Word Count 2,121
October 31, 1872:
Shadows lengthened, converged, and shrouded the land like a cloak. Not a single star peaked through the blanket of clouds overhead. The moon had been on the wane for a week. Scott Lancer knew it wouldn’t put in an appearance even if the sky should happen to clear up, which it wouldn’t. Not with the storm that was brewing.
Wind rattled through the barren grove of oak trees. A few feet in front of Scott, the newly-lit campfire flared, revealing a shadowy form bent over it. An instant later, red embers swirled upward and darkness swallowed all signs of the flames.
Johnny Lancer’s voice blended with the wind. “Guess we can forget about a fire. That was the last match.”
Scott let out a sigh. Lot of good it had done to hunt up two forked pieces of dry branches that would hold up the spit his brother had made from a straighter chunk of limb. Without a fire, they wouldn’t be cooking the jack-rabbit Johnny had shot.
The thought of another night of hard tack made Scott blow out another breath. Even though it wouldn’t kill him and his brother to go without the munch anticipated chunks of roasted meat, a hot meal would have been nice after two long days on the trail.
Wind whistled through the darkness and something clattered like a skeleton being shaken from the end of a rope. Scott assumed it was the barren limbs of the oak trees. Then an eerie silence settled in.
Shivers ran up Scott’s spine. He forced his voice to remain calm as he spoke in an admonishing tone. “Very funny, Brother.”
“I didn’t do that.” There was a wobble to Johnny Lancer’s soft drawl.
Scott peered into the ebony space between him and his brother. Had Johnny shifted farther to the right? Wasn’t that spot darker than it had been? Or was his imagination playing tricks on him?
Another shiver raced up Scott’s spine. Where was Johnny? Was he about to pounce?
“Okay, Scott. You’ve had your fun.” Johnny’s annoyed voice came from out of the darkness straight ahead.
“Obviously you haven’t,” Scott said in an equally annoyed tone. He slid down so that the fleece lining of his saddle cradled his back in case his brother had any notion of sneaking up from behind. Why did this night have to be so black?
A hoof stamped somewhere off to the left. A moment later, another stamp of a hoof accompanied a snort that sounded a bit like the bark of a dog.
Something brushed Scott’s cheek. His hat slid sideways, skidded down his ear, and bumped his shoulder.
Scott flailed his arms at the noise that seemed only inches away from his head. His hands met nothing but empty space.
“If I could see, I’d—”
A loud howl covered up anything more that Johnny may have said, and boneless fingers ripped at the sleeves of Scott’s coat. Trees rattled. The horses whinnied and stomped.
Dust swirled around Scott, clogging his nose, and invading his mouth when he drew in a breath. A fit of coughing brought little relief. It seemed forever before the wind slowed its mad rush. By then, Scott’s eyes and throat felt like they were on fire. He clawed at the area beside his saddle in hopes of finding his canteen.
A hacking cough came from the direction where Johnny had been. A groan followed, and then a hoarse voice. “Scott? You okay?”
Scott’s right hand closed around the neck of his canteen. He quickly brought it to his chest where he could unscrew the cap with his other hand.
“Sc-Scott?” The voice faded into a fit of coughing.
Scott took a gulp of water, and then another. “I’m okay,” he rasped. “How about you?”
“Fine. I . . .think.”
From the sound of the gag that interrupted the flow of words, Scott doubted that was entirely true. He gazed at the spot where his brother had tried to build the fire. If only it wasn’t so dark. It was hard to tell whether Johnny was sitting up or lying on the ground. Everything was devoid of color. Grey tones blended with black so that his stinging eyes couldn’t make out where one ended and another began.
Something scooted against the ground, or so Scott assumed. As the sound drew nearer, a form slowly took shape. “Johnny?” With a shiver, he hoped the answer would be “yes”.
“Yeah.” Johnny spoke as something bumped the bottom of the boot on Scott’s right foot.
Scott poured some of his water into the palm of one hand and splashed it on his face in hopes of clearing the dust from his eyes. “Some night, isn’t it?”
Johnny coughed and settled into place beside Scott. “Could be worse.”
“It could, but let’s hope it isn’t.” Scott felt something wet hit the end of his nose. Not rain. They sure didn’t need that.
“You sure you didn’t make that noise?” The question came slow.
Scott shivered. So, Johnny hadn’t made it either. In that case, what had?
“No, Johnny. It wasn’t me. Any idea what might have?”
The wind whistled softly. Somewhere, no way of guessing how far off, there was a soft screaking.
Johnny seemed to take his time answering. “No, but sounds like it’s headed for new pastures.”
Scott chuckled at the relief he could hear in his brother’s voice. “Let’s hope, whatever it was, keeps right on going.”
“Yeah.” Johnny bumped against Scott’s side. “Guess we might as well get some sleep. Ain’t anything else we can do.”
“You’ll get no argument from me.” Scott slid a little lower and wrapped the edges of his blanket around him. At least they had gotten the horses unsaddled and their bedrolls laid out while there was still enough light to see. Now, if that rain held off, it might not be such a bad night after all.
For a while, the rustling of the wind was the only sound. Scott figured Johnny had gone to sleep. It appeared his brother’s words from the first morning after they had met still held true. He wished he could say the same thing for himself. This wouldn’t be the first night he hadn’t slept well.
A stirring from Johnny’s direction caught Scott’s attention. Then a soft voice spoke. “Our old man better not get a notion like this next year.”
