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Amber

 

 

FAll Hallow's Eve

Chapter 1

“Sorry, Luce, couldn’t be helped.”

Dropping the leg of the cot, the small woman knelt beside the prone body on the floor of the cell.  Lifting the larger woman’s meaty wrist, she felt for a pulse.

“Guess I didn’t kill ya, then, that’s one good thing,” she muttered cheerfully, dropping the arm back on the floor.  “Don’t need another one on my record.”

Reaching to part her companion’s hair, she hesitated, reluctant to touch it.  Once a bright, albeit artificial gold, her companion’s hair was now a lank and lusterless brown.  From the filthy mass, unwashed for months, a flea jumped onto her.  Absentmindedly scratching the bite, the small woman peered at the large bump rising on the other woman’s forehead.

Pushing back her own tangled mass of hair from which bright green eyes gleamed like two field mice peering from a burrow, she stood up decisively.

“You’ll have one hell of a headache,” she murmured, looking down at her former partner in crime by the flickering glow of a purloined candle stub.  The uncertain light illuminated the rocky walls of the cell, making the speaker look quite mad.  “Another thing you can blame poor Sarah for.”

“Ten minutes to lights out!” howled the strident voice of the prison matron.  “Ten minutes!”

“Gotta hurry,” Sarah said to the four walls. “Now’s me chance.”

Kneeling beside Lucy, she grabbed the larger woman with both arms under her pendulous breasts and gathered her up. Cursing with the effort of moving the dead weight, with a grunt and a mighty heave, Sarah staggered back a step, dragging her along the cell’s cold stone floor.

With a huge effort, she reached the other bed and slung the bigger woman onto it, panting.  “Fat sow,” she muttered.  “Too much tipping with the guards for extra rations!”

Still out like a light, Lucy lay like one dead.  A fugitive gleam entered the smaller woman’s eyes at the thought and she looked around for the abandoned cot leg, spotting it in the wavering light.  Picking it up, she caressed he hard wood, tapping it against her palm just as Matron’s strident voice bawled again.

“Five minutes!  Five minutes to lights out!”

At the sound, her eyes cleared.  Regretfully, she dropped the cot leg, letting it rattle on the stone floor. Moving quickly, Sarah rolled the larger woman onto her side, her back to the bars of their cell.  That done, she quickly screwed the cot leg back onto her own bed, then shoved it aside.

Peering nonchalantly into the black maw of the tunnel just revealed, she wadded up her thin and grimy bedclothes, forming the shape of a body.  On the other bed, Lucy remained dead to the world.

Returning to stand beside the hole, Sarah picked up the candle stub.  She had to hurry.

Casting a last look around at her vile surroundings, she grinned at her companion.

“S’long, Luce.  You was too fat to fit into this here hole, anyway.  And too lazy to help me dig, you old cow.”  With the reflexes of a cat, the girl jumped down.  Reaching back for the candle, she put it on the hole’s floor.  With adrenaline-fueled strength, Sarah yanked the bed back into place, just as the upper hallway went dark.

Taking a deep breath, the girl held the wavering candle stub aloft and set off.  Fetid air greeted her and the air on her face was humid and unpleasant.  The hole she had dug inch by painful inch using a purloined spoon connected with her with the catacombs under the famous old mental hospital.  The pitted walls, hewn from solid rock, were cold and wet from condensation.  Her feet, shod in thin slippers, were soon splashing through icy puddles, causing the candle’s light to waver even more as she began to shiver uncontrollably.

Her small, pinched face under the rat’s nest of dirty hair grew paler still as she heard a faint chittering over her splashing.  Looking up, she saw beady black eyes as the rats massed overhead peered down at her.  At the thought of one of them falling or her or worse, being attacked by the group, Sarah’s composure began to slip.  Shielding the candle from errant drafts, she stumbled on, no longer being careful not to slip on the wet, mossy stone beneath her feet.

Sarah’s dread increased as the candle burned lower.  She had not had time to explore the catacombs nor the resources.  Plunging into them as she had could have been her death warrant.  She began to imagine the candle extinguishing itself in a pool of wax, plunging her into sudden darkness, saw herself stumbling blindly along, hands out, bashing into stone walls as the corridors took unexpected  turns, falling on the slippery floor, to lie there as armies of rodents rose up out the blackness to eat her alive.

“Ere now!” she told herself sternly.  “That’ll be enough o’that!”  You didn’t come this far to fail now.”

Before her frightened eyes, the candle burned lower and lower.  The circle of wavering yellow light cast on the stone walls became smaller and smaller and still the girl stumbled on, the sound of her ragged breathing bouncing off the unforgiving rock.

The candle was almost gone when Sarah felt the difference in the air.  Cold but fresh, a slight breeze was blowing on her face.  Tearing her gaze from the guttering flame, she looked up.  A thin slice of new moon hung in the sky, surrounded by stars.

Sobbing with gratitude, she stepped out of the catacombs into the beautiful night.  The hour was late; there were no passersby.  Sinking to the nearest patch of grass, the girl put her head in her hands.  When she was finally calm, she looked back at the hated stone fortress that had been her home for so many months.

A new thought suddenly occurred to her,  that of the handsome, black-haired cowboy she and old Luce had so nearly bedded before the Pinkertons had burst in.   She even remembered his name—Johnny.  Johnny Lancer. Recalling his smooth brown skin, sapphire-blue eyes and devastating smile, Sarah suddenly felt warm all over.

Swiping a hand under her nose, she nodded at the mental hospital, a grin shaping her lips.  “So long, Bedlam.  California, here I come.”

