Summary: (A story to celebrate Halloween)
Word Count: 4900
Surrounded by an untidy stack of bills and receipts, Murdoch Lancer swallowed down the last remnants of coffee in his cup. After being forgotten and left too long, the liquid was now tepid and he gave a slight grimace of distaste as it disappeared down his throat.
A clock chimed the midnight hour, and from a few feet away, a loud yawn echoed in the large living room of the hacienda. Murdoch looked over from his desk towards a figure sprawled along the full length of the settee. “I don’t expect Scott is going to show up now, so why don’t you head off to bed, son?”
Although he stretched out his arms, Johnny made no further attempt to follow his father’s instruction. “Reckon I’ll give him another hour, just in case.”
“Look, I know you’re worried…”
Johnny sat up and shot his father a tense glance. “Of course I’m worried, Murdoch! There’s a lot of country out there to get lost in,” he quickly interrupted. “Don’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind something might have happened to him between here and the Henderson’s place?”
“Of course it’s briefly crossed my mind,” Murdoch responded in a more calming tone. “But Scott is a grown man and has proven more than once he’s well able to take care of himself.”
“So you’re not overly worried, even though he’s more than three days overdue?”
“No, I’m not overly worried,” Murdoch repeated and lowered his eyes from his son’s penetrating gaze.
“Then why’ve you been staring at the same page and haven’t put pen to paper for the past thirty minutes? And don’t try and tell me it’s ‘cause the figures don’t add up. You weren’t even seeing those numbers the way your mind looked to be over fifty miles away.”
The wisp of a half-hidden smile played lightly on the corner of Murdoch’s mouth and he closed the monthly accounts ledger in front of him. He had to acknowledge over the past few months he’d noticed an underlying depth to Johnny, and at times his son seemed to know exactly what he was thinking and could read him like a book.
Maybe he should suggest they ride out first thing and retrace Scott’s journey north to give them both peace of mind?
He was about to offer up the suggestion when, from outside, Murdoch heard the sound of clattering hooves on hard earth. Turning his head, he looked through the large French window, and by the light of a full moon, a single rider pulled to a halt.
Murdoch blew a sigh of pure relief at the recognizable outline of the darkened figure as he dismounted and led his horse into the barn. “Talk of the devil,” he murmured with a smile and felt a weight lift from his shoulders. For after being away for several days, his eldest son was finally home, and for one anxious father all was now right with the world.
With a saddle bag flung over his shoulder, weary legs carried Scott across the yard without much conscious thought. After quietly entering the house, he hung up his hat, coat and gun-belt behind the door, and was about to go upstairs when he heard the scraping of a chair from the main downstairs room. Not expecting anyone to still be up at such a late hour, Scott entered, blinking his eyes rapidly to accustom them to the brightness from several oil lamps.
Though slightly surprised by his haggard appearance, Johnny still gave him the broadest of smiles. “Hey, Scott, about time you showed up. The old man’s run me ragged making me do your share of the chores this past week.”
“A little hard work never did anyone any harm, brother, even you,” Scott managed to joke, returning his welcoming grin with a tired one of his own.
“Good to have you back, son, though it’s mighty late to be travelling, isn’t it?” Murdoch added in greeting as he strode away from his desk and made towards him. He was also struck by the sight of dark shadows ringing his eyes but kept silent.
Scott dropped his bag onto a table with a sigh. “I did think about bedding down for the night several miles back. But the lure of a soft mattress made me decide to keep going even when it got dark.” He then sank down heavily in one of the leather armchairs by the side of the fire, and rubbed the aching muscles on the back of his neck where they’d twisted into tender knots. “I realize I’ve been away longer than planned. Hope you weren’t too worried about me.”
“Worried? Why’d you think we’d be worried about you, brother? Old enough and ugly enough to take care of yourself, aren’t you?” Johnny teased with a feigned look of indifference.
Scott gave a faint smile which didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Are you hungry?” Murdoch then asked. “Teresa made some mighty fine stew for dinner. I’ll go plate you some up if you like.”
