrusted him with when a local, by the name of Jax, approached the preoccupied husky man, catching him off guard.
“Say you, Jimbo, what’s ya doing?” Jax shouted.
“Just getting some supplies, what’s it to you?” Jimbo answered nervously.
“And where did you get da money? I know for fact you don’t have any, ” Jax told him.
He was a tall thin Cajun man, whose exotic attire consisted of colorful clothes with a variety of different juju beads around his dark neck. “Did you steal it? I could get the sheriff and have ya locked up, again,” he pressed on, taunting the big man.
“NO, I DID NOT!” Jimbo growled, as sweat beads formed on his brow. “I´s doing this for Mistress Monique,” he blurted out, unintentionally letting the reason for his errand slip.
“You? Why you, she has house help for that?” A thought entered Jax’s warped mind. “Or is she entertaining company someplace else, what is it?”
“I…..I don’t know what you mean. If…if….I did know, I can’t tell ya.” Jimbo babbled, confused and scared. He was worried as to what Monique might do to him if outsiders found out about Johnny. “Í got to go, she is waiting.”
“Where is she?” Jax demanded with a intimidating glare. “The Magus is looking for her, she missed a important meeting.”
“I don’t know…….she…she seek me out, said to meet her in a clearing with dese supplies.” Jimbo lied to save his thick neck. The brute knew that he had better get back before dark, so he pushed past Jax and loaded the rest of the items in the wagon.
He hopped aboard, not giving the snarling Jax a second thought, and took off. All the while, the Magus’ spy took note of his direction.
“Dat sneaky witch, I think she found herself another playmate. The Magus will not be to happy about dis,” Jax mumbled, then headed hastily off in another direction.
After returning from her mysterious errand, Monique shed her long hooded cape, tossing it on the dusty chair in the old foyer, then hurried down to the basement, as anxious as a giddy school girl.
She was curious to see if the Chaurchemar had done her bidding while she was gone. When the girl entered the room, her heart began to beat hungrily and she grinned wickedly. The sight of Johnny sitting there with his head resting on his shoulder, his face white as a ghost, was almost too much. His shirt, drenched with sweat, clung to his heaving chest. He had red marks on his neck, as though he had been choked.
The girl knelt beside Johnny and kissed his quivering lips, paying no mind to his extremely warm brow, “Now, now my love, was that nasty old witch too rough on you?” she whispered coolly in his deaf ears. “Well, I’m back now, so no need for her company any more. Time to wake up.”
Before waking her prize, Monique felt the need to partially open his shirt and run her long painted fingernails through this dark silky chest hairs, enjoying every touch of his muscular body. After she had her fill, the witch took the doll that held his soul in her hands and mumbled a quick phrase.
“Mmmumm, what, the……hell did….you do to….me?” Johnny moaned as his matted long eyelashes fluttered open. “My…my neck is burning.”
Monique giggled , “I didn’t do anything to you, it was my.. friend who I sent to watch over you while you slept.”
“What……who……” Johnny muttered weakly, cringing in sheer agony as he tried to arch himself up further to take the pressure off his throbbing, bloody swollen wrist. It only aggravated the wounds more. “Come on let me go, I’ll never oblige you,” he vowed.
“No, no, not yet.” she sneered, then ran the back of her hand over his warm cheek, “I’m not done with you.”
Monique leaned in closer, and stared into his watery blue eyes.
“Because I have never seen such a beautiful, sexy man as you, and there’s something dark about you that pulls me in.” she said, cupping his chin in her hand. She roughly rubbed his bruised neck just to hear him groan some more. It was music to her wanting ears.
Squeezing his eyes shut in an attempt to push back the pain, Johnny hissed, “My….family will be looking …for me.’’ he warned with a raspy voice. “You…don’t know…my father…he‘ll find ya.’’
“That old coot?” Monique taunted meanly, hoping to get a rise out of Johnny. “He doesn’t know anything about me! And they’ll never find this place. So just give up and let me take care of you the right way.”
“I…said…never!” Johnny sputtered in her face. “I….don’t take…..to those…who cause pain for the fun…of it. Specially your kind.”
“But there will be no pain, if you just obey.”
“You heard me.” Johnny seethed, shivering from sudden chills that were ravishing his torso.
Monique’s dark eyes grew even darker, as she thought about taking a match to the doll’s feet. She wanted to watch Johnny scream and wrench from the excruciating torment she felt like inflicting on him.
But once the girl realized that fever was now taking over Johnny’s being, she had a change of mind. Figuring he was suffering enough, she decided let him be…for now.
“I see you’re feeling a little under the weather, my love. So I’ll not cause you any more grief.”
For a brief moment, Johnny had a twinge of hope that she was going to let him go but then Monique started to walk away.
“Where…..where you going?”
“Why, my servant will be back with supplies and then I’ll make you a good broth. I can’t let you get to sick on me. It would spoil my fun.” Monique informed him with a sly grin.
With a swift twirl, she scooted out the door and slammed it shut, leaving the candles as the only source of light. Their ominous glow outlined Johnny’s thin, trembling form.
Monique felt confident in leaving Johnny alone down in her makeshift dungeon. Since he was chained, he posed no threat and she had no fear of his escaping while she was preoccupied elsewhere. However, she didn’t want to admit that she was worried about the fever radiating from Johnny’s heated body. She wanted him to be healthy to withstand whatever else she bestowed on him to get him to accept her ways.
A firm believer in the Magus’ methods of forcing his will onto others to get what he wanted, she was determined to use everything in her power to ensure Johnny gave in to her desires. Just then, the sound of an approaching wagon caught her attention and she ran to the door just as Jimbo pulled the team to a halt by the back of the house.
“It’s about time you got back,” She called to the disembarking man.
“Sorry, Mistress, it took me longer then i´s thought.” Jimbo apologized humbly.
“Did you get everything I asked for?” she demanded, “And were you followed?´´
“No, Mistress, I was careful.” Jimbo answered nervously, being cautious not to mention his talk with Jax. ” And I got all you ask for.”
“Good, then hurry and get unloaded, I have broth to make and I need a hot cup of good coffee,” she instructed crudely, then turned and hurried back into the house.
“Yes, Mistress.” Jimbo said, blowing out a breath of relief. He unloaded the wagon, occasionally looking behind him. He had an uneasy feeling that he couldn’t shake and it gave him the jitters. The man was sure nobody had followed him. He had covered his tracks carefully, however, he knew enough not to underestimate the Magus and his followers.
It was late afternoon before Murdoch and Scott, along with Ethan, were able to round up a few horses, barring the few delays from the mule-headed stable master they encountered. With no time to waste, they made hasty tracks over to the Sheriff’s office, anxious to employ his help in finding Johnny.
Foster Willis was sitting at his desk, drinking a hot cup of coffee, with his feet propped up on the edge. He was about to take another sip, when Murdoch stormed in, huffing like a mad bull. Just the sight of this huge, angry-looking man coming towards him shook the lawman’s resolve. As a consequence, he sprang up from the chair, clumsily spilling the hot brew all over his leg.
“Dang it, look what you done made me do!” He shouted, quickly wiping his steaming limb, “What is the meaning of this?”
“Sheriff Foster, I presume?” Scott asked as he stepped out from his father’s shadow.
“Yes. And who are you?”
“My name is Murdoch Lancer, Sheriff, and I need your help.” Murdoch answered boldly, glaring at the stunned man.
“Are these friends of yours, Ethan?” Willis inquired, looking over Scott’s shoulder at Dunlop.
“Yes and they do need your help.” Ethan replied promptly, shaking his head.
“I’m afraid my Monique had done something shamefully wrong.”
“What did she do?” Willis asked, a little confused.
“She had my son kidnapped, that’s what she did.” Murdoch clarified angrily. “And we need your help to find him, before it’s too late.”
“Now, wait one blasted minute here,” Foster shot back, holding up his hand to ward Murdoch off, nervous after the rancher took a step forward. “Before I do anything, I need more information. Now, Ethan why would Monique have somebody kidnapped?”
Ethan, who still couldn’t believe it himself, took a deep breath and forced the words out.
“You’re not going to believe this, Foster, but I just found out my daughter is one of those voodoo disciples and …..is practicing witchcraft right under our noses. Furthermore, she has developed an unhealthy attraction for Murdoch’s son, John.”
“And she had him kidnapped, that I’m certain of, now, since we founds no signs of Johnny where I left him last,” Scott interrupted. Before the sheriff could even ask, Scott continued on with his account of what had happened. “My brother and I were visiting the old fort, sightseeing, and the next thing I knew, he was gone. Just disappeared into thin air.”
“And where were you?” The man insisted.
Scott blew out a breath. “I was down by the shore, waiting for Johnny to join me and when I returned to see what was taking him so long, he was gone. The driver of the cab can verify that. We looked for him but it was getting late and I needed to inform my father.”
“Maybe he wandered off and got lost in the woods. Did you stop to think of that?” Foster gulped. The mere mention of those woods gave him the shivers, let alone the thought of going back in there, which terrified him.
“We did and searched the place over. Plus, after last night’s storm, all the tracks were washed out,” Murdoch hissed in the man’s face. “That’s where we need your help, to ask questions of my son‘s whereabouts. I figure since you’re the law in these parts, they’ll be more willing to listen to you than to some strangers.”
“I…..I.…” Foster stammered.
“Listen, Ethan told us about your run-in with those voodoo supporters, but my son’s life is at stake. So you’ll have to put aside your feelings and help us,” Murdoch demanded.
“We really need your help to talk to these people,” Ethan pleaded.
“If we can find them. They have a way of vanishing or shutting up when it comes to talking about their so-called friends,” Foster informed them curtly, rubbing the scars on his arm.
“So we were told.” Scott snorted.
“I don’t care, you do what it takes to get these people to talk.” Murdoch growled. “I didn’t come all this way to have my son kidnapped and God only knows what is being done to him as we speak.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get your feathers in a fluff, I’ll help ya. As the law here, I can’t rightly deny you.” Foster sighed heavily, accepting the idea that he had to confront those whom he dreaded. He turned to face Ethan. “What’s this going to do to Paulette’s wedding?”
“I’m going to postpone it,” her gentle voice proclaimed. There stood the bride to be, who had quietly walked in on the conversation without them realizing it. “At least for a few days.”
“Paulette, honey, what brings you here?” Ethan exclaimed, walking up to his daughter and giving her a gentle hug.
“My sister, that’s who, Father. Mother told me about Monique’s exploits, and to tell you true, I’m not the least bit shocked.” Paulette remarked honestly, “I knew my sister was a little…shall we say odd. I don’t find it hard to believe that she would become one of those awful sorts . And young John didn’t do anything but politely smile at her. I guess it was all she needed to become obsessed with him.”
“Are you sure, honey, about postponing for a few days?”
“Yes, father, I talked it over with Mark and he agreed to that. We both want to help find John, it’s the least we can do. After all they did come all this way to attend our wedding.”
“That’s very generous of you, Paulette.” Murdoch said graciously.
“We’ll take any help possible.” he added giving the young lady a sweet smile despite the aching in his heart.
“Very well, I’m on my way to Mark’s as we speak and we’ll do what we can.”
The young woman nodded, then twirled around and hurried out the door, leaving the men to debate on how they were going to play this.
“She’s a very smart lady. Her groom-to-be is a very lucky man.” Scott noted courteously.
“Yes, he sure is.” Ethan agreed contentedly.
“Well, Sheriff, shall we go and seek out those who might know where my son might be?” Murdoch said, handing the man his hat.
“It’s your show, Mr. Lancer. I just hope we get some answers for your son’s sake,” Foster snorted rudely, snatching the hat from Murdoch’s hand.
“After you, Sheriff.” Scott motioned with a wave of his hand, then held the door open for the hesitant man.
Deep in the woods, miles away from town, Jimbo´s little cohort, Zach, sat bound to a tree that was surrounded by a ring a fire, along with a half dozen Cajun women and men. All were chanting some mumbo jumbo he didn’t understand. The frightened man had been roughly manhandled by Jax, who had encountered Zach as he exited the local bar. Zach had been tied up and been brought here to stand before the Magus, who had questions about the secret Monique was hiding.
The chanting continued on, becoming louder and louder by the second. Suddenly the circle of flames burst higher and thick smoke filled the air, engulfing Zach in a suffocating cloud. He began to gasp for air, his lungs burning with every breath he took.
“What’s….what’s happening? ” He cried out, squinting through watery, stinging eyes.
“Silence!” The deep booming voice commanded and all grew quiet. Glaring eyes were on the tall, intimidating, malevolent-looking man dressed in a dark hooded cape as he emerged from within the smoke. “I’ll ask the questions around here,” The Magus growled, stepping forward.
“What do you want…with me?” Zach croaked out.
“That’s simple; the whereabouts of Monique, the little witch who seems to defy my orders whenever she pleases. Jax here tells me your friend has been doing some shopping for her. Which I find a bit odd, don’t you?” he said, towering over his jittery captive.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Zach muttered nervously, “I haven’t seen him lately, so I´s can’t say what’s he doing.´´
“You’re a liar, I seen you with that coward the other day in a wagon,” one of the women shouted accusingly.” “And yous were following some fellas.”
“Be quiet, woman!” The Magus ordered, holding his hand up to hush the angry disciple. “Is she right?”
“May…be, I…..I,” Zach stammered, cringing when the voodoo priest leaned in closer. Two pairs of dark eyes met, one filled with terror, the other with pure wickedness.
“Who were you following?” Magus hissed loudly in Zach’s face, rubbing the juju beans he wore around his neck, “I have ways to make you talk, painful ways. So what’s it gonna be?”
Zach peered through the fading smoke cloud, all eyes on him, as they waited impatiently for an answer. His unwitting stalling was beginning to infuriate the priest, though. The Magus decided a little persuasion was in store to help loosen the man’s lips. With a wicked grin, he snapped his, fingers, causing one of his followers to hand him a jagged knife and the straw doll adorned with a lock of Zach’s hair, cut from his head while he was unconscious.
The Magus was about to cut into the doll’s arm when Zach interrupted.
“NO, STOP!” Zach cried out cowardly. “I…I don’t …know their names, we´s were to only take the darker one……”
“Take him where? Tell me or I cut you, and I’ll not use the doll this time, the Magus snarled, running the tip of the knife from one of Zach’s ears to the other. Applying pressure, he made sure Zach could feel the cold steel digging into his warm skin.
“To ….the…old…..Martin mansion,” Zach blubbered. “Out in the boons.”
“I should have known, the one place she knows most folks fear.”
Magus grunted angrily as he stood up. Well I guess I’m going to pay Miss Dunlop a visit.”
The seething man gazed down at Zach’s quivering form, taunting him with his
ominous presence, then turned on his heels to face the diminishing ceremonial ring of fire. With another wave his hand, new life was reborn in those dying flames. They began to dance around like little fire demons, growing higher and brighter. Then the high priest walked fearlessly into the blaze and disappeared just as fast as he appeared.
“What about me?” Zach shrieked.
“I’m done with you. They know what to do.” His powerful deep voice called back.
Meanwhile, back in town, the desperate search went on. Hopes of finding Johnny this day ticked away by the hour. Though Sheriff Foster had escorted the Lancers from one establishment to another, his influence was getting them nowhere. A few were daring enough to mention they did remember the boys browsing around town before going on their way. After the brief words, they clammed up again, hurrying on with their own business.
“We’re getting nowhere fast!” Murdoch grumbled loudly.
“You’re telling me.” Scott huffed, running his long fingers through his blond strands. “And it’s getting late, we’re losing daylight and fast.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, but I told you it would be hard to get them to talk. Some folks are just too scared of this voodoo stuff around here and stay away from it when they can. There have been too many deaths because of it,” the sheriff stated regretfully.
“Then you tell me what are we supposed to do, Sheriff?” Murdoch growled.
“Murdoch, why don’t we go back to the house and get some rest.” Ethan suggested resignedly. He could see that today’s uneventful progress was taking its toll on everybody concerned.
“You’re not going to be any good to Johnny if you don’t take care of yourself.”
“He’s right, Mr. Lancer, it’s almost dark out and without the proper light, we’ll get lost ourselves if we go off half cocked.” Foster warned.
“Scott?” Murdoch asked giving his eldest a distraught look.
Scott rubbed his tried eyes, sighing heavily as he gave this some thought, “I think we should regroup and come up with another plan. I want to keep looking but as the good sheriff here said, it‘s no good looking in the dark.”
“Well, I guess I’m outnumbered this time. So we’ll go back to the house and try to think of another way to get these cowards to talk. Or at least find a guide to take us to those who WILL know where my son is,” the rancher proclaimed and stormed out of the jail.
“Your father sure is a hothead.” Foster remarked with a scowl.
“Yes he is, especially when it comes to his family members who are in trouble. So take my advice, Sheriff. You had better do your best not anger my father any more than he is now. The last lawman who did, well, he’s now shoveling out barns for a living.” Scott informed him snidely. Grabbing his hat, he hurried after his father.
As dusk fell over New Orleans, most parents were tucking their young in for the night but one distraught father could only pray that his child was safe and warm. Murdoch sat alone slumped over in a chair by the fireplace, staring bleakly into the flames and nursing a stiff drink of brandy. The big Scot had a look of defeat etched on his worried brow. Today they hadn’t come any closer to finding Johnny, hitting one stone wall after another. But he was determined to try another route tomorrow. Murdoch had learned the hard way a long time ago, that you don’t get by in this world just by asking questions. You had to fight for what you want. He was sure as hell going to fight to get Johnny back.
In the decaying mansion on the outskirts of town, Monique was also prepared to fight to keep what she wanted, not knowing that time was approaching faster than she thought. Monique had almost finished preparing Johnny’s meal of broth and cutup bread when she was suddenly assailed by the uneasy feeling that someone was watching her.
“Hello, Monique, my wicked minx,” the deep, masterful voice said from the shadows.
Startled, Monique, spun around with a hot pot of coffee dangling from her fingers. The swaying pot slipped off and went crashing to the floor, splattering the black brew all over her dress. The unannounced visit of her mentor, as he slithered out from the shadows, unnerved the girl.
“Master…….what are you….doing here? I mean it‘s….an honor to see you.” the flustered girl stuttered.
“I’m here because I heard some discouraging news about you, ” the Magus sneered coldly.
“Oh, that you might be up to your old tricks. And you know I don’t approve of such things, unless I know about it, that is.”
“Why, that’s unheard of…I…I would do nothing to defy you,” she lied.
“LIAR!” he growled in her face. “I know you have an unwitting guest here somewhere, I can feel his presence..” he added, sniffing the musty air like a bloodhound hot on a trail. “Or why else would you be hiding out here, rather than in your warm cozy home?”
Not knowing how to answer him, she started to pace the floor back and forth, muttering to herself. ‘That no good couyon, Jimbo, had to open his big mouth.”
“Well, what say you?” the voodoo priest demanded impatiently.
The terrified girl had no choice but to admit it, she was caught. There was no way out now. “Who…who told you?” Monique croaked.
“Never mind that, where is he?”
Monique was not willing to give up that easily , “He’s mine, Master, I….need him. Why can’t I have him?” she begged desperately, like a little girl asking her father for a new toy. “I took him because he was not willing to be mine. You always said we should take what we want, even by force if needed, right?”
