Word count 7,213
Thanks to Marilyn Handt for the pictures and Doc (Terri Derr) for the beta work. Also, a special thanks to Doc and Charlene for kicking my muse in the … backside. All mistakes are mine.
Murdoch sat in one of the Great Room’s high-back chairs while Johnny stretched out on the floor in front of the fire. Teresa was in her usual chair, a lap quilt wrapped around her legs and a basket of mending at her feet, and Scott occupied the second wing-back chair with a book in his hands.
In their early days, after everything settled down, the family gathered after dinner to talk. It was mainly about the ranch, but on occasion, Scott talked about Boston. While Murdoch and Teresa asked questions, Johnny seldom joined the conversations.
When the latest edition of the San Francisco newspaper arrived, Murdoch read it on his own. Then he’d pick articles he thought would interest the others and read them aloud.
Over the last six months since coming to Lancer, the family had settled into a routine that included either Murdoch or Scott taking turns reading to the others.
Tonight was Scott’s turn. He held the book up, showing the cover to Murdoch.
“Frankenstein. Excellent choice, Scott.”
“I thought you’d like it. I ordered it from Boston. It actually arrived a few weeks ago, but I thought tonight would be a good time to introduce Johnny and Teresa to Mary Shelley’s story.”
“A woman?” Johnny frowned.
“Yes. Mary Shelley was eighteen when she wrote Frankenstein.”
“What’s it about?”
“Well, it’s a Gothic novel about a scientist who brings the dead back to life.”
“Brings the dead back to life?” Johnny sat up, his eyes narrowing. “You mean like they walk and talk?”
“Well…” Scott started and stopped.
“John, it’s just fiction,” Murdoch interjected. “The dead can’t really come back to life.”
“Oh, Johnny, you’ll love it. Jenny Stanton told me about it. Please read it, Scott.” Teresa beamed as she snuggled into her chair, pulling the quilt up to her chin, as she often did when either Murdoch or Scott read aloud.
Murdoch packed and lit his pipe, then stretched out his long legs.
“Just sit back and let Scott read the story, son.”
As Scott began to read, Johnny settled back and tried listening. He was only half listening when his mind latched onto Scott’s words.
‘Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable. After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.’
As Scott paused to turn the page, Johnny decided he’d heard enough. He got to his feet and shook his head.
“Hold up, Boston. You know, I bet that’s a real good book, but I’m gonna pass on it.”
“Are you sure? I haven’t gotten to the good parts yet.”
“I’m sure. You thought a book about the dead coming back to life was something I’d want to hear?”
“Well, since you don’t want like Frankenstein, I have an idea. There’s another excellent book you might like. It’s perfect for Halloween and Los Dias de Los Muerto.”
“Yeah, what’s it called?”
Murdoch laughed. “Not tonight, boys. I’m going to bed.”
He stood and stretched. Looking towards Teresa, Murdoch smiled. She was curled up in her chair, sound asleep.
“I don’t think Teresa appreciated Frankenstein either.”
Murdoch gently shook her shoulder. “Teresa. Time for bed.”
She opened her eyes and stretched. Yawning, she looked at Scott. “Did you finish the book?”
Scott shook his head. “No. Johnny doesn’t like it.”
“Oh.” Her eyes lit up. “Well, that’s a shame. You’ll just have to find another book that he will like.”
“I’ve already got one picked out,” Scott replied as they made their way upstairs.
“Hurry up and eat.” Teresa dropped Scott’s breakfast in front of him and hurried back to the stove. “Murdoch, aren’t you done yet?”
Scott looked down at his ham and eggs and pushed the ham back onto the plate. “Thank you.”
“Morning.” Johnny slid into his chair. “Can I have some coffee?”
Teresa, carrying a plate in one hand and the coffee pot in the other, plopped the plate in front of Johnny and poured his coffee. She glared at Scott.
“Aren’t you finished yet?”
“I would like to chew my breakfast before swallowing it.”
“Will you two finish eating? I’ve got a lot to do today.”
“Today?” Scott looked at Johnny, who only shrugged.
Teresa put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “You remember what day it is and what’s happening tonight, don’t you?” When none of the Lancers said anything, she stomped her foot. “It’s Halloween, and there’s a party tonight in Green River at the town center. I have a lot to do to get ready for it.”
A collective “OH” resounded around the table, and the three men laughed.
Teresa’s eyes narrowed. “You knew it all along.”
“Yes, darling, we knew.” Murdoch stood and hugged his ward.
“I’m so excited. Now, hurry and finish eating. I have to bake a cake and a pie, and then Maria and I will carve a jack-o-lantern. Everyone is bringing one, and Mayor Higgs will judge which is the best.”
Pulling back, she looked at the table; the saltshaker was lying on its side.
“Now, see what’s happened. Johnny, did you do that?”
“Take a pinch, throw it over your left shoulder, and hurry.”
