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Linda Borchers (Kona)

 

 

Maldecido

Cautionary Note:  If you do not like witches, or blood this is not the story for you. It is written to appease my Halloween spirit.  Happy Haunting, Linda.

Chapter One

"Someone is coming." The old woman's words floated across the darkened room like wind across the dry desert sands.

Shea knelt on the old sofa and pulled the tattered curtains apart, looking at the two horses slowly approaching the house.

"Two of `em, Gam."

The ancient woman nodded as she rocked slowly in her old chair, the darkness hiding her pale face, framed by long straggly white hair and unseeing eyes turned cloudy gray from age.

"They are young."

Shea nodded. "One looks to be hurt. Can we help them, Gam? Just help them?"

"We can not change what is to be, child." The old woman warned. "They were sent here. It is a gift we much accept."

Shea climbed off the sofa and knelt beside the old lady. "But they are so young. Surely you can wait."

"It may be years before anyone strays this way again. I am sorry child. It is as it must be."

Shea returned to the window. She met so few strangers, knew them for such a short time. Someday she would walk away from this house. This house of evil. But for now, as long as Gam needed her, she must remain. As the others did before her.

 

**********

Scott squinted up at the clear blue sky. There was not a cloud as far as the eye could see.

They had run out of water two days ago. Johnny was hurt and they needed water and shelter. Their horses were ready to collapse.

But the hard cold fact was, there was no water for hundreds of miles.  Barring a miracle, they would add to the poor souls who had succumbed to the desert.  More bones to be picked clean by vultures and carrion.

They were returning from a disappointing cattle auction in Barstow. A dangerous trip; but one worth taking, if the bull was only half as good as he was touted to be. Unfortunately, he was far less than promised and the Lancer brothers began their long trip home, tired, angry, and empty handed. Murdoch would not be happy. He was counting on the new bull to improve Lancer stock

Road bandits waylaid them two days out of Barstow. They were relieved of all their money, food and water. Johnny caught a bullet in the left arm. Not a serious injury, but without a knife to dig the bullet out, or water to clean the wound, it had begun to fester.

"Is that a house?" Scott asked, astounded.

Wavering in the shimmering heat some two hundred yards ahead, a weathered shack sat in the middle of dry sand and shale. It appeared intact, despite the sagging shutters and broken down front porch.

"A hell of a place for a house," Scott said. "Who would live out in the middle of nowhere like this?"

"It's none of our business," Johnny replied, his voice raspy from lack of water and the fever that had started burning his body just after midnight. "Let's go."

Scott grabbed Barranca's reins, pulling the palomino back to his side. "We need shelter and water. So do the horses. And I need to tend to that arm. At the very least, we can get out of this broiling sun for a few hours."

"No." There was something in the way Johnny said it that sent a chill down Scott's spine. "That house is maldecido".

"What?"

"Maldecido… cursed."

Scott looked over at Johnny, his mouth dropping open in disbelief. "Don't be ridiculous, Johnny," he laughed, but there was no levity in his voice. "It's the fever, you're not thinking straight. There's no such thing as a cursed house."

Scott caught the look in Johnny's eyes. "I have seen things…" he said softly.

Scott studied the house. An uneasy feeling building in the pit of his stomach. It wasn't much larger than a line shack; one bedroom with a kitchen, he guessed. In spite of its dilapidated porch, and sagging steps, the walls and roof looked solid enough. Beside the house the ghost of a flower garden stood, now only dried, gnarled branches of rose bushes. Suddenly movement caught his eye and he caught his breath. Someone was watching them from behind the tattered curtain in the dust covered window next to the door.

"Did you see that?" Scott whispered. "I think there is someone inside."

"Brujas…" Johnny warned.

Scott looked at his brother. Johnny's head sagged toward his chest, his face as pale as Barranca's mane.

"Look, we've been riding in this heat for two days. I have to get that bullet out. We'll only stay for a few hours."

Johnny's shoulders sagged as he muttered, "Brujas…"

Any thought of turning away was ended when the door slowly creaked open and a young woman stepped out. She looked to be in her early twenty's. Long brown hair hung softly around her face, falling to her shoulders. She wore a shapeless brown dress, cinched at the waist with a rope tie, her feet bare. But it was her eyes that took Scott's breath away. Large round pools of deep black, accentuated by a pure white face, and delicate pale lips.

"We don't have much…" she called, her voice quivering. Her accent was strange, like nothing Scott had ever heard. "But we have water and shade."

Scott nudged his tired horse forward, fighting the urge to gallop away as quickly as he could. But he pulled on Barranca's reins to follow. They needed rest, and the lure of the darkened house and the prospect of water over rode his uncertainty.

"Much obliged." Scott tried to smile, but in truth, he could not shake the feeling Johnny had so firmly planted in his mind.

"Is your friend hurt badly?"

Scott dismounted, walking around to help Johnny down. "We were stopped by road bandits two days east of here, my brother caught a bullet in the arm."

"Bring him inside."

Johnny tried to kick out at Scott, panic rising in his fevered mind. He had seen a place like this, once as a child, near Nogales. His mother warned him never to go near it…men entered and were never seen again, taken by the Brujas.

"Come on, Johnny," Scott batted his foot away and quickly dragged him off his horse, steadying him until he gathered his legs beneath him.

"No…" Johnny whispered, desperate to climb back on Barranca.

Scott wrapped Johnny's good arm around his shoulder and half dragged him toward the porch.

Inside the door, the house was warm and dark. The light from a single candle burned on a side table, the taper never used before. The smell of strange herbs and unusual spices hung heavy in the room. Shelves laden with heavy jars and clay decanters lined the walls.

A long wooden table with two straight back chairs sat near a sink with a pump. A single bed, unmade, sat near a cold pot bellied stove.  An old sagging sofa beneath the single window in the house appeared to be the only furniture in the house.

Suddenly a soft raspy voice called out from the shadows in the corner.

"Shea, prepare the table, child," the voice ordered.

Scott spun on his heel, nearly dropping Johnny. His brother's panic now his. Every instinct told him to run. The door behind him closed slowly, the lock dropping in place with a jarring echo. He wondered if anyone could hear his heart thumping in his chest.

"Over here," the young woman prompted, leading Scott toward the table. "Lay him down here."

"No…" Johnny rasped, trying to pull his arm free from Scott, but there was no strength left in his body. His knees buckled.  Scott scooted him backwards until his backside hit the edge of the table then he was dragged him along the top until he lay in the center. He tried to warn Scott. Tell him to run while he still had a chance. Scott didn't understand. There was evil here. He could feel it. Scott had to leave before it was too late.

Scott's hand was combing his hair back, trying to soothe the fear. But Johnny could feel the trembling fingers. Scott was scared too.

"Its ok, Johnny. I'm going to take care of your arm then we'll be out of here," he promised.

Scott heard shuffling feet behind him and turned to see an old woman moving toward them. Not just old, Scott thought, but ancient. Her straggly long white hair framed a face so wrinkled by age it revealed nothing of what she must have looked like years ago when she was still just old. The feeble light from the candle caught the flat unseeing eyes, clouded by the years.

She moved unerringly toward the table.

Scott's first instinct was to move in front of Johnny to protect him, but Shea grabbed his arm, holding him by her side with surprising strength. The closeness of the room began to move in on him. The smells and the heat made him feel light headed.

The old woman raised a shaking hand toward Johnny's face, her hand as wrinkled as her face. Long bony fingers ended in claw like nails. She carefully moved her fingers over his face, exploring his features.

"So much pain for one so young," she said. "His heart is heavy with regret."

"Johnny!" Scott was truly scared for his brother now.

"Child," the woman ordered, "undress him."

Shea nodded and pushed Scott back until he lost his balance and fell into one of the kitchen chairs.

"Stay here," she ordered, and he found he was too weak to disobey her.

He watched in fascinated horror as the young woman pulled a double bladed hunting knife from a drawer beside the sink and began to cut away Johnny's clothes. First his shirt then his pants. She pulled his boots and socks off leaving him with only his long johns which she cut off above his knees.

The old woman walked past him carrying a glass filled with dark liquid.

"What is that?" Scott demanded, his voice sounding hollow to him.

"Something to take away your brother's pain."

"He doesn't like taking medicines," Scott said, wanting to snatch the vile looking concoction out of her hand and smash it against the wall. But he couldn't find the strength to move.

"Hush," the old woman whispered, her voice seemingly coming from all directions in the over-warm room. "I will take good care of your brother."

Shea lifted Johnny's head up and the old woman slowly dribbled the entire contents of the glass down his throat, using her long claw like fingers to massage his throat as he struggled to keep from swallowing. Suddenly his body stiffened, his eyes meeting Scott's for just a moment, fear and regret retreating as he sagged against Shea's arm and his body went limp.

Scott swore at his own inability to move. Darkness moved in until all he could see was Johnny laying on the table and the old woman leaning over him.

She turned his arm, unwrapping the bandage so she could see the wound, and plunged her index finger into the bullet hole, her long fingernails digging through flesh until it located the bullet and drew it out. She lifted it to her face and turned the bullet in her fingers studying it with unseeing eyes, feeling the glistening blood on her hand, Johnny's blood. She sniffed at the blood, smiling.

Scott watched, caught in a nightmare of disbelief. He fought back the bile as the old woman rubbed the blood into her hands, the red pigment disappearing. As she did so, old hands became young. She reached down and squeezed Johnny's arm, forcing more blood to run from the open wound. She waited until her hands were filled to the brim with glistening blood then watched as her dry withered hands soaked up the blood, long claw-like appendages turning to subtle soft fingers. Hands that looked older than time itself grew soft and feminine.

The old woman smiled. "He is the one," she said, her wrinkled face beaming with pleasure. "At last, I have found the one."

Scott's senses began to fade. He could not believe what he was seeing or hearing. He tried to rise, tried to get to Johnny but the world was spinning away from him.

"Bind the arm." The old woman ordered. "I don't want to waste a precious drop. Soon, my dear, you will be able to leave this place. I will no longer need you. With this blood I will live another hundred years. Now hurry, I must prepare. In a few days I will be young again.  Soon I will see the sunshine for the first time in seventy-five years.

The old woman disappeared into the dark shadows. Shea began binding Johnny's arm. She had never actually seen Gam replenish herself with a human's blood. She had only watched her age toward oblivion. In twenty-five years she would have ceased to exist. Now she would start anew. She looked down at Johnny. Was the sacrifice worth it? A young life for an old one?

But there was no need for conjecture. She didn't have the strength to fight the old woman. Before the new moon rose in the heavens both men would be dead.

 

Chapter Two

Sometime later, Scott wasn’t sure exactly how long, he awoke, feeling languid and disembodied. He’d had a dream, a terrible dream. Disjointed memories floated through his mind; flashes of Johnny pleading with him not to enter the house…an old woman, older than time itself, hovering over his brother. Blood…blood everywhere.

He hated the kind of nightmares that were so intense, so lifelike, that they stayed with you long after sleep gave way to wakefulness.

But as his memory gradually grew more alert, he realized that the fractured dreams, the flashes of horrid recollections were not evaporating. In fact, they were coalescing into solid memories.

Suddenly Scott was struck dumb by shock and fear. What he had seen, what he had experienced was not possible, but all too real.

Listening for a sound other than his own frightened breaths, he heard the faint echo of water dripping nearby. He was lying on his stomach, his left arm pillowing his head. The air was cool and damp, with a strong smell of mold. The floor beneath him was hard and sucked the warmth from his body. Pitch blackness surrounded him.

Where was Johnny? Was he still alive? His last memory of his brother before darkness consumed him was watching the old woman hovering over his unconsciousness body, washing Johnny’s blood into her gnarled hands. He squeezed his eyes closed, trying to rid his mind of the ghastly sight of Johnny’s blood pooling in her hands.