“He must be a strong man, to withstand your….so called…charms. So I ask you again, where is he?” Magus insisted contemptuously.
He walked towards the door that led to the old dining room, where Monique made the mistake of grabbing his arm to stop him.
“LET GO OF MY ARM, YOU FOOLISH CHILD.” The man boomed. “You do not want to see what I can do.” he declared angrily, yanking his arm free from her trembling hands.
Monique’s eyes widened in utter fear. She stepped back, quaking in her shoes, so he could pass. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she followed him into the dining room, which was about the size of the Lancer’s great room. It was room that once hosted many unusual parties back years ago. The young sorceress knew of its dark, deadly history, it was why she had chosen this plantation. It was the ideal place to hide out. There were no large picturesque windows to peer out nor many doors. Its once grand interior was only lit up by the huge chandler over head
“Please, master, I…..I will not disobey you again, if I can keep him,” she once again pleaded to the brooding man.
“I want to see him now. Then I will answer you,” he growled.
Knowing how this man thought, she knew the second he laid eyes on Johnny, her whole scheme would be ruined. The Magus would not leave unless he got what he wanted–another human sacrifice. This ancient ritual, as old as time itself, meant that Johnny would be used as an offering to the dark gods from which the Magus drew his powers.
Apprehensively, Monique hung her head and muttered, “In the basement.”
“No, doubt shackled to the old altar.” the Magus snorted. Without saying another word, he stormed off to the narrow hallway leading to the basement, an place he had used for such just sacrifices many times. Unable to stop him, Monique simply followed in his wake like a good peon.
Downstairs, his own rapid heartbeat the pitter patter of the tiny paws of curious rats were keeping Johnny awake and staring wide-eyed into the darkness. He was afraid to sleep, knowing that whatever had attacked him in his sleep would come back to finish what it started. That fear, coupled with the one of becoming a tasty meal for the miniature predators, made his skin crawl.
Constantly kicking away the hungry rodents, drawn by the coppery scent of the blood dripping from his lacerated wrists, sapped his strength. The agonizing minutes ticked by. Johnny’s breathing became raspier, his bronzed complexion paler, even as his fever soared higher.
About to kick another rat away, he heard muffled voices on the staircase. He recognized one as male but his hopes were dashed when he realized it was not Scott or Murdoch. Unsure if the stranger was friend or foe, he bit back the urge to cry out for help. The heavy, rusty door crept open, making Johnny’s watery eyes narrow.
In strutted a tall, thin man, dressed in a hooded cape.
“Well, who do we have here?” the Magus snorted callously. Hands on hips, he glared down at Johnny, as proud and arrogant as though he was a god.
Not the least impressed by the man‘s intimidating stance, Johnny answered weakly. “That’s what…. I want to know.”
“Shhh, Johnny, this is Master Magus, our head priest!” Monique announced cautiously, hurrying though the door. “His magic is all-powerful. We must show him respect.”
Johnny muffled a laugh.
“He don’t look like…. no priest to me. And I don’t…. respect no man who allows his people do this to others,” Johnny hissed, making the mistake of rattling his chains. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fought back the screams of sheer agony as burning pains shot up his arms.
“You are a strong one.” Magus sneered, moving closer for a better look at Johnny’s dark features. He grabbed a handful of Johnny’s hair and yanked his head upward, noting the marks around his neck. “I see the Chauchemar paid you and visit, yet you lived. Yes indeed, a strong soul.”
“The… who?” Johnny muttered breathlessly.
“Never mind.” Monique hushed. Terrified her fears of Johnny’s sacrifice were about to manifest, she bravely begged, “No, Master, please, not him!”
“My mind is made up, he’s the perfect one to offer to our gods.” the Magus proclaimed dramatically. “There is a full moon in two days. I will tell the others to prepare for the ritual we’ll hold in the woods.”
“Why not here?” Monique questioned, pointing to the altar, Johnny was chained to.
“Because I need the moon to enhance my powers and we cannot do it inside these dark walls,” the man explained, although he had another reason for his decision. He had received word that strangers were looking for a missing man, and now he knew it had to be Johnny.
“Yes, Magus, I understand.” The defeated girl conceded, bowing her head in dismay.
“You have done good well, though you did defy me by taking him. But the Loa will grant you magical wonders, for this magnificent offering we bring to them. However, he is sickly, and we need him well. So you have two days feed him properly, and tend to his fever. But keep him bound, we can’t chance him escaping.”
“As you wish.”
“Good, I leave you now. And I will tell the others not to say a word about our friend here.” The Magus’ cape waved as he spun around, disappearing before Johnny’s stunned fever-glazed eyes.
“How…how’d.. he do that?.” Johnny asked, blinking rapidly to clear his vision.
“He’s the King of us all. His magic is too powerful for any of us to defy him. He can do anything.” Monique informed him, starting towards the door.
“Where are ya going now?”
“You heard the Magus, I have to feed you well and tend to your fever,” the girl answered with her back towards her now-lost love. “You now have an more important purpose then being my lover.”
“What the hell are you talking about? And what is this ritual thing he’s talking about?”
“Haven’t you heard about animal sacrifices, offerings to the gods like in the bible?”
“Well…..we do it with….” she paused, taking one slow step at a time as she climbed the stairs, her back still towards Johnny so that her last word trailed off, “Humans.”
“What? You….you can’t let him do this!” Johnny yelled, sickened. “What kind of people are you?”
But he received no answer, only deadly silence.
‘Two days, yeah that will be enough time for Murdoch to find me. He has to.’ Johnny thought hopefully, closing his eyes and leaning his throbbing head back against the table.
‘Why is this happening? All I wanted to do is get away and spend real time with my family. And now this.’ He pondered angrily on the mishaps that the fates kept inflicting on him , on these mishaps that the fates keep bestowing on him. ‘I’ve got to believe that my father will find me. And what about Scott? Is he okay? What did she do to him, to get to me?’ a prayer escaped his lips. ‘Holy Madre, let my brother be okay. I beg of you.’
In a desperate attempt to keep his spirits up and not let despair overtake him, Johnny let his thoughts wander back over the last few days and the trip to New Orleans. Remembering the sights and the fun he and Scott had had together, Johnny smiled. His smile grew as he recalled Scott’s expression after eating the hot pepper.
His reminiscences halted abruptly as he again heard the pitter patter of approaching rats and saw their pointed noses twitching as they sniffed his blood.
“Get out of here, ya mangy varmints, if I had my gun, I would shoot your little scrawny heads off.” Johnny grunted, giving one of the rodents a swift kick which hurt him more than it did the rat.
“Dios, get me out of here!”
After dinner, Scott needed to be alone with his thoughts. Politely excusing himself, he retired to his room as Samuel, his wife, and Murdoch looked on sadly. His look of despair as he left the room broke their hearts. Even the Dunlop’s recognized the special bond between the brothers and were further saddened that their own daughter’s machinations seemed poised to destroy it.
Seeing the young man’s sadness, the house servant, Samuel, also felt compelled to speak to him. He, too, knew what it was like to lose a loved one.
Seated on the edge of the bed in his nightshirt, Scott was contemplating the merits of another shot of brandy versus just climbing under the warm covers when he heard the soft knock at his door.
“Come in.” Scott answered glumly, throwing a blanket over his bare legs.
The door slowly opened and Samuel peeking his head through the open door, “Beg your pardon, Master Scott, I saw your light on and wanted to see if yas are alright.”
“I’m all right, considering, thank you. Please come in.” Scott gestured with a wave of his hand.
The old man nervously stepped in and smiled sadly, “May I speak my mind?”
“Sure, go ahead, what’s on your mind, Samuel?” Scott pressed quietly softly.
“I know what you are going through, sir. When my boy went missing, it was as though my and my wife’s world had stopped, nothing meant anything until we’s found him.” Desolate, Samuel recalled those agonizing days that were still very fresh in his mind.
“I’m sorry, Samuel, did you find him, your son?”
“Yes, sir…..we…..we buried him two days later. ” Samuel muttered, as he fighting back the tears.
Scott bowed his head, giving the man a few moments to gather his thoughts before asking, “Do you think it had to do with black magic, or Monique?”
“They says it was an accident, but we’s know better. I….I can’t say for sure if Mistress was involved, she was young and naive, as my son who was smitten by her, though it was forbidden.” He answered, shaking his head. “I tells him to stay away from those who follow the way of the Magus.”
“Yes, the voodoo leader, a evil man who puts fear into those who worship him.” Samuel stuttered. “We try to stay away from those who believe in him, my son warns me of who they are. Yet he did not tell me of Mistress being one of them.”
Scott frowned, bewildered, “Your son, how?”
“He comes to me in my dreams and tells me things.” Samuel said.
Though he knew he was grasping at straws, Scott still had to ask, “Did he mention anything about my brother?”
Hanging his head, Samuel whispered despondently, “No, sir, he did not. He has not visited me lately. I fear even in death, they watch him. My son cannot rest until this evil is gone.”
“Yes, we have met some of those worshipers of his.” Scott said angrily.
“But one thing I know, is that if Mistress’s attraction is strong enough for young John, she will protect him as much as possible from the Magus, if he discovers he has him.” Samuel assured him, though it was of little help. “Even she cannot defy him.
Scott gulped, “And what will he do to my brother?”
Samuel shook his head. He could barely bring himself to think about it, much less say the words aloud. He did not want to alarm Scott more than he already was.
“Look deep in the woods,” he advised instead, walking to the door. “And beware of traps in the trees, as my son found out,” he added grimly, leaving Scott to ponder his words.
After departing Scott’s room, Samuel rejoined his loving wife, Mabel, in the kitchen. The petite woman was leaning over a large washtub when he walked up to her, gently kissing her soft cheek. Sad eyes met briefly before he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat his weary bones down at the table. Samuel’s thoughts went back to the conversation he had had with Scott. He prayed that his words would be proven true, that Monique would come to her senses and let Johnny go before it was too late.
Mabel finished wiping the last dish and turned to face her brooding husband, “Did yas tell him?” she asked softly.
“I did, but not all the details. I spared him what all was done to our son.” Samuel answered grimly. “I pray young John will………” he paused, rubbing his tired old eyes.
“There now, my husband, ” Mabel whispered tiredly in his ear as she leaned over, caressing his brow, “young John is a strong man, I could see it in his eyes. He will fight to stay alive until we´s find him.”
“How can you be so sure? This voodoo is all-powerful, how can he fight that?” Samuel reminded his timid wife. “We can only hope Mistress Monique is strong enough to help him, if she has any sanity left. And lets him go before it’s too late.”
Mabel was without words. All she could do was wrap her arms around her husband, giving him a gentle hug. Two dark head snuggling, they silently said a prayer for Johnny’s safety and Monique’s salvation.
An hour had passed since Monique’s uninvited guest left and she busied herself preparing Johnny’s meal, by orders of the Magus. The girl returned to her captive carrying a large oval tray with two bowls on it. One was of steaming broth, the other was full of hot water for cleaning wounds, along with a towel and clean rags draped over her arm.
She carefully set the tray down on a small table close to Johnny, who was closely watching her every move, studying her. He was trying to understand why a pretty young thing who had everything needed to indulge in voodoo.
Monique took the bowl of broth and bread over to Johnny, sitting down next to him, “Now I want no lip, I have to feed you, orders of the master, so do not ask me to free your hands.” she instructed, scooping up a spoonful of soup and holding it to Johnny’s mouth.
Johnny nodded in agreement. The alluring scent of the chicken broth enticed his empty stomach.
“This is good.” he muttered, willingly letting her feed him another spoonful.
“Thank you. I had Jimbo go to town and pick up the proper ingredients. Here, now eat some bread,” she said, dunking the bread into the broth and feeding it to Johnny. “I can cook some, mama had Mabel teach me a few things.”
“That’s good, ya know, to learn to do for yourself,” Johnny pointed out. “Never know when you’re going to need it.”
“That‘s what mama said.´´ Monique grumbled, “but it’s even better when you have others to do for you,´´ she added in a snobbish tone, finishing up with the broth. Next she gathered up the hot water and rags to clean Johnny’s infected wrist. “This going to hurt.”
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in the scream that fought to escape his lips as she dribbled hot water over his wrist. “Damn right that hurts.” he seethed through his teeth.
“I got to clean them, Master’s orders.” She mumbled, concentrating on being as gentle as possible as she dabbed the infected area. “Now stay still.”
“Master’s orders.” He snorted, glaring at the girl, “He’s just a man who thinks he’s a king. He don’t own you.”
“You do not understand, Magus’ powers are strong and we do not dare defy him,” Monique proclaimed. “I have seen what he can do and one day I will be that powerful,” she boasted proudly with a sly grin.
“What, by human sacrifices?” Johnny growled. “How can you people live with yourselves? Taking an innocent person away from their family and then take their life just for the sake of power?”
“We don’t see it that way.”
Johnny scowled, “No matter which way you see it, it’s still murder. Makes you sick inside.” Getting no response from the quiet girl, he posed a serious question. “How would you feel if one day your father or mother was gone? Then found out your Master was going to use them for his rituals, would you stop it?”
Monique’s head shot up and she stared into Johnny’s fever-bright eyes, her face bleak. “I…..I don’t know.” she muttered, totally taken by surprise at Johnny’s question.
“You don’t know?” Johnny snarled in disgust “Well, you better know, ’cause one day when he runs out of victims, he just might go after them. Then what?”
“He…he promised that our families will not be touched.” Monique informed him hastily, continuing to clean his wrist with trembling hands. “And we are his family, too.”
“Believe what you want. Me, I would fight to the death if some madman had taken my family for his personal gain. ´´ Johnny declared, cringing in agony when she purposely pressed down too hard on his wrist. “What’s wrong? Touch a nerve?”
“He’s no madman, he’s Magus, our leader.” Monique stated stubbornly, unable to meet Johnny‘s intimidating stare. Having cleaned his wounds as best she could, the girl began to bandage his wrist, working the strips of cloth through the cuffs that held his hands in bondage.
Realizing he was unsuccessful in getting the self-proclaimed sorceress to see the error of her ways, Johnny decided to wait until she was done torturing him. He leaned his throbbing head back, closing his eyes.
“There, it’s the best I could do,” she said adjusting the chain’s cuffs.
“It’s better than before, thanks.” Johnny whispered. “Now what, going to use your spells on me again?”
“No, not this time, you can fall asleep on your own. No ghost will visit you tonight.”
“That’s what you think.” Johnny said to himself. “Kind of hard to sleep sitting and chained up like this. At least can I lay down?” He asked with a weary smile.
Monique bit her lip, sighing. She guessed it wouldn’t hurt if she let her captive lie down for the night. Walking over to the other side of the stone table and unlatching the crank, she turned it until there was enough slack.
Johnny grunted in relieved misery, feeling the chains give and his stiff, aching arms lowering to rest by his sides. “Woo, that’s much better, ” he said breathlessly.
Walking over to a large wood box, Monique removed a blanket and small pillow. She concealed the fact that the items were typically offered to provide some small comfort to the group’s victims before they were slain.
“Now lie down and I’ll cover you up,´´ she ordered, her voice soft. Johnny did as he was told, his weak body shivering. Maneuvering the chains around his neck, he eased himself down and lay his head on the pillow. Monique took the blanket, spreading it over his thin form. “Now go to sleep, it’s late. I’ll have a good breakfast waiting for you in the morning.”
“My last meal?” Johnny joked grimly. Within seconds his heavy eyelids drooped shut.
“No, we have one more day. Maybe.” Monique murmured, looking back at the sleeping man she desperately wanted to be hers. But now he was the property of the Magus, to do with as he pleased.
She blew Johnny a kiss and left the room, dreading the days to come.
After a restless night of tossing and turning, watching the clock’s hands tick slowly, Scott wasted no time in preparing himself for the long day ahead of them. The disturbing conversation he had had with Samuel had played on his mind for most of the night. The awareness of that something worse than Monique’s obsession could threaten his brother terrified the elder sibling. Heeding Samuel’s advice to search the woods, he hurried to inform his father of the conversation he’d had with the man.
“There you are, sir,” Scott called to his father as he hurried down the staircase. Murdoch acknowledged his son with a smile, continuing to go over the search plans with Ethan and the sheriff. “Sheriff, you’re here early.”
“At the request of your father.” The Lawman snorted irately.
“The earlier we get started, the better the chance of finding my son, Sheriff.” Murdoch retorted.
“Speaking of which, Samuel gave me some good advice. He said we should start searching the woods. There’s a good chance she or they, meaning her friends, might be holding Johnny out there somewhere.´´ Scott informed them eagerly.
“Do you know how far those woods go?” The sheriff hissed.
“No, why don’t you tell me how far they go?” Scott sneered at the man.
“Miles on end, they run almost into the next county and out of my jurisdiction.” Foster said brashly. “It will take days to search with so few men.”
“Which is why we need to find more men to help us search those woods.” Murdoch declared, walking to the foyer and stopping to grab his gun belt.
Ethan frowned. “Easier said than done, Murdoch. So far, we couldn’t get anybody to talk to us. I doubt they would be willing to lead us, too….”
“My sister, Father?” Paulette finished for her fretting father, as she entered the room, “Admit it, she is one of those who worship the devil and we must find her. For Johnny’s sake.” the young bride-to-be added, giving Ethan a weary look.
“More like the man who leads them, Magus, according to Samuel.” Scott corrected. “He said they all fear him and will do anything he says.”
“How does he know this?” The sheriff asked nervously, rubbing the scar on his neck.
“He does and I have a feeling so did you, Sheriff.” Scott said suspiciously.
“Is he right, Sheriff?” Murdoch demanded.
Foster took a deep breath, his eyes darting from one man to another. “Look, everybody know there’s a voodoo leader, or king, as they claim,” he explained in a shaky voice. “Why do …..you think so many are tight-lipped? They’re scared they won’t wake up the next day if they intrude on his territory.”
“Speaking from experience, Sheriff?” Murdoch snorted.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” the man admitted, glaring at Murdoch. “Look, this man…priest…will not be easy to find. If by chance he found out about Miss Dunlop, then indeed he’ll have your son, Lancer. So that means he put the word out to keep their mouths shut.”
“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN!” Murdoch boomed, shaking an angry finger at the lawman. “I will not rest until I get one of his people to tell me where I can find my son. Even if I must resort to threatening them at gunpoint, with or without your blessing, Sheriff.”
“Look, we can debate this all day, but my brother is out there somewhere. God only knows what is being done to him. So I suggest we get moving!´´ Scott shouted and joined his father in the foyer. “Shall we, gentlemen?”
“You heard the man, Foster. Young John’s time is running out, so we’re going to do all we can to help find him. Right?” Dunlop urged.
The defiant lawman only nodded, grabbing his hat and bolting out the door with the Lancers and Dunlop following closely. They headed for the carriage shed where the horses were tethered. Mounting up, they took off at a gallop towards town. Praying to find at least one brave soul to help in their search for Johnny.
Having chosen the prefect ceremonial place to hold his deadly ritual, the Magus watched as his disciples prepared a new altar. It had to be ready before the next full moon.
He stood there, tall and arrogant, like a Pharaoh standing guard over his slaves, barking out orders as they labored with stone and mud. But in this case, it was heavy logs and brush that were cut down and dragged to where the altar was being built.
“You there, make sure the altar is high enough off the ground. We need to pile the wood under it so we can set the fire with ease,” he growled at one of the men.
