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Ghost by Cat

Word Count 11, 896


Part 1

Johnny woke that morning and decided to stay where he was.  It struck him as the most logical course of action at the time; with everything that had gone on, it was the only safe place for him to be.  Besides, such a lethargy held him he could barely move.  He shut his eyes, rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.

    In the kitchen Teresa stood in front of a skillet of ham and eggs.  They would have burned, too, if Maria hadn’t quietly drawn her attention to what she was doing.  She came to with a start, brushed a tear from her eye and made up for lost time, breaking the yolks in the process.  Johnny liked his eggs whole.  Well, this morning he would just have to have them the way they were.

    Out in the barn, Jelly was applying more of his patent medicine to Barranca’s leg.  It would be a week at least before he could begin to exercise him properly.  He sighed and patted Barranca’s flank, steadying him down and working in slow, even movements, soothing the horse.  How long before he could be ridden again?  How long before Johnny started wanting to ride him again?  The old man did not know.

    In his study, Murdoch sat behind his desk and tried once more to figure out how to write the letter.  He had had to write such letters before but this one had him stumped.  Three crumpled pieces of paper already littered the floor; but he was no nearer saying what he needed to say.  He puffed impatiently at his pipe.  Perhaps Scott, with his superior education, could find the right words to say … well, what needed to be said.  He put down his quill pen and read through what he had already written.

“It is with great regret that I have to tell you…”

It was so formal – so cold.  It simply did not do justice to the life that had gone.  The life – –

    Scott paced in his own room, unwilling to face the family just yet.  He was fully aware that what happened affected his brother more than himself.  But to some extent his life had been touched.  He would not easily forget.

Part 2

    Johnny had half-hoped someone might come to roust him out of bed and tell him off for his laziness.  Someone who would make the decision to kick start his life again.  Two days since – but the place in his memory was too raw for him to revisit.  He knew vaguely that he did not want to face anything any more.  He had seen death before, had been the direct cause of death before, but the other guy had always had it coming; and more times than not he had tried to avoid the finality of death except when it was his life or theirs.  Or better still, to protect someone else.  So why had it all gone so wrong this time?  However hard he tried to slip away from the images in his mind they returned, played over and over but in such brief glimpses they made little sense to him: the moments before, when he had seen the danger and knew he could do nothing; the moments during, when a life was being snatched before he could even begin to think how to change the course of events; the final seconds of a life, when he had screamed for help, and then subsided into silence in the face of what he had done.  Even now, a week after that death, he could feel the body in his arms and knew with the sharp clean edge of a knife cut that the life had gone from it.  One minute, laughing, the next gone.  He wanted to scream again.  He wanted to cry.  He wanted to sleep.  He was denied all these simple releases of emotion and lay curled in on himself, his muscles aching with tension, his fists still clenched, unable to sleep, or cry or scream.  What had they said?  An accident?  Three days, then the burial, then two days and here he was, paralysed with guilt and a dread of doing anything ever again.  And who in his family would help him?  There was no-one who would trust him again, give him responsibility and teach him how to make good use of that rare gift.

    He had to get up. He knew that physically he could walk, speak, laugh – do what he pleased.  Somehow, whatever it was that had driven him to move and to do and be before was hidden from him. He could barely see or think.  He drank some water and looked out of the window.  The life of the ranch continued in bright sunlight, as it always had done.  It had gone on for years without him.  Now it must wait until he could begin to take back his life.  Not just yet.  He drew the curtains, stumbled back to bed and drew the covers back over his head.  Nothing wrong with putting down a load that was too heavy.  No: everything wrong with putting down this load.  But he had no choice.  That was just how it was going to be for now.

    Teresa looked at the dining table, where the cold, uneaten breakfast was a testament to the way the family had broken apart in the face of events.  A bare week before and they all been sitting at the table, laughing at one of Scott’s stories of life in Boston.  She had watched their visitor, quietly amused, turn to Scott and smile.  It was a smile the whole family had waited some time to see; a relaxed, unforced smile, not of politeness or gratitude, but of belonging.  Johnny had not missed it either, and had poured more coffee for their visitor, and passed over the eggs.  He had become very preoccupied with ensuring the young woman in their charge was fed and happy, and he was laughing with Scott while he tempted her to eat.  Teresa had watched her blush and smile again when she saw her plate piled with good things.  She had made a valiant attempt to eat it all, too.

    She should be cleaning up, or organising the girls to do out the rooms; but she had no heart for it.  The housework would just have to wait.

“Murdoch – are you sure you don’t want anything?”

“No, darling – I’ll have something later.”

“Have you seen Scott?  Or Johnny?”

“They’ll be out doing the chores.  I need to write this letter – isn’t it time you went into town?  Inez was really hoping you’d drop by and see the baby today.  Wasn’t she?”

    Teresa wanted to hug Murdoch.  Of all the things to remember at a time like this.  He appeared uncaring too often; yet he truly cared for her, what she did and what she wanted.

“I’ll ask Johnny to take me in.  We need to talk.”

    “No – darling, leave Johnny alone.  He has to know what we think about him for what’s happened.  It’ll take him awhile to get used to – ”

“To being responsible?”

“Go into town.  Give Charlie my regards.  Buy yourself a new hat, or a new dress.  But don’t go making it any easier on Johnny.  He has to learn.”

    Teresa nodded.  She had always forgiven Johnny in the past; it was difficult to be angry with him for long.  This time, forgiveness was not going to come easily to her.

Jelly helped Teresa with the buggy and spent every minute of the time trying to find out how she was feeling about things, the death and Johnny in particular.  Teresa was non-committal, but he felt she was longing to pour out her heart to him.  He tried not to fuss round but in was in his nature to be concerned about the welfare of all living things around him.  But Johnny had gone too far this time and he was wondering whether he ought to be trying to speak to him, to get him to realise that what he’d done was unforgivable.  Johnny had seemed so quiet since it had happened – didn’t seem sad, or contrite or any such emotion, after the first few minutes when they’d found them and brought them both home.  It fair broke his heart to see such a lovely young thing with all the life gone from her eyes, when they’d all worked so hard to give her back some of her sparkle, some of the spring in her step.  Why had Johnny done it?  It was not like him to be stupid – reckless, maybe, unthinking sometimes.  But not stupid, surely.  What had possessed him?  And Barranca hurt too, not much better after five days of care, and Johnny had not even been out to see how he was.

“Johnny up yet?” he asked, trying to appear casual.

“I haven’t seen him.  He didn’t have breakfast.  Murdoch said he was out doing his chores.”

“Curtains in his room’re still closed.”

“Maybe he got up before first light.  Did he take another horse?”

“Nope.  None of the good stock’s out, anyways.  Maybe he’s just walking round.  Serves him right if he ain’t ever able to ride Barranca again.”


    “I’m sorry, Teresa, I just can’t bear to see that horse suffering on account of what he did.  That horse’d follow his master anywhere.  Did, too, from what we could find out.  So I just can’t find it in my heart to forgive him this time.”

