A Lancer Halloween Story
This tale was inspired by the Celtic Thunder song of the same name.
“In the town the people stay away from the Midnight Well.
For its dark and evil, so they say...the Midnight Well.”
The moon hung low in the sky, providing the only light for the lone traveller. Foot sore and beyond the point of exhaustion Johnny stumbled along the trail with Barranca limping beside him. The landscape had been changing around him with grassy plains giving way to dry scrubland. Somehow he’d gotten turned around and was no longer heading north toward home and family. He knew that he should stop and make camp, see what the daylight would show him. He’d been expecting to find some sign of life long before now, but he hadn’t seen anyone in the hours since Barranca threw one of his shoes.
“Just a little longer, amigo,” he said into the silence.
The road curved to the right around the base of a rocky outcrop. The distant sound of water reached Johnny’s ears. Although every step felt like he was walking on fire that was enough to encourage him to keep going. When he saw the shape of houses ahead of him he nearly fell to his knees in gratitude. Although it was too dark to make out many details it looked like the kind of village he had lived in as a child. If he was lucky there would be a cantina. If not, he had enough money to persuade someone to sell him a hot meal and space to spread his bed roll.
To his surprise, the first structure he reached was a well. Growing up, the village well had always been the center of people’s lives. This one, however, sat several hundred yards away from the nearest house and, as Johnny drew nearer, he could see that it had been allowed to fall into disrepair. The air felt cooler here and carried the unpleasant smell of rotting vegetation.
“Don’t leave me.” The words, no louder than a whisper, were carried on the evening breeze.
Startled, Johnny reached for his gun. “Who’s there?” He turned in a complete circle before standing still and listening. The only sounds he could hear were the creak of Barranca’s saddle and his own breathing.
Shaking his head, he wondered if he had imagined the voice. He peered into the darkness, looking for any movement. He had no wish to leave the trail unless he had no option. Without light he could stumble around for hours and not find anything. “Show yourself,” he called. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Take me with you.”
Johnny almost leapt out of his skin. The voice was close to his ear and had been accompanied by the brush of fingers along his arm. But, when he looked around, there was no-one there. He had seen men driven crazy by the sun and lack of water. Maybe that was happening to him, or maybe he’d been on the edge of sleep and was dreaming.
He wasn’t the only one affected by the strange feeling. Barranca was equally unsettled. “Easy, boy,” Johnny murmured.
The sensible thing was to continue on to the village and organize a search party. “I’m going to get help,” he called, in case there was someone out here.
The main street was empty, with the houses all shuttered up against the night. The only light spilled from a building on the right of the small square. Cursing the state of his feet, Johnny hurried toward it. He looped Barranca’s reins around the hitching rail and paused in the doorway to let his eyes become used to the candlelight. An elderly man was standing behind the small bar, a glass in one hand and a cloth in the other. Half a dozen other men were clustered around a couple of tables, talking in whispers.
Silence fell the minute Johnny stepped inside. For a second everyone stared at him and he was surprised to see that his arrival had terrified them.
The bartender was the first to overcome his fear. “Welcome, Señor.”
Johnny had been taught a long time ago not to show any weakness so his steps toward the bar were confident despite the pain. “I heard a woman’s voice out by the old well. I need help to find her. We’ll need lanterns, and...”
“No,” the bartender said. “You heard the wind only. Sit down. You look tired.” He reached under the bar and lifted up a bottle of tequila.
Johnny looked around. The other men were avoiding his eyes. “I know what I heard,” he said, keeping his tone low, even though the man’s dismissal of his words had angered him.
“Drink.” The man poured a shot of tequila and pushed the glass toward Johnny.
Johnny downed the fiery liquor, allowing it to fuel his growing irritation. “If you won’t help, I’ll find someone else.”
“There is not a man in this village that will go to that evil place after dark.”
“Then I’ll go alone.” Johnny slammed the glass down on the bar. “You and every other coward can hide inside and, when I find her, you can all explain why you weren’t willing to help.” His gaze swept around the cantina, hoping for a reaction from at least one of the men.
“If you go out there again tonight you will damn us all,” the bar tender said.
Johnny was starting to get the feeling that the man was loco. “You’d rather damn the girl I heard?” he asked.
“It is too late for her. What you heard tonight was only an echo from the past. Do you think we would not know if one of our women was missing?”
“But, I heard...” Johnny lapsed into silence, remembering how he’d doubted himself. He sat heavily in the nearest chair. “What are you afraid of?”
“I will bring you food and then I will explain.”