“Fire, Master?´´ Another one questioned, “Is it safe in these dry woods?”
The self-proclaimed leader snorted. “This clearing is just right and won’t endanger our beloved woods. The spirits will not allow their sacred garden to burn. They will protect us,” he said confidently.
“Yous are so right, they will not betray us,” the little man groveled before the Magus.
“Good, remember that, now go with ya, and help finish the altar,” the priest ordered callously, continuing to observe his workers.
Some were picking up scattered bones, human and animal, left over from past sacrifices, that were piled in a corner of the clearing. Others were making necklaces to wear around their necks during the ritual, believing this would please the gods.
Finishing the one she was working on, a woman rose to present it to the preoccupied Magus.
She approached him with caution, lifting the necklace up. ´´I made this specially for yous, Master, it will please me and the gods if you wear it,” she humbled herself before him.
Magus smiled wickedly, and took the bones in his hand, fingering their smooth texture, “I thank you..”
“It’s Shari, Master.”
“Ah, yes, Shari, I thank you, I will wear this. The bones of our offerings are powerful magic,” he commented coldly, slipping the necklace over his head.
The small woman smiled, nodded and quickly left the man to his thoughts. The Priest strutted around the clearing, which also was to be used as their campsite. He didn’t want a soul going into town for fear they would be followed back here. The priest was weary of Monique’s family. They had had power and money, both of which could be used either against or for him. It was one reason the Magus had agreed to teach her his secrets.
Some of his followers had come to call Monique “the sorceress,” his apprentice, one who had happily funded their needs behind her father’s back.
“You will have to be willing to take his life, my dear,” the priest said, sending a silent message to Monique. “You were the one who found him. So it’s your duty to complete the cycle tomorrow night. By law of the gods.”
He smiled, anticipating the ritual sacrifice of Johnny Lancer.
While the Magus’ preparations for the ceremony went on without a hitch, back in town it wasn’t as easy as Murdoch had hoped in finding a reliable guide. No matter what they said or tried, they were getting nowhere fast. The hold this voodoo leader had on these people was mind-boggling, especially the owner of the black magic store. His lips were tighter than a clamshell. Not even Murdoch’s booming threats could pry them open. Although a few did warn them of the man’s evil, admitting that they would do nothing to give him cause to go after them. Cowards, Murdoch called them, bold faced cowards and he was getting so frustrated to the point he was about to explode.
Murdoch stormed out of the voodoo shop, slamming the door behind him, windows rattling.
“This getting us nowhere!” He growled. “ Did you see how that man lied just to save his neck?”
“I heard, he could care less if an innocent man’s life was at stake.” Scott scowled angrily.
“I told you, Lancer. These people will not turn against their own kind.” The sheriff snorted smugly.
“I bet that pleases you just fine, sheriff?” Scott hissed, “That way you don’t have to face these people again. You just might not be so lucky this time.”
“Now see here!”
“Scott, now’s not the time to be turning against each other.” Murdoch admonished.
“Now what do we do, Murdoch? It’s obvious we’re not going to get any help from anybody.” Ethan asked regretfully. “I can’t believe my own friends turned their backs, and I thought I knew them.” He added shaking his head.
“You never know, until they show their true colors.” Scott muttered. “What are we going to do now?”
“One thing we’re not going to do is waste any more time in town.” Murdoch announced abruptly, “So I guess we do as Samuel suggested, and search those woods.”
“With just the four of us?” the sheriff huff, glaring at the rancher.
Murdoch, nostrils flaring, sneered at the man, “Yes, sheriff, just the four of us unless you can find us some more men.”
“How about the seven of us?” the soft voice said as she approached the men. Being Accompanied by two others, one her fiancée, Mark, and Miles, the cab driver who escorted the brothers around town.
“Paulette, honey, what are you doing here?” Ethan frowned, walking up to his daughter, embracing her gently.
“Helping you men out, father. I told you I would if I could. And Mark and Miles here would like to help as well.” she insisted eagerly.
“Yes, Mister Lancer. I surely would like to help.” Miles said humbly. “I feel badly I wasn’t more of a help when we first realized John was missing.”
“Mark Carson, Mr. Lancer,” The tall, dark, and very handsome young man said extended his hand to the distraught father. “Paulette has told me of your son’s abduction, and I’m here to help.”
“I thank you very much, Mr. Carson, the both of you.” Murdoch said, a little relieved, shaking the man’s hand vigorously. “Any man power we can get is more than welcome.”
“Well, I guess we better going, but where to begin?” Paulette asked.
Ethan took hold of his daughter’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze, “You, my lovely daughter are going back to the house and stay with your mother.”
“But father, I want to help.” Paulette insisted apprehensively.
“We’ll be searching through dangerous woods. It’s no place for a young lady such as you.” he explained with a concern frown. “Now please go home.”
“Your father is right, dawlin`.” Mark agreed on Ethan’s behalf, “I would hate to see something to happen to my beautiful bride to be.” He sweetly added, putting his arm around her slender shoulders.
Paulette looked up into her handsome fiancé’s brown eyes, “Okay, if you insist.” she sighed, slumping her shoulders, “I’ll go home, but please be careful out there. All of you.”
“We will. Don’t worry about us.” Murdoch said with a weary grin.
“Good. Now off with you, and tell your mother not to worry. She’s going to need you to keep her calm through all this. You know how she can get.” Ethan assured, as he ushered his daughter back to her carriage. “Don’t worry. We’ll find your sister.”
“It’s not my sister I’m worried about.” she whispered in his ear, before quickly instructing the driver to take her home.
“Now that settled. Where do we start looking?” Scott asked impatiently.
Miles took a step forward, clearing his throat, “May I suggest that we began by the Old Fort again, where we last saw young John.”
“My thought, exactly.” Murdoch blurted out. “So let’s get the horses ready and move out! Any objections, Sheriff?” he snorted at the nervous lawman.
“No, none at all.” Foster hissed, “It‘s your show, Lancer. I just hope you watch your backs.”
“Don’t you mean our backs, sheriff?” Scott corrected, receiving a hard look from the lawman.
With the help of Mark and Miles, they hurried to where the horses were tethered over night. Working quickly to saddle saddling them up. Next, they checked the supplies, making sure there would be enough, especially since Murdoch had informed them earlier they’d be spending a many nights in those woods. He had no intention of giving up after one day and returning home empty handed. But first, they had a few stops in town, in one last attempt to seek a willing guide.
Least to say, they had wasted most of the morning haggling with these scared, mule -headed people, and by the time they reached the Fort, it was already noon. But that wasn’t going to stop Murdoch, who insisted loudly the sheriff to lead the way. Grumbling under his breath the reluctant lawman led the search party through narrow passages, taking them into the deepest terrain, where he hoped the Magus` followers might be holding Johnny. They combed the trees and brush for any kind of tracks or traps, finding neither. Trudging on for hours until it got too dark and they were forced to make camp.
“I still think we should have gone back to town before it got to dark. Now we’re stuck out here.” The Sheriff whined, shivering.
“I told you, I’m not leaving here until I find my son!” Murdoch growled. “So sit down by the fire and get warmed up.”
“These woods are dangerous at night, so I suggest we keep that fire going all night, and take shifts watching.” Foster informed them nervously, sitting down next to the fire, rubbing his chilled hands. “These trees have eyes and ears.” He mumbled, staring into his steaming cup of coffee.
“Then maybe they can tell us where my brother is.” Scott said snidely, grabbing his rifle. “I’ll take first watch.” He said, sneering down at the lawman and began his patrol around the outer part of the camp.
“Don’t wander too far, son.” Murdoch advised. Scott acknowledged with a nod of his head.
Foster watched on at the display of father and son concern, paying no mind to Scott’s snared remark. Peering out into the darkness, his mind wandered back to that horrible day he encountered the voodoo disciples. For the life of him, he couldn’t recall most of what had occurred, just that he had these marks on his back. Something evil is out here and he shouldn’t be here. An owl hooted causing the man to jump a few inches off the log.
“Relax, sheriff, it’s just an owl.” Murdoch assured annoyingly.
“Why don’t you try to get some sleep?” The rancher added, tossing his own bedroll on the ground and prepared to turn in for the night.
Following Murdoch’s lead, Ethan, Mark, and Miles, took their bedrolls, found a safe spot by the fire, and spread them out on the hard cold ground. Climbing under the blankets they lay, their tired heads down.
Far away from the camp, down in the basement of the Mansion, Johnny was trying desperately to get some descent sleep, though he could only lay on one side with the chains that still bound him draped over his back. To make matters worse, every time he moved, the chains rattled, alerting the rats and Jimbo, Monique’s lackey, who was ordered to stand guard on the other side of the door. The man would barge in and ask dumb questions, bothering Johnny as he lay there, defenseless and sick.
“One more day.” Johnny groaned, shivering ,wishing he was home back in his own warm bed, “Pa, Scott, where are you? This is something I can’t fight, not like this.” He beckoned silently. He was overcome by a harsh coughing spell, causing the chains to rattle.
A knock came at the door. “You okay? Need something, mister?” Jimbo sleepily called through the door.
“I’m fine. Go….go back to sleep,” Johnny snorted weakly, “you big ox. Yeah, I need something. I need to get the hell out of here.” He whispered, closing his fevered eyes.
Finally, he could hear the loud snoring of his keeper, and with no signs of those rats lurking around, Johnny nestled his smarting head closer to the pillow, adjusting the thin blanket as quietly as he could. Once again, sending out a mental plea for help, as the time grew closer to the ritual that just might end his life, if he wasn’t found, and soon.
After an uneventful night, the skittish sheriff stood watch over the camp as the first rays of sunlight peeked through the trees. Still, the eerie sounds of woodland creatures creeping by, and the unsettling rustling of brush and branches when the wind kicked, was enough to unnerve the lawman who hadn’t slept a wink.
He decided he had better get the coffee brewing, and something cooking, for the men.
Stretching his stiff back, groaning at every crack it made, Murdoch couldn’t wait to down something hot after a night on the cold hard ground, “Smells good, Sheriff, did you get any sleep last night?” He asked pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“No and I don’t know how any of you could.“ Foster grumbled, “God knows what could jump at you while you slept. I don’t trust these voodoo murderers.”
“Well, it’s apparent that we were perfectly safe last night, Sheriff. Or we’d be dead by now.” Scott remarked tiredly, as he joined his father for a cup of coffee.
“For now, but you never know about later.” the sheriff retorted.
“We’ll deal with that when the times come. So I suggest we finish up here and get out there and look for my son.” Murdoch informed them, rubbing his chin when a thought came to him.
“I’m curious, is there any place, shelters, out here that they would hide out?”
The lawman thought hard, recalling what he heard or learned.
“Well, come to think about it, I do recall somebody saying something about an old abandoned mansion out here, almost in the next county. But where, I don’t know.”
“Well that’s a start!” Scott exclaimed. “Is there any roads around here?”
“If you call it a road, more like a dirt pathway to the south of here, but I didn’t think it would lead us anywhere, being these people like hovering in the woods. But we can try it.”
“I say we have no time to haggle over it.” Mark said bluntly, “Mr. Lancer’s son’s life is in jeopardy, Sheriff. So I suggest we get moving and find that trail.”
“Very well.” Foster snorted and threw the remaining coffee over the fire. “ Get your gear together. We head south.”
Having new bearings, the men packed up camp in a hurry, mounted the horses, and headed south for the passage way, in hopes of finding Johnny and alive. Along the way, each man kept their eyes and ears peeled to the woods and sky, looking for anything remotely out of order. The dense territory they were entering was filled with huge, twisted trees, some hampering the route they were taking. One wrong step could very well mean trouble or death. After a while, they found it easier to lead the horses on foot.
Not more than two hours had past when they finally cleared the woods, exhaling the pent up anxiety they had carried while traveling through the God forsaken land. However, to their dismay, the road the cantankerous sheriff was talking about, was not as they had hoped. It was nothing but a dirt road, rutted and narrow. It was as if time had forgotten it.
“Now which way do we go, Sheriff?” Murdoch huffed, arching his stiff back.
The man took off his hat, scratching his head.
“I assume we go east.” He said, a little uncertain.
“You assume, Sheriff?” Scott hissed.
“Like I said. I never been up that way before, so I’m assuming we go this way. That way, will take you back the way we came.” The lawman retorted, pointing in the other direction.
“Gentlemen, please, time is wasting here.” Mark beckoned.
“He’s right. I say we go east. The further away from town would be my daughter’s thinking.” Ethan admitted regretfully.
Murdoch gave his old friend a weary look, nodding,
“East it is.” He declared, mounting up. “Lets go!”
Heading up the trail with the sheriff and Murdoch in the lead, they traveled onward. They could clearly see that this path was hardly used. It was almost grown over with weeds and roots in various spots. Making it apparent, that if a wagon did come this way, it would be impossible to leave tracks to follow.
“Hold up!” Murdoch called out, raising his hand. Glancing up at the sun, he pulled his watch out. “How long does this go on, Sheriff? We have been riding for a couple of hours, and I see no sign of that Mansion you talked about.”
“As I told you Lancer, I don’t rightly know.” The man answered crossly. “We’ll just have to keep going until we find it. If in fact it’s still there, for all we know it could have been torn down by now.”
“Well, let’s hope not.” Scott snorted, dismounting, and scanning the ground for any kind of tracks, man or animal. Kicking the packed dirt with the toe of his boot, and digging through the tall grass, his desperate probing paid off. Scott’s his eyes lit up. “MURDOCH!”
Scott’s frenzied voice sent a cold shiver through Murdoch’s heated, tired bones. Rushing to Scott’s side, swallowing the lump in his throat, he muttered. “ What….what is it?”
Scott slowly stood up, cradling something in his arms, “This, sir.” He uttered as he turned around and placed Johnny’s gun belt in his father’s shaking hands. “He’s out here somewhere. And I’m not leaving here until I, we find him.” Scott vowed, glaring down the path.
Murdoch couldn’t speak. He just stood there, tenderly rubbing his thumb along the belt that once caressed his youngest’s hips. Holding the belt close to his chest, closing his eyes, he prayed.
Waiting respectfully for his father to gather his thoughts, Scott stood by struggling with his own. The discovery of Johnny’s gun belt was the sign they needed to confirm that they were on the right trail. However, the thought of Johnny without his weapon was gut wrenching and made his skin crawl. Johnny must have been badly hurt to have been disarmed and his rig tossed away. The idea that he was unable to fight back left him troubled and enhanced the urgency to find his missing sibling, and soon.
Ethan watched as father and son whispered to one another, their backs turned, concealing their find. Tossing the gun belt over his shoulder, Murdoch spun around, storming over to his horse with Scott right behind.
“Will somebody tell me what’s going on? What did you find?” Ethan asked anxiously. “Scott?”
Scott stopped, glaring up at Dunlop, “Johnny’s gun, that’s what we found. He’s out here somewhere and we’re wasting time talking about it.”
“How can you be so sure it’s his?” The sheriff questioned.
“I’D KNOW MY SON’S GEAR ANYWHERE,THAT´S HOW!” Murdoch boomed, “And Scott is right, we’re wasting time. We don’t have but a few more hours of daylight left.”
Without saying another word, he kicked his horse and took off in the direction they were originally headed.
“That’s wonderful! We finally found some confirmation to show we’re on the right track.” Mark exclaimed.
“Is it?” Scott huffed despondently, “It’s not like my brother to be without his gun. It only confirms that he’s either hurt or in serious trouble.”
Dunlop hung his head in remorse. Scott’s words pierced his aching heart. He didn’t know whether to feel anger or shame, for what his daughter was putting his long time friend and his sons through. All he could do was help find Johnny and get to the bottom of this catastrophe.
“He’s right, Mark. My daughter’s friends are not to be taken lightly. They are just as dangerous as their leader. I fear for young John’s life.” He dreadfully admitted. “I say we follow Murdoch, before we lose him in these god-forsaken woods.” He added, taking off after his old friend.
The others followed in haste. Thrashing through rough, thick woods, with only a narrow road to lead them to what, they had no clue. While searching on, just a few long miles away, the old mansion where Johnny was being held was full of activity.
Monique stood by, defenseless to stop the Magus and his cohorts from taking Johnny. She cringed, gasping as they manhandled him. They grabbed Johnny and jerked him around like a rag doll carrying him up the basement stairs. This all came about when the voodoo priest decided to take the young Lancer to the place of the ritual a day early.
“Must you take him now?” Monique asked frightfully. “He… still needs one more day to gain his strength.” She tried to reason, although it was futile.
“Are you questioning my judgment?” Magus growled.
“No, master. It’s just…”
“Just what? I have talked to the spirits and they told me too take him from this place and prepare him for the ritual. He’ll not be safe here.” Magus snarled.
“Not safe here? Why? I have done what you ordered. I fed him and took care of him. He couldn’t be any safer.” Monique retorted a little too defiantly. She stepped back, trembling, when her Master moved forward, raising his hand as though he were going to slap her.
“You foolish girl! You know we have to keep him hidden from those who seek him. We must not let them interfere with the ceremony, understand?” He growled in the girl’s stunned face.
Monique’s shoulders slumped and she sighed dismally, “I understand, Master. We can not defy the gods.”
All her dreams and plans were over. She knew she was taking a big chance by taking Johnny for herself, for her own personal gain, against the rules of the Order. Now he was lost to her, and there was nothing she could do. But watch them take Johnny away.
Outside, as much as he tried to fight his way free, Johnny was still too weak to break the grip the two husky thugs had on him. They showed no mercy, when they threw his thin form on a bed of straw laid out on the wagon, landing belly first, right on his sore hands. Rolling slowly over on his side, Johnny lay groaning in agony and peering at Monique as she climbed aboard, sitting next to him.
“Why . . .why. . . don’t you stop this?” Johnny asked breathlessly.
“I can’t. I. . .I cannot defy the Master. You are his choice, our offering to the gods. I must obey.” She whispered sadly, just as the wagon began pulling away from the house, heading deeper into the woods.
“Like hell, you can.” Johnny groaned, “Tell me. How can you live with yourself, knowing I’m going to die, just to satis. . .fy your so called gods?”
Monique looked down into his beckoning blue eyes, unfazed, and replied coldly, “It’s easy, when you’ve done this before, watching somebody die. It’s the way of things. The way of the Master.”
Johnny bit back the pain and muttered, “No god would allow such evil sacrifices, not the god I know. I may be no saint, but I. . .I know what is right and wrong.”
“Oh, really. You’re forgetting about Abraham, and Isaac.” She reminded densely.
“Yes,. . .but God had also stopped it. It was a test of his faith.” Johnny hissed, remembering back to what an old padre had read to him. “Now, tell me again if it was your father to be slain, would you stop it? Or let him die for the sake of your faith in the wrong god?”
Monique turned her head away and didn’t speak another word as the wagon traveled on, though her mind was pondering Johnny’s words, “If it was her father, would she let him die?” Played over and over in her head. Was her family as safe as she was led to believe?
Johnny’s soft grunts caught the girl’s attention and she glanced back down at him. He had closed his fevered eyes, his face paling when bouts of sharp pain surfaced inflaming his sore, swallow wrist. This is the man she wanted so bad, lusted for. Would she do anything to keep him? She had to ask herself.
