Word Count 9,840
Johnny stopped short in the hallway leading to his bedroom. Everyone was in bed at this late hour but he knew he’d heard something. He held his breath and waited, his eyes darting all around as if he’d see what he was hearing but it was silent now. After nearly a full minute, he sighed and shrugged then headed to his room once more.
There! He had heard something but where was it coming from? It seemed to be all around him. Just a whisper. He couldn’t make out the words, if there even were any words. But, something was there. He waited again but heard no more.
Inside his room, he lit the lamp and turned it up, illuminating the room then went about undressing for bed. A breeze wafted to him, cold and soft. Goosebumps rose on his arms and he made to go to the window and close it. He stopped again and stared. It was already closed.
He turned sharply and scanned the room in its entirety. There was no one, nothing there. Warily, he continued undressing, looking up and around him every few seconds.
This is ridiculous! he thought. Probably just a breeze got through around the sill or something. I’m acting like some scared kid. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he extinguished the lamp then slipped between the bed linens and sighed.
It was just getting chilly at night now. It had been a long, hot summer and the cooler weather was inviting, for a while. Soon enough, he knew he’d be wishing for that summer warmth again. He hated cold weather. This time of year, he longed for Mexico just a little more than any other time.
That he would always miss it, he was sure but not enough certainly to give up what he had now. He smiled a little at the memory of supper this evening. He’d come in a little late, tired and put out with the day. Murdoch had given him only a cursory look of annoyance to which he had smiled and winked. He could swear he’d seen just a flicker of a smile on the man’s face.
Then Scott had started in on him and they’d had a time going at each other. That was the best part of the day for him. Supper time when they were all together. When he could play around with his brother and, sometimes even his father. He’d grown to appreciate Murdoch’s insistence on punctuality for the evening meal even if it was just impossible some days.
Murdoch seemed to realize this and didn’t growl at him quite so much if he was late now. Of course, he was rarely late and always had a good reason. He reckoned the old man was seeing that and relaxed more about it. That was a good feeling, too. That his father understood he wasn’t just being irresponsible or selfish; that he always had a reason for everything he did.
His eyes grew heavy and he let go, waiting for sleep to visit. Suddenly, he came straight up in the bed, looking all around the room. He’d heard it again; the whispers.
Once his heart stopped racing and the rushing in his ears was gone, Johnny allowed himself to think. Must be the wind. It’s pretty heavy tonight. Yeah, that must be it. Just getting in through the cracks. He laid back down and sleep did come in then.
Johnny staggered into the kitchen the next morning, bleary eyed and grumpy. No one said a word to him and he was glad for that. His day had started badly already and he didn’t want it made worse by someone trying to be cheerful. He ate his meal in silence then, with a grumbled ‘see ya later’, he left for the day’s work.
He hadn’t slept well. Tossing and turning half the night as dreams invaded his slumber. They weren’t nightmares exactly but they were disturbing to him. Strange dreams that made no sense. Now, in the light of day, he couldn’t remember any specifics, just that they were odd and they seemed to come one right after the other all night.
He saddled Barranca who seemed to sense his mood and remained passive, then walked out into the yard. Murdoch and Scott were standing by the corrals talking as he neared and his father called him over.
“Take a ride over by Devil’s creek today and check the water level,” Murdoch ordered.
Johnny nodded and started to turn when he felt a hand on his arm. Looking up, he saw Scott’s eyes drilling into him with a concerned gaze.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, just didn’t sleep too good. I’ll perk up soon, I guess.” He gave a perfunctory smile and mounted up then rode off with a less than enthusiastic wave to his family.
Devil’s Creek! That was miles out of his way. Didn’t Murdoch realize that? He inhaled deeply of the cool air and let it out slowly. Stop it, Johnny. You’re bein a bear. Just something that’s gotta be done. No sense gettin all prickly about it. He quirked his mouth at himself then decided to at least try for a better mood.
Well, second day in a row I’ve been late for supper, he thought as he trudged up to the front door. Still, it’s not like it’ll take a genius to figure out I had a little problem. Murdoch will growl a little but that’s all. He opened the door, stopping his thoughts and focusing on stepping into the great room. He figured Scott would get a good laugh, anyway. And he was right.
His eyes found his father first, sitting at the head of the table and Murdoch’s mouth fell open. Then, he looked at Scott who burst out in laughter. Johnny stood there enduring the humiliation and waiting for the ultimate question. Finally, it came.
“What happened to you?”
Murdoch’s voice wasn’t as expected. It was soft and concerned and Johnny felt a little guilty for assuming he’d yell some. “Fell in the creek.” Managing a smile, he went on. “It’s got water in it.”
Murdoch’s lips twisted then he frowned and cleared his throat. “Did you have to get in to tell?”
Johnny just smirked at him, shooting a glare at his brother who was still laughing.
“Go change your clothes, son. But, try to hurry.”
Johnny smiled genuinely and gratefully at his father then nodded and headed upstairs. Scott’s laughter followed him all the way. His previous bad mood returned and he felt some unkind feelings toward his brother. Mostly, that he wanted to knock that grin off Scott’s face.
As he changed his clothes, his mood darkening even more, he heard it again. The whispers. He turned sharply and looked behind him. It dawned on him that maybe his brother was playing a trick. It could have been Scott last night and he could have followed Johnny upstairs just now.
Quietly, he stepped to the door then jerked it open and jumped into the hall but it was empty. Hmmph! Probably gave him plenty of time to get downstairs. Well, he’s not getting away with it, that’s all. He dressed quickly and hurried downstairs.