He had to find him. He clambered to his feet, his head still groggy, and felt the snap of metal around his right wrist and heard the clank of a chain echoing into oblivion. He was shackled. Fear edged towards panic. He stood motionless, drawing in deep breaths. He had to control the madness. For Johnny’s sake…

If Johnny was still alive...

Slowly he dropped back down to his knees, sweeping his left hand out along the cold floor, his fingers feeling pockets of cold water collecting on the uneven surface. He made a complete circle at the end of his tether. Nothing. He had expected to find a wall, something to tell him how big his prison was.

Then he heard it. A soft moan, weak and filled with pain. He listened, holding his breath. There it was again.  To his left.

“Johnny!” he hissed, his own voice ragged.

He heard nothing, just the constant drip of water.

“Johnny! Can you hear me?” He stretched as far as he could, feeling the iron cuff around his right wrist bite into his flesh. But he found nothing.

Fear eating at his gut, he sat back down, blackness crowding in on him.

*****

Scott hadn’t realized he had dozed. He lifted his head off his chest slowly. Something had awakened him.

“Johnny…?” he whispered.

Nothing. He pushed back at the fear that was threatening to overpower him.

Then the sound of something heavy scrapping on stone. He drew in a breath, feeling the desperate need to hide. But he was trapped, chained like an animal.

Memories of Libby descended on him like a hungry beast. He stifled a cry and wrapped his arms around his knees. But he wasn’t alone this time. He wasn’t fighting for just himself. Johnny was here. His brother needed him.

A shaft of light widened in the blackness to his right, growing as a heavy door slowly opened on rusty hinges.

He shielded his eyes, the light piercing his temples.

Slowly he lowered his hands as he watched a figure slip into the room behind a lantern. His prison came into stark relief. Rock walls glistened in the flickering light, slick with moss and seeping water. He was in a cave, six feet tall at its highest, vast in its width. Blackness loomed in front of him and to his left.

As the figure cautiously approached, Scott recognized the young woman, her luminous black eyes opened wide with fear.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice trembling, “I forgot you could not see in the dark.”

She shuffled sideways in front of him, beyond his reach, the light from the lantern eaten up by the darkness behind her. How big was this cave?

“Where are we?” Scott asked. He tried to keep the fear and anger from his voice. The young woman looked uncertain, ready to bolt like a frightened deer.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

Scott shook his head. He felt the gnawing of hunger deep in his belly, but he didn’t trust her. He could last on just the water that was here in the cave for several weeks if need be. The thought brought new fears; no one knew where they were. No one would come looking for them. He pushed the thought back. He needed to keep focused. He had to know where Johnny was.

“Where’s Johnny?” He moved his arm and the clank of the chain unsettled her.

“I’m sorry for the chain. But Gam thinks its best. You could hurt yourself down here.”

“Johnny?”

She lifted the lantern and the light spread, falling across Johnny’s body not ten feet away. Scott froze. Johnny lay as he had last seen him, wearing nothing but the cut off long johns. Even in the feeble light of the lantern he could see Johnny’s face, pale and drawn.

A bandage encircled his left arm, but below the cloth he saw several round puncture wounds, crusted over with dried blood. What had they been doing to him?

“He needs a blanket,” he heard himself say, his voice hollow.

“Gam wants him to stay cold. He bleeds less afterwards.”

“After what?” Scott looked up at her, incredulously. “After what?!” he demanded.

The young woman stepped back, her hand shaking.

Scott crawled toward his brother, the chain jerking him to a stop, his hand just inches away from Johnny’s bare foot.

“Is it money you want?” he asked. He couldn’t take his eyes off Johnny. He lay there, quiet as death. Dark circles had formed beneath his eyes, a haunting contrast to his pale skin. His chest barely moved beneath his slow shallow breaths. He was still drugged. He remembered the vile concoction the old woman forced him to swallow.

“Money means nothing to Gam,” she answered.

“Then what?” he asked, turning to look up at her. She was trembling. This was not what she wanted. But Scott knew instinctively that she had no choice. She was as much a prisoner here as Johnny and himself.

“Life,” she answered dully. “Gam wants her life back.”

Scott sagged back on his ankles. Nothing made sense. This was a nightmare, and by all rights, he should be waking up right now. But this was no dream.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“You will, soon.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I was chosen.” As she spoke, Scott could see the hurt cloud her eyes. “I was fourteen. Gam summoned twelve girls from our village. Only one would survive. The unlucky one would live.”

“For what purpose?” Scott asked.

“To care for Gam until the right one came along to replenish her.”

Scott looked toward Johnny.

“I still don’t understand…”

“It is not for you to understand… Yet.” The old woman walked into the halo of light cast by the lantern, her voice like sand rasping against metal. Her sightless eyes stared straight ahead. “Shea is young. Time will teach her to hold her tongue.”

“Then you explain it to me,” Scott demanded.

The old woman smiled, and his blood ran cold. Pure evil stood before him.

“I have waited seventy-five years for the likes of your brother to come along. He nourishes me with not only his blood, but his life force. He is alive like none other I have touched. He embodies both good and bad. He teeters on the edge. So close to the bad, but grounded by the good.”

“What have you done to him?” Scott glanced back toward Johnny, his body shivering with the cold. There was a blue tinge to his trembling lips.

The old woman laughed, the sound echoing deep into the cave, sending waves of fear through Scott’s very soul. “It is what he has done for me.” She raised her arms, pulling back the gray sleeves of her frock, revealing smooth, young arms. Gone were the wrinkles of age, the misshapen knuckles and bony wrists. Firm pink skin replaced putrid gray flesh.

“Your brother will make me young again.”

Scott’s head swung toward Johnny. His head rolled back and forth, consciousness returning.

The old woman nodded toward the girl. “Shea, prepare him.”

“No!” Scott jumped to his feet, the chain jerking him back. “No…Leave him alone.”

 

*****

Johnny felt Teresa’s small gentle hand touch his cheek, her fingers pressing against his shivering lips. Her delicate touch warmed his skin, pulling him from the cold depths of his dreams. A nightmare like none other he had ever experienced.

It was just good to be home. At what point had he passed out? He would have to thank Scott for riding them out of that desert. Stupid mistake, getting waylaid by those road bandits and then to get shot on top of it. It was a miracle they got out of the desert in one piece.

But there was a nagging feeling beneath the comfort. All was not as it should be. Teresa’s hand was gone and a coldness was creeping through his body. He started shivering uncontrollably. The soft mattress of home vanished, replaced by a cold hard floor. The pillow beneath his head disappeared.

He tried to drag his eyelids open, but they felt as heavy as his arms and legs. He couldn’t move.

Maybe he was dead already. Buried beneath the cold ground. The thought scared him, but his addled mind accepted it as fate.

Someone touched his left arm, lifted it and repositioned it. The small movement hurt and he moaned out loud.

Somewhere in the distance he heard a voice he knew…He struggled to lift his heavy eyelids.

Something was wrong. Very wrong. The chaotic black nightmare jelled into a solid memory and he froze.

“Madre Dios,” he whispered. “No…”

He heard a voice close to his ear, like wind-blown sand across desert rocks. “Relax, child. Don’t be frightened.”

“Johnny, no! Don’t listen to her.” That was Scott, his voice filled with panic.

“It will be over in a few minutes.” The voice promised, “Then you can rest again.”

Johnny tried to roll away from the voice, but there was no strength in his body. He struggled to drag his heavy eyelids open.

Cold panic seized him, plunging him deeper into the nightmare.

An old woman hovered over him, her smile revealing black, rotting teeth. Her breath reeked of decay and death. He tried to look away, but his eyes were drawn back to the hideous features, the wrinkled gray skin, the unseeing eyes.

“No…” he whispered.

“Relax. Accept what is to be. Each day I will come for you. Each day I will grow stronger.”

He felt a sudden stab in his arm and he looked down to see the old woman’s fingernail, as sharp as a talon, disappear into his arm. He gasped at the pain, then watched as she removed her nail and his blood started to drip in a steady flow into a waiting bowl.

“No…” he whispered again.

The stench of blood filled his nose. He felt its warmth as it flowed over his cold arm. Cold, clammy sweat covered his forehead. He heard Scott again, calling his name. Sounds mingled together into a cacophony of mindless noise. He tried to hold on, but the old woman’s face blurred…He was getting sick to his stomach as the world seemed to slip away from him and he was falling backwards, head-first into oblivion.

Scott yanked at the chain until his wrist felt like it was ready to snap.

“Johnny…!”

Shea crawled around to Johnny’s head. She looked back at Scott, her eyes imploring for help. She had never been at a blood letting before.

This was the moment she had been waiting for all her life. The end to her prison. Salvation from the endless days of watching the old woman grow older and weaker.

This is why she was the chosen one. But she never expected it to be like this.

She reached a tentative hand out to touch the man’s cheek. His skin was so cold. His very life was being drained from him. But she didn’t have the strength to help him. Gam was too strong. Her moment of rebirth too close.

“Turn his head,” The old woman ordered.

Shea’s hands disappeared into a mass of black hair as she turned his head before he retched and vomited bile.

“Enough for today,” Gam said, pressing her fingers against the puncture until the blood stopped.

Carefully the old woman climbed to her feet, her old legs shaking beneath her.

“Let him rest until tomorrow.” With that, she lifted the heavy bowl, and shuffled toward the door.

 

Chapter Three

Scott slumped to the ground. He felt like he was teetering on the very brink of insanity. What else could explain what he had just witnessed?

He watched Shea do what she could for Johnny. There was a gentleness to her touch as she wiped his face clean with the hem of her skirt and brushed his hair back off his forehead.

"He needs water," Scott called dully.

Shea shook her head. "Gam wants his blood pure."

"He'll die of dehydration."

Again Shea shook her head. "Gam says…¦"

"I don't give a damn what Gam says!" Scott shouted. "He needs water. Now, give him some."

Shea scrambled over to the wall, letting the dripping water fill her cupped hands, then returned to Johnny, drizzling a little of the water onto his lips until they parted and he eagerly drank.

Scott watched her and felt a pang of guilt. This girl was scared to death. Her huge black eyes shined from unshed tears. She was defying the old woman, perhaps for the first time in her life.

"Where are we?" Scott asked, trying to hide the tremor in his voice.

"Beneath the house," she answered, her hand gently caressing Johnny's cheek. She leaned down closer, letting her lips brush his forehead.

"This water, this cave, I didn't know it existed. How…in the middle of the desert?"

"Gam says there was once many of these caves thousands of years ago. The land was fertile and green. Then there was a great upheaval, all but this cave collapsed. The desert replaced the lush plants with miles of endless sand."

"The water?"

"An aquifer.  But it is drying up. It won't be long before there is no water here too."

"Is that door the only way out?" Scott lifted his face, feeling the cool motionless air. When the door was opened, he had felt a draft of air coming from the darkness beyond Johnny.

"I don't know. I only come down here for water. It frightens me."

"Not surprising. It scares me to death." Scott chuckled. He saw the flicker of a smile on her lips. "How long have you been here with Gam?"

"A long time. Almost as long as I can remember."

"Has anyone else ever visited?" Scott had to laugh silently at the word visit. Hell, they were prisoners. Right down to the ball and chain.

Shea shook her head. "You two are the first. I've waited so long, now…" She shifted her eyes away from Scott, I mustn't stay." She jumped to her feet. "Gam will be needing me soon."

"When will you be back?" Scott grabbed her wrist, harder than he should, he knew, but he felt desperate to keep her here as long as he could. He needed to hear her voice, to feel her presence. She was his only connection with the world above this cave.

Shea froze. The warmth of his hand on her wrist was like nothing she had ever felt. It scared her.