Continuing to wrestle with her heart and conscience, Monique was unaware that Johnny was studying her brooding expression through half-shut eyes. He sucked in a breath, moving his chained hands closer to her and took hold of her small hand resting it by his side.
“Think about it.” Johnny said before he finally drifted off. The swaying of the wagon was like a mother rocking her child to sleep. It didn’t take much for his weak, sickly form to concede to the soothing, movement, despite the bumps and ruts they hit.
Monique smiled sadly, but said nothing. Running her fingers through his matted dark strands, she leaned over kissing tenderly his heated brow, before covering him up with a blanket. Adjusting his bound hands in a more comfortable position, Monique glared up at the setting afternoon sun, her heart aching even more. There were only a few more hours of light left, before the day’s end. Tomorrow night, she feared, would be the end of Johnny Lancer.
Murdoch kept glancing up at the fading sky, his heart sinking faster than the setting sun. They had been following this path for over an hour now, ever since they found Johnny’s gun, but nothing more. No signs of other clothing, no wagon tracks, nothing, telling them that he came this way. For all they knew, his abductors could have found another route unseen to the naked eye, and that worried the big Scot.
“How long are we going follow this trail, Lancer?” The sheriff grumbled
“As long as I say so, sheriff.” Murdoch shouted over his shoulder.
The lawman frowned, “Need I remind you I’m the law here, and I say when we stop or go.”
“Not when my son is involved.” Murdoch growled, “So we keep going.”
“You heard my father, sheriff.” Scott snorted, “It seems to me that you try to avoid your duties when it comes searching these woods. They have you that spooked?”
“Well, don’t they seem, er, creepy to you?” The jumpy lawman asked as he peered around at the dead trees that rested amidst the others. Dried up branches lay over the much healthier ones, resembling a person holding a dead body in their arms. “To me it feels as though it wants to suck the life out of you, just like those trees.”
“Not if you let them, sheriff. Show some backbone.“ Scott said curtly, only to receive a hard look from the man. “And to my knowledge, these are the kind of surroundings these Voodoo worshipers thrive on, so you know we’re getting close.”
“That’s why I say we keep going.” Murdoch repeated, his weary eyes squinting against the droll dimness setting in.
It was close to another hour when Scott had noticed that the path ahead was beginning to thin out, and he could see something huge and dark, standing out in the middle of nowhere. Noting his father had quickened his pace, Scott urged his horse on to catch up with Murdoch.
“Do you see what I see?” Scott asked his scowling father.
“Yes I do!” Murdoch huffed, “And what I see I don’t like.” He added grimly, halting his horse just as they reached the clearing.
“Do you think Johnny’s in there?”
“I sure hope so. It’s the kind of holdup these kinds of people would use.” Murdoch answered dismally, “Question is, what kind of shape will we find him in, if he’s indeed in there.”
“I’ve been wondering that myself.” Scott muttered, then turning his attention to the others who were approaching quickly. “It still bothers me that we found his gun belt. He wouldn’t give it up that easy.”
“I know what you mean. “ Murdoch whispered. “Is this the place you were talking about, sheriff?” He asked Foster as he approached the Lancers.
A sudden shiver down his spine, the lawman stuttered, “I, I don’t know for sure, Lancer. It could be. The location is right, out here in nowhere land.”
“Well, it’s the only one out here that I can see, and the perfect place to hide out.” Mark pointed out as well.
“My thoughts exactly, so instead of sitting here debating, let’s get over there and find my son, God willing.” Murdoch commanded.
Unsure of what they would find, the men gathered up their grit, and slowly, but cautiously rode up to the Old Mansion. Glancing around for anything, or anyone, they dismounted and began walking towards the front porch. Hands resting on their guns, they cringed, holding their breaths when decaying boards creaked and moaned under their feet.
Tapping the jittery sheriff on his shoulder, Murdoch instructed him to cover the back. Just in case there was an escape attempt before they got answers to Johnny’s whereabouts. While the others moved in from the front. On Murdoch’s silent count of three, they pushed the huge oak door opened and darted into the dark, gloomy main hall.
Mark and Scott quickly lit all the lanterns they could find and began searching the premises. Murdoch held his lamp up high, its golden glow outlined his huge form, casting an eerie giant shadow along the walls he walked by. He waved his hand, leading the way through the sinister looking main room towards the kitchen. There they found indications of people living here, and recently. Pots and pans lay resting on the stove, sacks of flour and sugar and other goods tossed in a corner. Dirty dishes stacked in the sink, some with hints of bloody prints.
“Murdoch! This way!” Scott hollered, waving his father over to the door leading to the basement.
Murdoch hastened to his son’s beckoning, as did the others, following him down the steep steps. Scott shoved the heavy door open and their flushed faces turned white. There before them was the abandoned alter dabbled with dried bloodstains, chains hanging from each side. Below, indications that a body had lain there recently, along with what looked like boot marks, as though someone had been dragged away. Murdoch’s eyes widened in sheer terror, his heart leaping to his throat.
“Good God, are we too late?” He croaked.
“Don’t even say that, sir. Johnny is not dead!” Scott assured, his own heart pounding hard against his chest. “I will not believe that until I see it for myself.”
Murdoch continued to stare down at the blood stained altar and chains. Frozen with fear, the distraught father’s imagination ran wild with horrible visions of what had happened to his youngest, causing him to tremble.
“Sir.” Scott urged softly, “Did you hear me? I said Johnny is not..…”
“I heard you!” Murdoch croaked out, “Then explain these blood stains, and these chains.” He leaned over and picked up the chains that once bound Johnny’s hands, still bearing traces of dried, crusty blood. He added frightfully, “He was here, I can feel it. But what did they do with him?”
Ethan stepped forward, “Listen, Murdoch! It looks like this altered hasn’t been used in a long while. That means if he was here, they probably took him someplace else, and alive.”
“But where, Ethan, where?” Murdoch barked, his booming voice muffled by the thick walls of the basement. “They could have taken him to God knows where by now!”
Walking over to Murdoch, Ethan patted the big man‘s arm, “Take it easy, Murdoch. We’ll find Johnny, no matter how far we have to look.”
“Well, by the looks of the kitchen, they left in a hurry. As though they had unexpected visitors, or were expecting us.” Mark was a little hesitant to inform them, recalling his observations. “Which would account for there being no sign of a struggle by John; or his captors. All except those skids marks leading to the door, like someone was dragged.” He added, nodding towards the boots scrapes in the ground.
“I have a bad feeling I know who.” Ethan whispered in Mark’s ear, low enough so that no one else heard what he said. Mark nodded and the two stayed quiet for now. They felt there was no need to alarm the Lancers more than they are already.
“I don’t know who. But they’re getting away with Johnny while we stand here talking about it.” Murdoch growled.
Just as they were about to leave, the sheriff came barreling down the steep steps,
“Lancer, Lancer, you down here?”
“What is it, sheriff?” Murdoch called to the hyperventilating lawman.
“There . . . you are.” The lawman said, bending over to catch his breath, “I . . . found wagon tracks out back leading north.”
“How long ago do you think they left?” Scott asked impatiently.
“Oh, I say about a half day.” He replied, wiping his sweating brow.
“They just might be in the next county by now.”
“MOUNT UP!” Murdoch commanded, racing out of the room, his long legs scaling the steps at an easy stride.
“Who the hell does he think he is? I’m the law here. I say when we move.” The irritable lawman rebuked.
Turning to face Foster, Scott answered proudly, “He’s a proud, stubborn, old Scot, who will do what it takes to protect his family and home. Get used to it, Sheriff.”
“Lancer takes care of its own.” Scott spat boldly, twirling around and marching up the stairs.
Outside, after catching up with Murdoch, they examined the tracks carefully. Looking for any more signs to confirm that indeed they had Johnny with them, but again, nothing.
“Is there a decent road leading from here in that direction?” Miles spoke up after being silent all this time. His heart was saddened to see what this was doing to Murdoch and the others.
“Not likely, more like what we traveled through, but I don’t know how long it goes. Not too many use these trails anymore.” The sheriff replied.
“None but those bastards who took my son.” Murdoch scowled. “I agree with what Mark said before. Your daughter must have had some help with handling Johnny. It’s apparent that somebody with higher authority has taken matters in their hands.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, Murdoch. I fear we’ll be facing a much more dangerous foe.” Ethan warned, admitting one of his fears.
Murdoch sneered at his old friend, noting the deep concerned expression on his aged face. He knew there was something Ethan wasn’t telling him. But he had no time to ask what, figuring he’d find out in time. Murdoch spurred his horse and blindly headed into the woods, following the wagons tracks with caution.
One by one, they followed Murdoch in, staying close together to avoid separation, and at the same time, watching each other’s backs. From what they could see ahead of them, it didn’t look promising. The foliage and trees became thicker, the further in they went and the quickly fading wagon tracks, harder to follow. Like the wagon tracks, the slight feeling of relief, knowing they were a little closer in finding Johnny, had dwindled down to nothing. Hopes sank deeper when they came across the banded wagon, hidden between two large trees.
“Well, it looks like they ran out of road, and continued on horseback. The bad news is, I can’t tell which way they went.” The sheriff grumbled. “The path seems to have disappeared.”
“I can see that, sheriff.” Murdoch huffed. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll just have to go by our gut feelings, and keep going straight.”
“It’s all we can do.” Scott sighed. “I suggest we all stay together though; no telling what we find in there. Though splitting up would widen the search.”
“No. We stay together. Safety in numbers. As you say, no telling what these people are capable of. Right, Sheriff?”
“Okay, it’s your call, Lancer, just hope you know what you’re doing.” The lawman answered snidely.
“I’m glad you see it my way, sheriff. Because I’m not leaving here until I find my son.” Murdoch snorted sarcastically.
“After you? Or should I lead the way?” He sneered at the lawman, who promptly pulled back, letting Murdoch pass. Shaking his head in disgust, the tall rancher spurred his horse, taking off into the dim light of the woods.
Ducking and weaving under low hanging branches, they trudged through the sinister woods vigilantly guiding their mounts over dead, uprooted trees, through dense swamp, until they came to a small clearing off to the right. Murdoch waved the men on into the opening, and it wasn’t long before they spied a body laying by a tree, limbs bound.
Moving closer, they could see by the man’s clothing it was not Johnny. Much to his dismay, Murdoch, dismounted a little sluggishly and hurried over to the half-dead Zach.
Zach moaned, his battered body twitched when he felt a towering presence hovering over him.
“Don’t…hurt…me.” He cried out faintly.
“Easy, I’m not going to hurt you.” Murdoch assured softly, as he cautiously turned over the badly beaten man, and laying him on his back, exposing bloodied, bruised features.
“For the love of God!” Ethan gasped. “What have they done to this poor man?”
“Do you know who he is, Ethan?” Murdoch asked, untying Zach’s quivering hands.
“He’s a local. Zach, I think his name is, at least I heard him called that a few times.” Ethan clarified. “But what is he doing out here.”
“I’m guessing he has something to do with Johnny’s abduction.” Scott said suspiciously.
Zach grabbed Murdoch’s arm, his crushed lungs gasping for precious air, he warned. “You . . . you have . . . to . . . stop them.”
“Stop who? Where did they take my son?” Murdoch beckoned the others, holding the man’s cold hand in his.
“The Magus . . . he is . . . going . . . to kill your son, if you don’t stop him.” Zach garbled, fighting to keep from slipping into oblivion.
Kneeling down next to Zach’s bloody body, Scott asked fretfully, “When? Where did they take my brother? Please tell us.”
A lone tear trickled down Zach’s pale cheek, as everything grew dark. With his last breath he pointed to the north woods, uttering, “Tomorrow night.”
He closed his eyes and fell silent.
“He’s gone.” Mark sadly whispered, bowing his head.
“Those murdering bastards! Killing one of their own like that!” The sheriff admonished.
“I have a sneaking suspicion he helped my daughter kidnap John. They found out and beat their whereabouts out of him.” Ethan hissed regretfully, “That Magus is a dangerous man. Ruthless, I heard and doesn’t take to those who defy him.”
“And now he has my son!” Murdoch growled, nostrils flaring.
“At least we know which way they took, thanks to this unfortunate soul.” Mark said as he glanced up at the fading sun. “However, I fear that we might be forced to make camp soon. I say we have less than an hour of daylight left.”
“I’m afraid he’s right, Murdoch. We can’t go chasing around these woods in the dark. It’s just too dangerous.” Scott agreed reluctantly. “We have until tomorrow to find Johnny. It can’t be too far from here, and we can’t chance being found out until we do. We can’t fight what we can’t see.”
Murdoch glanced down at Zach’s lifeless body. “As much as I hate to say, I agree. We’ll set up camp here, and give this man a decent burial, it’s the least we can do.” He said with a heavy sigh of remorse.
“It won’t be easy without shovels but we’ll do our best.” The sheriff grumbled, “Loose dirt and shallow ground should do it.”
“Whatever you say, sheriff.” Murdoch frowned on the man’s bitterness, “But make it deep enough to cover the scent. No need to make him easy prey for the creatures of this God forsaken territory.”
“I will, Lancer!” The lawman huffed, storming off to find a decent place to bury Zach.
“I’ll get a fire going.” Scott said, after covering Zach with a blanket.
Walking over to where Murdoch was standing, lost in thought, Ethan placed a comforting hand on the rancher’s arm. “Don’t worry, Murdoch, we’ll find him. I’m relying on my daughter’s human decency, if she has any left. Praying she’ll do the right thing.”
“It’s not her I’m worried about, it’s this Magus. I’m afraid your daughter will be no match for him, if she does try to help my son.” Murdoch spoke doubtfully. “I mean, how can she fight a madman?”
“I fear the same. How can she fight that monster?” Ethan shuttered.
“Right now all we can do is hope, old friend. Hope that we find Johnny in time.” Murdoch muttered as he slowly made his way over to where Scott had a warm fire going.
Ethan was at a loss for words. He didn’t know what else he could say or do to help ease the pain and anguish his daughter had caused. All he could do was send a mental plea to his daughter, begging her to rethink what she was doing and to put an end to this madness.
Little did they know, not more than a half-day’s ride from where they were camped, Monique was doing just that. The young sorceress was struggling with mixed feelings. Johnny’s beseeching words were starting to eat away at her heart and conscience. Should she let him die for the sake of her belief, or do the right thing and free him from the clutches of the murdering Voodoo priest?
The brooding girl was sitting slumped over on a log close to where they had Johnny hog tied to a tree. Though her small hands were cuffing her face, Johnny could still tell that she was thinking hard by the disconsolate expression in her eyes. He laid there, his hands and legs bound from behind by a long rope looped around the trunk, nothing but a thin blanket between him and the cold, hard ground. Shivering from a bone chilling draft that washed over his fever-heated torso, he continued staring at the quiet girl.
“Well?” Johnny whispered.
“Are …. you just going to …. let them kill me?” He groaned, his eyes darting back and forth, ensuring he wasn’t heard by nearby ears.
Monique glanced down at Johnny’s paling face, her heart torn, then swiftly turned her head away, “I … I … Can’t”
“Well, I think you can. Just … untie me and let me go.” Johnny hissed through the sheering pain that shot through his strained arms.
Monique slid off the log and crawled over to Johnny, peering into his fevered blue eyes. “And go where? They’ll find you in a matter of minutes in the condition your in.”
“No thanks to you. But with your help we can make it.” Johnny encouraged.
“I told you, I can’t. I’m taking a risk just talking to you.”
“It seems to me that you took that risk when you kidnapped me in the first place. What’s one more?”
Johnny tried to reason with the stubborn girl. “Listen, I have no doubt that my family is looking for me. With luck they’ll find us before your so called Master does.”
“I . . . I don’t know . . . I.”
“Or would you rather live with my murder on your hands, just like the murder of Samuel’s son?” Johnny daringly pointed out. “They told me.”
Johnny’s accusing words, shocked Monique, who spun around and snarled quietly in Johnny’s face.
“That was an accident. Joseph was at the wrong place and at the wrong time. He witnessed something he shouldn’t have and ran off, falling to his death. I had nothing to do with that!”
“I think you did.” Johnny disagreed coldly, glaring at the shaking girl. “And you can redeem yourself by helping me. It’s what Joseph would have wanted you to do. Right the wrong you did by helping me. If you have any shred of decency left in you.”
Again, Johnny’s persuasive words nagged, tugged, at the trouble girl’s soul. She pulled herself off the ground and walked over to the log, sat down, lost deep in her thoughts. She thought of her father, mother, and sister. Her home, Samuel, Mabel, and Joseph. The young boy she befriended, and then led to his death, a senseless death she now knew she could have prevented, but chose not to. Now the same situation stared her in the face again. Could she let another innocent life perish?
Monique not only could feel Johnny’s eyes on her, but unseen eyes. She looked up, her heart swelling with painful remorse. There, manifesting before her was a small faint, ghostly figure of a boy who stood by Johnny’s weakened body. Joseph smiled, nodded and then slowly faded away.
“Joseph . . . I’m . . . sorry.” She cried out silently. She knew what she had to do.
Monique thought long and hard. She knew what she had to do, the problem was how she was going to do it. There were too many watchful eyes on her and Johnny, to try anything right now without causing suspicion. However, time was running out. If she was going to do anything, it had to be now. The young Sorceress then remembered she had her bags of potions and sleeping powder along.
Pouring a cool cup of water, she stood up, and cautiously made her way over towards Johnny. Jax jumped up and hollered.
“What you doing, witch?”
“I’m just giving him some water. He needs to drink, you fool!” Monique snapped.
“Alright. I’m watching you.” Jax warned, and sat back down. His dark eyes glanced up occasionally at the two.
Monique knelt down, and slipped her hand under Johnny’s head, gently lifting it up just enough so he could drink easily.
“Shhh. I’m going to slip them something that will make them sleep. Then we can get out of here.” she whispered in his ear when Jax wasn’t looking.
“I can’t let you go out there alone, not like this. You’ll never make it without me.” She reprimanded him hastily, while a coyote’s eerie howl echoed throughout the dark woods. “Now don’t fight me on this, and be ready to move when I cut you loose.”
“If I can.” Johnny groaned as he tried to relax his strained muscles. “How are you going . . . to do this?”
“Let me worry about how. I just hope this works.” She muttered.
“You seemed so sure of yourself before.”
“It was just us then. Now I have to face my friends and betray them. Just to save you from something I never wanted to happen in the first place.” She admitted sadly, “Now please stay quiet and let me do this.”
“I’d feel much better if I had a gun.” Johnny hissed under his breath.
“We don’t carry guns. Against our beliefs. Besides, I doubt you could hold one.”
Monique cautiously pulled out the small pouch of sleeping powder, concealing it behind her back. She stood up and casually walked over to the huge pot cooking over the fire pit. When she was sure no one was looking, she dumped the entire contents into the brewing gumbo. Leaning over the pot, Monique took a healthy sniff, giving it a quick stir, before she pretended to pour herself a bowl, and hurried back over to Johnny.
“Stew’s ready.” She announced, prompting the others to go and get some.
Johnny watched, as one by one, the Gothic followers filled their bowls with the Cajun stew and returned to their seats, all inhaling the spicy, unique aroma before digging in.
“I sure hope this works.” Johnny whispered.
Monique also kept a watchful eye out for the Magus, who for the time being had made himself invisible. She never knew when he would pop up out of thin air. She could only hope that he would stay away until her plan took affect.
