FIRST STAVE : O’BRIEN’S GHOST
(with apologies to Mr Dickens.)
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ oh, wait. Wrong book. Still, it’s fitting that Murdoch Lancer shared the sentiment, since he really had no idea whether he was coming or going, what was good and what decidedly wasn’t, and what, exactly, he should feel about it all. He had to be shown.
Still, we have a tradition to uphold here. The festive season demands a festive story. So, we’ll reboot. With the right book this time.
‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail…’
So was Paul O’Brien.
Murdoch Lancer couldn’t understand why he’d been reminded of Paul O’Brien so much that day. It wasn’t that he actively missed him anymore. It had been over a year now since O’Brien had been gunned down by Day Pardee and the sharp pangs of regret had faded over the months. He’d been fond of Paul; of course he had. Paul had been his foreman for more than sixteen years, and a dear friend for pretty much the same period. But so much had happened since with the return of his sons and the forging of the new partnership that had seen him hand over two thirds of his ranch, that his old philosophy of never looking back had been strengthened rather than anything else. Paul was gone, was of the past. The past was gone. Good or bad, right or wrong, it was over and done.
Of course, it was Christmas Eve, the first Christmas since his sons had come home, and Paul had always been one to try and celebrate the festive season, working on Murdoch every year to do more than just wish him the stiff, insincere ‘Merry Christmas, I suppose’ with which Murdoch greeted the Holy Day. But Murdoch couldn’t feel it, couldn’t see it. Ever since Catherine died and Maria left, he’d been a man trapped in a wasteland, going through the daily chores of living, and with no energy for more. Christmas was a torment, a hard slap in the face to remind him of everything he’d lost; a day to be spent sitting over a fire with a whisky in one hand and despair in the other. Cheer was beyond him and O’Brien had given up in the end. Not even Teresa could coax Murdoch into coming out of hiding, and now… well, if there was a way out for him, it would need someone with a map to find the route and maybe the odd Indian to scout across the trackless wilderness beyond which Murdoch Lancer had retreated twenty years before.
Murdoch Lancer wasn’t an unkind man, or an unjust one. But he was a busy man, a businessman with a huge empire to run; a man who’d distanced himself from others. For many years now, Christmas was just one more day in the Almanac, nothing special; a day to be spent on his ledgers, on casting his accounts and seeing who owed him what and what he owed them; or a day to be spent planning this contrivance or that to get better stock, or sell his horses, or move his cattle north to market and get the best price.
What else was there? Men who hadn’t been scarified the way he’d been, who hadn’t had their hearts torn out twice over, well let them think of Christmas as that ‘kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time’, that special time of peace, and kindness and the joy of family. When a man had had both his families rent from him, who can blame him for turning his back on the spirit of Christmas and taking his comfort in the spirit of his homeland instead, the amber smokiness of a good malt the only palliative for grief.
Murdoch Lancer just didn’t ‘do’ Christmas. He didn’t have time for it. He didn’t need it. He didn’t see the point of it.
And he didn’t see why anyone else needed it either.
“I don’t suppose,” said Teresa, tentatively, putting a cup of coffee on the corner of the big desk, “that Maria and I could decorate the great room this year? I know you don’t usually bother, but I thought… well, with Scott and Johnny home…”
Murdoch looked up from his ledgers, frowning at the interruption. A thrice-damned dollar had eluded his book-keeping skills all day, and he’d chased it up one column and down another until the neat black numerals had danced before his eyes and his head thumped dully with every beat of his heart. He rubbed his hand over his eyes to clear the blurring ledger page from his sight. In sum, he was distracted. He took a moment to react. In that time, while he stared at her blankly, Teresa stood before him, twisting her hands in her apron.
At his silence, her cheeks reddened and her mouth pulled down at the edges from its usual cheerful curve. Her lips trembled. “It doesn’t matter. It was a stupid idea. I knew you wouldn’t… it doesn’t matter.”
Her hands twisted and twisted, until he could almost see the threads of her apron warp. What in Hades was up with her?
“It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry to have disturbed you, Murdoch. Really. I’m sorry.”
