by  CC


Johnny bolted up in bed, trying to catch his breath. Damn dream. He'd never get back to sleep now, not the way his heart was racing. The wind whined outside, whipping a branch against the window, tapping at the glass, its shadows like gnarled fingers .

Like the fingers of the woman in the dream. He could just go over there, pull the curtains, be done with it. It was just a tree branch, just a dream. Just the same dream he'd been having since he was a little kid. The wind pitched, howling like wolves at a kill, driving the fingers to a tapping frenzy. He pulled his pants on and escaped to the hallway, closing the door behind him, muffling the sounds.

At least, it should have muffled them. But the tapping was as loud as ever, as though it had pushed its way into his bedroom and was now asking him to open the bedroom door. Johnny hurried past the empty bedrooms, not allowing himself to wish his family weren't all stuck in town. He was not the sort to let things get to him.

His father's door stood open---strange, since it was usually left closed---and Johnny almost didn't notice the woman by the bed as he rushed by. His hand instinctively brushing his bare hip, he whirled to confront her, but then shook his head. His imagination was getting the best of him. The room was empty, and the tapping that was so loud was from his father's window. He didn't remember a tree outside that window, but the wind could have blown one sideways. He shut the door. 

A drink was what he needed. He should probably check on Barranca in this storm. Some horses were skittish about nights like this.  It might be a good idea to stay with the horses, just to make sure they were alright. He stopped in the hall to light a lantern---no use breaking his neck in the dark, and he'd need it outside anyway. He fumbled for a match and struck it, once, twice, and then the flame hissed to life, throwing dancing shadows around his hands. He touched it to the wick and the lamp began to glow---but then a bang from below and gust of wind up the stairs killed the flame, leaving him alone with the dark. Damn---some door had blown open below. He could just imagine the mess downstairs. Leaving the lamp behind, he rushed down the stairs by feel until he reached the front door. Closed. The big veranda doors. Closed. Every window. Closed.

The wind must have blown whatever it was closed again. At least he could find the tequila in the dark. He took a gulp from the bottle. And another, the warm tingle making him laugh inside. Stupid dream. Stupid wind.

He bent to gather the strewn papers around the desk, cursing when he saw the little daguerreotype of his mother had fallen and broken. As usual, the picture caught his attention. Unlike Scott's mother, his mother wore no jewels, and even her blouse looked common. Maybe that's why she hated Murdoch, because he'd never bought her anything fine.

He picked up the picture, sucking in his breath as it fell away from the frame---exposing another picture of a woman behind it. For a second he thought he saw the woman from his dream in her, but no, that was silly. Just another Mexican woman, only this one was dressed all fancy, and she was with a young Murdoch, holding a baby.

A lightning bolt lit up the outdoors and felt like it raced up his spine---she was at the window! The woman, tapping, tapping, and Johnny was so startled he squeezed the broken frame, the jagged glass shards cutting into his fingers.

"Who's there?" No answer, just darkness and tapping. "Come on, show yourself!" He cursed himself for not grabbing the gun from his bed, but he made his way over to the gun tree to grab another, its cold metal calming him like a gulp of tequila. This was stupid. There was no woman out in this weather tapping on his windows. Certainly no woman from his dream. Or from a hidden picture. "Alright Jelly, fun's over. Good way to get yourself shot!"

Except Jelly would know it was too good a way to get himself shot. His voice hung in the air, unanswered.

One thing was certain, he was never going to get any sleep in this state. He grabbed the tequila and uncorked it with his teeth, taking a good couple of slugs just to get him in the sleeping mood. While he waited for the tequila to work its magic, he took the pictures to the fireplace, where the surviving embers threw off a soft light. He held the picture of the woman to the light, cursing again when he realized his cut hand had bled across her face---and that's when his heart started pounding.

She really was the woman in the dream, easier to recognize now with blood on her face. The woman who always said the same one thing:  Stay away from Lancer. He'd only dreamed her a few times, mostly when he'd been shot and feverish, and the last time, the night before he'd escaped from the firing squad.

The tapping was louder now, more insistent. When had the wind died down? A bolt of lightning flared again, and Johnny instinctively looked toward the window---a jolt rushing through him. She was there, looking in, her face covered in blood just like the picture. "Who are you?" he yelled, dropping the picture and pointing his gun at the now dark window. He heard tapping at another window, and whirled to aim at it. And now from behind, louder, and another, as he whirled again and again, aiming his gun unsteadily into the darkness. "What do you want?" 

The wind returned in a fury, pelting the glass with sand and pebbles, making it hard to hear over it. Was the tapping gone? He should go outside and check. He licked his lips, swallowing, wondering if that was the tequila talking. Straining, he tried to hear the tapping, but instead he heard---crying? Or was it just the wind? It sounded like a baby crying, like a woman sobbing. Like he could almost make out words: No!. . . Run, Nino. . . to Maria. . . go!"

Another flash of light, but she wasn't outside the window anymore. At least, not the window he could see. He turned to check the other windows, and that's when he saw her---not outside, but inside. Dimly lit from the fireplace, she was on her knees behind his father's desk, and she was saying something, but not to him, to somebody above her. She seemed to be pleading, crying "No, Murdoch, please, no, noooo!" and he saw her shudder as though struck by an unseen force, over and over, crumbling lower and lower until she slumped limply to the floor, her face smeared with blood, her blank eyes staring straight at Johnny. Her lips didn't move, but he heard her words: "Stay away from Lancer, Nino. . ."

Another lightning bolt dazzled his eyes and then she was gone. He stumbled to where she'd been, fingering the old dents and dark stains on the wooden floor. His hands shaking, he held the back of the strange woman's picture toward the fire, barely making out the inscription: "Murdoch Lancer, wife Maria, son John. 1851." 

And the one for his mother: "Maria Alvarez, loyal servant."

He waited by the window with his gun in his hand until morning. Murdoch Lancer would be home soon.






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