Just a little something for Hallowe'en. Nothing too macabre or spooky, merely a cautionary tale . . .
Prologue: (Saturday Night . . . All Hallows Eve)
This was it, this was positively it . . . the last, damned straw!
Scott surveyed his apple-pie bed, and ground his teeth so hard it hurt. In conspicuous, pride of place on the pillow, was a single dead centipede. Johnny must have sneaked in and done it the minute he'd left the ranch this evening, and probably with Teresa's assistance, if the neatly folded corners were anything to go by.
Scott clenched his fists tightly. His wrath was reserved exclusively for Johnny. Teresa had been a neutral party to their antics all week, assisting first in his own plots, and then colluding with Johnny's. The brown-haired girl was nothing, if not fair. But as for his brother . . . as for Johnny . . . tonight was the final nail in the veritable coffin.
Scott wrenched the sheets from the mattress and picked up the centipede carefully. He stalked across to the window, but then had a better idea. It took him six, angry strides to cross the landing, before entering Johnny's room and depositing the unfortunate insect in the centre of his brother's pillowcase. Well, so much for that, but his chagrin still burned brightly. And to think that earlier this evening, he'd thought of ending their feud . . .
He sat on the edge of his bed in the darkness, with a dozen, wild schemes in his head. Each one was more preposterous than the last, as he dreamt up revenge after dire revenge on Johnny. He hoped his brother was enjoying the Hallowe'en dance - 'it would be his last bit for fun for quite a while.' Scott thought darkly . . .
His hand brushed-up against brown paper. It was the parcel of goods he'd bought from the peddler. In his annoyance, he had forgotten all about it. Some of the frustration calmed in his breast. At least he'd found something to appease Maria. The tangerine dress debacle had left her in a bad mood as well. Resentment reared its ugly head again - that was just something else which was grossly unfair. The cook had been angry with him instead of Johnny, despite it being his brother who had 'borrowed' the offending garment in the first place . . .
Just remembering the smug grin, the light of triumphant mischief which had danced in his brother's eyes during the whole of the tangerine dress disaster, drew Scott's brows together in a deep frown.
"Sometimes, Johnny," he muttered, " I just wish you'd vanish into thin air. It would certainly make my life a whole lot easier . . ."
Scott stared up at the full moon for a moment and a tiny shiver trickled down his spine. Plenty of time to make payback plans in the morning, but he was suddenly, and quite overwhelmingly, tired. He picked up the brown paper package, and placed it in a drawer beside the bed.
Part One: (Earlier Saturday Evening . . .)
Scott looked up the street in mute exasperation and found he was gritting his teeth. One might almost presume it was April the first, instead of Hallowe'en. He supposed, in a way, he deserved it, but for his brother, revenge was proving sweet.
It had all started over a week ago with a stunt he had pulled on Johnny; knowing how vain his brother could be when it came to his precious clothes. Scott had just spent a few, trying hours being told how dull and conservative his wardrobe of blue and brown shirts was, when a need for revenge had consumed him. With the help of a giggling Teresa, he had put his own plan into action, and spent a very satisfying day telling Johnny he was putting on weight.
Although his brother had scoffed back at him, Scott had caught Johnny in the throes of sucking-in his almost, non-existent belly, several times during their hours on the range. And during supper, Teresa had played her part perfectly, raising a doubtful eyebrow and staring pointedly down at his waistline, when Johnny had asked for more potatoes.
Ignoring Murdoch's look of polite and knowing enquiry, they had both followed Johnny upstairs. Listening outside his bedroom door as he got changed for a night in Morro Coyo. It had been hard not to laugh out loud at the dismayed and muffled expletives which filtered through to them. Retribution had indeed been sweet, as Johnny attempted to button himself into his favourite suede pants and floral blue shirt, and found them inexplicably tight. It had all been too easy, really. Johnny was fastidious about his clothes. If he went to town in the evening, he would always lay out what he planned to wear. No problem then, for Teresa to spend an hour taking in the waistband of his trousers, or sewing a false seam into the side of his shirt . . .
They had forgotten how sharp Johnny's ears were. The hacienda had shaken with the explosion of wrath as he discovered them in tears of laughter on the landing. The resulting melee had involved Teresa hiding in mock terror behind an amused Murdoch, and both brothers taking an impromptu bath in the horse trough beside the gate. It would have been worth it, had it all ended there . . .
Murdoch had invited guests for supper on the Tuesday. Two wealthy ranchers from Monterey, accompanied by their good lady wives. Scott had spent a trying day rounding-up cattle and choking on dust, far too busy to wonder about Johnny's sudden and unexpected friendliness. They were later than usual getting back to Lancer, and Johnny had beaten him to the bath-house. By the time he'd finished washing the dust away, Scott realised he'd been duped. The set of clean clothes he'd collected to wear had vanished into thin air - as had all the towels and his filthy range attire. The only thing left hanging up in the outhouse, was one of Maria's voluminous dresses. Frilly and edged with flounces, it was unmistakeably, unashamedly, feminine . . . and to make things even worse, it was an eye-catching, bright tangerine.
Scott had been faced with three, clear choices. He could risk Murdoch's ire by skipping out on the evening, something not even worth contemplating. His father had already made it perfectly clear the invitation was the prelude to an important business deal for Lancer, and that subsequently, both sons must attend. Alternatively, he could risk making a naked dash for the house . . . and hope against hope he wouldn't be seen. The third and last option made him gnash his teeth with rage . . . 'Johnny,' he vowed, 'was going to regret that he'd ever been born . . .'
He could put on the dress, slip into the house, and make it up to his room via the back stairs. It was the only workable option. He had pictured appearing urbanely at supper - a worthy spike for his brother's guns.
But Scott had reckoned without Johnny's cunning. His brother's sneaky, and utter lack of conscience. His devious and twisted sense of humour, and total lack of decency and honour . . . his warped and artful sleight of hand, when it came to pulling practical jokes.
In order to skirt away from the sitting room and creep quietly up the back stairs, Scott, resplendent in Maria's tangerine ensemble, had clambered awkwardly over the low, white wall into Teresa's herb garden . . . and come face to face with the entire dinner party.
Of course, as he found out later, it had been Johnny's idea for them to enjoy an aperitif out in the scented garden, sipping their drinks around a table, in the shade of the mimosa tree. An immaculately dressed Johnny, in a black hidalgo suit. A Johnny, behaving with beautiful attention to both, besotted ranchers' wives.
It was best not to remember the ensuing scene. It still made Scott feel mortified. The things which stood out most vividly, (amongst his red-faced, embarrassment and the startled shrieks of the ladies) were his father's glowering gaze. And his own, nearly over-whelming desire, to punch the cat-got-the cream look, right off his brother's smug visage.
Subsequent events had degenerated rapidly. On Thursday, a furious Johnny had ridden a futile, forty mile, round trip into Green River. He'd received a 'genuine' telegram, informing him the new gun-belt he'd ordered several months ago, was now in stock. It was - but at least an inch too tight. He'd returned after sundown, tired, angry and beltless, to discover the Latham sisters had taken tea with Teresa that same day. As Scott knew only too well, Johnny was more than a little bit smitten with Caro Latham. It had given him a vast amount of pleasure to pip his brother at the post and ask her to the Hallowe'en dance. Something, he knew Johnny had been planning for quite a while. Any quick pangs of guilt he might have felt, had been very adequately smothered by painful memories of the tangerine fiasco . . .
Trust Johnny to turn things around. Scott clenched his fists and found he was breathing hard. Trust his wily and artful brother to hoist him with his own petard. They had barely spoken a word to each other since Tuesday, and in his heart, Scott knew it was time to call it quits. When it came down to ingenuity, they were both far too much alike. This feud could go on forever, until one of them really got hurt.
Scott looked up at the heavens, a small smile lacing his lips. The All Hallows moon was round and full, perfect for a night such as this. He turned and re-traced his steps back to the dance-hall, shaking his head slightly as the fiddlers slowed the tempo to a waltz. He could just imagine Johnny now, leading Caro Latham onto the dance-floor, nestling her bright head against his shoulder as he held her close in his arms. Well, it was good things had worked out this way. He'd never really been interested in the girl, anyway. She was just a means of getting at Johnny. When he'd arrived at the Latham's tonight, she had regarded him with ill-concealed dismay and handed him a piece of paper. The note had been self-explanatory. Hand delivered by Johnny earlier that day, and explaining all about, 'poor Scott's accident.'
Scott grinned to himself again. Typical of Johnny to be so inventive in his description of the fictitious affliction he'd so-called suffered. Falling into a centipede nest, indeed - and of all the anatomical places to be stricken: 'The place where a body meets the saddle . . .'
And of course, his dear, baby brother, would be taking Caro to the dance instead. Scott had conceded defeat - another skirmish had gone in Johnny's favour. It seemed they were just about even now. Time to sit down across the peace table and declare the bloody war had been a draw.
"Evenin', Scott . . ."
The feminine voice was rich with laughter and pulled him out of his reverie. He looked up at the gaggle of giggling young ladies, and in an instant, his good mood died. Scott knew by the looks on their faces, they had heard about his so-called misfortune. Probably in glorious minute detail, if his treacherous, low-down brother had anything to do with it!
He tipped his hat with barely, concealed bad-grace, and turned abruptly on his heel. The evening was ruined for him now. Whoever he met in the dance hall would be having a laugh at his expense. And it was thanks, yet again, to Johnny. Well, so much for burying the hatchet. Scott would like to bury the hatchet, all right . . .
"A beautiful night, is it not, Sir?"