It didn’t take long before the intoxicating affects of the sleeping drug took effect. She smiled nervously, watching as heads began to bob up and down, seeing their limbs become heavy. Losing the battle to keep their eyes open, they began to keel over, one by one, until all were sprawled out in a sound sleep.
With no time to waste, Monique worked as fast as she could untying Johnny’s stiff, sore limbs. Wrapping her arms around his slim waist, she tried to lift him up.
“Come on, give me a little help, I can’t lift you by myself.”
Johnny flung his arm over her shoulder, pushing himself up on wobbly legs.
“I’m trying. My legs are a little numb right now. Give me a few seconds.”
“We don’t have a few seconds to spare. They may be out cold, but I don’t know where Magus is.” She warned, as Johnny was using her and the tree as a crutch while regaining mobility in his legs.
“Come on, we have to get going. Just lean on me.” She implored.
Johnny took a deep breath, peering around at the sleeping occupants of the God forsaken place, cursing his luck. Here he was, relying on the one person who caused all this misery, to help him get back to his family.
“Yeah. Let’s get out of here, sure hope you know where we’re going?”
Together they hobbled into the shelter of the woods, going as fast as they could, to get as far away as possible. Monique was doing all she could to stay upright with Johnny’s added weight clinging to her trembling, petite body. Johnny, himself, willing his weak legs to keep going. Forging on, fleeing for their lives, not just Johnny’s, now Monique‘s.
“Do . . . you know . . . the way back . . . to that house?” Johnny panted.
“No. Besides, that’s the first place they will look for us.” The girl quipped, “Now keep your voice low, and keep going.”
“I’m trying.” Johnny muttered, sweat beads plastered his paling face, “need . . . to … stop.”
“No, no, we can’t.”
“Yes, we . . . can . . . I, I can’t … go …..” Johnny’s voice broke as he began to loose ground, stumbling over exposed tree limbs. Suddenly, he lost his balance.
“Johnny!” Monique shrieked when he grabbed her arm, pulling her down with him. She lost her footing and they tumbled down a steep gorge.
Rolling over and over each other, they came to an abrupt halt in the pit of the gorge. An unconscious Johnny’s torso lay on top of Monique. She lay there, gasping for air, struggling to free her pinned arms from under Johnny. Finally, she used all she had to push him off.
She rolled Johnny over on his back as gently as possible. Her desire for him still burned, and she couldn’t fight the urge to lean over and run her fingers through his matted dark strands, while caressing his heated cheeks.
“Oh my love, if things were just different.” She whispered in his ear, giving him a tender kiss.
Monique knew there was nothing more she could do but wait until Johnny regained consciousness. She had to make sure they were not seen or heard until then. Thinking quickly, she covered him with twigs and leaves, and then herself. They now lay hidden beneath a pile of dried, colorful foliage.
Back at the clearing, a fuming Voodoo priest’s eyes burned red with fire. The longer he gazed upon the unforgiving sight before him, the madder he got. He could not believe what he was seeing or hearing. The loud snoring of his faithful collective was revolting to his ears.
Dreading what he’d see next, he turned his attention to the tree where he thought Johnny was still securely bound. The Magus’s nostrils flared like a raging bull, his fury growing darker, when he realized that not only was Johnny gone, but also his young apprentice.
Walking over to the tree, he picked up the rope that once bound Johnny. He shook an angry fist in the air and bellowed, “MONIQUE!”
The enraged Magus, stormed over to a couple of his stooges, one being Jax, and tried to wake them by kicking at their limp bodies with his sandaled foot to no avail. They were too under the influence of the Sorceress’s drug to be aroused.
Frustrated beyond words, he had no choice but to search for the escapees on his own. The Magus hurried off half cocked into the dark woods, not giving another thought to the sinking sun behind him.
Mark always had been an early riser, and today was no exception for the groom to be. He had the coffee brewing, and the biscuits warming by the fire before the others had awakened. Not his normal standards for healthily breakfast, but it would do under the unfortunate conditions. He sat there, fiddling with the ashes, listening to the rustling of the others as they began to stir.
“Morning Gentleman, the coffee’s hot.” He informed them graciously.
“Morning, Mark.” Murdoch grunted as he stretched his stiff, sore, back after pushing his huge form up into a sitting position. “I’m getting to old for sleeping like that.”
“You’re not the only one, old friend.” Ethan agreed, as he too, struggled to get up.
“Well, this coffee will help wake you. And I warmed the last of our prepared food. I pray we find your son soon, Mr. Lancer, all we have left is coffee and a few cans of beans.”
“That won’t do us!” Sheriff Foster growled, “Somebody has to go back and get more supplies.”
“Like hell we do!” Murdoch growled even louder, “Nobody is going anywhere. We’ll eat off the land if it comes to that. Right now, finding my son is all that matters. Understand?”
“He’s right, sheriff, we need all the man power we have to find my brother. Sending somebody back now would be foolish.” Scott snorted as he filled his cup of the hot brew. “Don’t forget what they did to that poor soul over there.” He added pointing to the freshly partly dug grave.
“How can I?” Foster groaned.
“Then I suggest you don’t. Keep that fresh in your mind, because if they can do that to him, think of what they’ll do to my son.” Murdoch spat in the man face, “Now enough talk. Lets get going. You take the lead this time, sheriff, and head in the direction he told us to go.”
“All right!” The pusillanimous lawman hissed.
“Good!” Murdoch snorted, tossing the rest of his coffee on the fire pit, dousing the flames slightly, and proceeded to his horse.
Scott and the others, including the reluctant sheriff, followed the ranchers lead and doused the fire completely, and began folding up camp. Mark and Foster tackled that meager chore. Ethan with Miles’ help, looked for more loose brush to conceal Zach’s grave a little better, while Scott helped his father with the horses.
“I don’t trust that sheriff, Murdoch, he’s too skittish for my liking.” Scott whispered as they worked on securing the saddles. “What makes you think he’ll not bolt if it gets to dangerous?”
“I don’t, but he’s all we have to enforce the law, when we need it.” Murdoch said keeping his baritone voice low, “We surely can’t arrest anybody without him, being strangers in these parts.”
“I see your point. I just wish he had a little more backbone.” Scott snorted, just as the others approached them.
“I know.” Murdoch agreed giving his son a weary look. “Are we ready gentlemen?”
“As ready as can be, Murdoch.” Ethan was a little sullen.
“What’s wrong old friend, you’ve been a little quiet?”
“Oh, thinking about Monique, I still can’t bring myself to believe she’s mixed up with all this voodoo crap . . . pardon my English.” He despondently huffed, “I just pray she does the right thing by Johnny, and helps him.”
“So do we all, sir.” Scott muttered, as he mounted up.
He still felt he had let his brother down, by not paying enough attention to Johnny’s unusual behavior that day. He should have know Johnny getting sick just out of the blue was suspicious, but he just blew if off. Otherwise, this probably would not have happened. The sense of neglect would eat at him until he finds his brother.
Once everyone was ready, sheriff Foster, not the least thrilled by all this, led the men into the deepest part of the forbidden woods, where he knew certain death was lurking.
Searching desperately for the escapees, the Magus, staggered on. Like his mere mortal cohorts, he was just as vulnerable, an eye-opener discovered last night. He tripped over a dead log while blindly trudging through the darkness, and fell, hitting his head and had lain unconscious until now.
“MONIQUE, WHERE ARE YOU? YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME!” He shouted at the top of his lungs.
But the girl was not about the answer him back. She had more serious trouble to face besides being caught. Monique had awakened to a fully conscious Johnny, after they spent the night under that pile of twigs and leaves, which had also acted as blanket to ward off the night chill. However, he was not doing as well as she had hoped. Johnny’s fever had spiked a little and his breathing was raspy. She knew that influenza was setting in, and she had to get him out of there as soon as possible.
Johnny began to cough, and shiver as she tried to lift his weakened body up.
“Shhhh, please be quiet, I can hear him out there somewhere. We must move fast.”
“I’ll try, but I . . . I can’t help it. My chest feels like it’s on fire.” Johnny uttered in her ear.
“If he catches us, your chest will not be the only thing on fire.” She warned, clearing away the debris. “Now help me and push yourself up, and let’s get out of here.”
Johnny rolled over to his side and managed to sit while Monique slid her slim shoulders under his arms, and pulled upward as he pushed off with his legs. The young Lancer stood there gasping for air, waiting for the dizziness to pass. A few seconds later, he was ready to move.
Smiling weakly he said, “Lead the way.”
Monique blindly led Johnny into thicker, deadlier terrain. Dense swamp land and rotted upturned trees lay everywhere, obstructing the path, slowing their escape considerably. Monique had to practically leap over small sinkholes, while an exhausted Johnny struggled to hold on.
“Do. . .you know. . .where you are going?” Johnny panted his lungs gasping for air.
“No.” The girl answered sharply. “Just keep going.”
“I’m trying!” He grunted. “But it’s hard with all this in our way.”
He pulled away from Monique to lean against a tree to catch his breath. “Why all the gut rotted trees, and sink holes.”
“I don’t know.” Monique snapped, “Maybe it’s because of all the storms we had over the years.” She peered around for Magus. “I’m sorry, but we must keep going. He’ll be looking for us.”
“It’s your show. Help me will ya, since you got me into this mess.”
“I hope you have a plan, ‘cause I can’t do much of nothing with these hands.” He held up his bandaged, swollen wrists.
“I’m working on it.”
She walked over to Johnny and leaned in close to slip her arms around his waist.
“Lean on me, and trust me. I’ll do my best to get you out of here.”
“I hope so.” He grunted in her ear, allowing her to support most of his weight.
“MONIQUE!” Boomed an angry voice.
“OH GOD! He’s getting closer!” She shrieked, “Come on, hurry!”
“We need to another place to hide out, until.…”
“Until what?” Monique interrupted.
“Until my family finds us, that’s what.” Johnny snarled.
“Right now, your family isn’t even close, and we need to get out of here. Now hush and let me help you.” Monique struggled to keep him upright.
Johnny’s chest was on fire. His lungs constricted with every breath, and his hands throbbed miserably. He called on his inner strengths to pull him through, to keep up with her quickening steps.
While the two pushed on, fleeing deeper into the woods, the outraged voodoo priest was on their trail like a determined bloodhound. For a while he was following a cold trail until he stumbled onto the hidden ravine where the two had spent the night. His temper flared as he took note of the disturbed ground and the unusual formation of twigs and leaves; all indications that this had been used for shelter.
“Very clever, my little witch. Monique, where are you?” he bellowed once again. “You can not hide from me forever. I will find you! Mark my words I WILL FIND YOU!”
Fearing he would miss the window of opportunity to have his sacrilegious ceremony, he stormed deeper into the woods, in pursuit of the escapees. He had no thought that maybe someone else would be searching these woods as well.
Murdoch took it upon himself to take the lead, determined to cover as much of the God forsaken land as possible. His fatherly instincts were telling him that his boy was still alive, but for how long he dreaded. All he knew was that he had to find Johnny before dark. He was terrified that he would never see his son alive again.
Scott was struggling with same heart wrenching thoughts as he rode beside his quiet father, wishing they had never taken this ill-fated trip in the first place. They traveled over paths filled with twisted dead trees and sinkholes, getting narrower by the minute, until they had to ride single file, pulling back when it got to tight. From behind, Scott could see Murdoch’s slumped posture stiffen. The big man raised his hand to halt their progress.
“What is it, sir?” Scott asked anxiously.
“Do you smell that?” Murdoch asked, his nose to the air.
Scott took a big whiff of what smelled like smoldering wood. “ Faintly. A campfire you think?”
“Why did you stop, Murdoch?” Ethan inquired as he the others crept up on the preoccupied Lancers.
“I detect a camp site ahead. Could only be the ones we seek?” Murdoch informed keeping his loud baritone voice down while looking at the sheriff.
“If it is them, we’ll have to play this with extreme caution, Lancer.” The nervous sheriff warned.
“Who else could it be, sheriff?” Mark snorted. “But I agree. We better take this slow. Who knows how many there are and what they are capable of.”
“I know damn well what they are capable of.” Foster hissed under his breath.
“I suggest we walk the horses from here in.” Scott cautioned.
“Good idea, son.” Murdoch agreed as he dismounted, a little stiffly from sitting in the saddle for the last few hours. “Just pray we find your brother, and get the hell out of here. No matter who or what we have to walk over.” He declared leading the way towards to clearing.
A few minutes later, they spied thin patch of trees, a perfect location for a hideout. However, as they moved in closer, something didn’t seem right. It was way to quiet for the time of day. If there were to be some kind of ritual, they would hear voices and rustling about, but what they heard was silence.
“Something doesn’t feel right, Murdoch.” Scott whispered, apprehension written all over his face.
“Yes, I know what you mean. It’s too quiet.” The big Scot frowned. “It’s nearly midday, and I don’t hear hardly a soul.”
“Maybe they know we’re coming?” Ethan said dreadfully. “and we’re walking into a trap?”
“Pray that’s not the case, or who knows what they’ll do to my son.” Murdoch replied.
“Leave the horses here, and move in on foot.” He commanded.
The men tethered their horses and crept along as if they were walking on pins and needle. Each cautious step brought them closer to the clearing. Their eyes and ears peeled for sight or sound of Johnny. As they reached the hide-a-hole, they heard low groans and moans from within. It was not who they wanted it to be.
Murdoch pushed aside some low branches and peered through, “What the?” He muttered through his teeth.
“I say, there are at least twelve of them. And judging by the way they’re moving, I say they have been drugged.” Scott observed, after joining his father and taking a look at the group of men and woman, all struggling to get on their feet, as one by one, they awoke from the drug Monique had slipped them.
“A powerful drug I might add.”
“Well, that makes it easier for us to overtake them, if they can’t function.” The sheriff snorted.
“I can’t agree more, sheriff. Well, let’s get this over with. The sooner we find Johnny, the better I’ll feel.” Murdoch huffed.
“You’ll have no argument there, sir.” Scott muttered, then motioned for Ethan and Mark to spread out.
The two men guardedly found another opening, and waited for Murdoch’s signal to move in. The agitated father held up his huge hand, and waved the men in. With guns drawn, they simultaneously stormed in on the unsuspecting, groggy, troop of voodoo followers. They were taking no chances of their getting away before they got answers.
“EVERYBODY STAY RIGHT WHERE YOUR ARE!” Murdoch boomed.
Much to his relief, not a single soul tried to make a run for it. They still were fighting off the effects of the sleeping drug. None of them had the strength to move from where they had passed out. Dazed, they tried to focus on the blurred images holding weapons on them.
“What’s wrong with them, Murdoch?“ Ethan wasn’t clear on what was going on.
“By the way they’re acting I’d say they have been drugged.” Scott replied, taking a closer look around the campsite for any signs of his brother. “I think it was a clever plan of someone who wanted to escape.”
“It had to be Monique!” Ethan said hopefully, almost excitedly, “She must had come to her senses and decided to help John escape.”
“You could be right, because I don’t see them anywhere.” Murdoch declared, scanning the grounds, disappointed that they had come up empty, again.
“Neither do I.” Scott scowled.
“Well, sheriff, as the law around here, I suggest you get some answers.” Murdoch commanded.
“Don’t worry, sheriff, we’re here to back you. Just in case any of them get out of hand.” Mark assured the hesitant man, who was a little leery of approaching any of the followers.
Foster glared at the two of them. He didn‘t appreciate the crude remarks, though he knew they were true. He wanted nothing to do with these evil doers, but he it was his duty to uphold the law. He sucked in a deep breath, drew up the nerve to walk over to Jax, who was struggling with his own wits.
“You there!” The lawman shouted, “I know you, you’re that Jax fellow. You work for Ma Belle.”
“What’s tis it to you, man?” Jax hissed, focusing on the lawman.
“First off, you address me properly, and second I want answers.” Foster demanded.
“Now, what happened here, and where young John Lancer?”
“Do not say nothin Jax, the Master will be angry.” A woman warned, while the others clamped their jaws tight.
“Hush woman, tis too late now. And we did nothin wrong. ‘Tis Monique who betrayed the Master.” Jax admonished. her.
“What. . .what did my daughter do?” Ethan, implored, his heart aching.
“It had to be her who drugged us and ran off with the master’s prisoner.” Jax growled in Ethan’s face. “And he’ll not be happy, his offering to our Gods be gone.” He added coldly.
“Offering to the Gods?” Scott asked fretfully. He spun around, and noticed near the edge of the clearing, was what appeared to be an altar of wood and old brick. Moving closer for a better look, he saw it was stained with dried blood, probably that of past victims.
“Tis right, and I have no doubt the Master is out looking for them now.” Jax added with a wicked grin.
“WHICH WAY DID THEY GO?” Murdoch boomed, and grabbed Jax by the collar, lifting him off the ground and shaking him hard enough to rattle his eyeballs. “Tell me where my son is. Or it will not be your master you’ll have to worry about!”
“I do….do not know.” Jax sputtered. “We´s were drugged remember? She could have not gone too far with your boy so sick. The master will find them and when he does,”
“Not if I find Johnny first.” Murdoch spat and tossed Jax to the ground.
Murdoch towered over the shaken man.
“No self proclaimed priest is going to keep me from finding my son.”
“I say we head that way, Murdoch.” Ethan suggested, pointing to the far end of the clearing, after noticing a tree with ropes looped around it.. Waking over to it, he picked up the ropes.
“I do believe these were used to bind Johnny. And from the faint prints here in the dirt, they went this way.”
“Keen eye, Mister Dunlop. I think you’re right.” Scott took the rope from Ethan, carefully examining the traces of Johnny’s blood on it, “He’s still bleeding, and he did say Johnny is sick? How far could have they gone?”
“I don’t know, but we better make tracks.” Foster looked around, “That Magus is a crafty one, never know when he’ll show up.”
“Right, so sheriff, lead the way.” Murdoch ordered.
“What about them?” Scott motioned towards the group of followers.
“Oh, I suspect they will give us no trouble, if they know what’s good for them.” Murdoch proclaimed glaring at Jax and his co-horts. “So sheriff what are you waiting for?”
Again, not the least impressed by the rancher’s brashness, Foster straightened his gun belt and led the anxious search party into the woods, on foot, leading their horses.
“PRAY THE MASTER DON´T FIND THEM OR THERE WILL BE NOTHING LEFT OF YOUR PRECIOUS BOY!” Jax screamed manically at the departing men.
“MONQUIE COME OUT AND SHOW YOURSELF!” The furious Magus pushed his way through the thick foliage of dead trees and shrub. “I KNOW YOUR IN THERE SOMEWERE, IT´S FUTILE TO KEEP RUNNING. I´LL FIND YOU NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO.”
He stood there, his ears attuned to every sound floating on the wind, listening for heavy breathing or the rustling of twigs, branches, anything that would tell him they were close. But to his dismay, he heard nothing. Grunting in disappointment, the Magus glanced around one last time before he forged ahead after Johnny and Monique.
Lying hidden beneath a pile of logs and brush, Johnny waited for Monique to return.
“Where are you?” Johnny mumbled, too weak to move a muscle, “Please be careful and hurry back.”