Sitting in his chair, he didn’t even look in his brother’s direction, deciding to play it cool for now. He smiled at Murdoch then started filling his plate.
“I hope you don’t catch a cold, Johnny. It’s been chilly all day.”
He looked at the old man and shrugged. “Guess if I do I’ll just have to deal with it.”
“Well, eat a good supper. You didn’t sleep well last night. No sense in tempting fate.”
“No worry there. I’m starvin!” To prove his point, he shoved a forkful of potatoes in his mouth. He heard his brother chuckle again and was surprised at the irritation he felt toward Scott. Maybe he was already getting sick. Still, he refused to look at his brother. He may be trying not to be any angrier but that didn’t mean he wasn’t already ticked off at his brother’s less than sympathetic greeting tonight. He almost smiled to himself, knowing how ignoring Scott got on the older man’s nerves.
Conversation turned to ranch work and local news through the rest of the meal. Still, Johnny maintained his vigil and never spoke directly to his brother. He could hear it in Scott’s voice and felt it was ample payback. A small smirk flashed across his face as he stood to retire into the living room with his family.
It happened about as he expected. Murdoch excused himself for a minute and Scott jumped right in. “I’m sorry I laughed at you, Johnny, but it was a sight. You would’ve laughed at me, too, and you know it.”
Johnny stared at his boots as he stretched his legs out. He heard the frustrated sigh from the sofa.
Slowly, he looked up at his brother with the slightest of smiles on his lips. “What else have you been up to, brother?”
The frown on Scott’s face, coupled with the pure confusion and shaking head made Johnny second guess himself.
“I haven’t been up to anything. What do you mean?”
“Nothin, Scott. Sorry, nothing at all. Besides, I was just getting back at you and you would’ve done the same.” He cocked a brow and waited for his brother to even try denying it. All Scott did was lower his eyes briefly then grin. “Well, I’m going to bed. I have a feeling Murdoch might be ordering me to any minute anyway.”
Scott stood as well and as Johnny neared to pass him, he reached out and felt his brother’s forehead. “So far, so good. Sleep well, brother.”
Johnny gave him a slap in the gut and a grin. “I plan on it. I’m worn out. Nite, Scott.”
Johnny was smiling as he climbed the stairs. Despite his off-handed remark, he prayed he didn’t get sick. There was nothing quite as miserable as a cold and he seemed to keep them a good long while the rare times he’d caught one. Well, maybe if I think myself healthy, I’ll stay that way. He laughed a little at that thought.
As he turned the knob and opened the door an inch, he felt the cold air rush toward him. Johnny let go of the door knob and took a step back, goosebumps erupting on his arms even as a chill went down his spine. He wasn’t too sure it was the cold air causing it. He knew his window was closed unless one of the women had opened it while cleaning.
Sighing and running a hand through his hair, he figured that’s exactly what had happened. He didn’t know why he was so spooked. He had been so convinced Scott was playing tricks but his brother’s face told a different story. Unless, his brother was a very good actor.
No sense in standing out here like an idiot, he thought and walked into the room. It was dark as coal and he sucked in a breath as he went to light the lamp. The air was warm and his eyes went immediately to the window once the light was on. It was closed.
“What the hell is going on here?” Frustrated more than anything, he went about readying for bed, his exhaustion beginning to hit him hard.
As he settled on his back, his arms cradled under his head, he stared at the ceiling until his eyes adjusted to the near dark. Once he was able to make out the furniture in the room, he closed his eyes and began to drift off.
Johnny bolted straight up in the bed breathing rapidly and looking wildly around the room. He scooted up to the headboard and leaned against it, still checking the room. Sweat ran down his cheeks from his temples and he swiped a shaky hand over his face. After a minute, he threw the covers off and swung his legs around to sit on the edge. He lit the lamp with still trembling hands and slowed his breathing.
His heart began to work normally again but he was still wary. Rising, he moved around the room, pacing and trying to make sense of a dream he was rapidly losing memory of now. Try as he might, it slipped away until it was nothing more than vapor, out of his reach. He went to the bedside and looked at his pocketwatch.
Three o’clock! Great! I’ll never get back to sleep. He stood there a while longer then decided to head to the kitchen. Murdoch said once that sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he drank some milk. Maybe, that would help.
Slipping his pants on, he headed down the hall in his bare feet. Probably not a good idea, he considered as he remembered the swim he’d taken and the possibility of catching a cold. Well, I’ll just chance it.
As he reached the landing, he stopped cold. Johnny felt someone watching him and that was a familiar feeling for him. Slowly, he turned and looked back down the hall, half expecting to see Murdoch but no one was there. As he started to turn back to the stairs, he saw something in his periphery.
Peering down to the opposite end of the hall, he saw a mist. Frowning and befuddled, he moved slowly toward it. How could fog get inside the house? That didn’t make any sense. He moved ever closer as the mist seemed to evaporate before his eyes. By the time he reached the end, it was gone but the air was decidedly colder here. He pulled the curtain back from the window but it was closed. Johnny held his hand by the sill but could feel no draft.
“What are you doing?”
He jumped two feet in the air then whirled around at the voice. Heart thundering for the second time this night, Johnny leaned against the wall and shuddered out a breath. “You scared the hell out of me, old man!”
“Keep you voice down. What are you doing?”
Johnny relaxed and straightened himself, suddenly embarrassed. “Well, I thought I saw something down here but it was nothing.” His father was eyeing him closely and he felt uncomfortable. Murdoch wasn’t saying anything and Johnny couldn’t stand it any longer. “Well…”
“Why are you up so late, son?”
“Woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. I thought I’d try that milk. You know, you said it helps you?”