“No thank you, sir. Not hungry, just feel dead beat. Haven’t slept much these past couple of nights,” Scott answered as he rested his head on the back of the chair, his drawn expression not lost on his father.
Leaning against the mantelpiece, Murdoch continued to give his eldest a considered stare and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “What’s the matter, son? Didn’t you manage to do a deal with Henderson after all?”
Scott gave a slow nod. “The contract is signed and sealed. We now have an extra one thousand acres of prime meadowland.” He gestured with a hand towards his saddle bag. “Papers are all in there.”
Still Murdoch could sense something bothering him. “Did old Walt give you a hard time negotiating a fair price?”
“No sir. We had everything settled amicably within the day. He even sent you a bottle of his precious homemade rot-gut, though reckon it should come with a warning.”
“That good, eh, brother?”
“Better than good Johnny,” Scott acknowledged. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t strip paint.”
“Anyway,” Scott continued. “I decided with my business completed and extra time on my hands, I’d do a detour on my way home, but it was further than I expected.”
Murdoch eyed him, bemused. “A detour? Where’d you end up son?”
Scott took a moment before looking over and answering. “Carterville.”
There was a brief silence as father and eldest exchanged a knowing stare. Scott then offered up an explanation. “Seeing as it’s been several months since I arrived here in California, I thought the time to visit was long overdue.”
Murdoch gave a nod of understanding. “I’d have been happy to take you any time,” he admitted in a quiet voice. “You only had to ask.”
Scott held his father’s sincere gaze for a moment. “Thank you sir, but I wanted to go alone to pay my respects.”
Johnny looked between them with a puzzled frown. “Never heard of this Carterville, so someone care to tell me what’s going on?”
“It’s where my mother was buried,” Scott responded, the words uttered sending a flicker of anguish to pass across his strained face.
“Sorry, Scott,” Johnny replied apologetically. “I didn’t realize that was the name of the place.”
Quickly regaining his composure, Scott shrugged without taking offence. “It’s okay, brother. You weren’t to know, seeing as it’s never come up in conversation.”
“Regrettably, I haven’t been back for a number of years. After what happened, I couldn’t face…well, there just never seemed to be enough time,” Murdoch admitted with a sorrowful sigh. “Your grandfather paid for Catherine’s headstone. He insisted on no expense spared.”
Scott nodded as he once more viewed it in his mind’s eye. “It certainly is a finely carved piece of granite,” he acknowledged wearily.
Johnny gave him a sympathetic smile and began to rise to his feet. “Looks like you need to turn in, brother. You can tell us more about your trip after a good night’s rest.”
However, even though he’d only managed no more than a couple of hours sleep over the past few days, Scott shook his head. “No, please, Johnny, not yet,” he begged. “Truth is, there’s something I need to talk to you both about. Something that happened…”
As his voice trailed and without waiting for a response, Scott stood up and poured himself a whisky from a crystal decanter. His hand visibly shook as he downed the shot in one.
Complying with his request, Murdoch pulled up a chair while Johnny eased back down. Johnny narrowed his gaze towards his brother, instinctively sensing something serious was troubling him. “What’s going on with you, Scott? You haven’t had a run in with someone, have you?”
“Yes…no…I mean, not in the way you think.”
The uneasy silence in the room was practically tangible as Scott poured himself a second glassful of pure malt. For a moment, he studied the golden liquid, then slowly turned to meet his brother’s blue-eyed gaze full on. “Tell me something, Johnny. Do you believe in ghosts?”
Totally unprepared for the question, Johnny couldn’t help but let out a laugh at the thought. “Ghosts? Hell no. Why?”
Without answering, Scott looked over at his father. “What about you Murdoch?”
“I’ve never come across one, if that’s what you mean.”
Scott’s response was resigned rather than disappointed as he took a sip from his glass. “So you’re of the same opinion as Johnny.”
