The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Darla M. Poulos

 

 

Twisted

Beta: Lacy. Great job as always!   “Creepy!”
Thanks Sandra S for all your valuable input. It was a haunting good time!
Dedicated to: Lacy B and Sue T. I hope this makes you smile.

As before, (I've been told I have to do this) all non-canon characters, in this story, The Texas Rangers, Tim ( the Giant) & Matt McRafferty are the exclusive works of the author and cannot be duplicated in any way, shape or form without the express permission of the author.
FYI: Related to the series, Genesis, but not related.   Happy Halloween!

We come to hell…

“Shouldn't that read, ‘Welcome to Shell Lake County?'” asked Johnny, as he and Scott studied the sign from on back of their horses.

“Probably,” answered Scott, looking at the dilapidated board cocked on a roughhewn stake, pounded into the ground. “The letters ‘L' and ‘S' have obviously faded with the rest of the title.”

“Sure gives a whole new meaning to the name,” grinned Johnny, giving his horse a nudge with his heels while holding the reins of Rio, Murdoch's white stallion.

They were just outside the county line in a desolate area of rock and sand. A lake and two towns were further up the line just past the desert.

Scott, on Buster, and in charge of Val Crawford's horse, said, “Well, we must be on the right track according to Murdoch's instructions.” He too prodded his horse into moving. “The town of Brimstone or Rimfire should be coming into view pretty soon.”

“Still can't remember which one comes first?”

“No,” said Scott, chagrined. He still couldn't believe he had lost the telegram with the instructions on how to get to Rimfire. Strange that everyone we ask doesn't know either. “All I remember is the lake is between the two towns.”

“Don't fret big brother. It happens to all of us as we age,” kidded Johnny with a smirk on his face.

“Just because I'm pushing thirty doesn't make me old,” griped Scott, spying a sign at a crossroad at the bottom of a large hill. Ever since the fall solstice of 1875 arrived, Johnny had been razzing him about turning another decade older.

Johnny read the sign and pointed, “Rimfire is straight ahead up this hill.” Seeing Scott's scowl, he chuckled and continued, “Brimstone is around the lake to the east.”

Somewhat exasperated, Scott sniped back, “Enough Johnny! I can read!” With that said he once more urged Buster forward, coming to a stop on the top of the huge hill. A moment later, Johnny pulled his horse to a halt beside him.

“Dang!” said Johnny, amazed at the sight before him. Half in jest, he finished with, “Maybe this really is hell and the sign at the county line was telling the truth.”

A hazy mirage had been created by the hot air. The heat of the sand and the mammoth rocks that surrounded the settlement gave an illusion that the town of Rimfire was truly on fire.

“Maybe it's really a warning to stay away.”

“You can't be serious,” stated Scott, with a slight grin, noticing the excitement in his fearless brother's eyes.

“Well, hell. One way to find out!” Johnny spurred Barranca in the flanks to get going and was soon flying towards the town with Scott directly behind him.

 

                                                                        ---1---

As they approached the outskirts of town, the Lancer brothers could see it was smaller than Morro Coyo with just the essential buildings. Mercantile, bath house, barber shop, blacksmith & livery, boarding house and a couple saloons situated across from each other. There's not even a jail. Typical, thought Johnny. No fire here or is there? Where are all the people? He couldn't stop a shiver as it coursed through his body, reminding him of another town from the not too distant past.

“There's a carnival at the end of the street,” declared Scott, breaking into a smile, for his thoughts had unknowingly matched his brothers.

Sighing in relief, Johnny replied, “I see it. All done up for Halloween too.” He had just noticed the brightly colored ribbons of orange and black attached to various parts of the buildings, hitching rails and anything else you could tie a streamer to. Wooden decorations of numerous types of the holiday's creatures were either standing or hanging around the boardwalk, in doorways of unknown shops or displayed in windows. Pulling up in front of the livery, the brothers could see people in outlandish costumes milling around the carnival wagons and booths. Laughter tinkled down the short street as they dismounted, inviting the boys to come and join the fun.

A man came out of the livery, dressed up as an old time warrior complete with a sword and bloody hatchet held by a wide, black belt around his waist, and greeted them. “Name's Spike.”

The Lancers grinned, catching on to where the day was headed. “We need to stable our horses,” stated Scott.

“Ain't got any more open stalls. You'll have ta use the corral,” answered the liveryman.

“That'll be fine,” agreed Johnny. He was glad there wasn't a stall for he couldn't shake the eerie feeling of trouble. I'm sticking to Scott like glue and I'm not eating any weird food, especially with mushrooms!

“Okay, eight bits, then. Ya staying long?”

“No,” answered Scott. “Just waiting for the stage that'll arrive in the morning.” He paid the man the money as Johnny led his horses inside the fenced-in enclosure.

The man gave them an odd look. “There ain't no payin' stage line that comes through here.”

Johnny stopped moving and asked, “You're sure?” That creepy feeling was back again.

“Yeah, I'm sure.”

“This is Rimfire?” asked Scott, holding his own horses' reins. Both horses wanted to follow Johnny for they could smell water in the trough.

“Last I know'd it was. Unless someone swapped the sign with Brimstone. Happens all the time. Tis a game between the two towns.” The man laughed at an inside joke the Lancers didn't understand. “That's where the stage line ends. Right at the state line in Brimstone, Nevada. Rimfire is on the California side of things.”

The Lancer boys exchanged glances. “Now, why would Murdoch want to meet us here?” asked Johnny, letting go of his horses' reins so that the animals could drink some water.

“Don't know,” replied Scott bewildered and letting go of his animals also. The horses immediately joined the other two at the watering trough.

“Maybe he's comin' with the driver, named Fred?” volunteered the Warrior. “He lives here and quarters the stage here.”

“That's got to be it then,” said Johnny relieved. Murdoch has reasons for everything, he just doesn't always tell us what they are. After all, he did change our meeting place or we'd still be stuck in Uppity Flats. Now that Cal and Leah don't live there anymore, there really isn't much there, except bad memories. He unsaddled his horse and Rio, putting the tack on the fence rail. Scott did the same.

“I'll feed ‘em for ya so you can join the festivities. The Sand Dollar Saloon has rooms ya can rent for the night.” Pointing with his thumb over his shoulder, he added, “Whatever you do, avoid the saloon across from it called Morpheus.

“Why?” asked Johnny, curious. He looked over to the dark place where the liveryman directed. A group of trees stood between the corral and saloon, casting the building in shadows.

“Cause you'll sleep like the dead over there.” The man chortled again.

Johnny couldn't explain it, but he suddenly felt chilled.

Untying and pulling off his saddlebags, then grabbing his rifle, Scott replied, “Much obliged.” He met up with his brother, who had his own gear, at the gate and opened it. As they stepped out of the corral, a black cat ran out in front of their feet, nearly tripping them.

“Oh, no. That's all we need. Bad luck…” moaned Johnny, following his brother onto the scorching, dusty street. Why's it feel so hot all at once? Well, it is California and fall is one of the warmest, driest times of the year.

“You're not superstitious?”

“Only a little.” The feeling of bad luck was going hand in hand with the other disturbing feeling he couldn't get rid of.

Scott clamped a hand on Johnny's shoulder. “Well, shake it off, brother,” Scott pointed down the way, “and let's have some fun.”

 

                                                                        ---2---

“Got any rooms?” asked Johnny, bellying up to the bar in the Sand Dollar Saloon.

At one end of the bar a carved jack-o'-lantern sat with a sad face. A big bucket, smelling like apples, sat on the surface at the other end of the bar with white smoke rolling out of it. Behind the bartender, in a corner, was propped a dark coffin with the lid partly open, giving Johnny the willies.

The barkeep was dressed as a Mortician, attired in a black suit with a string tie around the collar of his white shirt. A pencil thin mustache on his upper lip completed the outfit.

“Room thirteen is open.”

Johnny turned a little pale. “Ya, ah, got any other rooms?”

“Nope, that's the last one,” austerely said the man in black. “Only has a double bed. Take it or leave it. Three bucks.”

Before his brother could turn it down, Scott butted in with, “We'll take it.” He signed the register for both of them and paid for the room. The bartender silently gave him the room key.

Johnny gave his brother a sour look. I'd rather sleep with the horses. Then remembered his vow. I'm not getting separated from Scott for any reason.

Scott gave his brother a questioning look.

“What? Ya turned into a tender foot all of a sudden?” asked Johnny, edgy.

Johnny's reasoning didn't make any sense to Scott. We've been on the trail for days. A bed is a bed. Better than the cold, hard ground any night of the week. What difference does it make?  Then, it dawned on him. The room number 13.

“Johnny, it's only a number.”

“That might be so, but my neck hairs don't like it. They're standing at attention.” Johnny rubbed his neck as if to ease them back down.

Scott knew all about his brother's instincts and usually took heed of them. But, he was tired from riding. He was dirty and wanted to clean up before they went to the carnival.

“Ya guys want a drink before you go up?” asked the undertaker. The rooms were all up the stairs to the left of them.

“A beer,” stated Johnny, turning away from his brother and sniffing the aroma of the bucket.

“Sorry, we're out.”

“Okay, then how about a tequila?”

“Sorry, we're dry,” said the barkeep. “Next shipment doesn't arrive until the morning.”

“Then, why'd ya offer us a drink?” grouched Johnny, suddenly really thirsty.

“Guess I should've made myself clearer,” answered the barkeeper. “He grabbed a glass mug from behind the bar and lifted a ladle from the smoky bucket and poured it into the tankard. “This here apple-cider will cure what ails yer thirst. The dry ice really keeps it cold.” He handed the glass to Johnny, then poured another one for Scott.

“Dry ice is what's creating all the smoke?” asked Johnny, leery of the concoction. “Never seen anything like it before.”

“Hmm, yes,” replied the undertaker as he handed Scott a mug. “The carnival owner brought it over from Europe along with the recipe for the cider. He was from Transylvania.”

After taking a sip of the brew, Scott asked, “Hard apple-cider?” He'd been pleasantly surprised by the taste. “Perfect. Not too sweet and not too sour.” He drank the rest straight down.

Johnny was still looking at his mug, hesitant on drinking anything with smoke coming out of it. He heard his brother sigh in pleasure and noticed Scott was still on his feet, so reasoned it must be reasonably safe.

He slowly sipped the smoky brew and was amazed by the taste as much as his brother was. “Boy, this is damn good stuff.” He quickly gulped the remaining amount and set the empty mug on the bar.

“Keep the glass. It's free along with the cider that goes in it,” ordered the mortician.

“Free?” asked Johnny, licking his lips.

“Yeah. Wherever you see a bucket of cider at the carnival, help yourself. It all comes from the same batch and tastes the same.”

“That's a deal,” said Scott, heading for the stairs.

“Sounds too good to be true,” said Johnny, lifting the mug to his mouth, trying for the last few drops of the brew, as he followed Scott up the steps.

 

                                                                        ---3---

The main entrance to the carnival was constructed with three straight ladders entwined with grapevines to keep them together, creating an arch to walk under. Johnny stopped at the entrance.

“More bad luck.”

Scott pushed him through. “Where's the fearless Madrid?”

“Wishing he was home,” retorted Johnny, fastening his eyes on a raving beauty of a Gypsy girl. She had bright red shoes on her feet to match her full, heart-shaped lips. His eyes by-passed the colors of her dress with the many pieces of gold jewelry and went straight to her mouth, “Now, this is more like it.”

The beautiful woman with long black hair and an exotic smell, (which both boys deeply inhaled) came up to them and coyly asked, “You two handsome cowboys want me to give you,” she paused for effect, “your fortune?”

“Sure,” they both said, their eyes never leaving her luscious lips.

She held up a handful of small white envelopes with a card tucked inside. “Pick one.”

Both boys dreamily took one, not even seeing the stationary. She gave them a sly smile, blew them a kiss and sauntered off into the crowd.

When they could finally breathe and gather their wits, both boys noticed the envelope in their hands along with the glass mug they still held.

“Open yours first,” stated Johnny, looking around for a bucket with smoke coming out of it.

Scott did and read it out loud, “Nothing is as it was. Nothing is as it seems.”

“What kind of fortune is that?” asked Johnny, ever the skeptic. “Sounds more like a warning.” He licked his dry lips.

“Does, doesn't it,” pronounced Scott. “Read yours.”

Full of anxiety he couldn't explain, Johnny opened the small envelope and pulled out the card. It simply read, “RUN!!!!”

Instantly, both boys remembered the command the Giant had bellowed all those months ago to start the game.

Johnny looked around the crowd, sizing up everyone he laid eyes on. “This can't be happening.” He turned around and took a step towards the entryway.

Scott grabbed his arm. “Where're you going?”

“Back to Barranca. I'm riding to Brimstone where the stage line ends. We can hitch up with Murdoch and Val there.”