Scott replied in an equally quiet tone. “Oh. And if he does?”
“He can forget it. Next year, I plan to be snug in my own bed on Hallowe’en.”
“You scared?” Scott let out a half-hearted chuckle in hopes of hiding his own fears.
Johnny took his time in answering. “Maybe.”
Scott bolstered his courage to dig deeper as the wind slowed to a soft whisper. “Wouldn’t be on account of all those stories Jelly told us last year, now, would it?”
“Oh, I know he was just trying to scare us, but . . .”
Bits of Jelly’s tall tales flashed through Scott’s mind. “The man can tell a pretty convincing story. Is that what you were going to say?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?” Johnny sounded defensive.
“Yes. But you know Jelly. He does have a wild imagination. Also, it doesn’t take much to spook him. Most likely, half of what he told us wasn’t what he perceived it to be.”
“Perceived? That one of them fancy words you learned in Harvard?”
“No. As a matter of fact–”
Wings flapped above Scott. As he hauled his blanket up over his head, something jabbed him in the side. He hoped it was his brother’s elbow and not whatever creature had invaded their campsite.
The wind howled and clattered through the trees. A horse squealed. Something made a loud snap, and the ground shook.
A rapid thumping sound blended with the other noises. For a moment, Scott’s mind flashed back to his time in the cavalry. Cannons blasting. The crack of gun fire. Sabers clashing. Horses squealing. Men screaming.
Something gripped Scott’s shoulder and shook him. He yelled as he flailed his arms. The grip on his shoulder stopped, and his wrists were clasped in a vice while a weight settled over his chest.
The scene changed to another time. Panic set in. No! It couldn’t be happening again. It couldn’t.
Scott panted. He strained to free himself. His breath came in gasps. Where was his grandfather? Couldn’t he hear him screaming?
Time dragged. Scott felt his strength wain. He tried to fight harder but couldn’t. His body refused to respond. It was sinking and there was nothing he could do to stop it from being pulled downward toward something that smelled of smoke.
A voice called from out of the darkness. “Scott! Scott! Stop fightin’ me.”
Another voice, that of a girl, spoke from inside of Scott’s head. Should be ashamed. Brothers fighting.
Brothers? Scott tried to clear the fog from his mind. He didn’t have a brother. Or did he? As the past faded, he quit fighting. “Johnny?”
The grip on Scott’s wrist lightened and the weight on his chested lifted. “Who’d ya think I was?”
Scott took in a deep breath. “I don’t know. I . . . I must have been dreaming.”
“Must o’ been some nightmare.”
Something slide down Scott’s face, pressing against his nose and pulling at the stubble of whiskers on his cheek. He closed his eyes until the sensation ended. When he opened them and looked upward, he stared in disbelieve. Stars? Where had all the clouds gone? And the wind? When had it quit blowing? Had he really dreamt it all?
“He all right?”
Scott was certain that voice didn’t belong to his brother, but he couldn’t quite grasp where he’d heard it before. While puzzling over that fleeting thought, he caught a whiff of strong brewed coffee. He scooted upward and looked beyond his feet where a campfire blazed. There was no mistaking the hunched over form on the far side or the man’s whiskered face gazing back at him. “I’m fine, Jelly,” Scott said. “Just had a little dream is all.”
“Hmph! Didn’t sound little to me. Ya like to woke the dead with all that hollerin’ ya was doin’.” Jelly Hoskins shoved a stick into the fire. Sparks flew and a new flame burst upward as he spoke again. “Didn’t he, Johnny?”
“Uh, huh.” Johnny paused. “Sounded like he ran into a ghost like the one you was tellin’ us about.”
A gentle breeze ruffled Scott’s hair. The smoke from the fire shifted. The smell of roasting meat mingled with that of the coffee while flames revealed a forked branch that appeared to be holding up one end of another stick that held something over the fire.
Scott glanced around the campsite and up at the stars, again. The grove of trees looked like the one in his dream, except the limbs weren’t nearly as barren. They hid all but the patch of sky that was above him. “How long did I sleep?” he asked, shifting his gaze to his brother.
Johnny shrugged. “Oh. Fifteen . . . twenty minutes, maybe. Looked like you dozed off about the time Jelly finished that wild tale he was tellin’ us.”
“It wasn’t no wild tale.”
“Ah, come on, Jelly. You expect us to believe you didn’t make any of that up.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Scott quietly listened as the argument between his brother and Jelly Hoskins continued. From what they discussed of the ghost story, he had no doubts that it had been the cause of his dream. Only, what had made him to hear that strange screeching noise? That hadn’t been part of Jelly’s wild tale.
As Scott slide down and grabbed for his blanket, he heard Jelly holler. “Blasted owl. How’s a body s’posed to get any rest with that thing screamin’ all night.”
Owl? Scott sat upright again. Of course! While waiting for the rabbit to roast, hadn’t they been discussing how odd it was for a Screech Owl to be making that sound this time of year. Generally, it was only the young that screeched. The adults made trills and noises that could be mistaken for a dog’s bark or a horse’s whinny.
Scott chuckled. “At least, we won’t have to worry about any ghosts sneaking up on us.”
Jelly groused something that couldn’t be deciphered, and Johnny’s laugh blended with another screech from the owl. Scott smiled. This would be one Hallowe’en, none of them would soon forget.
~ The End ~
Posted November 16, 2017
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