 

Chapter 2

“C’mon, Johnny, it’ll be fun!” Scott protested, throwing a mock punch at his brother’s shoulder. “Halloween is a great custom.”

Johnny eyed him narrowly, convinced his brother had lost his mind.  “Fun?  What’s fun about sticking your head in a tub of water for apples when you could just pick one off a tree or eating cake with rings stuck in it?”

Murdoch spoke up before his oldest could reply.  “Scott’s right.  It’s a grand holiday, we used to celebrate it when I was a little boy. We’d dress up and go door to door, entertaining people in exchange for treats, we called it “guising.”

Scott smiled. “What kind of treats?”

Nostalgically, his father replied.  “Oh, apples, oranges, nuts, usually.  Sometimes we got a sixpence or two.  We used to knock and say, “the sky is blue, the grass is green, may we have our Halloween.”

Johnny rolled his eyes.  “Wish I’d seen THAT. But I can tell you right now, I ain’t doin’ any such thing.”“

"Murdoch smiled.  “You won’t have to, the holiday’s different here.  After the Potato Famine, when so many Irish left the Emerald Isle, they brought their own traditions with them.  And that was a long time ago.”

“You’re tellin’ me,” his blue-eyed son muttered under his breath.

“I HEARD that,” his father remarked to his unregenerate son. “Besides,” he added.  “It was nice of Noreen to invite us.”

Thinking of the red-haired waitress at the Morro Coyo Inn, Johnny had to smile.  The red-haired girl with the creamy complexion and the sprinkle of freckles across her nose was a favorite of his.  Always cheerful, with a brogue still clinging to her tongue, she had invited all of them to her Halloween party when the men had gone in for dinner a few days ago.

He looked at Murdoch.   “Noreen sure is fired up about it.”

Scott spoke up.  “C’mon, Johnny, it’ll be fun.  Besides,” he added, knowing the way to his brother’s heart, “there’ll be food there.  Good food.”

Johnny’s eyes lit up.  “What kind?”

Seeing it, Murdoch reeled him in.  “All kinds, but certainly there will cakes and pumpkin pies, spiced punch.  Probably apple pies and tarts.  You love those,” he reminded his son.

Scott added his urgings and finally, Johnny gave in. “I’m goin’ into town later,” Johnny murmured in his soft voice. “I’ll stop in and tell her we’ll be there.”

 Scott beamed.  “I remember when I was a little boy, I loved Halloween parties. This is going to be great.”

Eyeing his brother askance, Johnny rose.  Putting on his jacket, he picked up his hat and left, calling for Sanchez to saddle Barranca.

Pulling the horse to a halt in front of the hotel, the dark-haired Lancer went inside.  The October mornings were growing brisk and a cup of coffee would warm him up.

From force of habit, he selected a table at the back of the room, one that would allow him to see who entered and which gave him easy access out the back.  Seeing it, Noreen smiled, gathering up her small pad and pencil.  Some things never changed.

Standing before the youngest Lancer, she beamed brightly at him.  “So, Johnny, you’re coming to my party, right? And Scott and Murdoch, too?”

His own beautiful smile appearing in return, he nodded. “Yep, Noreen, wouldn’t miss it.”

“Good!” the girl continued. “I’ll see you then.  And you’ll get a chance to meet my cousin, she’s just in from England. “We haven’t seen Willadeen in years; I’m anxious to get re-acquainted.”

Noreen smiled.  “Promise me you’ll dance with her at least once, Johnny? I want her to have a good time.”

The young man nodded.  “Sure, Noreen.  Anything for you.”

Taking his order quickly, the girl gave it to the kitchen, reappearing momentarily with Johnny’s cup of coffee.

Thanking her, he stirred some sugar into it, wondering what he’d gotten himself into.  Part of him, he realized, was curious to sample these new customs that his family had talked so much about.

Finishing his meal, he left a nice tip, waving good-bye to Noreen from across the now-crowded dining room. “Bye, Johnny!” the girl called.  “See you Friday!”

 Going outside, the young man shivered as a chilly wind raked him. Pulling up his coat collar, he rubbed his hands together and glanced at the sky.  Gray clouds were piling up as the breeze snatched the last of the leaves from the trees.  They skirled down the street, rustling.

 

Chapter 3

At twilight few days later, the Lancers pulled Zanzibar to a halt in front of Noreen’s place.  The old farmhouse, which she shared with her mother, was lit up, golden light pouring from the windows and the open door.  Tall oaks, bare of leaves, ringed the yard and the grass underfoot was crisp and brown as the men walked toward the door, dead leaves crunching under their boots.

A shock of cornstalks formed a scarecrow on the porch and carriages ringed the yard.  Excited voices and laughter could be heard emanating from the house and children spilled suddenly out the front door, intent on a game of tag.  Jostling past the men, they darted into the yard where hay bales had been set up for seating and smoking torches illuminated the bare branches overhead.  To one side, kegs of beer waited and a long table held glasses, gleaming in the torchlight.

“Whoa there, “Scott laughed, grabbing one small boy who had fallen and setting him back on his feet.  “You OK?” he asked the child. The boy nodded, rubbing his sleeve across his runny nose before rushing off.

Beside Scott, Johnny halted suddenly in amazement, causing Murdoch to run into the back of him.  “What on earth are those?”

Seeing the direction of his look, Scott stopped to explain.  “Those are jack-o-lanterns.”

Johnny looked confused.

Murdoch spoke up.  “Carved pumpkins with candles inside. To frighten off evil spirits.”

Johnny’s hand, which had been caressing the butt of his gun, fell back to his side.  “OK, Murdoch,” he muttered, “whatever you say.”

Scott elbowed him. “C’mon, Johnny, loosen up!”