“It does. That’s where I was heading, too. Come on, we’ll raid the kitchen.”
Johnny smiled and stepped into his father’s open arm. He fought the urge to look behind him and kept walking, feeling much better now that his father was with him.
As they sat quietly in the kitchen nursing their milk and a slice of applesauce cake, Johnny couldn’t stop thinking about the mist, or the cold air or the whispers or the damned nightmares. It was frustrating but it was also starting to frighten him. He hated to admit that and he still didn’t know what it was. But, his upbringing kept nudging forth, trying to find a voice to tell him what was happening. He knew what that voice would say and he didn’t want to hear it. He’d never believed in such things and the stories had scared him as a child. When he was older, he simply scoffed at them.
He glanced over at his father and knew he’d scoff, too. No way was he going to tell Murdoch about this. The only sound in the kitchen was the slurping of milk and Johnny smiled a little at the comfortable silence. His shoulders relaxed and he dipped his head a little lower, feeling the tiredness creeping back to take hold. His eyes began to droop then he heard it.
Head snapping up, Johnny looked at his father but Murdoch was eating his cake and made no indication anything was amiss. But, he had heard it, hadn’t he? Maybe not. Maybe he had fallen asleep right there at the table and dreamed it. Was he ever going to get any decent rest?
He tried to act normally and lowered his head again. Surely this wasn’t Scott, now. His brother wouldn’t chance Murdoch hearing him if he was playing a joke. Johnny was beginning to think Scott had nothing to do with this and that maybe, he was simply losing his mind. “What day is it?”
“No, I mean the date,” Johnny reiterated.
Johnny shivered, holding his breath then slowly releasing it. He smiled weakly at his father but Murdoch was looking oddly at him.
“What’s going on with you, Johnny?”
“Nothing. Just wondering the date, is all.” He ain’t buyin that, Johnny boy, he thought.
“Are you sure you’re not getting sick?”
“I’m fine. I think I’m gonna head up now.” He stood and grabbed his dishes, setting them in the sink and applying his mask. Once ready, he turned back, smiled warmly at his father and bade him goodnight. He could feel Murdoch’s eyes on him the whole time he walked away.
He made it to his bedroom door without incident and smirked to himself with the thought. Still trying to find a reasonable explanation, Johnny walked to the end of the hall and checked the window. It was firmly closed with no draft. Sighing lightly, he turned and went to his brother’s door. Quietly, he eased it open and looked at the sleeping man, covers half off the bed and one arm dangling off the side of the mattress, he could hear Scott breathing evenly.
Back in his own room, Johnny ambled about, checking his own window and looking in every corner. This is ridiculous! he thought. He tugged his pants off and slid under the covers. He heard Murdoch’s bedroom door shut as he lowered the light by his bed. Determined, he settled down and went to sleep.
His eyes opened and he stared at the ceiling. His breathing was heavy, his heart pounding in his ears with sweat-saturated hair plastered to his head. Johnny couldn’t seem to move for several minutes. Pulling his mind back to the here and now, he slowly wiped his face and tried to relax his tense muscles. Every inch of him seemed drawn tight and unable to function properly.
It seemed to take hours though he knew rationally it wasn’t so. Eventually, he was able to sit up and he looked around knowing he’d see nothing. Still feeling somewhat dazed, he put his pants on in an automatic fashion then stood and walked to the door. Without hesitation, he opened it and turned toward the left, away from the stairs.
He knew exactly what he was doing yet he couldn’t seem to stop himself. Part of him didn’t want to go, part of him knew he had to.
At the end of the hall, he turned right and down the passageway to the unused wing. He’d only ever been there once before when he and Scott were exploring this massive house. That was not long after he’d recovered from the gunshot wound. They’d both been more than curious as to what that area held since Murdoch nor Teresa ever mentioned anything about it. What they’d found wasn’t exactly exciting. Empty rooms mostly, some with old furniture. The most those rooms held was dust. Tons of dust – as if the place had never been used. Or, at least, not for years.
Scott had logically stated there was no need to use this wing of the house. There was ample room for one man in the rest of the hacienda. Murdoch had lived alone for many years. Even with Teresa and her father there, the additional rooms wouldn’t be needed. The elder Lancer brother had wondered aloud at the time why Murdoch had built such a large house. Johnny had jokingly retorted he figured the old man had counted on having a dozen or so kids. The idea had fallen weak on being verbalized and neither brother felt the desire to stay their course of exploration. He’d never gone up there again.
The air was decidedly cooler in this area with no heat source and not much furniture to hold that heat even if it were there. Johnny felt the chill on his bare chest but he didn’t alter his course. He headed straight for one room in particular. One of two rooms in this wing that had any furniture.
It was mostly broken pieces; a bed, a dresser, an old mirror – all of which had seen better days. He reckoned Murdoch just used it to store stuff and probably had forgotten it was even there.
Now, he seemed drawn to this particular room, larger than the others, he knew. He hesitated only a second before turning the knob. The door creaked loudly as it slowly swung open but he was unconcerned with the noise. He knew no one would hear him.
What he saw made him feel dizzy and he leaned his hand against the doorframe. Mouth hanging open, he could only stare.
Johnny blinked and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. It was a dream, surely. Of course it was. He was going to wake up in the morning and either laugh about it or not even remember it. Convincing himself of this, he stepped inside. As soon as he was clear, the door slammed shut. He could hear the lock striking home.
He turned and grabbed the doorknob, wrenching it left and right and pulling with all his might but it wouldn’t give. He started examining the door, thinking maybe it was bowed from the changing temperatures over the years. As he slid his hand along one side, he heard a noise behind him.