“That’s not what I said, Scott. Just because I’ve never seen one doesn’t mean I don’t accept they could well exist.”
Scott finished his drink and set the glass back down on a tray then returned to his chair. For a few moments, he stared down at his hands clasped tight in his lap. “You know, funny thing is, up to a couple of days ago I’d been of the same mind as Johnny,” he admitted with a wry smile. “If anyone had told me they’d seen a ghost, phantom, apparition, or whatever you’d want to call it, I’d have put it down to too much liquor or an over active imagination. Only now…” He paused and shook his head. “Only now I don’t know what to think.”
“You saying you’ve seen one of these apparitions?”
Scott heard his brother’s skeptic tone. Raising his gaze, he looked him straight in the eye. “Seen, spoke to, touched, and all the while sober as a judge, Johnny. So what does that make me — a liar or just plain mad?”
“Considering you’re neither of those, I think it makes you owing us an explanation,” Murdock said with a gentle smile. “Why don’t you start at the beginning and let us form our own opinion.”
With a look of appreciation towards his father, Scott nodded. “Just promise me, whatever I tell you will be kept in this room. I wouldn’t want to risk being made a laughing stock or sent to the asylum.”
Johnny opened his mouth to make a jokey retort but snapped it shut again as he scanned Scott’s face. His elder brother looked haunted and like a little boy lost, desperate to be taken seriously and craving to be believed. So instead, he rested his elbow on the settee arm and rubbed his temple with his fingertips, watching him thoughtfully as Scott’s mind flashed back in time.
“After I arrived at Carterville, I asked for directions and was soon by my mother’s grave. There was no one else around so I began explaining why I hadn’t visited before, about Boston, returning to Lancer and everything I was doing now. I know it seems stupid, just talking to a mound of earth, but it felt the right thing to do. Does that make sense?”
Murdoch nodded. “Perfect sense, Scott. Go on.”
“By the time I’d finished and said my goodbyes, it had grown dark. I didn’t feel like heading back into town, so as it was a warm night I camped out by a small creek not too far away. For a long while, I just sat listening to the water flowing by, thinking about this and that, when suddenly out the corner of my eye, I noticed a young woman walking in my direction. When she drew closer, she asked if she could join me for a while, and before I knew it, she was sat on the ground by my side.”
Scott paused and the corners of his mouth twitched at the memory. “After we introduced ourselves, I couldn’t help but mention it was very late for a lady to be out alone. Wasn’t she worried about getting lost and talking to a total stranger in the middle of the night? She just laughed and said she’d been walking these parts for as long as she could remember, and there was no chance of ever losing her way. As for being worried about me, she said she’d known from first sight she was perfectly safe in my company.
“Once we started chatting, I have to confess I ended up doing most of the talking. She seemed to be curious about everything I’d done, and kept shying away from telling me anything about herself. I don’t know how long our conversation lasted — it could have been an hour, or two, even three. Time just seemed to have no meaning. Then all of a sudden, she stilled as though listening to something or someone far in the distance. She gave a slight nod, looked at me and took hold of my hand, saying she was very sorry but she had to leave.
“Her fingers were as cold as ice and she leaned across and kissed my cheek. I then noticed there was an earring missing from her right ear. I asked if she realized one had been misplaced, but I don’t think she could have heard because…”
Scott stopped, choosing his next words carefully. “Because she just raised her hand in farewell, then I swear she slowly faded away in front of my eyes, vanishing like a swirling mist at dawn, until finally all that was left was the heavy scent of lavender in the air.”
As silence ensued, Scott looked down nervously at the floor and wondered if his father and brother thought him crazy. Maybe he was.
“What did you do next, son?”
At the sound of his softly spoken voice, Scott searched Murdoch’s expression for any sign of ridicule but found none. “I…I was confused, shocked, and to be honest, not a little scared. I mean, I’ve never been a believer in the existence of things supernatural, but I couldn’t deny what I’d just seen. I remember lying back and staring up at the stars, trying to make sense of what had just gone on and failing. Then I guess I must have dropped off, because the next thing I knew it was dawn.”
