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Geraldine and Lacy: Of Lovers and Covens 

Word Count 21,697

An Autumnal Halloween Tale in which the Lancer Brothers Go Fishing and Find Themselves to be the Bait. We’re putting an R warning on this story due to adult (sexy but not explicit) situations.


Chapter 1
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Johnny tied his bedroll to the back of the saddle then turned to face the front door of the hacienda. Impatiently, he slapped his leg with his hat. “Hey Boston, you gonna take all day?” Sighing deeply, Johnny strode back to the house, but just as he opened the front door, Scott barreled into him.  

Without even a glance at his younger brother, Scott marched to his sorrel who stood patiently beside Johnny’s horse, Barranca. He checked the cinch and tied down his gear with militarily precise movements, then quickly mounted. “Let’s go, Johnny,” he ordered. 

“What’s eating you?” Johnny stood for a moment with hands on his hips, but when Scott wheeled his horse around and took off down the drive at a trot, he headed for his own mount. “C’mon, wait up!” Leaping onto the palomino’s back he set off in pursuit of his brother. 

Johnny drew in a deep breath as he urged his horse along, relishing the smell of the breeze and the serenity of the morning. The day was dawning bright and warm. Fluffy white clouds chased each other across a sky of topaz blue, promising a day full of nature’s glory. The hills were golden and the oaks were turning a coppery hue, signaling that autumn had arrived. His irritation was forgotten, and his good humor returned as he caught up with Scott. Johnny reined Barranca into step with his brother’s horse, Victory, as they rode past the arched Lancer gate. “Hey Scott, I asked you a question.”

“I heard you,” Scott tossed over his shoulder. “Let’s just get out of here before Murdoch changes his mind.” He urged his horse into a canter and turned onto the road, heading north.

 “Yeah. I know what you mean. What’s gotten into the old man anyway?” Johnny pushed his hat firmly on his head and settled deeper in the saddle, his body moving in rhythm with his mount’s gait. “I sure was surprised we could both go to make repairs on the cabin. He must know we’re gonna find time for fishing.”

 “Hmm. I think this is a good time to remember the old adage: don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Scott urged his mount into an easy lope. He looked over at Johnny, his gray eyes full of deep concern. “You do know that he doesn’t blame you?”

“I didn’t want to kill that kid,” Johnny blurted. He kicked himself, having promised himself he wasn’t going to bring it up. But now it was out, he continued bitterly, “What was I supposed to do? Stand by and let him shoot you?” The burden that had besieged his soul since the shooting a few days ago knotted into a hard ball in his stomach. 

“Don’t blame yourself for walking into that situation, Johnny. Reno knew damned well what he was doing and what the consequences might be. You never walked into a fight blind, did you?”

Johnny shook his head, remembering how in the past he’d always learned everything he could about his opponent before a confrontation. Even so, he’d never looked forward to a fight – that was for sure. Neither had the men he’d faced down. Some of them had backed down and run for the hills rather than meet Johnny Madrid face to face in the street. 

But this young man had been different. There’d been a crazy light in his eyes, one Johnny couldn’t easily forget. As he rode along by his brother’s side, the memory of the tragic venture into town was renewed. 


When Scott had entered the cantina in Spanish Wells, he had inadvertently run into a young gunhawk who was aching for a fight, and a reputation. The young man, named Dylan Reno, as they’d later found out, had been random in choosing an unwitting adversary to aid him on his path toward fame. He was simply itching for a fight and an excuse to carve another notch on his gun handle. 

But unfortunately for young Reno, he had picked on Johnny Madrid’s brother. When Scott had graciously apologized for bumping shoulders with him and then backed away, the young man had spewed insults, causing Scott to turn back. That’s when the kid went for his gun. Even as Scott grabbed at his own sidearm, Johnny walked into the scene and had instinctively drawn his own weapon. Reno had been fast, very fast, but Madrid had been faster. Scott’s gun had cleared leather, and he got off a shot, but he wouldn’t have had a chance if Johnny hadn’t come into the cantina just in time.

The eyewitnesses in the saloon had supported the Lancer brothers’ assertion of self-defense and the matter had been closed. . . at least as far as the law was concerned. But Murdoch was another matter entirely. The brothers’ ride home had been wrought with doubt about their father’s reaction. 

“He’ll understand,” Scott had said confidently, but Johnny had seen that Scott was just as unsure as he was about the old man’s capacity to understand. 

“You don’t know him well enough to say that,” Johnny had replied. 

“Well, I choose not to be quite as cynical as you, brother. See, even after the short time we’ve been at Lancer, I know you pretty well.” 

Surprisingly, Murdoch had understood. Well, sort of. His countenance had revealed his displeasure over the gunplay that was seemingly becoming a routine occurrence, but he had nonetheless declared his relief that they had survived the altercation. 

When the sheriff had come out to Lancer to go over what had transpired, he’d informed them that Dylan Reno came from a decent, law-abiding family, but that he’d been a loose cannon for some time. This was apparently the worst trouble that the kid, only seventeen, had gotten into, but the men he’d been keeping company with out Morgan Hill way were not what anyone would call upstanding citizens. It was those men the sheriff was most concerned about. There had been talk of revenge. 

Murdoch had been concerned about Reno’s friends coming to Lancer, looking for retribution, and the sheriff hadn’t denied it was a distinct possibility. He suggested the Lancer boys lay low until the dust settled. Johnny had pointed out he didn’t run, and Scott had words with the sheriff.

Murdoch hadn’t been angry, but once the lawman had gone, he’d turned to his sons and ordered them to stay out of town. Then, after some thought, he had even gone so far as to suggest they travel to Wolf Lake to ensure the cabin up there was in livable condition for the upcoming winter. It was a big place, one the Lancers had recently acquired, but was situated in the far northwestern corner of the ranch.

“There’ll be enough hard work up there to keep you two occupied,” he’d said. “Plus its remote enough you’ll be on your own. Fishing’s always good up there.” Aware of his sons’ skepticism, but mistaking why they had such a reaction, Murdoch added, “We need to make sure it’s in good condition if we lease it out. We might get some wealthy businessmen looking for a hunting lodge. It’s not too far from the city if people come in from the north, by boat.”

The brothers had quickly agreed in order to take advantage of a few days of vacation, and once out of the room and away from their father’s stern gaze, Johnny had asked, “It’s almost like he’s taken pity on us. Like he’s giving us some breathing room.”

“Killing two birds with one stone,” had been Scott’s reply.

“Now who’s cynical?” Johnny had asked. Nevertheless, he was willing to put in any amount of hard work, just to get away for a few days. He wasn’t one to shirk his responsibilities, and he did consider the young gunman’s death fully his own fault. Any such killing weighed heavily on him, and although in the past he’d always gone off on his own, just holed up somewhere to wait for the stench of death and the dark mood to pass – now he had a brother who was willing to be with him. He’d never had much of anyone to share these bad times with, and he’d never thought he’d even want to be in another man’s company, but having a brother shed quite a different light on things.


Now they rode side by side, momentarily silenced by the wonder of Murdoch’s behavior. 

It was Johnny who broke the silence. “You think the old man’s getting used to having Madrid, I mean me, around?”

Scott shook his head. “Murdoch knows it wasn’t your fault. That Reno was pulling his gun even before I turned around to face him. You saved my life, Johnny and he’s grateful. Almost as much as I am.” He smiled a bit. “He just wants to let things cool down, you know? In case Reno’s friends, if he really had any, come calling. Besides, are you going to pass up a few days off fishing in the best lake around?”

“You’re right. I ain’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m looking forward to seeing this Wolf Lake.” Shaking off his somber mood, Johnny spurred Barranca into a ground-eating lope. 

They halted briefly at a small general store only a few miles from the cabin. While Scott gave their order for supplies such as food and nails to the proprietor, Johnny wandered around. The place was rundown, every corner draped in cobwebs, and the goods were piled up in such a jumble that made it difficult for him to navigate around. Johnny stopped to pick up a box of ammunition, and when he blew the dust off its lid he sneezed. 

A woman spoke from behind a stack of old fruit crates, startling him. “Usted necesita más protección que las balas pueden darle. You need more protection than bullets can give,” she said. 

Her accent was Sonoran, so Johnny replied in the tongue he’d used when growing up. “¿Protección? ¿Qué?” He looked the lady over, taking in her loose dark hair, the knowing look in her eyes, and the array of necklaces hanging around her neck. Her jewelry was laden with charms of bone beads, feathers, twigs and other natural bits and pieces. She reminded him of the old medicine women back in the hills in Mexico, the ones who healed both the flesh and the spirit. He tended to be wary of such women, but was caught between his innate sense of suspicion and the ingrained beliefs of childhood.

She stepped forward to offer Johnny a necklace in one outstretched hand. It rattled, sounding like it was made of old dried bones. “Hay malas cosas en el lago. ¿Usted necesita un amulet?” 

“An amulet?” He shook his head. “The only protection I need is right here, Señora.” He patted his holster and grinned. “What’s up at the lake that we need to watch out for?”

“Malas cosas. Bad things.” The woman pressed the necklace into Johnny’s hand and folded his fingers over it. He half turned from her and opened his hand to inspect the jewelry. The necklace was a long strip of leather that had a hawk’s foot suspended from the end. There was also a big blue bead and a round disk of bone attached to it. Johnny inspected the disk and saw the bone was incised with a symbol of a wolf’s head in black. He said uneasily, “I’m not a believer in the oculto.”

She gave a grim smile and replied, “You will be.”

“Johnny,” called Scott. He stood at the other end of the store, a heavy sack over his shoulder and another one at his feet. “C’mon, let’s go before the daylight’s gone. Help me with the supplies, will you?”

“Yeah, I’m comin’.” When Johnny turned back to the woman to return the odd necklace to her, she was gone. After a moment’s hesitation, he put the necklace over his head and tucked the amulet in his shirt, out of sight, then went to help Scott.

Below the two riders the crystal blue water of Wolf Lake glistened like velvet ribbon in the late afternoon sun. Birds chirped merrily in the trees that marched along the eastern side of the bluest water Johnny had ever seen. “Cooler up here,” he commented.

A well-built, but rustic, cabin sat nestled in the trees a hundred yards from a short pier that jutted out into the water. A large barn with attached corral sat off to the rear of the log cabin structure. Both buildings seemed to have weathered the previous winter with relatively minor damage, from the looks of things. Relieved that the work required to restore the place to optimum condition would be fairly simple, the two men turned their attention to the glory of their surroundings.

“Not too much to do,” Scott concluded. “Murdoch said this place used to belong to a small-time rancher who went back East. He said the man drove a hard bargain, but this looks better than any line camp I’ve ever seen.”

“I guess we’re gonna lease it out as a hunting lodge part of the year.” Johnny inhaled deeply as the beauty and solitude of the panorama before him unfolded. “Murdoch was right about one thing,” he whispered in awe. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful spot.”

“Well, Teresa was right, too. Lancer is the most beautiful place in the whole world.” Scott playfully slapped Johnny’s arm then pointed at the cabin. “Let’s turn the horses into the corral and get those repairs started, so we can do some fishing. Unless you just want cold jerky for your supper.” 

“If this isn’t Heaven, it’s mighty close.” Johnny leaned back on one elbow, a blade of grass clasped nonchalantly between his lips as he studied his line dangling in the water. They’d discovered fishing tackle stored in the barn, and as soon as they’d surveyed the work to be done about the place and nailed up a few loose shutters, they’d headed for the lakeside. “We got four whole days,” Johnny said with a contented sigh. “No dumb cows, no ornery broncs, no early morning wake up calls. A little roof work, a couple missing shingles, tighten the hinges on the barn door. A day’s work then we can relax and enjoy ourselves. Just us…”

Abruptly Scott slapped him on the shoulder. “Not quite.” He pointed across the lake to where a faint ribbon of smoke could be seen against the fading light of the sky. “Just us . . . us and them.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he followed the direction in which his brother was pointing and found the source of the smoke. A cabin sat against the tree line on the opposite shore of the lake, half hidden by the dense foliage. Even at this distance, Johnny felt something was slightly disturbing about the big old house amongst the pines. A shiver ran through his body as he squinted at the shore for any figures moving about. He didn’t see any sign of life. “Damn. I knew it was too good to be true. Maybe whoever it is will stay over there,” Johnny replied hopefully. “Maybe they want their privacy, too.”

“We can only hope.” Scott shrugged his shoulders. “In any case, they’re probably as dismayed by our presence as we are by theirs.” He went back to working his fishing line, hoping to land another fish before they called it a day.

“Yeah, probably. We’re not that close. Probably never even see them.” Johnny jumped to his feet as his line began to disappear under the cover of the shimmering lake’s surface. “Hey, I got another one!” With very little effort he landed a large bass and threw it into the bucket with the rest of their catch. 