Scott turned the corner so sharply, he almost careered straight into the shapeless figure waiting just beyond it. A man stepped out of the pools of shadow, or at least Scott assumed it was a man. The stranger was wrapped-up in indistinct garments, his hat pulled down low on his forehead. Scott felt a sudden, primal chill run down his spine, and took an instinctive step backwards. Almost at once, he was cross with himself - cross and a little amused. It was just that the man had surprised him - that and the date on the calendar. The fact it was Hallowe'en.
His heart rate returned to normal. "I suppose that depends on whose viewpoint you look at it from," he answered rather dryly. "It certainly is for my dear brother."
For the first time, Scott noticed the peddler's cart and the dark shape of the horse which blocked the alley. He'd been so taken up by his thoughts of revenge, he'd almost stalked right past it. The Peddler was on his way to the dance hall, Scott supposed. With trinkets for the ladies and patent hangover cures. Trinkets for the ladies . . . a sudden thought assailed him. Ever since the affair with the dress, he'd been in Maria's bad books for some reason, even though it was Johnny who'd 'borrowed' the wretched garment. Johnny . . . his brow darkened once more.
Can I interest Sir in anything?" The Peddler must have read his mind. "Cures or curiosities, baubles, bangles and beads. Ribbons for a sweetheart, or antiques from an ancient land . . ."
"Enough of the sales pitch," said Scott abruptly. "I just want something pretty for a lady. How about a scarf?"
"An excellent choice, Sir, an excellent choice." The Peddler went around to the back of his wagon. "If Sir would kindly wait for one moment . . ."
"Sir, would." Scott whispered sardonically to the horse.
The creature huffed uneasily and rolled strange, marbled eyes at him. He put out a tentative hand to stroke the dark nose. The brute turned so quickly, Scott barely had time to take a hasty step backwards before losing the tips of his fingers. An unbidden thought that the horse would probably have allowed Johnny to touch it, leapt with sudden rancour through his mind. His brother had a way with four legged beasts, this animal, one presumed, would be no exception.
"I think you'll find this one perfect."
Scott jumped slightly - so lost in thought, he hadn't heard the man's step close beside him. The Peddler looked up at him, an odd smile on his face, and held out an exquisite silk scarf. Scott examined it with a tinge of surprise. It was indeed, quite perfect. He couldn't have chosen something so appropriate for Maria if he'd scoured half the shops in San Francisco. A gorgeous, flamboyant scarlet silk, adorned with full-blown black and silver roses. He knew the cook would love it.
"I'll take it," he said promptly, "can you wrap it up for me?"
The Peddler lead him around to the back of the wagon and pulled out some pink tissue paper. Whilst he was engaged with the wrapping, Scott chose a length of yellow ribbon for Teresa, and a couple of cigars for Murdoch, which purported to be 'genuinely' Cuban. Scott had his doubts, but they didn't appear too bad. Aromatic and obviously hand-rolled, he knew his father would appreciate them. He reached into his jacket for his wallet, but his attention was suddenly seized by one last thing.
It was an elegant, curiously wrought bottle. The glow from the Peddler's lantern shone directly through it, and the colours seemed to shift before his eyes. Scott studied it more intently. At first, he had thought it was green, but perhaps it was a trick of the light. The glass reminded him of a peacock's tail, iridescent and shining with prismatic depths. It gleamed and winked like a crystal, with swirls of turquoise and gold. Scott reached for it without conscious volition, and turned the bottle over in his hand. The glass was smooth, it felt weathered and old, and Scott was enchanted by its beauty. He held it up to the moonlight and could have sworn he saw the colours change again. This time, they appeared to glow silver, with hidden pools of midnight blue and violet. There was an ancient stopper in the neck of the bottle, sealed firmly with string and old wax.
He looked up to find the Peddler watching him, or at least he assumed it was so. The man's hat was pulled down so low on his brow, that Scott couldn't see his eyes. An involuntary shiver convulsed him again, but he forced it impatiently aside. 'What the hell was wrong with him?' The whole business this week with Johnny, must have upset him much more than he realised. He had never been prone to night terrors, this was no time to start suffering from them now.
"How much for the bottle?"
The Peddler considered. "It's very old, very precious . . ."
"Get to the point." Scott was suddenly filled with a need to conclude all dealings with the huckster and get home to Lancer. But he wanted the bottle . . . he really did . . . "Do you want to sell it, or don't you?"
The man began to chuckle out loud. "Everything here has a price, Sir, it's whether you'd be willing to pay it. The bottle is very special, it requires a great deal of care."
"Do you want me to make you an offer? Two dollars, I'll give you two dollars. It can't be worth more than that."
"It's worth whatever a man will pay. There are some things you can't put a price on . . ." The Peddler must have seen the look on Scott's face. He cleared his throat hastily and continued. "Two dollars, it is then, Sir. And a bargain at double the price."
Scott placed the money in the man's hand, but his fingers hovered, frozen for a moment. He was suddenly filled with a sense of disquiet, an indescribable feeling of unease. The Peddler took the money quickly and whisked it away out of sight. The deal had been transacted and the bottle belonged to Scott.
His purchases were placed in a brown paper package and tied up with a length of string. Scott tucked it under his jacket and looked at the Peddler one last time.
"Where did you say the bottle came from?"
The huckster paused without turning back. "From a place where the heat burns brightly. So hot, it's fit for neither man nor beast. A place which should be best avoided . . . but strange to tell, the bottle lures men to its shores . . ."
Scott shivered unaccountably. "The only place I'm likely to be travelling tonight, is straight back home to my bed."
He walked quickly to the end of the alleyway, intent on getting Charlie from the livery. As he passed by the horse trough, the reflection of the moon caught his attention. It seemed to be looking right down at him, full and round as a penny in the water. Scott stopped and stared at the inky surface, dark and un-blinking as a dead man's eye. Some instinct made him glance back over his shoulder, but both the Peddler and the wagon had gone.
Part Two: (All Soul's Day . . .)
Scott awoke in a better mood the next morning. He decided it was hard to hold too much of a grudge. Not when the sun which streamed onto your pillow, was the colour of freshly churned butter. He took his time shaving and walked slowly down the stairs, nodding his head at his father as he took a seat at the breakfast table.
Murdoch looked up rather curiously. "Good morning - did you sleep well?"
"Very well, thank you. In fact, it was the best night's sleep I've had for quite a while." Scott helped himself to some coffee.
"We waited for you last night." Murdoch passed across the sugar. "Where did you boys get to?"
Scott had the grace to feel rather embarrassed. In his deep irritation with Johnny, he had forgotten all about Murdoch and Teresa. He hoped they hadn't hung about in Morro Coyo for too long.
He smiled ruefully at his father. "I'm sorry, Sir. I'm afraid I forgot my manners, and left without saying . . ." He frowned suddenly. "Boys? Johnny left the dance early as well?"
Murdoch paused in the act of spearing some bacon. "You mean he didn't go with you? When both of you vanished, we naturally assumed you'd sneaked off somewhere together. To be honest, I was glad to see it . . . I thought perhaps, you'd patched-up your feud."
"No." Scott answered slowly. "I left the dance hall early, Johnny was still there."
He wondered if his brother had followed him out, but it seemed highly unlikely. Johnny had been savouring his victory too much, enjoying the night and the girl in his arms, he would not have just upped and left.
"Boss . . ." Jelly bustled in through the side door, his voice an octave higher with anxiety as he came up to the table. "Johnny home?"
"Why?" The single word came out abruptly, but Scott felt suddenly ill at ease. There was something . . . he couldn't put his finger on it . . . something which turned his insides to ice.
Jelly twisted his cap unhappily, eyes switching between the two men. "The palomino ain't in the barn, thet's why. T'isn't like Johnny to leave him in town, not even when he's had too much sauce . . ." The old man paused unhappily, his face flushed with embarrassment. "I was only wondrin', is all. Never mind me - never mind, old Jelly. Just like Johnny to leave me to mend all them fences alone. Probably up there fast asleep, a-dreamin' of that yalla-haired gal . . ."
"Scott." Murdoch interrupted patiently, "go and see if your brother is awake. Jelly, sit down and pour yourself some coffee. I'm sure Johnny's got an explanation."
Jelly didn't need asking twice, taking the chair Scott vacated, and commencing his second breakfast with gusto. It only took Scott a couple of minutes to ascertain Johnny was not in his room. And furthermore, it was clear his bed had not been slept in. The counterpane was smooth and unwrinkled, the pillows plump and unmarred by creases, instead of screwed into tight balls. The centipede was just where he'd left it last night, undisturbed against the white linen.
Scott's apprehension grew even stronger. 'Where the hell had Johnny gotten to?'
He bumped into Teresa at the top of the stairs, grasping hold of her arm. "Have you seen Johnny this morning?"
Teresa shook her head at him, and gave him a mischievous smile. "And why would that be, Scott Lancer? Feeling a little 'bugged' with him, are we?"
He thought again of the centipede and grinned reluctantly in return. "Very funny, both of you. A regular pair of jokers. Now, if you would be kind enough to tell me where my dear brother's been hiding since the dance . . ."
Teresa looked up at him with sudden confusion. "But, didn't he come home with you last night? Murdoch and I waited at least half an hour, but nobody had seen either one of you. Boy, was Caro mad with Johnny for leaving her there, in the lurch."
The thought he might be the victim of yet another huge, prank, suddenly occurred to Scott. He stared down hard at the face of the girl, trying to see past the anxiety in her eyes. If Teresa really was acting, she was doing a mighty good job. But then he remembered the supper table, and how, with a pertinent flick of her glance, she had sown a seed of doubt in Johnny's mind. If this was indeed, the latest round in their feud, then it meant the whole family was involved. No doubt they expected him to drop everything and dash off searching for Johnny, who was probably hidden somewhere close by, perhaps even listening right now.