    Teresa climbed up onto the buggy seat and, tight-lipped, set off for town.  Of course, Jelly knew he didn’t mean what he was saying.  He had forgiven Johnny the minute he had seen him, pale and trembling, holding the girl in his arms, looking like he’d happily trade his life for hers.  And blaming himself, over and over, until he fell silent, no-one disagreeing with him or comforting him.  They’d all been too shocked, too sad themselves to take care of his feelings.  All Jelly could do was think that maybe, in a couple of weeks, he’d be able to corner Johnny and give him a good piece of his mind, then they’d be back to being friends and Johnny’d play some prank on him, or some such thing, and the life would begin to come back to the ranch.  Maybe just a couple of weeks.  Didn’t matter how long, it’d happen.  Jelly held onto that thought as he went back to his chores, wondering where Johnny would be holed up this time.

   Murdoch finished the letter at last.  It was too late really; they had already buried her.  But that had been the agreement: if she should die there, she was to be buried there.  Her cousins had sent her to live with them with not much hope that she would survive.  If his son had contributed to her death in any way – and the sheriff had well and truly absolved him – then it was better they should not know that.  It was a small lie, better for everyone.  So the letter was written, the condolences sent.  He put the letter with a small package of her belongings, not yet sealed.  So little to return for a life.  He wondered if he should keep anything – for Johnny, who had become so attached, in a short time, to the flicker of life that she had kept in her, despite her illness.  Why had he then, in effect, killed her?  He wasn’t to know it would happen; but it had been a foolish move and bound to lead to some trouble or other.  For the first time, Murdoch pitied his son.  It was a destructive emotion and did not lead him to search Johnny out and try to talk to him about what had happened.  His younger son would work things out for himself, he was sure, in a few weeks.  Then they would all be back to normal.

    Scott gave up pacing his room, tired of waiting for Johnny to come and find him.  He went out to do some work, noticing Johnny’s drawn curtain but thinking nothing of it.  On such a large ranch, it was easy enough to lose oneself for a day or so.  Maybe he should do just that.

 Part 3

    All day Johnny lay in bed, hours and hours on his back or his side, dozing and then waking, cramped, jaws locked against the ache inside him.  He had no energy to stop the voice in his head which told him to stay where he was, to forget doing and living in favour of the nullity of overheated darkness.

    He lay in dread of the sudden return to his imagination of the moment when life had ended.  Each time, it took him unawares, just as he was falling asleep, or half-waking.  Each time it was as vivid as when it happened the first time; his brain seemed to have recorded each sensory detail: the spiky glitter of creek water; the rush from sunlight to shadow, from hot to cool; the many-layered water sounds as Barranca had trotted, at his command, through the pool and out onto the bank; and her laughter, above all her laughter, as she had held him tight and been drenched.    After that, a blank, a dark, deep hole into which he fell noiselessly.  He still fell.  Would he ever reach the bottom?  He was weightless, insubstantial. Invisible.  Perhaps that was why no-one was coming to tell him off again or make him feel even less a part of the world of ordinary mortals.  He was special.  He was marked out from others.  He was a killer.

Teresa  spent all afternoon chatting with Inez, watching the twins crawl round their play pen and listening to their mother talk about them endlessly.  They had grown considerably since she had seen them last.  Both dark-haired, one had brown eyes, the other blue, the little boy.  Every time she looked at him she wondered if Johnny had looked like that as a child, so carefree and uncomplaining.  They were delightful children and she helped to bathe and dress them with great pleasure, forgetting for a time that she was wearing mourning black.  After a time, the conversation turned to Johnny’s actions and she had the full benefit of the town’s reactions.

    “Reckless thing to do, Teresa – I know he’s your family, almost, but that sort of upbringing, you know.  I’m surprised Murdoch lets him stay on – half the folks here said he should have had his marching orders.  It’s not like he left a few cattle to stray now, is it?  Now I feel sorry for him, he can’t have thought about what he was doing…”

    “Please – please stop.”  Teresa was aware she was crying and powerless to stop herself.  “He’s – as near to being my brother as anyone could ever be – I wish everyone would just keep their opinions to themselves.  None of us know quite what went on that day – and all he’ll say is that it’s his fault!   I wanted to help him but I don’t know how.  And part of me hates him, too, and wants him to go because she was my friend and I wanted her to go on staying with us.”

    Inez gathered her in her arms and was silent while Teresa wept, properly, for the first time since it had happened: for her friend, for Johnny and for herself.  The twins were quietly playing; life went on.

In the late afternoon sunlight, Jelly took Barranca out of his stall and led him round for the first time, watching for any obvious lameness.  They he called on the services of one of the ranch hands, who walked and then trotted him back and forth.  He was still not pacing evenly, favouring one hind leg, and Jelly growled his disapproval.

    “All right, take him back in.  I’ll give him some more treatment and rest then we’ll try him again tomorrow.  At this rate I can’t see him being ridden properly for another month at least.  Still, if Mister Johnny Lancer ain’t interested in riding him no more, I don’t know why I’m going to such trouble with him.  ’Cept it’s not in my nature to leave a job half-done.”

    He mooched around outside the barn, thinking over what job he might do next and saw Johnny’s curtains still drawn.  He was still out on the range somewhere, then.  Well, if he needed to be alone that was all right, he could understand such a feeling.  And Johnny sure knew how to look after himself in most situations, even ones like these.  All of them had seen death before; but there was something different about this, something in the way the death had happened and something in the death of this particular girl that had made him question the way life was set up to happen.  He had worked with all sorts of folk, playing life out to the best of his ability, always ready to help.  And she had been so grateful to him and so sweet, even when she’d been feeling bad, that she had brought a renewed sense of purpose to his life, greatly increasing his gratitude that one day, not so long ago, he had run across the Lancer family’s kindness.  To lose her had been a huge blow and he was still numb and shocked; nothing in his life, bad though it had been at times, had prepared him for the loss.

    He watched Murdoch pace out to speak to him, grateful that his boss was ready to start ordering him around.  They talked for a while, remembering, and let the sadness begin to turn into fond memories, as both knew from experience would be the case.

    “Are we getting a headstone for her, boss?  Her grave looked kinda lonely somehow.  And I’ll be seeing to the flowers myself, if that all right.”

    “Sure, Jelly – why don’t you go see about a headstone for her.  We’ll all chip in.  Perhaps Johnny wants to choose what should go on the stone – I guess he got as close to her as anyone.  You seen him around?”

    “Naw – not since yesterday.  He’ll be off somewhere, trying to figure out for himself what happened.  He’ll be back in his own good time.  Wish I coulda got him to talk to me, though – never seen him so quiet before.”

    “He’ll talk when he wants to, I suppose.  But he really needs to decide for himself now whether he wants to go on living here. Because to be perfectly honest, Jelly, I’m not sure I want him here any more.”