Scott threw an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “I think six will be enough. So, want to draw straws to see who cooks these beauties?” He winked conspiratorially. “The winner doesn’t have to do the dishes.”

“You know I’m a much better cook than you.” Johnny crossed his arms. “Besides, you don’t even know how to light the stove. Bet you never even saw the inside of your kitchen back in Boston.”  

Scott looked affronted. “Of course I did. I studied every move our head chef made.” He made a big show of scratching his chin and asked, “By the way…what’s a stove?”

“That does it. I cook!” Johnny declared, the cabin across the lake forgotten. “Yep, you get cleanup duty.”

Scott agreed and suggested, “How about we both clean the fish?”

The brothers strolled leisurely toward the cabin, with their fishing rods over their shoulders and Scott carrying the bucket of bass. The soft rustle of the leaves underfoot was the only sound to break the comfortable silence. Peace descended with the setting sun, covering the lake and the two men in a warm blanket of serenity. They sat on the front stoop of the cabin for a while, just taking in the darkening water of the lake and the early evening sounds. They could hear an occasional plop of a fish jumping in the lake, the sound of their horses moving about in the corral, and an owl hooting from the pines behind the barn.

“Oh well, we’d better get these fish into a frying pan before they sneak back to the water,” Scott said, as he rose to head into the cabin. He slapped Johnny on the shoulder as he passed him. With a sigh, Johnny hoisted himself up and followed. 

Scott started to open the door to the cabin, but he halted so abruptly that Johnny bumped into him. “You gonna open the door or what?” Johnny demanded. 

As if he hadn’t heard, Scott took a step backward and raised his hand in Johnny’s direction. 

Even in the dim light of dusk, Johnny could see a wet, crimson stain on Scott’s palm. Concern flooded through him as he recognized it as being blood. “Scott, how’d you do that?” Johnny grasped his brother’s hand and inspected it. “I need more light. Let’s find a lamp.”

“It’s not my blood,” Scott whispered. “Look.” He pointed at the outside of the door. Dark red blood dripped down the aged oak wood to pool at their feet. 

Chapter 2
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“I’m surprised, little brother.” Scott patted his stomach in satisfaction. “When pressed, you can cook pretty well.”

“Yeah, well the dishes are waiting. You should get busy.” Johnny stood up and leisurely crossed the room to crouch in front of the fire that burned brightly in the stone hearth. Fingers of warmth caressed his cheeks as he studied the flames. He pulled up a rickety rocking chair and stretched his legs out towards the fire. He was so lost in thought that he barely took in the sound of the dishes being washed in the old tin sink. A loud clang brought him out of his reverie. He turned his head in his brother’s direction. “Hey, Scott?”

Scott came over, wiping his hands dry on a rough cloth. “Yeah?”

“You sure you don’t have any idea how that blood got smeared on the door? I mean, who would do that?” Johnny spoke softly, hearing his own voice as if from a great distance.

“More importantly, why would it be there?” Scott plopped down on the worn, but comfortable, sofa and stretched his legs out before him. He reached over to prod Johnny on the leg. “You awake?”

 “Yeah, I’m just thinkin’.”

Scott took a deep breath. “Do you think someone is trying to warn us off or something?”

“Why would they? This is Lancer land. Why would anyone think they could warn us off our own property?” Johnny turned to face his brother. “You know,” he said seriously, “this reminds me of stories my mother used to tell me as a kid.”

“What kind of stories?” Scott listened attentively, eager to hear anything about Johnny’s past that his brother was willing to impart. 

“You want a drink?” Johnny got up to retrieve a whiskey bottle from his saddlebag. “Always be prepared,” he said with a lop-sided grin. After a couple of minutes of rummaging in the kitchen area, he came up with two glasses. He returned to the hearth, poured out the drinks, then sat the bottle down close at hand. 

Scott took a couple of sips then urged Johnny to continue. “What stories?”

“You know, in Mexico, November first is known as el Dia de los Muertos.”

“Day of the Dead,” Scott interpreted. “I’ve heard tell of it.” 

“I know it’s a kinda strange celebration to you easterners. People put on masks that look like skulls and the kids are given candy in the shape of skulls and write the names of dead family members on them. I still remember going to the cemetery to visit dead relatives and leave them offerings. Just to let the dead know they haven’t been forgotten.” Johnny paused to refill his drink. “I was just wondering if maybe someone around here was having a ceremony or something like that.”

“Come on, Johnny. November first – isn’t that when it takes place? That’s weeks away and we’re not exactly close to Mexico.” Scott asked sarcastically, “So do they kill animals and smear the blood around on front doors for the Day of the Dead?”

“Some people make animal sacrifices,” retorted Johnny. He looked at his glass as if it held some kind of answer. “What makes you so sure it was animal blood, anyhow?”

Scott suddenly laughed. “I get it. This is some kind of campfire story, told to children so they think every noise is the boogeyman coming to get them. You snuck back and smeared that blood on the door, didn’t you?”

“This ain’t no campfire story, Scott!” Johnny exclaimed. “You don’t get it. This is serious. And the woman in the store was right. A gun isn’t enough!” 

“What woman? What did she say?”

But Johnny just shook his head and didn’t reply. He could feel the claw scratching his chest, but he wasn’t about to endure Scott’s skepticism by revealing his amulet. For some reason, he had a feeling it was supposed to be kept private.

“Look,” Scott said placatingly, “let’s just forget it, okay? I’m not going to let a little superstitious prank ruin our time up here.”

Johnny leaned closer to Scott. “The fact is though…there was blood on our door. What I want to know is why. . . who and why.”

Johnny jerked awake, his senses on full alert. As he took in his surroundings and recognized the bedroom he’d chosen at the front of the cabin, he relaxed into the comfortable bedding, sighing deeply. Through the open window, the scent of fall leaves rode in on the cool breeze. Outside the world was just waking up; birds twittered in the trees and a small animal scurried in the underbrush beneath his window. He strained his ears for sounds from down the hall, and wondered if Scott was awake. 

Then the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen came to him and confirmed his brother was indeed up. Johnny stretched leisurely then rose. He wasn’t looking forward to doing all the chores they had lined up, but at least he’d slept well. For a change, the images of the gunfight hadn’t run through his mind all night long.

He padded across the room to the saddlebag he had tossed on the floor upon arrival and retrieved a clean shirt from it. As he buttoned it up he saw the necklace sitting among the folds of the shirt he’d worn the previous day. He reluctantly reached out to touch it, fingers running over the wolf head etched on the bone disk, then along the hawk’s talon. He dropped it back on the floor and buckled up his gun belt, but at the last minute, just before he headed out the door for breakfast, he picked it up again. With one quick motion, Johnny drew the necklace over his head and tucked the talisman inside his shirt. 

When Johnny entered the kitchen Scott pressed a mug of steaming coffee into his hand. “Sleep okay?” his brother inquired.

“I told you I always sleep well.” Johnny sipped his coffee, impressed at the richness of the dark brew. It had a slightly earthy taste to it. “You make a mean pot of coffee. You bring this from home?” He admired the beauty of the morning through the kitchen window. The leaves of yellow and orange stood out against the pines that grew around the perimeter of the property. “Looks like a fine day.”

“No, the old man at the store sold it to me. He said it was a special blend.” Scott turned to the stove. “Wait’ll you taste my biscuits.”

“Yeah, I can’t wait,” Johnny laughed as he picked an apple out of the sack of food sitting on the counter. He sliced it quickly in two. “I think I’ll check on the horses. Barranca sounds restless.”

“You spoil that horse! He’s probably waiting for room service,” Scott snorted. “Hey,” he called after Johnny. “We have to replace those shingles before we do anything else, so see if there’s a small bucket in the barn for the nails, will you?”

The sound of the horses’ hooves as they paced the corral grew louder as Johnny neared. Barranca snorted in alarm then half reared at something unseen. The sight of his approaching master did nothing to reassure the palomino; he pawed the ground nervously and shook his head. Beside him, Victory whinnied and wheeled away, appearing to be just as alarmed as his stable mate.

“Easy, boys, easy,” Johnny crooned as he slipped under the rail. “Settle down now.” Johnny extended his hands, half an apple in each palm. But to his dismay the horses shied away and retreated to the far side of the enclosure, away from the barn. They stood, quivering, whites of their eyes showing, and stared at the closed doors of the looming structure. “What the hell?” Johnny asked under his breath.

He scanned the outside of the barn carefully, seeking the source of the horses’ distress, but saw nothing amiss. Trusting the animals’ instincts, he cautiously headed for its big double doors. He pulled on one of the large doors and though its hinges creaked it opened easily. Once inside, he stepped to his left and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. There was a strange odor, something out of place, and he sniffed to identify it. There was the usual array of smells: horses, hay, old wood and dust – all stale from disuse. But there was something else. As he stepped further into the barn, the odor grew stronger. Chickens. The scent was definitely chickens. 

Johnny walked slowly around the large, dim barn, seeing nothing out of the norm at first. Old leather harness and collars, ropes, lanterns, parts of rusted-out machinery, scythes and other implements all hung from the beams in disarray, leaving the floor clear. A couple of moth-eaten animal skins were pegged on the walls, and a broken-down wagon rested askew on only three wheels in the far corner.

When he passed beneath a low beam, he ducked, and as he righted himself, something soft slapped into his face. Instantly he jumped back, his gun in hand, as he sought his attacker. All his senses were on alert, yet nothing in the barn moved. The only sound was of his own heavy breathing. Then he saw what had hit him. It was a dead chicken, its feet tied with twine and left hanging from the rafters. He laughed, the sound loud in the stillness of the barn. “Johnny boy, you are spooking yourself,” he chided as he holstered his Colt. He tentatively touched the mass of feathers with his left hand and set it swinging. Flies swarmed around, disturbed by his presence. That was when he saw the chicken’s head had been chopped off, and within the past couple of hours. 

Johnny recoiled, and when he stepped back he became aware that it wasn’t just one chicken hanging from the rafters. He removed his hat and looked up. There, suspended from the higher beams, were a number of chickens, all headless, all swinging slightly to and fro, despite the still air of the barn. “What is goin’ on?” he growled, stepping back toward the door. He needed some air, he thought. 

“Who are you talking to?” Scott enquired from behind him. 

“Scott! Chickens,” Johnny responded. “Lots of dead chickens.”

“Johnny, did you have too much to drink last night?” Scott asked, amused.

Johnny gestured towards the rafters. “Look!” He took his brother’s arm and pointed at the decapitated birds suspended up high. Johnny almost felt pleasure when he saw Scott’s mouth gape open and his eyes widen. 

“What’s going on here?”

“I never liked chickens much, but this just isn’t right. It’s not right.”

Scott stepped into the barn and tilted his head back to view the fowl. “There’s a ladder up to the hayloft, and it would be easy enough to reach the beams, but why would anyone trespass just to hang them up there?” 

“You’d think they’d end up in someone’s cook pot.”

“Thirteen hens would make a mighty big stew,” Scott pointed out.

“Thirteen?” Johnny counted the chickens and found his brother was correct. “If I catch whoever did this, I’m gonna tar the living daylight outta them,” he said angrily. He knew his anger was out of proportion, but he couldn’t help it. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.” Johnny turned on his heel and went out into the daylight. He took a deep breath of fresh air and wiped his brow.

When Scott didn’t follow him, Johnny went back inside to see what was holding him up. Scott was already up in the loft, his knife out, cutting down the dead chickens. Reluctantly, Johnny picked up a pitchfork and speared the bodies into a wheelbarrow, all the time swearing under his breath.

Breakfast was a silent affair. After burying the chickens, the brothers had tended to the horses. It had taken some time to calm them down, but eventually they lowered their heads to graze. With a sense of foreboding, Johnny had followed Scott into the cabin and sat down at the kitchen table. 

They ate quickly, automatically forking the food into their mouths, not meeting the other’s eyes. Wordlessly, they cleared the table, simply dumping the dishes into the basin, then walked outside to stand on the porch. 

Scott watched with concern as Johnny pulled his Colt out, rolled the cylinder and verified it was loaded – even though he knew it carried a full complement of bullets. Scott asked, “Do you really think that’s necessary?”

“It’s always necessary, Scott. Especially now,” Johnny snapped. He abruptly removed his hat off his head to run a hand through his hair. “There’s something going on here and I aim to be ready for whatever happens.”

“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” Scott reasoned. “I know a couple of strange things have happened, but for all we know someone has been using this place as a line shack and maybe, just maybe, our arrival turned them out.” At Johnny’s scowl, Scott hurried to explain. “Maybe the chickens, for example, were just being stored.”

“You ever heard of anyone storing chickens like that? Ever heard of smokehouses?”

Johnny snorted. “Or eating so many at one sitting?”