Rounding, Johnny fell back against the door as the room transformed even more before his eyes. Slowly, it faded into something altogether different.
Light poured from the now sparkling clean windows as if it were the height of noon. He smelled roses in the air. The old furniture disappeared, replaced by sturdy, shining new. And in the corner, a baby crib just materialized.
And he head the whispers.
A table was there with an open music box playing some soft tune. It was a pleasing sound and he found himself relaxing just a little. A vase of roses appeared on the dresser. The bed was made with a downy quilt overlay, ruffled canopy and pillows adorning it. He blinked then rubbed his eyes as he tried to make sense of it all.
He saw movement and looked toward the corner as a small black-haired head popped up from the crib. Tiny fists grabbed the railing as a baby stood on wobbly legs and cooed at him. Johnny stared into the incredibly blue eyes and saw himself there; as if he were looking into a mirror.
The door on the other side of the room opened and she walked in. Dressed in a light blue gown with a low bodice trimmed in white lace, her hair was pulled up on her head yet strands cascaded around her neck. She went to the crib, a loving smile on her beautiful dark face.
Johnny slumped a little further down the door as his knees began to tremble. He opened his mouth but no sound would come out. He watched mutely as she picked the baby up and cradled him against her.
“Did you have a good nap, niÃ±o? Your papa will be home soon and we will have a nice lunch.”
The baby squinched his face and sucked his lips before opening his mouth. “Papa?”
She laughed musically and Johnny felt tears stinging his eyes at the beauty of that sound.
“Si, nino. Your papa, he loves you so much. More than anything in this world.”
Johnny smiled softly, his eyes blurred by the moisture there. He felt a lump rise in his throat and he swallowed convulsively. Then, he jumped at the loud sound.
Boots clumped toward the door behind him. Instinctively, he moved aside and to the corner nearest him. The door swung open and he gave a thought to running through it but his feet wouldn’t move at all. He tried to raise a leg but it felt like it weighed a ton.
He leaned into the shadows, thinking they couldn’t see him but not taking any chances. The towering figure of his father twenty years younger stood just inside the doorway. One big hand flicked the door and it closed resoundingly. Johnny heard the lock click once more.
She turned and smiled warmly at him. The baby reached out his arms, his fingers curling and uncurling as he grasped the air between them. Murdoch’s face softened from the deep frown as he reached out and took his son. Bouncing the boy in the air a few times, he hugged him close.
“Have you had a good day, hijo?”
The child made some sort of noise and Murdoch laughed deeply.
Johnny found himself smiling, the tears still in his eyes. The next words wiped the smile away.
“Where’s my lunch?” The seemingly innocuous words were said with such disdain, such irritation, Johnny flinched away.
“It is ready, my husband. Please, sit and I will bring it to you.”
“You should have had it here already. You know I come home at the same time every day to see Johnny. There is no excuse for the delay!”
The baby whimpered and Murdoch rubbed his back as Maria disappeared from the room. Johnny realized she hadn’t walked out the door, just simply vanished.
He watched his father carry him to a chair and sit down. He bounced the baby on his knee and received peels of laughter from the child. Once baby Johnny had settled, Murdoch pulled him in closer and started talking softly.
“Soon, your big brother will be here and you’ll have someone to play with. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, son?”
The child nodded, a bright smile on his face. “Sot?”
Murdoch chuckled. “Yes, but it’s Scott. Can you say that. Scott?”
The baby squinched his face again and worked his mouth around the sound. Finally, he said with confidence, “Sot.”
Again the father laughed and just nodded. Then, the laughter and the smile were gone and Maria was back. Standing there with lunch tray in hands and a smile on her face.
“Well, put it down! I can’t eat it if you just stand there with it!”
Her smile never faltered as she walked over and sat the food down, taking the baby so the father could eat. “I hope it is to your liking, husband.”
Murdoch made a noise and tucked into the meal. Johnny watched his mother carry him to the window and begin humming softly.
He realized he was now sitting on the floor in the corner. He didn’t remember how he’d gotten there but his father’s attitude angered him. More than that, it hurt to see how he treated his mother. Was this how it really was or am I seeing what I imagined her life with him was like?
He pondered that. He’d never really thought what their marriage had been like but it wasn’t hard to think it wasn’t good since she left Murdoch. Or, as he had thought for so many years, been thrown out.
Suddenly, the room darkened, the players evaporated then reappeared. He realized it was now nighttime in this strange place. He watched as Maria leaned over the crib and smiled, tucking in the covers and wishing him a good sleep. Then, Murdoch was there, already in bed and Johnny found his feet again. He knew he didn’t want to see this and he slowly walked toward the door, hoping to make his escape.
Maria went to sit at the dresser and began brushing her hair. Johnny smiled, remembering how particular she was about that nightly routine. No matter what was happening or where they were, she always managed to find time to brush her hair every night. When she was sick, he’d brush it for her. His hand reached out without any thought or volition from him. He snatched it back, his heart thumping painfully in his chest.
He saw her look in the mirror at the man in the bed, a seductive smile on her face. Johnny looked at his father and saw nothing but animosity. His heart sank and he wondered again if this was a true look into the past. He didn’t want it to be so.
Murdoch turned onto his back, adjusted the covers and closed his eyes. Within seconds, he was snoring.
Johnny looked back at his mother and saw tears spring up in her eyes then she buried her face in her hands. Before he knew it, he was walking toward her slowly. He wanted nothing more than to console her at that moment.
She looked up then, into the mirror and right into his eyes.
“Now, you know.” It was all she said then she was gone.