“Why? Because it will drive off any evil spirits attracted to the salt.”
“Teresa, I don’t believe in that stuff.”
When Johnny didn’t move, Teresa reached passed him, took a pinch of salt, and threw it over his left shoulder. Then, for good measure, she took some and tossed it over her shoulder.
“Now, finish your breakfast and get out of here.”
Ten minutes later, Scott and Johnny strapped on gun belts and grabbed their hats. Walking out the front door, Scott skidded to a halt and grabbed his brother’s arm.
“Don’t walk under that ladder. Don’t you know it’s bad luck?”
Johnny looked around. Jess Emery had a ladder leaning against the front of the hacienda while he worked on the roof.
“I told you, Boston, I don’t believe in….”
A black cat darted across the yard, chased by one of the ranch dogs. The cat shot in front of Johnny and then under the ladder. Johnny turned sideways as the dog barreled through, hitting the ladder and causing it to wobble. If not for Johnny stepping under and taking hold of it, the ladder would have fallen.
“Hey!” Jess yelled.
The brothers looked up to see Jess clinging to the roof’s edge, his feet dangling above them.
Scott steadied the ladder so Jess could get his footing on one of the rungs.
Climbing down, Jess bent over and put his hands on his knees. “Thanks, fellows. That was a close call.”
Scott placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, just shook up a bit.” He looked around. “Did you see that cat? I didn’t know we had any black cats on the ranch.”
“I didn’t know we had any either. It must be a stray.”
“Good thing I had my rabbit’s foot with me.” Jess dug a battered and worn rabbit’s foot from his pocket and held it out for Scott and Johnny to see.
“Yes, very lucky,” Scott responded, glancing sideways at Johnny, who rolled his eyes.
“I saw that, Jess,” Tim Sparks said as he skidded to a stop next to the Lancers. “Good thing you had your rabbit’s foot on you.”
“Yeah, never go anywhere without it.” Jess put the charm back in his pocket. He looked around before taking hold of the ladder. “Guess I’d better get back to work before something else happens.”
He looked at Johnny and shook his head. “You need to be careful, Johnny. You know bad luck comes in threes. You walked under the ladder, and a black cat ran in front of you.”
“I don’t believe in superstitions. I believe we make our own luck.”
Johnny started to walk away when Scott chimed in, “You know there was the salt this morning at the table, but Teresa did throw a pinch over your shoulder and her own, so that one doesn’t count.”
“That’s good that Teresa countered the curse.” Jess nodded enthusiastically. “That’s real good.”
Johnny placed his hands on his hips and turned to his brother. “I can’t believe you’re buying into this nonsense.”
“I’m not buying into it, but you must admit being careful doesn’t hurt. You haven’t done anything else today that would be considered bad luck, have you?”
Johnny laughed. “Not unless you include the shaving mirror I broke this morning.”
Jess and Tim took out their rabbit’s feet again and started rubbing. Small pieces of fur, aided by a breeze, flew in every direction.
Distressed, Jess announced, “That’s seven years of bad luck, Johnny. Did you knock on wood to help prevent the bad luck?”
Johnny slowly shook his head.
With that, Jess grabbed Johnny’s gun hand, formed it into a fist, and rapidly rapped his knuckles on the wood door three times.
Johnny jerked his hand back at the same time Teresa called out from inside the house. “Come in.”
The door opened. “Was there someone knocking?” Teresa asked.
“It was me, Miss Teresa,” Jess volunteered. “I was helping Johnny knock on wood three times.”
About that time, Murdoch stepped up beside Teresa. “Was someone knocking on the door?”
Johnny lowered his head and put his hands over his face.
“Johnny broke a mirror this morning.” Tim filled Murdoch and Teresa in on the tragedy.
Murdoch smiled, and Teresa put her hand to her throat.
Johnny shook his head. “I know. Seven years of bad luck. Like I haven’t been having bad luck for the last seven.”
“Well, at least you’ve knocked on wood now,” Teresa responded. “Johnny, you have to be careful, especially today. You know it’s Los Dias de Los Muertos.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch’s smile. “Well, don’t you have anything to say?”
“No, but it seems you got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”
Johnny heaved a sigh of resignation. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“In Scotland,” Murdoch began, his brogue thickening as he spoke, “it’s considered unlucky to get out of bed on the left-hand side.”
“I always get up on the left side.” Scott frowned. “So, you’re supposed to rise on the right-hand side?”
Murdoch nodded. “That’s the superstition and how the saying got its start. If you get out on the left side, you’ll have bad luck that day.”
Johnny grinned and looked around. “Well, what are you gonna do about that? You gonna grab Scott’s hand and knock it against the door, throw salt over his shoulder, or….” He looked exasperated. “I don’t know what.”
No one saw Scott quickly place his hand behind his back and out of reach of all of them.