“Well, could be a lot of people,” Scott reasoned in a voice that suggested he didn’t really believe his own words.

“If there are so many people around here that it takes thirteen chickens to feed them, why haven’t we seen any signs?” Johnny threw his hand up, silencing Scott’s objection. “I’m not talking about chickens or blood now.” He turned back and re-opened the front door, then peered inside. “Have you seen anything amiss in here? No, and neither have I. People leave signs too.”

Scott’s eyes lit up as he looked beyond Johnny’s left shoulder. “Do they qualify as a sign?” 

Johnny pivoted quickly, his retort forgotten as he stared at two women standing just a few feet from the edge of the porch. They appeared to be younger than the Lancers, but it was their extraordinary beauty that had Johnny gaping openly. 

The taller woman, with hair as black as a raven’s wing and eyes the color of a summer sky after a storm, stepped forward. “I sure hope we’re not intruding.” Her voice was sultry and seductive, but carried a hint of amusement. Her full lips twitched as she attempted to stifle a smile. 

“Uh, ma’am…” Johnny stammered. The young woman’s silky dress fitted her contours so closely that Johnny imagined he could see every indentation in her body. He sucked in a breath as Scott jabbed him in the ribs and then moved past him. 

“Don’t mind my brother. He’s shy around women,” Scott said fluidly, ignoring the fierce look he received from Johnny. “I’m Scott Lancer and this is my brother, Johnny.” Scott extended a hand, which the woman graciously accepted with a small curtsey. 

“I’m Samantha.” She withdrew her hand and indicated the attractive redhead at her side. “And this is Miranda. We’re pleased to meet you.”

The young woman with the red hair nodded her head, and at the same time her hands rose a little, palms up, in a motion suggesting a form of supplication. “Greetings,” she said in a delicate voice.

“Please,” said Scott. “Don’t let Johnny scare you off. I assure you we’re harmless.”

Johnny tossed his brother a withering glare, then stepped closer to take Miranda’s small hand in his own. With a decided flourish he bowed and gently kissed her hand, while his eyes drank in her beautiful features. “I’m more than glad to meet you.” She also wore a dress that was out of place in this wilderness, a translucent chiffon blouse and a draped skirt that followed her every movement.

Miranda returned his look of approval, her emerald eyes darkening with passion when she knew her appearance had attracted him. She sidled close to Johnny and whispered huskily, “I can tell we’re going to have a fine time getting to know each other.” 

Her perfume filled his nostrils, the fragrance making it hard for him to catch his breath. His senses reeled as the odor wafted around him. “I. . . I. . .” Johnny blinked several times, and whatever he was going to say was lost when he looked at the woman whose hand he still retained in his grip. She smiled and tried to pull her hand away, but Johnny didn’t release her.

Dismayed by his brother’s apparent lack of manners, Scott elbowed Johnny aside and shot him a look of warning. Once released, Miranda stepped back  and linked arms with the other young woman. Scott smiled welcomingly to both of them. He inquired smoothly, “We saw smoke from a cabin across the lake. Is that your place?”

The two women exchanged glances before Samantha acknowledged the question. “Yes, yes, it is indeed. It’s our summer retreat actually. We come here every year.”

“Retreat? Are you nuns or something?” Johnny held his breath as he waited for her answer. “Women this beautiful can’t be nuns.” Suddenly embarrassed, he realized he had spoken his thoughts aloud.

“Johnny!” Scott glared at his sibling. “I apologize, ladies. He isn’t usually this forward.”

“You don’t have to apologize for me. I’ve got manners even if I’m not an Easterner, Boston, and–.” Johnny began only to be cut off by Samantha’s throaty giggle.

“No, Mr. Lancer. No apology needed,” Miranda laughed, showing a set of pretty white teeth. “And no, we haven’t taken vows of chastity.” Again the laugh, light and melodic. It seemed to rise high and join the song of the birds in the trees, Johnny imagined. Her companion joined her and he was drawn to their hypnotic laughter. 

Johnny’s lips parted and he started swaying gently in rhythm with the sound. His heart soared, even as he felt himself becoming light-headed. Suddenly, a firm grip on his elbow pulled him down to earth and steadied him. He shook his head and blinked, wondering what had just occurred, afraid he’d done something out of turn. His brother was saying something urgent, but the rushing sound in his ears prevented Johnny from hearing what was being said.

Chapter 3
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“Supper? We’d be delighted,” Miranda was saying.

“Wonderful. We’ll see you at seven then. You can make your way back along the path all right?” Scott released Johnny’s arm, then gently nudged him. “Say goodbye, Johnny,” he instructed.

“Goodbye,” Johnny said obediently. “We’ll see you…at seven.”

With a wave, Miranda and Samantha walked away and took the footpath that skirted the lake. They were soon out of sight, obscured by the underbrush. Once certain that the women were out of hearing, Scott whirled on his brother. “What is wrong with you?” 

“What’re you talking about?” Johnny demanded. He wiped his forehead and took gulps of fresh air, trying to regain his composure.

“You just about keeled over. Has it been that long since you had a woman?” Scott frowned at his brother. “I thought you were supposed to be a ladies’ man, and here you practically faint when that young woman smiled at you.” 

“Faint! Hell no!” Johnny rubbed his brow. “Didn’t you hear it? Feel it? I smelled… I was…”

“What? Johnny, are you coming down with something?” 

 “You didn’t hear the song? The music?” Johnny searched his brother’s face for understanding, but it was not to be seen. The concern in Scott’s eyes, normally welcome, now only served to anger the younger man. “Come on, Scott, you had to hear it!” He looked in the direction the women had gone, hoping that he’d shake the odd feeling that was still causing him to breathe faster than normal. But the sense that he’d experienced something not of this world didn’t recede. He pressed a palm to his forehead, trying to free himself from the spell.

“You probably didn’t sleep as well last night as you’d have me think,” said Scott. “Look, maybe you’re more shook up over the gunfight back in Morro Coyo than you realize…” 

“That gunfight? Been in plenty of gunfights! That has nothing to do with this.” Anger, as unreasonable as the anger he had felt at the sight of the headless chickens, again overwhelmed him. “Mind your own damn business!” Johnny’s hand itched and lowered to his hip, touching the butt of his gun. With tremendous effort, he struggled to regain his self-control. His fingers slipped off the hilt and moved safely down to the leather holster. Through clenched teeth, he said, “I’m gonna. . .  start. . .  workin’ on the barn roof.”

Scott stood, hands on his hips, wondering what had just happened as he watched his brother stalk away. Sighing, he pulled the door to the cabin closed and slowly followed Johnny to the barn.

Johnny worked with fierce concentration, adrenaline fueling his body as he feverishly swung the hammer. With each strike of iron on nail, a measure of his irrational anger dissipated, until he had calmed down enough to wonder why he’d been angry in the first place. As the last shingle was securely fastened in place, he sank down on the rooftop and drew in a great lungful of air, exhausted. He ran a forearm across his sweaty brow and gazed across the treetops at the expanse of lake beyond. It sure looked cool, especially from up on the baking hot roof.

A gentle breeze rustled the leaves and whispered words he couldn’t quite hear. He wondered if the spirits were trying to tell him something. As a small boy, he’d been surrounded by people who held firmly to their superstitions, and indeed he’d retained some of the beliefs himself, although he’d be the last to admit it aloud. 

The memory of Miranda’s elusive laugh rang in Johnny’s ears. For a second he thought she was nearby, but it was only his mind playing tricks on him. Her smoldering emerald eyes that tilted up at the corners in an exotic fashion danced before him as he pictured her beautiful features. He could see her full lips parting, her tongue moistening them, and in response his tongue darted out to wet his own lips. His vision blurred and his chest heaved with a ragged breath at the memory of her hand touching his flesh. 

Suddenly, he felt a searing heat in his palm, right where she’d touched him. He looked at his hand and rubbed the pain away, but there was no mark to be seen. He wondered if he’d imagined it, even though it seemed so real. Abruptly he clenched his fingers. “God, what’s happening to me,” he moaned softly as fire spread through his loins. 

Below he could hear the barn door swinging to and fro as his brother tested newly installed hinges. A gentle squeak indicated the door was moving properly. With a deep sigh, he rose to his feet and moved to the top of the ladder that was propped against the barn roof. Slowly he made his way down to the ground on leaden legs. Now that the anger that had motivated him had evaporated, his drive was gone as well.

“You okay?” Scott stared at Johnny when he reached the ground.

“Yeah, why?” Johnny swiped a bead of sweat off his nose with the back of his hand. “Roof’s finished. You done with the door?”

“Johnny?” Scott grasped the younger man’s elbow. “What’s going on? You look sort of peaked. And your eyes seem. . . well, unfocused. You didn’t get heatstroke up there, did you?”

“I don’t know, Scott.” Johnny said wearily. “I just don’t know. I just need to cool off is all.” He splashed water from the horse trough over his head and ran his hands through his wet hair, and felt better for it. Now if only his brother would stop looking at him like he was some kind of invalid, he’d be fine. “How about a swim in the lake?”

“That’s a good idea, especially since we have no other way to bathe up here. Then maybe an evening with a beautiful woman will cheer you up.” Scott smiled broadly, a gleam of mischief lighting his blue eyes. “Who knows, you may get lucky.”

“Bet I do, even if you don’t.” Johnny laughed and saw the expression of relief cross his brother’s face. “I’m okay, Scott, honest.”

“That’s good to hear. Just don’t embarrass us tonight.”

Anger pricked at Johnny until he saw the faint curve to Scott’s lips. “Don’t you either,” he retorted softly. “I got a reputation to uphold.”

“Dinner was delicious, Mr. Lancer,” Miranda said silkily as she leaned forward, exposing an indecent amount of white bosom above the low-cut bodice of her dress. She noted the direction of Johnny’s gaze and giggled. “My compliments to the cook, whoever he is.”

“That would be me. The cook, I mean.” Johnny turned his most dazzling smile on the young woman. 

Miranda’s emerald eyes regarded him with some amusement. “Lovely flowers, too,” she said, admiring the vase of colorful autumn flowers enhanced with fall leaves that sat in the center of the dining table.

“And that would be me,” said Scott with a smile. “You’ll have to excuse us for the lack of table linens, ladies.” He poured apple cider all around, saying, “We’re lucky we have enough forks to go around. We weren’t expecting to meet anyone way out here, much less two such charming neighbors.” The two women had arrived by foot, but their uncle was going to come for them in his boat after dinner, they had informed him. Scott fervently hoped the man wasn’t going to barge in too early. He wanted to have some time alone with Samantha, and Johnny and Miranda appeared to have hit it off immediately.

“Everything is lovely,” Miranda said, her green eyes on Johnny.

“Call us by our given names, please,” Johnny suggested. “We don’t stand on formality.” He viewed the ladies with open admiration. They both wore dresses that accentuated every curve of their figures. Miranda’s gown was dark green, matched her eyes and complimented her fiery red hair. The bodice clung to her voluptuous body, and from experience, Johnny was willing to bet she wore very little underneath that dress. His brother was eyeing the dark-haired, petite Samantha as if she was good enough to eat. Her dress, of midnight blue, was so low cut that her breasts almost overflowed the bodice. There was a silvery ribbon tied just under her bust, accentuating her high waist. The skirt cascaded to the floor like a waterfall, moving in soft folds as she walked. There was no doubt, they both looked ripe for the picking.

Scott turned his attention to Samantha. “I’m just glad that the little store down the road was still open this afternoon, and that the proprietor still had a meat pie in the cold-box. He even gave me some special coffee – free. Neighborly folks up this way.” He looked sideways at Johnny and added, “I think my brother is happy the pie was pork and not chicken. He suddenly seems to have an aversion to chickens.”

Samantha glanced at her friend, then said to Johnny, “You have something against eating chicken?”

Johnny looked uncomfortable, but he managed a smile. “Chicken ain’t a word you use around a gunfighter, ma’am.” He wasn’t about to even try to explain the odd happenings in their barn earlier that afternoon.

“Don’t you mind my brother, Miss Samantha.” Scott rose and gathered the dishes nearest him. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just clear this table. Perhaps then we could enjoy an after-dinner brandy in front of the fire.”

Johnny gave him a sideways look and Scott informed his brother in a low voice that he’d brought a small bottle of brandy along – for medicinal purposes.

Samantha followed her host’s lead and began gathering a handful of cutlery. “I’ll be glad to assist you, Mr…Scott.” As Scott opened his mouth to object, she hurried on, “I insist.”

Scott found the dark beauty standing at his elbow, and he looked down into her eyes. They were a clear, light blue, he noted, the color of cornflowers. Aware of the admiring glance she was getting, the slight woman lowered her eyes and blushed. Scott stepped in the direction of the kitchen and she moved gracefully alongside him.