They were all gone and he was back in the dark, back in the dusty room with the broken furniture and the air cooled substantially. He heard a creak and turned to the door as it swung open.
Johnny walked into the kitchen the next morning and saw his father first. Anger rushed through him so quickly, it took his breath for a moment. Scowling, he took his seat, not happy at the close proximity to the old man. He glanced at Scott who appeared busy making a dent in his breakfast. When Murdoch greeted him, Johnny ground his jaw before saying a mumbled ‘mornin.’
He stared at his plate, moving his fork slowly about the edges of the food. Why did he react that way to Murdoch? He knew it had to do with the dream last night but he couldn’t really remember much about it. Mostly just the feelings it evoked. Disturbing, angry, bitter and painful feelings. He also knew it had to do with his mother but the details just would not present themselves to him.
He managed to drink a cup of coffee before muttering about work then leaving the room as quickly as possible.
In the foyer, he donned his gunbelt and hat then yanked the door open, giving it a slam then pulling up short outside. He turned back to the door and stared at it, sighing and trying to rein himself in. He had no reason for this anger. Even if his dream was that bad, it was stupid to take it out on his father. Realizing how foolish an apology would sound, he decided the best course of action was to work out his frustrations.
By the time he arrived home that evening, Johnny was exhausted. He’d gone hard all day, not even stopping for lunch – not that he’d bothered to take any with him. He was hungry, tired and still irritable but he resolved not to take it out on his family. They had no idea what was wrong with him. Nether did he for that matter. But, the thought of walking in that house filled him with dread.
Johnny pulled up short half-way across the yard and turned, heading to the garden. He took his time, knowing he shouldn’t. Knowing it was nearly supper time and he’d been late the past two days as it was. If he wanted an argument with Murdoch, that would sure bring one on. At that precise moment, he didn’t care. He simply did not want to go in there.
Why? That’s the question he kept asking himself over and over. Why am I feeling this way? Why don’t I want to go inside? Why can’t I get a decent night’s sleep?
He slowed his gait and ambled around a rose bush. Maybe that’s the whole problem. I haven’t been sleeping well. Yeah, that has to be it. Well, no one’s fault but mine, I guess.
Resignedly, he headed to the kitchen door and stepped inside, stopping when he saw the room empty. The stove was cold, the counter empty. Not one crumb of food was to be found.
Shaking his head, he pulled out his watch. It was exactly six o’clock now. What the hell? He walked through to the dining room but it was empty as well. No plates, no forks, not a napkin to be had. What’s goin on? he wondered and headed on through to the great room.
Once more, he found himself alone and he went to Murdoch’s desk. No note. Nothing seemed out of place. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and Johnny pulled his gun, turning to face the room. He heard it again.
Cocking his head to one side, he listened hard. He could hear the whispers but, as usual, no real words. Holstering his gun, he stepped toward the sitting area, scanning the room and glancing toward the French doors. Where is everyone?
The dizziness took him completely by surprise. His hand went to his forehead as he squeezed his eyes shut for a second. Then, he felt the cold air and opened them to a bizarre scene. Last nights dream sprung vividly to his memory.
Maria walked into the room wearing the same blue gown as last night. She held him in her arms as she hummed lightly. Skirts rustling, she set the baby by the cold hearth and began dusting the room. Where she got the cloth to do so, Johnny didn’t know.
He looked over at himself, playing with a wooden horse and making baby noises then went back to watching his mother. His mother! This was plain crazy. He walked closer and called out to her. She didn’t seem to hear him so he tried louder. Still, there was no response to him. She stopped and looked at the front door as it opened. Johnny saw fear in her eyes and turned to see who was there.
Murdoch walked in looking very tired. He tossed his hat on a table as he passed and went straight for the liquor. Pouring a healthy dose of whiskey, he downed it before looking about the room. His eyes settled on his son and a soft smile came to his lips.
Johnny back-stepped, wanting desperately not to see this same scene played out again. He ended up against the wall by the French doors and suddenly found he could go no further. He couldn’t turn, couldn’t move his legs, couldn’t take his eyes away from them.
Murdoch walked over to the child and leaned down, ruffling his hair. Baby Johnny looked up at his father and giggled. A smile came again to the rancher’s face then he stood straight and looked at his wife. The smile fell away and a frown replaced it.
“Where’s my supper?”
“It is not ready yet.”
“Why not? It’s six o’clock!”
“I am so sorry, husband. Johnny got into the lard just a while ago and I had to give him a bath. Supper will be ready in twenty minutes.”
Johnny looked at her, saw the fear then scowled at Murdoch as he awaited the man’s reaction. He saw the big hand tighten around the empty glass he still held, saw the jaw tighten and the vein in his neck jut out.
“Are you so inept you can’t do more than one thing at a time? Do I need to hire someone to care for my son?”
Tears brimmed in her eyes and Johnny opened his mouth but no sound would emerge. He swallowed hard and tried again to no avail.
“I can take care of our son. I am sorry. It will not happen again.”
“Why are you even in here? You should be in the kitchen getting the food ready. Well? Go on!”
At that moment, she looked directly into Johnny’s eyes, tears spilling down her cheeks. Her mouth didn’t move but he heard her words clearly. ‘Now, do you see?’
She turned and ran from the room. Johnny’s eyes fell on Murdoch as he walked over and picked the child up, sitting him in his lap and bouncing him. His voice was gentle and smooth as he spoke to the baby.
“Not long now, son. Scott will be home and I’ll have my boys at my side. The three of us will build this ranch into the empire it was destined to be. You’ll see. Your brother will be back, I swear it.”