Mounting the rickety steps, they entered, removing their hats.  The entire house appeared to be stuffed full of strapping red-haired men and smiling women who resembled Noreen. O’Hara relatives, the men guessed.  Hats in hand, they turned left and right, accepting greetings from various townspeople, who knew Noreen from the Inn.  In a moment, Murdoch was drawn away by the Widow Haggis.

Spotting them from across the room, Noreen began making her way through the crowd.  Arriving at the stove, the men spotted a small, toothless crone in a rocking chair, smiling through a cloud of smoke at them.  “My mother,” Noreen explained.  “Mam, these are the Lancers, Johnny, Scott, Murdoch; this is my mother, Colleen.”

A smiling young woman materialized beside her.  “My cousin, Maureen,” the girl explained.  She peered through the crowd, shading her eyes from the smoke.  Spotting a small trim figure in a tight-fitting green dress, she beckoned.  A few moments later, the smiling girl was before them.

Taking her by the arm, Noreen made the introduction.  “And this is the cousin I told you about, Johnny, newly come from England—Willadeen.”

Smiling down at the diminutive guest, both young men spoke, greeting the girl amiably.

Although tiny, she was remarkably pretty, with bright blonde hair and shining green eyes.  Her voice, when she spoke, bore a hint of an accent quite different from her Irish relatives, a whisper of a dialect that none of the Lancer men could place.

Seeing Johnny, the girl’s heart beat a faster but she forced her eyes to drift indifferently past him to his brother.  Trying to keep her breathing normal, she peeped upwards through her long lashes.

Scott’s chest puffed a little as the girl’s obvious interest warmed him.  Smiling down at her, he murmured a gallantry in his deep voice.

Seeing it, Johnny grinned and stepped back, looking about himself with interest. In the kitchen, a large washtub filled with water was being lowered to the floor.  In it bobbed shiny red and green fall apples.  In the parlor, chairs had been added and they held a motley collection.  Buffet tables had also been set up.  Covered with red-checked cloths and dressed with centerpieces of yellow, white and orange mums, the tables groaned under a huge assortment of goodies. Folded cloth napkins lay beside stacks of plates and gleaming silverware.  In the center was a huge pot of beef stew, piles of biscuits and cornbread and a huge cut-glass bowl held aromatic cider in which cloves and cinnamon sticks bobbed gently.

Johnny’s mouth watered.  Further down stood the bounty of the season in culinary form: apple pies, their crusts shiny with the melted butter that had been brushed on prior to baking, pumpkin pies, apple tarts, baked apples, pumpkin bars, spice cakes, apple crumble and more waited to be tasted.

The crowd made the room warm and he undid a shirt button as he pondered where to start. From across the room, the tiny blonde glanced at him from the corner of her eye.  At the sight of the black hair now emerging from his shirt, she fanned herself, keeping her gaze on Scott.  “It’s grown so warm in here,” she pled prettily.  “I need some fresh air.”  Gallantly, the elder Lancer offered his arm, his interest already piqued.  “Let’s go, then,” he smiled.  Taking it, Willadeen smiled in return and together, they strolled out the door.

A slap of greeting to his back almost sent Johnny flying into the punch bowl.  Irritated, he  looked up at the blond mountain of a man in a red and black checked shirt who was just now grabbing him by the elbow.  “Sorry, friend,” the hulk said hastily. “Didn’t mean to do that.”

Recovering, Johnny grinned.  “No harm done.”

“I thought you were someone else,” the big man replied.  Muscles bulged in his arms beneath the checked shirt.  “I’m Sven.”

Johnny nodded.  “Johnny Lancer.”

The mountain spoke again, jerking his thumb toward an identical giant who had just halted beside him.  “And this,” he smiled, “is my brother—Igor.”

At the odd name, Johnny’s brows rose slightly but he took the proffered hand, shaking it.

Although a tad uncouth, Sven and Igor were friendly and they soon led Johnny toward the beer keg, recounting a Scandinavian limerick as they went.

Outside, musicians began tuning up in the circle of hay bales, frightening the owl who lived in the oak tree so much that the creature took wing far too early, flapping off to a quieter environ until he was ready to search for dinner.

Peering from an attic window, a black cat licked its chops, green eyes blinking longingly.

 

Chapter 4

The evening proceeded merrily and Johnny was soon glad that he had come.  Searching the crowd, he spotted Scott on the porch, chuckling as he inclined his blond head toward his diminutive companion.  He appeared to be engrossed by the girl and his absorption made his brother smile.  He’d have something to tease Scott with the next day.

More guests had arrived and the house and yard were soon filled to bursting.  In the yard, couples laughed and swung each other about to the lively dance music.  Matrons huddled, heads close as they gossiped, men drank and ate, arguing politics all the while and children dodged among the revelers in a lively game of Blind Man’s Bluff.

Surrounded by members of the California Stock Association and neighbors, Murdoch was soon deep in excited conversation.

In the kitchen, the tub had been removed.  In its place, young women were attempting to discover the faces of their future husbands by gazing into bowls of water.

From the parlor, a shriek was heard as someone found the ring embedded in the barmbrack cake, a sure portent of a wedding within the year.

The large and noisy crowd spilled onto the porch, making it hard to talk and Willadeen urged Scott outside.

“Would you like to dance?” he asked, offering his hand.  Enthusiastically accepting, the girl took it.  Soon, they were dancing, surrounded by other couples and laughing as they went.

Awhile later, Willadeen pleaded exhaustion, saying she needed to sit down.  Catching Scott’s hand, she led him out of the crowd toward the refreshment tables.  The hour had grown much later and the full moon had risen, peering down at them through the bare black boughs of the trees.  Many at the gathering were becoming tipsy; in some cases, loaded.