“Well, while you take care of the dishes, brother, I’m gonna step outside for some air.” Johnny turned to the redhead at his side. “Would you care to join me, Miranda?”

“I would love to.” Miranda slipped her hand into Johnny’s and allowed him to escort her out onto the small porch. She brushed back her wavy red hair, exposing a pale shoulder for him to admire. “Don’t you love to look at the stars? If you’re real quiet you can hear the sound of the owl’s feathers when he flies over, and the footfalls of the little creatures of the night.”

Once the door was closed behind them, Johnny turned to the young woman, who he judged to be no more than eighteen, and studied her delicate features in the light of the moon. “I thought this place was the most beautiful thing I had ever laid eyes on,” he said in a husky voice, “but I was wrong.”

Miranda leaned back against the rough wood of the cabin, as there was nowhere to sit. “But this is a beautiful place.” She swept a hand out to indicate the lake, glistening in the moonlight. “Our mother of nature provides so much and still she can give us heavenly visions on earth.”

“It’s nowhere near as beautiful as you.” Even to his own ears Johnny’s voice sounded unfamiliar. He took Miranda’s hand and drew her closer. 

She stepped into his arms, ran her hands admiringly over his biceps then laid her cheek on his shoulder, giving a sigh. “I know you’re a good cook, Johnny, but what else are you good at?” 

Her voice was muffled against his chest, but he thought she was whispering something, almost as if she was talking to herself. Her perfume was alluring, an unusual combination of musk and nutmeg, reminiscent of dark, woodsy places. He inhaled deeply and wrapped his arms around her waist. Thunder was drumming in his ears, growing louder until his head was spinning. His heart was pounding rapidly, every beat resounding inside his head. He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. Slowly the noise in his head receded and he adjusted his hips closer to the young woman, his arms hugging her tighter to his body. 

Despite Miranda’s revealing mode of dress, and the easy way she had accompanied him out onto the dark porch to spark, she seemed to have become shy. He wondered about the unusual freedom the girls seemed to have – after all, what decent young woman would dine with strange men without proper supervision? Johnny had bedded plenty of young women, but he had never been so attracted to a girl like this before. Although she now appeared to be demure, and wasn’t even raising her eyes to meet his, Johnny was sure he hadn’t mistaken her sensual nature. Tentatively he reached out and lifted her chin so her mouth was close to his.

Miranda moistened her lips and her eyes gleamed, tempting further intimacy. Johnny accepted the invitation and lowered his mouth to meet hers. As they kissed, his nostrils filled with the scent of her, and he felt his heart pounding in time with hers. The heat of her body touching his fed the flames of his desire. Mindlessly, Johnny took pleasure in the young woman’s flesh, forgetting everything except possessing her. 

She moved within his arms, hands scouring his back, pulling his chest close to hers. His every touch incited her desire. No longer was Miranda shy; her hunger was as great as his. With tongue and teeth, rough chin on silky skin, the pair danced their lustful dance, mindless of anyone else in the world.

The thunder in Johnny’s head grew loud again and the world tilted precariously. Whispers rode on the wind, voices distant and strange swirled around him, but their meaning was lost in his fevered mind.

“He’s perfect, exactly what we desire.”

“Flawless. The elders will be pleased.”

“Will he perform the deed?”

“I have only to ask. He will follow me willingly.”

In the back of his mind, Johnny sensed that something was wrong. He railed against the grip of the words as they pulled on him, against his will, but even as he struggled against the force that was striving to retain control, Miranda’s tongue danced against his own. She teased his flesh with her own, bringing him back under her spell. Her scent invaded his nostrils and he lost his tenuous grip on reality. Hungrily he lifted her skirt, his hands searching for the secret place between her thighs. 

“That’s good, but do not take him any further. You must remain pure for the ceremony.”

“Then may I use him as I wish?”

”But of course, my dear. After the ceremony you may do with him as you wish. . . if any part of him still remains.”

Scott indicated to Samantha that she should take a comfortable seat on the couch, while he settled in the rocking chair nearby. “So tell me a bit about yourself, Samantha. You’re staying with relatives, did you say?”

The young woman played with a lock of her black hair for a minute, then said, “I didn’t say, exactly. My uncle has a houseful of guests over there at the old lodge, the one that was owned by that secret society.”

“Which secret society,” asked Scott, his interest piqued.

She shrugged as if it didn’t matter to her. “I’m not sure. I think it was called the Skin and Bones?”

With a laugh, Scott corrected her. “Skull and Bones. That’s a fraternal society back East. What would they be doing out here?”

“I didn’t say they were here now. Uncle mentioned they owned the lodge, and I think he was a member a long time ago. He doesn’t reveal everything to us girls.”  She leaned forward, her blue eyes appearing dark in the low lamplight. “Why? Are you a member?” 

“Oh no, not me,” Scott replied. He wondered why such a group would own property out here in the near-wilderness. He mused, “I guess it’s not too far from civilization if you take a boat downriver.” Realizing he had spoken his thoughts aloud, Scott smiled at Samantha. “Johnny and I rode up from the south. Where are you two from? You’re going home soon?”

“We’re going all too soon,” she said sadly. “If only we’d met you and your brother earlier. . .” She reached out and lightly touched his knee, but what at first appeared to be a fleeting touch soon changed in connotation. Her fingers caressed Scott’s leg, moving back and forth in a rhythmic motion. At first, Scott was uncomfortable with what he viewed as improper attention, but there was something about the warmth exuding from her hand that made him sleepy. He relaxed into his chair and the rocker swayed back gently. Half closing his eyes, Scott took a slow, deep breath. 

Samantha moved from the couch and sank to her knees, sliding between his legs. She pushed his knees apart as she ran her hands languorously up the inside of his legs, stroking his thighs. Back and forth she went, her body swaying in time with each motion, her head back in ecstasy.

Scott felt her hands run up his chest, her fingers rub his skin through his shirt, her thumbs making circular motions across his nipples. His eyes were closed, but he could envision the beauty who was making him feel better than he’d ever felt before. He could see her dress drop away from her shoulders, exposing her exquisitely pale skin. Her hair rained over her shoulders and touched his body when she leaned over him. Fingers, delicate as the petals of a flower, unbuttoned his shirt, then peeled back the cloth. Her mouth, hot and sweet, kissed his skin, nuzzling, burning as she made her way up to his neck. Her teeth sank into his ear lobe, but before he could protest, she passionately nuzzled his neck, then planted a soft, erotic kiss on his lips. 

Scott lost all sense of time. With great effort, he lifted his heavy arms and wrapped them around Samantha, murmuring her name tenderly, his lips drinking in hers, taking her tongue possessively. Then she was in his lap, straddling him, her skirts pushed up to expose her milky white thighs, her bare breasts touching his naked flesh, her hands doing things that stirred his loins. Scott’s fingers explored her crevices, almost of their own accord, even as she delved into his pants. She squirmed, her body grinding against his, and he rose to meet her. Faster she went, exciting him beyond belief, taking him to a seldom-experienced height of desire. The rocking chair swayed madly in time with their carnal motion, back and forth as their bodies fused as one.

That was when the rocking chair, unused to such a rigorous workout, broke. Scott, with the enthusiastic Samantha still in his arms, fell to the floor. His head struck the stone hearth, and when he tried to get up, he fell back on one elbow and dropped the girl. “I. . .I. . ,” Scott muttered as he fell back into oblivion.

When he opened his eyes, Samantha was gently slapping him on the cheek, a peevish look on her face. He had the feeling that only a couple of minutes had passed. Apologizing and slowly rising to his feet, Scott asked, “Are you all right?” She nodded and he stumbled into the kitchen to splash some cold water on his face. He had a vague recollection of sitting in the rocker talking to her just a short while earlier, but felt he was missing something that had occurred. He leaned against the doorway, drying his face on a hand towel, and asked, “You were. . .uh. . . telling me where you’re from?”

Samantha didn’t reply. She just leaned back against the soft cushions of the old couch and looked at the wreck of the rocking chair, licking her lips.

Chapter 4
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“Johnny? Johnny?” Scott called. His voice seemed so far away, but there was something that told Johnny he should listen to his brother, that he needed to for his own sake – for his very life. Johnny gasped and wrenched himself away from the enchantress who held onto him as if for dear life. With a will he didn’t know he possessed, Johnny shoved her away and she melted into the shadows of the porch. He staggered a bit and raised the back of his hand to his mouth. Heaving to get some fresh air into his lungs, Johnny bent at over at the waist. Suddenly a hand was on his back. He turned, crouched and made a grab for his gun, but a strong hand held onto his wrist, and suddenly there was Scott, calling his name.

“Johnny, it’s only me,” said Scott, his voice stern but full of concern. Speaking in a low tone, the blond man asked, “You having some kind of spell or something?”

Johnny shook his head briskly, one hand grasping Scott’s shoulder until he regained his stability. After a moment he straightened and assured his older brother that everything was fine, although it was obvious Scott didn’t believe him.

Scott looked back at the young woman in the shadows. She leaned against the wall of the cabin, watching both of them as if fascinated. Scott dragged his eyes away from her and spoke to Johnny. “I came out to ask if you and Miss Miranda were ready for that drink.”

Johnny blinked. Miranda smiled at him, a faint gleam in her green eyes as she casually pushed herself away from the wall. He shook his head to clear away the fog that still clung to his mind. “Let’s just go in,” he suggested with an effort as he hesitantly offered his arm to the young woman. 

Miranda accepted his arm with a knowing smile.

“I had a fine time tonight,” Scott said to Johnny as he settled back on the couch. “Who would have thought we’d come up here to work and find two such intriguing creatures? If their uncle hadn’t come over to fetch them in his canoe, we could have walked them back along the shoreline path. Oh well.” He sighed contentedly. “I don’t remember the last time I met such an enchanting girl. Miss Samantha is quite a picture with all that black hair, don’t you think?” He turned his head to meet Johnny’s stare. “What, didn’t you enjoy your time out there with the lovely Miranda?” 

“I don’t know.” Johnny rubbed his eyes. “I kissed her. Then I…”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know. That’s just it. I sorta lost control. We were both getting, well you know, physical, but there was something weird about it.” Johnny shrugged it off even though he had a bad feeling about his apparent loss of control.

Scott scoffed, “I don’t understand you, Johnny. Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by Paradise, and two angels show up on the doorstep and you don’t seem to be too pleased.”

“I was pleased.” Johnny touched his lips as he recalled his encounter with the young woman on the porch. “It’s just…” He rose abruptly and stalked to the hearth, then leaned his arms on the mantle and dropped his head wearily. “Scott, I just get this feeling that something isn’t right here. Something is going on.”

“Are you going to start that nonsense again?” Scott tossed back the remains of his drink.

“Maybe it’s you that’s not right. You should have Sam take a look at you when we get home.”

Johnny whirled around, anger rising again as his brother’s words hit home. “Say that again! You hear me? Mock me again and I swear, I’ll. . .I’ll . . .”

Scott rose to his feet, and stood rigidly within a couple of feet of his brother. “You’ll what?” For their normal banter to cause Johnny to fly off the handle was unusual, but he was in no mood to suffer Johnny’s latest fit of temper. He repeated with narrowed eyes, “You’ll do what?”

Johnny’s hands formed into fists but he didn’t raise them, even though the clenched hands shook at his sides. “I’ll kill you!” Johnny glared at his brother and found his challenge met, but instead of acting on impulse, he stalked to his room and slammed the door behind him.

Scott stood uncertainly, his brother’s words echoing in his ears. “What the hell is happening here?” he whispered. He had a hard time believing that the death of the young man back in town a few days earlier was still affecting Johnny this way. It seemed his ex-gunfighter brother was always struggling with the consequences of his actions and maybe this time he was finding it harder to overcome them. 

Scott was stricken by remorse. He knew Johnny had only stepped in to help him out when the up-and-coming gunfighter had chosen him as his next target. He sat by the fire for some time, mulling over everything that had gone on over the past few days, then went to bed without seeing his brother again.

In the trees two pairs of eyes glowed brightly in the dark. “They’ll be ready soon. Brother will kill brother,” the voices whispered as one.

Johnny stood in the dark bedroom for several minutes, unable to think, his mind black with anger. Slowly, it receded. Very slowly. As the insidious grip of whatever was preying on his mind retreated, he sank to his knees. There was something at work out there in the night, something that was disturbing. He hated to lose control and he couldn’t find any reason for his actions. He’d been all over that girl with no thought as to the consequences, and then he’d  threatened his brother. Neither action sat well with him. 

As his eyes adjusted to the dark room he saw the light of the moon streaming across the floor. It seemed to be creeping in his direction, but instead of rising to his feet and seeking the lamp, Johnny started to pray. Instinctively he grasped the talisman that hung around his neck, pulling it out from its secret hiding place inside his shirt. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t revealed it to his brother, but something told him to keep it close. With both hands he held onto the claw and the bone piece suspended at the end of the leather cord and prayed fervently.

