#6 in the Ghosts series
Word count: 4,310
Teresa covered the dough with a cloth and wiped her hands on her apron before taking it off and draping it over the back of a chair. She should have gone straight to bed, but had been reluctant to, knowing that sleep would not easily come this night. Instead, she had gone down to the kitchen to tell Maria that she would take care of any cleaning up that was left to do and prepare the dough for the morning’s biscuits. When she had entered the kitchen she had been surprised to find both Maria and Cipriano, Maria’s husband, already seated at the small table in the corner.
It was easy to know what they had been discussing, even if the looks on their faces hadn’t given them away. Everyone was talking about the same thing—Johnny and Scott leaving for Kansas in the morning.
Just the thought sent a shiver of apprehension up Teresa’s spine, and she hugged herself, drawing in a deep, steadying breath.
She had tried hard not to show her fear and concern, aware that Johnny and Scott had worries enough of their own. And Murdoch—
She shook her head, forced herself back to the tasks at hand, and crossed to the stove where she checked the coals. Satisfied that the fire was well banked, she set about extinguishing the four oil lamps.
Unfortunately, of everyone, Murdoch seemed to be handling the coming departure the worst. For two weeks, now, he’d been short and curt with everyone, including Teresa, who he never raised his voice at. He’d also thrown himself into a series of intense physical labors, which a man of his age and position had no business doing, as if the concentration required of everyday paperwork wasn’t enough to keep his thoughts from straying to Kansas.
And the most telling of all was the simple action of saying that he was sorry when he lost his temper or snapped at someone.
Murdoch never apologized.
It was something everyone who knew him came to realize—and you either learned to accept it or you didn’t. It made no difference to him. His position was simple; if you make a mistake, you learn from it and go on. He saw nothing useful or practical to be gained by a verbal display of remorse.
But now he had apologized at least four times that Teresa knew of in the last two weeks, one of which was to her. And that apology, more than anything, over a simple remark about supper not being ready on time, told her just how worried Murdoch really was.
With a last glance around the kitchen, she left, pausing in the hall to glance into the great room. All was dark and quiet.
She glanced up the stairs, the faint glow from the one hallway lamp flickering along the walls. Gathering her skirts, she walked up the steps, her thoughts turning to Scott.
That Scott was harboring anxieties regarding the upcoming trip to Kansas was a surprise to no one. Though he had attempted from the first not to allow his anxiety to show, the drawn-out departure date (of necessity for both Johnny’s health and the needs of the ranch) had worn away at his tenacity. And as the day approached, Teresa had caught the unguarded look of panic more often on his handsome face. And then he would notice her watching him and would flash her an awkward smile, one that acknowledged all their fears, yet was tempered with optimistic hope.
At the door to Scott’s room, Teresa paused and listened, determined to go in if she heard any movement, as she doubted he was asleep. But there was no sound coming from within, and she resumed her way, pausing for just a moment outside Johnny’s room.
Not that she expected to hear him up. If anything, while the impending trip wrought emotional havoc on all of them, the closer the date came, the more calmly determined Johnny seemed to become. And she didn’t like it.
She hated watching the change come over him, subtle though it was. For it reminded her too much of the other Johnny—the hardened gunfighter, harboring deep resentments and anger, who had first shown up at Lancer. Back then, he had often times retreated into the persona of the gunfighter, but over the course of two years, that need had seemed to abate.
That is until almost six months ago, when he had become that person again. Or—no—she mentally corrected herself. Not the Johnny Madrid he had been, but the Johnny Madrid he would have become, as Scott had explained.
The memories of those two months, when Johnny had disappeared and Scott and Murdoch were at odds about what—if any—action to take, then the subsequent discovery of finding out Murdoch had been right and Johnny had returned to his former life, came back to her in the darkened hallway.
It had been very difficult for Teresa to hear the details of the events in Soledad. The knowledge of the horrifying abuse—mental and physical—that Johnny had been subjected to, had left Teresa unable to sleep for nights on end. And while it hurt to know that she hadn’t been there to help, this feeling was tempered by the knowledge that Scott had been there for Johnny in his need.