"Tomorrow," she stammered, prying his fingers loose, "I will try to bring you food."

"And Johnny?"

She shook her head. "I told you…"

"I know…his blood must remain pure."

"I'm sorry." She closed her eyes, fighting back emotions she had never experienced before. She knew this was wrong. To end the life of someone so young…so loved by his brother, to save someone so old, so evil. But she didn't have the strength to fight Gam.

She fled for the door, disappearing into the blackness.

Scott lowered his head. The darkness moved in closer, taunting the circle of light that kept the blackness at bay.

He picked up the lantern and moved it closer to Johnny, noting how light it felt. A pang of fear squeezed his stomach tighter. The lantern oil would be used up in a matter of a few short hours. Then the complete blackness would return.

"Johnny," he whispered.

He waited, knowing Johnny could not hear him.

How could this have happened? It defied all logic. He was college educated, brought up in the best schools. He knew witchcraft and sorcery were flights of fancy, stories written to scare the faint of heart and make even the hardiest souls tremble with fear.

But here he was, watching his brother die before his eyes. Seeing things that were impossible, cruel, evil things that jeopardized his sanity.

"Johnny," he whispered again, desperate to hear his brother's voice.

But Johnny lay still as death. His life giving blood stolen from him. Scott shuddered. The cold once again seeping into his muscles, robbing him of lucid thoughts.

He turned the wick down in the lantern as far as it would go without snuffing out the flame and laid down on the cold stone floor, reaching his hand out, only inches away from Johnny's foot.

"I'll get us out of this, little brother, I promise. Just hang in there."

Exhaustion dragged him toward sleep before he could hear Johnny's faint words.

"I know, Boston. I know."

********************************

The old woman caressed her grotesquely wrinkled legs, massaging Johnny's blood deep into her flesh, feeling the glory of youth return to wizened limbs. Putrid gray skin turned soft and pink, weak muscles grew strong, paper thin bones became straight and solid.

"Soon," she whispered, her voice as cold as death, "I will be young again."

With unseeing eyes she waltzed across the room. How long had it been since she could move with such grace? The boy was her salvation. Stronger than she could have ever hoped possible. With his blood she would stay young for a hundred years.

"Two days hence," she smiled, "I will see what he has given me."

"Gam…?" Shea's frightened voice called from the darkened corner. "What do you mean?"

"Tomorrow he will return the beauty I lost years ago. The following day his eyes will allow me to see what I have missed for seventy-five years."

"No!"

The old woman turned on her, black teeth bared like a rabid dog's. "You dare to tell me no, child?"

Shea retreated further into her corner.

"Perhaps I should use your eyes instead? Beautiful black eyes. So lovely, like a frightened fawn. You say yes, child, and I will spare him his eyes. Can you make that sacrifice?"

The old woman dragged Shea into her arms, her body reeking of rotting flesh. Shea struggled to free herself, terrified, never had Gam ever touched her. She cringed at the foul odor of her breath as she uttered her words of warning, "Do not grow to like those two young men down there. Their fates have been written."

++++++++++++++++=

The darkness was total, absolute. Johnny lay on the wet rock floor, his whole body shivering from the cold and the terror that threatened to crush him. He tried to shift away from the freezing water beneath his back, but an explosion of throbbing pain in his left arm nearly took his breath away.

He lay perfectly still. Afraid of the dark, afraid of the pain.

He opened his eyes wide, trying to see a hint of light somewhere…anywhere. Nothing. Just utter blackness.

He suddenly remembered the old woman. How she hovered over him, the stench of her breath, the feel of rotting flesh. The pain of her talon- like fingernail, and then the warm rush of his own blood.

He heard a low moan of pain and fear, and realized it was his own.

This couldn't be real. This was some kind of bizarre nightmare.

He remembered Scott yelling for her to stop.

Scott!

He tried to lift his head, desperate to find his brother…but fever and blood loss depleted every ounce of strength from his body.

"Scott!" he yelled, but only a thin rush of air crossed his lips.

****

Scott awoke to the same blackness. The sound of the water dripping echoed like torture in his ears, pounding in his head.

Stretching behind him as far as his chain would allow, his fingers just touched the water.

Patiently he waited while the cold water ran down his fingers to fill his palm, then slowly drew his hand back, sucking the water into his parched mouth.

Again and again he refilled his palm until he could not take another drop.

"Johnny, you doing ok over there?" he asked, knowing he was not going to get an answer.

When he heard a soft moan he nearly yelped in surprise.

"Johnny…?" he asked hesitantly, too afraid to hope, "…can you hear me?"

"Yes," came the labored answer. "I just had me one hell of a nightmare." Johnny's voice so weak Scott could barely hear it.

"I'm afraid I'm having the same nightmare, brother."

"…How…?"

Scott pulled his knees up to his chest, the sound of the chain echoing into the vastness of the black cave. "I wish I knew, Johnny. This doesn't make sense. None of it. And yet it's happening."

"How long?"

"This will be the third morning, I think."

Scott waited while Johnny digested the information. He heard the weak scuffle of arms and legs moving on the cold stone floor then Johnny's sigh of resignation. "I can't move."

"You've lost a lot of blood, you need to rest."

"Where are we?"

"In a cave below the house. I think there may be an elaborate system of caves and tunnels down here. If we can get free we may be able to find our way out."

"Sorry, Scott." Johnny's voice had a frightening ring of finality to it. "I ain't going nowhere."

"Well, I'm not going without you.”

"You have to. You get out and send for help."

Scott looked into the blackness, eyes wide, trying to see a hint of light somewhere. Nothing. "It's a moot point at the moment anyway. Not unless I can break this chain." Scott rattled the chain for Johnny's benefit.

 

Scott sat motionless, listening to Johnny's labored breathing. Exhausted, the younger Lancer had drifted back to sleep, leaving Scott alone in the darkness.

He tried to make sense of the unexplainable. The helplessness of it all weighed heavy on his shoulders. He had ignored Johnny's warnings. Thought his brother was guided by a history of superstition, ingrained from years of living in the border towns. How naive and closed minded he was. He remembered listening to the stories of the undead in the Old Quarters of New Orleans, and dismissing them as nonsense. Heard maritime tales, told over a mug of grog, of ghostly pirates and the luring sirens of the open ocean. How many of those were the manifestations of an overly active imagination, and how many were real? And what would happen, if they survived this ordeal, when he told this story?

The sound of the heavy door opening startled him and he jerked his head up. A lantern bobbed toward them, the sound of light footsteps grew closer. Shea had returned.

But the grotesque face lit by the lantern was not Shea's.

The old woman smiled, her shriveled lips parting to expose rotting teeth. She came to stand above Scott, reaching a long slim hand toward him.

"Beautiful…" she said, her voice as cold as death itself, "so strong, so full of life. I have longed for this for seventy-five years." She slowly lifted her skirt, revealing young, supple legs.

"Look…" she hissed, "look at what your brother has given me. Soon I will be renewed, young and beautiful. I will return to the life I was promised. I will feel the sun touch my face, feel the wind through my hair." She ran her slim fingers through straggly white hair, clumps of it falling out, entwined between her fingers "I will see youth and beauty when I look in the mirror."

She looked down at Johnny, “Today I will feel the beauty of youth personified. Tomorrow I will see it.” She leaned down, her long talon like fingernails tracing circles around Johnny’s closed eyes. “I knew the moment I felt your presence, that you were the one.”

Scott climbed to his feet, his legs leaden from the cold. “Leave him, please. Take me instead. He won’t survive another night like this.”

The old woman looked up at him, her malevolent smile turning ghastly. From deep in her chest a laugh rose, maniacal, echoing through the cave, pounding against Scott’s eardrums.

“Please take me instead,” she cackled, “Please take me instead…you fool, don’t you know that it is your brother who is the lucky one? Soon his pain will pass, but I have other plans for you. My new body, young and healthy, will be eager for satisfaction.”

 

Scott took an involuntary step back, the chain heavy around his wrist.

He saw Shea pass before him in a haze of disbelief and terror. She handed the old woman the bowl and once again she filled it with the blood that was rejuvenating her.

Scott couldn’t move, he could only stand, watching her steal Johnny from him. And after he was gone…

The old woman stood, holding the bowl close to her breast…”Tomorrow, tomorrow I will be whole. Tomorrow will be your turn.”

She turned and disappeared into the darkness.

Scott dropped to the ground, dazed. Would there ever be an end to this nightmare?

 

Chapter Four

Scott had lost all track of time.  Day and night merged into one continuous nightmare of fear and pain.  His body shivered from the bone-numbing cold.  His clothes were constantly wet from the damp air and wet floor.  Hunger gnawed at his stomach, and the cuff around his right wrist dug into his swollen flesh.

He reached forward with an unsteady hand and raised the wick on the lantern.  He kept it low, just enough to keep the wick lit, until the darkness became unbearable, and the need to see Johnny overwhelming.  He knew what he'd see, nothing had changed in days, but he needed the comfort of knowing that Johnny was still nearby. Still clung to life.  Where there was life, there was hope.

As the light drove the darkness deeper into the cave he saw Johnny, and his heart sank.  The man he remembered, strong and agile, quick to laugh and just as quick to anger, didn't exist here in this cave.  Instead, a shadow of Johnny Lancer lay on the ground, his body trembling from the cold.  Nearly two weeks of beard covered his hollow cheeks, his color was almost chalk white. His short labored breaths seemed more and more difficult. Was he being selfish, praying for Johnny to hang on?  Was he just too afraid to be alone?

The last bloodletting had been the worst.  Johnny didn't move, didn't try to fight, just watched the old woman hovering over him, until his eyes had rolled back in his head, unconscious again.

How long ago had that been?  Yesterday, two days? Scott scrubbed his chin with his hand. His beard had turned from rough stubble to soft beard.

How many days ago had he ignored Johnny's warning?  If he had listened…would they have found water?  Or would they have died out there anyway.  Four days out of Barstow, two of those days without water, without any real hope of finding any in time.  But even dieing of thirst would have been far better than this hell.

He thought of Murdoch. A week overdue…He could imagine the first couple of days of uncertainty, then outright worry. Murdoch would be searching for them by now. He would have backtracked to Barstow, found that they left…and simply vanished...

Suddenly a new sound drifted down from the house above, faint at first then growing louder, echoing through the cave, vibrating the air, growing stronger until it shook the walls.  A shrill unnatural chant. It penetrated Scott's mind, the rhythm pushing against his chest, trying to alter the beat of his heart.  The words, unintelligible, but just on the cusp of understanding, burrowed themselves into his mind, unleashing grotesque images of Gam's face so close to his.

Bile rose in his throat at the memory her of her rotting teeth and fetid breath. Her unseeing eyes raping him. Consuming him with her evil.

The chanting grew louder, the damp stone floor beneath him trembled with the noise.

The lantern flame flickered with each word.

He heard Johnny gasp, his chest heaving to draw in a breath.

Even in sleep, Scott knew he heard the chant, drawing him in, filling his mind with the images Scott fought so desperately to hold back.

"Johnny!" he shouted, his voice barely audible over the waves of chanting.   "Johnny!  Wake up.  Don't listen to her.  Wake up!"

He saw Johnny's heavy eyelids flicker open, confusion on his face.

"Johnny, listen to me…only me!"

"Scott…?"

"Yes.  Listen to me."

"…Can't breathe…"

"I know.  Don't listen to her voice.  I know it's hard…but you've got to try."

"…I can't…"

"Yes you can.  Listen to my voice.  We're going to get out of here.  You hear me?  There's a way out, I know there is.  You just have to hold on.  A little longer.  Johnny?  Johnny, answer me!"

"Scott…nothin' makes sense..."

"I know."

The chanting grew louder, trying to pull them into its spell.