“Murdoch specifically instructed us to meet him here,” countered Scott, not liking the situation any better than his brother. His logical side said there had to be an explanation. Then, he grinned. “You know, this is probably just a joke. After all, this is Halloween.”

“I thought jokes were only played on April Fool's Day?”

“Usually,” agreed Scott, shoving the fortune card into his shirt pocket. “But, Halloween has its fun too.”

“Ya really think so?” asked Johnny, starting to feel foolish as he slid his card into his pants pocket. He licked his lips again, really wanting more of the apple-cider brew.

“That's got to be it.” Scott was thirsty also and looked around for a bucket. “It's probably just an accident that the word run means something to us.”

“I don't believe in co-incidences. Never have and never will. In my former line of work I couldn't afford to take the chance.”

“That's just it, Johnny. You are no longer a gunfighter. You're a rancher. Things do happen that way sometimes.”

“Well, maybe so.” Johnny wasn't convinced, but didn't want to spoil the fun for his brother. “Let's go find something to eat and drink.”

He didn't have to ask twice, for Scott had spied a smoky bucket by the chuck wagon brimming with food. They both made a beeline towards it. An old woman, dressed as a witch with a green face, served them their food on tin plates. Finding a shady tree unoccupied by other fair-goers, they sat down and began to eat.

“How long has it been since we ate anyways?” asked Johnny, chewing on a leg of fried chicken. The skin was crispy and the meat tender just the way he liked it. The juice ran down his fingers and he licked them clean. “Hmm, sure is good, Scott.” He chugged half the cold mug of apple-cider. The corn on the cob was as fresh as he ever tasted. Last, but not least, he followed it with a piece of pumpkin pie and washed it down with the other half of his brew.

“I think it was the jerky and hard-tack we had for breakfast,” reminded Scott, finishing his own piece of chicken. He then ate a healthy portion of fried potato strips, quoting Thomas Jefferson, “ Fried potatoes in the French Manner.”  He concluded his lunch with a funnel cake topped with white powder and cherries, then drank the rest of his apple-cider.

“I'm stuffed,” said Scott with a hand over his belly, leaning his back against the tree.

“I need a nap,” yawned Johnny, putting his plate aside and closing his eyes. His back was also against the tree and he was just starting to nod off when he felt Scott climb to his feet.

“Johnny, we can sleep when we're dead. Let's go try out some of the games on the midway.”

“Hmm?”

“I see that pretty gypsy girl.”

Johnny was instantly awake and on his feet.

 

                                                                        ---4---

They started with the game bordering the chuck-wagon after grabbing another cider to take on the track around the midway.

The sign said, Milk Bottle Game 25 cents . Knock all three bottles down and you win a prize. The prize was various folding pocket knives displayed on a board. The carny-operator was dressed as the Grim-Reaper, totally covered in black with splashes of red all over his clothes.

“Hey, young man,” called the dead guy, as he waved them in, “try your luck.”

There was something about the accent of the man that caught Johnny's attention. “Scott, doesn't that voice sound familiar?”

“Sounds Scottish,” replied Scott, who had just paid his quarter to the carny and received three balls. He threw his first ball at the stack of three wooden bottles, knocking only the top one off.

Johnny studied the man closely who avoided his eyes. Who does he remind me of?

Scott threw his second ball, hitting the bottles, but only moved them out of alignment.

“They should've fallen over,” objected Scott, perturbed. He watched a kid next to him easily knock over all three bottles with one ball.

“Hey, we have a winner,” boasted the carny, handing the proud kid a pocket knife. He immediately set up the wood bottles again.

Johnny grinned, “Scott it's a fix. The bottles are rigged not to fall over when the pigeon is getting plucked.”

“Whatever are you talking about? The kid next to me just won.”

“He's a plant and you're the mark,” stated Johnny, sipping his brew. “The bottles you're throwing at are weighted on the bottom to make them hard to knock over. It might be only one bottle or it might be all of them. You have to really put some muscle behind the throw. The idea is to get ya mad, so you'll waste your money trying to win.”

“Okay, that makes sense. What about the boy?”

“He's probably a carnival worker. He'll come up and win at different booths to make it look easy and legal-like.”

“STEP RIGHT UP!!!” bellowed the Reaper, drawing Johnny's attention again.

“Ya know, Scott, if I didn't know Angus McGovern was in prison, I'd swear that was him.”

“How do we know he's still in prison? It's been five years,” quizzed Scott, throwing his last ball with all his might and only knocking one bottle down.

“We don't…”

“Sorry, cowboy, try again?” asked the operator of the game, holding out his hand for another quarter. A man behind him, who looked dead with his face painted pure white and a knife through his throat, was setting up the wooden bottles.

Both boys looked him square in the face, trying to decipher if it was Murdoch's former friend and business partner, through the layer of theatrical face paint. The man still wouldn't meet Johnny's eyes, but instead wiggled his hand for the money, drawing their attention to it.

“Come on, either play or move on,” he gruffly said. The worker, who had stacked the bottles, was now more alive than dead. He stood behind the carny and gave them a menacing leer.

Johnny bristled, moving his mug from his right hand to his left, and was game for a fight. Scott, seeing where this was going, lifted his almost empty glass off the counter and nudged his brother to get him moving. “Come on. It's not important. Let's get another drink.”

Johnny reluctantly did so, after giving the men one long cold stare.

 

                                                                        ---5---

“Well, do ya think it was Angus McGovern or not?” asked Johnny, sipping another mug of brew. He'd lost track of how many mugs this made. But, the liquid was making itself known and he needed to find an outhouse. 

“What difference? It's water under the bridge.” Scott munched on some kettle-corn a bearded lady had given them after they'd left the Grim-Reapers' game.

“It still grinds me. He got off on the attempted murder charge for trying to kill Murdoch and me.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I mean, Charlie, being dead and all, got blamed for the whole murder thing and McGovern was only charged with conspiracy.” Johnny veered off the midway when he spied what he'd been looking for.

“Val said there just wasn't enough proof to convict him,” added Scott, walking beside his brother. He quickened his pace, for he had to go too.

It turned out to be a race with Scott winning as his hand latched onto the out-house door handle. “Here, hold this stuff,” he ordered, thrusting the pail of kettle-corn and his glass tankard into his brother's hands. With a grunt Johnny accepted it.

Johnny talked through the door, while practically dancing a jig, “Still, ya know who the ring leader was. Charlie just didn't have the smarts or the money to pull the whole scheme off.”

“That's true enough,” said Scott from the other side of the door.

Johnny, impatient, for he really had to go, kicked the door. “Will you hurry up?”

“Patience brother, patience.”

“I don't have any,” snipped Johnny, desperate now, leaning his head against the door. “Why'd I have to drink so much of the stuff?”

“Cause it tastes good, it's addicting and we can't get enough of it,” said Scott, opening the door.

Johnny shoved the two empty glasses and the food into Scott's hands and hurried inside. Scott just grinned and leaned against the door and people-watched, while his brother did his business. A man on stilts gowned as a clown walked down the midway. He was followed by a group of people, dressed as various wild animals, including a lion, a tiger and a bear, juggling different colored balls.

A loud bell rang down the way and caught his attention. Straining his eyes to see where the ringing was coming from, Scott stepped a few feet away from the outhouse, just as his brother came out, looking relieved.

Johnny scanned the area to see what had caught his brother's eye. He heard a bell ring and noticed it sitting on top of a high tower. Both boys walked towards the mammoth structure. A participant holding a long handled mallet swung and hit a disc, thereby forcing a ball up the tall tower hitting the bell. DING!

 An exceptionally large, dark haired man dressed as the Jolly Green Giant stepped out of the shadows. With him, a smaller, fair-haired man, wearing a pumpkin vine with pointed green shoes, representing Jack the Beanstalk, assisted the contestant with the sledgehammer.

The Lancer brothers stopped in their tracks. “Is? Is that who I think it is?” asked Johnny, not knowing if he wanted to laugh or not. As I live and breathe, the Giant in green tights.

Trying not to outright laugh, Scott replied, “I…I think it is.” But, then, nothing is really clear anymore. He looked down at his empty glass. “I think we'd better stop drinking this stuff.”

Johnny, breaking into a grin, said, “I think we need another round.”

As the boys drew closer to the game, the big man caught sight of them. Instead of a greeting, he turned away and motioned to the fair-headed Beanstalk man. A second later, the Giant threw a prize into the startled player's arms, as the two workers hustled into the throng of the crowd.

“Well, that's a fine how do you do,” said Johnny, confused.

“You think that was really them?” inquired Scott, looking for another smoky bucket. He was thirsty again and the stuff sure did taste good.

“How many giants can there be?” snapped Johnny, irked.

“I don't know, but nothing around here is as it seems.”

The statement reminded both boys of the fortune teller's message Scott carried in his shirt pocket.

RUN!!!!  Johnny said, I need another drink.”

 

                                                                        ---6---

After being snubbed by the Giant, (in their minds they were pretty darn sure it was him) the Lancer brothers decided to make the rounds of the various games. They discovered there were two kinds of games. One was the game of skill, which they usually won. The other was the game of chance and most of them they lost, prompting them to make up a game of their own. Giving up trying to outright win the game, the boys tried to figure out how each game was rigged to fleece the player of his or her money.

The Lancer brothers stepped up to the next game, which was called Ring Toss and put their drinks on the counter. The carny for this game was dressed in the style of the 1790's with an actual pumpkin stuck over his head. Stuck had to be the correct word, for the brothers couldn't figure out how he got it over his head.

Grinning from ear to ear like the jack-o'-lantern himself, Johnny asked, “Is he supposed to be Ichabod Crane or the Headless horseman?”

“The Headless Horseman. But, I can't imagine how that pumpkin smells by now.”

“Not to mention, how's he gonna get it off his head,” added Johnny.

“Oh, that'll be easy.”

“How so?”

“They'll just take an axe and chop it off,” replied Scott, swinging his arm with a make-believe weapon.

“Then, he'll be truly headless,” finished Johnny.

For some reason both boys found that funny and caw-offed loudly. Weaving from side to side, Johnny pulled out his change and slapped it on the stand's counter.  He was extremely pleased when he spied a group of whiskey bottles on the dirt floor in the middle of the game.

Elbowing his brother, he said, “Now we know where all the booze went and why the town is dry.”

“Five rings for twenty-five cents,” offered the Pumpkin, holding ten different colored wooden rings in his hand.

“Only five?” mimicked Johnny.

“Take it or leave it,” grouched the man, his voice sounding muffled within the pumpkin.

Sliding five nickels towards the man, Johnny held out his hand and the carny placed five rings upon it.

“Okay, Scott, here we go,” said Johnny, as he threw one towards the bottles. It landed cockeyed on the cork wedged inside of the neck of the whiskey bottle. “Hey, I did it.”

“No ya didn't,” said the Pumpkin head. “It has to sit proper on the neck of the bottle to win.”

Johnny threw two more rings without success. A young man came up beside them and bought five rings. Scott noticed the carny gave him five rings out from under the counter instead of the other five rings he still held in his hand. Johnny must've caught that too for he quit throwing.

The man threw a ring and missed completely with the circle falling between the bottles. Johnny snickered.

The guy threw another one and it got hung up on the top of the neck.

Here it comes , thought Scott, holding his breath for he knew Johnny wouldn't let this slide. This is the trick.

He threw his third and it went over the neck perfectly. “Don't that beat all?” crowed the young man, as the Pumpkin guy handed him the bottle of Jim Beam .

Johnny smiled too, but it wasn't pretty. “I want the rings he was using,” he softly stated.

“You have the rings you bought,” said the man under the orange head.

Scott knew, as his brother did, carnival people were a tough lot and that the man with a pumpkin for a head wouldn't back down.

Johnny's eyes grew colder as he stared into the eyes of the Pumpkin-headed man, with his hand going to the butt of his Colt.

Seconds crawled by stretching into a full minute as the two men fought a contest of wills. The tension was thick and evidently the young man with the whiskey didn't understand the rules. He caved in and slid his two remaining rings over to Johnny much to the Pumpkin's disgust.

“Here mister, no need to take it out on ‘im. He's just, ah, doin' his job.” The winner turned and walked away.

Johnny gracefully accepted and picked up a ring, then compared it to the original ring he was holding in his left hand. “Notice,” he said to Scott, who was now standing beside him, “the hole in this ring is smaller than in this set of rings.”

“Imagine, that?” said Scott, not surprised at all. He lifted his glass and finished his cider, immediately looking for another smoking bucket.

The Headless Horseman had the gall to say, “Are ya gonna finish the game or not?”

Johnny coldly threw, one at a time, the original rings towards the bottles not getting either of them around the neck. He then took one of the bigger rings and tossed it, getting a ringer.

And here's the treat , thought Scott, giving his brother a quick pat on the back.