He felt the dizziness consume him again and lowered his head, realizing he could move now. As he looked up, the room was empty and he sagged to the floor.
He felt someone shaking his shoulder as he became aware. Johnny frowned and opened his eyes slowly to find Murdoch kneeling beside him. Befuddled, he looked around and noticed he was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, his legs splayed out in front of him. Did I pass out? Swiping a hand across his face, he allowed his father to help him to his feet. He rubbed the back of his neck as he tried to make sense of why he was here at all.
Memory took hold, stronger and clearer than this morning and he stepped quickly away from his father. He looked around the room and saw they were alone. His shoulders tensed as he made his way to the fireplace.
“Son, what happened?”
He leaned into the mantle and rocked back and forth a few times. “I don’t know. All the sudden I was on the floor.”
“Are you sick? Do you feel lightheaded?”
He turned to look into the face full of concern for him and felt the same hatred he’d felt most of his life for this man surge to the forefront once again. He could only shake his head.
Murdoch stepped toward him and he pulled his shoulders back, ready for a fight.
“I’m sending for Sam. No one just passes out for no reason and without warning.”
“I don’t need a doctor.” He lowered his eyes for a second. “I think I need a priest.” Murdoch advanced on him too quickly and Johnny moved away. “Leave me alone! Stay away from me!”
“Johnny, what has gotten into you? Why do you need a priest?”
He felt the panic, his breathing growing more rapid as his eyes darted around the room. “Where’s Scott?”
“I sent him to Modesto this morning. We talked about it last week. Do you remember?”
With a shaky sighed, he nodded. “Yeah, I remember now.” He looked at the bottles of liquor and considered then shook his head. “Murdoch, I’ve been seeing things; hearing things. I don’t know what the hell is going on but I think I’m losing my mind.”
With more fear than he liked, he looked at his father and saw the grim face staring a hole through him.
“Sit down and tell me what you’ve been experiencing.”
Surprised, Johnny made it to a chair and fell into it. He began with the whispers, his thoughts it was a trick played by his brother and everything that had happened to him in the past two days. He left nothing out, reporting the conversations between man and wife and his mother’s own words to him. By the time he’d finished, Murdoch had grown pale, his hands clenched into fists at his sides as he sat stiffly on the sofa.
The room was silent for far too long and Johnny’s nerves, already strung tight, felt as if they were about to break. He could even imagine the sound; twanging like barbed wire breaking free of the fence posts.
“Did your mother ever tell you any stories about when you lived here?”
The words came out in a tremble and Johnny’s heart seemed to stop beating. He managed the one word answer. “No.”
“I thought maybe she had and you were dreaming or something.”
“Are you saying it’s true? That you treated her like that?”
“Of course not! But, she lied to you before. I just thought maybe … I don’t know what I thought, son. I never treated her like that, Johnny. I swear it on my life.”
He nodded though it wasn’t in understanding or even to indicate he believed his father. Simply that he’d heard the man. He didn’t know what to believe. Why would he see these things? He knew she’d never spoken of their life at Lancer. She’d barely been able to say Murdoch’s name and the few times she did, she spat on the floor in disgust. “What the hell is happening to me, then?”
“I don’t know but, I think you’re right. Maybe you should talk to a priest. There have been times …”
Johnny leaned forward, noting the grimace that told Murdoch felt he’d said too much. “What? There’ve been times when what?” He simply shook his head and Johnny’s anger rose. “Murdoch, tell me!”
“There’ve been times when I thought I saw something or heard something in the house. As if there was someone here when I knew there wasn’t.”
He sat back in the chair, stunned for a moment. Finally, he found his voice. “Are you saying you think this place is haunted?”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Neither do I but something happened here. I didn’t make it up. I …” He stopped and gave himself a moment before going on. “I haven’t been sleeping much. Maybe I am seein things that aren’t there. Maybe I am going crazy.”
“You are not going crazy! I don’t know exactly what is going on but I know that much. Let’s have some supper and think it through. Maybe, we just aren’t seeing something.”
Johnny frowned and looked at the dining table. It was set for supper and he bowed his head. I am goin loco!
No matter what was happening to him, Johnny was still ravenous. He ate as if it was his last meal and neither man spoke during the supper hour.
They sat there afterwards quietly. Johnny looked at his father and saw he was thinking hard. Murdoch always had the same expression on his face when he was grappling with a problem. Johnny had begun to tell the difference in those expressions.
“I should stay with you tonight. Watch you sleep. If anything happens, I’ll be there to see it.”
“What if nothing happens because you are there? Maybe she doesn’t want you to see…” he trailed off, knowing how ridiculous he sounded. He felt his cheeks flush and smiled sheepishly at his father.
“We can try, at least.”
“You know this is crazy, right? I mean, if my mother is … haunting this house then she’s trying to make me believe something that isn’t true. Trying to make me hate you again. I don’t think I could take that. I’d rather be loco.”
“No on said it was your mother doing this. Just because she’s there, doesn’t mean she’s controlling anything.”
Johnny gave his father a sidelong look. Maybe the craziness was catching. “I guess we could try but if nothing happens, you need to send me somewhere.”
“That isn’t going to happen. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it together.”
His father’s hand on his arm gave Johnny more comfort than he would have believed possible. He smiled at the man and nodded.
Johnny stared at the ceiling as he lay on his back. Having Murdoch sit there watching him wasn’t very conducive to going to sleep no matter how tired he was. And he was exhausted. Eventually, his eyes began to slide closed.
Suddenly, he sat bolt upright in the bed and looked around. He listened hard but could hear nothing now. But, it had been there. The whispers. He sat on the side of the bed then stood up stiffly.