He had tried to talk her out of her desperate last minute notion about going off by herself, and finding help or another place to hide out with that madman on their tail. It was getting harder for Johnny to keep up with her. His legs were becoming heavier, dead weights, making it almost impossible for the girl to keep him from falling down face first, as fever continued to ravish his body. He needed to rest and regain some of his strength.
She had found a low spot big enough where Johnny could lie down. Covering him up with brush, she promised she’d be back soon.
The sound of snapping twigs and heavy footsteps almost stopped his heart. He tries his best to soften the sound of his raspy breathing and to control his trembling body, as his heightened anxiety put all his senses on alert.
He peered up through the foliage, barely able to discern the figure of a man hovering nearby. The man came closer and he noticed the long cape around his shoulders and the angry, evil scowl on the dark face.
The seething Magus stood only a few feet away from where Johnny lay hidden, his dark eyes scanned the area for any signs of his prey or the deceiving girl who had forsaken him. Nobody goes again the Order and lives to talk about it. He continued to peer around, cursing her name that she had eluded him for now, unaware that he was closer to Johnny then he thought.
Johnny struggled to keep his focus on the monster lurking over him. The fever ravishing his body continue to rise, draining what strength he had left. Even if given the chance, he was too weak to crawl out of there, unheard and unseen.
All he could do was stay as quiet as possible. However, his constricting chest made that meager chore difficult. It would get tighter and tighter as fluids filled his lungs. Johnny would gasp for air while trying to control the wheezing that came often. Feeling another attack coming on, he squeezed his lips shut until they were turning white, in attempt to hold back what was coming up.
The Magus was about to walk away, disgusted, when he heard a faint sound close by.
“Is that you? I know you’re here somewhere, so make it easy on your self and come to me.” He growled, listening carefully.
Johnny shut his eyes, his chest burning like a volcano ready to erupt. “Dios, go away.” He silently begged, when suddenly, his chest exploded and he began to cough uncontrollably. His weakened body trembled from the agony.
The Voodoo master spun around on his heels, his ears trained on Johnny’s deep raspy breathing. Smiling wickedly, he moved towards his prey. The young Lancer’s heart quickened hearing leaves and twigs crunch beneath fast paced footsteps coming his way.
Johnny prepared himself for the onslaught, when all of a sudden, the light above him, disappeared.
Leaning over the pile of rubble, the Magus began to dig, one branch at a time until he found what he was looking for, Johnny playing possum.
“There you are you, hiding like a scared rabbit.” The priest snarled like a mad dog, showing his tainted teeth.
Reaching down for the half-conscious Lancer, Magus yanked him up by the shirt and grabbed hold of his arms. The robust priest easily outweighed Johnny in his weakened state, and lifted him out of the hole, suspending him off the ground.
“Now tell me, where is that deceiving little witch?” He growled in Johnny’s pale face, giving him a hard shake.
Johnny sneered, “I. . .don’t know. You tell. . .me.”
“Why you smart mouth. . . I don’t have no time for this. Tell me where she is, so I can watch you both die.” The angry priest then threw Johnny to the ground, grabbing his infected wrist and squeezing tight, until he was rewarded with a agonizing moan.
“I. . .told. . .you” Johnny grunted through the pain. “Let. . .go!”
“Where is she?”
While holding on to Johnny with one strong hand, he pulled out a knife with the other, and placed it under Johnny’s chin, twisting and slightly jabbing the cold sharp edge against his warm skin.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!” Monique screamed as she barreled out of the woods after the monster with a long thick branch. Swinging it wildly, she struck him in the back of the head, rendering the Magus unconscious. Then she hurried to Johnny’s side.
“That. . .was. . .close.” Johnny muttered after catching his breath once the pain had subsided in his hands.
“We got to get out of here. I don’t know how long he’ll be out.” Monique spoke hastily as she put her arms around Johnny’s waist, helping him to his feet.
“And go where? Did you find a safe place to hide until my family finds us?”
Johnny stood on wobbling legs, then leaning against a tree, waiting for the dizziness to pass.
“There is no safe place to hide out when he is like this. I found a way off this place, just over there.” She snapped, pointing to west of the woods.
“Off this place?”
“No time to explain, now please hang on and let’s go.”
“I’m trying. Don’t know how much longer I can go on.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll soon get to lay down” Monique assured as she led him away from the unconscious priest, and further away from the rescue party.
“The sooner the better. Just hope you know what you are doing.”
Exhausted herself, and tired of running, Monique was doing all she could to get them to safety, without stumbling over each other and the scattered debris that cluttered the path they were taking. She knew they were close to freedom, and wasn’t about to stop now. She chose to stay close to the trees as a way to help Johnny along, and to shield them from unexpected predators.
“How much.. .longer is this place?“ Johnny asked, swallowing hard, “I need water throats burning.”
“It’s just over there.” Monique said pointing to a nearby clearing.
“What?” Johnny croaked, his keen sense of smell detecting a familiar scent. “Water?”
Monique had no time to answer him. She was determined to get to that clearing before the Magus woke. Holding on tighter to Johnny, she willed their legs to move faster. Johnny, himself, wasn’t about to let her efforts in helping him escape be for naught. Biting back the pain, he did all he could to keep from passing out as waves of dizziness washed over him. Clinging to the girl and anything he could, he managed to match her steps as she dragged him out into the open.
“What the?” Johnny uttered as she guided him over to a nearby log, gently easing him down, “It seems we ran out of land. What are we going to. . . do swim away.” He snorted gazing at the huge body of water before them.
“No, we use this raft I found and take the river back to town. It’s the only way to get off this place and to help.”
“By risking drowning? How are you gonna handle the raft by yourself?” Johnny hissed holding up his bandaged hands, “I can’t hold a gun, let alone an ore.”
Let me worry about that.” Monique quipped, hurrying over to a carefully hidden raft, pulling the brush away. “See it has ores attached, all I have to do is hold it, and guild the raft. All you have to do is lay there and let me get us out of here.”
“Until we hit rough water.” Johnny cautioned, watching the girl push the raft clear from its resting place, making sure it was still anchored to land. “Are you sure about this?”
“We have no choice.” Monique muttered, walking back to Johnny and helping him up. “Now come on, hurry. Please, keep your voice down. These trees have ears. I don’t know how long he’ll stay out.”
“You hit him pretty hard.”
“I know, but I couldn’t let him take you.” Her dark eyes met his fevered blue eyes.
“He’ll be madder than a wet hen when he wakes up.”
“Yes, and pray we’re long gone when he does. The tide will help carry us far away from shore.”
Ushering Johnny to another log closer to the water, she let him rest while she readied the raft. With one foot in water, the other planted on shore, Monique grabbed the corner it, holding it steady.
“Hurry and get aboard.”
Johnny sucked in a deep breath, mustering up all his strength to push himself off the log, taking small step towards the waiting ride off the forsaken land. Stumbling a few times, he fell to his knees and crawled onto the raft, using his elbows as hands, rolling over onto his side, panting from the exertion.
Monique carefully stepped aboard, using a short ore, she pushed and pushed until it finally broke free and floated away, the low tide slowly carrying it down steam.
“Here we go.” Johnny sighed, “Sure hope this is not a mistake.”
“It’s our only hope of getting back to town. You’re just too sick to make it on foot.”
“You got that right. I feel as weak as a newborn colt.”
“Well, just lay there and enjoy the ride.”
While the young sorceress maneuvered the raft further away from shore, back where she had left the Magus laying, the man was slowly coming around. Moaning and groaning, he rolled over onto his side, rubbing his throbbing, clouded head. He managed to push himself into a sitting position, waiting for the fuzziness to clear so he could focus on the task at hand. Finding the escapees.
“That little WITCH!” The furious man growled. “You may get away from me this time. But I’ll find you and when I do, you’ll regret the day you defied me.”
Once he got his bearings, The Magus was able to pick up the clear tracks Johnny and the girl had left, leading towards the river. Trudging on through the woods, preoccupied with what he would do to the two of them, he was totally unaware that not too far behind was Murdoch and the search party.
Despite the sheriff’s constant grumbling, Murdoch was relentless. He would only stop for a quick breather, then forge on. Nothing could slow him down now. Every fiber of his soul was telling him they were getting closer to Johnny.
“Your old man, sure is bullheaded.” Foster snorted.
“I told you, sheriff, get used to it. My father can sense we’re getting close to finding my brother, and will not stop until we do.”
“He’s right.” Ethan agreed, “I’ve known that man ever since we were kids, and he’ll never change. Mule headed old cuss he is.”
Mark nodded, “I got to admire his determination.”
“SCOTT, ETHAN!” Murdoch bellowed
“What is it, Murdoch?”
“Over here.” The anxious rancher answered, waving the men over.
They pulled their horses to an easy halt, dismounted, rushing to Murdoch’s side. “What did you find?” Scott asked kneeling next to his father.
“This.” Murdoch informed, pointing to the vacant hole Johnny occupied only a short time ago. His heart thumped hard against his chest.
“It looks like somebody was hiding down in there.” Ethan speculated.
“That’s my guess too, son.” Murdoch said with a heavy heart, “And telling from those tracks, they headed that way.”
“They?” The sheriff frowned.
“Yes sheriff, they.” Scott clarified, “if you look closely, we’ll see three sets of track. That only tells us that this Magus fellow has found Johnny and Monique.”
“How can you be so sure it’s them? They’re all jumbled together. I can’t make heads or tails of it.” The man huffed while trying to make sense out of the scrambled prints in the dirt.
“Years of training in the army, sheriff. And they also indicate there must have been some kind of struggle.””
“If that is the case, we had better get moving. No telling what he’ll do to them.” Mark stressed.
“I pray we don’t find out, and they have gotten away again…far away.” Ethan muttered, walking back to his horse and waited for the others to join him.
“So do I, old friend, so do I.” Murdoch echoed Dunlop’s fears.
The river’s current was as calm and gentle as the warm breeze that blew across the water, moving at a slow pace, enabling Monique to handle the ores with ease. At the same time, she counted her lucky stars they were able to get away, so far. As it continued to carry them along, Johnny lay helpless to do anything, but to stare up at the sky, his mind wandering back to Lancer, and riding Barranca, fast and free along the green grasslands of home.
“How far have we gone?”
“Not too far. We’re just drifting along until the current picks up.” Monique said while concentrating on her task of steering the raft. “At least we’re away from the master.”
“He’s no master. More like a dictator, who bullies and murders anybody who gets in his way.” Johnny hissed, shivering beneath the warming sun beaming down on his chilled bones.
“Those who defy him had what was coming to them.”
“You just don’t get it, do you?” Johnny snorted rolling his eyes, “Well, I guess, you’ll have to worry what he’ll do to you, if he finds us.”
“I know.” Looking out across the river, she frowned, “I guess he already has.”
Johnny twisted his body enough so he could see where she was pointing. There, standing on a pile of large rocks, shaking his fist, was the enraged voodoo leader, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“MONIQUE, YOU LITTLE WITCH, COME BACK HERE, NOW. I COMMAND YOU!”
Seeing Johnny, floating away on a raft, with Monique at the helm, was more than the Magus could handle. Steaming mad, his face turned redder then a mad bull. No matter what it took, he wasn’t about to give up now, especially when the current had quickened, and they were pulling further away from him. He jumped down off the rocks and began running along the shoreline, looking for a place to cut them off and over take the raft. All the while, continuing to rant and rave like a lunatic.
“He don’t sound too happy.” Johnny snorted.
“Don’t worry, he can’t get us. We’re too far out and going to fast for him to swim out.”
“No, but he sure as hell know where we’re going. He’ll follow us until we make shore and then what?”
“We’ll worry about that later. Right now, we have another problem. Hang on we’re picking up speed.” Monique warned as she tightened her grip on the ores.
Johnny pushed himself up and scooted over to the pole, wrapping his arms around the bottom part of the ore. Doing what he could to help Monique control the raft. Together they were able to keep it from bashing into nearby rocks.
To his utter dismay, the Magus was not the least thrilled they were once again escaping his reach.
“COME BACK HERE!”
Not too far from the riverbank, the search party halted their horses, their ears attuned to the deep, frantic voice echoing off the lakeside and into the trees. The increasing wind made it hard to determine from which direction it was coming.
“You don’t suppose it’s that Magus fellow we hear, do you?” Miles asked.
“I’m guessing it is.” The sheriff scowled, “He sounds mighty angry, too.”
“Yes, and I’m afraid at who.” Murdoch cringed, pointing towards the clearing ahead of them. “I think he’s that way.”
“I agree. If he’s shouting like that, Johnny has to be near.” Scott gave his horse a swift kick and took off.
The enraged priest was unaware he was leading the search party right to him. His persistence in chasing after the escapees, while bellowing his head off, onl made it easier for them to locate him.
Once they cleared the woods and found themselves facing a huge body of water, each man scanned the shoreline up and down for the source of the yelling.
“Murdoch, look!” Scott pointed to the man running and waving his arms, like a crazy. “Is that him? That Magus fellow?”
“He fit’s the description from what I can make out.” Foster offered. “But who is he yelling at? I don‘t see anybody with him.”
“At them!” Murdoch boomed, drawing the others attention to the raft which was picking up speed as they watched. “If I’m not mistaken, that is Johnny and your daughter on that raft.”
Ethan squinted his tired eyes, peering out to the river, and gasped, “My god, Murdoch, it is. What I in god’s name are they doing out there?”
“Trying to get away from him.” Mark stated the obvious. “So far it’s working.”
“Yes, but judging by the speed they’re moving at, she might have trouble controlling it. And Johnny is in so shape to help her, by what that Jax told us.” Murdoch fretted.
Keeping his keen eyes on the Magus and the raft, Scott proclaimed, “Well, we have to get them to shore somehow. But first we better take care of him.”
“Right. Well sheriff, are you ready to do your duty and help us with that madman?” Murdoch turned to the lawman.
“Of course, I am!” he huffed, nervously adjusting his gun belt.
“Good. Then get moving. Let’s put an end to this nightmare.” Murdoch motioned for the sheriff to take the lead.
“Johnny, look!” Monique shouted, pointing to the men on horseback, galloping towards the unexpected Magus. “That. . .that looks like my father.”
“And mine.” Johnny grunted as he twisted his thin torso around to get a good look. “Boy look at ‘em go. Go get him, Murdoch!” He cheered as loud as he could.
They both held on as tight when the current picked up, watching the scene unfold from afar. The posse easily closed the distance between themselves and the preoccupied Priest, who about to take a chance and swim out to the raft. The sheriff shot off a round over his head, as they pulled their mounts to a sudden halt, and quickly dismounted.
“YOU THERE! STAND WHERE YOU ARE!” Foster commanded, as the others drew their own guns and pointed them at the stunned man.
The Magus took a few steps forward, “I would do as he says, if I were you.” Murdoch warned.
“Who. . .who are you?” Magus sneered at the armed men.
“I’m somebody who is going to put an end to your madness once and for all.” Murdoch answered him. “And I have the law to back me up.”
“Apparently you don’t know who I am.” The Priest snorted and turned to face Ethan. “But I know who you are.”
“I imagine you do.” Ethan hissed and stepped closer, his gun still aimed at the man’s heart. “And you are nothing but an evil, power hungry bastard, who will stop at nothing to manipulate others like my Monique, to do your bidding.”
“Strong words from a weak man, as your precious daughter once told me. And for your information, it didn’t take much to convince her. She was more then willing to join us.” The Magus viciously spat in Ethan’s face.
“Why you!” Ethan lunged at the Magus` throat.
Murdoch yanked Ethan back.
“That’s enough. Sheriff do your duty and handcuff this man. We have to get that raft and my son to shore.”
“You heard my father. The current is getting stronger, and I doubt my brother is in any shape to help her handle it, if it gets out of control . . .”
The sheriff cleared the lump in his throat and grabbed the Magus’ arm.
“Come on you. Turn around, and no funny stuff.”
Realizing he had no choice but to give up, the voodoo leader did as told and turned to face the other way, cringing as cold steel rubbed and pinched at his warm dark skin as the sheriff clamped the cuffs on. His senses tingled, knowing there were guns cocked and pointed at him.
“This will not hold me for long, Sheriff.” He threatened.
“Well, we’ll see about that. Now get over to that tree so I can secure you to it. I got to help these men with getting that raft to shore.”
“You see, he’s just a man.” Scott assured, “But I’d rather you keep an eye on him. We’ll handle this.”
“As you wish.” Foster huffed, shaking his head, “We’ll be over there, if you need me.”
Scott watched while the sheriff pushed and shoved the hesitant priest towards the tree, and then joined his father and others by the edge of the shore. Each pondering as to how in the world would they get Johnny and Monique safely to shore without causing their deaths while doing so. Meanwhile, they were drifting further away.
Like two little kids, peering through a store window, Johnny and Monique watched with curiosity, wondering if it was finally over.
“I can’t make things out too clearly anymore, but did they get him?” Johnny asked. “I only heard one gunshot.”
“Yes, they did.” Monique said softly, ” Funny, he didn’t even put up a fight, far as I can tell.”
“They had him out numbered, that’s why. Only a fool would try something with that many guns on him.”
The raft suddenly swayed, back and forth, jerking them around like rag dolls. It stopped for a moment and then picked up speed. Another jerk sent them reeling. Johnny did all he could to hang on to the ore and pole, again locking his arms and using his legs as anchors. Monique fought to keep the raft steady, grateful with what help Johnny could give her.
The raft continued to jerk and sway, while the two of them flapped about. Sporadic lulls in the motion of the raft, the only reason they were still on board.
Murdoch and the rescue party, minus the sheriff who stayed behind to guard their captive, quickly mounted back up, and took off after the raft.
“Murdoch, look!” Scott bellowed.
“Good god, they’re headed for those rapids.” Ethan gulped.
They watched as the current pulled it into a small swirl of rapids, fearing the worst.
“How far do they go on for?” Murdoch glanced worriedly at his friend.
“Not too far. It’s just a small stretch of water. But it could get too dangerous for them. Monique has never experienced this type of thing before.” Ethan responded.
“Well, she’s going to get hard fast lesson, if we don’t get them to shore, and soon.” Mark urged.
Miles, who had been somewhat quiet during the journey to find Johnny, looked on at the dangerous, heart stopping situation before them. In this short time, he had come to admire the Lancer family, for their devotion and determination to help one another. He wished there was more he could to do help. Scanning desperately for any way to get them off the raft, his eyes lit up when he spotted something that might work.
“SIRS, LOOK!” Miles, pointed to a bend in the river. “There might be a way after all to get to them before they hit the rough part of the rapids.”
“Yes, yes, that might work.” Murdoch said excitedly, looking in the direction the man was pointing.
“We can throw a rope out to them, just as they almost reach that point, and pull them in.” Scott suggested eagerly.
“Your forgetting, Scott, that Monique is the only one capable of grabbing that rope, and she needs to keep her hands on the ores, or they’ll lose control.” Murdoch reminded them. “If she can’t grab it, then we’ll miss our window of opportunity.”
“What are we going to do, Murdoch? We have to get that rope out there somehow, and we’re running out of time.”
“Somebody is going to have to swim out there, and secure the rope, before they reach the bend.” Miles said. “And then toss it back and you can pull it in, from the point.”
“I’ll go.” Mark volunteered.
“Mark, NO.” Both Murdoch and Ethan protested.
“You’re about to be married, I can’t let you take that chance.” Ethan continued.