And 'trust me . . .' Scott thought with indignant exasperation, 'I nearly fell for it, hook, line and sinker.'
Well, so much for ending hostilities. If Johnny was determined to continue the game, he would discover he was playing with a master. Not for nothing, had Scott survived his Frat house at Harvard. His brother was merely an amateur when it came to pulling serious stunts.
He gave Teresa a dismissive smile and patted her lightly on the cheek. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about Johnny, he'll turn up when he's good and ready. He always does, just like a bad penny."
She turned after him with puzzled astonishment, but he was already half way down the landing towards his bedroom. Let Murdoch and Jelly stew for a while, this was one trap he wasn't falling into. And so much for the cigars and the ribbon. Scott opened up the draw and took out the Peddler's package. The only person who would be receiving a present today was Maria. It always paid to have the cook on your side . . .
He fingered the silk scarf between his hands. Somehow, it seemed tawdry in the candid light of day. Perhaps he'd wait a while before he gave it to her, after all. Scott scowled at his reflection in the mirror. What was the betting the cook was in on the joke? It was a plain fact the woman adored Johnny. 'Juanito this, Juanito that . . .' Giving him extra food and always spoiling him, treating him like the son she'd never had . . .
Scott pushed the scarf back into the package. It was another present which could wait. But meanwhile, he remembered the antique bottle. It was just as lovely in daylight, shimmering and glowing with colour. Scott placed it carefully on his bedroom window-sill, and sat back for a moment to admire it. Sunlight danced through the imperfections, emphasising tiny bubbles in the glass. It resembled a spray of tumbling ocean, aquamarine, lilac, azure . . .
Azure. Scott frowned as he thought of Johnny again. It was typical he just couldn't let it lie. And now he had involved the whole family against him. Well, Scott was not about to simply roll over and let him win this time. If Johnny wanted a victory, he would learn he had a real fight on his hands. He could play hide and seek for as long as he wanted - but Scott would just get on with things and bluff it out for as long as necessary. A sudden memory flashed through his mind, Freddie Murray's tenth birthday party. Scott remembered curling into a tiny ball, hiding out in the clothes airing cupboard. It had been perfect - they would never find him there . . .
And they hadn't either. Minutes had stretched into over an hour as he waited triumphantly for them to give-up and call out his name. No one had bothered, no one had come. When eventually, he'd crawled out of the cupboard, it was to find they'd eaten all the birthday tea. No one had even realised he'd been gone. How ridiculous that the memory could still hurt him.
It made this latest stunt of Johnny's rankle even more, and Scott found his fists were clenched in anger as he pictured his brother's grinning face. A shaft of sunlight sparkled off the bottle and the sight of it appeased his troubled mind. If it hadn't been for Johnny, he might not have met the Peddler, and if nothing else good came of all this, at least he'd acquired the bottle.
"I only wish that wherever you're hiding, Johnny, it's as uncomfortable as I was in that cupboard." He spoke the words out loud, his fingers caressing the smooth glass.
Scott found he was able to smile a little, his spirits becoming more light-hearted. Let Johnny play games for as long as he liked - his brother would soon discover for himself what it felt like when no-one came to find him.
The rest of the day was a tribute to his family, and Scott was forced to give them credit for their acting. Jelly was the first one to tackle him, as he saddled Charlie up outside the barn.
"You goin' off lookin' for Johnny?"
Scott bent down methodically to tighten the cinch. "Oh, I don't think so, Jelly."
The old man stared at him, nonplussed. "Then why in tarnation, ain't you?"
Scott smiled at him fleetingly and straightened-up. "I think you know the answer to that question. Good try, though."
Jelly gave him a suspicious glare. "You two fellas cookin' somethin' up? If this is some kinda practical joke, then I don't happen to think it's very funny. Folk's is had plenty enough of fool goin's-on around here. Time certain bodies did some work for a change."
"For once, I totally agree with you." Scott swung himself into the saddle. "You could always try telling it to Johnny - that is, if you should see him, of course."
The next person to corner him was Teresa. The girl was waiting outside the kitchen doorway as he came home, hungry for his lunch. A half-smile hovered around his mouth as she stepped forward from the shade of the laurel tree.
"Scott . . ." She clasped his arm tightly. "Do you know where Johnny is? Because, if you do, then this has gone on long enough. It isn't funny anymore. There's a difference between playing a joke on someone and making them worry - really worry!"
Scott looked down at her in blatant admiration. She was good, she was very good indeed. He gave her a lazy flick on the chin and headed on towards the kitchen doorway.
"I happen to agree. Making someone worry about you, is not very funny at all."
Of course, she didn't leave it there, he could feel her sense of perplexity as she followed him into the sunny kitchen, and watched him sit down at the table. Scott helped himself to several large slices of ham, tearing off a chunk of bread and pulling the cheese board towards him. He concentrated on making himself a sandwich and then quirked an eyebrow at her.
"Care to join me?"
"Scott . . ."
Before she could say anymore, Maria came in through the archway carrying Murdoch's used tray. She placed it down on the draining-board and immediately wrung her hands. "Donde esta Juanito? Lo ha encontrado Senor Scott todavia?"
"No." Teresa frowned heavily. "Senor Scott has not found Johnny. Or at least, that's what he says."
Scott took a massive bite of his sandwich and gave both the women a big smile. "This is mighty good ham, Maria. My compliments to the cook."
Teresa looked at him in disgust and flounced-off out of the door. Scott watched her go unconcernedly, he was enjoying being part of the show. And a very good performance it was, indeed. Everyone playing their role to perfection - he only hoped his own was proving creditable. Maria gave a noisy sniff and wiped her eyes hurriedly on her apron. Scott wished he had given her the scarf after all, her acting certainly warranted it.
A tiny question of doubt assailed him, making him pause mid-bite. What if, by some chance, he was wrong about this? What if Johnny really was missing?
There was a large pile of washing folded up on the dresser, right on top, was the tangerine dress. Scott's gaze lingered resentfully on it for a moment, he felt full of embarrassment once again. It was too coincidental to be genuine - and almost certainly, Johnny was fine. If he hadn't got bored of the charade by tomorrow, then Scott would give-in and concede defeat. Meanwhile, there was fencing to be fixed in the north paddock, followed by a onerous water-course to dig-out. Typical of Johnny to duck his share of hard work, and unfair of Murdoch to actually sanction such behaviour, in the name of a stupid jape. Scott discovered he wasn't enjoying his sandwich much anymore. Wherever he seemed to look in the kitchen, his eyes fell on the tangerine dress. He got to his feet and stalked into the sunshine - he would rather be out on the range.
By the time he rode under the archway at sundown, Scott was tired and more disgruntled than ever. The fencing had proved long and arduous, the watercourse even more so. There was enough rubble blocking the bed of the creek to build a new hacienda. Or at least it seemed that way. He usually took time to admire the sunset - the way it played along the ridge of the hills. There one minute, and gone the next, in a spectacular ball of orange flame. Orange . . . Tangerine, more like. Scott scowled as he led Charlie into the barn, noticing Murdoch's horse, Caledonia, was saddled-up next to the hitching rail.
He and Johnny were usually last home. It was unusual for Murdoch to ride out just before suppertime. Perhaps something 'had' happened . . . Barranca's stall was still empty. Scott frowned suddenly, a puckered line creasing his forehead. The explanation was clear, of course. Murdoch had been to see Johnny, wherever Johnny was hiding out. He headed across to the gateway and sure enough, Murdoch met him at the front door.
"Where have you been?" His father's voice was terse and peremptory.
Scott spared a second to study him, lifting a laconic eyebrow. "Doing my chores - what else? Johnny's too, for that matter."
Murdoch's face grew even grimmer. "Do you know where your brother is?"
"Do you?" Scott pushed past him into the hallway and began stripping off his leather gloves. He was rapidly getting bored with this. It had gone way beyond a joke.
"Listen to me!" Murdoch spun him angrily around by the shoulder. "If you know where Johnny is, then I need you to tell me now. I've just ridden back from Morro Coyo, and Barranca's not at the livery. Mose doesn't know if Johnny took him, because he was at the dance himself. The whole situation is no longer funny. If something 'has' happened to Johnny, he's been missing nearly twenty-four hours."
Scott looked back at Murdoch uncertainly, disturbed by the tone of his voice. A frisson of doubt made his gut clench hard and he remembered his unease at breakfast. He'd been sure - he'd been so damned sure . . . and yet, if this wasn't a trick . . .
It was too awful to even contemplate and he stared his father intently. There was no trace of subterfuge behind Murdoch's eyes, merely concern and a hint of anger.
"I don't know where he is," he said slowly. "I thought that, perhaps, you did."
Murdoch shook his head incredulously and turned back towards the front door. "Tell Teresa I'll round-up some of the men and re-trace Johnny's route into town. There's probably nothing to worry about, I didn't see anything on my way there today - but then again, I wasn't looking too hard . . ." Murdoch paused as his words died away. "We have an hour of daylight left, if we're lucky."
"Murdoch . . ."
"Go - tell Teresa!"
The big man's voice was uncompromising. Scott knew he had been dismissed. He turned on his heel and walked under the archway, so wrapped-up in a blanket of thoughts, he almost missed bumping into Jelly.
The older man sniffed when he saw who it was, but Scott put a hand out to stay him. "Jelly, wait . . . Jelly!"
"Well?" Jelly paused reluctantly and waited. "Don't have much time goin' spare just now - got me a friend who may be in trouble."
Scott stiffened, his face unreadable. "Do you swear Johnny didn't put you up to this?"