Steering Willadeen toward a hay bale, Scott was halted by a tug on his hand instead as the young woman paused beside a refreshment table. “Oh,” she whispered, peeping up through her long lashes, a trick that Scott found adorable, “I do so like a glass of beer.”  Glancing hastily at the house, she said, “Aunt Colleen would kill me if she thought I drank anything stronger than punch.  Would you like a glass, though?”

Scott smiled as he leaned down to the keg.  A moment later, he handed her a glass, the foam barely contained.  Taking a sip, she twinkled up at him. “Oh,” Willadeen said, “I AM naughty.”

“I won’t tell,” Scott assured her. Taking his arm, the girl leaned against him, letting her breast rest against his side.

Smiling up at him, Willadeen said. “I think I need my shawl after all.  Would you mind getting it for me?  It’s on the hook behind the door. I’ll wait right here.”

“Of course,” Scott said easily.  “I’ll be right back.”

Setting his glass down on one of the tables, he headed toward the house.  Watching him cross the yard, the girl’s eyes narrowed.  One small hand removed the vial inside her skirt pocket.  Glancing about to be sure she was not observed, she removed the top, hastily pouring a white powder into the young man’s drink.  Thrusting a finger into his glass, Willadeen swirled it around, causing the foam to rise once again.

Over the heads of the crowd, her eyes caught Sven’s and she gave a tiny jerk of her head toward the barn.  The big man nodded.

Scott returned, handing the girl her shawl.  Thanking him prettily, she put it about her slender shoulders.  Picking up his drink, she handed it to him, clicking her mug against his.  “Cheers.”

Scott nodded.  “Cheers.”  Both drained their glasses and set them down.

The young man tried again to steer the girl toward a hay bale where they could continue to talk but Willadeen spoke up, smiling.  “I have a better idea.”

Catching her drift, Scott let her lead him toward the barn.

The sounds of revelry were muted inside the dark barn. Drowsy, the O’Hara’s carriage horse looked at them as they entered.  The smells of clean hay and sawdust filled their nostrils.

Once inside, Willadeen slipped both arms about Scott’s neck, kissing him passionately. Momentarily surprised, the young man hesitated but the feel of her breasts pressing against his shirt decided him.  Feeling slightly lightheaded, he drew her close.

A moment later, he broke the kiss, putting one hand to his forehead.

“Are you all right, Scott?” the girl asked anxiously.

He tried to smile at her as the barn began to whirl.  “Yes, I just…”

With the words, he passed out, sprawling facedown on the dirt floor.

Willadeen stood looking down at her fallen beau, one small foot tapping and hands on hips.  “Poor luv,” she murmured.  “Messing up that nice coat, he is.”

Returning to the door, she stuck her head out cautiously.  Seeing it, Sven disengaged from his conversation with Igor and Johnny, telling them that Nature had called.

Nodding, the two men continued their discussion about an Andalusian stallion Igor had heard was on the block at an upcoming stock auction.

The barn’s back door creaked as Sven tugged it open, leading a horse and carriage that had been hidden in the woods.  The back was full of straw.

Willadeen raised her eyebrows.  “Nice touch, Sven.”

“For a hayride,” the big man said.  “If anybody asked.  Which they didn’t.”

Picking Scott up, he slung him into the back of the wagon and covered him with hay.

Turning the wagon again toward the back entrance, he gave Willadeen a hand up onto the seat.

“Here you go, then,” the mountain of muscle said.  “He’s all yours.”

Willadeen smiled, taking up the reins.  “It’s not him I want, Sven.  You knows that.”

“You be careful, Willadeen,” the blonde hulk insisted.  “You don’t want to get caught.  You know you’ll end up right back in Bedlam and this time, you won’t get out.”

The girl smiled at him.  “Don’t you worry none, ducks.  I knows what I’m doin.’ And what I’m doin’ is luring two Lancers into my web. I been thinking about Johnny for two years.  He’ll come lookin’ for his brother, all right.  And when he does, I’ll finish what me and Luce started then.”

Flapping the reins gently on the horse’s back, she urged him forward.  Unheard over the din of music and laughter, the carriage rolled gently out the back door, into the dark woods.

 

Chapter 5

The crowd began to thin as midnight drew near and many of the guests began to make their farewells.

Bidding his companions good night, Murdoch rose, his eyes scanning the crowd.  The tall man rubbed his belly, which was comfortably full of the O’Hara’s good home cooking and a beer or two.  A thoroughly enjoyable evening, he thought.  The children had even performed a skit, much as he had done once upon a time.

“Johnny!” he called, his voice carrying across the yard.  Hearing it, his son waved, standing up and tucking a slip of paper into his jacket pocket.

“See you at the auction, Igor, “he told the big man beside him.

“See you then, Johnny,” Igor replied, watching the young man rejoin his father.  “If I don’t see your corpse first, that is,” he muttered to himself.

“Well, John,” Murdoch said.  “What did you think? Did you have a good time?”

Johnny grinned.  “Yeah, Murdoch, I did.  Not as good as Scott, though.”

Murdoch lifted his brows as Johnny explained.  “I saw him disappear into the barn awhile ago—with Willadeen.”

“Oh,” said the older man, temporarily disconcerted. “Well, you better go get him, then.”

“Me?” his youngest protested.  “Why me?”

“Because you’re his brother, “Murdoch replied firmly.  “Don’t argue with me.”

Knowing it was useless, Johnny jammed his hat on his head.  “Only because he won’t be as embarrassed if it’s me.”