The bartender hurried through a door behind the bar. Johnny stood up, stifling a groan and walked over to the bar to fetch his glass and the tequila. He positioned his chair so that he could watch the other customers. They looked torn between staying to hear what was said and scuttling out into the dark. Several mouthfuls of the liquor had burned their way to his stomach by the time the bartender returned. He set a plate of tamales in front of Johnny.
The food was spicy and filling. Johnny ate in silence, acutely aware that his every move was being closely watched. When he had finished he sat back in his chair. “Gracias. Now, tell me what’s going on.”
“It is a long tale.”
“I’ve got time.” Johnny stared at the man, noting beads of sweat trickling down the wrinkled face.
“Many years ago, when I was a child, a señorita lived in the village. Her name was Ines. Ah, you should have been here then. I think she was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. But, she would not listen to her parents. She was wild and disobedient and she refused to marry any of the young men. One day a stranger rode into the village. He wore his gun like yours, but his black hair was long and his eyes were like the doorway to hell.”
Johnny forced out a laugh. “Sounds like the kinda story my mama used to tell me to scare me into being good.”
“I am telling you the truth. My father owned this cantina and I saw his hand shake when he poured a drink for the stranger. Ines was the only one who was not afraid. There was gossip. The women said that she had sold herself to this man for the promise of gold.”
Johnny closed his eyes, trying to shut out unwanted memories. People had said this about his mother, calling her a whore. He took refuge in the cold anger that had driven him to take up a gun to kill until all the insults had been washed away in a river of blood.
“Get to the point, old man.”
The bartender’s voice shook when he continued. “She arranged to meet him one night by the well. It was always known as a dark and evil place; a place to be avoided after sunset. Ines would not listen to the warnings.”
“She was never seen again.”
“Probably ran off with that gunslinger,” Johnny said.
“He did not leave, and he would not tell anyone what happened to her. The young men convinced themselves that he had killed her so they...they waited until he left the cantina and ambushed him. They dragged him to a tree and hanged him. Before he died, he swore that he had done nothing wrong and would have his revenge.”
Johnny tried not to shiver. He’d come close to being lynched a few times and it was a death he feared. “Did anyone find her body?”
“There was no trace of her anywhere.”
Johnny poured more tequila to get rid of the chill that was creeping down his spine. The flame of the candle on the table flickered and, for a split second, he was back in his mother’s bedroom staring at the bruises around her throat.
“If he killed her then I reckon he got what he deserved.” He’d watched the man who’d murdered his mother swinging from a rope. The satisfaction he’d felt hadn’t lasted long enough. “What’s this got to do with the voice I heard?”
“It is her ghost, Señor.”
There were murmurs of agreement from the other men.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Johnny said.
“Then how do you explain what you heard? She is drawn to you because you are a gunfighter like him.”
“Save your stories for those stupid enough to believe them.”
“You will see that this is not a story. You are here for a reason. It has been sixty years since she disappeared and her spirit is restless. That will draw her killer back here and more people will die.”
Johnny stood up. “You’ve been drinking too much of your own tequila, old man. All I want is someplace to sleep tonight and a blacksmith to see to my horse. I’ll be on my way tomorrow.”
“You cannot abandon us.” The bartender reached out and gripped Johnny’s sleeve.
“Let go.” Johnny fixed his coldest stare on the man. “I’m gonna get my bedroll and bunk in here for the night. You got any objections?”
The man’s face was flushed but he shook his head and let go of Johnny’s arm. Johnny turned away and walked to the door. Clouds had covered the moon, hiding what little light there had been. A heavy silence lay over the village. He stepped out onto the hard packed earth of the street. Barranca nickered softly and butted his head against Johnny’s shoulder.
“It’s alright,” Johnny reassured his horse, although the words were more for the benefit if his own jangling nerves. Although he had never been superstitious he could almost taste evil hanging in the still air of the night.
The sound of hooves had him reaching for his gun. He turned to the north, taking a step further into the street and peering into the darkness. A cold, moist, fog was rising from the ground, making it harder to see. The sound drew nearer and still he couldn’t see the horse or its rider. For no more than a heartbeat he saw a flash of red before the clouds covering the face of the moon slid away and light returned to the empty street.
“Mierde,” he said through gritted teeth. “What the hell is going on?”
In daylight it was easy to dismiss the events of the night. The formless nightmare that had gripped Johnny while he slept slipped away like smoke on the wind leaving him with no more than a vague sense of unease.