"Sakes, Scott," Jelly bristled angrily. "Two fellas kickin' up a passel of dust, is natural and all very well. But if you can't tell when the joke is over, then I swear you got rocks between your ears. Never figured 'you' for no long-headed mule. Always thought you was the brains of this outfit."
"You thought 'we' were playing tricks on you?" Teresa's voice was disbelieving. "And all the time Johnny's been gone for hours and no-one has a clue what could have happened?"
She stood frozen in the entrance to the kitchen corridor, a look of dismay on her face. Scott took a step or two forwards, but thought better of attempting to reassure her. He needed a drink and to change his shirt, he needed to go out and find his brother. He relayed Murdoch's message and made his way upstairs.
The late afternoon light had already changed, deepening the shadows in his room. Scott gulped down some water and stripped off his filthy clothes, reaching for the soap next to the basin. He was washed and re-dressed in under five minutes, but something made him pause as he left the room.
The bottle on the window-sill appeared to have changed yet again. Or, at least, picked-up the dramatic, evening sky. The glass gleamed ruby, shimmering with crimson facets. A darkening shade, the red an ominous colour. Scott shivered slightly and picked it up, it felt strangely warm between his hands. For the first time since laying eyes on it, he experienced a form of repulsion. It was as though someone had severed an artery and filled up the bottle with blood.
His thoughts tracked uneasily to Johnny. If only he knew what had happened, or where his troublesome brother was. "I wish someone could remember seeing Barranca . . . I wish the palomino would come home."
Scott discovered he'd muttered the thought out loud, staring frowningly out across the stable paddock. Even as he watched, a lone horse wandered up to the railings, head drooping and loose reins trailing. There was a mess of brambles tangled in its straggly, cream-coloured mane. Scott's eyes widened - he thought he was seeing things. An optical illusion, perhaps . . . or a single thought made manifest by desire.
He blinked, but the apparition didn't vanish. It was undoubtedly, flesh and blood. As real and solid as he was himself, if slightly the worse for wear. The sense of initial relief which washed over him, was replaced by yet more apprehension. The horse was most certainly Barranca, but there was no sign of his rider anywhere.
Part Three: (All Soul's Night, and beyond . . .)
Scott got home just after midnight, tired, and seriously worried. He'd spent futile hours combing the back way into Morro Coyo, a shorter, more difficult route he and Johnny sometimes took in daylight. Why his brother might have attempted it in darkness was beyond him, but right now, Scott was grasping at straws.
He'd given-up eventually, knowing he was wasting his time. The longer he stayed out alone, the more he risked becoming a casualty himself. That would be of no help to Johnny, and besides, Murdoch might have returned with some news by now.
The hacienda was ablaze with light, and Scott's heart sank at the implication of it. As he led Charlie into the barn, Barranca snickered mournfully across at him.
Scott sighed and leaned over to stroke the golden nose. "Where is he, boy? If only you could tell us what happened . . ."
" . . . then he'd be wiser n' a tree full of owls."
"Jelly!" Scott jumped slightly, as the old man appeared from the shadows. "What are you doing out here in the dark?"
Jelly scowled as he fumbled with the lantern. "Just a-fixin' to ask you the same question. Didn't find nuthin', I don't suppose?"
There was still enough of the Harvard in him to wince at the triple negative, but Scott sympathised with the old man. He felt pretty despondent himself.
"No, nothing. It's almost as though he's vanished off the face of the earth."
Jelly nodded sagely, his voice dark and laden with doom. "Mebbe, jist mebbe, he has. Did ye ever pause to consider that might be the case?"
Scott shook his head with exasperation. He was not in the mood for one of Jelly's wild stories at the moment. "What are you talking about, Jelly? Johnny's out there somewhere, it's just a question of finding him."
"I heard the likes of this before. Folks disappearin' on Hallowe'en. They say the dead come back for them, that they're spirited off somewhere, taken beyond the veil . . ."
"Thanks, Jelly. I get the message."
In-spite of his initial derision, Scott was filled with an irrational sense of dread. It was stupid, just plain ludicrous, to give the Old Man's stories any credence, but it didn't change the fact Johnny was missing. His brother had vanished on Hallowe'en, and no one had seen hide nor hair of him since. A nasty shiver ran down his spine. Scott remembered his own journey home to Lancer last night. His fears had been disproportionately threatening, sinister and larger than life. He had never been given to lurid flights of fancy, not like the man stood in front of him now, but whatever Jelly had, must be catching. Scott felt inordinately afraid.
He suddenly thought of the Peddler. There had been something very strange about the man . . . what if Johnny had tangled with him, out there alone in the alley? He dismissed the idea immediately. The one thing he'd learned in the short time he'd known him, was that Johnny could take care of himself. But however hard he wanted to scoff at them, Scott couldn't shake the sense of unease Jelly's words had triggered.
He shook his head gently at the worried old man. "It's a given Johnny's in trouble, but there's nothing supernatural about it. We're going to find him and bring him back home again. It isn't the dead who have him."
Scott left quickly before Jelly could say anymore. He found he just didn't want to hear it. All the crazy talk of being taken-off by the dead . . . it left him feeling edgy and unsettled. Pure nonsense, anyway.
He found Murdoch in the Library, a glass of malt cupped in his hands. Remembering the less than favourable terms on which they'd parted, Scott paused as he entered the room.
"You may as well pour yourself a large one - I've a feeling it'll be a long night." Murdoch gestured towards the array of decanters.
Scott was more than glad to obey him. "I take it nobody found anything?"
Murdoch looked up sharply, the double implication not lost on him. "No. Nothing at all. No tracks and no sign of Johnny. Nothing, nothing at all. If common-sense didn't dictate otherwise, I'd swear he'd simply vanished into thin air."
Scott's hand nearly slipped off the stopper. He replaced it carefully into the decanter and turned around to face his father. "You're not the first person to say that tonight. Jelly's out there in the barn telling ghost stories."
But much to his surprise, Murdoch nodded. "A lot of strange things happen on Hallowe'en. I remember the tales back in the Old Country, people really believed in them, then." He smiled reminiscently and shook his head. "It's easy to understand why. When the wild moon shines over the heather, and the wind whistles in at the eaves . . ."
In-spite of his worry, Scott was fascinated. It was rare Murdoch ever spoke of his past. He was not unlike Johnny, in that respect. Perhaps the two were more alike than they realised. He took his glass over to the fireside, suddenly needing the warmth and comfort of the crackle and spit of the flames.
"With the greatest of respect, Sir, you don't exactly strike me as the type to believe in such nonsense. Hallowe'en's merely for children these days, an excuse to make merry and have fun."
Murdoch stared into his whisky glass, a tiny smile lacing his mouth. "The ancient Celts believed it was the start of the year. Their equivalent of New Year's Eve. The only time in the whole of the year, when the veil between the worlds was thin. The dead and the living could walk side-by-side, the edges of the spirit-world crossed over."
Scott shivered despite his disbelief. "And this was a cause for celebration?"
Murdoch shrugged. "Actually, it was. They revered the spirits of their ancestors. Very much like the Indians do here. It was considered an honour to talk to the dead, a blessing as opposed to a curse. It was the coming of Christianity which turned All Hallows into something to be afraid of - a time of devils and fear."
"You sound as though you might believe it yourself." Scott took another swallow of his whisky. This was not what he wanted to hear. He had come in to escape Jelly's theories, not have them confirmed by his father. There was something . . . he couldn't put his finger on it, something he should have remembered . . .
He became aware of his father's steady regard. Murdoch didn't attempt to deny or repudiate his last statement, a question of his own in his eyes.
"What is it, Scott?"
Scott sighed, and shrugged uneasily. "Nothing. I don't suppose it's anything . . ."
"Oh, what the hell . . ." he laughed restively. "Probably not the best choice of expletives, under the circumstances." He stared back down into the fireplace. "I met a peddler on my way home from the dance. I suppose you saw the same one later?"
"No." Murdoch sat up straighter. "No peddler came to the dance. Go on."
"I was pretty angry with Johnny - that stupid feud of ours. It was as though this man could read my mind, could see all the dark thoughts there." Scott's voice faltered slightly. "And I can tell you, Sir, there were a lot of them. I felt full of resentment and the need for revenge."
Murdoch's expression was impenetrable. "And the Peddler? What happened then?"
"I bought a few bits and pieces from him, a scarf for Maria, nothing much. It wasn't so much what he said or did, it was more how he made me feel. Bitter, even angrier with Johnny." Scott looked up honestly. "And with everybody else, as well. I felt like part of a conspiracy, as though you were all against me. It was as though he was feeding off my thoughts."
"I think we need to find this peddler." Murdoch drained his glass. "First thing in the morning, we'll . . ."
The door to the library banged behind them, and both men jumped out of their skins. Jelly stood trembling in the entrance, a look of abject terror on his face. For a brief moment, Scott's heart froze, filled with sudden anguish about Johnny. He stared across at the older man, too struck with apprehension to even speak.
It was Murdoch who broke the brief silence. "What can we do for you, Jelly?"
"Ain't you never heard the legends? About peddler men and the like?"
Scott looked across at his father. "What does he mean? You know what he's talking about, don't you?"
Murdoch frowned hard at Jelly. "It's just an old legend, an Old Wife's tale. Nothing to worry about. They say the Devil used to travel around in the guise of a peddler, buying and selling souls from the back of his cart. Total rubbish, of course."
"That ain't what I heard . . ." Jelly rolled his eyes at them. "Heard tell of a woman in Missouri, turned a peddler-man away from her door. It was snowin' somethin' fierce, and dark as a bear's insides, not a fit night fer man nor beast. They say he cussed her as he went on his way - and in the mornin', she was found, stiff as a board."
"Humpf," grunted Murdoch, "probably the cold."