“Nonsense,” Teresa said with a smile. “Maria and I will rearrange his room today. From now on, he’ll have to get out of bed on the right side.”
Johnny laughed, and Scott scowled.
“I like my room the way it is.”
“Trust me, son. You’ll like it even more after the ladies rearrange it.” Murdoch started to turn and go back inside. “Now, you’d better get busy if you plan to ride into town tonight for the party.”
“Yes, sir.” Scott headed for the barn and was halfway across the yard when he stopped and looked back. Johnny was standing with his hand on the butt of his gun, slowly looking around the yard.
“Johnny, what are you doing?”
Finally, Johnny looked up. “Just making sure that black cat ain’t still around, and there ain’t no ladders to walk under or anything else that can bring me bad luck today.”
“I didn’t think you believed in superstitions?”
“I don’t, but if the rest of you keep dragging me into it, the next thing I know, my room will be turned upside down. The only way my bed can go is with me facing the door. I don’t give a rat’s ass which side I get up on.”
“You can borrow my rabbit’s foot,” Jess said, holding the almost bald object out.
Johnny shook his head. “Naw, you keep it, Jess. You might need it.”
Jess grinned. “I can always go shoot me another rabbit, Johnny.”
“Or find a four-leaf clover,” Tim added.
“Or make a wish on a falling star,” Teresa responded. “Of course, you’d have to wait until dark and hope to see one.” She looked thoughtful. “Well, maybe that’s not the best one after all.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Johnny started across the yard. “I’ll just go on to work and be real careful.”
“All right,” Teresa said as she turned to go inside. “We’d better get started on Scott’s room.” The door closed, but they heard Teresa calling, “Maria!”
Teresa was beside herself when the men were late returning to the ranch that afternoon. She rushed them upstairs to dress and hurried to her room to change.
The three men were back downstairs in record time. Teresa, on the other hand, was taking her time.
Dressed as a Scottish lord, complete with a kilt of the Lancer’s tartan of red, black, and thin strips of blue, Murdoch looked at his sons and smiled. Scott looked dashing as a Musketeer, with a long feather plume sticking out of his black hat, a cloak over one shoulder, and a finishing touch of a sword. True to form, Johnny was the only one not in costume, choosing to wear his bolero jacket and calzoneras.
“We’re going to be late.” Scott removed his hat and blew on the plume.
“Yeah, for someone in a hurry, she’s sure is taking her time.”
“Relax.” Murdoch sat in one of the wing-back chairs, not daring to cross his legs. “No matter the age, women are always late.”
“Well, if she wants to go, she’d better get down here. I’m ready to …”
As if on cue, Teresa made her appearance. Dressed as a Princess in a powder blue dress with pearl trim, she graced them with a broad smile as she descended the stairs.
“Well?” She twirled.
“Beautiful, sweetheart.” Murdoch stood and crossed to pull Teresa into a hug.
“Absolutely,” Scott added.
“You look real pretty, Teresa. The boys in town are gonna be swarming all over you. Murdoch, you’d better keep an eye on her.”
“Don’t worry. I will.” Murdoch laughed. “Now, if we’re going, we’d better go now.”
By the time they arrived in town, the party was already underway.
The town center had come alive with decorations of orange and black for the occasion. Witches’ broomsticks leaned against each side of the front door, and a large cauldron sat in the middle of the room, steaming and bubbling. Overhead, cloth bats decorated the ceilings, and cobwebs with spiders hung in the corners.
The partygoers were dressed in costumes that included ghosts and goblins, scarecrows and witches, and everything in between.
Teresa was helped from the buggy and wasted no time hurrying off to find her friends, leaving Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny to carry in the baked goods and jack-o-lantern.
Johnny carried the carved pumpkin to a long table laden with others ready to be judged. He set the jack-o-lantern down and walked along the table, looking at each one, and shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Scott asked, pulling at his collar.
“I don’t understand.”
Murdoch joined his sons. “Understand what?”
“Those.” Johnny pointed at the carved masterpieces.
“Yeah, but why bother?”
“For one, brother,” Scott answered, “it’s fun.”
“All right, I give you that, but what else?”
“The carving is supposed to frighten evil spirits away.”
“Don’t tell me. This is more of that superstitious stuff like this morning?”
Murdoch laughed. “I’m afraid so.”
Johnny turned and looked around the room. “Anything else in here supposed to ward off the spirits?”
“Everything here is symbolic of some type of superstition associated with Halloween,” Scott replied. “The spiders up there,” he pointed to the room’s corners, “mean that the spirit of a deceased loved one is watching over you.”
“And the cauldron?”
“Souls awaiting reincarnation. As the witch stirs the pot, she allows new souls to enter and old souls to be reborn.”
Murdoch nodded. “And a Celtic myth was that dressing up as a ghoul or ghost would fool evil spirits into thinking you were one of them so that they wouldn’t take your soul.”