Murdoch nodded soothingly.  “Thank you, John. I’ll wait right here.”

A few moments later, his son was back, blue eyes dark with concern.  “They ain’t there.  And nobody’s seen ‘em.  But I did see wagon tracks leading out of the barn.”

“Johnny!” his father remonstrated.  “Scott wouldn’t leave us waiting to go have a tryst.  He’s got to be here.  I’ll help you look.”

A short time later, both men were staring at each other, worry etched on their faces.  Scott Lancer was gone.

The last remaining guests looked at them curiously as they filed past.  Suddenly, Johnny grabbed his father’s arm, looking up into his face.

“I knew it!” he said.

“What?” Murdoch bellowed.

“Where I’d seen that girl before!”

“What girl?  Make sense, Johnny!”

“Willadeen!” Johnny said.  He flung an arm out, encompassing the farm. “Except her name’s not Willadeen—it’s Sarah.”

Stunned, Murdoch fell back, staring at his son.  “You mean that crazy woman?  Women,” he hastily corrected himself.  “The ones that killed Lucky?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed.  He had not forgotten the savage pitchfork murder of his beloved dog by the two harlots.

He nodded.  “I been wrackin’ my brain all night—she looks different and she’s dressed different.  And her voice is different.  But it’s her, I’m sure of it.”

Murdoch continued.  “The same ones who tried to kill you…with an ice pick?”

“Yes, “Johnny snarled.  “Except Dave Bell intercepted ‘em!” Dropping his father’s arm, he whirled, eyes searching.

“My God, “said Murdoch, the blood draining from his face.  “She had an accomplice, didn’t she? Was she here tonight, too?”

“Don’t know, Murdoch,” Johnny snapped, throwing off his father’s arm.  “But either, way, she’s got Scott!”

With one accord, the two men ran toward the buggy. “I can go faster if I ride,” Johnny said.  “Alone.”

Murdoch nodded, his fingers racing over the harness.  “I’ll borrow a horse and be right behind you.  Good luck,” he added as Johnny leaped astride the horse, prepared to ride bareback.

Twining his fingers in Zanzibar’s mane, Johnny nodded.  A thought struck Murdoch.  “Wait, Johnny!” Where are you going to look?”

His son looked at him. “We’ll have to split up.  You ride for town. Take a party of men and go to the saloon.  Second floor, end of the hall on the right.”

Backing the horse up, he added, “I’m gonna follow those tracks.”

********

Arriving at the deserted cabin, Sarah had pulled the wagon to a sliding halt.  Climbing into the back, she patted Scott’s face to rouse him.  “Come on, lover, “she muttered.  “We’ve got work to do.”

With a moan of protest, Scott rolled his head, trying to avoid the blows.  Unrelenting, Sarah kept it up until he was out of the wagon and on his feet, his face pale.  She’d given him quite a dose and he was more incoherent than she had wanted but wedging an arm under his shoulder, the girl managed to walk him up the slight rise.  Dead leaves crunched underfoot, the sound loud in the silence.  An owl hooted as they passed, its voice eerie in the quiet night.  Sarah grinned as she hobbled along, supporting Scott.

He was a far pleasanter burden than old Luce had been, with her flabby, unwashed body and filthy hair.  The girl leaned closer to young man, sniffing slightly to enjoy the light, fresh scent of his cologne.  She rubbed her free hand over his muscular torso, enjoying the hard, flat feel of his stomach.  Scott’s head rolled but he was beginning to come around as the fresh air revived him.

Arriving at the cabin, she opened the door, supporting him as far as the bed. Slipping out from beneath him, the girl let him topple forward, landing facedown on the bed. Rolling him over with a mighty heave, Willadeen arranged the young man neatly on the bed.  Straightening his legs, she tugged at Scott’s arms, crossing them on his chest.  Striking a match, she lit a small candle.

Looking down at him, the girl thought mildly that he resembled nothing so much as an effigy on a tomb.  A three-cornered smile lifted her lips.  It was an apt description.

Closing the door quietly, she slid back down the hill to the horse and wagon.  Picking up a switch, she struck the horse, hard.  Startled, the animal leaped forward, the empty wagon rumbling crazily behind it.  Sarah looked after it, satisfied.  The frightened animal was going to leave tracks all the way to Spanish Wells, leading pursuers right past her in the dark night while she conducted her business with Scott.

Returning to the cabin, she set the candle by the bed, humming a little tune under her breath.  Smiling, she reached down, beginning to undo Scott’s tie.  When his shirt was unbuttoned, she pulled it open to reveal the muscular chest she had admired earlier.

Running a hand over the smooth expanse, her brow wrinkled.  It was almost a shame to kill one this pretty.  Almost.

Already sound asleep, a slight snore escaped Scott as the drug claimed him once more.

Her brow clearing, Sarah smiled benevolently down upon him.  With the care of a surgeon, she reached into her other pocket, removing a small, napkin-wrapped bundle.  Placing it reverently beside Scott on the bed, she unwrapped it, carefully removing the object it contained.  It glinted in the wavering candlelight, its tip evilly sharp.

Picking the object gently up, she touched the tip of one finger to it experimentally.  She was instantly rewarded by a drop of blood, glistening darkly in the wavering light.  Squeezing, she brought more blood to the surface.  The blob wavered and broke into threads that streaked darkly across her finger in the dim light.

She peered at them for a moment, fascinated, then put the finger in her mouth.

**********

Leaning low over the horse’s neck, his mane whipping his face, Johnny urged the horse faster.  His mind whirled, searching for details about his encounter with Sarah.

Behind him, Murdoch leaped onto a borrowed horse, riding hard for the Morro Coyo saloon as he hoped fervently that either he or Johnny would find Scott in time.