Johnny fought, willing himself to concentrate only on Scott.  He knew he didn't stand a chance of getting out of here alive.  He had met death before.  Knew it well, in fact.  Sometimes friend, sometimes foe.  But he always walked away, with a promise he would return someday for good.  Johnny had a feeling he would not be walking away this time.  But he would fight for now, for Scott's sake.  He would not leave Scott alone in this hell.

Suddenly the cave was plunged into silence.  Scott held his breath, waiting. Even the air itself seemed to be holding its breath…The flame in the lantern flickered and dimmed, fighting to stay alive…

The sound of the water returned, alien after the horrific chanting.

A soft moan of relief escaped Johnny's lips. Scott watched him fight to keep his eyes open. But the relief was short lived. Fear registered on his face.

"She'll be here soon."  Johnny whispered.

"I know. You've got to hold on, Johnny.  There's got to be a way we..."

Scott jumped, startled by the sound of the door creaking open.  Johnny was right.

A figure walked slowly toward them, cloaked in the darkness.  As it approached, the lantern light revealed a tall woman walking gracefully toward them, her bearing regal. She held her head high and her shoulders erect. A black veil covered her face. She wore a black dress, a long train flowing behind her.

She stopped in front of Scott, extending her hand toward him, opening her palm to display a black ring fashioned from black onyx.

Scott caught his breath.  Long talon-like nails tipped her fingers.

"Accept this ring," Gam said, from behind the veil, and I will let your bother live."

Scott stared at her, surprise, loathing and fear vying for supremacy.

"He needn't suffer after today."  Slowly she raised her veil.

Scott was shocked by her stunning beauty. Gone was the hideous face, replaced by smooth delicate skin, the color of porcelain.  Mounds of jet black hair framed high cheekbones and deep red sensuous lips.

"I will give you everything you could ever want, Scott.  I will introduce you to pleasures you never knew possible.  We will travel the world, meet kings and queens.  Rule continents if you wish. Eat the most exotic foods, drink the most exquisite wines.  Visit places you have only read about in your books.  I can give you all that, and Johnny's life if you say yes."

Scott could barely keep from vomiting at her feet. Despite her beauty her body reeked of decay.  He tried to crawl backwards, away from her, but she grabbed the chain, pulling him closer.

"I offer you a life any man would envy." She hissed, grabbing his chin, her nails digging into his cheeks, "Take it, or die of starvation down here. Alone in the dark, where no one will ever find your body."

Scott glanced toward Johnny and saw the faintest of smiles flicker across his face.

Scott stared back at her, "It beats the alternative."

She backhanded him, the blow sending him backwards until the chain stopped him short, nearly jerking his arm out of its socket. He hit the stone floor hard, knocking the wind out of him.

"You fool," she hissed. "I will have you anyway. For as long as I want."

"He ain't much of a catch," Johnny laughed, his voice breathless, "too headstrong."

Gam whirled back, looking down on Johnny.  A hideous smile crept across her face, destroying her mask of beauty.

"You are a bigger fool than your brother.  Do you think I will not have my way?  He will come with me.  The only thing that will save him is death.  But I will not allow that.  You on the other hand have given me almost everything I need."

Johnny could not suppress a murmur of anguish.

"At long last," Gam said, kneeling down next to Johnny, "I will once again look upon beauty."  She reached out, her long nail drawing circles around his eyes.  "I will see the world again."

Johnny desperately tried to crawl away, but he couldn't move.  He looked for Scott, saw his own terror mirrored in his brother's eyes.

Scott scrambled to his feet, rushing toward them.  The chain yanked him short.  "No!" he screamed, jerking at the chain, "Don't!"

"No…Dios…No…" Johnny groaned softly.

"You have given me so much. Your blood is strong.  The world will be mine for a hundred years.  Now I will see what time has changed. What I have missed as this body grew old and useless…"

Johnny cried out as the chanting began again, the words foreign, but obscene.  The air grew warm and muggy, her voice surrounding him, smothering him, combining with his own screams of pain as her nails dug behind his eyes.  He heard Scott's desperate voice, pleading for her to stop. Yelling at him not to listen to her voice.  But he couldn't help himself.  Every fiber of his body throbbed with her chant.

Slowly his vision began to fad. A haze formed over his eyes, thickening until he could see only faint light, and then darkness…complete, utter darkness.

The chanting made way to hysterical laughter as Gam rose to her feet, "I can see," she cried, "I can see."

Johnny slowly closed his sightless eyes and waited for blessed unconsciousness to claim him.

A hideous laugh rocked the walls, fading into the blackness of the cave.

"Soon," Gam turned to Scott, "soon I will return for you.

***

Shea listened to the terrible sounds below.  Gam's chanting, Johnny's screams of agony.  She couldn't stand it.  Even if it meant her freedom, she could not stand by and watch two innocent men destroyed.

She had waited so long for her freedom. So long to be free of this prison.  But she never realized the cost.

She looked around, desperately trying to remember the potion Gam prepared for her every year. The potion that keep her forever young, so she could remain a slave to the old woman.

The chanting continued below, growing in volume and urgency.  Gam would be done soon.  Johnny's sacrifice would be complete.

She raced around the room, trying to remember.  She found the jars she wanted, mixed among the hundreds of jars containing vile smelling herbs, dried crumble insects and thick syrups.  She carefully measured out each ingredient she needed, her hands shaking. Too much of one, not enough of the other could kill Johnny in seconds. She mixed them in a heavy wooden bowl until she had a thick gray paste.

If it worked it was Johnny's only hope.  If it didn't…he would be out of his misery.

With her heart in her throat Shea replaced all the jars, cleaned up the table and hid in the corner to wait.

***

Scott sat, unmoving.  As Gam had retreated into the darkness, he retreated into his own darkness.  He could not help Johnny anymore.  His younger brother had slipped away into deep unconsciousness…just a hair's breath away from death.

It appeared that death was the only escape from this hell.  If he could, he would welcome death himself, rather than face what lay ahead.  But the smallest of hopes would not allow him to end it now.

He was alive, and for the moment, Johnny still held on.  He took a deep breath…When Johnny was gone…

He shifted and felt the soggy fold of paper in his breast pocket.  He had forgotten all about the certified check that still sat at the bottom of his pocket.

He had been supremely proud of himself when he misdirected the road bandits and they had failed to see the check, the check for a bull that proved to be all but worthless.

He laughed bitterly; it just proved that his grandfather was wrong…money didn't buy happiness or good luck.

Scott was so deeply lost in thought that he didn't hear Shea slip into the cave. He jumped when he felt her touch his shoulder, but quickly looked away.

"Gam send you down here to see if Johnny was dead yet?" he growled.

She kneeled down in front of him, touching his face with a trembling hand.

"I've been a coward," she admitted.  "I was too scared of Gam to do anything.  But I couldn't…"  She looked over at Johnny, "I can't let her take him away from you."

"What can you do?"

She held up the bowl.

"What is it?"  Scott looked at the thick gray paste that covered the bottom of the bowl.

"It will make him strong," she whispered, looking down at Johnny. Gam's last attack had left him in deep shock.  His breathing was light and halting, as if his lungs didn't have the strength for a full breath.  "It will only last for a few hours, then he will return as he is…possibly worse.  If you do not have him out of here by then…"

Scott grabbed her wrist, "And you?"

"I will try to distract Gam for as long as I can.  She keeps looking in the mirror…"

Scott's eyes shifted to Johnny's, knowing beneath his long dark eyelashes and closed lids, he would not find his brother's beautiful blue eyes.  Instead he would see sightless eyes.  Eyes that belonged to Gam.

"His eyes…?" he asked, his voice shaking.

"I don't know.  He may regain his sight when he leaves here.  I just don't know.  Now please, we must hurry before Gam realizes I'm gone."

She produced a key for the chain and the cuff feel away with a clatter to the stone floor.

"Help me lift his head."  She ordered.

Scott scooted over, placing Johnny's head gently in his lap. His skin felt so cold. The long days of lying on the cold wet floor had drained his body of life giving heat.  It was a miracle he was still hanging on.

He looked at the bowl suspiciously, the thick mixture smelled vile.

"He can't swallow that," Scott cried, pulling the wooden mortar from her hand.

"He has to. He won't last another hour like this. Just hold his head."

Carefully she pried his mouth open, spooning the gray paste into his mouth.

Johnny's reaction was instantaneous. His body bucked, his arms flaying out to his sides.  Scott had to hold onto him to keep him from jerking onto his stomach.

"Hold him!" she insisted urgently, "He has to take it all."

Johnny thrashed violently, the paste filling starving veins and capillaries with life giving fluids.

 

Johnny awoke in breathtaking pain.  Every inch of his body burned. His arms and legs shook uncontrollably.

He felt someone holding him, pressing him tightly against their chest.  He struggled to break free, but the arms tightened.  The more they tightened, the harder he fought.  Instinct was the only thing he knew. And instinct told him to fight.

He pried his heavy eyelids open, stunned to see nothing but blackness again.

His mouth was filled with a vile taste, sliding down his throat, gagging him.  He remembered the concoction the old woman forced down his throat and he struggled harder.

"Johnny, stop it!"

The familiar voice caught him by surprise.  He listened. The sound of Scott's urgent voice stunned Johnny and he collapsed into the arms that were holding him.

But still the fire burned within him.  He cried out in his confusion and pain.  Memories of the old woman haunted him.

"Johnny, listen to me."  Scott's voice was close to his ear.  "You have to swallow this. Trust me."

Trust?  Johnny's struggles renewed with strength born of desperation and overwhelming terror. How could he trust anyone…anything?  He couldn't see, he could only feel pain. His only memory was of the old woman, hovering over him. Her long fingernails circling his eyes, lancing pain gouging at his eye sockets. Her breath as foul as a bog. Her chanting filling his head.

Scott was as terrified as Johnny.  What if he was wrong about Shea?  What if he had just allowed her to kill his brother?  He held onto Johnny.  The bowl was empty and still Johnny thrashed in his arms.

"Wait…it takes time."  Shea urged, her voluminous eyes filled with her own terror.

Suddenly Johnny's body went limp. Scott frantically searched for a pulse.  Nothing.

"You killed him!"  Scott roared, dragging Johnny's cold body closer. "You killed him.  Why?"

Suddenly he felt incredibly alone.  Fear twisted his stomach.  He couldn't fight this madness, not alone, not without Johnny.

"No…"  Shea whispered. "…Look."

First Johnny's fingers twitched, then he made a fist.

"Johnny!"  Scott felt for a pulse.  Weak but steady.  "Johnny, can you hear me?"

Johnny nodded his head, confused.

Scott relaxed, shifting Johnny's weight until he was comfortable. "How do you feel?"

"Tired.  Arm hurts like hell."

Scott looked up at Shea.

"The paste only strengthens the body, it doesn't heal the injuries."

"Scott," Johnny's voice was suddenly desperate. "I can't see.  I can't see nothing.  Scott?" He reached out, his hand searching the blackness.

Scott grabbed his hand, squeezing it tightly, "I know, Johnny. I know.  But it's not forever. As soon as we get out of here.

"How?"

Shea jumped to her feet, "There's no time. Tell him about it later.  You have to go.  Gam will know soon."

Scott stood up, dragging Johnny up holding him until his legs were steady.  The light from the lantern reflected nothing in his blank, colorless eyes, open wide to an unseeing world. But pain was etched deeply in his face. His left arm hung limply at his side, the bandage he had wrapped around the wound so many days ago was cemented in place by dry blood.  The holes left behind by Gam's bloodletting swollen with infection.

Quickly Scott undid his belt and buckled it together, slipping it over Johnny's head and carefully lifted his injured arm into the makeshift sling.

"There," he said softly, "that should help a little."