Despite the seriousness of the moment, Johnny’s lips quirked in a vague smile. “I tell you something, brother; if it’d been me, I’d have been more than a little scared if I saw someone disappear in a puff of smoke.” He fell silent again before continuing in a more sympathetic tone. “I can see you truly think it all happened as you said it did, but isn’t it obvious it was only a dream?”
Scott gave a slow nod, drew a deep breath and lifted his head to bring his eyes level with his father. “Well sir, what do you make of it?”
For a few moments, Murdoch didn’t answer as he met his son’s questioning gaze. “I agree with your brother,” he finally answered. “I’m sure it was just a dream. A weird and pretty vivid one, I grant you, but a dream nonetheless.”
“Just a dream,” Scott said quietly with a faint smile. “Believe me, that was the first thing I thought when I woke up. But that was before…”
With father and brother watching him closely, Scott picked out a small object from his shirt pocket, allowing it to dangle loosely between forefinger and thumb. “I found this on the ground where my ghostly visitor had been sitting. It wasn’t there the night before when I set up camp.”
Both Murdoch and Johnny leaned forward and stared at a single dewdrop pearl earring. “This is just like the one she was wearing. In fact, I’d stake my life on it being the exact same one. Now do you think I was dreaming?”
For a moment, both men sat dumb with shock as they stared transfixed at the earring. Then Johnny sucked in a breath. “Well, what’d you know,” he murmured in whispered wonder, unable to stop a shiver running down his spine. “It seems like I might well need to eat some humble pie for once, brother.”
Murdoch took hold of the earring from his son’s grasp without saying a word. For several more seconds, he gazed at it incredulously, hardly able to believe what he was seeing. Finally he shook himself out of his self-imposed trance. He stood up and walked to his desk, opened a drawer, and moments later returned with a small velvet box.
He opened it and dropped the sole content into a slightly trembling right palm. It was an earring, the exact double of the one it was now lying next to.
As both his sons stared at him in silent bewilderment, Murdoch looked at his eldest for a brief moment.
“On her eighteenth birthday, your mother was presented with a pair of earrings by her dying grandmother. They’d been made specially and were a one off design,” he explained, then let his gaze return to the treasured pieces of jewelry in his hand. “The old lady passed away shortly afterwards, and from then on Catherine wore them all the time. When I returned home after a couple of weeks away and discovered she’d been persuaded to leave for Boston with your grandfather, I found one under a chair in our bedroom. It must have slipped off during her hasty departure and she hadn’t noticed. Knowing how much they meant to her, I kept it, intending to give it back when we were together again, but…well, I never had the chance.”
As he fingered the earrings in his hand, Murdoch thought lovingly of the woman who’d worn them and who’d died so tragically on the trail shortly after giving birth to their son. Finally, he raised his eyes and met Scott’s look of continued bafflement with an accepting smile. “I feel sure these are back again as a matching pair because it’s what Catherine wanted to happen.”
Totally perplexed Scott sagged back in his chair. “I don’t…I mean are you saying you actually believe it was my mother I was talking to? But the woman I saw looked nothing like her photograph.”
With a slight shrug of the shoulders, Murdoch placed the earrings carefully back in the box and firmly pushed back the lid. “I can’t pretend to understand what’s gone on or have any feasible answer to your question, Scott. But from the evidence here in my hand, I can only come to one conclusion, unbelievable though it seems. It must have been Catherine.”
Still not convinced, Scott turned towards his brother. “I’d appreciate your opinion.”
Johnny took but a moment to consider. “I tell you, Scott, I never thought I’d say this,” he admitted quietly with a smile, but there was no humor in his voice. “I reckon it was your mother’s ghostly spirit visiting you that night as well.”
For a few moments, Scott couldn’t speak. He sat and stared down, his mind a whirl of confusion, until he slowly nodded his head in resignation. “Now that I think of it, it makes sense it was her, considering what she said just before she…she disappeared.”