And she was gone, head held high and her small shoulders set, while he frowned after her. What was that all about? He shook his head and looked down at the books again. Wait! Was that it? The bill from Higgs’s Mercantile should be here somewhere. He scrabbled amongst the papers on his desk, and re-read the bill, holding it with one hand while he took a sip of coffee. There the little devil was! A simple mistake to take up so much of his time. He put down the coffee cup and turned back a page in the ledger to make the correction, making a careful alteration in red ink and initialling it to make the change legitimate.
He forgot that Teresa had even been there.
“I suppose that you and the hands will all be taking tomorrow off.” Murdoch leaned over the corral fence and pushed at the big bull rubbing up against the post. Lancer Leonides turned his huge head and gave Murdoch a reproachful look. That fencepost had allowed him to scratch an itch on an otherwise unreachable part of the vastness that was his rump. He flicked his tail in irritation.
A damn fine animal, this one. His progeny should raise the standards of the Lancer herds, make Lancer beef a byword for excellence. Yes. A damn fine bull.
“It is only one day, Patrón, one day of the year.”
“Except it isn’t one day, Cip. It’s been every damn day of the Posadas so far.”
Nothing ever put Cipriano Roldàn out of countenance, of course. The man was placid dignity, personified. “The men work hard for most of the year, Patrón. The hours are long and the pay—”
“I pay good rates!” protested Murdoch, affronted.
“You do, Señor. But still, this is a hard life and a laborious one. This time of year, when the labour is cold and wet as well as tiring, there is no harm in allowing the men some licence to take a little pleasure.” Cipriano’s smile was so serene that it made Murdoch’s teeth ache with the effort of keeping his tongue behind them and not saying something they would both regret. “It is Nochebuena , after all, and most of the hands will be at early Mass tomorrow to celebrate el Dia de Navidad. One day, Señor.”
“Christmas! A pretty excuse to rob a man of his workers once a year.” Murdoch turned back to the bull. At least Lancer Leonides wouldn’t demand a day off from his duties. “I expect them to be at work all the earlier the day after.”
Cipriano ducked his head. Murdoch suspected it was to hide a smile, but he’d never caught Cip at it. He growled and turned away, intending to get Jelly to saddle up Caledonia for him, just in time to see that worthy stagger across the yard, heading towards the house with his arms full of greenery.
“What the—! Jelly!”
“In a minute, Boss! I gotta get this to the house.”
“Oh no you don’t! Who brought that stuff here?”
Jelly stood in the yard, dripping fir branches and pine cones all over the place, and looked imbecilic. Not that that was hard. Murdoch wondered where all his business sense had gone, letting Johnny talk him into giving the mad old coot a job and a second chance. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Jelly had some skills, any skills, the ranch could use, but a facility for talking the hind legs off the proverbial donkey wasn’t something that Murdoch would normally be willing to pay good money for. Johnny had a lot to answer for there.
Jelly stuck out his chin and bristled right up at being challenged. “Scott did, that’s who. He had Jose ride up into the mountains and fill the old wagon with the stuff. It’s all in the barn, but Scott told Jose to go back to work, and said to take the fixings to Teresa later. But Jellifer B Hoskins ain’t the man to see a job lying there and not jump to deal with it. No sir, he ain’t. So I thunk to myself that Miss Teresa is probably waitin’ on these bits of twig and green things to make the house festive and pretty, and so I says to myself, I says, Jellifer B., you’d best—”
Did the man never stop to take breath? Murdoch held up a hand. “Take it back to the barn and leave it there. Saddle my horse. Then I want you to go back to sorting out that tack room. I want it finished by the time I get back from town.”
Jelly’s chin stuck out even more. If Jelly had been a foot taller, that chin could have been used as a weapon. It would give an opponent a nasty bristle burn, that was for sure. “But what about these here green things? Teresa’s likely looking for them.”
“I don’t want that rubbish in the house. Teresa knows that. Now go and saddle my horse.”
Jelly really did remind Murdoch of a bantam cock. He had the same stiff-legged, strutting gait, the same frantic flapping, the same way of sticking his rump back and his head forward to do some outraged peck-peck-pecking. If he’d had feathers, there would be some serious ruffling going on right then. He stalked back to the barn clucking at Murdoch over his shoulder. “What’ll I tell Scott, then? He went to a lot of trouble to get this stuff.”
Murdoch snorted, almost as loudly as Lancer Leonides. What in hell was Scott thinking, wasting a hand’s time like that? “I’ll deal with Scott. You get on with your work.” Murdoch turned his back on Jelly to find Cipriano regarding him. “What?”