When they had returned, there had been many changes. And the best by far, in Teresa’s opinion, was Scott’s newfound self-assurance regarding his role as Johnny’s brother. An understanding had developed between them while they were in Soledad, an understanding born of experience and loyalty successfully defended. While this didn’t lessen the anxiety of the coming trip to Kansas, it seemed to bestow on them a shared power.
Teresa continued down the hall to her room where she opened the door, letting the hall light spill in. She went to the table, struck a match, and lifted the chimney of the bureau lamp and lit it. Then after closing the door, she went to the window and drew the curtains closed. For a moment she bent her head, her fingers lingering to sorrowfully caress the lace in a silent remembrance of her father. Then she shook her head, sighed, and began to undress.
Moments later, she was crawling under the covers, drawing them up to her chin, her eyes staring wide in sleepless anticipation of the day to come.
Murdoch lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, his expression grimly set, his thoughts racing maddeningly over the last four hours. And no matter how hard he tried, he could not get them corralled and under control. This irritated him…really irritated him. A pure waste of time and energy, and he hated waste.
Clenching his fists, he took a deep breath, and mentally tried to force himself to relax.
Johnny and Scott were leaving in the morning, and torturing himself like this was doing no one any good. He needed to remain dedicatedly firm to their mission and not show any vacillation. Scott and Johnny were counting on him to be their anchor.
But what if Johnny ran into other bounty hunters on the way?
What if someone recognized him before he was able to get to Kansas?
What if Mister Stanton refused to meet with them?
What if the courts held Johnny’s past against him?
And Lord! What would happen if Johnny couldn’t prove his innocence?
Damn it! There you go again.
Get yourself under control!
With a hiss of disgust, Murdoch determinedly closed his eyes.
He’d done everything possible. A lawyer was already hired and waiting for them, and he’d purchased first-class accommodations on the train from Sacramento.
But he was fighting feelings of guilt about not accompanying them to Kansas, even though Scott had promised to send a telegram the minute they reached Abilene, informing him of the exact situation. If need be, Murdoch knew he could be in Kansas within a week.
It hadn’t helped that each time Murdoch brought up the possibility that he should accompany them, Johnny would quickly reject the idea and then begin to express doubts about even having Scott come along. And there was no way, in either heaven or hell, that Scott was going to be left behind. Which was just as well, because Scott had the knack for opening doors and gaining people’s confidence. His good looks and manner put people at ease, while Murdoch acknowledged that he sometimes had the opposite effect.
It was still difficult, though. He could tell how deeply Scott was being affected by the upcoming trip; the anxiety behind his eyes had been increasing daily since the actual departure date had been set.
Murdoch hissed a teeth-clenched groan and drew his arm across his face.
Johnny just had to clear himself of that bounty. Their future as a family depended on it. But if he couldn’t…
Murdoch abruptly sat up to glare across the shadowy room toward the far wall. He couldn’t even finish the thought—because to even think it would acknowledge its possibility.
Cipriano looked up from the terracotta mug in his hands and inhaled the deep rich smell of the warm coffee which mingled familiarly with the comfortable smells of his wife’s kitchen. But one look at Maria told him that her thoughts, too, were up at the hacienda and the young man she had once gathered into her arms as if one of her own.
“¿Dónde va a parar?” he asked with a sad shake of his head.
“End?” Maria asked. “A decir verdad, no sé.” Maria sighed unhappily as she returned the coffee pot to the back of the stove in the small kitchen. “No, I don’t know.”
He pursed his lips. “En el peor de los casos—”
“¡Ojo con lo que dice!” Maria interrupted as she turned sharply, the worry on her face mirroring his own. “Watch what you’re saying!”
He glanced down at the coffee mug, aware that it was difficult for his wife to speak of what could happen when Johnny and Scott left in the morning. “Maria, debemos considerer el asunto en grande.”
Maria bowed her head and closed her eyes. “Del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho,” she replied, crossing her arms and rubbing them as if she were cold in the warm kitchen.
“I know it’s easier said than done, but we must consider the whole matter.” Cipriano nodded, his own expression a mirror of his wife’s.
“He is still my little Juanito,” Maria said, her voice heavy with sadness.