“You know, I’ve spent all day around this stuff, and I’m ready to call it quits. I think I’ll head home and make sure Teresa and Maria didn’t touch my room.”
“Johnny, stay,” Murdoch put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I think everyone has made too much out of Halloween’s superstitions, and we haven’t concentrated on the fun that goes with it. None of us really believe in the superstitions.”
“Yeah, well, tell that to Jess and Tim over there. I heard some shooting this afternoon, and I think they got themselves another rabbit.”
“Not for the rabbit,” Johnny laughed.
Scott chuckled. “I admit the rabbit’s feet they had this morning had pretty much lost their good luck along with their fur.”
“Jess told me we can have the back feet when they got the next rabbit, but they’re keeping the front.”
Scott raised an eyebrow. “I wonder which is luckier?”
“You’ll have to ask them,” Johnny laughed. “I don’t believe animal parts bring you luck.”
The room got quiet, and everyone looked at the candles on the tables. The flames were flickering and changing color.
“That’s strange.” Scott scanned the room. “The flames on the candles have ….”
“Turned blue,” Murdoch finished, and before Johnny could ask, “It means a ghost is near.”
Murdoch and Scott didn’t miss the expression on Johnny’s face or the fact he was looking around the room.
“See anyone you know, brother,” Scott laughed, “or knew?”
Johnny didn’t laugh. “Not funny, brother.”
“So, there is something you’re afraid of.”
“Maybe. I’ve seen my share of ghosts over the years, and they aren’t anything to joke about, especially on Dias de Los Muerte.”
“Seriously, you’ve seen a ghost?”
“In my line of work, Boston, more than once.”
With some persuasion from Betsy Johnson and Bonnie Gilbert, Johnny decided to stay long enough for a couple of dances. About an hour into the party, he decided he’d had enough fun and picked up his hat on the way out the door.
“Leaving so soon, young man?” A man dressed in a dark vested suit stepped out of the darkness, holding a lit cigar in one hand and a Stetson in the other. Taller than Johnny, the man’s slim pale face featured a black handlebar mustache.
Johnny blinked, trying to get his eyes accustomed to the dark.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Thought I’d head back to the ranch, Mr. … I’m sorry. Do I know you? You look familiar.”
“My name wouldn’t mean anything to you, but it’s Joe Carbajal. I’m from up Modesto way.” The man’s eyes were dark and void of emotion.
“I’ve heard the name, but….” Johnny tried to think of where he’d heard the name, Joe Carbajal. It was recently, he knew, but it wasn’t just the name. He’d seen the man before, but where?
“How’s Murdoch Lancer doing?”
Johnny looked over his shoulder. He could see his father talking with some of the neighbors.
“He’s doing alright. He’s right inside. I can go get him if you want?”
Johnny started to turn when the man replied, “No. That won’t be necessary. I understand he was able to defeat the land pirates?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah.”
“I’m glad. Real glad. Pardee deserved what he got. You and your brother are settling in?”
“We are. It hasn’t been easy at times, but ….”
“It’s been worth it?” Joe smiled and took a puff on his cigar. Smoke swirled around the man’s head and then drifted with the breeze.
Johnny returned the smile.
“Mr. Carbajal, I know I’ve seen you somewhere before; I just can’t remember where.”
Joe smiled. “It’ll come to you, boy.”
Joe looked up at the night sky. A slight breeze stirred, and a mist started forming.
“I’d best be on my way.” He turned and walked into the fog. As he disappeared, Johnny heard his final words, “It was good talking to you, Johnny Madrid. You stay with Murdoch. He’s waited a long time for you to come home. You don’t want to end up like Pardee … in a grave, with no one to mourn you.”
“Johnny, who was that?”
Turning, Johnny saw Scott walking towards him.
“Some friend of Murdoch’s.”
“Why didn’t he come inside?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Sure, about what?” Murdoch joined his sons. “Johnny, I thought you went home.”
“There was a friend of yours here. We talked for a few minutes, but he didn’t want to go inside to see you.”
“Said his name was Joe Carbajal. I’ve heard his name before but can’t remember where.”
Murdoch was shaking his head. “You must be mistaken. It couldn’t have been Joe.”
“I know that name, too,” Scott commented. “Didn’t you mention it on our first day at the ranch?”
“Yes. I did, and if you remember, I told you Joe was ….”
Johnny snapped his fingers. “Killed by Pardee. That’s where I heard the name, but he was right here.”
“Are you sure he said Joe Carbajal?”
“I’m sure. He even said he was from Modesto. Taller than me, about Scott’s height, with a handlebar mustache.”
“That describes Joe, alright. I have a picture of him at home taken the week before Pardee killed him. He was visiting the ranch, and…” Murdoch paused. “Well, Joe was a good friend.”
“You’re sure he’s dead?” Scott asked. “The man I saw talking to Johnny looked very much alive.”