"You mark my words, it was the Devil. The Devil stole that poor woman's soul."
"That's enough, Jelly." There was a timbre of anger in Murdoch's voice now, as he observed the expression on Scott's face. "First thing in the morning, we'll resume the search for Johnny. What's the betting we find him safe and sound, all this talk about the Devil's simply foolish."
Scott got out of bed at the crack of dawn. He'd slept poorly, if hardly at all, tossing and turning amidst a gauntlet of dreams, most of them grim and nightmarish. He somehow knew without being told, that Johnny had still not come home.
Unusually, the morning was gloomy. The clouds lying low across the mountains in an ominous roll of grey. There was rain and something more in the air, the threat of a storm on the wind. Not the kind of weather to be out there alone in. Alone, and very likely in trouble.
It was almost a habit to look at the bottle. Scott took it slowly off the window-sill and held his treasure up to the light. The patterns in the antique glass had changed yet again, reflecting the moody glower of the gunmetal sky. He thought of the Peddler's words once more, going over their encounter in the alleyway.
"Everything here has a price, Sir, it's whether you'd be willing to pay it . . . ."
Scott had a sudden, uncomfortable feeling, the man had not been talking about the bottle. He gave himself a mental shake. He was getting just as foolish as Jelly. All that talk of the Devil last night, had thrown him completely off his game.
There was a knock on his door and Murdoch walked in. One look at his face, and Scott's heart sank. There was still no sign of Johnny.
"We'll be leaving as soon as you're ready. There's a storm coming in across the mountains."
Scott replaced the bottle carefully on the sill. "Something tells me we really need to find that peddler. If nothing else, to ask whether he saw Johnny leave town the other night."
Murdoch nodded heavily. "At the moment, I'd be glad of any information. From the state the palomino came home in, it seems likely he was wandering for some time. Who knows which direction he came from - there are too many tracks around here to follow."
Scott reached for his jacket, distress on his face. For a second, Murdoch saw his hand tremble. He placed a rough arm around his shoulders.
"None of this is your fault, Scott. There's no point in blaming yourself."
Scott laughed bitterly. "I wasted a whole day, Murdoch. Time I could have spent searching for Johnny. I was so eaten-up with that stupid feud, and all the while, he was out there in trouble."
"We don't know that." Murdoch said gruffly. "I doubt it would have made any difference. Feeling guilty won't help us find him now - you can't put the genie back into the bottle."
Scott froze, a peculiar thought taking shape. His eyes were suddenly drawn to the window, to the Peddler's bottle sat on the sill. Something about the ornament made him stare harder - the colours seemed to swirl within the glass. Scott shook his head at his flight of fancy. It was confirmed, he was just as bad as Jelly. And yet . . .
Every time he wished for something, in an odd sort of way, it came true. He had wanted Johnny to disappear, and sure enough, his brother vanished. His blood turned to ice as he remembered his second wish, that Johnny should know some discomfort. The third wish had been for Barranca, and the horse had returned to the corral. Perhaps if he wished on the bottle again . . .
Scott laughed out loud. Stupid, he was being stupid. It was merely an old, glass bottle, not some artefact from the Arabian Nights. And if by some strange miracle, the bottle 'had' been granting him wishes, as even the youngest child knew, the maximum limit was three.
"Scott?" Murdoch was watching him closely, a puzzled expression on his face. "What is it?"
"Wish I knew . . ." Scott shrugged with self-annoyance. Wish - there it was, that word once again. He gestured towards the bottle with a look of chagrin. "I bought this bottle from the Peddler, and it's the strangest thing . . . each time I've wished for something lately, I seem to have been holding it in my hands." He snorted self-consciously. "I don't know if there's a genie inside it, but everything I've asked for has happened."
"Such as?" Murdoch regarded him steadily.
Scott told him. He didn't bother sparing himself at all, and in a way, it helped to place it in perspective. He was astounded by his own behaviour, what on earth had made him act as he had?
When he finished, Murdoch was silent for a awhile. He walked to the window and looked at the bottle, running his finger down the glass. Scott began to feel exceedingly foolish. It was Jelly's fault, genies and wishes . . . it was his own guilt searching for a voice.
"Why don't you make another wish? Why not try wishing Johnny back."
Scott stared at his father in astonishment. Those were the last words he'd expected to hear. He stood beside Murdoch at the window and looked out across the windswept valley. The storm was dark and brooding on the horizon, the tops of the mountains obscured by thick, black clouds. And Johnny was out in it, somewhere . . . his brother was facing the maelstrom, lost, in trouble, and alone.
He'd been about to scoff at his idiocy, to dismiss his imagination as being risible. To say that Murdoch had confounded him, would be an understatement. He laughed a trifle uncertainly, and placed a hand on the neck of the bottle.
"Murdoch, it makes no sense. Johnny didn't disappear because of anything I said, and certainly not because of this bottle. Just forget it was ever mentioned, I must be getting addled in the head."
The hint of a smile laced Murdoch's lips. "It can't do any harm to try it, son."
Scott's hold tightened on the bottle. With a sudden, irrational stab of fear, he noticed the glass had grown dull. He recalled what Murdoch had said about the Peddler, remembering the sentence word for word.
" . . . they say the Devil used to travel around in the guise of a Peddler, buying and selling souls from the back of his cart . . ."
The bottle had been a reflective mirror for all his darkest emotions. Everything he'd thought of, or wished for. What if, in some impossible way, the ornament was a receptacle for Johnny's soul? Scott shuddered, remembering the deep-red hue with which it had glowed yesterday. It had filled him with a kind of revulsion and reminded him of blood. And now it was losing colour altogether, growing dimmer before his very eyes.
To hell with feeling foolish. Perhaps 'to hell,' would turn out to be right . . . Scott wasn't so sure anymore. If Johnny was fading like the colour of the glass, then he didn't have much time to play with. Aware of Murdoch watching him intently, Scott felt the smoothness of the bottle against his palm and forced a shaky breath.
"I wish Johnny would come home . . ." His voice faltered slightly. It wasn't quite enough and he knew it. There was more than one way Johnny might be returned to them, some ways were beyond contemplation. Scott's mouth tightened. "I wish I knew he was safe."
The two men looked at each other in silence. Outside, the wind was getting stronger, whistling around the roof of the hacienda like a pack of howling devils. But the only sound in the bedroom, was the measured ticking of a clock. Scott shook his head and smiled bitterly.
"There!" Murdoch's knuckles whitened on the edge of the window-sill.
A buckboard was rattling up the driveway towards them. It looked like Charlie Poe driving it. Scott gazed in amazement for a fraction of a second, and then he was running for the staircase, with Murdoch hot on his heels.
Part Four: (4th November . . .)
Scott stared moodily across the corral and rested his arms on the top railing. The sky was still scudded with rain clouds, an aftermath of the storm. It had raged through the valley for a whole two days, battering everything ferociously in its wake. The coming of winter, Jelly had called it, shaking his old head gloomily.
There was the sweet scent of wood-smoke on the sleeve of his jacket, and a bonfire smouldered next to the woodpile. Scott had burned all the trinkets the Peddler had sold him, watching as the bright flames consumed them. Everything, that was, apart from the bottle. He couldn't risk consigning it to the fire.
Scott turned at the sound of footsteps behind him, facing Murdoch, with a question in his eyes. "Sam gone?"
"A few minutes ago. He seems to think it's just a question of time. The concussion should heal with a couple of weeks bed rest."
"And his breathing?" Scott's voice was grim.
Murdoch joined him up at the railing. "We have to hope it doesn't turn into a pneumonia." He paused at the expression in his elder son's eyes. "Teresa and Maria won't let that happen."
Scott's jaw tightened and he clenched his fists hard. "It better not. For the Latham brothers' sake, it better not."
Murdoch spun him around by the shoulder, a deep hint of anger in his voice. "You listen to me, Scott. The last thing Johnny needs right now, is for you to go off half-cocked after the Latham brothers. Leave it to the law to deal with them. Val will sort it out."
Some of the tension drained from Scott's body, but the haggard look stayed in his eyes. "I should have been with him, Murdoch. He had no chance, three against one."
Murdoch regarded him less harshly. "You weren't to know - none of us were. Those boys were drinking hard all night. When Johnny left early to go after you, and they saw their sister was upset . . . Well, they jumped to the wrong conclusion. It's as tragic and stupid as that. They meant to protect their sister's honour - this whole business has scared them half to death."
Scott shivered suddenly at Murdoch's choice of words. "As opposed to being beaten half to death, you mean. Or dumped into the river and left alone and hurt."
"It could have been worse." Murdoch said bleakly.
"It very nearly was." Scott shivered again. "Thank goodness for Charlie Poe. If his prize hog hadn't gone missing . . . if he hadn't known there were oak trees along that particular area of the riverbank . . ."
Murdoch gave him a muted smile. "Think Johnny will appreciate knowing he owes his life to a pig?"
"A pig addicted to acorns." Scott shook his head a little. It would indeed, be funny, if Johnny was hale and on the mend.
The two men shared a moment of silence, each of them enclosed in his own thoughts.
"Scott?" Murdoch turned to him quietly. "About the bottle . . ."
"It's wrapped up in the bottom of my trunk. Once I know Johnny will be all right, I'm going after the Peddler."
"Do you think that's wise, son?"
Scott shrugged his shoulders. "Wise or not, I have something I need to return to him. I don't know what else to do with it."
The cold fear engulfed him again. He had no idea how the damn thing worked, but all logic had long flown out the window. One way or another, the bottle was in tune with his alter-ego. The darker side of his soul, at it's most primitive level of existence. It had tapped and tuned into his anger and resentment, twisting and warping it to harm those he loved. An impartial observer might describe the events of the last few days as being random, but Scott knew with total conviction, there were stranger powers at work. Something evil and esoteric had held him temporarily, in it's thrall.