“He is still your little Juanito,” Cipriano agreed, smiling slightly. “He will always be your little Juanito.”
“I helped bring him into this world.”
Cipriano nodded. “Sí. I remember.”
“He was a good little boy,” she said wistfully. “You remember.”
Cipriano chuckled. “He was good. But he was also quick as lightning and sharp as a pin.”
Maria smiled back. “You do remember.” Then she sighed, her gaze wandering absently about the cozy kitchen. “I wish he didn’t have to leave.”
Cipriano put a hand out, beckoning her to come sit beside him on the bench. “They will be together, Juanito and Señor Scott.”
As Maria sat down, she nodded. “It is good that they are going together. Juanito needs his brother.”
“And Señor Scott, he needs Juanito.”
Maria sighed. “They have been through hell together.”
Cipriano nodded, added his own sigh to hers. “You could see it in Scott’s eyes after they returned from Soledad.”
“He understands now,” Maria agreed, pausing in the process of scooping crumbs into her hand to look at her husband.
“Sí. He understands now.”
Maria worried her bottom lip as she straightened up, the washcloth held tightly in her hands. “Scott has glimpsed the evil that Juanito has fought against since he was taken from us.”
“That he still fights,” Cipriano stressed.
“And must atone for,” Maria added with emphasis.
“Sí,” Ciprino agreed softly, watching his wife toss the crumbs into a tin basin on the counter before wiping her hands on a towel. He waited until she turned back. “And so he must begin by facing his ghosts in Kansas.”
Maria met her husband’s eyes and slowly nodded. “Sí. I know. But I wish—I wish that he didn’t have to go.” She paused, needlessly dried her hands. “But it will be okay,” she nodded, sudden conviction replacing her earlier hesitation. “God sent his protection.”
Cipriano glanced down at the coffee cradled in his hands. “Have you ever seen the medallion?” he asked tentatively.
Maria shook her head. “No. Not since the accident. I saw him wearing it when he arrived here, and a few other times.”
Cipriano paused, took a quick sip of the coffee. “I saw it once.” He didn’t need to look up to know his wife was looking at him in wide-eyed amazement.
“Cipriano. When?” Maria asked, coming to stand near him.
“Scott carries it with him. He was looking at it when I came upon him a few days ago,” Cipriano said, looking up. “He—he at first seemed embarrassed that I’d seen him with it, but then—then he let me look at it.”
Maria sat down on the bench. “You held it?” she asked, her voice almost a whisper.
Cipriano hastily shook his head. “No. No, he held it.”
“But you looked at it. You saw it closely,” Maria persisted.
“What did it look like?”
Cipriano hesitated, his expression serious and foreboding. “There was nothing left of it, Maria. It was—” He shook his head, his eyes lowering to the table. “There’s no way Juanito should be alive.”
Maria nodded soberly.
“And I said this to Scott.”
“And what did he say?” Maria asked, studying her husband’s expression.
“He said,” Cipriano paused to look up, “‘I know.’”
A faint look of surprise flashed across Maria’s face, to be replaced with a quiet look of affirmation. “He believes, too. I thought so. Sometimes, when Juanito doesn’t know it, I’ve seen Scott watching him. And the look on Scott’s face—it’s acceptance and belief—and the realization of his part in guiding his brother to his future.”
Cipriano gave a small shake of his head. “But Juanito, he doesn’t believe.”
“He’s not ready to accept God’s help yet. But he’s learning. He’s accepting Scott’s help.”
“But I fear they will continue to need Saint Francis’ protection,” Cipriano countered with a small sigh. “He needs to have faith in that protection.”
Maria nodded, her expression firm. “Scott has faith for both of them.”
A young man in the dark robes of a priest leaned back in the carved wood chair and sighed heavily as he tiredly rubbed his eyes. On the well-worn desk before him lay a scattered assortment of papers, books and two open Bibles, illuminated by two oil lamps placed at opposite ends of the desk. The weak glow from a dying fire in the hearth offered faint light and little warmth, while the four wall lamps remained unlit, attesting either to the frugality of the inhabitant or to the possibility that the priest had been so caught up in his work that he hadn’t been aware that night had long ago taken hold, as the one window in the room, which had probably earlier shed light onto the priest’s desk, now revealed nothing other than the reflected glow from the two desk lamps and the faint shadow of the slumped figure.