“This way,” he said and headed out the door.
He went back to the old wing and to the same room he’d been in last night. He felt his father behind him but the presence brought no comfort. He wasn’t so sure it would let Murdoch into the room. The only thing he knew for sure was, he couldn’t stop himself from going.
He opened the door and walked right in. Turning, he was a little surprised Murdoch was inside with him. He watched as the door closed and the lock struck home. He watched as his father tried to open the door.
“Don’t bother. We should stand over here.” He went to the corner where he’d watched this drama the night before and waited. Murdoch stood next to him and Johnny figured the old man knew he was crazy by now.
The scene began to play out the same as before. He heard his father inhale sharply as his mother entered the room with him. Saw his father’s hand as it reached out toward the two but he made no move of his own. He watched almost dispassionately, feeling as if this was a book he’d read a hundred times. He knew what was going to happen. Or so he thought.
When Murdoch walked through the door and began asking for his lunch this time, things started to change. Johnny tensed and grabbed his father’s hand. The conversation was the same but Maria’s demeanor was entirely different. No longer was she the smiling, dutiful wife. Her eyes were afire with hatred as she disappeared to fetch the meal.
Johnny tried to tell his father what had changed but he found he couldn’t speak again. When she reappeared, he pressed himself harder against the wall.
Maria appeared with the lunch tray and set it on the table then took the baby and put him in his crib. Murdoch began eating. When she turned back, she held a pistol in her hand. She walked over to stand directly in front of him.
“Now, you see,” she said and pulled the trigger.
The sound was deafening in the enclosed space. Baby Johnny began to wail as his father fell out of the chair with a thud, lying there unmoving on the floor. Maria walked over and picked the baby up, cooing softly. “It is all right now, chico. We can leave this place and you will never have to return here.” Her eyes went to them both standing in the corner. “You never should have come back here.”
With that, they were all gone, the room fading back to its normal state. The door opened with a creak and Johnny bolted.
He didn’t stop until he was back in his room and he fell to his knees beside the bed. He felt his father’s hands on his shoulders and leaned back against him. “What the hell was that? It wasn’t like that the other times. She either smiled or cried and apologized before.” He felt Murdoch’s heart pounding in his chest, felt the heavy, uneven breaths on his neck and felt very sorry his father had witnessed this.
“I don’t know, son. What really happened was nothing like anything you described or we just saw. I don’t understand it but that wasn’t Maria. I mean, she’s not doing this. I don’t … I can’t believe she would hurt you like that.”
Both men jumped and turned awkwardly to see the bedroom door had been slammed shut. They got to their feet and Murdoch walked over and grabbed the knob but it wouldn’t open.
Johnny looked around the room, suddenly more angry than frightened. “What the hell do you want? Who are you?”
He heard the whispers again, now growing louder yet he still could make out no words. He turned to Murdoch, intent on asking if he could hear but he didn’t have to. The look on the man’s face answered his question.
The temperature plummeted in the room and Johnny’s hand went to his bare right side without conscious thought. He winced, knowing a gun would do him no good now anyway. He took one step toward his father then paused as the man’s face grew pale.
Without further warning, Murdoch slid down the door, unconscious. Johnny ran to him, feeling for a pulse and finding it easily. He sighed his relief but it was short-lived. Closing his eyes briefly, he slowly turned around, knowing someone was watching him.
She stood there by the window, still in the same blue dress. For the first time, Johnny really looked at the gown. It occurred to him it was not the type of clothing his mother would have worn. Remembering his father’s recent words, Johnny rose to his feet and faced her.
She reached out her arms, smiling softly, her eyes seeming to beg him come closer. Johnny stood his ground and shook his head.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“You don’t recognize me?”
He stayed still, uncertainty flittering though his thoughts then decided to see what would happen. “No.”
It started softly, like a moan that grew in intensity until a wretched scream emanated from her mouth. She threw her head back, the sound deafening and Johnny put his hands to his ears. He backed away, nearly tripping over Murdoch then glanced at him but the man made no move. As he looked back at her, she suddenly stopped and stared at him blankly. Then, the smile was back, the arms stretching forward once more.
“It is me, your mother. Come to me, Johnny.”
Again, he shook his head. “No, you’re not my mother. What do you want?”
Tears filled her eyes, her lower lip trembled and he nearly gave in.
“It is mama, Johnny. I want you to stay with me. I love you, hijo. Please, come back to me.”
He forced his voice to be flat, cold. “I don’t believe you.”
Her eyes dried, flames seemed to erupt from the black depths and she glared at him. Johnny felt the heat and his own fear.
“You will come to me, now!”
He felt his foot move and he took a step. Then another. He looked down, willing his feet to stop moving but they would not obey. He drew nearer and nearer until he was within her grasp. He felt the ice cold hands pull him into an embrace and he struggled to get away. The strength in those arms stunned him. He wrestled to release his own arms and grabbed her biceps, pushing at her.
Faces less than an inch apart, she smiled at him, her face twisted grotesquely, her eyes rolling back in her head as if in some sort of horrible agony. Johnny found his inner strength and shoved her. Stumbling back, his legs hit the mattress.
“What are you?” he whispered as he watched the transformation playing out before him.
Her face returned to normal then began contorting again. It was as if she were struggling to stay normal; as if it caused her great pain. It had to, he thought and wondered why he cared. He didn’t know what this was but it wasn’t his mother. He was sure of that now.
The scream erupted suddenly this time and he grimaced thinking his ears may start bleeding at any moment. The air turned around him, he could feel the breeze – soft at first then increasing in velocity as it turned into a ferocious wind. Squinting, he tried to keep his eyes on her, afraid to look away but afraid to watch.