“I’ll go, Sir.” Miles volunteered, “I’m a damn good swimmer, learnt as a kid, and I can still get these old bones to work. The current will take me close to the raft and I can swim to them. Hop aboard ands meet you at the bend.”
“Miles, let somebody younger try this.” Murdoch beckoned.
“I can do it sir. Please, let me try. It‘s our only hope.”
“Murdoch, we’re running out of time.” Ethan added grimly.
Murdoch took a deep breath and shook his head. He didn’t like this idea one bit, but Miles was right, it was their only hope. “Scott, get the longest rope we have and give it to Miles here.”
“But, Mur….” Scott admonished.
“Do it. We have no other choice.”
“Then, let me go, I’m a good swimmer. Spare Miles.”
“No Scott, I’m not going to risk losing another son. I don’t like this any better than you, but Miles knows these waters, we have to let him try.”
“Thank you sir, I’ll not let you down.” Miles nodded as he took the rope from Scott’s hesitant hand, and placed an assuring one on Scott’s arm. “No fear, young Scott, I swam these waters all my life, I’ll get to your brother.”
Scott smiled sadly, “I pray you do, and for your safety as well.”
Miles patted Scott’s arm. “Off with you, all of you. Get to that bend, and I’ll meet you there.”
At his urging, each man, mounted up and hightailed to the bend in the river, while saying a prayer that this would not be in vain. All their hopes relied on this one courageous man, willing to sacrifice his own life in order to save another.
Miles slipped his shoes off, secured the rope around his body, took a deep breath, and waded into the cool river water.
“Well, Miles old man, here we go.”
One cautious step after another, Miles waded further out into deeper water, staying close to the larger rocks, using them to keep his balance and brace himself against the swirling undercurrent. He trudge on until they were out of his reach and clear of the deadly boulders and over turned submerged trees that could crush a soul between them and the violent rushing waters.
With the rope securely wrapped around his waist and arms, he then took a deep breath and let the swift flow carry him away to his destination. Next he went to work and put his swimming skills to use, gliding along with the tide, to keep from being dragged under, and drowning before his reached his goal.
Though he was bobbing in and out those waves, Miles, could see the raft clearly, and was relieved to see that it had slowed down some. He noticed it had hit an calm incline in the river. Teeter tottering on the large ripples until it’s tossed clear and back on rougher water. He could only hope that it stays there until he reaches it, for he was closing in at a steady speed.
Further down the river, Murdoch and the others waited impatiently on the bend. The grassy extended ground was out far enough to cut off the raft, before it runs into the dangerous part of the rapids. Which lay on the other side, and if it passes them, then there‘s no chance in reaching it in time. All eyes watched with great hope that this will work.
“Do you see him?” Murdoch asked his preoccupied elder son, who was peering through a pair of binoculars the sheriff had giving him just before they took off.
“No, just the raft that seemed to had slowed down, must had hit some calm water for the time being.”
“Wonderful, it will help Miles reach them faster.” Ethan declared.
“Yes, we hope so.” Scott muttered, as he continued his watch on the rafts progress, when. “I see him, he’s closing in on them, but still a distance to go. He’s seems to be struggling a bit, but he’s not giving up.”
“Got to give that man medal, if he pulls this off.” Mark commented.
“One brave man, indeed. Can you see your brother?” Murdoch hoped.
Scott scanned the river slowly, adjusting the lens, until he had clear focus on the raft. What he saw didn’t ease his mind one bit.
“He’s barely hanging on to the raft’s pole, and, from what I can tell, that Jax fellow was right. Johnny does not look good.”
“At least he’s alive.” Murdoch sighed with a heavy heart, rubbing weary eyes. “Just be ready when they get here, we only have once chance at this.”
While they waited, optimistic that the desperate, yet dangerous plan worked, Miles was rocked back and forth, by strong waves slamming against his tired body. They washed away his forward progress, pulling him backwards. His only alternative was to ride the waves, as best he could, while keeping his head above water and the raft in sight. He was not about to give up, not after coming this close.
Miles knew he had to attract their attention somehow, but he couldn’t get the words to flow out of his mouth. He needed to stay focused on his chore at hand. Murdoch was watching his progress closely with those spyglasses, and maybe they would give Johnny a sign that he was coming for them, and soon.
Unfortunately, other eyes were also on the old gent, and about to slither into the water.
“MURDOCH, LOOK!” Scott shouted handing the classes to his father.
“What? I don’t see…..Oh my god, no!” Murdoch croaked.
“What, what do you see?” Ethan beckoned.
“A croc and it’s about to head into the water.”
“We’ve got to stop it. Miles has no chance with that thing after him.” Ethan admonished.
“It’s too far to get a good shot at.” Mark gasped.
“I’ll take care of that!” Scott yelled as he made a mad dash for his horse, and hightailed it back up river. Urging his steed on with his masterful voice he pulled out his rifle on the run, gaining on the beast by the second.
Miles had no clue that there was a predator watching him with his beady, orange eyes. The old croc was waiting for the right time to make its move and advance on its pray. Suddenly he heard the report of a rifle over his head. Swirling around, he saw Scott racing up the shore, and pointing to the water behind him.
Miles’ eyes grew wider than two silver dollars, acknowledging the croc, which was half way into the water, also startled by the gunfire. Halting its tracks, but only momentarily.
Defenseless against the beast, he could do nothing but put his trust in Scott to hold it back. He gathered all he had left, and pushed on towards the raft, fighting the sudden burst of waves that threatened to overtake him once again.
Terror struck in the hearts of Johnny and Monique when they heard the sound of gunfire close by. Their heads snapped around, fearing the worst, that there was more trouble on shore, hampering their rescue. Both were stunned to see Scott racing up river, shooting in the air and wondered what in the hell was he doing.
“What in the hell is he shooting at?” Johnny snapped.
“Johnny look!” Monique gasped. “There’s a man swimming towards us, and it’s not the Master.”
“No, it’s not. And, I see now what Scott is shooting at. Is….that what…I think it is?” Johnny’s voice was weary.
“A crocodile, if I ever saw one. And he’s going after that man!” Monique shrieked and tightened her grip on the oar.
“Well, if anybody can stop it, Scott can.” Johnny was confident in his brother’s marksmanship. “Right now it’s up to us to help that man when he gets here, if he does.”
Thinking quickly, Scott pulled up the reins, jumped off his mount, and planted himself on a huge, flat rock. Close enough to the croc, he began shooting rounds into the creature’s thick, green hide, as it tried to advance on Miles. Soon, the clear water reddened with the croc’s blood. The beast fought to stay afloat, losing the battle quickly. With its last breath, it rolled over and drifted away, downstream.
Scott let the smoking gun drop to his side, exhaling deeply, thanking fate for allowing him to stop the monster. He watched as Miles gained on the raft, riding the current without much trouble. He knew that would not last long, once they reached the bend in the river. There was nothing more he could do, so he mounted up and hurried back to the others.
“Hang on, little brother, it won’t be long now.” He whispered as he took off.
While in the freezing water, Miles was beginning to tire more and more as he was giving his all to reach the raft. Johnny and Monique watched on with awe and deep concern for the courageous man. Together, they tried to turn the raft without top siding it, to slow it down, to give Miles a little more time to reach them, when mother nature decided to lend a hand. With one hard push of a swift wave, she hurled Miles toward the raft.
Still, with quick reflexes, Miles held out his arms to brace himself for the immediate impact. Grabbing hold of the wood, he dug his fingers into the cracks for anchorage, and hung on for dear life.
“Help him up. I got it.” Johnny commanded a stunned Monique to let go of the oar. “Hurry, I can’t hold it for long.”
“Do it! He can’t hang on for much longer.”
Giving Johnny a look of uncertainty, Monique reluctantly let go of the oar, and reached down to grab Miles’ arms. With all the strength she could muster, she pulled backwards, slipping on the water-saturated boards. Miles tried to help matters by swinging one leg over when the raft began to buck. The swaying motion was just what they needed for leverage. With one last yank from the girl, Miles was finally on board, drenched and shivering.
Laying there, catching his breath, Miles looked up at them, smiling.
“Nice to see you again, young John, you too, Miss Dunlop.”
Johnny shook his head, “That was a fool hearty thing you did there. But nice to see you again.”
“How? Why?” Monique uttered as she took over the oar again.
“Never mind that, miss, both your fathers are waiting for us at the bend. We have to get you off this contraption before you reach the rapids. And we don’t have much time.”
“By this rope here, we have only one chance at this, to throw a life line to them and they anchor the raft.” He explained as he hurried and tied one end of the rope around the sturdy pole Johnny was clinging to.
“I see. Can you throw far enough?” Johnny asked, watching the old man work hastily.
“I’m going to give it my best shot.”
“Well, if you could swim like that, brave that croc just to get to us, I guess you can.” Johnny smiled.
“Believe sir, I did not know about that croc. But thanks to your brother alerting me, or I would not be here now.”
“That’s. . .my. . .brother for ya.” Johnny agreed, weakly, his voice raspy.
“We got to get him to a hospital. He’s very sick because of me.” Monique hung her head in shame.
“We will, Miss, we will.” Miles assured her, leaning over touching Johnny’s forehead with the back of his hand, frowning at how hot he felt. “Hang on now, young John, it’s going to get bumpy soon as rough waters lay head.”
Miles returned the gesture, and stayed close to the boy while helping Monique maneuver the raft. As he had warned, the raft and its occupants were leaving the calmer section of the rapids and made its decent toward the bend.
Scott had made good time returning to his father and the others who stood waiting anxiously. They had a couple of horses ready to help pull the raft to safety once Miles threw them the rope. They found a safe spot to anchor the raft, close to shore. Now all they could do was wait and pray it would work.
“Get ready men, we only have a couple of shots at stopping that raft from reaching those rapids.” Murdoch barked.
“A couple of shots?” Scott asked, raising his eyebrows.
“It can’t hurt to be optimistic, can it?” Murdoch retorted, with a heavy sigh.
“In this case I agree.”
“I see them, and they’re gaining speed.” Mark shouted pointing to the approaching raft. “Miles made it and he’s aboard.”
“Thank God.” Murdoch muttered
Murdoch’s heart beat more furiously the closer it came. He didn’t need binoculars to see his son hanging on for dear life to that pole. Johnny was almost within his grasp yet so far away. A sudden sense of relief washed over him as far as knowing that his son was alive, but still in extreme danger.
“Hang on son, I’m here for you.”
“Johnny LOOK! there they are!” Monique exclaimed.
“Yeah, can’t miss my old man.” Johnny chuckled weakly, spying his father’s huge form standing tall. “Make. . . this. . .work, Miles.”
“I will do my best.” Miles said as he slowly rose up on his knees, steadying himself.
Taking the loose end of the rope in hand, he began to swing it over his head like a lasso to get the momentum going, enough to throw the rope with accuracy when the time came.
“Easy.” Johnny coached.
“We’re almost there.” Monique shrieked.
“Here they come.” Ethan belted out, “It will be okay, honey; we’ll get you.”
Edging closer to the drop off, planting their feet in further, Murdoch and Scott had their eyes peeled on the man who was about to toss the rope to them. Two set of hands and arms stretched as far as they could.
“Come on closer, just a little closer.” Murdoch beckoned. He was going to have to time this just right. “Get ready Scott.”
“I’m as ready as can be, just let’s catch that rope.”
Murdoch waved his arms as a signal to Miles to get ready. The man took a brave stand in the middle of the rocking raft, whipping the rope around, waiting for Murdoch’s word.
“NOW MILES!” The rancher boomed, his baritone echoing off the trees.
Miles nodded and whipped the lifeline like a seasoned wrangler. With one strong snap, he hurled it over the side right at Murdoch, who, at first, nearly missed catching it. But, before it was out of his grasp, he lunged forward and grab the rope as it fell to the ground. Scott was right by his father’s side and took hold and together they held tight. Ethan then led one the horses over, and he and Mark secured it around its powerful body.
The raft and its occupants halted with a sudden, hard jerk, knocking Miles to his knees. While Johnny and Monique held on for dear life as the raft fought to free itself just above the rapids. It was a tug of war between man and the elements, man doing his best to win.
“Pull them back, Ethan. We got to get this contraption over by that clearing, or we’ll lose it!” Murdoch grunted loudly, as he and Scott dug their feet deeper into the soft marshy ground, for more traction. Using their strong legs as anchors, they tightened their grip on the rope. Doing all they could to keep Johnny and the others from slipping away as the fraught tug-a-war between man and the elements continued.
“Come on boy.” Ethan urged the horse on, as he led him forward. “Good boy, keep it going.”
The gray gelding huffed and snorted, shaking its huge head in obedience to the command. With the lifeline secured around his massive neck, he pulled forward. Inch by inch, he brought Ethan nearer to the other horse waiting close by. Ethan then quickly guided the steed next to the black mare, until they were side-by-side, and close enough to loop any slack in the rope over its saddle horn. The raft was no match for the combined strength of the two horses, and conceded, but not without groaning its objections.
Johnny continued to cling to the warped waterlogged pole, completely helpless to help Miles and Monique as they struggled to keep the raft from splitting apart. All he could do was hope that it held together until they reach dry land.
He smiled sadly. The sight of his father and brother working so damn hard to secure his safety was all the assurance he needed. For there was a brief, fragile moment of doubt when he thought he would never see them again. How many times had they risked their necks to find him? How many times had they proven their devotion and love for him? Yet he still needed to know. It was an insecurity that went back to times that not a single soul could care less if Madrid was dead or alive, no matter what he did. Johnny could not describe the feeling of relief that overwhelmed him the second he spied his family emerging from those woods.
“Keep the horses moving forward.” Scott hollered back at Ethan. “we’re almost there.”
“Hurry, Mister, Lancer. Don’t know how much longer we can hold the oar steady. It’s beginning to crack.” Miles called out over the deafening roars of the rapids.
“Not much longer Miles. Hang tight.” Murdoch answered.
“You okay, Johnny?” He yelled to his shivering son.
“I’ll…be fine…once I’m…off this…damn thing.” Johnny replied through chattering teeth. Soaked to the bone, still being slammed by cold, river water, he was too weak to move a single muscle.
“Hang in there, brother! Not much longer now. I can’t leave you alone for a minute, now can I?” Scott scowled with an weary smile.
“I…guess….not.” Johnny snorted, shivering uncontrollably.
“We got to get him to a hospital.” Monique cried out.
“We will, darling.” Ethan assured his fretting daughter.
Miles’ words of warning about the raft breaking apart seemed to be coming true, sooner than they wanted. The extreme stress of the tug of war battle was taking its toll on the pole that held the oar in place; the same pole to which Johnny clung. It began cracking at the base. The unnerving sound of wood splintering in his ear, urged the young Lancer to let go and slide towards to the middle where Miles sat. Acting quickly, Miles grabbed Johnny, keeping him from going overboard.
“Hurry Daddy, it’s about to give!” The girl shrieked.
Ethan’s eyes grew wide with fright. He swallowed the lump in his throat and pushed aside the panic gripping at him, pressing the horses on. Each man called on his inner strength to keep the raft and its precious cargo from forging on into the deadly rapids.
With one last courageous effort, they had it out of the clutches of the river’s hungry mouth, and onto a small sandy patch just as the pole snapped and landed along side the beached raft.
Gathering up her frayed nerves, Monique kneeled down next to Johnny, wrapping her arms around his trembling body.
“Get a blanket over here fast! We got to get him warmed up.” She ordered.
Ethan snatched the extra blanket off one of the horses, handed it over to Murdoch, who raced to his son’s side, inadvertently pushing Monique slightly as he wedged in between her and Johnny.
“We’ll take over now.” Murdoch said a little too harshly, startling the girl, who promptly stepped out of their way as he and Scott hovered over Johnny.
She watched Murdoch place the blanket around his son’s shoulders, making sure it covered his trembling body enough to draw warmth from it. She smiled despondently when the big man carefully took Johnny into his arms, cradling him to his chest, using his own body heat to warm his child. In return, he was rewarded by Johnny nestling his dark head against his chin, relishing the touch and comfort only a parent can give no matter how old you are.
“Murdoch, look at his hands.” Scott croaked, his eyes tearing, as he tenderly held up his brother’s bandaged wrist, only to have Johnny pulling back.
“I see. Not only that, he’s burning up with fever.” Murdoch hissed.
Ethan stood there in total disarray, he was not the least thrilled of the shape Johnny was in, knowing that his own daughter was the cause of this almost fatal catastrophe. He looked up at Monique, her young face mirroring the guilt and remorse he was feeling.
“Monique, honey.” Ethan said, opening his arms to her.
The girl, sucked in a deep breath and flew to her father’s waiting arms, burying her head in his chest, sobbing.
“Daddy, I’m….sorry…..I didn’t mean for…this to happen, to go this far.”
“It’s okay, darling” Ethan whispered, “It’s over now.”
“No, it’s not over yet. Not until we get my son to town and a doctor!” Murdoch’s temper flared, shooting them a hard glare, “Which way is the fastest way back?”
“Well, we can’t go the way they were, the river widens after the rapids with nothing but swamps and more crocs just waiting for their next meal to happen by. Ethan scratched his head.
“Then we go back the way we came.” Scott snorted. “We have to let the sheriff know we have them anyway, and check on his prisoner.”
“I don’t….don’t want …to see him.” Monique quivered.
“We have no choice.” Murdoch retorted angrily, causing the girl to flinch. “Scott, help me get your brother on my horse.”
“Murdoch, no need to be so hard on her.” Ethan said a little defensively.
“Don’t I, Ethan?” Murdoch snapped, glaring down at the shaken girl, “But now’s not the time to debate it. We’ve got to get inland, and out of here. Scott!”
“Right.” Scott agreed as he carefully help his brother to his feet, “Just lean on me, little brother, I got you.”
“Always bossing…me …around, huh?” Johnny grinned weakly.
“I guess….this time…I can’t fight ya.”
“That’s right, now let’s go home.”
Scott wrapped his long, strong arms under his brothers’, guiding him one cautious step at a time over to where Murdoch had already had mounted up, waiting for them. Mark hurried over and helped hoist Johnny up, flinging his leg over until he was secure on the saddle and in Murdoch’s dependable arms.
With Monique seated behind her father, and Miles back on his horse, they headed back upstream, to where they had left the sheriff and the Magus.
Upon their arrival, they were astounded. The lawman had been rendered unconscious, and his prisoner gone. Foster lay sprawled on the ground with an oozing gash on the side of his head. The sound of approaching horses had stirred the sheriff, who tried as he might, to push himself off the cold ground.
“WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED HERE? “ Murdoch boomed.
“It’s apparent that the prisoner has escaped.” Scott scowled.
“But how? He was handcuffed.” Ethan marveled.
“Don’t underestimate the Master, father. He’s as crafty as they get.” Monique warned.
“My guess is that one of his disciples’ found him, and helped in his escape.” Mark said shaking his head in disgust.
Sheriff Foster rolled over on his back, groaning, squinting up at the frowning men on horseback. He again struggled to sit up, this time with success, his head throbbing and bloodied from the blow he took.
“Sorry…..he got….away… surprised me.”
“We can see that, sheriff. “ Murdoch growled, pointing to the man’s horse, puzzled, “But why didn’t he take your horse?”