There was also the curious coincidence of the colours. The swirling mists of light in the glass which had so entranced him at first. The bottle had enticed him like a lover, reaching out to him yearningly with all the power it possessed. The first morning, it had danced and shimmered like water, the azure blue had reminded him of Johnny's eyes. At the time, his brother was lying hurt in the river shallows, soaked to the skin and fighting for his life.
The bottle had glowed red in the evening. Red with pain and the stain of Johnny's blood. The following day when his brother's life-force had been fading, the glass had reflected the dimming grey of that spark. For this reason alone, Scott knew he could not afford to damage the artifact, but he urgently needed to be rid of it, with every part of his soul.
Murdoch clapped him affectionately on the shoulder, his eyes straying back towards the house. "Don't stay out here alone too long. Johnny's asking for you when he's lucid."
Scott nodded miserably and watched him walk away. He didn't know if he would ever be able to explain the peculiar events of the last few days to Johnny. Even if he did, he knew Johnny well enough to gauge the sort of reaction his words would engender. Johnny would laugh with derision and tell him to stay out of the sun . . . to wash it down with more water next time, or take it easy till he felt more like himself. Or perhaps not. Johnny could be amazingly superstitious on occasion. Something to do with his catholic upbringing, with the Indian tales his mother had told him. Scott wondered if he'd ever really know his younger brother - he found himself suddenly praying, that fate might grant him the chance.
A rumble of wheels pulled him out of his reverie. The wagon trundled in, under the archway. Scott watched it approach with a sense of pre-destiny, a feeling of dread in his heart. Part of him had even been expecting to see it. It was the Peddler's cart, of course. Low-slung and laden with pots and pans, gilt picture frames and bird-cages. It reined to a halt alongside him, obscuring his view of the house. The dark-coloured nag rolled a distempered eye, and the Peddler looked down from his perch-seat. The hat was still pulled across his face, shading his expression completely. Scott knew a second's unpleasant disquiet, before his anger cast all caution to the winds.
"You've just saved me a journey. I was going to come looking for you."
To his surprise, the Peddler-man chuckled. "I thought that might be the case."
"Why?" Scott's voice was low. He wanted the answers to so many questions, and the one word seemed to sum-up it all up.
The clouds swirled threateningly around their heads and the sky grew darker with menace. The horses in the corral began to whinny with unease, and a few dead leaves scurried around his feet. For a moment, Scott wondered if the Peddler would answer, but then the man began to speak.
"You opened the door at the wrong time, my friend. All it takes is a crack, just a little crack, and too late! The darkness will creep in."
"But what if I force the door closed again? What happens if I give you back the bottle?"
Scott didn't bother playing anymore games. He was gambling with his soul and he knew it. Not just his soul, but Johnny's too. His brother was feverish and still very sick. Scott knew with a cold sense of certainty, that what was said in the next few minutes, would determine whether Johnny lived or died.
He regarded the Peddler desperately. "I was angry that night, feeling foolish and hurt. But that's all it was - damaged pride. I never wanted Johnny to get hurt. He means more to me than any other person on the face of God's earth. I'll do anything . . . anything at all to keep him safe."
The Peddler appeared to consider. "That's why I came back this way again. To give you the chance of a refund. When you say you're prepared to do anything - anything to keep him alive . . ."
Scott looked up steadily. "I meant anything!"
He knew the Peddler was smiling, even though he couldn't see the man's face. The feeling of fear had returned with a vengeance, but Johnny was more important. Scott realised he had to confront this, whatever 'this' wickedness was. The fight was his, no-one else could defeat it, he alone had invited it to happen. His anger had become a catalyst and allowed evil in at the door.
He was suddenly reminded of Murdoch's words. Perhaps there actually was a grain of validity in the stories he'd told. There was usually a basis for the old myths and legends, some lingering remnant of truth. It had been Hallowe'en and the veil was thin . . . the doorway between the spirit worlds had allowed something otherworldly to seep in through the cracks . . .
Scott began to feel strangely calm, filled with a clarity of purpose. If the Peddler required a sacrifice from him, he would gladly give-up anything to save Johnny. There was simply no question about it, he would do whatever needed to be done. The Peddler climbed down from the wagon, eyes dark under the brim of his hat. He stared at Scott for what seemed like an age, as the weather grew in ferocity around them. The sound of the wind was deafening now, a hellish, resounding bombardment. Scott felt buffeted by the force of the gale, but it was a black wind, straight from hell.
He clutched at the fence post to stay upright, colder than he'd ever been in his life. The gusts snatched at his hat and tore it away, blasted off in a spiralling whirlpool, with the ravaged swirl of dead leaves. It was not so for the Peddler. The man or whatever he really was, had no problem standing upright, shapeless robes billowing out all around him, as dark as the lowering clouds.
"Damn you!" Scott could stand it no longer. "Just promise me you'll spare Johnny, then get on with it, do your worst!"
The Peddler began to move towards him, a bony hand out-stretched. It was all Scott could do to stand his ground, but he knew all other options had run out. He was shaking, his heart was thumping, damp with sweat in-spite of the bitter cold. Every fibre screamed with self-preservation, but he wasn't doing this to save himself. He had to go through with it for Johnny - for his brother who was danger of losing his soul.
Scott stood straight and closed his eyes. He was frightened; more afraid than he'd ever been, by this manifestation of power. It was something he'd never encountered, alien and outlandish. Life, with its hardships of loss and war, had failed to prepare him for anything like this!
He felt the claw-like talons touch his chest, reaching through layers of skin into viscera - crying out loud with a choke of pain, as the icy fingers tightened around his heart. The storm whipped-up, unearthly, even stronger. Whistling and shrieking like an army of ghouls as it clamoured and wailed in his head. It grew louder and louder, shaking like thunder, until Scott thought the very ground might open. He wanted to call out, to scream for help, but the words seemed to die on his lips.
The only word torn away on the air was the sound of his brother's name. "Johnny . . ."
And then suddenly the tempest receded, fading and dying away. Scott looked up into the crimson eyes of the Peddler, and his chest burst open with a fountain of agony. This then, was the greatest sacrifice . . . to lay down his soul for his brother . . .
The sky reeled above him in a vortex of blood, as his soul ripped away on the whirlwind. Fading . . . fading in the milky, white mists, and he knew with despair, he was lost . . .
Teresa looked at Murdoch in terror, and her small hand reached out to him imploringly.
"I just don't understand it, five minutes ago he was sleeping peacefully . . . and then, he just started to convulse."
Murdoch wrestled his own rising panic and yelled for Jelly over his shoulder. His heart sank as he entered the room. Johnny was pale and drenched in sweat, writhing against the girl's touch. It was clear his condition had deteriorated sharply, devastating and sudden, perhaps even fatal, like the deadly strike of a snake.
"Boss?" Jelly must have moved like lightening to get upstairs as fast as he had. "Johnny?"
"Go and catch Sam - fast as you can, Jelly!"
Murdoch wasted no time with preamble - something told him Johnny was short of it. Jelly left without a another word, the old man must have sensed it too, the pall of fear draped heavily over the room.
"I'll hold him down while you sponge him. We need to keep him cool."
Murdoch took Johnny into his arms, both appalled and alarmed by the fiery heat which radiated off him in waves. He locked eyes with Teresa, acknowledging the fear which haunted her, but it was hard to be reassuring, when he was filled with dread himself.
She turned away obediently, preparing towels and lavender water. Murdoch saw that her hands were shaking, but she got on with it, as efficiently as ever. The window-panes rattled loudly, making them both jump. The storm had swooped back in across the mountains, gusting around the gables and whistling eerily under the eaves. Murdoch pulled Johnny against him and reached over to turn up the lamp. All at once, he was afraid of the darkness, it seemed like a harbinger of doom.
But oddly, the yellow glow didn't help. Usually so warm and heartening, the light merely emphasised his sense of peril, casting great pools of shadow into the corners of the room. Murdoch had a strange, uncanny feeling of isolation. As though he, Teresa and Johnny, were surrounded entirely by the storm. Threatened and buffeted by powerful forces beyond comprehension or control.
Something crashed against the window-pane, he had a fleeting impression of black wings. Teresa gave a tiny sob of fear, huddled over the bed beside Johnny.
"It's all right, darling. You're doing just fine." Murdoch fought to keep his voice even. He placed the dropped sponge into her hands and guided them back towards Johnny. "That's it - keep going. We have to get this fever down."
But he knew with a feeling of icy calm, it would never be enough. Nothing they could do, this time, would ever be enough. Johnny was sinking so quickly that his life could be measured in minutes, not hours. Every gasping, tortured breath might be the very last. He held Johnny tightly against his breast and muttered a silent prayer.
'Dear Lord, ease his going . . . keep him safe and happy for me . . .'
He looked into the stricken eyes of the girl, the diamond bright glitter of her tears. Slowly, she laid the wet towel aside and placed her cheek softly against Johnny's. Murdoch encircled them both in his arms, his hand skimming over their heads. Black as a raven's wing, brown as a chestnut . . . So precious, so very, very dear . . .
There was an important colour missing. One with a right to be here. Murdoch raised himself from his torpor and thought of his elder son. Someone had to call Scott in from the corral. Johnny would want it that way.
"Teresa . . ." his voice was measured, even steady. "I need to get Scott. I won't be long . . ." Only then, did his voice falter. " . . . I promise, I won't be long."
She raised her head and nodded, the silver tracks wet on her skin. "Please - don't be. He . . . he'll want you both with him."