“I went to the funeral. I remember thinking Joe didn’t look right in the suit they had him in.”
“He was wearing a black suit and was carrying a hat and smoking a cigar.”
“Joe and his cigars.” Murdoch smiled. “Everyone said they’d be the death of him.” The rancher sobered. “That was before Pardee decided Joe and Hank Peterson, from San Jose, were in the way of him taking over the valley.”
“So, little brother,” Scott slapped Johnny on the back. “I guess you’ve met a ghost, and maybe the candle flames turning blue was an omen after all.”
Murdoch gave his youngest son an appraising look. Johnny didn’t seem upset over the experience.
“I’m alright. Not the first time I’ve had a ghost come visiting, and at least this one wasn’t of my making.”
Teresa hurried out of the building and threw her arms around Murdoch.
“Murdoch, the party’s breaking up.”
“Did you have a good time, sweetheart?” Murdoch asked, returning the hug.
“Oh, yes. I think everyone did.” She yawned. “Are we ready to go home? I could sleep for a week.”
“Yes. Scott, will you get the buggy?”
“Yes, sir. Come on, Johnny, you can get the horses.”
As Scott and Johnny walked toward the stable, Scott wasn’t sure if he should mention what had happened. It was Johnny who broke the silence.
“You see your room yet?”
“Yes, when I changed before coming tonight. I can assure you I won’t be getting out of bed on the left side again.”
“Yes. The ladies pushed the left side of the bed against the wall.”
“You gonna be able to handle that?”
“I suppose so, at least for a few days until they forget about this foolishness.”
“You think they’ll get over it?”
“We can only hope,” Scott said as he reached the buggy.
Johnny turned in a circle, searching the darkness.
“Johnny, he’s gone. Stop worrying.”
Johnny shook his head. “They’re never gone, Scott.”
The moon was still bright overhead when Murdoch drove the buggy under the arch. He glanced over his shoulder at his sons. Johnny and Scott had ridden in silence since leaving town, and he knew they were thinking of Joe Carbajal.
Pedro and Carlos were waiting for them as Murdoch stopped in front of the house. The vaqueros took the buggy and Scott and Johnny’s horses.
“Juanito. Senor Scott, we will take care of your horses tonight.”
“Thank you, Pedro.” “Gracias, amigo.” The brothers replied at the same time.
Murdoch helped Teresa from the buggy and followed her into the house. When he entered the Great Room, he saw Scott and Johnny had already poured themselves a drink and had one waiting for him.
“Goodnight, everyone,” Teresa called out as she made her way upstairs to her room.
Once Teresa was gone, Scott turned to Murdoch.
“Sir, you said you had a picture of Joe Carbajal?”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes, on the bookshelf.”
He sat his drink down and strode across the room to the bookshelves. He picked up a framed photograph and looked at it momentarily before handing it to Johnny.
“Is this the man you saw tonight?”
Johnny looked at the picture of four men. Murdoch, he recognized and was sure one of the others was Carbajal, but the other two, he didn’t.
“That’s him. That’s the man I saw tonight, but he wore different clothes. Who are the other men?”
Murdoch stood beside Johnny and pointed at the photograph. The man on the right is Paul O’Brian, and next to him is Hank Peterson from San Jose. Pardee killed him two days after he killed Joe.
Carbajal wore a plain shirt, a vest, and a gun on his right hip. There was a smile on his face, and the tips of the handlebar mustache almost touched his eyes.
The clothes Carbajal wore in the photograph sparked a memory.
“I knew I’d seen him somewhere before.”
“The last time I crossed the border coming out of Mexico.”
“But that’s when …” Murdoch said, realizing what Johnny was telling them.
“That’s right. It was right after your Pinkerton man got me away from the Rurales and the firing squad.”
Johnny stared at the picture and nodded. There was no way he’d ever forget the events of that April day.
Only a few hours earlier, he’d been kneeling on the hard-packed Mexican earth in front of a firing squad, waiting his turn to die. After weeks in the Mexican prison, beaten and starved, he’d given up any hope of escape and was ready for death.
The Rurales Lieutenant had already called his name, and he’d struggled to stand when over the hill came a man driving a buggy and yelling for them to stop. When the funny little man, wearing a business suit, said he was looking for Johnny Madrid, Johnny could have kissed his balding head.
After fighting their way clear of the Rurales and heading for the border, the Pink handed over his gun and clothes, saying he’d gotten them from the Rurales Captain. He added a few dollars for traveling expenses and then left him to get himself across the border and to California.
Riding as if the hounds of hell were following, he’d almost made it to the border when the old nag taken from the Rurales pulled up lame. Knowing there was nothing else he could do; Johnny unsaddled the horse and removed its bridle. The poor animal just stood there heaving, with no more energy than he had.
He had no idea how far he was from the border and, for the first time since separating from the Pink, wondered if he’d make it across. He was tired and hungry, and any energy he had was gone.