“Nothing, Señor. Nothing.” Cipriano sighed and shook his head. He knew better than to say anything more.
All the same Murdoch found himself feeling suddenly uncertain under the gaze of those calm dark eyes. “I don’t make merry at Christmas, Cip. You know that. You know why.”
There was pity there now. “I do, old friend. I do. But now perhaps is the time to change that.”
Murdoch huffed out a breath and shook his head. “I can’t change, Cip. I’ll stick to my own way. It’s served me well enough all these years. No. No, I can’t change.”
He met Sam Jenkins in town for lunch, just as he did every year on Christmas Eve. He was early, so took the opportunity to drop into the Mercantile to remind Mayor Higgs and his clerks of the need for accuracy at all times, and to settle some bills before the holiday. Most inconvenient, that the banks and businesses closed down like that. Most inconvenient.
“I was the proverbial Scotsman about that dollar this morning,” he said to Jenkins as they dealt with beef pie in the hotel dining room. “And a guid, canny Scot can make his penny do the work of two.”
Jenkins snorted. “My father was from York, as you know. There’s nowt you can tell a Yorkshire man about brass.”
Laughing, Murdoch turned his attention to the pie. It was good, as always; the pastry golden and flaking on the fork. When he lifted the crust, the underside was brown with gravy, the steam rich with the smell of good beef. He sighed deeply and just as he was about to lift a redolent, succulent forkful to his mouth, the door of the dining room burst open to allow in a riot of carollers.
Murdoch started, surprised, and spent the next few minutes ignoring ‘ God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in favour of trying to get the gravy stains out of his shirt. “Damn Waits!” he growled, wincing at one particularly jarring false note.
Jenkins was more indulgent, but then he didn’t have gravy all down his front. “It’s the church choir. I heard that the new minister was keen on taking his ministry out to celebrate the festive season.” Jenkins handed over another napkin, this one dipped in the water jug to help the clean up operations. “He’s collecting for the orphanage.”
Murdoch resisted the temptation to offer to donate a couple of sons who were turning out to be more trouble than they were wor— He clamped down on that thought. The man would only want donations in the form of money, anyway. He knew his kind. The preacher approached, a simper on his bland young face, hands outstretched. This new reverend was going to be trouble.
Sam greeted Reverend Petersen cordially and allowed him to have his say about the good cause so close to his heart. Petersen took the proffered five dollars with a burst of grateful rhetoric and turned expectantly to Murdoch. “And you, Mr Lancer?”
“Don’t I pay taxes? Aren’t there people—paid for out of those taxes, if I’m not mistaken—to care for these children, to see to their wants and requirements and needs?”
“Well, of course, sir, but—”
“Don’t the orphans get all that the system can provide for them?”
Jenkins kicked his ankle. “Murdoch, what’s got into you? Of course they get the basics. But the orphanage doesn’t have a lot of money and isn’t exactly bright and cheerful. It’s lacking in comforts and Yuletide cheer.”
“Cheer!” said Murdoch “Yuletide cheer! I don’t see what’s so special about Christmas, Sam. It’s just a drain on us, a time for excess and overspending and overeating. The children will be adequately cared for. There shouldn’t be need for any of us to do more.”
“Christmas comes but once a year, Mr Lancer. Don’t you think it’s a good time to do good? And that it does you good?”
Murdoch had a sudden remembrance of all those cold Christmases spent alone, with one son in the East and the other God alone knew where. “What good has Christmas ever done to me?”
“Murdoch,” said Jenkins, softly.
Really, but Reverend Petersen should stop simpering. It wasn’t an expression that suited him. “Well, is that the right question? Don’t you think we should be asking what good we can do for Christmas? Doesn’t it warm your heart? Doesn’t it make you feel more cheerful, more kindly disposed towards your fellow man?”
Murdoch took a deep breath, shook off Sam’s restraining hand and left the Reverend in no doubt at all about his feeling vis-a-vis the pagan holiday that had been absorbed by Christmas, reviewing all its iniquities and inadequacies from the time of the Caesars onwards, with particular reference to the Reformation and with a sideswipe at the Spanish Inquisition. He spoke at length and eloquently, drawing on all those disputes with his tutor at the university, long ago. Petersen glanced imploringly at Jenkins for guidance, but the good doctor merely shrugged.