    Jelly watched Murdoch stride away, mulling over those words.  All that time spent looking for his son – all those countless hours of worrying and wondering – and look what it had come to.  A grave, far away from home, for a woman whose future was not going to happen.  All for a moment’s carelessness; a momentary bad decision.

Jelly shook his head in disbelief at the twists of fate which governed people’s lives and went back to deciding which task was going to have his attention first.

    As Murdoch walked away, he glanced at the closed curtains of Johnny’s room.  He imagined the room, empty of its occupant, shut away from the daylight.  His son was old enough to look after himself; but something about the sight of those curtains troubled him.  He paused; but there was nothing to be done, so he resigned himself to completing his own chores and worrying later, should Johnny fail to appear for his evening meal.  It would be time enough then to think about where he might be.

    Scott sat on the hill above the ranch, thinking through the time he had spent with Johnny.  He remembered trying to advise Johnny to come back to the ranch. As he had pointed out, somewhat sarcastically, that Johnny had seemed more caged than free, sitting in the near-empty cantina in the morning, he had known Johnny would resist advice.  Still, there ought to be some way in which he could help.  He took off  his hat, pushed one hand through his hair, then replaced it with the brim further down in an attempt to keep the low sunlight out of his eyes.  He remembered the way happiness had begun to show in her eyes, after that first week when she had hidden herself away, unable to smile or respond with more than the odd word.  She had begun to bloom so quickly after that.  Had he felt a pang of jealousy when he realised she responded more readily to Johnny than to himself?  Perhaps; but he had not wanted more of her than to see her smile and to be her friend.  That he was certain he had been.  When she had become a little stronger he had played checkers with her and allowed her to beat him, until she told him to stop allowing her, and then she had beaten him fair and square.

    Such promise for the future.  A companion for all of them, especially for Teresa; someone with whom books could be discussed, and ideas.  Yet able to respond to Johnny’s temperament with the beginnings of a fire which might have matched his own.  Lost.  All lost.  Yet she might not have survived the year in any case, and she was happy when she died.  It had been quick and, as far as they could possibly tell, only momentarily painful.

    There – now he was trying to excuse his brother again, as he had done before, as if the boy needed his forgiveness, or defending from his own actions.  Perhaps they should have left him to learn more on his own about the nature of responsibility – the need to care for the consequences of actions, rather than simply carrying through any wild scheme which came to mind.  No, Johnny would have to learn and that meant he needed to be on his own, to think through his actions. Then there would be a family conference – he had almost thought trial – and things would just go back to normal.

He shook his head at this fanciful idea; they would never go back to being who they were before; the situation could never get back to being what it was.  No amount of forgiving Johnny would do that.  The world had been irrevocably changed, just a little, and it could never be quite the same again.

 Part 4

    Exactly what time of the night it was, Johnny could not tell: two, or perhaps three o’clock.  But he could not sleep, no matter how hard he tried to make the bed more comfortable, or empty his mind.  The meaning of her last words assaulted him, a message that would live with him until his dying day.  Perhaps he had mistaken what she had meant; perhaps she had intended to be kind.   But it had begun a process in him he was unable to halt and he no longer knew how to ask for help.

    He got up and very quietly opened the door.  The whole world seemed to be holding its breath.  His bare feet made little sound against the stone or across the ground as he made his way to the corral.  The horses moved restlessly in the moonlight.  He stood and watched them for a moment but even these innocent creatures brought back images which made him cringe and turn away.

    He made his body comfortable then walked round to the kitchen, lighting one candle there and finding some coffee left on the stove, and a couple of biscuits.  He ate them mechanically, unaware of taste, simply relying on instinct to keep him going.  Then on into the Great Room, carrying the candle, searching for something to do to pass the hours; something to keep a ghost away from him.  He pulled a book from the shelf and turned the pages; it held no interest for him but reading through the pages made the time pass, measured by the steady beat of the clock.  When it chimed the hour it so startled him that he jumped back, knocking over the chair on which he had perched.  Then there were sounds from upstairs, a door opening and he hurriedly replaced the book, in a way he had been taught would help him find it again quickly.  He quickly set the chair back in its place, grabbed the candle and ran back through the kitchen into the night.  Only when he was in his bed did he feel safe again.  But he was no nearer to sleep.

    Teresa came down the main stairs into the dark, open space of the Great Room, sure she had heard something – but there was nothing there.  She toured the room anxiously; perhaps someone had left a door open somewhere.  She should fetch one of the men but she felt foolish, standing in the middle of the room with no hint of an intruder anywhere.  She toured again; this time, she found fresh candle wax on the table.  And a book had been displaced, put spine first onto the shelf.  Unnerved, she paused; in daylight, she had no fear of ghosts, and Murdoch was always so – so rational and certain.  But the flickering light of the candle she carried was throwing shadows around the room and her imagination provided more shadows.  She remembered a moment two weeks earlier, when she had come downstairs very early to find their visitor sitting at the dining room table, reading.  With a start, Teresa realised she had replaced the book on the shelf just in that way – spine first.  It was such an odd and distinctive trick, she had asked about it.  The solution was simple: it was easy to find the book again that way.  Yet she had never seen it done before, even in haste.

   Could she still be there?  Somehow, in the darkness, the idea seemed perfectly natural.  They had given her haunted soul a moment of peace and happiness; if souls returned to earth, surely, it would be to a place they loved.  She had believed firmly in ghosts and the afterlife, talking about such matters often, and had persuaded Teresa to go to a lecture about the latest findings about the spiritual world.  She had even discussed the matter with Jelly, who seemed inclined to believe anything about ghosts was true.  Teresa had never seen a ghost herself; yet it seemed the only possible conclusion.  She would question the house staff in the morning.  She looked round the room once more.  It was so familiar in daylight hours but a place of mystery at night, associated with childhood terrors.  She yearned for it to be true, somehow.  Perhaps she could even make contact with her, make sure she was happy and – well, she could think no further than that.  She couldn’t quite share the minister’s belief that she had gone to a better place; she had seemed very happy where she was.  The only comfort she had was that Johnny had remembered her laughing.  He had told her over and over, in the first few hours, that she had been laughing..  It was nearly all he had said.  She had wanted so to help him, but he had shrugged them all off, one after the other, talking for a few minutes then withdrawing.  It had been more painful to watch that, almost, than trying to cope with her death.  She could still only half-believe it had happened.  Suddenly a movement caught her eye.  Startled, she glanced round; there in the doorway stood Jelly, pants hastily pulled on, lantern and rifle in hand.

    “Teresa!  What is it?”

    “Oh, Jelly – I thought – I thought you were a ghost!”

    “Her ghost?  Thought as much.  You think she’s still here, too – I was wondering about that myself.  Seen a light here a few minutes ago, then it went, then I saw another – must’ve been your candle.”