Johnny stood staring at the horizon, wondering what he would do next when a man riding a dark horse with another in tow appeared out of nowhere. He drew his Colt and held it steady on the rider until he stopped in front of him.
“Howdy, mister.” The man raised a hand in greeting. “Looks like you could use some help?”
Johnny studied the tall man with the handlebar mustache before nodding. “Yeah, could use some help.”
The man looked at the worn-out horse standing where Johnny unsaddled it and then motioned to the horse he had tied to his saddle horn.
“I’ve got a spare you can use.”
Suspicious of the man’s goodwill, Johnny hesitated.
“It’s alright, young man. I don’t think he bites, and besides,” the man looked behind them to where a cloud of dust rose steadily higher, “I believe you need to get moving. Your ‘friends’ look like they’re going to catch up with you.”
Johnny turned and looked behind him. They were coming and coming fast. Realizing he had no time to waste, he picked up the saddle and threw it over the spare mount’s back. Tightening the cinch, he grabbed the bundle of clothes the Pink had given him and threw himself onto the animal’s back.
Without a word, the two men turned and headed north.
They rode in silence until they crossed the invisible line between Arizona and Mexico. Several miles north of the border, the stranger reined to a stop and looked the way they’d come.
“Looks like they turned back.”
Johnny closed his eyes and took his first breath of freedom in over a month. He leaned forward over the horse’s neck, praying for the strength to hang on.
“You look plumb worn out, boy. What do you say we set up camp over near those rocks.” He pointed to a spot a hundred yards to their left. “I’ll get a fire started and fix you something to eat. You look like you could use it.”
Too tired and weak to say anything, all Johnny could do was nod.
The stranger took the reins from Johnny’s hand and led the tired horses to the spot he’d picked to set up camp.
Johnny forced himself out of the saddle and stood holding onto the horse, afraid he’d fall if he let go. Looking down at his clothes, he saw the dirty white peon clothes he’d escaped in, soaked with his sweat.
The man handed Johnny a canteen. “Here, take a drink. You sit down for a bit and then change clothes if you want. I’ll take care of everything else.”
Johnny changed and threw the prison clothes into the fire. He sat back and felt as if he’d only closed his eyes a moment before opening them to find it was dark. The campfire lit up the area, and the stranger who’d saved his life was sitting next to it, holding out a plate of beans.
“Thanks.” Johnny accepted the metal plate and stared at the beans. He hadn’t had anything solid in a month and wondered if he would keep them down.
As if reading Johnny’s mind, the man said, “Go on. Just don’t eat too much, and you should be fine.”
Johnny took a fork full of beans and put it in his mouth. They tasted like heaven to the starving man. The man’s soft voice stopped him when he started to wolf them down.
“Slow down, son. I know it’s been a long time, but you’ll make yourself sick.”
Something in the man’s words gave him pause. “How’d you know I haven’t had anything for a while?”
The man smiled, and the tips of his handlebar mustache rose to the edge of his eyes. “Kinda hard not to notice. You’re almost skin and bones like that old horse you had.”
The man leaned back and pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket. He lit it, took a puff, and then exhaled.
After eating, Johnny sat the plate down, leaned against the rocks at his back, and closed his eyes.
“Where you headed, boy?”
The question broke the heavy silence and woke Johnny from the doze he’d started.
“Not sure. I think I have a job in California, but ….”
“You’re not sure you want to go? Do you know who wants to hire you?”
“I know who he is. The way I feel about him… well, I think I shouldn’t go. I’m not sure what he wants of me.”
“You know, sometimes you just have to trust.”
Johnny was still looking at the photograph.
“I was half asleep by then, but I remember him saying, ‘The man who went through a lot of trouble finding you. Trust him, Johnny. Give him a chance. He needs you.”
“The next morning, when I woke up, he was gone. The only thing he left behind was the horse. The funny thing was, I didn’t tell him my name, and until tonight, I had no idea who he was.”
“I’m glad you listened to him, son.”
“Yeah,” Johnny smiled, “me too.”
Scott walked to stand beside Johnny and took the photograph from him. He stared at the cowboy and then nodded.
“I’ve seen him too.” He looked at his father and brother. Before they could ask, he said, “On the train when I was coming here in the spring. It didn’t register until Johnny repeated what the man said.”
Scott refilled his drink and sat on the arm of the sofa.
“I’d taken the train from Boston to San Francisco and wanted to spend a few days seeing the sights before coming here. At the time, I didn’t know I’d be staying or even coming west again.”
He looked up to see Murdoch smiling.
“Go ahead, son. I know staying wasn’t something you’d planned when you came.”
Scott nodded and took a deep breath. He could still feel the movement of the train.
Scott looked around the San Francisco train station, wondering if this would be the last he’d see of civilization for some time.
The conductor walked the length of the train, ushering passengers aboard.