Johnny nodded.  He stood perfectly still, afraid to move in the alien blackness.  He remembered they were in a cave, he could feel the damp air touch his bare skin. He could hear the faint echo of Scott's words as they faded away.

Scott turned to Shea, "Come with us."  He said, the light from the lantern catching the tears in her eyes as she shook her head.

"I can't.  Now go, before it's too late."

"I can’t leave you here alone"

"Please, there's no time to explain.  I have to do this, for myself.  Don't take this away from me."

"But she'll kill you."

"I died a long time ago.  But you and…" she reached out and touched Johnny's shoulder.  The touch startled Johnny, only Scott's strong grip on his arm kept him from retreating.  "you two still have a chance."

"No, I won't leave you here."

"You don't have a choice."  She grabbed the lantern and dropped the handle over Scott's outstretched hand.  "Now go…before it's too late."

She ran for the door disappearing in a quick shaft of light.

Stillness fell over the cave again.

Scott lifted the lantern, trying to chase away the deep shadows beyond its ring of light.

Johnny stood silently beside him, waiting. Scott didn't even know for sure if there was an exit beyond the blackness, or how far it would be.  If Shea was right, he only had few hours before Johnny would be at death's door again.  He cringed at the thought.  Death's door…never had it held so much meaning.

He grabbed Johnny's good arm, holding him tightly as he took his first step into the awaiting unknown.

 

Chapter 5

Johnny bit back the bitter taste of fear.

It tried to consume him, eat him alive.  If not for the feel of Scott’s strong hand on his arm he knew fear would have been the victor.

It almost was.

At first his mind had shut down.  Step after painful step was only taken because Scott ordered it.  The only thing that existed for him was his brother’s voice, the throbbing pain in his arm and the lacerations on his feet as he walked barefooted over the sharp uneven rock floor.

Minutes seemed like hours.  He wondered how far they had traveled.  How far behind Gam was.

At some point, Johnny was not exactly sure, icy fear gave way to a semblance of reason.  Scott’s presence calmed him. He moved his head from side to side, feeling the minute differences in air currents and colder, damper air.  His audio senses became more acute then they had ever been before. Even before he knew the life of Johnny Lancer, when, as Johnny Madrid, he stood facing his opponent in the street, every ounce of his being focused, aware of every movement, every sound…his hearing had never been so acute.

He heard Scott’s boots slip on the wet floor, his footsteps rising and echoing in a dozen different directions, his own feet as they padded behind, the sounds of water seeping down the walls.

Scott had been silent, tying to keep focused on the small splash of light from the lantern in the inky blackness.  But the sound of  Johnny’s stutter steps stabbed at his heart.  He couldn’t begin to imagine the terror Johnny felt.

They had been walking for ten minutes, ever deeper into the cave. The air grew colder and he shivered beneath his damp clothes. He contemplated taking his soggy shirt off but decided against it.  Even wet it afforded him some protection.

He lifted the lantern to get a better look at Johnny.  His brother’s face was still as white as a ghost.  His lips trembled from the cold. His eyes, wide open, searched for light that didn’t exist for him. But there was an awareness in his face that had not been there a few minutes ago.

He seemed to be listening…making decisions.

“You doing ok, Johnny?”

Johnny nodded, turning his face towards Scott’s voice.

“How long before she knows we’re missing?”

“Not long.”  Scott adjusted the sling cradling Johnny’s arm, trying to support his upper arm more.  Johnny flinched, but didn’t complain.

“How deep are we?”

Scott tried to see beyond the light into the murky dark…“No way of knowing.  I guess we just keep going.”

“Like you said before, it beats the alternative.”

“Yea, it sure does.” Scott squeezed Johnny’s good arm, “We better keep going.”

Again Johnny nodded.

Scott started walking again.  Soon the sides of the cave became visible in the lantern light.  They were heading into a tunnel.

Johnny suddenly stopped.  He could feel a difference in the air.  The echoes of Scott’s boots sounded different.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Looks like a tunnel.”

“Can you see the end?”

“Not enough light.” He let go of Johnny’s arm for a moment, meaning to take a look further down the tunnel but Johnny’s terrified, “No!” brought him back.

Scott grabbed his arm tightly, his squeeze reassuring. “Don’t worry, Johnny, I won’t leave you.”

Suddenly the cave was filled by a blood curdling scream.  The very ground beneath them shook.

Gam’s voice filled the cavern. “You’re fools if you think you can run from me!  There is no escape.”

Scott started to run, pulling Johnny along with him.  The roof of the cave slanted down until his head brushed the ceiling.  The sides narrowed, until their shoulders touched either side.

Johnny tried to keep up with Scott.  His feet were being torn apart by the sharp rocks beneath him. His arm jarred with every step. Fear gripped him, screamed at him to stop.  The blackness surrounded him, suffocating him.  If not for Scott he couldn’t have taken another step.

Gam’s voice followed them, taunting them, “You are mine, Scott.  You will be mine forever.”

Scott was forced to drop to his knees, pulling Johnny down with him.

“The tunnel is narrow,” Scott warned.  “We have to go single file.”

“No!”

Gam’s voice followed them, “Are you scared, Johnny?  The blackness is cruel, isn’t Johnny? It sucks the courage out of you.  Makes you want to crawl up in a ball and hide.”

“Don’t listen to her, Johnny.”  Scott warned. “Listen to me.  Follow my voice.”

Johnny could barely move.  Fear gripped him so tight he could barely breathe.  He crawled after Scott, his right arm supporting his weight, his left arm scrapping the rough side wall of the cave, sending shocks of pain down his entire left side.

“Your eyes are beautiful, Johnny.”  Gam called, her voice surrounding them. “They will serve me well.”

The roof of the cave slanted down sharply forcing Johnny on his belly.

“Scott?!”

“Keep going,” Scott urged.  “I can see light.”

“Wait!”  Johnny groped for Scott’s foot.  “I heard something.”

“What?”  Scott waited. Not able to hear anything but his own heart beating in his chest and his panting breaths.

“It’s her.” Johnny whispered.  “She’s coming.”

Scott started scrambling faster toward the end of the tunnel.  He saw the end funnel down to an opening barely large enough to push his shoulders through.

Panic pushed him forward and he stretched his arms out in front of him using his legs to push himself through.

The ground gave way to empty air and he fell three feet onto another stone floor, and felt the lantern ripped from his hand.  The light fluttered then winked out.

Johnny tried to scramble after him using his right arm to pull himself forward, his bare feet slipping on the slick stone.

“Hurry!” he heard Scott’s harsh whisper.

He felt the walls close in around him.

“It’s too small.”

“You can make it.”  Scott reached back into the tunnel, his hand searching for Johnny.  “You’ve got to push your way through.”

“I’ll get stuck.”

“No.  There’s room.  You have to keeping pushing.”

Johnny felt Scott grab his right hand, dragging him through the tight opening.

“Just a few more feet.”  Scott promised.

Johnny felt cooler air sting his face as Scott pulled him forward.  His shoulders, wider than Scott’s caught on the narrow walls. For a heart numbing moment he thought he was stuck.  Then he was moving again.

Suddenly a hand grabbed his left ankle and started pulling him back into the tunnel.

“Scott!”

Sharp talons dug into his ankle.  He felt Scott’s hand tremble with the effort to hold on.

Johnny frantically tried to shake his foot free, but Gam had her nails deeply embedded in his ankle.

“Run!” Johnny shouted.  “Get out of here while you still can.”

“I won’t leave you.”

Johnny felt his hand slip from Scott’s grip.  The tunnel gobbled him up again.  Steadily he was dragged back.  He could smell the stench of the old woman fill the tunnel.

Suddenly the old woman screamed in surprise and pain.  Her hand released Johnny’s foot and he scrambled back down the tunnel, shoving his shoulders through the too tight space and finding himself in a free fall until he hit the ground with a bone jarring thud.

Scott’s hands were under him arms, dragging him to his feet.

The air felt colder…there was the smell of sulfur.

He heard the sound of someone scrambling down the tunnel.

Panic rushed over him.  He felt Scott grab his right hand and started pulling him deeper into the cold.

 

Chapter 6

Johnny's foot suddenly caught in something, tripping him, and he went down, hitting the ground hard, his hand ripped from Scott's grasp.

He flailed in the blackness on his knees. His hand feeling only empty air. More panic seized him and he opened his mouth to scream for Scott when he felt Scott grab him around the waist, dragging him backwards, his hand clamped tightly over his mouth, until they slammed into a wall, the impact sending searing pain up his arm.

He still felt the pain of Gam's claws in his ankle, throbbing with the same pain as his arm, moving up his leg. His nostrils were still fouled by her hideous stench.

He reached back searching for, and found Scott's arm, wrapped around him and he froze.

The arm was not Scott's. It was muscular and hairy. And it began to squeeze harder.

"Scott!" he screamed into the blackness.

He was lifted off the ground, the strong arm clamping around his waist, lifting him as if he weighed nothing. He was flung over someone's shoulder, huge and hairy, smelling of sulfur.

The pain in his arm was appalling, nearly taking his breath away. He tried to fight. His feeble attempts to punch the back of his attacker went unnoticed. His right leg was going numb from Gam's claws. He tried to hold onto awareness…feeling the deeper blackness of unconsciousness drawing him closer to limbo.

 

***

Scott couldn't believe his eyes. They had fallen into a huge grotto. Towering stalagmites soared toward the ceiling, sparkling with phosphorous. Giant stalactites hung from the phosphorescent roof, their pointed tips like sparkling daggers.

The grotto shimmered in a hazy green glow.

Where the hell were they?

The smell of sulfur permeated the cavern.

Tunnels, some larger, some smaller than the one they tumbled out of, looked like black scars in the walls of the cave.

He looked back at Johnny, the phosphorous bathing his face in a green hue. His blank eyes were wide open, pain and fear etched deeply into his face. He was dragging his left leg now. Black drops dotted the ground as he ran, and Scott realized with dread that it was Johnny's blood that was leaving a trail. Gam must have caught his leg in the tunnel.

He gripped Johnny's hand tighter, pulling him along as fast as he could. He had no idea where they were going, but fear urged him on.

Suddenly Johnny slipped, nearly dragging Scott down with him. Turning back to lift Johnny back to his feet, he didn't see the massive force that barreled past them, stinking of sulfur, long coarse hair brushing his hand as his grip on Johnny was torn away and he was shoved into a huge stalagmite.

He fought to keep his senses as his knees gave way and he slid to the ground. He had one last glimpse of Johnny slumped over the shoulder of a huge black figure, before his mind spiraled into oblivion.

 

****

Johnny fought through the muck of disjointed dreams, horrifying nightmares, the likes he had never experienced before. They terrified him, leaving him shivering in his own sweat.

Gradually the shroud of horrific images began to fade. Slowly his senses began to return. But his senses still lied; he felt a cold damp stone floor beneath him…not his soft mattress. His bare skin shivered in the cold. Pain gripped his body…his left arm throbbed and burned, a mass of shear pain. His right leg pulsed with every heart beat, ready to explode.

He laid perfectly still, listening, waiting.

For what he didn't know…Couldn't quite remember. But he knew he had to remain quiet. He felt his heart beating in his chest, too rapid…heard the sound of his breaths, too short…

He was lying on his back. Eyes still closed. What was he waiting for? What was he afraid of?

Fear twisted his stomach.

The dreams seemed so real…the pain unquestionably real.

The memory of Scott leaning over him. The fear in his brother's eyes, the panic in his voice. Fragments of dreams or reality?

He opened his eyes and…

"Scott!" he gasped, and all the terrifying memories came flooding back, crashing into him like a freight train. He slammed his eyes shut. His throat constricted. He could barely breathe.

He reached a hand out into the black void that engulfed him, and the terror increased three fold.