    “I found candle wax on the table and a book turned round on the shelf – just like she did.   And this chair’s been moved – see.  That’s the noise that woke me up I think.   No-one else would do that, would they? “

    “I reckon not.  You go right back to bed now – I’ll keep watch.  We’ll get the pastor in tomorrow – she needs to be on her way now.  She won’t do no good stayin’ here, specially not if Johnny finds out.”

    Teresa picked up her candle, pulled her shawl more tightly round her shoulders and headed for the stairs.  She had a book of her own she needed to consult, given to her by her friend after the lecture and hidden away.  “The Spirits: A True and Faithful Account of Their Return to The World and Contact With Loved Ones”.  The title had somewhat put her off; now it seemed essential reading.

    Jelly saw nothing in all the time he stayed awake in the great room; but he persuaded himself that he felt her presence there and was determined to give her peace.  But how was he going to get such an idea past Murdoch?  He would have to give that a good deal of thought.  He knew Murdoch would not believe any such idea.  Wouldn’t stop him from seeing the minister, though.

    The next morning Murdoch watched Teresa move restlessly between the kitchen and the dining room table, setting it for a meal they might or might not eat.  She was tired; he could read it in her movements and her face.  It was not surprising.  He made a mental note to speak to her at the end of the day, make sure there was nothing else he could say to help her through the grieving process.  If only he could do the same for Johnny.  Murdoch wondered for the hundredth time where he his younger son had gone.  He knew one or two of the places his son would go when he wanted to be alone, or his feelings had been hurt.  If only he had shared a few more of those moments with him.  Should he be searching for him?

    He looked out of the window, out onto the range he had been so proud to share with a son who had, after all, signed up to being a Lancer.  Surely he wouldn’t leave altogether without leaving them some sort of word.

    He leaned back in his chair and considered the events of the last few days as calmly as he could.  Rationally, his son was not guilty.  As far as any of them could judge, the whole chain of events had not been under Johnny’s control, so it had been easy enough to judge it all an accident.

    “Do you want some coffee?”

    Swivelling round to look at Teresa, Murdoch smiled.  “Thanks, darling.  Do you want me to come to the table?”

    “Oh – yes.  I so want us to be a family again.”

    “Then let’s sit here and pretend we are.”  Scott had walked in at that moment.  The edge on his voice was not lost on Murdoch.  A glance at his elder son was enough to confirm there was hurt there too, all caused by that moment a few days earlier.  If only Scott had gone with them.

    Scott had been considering exactly the same thought.  He had not gone because he had been too busy.  He had intended to catch them up earlier; instead, when he had found them it had been a good fifteen minutes too late.  What had Johnny endured in those fifteen minutes?  He had heard his brother shouting and had pushed on to find him, kneeling, with the girl in his arms.  Her injury had bled a little onto his hands and he would not relinquish her until Murdoch had been fetched.  He would not leave her.  He had carried her into the house and stayed with her as they had prepared her for her last journey.  All the time, Scott had known it was too much for his brother to bear.  He had tried several times to get him to talk; not a difficult task normally but this time, he had not been able to find a way in.  Frustrated, he had begun to pressurise his brother into talking.  He had met a blank wall.  Even that was better than not knowing where his brother was at all.

    He ate breakfast, talked quietly to his family, thought of what he might do during the day, and day-dreamed of finding his brother, alive and well, happy and enthusiastic for life, despite everything.  As he finished his coffee, he knew it was not going to happen.

Part 5

    Sometime during the second day, Johnny despaired of being found again.  Perhaps he had died too, and was a ghost wandering the house, invisible to everyone.  How long would such a state last?  Did he need to do something in order to move on?  But his physical needs were the same; he must still exist, he was too thirsty and hungry to be a ghost.  He sat in a chair in his room, in the filtered light, and wondered what to do.  It was difficult to make a decision.  He couldn’t easily reach the end of an idea; somehow the threads of the decision would not weave together.  He may have dozed a little.  Time no longer held together in quite the same way.  A fly, buzzing at the window pane absorbed his attention for a while.

    He wondered how they were getting on without him.  Not that he cared.  He felt any attempt to be part of the family again would be useless; in any case, he could see no future for himself.  He would not marry now.  He would not live long.  That had been his expectation for a number of years, so it was easy enough to fall back into that mode of thought.  If he could get enough energy together, he would – he would perhaps, if he had a horse…

    The image came to his mind so unexpectedly and so vividly he got up and tried to run from it.  Still there were great holes in his recollection; but Barranca was there, rearing back, out of his control; and at some moment someone had said to him, “Don’t just love me”.  What did that mean?  Had that been her?  Who else could it have been?  The glare of sun in his eyes, and the dust his horse kicked up, and the scrub – everything was there but still he did not know what had happened.  He rested his head against the wall then fell to his knees, hands over his ears, eyes tight shut trying to get away from the sounds and pictures in his mind.

Teresa wondered if she really ought to tackle Johnny’s room.  It wasn’t wash day but she could change the sheets and get it dusted round.  She wondered if Johnny had taken his stuff with him.  He had accumulated a few things since he had arrived with the clothes he stood up in and a saddle, but not enough to need more than a couple of saddlebags.  She did not question the idea that he had gone.  It fit exactly with what she knew of the young man she thought of as her brother.  She had not been able to change his mind about anything he had wanted to do, including leaving her behind even when she had cried at being parted from him.  He was so self-sufficient yet she knew he needed her.  A kid sister to look out for.  If only they had had more time together.  On the first morning she had admired his courage and stamina in breaking Barranca; always she had been on his side.  So this time spent wondering if he deserved her trust and admiration had deeply troubled her.  She decided that somehow she could not face his room just yet.  It would still carry his presence; his scent would still be fresh on the bedclothes.  She could not face so vivid a reminder of him just then; she would tackle it in the morning.

    Jelly had planned to see the minister that very morning, to see about some sort of service which would give rest to the poor soul wandering the house, but had been overwhelmed with work that needed doing.  It had been hard to fill the gap Johnny left – well, it was always difficult, every time he left, to fill his place, especially when he went without any notice.  Jelly had not known him when he had first arrived; by the time he did, Johnny was well settled into the routine and more than pulled his weight.  So it took him most of the morning to reassign the men, since neither Murdoch nor Scott seemed inclined to do so.  Then there was Barranca to see to.  Midday came and it was time to grab some food from the kitchen.  He was even interrupted in his one moment of rest by a report that some cattle had strayed and since there was no-one else to deal with the matter, he went himself.  That occupied most of the afternoon.  Just as he was dismounting back at the hacienda, easing his aching bones, he noticed the curtains in Johnny’s room were still drawn.  Surprised, he decided at least to go and draw them.  The window looked blank and dead, somehow, and he found it disturbing.  But Teresa called him into the main house to help her fix the fire in the Great Room, and the little matter of closed curtains slipped his mind.