Murdoch got up slowly, his heart weighted down with lead. He found he could barely accept what was happening. Who could have believed, a week ago, that things would work out like this. The cold sense of terror possessed him again as his fingers closed around the door handle. For a sudden, irrational moment, he couldn't get out of the room. He twisted the handle savagely, as everything blurred before his eyes. A week ago there was no worry, no heartache, grief or pain . . . no bottle . . .
Scott's experience with the Peddler had unnerved him, despite the fact he'd deliberately played it down. Scott was already feeling guilty enough, shaken, and more than a little scared. Murdoch hadn't wanted to add to those burdens any more than was necessary. There would be time enough to admonish both of his sons about the dangerous acceleration of practical jokes, when Johnny was fit and well again.
When Johnny was fit and well again - it wasn't going to happen.
Murdoch stumbled out onto the landing, his need to find Scott overwhelming. The darkened passageway was oppressive, filled with the rush and whistle of the keening wind. It was not unlike something he had heard once before, a sound he'd never thought to hear again. A mournful lament, from a faraway country, the skirl of the bagpipes brought back on the air, as ghostly as the edges of a dream.
The door to Scott's bedroom was facing him, closed like the blankness of an eye. Almost without any conscious volition, Murdoch pushed it open and went in. If he'd thought the wind was cold on the landing, it was positively freezing in here. A tightness constricted with force against his chest, like the pressure of a gigantic hand. Something was forcing him across the room - something which wanted him out of there. Murdoch dug in his heels and stood his ground, rage and anger coursing through his veins. He no longer doubted there was evil at work, an evil with intent towards his family.
He knew he'd already lost Johnny. He'd be damned if he was going to lose Scott. Murdoch reached for the trunk at the end of the bed and fell back from the force of a blow. Gritting his teeth, he struggled to his knees and clawed his way across the room. His fingers fumbled clumsily with the lid - digging down through layers of clothes, until he touched something solid at the bottom. He gripped it tight and doubled over, flung cruelly into the wardrobe, the air driven out of his lungs. The object was wrapped in an oilskin cloth, but Murdoch knew he had found what he sought. The cloth fell away and he caught his breath . . .
The bottle was outstandingly lovely. He hadn't realised . . . didn't know . . . it mesmerised him with colour. The glass shimmered like a rainbow, dancing, entrancing with light. There was something so warm and golden within it, something which called to him only . . .
The darkness, the storm, and his fears all faded. He felt mellow and soothed, filled with joy. He slid down to the floor and held onto it lovingly, all the grief and pain drifting away.
Part Five: (4th November - evening . . .)
All of his life had been undercut with sorrow. The raw and ragged Highland winters, the sudden death of his father on the herring boats at sea. Hardship and sorrow, the day-to-day struggle . . . had there ever been a time he wasn't dogged by it?
A new life in a new world, filled with all the prejudices of the old. Not good enough to marry a rich man's daughter; too common, too Scottish, too poor. Love and loss, his wives, his sons, and then, the man he called his best friend.
The bottle in his hands glowed redolent with colour, the rich gold of a cask of Spanish sherry. For the first time in forever, he felt safe and protected again. Not needing to rely on his own, inner strength to see him through all the bad times. He had always been so alone. The strong one, the tough one, uncompromising, alone . . .
Alone at sea, alone in a foreign land, left alone by bereavement, abandoned by those whom he loved. Murdoch leaned back against the wardrobe and basked in the warm cocoon which surrounded him. There were important things he should be doing, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember what they were.
God, the bottle was beautiful. Scott had been so right - it was just impossible to resist. Scott . . . Murdoch's forehead puckered into a frown. His son needed him to do something . . . what was it he needed to do?
The bottle slipped out of his hand. There was a roaring in his ears, growing louder and louder, like a huge swarm of bee's approaching. The storm returned with a fury and so did the remnants of memory. He felt as though the bottle was luring him, calling-out with a sweet and siren song. Resisting the urge to touch it again, Murdoch staggered to his knees with an effort. The room whirled around him, a vortex of shadows, keening and crying like the souls of the dead.
Somehow, he made it to the nightstand, snatching-up the oil-lamp there. The pressure in the room was like a nightmare, an enormous weight on his chest. Feeling as though his lungs would burst, Murdoch lifted the heavy base of the lamp, swinging it down onto Scott's bottle, with every ounce of strength he had left. The ornament shattered and time hung suspended. Fragments of glass spun like white flame in the room. Murdoch lowered his head involuntarily, as a shard sliced into his cheek, raising the base of the lamp once again, in-spite of the pain in his chest.
A swirl of blue mist spiralled up from the floor - a beautiful, intense azure. Murdoch fell backwards against the bed, and wondered where he'd seen it before. The colour was so very familiar . . .
Outside, the storm reached a crescendo, a great chord which blasted through the air. And then suddenly, just as ferociously as it had risen, the howling gale faded and died. Murdoch felt his legs give way, falling forwards onto the rug. Darkness, deep and comforting overcame him. The constriction was lifted from his lungs.
He was lying in the dust, curled-up on his side, one arm flung over his head. Scott's sense's began waking-up, one by one, awareness coming last of all. He wondered vaguely, what he was doing here. Something felt unnatural and wrong.
He was alone and the birds were singing, the sky above was freshly washed with rain. Scott rolled onto his back and lay still for a moment, re-gathering his oddly, depleted strength. In-spite of the incongruity of his position, he felt calm and strangely peaceful. He lay there for a least a minute, just breathing, just watching the sky . . .
And then he began to remember.
He shot up, staring wildly around him, but both peddler and cart were gone. Scott ran raggedly beside the wall, following the approach to the hacienda. Out into the open, beyond the archway, eyes searching frantically for something he would never find again. The ground was smooth and unnaturally free of tracks - as though someone had used a gigantic broom to sweep it fresh and clean. Scott stopped and leaned against the wall, his breathing unusually hampered. There was no sign of dust in the distance, no wagon receding anywhere, as far as the eye could see.
A shaft of pure panic stabbed through him. The bottle - what had happened to the bottle. The thought of it still in his possession was almost more than he could bear. The magic and the lure of it's beauty . . . would he be strong enough to resist it again?
Part of him was afraid to return to the house. The hacienda seemed unnaturally quiet. No sign of Jelly, or any of the hands, no Maria singing in the kitchen. For a moment he had the ridiculous thought, he was the only man left alive in the whole world. The Prince hacking through the briar roses, to wake the enchanted castle hidden within. He entered through the back way into the kitchens, treading softly through the cool, dark rooms. At the bottom of the staircase, he took an unsteady breath, hand lingering over-long on the banister as he placed a hesitant foot upon the first stair.
Almost, his nerve failed him. Scott didn't understand what had happened out by the corral, but somehow, it appeared he was still alive. Fear flamed suddenly inside him. Perhaps his sacrifice had come too late - perhaps the Peddler had decided not to take him . . .
Perhaps he taken another instead.
Too many questions and not enough answers - Scott was afraid to take the first step. The thought of what he might discover upstairs was making him feel light-headed. He was a grown man, this was ridiculous. Anything which might have happened, was his fault and his fault alone. Time to face up to the consequences. Time to start paying the piper, or perhaps he should make that the peddler.
He leapt up the staircase, two steps at a time, and strode quickly along the landing. It was Johnny's room which beckoned him, but there was something he had to do first. He hardened his heart and by-passed the doorway, turning to his own room instead. For the first time since moving to Lancer, he found he was loath to enter it. The room which had proved such an unexpected sanctuary, now filled him with sudden fore-boding. His fingers tightened around the door-knob, but the door swung softly open with the lightest of pressure.
Murdoch sat slumped up against the bed, his face grey and shockingly haggard. Scott recoiled in stunned distress - his father looked a thousand years old. The floor was covered in broken glass and Scott knew instinctively, what had shattered. There was a residue of evil, the barest touch of cold, despite the sun which now shone in at the window.
His legs nearly gave way beneath him - he felt weak and filled with sudden relief. But lurking beneath the surface, was a curious thread of regret. The bottle had been old and oh, so lovely, with a lure and a magic all its own . . . Scott knew he would never see its like again.
Kneeling swiftly at Murdoch's side, he placed a shaky hand on his father's shoulder. "The bottle . . ."
Murdoch's voice was little more than a whisper, and tremors shuddered intermittently through his large frame. It was strange and shocking to see him this broken, a man who was usually so strong. Scott tightened his grip on Murdoch's shoulder and the two of them clung together for warmth and comfort. But somewhere deep inside him, Scott knew it would be a long time before any of them would feel absolutely safe again.
His chest ached where the Peddler had touched him, but there was no sign of any wound. 'Was his soul still intact?' Scott wondered uneasily, but although bruised, he felt more or less himself.
In a sudden, blinding instant, he was seized with inchoate terror. Murdoch looked up at him slowly, his sunken eyes revealing the truth.
"No." Scott pushed away with incoherent denial. "No, he can't be. I made a deal . . . dear God, I made a deal . . ."
He scrambled up and turned towards the door, feet crunching on shards of shattered glass. Somehow, he made it out onto the landing, grief tight as a band around his heart. Murdoch was right behind him, but Scott knew he had to do this alone. The door to Johnny's bedroom confronted him accusingly; he was almost too afraid to go inside.
"Son . . ." Murdoch's voice was hoarse with resignation.
"No." Scott pushed him forcibly away. "Johnny's not dead - he can't be. I made a deal with the Peddler man . . . I was prepared to give up my soul . . ."
Wrenching hold of the door-handle, he stumbled into the room, eyes drawn like a magnet to the figure lying huddled in the bed. Teresa was leaning on the pillows beside him, her face white and hollow with tears. A shaft of pale sunshine slanted in from the window, brighter than the amber glow from the lamp. The quality of light was silvered, almost unearthly, the way it often was after a storm. Scott was suddenly racked with shivering, a stark, agonising ache which grew and flowered deep in the region of his heart.