The Pumpkin reluctantly handed him the bottle of whiskey the ring had landed on. Johnny picked up his mug of apple-cider and the bottle of whiskey, after all it was a good bottle of Jim Beam, and said, “A man is soon parted from his whiskey.” He chuckled for he knew he was keenly feeling the effects of the hard cider, “Or is that a foolish man is soon parted from his money?”

Holding his own mug, Scott wrapped an arm around Johnny's neck and led him away from the game. “Money, brother. It's always the money.”

 

                                                                        ---7---

“Still no word from Scott and Johnny?” asked U. S. Marshal Val Crawford, as he climbed into the stagecoach after Murdoch Lancer. They were on the last leg of their journey since they left the Nevada silver mine. Rimfire was only one hour from Brimstone and Fred, their driver, was anxious to get home.

“None,” replied a worried Murdoch. “As you know, I've left them a wire at every stop.”

“Yup, I know'd,” agreed Val, stretching both arms out on the back of the seat he was sitting on across from Murdoch. They were the only ones in the coach. “Ya last heard from them in Uppity Flats? Right?”

“Yes, and that's where I told them to sit tight until they heard from us.”

“That's it, then, Murdoch. You do remember that's where ‘em boys met those females from the hotel? The maids that took care of ‘em?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, they probably hooked up with them,” snickered the marshal. “And they're not thinkin' about checking any telegraph office for a wire.”

Murdoch chuckled, picturing his sons. Then he asked, “Strong box okay up in the boot?”

“Safe and sound.”

 

                                                                        ---8---

“All that's left is the shooting gallery and bobbing for apples,” said Scott, as he and his brother sat on top of a picnic table, which faced the shooting gallery, and enjoyed a new treat called, Spumoni flavored ice. The ever present mug of apple-cider was beside them with two small metal pails, half full of kettle-corn and peanuts along with the bottle of Jim Beam. Evening was coming on and they had pretty much covered the entire midway.

“Did learn something interesting,” stated Scott, slowly savoring his ice cream.

“What?”

“A Carny is a showman who runs his own game and it's not called a booth. That is a major insult. Carnies are here today and gone tomorrow. And a booth, like that apple one, is run by a community group or a sponsor.”

After licking the last of his ice cream out of the bowl, Johnny asked, “You think there's a trick in getting them apples out of that barrel of water?”

“Of course there is,” said Scott, putting his bowl aside, as he watched a player shoot at the moving wooden ducks in the gallery. “They use large apples and you can't get your mouth around them to bite into the fruit.” He drank some cider, then added, “It's one of those games that look easier than it is.”

“Kind a like the shooting gallery,” tacked on Johnny, intensely scrutinizing the game in front of them. He heavily sighed. “Ya know all those gun sights are messed up. The only way you're gonna hit the target is by using your own gun.”

They sat there in silence, drinking their cider and watching boy and man alike trying out their skills. Scott lost interest in the shooting end of things and started people gazing.

After some time, Scott offhandedly said, “Place is thinning out. Must be past supper time.”

“Tis,” replied Johnny, not taking his eyes off the operator who ran the game. The man was dressed as the Devil and reminded him of Absalom Weir. A shudder ran the length of his spine. He glanced down at his mug and wondered if he'd had enough of the brew. Naw .

“People don't look the same as they did earlier,” declared Scott out of the blue. “Take a gander at that gypsy girl.”

“What about her?” asked his brother, rubbing his red eyes. With blurred vision he looked down the way where Scott had indicated. Blinking rapidly, he tried to see the woman. The gypsy was talking to a group of acrobats.

“She isn't as pretty as we thought for one thing. And, she seems older somehow. Maybe the sunlight is playing tricks on me,” surmised Scott, rubbing his head. “But, she reminds me of that crystal-gazer Jelly had been soft on a few years ago.”

Johnny squinted his eyes towards the vixen. “Yeah, she does. Anna…Buriell or… Baral or something like that. Anna for sure was her first name. I'll never forget it.”

“Why? Cause she almost got Murdoch killed?” Scott was aghast at the fact he was slaughtering the English language. I must be drunker than I thought.

“Yup.”

“Always wondered what happened to her.”

“Figured she went to Frisco. Least that was what she told me at one time,” replied Johnny, trying to peel apart a pistachio nut he'd found mixed in the peanuts. “That's what she was gonna do with the five thousand McGovern was paying her for.”

“To do what?”

“Get a new start.”

“Ya sure that gypsy is even her?” asked Scott, lifting his glass in the air and swallowing the rest of his cider. “All the face paint makes everyone seem different.”

“Not right now. I can't even see that far,” giggled Johnny, reminding Scott of a girl. He chuckled at the sound. Both boys looked at each other then broke into laughter.

“Murdoch's gonna skin us alive,” stated Johnny, popping the nut into his mouth with the shell partly on. His unsteady fingers couldn't get the hull off.

“Not if we sober up first.”

Both brothers looked at their empty tankards, then at each other and together said, “Naw,” and laughed all over again.

“Sure tastes good,” said Scott.

“Can't get enough of it,” added Johnny.

“I gotta pee again.”

“Me, too.”

They looked around for an outhouse, spying one a few yards behind the bobbing for apple booth. Getting off the picnic table, they unsteadily climbed to their feet. Johnny, out of the corner of his eye, caught the Devil's eye staring ominously at them. Again, a tremor ran through his body.

Grabbing his brother's arm as much for support as to murmur in his brother's ear, “Scott, does that devil remind you of Weir?”

Scott did a quick looksee at the shooting gallery. “Yeah…kinda…”

“Kinda?” whispered Johnny, tightening his grip on Scott's arm.

“Things are a bit blurry right now and ya know Weir's supposed to be dead.” Scott paused a moment. “I'm not doubting ya, Johnny, but you did shoot'im dead? Right?”

“Ya know I did, but we never found the body.”

“Why not?”

“Cause it just up and disappeared. Nearly scared Jelly to death,” chuckled Johnny at the memory. He stiffened immediately when he looked back at the gallery. “He's doing it again.”

Scott, not saying anything, turned around and stared at the man dressed as the Devil in black and white. The man looked like he was enjoying himself at his craft. “Doing what, Johnny?”

“I'm tellin' ya, he's giving us the Devil's own evil eye.”

“I really have to go,” repeated Scott.

Johnny, much to his disgust, found he was still holding onto his brother's arm and instantly let go. He blamed it on the hard cider.   This drink is getting to me in more ways than one. But, damn it tastes good.

Leaving their stuff sitting on the picnic table, they both made a crooked dash for the outhouse again with Johnny getting there first this time. Because his brother made him wait last time, he took his time. He out right laughed when Scott kicked the door and shouted, “Hurry up!”

While Scott was doing his business, Johnny found himself curious about the large building a little ways from the outhouse. A flash through the window caught his eye. He noticed the door was ajar, so he walked over to it. A moment later, he heard the outhouse door squeak open and slam shut. Scott was outside, looking for him. Johnny quietly waved him over to where he was.

“What are you doing?” inquired Scott, coming up beside his brother. “Snooping?”

“No, just bein' nosy,” came the reply, as Johnny opened the door further and stepped inside. “I saw something flash.”

“Johnny, we shouldn't be doing this. It's none of our business…”

“Look at all this junk!” exclaimed Johnny, touching a costume of a knight hanging on a rack. “There must be dozens of costumes for every holiday or occasion.”

“Indeed,” agreed Scott, looking at the many rows of racks with various clothes. It completely filled the left side of the building to the back. On the right side there were many shelves and boxes full of accessories and props.

“Wow! Get a load of this,” said Johnny, picking up a jeweled dagger from an old war chest full of weapons. He carefully looked at all the gems mounted in the handle. “I bet this is worth a small fortune.”

“If it's even real,” snickered Scott, looking at the array of pistols in their own individual cases.

Scott found a pair of dueling pistols and pulled one out of an antique box made of dark red velvet. “Geez,” he whispered in awe, “this must be a couple hundred years old and it's loaded!”

“Well, be careful. It probably has a hair trigger,” cautioned Johnny, as he walked by a full length mirror that temporarily blinded him. The sun's rays were reflecting off the glass and he figured that had been what had caught his attention to begin with.

Leave it to Johnny to know about ancient guns , thought Scott, putting the gun back and reaching for a dusty book titled, Grimm's Fairy tales. Published 1812 . “Appropriate for the day, being Halloween and all.” He thumbed through the book inadvertently moving his foot and kicking a walnut box with leather handles, sitting beside the bookcase. The box resonated with the sound of money inside of it. The noise brought Johnny over beside him. Scott put the tome back on the shelf.

“Now, we're snooping,” smiled Johnny, as he bent down to the box and stopped short of touching it. His smile disappeared when he read out loud, “Property of the Denver Mint.” Slowly he lifted the lid to find hundreds of silver coins inside the strongbox.

“Dang!”

Johnny could barely catch his breath, for he'd never in his life seen so much money at one time. Hands shaking with excitement, he picked up a silver double-eagle and asked, “Ya think they're real?”

Scott took the coin from his brother's hand and studied it. “There's a mint-mark of a ‘D' for Denver. Yeah, they're real.” He dropped it back in the box and Johnny closed the lid. Looking around, the boys found two more boxes, one filled with gold nuggets and the other with paper money and jewelry.

“This gives a whole new meaning to finders, keepers ,” said Johnny. “You don't think all this stuff is just props, do ya?”

“Fraid not,” said Scott, frowning, for he thought he heard something outside. “I think we'd better get out of here before someone finds us in here.”

“Good point,” agreed Johnny, already heading for the door. Slowly opening it, he quickly looked around the outskirts, seeing no one. They stepped outside much more clear-headed than when they went into the building.

Stumbling back towards the midway, for the alcohol was still heavy in their system, Johnny asked, “Why do you really think Murdoch and Val sent that wire for us to be here? You know, as well as I do, since McGovern went to prison, Murdoch and Val always picked up our share of the silver and had it shipped by Wells Fargo to the Sacramento Mint .”

“Yes, I concur with all you said, which was a mouthful brother.” Scott knew the hard-cider was creating havoc with his thought processes. He now wished he hadn't drank any of it at all. “Do you really think that was Tim and Matt we'd seen earlier this afternoon?”

Picturing the Giant in green tights, Johnny burst out laughing, in spite of the seriousness of the situation they were beginning to find themselves in. “Can you believe he was wearing green tights?”

His brother's laughter was infectious and Scott soon found himself grinning at the memory too. Much to their vexation, they found that they were drunker than they thought, for everything seemed funny and they couldn't quite walk a straight line to save themselves. So they put an arm around the other's shoulders and held each other up.

The boys had just skirted the apple-bob stand and were heading towards the picnic table to pick up their beer mugs and Johnny's Jim Beam, when they noticed a whole passel of costumed characters from the midway standing in a group. The midway carneys could be heard yelling and arguing amongst themselves, as they pointed fingers in the Lancer brothers' direction.

Keeping a shitfaced grin on his face and walking a crooked line, Johnny asked Scott, “Ya think they're onto us?”

“Someone must've seen us go in the warehouse.” Scott kept his smile, as each of them reached for their mug and Johnny's whiskey, leaving the pails of food on the table. With their arms still around each other's shoulders, Scott whispered in Johnny's ear, “Maybe we can buffalo ‘em. Act like nothing happened and head to the apple stand.”

“Good plan, brother.”

They bobbed and weaved their way there and went straight to the smoky pail of apple-cider. Scott dipped his mug and refilled his glass, taking a sip he didn't really want. Johnny was having a little trouble, for he had to switch the bottle of Jim Beam to his other hand around Scott's shoulder. Having accomplished that, Johnny replenished his mug and took a swig of the brew, nearly spitting it out.

“Is it my imagination or does this stuff suddenly taste sour?” he asked, still hanging onto his brother. “Or is it because we're skunk drunk?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” said Scott, finally noticing the man who ran the booth was dressed as Johnny Appleseed, complete with a pail of apples on his head. He nudged Johnny in the ribs to take a gander and both of them burst out with gut-wrenching laughter.

They heard someone clear his throat and turned around as one, finding a vast array of Halloween characters glaring at them. Seeing the carneys up close and personal, the boys discovered three of them were who they thought they were, not including the Green Giant and his sidekick, Jack.

“This must be where we say, ‘ Trick or treat ,'” deadpanned Johnny, taking one last swig from his mug, then spitting it out onto the ground, for it really was bitter.

“I much prefer the trick , for we've had all the treats I can stomach,” added Scott, swallowing hard.

“The trick it is, brother. The trick of disappearing.”

Slowly, they unsteadily backed away from the now quiet crowd, dropping their arms from each other's shoulders and their mugs, the glasses breaking, as they did so. (Johnny stubbornly held onto the Jim Beam whiskey in his left hand.) Moving together and not wanting to draw their guns, the boys worked their way to the rear of the small booth and out through the flap of the canvas it was made of.