He tried to block the memories…The house in the middle of the desert, Gam…the horrible bloodletting…and his eyes…the old woman chanting, her nails digging into his eyes. The escape through the tunnel…Gam's talon's embedded in his ankle…

He nearly cried out…

But he held on…summoning that part of him that was still Johnny Madrid, the part that had kept him alive when, by all rights he should have been six feet under. He felt his heart slowing down, his breathing evening out. He began to use all his senses, making up for the loss of his eyes…

The air was stinging cold. A slight draft flowed from behind him. Colder, hinting at the smell of foul water.

The smell of sulfur lingered in the frigid air.

The ground beneath him was just as cold, his bare back and legs throbbing from the icy chill.

He struggled to sit up, bracing his injured arm, the pain making him dizzy and sick at his stomach. He gulped the bile that burned at his throat, and waited for his head to stop spinning.

He steeled himself, forcing back the panic. He began to listen, hearing with more than just his ears. He used his entire body. Felt the vibrations of air and sound that touched his skin, tasted the cold damp air, cataloged the smells…his own sweat, the infection in his arm, the blood that trickled down his ankle…the dankness of algae and moss, and… the unmistakable odor of an animal.

He froze…he was in some kind of animal's den.

He reached his hand out, moving it in the darkness, feeling the air sift through his fingers. The smell came from his right, musky and rank.

If this was a den, it would have only one exit.

Carefully he scooted himself to the right, away from the smell, his right leg dragging across the floor. His hand sought something solid and found only air. He had to find a wall, then he could follow it to the opening.

Panic welled up again, and he pushed it back.

He wanted to call out for Scott…but he was afraid if he didn't hear an answer he would plunge deeper into the lonely darkness. Better to hope that he was nearby, than to know for sure he wasn't.

He continued the search, painstakingly slow, scooting on his rear, dragging his leg, reaching into the blackness, his strength fading, along with his hope.

Suddenly his hand touched something. He snapped it back. Did he really want to know what it was? He had no choice…the knowing could save his life…

He reached out again, his hand shaking. He felt a pile of something…hard and smooth, his fingers traced the outline of each object, thirteen of them in all…they seemed strangely familiar. They differed in size…some small, razor sharp. Some long like tree branches, some round with two holes…

"Madre del Dios!" he gasped, dropping the objects. Bones….human bones…

***

Scott hitched his way back up to his feet, pushing his back against the stalagmite for support. His head still spun, but he was otherwise unhurt. He searched the grotto with his eyes, his heart sinking when he didn't spot Johnny.

He saw the tunnels, black gaping holes. What ever grabbed Johnny had disappeared into one of those tunnels.

None of this made sense. It defied reality. But it was happening, none the less.

Feeling steady on his feet he stepped away from the stalagmite. He had read about caverns like this, but never heard of them here in the desert. Hell, this whole place was an aberration…

He made his way through the maze of towering rocks. He looked up at needle point daggers of rock clinging to the ceiling. No man would survive an encounter with one of those.

The floor slanted downward, taking him deeper underground.

Nestled at the base of a stalagmite, he noticed a dark mound of something. He ventured closer, the smell of sulfur growing stronger.

He found a pile of fur pelts, some worn and old, some fresh. Yellow sulfur crystals lined the bottom of a natural basin in the rock floor. Water condensing on the roof of the cave dripped ever so often into the sulfur, unleashing the powerful smell of brimstone.

Scott's eyes began to water, and he had to step back.

Who put those furs there? Some were only a few months old.

Scott walked further on and saw a fire ring. The smell of damp ashes was almost as repelling as the sulfur. Scott edged closer. Inside the ring of rocks a black pot sat, its insides scoured clean. A wooden bowl and crudely fashioned fork and spoon sat nearby.

A chill ran down Scott's spine. Did someone live down here?

He continued to walk. Another smell caught his attention. He followed it. It seemed to grow stronger as he neared one of the smaller tunnels leading deeper into the cave. As he got closer the smell became more familiar, and he had to clamp his arm over his nose and mouth to stifle the smell. Memories of the war came crashing back on him…the morgues behind the hospitals…

Scott nearly threw up…the smell could come from only one thing…the remains of human corpses.

***

Johnny dropped the skull, his heart beating so fast he couldn't draw in a breath. Then he heard it…from somewhere deep in the cave…a low guttural growl.

Johnny froze.

 

Chapter 7

Scott stumbled backwards, trying to make sense of what he saw, what he felt.  Fear was what he felt.  Pure, unadulterated fear. Even Libby, with all its horrors, did not grip his very soul with this mind numbing terror.

He took small breaths, covering his nose and mouth with his arm. The stench threatened his stomach.  He held on, forcing himself to think.

Everything that had happened was impossible.  It defied logic. It went against every belief he had in the laws of nature.  But here he was…

A question that had nagged at the back of his mind finally surfaced; why had Gam stopped her pursuit?  Did she know that they were trapped here?  No way out but back through the tunnel? Or was she afraid of this place?  Afraid of who, or what, lived here?

 

He turned back to look at the fire ring and beyond at the small plume of sulfur gas that billowed up from the sulfur pit every time a drop of moisture dripped from the ceiling.

The huge stalagmites towered above him, some just black gouges in the suffused green light, others glimmering with phosphors. The stalagmites hung above him, breathtaking in their beauty, but staggeringly deadly.

Did someone really live down here in this freezing replica of hell?  Was he Gam’s prisoner?  Was this the life that Scott had to look forward to if Gam won?  The thought pierced his gut and he pushed it away.  For now he had to find Johnny.

He walked back to the pile of fur skins.  Everything looked surreal in the phosphorescent green glow.

He picked through the pelts.  Some were crudely sewn together with long strands of braided black hair, forming a cape.  Still others were fashioned into shirts with pieces of bone and hair for buttons, and pants cinched at the waist with more hair.  Peeking out from beneath the bottom of the pile was a pair of leather moccasins.

This was not designed by an animal.  This was a work of a human.

He dropped the pelts, rubbing his hands against his pants to wipe away the smell.

Whoever it was had dragged Johnny away.

He tried to recall exactly what happened.  Johnny’s slip...or was he pushed?  Then the huge hairy figure fading away as Scott lost consciousness.

Then he remembered the trail of blood Johnny was leaving.  The black drops of blood from his leg.  If he could find the trail…

***

Johnny sat motionless.  He felt his heart beating in his throat and his ears like a stampede of wild horses.

He was completely defenseless…stranded in the blackness, surrounded on all sides by cold damp air.

He tried to stop his teeth from chattering, but the cold was seeping deeper, invading every inch of his body.

He wanted to scream.  He wanted to cry.  He wanted to run.  He wanted to do anything but stay perfectly still in this suffocating blackness. But that was what he had to do.  He was helpless.  A prey caught, ready to be devoured by what ever had attacked him.

He couldn’t rid his mind of the bones he had felt.  Was he to be the next victim?

His arm spasmed and Johnny let out a gasp of pain.

A grunt came from the blackness and Johnny heard a shuffle of something move across the floor to his right.

His heart best faster…to fast.  Any minute now it would explode in a million pieces.

Another grunt, this one so close to Johnny’s ear he could feel the hot breath on his neck, smelled the stench in his nose.  He tried to move away but something rough grabbed his good arm and held him tight.

Fear exploded in him and he fought to rip his arm away.  But the weakness was returning…robbing him of all his strength.  Johnny heard another grunt and something touched his injured arm. He cried out in pain and fear.  Then the hand was on his left knee, traveling down his leg to his injured ankle.

He clamped his mouth shut. He couldn’t show his weakness. Weakness meant death.

Huge fur covered arms gently lifted him into the air, his bare skin leaning against a hairy chest.  He felt dizzy, disorientated. The arms held him tight, but not uncomfortably so.

***

Scott found the trail of blood, one drop every few feet.  Johnny had lost so much blood already…any amount now was too much.

He followed the tracks; the drops were getting larger and closer together. Fear nudged him, and he walked a little faster.  The tracks stopped at the base of a gaping tunnel four feet off the ground.  A smear of black blood stained the lip of the opening.

 

But a sound from his right…from the tunnel he and Johnny had slithered through made him bolt for the cover behind a stalagmite.

He watched in horror as Gam emerged.  Her beauty mesmerizing.

“You can’t run from me, Scott.” She called.  “You are mine.  Just like Jeremiah was…so many years ago.”

Scott dug his nails into the stone…her voice sent shivers down his spine.

“He grew old and useless…that is why I need you, Scott.  You are young and strong.  You will give me the one thing I crave now…love.”

“You’re a fool.” He shouted.  “An ugly old fool.”

“Johnny gave me so much…would you make his sacrifice meaningless?” Her laughter filled the cavern, cold and ugly. “I always get what I want, Scott…Look.”

Gam swung her arm toward the tunnel where Johnny’s blood trail led. Something moved within the blackness.  A form took shape. Scott watched, his eyes darting from Gam to the figure that began to emerge from the opening.

His heart stopped when he saw the figure slide feet first out of the tunnel. As he slowly stood up to his full height, Scott guessed at least six foot five, his huge frame covered in fur pelts, he looked toward Gam and cradled a figure he held, tight in his huge arms.

But it wasn’t the size of the man, or his face, pasty white from lack of sunlight and horribly disfigured that nearly made his knees buckle; it was Johnny, clutched against the man’s chest.

“No…” he breathed.

“Shea was foolish to try to deceive me.  She should have known that I was too strong.”

Scott saw Johnny’s head move, his eyes open. His right hand clamped onto Jeremiah’s fur shirt. His left leg was fiery red and swollen twice its size. The venom from Gam’s talons coursing through his system.

“Bring the boy to me.” Gam ordered.

“Leave him be.” Scott shouted.  “I’ll go with you.”

“No!” Johnny’s voice echoed through the cavern.

“Jeremiah, do as I say.”  Gam ordered.

Jeremiah hesitated…looking down at Johnny in his arms.

Scott stepped away from his hiding place…his eyes fixed on Johnny, his brother’s body too limp…his head laying against the huge chest…his body wracked by teeth jarring shivers.

“Don’t hurt him.” Scott pleaded with the huge man. “Please. He’s done nothing to deserve this.”

Gam stepped away from the tunnel, her eyes shimmering with anger.  “Bring him to me!” she ordered again.

Jeremiah took a step back, bumping into the cave wall…Scott heard the grunt of pain from Johnny.

“No!”  Shea suddenly leaped from the tunnel.

Gam spun on her. “Go back child. This is none of your business. I will deal with you later.”

Shea moved away from the tunnel, slowly moving toward Scott.

“Shea!”  Gam pointed her finger toward her…”You are not strong enough to defy me.”

Shea stopped, her head turning to look at Jeremiah.  “She did this to you,” she said.  “Don’t let her do it again.”

Johnny weakly tried to push himself away from Jeremiah, but the big man held him tightly in his arms.

“What will happen to you when she doesn’t need you anymore? When he takes your place.” Shea nodded toward Scott.

Jeremiah looked toward Gam.

“Don’t listen to her. She is trying to confuse you.  I’ve taken care of you all these years.  I’ve brought you friends to play with…”

Scott glanced behind him, toward the tunnel stuffed with bodies and back to Jeremiah. “All those people died here?” he whispered.

“They were like you…lost in the desert, near death.  I brought them here to Jeremiah.  Some he nursed for a few months, most died right away.”

Johnny moaned, his eyes open and lifeless, and Scott knew he was hearing every word.

“Jeremiah, you will be one of the dead, soon.”  Shea warned.

“She lies!” Gam shouted.  “I have always taken care of you, Jeremiah.”

Scott began to edge closer to the huge man, watching his every move, seeing the massive arms squeeze ever so tighter around Johnny…watching Gam, her face turning ugly as the beauty on the outside was slowly destroyed by the evil within.