Petersen did not appear to be a young man of discernment who could take a hint. Nor did he have much of an argument in favour of Christmas. He gave up on the notion of persuading Murdoch to part with a donation to the orphans’ Christmas cheer, but hadn’t yet conceded complete defeat. He hoped, he said, that he would see the Lancer family in church the next morning.
Despite a feeling that there was something very distasteful about a man of cloth being pious, Murdoch couldn’t fault him for that question. He supposed it came with the man’s job. “Of course,” he said, for to do him credit, he never failed to conform to the expectations that society had of its leading citizens with regard to upholding the law and supporting a church. Even though it was the festive season. Murdoch would make his appearance in church as befitted a pillar of society.
“And I hope, you’ll all attend the Church Christmas Social and Ladies Aid Progressive Barn Dance that evening? Jeb Taylor will bring his fiddle and your own Mr Hoskins has agreed to call the dances. There will be nothing untoward, of course. No waltzing, for example.” The young preacher’s pasty face reddened, presumably at the very thought of putting an arm around a young lady’s waist for such a licentious dance. “It will be wholesome fun, to celebrate the time of year—”
Murdoch stared at him until the blush stained Petersen’s face from hairline to chin. “I don’t think so.”
“It will be an innocent amusement for the young people in the district.”
An excuse to flirt, more likely. Murdoch shook his head.
Petersen really couldn’t take a hint. “It’s only once a year, sir, and a harmless way to give the season its proper sense of joy, to celebrate the Birth of our Lord in happiness, mirth, and fellow feeling.”
“Reverend, I must ask you to keep Christmas in your own way, and allow me to keep it in mine.”
“But you don’t keep it!” protested Sam Jenkins.
Murdoch shrugged. “Precisely.”
“Then Miss Teres… then you and your family won’t be at the Social?” The Reverend’s mouth turned down.
And thankfully, that finally gave the man a hint that his mission would be fruitless. He trailed away, looking unhappy, and took his choir of warbling choristers with him. Left to the silent disapproval of Doctor Jenkins, Murdoch turned, gratefully, back to his beef pie. He tried for several minutes to ignore the doctor’s glare.
“What?” he demanded, when it grew too much for a reasonable man to bear. “Did you really expect me to say that I wanted to spend a night dancing?”
“You? You? It had nothing to do with you, you blind fool! It has everything to do with the Reverend Petersen being sweet on Teresa. Do you think he wants to dance with you?”
Murdoch sat stunned, his fork once again suspended in mid air. “Teresa?”
“She’s a very attractive girl.”
“Paul’s Teresa, you mean? Our Teresa? Teresa? Teresa and Reverend Petersen? There’s something going on between them?”
“Keep your voice down, man! Of course not! But he admires her, that’s plain.”
“He’s a good man and an educated one.”
“He’s not the right man for Teresa.”
“Nonsense. He’d be a very suitable beau.”
“I mean it, Sam. Don’t encourage that sort of idiocy. I won’t have it, and that’s that!”
Sam Jenkins pushed back his seat so hard that the legs squealed their protest on the wooden floor. “You and I have been friends for a long time, Murdoch Lancer. I’ve always understood why this time of year makes you a bitter and angry man. It must have been hard to see people around you making merry when you’d lost so much yourself. A man closes himself off in those circumstances, I know that. But this year, I’d hoped you’d be different; that because things had changed, you’d change.”
Murdoch stared. Why on earth would anything be different now?
Jenkins huffed out a loud, exasperated Pffft! of air and picked up his hat. “Not even having both your sons back makes any difference, does it? The loss of them scarred you deep enough. Doesn’t having them back in your life count for anything? Doesn’t it start to put right those old wrongs?” He rapped Murdoch sharply on the chest, knuckles making painful contact with a gravy stain. “The heart in here does its job of pumping blood from head to foot but it’s a small and sorry organ despite that, as dry and withered as the husk of last year’s Christmas orange. I’ll have no more of it. I’ll leave you to celebrate Christmas your own way all right. You don’t deserve more.”
And with that, the good doctor stalked out leaving Murdoch staring and battling the faint feeling of some new sensation. Unease, perhaps. He pushed it aside. The doctor wasn’t usually so emphatic. He must have been up all night with a patient, or something. Yes. That was it. Poor old Sam had been up all night labouring to save some poor soul, and was overtired and overwrought. After all, Sam couldn’t really expect Murdoch to change the habits of a lifetime, just because he had to share his ranch with two strangers?