Concentrating on the mob in the front of them, they were unprepared when they bumped into the Jolly Green Giant and the Beanstalk guy behind them. The Lancer boys each found a beefy arm around their neck, cutting off their ability to speak. A moment later, they found their gun hands pinned behind their back.

A low, deep voice murmured into Johnny's ear, “What part of the word ‘RUN' didn't you understand?”

A voice, not quite as deep as the Giant's, softly asked Scott, “And what part of ‘Nothing is as it seems' didn't ya get?”

The brothers relaxed, then heard the Giant whisper, “Trust me. Now breathe in deep.” Not given a moment to argue, their gun hands were released and a dark cloth was forcibly placed over their nose and mouth. They each struggled for a moment, but it was fruitless. Between the alcohol and the chloroform, they were unconscious in no time flat. Johnny's limp fingers released the Jim Beam. The Giant caught it in the nick of time and tucked the bottle deep into his coat pocket.

 

                                                                        ---9---

“Nothin' like a bump in the road to add to the excitement,” said Tim to his brother, Matt, as they both hoisted the Lancer boys over their shoulders just as the crowd of Halloween creepers burst through the tent opening.

“You caught them,” mourned Weir, the Devil. “I ever so wanted to have a showdown with Madrid.”

“Later!” griped the Pumpkin. “We've got better things to do.”

“Like what? We're all set until Lancer gets here with the marshal,” cackled the Witch.

“What do I do with all their horses?” asked the Warrior.

“Sell them in Brimstone like you do every time,” reminded the Bearded Lady.

McGovern, the Grim Reaper, lost patience, “Look, we've done this at least a half a dozen times. Why is there a problem now?”

Johnny Appleseed said, “We've never had to kill a lawman before.”

“What difference? He's only one man among many and won't be missed for days,” interjected Weir.

“Besides,” implored the Undertaker, “They'll all be dead and very properly buried by yours truly and no will ever know.”

Weir said with a devilish grin, “Just like always!”

“Where's my grave digger?” asked the Mortician / Undertaker.

“Right here,” answered the Dead guy who wasn't dead with a knife through his throat.

“We need four graves dug in Boot Hill Cemetery before morning,” ordered the Undertaker with glee.

McGovern rolled his eyes and shook his head. Then, the Grim Reaper turned towards the Giant. “We'll take the Lancer boys off your hands now.”

“NO!” boomed the Giant. “We caught ‘em and we're responsible for them!”

“What? Ya don't trust us?” asked the Devil, lighting up his cigar.

“Can't say as I do!” bellowed the Giant, looming over the man. “Until we know the ropes and see the scam played out, we'll keep them for leverage.”

The carneys all shrunk back, for they were a superstitious lot and were afraid of the mountain of a man. They were also frightened of the Giant's friend, who was a bit shorter, but mean as hell.

The Giant's counterpart, Jack, spoke up, “Remember, these boys are what's gonna get ya all that silver and make you all rich.”

“True enough,” confirmed the Headless Horseman.

Fair enough,” replied the Grim Reaper, making the Devil wince at the expression. (After all, the Devil is never fair in life or the ever-after.) “But, be warned, there will be the devil to pay if those boys get loose and cause us to lose our prey.”

“Hell fire and brimstone won't be hot enough, if you cheat us!” roared the Green Giant, driving home his own point.

“All right!” shouted McGovern. “Just keep them out of the way until we need them! Lancer is one hard, stubborn man and he won't give up easily.” His eyes glistening with greed, the Reaper cast an evil glance at the unconscious boys positioned over the leafy vegetables' wide shoulders. He boasted, “His sons are his greatest weakness. He'll give up everything for them, including the ranch.”

In his glory, the Grim Reaper swept a view over the cast of Halloween characters, some of whom were terrified of him. “Now, get back to your stations. There are still real visitors to entertain. Money to make. You all know nothing happens till after dark when the witching hour approaches.”

The crowd broke up, going about their business. The carnival atmosphere was once more in full swing.

The Green Giant and his sidekick, Jack, turned to leave. Tim was trying to decide upon a safe place to put his charges and keep them out of harm's way. I can't believe these two literally fell into my arms again. What in the hell are they doing here? Couldn't trust my own eyes when I seen ‘em by the livery. Murdoch's gonna have a fit when he sees them. In spite of the fact the boys showing up unannounced, things are goin' along right well. The boys seemed to be enjoying themselves, acting like two kids at their first carnival. Even got a few laughs watchin' ‘em until they discovered the warehouse. Figures, Mr. Appleseed had seen ‘em go in. Knew it was all over then. Matt's idea of using the chloroform worked well enough. Least wise, we didn't have to hurt ‘em. Can't believe they backed right into our arms. Madrid's instincts must be off. Of course, they drank enough of that hard cider to drown a fish. For the most part, I know'd the boys can hold their liquor. Have to admit, the stuff was damn good. I had a hard time not wanting more myself. I wonder what they put in there to make it so…

The Giant was cut off by the Devil and the Grim Reaper.

“Where are you taking Lancer's pups?” asked McGovern, walking around the giant to the back of him. He grabbed a hold of Johnny's hair and lifted his head, studying his pale face. Weir stayed in front, casting a devilish warning not to move. He followed it up with his hand on the black handle of his gun. McGovern dropped Johnny's head, then went over to Scott and did the same perusal. He let go of Scott's hair and came back around to stand by his counter-part.

“What'd you use to knock them out with? I don't see any bruises on their faces.”

Seeing no sense in lying, Tim said, “Chloroform. Ya got a problem with that?”

“No. But, you just happen to have chloroform on your person?” asked the grim man with a challenging air.

“Since ya hired me to tend your horses and I am an animal vet, I have all kinds of drugs in my bag. You did want these boys in one piece, didn't ya? You do know one of ‘em is a gunfighter? And what the consequences would've been if Madrid would've pulled his Colt?”

The Devil and the Grim Reaper both reluctantly nodded affirmative. “They're our edge to make Lancer give us what we want,” bragged McGovern. Happy with things to come, he slyly added, “They're the key to the ranch. The railroad will pay much to have the land.”

“Shut up, McGovern!” The Devil gave the Reaper a heated glare. He was angry that McGovern had spilled the beans and showed his hand. “We don't even know if we can trust these men yet.”

“That evens the tally,” butted in the Giant, adjusting the weight of Johnny on his left shoulder. His gun hand went to the butt of his Colt, giving a silent message. His brother did the same.

“Okay, all of ya settle down,” ordered McGovern. “Weir, show these guys where we keep our prisoners.”

The Giant didn't like the outcome. He would've rather had the choice on where to keep the Lancer boys. He and the Devil had crossed swords and drawn an invisible line, each making his point known to the other. The game was still in play. Reluctantly, he followed the Devil to his den. 

 

---10---

Scott, feeling a heavy weight on his chest, slowly opened his eyes. He literally panicked for a moment because it was pitch dark. My eyes ! Why can't I see? He brought his hand to his eyes and rubbed them. “Still dark.” His voice dully echoed off the walls, making him start. Not moving his body, he put his hand out and felt the wall to the right of him. Cold, rough, but smooth in spots, and damp. He ran his hand over the smooth surface, coming to an indentation, then followed it around with a finger. Bricks? He inhaled deeply, smelling, smoke ? He knocked on the wall, hearing a dull, solid sound. We're enclosed in something! Oh, Johnny's going to hate this! Hell, I hate it and I've only been awake a couple minutes.

He moved his left hand to the weight on his chest feeling the soft, thick hair and confirmed the fact, in his mind, that the lump was his brother, laying partially on top of him. His legs were bent with his knees digging into Scott's right side, making it hard for him to breathe.

“Johnny.” Even whispered his voice sounded loud to Scott's ears. No answer came from his brother. Scott rubbed Johnny's head with his hand. Getting no response, he moved his hand to his brother's shoulder and rubbed harder. “Johnny, come on wake up.”

Sill no response.

He drank a lot more of that concoction than I did. Glad we got to pee before all this happened. Should've listened to Johnny when he wanted to ‘run'. His instincts never fail him. At least, our stomachs are full. We're not going to starve to death for a while. Where in hades are we?

Once more he explored their prison by sliding his left hand across the surface they were laying on. Cold and smooth. He felt grit under his nails as he moved his hand over towards the stone wall. Along the floor, where the seam met the wall, he felt holes, all the same size, punched into the surface.

Scott stretched his legs out and his feet came in contact with another stone wall. He tapped his boot heels against the brick. Solid. He stretched his left arm out and felt another cold brick wall. Putting his hands over his head he found the same thing. I know the approximate size. Sure feels like a stone box. What kind of box would be made of bricks? I wonder if there's a lid. Trying to move his brother proved futile, Johnny was dead weight unconscious. All he succeeded in doing was making his brother more comfortable with his head now resting below Scott's chin and his left shoulder was tucked under Scott's arm. Johnny if you were a girl, I'd have it made. Scott could easily hear his brother's light snores and feel his respirations. Well, at least one of us can sleep. I dread it when he wakes up.  Once again, he decided to reach for the ceiling. Extending his arms upwards, he reached for the top just brushing the top with his fingertips, feeling more bricks. He groaned. Totally enclosed. And I know the door, wherever it is, is not going to open. Boxed in. Pitch dark and the silence is deafening. If it wasn't for Johnny's breathing there'd be no sound. He didn't have to wait for Johnny to wake up, his own anxiety was working just fine.

 

                                                                        ---11---

The stagecoach pulled up beside the livery, opposite the corral. Murdoch and Val with their gear disembarked off the vehicle. A moment later, Fred handed down the strong box to the men.

“There ain't no bank here.”

“That's all right. We got it under lock and key,” said Val, holding one end of the box. “We'll just put it in the sheriff's office.”

“There ain't no jail either. Burned down last year after the sheriff got killed.”

“Oh, shucks!” groaned Val.

“I'm afraid you're responsible for yer own stuff.” The man jumped down from the stage. “Best place is probably your room until yer sons get here Mr. Lancer.”

Val and Murdoch exchanged glances, both reading each other's mind. Murdoch said, “How'd ya know? I never got a hold of my sons.”

“Oh, I know'd,” said Fred, grinning. “I heard ya talkin' about it all.” He pointed to general store. “There's a telegraph in there if ya want to try again. And the best place to sleep is the Sand Dollar.”

“Much obliged, Fred.”

Murdoch and Val, each holding a handle on the oblong box, started for the street. Looking over to the corral, the men about dropped the box when they recognized their own horses lined up along the fence.

“What in thunderation are they doing here?” bellowed Murdoch, looking around for his sons. Not seeing them, his angry eyes fell on the livery-owner, who strangely resembled a warrior.

“Easy, Murdoch,” cautioned Val, trying not to chuckle at the Warrior's bare, hairy legs. “I'm sure there's an explanation for the outfit and where your boys are.”

Hearing the music for the first time and looking at the other end of the town, Murdoch figured it out for himself. “They're at the fair.”

“Not just any fair,” said the Warrior, “It's Halloween and the town is having fun.”

“Halloween? I didn't even realize it was that time of the year. When did the boys pull in?”

“Around noon, I guess. They stabled their horses and went to the Sand Dollar. That's the last I seen of ‘em.”

                                               

                                                            **********

Murdoch and Val walked through the saloon door and bellied up to the bar after sitting the heavy box on the floor. A man dressed like a wizard greeted them with a wave of his wand. “How can I be of service?”

“I'm Murdoch Lancer and my sons are staying here.”

“Ah, yes, Mr. Lancer. I believe it was a Scott and Johnny Lancer. They're in room thirteen, but they are currently not in.” He pulled out the hotel registry and quickly turned to the last page. Seeing their surprise, he simply said, “I'm a Wizard, I know these things.”

The men all smiled and Murdoch asked, “You got any more rooms?”

“Sorry, full up, but you can stay with your sons for an extra fee. I can have a couple of cots brought up to the room.”

“That would be fine.”

“Just sign here.” The Wizard turned the book around and handed Murdoch the pen. He signed with a flourish and Val did too.

“Just need a dollar to complete the transaction.”

Murdoch gave him a silver dollar and the Wizard gave him the key. “Enjoy your stay. Take in the carnival. In fact, would you like a drink of this wonder apple-cider?”

“No, I think I'll pass.”

“It's on the house. Free wherever you go.”

“No thanks.”

“You Marshal?”

“I don't like cider of any kind, besides I'm on the job,” replied Val.

The marshal and the rancher picked up the oblong box and together headed up the stairs.

“Have it your way…for now,” droned the Warlock, craftily watching the men.

A shadow came up behind the Sorcerer, “I'll spread the word the pigeon is here for the plucking,” grinned the Undertaker.

 

                                                            ---12---

“Are we dead?”