Scott stepped into the passenger car and walked past women with screaming children and men wearing sidearms.
He’d been surprised and a little unsettled the first time he saw a man with a gun strapped to his hip. To him, it was something out of the dime novels he’d read to pass the time on the way west.
He’d just gotten into a comfortable position when the conductor announced Sacramento. Gathering his things, Scott stepped off one train and immediately onto another. The southbound train was scheduled to stop in Stockton before its final destination of Green River. Once in Green River, he would begin the last leg of his journey by stagecoach to Morro Coyo.
The train swayed as it left Stockton, and once again, Scott tried to get comfortable.
He was looking out the coach window when a soft voice asked, “Mind if I sit?”
Scott looked up to see a tall, thin man with dark hair and a handlebar mustache smiling at him. The gun on his hip looked well-worn.
“Certainly.” Scott motioned to the seat facing him.
The man sat down and briefly looked out the window.
“It’s going to be a nice day.”
“Yes, it is.” Scott opened a dime novel he’d taken from his jacket pocket.
The man craned his neck to see the book. “Dime novel?”
Scott looked up from the page he was reading. “Yes.” He held the paper back up, showing an inked picture of a young man riding across the plain on a horse with the title, ‘Dime Novel Desperados – The Notorious Maxwell Brothers.’
The man chuckled. “Interesting reading?”
“Pure fantasy, but it helps pass the time.”
“Some are fantasy, but others hit closer to home.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. I suspect you’ll find out one day soon that not all Dime Novels are about fictitious characters.”
“You’ve met some who aren’t fictitious?”
“I have.” The stranger looked down at his sand-caked boots. “Sorry. I was in the desert recently, and I guess I didn’t get all the sand off. So, son, where are you going?”
Scott laid the book aside and looked out the window. He had second thoughts about the trip since leaving San Francisco. The closer he got to Morro Coyo, the more he thought of turning back.
“I’m supposed to be on my way to meet my father. He owns a ranch near a place called Morro Coyo.”
“And you’re thinking of turning back?”
Scott had no idea why he was talking to this man, but he needed someone to talk to about his indecisions.
“For twenty-four years, my father has ignored me. I’ve never met him. Now, after all this time, he asks me to come two thousand miles to see him.”
“Deep down, you must want to meet him, or you wouldn’t have made the trip.”
“I suppose I do. I’m curious about what kind of man he is and ….”
“What he looks like? Does he look like you?” The man nodded. “I understand. Do you have any other family? Brothers, Sisters?”
“No. None that I know of. Of course, my father may have other children. I was the only child my mother had, and she died when I was born.”
“I’m sorry. That must have been painful for your father as well.”
“I suppose it was, but since he …” Scott stopped. “I’m not sure, at this stage of my life, that I want to know more about my father, and I’m not sure why he wants to see me at all.”
“The only way to find out is to see him. Trust that he wants you.”
“I was distracted as the train slowed and then lurched as it approached Green River. I heard him say, ‘I’ve got to go now, but Scott, you have to trust him. Give him a chance. He needs you as much as you need him.’ When I looked back, he was gone.”
“You’re sure it was the man in the picture?”
“Yes, sir, I am. There is no mistaking those eyes or mustache.”
Murdoch walked across the room to his desk, then turned and looked at his sons. “I believe you. I believe you saw Joe both in Mexico and on the train. I don’t know how because Joe Carbajal was long dead and buried by that time.”
“He wanted us to know you needed help, and in both cases, he asked us to trust you, to stand by you.” Scott looked at Johnny.
“Yeah, but I wonder why he showed up tonight.”
“That’s easy,” Murdoch said. “Joe always liked a happy ending, and I suppose he wanted to make sure we had ours.”
“At least we weren’t the only ones to see him,” Scott said. “Several people commented on seeing the man dressed as Joe Carbajal. Johnny, you know what that means, don’t you?”
“We’re not crazy,” Scott laughed.
“I’m going to bed.” Johnny stood and waited for Scott to join him.
“Good night, sir.” When Murdoch didn’t reply, he turned and joined Johnny at the stairs.
Johnny smiled and then laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just remembered Teresa rearranged your room.”
“You won’t have an excuse for being in a bad mood from now on or having bad luck.”
“Don’t be so sure. I still have you, little brother.”
“Funny. Real funny.”
“Tomorrow night, I’ll start Dracula if you want.”
“As long as it isn’t about the dead coming back to life. After tonight …”
Listening to his son’s banter, Murdoch chuckled. It was a blessing having his sons with him, and he couldn’t help but think about the man who had somehow made it possible for them to be together.
He stood and walked to the French doors. Looking out into the night, he couldn’t help but remember his friend.
When Murdoch heard Joe was dead, he was heartbroken. He’d known the thirty-five-year-old U.S. Marshall since 1845 when the boy was ten and one of the few survivors of a Modoc attack near Spanish Wells. One of the ranch families took in the tall, lanky boy and raised him until he was old enough to ask for a job.