Johnny thrashed under the bed covers and moaned softly, his naked legs and arms tangling the sheet. Dreams, disturbingly elusive invaded his slumber. Sweat-dampened hair clung to his forehead and his mouth moved silently as he spoke in his dream. Voices chanted rhythmically in his ears, bidding him do their will. He fought their influence, seeking escape, but the chanting and the dream held him firmly in their grasp. 

Unwillingly he rose, as if his body and soul had somehow been severed one from the other. He fought the unearthly influence only for a few moments more, then complied with its captivating allure. With one hand he removed the necklace and dropped it, standing naked in the moonlight.

In his mind’s eye Johnny watched from above as he padded to the door of his bedroom. Quietly it opened on its own, allowing him to move steadily down the hall. He moved stealthily toward his brother’s room, a hunter seeking its prey. The door to Scott’s room opened on silent hinges. Johnny could clearly see the still form in the bed in the dim light cast by the moon. Licking his lips in anticipation, he hovered over the bed and peered intently at the sleeping man. He knew what he had to do. Somehow, it was as if nature had decreed that this had been his mission all along. He had a twinge of something akin to regret, but a whisper directed him to proceed. He must do this, for their sake, he realized. 

Scott lay on his side, facing the window as if he had fallen asleep while admiring the beauty of the night. His features, relaxed in slumber, gave the impression of innocence. His lips were parted as he breathed deeply and rhythmically. Suddenly he turned over onto his back with a gentle snore and threw one hand over his chest.

His lips parting with a smile, Johnny quickly pulled the pillow out from beneath his brother’s head and in one smooth movement pressed it over the sleeping man’s face. He leaned his weight on top of the unsuspecting man, and just in time. Scott, his breath suddenly restricted, awoke to find himself being smothered. He thrashed wildly on the bed, his hands groping desperately for the source of his pain. In desperation he cried out, but the sounds were muffled and his tormentor was deaf to the pleas.

“Kill him!” 

For a moment, Johnny rebelled at the command and he eased up on the pressure he was applying to the pillow. 

“Kill him! Kill him!”

Scott took advantage of the slight reprieve, and managed to move his head to the side. He took one small, life-saving, gulp of air. With renewed vigor, Scott struck out, his hand making contact with the face of the demon who was trying to suffocate him. 

It was enough to startle Johnny, and for just a moment something at the back of his mind fought its way to the surface, just as Scott fought for his very life – but then the moment of sanity was gone. Once again Johnny was swept away by the carnal ties that Miranda had implanted in his mind earlier that evening. Those sexual urges may have been denied, but now they had turned into something much more insidious. Everything that Johnny had ever been denied in his lifetime came together at that moment and was reformed into a strong essence of hate. Need turned into an overwhelming craving, hatred became the fuel, and meting out death became the reward.

“Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!”

The voices became more and more insistent, demanding that Johnny obey, insisting he overcome his brother’s violent struggle. He needed no more encouragement to carry out their wishes, which had now become his own. He leaned heavily on the pillow covering his brother’s head, pressing down with all his might. 

Scott’s movements became more and more feeble as his life’s breath was stolen. With the last vestiges of his strength, his hand reached out, feeling around, searching for some kind of weapon. Almost by mistake, he grasped the bedside lamp and with one last effort swung it over and brought it down on the head of his attacker. 

Johnny was so focused on his mission that he never noticed Scott’s hand encircling the base of the lamp. Or perhaps he chose not to see it, perhaps his sub-conscious welcomed the interruption. The explosion of pain in his skull shattered the enchantress’ hold on his senses and sent him crashing to the floor. With a moan, he collapsed into a darkness of his own.

Scott lay in his bed, panting heavily, one hand holding the remains of the lamp while the other clutched his chest. The smell of lamp oil was strong, but he paid it no attention. He struggled to rise, yet his limbs were as lead. He could make out the body of his assailant lying on the floor next to the bed, but there was no sign of life issuing from him.

Eventually Scott’s sluggish legs obeyed his command and he was able to heave himself to his feet. Stepping over the unmoving body, he stumbled to the bureau to grab his revolver. There he located another small lantern. He was reluctant to put his gun back down, but he did so only long enough to ignite the wick. Once alight, he held it away from the remnants of the other lamp, fearful of fire. He lifted the lantern high to expose the identity of his attacker. “Johnny!” he exclaimed in horror.

The morning sun streaming in through the bedroom windows roused Johnny from the inky darkness that enveloped him. The dream had been so vivid, he thought as he stretched. He recalled the strength that had flowed through his body, the exquisite power that had energized him, and the feeling that had left him heady. There had been a sensation of immortality such as he had never experienced before, making him thirst for more. He also craved the woman whose will he had tried to fulfill the previous night. But with the high came the low – he could still feel his brother’s struggles, hear Scott’s moans as he attempted to suck in life-sustaining air. But it had all been a horrible dream, hadn’t it? 

Johnny turned away from the bright of the day, but the movement caused an onslaught of agony. The throbbing behind his eyes brought reality back and he knew with all certainty that the experience had not been a figment of his imagination. Wondering why his head felt like it was cracked, he gingerly felt around for the source of the pain. His fingers met with a bandage around his brow; above his ear was damp with blood. 

Groaning he rolled slowly to his side and attempted to rise. Immediately bile rose in his throat as dizziness hit him. He held his head in his hands and willed the room to stop spinning. But as he waited for it to pass, a strange sensation, like the gentle caress of a lover’s touch washed over him, filling his soul with warmth. Images of a fiery red-haired woman came to his mind unbidden. He felt the heat of her lips as they touched his own, melting away the pain. After some time had passed, the room came back into focus and the throbbing eased to a dull ache. 

Breathing deeply, Johnny cautiously rose and made his way to the bureau on less than sturdy legs. In the small mirror that hung above it, he inspected the damage to his head, but surmised it wasn’t as bad as it felt. Surprised to see the talisman necklace lying discarded on the floor, he picked it up and returned it to its place around his neck, then donned the clothing he’d worn the previous day. When he lifted the cloth of his shirt to his nose Miranda’s scent overwhelmed him. 

For a minute he swayed, eyes closed, and a sound that he would later think of as music, even though it was a jumble of unintelligible words, overtook his mind. He had no idea what its meaning was, or where it came from, but it brought on a terrible ache in his loins and a sense that he had a task to complete before the moon rose again. 

There was a thump from the kitchen, and with it the smell of cooking food awakened him properly. He shook his head, the lilting music disappeared, and the chains that threatened to bind him to the unseen force fell away. As he stood there, hand on the talisman, he felt increasingly better. That’s when he discovered his gun wasn’t in his holster. Alarmed, Johnny hurried out to the kitchen to confront his brother.

“What do you mean,” Johnny demanded, “you took it away for my own sake?”

Scott calmly dropped two plates full of beans and fried fish on the rough dining table. The only reminder that they had entertained guests on the previous evening was a vase of autumnal flowers and leaves. “You can have it back if you’ve come to your senses,” Scott said. He looked intently at Johnny’s face before he indicated the location of the missing firearm.

Johnny followed the direction in which his brother was pointing, and saw his Colt perched on the mantle of the stone fireplace. He pounced on the gun, gave it a once-over and holstered it. He walked over to where Scott sat eating his breakfast, and stood right behind his chair.

Scott’s shoulders tensed, but all he said was, “Eat up before it gets cold.”

A small hint of the darkness he’d felt the night before returned to Johnny, but he suppressed it and took his brother’s advice. Throughout the breakfast he drank as much coffee as he could stomach and paused only to glare occasionally at the man sitting opposite him. 

Finally, when Johnny had scraped the last bit of food off his plate and sat back with a sigh, Scott shook his head and smiled ruefully. “Sometimes, Johnny, I wonder how you and I ever survive each other’s company.” He looked at Johnny’s bandaged head and added, “You’re lucky I didn’t bash your skull in. In fact, you’re lucky you didn’t kill me, either. Murdoch would have been really mad if you had.” 

Johnny tried to sort out reality from dream, and when the parts fell into place he was horrified to discover that much of his nightmare was real. “Did I. . .did I hurt you?”

“Apart from a few feathers in my mouth from the pillow you shoved in my face, no harm done.” 

Johnny realized that Scott was more concerned than he sounded, and he didn’t blame him for being upset. He started to apologize, but his brother would have none of it. 

“Look, Johnny, I think we should put it down to stress and maybe to a little too much excitement. You can say what you like but I know that the killing, the death of that young gun, weighed heavily on you. I think we need to face that.”

If Scott was expecting his brother to kick up a fuss and loudly protest, he was wrong. Johnny touched his bandaged head, then said thoughtfully, “I agree. I think that we have to face any friend of Dylan Reno’s, should they come calling. At first I thought this trip would be a good escape, but I need to face any trouble I caused, not run away from it.” He removed the bandage then dabbed at his head to ensure the bleeding had stopped. “What’d you hit me with? I smell like oil,” he complained.

Scott chuckled. “A brass lamp.” He shrugged. “It was all I could lay my hand on at the time. You’re fortunate I was in a good enough mood to drag you back to your bedroom.” Johnny raised his eyebrow, so Scott added, “Well, you did come to your senses enough to sort of wobble along the hallway. Otherwise I’d have left you lying on the cold floor. Of course, you were muttering some weird things.”

“Like what?” Johnny was afraid to know.

Scott rose, dropped his empty plate in the washbasin, then donned his gun belt. “”Let’s see, you were whispering something like, ‘Dark night, dark night.’ And you said Miranda’s name and that you were coming.” He grinned. “I think I interrupted you two out on the front porch a little too soon, eh, brother?” 

Johnny frowned. “You know I’m not the kind of guy to just, you know, out on the front porch. I favor a bed, or hayloft.” He allowed a small smile, and said, “Hell, just so you’re not mad at me.”

Scott slapped Johnny on the arm with his gloves. “Today we have a fresh start, so how about we get the well repaired, fix the pump in the kitchen and close up this place. I don’t know about you, but I’m sort of ready to go back home. We can always fish in Morro Lake, right in our own back yard.”

Chapter 5
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The good weather didn’t last the whole day, and by the time the brothers had finished their work and shuttered up the house, a vicious wind was blowing off the lake. “Looks like we aren’t doing any fishing,” Johnny called to Scott, who was struggling to close the barn doors against the wind. 

“I don’t think we should head back to Lancer now,” said Scott. He dropped a heavy piece of wood into the brackets on the outside of the double barn doors. “It’s too late and we’ll be drenched half-way home. Can you stand one more night here?”

“No choice.” Johnny eyed the whitecaps scudding across the lake’s surface. “Have we got any more beans left?”

“I think we can rustle up some kind of meal from the leftovers, don’t you worry. Let’s keep it simple, though, so you don’t have any more nightmares – and no liquor for you. Scott thoughtfully added, “Or coffee. I can’t understand how you can drink so much of it. It tastes odd to me.”

“Yessir,” Johnny replied. “No more coffee, even if it’s the best I’ve ever sampled.” He was glad that his brother had not only been forgiving but also understanding. Whatever had caused his spell the previous night seemed far away, so much so that apart from a vague yearning for a woman, he had little recollection of what had occurred.

It was dark when Scott suddenly awoke. He sat up in his bed, breathing heavily. He thought he’d heard something, and he sat still, just listening. He wondered if Johnny was having another nightmare. His brother had been reluctant to give up his gun before turning in, but when Scott reminded him of the dangerous situation that Johnny had put them both in the previous night, he had agreed.

The sound came again, mingling with the whistle of the wind in the pines and the clattering of twigs battering the cabin. This time there was a definite moan. Scott quickly pulled on his boots and pants and threw on a shirt. With gun in his hand, he crept along the hallway to Johnny’s room. There was a candle lit on the side table. It gave off a faint glow, but provided just enough light to see Johnny writhing in bed, apparently in terrible pain.

Scott had barely touched his brother on the shoulder when Johnny’s eyes snapped open and he cried out, “No! No!” Scott tried to calm him, laying both hands on Johnny’s shoulders, hoping to comfort him even as he searched for the cause of such anguish. Johnny’s arms came up to cover his face, but Scott could see the tormented expression that marred the good-looking features. With lips drawn back and snarls of pain, he didn’t even look like the Johnny Scott knew.

“Johnny, wake up!” Scott shook his brother, to no avail, but as soon as Johnny lowered his arms to expose blue eyes that stared blankly back at him, Scott slapped him across the face. When the blow barely affected his brother, Scott served up another slap, hoping to wake his brother up from whatever nightmare gripped him so fiercely.

Startled, Johnny finally came out of the bad dream. He heaved in a great chestful of air and desperately gripped Scott’s shoulders. He clung to his brother as if to a lifeline. “Help me! Help me,” he cried.