Murdoch tilted his head slightly and gave an inquiring look. “What was that son?”
Scott cleared his throat, the words well remembered. “She’d been allowed to postpone her final journey in the hope I’d turn up one day and give her the chance to say a proper farewell.” Tears suddenly welled in his eyes and he hastily wiped a hand across them. “I’m grateful to have had the chance to be reunited with her, if only for a short while, but I wish I’d known who she was at the time. Why couldn’t she tell me, instead of just saying her name was Bella?”
Although Scott didn’t expect an answer, Murdoch suddenly froze momentarily and took in a sharp breath. “Bella? Are you sure that’s what she said?”
“Bella,” Murdoch whispered once more as sadness flowed through his body and his own eyes noticeably moistened. For a heartbreaking memory, he’d tried so hard to push away over the years had now resurfaced again.
Johnny noticed the change in his father’s demeanor and how his face had visibly paled. “What’s wrong, Murdoch? Anyone would think you’d just seen a ghost of your own.”
Scott quickly looked over as Murdoch shifted uneasily in his chair. “Some things are best left in the past,” he finally murmured towards his son.
A muscle flicked Johnny’s jaw. Their relationship was still relatively new and there was still much to learn about each other. However, it hadn’t taken him long after arriving at Lancer to realize how much his father meant to him. Along with his brother, they’d both quickly secured a firm place in his heart, and he had no intention of turning his back on either when it was obvious they were hurting.
“No, Murdoch, you’re wrong. Some things are best talked about,” Johnny emphatically insisted. “Me and Scott haven’t stuck around just to claim a third of this ranch. We’ve stayed here because the three of us are a family now — no secrets hidden, everything shared, good and bad.”
Murdoch pursed his lips in thought before replying, the sincerity of Johnny’s words having touched him deeply. “Very well, son,” he finally agreed. “I’ve never told anyone this before and it’ll be hard for you to hear Scott. For that, I’m truly sorry.”
Feeling his stomach churn apprehensively, Scott met his eyes and just gave a silent nod.
“About a year after Catherine died, I returned for a second time to Carterville,” Murdoch began, his gaze focused on his eldest. “I was standing by her graveside when a woman by the name of Consuela approached me. I’d met her briefly months before when she’d told me what happened after you’d been born, and the part Harlan played in your mother’s…well, that’s another story.”
With Johnny listening intently, neither he nor Scott missed the edge in their father’s voice, but they said nothing as Murdoch paused and swallowed hard.
“Consuela said there was something she needed to tell me in order to clear her conscience. She’d helped deliver you at the local hotel, but after the birth, Catherine was left so weak Harlan took you into the next room to let her rest for a while. Consuela remained with your mother, and it soon became apparent there was another baby on the way.”
With a gasp, Scott looked over in shocked surprise. “I was a twin?”
His stunned look didn’t go unnoticed. Murdoch sighed sorrowfully at the sight. “No one had any idea Catherine was carrying two. According to Consuela, it was a very fast delivery, and the state she was in, your mother seemed completely unaware of the fact she’d given birth a second time. However the baby was tiny and sickly looking and only took a couple of breaths before…before she passed away.”
Murdoch’s face now reflected a father’s anguish at the loss of a child, his voice choked with emotion.
“Thinking she might be blamed for the death, Consuela decided to hide her out of sight, as she knew Harlan had arranged to leave with your mother within the next couple of hours. When told Catherine had died a few miles out of town, Consuela buried the child next to her grave and planted a small lavender bush there, to mark where she lay.
“Consuela couldn’t forgive herself for not telling me the first time we’d met that I’d also had a daughter. She just hoped I could forgive her and free her of the guilt she’d felt since that day.”
No one spoke for several seconds, the respectfully silence for a newborn long gone conveying more than words ever could.