He became aware that his fork, once laden with juicy beef, was still suspended between plate and mouth but sadly laden no longer. A new gravy stain had joined the old.
“Oh, bah!” he said, flinging down the fork and scrubbing at his shirt. “Such humbug!”
Supper that night was strained. Neither Scott nor Teresa spoke about the banned greenery in the barn, but Scott’s mouth had thinned to a curt line and he clamped down on every conversational gambit that Murdoch made. He knew about Murdoch’s anti-Christmas decoration decree, then, and wasn’t pleased. Still, Scott had to remember who called the tune and learn to dance accordingly – and the tune Murdoch called was not a Christmas Carol. Scott would learn. Both the boys would learn. When they had thirty years of running Lancer under their belts, then they might (if they had the sense of a gnat between them, and some days he doubted that)… well, they might then know what was best for everyone to do and, he said, to call tunes of their own. Until then, they’d listen to his.
Scott listened in this in silence, then inclined his head and returned his attention to his meal. Teresa sat at her place, face downcast, chasing her food around the plate but not eating very much. She barely spoke at all. Johnny, who might have saved the day by being, Murdoch had anticipated, as indifferent to Christmas as he was himself—after all, who would expect a gunman to care what day it was?—had astonished all of them by forgoing supper to head into Morro Coyo to join the final Posadas and stay for Mass. He’d just waved and was gone.
Scott refused the offer of a post-dinner brandy and disappeared. Teresa had already gone, and Murdoch was left to the familiar silence and solitude of Christmas Eve at his own fireside. He assured himself that he welcomed it. He said to himself that it didn’t matter, that it was just as things should be. He told himself that there was some comfort in the familiarity and that he was enjoying himself immensely. In fact, he was enjoying himself so much that quite ten minutes passed in quiet, reflective solitude before he stood up, kicked the logs to the back of the grate where they could smoulder safely all night, lit his candle at the fire and stamped up to bed.
It wasn’t really late, but the hacienda seemed particularly dark and dim. The candle flame flickered against the darkness, but made little headway. Shadows dodged and slithered all around him, taunting and teasing, slinking on the edge of sight. He shivered. A foolish notion, that, to be shrugged off by the rational brain. He raised the candlestick and looked around him. The shadows crept away to haunt that place a man could see only from the corner of his eye. They vanished only when he turned to face them, gliding out of reach.
He paused at Teresa’s door, but the door was shut tight and no light showed. Johnny’s room, too, was dark and quiet, the door carelessly ajar and the room beyond it empty. The shadows slid into it and he shut the door on them, as fast as he could. He’d seen that empty room every night for twenty years. He didn’t need to see it again.
Scott’s door was edged with light. Murdoch hesitated, his free hand half raised, but the memory of his son’s cold disapproval still stung. It wasn’t for Scott to tell him how to celebrate Christmas. He went on to his own bedroom at the end of the hallway. He reached for the door knob just as a warm wind blew its way along the hall and snuffed out his candle.
Not that he needed it. Not now.
Paul O’Brien’s face protruding from the carved oak panel of the door gave him quite enough light to see. A greenish, unhealthy light to be sure, with the suggestion of a harsh orange at its edges, but still enough to give the shadows something to writhe and twist themselves against. Indeed, if Murdoch’s opinion had been sought, he would have undoubtedly said that on the whole he would have preferred the dark to seeing the doorknob and his own hand closed around it, the knuckles whitening, and to see Paul’s eyes open to stare at him.
He let out a hoarse cry and staggered back, until the wall behind stopped him dead. He dropped the candlestick, his hand flying to cover the biggest gravy stain and the sudden, frantic beatings beneath it. He stared back into Paul’s silent, reproachful gaze.
Scott’s door was flung open, the sound jerking Murdoch’s head around. “What the—!”
The lamp in Scott’s hand flooded the hall with light. Real light. Blessed light! Yellow and bright and with no tinge of decaying green to it. Murdoch stared at him, before turning back to stare at his door, his perfectly ordinary, Paul O’Brien-free door. The ghostly visage was gone, taking its expression of sorrowful accusation with it. The door was just a door.
“Murdoch? Murdoch, are you all right?” Scott took a step towards him, holding his lamp high.