“Do you feel dead?” asked Scott, surprised at his brother's question.  He'd have never guessed, in a million years, those would be the first words out of Johnny's mouth. He bit back a chuckle and was glad Johnny couldn't see his face in the darkness. Might as well laugh as cry, for I don't think we're getting out of here anytime soon.

“It's dark and way too quiet…and…creepy.”

Creepy. Johnny's favorite word when he's afraid of something he can't explain. Heaven only knows why he can't outright admit he fears the dark and enclosed spaces.

“Tell me we're not in a coffin,” moaned Johnny, his pulse racing at his wrists. He could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears or was it Scott's? His hands were clammy and his mouth felt tingly around the edges. “Please say we're not buried six feet under or…something.”

Scott could hear the near panic in his brother's voice. “No. we're not in a coffin.” Try an oven. What else, besides a fireplace, has bricks all around it? I'm beginning to feel like Hansel and Gretel.

“Ya sure we ain't dead?”

Scott smiled to himself. Johnny hadn't moved an inch from his side, nor lifted his head off his shoulder. Truth to tell, there wasn't much wiggle room for both of them to move in any one direction while lying on the floor.  

Scott felt the wetness as the cold sweat dripped down Johnny's face to land on the inside of Scott's collar, covering his neck. He felt the small tremors as they traveled the length of his brother's body. He could hear the shortness of each indrawn breath Johnny took. Johnny was fully awake and reeling from where he found himself. I wish I could say it's from all the alcohol we'd consumed and the after effects of the drug they'd knocked us out with, but I know better. With his arm still draped around his brother's shoulder, Scott pinched Johnny's arm.

“Ow! What'd ya do that for?”

“To show you…we ain't dead,” impersonated Scott, in a scary voice.

“Very funny Scott!” spat out Johnny, abruptly sitting up and hitting his head on the ceiling. “Ow! Damn!” Rubbing his head, he scooted and reclined against the wall by Scott's head.

Got ya going though, didn't it? Scott slowly sat up and leaned a shoulder against the same wall. “You okay?”

“I guess so, considering I'm feelin' hemmed into a place, ya know I hate. Fenced inside a box. My heart's pounding so hard it actually hurts. “Not only that, my head hurts. Dang cider, anyways. Why'd we have to drink so much?”

“Cause it's like church punch. Ya can't get enough of a good thing.”

“Oh, Scott, yer just full of it, ain't ya?” groaned Johnny, now rubbing his eyes. Dark. So damn dark its like being blind again. “Where are we anyways?” He wiped his sweaty face with his shirtsleeve and ran a hand through his unruly hair, stopping at the bump he'd just received.

“You're guess is as good as mine.” Possibly a crematory. How fitting would that be since its Halloween? I'm not giving any hints. I've never seen Johnny panic before, but there's always a first time and I think he's close.

Johnny felt the wall beside him, then the ceiling and the floor. “Bricks? Why'd they put us in a box made with bricks?”

“I don't know.” For the second time in as many minutes, Scott was glad his brother couldn't see his face. I don't want to give Johnny any ideas on what my thoughts are. Heck, I don't want to even believe what I'm thinking. “Why don't you tell me?”

“Maybe because they don't have a jail,” replied Johnny, on his knees, working his way around the enclosure, feeling every brick. “There's got to be a door somewhere. How else did they get us in here?”

“How'd you know they don't have a jail? It could be located off the main street.”

“When we were getting one of our refills, some guy dressed in stripes told me a gang of outlaws burned it down last year. Besides, I didn't see one when we rode into town.”

Leave it to Johnny to notice if there's a jail in town or not. “That makes sense. Why would they need a jail when the whole town is crooked?” asked Scott, exploring the stone wall on the other side.

“Maybe the town was originally abandoned?”

“How do you figure that Johnny?”

“Rimfire is off the beaten path and everyone we talked to along the way of gettin' here didn't seem to know much about it.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, what if this band of misfits just happened to have stumbled onto it and decided to make it their own hide-out? Maybe it started with just a few people and grew in size?”

Scott thought about that a second as he moved along the wall, touching every nook and cranny. “You might be onto something, brother. Look at the characters we already know who are part of the gang.”

“So what do you think their game really is? Steal from the rich and give to the poor?”

“What? Like Robin Hood?” asked Scott, sucking on a finger he just sliced open on the rough mortar between the bricks.

“Yeah, but this bunch is keeping all their ill-gotten goods for themselves.”

“True. Look at all the loot we found in the boxes.”

“And something tells me, that was just for starters.” Johnny slid his nimble fingers along the seam of the ceiling and the wall where Scott had originally propped his feet.   Nothing. Not even a hair of a crack. How'd they get us in here?

“Which is probably why Tim and Matt are here. They must've had to infiltrate another gang.”

“True again. So why do you think Murdoch wanted to meet us here instead of Uppity? And what does all this have to do with them?” Johnny moved his hand over the wall and stretched his hands out in both directions. This has got to be the door. Nothing else makes sense. Maybe the door seals like a heavy plate of iron and the lock is on the outside? Maybe its flush against the brick? Why would you need a heavy plate on a box made of bricks? Reminds me of a fireplace or a wood-burning stove. Stove? Like Teresa's oven at home, but this one's much bigger.

“SCOTT!” The name echoed off the bricks dully.

Scott sucked in a breath. He's figured it out.

Johnny suddenly felt he had to touch his brother. He frantically grabbed for him, coming in contact with Scott's arm. He buried his face in the back of Scott's shoulder, breathing hard and feeling ashamed for being so frightened.

Clenching his teeth so they wouldn't chatter, Johnny inhaled through his nose. Forcing himself to calm down and not understanding why, he felt compelled to let a secret slip out from of his past. His voice was muffled, for his face was still hidden against Scott's shoulder. “My stepfather was a drunk and a gambler. When I was really young, he'd beat me with his belt for some imagined slight. Then, he'd lock me in the woodbin for hours afterwards. He said the creepy bugs could have me. I remember…it being so dark in there…and I could feel them crawling all over me…biting and stinging me. I really thought they were gonna eat me.

“Johnny, how old were you?” softly asked Scott, covering one of his brother's hands with one of his own.

“I think five or six. He was totally afflicted with the means. One time, he threatened to chop me up and use me for kindling. I was terrified he'd reach into the wood-box and throw me in the stove…dumb, huh?”

“No Johnny. Sometimes things carry over from our childhood and affect us profoundly in our adult life. I don't know why it happens, but it does.”

Scott felt the grip of Johnny's hand tighten on his arm. “Do you think they're gonna light this thing?” Johnny's chin was now on Scott's shoulder next to his ear.

“Johnny, do you trust the Giant?”

“With my life.”

“Okay, then. He knows we're here and he'll get us out of here.”

“Why'd he put us in here in the first place?” The question sounded like an accusation with undertones of hurt. “He's our friend. Why would he do this to us?”

Scott broke physical contact with his brother and turned around, putting his back against the wall. He blindly reached for Johnny, found him and pulled him by his side.

“The Halloween gang was right behind us when we came out of the apple-bob booth. Being Tim and Matt were acting their part, they probably didn't have a choice.”

“Yeah, that be true enough, but why'd they have to put us…in here?” Johnny knew he was being unreasonable and persistent, but he couldn't come to terms with his feelings of betrayal.

“Okay then, look at it this way. We're alive and they're not hurting us… yet . We just have to trust Tim and Matt and have…patience.”

“Patience? What's that?” asked Johnny, sarcastically, “And Scott do you think this thing has enough air to last us? Cause if it doesn't, we don't have a snowball's chance in hell.”

“There's vents by the seams where the fire and oxygen have to come up to make it burn. Besides, it's big enough to fit a horse.”

“A whole horse, huh?” Johnny sounded unconvinced.

“It's probably what they used it for when the town was alive and brimming with people. To destroy dead, diseased animals. Cremation hasn't caught on much in the United States.”

“Okay, I get it,” said Johnny, “There's hard rock all around this area and it'd be easier burnin' ‘em than buryin' them. I hope that didn't go for people too.” He noticeably shivered from head to foot. He couldn't control the tremors or stop them and he was freezing from the inside out.

“Well we are out here in the middle of nowhere. Did you see a cemetery when we rode in? I didn't.”

Johnny elbowed his brother in the ribs. “That is not helping Scott.”

Scott felt his brother's disquiet. He squeezed Johnny's shoulder with his hand, trying to reassure him. “Easy, Johnny. Murdoch and Val will be here directly. They'll make contact with the Giant and they'll get us out soon.”

“If it's not within the next minute, then it's not soon enough,” irrationally challenged Johnny, trying to bolster his courage by bringing his temper into the mix. A moment later, he gave up and leaned into Scott's side for warmth and comfort.

“Patience, Johnny.”

“I told ya, I don't have any!” Groaning and leaning his head once more on Scott's shoulder, Johnny softly repeated, “Besides, it's creepy in here.”

 

                                                                        ---13---

“Any sign of them?” asked Murdoch, finishing an apple-fritter. It was the best he had ever tasted.

“Haven't seen hide nor hair of them,” answered Val, holding a half-eaten meat pie in one hand. “Though several people told me they'd seen ‘em earlier.”

The two men were standing at the designated meeting place, in front of the Sand Dollar Saloon.

Val finished the pastry in three bites. Licking his fingers, he continued, “I haven't seen Tim or Matt either. Ya think they're all together?”

“I don't know what to think,” replied Murdoch, taking his hat off and hitting it against his leg. Pointing a finger at Val, he asked, “You didn't drink any of that cider?”

“Nope, but it sure smelt good.”

“I just bet it does,” grumpily replied Murdoch, not liking the position they found themselves in. “Where the hell can they all be?”

“Maybe they're all just a waitin', ya know, out of sight, out of mind.” Val heaved a breath. “The carnival is winding down. Twilight is about gone. The visitors will be leaving and only the townspeople will be here.”

“Then, the real trouble begins. The moon is full tonight. The real Halloween starts at midnight. The witching hour will soon be upon us.”

Both men watched as a witch and warlock lit a candle in each of the carved pumpkins along the boardwalk, leading to the site of the carnival.

Resting his hands on each side of his gun belt, Val, surprised, asked, “You don't believe in that witching hour mumble-jumble do ya?” 

Disgusted, Murdoch waved his hand. “Of course not. But, you remember what Tim told us about how superstitious these people are.”

“Yeah, I remember,” stated Val, scratching behind his ear. “Course, that only included the crazy ones. Not the two ring-leaders.” He paused, thinking what all the ranger had told him. He shivered. “They're as sane as you and I. Then again, look at all the schemes they hatched up and played against all those dead people they killed. Maybe they're crazier than a loony bird.” He stopped talking again and thought of his friends. He was worried. Where the hell are they?

Murdoch finally said, “Come on. Let's go up to our room. Maybe we'll find something interesting there.”

Knowing what Murdoch meant, Val followed the older man into the saloon.

 

                                                                        ***********

“What do you mean you've been robbed?” asked the Mortician, looking stricken at Murdoch Lancer. “My, this is just terrible!” He lifted a shaky hand to his coiffured hair. “Whoever coulda done such a thing?”

“That's what I would like to know,” demanded Marshal Crawford with hands fisted at his sides.  The show is getting better and better by the minute.

An angry Murdoch pounded his index finger onto the desk as he shouted, “I'm holding you personally responsible. I want to know what you're going to do about it!”

“Me?” questioned the Undertaker, dumbfounded. Pointing a finger at Val, he reminded, “He's the Marshal. It's his responsibility to find your silver!”

“All right then!” yelled Val. “I want everybody connected with this here saloon in this saloon in one hour!”

“Ya can't do that. There's a carnival going on,” cried the man in black. “And there's a bon-fire afterwards.”

“The hell I can't!” replied Val, giving him the eye of authority. He turned and headed for the door. Twisting the knob, he pulled it open as he looked back over his shoulder, “One hour and they'd all better be here!” He gave the barkeep a cold, hostile glare, then barked at Murdoch, “Ya coming?”

“Right behind you.”

Once they were on the boardwalk, Val asked, “How'd I do?”

“Fine.”

“Where to?”

“The note says, this way.”

 

                                                                        ---14---

“Johnny you sing that song one more time and I'll brain ya one,” grumbled Scott.

“What, the fence song? Ya don't like it?” He heard his brother moan. Johnny persisted like he didn't hear his brother's groan. He sang a couple more lines, then said, “I just had the strangest dream about that song.”

“When?”

“A few minutes ago when I was napping.”

“Oh, when you were quiet?”

Johnny smacked his brother on the arm.

Scott chuckled, “I'm afraid to ask. What was it about?”

“I dreamt it wasn't written yet.”

Scott snickered and knew the alcohol wasn't out of their system yet.  Shoot, how much of that stuff did we drink? “Go on.”