Finally Johnny ended the quiet between them as he gave his father and brother a considered stare. “I know it’s been a while, but I’m real sorry for your loss,” he said softly with genuine feeling.
With his story told, Murdoch felt better for the telling, though sadness still lingered in his heart as he gave him a tender look. “She was your sister as well, Johnny.”
This fact hadn’t immediately occurred to the young man. He drew a deep breath and wiped a hand across his face, Johnny’s own grief now clear.
“The lavender bush is…it’s still there,” Scott admitted hesitatingly and blinked away the sudden burning in his eyes. “I’d like to have a proper headstone made with her name on, and go back there, say a few words.”
“Of course,” Murdoch readily agreed. “I’m ashamed to say I could never find the courage to do it on my own, but now it’ll be more fitting for the three of us to be there together as a family.”
Scott nodded, apparently satisfied as his lips curved in a sad half smile. “Bella. Such a beautiful name for a beautiful woman. And she was beautiful, Murdoch…you’d have been so proud.”
Without embarrassment, Murdoch sniffed and brushed away a tear which escaped down his cheek. “Catherine insisted if we had a daughter, she be named after my own mother, Arabella.”
“Bella for short. So it wasn’t my mother but my sister who’d been waiting since we were born to see me again, and say a final goodbye.”
Showing no sign of contradiction, Murdoch sighed. “I’ve heard tell there’s a bond forged in the womb between twins that is never broken, Scott, even in death.”
Johnny leaned forward, his expression one of puzzlement. “But what about the earring Scott found? You said it belonged to Catherine, so why would Bella be wearing it?”
Murdoch picked up the velvet box. For a moment he seemed lost in thought, his eyes glazed over with a distant memory. “Catherine always said, should she have a daughter, she’d give her these earrings on her eighteenth birthday.”
He stood up and placed the box on top of the mantle. “It would seem that pledge must have been fulfilled six years ago, even though at the time only one of the pair could be given as a gift.”
The three men remained in silent contemplation for several minutes, all emotionally spent. Then the quietness was shattered when a chime suddenly rang out twice and it seemed to free them from the spell of mystifying reflection.
Johnny pushed up from his seat and stretched. “Well, I’m going to call it a day. Not that I reckon after what I’ve heard I’ll be getting much sleep, but at least I’ll be resting horizontal.”
Murdoch nodded. “And me,” he agreed as he raked a hand through his hair. “It’s been quite a night.”
However Scott made no sign of movement as he stared into the dying embers of the fire.
“Coming up, brother?”
As he felt Johnny’s feather light touch on his arm, Scott looked at him with a start. He gave a faint smile. “In a few minutes.”
“You gonna be all right?”
Scott nodded reassuringly towards Johnny’s caring gaze.
Murdoch settled a hand on his shoulder. “You look dog-tired and fit to drop, so don’t be too long son.”
“I won’t, sir, and thank you for telling me about Bella. It can’t have been easy for you.”
“It needed to be said, son. I’ve kept it to myself for far too long.”
Scott could feel the emotion in his father’s words and he smiled affectionately, murmuring a quiet goodnight as both Johnny and Murdoch made their way out of the room and up the stairs.
Left alone, Scott returned his gaze to the fire, his thoughts concentrated on a blond haired woman wearing a tender expression on her face, laughing sweetly, and the reflection of flames from a camp fire dancing in sky blue eyes. He missed her company already, though logic dictated, how can you miss someone you’ve never known.
Scott sighed deeply but as he drew in a breath, he realized he could now smell the sweet aroma of lavender, so strong he could almost taste it.
“Bella?” His sister’s name was formed silently on his lips. Had she returned? Then as quickly as it had filled the room, the fragrance disappeared.
Inwardly disappointed, Scott stood up and was about to begin extinguishing the lamps when a thought occurred. On a hunch, he took hold of the velvet box from the mantle where Murdoch had left it. He removed the lid and looked inside.
As unashamed tears brimmed in his eyes, a deep feeling of contentment settled over him and he smiled.
The box was now empty.