Terrified that Scott would come closer, that he’d be forced into explanations, Murdoch nodded. He kept on nodding, like the porcelain Chinaman in Aggie Conway’s parlour who had his head set on a pivot. “Fine, fine,” he babbled. “I just dropped my candlestick.”
He scrabbled up the candlestick, heedless of wax on the rugs, and nerving himself, he pushed open his door and scuttled inside, aware of Scott watching from a distance.
He half expected to see the back of Paul’s head sticking out of the inside of the door, the thick dark hair curling down onto the collar of the familiar checked shirt.
There was nothing but the blank door panel.
Murdoch didn’t go to bed. Instead he sat over near the fireplace, drifting off to a muzzy, hazy place where a small blond boy offered him a hand and the polite greeting of a stranger, or a dark toddler ran away from him and ran and ran despite his calls and searching. He was woken often from his uneasy doze by little shivers and shudders. He put his hand on his brow to test his temperature. Maybe he was going down with something? That would explain the symptoms. You could put a lot down to delirium. He should have asked Sam Jenkins if any winter sickness was doing the rounds. He might even be throwing out spots.
Three times he’d heard the great room clock strike the hour. He’d never heard that clock before, not from his bedroom. It was muffled by the thick adobe walls, the twenty four steps of the main staircase and the long hall along the hacienda’s upper storey. But that night he heard it strike the quarter hours and finally the regular ponderous hammer strike of each hour, time beating like the heart of the house, ticking away his life.
The clock struck ten. Eleven. And then midnight came, dark and shadowed.
He heard something. He tilted his head at the noise in the hall outside, startled again out of a doze.
The noise came again. Scott going downstairs for a nightcap? Or Teresa getting up to do something or other, he didn’t know what. Johnny coming home, maybe?
No, not any of those. None of them were noted for making a loud, clanking noise and taking slow, loud steps, like someone wearing iron boots. Another step, and another, sounding down the hall.
Another ponderous step and It was outside his door.
He waited, listening. He had the notion, ridiculous but enough to make him clap a hand over his nose and mouth to stifle the noise, that It was outside his door, pressed up against the carved oak, listening to him breathe.
He looked around the room, from door to window, wondering if there was escape there. He looked again, from window to door. No way out. No way out.
A muffled thump against the door; a deadened knock. The hand that landed on the panel was soft and heavy.
He swallowed. “Who is it?”
The voice echoed like a hollow laugh in the grave. “Invite me in.”
His breath hitched in his throat, but he could no more refuse than he could make himself stop breathing. He hesitated, of course he did, for whatever else he was, Murdoch Lancer was no fool, but he couldn’t resist forever. His hands dropped to the arms of his chair to lever him out of the seat to go and open the door, but It didn’t wait, whatever it was that was out there talking to him. It didn’t open the door, It walked right through it. The temperature in the room plummeted so fast that Murdoch’s breath froze between one heartbeat and the next.
It was Paul.
It was just like him: the check shirt, strong cotton drill pants, the boots he’d bought in San Francisco and that he never let anyone, not even Murdoch, criticise despite their too-high heels and the too-fancy stitching, battered grey Stetson on his head. But his shirt and hair moved in some invisible wind, and wrapped around Paul’s waist and trailing behind him was a heavy chain with a big iron heart attached to every link. That accounted for the clanking noise then, the chain dragging along behind him. Murdoch, mouth open in consternation, could see right through him.
But Paul was as dead as a door nail, as a coffin nail. He was branded for the range eternal, a goner, cold as a wagon tyre. Paul O’Brien was as dead as dead can possibly be and then some.
But he was not, unfortunately, as silent as the grave. The Lancer hands had boasted in the saloons and cantinas that Paul had been known to yell clear across a roundup site over the shouting of a hundred men and bawling calves, and have ranch hands at a branding fire a couple of hundred yards away leaping to do what he wanted. He bellowed like a bull, the vaqueros said, and more than one called him El Toro behind his back. Paul still had quite the bellow when he wanted to be heard.
“Listen to me, unhappy man!”
“I don’t believe in you!” said Murdoch, averting his eyes. “I don’t! I’m dreaming.”
The Spectre – if that’s what It was – pushed back its Stetson and said, mildly enough, “You don’t believe in the evidence of your own senses?”