    Murdoch looked stonily at the pile of papers neatly stacked in front of him.  Scott was invaluable and the end of year accounts had to be completed; but neither of them had found much pleasure in making the figures agree.  Both felt they were avoiding issues which needed talking through.  But, consummate businessmen both, they prioritised the ranch accounts over finding an errant member of the family neither was sure they wanted to find just then.

    Just before Scott retired for the night, he went to the kitchen.  He found Teresa still up, despite the late hour.  Here at least was someone he could help.  “Do you need anything, honey?  It’s late for you, isn’t it?”

    Teresa, startled, dropped the plate she was carrying then started to cry.  Scott immediately went to her and put his arms round her.

    “It’s been tough on you, honey.  I’m sorry – we haven’t been much help.”

    “Oh, Scott – I’m scared she’ll come back tonight!  I thought I wanted to meet her but what would I say to her if I did meet her?”

    “What are you talking about?”

“Her – she was here last night, I know she was!  I was reading a book she gave me that explains about ghosts and souls – and I’m sure she was here last night!  Who else would turn a book round the wrong way and leave candle grease on the table?”

    “I think you’d better go to bed.  I’ll tell Murdoch …”

    “No, Scott – he’ll think I’m being silly.  Please don’t tell him.  But would you watch with me tonight?  I think she must be trying to tell us something really important.”

    “You don’t believe in ghosts, do you?”

    “Yes, I think so.  If we have souls, Scott, I think those souls could be trapped on earth.  And I think if any soul would be unhappy, it would be hers.  Do you think she might be trying to tell Johnny she forgives him?”

    “Teresa – surely you can’t believe this?”

    Clearly hurt, Teresa looked up at him.  “I’m sorry I told you now, Scott.  Non-believers will drive her away.  I’ll trust Jelly from now on.  You don’t need to think any more about it.”  She turned on her heel, took up a lamp and walked out of the kitchen.  Scott, annoyed with himself, sat down and waited for her to return.  If she going to be ghost-watching, then the least he could do was watch over her.

Part 6

    Johnny was barely aware that it was dark again.  He knew he needed to sort himself out since no-one seemed prepared to do that for him.  Somewhere in his heart it hurt that no-one had even come into his room.  It occurred to him that he was thirsty, just thirsty enough to go in search of a drink.  He stood, feeling a little light-headed, although that cleared soon enough.  He listened but could hear no-one. Was he were the only one left with a heart that still beat?   He opened his door, ready to shout for help.  But he was assailed again by the memories, now even less clear than they had been, of shouting and shouting for some reason, for someone who never seemed to arrive.  He felt a weight in his hands, without knowing what it was.  He must escape the memories somehow.  Last night, he had done something which had kept those pictures in his head away.  In the Great Room.  But it was chilly outside.  He took his jacket and put it on.

He could begin to think in small steps, no further than the next few minutes.  The kitchen was warm and would have water.  The Great Room had a fire; perhaps he could stir some life into it.  Since he was invisible after all, he would not need to be quiet to avoid waking anyone.  Teresa.  She had tried to help him but he had not been able to bear the hurt in her expression.  Murdoch, Scott, Jelly – each had, in mainly unspoken ways, blamed him for what had happened.  He remembered being taken back to the house with someone – with her?  With the face that haunted him timelessly, her face interwoven with his waking hours and his nightmares. He had pieces of the puzzle but none of them fitted together; and none showed him what he should do to create the whole picture. He knew that seeing the picture whole would give him back his life somehow. As he paced through the dark, he gave all his energy to gathering up the fragments but they fell apart again as soon as he opened the kitchen door and saw his brother asleep at the table, head on arms.

He was profoundly asleep.  Johnny wanted to wake him and tell him, well communicate with him somehow.  He approached the table cautiously but his brother did not stir.  He fetched himself some water and drank it sitting at the same table.  He had not been especially quiet but Scott had not woken.  Johnny stretched out his hand, placing it with his fingers close to his brother’s head.  He could not reach across the gap; if he disturbed his brother, what might be said?  Nothing could be said now.  He shivered.  Grabbing something to eat he walked through to the Great Room, where the fire burned low. He stirred it quietly and placed another log.  The flames spun higher, catching loose scraps of wood and burning through the colours of the spectrum, heating the air but not him.  He sat close, cross-legged, staring into the life of the flames.  He remembered sleeping there before, in front of the fire, and Teresa nudging him awake – and he had been playing chess with Jelly.  A hundred years before; a different lifetime.  No-one cared to wake him this time, though he sat in a kind of dream there for an hour or more, feeding the fire with log after log; but he did not feel warmer. He looked round the room and saw the abandoned paperwork, columns and figures, and knew that his father and brother had thought the end of year account more important than finding him.  Eventually he gave up the idea anyone might stumble across him by chance.  He did not return to his room through the kitchen but slipped out through the front door, leaving it open behind him.

Teresa slept restlessly, the book she had been reading open on the bed beside her and her lamp still burning.  Nothing woke her; she had been determined to stay awake and slip downstairs as soon as she was sure Murdoch had gone to bed; but, tired out, she slept, not knowing that the ghost of her brother sat by the fire, wishing for company.

In his own bed, Jelly lay snoring gently, dreaming of better days.

Murdoch paced his bedroom, wishing he did not feel wide awake.  He had tried reading; he had tried smoking his pipe; he had even tried tidying up his clothes.  His room held no trace of his two wives any more.  He kept their pictures in his desk but away from his bedroom.  Perhaps he should try them there, on top of the table by his bed, or on the chest of drawers.  He sat in the armchair and considered his losses and gains, monetary and emotional.  He decided, just before he finally moved to the bed to sleep, that losing Johnny was not an option.  He would begin the search again tomorrow, and if it meant employing Pinkerton agents again, then that is what he would do.

Scott woke and glanced at the kitchen clock.  Six o’clock.  He eased his aching neck and shoulder muscles.  He had been there for a reason – to watch over Teresa.  Clearly nothing had woken him earlier, so all was well.  Relieved he checked around and found only an empty glass on the table and an open cookie barrel on the shelf.  Neither seemed to fit well with the ghost theory, though he had certainly not heard anyone enter the kitchen while he had been there.

He wandered through into the Great Room.  Teresa always ensured there were plenty of logs piled by the fire, ready for the next day.  They were nearly all gone and there was still a red heart to the logs on the fire.  Someone had tried to be warm here.   No ghost could be doing this.  Perhaps Teresa – or Jelly?  Neither seemed likely.  He was so tired of thinking, so worn out with trying to find an answer to the puzzles he felt surrounded him.  The papers they had been working on still littered the floor, ready for the next day.  There had been some satisfaction in making the figures balance.  Nothing else in the house balanced.