Fighting the darkness that beckoned him, Johnny leaned his heavy head back against his father’s chest, scanning the area. Even in this weakened state, his gunfighter’s senses began tingling something fierce.
“He’s not…gone…still here waiting.” Johnny uttered
“Waiting for what?”
Within a few seconds Johnny’s words were proven right. they were taken by surprise when the seething, furious mad man who came running out of the woods. His deep brown eyes burning red with rage, and pointing the sheriff gun right at Johnny’s heart.
“HE´S MINE, I MUST OBEY THE GODS. I MUST HAVE MY SACRIFICE.” he raved, waving his arms widely. Out of the blue he shot off a round, the bullet barely missed Johnny and Murdoch, hitting a nearby tree.
Having enough of this madness, Scott pulled out his gun, and stopped the insane voodoo priest once and for all.
“Nobody is taking my brother anywhere but us.” Scott snarled as the Magus grasped his stinging chest, falling to his death.
“MASTER!” Monique shrieked, jumping off the back of the horse, wanting to run to her mentor, but was stopped by her Father.
“Monique, no.” Ethan cradled his daughter.
“As….I said…he’s no. . .master, just. . .a man.” Johnny uttered bitterly.
“You saw that, sheriff, it was self defense. He came after us with a gun, your gun, wanting to kill my son.” Murdoch stressed at the stunned lawman.
“I had no choice.” Scott added, holstering his smoking gun.
“If not Scott. . .I would have.” Johnny said in his brother’s defense.
“I saw, Lancer, don’t fret. It was clearly self defense.” Foster huffed, as he stood up on shaky legs, staggering over to the fallen Magus. Silently, he was mighty relieved that his murdering ways was over.
“What are we going to do with him?” Ethan wondered.
“Let the river take him.” The sheriff offered, “This is his home, really. He had no used for town life. He was always an outsider to most.”
“For somebody who feared him, you sure know a lot about him.” Scott suggested, raising his eyebrows curiously.
“I just know his kind.”
Giving this a little thought, the big rancher sucked in a deep breath, blowing it out slowly, “As the man says, let the river be his resting place. As much as I hate to agree, right now our main concern is Johnny, and we have no time to waste.”
It was agreed, and no one said another word. Mark and the sheriff took on the responsibility of carrying the Magus’ limp, cold body over to the riverbank, gently lowering him into the water. Though this man had cause so much sorrow and death in the past, they watched with sadden eyes as the river slowly carried him away.
Murdoch also looked on with mixed thoughts, swiftly turning his attention back to his shivering son. He tucked the blanket tighter around Johnny’s shoulders, snuggling him closer to ward off the early evenings chill.
“Come on, men, we can’t do no more here.”
“We have to find a safe place to camp for the night, before we head to town. We’ll never make it back before then.” Miles advised, looking up at the fading sun.
“Fine…with me…a good fire would…feel good right…about now.” Johnny stammered, with a weary grin.
“I agree, son.” Murdoch said touching his heated brow. “Let’s go!”
With a swift kick, the rancher urged his horse on back into the deep, mysterious woods of New Orleans. The search against time to find Johnny was over, but not the urgency to get him back to town, as his fever continued to rise. However, they had no choice but to wait it out, to nurse his wounds the best they could, in the woods.
It was safer than traveling by night, with the Magus’ followers still out there. There was no doubt they would be mortified once they learned he had been killed at the hands of the strangers who had penetrated their sacred forest, were death had reared its ugly head, many times over.
One lone small figure stepped out from the shadows of the trees. A mere shadow of a boy who had perished in the woods many moons ago. Joseph watched on as the men faded from his view. He nodded. Tonight he would call on the others who had joined him in the afterworld, and together they would stand guard over the Lancer’s camp, spreading their protective shrouds around them, until morning.
Joseph smiled, peering over at the Magus floating down river, “It est comme il se doit.”
It is as it should be.
His tortured soul now set free, Joseph smiled down on the camp one last time before the morning sun peeked over the horizon. Whispering goodbye, he and his ethereal companions slowly ascended to the heavens for a long awaited rest. Their job on earth, was done. They could do no more.
Johnny had faired the night without any complications from his wounds with help and loving care from his family. Like Joseph, they had kept a vigil over him during the night, taking turns keeping the fire going to ward off the cold and fed him as best they could. It was enough to ensure he would be able to ride without too much difficulty on their journey back to town.
Without any inference from the slain Magus` clique, it still took Murdoch and the men over half a day to reach the outskirts of town, where they parted ways. Miles escorted the Lancers to the local doctor, a good, decent, medical man. A man, he assured them, would take good care of Johnny.
Upon their arrival, the old doctor was immediately appalled by the condition of Johnny’s wrists. He shook his grey head in disbelief, though no surprise to him, at how someone could cause such painful damage to another human being. Making no haste, he cautiously ushered the young Lancer the examining room, where he used all his medical knowledge to treat the infection in Johnny’s inflamed hands.
Murdoch and Scott were firmly asked to wait out in the outer room while the doc and his nurse attend to Johnny. Much to their dismay and too tired to argue the point, they sat impatiently waiting for news on Johnny. Time passed at a snail’s pace. The waiting was torment.
Finally the door opened and the doctor entered, wiping his hands, sporting a promising smile. ” I’m pleased to announced that Johnny is out of danger and resting comfortably.” Old Doc Nicolas was happy to report. “I was able to drain out all the infection, and don’t foresee any nerve damage that would cost him the use of his hands. Now all he needs is plenty of rest. And I highly recommend that you take Johnny home, as soon as he awakens.”
Loud sighs of relief could be heard outside in the busy streets. “Praise god.” Murdoch proclaimed, wrapping his huge arm around Scott’s shoulders, giving him a fatherly squeeze. “Can we see him?”
“Yes. You can sit with him while he sleeps. He’ll be coming around shortly.” Doctor Nicolas told them. “I’ll give you some tonics to give him to help the fever.”
“Thanks Doctor.” Scott said, silently saying his own thank you that this nightmare was finally over.
“I’ll get a buggy ready, sir.” Miles announced and headed towards the door.
“Thank you too, Miles for you all you have done for us.” Murdoch called toward departing man. Miles stopped, turned, and smiled.
“My pleasure, sir.” He turned and proceeded on his way the carriage stable where he worked.
While the two elder Lancers prepared to move Johnny back to the Dunlop’s so they could stay close to him during his recovery, Ethan and Mark, along with a distressed Monique, had returned home to Ethan’s anxious wife, and Mark’s bride to be. Margot and Paulette welcomed their men with open, loving arms, grateful to have them home safe and sound. The relieved mother embraced her quiet, wayward daughter, athough she was deeply concerned and mortified at Monique’s actions. She couldn’t count the times she’d asked herself during this ordeal, where it was that she had gone wrong as a mother.
Monique pulled away from her mother, walked over to the fireplace and stared bleakly into the cold ashes. She knew what was coming next. She was being shadowed by Sheriff Foster. He wasn’t about to let her out of sight before her crimes where dealt with.
Foster needed to get back to the office to file an report, and contact the higher authorities, but was awaiting word from Ethan to take Monique into custody.
Ethan knew his daughter could not go unpunished. She had to face the consequences of her disgraceful actions. She had masterminded a plot and willingly kidnapped another human, chained him, and inflicted bodily harm that could have led to his death. During her misguided misadventures, she did indeed cause two deaths, one senseless, the other in self-preservation.
Ethan had come to realized that though his child did all she could to save Johnny’s life afterwards, her reaction to the Magus’ demise told him that she still had a long ways to go before she could be trusted again. She needed professional help.
Foster, and the Dunlops were about the proceed to the jailhouse to figure the mess out, when Murdoch and Scott walked through the door with Johnny in a wheelchair by orders of the doctor. Ethan quickly took his old friend to the side. In no mood to be bothered, other than caring for his son, the big Scot sighed and motioned for Scott and Miles to help Johnny upstairs to their room.
“What is it, Ethan, we need to get Johnny settled.” Murdoch grumbled.
“I know Murdoch, but we…er…were going over to the jailhouse to figure out what to do about this mess.” Ethan asked glumly, “I mean are you going to press charges against Monique…..if so, you have every right to…However . . .”
Murdoch glared at the distraught father, “Ethan, she can’t be trusted, you know that. Even though she helped, a little late I might add. The fact remains, she almost got my son killed! Not to mention that Zach fellow who was. You don’t expect her to go unpunished, do you?”
“A female?” Murdoch huffed, “Even the frailest of women can commit hideous crimes, and must atone for their actions. But I will do my best to assure the judge goes easy. But my son suffered a lot at her hands, and I can’t let that go.”
“I know.” Ethan uttered lowering his eyes, peering down sullenly at the floor. His sturdy shoulders slumped in defeat.
Monique placed a gentle hand on her father’s arm. “It’s okay father. I know what I did was terribly wrong, and I will take whatever the judge gives me. . .” she said slipping her jacket on over her slender shoulders.
“But does she have to stay in that jail?” Margot quipped, approaching her daughter, “Can’t she stay here under house arrest. That awful jail is no place for a Dunlop.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for her and Johnny in the same place right now. Not after what he went through.” Scott snarled as he hurried down the staircase. “He’s resting now.” he added, noting the look of question on his father’s face.
“It’s okay, Mother. He’s right, Johnny doesn’t need me around right now.”
“I’ll make her as comfortable as possible….I promise.” The sheriff snorted escorting the girl to the door.
“But what about the wedding? She’s the maid of honor!.” Margot cried.
Foster rubbed the back of his head, thinking. “I…I think it will be okay if I let her out for the wedding only. If she behaves and doesn’t’ ry to escape. Of course, I will have to stay with her until it’s over. Understand?”
“Fair enough.” Ethan agreed sadly, grabbing his hat and following them out the door.
Monique stopped, and gradually turned around, giving her mother an sad smile of assurance. She glanced up at the Lancers, then around at the home she grew up in, wondering how long she would be kept away. Then her eyes wandered upstairs, her thoughts on Johnny. How she almost took him from his family forever, and all for the sake of lust. A hard reality, she would now gladly answer for all her mistakes. Wiping the lone tear that trickled down her cheek, she held her head up and turned back to leave, looking forward to returning for her sister’s wedding.
Three days had passed peacefully, all except for the hustle and bustle of getting the manor ready for the wedding. Plans were altered as to its location. Instead of having the ceremony at the church, it was to be performed at home, at the request of the bride and groom. They felt after all that had happened it would be best to have a closed wedding with fewer guests, out of respect for the visiting Lancers.
The house was elegantly decorated with every flower known to New Orleans, perfectly placed around the rooms, while the banquet table was laden with every possible Cajun delicacy. The staircase railings were lined with white and yellow streamers wrapped between lavish orchids, leading to the foyer decorated in glittering paper bells which silently announced the beautiful bride. Dressed in a stunning, beaded white gown, she stood, her proud father on her arm as the grand piano started to play the wedding march.
Johnny’s wrist was healing nicely without any side effects, or signs of fever resurfacing. He was well enough that the doctor approved Murdoch’s request for his son to attend the wedding. He didn’t want his boy to be stuck up in that room by himself on such a festive day.
Johnny was seated towards the back of the room in a comfortable chair set aside just for him. He still needed to rest, though he was allowed to walk around for short periods of time. From where he sat, he had a good view of the bride as she was ushered down the aisle. He couldn’t help but smile at the joyful sight.
Arching himself up straighter, his eyes were drawn to the maid of honor as she stood by the bridesmaids, looking very lovely in her pink full gown, he hated to admit. He did notice she seemed uneasy about something, as if all eyes were on her. He was honestly pleased that the sheriff kept his promise and allowed Monique to participate in her sister’s wedding, although she would have to return to her jail cell once the day was over. At least she would have that happy memory to sustain her for what was to come later.
The blessed nuptials went off without a hitch, even the presence of the sheriff, as he stood watch over the proceedings and his charge could not ruin the long awaited day. Cheers and clinging of wine glasses filled the room, as the festivities continued until it was time to say goodbye and wish the newlyweds on their way. Finally, as the last guess left, the house became quiet as a tomb, everybody drained and thankful it was over.
“That was a beautiful wedding, Margot. Everything was exceptional, the food exquisite.” Murdoch graciously complimented his hostess
“Thank you, Murdoch. I’m amazed myself at how well it turned out, considering the short time we had to get things ready.”
“My dear wife, you work wonders with all you do.” Ethan lovingly gave his wife a peck on the cheek.
“Oh go on, the both of you.” She blushed.
“Mother. Father.” Monique softly interrupted. “It’s time. I have to leave you now.” She glanced quickly over at Johnny, who was seated by the fireplace, resting comfortably and looking on at the others.
“Yes, I’m afraid I have to take her back now. It‘s getting late.” The sheriff took out his handcuffs ready to clamp them on her small wrist.
“No handcuffs!” Johnny blurted out. “I don’t see no reason why she’ll give you any trouble. She had plenty of opportunities to run during the wedding, but she didn’t.”
“How can you be so generous, after all she did to you?” Foster huffed.
“She knows what’s in store for her, come her court hearing, and there is no place to run anymore since that monster Magus is dead. If she had any common sense left, which I think she does, she’ll behave. Give her some dignity when she leaves here, okay?” Johnny explained, in between a few hard yawns.
“I agree with my son, who I think better call it an night.” Murdoch frowned, peering over at his exhausted boy. “Scott? Would you do the honors, and escort your brother upstairs?”
“With pleasure, I’m ready to call it a night myself.” Scott confirmed, walking over to his drowsy sibling. “Come on little brother, we’ve both had a long, tiring day.”
With his hands still bandaged, it was hard for Johnny to push himself off the chair. Having no choice but to rely on his older brother’s help, he held up his arms and let Scott slide his under his armpits, carefully lifting him up. Scott held tight to his brother as they both headed for the long staircase, when Johnny stopped and turned towards Monique.
“Don’t worry. It might not be as bad as you think. After all, you did help me escape. That has to count for something. And remember, you don’t need no black magic, or no master to be your own woman, or find the right man.” He smiled sweetly at her.
“I’m beginning to think you’re right, Johnny.” Monique said, smiling back, “Thank you. I needed to hear that.”
“Then I know you’ll be all right, no matter what happens tomorrow.” Johnny added letting out another jaw-cracking yawn. He bid everyone a goodnight with a nod of his head and continued on upstairs to their room, leaving the others to deal with the goodbyes.
“I can’t believe the hearing is tomorrow. What’s with that judge anyway? He’s in such a hurry to prosecute my daughter. What about those followers of that mad man?” Ethan growled as he helped Monique with her coat.
“It’s not him. It’s the prosecuting attorney, eager to get things going. After talking to him, I learned there have been many unexplained disappearances in the last few years. He’s sure it has a lot to do with that Magus. And he’s been trying to locate his horde. And.”
“And, I’m one of them.” Monique uttered, guilt etched on her young face, as she thought back to young Joseph. “It’s okay father, I’ll be alright, Johnny says I will be, and I believe him.”
“Time to go, Miss.” Foster announced.
“Yes I know. Bye mother, bye father.” Monique muttered sadly, as she hurried and kissed her parents on the cheek, and then rushed out the door as the tears flowed down her cheeks.
Murdoch, Ethan and Margot stood on the porch, lit with only the moon and dwindling light of fancy lanterns as the buggy carried Monique back to her lonely jail cell. Slowly, she disappeared out of their view just like those who had vanished years before.
The court hearing set for ten am was over within an hour from once it began, throwing the whole lot of them in a whirlwind. Thanks to the prosecuting attorney, it was an open and shut case, and the judge was more than happy to oblige with his offering as a sentence for the young Sorceress.
Monique was sentenced to three years to be served in the women’s state penitentiary located on the far end of Louisiana, a good five days ride from home, if not more. He offered that she would be given professional help to put right, the wrong drummed in her head by the mad man, Magus. And, as to be expected, Ethan was outraged at the decision. The thought of his daughter in that god-awful place made his skin crawl, his heart aching with apprehension. However, there was nothing he could about it but pray, she would survive its hardship. He had heard what went on behind those walls.
The Lancers were also astounded. He wished it wasn’t so long a stretch, but Johnny knew the reasons behind it. In some people, it takes a while to turn around completely from evil. She had lived a secret life; a mysterious, deadly life, where innocents were lost for unearthly reasons. They feared she would lapse back into her old ways, if time wasn’t applied to help her. He was told though, that since she did help him escape, the judge shortened her prison term by a year.
Again, goodbyes where said, this time as the prison wagon arrived two days later to take the young Dunlop to her new home. Paulette and Mark had missed the court hearing. However, they were there to see Monique off, as were the Lancers.
All but Johnny, who opted to stay at the manor. He didn’t have the heart to face her, to watch her board that wagon. All he wanted to do was get packing for the trip home. His wrists were healing better each day and he felt well enough to travel. After examining Johnny thoroughly, the doctor had to agree and gave the okay for them to leave New Orleans.
The sooner the better, Murdoch eagerly admitted. They had stayed away from the ranch too long, and it was time to head back to California, to Lancer. This would be another trip that none of them would never forget, even if they tried. Following the short-lived trial, Murdoch had bought their train tickets for the noon train that was leaving today. Ethan, hating to see his old friend go, accompanied him and his sons to the train station.
“Murdoch, old friend, I wished things hadn’t turned out like this. It was the last thing I wanted.” Ethan whole-heartedly apologized.
“You had no control over it, Ethan. Don’t beat yourself up over it.” Murdoch assured his old friend with comforting pat on the back. “It’s over, and that monster is gone, and more lives are spared for now.”
“Until another proclaims himself ‘the king of black magic.’” Ethan shuttered,
“There will always be those who will practice voodoo. You can’t stop that. Just be careful around it.” Scott advised.
“Well, I for one, will stay far away from anything remotely to do with it.” Johnny chuckled wearily.
“I don’t blame you, son. Not at all.” Ethan stepped over to Johnny, giving him a gentle squeeze on the arm. “How are the hands?”
“Oh, they’ll be okay. The doc says I can still use a gun and rope a steer when they are completely healed. You don’t know how happy I was to hear that.” Johnny said with a huge sigh of relief.
“I bet you were, son.” Murdoch snorted, just as the whistle blew, announcing the arrival of the train pulling in. “I think our train is here, boys, got everything?”
“Yep, I can’t wait to get going home!” Johnny proclaimed, clumsily adjusting his gun belt, cursing the bandages he still had to wear.
“What’s wrong, brother? Expecting trouble?” Scott joshed.
“No, brother, just a force of habit I guess. It didn’t feel right the way it was lying.” Johnny retorted, “That’s ‘cause I had to have help with putting it on.” He added holding up his bandaged wrist.
“Well, things will get back to normal once we get back home.” Scott told him as he helped his brother with his bags. Then a motivating thought came to him. “So tell me brother, while on that raft, how did it feel being in Huckleberry Finn’s shoes?”
Scott eyes lit up and grinned wickedly, “Well, brother that’s another tale in itself. And I’ll be happy to tell you all about it on the way home.”
Johnny groaned, “Not another one of your….er…stories, Scott. They put me to sleep. And I had plenty of that!”
“Oh yes, brother, and rest assured, this one I think you’ll enjoy.” Scott smirked as he escorted his hesitant sibling to the train.
Murdoch shook his head, laughing as he followed his hurried boys, “This is going to be one…. long… ride…. home.”
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