Jeremiah slowly laid Johnny on the ground, his gentle movements belying his size and grotesque looks.

“I order you to bring him to me.” Gam screamed.

Scott crouched down low, carefully moving toward Johnny.

 

Johnny felt himself lowered to the ground.  The cold wet stone bit at his bare skin again.  He heard Gam screaming, a crazy, frenzied tone to her voice. He reached out, trying to find something to hang onto, but he could barely lift his arm.  Shea’s potion was wearing off.

Scott was only a few feet from Johnny.  He saw Jeremiah move away from his brother, drawing Gam’s attention away from the injured man.

Shea made her way over to Scott.

“There’s not much time.” She hissed.  “Follow me.”

Scott collected Johnny in his arms, hissing for him to stay still.

Scott’s own strength was deserting him.  He hadn’t eaten in days.  His knees suddenly buckled and Johnny slipped from his arms.

“Leave me!”  Johnny whispered harshly, “Get out of here while you can.”

“Not without you, brother.  Now shut up.”

Shea grabbed Scott’s arm.  “We have to hurry!”

Scott grabbed Johnny’s good arm and pulled it over his shoulder. “How far?” He demanded.

“Not far,” Shea answered, “but it’s not an easy climb.”

Behind them Gam was eyeing them and Jeremiah, her beautiful façade Gone…destroyed by evil.

Scott wrapped his arm around Johnny’s waist and began shuffling forward, dragging Johnny beside him.

Shea pointed to a ledge six feet above them.  “There’s a series of ledges, like steps, to the top and a small opening large enough for a man to fit through.”

Scott looked up at the ledge and his heart sank.  He would never be able to get Johnny up to even the first ledge.

He turned to Shea.  “You go.  Bring back help.”

“I can’t.”  Shea looked toward the ceiling…the opening wasn’t visible from the floor of the cave, but she knew it was there.  She had longed to use it herself over the long years.

“Yes you can.  Now…”

“Scott…”  Shea laid her hand on Scott’s arm.  “I belong here, in this world…not out there. I only exist here.  We…” she nodded toward Gam and Jeremiah as they began to circle each other like angry dogs, “we only exist here.”

The sound of Gam’s angry scream filled the cavern.  Jeremiah stood his ground.

“You have to hurry.”  Shea urged.

Scott looked up at the impossible climb again.  “I can’t get Johnny up there.”

Gam began to chant, the words filling the cave, turning the soft green shadows darker.

Shea quickly unknotted the rope tied around her waist and handed it to Scott.  “Use this.”

Scott wasted no time.  Gam’s chanting was rising, her shrill voice was beginning to thump at his chest.  He quickly wrapped it around Johnny’s waist, thankful that the rope was long enough to nearly reach the hem of Shea’s smock.

“Listen to me,” he had to shout to be heard over the cacophony of sound filling the cave.  “the only way out is up.”

Johnny’s head slumped on his chest, his strength all but gone.  “I don’t think I can, Scott.”

“I don’t care what you think.  You’re gonna do it.”

He turned to Shea.  “Thank you.” He said.  It seemed all too small for what she was doing for them.

“Just hurry.” she said.

Scott nodded and reached up, grabbing the edge of the ledge and pulling himself up.  The exertion was nearly too much for him, he lay on his back, panting.

 

Johnny felt the tug of the rope around his waist.  The sound of Gam’s chants behind him filled his mind, threatened to alter the rhythm of his heart beat, drawing him toward her.

The snap of the rope brought him back and he felt his feet leave the ground.  The rope dug into his skin.  He tried to use his good arm and leg to walk up the side of the cave, keeping himself from spinning slowly at the end of the rope.

In the blackness, he could feel the slight change in air temperature, as his hand touched the bottom edge of the ledge. Scott pulled until he was sprawled on the ledge, his chest heaving for air, his bare skin scraped by the sharp rocks.

“You ok, brother?”  Scott’s voice was close to his ear…his breath coming in sharp gasps.

Johnny nodded.

“One step down…four to go.”  Scott promised.

Scott spotted the second ledge, four feet above him, to the right.  The only way to reach it was to lean out and grab the ledge then pull himself up…twelve feet of open air between him and the floor of the cave.

He looked back down at Shea waiting below, her eyes glued to him.

A growl, like a rabid dog filled the cavern, and Gam screeched out in rage.  The cavern was suddenly rocked by an earthquake.

Scott braced himself, waiting for the shaking to subside.  When it did, he reached out and grabbed the second ledge, hauling himself up, his arms screaming in pain.

“Johnny!  Get ready.”

Johnny struggled to his feet, his left leg too weak to hold his weight, his right leg barely strong enough.  He waited to feel the tug of the rope, then he was spinning in the air.  He flailed with his arm and leg to find the cave wall, but found only black air.

“Don’t fight me!”  Scott shouted.

Johnny’s head bumped into the bottom of the ledge and he frantically grabbed the edge with his left hand, guiding himself over the ledge.

He felt the cave rumble.  The smell of sulfur filled the cavern, choking him.  He heard Scott coughing above him.

“Hurry!” Shea shouted from below.

Scott’s legs trembled, but he couldn’t stop.

An ear splitting sound ripped through the cave and Scott saw a huge stalagmite tremble and tear away from the ceiling.  The crash, as it hit the floor nearly knocked Scott and Johnny off the ledge.  A plume of green dust filled the cave

They had three more ledges to climb.

Scott spotted the next one, directly overhead.  He jumped and caught the edge…but his fingers slipped.  His arms shook with fatigue. He felt Johnny reach out, feeling for something to grab on to.

“Three more, Johnny!” he shouted.  “Just three more.”

The cave shook again with a bone chilling scream, deep and guttural...that abruptly stopped…Gam must have killed Jeremiah. She would be after them next.

Scott hauled himself up the next ledge, his arms shaking.  He dropped to his knees, trying to pull Johnny up but he didn’t have the strength to pull up Johnny’s one hundred and sixty pounds.

 

Johnny felt the meager tug on the rope and knew that his brother had exhausted himself.  He heard Jeremiah’s blood curdling scream, then Gam’s chant began again.  The ledge below his feet shook like an earthquake.  He could feel dust and small rocks began to rain down on his head.  The whole damn cave was about to disintegrate around them, torn apart by the evil within Gam.

There was no way Scott could pull him the rest of the way up, no matter how far it was.  He began untying the rope around his waist.  He cursed his cold and weakened fingers as he dug at the knot.

He felt Scott tug again and the rope slipped off his waist.

 

“Johnny!”  Scott tumbled back against the cave wall when the rope came loose.  “Johnny!”  He fell to his knees and peered over the edge.  Johnny was sitting on the outcropping of rock beneath him, his head tilted to the right as he took in all the sounds around him.

Gam’s chanting was undermining the rock…the resonance of her voice shaking the cave to oblivion.

Johnny looked up toward him…”Get out of here, Scott,” he shouted.

“No!”  Scott began to scramble back down to his brother, but Shea was suddenly beside Johnny, grabbing the dangling rope and tying it around his waist again.

“You came in here together.” She screamed over the noise, “You have to leave together.”

She pulled Johnny to his feet with surprising strength.  “You came as one, you must leave as one or you will both die.”

Shea was suddenly beside Scott.  She grabbed a section of rope and they both hauled Johnny up.

“You are mine!” Gam screamed hysterically, as she appeared below them.

“Hurry!”  Shea hissed.

Scott leaped up and caught the edge of the next ledge.  He felt Shea’s hands pushing his legs up, and he clawed his way over the lip.

The cave shook again with a thunderous explosion as another stalagmite ripped free of the ceiling and came crashing down.  Green tinged dust swirled on the floor like thick tulle fog.

Scott hauled Johnny up, trying to ignore the lines of pain and fear on his face.  “We’re almost there.” he promised.

Shea patted Scott’s shoulder and pointed up.  Scott searched the ceiling, and there, almost hidden behind the last ledge was a small patch of blue sky.

“Hurry!” She hissed.

Scott made ready for the next ledge.  But cold disbelief poured over him…the ledge was at least ten feet above his head.  There was no way he could reach it.

He looked back down at Johnny crumbled next to his feet.  There was nothing left in the boy.  He lay on his side, his knees drawn up to his stomach trying to escape the bone chilling cold.

Scott saw Gam climbing the first ledge.

“Johnny has to climb up.”  Shea shouted.

“He can’t…”  Scott shouted back.

“He has to.  It’s your only chance.”

“No.”

Shea feel to her knees next to Johnny, pulling him toward her. She held his head cupped between her hands, forcing him to listen to her words.  “You have the strength within you to do this.”

Johnny tried to shake his head.

“Do you want your brother to be like Jeremiah?  Years and years spent here in this cave?”

“No…”  Johnny drew in a deep breath, clambering unsteadily to his feet.

“There’s a small cone- shaped piece of rock near the edge of the ledge.  You have to find it and tie off the rope.  Scott can climb up.  Johnny,” she gently ran over fingers over his unseeing eyes, “you are so close to freedom.  There is blue sky beyond this last ledge.  You’ll be free.”

“Will I see again?”  Johnny tried to ask, but his voice failed him.

“I don’t know.  I’m sorry.”

“You’ll never get away from me.”  Gam screamed, hauling herself over the second ledge, “I won’t let you!”

“Hurry.” Shea shouted, as she tied a loop in the rope and slipped it onto his arm.

Johnny felt Scott’s strong hands clasp his right arm, squeezing tightly, the bond between brothers never broken…no matter what.

Then Scott’s shoulders were beneath him and was raised into the air.

He searched the blackness with his right arm.  Scott shouted directions, then his fingers touched solid rock and he clamped his hand onto the ledge.  With strength he didn’t know he still possessed, he pulled himself up and over the edge, scraping his bare stomach raw.

Below him he heard Gam’s chant, getting louder.  Another stalagmite ripped away from the ceiling and the tremendous crash threatened to shake the ledge free of the cave wall.

“Hurry!”  Scott shouted.

Johnny crawled on his knees, his right hand skimming the cold floor, searching for the stone cone.  He began to panic, at each turn he seemed to be in danger of falling off the ledge.  The strength he had found in a reservoir somewhere deep inside him, was nearly gone.  He felt his knee shaking, his hand trembled.

A blackness deeper than his blinded eyes crept closer…drowning out the sound of Gam’s shrieking chants, Scott’s frightened calls.

His hand touched the cone.  He slipped the rope off his arm and looped it over the cone.  Tugging on it twice before he let the blackness take him.

 

Scott felt the tug of the rope.  Turning to Shea, he looked down at her, “Are you sure you won’t come with us?”

Tears welled up in her eyes, “I can’t.  Now go.”

Scott nodded, leaning down and kissing her gently on the lips…”I’ll never forget you.” He promised.

“You will.” She said sadly as Scott pulled himself up the rope, hand over hand.

Scott reached the final ledge and hauled himself over, lying on his back panting.

There above him, he saw a sight he had feared he would never see again in his lifetime; blue sky.  An opening, just large enough for a man to slip through, gouged a hole in the ceiling of the cave.

Below him, Gam screamed and the ledge began to tremble.  The smell of sulfur rose, choking his breath away.  He leaned down and tied the rope around Johnny’s waist again.

With his heart pounding in his chest he reached for the opening, the warm desert air touching his skin.

They were so close now.  He scrambled up through the hole, his eyes blinded for a moment by the bright sun.  He dragged in a deep lungful of hot, pure air.

The sand beneath him began to shake.  Frantically he started pulling the rope up.  Sand began to stream into the hole.  He saw Johnny’s head appear, his black hair covered in sand, then his shoulders.  The hole was closing in on itself.