He had not had time to consider where Johnny might have gone.  He had not really thought much at all, since the moment he had found his brother kneeling, the girl dead in his arms, Barranca’s reins still in his hand as if he had instinctively grabbed them.  The horse still pulled to be free, frightened by something in the way his master behaved; and Scott knew his brother’s behaviour had in some way frightened him, too.  All of it had been too much to take in, her death, his brother’s reaction – then the rest of it, when they had eventually taken them both back to the hacienda.  The shock he had felt had numbed him.  As the early daylight began to show the disorder and neglect in the room, he reviewed the haze of the last hours, when the only clarity had been columns of figures.  His brother had to be somewhere.  He had not searched for him because some part of him had not wanted to face what his brother had admitted to doing.  Johnny’s words, “It’s my fault, Scott.  I killed her.”  He had taken them at face value, and whatever the Sheriff had said had not quite erased those words.  Looking at them now, in the morning light, they seemed somehow different.  It could not possibly have been true – so how could he possibly have believed it? He had defended his brother again and again, to Murdoch, to anyone who questioned his brother’s right to be there and to be accepted as a member of the human race.  He had not been able to protect him from his own self-condemnation.  It was too difficult a puzzle for him to solve but he would do all he could to make up for any mistake he could have made.  The best way to do that was to think clearly; and the minute he did, he saw the open front door and he had the answer.

Part 7

    All the time, Johnny had been there, in his own room.  Why had he missed such a simple conclusion?

He ran to Johnny’s room.  He expected a closed, even a barricaded door; it was open.  He entered, trying to prepare himself to face whatever he might see – but there was his brother, lying in bed, curled up tight but looking at him, unspeaking and unmoving.

    “Johnny!  What the hell are you doing there?  Don’t you know how worried we’ve been, boy?”

    There was no reply.  Instead, Johnny closed his eyes and turned over, closing himself off.


    But his shout brought no response from his brother.  Frustrated, panicked and angry, Scott stepped up to the bed and grabbed his brother by the shoulder, trying to get him to respond.  His brother did not oppose him, allowing himself to be turned on his back; but he would not speak and he would not look his brother in the eye.  Not knowing whether to hug him or shake him, or what the right words might be to unlock this riddle, Scott tried to think.  He had seen his brother blind with rage and just plain blind; he has seen him distraught and relaxed; he had seen him kill and save life.  He had never seen him inactive, locked away in some place where he could not be reached.  He reacted with an angry grunt and a pace backwards.  As soon as he was out of contact, his brother turned his back on him again.  This passive resistance was more worrying than an angry or miserable one, and Scott had no idea how to win him round.

    Instead of facing that problem immediately, he drew the curtains and threw open the window.  A breeze immediately blew accumulated dust from the windowsill, clouding the light. The action only seemed to throw the bed and its occupant into deeper shadow.

    “Johnny?  The day’s begun.  Why are you still in bed? Are you sick?”

    No response.  But the fist resting on the pillow clenched more tightly.

    “Come on, brother – I’ll get you some water, and you can shave and clean up.  We need to talk – we can do that while you help me finish the fencing.”

    To Scott’s amazement, that provoked a response.  “Leave me alone.  I’ll get up.  If you want help with the fencing I can do that.  Now go away.”

    Scott turned on his heel and left him to it.

    Murdoch had heard Scott’s shout and followed him to the door of Johnny’s room but could not go in.  He had written off his son before and been proved wrong; this time he waited.  He heard Scott speaking and finally, Johnny’s quietly angry response.  He leaned against the wall, breathing again. Johnny had been there for two days, and no-one had even noticed.  All his anger with his son evaporated.  When Scott walked swiftly from the room he caught his elder son’s arm.

    “How is he?”

    “You tell me!  Lying there, when there’s work to be done.”

    Murdoch directed Scott to walk ahead of him.  They came through to the Great Room and Murdoch settled behind his desk.

    “In the war, didn’t you see men give up?”

    Scott paused, anger still marking his stance but evidently distracted by his father’s question.

    “Yes, I’ve seen men who couldn’t seem to get back to living again, not after what they’d seen.  They seemed to just give up on themselves and other people, as if they couldn’t be helped.  Seen a man give up and just walk away, until he was turned back; he wouldn’t go back to where it happened.  He got so angry they had to hold him down.   Then they took him to the front line and he cried.”



    “He has every reason to give up, like that.”

    “I suppose so.  But he’s killed before.”

    “He hasn’t told us what happened, not really.  The doctor said her injuries were consistent with a heavy fall and it had to have been an accident, because Johnny would never allow such a thing to happen deliberately. Something is preventing him from seeing the truth.  I think we must make him face what happened.”

    Murdoch watched Scott wrestle with that.  He knew he would find the flaws in such an idea.  “So soon?  If he’s just spent two days in bed unable to face anything, surely we can’t force him out to the place where this happened.”

    “No, I suppose not.  But I can’t see what else we can do.  We can’t leave him there.  He needs to be part of this family again.  She wouldn’t want this reaction – surely she didn’t want to take him with her.”

    As soon as he said it, Murdoch knew that he had hit on a truth.  It was an awful, heart-stopping moment, as he realised it was not that his son had killed her but that she was killing him.  Suddenly desperate, Murdoch took Scott’s arm and pulled him into Johnny’s room.  Johnny lay curled up in his bed, his back to them both, clearly making no attempt to get up.

    “Son, son!”  He sat down next to Johnny and took his son’s clenched fist.  “Why are you here?  We’ve been waiting for you to come back to us.”

    There was a momentary pause, then Johnny sighed and turned on his back, his long dark lashes damp, his mouth a straight line.

    “I don’t think I can, Pa.”

    The silence in the room grew; Murdoch heard Scott’s panicky anger in his first words.

    “Johnny – you have to fight this!  She’s dead, nothing is going change that; but you – you’re still alive, boy, and there’s work to be done.”

    “Is that all I am to you – someone to work on your ranch?  Someone who makes the books balance.  I saw all those papers – that’s why you didn’t find me sooner, isn’t it.  You were working on the books.”

    “No – Johnny – how can you think that?”

    “Son – don’t be angry with us.  We didn’t know you were still here.”

    Johnny turned his face away from them again, muttering something Murdoch did not catch.  Scott did hear.

    “Make what go away, Johnny? What can we chase away?”

   Johnny sat up.  “I have pictures in my head.  None of them seem to fit together.  It’s taking all I got just to keep from going crazy.  You got an answer to that?”

   One minute, Johnny had seemed like a boy; now he was the man again, and beginning to fight back.  Murdoch smiled in relief.

   “If you feel like getting up I think we should be taking a ride.  Maybe we can give you some answers.  You think you could go back to where it happened?”

   Murdoch suddenly found a pair of very blue eyes looking at him.

   “Will you go with me?”

   “Of course we will, son, and Jelly and Teresa if you want them to.  We’re a family, remember – just so long as you remember that we’ll be fine.”

   “I don’t believe we’ll be fine, Murdoch.  But I will do this, for you; I’ll try, anyways – can’t be much worse off than I am now.  Well – give a man some privacy, can’t you?”