 

Chapter 6

Head down, studying the tracks as Zanzibar raced up the narrow, rutted road, Johnny almost missed the cabin on his right. That he spotted it at all was one of the flashes of instinct he’d learned not to question.  He considered them small gifts from a Dios he did not always believe in but which had saved his life more than once. Still following his instinct, he let the horse race on.  About a half-mile down the road, he pulled Zanzibar up.  Gun in hand, the youngest Lancer, slipped quietly through the woods.  Approaching the cabin from the back, he paused, listening, then crept to the window.  What he saw made his blood go cold.

Stretched out on his back, his face deathly pale, Scott lay on the bed.  His shirt had been removed.  Beside him was the woman he’d seen at the party.  Long hair pulled back, her sleeves rolled up, she was leaning over him in the light of one wavering candle stub.  Totally absorbed in what she was doing, she appeared to be carving something in the smooth flesh of Scott’s chest.  The object in her hand gleamed.  Clearly very sharp, it was leaving whorls of his brother’s blood in its wake.

A curse tried to escape his lips but Johnny bit it back.  Stealthy as a cat, he slipped to the front of the cabin.  Taking one deep breath, he hurled himself at the door.  It was bolted, the impact throwing Johnny back onto the rickety porch.

Startled, the girl looked up at the crash, the sharpened spoon still in her hand.  Glass shattered, spraying over the cabin’s floor as the youngest Lancer hurled himself through the window.  Hitting the floor, he rolled, then came to his feet still clutching the gun.  “Drop it!” he snarled. “Or I’ll shoot!”

A quick glance at Scott assured Johnny that he was still breathing.  Returning his attention to the girl, he advanced with one hand out, an angry scowl on his face.  “Give it to me, lady.  Right now!”

To his left, Scott lay like one dead.  Recovering from shock, Willadeen looked at the dark-haired man, drinking in the sight of him.  A sly smile twisted her lips.  For two years, she’d cursed the day Johnny Lancer had escaped her clutches.  Now he was here and it still wasn’t too late.

“Awright, awright,” she murmured, peering up at him in a travesty of the flirtatious gesture that had so captivated Scott. “No need to get yer knickers in a twist.”

Tossing the lethal object to the floor, she spread her hands, regarding him in the candle’s wavering glow.  “Now what?”  Frowning, Johnny advanced.  “Turn around.  And keep your hands where I can see them.”

Carefully keeping all traces of glee from her face, Willadeen did so.  A sudden commotion out front made his attention waver, blue eyes flicking toward the door. In a flash, the girl whirled, flipping up her skirts and grabbing the ice pick hidden in her garter even as he leaped for her.

Pain scored a hot slash down Johnny’s cheek and across his neck even as he chopped his hand downward in a short, hard motion.  The ice pick fell from her nerveless fingers, skittering across the splintery wood floor. Keeping his gun trained on Willadeen, the young man grabbed it, then stood up again.

Someone was hammering at the door.  “Johnny!  Johnny, you all right? It’s me, Sven! Open the door!”

The doorframe rattled as the huge man hit it with one massive shoulder.  The bolt jumped.  A second, louder crash sounded as Sven battered the door again.

A puzzled frown twitched Johnny’s black brows fleetingly together as he wondered how Sven had found them.

With a screech, dry wood separated from nails.  With another crash of Sven’s bulk, the ancient wood around the frame splintered just as Johnny caught movement from the corner of his eye.  Another broad, grinning face appeared at the window just as Sven battered his way into the room.    Stepping carefully through the hole he had just created, Sven smiled at the gunman.

“We meet again.  H’llo, Sarah, looks like we got here just in time.  Er, Willadeen,” the blond hulk corrected himself hastily.

“S’awright, Sven, he knows,” Willadeen said. “Remembered where you’d seen me before, hey ducks?”

The movement of Sven’s eyes as they flicked toward the ruined door warned Johnny.  Seeing it, he fired the Colt.  Three shots, coming so close together that they sounded like one, alerted Murdoch and his posse of helpers riding hard up the dirt road from the opposite direction.  Spurring their horses, the men thundered onward, dead leaves flying in their wake.

Flinging herself into the gunfighter, Willadeen knocked him off balance.  Johnny’s first bullet caught Sven high in the upper right chest.  With amazement, he saw that the bullet had not budged the giant an inch. Sven remained standing, smiling gently at Johnny even as he put a hand to the wound gushing blood down his shirtfront.  Still whirling left, Johnny’s second bullet hit Igor between the eyes as the twin stepped through the ruined doorframe, dropping him like an ox.  A part of Johnny’s mind was momentarily thankful that the hulk stayed down even as his third bullet nicked Willadeen in the wrist, causing her to yelp with pain.

With a speed unexpected in one so large, Sven’s huge ham fist hit Johnny in the jaw, rocking his head back.  Unconscious before he fell, the gunfighter sprawled facedown on the uneven wooden floor.

Catching her breath, Willadeen grinned cheekily at the hulk.  “Gots ‘em where we wants ‘em, don’t we, ducks? Sorry about your brother,” she added hastily as the giant looked down at his twin.  Deader than a doornail, Igor lay staring sightlessly upward, the bullet hole appearing like a third eye.

Sven stepped over the body, catching the girl by the arm.  “Don’t care, Sarah, long as you’re all right.”  He looked down at her, dumb devotion plain on his face.

The thunder of approaching horses made him drop Willadeen’s arm.  “I know you hate to leave now,” he added warningly.  “But we got no choice.”