Gam’s screams sounded hollow beneath the hole.

Scott pulled Johnny’s lifeless body further from the hole, his hips were nearly clear.

 

Johnny felt the warmth of the sun on his face, the soft hot sand on his bare skin.  Scott’s arms were wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him through a tight opening.

He dammed his sightless eyes.  He was almost out of the cave and he couldn’t see the sun he had longed to see for so long.

Suddenly Gam’s taloned nails dug into his right ankle, pulling him back down.  He clawed at the soft sand but he was being pulled back through the hole.

 

Scott tried to hold on.  Gam was too strong.  Scott grabbed the rope and tied the lose end around his own waist, digging his heels into the sand, trying to keep Johnny from disappearing back down the hole.

He saw Johnny’s look of horror as he was pulled inside.  His shoulders disappeared, his hand clawing desperately, trying to find a hand hold.

A tremendous rumble beneath the sand began to rock the ground like an earthquake, knocking Scott off his feet.

A hideous scream erupted from the hole. The rope around Johnny’s waist went slack.

Frantically Scott began pulling the rope, feeling the hole give as he scrambled backwards dragging his brother out of the hole until his body lay sprawled on the hot desert sand.

Scott watched the hole cave in on itself, drawing sand in until it sealed itself closed.

Nothing remained of the opening.

Scott staggered back to Johnny, dropping down to his knees. The ordeal they had gone through staggeringly evident on his body.

“Johnny?”  He yelled, wiping away the sand from his face. “Come on, Johnny.”

Scott looked around them, his heart sinking at the expanse of hot, lifeless desert, stretching as far as the eye could see.  He shivered despite the heat.  They were right back where they started.

He laid down next to Johnny, succumbing to the exhaustion that suddenly overwhelmed him.  All this…all the agony… to end up right where they started. He fell face forward into the sand.

He didn’t see Johnny’s head lull from one side to the side, or hear the soft moan of his name…

Johnny opened his eyes…

 

Epilog

Scott felt a cool hand gently brush his hot cheek. Jumbled memories of half forgotten dreams meandered through his mind. Thoughts of dark, cold hidden places, snippets of images of a grotesque figure huddling over a prone figure. Thoughts of Johnny, thoughts of blood…

"Scott…?"  The voice was soft and familiar.

"Scott, can you hear me?"  That voice again.  Someone gently lifted his head and cool water trickled down his throat. It spurred a thirst in him so overwhelming that he tried to gulp down the rest.

"Not too fast…you'll make yourself sick."  Another voice warned. A man's voice, so familiar.

Almost too tired to even make the effort, Scott pried his eyes open, curiosity getting the better of his fatigue.

As his vision cleared, he saw two familiar faces smiling down at him.

"It's about time you woke up."  Murdoch smiled.  But there was worry in those blue-gray eyes…

"You had us all worried, Scott Lancer."  Teresa leaned down and put her finger to her lips then gently touched his.  The light touch stung.

"What happened?"  He asked.  His mind would not center on any one thing.  Half remembered thoughts niggled at his brain.  Fear hid just beneath his memory…

"We were hoping you could tell us."  Murdoch said.  A family traveling from Fresno to Sacramento spotted you two, lying in the desert, more dead than alive."

"Spotted us?"  Scott sat up too fast and regretted the move. He fell back onto the pillows.

"Johnny?"  Fear gripped him.  Something had happened to Johnny.

Murdoch nodded to Scott's left and he followed his father's gaze.

"He's holding his own now."  Murdoch continued.  "It was touch and go for the first three days."

"Three days?"  Scott looked at Johnny and his throat constricted.  "I don't remember…" He whispered.

Johnny's appearance appalled him. He lay with a sheet covering his lap.  The rest of his body was glistening with some kind of jell, the skin beneath red and blistered.  Heavy bandages wrapped his ankles and left arm.  His lips were cracked and swollen. But what made his heart skip a beat were the bandages wrapped around his eyes.

"Johnny…" he whispered.  Fragmented memories played just beyond his comprehension. Johnny screaming in pain, his blank eyes staring sightlessly into space.  The old woman huddled over him again. "His eyes…?"

"The doctors won't know for at least two weeks."  Murdoch moved around Scott's bed to stand next to Johnny.  With a gentleness that belied his huge hands, he lifted Johnny's head ever so slightly and coaxed a drizzle of water between his lips. "Can you remember anything?" Murdoch asked, looking back at Scott. "The people who found you were stunned."

"I would say stunned is an apt word."

Scott looked past Murdoch to see a short man with thick glasses wearing a doctor's smock standing in the doorway to his hospital room.

"The injuries your brother sustained, were unusual, to say the least. Oh, forgive me, I am Dr. Lofgren…" He added.  "There are puncture wounds in both his ankles, and several of the same puncture wounds on his left arm.  All are seriously infected and very difficult to treat. The bullet from his arm was removed, but it too became infected. He has lost a great deal of blood.  If not for the transfusion from your father…

The most curious question of all, Mr. Lancer, is why your brother would remove all his clothes except for his cut-off long johns.  Any man who has spent time in the desert knows never to remove his shirt…But this man was nearly naked."  He blushed when he noticed Teresa.  "Excuse me, Miss…"

"No need to apologize, doctor," Teresa smiled faintly, "I've seen Johnny half naked before."

Murdoch snapped his head up, raising a perturbed eyebrow.

"He sustained serious sunburns to all his exposed flesh.  If he had been light skinned like yourself Mr. Lancer, we would not be having this conversation. Now again, I ask you how this happened."

"Doctor," Scott shrugged, looking down at his own hands swaddled in thick bandages. "I'm afraid all I can tell you is we were robbed two days outside Barstow.  Johnny was hit in the arm. The men who robbed us took everything…water, food, guns …They left us with our horses and the clothes on our back."

"Well, "Dr, Lofgren sighed, "I guess we'll have to wait to hear what your brother has to say.  Meanwhile, I'd like to keep you here for a couple more days.  You both were suffering from malnutrition and dehydration."

"When do you think Johnny will regain consciousness?"

"It's hard to say.  We have been keeping him on a steady regiment of morphine."

Scott snapped his head toward Murdoch…

"We discussed it son," Murdoch assured him. "We'll deal with Johnny's protests later, when he has healed."

"I believe that is enough visiting for today."  The doctor advised.  "You can come and see your family again tomorrow.'

"One more thing, doctor." Scott looked over at Johnny and studied the bandages covering his eyes. "His eyes?"

Dr. Lofgren cocked his head toward Johnny, "It's hard to tell what kind of damage will be permanent, if any.  The only thing to do now is flush his eyes with Boric acid and keep them covered, and see to it that he has complete bed rest for at least two weeks.  We'll know more then."

Scott couldn't restrain the smile that played at the corners of his mouth, "Doctor, you have no idea what a fight you will have on your hands keeping Johnny Lancer down for two weeks."

"Oh, I believe I have my ways."  The doctor retorted.

Three days later Scott was still trying to sleep the night through without the frightening jangled dreams.

He worried constantly about Johnny. He had still not regained consciousness.

 

The next morning Johnny felt that same soft hand lightly touch his cheek.  As light as it was, the touch was still painful.

He tried to comprehend what had happened, where he was…Horrible images filled his dreams. Memories that made no sense seemed so real.  He worried about Scott…

"Hey little brother…how about joining the rest of us?" That was Scott.

"Scott?" he smiled, and his lips cracked.  Something cool dabbed at them and then he tasted cool water and he gulped at it thirstily.

"Hey, hey…not so fast."  That was Teresa.

He must be home.  But the smells were different.  The bed linen wasn't his.

He tried to open his eyes and was shocked to find that he couldn't.  Fear washed over him…memories of voices…evil ugly voices pressed in around him.  He shivered at the memory of death and destruction.

"It's alright, son." Murdoch's hand patted his shoulder, and the touch made him wince." The doctor covered your eyes.  They were exposed to the sun too long.  But you'll be just fine in a couple of weeks."

"Scott…"

"Right here, Johnny."

What happened?"  His skin burned and stretched with every breath. His legs throbbed, but it was overshadowed by the pain in his left arm.

"We were robbed, remember?"

Johnny nodded.  But there was more.

"We were picked up by some travelers and brought here."

"Here?"

"St. Mathews Hospital in Sacramento.  Doctor says you'll be out of here, right as rain in a couple weeks."

Johnny smiled, knowingly.  "Now, you know Boston, that ain't about to happen. A few days, maybe…but not two weeks."

"We'll see, Johnny."

"Meanwhile…"  Murdoch gently combed Johnny's hair with his fingers…he hated not being able to touch his boy for fear of bringing him more pain. "It's getting late and we better get out of here before that nurse of yours kicks us out.  And I mean kick.  That woman…"

"That woman…what…Mr. Lancer?"  There was another voice in the room, one Johnny didn't recognize.

There was a scurry of feet and a glass of vile tasting liquid was poured in his mouth… "I've been waiting all day to give you your medication.  My name is Nurse Appleton, young man…if you need anything, just call. And listen to your brother.  He's a nice boy…unlike other people in this room who shall remain nameless…"

Johnny felt himself slide into a deeper blackness…damn, she drugged me, why did Murdoch let her?  He tried to hold on, but a voice called to him…reawakening horrid memories of dark cold places…

 

Johnny didn't know what time it was when he awoke again.  The room was quiet.  There were no sounds outside in the hall beyond his room.  He could hear the soft even breaths of Scott as he slept in the next bed.

Carefully, because every move brought pain to every part of his body, Johnny raised his right hand to touch the bandages wrapped around his eyes.

"Don't touch." Came Scott’s amused voice.

"I thought you were asleep."

There as an awkward silence then…"It's not been easy to sleep. Strange dreams…"

Johnny contemplated whether to tell Scott or not…his dreams had been filled with images he could not explain. "Are they about a cave and an old woman…?"  he asked hesitantly.

He heard Scott take a sudden surprised breath… "You too?"

Johnny nodded in the blackness.

The door opened and Johnny heard Nurse Appleton walk in.

"It's late. You both should be sound asleep. Do either of you need something to help you sleep?"

There was a combined "No."

"Very well, call me if you change your mind."

The door closed and in the darkness Johnny had a clear image of a house sitting in the middle of the desert.

"Brujas… " he said softly.

"What did you say?" Scott demanded, his voice shaking.

"Brujas."  Johnny repeated.

The silence in the room was deafening.

 

A fortnight passed and Johnny sat in his favorite chair next to his bedroom window drinking in all the beauty as night descended over the valley, a beauty that was nearly lost to him forever.

He was finally in the safety of his own room. It had been a struggle to convince Dr. Lofgren that he could handle the long trip home. The hospital had been filled with strangers, poking and prodding him at every turn. He hoped, now that he was home, the nightmares would go away in time…leave him to sleep through the night with out waking, shivering in a cold sweat.

The door opened and Scott stepped in. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

Johnny nodded.  "I was afraid there for awhile that I'd never see it again."

Scott sat down on the bed, his eyes downcast.  He had lost weight.  His face was still showing the ravages of the desert sun. The dark circles attested to his lack of sleep. 

"You got something ta say, Boston?  Spit it out."

"You mentioned Brujas back at the hospital."  There was a long pause. "Do you believe in them?"

"Do you?"

"I asked the question."

Johnny glanced down at his left arm and ankles, still heavily swathed in bandages. "I ain't disbelieving…"

"The things I remember…the things I see in my dreams…"

Johnny nodded.  "I see them too.  Scott, after tonight I never want to talk about it again.  The more I think about her, the closer she gets.  Sometimes I feel like she's just waiting…"

"You don't think…?

The stench that drifted into the room froze both men.

"Next time," Johnny whispered, "you'll believe me when I tell you the house is Maldecido."

 

~end~

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