   Scott snorted, suddenly remembering how little his own privacy seemed to count in the family.  Murdoch smiled at his son, the first smile he had felt able to muster for days.

   “Now don’t you go rolling over and going back to sleep, Johnny – or we’re liable to come back in here with a bucket of cold water for you.”  It was not much of a joke and it barely raised a reaction, beyond another glance from those fierce, hurt eyes.

   As he went out of the door, however, his younger son was sitting on the edge of the bed reaching for his pants.

    Jelly watched his boss striding purposefully towards him and at the same time took in the opened curtains in Johnny’s room.  His jaw dropped; he reached the correct conclusion and the ghost fled in a moment.  He decided he was glad he had said nothing.

   “Jelly!  Get the horses ready- we’re all going for a ride.”

   “All of us?”  Jelly had already turned to follow Murdoch’s long pace at a run.  “Johnny too?”

   “Yes, Johnny too.  We need Barranca – is he fit to ride yet?”

   “No sir, he ain’t – won’t be fit for another week yet.”

   “Not fit even to be walked awhile?”

   “Well, I guess that’d be all right.”

   “And ridden just for a few minutes?”

   “Well, you’re as good a judge of horses as I am, so I guess you could make up your own mind on that point.  Can’t Johnny ride another horse?”

   “Yes, saddle him that black we bought a few weeks back.  But saddle Barranca too – here, let me help.”

   In a bewildering few minutes they had saddled five horses, including Teresa’s pretty mare, and had them tied to the corral fence.  Jelly, somewhat flustered, had tried to extract further information from Murdoch about what might be going on, with little success.  As they took a breather, Jelly tried again.

   “What’s going on, boss?  Where are you planning to do?”

   “Exorcise a ghost, Jelly.  And not before time.  Did you know Johnny was in his room all this time?”

   “No, sirree – if I had known I’d have a word or two with that young man – he’s always teasing me about being lazy…”

   “You would do no such thing, Jelly, and you know it.  He’s been unwell and I think I have the cure.”

   “He’s been sick?  Well, why didn’t you say so? I got some new tonic that’ll fix him up in no time.  I ain’t surprised, though, he’d been looked peaked since – well as soon as I saw him I knew it was going to be bad.  The poor boy had too much time with her on his own.”

   “He is not a boy, Jelly – you know that as well as I do.  He’s going to need to be an adult to face what happened.  But he is not going to do this on his own.”

   Jelly saw Murdoch glance towards the house.  The next generation of the family stood there, Johnny in the middle, flanked by his brother and sister.  Teresa had linked her arm with his; Scott was providing unobtrusive moral support too, talking to his brother and leading the way.  Johnny looked solemn and stunned, as if he could hardly believe what he was intending to do.  But he walked purposefully enough, trailing slightly behind his elder brother then saying something quietly to Teresa, who grasped his hand tightly for a moment then came to stand by her own horse.

   “Give me a leg up then, Jelly – it isn’t ladylike to jump up the way the boys do.”  So Jelly was occupied and didn’t see how they managed to get Johnny up into the saddle – but he knew it had cost the boy something, and he looked pale and shaken as he sat, for the first time since that afternoon, in control of a horse.  Jelly ran to mount his own horse, and took Barranca’s leading reins carefully in hand.

   So the family set out, Murdoch leading, Johnny just behind him with Scott close to his right and Teresa to his left, and Jelly was happy to bring up the rear, tugging Barranca along, back to the place where the whole sorry business had begun.

    Teresa was beside herself with worry.  She had to play a part in what had to be done.  She knew what that part was going to be, too, and knew that Murdoch would do everything he could to prevent her.  But she must play the role otherwise Johnny would never be able to come back to them, not properly.  She trusted Johnny completely; but what if his wits failed him, just as she would need to trust him the most?  He wouldn’t be able to help that, just as he hadn’t been able to help her.  If it had been in his power, he would have saved her, prevented that horrible accident.  The fact that it had not been in his power had shaken her belief in him.

    It took only a half hour to reach the place.  A bluff made an imposing backdrop to the pooling river; they splashed the horses through then up onto the opposite bank.  No-one spoke; here there were still signs of what had happened, in broken scrub and horse and wagon tracks.  Johnny suddenly jumped down and stood, hands by his side, utterly silent.  Teresa dismounted, barely aware of the others and went to Barranca, soothing him by patting his nose.  Now it was up to her; now she could help.

    She led Barranca forward and stood in front of Johnny, focusing all her attention on him.

    “Time for a ride, Johnny.  Why did you take her up behind you?  Why didn’t she ride her own horse?”

    Johnny looked at her, taking a moment to find her and understand her words.

    “She asked me.  She said she wasn’t well enough to ride on her own.  And she had something to tell me.  I didn’t want to – I didn’t think it was safe.”

    “Come on, Johnny – let’s go for a ride.  I’ll hold on tight!”

    He didn’t reply but seemed ready to go along with her suggestions.  He jumped up onto Barranca then freed a stirrup for her.  She stepped up, grabbing his hand and feeling there his strength.  She settled behind him, arms round his waist, and felt the quickness of his breathing.  Barranca shied, but Johnny held him.

    It had happened so quickly and she had ignored Murdoch’s protests and Scott running to stop her.  Now everyone fell silent; it was Johnny’s moment, to take back control of the situation and of himself.

    “She said something to you, Johnny, I know she did.  Something you couldn’t stand to hear her say, and you were lost for a moment.  What was it, Johnny?”

    “I can’t remember, Teresa.  I can’t.  Murdoch, get her down – it’s not safe.”

    “What did she say?  I am not getting down from here until you tell me.”

    “She said, she said I wasn’t to love her.   She said she – she said she wanted to die and I was going to – no!”

    He unexpectedly gripped Barranca’s flanks with his knees, making the horse leap forward.  Teresa held on grimly, still asking him to say what it was he was so desperate to escape.  She could feel him try to lean away from her, feel his fingers try to break the lock she held on his waist; but she wanted her brother back and she was prepared to keep him at the job of remembering as long as she had strength.  She knew Murdoch was close and dreaded being dragged unwillingly from the moment when he would confess.

    Finally, the words were wrung from him.  “She told me she wanted to die and that I was going with her.  She said, “Don’t just love me.  Come too.”  I don’t know what she meant me to do – but I couldn’t stop her kicking at Barranca.”  He was pulling in sobbing breaths, still not quite telling all he could say.  “She said it was so painful – each day was too much pain.  And she was kicking and kicking and Barranca stood it as well as he could but then I couldn’t hold him no more.  He kinda twisted and reared up and she was gone; just let go, I think she just let go.  I think I was supposed to let go too.”

    She clung to Johnny, feeling the power in him and in his horse, moving as one, and knew suddenly that her friend, her much admired and longed for friend, had tried to force Johnny to be a killer.

    Barranca stilled; she knew the other men were close, Scott right next to her, reaching to take her off before she was ready to go.