“What is it?” Scott asked the near frantic man. “Calm down, calm down.”

“They’re coming!” Johnny cast a wild eye at the shuttered window. 

Scott was about to scoff at him when he heard a sound that sent a chill up his spine. It wasn’t the moaning of the wind in the trees, nor the raging storm that captured Scott’s attention. Rather it was a distinct humming that mounted on the wind and drifted across Wolf Lake, through the forest that surrounded the cabin. The limbs of the tree outside the bedroom window scratched the window pane while disembodied voices invaded the room. Shadows swirled around the two men and darkness, blacker than the deepest night, seemed to stalk the Lancers as a hunter stalks its prey. Overtaking the glow of the lantern, dark shadows seeped into the small circle of light and enveloped it until the room was pitched into an ebony void.

“Scott?” Johnny’s voice was barely a whisper. “We got to get out of here.”

“Yes, and the sooner the better.” Scott gripped Johnny’s arm and pulled him from the bed. “You saddle the horses; I’ll close up the cabin.” He called over his shoulder, “And put some pants on!”

“Forget the damn cabin! There’s no time for that,” Johnny hissed. “We gotta go now, Scott. Right now.” He dressed in record time and stuffed his few belongings into his saddlebag. The amulet was almost left behind in his haste, but at the last minute he grabbed it and drew it over his head, tucking it securely inside his shirt. Cautiously, Johnny made his way to the front door of the cabin, pausing only to peer into the corners of the rooms as if expecting an attack from an unseen assailant. 

Scott stayed close, watching their retreat. He struggled to control his breathing, but his fear was too close to the surface. The wind was howling around the cabin, rattling the windows and door, its sound unholy.

“You ready?” Johnny tossed a glance in his brother’s direction and was relieved when Scott nodded in the affirmative. “Ok then, we stick together. When we get to the barn, we each grab a saddle and bridle, then run for the corral.” Johnny could feel his heart beating so hard he was afraid it would burst through his chest. “The horses are going to be real hard to handle.”

Scott nodded  his understanding and attempted a small smile of encouragement.

Taking a deep breath, Johnny unlatched the door and attempted to pull it inward. He was surprised when his effort met with resistance and he pulled harder. “It won’t open.” He leaned back, firmly gripping the handle and was thankful when Scott added his strength to the task. Luckily, it was a large forged iron handle and they were both able to get their hands around it. Together they pulled at the door, grunting as it suddenly gave way before their combined strength. The brothers lost no time in heading for the barn’s tack room, where they’d stored their gear.

“You know, I’ve about had enough of this place,” Scott said loudly, competing with the noise of the wind in the trees. Johnny nodded in agreement as they scurried across the yard. He could see the dark shapes of the horses in the corral, milling about as they whinnied in fright. Scott threw open the side door that led directly into the tack room. He sought a lantern and found one hanging from a peg just inside the door. Once lit, the brothers took hold of their horses’ tack and hoisted the saddles to the doorway, only stopping long enough to blow out the light.

Barranca and Victory were skittish enough to make the saddling difficult, but the brothers worked as fast as they were able to get the animals prepared for the journey home. The occasional bursts of lightning slashed across the sky, illuminating the corral, casting horrific shadows across the yard.

The storm raged around them, wind whipped their faces while thunder rumbled viciously. Along with the rain that pelted the earth came fist–sized hail. Just as they were about to mount, Scott gripped Johnny’s arm, pulling him to a stop. He raised his voice and yelled into Johnny’s ear, ensuring his words could be heard above the storm. “Did you leave any lamps burning?” 

Johnny shook his head and looked back at the barn. Its windows were lit by the faint glow of candlelight. He called out, “Hell no! Guess we’d better go and see what’s going on. Murdoch will have our heads if we let the barn burn down.”

With a reluctant nod Scott agreed and together they headed back to the barn. As they reached the barn door, the overhang afforded them some shelter from the wind and rain. They leaned heavily against the building to catch their breath and prepare for the task ahead. Johnny pulled his gun and checked it out. He caught Scott eyeing him and explained, “Just making sure you didn’t touch my ammo after last night.”

“Never entered my mind,” his brother replied as he drew his own revolver.

As if the efforts of the storm to hinder their movements had failed, the lightning cracked one last time and the storm subsided. The night grew unnaturally still, the eerie calm being just as much a cause for concern as the raging storm had once been. 

Johnny pushed his hat back on his head and cautiously peeped in the small window to one side of the large barn door. The old glass was grimy inside and spattered with raindrops on the outside, but he could make out the interior of the barn. There was just enough light to show him that there was nobody in sight. Johnny said, “I can’t see what’s making the light. I only know I didn’t leave anything burning. Now what?”

“I just want to get out of here,” Scott ground out, “but we can’t leave without putting those lights out.” With pounding heart, Scott pulled the great door ajar. It gave easily, yawning wide to reveal an empty expanse of barn. The brothers quickly stepped inside. 

The spacious interior felt warm compared to outside, but Johnny shivered. There was something about the place that made him feel like he was being watched, and he felt decidedly uneasy. Once inside, the source of the light was apparent. There was a ring of candles placed strategically on the floor, each one sitting on the perimeter of what appeared to be a chalk drawing of a five-sided star inside a very large circle. Additional candles had been lit in between each of the star’s five points , but the glow was sufficient to light only the center of the barn. 

The stalls and sides of the barn were cast in a murky blackness that raised the hairs on Scott’s neck. “Just put them out,” he said in a brusque undertone.

The brothers slowly stepped nearer the ring of candles, and Scott pointed out a variety of objects that were lying within the parameter of the circle. In a hushed voice he said, “Coins, sticks, cups. . .it looks like we interrupted some kind of ceremony.” He stepped forward to douse the candles within his reach, but Johnny grabbed his arm.

Johnny, who couldn’t take his eyes off the candles, whispered, “Brujos. Don’t touch the flames, Scott.”

Scott suddenly scoffed, “For God’s sake, Johnny, this is unbelievable!”

“All the more reason to get out of here – now, before they come back!” An unfamiliar aroma drifted up from a pot in the center of the circle. It was heavy and cloying, reeking of something akin to musk. As it permeated his nostrils, Johnny was overcome by light-headedness. A voice in the back of his mind screamed at him to run, but his legs moved of their own volition and carried him even closer to the candle-lit circle. A sound, not unlike the wind, seemed to be coming from the dark recesses of the barn.

He put his head back as he took a deep breath, taking in as much of the earthy scent as he could. The room was reeling around him and he could hear the steady beat of his pulse in his ears. “Do you hear that sound?” Johnny asked. The sound became a song, and the moaning of the wind turned into a choir of human voices. “They’re singing.” His Colt dropped from his slack fingers and fell with a thump to the wooden barn floor.

“Hear what?” Scott, about to stamp on one of the candles, turned to his brother, his eyes growing wide in shock at Johnny’s demeanor. “Johnny, get over here and help me,” he directed, alarmed.

But Johnny was beyond taking orders. His eyes were open but unseeing, his face void of any expression. His head was cocked to one side as he intently listened to the unseen songstress. It was as if an enchantress had woven a spell, giving him directions, and he move a few steps forward into the pentacle. He hesitated when Scott called out to him in a strident voice, but he only faltered for a moment, then he walked right into the center of the circle.

A shadow separated itself from the furthest corner and came toward him. It was Miranda, who seemingly materialized before Johnny’s eyes. She was clad in a scarlet robe, her fiery red hair streamed behind her. With an unholy gleam in her eyes, she glided towards him, circling him hungrily before coming to stop mere inches before him – inside the circle of candles. 

Scott rushed forward to grab hold of his brother’s arm. The woman only had eyes for Johnny, so Scott tried to get between them in order to break whatever hold she had on him. “Johnny, wake up,” Scott called attempting to break the charm of the enchantress. “She’s trying to overpower you. Think, Johnny!” 

Scott shouldered his way between his brother and Miranda and so into the circle. The aroma of the burning incense immediately had an effect on him; it tried to steal his ability to reason and his will to escape. He fought its pungent fingers as they caressed his throat, but there was no shaking off the magical spirit once it took hold of him. He tried to step back, but the more he struggled, the more he was robbed of breath. His gun hand was shaking and although he didn’t want to use his weapon on the young woman, he was unable to retain his grasp on it. He barely managed to get it back into his holster. Soon enough Scott learned that only if he acquiesced would he be able to breathe freely – and so, against everything he believed in, he gave in.

Miranda barely gave Scott a glance. Her sole objective was to entice Johnny to give himself to her. His brother was not the chosen one and had proved to be a problem, and so he had been marked for death. But now it appeared that he, too, could be controlled. She intoned, “Two instead of one. They will be pleased to have both delivered unto them at the same time.” Lustfully she reached out a hand to caress Johnny’s face, her fingers following a line from cheek to cheek then tracing the lines of his mouth with her fingernails. He stood stock still, in a trance, when she stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his. 

Miranda turned her dark green eyes to Scott and smiled victoriously. “He’s mine,” she gloated. “Watch and see.”

Scott mutely shook his head in denial, but his body and voice failed him. Unable to move or even to speak, he watched in horror as Miranda turned her attention back to his brother. Standing only inches from Johnny, he was only able to bear witness to the scene.

Chapter 6
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Scott could see that his brother was sweating, his eyes half-closed. Johnny’s lips parted and moved slightly, though only a low moan issued forth. His brother, who took such pride in always being in control, had lost his essence to this woman, this witch, and Scott was powerless to interfere.

Miranda smiled triumphantly. “Put your hands on me, Johnny,” she instructed softly. As if of their own accord, Johnny’s hands rose and gently touched her breasts. His fingertips brushed her nipples, which rose in reaction and pushed against the silky red cloth of her sinuous gown. He rubbed his palms across the cloth, sliding it back and forth, then moved to her bare flesh where it was exposed at the neckline. His hand slipped under the cloth, caressing her, stroking gently, then with more pressure, causing Miranda to throw her head back as she was overwhelmed by the pleasure he gave her.

He lowered his lips to hers, his tongue darting inside her mouth. Miranda wrapped her arms around his neck and grasped a handful of his hair. They were so involved in their physical pleasure that neither took notice of a female figure who stepped out of the shadows.

She slid up to Scott and said impudently, “Don’t be jealous, precious boy.”

Samantha’s voice surprised Scott and he slowly turned to face her. She too, wore a crimson robe of the finest silk. Her full breasts strained against the fabric. Instinctively, Scott knew she wore nothing underneath.

She smiled when she noted the direction of his eyes. “It had been decreed that your life would not be spared. You are fortunate that your brother did not kill you, as was originally planned. I’ve been hoping to have another taste of you, ever since our tryst was interrupted.” She raked her nails down his throat, drawing fine beads of blood. “I know you want me as much as I want you and now you will get your own reward,” she purred. 

Scott attempted to resist, but her charms were not of this world. He struggled to breathe, to resist, but her fragrance was irresistible and he felt himself succumbing to her bidding. Skillfully she wove her spell, her perfume smothering him, her fingers running along his arms up to his neck. She grasped his head and although he was able to resist for a short time, he gave in and bent down to deliver a kiss on her mouth. 

As Scott was overwhelmed by Samantha’s sorcery, figures clad in hooded robes of red came out of the darkest corners of the barn and encircled the brothers, their chanting pulsating in rhythm with the two women’s lovemaking. 

Miranda and Samantha guided their prey until the two brothers stood back to back, not quite touching each other. The women never let go of the men within their grasp, as if their power was at its strongest if they were touching them. Each one ran her hands over the body of the man standing before her, then closed her eyes in ecstasy as the men reciprocated. The women worked their wiles on their now-willing victims. With lips and hands and tongues stroking and demanding more of the men, their intimacy was laced with greed. It didn’t take much effort to bring Johnny and Scott close to the peak of passion, but the women were able to hold back. 

When Johnny enclosed his woman in his arms, he could feel every curve of her figure molding to his hard body. He could also feel the talisman dangling on its leather thong around his neck, still hidden from sight under his shirt. Instinctively he knew that he should not reveal its presence to this woman, not while they clung to each other in passion. He was very aware of the necklace’s claw scratching at his chest. Every time his weight bore down on Miranda’s body, the charms burned his skin, but the pain wasn’t enough to rouse him from the spell that she had cast over him. Still he knew, down deep, that the time would come when he would need to grasp the talisman with all his might and invoke the powers it carried – the powers that could only be released if he truly believed in them. 

Johnny had grown up in a culture where curanderas and brujos practiced both medicinal and darker crafts out in the open. His mother had been a believer and she had often taken her small son with her to visit some old woman in the village to buy an herbal remedy or request a small charm. He’d seen things that he remembered to this day as being unexplainable, though his practical side would deny their very existence. But now, faced with the temptations dangled before him, his flesh proved to be weak. His sexual needs overcame all the principles he lived by, and he was willing and able to satisfy his carnal appetite right here on the barn floor – in front of whomever wanted to watch.