He stretched lazily. Bernardo, the owner of the cantina had not been happy to have an unexpected visitor although he had been quick enough to clear everyone out. Johnny had chosen a spot to the right of the doorway and laid his rifle down by his side. He’d fallen asleep with his fingers brushing against the handle of his colt. Although he had not been expecting any trouble such precautions had saved his life more than once.
His aching muscles had recovered during the night as had his spirits. He couldn’t have gotten too far off the trail north and it wouldn’t take the blacksmith long to fit Barranca’s new shoe. He would be on his way again well before noon.
Bernardo brought him a plate of Huevos Rancheros and hovered around with an expression that alternated between fear and desperation. Johnny ignored him and, once his belly was full, packed up his bedroll.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Johnny said, with a hint of sarcasm. The food had been good although he could have done without all the ridiculous talk about ghosts and gunfighters from hell. He pulled a couple of coins from his pocket and threw them onto the bar.
He’d stabled Barranca in a small lean-to at the back of the cantina. With fresh hay and clean water Johnny reckoned his horse had probably spend a more comfortable night than he had.
His thoughts wandered to his home and family while he went through the familiar routine of saddling Barranca. He’d enjoyed the freedom from routine ranchwork and, for the first few days, had also enjoyed his solitude. Gradually he had found he was missing his friendly rivalry with Scott and the welcoming smile on Murdoch’s face each evening when the hard day’s work was done. Home, he’d discovered, wasn’t just four walls and a roof. It was also his family and friends and having a renewed purpose to his life.
No-one would meet his eyes as he walked Barranca slowly through the village. The blacksmith’s shop was the last building at the opposite end from the derelict well. Johnny noticed the silence and lack of smoke from the forge as he approached the ramshackle building.
“Hello,” he called. “Anyone here?”
The door opened and an elderly woman hobbled out, leaning heavily on a stick. “What do you want?”
“Buenos dias, Seňora. I need to speak to the blacksmith.”
“My son is not here.”
“When will he be back?”
She shrugged her shoulders and turned back toward the door.
“Wait. Where can I find him?”
Another shrug was his only answer.
“How far is it to the next town or village?” he asked, barely holding on to his temper.
She stopped and looked back. “How would I know?”
When the door slammed shut Johnny was left standing in the street, anger and frustration mingling with his disappointment. Once again his return home was being delayed, although he wasn’t going to give up that easily. If he couldn’t get answers out of the old bruja he’d find them somewhere else.
With words of apology and reassurance he led Barranca back to the temporary stable. Bernardo was sweeping the floor when Johnny entered hell bent on getting the information he needed. Bernardo didn’t look surprised to see him again.
“You knew the blacksmith wasn’t here,” Johnny accused.
“No, Señor, I did not know that for sure. He might have returned.”
Johnny suppressed the urge to hit something. “Where is he?”
“I do not know but he will return before nightfall. Every few months he has to get away from that evil old woman who gave birth to him, otherwise I think he might kill her. He comes to me, buys a bottle of tequila and disappears on his own. Even if you found him today you would not want him anywhere near your beautiful horse.”
Having met the mother Johnny felt a measure of sympathy for the man. “There must be another blacksmith around here.”
Bernardo shook his head. “This is a poor land. We barely survive here. There are no farms or villages within a day’s ride. Would you risk laming your horse for the sake of a day? The blacksmith will be back soon and tomorrow you will be on your way.”
“How do you know he will return today?”
Bernardo made the sign of the cross. “Tomorrow is the Dia de los Muertos. No-one will want to be alone outside tonight.”
Johnny could still remember the stories told to wide-eyed children. Stories about ghosts walking the night and a dark evil arising from the fires of hell. An involuntary shudder shook his body and that only served to fuel his anger.
“You and your amigos can cower inside tonight,” Johnny said. “I’m gonna spend the night by that well you’re all so afraid of.” He couldn’t explain the impulse to say those words and was unprepared for Bernardo’s reaction.
The cantina owner turned pale, dropped the broom and spread his arms wide in supplication. “Do not be foolish. You should not tempt the spirits.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes. “You are the fool, old man.”
Bernardo stepped back, fear covering him like a blanket. “I beg you, Seňor. Do you deny that you have already seen the ghost of the gunfighter, and heard the voice of the lost Señorita? Stay inside tonight or you will find yourself wandering here for eternity, trapped in that place between life and deal with the other souls that cannot find their rest.”
Darkness came quickly once the sun set. The heat of the day disappeared causing Johnny to huddle closer to the fire. The cold face of the moon looked down on him from the clear night sky making him feel exposed to hostile eyes. He poured a cup of coffee, sipping slowly and savoring the heat of the liquid.