    “Johnny, what were her last words to you, before she fell?  You’ve not said.”

    “She said, she told me – she laughed and she told me she would always be with me.  And she told me the only way to escape the pain of that would be to die.  I thought of it as I held her and wished her alive again.  I wished and – I prayed – and it did no good. I thought it out real good; but somehow, as she lay in my arms, I forgot what it was, exactly what she said.  I just remembered the part about dying and I was responsible for her dying and how I wanted to die too.”

    He was angry and wretched; Teresa could feel the emotion in him and the way it was draining his strength.  He had done enough – had said enough.  They had been so wrong to blame him for anything.  He had been taken from them by a malicious, selfish last action from a girl too eaten away with her own concerns to care that she was stealing his life.  She leaned her forehead against his back and wept for him, then reached across to Scott, who took her hand.

    “Oh, Johnny – never scare me that way again!  Come on, let’s get down, give Barranca a chance to heal.”

    It was not as simple as that for Johnny; such a wound could not be healed all at once.   Ashen, he helped Teresa down, then wearily climbed down himself.  He stumbled, found his feet again and reached for the black horse he had ridden there.  He said nothing more.  He had closed down, the raw emotions too much – Teresa watched the process in panic, thinking all her efforts had come to nothing.  As he mounted again, he turned to her.  His face revealed for a moment the conflicting emotions.  Then he managed a simple, “Thanks, Teresa.”  He turned his face from her and, with no further word, urged his horse forward and headed for home.

    All the rest of the day, one or other of his family stayed with him.  Johnny did not fight them or tell them he wanted only to be left alone, because they had done so much for him.  He knew he had been set back on the right path, but it seemed a stony path and it stretched far into the distance, long, straight and shadowed.  They even fetched the doctor to him; he was advised and he nodded and agreed.  Light work, rest, good food; it was sensible advice but he did not feel sensible.  He felt light-headed and distant; and he knew he was worrying them and wished he could find the laughter he knew had once been in him.

    He watched the light in the sky drain away, leaving darkness punctuated by stars and, finally, a huge, golden moon.  Scott had been sitting with him, talking quietly about the ranch, about the plans for the future and the work that needed doing.  For a moment, Johnny felt the stirring of a desire to do something; then the sense-memory of a weight in his arms dragged him down again.  He looked at the dusty earth.

    “You all right, Johnny?”

    “I guess so.”

    “I don’t think we made a good job of looking after you.”

    Johnny knew Scott was apologising.  But he could not respond to that straight away.  Scott did not press the matter further.

    “Teresa – she hung on to you for dear life.”

    “I reckon.”

    One sense memory was suddenly replaced by another; her arms around him, her fingers resisting his attempts to tear her away; staying with him, forcing him to speak and finally to face the wrong that had been done to him.  He had been holding a dead weight in his arms.  She had been a living force just as Scott was, by staying with him and talking, even when he got no reply.

    Johnny was glad it was dark.  He kept his emotion quiet.  In a few minutes, Teresa brought coffee to them and then sat at Johnny’s feet, chattering happily.  After a while, he felt moved to reach out to her and gently pull her pigtail.  She looked up at him, smiling.

    “I thought you were a ghost,” she confessed, a little embarrassed.  “I saw the book turned round and the candle wax – and I thought it was her.  But it was you all along.”

    “Maybe I was a ghost, for a while.”

    “She tried to steal you.”

    Johnny knew she was right.  He had been stolen and they had wrested him back from a ghost.   Even though he sat with his family, he was suddenly reluctant to let his ghost go; but she had already turned from him to tread her own path.

    He looked towards the barn, where a lantern moved.  Jelly, seeing to Barranca.

    “Guess I’m just gonna help Jelly for a while.”

    “All right.  But supper’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

    “You clatter that triangle, and I’ll come running,” he told her, standing.

    He walked slowly over to the barn and through the doors.  Jelly was there, soothing Barranca.

    “Leave him to me, Jelly.  You done wonders with him.”

    “You feeling…”

    “I’m fine, Jelly.”

    The old man smiled.  “You ain’t much of a hand at lying right now, Johnny.”

    “Well, maybe I ain’t fine, then.  But I’m back where I should be.  Got lost for a while there.”

    “Well you take care of your horse; nothing like it for fixing what ails you.”

    Johnny picked up the brushes and began the long, sweeping pulls he had been taught as a child.  He knew Jelly had left him; he knew too that Teresa stood by the doorway, leaning against the barn wall.

    So he spoke to her.

    “Well now; sometimes I don’t see things right under my nose, do I?  Like you – and you had the answer all along.  I’m sorry I – I let myself get lost there.”  He curried Barranca steadily,  speaking loudly enough for Teresa to hear yet pretending he was speaking to the horse which clearly was enjoying the attention. “But I’m safe from ghosts now.  I’m safe.”

    “You are that, Johnny.”  He heard Teresa’s quiet affirmation then returned to currying Barranca as he heard her move away.  He would see her soon, eat her food and talk to her of what he had done each day.    She would listen and laugh with him; and she would never, ever ask him to die for her.



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12 thoughts on “Ghost by Cat

  1. I could feel Johnny’s pain and guilt. I’m glad the family came together to help him get through it. You did a good job on this story. Thank you.


    1. This is a really great read. Very emotional. My heart goes out to Johnny, he has been a through a horrific tragedy yet his family turns their backs on him to suffer alone. His father admitted that he was unsure if he even wanted Johnny to continue living at Lancer. Johnny was in shock and for 2 days no one gave a damn about what he might be going through. He would die for his family, a family that always seems to want to disect his life and try to mold him into what they think he should be. The black sheep of the family, never quite good enough to be a Lancer always having to prove himself. Scott is locked in in his place and so is Teresa, in Murdoch’s heart but never Johnny. Too bad his need for family is his acheallis heal.


    1. Thank you! It started out as a kind of writing exercise so I’m pleased it turned out to engage readers.


  2. Very good the way you only gave bits and pieces of the event. The same with the different family members. They were all so sure Johnny left that they didn’t even consider he was hiding in his room hoping for someone to check on him. Finally the moment when the family realizes this sweet young thing was really a selfish, angry girl who was not going to die alone. Well done.


    1. Thanks, Elin – I’m glad the plot was clear – I was afraid it was becoming less credible, the more I wrote!


  3. A tale that speaks of depression and despair. The truth hidden — only brief glimpses of what the family allowed themselves to believe might be true — in Johnny’s guilt, remorse, and psyche made a mysterious story. My heart ached for Johnny and Teresa mostly. Johnny was lost, needed his family, and was left alone trapped in his own thoughts, fears, and confusion. Teresa lost a friend, someone she envisioned living at the ranch for a while; someone who could be like a sister for the time she would be there. Jelly being the only one who initially guessed correctly about Johnny’s whereabouts, lends the idea he may understand more about Johnny than the others.
    A good read. Thanks for sharing.


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