Johnny roughly took hold of Miranda’s buttocks and tried to claim her, but she pulled away in protest. He started to buckle at the knees, trying to take her down with him, as the fire in his veins threatened to consume him. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he knew this wasn’t right, but he was past caring. “Now,” he panted. “Now is the time.”

Miranda bit his lip, then ran her tongue along his chin and under his jaw. She opened her mouth, biting his throat, her bite stilling him. She raised her face to look in his eyes, mesmerizing him with their green glow. One of her hands grasped his neck and the other ran down the front of his pants and took hold of him. Even though Johnny wanted to drop her to the ground so he could cover her, he was suddenly unable to move. His blood pulsated throughout his body and he was aware of its heat in a way he’d never known before. His head was swimming, his limbs felt as if they were weighted down. With ragged breath, all he could do was accept her hold on him and await her command.

Scott, standing back to back with his brother, could feel the tremors coursing through his brother’s body. His own skin was afire, and even though he could see everything and think clearly, his body seemed to have a will of its own. Samantha, her dark hair loose and streaming over her shoulders, had allowed her robe to slip down to expose her breasts. He aided her in disrobing by peeling the red silk down until it pooled at her waist, where it was held only by a slim belt that prevented it from slipping altogether off her body. She encouraged his touch, guiding his hand under her skirt to a place that left her yearning for more.

Scott buried his face in Samantha’s breasts, sucking on them as his hands explored her curves. At one point he hesitated but she placed one hand on either side of his face and pulled his mouth to merge with hers. He kissed her, but drew back before she was able to suck the life out of him.

His mind told him to pull back, to take it easy, that there was some kind of danger, but her touch and the heady scent that accompanied her heated response impelled him to continue. Even though the women were nearly undressed, both Scott and Johnny were still fully clothed. It was if the women were able to go only so far without the men agreeing to total enslavement. Although they were victims, the Lancer brothers could only fall into darkness by choice. There was still some humanity remaining, but when the last vestiges of their self-control was discarded, the women would win and the Lancers would fall to depths they could never imagine.

Samantha’s hands held onto Scott’s hips, explored his buttocks and then touched him between his thighs. Her hold was not gentle and elicited a gasp from him. His head rose in protest, but she demanded, “Kiss me.” With soft, erotic touches of her tongue, she enticed his lips, teasing him to react, and again he lost all sense of self. His mouth was physically drawn to hers by an invisible force, yet this time his tongue willingly explored her softness. As he did so, Scott lost any remaining threads of reason. 

With a sweep of his strong arms, he lifted the young woman off the ground. One of her hands remained firmly clasped on his genitals while the other was slung around his neck as she was lifted off her feet. She moaned, her eyes closing in response to his lovemaking.

“Not yet, my children,” a man’s deep voice commanded from the shadows. “We must fulfill the prophecy. First we shall perform the ceremony, then when our Mother of Nature is satisfied so shall you be. You shall be united with these men and they shall willingly offer their lives to renew yours.”

“As you wish,” Samantha and Miranda spoke in unison. They reluctantly stepped a pace back from Johnny and Scott. 

His chest heaving from exertion, Johnny reached out a hand to repossess his woman, but then let it fall limply to his side. Scott blinked, trying to rid himself of the vestiges of the otherworldly fog that had overwhelmed him. He, too, felt an agonizing loss when the woman left his arms, but after a minute he could breathe easier and a small amount of his essence returned.

Miranda and Samantha stood before their intended victims and waited to be attended by four women guardians who approached from the dark shadows of the room. Without speaking, the four women aided the young virgins to disrobe; the blood-red garments fell silently to the floor. Several figures came forward, gliding into the pool of light cast by the candles in the circle. Two of them replenished the pots with oil and the heady scent of musk and pine permeated the barn. More robed men and women came to join them until there was a full circle of crimson surrounding the principals in the ceremony.

In all their naked glory, Miranda and Samantha, two perfect specimens of womanhood, swayed before Scott and Johnny, their long hair moving in time with their macabre dance. They closed their eyes and started to chant along with the members of the coven. 

The chanting increased in tempo as the four guardians anointed the young women’s bodies with sweet oil. Gently beginning at their faces, skilled hands moved over their neck and shoulders, pausing to stroke their breasts before traveling lower. They deliberately avoided touching the source of their womanhood, reserving that privilege for the men.

Both Johnny and Scott, spellbound, watched the proceedings silently at first, but as the chanting grew louder and more insistent, they started to hum along. The words were unnatural to the Lancers, but the repetitive song was ingrained in their minds and came forth spontaneously. 

The High Priest, a tall and thin man wearing a hooded robe, surveyed the scene, his bearing regal and supreme. He regarded his innocents with satisfaction while leading the coven into deeper chanting. He knew for sure now that he would have his Priestess, the Mother of Nature. With the sacrifice of these two young men and the joining of his virgins, she would be pleased and come to him. His moment of fulfillment was at hand when he would reign as Father of the Earth. With malicious glee, he raised his head and bid his lover welcome with a resounding cry. 

The High Priest raised his hands, closed his eyes and offered a prayer over the joining of the two couples standing before him. He recited ancient words that had been handed down for generations, intoning every syllable of the spell. Passionately, he enticed his lover, the Mother of Nature, to honor their sacrifice and to come to him, not as a spirit or as a goddess, but in human form. The last remaining member of the coven to join the circle was an old warlock, who glided out of the shadow bearing a golden goblet in each hand. Silently, he bowed before his priest and extended his offering. The High Priest accepted the proffered goblets and lifted them toward the Heavens. The chanting built to a crescendo with the voices throbbing like the beat of a drum.

The sight of the coven members, their sex disguised under their crimson coverings, weaving around the dancing, naked virgins, fanned the flames in the hearts of the Lancer men. The heat of passion was ignited within their loins, setting the blood in their veins alight. The raging inferno of desire brought pain as much as pleasure as it pulsed within their souls. 

Johnny and Scott’s eyes watched as the naked women slowed their dancing and stood close enough to touch them. With hungry eyes, the men took in the untouched, supple bodies gleaming in the candlelight. Hunger was unleashed within the men’s souls, but they were forced to remain motionless, agonizingly awaiting the moment when they could finally take their release.

Miranda lifted her face to look into Johnny’s eyes, slowly running her hands across her breasts. She joined in the chanting and raised her hands above her head, swinging her hips erotically from side to side. Oil dripped down her body, dripping from her nipples onto the floor. Johnny’s gaze followed its course, then he allowed his eyes to linger on the mound between her thighs. She licked her lips and asked, “Will you have me, young lamb?”

“Yes,” he groaned. The fire in his body was burning hotter, the flames causing spasms of passion to sear his senses. “I want you.” Johnny began to tremble as the vixen moved yet closer. 

The High Priest presented both Miranda and Samantha with one of the goblets the warlock had carried into the circle. “They must drink now,” he commanded. The women nodded in submission and turned to face their chosen lovers, goblets in hand. 

Johnny could barely lift his hand up to accept the goblet, but Miranda placed her fingers on the stem and helped guide it to his lips. She smiled with pleasure as he drank deeply, and stroked his chest, touching him for the first time since the ceremony had begun. 

Samantha had been watching her friend offer the goblet to her chosen victim, and then she turned to hers. Scott stood rigidly, and it disturbed her that he was not as deeply influenced as the dark one. Nevertheless, she moved forward until she was only a hairsbreadth from the tall, blond man, and raised the goblet in front of his lips. “Will you have me, my lamb?” she asked, as Miranda had asked of her lover. 

Samantha trembled at the opportunity standing before her. She was past being eager, her loins were damp with anticipation. She could see a light in Scott’s eyes that told her that he was as consumed as she was. She wanted, very badly, to touch him, but it was forbidden. The man must accept his fate with all of his being or else the spell would not work, and the penalty for disobedience, from any of the participants, was a slow and agonizing death.

It appeared that this man was struggling against himself, but in the end his lips quivered and he replied, “Yes. Yes, I am yours.” He was panting from the exertion, she could see, but whatever war was playing out within his mind would soon be gone forever. Now that he had agreed, there was no going back. Her mark was on him, as his was on her, and they would be united until death, as the Mother of Nature had promised. Once they were joined, the Mother would come down in all her glory and meld with the High Priest. This was the purpose of all life.

When Samantha looked at Miranda, she saw the woman licking the corner of Johnny’s mouth, where some of the goblet’s contents had spilled. Samantha lit up with a smile and raised her goblet. Once Scott’s hand touched it, she was allowed to aid him in raising it to his lips. They parted as if in slow motion, then he drank of the dark red liquid. He began to lower it before he’d consumed it all, so she forced the rest down his throat. 

Scott spluttered when the distasteful drink filled his mouth. Samantha was watching him with a strange light in her eyes, as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. There was something wrong with it, he knew. The taste was like iron, and it felt thick – not at all what he’d expected. That was when he realized it was not wine, but blood. His eyes widened. Instinctively he spat it out. The crimson blood splattered all over her face and bosom, causing her to jump back into the arms of the shocked ring of hooded people.

“Lay with me!” Miranda commanded of Johnny. Her hands moved to the buttons on his shirt. Slowly, she began opening his shirt. The talisman, now freed, swung loosely, the candlelight reflecting off each component. 

Miranda’s attention was captured by the wolf head, etched in the bone, dangling from the leather necklace around Johnny’s neck. She pointed at his chest and shrilled, “He’s marked!” 

In the distance a wolf howled once, then again, each cry bringing the animal closer. 

Scott jerked to his senses and backed away from Samantha. 

She lifted her blood-covered hands, imploring him to stay. “No,” she screamed. “You are mine!”

“The hell I am!” Scott snarled. He moved quickly to Johnny, gripped his shoulder and spun him around. “Johnny! We have to go, now!” 

But Johnny was deeply entranced, his mind still firmly under the control of the red-haired witch. He accepted her embrace and allowed her to pull him backwards toward the twelve coven members who had moved to surround the Lancers. 

In desperation Scott roughly pushed Samantha aside and advanced on Miranda, but she retained her grasp on Johnny’s arm. He ripped the talisman from Johnny’s neck and held it firmly in his hand, then he clutched it in his fist and lifted it high, in her direction.

“You, sir, are a gentleman,” Miranda pleaded, “and you wouldn’t strike a lady.”

“I am a gentleman – but you are no lady!” Scott’s open hand connected with the beauty’s cheek, and the sound of the slap reverberated throughout the barn. There was a brilliant pulse of light, then a loud crack of thunder that shook the whole barn. The spell broken, Johnny began to fall, his body limp and lifeless. Scott moved quickly under his falling brother, got a firm grip around his waist and hoisted him over his shoulder. As the howling of the approaching wolves drew closer, Scott held the amulet high for all to see. 

Outraged but their power seemingly subdued, at least for the moment, the coven members raised their palms to the heavens and moved back, their chanting desperate. The High Priest stood alone for a moment, but his disciples took hold of him and they retreated en masse.

Scott backed cautiously through the door toward the corral. Once outside, the fresh night air rejuvenated him. He breathed deeply and wondered what kind of Hell they had emerged from. He lowered his brother to the ground, then turned and dropped the heavy bar across the door, barricading the coven inside. 

Chapter 7
666 666 666

Scott knelt beside his brother’s still form and slapped his cheek. “Johnny! Johnny, snap out of it.” Johnny moaned softly but did not stir, the spell holding him firmly in its grasp. In desperation Scott struck his brother again. When he gained no response he laid his fist, still holding the amulet, on Johnny’s chest and peered out into the darkness. 

The call of the wolves was growing steadily nearer. He didn’t know if they were real animals or something bred from the enchantment, but all he cared about was waking Johnny up so they could escape. In the corral Barranca and Victory snorted in fear, moving nervously within the enclosure, their hooves stirring up dust until it obscured their legs. 

A movement beneath Scott’s hand brought his attention back to his brother. Johnny moaned again and tossed his head to and fro. Blue eyes flickered open, dazed and unseeing. 

“Johnny? Come on, brother.” Scott’s voice didn’t betray any of the fear and anxiety he was feeling and he hoped to keep it that way. “We have to get out of here.” 

“Scott?” Johnny gasped. “Where am I?” Johnny lifted his head and struggled to a sitting position. “Oh, my head’s throbbing. What the hell happened?”

“Long story and no time now. Can you ride?” Scott was already pulling the younger man to his feet and urging him toward the corral. “Even if you can’t, you have to, so let’s get you into the saddle pronto.”

The howl of the wolves was ominously near; red eyes glowed in the darkness in the trees surrounding the corral. The sound of the growling canines and the danger the animals presented finally penetrated the fog in Johnny’s brain. He blinked rapidly and stood straighter, clutching at his brother’s shoulder. “Wolves?” 