“I dreamt no one had really written it down and that it didn't actually get published till the mid 1900's. Is that odd or what?”  

“You don't say?”

Johnny whispered, “Ya know'd there's something weird about this place. Nothing is as it seems.”

Scott, sarcastically, “Boy, I just can't guess. Let me see, the Halloween characters, the warehouse full of stolen goods, the place we are now stuck in or the apple-cider that keeps on giving? Next thing you know our horses will be talking to us.”

“What? Your horse don't talk to ya? Mine does.”

“No Johnny, what you really mean is you talk Barranca's ears off.”

“Well, he listens.”

“Only because he has no choice.”

“Humph!”

Silence fell, hurting both their ears.

“How long do you think we've been in here?”

Scott let out a breath in a huff. “How many times have you asked me that?”

“At least, a half a dozen.”

“And what do I say?”

“Think about something else.”

Silence reined once more.

“What do you think they put in the apple-cider to keep us drinking it?”

Scott shrugged his shoulders and realized his brother couldn't see him. “Some kind of additive would be my guess. Whatever it was you have to admit it sure did taste good and I wouldn't mind a cup right now.”

Both boys chuckled at that for Johnny was thirsty too. He kidded, “Well ya know the down side of that?”

“Don't say it brother.”

“I really gotta pee.”

“Dang it Johnny! You just had to say it, didn't ya?”

“What are we gonna do? Ya can't hold it forever.”

“Think about something else.”

“How much air do you think we have left?” Johnny heard his brother sigh again.

“How many times have you asked me that?”

“At least three times.”

“And what did I say?” asked Scott, exasperated. He grinned to himself. The whole conversation was becoming a game. At least he's getting over his paranoia, though I think it's still there under the surface.

“Think about something else.”

“Do it brother!” ordered Scott.

Johnny started singing the ‘Don't Fence me in' song again.

 

                                                                        ---15---

Murdoch and Val crept around in the dark, making it to the saloon called Morpheus. Standing on the porch, they could see a dim light flickering behind the paper-thin shades of the windows.

Val whispered behind Murdoch, “What does Morpheus mean anyways?”

“If I remember my mythology correctly, it means the Greek god of dreams or sleep.”

“What kind a name is that for a saloon?”

“Shh!” responded Murdoch, looking in through a rip in the blind. “I don't see anyone.” He moved to the door and turned the knob. It opened.

Stepping inside, they closed the door and Murdoch asked in a low voice, “How long do you think it'll take them to get the strongbox open?”

“Well, I don't rightly know. As you know'd, we used the best box Wells Fargo could give us with the strongest lock. And to make it harder we cemented the lid in place.”

Murdoch grunted. “That might slow ‘em down. I don't have to tell you once the box is open, the jig will be up. We need to find the boys and fast.”

As they were quietly talking, the men had dodged a desk in the middle of the room and had walked up to the bar. A couple of fat candles burned eerily at one end, casting shadows around the room.

Val read a sign hanging on the main wall behind the bar. “Arms of Morpheus.” Underneath the main title in smaller letters, the caption read, “ Do check in, but you can't check out. ” Bemused, Val asked in a hushed voice, “What kind of a place is this?”

Murdoch grinned, despite the seriousness of the situation, and spread an arm out encompassing the whole room. “I think this is the Undertaker's place of business.”

“Huh? Not just a saloon decorated for Halloween?” asked Val, his eyes opening wide. He could plainly see coffins propped in the corners and pillows with blankets heaped on one round table by a wall. A display of various rosary beads and crosses were arrayed on another table beside it.

Murdoch said, “I think at one time this was a saloon. Probably put out of business by the Sand Dollar across the street.”

“This place gives me the cobby-wobbles. Ya sure that note is right?”

Morpheus is the only word on it. How much plainer can it be?”

Val shrugged his shoulders, “Don't know. Nothing is as it seems around here.”

Hearing the confusion in the lawman's voice, Murdoch replied, “It's written in Tim's own handwriting. He left it right where he'd said it would be, under the wash basin if there was any trouble,” added Murdoch, making his way behind the bar.

“Glad the big guy's stickin' to the plan,” said Val, relieved. “The trouble must be Johnny and Scott landing up here before the invite. How'd ya think that happened anyways?”

“Oh, I have a few ideas,” said Murdoch, walking through the open door behind the bar. “Come on. Time for talk later.”

Val picked up a fat candle and followed in his wake.

They made their way into the back room. Through the candle's glow, they could see empty open crates of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages stacked in one corner.  Piles of pine lumber were leaning against one wall. Tools of the trade lay scattered on the large workbench alongside the far wall. A couple of saw-horses held a finished casket.

With dread, both men walked up to the pine coffin. Holding his breath, Murdoch slowly lifted the lid of the box to find it empty. Both men breathed a deep sigh of relief.  

“That was creepy,” said Val, coining Johnny's phrase. He too, knew all about his friend's fears.

Val held the candle higher and they walked to the back of the room where a short set of steps led to the landing and out the back door. Going down the three steps, they discovered a rickety staircase behind a door on the small landing, which extended deep into the cellar. The underground room was engulfed in utter darkness.

“Oh, hell,” moaned Val, taking a hesitant step down. “Ya think there's ghosts down there?”

“One way to find out,” grinned Murdoch. He couldn't keep himself from smiling, though he had goose bumps on his arms.

“Ya wanna go first?”

“Nope. You're the marshal.”

“Humph. Don't remind me,” quivered Val, drawing his gun. He, carefully and silently as possible, walked down the creaky steps with Murdoch behind him. Near the bottom he went through a rotted board. Murdoch grabbed him by the arms just in time. “Oops, pert near broke my neck.”

Standing on the dirt floor and breathing in a rank, musty odor, the men took stock of their bearings and looked around the silent chamber.

Giant cobwebs as far as they could see with the feeble light of the candle were everywhere. Old furniture consisting of chairs, tables, dressers and even a bed were caught and wrapped within the webs. Empty whiskey bottles, both whole and broken, dishes, beer mugs, kerosene lamps, ash trays and decks of cards were lying in open crates scattered here and there amongst the furniture. A full-length mirror with a risqué picture of a naked woman was leaning against one wall with nature doing its best to keep it covered.

“This place hasn't been disturbed for a long time,” sadly said Val.

“Yup,” was all Murdoch replied and turned around when he stopped in mid-step.  “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Sounds like somebody singing.”

“Here? Where?” asked Val, nervously glancing around.

Silence greeted them. A rustling sound from the back could be heard, sounding weak, then getting louder and louder as it came towards them. Val cocked his gun and aimed at the noise. A moment later a large rat, as big as a tomcat, burst through the cobwebs. It stopped short of the light, his beady red eyes taking in the men. A standoff ensued between Val and the oversized rat with the animal finally taking himself off to hide under the bed.

Val lowered his Colt, feeling foolish. “Least ways, it wasn't a ghost.” Both men, disheartened, trudged back up the staircase and went outside through the back door. Blowing out the candle, Val threw it on the landing.

The full moon lit the grounds before them. As they stepped off the stoop, both men realized they were on a hill that sloped downward to the end of the building. Walking down the embankment, they found a set of double-doors jutting out from the cellar under the saloon.

“Maybe this is what Tim meant?” said Murdoch, with hope in his eyes. “Maybe he couldn't write a full note.”

“Like he got interrupted or there just plain wasn't time,” added Val, reaching for the crossbar that held the doors together. He pulled it out of the rungs that held it in place and threw it on the ground. Together, he and Murdoch grabbed a hold of a handle and swung the doors open. The moon's glow cast a ghostly light into the gloomy interior.

A startled Val asked, “What in the dickens is that?” Totally afraid of the answer, he stared wide-eyed at the red brick monstrosity.

Murdoch, on lead feet, approached the furnace. Swallowing hard and suddenly terrified, he found himself stalling and said, “We are at a funeral parlor, and an undertaker's business. It's a…” He was having trouble getting the words out. “It's a crematory…an oven for cremating dead animals and human remains alike.”

Gathering all his nerve, with a shaking hand, Murdoch touched the device to see if it was hot or cold. To his enormous relief it was cold. But, are we in time?   Did we get back to the room too late? Did we read the note too late? Did we get here in time to save them? He lifted his hands to the bar, but couldn't move. He felt frozen in time. He knew from his soul to the bottoms of his feet they, his precious sons, were in there. Are they alive?

Val stepped up beside Murdoch, understanding the implications of what they had found. He intensely felt the myriad of emotions the older man must be going through. Shoot, my own gut is churning.

“Ya ready?” asked the lawman, then held his own breath.

Murdoch silently nodded.

With their hearts thudding heavily in their chests, both men lifted the heavy bar off the iron plate that was covering the opening. The lid remained flush against the frame. They each reached up and grabbed an iron mounted handle. A moment later the door was pushed into their hands from the inside. They each automatically jumped back as the heavy door fell at their feet with a thump.

In the moon's bright beam, two soot covered faces with blue eyes popped their heads out of the opening. Blinded by the moon's light, Johnny and Scott couldn't see a thing, but they instantly felt the strong arms of their father wrap around both of their necks. And each could hear the sniffles from the marshal as he rubbed their filthy heads.

 

                                                                        ---16---

“Scrub harder,” ordered Johnny, strapping on his gun belt. They'd all brought their gear down the back way from the room at the Sand Dollar and saddled the horses. Murdoch wanted them ready to ride if things didn't go according to plan. The boys' gun belts had been found wrapped around the horns of their saddles and they knew it had to have been the Giant's doing.

“Ya think the Rangers want us out of here?” asked Scott, cleaning his face with water from the horse trough. The soot had a greasiness to it and they were having a hard time getting it off their exposed body parts. In fact, they couldn't. It just smeared the oily stuff over their faces.

“Naw,” answered his brother, as he adjusted the fit of his rig around his slim hips.

Johnny had given up and decided to go with the Halloween spirit since the soot covered their clothes as well. “I guess I'll be a firefighter like ‘em Chicago ones who put out that fire.” Sniffing his shirt sleeve, he jested, “I smell like one of ‘em anyways.” He briefly thought about the Great Chicago Fire in 71.

“Scott, ya remember what started the fire that burned so much of Chicago?”

“Something about a cow kicking over a lantern in a barn on the southwest side of town. If I recall the story correctly, the O'Leary's' denied it.”

“Hmm…I'd hate to be the owner of that cow…” Johnny smirked, for he couldn't help himself, “…talk about scorched milk.”

Both brothers chuckled, then out right laughed, for they were still feeling the effects from the hard apple-cider.

Scott, still grinning, said, “This is useless.” He threw the washrag he'd grabbed from their room into the water, then joined his brother by the end of the trough. “We'll blend in with the night. It might even be useful.” Both boys chuckled anew.

Hearing the mirth from the boys, Murdoch indulgently smiled and shook his head. “How much of that brew did they drink?” he asked Val. Both men were outside the corral, keeping watch under a huge tree. The carnival music could be heard drifting down the street. No other human being seemed to be around.

“Hmm, they really don't know. They lost count after four mugs.”

“I wish I could get some food or black coffee into them. Maybe it would help them to sober up faster.”

Val smiled, “Sorry Murdoch, wishful thinking. It usually goes one drink per hour and ‘em boys had a lot to drink.”

“Yeah, they're still feeling pretty good in spite of everything that's happened to them.” Murdoch was pensive for a moment, then continued, “The boys received a wire supposedly from me. I didn't tell them yet it had to be a fake.”

“That worries me,” said Val, not liking the situation at all. “That means someone wants them here for a reason other than to have a good time.”

“You think?” grouched Murdoch, “We did find them in an oven.”

“Well, there's that. The million dollar question is what are ya gonna do with them?”

“I don't know, but they're going to have to sober up in a hurry. The music has stopped and I think the witching hour is about to begin. Look down the street.”

Val did and didn't like what he saw. As far as they could tell, the whole town had been down at the carnival gathered around the huge bonfire. Now, they were slowly walking toward the Lancers and Val at the corral.

“They must've gotten the strongbox open,” reminded Val, with a hard swallow.

Coming to stand behind them, Johnny asked, “Why do I get the feeling there's more to that box than meets the eye? It's not just the silver, is it?”

Murdoch grunted, “You hit the nail on the head, son. There's regular rocks in there and just enough silver to convict them all for grand theft and possibly murder.”

“Murder?” queried Scott, standing beside Johnny.

Suddenly, Johnny got it. “The warehouse Scott. All that loot we seen. All those props that ain't props, but the real thing. Collected for a long time from innocent people who had the misfortune to make their way here.”

“So, they robbed them and then murdered them,” deduced Scott. “Probably using the crematory to get rid of the evidence.” Both boys shuddered at how close they'd come to almost getting fried.

“Yup,” confirmed Val. “All travelers on a stagecoach wanting a safer place to lay their heads for the night.”