Not for the first time he cursed the almost childish impulse to prove that he wasn’t a coward. The harder Bernardo had pushed, the more determined he had become. Now, of course, his pride wouldn’t allow him to return to the warmth and light of the cantina.
The blacksmith had returned late in the day, weaving unsteadily along the street. The smell of liquor on his breath had almost caused Johnny to back away. He had left instructions for Barranca’s care. He’d also made it clear what would happen to the blacksmith if he went near the animal before sobering up.
After an early supper Johnny had gathered up his bed roll and saddlebags and walked to the well past the frightened stares of the villagers.
The smell of decay hung heavy on the air. In the last of the daylight Johnny had examined the crumbling stone, finding only evidence of long neglect. Whatever had caused the villagers to abandon the well remained a mystery.
He finished his coffee, throwing the dregs onto the fire. The flames hissed and leapt up casting dancing shadows on the ground. Johnny lay back and studied the sky. Pinpricks of light gradually pierced the darkness as the stars appeared to accompany the full moon on her slow progress across the sky. Gradually his eyelids drooped and he drifted into a light sleep.
“You came back for me.”
The voice, right by his ear, startled him awake. He rolled away from it, his feet tangling in the blanket. The temperature had dropped further making his breath visible on the air. Johnny scrambled to his feet, his heart hammering with fear. He reached for his gun, the familiar movement bringing a measure of calm, but the cold made him clumsy, his fingers frozen and slow to react. It seemed to take him long minutes to draw his Colt, although he knew that it had only been seconds since he was awakened.
This time there was something to see and it was enough to cause him to catch his breath. Bernardo hadn’t been exaggerating. The girl was stunning. She gazed at him through dark eyes, fringed by inky lashes. The perfect pout of her mouth just begged to be kissed and her hair glinted in the moonlight. When his gaze travelled lower all thoughts of her beauty disappeared. Her white blouse was ripped and marred by a dark stain over her heart.
“Who...what are you?” he asked, lowering his gun.
She frowned at him. “Don’t you remember?”
Mist was rising between them. She drifted closer, seeming to float across the ground. Johnny swallowed to clear his throat of the fear that was threatening to choke him. As she approached he could see that her skin was ashen, all the color having been drained away with her blood. Even her full lips were pale. He stood his ground although every muscle was tensed, ready to run.
The first gunshot was unexpected enough to almost stop his heart. Distracted from the approaching apparition, he crouched, raising his gun and looking around for this new source of danger. More shots sounded followed by faint screams and Johnny realised that the shooting was coming from the direction of the village. When he looked in that direction he saw flames leaping high into the sky.
Forgetting his own terror he started to move, intent only upon helping the people. There was a sudden blur of movement and he found his way barred by Ines. She was close enough to touch and the lack of any life in her eyes brought Johnny to an abrupt halt.
“I won’t let you leave me again,” she said.
The blood stained fingers of her right hand were closed tightly around the handle of a knife. Johnny reacted without thought, hurling himself to one side. The tip of the knife scored across his ribs causing a hot pain. He fell heavily to the ground, winded but with the certainty that if he didn’t move immediately he would die.
He forced himself to his feet and pointed his gun at Ines. “Stay back,” he warned.
Muffled hoof beats were approaching and a black horse emerged from the mist behind Ines. The rider was wearing a long coat, his straggly hair brushing against the collar, and a hat tilted down to shadow his face. Johnny noticed that the man’s head was held at an unnatural angle. The horse huffed out a breath and came to a halt.
Deep scratchy laughter broke the silence. In a night that had already been filled with horror that sound chilled Johnny to the bone. The man dismounted, walked up behind Ines and put his arms around her waist. She pressed against him, closing her eyes and smiling.
“I should’ve known you’d catch yourself another gunslinger,” the man said hoarsely.
Ines pulled away, her smile disappearing. “You left me, Kaden,” she said. “I have been lonely.”
When Kaden moved his coat swirled around him. Johnny caught sight of the gun belt riding low on the man’s hips. He dug deep inside to find the remaining thread of his courage, reminding himself that he had survived dire situations many times before.
“You used her and then killed her,” Johnny accused, his thoughts on the past and his mother’s death at the hands of a man who had lusted for her. He had been too young to take revenge for that death. Maybe this was his chance to avenge the death of another innocent woman.
The gunfighter raised his head, a twisted smile on his lips. Glowing red eyes stared at Johnny, challenging him silently to make his move.