“Yes, dammit, wolves!” Scott shouted. “Let’s go!”

They stumbled into the corral and Scott coaxed their nervous mounts towards the gate. Johnny held onto Barranca’s neck for support, then a thumping made him turn and peer back at the barn. The doors were shaking from the coven pounding on them. Johnny thought he could see the wood bending from the weight of the people pressing on the doors. He involuntarily took a step back, but a voice – Miranda’s – called out, mingling with the wind. 

Johnny, don’t leave me! You cannot go! You must stay!

Johnny resisted the summons, and turned his back on the sight of the barn. When he did, pain seared his chest, then traveled through his body and a thrust of agony exploded in his head. “No,” he moaned. He gritted his teeth against the woman’s influence and closed his eyes, trying to overcome the piercing pain that coursed through his body.

Scott was at Johnny’s side instantly. He dropped the talisman necklace over his brother’s head, pressing it firmly against his chest. “Don’t let them get to you, Johnny! You have to resist,” he commanded. 

“I’m trying,” Johnny cried.

With his hands on Johnny’s waist, Scott hoisted him into the saddle. Barranca moved uneasily beneath the weight, sensing the struggle raging in his master’s soul. Scott leaped onto Victory’s back, then leaned over and slapped Barranca across the backside. Barranca sprang forward and out of the corral, with Johnny clinging desperately to him. Scott spurred Victory out of the yard, keeping a close eye on Johnny until he was sure he wasn’t going to fall out of the saddle. 

They were barely out of the yard when Johnny sagged over his horse’s neck and appeared to lose consciousness. Barranca slowed down and started to turn back towards the barn. Alarmed, Scott grabbed Barranca’s reins to prevent his brother from going toward the barn and being sucked back into the wiles of the coven. He leaned over, shouting at Johnny, “You can’t go back there! They’re going to eat you alive. Tell yourself it’s not real, Johnny!”

Johnny roused himself enough to look at his brother, appealing to him with his eyes to let him return to the woman. He knew that it would be the end of him, but he didn’t care. His body heated up just thinking about her. She was the only one who could sate his need. “I have to go back,” he cried as he wrestled the reins away from Scott. “She’s calling to me!”

Indeed, Scott could hear an unearthly keening, and found it very unnerving. He, too, felt the pull of the women, but he shook his head to clear the thoughts that wheedled their way into his mind. Samantha beckoned him, her arms thrust out, demanding his return, her bare torso gleaming with slick oil and blood. His horse chose that moment to rear up, and the effort it took to get Victory back under control was enough to sweep the image of the enchantress right out of Scott’s mind.

Scott pulled Victory closer to the palomino and grabbed Johnny’s shoulder. As soon as Johnny’s eyes focused on Scott’s face, Scott reached for the talisman. He held it up in front of Johnny’s eyes. “This will save you, Johnny,” he said adamantly. “You just have to believe in its power. There is something about this place that’s evil and you need to accept it.”

Johnny reluctantly took hold of the claw and wolf’s head charm in his hand. It burned the flesh of his palm, but the more it seared him, the more reality took hold once again. In the few moments it took Johnny to come back down to earth, Scott felt like he aged a year. Finally, Johnny dug his heels into Barranca and the brothers took off into the dark night.

As the Lancers fled, the barn door burst open, exposing the chanting coven members. Their chanting became shrieks of anger when they saw their sacrificial victims had escaped – and then their furious cries became screams of agony when the wolves rushed in and had their way with them. 

Suddenly a peaceful silence descended over Wolf Lake.

They rode wearily into the rising dawn, the horses plodding beneath them, heads drooping. Their headlong race had carried them miles from the cabin on the lake before the two men pulled their laboring horses to a slow walk. Neither spoke, each lost in his own thoughts as he attempted to make sense of the events of the last few days. 

Finally, it was Scott who broke the silence. Hesitantly, wary of angering his brother, he asked, “You feeling any better? You don’t look as pale as you did earlier.”

“Yeah,” Johnny sighed. “I feel like it’s the morning after the night before. You know what I mean?”

“Like you have a hangover,” Scott stated simply. Then he grinned. “Must have been all that coffee you were downing.”

“What do you think really happened back there, Scott?” Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt. “I mean…it wasn’t my imagination, was it? Those things really happened: the blood, the chickens.” He stopped then, his hand reaching up to clasp the talisman still hanging around his neck. “The women.”

Scott wiped his forehead wearily, then reached for his canteen and took a long swallow of cool water. “If I didn’t know better, Johnny, I would say you had been drugged.”

“Drugged? What about you?” Johnny studied Scott warily. “You’re not gonna deny your hands were as full of a female as mine were, are you?”

“I think, maybe,” Scott said cautiously, “just maybe things got a little out of hand.”

Johnny scoffed. “Now, that’s an understatement.” 

The horses started walking again, their riders mulling over what they recalled. Johnny found that the further they rode, the fuzzier his recollections became. Voices calling to him, a mixture of pain and pleasure, the sight of a woman – what was her name? The last vestiges of images wafted over his mind, uncertain pictures, nothing solid to grasp and hold onto.

Scott tried to come to terms with his actions, and wondered what had come over him. He started to think in terms of scientific or medical excuses for their behavior. Perhaps the lake water had been contaminated by someone mining ore up the river. Or they might have contracted a disease. “Maybe it was some kind of fever,” he said aloud.

Johnny asked, “Or something we ate?”

“Like I said, you drank enough coffee to keep a saint awake, but you were still sleepwalking. You do remember trying to kill me, don’t you?” Suddenly, Scott was overwhelmed by exhaustion, and his temper flared. “You’re the one that was groping that girl every chance you got. No wonder they thought we were willing to…to…”

“To what?” Johnny sneered, “You mean you didn’t take a piece of that gal when you thought nobody was looking? Oh yeah, Scott Lancer wouldn’t do that kind of lowlife thing to a girl, would he?”

Scott defended his actions though the effort robbed him of his anger. “I only took what she was willing to give, Johnny. And I gave her what she wanted. . . up to a point.” Still, he had to know. “And you still haven’t explained why you were in my room in the middle of the night, trying to smother me.”

Johnny’s mouth opened and shut, and he spurred his horse ahead on the deserted road. After a while he cooled down a bit and waited for Scott to catch up. “Sorry,” Johnny said.

Scott rode by his side but looked straight ahead and didn’t reply.

Johnny tried again. “Sorry I tried to smother you. Look, I don’t know why I did that, in fact I don’t really remember doing it. It’s like it’s something that happened to someone else.” He watched his brother from under the brim of his hat, then added, “You know I’d never do anything like that to you, Boston. Hell, if I wanted to kill you, I’d just shoot you!”

Scott shook his head in disbelief. “I hate to say it, but that makes perfect sense.” He thought for a minute, then added, with a gleam in his eye, “You know how you call me Boston?”

Johnny nodded.

“You know that I don’t really like it,” Scott pointed out. “It’s your way of pointing out our differences. So in retaliation, I’ve decided to call you ‘Sonora’. That’s where you came from, isn’t it?”

Johnny glowered at him and didn’t respond.

A grin grew on Scott’s face, his eyes sparkling with satisfaction. “I’m going to enjoy using that name. Yessiree, I am.”

After a while, Johnny returned to the conversation they hadn’t finished. “I still want to know what caused us to act so weird. We ate the same things, did the same things…unless…” Then Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he considered the words he had almost spoken aloud. A faint memory of a fiery redhead insinuated itself into his mind. Recognizing his words as stemming from the woman’s influence, he shook off the thought. 

“Unless what? Get it said, Brother!” Scott clenched his jaw as he steeled himself for his brother’s next words. 

“I was going to say, unless you’re the one who drugged me,” Johnny said hesitantly. “But I know those are the woman’s words. Not mine.” Johnny looked apologetically at his brother. 

Scott lowered his eyes, studying the reins in his hands. A long pause ensued before he raised his head and peered at the horizon. “You know I would never…”

Johnny broke in, “I know you wouldn’t and you know I would never try to…” 

“Johnny. I know. That wasn’t you. I never believed you would try to harm me. Not for an instant.” Still, he was uneasy, wondering if they would ever shake the control that the women had over them. He hoped that distance and time would break all ties.

Johnny’s dark head lifted and he swiveled in his saddle to face Scott. “You sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. There was something malevolent at work back there at Wolf Lake, and if you had half a brain you’d have pulled out that talisman right at the beginning and we never would have had to go through all that.”

“How’d you know to use it against them?” Johnny jerked his head over his shoulder at the road behind them. The cabin was many miles back by that time, but he still shuddered when he thought of the place.

“I didn’t, really. It just came to me. I figured if it didn’t have any influence over them, at least I could use it to poke their eyes out.” He grinned. “Now let’s go home.” Scott punched Johnny’s shoulder. “I think I’ve had enough fishing for a long while.” 

A couple of hours later, when they topped a knoll where they could overlook Lancer, the brothers drew rein. They sat in silence for a while before Scott raised the question, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“If you’re hoping that Teresa isn’t cooking chicken for dinner, so am I.”

“Close enough, brother. That’s close enough.” Laughing, they urged their horses down the hill toward home. 

The soft knock on the door was expected and Scott turned to watch as Johnny slipped into the room. He was fully dressed but barefoot. In his hands he held two cups of coffee. “Maria sent this up.”

Scott lay on top of the bed covers, still clothed. He hadn’t the energy to get undressed just yet. He had been reading a newspaper, just to remind himself of what went on in the real world, even if it was several weeks out of date. He sat up and accepted the steaming brew. “Thanks.”  

They hadn’t told Murdoch any of the goings-on at the cabin. How could they explain any of it, or even admit what had occurred. Now Scott wasn’t even sure of what had happened. He was going to forget whatever remnants remained of the past few days.

Their father had been happy to see them return. He had been full of the news that the family of Dylan Reno, the would-be gunfighter, had met with him on the day the boys had left on their trip. Reno’s parents had been understanding and co-operative, had laid no blame on Johnny, and reassured Murdoch that they would take care of their deceased son’s friends themselves. Their strength had impressed Murdoch quite a bit, and the Renos, who had arrived as guests, had departed as friends.

“This coffee isn’t quite as good as the stuff you brewed up at the lake.” Johnny put his mug down on the dresser and moved restlessly to the window. Nightfall was fully upon them. The moon had risen high, its beams of gentle silvery light kissing the earth beneath. Stars twinkled merrily above. He looked at them for awhile, then said, “I was wrong, Scott.”

“About what?”

“Nothing is as beautiful as this ranch. Nothing.”

“Look, why don’t we forget what happened. Chalk it up to fanciful imagination, bad food and too much coffee.” Scott glanced meaningfully at the cups in their hands. “Let it rest, Johnny.”

Johnny pulled the talisman out of his shirt. “I think I’ll keep this handy, at least for a while.”

“As you wish.” Scott sighed heavily. “I still think it’s all a lot of superstition and nonsense.” He took another sip then put his cup on the bedside table. “Go to bed, Johnny. Get some rest. God knows we need it.”

“Yeah. Night, Scott.” Johnny’s eyes met those of his brother. He could tell that they both knew it was more than just some imaginative ghost story that had been born of moonlight and stormy weather. “Sleep well.” 

Johnny paused briefly in the doorway to look at the pink burn on his palm. A small wolf’s head had been burned permanently into his flesh from the searing hot talisman. If he had intended to show it to Scott to prove that what they had experienced had been real, he changed his mind. As the hours passed, the memories of the women, the coven, and their evil intentions, became ever more distant. Scott would never again speak aloud about what had gone on up at Wolf Lake, Johnny was sure. He left his brother’s bedroom and closed the door firmly behind him.

Scott reluctantly sat up. He slowly removed his shirt, and his boots and pants, then crossed to the window in his underwear. He stuck his head out and surveyed the Lancer property in the moonlight. Breathing deeply, he thought about the events of the last few days. 

His common sense quickly reasserted itself and he chided himself for an overactive imagination fueled by his younger brother’s childhood beliefs. He was sure that they had both eaten something that caused hallucinations. Probably mushrooms in the pie, he thought, Yes, that was it. There had been no strange people across the lake, no women enticing them to a fate worse than death, no mad visions of wolves devouring robed sect members. Of course not. It was a simple case of food poisoning. Now that he’d decided on that scenario as the most likely, he relaxed. Grinning at the foolishness of it all, he moved to his bed and threw back the covers, preparing to get some peaceful sleep in his own bed.

Scott’s breath caught in his throat, his heart hammered painfully as he stared in horror at his bed. In the middle of the clean white linen was a stain of crimson blood, and lying in the still-wet pool was a decapitated chicken head, its eyes staring intently at him.


The End


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