“See,” continued Murdoch. “Brimstone is a tough and rough town with no law or banks to keep valuables or money. Many people picked up their shares from the gold or silver mines located in Nevada and traveled home with it. Brimstone was the end of the paying stage line, being it was on the state line.”

Val took up the story, “And Fred, our amiable driver offered us a better place for the night in Rimfire.”

The marshal imitated the stage driver's exact words that had been said to them, ‘Oh it's a quaint little one-horse town full of peace and quiet. But, it just happens to have a carnival staying over tonight. Ya can relax, have some good food and all the apple-cider you can hold. You know, enjoy yourselves and have fun, while ya wait for your sons to meet up with ya in the morning.'”

Val inhaled, then finished with, “That was the trick. To make the traveler think he was going back to Brimstone in the stagecoach, in the morning, where it began its run for the day.”

Seeing the rapt attention on his sons' faces, Murdoch completed the story. “After all, the stage line begins and ends in Brimstone. But, little did the passenger know, it really was the end of the line here in Rimfire . And the kin of the missing travelers, once they arrived in Brimstone, never knew what happened to their loved ones or the valuables they carried.”

“Kin?” asked Scott. “But, you sent us a wire when we were in Uppity Flats to meet you here and not in Brimstone.”

“It wasn't from me, son.”

“Another bogus wire?” cut in Johnny with a smirk. “We seem to get more than our share of those lately.”

Murdoch frowned, not happy with the implications. “Someone wanted you here for a reason. They wined and dined you until you stumbled onto the warehouse. Then, they had to lock you up to keep you here.”

“Well, that someone is in that mob headed our way,” anxiously added Val. “Ya boys sober enough to earn your keep?”

“What's the plan?” asked Johnny, pulling his Colt from the holster, raring to get started.

“Divide and conquer.”

“Good strategy,” agreed Scott, ready for action and pulling his gun too.

“What are you thinking, Val?” asked Murdoch, taking his weapon out also.

“Well, we're in the shadows of these here trees. They can't see us and they don't have a clue we sprung yer boys from the fires of hell.” He glanced at all their serious faces. “I think the element of surprise is the order of the night.”

Instantly catching onto Val's idea, Johnny asked, “Good plan, but where're we gonna keep them?”

“In a scary place. Right where they kept you boys…in the cellar of the Undertaker's.”

“The cellar's full of cobwebs,” remarked Murdoch, a slow smile appearing on his face. “They probably extend all the way back to the crematory on the other side of the cellar.”

“Yup, they probably do,” agreed Val.

“Creepy,” said Johnny.

Remembering another spider web from not long ago, Scott added, “I hope the bats fly in terror and drop do-do all over them.”

Val chuckled, for he recalled what the Lancer brothers looked like after they'd crawled out of the tunnel. “If there ain't any bats, there's a rat the size of a cat that might just do the trick.”

 

---17---

The plan started off well. The town's residents were scattered helter-skelter in the street and on both sides of the boardwalk as they made their way towards the livery.  Bold as brass, Murdoch stood in front of the corral and waited for the unruly crowd to reach him.

In the lead, plodding ever closer with distinct scowls on their faces, was Angus McGovern, the Grim Reaper and Absalom Weir, the crafty Devil. All the rest of the Halloween characters, including Fred, the stagecoach driver, were spread out behind them with the Jolly Green Giant and Jack the Beanstalk, bringing up the rear.

Johnny, in the shadows by the first building, closest to the bonfire, stuck his head out. The Giant caught the movement and slowed his pace, dropping back a few feet. Jack the Beanstalk / Matt, his brother, did the same. Johnny motioned with his gun hand towards the first victim closest to the Rangers.

The clown, off his stilts, was struggling with the long pants of his costume and tripping over the length. “Here, let me help you with that,” said the Giant, grabbing the man's elbow. Holding tight, Tim turned the man just so and hit him over the head with the butt of his gun. He immediately handed him off to Johnny, who heaved him over his shoulder and took off at a quick pace for the Undertaker's cellar.

The next set of stragglers behind the horde were the acrobats. The man dressed as a lion was the next to fall victim by Matt, who clunked him on the head with his Colt and in turn handed him off to Scott. Another acrobat, garbed as the tiger met the same fate and was given to Val. The Giant took out the bear and quickly followed the others.

Four down , thought Johnny, when he made the dash back and honed in on his next target.

The Bearded-Lady was having trouble walking down the boardwalk in her high-heeled boots.  The thin heels were getting stuck in the cracks of the boards. A moment later, Johnny came out from between two buildings and pulled her hair only to find out she was no lady. An angry bald-headed man turned and grabbed the wig back from Johnny's startled hands.

The bearded he / she started to draw his gun from a hidden pocket deep in his dress, but Johnny was quicker. “I'll do more than snatch ya bald-headed if you don't drop that gun.” Shocked at Madrid's speed, the fella released his weapon, letting it fall to the ground and Val dropped the man from behind with the butt of his Colt.

Smirking, Val softly said, “Ya didn't know she was a he? They're always a guy.” Not waiting for Johnny's answer, Val tossed the man over his shoulder and hurried away with Matt carrying the wizard behind him.

Johnny sneakily followed the group of Halloween characters, in the shadows of the boardwalk. Coming to a large vacant lot, where he supposed the jail once stood, between the bath-house and the Undertaker's saloon, he was joined by all of his cohorts.

“We can grab a few more before they reach Murdoch,” said Scott, trying to see who the last one was at the end of the procession. The Witch and the Gypsy walked by, talking about spells and potions, only a few feet from the side of the building. Scott thought about them, but didn't like the idea of hitting a woman.

The Giant, instead, chose the next victim when he and Johnny joined Spike, the Warrior, in the street. Startled at seeing Johnny free as an alley cat, Spike went for his bloody hatchet. Tim wrenched it out of his hand from behind, and in turn clouted the man. The man dropped like a stone into Johnny's arms. Hoisting him up over his shoulder, Johnny scampered once more for the Undertaker's cellar.

The Rangers didn't have any qualms about taking the women out, for each woman was deep in the mix of thieves and murders. They approached them from behind intent on covering their mouths and running with them to the Undertaker's.

Scott, at the same time, walked up to Johnny Appleseed and tapped him on the shoulder. He had no choice. Fearing if he hit him with his gun, the pail of apples sitting on top of his head would make too much noise. Scott said, “Move and be quiet about it.” The man headed in the direction Scott indicated off the street.

At the head of the parade, the Grim Reaper and the black-hearted Devil had reached Murdoch by the corral. “That's far enough,” ordered Murdoch, firm and intimidating, as he pointed a rifle at the Halloween characters.

They came to a halt.

Looking like he had a bad taste in his mouth, Murdoch said a name, “Angus McGovern.” Spitting on the ground to show his disgust, he then asked, “When did they let you out?”

“Good behavior does wonders, Murdoch,” replied Angus, showing no shame.  

“You and your boys are looking well,” taunted the Devil with his black-handled gun drawn.

Murdoch emotionlessly stared at the man he once called a friend. Yer eyes are cold Angus and your heart is greedy. When did things spin so out of control?   

“My sons,” responded Murdoch, a stormy look on his face, “are none of your concern.”

“Aren't they?” sneered McGovern, exchanging a devilish leer with Weir, “It's midnight Murdoch. Do you know where your sons are?”

Ignoring the question, Murdoch got right to the point. “What do you really want, Angus? Say your piece or forever hold your peace.”

The Devil winced, not liking forever and peace in the same line.

“Where's the silver Murdoch? I know the Nevada Sierra Mine always distributes its shares to the owners at this time of the year. In the past, I've picked up our share of the dust quite often.”

“Times have changed Angus.” Murdoch could almost see the fire flash in the other man's eyes. Well, he is dressed like the Grim Reaper and his counter-part, the black-hearted Devil, isn't any different. How did Weir disappear so easily after Johnny had shot him? There was no blood-trail, but he was gone.

His patience at an end, Weir stabbed his divining rod into the ground and in a harsh voice demanded, “Where's the silver Lancer?!”

The Undertaker backing the Devil, yelled, “We will not be cheated!”

It was Murdoch's turn to smile. “The silver's in a safe place with trusted people. Wells Fargo agents have it with shares from the other owners aboard the Transcontinental Train bound for Sacramento.”

Both the Grim Reaper and the Devil turned and stared daggers at Fred, the stagecoach driver, who was behind them. Fred slowly backed up to run.

“Don't blame your man there,” said Murdoch. “He was duped into believing we had the silver with us…as were the rest of you.”

Not to be out done, McGovern played his final hand, “The railroad will pay handsomely for the right-away across Lancer.”

“And I told you multiple times, I'm not throwing in the towel. Lancer is not for sale!”

“Even if your sons' lives depend on it?”

“Even so,” said Murdoch, with a shadow of a smile. A devilish gleam came into his eyes and he finished with, “And yes, I do know where my sons are.” The bold statement confused both McGovern and Weir.

A woman's scream from the back of the crowd and a bellow of smoke jumbled their thoughts even further, as they turned and stared behind them.

“Looks like Hades has come to claim ya both,” heckled Murdoch, enjoying every second of their incomprehension.

 

                                                                        ---18---

The unattended bonfire in the center of the carnival danced with glee. A wind from the southwest came upon the lowly flames and intermixed with the embers, burning within the stone rim that surrounded them. Together the fire morphed into a colossal column of flame. Hotter and faster it writhed as it overflowed the rim of the pit.

Sparks shot into the sky as the wind fed its kindling. Snap, Crackle, Pop, could be heard as the fire extended itself and latched onto the nearest building. In a matter of a few moments, the dry wood of the structure was totally engulfed.

As the unnoticed fire naughtily spread, things were happening at the back of the group of Halloween characters. Scott had given a small push with the tip of his gun to move when Johnny Appleseed had stopped at the boardwalk. The man reached up and unexpectedly pulled the metal pail of apples down from his head and slammed it onto the boardwalk, creating a racket. Then, he turned on Scott with a paring knife in his hand. Scott kicked the small weapon out of the man's hand and chopped him one in the core of the Apple's neck with the side of his hand, dropping the rotten Mr. Appleseed to the ground.

At the same time, the Texas Rangers were trying to subdue the women. Matt had snuck up behind the Witch and Tim had tucked the beautiful, but not so beautiful Gypsy, into his muscular arms. The women went down fighting. The green-faced Witch bit Matt's finger, making him lose his grip on her mouth. She shrieked like a banshee, giving a warning something was taking place. The Gypsy, who Scott could now plainly see wasn't Anna Baral after all, kicked the big guy in his shinbone with one of her red shoes, causing him to drop his arms from her person and dance around, holding his abused leg.

Both women started to run only to crash into the Headless Horseman, who caught them with an arm around each of their waists. “Whoa, sweeties,” he crooned.  “I gotcha now.”

Scott had Johnny Appleseed's arms pinned behind him with his knee squarely planted in the Apple's back. Watching from the ground, he couldn't help compare the two women the Pumpkin guy held. Kinda like fire and ice. One old and full of brimstone, the other young and pretty, both deadly as a viper, peering from its coil. He sniffed the air, smelling smoke, as he pulled his captive to his feet.

The two women screamed as one, “Let me go!” They yelled even louder when they noticed the fire.

The fire had jumped to the next building of the boarding house and had spread across the narrow street. Its flames licked at the barber shop's roof along with the bathhouse building. On the other side of the street, in a flash, the firestorm was eating at the Sand Dollar Saloon. The whole town was going up in flames with one fell swoop.

Mass mayhem broke out from the mob with each person running in a different direction, rushing to save their belongings. The Pumpkin held onto the women now hugging his neck. The Dead guy, who wasn't dead, came up behind him with a knife in his hand, slitting the Pumpkin's head. Out popped a dark haired man with a mustache on his lip.

Scott let Johnny Appleseed take off for the unknown and joined the Rangers in the street. None of them knew what to think as they approached the two women practically glued to the Pumpkin and his Knife-wielding pal. Friend or foe was the question in their eyes, as the Rangers pulled their guns.

The Headless, now Pumpkin-less Horseman could see the confusion in Scott's and the Giant leafy vegetables' eyes, as the Jolly Green Giant and his sidekick, Jack the Beanstalk, advanced on his person. In a near panic, as he struggled to get the women to let go of him, the Headless Horseman shouted to his partner, the Dead, but not dead, knife-wielding guy. “Show them who we are!”

Pulling out his badge from the inside of his coat pocket, the Dead man exclaimed, “Pinkertons! We're Pinkerton agents!”

                                                            ***********

Johnny had dumped the Warrior in the cellar by the crematory thinking the Halloween characters were all in for a nasty surprise when they woke up. He didn't feel bad for them in the least. Walking out the double doors, he actually smiled at Val in the moonlight as the marshal replaced the crossbar.