Sven jerked his head back toward Noreen’s farmhouse.  “You were lucky back there, Sarah, stealin’ that girl’s identity and gettin’ away with it as long as you did.  Lucky her family ain’t seen her in years.”

Willadeen spoke gently.  “Weren’t all luck, Sven.  A lot of it was skill.”

The girl looked longingly down at the two Lancer sons, both out cold.  Sven shook her arm roughly.  Her breathing slowed as she regarded the two men, her eyes distant.

The jingle of horses’ bits, stamping hooves and loud voices decided the huge man.  Picking Willadeen up, he flung her over his shoulder, shoving his way out the broken wall.

“Hold it!” bawled the voices of Murdoch Lancer and the sheriff at the same moment.  Clicking noises warned Sven that hammers had been drawn while the hair standing up on the nape of his neck warned him that many guns were now trained on his back.

“Put down the girl!” yelled the sheriff.  “Now!”

Moving slowly, the giant put Willadeen gently on her feet, then turned, hands clasped behind his head.

Murdoch Lancer shouldered roughly past him.  He paused for an instant in astonishment at the sight of the wrecked doorframe, then shoved his way into the cabin.  At the sight of both sons, still as death, the blood drained from the tall rancher’s face. Holstering his gun, he knelt between them.  “Scott! Johnny!”

Outside, the sheriff and his posse were approaching Sven.  Barking orders, they yelled at him to turn around.  Doing so, the big man pretended to faint.  Taking advantage of the interruption, Willadeen shot off into the darkness, just as Sven struck out hard at the sheriff.  In the ensuing melee, the girl rushed down the hill, slipping and sliding on the dead leaves.  The fitful moonlight, coming and going as clouds drifted past, was no help as she sought to see her way.

Hearing shouts from behind her, Willadeen ran faster.  Rushing pell-mell down the hill, she never saw the splintery well-covering hidden beneath the dead leaves that had drifted over it.  Long since rotted, the ancient wood splintered under even her slight weight, dropping the girl hard to the stone floor far below.  It was so sudden, she didn’t even have time to scream.

Back at the cabin, Murdoch was patting his sons’ faces, trying to restore them to consciousness.  Outside, shouting and scuffling sounded as the sheriff and his men attempted to subdue Sven.

Still flat on the bed, Scott rolled his head, then opened his eyes with a groan.  Seeing it, Murdoch closed his own eyes in momentary thankfulness before turning his attention back to Johnny.  Even in the candle’s weak glow, the rancher could see the huge bruise rising on his son’s jaw.  A moment later, Johnny, too, was awake.

With Sven finally under control, the lawmen tossed him, trussed like a turkey, into the back of Sam Jenkin’s wagon as soon as the old doctor drew General Jackson to a halt.  Fanning out, the lawmen searched briefly for Willadeen in the blackness before giving up.

“It’s too dark,” Dave Bell told the Lancers.  “Can’t see a thing.   We’ll come back up here at first light.  Don’t worry, we’ll find her.”

The big lawman looked down at Johnny.  “You sure that’s the girl, Johnny?  Same one that tried to stick you in that there hotel room?”

Johnny shook his aching head irritably.  “Yeah, Dave.  Ain’t no doubt it’s her.”

Somewhat sheepishly, Dave glanced at Murdoch before continuing.  “I’ll wire England first thing in the morning.  But if she’s escaped from Bedlam, she’s a slippery one.”

Turning away, he called for the wagon to be brought up to the cabin.  Working quickly, they loaded the injured men into it.  Soon, they had jounced off into the night, the rattle of harness and horses’ hooves disappearing down the dark, rutted road.

******

Inside the well, Sarah was splayed on the uneven stone floor, her limbs at odd angles.  The smooth rock walls of the dry well gleamed in the moonlight as the lunar orb rose higher.  Like a monstrous Cyclopean eye, it peered down into the well, illuminating the broken body sprawled there.

*******

The crack of a single rifle shot shattered the early dawn and the big bull elk tumbled with a crash to the forest floor.  Kneeling beside it, Edmund Mantooth laid a hand on the huge rack, already seeing it mounted above the fireplace in his cabin.  Far from civilization, the cabin was remote and visitors to it nonexistent.  Preferring to live off the land, Mantooth was rarely seen and most people didn’t even know of his existence.  It was just the way the hermit liked it.

Pulling out his long hunting knife, with the ease of long practice, he had soon gutted the elk.  Wiping his blood stained hands on some dry leaves, he maneuvered his horse and wagon close.  Preparing to load the carcass, Edmund heard a slight sound to his right.  Curious, he tracked it to its source, his eyes widening as he peered over the lip of the well at the woman moaning far below.

Seeing her, something long-forgotten stirred in the grizzled old mountain man’s heart.

Cautiously, he leaned forward.  “Don’t you worry, little lady, I’m a-gonna git you right out of there.”

By dint of much maneuvering, sweating and straining, Edmund was finally able to rappel down into the well.  Strapping her slight weight to his chest, he struggled upward, heaving both of them over the top and onto the dead grass with a last grunt.  The girl was quiet again, having passed out.

Moving carefully, he laid her in the back of the wagon.  By the time he was finished, dawn had broken.  The hermit drew the tarp up to her chin just as her eyes flew open, startling him.  Edmund saw that they were green, surrounded by dark lashes.

With an effort, she asked a question.  “What day is it?”

Puzzled, the grizzled old prospector looked down at the girl.  “October 31st. “

Sarah closed her eyes musingly. “All Hallows’ Eve. The one day of the year when the veil between this world and the next is thinnest.”  The thought made her smile.

Awkwardly, Edmund snatched his hunting cap from his head, twisting it in his hands.  Finally, he cleared his throat and spoke.  “We’re leavin’ in just a minute. But before we go…what’s your name?”