The priest closed his eyes, leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair and covered his face behind his hands, as much from exhaustion as to hide the words scrawled on the papers before him. For a long moment he sat thus, unmoving, silent. Then slowly he drew his hand away from his face and gazed in wearied defeat at the scattered evidence of the hours spent.
With a sigh, he leaned forward, planted his elbow firmly on the desk, rested his chin in his palm, and drew one of the sheets to him. With a grim set to his jaw, he reread his notes, the index finger of his right hand stroking across specific lines, as if he wished he could rub the ink off the pages…the words out of existence….
Proverbs 24:11, Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
Why was this sermon so difficult to write? It should have been easy—a topic touching on John the Baptist’s preaching.
Psalm 82:4, Rescue the poor and needy from the grasp of evil men.
Yet his mind kept wandering, the verses and references which usually came easily, now seemed elusive.
James 4:17, Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
In irritation he gritted his teeth and shoved the paper away, grabbed up one of the two Bibles and randomly flipped the pages, his eyes coming to rest at the top of a page.
Proverbs 29:16, When the wicked thrive, so does sin, but the righteous will see their downfall.
With a loud groan, he snorted, “Maybe I ought to preach on the Apocalypse—And everyone died and they lived happily ever after.”
Startled, and not a little sheepish, the priest glanced up to find another, older priest standing in the doorway. He was shorter and stockier, his tonsured hair almost completely gray, and the frown on his face made the younger priest want to bow his head like a wayward schoolboy. Yet he kept his gaze steady, returning the frown with a casual gesture. “I thought you were in bed, Father Sebastian.”
“I could say the same about you, Father Francisco,” the older priest replied, stepping into the room, his eyes taking in the disarray of notes and books. “You appear to be having some problems with your sermon. Would you like some help?”
Francisco shook his head and began to draw the papers into a pile. “No—no. I’m about done.”
“What’s the topic?”
“Topic?” Francisco echoed as he busied himself with arranging the desk. “Ah, the on-going battle between good and evil.”
“Ah-ha,” Father Sebastian said. “A good standard. Though I thought you had mentioned you were going to talk on John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness.”
“Yes, well, I believe the Lord’s leading me in a different direction,” Francisco replied with a wry glance at the notes piled in front of him.
“More than once has that happened to me,” said Father Sebastian. “Here,” he added, bending over to pick up a folded piece of paper from off of the floor, “I believe you’ve dropped this.”
Francisco quickly reached out, taking it. “Thank you. I must have knocked it off the desk. I’m afraid I let my research overtake the available space,” he explained as he laid the paper on the top of the pile, his hand resting over it.
“Isn’t that the letter you received yesterday?” Father Sebastian asked. “From someone up north, wasn’t it?”
Francisco nodded casually. “Yes. Just a letter from an old friend.”
Father Sebastian paused, seemed ready to ask something, then folded his hands and nodded. “It’s good to hear from old friends.” His eyes returned to Francisco’s hand positioned atop the pile of notes and the folded letter. At the look, Francisco forced himself to draw his hand away to clasp it in front of him in a more passive stance.
“Yes, it is good to hear from old friends,” he agreed.
“Well, then—” Father Sebastian dragged his eyes from the desk to Francisco, his expression composed. “I guess I’ll leave you to your study. The hour is late and I obviously require more sleep than you do.”
Francisco dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I apologize if I kept you up. I hope not to be too much longer.”
Nodding, Father Sebastian turned and left.
Francisco waited until the older priest had closed the door before he looked back down at the folded letter. After a slight hesitation he picked it up and opened it, rereading the contents in its entirety, though he could have recited it verbatim.
Just thought you’d like to know that I received word from Scott the other day. He and Johnny are heading to Kansas next month, on the 22nd. I don’t know about you, but the whole thing has me nervous. Stanton’s gotta want Johnny’s head pretty damn bad if he’s raised the bounty that much. I just hope Johnny’ll get a chance to tell his side before they go building the gallows. Anyway, thought you ought to know.