“All in a night's work,” grinned the lawman. “Come on, we've left your father alone long enough.”

Johnny stopped moving. “Do you smell smoke?”

Val lifted his nose and sniffed, reminding Johnny of a dog. Johnny chuckled for he found it funny and knew the apple-cider was still affecting him.

“What in the hell is so fired funny?” grumbled his friend, as they turned and started climbing the small hill in back of the Undertaker's saloon.

Shrugging his shoulders, Johnny said, “Nothing.”

“Nothing my ass. You're not pullin' my leg, Johnny Madrid.” He waggled a finger under his nose. “You're still drunk.”

“Well, maybe not drunk,” hedged Johnny. “Just feelin' my oats. All this runnin' around got my blood pumping.”

Val laughed until they came around from the back of the building and saw the Devil and the Grim Reaper holding court with Murdoch.

Pulling their Colts out of their holsters and making their way in the darkness to a copse of trees nearest the corral, a short ways from the side of the Morpheus Saloon, the men eavesdropped on the conversation between Murdoch and the evil specters.

Hearing the last couple lines of their conversation and seeing the devilish expression on his father's face, Johnny thought, Murdoch seems to be toying with the malicious duo. Whispering to Val, he said, “The imp in Murdoch is coming out. I wish Scott could hear this. He'd not believe it.”

Val nodded and added, “He's singing ‘em a song all right…full of malarkey.” He sniffed the air again. “Does that smoke seem thicker to you?”

“Yeah, it does, but I can't see anything past the men at the corral.”

From their position under the trees, they couldn't see down the street and the wide leaf covered branches of the tree made it impossible to look into the sky. They had no idea of the mayhem happening with the Halloween characters just down the way.

It was only when they heard the women scream and what sounded like a metal bucket hitting the boardwalk that they knew trouble was at hand. A moment later, they heard Murdoch's crack about Hades coming to claim the Devils proper. The two men in black looked horrified when they saw the fire sweeping their town. Both men forgot about Murdoch, and ran toward the building that held all of their ill-gotten gains.

Already hot on his heels, Johnny shouted, “I'm going after Weir!” A moment later he disappeared into the smoke, chasing the Devil as he ran down the street.

Val and Murdoch, took off after McGovern who had rounded the Morpheus Saloon on the corral side and headed towards the back of the warehouse. Once there, he mounted a dark bay and galloped into the night.

Val threw his hat on the ground and stomped on it. “Dang it all!” He held up his hand showing an inch between his thumb and index finger, “We were this close!”

Murdoch commiserated, “Well, he's not gonna get far in the dark. Come on, let's help Johnny find Weir!”

Johnny's luck was running both good and bad. He had kept the Devil in sight until he almost banged into Scott, who had seemed spellbound looking at something in the Dead guy's hand. 

Johnny yelled, “Weir's getting away!” The sudden announcement broke the spell and Scott, with the two Texas Rangers, joined the chase. The Headless Horseman, still struggling with the two women shouted, “Where ya stashing everyone?”

The Giant turned and slowed his pace, then bellowed, “In the cellar at the dead man's saloon! Keep an eye on the fire. If it jumps the vacant lot you'll have to get those people out!” A moment later the big guy was gone, running to catch up with the others.

“Sure,” said the Pinkerton agent to his partner. “Leave us to baby-sit these jail-birds. Some thanks we get for putting our life, limb and head on the line.”

 

                                                                        ---19---

Johnny swore to himself Weir had made the mad dash through the vacant lot heading towards the warehouse. That's how I'd do it if I was him. I'd have a horse ready to ride in back too. Then again, this is the devil. McGovern probably does have a horse stashed there, but Weir? Naw. I'd bet my last dollar, and Scott's too, he has a horse somewhere on the outskirts or hidden in the rocks. Question is where?

Johnny made it to the perimeter of the warehouse, almost crashing into his father and Val. The others stopped behind him and all observed the wide open door beckoning them to enter.

“Too easy,” said Johnny in a curt voice, for he felt they were losing valuable time.

“I agree,” said Val, “but there're people in there.” They could plainly see flickering candles and people frantically moving about through the windows.

“Halloween looters?” asked Scott, disgusted. “In desperation they're stealing their own shares.”

“Yup,” affirmed Val. “A couple of us has to go in and roust ‘em out.” He grimaced. “Weir's not gonna be in there.”

“I know,” sniped Johnny, wanting to get a move on. “He's in the rocks somewhere…watching us. I can feel it!”

“Okay, get her done!” ordered Val, pointing to the rocks. “Spread out! Find the wily Devil!” Then in a softer tone, he added, “Matt, you're with me.” The younger ranger, though disappointed but used to following orders, stayed behind with the marshal.

Johnny was gone practically before Val had finished his orders.

With the light of the full moon leading the way in the dark, Johnny, with his Colt gripped tightly in his hand, was able to find a path which lead directly to the rocks above. Smoke was drifting over from the burning town and Johnny was finding it harder to breath. Methodically, he moved up the trail, carefully looking for tracks. In the background, he could hear muffled boot steps as they struck the hard stone. Glancing behind him, he could see the dark forms of the giant with his father and brother climbing the other paths up to the huge boulders.

Coming around a large rock, Johnny found a smooth plateau that stretched to what looked like a small cave. Perfect place to hide a horse and gear. It's dark and…creepy… He unwittingly smiled. Feeling spooked, he crept ever closer to the murky blackness of the opening.

“Johnny Madrid. I'm waiting,” echoed the voice of Weir, making Johnny jump and reminding him of another time and place in a cornfield. No, this can't be happening…again.

“Up here, Johnny!” the voice coaxed.

Johnny looked up and to his dismay he couldn't see anything. All he could hear was the wind's whistle as it blew through the cracks of the rocks, mixing with the smoke to create a foggy illusion in the moon's light.

“Where there's smoke there's fire. Didn't I tell you that once, Johnny?” questioned Weir.

Yeah, ya told me, mumbled Johnny to himself. He batted at the smoky air, trying to get a clearer look ahead of him. He's got to be on top of the cave. What is his game? Does he want another showdown? He jumped the gun last time and didn't play fair. No doubt, he'll do the same thing again. He cocked his Colt and snuck closer to the cavern.

Louder this time, Weir said, “The moment we come face to face, Johnny, count to three and we'll draw…”

Now, he was really spooked. Just like before. All of this is just like before!

“Can you hear me Johnny?”

“Yeah, I hear ya just fine!” hotly answered Johnny, as he dove onto his stomach and lifted his Colt into the air. A moment later, he heard the discharge of a gun, saw a blaze of fire dot the night and felt the bullet wiz by his ear, singeing his hair.

Holding his breath, Johnny returned fire. Bang! Bang! Bang! Breathing hard, he watched as a dark form rolled off the top of the cave and landed in front of him with a hard thump.

Not trusting his eyes, Johnny slowly stood up. With trembling limbs he stepped next to the body. In the shadow of the cave, he couldn't tell if Weir was dead or not. Bending down, he was reluctant to touch him and chose not to in the end. He sniffed, smelling iron, sulfur and smoke. He knew there was a logical explanation for all three, but couldn't wrap his mind around the why part of it at the moment.

“Johnny!” called Murdoch, in a worried voice, making him start.

“Over here!” Johnny answered, standing up and backing away from the body, nearly tripping over Weir's cane laying on the ground.

The southwestern wind blew through the crevices again, clearing out the smoke, as Murdoch, Scott and Tim came up beside Johnny. The full moon's light shone brightly on the tableau before them.

 Peering down at Weir, Murdoch asked, “He's dead this time…for sure?”

Johnny ran a shaky hand through his scorched hair and hesitantly said, “I think so, but, I'm not certain.”

The Giant bent over the dead man, feeling for a pulse. Murdoch studied his son, not liking the ghostly pale coloring on his face or the fact that Johnny's arms were wrapped tightly around his chest with his gun still in his hand. A sure indication something was haunting him.

“You all right, Johnny?”

Johnny remained silent, further troubling his father. Scott stood beside his brother, unobtrusively adding his support.

Tim finally sat up and pronounced, “He's dead. Three bullet holes straight through the heart. Ya did good son.”

Johnny let out a deep breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. “You're sure?” he asked, not taking his eyes off Weir.

“Dead as a doornail.”

Scott picked up Weir's divining rod and kidded, “Maybe you should thrust this through his heart to make sure.”

Johnny gave his brother an irritated look. “Isn't that just for vampires?”

Scott just grinned.

 

                                                                       ---20---

Halloween day dawned bright and clear with remnants of smoke in the air. Most of the town had burned during the night. Smoldering boards and ashes were all that was left. The Halloween characters had all been rounded up and were sitting in a paddy-wagon, waiting to be transported to the nearest jail.

The warehouse with all the loot and two other structures had escaped the fire. Now an army of State officials and Pinkerton agents were busy taking inventory of the stolen goods. The livery on the other side of town had been too far away and the fire never reached it. Surprisingly, the Morpheus Saloon still stood. The blaze hadn't jumped the vacant lot, thereby sparing the Undertaker's domain.

A group of men were gathered, how-be-it reluctantly, in the cellar by the crematory. They consisted of the lawmen, including the two Pinkerton agents, and the Lancer family. Absalom Weir was in the finished pine box inside the furnace with a reluctant undertaker stoking up the blaze. A minister had said his prayers and left.

Johnny could have sworn he saw the coffin's lid raise during the short service and blast fire for a moment. He almost stopped the pine box from being loaded into the oven to have a look…but, lost his nerve at the last second.   What if he's not in there? A few minutes later, it was over and all that remained was the black smoke bellowing out of the crematory's chimney.

Johnny said, as if convincing himself that Weir was really gone, “Home is where the heart is. I hope hell welcomes you home.”

Scott chuckled, then rubbed his head. He had a monstrous hangover. “Well, Johnny, look at it this way. It's the end of a bad dream.”

“More like a nightmare,” refuted Johnny, feeling his hair. If that bullet would've been one speck closer…I would've been a goner. Shaking off the gloom and doom he licked his lips and said, “I really wish I could have more of that cider.”

“You've got to be kidding,” exclaimed Scott, clamping a hand over his mouth and imitating the dry heaves.

“What?” asked Johnny puzzled. “I'm thirsty and can't you fake puking better than that?”

“Who's faking?” asked Scott, looking green around the gills. A moment later he ran for the bushes.

Johnny howled with laughter, for he was feeling fit as a fiddle, until he got a dark look from his father's stormy face. “Oops.”

 

                                                                        ***

A few hours later, when Scott could comfortably sit a horse, the Lancers were by the corral preparing to move out. The Rangers and Val were there to see them off.

“Well Murdoch, we should be back at the ranch in a couple of days,” stated Tim. “Barring we don't run into any complications cleaning up this mess.”

“Amen to that,” spouted Val.

Matt said to Scott, “Tell Teresa, I'm…ah…thinking of her.”

Scott put his hand across his heart and replied, “Well, ya better be. I'd hate to get back there and tell her nothing of the sort…she'd kill me.”

Feeling the fortune card in his shirt pocket, Scott pulled out the gypsy's message. “Don't need this anymore,” said Scott, reading over the card. He looked up with puzzlement in his eyes, “I get the ‘nothing is as it seems' , for nothing was. But, what did ‘ nothing is as it was' mean?”

Tim smiled. “The town of Rimfire. The way it was before the Halloween gang took over. See, at one time, it was a law-abiding place to live. The silver mine gave out and most of the residents moved away. The carnival owner had died and no one claimed the wagons and games. McGovern and Weir met up somewhere and happened upon this place. You all know'd Weir was good at taking advantage of other people's problems.”

The men nodded, for the Lancers' all remembered a boy named Silas Hackett and Weir's claim to his land.

“How'd the Gypsy know which fortune to give us?” asked Johnny, sitting on Barranca's back. “How'd I end up with ‘Run!?'

“A little bit of silver goes a long ways in fandangling things, Johnny.”

Tim shrugged his shoulders. “The rest is history.” He patted Barranca's rump, then suddenly remembered something. “Johnny hold up a second.” Tim went to his own saddle sitting on the corral fence and opened one side of his saddlebags, pulling out a bottle. Coming back to Johnny, he handed him his bottle of Jim Beam . “I managed to…ah…save this when we knocked you boys out.”

“Much obliged,” said Johnny, taking the bottle. “We'll share this some night around a campfire when we're all together again.” He grinned mischievously, “Maybe, we'll even tell Ghost stories.”

A little while later, the Lancers stopped on a hill and looked back at Rimfire. The mirage was still there, but this time, the smoke was real.

“Happy Halloween,” said Murdoch.

“Trick or treat,” said Scott.

“Creepy,” said Johnny.

 

 

~ end ~
October 13, 2015

Everyone have a fun and safe Halloween.
Stay tuned for the next episode, “Blood on my Hands.”

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