He approached the bed softly, hardly daring to breathe. If Johnny was dead . . . if Johnny had died . . .
Azure. Brighter than all the other colours in the room. Brighter than the entire palette of colours he had seen within the bottle and erroneously used as a comparison. Johnny's eyes looked up at him, fringed with a thick line of lashes, hazy with questions and pain.
Scott took a staggering step forward, he could scarcely believe what he saw. The sensation of grief was still strong inside him, so sure had he been of Johnny's death. A hand twitched on the counterpane, long, brown fingers reaching out towards his own. Teresa seemed to melt into the background, and Scott moved into her vacated space and clasped them tightly with both hands. No words were necessary between them. Johnny sighed softly and closed his eyes, sliding back into a well-needed sleep. Scott simply sat there, motionless, cherishing the warmth of his brother's skin. The pale sun fell like a benison over his drooping head, as he offered up a silent prayer of fervent gratitude.
Five weeks later - (The First Week in December . . .)
Scott shivered slightly, pulling the sides of his jacket closer around his body to keep out the slicing cold. The first week in December, and there was already a light frost on the ground. They were bringing the herds down from the open range, to the milder, winter pasture in the valley below.
He looked up at the sound of laughter and a small smile crinkled around his eyes. Johnny - grinning his head off at something Jelly had said, the salmon flash of his favourite shirt, bright in the pale, cold air. Their eyes met and held suddenly, an unspoken message there.
Johnny turned Barranca and rode up alongside him, a warning edge to his voice. "I'm fine, Scott. Don't fuss."
"I don't believe I said a single word."
"Sometimes, you don't have to. That look on your face says it for you."
Scott's smile faded slightly and he struggled to suppress a flare of worry. "You're big enough and ugly enough, to say if things get tough. Just because it's your first, full day back in the saddle, why should I worry about you?"
Johnny gave him an old-fashioned look. "Precisely. There isn't a need."
Scott leaned across from his saddle and tugged Johnny's coat lapels together. "Just don't go catching bronchitis again, little brother, or 'my' life won't be worth living."
Johnny barely flicked an eyelash back at him, but still did up the coat like a lamb. They rode on in a companionable silence, watching the vaqueros move the herd. The air was sharp with the tang of pine needles and fallen humus of leaves. Behind them, up on the mountains, the deciduous trees were already skeletons, bare branches stretching up towards the sky.
"So, the hell with how I am, Boston . . ." Johnny's voice was soft. "How are 'you' feeling now?"
A slight twitch of his hand on the reins, was the only sign Scott had heard. He paused for a long moment, unsure quite, how to deal with the question. He was all right now, or he thought he was. Now Johnny was fit and well again. The nightmares which dogged him would fade eventually, he was fairly sure of that. And yet . . .
He sighed restlessly. Looking back at it, the whole thing seemed fantastic and surreal. Perhaps he had been imagining things after all. Just because he'd made a few stupid wishes - it didn't mean the bottle had made them come true. And as for the Peddler man, dozens of itinerant peddlers passed through the valley each year. There were enough isolated small towns and homesteads to ensure a warm welcome and make it worth their while. The fact he'd been the only one to see him, was neither here nor there. A coincidence certainly, but not necessarily one of the supernatural kind.
Scott sighed again, aware he hadn't yet answered Johnny's question. He turned to his brother with the hint of a smile and shook a rueful head.
"Now who's fussing?"
"Se bueno." Johnny tacitly acknowledged the hit. "Just wonderin', is all."
They rode on another few hundred yards, still locked in a vacuum of silence. Scott admired the wilderness around them. The restraint of the wintry colours. They looked like a delicate watercolour touched with a light hand. The colours in the bottle had been unworldly, more vivid than any others he'd ever seen. Even now, he could picture the sparkling array, the bewitching power of their allure. The ornament must have had some sort of reflective quality to it. Grains of mica or silica perhaps, incorporated in, during the glass-making process. Well, that was the logical explanation. The 'only' explanation, if one was being totally calm and rational about such matters.
Johnny's recovery had been little short of a miracle - but Johnny was tough, and everyone knew it. If anyone was capable of shaking off a deadly fever, then Scott would lay odds on it being his brother. He glanced across at him surreptitiously. If he was being brutally honest, there wasn't much evidence of that fabled durability now. Johnny was thinner, almost fragile. The planes of his face angular, under eyes which still seemed over-bright. He had taken a terrible beating and nearly succumbed to the aftermath, but with typical, Johnny perspective, had refused to press charges against the perpetrators. The Latham brothers were out here with them now, working without wages on the cattle-drive. Chagrined and pathetically grateful, they were trying their best to atone.
Scott and Murdoch had agreed to it grudgingly, indulging Johnny because he'd been so ill. It was all Scott could do to even look at them, but he admired and understood his brother's logic. The Latham's were not bad men, they'd been drunk and tragically stupid. Scott knew Johnny was haunted by the ghosts of his past - the lives he'd been responsible for taking. Perhaps, he felt this went a little ways towards making some amends.
It didn't explain the emotions he had felt. His own irrational bitterness and anger. There had been times when he'd almost hated Johnny, all because of a ridiculous dress. Scott shifted uneasily in the saddle. Those memories didn't sit easy in his head. The contrast between his erstwhile paranoia, and the sharp anxiety he felt for Johnny now, was marked in its disparity. Sometimes when he tried to come to terms with it, he thought he was losing his mind.
"You still thinkin' about all that stuff?" Johnny's tone was gruff.
"Hard to forget about it."
"From what I hear, it's better to just let it lie." Johnny was quiet with conviction. "Whatever might have happened, it's done now. Es todo, mi hermano - finished."
"Easy for you to say." Scott shivered slightly. "You don't know the half of it, brother."
"Si," said Johnny, slowly. "Yes, I do. Jelly told me the whole story." He looked up at Scott, face curiously still, blue eyes more azure than ever as the winter sun washed through them. "I know about the wishes, and how you reckoned I was playin' some kinda joke. I understand all about it, Scott. I'd have probably thought exactly the same as you did."
"Would you?" Scott asked him miserably. "I'm not really so sure about that."
Johnny shrugged a little too studiedly. "Don't tell me you believe Jelly's nonsense. Genies in bottles and a peddler-man from hell . . . my straight-arrow, Boston brother?"
Did he? Scott was no longer sure. He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't. A credulous fool, or a cold-hearted idiot. Of the two of them, he far preferred the former. He smiled across at Johnny rather ruefully.
"It sounds so stupid when you put it quite like that. On the other hand, how do you explain what happened to me that day, or what happened to Murdoch in my bedroom?"
Johnny watched a bird on the horizon. "The storm, maybe. Both of you so wound-up on Jelly's ghost stories . . . me being sick, n' all."
"Perhaps." Scott shifted restlessly in the saddle. "But I could swear there was something more - I wish I knew . . ."
"Know what I know?" Johnny turned to face him slowly. "I know a man who offered to sell his soul that day . . ." his voice lowered a timbre or two. "To sell his soul to the Devil, in order to save his brother's life. Now, whether the whole thing was real or not, in my book, that takes some guts."
Scott was silent for a moment. If only Johnny knew . . . if, indeed, he had redeemed himself by that one, particular act of selflessness with the Peddler that day, than it had been a complete fluke. He hadn't acted with any conscious thought - just the overwhelming drive to save Johnny. Perhaps that was what had been needed, he had been tested and almost, found wanting. Almost - but not quite. Sacrifice had transcended evil. In the end, pure love had beaten the Devil.
He smiled back at Johnny, suddenly lighter of heart, but still glad of an opportunity to change the subject. "Just promise me one thing, brother?"
"Promise me there'll be no more practical jokes for a while - a long while!"
In answer, Johnny cocked an eyebrow and wheeled the palomino, turning back over his shoulder, as he dealt a final riposte; "Be careful what you wish for, brother! Think we'll have to 'address' that problem later. Ain't healthy to 'bottle' things up inside . . ."
Epilogue : (All Hallows - One Year Later . . .)
Scott gave another impatient sigh and looked tipsily over his shoulder. He could barely see Johnny's outline as he stood with his arms around the girl.
"Get a move on, little brother. Just how long 'does' it take to say goodnight?"
Johnny called something back to him - something which didn't sound all that polite. There was the echo of muted laughter, and Scott felt his irritation rise. Typical, this was just typical. They had both, half-heartedly, been pursuing Sally Meadows all evening - seemed she'd misguidedly decided, she preferred his brother's dark, good looks.
"Peace, hermano. Meet you at the livery in two minutes." Johnny's placatory voice floated after him down the alleyway.
The moon was high and bright as a penny, perfect for a night such as this . . .
Scott felt a prickle of sudden unease. The sense he was being watched. Was that the jingle of a harness he heard - the stamp of a distempered hoof?
He stopped and looked around him, but the shadows loomed empty and silent.
"Who's there?" His voice sounded weak and unsure, scared of receiving an answer. Scott stiffened with annoyance and called out once again. "Is anyone there?"
The hairs pricked-up on the back of his neck, but no voice responded to his demand. He stood for a few seconds longer, then turned resolutely towards the livery. Was it his imagination, or had he heard an eerie chuckle . . .
Back in the shadows of the alleyway, the peddler watched and waited . . . wrapped-up in indistinct garments, his hat pulled down low on his forehead . . .
He knew he wouldn't have to wait that long. Eventually somebody would come along - they always did. Oh yes, there were customers aplenty, to be found on a night such as this . . .
Lisa Paris - 2004