A tiny grin tugged at the corners of the girl’s lips. Looking deep into the old man’s eyes, Sarah spoke.

 “Well,” she said gently. “What do you want it to be?

 

 

Epilogue

Black clouds hung low over the deserted streets of London.  Flashes of lightning lit their swollen bellies, followed by rolling thunder.  Torrential rain drenched the city even as the Thames rose, then overflowed its banks. Big Ben struck midnight and still the rain pounded down, lashing savagely against the barred windows of the old mental institution and causing cold water to rise in the catacombs beneath it.

Deep in the bowels of Bedlam, Matron’s large ring of keys rattled as she inserted one carefully into the dungeon’s lock.  The small lantern hung from a hook on the wall cast a wavering orange light, rousing several of the cellblock’s residents.

Behind her stood two muscular orderlies, each grasping one elbow of the handcuffed girl between them as they waited to usher her into the cell.  Dwarfed by the large men, the girl looked small and unprepossessing.  Her mild manner made the two burly attendants seem unnecessary but Matron had learned from experience that the quiet ones were the most dangerous.  Clearly, this one thought herself superior but that attitude would wear away quickly enough.

A white-collar criminal, the girl behind her had already participated in a number of outlandish schemes that had bilked decent London residents of their good names, social position and fortunes.  An accountant by trade, (“bean-counter,”) as Matron sniffed to herself, Wynette had been behind a number of nefarious schemes that had laid waste to the honest merchant-class community is which she worked. Ruined, several of her victims had already leaped to their deaths from London Bridge.  The newspapers had had a field day, blaring headlines for weeks throughout her sensational trial.

Remorseless, cold and an accomplished liar, Wynette had only been captured through the diligent work of Scotland Yard.  Bedlam was going to be her home for a good, long time. Two lifetimes, in fact.  Consecutive life sentences proved just how seriously the judge had taken her crimes against society.

Matron stifled a grin as the creaky door swung open.  Holding her lantern aloft, she stepped aside to let the men lead the girl into the cell.  For safety’s sake, its other occupant had already been given a dose of laudanum and was lolling on her bunk, mouth agape as she snored.  A thin line of drool ran down her chin.

Burt hitched a burly shoulder in disgust to block out the sight of Lucy.  Dropping to his knees, he double-checked the iron cover sealing the hole through which her former cellmate had escaped months earlier.  Steel bolts secured the iron lid over a heavy grate and chains ran across it, securing it to the walls. The exit was as blocked as it could possibly be.

Seeing it, Wynette’s composure slipped.  Half-turning, she glanced wildly at the door even as the other attendant, Ernie, looped a chain about her waist, securing her to the wall.  He, too, spared a glance at Lucy.  Unknown to the warden, each man had enjoyed her favors in the past, purchased by means of extra rations, a half-bottle of whiskey or the occasional candle.  That had been awhile ago, though, thought Burt, his nose wrinkling in disgust.

Ernie’s brows twitched together.  Poor old Luce had gone downhill since the day she discovered her former partner had escaped.  Never wrapped too tightly, Lucy was now starkers, as crazy as any bedbug.  He and Burt stepped back.

The rattling chains had roused Lucy from her drugged slumber.  Sitting up, she shoved her filthy, matted hair from her eyes as the two men locked the cell door behind them, pausing outside to watch.

Chained securely, Wynette pushed her pale hair from eyes that were trained nervously on her new cellmate.  Looking at her, Ernie felt a twinge of pity.  The girl was small and thin, her eyes too beady and her mouth too large to make her attractive.  The guard suspected that this lack of beauty was what had led her to a life of crime.  By preying on others, she had hoped to get a little of her own back.

Focusing with difficulty, Lucy leaned forward.  Across the aisle, another prisoner stood, scratching her big belly as she watched the proceedings with interest.  Behind her, her dark-haired cellmate raised her head.

Sliding her feet off the cot, Lucy lumbered toward the shrinking girl, steadying herself with one hand against the wall.  Her lips opened in a grin, showing mossy teeth.

Shrinking back against the wall, Wynette looked wildly at her impassive captors.

Lucy shoved one filthy index finger into the pale hair, twining it around her finger.  “Sarah? Is that you?” she muttered.  “Come back to spend time with your old pal?”

Sinking to the other cot, she arranged herself comfortably.  “I got lots an lots to tell ya.”

The prisoners across the aisle looked at each other as Lucy’s voice sank to a conspiratorial drone.  In a broad northern dialect, the one at the bars spoke to her cellmate.

“Well,” she said, “Better her than us.” Nodding, her companion agreed.

Wynette put her hands over her ears to shut out the whiny voice but the hefty woman reached up, dragging them away as she continued talking.

“I almost feel sorry for her,” Burt muttered to Ernie.  “Almost.”

Turning, the three of them walked away, the lantern light fading as they disappeared down the corridor.  Lucy’s voice rose excitedly.  “And you wouldn’t believe what she did to me, innocent as a lamb, I am…”

A bloodcurdling scream rent the air and chains rattled wildly as Wynette’s composure cracked in two.

Still walking stolidly away, the staff heard her screams from the end of the long hall, every word distinct.

“Come back!  Don’t leave me with her!  Don’t leave me!”

The woman across the aisle spoke, still scratching her round belly.  “’Ere now,” she said.  “Don’t be whinging on, you’ve made your bed.  Now you gots to lie in it.”

The light abruptly winked out as the staff turned the corner. Wynette’s voice rose to an ear splitting screech.

“Somebody help me! Pleeeeeeeeaase!!”

 

~end~

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