Murdoch shook his head. “No. The slightest thing upsets them: the temperature, tiredness, indigestion. I’ve got a fever starting, I think, and I’m delirious. They’ll find me in the morning and send for Sam Jenkins. I probably have the ague and you’re a figment of my fevered imagination. I’m probably lying in bed right now and Teresa’s mopping my brow with lavender water and you’re a bad dream. That’s all. That’s what you are.”
And if Murdoch thought that would clinch the argument and banish this uncomfortable Presence, Paul had other ideas. The Spectre lifted up Its hands and shook them in Murdoch’s face, and moaned most horribly.
Terrified, Murdoch fell out of his chair and onto his knees before the terrible phantom. He held up his hands imploringly. “Paul! Paul, it’s me! It’s your old friend Murdoch. Remember all those years we worked together! Remember how I promised to care for your girl! What do you want with me?”
The Ghost shook Its chain and sighed. “Do you see this?”
“It’s a very long chain,” said Murdoch in a tone that tried to convey awe and admiration in equal measure.
“I suffer,” said Paul, tones even more hollow and sepulchral than before. He reached behind him and ran a spectral hand over the many iron hearts. “This chain is a symbol of my failure as a father, my failings to my child.”
Murdoch blinked. “What? But that’s nonsense! You loved Teresa and you couldn’t have brought her up better than you did. No one could! Why man, she’s a credit to you!”
“I lied to her, Murdoch. I lied to her about her mother and I said the past didn’t matter. But Angel came and almost took her away from here and you and all that’s good and true in life. If I hadn’t lied, if I hadn’t hidden the past and pretended that only now mattered, then I could have protected her better. You could have protected her better. We failed her. If it hadn’t been for that eldest boy of yours, what would have become of her, trapped in that saloon?” Paul lifted his hands again and moaned. Louder. “The chain you wear is longer and heavier than this, Murdoch. Much longer and heavier.”
Murdoch eyed the chain. “It is?”
“It is. Don’t you feel it, man, dragging you down?”
“I – er – I don’t know.” Murdoch squinted over one shoulder. No sign of iron that he could see. “No. No, I don’t think I do.”
“But you should know and you should feel it! You hide from the past, Murdoch, but it’s dragging you down. You’re as bad a father as I was. Worse.”
Stung, Murdoch struggled up. “No! They were stolen from me! I never got the chance to be a father!”
Paul leaned down and with him came a very warm waft of a breeze, one that had a hint of brimstone in it, a hint of sulphur. “You have the chance now.”
Murdoch opened his mouth. And closed it.
“They’re home. For the first time in more than twenty years, your sons sleep under your roof. But you deny them their father. You offer only the rancher, the businessman, the senior partner, the tune caller. They deserve more.”
Murdoch shook his head. “It’s too late. They don’t need a father.”
“How do you know? You never offered them one.” And Paul moved so swiftly, that the air whistled and sang with his speed. He rained blow after blow at Murdoch, whirling around him. But not one blow, not one kick, landed. Every single one was stopped by some invisible barrier an inch or two from Murdoch’s cowering body, as if Murdoch were sheathed in ice or glass.
“This is what must go,” said Paul, suddenly still again and stooping to glare into Murdoch’s eyes. “You’ve built the barrier thick, but it has to go. It’s not too late for you. I’ve obtained a chance for you, my old friend. It’s not too late to repent.”
“You will be haunted by three Spirits. Expect the first tomorrow when the clock chimes one; the second on the next night at the same time, and the third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Listen well to them. They will teach you to remember love and hope and what family really means.”
“What?” said Murdoch, too dazed to protest. Wait a moment, though. Just wait a moment. Wasn’t there something in his library, one of the tales by that man Dickens…
“You’re a fool, man, and I’ve been sent to un-fool you.” The Ghost raised Its chain and shook it and groaned. “For your salvation, unhappy man!”
Paul sighed, a sigh like a gale, and with the gale came the taint of fire and brimstone. Murdoch trembled and choked down all thought of protest. His comment that Paul’s idea had been done before, and might be (must surely be!) still under copyright, died in his throat after one or two choked out words.
The Spectre groaned again, and rattled Its chain again, and Murdoch flung himself down, his face in the carpet and his arms over his head, suddenly more frightened than if every ghost in Hell was standing and groaning before him.
And then he remembered no more.