“She chose to give herself to me,” Kaden said, his voice raspy and dry, “and thought that gave her the right to come with me. You’ve lived by the gun. I can see the darkness inside you. Would you have agreed to take a young woman with you?”
“No,” Johnny said, unwillingly.
“Is your conscience clear?” the gunman continued. “Did you never spend a night with a willing woman knowing that you would leave and never see her again?”
Johnny broke free from the piercing gaze. “I never killed any of them.” Now he could see the rope marks around the man’s throat and, with a sick jolt, realized that the unnatural angle of the head was the result of a broken neck.
Laughter sounded again, filled with bitterness. The gunfighter pulled Ines toward him again. “You are just like those stupid Mexicans. They didn’t ask for the truth either. They judged me guilty of a crime that hadn’t been committed.”
Johnny wanted to disbelieve him, but the way the girl handled the knife told him that things weren’t as they appeared. “You trying to tell me she killed herself?”
“We used to meet out here because we knew we wouldn’t be disturbed.” Kaden ran his hand down Ines’ hair and she snuggled against him. “It was our last night and she begged me to take her with me. When I refused she took my knife and threatened to kill herself. I didn’t believe her. She stabbed herself and fell against the well. The stones gave way and she was gone.”
“The village...all the people.” Johnny looked over at the flames and smoke. “Why now?”
“They deserve to suffer. For years their fear has eaten them alive and I have watched and waited, enjoying the taste of that fear. Tonight I knew you were here and that the long wait was over. Finally, I could take my revenge.”
“They were innocent,” Johnny protested.
“So was I. All I wanted was to die with a gun in my hand. It wouldn’t have been long before I ran up against someone who was faster than me, but that’s the risk we all take. My death was shameful.”
“You calling me out?” Johnny asked. “After all you’ve done I’ll be happy to send you back to hell.”
“We’ll see if you’re as good with your gun as you are with your mouth.” Kaden gently pushed Ines away. “It’ll be over soon mi amiga,” he told her.
Johnny holstered his gun and flexed his fingers. The wind was rising, sending the clouds hurtling across the sky. Ines was huddled on the ground by the well, staring at the knife she carried as if she had no idea what it was.
Kaden walked to his position, blocking Johnny’s view of the girl. “Any time you’re ready, Boy,” Kaden said.
Johnny stared into his opponent’s eyes. The red had disappeared, leaving pale blue in its place. It occurred to him that he could very easily have ended up like Kaden...friendless and reduced to roaming the land looking for the next opportunity to add to his reputation. That thought chilled him. He reached for his gun, the movement smooth and familiar. He fired and the light disappeared as a cloud covered the moon. He heard Ines scream before a bright fire engulfed Kaden’s body. Johnny shielded his eyes and turned away. When he looked back, he was alone.
Dawn was still many hours away when Johnny returned to the village. He walked through the deserted streets unable to reconcile what he was seeing with his expectations. There was no sign of the fire which he would have sworn had been raging a short time previously. Even the smell of smoke had disappeared.
There were no people to be seen. No-one was lying on the ground dead or injured. No panicked villagers were dealing with the aftermath of Kaden’s indiscriminate shooting spree.
Johnny reached the village square. Clouds covering the moon, and the lack of light in the buildings, were making it difficult to pick out the details of his surroundings. A gust of wind and a break in the cloud cover finally allowed the moonlight to shine through.
He recoiled in shock from the sight. Every building was in ruins. He ran to the cantina. The roof was gone and the adobe walls were blackened and crumbling. Heedless of his own safety he squeezed through a gap where the wall had completely disintegrated. All the furniture was gone. The floor was inches deep in dust, twigs and animal droppings. Its condition could not be the result of a recent fire. Broker glass glinted in among the debris where the bar had once stood.
“What the hell…?” His voice rang loudly in the oppressive silence.
A familiar whiney drew him through the wrecked kitchen and out to the back of the building. His heart leapt when he saw Barranca standing in what remained of the lean-to, saddled and ready. Johnny flung an arm around the golden neck and buried his face in the silky mane.
“What happened here?” he whispered.
His heart beat steadied while he checked Barranca for any injury. He lifted each hoof, finding all four shoes in place.
The wind continued to rise, icy tendrils of air seeking out every inch of exposed skin. Chills ran through Johnny and he began to imagine that the noise sounded like the helpless moans of lost souls. He grabbed hold of the saddle horn and leapt into the saddle.
“Let’s go,” he said, digging his heels into Barranca’s flanks.
A breathless laugh followed him, but he didn’t look back.