“Thought you ought to know,” Francisco murmured softly to himself. He sighed, raised his eyes to stare without any real interest across the room to the softly glowing embers. “Yeah, Harl. I’m afraid the whole thing has me a bit worried, too,” he added in the same tone, sighed again, glanced down at the letter and refolded it. This time he slid the paper into the folds of his robe.
“Ah, Juanito,” he whispered. He glanced down at the desk, picked one of the Bibles up, patted its cover then drew it against his chest. “Where’s our answer?”
Closing his eyes, he stood silent and motionless, his tonsured head bent. Even with his eyes closed, he would have known which Bible he held. He knew the smell, the feel. And his thoughts returned to Padre Simon, the priest who had instinctively known there was a connection between Brother Francisco and Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter.
“Padre Simon,” Francisco murmured. “You would have known where my answers are.”
With a dismal shake of his head, Francisco opened his eyes and reverently set the Bible on the desk. “You knew how to guide without preaching. A gift, I fear, I lack.”
He glanced dismally at the stack of papers, shook his head, then bent over to put out one of the oil lamps. After banking the coals in the fireplace, he picked up the second lamp and the Bible and walked out of the room. In the hallway he started to turn left toward his sleeping quarters, but he found himself stopping. For a moment he didn’t move. Then abruptly he turned around and headed out a door to the outside.
In the darkness, he paused to let his eyes adjust. The faint sliver of a new moon offered little in the way of illumination, though the sky was clear, the stars forming a canopy of bright pin-points. He held the lamp up, and followed the path toward the church across the courtyard.
The church glowed softly, reflecting the light from the lamp with its freshly scrubbed stucco whitewash. Francisco smiled to himself, pleased with the visual sign of his parishioners’ eagerness to express their devotion and piety, a labor just recently completed. Though his flock was average in size, he liked to think they were above average in devoutness and dedication, something which had brought Father Sebastian as an observer to his parish two weeks earlier.
Francisco opened the door and stepped into the small vestibule. In the darkness, the smell of wood oils and incense seemed stronger. Without pausing to light any of the wall sconces, he made his way into the sanctuary, stopping only to dip his fingers in the font of holy water and cross himself before continuing down the aisle.
As he walked, the light from the lantern rocked the shadows like waves among the pews, flashing rhythmically against the walls, illuminating then plunging into darkness the tiled frescoes depicting the Stations of the Cross.
When he reached the last pew he stopped, bending to set the lantern on the floor to the side. Then with bowed head and Bible still clasped to his chest, he stepped up to the altar railing and knelt, crossing himself.
After a moment of silent prayer, he crossed himself again before lifting his eyes to the carved mahogany crucifix, its dark, polished wood gleaming in the lantern light.
“There will be no sleep for me this evening,” he murmured. “For you see, my friend is journeying toward his redemption. And while that brings me peace, it also brings me remorse for the responsibility I bear. Though I don’t believe he blames me, I still blame myself. I perpetrated his transgressions, allowed him to be lead astray. In fact, my guilt is more grave, because I fully understood the consequences, I knew we were playing with fire—playing with our very souls. And when I could bear it no longer, I found the strength to turn away—yet I left my friend to follow the path of death.”
Francisco stopped, bowed his head as he swallowed with difficulty. “Padre Simon—he did more than I did, and he barely knew Juanito. Yet in some ways, Padre Simon knew him better—understood him better. He reached him when I couldn’t.” Francisco slowly looked up, sighed. “I am afraid for Juanito,” he whispered. “Afraid for his life and for his soul.” He reached into the folds of his robe and drew out the letter, holding it out in supplication as he closed his eyes, his expression intent. “Please send Saint Francis to protect and guide Juanito and Scott once again.”
For a long moment all was silent, then Francisco drew in a deep breath and opened his eyes. As he did so, he realized that while he had been absorbed in prayer, he had moved his arm just enough that the Bible had fallen open. Squinting in the faint light, he saw an underlined verse in the center of the page. Pivoting on his knees to enable the light from the lantern to fall more directly on the page, he silently read the verse.
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.
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