The scream turned into a screech then into a low growl. He put a hand up toward his face, trying to escape the gale and thought the sound was much like a wildcat. She roared ferociously then, within a second, everything stilled. Maria was once again standing before him, beautiful and smiling. Her arms slowly came up, stretched toward him once again. This time, he didn’t take a step yet, he was suddenly right in front of her.
He felt the arms encircle him more gently now, hands slowly rubbing his back then, he felt more pressure as if he was being massaged. The pressure increased until it became almost painful. Through it all, he found he couldn’t move. Paralyzed and locked in her gaze, his mind could only seem to focus on the hands on his back.
Johnny’s eyes widened, his mouth opened though no sound came forth. The pain was excruciating yet, he still could not move. He could only feel her nails embedded into his back. He could feel the warm blood running down his back, saturating his waistband. And still, he was unable to look away from her black eyes. She was smiling at him then, her eyes rolled back and she swayed to and fro, taking him with her as she emitted a throaty, primal, almost ecstatic growl.
His back arched and he realized he’d done it of his own volition. He tried to move away and felt the nails go deeper into his flesh. He had no choice but to lean closer to her. “Please,” he whispered as he lowered his head. “Please, stop.”
He felt her press her head against his own and moved back to raise his eyes to hers, hoping he could somehow get her to release him. “Please, mama, it hurts.”
She smiled an evil smile. “I know, miel. It is supposed to hurt. It will hurt for all eternity. Isn’t it wonderful? Does the pain not excite you? Come with me and you will always know this pleasure.”
He shook his head violently. “No! Let me go!”
The wail came again, the intensity stronger still than the last but she did release him and he stumbled back, once more hitting the bed. He skirted around it and moved quickly to his father, shielding him out of pure instinct. Her eyes fell on them and she pointed an accusatory finger.
“He has poisoned you against me.”
“YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER! Get out of here. Get out and leave us alone!”
“You belong to me,” she hissed.
“No, I won’t go. You get out of here, witch!”
She threw her head back and laughed maniacally. “Witch? No witch has my power!”
She moved toward them and Johnny would swear her legs never moved. It was as if she was floating through the air. He felt very dizzy again and he forced himself not to look away. He moved to block his father’s inert body and called upon the only thing he knew would help them now.
Johnny made the sign of the cross and she stopped, lingering in midair and looking at him with an amused grin.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Tu autem effugare, diabole.” (In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sprit. Be gone, devil.)
Her face twisted as if in pain and he repeated his prayer over and over, his voice growing stronger with each invocation as he felt the fear begin to leave him, felt his faith returning along with his determination.
A great rumble ensued, as if the very earth were trembling then, as suddenly, it was quiet. Deathly quiet. Johnny wasn’t sure he could trust it and he stayed where he was for long moments, waiting for something to happen. But, she, or it was gone and the room appeared normal except for the fact he was on the floor, shielding his father’s body. Johnny jerked and turned around, getting to his knees as he hovered over Murdoch.
A groan, soft yet gruff came from the slightly parted lips of the older man. Then, he blinked. Johnny put a hand on his cheek and called softly to him as Murdoch slowly opened his eyes and blinked rapidly several times. His hand came up and he scrubbed it over his face then looked in his son’s eyes.
Johnny sighed out a breath and took another before answering. “I’m not sure you’d believe me. Let’s just say it’s over. Come on, old man, let’s get you off the floor.” He came to his feet then extended a hand to his father.
Murdoch grunted as he came to his feet then swayed to the left a little. Johnny grabbed him around the waist and waited anxiously to see if he was alright. His father seemed to be righting himself and he received a small nod. He opened the door and led the way downstairs.
Once in the living room, Johnny poured two whiskeys and carried them to the sofa where Murdoch sat rubbing his forehead.
“Headache?” he asked as he handed one glass off.
“Some and very confused.”
“I really think it’s over now.” Johnny looked at the clock and shook his head a little. With a sigh, he raised his glass. “Dia de los muertos.”
Murdoch’s head came up and he frowned then he seemed to understand. “All Soul’s Day.”
Johnny took a healthy swig of his liquor before eyeing his father. “You okay?”
“I’m not sure what I am. I have a feeling, I’m better off than you, though. Did you get hurt?”
He drew his brows together, remembering the exquisite pain from her nails digging into his back. He rolled his shoulders and was relieved to feel nothing more than some soreness. “I’m okay. I’m not so sure I’ll be sleeping anytime soon, though. I’d just as soon try to forget this ever happened.”
“So would I. But, Johnny, you know, don’t you? You know that wasn’t your mother.”
Johnny nodded and gave him a small smile. “Yes, I know that now. I’m sorry I was so…” He felt his father’s hand on his own.
“I understand, son. Let’s try to get some rest, though. You have to be exhausted.”
Johnny staggered into the kitchen late the next morning. Murdoch was sitting in his usual place looking as bad as he felt. He slid into his chair with a nod of greeting then inhaled half a cup of coffee Maria set before him before glancing sideways at his father. “Didn’t sleep well?”
Murdoch found his gaze with a frown on his own face. “No, I had some very strange dreams. I can’t remember them exactly, but it was … disturbing.”
Johnny scratched his head and stifled a yawn. “Yeah? Me too. I don’t remember, either.”
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. It was just a dream.”
Johnny paused with his cup halfway to his mouth and looked at his father strangely. “Yeah, yeah. Just a dream.” He dropped his eyes to the plate of food now before him and wondered. Was it?
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