For a time, Joe worked on the ranch. He knew both Catherine and Maria, and helped care for Johnny when he was a baby.
In 1860, when Joe was twenty-five, he took a job in Modesto as a Deputy Sheriff. He was good at his job, so good that in 1865 he was asked to become a U.S. Marshall for the Central part of California. For five years, he served and protected the valley he loved. When Pardee started raiding the San Joaquin, Joe and Hank Peterson, from San Jose, made it their business to end the reign of terror.
One week before Carbajal and Peterson died, they visited the ranch and, with Paul and Murdoch, spent hours putting together a plan to stop Pardee. To immortalize the moment, Murdoch had a photographer take the picture that now sat on his bookshelf.
“That’s it, gentlemen.” The photographer started putting away his equipment. “I’ll have the photographs ready by the day after tomorrow. Is that acceptable, Mr. Lancer?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I’ll show myself out.” The photographer picked up his equipment and started for the door as Murdoch turned to the other three men who had shared the moment.
“So, what are you going to do?” Joe asked, pulling a cigar out of his shirt pocket.
Murdoch cocked his head confused. “I thought we’d already planned how we’re going to deal with Pardee.”
“I’m not talking about Pardee, Murdoch.” Joe lit the cigar and exhaled a plume of smoke. “I’m talking about your sons.”
“Joe, you’ve read the Pinkerton reports. Scott has a comfortable life in Boston. You really believe he’d give it up to come west to meet a father he’s never known?”
“I think he would, Murdoch. Don’t you think he deserves the chance to meet you?”
“Don’t tell me you wouldn’t give your eyeteeth to set eyes on him.”
“Yes, I’d give anything to see him.”
“Then send for him.”
“It’s not that easy.”
Paul O’Brian huffed, “You’re just making excuses, Murdoch. He’ll be twenty-four in December. He’s old enough to understand why you didn’t come for him.”
“And what of Johnny?” Hank Peterson joined in. “You know what name he’s going under now. Even if you don’t send for Scott, you need to get to Johnny.”
“Hank, you’ve read the Pinkerton reports on him. You know what he is, what he’s done. Bringing a gunfighter here is out of the question.”
“He’s your son,” Joe said. “I have to believe there’s still some of you in him.”
Murdoch turned and walked to the French doors. “I don’t know, Joe. My heart is telling me one thing, and my head another.”
“You have to trust your heart, old friend.”
“Murdoch, if there was any way I could bring them to you, I would. You need to find it in you to trust they need you.”
The next week Joe and Hank were dead. Two weeks after Joe’s funeral, Pardee set up the ambush that killed Paul O’Brian and left Murdoch with a bullet in his back and hip.
Murdoch’s hand went to the place on his hip where Pardee’s bullet still made its presence known.
With Paul gone, Cipriano did everything he could to keep the ranch going. Teresa, forced to grow up overnight, had taken care of him while mourning the loss of her father.
Murdoch’s only hope to save Lancer lay in two young men he didn’t know but had his blood running through their veins. At the time, he wasn’t even sure Scott would come, and he hadn’t heard anything from the Pinkertons about Johnny.
Murdoch didn’t doubt the stories Scott and Johnny told of meeting Joe Carbajal. If anyone could have found a way to reach out from the grave and help save the San Joaquin Valley, it would have been Joe. Even the Pinkerton Agent in Mexico said finding Johnny when he did was a miracle. Maybe Joe had a hand in that as well.
Murdoch was still gazing out the French doors and hadn’t realized he was now alone. He opened the doors and stepped into the cool night. Looking at the star-studded sky, he took a deep breath and let it out.
He turned to go back inside when the lamps in the Great Room flickered, and the flames turned blue.
Murdoch stopped. The scent of cigar smoke wafted around his head, and he knew Joe was there. Looking back into the darkness, he smiled.
“Joe, I know you’re here. I would have given anything to see and talk to you tonight. I know you had your reasons for not showing yourself to me, but I want to thank you for watching over my boys and getting them home. You were right. I needed to trust my heart, and they did need me as much as I needed them.”
He waited a moment, hoping Joe would show himself. Sighing, he turned to go back inside when the wind picked up, and he heard a faintly familiar voice.
“It’s the least I could do, old friend, and I told you so. Always trust your heart.”
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3 thoughts on “Superstitions and Apparitions: A Lancer Halloween by SandySha”
Lovely story, thank you.
Sandy, this is a great tale, Halloween or not! Having Joe Carbajol in contact with both Johnny and Scott makes for a terrific tale! Using his influence with both Lancer sons, was the deciding factor they came home and encouraging Murdoch to send for his boys before he was murdered, pulled the whole thing together. Great story, Sandy! Thank you!
A great Halloween story with a little scariness and a lot of love.